“Welcome to my eyes,” I say softly. “What do you think?”
“I like them.” He smiles. “I love them.”
We’re just looking and looking at each other. And I can feel something new between us, something even more intimate than anything we’ve done. Eye to eye. It’s the most powerful connection in the world.
“Linus, I’m sorry,” I say at last, wrenching my gaze away. “I should have listened, you were right—”
“Stop.” He plants his hand on mine. “You’ve said it. I’ve said it. Enough.”
He has a point. We’ve sent about five zillion texts to each other since I came back. (Only Mum isn’t supposed to know how many, because I was “resting.”)
“So…are we OK?”
“Well, that depends,” says Linus, and I feel a lurch of fear in spite of myself.
Linus looks at me thoughtfully for a moment. “On whether you can ask that blond woman three tables away directions to the circus.”
I start laughing in a way I haven’t for ages. “The circus?”
“You’ve heard the circus is in town. You’re desperate to see it. Especially the elephants.”
“OK. I’ll do it.” I get up and do a mock curtsey. “Look, no glasses! Just eyes!”
“I know.” He looks up, smiling. “I told you, I love them.”
“You love them?” I preen myself.
Something catches in my throat. His gaze is fixed on mine and there’s no doubting what he meant.
“Me too,” I manage. “You.”
We’re sinking into each other’s gazes. We’re like starving people gorging on cream cakes. But he’s challenged me, and I’m not going to wuss out, no way. So I wrench myself away and go to pester a strange blond woman about the circus. I don’t look back once, the entire time I’m talking to her. But I can feel his eyes on me all the time. Like sunshine.
Mum’s printed us T-shirts. She’s actually printed us team T-shirts. We’re called The Strategists, which got pulled out of a hat when we couldn’t agree on a name.
You wouldn’t believe the playroom. It looks like Gaming Central. Ollie and Linus brought their stuff over yesterday, so now there are two desktops (Dad’s, which he’s lending to me for the match, and Ollie’s) and two laptops, each with a chair and a headset and a bottle of water so we stay hydrated. And—last-minute purchase by Mum—a box of Krispy Kremes.
I mean, we could all play online in our own homes. That would be the normal thing. But Mum was like, “OK, if this is a team sport, play it like a team sport.” And it’s a Saturday morning, so actually it works fine.
Mum’s suddenly become interested in LOC, for the first time in her life, and we’ve spent all week explaining the characters and the levels and the backstory and answering her dumb questions, like “But why does everyone have to be so greedy and violent?” In the end, Frank snapped, “It’s Land of Conquerors, Mum, not Land of Community Service Volunteers,” and she did look a bit embarrassed.
I’ve put in a few hours online and I’ve sharpened up my game a little. I mean, I’m no Frank. But I won’t let them down. I hope. Actually, I think I’m a little better than Ollie, who asked me at our first practice session if I was dating Linus and when I said “Yes,” looked deflated for about thirty seconds, then said, manfully, “Well, let’s just be good friends and teammates, then.” He is quite a cutie, old Ollie.
“I bought some Cokes for the team!” Dad arrives at the door of the playroom.
“Chris!” Mum frowns. “I got them water!”
“One Coke won’t hurt.”
“Oh God. Look at this.” Mum is peering round the room as though for the first time. “Look at this room. Coke? Krispy Kremes? Computers?” It’s like the triumvirate of all the things she despises and fears. I feel quite sorry for her. “Are we bad parents?” She turns to Dad. “Seriously. Are we bad parents?”
“Maybe.” He shrugs. “Probably. What of it?”
“Are we, Audrey?” She wheels round to me.
“Hit-and-miss,” I say, deadpan.
“We’re not as bad as these guys,” says Dad in sudden inspiration, and hands her a copy of the Daily Mail which he must have bought while he was out. “Read this.”
Mum grabs the Mail and her eyes fall avidly on a headline.
“We have to wear identical clothes every day,” she reads. “Mum forces her six kids into matching clothes. Oh my God.” She looks up, totally cheered. “We’re so not as bad as this! Listen, The children are teased at school, but Christy Gorringe, thirty-two, is unrepentant. ‘I like my kids to match,’ she says. ‘I buy my fabric wholesale.’” Mum shakes her head in disbelief. “Have you seen them?”