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AusGlitterati

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  1. But the snakes are alive from nothing! Do they know that their entire purpose in life is just to give the royal sorcerers the heebie jeebies?? Poor things! I've enjoyed all of ObicanDecko's stories, but Fairyfly is possibly my favourite of them. It was innovative, fun and highly enjoyable, imo a reflection of the author himself! I can't recommend it enough! Read it, adore it and leave some love for the talented author the spin-off/sequel story is every bit as fantastic and expands on an already terrific universe. Thanks for everything, friend! ❤️
  2. The Strongest Link True to her word, Ronda let the emotional teenager have a few moments alone before he returned to the green room, and it made a world of difference. It must have been all the pressure, stress and tension that came from being on the set. With some peace and quiet away from the Hostess and the others, Lance was able to find himself again. It was easy to get lost out there, trying to decipher friend from foe and answering the broadest range of questions at a rapid-fire pace. With his head firmly back on his shoulders, he managed to laugh about the things he'd said to the camera still facing him and nervously covered his mouth with his hand. That's not going to look good. Ronda wasn't in the hallway when he left the small room behind, but he figured she'd know where he was when she came back from wherever she'd gone. The dancer slowly made his way through the big double doors to see the six people who had taken the walk of shame before him. Jamie and Alyssa sat together on one couch. Grace, Eliza and Cian sat tightly packed on another, whereas Bugeyes - Paul, Lance reminded himself - distanced himself from the others. They were watching round eight together on the monitor - Nathan and Casey's final chance to win money before the Hostess pitted them against each other head-to-head. "Hey!" Eliza got to her feet to approach him when she saw him. "Are you alright? That was some BS." "Yeah, that sucks majorly, mate," Cian added. Lance smiled with appreciation and brushed his fluffy hair behind his ears. "I'll be okay. Though, I was probably the world's saltiest bitch in that interview." His admission drew laughs from all of his former rivals. "You and me both," Jamie piped up, cutely stretching his arms over his head. "No hard feelings, guys. Don't hate me when the episode airs." Called it. But he understood and made a silent vow not to let the revealing thoughts of stupid Jamie somehow sour their relationship when he watched them later. Alyssa beckoned to him. "Do you want to sit with us?" He exhaled and nodded. "That'd be great. Cheers." It felt strange to sit down on the other side of Alyssa and Jamie, the two people he'd successfully voted off during the game when he wasn't busy throwing wasted votes at Casey. He would have preferred to hang out with the other girls and the athlete - who still seemed unnaturally cheerful - but it was nice to be forgiven. He turned his eyes to the screen. Though he was feeling much better now, it still upset him that there didn't seem to be any way he could have made it to this part of the game. Those two were going to vote him off no matter what he did in the seventh round. He turned his attention to the monitor, where he could watch the studio live from the camera's position high up behind the Hostess. "Casey, in politics, what term starting with 'H' and meaning 'suspended' is used to describe a parliament in which no party has a viable majority?" "Halted?" The girl shrugged. "No, hung." Lance let out an immature giggle. "Nathan--" "Bank!" The Irishman still banked before every question without caring if there was money in the chain or not. He had no more confidence in himself. It was written all over his face. "In language, the name of which type of oven used to bake clay is an anagram of the word 'link?'" Kiln. Nathan's answer made Lance cringe. "Nilk?" Girl, you need to get a grip. Right now. Don't you dare let Casey win! "Kiln!" The Hostess nearly shouted the answer at him. "Casey, in aviation, what 'T' is the usual term for the violent and unsteady movement of air encountered during flights?" "Turbulence." "Correct. Nathan--" "Bank!" "In ornithology, all five species of swan native to the northern hemisphere have a plumage of primarily which colour?" "Black?" "No, white. Casey, in law and order, in a-- time is up, and I can't complete that question. You've banked six hundred and fifty pounds, which I will triple and add to the total. Tonight's bank is seventeen thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds - not only will the winner take home the prize money, but our studio will donate the same amount to the charity of their choosing. So, who will be crowned tonight's strongest link? Will it be Nathan, our charity founder who says he never forgets, or Casey, our critically important author who thinks she has a world of knowledge? Find out when we return on The Weakest Link." With the crew returning to shift the set between rounds, Jamie blurted out the question everyone was thinking. "How the hell did it come down to those two?" "Right? They're so stupid," scoffed Praying Mantis Paul, whose legacy would forever be the only person to never answer a question correctly and thus trudged down the walk of shame. "I should have made it," the actor insisted, pointing to the screen as crew members shifted podiums around to place Casey and Nathan in the middle. "Me and Grace. It should have been us. We'd get over 20K easy." Lance wasn't the only one who disagreed. Eliza, next to a coy, quiet Grace who kept her comments to herself, objected. "You? Why should it be you?" "He was the strongest link in the first two rounds," Alyssa reminded her. "Lance was the strongest link in three rounds," Cian had no trouble speaking over others with his booming voice. "That's why they voted him off. It should have been him and Grace. End of story." "Oh, little old me?" Lance acted surprised, though he was genuinely pleased someone else brought it up. "I was, wasn't I?" And no bitch will ever be allowed to forget it. "Yeah, because he voted me off! I wasn't doing that badly!" Jamie shifted his body to cut both Alyssa and Lance off from the others. "He was only the strongest link because I wasn't there!" "But you weren't. You lost," Grace finally spilt the tea from far over in her corner. "You lost as well!" Jamie snapped at her. "So just shut up. I'm not in the mood to hear it from you." Disagreements were to be expected, Lance supposed. To bring together nine successful teenagers and then crowd the seven who were voted out of the prize money, all frustrated and disappointed, into the green room together seemed like a recipe for disaster. Nobody here was used to losing - even Lance had been close to a public conniption when he saw Nathan and Casey's boards turn over with his name on them. Jamie, especially, mustn't have faced many defeats, having met so much success in his young life. He reminded Lance of his little sister - a spoiled, entitled little shit to the core. However, the way he spoke to Grace made the dancer's blood boil. "Oh, sorry, sweetie! How inconsiderate of us. We didn't stop to think about how big a kick in the balls it must be to be the only person who isn't happy about how the game went," Lance spoke coldly to the back of the boy's head. That got Jamie's attention, and the pretty face snapped to look at him with an ugly glare. The younger boy tried to do what he did best, but Lance cut off his relentless prattle by raising his voice. "Good thing we're all in the mood to hear you bitch and moan, though. It would be super awks if any of us had anything to complain about, especially since you don’t feel like hearing it." "Yeah, maybe you should shut up for a change," Paul echoed Lance's sentiment, something that surprised the dancer because he kept forgetting that the weedy programmer existed. "You came last. Who cares what you think?" Jamie snapped back. "Such a brat," Grace mentioned to Eliza, quietly enough to make it sound like a private comment but loud enough for everyone to hear. "Ugh, I can't even with him," Eliza put her hand up as a barrier to block any more spoiled, egocentric actors from getting under her skin. "Fine! I guess I won't say anything for the rest of the night, then!" Jamie cracked the shits and got up from the couch, moodily slumping over to another settee further away and dramatically throwing himself down in a huff. Way to threaten me with the best possible scenario. The dancer's eyes caught Paul, who still kept his distance from the rest of the group. Bugeyes and his miserable moustache had suffered a fairly bad night. Lance remembered the comments that Paul had made in this room some hours ago, but his pity spoke louder than the offense he'd taken. Surely there'd been enough pettiness and arguing between the teenage triumphs by now. The game was over - for them, at least. What more did they have to prove to each other? "Paulie, come and sit over here with us." Lance beckoned to the now vacant spot on the other side of the budding pop star Alyssa MacIntosh. Paul looked at him and to where he was pointing, then got up from his perch and did as he was invited. Jamie was sticking to his threat, not uttering a word as though the others were missing out somehow. It was sad to see someone he'd longed to meet act in this way. Would Lance ever again be able to relax in bed with an episode or two of Ember Seal on his ancient old laptop with less than a "terabyte" of space? Was Corey ruined for him? An irresistible, charismatic bad-boy image destroyed by the sulking, conceited lump on the couch. As Corey, he could have been eighteen years old. As Jamie, he could have been eight. "You know, I predicted Grace and Lance for the final two in my interview," Eliza revealed. "Really?" Lance beamed across the room at her. "I did. I said that if the others didn't break the two of you up, you'd take the game and run with it." "Funny. That's exactly what they did," Grace remarked from beside her, drawing out laughs. "You jinxed them!" Alyssa accused her. "Witch!" Cian shouted. "I'm so sorry!" Eliza laughed. Paul drummed his hands on his legs, covered in black pants much too big for him. "I thought Casey would go home after I did. I feel pretty dumb." "I said the same thing!" Alyssa, both plump and gorgeous, grasped Paul's shoulder with a well-manicured hand. "I said she wasn't going to make it." Cian laughed. "Me three!" "So what the hell happened?" Paul asked, blushing after physical contact from a pop singer. "None of you voted for her, you gooses," Lance pointed out. "Geese!" He fixed himself, almost expecting the Hostess' sharp voice to correct him. "I should have!" Grace lamented, cross-legged on the couch. "But I chose Nathan at the last second because... well, you can see why." Lance shifted and turned to her. "Nooo, I should have voted for Nathan in round six. That was my fault. We could have forced a tie and I would have saved you. Because I was the strongest link. Just saying!" He added cheekily, fluffing his hair with his right hand. "Who's going to win?" Cian asked. "Someone has to get a question right for that," Jamie piped up from far away, putting to rest his vow of silence the moment he saw an opportunity to tear someone else down. He's right, though. "I'd say Casey," Grace was the first to give her answer. "Nathan is way too rattled." "Legit," Cian agreed. "I don't want Casey to win, but there's not much I can do about it now," said Eliza. "Casey. Hands down," decided Paul. "Casey!" Alyssa echoed the others. Lance pursed his lips as the others grinned at his silence. "Nope! I will not accept that Casey wins tonight. Never!" "What would you have done with the prize money?" Alyssa asked the others. "I would have gone on holiday to Spain." That does sound good. "I need a car," Eliza stretched her long arms above her head. "A good one! With cup holders and power steering and that new car smell. Something that doesn't break down all the time." "I'd buy a thousand steaks!" Cian decided. Lance giggled. Such a beefcake. "Education, I suppose," Grace gave a predictably dull answer. "Same," Paul wasn't appealing either. "I'd put most of it away, but I'd like some clothes, shoes and cute dates with Bobby," said Lance, combing his hair with his long nails. He blushed at the thought of taking Bobby on a weekend in Wales and possibly seeing Eliza's show, then staying at a hotel with a hot tub and a great view of the Cardiff skyline. It was a beautiful fantasy, even if Mum and Dad would never let it happen until he was eighteen. Soon after, the set was ready for the final round. Nathan stood on the left and Casey on the right, and the Hostess stood back up to her screen to begin the final sequence of the evening. "Welcome back to the Teenage Triumphs edition of The Weakest Link. It's come down to Nathan Saunders, founder of the charity All About Autism, and Casey Adams, author of The Glass Kingdom and Obsidian Arrowhead. As you both know, only one of you can win tonight, leaving with seventeen thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds, and the other will leave with nothing. I will ask alternate questions, five each, and whoever answers the most correctly in the best of five will be our winner, however, if there is a tie, we will play Sudden Death until we do have a conclusive victor. Casey, as the strongest link of Round Eight, you have the choice of going first or second." "Nathan can go first," the novelist immediately chose. "Why am I not surprised?" Grace didn't seem at all impressed. "Why?" Cian asked her. "I don't get it," Alyssa said at the same time. "Seriously? He's about to piss himself," Jamie appeared behind the couch, putting his tantrum aside in his interest to see how the finals played out. Lance had to agree. "Mm, it's a power play. It doesn't actually change anything, but she's trying to psyche him out." She can't win clean, so she has to pull out every dirty trick. "Well, it's working," Paul observed. "Yeah. He's been nosediving since round six," Grace added, arms folded. It did look very much like Nathan was ready to pack it in, forfeit and go home. He looked sweaty and scared. Casey looked as though she'd won it already, retaining the satisfied smile she'd added to her stony face since she voted Lance off. "For seventeen thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds, let's play The Weakest Link," the Hostess moved on, and the fanfare sounded through the studio. "Nathan, in money, before decimalisation in the UK, which unit of currency was equal to two hundred and forty pence?" "A pound," Grace answered immediately, as though it were her competing for the prize money. "Spoilers!" Lance gasped at her. "A pound," Nathan gave his answer after a long few moments, awkwardly tapping his hands on the podium in front of him. "That answer is correct!" The Hostess paused while Nathan bowed in relief and moved to the girl next to him. "Casey, in nature, the three-spined and the nine or ten-spined are two species of which small fish commonly found in British streams and brackish waters?" Casey's smugness left her face. "I have no idea," Cian mumbled from his place beside Eliza. "Gracie?" Eliza nudged her friend. "Tell us the answer." "You think I go fishing?" Grace retorted to a chorus of laughs. "Well if Grace doesn’t know, then obviously the question is broken," Cian's jest made Lance grin. "Stickleback," Paul piped up, and the chuckles immediately stopped. People turned to look at him, and he shrugged. "I fish with my pop all the time." Bugger me. "Salmon?" Casey answered, clearly upset with the question she'd been asked. "Salmon?" Jamie repeated incredulously. "That's what she said," Alyssa raised her hand to the monitor, as though she hadn't messed up on two questions that seemed as though they were in her area of expertise. "I hate those pesky nine-spined salmon," said Cian. "The correct answer is stickleback," the Hostess replied. A few people, including Lance, cheered for Paul, and Alyssa gripped his arm once again. That was a nice turn of events! After the poor guy buckled under nerves in the first round and got both easy questions wrong, he proved that he did know things after all. Paul smiled wide. "I got something right! Yesss! Shame it's not on TV!" "Nathan, what is the usual name for the international agreement for the proper treatment of prisoners of war?" "Geneva Convention," Grace, Eliza and Jamie all said the words at once. Lance echoed it half a second later, but the others were quicker. "Geneva Convention?" Nathan narrowed his eyes. "That answer is correct. Casey, in racing, which South American country produced the Grand Prix champion driver Juan Fangio?" That's a Nicky or Dad question. "Argentina!" Alyssa shocked Lance by throwing out an answer before anyone else did. "Peru!" Casey shrugged on screen, now folding her arms across her chest. She was angry. "The correct answer is Argentina." "Was that like, a guess?" Paul asked. "She probably doesn't know any other South American countries," Jamie joked, offending the pop princess. "Juan Fangio won the world drivers' championship five times. I know he's from Argentina," Alyssa turned her head to scold him. "Maybe I'm not a brainiac, but I'm not an idiot." "Alright!" Jamie whined in an irritating, flippant tone, but nobody paid any attention to him. "Nathan, in literature, which late Swedish writer whose novels include The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was named in 2010 by The Bookseller magazine as Europe's best selling author?" "Stieg Larsson!" Grace, Jamie and Alyssa MacIntosh all knew the answer to that. "...Stieg Larsson!" Cian blurted out a second later, pointing at the screen with a grin. Lance laughed - the guy was funny. Were his heart not firmly attached to Bobby and Cian were not a total hetero, he would certainly be seeking out those digits. "I'll take your word for it," Eliza added. "Casey would have loved a literature question," Paul commented. "Then it sucks for her that she chose the other set of questions," Jamie seemed happy to watch Casey squirm, likely because she stuck a knife in his back and voted him off. Nathan, too, looked as though he were confident in his answer for the first time since round six. "Stieg Larsson!" "Woo!" Lance clapped loudly. It looked like the game was blowing up in Casey's face. Perfect. "That answer is correct!" The Hostess confirmed, and an excited buzz went through the audience in the back rows. "Casey! You need to answer this question correctly to remain in the game. So Casey, for seventeen thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds, in film quotations, 'the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist' is a line spoken by Kevin Spacey in which cult 1995 thriller?" "The Usual Suspects!" Lance, Eliza, Grace, Jamie, Paul, Cian and Alyssa all answered within the same two seconds, perched forward in anticipation of what Casey might reply with. The girl's cockiness returned. She obviously knew the answer to this question too and indicated as such with a smirk in Nathan's direction. "The Unusual Suspects." "HAHAHA!" Lance burst out laughing. Once others realised the girl's mistake, they joined him. "The correct answer is The Usual Suspects!" The music played and the lights flickered, signalling the end of the game. The audience applauded and cheered for Nathan, who turned to jelly with pale blue eyes moon-sized in his freckly face. He looked between Casey, who slammed her hands down on her podium in anger, and the crowd members behind him, some of whom were giving a standing ovation. "That means, Nathan, you are tonight's strongest link! You and your charity, All About Autism, will both receive prize money of seventeen thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds. Casey, you leave with nothing." Thunder crossed Casey's face and lightning stormed behind those furious eyes. She didn't congratulate her opponent - she didn't even look at him. He didn't feel at all bad for her. She scraped her way to the finals with tricks, double-crosses and dumb luck. She voted off those who could beat her and sought to destroy the weakest player in the end. She wasn't counting on the fact that without time limits and the pressure to maximise the pot, Nathan would be able to make a complete fool of her. With the game finished, the Hostess turned back around to the camera. "Join us again for The Weakest Link. Goodbye." It was about five minutes later that a tearful Nathan emerged through the double doors of the green room, likely having finished his post-game interview. Lance had forgotten his bitterness about the Irishman's strategic voting and whole-heartedly congratulated him. It was an impressive comeback. "Well played mate. You did it! Eep!" Lance extended a hand to shake, but an emotional Nathan pulled him into a brief but tight hug instead. "Hey listen," Nathan was so tall, almost half a head taller than Lance even though the dancer was wearing heels that added inches to his height. "Grace, can I say something?" He caught the very short girl's attention, and she turned to face him. Comically, she was almost two heads shorter than him. "I'm sorry I voted for you guys. I just-- I needed to win so badly tonight, and I didn't think I could beat either of you." I guess... but I needed to win too. "Oh, don't worry about it," Grace brushed him off. "I'll sleep well knowing that you would have won a lot more if you kept me on the team, but you didn't." "Hah!" Lance grinned down at her and back up at him. "True! I'll just be flattered that the thought of going up against me had you quivering in your ugly grandpa shoes." Nathan chuckled and hung his head in shame - real or pretend, Lance wasn't sure. "I totally deserved that. You guys were so scary. By the way, where's Casey? I don't see her around." "Hmm?" Grace stood on her toes and craned her neck. "I don't think I saw her come in." "She had her interview first. She should be here," Nathan frowned, turning around. "She seemed a bit heated. Reckon she stormed off?" Lance wouldn't have minded rubbing the girl's face in her humiliating defeat, but he favoured the idea of never having to see her again. "Who cares?" Eliza put in from three feet away. Ronda barged through the double doors and clapped her hands to get everyone's attention the same way she had before the game began. "Alright you lot, we've got an announcement for you." To Lance's joy, the Hostess, still dressed in black but having traded in her stilettos for much comfier looking slip-ons, sidled her way into the room. Was this the reason they had all been exiled to the green room rather than thrown out on the curb? "You all played terribly, as I'm sure you're aware," the older woman sniped at them. "But, I lied to you all earlier. Contrary to the rules of the game, nobody is going home empty-handed tonight. Tonight, BBC Scotland is making an exception. For the UK's up and coming teenagers, by which I assume they mean you lot, the studio will donate to each of you two thousand, five hundred pounds for your hard work and determination. In addition--" she had to shout over the excited chattering of the former contestants, "each of you will receive an added tip equal to the amount of money that you personally banked this evening. The charities you have chosen to represent will also receive the same tip." Maths had never been Lance's strong suit, but he knew offhand that he'd banked a substantial portion of the team's total tonight. In round three, he banked fifteen hundred pounds! In round six, he banked three thousand pounds!! He squeaked in joy. It wasn't the grand prize, but it was a minimum of seven thousand pounds! "What about Casey?" Nathan asked her. The Hostess shrugged. "If she can't follow simple instructions and find her way back here when the game's over, I suppose she doesn't get her bonus." Lance wasn't sure if the woman was being real or not - it was impossible to know - but he liked the idea of Casey missing out on a substantial bonus because she'd bailed in a huff. She never took the game seriously until she fucked it royally in the head-to-head, so why should she be rewarded? Oh well. I'm not going to dignify her by wasting thought on her. "Why didn't you tell us earlier that we would get money even if we lost?" Paul asked the Hostess. "Oh, that? Well, I may have stayed behind to record a message when you lot had left the room. If I told you, you wouldn't have been so desperate to win that way. I wanted you to squirm. It makes for better television, don't you think?" Lance turned his eyes to Grace, who seemed happy, but he felt a little guilty. She never banked anything. Throughout the game, she only ever answered questions correctly to increase money in the chain for Lance to bank. He touched her arm. "Hey, is your back sore?" "What? Why?" "Well, you carried my heavy arse from the first round. Do you want to split my bonus with me? I basically banked all the money you earned and I think it's only fair you get half," he offered her. She looked horrified. "No way! I can't take your money. You earned it. Plus, I didn't carry you at all! That was all you. In fact, you were so good I wanted to keep you until the end. I think we could have run up the bank to twenty-five thousand together. That's why I only banked when we were running out of time. You made good decisions. Even when you got some answers wrong, I knew the money was safe in your hands." He snorted. "Even though I don't know my oceans or fractions?" "You knew Kiss, didn't you?" "Honey, everyone knows Kiss." She shook her head. "Not me! I didn't know the answers to several of your questions actually, but you did. You're smart, even if you don't think you are. I've never known anybody to know so much about pop culture. I mean, I called Madonna a bimbo!" He laughed and managed to blush underneath his makeup. "Okay! You win. But when I'm in your neighbourhood or if you're in mine - may God have mercy on your soul if that's the case - I'll buy the coffee." "I don't drink coffee!" She smiled warmly at him. "But orange juice and maybe another waltz would be nice. A real one." Before Lance left BBC Scotland Quay with several thousand pounds to have his spine crushed by Dad's proud hug and his forehead assaulted by Mum's kisses until he ducked for cover, he'd added six new names to his social media accounts! Cian Millar, so he could admire the gorgeous athlete's endless supply of funny memes and gratuitous amount of selfies with his gorgeous athlete friends. Eliza Stacey Brooks, so he could create a long-distance but long-lasting friendship with her. Grace Ojomo, so she could get free ballroom dancing lessons and monster-sized juice cups for years to come. Nathan Saunders, so he could monitor All About Autism's progress, give donations and receive lengthy apologies for the "Round Seven Scandal Of 2012" until the end of time. Alyssa MacIntosh - her real account and not her fan account - so he could watch her get more fabulous by the year and listen to her music. Paul Russo, mostly because he didn't want to make him feel left out. He also lost a name from his account - he unliked and unfollowed Jamie Ceannaideach's official Facebook page on the car ride back to the hotel. Bobby's so much cuter anyway, and only half the drama. He decided to remain a part of Corey Channing's fan page, though. There might yet be redemption for him.
  3. Round Seven Mum and Dad had been so well behaved tonight. Lance was prone to embarrassment at their complete lack of shame, but they'd promised they wouldn't humiliate their son, and they had stuck to their word. No shouting, no swearing and no talking smack to the other contestants and their families. They'd sat there patiently and given their son nothing but support and praise from afar, and as he turned around and grinned at them, they gave him an animated wave. He turned back, and the empty place to his right brought him back to reality. Grace. It wasn't supposed to go this way. He doubted his ability to beat her in a one-on-one situation... yet, he remembered that it wasn't him who made two mistakes in the last round. She did. Maybe he could have beaten her... if he got lucky with his questions. He peered to his left at his final opponents. Nathan, also looking back to his loved ones - his tired-looking mum and gorgeous brother and sister, the girl wearing noise-cancelling headphones. The Irishman's momentum was dropping off fast. Then there was Casey, who hadn't ever interacted with anyone in the stands while he was observing her. She was painfully reckless, throwing out the first answer that came to mind. I can beat them. He sighed, feeling lonely. He wanted Grace, though. She'd been the strongest of them. The fantasy he'd recently concocted of a perfect finale was dead in the water. She was gone, but he didn't beat her, and that didn't sit well with him. I don't just want to win. I want to be the best. Casey's cold brown eyes locked with his as he spent the brief intermission between rounds working out what he wanted to do next. He didn't blink, nor did he flinch. His eyes burned at her through rose-gold tinted lenses. Nathan spun around and leaned over his podium, almost obscuring his view. When the red-haired fellow noticed Lance was looking over in his direction, he smiled, baring his crooked white teeth. It was impossible not to return it. Nathan wasn't Grace. Far from it. There was sincerity and generosity about him. Maybe Lance couldn't get the finale he dreamed of, but there was another one he'd happily accept. There would be joy in beating Casey head-to-head, but he didn't want to give her the satisfaction of making it there. There was still one more vote to go. Nathan clearly didn’t want her around either. The Irishman had voted for her on two different occasions, which filled Lance with hope. You and me. We finally take this bitch down. The Hostess soon stepped back up to her stage. "Round seven! Of a possible thirty thousand pounds, you have managed to bank fifteen thousand, six hundred and fifty pounds. Without Britain's youngest know-it-all, there are now only three of you left. Lance, who is too fashionable for general knowledge, Nathan, who says he never forgets, and last but not least, the critically important Casey who thinks she has a wealth of expertise. We're taking another ten seconds off the clock, so you now only have two minutes to reach your five thousand pound target. We'll start with the strongest link from the last round, and that's Lance. Apparently, lightning can strike twice." Lance's dazzling smile involuntarily parted his lips. "Let's play The Weakest Link. Start the clock. Lance, in cinema, in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the title character repeats his mother's catchphrase: 'Life is like a box of what?'" The boy's smile persisted. His best friend Jane's mum said it all the time. "Chocolates." "Correct. Nathan, in anatomy, how many teeth does an adult human have?" Nathan did the pufferfish face again, which wasn't a good sign. "Twenty... eight?" "No, thirty-two. Casey, in which year did the Titanic sink in the northern Atlantic?" Casey shrugged and rolled her eyes. "1932?" Lance didn't know the answers to either of those questions either, but it didn't feel good to be the only one to get his answer right in that rotation. "1912. Lance, in computer terminology, which is larger: a megabyte, a terabyte, a kilobyte or a gigabyte?" Lance's eyes widened. He was sure his brother would know the answer to this, but he was never big with computers. He used his slow, old laptop for Webflix, Myspace, MSN, Facebook, Youtube and maybe Wikipedia on the rare occasions he bothered to do his coursework while he was still at school. Not much else. Sometimes porn. "A terabyte?" He guessed. It was the one of the four he'd never heard of. He figured it must have been very big... or very small. Hopefully big. He hugged himself with his arms. The game was scary without Grace making him look strong. He had to rely on himself now, and he wasn't a genius. He was just a sodding dropout! "Correct," the Hostess took his answer, much to his relief. "Nathan--" "Bank!" "In the animal kingdom, pigs roll themselves in mud to cool down because they lack what glands?" "Adrenal? No-- sweat!" He blurted out. "I must accept your first answer. The correct answer is sweat glands. Casey, which author wrote the novels Misery, It and Needful Things?" "Stephen King," she answered. Lance hoped she was right. Novels were her chosen career, so she should have at least some knowledge in that area. "Correct. Lance," the dancer wearily scratched his eye. He'd been so focused for so long, and he was running out of stamina. "In the TV comedy series 'Keeping Up Appearances,' Patricia Routledge played which character?" Bum. That was one of Mum's shows. She often compared Lance to the main character played by Patricia Routledge, the woman whose last name was Bucket and insisted it was pronounced 'bouquet,' and Dad to that lazy slob brother-in-law Onslow. How can I know his name but not the main woman's?? It was infuriating! He guessed. "Heidi?" "Hyacinth." He slapped his hand on the podium. He knew that! Mum and Dad would relentlessly annoy by telling him how alike they were because he let himself be embarrassed by his family. Perhaps he would have paid more attention to the show if their teasing didn't make him determined to hate it. He wondered what Grace would be thinking if she were watching the three of them right now, unable to string together any correct answers without her to scale the chain for them. She'd be laughing, and rightfully so. We're a bunch of clowns. "Nathan--" "Bank!" Aww, honey. I answered wrong. There's not even any money to bank, you goose. "In which World War did Japan occupy the Philippines?" "Second!" Nathan was visibly relieved to get a question he could answer. "Correct. Casey, in farming, an Aberdeen Angus is a breed of which animal?" "Cattle." Casey, on the other hand, showed no anxiety or lack of endurance and never had since the game started. The Hostess grimaced a little. "I'll accept. Lance--" "Bank," Lance figured two hundred and fifty pounds was better than nothing, and there couldn't be much more time left. "In Ballet, there are only how many positions of the feet?" Lance recoiled briefly. He and Jane had been learning ballet since they were old enough to enrol. The answer depended on which type of ballet. Typically only five, but a sixth and seventh position existed in Serge Ligar's choreographies. He suspected the question had been written by someone with lesser knowledge in the field and decided to give the most likely answer. "Five." "Correct." "Nathan--" "Bank!" The Irishman was now banking every time, regardless of whether Lance had even answered correctly. He's cactus. Completely shook. "In the 1939 film 'The Wizard of Oz,' which character asks the Wizard for a heart?" "The straw man?" "No, the tin man." The terrified fellow looked as though he were ready to burst into tears, leaning down to rest his elbows on the stand in front of him and rubbing the back of his head with his hands. Lance had sympathy for him. The Irishman was doing the best he could, and he desperately wanted to win money for his organisation. Next to him, Casey had the nerve to roll her eyes in disgust at his repeated mistakes. What did she even need the money for? It was all just a game to her. Don't worry, lovely. We'll get her. Just hang in there. "Casey, in theatre, which Italian opera term literally means 'first lady?'" Primadonna. "Soprano?" Casey guessed wrong. Tsk. "No, primadonna. Lance, in astronomy, what planet is known as both the morning star and the evening star?" Ugh. I don't know. As the tired, frustrated boy prepared to guess Mars, the tones of defeat saved him from making a bigger fool of himself, and the round came to an end. That was a bloody disaster. "Time is up, and the answer to your question is 'Venus.'" The Hostess glared at her victims, black leather-clad arms tightly folded across her chest. "From a possible five thousand pounds, you banked a grand total of four-hundred and fifty pounds. I'd like to point out how terribly you played, but I'm afraid the three of you managed to take all the fun out of it! Now team, remember that in round eight, the money you and your opponent manage to bank will be tripled before the final round, so I urge you to think very carefully about who you send home. Who's going out with a whimper? Who surpassed expectations in the wrong way? Is it time to write Casey off? Has Nathan forgotten how to win? Will Lance be a very cross dresser?” Lance laughed, as did everyone behind him. It was a cheap shot, but it was well delivered. “It's time to vote off the weakest link." Casey. Casey. Casey. Casey. Casey. Casey. Casey. Lance didn't write her name down just once. He managed to fit it seven times on the oval-shaped board, once for this round and once for every other round she'd unjustly survived. "Okay, pens down. It's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." "Casey," Lance flipped his board over. "Lance," Nathan's voice was tiny. "Lance!" Casey belted out victoriously. Then she laughed. The realisation struck Lance Lovecraft like a sledgehammer, and his jaw dropped. Behind him, the spectators rumbled loudly in surprise, and he could hear Dad loudly booing from the stands. The boy was stunned. Did that really just happen? No. He looked at the two boards with his name on them, just to make sure he hadn't heard it wrong. Lance. Lance. Is this a joke? The Hostess surveyed the votes with her cool, sharp eyes behind her glasses, and she turned to the horrid novelist first. "Casey. What's your reason for voting off the strongest link in that round?" I was the strongest link again. Three times. Heh. Pity that doesn't save me. She seemed only too pleased to rub it in. "Because Lance has had it in for me since the very first round, and this is my revenge." It took every ounce of professionalism and poise to stop Lance from throwing his board at her. He was livid at the injustice and pettiness of it all, but he would never let them see it. He stood still as a statue, eyes front and face blank, watching the Hostess. He wouldn't look at Casey. He would NOT! His composure depended on avoiding that smug grin. If he were the only person in the entire game who played with integrity and valour, then that would be his legacy. Not betrayal. Not underhanded tactics. "Are you sure that's all there is to it? It looks very much to me like you're afraid of him!" Casey shrugged again, to make sure everyone knew how little she took the game seriously. "It's the votes that count. I'll be competing for the prize money and Lance will be taking the walk of shame." Fuck you. The Hostess turned towards the Irishman next. "Nathan! You seem to have forgotten that the aim of the game is to make money." "I had a rotten round," Nathan replied. "Rotten is right! Tell me, what's your excuse for voting for Lance?" Unlike the girl next to him, Nathan had the guts to give an honest reply. "I'm not proud of it, but it's purely tactical. Lance is a very strong player, and I think I have a much better chance of beating Casey in the finals. That's why I voted for Lance. I don't think I'd be able to win against him." Lance, heartbroken by the betrayal he never saw coming, didn't want to validate the lily-livered loser any more than he did the conniving cockroach, but the traitor's next words mended some of the damage he'd done. "I'm really sorry, man." The dancer turned his head towards Nathan, who looked genuinely apologetic and remorseful. It wasn't personal. Lance knew that, even though his feelings were crushed. He expected a vote from Casey. She was no better than that. But Nathan? Lance had never sent a vote the red-haired fellow's way. Not a single one. Nor had Nathan voted for him, even in the two rounds he'd played poorly. The dancer would have taken him to the finals and battle it out with him fair and square. Clearly the Irishman didn't feel the same way. It sucked to know that Casey was probably going to win a large sum of money she didn't need and didn't earn, but it stung worse that the other boy sold him out. For the sake of the cameras recording his every movement, Lance forced a smile and gave Nathan a nod of understanding. "Lance!" The Hostess rotated to face him. "Will you miss me?" He brushed the hot pink from his eyes one last time, tucking it behind his pierced ear. "Indeed. Frankly, I don't want to go on now!" The old, lemon-faced tart managed to elicit a real grin from the furious teenager. "Well, what can I say? You have been voted off by two cowards. You were too much general knowledge and not enough fashion for Nathan and Casey. You were the strongest link three times, but with two votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!" He'd been watching The Weakest Link since he was four years old. He'd seen thousands of contestants lose the vote and take the walk of shame, including six other teenage triumphs this very night, but it still didn't prepare him for his own. The lights went dark and the death toll felt like it rattled his bones. They all clapped for him, though. Mum and Dad, and nearly everyone else hidden in the darkness behind him. He turned to blow one final kiss their way, and forced his most dazzling smile as he strutted briskly down the studio floor, his shoes clopping loudly with every step. It was humiliating. It was unfair. It was heartbreaking. But he didn't let them see. He made sure to hold his head high as he passed by the Hostess and the cameras watching him, and he pushed open the heavy door with both hands. Don't let them see they got to you. It's just a game, right? He pushed the heavy door open and let it close behind him, and once he was out of that tense, scary place and away from the backstabber and the luckiest girl in the world, Ronda was there to meet him. Rather than bury his face in his hands the way he wanted to, he made himself smile once again. But I wanted to win so badly. "Hey. You alright?" She asked him in a low voice, obnoxiously chewing something in the corner of her mouth. What was I supposed to do? I made mistakes and they voted for me. I got my questions right and they voted for me! Lance's eyes fell and he exhaled deeply. "I-I-yes. But... I might need a minute." Did I even stand a chance? "Yeah, that's completely fine," the woman seemed much less scary when it was just the two of them. Even sympathetic. "Come with me. We need to do a quick interview then I'll take you back to the green room with the others." Lance had almost forgotten that he still had one final part to play in the game. Following their elimination, the contestant would vent their frustrations to the camera and give their insight and possible predictions. He wondered what the others had said about him. Did Jamie complain that the talentless Lance had managed to beat him and steal his place as the fan favourite? Did Bugeyes tell everyone how ridiculous he looked? Did Grace correctly predict that he was doomed without her there to babysit him? He wouldn't know until he watched the episode play out on the television in a few weeks. When red light blinked on the camera facing him in the small room down the hall, he didn't hold back. "I'm absolutely gutted right now. It never occurred to me that those two had a brain big enough between them to see me as a threat, but clearly I underestimated them. I really thought Grace and I would end up as the final two. We were the strongest players and we could have won more money for our charities than I believe Nathan and Casey can. When I lost Grace from my side, I was shook all the way down to my toes! I should have known they would come for me after her. The writing was on the wall, but... I didn't see it. Still, I'm very proud of how well I did. As a high-school dropout I figured I'd be voted out much earlier, and I almost made it all the way to the end! Don't ever sell yourself short, because you never quite know what you're capable of, I suppose. Of the two, I hope Nathan wins the money tonight. I can see how much winning for his charity tonight means to him, and I think he's the better player. Casey should have been voted off right from the beginning - she had a terrible start and managed to scrape through the whole game like a cat with nine lives. If she wins tonight, at least she can afford extensions that don't look as though something ghastly's gone and nested on her head."
  4. Round Six Lance could definitely have used an extended intermission, yet between every round, he barely had enough time to regain his focus. Crew members spent a mere couple of minutes resetting cameras and taking away voting boards. He looked back at the faces almost hidden in the darkness and excitedly waved, getting attention from not just his own parents, but surrounding people as well. They grinned and waved back, people he'd never met in his life, and it made him feel fuzzy inside before he turned back to the front of the set. It was a little sobering, seeing so many vacant podiums where Paul, Alyssa, Cian, Eliza and Jamie once stood, all eager to win a big prize tonight. What if I won tonight? The thought had popped up once or twice in the beginning, but now, with five other contestants sent down the walk of shame, it was becoming a possibility. It wasn't just a string of potatoes that had been voted off - strong competitors had taken the walk of shame. Paul and Alyssa hadn't been impressive and their early elimination wasn't a surprise, but Cian, Jamie and especially Eliza had all seemed viable winners. He turned to look to the left. Nathan was certainly no fool, but he'd made some bad answers. Queen, not bishop. Runway, not catwalk. Casey, who had not once engaged with the audience between rounds, wasn't endgame material. She should never have been allowed to survive the early votes. Then Lance looked to his right. If it comes down to the two of us, could I ever beat her? Grace was yet to make a single mistake. She was untouchable... except, perhaps that didn't matter. In the final round, the two remaining contestants answered five questions head to head, and whoever provided more correct answers went home with the bank - all of it. No prize for second place. Lance bit the inside of his lip as he remembered the shady way Jamie and Casey had been strategically voting - until the novelist decided the actor was more trouble than he was worth and cut him loose. I could vote for Grace. It wasn't uncommon for tactics to outweigh the demand for the highest pot at this stage of the game. After all, wasn't it worth losing a few thousand quid in the long run if it meant he could increase his chances of winning it? If Lance were to luck his way into the finals, this was the perfect opportunity to decide who he would best like to go up against. Those who tended to underperform in the game - he side-eyed Casey - would be easier to beat. But she doesn't deserve to make it any further. He glanced again to Grace, chewing the inside of his lip as he thought about the possibilities. Would he be able to sleep tonight if he voted off the stiffest competition? He grimaced and shook his head slightly as if to rid himself of the thought. That wasn't who he was. I'm a proud sissy. I am not a coward. After a verbal note to the contestants that filming would resume, the Hostess stepped back up to her stage and gripped her screen. Once the light turned on, she spoke, as she had the previous five times. "Round six! With five alleged weakest links voted off, there are now only four of you left. Grace, Britain's youngest know-it-all, Lance, who is far too fashionable for general knowledge, Nathan, who thinks he never forgets and last but definitely not least, Casey, our VIP tonight who boasts a wealth of knowledge, or so she says." Lance beamed, happy that he hadn't been left out of her pre-round sniping this time. "We're taking another ten seconds off your time, so you will only have two minutes and ten seconds to reach your five thousand pound target. We'll start with the strongest player from the last round - that's you, Grace." Ooh. It's about time she got credit for all her hard work... and the spotlight. "Let's play The Weakest Link. Start the clock. Grace, in pop music, the name of American singer and songwriter Madonna's second studio album released in November of 1984 is 'Like a what?'" Virgin! Duh. It's what made her Madonna. But as obvious as that answer was to Lance, Grace didn't offer up that smile of omniscient knowledge. She faltered. He frowned. She knew about the island in Dr Shivamalago - or whatever it was - but she didn't know Madonna?? Grace shook her head after a few seconds and gave her best answer. "Bimbo?" Oh, honey! Blasphemy! The studio roared with laughter. Lance giggled but didn't let himself get carried away - he had to answer next. It was lovely to see, at long last, the person lurking behind the machine that had spat out correct answers. She was witty and funny. He supposed that if she were going to finally make an error and lose her invincibility, she might as well do it with style. Still, 'bimbo' was obviously wrong. Was 'virgin' that difficult to guess? "Virgin!" The Hostess couldn't keep the grin off her face, and she took an extra second to compose herself. "Lance, in shapes, how many sides does a septagon have?" Uhh... Lance sighed in frustration. It was another of those questions that he'd probably know the answer to if he paid attention in school before he left to pursue modelling and dancing full-time. The others probably thought he was so stupid. Maybe his defining breakout would be 'Like a Bimbo.' Septagon, like a stop sign? Maybe? "Eight?" "No, seven." Bollocks. The dancer didn't dare to look at his opponents. Would he see irritation? Disgust? There were only four of them now, and he couldn't afford to make mistakes! "Nathan, in the animal kingdom, what is the name for a collective of crows?" "A... murder," Nathan ran his hand through his fiery orange hair. He wore his nerves on his sleeve. "Correct. Casey, in astronomy, what 'T' is the name of Saturn's largest moon?" Casey briefly let the semblance of a frown cross her pale face. "Titan?" At least she bothered to think about it this time. "Correct. Grace, in history, which country fought the Americans in the American war of independence?" "England," the girl returned to form with that cute smile of hers. "Correct. Lance," Bank. "In psychology--" You idiot! You didn't say it out loud! "--arachnophobia is the term--" Don't fuck this up! "--used to describe a fear of what?" Arachnophobia? "Oh!" Lance, a severe arachnophobe, almost shuddered. "Spiders!" "Correct. Nathan, which word can mean a racquet sport or a variety of pumpkin?" Lance screwed up his nose. What? Tennis? Tennis pumpkins? Is that a thing? "Squash!" Nathan answered, pointing emphatically at the Hostess as he did so. Oh! The dancer was glad he didn't have the opportunity to give his foolish answer to that question. "Correct. Casey, in food, gouda is a popular cheese originating from which country?" "The Netherlands," Casey didn't bat a charcoal eyelid. "Correct. Grace, in the English Monarchy, who is next in line for the throne after the current Queen?" Grace cocked her head slightly, lips moving as she worked out the answer. "Prince Charles?" She didn't sound sure. "Correct. Lance--" "Bank!" The dancer blurted out, determined to actually verbalise it this time. By his count, Grace's question had been worth three thousand pounds, and his would have been four thousand. After getting railroaded by a simple shapes question, he didn't fancy gambling with stakes so high. "In human anatomy, where would you find the tibia bone?" "Leg!" "Correct. Nathan, in literature, the characters Queequeg, Ishmael and Captain Ahab feature in which classic novel?" Nathan blew out his cheeks like a pufferfish and let his head hand backwards. "I don't know." "Moby-Dick. Casey, in astronomy, what is the closest star in proximity to the Earth?" "Alpha Centauri," the girl gave an answer that made Lance's rose-gold tinted eyes squint in confusion. "The sun!" The Hostess corrected her harshly, and the girl audibly snorted. "Grace, in the French language, what is the translation of the phrase 'bonne nuit?'" Good night. "Goodbye," Grace replied confidently, with that smile again. Wait, what? "No, good night," the Hostess stressed, and Lance could see the fear spreading on the girl's face. She'd made two mistakes, both in the same crucial round. Gracie, you in danger, girl. "Lance, in the animal kingdom, wombats are native to which continent?" "Australia," he bit his lip as he answered. I think it's Australia. "Correct. Nathan--" "Bank." "In the game of Tiddlywinks, what is the official name of the discs that are flipped into the pot?" The colour had gone entirely from behind the plump boy's mass of freckles. "Coins?" "Winks! Casey, which British actor most recently played the role of James Bond in the movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace?" "Daniel Craig." "Correct. Grace--" "Bank!" "Which 'E' is the neurological disea--" The Hostess abruptly stopped as the noise of defeat thundered through the studio, and the lights flickered. "Time is up, and I can't complete the question. In that round, you banked a grand total of three thousand, one hundred pounds. An improvement from previous rounds, but still well short of your possible total. So, who doesn't have what it takes to make the big bucks? Who are you tired of carrying? Who is holding you back? It's time to vote off the weakest link." It was the hardest decision Lance had made all game long. In round one, he'd had to pick between Casey and Paul, both of whom answered none of their questions correctly. In round two, he had to vote to save his skin after making some mistakes, so he chose the weakest player - Alyssa. In round four, he had to choose between his friend, Eliza, and bitter rival, Jamie. It was Eliza who went home then, given the walk of shame by Casey, who had protected Jamie the way he'd protected her - only to send him home in the next round. The scene queen would never have gotten so far had the two of them not conspired together. She had pockets of knowledge, sure, but she was reckless and had no respect for the money she lost. But he wasn't about to forget Nathan, the Irishman with a big heart and an inconsistent pattern for answering questions. There was no denying that he'd done a lot for the team's progress in his own right, answering high-value questions for Casey to casually lose money on. He'd been a contributor all night long, but like so many others, he was beginning to struggle against the high pressure and challenge of the game. Lance liked him well enough, though. He seemed strong enough to make money in rounds seven and eight, but not as potent as Grace. I think I can beat him. Speaking of Grace... what about her? Even if she gave two wrong answers this round, she was still easily the most potent threat among the other contestants. Reliable, intelligent and she had a game plan. She was dangerous. Yet, Lance knew that it was her powerhouse performance that had given him a leg up throughout the night. He'd even been the strongest link in round three, banking the money that Grace had consistently provided. Had he been elsewhere and not looked good riding Grace's coattails, the others might have dogpiled him and sent him home much earlier. They'd already tried it once, way back in round two. He looked at her, as she repeatedly tapped the side of her marker against the raised part of her podium. I can't do it. Since the moment they'd met, she'd been sweet to him - shy, but sociable. He even taught her how to do her first box step! Besides, he wasn't arrogant enough to ignore the fact that she'd carried him through the game. It was his turn to do right by her. It was unlikely he'd ever manage to beat her, but he gave credit where it was due, and she deserved to make it to the end. It should be us in the finals together. Nathan was a potential finalist, Lance supposed, but the dancer's generosity only reached so far. He had to go too, which was regrettable. He liked the Irishman well enough and had a deep respect for what he'd managed to do for the autistic community before he'd even left school. It would be nice to keep him as well, but unfortunately, that wasn't the game the four of them had signed up for. Someone had to go home. And if he were choosing between Nathan and Casey... well, that was hardly a choice. How much bigger would the overall bank be had Casey not been there to screw it up? Thousands. For the third time that night, he wrote her name down on his voting board with a thick black marker, and he went to the trouble of underlining his decision with bold, angry rows. Jamie isn't here to save your neck this time. "Alright, pens down. It's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." Grace's vote surprised Lance. "Nathan." He turned his board over when the camera shifted to him and the red light blinked. "Casey." "Grace," Nathan's voice was small, with a 'sorry' written under the girl's name. "Gra-ace," Casey sang obnoxiously, boiling Lance's blood. What?? Lance wasn't the only person offended or shocked by the way the votes went. A loud buzzing rumbled through the people sitting behind him, and the Hostess even raised her thin, orange eyebrows when the cameras weren't looking. He looked over to Grace in despair. He'd thought Casey was the obvious choice, but now he remembered what Grace said when she explained her vote for Jamie in the last round - that Jamie was weak now, whereas Casey had improved from the beginning. He should have thought about that. The younger girl voted for who she believed was costing them the most money, not trying to send home those whose mistakes lay in the past. He cursed himself. He let his dislike for Casey get the better of his judgment. "Casey. You've never heard of the sun?" "I know the sun," the pink and blue-haired girl replied defensively. "I figured if you meant the sun, you would have called it the sun. I gave you the right answer. It's not my fault the question was misleading." Lance didn't let his eyes roll where the cameras would see them, but he was very sick of Casey bloody Adams. He was now thinking perhaps he despised her more than stupid showoff Jamie. They were equally obnoxious, arrogant and disingenuous in different ways. Jamie's brand of wanker was loud, impulsive and domineering, whereas Casey's was cold, calculated and insidious. But Jamie received his comeuppance and took the walk of shame. She will too. "What's Grace done to offend you?" The Hostess rested a hand on her hip. "She's starting to slip up. She got some easy questions wrong," the girl gave her answer as bluntly as ever. "How convenient for you that those are the first questions she's got wrong all night," the Hostess reminded her coolly. "Did you think she was the weakest player?" "In that round, yes." "You'd be wrong!" What a surprise. Casey's wrong again. The woman turned to Nathan, who seemed to shrink before her. "Nathan! Do you know who the weakest player was?" "Um, I do," the boy replied meekly, his hair growing increasingly unkempt and messy the longer the game went on. "It was me. I know that. But I can't vote for myself, so I voted for the next weakest." "You never played Tiddlywinks?" Nathan ran his hand through his red curls again. "I have, which, erm, makes this so much worse. Heh." "I see. And you never read Moby-Dick?" "Nope." "Dear me. I would have thought that with all the money Mum saves with your haircuts, she might have bought you a book or two." When Nathan only laughed and offered nothing back to her, she moved on. "So why Grace?" "It's like Casey said. After me, she was the weakest player," he explained, looking guilty. "I had to vote for somebody. I'm sorry." "Grace! Not a French speaker?" "I'm afraid not. I learned Spanish." "That's a shame. Did you ever learn about Madonna?" The dark-skinned girl chuckled. "I did, but I don't know her music. She's a little... risque for my family." "Do you think she'll ever forgive Britain's Brightest Star for calling her a bimbo?" Grace laughed again, lowering her face in shame. "Madonna, if you ever happen to see this, I'm so, so sorry." Bless. "Well, you might well be Britain's youngest know-it-all, but Nathan who never forgets and important Casey who insists she knows a lot of things think they can do better! With two votes, you are the weakest link. Au revoir!" For the first time, Lance didn't feel a sense of victory as he watched Grace Ojomo, obviously disappointed, place her board down, step off the small platform that made her look taller and begin the walk of shame, audience applauding her performance. Lance felt the effect of her absence immediately. She'd been his companion all game long, and without her comforting presence next to him, everything was worse. He was painfully aware of how many lights had gone out from now-empty podiums, how loud the music was, how big the set was. She'd been the reason he'd done so well, the one person he trusted to have his back, but now, thanks to his clumsy, thoughtless vote, he was going to have to do it all himself. Grace had done so well for so long, and the very moment she slipped up, the vultures began to circle. Could the same happen to him next round? I'm so scared.
  5. Round Five "Round five! Of a possible twenty thousand pounds, our teenage triumphs have managed to bank only ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty pounds." That's more than half! If they continued at that pace, averaging half of the total, that would mean Lance could potentially walk out of the studio with twenty-five thousand pounds. The possibilities flashed through his mind. It would certainly be the kick-starter he needed to take his career to the next level. He wouldn't have to count pennies to make it from project to photoshoot to recital to competition to appearance. Mum and Dad could also use a holiday, or some dosh to get the car back into proper order. Make-up, clothes and a little freedom to sightsee and be the one to pay when he and Bobby went on dates to cute restaurants and to see RomComs at the pictures. Then Stonewall would get the same amount, a significant boost to its finances to be there for the queer and trans boys and girls who needed their help. "There are now only five of you left, and we're taking another ten seconds from the clock. On a positive note, you still have the highly esteemed Casey with her apparent wealth of knowledge, Grace the baby know-it-all, Nathan who never, ever forgets and Jamie, whose two rounds as the strongest link absolve him of any wrongdoing.” Lance felt a little left out. The Hostess had a running joke with every other contestant at the start of the round, but not him. Was there a reason for that? Or was this game finally playing tricks with his mind and making him see things that weren’t there? The conspiracy of Grace Ojomo, not making an impression on the Hostess, an alliance between King and Queen Bellend? Mmm. I’m getting tired. He smiled to himself, though. But I’m still here. “We'll start with the strongest link from the last round, and that's Casey. Let's play the Weakest Link. Start the clock. Casey, in language, orthography is the study of what?" "Spelling." "Correct. Grace, in music, what 'P' is the name for the section of an orchestra whose instruments may include the tam-tam, the triangle and the marimba?" Good thing Alyssa isn't around to get this one wrong too. "Percussion," Grace smiled as she delivered yet another correct answer. "Correct. Lance, in geography," the Hostess began, and that horrible, despicable, bloody, buggery, bollocky word struck dread in the dancer's heart. "Which 'S' is the European territory once ruled by Slobodan Milošević?" "Oh! Heehee, Serbia!" Lance giggled before he answered with certainty. Boban 'Bobby' Petrović, Lance's long-term sweetheart, was from a Serbian City called Niš and had emigrated to Leeds, England with his wealthy family when he was very young. His family ran a successful chain of Serbian restaurants through several English cities! That was a lucky question indeed. "Correct. Jamie, in human biology, what word is both a job title in the medical profession and a term meaning to feed a baby with milk?" The question visibly perplexed the fifteen-year-old, who stumbled. "Bank. Um-- Pass!" "Nurse! Nathan, in sport, in September 2006, which former England rugby coach was appointed director of elite performance at the British Olympic Association?" Lance understood most of those words individually, but together they made absolutely no sense. Who could possibly know something like that? "Clive Woodward," Nathan answered quickly. He, like Cian, must have been a sports fan. "Correct. Casey, according to the lyrics of the classic Christmas song, what were Frosty the Snowman's eyes made of?" "Buttons." "No, coal," the Hostess corrected her, but Casey only shrugged lackadaisically, as if she weren't taking this seriously. And why should she? She already earned a small fortune with her action-thriller books. This was just a game to her, and she didn't care if she lost a hundred pounds here or fifteen hundred pounds there. "Grace, in which decade was the Cuban missile crisis?" For the first time, Grace didn't flutter that cute smile of hers that told the world she knew the answer to the question. She furrowed her brow and looked down, eyes creeping left and right as she racked her brain. A few seconds later, she looked up with resignation. She doesn't know! "1960s?" "Correct." Lance's jaw dropped in amazement. There was absolutely no stopping this girl! What a guess! "Lance, at the Vatican, when a new Pope is elected it is announced by a plume of what coloured smoke?" Oh! I know that! He throws the burning hat in the fireplace, and-- "White!" "Correct." He would be sure to kiss Nicky's cheek when he got home. How many times had the two of them watched their DVD of Eurotrip together? They could almost quote the bloody thing from start to end. I'm not stupid. I know things. Maybe not the same way the others do, but I know things. "Jamie--" "Bank." "In language, what 'I' is the literal opposite of 'extrovert?'" "Introvert," the actor replied in a smaller voice than usual. "Correct. Nathan, in geometry, what type of angle measures greater than ninety degrees and less than one hundred and eighty degrees?" "Obtuse." "Correct. Casey, in British history, what was the name of King Henry VIII's second wife and who was mother to Queen Elizabeth I?" Lance couldn't have answered that in a million years, but Casey surprised him. "Anne Boleyn." "Correct. Grace, in which children's book did a spider called Charlotte and a pig called Wilbur appear?" "Charlotte's Web." "Correct. Lance, what 'D' is used to describe a volcano that has not erupted in a long time but may erupt in the future?" Lance tapped his nail against his podium. Active. Extinct. Dormant? Dormant sounded right, but this question was for a lot of money. Fifteen hundred pounds, if he'd counted correctly. He didn't want to give Jamie and Casey an excuse to write his name down again. "Dormant?" He asked, wary of the time passing. "Correct. Jamie--" "Bank." "In horse racing, a furlong is what fraction of a mile?" Jamie seemed to have a minor tantrum, throwing his hands up in the air and giving his answer in a huff. "A quarter?" "No, an eighth. Nathan, what 'C' describes a platform walked on by fashion models?" Lance would have loved this question. Jamie, also a model, tutted in annoyance. "Runway?" That answer was so appalling that the pair of models, briefly forgetting their bad blood, looked at each other in shared dismay and audibly whimpered, drawing laughs from the crowd behind them. What part of 'C' do these people just not understand? Iguana? Runway?? "Catwalk!" The Hostess corrected him, and poor Nathan near collapsed, flopping with shame onto his podium. "Casey, the five Olympic rings are blue, yellow, black, red and which other colour?" "Green." "Correct. Grace, of the twelve astronauts that have walked on the moon, how many were women?" "None." "Correct. Lance--" "Bank!" Immediately, the lights flickered and moved, and the fanfare of defeat thundered through the studio. "Your bank was in time," the Hostess looked up at him, then her cold eyes pointed to the rest of the team one by one. "Once again team, you've managed to bank less than your previous total, with an unimpressive sixteen hundred pounds. In fact, you've managed to set a new low! So, whose night has peaked prematurely? Whose knowledge is only skin deep? I urge you to ditch the dimwit! It's time to vote off the weakest link." As Lance waited patiently for Freddy to deliver a voting board and a marker, he watched Jamie and Casey like a hawk. A pair of underperformers who had covered for each other in previous rounds. Jamie saved Casey, sending Paul home, and then Casey returned the favour, sending Eliza home. If they planned to make it to the end together, who would they vote for this time? He looked to the Irishman, whose silly error had clearly gotten under the Scottish actor's skin, then Grace, who was successfully flying under the radar. The girl's strategy and gameplan seemed as much a mystery as the rest of her. The two of them been very much on the same page so far, and he enjoyed having her beside him. She'd probably vote him off if he became a liability, but Lance knew he'd had a good round, so he was safe. The fellow to his other side, however... "Okay, pens down, it's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." "Jamie," Grace voted for the actor, which only reinforced Lance's belief that they were simpatico... for now. "Jam--" Lance's fingers fumbled the board as he went to flip it over. He missed his grab, and it bounced off the podium, falling to the floor with a clatter. "Sod it." Everyone laughed at him. As he bent to pick it up, the Hostess predictably picked on him. "Goodness me. Not very graceful for a dancer, are you?" "I'm so sorry," Lance stood back up onto his platform and spun the board around, upside-down and back-to-front until he had it the right way up. "I think we'll do that one again. We're doing it again?" She turned and asked Freddy, who gave a curt nod. It was a nightmare not to know who the other three had voted for, and to wait to re-shoot the reveal. Jamie's lips had pursed into fat, pink worms on his face with two votes against him. Grace waited for the red light to blink, then she flipped over her board again. Lance clamped his fingers on his thin board tightly so he wouldn't make another mistake, then flipped it over to reveal Jamie's name. It was then Jamie's turn. "Nathan," Jamie shot daggers at his neighbour. "Casey," from Nathan. "Ja-mie," Casey finished off in a bratty sing-song voice. Wow! Bye Felicia! Murmurs of surprise echoed from behind them. Jamie's eyes popped open in alarm and shock, but Casey didn't so much as look at him, keeping her raccoon-like eyes on the Hostess in front of her. What happened there? She knifed him in the back! "Lance. What else can you do? Besides twerk?" The Hostess turned back to him. Lance let his head hang as he giggled. "Ballet, ballroom and tap are my specialities." "Do you sing?" He bit the inside of his lip. "No. That's something I've never been good at." "Not even for me?" The Hostess unfolded her arms. "I already twerked for you!" "You know you're my absolute favourite, don't you, and it would mean the world to me?" Lance grimaced. He wasn't sure if he could take making a fool of himself a second time. "Can I waltz with you instead?" "If you did, would you be the man or the woman?" Everyone laughed then, Lance perhaps giggling louder than most. "I would lead. Even in these shoes." "So you like to lead, do you?" Lance had long since abandoned his fears of being honest about his life in front of the others. If they were going to pick on him for being visibly queer, they would have done it by now. "When I dance with Jane - she's my usual partner and my absolute best friend in the world - I always lead. When I dance with my boyfriend though, he leads." The Hostess had half a grin on the left side of her face. "Alright. Put your board down. You too, Grace." The girl next to Lance did a double-take. "What? Me?" "Yes, you. You might have fun for a change," The Hostess insisted, mischief on her aged face. "Come on. I want to see the two of you waltz." "I-- I don't know how," Grace cowered, doubt on her pretty face. Lance stepped beyond his podium and extended a hand to Grace. "That's alright! I'll show you how. Nothing scary or difficult, I promise!" "Ohh, noo!" She protested, but anyone could see that her objection was half-hearted. She blushed, lowering the board with Jamie's name scrawled on it with the artlessness of a chicken that had stepped in some ink. "I'll look so silly!" "I won't let that happen," Lance reassured her, beckoning with his fingers. "You trust me to bank money, so I know you can trust me to teach you." Grace looked at him with round, black eyes, full of intrigue and apprehension. "Do it!" Nathan shouted from his spot, and the audience behind them buzzed with encouragement. Jamie and Casey, though, had little to no interest in what was happening. Grace gingerly placed her slat down and timidly approached, taking Lance's hand. She was slight in build, several inches shorter than the platinum-haired boy, whose shoes added four inches to his height. It wasn't his first time teaching someone the basics. How much of this quick tutorial would make it into the final cut of the episode was anyone's guess. Does it make me narcissistic to hope I get all the screen time? "We'll just do a box step, okay? It's very straightforward - it's like, the most basic foundation for pretty much everything more advanced in waltzing. There's nothing to it!" In his element, Lance almost forgot that he was in a studio full of people, with cameras, other contestants and the ever-scowling Hostess. "Three steps, okay? One, two, three. If you're waltzing and you're following rather than leading, you'll go like this." He stood a few paces in front of her, facing the majority of the cameras. "Right foot back, left foot side, right foot closes to meet the left. Left foot forward, right foot side, left foot closes to meet the right. Now, you try!" He gave her his most encouraging smile, repeating himself and leading by example as she studied him and copied his movements. "Right foot back, left foot side, right foot close. Good! Left foot forward, right food side, left foot close." "It's pretty easy. Anyone can do it," Jamie had gone a very long time without giving his opinion on something and must have felt cold without the constant spotlight keeping him warm. Lance ignored him. "Just like that!" The platinum-haired dancer brushed aside the one lock of hot pink as he encouraged the girl, her buckled shoes moving across the illuminated studio floor. "Step, side, close. Step, side, close. Oh, girl! You're a natural - wasted on school! We could turn you into a proper showgirl by the end of the night!" Scared she may well have been, but fourteen-year-old Grace Ojomo, the smartest girl in England, never stopped smiling as the much taller boy instructed her. The impromptu waltzing lesson definitely forced her to let up on her facade. She let her instructor place her hand on his shoulder and did not retreat at all when he set his fingers firmly between her shoulder blades. He then took her other hand and smiled down at her. "Ready?" "No!" She complained, grinning. "Yes." "Step," Lance lead the small-framed girl by stepping towards her. Though their timing was awkward, Grace remembered which foot moved first, and nobody stood on any toes. "Side. Close. Step. Side. Close." "Come on, Gracie!" A male shouted from the audience - Lance assumed a family member - and slowly, support mounted from the loved ones sitting in the dark area of the studio. Grace didn't waltz with confidence, but all she needed to do was remember the steps and let her partner lead her around the Hostess, who was watching with interest and awe as the teenagers circled her. They passed in front of Casey, who wasn't looking bored for a change, Nathan, still holding his board with the novelist’s name on it, and Jamie, whose indignant scowl could have curdled milk. When at last they finished in front of their empty podiums, the applause reached a crescendo, and Lance gave a little bow to the cameras, shooting the Hostess his most dazzling smile. "A reasonable exhibition, I suppose," the older woman folded her arms again and pushed her spectacles up her nose - a gesture that Jamie comically mimicked. "Pick your boards up. Why did you vote for Jamie?" Teaching Grace to waltz in minimal time had been so disruptive that Lance almost forgot he was sending off the boy who had, at one point, seemed so perfect and infallible. Someone whose very presence made him feel insignificant and inferior, and had overshadowed him at every opportunity. No wonder the actor had an expression like a cat's bum. "Jamie doesn't look like he's enjoying himself, so I thought I'd send him home," Lance explained, and the woman finally left him alone. "Grace. Did you have fun?" The Hostess asked her. "I-- I did! It was terrifying, but Lance is a great teacher," Grace's poised, modest facade had been successfully rocked by the Hostess' demands of her. Lance took a moment to appreciate the older woman's ploy, forcing Grace into the spotlight rather than letting her sneak by unnoticed. "Casey and Nathan also made mistakes. Why Jamie?" The girl looked at the two at the other end of the curve and back to the Hostess. "Casey has managed to pull herself together since her rocky start, and she was actually the strongest link in the last round. Nathan's been fairly consistent all game long. Jamie, though, has had two disastrous rounds in a row. He's become a burden, and we can do better without him." Yaaas, Grace! GET HIM GRACE!! The woman took her lengthy, savage answer and moved on. "Casey. Have you ever had a real job?" "Writing is a real job," the girl replied coldly. "I suppose you're lucky then! Do you think you'd ever get another job looking like that?" "I won't ever need to," Casey gave an easy shrug, biting at the ring through the left side of her bottom lip. Lance was hardly fond of Casey, but in this case, he was actually on her side. He was a fan of the Hostess, whose job was to make fun of the people in front of her, but who was she to tell anyone that writing wasn't a real job? How many times had people - even his own family and friends - told Lance that modelling and dancing weren't real jobs? That if he were going to leave school, he needed to find a trade or some minimum wage gig in a dank kitchen somewhere? Why weren't careers in entertainment and arts considered valid in that conversation? It felt especially rich coming from the Hostess, whose job had been to host a television game show for twelve years. "So you think you'll be a successful writer forever, then?" "Why not? I've sold more copies by sixteen than most authors sell in a lifetime," Casey flaunted her success, not that Lance blamed her when the Hostess had taken jabs at it all night long. "I'm good at it, and I love it. Why would I stop?" "You stopped voting the same way as Jamie, at least. In fact, you've voted him off! Care to tell us why, especially as it was you who saved him from elimination in the last round?" Yes, girl. Tell us more. Casey remained still and cold as a gargoyle. "He's the weakest player. He's gotta go. Not much more to it than that." Jamie audibly scoffed at her, but she, like Lance, pretended he wasn't there. "Jamie! You may be an expert at many things, but it's clear that general knowledge is not one of them. With three votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye." Beating Paul, Alyssa, Cian and Eliza felt fantastic, no doubt, but victory over Jamie tasted sweeter than all the others combined. As he watched Jamie moodily drop his voting board with a clatter and storm off towards the studio doors, he remembered what the actor had said about him in the green room, and laughed to himself. “They need someone to go home first!"
  6. Round Four Lance gently brushed the one lock of hair that he'd dyed bright pink away from his face. With his clasp mirror safe in Mum's bag, all he could do was hope that his hair was behaving itself. The Hostess cleared her throat, then a few seconds later, she spoke. "Round four! You've eliminated three so-called weakest links, so we are left with just six players, and we're taking another ten seconds off the clock, so you have only two and a half minutes. But, before you despair, remember you still have the exceedingly important Casey, who boasts an alleged wealth of knowledge, Britain's brightest and youngest know-it-all Grace and of course, Nathan, who never forgets. We'll start with the strongest link from the last round, and that's Lance." Lance's bottom jaw nearly hit his podium, and he hid his mouth behind his hands in disbelief and giddy excitement. "Me? I was the strongest link?? Seriously??" Get knotted, every teacher who ever called me stupid! I can do anything! "Believe me when I say I'm just as surprised as you are!" The Hostess clapped back at the giggling dancer. "Alright. Start the clock. Lance, in maths, what is two-quarters of sixteen?" He'd been so busy being pleased with himself that he wasn't ready for her to shoot the question at him so quickly. "It's... nine--nono, it's um, six!" He screwed his eyes shut. He knew she had to accept his first answer, even if the second answer he gave was the right one. "It's eight!" The Hostess half-chuckled with amusement as she corrected his terribly stupid blunder. Oh, for fuck's sake! Lance could only laugh at himself as he covered his face with both hands and leaned down to smack the podium with his arms. The spectators roared with mirth at his expense, almost as loud as when he twerked for them. It was just his luck to make such an utter fool of himself right after earning some real credibility in the competition. "Jamie, the singer Sinead O'Conner hails from which UK country?" Jamie squinted slightly behind his trendy spectacles. "England." "Ireland!" The Hostess stressed the word in her correction, making Jamie scowl at her. "Nathan, which sport uses bats or paddles to hit a ball across a net on a table?" "Table tennis." "Correct. Casey, in computing, what 'B' is an error in programming that is also a common term for an insect?" "Bug," she answered immediately. "Correct. Eliza, in the human body, what 'A' is a thick-walled blood vessel that carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart?" "Aorta," Eliza was confident in her answer, which confused Lance. I thought it was an artery. "No, artery." Oh, I was right. "Grace, in the English language, what 'U' describes a final demand that, if rejected, would result in a breakdown of relations?" "Ultimatum," she smiled. "Correct! Lance, in pop music, how many members were there in the original lineup of the Spice Girls?" Yaaas! "Five!" He beamed. "Correct!" The Hostess made a show of sounding surprised. "Jamie, ascorbic acid is better known as which vitamin?" Jamie pushed his glasses back up his petite nose and frowned. "Vitamin A?" "No, Vitamin C." Lance noticed that while Jamie and Eliza started off so strong in the first couple of rounds, they were beginning to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes on questions I would have gotten right. "Nathan, which Duchess founded the British organisation for children in crisis?" "Um... Duchess of... York?" Nathan answered uncertainly. He had no idea. Lance didn't either. "Correct!" The Irishman almost collapsed in his relief, breaking the tension in the room with some much-needed comedy. "Casey, in nature, a giant panda's main source of food is derived from which type of woody tropical grass?" "Bamboo." "Correct. Eliza, in baking, what flavour is Devil's Food Cake?" Eliza's mouth curled. "Chocolate." "Correct! Grace, in which country is the 1965 movie Dr Zhivago set?" Lance was positive that this question would be Grace's undoing. He found it very hard to believe that, genius or not, she could possibly be familiar with... he'd already forgotten the name of the movie. But, to his awe, she gave that answer-knowing smile he'd come to expect from her. "Russia." "Correct. Lance, with which sport would you associate Englishman Sir Stanley Matthews?" Bollocks. He tapped his reinforced nails loudly on the podium. There was no bloody way he could possibly know this, so rather than pass, he threw out his best guess. "Football?" "Correct." Oh, wow. Relief hit the sixteen-year-old so hard he could have fainted. If he got that question wrong, his brother would never forgive him, and it was likely that the other contestants would take out their frustration by writing his name on their board at the end of the round. "Jamie--" "Bank!" The teenager almost spat the word out. "The official residence of the President of the United States is known by what name?" "The White House," he delivered his answer coldly. Now that he'd been knocked off his pedestal, he certainly wasn't enjoying himself nearly as much. "Correct. Nathan, in children's literature, which fairy tale character leaves one of her glass slippers at a ball?" "Cinderella." "Correct. Casey, in politics, what 'S' is the name given to a government payment or concession granted to a state-owned or private company?" Is it me, or are these questions getting harder? "Sub... si... dy," Casey sounded out each syllable as though she wasn't sure if the word even existed. "Corr... ect! Eliza--" "Bank!" "Are there any snakes native to New Zealand?" The notes of defeat sounded out the end of the round as Eliza threw out an answer as fast as she could. "No!" "'No' was the correct answer, but you were out of time." That really sucks. Poor Eliza. The Hostess looked unimpressed, which seemed very par for the course. "Two thousand pounds? Is that all we can expect from the best and brightest of the United Kingdom? Well, that money will be added to your running total, but you will need to decide who is to blame for that pathetic effort. Who crumbles under pressure? Which teenage triumph is the teenage twit? It's time to vote off the weakest link." So, what happened in that round? Lance gently fanned himself as Freddy passed out the slats and markers. By this stage, he was beginning to conflate all the rounds into one long game, and it was hard to remember who messed up and who banked money this go around. The only thing he could count on was that Grace always answered correctly, so he couldn't even consider her for elimination. She was far too valuable a player. But Jamie wasn't doing well, and Eliza was beginning to struggle as well. His twerking butt wasn't safe, either. His teammates could very well have taken umbrage with his foolish maths mishap and have plans to oust him. The trend, he'd noticed, was to send votes at the players who underperformed in that round. Even though Casey's track record was horrible, she actually did well this time. It had to be either Eliza or Jamie. Like that's a hard choice. Lance hadn't quite finished decorating the area around Jamie's name with dozens of x's and o's before the Hostess stepped back up on stage. "Voting phase is over, time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." Grace's vote brought Lance much satisfaction. "Jamie." "Jamie," Lance agreed. "Eliza," Jamie glared at the actress. "Eliza," Nathan flipped his board. Uh oh. "Eliza," Casey confirmed Lance's fears with that annoying chant she'd begun doing when casting a vote. "Jamie," if Eliza was upset with the votes, she disguised it well. Lance supposed it was okay, though. Grace got all her questions right, so she was probably the strongest link. She could break the tie and send Jamie home - she'd voted for him, so he didn't see why she'd change her mind. He knew the clever girl liked Eliza and didn't think much of Jamie. The Hostess made eye contact with her victims one by one, but Lance felt less afraid of her than he'd been at the beginning. She'd roasted him for his clothes, makeup, inadequate knowledge and career choice - she'd even made him twerk! The memory made him both cringe and smile. What more could she do to him? It was Grace, though, who first enjoyed the imposing woman's ire. "So, Grace. Have you ever had fun before?" Grace seemed to shrink back a little bit. "Of course." "Has anyone ever thought of you as a fun person?" She let herself smile. "Well, I could ask you the same question." The Hostess ignored the laughs at her expense, but Lance was proud of his neighbour. There was definitely a cheeky side to the quiet Grace Ojomo... which made him think. He, like the Hostess interrogating her, was curious to know what she was like away from the cameras. She seemed... well, too pedestrian, as though she were trying to be forgettable - to avoid making any impressions. She was dressed in a plain outfit, donning a light beige waistcoat over a white blouse, a brown plaid skirt over black tights and conservative heeled black shoes with buckles. She wore no jewellery or accessories, save a white headband to keep her lovely black curls from her face. The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that her wallflower shtick was a facade. Was she hoping that in the motley crew of loud personalities, she might go unnoticed? Who by? The Hostess... or the other contestants? You know precisely what you're doing, don't you? Mm-mm, honey. I'm not buying what you're selling. You're a bloody player. "Why did you vote for Jamie?" The Hostess asked her, not bothering to recognise the girl's burn. Lance watched Grace look apologetically over to Jamie, but the actor was undoubtedly not going to forgive her, judging by the indignant look on his lovely face. With that insolent glare, any pity the allegedly sweet girl had for him seemed to die on the spot. "He's failing us. We have a chance to win a lot of money for charity, but we need our strongest players to do that, and Jamie just isn't cutting it anymore," she explained curtly. Oof. Cold. The dancer barely had a moment to enjoy the way Jamie looked down at the podium with his lovely face twisted in a scowl, unhappy with his lousy performance or Grace's brutally honest comments, because the Hostess rounded on him next. "So, Lance. Don't they teach you basic fractions at school these days?" He snickered, fluffing his platinum-dyed hair with one hand while his other gripped his voting board. "Fractions have fallen out of fashion. Geography too," he added before the vindictive woman could bring up the mistake he made back in round two. "Really? Quite a shock that you of all people would have an opinion on what is and is not fashion." "I told you earlier that I'd do your wardrobe for you! Makeup too," he put on his most dazzling smile. "I could take years off your face." She shifted her weight, hand on her hip. "People already tell me I don't look a day over thirty!" Her reply earned her some chuckles of appreciation, but Lance wasn't going to let her get the last word. "You could look twenty-five!" The Hostess failed to prevent herself from grinning, looking down to hide it from the cameras. "Why did you vote for Jamie?" The dancer didn't think of himself as an especially petty person, but it cut deep to have the talented actor, someone Lance previously adored, make nasty and unsolicited comments to him in the green room. The younger boy was a spoiled brat, with that holier-than-thou arrogance and perpetual sneering. Still, he didn't want to explain to the Hostess, the other contestants and everyone who would view this episode that his vote for Jamie was indeed personal in nature. "Jamie started off very strong in the first couple of rounds, but his game is going pear-shaped." "Right. Okay," the Hostess turned then to Nathan, who greeted her with the most nervous, terrified grin Lance had ever seen. "Nathan." "Hello?" His crooked, white teeth shone in his mouth. "Better at guessing the answers than remembering them, are you?" "Maybe in that round." "Definitely in that round! It's not that easy to pull the wool over my eyes, don't even try it!" She spoke over him as he spluttered and stammered, trying to defend himself. "Why did you vote for Eliza?" Nathan looked between Jamie, to his right, and back to Eliza, who was cut off from the rest of the group by Paul's empty podium. "She got a couple wrong." "Oh, she got a couple wrong, did she?" Suddenly he didn't look so sure. "I think so?" "She only got one question wrong!" The Hostess corrected him in a harsh voice. "What happened to never forgetting?" Whatever colour Nathan had behind his freckles drained from his pale face. "I must have remembered wrong." The Hostess scoffed and then turned back to Jamie. "Jamie! Not very good with the letter 'C', are you?" "What do you mean?" The beautiful actor pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Lizards and vitamins both," she explained, but Lance felt her joke was a little tenuous at best. "And you sing, don't you?" "Yes!" He sounded excited again like he had when things were going his way. "But you don't know Sinead O'Connor?" His beaming smile faltered. "I don't think anyone can know everybody." "So, what can you sing? Nothing by Sinead O'Connor, I'll assume." "I can sing a lot of different things. When I was young, I usually got the lead role in plays and musicals, before I grew up and moved on to television," the boy boasted. Lance's eyes met Eliza's, and the actress ever so subtly shook her head. It was no secret that the Scottish actor was taking a shot at her. "I also sang the opening theme for Ember Seal, actually," Jamie added, puffing out his chest with pride. "But since I play one of the show's primary villains, the producers decided to have Alison McGrath sing it instead. Although--" he spoke loudly over the Hostess, not taking the chance of her changing the subject before he was ready. He loved to talk, talk, talktalktalk. "They did play my version of the song during the closing credits of Season Two, Episode Nine." Lance enjoyed the long-running jabs the Hostess made about Casey's inflated sense of self-importance, but Jamie, in his opinion, would have fit the bill for that narrative even better. He was born as the physical embodiment of the word 'conceit.' "Why on that episode?" The older woman asked. Jamie began to speak, but this time, she was the one who talked over him. "Don't spoil the whole show for us!" Jamie paused and ran his tongue over his bottom lip. It was such a Corey mannerism - when he was thinking. Lance knew all of them. A smirk with a lower lip bite when he was being duplicitous. The quiet chuckle when his machiavellian string-pulling caused the drama he seemed to live on. Those heart-melting brown eyes widening complete with a pout when he was trying to charm someone. A half-shrug when he was playing dumb. The nose twitch when he was annoyed or upset. For the actor's faults, he was incredible in his craft. Corey's portrayal by the Scottish actor was just so delightfully multifaceted and genuine that Lance would have forgiven him anything - except, perhaps, to end up like Jamie. A lot of the dancer's love for the character budded from the episode in question - Season Two, Episode Nine: "The Hollow Heart." Jamie explained it very well. "It's an episode that delves into who Corey is underneath and why he is... well, the way he is. What he wants, how he deals with past trauma and what he's afraid of - the stuff he certainly wouldn't want you to see. It was probably the most difficult and most rewarding episode I ever starred in. Some of those tears were definitely real." Lance was among the several, possibly those who had seen the show, who clapped for him. The Hollow Heart wasn't easy to watch, and it was the first episode in the show to cast Corey in a sympathetic light and give background to his troubling behaviour. "Do you think you're a better singer than Alison McGrath?" "It depends on who you ask." "I'm not asking who is better, I'm asking if you think you're better," the Hostess brushed aside his attempt to dodge the question. "I do think I'm better. That's why I was the first choice before they changed their mind," Jamie decided. "Right! Well, here's your chance to back up your words. Put your board down. Just one verse." A proud smile replaced the actor’s pout as he placed his board down, created his own rhythm by tapping his hands on the podium in front of him, and he began to sing the opening Ember Seal lyrics that Lance knew so well. He didn't have quite the range of Alyssa MacIntosh nor the emotive vibrato of Eliza Stacey Brooks, but there was a poignant sweetness to his words. He was too beautiful. It was unfair. Never meet your heroes. They'll break your heart. He clapped in earnest as Jamie Ceannaideach - he'd already forgotten how to pronounce it - finished and took a small bow, a proud, beaming smile on his lips. "Thank you. Put your board up," the Hostess folded her arms again. "Why did you vote for Eliza?" "She only got one question right." "So did you, so why should you stay instead of her?" "I had a bad round, yes, but I was the strongest link twice at the start of the game. Eliza hasn't done nearly as well as I have." Lance disagreed, but it wasn't his place to say so. It was Jamie's position on the curve that had given him so much credit, not necessarily his performance. Lance may have been poorly educated, but he was no fool, and humble enough to recognise that much of his success stemmed from Grace and her perfect record. Being crowned the strongest link in a given round required more than merely answering questions correctly - it depended on how much money the questions were worth and how much money that person banked. Grace spouting correct answers all the time meant that Lance's questions were worth more than hers, and since Lance had done relatively well, Jamie's were worth more again. On the other hand, Eliza was after Casey and Paul, people who hadn't given her much money to play with. It was no coincidence that the strongest links so far - Lance and Jamie - were positioned directly after Grace. She's carrying us. Jamie's too far up himself to notice though, bless him. "Eliza! Are you unfamiliar with GCSEs?" "Not at all. I still go to school full-time," she explained, one of her fingers twirling in a long lock of black hair. "You could have fooled me! How long does it take you to become Ursula for the thirty or forty people in the audience?" "I'll have you know we manage to sell out more often than not, and the main auditorium sits four hundred and fifty-two! But for your question, between makeup, my costume and warming up, a little under three hours?" "So if you go to school full-time and spend the rest of the day getting ready to perform for a handful of people, when do you have time for anything else?" Eliza shrugged and suddenly looked very tired. "I don't. I do eight shows a week, and I have to spend my half-day on Sunday catching up on coursework." "So, no boyfriends then?" Eliza's red lips curled mischievously. "Who has time for boys?" "You don't seem to have time for Jamie, at least. Why should the team evict him rather than you?" "Yes, I did make a mistake, but it was in the delivery of my answer. Jamie might have been the strongest link twice, but he dropped the ball on easy questions in this round twice." There was no love between actor and actress. In the green room, Eliza had become frustrated with his tendency to talk over her as though she didn't exist. It was one of the things that she, Lance and Grace had quickly bonded over - a mutual dislike of Jamie Ceannaideach, professional actor, singer, model, dancer and dickhead. The Hostess paused before turning to the one person she hadn't yet interrogated - the other person in the game that was anathema to the platinum-haired dancer - Casey Adams. "Saved the most important for last again?" Casey asked the older woman before she had a chance to say something critical. "If you say so," the Hostess folded her arms. "Are you writing anything at the moment?" Casey nodded. "The third novel in my series." "How long does it take to write a novel?" "Around nine months." "So, how many words might you write every day?" "Between two and four thousand, usually. It depends on the day." "Why did you vote for Eliza?" The Hostess didn't seem very interested in bantering with Casey, not that Lance would blame her. The brightly coloured girl with the myriad of piercings wasn't giving her much to go with. "She gave a stupid answer and cost us money," Casey explained bluntly. That's pretty bloody rich coming from you! "Well, in the event of a tie, it's the strongest link who casts the deciding vote. And that's Casey," the Hostess revealed. Huh? No. Her? Really? Her? "Who would you like to get rid of? Jamie, who struggles with the letter 'C,' or Eliza, who doesn't know the circulatory system?" The phrasing of the question posed by the Hostess, in Lance's opinion, made it obvious who should go and who should stay. Casey's black-ringed eyes looked once to Eliza, and then back to Jamie. Both of them were staring at her expectantly. "I'll stick with my vote for Eliza because Jamie saved me from the tie in round one." Lance chewed the inside of his lip. It seemed as though Casey existed only to frustrate him! "Unsurprising, I'd say. After all, you and Jamie have voted the same way every single round so far," the Hostess reminded everybody, and the hair stood up on Lance's neck. It was true, he remembered now. First Paul, then himself - though luckily they didn’t get the majority that time, Cian third and now Eliza. A secret alliance, maybe? The Hostess turned back to the doomed actress. "Eliza, you may not have won, but would you please sing for me one more time before you go?" "Will you promise to come and watch me perform at the Sherman Theatre?" Eliza, though clearly disappointed, broke a big smile. "I'll think about it." Eliza placed her board down, and one last time, threw herself right into character and belted out the final verse of Poor Unfortunate Souls from the depths of her soul. She sounded so sweet yet so cruel, and Lance covered his mouth with his hands as she gave him goosebumps. The final note absolutely blew him away, raising her pitch four times as she held it with flawless vibrato, and she received a standing ovation before she'd even finished and given a deep bow, looking a little out of breath. Incredible! Total brilliance! Ahh! "That was fantastic! I look forward to seeing you on the Broadway stage!" the Hostess shouted above the cheers and the applause, forcing the show to go on. "Eliza, though Jamie was statistically the weakest player, Casey has decided to drop the curtain on your performance tonight. With three votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!" The studio erupted again with applause for Eliza Stacey Brooks, who had managed to charm everyone in her sadly short appearance tonight, including the stone-faced Hostess. She waved and blew a kiss in the direction of the audience, then she stepped down under the lights and commenced the walk of shame, strutting slightly as she owned the studio floor like the queen she was. As the theatre actress with the voice of an angel passed through the doors, Lance eyed his rivals to the left. Twats. Jamie and Casey both came across as much too self-centred to give a damn about each other, but they had voted for the same people every round and successfully covered for each other. Coincidence? A twisted type of honour, maybe? Or was there collusion after all? Did they plan to make it to the final round together by strategically voting all their rivals off, one by one? They'd already tried to get rid of him in the second round - would they try again? Where did Nathan fit in all this? He'd voted the same way as the people either side of him this round and the one before, but he'd also voted to eliminate Casey before that. Lance did feel safer with Grace next to him, but he wasn't going to let his eye off her either, lest he feel a knife in his back. She was playing her own game - he was certain of it - and he had no way of knowing if he was a part of it in the long run. Ugh. This is doing my head in. I need a hug.
  7. Round Three The Hostess wasted no time in getting down to business. "Round three. You've managed to bank a disappointing six thousand, eight hundred and fifty pounds from a possible ten thousand." That doesn't sound at all disappointing to me. "We're down to seven players and we're taking ten seconds off your time, but not to worry, you still have Casey, the absolutely essential novelist who believes she has a wealth of knowledge, and Grace, Britain's brightest and youngest know-it-all. We'll start with the strongest link from the last round, and that is you again, Jamie. Let's play The Weakest Link! Start the clock. Jamie, in the animal kingdom, what 'C' is a lizard with the ability to change its skin colour in response to its environment?" "Iguana." "No! Chameleon!" Lance nearly laughed out loud. Iguana did not start with a 'C!' He tried not to enjoy his rival's mistake too much, but it was satisfying to see that stupid showoff Jamie wasn't perfect after all. Welcome to the club of wrong answers, bellend. "Nathan, in human anatomy, index, middle, ring and little are the common names for which part of the human body?" Nathan took a few moments to think of an answer, though Lance would have been able to answer it immediately. It was obvious. "Fingers." "Correct. Casey, in maths, what is the larger quantity: one third or three-eighths?" Casey answered quickly. "One third." "Three eights." As the Hostess turned to Eliza, Casey looked so baffled that Lance half expected her to argue. He was sick of her giving the wrong answers and costing the team money and precious time. "Eliza, in history, fresh fruit and vegetables were given to sailors on long voyages to prevent which disease?" "Scurvy," the clever actress gave the answer before the Hostess had finished asking the question. "Correct. Cian, in geography, Hanoi is the capital city of which country?" Cian didn't even bother to take some time to think it over. "Pass." "Vietnam." The poor athlete had no idea. Nor did Lance, and it was a relief that he managed to dodge that question. The questions sounded easy when he watched the show at home on the telly, or at least, Dad insisted they were, but it was entirely different in the studio. With real consequences for mistakes, the other contestants relying on you and the Hostess' formidable presence, it was very different. It was impossible to have approximate general knowledge in every area - unless one happened to be Grace or Eliza, apparently. They were like jukeboxes playing the correct answers to everything to Hostess asked them. They must have weaknesses. Right? "Grace, in the nursery rhyme, what was the name of the piper's son who stole a pig and ran away?" "Tom." How the heck does she do it? "Correct. Lance, in nature, elephant tusks are made of which substance?" He knew this! "Ivory!" "Correct. Jamie, which Shakespeare character gives the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy?" Jamie paused and half-turned to the audience. "Hamlet?" He didn't sound sure this time. Lance knew what it was like to have an incorrect answer shake you up. "Correct. Nathan--" "Bank!" Five hundred pounds in the kitty... I think? "In biology, the epidermis is the outer layer of which part of the body?" Nathan reached back to scratch the back of his head. "Skin." "Correct. Casey, from which country did the poetic form of the Haiku emerge in the sixteenth century?" "Japan," she said without thinking. "Correct. Eliza, in fashion, by what nickname was Gabrielle Chanel better known? Eliza's eyes fell to her podium, and she spent a couple of seconds thinking about the answer. "Coco?" Oh! I didn't know that. "Correct. Cian, which word can mean the tone for a musical note or a device used to lock and unlock doors?" "Ahhh, a key." "Correct! Grace, in which US state is the newspaper 'The Miami Herald' published?" OH! Florida! It was a treat to know the answer to a cursed geography question, even if it wasn't his own! Lance had long been eager to visit or possibly move overseas to Miami or Jacksonville one day. Somewhere on the beach! Where it was always warm. Not like miserable, overcast south London. "Florida," Grace, of course, knew it too. "Correct. Lance--" "Bank!" The dancer's question would have been the sixth in the chain, worth two thousand, two hundred and fifty pounds. He did not want to risk losing so much money, so he was content to bank one thousand, five hundred pounds instead. He received votes from Jamie and Casey in the last round after losing a hundred pounds on his stupid oceans question. He wasn't going to gamble with a much higher amount. "What nuts are typically used to make marzipan?" Peanuts? Almonds? Cashews? Marzipan... hmm. Mum made marzipan on occasion. He'd even helped her with the recipe! So where was the damn answer? It was there somewhere. Wary of the time passing and feeling safe with the fact that he'd banked before the question, he took an educated guess. "Almonds!" "Correct." He leaned his head back and took in a well-earned gulp of air. That could have been awkward. Mum's obsession with overly fattening or sugar meals and snacks had saved his hide twice now! Never again would he criticise her cooking! "Jamie, in medicine, cardiology is the study of which organ in the human body?" "The heart." "Correct. Nathan, in nature, what 'B' describes an undeveloped shoot on a plant?" The chubby Irishman closed his eyes in frustration and, possibly thinking of the clock, gave a quick answer. "Mmm... bark?" "No, a bud. Casey, in nature, do queen bees have a sting?" "Yes." Casey shrugged. She guessed again. "Correct. Eliza, in education, what do the letters GCSE stand for?" "General Certificate... of Education-- General Certificate of Secondary Education!" She quickly corrected herself. "I must accept your first answer. The correct answer is General Certificate of Secondary Education," the Hostess moved on, and Eliza's frown told of how disappointed she was with herself. "Cian, which motorcycle stuntman born in 1938 was known as the King of the Daredevils?" "Evel Knievel!" Cian shouted, desperate to make it in time. "Correct!" "Bank!" Grace shouted before the Hostess called her name. "Grace, in recent histo--" She was cut off by the tones of defeat that rang throughout the studio. "Time is up, and I can't complete the question. Team, what happened? You've gone backwards! Out of the five thousand pound target, you've managed to scrape together two thousand, one hundred pounds. Dear me! Well, that money will go through to the next round, but the same can't be said for one of you! Who is proving a disappointment? Who keeps breaking the chain? It's time for you to vote off the weakest link." Freddy brought the team brand new boards and a marker, and when he was out of the shot, the fanfare rang and the lights turned red. Lance took that time to think about the round. He'd done well - he knew he had. Much better than last time, at least. He got both his questions right and banked most of the money. Who got their questions wrong? Eliza did, but she'd been doing so well that he was happy to overlook it - Jamie too. Lance would be glad to see the back of the actor, singer, model, dancer extraordinaire, but to Jamie's credit, he'd been the strongest link twice in a row. There was no reason to eliminate him yet. Nathan got one wrong. He was an option. What about-- ugh, Casey! Suddenly, she was the obvious choice. Everyone who wasn't Britain's Brightest Star made at least one mistake by now, but the novelist had a habit of doing it every round. She wasn't going to get away with it a third time. Not on his watch. "Okay, voting over, pens down. It's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." "Nathan," Cian flipped his board over. "Casey," Grace revealed her terrible handwriting. "Casey," Lance hopefully flipped his board over. "Cian," Jamie shot daggers out of his eyes at his victim. "Cian," Nathan, though, always looked at the target of his vote like a disobedient puppy begging his master for forgiveness. It was sweet. "Cian," Casey cast her vote in a flippant sing-song voice that did nothing to elevate Lance's opinion of her. "Nathan," Eliza flipped her board over, and the audience rumbled behind them with a chorus of boos. Seriously? Lance looked at Cian, whose silly grin never wavered. He agreed with the audience. It seemed stupid to send Cian home! There was only one viable choice this round, and she was over there. He peered at Casey, looking smug - and why not? She scraped through by the skin of her teeth again, and the dancer struggled to hide his disappointment. Did they all forget how poorly she played in the first round? Was everyone truly so short-sighted? She'd gotten at least four of her answers wrong! Cian, by Lance's count, had only messed up twice. The Hostess turned to Nathan, who she hadn't yet interrogated. "Nathan Saunders. What turned you into a teenage triumph?" Nathan spoke softly. He looked intimidated. "I... founded my own charity. All About Autism." "Tell me about your charity," the Hostess even relaxed her frown and uncrossed her arms to put a hand on her hip. "How did you get started?" Nathan tapped his fingers on his board. "Well, my little brother and sister are both on the autism spectrum, so growing up with them, I've always seen first-hand how challenging the world can be for neurodivergent people. For a long time, I've wanted to do something to try and, you know, bridge the gap. I, heh, used to buy sweets from the corner shop and sell them to my neighbours so I could try and help Mum pay for a special needs tutor. I guess, as I got older, I wanted to do more. Not just for my brother and sister, but for other autistic kids, especially those who are struggling, undiagnosed or don't have much support." The poignant speech threatened to draw tears to Lance's eyes. He was one of the first to clap for Nathan's hard work and dedication, but the studio was quickly alive with applause. It was incredibly sweet. "Are your brother and sister here in the audience tonight?" The Hostess was smiling warmly, a rare sight, and Nathan nodded. "Yeah. Mum, too. She's my superhero," the Irishman admitted, turning around to wave. Lance turned to look, and indeed, a middle-aged woman far from his own parents sat between two younger kids, and all three were waving back at him. One of them was wearing noise-cancelling earphones, and both looked very much like their older brother. The same fiery-red hair and a face covered in freckles. "Congratulations! I think you're all fantastic," the Hostess shifted her weight and folded her arms. "It's a shame they couldn't find you a good hairdresser." "My Mum cut my hair!" Nathan exclaimed, reaching up to comb it with his fingers. "Did she? You seem like a good boy; I wonder what you did to upset her so much." It was Nathan's mother in the audience who laughed loudest of all. "I'm sorry!" She called out from her place in the stands. "You don't need to be sorry, I'm sure he deserved it!" The Hostess shouted back to her. As the chuckling died down, the Irishman beamed as the Hostess pulled the show back onto the tracks. "How did Cian upset you?" "Oh, well, he got a question wrong in the last round and another one wrong in this round." "So did you! Did you forget?" "I never forget," Nathan replied. Lance's mouth twitched. Oh, you done messed up, cutie. "Actually, we've just established that you do forget! Twice, you've forgotten the answers to your questions!" The Hostess reminded him. Nathan grew a little flustered. "I can't vote for myself, so I'm voting for Cian." The Hostess nodded, then turned to the Scottish actor, who brushed a rebellious lock of dark hair from his pretty face. "Jamie. So, you think that 'iguana' begins with the letter 'C?' What do you have to say for yourself?" "I couldn't think of chameleon at the time, and I wasn't about to pass!" His accent was so thick that sometimes Lance didn't hear everything he said. It would be better if he just spoke like Corey, with a much softer inflection. The dancer might forget how much he didn't like him. "It's the first question I've answered wrong all game." "So, there's no loyalty among Scotsmen then?" "Cian could have guessed, but he passed instead." "Could it have been a worse guess than 'iguana?"" Jamie shrugged with a small grin. "Probably not, but 'iguana' was a better guess than passing on the question." "If you say so," she remarked snidely before turning to the girl with the resplendent hair. "Casey. I thought I'd save the most important for last." "Cheers," said the pink and blue-haired girl. "Why Cian?" "He got a question wrong," she shrugged. "Did you think he was the statistically the worst player?" "He was." "He was not! Can you guess who was?" Ha. Imagine that. "Me?" The writer didn't seem to care. "Correct! Since the first round, despite your wealth of knowledge, you've given the most incorrect answers out of anyone." "Alright, but it's the votes that count," the girl pointed out. "Bye, Cian." "No, that's my job!" The Hostess spun around to face the muscular teenager in the first position. "Cian! You missed your targets with Lady Gaga and Hanoi, so the team had decided to 'nock' you down a peg and 'loose' you from the competition. With three votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!" The studio went dark as the walk of shame sequence began, but the massive athlete didn't let it dampen his spirits. He'd spent the vast majority of the game looking like he was at his own birthday party, and that didn't change now. He placed his board down and waved to the rest of the contestants as he walked by the Hostess, audience applauding their home-town hero. "Thanks for having me! Good luck, guys!" The dancer had been indifferent or even pleased to see both Paul and Alyssa off, but he was sorry to watch Cian exit through the stage door. He might not have been a genius, but his positive attitude and naturally sweet disposition lightened up the room... not to mention he was total eye candy. Oh well. Three down.
  8. Round Two Lance had hoped for a break between rounds, but it didn't take much more than ninety seconds for the production crew and the Hostess to be locked, loaded and ready to fire. Dad blew him a kiss when he looked behind him, and he waved excitedly. He didn't go home first. That was an achievement in itself! But when up against such strong contenders, how long could he hope to remain in the game? I got all three questions right last round, he reminded himself. I can do this. I can. The Hostess stepped back up to the central podium, and five seconds later, the musical notes signalled the start of the second round. She launched right into it. "Round two! You have one thousand, eight hundred and fifty pounds of a possible five thousand pounds in the bank and we're taking ten seconds off your time. But no need to worry, you still have two minutes and fifty seconds, as well as the incredibly important Casey, who insists that she has, in her own words, a wealth of knowledge." Lance snickered. "We'll start with the strongest link from the last round, and that's Jamie. Let's play The Weakest Link. Start the clock. Lance was one place counterclockwise of Jamie, so he would be the last to answer a question in this round. "Jamie, according to the common phrase, people who work hard for minimal pay are said to be paid for which bar snacks?" "Peanuts." "Correct. Nathan, in a factory what 'P' is the term for a wooden tray used in conjunction with a forklift truck for lifting and stacking heavy loads?" "Ahh... a pallet." "Correct. Casey, in wildlife, what 'A' precedes wolf, hare and fox to make the names of three mammals native to the polar regions of the northern hemisphere?" "Arctic," Casey answered immediately, far quicker than Lance would have been able to. It was a relief to see her give the right answer. "Correct. Eliza, in slang, a garage mechanic is popularly known as a what monkey?" "Grease." "Correct. Cian--" "Bank." A thousand pounds in the kitty. "In music, the song released in 2008 titled 'Just Dance' is the debut single of which American pop singer?" Cian laughed and shook his head. "Miley Cyrus?" Lance felt personally attacked by that answer. He would have given anything to be asked questions about pop culture! They were wasted on Cian, apparently. At least the athlete banked before giving the wrong answer. "Lady Gaga," the Hostess corrected him. "Well banked," she added, turning to the next contestant. "Alyssa, in a standard symphony orchestra, the four bowed string instruments in order of pitch are the double bass, the cello, the viola and which other?" Alyssa shrugged gracefully. "The harp?" Is this bitch serious? How does a singer know nothing about music and syllables? "Violin," the Hostess had a bite in her voice as she corrected her. "Grace, in astrology, the crab is the symbol for which sign of the zodiac? For the first time, Grace didn't answer immediately. She paused. "Cancer." "Correct. Lance," the Hostess turned to him. "In geography, which ocean lies on the western coast of the United States of America?" Oh, no. Lance felt dread strike his heart. He didn’t know much at all about geography. "Atlantic?" "No, the Pacific." Fuck! His blood turned cold. Those were the only two oceans that he knew, and he still picked the wrong one! How could he not know something like that? Everyone else no doubt thought that was an easy question. Would they vote him off? Was his game over just like that? He gripped his left arm with his right hand and forced himself to breathe. Stupid! "Jamie, in snooker, what colour is the highest valued ball?" "Black." "Correct. Nathan, in the rules of chess, which piece can only legally move diagonally?" "The Queen," he answered immediately. "No, the Bishop. Casey, in the House of Commons, what colour are the seats: green or red?" "Red." "No, green." Lance, though he wanted as much dosh in the pot as possible, found himself relieved to see other people doing poorly. Aside from his blunder, four other people had given incorrect answers throughout the round. If he were lucky, some of the others might even forget that he'd probably fail to find his own arse with a map. "Eliza, what 'V' is a state in Australia and a type of spongecake?" "Victoria," Eliza answered confidently. She was good. "Correct. Cian, in fashion," - Cian reeled back in despair - "what name is given to the tartan skirt traditionally worn by men in the Scottish highlands?" The Scottish athlete's eyes twinkled. "Ooh, a kilt!" "Correct!" The Hostess teased him. "Alyssa, in maths, what is nine plus twelve?" Alyssa took a few seconds to think before answering. "Twenty-one." "Correct. Grace, in children's TV, which famous cartoon couple lived in Bedrock?" "The Flintstones." "Correct. Lance--" The dancer, who had been reeling from the shock of getting the last question wrong, snapped to attention. Oh! He should have banked! But it was too late now! She was already asking the question! "In music, which American Rock band beginning with 'K' shares its name with a four-letter word that describes an act of physical affection?" Lance bit the inside of his chrome painted lip hard. This was the fifth question of nine in the chain. It was worth one thousand, five hundred pounds. If he got this one wrong, he was a goner for sure. I needed to bank. Why didn't I bank? Then it came to him, and he blurted it out. "Kiss!" "Correct." The Hostess left him, and Lance felt weak in the legs, leaning on his podium with both hands. "Jamie, in expressions, the phrase containing a word for a pig meaning to do something thoroughly is to go the whole what?" "Hog." "Correct." Jamie still floated a perfect score by Lance's recollection. Grace too, but he didn't expect any less from her. Being the high school dropout between them was nothing short of terrifying. But they'd made it so high in the chain! Six correct answers in a row! Nathan's question was worth three thousand pounds! "Nathan, which kitchen appliance is designed solely for storing items that need to be kept at a temperature below zero degrees Celsius?" "Freezer," he reached up to scratch the back of his head. "Correct." Seven consecutive correct answers! Casey's question was the eighth, and it was worth four thousand pounds! Cian had already banked one thousand pounds earlier, so if Casey by some MIRACLE got this one correct, then... "Casey, if the Roman numeral 'L' is doubled, the result can be represented by which other Roman numeral?" What kind of question is that?? How can anyone know that?? Casey didn't bank before her question. If she got it wrong, she'd lose the three thousand pounds Nathan had earned. There was no way Lance would forgive her for doing this a second time. Not when the five thousand pound limit was so close! And time was running out! As he gripped his podium in his apprehension, Casey looked down at her shoes... then she answered. "C." Is that right? I don't know! "Correct. Eliza--" "Bank!" The dark-haired actress shouted. The lights flickered and the tones of victory blared through the studio. All eight of the contestants cheered and applauded, as did every single person sitting behind them in the stands. We did it! We actually did it!! "Well done. You have reached and banked your five thousand pound target!" The Hostess announced, standing back and folding her arms. "The hard way," she added. "That money will be added to your running total and taken through to the next round. Unfortunately, one of you will be left behind. Who among you is intelligence intolerant? Who needs to be cut off the coattails? It's time to vote off the weakest link." Lance found himself smacked right down to reality as the blue lights turned red and Freddy brought him his slat and the black marker. Whose name was he going to scribble down this time? For that matter, how many people had “Lance” in mind? He looked at them. The memory of his mistake echoed through his mind. It was a bad one. There was no way they didn't remember it. No way. This vote needed to be strategic. Who, aside from him, was likely to get votes from the others? He didn't want to end up like Paul, whose terrible vote cost him an opportunity to scrape through a bad round. Though he was still sour on her for her abysmal performance in round one, Casey got that ridiculous question right to secure the jackpot. Nathan got one wrong, but he got two correct. Cian? Lance let his eyes bury themselves in the back of his head when he remembered the answer that the archer gave earlier. Miley Cyrus sang Just Dance?? GIRL. Then it came to him. What about Alyssa? He remembered being frustrated with her. She made an error in this round, and one in the last round too. Both of them, he recalled, were questions in her field of expertise. If she had knowledge gaps in music and singing, then how could he rely on her to correctly answer questions about other things? Desperate to save his own skin, he scrawled down her name in bouncy, flamboyant cursive and accented it with some broken hearts. He wanted to peek at Grace and Jamie's boards, but he was too scared to see his own name on them. The Hostess stepped back up to her podium. "Voting over, pens down. It's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link." Cian was first. "Alyssa." Alyssa's vote was reassuring. "Cian." Grace's vote reassured him again. "Alyssa." "Alyssa," Lance's shaky fingers nearly dropped his board as he flipped it over. "Lance," Jamie announced. "Casey," from Nathan. "Lance," Casey voted. "Alyssa," Eliza finished. Lance's relief must have been evident on his face because Eliza saw it and laughed at him. Two votes for him, but four for Alyssa. He let the terror leave his body with one long, grateful exhale. Bloody Pacific ocean, living on the wrong side of America. How did he sneak away with that one? The Hostess surveyed the votes before turning to stare at the dark-skinned girl one place counterclockwise from Lance. "Grace. Remind me again what makes you a teenage triumph." With poise and professionalism, Grace looked the Hostess right in the eyes. "Last year, I became the youngest person ever to receive the award for Britain's Brightest Star." "Oh, so you're a know-it-all, are you? We can count on you to answer all your questions correctly?" "With any luck," Grace smiled politely. "I'm also the youngest person ever to compete on The Weakest Link." "You are indeed!" The Hostess agreed, shifting her weight and pausing to let the audience applaud the clever young girl. "So, tell me how one becomes Britain's Brightest Star?" "Well, in my case, I got perfect marks in a few different interschool exams. Calculus, complex riddles, equations. All the fun stuff," she giggled. "The local paper published an article about me, and before I knew it, the officials nominated me for the award." "Right, and what do you do when you're not a know-it-all?" Grace smiled shyly. "I like to read." "Oh, how unsurprising." "And write," the girl added. "What do you write? Are you as important as Casey over there?" "Certainly not. Maybe in the future. For now, I write poetry. I'd like to write a script for a play one day. I might even get Eliza to act in it," she smiled over at her friend. "I don't know if you can afford me!" Eliza teased her. "Why did you vote for Alyssa?" The Hostess put the conversation back on track. Grace wasn't mean, but she was ruthless in her reply. "If we want to continue reaching our target, we need to have a consistent stream of correct answers, and I'm not confident in Alyssa's ability to do that." The Hostess accepted this and turned to Lance. His belly squirmed. "Lance. Does Mum know that you're wearing her clothes?" Lance laughed out loud, covering his mouth with his hand. He stepped back from his podium so the cameras could focus on him, and looked down at his skintight black denim pants, high-heeled booties and the long-sleeve silk shirt, rose-gold to match his nails, eyes and makeup. He donned two shiny copper studs in both ears and an oversized, shiny black bowtie under his collar. "If you want, I can do your wardrobe," he replied to her with a grin. "I don't think so!" She exclaimed. "What about your makeup? Did Mum do that for you too?" "No, other way around. I do her makeup." "Oh, you don't! Whatever she's done, I'm sure she doesn't deserve what you're putting her through," the Hostess continued to jeer, but Lance knew it was all in fun. He was enjoying himself. "So, what do you do?" "I'm a model and a professional dancer." "I see. Do you wear your mum's clothes in your photoshoots?" He giggled. "No. Until recently, I mostly wore undergarments. Now, I get to model hairstyles and makeup and designer outfits! I've been doing shoots with Eddie Vice, Selene Locke and Pintoni, and it's just been so much fun!" The Hostess looked genuinely interested. "So, who paid you to wear this ghastly outfit tonight?" "Nobody! I suppose I enjoy looking like a pillock." "And you dance, don't you?" "Yes! Mostly ballroom, tap and ballet, sometimes in recitals, on stage--" "Do you twerk?" Her eyes were full of mischief, and Lance paused abruptly, flushing pink. He remembered what Ronda told him when they were preparing for the show. Do whatever the Hostess says. Indulge her. Bloody hell. Am I going to be known forever as the guy who twerked on The Weakest Link? "I-- I can?" He replied in a high-pitched tone that begged her not to make him do it. "Put your board down." Okay. This is happening. He put the slat with Alyssa's name on it down on his podium, his face completely red underneath his layer of pale foundation. He turned around, and his eyes met his parents'. Mum was shaking, mouth open in a silent fit of laughter. Dad's eyes had disappeared into his chubby face the way they always did when something tickled his funny bone. I'm never going to hear the end of this. He exhaled and arched his back, wiggling and thrusting his hips and thighs to make his butt wiggle with as much grace and dignity as he could muster. Anyone who hadn't yet been laughing was now doing so heartily. Mum and Dad were redfaced, and for ten long, long seconds, Lance twerked for the camera. If there is a God, they'll never air this footage! When at last he turned around, all of the contestants were laughing, including Jamie and Casey. Even the stony-faced Hostess couldn't stop herself. Well, at least I can say I was the one who made the most bitter bitch in Britain laugh! The Hostess soon got her bearings and lost her smile... only to laugh again. When she regained control for good, she forced the show to go on. "Okay, pick your board up. Why did you vote for Alyssa?" "She got the music question wrong," he explained concisely. "You answered incorrectly that round." "I did, but my question was about the United States - something I'm not familiar with, whereas music is Alyssa's bread and butter, and I think she should have known about the violin." He let the breath go from his lungs as the older woman turned away from him. He was pleased that he’d done some mental preparation in his obscenely lengthy shower earlier, though there was no way he could have expected her to make him twerk in front of all these people! “Cian Millar! What is it you do?” “I’m an athlete!” The beefcake had an easy grin on his open face. Her cold scowl melted into a slight smirk at his reply. “You don’t say?” “I’m on the Scottish recurve archery team!” Cian extrapolated. “What is recurve archery?” “It’s archery... but with a recurve bow!” Lance wasn’t sure if Cian was taking the piss or if he was on the back foot. Either way, he was so lovable. He was the second-tallest of the contestants, a little shorter than Nathan. Lance only matched him in height because he was wearing tall shoes. But the archer was just so big! Incredibly broad-shouldered and thick with muscle, as though he’d passed time in utero with pushups and been bottle-fed protein shakes from birth. In stark contrast to the aloof Casey or the capricious Jamie, Cian never stopped smiling and having fun. It was infectious and Lance couldn’t help but feel at ease around him. “And you’re good at archery but with a recurve bow?” “Well, I think so! The boys and I came home with the gold!” Cian boasted, and the audience, primarily made up of local Scots, cheered loudly for their home-town hero. “How much time a day do you spend shooting things?” “A few hours a day every day since I was a wee lad.” “Is that how you got your muscles?” Cian stood up a little straighter and drew his shoulders back. “Well, archery requires a lot of upper body strength, but my family are all fitness freaks, so I’ve been playing sport and lifting weights for a very long time.” “So, no time to listen to Lady Gaga, then?” The blond fellow screwed his eyes shut in a very cute way as he laughed it off. “I don’t, I’m afraid. I listen to old-school rock and heavy metal. Nothing Lady Gaga.” Now he’s three per cent less attractive. But only three. “Is that why you voted for Alyssa?” The Hostess pointed to the girl at Cian’s left, drawing laughs from the girl herself. “You don’t like her song?” “No! Not at all. Alyssa is a lovely girl and she has a beautiful voice!” The athlete beamed at her, and she returned it in full. “But, well, I had to vote for someone, and I remember she got a question wrong.” "Eliza!" The Hostess barked the name before she spun her podium around, startling the brunette. "Would you sing another verse of your song for me?" The actress wiggled her prominent eyebrows. “Do you promise to give me only the easy questions?” “All of your questions have been easy.” The Hostess shifted her weight, propping herself up with one hand on her podium. “Put your board down.” The tall girl obeyed with a pretty laugh, gingerly placing the voting slat down and taking a couple of seconds to prepare herself. Within moments, she was completely in character, and she continued right where she left off. From the moment the first line left her very red lips, Lance’s jaw was open in an impressed grin. After the appreciative applause from those in the studio, Eliza gave a slight bow. “Thank you!” She addressed her peers and the crowd members when the noise died down. “But that’s all you get until the final round. I won't sing again until I've won!” “Ooooh!” Cian erupted loudly from the other side of the curve. "Do you think you're clever enough to win?" The Hostess asked her. Eliza nodded. "Clever enough to beat the significantly important Casey and the know-it-all Grace?" "We won't know until after the next few rounds," Eliza gave a cryptic answer. She's a professional backstabber, Lance reminded himself. I don't want to end up like the first Ursula - the one whose job she took without a second thought. "Why have you voted for Alyssa? Are you jealous that she can sing better than you can?" “That’s a weird thing to say after you made me sing for you twice! But Alyssa has so much talent. I enjoyed Whispers in my Dreams very much," Eliza corrected her, and Alyssa thanked her from the other side of the curve. "Unfortunately, she keeps giving incorrect answers. That's why I voted for her." "Alyssa!" The Hostess finally rounded on the pop singer, whose eyes had not lost their luster even after the team revealed their votes. "You were statistically the worst player, and the team has decided that you’ve sung your swansong. With four votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye." Better her than me. The audience applauded, and Alyssa dropped her voting board with Cian's name down on the podium, brushed her long hair over her shoulders, and began the strut of shame, blue dress flowing elegantly around her legs. She vanished through the studio doors, and Lance wasn't going to miss her.
  9. Round One "Start the clock." Lance's heart pounded in his chest as the Hostess turned her podium to face Alyssa MacIntosh, the pop singer who would answer the first question. The game was officially underway. "Alyssa, which four-letter word denotes a celebrity from the world of entertainment or a celestial body seen as a twinkling light in the night sky?" She looked down as she thought about her answer. "A star?" "Correct," the Hostess pointed next towards Grace. Lance was confident the clever girl wouldn't disappoint the rest of the team. "Grace, in a standard deck of playing cards, if two of the four suits are black, then the other suits typically are which colour?" "Red," the dark-skinned girl answered immediately. "Correct. Lance," and the dancer's stomach rose to the back of his throat as the host turned to look at him. "In the dish known as 'bangers and mash,' which of the two words describes the sausage element?" Despite the nerves turning his belly to jelly, Lance found himself smiling. How many times had Mum put bangers and mash on the table for the family? It was almost her signature dish - that, or her extra-fatty brand of lasagna. "Bangers." "Correct." That wasn't so bad. The three questions so far had been pretty easy, actually. Lance could have answered any of them without a beat. "Jamie, in instructions for opening doors, what 'P' is the opposite of the word 'push?'" Jamie recoiled a little, as though he were suspicious of how simple his question was and feared the Hostess was trying to trick him. "Pull." "Correct. Nathan, in maths, a person is a teenager for a total of how many years?" Nathan actually used his fingers to count, drawing some laughs from the audience members behind them. To his credit, he figured it out faster than Lance did. "Seven!" "Correct." That was the fifth correct answer in a row, Lance realised. Nathan's question was worth fifteen hundred pounds. Casey's was worth two-thousand, two hundred and fifty quid. The money was quickly adding up! Four more, and they could bank the five thousand right off the bat! "Casey, in which country of the UK is the daffodil a national emblem?" "Scotland," Casey replied instantly. "No, Wales." What?? Lance felt like someone slapped him. Fifteen hundred pounds, so much money, gone down the drain just like that. Five answers and time on the clock, all for nothing. The daft tart! Who was she to take jabs at his intelligence? At least he got his bleeding question right! She didn't even seem to be bothered in the slightest. If she wasn't going to have the decency to even pretend to be apologetic for her mistake, then he wasn't going to mask his disappointment. She'd be getting his vote for elimination for sure. "Paul, in education, what 'L' means a single period of instruction?" After eight or nine seconds, each of which felt like an eternity, Paul shook his head guiltily and gave his answer in a tiny voice. "Learning?" Are you serious right now? "Lesson," the Hostess replied in a consternated tone that suggested she couldn't believe that he spent so much time thinking up the wrong answer. "Eliza, in time measurement, forty-five minutes past eight is also a quarter to what?" "Nine." "Correct! Cian, in a game of rugby, what 'S' is the set-piece formation used to restart play?" Lance's eyes bugged. He was incredibly lucky that he didn't get that question. He had no interest or knowledge in sports outside dance. "Scrum," Cian answered promptly, and Lance was sure that the Scottish athlete immediately became ten per cent more attractive. Hot, sweet and smart all in one package - what Jamie should have been. "Correct. Alyssa, in language, how many syllables are there in the word syllable?" The unnaturally-blonde girl looked as though someone had spat at her, then her eyes rolled into the back of her head. "Um. Four?" "Three!" the Hostess corrected her. Lance exhaled through his nose. More money lost, and more importantly, time that they wouldn't get back. They had done a full rotation now, ten questions, and nobody had banked any money. Should he bank after Grace inevitably got her question right, even if it would only secure one hundred pounds? "Grace, in human anatomy, what 'L' is the name for the short bands of tough, flexible tissue that binds bones together?" Grace, Lance noticed, smiled when she knew the answer, and she knew it before the Hostess finished her question. "Ligament." "Correct. Lance," the young dancer braced himself as the Hostess pointed her podium at him. "In colloquial English, an elderly man who lavishes gifts on a young woman is known as a sugar what?" Lance grinned mischievously. How many times had he jokingly called Bobby his sugar daddy, even though the Serbian born dancer was only eighteen? "Daddy!" "Correct," the Hostess turned the podium to Jamie, and Lance was mercifully left alone. For now. "Jamie, another name for Santa Clause is Father what?" "Christmas." "Correct. Nathan, in cosmetic surgery, the technique known as liposuction is intended to remove from the body excess amounts of what substance?" “Fat.” "Correct." Lance let his eyes burn through his rose-gold contact lenses at Casey. Nathan's correct answer meant that her question was worth one thousand and five hundred pounds. Was she going to lose it all again? "Casey--" "Bank." A wave of relief seemed to wash through the other contestants like a set of dominoes. Lance felt much better knowing that there were a thousand pounds in the bank if nothing else. That was a lot of money, even if it was only a fraction of their potential prize this round. "In geology, what 'P' is the term for rigid segments of the crust of the earth that move across the heavier rock below?" Lance didn't know the answer. Not by a long shot. Maybe one of his teachers mentioned it once while he and his best friend Jane listened to Rihanna on her iPod. Casey, though, so high up there on her pedestal about her intellect, should probably know it. "Pass." Are you kidding me? Does she actually know anything? "Plates." Plates? Really? Huh. "Paul, in fashion, what modern accessory frequently classed as an item of jewellery is often water-proof, anti-magnetic and shock-resistant?" Paul's eyes looked down at his podium as he took his time answering incorrectly. "Necklace?" "No, a watch." It wasn't a bad answer. It wouldn't do at all to be choked to death by a necklace if someone happened to be carrying something magnetic nearby. But it wasn't the right answer, and every wrong answer cost the team money. Poor Paul screwed his face up and bowed his head as the Hostess ruthlessly moved on to the next question. "Eliza, in disease, what illness is the word 'flu' short for?" "Influenza." "Correct. Cian, in food, an omelette is typically made up of which primary ingredient?" The young man shifted his weight. "Eggs." "Correct. Alyssa--" "Bank," the pop singer seemed to have been shaken by her last incorrect answer. Better safe than sorry. "In optometry, which artificial lenses sit directly on the eyeball?" Lance let out a small laugh by accident, leading to a chuckle rounding the room. He'd been hiding his eyes behind coloured contacts since he was fourteen. "Contact lenses," Alyssa answered, grinning at the dancer from her platform. "Correct!" The Hostess almost teased her before turning to the next girl. "Grace, in chemistry, which gas has the chemical symbol 'O?'" "Oxygen," the young girl replied automatically. "Correct. Lance, in spoken English, which winged insect shares its name with the identical sound of a letter of the alphabet?" Oh, that one was so easy! "Bee." "Correct. Jamie--" "Bank!" There was a sense of urgency from the blond boy. Time was running out. "In food, from which animal do the meat products pork, ham--" "Pig!" "Correct. Nathan--" "Bank." "In the circus, what 'T' is the swinging bar on which acrobats perform?" "Ahh-- the er-- trapeze!" He shouted. "Correct. Casey, in politics, to which party does--" the Hostess was cut off by the deafeningly loud music. "Time's up, and I cannot complete that question." As the audience applauded, the older woman folded her arms superciliously, and a playful smirk marked her lips as she looked down her nose at the contestants. "Teenage triumphs. Are we sure that we've got the right people in the studio today?" The audience laughed. So did Lance. He knew it was coming. "In that pathetically easy first round, from a possible five thousand pounds, you've managed to bank only one thousand, eight hundred and fifty pounds." "Woo!" Cian pumped his fist in the air, and the spectators behind the contestants clapped for them. Lance agreed. That was a lot of money, even if the supposedly smart Casey could have nearly doubled the amount had she banked before her terrible answer. The Hostess ignored them. "If this is indeed the best that the United Kingdom can offer, we're in serious trouble. Who among you is just a pretty face? Who thinks ballroom means just a brand of men's pants?" Lance laughed into his hands. "Somebody is about to leave empty-handed, and you must decide who among you isn't up to the task. It's time to vote off the weakest link." The ominous music sounded through the studio, and the lights turned red - voting phase. Lance had been nervous while answering questions, but now he felt good. He answered all three of his questions correctly, just as Grace, Jamie and Nathan had. Eliza and Cian only had two questions apiece, but they got them both right. On the other hand, Casey and Paul got both of their questions wrong. He didn't imagine the team would vote him off unless there was some homophobic conspiracy among the others. It had to be one of those two. But which one? Casey lost a lot of money and didn't even seem to care. Paul, on the other hand, looked like he was falling to bits, not able to get his easy questions right. Besides, they'd both gotten under Lance's skin in the green room. It was a hard decision. He decided on Casey, and he wrote her name on the board with the marker provided. Following that, the man in charge of production instructed the contestants to pretend to write for sixty seconds longer. Lance decided to spend his extra name-writing time decorating his slat with stars and dots in a pattern, and his eyes crept to Grace's voting board on the podium beside him. He couldn't see much of it, but the name on it was definitely Paul. They weren't on the same page, but at least she didn't vote for him. His eyes crept to his left as well, but bloody showoff Jamie had his tanned arm in the way. Freddy then checked everybody's board to make sure they would flip the right way, and the Hostess returned to her podium. When the music sounded and the lights flickered, she spoke again. "Okay, voting over. I noticed there was a lot of peeking going on, team!" Lance averted his eyes. He was guilty of snooping. "I shouldn't need to remind teenage triumphs that your vote is yours and yours alone. It's time now to reveal who you think is the weakest link." "Casey," Cian voted. "Casey!" from Alyssa. "Paul," Grace flipped her board over, all business. Lance waited for the camera to shift to him. "Casey." "Paul," Jamie was so eager to vote someone off that he almost went too early, shooting daggers with his eyes to his prey. "Paul," from Nathan. "Paul," Casey didn't sound so confident anymore. Paul kept his eyes down. "Alyssa." "Casey," Eliza finished off the vote. "We have a tie. Four votes for Paul, our app developer, and four votes for Casey, our incredibly important novelist," the Hostess paused to let the audience laugh. She turned her podium to face Alyssa and looked down her glasses with a withering stare. "Alyssa. Did you write your song?" Alyssa giggled girlishly. "I did." The Hostess remained unmoved. "I see. And you did it all without learning how to count syllables, did you?" Lance didn't bother to mask his amusement. He'd been thinking the same thing. Others were more obvious, with some audience members and Jamie laughing out loud. "I know! I'm so embarrassed," the diva showcased a charming smile. "And this song wasn't a complete catastrophe?" Alyssa's glib attitude, Lance noticed, lessened when she felt people didn't respect her as a singer or celebrity. She became visibly affronted. "I spent six weeks in the top ten for UK singles, and I peaked at the second position. " "Oh, so you are good! Put your board down. Let's hear it," the Hostess insisted, folding her arms with a playful grin. Alyssa threw humble out the window the moment the Hostess asked her to do what she did best. She'd been waiting for the opportunity, no question. She chose eight lines - the chorus - of Whispers in my Dreams, an admittedly beautiful song about a lonely lady mesmerised by a gorgeous man. Lance couldn't help but have butterflies in his stomach, watching her perform live, so close to him. Even without music, she had a terrific voice, and she managed to hit a few high notes that Lance had long been unable to reach in the shower since his voice broke. When Alyssa finished, all eight other contestants and the people sitting in the audience applauded in earnest. Even though Lance didn't personally like her, he admitted that she was definitely going to be a star in the future. The performance broke the ice queen facade of the Hostess, who cracked a smile. "Put your board up. Tell me what Casey did in that round to offend you." "She made two mistakes." "You made a mistake as well." She flicked honey-coloured hair over her shoulder with a graceful swing of her hand. "But Casey made two mistakes and lost us a lot of money. I only made one." "Right," the Hostess then rotated right, past Grace, and thankfully past Lance. "Jamie Ceannaideach. What is it you do?" Jamie blinked. "I'm an actor, a dancer, a singer and a model." Lance didn't roll his eyes. He wouldn't be caught on camera being petty or unprofessional, but Eliza obviously didn't mind, making a face all the way over there on the other side of the curve. "Right. I can't say I've ever seen you on the big screen before. You can't be too famous then, can you?" He managed a hollow laugh. "I'm part of the main cast of Ember Seal, currently the number one show on Webflix. Someone your age probably doesn't know how to watch it." People laughed. Lance didn't. He didn't want to give Jamie that validation. The Hostess stifled a smile. "That's no way to talk to me after I summoned you to play on my show. On prime time television, with more than sixty viewers!" Jamie, to his credit, was quick-witted and willing to spar. "It's your show, but it's my episode, so you should be the one thanking me for the ratings." The audience lapped up his every word and applauded his cleverness, which was annoying. Especially Mum and Dad. When he peeked over his shoulder, they were both laughing. They didn't see him in the green room. They don't know he's a tool. The Hostess moved on. "So, my sources tell me that you're the bad boy in this Ember Seal show that only sixty people watch on your Webflix." In an instant, Lance was looking at Corey Channing, who flashed his patented smirk complete with lower lip-bite that showed up whenever he did something naughty. Despite himself, Lance's heart fluttered. He was so beautiful. "Aye, a lot of people call me that. Corey doesn't make a lot of good choices." "Stop me if you remember any of these names. Delta Cunningham. Ayla Ross. Leslie Mackay. Seonaid Reid." Lance giggled. The Hostess was gradually listing everyone Corey Channing had kissed from the very first episode. "My co-actors?" Jamie tried his best to play coy, but nobody was buying it. "Is that all they are to you? Co-actors? And now you're currently courting Emily Shanklin!" Jamie's brown cheeks pinkened, something the Hostess pounced on immediately. "Who is it that plays the part of your on-screen sweetheart Emily?" "The very talented Sophie Hanna." "Oh, you think she's talented, do you?" "Of course!" "It's not just because she lets you kiss her in the show?" Though he'd started their exchange with the advantage, the Hostess had successfully found her way into his head. Jamie had gone from golden almond to slightly pink, to red and now puce, as he tried to hold on to his dignity. "Er-- ahh, I-- well, I mean, that's not a downside to the job... at all." The Hostess, content with unravelling the arrogant Scotsman, finally showed some mercy. "Why did you vote for Paul? Is it because of that moustache?" He laughed. "It's not just because he got both of his easy questions wrong, it's that he wasted so much time," Jamie eyed Paul out of the corner of his eyes. “But the moustache doesn’t help.” The Hostess turned all the way over to Eliza, who comically recoiled. "Eliza Stacey Brooks! Remind me why you're here tonight." "I'm a theatre actress," the tall girl replied confidently. "Oh, so you're not talented enough for television?" Eliza could laugh at herself, and she did. "Not quite talented enough for movies, but much too talented to host a television game show." That was a solid burn! The Hostess didn't seem to have a reply for that, looking down to hide her grin from the cameras, folding her arms. "What are you currently starring in?" "I'm in the Sherman Theatre's musical production of The Little Mermaid." "As Ariel?" "No, I play Ursula the Sea Witch." "Not good enough at singing to be cast as Ariel?" The Hostess asked her. Lance laughed, and so did Eliza. "Not at all! I auditioned for Ursula. I think she's much more interesting than Ariel, and I like her songs better," the actress explained, brushing a black curl from her face. "So in this off, off, off, off-Broadway production, do you sing?" "I do! I sing two songs." "Do you sing Poor Unfortunate Souls?" The Hostess had dropped her signature icy frown, and she looked genuinely interested. It made sense. Eliza was very likeable and charismatic. "Yes!" Eliza nodded, beaming a gorgeous smile. "Would you sing some of it for me now?" The Hostess demanded of her. "Put your board down." Lance watched as Eliza gracefully placed her slat down on her podium, breathed in and out, and then began to sing the familiar lyrics. Almost immediately, he was entranced by her powerful voice. He didn’t expect a belting soprano portrayal of the husky-voiced Disney villainess with prominent vibrato, but the actress was amazing - definitely as talented as the pop princess Alyssa! Eliza was animated, using her expressive face and body language to flawlessly convey cruelty, spite and malice underneath her sweet, sympathetic lyrics. When she stopped after the first verse, Lance was a little upset. He'd been enjoying it a lot! When the audience and other contestants applauded, he joined in earnest. He definitely wanted to go and see the production live, if only to watch Eliza in her element! The Hostess was half-smiling when the girl finished. “Lovely! Put your board up. Why did you vote for Casey?" "Casey's mistake was a very costly one, and it was a question about Wales that she got wrong, which I took personally." Eliza looked apologetically over to the blue and pink-haired author. The Hostess turned back around and stopped at the girl in question, staring down her nose. "Casey! You've never been to Wales, then?" "No." "You do realise, don't you, that you’re supposed to give the correct answer? I can't fathom how someone important enough to have not one, but two published novels could lack so much knowledge. Don't you have to know things to be an author?" Casey shrugged and made a face, which annoyed Lance far more than it should have, and he gripped his board with her name on it until his knuckles went white. "Don't forget that I banked the lion's share of the money we won this round." "You did, but only after the other contestants managed to answer their questions correctly!" The Hostess loved to play with her food, and it was great to see her take Casey bloody Adams down a peg. "How many copies of your books did you sell?" "Glass Kingdom sold eleven thousand copies, and Obsidian Arrowhead almost doubled that," Casey bragged. "Really? Fiction, I hope, because we've established that non-fiction certainly isn't your speciality." "I know a lot of things, actually," Casey wasn’t being cute. She came across as combative. Where Eliza, Jamie and even Alyssa had been bantering with the Hostess, the author had no playfulness about her. She seemed like a brat. "I read a lot of textbooks and novels. I have a wealth of knowledge. That doesn’t mean I know everything." "Why did you vote for Paul?" The Hostess gave up on trying to play with Casey - it wasn't going anywhere. "He got both his answers wrong, same as me, except he didn't bank any money and he hesitated before answering. I banked a thousand pounds." "Right. Paul," the Hostess shifted to the next boy, poor Paul, who looked as though he'd rather be anywhere else in the world. "I imagine that with all those apps, you wouldn't have much use for a watch." "I... I blanked," Paul stammered. "And you still go to school, don't you?" Lance knew where she was going with this, but once again, Paul didn't seem to have a clue. He was utterly gormless. "Yeah." "How many lessons do you have in a day at school?" "Um, six periods." "Six lessons?" "W-w... o-oh, y-yeah." The audience seemed too uncomfortable to laugh. Lance kept his trap shut. Jamie didn't. The Hostess wisely redirected the conversation. "And you're an app developer, aren't you?" "Yeah." "When do you develop apps? At school?" "Erm, no. At-at home." He was so nervous and it was only getting worse. The Hostess wasn't even picking on him. She was trying to get him to open up about himself. This is sooo cringe. Lance wished he'd voted for Paul in hindsight if only to put the human praying mantis out of his misery. The fact that Paul voted for Alyssa for some reason was just further proof that his head wasn't in the game. Had he voted for Casey like any well-adjusted person, she would have the majority vote, and he'd be safe. It was his own fault. "Why should Casey go home instead of you?" "She lost money. I didn't have a chance to bank anything or even lose anything because sh-she, erm, got her questions wrong first." "Well, in the event of a tie, it falls to the strongest link to cast the deciding vote, and that's Jamie!" The Hostess turned to the actor. Lance wasn't at all pleased that his rival had found yet another way to overshadow him. "Who will you send home? Paul, who develops apps at home, or Casey, the most important novelist in the world?" "Definitely Paul. He's way too nervous to be any good," Jamie answered her immediately and ruthlessly. A few people in the crowd, likely friends or family of Paul's, groaned as the Hostess turned back to him to deliver the coup de grace. "Paul. You might well be a whiz with apps, but your lack of other knowledge has left Jamie feeling quite underwhelmed. Statistically, you were the worst player, and with four votes, you are the weakest link. Goodbye." The death toll rang through the studio, the lights changed, and Paul, shoulders slumped, miserably placed his board back down on his podium before taking the walk of shame to the back of the studio. Lance caught a brief look at his face, and he looked like he was about to cry. At that moment, the reality of the game show hit Lance like a ton of bricks. It really was over, just like that. Jamie sent Paul home without a shred of regret or hesitation, and it was terrifying. The app developer exited through the studio doors and he wasn't coming back.
  10. The Weakest Link "I still can't believe we're going to be on telly!" Dad rubbed his hands together in giddy excitement that had steadily grown in the last few weeks. "Well, you better start believing it. We can't have you carrying on the whole night," Mum chastised him, waddling uncomfortably in her brand new heels, bought just for this very night. "Lance doesn't need to worry about you when he's busy answering questions and winning money." "Alright!" Dad whined, turning around when he noticed his son had stopped walking behind them. "What's the matter, you?" Lance gently ran a long, rose-gold painted fingernail over his matching lip gloss, staring intently at his reflection in the small handmirror he held. He let out an anxious exhale. "Do I look like a pillock?" Dad stepped towards him, reached out and gently pushed Lance in the right direction with a hand between his shoulder blades. "Don't be daft." "Nobody ever had a better-looking son," Mum was better than Dad at reassuring him, but he wasn't convinced. "Hah. Why am I asking you? You're my parents. You have to say that," Lance grimaced at his reflection, brushing a lock of platinum-dyed hair from eyes hidden behind rose-gold contact lenses. I shouldn't have put on that eye shadow. Bugger it. I look like a drag queen. "I don't reckon. Nicky's an ugly bastard," Dad offered cheekily. "Garth! Watch your mouth!" Dad withstood another one of Mum's half-hearted smacks to the arm. "I'm just saying. He looks too much like his old dad." Lance knew his tart-tongued father was trying to comfort him by making jokes. It might have worked had people not told the dancer how much he looked like his big brother - at least until he started modifying his appearance with hair dye, makeup and coloured contact lenses. Still, he appreciated the effort, though he wondered if Dad ever made fun of him when it was Nicky instead who needed cheering up. "You look like a million quid, love. Try not to get stuck up here," she tapped the side of her head. "I know you can get in your own head and scare yourself. Don't do that. Don't start doubting yourself. You're a clever boy and you've never looked finer. You'll be terrific tonight." "But... what if I make a total wanker of myself?" Dad snorted. "You won't, son." He then chuckled. "You always do this! You get nervous and scared, then you knock it for six every time. How many times did you dance circles around the other kids in all those recitals and competitions after telling us you weren't good enough?" They're right. I need to get a grip. "And remember, if anyone gives you cheek, you can just vote them off!" Mum added. Lance found himself smiling without meaning to. His parents never expected their middle child to be so unique. Nicky was perhaps too typical a teenage boy, with his filthy jerseys, horrible diet and failed attempts at being a ladies man. Lance had worn pointe shoes since he was old enough to dance, throwing his lot in with life as an entertainer with a keen interest in all things pop and glamour. Incredibly feminine and flamboyant by nature, he took his parents by surprise. But unlike so many horrid people he'd had the discomfort of knowing, Garth and Sue were nothing but loving and supportive. The BBC Pacific Quay studio was a large building next to the River Clyde. Lance, his insides squirming with nerves, looked up in awe as he and his parents approached. It wasn't his first time in a studio nor on television, but this would be the first time he would appear on an episode of a televised game show! As he walked towards the reception on high-heeled boots, an older lady with a floral blouse underneath a long, black jacket stood up behind the desk from her chair. According to her badge, her name was Carol. "Welcome to BBC Scotland. You're one of the contestants for The Weakest Link, aren't you?" She spoke in a Scottish accent so potent that Lance almost asked her to repeat herself. "Ahh, yes!" Lance beamed at her. "Lance. Ahh-- Lovecraft. And this is my Mum and Dad." "Garth and Sue," Dad introduced himself with his embarrassingly Cockney accent and leaned over to shake Carol's hand. "Lovecraft. Like H.P. Lovecraft?" The receptionist seemed amused by the name and intimidated by Dad's embarrassing tendency to come on very strong. "Any relation?" "Very distant," Dad laughed embarrassingly loud, and Lance turned pink. Blimey. Make him stop. "Right, well I'll get you to sign in here," she spun a clipboard around on the bench between them for Lance to look at. "You're in Studio B, which is on the second floor. I'll ask you to turn your phones off and keep them off until after filming comes to a wrap." Lance read the consent form Carol presented him and signed his compliance with the rules and regulations of the studio with his signature. Where it asked for the charity of his choice, he wrote down Stonewall Equality Limited. If he won, he would not only be considerably wealthier, but BBC would also donate the total of tonight's prize money to Stonewall! Following that, Mum and Dad had another form to sign if they were going to be part of the audience in the show tonight. Lance could barely keep still as Carol then guided them towards the lift and used her card to send them on up to the second floor. The doors opened, and another woman, much younger and taller than Carol, met Lance and his parents. Her name was Ronda, and her accent was much softer. "Well, you're definitely Lance," she stood with her arms folded, and it looked as though she were chewing gum. "Definitely" Lance? What does she mean by that? "Got it in one," he replied diplomatically, showcasing his newly whitened teeth with his most dazzling smile. "I guess I'm on the right floor, then." "Yep. Through there," she pointed towards a double door to his right. "And parents, you're coming with me to the audience booth. So, say your good lucks and I love yous now." "Oh!" Lance had thought that Mum and Dad would be with him for a while longer. They certainly weren't wasting time here. Mum gripped his hand. "Good luck, love! Remember that you're smarter than you know you are. Don't let the nerves get to you!" "We're proud of you no matter how it goes tonight, son," Dad left a noisy, wet kiss on Lance's forehead. The divo hugged his slim frame with his arms as he watched Ronda take his parents down the hall and disappear around the corner. He turned on his elevated heel and faced the double doors that the lady had told him to go through. Once he filled himself with confidence, he drew his shoulders back and walked his way into the green room. Five other teenagers had already beaten him there, and they were mingling together. One person immediately caught Lance's eye. That's Corey bloody Channing. From Ember Seal! What's he doing here?? Jamie... something old-school Scottish with way too many letters. Lance didn’t know to pronounce it, but he would recognise the actor anywhere. Immediately he blushed underneath his thick layer of makeup. Jamie was even more gorgeous in person, somehow - beautiful brown skin with those beautiful dark eyes, and even those two moles - one on his cheek and one on his upper lip. Unlike Corey, the actor wore thick-rimmed black spectacles. Lance decided the eyewear only made him fitter. Shyness overtook him as he remembered all the fanfiction he'd read - and attempted to write - about the heartthrob. Bobby would be going green with envy if he knew how smitten his boyfriend was with the guy standing only a few feet away. "Oh. Wow. Alright," the other lad, a weedy teenager with comical bug-eyes and a feeble attempt at facial hair on his chin and upper lip, snickered as he saw the effeminate dancer strutting into the green room. Up yours too, mate. If this tosser thought he was original or witty by making fun of Lance, he was dead wrong. It was an old, tired and rather... impotent act. Instead of biting back, Lance simply pretended he didn't exist. "Hey, everybody. I'm Lance." It was the actor who immediately forced himself to the forefront, thrusting his hand out towards the newcomer. "Jamie Ceannaideach." Oh. So that's how you pronounce it. Though he was gagging, Lance was adept at keeping the ecstatic hysteria on the inside where it belonged, but he let himself beam at the actor he'd had a crush on for months and months. "Hi, Jamie! Oh my gosh, Ember Seal is one of my favourite shows right now, and I had no idea you'd be here tonight! Corey is an icon!" Jamie's smirk, one that Corey Channing showcased when he was acting the duplicitous bad boy everyone loved to hate, widened with the words of praise. "Yep, that's my call to fame. What about you? What do you do?" His question sounded more like a demand, putting Lance on his back foot. Jamie - not Corey, Lance reminded himself - sized the dancer up without a hint of subtlety. "I'm a professional dancer, and I model for three different agencies," Lance answered him shyly. "So am I!" He puffed his chest out with pride. "When I'm not on set, I do a lot of modelling and dancing. And singing," he added, just in case the rest of his powerhouse resume wasn't impressive enough. Oh, great. So he does everything I do, except he's also a famous bloody television actor. How did I even get invited here tonight? What was the point of showing up? "Hi! I'm Eliza: theatre actress." The girl with very long, wavy black hair and very red lipstick was tired of being ignored and broke the conversation to introduce herself next. She was taller than Lance was, wearing heels of similar height and still beating his stature by an inch or two. She sounded Welsh. "Lovely to meet you!" Lance returned her wide smile with his own. "Grace Ojomo," a dark-skinned young lady with tight black curls and meek brown eyes spoke next. "Paul. I develop apps," the tool who jeered at him earlier offered his hand to shake. Lance didn't want to, but he didn't need to make enemies before the game had even begun, so he forced a diplomatic smile and went ahead. "Hi! I'm Alyssa MacIntosh," the plump, curvy and very pretty blonde girl introduced herself, and Lance was suddenly hit with another wave of recognition. "Oh! Ohh!! Ahh-- Whispers of my Dreams!" He clapped his hands together, beaming at the singer. Alyssa gave a girlish giggle and feigned modesty - not very well. "I'm so glad someone finally knew who I was! You're the first one to say anything!" Lance went to speak to the others again, but Alyssa wasn't done. "I mean, it's not like people don't recognise me in public a lot, even here in Scotland, and I was like, why hasn't anyone brought up Whispers of my Dreams? It spent weeks at the top of the charts. It's nice to meet a fan!" Lance would hardly call himself a fan. Sure, he'd listened to and genuinely enjoyed the brief hit single earlier that year, but the girl wasn't exactly the new Britney, even if she seemed to think so. "What's with the, er, makeup and the nails and stuff? You are a bloke, right?" "I guess you'll never know," Lance replied dryly. He knew he'd get questions, and desperately wished he could remember any of the witty responses he'd prepared earlier while he was in the spacious hotel shower with just the right water pressure. "It's something I learned from MI-5." MI-5? Ugh. Is that the best you can come up with? The awkwardness of Lance's terrible comeback was mercifully fleeting. Jamie quickly launched into a lengthy, relentless diatribe about it being commonplace for men to wear makeup in the entertainment industry. Eliza tried twice to get a word in edgewise, but he talked over her as though she didn't exist. With an eye roll and a snort of suppressed laughter, she splintered from the group and sat on the couch while Grace followed her. Lance decided that Grace and Eliza were less offensive than Paul, Alyssa and even dishy Jamie - possibly, he realised with a cynical poignancy, because he didn't know anything about them yet. He sat down next to them and awkwardly crossed his legs, unsure of what to do now. "So, are you acting in anything right now?" He asked Eliza, who seemed much more sociable than Grace did. "Yes, I am! I get to play Ursula the Sea Witch in the Sherman Theatre's musical production of the Little Mermaid," she shifted to face him, her body language open and relaxed. It was refreshing. He gasped. "I love The Little Mermaid! Especially Ursula! And it's a musical? So you sing too?" I wish I could sing! Eliza winked and sipped from a mug of black tea. "I'm not as famous as the pop princess over there, but I can carry a tune." "She's being modest," the other girl told him in her soft voice, a cheeky look in her eyes. "She's so brilliant that she actually stole the role from someone else." "I did not! That's... well, not a lie, but you make it sound so wicked of me!" Eliza objected, feigning offence. Lance looked between them. "What do you mean?" The girls, obviously having already established a rapport, giggled. Eliza exhaled and looked at her beverage. "Well, I started out as the understudy. You know what that is, right?" Lance nodded, but she explained anyway. "I knew all the lines and lyrics in case she couldn't perform for whatever reason. So, I stepped in for a few nights when the original Ursula needed some time off, and... well, the director asked her not to come back, and offered me the role permanently." She sipped from her mug again, eyes on the dancer, curious to see how he might react. Oh, a professional backstabber? Lance was amused. "Girl, you must have slayed! Congratulations!" Her red smile widened. "Thank you, darling! I'm not sure it's a big enough deal to justify me being here tonight, but I wasn't about to say no to such an opportunity!" "Same, though!" Lance liked Eliza, he decided. Confident, but not too cocky, and both easy and fun to talk with. "What about you, um-- I'm so sorry, I've forgotten your name." She didn't seem to mind. "Grace Ojomo." "Grace! I'll remember that. Promise! What do you do?" "Nothing flashy or interesting," she began, but Eliza snorted loudly. "She is a genius!" The actress pointed with her thumb to the girl. "Don't let her fool you with this cute, shy act of hers. She's here to win!" "Are you?" He asked her, hands clasped over his knee. "A genius?" Grace traced the rim of her glass with a small finger. "Last year, I was voted Britain's Brightest Star. The youngest ever." In stark contrast, Lance felt bloody stupid. He wished he knew what that was. It sounded pretty significant. "Awesome! What-- what for?" This time, there was no humility in Grace's eyes. Only pride. "Academic achievement." Oh shit. Eliza hadn't been exaggerating. Grace really was a genius. That scared him. To be competing against someone so bright in a game based on general knowledge questions... how could he stand a chance? How could any of them? Especially him? He was just a high-school dropout. Why did he agree to do this? I'm so in over my head here. The girls continued to chat, with Eliza doing most of the talking. On the other couch, Jamie was shamelessly flirting with Alyssa, who seemed to enjoy the attention. Bugeyes, on the other side of them, looked very awkward. He probably wasn't much of a social creature. For a brief moment, Lance considered going over to talk to him, but he then remembered the nasty comments the app developer made about him earlier and his sympathy vanished. Bugger him. The seventh person arrived considerably later than Lance had. He was very, very tall, thick in the middle and fair-skinned, with fiery orange hair, many freckles and blue eyes. He was cute, even if his nose was slightly long and bent. His slacks and bowtie matched his blue eyes. "Nathan Saunders," he spoke with a predictably Irish accent and flashed some crooked but immaculate white teeth. "Pleased to meet the lot of you. What's everybody's names?" Following the introductions, Nathan spoke a little about himself to the group as though he were holding a press conference. "I'm from Waterford, Northern Ireland, and I founded my own charity: All About Autism, or Triple-A." Oh, bum. Another great success story. "Oh, I never heard of it!" Alyssa surprised Lance by showing brief interest in another person's life. "Is it a small charity?" "Yes. For now," Nathan admitted, running his hand through his hair. "I'm hoping we'll get some exposure tonight, and the prize money certainly wouldn't hurt. So don't be afraid to make some big numbers tonight!" "I'm guessing that you're playing for your own charity?" Lance asked him, and Nathan nodded. "Call me selfish, but we need the money," the Irishman shrugged and offered a nervous grin. "Oh, we'd never think you selfish! We're all playing for our charities tonight," Eliza reassured him. Moments later, a fourth girl strolled in, and she received some looks from the others that Lance was familiar with. Her hair was huge around her face, spiked and fluffy, layered blue and pink and possibly filled with enough hairspray to plug the ozone layer. Her eyes were outlined by a thick layer of eyeliner, and she had piercings in her mouth, nose and ears. She wore a pink tee with tight black jeans underneath and neon-blue converse shoes. Lance was pleased to see that he wouldn't be the only one to stand on the set with a non-conformist presentation. Not far behind her, just as she uttered a cool hello, the ninth and final contestant joined the green room - a tall, powerful-looking fellow with dirty blond curls, sharp blue eyes and very real muscles hiding under his tight-fitting blue shirt. "Alright, guys? I'm Cian," he spoke confidently with a deep, baritone voice and a soft Scottish accent. Between the two who arrived at nearly the same time, the charismatic Cian was far better received than Casey was, and most of the teenagers flocked to him. Lance decided to wait his turn and instead greet the scene girl, who didn't seem all too desperate to speak with her rivals. "Hi! I adore your shirt," he beamed, and she looked him up and down. "I'm Lance!" "Hey," she greeted him indifferently, arms folded over her chest. "I'm Casey Adams. I'm an author." That's it, then. Unless bodybuilder Cian turns out to be a potato, literally everyone is more of a teenage triumph than I am. "Neat! What did you write? Anything I've read?" He asked her politely, pushing his own insecurity deep down where, with luck, nobody else would see it. "The Glass Kingdom and Obsidian Arrowhead," she curled her slightly chapped lips in a smirk. "Maybe you read them. I don't know. What do you do?" I should tell a bunch of porkies, like I invented the goldfish or something. At least I'd sound interesting. "Model and professional dancer." "Oh. Not something... intellectual?" She seemed genuinely surprised, and Lance's opinion of her darkened. Is she for real? "I'm afraid not, but don't underestimate me." He turned from her, stung by her words as the veiled threat left his rose-gold painted lips. Cian, when at last Lance could get a word in with him edgewise, seemed much less aloof than many of the other contestants. He was very likeable, and he shook the dancer's hand with a firm but warm grip. What Lance liked most, though, was that Cian didn't stare at him with confusion or disgust. "Hi! I'm Lance." "What's going on, man? You a celebrity or Youtube something or what?" One day. Lance briefly closed his eyes to match his coy smile. "Not yet. I'm just a professional dancer. How about you? What got you arms like that?" Cian flexed his colossal left bicep. "I'm an athlete. The boys and I came home from the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 with a gold medal in recurve archery." He said it so flippantly that Lance wasn't sure he heard correctly. Come again? "You... what? You're an Olympic athlete?" "Well, Commonwealth,” Cian corrected him. “I’ll be Olympic this year!" "In archery?" "Mhm. Started with a plastic bow and those plunger darts me mam got me for my birthday when I was four, and it turns out I had a knack for it." Wow. Not unlike my dancing. "Well, bugger me! I thought you had to be over eighteen to participate in the Olympics-- and Commonwealth!" Lance exclaimed. "I don't know how it is for all the other events, but you only have to be sixteen to qualify for archery. I’ll be eighteen for the London Olympics this year - it’s my birthday in three weeks! So, what does professional dancer mean?" Lance was now growing weary of explaining his paltry activities to these people who had accomplished so much more than he had. "Oh, you know. Recitals, competitions and stage productions. Nothing special." "Aye, I don't think that's true. You must be one heck of a dancer. Why would you be here if you're not special?" Cian reasoned. "They need someone to go home first," Jamie piped up, and some of the others laughed out loud. Paul, Casey and Alyssa. Though he'd been ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, Lance decided once and for all that he disliked all four of them. Lance came to the studio wanting to be mature, but Jamie had successfully gotten under his skin with his holier-than-thou arrogance since the moment he'd arrived. He struck back. "Whatever, mate. I wear heels bigger than your todger." The only person who didn't laugh at the dancer's reply was Jamie himself. It felt good to scorch the cockiness off his stupid face. It had been a letdown to meet the actor behind Corey Channing, the prettiest face of Ember Seal, just to find out he was an absolute prat. Ten or fifteen minutes later, after the teenagers had all arrived and done enough mingling and socialising for the camera that recorded them, Ronda returned through the double doors and made her presence known with her loud barking voice. "Alright, listen up! We're ready for you all on the set. Head on in, find your name on one of the podiums and take your spot. We'll go over the rules for both the set and the game before the Hostess arrives. Come this way, please. Quickly!" "Good luck everyone!" an excitable Nathan was the first to follow the woman from the green room. Lance and Grace trailed the rest of the contestants, walking together through the hallway in the direction that Ronda had taken his parents earlier. Nerves turned his mouth dry, and excitement made his belly writhe. He covered his face with his hands when he followed Alyssa through the doorway and saw the set. For years and years, Mum and Dad insisted on watching The Weakest Link at a quarter past five before starting dinner. It was surreal to see it for himself, and especially a podium with his name on it! Lance! The dozens of people in the audience, including the friends and family of tonight's contestants, all applauded and cheered as Ronda lead the teenagers inside. Mum and Dad were there in the second row on the third block of seats, Mum clapping loudly as Dad whistled through his fingers. They looked so proud. The nine podiums were arranged in a semi-circle, all facing the centre stage where the Hostess would soon glower at her victims and fire off questions like bullets from a rifle. Cian's platform was first in the curve, then Alyssa, Grace, his own, Jamie, Nathan, Casey, Paul and finally Eliza. Lance was irritated to find out that he was going to spend the evening next to Jamie, yet on the other side, he was terrified that Grace, the dangerously clever girl, would make him look like a daft bimbo by contrast. Lance's shoes were noisy on the blue floor beneath him as he walked, and he nervously took his place behind his podium, looking behind him to receive comfort from his parents. It worked. It always did. "Alright, I'm assuming everyone knows how the game works?" Ronda asked, standing in front of the centre stage. Everyone replied in the affirmative, but the woman seemed to want to make sure. "The Hostess will ask a question, you will answer it, and you'll either get it right or wrong. She'll then go to the next person clockwise, and so on and so forth. If you answer incorrectly or you pass, the money in the chain is lost, and you have to start again. Every right question in a row is worth more money than the one before it. The first in a chain is worth one hundred pounds, then two-fifty, five hundred, a thousand, fifteen-hundred, twenty-two-fifty, three thousand, four thousand and the final question in a chain of nine is worth five thousand." Lance could visualise the money chain on the left side of the telly screen. So rarely did the competing team provide enough correct answers in a row to reach five thousand pounds. Had they been nine Graces, perhaps they would stand a chance, but Lance wasn't a genius. Alyssa wasn't either. That much was clear. What about the others? Eliza definitely seemed as though she knew her onions. Casey, several places to Lance's left, made sure everyone knew that she'd published two lengthy novels and made a lot of money. Was Jamie smarter than he looked? Lance didn't even want to look at him. Ronda continued, her voice breaking a little under the volume of her shouting. "When it's your turn, you can choose to bank, which will save the money in the chain but you'll have to start a new chain. You can only bank a maximum of five thousand pounds per round. Once you've banked five thousand pounds or you run out of time, Freddy over there," she pointed to a weaselly man in the corner, "will deliver your boards and a marker, and you'll vote for whichever teammate you think you'll do better without. The Hostess will send them home, and the next round begins. Got it?" Lance nodded, and others were verbal in their affirmation. "The Hostess likes to have fun with the contestants. Remember, whatever she says is just for the camera. It's all part of the show. She'll probably try to embarrass you or take you down a few pegs, or maybe she'll tell you to sing or banter or... whatever she feels like. Just indulge her and do whatever she says. Before the game begins, you'll introduce yourselves one by one to the camera. State your name, age, what makes you special, where you live and what charity you're playing for tonight. Got that? Name, age, profession, where you live and what charity you're playing for." I'm Lance Lovecraft, sixteen, a model and a dancer from Croydon. Hmm, maybe I should just say London. Croydon’s a bit… common. Oh, and I'm playing for Stonewall Equality Limited. Ronda then went to work describing in detail the way the contestants were expected to behave: with each other, with the Hostess and the cameras. Don't look directly at the cameras - Jamie made sure to let everyone know that as an actor, he already knew that rule. There was to be no poor sportsmanship - something that Lance imagined some of these spoiled brats would struggle with. Speak when spoken to. No profanity. To Lance, it all seemed like common courtesy. It was strange that he had to be reminded to act professionally, yet he imagined there was a story behind them. Had someone flipped the Hostess the bird or called her something rotten? He wondered what had been edited out from the past sixteen hundred shows. Once Ronda was satisfied that the show would run smoothly and the contestants agreed they were ready to begin, she retreated and another took her place. Upon her entry, the Hostess commanded the attention of everybody in the room. Dressed entirely in black, she reminded Lance of a mature age dominatrix. Her eyes swept the curve of competitors from left to right, but she did not greet them. The moment she stood high up on her stage, she turned her back on the teenagers and waited for the cameraman's signal. Lance peered at Grace, who was nervously tapping her hands on her podium. She noticed, and the two shared an excited smile. He looked to beautiful Cian and gorgeous Alyssa, and idiot Jamie, Irish Nathan, emo Casey, Paul with the face pubes and classy Eliza. Of the lot of them, only Casey looked as though she were comfortable. Everyone else was on edge. The studio lights moved and blinked, and Lance supposed it was the cue for the Hostess to speak. There had been so little warning that the show was beginning that he was a little taken aback! "Welcome to a special Teenage Triumphs edition of The Weakest Link." The signature tones sounded through the studio, so loudly, and the lights shifted. Lance watched in awe as the camera raised and retreated to get everyone in the shot. "The nine teenagers behind me in the studio today have been taking the UK by storm... until now." Lance couldn't help but crack a smile as the audience laughed behind him. He was getting personally roasted by the iconic Hostess! "They could win up to fifty thousand pounds for both themselves and their favourite charity. If they want to win the prize money tonight, they will have to work as a team, but eight of them will go empty-handed. The hesitant, the unprepared, the ones who make excuses: all will leave with nothing, as round by round we lose the player voted the weakest link. Let's meet the little treasures." I'm Lance Lovecraft, sixteen, a model and a dancer from London. I'm playing for Stonewall Equality Limited. "I'm Cian Miller, sixteen years old from Glasgow, and I was part of Scotland's archery team earlier this year at the Commonwealth Games. My charity of choice is the Samaritans." I'm Love Lancecraft. Wait. "I'm Alyssa MacIntosh, I'm seventeen, I come from Liverpool, and I recently released my first single 'Whispers of my Dreams,' available on iTunes. If I win tonight, my charity is Marie Curie." I'm Lance Lovecraft. I'm sixteen and I'm a model and dancer. My charity of choice is the Stonewall Equality Limited. "I'm Grace Ojomo, fourteen years old from Bristol, and I'm the youngest person ever to be awarded the title of Britain's Brightest Star. When I win the prize money, I will be donating it to Cancer Research UK." Lance barely had time to register how confident the young woman to his right seemed before the camera turned to him and he swallowed. "My name is Lance Lovecraft, I'm sixteen years old, and I'm a model and dancer from London. I chose Stonewall Equality Limited as my charity for their amazing work with the LGBTQ community." Lance felt a deep breath leave his fingers, toes, belly and brain in addition to his lungs. Immediately the anxiety caught him on the backswing. Did he sound too pretentious? Or delve too much into Stonewall? Would people think that his mentioning the LGBTQ community was to make a statement? Well, it was in a way, but would that affect the way the other contestants thought of him? He didn't want to give any of them any reason to vote him off. He glanced at Cian, then Alyssa, and Grace. None of them looked at him. Everyone's eyes were on the boy to Lance's left. "I'm Jamie Ceannaideach, I'm from Aberdeen, and I'm fifteen. I'm a singer, actor, dancer and model, most famous as Corey Channing in Ember Seal, and I'm representing St John Ambulance." The repetition of the other contestants' resumes succeeded in making Lance feel small. These other contestants, as far as Lance understood, had mostly been groomed for success since they were born into families with means, influence and power. From what he'd gathered from the green room, aside from Nathan, the guy who founded his own charity before he even finished school and Grace, the girl with the big brain, he was the only one whose footsteps into the world of glamour and fame weren't already shaped for him. Private schools, wealth, endless opportunities. He dared not mention to his rivals that he was a public high school dropout. They'd vote him off in a heartbeat. "I'm Nathan Saunders from Lisburn, seventeen, I founded the All About Autism campaign to bring awareness, ease difficulties and fight stigma. If I win tonight, that money's going right into All About Autism. We can use all the help we can get." Though the audience clapped and cheered for each contestant as they introduced themselves and revealed their charity, their reaction to Nathan was more energetic than for anyone else. Fair enough, I suppose. "I'm Casey Adams, seventeen, I'm from Southampton, and I've written and published two novels. Ahh, they're-- wait, can I talk about my novels?" "This is only a one-hour show, but by all means, if it makes you feel important," the Hostess remarked snidely, drawing some laughs from the other contestants and audience members. "Reset, we'll take that again," one of the cameramen said. "Oh, no," Lance murmured, loud enough for Grace to hear and grin with what he hoped was sympathy. He turned around, eyes lighting up when he found Mum and Dad in the audience. Mum gave a little wave, and Dad winked. Suddenly, Lance felt guilty about his earlier thoughts. Maybe he didn't have a future set out for him with open gates and opportunities falling from the sky. But Mum and Dad, though there were some missteps along the way, loved him unconditionally and supported him. They never expected to have their lives turned upside-down with their second son, and perhaps they could have been more understanding along the way, but they always loved him. What did it matter what overachieving Jamie or up herself Casey or super smart Grace had in their resume? They couldn't possibly know everything. Worst case scenario, he made a bloody fool of himself and Mum and Dad told him on the plane ride home how proud they are. He smiled. The cameraman pointed at Cian again, and the boy introduced himself. Then Alyssa, then Grace. This time, Lance spoke confidently. "I'm Lance Lovecraft, sixteen, I model, and I've won several competitions in ballroom and ballet dance. I'm playing for the Stonewall Equality Limited tonight because they've done amazing work for the LGBTQ community." He didn't feel at all pompous for emphasising his achievements. In hindsight, he was glad that he had a second chance at a first impression. He would not be intimidated by Jamie, nor Casey, nor Grace. They needed to know that. I'm fabulous. If they don't like it, they can bloody well shove it. After securing a successful introduction from the already esteemed author, the camera pointed at the boy next to her - Whatshisface with the terrible moustache. Lance kept forgetting his name. He didn't even know what the guy did to end up here. He only remembered Bugeyes' nasty remarks about his appearance. "I'm Paul Russo, I'm sixteen years old, I live in Derry, and I developed a series of apps for children that encourage recycling, exercising and reading. I'm donating my winnings to the British Heart Foundation - assuming I win!" Oh, wow. That's actually pretty neat. From Derry? Paul certainly didn't sound like he was from Northern Ireland. He spoke with a Geordie accent. "I'm Eliza Stacey Brooks, seventeen, and I play Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, now performing at the Sherman Theatre in my home town of Cardiff. Tonight, I'm also playing for Cancer Research UK." So, they were three from England, two from Scotland, two from Northern Ireland and one from Wales. The lights changed once again, and Lance assumed that the second take was successful. The Hostess stepped up to her podium and gripped her screen. "Now, the rules. In each round, your aim is to answer enough questions correctly to reach your potential target of five thousand pounds within the time limit. With every correct answer in a chain, the value of each question increases. If you answer incorrectly or pass, the chain is broken and you lose all the money in that chain. If before the question is asked, you say 'bank,' that money is saved, but you start a new chain from scratch. The fastest way to reach your five thousand pound target is nine correct answers in a row without banking. Remember that at the end of the round, only money that has been banked can be taken forward. The first round begins with three minutes on the clock. We'll start with the person whose name is first alphabetically, and that is our songstress Alyssa. Let's play The Weakest Link." Here we go!
  11. In 2012, nine gifted teenagers arrive seek to win up to fifty thousand pounds for themselves and for charity by appearing on a special edition of The Weakest Link. An athlete, a pop singer, an academic genius, a television actor, a charity founder, a published novelist, an app developer, a theatre actress and Lance Lovecraft, a professional dancer. Only one can win, but none of the little treasures play to lose.
  12. AusGlitterati

    Rags

    When Seth went to sleep, he was drunk, miserable and lonely. When he woke, none of that was relevant. Chip and Glenn didn't exist. They were part of the seven hundred and twenty-eight obstacles. Seth only needed to outlast twenty-four of them personally. He could put his faith in Natalie, the Ryder twins and other Poker giants to exterminate the others. Still, though he remained proud of his stance that Poker wasn't personal, he hoped to run into a few specific people before the tournament came to an end. What he wouldn't do to see the smug grins wiped from the faces of Chip, Lester and especially Donny, or to smirk back at the furious scowl on Madame Fleur de Glace's lips. He did not seek others to dine with this morning. With circumstantial exceptions, he did not eat with his competition - if that was even the appropriate word. Victims sounded better. Instead, Seth ordered toast with scrambled eggs, a kransky sausage and two rashers of bacon, and some sugary tea in a pot to wash it down. He frowned in amused irritation when he saw that the eggs arrived already spread thinly on his toast yet the butter remained in two sachets by the side. Idiots. He showered, moisturised, brushed and flossed his teeth and combed the knots from his hair until it was like a long, black curtain over his shoulders. He tugged on a brilliant white suit embroidered with red roses, one he bought with the winning pot from a tournament in Reno back in '99. It wasn't a lucky suit - Seth was hardly superstitious - but he often wore it when he played cards. It reminded him every time he took a sip from his beverage and saw the red rose on his wrist that he was a winner. The dealers began at ten sharp. Those participating in today's draft would register by nine and find their seat by nine-forty five. Half of the players would compete today, three hundred and sixty split up into forty tables of nine. Seth was one of them, going by the schedule he kept safe underneath the photograph he, Clara and their parents took together for Christmas of '91. Table eight in the casino on the third deck. He didn't know who he would play against. On one hand, he hoped it would be eight strangers he could wipe out in a couple of hours. On the other, it would be nice to dominate Chip. Whatever his real name was. Probably Kyle. He seemed like a total Kyle. When first he sat down at table eight, Seth laughed out loud. With a head like a straw broom, Lester looked back at him from seven o'clock, and all of the privileged white boy arrogance left those eyes. "Well, that's just great!" Lester complained out loud, tapping his manicured nails on the top of his designer shades perched on his fuzzy head and letting them fall to his nose. "What are the odds you'd be at my table?" "You don't know the odds? You're playing professional Hold'Em, and you can't calculate the odds of us meeting at your table?" Seth's giggles turned heads. "Oh, this is a treat." "Ahh, it doesn't matter," Lester grinned. "Chippy will run roughshod over you and everyone else. He's the best player I've ever seen." "Then you obviously don't get out very often," Seth snorted, only mildly aware that the other four scrubs sitting at the table were watching their exchange. Lester leaned back. "Hey man, you and I both know I'm just here to have a bit of fun. You don't have to be a prick. I know I'm doomed here. Who cares? Lighten up a bit, boomer. Chippy apparently didn't teach you anything." Seth's blood ran cold, and from the way the cocky young man's lip curled, Lester was aware that he struck a nerve. What did that little bastard Chip tell his friends? He felt his knuckles tightening into fists, but when he noticed, he forced himself to calm down. How many people had tried to get into his head? A hundred? A thousand? It didn't matter. None of them ever succeeded... yet Lester was a different kettle of fish, he supposed. He didn't intend to win, but he was doing his best to psyche his opponent out anyway. Was he just a pawn? To soften the multi-time champion for his friends to deliver the coup de grace? But then Seth remembered something - Donny and Chip would never make it to the finals. Not with card sharks like the Ryder Twins, Fleur de Blanc, Natalie Payne and Lars van der Berg aboard the ship. He knew he could rely on his fellow champions to clean up the rabble. "Seth Nakamura!" A middle-aged woman sat down next to him, startling him somewhat, and learned obnoxiously close. She smelled of sickly sweet perfume, but her breath reeked as though she ate her meals from an ashtray. "No way, I didn't believe I'd ever get a chance to play against someone like you!" "Oh, a card shark, is he?" Mohawk, the man next to Lester, pretended he didn't recognise the Poker celebrity. "You don't know who Seth Nakamura is?" Ashtray, for all her aromatic faults, at least asked the question Seth wished to hear the answer to. "Oh, he's won a lot of tournaments! You and I probably don't stand much chance, you know! Not with him at our table." "Don't count on it," Mohawk mumbled, doing his best to appear confident, but Seth could see the fidgeting of his tattooed hands - a sign that he was worried. The final person to sit down at the table was a middle-aged gentleman in a tuxedo who seemed to be living out a James Bond fantasy, with a modern watch and an apparent need to fiddle relentlessly with his tie. He recognised none of these people, aside from Lester. At table three, Seth spotted pretty Glenn McIntosh, sitting at the table with another eight strangers. As far as he knew, Glenn wasn't much good at cards, but Seth knew not to underestimate him. To call the gold-digger amoral would be overkill, but he was manipulative, resourceful and more intelligent than he liked to appear to the untrained eye. On table eleven, Seth could see Lydia Ryder, and the eight people she was about to slaughter. He shot her a mutual look of respect and well wishes. Every player received a thousand dollars worth of chips and their cards. Seth drew a three of spades and a Jack of diamonds - a rubbish hand. There was always a chance his cards could become valuable on the flop, but he wanted to understand his opponents before he moved to second gear. How much they were willing to gamble, how much stock they put in their hand, and how aggressive or defensively they liked to play. Lester, Seth noticed, was trying far too hard to conceal emotion behind his shades. He was very aware that he lacked a pokerface, it seemed. Seth rolled his eyes and shook his head in disgust when not one, not two, but three of his competitors went all-in on the very first hand. Lester, to his credit, did not stake his place in the entire competition on the very first pair of cards dealt to him, but Mohawk put it all on the line for a pair of Queens. Worse, Ashtray and an overweight man with mutton chops threw their thousands upon thousands of dollars in sign-up fees away on an Ace and eight and a suited ten and Jack, respectively. Idiots! They had no respect for the game, and when Ashtray won with a pair of aces, Seth did not even dignify them with recognition. It wasn't a tournament of only the most potent poker players in the world. Any rich asshole could pay to board and compete. As Seth sipped from his juice, he logged that hand in his mental database. So, Ashtray is confident enough in an Ace with a rag to go all in. I'll remember that. Lester folded the first nine hands of the game before even making the blinds. Seth was intrigued by this. He was sure the kid would be willing to gamble, but then he remembered that this was Lester, and not Chip or Donny. Of the three, Lester certainly had the least amount of personality. Ashtray, next to Seth, did her very best to bully the table after winning a staggering lead from her pair of aces in the first hand. She bet aggressively and often, raking in a pittance at a time. When at last Seth had a strong hand and tripled her bet, Ashtray forced him to go all-in if he wanted to contest the pot. Seth sneered at her, seeing the fragility in the way she projected her overconfidence, but when he laid down his flush, a highly ranked hand of five same suited cards, Ashtray conceded and did not reveal her cards. A tightening in her jaw indicated that she was adequately tilted after that mistake. Good. Bowler Hat was eliminated next, then Acne Scars and Toupée, all to the same player, the middle-aged lady who stanned Versace, wearing shades and carrying a purse with the label. When twelve o'clock ticked over, it was time for a lunch break. Four of them remained, now. Seth, of course, playing conservatively aside from a few decent hands. Lester, who had won a few mediocre hands and was struggling to keep up with the blinds. Ashtray, whose confidence disappeared the second she lost her lead and faced elimination if she didn't act soon. Versace, a savvy woman that Seth had taken a liking to when she knocked out three competitors in a row and gained the lion's share of the chips. Though Lester and Ashtray were on their way out, Seth was interested in seeing how well Versace could measure up to him, head to head. She was becoming a threat; just what he needed to spice up the first round. "How's your game going?" Lydia Ryder asked him as he sat next to her at the casino bar. She drank lemon water, preferring to remain sober while she played. "Small fish in a big pond - one of them is a bigger fish, but I wouldn't call her a shark," Seth brushed his hair with his fingers as he beckoned to the bartender. "There are only four of us left." "Oh, good job. How many did you knock out?" Seth raised an eyebrow. "None, actually. The cards haven't been on my side, but these scrubs couldn't find a bluff with a map. How's yours going? Oh," he turned to the bartender, who took her sweet time to make it down to him. "I'll have a salad slider and a glass of lemon, lime and bitters. Thank you." "We still have six at my table. The guy on my left doesn't know what deodorant does, apparently. I'm desperate to knock him out as fast as I can!" Lydia led the two in a hearty chuckle. "And bugger me, there's an older woman who sounds like she's smoked eleven packs a day since she was born, and she talks and talks with this horrible voice that sounds like... you know when the telly doesn't have good reception?" "Are you talking about Nat?" Seth grinned, and the two laughed again. "I'll tell her you said that," Lydia winked at him. "No, I have a good table. It's a solid game with some decent players." "Yes. You're all heart and sportsmanship," he teased. "Shut up! I have a good thing going," she whispered with a grin. "Mr Nakamura, right?" The bartender caught his attention, and he looked at her, giving a slight nod. He looked at the bottle of Heinekin beer in her hand and grimaced. "Someone from the other side bought this for you. Quite a cutie, I think. He also wanted me to give you this. I always liked origami. My sister had origami napkins at her wedding." The bartender placed the beer on a coaster and the pretty origami swan, folded crudely from what seemed to be a sheet of notebook paper from one of the rooms, next to it. A swan. How predictable. How cliché. If Chip wanted to impress him, he'd have to try a lot harder than this. "Send it back," Seth ordered. That immature rube blew his chance last night with the way he behaved. "I'm not interested." "What?" Lydia screwed up her face. "Aren't you curious about who sent it to you?" "Not even a little bit. I know who it's from," Seth blew her off coldly, sipping from his glass. "Send it back and tell him to grow up." "Whatever. It makes no difference to me," the bartender seemed a little let down, but it was none of her business. "No! Bugger that! I want to see for myself. You've been getting secret notes and whatnot since we went to dinner and I'm a nosy cow," Lydia pulled at one of the glittering red roses embroidered on his superb white jacket. "Can I keep the swan if you don't want it?" Seth shrugged. "Be my guest, if such poor craftsmanship entices you." "Don't be mean! I like it. I wish Josh would surprise me with cute stuff like this," she rotated it in her hands with a small smile on her lips. "Bring me some paper tonight. I'll show you how to do it properly," Seth offered, feeling a little bad for being such a snob. "Since we'll make you some real origami, you don't need this one." He slipped the origami swan into his jacket as Lydia watched, amused and thoroughly unconvinced.
  13. AusGlitterati

    Menorah

    Following a delightful pasta dinner and an overindulgence of icecream, Elijah retired to the common room, determined to take a break from studying for his exams and relax for a while. He had a favourite spot on the couch, and before he'd even managed to open up his novel to his bookmark, Tiger sat down on the other side, shooting a gorgeous smile. Elijah blushed merrily, making sure to look away from the handsome Aboriginal teenager. As he looked down his book, Tiger slipped a folded paper note across the upholstery and Elijah, heart beating in his chest, dared to open it up. Can I kiss you, please? Unless someone sees! To my room, then? Eager to know when! Elijah laughed out loud. Tiger's poetry was pretty bad, but that was never the point. Earlier in the year, a secret admirer left Elijah cryptic poems. Sweet and sincere, but they didn't seem to make sense until he finally cracked the code and realised it was Tiger all along! And now, as he looked at the first letter of each line, he turned crimson. When he dared to meet his sweetheart's eyes, he giggled. Banjo Connors, known to all as Tiger. He was very handsome, too. Dark-skinned with high cheekbones, a wide, flat nose and black hair streaked with orange highlights that inspired his nickname. "You're going to get us found out!" Elijah bit his lip, pocketing the note and folding his legs. "Nah. I wouldn't do that to you! Not until you're ready," the Aboriginal teenager reassured him, keeping a distance so none of the other boys would notice. Elijah had never noticed how little privacy he had at Oakfield until he discovered a mutual attraction to one of his friends. There were fellow students everywhere, from the dormitories to the classrooms and the school grounds. Elijah shared his room with his best friend Cường Nguyễn - who chose Reggie as his English name - so he rarely had time to himself. The same held true for Tiger, who shared with the fourth member of their group, Owen Marsh. It wasn't as though Elijah wanted to break any school rules. He just wanted some alone time with the boy who stole his heart, and he wasn't ready to let everyone else know about him. What would Mum and Dad say? "Oi Silverman," Reggie's voice was as loud as he was small, and Elijah spotted him immediately as he jaunted in from the corridor, Owen in tow. "We got you an early Christmas present!" Elijah closed his book with a slight frown and put his feet on the blue carpet. "You know you don't have to do that. Neither of you is my secret Santa." "As far as you know," Owen reminded him, his swimmer's arms folded over his chest. Reggie skidded to a halt in front of him, almost losing his comically oversized spectacles from his small, round nose. He was holding something behind his back, and Elijah was almost fearful. Reggie's festive spirit bordered on the psychopathic. November had barely crept onto the calendar before the miniature plastic Christmas tree appeared on Reggie's desk. Elijah watched in curious awe as the weeks went by, and his Catholic friend cluttered up his workspace with more and more Christmas decorations. Now, in the second week of December, Reggie's excitement had reached a rabid fever pitch. "Okay! Okay, I know, but I wanted to!" Reggie presented his friend with a small, clumsily wrapped box that appeared to be more sticky tape than it did gift paper. "Open it now!" With a chuckle, Elijah began the awkwardly long unwrapping ceremony. A few other boys looked over the back of the couch or Reggie's shoulder, curious about what was so important that it needed to be presented right now. When at last he yanked the box from the vicelike grip of what had to be half a roll of tape, Elijah curiously pulled off the top of the box and his mouth opened in a joyous grin. "Guys--" The words caught in Elijah's throat. "Do you like it?" Reggie's narrow eyes shone with joy. "Yeah. I love it! Thank you so much!" "Marshy bought it, but it was my idea!" Reggie had to assert, causing Owen and Tiger to exchange light-hearted eyerolls. Elijah beamed at his friends, taking the plastic nine-branched candle tree from the box and holding it up. It was a cheap ornament, of course, but that didn't matter. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts he'd ever received. Reggie and Owen were good guys, of course, but they weren't typically sensitive. He never would have expected this from them. "What is it?" Chad Stone, an Eighth Year with strange, wiry blond hair asked. "It's a Jewish thing," Tiger explained, leaning forward to look at it closely. "What's it called?" "A hanukiah," Elijah couldn't shake off the grin on his face. "Mum, Dad and I put one of these up on our mantle for Hanukkah every year." "Yeah! And it comes with little fires you can attach to the tops of the candles! Look!" Owen pointed to the eight small flames and Elijah's grin widened ear to ear. "That is so cool," Tiger applauded from the side, and Elijah had to agree. "I love this. It's amazing, Reg. Thanks a bunch," the Jewish boy closed his book and placed it beside him, leaving it forgotten as he played with the plastic fires and attached them. "Yeah! Now come and put it up on the tree!" Reggie urged him, grabbing him by the forearm and yanking him unnecessarily hard to his feet. "The tree?" Elijah turned to look at the huge pine tree in the corner. It was the pride and joy of the Oakfield dormitories. Every one of the forty-three boarders contributing to decorating their common room for the Christmas season. Cutouts, ornaments and tinsel covered the walls and hung from the ceilings, but the Christmas tree was something special. It was immense, covered in hundreds of beautiful blinking lights, and every branch had something attached to it. Underneath, dozens of wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes littered the floor for the annual Secret Santa event. "Yeah!" Reggie was almost a blur as he ran across the room to the coveted Christmas tree. "Come and put it up here somewhere." Elijah closed his novel and crossed to the tree with more poise than his friend did, the plastic menorah in his hand. With pride, he stood high on his toes to let it hang high from one of the branches. It looked good up there, he thought. Elijah didn't celebrate Christmas with his family. Still, he did enjoy being a part of the holiday cheer at the end of the school year. He'd already bought and wrapped his gift for an Eighth Year boy and placed it under the tree when nobody was around. Elijah's eyes also found a gift from his own Secret Santa, a small, neat package that looked suspiciously like two or three news books - not that it was a bad thing! "You didn't have to do that for me, Reg," Elijah put a hand on his friend's shoulder, looking happily up at the menorah. "I wanted to! Everything's all about Christmas right now, but I know you don't do Christmas and I didn't want you to feel left out or anything." Reggie wrapped up his friend in a 'bro hug' - a real hug might have damaged his masculinity. Elijah couldn't put into words how much Reggie's gesture meant to him. The school accommodated Elijah's Jewish faith. If pork was on the menu for dinner, then the cook prepared something else for Elijah - usually something delicious like chicken or pasta. During the beginning of Passover this year, Elijah was permitted to refrain from attending class on Friday per his parents' wishes, so long as he caught up on everything he missed. But Reggie was more intuitive than Elijah would have guessed. Indeed, it did get lonely when everyone observed Christmas, and he didn't. It wasn't his holiday. It was a small gesture but powerful enough to make Elijah feel recognised and included. That evening, Owen and Reggie teamed up against Bernard Veal and Lane Ericsson, two other Ninth Year boarders, in an increasingly aggressive game of table tennis. Meanwhile, Elijah was content to read a novel with the boy who wrote him such sweet things. Eventually, Mr Sanders hijacked the television to put on another Christmas movie. Tiger and Elijah's conversation about the writing style present in the novel they read together came to an abrupt end. Reggie forced himself on the couch between them, eager to watch his movie with his friends. ~ Later on that evening, before curfew, the two gay boys stood together in Tiger's room, enjoying their precious few minutes alone. "You don't need to worry, Eli. I promise I'm not in any rush. Just being with you when you read your book or take forever to finish a cupcake is enough for me," Tiger reminded him again. "I love you! I love you so much, and I think I'm the luckiest guy in the world every time you hold my hand." Elijah never tired of hearing those words. He often felt guilty about his budding relationship with his friend. He hadn't explored his feelings as much as he would have liked to during the school year. With the lack of privacy and the anxiety brewing inside about how his friends and family might react to the news, he thought it best to focus on his studies until he knew what he wanted. But these small moments with Tiger, the sweet notes, beautiful sentiments and gentle kisses when nobody was looking, went a long way to diffusing the boy's doubts. He felt the same way. Through the confusion and uncertainty, he knew that much. "I love you too!" Elijah beamed, then he absent-mindedly covered his mouth with his hand. "Why do you do that?" Tiger pulled his hand away. "I hate my teeth," Elijah shrank back slightly, wary of his braces and that one pimple that just wouldn't go away under the left corner of his bottom lip. "I suppose I can't legally stop you from hating your teeth, but it's a shame because when you smile, it's like the sun shines from you," Tiger kissed him on the lips again. "They're only braces. You're so gorgeous, and I wish you'd accept it. Can I kiss you again tomorrow?" "Yes!" Elijah's heart pounded with excitement. They would part ways on Friday as school finished for the year, and would not return until the beginning of February. Elijah intended to kiss him as much as he could! "Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don't let Owen bite!" "But he will snore. That's for damn sure. What an uproar. Against the law! " Tiger's smile widened as sweetheart laughed at his silliness. "You, I adore. Forevermore. Am I a bore? Please reassure. Don't just ignore! Bad rhymes galore! Want an encore? Tyrannosaur!" "You're an idiot! The cutest idiot!" Elijah, laughing heartily, broke away and left before Owen caught him out. He had already brushed his teeth, filled a cup with water, changed into his pyjamas and tucked himself into his bed by the time Reggie arrived, escorted by the Eleventh Year prefect, Christian Li. The Vietnamese boy would stay up all night and sleep the daylight away if allowed. Sleepy, thinking of Tiger, Elijah closed his eyes after lights out, but as usual, Reggie's heavily accented voice disturbed him. "I don't really want to go home this year." "Home? To Lào Cai?" "Yeah. I wish I was going home with you." Elijah sighed, sticking out two of his limbs from the covers. It was a hot night. "I wish you were coming home too. The farm is so boring by myself. But what about Christmas? I can't help but notice you've been looking forward to it for a while now." "Yes! Of course! But it won't be the same without you. I know I should be excited about seeing my parents and my annoying sister again, but... I don't know. I'm just not." Elijah could sense from the flatness of Reggie's usually energetic tone that he was unhappy. "No, man. I get it. I think. I mean, we're living in each other's pockets, what? Forty-five weeks of the year? And how often do we see our families? Ninety days from three hundred and sixty-five. Or thereabouts. I don't know. I'm not good with numbers." "A hundred and twelve," Reggie, talented in different ways than Elijah, was a whizz at mathematics. "For you, that is. It's forty-six for me." "Then Tyson goes home every weekend. I wish I could do that." "Well, it could be worse. Dong doesn't go home ever." Circumstances were very different between the thirty students who boarded at Oakfield, a private school for exceptional students. Elijah, Tiger and Bernard's families lived quite some distance away. Reggie was a student from overseas! Tyson Belmont-Lovett spent the week at school, then went home with his foster family during weekends. Dong Hoon Kim was once a daytime student, but now he was a permanent boarder because he had no family to go home to anymore. But the differences paled to what the boys had in common. They lived together most of the year, and a bond existed between them that the daytime students could never understand. Elijah wasn't an only child - he had twenty-nine brothers. "Would you still want to come home with me, even if it meant you wouldn't get to do Christmas?" Elijah asked his friend curiously. Reggie was silent for a while. "I don't know, Silverman." "I know I'd do Christmas with you! And Mum, too. I just don't know about Dad. He's happy to take you to Mass on Good Friday, but I think both Christmas and Easter might be too much for him." "Is Hanukkah as much fun as Passover?" Reggie's bed creaked as the boy clumsily turned over. "No, because you're not there to hit on my cousins!" Elijah poked fun, and Reggie's giggles echoed around the room. "Man, I'm gonna miss you so much. I wish you could stay with me all year round. I know Mum, at least, would say yes if we asked. She loves you - so much it almost makes me uncomfortable! When we go home she's like 'oh hi Coo-wong darling sweetheart, look how big you're getting, I missed you so much, it's so good to see you - oh, yeah, gday Eli.'" Reggie's laugh turned into a small series of snorts - a sign that he thought something was really, really funny. "I love the Easter holidays. Especially being with you guys during Passover. I like it more than Christmas with my own family. But don't ever tell my mum I said that." "How could I if I wanted to? I've never met her. I suppose I could track her down. I mean, how many Nguyễns can there possibly be in Vietnam?" But Reggie wasn't interested in more jokes. "Shut up, Silverman. I'm trying to talk to you here." He grimaced to himself. "Sorry, Reg. Go on." It took the other boy a little while to decide what he wanted to say. "I just don't feel like part of my own family anymore. We have nothing to talk about when I'm over there. They don't know anything about me. But I'm not a part of yours. I don't know where I'm supposed to fit in. So, yeah. I'd give up Christmas to come and hang with you all Summer." "You know, I always wondered why I never had a brother. I always wanted one. Being alone on the farm gets so lonely without someone to hang out with," Elijah admitted, sitting up in his bed and pushing brown curls behind his ears. "Then I met you, and I realised I was lucky because I could choose my brother! Maybe if Mum and Dad had another kid, they'd be a complete pain in the neck! I mean, you're also a pain in the neck, but you're the best brother anyone ever had." "Wow, that's gay," Reggie deflected, shielding his masculinity as emotion made his voice crack. Elijah wished he wouldn't do that, or at least, make gay jokes, but he wasn't sure how he could address the issue without giving himself away. "I s'pose I feel the same way. I'm gonna miss you so much, Silverman. No homo." "I'll miss you too, mate. You better text me all the time. I'll be so bored. So will Herbie. He won't have anyone to bully." "Don't talk about him! I hate that racist goat!" "Not as much as he hates you!" Elijah giggled, remembering the last school break. Herbie genuinely despised Reggie for unknown reasons and charged at him on sight. The poor Catholic boy found himself marooned on the trampoline in the back yard while Herbie circled him with bloodlust in his eyes. It was a scene straight out of Jaws. Elijah rescued him, of course, but not before laughing himself stupid. His smile faded when he realised he, like his friend, wasn't excited to go home for the five-week break. It was going to be lonely. ~ The next morning, as Elijah watched in increasing disgust as Owen squeezed enough honey to drown his over-buttered toast, Reggie appeared. He flew through the doorway and slammed his hands on his friends' table hard enough to spill Owen's overfilled tea mug. Tiger snickered from behind his chapter on comparative text responses, doing some last-minute cramming for their exam today. "Careful! What is wrong with you?" Owen scowled at him irritably, never in a good mood until he'd finished his breakfast. "Your menorah's gone from the tree!" Reggie furiously informed Elijah, who looked at him strangely. "The one we gave you last night! Me and Marsh! Someone's taken it off!" "What?" Elijah screwed up his nose. That seemed odd. "Are you sure it didn't just fall or something?" Owen put in, analysing his toast to find where he could pick up his toast without getting honey all over his fingers. "It's not there! I looked everywhere, but it's gone!" Reggie insisted. "Come and see!" Elijah would have been much happier to finish his sweetened porridge and decaf coffee, but he knew that Reggie would only get increasingly agitated if he didn't indulge him. With a sigh, he put down his mug and let an outraged Reggie lead him to the common room, where some of the more introverted boarders preferred to have their breakfast rather than in the busy, noisy dining room. Elijah passed Artie McDonald, a very shy Seventh Year, Rajesh Laghari, and Dong on his way to see that, indeed, the hanukiah was missing from the branch he'd hung it on. "Who would do that?" Reggie flared, brown arms folded across his chest. "I don't know," Elijah frowned. If someone did indeed take it down, that was very disappointing. "Maybe it was an accident." "I'm telling you I already looked everywhere down here in case it fell! But it's not here! Someone took it! Rrrgh!" Reggie spun around to look at the three other boys in the room, all of whom were curiously eyeing them off. "Did you take down Elijah's menorah from the tree?" Artie silently shook his head no. Dong shrugged, pausing his game of Street Fighter on the big television to turn and watch. Rajesh, an Islamic student in Tenth Year, looked appalled from the table, where his cornflakes slowly went soggy in their bowl of milk. "I saw it there last night," Rajesh put in, his voice quiet. "But I didn't see anyone take it down." Dong swallowed his bite of toast before speaking. "That's a jerk move. Do you think someone was upset that you put a Jewish symbol on a Christian tree?" "I hope it wasn't like that," Elijah mumbled, going cold. "That would be... disappointing." "I'll find out who it was and I'll give them a piece of my mind!" Reggie vowed, turning on his heel and storming back out as quickly as he'd arrived. "Disrespectful! I'll show them disrespectful!" "Oh, dear," Elijah grimaced as he followed at a much more subdued pace. "This isn't how I wanted to end the school year." "Is it really a big deal?" Artie asked innocently in a small, falsetto voice that hadn't broken yet. "It's just an ornament." "It is. Perhaps to you, it's just an ornament, because Christmas is so widely celebrated here. Elijah is the only Jewish person here. That ornament means a lot to him," Rajesh softly and patiently explained, his voice fading as Elijah returned to his table. "So it's really gone, then?" Owen's perpetual frown seemed to be of concern rather than general moodiness. "Really?" "Yeah. It is," Elijah sat back down. "What happened to Reg? I thought I was following him." "No, he didn't come back this way," Tiger mused, closing his textbook and stabbing his poached egg so that yolk trickled down onto the blackened toast. "Are you alright, Eli?" Elijah's eyes combed over the other boys in the dining hall. Could one of them have been offended by his attempt to join in on their holiday? The thought was troubling. Only last night, he'd been reflecting on how inclusive and tightly knit the boarders were. He thought they accepted him the way he accepted them. All of them. The idea that someone would reject him because he was Jewish was an upsetting one. Could it really be true? He didn't want to believe it of them, but he couldn't deny that it had been taken. It certainly hadn't fallen or been placed elsewhere. "Ahh, it's nothing," he mumbled, his spirits dampened. "We have exams all day and Secret Santa tonight. I don't want to ruin everyone's day with it." "But what your day, Eli?" Owen snapped. He'd managed to eat his main course of honey with a side of toast and, as Elijah predicted, made a mess of his tank top. "Screw that. You had every right to hang your menorah thing on the tree. It's not like anyone owns the tree!" "Seconded. It's almost 2020. Religious discrimination belongs in the last century," Tiger's usually calm, flippant expression had turned sour as well. Elijah felt awful. "Please don't make a fuss." But of course, when Reggie returned, his eyes full of fervour behind his huge glasses, the Deputy Principal followed him. Elijah felt like a deer in the headlights all of a sudden. Mr Kingston permanently resided in the Oakfield dormitories and remained in charge of the students in the school's care. Most trivial infractions were handled by the Eleventh and Twelfth Year prefects, who mediated arguments and enforced minor disciplinary measures. If the strict and rigid Mr Kingston appeared, however, then he meant business. "Good morning, boys. Spoons down and eyes on me, please. We need to have a little talk," Mr Kingston raised his voice, firm and full of authority as it drowned out the chatter in the room. Elijah wanted to die. To fall into some void or disappear into the aether. This was the last place he wanted to be, and as Reggie sat down with his friends again, Elijah shot him a confused look and received a pointed shrug in return. Mr Kingston continued, now that he had everybody's attention. "I got some disappointing news. We had an ornament placed on our big tree in the common room yesterday - an important, meaningful Jewish symbol. I saw it for myself last night when I turned everything off and locked up before bed. It's not there now. I had a look around, and it sure didn't fall off somewhere. It's gone. I'm not happy about this, boys. This kind of discrimination has no place at Oakfield. Does anyone have any information?" A slight murmur rippled its way through the room as Elijah looked down at his near-empty bowl, red with embarrassment and shame. He didn't want to go home when he woke up. Now, he would have done anything to flee back to the remote farmhouse in northern Victoria. Nobody had anything to say, and Mr Kingston's expression darkened. He was intimidating as he began to slowly pace between the tables. "It's a plastic menorah. It's like a candlestick with eight extra branches. Silver coloured with blue candles with candlelight screwed on top. Quite a lovely ornament, I thought. It's a real shame that someone disagreed enough to take it down. This type of thing is unacceptable, and it can get you into a lot of trouble. So, I ask the one who took the menorah from the tree to come and see me before school or during recess or lunch period. If nobody has come forward by then, you will all come back to this dining hall after the last bell for detention." This wasn't received well at all. Objections sounded from every corner of the room. "What?" James Watson bellowed from behind. "But I have swimming after school!" Owen pleaded. "I need to go to the shops!" Chad whined. "What about Secret Santa?" Lane asked. "Quiet!" Mr Kingston raised his voice again, loud but not yelling. That didn't make him any less scary. "I will not tolerate any kind of discriminatory behaviour. I expect the student responsible to own up to their actions by the end of lunchtime. If not, we will all sit here in the dining hall until they do. That's my final word." The bitter energy that started with Reggie and spread through his friends had now infected every boarder in Oakfield. After the Deputy Principal left, angry chatter filled the hall. "It's just an ornament! Why would you take it down?" "Who cares?" "I don't want detention because of some idiot!" "Whoever it was, don't be such a pig!" Elijah couldn't handle it. He felt responsible, and he rushed his way out, forgetting to wash his bowl and spoon and leaving them behind. He kept his eyes low as he dressed in school uniform and tied his brown curls into a bun. As he straightened his tie, Reggie came in, and Elijah couldn't bear to look at him. "Yo, Silverma--" "Just don't. Please. Everyone probably hates me now thanks to you," Elijah mumbled disconsolately, grabbing his dictionary and pens for his English Literature exam and pushing his way past. "Elijah!" Reggie called out after him. Elijah knew that Reggie only ever called him by his first name in exceptional circumstances, but he couldn't bring himself to look back. ~ Exams were stressful as a universal rule, but for the boarders, there was an extra edge of duress. The day students noticed this, but beyond a few probing questions in the name of gossip, they mostly stayed out of it. There were forty-eight Ninth Year students, but only seven of them were boarders. Elijah wasn't especially close with Lane, Dong or Bernard, but in classes, the seven always stuck together. The day students generally perceived the boarders as snobby and tribal and preferred to leave them alone. Similarly, the boarders looked down on the day students as privileged and ignorant. They had no idea what it was like to leave their family for weeks at a time. Throughout recess and lunch, the boarders were desperate to find out from each other if anyone had come forward. Nobody seemed to have an answer one way or another. After the final bell, Elijah's worst fears came true when he returned from the main building to the dormitories and passed an angry Mr Kingston. The Deputy Principal, glaring and lurking by the corridor, directed his charges to the dining room. How could this have happened? Who would go to so much trouble to exclude Elijah from the Christmas holiday? And why were they prepared to make everyone suffer through detention? Surely there had to be a mistake. He didn't want to believe that anyone in the dormitories could be so malicious. Or cowardly. Thirty boys sat silent and sulking in the dining room by half-past three, after all of them had a chance to go to the toilet, to have a snack from the daily fruit platter on the bench and fill a bottle with water. This was all so unfair! Twenty-nine innocent students had to give up their last night in Oakfield and sit in the dining hall because of the actions of one person! As the clock ticked by and Mr Kingston came down on anyone who whispered to their neighbour, Elijah only got more upset. Eyes flickered to him over and over, and Reggie stared at him from across the table, trying to mouth an apology to him. An hour in, Elijah couldn't stand the thought that this was all because of him. "I'm sorry, everybody. About this," Elijah spoke up, and everyone's head turned to look at him. "Nobody blames you," Bernard gruffly told him two tables away. "It's not your fault, Elijah," Mr Kingston himself reassured him from his desk. "Now, no more talking, please." "So if you recognise it's not Elijah's fault, then why did you give him detention with the rest of us?" The haughty, indignant words of Tyson Belmont-Lovett made Elijah's heart skip a beat when they broke the tense silence. "I said quiet," Mr Kingston's tone was icy cold. "Actually, sir, I think that's a great question," Owen raised his hand and ignored Elijah's frantic whispered pleas for him to desist. "Can Elijah go?" "No," Mr Kingston glared at him. "But he didn't do anything wrong!" Chad protested. Christian Li, the rule-worshipping prefect whose rigidity had become a running joke among the younger boarders, surprised everyone when he spoke up. "Sir, with all due respect, I don't think punishing Elijah for being a victim is fair." "Where's the lie? It makes no sense," Lane added as more boys began to find their voices. "Quiet!" Mr Kingston yelled, looking livid, and the buzzing of voices abruptly stopped. That didn't stop Tiger, though. His courage was inspiring, and Elijah could have kissed him in front of everyone. "So, hands up everyone who thinks Elijah shouldn't have to be in detention right now." Half the room raised their hands immediately. Others took a few seconds longer, and a big purple vein in Mr Kingston's temple began to pulse. Even the four prefects were in agreement. Everyone was. Just like that, the weight on Elijah's shoulders was lifted. He'd been worried all day about alienating his brothers, terrified that they would resent him. "Put your hands down, stay in your seats, and keep your mouths closed!" Mr Kingston roared, standing up from his desk. "The next person to speak might well find themselves in detention all night long." "Hands up anyone who would stay here all night if it meant Elijah was allowed to leave," Tiger defiantly put his hand in the air again. Rebelling against the establishment was in his blood. Both of his parents loved to challenge authority, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Tears filled Elijah's eyes when everyone's hands, a little more slowly this time, reached for the spinning ceiling fans above. He thought they'd resent him, that they might think to accommodate his Jewish faith was more trouble than it was worth. Now, more than ever, he found it hard to believe that one of these guys could be so hateful. Everybody in this room was willing to go through detention with their Deputy Principal to spare him. That message touched his heart. "Nobody leaves until the guilty person comes forward," Mr Kingston reminded them, knuckles white as he gripped the far side of his desk. "Hands down! And Banjo, you can report--" "I did it," Dong Hoon Kim stood up, and his chair scraped along the floor, and everyone gasped. Elijah's eyes bugged out of his skull. He couldn't believe it! "I took it this morning. I'm sorry." The guilty student hung his head and slumped his shoulders. Mr Kingston looked incredibly pleased with himself, having located the culprit. "Did you indeed?" The Deputy Principal asked him, a slight gloat evident in his tone. "Go to my office, Kim. Quickly." Dong didn't stay long. He rushed from the room as though everyone was ready to tar and feather him, and with him gone, Mr Kingston looked at everyone else. "Had it been any other day of the week, I would keep the lot of you here for a while longer to teach you some manners. But it's the end of the year, and you've just completed your exams. We're all tired and stressed out. So you're all free to go. I'll see you at eight o'clock for Secret Santa." Mr Kingston did not apologise for anything. Even if he did, Elijah knew that not one student in that hall would forgive him. The whispering turned into a dull roar as the students discussed the day they'd had on their way to the common room or their bedrooms. It wasn't too late for the boys to follow up on their plans, so Owen went to the pool, a few of the others ducked out to the nearby shops, and Tiger pulled out his easel. Elijah didn't like the thought that Dong would so something like that. There was no ill-feeling between them, at least none he could think of. Dong seemed so friendly and civil, sullen at times but never mean. Why would he do it? He didn't have anything to gain. Maybe he just didn't think it would go so far. Or he was covering for someone, Elijah realised suddenly. Owning up to something he didn't do so everyone else could go free. "It wasn't him, was it?" Elijah asked Bernard the moment he found the acne-scarred farmer's boy in the kitchen, brewing up a pot of his flavoured tea. "Dong didn't do it." "Nope. He took one for the team," Bernard's voice was always gruff even with his best friends, making him sound as though he'd prefer to be talking to anyone else. "I mean, it's not like he's got parents for old Kingston to call. I guess he figured they'd go easy on him because of... yeah. You know." Elijah bit his bottom lip again. "I should thank him." "Yeah. He'd like that," Bernard gave a small grin, but he did not offer his friendly acquaintance any tea on his way past. It wasn't his style, it seemed. Elijah returned to the common room with his Nintendo Switch, and he took his favourite spot on the couch. He hooked up Mario Kart with Owen as well as Harry Kenna and Liam Weiss, two Seventh Year boys. As the minutes ticked down to dinner, Reggie, Tyson and Artie took turns playing for each other on the piano. Tiger returned and played some billiards with Christian, who became comically competitive as his opponent hustled a bar of chocolate from him. Chad, Lane and Rajesh all rushed in to toss their Secret Santa gifts under the tree at the last minute. How anyone could stomach the stress of procrastinating for so long was another mystery Elijah would never solve. Like who took the hanukkiah. He shot a loving look to Tiger, being cute as he bantered with a flustered Christian. To be fair, no mystery would live up to his first one. ~ Following a delicious dinner of far too many roast potatoes and lamb, then two servings of vanilla slice for dessert, Elijah looked forward to Secret Santa. Yet when all had gathered near the tree, he noticed someone was missing. "Where's Dong?" He asked, and tall, muscular, future-athlete Lane glowered. "Eh, stuck in his room tonight. Kingston says if he won't respect other religions, he's not allowed to participate in Secret Santa," said the fair-haired jock. Elijah felt guilty again. No, not guilty - angry! When would the punishment fit the crime? Mr Kingston might have thought he was doing the right thing, but he was only making everything so much worse. He turned and saw Reggie looking forlorn and uncomfortable ten feet away, and he couldn't help but approach. It had only been half a day, and already he missed his best friend so much. "I'm sorry," both boys said in unison, and then all the tension vanished when they grinned and started laughing together. "No, no, no! I really am sorry! You were just trying to do the right thing," Elijah recovered first and finished his apology. "I'm sorry I was a jerk today." "I should have asked first before I got Kingston. Man, I wish I never did that," Reggie's mouth formed a hard, frustrated line. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't deal when someone was disrespecting you like that. And Dong!" "It wasn't Dong. I don't know who it was, but it wasn't him," Elijah hugged himself with his arms, hoping it would make that bad feeling go away. "Thanks for showing that you care, Reg. It means a lot." "Gay," Reggie smirked. "...Yeah. Maybe." "What?" "Gay." "I know, Elijah" Reggie's magnified eyes were impossible to read behind his huge glasses. His voice was quiet and solemn, which wasn't like him. Elijah, burning, bit his lower lip. "You know?" Reggie nodded. "You were way too happy when Admirer X sent you all those love letters and sketches. I might need glasses, but I'm not blind, you know." "Oh." After a pause, Reggie spoke again. "Whatever happened with Admirer X? Did you ever find out who it was?" Elijah almost panicked. It was one thing to come out Reggie, but he didn't want to throw Tiger from the closet too. "No. I'm pretty sure it was all just a joke." "Ah. Bummer." "So... does this change anything?" Elijah asked nervously, not ready to change the subject until he knew where he stood. "Would you still want to come home with me, even if it meant you'd be hanging out with someone who's... gay?" "What kind of dumb question is that? I've already been going to the farm with you," Reggie's smile was everything Elijah wanted to see. "Plus, we're brothers, right? As long as you protect me from your devil goat, we're cool. Always. It just means more hot chicks for me!" Elijah had almost drawn blood chewing on his lower lip, but now, he was relieved. He felt so much better. "I'm so happy we're brothers, but please don't sleaze all over my cousins next time we bring you to the Seder. And, also, can you please stop making gay jokes? I mean, I know you're only messing around, but I don't like it." "Yeah, man. I'm sorry. I didn't think about it that way," Reggie kicked the floor with his toes. "How about this? If you keep that racist goat away from me, I'll never make another gay joke again!" "It's a deal!" Mr Kingston kickstarted Secret Santa by picking up the first gift - for Joe Cross, a simple box of chocolates that he was more than grateful for. Tiger received a small collection of new paintbrushes, and he held them triumphantly in the air as though it were baby Simba at Pride Rock. Reggie enjoyed his t-shirt with a risque woman in a bikini printed on it, even if Mr Kingston certainly did not! Owen got a confusing present of a deodorant gift basket which left him asking people if he smelled. When Tyson opened up his gift, Elijah tried to hide his excitement. His heart sang when Tyson's eyes lit up with joy as he found the books of sheet music for the piano and flute that Elijah picked out for him a week ago. The Eighth Year lad thanked his Secret Santa from his heart. It was lovely. Elijah was one of the last to receive a gift, but to his surprise, it wasn't the book-shaped package he'd been eyeing off for a couple of days now. This was a ball of candy cane paper and tape, not unlike Reggie's clumsily wrapped present the day before. His look of confusion was shared by Rajesh, he noticed. He unwrapped the gift to reveal a small box, and inside was a little plastic menorah, not unlike the one that had caused so much trouble in the last twenty-four hours. This one was smaller and copper-coloured, and it held no candles. It looked very cheap. "What?" Rajesh blurted out. "That's not the gift I got you." "Wow. Spoiler alert," Owen remarked, drawing a few laughs. "This one," Rajesh grabbed one of the two remaining gifts from under the pine branches, the rectangular prism with a neat bow and Elijah's name written on the little card in beautiful calligraphy. "So who got this one for you?" Reggie asked, perplexed. Mr Kingston reached for the final gift. "The last one here is for Dong, so nobody's got someone the wrong thing. I guess this must be an apology from Mr Kim." It wasn't from Dong. Everyone except Mr Kingston knew that the Korean-Australian took the blame to spare everyone detention, though Elijah suspected that Mr Kingston knew that too. He was swift to believe that Dong, who had never hurt a soul in his life, took that ornament from the Christmas tree in an act of antisemitism. Perhaps he saw it as a convenient way out when the boys in detention began to put pressure on him for being unfair. But he was pretty certain sure he knew who this anonymous gift was from. Not Secret Santa, but from someone who wanted to make amends. He searched the crowd, and when he found the pair of eyes he was looking for, the guilt in them as they peeked back only confirmed his suspicion. Elijah was thrilled with the gift from his real Secret Santa. He shook Rajesh's hand as he hugged the three new hardcover copies of Maze Runner, Scorch Trials and Death Cure. He'd already enjoyed the trilogy, but he'd borrowed the water damaged and crinkled copies from the library. These were his! And he would take excellent care of them. With the game finished, the boys were free to spend the evening how they wanted to. Elijah needed to speak with one of them, though. He leaned in close to the boy's ear and whispered. "I know it was you. Can we talk by the library for a minute?" When the younger boy looked mortified, Elijah spoke again. "I'm not mad. I just want to know how it happened." The library was long closed. Elijah was almost positive nobody would disturb their conversation down here. He didn't want to get anyone in trouble. But the boy had been curious about the hanukiah when he saw it unwrapped. He was alarmed when Mr Kingston mentioned detention because he wanted to go to the shops - quite urgently. He was one of the people who threw in a gift for Secret Santa moments before the deadline. Sure enough, Chad Stone sheepishly poked his head around the corner. He looked like a ghost! His strangely wiry blond hair stuck out in weird angles, making it look like he'd just been hit by lightning. Elijah made sure to smile at him. "Hey, Chad. It's not as nice as the one Reggie and Owen gave me, but it's the thought that counts," Elijah held up the menorah. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" Chad was almost shaking, and Elijah was shocked. Why was he so scared? "It was an accident!" "What accident?" Chad swallowed. "I only wanted to look and I... was going to put it back, but I broke it. I didn't mean it, I swear!" "Aww, you could have told me!" Elijah couldn't help but laugh in relief at such an innocent explanation. "I didn't want to hurt your feelings! You were really happy when you got it, and I broke it, and... uhh..." Chad leaned against the wall and let the back of his head hit it with a thunk. "I was going to replace it but everything went wrong! I didn't think anyone would notice, but Reggie did, and he brought Mr Kingston into it, and I couldn't go to the shop to get a new one because we were in detention!" "Why didn't you go to Mr Kingston and tell him the truth? That it was just an accident?" Elijah asked him. "I wanted to, but he said all that stuff about how much trouble I'd be in because he said I was doing religious discrimination and all that! I didn't know if he'd understand!" Chad sniffled and covered his face. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry! This is all my fault, and I didn't know what to do." "Mr Kingston didn't make it easy for anyone to come forward, did he?" Elijah leaned against the wall next to the poor, scared kid. "Really, it's okay. It was all a misunderstanding. No hard feelings from me. But please, mate, next time something like this happens, promise me you won't try to cover it up! Because you're awful at it." The light-hearted comments cheered Chad up, and he chuckled, but he still looked worried. "I guess I should own up now, huh?" "Yeah, man, I think that's for the best. Don't worry, man. The guys will understand! Even though it got messy, you tried to make things right." Inspired by Elijah's forgiveness, Chad quickly found the courage to clear Dong's name by telling the unfortunate and remarkably harmless truth to the Deputy Principal. The youngster was sentenced to an early bedtime for not owning up when his peers were being punished for his mistake. Still, in Elijah's opinion, it was a rotten thing for Mr Kingston to do in the first place. Dong's face returned to the common room, greeted by a mild chorus of grateful and impressed cheers, and everyone crowded around to watch him gleefully unwrap an Xbox Gift Card from his Secret Santa. "That was an awesome thing you did today," Elijah told his video game obsessed friend. "Thank you." "No sweat. A night on my own isn't much trouble. There's a reason I keep a secret 3DS and charger under my mattress," Dong bragged, smiling merrily as he sunk his teeth into the chocolate bar Tiger had shared with him. "Thanks for getting Chad to speak up. How'd you figure out it was him?" Elijah smiled modestly, covering his teeth with his hand. "It wasn't too hard. I only had to look for the person trying to fix everything, and he was there in plain sight." "You should dead set be a detective one day. You're always into those puzzles and mysteries and codes. I owe you one." "Why?" "I mean, do you think Chad would have said anything if you didn't work out it was him?" Elijah's brown eyes flickered. "I'd like to think so. He was just so anxious and scared. He messed up, and Mr Kingston turned it into a witch hunt." "LOL," Dong had a unique habit of using social media abbreviations in conversation. "Thanks anyway." "Hey, I know we're not super close, but if you're not doing anything these holidays, you can come and stay with me on the farm at some point. If you like." Dong's sad eyes lit up like Elijah hadn't seen in a long time. "I'm actually going to stay with Bernie on his family's farm, but that's really cool of you, Eli. We should hang out more next year! Five weeks between now and then. You have plenty of time to get better at Mario Kart, you scrub." ~ Later, before bed, Elijah and Tiger held hands during their nightly rendezvous. It would be their last one before they both went home to their families. Melancholy hung in the air as they stood together in a long, warm embrace and slowly rocked back and forth. "You know you can come and stay over. Or I can come to you," Tiger reassured him, nuzzling his face against Elijah's neck. His hair smelled of his apple-scented shampoo. "Five weeks is a long time." "I'd really like that. Maybe we can spend some actual time together without our nosey friends all up in our business." "You know, if we told them why we wanted to be alone, they'd probably understand," Tiger suggested in a gentle, patient voice. "I told Reggie," Elijah informed him, and Tiger leaned backwards with that familiar look of delighted intrigue. "Yep! Earlier. He was... a bit awkward, but actually really cool with it." "The thick plottens! You didn't tell me you were going to come out to anyone." "I didn't plan on it! It just happened. Everyone proved today how much they have my back, so... I wasn't scared to tell him. It felt great, actually. Maybe tomorrow, I'll tell Owen too!" Tiger sat down on the foot of his bed. "Wow! I didn't see this coming. Look at you!" "Because I'm cute?" Elijah smiled, but this time, he didn't cover his teeth with his hand. "Oh, you have no idea," Tiger beckoned with his fingers, and Elijah sat down next to him on the bed, eagerly leaning into the intimate embrace. "I'm proud of you." "Thank you," Elijah rested his head on Tiger's shoulder. "Perhaps you could tell them too - if you want. I can introduce you as my boyfriend." Tiger let out an ecstatic gasp, grinning from ear to ear. "Did you just say the b-word?" "Maybe," Elijah shyly hid his face in his boyfriend's neck. "Elijah Silverman is my boyfriend!" Tiger squeaked happily. "I like the sound of that!" ~ The next morning, Owen and Reggie stared across the dining table at their newly outed gay friends, their jaws hanging open. "YOU were Admirer X the whole time?" Owen pointed an accusing finger at Tiger, who smirked back. "Yep. Ran circles around the two of you, didn't I?" He gloated as Elijah smiled shyly into his fruit salad. "And you've been together ever since?" Owen asked again, the honey dripping from the toast in his hand onto the table underneath. "Sort of?" Elijah turned to look fondly at his boyfriend. "We made it official last night, but we've been... well, close since I figured out it was him." "And you never told us!" Reggie flared excitedly, hitting the table with his hand and getting a stern look from Christian. "I thought it was weird that Admirer X just vanished out of nowhere when we were getting so close to working it out! I knew you were hiding something from me, Silverman. And Tiges, I would never have guessed!" "Well, I'm fairly confident we've run out of secrets," Tiger drummed his fingers against the tabletop. "Wow, so many of my friends are coming out as gay. What gives?" Reggie's eyes bounced between his friends, then he turned his head to Owen. "Marshy? Anything you wanna tell me, mate?" All four boys laughed heartily as Owen and Reggie began to play-wrestle until Christian once again told them to settle down. Elijah looked around the room at all of his fellow boarders. He was going to miss them all. He shot a comforting smile at Chad, who was still shaken by the whole debacle. At least he did the right thing in the end. He beamed at Rajesh when their eyes met, grateful for the very thoughtful gift. Never had Elijah Silverman ever felt so comfortable with himself than when he knew he belonged. He couldn't wait for the next school year to start.
  14. AusGlitterati

    Menorah

    Elijah sometimes feels as though he doesn't belong. He's still in the closet, and he is the only Jewish boy in the whole dorm. During the end of the school year, Elijah's friends make him feel included when they gift him a Jewish ornament, a menorah, to hang from the Christmas tree in the common room. When it goes missing overnight, the consequences threaten to spoil the holiday spirit for everyone. As Elijah pieces together what happened, he discovers more than one truth.
  15. Friday, June 21st The world seemed to spin as Ezra wailed, clutching his left leg and curling into a ball. There was so much pain! Lance seemed confused, his eyes big, red and round as he tried his best to remain in character. The referee, buying time to investigate whether there was a real problem or if Ezra was simply overselling, pushed Lance away. "Ezzy? Ez?" Jack was yelling from his corner in a shaky, scared voice. "He's hurt!" Diego shouted from the other corner. "Are you hurt? Can you continue?" The referee - John, if Ezra recalled correctly - asked him quietly. "No! No! I can't stand! Ahh!" Ezra panted, reality sinking and making him cry. "Stop the match!" John crossed his forearms above his head, turning to the small alcove where Sherry, the ringside medics and the lead cameraman hovered together. The crossed arms was a signal to everyone involved that something had gone so wrong that the match needed to stop prematurely. People immediately sprung into action. The medics rushed into the ring, sliding under the bottom rope, both asking Ezra what exactly went wrong. The cameraman gave instructions to avoid letting Ezra's injury in their sights as much as possible. Sherry rang the timekeeper bell and spoke into her microphone. "Ladies and gentleman, Ezra Luczynski the Protostar cannot continue. The winners of this match, by default, the KADA Tag-Team Champions, Lance Lovecraft and Diego Silva, Lansilva!" Boos erupted unlike anything Ezra had ever heard before. He could barely hear the words of the medic trying to speak to him. He began to cry in earnest when Sherry announced precisely what he'd known but didn't want to admit to himself. He cannot continue. Something in his leg had definitely broken. No. No. NO!! What would that mean? Wrestlers lost their careers from leg injuries!! Maybe it was just some sort of sprain?? "I don't know!! He stomped on it and now it hurts so bad!!" Ezra shouted to the woman asking him questions. "Is it broken? It could just be a sprain, couldn't it?" "I don't think so," the woman shook her head. "The stretcher's coming. We'll have a look once we get you out to the back. We don't need the whole world watching." Then the show cut to commercial as the commentators sold the injury as part of the storyline, likely instructed to do so by Michelle or the production crew backstage. Ezra could remember very well what was happening in real-time during this commercial break. While the cameras took a nap, Jack helped the medics gently move Ezra from the raised ring apron to the stretcher. Diego and Lance would have been more than happy to assist, but the referee promptly reminded them that they were still villains until they made it backstage. Once backstage, concerned cast and crew watched Jack and the female medic wheel the injured, whimpering teenager to a safe, quiet room in the concourse. Ezra shielded his eyes, unable to look at Rachel, Justin, Salamanca, Dragonfly, Irina, Betty and all the rest. He was supposed to be the superhero tonight. Not the rookie who lost everything. The kid who dreamed too big. The fan who overstepped. He hated the idea of everyone drowning him in pity again. A very brief examination later, the medic had Ezra's left leg immobilised with a splint. A short ambulance ride to an emergency room later, Jack hadn't left his friend once. Dr Kowalski - Ezra had proudly pointed out earlier that he, too, was of Polish ancestry to the medical resident's half-hearted amusement - booked Ezra in for an x-ray in the immediate future. Then, Ezra found himself hooked up by IV to a powerful painkiller that muddied up his thoughts but dulled the agony in his leg. He felt silly in his hospital gown, still wearing his wrestling trunks underneath, his long, flashy boots discarded and left by his bedside. In the chair to his right, Jack sat tall by his tag-team partner's side, still in his wrestling attire. He never did get the chance to win the match tonight and be the hero the crowd was cheering for! He must have been so disappointed!! Jack, though, was terrific at putting a smile on his little friend's face. "You spend all your time holding on to my back anyway. Maybe I make a saddle for you! And we can cosplay as Hodor and Bran Stark in the Game of Thrones! ...Laugh!!" The French-Canadian, when his jokes didn't land, poked a finger into his friend's exposed armpit, and that succeeded in drawing a giggle and a reluctant smile from the blond. "I'll be here until you can come back to the hotel with me. Then I will not let you leave my sight." Ezra couldn't put into words how much he appreciated Jack's companionship! "I'm sorry, Jacky. I screwed the pooch for both of us. What's gonna happen to you? What's gonna happen to Supernova??" "We are Supernova always! Not just when we wrestle," Jack reminded him, stretching his muscular legs out and using another chair as a footrest. Once their roles ended for the night's show, other people came by to comfort Ezra as well, but the injured man was too shaken and depressed to want to see anybody. Pearl was first, bringing Ezra he backpack he and Jack had forgotten in their haste. Oliver was next, and both Diego and Lance arrived together, but Ezra had his tag-team buddy politely turn them all away. He didn't want to be rude or to make them worry, but he didn't want everyone to see him like this! He was supposed to be the Protostar! A new, awesome addition to a world of superheroes and supervillains! It wasn't supposed to go so wrong!! Ezra felt his phone vibrating like mad, with calls from family and friends, and texts and notifications. In the end, he turned his phone off, unable to face them. The whole world had just seen his career end live on national television!! One month! It took one month for everything to come crashing down!! Beau would have a field day with that, had he still been talking to Ezra at all. He always said that Ezra was so clumsy and awkward that it was all going to end in tears. He didn't want to stick around and see it happen. To see his boyfriend throw his life away on something stupid. Mom would... would be thrilled. Ezra would have to go home to Litchfield and take care of her forever. Beg for his old job back at the diner. He looked down at his bruised, swelling leg and his jaw quivered. Why?? There was so much he wanted to do!! "Today, you told me that God pushed me to the main roster so I could help everyone. In the car. What do you suppose this means?" Ezra asked his friend, mournfully. "Why would he let this happen?? I tried so hard!! I fought through cancer four times and took my brother's kidney and for what? To break my leg?? What did I do wrong??" "I don't have the answers," Jack answered him sheepishly, shifting his chair closer so he could grip his friend's shoulder. "You know, I was obsessed with Batman when I was a kid! We had Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin on video and they must have all gone through the VCR a thousand times each. Hehe. Eamonn and I had a box of comics, too, but Mom... threw them out. To teach us some lesson I don't remember. Which, I suppose tells you about the kind of mother she is. Batman. I loved that guy, Jacky boy! I wanted to be him so much! And dress up like a badass and roam around and save people from evil! He was one of my best friends when Celeste and Eamonn were at school, and I was in the hospital or at home with nobody but... Mom. "But then I was reading a comic one day. You know Mr Freeze, yeah? Well, his wife is really sick, and they don't know how to cure it, so he turns to crime to fund his research. Then Batman, who is a mothertrucking billionaire in case you forgot, kicks his ass and sends him to jail for it. I mean, Eamonn saw Batman putting a criminal in prison and applauded him for a job well done! So did everyone else. But I felt like my best friend turned into an asshole, you know? Does he even care about the innocent people? Where is the dedication to the common good?? He sits on a fortune while Mr Freeze is trying to save someone's life, so how is Batman the good guy here? Why did everything think Mr Freeze was bad? I only saw Batman with the means to save someone's life, to make the world a better place, and choosing not to. I don't care what anyone else says!! That makes him evil!! "I guess it's tough to understand how I feel about this stuff unless you've actually faced your mortality. Life is so, so, so precious, Jacky. So much more important than money and stocks and property. None of that is real!! But people suffer and starve and die because people who have the means to help them choose not to. Those people are real! Batman is a badass, but he's a champion of the oppressors. He doesn't actually change anything. He doesn't end the cycle of... poverty and crime. He just... I dunno, beats up anyone who steps out of line. That's the story... they want to tell. So kids fear the law, even if the law is... unjust..." Ezra got distracted looking at his own hand. As he waved his fingers in front of his eyes, they seemed to blend into a sublime mosaic of skin and phalanges. He cocked his head left and right, determined to investigate this fascinating phenomenon from multiple angles. "Ezzy, I'm sorry, buddy, but I don't know what you're talking about," Jack admitted, and Ezra heard him chuckle. "I thought you liked Batman! Did we bring you a wrong cake?" "No! Not at all! You got an amazing cake and I love you all! Batman let me down. He's a jerkface... hole, but still, he did inspire me! I never stopped wanting to be a superhero! Just like Batman, only... real. Only better. It's hard to explain. Seeing him... fail... as a role model... made me see that I can do better than him. That's why he has a... a special place in my heart. I have the tools to make a difference now... so I have to. So... that's why I need to do this Youtube channel. To make a difference and set an example. If people need my help, I can't let them down. If I did, I don't know if I'd ever forgive myself. Except I... I did fail. I'm not... I'm not a hero after all. I'm just... I'm just an idiot!! And I'm scared!!" "Sorry, but it's very late, so can you please try to keep it down?" A slightly plump nurse with a brown ponytail and big, square-rimmed glasses on her nose poked her face through the drawn curtains around the bed. "Are you still in pain?" Ezra, forgetting to think, leaned forward and prodded his broken leg and yelped. "Yes!" Jack gently put a hand on his chest and pushed him back to a supine position. The nurse looked at him incredulously, as though wondering if he was overmedicated or just stupid. "Well, you will be if you aggravate the injury like that. What I mean to ask is: is it bothering you too much?" "It's going to bother me forever!" Ezra sniffed, slumping back against his bed and screwing his eyes shut. "When am I... ahhm, getting that x-ray thing? Did the handsome doctor forget about me?" Ponytail nurse's mouth twitched. "I know handsome Dr Kowalski booked you in the earliest vacant slot, but I'm not quite sure when that is. But no, he hasn't forgotten about you. Would you like to see him?" Ezra declined her offer, and he sat there with Jack, who kept him busy and distracted by discussing, in-depth, the plan for his next cosplay as Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite. Ezra hadn't played that game, but Jack was a huge fan of that series. He had no idea where the French-Canadian found the time to play video games daily in between video-chats with his parents and daughter, his incessant sewing on that machine and his intense fitness regime. Jack Lièvremont was so organised and had everything together. And yet, things fell apart for him too. It didn't stop the French-Canadian from soldiering on. Nothing had gone right for him lately, yet he found time to be the hero Ezra needed. He was the best person in the world! It was only twenty minutes until the orderly came to push his gurney to the radiology department, up an elevator and through some corridors while Jack strode along by his side. Ezra was very grateful to have his friend there. Jack still wore his wrestling tights and boots with a casual shirt thrown over his athletic body. His appearance drew attention away from the broken boy hiding, embarrassed, under his hospital gown. Jack wasn't allowed inside the x-ray room, but he remained in the waiting room in the chair until the orderly wheeled Ezra back out a few minutes later. Dr Kowalski, to Ezra's joy, rounded the corner to meet them. "Hello again! Do you want to come through and see the results right now?" Dr Kowalski was a handsome man, with high cheekbones, intelligent brown eyes and short, untidy chestnut hair. He looked too tired to be overly chatty, and Ezra wondered how many hours he'd been on the clock, treating distressed and miserable patients like himself. But the offer of immediately seeing the damage Lance's carelessness had done to his leg was too much to refuse! Was his career over?? Or would he recover and miss months of action? What would he do?? If he wasn't actively working and getting booked, he wasn't getting paid. He couldn't live off Sean and Oliver's goodwill forever!! They had things to do without him forever being the third wheel!! "Do they have your slide already?" Jack asked, confused. "Oh, no! It's all digital nowadays - we can have a look at it on the computer screen," Dr Kowalski explained. "And Ezra, I'm assuming you want your friend to come in with you?" "Yes, please." "Splendid. Let's see the damage." Dr Kowalski slipped into the room next door to the x-ray lab, and the orderly pushed Ezra's gurney inside, only clipping it once on the doorway, and Jack rounded out the small gang. Ezra looked anxiously at the computer screen as Dr Kowalski clacked on the keyboard and eventually brought up a series of photos. Dr Kowalski eyed them off before expanding one to fill the screen, and Ezra saw the bones in his own leg, ankle and foot as the doctor stood to the side to give him a good view! "So, it's not all bad news! You've fractured your fibula," the medical resident explained bluntly, as Ezra screwed up his face. "That's the bad news. But the good news is, if you look right here, you can see that it's a buckle fracture - it hasn't broken all the way. Just here on the right side. It's not a full fracture, and it'll heal very well as long as we keep it still. You'll definitely be in a cast for three weeks, maybe four, and it'll be around six to eight weeks of physical therapy before you can get in the ring again. But, and this is so, so important - a lot of athletes get impatient and overdo it. Don't be tempted, because it can set you back. By the way, I'm curious as to how you managed to do this. Wrestling mishap?" "Watch this week's episode of KADA. You'll see it," Ezra replied disconsolately. "Someone put his foot on the rope and stomped here, on the leg," Jack pointed to the area on Ezra's leg where his fibula had buckled under the force of Lance's foot. "Hmm. Torus fractures - buckle fractures - usually occur in children because their bones are softer. You're eighteen, aren't you?" Ezra struggled to maintain control of his eyelids, and he clumsily winked both eyes. "I was. I'm nineteen now." Dr Kowalski seemed surprised, but Ezra was used to people thinking he was sixteen, fifteen, even fourteen at a pinch. Too much chemotherapy and irradiation had stunted his growth in more ways than just his lack of height. He looked too young to get in the ring with these big, adult men. Eamonn, who was close to sixteen, already looked older than his babyfaced little big brother. "It's entirely possible that because a long history of cancer treatments stunted your growth that your bones haven't fully developed yet," Dr Kowalski concluded. He used his index finger to, highlight the tiny anomaly in the x-ray of Ezra's fibula bone so both men knew where to look. "Are you aware of this as a possibility?" "I-- well. No? Um?" Ezra unevenly blinked his eyes again. "I checked for ost...eo...porosis, but she said I was okay." "I mean, this is just a theory. I would have expected of your age to either suffer a full fracture or not sustain an injury at all. These buckle fractures here are rare in adults. I'd hazard a guess that had it been your leg getting stomped on, there'd be no issue like this." He referred his final comment to Jack, who had his arms folded, keenly looking at his friend's bones on the screen. "The other fellow probably had no idea that he was using enough force to break anything - which isn't an unreasonable conclusion. That being said, if you want to keep wrestling once you're back in form, you and anyone else you scrap with will have to be mindful of the risks you're taking." "But I've taken huge bumps before and never broken anything," Ezra's mind was brought back to the time he fell from the top rope onto the back of his neck with his entire body weight crashing down on it. Had Beau been right the whole time?? Had he actually been super lucky not to break his neck?? "Well, you might want to consider this a wake-up call of sorts," Dr Kowalski decided, stifling a yawn. "I definitely recommend talking to your company physician again about it, just to stay on the safe side. In the meantime, I'd like you to come back on Monday or Tuesday to see our orthopedist so we can apply a cast after the swelling has gone down. This splint is actually very well applied. They take good care of you in the wrestling business, I see." Saturday, June 22nd Try as Ezra might, he couldn't remember much following the x-ray results. The immense relief he felt at knowing his career was only on hold rather than decapitated relaxed his mind, body and soul. He remembered the pair of crutches the ponytail nurse brought him. They remained by his bedside now. He remembered craning his neck back in the wheelchair and staring up Jack's nostrils as his friend wheeled him out himself, still in his wrestling clothes. Then the cab driver and Jack couldn't understand each other, which was funny! And Jack helped him take his Narco pill for his pain while he was in bed, then he went for a shower while Ezra went to sleep. Nothing else came to him. Just those small details. Now, at nine in the morning, Ezra watched the replay of the show on his phone while Jack caught up on the sleep he missed. It was a nice hotel room with a comfortable bed, and Ezra was grateful he didn't have to stay in the emergency room overnight. His phone buzzed in his hand, and he saw another text coming in from Ava, one of the girls Ezra began his developmental contract with at the Knoxville Performance Centre. She wanted to know if he was okay. His phone was full of missed calls and texts he had not read. Dozens of them. People who saw his injury live on national television and asking if he was okay. He didn't want to talk about it. Eamonn was the only person he'd replied to, assuring him he was well, but only after his big little brother texted: "answer me cunt!!! 🤬" Unfortunately, as much as Ezra had been hoping his ex-boyfriend would have seen or heard about his injury, Beau did not call or send any texts. It was enough to convince Ezra that it really was the end of their relationship. It hurt. As he browsed through his notifications, gloomy and upset, something caught his eye on his Instagram feed. Isaac, under the very mature - and accurate, in Ezra's opinion - handle of 2much420lol, had shared something. A petition that made the teenager's blood go cold. LANCE LOVECRAFT: CAREER KILLER Last night, during a tag-team match, Lance Lovecraft broke Ezra Luczynski's leg. For eighteen months, Lovecraft has given, at best, terrible performances ever since his first botchfest against wrestling legend Jimmy Vause. KADA has become a joke, pandering to the gays and the transgenders by forcing an untalented and unqualified international embarrassment onto our screens. This is a petition to fire the career killer before he destroys our beloved industry any further than he already has. Sign up to save wrestling! Sign up to get rid of Lance Lovecraft: career killer! Ezra's eyes burned with rage, especially when he saw who started this bullpie petition in the first place!! Blasted Scott Rivera, the jerkass who thought Ezra was sloppy and 'riding the bus' and took every opportunity to throw the redhead under the bus. Of course HE was the first to launch some attack on Lance for what happened!! And he read Isaac's comment. too right! ez worked his ass for this since we were in eighth grade and now this dickhead ruins his life with one kick. fuck him off or make him wrestle the girls where he belongs loll Ezra pursed his lips. Blast! How dare they say these horrible things and jump to these conclusions when they had no idea what happened?? Ezra, forced by the terms in his company contract, allowed the handsome doctor to fax the records and x-rays of the previous night to the KADA's administration and physicians. Aside from them, nobody knew anything. Certainly not stupid Scott Rivera! And CERTAINLY not pot-head Isaac!! And now Lance was taking crazy heat from both inside and outside the company for injuring another performer, but Ezra was sure it was just an unlucky accident. He wanted to give Lance a huge hug and tell him it was all okay. Jack made a contented noise as he turned over, stretching, and Ezra's eyes feasted on the sculpted body in front of him. Lance might not have been clever where his stomping was concerned, but he did have a point about going on a date with someone. In recent days, as he began to move on from Beau's sudden vanishing, he'd started to crave more intimacy with more than just his hand. It'd be awkward to hook up with someone with a broken leg, though. Maybe he'd sign up to Grindr and find a cute boy to help him out? A pity he seemed to be surrounded by gorgeous gay men and all of them were out of bounds. Oliver and Sean were together, Jack and Diego were heterosexual, and Lance was dating a mystery boy. He wanted to be the mystery boy. A few knocks on the door took Ezra's thoughts away from the lust growing in his blood, the misery of his injury and the fury that people could be so cruel to Lance for a mistake he made. But as he went to bounce from his bed and greet whoever had come to see him, his heavy left leg reminded him it wasn't an option. He didn't want to hobble over to the door like some broken, pathetic loser. He slunk deeper into his bed, hoping they would go away, but the knocks came again. Who was being so rude? It succeeded in waking Jack up at least, and the young man slurred something incomprehensible in his mother tongue. He got up and shot Ezra a look of pity before making his way over to investigate the disturbance. "Oui quoi?" Jack wheezed through a tired throat. "Oh, you're still sleeping! I'm sorry. You're usually up long before nine o'clock," Ezra recognised Sean Fox speaking, and dread hit him. He didn't want to see anyone, but Sean was a notch above the rest. "See we are been at, us... the, the..." he clicked his fingers repeatedly in some strange attempt to fast-boot his brain. Jack was the worst person in the world at waking up, hands down. Even in his own language, he was scarcely able to make sense. In English, it was funny enough to put a smile on Ezra's sulking lips. "We are late to-- here. Tonight. Last night." He yawned loudly, standing brazenly in the doorway wearing just his boxer shorts. "Right, you were in the hospital," Sean sounded impatient, as though he believed Jack was trying to stall him. "See, I wouldn't know that because you didn't let me visit and nobody has told me anything, and Ezra isn't replying to my texts. May I come in? I want to see how he's doing." "No." Ezra almost giggled out loud at Jack's bluntness. He could only think of how lucky he was to have someone who one hundred per cent had his back. "Oh," Sean clearly had not been expecting a refusal. "Is he asleep?" "No," Jack repeated coolly, as though Sean had hit rewind. "He is, uh, wanting, um. Left alone. Space. Thing." "Fine. Can you at least tell me how bad the injury was?" Sean spoke very quietly, but Ezra's ears were sharp enough to catch his words, and his smile turned into an indignant frown. "Yes," Jack answered, making Ezra panic. "But I won't." "Tch. Fair enough. Well, send him my love, won't you? I'll see you both in Lexington," Sean sounded disappointed as his shadow left the doorway, and Jack closed the door behind him. Ezra let the chuckles swimming in his chest burst out of his mouth. "You are such a bitch!!" Jack's blue eyes twinkled under his half-closed lids as he stretched again. "I... yes. Spending too many time with the gays." Ezra, cheered up considerably by Jack respecting his wishes not to have any visitor just yet, threw his pillow at his friend, who blocked it with a hand. "Yeah, nice try making a scapegoat out of us! I think you're just a catty gay boy in a straight boy's body!" Jack replied in French, something Ezra did not understand, before looking to snuggle back into his covers. "Nooo! Can we get breakfast? Please?" "Mm... no." "Jacky!!" "Hehe. Yes. Shower, first. You smell." Ezra went pink. He'd gotten sweaty during his match against Diego and Lance the night before, and he hadn't showered since then. Getting back to the hotel room he shared with Jack, he was in no mood to try and work it out with his broken leg in a splint, and even now, he was avoiding thinking about it. "Uhh... I don't know how. I don't... can I just use deodorant?" "No," Jack croaked sleepily and shook his head. "If you are wanting to being sad, then okay. But Protostar is not lazy. He does not smell! Do a, um, wash with the... cloths, if you don't want to shower." Ezra made himself blush with thoughts of somehow convincing Jack to help him shower. He pushed them away again. Jack was straight. All the cosplay, sewing, sassiness and vanity in the world didn't make him gay, and the big man was fast becoming the big brother Ezra never had. Someone to help him when he was down, to lead by example and support him when he needed it. He loved being that person for Eamonn and Celeste, though he felt as though he were failing them in recent days. He was having fun wrestling, while-- then he remembered, as he gave himself a sponge both, his injury. Ten weeks, give or take, where he would not be able to wrestle at all. Would KADA give him things to do? Or would they tell him to get lost and come back later? He supposed he'd find out tonight. Jack was incredibly sweet! He made a second trip to take Ezra's luggage down to his car - that Oliver had graciously driven back to the hotel the night before - and he helped the injured boy into the passenger seat, scooting it as far back as possible. At the restaurant, Jack pulled out Ezra's chair for him and held all the doors open. He seemed thrilled to have someone to take care of again. He missed his beautiful infant daughter something chronic. Video chats just didn't make up for the chance to rock her to sleep. Ezra missed her too! He wished Sarah would get her act together and take responsibility. He didn't care to see her again, but she was hurting Jack by staying away. The Rupp Arena in Lexington wasn't too far away from Louisville. An hour and a half by car. The drive wasn't very eventful. Ezra took a Norco tablet to stop his leg from bothering him so much, then he gave his small supply to Jack to look after. Even though he was nineteen and an adult, Ezra still felt as though he wasn't qualified to control his own prescription painkillers for some reason. Once the men arrived in the arena, Ezra remembered the first time he got to a KADA carpark. He was with Beau in the tiny RV they borrowed from Mickey and his dad. That was so long ago now, and he'd been so rigid with terror that Beau had to almost drag him out. It was just his tryout match. Now, he was scared. Everyone would see him, hobbling on his crutches with his leg in a splint. Waiting outside Michelle's office door with Jack, Ezra overheard a chilling conversation. "With respect, I told you from the start! I told you that letting Lance get in the ring was asking for trouble! But none of you wanted to fucking hear it! He doesn't know how to wrestle! He has no place in our industry! You saw what happened last night. He's a fucking workplace hazard!" "I don't have to justify my decisions to you, Fox. I'm in charge here. Not you. It sounds unfair, I know, but it's a position I've earned after being in the business for over thirty years." "Fine. Have it your way. Let the career killer take out your roster. But I tell you what, he is not breaking my leg! I'm not getting in the ring with him again. Not for any reason." "Don't you threaten me, Fox. I've been firmly in your corner for over a year now. I've been pushing shit uphill to give you a chance at being the face of our company. Don't tempt me to give up on you because you want to be petulant. Am I going to have the pom back in my office crying about you cutting up all of his clothes again?" "It's not just me, Chelle. Nobody wants to work with him anymore. At least half of the locker room agrees with me. If you try and force me, or any of us, to get in the ring with him, you might have a strike to deal with. This is our future! Our entire lives! Why would you put us at risk for him? We don't want to risk a broken leg just because Lance happens to be some popular drag queen and you want to pick up the queer audience. Hello! You have another gay wrestler right here in your office! And I guarantee you, I will never, ever embarrass the company the way he did last night! I'm a great wrestler. A real wrestler! I can do everything he can and more, all without sidelining your other cash cows! You don't need him. He's dangerous." Michelle's reply was too quiet to hear, but Sean soon marched out, and he didn't look happy. His frown quickly dropped when he saw his friends waiting outside for their appointment, and his eyes immediately found Ezra's leg strapped into a splint, the boy hanging off his crutches. "Guys! Oh my god," he scampered over almost sycophantically to Ezra and gave him a tentative hug while Jack looked down at him in consternation. "It's so good to see you, Ez! Oh, how's the leg? How long are you going to be out? Are you alright?" "I'll tell you later," Ezra replied stiffly, feeling prickly about Sean's attempt to use his injury behind his back for workplace politics. "Good luck tonight! Maybe I'll watch from the side!" Sean's pretty brown eyes burned into his friend's, as though trying to figure out exactly what Ezra seemed to be upset about. He gave a genuine smile and nodded. "We should have dinner tonight! You, me, Jack and Oliver. My treat!" "I don't feel much like going out right now," Ezra replied softly with an exhale. "Sorry." "While we're young!" Michelle called out from inside her office. Her sharp, guttural voice was enough to scare all three of the male wrestlers outside her door, and Sean left to go up the hall, looking back over his shoulder. "Oh, shit," Michelle looked on him with a maternal sympathy when he entered her office, Jack closing the door behind him. "Bloody hell. How are you doing on that leg, Protostar? Are you feeling better?" Ezra's jaw quivered. "Well. Yeah? Not happy about it." "But how are you, Michelle?" Jack asked her, adjusting in the uncomfortable chair. For a moment, Michelle seemed disarmed. She rubbed her eyes and looked older than she ever had before. "It's been a shit of a day, I'll tell you what. I have half my male roster having a fit, the entire world throwing around this ridiculous petition to fire Lovecraft, and the bosses breathing down my neck all with their own demands about what they want to see and what they think I should be doing. I feel like I'm being ripped apart trying to keep everyone happy. I'll be just fine. But thanks for asking, Frenchy. Thank you, indeed. Now, Luczynski. Our doc was with me earlier. She said we can expect you to be sidelined for eight weeks. I wanted to meet with you and talk about it face to face. Obviously, you can't compete. In fact, our policy prevents you from involvement with any action until you're cleared by our medical team." "But I can't just stay at home!" Ezra blurted out, on the verge of a panic attack. "I can't afford to take so much time off!" Michelle seemed amused. "No, no. I told you boys I have your best interests at heart. I meant it." "What then?" Jack asked, every bit as interested in the conversation as his friend. As a member of Supernova, every decision about Ezra's career affected him as well. Michelle cracked her fingers. "I want you in the Ford Center tomorrow by two o'clock. We're going to set the ring up early, you're going to bring your wrestling clothes, and we're going to record some Protostar promos in advance for the next few weeks. Unfortunately for our limey Lovecraft, he's got a massive amount of heat right now. The fans want his blood no matter what we do about it, so we may as well use it to get Supernova as over as possible with the fans." "I... I don't--" Jack tried to let her know that he wasn't able to keep up with her. She spoke fast and with a heavy New York accent. Ezra turned to him and spoke slowly and clearly. "So, Michelle wants us to come to the arena early tomorrow so I can shoot some PROMOS!!" He couldn't help but be ecstatic with Michelle's idea. He wasn't going to be left out of the company after all! "Lance has real heat from the fans because, well, you were there. Michelle thinks we can use it to get the fans behind us even more!" "Sorry, Frenchy. You gotta talk loud and fast if you wanna be heard in a man's world, and I'm in too deep to break that habit now," Michelle shrugged. "I have a lot to cover, so Protostar, you'll need to fill our boy in." "What happens to Jacky while I'm out of action? Are you going to split us up? Please don't!!" Ezra's thoughts spewed from his gullet like vomit before he could stop himself. Michelle almost flinched at his sudden intensity. "No, kiddo. Not at all. Frenchy here will stay on TV every week. He'll keep stoking the fire with Lansilva, but we do need them to defend the Tag-Team Championships once a while, so they'll have other opponents to face. The snot-nosed know-it-alls on the forums went cuckoo for your match with Silva," Michelle spoke to Jack loudly as though he were deaf or stupid. "So expect to do it again." Jack's eyes flickered with irritation at being spoken to like an idiot, but the idea of facing a KADA legend like Diego Silva again was a seductive one. "Okay! As many times as you like!" The French-Canadian beamed with excitement, and Ezra remembered that they were making their mark in KADA together. It was so easy to forget. Ezra was a hometown hero of a tiny little town in Minnesota. In contrast, Jack was an established, successful wrestler in multiple Canadian provinces. Yet, in KADA, Jack was as much of a newbie as Ezra was, despite the extra years of experience, the athlete's pedigree and the respect and reputation. It was natural for him to see Diego Silva as a hero and even be a little starstruck by him, but it always took Ezra by surprise. Jack was taller than nearly all of the other wrestlers and dwarfed in bulk only by Jimmy Vause. Michelle smiled at their enthusiasm. It seemed to breathe life back into her. "If you boys nail this storyline with our biggest heels, your stock will skyrocket. To do that, we're going to need to record some vignettes with our Protostar while he recovers, and we'll air them once a week during the show. If we do that, then by law, we have to fill your bank account while you rest up at home and get that leg back in order." Ezra and Jack walked away from that meeting excited and joyful that Supernova's momentum wasn't going to be derailed! Detoured, perhaps, but a prolonged feud with Lansilva?? Awesome!! It seemed that Ezra's career wasn't going to be all that inconvenienced by the sudden injury he sustained the night before. For all he knew, Supernova would lose their Championship match against Lansilva at next Friday's Pay Per View match and get lost in the fold. Now, though, he had a plan for the whole year!! What silver lining! He wanted to find Lance and tell him the good news! Lance, though, was clearly in the doghouse. He sat in the far corner of the catering room at a table he appeared to have actually dragged further away from the rest. He wasn't alone, though. Rachel Reid, who would be challenging for the Women's Championship on Friday, sat with him, as did Pearl, whose mouth seemed to be frozen in a perpetual smile even when she was unhappy. Lance looked more miserable than Ezra had ever seen! He couldn't bear to have the boy feeling so guilty, and he wished all of a sudden that he sent him a comforting message earlier on. "Hey!" Ezra spoke as bubbly and positively as he could, beaming as his colleagues as Jack towered behind him, almost like a bodyguard. Pearl was quick to hug her littlest friend, wrapping plump arms around him without tipping him off balance. Rachel gave a polite, friendly greeting. They asked their questions, and Ezra replied to them, providing details on his night in the emergency room and the nature of his injury. It took a little while before Lance could force himself to speak. He looked like he'd been crying before Ezra found him. "Ezra, I didn't-- I wouldn't! Oh, fuck! I can't believe... oh my god. I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry!! Are you alright? Oh my god!! I didn't think I'd stomped hard enough to hurt you! I can't... oww... please forgive me! I'm so sorry! I didn't know it would... it-- ahh. I'm so, so, so, so sorry!!" "You're a million per cent forgiven!! It was just a freak accident. I know you wouldn't ever hurt me on purpose," Ezra reassured him, stealing Pearl's seat so he could be next to his on-screen archnemesis, real-life friend. "I'm okay! It wasn't even a real break, you know! The doc says anyone else would have been fine, but my bones aren't finished developing yet." That wasn't strictly what the doctor said, but Ezra was more concerned about cheering Lance up and helping him feel less responsible. "You didn't know it was gonna happen. It's not your fault. And I'll only be out for a couple of months! So please don't be sad about it. You might even have done me a favour in a weird way!" Rachel coughed behind him, and Ezra's eyes bugged as he realised how egocentric he was being. "But, um, how are you? Are you alright?" "Fox is being an asshole," the gorgeous Canadian woman answered as Lance feebly nodded yes. "No surprise there, though. He's had it in for Lance since day one. I've had enough of that vindictive, hypocritical little slut. I can't believe I used to be his friend." "It's not that," Lance raised his head and swept his wavy bangs from his eye. "I'm used to all that. Having them dogpile on me because they think I'm a bloody cheat, or I make deals with the prats in charge, or because they look at me and see everything they're not. I never let it get to me because they're wrong about me. Always. Just... this time they're not wrong. I did fuck up. I did hurt you. I didn't think-- ugh. I don't know. Maybe I should just quit. It's probably the best for everyone." "No, you will not!" Jack snapped, and everyone jerked to look at him. "You hurt my friend and you cannot leave yet until you help him get back. You are Lansilva. That name means something. You and us are going to fight many times until the end of the year. If you quit, then what will we do? We lose our chance to get over. And he and I made too many sacrifices to stop now. If you are sorry, you will help Ezra when he comes back. Fuck Sean Fox! You do not quit for him. You stay for Ezra, or you answer to me!" It was silent for a while. Lance seemed to be in shock that Jack would speak to him like that. The gentle giant was usually so placid and quiet in conversation, preferring to listen than to talk, and rarely raising his voice. Jack didn't look angry, exactly, but he wasn't impressed with Lance's defeatist attitude. Ezra almost let out a squeak of appreciation at his friend coming through for him yet again. Though, the politics were starting to create anxiety in him. He lived with Sean - the young man gave him a place to stay when he needed it most. On the other hand, he'd been wrestling with Lance since the very beginning, and even developed a slight crush on him. He didn't want to be caught in between. He wanted to wrestle, not play politics! "He's got a point, babe," Pearl spoke quietly in Lance's ear. "Diego would be crushed if you left him. He relies a lot on you. And so do I!" "What's Lansilva without Lance?" Rachel added, putting her hand on her friend's. They wore the same shade of nail polish. "We'll get you through this, sweetheart. If you quit, I won't have anyone to do my nails." Whether it was the tough love from Jack or the kindness from Pearl and Rachel, Lance seemed to exhale his self-pity and guilt and force that patented glamourous smile on his face. "You're right. I'll save my wobbly for my day off, then. The show has to go on, and I don't have the time to let that little berk get under my skin." "Good," Jack tapped the table with his fingers. Friday, June 28th Ezra felt pangs of sadness and regret as he watched the Pay Per View live on the couch at home. His foot, heavy with a cast, rested on the coffee table in the middle of the U-shaped sofa arrangement. Ava and Louise, the two Hawaiian girls who had started their developmental contract with Ezra and Jack before the men were abruptly called up, sat together on one side. On the other, Gloria Droese, a long-time wrestler in her own right and the woman who trained the Knoxville recruits, had a beer in her hand as the four of them watched Lansilva battle against Salamanca and Giorgio. J. K. Growling, the oversized dalmatian that seemed to love Ezra more than either one of her other gay daddies, barely let the injured boy out of her sight. Now, she was doing her best to lie squarely across his lap, being almost the same size as him, looking up at him with sad eyes if he didn't scratch her belly enough. Gloria was a lot of fun to watch the wrestling with! She had a fun story to tell about every blasted wrestler to pop up on the screen! Salamanca once kissed his girlfriend's twin sister by mistake! Batty Betty ate live squid on a dare and vomited all over the rented car! Ten years ago, Michelle, the KADA boss, drank an entire bottle of scotch and broke the stripper pole in the party bus!! The girls coming to keep him company while Jack, Sean and Oliver were in Indianapolis had cheered him up so much. Ava and Louise both cooed with awe as Giorgio leapt at Diego from the top rope, only for Diego to catch him in mid-air. The Brazilian, making it look easy, hoisted the flailing Italian over his head and onto his shoulders. He spun him around and dropped him to the mat with a ring-shaking Silva Spiral. It was one of Ezra's all-time favourite moves! So much that he learned how to do it in Litchfield, but most of his opponents were too big and heavy to manipulate like that. People very rarely got up again after getting hit with Diego's most well-known move. With the three-count, Lansilva retained their Tag-Team Championships. Lance, Ezra noticed, did not spend very much time in the ring. Diego was the legal man for most of the contest. "Fun fact," Gloria was nodding, impressed with the highly competitive match she'd just seen. "The first time Diego did the Silva Spiral on... I don't remember who, exactly, it was a complete botch! The other guy was supposed to connect with a headscissors off Diego's shoulders, but there was a miscommunication, and Diego dropped the poor bastard on the floor!" "Oh, no!" Ava giggled, a little tipsy on her third cider. Gloria laughed as Diego and Lance celebrated their victory. "Oh, yes! That's how the Silva Spiral was born! Diego did innovate it, but it certainly wasn't on purpose. He got the idea from a botch, and he's used it as his finishing move ever since!" Ezra was amused by that little tidbit, but he was watching the screen intently, knowing what was coming. As Lansilva bragged about beating the former champions and sidelining Supernova - generating massive heat! - Ezra's pre-recorded promo interrupted them on the big screen! The three women with him all sat up and cheered while Ezra beamed, thrilled to be a part of the show even if he couldn't be there in person. It took him ninety minutes to record this clip and four weeks worth of promo material. His schedule was now totally free until the first week of August! Ezra's promo was shot from the bare chest up, obscuring the fact that he was sitting on a stool, and he spoke to the Tag-Team Champions in the ring as though he were there live. The fans didn't need to know he was watching the show at home! "Lance! Oi, Lance! Look at me, you little coward!! Yeah, you thought you were so clever, didn't you? You knew you couldn't beat Supernova! I beat you in my first-ever match, and Jack beat Diego Silva in his first-ever match! You knew we would have beaten you last week and we would have beaten you today! You knew you'd lose those Tag-Team Championships to us, so you BROKE my LEG???" The camera briefly panned to Lance, who filled the screen with an arrogant, satisfied smirk. Only those who knew Lance could see how scared he was, performing as a villain in an arena full of people who genuinely despised him. Ezra felt terrible for him for a moment. It must have been so difficult, and in Ezra's opinion, he was so brave, facing up to the fans clamouring for his blood and the other wrestlers demanding his resignation! "Well, guess what?? You failed! I won't be gone for long because as usual, you did a bad job!! I'll be back sooner than you know it, and when I am, I'm coming directly for you!! And not even Diego Silva will be able to stop me from breaking your FACE!! Until then, here's a little something to remember me by!" The camera panned back to Lansilva again, and it was Jack who charged under the bottom rope with a bamboo kendo stick in his hands!! With a loud crack, Jack smacked Diego Silva over the back, and then a second strike, and then a terrific one to the face. Diego fell down to the mat, totally stunned. Jack turned to Lance, kendo stick raised, and Lance squealed and leapt down to the canvas curled up in a tight ball, covering his head with his hands. Ezra, the real one on the couch, watching the Pay Per View live with iced peach and mango tea in his hand, laughed wickedly. Jack sneered at the camera, tossed the kendo stick, and then grabbed Lance and hoisted him up and over his head, the cowardly villain crying for mercy all the while, and hit him with La Disparition. The crowd was on FIRE! They loved Jack SO much!! "I'm glad you're still on TV!" Ava fanned herself with her hand. The excitement was a bit much! "I'll say. Are you alright, though? Sitting out the match you were supposed to be a part of?" Louise asked him, swigging from her glass of water. She wasn't much of a drinker. Ezra pursed his lips. "Yeah. Yeah, I am. I'd rather be in the ring, but I have so much to look forward to, you know? And I'm happy for Jacky. He doesn't have to sit on the sidelines with me." He looked to Gloria, who was poking her eye in the lid of her can to see if there was anything left. "Hey, Gloria, why does Rachel Reid keep calling Sean a slut? Why did they stop being friends? What happened?" The way Gloria tensed up confirmed to Ezra that there was more to the situation than he knew about. "Honey, there are some stories I'm not supposed to tell. Like I told you a while ago, you're better off staying out of that drama." Ava and Louise remained quiet, but by no means were they not listening intently. Ezra leaned sat up and pointed at his cast. "It's my injury that started all this in the first place! Sean's using it to justify turning everyone against Lance. I'm already stuck in the middle! I should at least know what I'm stuck in the middle of!" Gloria shook her head. "It's not my place to air that dirty laundry, honey. In fact, even if I were inclined to spill secrets I promised to keep safe, I'm not sure I even know the whole story. But, between us, if you ask Diego nicely, he might be compelled to tell you." "Diego?" Ezra bit his lip nervously. "I can't even get him to tell me his favourite colour!" "Aw, he's just a big, cuddly teddy bear if you know where to scratch," Gloria told him, earning herself a couple of giggles. "I'll let him know why you're asking ahead of time, okay? He and I go way back. Way back!" Ezra nodded. It was admirable of Gloria to be so loyal to her friends, but the thought of interrogating Diego Silva about drama in the past was a scary one. The conversation was soon forgotten as Irina defended her Women's Championship in a STEEL CAGE match against Rachel Reid! Ezra spent most of those fifteen minutes watching not the screen, but the love and pride on Gloria's face as she watched her best friend and final opponent compete. Rachel lost, but it was a good match! Neither Oliver nor Pearl made it onto the card, but Sean Fox headlined the Pay Per View tonight against Kodeine in a no disqualification match! Ezra didn't know much about Kodeine. Only that he was part-Asian, he used to be a marine, and he had a different girl on his arm every week. Nobody liked him much, but he was a damn good wrestler! He had a decent run after winning the belt from Diego Silva at the end of year Pay Per View. But, though Kodeine was top of the line, Sean Fox completely overshadowed him! It was the best performance Ezra had seen from his friend and mentor, and that was a huge statement to make! Slams and hurricanranas and backbreakers and flips! Sean finished his enemy off with a top rope Moonsault WHILE HOLDING A STEEL CHAIR and it made a hell of a sound when he crashed onto Kodeine with it between them!! Sean broke down in tears when Sherry announced him as the new Heavyweight Champion, and he hugged the belt to his chest as his music blared through the arena. Ezra could feel the emotion bursting from his friend and mentor. He knew all too well how much Sean had to sacrifice to have this opportunity. And it had all come to fruition!! His dream had come true, and it was impossible not to feel so proud of him! Whatever else Sean might be, he was a wrestling GOD!! And the CROWD!!! The reaction was unexpected! Sean was a heel. A villain - he broke the rules and disrespected the fans, and they were supposed to boo him. But as he got to his feet and raised his new title high above his head, he received the loudest cheer of the whole night. A standing ovation! ~ 6/28 - 7:37 pm EZLuczynski uploaded a picture I'm sorry about being so quiet, Luczynskiacs! Getting injured was a real shock and I needed some radio silence for a little while. ❤️ I'll be out for two or three months and I'd ask you all to respect my privacy regarding my leg. Also, I had to censor the PENIS @OGGloria drew on my cast!! 😅 The attached picture was of Ezra's leg in a new cast, propped up on the coffee table. It had signatures scrawled on it with get well notes, except for one small area that had been scribbled over by the editing software. 6/28 - 7:41 pm EZLuczynski uploaded a picture In wrestling, nobody ever wants to hurt someone else. We work hard to be safe, but accidents happen. Be kind.🥰 The attached picture was a sweet selfie taken days ago of Ezra and Lance taken over Lance's shoulder by Ezra, who was hugging his friend from behind. Both boys were smiling, putting to rest any rumours that Lance might have broken Ezra's leg on purpose. 6/28 - 11:23 pm EZLuczynski shared a picture uploaded by KADAWrestling So proud!! 🤩WHAT A MATCH!! 😱 Big victory for us little guys!! It's the era of the Fox!! 🦊🙌 The attached picture was of Sean Fox standing alone in the ring, holding the KADA Heavyweight Championship high above his head. He was slick with sweat and his hair stuck to his face and body, and he looked as though he was crying with happiness and exhaustion.
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