With Cian gone and other strong contenders now showing weakness, Lance receives a boost of confidence. Will the team return to form?
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?"
"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.
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?"
"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.
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?"
"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.
"Correct. Lance, with which sport would you associate Englishman Sir Stanley Matthews?"
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?"
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.
"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?"
"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--"
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
Thank you all for reading! ❤️ Very much appreciated. Have a lovely day x