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A Word of Advice

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Two weeks into filming, Lisa, Peter, and Chris have settled into a habit of breakfasting together in the hotel dining room. Some of the Renovators take team unity very seriously—August glares at anyone on the Grey team who says so much as "g'day" to the Greens, whom he considers their primary rivals—but the Orange and Khaki teams are pretty chill about it. That's good, because Peter and Chris bonded almost as quickly as Peter and Lisa did, and now the three of them are inseparable. Lisa doesn't know whether it's because they're all queer, but that certainly doesn't hurt.

As usual, Peter and Chris are already at the table when Lisa arrives. It's really not fair how much more time she has to spend on her appearance than the boys do. At least Chris looks like he bothered to shave today.

"It was absolutely outrageous," Peter is saying as Lisa takes her seat across from Chris.

Diane, who's become their regular server, bustles over and hands her a menu. "Good morning, sweetie. Coffee?"

"Oh God, please," Lisa says. She's still feeling absolutely knackered from the previous day's challenge. Who knew making a table would be such hard work? Diane pours her a cup and freshens up the others, takes their orders, and whisks away.

"What's outrageous?" Lisa asks.

"One of the producers asked me to flirt with Chris on camera," Peter says, passing her the sugar.

Lisa gasps. "How rude!"

"I wouldn't mind, you know," Chris says mildly.

"My parents watch the show!" Peter says. "I'm never, ever coming out to them, and if I did it wouldn't be like that. Anyway, it's none of the producers' business if I'm gay. They can call it a reality show all they want, but some things they don't get to touch."

"What really bothers me," Chris says, "is that they didn't ask me to flirt with you. It's like they want you to be a fairy stereotype, and because I'm more butch they just write me off."

Peter throws his hands in the air. "I'm a flamboyant designer with an Italian accent," he says. "How much more of a fairy stereotype can I be?"

Lisa pats his shoulder reassuringly. "I'm sure you could find a way," she says. "I have absolute faith in you."

Chris snickers into his coffee.

"Grazie, cara," Peter says dryly. "But I told them to take a hike, and I think they found another couple to play up." He glances a few tables over to where Jarrad and Michael are leaning close to each other, heads almost touching, and talking quietly.

Lisa follows his glance and puts her hand over her mouth. "Are you serious? Isn't Jarrad, like, twelve?"

"Early twenties, I think," Peter says. "Michael's no chickenhawk, but he's got to be at least five years older."

"I heard Jarrad calls his mum every night," Chris says. "I think it's very sweet." He shakes his head. "I hope the producers aren't pressuring him. He's not what I'd call worldly."

"God knows I made my own bad decisions at that age," Lisa says. She sips her coffee and makes a face. It's just not as good as the Jasper coffee she brews at home. "I suppose they can too if they like. But I wouldn't have wanted my bad decisions to be caught on camera."

Diane arrives with their food, interrupting the gossip. As they shovel in eggs and bacon, the conversation turns to the day's plans, and Lisa and Peter wish Chris luck in the challenge and speculate about what it might be. Then they put in a full eight hours' work on the shop and come back to the hotel to hug Chris some more and be glad he's staying and commiserate over Joanne leaving—they all adored her, it's a real blow. But that stray comment from breakfast stays on Lisa's mind, and after supper she takes the elevator to the fifth floor and knocks on Jarrad's hotel room door.

He opens it, looking surprised to see her and also only half awake. But it's only 8:00 and he always only looks half awake, so she doesn't feel too bad about it.

"I heard a rumor and I wanted to chat with you," she says. "May I come in?"

"Sure," he says, scratching his head. "It's a bit of a mess, sorry."

"Oh, so's mine," Lisa lies, smiling broadly. He moves a couple of shirts off the chair and she sits down, swiveling back and forth as Jarrad sits on the unmade bed.

She tells him about the producers importuning "another contestant, I won't say who," and asks whether he and Michael have been similarly approached. He admits they have, and were thinking about it. "They say a bit of scandal will bring the ratings up," he says, "and that means more money for the show, and it might turn into more prize money or... something."

"That's a lot of maybes," Lisa says.

"Yeah," Jarrad says. "We haven't told them anything except that we'd think about it."

"I'm not your mum," Lisa says. "But, touch wood, you've got about eighty years of dating ahead of you. Do you really want to spend it wondering who's seen you be scandalous on television?"

It's clear he hadn't thought of it quite in those terms. "Maybe not," he says.

"Maybe not," she agrees.

"I don't think Michael's even gay," he says, scratching his head again. "But he seemed ready to fake it if it would get us more money."

Lisa finds that questionable, but there's no denying that they're all here to chase a pile of cash. "Well," she says finally, "that sounds like a good person to have leading your team. Focused on success."

Jarrad laughs a bit. "Guess I'm not that dedicated," he says. "I'm here on a bit of a lark." He gives her a sweet lopsided grin and suddenly really does look like he's about twelve. "Be nice to win, though."

"I can't argue with that," Lisa says. She stands up, feeling how stiff and sore she is. "I'd better get back to my room and get some sleep." Maybe with a long bath before bed, she thinks. She became an interior designer so looking immaculate and beautiful would be part of her job instead of just a hobby, and yet here she is, knocking down walls and wielding paintbrushes while cameras capture every drop of paint and speck of plaster dust on her lovely new orange blouses. Thank God they give her a clothing allowance. It might not be enough, but if all her clothes get ruined she'll ask Robyn for a bit more. She feels certain Robyn will understand.

Jarrad shows her to the door. "Night, Lisa," he says. "Thanks for the advice."

She resists the urge to pat his cheek. "You're welcome," she says. "Goodnight."

The next morning she recounts the conversation to Peter and Chris. "That was really kind of you," Chris says. "Good on ya."

Lisa preens a bit. "One tries," she says.

"I want to follow Lisa's example," Peter says, setting his coffee cup down. "Let's make a pact. No matter what happens in the competition, outside of it we're going to be fair and we're going to be kind. Not just to people we like, but everyone, all the other contestants."

Chris nods emphatically. "It's the only way to do it," he says. "This is shaping up to be pretty grueling, and the eliminations are the worst. Watching Joanne go home... knowing it could have been me..." He grimaces. "We have to support one another through it."

"I'm in," Lisa says. And then, because the moment seems to demand scrupulous honesty, "As long as I can still be a catty bitch now and then."

Peter laughs. "Sometimes you need a little cattiness to get through the day. Will you share all your catty gossip with me?"

"You know I will," she says warmly. She already can't imagine her life without Peter in it. They're like two peas in a pod.

"Then it's a deal." They all put their hands together in the center of the table. "To kindness," Peter says, and they echo him.

"I think that's all the deep sincerity I can handle today," Chris says. "Someone tell me something totally irrelevant and shallow."

"I've got a fabulous new silk scarf," Lisa says immediately.

"I knew I could count on you, Lise," Chris says, grinning at her. "Tell me all about it."

He's right, Lisa knows. This competition is going to be grueling. Maybe she should be bracing herself, toughening herself up. Someday she'll be competing against Peter the way Chris had to do against Joanne, and she's not sure how she'll stand it. But for the moment, they can just be three friends, laughing together over bad hotel coffee, and for the moment, that's enough.