Fandom: American Idol (Adam/Kris)
Genre: modern AU
Word Count: 15,000 [complete]
Disclaimer: No infringement on the rights of real people intended. Not profiting in any way.
Summary: Adam and Kris never tried out for American Idol. Instead, in August 2010, they meet in a very different kind of competition, trying to win a new car in an all-day dealership challenge. But can they keep their hands on the car instead of each other?
Notes: Thank you's go to my beta cinaea , my first reader reoracer, and the entire ficfinishing community, who helped me get this story written. If you haven't checked out this fabulous support-community for writers, you should definitely take the time. And they're always looking for volunteers to read the new works in progress, so you don't have to be a writer to participate! Special location-scouting credit goes to choose2live - Los Angeles fact-checker-beta extraordinaire!
"Touch it, baby!" Brad yelled from the other side of the black velvet ropes. "Touch it hard!"
Adam rolled his eyes and pressed his palms flatter against the red candy finish of the 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Widening his stance, he leaned over the side of the hood, sticking his ass out and giving Brad a wiggle.
"Lick it! Make that car your bitch!"
Soccer Mom across from him made a tsking noise under her breath and Adam leered, licking his tongue out just an inch above the gleaming paint job. She sniffed and lifted her chin, turning her eyes away. Her hands stayed glued to the hood.
"I thought only children marked their territory like that," a light voice drawled to his right.
Adam straightened up and shot his competitor an assessing look. He'd noticed the short package of cuteness during sign-in, but hadn't picked up on the tantalizing Southern accent before. "Call it lust at first sight. I lick anything that turns me on," he answered, a suggestive tilt to his lips.
"And this car gets you hot?" Cute Guy asked, looking up at him with a skeptical eyebrow twitch. "Shouldn't you be going for something bigger?"
Adam looked up and down the length of the car, and the length of the guy while he was at it. Nice. "Oh, believe me, it's exactly my type. I like a tight fit, with a solid body and attractive exterior. Something versatile and easy to handle that I can take for long rides before it wears out. With a plush interior and a backseat I could really go to town in."
Cute Guy's eyes were wide, cheeks flushing pink as he stammered, "Um…." After a long moment he seemed to shake himself, got his mouth working enough to say, "Wow, you sure know how to sell a car," with almost enough tease in his tone to cover his discomfort.
Cute and straight. Adam made a mental note of his neighbor's flustered shyness as a potential angle of attack and told himself not to be so disappointed. If the Universe didn't plan on getting him well-laid this weekend, then chances were good he was destined for some wheels.
Adam shimmied to the Kesha song playing on the mall's public address system while he checked out the crowd of spectators. It wasn't even 9 a.m. yet, but a decent number of shoppers had already wandered up to the third floor food court to scope out the day's big draw. The Alderman Ford Dealership's Touch-a-Thon Event had been publicized on all the local stations for the past week, and everybody wanted to see the crazies who had volunteered for a weekend of public humiliation.
From his position on the driver's side, Adam had a perfect view out the floor-to-ceiling windows, and he took a moment to appreciate the shimmering brilliance of the Pacific Ocean just two blocks away.
He also had a pretty good view of his 11 competitors. Across the car from him, Soccer Mom was trying to make friends with giggling Cheerleader positioned at the front right headlight. Cheerleader was, in turn, making eyes at College Prepster standing by the back seat. Family Man was chatting politely with Office Worker across from him, who was ignoring Grandma next to her. The two pretty people Adam identified as Waitress-Slash-Actress and Waiter-Slash-Actor had formed opinions of mutual superiority and were avoiding eye contact with each other at all costs. Last but certainly not least, two 20-something Jocks were yukking it up on the trunk.
Adam narrowed his eyes and studied their body language. Even though competitor selection had been done by lottery, it looked like Jocks 1 and 2 already knew each other. He might have to separate them quickly if it turned out they already had an alliance.
Brad was still yelling the filthiest encouragements he could think of, the latest being, "Get up on that beast and rub that monster cock of yours all over it!"
"This is not a White Snake video, babe," Adam called over his shoulder.
"Oh god, that! Do that!" Brad shouted back, even as Danielle tried frantically to shush him. "With the splits and the grinding!"
Cute Guy cleared his throat. "Boyfriend?" he asked the window in front of him, not meeting Adam's eyes. His ears were still flushed red from Adam's earlier come-on.
Adam smirked and leaned into his space to answer intimately, "Ex," drawing out the ksss nice and long.
"Oh. Okay." Cute Guy rubbed at the back of his neck with his left hand, which left an opening Adam couldn't let pass.
"I'm Adam," he said, holding out his hand.
Cute Guy remembered to put his left hand on the car before reaching across his body to shake with his right. Damn it.
"Kris. Nice to meet you."
Cute Guy didn't seem to have noticed Adam's little bid to eliminate him. Adam smiled like he genuinely cared and shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, too. So, Kris," he leaned in again, voice dropping low as he slid his fingers across Kris's palm, "are you the curious type?"
Kris jerked his hand back. "What? Uh, no. What?"
Adam turned the charm on full-force, licking his lips and angling his hips toward Kris. "You asked about my boyfriend. I figure, a guy like you, there must be some reason for you to ask that, even if it's just…curiosity."
Kris stared at him, deer in headlights for a few seconds, but then his eyes crinkled with amusement. "Oh my gosh, are you…are you trying to intimidate me with your gay?"
Adam pulled back and fought down his own blush. "No," he lied.
"You are! You're trying to make me uncomfortable so I'll leave!"
"I am not!"
Kris was talking a little too loud for Adam's liking—he had high hopes for his ability to scare off Soccer Mom and Family Man. God willing, they were Bill O'Reilly fans.
"I'm so not," he added with withering finality and turned his attention back to the other participants.
The Jocks were busy checking out the check out girl serving breakfast burritos at Pinches Tacos when, to Adam's horror, they fist-bumped. That was it. They had to go. Adam turned around to catch Brad and Danielle's eyes.
Danielle dropped her hand from Brad's mouth and they both made significant eyebrows at him.
Adam held up his fingers in the peace sign and tipped his head toward the back of the car. Two heads turned and considered Adam's opponents, and then looked back at him. Brad grabbed his crotch twice and held up his fist. When Danielle met him in a fist-bump, Adam nodded firmly and turned back around like he hadn't just ordered a hit.
Kris cleared his throat and cocked a significant eyebrow of his own.
"What?" Adam asked, innocent.
"Whatever you're up to…. This isn't Survivor. Don't be an asshole."
"This is totally Survivor, and would you mind lowering your voice?"
"Are you serious? You really think you can psych people into letting go of this car?"
"I know I can," Adam sniffed. "And if you're smart, you'll help me."
Kris gave a disapproving frown. "Alliances? Man, you are way too into this."
"So that's a no on joining forces?"
The short guy huffed and turned his head away.
"Fine, be the lone wolf. But you'll be the only one…" he sing-songed.
"Craaa-zaaay," Kris sang back, looking out at the ocean.
"I'm not crazy. You see Jocks 1 and 2 down there? They already have an alliance."
"No, they have a friendship. They work at the same talent agency."
Adam stopped teasing for a moment and looked at Kris. Adorable, innocuous, and already aware of crucial information about their competitors. He narrowed his eyes. "How do you know that?"
"I met 'em during the lottery. They're cool."
"They just fist-bumped each other," Adam pointed out.
"So? So! Fist-bumps! Don't tell me you're into that."
"I'm not into anything. That's just…normal."
"You really are a lost cause," Adam shook his head. "What else do you know about them?"
"Their names are John and Steve, and Steve has an old Honda he needs to replace."
"So they do have an alliance," Adam said triumphantly. "Whichever of them wins, Steve gets the car!"
"No, if John wins, Steve gets John's old BMW."
"Oh, go to fucking hell," Adam sighed involuntarily. Because if he had to choose between taking the bus to his gigs or driving a used luxury car, all his problems would be officially over.
Kris grimaced. "I know," he agreed. "My car's been in the shop for months, and I still can't afford the repairs. We should all have their problems."
"See," Adam pressed, "this is what I'm talking about—an alliance. We should have an alliance. We can help each other take down the rich and powerful."
Kris seemed maybe willing to consider it, but then he glanced down and snorted. "Uh, I don't think so. You look like an early-out."
"You're not gonna make it past the first break in those things."
Adam looked down at his favorite day-boots and smiled fondly. "What, these?" He gave a fetching ankle turn to show off the stitching details.
"Heels," Kris said, shaking his head. "That's a fatal mistake. After an hour your back will ache. After two, you'll give yourself a headache, and in under four hours you'll be limping home barefoot."
Please, they were only three inches; Adam could walk from here to Newport Beach in them and not get blisters. "You're speaking from personal experience?" he teased.
Kris flushed again. "Took enough girlfriends to concerts and listened to them whine all night."
"Well, I won't be whining about my boots, I promise you."
"Honey, honey, hi!" a female voiced called.
Adam looked around and spotted a big-breasted blonde weaving through the food court tables, waving toward the back of the car. Jock 2 gave a besotted smile and waved back.
"Hey, Kris," Adam said, nonchalant.
"No, I don't want to be in an alliance with you," Kris said.
"Which one is which—the jocks."
"Oh." He pointed left, then right: "Steve and John."
"Great. Can I borrow your back?"
Adam whistled sharply, getting Danielle's attention, and then reached a hand out to pat Kris's shoulder blades. "No reason. Just hold still." Using exaggerated lines, he traced letters on Kris's back and then pointed to the blonde leaning over the velvet ropes alongside her boyfriend.
Danielle and Brad gave him two thumbs up and put their heads together to scheme.
"You just traced John's name on my back," Kris accused.
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did. Why?"
"If you were in my alliance, I'd tell you. But since you're not, I guess it's none of your business."
Kris glared at him. He really had the cutest pouting lips. The things Adam would do to those….
He wrenched his mind back on task. "You'll just have to see what happens."
"Whatever." Kris turned away and struck up a conversation with Office Worker on his other side.
A minute later, Danielle pushed her way up to the ropes by the back of the car and called, "John, baby, I made it!"
John, Steve, and John's girlfriend all turned their heads to look at her. Danielle had hiked her skirt up, knotted the bottom half of her t-shirt just below her breasts, and tousled her long curls, looking like she'd just crawled out of someone's bed. Quite possibly John's. And she'd left her underwear behind.
"Uh," John said. Steve elbowed him in the side and whispered something, staring at the outline of Danielle's nipples under her red cotton shirt.
"You should've woken me, baby," Danielle sighed, rubbing at what might have been last-night's makeup.
"John," his girlfriend demanded in a brittle-pleasant voice, "who is she?"
"Uh…I don't know?" John said, his expression confused…although the appreciative twice-over he gave Danielle wasn't lost on his girlfriend.
"Wait," Danielle said, noticing the other woman's proprietary attitude, "who is she?"
"I'm Rachel. His girlfriend."
"John," Danielle said, an edge in her voice that didn't bode well, "what's going on?"
"Who the hell are you?" Rachel demanded.
"I'm his girlfriend. Dani."
"You are not my…. Honey, she is not my girlfriend."
"What?" Danielle gasped. "Excuse me? You're dumping me for this…this slut?"
"Hey!" Rachel said.
"No, I'm not!" John protested, then shook his head. "Wait. Who are you?"
"Don't you dare say that to me!" Danielle said, ratcheting the pitch of her voice one notch closer to hysteria.
Steve tugged at his friend's arm. "What the hell's going on?"
"I don't know," he groaned.
"If you're his girlfriend, then where was he last night?" Danielle challenged Rachel.
"He was getting a good night's sleep so he'd be up for this," she snapped back, and then turned suspicious eyes on her boyfriend. "Weren't you?"
Danielle's laugh was a cruel thing. "I don't think so. He was with me, getting a thirty-minute blow job for luck."
Rachel looked ready to kill somebody when she turned on John. "You son of a bitch!"
"She's a genius," Adam marveled.
"Are you doing this?" Kris whispered.
"C'mon, dude, what the fuck," Steve was pleading, trying to keep his friend's attention on the car.
"You're messing with the guy's life," Kris said.
"That's a total lie, baby. I would never cheat on you—"
"Oh my god," Danielle shrieked, "why are you defending yourself to her! We've been together for months—you're my boyfriend!"
"You lying sack of shit!" Rachel seethed.
"Baby, no, I don't know who this woman is. I've never seen her before in my life!"
An air horn pierced through the murmurs of the crowd, momentarily drowning out Rihanna's Rude Boy and echoing painfully off the glass walls.
Everyone froze for a moment, contestants, girlfriends, and spectators alike, and then their gazes followed the contest host's path to the back of the car, where John had removed both hands and taken a step toward his girlfriend to placate her.
"You fucking idiot," Steve groaned.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Joey Martinez said into his microphone, all smiles. "We're only an hour into the Alderman Ford Touch-a-Thon Event, and we already have our first elimination!" Some of the shoppers cheered, and John's shoulders slumped. Joey consulted an index card before saying, "John, would you please step outside the ropes and follow me?"
"Sorry," John said to Steve.
His friend didn't even look at him. "Shut up."
"Good luck, bro." John patted Steve's arm and ducked under the velvet rope. His girlfriend was standing there in horror, her hands up over her pretty mouth. Danielle was long gone.
"And then there were eleven," Adam whispered smugly. Kris stared up at him, his eyes intense, like he was trying to figure him out. "What?"
"I'm trying to decide if you're this much of an asshole all the time."
"Oh come on," Adam laughed. "It's survival of the fittest, not a popularity contest. No one's voting for us, here."
"Yeah. You still seem like a smug asshole, though."
"I'm not," Adam protested, and tried not to feel hurt by the accusation. Kris had totally deflated his victory-high, and he couldn't help resenting him for that. He turned and checked on Brad, who was twirling Danielle's bra and grinning at him.
Adam mouthed a quick "Thank you" and jerked his thumb to indicate it was time for his friends to take off. He didn't need Brad and Danielle—and Danielle's role in John's elimination—linked back to him so soon.
"Wow," Waitress-Slash-Actress said, leaning against the headlight next to him. "That's just awful!"
"I know," Cheerleader agreed. "He must be crushed."
"No, I mean walking around looking like a Craigslist hookup. God, that's so tacky. I mean, she could've at least brushed her hair if she's that into the guy. And that makeup!"
Adam ducked his head and tried not to laugh.
"Oh my god, right?" Cheerleader agreed immediately. "And how cheap was that outfit! Where does she think she is, Silver Lake?"
Waitress-Slash-Actress tossed her head. "I hope security booted her ass for waving her tits around like that. Shameless."
Adam kept his mouth shut, not bringing up the fake breasts nearly falling out the front of Waitress-Slash-Actress's scoop-necked shirt while she leaned low over the hood, her ruffle-skirted ass sticking out for everyone to gawk at. When he looked up, he caught Soccer Mom rolling her eyes at the two young women.
"Hey, man. Hey. Hey," Adam called, getting the attention of Family Man at the back door. "What's your name?"
"Rubén," the guy said.
"Cool. Can you tell me what time it is?"
Rubén lifted his left hand off the roof to check his watch. "9:15."
Cheerleader made a soft noise and Adam looked over to see her watching Rubén intently. He wondered if she'd noticed the same thing he had. He should keep an eye on her, just in case.
The next hour dragged on, shoppers cycling in and out of the food court to gawk at them, their hands filled with Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cups and designer-label shopping bags. Around 10 a.m. the kitchens started prepping for lunch, and the air became an unpleasant mélange of smells from Charlie Kabob, Fatburger, and Manchu Wok.
The American Top 40 playlist kept going, cranking out frothy pop tunes Adam had largely ignored all summer. That Hannah Montana chick was singing now, something horribly auto-tuned and all shrill vowels, but it had a really good dance beat. This was as good a time as any to put his plan into effect.
Adam started bopping a little, humming and listening to see who wanted to join in. Sure enough, Cheerleader caught on and started singing the words, her face brightening as she bounced on her toes. Waiter-Slash-Actor's chiseled jaw didn't move, but he tapped his fingers on the roof across from Kris, trying not to smile. Adam started singing out loud, making rough approximations of the words like he knew what he was singing. After an encouraging smile from Cheerleader, he beamed, opened his mouth, and let out the most horrendous, high-pitched, nails-on-chalkboard notes he could.
In all fairness, it was a pretty close approximation of Hannah's actual performance of the chorus. It was also completely unbearable.
Cheerleader gaped at him with a look of dawning horror as she realized what she was trapped with for the next 24-36 hours. He caught Kris cringing next to him, one hand halfway to his ear to block out the sound before he returned it to the car. Adam decided to really sell it, dropping down low and slinking his way back up, thrashing his head like he was in a music video, all the while making sounds like a dying cat and doing his utmost to convince everyone that this was his favorite kind of music, that he loved American Top 40, and that he would be singing along to the mall's P.A. system all day.
By the time the song finished, his competitors were looking suitably appalled. Adam glowed and smiled at each of them, daring them to harsh his buzz.
The next song was an Eminem song, so he turned to Waitress-Slash-Actress during the rap and gushed, "Don't you love singing?"
She glared at him and bit her tongue.
"I sing all the time—my friends call me their human jukebox. I figure I'll be singing a lot tonight to keep myself awake." He drummed his fingers with the beat and hummed along with Rihanna's chorus as he learned it. The next few hours were going to be fun; he anticipated at least three contestants bailing just to get away from him.
When the next song started, he was distracted by a conversation with Soccer Mom, who had apparently deigned to speak to him in order to stop the singing. Adam was warming to an overdramatic retelling of his pre-dawn bus ride to the mall that morning when he noticed the light tenor voice coming from the guy on his right.
Adam dropped his conversation mid-sentence to listen to Kris singing along to the Michael Bublé song. The guy wasn't doing anything flashy or overly loud, just singing to himself. And if Adam had really been committed to his act, he should have been a dick and chimed in, butchered the song for Kris, but that was the last thing he found himself wanting to do. Because Kris was good—like, really good—syrupy-smooth voice sliding like warm honey over the melody, making Adam want to stand there and listen all day.
Office Worker, Rubén, and Actor-Slash-Waiter were enjoying it, too, smiling approvingly at Kris. Because the guy was singing better than Adam had just done. So they logically thought Kris was better than Adam. And the sudden realization that he was getting shown up by some pleasant-voiced nobody pressed every fucking button Adam had.
He harnessed his professional indignation and concentrated on the song, learning the surprisingly modest melody so he could join in. Kris's voice grew stronger, more joyful on the bridge, and Adam's blood steamed as he was forced to wait for the last chorus to set things right. As soon as the song was back on familiar ground, Adam took a deep breath and sang for real; he sang the hell out of that silly little song, louder than Kris, prettier too, with over-the-top emoting and glory notes, and even a little upper-octave scat when the chorus faded into the instrumental outro.
Really, it was a ridiculously easy song.
He stopped singing when he heard the applause, opening his eyes to see whose hands had come off the car. But it was coming from some of the spectators hanging around the food court, hooting and clapping for him. He grinned and nodded to his fans, then turned to take in the adulation of his fellow contestants…who weren't even paying attention to him anymore.
Adam blinked and mentally kicked himself in the ass. He'd let his pride get the better of him and had obliterated his strategy to be the tone-deaf menace everyone hated. Crap. Thank god Brad wasn't here to witness it, or he would've laughed his ass off and tortured Adam with I-told-you-so's for weeks.
Kris was the only competitor looking at him now, rich brown eyes narrowed.
"What?" Adam sighed, resigned to his own failure.
"More mind games," Kris said.
Adam rubbed some imaginary dirt off his sleeve.
"You actually had me going for a few minutes with that whole worst-singer-on-Earth act. And then you pull that out…." He laughed, unintentionally—or perhaps not—taunting him. "I thought you said you were good at playing people."
"So you didn't want us thinking you were gonna make our eardrums bleed all day?"
He bit his lip, unwilling to admit that Kris was right.
Kris settled back on his heels in a way that hinted he very badly wanted to cross his arms. "Uh huh. Well thanks for confirming how much of a manipulative ass you are."
"You could take it as a compliment, you know," Adam growled, trying to cut off Kris's stinging rebuke. "You have a great voice. Seriously."
Caught off guard, Kris blushed just a little. His posture relaxed and he muttered, "Whatever."
"No, you really do. I don't go around instigating sing-offs with just anyone."
Kris quirked a half-smile at him. "I don't know. That kinda seemed like your thing."
Adam grinned, "I may have engaged in a few karaoke throw-downs, but they totally deserved it."
"And somehow I deserved to get ten-upped by a fucking professional?"
"Not so professional. I mean, I make a living, but I don't have a record deal or anything."
Kris gave a thoughtful frown, and Adam started to dread the inevitable, humiliating question: 'Why not?' But the frown turned into a snort, "Then maybe you shouldn't've knocked John out so soon. You suck at networking."
Adam rolled his eyes and leaned over to bump Kris's shoulder, determined to keep their unofficial truce going. "So how 'bout you tell me what you're doing with your voice? You got a band or something?"
"No, nothing," Kris denied.
Adam caught the shifty eyes, so he pressed a little, "Really? You're not singing anywhere in Los Angeles?"
"Not trying to get signed? Angling for an internship at one of the labels, maybe?"
"No," he insisted, but he was definitely lying.
Adam eased up for the time being. "Okay, okay. So what's your day job?"
"Like, door-to-door?" he teased.
"No! In a store. A little mom and pop store in Glendale."
"Hmm. But you're not from here."
"Well, duh. I'm…." Kris stopped talking and just looked at him.
"What?" Adam asked. He seemed to say that a lot around Kris. Of course, Kris seemed to like staring at him a lot.
Kris shook his head. "Just…wondering what you're up to."
"Oh, come on, not everything I do is evil," Adam huffed.
"How do I know that?"
"You have so little faith in people?"
"I've got lots of faith. Just not in guys who come right out and say, 'I didn't come on this show to make friends.'" He gave a little finger snap and 'oh no you di'int' attitude that rivaled Brad's best queen, and Adam cracked up.
"Oh shit, you are seriously the most precious thing ever. Are you sure you're straight?"
Kris raised his eyebrows. "Pretty sure," he drawled.
Adam was enduring an unsolicited makeup consultation from Waitress-Slash-Actress-Slash-Wannabe-Bob
Adam thanked her for the tips on how to improve his current 'day look' of eyeliner, mascara, and concealer, and extricated himself as politely as possible to check on his neighbor.
Kris was fixated on a conversation at the back of the car, where Jock-Agent Steve was talking to Prepster. Adam could recognize the body language of bullying a mile away: the devastating taunts in the lift of Steve's chin; the misery in Prepster's ducked head and clenched fists. He felt an uncomfortable slide in his stomach as he flashed back to his own days in high school, the physical and emotional jabs, and the bruises they'd left. Thank god it was at the other end of the car.
Rubén was trying to intervene, putting a hand out in front of Prepster and saying to Steve, "Hey, man, don't use language like that," but the damage had already been done.
Adam gasped as Prepster lashed out, swinging wildly at Steve, his punch driving into the agent's shoulder and moving them both away from the car.
"Shit," Kris said, louder, and Adam impulsively grabbed Kris's left wrist and pinned it to the windshield before he could let go of the car. Kris's head whipped around to look up at him, but Adam kept his focus on the fight.
"Is that all you got?" Steve was egging him on, laughing at him. "Come on, pussy."
Prepster grunted and swung again, two more punches that barely touched his tormentor as Steve ducked behind Grandma, sidling along the velvet ropes.
The air horn blast silenced the bustling food court and stopped the fight. Joey marched up to the ropes with a mall security guard and shouted into his microphone, "Woah, woah, hey! Break it up, guys! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a disqualification at the back of the car. Morgan, Morgan, what's going on, buddy?" The host put his arm around Prepster's shoulders, as much to offer comfort as to prevent any further attacks.
Morgan's fists didn't unclench. He didn't even look sorry when he looked back at the car he'd just lost. "That asshole was asking for it," he said into the mic.
"Woah, language, okay? This is a family-friendly venue, man. And I'm sorry, but you threw the first punch. You know the rules."
"Fuck it, it was worth it," Morgan insisted.
"Ohh-kay!" Joey cut him off, pulling the microphone away as soon as Morgan uttered the swear word. "Ladies and gentlemen, only 10 contestants remain in the Alderman Ford Touch-a-Thon Event to win a 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid! I hope you're having a great shopping experience in the new Santa Monica Place. Let's keep this Grand Reopening Celebration going! Keep stopping by throughout the day to see how our contestants are holding up in this battle of physical endurance and will. And sign up for a free test-drive of the brand new 2011 Fusion Hybrid this week at Alderman Ford, the home of quality American craftsmanship."
The host snapped his fingers angrily and gestured for Steve to resume his position on the trunk. And then he shoved Morgan toward the waiting security guard, who took the young guy's arm as soon as he stepped outside the ropes.
"Fuck," Adam said. "What'd that asshole call him?"
Kris's body was rigid next to him. "Things I'm not gonna repeat," he said, voice flat. And then he shook Adam's hand off his wrist. "I thought you only cared about winning," he said, eyes and mood compellingly dark as he looked up at him.
Adam's mouth twisted in a complicated smile. "I'm still hoping you'll turn to the Dark Side. Besides, I wasn't about to let that asswipe eliminate two of you."
"He doesn't deserve to win," Kris said.
Adam couldn't agree more. "I'll make sure he doesn't."
"No," Kris said firmly. "I'll take care of him."
Adam thought about protesting, but decided to let it go.
At 11:50 the air horn sounded again, this time signaling the first 10-minute break. Nobody moved, at least not until Joey ducked under the rope and announced to the crowd that the contestants were officially free to leave the vehicle until noon. With sighs of relief, all 10 contestants made their way to the bathrooms, stretching and twisting to ease aching back muscles.
When he got out of the restroom, Adam spotted Kris waving him over to a small table near the Sushi Itto counter. Adam sank into the empty chair gratefully, stifling complaints of sore feet.
"So, I was thinking," Kris said, twisting the complementary bottle of water bearing Alderman Ford's label.
"I've reconsidered your alliance idea; it might be a good idea to— If we each look out for each other, maybe."
Adam's eyebrows arched, but he wasn't about to say anything to make Kris regret his decision. "And when everyone else is gone?" he said, just to be sure they understood the deal.
"May the best man win," Kris shrugged.
"Okay then," Adam said, leaning forward and lowering his voice. "Let's talk strategy."
Kris didn't seem convinced of Adam's grand strategy. He seemed frankly unimpressed.
"Underwhelmed," Kris repeated under his breath, in case Adam had missed the three times he'd said it on their walk back to the car.
Adam smiled like he hadn't heard and traced the contours of the hood with his fingers. "So what were you saying about the new water-resistant line?" he prompted Waitress-Slash-Actress Jasmine.
"Oh, the gel eyeliners are fabulous—"
Joey got out his microphone again and paraded himself around the car, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Alderman Ford Touch-a-Thon Event for this 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid has officially resumed. I'm Joey Martinez, host of HGN's new show, Bid It to Win It!"
A few people in the food court offered some disinterested applause.
Joey cleared his throat and pressed on with the fake enthusiasm of a cable television host. "A few reminders for our contestants: At least one hand must be touching the vehicle at all times. You must stay in your assigned place. No kneeling, no sitting, no lying down. No threats of any kind against your fellow competitors will be tolerated. And your next refreshment break is in four hours. Good luck, everybody."
He fired off the air horn and Soccer Mom flinched reflexively.
While Jasmine got back into the important subject of ultra-fine applicator brushes and the new all-day, long-lasting formula, Adam kept half an ear on Kris, making sure he was doing his part to get to know his neighbors. Kris was having a hard time engaging middle-aged Office Worker on his other side; she seemed to be playing the aloof and self-contained angle, convinced no one could get to her if she kept to herself.
"Hey, Pops, what time is it?" Cheerleader called.
Adam looked up to smile at Rubén—he hadn't had a chance to thank him for trying to stop the bullying earlier.
And he wouldn't get the chance later, either. Because Rubén's right hand was busy scratching his armpit, and when he lifted his left to check his watch, the air horn went off again.
"12:15—" he got out, before he realized that the siren was for him, that both of his hands were in the air, and that Cheerleader was pumping her fist and crowing, "Yes!"
His face crumpled, and Waiter-Slash-Actor put his hand on Rubén's shoulder and said something Adam couldn't hear. Rubén nodded and shook Waiter-Slash-Actor's hand, but didn't stick around to wait for Joey's incredulous announcement that a third contestant had just been eliminated, and barely into the second four-hour period.
"She's gonna be a problem," Kris said softly, nervously eyeing the unmasked predators at the front and back of the car.
"No," Adam reassured him. "She just thinks she is."
Soccer Mom and Jasmine were both giving Cheerleader the stink-eye. Adam ignored the bad vibes and asked the front half of the car, "Who here's ever been to SusieCakes? I'm gonna state for the record that they make the best cupcakes in L.A."
It only took a few minutes to get Soccer Mom and Cheerleader back on friendly terms, once they started talking about the foods Soccer Mom's pre-teen daughter would and wouldn't eat, and what were the signs of an eating disorder—a conversation that Jasmine seemed very passionate about, too. Adam turned his attention back to Kris, who was playing with the windshield wiper blade.
"Hey. Are any of your band mates gonna show up today?"
Kris shook his head and looked around, his eyes bright with the light from the windows. "Nah, I didn't tell 'em about it."
"So they've got no clue you're gonna win a new car? You're just gonna show up at your next rehearsal and be all, 'what, this old thing?'"
He laughed a little. "I hadn't thought about it. But, yeah, that's kinda my style. Low key, you know?"
"Hmm," Adam agreed, and then said casually, "I thought you said you weren't in a band."
Kris's face froze for a long moment before he admitted, "I did say that."
"And that was a lie."
"You thought I was gonna use that against you?" He didn't give Kris a chance to answer. "We're in an alliance now. You're my guy, okay? I promised: you and me 'til the end. I'm not gonna use your personal stuff against you."
"It's not that. I just…my stuff isn't…." He sighed. "I can't do what you do."
"What's that mean?"
"Your voice is—well, you know how good it is. And we're—we're not professional. We all have day jobs, and we play a few bars a month, and we bust our asses trying to get more gigs. I didn't want you…."
Yeah, Adam knew what he meant. He still got that from some of his newer friends; they wouldn't invite him—or even tell him about—their performances, convinced Adam would be a bitch and rip apart what they loved most. No matter how much he denied it, he couldn't make them believe that he had a single, non-judgmental bone in his body. So he didn't bother denying it to Kris. "I would love to come to one of your shows," Adam said instead. "I mean it. I wasn't kidding before. You're really good. I'd love to watch you perform."
Kris frowned with what Adam took as guarded hope.
"Don't look at me like that," Adam insisted. "The plan doesn't work unless you trust me."
"Yeah," Kris said, shaking his head a little. "But when you start flirting like that, I start wondering what you're gonna ask me to do next."
Adam snorted and ruffled Kris's soft, brown hair. The spiky tips crunched with the barest trace of styling product, and Adam swallowed the urge to get close enough to find out what brand it smelled like. "You wish," he teased back, keeping it light. "So how's it goin' with Office Worker over there?"
"Not great. Her name's Rose, she works in the tax assessor's office, and she doesn't like getting to know new people."
"Huh. Okay. Switch it up a bit." Adam jerked his chin toward Waiter-Slash-Actor, who had been determinedly ignoring Steve's attempts at conversation ever since Steve revealed his true colors. That left Waiter-Slash-Actor isolated between empty space and the pack of women at the front.
Kris sized him up and said, "What do you think, compliment his Ashton Kutcher looks?"
"No way. He wants to be unique. Look how much work went into choosing those necklaces!"
Kris looked…but at the chains around Adam's neck.
"Shut up," Adam ordered, corners of his mouth curving up.
"I'm just saying…."
"And I'm not listening."
"…if the necklace fits…."
"You want me to pinch your ass in front of everybody? 'Cause I'll do it, if you don't shut that pretty mouth of yours."
Kris blushed and missed a beat before straightening his shoulders and boasting, "Prettier than yours." Kris turned his face away and said, "Hey, man, how's it goin'?" to Waiter-Slash-Actor before Adam could react.
Well, well, Adam thought to himself, delighted with his sass. Kris was getting more interesting every minute.
Adam's strategy was deceptively simple: keep everyone relaxed and off-guard for the next few hours. It wouldn't be easy to pull off—the contestants were as twitchy as a herd of gazelle alert to the lions in their midst. Adam and Kris had to lay low, let everybody cool down, try to distract them from the threat. And if they could earn some trust before nightfall, when killer fatigue would become a serious distraction….
Between the two of them, they could keep an eye on everyone. The ladies at the front had their moments of bitchiness, but were happier to pass the time chatting. Waiter-Slash-Actor Tyler was opening up to Kris, looking relieved to have a guy he could talk to, and Steve had isolated himself at the back of the car with silent-Rose and Grandma.
Adam sent another glance toward the back of the car to check how that end was holding up. Grandma wasn't looking too good. Adam leaned way forward so he could see past Kris and Rose, get a better look at the 70-year-old. Her eyes were closed, her arms shaking slightly. He couldn't see her hands, but he could guess the tremors were worse there. She was pale—she'd been pale all morning—but her skin had gotten shiny in a way that Adam didn't like.
"Hey, Tyler," Adam said, butting into Kris's conversation. "Hey. Does she look okay to you?" He jerked his head and Tyler's eyes drifted past Rose and zeroed in on Grandma.
"Oh. No, she really kinda doesn't." There was genuine concern on Tyler's face, as well as flickers of something else: suspicion and excitement warring with human decency.
Kris said something to Rose, who leaned back so Kris could put a hand on Grandma's arm. "Ma'am," he said quietly. "Are you all right?"
Grandma's eyes blinked open and slid slow and glazed up toward Kris's face. "Huh?" she said, voice just a breath. There was no sign of understanding or recognition on her face.
"Shit," Tyler said nervously. "Should we do something about her?"
Kris was talking to Grandma in a patient, soothing tone that tugged at Adam's heart until he blocked it out. This was a physically demanding competition. He'd known since sign-in that Grandma wouldn't make it to the end.
"I mean," Tyler was saying, starting to convince himself, "we can't just let her keep standing here 'til she passes out. She'll get hurt."
"I think you're right," Adam nodded, glad to have someone else assume responsibility for the meddling that was about to happen. "You should talk to the dealership people."
"Yeah. Yeah, I should," Tyler said, screwing up his lips in a satisfied grimace. "I will."
"Okay, yeah." Adam glanced around at the three dealership staff members stationed outside the ropes and nodded toward one. "I think the girl's name is Sheila."
"Thanks. Hey, Sheila," Tyler called, waving an arm to get the Alderman Ford rep's attention.
Sheila left her spotter's position and came up to listen to Tyler. Adam tugged Kris's shoulder to get him to disengage, leave Grandma to the people in charge.
"She hasn't said a word all morning," Kris said sadly, his gaze darting back as Sheila leaned over the car and tried to engage 'Evelyn.' "I should've noticed."
Adam just shook his head and watched Sheila flag down mall security. This time, there was no air horn. EMT's brought a gurney upstairs, and Sheila led Evelyn away from the car, and then she was gone. Tyler didn't look happy about it. Nobody did. The ladies were whispering, united in their tsks and sighs over Evelyn's age and obvious frailty.
"This sucks. How come nobody noticed…." Kris trailed off, still determined to blame himself.
Adam let him be.
At 3:55, he tracked Kris down at one of the food court tables on the outdoor dining deck. Adam leaned all the way back in his chair, arms over his head and cracking his spine as he absorbed the sunlight and faint ocean breeze.
"How long d'you think this thing's really gonna go?"
Adam opened his eyes, blinking against the bright blue sky, and grinned. "On how long it takes before you admit you can't beat me."
Kris snorted and kicked his ankle under the table. "Ass. Hurry up and eat your power bar. We gotta be back in there in three minutes."
Unsurprisingly, the first person to start shit in the third period was Cheerleader. Adam might not have noticed it if she'd started gradually, but little Laura started talking about how tired she was and whining about her feet, legs, and back all at once. He watched with amusement as she tried to get Jasmine and Cynthia to commiserate with her. Jasmine kept a determinedly upbeat attitude even though Adam could tell she was hurting, and Soccer Mom just seemed to tune out the juvenile whining. She obviously had years of practice.
It took Laura almost half an hour to give up on the women and target Adam. He'd maybe been baiting her, standing at the car with his head down for long stretches, shifting like his back hurt, even propping an elbow on the hood to support his chin. It wasn't a posture he wanted to hold for any length of time, so he was relieved when she yawned, "Ahh-dumm," plaintively.
"Yeah," he sighed.
"Uh huh," he yawned right back.
Kris nudged him with his hip, whispered, "What's wrong with you?"
Adam ignored him. "I'm so bored," he confided in Laura. "Why'd I decide to do this, again?"
She grimaced prettily. "I know, right? I should be at the beach with my boyfriend right now. You should, too."
Adam smiled. "Yeah." He straightened up and winced, letting his real discomfort show. "A whole weekend of this?"
"Kill me now," Laura moaned.
"My feet are killing me."
"Mine, too. Like, my toes are numb, and my arches are cramping something fierce. What I wouldn't give for a massage."
"Oh, girl, you're singing my song. My boyfriend's got magic fingers. He can make me orgasm just from—"
Cynthia cleared her throat disapprovingly.
Adam stopped short. "Sorry. Um, forget it." Kris was quiet next to him, listening and trying to figure his game out.
Laura kept drilling at him. "It's so nice outside. All these breaks are like torture, a little taste of freedom and then 'back to the car!'"
"Yeah, I'm kinda starting to hate this thing, you know?" He glared at the car like it was his enemy, instead of the end to his transportation nightmares.
"Seriously. God, I never should've worn these shoes."
"Ugh, me, too."
"What're you wearing?" she asked, and Adam hid his smile.
"My favorite boots. They're super-fabulous, but my friend was right. Heels were the worst possible plan."
"Heels?" she gasped. "Get out. Are you crazy?"
Adam nodded miserably.
"Can I see? I mean, can you…."
"Oh, totally. Hold on." He shoved Kris's hand off the driver's side mirror so he had a better handhold for turning sideways and kicking a leg up onto the hood. His boot landed with a loud bang on the red hood and Kris hissed behind him. Adam felt a hand against his lower back, stealthily steadying him, and smiled proudly. "Check these babies out."
"Oh, those are beautiful," Laura gushed, as fakely flattering as she'd been about Jasmine's makeup tips earlier. "I love the rhinestones."
"Yeah," he said, bending over and stroking his fingers up the zipper seam. "When I wear these I feel like a million bucks. But now I need a million bucks of chiropracty."
"That's terrible," she said.
"How 'bout you? What've you got on?"
"Skechers," she shrugged, but did an impressive gymnastic high-kick, shin almost touching her face before she pivoted and lowered her foot gracefully to the top of the car, leg stretched out over half the hood.
Adam reached out and tweaked the toe of her baby-blue and yellow striped sneaker. "Oh my gosh," he giggled. "Are you kidding me?"
"They're my favorite; I wear them everywhere."
This was going to be way too easy. Adam took a deep breath and shut down Laura's mutual-admiration party with a single look. "You've actually worn these in public before? Oh, honey," he shook his head, pitying.
"These just scream kindergarten. I mean, the colors are sweet, really. For a 6-year-old."
"No, they're not. They're cool!"
"Ugh, no! It's like those jeans you're wearing," he sneered at the acid-washed, pegged denim in front of him. "They've got 'virgin' stamped all over them."
"What?" she yelped, face turning red. "They do not!"
"Please, sugar. If you wore those out in WeHo we'd laugh you back to the Valley faster than a cheerleader going down on the quarterback. Tyler, you're a heterosexual male. Would you ever date a grown woman wearing jeans and shoes like these?"
"Oh," Laura sputtered, pulling her leg back to get away from Adam's vicious critique. But the rubber sole of her sneaker skidded across the glossy hood, throwing her off balance, and Laura staggered, hand reaching out to clutch Jasmine's shoulder.
The air horn sounded with satisfying finality, and Laura gaped at Adam's innocent, concerned expression before she spun around, marching away from the car muttering curses under her breath.
Tyler quirked a grin at Adam. "Honestly, yeah," he answered belatedly. "Chick was hot, man. And flexible. Who cares what she wears?"
"Thank you," Jasmine muttered, adjusting the fall of her shirt sleeve. "I thought she'd never shut up."
Cynthia's glare was a dangerously perceptive thing.
Adam nudged Kris with his elbow and Kris braced himself, let Adam lean against him as he pulled his booted foot off the car, Adam's moves more careful and fluid than Laura's. Kris's fingers lingered, dragged slowly across the waistband of Adam's jeans before he took his hand away.