With Eliza gone, Lance has made it into the second half of the game, yet some of the stiffest competition lies before him.
"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?"
"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?"
"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!
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--
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.
"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?"
"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?"
"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.
"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.
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?"
"Correct. Grace, of the twelve astronauts that have walked on the moon, how many were women?"
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.
"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.