The third glass of wine since the start of dinner hit her as Elo walked up the stairs to the sound of gossip. The girls conglomerated in Devi’s room, with Brooke and Abby sitting on the bed, and Devi pacing in front of her dresser.
“Hey,” called Elo from the doorway. It took a moment for the world to stop moving when she did. “Are you okay?” Devi finally turned around, cheeks streaked with tears. Elo gasped.
“I’m just so pissed,” she answered as she wiped at her face. Streaks of mascara pooled at the corners of her eyes. “Ehan is one of those guys with so much toxic masculinity--and--and worse--I can’t even get into it!” She grunted, shaking her fists at her sides. She continued, “He thinks he’s such an expert on everything, like he’s some super smart genius. He thinks he’s better than me because I’m just some single dyke and he’s this older, educated, married man and everything Indian parents ever wanted or whatever. Like are you kidding me? He’s all saying that he’s better than me, like he’s more important and--ugh! Whatever. It really doesn’t matter.” Devi attempted to clean up her eye makeup, sniffling, shaking the tears off her hands. Although Elo doubted Ehan actually said any of that, she wasn’t about to make that assumption.
“Do you want to be distracted by it, maybe?” Elo glanced at both of the uncomfortable girls on Devi’s bed, who seemed to jump at the opportunity.
“That sounds like a great idea,” said Abby. “Anger will give you wrinkles.”
“Or a heart attack,” said Brooke with a raised brow. She straightened up. “Besides, it would make him even madder if he sees that you’re having fun anyway.” That was a wonderful idea. Make Devi feel better, make Ehan mad….
“Maybe we can find a game or something?” Elo looked to Devi. She stood there, chewing her lower lip, glancing between the three of them as she calculated her next move. She did still look quite pissed. “Or do you want to vent a bit more?” But as a second camera man poked through the door right beside Elo’s face, Devi sighed. Topher already stood in the corner, capturing every moment of her frustration to air on TV if nothing else big happened, but he disappeared a bit more. Kristina’s sudden appearance reminded everyone of how public this all was.
“Yeah,” Devi said finally with a sigh. She slumped her shoulders. “He doesn’t deserve the energy. I guess being distracted is not a bad idea.”
“The theatre room has a bunch of gaming consoles,” Abby pointed out as she stood from the bed. “Do you guys like games?”
“If there’s karaoke, I don’t think any of you have a choice,” said Brooke with a wide smile. “Nothing cheers people up like karaoke.”
Devi hesitated, breathing to herself methodically, before she said, “I wouldn’t be opposed to anything like that. Or Mario Kart or something.” The timing of her breaths, her words, reminded Elo of some of her meditation techniques.
“Yeah, get some of that aggression out?” Abby prompted, smiling. Devi nodded, and as the girls made their way downstairs to the theatre room, Elo watched the tension from her back and shoulders roll away with every stretch. It was impressive to see her work so hard to change her mood, to watch every careful breath.
“Sorry for getting so angry, guys,” Devi said once they’d rounded the corner to head into the theatre.
“No, no,” started Elo, wide-eyed, “it’s okay to be angry. If you want to talk about it, we can listen. We’ve all been through something like that, right?” And, just for the sake of the cameras that followed, she added, “some random guy thinking he knows everything?”
Brooke gestured to the media cabinet once they entered the massive sound-proof theatre. She reached for the floor-length door and opened it, displaying rows and rows of movies and games.
She huffed at the overt display of excess wealth, but shook her head. “And maybe we can’t really do much for that,” she said, “I mean, unless you want us to go jump him?” The four shared a laugh together, but Devi shook her head.
“No,” she decided quickly. “No, I’m done being angry. If we have to all live together for three months, then, I guess I’ll find a way to compartmentalize.”
“That’s really big of you,” Elo said, reaching for her arm. Devi grasped her hand and squeezed it, shrugging. “Maybe after he gets to know you, he’ll change his tune.”
“It’s not like his opinion actually matters or anything.” Good point. The twinge of respect that ran throughout Elo’s chest made it hard for her not to frown. Devi was going to be hard to rile up regularly, if she was this level-headed. And it was going to absolutely suck to throw her under the bus, if need be.
But still, at least she had a spark to ignite at all. As Abby and Brooke sorted through the different plastic cases, Elo hummed for a moment. “So, um, can I ask what you guys argued about? Why it got so heated?” Brooke very nearly glared at her, watching carefully, but Elo pretended not to notice. Devi sighed.
“I’m already feeling better about it. Thank you, girls. He just said all the wrong things. Basically insinuated that breaking traditions made me a bad person.” Now, though, Devi rolled her eyes. “I shouldn’t have gotten so riled up.”
“Um, so I see some karaoke here,” Abby interrupted from the floor not far away. Elo stored the hint to Devi’s anger away for a later time.
“I’m down for some karaoke,” decided Devi on the spot.
The girls gathered around the giant TV in the middle of the wall and prepped the game; and, not long after, all lounged together on the giant, plush couch to sing their hearts out to some stupid songs from their childhood. It was a nice break, to just sing as loud as possible, no worries about being good or decent at it, just to do it together. Even though only one of them held a microphone at a time, they all sang to the songs, until finally, maybe an hour later, Shane and Nick stumbled through the door.
They hung on one another, keeping each other upright. They squinted and recoiled at the sudden wall of music that slammed into them, each grabbing either side of the doorway to brace themselves. Elo twisted around with the microphone, laughing as she sang, “I said, HEY! What’s going on?”
“I was gunna say that!” slurred Shane. The other three girls continued the song, but Elo couldn’t help but burst into laughter. Looked like the boys might have continued drinking when Elo left. Nick’s glasses sat on his nose a little too low, hair tussled. Shane’s shirt was unbuttoned too low, and he couldn’t stop himself from giggling.
“Karaoke!” she announced to them as she passed the mic over to Abby. The guys remained where they were, both seemingly sheepish and reluctant to join even though she waved at them to come closer. Something about the two of them together made her suspiciously nervous.
“Nah, I’m good,” Nick shouted over the music. “Maybe it’s bedtime.”
“Oh,” Elo sounded, “is this your way of telling us to shut up? ‘Cause it’s not happenin’!”
“...and I take a deep breath and I get real high, and I--!” continued Abby, eyes closed as she dramatically leaned forward with the microphone. This prompted the rest of the girls to join in, completely ignoring Shane and Nick, to continue the verse, ”scream at the top of my lungs, what’s going on!" After a full other verse, Shane and Nick continued some sort of private conversation with one another, knocking knuckles and shoving one another until they left. Elo tried not to think about it too much, but it hung on her mind, even three songs later, when Devi clicked for the game to go to the menu.
“Okay, maybe it is actually time for bed now,” she said, smiling at the others. “We should find out what the next sabotage is tomorrow. Maybe they’re going to wake us up at the crack of dawn again.” Elo doubted it, because she didn’t receive any instructions from the producers.
It took Topher, the cameraman, approaching them for Elo to remember he was there. She jumped, glancing between him and Kristina.
“Did anyone want to make some confessions before tonight? I have the key to the confession room, so you don’t have to go outside.” Aw, that was nice of him. But Elo could tell something was up when he looked at her and gestured. “Ellie, you haven’t said much lately.” She frowned, but looked to Devi.
“Maybe give you a minute to gather your thoughts while I go in and give my two cents?”
“Yeah,” Devi decided, nodding. “That sounds good. Give me a second to just...organize what’s going on in here.” With a tense smile, Elo waved to the girls and followed Topher to the little office they used just a couple days ago.
When the door shut, Elo took her seat at the plush armchair against the wall, and waited for Topher to set up.
“So?” she asked when she could finally stare right at the red, blinking light. Topher touched his ear, listening to the bluetooth.
“Alright,” he said to the earpiece. “Elo, it looks like results are in. You’re going to sabotage Shane for the next competition.” Elo frowned.
“So for the next competition, it looks like I’m sabotaging Shane,” she repeated to the camera. After swallowing thickly, she asked, “What’s the sabotage?”
“I guess those results are still coming in. But you’ll find out tomorrow when we find out what the sabotage is.” He gave a small smile. “Any ideas on what the sabotage could be?”
Elo sighed. “I have a couple ideas of what the challenge could be, if this sabotage is so open-ended.” She hoped not. “I’m assuming it’s something physical. Like a race or something.” Elo stared at the floor, now, waiting. “Um, was that it?” She glanced up to Topher, who sat there, waiting for her to give him instructions.
“Oh, um…. Yeah, I guess that’s it. They just wanted me to let you know that the results from the first episode were in, and Shane’s the crowd favorite so far.” She bet. Like someone said, everyone loved a twink and a chef. Maybe if Quin didn’t win any points, he might have also been one of the favorites.
“Do we know who was second?” she asked, glancing up.
“Who the second most favorite was?”
“Oh, yeah. Of course.”
“Who was it?”
“I mean, I don’t have that information right now….”
“Helpful, Toph,” Elo said with a smirk.
“Always doing my best!” After a couple laughs, a few more jokes, Topher received instructions that it was okay to let her out of the room. Devi and the girls waited in the dining area, whispering to each other. When Elo gestured for Devi to go in, Brooke and Abby stared at her with wide eyes.
Devi shook her head, but disappeared behind the closed door.
Elo gestured for the girls to go on with their gossip.
“So Ehan just came in,” started Abby, but Brooke interrupted: “With Trish. And we like….”
“So we kind of were still in the theatre when they did come in--”
“So we sort of hid--”
“And didn’t really eavesdrop-eavesdrop--”
“But we totally eavesdropped--”
“And they weren’t talking about the argument at all--”
“Maybe one of you could give me the update?” Elo prompted, blinking between them. This was a little disorienting.
“Oh, sorry--um, you go.”
Brooke took the lead. “Okay, so they were kind of flirting?”
“Like hitting on each other. Like Trish was--”
“This is not solely on Trish!” interrupted Abby.
“Okay, but let me get to it!” Brooke waved her hand. “So like, Trish was saying that it was good of Ehan to ‘let go’ of his anger or whatever, and Ehan was like--”
“He was like--!”
“Shh!” Brooke waved again. “So Ehan was like, ‘I’m good at letting go,’ or whatever, and he was like, staring at her, all intensely, and she was all sheepish about it--!”
“And then they parted, like, ‘oh I’m going to bed’ but like--they sleep on the same floor, right?” So much for Brooke taking the lead on this explanation. Elo tried not to look amused at Abby’s excitement.
“So they had that awkward ‘oh no you go first’ at the stairs, and Trish was like, ‘you’re such a gentleman’ and Ehan was like, ‘oh that’s not all I am’!”
Elo’s eyes bulged. “What the hell does THAT mean?”
Abby crossed her arms, mind already made up, scowling. “I don’t know but they’re totally banging.”
“Woah, now,” Elo sounded, shaking her head with a laugh. “That’s a big accusation.”
“Okay maybe they’re not banging right now, but they totally will. I mean, yeah.” She looked back to Brooke. “Yeah?” Brooke shrugged.
“Just because they have chemistry doesn’t mean they’ll bang,” said Elo, a little more firmly than she thought maybe might have been initially necessary. She nearly forgot she was supposed to be the one saying all of that.
“Okay, whatever. It’s like you’ve never watched TV,” laughed Abby.
“I--” She didn’t know why she was so defensive all of a sudden. But, remembering how Ellie was kind and easy to talk to, she instead gave a laugh. “Alright, maybe you’re right,” she said instead with a big smile. “But I hope they’re faithful. I mean, we all hope that.”
“It wouldn’t make for good TV if they cast two taken, faithful people,” said Abby. Elo didn’t mean to frown, but she furrowed her brows to save it.
“I guess you’re right about that. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love….” She hesitated. “Um. His...name...was…” She remembered the name of Trish’s boyfriend. But it was a little more dramatic to make it sound like Trish never mentioned him at all. “And I know that Ehan loves...his...wife.” The girls stared at each other with wide eyes for a quick second, before they gave way to giggles. Hopefully that was entertaining enough.
The next day didn’t start nearly as early as the last challenge. A PA knocked on everyone’s door and requested they change into workout attire, and to meet at the front door. And although all the girls wore perfume and makeup, and all the guys freshly showered, they at least all looked the part of people that were going to work out. Well, if everyone wore deodorant, it was an upgrade to Elo’s usual gym.
It took a full half hour ride in the shuttle van to get to where they were going; only half the group seemed to have enough energy to excitedly theorize what they were going to do. It looked like Shane and Nick might have been a bit too hungover, based on their bloodshot eyes and groggy voices, to have much enthusiasm--and Quin was always quiet, so it was mostly just the girls talking, with most of them deciding to snub Ehan as a punishment for hurting Devi last night.
When they pulled up to the massive, glass building surrounded by palm trees, almost everyone let out sounds of amazement. It was an impressive sight to roll up on this massive building in the hills, not far off from the busy highway. Buildings were sparse, seemingly more industrial than commercial in this area, leaving them plenty of privacy to film.
Isaiah was already waiting right at the front with a camera crew, makeup artist touching up his highlight, wardrobe assistant folding over his tube socks on his shins to make his calves look bigger. What was the point of dressing up in workout clothes when he was clearly not going to do anything?
“You all look great!” Isaiah said as the contestants poured out of the van. An assistant makeup artist powdered his face one last time, before buzzing off right at the countdown.
“Welcome, contestants!” Isaiah started when the producer got to “action.” “You’re here at our second sponsor for this competition: Olympus Working. This exclusive gym is full of obstacles and workout machines to help you prepare for whatever battle you have coming next. In your case, it’s an obstacle course. Let’s go inside.”
And, true to description, inside was just as...extra.
The rock wall stood three stories tall, right in the middle of the gym, while the separate stories advertised different kinds of workouts. A track wrapped around the entire building like a giant ramp; in favor of more “environmental workouts,” there were less workout machines, and more trampolines and piles of foam combined with faux walls and setups that would fit the setting of Ninja Warrior.
Isaiah welcomed them into the space, which smelled more of rubber and sweat than any other setting Elo had settled into in her life, and gestured with wide arms.
“Welcome! As you can see, Olympus Working has all the state of the art equipment needed for your average parkour expert in the making, or even just your avid workout guru!” Elo stared at Isaiah with an expression she hoped got across the look of “what the fuck” she was feeling. Half of what he said didn’t really go with the other half. “Here you have access to everything you will need to prepare for the challenge coming in two days: An obstacle course!” Aha, she knew it! A couple of the contestants looked at each other, seemingly pleased with themselves, while others, like Trish and Quin, looked a little more nervous. “Our obstacle course was designed by two demented and genius workout experts….” As Isaiah went on to describe the owners of the establishment, Elo took careful note of what was around.
The rock wall, obviously, was a crowning jewel. That must have been an indicator of what was going to be prominent in the obstacle course they would all have to endure in a couple days. The track was another obvious one, so running uphill would definitely have a place. She couldn’t help but notice there were a few trampolines off on the far corner that looked a little newer than the other equipment. Maybe Shitdisturber funded some of the shinier equipment.
Isaiah finished his spiel, and gestured to the half a dozen cameramen that circled the group.
“Joining us, of course, is our camera crew. The owners of Olympus Working have agreed to let us use one of the locker rooms as a confessional area, where you can give all your favorite details about the awesome workout you’re about to experience.” Pf. As if. “And, here’s the best news: you have access to this gym, from nine AM to seven PM, for the next two days, until your task! So please, enjoy, run amok, and have a blast.” Though he wore a full workout getup, Isaiah bade the group goodbye, and headed to the front doors of the establishment. Really? He wasn’t even going to attempt to look like he was going to work out with them? Weak.
But, as expected, while Isaiah left, Grace entered, full in a bright pink dress with stunning, metallic heels. She grinned at everyone and gestured to Kristina.
“Hi everyone! Kristina and I will be in the locker rooms. Who wants to go first for their reaction reel? Ellie? How about you?” Well, that was predictable. Elo gave what she hoped was a winning smile, then nodded as she made her way to join Grace in the locker room.
She settled on one of the benches in front of the lockers while Kristina put her camera on the tripod. Grace held the white balance board in front of Elo’s face, and the two spent just a few minutes setting up the shot before Elo was allowed to fix herself in the mirror to prepare for her take.
“Alright. Action,” called Grace as she sat across from Elo. “So, Elo, you got your first official sabotage from the audience last night!” she prompted, smiling.
Elo nodded. “Yes! I got the first sabotage from the audience last night,” she repeated, looking into the camera. “I’m supposed to sabotage Shane, who you deemed the audience favorite.”
“Great,” sounded Grace as she checked the viewfinder. She waited a couple more seconds. “One more time?” Elo repeated herself in a different tone. Grace nodded. “Good. Any reaction to Shane being the audience pick?” Elo pursed her lips.
“I mean, we all kind of expected it. Everyone loves a chef.” She raised an eyebrow, but smiled.
“The audience has deemed Shane the favorite, and voted him the most likely to win this next challenge.”
“Really?” Elo sounded, despite herself. Grace laughed with her. “Not going to lie, I thought Ehan would be better suited for this challenge.”
“Why is that?” prompted Grace.
“I thought Ehan would be better suited for this challenge because he’s--well, you know. You’ve seen the footage. He’s ripped.”
“Have you seen Shane?”
“Actually,” started Elo suspiciously, “Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen what Shane really looks like without a shirt on. So now I’m kind of excited for that!”
“Oh I bet,” commented Grace. The girls shared a laugh.
“So what am I supposed to do to sabotage Shane from winning this obstacle course?”
Grace adjusted herself in her seat, then passed Elo a small index card to read the audience suggestion.
“Okay, so this suggestion comes from InsultCatapult, and it reads….
Hi, I watch this show with my boyfriend through our favorite streaming site. We love the new ability to be able to watch the show together, with the chat bar right next to the show. That’s how we had our first date! Anyway, we suggest for Elo to be able to manipulate the obstacle course to slow Shane down. Love the show, it’s our new favorite!
“Thanks, InsultCatapult!” Elo said, smiling to the camera. “Thank you for watching and writing in, we really appreciate it. It helps pay the bills.” She gave a courteous laugh to the camera. “Alright, so….I guess I’m sabotaging Shane the day of the competition.” She gave an exaggerated “uh oh” face, then laughed and handed the index card back to Grace.
“How was that?”
“One more time.”
“Okay...” It was “one more time” at least two more times before Grace deemed the take worthy. “That one good?” After an approving nod, Elo sighed.
“But wait!” said Grace, gesturing for her to sit down, “we still need your reaction to everything that’s happening!”
“What do you mean?” she asked when she sat back down onto the bench.
“Well, like the Ehan and Devi argument. Where do you stand?”
Elo laughed. “I mean, with the Ehan and Devi argument, I’ve uncovered a way to get them to both get angry really fast. So there’s definitely a benefit to that. But as far as Devi being so mature about it, that might pose a problem. I haven’t gotten Ehan’s take about it, yet.” Grace nodded. “Am I done?”
“Oh no,” said Grace with a wicked smile. “Tell us your opinions on Shane and Nick.” Elo sucked her teeth.
“You mean them becoming fast friends?”
“Whatever comes to mind.” She winked. She knew what that meant. Elo sighed.
“I--I hope Shane realizes, soon, that this is a competition. He’s not going to get any happiness or fulfillment here. I mean, maybe he will financially if he does well enough. But….”
“I feel bad for him. I don’t know the story of what happened with him and his ex, but he’s obviously still very affected by it, and it’s very clearly going to affect what is going to happen here on the competition show.”
“And Nick?” Elo frowned.
“What about Nick?” Was that too short? Did she sound too annoyed?
“You may very well be in your own love triangle!” sounded Grace.
She tried not to, but her eyes rolled before she could stop them. “I’m not in a love triangle,” retorted Elo. “I’m not here for love, I’m not interested in actual love. And, while Shane is on the rebound, flirting up a storm, Nick is also clearly here just for the money, and he’s also not here for love.” This sounded very defensive. “I mean--I mean--” Elo scrunched her face. “Let me re-do that.”
“No, perfect. Keep going.” Oh, great. So that was going to be the take they used, no matter what Elo said. She tried to stutter her way into another take, but Grace doubled down.
“I mean--okay, fine.” She sighed. “It’s annoying to see Nick be so calculative. He doesn’t know my role here. I thought we’d at least be friends….” Her shoulders slumped. “But it’s--I guess it’s clear he wants to use our previous, uh, relations, to try and advance here. So it--it sucks. It really sucks, but I’m going to….” She sighed, staring at the floor. “It sucks, but I’m going to have to use him just as much as he intends to use me. And if I can make him think I have something with Shane, that will just work better.” Elo scrunched her face. “I’ll have to give Shane a head’s up, though, I’m not actually interested in using him. He seems genuine. And as for Brooke--I’m thinking I might be able to use what Brooke and Nick are doing to my advantage.”
“How so?” Finally, it felt like Elo said something Grace didn’t expect.
“Brooke is a strong woman. I don’t think she’s actually flirting with Nick because she sees a future with him. I don’t think anyone was cast for boeing stupid. I think that maybe Brooke and Nick might be on the same wavelength, in that they’re trying to use each other. I’ll definitely find that out tonight. Or tomorrow. Definitely before the next challenge.”
“Why before the next challenge? Are you planning on sabotaging Nick?”
Elo laughed. “Not on purpose. But if I can mess with him, that just sounds like fun.” She gave a wink to the camera. “After all, I am the Shitdisturber.”
Elo had to wait quite some time before she could get Brooke alone. It ended up being one night before bed, when Brooke was busy setting a silk scarf upon her head in the bathroom mirror.
“Hey, Brooke,” Elo said, smiling as she slid into the spot in the vanity next to her.
“Hey yourself,” said Brooke with a similar expression. Elo took the next minute to actually wash her face, but Brooke carefully put each braid in the bonnet; she could tell Elo wanted to talk, the way she worked so slowly at her hair, kept glancing over to see if Elo was done. Maybe warning her about Nick wasn’t necessary.
“So, I wanted to run something by you,” she whispered as the two walked into the hallway together. Brooke was the first door, so they hung out in the doorway, right in view of the camera above the bathroom, across the way from Nick’s room. For a brief moment, she wondered if it would be just as interesting for Nick to be aware of Elo’s warning, too, but she thought better of it.
“You can totally ignore me if I’m speaking out of turn,” Elo whispered, hand on her chest to show how genuine she was, “but I--I wanted to check in with you. Yeah, I get this is a competition or whatever, but I mean--” She glanced to Nick’s door. “I think of everyone, I’d prefer if a woman won, you know?” This prompted Brooke to smirk. “And I just thought I’d mention, that I think I overheard one of Nick’s extra confessionals.”
“Are you supposed to be telling me about it, then? If it’s a confessional?” Brooke’s mischievous grin made it really hard not to laugh.
“Probably not….” She shrugged. “Well, I saw you guys are spending a lot of time together. And I think you guys are totally cute, don’t get me wrong--but I think he’s...snakey.” Well, that was maybe an unfair word. Or maybe not. Brooke raised an eyebrow.
“Snakey?” she echoed. It popped her out of her amusement, bringing on a frown.
“I think he’s trying to get sympathy points from you or whatever.” She shrugged. “I mean, he’s really flirty with you in public, but I’ve noticed that when no one else is around, he’s flirty with me, and I overheard his confessional--he’s tryin’ to play us both.” Elo scrunched her face. “And while I know this is a competition and all, I just wanted to make sure you knew that he’s being kind of….” She shrugged.
Brooke hummed, glancing to the closed door across the way from them. “I had a feeling he was a bit of a two-timer. We can use that to our advantage.” That was a twist she didn’t anticipate. Elo looked up at her, brow raised. “If you’re willing, anyway. But I think--I think that I’m not going to stop hitting on him, to see what he does. If you wanted to play, too, I think it could be fun to mess with his head.”
“Turn the tables?” Elo suggested with a smile.
“You got it.”
“I don’t know how much I’ll participate, but I’m glad to know you’re ahead of his game.”
“Girl, all guys do is play games!” she said with a quiet laugh. “Of course I’m versed. But thank you for looking out for me. I owe you one. Get some sleep, okay, babygirl?” Elo wasn’t supposed to have favorites, but how was she supposed to not when Brooke existed?
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