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This whole thing started after an entire weekend spent on the couch marathoning GBBO, and then it kind of spiralled out of my control and turned into...this. Massive thank you to Loops for being the best beta/cheerleader/hand-holder a girl could ask for. Sorry for dragging you into this, darling.

I was lucky enough to work with the wonderful Katie on this fic, who made a kick-ass fanmix that you can listen to here.

I'm on tumblr here if you want to say hi or talk about puff pastry and/or anything else, really.

PS sorry about the title. I couldn't help it.

 

 

 

 


”So tell me, Nick – what do you want to get out of this experience?”

The production assistant flashes him a friendly, but tired smile, not quite reaching her eyes. She looks exhausted. Nick can’t even imagine how many of these little chats she’s sat through today, how many times she’s asked this exact question and listened to countless variations of the exact same answer. The e-mail had said he was one of about a hundred people invited to the screen test, and he reckons he’s probably among the last ones to be interviewed.

Maybe he should go for a slightly original answer. It's the least he could do.

”Oh, God, I don’t know”, he laughs, ”I guess a boyfriend would be nice?”

 

Week three: Cake

”What is that?”, breathes a voice from somewhere behind Nick. He doesn’t have to look up to know who it is – he’s heard that high-pitched rasp so often over the past three weekends that it’s started infiltrating his dreams. Or nightmares, really.

”Is that gold leaf? Are you decorating your cupcakes with bloody gold?” The owner of the voice is evidently unaware that Nick’s so stressed that a drop of sweat is threatening to make the leap from his brow to the baking bowl, and that he obviously doesn’t have time to chat. Come to think of it, that’s probably the exact reason he’s there.

Turning his head a little, he finds Louis standing on his tiptoes, straining to peer over Nick’s right shoulder.

”Go away”, Nick shoos, like he’d do a cat. Louis just stretches out an arm and gives one of the cupcakes a gentle poke.

”What are you doing?” Nick hisses, keeping his voice low so it doesn’t attract the attention of the camera crew circling Harry two benches over. ”You do know there’s only ten minutes left, right?”

Louis hums and raises an eyebrow, but stays in Nick’s space, close enough that he could easily land an elbow to his chest and make it look accidental. Not too hard, of course. More of a gentle shove, really. Just enough to send him back to his own station in a bit of a strop, perhaps annoyed enough to make a last-minute blunder while finishing his own bake.

”I can’t believe you spent money on this.” Louis’ fingers are now dangerously close to the shimmery, paper-thin leaves that didn’t set Nick back too much, thank you very much. He just thought it would look pretty.

”Okay, that’s – enough now”, he says, curling his fingers around Louis’ wrist and yanking his hand away. ”Don’t you have anything better to do? Go be a prick around Harry, or – God forbid – finish your own shitty cupcakes?”

Louis at least has the decency to look disgruntled for a second, before he schools his features into a sugary-sweet smile.

”I could do that, obviously. This is much more fun, though. You sweat a lot when you’re stressed out, did you know?” He pops a grape into his mouth and chews obnoxiously. Nick has no idea where it came from. He can’t see any grapes lying around.

”Also”, Louis mumbles around his mouthful of fruit, ”I finished my icing while my bake was in the oven. Saves a lot of time. You should try it someday.”

”Please go away”, Nick groans. The second unit operator has her camera trained on them now, and he’d really like it if his bickering with Louis didn’t end up being broadcast to ten million people. ”I really, really don’t have the time or the energy to deal with your short, annoying arse right now, so can you just – fuck off back to your own bench now?”

Louis huffs and rolls his eyes. ”Who fucking pissed in your coffee this morning?”

”I’d put my money on you”, Nick mutters under his breath. Real mature. I’m so glad everyone you know is gonna watch this.

”Kinda wish I had, now.”

”Please”, Nick begs, using whatever restraint he has left not to yell. He just wants to finish his icing. It’s not so much to ask. ”Please sod off. This stopped being amusing about two seconds before you arrived.”

For once, Louis doesn’t retort. He does look quite indignant, but keeps his mouth shut as he abruptly turns and slithers back to his own bench. Nick doesn’t believe in miracles, but if he did, this would be one.

It’s week three, and Nick’s already contemplated committing murder on national telly four times.

The only thing really keeping him from aiming a rolling pin directly at the back of Louis’ head is that it’s now eight minutes to go and his cupcakes still need frosting. He’s also a thirty year-old adult man competing in a televised baking competition, and most importantly; his mum will be watching.

He sighs, silently counting to ten before reaching for the cream cheese. And things had started out so well.

 

*

 

He’d felt proud the first time he looked around the hotel lobby where all eleven contestants had been gathered for the first time. Proud, and overwhelmed, and excited, and maybe a little bit embarrassed.

It’s not that he’d ever been ashamed of his love of baking, or that his friends and family didn’t know that he spent most of his time not at work or out clubbing flitting around his tiny kitchen in a perpetual cloud of flour. There’s just the tiniest bit of difference between being the friend who always brings a tin of homemade biscuits to a cocktail party and signing up for a competetive baking reality show. A reality show everyone’s going to be watching, including his exes and his boss and probably Mrs. Davies next door. He’s going to be known as Nick the Baker for the rest of his life, probably.

Still, he’d scanned the room and let out a sigh of relief upon realising he wasn’t the only contestant filling up the quota of impeccably dressed young male baking enthusiast. In one corner, three of them were chatting amicably with a woman he recognised from the final round of auditions. If he didn’t end up making it past the first round he’d at least get to spend a weekend flirting harmlessly with fit blokes who knew the secrets to a good crust.

While sidling over to join their conversation, he’d marveled a bit at the cheekbones on the dark-haired one, contemplating whether it would be acceptable or embarrassing to open with a joke about using them to slice bread. The tallest of them, clad in a blue-and-pink patterned silk shirt so spectacularly garish Nick could do nothing but admire his courage, noticed him coming over and turned his head so fast his curls whirled around with the motion.

His face no longer in profile, Nick suddenly remembered bumping into him on the day they’d done the screen tests. He’d been nice, as far as Nick could recall. A bit odd, maybe, but that could probably be said for most people willing to spend ten weekends of their summer kneading dough under a marquee in Somerset.

”Nick, right?” he’d smiled, stepping to the side to allow for Nick to slide into the little circle. ”You were at the screen test in March, yeah?”

Nick had nodded, trying to think of a way to conceal how he couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. That day had been exhausting, and he’d been running late from work because he forgot the recipe for his audition bake at home, and there had been so many people milling about the East London studio that he could hardly be blamed for not remembering the name of a bloke he talked to for thirty seconds.

Still, he’d felt a bit rude, so the relief that flooded his system when he held out a hand and introduced himself as Harry was almost tangible.

”Hello, Nick”, a breathy voice had piped up on his left then. The third one, who’d been standing with his back to Nick as he walked up to them, was looking up at him, scanning his face with a degree of intensity that would’ve been almost frightening if he hadn’t been so… well, cute. He was rather small, about a head shorter than Nick, his delicate, sharp features softened by a messy fringe of light brown hair. Oh, this had the potential to be even more fun than he’d anticipated.

”You already know Louis, then?”, Harry’d asked, sounding positively delighted at the prospect. Nick had to force himself to tear his own eyes away from Louis’ gaze to shake his head.

”No, I’m afraid I don’t”, he’d admitted, almost apologetically, before turning to Louis and politely sticking out a hand for him to shake. ”I don’t think we’ve met – I’m Nick”.

Louis did not return the gesture, arms instead going up to cross over his chest. As his eyes quickly narrowed into little slits, Nick was suddenly left with the feeling that he’d done something very, very wrong – he just had no idea what it was.

”Shit, my breath’s that bad, eh?”, he’d tried. Self-deprecation and dumb jokes ususally did the trick to diffuse an awkward situation. His right arm was still hovering in mid-air and he felt like a right idiot, even though he really wasn’t being the rude one here.

”Fuck’s sake”, mumbled the dark-haired one then, managing a smoulder while simultaneously rolling his eyes and enclosing Nick’s hand in a firm, yet soft, grip. ”M’ Zayn.”

Nick could’ve kissed him. Granted, he kind of thought that no one, not even him, would be worthy of the task, but still. The palpable tension seemed to dissipate a little, at least until Zayn opened his mouth again.

”Why’re you being a twat?”, he’d asked Louis, raising a single, perfectly shaped eyebrow.

”I’m not”, Louis scoffed, popping a hip out to make his stance look more confident. He looked like an angry kitten, Nick had thought. ”Whatever, I need to take a piss”, he’d said, turning on his heel and stomping off.

”Anyone care to tell me what just happened?”, Nick had asked, mostly to himself.

”He was probably just hungry.” Harry looked a little confused, but not half as baffled as Nick felt. ”I’m sure you’ll get a fresh start tomorrow.”

He didn’t see Louis again until the next morning, where he started off the first technical bake by accusing Nick of stealing his eggs.

 

That was two weeks ago, and things haven’t exactly improved. It’s terribly unfortunate, Nick thinks.

Not because he craves Louis’ friendship – he’ll get by perfectly fine without it, thanks. It’s just that they have to spend virtually every waking minute of these weekends on set together, and things would admittedly be easier if they could just get along. Or if Louis could stop making it so glaringly obvious that Nick’s pretty far down his list of favourite people, at least. And the thing is, he would be easy enough to avoid outside of the tent if it weren’t for the fact that he, Harry and Zayn come as a sort of unfairly attractive package deal. Nick rather likes hanging out with two thirds of them.

Harry is fun and charming and so, so easy to get on with, openly throwing his attention and affection around to everyone. Nick found himself on the receiving end of it mere minutes into the first day, Harry’s hand on his shoulder as if they were old mates catching up as he recounted the story of his first attempt at scones.

He’s grown a bit fond of Zayn too, despite their obvious differences. His brand of quiet contemplation is not something Nick usually finds himself drawn to, but his oddly soothing presence is nice to have around with such a hectic shooting schedule, and at least he doesn’t spend half his time shooting daggers at Nick.

Honestly, it makes little sense to him that they’re both such good friends with Louis, especially since none of them knew each other before the show. Nick had first assumed they were old friends who’d applied together, but according to Harry they’d first met during auditions and kept in touch.

And so he’s accepted his fate – if he wants to spend time with Harry and Zayn, he’ll just have to deal with Louis rolling his eyes at everything that comes out of his mouth.

It was something he learned the evening after the first day of the competition when Harry had suggested they go hang out in his hotel room, still a bit too giddy on adrenaline and sugar fumes to just go to bed after the huge dinner with the cast and crew. After a quick stop for a piss in his own room, he’d knocked on Harry’s door, expecting a quiet comedown with the two of them and some beers in front of the telly, and instead finding Louis glaring at him from the middle of Harry’s bed. He hadn’t said more than ten words to Nick all night, including ”what are you doing here?”

 

*

 

Adjusting the decorative chocolate on his praline cupcakes, he very much regrets the two glasses of wine he had last night. Having to make and decorate 30 cupcakes in two hours does not combine well with being slighty hung over – even less so when they have to be three different flavours.

The only thing making him feel a little better is that with two minutes left, Louis looks to be in even worse shape. He clearly doesn’t have as much control over the situation as he’d boasted, nervously scuttling back and forth, hair sticking out in all directions. A smudge of batter has somehow appeared on his cheek, despite his bake being out of the oven for twenty minutes. Harry mentioned that they hadn’t stayed much longer after Nick went to bed last night, but that Louis had ordered another drink before they left.

Nick hopes he gets sick and vomits all over his cupcakes. Or at least that they’re all dry and overbaked.

The powers that be are clearly not paying attention to Nick today. Louis is the third to carry his tray up to the judges’ table, and he can hear Mary’s noises of approval all the way to the back of the room as she takes a bite.

”Absolutely scrumptious”, she offers, and he can’t see Louis’ face but he’s probably being very smug about it. Paul gives him a little flack for some of them being a little underbaked, and Mary thinks his lemon frosting could be a little more lemon-y. Nick does an imaginary fistpump, but all in all, the comments are decent, unfortunately.

Louis certainly looks pleased as punch walking back. Nick would love to sneak in a clever reply as he passes him on his way up, but he’s too nervous to think of one.

It’s so stupid, really. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t let it get to him, that he would just enjoy it and not give much thought to the competetive element of it all – and here he is, about to soil himself because someone’s about to pass judgement on his bloody cupcakes.

”What have we here, then?” Paul rumbles, picking up one of his pistachio ones and inspecting it carefully.

”They certainly look tasty”, Mary coos, breaking off a piece of praline cupcake and popping it into her mouth.

If Nick could look at the situation from an outside perspective, he’d probably give himself a stroke laughing at how he’s watching an 80-year old woman chewing with baited breath.

”Hmmmm”, says Paul. Nick nearly shits himself. ”Nice texture, good flavour on this one. The gold is maybe a bit over the top, though.”

Nick pretends he doesn’t hear the loud cackle coming from somewhere behind him.

”The balance of flavours on the praline is perfect”, Mary chimes in. Nick has to remind himself to breathe.

”Wow, cheers,” he smiles, arms shaking slightly as he picks up the tray and turns around. Harry’s giving him a thumbs-up from behind his bench. Louis is not looking at him, instead putting all his energy into inspecting his own fingernails. Fucking brat.

Harry gets mostly positive reviews, Mary finding his flavour combinations ”a bit odd, but they work, somehow”. They both swoon over Zayn’s immaculate decorations, particularly the spun sugar butterflies, but Paul thinks the flavours are slightly boring.

As they line up for the announcement of who’s going home, Nick’s pretty sure all four of them are safe.

He’s right. Preston has to leave, and Caroline wins star baker, and he’ll have to dodge Louis’ attempts at sabotage for at least one more weekend.

 

 

Week four: Desserts

One thing Nick’s always been a big believer in is that every shit situation feels a little less shit if he gets to moan about it to his best friends over copious amounts of wine. Over the course of his life, he’s dealt with a lot of crap, and a lot of twats, and it’s always better after he gets to slag them off over a round of drinks. That doesn’t quite work this time around.

”I’m sorry, but I can’t spend another minute listening to this”, Gillian says on Wednesday evening around a spoonful of chocolate sauce.

His friends have been around even more than ususal in the past couple of weeks. It might have something to do with Nick spending every moment not at work practicing his recipes for the upcoming weekend. There have been accusations that he’s trying to fatten them up, but they also keep showing up on his doorstep, so he doesn’t think they mind all that much.

He’s grateful that he has someone to help with the taste testing, but most of them seem happy enough as long as it contains enough butter and sugar, so he’s not sure he’s getting the most constructive criticism. Still, his friends are over and he gets to bake for them, which is nice in and of itself.

It’s also much easier to cajole them into dog-sitting Pig every weekend when they’re perpetually blissed out on sugar.

”You know I love you, and I love this, but you’ve been talking about nothing but this fucking bloke for weeks – plus it’s not as much fun for me when I’ve never met him myself, y’know? How can I judge him without the proper context?”, she continues, licking the last bit of sauce off her fingers.

Nick bristles, momentarily offended. ”I have not been talking about him that much. Also you don’t need to know him. Just trust me – he’s terrible.”

Gillian just rolls her eyes and makes grabby hands for the wine. ”You’d be a bit more convincing if you talked about him a little less, love.”

Nick snorts, because that is just ridiculous. ”It’s – it’s not like that at all, it’s just – god. He’s the most annoying person on the planet, honestly. And I can’t talk about it with Harry or Zayn or any of the other contestants because for some inexplicable reason they all love him? Got everyone wrapped around his bloody little finger and I – just. He opens his mouth and I want to shove something down his throat. You’d understand if you met him, trust me.”

Gillian’s eyes have gone a little wide. ”Jesus, okay. You can use me as your personal vent or whatever, just – watch your blood pressure, christ”, she laughs. ”Is he really that bad?”

Nick sighs. ”You have no fucking idea.”

 

*

Come Saturday, he’s really glad he got in a couple of practice rounds on both his signature and showstopper dish, because it seems like the competition is heating up. In the bus on the way to location, everyone’s chattering excitedly about what they’ve prepared for dessert week, and Nick’s stomach twists with nerves.

Compared to what most of them plan to serve up, his own chocolate-caramel sponge and the miniature cakes he’s making for the final round suddenly seem pathetic and boring, which means he’ll have to bake them to perfection. Or cross his fingers that someone else fucks it up.

Louis occupies the worktop in front of him, like he does every single week, and starts organising his ingredients. Keep your enemies close, Nick supposes.

Like always, he doesn’t remember much of the baking process itself. No matter how much time they get, the minutes and hours seem to blend into a condensed ball of sugar and eggs and last-minute panic. He doesn’t really get time to breathe properly before his six sponges are in the oven, and then he looks around to see how the rest are doing.

Whenever he has time to just observe, he finds himself musing over what will actually make it through editing. Will the viewers get to see how Harry somehow manages to make even Barbara, who’s 65 with two great-grandchildren and more on the way, blush like a schoolgirl just by talking to her? Will they focus on Zayn’s impressive piping skills or will they also include how he’s a huge nerd who made a loaf in the shape of his cat during bread week? And how will his own arc play out on telly? It’s not exactly The Bachelor in terms of backstabbing and dramatic edits, but it is a reality show, and at the end of each weekend, the 15-16 hours they spend in front of the cameras have to be condensed down to one hour of television.

It doesn’t keep him up at night, but he is curious.

One thing he’s sure won’t make it into the final edit is the way Louis is currently bent in front of his oven, inspecting the rise of his own dessert. He’s wearing jeans so skinny they look to be painted on his skin, accentuating the curve of his bum. Nick is not so petty that he’ll deny that it is an excellent bum – he’d found Louis attractive enough on that first night - before he’d opened his mouth.

Having it sticking out just a couple of feet from his face, however, is a bit distracting. Nick’s one hundred percent sure he’s doing it on purpose. Judging by the way he walks, Louis is probably well aware of the effect his arse has on other people. This is all part of his grand plan to distract Nick and sabotage his bake.

”I hope that’s not your sponges burning, Grimshaw”, he suddenly throws over his shoulder, lips curling into a smug little smile when he catches Nick staring.

Nick scoffs. ”My puddings are just fine, thanks.” He bends over to double check, but the smell is not coming from his oven.

The abrupt little shriek suddenly emanating from somewhere on his left confirms that someone has left their bake in the oven a little too long. His stomach twists a bit when he sees Harry flailing over to his bench and wrenching his tray out of the oven, almost tripping over his own feet in the hurry to get it done. He really doesn’t want him to go home just yet. Mel and Sue are already on their way over with a camera man, obviously seeing the potential for a Dramatic Television Moment. Nick is crossing his fingers that it’s not so bad as it looks.

Then he doesn’t have more time to worry about Harry’s fate, because he has his own dessert to worry about, and he still has to make the sauce and decorate them. And suddenly they’re out of time, and Paul and Mary are back, and he’s nervous again. Louis’ left leg is twitching, so at least he’s not the only one.

Harry’s gone a bit weepy over the state of his sponge, poking morosely at it with a finger, as if that’s going to make it any less dry. He looks up at Nick, his big cow eyes pleading for help, but there’s not much Nick can do, save hope that someone he’s not as fond of as Harry has really managed to fuck up the flavours or something.

Maybe Louis’ dessert will taste like feet.

Apparently it doesn’t, and predictably, Harry gets scolded. The minute the judging is over, he stalks off, wiping his eyes furiously with a production crew on his tail. Nick’s about to interfere when Louis comes running. He has a quiet word with the camera operator, who nods and lowers his equipment, before he sprints after Harry, who’s already halfway across the lawn. Nick watches him haul Harry down into a crushing hug, and then he says something that has them both laughing, and he can’t help but wonder why Louis is so nice to anyone but him.

 

 

Week five: Biscuits

”I’m – I’m likeable, right?” It’s Tuesday, and Nick’s kitchen is overflowing with biscuits.

”What the hell are you on about?” Aimee gets out between mouthfuls of macadamia brittle. She wipes a few stray crumbs away with her thumb. ”Fuck’s sake, Grimmy, is this about that guy – they actually warned me, you know-”

”It’s not about Louis, christ.” She just looks at him, unconvinced. ”Fine. It’s – maybe about Louis. A little bit. Tiny little bit. I just don’t get it – I’m nice, yeah? You like me?”

”I’m sitting in your kitchen eating your bloody biscuits, aren’t I?”

Nick scoffs. ”Don’t pretend that being fed my delicious baked goods is a hardship.”

Aimee rolls her eyes, giving his arm a fond little pat. ”You’re perfectly agreeable, babe – in fact, I rather do like you a lot. Also, your biscuits are fucking delicious.”

He beams at the compliment, but can’t quite get rid of the frown between his eyebrows and the accompanying, nagging thought.

”Right? I’m a bloody delight to be around – I’m just as charming as stupid Harry, and yet he treats me like I killed his dog in front of him.”

”And you’re sure this isn’t just you being a bit, you know - ?” she says, waving her arms around like that’s a satisfying end to the question.

”A bit what?”, he asks, perhaps a tad petulantly.

She levels him with one of her Looks. ”C’mon, this wouldn’t be the first time you went a bit overboard - we both know you have a flair for the dramatic.”

”I am not being dramatic”, Nick yells, rather dramatically. He can’t stand the self-satisfied little face Aimee makes whenever she’s proven right, so he barrells on.

”No, Aims, listen – you know what he did the first bloody week of the competition? He told Mel and Sue that he’d seen me picking butter off the floor and using it in my batter!”

Aimee has the nerve to laugh. ”C’mon babe, that’s a little bit funny – I mean that’s the spirit of the whole competition, innit? Jokes and banter and all that?”

”That’s not banter, that’s bloody sabotage”, he mumbles.

”He also told Harry I was picking my nose behind the counter – don’t fucking snort, that’s not funny either! And he can’t keep his mouth shut about my recipes, it’s like – every time we talk about what we’re gonna bake next time there’s always something wrong with mine, they’re too fancy and too posh and the kind of knob food they only serve to knobs who think Primrose Hill is the cultural capital of London and haven’t been south of the Thames in years”, he mutters, hearing Louis’ voice clear as bells in his head.

”Just because I don’t use my nan’s bloody recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation like some sort of Yorkshire urban legend doesn’t mean my stuff’s not authentic – if anyone’s a bloody snob, it’s him”, Nick finishes, feeling his cheeks flush a little. He really needed to get that out, apparently.

”Well”, Aimee starts. ”I mean, what did you call this – ”, she says, taking the half-eaten biscuit out of her mouth and studying it ”- macadamia nut brittle with a hint of salted French caramel? You wouldn’t exactly find this stuff at your local Greggs, would you?”

Nick’s friends are all bloody traitors. Aimee takes one look at his face and realises she probably said the wrong thing, quickly adding ”but sure, he does sound like a bit of a tosser, I’ll give you that. So what about that Harry guy? You seem to really like him and from what I’ve gathered him and Louis are good friends too?”

”That doesn’t count, Harry’s friends with everyone. He’d probably find redeeming qualities in Voldemort if he tried hard enough. Besides, Louis is a fucking bucket of charm when he’s with Harry – or anyone, really. ’S just me he’s rude to.”

”Maybe he’s just an arse, then”, Aimee shrugs. ”Nick, come on – you’re kind and funny and smart, you’ve got your own flat, you work in radio-”

”- bloody Kiss FM -”

”- yeah, yeah, we both know the BBC’s gonna come knocking any day now – point is, you’re a great guy with a pretty great life, so why do you care so much about what this one insignificant bloke thinks of you?”

He shrugs, because honestly – he has no idea why he’s letting Louis’ opinion of him get to him so much.

”Yeah, I know, ’s stupid - I just hate the idea of someone not liking me, I guess.” It sounds a little pathetic out loud.

Aimee smiles at him, pats his head. ”You’re an idiot, you know that? Now, feed me more biscuits.”

 

*

”I’m gonna build Iron Man out of biscuits tomorrow”, Louis announces to their table at dinner Saturday night. The mood has been surprisingly light all day – Nick suspects that Louis is too happy that Harry’s still around after last weekend’s burned sponge disaster to spend much energy on him.

”Wow”, Harry croons just as Nick lets out a disbelieving snort. Louis glares at him.

”What’s your problem, then?”, he snaps. Nick really doesn’t want to do this – he’s on the right side of tipsy and it was a good day for him in the competition – if he does well tomorrow, he thinks he might have a shot at star baker. He just wants to sit around this table and share some drinks and light banter with his new friends – but Louis seems to never let him enjoy anything.

”Oh, nothing”, he says when the silence has stretched out a little too long.

Louis cocks an eyebrow. ”No, please. I’d love to hear it.” Next to him, Harry makes his best can we please all just get along-face.

”’S a bit ambitious, is all.” It’s honestly the worst idea Nick’s ever heard.

”Yes, and?” Louis says impatiently.

”Just wondering how much you can get done in three hours.”

”Mmmm, we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?” He’s actually smirking. Nick can’t do anything but roll his eyes. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. He can’t wait.

 

*

”Oh no”, Harry whispers sadly next to him. It’s ten minutes left on the clock, and they’ve just watched Louis’ entire red-and-gold biscuit creation crumble to a heap. Louis hasn’t moved yet, hands frozen in place where they had just finished placing the helmet on top of the suit. His mouth is wide open, but no sound is coming out.

It’s gone completely silent under the marquee, the sounds of the tower collapsing followed by Louis’ little yelp loud enough to attract everyone’s attention. For one brief moment, it looks as though his face is about to crumple, but in the next it’s gone, replaced by a self-deprecating smile.

”Well, that was a bit shit”, he addresses to the tent as a whole, and then Mel and Sue are joining him trying to salvage pieces from the wreckage.

Harry still looks like he’s about to cry. ”He spent weeks planning that”, he mumbles.

Nick’s frankly a bit cross – mostly with himself. This is the moment he’s been anticipating since last night, the moment that proved him right and Louis wrong and now he’s got something to rub in his face for all eternity – and yet it doesn’t make him feel vindicated. He just feels really, really bad for Louis, even though this was all his own stupid fault. It doesn’t make any sense.

He gets out some of his frustration by shooing Harry back to his own workbench, telling him he doesn’t have time to stand around and mope if he wants to finish his own showstopper – a floral column made of lavender and rosewater biscuits. 

”Oh dear”, is the first thing Mary says when Louis brings his tray up for judging. The whole thing reminds Nick of an abandoned, half-sunken sand castle after the tide’s swept in. He can’t see Louis’ face from here, and it’s hard to hear their voices over the constant pitter-patter of rain drumming down on the marquee, but his stance is as confident as ever, one hand on his hip, like he’s already won the damn thing. It doesn’t exactly fit with what is essentially a heap of crumbs on the plate in front of him. He smacks a hand to his forehead in a clearly over-exaggerated manner, and Nick only catches bits and pieces of the conversation, including ”tits up” and ”bit of an idiot.”

The moment he knows the cameras are off him, Nick watches as his arms drop to hang limply at his sides and his shoulders slouch, as if he’s trying to physically make himself smaller. Harry is looking at him with the face of a concerned mother, obviously itching to go over and talk to him, but knowing he has to stay in place until the judging is over.

Logically, Nick knows he should feel relieved, as Louis must surely be out of the competition now. Not only does that mean Nick will be here next week, it also means he’ll get to continue without Louis around to distract or bother him. Following the simple steps of logic, Nick should be jubilant, but he’s not. He feels bad. For Louis.

A voice in his head is telling him that it’s probably because Louis will leave on unfair terms, since his biscuit tower never stood the chance of being judged on par with the others’ because it fell apart. He wants Louis gone because he’s a shit baker, not for being a bit shit at understanding the basic principles of construction. This isn’t The Great British Engineer-Off.

He also knows it isn’t the whole truth. He feels bad for Louis because he has basic human compassion, and right now Louis looks like he’s trying to crawl inside his hoodie and hide. He looks sad. Nick doesn’t like it when someone is sad, even if said someone three weeks ago told him his garlic loaf looked like a herpes-infested horse dong.

He huffs and tries to shut off his stupid brain.

 

No one looks more surprised than Louis when they’re gathered for the judges’ decision an hour later and Zayn’s name is the one to leave Sue’s mouth. Truth be told, he hadn’t paid all that much attention to what Paul and Mary had to say about Zayn’s biscuit rendition of the Eiffel Tower, because at that point Louis had been eyeing the oven like he wanted to stick his head inside it and Harry had been eyeing Louis with sad eyes and Nick had been in disaster prevention mode. He’s still a little confused when Harry hooks an arm around his neck and hauls him into the heap of limbs that is everyone trying to give Zayn a hug at once.

 

”I don’t mean to be an arse”, Ben says a little while later, the two of them standing a little off to the side, waiting for everyone to pack up their stuff so they can head back to the hotel together.

Nick’s barely keeping up with the conversation, too busy watching Harry and Zayn with one eye. Harry’s sniffling and wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his jumper, Zayn looking on with a hand on his shoulder and an unbearably fond expression on his face. He’s the one who just got the boot, and yet he’s walking around consoling everyone else. Nick hopes Harry plans to stop crying before they get on the train together. He doesn’t particularly want snot all over his clothes.

”I mean, did you think it was fair?” Ben continues, apparently unaware that he’s essentially been talking to himself for the past couple of minutes.

”Sorry, what?” Nick says, shaking himself out of it.

”I know they said Zayn’s flavours were weak, but at least his tower was standing at the end of the day, right?”

”Mmm”, says Nick. He doesn’t find this conversation particularly giving.

”It’s not that I don’t like Louis – he’s a great guy-”

”Hm.”

” – but I really think he should’ve left today, don’t you agree? Did you see how it just – crumbled? Obviously he doesn’t know much about biscuit structure – and honestly, Iron Man? What is he, five?”

Nick makes a noncommittal noise, and tries to wordlessly communicate to Harry to hurry the fuck up so they can leave before he tells Ben to shove a pie up his own arse. He doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of the points he’s making, but he’s kind of being a massive prick about it.

Out of the corner of his eye he suddenly sees someone moving towards them, but it isn’t Harry. In the most obnoxiously defiant manner Nick’s ever seen outside of elementary school playgrounds, Louis appears seemingly out of nowhere, forces himself between them and then stomps off across the grass, not once even acknowledging their presence. None of them speak for a bit as they watch Louis’ retreating back as he stalks further and further away, until he disappears around a corner.

”Oh bollocks”, Ben groans. ”D’you think he heard me?”

”You’re a bit of a twat”, Nick says, in lieu of an answer.

By the time they get to the pick-up point for the shuttle bus, Louis is already gone.

 

 

Week six: Pastry

For all that they’ve only being doing this for six weeks, it feels like a routine firmly established – taking the train to Bristol on Fridays after work, usually with Harry, and up until last week joined by Zayn and Louis if they managed to wrangle their schedules to match. Today is the first time since the very first week Nick’s had to make the journey alone, having to sit in on a meeting at work that dragged out much longer than he thought possible.

Despite the book he brought with him, it’s dreadfully boring without Harry, and, dare he even think it, Louis. He may spend every trip talking over Nick or obnoxiously jamming his headphones in when he tells stories about his week at work, but at least someone was there to keep him company. It’s almost ten by the time the train glides into Temple Meads, rain pounding down on the platform as he hurries towards the taxi stand.

He receives a text from Harry on his way to the hotel, saying they didn’t bother with pints tonight, but that him and Louis are having a little get-together in Louis’ room if he wants to join them. He opts out, blaming exhaustion - it isn’t a straight-up lie, but he still feels weird after the last time he saw Louis, and doesn’t fancy spending the evening with him in a confined space without the extra tension relief Zayn usually provided. Without him there, they can freely braid each other’s hair or whatever it is they get up to when it’s just the two of them.

 

*

They both show up for breakfast the next morning without braids – Harry greeting him with a face-splitting smile and a suffocating hug, Louis with an eyeroll and a mouth twitch that could either be a fraction of a smile or a stomach ache. Everything’s almost back to normal, then.

 

Pastry week is definitely not something Nick’s been looking forward to, and he’s made so many mini filo pies in the past week that even inviting half his circle of friends over on Wednesday had barely made a dent.

He’s gonna be serving filo pies well into Christmas. He could keep the British army well fed for at least a week. He never wants to see another filo pie again in his life, which is unfortunate, because now he has to make one for the signature bake, and it has to be the best filo pie he’s ever made. Or at least better than Louis’.

Half an hour into the challenge he’s still battling it out with his dough, wrists and fingers gone numb from the endless kneading and rolling. ”You basically have to keep working the dough until it feels like your arms are gonna fall off”, Daisy had told him when he’d lured her over with the promise of free wine in exchange for a private pastry masterclass.

Giving himself a mental slap for all those times he was supposed to go to the gym but ended up on the sofa watching reruns of X-Factor, he notices that Harry’s already deposited his dough in the fridge. He’s not going to compare himself to someone who gets up at 6 am every morning to do yoga, though. He’s not. That would be stupid.

Checking on Louis’ progress would probably give him a little confidence boost, except when they arrived on set earlier, he didn’t claim the bench in front of Nick like always, instead waiting to see where Nick ended up before choosing the spot behind him. As far as passive-aggressiveness goes, it was a little underwhelming compared to his previous efforts.

It’s the first Saturday in six weeks he hasn’t spent trying to draw his eyes away from Louis’ wriggling arse. It also means that it’s very difficult for Nick to steal a sneaky glance to see how he’s doing; he has to actively turn around and be all obvious about it, and he doesn’t want that. Least of all today, because Louis has barely looked at him or done much to acknowledge that he even exists, and he the last thing Nick needs is to send out a signal that he somehow misses his attention. Because he doesn’t.

When he finally stops debating with himself and just turns around, for fuck’s sake, nobody even cares, he’s met with the sight of a serene-looking Louis sipping tea and looking like he hasn’t got a care in the world. Not one strand of hair seems to be out of place and his apron looks fresh out of the wash. Nick caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the back of a spoon five minutes ago and found a sweaty swamp monster staring back at him. This isn’t fair. There is no way someone built like a fucking wood nymph has finished before him, and done so without even breaking into a sweat.

”Can I help you?” Louis says, peering over the rim of his cup.

”Nope”, Nick huffs, cursing his complete lack of stealth. At least he manages to wait five seconds before his next words come tumbling out. ”What did you do with your dough? Blackmailed someone into making it for you?”

Louis takes a while to answer, gently setting his tea down and resting his chin in his hands before meeting Nick’s eyes. ”Placed it in the fridge five minutes ago. I’d suggest you do the same. That is, if you plan to ever finish fiddling with it, of course.” Somehow, the complete lack of bite in his voice only works to provoke Nick more.

”There’s no way you’ve finished”, he sputters, ”unless you cheated and managed to sneak in a store-bought one, which – oh my god. Oh god, you fucking wouldn’t.”

Despite being a head shorter than Nick and currently hunched over the counter, Louis actually manages to look down at him.

”It’s amazing what modern technology can do”, he says dryly, patting the chrome bowl of the KitchenAid next to him.

”You made your filo pastry with a mixer?”, Nick hisses, not even caring that he sounds a bit too hysterical for an issue that, in the grand scheme of things, matters about as much as which colour socks he put on this morning.

Louis stands up at that, air of nonchalance suddenly gone. ”I’m not breaking any rules.”

Nick flails his arms a bit in exasperation, because that is not the point. ”I know that, but you can’t – you can’t do that!”

”I’m sorry, did someone die and make you the baking police? I didn’t realise Mary had regenerated and turned into a beanstalk with shitty hair”, Louis quips. He sticks his chin out, probably thinks it makes him look taller. Nick is reminded of those tiny, annoying dogs that try to compensate for their size by being way too loud.

The effort with which Nick doesn’t yell his next words is frankly astounding.

”Everybody knows that you work a filo pastry with your hands, you fucking -”

”Wey hey, what’s going on here, then?” Sue interrupts, playfully bumping her hip into Nick and shooting a couple of finger pistols at Louis. Oh, right, because they’re surrounded by other people. And at least three cameras. For a minute there, Nick forgot.

”Nick here seems to think it’s a deadly sin to use a mixer to make filo pastry”, says Louis. His eyes are positively sparkling.

”Oi oi Nick, is that true? You’re a bit of a baking elitist, aren’t you?” Sue says, looking between them. Louis looks like Christmas has come early.

Nick laughs, but it comes out a bit shrill. ”I was just trying to explain to Louis here that sometimes you can’t just throw everything in the mixing bowl and hope for the best.”

”And I was just telling Nick that while I appreciate his concern, I’ve always made it like this and the pastry comes out just as nice even if it hasn’t been carefully crafted by my own bare hands”, Louis chirps, before giving Sue a cheeky little wink.

If he wasn’t wholly dependent on his dough to make it through to next week, Nick would use it to strangle Louis on the spot.

”Ah, do we have a battle on our hands here? Old versus new, traditional versus modern!” Sue’s bouncing on her feet, clearly oblivious to the layer of tension occupying every inch of space between Louis and Nick.

”Well, best of luck to you both lads, and Nick – not to be rude, but you better get a move on if you want to chill your dough before the next step.”

”Yes, you should probably hurry up now”, Louis chimes in, ”wouldn’t want to waste any more time.”

If Nick had started out the day feeling bad for what happened last weekend, every ounce of guilt swiftly disappears the moment Louis subtly flips him off after being told his pastry was ’the best of the bunch’.

 

*

”Please tell me you have no idea what you are doing, because I have no idea what I’m doing”.

The technical challenge still makes Nick feel a bit like someone’s stuck a scalpel in his hand and told him to perform brain surgery on the spot. He likes recipes, and he likes being prepared, and the concept of going in blind and making something he’s often never even heard of before is so far outside his comfort zone he can’t even see it anymore.

Harry, on the other hand, thrives under these conditions – probably because his approach to baking is pretty much throwing random ingredients into a bowl and magically conjuring up something delicious every time. Nick suspects there’s actually a lot of practice behind his artful bumbling – either that, or he has some sort of creepy sixth sense, except he sees compatible ingredients instead of dead people.

”I have no idea what I’m doing?” Harry replies, piping out his choux pastry with a level of precision that screams the exact opposite.

”You’re such a liar”, Nick whines with his head on Harry’s shoulder. He should definitely not be wasting the little time he has bothering Harry, but he managed to burn his first batch of pastry and he needs a minute before he goes back to try again.

”Sorry”, Harry giggles, jostling Nick’s head with the way it makes his shoulders shake, ”are you really having trouble? It’s just profiteroles – you’ve made them before, right?”

”’S not just profiteroles, innit?”, Nick pouts, ”it’s Mary Berry’s evil nuns. Huge difference. Massive.”

Harry shrugs, which Nick takes as his cue to return to using his own neck to support his head. ”Not really – it’s just two profiteroles on top of each other, yeah?”

”Don’t forget the pearl necklace.”

”Was counting on you to bring it up, actually.”

”Just my luck that I’m absolutely terrible at profiteroles, then. It’s dumb anyway – who decided you have to cook the bloody pastry?”

He’s just trying to delay the inevitable now, which is going back to his bench to muster up a passable dough at best, but the way Harry flicks his wrist to shape the little yellow blobs onto the baking tray has him a bit hypnotised.

”At least you have the custard, even if the pastry doesn’t turn out perfect, yeah?” It’s probably just as much a subtle hint for Nick to return to his own business as it is meant to cheer him up, but Harry is right.

Nick’s custard is going to be unbeatable. After doing pretty much anything but going down and literally begging on his knees, although he would’ve done that too if it had proved necessary, Daisy had spent an entire afternoon before the competition began teaching him how to cook the perfect custard. He’s got the technique down to an artform now, and honestly – he’s fucking great at custard. So even if he can’t make the perfect choux pastry, his profiteroles are still going to be pretty fucking delicious.

Which is why, when he goes to pick it up from the freezer half an hour later and it’s no longer there, he very nearly bursts into tears.

”Something wrong there, Nick?” Mel asks when he’s been standing rooted to the spot staring into the open freezer for two minutes. There is a bowl of custard on the shelf where he left his, but the bowl’s a little bigger and it’s tucked into the left corner, whereas Nick distinctly remembers putting his to the right. His brain is slowly starting to catch up to what’s happened, but he’s not ready to face reality just yet.

”My custard”, he mutters.

”What’s wrong with your custard, love?”

”My custard”, Nick repeats, like a man possessed, ”someone’s taken my custard.”

”Oh dear”, is all she says. ”Are you sure?”

Yes, he’s bloody well sure. His custard was there and now it isn’t, and everything’s gone to shit and he’s going to end up going home.

”My custard”, is all he gets out.

”Pretty sure it’s not gonna turn up no matter how many times you say custard, mate”, someone mutters.

Mel comes up to him and puts an arm around his shoulder. ”Okay pet, take me through it, what happened?”

”I don’t know!” Nick would be embarrassed about the way his voice breaks on the last word if he weren’t surrounded by people who understand the gravity of the situation. ”I put my custard in the freezer to chill and when I went to grab it it was gone – someone’s taken mine instead of their own.”

Nick’s an adult man with a mortgage and a steady paycheck and he’s two seconds away from having a breakdown over boiled milk.

The ”oh shit” is so whispered and quiet that under normal conditions in the tent, Nick would’ve missed it completely. As it is, everyone’s stopped what they were doing to watch the drama unfold, and Louis’ voice is the only thing cutting through the silence.

Nick watches in stunned horror as Louis turns around excruciatingly slow, like a wind-up ballerina in a music box whose batteries are about to give out. Everything makes a little more sense now. Nick’s a little surprised at himself for not putting the pieces together sooner.

”I am so, so sorry, - I didn’t – fuck”, Louis says, looking appropriately horrified. He’s a good actor, Nick will give him that.

”Well, now that the mystery’s cleared up, you can just switch back and that’s that, right?” Mel says, relief audible in her voice.

Louis winces and squeezes his eyes shut at her words, and the speed with which Nick’s heart plummets from his ribcage to his stomach is astounding. With one brief glance, all his worst fears are confirmed. The bench behind Louis is a sticky mess of half-assembled profiteroles, and towering in the middle, like a misplaced trophy, is Nick’s baking bowl. Nick’s empty baking bowl.

”I kind of – already used it”, Louis squeaks. ”I’ve already filled all my profiteroles.”

He can hear Harry’s sharp intake of breath from halfway across the room. Mel’s grip on his shoulder tightens.

”I’m so sorry, I was sure it was mine, honestly – I was in a rush and didn’t realise our bowls were practically identical.”

This isn’t fucking happening.

”Here’s what we’re gonna do”, says Sue, coming up behind Louis and giving his arm a little pat, as if he’s the one in need of comforting. ”There’s obviously no time to start over, so Nick, you’re gonna have to use Louis’ custard, which I’m sure is perfectly fine – this might be sacrilege to say out loud, but a custard’s a custard in my opinion.”

Nick makes a noise like a dying dog at that, but she continues, unaffected. ”Obviously, we’ll let Paul and Mary know about this little mishap, and I’m sure they’ll take it into consideration at judging – does that sound all right? It’s not ideal, but there’s not much else we can do at this point, I’m afraid.”

What Nick really wants to do is apply the kind of conflict resolution tactics he always turned to when he was four and some other kid in the sandbox snatched up the toy he had his mind set on. He wants to stomp his feet and whine until someone else realises the grave injustice he has been subject to and fixes it for him. What he ends up doing, because he is an adult, and his mum’s going to see this, and it’s not really going to solve anything, is give Louis a curt nod before grabbing the bowl of inferior custard out of the freezer and slouch over to his bench.

Louis’ custard is pale and a bit runny and Nick wants to pour it over his head. But he doesn’t.

He does wait until the attention of the cameras and everyone else has moved on before he walks up to Louis. Careful of what the others might pick up, he leans over his shoulder, keeping his expression as neutral as possible and hoping it will just look like he’s gone over to have a quiet word.

”You fucking did that on purpose”, he hisses into Louis’ ear. Nick has never felt more wronged in his life.

Louis spins around, a disbelieving look on his face. ”I already told you, it was an accident”, he says, putting way too much emphasis on the last word.

”Yes, and I’m the bloody Queen of England”, he whispers, inching even closer. They’re not exactly face to face, as he’s practically towering over Louis, but there is not much space separating them. Louis’ eyes go wide.

”I said I was sorry! Why would I even do that on purpose? Why the fuck”, he breathes, ”would I steal your bloody custard when mine was perfectly fine?” He’s staring up at Nick, unblinking.

”Oh, I don’t know, because mine was better? Or maybe because you have no respect for the competition? You’ve been a fucking pain in my arse from day one - it’s like you’ve been actively trying to piss me off and I have no idea why - I’m not gonna tell on you because unlike you, I am not bloody five years old, but that was dishonest and crossing the fucking line and I’m so bloody sick of you ruining everything!” His throat hurts by the time he stops, his voice strained from trying to yell at a low volume.

Something that looks like hurt flashes across Louis’ face, and for a second he looks very small, all folded in on himself with his arms crossed across his chest. He sighs, as if all the fight has gone out of him in an instant.

”You really think I did it?” he asks, expression unreadable.

”Yeah.”

Louis just shrugs, which looks like a pretty clear admission of guilt.

”I don’t know what to say then, except that I didn’t steal your shitty custard, Nick. I need to finish my ganache now and you’re standing in my way, so can you just fuck off back to your own bench, please?”

He doesn’t even leave room for Nick to reply, just turns abruptly and starts chopping up chocolate as if Nick’s not even there. He curls his hands into fists but doesn’t say anything, instead walking back to his own bench. It’s not worth it. He’s not going to rise to the bait.

On the way over, he locks eyes with Harry, who’s probably overseen the whole thing and sends him a questioning look that he can’t be bothered to return.

Unsurprisingly, his profiteroles get a scolding during judging because the custard is too runny. He doesn’t look at Louis once.

 

It doesn’t take much effort to avoid him for the rest of the afternoon, because Louis disappears shortly after they stop filming for the day, and the bus ride back to Bristol is blessedly quiet.

 

He’s hoping he won’t have to deal with him during dinner as well, but realises it might be a bit difficult as there are only six of them left and Sue and Mel always insist on having dinner together after the first day of filming. It’s therefore with a great sense of relief that he realises Louis’ not there as he plops down next to Harry at the table they’ve occupied in the dining room of the hotel.

Harry is being uncharacteristically quiet, which Nick first chalks up to exhaustion – they did just wrap up a 10-hour day of filming, after all. After half an hour, alarm bells start going off in Nick’s head. He pokes him right in the dimple - his way of communicating ”tell me what’s wrong right now or I’ll twist your nipple until the truth comes out” without even saying a word.

Harry looks up at him, eyes wide and a little uncertain. ”Did you say something to Louis?”

Nick doesn’t offer up a groan in response, but it’s close. ”What do you mean?”

Harry looks down at his plate before meeting Nick’s eyes again. ”After the whole custard thing, when you went over and talked to him – it looked a little, um, like – like you were fighting? And then he left on the first shuttle bus and I didn’t get to talk to him, and – so I went up to his room when I got back and he didn’t want to come down for dinner, said he wasn’t hungry? I mean, I knew he felt bad about last week, I almost had to convince him not to drop out, but –”

”Wait, what?” Nick asks, furrowing his brows.

”Oh, um – he felt so guilty because Zayn had to leave, he was so sure he was gonna go home, so we went out for pints after work on Monday and he wanted my opinion – he was thinking of contacting the producers and giving up his spot so Zayn could come back –”

”Seriously?”

”Well, I talked him out of it, said it was the judges’ decision and they wanted him to stay, and – like, Zayn’s absolutely fine, said he’d kill Louis if he even tried doing anything like that when I told him, but – y’know, it took me a while to convince him, said he knew people didn’t think he deserved to be here. He’d overheard someone saying they wanted him to leave? Have you heard anything about that?”

”N-no”, Nick says, hoping the lights are dimmed enough to hide his flaming cheeks.

”So anyway, I reckoned he might still feel bad about that, but I thought he was over it, and – well, then I thought he might be upset because you said something?”

”Um”, Nick starts.

”I think he was crying”, Harry interrupts, searching Nick’s face for answers. ”I know he’d never admit it in a million years, but his eyes were a bit puffy and there was a roll of toilet paper on his nightstand.”

”I can think of another bodily fluid he could’ve used that to wipe up.”

Nick”, Harry admonishes, clearly not in the mood for cheap jokes.

”Right, right, sorry. So you think he was sitting in his room, alone, crying?”

”Maybe”, Harry mutters, looking unbearably sad at the thought.

”Are we talking about the same Louis? Short, loud, incredibly annoying, stole my custard?”

”Nick!” he says, throwing his arms up. ”Do you honestly still think he did that on purpose?”

”Well, all the evidence points to that, he’s been doing stuff like this all bloody summer!”

”Oh, come on – this is completely different, he wouldn’t – he’s not a cartoon villain – he’s not mean.”

Nick doesn’t have an adequate response, so he just snorts.

”He’s not! Didn’t you see him during judging? He looked so miserable I thought he was going to off himself on national television.”

Since he had spent the entirety of the judging panel pointedly looking anywhere but at Louis, Nick must admit he didn’t notice that. ”Oh”, he says.

”Nick.”

”Yes?”

”What did you say to him?”

This is ridiculous. Harry is ten years younger than him, practically a baby, and still he feels like he’s being scolded by his own mother. Even worse, he’s starting to feel like he deserves it.

”I kind of maybe accused him of doing it on purpose?”

”And?”

”And then I might’ve told him to stop being an annoying prick and ruining everything for me?” Nick winces. It sounds so much worse when he has to repeat it.

”Oh, Nick”, Harry says, shaking his head a little. ”You have to apologise to him.”

”Oh, please-”

”No, I think you really hurt his feelings and you should apologise. Please, Nick, do it for me?” Harry pleads, batting his stupid eyelashes.

He makes sure to heave out a long-suffering sigh to let Harry know exactly how he feels about being emotionally manipulated like this.

”Fine, I’ll do it tomorrow”, he grumbles. The way Harry’s face lights up like a Christmas tree is almost worth how painful Nick knows it’s going to be.

 

*

His plan to get it over and done with at breakfast immediately fails when Louis never shows up. He even has a second cup of coffee and spends five minutes pushing his cereal around the bowl, before giving up and retreating to his room to brush his teeth.

When he climbs into the waiting minivan half an hour later, Louis is already there, dozing in the backseat. He’s almost swallowed whole by the enormous sweatshirt he’s wearing, and if the hood pulled down over his eyes wasn’t enough, he’s also got earbuds in – he might as well be wearing a sign saying ’fuck off’ around his neck. Nick suspects waking him up now would be a little like poking a sleeping bear with a stick, and he doesn’t want to lose any limbs today. The apology will have to wait.

Like this, asleep against the window with his mouth slightly open, Louis almost looks like a different person - soft and warm and peaceful with his guard down. Nick spends most of the drive to set pondering how he would probably like him a lot more if he just slept all the time.

 

*

No matter how hard he tries, and he does try, even if the looks Harry keeps sending him tells him he’s not convinced of Nick’s efforts, Louis is making this whole apology thing unnecessarily difficult. He’s resolutely refusing to meet Nick’s eyes, but still aware of him enough to turn his back on him every time Nick looks over, as if he’s magically developed some sort of radar overnight. For some reason, Nick is adamant that his apology is between him and Louis only, and he feels like it should be done in private, with just the two of them.

The problem with this is that Louis doesn’t spend one single moment alone, constantly clinging to Harry or Caroline, even taking his tea break while he waits for his strudel to bake at the table in the corner with Sue and Mel. The only time he’s alone is when he’s baking, and the last thing Nick wants to do is stride up to him with cameras on all sides, so he waits for his opportunity, but Louis never gives him one.

He started out the day almost itching to apologise – not just because it’s what Harry wants, but because he knows he was a little harsh yesterday, and maybe because Louis kind of deserves an apology. As the day draws to a close, he’s becoming increasingly frustrated by the whole thing.

He decides to just haul him off to the side once they start packing, except then Barbara gets eliminated, and it’s not like he can tell her he has more important things to attend to when she spends five minutes telling him how much she’s going to miss him and jokingly asks him to sign her apron for when he one day becomes a famous radio DJ. After a couple more tearful hugs, he’s finally able to scan the room for Louis, except he’s gone.

 

”Did you apologise to Louis?” Harry asks while they’re hauling their bags out of the van at the train station. He told Nick he once forgot to put on underwear two days in a row, but he’ll fucking never let this go, apparently.

”No, I didn’t”, Nick groans, hasting to add when he sees Harry’s disapproving face, ”but not for lack of bloody trying – I tried, honestly, but he wouldn’t let me near him all day, and if he’s going to be such a stubborn twat about it, he can fuck off.”

”Niiiiiick”, Harry whines.

”Look, I’ll do it on the train, then. I’ll get it done before we’re back in London, promise.”

”That’s not gonna work”, Harry sighs, ”he’s not going back to London with us, he’s going up north to visit his mum – I’m pretty sure his train’s already left.”

 

Harry hangs over his shoulder in the cramped train compartment until he’s satisfied with the wording of Nick’s apology text. He never gets a reply.

 

 

Week seven: International cakes

The following Wednesday, Nick calls his own mum. It’s been a while, and he usually tries to squeeze in a call once a week, but the past month has been so, so busy. She only spends the first three minutes tutting at him, which could’ve been a lot worse, all things considered.

Listening to her worry about how the hydrangeas in the garden are doing now that it’s been raining for a week straight, Nick wishes he’d done this sooner, because it’s nice, not thinking about baking for a little while.

”So how’s it going with you and that boy, then?” she asks, ten minutes in.

”I’m – I’m not seeing anyone right now, you know that”, he says, mentally starting a checklist for signs of dementia.

She sighs in that way only mothers know how to. ”I know that, love, I meant that boy on the show you talked so much about last time.”

”Oh, Harry’s fine, yeah.” It is a little weird that his mum’s concerned enough about Harry to ask about him when she hasn’t talked to her own son in almost a month, but they’ve had weirder conversations in the past.

”No, I don’t think it was Harry – the other one, the one who kept teasing you. Is he still there?”

”Oh god, can we not-”

”That’s right, I suppose you can’t talk about that, what with the contract and all.”

Mum –”

”- keeping your old mum on her toes –”

”- what do you mean talked about him?”

”Oh, you know”, she clucks.

”No, I don’t – ’s why I’m asking.”

”I remember how you were when you were little –”

”Mum, for god’s sake –”

”- I’ll never forget when you wouldn’t stop talking about how the new kid at school wouldn’t stop bothering you, always following you around –”

”Stop –”

”-and then you and David became best friends and I almost couldn’t get him out of the house! Remember that?”

”Only because you brought it up every time he came over.”

”It’s a fun story – you were so cute –”

”Oh god, mum, it’s not the same!”

”Isn’t it?”

”I’m not ten anymore, for one.”

”I know that, love, I’m just saying - I know you.”

He’s going to wait even longer than a month before his next call – maybe he won’t even talk to her until Christmas.

”Right – and what does that mean?”

”Well, usually, when you talk about something a lot, it means there’s a reason for it, isn’t it?”

”It’s called letting off some steam, mum!”

”If you say so, dear.”

”I’m going to hang up now.”

 

*

Because she’s his mum, and because that’s what mothers do, her words somehow find their way under Nick’s skin, lingering there like a scratch he can’t itch, festering in that part of his brain that insists on sneaking up on him whenever there’s a quiet moment.

He has more than enough to do in the days leading up to his next trip to Bristol – recipes to rehearse and neglected friends to see, but whenever there’s a lull, in the minutes before he falls asleep or when he’s waiting for the kettle to boil, they keep coming back. It’s maddening.

”I know what you’re thinking”, Harry mumbles into his ear Friday evening.

”Do not”, Nick scoffs, about ninety nine percent sure Harry can’t actually read his mind. Still, he forces himself to look away from where Louis is curled up in a giant armchair for good measure. He’s wearing an oversized knitted jumper even though it’s June and they’re in a room with a lit fireplace, which is really stupid. Nick’s been annoyed and contemplating making a comment about it since he sat down with his drink twenty minutes ago. The sleeves are so long only the tips of his fingers are poking out. It is, without a doubt, the dumbest thing Nick’s ever seen.

”Yes I doooooo”, Harry singsongs, butting his head against Nick’s shoulder.

Nick sighs and pats his head. ”Okay then weirdo, tell me.”

”You’re thinking of how much you’re gonna miss this”.

”What, you demonstrating your disregard for personal space?” It earns him a poke in the side.

”No, this”, Harry says, sloppily waving an arm around, ”the whole…this.”

”You’re being very articulate tonight, Harold.”

”Stop it, ’m trying to be serious for a second.” He sits up with a little pout, shoving his messy nest of curls out of his eyes. ”There’s only five of us left, you know.”

”Yes, I know how to count.”

Harry huffs and swats his shoulder, like he usually does when he thinks Nick’s not giving the appropriate response. ”That’s not what I meant.”

”So tell me what you bloody mean, then”, Nick says, tugging on a lock of Harry’s hair to soften the impact of his words.

”There is a good chance that one of us is going home on Sunday – I mean you or me or Lou – and then it’s all gonna be over, you know?”

”Oh shut up, you’re not going home.” He’s willing to put money on Harry running away with the whole thing, honestly. ”And even if you do, or if I do, which is much more likely, don’t for one second think you’ll be rid of me that easily. We’ve still got stuff to do. I still haven’t seen you properly sloshed, for one. And I haven’t met that mysterious boyfriend of yours, either.”

Harry giggles and goes a bit red. ”Please, Niall’s the least mysterious person in the world.”

”That doesn’t change the fact that I’ve known you for almost two months and you’re still hiding him from me.”

”I’m not hiding him!” Harry squawks. ”It’s just bad timing. You’ll meet him next time. Promise.” He places a hand over his heart for good measure.

”That’s right. Tell you what, in two weeks’ time, when all of this is over, we’ll meet up and you’ll bring Niall, we’ll all go out, get properly shitfaced – and you know the best part? We won’t talk about baking for a single bloody second. First one to mention soggy bottoms has to buy the next round.”

Harry’s mouth quirks up a little. ”When you say all of us, you mean – ”

”You know – the crew. The gang. The squad.”

”Please stop”, Harry groans. ”You’re too old to talk like th– ow! What was that for?” Nick doesn’t dignify him with an answer.

”So Lou can come too?” Harry continues. Nick doesn’t like whatever his tone is implying.

”Yeah, yeah, he can come too”, he says, looking over at Louis. Whoever he was talking to earlier is gone now, and he’s turned in his chair, glancing over at where Nick and Harry are curled up on the couch. Their eyes meet, and it almost feels like he’s been caught doing something he’s not supposed to. He turns back to Harry. It’s safer. ”Wouldn’t be the same if he wasn’t there to criticize my hair.”

”And also because you’re gonna miss him”, Harry coos, and that’s it, he’s definitely had too much wine.

Nick almost snorts his drink through his nose. ”You’ve spent too much time in the sugar fumes again.”

The way his eyes linger on Louis’ stupid sweater paws a beat too long has nothing to do with anything.

 

*

There are so few of them left now that they’re all clinging together through breakfast and shooting prep on Saturday, like children on the last day of camp. Not that Nick’s ever been to one, but he’s seen enough American movies to have at least an idea of what it’s like.

Harry was right, of course. He’s gonna miss this when it’s over, whether the inevitable end comes tomorrow or next week or, if by some miracle he makes it to the finale, two weeks from now.

Admittedly, he did apply as a bit of a lark, all those months ago, but it’s been satisfying in a way he hadn’t quite anticipated. Saying his career’s at a standstill sounds too dramatic, but he’s maybe not quite where he’d like to be at thirty, so this – the validation and reassurance that he’s doing something right that comes with surviving the competition from week to week – has been more welcome and perhaps necessary than he first thought. He’ll miss that, and he’ll miss the mates he’s made along the way, even if there is a chance he’ll never make another sponge for the rest of his life.

So he wholly understands why everyone’s acting like clingy puppies, because he too wants to revel in what might be the last weekend. An additional benefit is that he has no reason to worry about finding himself alone with Louis. The thought of it makes his stomach churn unpleasantly, and not for any of the more obvious reasons.

Not because Louis sometimes looks at him like he’s a particularly stubborn piece of gum stuck under his shoe, or because of the way he visibly strains his face to avoid laughing at any of Nick’s jokes, even when Nick knows they’re actually hilarious, because actual Sue Perkins is laughing at them.

It’s not even the fact that he’s made it abundantly clear through body language alone that the only reason he can be bothered with Nick is that it makes Harry happy – at least that he can understand; at least that they have in common. Nick’s kind of over that, has made peace with the fact that him and Louis will never be friends, and was, up until last weekend, content with the fragile peace agreement they seemed to have worked out: tolerate each other and for God’s sake don’t make Harry sad.

But the thing is. The thing is that spending time with someone who can’t contain their disdain for you is much easier when you have the moral upper hand than when you’re suddenly the one in the wrong. Tolerating the tension between them was simpler when the burden of it lay on Louis’ shoulders – he was the one who started it, after all.

Even though neither of them ended up going home in the wake of the custard debacle, and Harry hasn’t pressed the issue any further, he still feels the weight of it on his shoulders. Louis’s dislike of him always felt irrational and unjustifiable, but now that Nick went ahead and acted like a bit of a twat, maybe he has a reason after all. Somehow, it makes everything worse.

Which is maybe why Nick does something during the technical challenge that would have been completely, utterly unheard of only weeks earlier.

They’ve been given two hours to make, assemble and decorate what Mary had called a Norwegian Ring Cake, because it’s international cake week and also because the production team is possibly out to kill them. The recipe, which Nick has read over three times already in a bid to calm his nerves, is both painstakingly meticulous and infuriatingly vague – the egg whites must be room temperature, but the individual rings are to be ’assembled in a cone-like shape and decorated accordingly”, which isn’t really helpful at all.

Nick’s not exactly an expert on Scandinavian cuisine, and has certainly never even heard of this bloody cake before, but he’s very certain the recipe explicitly emphasised that the icing sugar must be added to the dough last, or it will become impossible to work with.

And right in front of him, it’s become obvious that Louis has not taken the time to read the damn thing more than once, because he’s about to add it now and ruin his entire batch. There’s no way he’ll have time to start over, either, and he’s already behind everyone, Nick can tell.

He could ignore it, of course. Let him learn a lesson and perhaps guarantee himself a spot in the final four in the process. It’s not his responsibility, not his duty to keep others from making mistakes. Why are you even debating this, he thinks. You’ve already decided what to do.

”Oi”, he says to Louis’ back, leaning over the bench to get closer. If Louis heard it, he either didn’t think it was meant for him or chose to ignore it. ”Tomlinson!” Still nothing. Nick needs to try a little harder, then.

”Oi, shortarse”, he hisses, biting back a laugh when Louis whips around quicker than lightning. Half his fringe is dusted white, from sifting the flour most likely. ”What?” he asks, not entirely unpleasant, but still a far cry from enthusiastic.

”C’mere a minute.”

Louis glares at him like he just proposed they go hot air-ballooning around the world.

”Whatever it is, I don’t have time –”

Yes, you do. Come here.” Nick can literally see his jaw clenching, but he does saunter towards him, albeit so hesitantly it’s as if he’s afraid Nick will suddenly brandish a knife and stab him to death in front of everyone.

”What did you want, then?”, he asks, arms crossed over his chest.

”Listen”, Nick starts, not seeing any reason to drag this out. ”The recipe. Did you read it over?”

It was not the question Louis was expecting, judging by his single raised eyebrow and pursed lips. ”What, need any help?”

This is what Nick gets for trying to be nice.

”No, but I think you might”, he says, barrelling on before Louis can protest, ”you’re adding the icing sugar too early.”

”What –”

”You have to do it at the very end. It says so – it’s all in the recipe.”

”I don’t believe you”, Louis says after a few seconds of pointed silence, making Nick nearly sprain all the muscles in his eyes at once from rolling them so hard.

”Good thing you don’t have to, then, since it says so right here.” He shoves the piece of paper towards Louis’ side of the bench with a little more force than necessary.

Louis’ eyes dart between Nick’s face and the recipe a handful of times before he reluctantly leans forward and reads the paragraph with three little handwritten exclamation marks next to it. A small grunt escapes him, presumably from reading the bit where it becomes painfully obvious that he is wrong and Nick is right, and when he looks up, he’s frowning.

”Why are you doing this?”

It’s a valid question, and yet it stings a little. Have they really acted so shitty towards each other that even the idea of Nick showing Louis this tiny, minuscule act of goodwill is utterly unbelievable? It takes him a little while to answer, especially with Louis staring at him like he still suspects this is all still some big practical joke.

”Dunno, thought it was fair. Because of – you know.” He shrugs, not quite knowing how to end the sentence. ”Consider it an apology. For the whole – thing. Last time.”

”Oh.” Realization dawns on Louis’ face then, making it go soft around the edges. ”Right.”

He’s still looking at Nick, but the edge of his stare is gone, like he’s no longer looking for something to confirm his suspicions. Now it’s like he’s looking just to – look, really. Nick feels a bit squirmish, suddenly. He doesn’t quite know what to do with this newfound – sincerity?

”I’ll wait with the sugar, then”, Louis says, breaking the moment and snapping Nick out of his thoughts. ”Thanks, I guess.” Nick can’t really think of anything to say, so he just nods, and then Louis turns and scuttles back to his station.

Not five minutes later, while trying to decide if his dough is done or needs a little more kneading, something comes flying across the room and lands in his hair. He fishes out what turns out to be an almond before looking up and finding Louis watching him expectantly. With Nick’s attention secured, he makes a big show of measuring up the icing sugar and pouring it into the bowl. Happy now?, he mouths, waggling his eyebrows.

Nick gives him a thumbs up, but saves the little smile for when Louis can no longer see him.

 

*

He’s hanging around after the technical, waiting for Harry to finish packing up his stuff when Louis suddenly stands before him, only inches away. He looks up at Nick through his fringe, eyes scanning his face. Nick’s about to ask why his breathing is so labored when he’s barely walked twenty feet when he feels Louis’s fingers digging into his bicep, and then he’s being unceremoniously dragged away.

He’s surprisingly strong despite his small frame, but not so strong that Nick couldn’t easily shove him off if he wanted to. Still, his curiosity is currently winning over his indignation over being pushed around, so he goes with it.

Louis drags him out from under the marquee and over the lawn, towards the trailer they use for toilet breaks. He glances over his shoulder every couple of strides as if to check if Nick’s still there, and then looks like a mixture of annoyed and surprised when he finds that he still is. With the hand not clutching Nick he gets the door open and drags them both inside before locking it and letting go of Nick’s arm.

He’s fairly sure it’s gonna bruise later – Louis’ fingers are strong even if his hands are the same size as Nick’s ten-year old cousins’.

Neither of them say anything for a few seconds. Louis peers up at Nick again, huffing a breath to get his hair out of his eyes, and they’re standing so close that Nick feels the air on his own skin.

”You’ve got egg on your face”, says Louis.

Nick isn’t quite following. ”What?”

Louis rolls his eyes. ”You’ve got egg on your cheek. Looks stupid.”

Nick could be inside with a cup of tea and a scone right now. Nick had thought – perhaps naively - that they were past all this now. That they could go back to behaving like adults.

”Right, I’m not gonna do th –”, is all he gets out before Louis practically launches himself at Nick, mouth first.

It’s frantic and messy and Nick’s brain is too busy processing what the hell just happened to send the right signals to his face and make his lips respond. As it is, he stands there, frozen, while Louis’ lips work against his own, until Louis notices he’s the only one doing any work and pulls back with a horrified expression on his face.

Somehow, that’s what gets through to Nick’s fuzzy mind, and then he finds himself chasing Louis’ mouth, bending down a bit so he doesn’t have to stand on his tiptoes to reach. It’s not sweet, and it’s not gentle, and Nick’s never really found himself thinking in metaphorical terms while snogging someone’s face off, but the phrase battle for dominance briefly crosses his mind while he opens his mouth for Louis’ tongue.

Louis is beautifully responsive, the little noises escaping his throat travelling straight to Nick’s cock, which is already starting to strain against his jeans. He’s either becoming hard embarrassingly fast or he’s been half-hard since Louis manhandled him across the lawn – either way, it’s easily a contender for the top three most confusing boners of Nick’s life.

They both pull away for air at the same time, Louis panting against his mouth. Without much thought, Nick’s hand finds the back of Louis’ head, starts carding his fingers through the hair above his nape. He gives a slight tug, and has to bite his bottom lip to contain his groan when it makes Louis close his eyes and let out a breathy moan.

”Fuck”, Nick whispers, almost embarrassed because he hadn’t intended to say it out loud, but too turned on to care. Louis opens his eyes, and Nick’s relieved to find his own lust mirrored back at him, before he drags Louis in by the back of his neck, attaching their mouths back together. It’s a little less hurried now, and Louis tastes like cinnamon and sugar, his tongue dragging across Nick’s bottom lip.

His left hand trails down Louis’ back until it finds the swell of his arse, one firm cheek fitting inside Nick’s palm. It feels just as amazing as Nick’s imagined it all those weekends spent watching Louis wiggle around in front of him, soft and full and firm. He gives a squeeze, which has Louis groaning into his mouth and grinding against Nick’s thigh. He’s hard as well, the outline of his cock rubbing against the fabric of Nick’s jeans, and he’s so fucking turned on he can barely think.

There’s a sink across the room, and Nick moves his hands to grip Louis’ hips, before walking them both in the direction of it, his lips never leaving Louis’. He drags his hands down the back of Louis’ thighs before hoisting him up on the edge of the sink, the sudden movement eliciting a tiny squeak from him. Nick pulls away for a moment, wondering if he’s maybe gone too far.

”Don’t fucking stop”, Louis says, before dragging Nick in by the collar of his shirt and licking a stripe up his neck. He’s tingling all over. He’s still confused as hell, but this feels too fucking good to stop. He doesn’t ever want to stop.

”Christ – fuck”, Nick mutters, gripping the sink so hard his knuckles go white. Louis’ fingers are working his jeans open now, making quick work of the button and zipper before slipping a hand down the waistband of Nick’s boxers and taking him in hand.

He can’t help the little cry that escapes him as his cock finally finds some friction, Louis giving him three slow pumps before he pulls Nick all the way out of his underwear. He catches a glance down between them and his breath almost catches in his throat just at the sight of Louis’ small hand curled around the base of his cock, achingly hard and already leaking at the tip.

There’s a small smile playing on Louis’ lips, but it doesn’t look condescending, or mocking, or suspicious, like the ones he’s used to receiving – this smile is slightly mischievous, and soft, and most importantly – private. This is a side of Louis he’s never seen before, on or off camera. He thinks he’s on his way to some sort of minor emotional epiphany when Louis starts thumbing over the head of his cock, and then he doesn’t have the mental capacity to focus on anything other than how the sensation of it sends jolts of pleasure up and down his spine.

Louis’ clever little fingers are working their way up and down his length, varying the pace and the pressure to keep Nick teetering on the edge.

”Gnhg”, he gets out, desperately pushing into Louis’ hand to try and relieve some of the pressure. He wants to, needs to, come so bad, but the only thing it results in is Louis slowing his pace and taking the time to gather the precome leaking at the slit, lazily circling the head with his thumb.

Nick’s so sure he’s being maddeningly slow on purpose, that he’s currently locked in a toilet with the one person on the planet able to give a mocking handjob, that he expects to see Louis smirking when he finally manages to open his eyes.

Instead, he’s staring down at his own hand fisted around Nick’s cock with hooded eyes and his mouth half open, looking as turned on as Nick feels. Looking up to find Nick’s eyes on him, he flicks his wrist on the next two upstrokes, and then Nick’s coming with a choked grunt, knees buckling as he shoots all over Louis’ hand and trousers.

In his post-orgasm haze, he doesn’t have the brain activity to even protest as Louis dries them off with a paper towel and tucks Nick back in, before sidling down from the edge and squeezing out from between Nick and the sink.

”Do, uh – wait”, he gets out, whipping around to see Louis already with a hand on the doorknob. He’s not even sure what one’s supposed to say in this type of situation.

Dear Prudence, my nemesis just gave me a mindblowing handjob and I’ve never been so hard in my entire life, but he’s kind of a knob and also he hates me - what do I do?

Louis pauses and turns, regarding Nick with a slightly unreadable look – apprehension maybe, or hesitance. He already feels far away, like the whole thing never happened and Nick’s been alone in the trailer all along.

”I’m a little confused”, is what Nick settles for.

Louis waits a beat before answering. ”Confused about what?”

”What was - that?”

”Don’t tell me you’ve never had a handjob before, Nicholas”, he says, his voice coloured by amusement.

Nick has to fight very, very hard against the urge to strangle him. ”Oh, fuck off, then”, he sighs, waving his arms a bit in dismissal. Louis opens his mouth to say something, before deciding against it and turning to leave again. He’s halfway out the door when he stops.

”You should probably wait a couple minutes before you leave”, he says, more to the floor than to Nick.

”Yeah, yeah, I’m not an idiot”, Nick snaps.

Louis sighs, as if he has a very strong objection to that. The next thing he says comes out so low and muffled that Nick barely catches it.

”Is your room number still 208?”

Nick’s too surprised to actually answer; all he can do is nod, and then Louis is gone, closing the door behind him. He doesn’t question why Louis knew his room number in the first place until a couple of minutes later.

 

*

He’s in bed, barely paying attention to what’s on the telly, when there’s a knock on the door. If he jumps out of bed with a little too much enthusiasm, at least no one’s there to see. He’s got no fucking idea what to say to Louis – if it even is him. If he’s here for a repeat of this afternoon, maybe they won’t end up doing much talking.

The door opens – and it’s Harry. Of course it is. He barely looks up from his phone as he shuffles into the room and flops down on the bed, wearing trackies and pink socks on his massive clown feet. Nick is not disappointed. Of course he isn’t. Harry’s great . He loves it when Harry comes to hang out in his hotel room and they talk shit and unwind and try to reassure each other that neither of them will be going home the next day. Harry’s wonderful and fun and sweet.

It’s just - Harry’s probably not gonna touch Nick’s cock tonight. Maybe if he asks very nicely, but even then, Nick has spent the better part of the evening imagining they way Louis’ hand had looked curled around him, and now he can’t stop. It’s a very specific itch that only Louis can scratch, at least tonight. Nick looks at the way Harry’s giant palm dwarfs the iPhone he still hasn’t managed to tear his eyes away from and sighs deeply.

”You’re being weird”, Harry says, finally looking up. ”Hovering – you’re being all hover-y.”

Nick’s been standing halfway between the door and the bed since Harry entered. He doesn’t want to chuck Harry out, but he also has no idea what he’ll do if Louis suddenly turns up at his door. Even if he has been insisting that the three of them have to ’stick together’, Harry’s not daft – he knows Nick and Louis aren’t exactly close enough to go on impromptu late night visits to each other’s hotel rooms.

”Lou’s been acting strange all day too”, Harry says. His attention is back on the phone, so he doesn’t notice the way Nick stiffens a bit. ”Was proper weird at lunch and barely said a word after the technical, and when I asked him if he wanted to hang out later he got all mumbly and said he had some stuff to do.”

Harry frowns and gives Nick a worried look. ”Do you think he’s nervous about tomorrow? He didn’t do so well today - maybe he’s packing because he thinks he’s going home?”

”You realise he’s going back to London tomorrow regardless of whether he stays in the competition, right? We all are.”

”Right, yeah”, Harry says, rolling his eyes at himself. ”But still – he’s probably worried. Maybe we should go talk to him?”

When they first met, Harry’s genuine concern for and interest in everyone around him was a quality Nick found enormously endearing. Right now though, he wishes Harry could for once stop being such a decent human being all the fucking time.

”I’m sure he’s fine”, he says, nudging Harry’s shoulder to get him to scoot over and make room on the bed, ”I’ve never met anyone who gets so much enjoyment out of being whiny and demanding. You know if he wanted to come cry on your shoulder he’d have barged through your door hours ago.”

Harry worries his bottom lip between his teeth, but doesn’t make a move to get off the bed. Nick hopes it means he isn’t still planning on dragging them both over to Louis’ room for a heart-to-heart. If he has to be trapped in a small space with Louis tonight he wants to use his mouth for other purposes than talking.

They switch between channels for a while before settling on a Friends marathon on Dave, Nick constantly keeping an eye on the door. Harry convinces him to split a small bottle of red from the mini bar, claiming one glass each will only help them sleep better.

Halfway through his glass he’s snoring softly into one of the numerous decorative pillows littering Nick’s bed, his legs a dead weight where they’re sprawled on top of Nick’s. He can practically feel his heartbeat slow down and his eyelids droop just looking at Harry’s sleeping form, all soft and curled up.

At first, he thinks he must’ve fallen asleep and dreamed it, or that it came from the TV - they’re always knocking on each other’s bloody doors on Friends, seems like. Except there it is again, soft and hesitant, like someone’s wrapped their fist in cotton wool before knocking, and from the way Chandler and Joey are currently sprawled across the couch in Central Perk, it obviously came from his own door.

By the time he carefully extricates himself from underneath Harry’s limbs and gets the door open without making too much noise, Louis has already started down the corridor. He turns at the sound, takes a few tentative steps towards Nick, then stops.

”Um”, says Nick.

”Hi”, says Louis.

”Harry”, says Nick.

”My name’s Louis”, says, well, Louis.

”No, I mean – Harry. He’s in my room.” Louis’ eyes go wide. ”Sleeping. He’s asleep. On my bed. With his clothes on.”

”Oh.”

”Was just watching some telly and he fell asleep.”

”Right.”

”Just so you know.”

”I didn’t ask.”

Louis looks him up and down – probably makes a note of his stained sweatpants and flat hair to use as material against him later. Then again, his socks are pastel pink with little fluffy ducklings on them, so he’s really not one to talk.

”So -”, Nick starts, lets the word dangle for a bit. They’re standing too far apart for this conversation to be something resembling casual and unaffected – the way he’d maybe imagined it in the shower earlier. He has half a mind to tug on Louis’ sleeve and pull him closer, but he doesn’t think he’s allowed.

Stupid, stupid Harry. ”We can’t – you know. In there.”

”Can’t what?”

”Oh my God.” Nick pinches the bridge of his nose. ”You came to my door. At – half eleven”, he says, checking his watch. ”In your pyjamas.” Upon closer inspection he realizes it’s actually pyjama bottoms and the same stupid jumper he wore yesterday. It still looks way too big on him.

”What makes you think I didn’t come to borrow some toothpaste?”

”You didn’t come to borrow toothpaste.”

”No”, Louis says after a beat. ”Probably not.”

The carpet’s scratchy under his feet because he’s not wearing socks and the light is too bright out here. He’s a little overwhelmed by how much he’s itching for Louis to touch him again, but not out here in this bloody hallway.

”So - did you – I mean I guess it’s - late. Obviously. But that’s why you came. Right?”

Nick literally gets paid for being very good at talking to anyone about anything, and yet he’s not able to string a coherent sentence together in front of the boy who snogged him senseless in the loo. It’s like sixth form all over again, except they’re in a posh hotel instead of the alley behind the cinema and Louis is about ten times more attractive than James McCullough, and he’d been the fittest bloke sixteen year-old Nick had ever kissed.

”What about Harry?”, Louis asks. A small frown appears between his eyebrows. It’s kind of cute.

Oh, God. You think his stinkface is cute. What the fuck is happening to you?

”Harry’s asleep. Probably wouldn’t wake up even if I blew you on top of him, but - why take the risk?”

Louis goes a delicious shade of red. ”Is that – that’s. Interesting.” He clears his throat. ”You’d do that?”

”Not on top of Harry–”

”But you want to?”, Louis interrupts. His eyes have gone a bit wide.

Nick nods and takes a step closer. He could probably pull him in by the neck now, if he wanted. But not in this fucking corridor.

”Can’t do it if we stay here making pointless conversation all night, though.”

Louis looks him up and down again, but it’s more pointed this time. ”Yeah”, he says, swallowing visibly. ”Yeah, okay.”

He turns and starts down the hallway, leaving Nick no other option than to follow him wordlessly until they get to the door at the very end with 201 painted on in cursive gold numbers.

”You could’ve just said what you wanted a bit earlier”, he says, struggling to get the door open with his keycard. ”Would’ve saved you a lot of awkward mumbling.”

”I’m sorry”, Nick says, taking the card from him, ”I was too busy trying to decipher the worst booty call in all of human history.” He swipes once, unlocking the door on the first try, before swinging it open and ushering them both inside in one fluid motion. ”Bloody fucking toothpaste.”

”Shut up”, Louis says, reaching up to meet his lips. Nick really shouldn’t let him get away with being so rude, but his distraction technique is admittedly working. Next time. He’ll get him next time.

His mouth feels just as good as he’d remembered, warm and soft and insistent. He’s got Nick pressed against the door, already pressing a thigh between his legs. Nick has to bend his knees a little to accomodate him, but then they slot together perfectly, and it’s a little unfair how good it feels, the warmth of Louis’ skin bleeding through two thin layers of fabric.

Louis takes a break from Nick’s mouth to start sucking a bruise into his neck while his fingers sneak their way under the hem of Nick’s t-shirt. He’s almost frantic, both in speed and intensity, gripping onto Nick’s sides so hard he’s going to end up with more than one visible mark tomorrow. Nick wonders, briefly, just how long he’d been sitting here, working himself up, before he finally came knocking.

Without warning, he grabs Louis’ shoulders and spins them both around, switching their positions so he’s the one pinning Louis to the wall. He feels almost heady, having Louis caged in like this, forced to crane his neck to meet Nick’s eyes, his breathing shaky and laboured. For the first time today, he feels in control.

Louis whimpers when Nick stretches the elastic fabric of his jumper, biting down on the soft skin of the shoulder now exposed.

”Don’t”, Nick orders when he reaches down to pull it over his head. ”Leave it on.” Louis moans, low in his throat, but obliges, his fingers instead finding purchase in the collar of Nick’s t-shirt.

Only when he’s satisfied he left a mark deep enough to bruise does he continue down, licking a stripe along the sharp jut of Louis’ collarbones before dropping to his knees, dragging his hands along his sides as he goes. Every muscle, every curve hidden underneath the shapeless material becomes tangible beneath Nick’s palms.

With his thumbs, he lifts up the hem of the jumper to reveal a sliver of Louis’ belly. Nick’s mouth goes a bit dry at the sight of it, tan and smooth and just fleshy enough to bite, a trail of dark golden hair leading from his bellybutton to the waistband of his underwear. Leaning in, he only lets the tip of his nose brush against the sensitive skin there, but it’s enough to make Louis shiver and breathe out a soft fuck, the trembles transferring to Nick’s hands where they’re resting on his hips.

”You like that, huh?”, he says, referring to the way Louis’ cock is straining against the material of his pyjamas only inches away from Nick’s face.

”Less…talking, more cock sucking”, Louis mutters, more coherent than he looks.

Nick tuts, slipping two fingers underneath the elastic of Louis’ boxer briefs and pulling a little before letting go, the quiet snap it makes drowned out by Louis’ sharp intake of breath. ”Rude”, he says.

Nick – ”, Louis whines, beginning to buck his hips in search of friction, nearly pushing his crotch in Nick’s face, ” – please.”

”Yeah”, he agrees, then tugs Louis’ pyjamas and underwear down his hips in one swift move, letting them pool on the floor around his ankles.

Louis’ cock springs free, curving towards his stomach. He’s maybe a bit smaller than Nick had anticipated, but still thick and hard and already leaking. The first swipe of Nick’s tongue is fleeting, teasing, barely even there, but Louis still keens at the contact, lets out a long breath on a shaky exhale, his fingers tightening in Nick’s hair.

He pushes Louis gently until his back is flush against the door, fingers digging into his thighs where he’s holding him still. ”Think you can stay like that?” he asks, his voice gravelly, and when he looks up, Louis can only nod, bottom lip between his teeth, his face flushed. It’s so hot he has to take a moment to palm his own cock where it’s fattening up against his thigh, so he doesn’t come untouched in his pants like a desperate teenager.

Slowly, then, he swirls his tongue around the head a few times, licking off the precome gathered at the slit, alternating between languid swipes and kitten licks, before licking a stripe down the entire length of it. Louis’ thighs are twitching, the muscles shifting and straining under Nick’s grip in his effort to keep still as Nick parts his lips and takes the head into his mouth, sinking down until his nose hits the coarse hair curling at the base.

His mouth is so full, the weight of Louis’ cock on his tongue heavy and throbbing. It’s been a while since he’s taken someone all the way down like this, but Louis is not too big and so, so wonderfully responsive to his every little move. His ragged breath echoes in the silent room as Nick starts bobbing up and down, unable to stop making these obscene little slurping noises as he takes Louis’ cock down again and again.

He’s starting to leak in his underwear now, can feel the wet stain spreading where the tip of his cock is trapped against his thigh, helpless to the sound of Louis’ high-pitched gasps and his blunt fingernails digging half-crescent moons into his scalp.

”I’m gon—nghh”, Louis whines as he starts to come, cock spurting against the back of Nick’s throat. He pulls off with a slick pop, Louis’ come shooting all over his face and hair.

Finally, his legs give out, and he sinks to his knees, Nick the only thing keeping him from toppling over.

This close, Nick sees the sweat beading at his hairline and glinting on his skin. It must’ve been unbearably hot for him under the jumper, and yet he did not take it off, kept it on the whole time because Nick told him to. The thought of it makes his cock, still hard from not coming, twitch, the idea that maybe Louis did that for him.

”You didn’t –”, he says, his forehead resting on Nick’s shoulder. The position they’re in, half-slumped against each other on the floor, is far from comfortable, but Louis seems unable to move, dazed and boneless from his orgasm, and Nick doesn’t have the heart to push him off quite yet.

”It’s fine”, Nick says, wedging a hand between them to adjust himself in his pants. ”I’ll deal with it in the shower.”

All he can hear for a few seconds is their breathing, and then Louis lifts his head and looks at Nick with exasperation. ”Don’t be an idiot”, he sighs, reaching for the drawstrings of his sweatpants.

”Louis, I said it’s fine”, Nick mumbles, trying to bat his hands away.

”Fuck’s sake, let me help you out.”

”Louis – ”

”Just accept the bloody handjob”, he snaps, shoving a hand down Nick’s pants. The objection dies on his lips as soon as Louis wraps his fingers around him and starts stroking. He’s still so hard it only takes half a minute before he comes, arching his back off the floor and tensing his legs where they’re halfway wrapped around Louis.

”Thanks”, he says as Louis tucks him back into his underwear and wipes his hand on the thigh of his sweats. ”Not the worst idea you’ve had.”

”No shit”, he replies, shoving Nick’s leg off him and slowly stumbling to his feet.

Nick’s back gives a little twinge of protest as he gets up off the floor. He should probably stick to bed-only orgasms now that he’s in his thirties.

”Right”, he says, looking around the room. Now that his eyes have adjusted to the darkness, he can see all the stuff lying around, practically littering every surface. They’ve only been here a day, he thinks. He doesn’t even have half this much stuff with him in the first place.

Louis disappears into the bathroom and returns with a damp washcloth.

”You should probably – you know”, he says, waving it in Nick’s face. He’s glad at least one of them still retains the capacity for basic brain function, or he would’ve left the room with come stains on his cheek.

”Cheers”, he mutters, wiping his face and discarding the cloth on the top of the dresser when Louis makes no move to take it back. He’ll definitely leave an extra generous tip for the cleaning staff tomorrow.

Then Louis yawns and stretches, a little too theatrically, and that would probably be his sign, then.

”Should get back, probably”, he says, not looking at Louis. ”Wouldn’t want Harry waking up and wondering where I am.”

Louis shuffles towards the door. ”God forbid”, he mutters, opening the door and sticking his head out. ”All clear.”

Nick adjusts himself once again, wincing at the sticky mess he’ll have to deal with back in his own room. ”So…”, he says, stopping in front of Louis. He’s not quite clear on the protocol here. ”Good night, I guess?”

Louis sighs, shoving the door a little more open. Nick almost expects a literal kick in the arse next. ”Night.”

The door softly clicks shut before he even has time to turn around. He doesn’t meet anyone as he tiptoes back, and Harry’s still fast asleep exactly where he left him when he gets back to his room. Suddenly exhausted, he takes a quick shower, making sure to scrub every last stain of come off his hair and skin, stuffs the soiled clothes at the bottom of his suitcase, and crawls into bed next to Harry.

He’s asleep before he even has time to think about what the hell just happened.

 

*

He wakes up at eight to an empty room, the dent on the mattress where Harry slept still visible. There’s a note on the pillow next to him.

Didn’t mean to be rubbish company and fall asleep on you last night, hope you weren’t too bored – went back to my room for a shower, see you at breakfast :)

-H

 

He’s already in the dining hall when Nick stumbles down twenty minutes later, occupying a table with Louis, which isn’t exactly a surprise, but still makes his stomach do a little swoop.

It’s fine, he tells himself, loading up his plate with scrambled eggs. He hasn’t told Harry anything, obviously. Just act normal. Please.

”Good morning!”, he practically chirps as he sits down in the chair opposite Harry. Louis blinks at him, then nods, mouth full of cereal.

”Hiiii”, Harry beams. He at least seems normal, like he hasn’t just been delivered the news that his breakfast companions spent last night coming all over each other’s faces. Nick picks up a napkin and wipes his cheek. Not out of necessity, really. Just to be sure. Louis glares at him like he grew a second head overnight.

”I was just telling Lou about last night”, Harry continues, oblivious. ”Can’t believe I didn’t even make it through one glass of wine.”

”Well”, Nick rasps, ”you didn’t miss much.” Louis coughs.

Harry’s brows knot together as he puts down his coffee. ”Oh no, are you getting sick?”

”What?”

”You sound awful. Your voice is all shot. Maybe you should have some tea?”

Nick hopes his cheeks aren’t as red as they feel.

”Hey, you make a really good brew – why don’t you make Nick a cuppa?”, Harry says, turning to Louis, who proceeds to nearly choke on his own tea.

”Haz, Haz, it’s fine”, Nick says, placing his palm on Harry’s forearm. ”’S just morning gruff because I haven’t spoken at all today.” He clears his throat. ”See? Already better.”

Harry doesn’t look too convinced, but resumes his eating without pressing the issue further. Louis claims he needs to finish packing and excuses himself not a minute later, taking the exit behind Harry’s back. He almost makes it out of the room before he very nearly collapses against the doorframe, shaking with silent giggles.

”You’ve gone all red”, says Harry. ”Oh no, do you have a fever?”

 

When Harry solemnly hands Nick a pack of Strepsils as they get on the bus, Louis laughs so hard he almost passes out.

 


The showstopper round really doesn’t start as well as Nick had hoped. If he thought he’d been distracted by Louis’ presence in previous weeks, it’s nothing compared to this. Having him prance around and bend over right in front of him is nothing short of agony now that he knows what he looks like naked, underneath the apron and those ridiculously skinny jeans.

He’s on the verge of becoming hard right now, and it doesn’t mix well with having to make a five-layered Swedish Princess cake, so even though he really shouldn’t, he slips off to the tranquility of the storage room while his sponge is still in the oven. He just needs five minutes alone.

Of course, it doesn’t quite work. Not when Louis bloody follows him.

”What the fuck are you doing?”, he hisses, poking his head around the flour shelf where Nick is hiding. Or at least trying to hide. ”You can’t leave when you’ve got stuff in the oven.”

”I didn’t leave.”

”You’re in the bloody storage room. People will start to wonder where you are.”

Nick cocks an eyebrow, suddenly amused. ”You mean like you did?”

”No”, Louis scoffs. He might be blushing, but it’s hard to tell in the dim light.

”You’re the one who followed me in here.”

”Only to let you know you’re being an irresponsible tit.”

”Is that so?”, Nick hums, pushing himself off the shelf he’s leaning on and taking a step towards him.

”You think you’re so fucking clever”, Louis says, before shoving him backwards into a stack of piled sugar and kissing him hard. Nick’s right hand finds the small of Louis’ back and pulls him even closer, making him hum into the kiss.

God, this is so nice. God, this is so bloody inappropriate. And not at all a viable solution to the problem Nick went in here to solve, as demonstrated by the whimper he lets out when he suddenly feels Louis’ hand rubbing the outline of his cock.

”Wait-”, Nick says, breaking the kiss. ”We can’t.”

Louis looks very confused. Nick can understand that – he’s quite furious with himself right now for being so bloody sensible.

”Sure we can”, he says, diving back in. Nick stops him with a hand on his chest. ”What’s your fucking problem?”, he huffs.

Nick doesn’t have time to list all of them. ”Someone could come find us at any moment, for one. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be responsible for giving Mary Berry a heart attack – and secondly, there are about fifteen people and three cameras out there, and I’d rather not be sporting a semi on camera for my mum and all her friends to see.”

”Let me take care of that, then”, Louis smirks, his hand disappearing underneath Nick’s apron.

”Which brings me to my third point”, Nick sighs, closing his fingers around Louis’ wrist and bringing their hands up where he can see them. ”We’re supposed to be out there, baking. I can’t leave the competition because I accidentally served Paul Hollywood cake with a side of spunk.”

”It would make for great TV, though.”

Nick has to clap a hand over his mouth to supress the loud guffaw that escapes him. ”Oh God”, he groans. ”You’re terrible.”

Louis preens. ”I’d watch the hell out of that. You know what they’d –”

He stops in the middle of the sentence and whips his head around. Nick holds his breath - he heard it too.

Lou?” Harry’s voice is muffled by the door. ”It’s so weird”, he mumbles to someone. Nick can picture him, scratching his head. ”I just saw him.”

”Go”, Nick hisses, shoving Louis in front of him. ”Distract them, I’ll follow in a minute.”

”Calm down, James Bond”, Louis snorts, smoothing out his apron. He turns and tweaks Nick’s nipple before dissappearing around the shelf.

Nick counts to sixty before he sneaks out, rubbing his chest and glaring at Louis as he passes him. All he gets in return is a triumphant grin.

The rest of the challenge passes in a bit of a blur. There’s only ten seconds left on the clock when he places the final marzipan rose on top of the cake with trembling fingers. From this angle, it kind of looks like a sad old vagina, but at least it’s there. Mary’s old – she’s probably seen worse.

He knows, the moment the judges go off to make their decision, that it’s either Louis or Ben going home today. Some eliminations have been harder to predict than others, but this one’s fairly straightforward – certain mistakes and inconsistensies are simply impossible to ignore, such as Louis’ over-whipped cream or Ben’s burnt caramel. Judging by the deflated looks on both their faces, it’s clear that they’ve come to the same conclusion.

Harry’s taken Louis away to a corner while crew members line up five stools and prepare the set for the final shoot of the weekend, so Nick spends the wait mostly pacing. He wishes he had his phone with him right now, so he could at least pretend to be busy. It’s not that he feels unwelcome – it’s more that he doesn’t really know what he’d say. Louis isn’t dying – he’s just potentially returning to his regular life in London two weeks earlier than he’d probably like. Whatever the fuck it is they’ve been doing for the past 24 hours is surely dead and buried if he leaves today, though. Nick doesn’t quite know how he feels about that.

It takes less than five seconds from the announcement until Harry has Louis wrapped up in a suffocating hug, arms wrenched so tightly around his middle it’s a wonder his ribs stay intact.

”Haz, get off”, he laughs into Harry’s shoulder. ”Plenty of time for that on the train.”

Harry sniffles, but reluctantly loosens his grip so Louis can go say goodbye to everyone. When he gets to Nick, he hesitates. It stings more than it should.

”I’ll see you on the train, yeah? No need to make it awkward just yet.” He’s not sure it came out as light-hearted as he intended it to, and Louis gets pulled into another group hug before Nick has time to make sense of the look on his face.

From there on out, not a single opportunity for a private moment with Louis presents itself. The irony of it is not lost on Nick, all those times he wished to ship him off to a desert island so he could whisk his eggs in peace.

He spends the journey back to Paddington making quiet conversation with Harry and trying not to stare too openly at Louis dozing on his shoulder.

They’re on the platform before he really knows it, and he still hasn’t decided what he’s going to say. If he’s going to say anything at all. Harry hugs Louis first, both him and Nick going East on the Central Line while Louis has to cross the tracks to catch a Westbound train to Hammersmith. He hovers in the back while they talk about meeting up in the middle of the week and wills away the want to analyse why his emotional response to it is something resembling jealousy.

”Right”, Louis says, fiddling with the strap of his bag where it’s digging into the flesh of his shoulder, not far from where Nick left a bruise last night. ”See you around, then, Nick.” He can barely muster up the interest to meet his eyes.

”Yup”, Nick replies, pausing for a moment before slapping a hand to his shoulder and giving it a subtle squeeze. ”See you.” In terms of awkward goodbyes with people whose cock he’s had in his mouth, he’s honestly been through worse. It doesn’t mean he wishes it could’ve gone a bit differently as he watches Louis trot up the stairs, trying and failing to walk as if he wasn’t carrying a bag weighing about as much as him.

”That wasn’t so bad”, Harry comments as they line up for their train approaching. ”I knew you two had it in you to be friendly.”

 

 

Week eight: Advanced Dough

The following week might as well be labelled ”Three Times Nick Thought About Contacting Louis but Didn’t, and Everything Else Is Terrible Too.”

Work is an endless nightmare of useless meetings and misunderstandings and he’s not getting anything resembling the amount of sleep he needs to be able to deal with it without resorting to grumpy tantrums not fit for an adult professional.

Nick’s friends have always been his number one source of energy – he’s never understood people who need to withdraw from everyone and be alone to charge their batteries – so it’s not a matter of not wanting to invite them over for a bit of a whine. It’s more that the sheer toil and stress of the competition so far has made him a bit needy and demanding without having the time or energy to give something back. It’s something he plans on making up for the moment he gets his old life back, but right now, he’s a bit afraid his friends are getting, well, a little fed up.

At least that’s what he’s using to justify why he finds himself half buried in the couch Tuesday evening, finger hovering over Louis’ number in his contact list. At least he would provide some company without the fear of further alienation, since he already doesn’t like Nick all that much.

There’s also the cock of it all. A good blowjob is the only method of stress relief better than wine, in Nick’s opinion. But then he thinks of the awkward goodbye on Sunday, and how Louis had flinched at the idea of hugging him and stayed close to Harry the rest of the day to avoid being alone with Nick. How pathetic would Louis find him if he reached out for contact after he made it kind of obvious that whatever they did wasn’t going to happen again? They don’t even like each other, right?

In the end, he chucks his phone on the table and opts for an early night instead.

On Wednesday, his assistant producer quits, and his cranberry and white chocolate brioche somehow comes out tasting like caramellised feet. Pig feasts on his second-favourite pair of shoes and half a yucca plant and vomits behind the sofa. He doesn’t text Louis.

He oversleeps and comes in an hour late for the emergency meeting on Thursday. The texture on his final attempt at donuts is too chewy and he doesn’t know how to fix it, so he calls Harry and comes very close to crying down the phone while describing the process in detail so Harry can tell him what he’s doing wrong. He’s a right mess.

In the shower later that evening, he decides to have a wank. Maybe it’ll help with the stress and the tension that seems to have taken up permanent residence in his shoulders, and for the first couple of minutes, it’s heaven.

He takes his time, slowly stroking himself up and down, blissed out on the sensation of the warm spray of water on his back and the feel of his fingers wrapped around his cock. He likes having big hands, takes a bit of pride in knowing that he can make even the toughest of guys writhe and whimper and shake by moving his long, elegant fingers just so, but he also knows how to use them on himself. Knees beginning to tremble, he braces against the wall, feels the cool tiles against his forehead as his breath quickens and the pressure builds and builds and builds.

It’s so good, it feels so fucking good – until he’s on the verge of coming and his mind floods with image after image of Louis, naked – they way he looked Saturday night, trying to stifle his moans as Nick licked a stripe up his cock, thighs trembling under Nick’s palms; the way he’d look pinned down on a bed, whimpering into a pillow and desperately grinding down against the sheets, searching for friction while being eaten out –

Nick comes with a shout, comes harder than he’s ever done on his own. The orgasm leaves him so dazed he stays there, panting and leaning against the wall of the shower for minutes – he can’t leave until he’s sure his legs are working again.

Even after physically leaving the competition, Louis can’t bloody seem to leave him alone. He could punch a wall in sheer frustration.

 

*

Whether it’s a higher power conspiring against him or just shit luck, Nick doesn’t know, but when Sunday afternoon rolls around, it becomes clear that advanced dough is the end of the road for his Bake-Off adventure. He’s furious, with himself and the bloody universe, for coming so close to the finale and have it slip away, he’s relieved to be able to start a new week without lying awake at night worrying about the rise of his dough, he’s happy to have made it so far, but mostly he is so, so proud of Harry.

No one is really surprised that he made it so far. Least of all Harry himself, Nick suspects. It’s in the way he’s been carrying himself all weekend. Not at all in a manner that hints at smugness or self-satisfaction, but in the subtle, quiet confidence he’s exuded all throughout the competition.

Even during the first couple of weeks, when they were all busy measuring themselves up against each other, staking out their chances and preparing for imminent failure, he’d been confident. Sure, he’d spent just as much time as the rest of them airing his fears that surely, it would be his time to go soon, but he never seemed to believe his own words as much as everyone else. Nick definitely never did.

Harry doesn’t cry as much this time, thankfully. Nick doesn’t take it personally – there’s only a week left, anyway, and Harry has long since realised that their friendship is going to survive way past the boundaries of the competition. He did try, in those melodramatic minutes just after Sue told them with sad eyes that Nick was the one leaving, to apologise for making it to the finale without him, but Nick just smacked him over the head and told him to stop being an idiot and that was that.

So now he’s leaving, and he’s not coming back, and he’s fine with that.

 

 

Week nine: Finale

Except he is coming back. Of course he is. Somehow, in the midst of the stress and the quagmire of sexual frustration his life has turned into, he managed to forget that he, along with the rest of the eliminated bakers, is going back to Bristol no sooner than the upcoming Sunday for the filming of the final result.

Exactly three days after taking an oath not to go near a pie crust for at least six months, he’s back at it. At least he’s not the one baking – for once, he’s on the tasting end of the table. Harry’s invited him over for a final practice bake before the big weekend – as much an excuse to hang out as it is to do anything productive.

He doesn’t really need Nick’s help, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t postpone his plans to catch up on some telly to come reassure him that everything he’s planning on making for the finale is, indeed, delicious.

”You’re sure you can’t think of just – anything?” Harry asks, following the spoon with his eyes as Nick polishes off the remains of the tiramisu that was there just seconds ago.

”I already told you”, Nick says, except he’s still chewing, so it comes out a bit garbled, ”there is literally nothing you can do to make it better.”

He still doesn’t look convinced. Nick hopes he won’t force-feed him even more tiramisu. It’s absolutely delicious, true, but he’s already had three slices plus a lamb Wellington earlier, and he doesn’t want to be sick all over Harry’s lovely tiny student kitchen. Although he does have a flatmate, Nick suspects that the Bohemian interior – the flowery curtains and countless scented candles – is all Harry’s doing.

”Mate, listen – Mary’s gonna bloody propose to you after tasting this, I swear.”

Harry smiles – first a little tentative, then so big his dimples pop out. ”Yeah?”

”Trust me.”

The tiramisu is going to be Harry’s showstopper, though not in its current state. If all goes to plan, he’ll present the judges with a three-tiered tiramisu wedding cake on Sunday. It’s either going to be a disaster or the crowning achievement in Bake-Off history.

”Lou said just about the same”, Harry throws over his shoulder as he starts cleaning up the cramped workbench. Against his better will, Nick can practically feel his ears perk up. There’s been no mention of Louis all afternoon, and Harry had barely mentioned him over the weekend, but for a throwaway line about a lunch date. It’s absolutely normal to wonder about the general well-being of a former sexual partner.

”So he’s not always wrong, then.”

”Heeeey”, Harry protests. ”Although he was wrong about you, actually.” If he’s deliberately trying to reel Nick in, he’s, well – he’s succeeding.

”What the hell does that mean?” It’s not supposed to sound like he’s genuinely curious, but he is – has spent a pathetic amount of time lately wondering what Louis said about him when he was alone with Harry, or whether he talked about him at all.

”Just that he was surprised you left the competition so early.”

Nick sputters. ”Early? Lasted a week longer than him, didn’t I?”

”No, like – before the finale. Said he always thought you might win the whole thing, actually.” His eyes widen, as if he just realised he left the house with the oven still on. ”Probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that”, he mutters.

Well. That was certainly unexpected. Nick hopes he’s able to keep the feeling of chuffed surprise off his face right now. Apparently, what Louis does when he’s alone with Harry is…compliment Nick?

”You seem genuinely surprised”, Harry says. The act of keeping a straight face still needs a little more practice, then. ”I wouldn’t be friends with him if he was as big an arse as you think he is, you know.”

Nick can think of a hundred witty retorts. What he ends up with is, ”I know.”

Neither of them say anything more on the subject as Harry finishes the washing up, but not because Nick doesn’t want to. In fact, his sanity would probably benefit from having Harry help him find the answers to some burning questions – has he said anything else about me? Did he tell you about the spectacular sex we had? Why can’t I stop thinking about him? Why can’t I stop thinking about him naked? Why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? – but they’re all stuck in his throat.

It isn’t until later, when they’re both sprawled on the couch still trying to digest everything, that one of them finds its way out.

”That thing you said at the train station –” He’s honestly got no idea where he’s going with this, doubts Harry even remembers it.

”What thing?”, Harry says absentmindedly, not quite able to tear himself away from the telly. He would be the kind of person to find Pointless this riveting.

”About me and – Louis. That you always, uh, knew we had it in us?” He tries to sound as uninterested as possible. ”Like, what did you even mean by that?”

The thought process plays out step-by-step on Harry’s face, from the initial frown of confusion to the way his eyebrows raise when the moment of clarity hits.

”Oh, that”, he says, giving a light shrug. ”Just, you know, that I never really understood why you didn’t get along, you know?” No, Nick doesn’t know. It’s why he asked. ”Like, I know you got off on the wrong foot, but –”. He shrugs again, looking at Nick. ”You’re so bloody alike, I just thought the potential was there?”

”How the hell are we alike?” Nick squawks. ”He’s the loudest, prickliest, most stubborn person I have ever met in my bloody life!”

Harry just looks at him. ”No, you’re absolutely right”, he deadpans. ”I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Nick kicks his ankle and refuses to speak to him for half an hour.

 

*

Sunday arrives with London cast in glittering sunlight; unusual for the season, even though it’s the last weekend of June. Nick’s on the 09.34 train to Bristol with Daisy, who’s been chattering his ear off about meeting Mary since they began filming, so it’s only fair he chose to take her along as his plus one for the day. Other contestants will be bringing their spouses and children and in some cases, grandchildren, but he’s happy with just the one – there’ll be enough people to catch up with anyway.

He’s gonna meet Niall for the first time, and see Zayn again for the first time in over a month, and of course, Louis. He hasn’t quite decided how he feels about just that. Daisy, bless her heart, hasn’t asked about him once, probably because she’s too preoccupied with fantasies about meeting her hero for the first time. Also, Nick still hasn’t told any of his friends about him and Louis, so she doesn’t know that there’s anything to ask about, anyway. Failing to disclose details about questionable sex decisions is a cardinal sin among his friends - if they ever find out about what happened, he will never hear the end of it for the rest of his life.

Barbara’s the first familiar face he runs into at the train station in Bristol, surrounded by a swarm of miniature people he assumes are her grandchildren. Him and Daisy end up squeezing into one of the many shuttle buses the BBC have provided with them, and he spends most of the drive nodding along to a tiny girl with pigtails talking animatedly about her cat, who sadly wasn’t allowed to come today.

”Oh, look at the tent!”, Daisy squeals as the bus comes to a stop and the set comes into view. She’s actually seal-clapping, like what she’s spotted is something genuinely exciting instead of a very plain, very white marquee in the distance.

The set is different from the last time he was here, the massive lawn in front of the tent covered in picnic blankets and garden furniture and people. There’s garlands and Chinese lanterns and balloons hanging from the trees, and people sitting around in circles with flowers in their hair. ”It’s adorable”, Daisy coos, as they move through the throngs of people looking for more familiar faces.

Eventually, he spots a woman he recognises from pictures as Harry’s mum, talking to a girl who can only be Harry’s sister Gemma. To his surprise, Harry’s mum, whose name he really needs to remember soon or things will become awkward, looks up before he has the chance to introduce himself and smiles, huge and open, like she’s spotted a friend across the room. God, Harry looks so much like her.

”You must be Nick”, she says, offering a hand. ”You’re even taller than I imagined!” Mildly confused, he shakes her hand, then introduces Daisy to them both, thankful when Harry’s mum smiles and says ”Anne, lovely to meet you.” He knew it began with an A.

They chat for a while, getting updates on the day’s events. Nick did receive the informational e-mail like the rest of the contestants, but he didn’t exactly memorize the schedule. Anne, Gemma and Niall apparently arrived yesterday, along with the families of the other two finalists, but haven’t seen Harry all day today, since they got taken to set for the final showstopper bake at piss o’clock this morning, according to Gemma. Judging by the closed-off marquee, they’re still in there, perhaps still baking, perhaps trying not to vomit with nerves as they watch Paul and Mary sniff and prod and taste their cakes.

A fifth person suddenly intrudes on their little half-circle, announcing his presence by slapping Nick’s back and shouting ”Ahoy!” in his right ear. He whips his head around to find a complete stranger with bottle-blonde hair standing next to him, arm around his waist like they’ve known each other for years.

”You’re either Nick or I’ve just made a huge tit out of meself”, he says in a thick Irish accent, and oh, this must be Niall, then. Either that or there are two Irishmen with reasonable cause to be able to spot Nick in a crowd running around.

”Niall?”

”Oh thank God”, he says, exaggeratingly wiping sweat off his brow in a mock display of relief. ”It was the hair that gave you away.”

For the second time in ten minutes, Nick’s beginning to wonder what on earth Harry has told his family about him, or what kind of pictures he’s shown them.

Niall supplies an answer without being asked. ”Louis said to look for the guy with a cockatoo on his head”, he winks, then bursts out laughing when he sees the look on Nick’s face. ”Sorry mate”, he says, slapping his back again. ”You should see your face.”

”Where is Louis, anyway?” Anne asks, looking around.

”Over there, with Liam”, Niall says, pointing. Nick follows his finger until his eyes land on Louis, about fifty feet away, currently trapped in a headlock by a very broad-shouldered, very well-built, very handsome stranger. To his enormous annoyance, his heart sinks a little.

”Who’s Liam?” he asks, unable to stop himself. Louis seems to be struggling a bit, squirming around in Liam’s arms.

”Louis’ best mate. Great guy.” Nick’s stomach stops churning, and in that moment, Louis wriggles free and looks straight in their direction. From such a distance, it’s hard to tell if he’s even looking at Nick, but he can still feel his cheeks burn. He swallows and turns back to the group, trying to inject himself back into the conversation.

It works until it doesn’t, which is the moment Louis suddenly appears between Niall and Gemma, elbowing his way into the circle until he’s made enough space for himself and Liam. Even to someone not looking for any obvious signs of awkwardness, it’s blatant that Louis very much doesn’t even look at Nick.

”I’m very touched”, he says, draping himself over Niall, who seems delighted to have his personal space invaded like that. ”But you didn’t all have to come so far just to see me.”

Everyone laughs, except Nick, who’s too busy trying to figure out why the unmistakeable slight has him so thrown when he came here without any expectations, and Liam, who rolls his eyes, but somehow still looks fond. He’s seen that look before, on the face of practically everyone who’s ever had anything to do with Louis, but it’s never really made sense until now.

”Where’s Zayn?”, he asks, partially because actually, where the hell is he?, and partially because Louis can’t possibly continue to ignore him when he’s being asked a direct question in front of all these people. He glances over at Nick for the briefest of seconds before turning his attention to the rest of the group.

”If you can believe it”, he says to Anne, as if she was the one who asked, ”and I’m sure you will because this is Zayn we’re talking about, after all – he slept right through his alarm this morning. Texted me about half an hour ago saying his train was on its way in, though, so hopefully he’ll be here in time for Harold’s win.”

As if by summon, that is the moment the three finalists emerge from the tent, setting off a chain of applause among the people scattered across the lawn. Harry’s up front, carrying his three-tiered behemoth of a wedding cake, the hugest grin Nick’s ever seen stretching across his face.

The circle breaks up as everyone gathers around the table where Harry, the other two finalists and various crew members unload trays of baked goods – everything they’ve made during the weekend plus baskets full of stuff made specifically for today.

Personally, he could do without cakes and pastries and pies for another month, at least, so he draws back while the crowd gathers around the table. The results won’t be announced for at least half an hour, and Harry’s surrounded by a swarm of people eager to hug and congratulate and catch up. Nick’s not in a hurry – they’ll have plenty of time to talk soon, and right now he’s too busy nosing Niall’s hair anyway. They’re very cute and he’s not at all jealous.

Phone out, he trawls through his Instagram feed while waiting for Daisy to return from her cake scavenger hunt, reckoning he’ll be easier to find if he stands a little off to the side. A shadow falls across the screen just as he’s about to leave an absolutely hilarious comment on Ian’s latest post.

”Too noisy for your old ears?” He looks up and straight into Louis’ face. There’s something a little insecure about the look in his eyes and the purse of his lips, like he’s waiting for Nick to approve of the joke.

He really does look pretty today, the sunlight casting a golden glow on his hair and skin, making him look utterly sunkissed. They never had much time or opportunity to put much into their appearances during the competition, practicality and comfort winning over vanity every time. On days with particularly early starts, they all turned up on set a bit dishevelled, Louis and Harry often with their hair tucked away under a headband, because your pie was worthless if you presented it to Paul with a loose strand baked into the crust.

But today, Louis looks – lovely. He looks so lovely, his hair shiny and soft-looking and artfully tousled, and he’s staring at Nick with something akin to hesitance in his eyes.

”Figured Harry had enough people bothering him right now”, Nick says, shrugging.

Louis nods and bites his lip, looks down at the grass between their feet. ”You never contacted me when we got back to London”, he says, tone accusatory and maybe a little hurt.

”I -”, Nick starts, Louis’ intimidatingly honest face an indication that this might be the kind of conversation where he should weigh his words a little before choosing what to say.

”You wanked me off in a portable loo.” Well, it was worth a try. ”And, you know, I never really got the impression that it was something you wanted to be doing – out there in the real world?” He underlines the last words with a gesture that is supposed to allude to the direction he thinks London is in. ”Plus you didn’t exactly try very hard yourself, so. You know.”

What he had imagined to be a fair explanation has only left Louis looking even more confused and – angry?

”But I kissed you first”, he says.

”I guess, but-”

”I kissed you first”, Louis repeats a little petulantly, stamping a small foot in the grass for good measure.

”I have no idea what that means.”

”God, forget I ever said anything”, Louis says, turning on the spot. He only gets a two second head start before Nick catches up and tugs on his arm.

”Fuck’s sake, will you stop stomping away instead of talking to me?”

”But you’re not listening to me!”

”I am listening, you twat, I just have no idea what you’re trying to tell me!”

”Nevermind”, Louis groans, eyes fixed on where his fingers are fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. ”Just… shit, nevermind.” He doesn’t leave, though.

”Did you – um”. Nick scratches the back of his neck awkwardly. ”Did you want me to? Contact you?”

To his surprise, Louis laughs and throws his arms up in surrender. ”I like you!”

Nick stills. ”What?”

Louis is already halfway to a deep shade of red, though whether from embarrassment or anger is hard to tell.

”I like you, you fucking knob! I told you I liked you and you acted like a twat and you’re being a right twat now!”

Nick has never seen Louis so animated, not even when he enthusiastically defended his choice to make marmite macaroons, and people are definitely turning their heads towards them and Nick still has no idea what Louis is saying.

”You never told me you liked me! This is brand new information!”

”I kissed you first”, he almost shrieks, a deep flush creeping up his neck and face. A tiny little switch in Nick’s mind goes click.

”Oh – oh. You kissed me first.”

Louis nearly rolls his eyes back into his skull. ”Well done, Einstein.”

”How the bloody hell was I supposed to know it meant – that? It makes no sense!”

”What the fuck does kissing mean where you’re from, then?”

”Where I’m from, you don’t act like a total prick to people you like!”

”Have you never heard of flirting before?”

Nick widens his eyes at that. ”Flirting? You were flirting with me?”

”Well, obviously”, Louis squakws, ”not my fault you were too thick to notice.”

They’re almost full-out yelling at each other by now, and people are not even bothering to hide their open stares. Oh God, what if they’re being filmed?

”Shut up”, Nick hisses, well aware of the hypocrisy at work. ”You weren’t.”

”Why did you think I spent so much time trying to get your attention, idiot?” For once in his life, Louis has actually listened to him, his voice significantly less screechy. Or maybe he’s actually a toddler and is just blindly following Nick’s lead.

”I don’t know, I thought you were just being annoying!”

Louis frowns with his entire face. Nick has to work very hard to remember why he’s sort of mad because it makes him look like an angry duckling.

”You set my oven temperature too high so my bread pudding nearly burned, Louis.”

”Yes.”

”You fed half my christmas loaf to a flock of pigeons!”

”I know!”

”That was flirting?”

”Unbelievable”, Louis huffs.

”You couldn’t just do it like, I don’t know, a normal person?”

Louis inspects the non-existent dirt under his fingernails, shrugging.

”Maybe I was a little… angry with you”, he says.

This conversation stopped making sense to Nick a long time ago. ”What on earth did I ever do to you?”

”Might have been a little – jealous, too”, Louis says, wincing.

Okay, now they’ve crossed the threshold from confusing to plain incomprehensible.

”You were jealous.”

Louis tips his head back and exhales very loudly, as if he can communicate his intent through whiny noises.

”Of… what?”

”Of everyone!”

Nick blinks. That was certainly unexpected.

”You didn’t even remember me”, he continues, staring up at the sky instead of Nick. ”We met at the screen test and – I’m not an imbecile, I don’t expect you to remember everyone you’ve ever met, but. You certainly remembered Harry, went straight up to him and started talking like you were old friends –”

”Louis –”

” – and then you just…never came to me for advice, always asking Harry or Zayn to taste your stupid batter even though I’m – I’m just as good as them, you know!”

”Oh my God”, Nick says. He doesn’t quite know where to begin. ”I don’t – you were jealous?”, and he tries so hard to be indignant but can’t help the stupid smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

”It’s not funny.” Louis’ glare would be a lot more intimidating if he wasn’t also pouting.

”But you were jealous!”

”I swear to god”, Louis huffs, ”don’t make me repeat it or I’ll shove you face first into Harry’s bloody tiramisu.”

”You’ve got, without a doubt, the absolute worst flirting skills I have ever seen.”

”You didn’t exactly make it easy, you giant fucking tree –”

”Oh, shut up”, Nick says, and then does the only thing he’s ever known to effectively shut Louis up. The kiss seems to take Louis by surprise, judging by the little noise he makes at the back of his throat. Almost a complete reversal of their first time, then, except Louis takes a little less time catching up to the situation than Nick did, kissing back with urgency before Nick gets a chance to worry about whether he read the situation all wrong.

Kissing Louis in a beautiful, sunny field is different, better, than kissing Louis in a cramped trailer or dark hotel room – possibly because kissing Louis when he’s sure it’s something they both want is better than not knowing whether the person you’re kissing would try saving you from a burning building or start the fire themselves.

Louis pulls away, his palms flat against Nick’s chest. ”So”, he says, face inches away from Nick’s own, ”it worked, then?”

”What?”, Nick asks, unable to look away from Louis’ glistening mouth. It’s pathetic how much he wants to keep kissing him right now.

”My flirting method.”

”Well”, says Nick, cocking his head, ”you did just spend five minutes explaining to me that you were, in fact, flirting, so I wouldn’t be too sure.”

Louis pokes him in the chest. ”But you kissed me.”

Nick hums. ”Yes. Seems so.”

”So it didn’t…not-work, either.”

”Do you want to argue or kiss some more?”

Louis scrunches up his nose. ”Dunno. You’re kind of cute when you’re all flustered.”

Nick’s about to reply when he’s interrupted by someone calling his name. Niall’s coming towards them, frantically waving his arms.

”Oi, lads”, he shouts, ”they’re about to announce, c’mon!”

He doesn’t say a word about what he’s seen as they make their way back, but the looks he keeps sending them says more than enough.

”I think we might have been less subtle than we thought”, Nick whispers to Louis as they find their friends waiting in the crowd, Daisy and Liam and Zayn all looking at them with barely concealed mirth.

Harry turns around from where Anne’s rubbing soothing circles into his back. He looks like he’s about to throw up.

”I may be too nervous to deal with it right now”, he whispers, leaning in, ”but don’t for a second think you’re getting away with – this”. He waves his finger around between them. Nick looks at the sheepish look on Louis’ face and bursts into giggles.

”All right, dad”, he says to Harry. ”Now go win this thing for us.”

And he does. Harry bloody wins, and it’s not a surprise, not really, but it’s still pretty fucking ace. Anne cries, and Harry cries, and it’s just a baking competition, really, but Nick cries a bit too.

After the cameras have been turned off there’s too much champagne and hugs and general chaos for him to keep an eye on Louis at all times, but they lock eyes across the crowd every now and then and it makes Nick’s toes curl a little. He takes the train back with Daisy, Louis and Liam, Harry and his family driving back together, and this time, when they go their separate ways at the station, he knows it’s not the last time they see each other.

 

 

Epilogue

”It was here just a minute ago”, Nick says, upending a sofa cushion. Pig follows the movement with her eyes, but clearly doesn’t find it alluring enough to get up from where she’s sprawled across Louis’ chest. ”Like, literally one minute. I saw it.”

”Did you look over there?”, Louis asks, waving his hand in the general direction of the rest of Nick’s entire flat. It’s not even the least helpful thing he’s done today.

”Why don’t you go look over there, then?”

Louis answers by burrowing deeper into the couch. ”Too busy”, he sighs, scratching behind Pig’s ear, the spot that always makes her go all floppy and boneless – it took Louis an annoyingly short time to find and is probably the reason Nick’s half convinced his own dog prefers his boyfriend over him.

Nick slaps his ankle and nearly gets a kick in the groin in return.

”Besides”, Louis says, ignoring his wounded look, ”I’m not the one who lost it in the first place.”

That’s not entirely true, but Nick knows the futility of continuing the argument, so he takes the high road and flips him off before going to the kitchen to proceed with the search there.

”Did you find it?”, Louis yells from the living room not half a minute later.

”If you could give me more than ten bloody seconds to look for it, maybe I will!”

”Come back here.”

”I told you, I haven’t found it yet!”

”But I’m lonely.” He doesn’t have to see Louis’ face to know that he’s pouting.

”I need to find the bloody remote first!”

”Just come here”, Louis whines.

When Nick gets back, it’s to find Louis grinning from ear to ear, remote control in hand.

”Where was it?” he asks, nudging Louis’ feet so he’ll make room for him on the sofa.

He prods Nick’s thigh with his big toe, but doesn’t move. ”It’s a secret.”

”Louis.”

”I’ve been sworn to secrecy. People could die.”

Seeing no other option, he picks up Louis’ legs and plops down on the space made available, apologising to Pig for jostling her in the process. She huffs and burrows her nose deeper into the fabric of Louis’ jumper. Louis himself doesn’t react beyond draping his legs across Nick’s lap, adjusting his position like a fussy cat.

”It might have been wedged between the cushions”, he says, handing the remote to Nick. ”- maybe. I’m not saying anything for certain.”

”You”, Nick sighs, absentmindedly thumbing the bare skin of Louis’ ankle, ”are an absolute terror.”

Louis preens and lifts his feet to wiggle his toes underneath Nick’s nose. ”You like it.”

”God help me”, Nick says, ”but I do.”

He switches over to BBC1 just as the familiar, cheery tones of the Bake-Off intro fade out and the camera pans across the green expanses of Somerset.

”There we are!” Louis says, ”Look at us – so young and carefree.”

They watch as the tiny TV versions of themselves from almost four months ago come into view for the very first time. Nick can’t believe it was just this April. It seems like so much has happened since then, which is true, he supposes.

Louis lets out a loud cackle the moment the camera zooms in on Nick for the first time.

”Fucking hell”, he wheezes, ”what were you wearing?”

”Shut up”, Nick says, pinching his thigh. ”Harry approved of that shirt.”

”Harry’s a sixty-year old woman.”

”Remind me again, was it in episode three or four you wore the orange headband?”

”You love my headbands.”

”Sure, love.”

Louis abandons his sprawled-out position when Pig leaves in search of something to chew on, and ends up curled under Nick’s right arm as they watch their past selves struggle through the very first technical challenge.

”I still can’t believe you didn’t get it”, he says, drawing patterns on Nick’s thigh. TV Louis just finished yelling at TV Nick for stealing his eggs, only to return to his own bench to find them hidden under a dishcloth.

”Did you not see what just happened?” Nick asks, incredulous. They’ve had this argument at least twice a week since they first met up after the finale weekend – a gig Nick dragged Louis to that ended with mutual blowjobs in the toilets halfway through the show. Louis claims it their first official date; Nick would prefer the version where they snogged their way through Interstellar two days later when he one day has to tell the story to their grandchildren. Not that he’s told Louis that particular detail. Not yet.

”Fuck’s sake, just look at me!”, Louis cries, pointing at his TV self bending over in front of his oven and wriggling his bum in the air. ”Why did you think I spent so much time checking out my bakes?”

”Everyone does – I spent half my time in that tent obsessively hovering in front of my bloody oven!”

”Not looking like that”, he protests, just in time for TV Louis to crouch down in a particularly sultry manner. Okay, that one was maybe a bit over the top.

”I thought we’d agreed I was a bit slow on the uptake”, Nick grumbles. ”Are you going to rub it in during every episode?”

”Absolutely”, Louis chirps, planting a smacking kiss right in the middle of his cheek. ”But only because you deserve it.”

Nick supposes he can live with that.