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Pretty Poisonous

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The air in the bus taking them to the starting line was artificially crisp, the whirring of the fans throughout it blending into the white noise of the other contestants talking amongst their teams. Noah was not one of these contestants, instead reading one of the books he had brought with him, Im Zimmer wird es still . Next to him, Owen awoke from his nap, confused for a moment before remembering where they were.

 

“Hey, Noah, do you think we’ll see anyone from Total Drama on this show?” Owen asked as the bus came to a stop, and teams started to shuffle off. Noah doggy-eared his page and carefully slipped his book into his bag with the rest of his luggage.

 

They both stood up and started the semi-awkward shuffle towards the exit that came with every crowded bus-riding experience. “If we do, it’ll make no difference to me. I’m determined to win this one,” Noah said as they finally got to the front and hopped off, joining another fourteen teams at the starting line. Don was introducing the final three teams as they arrived. Noah, uninterested, scanned the crowd across from him, sizing up the competition, when he spotted Geoff with someone that completely embodied what he expected one of Geoff’s friends to look like. Owen seemed to have noticed them, too, and started waving both his arms wildly in greeting to the pair. Both Geoff and his friend did an enthusiastic combination of waving and hollering in response.

 

“-And our final pair are José and Alejandro, two brothers whose competition with each other has driven them to be their very best in all subjects.” Both Noah and Owen’s heads spun at that. Sure enough, walking towards them and the group were two tall young men with almost perfect symmetry; one of which left a bad taste in Noah’s mouth.



Owen leaned down towards Noah and whispered, “I forgot if I’m supposed to like Al, or not like Al.” The pair of brothers stopped when they reached the back of the group, and both smiled and waved in reply to everyone that greeted them. Alejandro’s smile was as distant and forced as Noah remembered.

 

Noah rolled his eyes at them and sighed. “You’re not supposed to like Alejandro. Eel, dipped in grease, swimming in motor oil. Remember?” Noah didn’t whisper back his reply, and had instead chosen to speak at his usual, monotonous volume. He didn’t care who heard him, and he certainly didn’t care if Alejandro heard. He squinted his eyes at him, to which Alejandro didn’t seem to notice.

 

Owen looked a little puzzled. “So, if Al is an eel dipped in grease, and he hates his brother, does that mean he’s an eel, too?”

 

“Oh, I’m sure it’s just a big happy eel family in that household,” Noah answered sarcastically, “Just avoid them, big guy. There’s no point in talking to them if we don’t have to.” Noah patted Owen’s shoulder to reassure him, to which Owen smiled and nodded as he stood back up straight.

 

Don then continued with his introduction, addressing all eighteen teams. “Welcome, contestants! This is the starting line for your 26-part race around the world. Each part ends at a Chill Zone. You’ll want to get there fast, because the last team to stand on The Carpet of Completion may be cut from the competition.” The last part of what Don said caused a few worried looks in the crowd, but Noah was unaffected, true to his “Reality TV Pro” title.

 

Don continued, “But the first team to reach our last Chill Zone will win one million dollars!” Every concerned expression curved up into excitement as most of the contestants cheered at the reminder of their potential prize, and Noah continued to not feel anything in particular. Well, he didn’t feel anything, until Owen pulled him up into a suffocating bear hug; then, he could feel the life draining from his body as he was crushed by Owen’s well-meaning, but deadly, arms. Owen eventually realized Noah couldn’t breathe, and let go of him as Don explained the Don Boxes, sparing Noah for one more day. 

 

“Are you ready, teams? On your marks, get set...” Noah and Owen got into position to run, if you could call either of their fastest speeds “running”.

 

“Race!” Don shouted, and was then immediately trampled by 36 people trying to get the travel tip first. As he “ran”, Noah felt an arm quickly brush against his as its owner sprinted forward from behind him. Noah reflexively turned to see who it was, and was greeted with sharp, green eyes that glanced at him once, quickly, and then turned forward as they sped ahead of him.

 

Well, whatever, speed was never Noah’s strength.

 

Owen was the first of the pair to reach the Don Box, and he slammed his hand on the red button once he got close enough. He pulled out the blue tip and read, “Race on foot to the CN Tower, and find the Don Box to get your next tip. Alright buddy, let’s go!” They both jogged just a bit faster then, towards the tower.

 

 

Alejandro and José were the fifth to arrive at the CN Tower, and like most of the other groups that already arrived, opted to climb the 1,776 steps instead of waiting for the elevator. José opened the door to the stairway and turned to his brother with a large grin.

 

“Try to keep up, Al . I don’t want to be kept waiting for you at the top,” he teased, and quickly paced up the first steps. Alejandro fumed at his brother’s usual taunting, and chased after him with burning motivation.

 

After about 30 minutes, José and Alejandro arrived at the top at the same time, both gasping for air and taking large, deep breaths. There were a few teams already at the top; Alejandro noticed one pair in particular that were entering back inside from the Scare part of the Either Or. As they walked towards the Toronto local, Alejandro caught enough breath to remark, “Quite the challenge, don’t you think, José? I almost broke a sweat.”

 

José smirked as he took the travel tip from the local. “ Dios Mío, you almost broke a sweat? You’re getting out of shape, Al,” he said as he read the blue card, “Catch a flight with a zip, ride the line to your tip. We must zipline across!” Both looked up to the start of the zipline, where The Best Friends had just strapped into their helmets and were headed down.

 

“Quickly, before more teams get here!” Alejandro exclaimed, and the two made quick work of getting on their gear. “I will grab the tip while we go down. You must focus on keeping us on the line.”

 

José frowned, but agreed. “I suppose you will be able to reach for the tip, Al,” he said as he punched Alejandro’s arm, “We will need my superior upper body strength to keep us on the line, after all.” They both grabbed on and made their descent, the wind rustling the small amount of Alejandro’s long hair left exposed by the bottom of the helmet. He reached his right arm in the air and snagged their tip a few seconds before they reached the airport. 

 

“Take the next flight to Morocco,” Alejandro read after they landed.

 

 

“Teams on flight one are: the brothers, the best friends, daters, the cadets, the Icedancers, and reality TV Pros. Flight number two carries father and son, vegans, fashion bloggers, mom and daughter, rockers, and geniuses. And flight number three has the LARPers, goths, surfer dudes, adversity twin, stepbrothers, and tennis rivals. Who will win the first jaunt in our race? Find out next time on The Ridonculous Race !” Don addressed the camera for the final part of the first episode before all cameras ceased filming for the next half hour. After flight one boarded, Noah slipped out his novel, but found himself having trouble with it, as he kept glancing over Owen’s shoulder every few minutes to quickly check Alejandro; he was trying to see if he was playing his old strategy from World Tour with any of the contestants. Every time he checked, though, he saw the same thing; Alejandro, staring at the ceiling, with an almost... defeated expression on his face.

 

It was one of the most off-putting things Noah had ever seen.

Chapter Text

“Get off of me, you big oaf!”

Noah woke up about seven hours into their flight to Morocco due to the crushing weight of Owen, who had shifted in his sleep to lean on top of his scrawny friend. He had been awake for three minutes before he started trying to shove him off with his free arm, and started verbally attacking him after pushing got him nowhere. How could someone be such a heavy sleeper while doing the thing that scares them the most?

“Now, now, there is no reason to get angry with the oaf,” Noah heard a quiet, muffled voice from in the isle, “He simply finds you a suitable pillow is all.” Noah tried to crane his neck around Owen in his prone state to see who was talking, but to no avail.

Noah replied in a hushed voice, “And sometimes I wish he wouldn’t. Would you mind helping me out here? I’d like to be able to use both of my arms by the time we land.” Noah opted not to argue with his possible rescuer about calling his friend an oaf- it’s not like Owen could hear them anyways.

“I would love to, but unfortunately, I cannot. See, eels such as myself do not have arms, so I will not be able to pull your friend off of you,” the voice answered, and Noah felt the hope fall from his face as he realized who he was talking to.

“Alejandro, so nice to be on a plane with you again. Would you like to personally push me, or should I find my own way out?” Noah could admit that was a low blow, but come on, it was Alejandro. The man was so shallow that pretty much anything was going to hit deep.

Noah heard him sigh. “Such childish words. It is good to know, at least, that you have not changed in that regard. Enjoy the next hour with Owen on top of you,” Alejandro said, and likely went back to his seat, pleased with himself. Noah tried to push one more time, trying to convert his annoyance into upper body strength- and, predictably, failed. He groaned, let the back of his head hit the seat behind him, and accepted his fate.

Alejandro did, in fact, walk back to his seat after his last statement, but not happily. Any time spent with José was time the other had to remind him of his inferiority. However, he knew what he was getting himself into when he auditioned with him. Sure, he would have to spend weeks with his brother’s constant presence, but eventually, José would ask him for help, and then he would have to admit that he isn’t better than him at everything. Even better, it would be recorded and released internationally, which meant José could never deny what he said. Alejandro just had to be patient, which was far easier said than done. It seemed that no matter how well he performed, José was always able to belittle his achievements.

Hopefully, that would all change soon.

“Flight number one has just landed. Now, teams need to find the Don Box and collect their next travel tip,” Don announced. Noah and Owen were the last to reach the box, Noah running with one arm limp and frowning at Owen on their way to it.

Owen pressed the button for their tip and read, “‘The Spice is Right’. It’s an all-in. Pick five spices from the kiosk, ideally cumin, cinnamon, paprika, saffron and ginger to receive your next travel tip.” Their eyes widened in shock when they saw the other five teams run towards them to hail a cab, before being trampled underneath them. They got up off the ground and quickly followed the other groups in getting a cab to the kiosk. “Taxi!” Owen shouted as he waved their tip in the air.

Once they did manage to get inside a taxi, Owen took the opportunity to talk in front of the camera with Noah.

“I said I was sorry! When Chris kept knocking me out on the plane during World Tour, my body must have learned to stay asleep at high altitudes,” Owen said sheepishly to an unmoving Noah. “I’m sure someone would have helped you if they noticed.”

“Not unless they’re Alejandro- which, before you say anything, did happen,” Noah replied, as he and looked out the window and glared.

Owen put a hand on Noah’s shoulder. “Aw, buddy, I’m sure it wasn’t personal. It’s not like he can eliminate you again.” He pat Noah’s shoulder reassuringly, trying to lighten up his mood. They hadn’t even started the challenge, and he was already at peak apathy.

Noah generated a mental image of himself saying ‘Would you like to personally push me, or should I find my own way out?’ from Owen’s attempt at cheer him up, and laughed. He turned his head away from the window to look at Owen. “It was probably the most personal I’ll ever get on reality television. Alejandro’s just so easy to hate, you know?”

Owen was smiling when his friend started laughing, but his expression got increasingly more confused as he talked. He laughed out an unsure answer, “No, I don’t know, hah.” Noah shook his head.

“Of course you don’t.”

Four of the teams from the first flight exited their taxis once they reached the spice kiosk, including Alejandro and José.

“These aren’t labeled. Hey, why aren’t these labeled!?” the shorter cadet shouted. Alejandro turned and, sure enough, not a single one of the fifty spices at the kiosk had any identifying markings.

Alejandro nodded to his brother, “This should be easy. We have been cooking with these spices since we were children.” He smiled and started to look across the rows of spice for the familiar color of cumin. José walked up next to him, innocently enough, and he also seemed to be looking across the lineup. Alejandro was too focused to think about his brother’s completely non-suspicious behavior until he heard him clear his throat.

“The culinary arts are not so simple, Al. It is no wonder your dishes always have an imbalance of some kind,” José said completely casually. Alejandro took a deep breath to cool his anger. He had to be the bigger person; at least, until he could force his brother into begging for his help on international television- there’s no bigger person at that point. For now, he simply glared at the kiosk as they picked out their five spices and got their next tip from Yusef. “We have to ride a camel through the desert to a restaurant. Excellent! You have already ridden a camel on TV before, so you should be much less embarrassing than the first time.”

Alejandro smiled at his brother’s mistake. “Actually, no, it was Team Amazon that rode the camel on World Tour,” he gestured to himself with pride, “I was the one that steered a goat with my team beneath me.” They walked over to the camels along with the other teams that had collected their spices.

“Ah, yes, now I remember. Team Chris Is Really Really Really Really Hot, was it? I’ve also heard it be referred to as the ‘middle-class’ team,” José said as he lifted himself onto the camel, “I suppose you must have been used to being in second place. Let’s try to win this one though, okay, Al?”

Alejandro nodded as he got on the camel behind his brother. “Of course,” he managed to say without screaming in frustration- at José, at the reminder of his past mediocrity- at the flies that just would not stop buzzing around the giant, smelly, dirty camel. Still, riding it would be faster than if they were to walk through the desert, so they took off with the other teams. Alejandro looked back at the kiosk and saw Noah and Owen having a difficult time choosing spices; it would be painful to watch if he cared about either of them.

“Ummm, maybe- uh…” Owen struggled over the spices as he tried to make an educated guess without any of the prior education. A bead of sweat rolled down his face in fear and confusion. “Why do you all look the same!?” He yelled at the assortment of spices and ran off to nowhere. Noah shook his head at him, before he saw a herd of taxis coming towards them on the street.

“We don’t have time,” he turned to Yusef, “just give us the five closest to you.” Yusef looked down at said spices and looked back up at Noah. For just a second, he had a look that conveyed that he knew exactly what would happen if he fulfilled their request, but didn’t care. Noah got in his face, then, and yelled, “Come on, man, snap to it! My teammate will eat anything! I once watched him go through a rack of costumes at a Halloween store!”

Owen brought his hands up defensively. “They looked like giant hot dogs!” he justified, and smiled at the other two. Neither had any reaction to his weak justification. Yusef shrugged, and put the randomly-chosen spices in their bag.

Alejandro and José arrived at the desert restaurant behind the other three teams they left with. They both hopped off of the camel with the little energy that hadn’t been sapped away from them by the sun. Alejandro wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and pressed the button on the Don Box. “Botch or Watch- just stew it,” he read, “give your spices to the chef so he can add them to a bowl of Morroccan stew, which one of you must eat.” José nodded at Alejandro and handed the chef their spices as he fanned his neck with his other hand.

Alejandro looked around at the other teams as they waited, some bearing with the heat better than others. The shorter cadet-MacArthur, he thought he heard- likely the worst off of all. She was laying in the sand and cursing out the sun for existing. Bored, he started to turn back to see if the soup was done, before he noticed camels in the distance. He squinted, trying to make out which team might be riding it, but the sun was too bright and they were too far away. He turned back to the chef just as they handed José their finished stew.

“Gracias,” José thanked. He then gestured past the restaurant to the general area the other teams were. “Let’s go over there so we do not crowd the stall.” They walked a few paces, next to the cadets, MacArthur now stood up and glaring at her slow-eating partner. “I will eat the stew. You’ve never quite been able to handle your spice,” José said as he held the bowl triumphantly with one hand; another small trophy of his superiority. As petty as it might sound, in that moment, Alejandro hated everything that bowl of stew represented- every victory of his brother’s over him that had piled up over the years.

That’s when Alejandro snatched it from José’s hand and started draining its contents into his mouth, focused solely on getting it down. It didn’t feel good to slam a bowl of hot stew in the blistering desert heat, but seeing José’s shocked expression when he finished it definitely did. “Let’s get to the Chill Zone,” Alejandro said as he smiled and gracefully cleaned his mouth with a handkerchief. He started to run past the rest of the teams in the direction of the Chill Zone.

“See, Sanders? Chug, then wipe!” MacArthur yelled. Sanders pointedly ignored her, which made MacArthur tilt the bowl up, forcing her to drink the rest of the stew faster. This made José snap out of his shock and start running towards his brother.

Owen took a slurp of the bubbling stew, and his entire mouth felt like it was lit on fire. “Hot! Hot!” Owen coughed, face red and sweating, “I think you picked the wrong spices!” He showed Noah the bubbling bowl to emphasize his point.

Noah pushed him away, “Come on, I’ve seen you eat! You ate my cousin’s entire wedding cake before they even cut the first pieces. Just do it!” Owen panted and nodded his head, going back to the stew.

He got just over halfway done when he coughed, “Need...water…” Noah rolled his eyes, before he had an idea.

“There’s a screamer stand at the Chill Zone, you know- but I heard they only have enough for a few teams…” Owen looked at him in shock and slammed the rest of the stew. He then grabbed Noah and tossed him over his shoulder as made a break for the Chill Zone.

“I’m coming, my precious screamers!” He shouted.

“Hey, wait, let me-ugh,” Noah protested being carried at first before the guilt in his gut made him stop talking. It’s not like he hadn’t lied to Owen before. It was either that, or Owen would likely do something extremely gross to extinguish the fire his mouth. Plus, it was good for Owen- kind of, if you skew it a little. He might learn to stop thinking of food as a motivator.

“Brothers, you’re in fifth place! Reality TV Pros, you’re in sixth!” Don announced as they reached the first Chill Zone.

Owen gasped for air and dropped Noah on the ground. “Did...did we make it in time for the screamers...?” Owen asked breathlessly. Don shot him a puzzled look.

“There are no screamers in Morocco- or anywhere other than Canada, I’m pretty sure.” Owen wobbled, and then fell down face-first on the carpet of completion, devastated. “What even made you think there would be screamers?” Don questioned.

Noah got up off the ground and dusted the sand off of his sweater. “I may have had to give him some false hope to keep him from drinking camel drool,” Noah deadpanned.

Don gagged, “That would have been disgusting and terrible to put on TV; thank you. Now go join the others on the other side of the carpet.” Noah bent down and managed to get Owen to stand up. He patted his back as they walked over to the other five teams, and were directed to stand next to Alejandro and José.

“You would lie to your teammate for your own benefit? How shameful,” Alejandro remarked as Noah stood next to him.

Noah rolled his eyes. “It benefited both of us; besides, last I checked, you were no saint either,” Noah replied. He crossed his arms and glared at Alejandro, who only offered a smile in return.

“Hey, you two!” Don exclaimed, and pointed at Alejandro and Noah, who then turned to him. “Save the long-running grudges for when you’re on camera!” Noah and Alejandro glanced back at each other. Noah frowned after a beat and turned his back to the other, facing Owen. Alejandro turned his head to face Don and the next team running towards the Chill Zone.

Chapter Text

“Yesterday’s Chill Zone is today’s starting point. Teams will leave in the order they arrived, starting with yesterday’s winners, the ‘platonic’ best friends,” Don announced and made air quotes around the word ‘platonic’. Carrie pressed the button and handed the travel tip to Devin. Noah couldn’t quite hear what he said from where he was standing, but they both seemed excited. Gross, he thought.

It was Alejandro and José’s turn to get their tip. “We have to take a moped to the airport, and take the next flight to…” Alejandro stopped reading as his face fell from his usual smile into something of distress. He took a deep breath in. “...Paris,” he said as he breathed out.

José punched his arm and smiled. “Come on, Al, you have to get over it. Honestly, it should not take you this long to get over someone so...wholly unappealing,” he said as he guided him in a jog to the motorbikes. Alejandro scowled at his brother but held his tongue as they jogged. Noah looked curiously at Alejandro, and then to Owen to see if the confusion was mutual. Owen’s face, however, was completely neutral, and for once Noah felt like he was the one that had missed a social cue.

“Didn’t Alejandro go into a barbarian rage the last time José insulted Heather? What changed since then?” Noah asked, making sure to sound as uninterested as possible. Truthfully, the question did mostly come from a place of boredom, but Noah felt the need to hide any genuine curiosity he had. He knew what curiosity got you with Alejandro.

Owen scratched his head and looked towards the sky, trying to think. “I think I saw something with Alejandro in Blainerific Gossip, but I can’t remember…” he trailed off, glancing at Noah sheepishly.

“It’s fine, buddy- don’t use all your brainpower trying to remember,” Noah replied. They stood in silence for a beat before Noah fully took in what Owen said.

“...You read Blainerific Gossip? Really? Of all magazines?”

“I am but a simple man, Noah. I see a beautiful woman, I have to follow. It’s something you wouldn’t unders- mmmph!” Owen was interrupted by Noah’s hand over his mouth.

“Shut. Up.” Noah hissed. He removed his hand as Owen nodded. “We’re not going to…” Noah looked around at all the other teams waiting with them for their travel tip. “...we’ll talk about this later.”

Noah was not happy when they learned that they would be going to Paris, and was even less so when they got into the cab there and Owen looked at him expectantly. He tried to ignore him as well as anyone in a car with someone could- not very well at all. He looked out the window at the passing buildings, trying to think of anything that wouldn’t make him think-

“Sooooo...about earlier…” Owen said, trying to entice Noah to talk. Noah huffed and turned to face his friend, who blinked in surprise that he was actually going to talk about this. He looked between the cameraman in the front seat and Noah. “Are you...cool talking about it with the camera rolling, buddy?” Noah rolled his eyes, which did not help Owen relax in the slightest.

“I couldn't care less about what the people that watch this reality tv garbage think of me. I would just rather not have the competition know about the...thing, with Alejandro- I need to run an airtight game this time. No strong feelings about anybody.” He looked out the window again and frowned angrily.

Owen smiled. “Come on, it wouldn’t be so bad if we made a couple new friends.” He nudged Noah with his elbow, but stopped when Noah didn’t look away from the window. He twiddled his thumbs for a moment, and laughed. “You know, you can just admit that you have strong feelings for Al.”

That got Noah to turn around.

“My strong feelings about Alejandro, I’ll have you know, are loathing and extreme disinterest. I used to mildly enjoy him years ago, but I distinctly remember being shoved out of a plane by his doing.” He looked furiously at Owen before pinching the bridge of his nose and taking a deep breath. He looked like he was going to continue, but instead turned around to look out the window once again, away from Owen. Owen, who was unsure of what to do with himself, tried to convey the word “yikes” to the camera through facial expression alone.

About a minute passed before Owen tried to cheer him up again.

“...Hey, remember when we were here and Lindsay couldn’t remember what Tyler looked like? That was funny,” Owen laughed as he nervously glanced at Noah.
Noah huffed out something resembling a laugh.

“...Yeah, it was,” he replied, remembering that time on the show and a joke shared between teammates. He shot a smile at Owen, which made the other’s nerves finally settle.

José grabbed the next travel tip from the don box and immediately burst into laughter in surprise. It rang out of him loudly, heartily, and was far too obnoxious for Alejandro to bear. He walked past his still laughing brother towards where the other teams stood, half either posing or rapidly drawing their partner. Looking around, he noticed that the people he saw drink the stew in Morocco were the only ones posing, and anguish chilled him as he realized his brother would be drawing him.

José, whose laughter was dying down, came over to Alejandro and pat him on the shoulder once.

“My apologies, everyone. Al, it’s just…” he laughed to himself a final time before continuing, “whoever didn’t drink the stew has to draw a caricature of the other.”

What a miserable irony Alejandro’s life had shaped out to be.

Drawing a caricature of Owen had to have been one of the easiest things Noah had ever done on reality television. He handed it in to the artist, who gave him their travel tip as he snickered at the exaggerated display of Owen’s appetite. He was still smiling to himself pridefully as they climbed down the ladder into the catacombs, where they’d seen another team go a minute beforehand. In his lightened mood, he started thinking about strategy. There would obviously be multiple paths in the catacombs, and they would have to-

“Ohhh, this place is too scary! Can we look for the exit together?” Noah heard a whiny voice call from below, and pivoted his head to see Taylor holding Alejandro’s arm as she looked between the two brothers, pouting.

Kelly laughed to resolve the awkward feeling in the air. “Oh, Taylor- well, you know how youngsters are now,” she said, looking at, to his horror, José. Alejandro’s mouth curled into a wide, sinister smile.

“Of course we would not abandon two frightened ladies in such a dark and ghostly place,” Alejandro said, turning his smile to Taylor and Kelly. He gently patted one of the hands Taylor was gripping his forearm with, and looked to his brother to relish the look on his face as he tried not to appear deeply offended. “Of course, unless my older brother has any objections..?” The other two turned to stare at the man in question, who cleared his throat to force out an agreeable smile.

“Wow, Alejandro, people really do change.” The group of four turned to see Noah standing at the bottom of the ladder, Owen climbing down close behind. “You went two full legs of the race before flirting with someone to backstab them.” He walked past the group with a bored expression, towards a random tunnel, until he barely passed Alejandro. He stopped and turned his head slightly towards him, and did his best to keep his voice flat and low.

“It beats your previous record,” he said, and kept walking away, Owen trailing behind. Owen offered a small smile and wave to the gathering, and whispered a soft “Hey, Al, good luck!” before turning to keep up with Noah.

“Um, who the fuck was that?” Taylor asked Alejandro after Noah and Owen disappeared into the tunnel, which made Kelly wince. Alejandro pulled his eyes away from the tunnel to look at her with an old, familiar face.

“You won’t need to worry about him. He is…” Alejandro thought for a second. “...someone who is frustrated that they can’t talk to women.”

Noah and Owen managed to find their way out of the catacombs about 20 minutes after they entered, and were greeted to the sight of Jen dropping bags of various size and color to Tom, who was on a giant wheel of cheese in the water below.

Noah snickered, “You know, the last place I’ve thought the words ‘fashion’ and ‘crazy’ at the same time was…” he paused to read the sign, “...right where we’re heading next.” He expected a giggle from Owen for his sarcasm, but didn’t receive one. He whipped his head around to see Owen, holding a wheel of cheese with a giant bite taken out of it, and chewing what was definitely, absolutely the monstrous amount of cheese that was missing from the wheel.

“Owen, if you take one more bite out of our raft I will never forgive you,” Noah threatened, taking the cheese and dropping it into the water. Owen sighed and jumped onto the cheese below, followed by Noah with the oars.

“I will never forgive you,” Noah said as Don put up their 20 minute penalty for not bringing the cheese wheel to the carpet of completion. Teams passed one after the other while they stood by, cheeseless and shameful. There was about two minutes left when a soaking wet Alejandro and José showed up with their payload.

“The Brothers take twelfth place! They can also take a step away from me to avoid being sued for water damage to my shoes,” Don announced, motioning for the two to join the other teams off-camera.

“Swim much?” Noah asked the pair, not really much of a question at all. “And what happened to your new friend, Romeo?”

“Interesting. I could ask the same about your cheese wheel, but I feel that we both already know what happened. Honestly, Noah, you used to be perceptive,” Alejandro answered, somehow without answering at all. He walked off of the carpet as the penalty clock reached its final seconds.

“The penalty’s up, which puts the Reality TV Pros in thirteenth place, right behind the Brothers! Again!” Don shouted “Congratulations on the consistency.”

Chapter Text

All of the teams were gathered for the next day of filming outside of the Louvre, next to the glass pyramid. Noah had the pleasure of standing in the one spot where the reflection of the sun beamed at his eye level. He initially tried turning his head away to avoid the glare, towards Owen, but felt like he looked like he was trying very hard to not look at the teams on his other side. Trying to not look like a loathsome recluse, Noah resigned himself to face his original direction and squint ahead, where Don and the first place team prepared for the cameras.

“Yesterday saw the Tennis Pros louvre the competition,” Don said, which earned a groan from most of the teams, “and put the Cadets in first place. They will receive their travel tip first.”

The wait to get the travel tip felt superbly longer than last time, considering both the lower placement and irritating beam of sunlight whose personal mission seemed to be to burn Noah’s retinas into dust. Upon finally, finally getting the travel tip, Noah was surprised that it didn’t direct them out of France, but instead to a train that would take them to the Mediterranean coast. He looked up from reading the tip to see Alejandro and José jogging towards the subway entrance.

“Ugh,” he said, and rolled his eyes as he motioned for Owen to follow him, “we’ll take a taxi. Suddenly the subway seems very unappealing.” Behind him, Owen followed, but not happily. He knew something was different with Noah, but he couldn’t tell exactly why he thought that. He was just acting… different. He would have to figure out what was up with him.

Alejandro and José arrived at the beach with the second batch of contestants. The sun was much kinder to the south of France than it was to Morocco. Other teams look nervously at each other as they read their travel tip and head towards the water.

José grabs their travel tip for them. “Botch or watch: Who wants to swim with sharks? Whoever didn’t draw the caricature must retrieve the next travel tip from the dorsal fin of a shark. Ugh, this is just swimming. When will there be a real challenge?” José exasperated.

“You’re only saying that because I can’t swim as fast as I used to after being stuck in a robot suit,” Alejandro said, getting more than a couple concerned looks from the other teams.

José pat Alejandro on the back. “And I would never blame you for getting kicked in the balls and falling down a volcano,” he chided, which made even more confused faces turn their way as they walked to the water. All of the first teams to arrive were still swimming and waiting. Alejandro stretched, cherished the last seconds of the day where his pants would be dry, and waded into the barely warm water.

“It’s another botch or watch. Are you ready to swim with sharks again?” Noah asked Owen, who swallowed nervously and nodded. They head toward the beach, Owen jumping in at running speed while Noah meandered towards the edge of the water, watching him.

“Your friend has great enthusiasm, flaco. It’s unfortunate that his teammate can’t match it, or you two might be considered serious competitors,” Noah heard from next to him. He whipped his head to the right to see José, who was not so much looking at him as he was visually judging him, with his eyes barely squinted and his usual camera-ready smile gone. He looked...genuinely contemplative, as though he were seriously assessing Noah and Owen’s potential. Noah let his expression drop for a few seconds, showing his distaste for being evaluated.

“Sorry that I don’t exude enough enthusiasm for you, bud, I’m sure you would have preferred someone dumb and high-energy to ally with and backstab. I know how you two play the game,” Noah replied, hoping to unsettle him. José shifted his weight, hands coming to rest on his hips as he flicked his eyes up and down Noah’s frame, like he expected to learn something from it. He must have, because he just barely smiled. A chill ran up Noah’s spine

“You’re scared of quite a few things,” José said as he turned his head to the water. Noah mimicked him to see Alejandro quickly swimming back, with a travel tip in hand. Noah scanned the area for Owen, eventually seeing him desperately trying to catch up to a shark. He’d be out there a while longer. Alejandro was close enough to start walking through the water instead of swimming, showing very much that his clothes and body were very wet. Only the upper half of his hair was dry, which made it fall much less gracefully around his face. Noah watched as Alejandro went to squeeze water out of his hair with his free hand, freezing as he noticed the unused hair tie around his wrist. He very quietly cursed and smacked himself in the head. It was...oddly human. Noah heard himself huff in laughter and remembered who he was talking to. He turned back to look at José, who was still fixing him with his weird analytical look. He was still smiling.

“I think you’re forgetting something on purpose,” José said. Alejandro wasn’t too far away now, and seemed to notice his brother was having an actual conversation with Noah. It was definitely up there on the list of unexpected things he’d see.

“Oh, so he’s also a psychologist now? What am I trying to forget then?” Noah asked. The tension was so strangely pieced together and could easily be cut by the corner of a travel tip, especially if it was being carried by a young man with an uncomfortable amount of wet hair. That cut was approaching dangerously quickly.

“Courtney was a very smart girl,” José said to Noah, before dropping his smile and turning to read the travel tip with his brother as they walked away from the water, as though he had just politely excused himself. Noah pondered his words for a moment before connecting the dots. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or retch his guts out at the mere suggestion he could be fooled into an alliance with Alejandro. Nevermind what his physical reaction might be, he decided on taking extreme offense to the idea. Like he needed an alliance. He was a capable player, and he believed in Owen just as well. José should be scared of them.

Noah looked around the beach at the few teams that were on the next challenge. They were definitely building sandcastles of a specific structure, but he had no idea what it might be. Everyone was building on too large of a scale to be sure. Noah resigned himself to cheering Owen on for what felt like twenty minutes before he finally got their travel tip and waded to the shore.

“Oh, it’s supposed to be the Palace of Versailles?” Noah commented as they read the travel tip, “We...will not be able to catch up with the other teams if we build on the same scale.”

Owen nodded in agreement. “Let’s make a tiny one- it’ll be cute! And it would be a nod to France’s relationship with simplicity.” Noah blanched at Owen’s seemingly out-of-nowhere observation of French style, but he was right. He shook himself out of his initial shock. He’d ask Owen about it later- this wasn’t the first time he just sort of...knew something.

“Tiny it is- you always manage to surprise me when we do these kinds of shows,” Noah affirmed as they went to a spot of beach to claim it as their workspace.

“What do you mean I surprise you? We’ve talked about how I think tiny versions of things are cute before,” Owen said, getting a reply of Noah shaking his head.

It took barely five minutes for them to build their miniature sand palace. The equally miniature judge walked over, critically assessing their creation. Noah was getting pretty tired of being judged today. Thankfully, the kid smiled and wordlessly handed them the next travel tip, much to the offense of the other teams.

Alejandro watched in disbelief as the judge approved Owen and Noah’s miniscule sand palace, eyes flicking from the absolute insult of a construction to his own unfinished creation. He looked to José, hoping to get any validation for his offense. To his horror, José had that look on his face. The look he got when he figured out exactly how to insult someone, or when he learned something unexpected. Neither option was good for the person he was giving that look to. Alejandro had been on the receiving end of it far too many times. He let out a frustrated sigh and started working on a much smaller version of what they had been doing. He knew José would be useless for a few minutes- too busy pondering information with his powerful mind. He might as well get them started on their new, much less impressive sand palace.

Alejandro was right, as José finally started helping with building after about eight minutes of idle, careless thinking. A fair amount of teams had already finished their sandcastles and were far gone to the next challenge, wherever that may be. José didn’t seem bothered. He slowly and carefully sculpted the sand as though they had all the time in the world, humming a tune. It was possibly the most annoying thing Alejandro had ever witnessed.

“This is a race, and I would appreciate it if you could hasten yourself,” Alejandro said, trying to be polite but not afraid to enunciate his words. José glanced up from his work without stopping, and actually started working faster. Which wouldn’t be troublesome at all, except for one detail- he still had that face on.

“I haven’t entirely forgotten our position. I simply…” José paused to consider his next words. “...want to see if I’m right about something. Also, we couldn’t come in last if we tried- observe.” He pointed to the far end of the beach, where there were a number of teams struggling. Geoff was still waiting for his friend to come out of the water. The step-brothers almost looked like they hated each other more than he despised his own teammate. Alejandro couldn’t even comprehend what the geniuses were making in the sand, but it definitely wasn’t a castle.

“I assume you will tell me what you’re thinking once we get to the chill zone?” Alejandro asked, just as another two teams got their next travel tip and left. “...if we get to the chill zone?”

“Of course. We are, after all, on the same team. I would not withhold information from a teammate,” José smiled, “now let’s call over the judge so we can move on.”

They had, after heavy scrutiny, been granted their next travel tip. The actual driving of the speedboat, Alejandro thought as he and José got into theirs, didn’t seem to have any challenge to it- that is, until he saw the unfortunate reality that the “best friends” team was facing. They were moving at barely half the rate as their own speedboat. Carrie didn’t seem to mind this hindrance. Alejandro considered himself above average at recognizing attraction in others, but he doubted it would take a genius to notice Carrie's fawning. Devin was...less than a genius, to put in mildly. The doomingly slow pace of their boat and the risk of blowing the engine with speed was an irony Alejandro allowed himself to savor as they sped past them.

He had, for a moment, another thought: if he could bring conflict between the two and cause miscommunication, he could undoubtedly get them out of the race, and maybe use them along the way. It was very tempting- especially considering their victory in Morocco. He decided it was worth keeping in mind, but he likely wouldn’t get a chance to execute it if his brother finds whatever he’s looking for at the chill zone, which they were quickly approaching.

They docked their speedboat and made a dead sprint for the carpet of completion, which had the usual bright image of Don in the middle of it, and a daunting nine other teams behind it.

“Brothers, what happened? You’re in tenth place today. Honestly, I expected you to be much higher today,” Don said, and Alejandro genuinely couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not. He didn’t have a baseline for that. “Your placement buddies are lonely at the top!” This spurred a cheer out of Owen, who must have lifted Noah up onto his shoulders earlier when celebrating their… win? Don wasn’t very clear. All the excitement on the team started and ended with Owen, though. Noah, instead, was glaring heavily at José, who was making that face again.

José strode rather proudly to their spot on the other side of the chill zone for someone who just came in tenth. He was humming again. Alejandro kept up. This could very likely be the first time his brother would say something he would actually care about.

“That,” José said, just loud enough for Alejandro to hear, “was spite. It is a weak and unreliable motivator- almost as useless as money, but a motivator nonetheless. If spite can bring him this far…” he trailed off, letting Alejandro connect the dots.

Alejandro nodded. “Something stronger and more consistent could prove dangerous...or profitable. What exactly are you thinking?” he asked.

José rolled his eyes like the answer should be obvious. “I’m thinking that if we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in a position to use this knowledge, we need to,” he pretended to clear his throat and spoke louder, “Luck, after all, is when opportunity meets preparation- please tell me you’re familiar with at least that phrase from Seneca.”

“Of course I am; but he also said we suffer more in imagination than reality, which I’m beginning to form a strong argument against,” Alejandro retorted. He heard a muffled yelp of laughter to his right, and very clearly saw Noah, hand covering his mouth and trying not to look amused from his exposing position on top of Owen’s shoulders. Owen himself was giving him a discreet thumbs up and mouthing the word nice. Alejandro had forgotten that his old teammates found him funny- a little too often in Owen’s case, in his opinion. José was less amused.

The Geniuses ended up going home that day before they could finish their sandcastle. They had nothing to prove, anyways- they already knew they were smart. Alejandro found himself thinking about money, spite, and motivation for the entirety of that evening.