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Week one: Cake

week one

Somerset is awful.

That might not be strictly true, were one to look at it from an unbiased perspective. Louis, however, is extremely fucking biased, and he’s decided that Somerset blows.

He’s not even sure where they are, exactly, can't see anything but the endless greenery, juicy green grass, flowers and trees stretching all the way to the horizon. The air carries a distinct salty tang, reminiscent of the sea, and the humidity makes Louis feel like he’s constantly underwater. He’s already sweated through three vests while he’s been waiting in the holding room, and the harried assistant keeps bringing him more every time she notices a patch of sweat under his pits.

It’s so fucking picturesque out here; Louis hadn’t been expecting to feel quite so much like he’s in Disneyland. He’d always thought those gratuitous shots of the tiny little bridge and peacefully chewing sheep are cut out of random documentaries and pasted in to make the viewer feel like they’re not watching a ruthless competition, but no – it seems that there is an actual sheep pen a little ways away from the marquee, full of actual live animals. They make the most horrific kind of noise Louis has ever heard.

He hates it here already, and it almost hurts to think that there are eight whole weeks separating him from the prize. He wants, more than anything, to cut through the bullshit and get to the competition. He’s been here since six in the morning. The sun has since started to blare down with a terrifying kind of intensity, warming up the holding room even as a light breeze sneaks past the walls of the marquee. The other contestants, at least, seem to be in a state of mind similar to Louis’s, keeping out of others’ personal space and staring into the ground. Louis hopes it stays that way. He’s not here to make friends.

When they’re finally called inside for the first shot, Louis reminds himself to hold his head up high and straighten his back. Fidgeting will do him no good; will make him look weak in front of the camera and to other people in the room.

“Welcome,” a woman says, standing front and centre, flanked by two large camera men. “My name is Jen.”

She doesn’t divulge any further details about her role on set, and instead walks around the room to make sure they’re all standing on their marks. Louis’s gaffer tape T is red, and he frowns at it while he makes sure his feet are in position.

“Alright,” Jen says eventually, after Louis has started sweating from standing still for so long. “We’ll need some opening shots, so I’d like all of you to stay where you are for the next few minutes.”

Louis locks his knees, exhales, and looks up. There’s a blindingly bright spotlight aimed right in his face. Around him, the air is buzzing with nerves, restless feet tapping out a beat against the floor, a rhythmic snapping of fingers, the swoosh and clunk of somebody’s drawer being pulled open and shut in an unconscious tic.

Louis realises suddenly, irrefutably, that this is it.



Here goes.

*

Louis has been practicing his signature bake for months; he could virtually do it in his sleep. It’s very important to impress the judges, impress the viewers, and set himself up to win right from the start, he knows.

Intimidate the competition, Louis keeps thinking as he rounds up his ingredients, butter next to sugar next to eggs next to flour. No matter how many times he has re-watched previous episodes, no matter how many screenshots he’d taken, the station still feels completely foreign. He can’t flow around it like he does the kitchen counter at home, can’t blindly let something go lest it fall and get ruined. There is a huge pantry just behind the tarp at the back, but wasting ingredients is not the way Louis works.

He’s in the second to last row, which means he has plenty of time before Paul and Mary and the camera crew all get to him. Paul and Mary, holy shit – he can just barely see them all the way in the front, leaning right into somebody’s bowl, asking short questions and re-asking them when prompted by Jen. He’d met them before, of course, gone through the whole song and dance at the auditions, but they had seen a dozen faces before his, then, and were set to see two dozen more that day.

Now, Louis is here. He’s one of twelve, and there is nowhere to hide. The thought sends an excited shiver down his spine.

In front of him, somebody turns the wrong way and sweeps an open carton of eggs to the floor. It lands with a sickening crack, and Louis is torn between feeling sympathetic and cackling with glee.

He does neither, and instead focuses on watching over his stand mixer. His mixture looks to be the right consistency to add the food colouring; he drops it in little by little off the tip of his knife and watches in fascination as black streaks appear, then widen, until he’s left staring into a dark abyss of decorative sponge paste. Perfect.

He’s mixing his filling when the inquisition finally makes it to him.

“Louis,” Paul says, jovial, grinning as his eyes sparkle. They really are quite ridiculously blue, and Louis fights the flustered blush that wants to rise into his cheeks. “How are you doing?”

“Everything is going according to plan,” Louis grins as he reaches halfway across his station to take the blackberry jam off the flame. “I reckon I should be done with plenty of time to spare.”

Mary looks at him curiously. Something about her reminds Louis of an old, wise owl. “What kind of Swiss roll will you be making for us today?”

They’ve seen Louis’s recipe, of course; everyone involved in the production has seen Louis’s recipe. Perhaps that’s the reason for the worried crease by the side of Mary’s mouth.

“It’s, uh…” he trails off to give his filling another whisk, worried it’s not stiff enough just yet. “It’s a liquorice and blackcurrant Swiss roll.”

Louis stands firmly behind his choice. It’s just the right mix of technical skill and flavours, with the added flourish of an unusual ingredient to set him apart. It’s perfect, really, and the person at the front who snorts upon hearing his choice of ingredients can go fuck themselves. Louis will show them.

“Where does the liquorice go?” Paul asks.

“I put liquorice essence in part of the batter,” he gestures vaguely towards the fridge, “I’ve piped it into a design that I’ll be pouring the rest of the batter over. There’s some in the filling, as well.”

“It’s quite an unusual flavour,” Mary adds. “Very strong. You should be careful when working with it.”

I know, is at the tip of Louis’s tongue, but he stops himself just in time - he doesn’t need that kind of reputation just yet. He smiles sweetly instead, and finds himself reassured when the judges do the same. “I will,” he says, and that’s that. It’s safe to say he’ll not be getting much screen time in this particular segment.

Still, he relaxes marginally when he’s away from their prying eyes. He covers his buttercream and puts it in the fridge to firm up, pours his batter over the liquorice paste, stirs his jam, puts the cake in the oven, all controlled and precise and according to schedule. Louis is pleased.

There is a very tall cameraman orbiting him, coming back every few minutes to peek into Louis’s oven. Jen occasionally follows behind him, asking questions that should prompt Louis to spontaneously recite his entire life story, but mostly annoy him and distract him from focusing on his work.

It is, however, not Jen who taps Louis on the shoulder once time is called, the bakes are at the ends of the benches, and they get the all clear to move on to tasting.

Louis is just admiring his creation, thoroughly happy with the bold black-and-white design and colourful splash of filling, the swirl inside that he got just right, when he feels the hand on his shoulder and jumps.

“Um,” somebody clears their throat behind him, very quiet as not to disturb the crew resetting in the front, “hello.”


Louis turns around, and the floor of the marquee falls out from underneath him.

Behind Louis, probably having vacated the very last station in the row to wander to Louis’s own, is a boy. That’s what he is, really, too lanky and cherub-like to be a man just yet, but God, does he look amazing.

His hair is curly, with a white streak of flour that extends all the way across the boy’s forehead, and his lips are the colour of ripe cherries. He pierces Louis with the greenest pair of eyes ever seen on a human, and there’s a sweet smile playing with the edges of his mouth.

Louis decides he must start disliking him immediately.

“Hi,” the boy says again. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, I just wanted to, uh, come over and introduce myself. We didn’t really get the chance before. I’m Harry,” and he extends one big, big hand.

Louis’s brain goes into overdrive, trying to process all this information at once. He honestly hadn’t noticed Harry at all, not during the four hours production kept them waiting – he hadn’t noticed anybody, just a group of nondescript bodies and blank faces – and having all of him at once, this close, is making Louis a little light-headed. Who does this kid think he is?

“Hello,” he says, and his voice goes from cool to squeaky to indifferent all in the space of that one word. “Louis.”

“Lovely to meet you,” Harry grins, and it’s almost as bright as the lights overhead. His nostrils widen, and deep, deep dimples suddenly appear in his cheeks.

He looks so—infuriating, all innocent with hands behind his back and swaying in place, hair that’s falling in long waterfall cascades down to his shoulders. His shirt is barely buttoned, open wide enough that Louis is tempted to turn around and complain to production. Yes, Harry has a very nice chest. No, Louis does not care.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Harry asks, his deep, slow voice a stark contrast to the overall sweetness of him. He reminds Louis of strawberries and cream, smooth and soft and delicious, well-loved and just tart enough to be intriguing. “I can’t believe we’re all here. It’s wicked.”

His eyes follow Paul and Mary around the room as they chat to the camera people. Louis reminds himself that he hates this kid.

“You’re only here if you’ve got what it takes,” he gets out, jaw clenched, looking at the tip of Harry’s wonky left ear instead of into his actual face.

Still, he somehow knows that Harry blinks. The skin of his forehead crinkles, presumably in a frown. “Well, yes. Of course.”

“Do you have what it takes, Harry?” Louis asks. He’s going for intimidating, and praying he doesn’t miss the mark. Secondary school wasn’t that long ago; he’s got to have a bit of that terrible macho persona stored away somewhere.

When he bites the bullet and finally looks at Harry’s face, he’s beaming. Louis feels incompetent.

“I do,” he says, and there’s an edge of steel to it that immediately catches Louis’s attention. Harry says it, states it, like it’s a fact, and his confidence shines through even though his posture is that of a bashful schoolboy. “I came here to win.”

“Didn’t we all,” Louis mutters darkly. The boy’s confidence doesn’t matter; what counts is his skill in the kitchen.

“That looks stunning, by the way,” Harry says, smiling like the sun and nodding towards Louis’s Swiss roll. He seems genuine about it, too. “You’re going to be the one to beat. I can tell.”

Louis rolls his eyes and, despite himself, smiles a little. “No you can’t.”

“Can so,” Harry pouts. There is a squirmy little kind of feeling that awakens in Louis’s chest, something that he hasn’t felt in a while, something that tickles his throat until he’s laughing, almost, and that is just unacceptable.

Not here to make friends, he reminds himself. Here to wipe the floor with his competition.

An assistant in a ridiculous little headset calls one minute, and just like he’d appeared behind Louis, Harry springs away. He sways his little hips around the tent, hand held out for people to shake – including the crew, who appear pleased, if a little bewildered.

In under two minutes, hurricane Harry had left a prominent crack in Louis’s resolve not to get involved. He doesn’t think about it as he steps further away from his station and slowly surveys the other contestants.

There is someone with badly bleached blond hair right in the front, a young bloke, judging by the raucous laugh rising from his station every other minute. He’s pointing with a dirty whisk and saying something to a girl across from him with pretty purple hair.

Behind the station right next to Louis’s, a middle-aged man is sweating through his meticulously buttoned shirt. The roll on his plate looks a mess – the filling has started to leak out in big, unsightly blobs, and Louis immediately pinpoints him as a weak link.

He spares a worried glance for his own roll – still holding together, it seems, though he’d very much like to be allowed to put it in the fridge until it’s time to judge.

Another contestant that catches Louis’s attention is the man right in front of him, dressed in a garishly red sweater that Louis had noticed bobbing around the edges of his vision a while ago. He’s standing still now, though, and Louis takes in his handsome profile and dark facial hair. Next to him, a boy around Louis’s age is pacing in a circle and nervously biting his fingernails.

Finally, the judging begins, and Louis stands still and strains his ears. This is the important part, not the idle chitchat that the others participated in while Louis was measuring and whisking and stirring.

“Niall,” Paul says to the first bloke with a grin. He seems to have taken a liking to him already, which only stings a little. “Let’s see this miracle Swiss roll of yours.”

It turns out to be a completely boring, regular, run-of-the-mill roll, white sponge and white cream and red berry jam. Mary, however, waxes poetic about it for close to a minute.

Louis feels betrayed.

By the time they’ve reached him, some of the joy of a job well done has dissipated, and he finds his confidence evaporating as the judges raise their eyebrows.

“It certainly looks impressive,” says Paul.

“Very beautiful,” Mary agrees. “You have an artistic touch.”

Louis shuts his eyes firmly closed while Paul navigates the first forkful to his mouth. It’s awful, absolutely terrible, why had Louis ever thought this would be a good idea—

They love it. They love it, praising Louis’s clever choice of flavours and technical ability in rolling the cake, and Louis shoots from the deepest pits of hell to cloud nine.

Everything is alright after all, it seems. Louis is ahead. He’s doing this. Left, right, one step at a time.

Harry is the last one up. Louis’s knees are weak by now, and he pulls in a stool and sits, finally out of shot. He can’t help turning around and watching, like everybody in the room is – watching Harry bite his lips into a frenzied dark red, long lashes fanning out over his cheeks when he closes his eyes, breathes in, breathes out.

It’s only now that Louis notices his Swiss roll is orange. He hadn’t made a carrot cake, surely?

“Oh, I am excited for this,” says Paul as he picks up a knife, and through the V of his unbuttoned shirt, Harry’s chest rises and falls in a rhythm so rapid it looks dangerous. “We’ve never had home-preserved pumpkin on the show before. That’s impressive.” 


Harry dimples, teeth still sunk into his lip and smiling prettily, but all Louis can hear is pumpkin. Harry made a pumpkin Swiss roll. In March.

As he watches Paul and Mary dig in, Louis wants, suddenly, to have a taste of his own. He always puts a bit of himself into his bakes, an essence of hard work and concentration and just a little pinch of flair, and he wants to know, quite desperately, what Harry’s flavour is. How he’s managed to get his swirl perfectly even and his filling stiff when he seems barely in control of his hands.

This is, of course, strictly because Louis needs to gather intel on his enemies. Which goes against his initial strategy of keeping his head down and taking Star Baker every week – still, he supposes adjustments can be made, especially when Paul closes his eyes and makes a little noise of pleasure.

Harry is the hippie, then, the golden child, the adorable one the whole nation is about to fall in love with. The kind of person who bakes homemade Poptarts.

Louis knows his reality show archetypes.

He’s left reeling when they’re given a thirty-minute break and ushered out into the holding room. There’s also a headache building in the centre of his forehead, but it’s nothing that a cup of tea can’t fix.

“Well done,” a voice says, just as Louis is sneering at the complementary tea bags in distaste. People really need to stop ambushing him from the back.

When he turns around, he’s face to face with a whole lot of red knit – his station neighbour.

“Thank you,” he says, because his mother didn’t raise him in a barn. “You too.”

He’s not actually sure what he’s talking about – he thinks the man might’ve made something with nuts and too little filling, but he’d been so jittery by then it’s really only a hazy memory.

The man smiles, tight, and Louis dislikes him immediately, but not the way he dislikes Harry. This is more of a gut feeling, an uncomfortable stirring that has everything to do with the stranger’s sinister eyes and overconfident posture.


“I’m Ben,” he introduces himself, and his hand is cold when Louis shakes it.

“Louis,” says Louis, only because it’s the polite thing to do, and watches in surprise as Ben backs away from him and moves a couple steps to the left to bother someone else.

“What a wanker,” says another voice. It’s the bleached blond bloke this time, and Louis, while always wary around people, feels marginally less uncomfortable in his presence than he did in Ben’s. It’s something about the boy’s ruddy red cheeks and easy smile. “He threw a walnut at me earlier.”

Louis blinks. “A walnut?”

The boy nods, very serious, and takes a sip from his water bottle. Louis realises his water has boiled, and pours himself a cup of disgusting bagged Earl Grey.

“Probably didn’t like that I got better comments than him,” he continues, and there’s a little smirk tucked into the corner of his mouth, mischievous and nervous at the same time.

“I didn’t like that you got comments like that for a plain berry roll,” Louis quips before he can stop himself.

To his immense surprise, the boy descends into a deep belly laugh, a joyful sound that fills the entire tent and has people turning around and looking. “Well you didn’t throw things at me, did you?” he snorts, going even redder than he was originally. “M’ Niall, by the way.”

Louis shakes his proffered hand with distrust. He doesn’t like it when people are nice in face of his mean comments. It confuses him.

“Louis,” he introduces himself, again, and thinks that he’s already had enough of it. His watch says there’s still fifteen minutes to go before they go back in and set up for the technical bake – plenty of time to get nervous and, unfortunately, plenty of time for strangers to pester Louis and try to throw him off his game.

“Nice to meet you, Louis,” Niall grins. “Enjoying the competition so far?”

Louis opens his mouth to give some sort of generically pleasing, absent-minded answer, eyes scanning the room, and words die in his throat when he spots Harry.

He’s standing in the very corner of the tent, with his back turned to the room and his head hung low. There’s a prominent crease in the back of his shirt that gets deeper every time he shifts and cocks his hip and then goes back to standing still. Harry’s hands are folded behind his back, and he’s got his fingers twisted together in complicated little pretzel shapes, so tight his knuckles have gone white. Louis can’t see his face, but he’s spent a lot of time backstage before theatre performances – he knows fright when he sees it.

It’s this strange, invisible pull that makes him do it, a force that feels like it comes from within the universe itself, is bigger than Louis, uncontrollable. It’s not entirely of his own will when he sets his cup down, mutters an “excuse me” to Niall and grabs a water bottle off the catering table.

It’s not of his own will when he approaches Harry, feeling almost unsure. It can’t be.

“Everything okay?” he asks when he’s within hearing range. From here, the sound of Harry’s breathing is clearly audible, a loud, frenzied rasp. He doesn’t turn around, doesn’t move, doesn’t act like he even heard Louis say something. “Harry?” he tries again, all the while screaming at himself internally.

Leave, he tells himself. Let him be. He’s not your concern.

But something has been awakened in Louis, a protective instinct that comes, perhaps, from sharing a small house with a gaggle of young, vulnerable girls. He’s had to hold all of them in his arms on countless nights when they were choking on sobs while mum and dad shouted at each other downstairs.

“Harry,” he says, one last time. Finally, he seems to get through – Harry’s hitching breaths slow in frequency, and he straightens his slumped shoulders a little.

“Louis?” he asks, tentative. His voice is raspy.

“Yup,” says Louis curtly. He’s decided that since he’s already here, already helping, the least he can do for himself is be coolly polite at best. “You alright? We’re going back in in five minutes.”

Harry turns around. The sight of him shocks Louis a little. He’s gone pale, almost clammy, with small, wavy strands of hair sticking to his forehead. The pleasant boyish blush has gone from his cheeks, and has been replaced by an unnatural, sickly white.

“I’m good,” he croaks, and attempts a weak smile. His lips are ever redder than before. Louis chastises himself for noticing. “A little nervous, is all. The technicals are always difficult.”

Louis wordlessly offers him the water, and flinches when Harry reaches for it, clumsy fingers brushing across the back of Louis’s hand. He downs the entire bottle in four gulps, Adam’s apple bobbing furiously, and Louis has an unrestrained view of the long, elegant line of his neck.

Harry is gorgeous, yes. Anybody with eyes could objectively see that. Louis is fine.

“Thank you,” Harry rushes out with a massive exhale once all the water is gone. “I really needed that.”

That smile makes its way back on his face. He still looks a little crumpled, a little worse for wear, but Louis notes that his breathing has gone back to normal. He almost manages to suppress the shake of his hands when he throws the empty bottle in the bin.

“You’re welcome.”

And then they’re called back. Louis spares Harry one last glance, satisfied to see that his work here is done, and fights his way to the front of the line.

*

Harry bombs his angel food cake. He’d greased the tin, a rookie mistake as far as Louis is concerned, then forgot to invert it to cool, and the whole thing has collapsed in on itself. It’s sitting just one plate away from Louis’s, which, while missing the crisp, sharp edge Louis had been looking for, is still an excellent effort.

They’ve been instructed to show as little emotion as possible while the camera crew get a few shots of them looking vaguely anxious, but two stools down from Louis, Harry seems to be having a difficult time. Everyone’s staring at him by now. He’s only got eyes for his ruined cake, looking at the other bakes down the line and then coming back to the sad, crumpled heap.

Louis does feel a twinge of sympathy. He’d seen Harry stroke the dry ingredients into his egg whites with an impressively light touch, and his lemon curd looks perfect.

It’s just that, well. If he doesn’t have the technical skill, and the wits to know that a cake so light needs to grip onto the tin if it is to rise, he shouldn’t be here.

Harry, to the surprise of no one, finishes in twelfth place. He raises his hand sheepishly, face blotchy and hair falling into his eyes, and Mary smiles at him kindly and congratulates him on his flavours. Louis places third, behind Perrie the purple-haired girl and Ben the snob.

“That was terrible,” Niall quips as they’re all gathering their things from the holding room, chewing on a piece of his own cake. Louis hadn’t even noticed him approach. “Too fucking stressful. I need to do better tomorrow.”

“You placed fourth,” Louis raises an eyebrow, refusing to give him any more attention than strictly necessary. He’s trying to dig his mobile out of the depths of his backpack. “I’d hardly call that a bad performance.”

“I agree,” says Zayn from behind them.

Now, Zayn is somewhat of an enigma. He’d appeared in the marquee sometime during the technical bake, slinking between their stations like a very handsome shadow, smiling at the contestants and asking questions in a low tone. Louis had ignored him, much like he ignores the rest of the crew, partly because he’s been instructed to do so and partly because he sees no reason not to.

Once Zayn reached him, though, he’d folded his arms over his chest and asked, eyes twinkling: “Need any help?”

“Not at all,” Louis had said, focused on keeping the touch of his spatula light as he stirred his batter. “I’ve got it.”

“Made angel food before, then?”

“Many times,” Louis had nodded. He’d transferred his batter into the tin, then, and Zayn had smiled as he watched him.

“Good. I’ll leave you to it, just call if you’re in trouble.”

Louis hadn’t found anything strange about it then, but once the cake was in the oven and he had a second to relax, staring into the depths of his pot of lemon curd and thinking, he’d realised that nobody should be offering him help during a competition.

As it turns out, Zayn’s official title is food producer. His unofficial title is the bloke who pokes his nose into other people’s business and helps them with things they should be able to do. Louis hadn’t exactly been shocked to know they have help ready on set. It’s just a little…sobering.

Zayn has a certain kind of presence, a quiet charisma that can take hold of a room, and Niall appears to be completely caught in it. He goes red when he hears Zayn’s comment, and his “thank you” is barely discernible through his giant grin.

“What about me?” Louis asks, on his way to teasing as the stress of the day falls off slowly. It’s already dark outside, and he can’t wait to get to Harptree Court, the bed and breakfast that’s to be their home for the next two months, and find himself a nice, comfortable bed.

Zayn snorts, wraps an arm around Niall’s shoulders, and leads him outside with a small wave of goodbye in Louis’s direction.

Finally, Louis manages to locate his phone and get out. The air is crisp, infused with the last breath of winter that has yet to turn into spring, and the grass crunches under his feet as Louis makes his way across the grounds, drawn to the main building of the B&B and the yellow lights that are on in all the windows.

It’s much warmer inside. The air carries lively conversation from what Louis remembers to be the kitchen, and the tantalising scent of dinner, but the exhaustion of the first day is more urgent. It feels heavy, like weights hung on Louis’s bones as he locates his suitcase in the lobby and manoeuvres it up the stairs, where the guest rooms are.

There are twelve of them and, Louis has been told, six available rooms. He has no hope of getting to pick his roommate, since he’s the last one settling in, but as he makes his way down the dimly lit corridor, he prays quietly for someone reasonable.

It’s a charming place, Harptree Court. Louis still firmly hates it here, but he has to admit that there is something comfortably homely about the faded photographs on the walls and the heavy, worn-down rugs that cover the floors. It smells like allspice on the inside, a little like Louis’s grandnan’s house where years and years of baking have soaked into the walls.

The rooms he reveals behind heavy wooden doors, one by one, turn out to be an endearingly mismatched mess. The beds are different sizes, the bedclothes soft and worn, adorned with old-fashioned floral patterns.

To Louis’s misfortune, all the rooms are also fully occupied. It’s only in the last one that he finds a free bed, a narrow little thing tucked away by the window. The view is quite breathtaking, looking out over the vast green grounds with no trace of the marquee, the competition. Maybe Louis will get a good night’s sleep, not think about the stress of the upcoming day. He knows he’s doing well, but he’s not the best. That’s dangerous.

He wanders back out to find the bathroom, and brushes his teeth above a rustic little sink, staring at his reflection in a mirror awash with small black specks that indicate its age. The light overhead is white, rather than yellow, and it makes Louis look like a ghost, like the too-fast pace of today, of the past weeks and months, is only just catching up with him now. He really just wants to fall into bed and not think for a while.

Naturally, the universe has different plans. It’s the only explanation for why Louis walks back into his room, changed into pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, and finds a naked Harry Styles.

On second glance, he might not be completely naked. The tiny pair of pants he’s wearing does not, however, leave much to the imagination.

They both squeak when Louis opens the door. Harry looks up at him with big doe eyes, clutching a shirt in his hands, and lets out an additional shriek.

“Sorry,” Louis coughs out immediately, his face heating up. Don’t look, he keeps telling himself, a loop inside his head as they both freeze in uncertainty. Don’t look don’t look don’t look. Stop. “Oh God, I’m, uh—I’ll wait outside.”

He backs out, trips over the threshold, and closes the door behind himself with a clunk.

Alone in the quiet corridor, he leans against the wall and lets gravity pull him to the ground, slumping in a sad little heap. In the relative darkness, he can’t escape the images that have burned into his mind, tattooed on the back of his eyelids.

Harry is gorgeous. He looks fucking incredible, and Louis has to work hard to deny the warmth squirming low in his gut, boring into him insistently like it wants him to give in and admit it, but he can’t.

Besides, he only met Harry twelve hours ago. It’s creepy to lust after him like this, and it doesn’t matter how toned his stomach is, how dark the small patch of hair that disappears into his pants; his sparse chest hair that’s simultaneously adorable and incredibly hot is irrelevant, and the way he looked when Louis barged in on him, red mouth open in surprise and a dark blush painting his face, hair mussed up and spilling over naked shoulders in ringlets and waves, well—Louis will do everyone a favour by not thinking about it. It’s some sort of weird infatuation, probably born from stress and lack of sleep. It will be gone by the next weekend.

“Um,” somebody clears their throat, and Louis’s head snaps up. He hadn’t realised Harry had come out of the room, standing in the doorway barefoot and rumpled-looking. “Sorry. I just—you can come in now. If you want.” He rubs a hand across the back of his neck, and he almost looks self-conscious.

Louis picks himself up, resolutely tamping down on the lazy heat licking its way through his veins, and follows Harry inside. He doesn’t look at him as he heads for his own bed, lies down, and pulls the covers all the way up to his ears.

The spring nights are chilly, he tells himself. The creaking radiator in the corner of the room is not enough. It’s cold.

It’s silent, for a while, and Louis watches out of the corner of his eye as Harry putters around, parking his suitcase in a corner so it’s out of the way. When he slides a hair tie off his wrist and pulls his hair up into a bun, Louis’s breath hitches.

“Sorry,” Harry says then, as he turns around to face Louis. His face looks different when it’s not framed by hair, softer and more angular all at once. He looks feminine, almost, pretty, Louis thinks. “I didn’t know where you’d gone, and I wasn’t sure when you were coming back, so I just—yeah.”

“It’s fine,” Louis mumbles. He feels so inexplicably embarrassed. “Where else are you supposed to change?”

“Right,” Harry chuckles awkwardly. “Right, yeah. And you didn’t knock, either.”

“I didn’t know you were in here!”

Harry looks at him as he climbs into bed. In the low light of their bedside lamps, his eyes are twinkling with mirth – he’s teasing Louis, and the knowledge of it sends a hot thrill down his spine. He squirms under the covers and ignores it.

“Anyway. Sorry for that. Won’t happen again,” Louis says, and he turns to face the wall. The wallpaper is a pale green, painted with shadows, and the way the light meets it reminds Louis of Harry’s eyes under the white roof of the marquee, the same eyes that he can now feel burning into his back.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Harry mumbles, just loud enough for Louis to catch. Louis clenches his hand into a fist, involuntary, and presses his face into the pillow.

This can’t go on, he thinks as he listens to the soft sounds of Harry settling into bed, stretching, sighing, turning the pages of a book. This is not the plan, not how it’s supposed to happen.

Louis is starting over tomorrow. He’s focusing on the competition. No more growing soft and laughing with the other contestants. No more staring at pretty boys. No more feeling sorry for those who aren’t good enough to make the cut.

No more.

*

Louis starts off strong on his showstopper. He’d been putting the recipe together for weeks, striving for a hidden design cake that’s impressive but not too childish, balanced in flavour but not too boring, eye-catching but not eclectic.

“What’s up?” Zayn asks as he appears in front of Louis’s station, sticking fingers into his used bowls. “Chocolate? I wouldn’t have pegged you for a chocolate man.”

Truth is, Louis definitely is a chocolate man. His favourite dessert is box mix brownies, because they’re what his mum used to make when he was small. He’s never told anyone this, of course, and he never will.

“It’s a carrot patch cake,” Louis snaps, just this side of too harsh, kneading food colouring into his fondant.

Zayn laughs, delighted, and pulls the eyes of the entire marquee to him. “A carrot patch cake,” he repeats. “That’s adorable.”

Louis hears a small giggle from behind him, light and innocent and wholly infuriating. He gives Zayn a thin-lipped smile and hopes it conveys just how much he’d like him to fuck off, now. He’s toeing the line, Louis is, this close to tipping off a cliff, it feels like. He’s been trying to hold himself together, never looking away form his work, never leaving his station, barely raising his head to answer the production’s incessant questions.

He’s baking, that’s why he’s here, and he wishes everyone around him would stop making him question that. Everything he has is riding on this; he has nothing to go back to, has nothing but hours spent in the kitchen, where everything finally feels like it’s okay.

Louis needs to win. He needs to win, he needs to win, he needs to win. He needs this, more than he needs to make pretend friends he’ll forget about in the space of a week.

“Make the fondant yourself?” Zayn asks, apparently oblivious to Louis’s cues.

“Yes,” Louis sighs, “of course. This is a baking competition, I’m not going to use pre-made.”

He’s very aware that right in front of him, Ben is currently trying to drape his cake in a layer of fondant that came from a packet. Fuck Ben, though. He throws walnuts at people.

Louis bends down to check on his cake and get his biscuits out of the oven. Zayn keeps standing there, deceptively quiet as he watches Louis roll his fondant out and make it into leaves, a process that’s wonderfully repetitive and allows Louis respite in the rush to complete the challenge.

Zayn has to move on eventually, when the camera crew is ready for another take to scope out the tent as tension runs high. Louis doesn’t let the palpable nerves in the air bother him. He’s on top of everything – his chocolate cake is damn good, the ginger-spiced carrots inside are flavoured to perfection, he’s got the fondant leaves spread out on his moulds and settling into their shape, the biscuits are just this side of hard and perfect to crumble in the food processor – the only thing left to make before he decorates is the ganache, and that he could make in his sleep.

He realises he has enough time to go make himself a cup of tea, and as soon as the cameras are gone and he’s done answering Jen’s quiet questions, he turns to head into the holding room.

What he doesn’t count on is turning around and seeing Harry Styles in all his glory. He’d got in after Louis this morning, and Louis had determinedly avoided looking at him all day, but he can’t help it, now – can’t help the strange warmth he feels when he sees him with his hair up in a bun and his sheer floral shirt unbuttoned all the way to his navel, a dried streak of red batter on his cheek. He’s got bottles and bottles of food colouring lined up on the counter, and Louis bets that the next time he turns around, he’s going to see Paul and Mary judging a rainbow cake.

He takes a deep breath and passes by without another glance. When he comes back, sipping on another one of those disgusting bagged teas, the marquee seems to be descending into chaos. In the back, Harry’s covered in green icing all the way up his forearms, and in front of him, a burly man Louis thinks might be named Alberto is wiping his face on his apron as he stares into his oven and sweats. Niall is cackling from the front, but it’s the kind of laugh that happens when you don’t want to cry.

Louis strolls to his station, gets his cake out to cool, and sets out a platter. It takes him all of five minutes to put everything together, fondant leaves on top of chocolate crumbs on top of ganache, fun and professional all at the same time. Now the only thing to do is pray that the ginger cake in the middle hadn’t shrunk.

The second camera unit makes one last panicked round around the stations, incessant questions that produce snappy answers and not much else. Louis cocks his hip, leans against the counter, and watches. Harry whines and clatters with dishes behind him, but Louis resolutely refuses to turn around.

Finally, Sue calls the time. Icing bags drop as fast as quite a few people’s hopes, by the looks of it – from where he is, Louis can see several cakes that look painfully unfinished. He tells himself he doesn’t feel like whooping in triumph.

“Hello,” Sue grins when Louis brings his cake to the front. “Oh, I’m excited about this one.”

“What are we expecting to see?” asks Paul, brandishing his knife. Louis shrinks away involuntarily.

“There should be carrots inside,” he says, hands folded behind his back. “Those are a ginger spiced vanilla sponge, and the rest is chocolate.”

He holds his breath as Paul grabs both ends of the cake, pulls the halves apart, and turns them. Louis’s knees buckle in relief – a perfectly shaped, bright orange carrot sits right in the middle, nestled in the chocolate sponge like it’s part of it.

“I’d say that’s a job well done,” Paul grins. “Now let’s see how it tastes.”

Mary wrings her fingers in contemplation. “Did you make your own fondant?”

“Of course,” Louis smiles, and hopes it comes across as gracious. “The biscuits for the crumb, as well.”

“Naturally,” she grins. There’s a break while they reset the cameras and an assistant moves Louis a few steps to the left, and then their forks finally, finally dig in. Louis holds his breath.

Paul chews a little, looking up at the ceiling. At the side of the table, Mel makes a noise that sounds generally positive.

“That,” Paul says, pointing his fork at the cake like he does, “is delicious.”

Louis’s spontaneous reaction is to bring his hands up to his face and grin into them. It’s a little bit embarrassing, perhaps, but Louis doesn’t care – this is it. This is the moment that sets his pace for the rest of the competition, and it’s good. He’s going to be the one everyone bets on; he’s going to win.

He’s going to achieve something, finally.

“Thank you,” he says – squeaks, really – and focuses on Mary as she tastes the cake and nods.

“Absolutely scrummy,” she agrees, and smiles at Louis. “The chocolate sponge is excellent, just the right texture, and the flavours merge together beautifully. Well done.”

“Thanks,” Louis grins, and it feels like he’ll never be able to get his face under control again. “Thank you.”

Sue winks at him as he picks up his plate, and he beams back at her. He quite likes her, he’s decided. She’s nice.

He can feel the camera trailing him as he walks to his station. Back there, Harry already has a sunny grin ready, his eyes twinkling like stars when he looks at Louis.

“Good job,” he says.

Louis wants to tell him that he doesn’t need his approval; that he’s done well and he knows it and the praise only matters if it’s from the judges – but he doesn’t, in the end. He has no real reason to. Harry’s just being a good sport. He doesn’t mean it any more than Louis will when he congratulates Niall on pulling himself out of a slump after they’re done filming.

All he does is smile. “Thank you,” he says, and his eyes catch on Harry’s bake. It seems—small.

“What’s that?” he asks, still riding the high, and assures himself that this is the last time he gives in to curiosity when it comes to Harry.

Harry beams and holds up his cake stand. “A leprechaun trap!”

From the front, Niall makes a noise like a dying animal. Harry giggles, and lovingly wipes away a green smudge of icing from the side of the stand.

Louis blinks. Blinks again. The world doesn’t make any more sense. “Why is it a trap?”

Harry beckons him closer, and Louis barely thinks about it as he moves toward his station.

“See,” Harry says, pointing to the middle, where a pile of gold-dusted chocolate nuggets is sitting. “This is to lure the leprechaun in. Once it comes for the gold…” he pokes the pile, and some of the nuggets shift, “the trap.” The hole in the middle of the cake is barred – with pretzel sticks. Harry is grinning with dimples deep in his cheeks and happy little bags under his eyes, and Louis just. Stares.

“Oh my God,” he says, eventually. It’s just about the only phrase he’s capable of putting together.

What is Harry Styles?

Harry Styles, as it turns out when Paul cuts into his bake, has made a perfect rainbow sponge. Every colour is a different flavour, because of course it is. Mary’s eyes are twinkling as she congratulates him on a job well done, and Louis can tell, he can tell that Harry is already her favourite. He looks exactly like the type to effortlessly charm old ladies.

He skips back to his station, ridiculous hair bouncing as he carries his rainbow monstrosity back. It’s—garish, for sure, so colourful it hurts Louis’s eyes a little, but it’s somehow the most heartfelt cake in the room. Louis couldn’t be prouder of his bake, but there’s something—there’s something. Something about Harry Styles and the earnest way he measures, pours, mixes, scrapes. Something about the tip of his tongue poking out of his mouth as he knocks the air out of his batter.

While Louis gets lost in the labyrinth of his thoughts, the crew wraps up around him. That’s it. It’s curtain closed for the next three hours or so. There’s nothing left to do but wait.

Louis grabs his half-empty cup, makes himself a fresh one in the holding room, and sneaks out for a cigarette.

*

Ben wins Star Baker. Ben – whatever his last fucking name is – with his unimaginative checkerboard layered sponge and shop-bought fondant and runny lemon curd and that infuriating fucking smirk. His sinister, beady little eyes bore straight into Louis as he smiles and graciously accepts the honour, or whatever.

Louis is pissed. He hugs everyone woodenly for the final pan-out shot, and as soon as he’s released, he yanks off his apron and takes the grounds at a run to get to the B&B. His things are strewn all around the room, but he doesn’t care, single-mindedly collects them all and slams his suitcase shut.

It’s time to get home and start practising.

*

Week two: Biscuits

week two

Louis’s alarm goes off at five thirty on Monday morning. It’s not quite dark outside anymore, the sky stuck in that foggy, grey-blue limbo just before the dawn, and the floors are freezing as he pads into the kitchen.

He finds it just the way he’d left it last night, two neat rows of ingredients lined up on the counter, a set of timers, a roll of paper towels. He’s got approximately twelve hours before the exhaustion catches up with him, and he intends to use every single minute.

He makes the macarons first, puts an hour and a half on the clock and sets off. His stomach is growling, and the wan morning sun slowly makes its way into the sky, blinding him, but Louis doesn’t care. He’s meticulous, a machine, exactly the way it’s supposed to be. He cuts the passionfruit open, scrapes out the seeds, starts the jam. Measures out his almonds and flour, passionfruit powder, egg whites, food colouring, mixes and puts the meringue base on heat, all to the rhythm of the clock. The second hand ticks away, never changing pace, and Louis finds solace in the familiarity of it. He’s back in his own kitchen. The magic can happen now.

At about ten, when he’s working on his second batch of macarons and through with three batches of the savoury biscuits, Liam lets himself into the flat.

“Lou?” he calls out, barely breaking Louis’s focus. “You in here?”

“Kitchen,” Louis says. He feels sweat beading on his forehead; the timer is down to forty-five minutes, and he’s only just piping.

Liam’s footsteps are heavy as he pads through the living room and to Louis, familiar and distracting all at the same time.

“There you are,” he says. Louis hears a smile in his voice – bets he’s standing in the door, leaning against the frame with one shoulder, watching Louis dissolve into a complete mess. “What’s this week again?”

“Biscuits,” says Louis, and gives his ganache a stir. “Tell me what you think.”

He lets go of the piping bag, finally, moves the baking sheet aside to rest, and straightens up. Just as he’d thought, Liam is beaming at him from the doorway, dressed in a vest and shorts, dripping sweat.

“Why do you always jog here?” he asks as he wipes his face with a kitchen towel, trying to still the nervous twitch in his fingers. It’s fine, he tries to tell his body, his empty hands that are still clenching with muscle memory. There’s approximately a minute and a half to go before the ganache needs to be taken off the flame. He can give Liam his attention for that long.

Liam shrugs as he steps inside the kitchen and heads straight for Louis. He opens his arms, because he always just knows, somehow, and Louis gratefully takes a step forward and falls into him.

“Hi,” Liam says as he pats Louis on the back, all gruff and manly and ridiculous, probably to make Louis laugh. “How was it?”

“Hi,” says Louis. “Terrifying.”

Liam pulls away just enough to look Louis in the eye. His eyebrows are furrowed. “Did you screw something up? Why didn’t you call?”

Louis feels a fond tickle of warmth in his stomach as he looks at his best friend. “I didn’t screw up. Just, I don’t know. It was a lot to take in. Too many people.”

Or person. Maybe. Possibly.

Liam touches Louis’s shoulder, his neck, his chest, like he’s checking for injuries. What a mama bear. Louis loves him.

“Are you sure you can do this?” he asks. “You do look knackered.”

“I’ll be fine, Li,” he shrugs, and twists out of the circle of Liam’s arms to take care of his ganache. “I always am. I went in to win it, and I can.”

“You know winning isn’t everything, right?” Liam takes a seat at Louis’s tiny kitchen table and breaks a macaron in half. Louis distractedly registers that the crunch of it sounds nice. Good.

“It kind of is,” he says, pressing his lips together to avoid being snappy.

They’ve had this conversation too many times already. It always ends in anger and hurt and both of them saying things they don’t mean, and Louis doesn’t need that, doesn’t want that right now. What he wants is Liam’s quiet presence in his kitchen, a steady rhythm of breathing that matches his own and makes him feel less alone. Somebody to turn to and complain when a biscuit spreads too much.

Just this once, just today. Just until he gets his bearings back and stops feeling like the world has been turned upside down and slipped away from beneath his fingers.

“These are amazing,” Liam says through a half-chewed mouthful of biscuit and ganache. “You’re amazing.”

Louis flushes with pleasure, but it’s dull, nothing like the vivid song of blood in his veins whenever he gets something right, whenever somebody congratulates him on a job well done.

It’s a strange morning, foggy and sunny at the same time. Louis kind of feels the same – like there’s a veil over his eyes, over his thoughts, like he hasn’t quite woken up yet even though the clock is ticking quietly, counting away the seconds to noon.

It’s because of the competition, he knows, because of something he can’t quite put his finger on that threw him off balance, but he’s taken aback at how strong the feeling is, how disoriented he feels in a space that’s wholly and entirely his own. He keeps missing spoons and spatulas when he reaches out without looking, and he’s opened the wrong drawer three times in the past hour.

“And I meant what I said, you know,” Liam continues, not expecting a reply to his compliment, because Louis never gives one. “There’s more important things. Just the fact that you made it there, you’ll be on the telly, it’ll open so many doors—“

“Liam,” Louis says, quiet. “Please.”

“It’s been five years, Lou.”

“Exactly,” Louis says, and he taps the tray against the counter with a little too much force. “I’ve worked too hard to give up.”

Liam sighs, a small, sad thing. “Not winning doesn’t mean giving up.”

Louis doesn’t answer him. He puts his macarons in the oven, calm and collected, happy when the hot air touches his face for the briefest of moments and chases the cold away.

Liam sighs again. He tends to do that a lot around Louis, always has – especially way back in sixth form, when Louis discovered that the curly-haired puppy of a human who always sat alone at lunch was really good at geography, and proceeded to exploit him for homework and test results. Liam used to get so frustrated with Louis’s constant jabs he’d have tears in his eyes, hands shaking and face red, and tell him to please leave and come back another day.

Louis likes to think he’s loosened him up a little, since then, and become much less of an arsehole in the process. Hopefully.

And Liam, very much used to dealing with Louis when he’s like this, lets it go. He’s amazing like that. “What about the others, then?” he asks, biting down on a savoury biscuit and switching to what he probably considers a lighter topic – except now there’s a stone in Louis’s stomach and a lump in his throat and he can’t quite find his voice. “Are they any good?”

“Nah,” Louis says, only half-joking, even as guilt stabs him sharply in the throat. “Nothing I can’t handle. Couple of housewives, some bullshit organic hippies, one really weird uni kid,” he says, thinking of Niall’s bottle blond hair and charmingly crooked teeth. He doesn’t let the thought of Harry so much as cross his mind; he doesn’t. “The usual.”

“Are the cameras around, like, always? I read an article in the Telegraph that said you have to answer questions every five minutes.”

“Since when do you read the Telegraph?” Louis raises an eyebrow, throws a smile over his shoulder to let Liam know he’s joking. “Dunno. There’s too many of us still, it’s hard to tell. I guess you’ll see at the party.”

“What party?” Liam asks, lighting up when Louis scrapes his ganache into a piping bag and hands him the bowl to lick.

“The one in the final,” Louis answers, distracted as he manoeuvres the hot tray out of the oven. “With family and friends and whatnot.”

“Oh,” Liam breathes, “you’ll invite me to that?”

Louis can’t help rolling his eyes, fond. The room feels warmer around him, sun peeking in through the window, and everything is just a little more okay. Liam’s here. “Who the fuck else would I invite?”

He turns around, just to see Liam’s face as he frowns contemplatively. There’s a smear of chocolate all the way across his left cheek.

“I thought…“ he starts, and he’s not looking at Louis. That’s never good. “I thought maybe you’ll have—“ he stops himself. He’s scratching the tabletop with his free hand, and Louis is suddenly horribly certain of what he’s about to say. He scrambles to turn around, lean against the counter, latch on to anything that will hold him up when Liam inevitably continues, but the silence stretches and shrinks and quivers between them, and still he says nothing, until: “No, never mind. You know I’ll be there.”

Louis is shaking like a leaf. “I know,” he says, and ignores the icy feeling that’s settled inside his chest. “I know.”

*

That evening, after Louis has exhausted himself to the point where he physically can’t bake any more, he turns on the telly and slumps onto his lumpy little couch. He feels so pleasant, so numb, exactly the way he likes it best, his head empty except for the two recipes he’s memorised. He takes a while, in the blissful quiet of his flat, to piece the steps together with muscle memory, to make sure he’s as ready as can be. He’ll do this again tomorrow, and probably the day after that, until he’s completely sick of passionfruit and sunflower seeds.

Once he gets too tired to even think properly, images blurring into a haze of colours and shapes in his mind, he opens his eyes and tries to focus on the telly. He thinks he recognises Alan Carr’s face cackling on the screen, but he doesn’t hear what he’s talking about, or the tinny laughter of his audience.

He gets up, shaky on his feet, and pads to the window to light up a cigarette. It’s the last one in the pack.

As he watches the blue smoke disappear into the night, forming elegant, flowing shapes that stay for a blink of an eye and then cease to exist, he tries not to think about the mobile burning a hole in the pocket of his trousers.

I thought maybe you’ll have…

Damn Liam to hell.

He knows not to bring it up. He’s been there every step of the way as Louis pulled himself out of the mud, and he knows that Louis likes to pretend it’s a scar, long healed and faded into the skin of his life, only there when somebody’s looking for it; he also knows that that’s not true.

It’s a gash. A wound. It still hurts, and it always will, and Louis can’t bring himself to make it any worse. He has no idea what Liam was thinking – should Louis just pick up the phone and call? Just like that? Why should he? What would he say? How could he possibly—

Anyway.

He puts the cigarette out on the windowsill, a quiet hiss against the cold metal. The night air is cool, refreshing, smelling of blooming flowers and spring even in the city. Louis is already thinking about home, and the scent only strengthens the feeling, adds yet another layer of heaviness to Louis’s shoulders. Doncaster used to be wonderful in the spring. He remembers the sun, somehow warmer than it is here in the South, beating down on his shoulders as he ran through tall, green grass, chasing his sisters, laughing with them.

The memory leaves a bitter taste on his tongue. He wishes desperately he could light up another one, breathe his worries out with the smoke.

There’s no sense dwelling on it, he knows. He has a competition to win, and that’s all that matters.


That’s all.

*

ch2

*

Louis is sick of chocolate. He’s sick of chocolate, he’s sick of passionfruit, and the inside of his nose feels like it’s coated in chestnut flour. There are still two days to go before he has to pack up and head to Somerset, and he wishes, more than anything, that he could let himself spend them in bed.

His phone rings just as he finishes what has to be his fifteenth batch of macarons. It startles him so badly he nearly drops an armful of baking trays.

“What the…” he mumbles, rushing to where his mobile is dancing on the counter. Louis gets very few phone calls these days, and the number on the screen is unfamiliar to him; he picks up, figuring it’s production.

“Heeey,” a voice says, laughing. Not production, then.

“Um,” says Louis. “Hello?”

“Louis,” the voice crows, evidently pleased. Louis thinks there’s something familiar about the cheerful lilt of it. “How’s it going?”

“I’m, uh. Sorry, but—who are you?”

Laughter. “For God’s sake. It’s Niall.”

Oh. Oh, Louis thinks as he scratches his forehead, tries to remember accidentally giving his number to a loud Irish person, but he comes up with a blank. “Bake Off Niall?” he asks, just to be sure, and prompts another peal of delighted laughter.

“Bake Off Niall,” he confirms. “That sounds nice.”

Why is he still laughing? “Why are you still laughing?”

“You sound just as prissy on the phone as you do in person,” is his reply. “It’s hilarious.”

Louis bristles, ready to defend himself, but he finds that he can’t quite accomplish it. Niall’s good mood appears to be infectious, and Louis already feels more relaxed than he did five minutes ago.

Besides, he’s at home. There’s nobody to put up a front for, here.

“What do you want?” he asks, straight to the point.

Niall chuckles. “Come have a pint with me.”


“A pint?” Louis frowns.

“Yes, Louis. A pint. Of alcohol. Usually beer, but I’m sure we could swing something else.”

“Why are you—how do you even have my number?”

“That’s not important,” Niall says, and Louis can see his unnaturally bright grin, even through the phone. “What’s important is that I don’t know where you live, so you’ve got to meet me there.”

“But I’m not—I have to practise,” Louis stammers. His skin is suddenly itchy, like he’s being put on the spot even though he’s alone in his kitchen and the end call button is right there.

He doesn’t tap it, for some godforsaken reason.

“Nonsense,” says Niall. “D’you know the Tiny Lamb? Off Gresham Street?”

“No?”

“Ah,” Niall crows, “well. You’ll find it, for sure. I’ll wait for you out front. Don’t be late.”

And he hangs up, as in, actually hangs up the damn phone. Louis is left with a beeping in his ear and overwhelming confusion that’s mounting by the minute. What the hell, he thinks, and decides to go right back to baking, but. But.

As he turns around, he catches sight of the blanket of dusk falling over the city. The beautiful purples and oranges and reds paint reflections in the windows of Louis’s neighbours, like a hundred little eyes blinking at him, and the evening breeze stirs the leaves of Mrs Havisham’s vinca flowers one balcony over. It looks like a beautiful night, the kind that, once upon a time, would call out to Louis, lure him into the city until he got lost in the bustling noise and bright lights.

He can do a pint. His hands hurt too much to do any more baking, anyway.

Filled with a strange kind of glowing energy, Louis throws open his wardrobe and picks out a presentable pair of jeans to wear. His hair is a disaster, he notes in the bathroom mirror, but he refuses to think about it as he slips into his shoes and opens the door.

He should call Liam about this, after he gets back. Tell him he’d gone out. Louis has a feeling it’s the kind of thing Liam would be excited about.

*

“You’re going to beat all of us,” Niall moans around a bite of macaron. He’s half-slumped into Louis’s side, completely disregarding the concept of personal space, moaning and smacking his lips and making other noises that sound disturbingly sexual. “I can see it now. Louis whatever your other name is, winner of The Great British Bake Off 2015, tells all about how he left those eleven other suckers in the dust.”

Louis can’t quite hide a small, small smile, and he’s grateful that the darkness of the pub disguises his blush. These aren’t genuine compliments, he reminds himself. This is not Liam. Niall is a stranger who just happens to be in the same competition, and Louis is sure he’s got a lot riding on winning the whole thing.

“Piss off,” he grins, takes another sip of his beer, and watches as Niall crams two more macarons into his mouth at once.

It had been a good idea to bring them, after all.

“Nuh,” Niall mumbles, and gives Louis an excellent view of the contents of his mouth. “I mean it,” he says after he’s swallowed. “Mine’re some lemon and rosewater bullshit I’ve never made before. I’ll be happy if I scrape through to next week.”

“Didn’t your practise at all?”

Niall snorts. “Please,” he says, like that’s supposed to answer all of Louis’s questions.

“Seriously?” he frowns, absentmindedly throwing a peanut in his mouth. “And you’re okay with that?”

Niall finally straightens up, slides a little further away in the booth, just like Louis had wanted him to – except now his side is cold, and he feels bizarrely alone.

“It’s not the Hunger Games, mate. I’ll just make a tit of myself on the telly, nothing more, nothing less.”

“But do you—don’t you want to win?”

Niall snorts and frowns at the same time. He eats another macaron. He looks at Louis, and studies him like he’s something very small cowering under a microscope. “Everyone wants to win,” he says, “but losing’s not the end of the world. I’ll start a food blog, or something.”

“Not much of an accomplishment,” Louis mutters bitterly, staring into his beer. “That’s not—anybody can run a food blog.”

Niall shrugs. He seems a little less carefree than when he’d met Louis outside the pub, awash with city lights on the sidewalk, and Louis feels guilty for putting that invisible weight on his shoulders. “Don’t really care for the fame and fortune, to be honest. M’ just in it for the fun.”

Louis would hardly describe slaving away under hot spotlights while seven different people ask you questions and point cameras at your face as fun. He certainly wouldn’t do it if he didn’t have to.

“Why do you care so much about winning, anyway?” Niall asks. He’s got a foam moustache on his upper lip, Louis notices.

He shrugs, staring at the bright yellow lights above the bar. His thoughts feel pleasantly heavy, rolling over each other in lazy waves. He doesn’t want to talk about this, wants to hug his pint and eat the damn complementary peanuts and watch the people around him, see them come and go and wonder how they’re getting home. Who they’re going home to.

“I want to accomplish something,” he settles on, finally. “I want to be rewarded for working hard on something. I want people to look at me and say yes, he deserves this.”

Niall raises an eyebrow, like maybe he doesn’t believe Louis. Which is ridiculous, because Louis is telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Definitely.

“Okay,” Niall drawls. “I reckon you’ve got the best shot at winning it, anyway. You’ll get what you want.”

It should make Louis happy, a reassurance like that, even as empty as it is. He feels small, instead, just this side of cold when he realises that he’d liked Niall’s compliments much better.

“Anyway,” says Niall while Louis stares at the tabletop, “enough about the competition. What d’you like to do?”

Louis raises his head, confused. Is this twenty questions?

“Um. Bake. I like to bake.”

“Obviously,” Niall rolls his eyes. “Besides baking. What else?”

“Uh,” Louis says, and stops there. “I haven’t really thought about that.”

“You haven’t—what,” and he’s laughing again, like it’s a joke. “No watching telly or reading romance novels or doing crosswords or whatever? You just bake? All the time?” There’s a grin on his face, because he clearly thinks this is good- natured fun.

The problem is— “Yes, yeah, I guess. I mean, I usually go to work, but I’ve got time off now.”

Niall stops laughing as abruptly as he’d started. “You’re serious.”

Louis looks at him a little helplessly, scratching the back of his neck, where his skin is red and itchy with embarrassment. “I’ve been preparing for the competition,” he says, and that’s something that makes him proud, something he should boast about to everyone who will listen – and yet, when it’s not Liam’s eyes looking at him sadly, when it’s somebody else learning the intricacies of Louis’s life, it makes him feel lesser.

Louis feels a spark of anger come to life and die somewhere in his chest. It’s not fair, he wants to shout – not fair that Niall gets to watch him sympathetically, not when Louis has to compete against him in a few days.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s dedicated, Liam always says, and Louis trusts Liam more than he does anyone else.

“Okay,” says Niall, and that soft sheen doesn’t leave his eyes when he nudges his bowl of pretzels closer to Louis. “I like to play guitar.” He says it tentatively, like the first drop of rain before a storm, like a peace offering.

“You do?” Louis perks up. “D’you sing as well?”

“Eh,” Niall laughs, scratching his nose, and if the lights were any brighter, Louis is sure he could find a blush on his cheeks. “Little bit. Just at home, with me mates.”

“I used to sing,” Louis says quietly, and his eyes catch on something in the distance, in the cloud of light that hangs in the sky above the city. “Back at school. Did a couple musicals.”

“Nice,” Niall grins, clearly pleased they’ve found a common topic. “What musicals?”

Louis smiles into his beer while he finds the words. He hasn’t thought about it in so long, the nervous wobble of his stomach just before entering stage left in his leather jacket and the terrible cardboard car prop he spent two weeks making. It feels like another life, a distant memory, a veiled off place in Louis’s mind that he usually doesn’t dare go.

Tonight, though, seems like the kind of night when anything is possible. The kind of night that’s caught between being an orange-tinted winter evening and a spring affair full of life, the kind of night that’s easy to remember and easy to forget, if need be.

“Well,” he smiles at Niall, really smiles, “I was seventeen…”

*

Here we go again, Louis thinks as they call cut on the introduction and start the clock.

He can already feel the sweat beading on his forehead and in the small of his back, the sun of a perfect spring day warming up the marquee to a point where it’s difficult to breathe. Next to him, Niall is sitting on the floor and sifting his dry ingredients, back turned towards the crack between the floor and the tarp that lets in a small, shaky breeze.

They’ve been moved around for the second episode. Louis had expected this, of course, but being in the very front is a lot to get used to, suddenly. He’s the first production comes to with the questions, the first one to get interrogated by Paul and Mary, and it feels scary to be talking to them about his bake when he hasn’t even put the dough together yet.

They’ve kept Niall at the front, to Louis’s right, and right behind him is Ben McSmarmy, who appears to be using lard in his savoury biscuits, a smirk on his face like he knows something that the rest of them don’t. Behind Ben is Alberto, and behind him is a young, bubbly girl around Louis’s age. Louis thinks her name might be Jade. The hippie crowd is stuck in the back, and all Louis knows of them is that someone over there keeps talking about hemp crackers and chickpea dip.

And behind Louis, of course, of course, is Harry. He looks absolutely precious, with his hair up in a bun again, wearing a too-big lavender jumper, and Louis sweats just that little bit more when he looks at him. Which he doesn’t. At all. He’d walked into the tent this morning with a steely resolve, and managed to ignore Harry completely so far.

That’s what he needs, he’s sure. Needs to leave the pretty boy alone and concentrate on his baking. He’s going to win Star Baker this week, and then all eyes will be on him. He can’t afford distractions.

That’s what he’d told himself in the morning, anyway. That’s why he ignored Harry’s cheerful “hi”, ignored his quiet “everything okay?”. Ignored that it felt like he’d broken something beyond repair, right there and then.

Unfortunately for Louis, he’d made approximately twenty batches of his biscuits over the past week, and putting the dough together and kneading it is quite literally muscle memory. That, and only that, is the reason he finds himself listening to Harry whenever a camera is on him.

“I’m using lentil flour,” he’s saying now, voice low and calm and raspy, a balm for Louis’s already frazzled nerves, “which is a first for me, but I think I’ll be alright.”

“Why lentil?” Jen asks, fishing for more, and Zayn is watching Harry’s dough come together over her shoulder.

Harry makes a tiny noise, the oral version of a shrug. “Wanted to try something different. Experiment a little, you know? I’ve worked a lot with gluten-free flour, so this’ll be another one to add to the list.”

They leave him alone after that, moving on to the unfortunate soul behind him, but Zayn sticks around. Louis can hear his raspy breathing and the heavy soles of his boots on the floor as he paces around Harry’s station, evidently interested.

“It’s funny,” he says finally, with a fake air of mystery.

“What is?” Harry asks. Louis’s skin burns with how much he wants to sneak a glance over his shoulder, see him just one more time, but he reminds himself, over and over again, that he can’t. Distractions.

“Oh, nothing,” Zayn says – there’s laughter in his voice, and it’s fake, so fake. “Just, you know. You and Louis are the only ones not using gluten.”

Louis grinds his teeth. He doesn’t know what Zayn’s point is, and he doesn’t have time to ponder – there’s a ball of dough with his name on it that’s waiting to be shaped.

“Oh,” says Harry in response, and his voice changes, jumps up and then down like he’s not sure what he’s supposed to be feeling. “Really?”

“Yup. Louis’s got – what is it that you’ve got, Lou?”

Louis hates Zayn. “Chestnut,” he presses out through clenched teeth, “it’s chestnut flour.” Zayn definitely remembers that – he was at Louis’s station not ten minutes ago.

“Chestnut, right,” he says as Louis gives up and twists back to see him. He’s got a shit-eating grin on his face, eyes crinkled and ridiculous white teeth poking out, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans. “You two should compare notes.”

And he turns and walks away, straight to Niall. Which leaves Louis in a very awkward position, turned just enough to see a stray curl bounce when Harry shrugs. He holds his breath, waiting for words that are sure to come, because Harry has been chatting happily to everyone in the tent. Louis’s muscles lock up, keeping him in position, and he waits, waits, but nothing happens. Harry moves out of the edge of his vision in silence.

Everything feels wrong. And confusing. Confusing, most of all.

Still, Louis gets glowing praise for being different and innovative, and that’s all that matters in the end. That’s all that can matter.

In the half-hour break between the signature bake and the technical, they all stay in the holding room again. Louis makes himself a cuppa and finds a chair to sit on, tucked into the very corner of the room, out of everyone’s way.

Niall still finds him.

“Tommo!” he yells happily, a nickname that Louis hasn’t given him permission to use, and plops down into Louis’s lap. He’s so uncomfortably close that Louis can see the flour caught in his eyelashes.

“Um,” Louis says. Without meaning to, he looks over Niall’s shoulder, and his gaze falls directly on Harry, who’s standing by the other wall with his arms crossed over his chest. His eyes are trained on Louis, on Niall squirming in his lap and he looks—sad. Stricken, almost.

Niall asks him something, and Louis gives an absentminded answer, but he’s far, far away – thinking of last week that feels like centuries ago, of Harry standing hunched in this very corner, pale and sweaty with nerves. The pull he’d felt back then, that unexplainable force, still pulses brightly beneath his skin, and Louis has been tamping down on it for hours. Harry doesn’t need anybody to snap him out of it, this week. He looks confident, if a little sulky. Strong.

Louis realises he’s staring at the same time that Harry does, and Louis watches in fascination as Harry re-moulds his face into a pleasant, smiling mask. He turns away from Louis’s eyes, to Mary, who had been trying to get his attention, and gets lost in a conversation.

Louis feels a slow, burning lick of something he won’t admit is jealousy sneak up his spine.

*

“You don’t understand, Li. I fucked up so bad.”

“But I thought you were first?”

Louis rubs his forehead. He’s got a headache coming on, from exhaustion and the bright lights they’d turned on in the tent when it got dark. He just wants to sleep, really. “I was.”

“Then what’s the problem?” there’s shuffling on his end, a rustle like he’s getting into bed. It almost makes Louis smile, reminds him of being back in school and having sleepovers.

“I broke so many of them,” Louis wails, back to self-pity. “I couldn’t roll them fast enough, they got too hard, and when I put them back in the oven to soften they got too soft again—“

“Louis,” Liam says, in his trademark calming voice. “It’s okay. They’re just brandy snaps.”

“They’re my future in this fucking competition,” says Louis as he closes his eyes and lets his head thunk against the wall. “I won the challenge, but somebody will tell the judges. They’ll tell them, and then no matter what I do tomorrow, I’ll be—I’ll be. They can’t—I won’t—Liam, fuck.”

Liam doesn’t interrupt him this time, just lets him come to a stop. “Breathe, Lou,” he reminds him, so painfully gentle when he shouldn’t have to be, and yes. Louis should breathe. Yes. “Breathe. You’re okay.”

“No I’m not,” Louis snorts, in a rare moment of self-reflection. Everyone with half a brain could tell he’s not okay, but that’s not important, not now. It can wait, everything can wait, until Louis has that trophy in his hands.

Liam sighs. It crackles through the line, tickles Louis’s ear. “I love you, you know that?”

“You called me a miserable bastard twenty minutes ago.”

“That’s because you are one. Still love you, though.”

Louis smiles. The headache is easing, little by little, and the din of conversation from downstairs becomes comfortable background noise. “Love you too,” he says, just as the door opens and Harry walks in.

They both freeze for a second. Louis has managed to make himself forget that he’ll be sharing a room with Harry for the rest of their respective stays in the competition; has vowed to go to sleep early today so that he wouldn’t be swayed by the soft lines of Harry’s body, the gentle curve of his mouth that looks dark pink in the dusky light of the lamp.

That didn’t work out.

“I can just—“ he motions over his shoulder, out into the corridor, and Louis is just—he’s tired. He’s so, so tired.

“It’s fine,” he says, in this choked-off little thing of a voice that can’t possibly belong to him. “S’ your room, too.”

“Who’s that?” Liam asks in Louis’s ear, and, right. Liam.

“It’s, uh,” he feels like there’s a spotlight aimed on him, bright rays of light that dig under his skin to expose all his secrets, even though Harry’s pointedly turned his back to Louis as he digs through his bag. “It’s my roommate.”


He’s fairly certain he doesn’t imagine the way Harry’s shoulders stiffen.

“Harry? The one you told me about?”

“Yeah,” Louis takes his eyes away from Harry, slowly, forcibly, “that one.”

“Say hi from me, will you?”

Louis’s tongue feels heavy in his mouth. Foreign, like it belongs to somebody else. “I don’t really—I’m not. Um.”

This is awful, awful, all this heat gathering under the collar of Louis’s jumper, burning his skin, seeping out through his pores and trying to get out.

“Louis,” says Liam, “what did you do?”

“Nothing!” Louis jumps in immediately to defend himself, except—well. That’s the problem, isn’t it. He did nothing. “I didn’t—nothing.”

“Is this about winning again?” Liam sounds tired. Louis hates him, but he loves him so, so much more. “Are you being mean to people?”

Louis, despite the how heavy his heart feels where it thuds against his ribcage, giggles. It’s only slightly hysterical. “Mean?”

“You know what I’m trying to say,” he grumbles. “And you know you do it, so just…don’t. You’re not like that, you’re not cruel.”

“I was cruel to you,” he says, hyperaware of Harry less than five feet away. “I made your life hell.”

“Yeah, seven years ago. That’s not you anymore.”

“What if it is?” Louis asks, staring at the ceiling. He can feel a vein in his neck pulsing against the cool night air.

“No,” says Liam, like he’s stating a fact. “No, you’re just scared.”

“I’m not—“ Louis starts automatically, then stops. He really, really is. “Yeah.”

“Do you—what, you think you’re not going to win if you make friends?”

“It’s distracting,” Louis mumbles, and when he opens his eyes, the smooth contours of Harry’s body are right there for him to trace, if he gave in. “I can’t—I have to win. You know that.”

“I know,” Liam says, and there is an entire world of sadness behind it. Louis wishes he wasn’t the one who put it there. “But, hey. Listen to me. Will you listen to me, just for a little bit?”

Louis swallows. Liam’s generally not one for words – not unless he gets emotional or angry. The scary thing is, Louis can’t quite tell which this is.

Liam must take his silence as an agreement, because he sighs, then huffs, and finally speaks. “Okay. Okay, Lou, listen. I’m worried about you.”

“You always worry,” Louis mumbles. He’s probably not supposed to interrupt, but it’s true. Louis doesn’t know how he got lucky enough to have Liam stick around, through everything.

“Shush,” Liam says, and there, just under the stern tone, is a hint of laughter. Louis smiles. “I’m worried. You’ve been getting ready for this competition for five years, and I just…I wonder what comes after, you know? What if you win?”

He pauses for a second, and Louis closes his eyes. He knows what happens if he wins, in theory. It’s what he’s been meaning to do for the last five years, too scared, too cowardly, not enough – but with the trophy in his hands, with something to be proud of, an achievement, he could. He would.

He’d go, and he’d walk up to the door, and he’d knock. He’d say I’m home, or something equally ridiculous.

“You should make friends there,” Liam continues.

“I’ve got you,” says Louis.

“And you’ll always have me, arsehole, but I’m not there with you. I don’t know what it’s like. Besides, you need people around you. You’re not actually built for this being alone thing.”

Louis snorts, but. Liam’s right. He used to have people around him all the time, the centre of a curious little universe of teenagers who cared about having a good time more than anything else. He used to spend all his time outside, on the footie pitch, climbing trees, shouting at people out of high-up windows and watching them turn around in confusion.

He used to.

“Just consider it, Louis. Please?”

He’s considered it, alright. He’s considered it to all hell, talking to Niall about doing Grease and being on the footie team and just being, living, before everything happened. His schoolmates are all long gone, but there are seven billion people in the world. Ten people in this competition. Louis could like all of them, if he let himself.

Well, except Ben. Ben is a twat.

Louis sighs, loudly, and notes that the noise from downstairs is dying down. It’s late, and they have to be in the tent at seven tomorrow morning.

“Not that easy, Payno,” Louis says.

“I think it is,” says Liam. Of course he does.

Louis sighs again. “Fine.” He can pinpoint the exact moment Liam smiles, which is a little creepy, but mostly comforting.

“Good.”

“Could you be a little less happy with yourself?” Louis asks, pretending to be annoyed, but the corner of his mouth curls up into a smile without him noticing.

“No,” Liam chirps happily. “Have to go now, Tommo. Work tomorrow.”

“On a Sunday?”

“Yup,” Liam says, and Louis can hear him rustling with the duvet. “Not all of us get to spend our weekends in a tent with pretty boys.”

Louis hopes, more than ever, that Harry can’t hear the other side of the conversation. “You’re not even into pretty boys.”

Liam laughs. “Goodnight, Louis. Be good.”

“Night, wanker,” Louis mumbles and hangs up. He’s smiling into the knees of his fraying joggers, infinitely more relaxed that he’d been half an hour ago. He’s almost forgotten that he’s not alone in the room, even.

He puts his phone on the bedside table and stretches, closing his eyes. When he opens them again, they get caught in the endless green pool of Harry’s, like flies in a trap. Harry’s staring, Louis observes, staring at a spot somewhere below Louis’s navel, where his jumper had ridden up.

Huh.

Louis clears his throat, pointed and loud, too loud in the eerie quiet of the room. The window at his back is suddenly too cold.

It has the desired effect – Harry flinches, and his eyes fall to study the floral pattern on his duvet.

“Um,” he says, voice rough and smooth all at once, like honey over gravel, “sorry, I just. Are you okay?”

Louis blinks. He’d been expecting Harry to be angry or hurt or reproachful or just plain disappointed, maybe, not—not this. Not concerned.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Harry shrugs. He bites his bottom lip, and the soft shadows on his face shift. He looks kind. “Just, you know. Saw what happened with your brandy snaps.”

Louis’s cheeks heat up immediately, a sickening, gut-wrenching feeling of absolute shame rising hot in his throat. That’s not fair, he wants to say, that’s cruel.

He probably deserves it.

“Yeah,” he chokes out, tugging on his sleeve over and over until a thread starts to unravel, the same way Louis seems to be, fraying and twisted. “Yeah, I guess I. I don’t know. Did my best.”

Harry nods, hair bouncing. It looks golden. “It was amazing. I would’ve probably cried and given up. Or, like, thrown things or summat.”

Wait. “What are you on about? I bombed it.”

“You won,” Harry says, and he shifts on the bed just so, leans forward, closer. “I just asked cause—I mean, you looked really shaken. And you didn’t show for dinner.”

Oh, Louis thinks as his stomach grumbles. Was dinner what had been going on downstairs?

“Sorry if I’m, you know,” Harry continues, waving a hand in a vague gesture. “Overstepping.”

Louis tamps down on an absurd laugh. Overstepping, he says, and really, that’s what Harry Styles is doing. Slowly but surely worming his way into places inside Louis that he’s not supposed to touch. Places that Louis himself tries to tamp down on, forget about.

With his green-gold eyes and painfully earnest expression, Harry is the picture of everything Louis shouldn’t want, and he’s drawing Louis closer, closer still, a moth to a flame that’s about to singe its wings.

It’s late, though. It’s late, and the night outside is inky blue, dotted with stars. Louis is tired. He doesn’t care to listen to his demons, to Liam’s voice in his ear, consider it. Just consider it.

“You’re not,” he says, and the tentative smile on his face feels painful. “I’m sorry, you know. About before. I was…” he trails off, rubbing a hand over his face. His eyes are burning. “I was stressed.”

To Louis’s surprise, Harry chuckles. He slumps a little, no longer straight-backed and rigid and careful as he sits in the pool of his duvet. The line of his shoulders is round and soft, jumper slipping down to reveal a glimpse of collarbone, and Louis wishes he had a canvas, just now, to recreate the silhouette of him, the blurred curves of his body that blend in with the rustic décor.

He’s ethereal, a vision, and when Louis wakes up tomorrow, he’ll establish lines. He’ll stop tracing the dark pink petals of Harry’s lips with his eyes, will stop itching to touch, just to see if Harry’s skin is as warm as it looks. He’ll stop thinking about the ringlets of Harry’s curls spilling over a stark white pillow and a red flush in the apples of his cheeks as Louis—

Well. Tomorrow.

Tonight, he settles into bed, climbing under the duvet in his jumper and joggers, kicking his feet as he settles down. He doesn’t turn towards the wall this time, and he can see Harry looking at him, something shimmery and indecipherable in his eyes.

“What’s your favourite flavour?” he asks, out of nowhere, and Louis is left blinking at him in the low light of their room.

“Um,” he says. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on,” Harry says. He lies down, stretches out over the bed, toes hanging off the far end and suddenly very close to Louis, facing him. “You’ve got to have one. The thing that you’d put in every bake, if you could.”

Louis can feel his own smile turn soft, so painfully, painfully soft, and knows this is going to end in disaster. Full speed ahead, though. Too late to stop now.

“I think…” he trails off, thinking about Harry’s words. About a small boy who’d amble around the kitchen and tangle in his mother’s legs, equally interested in helping and getting to lick the batter off the spoon. “Chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”


“Yeah,” Louis breathes. He thinks of warm brownies and cold milk, of smiles full of crumbs and sharing the last biscuit. “Chocolate. It’s just—people overlook it so much, you know? It can be so many things. It’ll complement fruits and creams and fillings and nobody ever stops to just, I don’t know. Let it shine.”

That sounds stupid, his brain supplies, always on Louis’s side.

Harry, however, doesn’t seem to share the sentiment. Louis closes his eyes against the burn of exhaustion and when he opens them again, Harry’s face has lit up – like the sun coming out, or maybe the fairy lights on a Christmas tree flickering to life, it brings out sparkles in his eyes and carves deep dimples into his cheeks. He looks radiant, delighted that Louis has given him a semblance of a real answer, and Louis’s stomach lurches and floods with butterflies.

Oh, he thinks.

“I’m guilty of that, I think,” Harry says seriously, even though his mouth is still stretched happily, too wide for any other face except Harry’s. He’s got his fingers playing with his bottom lip, squeezing and pulling, and for a second, Louis wants to replace them with his mouth. “Like, I don’t use chocolate all that much. It’s one of those ingredients that people put into everything.”

Louis is grinning when he shoots back: “Can’t have that with you hipster types.”

Harry laughs, bright and too loud in the quiet building, the way he laughs at Niall’s inane jokes, except this time it’s Louis who did it.

“Honestly,” Louis continues, and it feels a little like walking a tightrope, one wrong move away from tumbling down into an endless abyss, “lentil flour?”

Harry laughs harder, delighted, and he stretches in the sheets like a cat. His legs go on for days, Louis notices. “They were good,” he says. “My biscuits. Saw Paul swipe a couple when we were packing up.”

Louis rolls his eyes. He’d felt so annoyed, back in the tent, when Harry had presented his simple platter of biscuits to glowing praise from the judges, but when he goes back now, prods at the tight coil of anger and fear and insecurity in his gut, it stays dormant. There’s nothing but the happy buzz of pleasant conversation sparking along Louis’s nerve endings.

That’s new.

He scoffs. “Mine were better,” he says, still grinning, and finds that he means it, but also…not. There seems to be no point, under the blanket of the night that will keep his secrets, in reminding others how good he is. He’d already shown it today, and Liam’s right, probably, Louis should just give it a damn rest. God knows he’s exhausted.

“Whatever you say,” Harry shoots back, not missing a beat. His laughter sounds defining, somehow, like the crack of Louis’s first broken brandy snap that afternoon.

They lapse into a silence that, Louis finds, is entirely comfortable. Harry gets up, presumably to get ready for bed, tugs off his jumper and his shirt and reveals the perfect plane of his back. A spiral of sweltering heat curls tight around Louis’s spine as he stares, watches the soft arches of Harry’s shoulder blades move underneath his skin, the subtle flex of his muscles, miles and miles of pale skin that’s tinted golden where the light hits it just right. By God, what Louis wouldn’t give to get his mouth on it.

He closes his eyes as soon as the thoughts catch up to him, screwing his lids shut until it hurts. Stop, he tells himself, clenching his hands into fists, nails digging into the skin of his palms. Liam said to make friends, not to lust creepily after his competition.

There’s also the fact that Harry seems to be affecting Louis in a way that nobody has before, and really, isn’t that just stellar. Louis has spent five years gunning for a spot on this show, and now that he’s finally here, he has to give some of his focus to keeping his dick in check.

“Hey,” he says, once Harry is safely tucked under the duvet and the lights are off, “what’s your favourite?”

“Huh?” Harry mumbles. He sounds like he’s already drifting off. It makes Louis smile.

“What’s your favourite flavour?”

“Oh,” Harry chuckles. “Right.” He goes quiet as he thinks. “Lemon.”

It’s so—unexpected, really, that it has Louis barking a laugh. “Bit sour for someone so sweet, isn’t it?”

He barely realises what he’s said, caught in that place between waking and sleep where everything feels like a dream. Louis hopes he won’t remember tomorrow.

Harry laughs, but it sounds like there’s something lodged in his throat. “It’s wonderful, though. Completely transforms anything you make. Sour goes with everything, you just have to do it right.”

“Everything, huh?” Louis says, mostly to himself. It’s loud in the sleepy silence of the room.

“I reckon so,” Harry replies, equally hushed, and turns over in his bed. From the corner of his eye, Louis can see the pale skin of his arm on top of the duvet, the gorgeous soft curve of his neck, the sharp angle of his jaw. He looks a little like a ghost. A figment of Louis’s imagination, and maybe he is – maybe that’s the only explanation for how he occupies all of Louis’s senses so thoroughly.

“Good night, Louis,” he says, low, raspy.

“Good night,” Louis replies. They’re the last words to echo in the room, followed only by the soft sound of Harry’s breathing as it slowly evens out.

The moonlight paints wide stripes of light across the ceiling. Louis stares at them unblinking until his eyes water, and wonders why he feels like he’s drowning.

*

Louis doesn’t know how he ended up smoking with Zayn Malik just outside the Bake Off tent. He thinks there’s definitely something in the rules about fraternising, but it was Zayn himself who stopped by Louis’s station with an all-knowing smirk and a pack of Marlboros.

It’s windy outside, a chilly little breeze that worms its way under the sleeves of Louis’s jumper. The sun is hanging round and orange just over the horizon, about to see them all off to trains and buses and cars home.

“So,” Zayn says, puffing out a cloud of blue smoke, “Star Baker, huh?”

Louis’s stomach floods with warmth at the words, the memory brand new and vivid in his mind, Sue holding a pause for some artificial drama and then saying Louis Tomlinson – saying Louis’s name.

“Yep,” he says, not even trying to suppress the happiness that creeps into his voice. “Star Baker.”

“It’s well-deserved,” Zayn says, and taps the ashes off the tip of his cigarette. The wind carries it off, pale grey specks fluttering away, light like Louis feels, right now. He wonders if he could spread his arms and fly, what with the excitement that makes him feel like his chest if full of helium, rising towards the sky. “Just, uh. Don’t get too caught up in it. You have to do well every week.”

Louis frowns. “I know that.”

“Do you really?” Zayn arches a perfect eyebrow, and the corner of his mouth pinches in a smirk. He’s always smirking, Zayn is, like he knows things that Louis doesn’t. “’Cause the way you’re acting, it’s a little—I’ve seen it before, on this show. Usually right before people crash and burn.”

“I am not going to crash and burn,” Louis says, jaw tight, crushing the filter of his cigarette between his fingers. Fuck Zayn, actually. Louis is trying to be happy here. “I’m just glad I’ve made a name for myself in the competition. They’ll be looking at me now, and I can show them that I actually deserve to win.”

Zayn throws away his cigarette. He doesn’t look at Louis as he reaches into the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulls out a pale yellow macaron – Louis recognises it as one of Niall’s, a miracle that brought him very close to snatching Star Baker this week. Louis is not quite sure if it’s a snack, or if Zayn is trying to make a point.

“I believe you,” he mumbles through a mouthful of biscuit. “Doesn’t mean you’re not going to screw up.”

“Thanks,” Louis says, and ignores this strange pit that opens in his stomach. Zayn is around all the time, has watched Louis melt down over a batch of brandy snaps and bake thirty-two macarons to perfection – so what if he doesn’t believe in him? It doesn’t matter. It’s whatever. Louis believes in himself, and that’s enough.

“Not what I meant,” Zayn shakes his head. His hair is soft today, flopping over his forehead, messy in the back like he didn’t have time to style it in the morning. “We’ve had people here who completely ruined themselves trying to get the prize, you know? Spent all their savings on ingredients, neglected their jobs and families and whatnot, barely slept with how much they practised, and then they just—snapped. Had a complete meltdown. Set the oven temperature too high, didn’t whip the egg whites enough, and it was a fucking disaster. You wouldn’t have seen it on the telly, because it was the ugly kind of drama, but I was right there helping them, alright? I know. Those people walked away with second or third or fourth place, completely burned out, and I don’t want that to happen to you.”

Louis kicks at a rock, lets Zayn’s calm voice roll over him like a particularly cold tidal wave. “Why do you care?” he asks, and wishes desperately to get that warm happiness back. It seems it’s been irrevocably lost in the wind, in Zayn’s words.

“Maybe I don’t,” Zayn quips, done with his macaron, and pulls out another cigarette, “but you might be the most talented person we’ve ever had here, so. Slow down. Don’t fuck it up.”

“I have to win,” Louis says, stubborn, to Zayn and to himself. “That’s why I’m here.”

Zayn reaches over and slaps Louis on the head. It hurts, and Louis gapes at him, sure that has to be breaching some kind of contract rule. Zayn’s just smirking again, except – no, that’s not a smirk. It’s a real smile, softening the sharp features of his face and transforming his eyes until they’re the colour of milk chocolate.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he says, quiet, almost pleading. “Stop doing that. You’re here because you fucking love to bake. Have you seen yourself in the kitchen?”

“Well…I mean—“

“You’re a natural. Whatever reason you think you have for trying to win this, let it go. Do it for yourself.”

“I am doing it for myself,” says Louis, and it comes out softer than he’d intended. “I’m doing it to make myself better.” So that I’m good enough, he doesn’t say.

Why does everybody keep telling him the same thing?

Zayn’s eyes are sad. He throws his cigarette away half-smoked, takes a step forward, and hugs Louis.

Louis freezes. “Are you hugging me?” he asks, just to make sure he’s not hallucinating.

Zayn sighs somewhere in the vicinity of Louis’s neck, and yeah, he is so hugging Louis. He smells of smoke and leather, of sugar and burnt biscuit dough and the rum extract Ben had accidentally spilled on him earlier. It’s strange to have someone other than Liam pressed against him, the contours of Zayn’s body longer, sharper, different, but Louis still finds that he’s comforted.

“Why are you so sad?” Zayn asks, and the simplicity of the question catches Louis off-guard.

“Am I?”

“Yes.”

Louis sighs. It turns into fog as the temperature around them drops, condenses on the shoulder of Zayn’s jacket.

“I don’t know.”

“I figured,” says Zayn, and pulls away. He seems younger, kinder, when he looks down at Louis. “Just, you know. Hang in there. Let me know if I can help.”

The warmth inside Louis returns, drop by drop, like rays of sunshine penetrating his skin. He’s shocked to find it doesn’t have anything to do with him winning today.

“Thanks,” he says, genuine, and hears Liam’s voice in his ear. You should make friends there. “Thank you. I will.”

“Good,” Zayn grins, all teeth. “Now let’s pretend that didn’t happen. I’m not supposed to form emotional connections, or whatever.”

Louis laughs. He breathes in the late evening air, takes in the sound of birds chirping and the crew packing up for the week, and thinks about going back home.

*

Week three: Bread

week three

Louis doesn’t believe in coincidences. Much like bad tea biscuits, they simply don’t exist.

Therefore, the only possible explanation for what’s currently happening is that the universe hates Louis. The universe is also in for a surprise, because Louis can hold a grudge like nobody’s business.

Anyway. Coincidences. Non-existent. Except Louis is standing in the frozen foods aisle of a Tesco’s, ignoring Liam nattering on about something or other, and looking straight at the long, long silhouette of Harry Styles bent forward as he studies the price tag on a bag of frozen baby carrots.

What the fuck, universe.

“And really, there’s no reason to—Louis?” Liam’s voice breaks through, and Louis tears his eyes away guiltily, pretending he wasn’t staring at the shifting muscles in Harry’s thighs.

“What,” he mumbles, turning back to the ice creams. That’s what they’ve been arguing about, he remembers – the superiority of cookie dough over every other flavour known to man. “We can get whichever, I don’t care.”

Liam blinks. He’s wearing a ridiculous flannel shirt and a beanie, pushing the trolley because Louis can’t be arsed to do it himself. “You yelled at me for wanting strawberry cheesecake two minutes ago.”

Louis sighs. His heart’s no longer in arguing ice cream flavours, too busy thudding in his chest at a breakneck pace because Harry bloody Styles is stood twenty feet away and looking good enough to eat. This is what reaching the absolute bottom must feel like.

“Well I changed my mind, Liam,” he snaps, trying his hardest to keep his eyes on the ground. “Get strawberry cheesecake and let’s go.”

Liam frowns, even as he leans down and picks up a pint of Haagen-Dazs. “You okay?”

Louis grabs the loose end of the shopping trolley and turns sharply to the right, towards the canned goods. What he means to do is pull Liam away until he gets the message and stops asking questions, and what he gets instead is his feet tangling with the front wheels. He falls face-first on the floor with a splat, and immediately wants the ground to open up and swallow him whole. Preferably very quickly, before—

“Louis!” Harry’s ridiculous deep voice crows, absolutely delighted. Louis screws his eyes shut. Maybe if he pretends Harry isn’t there, he’ll go away.

“Louis, hi!”

No such luck, it seems.

Before Louis can try to blend in with the floor tile, or maybe pretend he’s unconscious, Liam is at his side, laying a concerned palm on his back and helping him up. Louis gives in, dusting off his clothes and his dignity.

As soon as he rights himself, he comes face to face with Harry.

“Hello,” he says, reluctant, as he takes Harry in. His hair is twisted into a ponytail, piled on top of his head with flyaway curly strands sticking out, and, once again, he seems to not have realised that the shirt he’s wearing has more than three buttons. As a result, Louis is getting a beautiful eyeful of the golden skin of his pecs and stomach. Life is a cruel, cruel mistress.

Harry seems as delighted as he is fidgety, scratching the back of his neck and the bridge of his nose as he hugs the handle of his shopping basket close.

“What brings you here then?” he asks, eyes pale in the white lights of the supermarket, looking between Louis and Liam curiously.

Louis coughs. “Just, you know,” he waves a hand, “shopping. This is Liam, by the way. Liam, Harry.”

“Bake Off Harry?” Liam asks as he grins and reaches out a hand.

“The one and only,” Harry responds. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about me,” he says, obviously joking, and all the blood inside Louis’s body evaporates.

“I have, actually,” is Liam’s response. He’s still grinning, open and genuinely friendly, and Louis wants to stab him with a fork. “Louis talks about you all the time.”

A pitchfork.

The smile slides off Harry’s face smoothly, like icing off the back of a spoon. A small line between his eyebrows replaces it, a look that Louis interprets as genuine confusion. He considers, while Liam has Harry’s attention, hiding behind the discount chocolate display to his right.

Because he’d left most of his social skills back in secondary school, he decides to dissolve the tension with a big, fake laugh. He wraps an arm around Liam’s shoulders, pinching his nipple as he goes, and beams at Harry until his facial muscles hurt.

“Liam’s joking, of course,” he says as panic floods his brain. “He likes to do that.”

Louis’s heart shifts into fifth gear and takes off, straight up his throat and beating in the tips of his fingers; itching to burst out of his skin and splat at Harry’s feet on the pristine tile, pathetic like Louis feels. He’s never talking to Liam again. Or Harry, for that matter. He’s taking a vow of silence that can only be broken when he has to thank Mary as she hands him the Bake Off trophy.

“Oh,” Harry says, bemused, and his gaze falls to Louis’s hand, resting loosely on Liam’s chest. Liam, in what’s probably equal parts concern and confusion, has wrapped a couple of fingers around Louis’s wrist. “Okay, um.”

“How are you?” Louis asks, too bright, as he takes a step back, and then another. “Everything alright?”

Harry looks as unsettled as Louis feels. “I’m good, yeah. Trying to practise, and all.”

And that, Louis can work with. Talk about baking, about the competition, until Harry is lulled into a false sense of safety and won’t expect it when Louis bolts and runs out of the shop.

His curiosity is also piqued, just a little. He clutches Liam to him as a safety blanket while he leans forward, peering into Harry’s little shopping basket. He ignores the heat rolling off of Harry’s body, and the faint sheen of sweat that decorates the ridge between his pecs, and instead surveys the contents.

There’s a copy of The Sun on the very bottom that Louis sneers at, and on top of it, Harry has meticulously stacked a small tower of vegetables – swede, onions and potatoes, crowned with a block of suet and what appears to be a nice cut of steak.

“Isn’t it bread week?” he asks, intrigued, almost forgetting about his master plan of getting away and spending the rest of the day crying into ice cream.

“Yeah?” Harry frowns, puzzled. Close as he is, Louis notices his knuckles going white around the basket handle.

“Why are you making Cornish pasties then?”

Harry squeaks. “They’re for dinner,” he says, and then: “How did you know?”

Louis scoffs, and he barely notices when his grip on Liam loosens. “What else would you be using swede for?”

“Soup,” Harry fires back immediately, and some of the tightness seems to leave his face. “Or I could roast it. Bit of thyme and Parmesan, pinch of salt, stick it in the oven, it’s wonderful. Much healthier than chips,” he beams. “I’ve also heard they make a casserole out of it in Finland. It’s a traditional Christmas dish, apparently.”

Louis blinks. Just like that, between one blink and the next, Harry has been transformed back into his usual, cheerful self. Louis doesn’t understand how somebody could possibly be this happy about root vegetables.

Okay,” he drags out, slow, and only now notices that he’s so close their shoes are almost touching. Harry’s wearing his signature mustard-coloured boots, and they look ginormous against Louis’s shabby trainers. Louis intensely doesn’t think about Harry’s stupidly big feet. And other big body parts of his. “Whatever you say.”

There’s silence, then, nothing but the buzz of the freezers and the rushing wheels of other people’s trolleys in the distance. Louis forgets himself in Harry’s eyes, and finds that he’s cataloguing every little change that’s happened in him since Louis last saw him two days ago – the pouches underneath his eyes that have shrunk a little, presumably from a good few nights of sleep, and the light, light stubble on his chin. It makes him look boyish and gorgeous at the same time, just a few more strands in the enigmatic, tangled ball of yarn that is Harry Styles.

Right there, underneath the too-white lights, Louis wants to kiss him.

Thankfully, Liam puts a swift stop to that line of thought when he clears his throat. Louis steps back, feeling chastised, and almost misses the way Harry’s face completely falls.

Focus, he reminds himself. He can make friends, yeah, alright, maybe – but he absolutely cannot let Harry get to him again. It’s like no matter what Louis does, no matter how many walls he builds, Harry just worms his way in, all kind eyes and big hands and flyaway hair.

Louis is not used to that, and it’s throwing him for one loop after another.

Nobody says anything. Louis chooses to stare at the price tags on the ice creams instead of looking up, lest he get pulled in again.

Liam, bless him, decides to bite the bullet. “So, uh,” he says, and he’s smiling, but there’s something underneath, a different kind of emotion Louis can’t pinpoint, “it was nice to meet you. Good luck with the competition, and, uh, putting up with Louis.”

Louis twists his nipple again, offended, and figures it’s worth Liam’s hurt little pout when Harry laughs.

“Thank you,” he smiles, “but actually…do you have any plans for today?”

Louis blinks. They do, as a matter of fact – a Gossip Girl marathon and ice cream that, for once, Louis didn’t have to churn himself. Still – “Why?” he finds himself asking.

Harry shrugs, and if Louis didn’t know better, he’d say he almost looks sheepish. “It’s just,” he motions to his basket, “I got enough for a double batch, at least. You could join me for dinner, if you’d like.”

Alarm bells immediately go off in Louis’s head. No way in hell, he wants to say, they can’t go to Harry’s flat where everything is probably charmingly rustic and second-hand and smells of Harry’s dumb apple shampoo.

Liam beats him to it. “You mean you’ll make Cornish pasties? Like, from scratch?”

“Yeah,” Harry grins.

“I make Cornish pasties from scratch,” Louis mumbles darkly.

“Not nearly often enough,” Liam grins, sunny, swaying on the balls of his feet. “We’d absolutely love to,” he tells Harry, “just let me put this back.”

And he takes the ice cream, Louis’s precious, precious piece of trans fat heaven, and puts it back in the freezer.

Louis frowns, balls his hands up into fists, and shoves them in his pockets. Harry beams at him.

Universe: one. Louis: nil.

*

Harry’s kitchen is amazing.

Louis, of course, will not admit this out loud. He will not give in to Liam’s knowing smirk and Harry’s kind smile, and will instead keep watching his reflection in Harry’s gorgeous vintage stand mixer.

“Please sit down,” Harry is saying as he puts his bags on the counter, “feel right at home. Sorry it’s not much.”

Not much, he says. Louis frowns from where he’s examining the fucking Breville juicer. The entire room is spotless, organised enough to rival Louis’s own, gleaming marble countertops and intricate silvery handles on the cupboards. He can almost feel the love Harry’s put into every perfectly stacked tower of dessert plates, the row of knives on their magnetic holder that are ordered by purpose rather than size. It reminds Louis painfully of his own kitchen, his one safe place, the core of everything he is.

“It’s wicked, mate,” Liam says as he looks up at the lights embedded in the ceiling and falls into a chair. “I feel like I’m at Louis’s.”

Liam’s been talking rather too much today, Louis notices.

Standing in the open door of the fridge, with yellow light spilling across the bridge of his nose, Harry grins. He’s watching Louis, looking like a challenge. Louis turns away.

He’s planning on joining Liam at the table, making himself comfortable and watching Harry like a hawk. This is a great opportunity, he reasons, to spot Harry’s weaknesses. Maybe he’s too slow in rubbing his fat into flour. Maybe his wrist isn’t strong enough when he holds a knife. Maybe there’re things that Louis can catalog and use against him later, when the competition gets tough – nevermind that he’d promised himself he wouldn’t play dirty. Harry is too much to handle as it is, and Louis needs any and all weapons in his arsenal.

Harry puts the radio on, one of the BBC stations that plays pleasantly dull music, and starts a happy line of chatter that Liam immediately picks up. Louis sits, picking on his nails and feeling like a tit, until the shadows dancing over Harry’s skin get darker and the sun goes down behind the window.

That’s also when Harry finally lines up his ingredients, takes a chef’s knife off the holder, and stares at it with a look of contemplation on his face. Louis looks at him and immediately thinks adorable.

Bad Louis.

“Hey, lads?” Harry asks, and turns to them with a smile, “I know I invited you and all, but d’you think you’d be up to helping me out?”

Louis experiences a whole new level of dread. He knows where this is going, he knows.

Liam, as expected, shrugs with a helpless look on his face. “Afraid I can barely boil water,” he says, and Louis curses himself for never taking the time to teach him how to make something other than breakfast.

And then—“Louis?” Harry’s voice comes, slow and sweet, molasses and honey and golden syrup all at once, spilling over Louis’s sharp, sharp edges. Louis finds that his hands are shaking when he raises his head and meets Harry’s eyes.

“Sure,” he hears himself saying, even as every cell in his body screams no. “Just tell me what needs doing.”

He stands up, pushes the chair back with a loud scrape against the tile, and steps up to the counter. Harry’s already got his flour measured out in a bowl, cutting his butter into cubes, and he’s all elbows, lanky, awkward and graceful at the same time. They’re going to get in each other’s way – it’s inevitable, really. Louis grits his teeth at the thought of sharing a cooking space with someone else.

“Could you do the filling?” asks Harry, sweet, unsuspecting of Louis’s quiet simmer of rage. “We’ll get to eat quicker,” he grins.

Louis gives him something that he hopes passes as a smile. He gets the chef’s knife lying on the counter, takes in the unfamiliar weight of it, and gets to work.

It’s only when he’s halfway through the onions that he realises Harry is still there, on the outskirts of Louis’s personal space, kneading the dough, stopping every twenty seconds or so to lean across the counter for salt, or to get a roll of plastic wrap from above the stove, next to where Louis is working. He’s right there, existing, moving about the kitchen with a fluid kind of familiarity, and he’s doing it without disturbing Louis once, like he’s not a stranger cutting vegetables into cubes, but rather a part of the space. He flows around Louis, almost, like he’s a river that splits in front of an obstacle and joins back again whole, and chats to Liam all the while, like he isn’t even bothered.

It’s a difficult thing for Louis to process. He hates people in his kitchen, always swats Liam away with a tea towel when he so much as thinks about joining Louis at the counter and helping. The fact that Harry just lets people into his fits the image Louis has of him, but it stings, somehow – stings that there are people out there who can share, can let others help. Louis is not like that, no matter how much he’d like to be.

He tries to block out the thoughts, and focuses instead on peeling the potatoes. In the corner of his vision, Harry finishes kneading and puts the dough away to chill, and then Louis feels eyes on his back, eyes that shouldn’t, can’t, feel familiar.

“You just about done?” Harry asks, still kind, always kind.

“Two minutes,” Louis says as he makes short work of the potatoes. It comes out snappier than he’d intended, and he can’t find it in himself to look over his shoulder and reassure Harry with a look, a smile, something. He’s still completely off balance, feels like the floor is physically shifting under him because he went, somehow, from an afternoon at Tesco’s to being in Harry Styles’ kitchen. With Liam’s eyes boring into his back now, definitely inquiring, he feels like he’s under attack from all sides. It’s too much, today. He needs to run away and hide for a little while.

“Brilliant,” Harry grins, still happy as you please, and walks out of the room. Louis’s skin latches on to his warmth as he passes, and when his hand brushes Louis’s shoulder blade, he grits his teeth so hard they squeak.

Too much.

“What are you doing?” Liam questions in a flat tone as soon as Harry’s out of earshot.

“Mincing,” says Louis.

Liam, bless him, actually knows what to do. He gets up, light footsteps on Harry’s shiny floor, and wraps his arms around Louis’s waist from behind.

“Are you okay?” he mumbles into Louis’s shoulder blade. He’s warm, but his is a familiar kind of warmth, the kind that seeps in-between Louis’s bones and helps him remember that things are okay. His comfort is all Louis needs and still, he wishes for Harry, the blazing fire that sneaks up Louis’s spine every time he gets caught in those eyes of his.

“No,” Louis snorts. “And I don’t know why. What the fuck.”

“He pushes your buttons,” Liam says, attempting to sound wise. “You should’ve seen your face when he asked us to help.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Louis mumbles. “I just—I really want to leave.”

Liam hugs him tighter. “We can. If you want to go, let’s go.”

Louis considers it. He imagines Harry’s face when they tell him they have to leave, or worse yet, when he walks back into the room and finds it empty. The image breaks his miserable little heart.

“No,” he decides finally, as he puts the knife down and leans back into Liam. “I’ll be fine. Just help me when you can, please.”

“’Course,” Liam says, pats Louis on the stomach, and lets go. “Come sit down.”

Louis does. He picks the chair right next to Liam’s, this time, closes his eyes, and lets his head thunk down on the table.

“I kind of want to fuck him,” he says.

Liam makes a noise not unlike a dying cat. “You what.”

“I can’t help it!” Louis says in an attempt to defend himself, and really, really means it. Nobody’s ever gotten under his skin the way Harry has; nobody’s ever gotten so deep, stayed embedded there until Louis wanted to claw at his own skin to get them out.

“I thought you don’t do casual sex,” says Liam. “Or any sex at all, for that matter.”

“Hey,” Louis says weakly. “I had sex in college.”

“You’re twenty-three.”

“I have other things to worry about,” Louis protests. The competition. The trophy. Getting his family back. Everything he’s been working towards since age eighteen. “He’s just so—I don’t know.”

“You could be really good together,” Liam muses, and Louis lifts his head to find him staring at the open doorway where Harry had disappeared. “He’s, like, hot. Objectively. And ridiculously nice. He could work wonders on you.”

“I’m trying to stop thinking about him, Liam.”

Which is not exactly easy. Louis is sitting inside Harry’s kitchen, which is inside Harry’s flat, which they’ve been invited to because Harry is not actually a real human person, but rather a kitten who seems to love attention. Louis would bet he’s into belly rubs, too.

“Sorry,” Liam says. “You are in a competition with him, though, you know. And you’re sharing a room.”

“Don’t remind me,” Louis moans, stretching his arms over his head as he leans back in the chair. He’s still got Harry’s half-naked form burned in his mind, miles of skin and muscle, shiny hair and wide eyes. Louis wants to put his mouth on him, just once. “I’ve got to win,” he says. “I’ve got to win, and I just want him out of my head.”

Liam sighs. His hand sneaks into Louis’s hair, rubbing in circles like Liam always does when Louis is upset.

“You’re worrying again,” Louis observes.

“You’re fighting this so hard,” Liam says immediately, apparently ready to explain. “I worry it’s because of…you know. Maybe you’re not okay with being gay, in the end.”

Louis feels a giant boulder land in his stomach and rattle all his bones. He flinches away from Liam’s touch, away, away. He has no idea what to say, but he has to say something, tell Liam he’s wrong, because Louis has lost everything—how dare he suggest—

“Everyone okay?” Harry hops back into the room, grinning. “That took a while, sorry. I was looking for this,” he holds up a bottle of wine. Louis can’t see the label, and he couldn’t care less, because alcohol. What a perfect solution to Louis’s world slowly crumbling in front of his eyes.

“We’re all good,” Liam grins, but the muscles in his face are stiff. His hand is lying palm down on the table where Louis had left it, and his ring finger is twitching. “I could go for some wine.”

Louis stares as Harry brings the bottle to the table and gets out a corkscrew. He’s quick, meticulous as he stabs it into the cork, and the bones in his wrist shift delicately as he twists, twists, twists.

Louis downs his glass as soon as it’s halfway full, ever the impolite guest, and feels the gentle, bitter burn of it slide down his throat and comfort him. It makes him pleasantly lethargic as he watches Harry bustle around, rolling out the dough and filling the pasties and crimping the outside edges with an expert touch. He looks so natural, so practiced, and Louis is only a little bit jealous.

“I’m sorry,” Liam whispers to him when Harry is clanking around with trays, humming along to the radio, all lost in his own little world. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Louis closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. They always end up here, it seems – no matter what the problem is, Liam ends up saying something out of concern and Louis gets short with him. It terrifies him, in a way – makes him afraid that the reason he’s so fucking touchy is because Liam is right.

That, however, is no line of thought to entertain when Louis is halfway through his third glass of wine. Or at any other time, really.

“’S alright,” he replies, like he always does, and Liam squeezes his shoulder, like he always does. They’ve got a routine for it, and that’s a little pathetic, perhaps.

Harry is still grinning when he sets dinner down, a platter full of steaming, dark golden pasties, and part of Louis wants to grin along with him, for no reason at all.

“So, Harry,” Liam smiles, pleasant, as he plays with his fork, “how are you enjoying the competition so far?”

Louis just about manages to hold back a snort. Harry, once again, is unperturbed.

“It’s been wonderful,” he gushes, “I’ve learned so much.”

“Think you’re gonna win it?”

“Runner up, maybe,” Harry says. “I don’t think any of us are beating Louis anytime soon.”

Louis chokes on a piece of potato, and his eyes snap sharply to Harry’s face without his permission. He remembers, vividly, meeting Harry for the first time – how sweet he’d been, how calm and happy, and above all, so quietly confident. He’d come to win, and yet here he is, praising Louis, who’s been hot and cold to him for going on three weeks now. He’s so genuine about it, too; always, always genuine.

“Don’t say that,” Liam grins, “I can’t deal with his head growing any bigger.”

Louis kicks him.

Harry laughs. “It’s wholly deserved. You should’ve tasted his macarons.”

“Oh, I did,” Liam laughs back, “all seventeen batches of them.”

“It wasn’t seventeen,” Louis pipes in, feeling strangely vulnerable under Harry’s searching eyes. “Fiteen, maybe. Fifteen and a half.”

Fifteen?” Harry blinks. “What did you do with them?”

“Ate them,” Louis groans. “I hate passionfruit.”

And Harry laughs. Louis has heard it before, of course, echoing under the ceiling of the marquee as the stress of a challenge amps up, a quiet little murmur when Harry retreats to his corner of their room to talk on the phone, but he’s never caused it, not like this. It makes him feel warm all the way down to his fingertips.

“You can come share with me next time,” Harry offers. Louis, for a crazy little second, actually considers it.

“Woah,” Liam says, raising his hands, “I still need somebody to feed me.” He’s laughing, cheeks flushed a pleasant red.

For the first time since they’ve stepped through the door, Harry’s face falls. He still keeps the grin on, but Louis can tell – it’s in the subtle twitch of his top lip, the way his jaw shifts under skin. He’s uncomfortable, and Louis is puzzled.

The confusion lasts throughout the evening, through two more glasses of wine and another bloody delicious pasty. Louis watches Harry flit around the kitchen, fuss over the tablecloth, watches him laugh at himself as he tells an awful knock-knock joke. He seems happy, carefree, but his face changes every time he looks at them, every time he sees Liam touch Louis’s elbow or pat his back or poke his thigh. Louis cannot, for the life of him, figure out what his problem is.

Could he have a problem with them being so close? Is that even a possibility for someone as graciously hippie-like as Harry Styles?

Still, as they get ready to leave, Louis makes it a point to keep distance between Liam and himself, pulls on his shoes in silence and wraps his jacket around his shoulders, already anticipating the chill of a late spring evening.

Harry is watching them from the kitchen doorway, leaning against the wall with his hip cocked. He seems to have undone another button, flushed from the wine, and in the semi-darkness of the hall, he looks like a fantasy. His lips are even redder than usual, and when he bites down on the bottom one, Louis swears he feels the white shock of his teeth against his own skin.

“Thank you,” Louis tells him when it’s time to say goodbye. “For, you know. Inviting us. That was really nice of you.”

The words feel strangely heavy on his tongue, but he makes himself mean them as much as he can. It is, after all, not actually Harry’s fault that his very existence is a danger to Louis’s sanity, and Louis is a nice person, he is. It just takes him a little bit of time to remember, sometimes.

“It was no trouble,” Harry beams. “Thank you for the company. I don’t exactly know a whole lot of people down here yet.”

“Oh,” Louis blinks. “Have you just moved?”

“Yup,” Harry bites his lip again. It makes him look even more strikingly beautiful from up close. “Two weeks before the competition started. I’ve been holed up inside baking all the time. It’s a rough life.”

“Very rough,” Louis agrees. “Hate having the chance to win twenty-five thousand quid.”

Harry laughs again, except this time it’s more of a giggle, a familiar little sound, and leans forward as if to give Louis a hug. Louis’s body screams in panic. Harry, too, seems to catch himself, freezing at the last minute.

“I mean, um,” he clears his throat, “bye.” It’s quiet – sheepish, almost.

Louis is a strange mix or relieved and disappointed. He can feel Liam’s presence burning behind him, knows he won’t be able to avoid the questions, but there’s something simmering beneath his skin that makes him want to touch Harry, reassure him, wipe that timid look off his face.

“Bye, Harry,” he grins, and sticks his hands firmly in his pockets, lest he do something he’ll regret later. “I’ll see you Friday?”

“Of course,” Harry smiles back, and the sun comes up even in the dark of night. “See you then.” He gives Louis a silly little wave.

Louis returns it, and steps back toward the door.

“Bye,” he repeats, turns on his heel, and bolts.

*

Louis is so very ready for bread. He comes into the marquee with fire in his belly, prepared to knead within an inch of his life, and promptly realises that they’ve moved Harry away from him.

Which. Is totally fine. Maybe Louis will finally be able to concentrate, now that Harry’s quiet giggles have been relegated to the very back corner of the tent. He’s doing great. Absolutely peachy.

“You look lost,” Niall, right in front of him, comments. He’s grinning the smuggest grin Louis has ever seen.

“Piss off,” Louis tells him, pretending to be busy rearranging the jars on the counter. Flour, salt, raisins. Raisins, salt, flour. Concentrate.

When Sue starts them off, Louis dives in and doesn’t resurface for the next thirty minutes. He’s vaguely aware of the cameras, the crew, Zayn milling about, but the only thing that actually tears him away from working his dough is a quiet “oh, no” from the back of the room. Nobody else seems to notice.

Knowing he’ll probably come to regret it, Louis looks over his shoulder. There’s Harry, with a scarf tied all around his head, light pink shirt sticking to his body with sweat, staring forlornly into his bowl. His lips are pursed in a pout that seems genuinely upset, and he’s blinking owlishly at what appears to be a perfectly intact ball of dough.

Louis steps away from his station almost unconsciously. He’s already halfway through the marquee when Sue’s voice rings out with a “four hours!” from the front, and God damnit, no.

He turns on his heel and goes back to kneading. There’s a low thrum of something unidentifiable underneath his skin, a buzz that he struggles to transform into energy. It only quiets down when everyone’s dough is proving, the wait begins, and Louis is free to give in to his traitorous body and go to Harry.

He looks different here – in the marquee, in their shared room, in Somerset. There had been a softness about him, back in London, and he seems to have left some of it behind.

“Everything okay?” Louis asks as he slinks to Harry’s chair, successfully ignoring the eyes he feels in his back. “You looked a bit thrown.”

Harry looks up from his cup of tea. He seems frazzled. “I think I killed the yeast,” he says.

“You killed the yeast?”

Harry nods desperately, looking down at his proving drawer. It’s barely been fifteen minutes since he’s put the dough in – it’ll take a while to start rising, and if it doesn't, he’s not going to have enough time to start over. Louis’s palms get a little clammy at the thought.

“I put the salt in too soon,” Harry mumbles. “It just—it didn’t feel right. The dough. I practiced it enough times to know.”

Louis tries to put himself in Harry’s shoes, tries to imagine what he’d be doing in a situation like this. Yelling, probably. Punching things. Harry’s admirable calm is obviously a front, but he’s bothered to put it up, at least.

It’s just—he looks so sad. He’s absolutely crestfallen, in a way that suggests he cares about more than winning the competition. It awakens something in Louis, this foreign need to reassure him. Maybe hug him and pet his hair a little.

“Listen,” he says, and bumps a gentle elbow against Harry’s arm, “you’ll be okay. It’s just the first challenge. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to show them what you’re made of.” And he smiles, as kind as he can manage.

Unfortunately, it only seems to upset Harry further. “But it’s bread week!” he says, and gently kicks one socked foot against the oven door. “Paul is watching us like a hawk. And I just…” he sighs, “I don’t want to serve them something bad. I don’t do that. I don’t give people bad food.”

“Harry.”

“No, please don’t try to make me feel better,” he says, and his big, sad basset hound eyes put a prominent crack in Louis’s heart. “I know I screwed up. It’s okay. You don’t have to,” he waves a hand, and his eccentric array of rings catches the early April sunlight, “you know. I’m sure you have better things to do.”

Louis’s stomach lurches. He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t think about any of it. “Nope, actually,” he says. He steals Ben’s stool and pushes it right up against Harry’s. “Chopped my walnuts and got my tray ready. You’re not getting rid of me for the next hour and a half.”

That, at least, gets a tiny smile out of Harry. It starts out as a twitch of his lips, and slowly takes over his face, carving a shallow dimple into his cheek. The skin underneath his eyes gathers into those stupidly adorable pouches, and when he looks down at his hands, he seems a little less crestfallen.

Louis is a man on a mission.

*

Harry’s prediction, unfortunately, comes true. His dough is about a third of the intended size, but he braves through it, kneads and rolls and makes his tear and share loaf, tiny as it is. The judges appreciate the effort and the flavours, but overall, it’s still one of the worst bakes in the room.

“Rookie mistake,” Harry keeps repeating, pacing around, and the concerned eyes of the whole tent are on him. Louis wishes that Zayn would go talk to him, maybe, calm him down a little, get him out of his head for the next challenge. Unfortunately, there is no time. For once, the crew is quite speedy at getting everyone’s stations ready for the technical, and all too soon, Louis is walking out of the holding room and into the glare of the spotlights again.

The minute the words “plaited loaf” leave Mel’s lips, Louis knows they’re headed for disaster. As much as he’d like to deny it, he’d watched Harry during their break, watched him twitch and bite his nails and pull on his lip until it turned a rich raspberry red. He’s out of sorts, and everything about him looks wrong when he stands at his station with shoulders slumped, like going into a battle he knows he’s already lost.

Louis, however, has his own fate to worry about. His signature loaf had been solid – had even earned him an approving quirk of an eyebrow from Paul – but there’s only nine of them now. The stakes are higher than ever.

“D’you have any idea how to do this?” Niall asks once most of them have their dough mixed and risen and knocked back, ready to plait.

“The recipe’s got instructions,” Louis offers weakly, staring at his eight strands of dough with apprehension. He knows how to make French braids at best, easy with years of getting his sisters ready for school in the morning, but eight-strand plaits is not something he’d ever expected to need.

“Eight under seven,” Niall is mumbling, clutching his recipe with floury fingers, “and over one. Wait, what? Is that the same one, or do I need to take the one that’s number eight now? What the fuck, Louis, help me.”

Louis looks desperately across the room, searching for Zayn’s familiar leather jacket, and finds him running around the back of the room, frazzled, hair sticking up in all directions. He appears to be sweating, skin shiny under the spotlights when he stops at Ben’s station to help him turn his kitchen scale on. Louis keeps watching as he tells Perrie to even out the length of her strands, and stops at Harry, quietly says something that Louis doesn’t catch. He looks gentle, leaning against Harry’s countertop with his tattooed hand, like he genuinely wants to do all he can to make sure that he makes it through okay, but Harry just waves him away. He shakes his head at Zayn’s questions, and goes back to helplessly holding strands of dough in his hands.

Louis makes himself turn away and go back to his recipe with renewed vigour. “Eight under seven,” he mumbles as he looks over the extremely brief instructions. It seems easy enough, neat number sequences that should have them all whipping up perfect loaves in no time at all, but as Louis wipes away the sweat on his own forehead and looks around the room, all he sees is panic. “Over one. Eight over five, two under three and over eight…oh.”

Just like that, he gets it – sees the pattern, the way the strands fit into each other to form a base for the plaited top to sit on, and the whole thing comes together in under two minutes.

“Do you need—“ Zayn starts as he finally makes his way to Louis, and lets out an audible sigh when he sees Louis tucking the end under his loaf, all done. “Oh thank God. Everything alright?”

“I think so,” Louis bites his lip. “This is difficult though, bloody hell.”

Zayn nods in agreement. “’S a competition, innit? You’ve got to challenge yourself a little.”

Niall snorts, bordering on hysterical, and Zayn’s face goes through five different grimaces in the space of three seconds. He looks very, very concerned, Louis notes – a little too much, perhaps. There’s a familiarity in the way he moves forward and pats Niall on the shoulder. As much as he loves a juicy bit of gossip, though, it’s none of Louis’s business.

He flours a clean tray and gets his loaf back into the proving drawer, hoping that the worst part is over. It appears that he’s the first one done – in the back, Ben is still trying to figure out how to get strand number eight under strand number seven. His perfectly plucked Disney villain eyebrows are furrowed in a frown, and Louis is only a little ashamed of the sick twist of satisfaction deep in his gut.

To Ben’s left, however, Harry seems to be falling apart. Louis tries to reconcile what he’s seeing – Harry’s trembling hands, his deathly pale skin, the sudden dark circles under his eyes – with the Harry that had accidentally woken him up this morning by singing Livin’ On a Prayer a touch too loudly and then apologised for ten straight minutes. It’s a heartbreaking change, and Louis’s hands clench around empty air with the need to do something, tell Harry that it doesn’t matter, not that much.


Except. Huh. Louis could’ve sworn that just this morning, the competition was more important than any stress and hurt it might cause.

“Bakers,” Sue’s voice pierces the heavy atmosphere in the tent, “you’ve got one hour left. One hour!”

Louis watches, as if in slow motion, as Harry ducks his head, covers his face with a hand, and sobs, just once. His shoulders rise and fall, and he chokes on a small, shallow breath.

Louis feels like he’s just jumped into a pool of ice water, all his nerve endings flaring up with a strange kind of panic. He looks desperately around for Zayn, for Jen, for anyone, and finds them all gathered around Alberto, solving some sort of tragedy that apparently involves his dough and the carpet covering the makeshift marquee floor. They’re busy, and Harry is falling apart now, more and more by the second, trembling anew when his strands get tangled and he has to start over.

It’s a split-second decision, really, like every one Louis has ever made regarding this mystery of a boy. It’s half a breath, a heartbeat, and then Louis is letting go of every rational thought in his brain and crossing the marquee in a couple of long strides.

Harry flinches when Louis’s shadow falls over his worktop, like he genuinely hadn’t noticed him, and when he looks up, his eyes are red.

“Harry,” Louis breathes, and it leaves his lips so, so much gentler than he’d intended. “Harry, what’s going on?”

Harry shakes his head, wordless. He opens his mouth, presumably to give some kind of answer, but he seems to give up when no words get out. He drops his gaze back down instead, looking at his twitching fingers; and Louis is here already, is already doing something he promised himself he wouldn’t, so he might as well.

He reaches forward and wraps his hands around Harry’s wrists. The fragile bones shift underneath his fingers, come up to meet Louis from underneath pale, cold skin.

“What’s going on?” he asks again. “Why wouldn’t you let Zayn help you?”

He shakes his head. His scarf has gone lopsided, revealing hair on his left temple and flopping halfway over his right ear. Louis fixes it with one hand, pulling on the soft material until it sits right. The pads of his fingers brush against Harry’s cheek accidentally, and it’s then that Louis finally feels him still a little, like the tremor in his bones has subsided.

“It’s,” he starts, but his voice betrays him, scratching its way out of his throat on a painful-sounding cough, “it’s just. I don’t know. It’s pointless.”

Louis gapes. “What?”

Harry shrugs. “I screwed up,” he says, biting down on his lip, and he looks so, so young. He reminds Louis of himself, eighteen and about to tell his mother he’d failed his A Levels. “It was a bad bake. I’m not sure there’s a point in trying.”

“Harry, no,” Louis says, and surprises himself with how insistent he sounds. “It was one bake. One loaf of bread. It was bad luck. Everyone here knows that you’ve got what it takes.”

And it’s then, three weeks into the competition and trying to comfort a boy he barely knows, that Louis realises he means his words. He’s not just parroting what everyone else is saying to make himself look friendly; they’re not empty platitudes, and there’s no sarcastic little voice in his head narrating what he really thinks, because—well. Harry is a damned good baker. It’s only fair, Louis figures, that he gets a real fighting chance, and he can’t do that if he’s beating himself up over one mistake.

A good baker. That’s all Harry is, and right now, it’s up to Louis to bring him back to the marquee.

“It’s just—I feel so humiliated,” Harry admits, then blinks in surprise, like maybe he hadn’t meant to let that slip. “I can’t believe I had to serve that to Mary and Paul.”

“It was to be expected though, wasn’t it?” Louis asks. “It’s so much more stressful here than it is in your own kitchen. We’ve all fucked up, and we’ll fuck up again, but we have to pick ourselves up and go on. You made a mistake, Harry, and that’s so very okay.”

He feels a blush creeping into his cheeks, listening to himself give advice when just last week, he was the one near descending into hysterics because his brandy snaps wouldn’t roll properly.

Harry shakes his head. His curls, stuck down with sweat on his neck, bounce a little underneath his scarf. “I don’t have enough time,” he says, and he still sounds defeated, still blinks at his work in progress slowly, owlishly, like maybe it’ll disappear if he waits long enough. “And I don’t know how to do the plait. I can’t concentrate.”

“Now that’s just bullshit,” Louis says, and makes sure to tack on a smile. “Remember the leprechaun cake? You made cell bars out of pretzel sticks, you can definitely plait one stupid loaf of bread, come on.”

He realises that his hand has never left Harry’s wrist, has felt his skin flush warmer and his pulse return to a slow, steady pace. He squeezes it, just for good measure, trying to be encouraging, and tries to ignore the way Harry’s fingers twitch.

“Come on,” he says, and he sounds so soft, bloody hell, almost like the way he’d talk to his sisters when they were struggling with a math problem, but—still different. There’s something in his voice that sounds foreign even to him. “Come on, Harry. You can do this, love. You’ve got it.”

Harry bites his lip again, so hard it goes white underneath his teeth. His eyes are glistening when he looks up at Louis, and Louis can immediately tell that he’s back—that this is the Harry he met his first day of Bake Off, the Harry that held his head up proud and said, without a hint of insecurity, that he’s got what it takes to win.

A ball of warmth spins in Louis’s chest, weighing on his lungs and stealing his breath, but it still feels pleasant, somehow. “That’s what I like to see,” he grins, and runs his fingers over Harry’s pulse one more time before he pulls his hands back. “Eight under seven, and over one.”

And Harry starts, slow but certain, weaving long, pale strands of dough, over and under and across. Louis feels a smile take over his face, quiet, just there as he steals Harry’s recipe and reads out the numbers, watches Harry turn his instructions into a gorgeous loaf of bread. He has no time to let it rise again, just slides it right in the oven, but he’s grinning once he straightens up and looks at Louis.

They don’t say anything, mostly because Louis has no idea what to say. When he backs away to go back to his station, he feels warm down to his fingertips even in the chilly spring day.

“That was interesting,” is how Niall greets him. He appears to be doing better, with a decently plaited loaf baking away in the oven, sitting on his counter and dangling his legs. Somebody’s been by to sort out his once-messy hair.

“Interesting?” Louis quirks an eyebrow, busying himself with his own bake and trying to pretend he doesn’t feel all the eyes that are on him like an uncomfortable physical touch. “I just went to have a chat with Harry.”

“And help him to not get kicked out of the competition,” Niall quips. He seems very happy with himself. “Marriage and babies is the next step, I reckon.”

Louis grabs a handful of flour and flings it in his general direction. Niall laughs, then shrieks, and effectively ruins a shot of Ben acting superior.

When they carry their loaves to the table and wait for the crew to arrange them in a nice little row, Louis catches Harry’s eye. He can still see a trace of the redness, spot a nervous twitch where Harry keeps rubbing his hands over his face, but the devastation is all gone.

“Well done,” Louis mouths in his direction. He feels – proud, almost, though he doesn’t know if it’s of himself or of Harry or of them both. His thoughts feel muddled in the worst of ways, a feeling that’s become intimately familiar in his time on the Bake Off.

“Thank you,” Harry mouths back, thought to Louis it also looks a little bit like “later”.

He takes a deep breath, and straightens up on his stool. He has a loaf of bread to worry about; not the shape of Harry’s lips as they curl around silent words.

*

By the time Louis gets out of the marquee, dusk is already falling. It’s cold out, too, bitingly windy when there are no hot ovens to warm up the air, no lively chatter to fill Louis’s ears.

He leaves behind the bustle of the crew wrapping up for the day, and walks across the grounds slowly, with his hands in his pockets and his backpack slung over one shoulder. There’s a stabbing kind of pain in the middle of his back. It’s been getting worse since the morning, aggravated by hours and hours of standing on his feet and racing to get things done on time. He can’t wait to get in the shower and into bed, sink into the lumpy mattress that he’s come to call his in the past three weeks.

The sun plays yellow and orange and dark red just over the horizon, reflecting in the windows of Harptree Court in the distance. It feels tranquil, endlessly calming, soothing to Louis’s tired, tired eyes.

A loud baa pierces the fragile silence and, inexplicably, makes Louis grin. He turns towards the sheep pen, expecting to see the lambs falling all over each other as usual, sliding about in the slippery grass.

Instead, he finds Harry Styles sitting down inside the fence.

Leave him alone, Louis’s very helpful inner voice supplies immediately. It’s right, this time – Harry seems to be having a moment, looking soft and small and vulnerable in the fading light of the evening, and Louis should, by all means, continue on. Their room will smell like Harry’s cologne, but he might have an easier time going to sleep knowing that Harry himself isn’t tossing and turning two feet away.

Unfortunately, Louis has never been very good at listening to himself. His feet take him in Harry’s direction automatically, following the hum of his voice in the distance.

“I know,” Louis hears him say as he gets closer. “It was silly of me. Such a stupid mistake.” It’s only now that Louis realises Harry has a lamb in his lap, long legs folded and looking up at him with big, trusting eyes. “I screwed up so bad. Can you believe Louis had to come talk me out of it? Louis, of all people. Why can’t he—“ he trails off and, just as Louis’s heart stutters in something that feels like anticipation, shakes his head. “Nevermind. I should start a diary instead, you don’t need to hear these things.”

“I’d like to,” Louis says before he can stop himself. There’s that invisible sort of pull, even stronger now, that makes him want to be closer, always closer.

Harry raises his head, a little startled. His eyes catch the waning sun and explode brilliant and golden. Louis’s knees go just a little weak.

“Sorry,” he smiles, almost sheepish, and takes the one last step separating him from the fence. When he leans against it, Harry has to tilt his head back to see him. “Was just walking by and saw you over here. Who’s your friend?” he nods to the lamb that has now struggled back to its feet and is trying to eat Harry’s shirt.

Harry smiles, beams, really, and his shoulders relax. “This is Rhubarb,” he says, and pets its tiny, fluffy head. “She’s a very good listener.”

“Baa,” Rhubarb says in response, and Louis doesn’t bother fighting his smile. He feels light on the inside, like the wind has blown away all the stress and pressure, if only for a moment.

“Can I join you?” he asks, finds himself craving Harry’s company, easy as that.

Harry blinks, surprised, but immediately shuffles over on the grass, “Sure.”

And that’s how Louis finds himself sitting inside a pen full of bewildered sheep, with two pairs of big, shiny eyes warily trained on him.

“So,” he says, ever the eloquent conversationalist. “What a day.”

Harry nods, small, and the sunlight plays with his curls. “I was just telling Rhubarb all about it. I don’t know how I’m going to face the judges tomorrow.”

“Are you still going on about that?” Louis frowns, involuntarily sweeps his eyes over the soft curve of Harry’s shoulder, the way his hair hides his face just a little bit as he blinks slowly at the ground. He looks so vulnerable, and Louis is amazed. “You did well today.”

Harry snorts. “That’s a bit of a stretch.”

“Alright, a bit,” Louis concedes, “but you weren’t bad. Hell, you came fourth in the technical.”

“Only because of you,” says Harry, and raises his eyes, sheepish. “I didn’t even tell you thank you yet, so. You know. Thank you.”

“That’s alright,” Louis bites his lip, knowing full well how not alright it is, how three weeks ago he would have never even thought about helping someone in the tent like that, helping his direct competition. “You would’ve done the same for me.”

Harry shakes his head a little, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing, and watches Rhubarb walk away from them on her shaky little lamb legs. There’s a loud baa from somewhere inside the flock, calling her home, and she sprints away just like that, leaving the two of them in the dust.

When Louis looks back at Harry, he’s smiling.

“You’re so wonderful, Louis,” he says, and Louis’s lungs constrict. “I wish you wouldn’t pretend, you know?”

“Pretend?” Louis gets out.

Harry shrugs. He shifts, rocks from side to side, all clumsy knees and elbows, and moves closer to Louis, until their legs are almost touching. Louis can feel the heat of him through his jeans, feel his presence like little bursts of electrical current that rise off Harry’s skin and bite into Louis’s own. Harry’s legs go on for days, thick thighs and well-shaped calves and his always ridiculous boots, and Louis swallows drily when he looks at them stretched next to his own, shorter, smaller.

The breeze whistles around their ears, tosses Louis’s fringe into his eyes and away again. He’s trying to push his hair back and make it stay when Harry speaks.


“I don’t know if pretending is the right word,” he says, and plays with a blade of grass he’d torn off. “But you just—you have all these walls. I don’t know why you think you need them.”

Louis is—startled, for a lack of a better word. He knows the way he is, knows he barely holds it together on good days and everyone can see right through him. It’s just that, well. He’d been under the impression that calling out people’s mental blocks is impolite, or something.

This is just another way for Harry Styles to prove him wrong, it seems.

“You’re going to win this, you know that, right?” Harry asks then, and his eyes sparkle gold. Louis feels another one of those walls take a hard, heavy blow.

“That’s the plan, I guess,” he replies, and he sounds less than convinced. He winces a little at his own tone, at how small and breathy and unsure he sounds, like he didn’t come into the competition ready to do absolutely anything it took. “Just hope it works out.”

“You won the technical,” Harry points out. “And your bread was amazing. Whatever you make tomorrow is going to blow the judges away, and you’re going to take Star Baker again. I have a nose for these things,” he grins, and the dimples in his cheeks deepen.

“Why are you telling me this?” Louis asks, puzzled, even as his fingertips tingle with warmth. “Shouldn’t you want to win?”

“Oh, I want to,” says Harry immediately, “but I do have common sense. You’re obviously the most skilled out of all of us. It’ll be an honour to be your runner-up.”

And he laughs then, a happy little sound as he looks at Louis, completely genuine. He’s straightened up a little, like a weight has fallen off his shoulders.

Louis is so fucking pleased he feels himself blush a little. Harry’s words warm him up better than the cuppa he’d planned on having at the B&B, and he wants, for a feverish, crazy second, to give Harry his whole entire heart.

“Thank you,” he says, quiet. “I, um. I really appreciate that.” He doesn’t think he's ever told a more genuine truth.

“You’re welcome,” Harry smiles, so vastly, endlessly kind, and bumps Louis’s shoulder with his own. “You could send me a postcard when you’re famous and travelling the world, you know, in return. If you’ll even remember that I exist.”

I could never forget you, Louis thinks immediately. Transfixed, he watches the bow of Harry’s lashes tremble and sweep downwards as he blinks, squinting into the setting sun. It’s then that he feels something break irrevocably, irreparably right inside his chest, like every last one of his walls falling, like his heart coming alive and pumping liquid fire into his veins, burning through every spot of his skin that’s near Harry, wanting more, closer.

This is it, he knows, feels it down to the very core of his bones. This is the moment he stops resisting.

“I’ll remember,” he promises, and Harry’s happy little sigh in answer feels like a caress. They’re still not touching, just lingering in each other’s space, and Louis is the first one to give in. He closes the distance, leans his head against Harry’s shoulder with a painful kind of tentativeness, and breathes out. There’s Harry’s cologne, strong in the curve between his neck and shoulder, coating the inside of Louis’s nose. He’s surprised to find that it comforts him.

“Good,” Harry says, just this side of choked off, and his muscles move underneath Louis’s cheek as he shifts to accommodate him better. He wants Louis near him, is perfectly relaxed even as his jackrabbit pulse thuds in Louis’s ear. The next breath that Louis lets out tastes like happiness in his mouth. “I want you to.”

It’s so quiet Louis barely catches it, tacked on like the last gust of winter wind that gets inside before you close the door. Louis feels like it’s winter, too, like he’s just come in from the cold, and the warmth is soothing his frozen cheeks and fingers. Like he’s come home.

They watch the sunset then, quiet, looking over the horizon as the last rays of sun paint the sky yellow and red and purple. The hours are ticking down until they have to be in the tent again, sweating through hours of mixing and kneading, but for now, everything is at a standstill.

“Hey, Harry?” Louis asks, and his temple rubs against the soft fabric of Harry’s jumper.

“What is it?”

Louis is quiet for a beat, two, turning sentences over inside his mouth. “Good luck tomorrow,” he says finally, but they don’t feel like the right words.

Harry doesn’t respond. Louis still feels him smile.

*

Week four: Desserts

week four

Louis is sitting on the floor of his kitchen, trying to put together a list of ingredients to send to production, when Harry calls him.

They’d exchanged numbers on Sunday, as they packed their meagre belongings before leaving for London, and Louis has been worrying for the past two days – does a phone number come with certain expectations? Should he call and make awkward conversation about the weather?

It seems that, once again, Harry is one step in front of him.

Louis picks up with one hand. “Hello?” he asks, chewing on his pen, and angrily crosses out the sugar paste he’s just written down.

“Louis?” Harry’s voice comes through the microphone, distorted and even deeper than usual. “Hi, um. It’s Harry.”

“I can hear that,” Louis replies, and doesn’t fight when his lips stretch into a smile, seemingly of their own volition. “What’s up?”

Harry giggles down the line, pleased as a punch. “Are you busy?”

“Not really,” Louis says, and frowns down at his paper, the scratched-out ingredients he doesn’t actually want and an army of stickmen doodled in one corner, “just trying to put together things I’ll need for the final. Jen was very insistent that I get it to her by Friday.”

“Shit,” says Harry, and again: “Shit.” Louis laughs into his sleeve. “I don’t even know what I’m making yet!”

“How can you not know?” Louis asks, scandalised, looking around at the towering piles of his dog-eared cookbooks. He’d perused every single one before the competition even started, trying to piece together a bloody wedding cake for his very last showstopper. “It’s the final, Harold!”

The nickname slips out unnoticed, and Louis keeps on grinning to himself, delighted to have someone new to banter with. His mouth has got him in trouble countless times by now, but Harry seems to take Louis’s goodnatured poking in stride, and give back as good as he gets.

“I know,” Harry groans, “and I want everything to be perfect. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

Louis looks outside, at the bright spring sun reflecting off his neighbours’ windowpanes, and makes a split-second decision.

“Tell you what,” he says, as he folds up his list and clips a pen to it. “I’m a little stuck myself. Why don’t we do a bit of brainstorming over a cup of something warm?”

Harry coughs loudly on the other end of the line. It’s an unnatural kind of cough, one that Louis would use if he didn’t know what to say.

“If you’re free, of course,” he tacks on pathetically as he feels his cheeks flush.

“No, no, I’m free,” says Harry immediately, tripping over his words, “I was actually calling to see if you’d like to do…a thing.”

“A thing?”

“Yeah, uh. Did you practise this week?”

Louis blinks. He looks over his kitchen, a row of five massive cheesecakes he’d baked in the morning and choux buns littering every single flat surface.

“I practiced some, yeah,” he says as he makes his way to the hall, tucking the ingredient list into the pocket of his jean jacket. “Why?”

“Do you know what you’re gonna do with the leftovers yet?”

Louis does not. Mrs Wilkinson from the second floor has told him, in no uncertain terms, that she needs to watch her sugar, and Liam usually balks whenever dairy is involved.

“You want my cheesecakes?” he asks, grinning.

“Not exactly,” says Harry, and he’s grinning too, Louis can tell. He can just imagine him with those deep, deep dimples of his carved into his cheeks, leaning against his shiny kitchen counter with his hip popped. “Give me your address. I’ll come get you and explain.”

It sounds vaguely panic-inducing, Harry in Louis’s space, his kitchen, touching things and leaving a cloud of his cologne behind, but Louis just…Louis wants to talk to him some more.

*

“What is this place?” he asks when they roll to a stop, parked right by the curb next to a decrepit-looking semi.

“Wait and see,” Harry grins.

He’d shown up at Louis’s building not twenty minutes after they’d ended the call, leaning against the horn of a bright red Volkswagen and yelling at Louis to “get the cheesecakes”.

As it turns out, the car belongs to his downstairs neighbour, somebody named Matt who accidentally crashed at Harry’s after a night out and woke him up at four in the morning. He’d promised Harry a favour, and this is him cashing it in. The back seat is also piled high with baked goods, Louis’s cheesecakes haphazardly stacked and covered with a tea towel, and Harry’s individually packed in pristine cardboard boxes. Louis has been growing increasingly confused as they made their way through the London traffic at midday, and now Harry refuses to tell him where they are.

For all Louis knows, he could be walking to his death. He tells Harry as much.

“Don’t be dramatic,” is Harry’s response, and he grins even wider. His smile hasn’t dropped in the past hour, and he looks happy and bright and alive as he dances around the car to open the back door. His hair is loose today, falling all the way to his shoulders in gorgeous little cascades, and he’s wearing a soft white jumper that, for once, hides his extremely distracting chest. “Help me carry these, come on.”

And it’s with his arms full of Harry’s delicious-smelling fruity cheesecake that Louis finally walks close enough to read the sign on the white face of the building – Shelter from the Storm.

“What is this place?” he asks again, stepping into Harry’s shadow. He’s standing at the door, leaning against the doorbell, and the curved line of his back is a temptation that Louis finds very difficult to resist.

“It’s a shelter,” Harry says, turns his head until Louis has a perfect view of his profile, “for people who have nowhere else to go.”

“Homeless people?”

“Yeah,” Harry chuckles wryly and rings the bell again. “Homeless people. I know someone who works here.”

Louis walks up the front steps, shimmying onto the top one until he’s standing next to Harry, pressed against him shoulder to thigh. “Didn’t you say you’re new to London?”

Harry doesn’t get to reply. The tall wooden door creaks open, and they’re greeted by a round, friendly face.

“Harry!” the man smiles, and extends his tattooed arms towards Harry’s armful of cakes.

“Ed!” Harry replies with equal enthusiasm, eyes lit up like fairy lights. “It’s been ages.”

“Yup,” Ed agrees, stepping away from the door. “A whole eight days.”

Harry seems to take it as an invitation. “Come on,” he tells Louis, pokes a gentle elbow into his ribs, and steps over the threshold.

A cold, tiled hall greets Louis inside, decorated in shades of blue and half shrouded in darkness. There’s a single window on the wall behind Ed, and the light spilling through lights up his ginger hair. Louis is startled when Ed turns to address him directly.

“And you are?” he asks, still with a friendly grin, and Louis has to wonder if the overly happy disposition is something that Harry looks for in a friend.

“Louis,” he says, not quite sure how to act. “I’d shake your hand, but, uh,” he shrugs, tilting his head towards his precariously balanced cheesecake tower.

“Nice to meet you, mate,” Ed says. “Ed. You’re from the competition, right?”

He walks to Louis then, grabs the cakes, and sets them down on a nearby table that also houses a phone, a cosmetic mirror, and a box of tissues.

“I am, yeah,” Louis replies with a grateful sigh, shaking out his aching arms. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about me.”

Harry scowls at him playfully, presumably for stealing his joke, and Louis grins in delight.

“You have no idea,” Ed nods.

Louis blinks. He seems serious enough – or at least as serious as he’s been in the three minutes Louis has known him – and that’s. Huh.

“Now,” Ed claps his hands, and the sound echoes underneath the tall, tall ceiling. Louis feels a little like he’s in a church, and momentarily, it brings back memories of sitting on an uncomfortable pew, clutching his Nan’s hand and playing with her rings to pass the time. “What do we have here?”

Harry shuffles closer to Louis, then reaches behind him and flicks a switch. A chandelier flickers to life above their heads; only half of the candle-shaped bulbs appear to be working, but they still flood the hall with warm yellow light.

“Cheesecakes,” Harry grins then, and doesn’t move away. His presence in Louis’s space charges the air, somehow, and Louis could swear he can hear it crackle. “And Lou’s brought some choux.”

“What’s that?” Ed asks, curious, and peeks into the torn Tesco bag that holds several Tupperwares full of Louis’s choux attempts.

“They’re profiteroles,” he says, and his voice echoes unpleasantly. “Just without the sauce on top. And the filling’s a bit poncey.”

Ed laughs. He fishes out a single bun and breaks it in half. Louis is pleased to see that the entire hollow space is filled, and that his pastry cream doesn’t drip all over the place.

“Those look nice,” Harry compliments, and Louis’s chest floods with a tentative, shivery kind of warmth. “Mine burned a little bit, I forgot to push the tips in.”

Louis grins and pats him on the shoulder, placating. He steps out of the tantalising circle of Harry’s personal space, and slinks over to Ed just in time to watch him cram the choux into his mouth. He hums appreciatively as he chews.

“That’s a weird flavour,” he says once he’s swallowed, and Louis’s stomach drops. “Not bad weird though, don’t worry,” Ed adds, probably because he sees Louis’s expression fall. Louis curses his strangely expressive face. “’S just unfamiliar. Good, though, a bit—flowery, like? What’s that?”

“Rosewater,” Louis responds, always happy to divulge his secrets, though nobody ever asks him to. “And pistachio. I’m still trying to get the ratio just right.”

“Fancy cream for a fancy competition,” Ed says, and sticks three of his fingers in his mouth to lick them clean. “You’re making this over the weekend, then?”

Louis nods. Before he can give voice to his answer, he feels Harry walk up behind him. His presence feels rather like a punch to the solar plexus.

“We’re making a tower out of them,” he says, and his words tickle the hair on the back of Louis’s neck. “Sticking them together with caramel and the like.”

“Oh, I’ve seen that!” Ed grins. “Crock-something, right?”

“Croquembouche,” Harry says, with an incredibly fake-sounding French flair, and dissolves into giggles. Louis is a second away from fondly shaking his head, when he catches Ed doing just that.

“Alright, Hazza,” he says, and reaches around Louis to pat him on the shoulder. “You’re hilarious. Thank you for all of this.”

And just like that, Harry sobers up, though a hint of a laugh remains tucked into the corner of his mouth.

“It’s no trouble,” he says empathetically, patting Ed’s hand. His eyes are big and earnest and painfully gorgeous. “Sorry it’s not really proper food.”

“Are you joking? Everyone loves dessert best,” Ed says, and counts the cakes resting on various flat surfaces around the hall. “And you’ve brought enough to get everyone a slice. Fantastic.”

Harry beams, and Louis steps out of the way so they can hug. He crosses his arms and stands there, watches them laugh into each other’s ears, and resolutely refuses to feel the low, angry thrum in his heart. He’s not jealous. That’s not a thing Louis does.

It’s just—Harry’s hugs look really nice. Louis remembers how comfortable the curve of his shoulder was, and can’t help wondering what it’s like to feel all of him, to have Harry’s fawn-like limbs wrapped around your body as tightly as they’re currently wrapped around Ed’s. Can’t help wondering if all of him is that firm and soft at the same time, if every single patch of skin would burn as urgently, as brilliantly, against Louis’s own.

Louis wants Harry’s hands on him. He wants them, big and clumsy as they are, on his shoulders, his neck, his back, his hips. Everywhere, all at once.

Just the thought of touching Harry again has Louis going hot under the collar, and he feels sweat bead on his forehead even in the cold room. He closes his eyes, looks away for a bit, and focuses on the quiet whistle of wind that makes its way in through the gap underneath the door.

“Is anybody in?” he hears Harry ask, louder than before, indicating that perhaps they’ve untangled themselves. Louis turns, tentatively, back to them.

Ed is just shaking his head, fingers running through his hair as he attempts to pat it into place. “Not really,” he says. “The kids are at school, and most of the others are out. Mrs Walsh has time off, but I think she’s sleeping. You can say hi another time,” he smiles.

“Yeah, I know,” Harry replies, but Louis is sure he doesn’t imagine the disappointed crease between his eyebrows. “I’ll come by again Friday morning, bring some more food, yeah?”

“That’d be great,” says Ed. “You should bring Louis, too.”

“If he wants to come,” Harry says, and above Ed’s head, he catches Louis’s eyes. What Louis sees in them reminds him of sitting together in the sheep pen, the way Harry had been slumped forward, soft and vulnerable and unusually small.

“Sure,” he smiles, though he’s still not quite sure how he ended up here. It’s worth it anyway, for Harry’s brilliant, brilliant grin.

Back in the car, Harry turns the heating all the way up and puts on Bruce Springsteen. Louis fastens his seatbelt, as per Harry’s request, leans back in his seat, and watches him. He looks fascinating behind the wheel, biting his lip in concentration when they’re waiting at a red light, shifting gears slow but sure, his hand firm on the stick. There’s something utterly mesmerising about the way he steers, delicate bones playing under skin and rings glinting in the afternoon sun. He’s cradling the wheel, almost, letting it slide over his palm after he’s taken a turn, fingertips tapping against it gently to the beat of the music.

Apparently, Louis waxes poetic about Harry’s various body parts now. He already knows he’s in trouble, but he’d appreciate if his brain could hop off the Harry bandwagon for one goddamned car ride.

He spends the rest of the way staring out through the windshield, entertaining Harry’s quiet attempts at conversation and trying to angle his bare ankles so that the hot air from the vents hits them just right. He feels peaceful, almost, like he’s inside a bubble where time and space don’t matter, and he’s the one who gets to decide when to return back down to earth, back into the spinning tornado that is life.

The feeling, unfortunately, only lasts until Harry rolls to a stop. Louis’s building looks the same it did an hour and a half ago, like time really had stood still while Louis wasn’t looking.

Naturally, Harry is the one who breaks the silence. “Hope that wasn’t too bad,” he says, and Louis frowns at the air freshener hanging off the rear-view mirror.

“Why would it be bad?”

Harry shrugs, sheepish. “Dunno. You may’ve had better things to do with your Wednesday.”

It’s the first time that Louis remembers the list, haphazardly folded and tucked into the pocket of his jacket. “Nope,” he says, trying to sound as convincing as he possibly can, “just a lot of sulking and mumbling and trying to come up with the perfect recipe. The usual, really.”

Harry laughs. Louis thinks he’s the loveliest thing in the world.

“It’s a really good thing, what you’re doing,” he continues, trying to pull together every broken thread of thought floating about his head, to put them into words that make sense. “I imagine it makes a lot of people happy.”

Harry smiles at him and takes his seatbelt off. Louis’s heart stutters in bizarre, reckless hope.

“Thank you,” he says, looks down, and Louis’s fingers itch to tuck the stray strands of his hair behind his ear. “I just—it’s important to me. To help people when they’re in a bad way. I know what it feels like.”

The moment feels fragile. Louis is a little afraid to speak, lest he ruin something they’ve barely started to build. “How come?” he asks, and waits with baited breath.

Harry blinks slowly, and raises pale green eyes to meet Louis head-on. “We used to live on the street. My mum and my sister and I. When I was little.”

He says it so comfortably, so casually, like it’s something he tells strangers in the queue at the supermarket.

“Oh,” Louis breathes, as the emotions that war in his chest kick up a storm. “That’s—oh.”

“Sorry for dropping that on you,” Harry says, barely audible, but he’s smiling, and—apologising for sharing something so intensely personal. “I just…forget, sometimes, that people think all these horrible things about the homeless. It can happen to anyone, you know?”

“I know,” Louis says. “Or I don’t, I suppose, but I believe you.”

“It’s been a long time,” says Harry. “We’re doing great now, but you never really forget.”

“I—“ Louis falters. “I can’t imagine.” He watches Harry, just—looks and keeps looking, at the way his entire body is curled towards Louis in his seat, from his hands resting palms-up in between them to the toes of his boots.

Harry shakes his head. “I know you can’t. I don’t know why I brought it up, sorry.”

“No,” Louis says before his brain can process a real answer, “don’t apologise, I… Thank you. That’s really—you didn’t have to tell me that.”

“I trust you,” Harry says, with this lovely, open expression on his face, hair in his eyes and sleeves falling over his hands, and all the air in the car disappears. Louis’s lungs constrict emptily as he skips a breath, and then another.

He wants, suddenly, to spill his guts about everything that’s happened to him since he finished college, his whole pathetic sob story of an adult life. It’s not that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to; Liam probably knows Louis better than he knows himself. No, it’s a different kind of wanting – the kind that scares Louis and excites him at the same time, where Harry has just opened up in the most unexpected of ways and Louis wants to open up right back, tell him all of his secrets, because he knows, he knows that Harry would keep them safe. He wants to lay himself bare, put all of himself into Harry’s big, open palms, at the mercy of the kindest pair of eyes he’s ever seen.

“Thank you,” he says, finally, when the air returns, shivering with promise. I’ve not given you much reason to, he wants to say, but he stops himself. Harry was there, after all. He knows.

“That’s alright,” Harry smiles, and just like that, they’re back on track, with Louis watching the entrance to his building awkwardly, hoping that it’s maybe been infested by rats in the last hour and he’ll have to stay out. To his misfortune, his neighbours seem to be coming and going as usual; Mrs Wilkinson even waves when she steps out to walk her Yorkie and sees him sitting there.

Pull yourself together, Louis tells himself, trying to construct a sentence that would convey just how much he wants to stay for a while more. Now that he’s let himself feel things about Harry, he’s more than a little taken aback by how strong they are, how much Harry rattles him.

“So,” he clears his throat, just to fill up the curious silence, “wedding cakes.”

Harry, who had been in the process of rolling down the driver’s side window, bursts out laughing.

“Wedding cakes,” he repeats, eyes sparkling with mirth. “What about them?”

“Have you thought about yours?”

Well,” Harry drags out, then reaches for the key and turns off the engine. “I’d always imagined it white. With a few pastel accents, lavender, maybe? Or pink. And those cheesy little figurines of my future husband and I on top.”

His—husband. Oh. Oh. That’s…good to know.

Harry’s grin is so endlessly amused, and Louis feels his face go red. “I meant for the competition, you knob,” he replies, but he feels his own laughter bubbling at the bottom of his throat, just waiting until he gives it voice.

“That’s a rude thing to call someone,” Harry says, smiling ear to ear and stretching out his legs in the narrow space around the pedals. “But yeah, um, I don’t know yet. I was thinking of doing something non-traditional, but I’m not sure how well that’s gonna go over with the judges.”

Louis scoffs. “Are you joking? They bloody love you, you’re their favourite.”

Harry mumbles something unintelligible, and Louis spots a bright little blush high on his cheeks. “Still, not sure they’d be okay with a carrot cake.”

“A carrot cake?” Louis raises his eyebrows. He’s surprised, but at the same time, it seems so fitting for the boy who’d made a rainbow cake for their very first showstopper. “For a wedding?”

Harry shrugs. “Told you it was non-traditional. I just—I found this great recipe in my Nan’s cookbook. I could make the layers different colours, use purple carrots—“

“And white ones,” Louis interjects. Harry stops, blinks, then claps his hands in excitement.

“Yes!” he says. “And some really good orange icing on top. And I’ll make the second tier something nice and boring, so everyone’s happy.”

They grin at each other, pleased, as the sun slants in through the windshield and paints highlights in Harry’s hair. Louis feels so close to him just then, like the space between them doesn’t exist, like he’d almost be brave enough to reach over the console and cover one of Harry’s palms with his own.

“Wait,” Harry says suddenly, and a small frown settles between his eyebrows, “where will I get white carrots?”

Louis laughs. He throws his head back against the headrest, and lets every feeling he’s discovered today wash over him like a tidal wave.

“No worries,” he grins, and wraps a hand around Harry’s elbow, “I know a greengrocer’s.”

*

That weekend, it becomes apparent that the universe really, truly hates Louis. He could’ve forgiven it the Incident at the supermarket, but twice is too much – especially considering that Incident Number Two is even more mortifying.

It happens on Saturday. Louis is riding the high of putting a flawless New York-style cheesecake in front of the judges and getting a glowing critique; he’s thinking about Paul’s satisfied little smirk when he walks into his and Harry’s room, wearing nothing but a towel tied around his waist, and he’s decidedly not prepared for the impact.

“Oof,” Harry says from above him, a sharp gust of air that ruffles the hair on top of Louis’s head because Harry is so bloody tall and—and plastered against Louis’s chest. Louis crashed into him, because he wasn’t looking where he was going. He’s pressed against Harry Styles’ extremely firm body wearing virtually nothing.

He’s just crashed into Harry. While naked.

“Shit,” he curses as soon as he gets his bearings back, and takes a blind step backwards. He bumps into the corner of a bedside table with his thigh, but it gets him away from Harry, who’s standing by his bed with his mouth open. Louis looks at his shirt and realises that the flimsy white material, already half-sheer, is now completely soaked and sticking to Harry’s chest wet and near translucent. Louis can just make out the dark outline of his nipples, and the gentle dip of his chest where his pecs come together.

“Shit,” he says again, and this time, it’s because he feels an unmistakable warmth stir in the very pit of his stomach. It tingles as it spreads throughout his body, fuelled by the sight of Harry still standing frozen, chest rising with surprised breaths that slowly ebb into a calmer rhythm. God, he looks gorgeous. Absolutely fucking sinful, with the thick thighs and the long fingers and the beautiful pink lips. Louis wonders what would happen if he got down on his knees right now.

Except, of course, that line of thought is wholly and entirely inappropriate. Harry is Louis’s friend, sort of, maybe, and Louis would like to keep it that way. It really doesn’t matter that Harry is the first person since Aiden Grimshaw from sixth form who gives Louis butterflies.

“Sorry,” he finally manages to say, fussing with the knot on his towel.

Harry tilts his head, looking spacey and confused, and the bow of his lashes looks tantalising when he blinks. It’s long gone dark outside, and in the warm orange light of the lamps, Louis could swear he sees his eyes turn a murky, mossy green.

He breathes through the strange tension in the air, and tries again: “I wasn’t—wasn’t really looking where I was going. Sorry about that.”

That finally seems to get through to Harry, and he flinches like he’s been burned. “Yeah, uh,” he starts, voice lower, more gravelly than usual, “that’s alright.”

He sounds—fucking Christ, he sounds like he’s been sucking cock, and Louis pinches his thigh trying to not get hard.

“Almost a tradition at this point, innit?” Louis chuckles, but it’s weak. “Us seeing each other half-naked.” He’s got no point, is just trying hopelessly to diffuse this bomb before it blows, pun fully intended, and he’s doing a right piss-poor job.

Harry’s answering laugh is even faker than Louis’s own. “Sure is,” he says, and slowly, almost deliberately, his eyes slide away from Louis’s face and down, down, to where Louis is still fussing with his towel.

The inside of Louis’s mouth goes completely dry in a second flat. There’s no point pretending he doesn’t recognise that look; has had it trained on him one too many times on nights out in bars with Liam. Harry wants him – consciously or unconsciously, but he does. Louis has no idea what to do with the discovery.

“Uh,” he says, and then his throat goes tight. “I’m just,” he gets out, “I’m just gonna—get dressed. Yeah.”

Except Louis has, somehow, backed himself into a corner. His back is almost to the wall, and the only way out is forward, around Harry and then to Louis’s side of the room. Or, alternatively, across Harry’s bed, which is still pristinely made from that morning and probably smells like him. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

He chooses to try and squeeze by Harry, determined to touch him as little as possible. That plan goes to hell as soon as Louis takes a step, trips over Harry’s grandpa slippers, and lands on his chest again.

Louis’s life is a romantic comedy, except nobody is laughing.

“Oops,” Harry mutters. Slowly, inch by inch, Louis becomes aware of all the places their bodies are touching – his own chest against Harry’s, his nose pressed against Harry’s collarbone, Harry’s hand on Louis’s shoulder, and the other one wrapped all the way around his elbow, holding him up.

Louis clears his throat. “Yeah, hi,” he mutters into Harry’s skin, warm and smelling of the candied fruit he baked with earlier. “Sorry. Again.”

“No, ‘s my fault,” Harry says. He sounds collected, calm, but Louis’s ear is right against his chest, where his heart is racing. “Shouldn’t leave things lying around.”

“That’s also true,” Louis says, even as he thinks about Harry laying things down. Laying himself. Into bed. Naked. Preferably while Louis watches.

As soon as the thought enters Louis’s head, all his blood starts dutifully chugging south. He’s about to make their situation even more awkward, if such a thing is possible, unless he peels away from Harry right now and makes a run for it.

“Alright,” he announces, and pulls his face away from Harry’s torso. “Thanks for saving me,” he says, and makes the mistake of looking up.

Harry is much, much closer than Louis had anticipated, hunched forward to support Louis’s weight, neck bent down until their faces are just a hair away from touching. He’s breathing through his mouth, deep and heavy, and his exhales break against Louis’s lips, like a ghost of what could be, if Louis just leaned up a little—

Or not. Not going there, he repeats in his head, a mantra as he straightens up and waits for Harry to remove his hands. His palms are warm and dry as they slide against Louis’s skin, just rough enough to leave and impression; Louis is absolutely certain he doesn’t imagine the way Harry lingers on his wrist, long fingers feeling Louis’s pulse.

But then—then, he takes a big step back, almost halfway across the room on those long legs of his, and a shadow falls over his face. Louis misses the warmth of his presence immediately, feels his skin break out into goosebumps, like it’s trying to follow, pull Louis where Harry had gone.

Louis takes it for what it is – a clean break in the tension, a this never happened kind of gesture, and scurries over to his own bed, his own space, where the sheets smells of nothing but washing powder. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Harry slump his shoulders with a sigh, fidget with his hair and the hem of his shirt. Louis wants, just a little, to go to him and comfort him.

When Harry leaves, presumably to wash up for the night, Louis loosens the death grip on his towel and lets it fall to his feet. He rubs a hand over his face, closes his eyes, and sighs. What the hell.

He decides to get into bed and try to fall asleep – preferably forever – before Harry returns. As he’s putting on his sleep shirt, it occurs to him that this ridiculous encounter is the closest they’ve ever been, almost hugging like Louis had wished for earlier that week, except so much worse. He can’t believe that just Harry’s presence was enough to damn near get him hard, make him feel this feverish and wanton and terrified at the strength of his lust—and other potential feelings he’s not going to think about right now.

Stubbornly, Louis’s dick twitches in his pants, like it thinks that maybe the fun isn’t over and will resume once Harry returns. Louis lifts the covers and scowls at it, feeling out of sorts, then rolls over onto his stomach.

When Harry comes back, he closes the door after himself with a barely audible snick, and pads around the room slowly, quietly, probably trying not to wake Louis. Which would be very sweet of him if Louis were, in fact, asleep. As it is, he’s sweating into his pillow, trying to empty his mind.

So Harry wants him. So what. Maybe it was a momentary glitch. Maybe Harry spent his time in the bathroom laughing at himself in the mirror, thinking about how ridiculous he’d been.

Bottom line is, they’re still in a competition. They’re rivals, trying to beat each other every single week; they also signed a contract that probably had a million small-print clauses about getting it on with other people in the tent. It would be highly irresponsible of Louis were he to give in to these things he’s feeling. He wants the prize more than he wants to worship Harry’s gorgeous thighs, definitely.

It settles Louis minds a little, deciding that nothing is going to happen between them ever, no way, absolutely not. His heart, however, keeps racing long into the night, even after Harry’s climbed into bed and settled in with his book.

A few minutes after midnight, Harry turns off the lights, punches his pillow, and murmurs a soft “Good night, Lou.”

Louis feels like crying.

*

Louis is up to his elbows in caramel. It’s also in his hair, down the back of his shirt, and clumped in one of his eyebrows.

“How’s it goin’, Lou?” yells Niall, who appears to be in a similar predicament, laughing as he sweats through assembling his croquembouche with sticky fingers.

“What do you think?” Louis yells back, accidentally breaking his fifth choux bun in a row. The clock is ticking, showing two hours left, and he’s barely halfway up his cone; several people, including Harry, have already set theirs aside to firm up and left the tent, and it’s just him, Niall, and Ben in a mad race.

If Louis were the kind of person that gives up, he would’ve probably thrown in the towel right about now. So far, nothing has gone right today, ever since the morning when he woke up to a cold, empty room.

Somewhere along the way, his caramel has gone wrong. What’s left in his saucepan is hardening much faster than it should, and the residue on his fingers is sticky enough to tear apart every choux bun he touches. It’s a bloody disaster, and Sue’s amused chattering in his ear is not helping.

“Steady on,” says Zayn, who has somehow appeared next to Louis’s station, unusually serious. “You’ve only got a few more rows to go.”

Louis looks into his cone miserably. This can’t be how he gets thrown out of the competition; he refuses to put a poor, half-sized croquembouche in front of Mary Berry.

“It’s still like fifty buns,” he says, mentally counting the choux he’s got lined up on the counter, hoping to God it’s still enough.

“That’s nothing,” says Zayn. He leans closer then, leather jacket pulling tight across his shoulders, and grins. He looks like a little kid. “Just between us,” he whispers, “I don’t think Ben’s is going to come out of the cone. He’s put on way too much caramel, it’s not going to cool in time.”

Louis blinks. Over at his station, Ben looks calm and collected as always, and the only outward sign of the stress he must be experiencing is the sweat shining on his temples.

“Aren’t you supposed to be helping us?” Louis asks, and dips another bun in his ugly, dark caramel.

“I am helping you,” is Zayn’s response.

“You’re not helping him,” Louis raises an eyebrow. “You should have told him to be a little less heavy-handed.”

Zayn rests his elbows on the countertop, reaching for Louis’s leftover pastry cream. “I did,” he says coolly.

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “He told me it’s a special kind of croquembouche I couldn’t possibly know. Twat.”

Louis chokes on a laugh. “You’re supposed to stay impartial.”

“Fuck no,” Zayn replies. “’M not a judge. I can be as biased as I want.”

“Bet Niall knows all about that,” Louis mumbles. He’s being a brat, but egging Zayn on takes away from the stress of the situation, especially when he blushes and ducks his head.

“Fuck off,” he says, and busies himself by stuffing one of Louis’s burnt choux buns into his mouth. His cheeks are dark, and he seems to have angled his entire body in Niall’s direction at a mere mention of him.

He’s adorable.

“You’re adorable,” Louis tells him. Zayn reaches over to Perrie’s station, gets a fistful of chocolate chips, and dumps it down the back of Louis’s t-shirt.

“See if I help you again,” he says as he leaves, but he’s grinning, tongue pressed up against his teeth.

His good mood seems to lift the spirits of the entire tent, and Louis gets the last two rows of his croquembouche stuck on in under ten minutes. He’s the first out of the three of them to finish, and his hands shake when he sets his cone down to firm up.

The big clock at the front of the room says 1:30:25, ticking down, down, down, and Louis knows he’ll be cutting it close. He breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought alone, and realises he needs to relax before he gets into his second batch of caramel, unless he wants the stress to get the best of him. If this competition drives him to a breakdown, he’d rather not have it in front of cameras.

With a last glance at the room – Jen writing something down in the corner, Sue poking Ben in the ribs, Zayn and Niall with heads bent close together, looking at something inside Niall’s pot – Louis slips out of the marquee.

It’s a beautiful, sunny day outside. Louis had barely realised, had only thought in terms of the temperature messing up the consistency of his caramel, and he’s pleasantly surprised when he walks out and feels the sun touch his face.

There’s nobody around, it seems. Most of the crew is still inside, and the judges’ tent is quiet, flapping in the wind like a bizarre bird. Louis wonders where the contestants have fucked off (where Harry has fucked off, specifically, but that’s nether here nor there).

He has one cigarette on him, the last one of this week’s pack that he brought all the way from London in the pocket of his jacket. It’s a little squished when he pulls it out, but it’ll do well enough.

He walks a little ways away, under the cover of some trees, and leans against a sturdy trunk as he lights up. There are birds chirping above his head; he can hear them flying from branch to branch, rustling in the leaves.

As he drags smoke into his lungs, Louis feels the tremor in his hands calm down little by little, until all that’s left of the stress of the past three hours is the tight ball of anxiety in his stomach. He closes his eyes, exhales, and imagines all the tension leaving him in the same breath.

“You do know that’s bad for you, right?” Harry asks. When Louis opens his eyes, he’s right there, standing on the grass with his feet pointing inwards, hair in a bun and a bowling shirt billowing loosely on his torso.

“When did you get here?” he asks, surprised. It’s quiet out here, and he would’ve thought that someone as endearingly clumsy as Harry would’ve made plenty of noise on his way to Louis.

“Just now,” he smiles, pleasant. “You do know that’s bad for you, right?”

Louis rolls his eyes. He almost puts the cig out, just to appease Harry. Almost. “You sound like Liam,” he says instead, and watches in confusion as Harry frowns, then shakes his head and puts a smile back on. “And yes, I know. I usually smoke like one a week, but being here, it’s—it’s tough.”

“All that—gunk that you drag in with the smoke stays in your lungs,” Harry continues, undeterred.

“Harry,” Louis says, going for kind, “I know.” He looks at his cigarette, barely half smoked, and sighs regretfully. He takes one last proper drag, then drops it on the ground. “Better?” he asks, looks up at Harry, and watches the last of his smoke drift up. He misses the burn already.

“Thank you,” Harry says, ducking his chin forward shyly. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Louis sighs. “I’m used to it, really. Liam’s a personal trainer, he damn near kills me every time he sees me with a cigarette.”

Harry says nothing, just looks at the ground, and digs the toe of his boot into the soft dirt.

“How’s your croquembouche doing?” Louis asks, mostly for something to say. He’d watched Harry more than he’d like to admit, saw him weigh out his buns to make sure they all have an even amount of filling, saw him build his tower with a surgical precision. He’s definitely giving Louis a run for his money.

“I haven’t checked yet,” he replies, and when he raises his head, he’s got a pleased little flush in his face. “But I reckon it’ll go well. Zayn told me my caramel was the best in the room.”

He looks so satisfied with himself, obviously happy with a job well done. The scary thing is, Louis feels nothing but proud.

“How’s yours?” Harry remembers to ask, a little concerned furrow appearing between his eyebrows. “When did you finish?”

Louis shrugs miserably. His cig, crumpled on the ground, is now soaked through with dew. The fire in it is long gone, and he just wants one more drag, just one, to settle himself.

“About ten minutes ago,” he says, looks through the trees to where the marquee is standing tall and imposing, white walls bright in the sun. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Oh,” Harry says, and immediately looks more alert. “Everything okay?”

“Don’t know,” says Louis. “Hopefully. If nothing else, Ben’s will probably be worse than mine.” He’s fully aware of how miserable he sounds, but he can’t help it. It gets to him, time and time again, when his bakes don’t work out. It’s a matter of pride.

“Hey,” Harry crows, soft, and takes a step closer. His hand lands on Louis’s shoulder soft and warm and comforting. “It’s okay. I’m sure you’ll do great. Remember the brandy snaps?”

Louis shuts his eyes in embarrassment. Does he ever.

“You thought that was going to be a disaster, and then you won. I promise you, you can do so much more than you think.”

Louis wishes Harry’s words didn’t make him feel so warm. It’s scary, the fact that his own body won’t listen to him, but answers to someone else, finds an anchor in the way Harry is holding on to him, in the soft rumble of his voice.

“Thank you,” Louis says, small but genuine, and sighs.

Harry hugs him.

He takes his hand off Louis’s shoulder and pulls him in instead, a firm, open palm between his shoulder blades, until Louis is slumping forward and into him, chest against chest, his face right next to the dip of Harry’s collarbone.

With his eyes still closed, every touch feels amplified on Louis’s skin. Harry’s arms wrapped around him make him shudder, heavy and warm and familiar, somehow. He hugs Harry back, around the waist because he can’t reach anywhere else, savours the way he fits just right into all of Harry’s shapes, the curves and lines of his body.

Louis breathes in. Harry’s scent makes him dizzy, almost, in the best way possible, and as they stand there in the shade of the trees and sway, he wants to bury himself in Harry’s skin.

“Thanks,” he repeats again, and opens his eyes. He pulls away just enough to see into Harry’s face, and Harry lets him, hands curled loosely in the fabric of Louis’s vest.

“You’re welcome,” he says with a smile. There’s a curly strand of hair that seems to have escaped from his hair tie, and Louis sees no reason to resist the temptation – he reaches up, and tucks it into place behind Harry’s ear.

He can feel the change in the air when it happens, the light spring breeze turning to heavy molasses against his skin. From this close, Harry’s eyes look so many different shades of green, with subtle flecks of gold that reflect the sun. Louis is mesmerised.

His gaze, inevitably, lands on Harry’s lips. Louis’s hand is still hovering next to his face, right there, so close he could just reach out and touch them. They look so velvety soft, so fucking tempting, igniting a fire in Louis’s belly that makes him squirm.

“Lou?” Harry asks, near breathless, and Louis can feel the rise and fall of his chest speed up, in sync with his own. Fuck, he wants to kiss Harry. He wants to kiss him.

It’s Harry who kisses Louis, though. One second, they’re staring at each other without blinking, and the next, Harry is leaning close.

Louis expects their lips to crash together, a hard, bruising kiss, the desperate kind that would have their teeth clacking together, but it never happens. Harry cups a hand around the side of his face, feather-light, and then presses his mouth to Louis’s so gently it makes his knees weak.

Louis breathes out, parts his lips to respond to Harry in kind. He feels every place they’re touching burn like a brand, Harry’s fingers on his left hip and his palm against Louis’s cheek; Louis’s own hands running into Harry’s hair, messing up his bun, pulling him as close as he can get. The heat that wakes up inside him is more intense than anything he’s ever felt, bright like a flame that licks up his throat and through his veins, all the way into his fingertips.

Harry parts from Louis with a breathless little gasp, and dives right back in. He’s more insistent this time, less restrained when he realises that Louis is responding to him. He licks into Louis’s mouth, slow and thorough like the way he talks, and he quite literally steals all of Louis’s breath away.

He feels shaken down to his core, and good, so good. He has actual trouble staying upright, wanting simultaneously to melt into Harry and to fall on the grass and pull Harry down with him.

They’ve moved away from the tree, standing in the middle of a well-trodden path, barely hidden away in the midst of open land. Louis stumbles when Harry pushes him, gently, back against the trunk. He’s pinned, but not trapped, and the stability he gains makes him bolder, lets him untangle his hand from Harry’s hair and slide it down his back instead, down to where it’s heaving with heavy breaths. It takes all that he has in him to not curl his fingers and scratch, just because he craves a physical outlet for everything he’s feeling, for the things he can’t leave pressed into Harry’s lips.

Louis is well on his way to hard by now, and he can tell Harry is, too. He doesn’t attempt to hide the subconscious movements of his pelvis, the way his hips rock into Louis’s body, or the occasional moan that escapes him. They seem to very much be on the same page, and Louis wonders, in-between kisses, if Harry has wanted Louis the same way Louis has wanted him. If he’d craved Louis’s presence, his touch, made himself turn away when all he wanted to do was look for hours on end.

They pull away for good, eventually, after what must be at least ten minutes. Harry is breathing so fast that every other breath sounds like a whine, so beautifully helpless that Louis wants to take his hand and drag him away to their room. He hides his face in Louis’s neck, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the line of Louis’s jaw, and his fingers start massaging circles into Louis’s hips.

Louis holds on to him, kisses his neck, his chin, his cheeks, the sliver of chest that peeks out of his shirt. He wants to open more buttons, wants to reveal more silky smooth skin and cover it in marks.

“Harry,” he rasps, wanting to talk to him, to see his face, to see what this means.

Harry, though, immediately goes tense. It’s such a marked difference to how pliant his body was just a minute ago, and Louis gets the sense that something is very, very wrong.

“Harry?” he tries again. This time, Harry drops his hands and pulls away. Louis misses him. He wants to reach out, soothe him, tell him it’s okay and pull him close again, except—except Harry has gone pale, and his eyes look big and terrified.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and covers his mouth with his hand. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I…”

Louis blinks. Dread washes over him like an ice-cold shower of rain. “No, Harry. No, what are you—“

He doesn’t get to finish. “I’m sorry,” Harry breathes again, even paler now, looking almost sickly in the shadow. Then, he turns on his heel and runs.

Louis’s heart constricts painfully in his chest. His lips are still tingling, still feeling traces of Harry’s reverent mouth, his teeth and tongue. Harry himself is a silhouette, disappearing in the distance.

Louis feels like crying again, and his earlier anxiety returns, falls into his stomach like a ball of lead. He has to go out there now, has to carry on through a half hour of decorating and two hours of filming, all while watching the broad plane of Harry’s back in front of him. He knows, somehow, that they won’t be trading jokes like they did just this morning.

*

Week five: Pies

week five

“Liam,” Louis whispers into the phone at six o’clock on Monday morning. He hasn’t slept a wink, and the sunlight streaming in through the window is starting to change colours.

“Lou?” Liam says on the other end, groggy. “What’s going on?”

“I hate my life, Liam,” Louis whispers conspiratorially, then bursts into giggles.

“Are you drunk?” Liam asks.

No,” says Louis, and turns over on his back. His bed is a mess of covers and tangled sheets that have come off at some point during the night, but he can’t be bothered to fix it. “But I want to be. That’s why I’m calling you, my only friend in the whole wide world.”

“You were up all night again, weren’t you,” Liam sighs. Louis can hear him moving around, probably getting out of bed after getting a healthy eight hours of sleep like Liam does. “What was it this time? Would your dough not rise, or something?”

The question penetrates Louis’s giggly daze, just a little. It’s a logical assumption for Liam to make – Louis has been known to spend forty-eight straight hours in the kitchen perfecting a recipe, if need be – it’s not that part that makes him stop short. It’s more that—well, Louis has not thought about anything related to baking since he left Somerset last night. He realises with horror that he barely knows what week it is, and has made precisely zero plans to practise.

“It’s something else,” he says truthfully. “I just really need to go to a bar and get fucked up.”

“You haven’t been drunk in two years,” Liam points out. “You said it breaks your focus.”

It does. Too much alcohol usually wipes Louis’s mind clean, to a point where he wakes up in the morning thoroughly confused about what year he’s in, and it’s exactly what he needs right now.

“Yep,” he nods happily, and the pattern on his wallpaper comes alive and dances in front of his eyes. “So. Drinks. Lots and lots of drinks that will get Louis very drunk. When and where?”

He ignores the tiny, insignificant fact that Liam has a life of his own, and may very well have plans already. Louis needs a pity party; he’ll apologise later.

Liam, to the surprise of exactly no one, doesn’t do as Louis tells him. “I’m coming over,” he says instead, “and when I get there, I want to see you tucked into bed and sleeping.”

“That’s creepy,” Louis mumbles, but there’s no fighting Liam’s mum voice. “Also, I have nobody to tuck me in. That’s sad. Isn’t that sad, Li?”

Liam doesn’t respond for a while. Louis hears him running water and opening his creaky bathroom cabinet. “Did you eat anything?” he asks, finally, and Louis infers from the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach that he has, in fact, not eaten since yesterday afternoon.

“Nope,” he whispers as he lies down and pulls the covers over himself. “Will you make me breakfast?”

“I’ll make you breakfast, Lou. Go to sleep.”

“Okay,” Louis says, and with Liam’s familiar voice in his ear, his eyelids actually start feeling heavy. “Good night, Lime.”

He stays awake just long enough to hear Liam’s put-upon groan.

*

“Is it really five o’clock?” he asks when he emerges from his room hours later, lured out by the smell of eggs and bacon.

Liam is sitting behind Louis’s kitchen table, reading glasses perched on his nose and intently studying the crossword. “It’s really five o’clock,” he says, sticking out his wrist. 17:08, the digital numbers on his watch say. “Did you sleep well?”

Louis stretches his arms above his head, feeling bones slot into place. “I think so,” he says, and walks over to the stove. “What am I having?”

“Eggs,” Liam says, unimpressed. “Sit down and eat, and then you’re going to tell me what in the world is going on.”

He sounds uncompromising, and Louis knows he means what he’s saying. To prepare himself, he piles his plate sky-high, and puts a couple of slices of bread in the toaster for good measure.

He sits down opposite Liam, feet immediately searching for his ankle so that he can poke it. It’s his favourite way of riling Liam up.

“What’s going on is,” he starts through a mouthful of bacon, “I need to get drunk.”

He got up five minutes ago – he hasn’t yet had the time to reflect on why he’s just spent a sleepless night staring at the ceiling, touching his lips over and over for no apparent reason. The memories are trickling back already though, as vivid as if they were happening right in front of his eyes – midday sunlight, green trees, green eyes. Pink lips, pale skin. Harry.

“You already told me that.”

“You didn’t sound like you approved.”

“That’s because I don’t,” Liam says, and the look he sends Louis over the rim of his glasses is both hilarious and terrifying. “I’m all for you taking a break, God knows you’ve been running yourself ragged, but this is not the way to do it. Especially after so long.”

Louis breaks out the puppy eyes. “Liam,” he says, “my dearest, most beloved, bestest friend in the whole wide world. Please come to a pub with me.”

Finally, Liam seems to give up the friendly act. He folds up his newspaper and sets it on the table a little harder than necessary.

“Why?” he asks, point-blank.

Louis sighs. “Harry,” he admits. “And the competition. The pressure. Everything. Mostly Harry, though. I need to drunk cry on somebody’s shoulder.”

Liam blinks. He looks surprised, like that’s not what he’d been expecting. “Harry?” he asks slowly, carefully, like navigating a minefield. It’s obvious he has plenty of experience with handling Louis in delicate situations.

“Yes,” Louis confirms, and the last bite of his eggs slowly turns to ashes in his mouth. “Yes, it’s Harry. I’m—I really need advice.”

It’s unusual for Louis to ask for help of any kind, especially without a fuss. This time, though, he really feels way in too deep. He’d almost dialled Harry’s number, around half past three that morning, and he was barely able to stop himself in time. He needs somebody else—needs Liam, who’s been there for him through everything.

Liam must sense it, too, must know how serious Louis is actually being, because he reaches across the table, wraps his fingers around Louis’s wrist, and says: “Okay.”

*

“And then he just—you should have seen him. He’d fixed his hair, you know? It was back up in a bun, like my fingers weren’t there, like it never happened.”

Louis is drunk. He’s had some pints and some vodka and some very nice fruity drinks, and now he’s slumped in their booth with his head on Liam’s shoulder, drooling on his shirt. He’s accomplished his goal – namely, to break down those stupid barriers he has, the ones that make talking about his feelings so difficult. He’s already spilled every single thought he’s ever had about Harry’s shoulder to waist ratio.

“That’s—that’s really weird,” Liam says. He’s being a very good friend, Louis thinks, sitting very still and making sure that Louis doesn’t spill too much. “You said he was the one who kissed you, so there has to be a reason he bolted. Gay panic, maybe?”

See, the thing is, Liam is also drunk. Not as much as Louis is, definitely, but he’s downed a couple of pints. There is no way a sober Liam Payne would ever think of saying the words “gay panic”.

“I really don’t think so,” Louis says, licking the salt off his empty margarita glass and thinking about Harry, the way he carries himself, the absolute confidence with which he pulls off a patterned dad shirt. The way he kissed Louis like he knew exactly what he was doing. “That’s not—he wanted me. I know he did. And I want him, so what’s the problem?”

“You want him?” Liam repeats. “Like, really want him?”

“I’m fine with being gay,” Louis mutters darkly. “If you weren’t you, I’d totally get on my knees and suck your cock to prove it.”

Liam chokes on his Guinness. “What does you being gay have to do with anything?”

“You did notice that Harry’s a bloke, right?”

“Yes, that’s not what—oh. Oh, is this about what I said a couple weeks ago?” He looks concerned immediately, his usual puppy eyes amplified by the alcohol. “I didn’t mean it like that. I want you to be gay.” He stops, then, and frowns. “No, that’s not it. What I wanted to say is, I want you to be okay with being gay. Because gay’s okay. But you probably know that.”

Louis giggles, pulling on the collar of Liam’s shirt with his teeth. “I lost a whole lot to my love of cock,” he says, trying to be serious, but he starts laughing halfway through. “Which is how I know it’s real love. Gay’s great, really. I just wish I could be gay with Harry.”

“I could’ve sworn Harry wanted to be gay with you too,” Liam says, like it makes sense. It probably does to him. “You need to talk to him, Louis. You two share a room, so just—just lock him in there and ask him what his problem is. Except maybe don’t actually lock him in, I think that’s illegal.”

Louis sighs. “You really think it’s that easy? I spent an entire night staring at my fucking ceiling for no reason, and you tell me to talk to him?”

“Talking is how human beings communicate, Louis.”

“Okay, Liam,” says Louis grumpily, and reaches for one of his empty shot glasses. There’s a little drop on the bottom that might be leftover vodka. “’S just difficult, is all. You know I’m shit at words, and Harry’s, like, beautiful. Distracting.”

“How come I’m not distracting?” Liam asks, hilariously offended. “I’m beautiful.”

Louis curls closer around his side, wraps his arms around Liam’s neck. “It’s because I’ve known you since secondary school. When I look at you, I don’t see all this incredible muscle,” he squeezes Liam’s bicep, “just those little spider limbs you had before you hit puberty.”

“I think that’s mean,” Liam replies. “But I can’t tell. M’ brain is fuzzy.”

“It’s okay,” Louis pats him on the chest. “I love you, Li, spider limbs or not.”

“Love you too, Lou,” Liam says, then sips more beer and squints into the dim lights above the bar. “Talk to Harry.”

Louis sighs. “I will, bloody hell. Gonna wait until the weekend, though. So I can figure out what to say.”

“I’ll be your best man,” says Liam, then stops to hiccup. “When you get married, I mean. I’ll be your best man, right?”

Louis frowns. This is not a conversation he wants to be having. They’re talking about his ridiculous Harry lust, not the fact that he also kind of wants to hold Harry’s hand and kiss his forehead.

“I’ll think about it,” he says to placate his best friend. He’s slowly entering the phase of drunkenness where all the alcohol makes him sleepy. The room is blurring around him, shifting into tall, dark shapes, and the low lights turn into stars that stay stuck to Louis’s lids even when he closes his eyes. He’s tired.

“’M tired,” he announces into Liam’s shoulder, getting a nice mouthful of his t-shirt. “Tired.”

“Want t’ go home?” Liam asks. He puts a hand on Louis’s shoulder, but it takes him three tries.

“No,” Louis decides. “Wanna sleep here. Have more shots.”

“You’re not having more shots,” says Liam, resolute. Liam should have more shots; he sounds way too sober, suddenly. “I’ll call a cab, yeah?” And he starts patting down his pockets, trying to find his phone. Little does he know that Louis has secretly confiscated it, anticipating this scenario.

“No,” he repeats, and wraps around Liam more thoroughly. Maybe he could get him drunk on love. “I wanna talk.”

“I thought we agreed you’ll talk to him?” Liam peers down at Louis, appearing confused. His pupils are wide, and he looks more child-like than ever. Louis wishes he really could solve every problem he has by talking. Strictly technically speaking, he could; it’s just that he won’t.

“Not about Harry,” Louis waves an arm. There’s a clink and crash, and when he looks over to the table, one of Liam’s empty pint glasses has been knocked over. “About how tired I am.”

“Then let’s go home,” Liam whines. “I’ll even tuck you in. Give me my phone back.”

“Not tired like that,” Louis says, and transitions smoothly into the melancholy stage of drunkenness. It had been weighing on him all of last week, this feeling like something life-changing is happening, like the earth is shifting underneath his feet and he’s about to fall into the cracks. He’s not quite sure he knows how to explain it, or if he wants to, even, but his alcohol-muddled brain is one step ahead. “I’m tired of the—of the whole thing.”

Liam wraps one of his hands around Louis’s wrist. “What thing?” he asks but, annoyingly enough, he sounds like he might already know.

“The competition. It’s just—I told you I won Star Baker this week, right?”

“You mentioned it.”

“Yeah, and—and I was happy about it, right? I was so happy. I won for the third week in a row, the judges liked what I put on the table, I was on top of my game, it was good.”

“But?” Liam asks.

Louis sighs. “But it didn’t, like…last.”

“Maybe that was because of Harry, though? Maybe you couldn’t be happy about winning because you were upset about him,” Liam says, and pushes Louis away a little, just enough to look into his eyes properly. Louis wants to curl back into him and leave him to solve all of Louis’s ridiculous problems.

“No,” he shakes his head. “It really wasn’t. I won, and I smiled, and I thought about how bloody great that is, and then I realised I’ll have to spend another week barely sleeping if I want to keep it up. And then another, and then another, for four more fucking weeks. I don’t know if I can take it.”

“But Lou,” Liam says, frowning, “this is all you’ve wanted for five years.”

“I know that,” Louis says. To his horror, he can feel the sting of tears trying to climb up his throat. Maybe he should cry now, relieve the tension and the stress while he can blame it on the vodka. “I know. I don’t understand what’s happening, Li, but I’m so tired. I don’t even feel like practising this week. I don’t feel like baking the same thing over and over.”

“Do you want to quit?” Liam asks, careful, careful.

“No,” Louis says, and it’s the only thing he knows. He wants to win, wants the trophy, wants the satisfaction more than anything. “I want to go and beat all of them. I deserve it. It’s just—do you think it’d be okay if I cut down on practise time? If I only did two days instead of four?”

“Yes,” says Liam fiercely. “Absolutely. Do that, please.”

Louis holds out his arms pathetically. Liam takes pity on him and pulls him in again, wrapping himself around Louis in a familiar hug. “I feel like I’m betraying myself,” Louis meeps, sad and drunk and feeling small. “I worked so hard. I practically have no life because of this competition. Why's this happening?”

“I don’t know,” Liam mumbles into his hair. “I don’t know, Lou, but maybe it’s not a bad thing.”

“Still going to have a breakdown if I lose, though,” Louis says.

Liam chuckles. He sounds tired, too. They must look a right sorry mess, slumped against each other in a corner booth with glasses littering the table. Louis doesn’t care much. All he knows is that he’s with his best friend, and the heavy boulder on his heart feels much lighter when he gets to share the weight.

“I’ll help you through that,” Liam promises, and Louis has no doubt that he’ll follow through.

Maybe things will be clearer in the morning, Louis thinks. Maybe he’ll wake up with a whole new purpose in life and abandon baking to go soul-searching in the mountains.

“Thanks,” he tells Liam, and digs in the back pocket of his jeans to return the stolen phone. He’s just about ready to fall into bed again and not think.

The night air feels sobering when they stumble outside, leaning against each other and a good few quid lighter. It’s a beautiful night, with warm streetlights lit up around them, and a clear sky. Louis can almost see the stars.

“We should walk,” he suggests, and Liam begrudgingly agrees. Louis loops an arm through his, keeping himself upright, and stuffs his other hand into the pocket of his jacket. There are puddles of rainwater glistening on the sidewalk, and he counts distance by how many they pass.

This is good, he thinks as he exhales and watches his breath turn into fog. This is just what he needs – no competition, no worrying, and no Harry; just his own reflection in the windows of terrace houses, and the wind that whistles around his ears.

Just him and Liam, in a city full of people who don’t know where they’re going.

*

On Friday, Louis is the first one to arrive at Harptree Court. It’s bizarre to see it so empty, and he has fun running up and down the staircase and hiding used tissues under Ben’s pillow, but eventually, he gets bored of being cooped up inside. He puts on his jacket, a hat, and steps out onto the grounds.

It’s raining today, little rivulets of water cutting through green grass. Louis follows them until they lead him to the marquee, and stays a while, just listening to the comforting beat of raindrops against the tarp, enjoying when they fall on his face. Once the water makes its way under his hat, bringing the cold with it, he decides to venture inside and see what the tent is like without the usual stress and bustle of the weekend. He figures it’s almost time for the crew to set up the pantry for tomorrow, and thinks about helping, perhaps getting a peek at the others’ ingredients.

He lifts one of the loose corners of the tarp, and slips inside. Then he freezes.

“Oh my God,” he says. In-between the baking stations, Zayn and Niall pull away from each other with a loud smack.

“Oh my God,” Louis repeats, then bursts into laughter.

Hey,” Zayn says, affronted, “it’s not funny.”

“It’s a little funny,” Niall butts in.

Louis steps deeper into the room, still giggling, until he’s leaning against the same station that the two of them were misusing just a second ago. From up close, they both look flushed, and Zayn’s immaculately tailored jacket is slipping off one of his shoulders.

“So,” Louis says, grinning like the cat that got the cream. “This is new.”

Zayn glares at him, looking for all the world like he’d rather be anywhere else. Niall nudges him gently, then wraps a hand around his waist. They look good together, and even though Louis has suspected something for weeks, he never would’ve imagined that he was actually right.

“Not that new,” Niall divulges, when Zayn keeps stubbornly looking away underneath his fringe. “It’s been, like, two weeks.”

He seems happy just talking about it – happier than Niall usually is, anyway – and when he tilts his head back to expose a fading lovebite on his neck, he’s grinning.

“Stop it,” Zayn says weakly, but Louis can see the smile tugging on his mouth.

“Never,” Niall replies, earnest, and fits all of himself into Zayn’s personal space, wrapping around him like a cheerful octopus. “I’m proud.”

Finally, Zayn cracks, and the grin that takes over his face is one that Louis has seen a dozen times before, but infused with just a little extra warmth. He brings his hands up to cover Niall’s, currently resting on his chest, and relaxes his shoulders. He looks well and truly radiant.

“I can’t believe this,” Louis says, shaking his head. “The two of you are sneaky, bloody hell.”

“We try,” Zayn says, and at the same time Niall says: “You’re not the first one who caught us.”

They grin at each other even as they, for all intents and purposes, disagree; Louis can’t believe how sweet they are, and just how happy he realises he feels for them.

“You’re adorable,” he tells them, and drops his chin into his hands to demonstrate.

“Yeah, yeah,” Zayn rolls his eyes, still smiling, and relaxes a fraction more. “Just, you know. You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

“Define ‘anyone’,” Louis smirks, teasing.

“You can tell Harry,” Niall says, pats him on the shoulder, and just like that, Louis’s good mood disappears. “But nobody else. It’s not exactly, you know. Playing by the rules.”

“But I thought Zayn could be biased?” Louis attempts, but he’s far, far away now, thinking of what he’s going to do once Harry gets in.

“Get out,” Zayn says, but not before he extricates himself from Niall and pulls Louis in for a hug.

Louis, for his part, is surprised, but he finds that Zayn feels just as comforting as he did weeks ago. “And thanks,” he adds into Louis’s ear.

“Of course,” Louis replies. “Good luck, you two.”

When they pull away, Zayn’s got this look in his eye, like he knows. Louis pats him on the chest, ruffles Niall’s hair, and turns on his heel to walk back out. Even through the pitter-patter of rain on the roof, he can hear the two of them talking in hushed voices and then kissing again, slick sounds that make Louis half uncomfortable and half sad when he remembers last Sunday.

He stuffs his hands in his pockets when he walks back to the B&B, slipping in the wet grass and thinking about what to say when he comes face to face with Harry again. He’d meant to use the week at home to try and figure it out but, in true Louis fashion, ended up locking himself in the kitchen and baking instead. His hands still hurt from stretching out sheet after sheet of filo, and he can’t wait to get the weekend over with.

By the time he makes it to the front door, the grey skies overhead match his mood. There are more shoes lined up in the entrance hall now, tucked underneath the radiator to dry, and Louis would recognise the god-awful mustard suede anywhere. Harry’s here.

Going up the stairs feels like Louis is walking to his death. Technically speaking, Harry is the one who was in the wrong, but reminding himself of the fact does nothing to calm Louis’s racing heart.

As he twists the doorknob with a sweaty palm, he listens in and hears somebody shuffling around inside the room, closing drawers, opening the creaky door on the wardrobe. He can tell, just by the soft fall of his steps, that it’s Harry, settling in just a few meters away.

It’s now or never, Louis thinks as he opens the door. He catches Harry as he’s folding a pink shirt, the one he wore during bread week. Unbidden, it brings back memories of working through the technical bake together, of Louis feeling so helplessly drawn in.

Harry freezes when Louis walks inside, and an unfamiliar kind of tension settles in the plane of his back. He doesn’t say anything – not when Louis closes the door, not when he passes him on the way to his bed, not when he sits down on it and peers into Harry’s face.

He looks shy, almost, with a dark pink blush dusting his cheeks and lashes lowered as he hides his eyes away.

“Hi,” Louis says, when it becomes obvious that Harry isn’t going to speak.

“Hey,” he replies quietly, and lets his shirt fall on the bedspread in a sad little heap.

Louis is suffocating on the tension, has half a mind to get up and open the window, just to feel a little less claustrophobic. He watches as Harry plonks down on his own bed, long legs stretched out on the carpet and playing with his rings. He doesn’t look up once.

It’s now or never, really. Louis won’t make it through the weekend feeling like this.

“Are we going to talk about it?” he asks, and surprises himself with how curt he sounds. His voice projects none of the hopeful, tentative warmth he holds inside, or the desire to go to Harry and comfort him, even after what happened.

Harry nods, almost imperceptible. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, an echo of the words he’d said last week. “I really am, Louis. I promise it won’t happen again.”

Louis frowns. The air clears a little, and a big, metaphorical neon sign that spells MISUNDERSTANDING starts emerging from the fog of Louis’s thoughts.

“Why are you sorry?” he asks, honest. More than anything, he just wants to understand. “I kissed you back.”

“You did,” Harry says, and finally meets Louis’s eyes. He looks beaten down, small, and wrong. “But I started it, I know that. It’s my fault.”

“Harry,” Louis says, and all of the desperation, the tenderness he feels, shines through, “it’s not anybody’s fault. What we did—it wasn’t a bad thing. I just want to know why you ran away.”

Harry blinks. Louis suddenly can’t stand the space between them, and he slides off his bed to move to Harry’s. He touches his knees, poking out of the fabric of his jeans and pressed rigidly together, and sits back on his haunches until Harry has to look all the way down to meet his gaze.

“What happened?” he asks. He probably looks pathetic begging for answers like this, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t need his pride when something so much bigger, so much more important is at stake.

Harry clears his throat. “You have a boyfriend,” he says weakly. “I refuse to—to ruin that for you. I can control myself.”

Louis’s mind goes blank. He’d made up plenty of theories over the past week, strung together when he lay in bed and struggled to fall asleep, but none of them involved Harry thinking—this.

“What are you—Harry. Harry,” he says, and makes sure to look Harry right in the eye, “I don’t have a boyfriend. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Now it’s Harry’s turn to look gobsmacked. “But—but Liam?”

“What about Liam?”

“Him. He’s your boyfriend,” Harry says with such utter conviction, and for a second, Louis wants to laugh. What a bizarre little clusterfuck they’ve gotten themselves into.

Harry still looks very much concerned, though, and confused above all, and Louis can’t stand having him think he’s done something wrong for a second longer.

“Liam is not my boyfriend,” he says, trying for reassuring, and picks himself up to sit next to Harry. “He’s been my best friend since we were sixteen. I really don’t think he swings that way, and even if he did, I would never. I helped him chat up girls in sixth form, it’d just be weird.”

And there, like the sun breaking through clouds, is Harry’s little laugh. He tries to hold it back, Louis can tell, and it comes along with a wave of tears that spring up in Harry’s eyes. Louis thinks they might be of relief.

“I just,” he starts, “I just didn’t—I didn’t know. You touch each other so much, and you talk about him all the time, I guess I just—ran with it. So that I wouldn’t have to try and figure all this out,” he gestures between them, and somehow, Louis understands exactly what this means.

“Not my boyfriend,” Louis says another time, just for good measure. “No boyfriend ever. You really don’t have to worry about that.”

Harry’s face is still bright red, but there’s a spark in his eyes that hadn’t been there before, almost like the mischievous little flame Louis has come to know. His hands are still twisted together, though, white knuckles and taut skin, and Louis reaches down to cover them with one of his.

Harry breathes in sharply at the touch. “So you kissed me back,” he says in a hushed voice.

“I kissed you back,” Louis smiles, and moves closer, into Harry’s body heat. “I still want to kiss you back.”

“You do?” Harry asks, a smile blooming on his face like maybe that’s what he wanted to hear, and Louis can’t believe he’s just wasted an entire week.

He curls a hand around Harry’s neck and pulls him in, fast and just this side of desperate, and exhales sharply when their mouths come together. Without doubts between them, without Louis’s long-lost reservations, it’s even more intense than Louis remembers it being. Harry’s lips are soft and wet and setting Louis on fire inch by inch.

He raises his other arm to pull Harry closer, forgetting momentarily that he’s leaning on it, and loses balance. They fall back on Harry’s bed, legs tangling together, and Louis can barely contain the joy he feels when he realises that they’re practically touching everywhere. That if he wants, he can finally get his hands on Harry’s broad back and tiny hips and gorgeous thighs.

This time, Louis is the one who has to coax Harry’s tongue out of his mouth, tilting his head back and opening wider, nipping on Harry’s bottom lip. He gasps when they make contact, and Harry answers with a choked-off little moan, so deep Louis can feel it rumble in his chest.

They get worked up enough to take a break, pulling away gradually, and Harry never quite leaves Louis’s lips, showering them in pecks until Louis is giggling and pretending to shove him away. There’s a tight coil arousal already settled in his stomach, spreading shocks of warmth over his skin.

Above him, Harry looks gorgeous enough to be an apparition. His hair, brushed loose and long, tickles Louis’s face and makes him want to grab a good fistful—so that’s exactly what he does. He’s not rough by any means, running his fingers over Harry’s scalp in circles, but Harry still shuts his eyes and moans, gorgeously rough and deep. His mouth is a sinful shade of pink, puffy from Louis’s needy kisses, and when it parts on a heavy exhale, he can’t help diving back in.

Harry chuckles, but immediately gives back as good as he gets. He tangles one hand in Louis’s hair and rests the other one on his waist. It must be uncomfortable, twisted down and half-squished between them, but Louis can’t bring himself to care much. Feeling the span of Harry’s fingers, how big and heavy and warm his hand is, has him squirming in the sheets and lifting his hips off the bed.

Harry makes a noise that’s half surprised and half turned on, and pulls away from Louis with a long, sensual drag on his lower lip.

“Lou,” he gets out through heavy breaths, and the fact that Louis affects Harry just as much as Harry affects him pleases him to no end. “Lou, are you—“

“I hope you have a bloody good reason for not kissing me right now,” Louis interrupts. He sounds desperate, and he’d be embarrassed in any other situation, but this is Harry, and Louis wants to give himself to him in every way known to man.

“I just want to make sure,” Harry pouts, but gives in to Louis’s imploring look and ducks down for a kiss. “Everything okay?”

Louis softens, looking up at this wonderful, wonderful boy who’d somehow stumbled into his life. It feels like he’s known Harry forever, with the way he’s made Louis question everything he’d ever thought he knew. His touch feels familiar, too, like this is not the first time they’ve fallen into bed together. Harry knows exactly how to kiss Louis just the way he likes, knows where to put his hands to make Louis crazy for him, and it feels so good, so new, and so practiced at the same time.

Louis hasn’t been with anyone like this in years. He’s blamed it on the competition, told Liam time and time again that he’s too focused to have time for trivial things like sex or, God forbid, love – yet here he is, in the middle of said competition, just about ready to get on his knees and take Harry down his throat.

He’s not really sure if he’s been with anyone like this ever. He certainly doesn’t remember his partners in awkward teenage sexual encounters leaving a trail of fire all over his skin.

“I’m golden,” he replies eventually, and lightens his insistent fingertips on Harry’s face, loosens the hand on the back of his neck, until he’s just petting him, writing invisible words on skin. I’d let you do anything you wanted, he thinks as he stares up into Harry’s eyes, and the realisation feels like stepping off a cliff with no idea of what’s waiting on the bottom. I’d give you everything.

“Yeah?” Harry beams, and God, he’s so young. So beautiful.

“Yeah, gorgeous,” Louis replies, cheeky, and swipes a thumb over Harry’s damp lower lip. “Never been better.”

Harry’s hand travels down then, from Louis’s waist to his hip to the top of his thigh. It feels—it feels like Harry is claiming him, almost, and Louis blushes at the thought.

“Good?” Harry asks, and it’s only then that Louis realises he’s testing the boundaries, trying to see how far he can go. Louis is not about to stop him.

“Great,” he says, and tangles his fingers in the front of Harry’s shirt. The top two buttons are already undone, as always, and Louis slides his index finger down the opening until he gets to the third one. He holds Harry’s gaze when he slips it out of the buttonhole, and bites his lip when the shirt immediately slides lower on Harry’s shoulders.

In retaliation, Harry moves his hand to the outside of Louis’s leg and under, slides up until he’s squeezing Louis’s arse, and his cheeky smile barely registers because Louis is stuck on how bloody big his hand is.

He makes quick work of the rest of Harry’s buttons, and his throat goes bone dry when the shirt dutifully falls open and reveals Harry’s torso. Louis has seen it before, of course, but he’d been focusing so hard on denying his attraction to Harry – he must’ve not remembered how stunning he looks without clothes on. Louis is entranced by the subtle play of muscles just beneath his skin when Harry shifts above him, near moans out loud when he takes in the curves of his pecs that end in gorgeous pink nipples, several shades darker than Harry’s lips.

Louis reaches out to touch, runs his fingers over the hollow above Harry’s collarbone, the straining muscles of his shoulder. He rubs a thumb over a nipple, experimental. Harry moans, higher and breathier, and rocks his hips against Louis’s. It seems entirely involuntary, like Harry just can’t help but respond to the touch—Louis’s touch.

“Oh,” Louis breathes, and above him, Harry bites his lip and grins.

“Oops,” he whispers, and drags his other hand lazily to where Louis’s heart is close to beating out of his chest. “They’re a bit sensitive, I guess. Sorry.”

Louis actually, physically shakes his head. “You’re a fool,” he says, fighting a laugh. “Kiss me,” he asks, and then, “please.”

“Like you have to ask,” Harry murmurs, and dives in with lips parted. He wastes no time in exploring Louis’s mouth, and Louis drinks him in, breathes harder, squeezes him tighter. He’s definitely half-hard in his boxers by now, a combination of Harry’s proximity and the things he does with his tongue, and he doesn’t want to stop here.

Communicating that to Harry shouldn’t be too much a problem, he thinks, and he starts by pushing back against Harry’s hand, still settled on his bum and playing with the seam of his back pocket. Harry huffs a surprised breath into Louis’s mouth, and Louis uses the moment of distraction to raise his leg and push against Harry’s thighs, trying to get him closer. Harry is unprepared for the momentum; his hands slide forward in the sheets, and he folds down on top of Louis, chest to chest.

It’s enough to break them out of the kiss, and Louis gives Harry a teasing kind of grin. He’s got Harry’s hips between his legs now, their crotches lining up perfectly, and he can feel the half-hard outline of Harry’s dick against his.

“You’re going to kill me,” Harry states, but he makes no move to put the distance back between them. Instead, he reaches down, and rucks up Louis’s t-shirt as far as it will go. He presses a kiss against Louis’s breastbone, then takes one of Louis’s nipples in his mouth.

The sensation goes straight to Louis’s cock, rapid like a bolt of lightning, and he shivers under Harry’s lips. He hasn’t been touched like this for so long - it’s safe to say he’s forgotten how it feels, especially amplified tenfold by the fact that it’s Harry. Harry is the one who’s kissing his chest reverently, sliding lower with every press of the lips, and when Louis realises where he’s going, he almost blacks out for a minute.

“Come up here,” he says weakly. Harry obeys, replaces his lips with a hand like he’s marking where he left off and shimmies up, until Louis has got him close enough to touch, to fit their mouths together.

They’re truly messy now, a tangle of tongues and saliva that makes Louis’s skin buzz with an exciting, foreign energy.

“Sure you wanna do that?” Louis asks, because he thinks he needs to hear it to believe it.

“Are you joking?” Harry huffs. “I’ve wanted to get my mouth on you since the first time I saw you.”

Louis moans at that, almost subconsciously lets his legs fall open around Harry. “The first time, really?”

“Yup,” he breathes, in-between kisses. “You were standing in the holding room in your little corner, all nervous and sulking, and all I could thinks was bloody hell, over and over. It’s honestly a miracle I’ve made it this far while you’re around.”

Louis, to his alarm, feels the non-sexy kind of blush rise into his cheeks. “Stop it,” he mumbles, taken aback, and slaps a hand over his face.


Harry giggles, undeterred, and nudges at Louis’s jaw to get to his neck. Once there, he sucks in a lovebite that will probably be impossible to cover up tomorrow and that, more importantly, hurts really, really good.

“You’re gorgeous,” he says into Louis’s collarbone. “Bloody stunning,” he tells his jawline. “Beautiful,” he drops a kiss on Louis’s chin. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Louis, while still mildly mortified, feels warm, like a brand new little sun rises inside his chest with every word Harry says. He pulls his hand away, and rests it in Harry’s hair instead.

“That makes two of us,” he says, and watches Harry’s eyes glisten. “God, you’re unbelievable.”

“Thank you,” Harry beams, and gives Louis a peck. “Can I suck you off, then?”

Louis groans. The words bring with them a mental image of Harry between his legs, long hair tickling Louis’s thighs as he looks up and holds his gaze the entire time. Then he groans again, because he has the actual, real life Harry between his thighs right now, practically begging to get his mouth on Louis’s cock, and life really doesn’t get much better than that.

“Please?” Harry asks again, and Louis realises he never gave him an answer.

Yes, Jesus Christ,” he moans against Harry’s mouth when he pulls him into another messy kiss, “please.”

Harry grins, wide and happy, and slides down Louis’s body, attaches his mouth to the spot he was last kissing. One of his hands snakes in between them and starts poking at the button of Louis’s jeans, trying to get it open.

Louis, while ridiculously turned on, is also ridiculously amused, and he can’t stop the giggle that bubbles up in his throat. How is this his life, honestly.

“They’re very complicated jeans,” Harry pouts, but his mouth is twitching, left dimple carved deep into his cheek. He sits up between Louis’s legs and uses both his hands to pop the button open, then pulls down the zipper. Louis suddenly feels a lot less like laughing.

“Christ,” he mumbles, just because Harry makes for such an astonishing image – with his shirt open and hair sticking to his neck, frowning in concentration as he rids Louis of his trousers, he has to be the most gorgeous thing Louis has ever seen.

“Just Harry is fine,” Harry says, predictably, and tugs until Louis’s jeans are off, and he’s lying there at the mercy of a mostly-clothed Harry in just his pants and a t-shirt rucked up to his armpits. He realises, then, that despite how boneless he feels, he still has control over his limbs, and takes said t-shirt off.

Harry’s eyes darken. He leans down to nose at Louis’s knee, and lower, where he sucks a bruise into Louis’s inner thigh. Louis can already tell it’s going to hurt, chafing against his jeans and reminding him for hours, maybe days, and it’s just about the most exciting thought he’s ever had.

He’s almost painfully hard now, cock straining against the tight elastic of his boxers. He arches his back just a little, just enough to tell Harry where he wants him, and Harry huffs into his skin in response.

“Let me enjoy you, bloody hell,” he mumbles, still littering Louis’s thighs with kisses and bites, but he moves one of his hands to rest against Louis’s cock over the fabric. He digs the heel of his palm in just a little, and Louis shudders down to the tips of his toes.

It’s a bit of an overload, watching the fan of Harry’s eyelashes flutter when he bites down, feeling his tangled hair leave a cool trail on Louis’s skin when everything else is burning. Louis reaches down and rakes his fingers through it, over and over, until Harry’s smiling. When his hands finally get to the waistband of Louis’s pants, everything stills. Arousal coils inside Louis’s chest like a spring, and when Harry pulls the boxers down, it explodes.

Louis moans, more turned on than he’s been in his entire life, and tenses in anticipation. He accidentally clenches the hand he’s still got tangled in Harry’s hair, and pulls hard enough to drag him away from Louis’s thigh with a pop. He panics momentarily, scrambling to apologise, but—but. Harry turns his head into the touch instead of balking, even though it definitely, definitely hurts, and opens his mouth on a quiet gasp. It rasps out of his throat raw and gorgeous, like he hadn’t expected it, and he opens his eyes to look straight into Louis’s, pupils blown big and dark.

He tugs again, experimental and much, much gentler, and Harry moans, probably a touch too loud for a relatively public place. It occurs to Louis then that the door isn’t locked, and anybody could walk in on them like this, Harry looking thoroughly sinful and Louis falling apart underneath him.

He repositions his hand, letting up for a second, and Harry whines. “Keep it there,” he requests, and Louis is so focused on his flushed face he barely notices Harry’s hands settling on top of his thighs.

“You like that?” he asks, just in case, though he’s kind of figured out the answer already. Harry doesn’t give him a response – instead, he licks his lips and, quite literally, goes down.

Louis has about a nanosecond to shiver as Harry’s hot breath hits the head of his cock, and then he has to focus all his energy on keeping his moans quiet. Harry takes him in like he’s gagging for it, hot and wet and dangerously perfect; he sucks on the head first, hollow cheeks and obscenely red lips. The sight of him is very nearly enough to make Louis come. He hasn’t had this for almost six years, and it’s never, not even in his goddamned wet dreams, been this good.

Louis squirms, moans, shifts his hips, hot all over and still craving more, and it’s enough to get Harry lower, almost halfway down Louis’s cock before it hits the back of his throat. His tongue is flat against the underside, working the vein there in long licks that seem to be engineered specially to drive Louis crazy. He’s sweating now, sticky with it and probably soaking the sheets, and the muscles in his thighs are twitching without his permission.

“Harry,” he moans, barely sounding like himself. Harry lifts his gaze, pulls off and grins, absolutely shameless about how much he’s enjoying himself. Louis can’t quite get that through his head, can’t believe that Harry’s just—giving, taking care of him like this and looking for all the world like he’s the one being sucked off. His shirt is sticking to his back, and his chest is heaving, and Louis mentally promises to get his mouth on every inch of him as soon as humanly possible.

“Yes?” he asks, cheeky grin in place, and sticks out his tongue to lap at the head of Louis’s cock, licking like it’s a bloody lollipop. Louis feels white-hot heat build up in his gut.

It must show on his face, sweaty and blubbery and half-mad with lust as he is. Harry gets a look of brand new determination in his eye; he pulls away, then opens his mouth wide and takes Louis as deep as he can. Through the mess of sensations that’s firing up his nerve endings, Louis feels, clear as day, the muscles of Harry’s throat relaxing as he goes lower and lower still with a stubborn crease across his forehead.

Louis loses himself, can only vaguely register Harry’s nails digging into his thigh and his other hand wrapping around Louis’s cock, jerking off what his mouth can’t reach. His breath gets caught in his throat, and stars explode in the darkness of the room as he comes down Harry’s throat. He bites his hand to stop the moans from spilling out, twisted in the sheets, and feels himself pulse against Harry’s tongue where he’s lying down and taking it, content to wait until Louis rides out the first wave of his orgasm.

He’s still twitching, still breathing in sync with the erratic beat of his heart, when Harry pulls off. Louis watches him through hazy eyes, admires his blurry features in the shadowed room, and sees him lick his lips, looking thoroughly satisfied.

He doesn’t waste any time in coming up to meet Louis at the lips, like he knows exactly what Louis is craving, and kissing him deep and slow. Louis moans into his mouth, warm and too big for his skin. He loves this feeling, loves being tingly and mellow and happy. He wants to kiss it into Harry’s lips, too, show him how good he’s just made Louis feel.

“Guess what,” Harry says after a minute, smiling and petting Louis’s chest right where his heart is.

“What?” Louis asks, looking up at him. Every single thing he’s feeling probably shows on his face, even the ones he can’t quite pick out yet, and he finds that he doesn’t care.

“You have the prettiest cock I’ve ever seen,” Harry says, delivers it like a line that’s meant to impress, complete with a cheeky little grin.

Louis groans. He bursts into giggles against Harry’s collarbone, pulls him closer so he can press a kiss there, and to Harry’s jaw, and to every other bit of skin he can reach. “Smooth,” he gets out, still laughing, and nuzzles under Harry’s chin. Now that he’s gotten to touch him, he’s like a drug, constantly pulling Louis back in for more.

“I’m serious!” Harry squeaks, affronted, and squeezes Louis’s hip. “The absolute prettiest. Gorgeous. Could have it in my mouth all day, if you’re up for that.”

Louis won’t deny the sharp tug of arousal in his gut, won’t deny that him getting hard again is definitely not out of the realm of possibility, but he remembers something much more important.

“Let me get y’off first,” he says into Harry’s chest, his hand already on the waistband of Harry’s jeans. Harry catches up with him, and wraps light fingers around Louis’s wrist.

“No need,” he says, and when Louis pulls back, he looks sheepish, perhaps for the first time since he got his hands under Louis’s clothes. “I already—uh. You’re kind of gorgeous.”

Louis warms pleasantly at the compliment, though it barely registers. “You didn’t—you didn’t even touch yourself.”

Harry shrugs. It’s only now, looking at him with his hair pushed away from his face, that Louis sees the dark blush that reaches all the way down to his chest.

“You came just from sucking my cock?” Louis asks, and Harry collapses into tired giggles right on top of him.

“You did rub my nipple,” he says, and manages to make it sound like a compliment. “And you did the—the thing.” And instead of explaining, he pulls Louis’s hand up by the wrist and rests it on top of his head. “That.”

Louis sinks his fingers in immediately, combing through the strands and separating tangles. “You really like that, then?” he asks with a smile and a kiss to Harry’s shoulder.

“Mhm,” Harry hums. He slides off of Louis, but doesn’t go far – just lies on his side, facing him, and grins. “I like that it’s you doing it,” he says, and their noses touch. “I like you.”

Louis can’t quite handle how earnest he is, how sweet, and instead of analysing his emotions, he lets them spill out through his eyes, his kisses, his fingertips on Harry’s skin.

“Feeling’s mutual,” he mumbles, completely tangled in Harry’s warmth. There’s a door, somewhere in the back of his mind, that opens to endless possibilities, to the future, but it’s too much, and decidedly too soon.

Harry beams, and kisses Louis with something that feels a whole lot like promise. “There’s dinner going on downstairs,” he points out, and makes no move to get up. Louis listens in, and realises there is indeed chatter drifting up to them, and the steady clink-clink-clink of utensils against plates.

“Mhm,” he replies, and fits himself to Harry the best he can – legs tangled and arms wrapped around Harry’s neck, twisting his hair into half-hearted braids. “Do I have to not touch you if we go?”

Harry laughs. “Probably.”

“Then I vote no,” Louis decides. “’Sides, I’ve brought some of my spanakopita. We can eat up here.”

“Will you feed me?” Harry asks, laughing but somehow coming off entirely serious.

“We’ll get crumbs all over the bed,” Louis points out.

Harry nods. “Very romantic.” He rolls forward, and ends up on top of Louis again, looking for all the world like a cat lounging in the sun. “It’s a good thing I’m sleeping in yours tonight.”

He gets up then, slowly, and Louis realises he’d been overwhelmed enough that he didn’t even get him out of his clothes. His jeans are still sitting snugly on his hips, hugging his adorable bum and thighs like a second skin. Louis immediately starts plotting ways of getting them off as soon as possible.

When he unglues his eyes from Harry’s rear and looks up, he finds Harry already looking at him, wearing a gentle smile.

“I need to change my pants,” he grimaces.

“Can I watch?”

Harry grins. “Nope,” he says, “I’m going in the shower before then, and the walls are thin. I’ll think of you, though.” He leans down to kiss Louis one last time, and Louis holds on to him for as long as he can.

He’s almost out of the door when Louis remembers.

“Hey,” he rolls over onto his stomach, reaching out to stop him. “Did I tell you about Zayn and Niall?”

*

“You’re going to win,” Harry declares on Sunday. They’re on top of the sheep pen fence with stolen slices of Perrie’s fig and feta pie, sitting with their thighs pressed together and getting crumbs all over their knees. “Star Baker, I mean. You’re going to win the whole thing, of course, but you were something else this weekend.”

Louis grins. He’d like to think that Harry isn’t just talking about his exceptionally baked Wellington.

“You’re so full of it,” he says, and barely holds himself back from admitting that the only reason he’d done so well was Harry’s constant cheerful presence; the little touches he gave Louis when he passed his station, and the whispered praise he offered anytime Louis felt himself lagging.

Harry grins back. He’s got a pair of leopard print sunglasses perched on his nose, and the evening sun reflects weakly in the lenses. “You know you were brilliant,” he says, a fact.

“I did alright,” Louis replies, and leans just a touch heavier into his side. He tries to imagine what he would’ve done without Harry, without his smile to chase the tiredness out of Louis’s bones. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” says Harry, soft, and Louis knows that he understands.

Flooded with the orange sunset, the wet grass across the premises glistens like a field of diamonds. Mary and Paul are walking across the grounds down by the brook, arm in arm, flanked by Jen and no doubt trying to reach a decision. It’s tight on the bottom – both Alberto and, to everyone’s surprise, Ben are in danger of going home. They’ve been waiting for hours. Louis already sees himself back at home.

He decides to ignore the pang he feels in his heart at the thought of sleeping alone. It’s only been two nights of having Harry wrapped in his arms, struggling to fit into a twin bed, but Louis already knows he’ll be too cold, his flat too big and empty.

“Hey,” Harry mumbles into his hair, “I can hear you thinking.”

“Sorry,” Louis says, and lifts his chin just high enough to fit it on Harry’s shoulder, too look up at the shadow of his eyes underneath the sunglasses. He’s wearing a smile, too, small but all the more gorgeous, and his lips are a rich, dark pink.

“Not a bad thing,” he says. “Just curious.”

Louis shrugs. “We only have three weeks left.” That, of course, isn’t what he’d been thinking about, but it’s something that had been weighing on his mind. He doesn’t have Liam here to complain to, and he thinks Harry might understand just as well – he is in the same competition, after all.

“Wow,” Harry breathes, “we really do. That’s—has it really been that long?”

“It’s been forever,” Louis says honestly. “I can’t even remember what I was doing before—“ You, his mind supplies. “Before I came.”

“Well, what will you do after you win?” Harry smiles. He’s so sure about it, says with absolute certainty; he believes in Louis so much it makes his knees weak.

“Travel the world,” he replies, and realises they’ve been gravitating closer, moving towards each other while Louis wasn’t paying attention, and he can now feel Harry’s breath on his lips.

“Where will you go?” Harry’s voice is hushed, just for the two of them, and one of his hands sneaks to Louis’s hip.

Louis reaches up and steals his sunglasses. Harry’s pupils dance in the sudden onslaught of light, and he frowns at Louis with the grumpiest little pout.

“Paris, obviously,” Louis continues, resting the sunglasses on top of Harry’s head like a hairband. “I’ll eat at Pierre Hermé and walk along the Seine and flirt with every cute beret-wearing Frenchman I’ll meet. I’ll send you a Snapchat off the top of the Eiffel tower.”

Harry rolls his eyes, and the corner of his mouth twitches. “Paris is snooty, though,” he says. “You should go to Vienna. They’ve got Sachertorte, and the Austrian men,” he fans himself, “I’ve heard they’re the most handsome in the world.”

Louis feels so terribly, unbearably fond. “You’re such a dickhead,” he says, and before he can fully register what he’s doing, he leans the rest of the way forward and kisses Harry.

Harry makes a surprised noise and freezes, just for a second, but he doesn’t pull away. Louis squeezes his thigh, feels the muscle relax under his touch.

“We’re outside,” Harry points out. His hair flies off his shoulder, ruffled by the breeze.

“I noticed,” Louis replies. They haven’t pulled away from each other, are all but speaking into each other’s mouths. The grounds are full of people, Louis knows, but he can’t see any of them right now, couldn’t care less about breaking rules. He just—wants to unwind. Wants to get lost in Harry, if only for a little while.

“You don’t mind?” Harry asks, and his grin goes wild.

“Do I look like I do?”

Harry response consists of another kiss. He puts just a little too much force behind it, leans into Louis with his whole body, excited, and just like that, they topple to the ground.

Louis lands hard on his back, Harry right on top of him, and they start giggling before the shock ever sets in.

“Baa,” a sheep comments from inside the pen, apparently startled, and Louis has to hide his laughter in the shoulder of Harry’s shirt.

“Oops,” Harry says. Louis, feeling on top of the world, flips them over and settles on Harry’s hips.

“Hi,” he whispers, and leans down for a kiss.

Somewhere in the distance, Niall’s ridiculous laugh breaks through the birdsong in the air. The grass is dewy against Louis’s knees, Harry’s hair silky on his fingertips, and the late April sun shines warm and strong into his back.

Week five feels so very, very good.

*

Week six: European cakes

week six

“Star Baker!” is the first thing Niall says when he comes through the door. “Fourth time in a row. Fuck me.”

“Zayn might object to that,” Louis drones, pretending to be put out.

“Hilarious.”

“I know,” Louis replies, and leaves him in the hall to fend for himself.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Louis is trying his hand at the ridiculously complex Dobos recipe he put together. Niall has decided that he wants to meet Liam and invited himself over; Louis has given up trying to argue with him.

“Please eat my savarin,” Niall says when he finally makes it to the kitchen, barefoot and without his jacket. He sets a sticky-looking Tupperware down on Louis’s table. “I hate the fucking thing.”

“So you’re giving it to me?” Louis raises his eyebrows. “Charming.”

“Piss off,” Niall grins, and pulls Louis into what’s probably supposed to be a hug hello. Louis has come to find out that Niall’s rather like an octopus once he gets his hands on someone, and he proves him right when he wraps himself around Louis from behind and doesn’t let go.

“Nice to see you,” Louis mumbles, reluctantly charmed.

“You too,” Niall replies, completely genuine, like they didn’t last say goodbye forty-eight hours ago. “I’m going to sit down now, and you can start talking about you and Harry.”

Louis flips him off. There’s buttercream in the fridge that he has to take care of, and a ridiculous multi-layered torte to assemble.

“What are these?” Niall questions, and when Louis turns, he finds him poking at the decorations he has been painstakingly practising since eight in the morning.

“Caramel circles, or whatever,” he answers, as he reaches into the depths of his fridge to find the right bowl. “I’m putting them on top.”

“Or whatever,” Niall repeats, and happily pops one of them into his mouth. “Nice crunch, though. I like it.”

“Tell the judges that,” Louis says drily, even as his insides flutter. He gives Niall a smile over his shoulder.

“I’ll tell Zayn,” he replies, “he’ll pass it on.” He’s got a shit-eating kind of grin almost splitting his face in two, completely unashamed about dating someone in production, just like he is about most other things.

“Speaking of Zayn,” Louis tries, desperately looking for a topic other than his own tangled mess of a love life.

“Nope,” Niall shoots back. “I came here to gossip about you, not me.”

Louis sighs. Niall gives him a minute of peace that he uses to give his buttercream a whip and lay out his sheets of dough, one next to the other on his kitchen counter. They came out of the oven in perfect rectangles, level and even and just browned on top, even though Louis had left them unsupervised while he stood at the living room window smoking and talking to Harry on the phone. He’s so, so pleased with them, excited to put the whole thing together and pat himself on the back for another success; a feeling that has been suspiciously absent as of late, as the competition wore him down week by week.

“What’s this?” Niall asks, cutting Louis’s train of thought short, as he opens the jar Louis has set aside and sniffs at the contents. The flower-like crystals inside shift, and Louis watches in horror as Niall licks his pinkie and sticks it inside. "This is salt," he assesses with a grimace. "Vanilla salt?"

"Fleur de sel," Louis tells him with a fake flourish, laughing at Niall's suffering as he cuts his cakes.

"That's posh, even for you," Niall says. "How much did this cost?"

Louis winces. "You don't want to know."

Niall doesn't grace him with an answer, distracted. He shakes a bit of the salt into the palm of his hand, walks back to the kitchen table, and picks up another one of Louis's caramel circles. He licks one of them, then dips it into the mound in his palm, and crams the entire thing into his mouth at once. Louis watches, taken aback and holding a knife in mid-air, as Niall smiles in satisfaction.

"Sick," he says. "Should make that into a fudge. Or extract. What d’you think would happen if I put salt in there?"

Louis tilts his head, considering. He's got five different varieties of vanilla extract maturing on his windowsill, Tahitian and Madagascar beans, vodka and brandy and golden rum, and yet something as simple as putting in a spice has never even occurred to him. He remembers underestimating Niall at the start of the competition, thinking him too weird, too distracted to get anywhere. He sees how wrong he'd been, now; sees that inside Niall, there lies a dormant genius that usually only comes out when food is involved.

“Try,” he settles on, in the end, watching the sun light up the blonde tips of Niall’s hair. “Let me know how it goes.”

Niall grins in answer, and Louis hopes, suddenly, irrationally, that when Niall’s grand experiment of an extract matures in a couple of months, he’ll actually be there to taste it.

He focuses on his bake then instead of trying to put together words, builds the torte up in prim layers of cake and buttercream. Just as he sets the last layer down, lining up and praying none of the cream goes leaking down the sides, there’s a quiet knock on the door. He recognises the pattern, three short, cheerful raps. Before he can even think about wiping his hands and going to answer, Niall shoots out of his chair.

“I’ve got it!” he shouts, stomping through the flat, and Louis shrugs and leaves him be.

When he reappears, it’s with a surprised looking Liam by his side.

“So anyway, as I mentioned,” he’s saying, gesticulating wildly, “he thinks he’s getting out of telling me everything. It’s your responsibility as his best mate to get him to spill.”

Louis bites down on a grin and slides his torte into the freezer. “Hey, Payno,” he greets his best friend, and goes over for a hug. They spoke on the phone yesterday, long into the night with Louis fighting yawns down the line as he talked about every last detail of his weekend. His nights with Harry.

“Hi,” Liam says, and Louis thinks he can hear the smirk in his voice. “Niall here tells me there’s something going on between you and Harry.”

“Nice to see you too,” Louis drones, but the corners of his mouth twitch. “Niall is full of shite.”

Niall crosses his arms. He looks so pouty and petulant he almost reminds Louis of Harry, and he decides that giving him a little bit won’t actually hurt.

Fine, Jesus,” he says as he goes back to the fridge, shifting tupperware containers and half-empty bottles in search of his ganache. “Harry and I are—involved. Happy now?”

“Involved,” Niall repeats slowly, and Louis knows without looking at him that his eyebrows are climbing up his pasty forehead. “Sounds sordid. Just, you know—Zayn and I are dating, so I was wondering if the two of you might be doing that as well.”

“You are?” Louis turns to him, unable to keep a note of genuine surprise out of his voice. He’d thought they would wait until the competition was over, at least.

“Are you thick?” Niall asks, point blank, and Liam, sitting at the table, snorts into the glass of water he’s poured himself. “You caught us snogging on top of a baking station. Of course we’re dating.”

“You could just be, you know,” Louis waves a hand in a vague gesture, “snogging for the fun of it. Taking the edge off when you’re stressing through the weekend.”

“Is that what you and Harry are doing?”


“Yes,” Louis lies.

Liam hums into his glass. Louis isn’t sure how a single sound can make him feel so guilty.

“Well,” Niall shrugs, “I’m sure you’ll get to the marriage and babies part sooner or later.”

Something warm tugs uncomfortably at Louis’s chest. “Nope,” he says, turns his back to them and goes about setting up his mixer. “I’m sure we’ll barely remember each other once this whole thing is over.”

He’s such a liar. He feels himself blush in shame as he pretends to putter around the kitchen, carefully avoiding Liam’s knowing eyes.

He’s such a fucking liar, such a coward. He knows exactly what he wants with Harry, even if it’s somewhere deep, deep down, and it’s not to go their separate ways after the competition comes to a close.

“Marriage and babies,” Niall repeats, sounding very sure. Louis just—doesn’t want to think about it. He wants to shut off his mind, focus on what he’s doing with his hands, stop himself from overthinking and ruining a perfectly good thing. There’s no point in mulling it over endlessly, no point in getting his hopes up. He doesn’t know how Harry feels.

Doesn’t know if Harry wants him, still, at all. Doesn’t know if Harry wants more than his body.

“I’ll be your best man, by the way,” Niall announces, and the tightness in Louis’s chest gives a little as Liam jumps in with an indignant squawk.

They spend a good ten minutes arguing about it, spitting ridiculous insults at each other through bouts of laughter like they’ve been friends for years. Louis whips his ganache and cuts his torte, serves it to them in neat slices on a platter, and watches them dig in, pleased.

Niall’s presence here almost feels like a tear in the fabric of time and space, like he’s come here from this completely different world that is Somerset, the marquee, the competition; Louis feels warm seeing him get along with Liam like a house on fire, blend into the fabric of his previous life seamlessly.

It’s good, he thinks, good to be surrounded by people he likes, people who like him, who like each other. It’s been just him and Liam for so long, and now that he’s finding his way back to letting others in, he starts remembering bits and pieces of what it was like to be the most popular boy in school, the way he used to bask in every bit of positive attention he got. Having a life might not be so bad after all.

He cleans up the kitchen and sits down with them, occupies himself with good cake and pleasant conversation. More than once, he finds himself turning around to share a joke with somebody who isn’t there.

*

“It’s irresponsible,” Harry says into the phone, yawning. “We should be baking.”

Louis currently has batter smeared all the way up to his elbows. It’s nine in the morning and he’s been up since five, too restless to sleep for reasons that are beyond him. Five perfect kugelhopf stand lined up on his kitchen counter, filling the air with a light, sweet scent, still steaming under their little snowcaps of powdered sugar.

“We should,” he agrees, holding the phone between his shoulder and ear as he soaps up his hands. “We go back to Somerset the day after tomorrow.”

Just saying the words causes a little shiver of excitement to run down Louis’s spine. They are, indeed, going back west – back to their little shared room, and the endless green grounds of Harptree Court. He’ll get to see Harry, be around him, for two whole days.

“Hmm,” Harry responds. There’s shuffling on the other end of the line, tickling Louis’s ear as Harry shifts in his sheets. Louis wants to see him, wants to watch him bathe in the early morning light, no doubt spread across the entire bed. “Still kind of want you here, though.” He sighs quietly, then lets out a small sound that can’t be anything other than a moan.

Louis drops the soap. It clatters noisily into the kitchen sink, but he doesn’t notice.

“Are you joking?” he asks, voice gone a couple octaves lower, scratching his throat as he walks to his bedroom, scours the piles of clothing scattered throughout for something to wear.

“Do I sound like I’m joking?” Harry chirps, happy as you please. “I can try to be more convincing, if you—“

“Half an hour,” Louis interrupts, pulling on a pair of somewhat presentable jeans. The current happenings in his nether regions make it a little difficult. “I’ll be there in half an hour. I hate you.”

He hangs up to Harry’s bark of a laugh ringing in his ear. He rushes into the bathroom, spritzes on a bit of cologne and desperately rearranges the mess of cowlicks on his head. He’s got bags underneath his eyes and a decent bit of beard sprouting on his chin, but he needs to leave now, before the arousal burning in his belly makes it impossible to be out in public without embarrassing himself. Maybe Harry likes them stubbly and rumpled-looking.

He’s been well and truly booty called at eight in the morning, and he’ll be damned if he lets the opportunity go to waste.

*

Harry’s door is open. Louis gets to walk right into the dim little hall, navigating the darkness and trying not to trip over Harry’s enormous shoe collection. The space is still vaguely familiar from all those weeks ago, when Harry stood in the kitchen doorway and made Louis want to kiss him silly.

“Lou?” Harry’s voice comes from somewhere inside the flat, low and muffled. “That you?”

“It’s a robber,” Louis calls back, happily kicking off his shoes. He can hear Harry’s presence now, the soft sounds coming from what is no doubt the bedroom, pointing him in the right direction like the needle of a compass. “Why is your door—“

The words die a swift death right in his throat. There, on a big, big bed in the middle of the room, is Harry. He’s got a smile on his face and his head thrown back, eyes closed, painted alabaster by the warm sun. He’s also naked.

He opens his eyes when he hears Louis come in, and rolls over on his stomach.

“Hi,” he says, grinning, holding his bottom lip between his teeth. “It’s been thirty-four minutes.”

“What?” Louis croaks. His palms have suddenly started sweating.

“It’s been thirty-four minutes,” Harry repeats, going up on his elbows. His hair brushes his shoulder then falls forward, perfect, perfect ringlets. “You said half an hour.”

“I did,” says Louis, barely conscious of what’s coming out of his mouth, and finally loses the battle.

He leaves Harry’s eyes, gaze pulled away by the promise of gorgeously naked skin, down, and lower still. He studies how the light breaks on the soft curve of Harry’s shoulder, the columns of his shoulder blades, the gorgeous lines of muscle down to the small of his back. He’s got the corner of a duvet wrapped around his waist, haphazard and already sliding off the curve of his bum. Louis kind of wants to rip it to shreds.

And Harry’s legs are—God, his thighs. Louis has had an obsession quite probably since day one, but now that he sees them out of Harry’s sinfully tight jeans, he realises he’s been missing out. His hands itch instantly with the need to touch, to run his fingers over every inch of skin he could possibly reach.

A soft “Jesus” falls out of his lips without his permission, as he takes a step forward and lets the door fall closed behind him.

Harry giggles. His cheeks are still red with sleep, his lips dark red and chapped, eyes puffy. When he turns his head to Louis again, he looks like every dream Louis has ever had.

“Like what you see, then?” he asks, and it’s then that Louis realises his voice is still just as raspy as it was on the phone. Harry’s got a dangerous glint in his eye, like a man on a mission, and Louis is falling for everything Harry’s giving him, hook, line and sinker.

“You could say that,” he replies, taking another small, small step, still not sure if he’s actually allowed, if this is real, if he’s still dreaming and about to wake up in his own bed, cold and alone.

Here’s Harry, shamelessly on display and so obviously pleased about it, holding still while Louis summons the will to move, and—fuck, Louis gets to touch him. Maybe. Hopefully.

He feels want burn bright and deep in his gut at the thought of feeling Harry’s naked skin against his own, head to toe, everywhere. It must show on his face, because Harry’s mouth opens a little on a rush of air, and in the bright, bright sunlight, Louis can see his skin ripple with goose bumps.

The air grows thicker, heavy with intent, and the grin on Harry’s face loses its sharp edge.

“Please get over here and kiss me,” he says, polite as ever, but there’s a tremor in his voice that gives him away. He lies down, turns over onto his back, his hair a dark shock against the pristine white pillow, and Louis finally, finally moves.

He’s across the room in two long strides, is on the bed and straddling Harry before either of them can take their next breath.

“Hi,” Harry beams, and doesn’t give Louis time to answer – just wraps his arms around Louis’s neck and pulls him into a wonderful, messy kiss.

Louis shivers when their lips touch, keens into Harry’s mouth when their tongues collide immediately, too worked up to bother with pleasantries. It’s been three whole days since he last got to do this, and Harry is the first rain after a drought.

“Hi,” he finally gets to reply when they pull away for air. Harry’s chest is fluttering, rising and falling with quick breaths that break against Louis’s mouth. “Everything alright?”

“I missed you,” Harry moans, and sucks a lovebite into the skin under his jaw. He’s shifting restlessly, and the play of muscles underneath his skin makes Louis’s mouth water. “So much. I want you, God, take your clothes off.”

Louis blinks.

“Please,” Harry adds belatedly, biting his lip, pupils wide and dark. One of his hands is on Louis’s thigh, squeezing, and the other wanders underneath his vest and up, clumsy fingers chasing Louis’s nipples.

Louis can’t deny how much he’s wanted; can’t deny that it makes his cock fill up in his jeans, pressing uncomfortably against the zipper. Harry doesn’t seem to be doing much better. Against his thigh, Louis feels how hard he is already, just from the snogging, and the way they bodies move against each other without either of them noticing.

“Alright, bloody hell,” he mumbles, tugging the vest over his head. Harry helps him, pulls it off and throws it away, and his fingers immediately find another lovebite he’d left on Friday just under Louis’s collarbone, still pale purple and fading slowly.

Louis gets to work on his jeans, trying to undo the button with shaking hands and lower the zipper without hurting himself. He realises, in retrospect, that leaving the house without underwear on may not have been the best idea.

Harry, however, seems to disagree. He inhales sharply when Louis finally works his fly open; Louis feels his eyes in his back and he crawls off and stands up, trying to free his legs and take his socks off all at the same time.

Once he’s finally naked, he doesn’t even get the time to turn around. Harry wraps his arms around him from behind, pulls him down, nips at his shoulder.

“You didn’t wear pants,” he says into Louis’s ear. His hands wander over Louis’s chest, then lower, fingertips brushing his stomach until Harry has a firm hand wrapped around Louis’s cock.

“I was excited,” says Louis, and attempts a laugh that doesn’t quite make it out. Harry is burning hot all along his back, his wrist brushing Louis’s thigh as he starts jerking him off, a slow, careful drag of his spit-slick hand.

Harry hums into his neck. “Sorry,” he presses to the skin there, along with a wet, open-mouthed kiss. “Wanted you here.”

He curls his fingers tighter, and Louis’s breath hitches. It takes him a couple of tries to get out the words: “I can see that.”


He realises then that he still has control of his hands, even as heavy and boneless as he feels. He reaches back with one of them, curls his fingers tight into Harry’s hair, and wraps the other one around his wrist, stilling his movements.

“What?” Harry asks, the word broken over a moan when Louis wraps a few strands of hair around his hand and tugs, gentle.

“You didn’t call me here for a handjob, did you?”

“Don’t really care,” Harry admits, but his hand stays still in Louis’s grasp. “Just want you.”

Louis is tempted to let him carry on, let Harry bring him to what’s shaping up to be a quite glorious orgasm with just his hand – but there’s another temptation, much stronger, pulsing through the tightness in Louis’s chest, breaking through the haze of want.

Harry took care of him the last time. Louis feels like it’s his turn now – his turn to learn every crevice of Harry’s body, to make him feel as good as he possibly can.

He breaks out of Harry’s hold, now slack, and turns around. Harry is a vision, wild with his dark green eyes and glistening lips, and he blinks up at Louis owlish and trusting. The slow sweep of his lashes contrasts to the rest of his body, the fast twitching of his muscles and the franticness with which he goes back to touching Louis, on the chest, the stomach, the shoulder, like he can’t bear for them to be physically separated.

“You okay?” Louis asks, concerned. He’s never seen Harry like this, not in his day-to-day life and not in bed. He’d been so confident with Louis before, slow and deliberate, and something about his hummingbird heartbeat sets Louis on edge.

Harry blinks, then closes his eyes. He flattens his hands against Louis’s skin, warm palms and rough fingertips, and slowly, carefully breathes out.

The change is immediate, obvious in the way his muscles relax, the hard line of his shoulders rounding out. Louis hadn’t ever realised how wound up he was.

“I’m good,” Harry says, deep and clear, “great. I just—sorry. Sorry.”

“Hey, no,” Louis rushes out, lets Harry go so he can lie down and stretch out. “Nothing to be sorry for, love.”

Harry lifts his eyes, meets Louis’s gaze sheepishly. “I just got so excited,” he says.

“For what?”


“You,” Harry replies, like it’s obvious. “I spent half an hour lying in bed and thinking about—I just forgot how to breathe for a while, I think.”

He’s back to resting on the pillows now, hair spilling around him like a halo, bathing in the light just like Louis had found him. He’s flushed, obviously still turned on, but his breathing has slowed. His body is relaxed, round and soft; there’s no sharp edge in sight.

Louis smiles, stretches out until he’s lying down too, legs tangled with Harry’s and chin on his chest.

“Better now?” he asks.

“Mhm,” Harry hums, then grins. He angles his hips against Louis’s, barely a graze, but torturous in how deliberate it is. His cock is half hard, nestled against Louis’s thigh; he’s still very much interested.

Louis takes a second to look at him, at his flushed chest and the reddened skin underneath his jaw where Louis’s stubble had been. Harry doesn’t drop his eyes, not even after minutes, so lovely and open and waiting.

Louis crawls a little higher, acutely feeling all the places their bare skin touches, and sucks Harry’s bottom lip into his mouth. Harry makes a surprised little sound, but it takes him no time at all to lean into the kiss, hands settling on Louis’s hip, his back, like they belong. Louis’s heartbeat speeds right back up, feeling Harry all around him. He takes in the scent of his shampoo, the lavender washing powder that always lingers on his clothes, and squirms against the heat that courses through his veins.

“How do you want me?” he pulls away to ask, and Harry does nothing to mask his answering moan.

“What?”

“You said you want me,” Louis says, and tries for a cheeky smile. He suspects that it comes out more gentle than anything else. “What do you want me to do?”

Harry licks his lips, pink tongue against pink mouth, but he barely seems to realise. “I don’t care,” he breathes, and moves one of his hands to Louis’s chest. His fingertips spell silent words against Louis’s skin on the way, dozens of loops and swirls that could never quite describe what he's is feeling. “I don’t care. Anything. Everything.”

Louis believes him.

“Anything?” he asks, and leans down, wanting to suck a mark into Harry’s neck. He ends up nuzzling it instead, bathing in the tantalising scent of Harry’s body, leaving open-mouthed kisses everywhere he can reach. Harry’s pulse races underneath his lips.

“Anything,” Harry repeats. He opens his legs, lets them fall to the side, and pulls Louis’s face up to his by the chin. “I just want you here. With me.” He bites his lip then, and the sun illuminates a pale blush on his cheeks. “In me.”

Louis stops breathing just a little. They hold each other’s eyes for a second, staring, and then Harry dissolves into giggles.

“Oh my God,” Louis tells him, laughing back, even as his cock hardens against Harry’s thigh. Harry wants—that, actually wants it, and Louis might explode at the thought alone.

“Sorry,” says Harry, and kisses Louis’s ear. The hot puff of breath he leaves behind gives Louis goosebumps.

“You serious?” he asks, just to check.

Yes,” Harry moans, like he can’t help it, and looks down pointedly. He’s hard now, his cock lying heavy and dark and mouthwatering on his stomach, and Louis reaches out for it before he can stop himself.

Harry reacts, immediate and breathtakingly gorgeous, stilling under Louis’s touch and burying his face in the pillow. His nipples are puffy and beautiful and right in Louis’s face. He leans down, sucks one of them into his mouth experimentally.

“Louis,” Harry whines, moves into the touch, and Louis stares up at him in quiet awe. He hasn’t even done anything, has barely wrapped his hand around Harry’s cock, and already Harry has gone perfectly pliant, his body moving after Louis wherever he goes, chasing his touch. He reacts to every flick of Louis’s tongue, every little sweep of Louis’s thumb as he jerks him off slowly, so incredibly responsive, and Louis—Louis gets an idea.

He pulls away from Harry’s chest and latches on to his collarbone instead, alternates kisses and licks and nips as he tightens his hand, speeds up just a fraction, gets Harry a little more worked up.

“Harry, love,” he murmurs into the skin of his neck, now flushed red, tendons jumping against Louis’s lips as Harry turns his head.

He pulls his hand away as he waits for Harry to answer, and doesn’t miss the little whine of protest that punches its way out of Harry’s throat. He has to do everything in his power to stop a smile from spreading across his face, to suppress how pleased he is that he can get that kind of reaction. His previous, significantly more awkward tumbles in the sheets seemed to always happen in the dark, under clothes and duvets and layers upon layers of embarrassment. They were about figuring out the truth and perhaps getting off in the process, dry hands and too much spit and avoiding each other’s eyes after. This is something entirely different, starting with the way Harry looks at Louis in bright daylight where everything is on display, with the sweetest words he says that buzz under Louis’s skin for hours afterwards.

“Why’d you stop?” is Harry’s eventual answer. He turns his head, releases the corner of the pillowcase he’d been biting, and through the fake pout he attempts to put on, Louis can tell he’s actually put out, just trying not to show it. If he’s honest with himself, that only excites him more.

He steals himself a kiss, smiles, and brushes Harry’s curls away from his sweaty face.

“Could you turn over?” he asks, tracing the ridge of Harry’s hip with his fingers.

Harry obeys immediately, shuffles around and onto his stomach, arms splaying wide.

“Wait,” he says when Louis doesn’t do anything for a minute, just stares at him smiling and trying to suppress all the emotions swelling in his chest. “What for?”

“Um,” Louis responds eloquently. His nerves kick in in that very moment, the slightest tremor in his hands when he rests one on Harry’s back and says: “It’s a surprise?”

Harry frowns. “You look nervous,” he says. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with. Or like, anything at all, it’s okay. I don’t want to—you know, push you.”

Louis, in all honesty, wants to wrap himself all around Harry and never let him go.

“You’re not pushing me,” he assures, and doesn’t leave room for any more talk when he latches on to Harry’s neck again, whispers nonsense into the skin behind his ear as he runs his hands down, over the curve of his spine. The rest of his body follows soon enough, lips and tongue and teeth leaving paths on Harry’s skin, and as soon as he arrives where he’s been going, Harry catches on.

“Oh,” he breathes, and his hands curl into fists in the sheets. “Oh my God. Louis.”

Louis grins, cheeky, and squeezes Harry’s wonderful little bum in his hands. It seems like Harry is on board, and Louis can get on with it – as soon as he’s had a taste of those incredible thighs.

He noses over the curve of Harry’s arse, puffing out hot breaths that make Harry squirm and giggle, all the way down to the top of his legs, that little crease of skin where they meet. He nips at it, then soothes the spot with his tongue, moves lower, to the inside of Harry’s thighs where the skin is thin and pale and so incredibly inviting.

Harry is lying stock still, tense, and Louis gets both his hands to work on rubbing his knotted muscles while he leaves a mark here, another one there, covers every inch of skin in himself.


Experimentally, he drags his stubble against Harry’s thigh, right on the inside, from the knee up until he’s close enough to leave a playful bite in the flesh of Harry’s bum. Harry responds beautifully; squirms and keens and lifts his head to catch Louis’s eyes.

“Please,” he says, with lips bitten red and hair tousled, wide pupils and glistening mouth and the nape of his neck shiny with sweat.

Looking at him, Louis is so hard it hurts, trying to chase some sort of friction in the slippery sheets, but his focus never wavers – right now is about making Harry feel good, making him fall apart in the best possible way, until the only word on his lips is Louis’s name.

He abandons Harry’s thighs and shivers pleasantly when he sees the skin there, so pristine before, now reddened and littered with bites. They’re small, and they’ll fade before they see each other next, leave Louis with a blank canvas all over again.

When he actually gets his face to Harry’s arse and spreads his cheeks, Harry yanks on the sheets in his fists, arches his shoulders up and down again like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his body.

“Okay?” Louis asks, just to check in, and the nod he gets in answer is so enthusiastic it sends Harry’s curls flying. “Alright.”

For the first time, he lets himself really feel how nervous he is. There’s a trembling sort of tightness in his chest, a feeling that steals his breath and makes it difficult to focus. This is a big thing, at least for him it is, and there’s no telling how well he’ll do, if Harry will like it, if Harry will even want him afterwards.

Never one to give in to thoughts of doubt, Louis banishes them from his mind. Instead, he focuses on what’s real, tangible, right there before him – Harry, who’s laid himself at Louis’s mercy, legs spread wide to accommodate him, body rippling under his every touch. This gorgeous, wonderful boy, who is well on his way to becoming the only thing Louis cares about.

He dives in, then, before the heavy thoughts have time to take root and grow. Harry’s hole is quivering when Louis presses his mouth to it, velvety soft skin that tastes of salt and Harry and the sweet shower gel he uses. It makes Louis heady, makes a dark, intense kind of heat pool low in his stomach.

Harry whimpers, and Louis can just see the bow of his open lips against the pillow. He brings his tongue out, just circles Harry’s rim, and Harry rocks back in response, hips pressing against the bed as he involuntarily pushes Louis closer, tries to get him deeper.

Louis pulls off with an obscene sound. “Shh,” he whispers, runs his hands over Harry’s hips and legs, holding him still. “Everything alright?”

“Yes,” Harry whimpers. Rivulets of sweat have risen along the curve of his back, lit up by the sun. “Yes, yes, yes, God, please.”

He’s wound so tight again, his muscles knotted and tense, eyes closed, fingers wrapped in the sheets. He looks absolutely stunning as he writhes against the bed, long and lean and open, but Louis knows he needs to take the edge off, make him feel so good he’ll go soft and pliant. He doesn’t know if that’s something he’s capable of doing, but he’s sure going to try.

He gives his own cock a squeeze, trying to will his arousal away for a while. When he leans back down, it’s with a newfound purpose, and he dives right in, past the first ring of muscle and inside Harry. The taste that explodes on his tongue makes him feel greedy, want more, and he squeezes Harry’s cheeks tighter as he holds him open, tries to get as deep as he can.

Harry keens, wiggling against Louis’s face, his skin heating up as he whispers soundless words into the pillow. Louis sucks on his rim, loses himself in the heat, Harry’s scent that surrounds him, engulfs him, until there’s nothing, no one else.

Harry’s words from earlier play over and over in his mind – in me, in me, in me, a chorus that compels Louis to rut against the bed, not quite finding what he’s looking for. He can’t imagine what Harry’s going to feel like, not when he’s this hot, this tight against just Louis’s tongue.

He pulls away, then leans back in again, inordinately pleased at the sight of Harry’s hole, quivering and slick with spit, the sensitive skin around it pink from his stubble. He dials back a little, switches to long licks and short flicks of the tongue inside, and Harry relaxes under him, around him, a little more with every exhale. The arch of his back softens, and he melts into the bed, sticky skin in white sheets.

“Lou,” he sighs, a half-word, half-moan, between one hitching breath and another, and Louis feels warm from head to toe at the sound. He’s never had such—reverence directed at him. It makes him want to give Harry everything.

He sucks on his own finger and gently works it in alongside his tongue, just barely stretching Harry out, reaching so much deeper than his tongue can. Harry is warm and slick and tight, so gorgeously right, in tune with Louis as he pushes back until Louis is in all the way to the knuckle. He crooks his finger, moves it this way and the other trying to find Harry’s prostate and get him moaning again.

Harry does just that when Louis hits the spot – his voice climbs higher, from a rumble to a whine, and he exhales a long, long groan into the pillow. His hips are moving in tight little figure eights, working himself on Louis’s finger, his tongue, pulling him deeper as he opens one of his fists, lets go of the sheets and reaches for the bedside table.

Louis watches as he lifts his head, long neck and beautiful collarbones, shoulder blades playing under skin, and opens the drawer. He rummages in it while Louis strokes him from the inside, propped up on a trembling arm and flushed red, and finally pulls something out. He pushes it away from him, towards Louis, who pulls his mouth away to stretch up and look – a bottle of lube, looking suspiciously new, and a condom.

“Please,” Harry says, and their eyes meet properly for the first time since he turned over. What Louis sees there makes his chest flutter, makes him want to say words he doesn’t quite know how to say, feel things he doesn’t know how to feel.

“Yeah,” he says instead, and leans down to kiss him, skin reuniting with skin along the way. Harry tastes sweet and feels warm, pliant and open. His tongue is soft against Louis’s, barely caressing the inside of Louis’s mouth, so very reminiscent of Harry’s careful hands on his skin just last weekend. Louis feels a little weak with how short a time it’s been; how quickly Harry got him completely drunk on everything that he is.

He crooks his finger again, wanting to taste one of Harry’s beautiful moans, and he sucks it greedily into his mouth when it comes.

“I’ll take care of you,” he promises, like he meant to say long, long minutes ago, before he lost himself in Harry.

“I know,” is Harry’s response, pressed softly into Louis’s jaw. “I know.”

Louis feels bizarrely close to tears when he breaks their kiss, nuzzles Harry’s face and brings his focus back to the items lying innocuously in the sheets.

“Did you just buy this?” he asks, weighing the bottle of lube in his hands. Chocolate-flavoured, the label says.

Harry giggles. “Yeah?” he says, poses it like a question. “The one I usually use is all sticky and gross. Wanted to make a good impression.”

Louis decides he has to kiss him again. He leans up, holds Harry’s face in his hand, and drinks him in until his other wrist starts cramping and he has to pull his finger out.

Harry seems to take that as an invitation to turn over, throwing his arms and legs out to the sides like a human starfish. Louis watches his tiny smile, looks at his body filling the space like it belongs, and knows with a terrifying kind of certainty that he’s in way, way too deep.

“Will you be alright like this?” Harry asks, catching Louis’s eye. He’s looking up at him still, with his neck bared and blinking slowly, deliberately. “I don’t—I want to see you.”

Louis’s eyes sting. He closes them, not thinking about anything but the here and now, and crawls half on top of Harry to snog him properly. He thinks that if he were standing, his knees would probably refuse to hold him up. That’s the way Harry makes him feel when he opens his mouth and just—speaks, says things that wake up a flurry of butterflies in Louis’s stomach.

“I’ll be just fine,” he mumbles, presses into Harry’s bottom lip. “Long as you’re here.”

Harry lets out something between a laugh and a moan, and one of his big, big hands comes to rest on the back of Louis’s neck. The lie there and kiss for what feels like ages, and it’s a welcome break from the intensity, the scarily fast beating of their hearts. Still, Louis is turned on and hard and craving more of Harry’s body, and he feels Harry’s own cock smearing precome over his hip.

“You good to go?” he asks, laughing a little at how ridiculous he sounds. Harry opens his eyes, looks up at him with a grin. There’s so much feeling in that single look, things that Louis can’t begin to decipher, that scare him and excite him all at the same time, and when Harry nods, he’s a little relieved to look away.

He kisses Harry’s neck as he works the bottle open, leaves yet another mark, and moves lower, to Harry’s collarbones and nipples and stomach. He can’t resist a kiss to the head of Harry’s cock, red and leaking, and before Harry has a chance to react, he’s got one finger back inside him.

Harry’s lower back arches off the bed the smallest bit, hips pushing up, and Louis licks at the ridge there as he lubes up another finger. He meets a little more resistance, now, even as wet as Harry is already, but his body opens up within seconds, pulls Louis inside like he belongs.

“Jesus,” Louis mumbles into the skin of Harry’s thigh, watching in fascination as he opens his legs wider, somehow, gives Louis all the access he could possibly need. Louis slides his fingers in and back out, stroking Harry’s prostate, working until the slide is effortless, until Harry is relaxed around him, letting him in.

“Lou,” Harry whimpers, and whatever he wanted to say next gets lost in a moan when Louis crooks his fingers just right. “Louis. More.”

If at all possible, Louis’s cock goes harder at the want in his voice, the way he’s pushing back against Louis’s fingers, greedy. He does what Harry’s told him to, and squeezes a little more lube out. It really does smell like chocolate, and somehow mixes perfectly with the scent of sweat and Harry and the last remnants of washing powder on the sheets.

The third finger has Harry holding on to the headboard, long arm flexing as he clenches his fingers tight around the wood. Louis pushes in slow, watching closely for Harry’s reaction waiting until the pained wrinkles around his eyes fade. It’s a very tight fit this time, and he spreads his fingers carefully, gets Harry used to the feeling and listens, all the while, to the way his whimpers fade into moans, breath by breath.

He wraps his free hand around Harry’s cock, as a distraction, or perhaps a way to bring all of Harry’s attention back to him, and jerks him slowly, languidly, keeping his grip light and his wrist loose. Harry half-heartedly manages to kick him in the calf, but he grins down at him at the same time.

Louis smiles in response, feeling Harry loosen up around him. He lets his focus slip, loses himself in Harry’s warm, salty skin, leaves kisses everywhere he can reach. All the want he feels finally flows free through his veins, just this side of animal, and he aligns his body with Harry’s, until they’re touching everywhere they can.

The sun behind the window has climbed higher already, taking away the bright rays of light and leaving everything soft, ethereal, almost. Louis can count every goose bump on Harry’s skin, every mole and freckle on the seemingly endless expanse of his body. When Harry looks at him, his eyes are green, green like glass bottles and the grass at Harptree Court and everything Louis dreams about.

“Louis,” he says, like it’s the only word he can remember, and smiles. It’s easy, light; pretty, and Louis is drawn to the pink curve of his lips. Time slows when they kiss, taking away the urgency and leaving desire behind, all-consuming and intense.

“Everything okay?” Louis asks while he threads his fingers through Harry’s hair, pets his chest, interlaces the fingers of their free hands. “All good?”

Harry laughs. “All good. I’m not going to be any more ready, so if you could—you know.”

“Oh,” Louis replies, and pulls his fingers out with a sound that’s as incredibly obscene as it is hot. “Oh. Right.”

Harry pulls him back in by the neck before he can do anything, gives him another kiss, so deep it makes Louis shiver down to his core. “Go slow, yeah?”

Louis is a little afraid to touch him—afraid that he might burst into a cloud of smoke, like an illusion of someone so good Louis couldn’t have dreamt him up if he’d tried. “Course,” he says, and reaches blindly around him to find the condom, now lost in the sheets. “Let me know if something doesn’t feel right.”

Harry hums in agreement. Louis goes about putting the condom on, and realises his hands are shaking, suddenly.

“Hey, Lou?” Harry says, and Louis looks up at him. “I—“ he bites his lip, a shock of white against pink, and falls silent. He looks away, just for a second. “No, nevermind. Go on.”

Louis frowns. His blood is raging inside his body, pulsing wildly under every inch of skin down to his fingertips, but it can wait, damnit. “Are you sure you’re good?”

Yes,” Harry says, firm, and there’s no hint of doubt in his expression. “I’m starting to think you’re not up for it, old man.”

Louis gasps. “I’m twenty-three!” he says, only a little shrill, and slaps Harry on the thigh. “Bet I can last longer than you.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. He holds the mock condescension on his face even when Louis slips three fingers back inside him, down to the knuckles, though his mouth falls open just a little bit. “That’s not fair,” he starts, “you’ve been—“

He doesn’t get to finish, because Louis twists his fingers just so, the way he’s already learned Harry particularly likes, and instead of words, he lets out a groan.

“Doing that,” he says when he recovers, flushed and shamelessly riding Louis’s fingers. “Driving me crazy. You’re too bloody good with your hands.”

Louis kisses his knee to hide his blush, but the warmth that lights him up from the inside can’t be chased away. Harry thinks he’s somewhat decent in bed – so far, at least.

He probably won’t last either, if he’s honest with himself – not when Harry is looking at him that way, not when they’re close and sticky and completely lost in each other.

“Ready?” he asks as he slicks up, barely touching his cock in fear of screwing up completely and coming before he even gets to feel Harry.

“God yes,” is Harry’s reply, and magically, it erases the last traces of Louis’s hesitation.

He lines up and pushes forward, just a couple of inches, and his moan mixes with Harry’s. The feeling is—it’s really like nothing that Louis has ever felt before, and nothing like Harry felt around his fingers. It’s amplified, so much more intense, tight and slick and velvety smooth all at the same time. Louis has to grit his teeth against the shiver that racks his body.

Harry lifts one of his legs, rests his calf on Louis’s shoulder, easy, like it’s a perfectly normal thing to do, and digs his heel into Louis’s lower back to pull him closer. The change of angle upsets Louis’s balance, and he slides forward in the sheets, slides deeper into Harry, into the bewitching heat of him.

They both moan at the same time when he bottoms out, just stays pressed right against Harry and leans forward to kiss him. Harry meets him halfway, fisting one hand in Louis’s hair desperately, licking over his top lip like he’s trying to drink him in.

Louis is drowning in sensation, shaking with how intense everything around him seems. Harry is so, so tight, so good, and staying still is one hell of a challenge. Harry needs the time though, he’s sure, and he’ll give him as long as he asks for.

Not very long, as it turns out. Harry clenches around him, quick and tight and completely on purpose, and separates their lips.

“Move,” he says, staring right into Louis’s eyes, with the air so very heavy all around them. Louis doesn’t even think about it, just digs his knee into the bed, presses Harry’s thigh firmer into his own chest, and pulls out a fraction.

The movement has Harry’s insides fluttering wildly, already used to Louis being still inside him, and it doesn’t stop as he works to a slow pace, pulling him in greedily, like Harry’s body knows exactly what they both want.

Louis sees stars exploding behind his eyelids already, but he focuses on making it good for Harry, finds every spot of his skin he hasn’t touched, draws smeared lines in the beautiful sheen of sweat coating his body. He goes easily when Harry pulls him in for another kiss, speeds up with a slap of Harry’s skin against his, and brings his thrusts into rhythm with his kisses, stroking the inside of Harry’s mouth with his tongue as he slams in, then retreating.

Harry’s hair is matted to his forehead, his eyes glassy, following after Louis’s lips when he pulls back. His breath hitches every time Louis thrusts into him, breaks on moans that don’t have time to form before they’re replaced.

“Stay here,” he says, quiet and barely audible, as he tangles his fingers into the hair at the back of Louis’s head and doesn’t let go. “Kiss me.”

Louis does. “You feel so good,” he breathes into Harry’s mouth in-between the kisses, struggling to control his breath and he inches closer to his orgasm. Harry is meeting him halfway, pushing back onto Louis’s cock like he still wants more. It’s heat, heat everywhere, a ball of fire in Louis’s gut that spills into his veins and out through his skin, wrapping around both of them, binding them together with sticky skin and whispered nonsense. “So good. Incredible, fuck.”

Harry makes a sound high in his throat. He shivers when Louis finds his prostate again, stroking it with every thrust in, and he places a hand on Louis’s back, digs his fingers in like he’s trying to anchor himself. His other hand reaches out blindly into the mess of blankets, finds Louis’s fingers braced against the bed by his hip, and tangles into them. Louis slides forward to take his hand properly, sweaty palm to sweaty palm, fingertips digging into skin.

“Lou,” Harry breathes into his lips, where they’re not quite kissing and not quite separate. “Louis. I’m so close, so close, can you—“

Louis swallows his last words, tips him into the pillows as he speeds up, focuses every last bit of energy on giving Harry what he wants. Harry’s cock is brushing against his stomach now, leaking steadily with the weak friction, and Louis wants him to come apart, to get lost in moaning Louis’s name.

“Come on, love,” he says, with eyes shut and desperately close to his own climax. “Come for me, come on.”

And Harry—does. He muffles a shout in Louis’s shoulder, hot breath and a painful shock of teeth. His cock twitches between them, paints both their stomach with one hot spurt after another, and he clenches around Louis like a vice.

Louis watches him fall apart in breathless fascination, watches the twin dark red spots in his cheeks, the trembling fan of his lashes when he closes his eyes, the angles of his body when he twists and squirms and tries to bury his sounds in the pillow. Louis’s muscles ache, and his stomach is coiling tighter still; what does him in is Harry’s eyes. When he opens them, they catch Louis’s immediately, shining bright green with wide, black pupils, and the look in them is so trusting, so warm.

He comes still buried deep inside Harry, with a noise he’s certainly never made before that he hides in Harry’s neck. He spills into the condom, rides the spasms of his body until his arms start trembling too hard to hold him up, and Harry’s there to catch him when he slumps forward, spent, with colourful explosions painting the darkness behind his eyelids.

They’re tangled together, folded and twisted like an unsolvable riddle. Louis can’t feel his own body ending and Harry’s beginning. He feels—boneless. Weightless.

Harry’s scent has soaked through the pillowcase they’re laying on and through Louis’s skin, staying even as he comes down and the world trickles back in.

He realises he’s got his nose buried in Harry’s hair, one hand still intertwined with his and the other on his chest, right where his heart is still beating erratically. Harry is puffing short little breaths into his neck, legs wrapped around Louis’s and holding him in place. He’s the first thing Louis sees when he opens his eyes, the line of his nose and the paper-thin skin of his eyelids. His collarbones are covered in love bites, scattered here and there all the way to his stomach, traces Louis had left for his boy to remember him by.

His boy.

The feeling slams into Louis’s chest like a freight train, warm and mellow as he is, this effervescent desire to make Harry his, with actual words in an actual adult conversation, and then run outside and shout it from the rooftops. He’s in over his head, drowning and so close to the bottom he has to fumble around in complete darkness. He’s never done this, still doesn’t know if it’s something he should want—but there it is, the feeling, curled up comfortably in his chest. He doesn’t want to give it a name just yet.

Harry mumbles something incomprehensible, wiggling around, and Louis realises with a blush that he’s still inside him. He pulls out, and they both hiss, oversensitive and suddenly cold. He tugs the condom off with one hand, haphazardly ties it and hopes Harry doesn’t murder him for dropping it on the floor. He’ll find a bin later, he swears.

Now that he’s free to move, Harry pushes against Louis until he gets him flat on his back, and climbs on top of him. His come is drying, sticky, between their stomachs, but Louis finds that he doesn’t care when Harry props his chin up on his chest and opens his eyes.

“Hi,” he smiles, a small, soft thing, and kisses Louis below the collarbone.

Louis feels so bizarrely happy. He smiles back, though it probably comes out more of a grin, and works his fingers into Harry’s hair. “Hi,” and then, because his restraints went out of the window approximately an hour ago, “I think I have your hair in my mouth.”

Harry giggles, and shimmies up to press their lips together, soft. “Sorry,” he says, though he doesn’t look it, and then his smile slowly peters out. “That was incredible,” he tells Louis, completely serious, and drops a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I mean—just. Wow.”

“It was” Louis says, warm from head to toe. “I—I’m glad you liked it.”

“I loved it,” he corrects. Louis misses a few breaths when he hears the word. Love, he thinks, mulls it over in his mind until it doesn’t make sense. Love. “You’re amazing. And I really want to do that again as soon as I catch my breath.”

And there’s the cheeky grin, settled back on his face where it belongs. Louis can’t resist a snog, just a long, beautifully lazy brush of tongues and lips. Harry is warm all over, even now that they’ve come down a little.

It’s when Harry rolls half off of him, stretching like a cat, that Louis spots it – a shadow on the underside of Harry’s arm that, when he touches it and pulls it closer, turns into crisp lines and sharp points.

“You have a tattoo?” he asks, surprised. It’s only been six weeks, but he’s spent most of them watching Harry like a hawk – he can’t quite believe he’s missed it.

Harry blinks, confused, then follows the line of Louis’s arm to where he’s tracing the black star.

“Oh,” he says, and smiles, though something about it seems a little sheepish. “Yeah. It’s old,” he adds, and bites his lip, like he’s not sure if Louis approves, like he cares about Louis’s approval.

“What does it mean?”

In the bright light of the room, Harry blushes. “You’ll laugh.”

Louis probably will. Still, he holds up a couple of fingers and puts on his most earnest expression. “Won’t,” he says. “Promise.”

“It’s—Ed gave me it.”

“Ed?” Louis asks, puzzled. “The one from the shelter?”

“Yeah,” Harry smiles. He looks a little far away suddenly, remembering. “I met him in a tattoo shop when I was eighteen. I was trying to talk them into tattooing me for free,” he pauses, and snorts, presumably at the nerve his eighteen-year-old self had. “And he walked up to me and told me he has a machine at home. That he’ll give me a tattoo if I bring a couple bottles of beer.”

“You got tattooed by someone you didn’t even know?” Louis asks, trying his hardest to not sound shrill. It’s just—unsafe, is all. Terribly, terribly unsafe. Harry’s still so young, so boyish, and Louis doesn’t even want to imagine what he looked like at eighteen, all the things that could’ve happened to him.

“I know,” Harry says. “Believe me, I know. Mum tore me a new one when I told her, but—I’m alive, yeah? I’m fine. My arm didn’t fall off, or anything.” He grins, probably at Louis’s put out expression, and kisses any further protests quiet. “Anyway. When I got there, he had a friend over, apparently someone who works on the radio? I didn’t know him. He was either really drunk or really high, not sure which, and when I told him I wanted to get a star, he got this look on his face,” he looks up at the ceiling, remembering. “Said that it’s nice to see baby gays being so confident in their sexuality.”

Louis blinks. He wraps his fingers around Harry’s biceps, over the tattoo, feeling bizarrely protective. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Harry grins then, and his eyes dance with mirth. “Well, apparently, gay people get stars tattooed to show that we're, y’know, gay. Just the outline. And when we’re ready to come out, we get them filled in.”

Louis stares at the star, a stark, solid black against the pale underside of Harry’s arm. “That’s bullshit.”

Harry giggles, drops his head down into the pillow. His hair splays around his head wildly. “I know,” he mumbles, and turns on his cheek to face Louis. He’s grinning. “But I didn’t when I was eighteen. I was a proud little shit, and I wanted to show everyone just how gay I was, so,” he shrugs, just one shoulder barely lifting off the bed. “We scrapped the outline idea, and I had it done in solid black. Killed two birds with one stone, I thought.”

Louis feels a laugh starting to bubble up in his throat already. “What did you do when you found out?”

“Nothing, really. There’s not much you can do, you know?” he smiles, lopsided against the pillow. “I was still proud of it. And of me, for sitting through it, because it hurt a whole fucking lot.”

“Poor baby,” Louis coos, only a little fake, and tries to reign in the twitching corners of his mouth. He strokes his fingers over the points of the star, the ink embedded deep in Harry’s skin.

“Poor me,” Harry agrees. “Ed had no idea what he was doing.”

“You know,” Louis says, “I think I remember hearing something about lesbians getting star tattoos in the 40s.”

“Really?”

“Yup,” he answers. “On the wrist, though. So they could hide it with a watch during the day, or something like that.”

Harry squints at him suspiciously. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Liam has this client,” he starts, “she’s really old, worried to go on the machines alone, so he makes her a workout plan and she teaches him about queer history. Stonewall, the LGSM, that kind of thing. He doesn’t know how to tell her that he’s not really interested.”

Harry laughs. Louis gets a sudden urge to taste his smile, and he doesn’t attempt to resist; just leans forward, closes his eyes, and lets Harry catch him.

He doesn’t go far when he pulls away, stays where he can feel Harry’s exhales break against his lips. “So why did you want to get it in the first place?”

“Right,” Harry says into Louis’s shoulder. “It was—for my mum, I suppose. And my childhood. So that I wouldn’t forget, you know? So that I’d always be grateful for things. Never take anything for granted.”

Louis’s heart stutters. Harry’s words feel like a physical blow to his chest, and leave behind an ache he doesn’t know how to soothe. Harry is—everything. He just is.

“Why a star?” he asks, carding through Harry’s hair and pressing kisses all over his face. His earlier laughter has faded, left space for this terribly revealing softness that sneaks into his voice.

“Mum used to read to us,” Harry responds. He trails one of his fingertips down Louis’s chest, and draws a wobbly star shape around his bellybutton. “We’d move from shelter to shelter, sometimes we had to sleep outside, and things got lost, you know? We never had anything that was really ours, except for the book. She always carried it with her, and she read to us every night before we went to sleep.”

He reaches down to find Louis’s hand, and takes it in his again. Their ankles bump together as he shifts around, moves closer. “You alone will have stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night.”

“You, only you, will have stars that can laugh,” Louis finishes, and finds a lump stuck in his throat.

Harry looks up at him with a smile, and Louis shakes. All men have the stars, but they are not the same things for different people.

“You know it?” Harry asks, happy, and Louis squeezes where their fingers are resting together.

“Of course I do,” he says. “I used to read it to my sisters when they were small. We grew up on it, really, all five of us.”

He realises it’s the most he’s let slip about his family in front of Harry, but he also finds that he can’t quite bring himself to care. Instead, he focuses on the memories that flood his head, heavy and insistent: the clean, soapy scent of washing powder on his sheets as he hid under the duvet to read long into the night, wanting to surprise mum in the morning with his perfect pronunciation of digestion. The soft glow of Fizzy’s night light when she was four and he climbed into her bed with his fraying copy of the book; her voice repeating along with the Little Prince: Draw me a sheep, if you please, draw me a sheep. All of them curled up next to the tree on Louis’s last Christmas Day at home, taking turns reading even as they insisted they’re all too old for it.

The sadness that hits him is visceral, and it takes his breath away for a good few seconds. He looks up at the ceiling, where the light is playing bright and soft, and blinks away tears.

It’s been five years, and he misses them so much, still—misses all the noise and the shouting and the hair-pulling, misses never being alone, always having someone to talk to. He misses sharing an evening cuppa with his mum, and his little matchbox of a room, and kicking a ball around the back garden after he’s come home from school.

It’s an open wound on his heart, still, always, and he’s a fool for thinking it could ever heal.

“Hey,” Harry’s soft voice brings him back, washing over him gently, slipping into all his cracks and soothing the pain. “Alright?”

I am when I’m with you, he wants to say. Instead, he nods, and pulls Harry into a kiss, aching for something familiar. Harry can definitely tell something has changed, but it seems he tries his hardest not to let it show; just holds Louis tighter, kisses him gentler, and doesn’t leave his side.

Louis stays the day and the night, in the end, calls Liam and asks him to go over and cover the cakes while he lazes in Harry’s bed, naked and happy – as happy as he can bring himself to be. They eat dinner by the kitchen window, and doze curled into each other on the sofa, and Louis leaves melancholy behind for Harry’s bright, bright smile.

In the morning, Harry makes them tea – mint, it’s wonderful for your stomach, he says – and walks Louis out and all the way down into the street. They kiss goodbye for much, much longer than appropriate, and when Louis finally turns away, laughter bubbles up in his throat like champagne.

Yes, the stars always make me laugh.

*

It’s only on Sunday morning, during breakfast, that Louis abandons his good mood and trades it in for paranoia.

Ben corners him at the tea station, where Louis is chasing the last bag of Yorkshire in the messy box. He makes his presence known with a discreet kind of cough, and Louis startles so bad he almost knocks the hot water thermos right off the table.

“Hello,” Ben says, arms folded behind his back, leaning uncomfortably into Louis’s personal space. “We should talk.”

Despite being in the same competition, Louis doesn’t think they’ve spoken more than five words to each other after their first encounter. Still, he was raised to be at least passably polite.

“Okay?” he says as he assembles his cup: splash of milk, teabag, water, stir. He’s acutely aware of Ben’s eyes in his back, but he refuses to cut his morning routine short just to accommodate him. “What do you want to talk about?”

Ben grabs him by the elbow, a little too forcefully, and Louis is suddenly scared. There are witnesses, he wants to say, just in case this is a kidnapping in broad daylight. Maybe Ben is trying to eliminate the competition; maybe he’ll lead Louis into the forest and tie him to a tree and leave him there for the squirrels to feast on as he courses down the unobstructed path to victory.

He catches Harry’s eyes before Ben pulls him out of the door. Thankfully, Harry is already looking at them, and he nods seriously when Louis mouths help.

Clutching his cup with cramping hands, he lets himself be led to the back of the building, where the pristine flower garden is in full bloom. Ben gives Louis a second to collect himself, to try and remember some moves from his short-lived stint in karate during primary school, and then drops the bomb.

“You two need to stop,” he announces, evil eyebrows climbing up on his forehead. Louis suddenly feels freezing cold, despite the scalding cup of tea he’s holding.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replies, trying for aloof. He has to be so very careful here—

“You and Styles,” says Ben. “Did you think you could get away with that?”

Or not. Ben has his arms crossed over his chest, obviously quite confident in what he’s saying. The back of Louis’s neck starts sweating.

“How?” he asks as his mind whirrs. He feels sick to his stomach. Ben could’ve seen them kissing out by the pen last week, or sneaking into the pantry yesterday while the crew reset for judging. He could have heard something from their room, could have seen Harry squeezing his hand this morning when they walked down the stairs shaking with nerves—there are so many possibilities, so many instances when they’ve let themselves slip up and forget where they are.

Predictably, Ben doesn’t give anything up. “That doesn’t matter,” he says, and moves closer. Louis is uncomfortably aware of how tall he is. “You need to stop. In fact, you will, otherwise…” he smirks. “Well. Let’s just say I have a great relationship with production. It would only take one call to get you out of my way.”

Louis’s hackles rise. He knows he’s supposed to tuck his tail between his legs and run away, but his protective streak is, unfortunately, miles wide. He won’t just lie down and let Ben threaten him. Threaten Harry.

“Scared you can’t win the old-fashioned way?” he smirks and twist his face in a way he knows makes him look ugly, but intimidating.

Ben frowns. “Did you hear what I just said? I can end you.”

Louis, despite panicking internally, kind of wants to laugh. Ben's so dramatic, bloody hell.

“You can end my stay in the competition, you mean.”

At that, a smile spreads over Ben’s face, wide and fake and terrifying. “Louis. Oh, Louis. Do you know what breach of contract is?”

Louis is going to die. His heart genuinely stops beating for a while, and he’s certain that the back of his vest is soaked with sweat by now. Ironically, all he wants at the moment is Harry, the comfort and safety that his arms always provide.

He’s not sure if he knows what breach of contract is, but he does know by the smug grin on Ben’s face that it isn’t good. It probably involves money – money that Louis decidedly doesn’t have.

Still—“Yes,” he answers, because bullshitting is the only way to get somewhere in life, “and I’m not scared.” He hopes that the sound of his knees knocking together isn’t actually audible.

Ben leans even closer. There’s an evil spark in his eye when he smiles and says: “You’re a child. Do what I say, and I might let you stay to see me take the trophy.”

Louis’s face burns with how abjectly humiliated he is, and anything he may have wanted to say falls into fragments on his tongue. Ben is a talentless dickhead, he tells no one but himself. Maybe he’ll be out by tonight.

“Glad we talked,” Ben sneers. He looks like he wants to spit at Louis’s feet, but considers himself above something so plebeian.

Just then, Harry and Niall round the corner. They’re strolling the path leisurely, Harry’s arm threaded through the crook of Niall’s elbow, talking in loud voices about something that probably has to do with food.


Ben jerks and squints at them. His shiny dress shoes groan on the gravel as he turns to look for an escape route, but he’s not fast enough.

Oh,” Niall says, feigning surprise, and it’s then that Louis gets why they’re here. “Sorry. Did we interrupt something?”

It is the actual worst acting performance Louis has ever seen, but Ben, perceptive as he claims to be, doesn’t catch on.

“No,” he growls, and grits his teeth so hard they squeak. “We were just admiring the garden, weren’t we, Louis?”

Louis raises his eyebrows so high he probably pulls a muscle. “No,” he says, deadpan. He watches in satisfaction as Ben glares, huffs, and turns on his heel. He shoves his way through Harry and Niall roughly, and walks away.

The feeling of victory doesn’t last long. As Ben’s steps fade, so does Louis’s fake bravado, and his stomach lands somewhere at his feet. Ben could be going to the tent right now, where Jen is setting up with the camera units. All he’d need to do is tap her on the shoulder and ask to speak to her, and both of them could be off the competition, just like that. God.

“Lou?” Harry asks, concerned, as he lets go of Niall and steps closer. He goes hands-first, and his fingers land on Louis’s shoulders before the rest of his body arrives. His touch alone is enough to prevent Louis from hyperventilating, heavy and soothing. “Lou, hey. Are you okay? What did he want?”

While he contemplates how to answer, Louis pulls him close. He wraps his arms around Harry’s waist tight, and Harry goes easily. It’s a little scary, how calming his mere presence is, the way Louis’s body is screaming with relief when he’s enveloped in Harry’s scent, his warmth, like this.

Louis is vaguely aware of Niall lingering somewhere off to the side, but he can’t bring himself to care. Niall is a good egg, and is in an illicit relationship himself. It’s not like he’ll go tattling.

He puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder, goes up on his tiptoes, and kisses him. This is what matters, he thinks as heat spreads from his lips. He’d be devastated if he got booted, much more so because he’s so close to the final, but—Harry. Harry matters.

Niall gags, and Harry breaks away with a laugh. He keeps his forehead pressed firmly into Louis’s, though, probably sensing how reluctant Louis is to let him go.

“What happened?” he asks again, softer, just for them.

“He knows,” Louis says, and swallows. “About us, I mean.”

“Oh,” says Harry, but he doesn’t sound particularly bothered. “Does he plan to blackmail us, or something?”

Louis looks at him. “I think so?” he says, hesitant, and some of the nervous shaking begins to ebb away. Harry is calm. Louis can take some cues from him.

As if reading his thoughts, Harry smiles. “Don’t worry too much,” he says, and runs his finger over Louis’s forehead, where a concerned wrinkle has remained.

“He could get us kicked out, though,” Louis points out. He feels so small – probably looks it, too. “We don’t know what’s in the contracts. Don’t tell me you read the whole thing.” 


Harry’s smile turns sheepish. “Well, no.”

“So we could be packing our bags twenty minutes from now.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Harry says, rubs his big hands down Louis’s arms. “And if it does, it’s not the end of the world.”

Isn’t it? Louis wants to ask. That would be it. The end of the road. Five years of working towards this, the one thing he’s wanted for as long as he lets himself remember, all for nothing.

Except—no. Not for nothing, Louis thinks as he keeps leaning into Harry, keeps looking into his eyes. The thought of being out of the competition only makes him want to hold on tighter.

Harry is here. Harry is everywhere, as bright under the bleak skies of London as he is in the Somerset breeze. Louis has him, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll get to keep him even after they call cut on the final take of Bake Off.

Maybe, even if Ben were currently on the phone to the production office trying to ruin his life, Louis would actually walk away feeling alright.

*

Armed with a flawlessly frilly princess cake and a dobos torte without a single fault, Harry snatches Star Baker right out of Louis’s hands.

He grins so, so wide as he says thank you, eyes near closing in delight and hands clasped tightly in his lap, and the only thing Louis feels is a beautiful, wild sort of pride. Harry deserves this, has fought for it like a lion, with his mane and all, and the obvious pleasure it gives him makes him even more radiant that usual. Louis congratulates him properly in their room, with a very decent blowie and a stolen paper bag full of Niall’s delicious savarin cutoffs.

They take the train to London together. It’s a beautiful evening, peaceful, even if Louis can’t help looking over his shoulder one too many times as they leave the B&B. Harry kisses his forehead when the grounds are out of sight, and they hold hands the entire way home.

*

Week seven: Advanced dough

week seven

Louis’s phone is a time bomb.

Louis if also very fond of dramatics, but in this particular case, he thinks he’s allowed. It’s been seventy-two hours since Ben’s impromptu ambush, and Louis has slept for approximately five of those. With Harry gone, all the nerves have come back, and Liam has been with him since Monday afternoon, kipping on the couch and trying to stop him from going into hysterics.

“Nothing is going to happen,” he’s saying now, for what’s probably the twentieth time, stirring a pot of that terribly bland porridge he’s so fond of. “You’re fine, for God’s sake.”

Louis mumbles something that could pass for words, if one were to lean very close. He doesn’t have the energy to do anything but freak out.

He watches Liam flit about his kitchen, setting out bowls and tucking Louis’s jumbo-sized jar of Nutella under his armpit to bring to the table. Louis is too tired to even reprimand him for putting things in the wrong place. Jen’s voice is reverberating around the inside of his head, repeating ridiculous words like deception and disgrace.

“You’ll see,” he gets himself to say. “We’ll be in the papers. Bake Off 2015 Contestants Couldn’t Keep It In Their Pants. More about their shame on page fifteen.”

Liam slams a bowl down on the table in front of him, and whacks him upside the head with his other hand.

“Ow,” Louis pouts, head bent forward because keeping himself upright seems like too much trouble.

“Get yourself together,” Liam says in what Louis has dubbed his Personal Trainer Voice. It usually doesn’t work on him, but he’s also never been this sleep-deprived. He’s not all that surprised as he dejectedly watches his own hand pick up a spoon and dig into the Nutella jar, dropping big clumps of it on top of his porridge. “And straighten up, Jesus Christ. You’re going to break your back if you bend any further forward.”

“You’re in a great mood,” Louis says with no inflection whatsoever.

“So are you,” Liam shoots back, but his voice is already softer, laced with that ridiculous gentleness he reserves for Louis’s frequent strops. “Have you called Harry yet?”

Louis’s tired, tired heart jumps a little at the name. He’s been talking to Harry every day, long phone calls that last well into the night and cut into his practise time, but he doesn’t mind one bit.

“It’s seven thirty,” he points out, swirling his spoon in the porridge. “Harry is a smart boy. I’m sure he’s asleep, like all normal people.” He makes sure to give Liam a pointed glare, hoping it conveys his never-ending gratitude to him for being a good friend and generally keeping Louis alive.

“Early mornings are the most productive time of day. And a balanced sleep schedule is very important,” is his response, and Louis hears all the things he doesn’t say.

“D’you think he’ll be cross with me if I wake him up?” Louis asks. The breakfast tastes like ashes in his mouth, but it’s better than starving to death.

Liam laughs. “If he’s half as smitten with you as you are with him, no. Probably not.”

“’M not smitten,” Louis yawns around his spoon, a weak denial at best. “I just want to make sure nobody’s suing him, either.”

“Nobody’s suing anybody,” Liam says. “It’s not like the previous contestants didn’t shag.”

Louis chokes. “What?”

“Series three!” Liam cries, gesticulating with his spoon. “That Scottish bloke, what was his name—James? And the one who cut himself with the strudel. The one who won.”

“John?”

“John!” Liam shouts, then falls quiet to allow for a pregnant pause. “They were so doing it.”

Louis cracks his first genuine smile of the day. Something like laughter, even, tickles in his throat.

“I think James had a girlfriend, mate.”

Liam’s mouth drops open. “Really?”

Louis shrugs. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s nice to know you’re this passionate, though. You’ll have to tell me if the sex made Harry and I look different on camera when it airs.”

“Don’t be smug,” Liam says, even though Louis wasn’t being smug – at least not intentionally. Poor Liam and his recent dry spell. Once the competition is over, Louis will have to drag him to a proper bar, get him acquainted with some nice ladies. It shouldn’t be difficult, really – Liam is, after all, in Louis’s strictly objective opinion, a hunk.

His spirits lift a little as he forces more porridge down his throat. It’s good, sweet and heavy and filling, and it warms him up from the inside until he feels like he could actually fall asleep. He knows, though, that as soon as his head would hit the pillow, he’d be back to being wide awake.

Harry calls just after nine, when Louis is sprawled in Liam’s lap on the sofa, hogging the remote. His drawn-out greeting of hiii has a smile spilling over Louis’s face, warm and calming like the first sip of tea in the morning. As their conversation gets going and spirals away from the things that weigh on Louis’s mind, he finds himself melting into the cushions.

He sleeps until Thursday afternoon.

*

Eventually, it occurs to Louis that he has Niall’s number saved somewhere in the depths of his phone. Once he finds it, he calls Niall and orders him to call Zayn so that Zayn can call Jen who can call the higher-ups and inquire about Louis’s status in the competition. He gets told to go fuck himself several times, but in the end, his little phone grapevine tells him that no nefarious activities have been reported.

It would seem, then, that all is well.

*

Significantly more cheerful and well-rested, he meets Harry at the train station on Friday morning.

He’s running late, of course, backpack bouncing wildly on one shoulder and his ticket held between his teeth as he fights his way through the crowds. It’s one of the platforms in the very back, theirs is, mostly deserted and full of rubbish from the overflowing bins. In the midst of it, Harry stands out like a rose in a bouquet of weeds – or something equally beautiful, but less corny. Louis has missed him so, so much.

He slows down a little to catch his breath, and his eyes never leave Harry’s tall silhouette. His hair is loose, past his shoulders, the curly tips of it dancing in the breeze, and he’s wearing a shirt that’s embroidered with flowers and also completely sheer. The closer Louis gets, the more defined Harry’s nipples become under the material. Jesus.

“Louis!” Harry calls when he spots him, turning around. He has sunglasses on, but still puts a hand up to his face to shield his face from the sun. His smile gleams wide and brilliant as Louis closes the last of the distance, and from up close, he finds a small sunburnt spot right on the tip of Harry’s nose. He does nothing to stifle his answering smile. Instead, he walks into Harry’s outstretched arms and lets himself melt into the embrace.

“Hi,” Harry mumbles into his hair, quiet and happy. He presses a kiss to Louis’s ear, his cheek, his forehead, two onto the bridge of his nose. He’s shining, radiant, not caring who sees him as he showers Louis with affection. God, Louis loves him.

Which. Um.

“Hi,” he replies, even as his heart races away, trying to beat its way out of his chest. He knows it’s true, without having to delve deeper and untangle this ball of feelings that are all connected to Harry, somehow; Louis knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he loves him. It’s obvious in the way his body instantly relaxes when he catches a whiff of Harry’s scent, and in the way he lingers when Harry connects their lips in a kiss.

Essentially, Louis is fucked. He can’t quite believe how little he cares – he’s got Harry in front of him, now, after long, long days spent apart, and, as always, he commandeers one hundred percent of Louis’s attention.

“Don’t look now,” Harry whispers when they break the kiss, still so close Louis can count the flecks of gold in his eyes, “but that lady is staring at us. She doesn’t look very nice.”

Despite of what Harry had just said, Louis wiggles in his arms and manages to look over his shoulder. There is, indeed, a middle-aged lady standing on the platform next to them, and her red-painted lips and curled into a sneer.

“Hello,” Louis says, smiling and pleasant, just as Harry hisses his name and nudges him in the ribs. “Are we making you uncomfortable?”

With his head resting on Louis’s shoulder, Harry breaks out into giggles. Louis finds his hand and threads their fingers together.

She blinks at him, surprised. She stands up straighter, crosses her arms and, to her credit, replies: “Yes.”

“Terribly sorry, then,” Louis fires back, faking his sincerity as obviously as he can. Something dangerous wakes up inside him, something that feels like liquid fire in his veins. “If you just turn a bit to the left, you won’t have to see us.”

She gapes. The fake lashes by the corner of her right eye have started sticking away from her eyelid, and Louis takes a petty sort of pleasure in it.

“I am not the one being immoral in public,” she says. Her accent is quite posh – Louis guesses she’s from the West. Maybe she lives in one of those poncey houses in Bath that are expensive for absolutely no good reason. “This is not appropriate behaviour, young man.”

Louis turns all the way around, facing her. Harry’s arms fall away from around his waist.

“Why is that?” he asks, and his voice takes on an edge, razor-sharp. It feels defining, this moment, and scarily familiar. It’s one of those where he takes a step forward and won’t able to go back.

She frowns wildly. Her rings gleam in the sun as she presses an offended hand to her chest. “I don’t think you need me to spell it out for you.”

Louis feels eyes in his back; knows that Harry is watching him, and that they’ve probably attracted the attention of the few other people on the platform.

“Would you, though?” he asks her, and takes a step forward. She doesn’t back away. “I failed my A Levels the last time I was in school. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, you see.”

And he wants her, suddenly, to tell him exactly what she thinks. To tell him there’s something wrong with him for being the way he is, tell him he’s corrupting the children and offending her sensibilities and ruining the sanctity of marriage. He wants to stand up tall, look her in the eye, and tell her she’s wrong.

She’s visibly angry, but Louis can tell she’s not the type to unleash hell on him in public. “You’re behaving inappropriately,” she says again. “There should be laws against—people like you doing that.”

“Kissing my boyfriend hello?” he raises an eyebrow. There’s a sharp intake of air somewhere behind him, and he knows from the way it hitches that it’s Harry’s. Louis will think about that after his blood is finished boiling.

“You’re lying to yourself,” the lady says, and hugs her shiny purse closer. “Commitment only exists between man and woman. Being the way you are – it’s God’s punishment for your sins in a previous life. He wants you to repent, and then you can be free.”

She turns away then, shows him the sharp profile of her face like she’s done with the conversation. A wave of anger rises in Louis’s chest, bright red and all-consuming, the kind of rage that comes from pain.

“You’re wrong,” he whispers, low and furious, and takes another step. He can see the wrinkles in her face now, the crow’s feet around her eyes that make her look rounder, younger, even, a little like—like somebody else. “You’re wrong,” he says again, louder. “I can be happy. I am happy. You never—“ and he’s cut off, then, by the noise of their train pulling into the station, brakes creaking until Louis’s eardrums hurt. His last words get lost in the wind.

He doesn’t realise he’s shaking until Harry’s hand wraps around his wrist, warm and steady. “Come on,” he says into Louis’s ear, and pulls him forward.

The train is small, and it fills up quickly. They have to share a carriage, but Louis barely registers the people around them as he slumps into the window seat and wordlessly hands Harry his backpack to stow on the shelf above their heads. Harry makes quick work of it, and he’s next to Louis before the train even starts moving. The line of his thigh is warm, grounding, pressed along the length of Louis’s leg like a reminder.

They’re rolling through Hayes, slowly picking up speed, when Louis thinks to say: “I’m sorry.”

Harry lets out a big breath, relieved, like maybe he hadn’t been sure that speaking was okay. “What for?” he turns to Louis, eyes wide and concerned. Most of his hair is held back by the sunglasses he’s pushed up on his head, but some of it still finds its way into his face, softening his features, making him younger. Louis suddenly remembers his revelation, and when he digs, he finds that familiar, comfortable feeling – love, Jesus Christ – sleeping in his chest like it’s always been ther. Maybe it has. Maybe it had just been waiting for Harry, waiting for Louis to find him and realise he’s been looking for him forever.

“Just—you know. Making a scene. I didn’t need to do that.” He feels quite awful now, with London trickling out into fields around them and the rude lady in a different section of the train. His heart still burns, but his mind is clearer.

“Lou,” Harry says, and immediately finds his hand to hold it. “You stood up for us. That was amazing.”

Louis blinks. “Really?”

Harry smiles, and it’s sad. “Yes,” he says, though it looks to Louis like he isn’t speaking everything that’s on his mind. “Yes. She was—she was very rude.”

“You would’ve left her alone,” Louis points out.

“Maybe,” says Harry, tilting his head. “But that doesn’t mean you were wrong to do what you did. I, um,” he blinks down at his lap, “I love how protective you are, actually.”

The smile is instantaneous, and it takes over Louis’s face so thoroughly it makes his cheeks hurt. “Harry,” he says, and it’s enough to get Harry to look back up. Louis darts forward, before he can change his mind, and presses a peck into the corner of his lips.

And then, because his filter is not quite back in place and he just—wants to know: “I called you my boyfriend.” He says it lightly, just so, ready to laugh it off if need be and watching for Harry’s reaction.

“You did,” Harry beams, until dimples appear in both his cheeks. Louis is fairly certain he’s never seen him that happy. “I’d like to hear it again, actually.”

“Boyfriend?” Louis tries.

“Your boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend,” he repeats dutifully. Harry’s answering giggle is like a shot of concentrated warmth right into Louis’s veins. “My boyfriend,” he says again, much quieter, and marvels at how soft his voice is. “If you want to be.”

There is a light in Harry’s eyes that looks impossible to put out. Louis thinks he wouldn’t mind watching it burn for years and years to come.

“I’m your boyfriend,” he confirms, and it’s Louis’s turn to giggle. He steals himself another peck, a quiet, dry press of lips.

Over Harry’s shoulder, he notices that the person they’re sharing the carriage with is another lady; she’s dressed much less extravagantly, with a plump, kind face, and when Louis accidentally catches her eye, she smiles at him. By the time Louis thinks to smile back, she’s gone back to her crossword.

Harry spends the entire ride curled into his side, whispering nonsense and humming half-hearted melodies he’s just made up as the hours tick away. Louis breathes in the scent of his shampoo and watches the sun travel the sky along with them, rising higher as noon comes and goes.

“We’ll be going to the final this time next week,” Harry says into his throat, quiet as he scrolls through a recipe book on his mobile.

And by God, he’s right. They’ve been in this whirlwind for seven weeks already. It’s felt rather like years. Louis thinks of how familiar it is now - he knows the entire crew by name, knows exactly how many sheep there are in the pen, knows where the stream that trickles through the grounds starts and ends. Stepping into the tent no longer feels like entering a different dimension. It’s familiar; it’s home.

When he looks down at Harry, though, the time feels like it’s virtually flown by. He remembers how frustrating Harry was, and how happy and lovely and magnetic at the same time, like it was yesterday. But Louis is here now, seven weeks in and—and in love.

He feels it so acutely when he cards his fingers through Harry’s hair, makes tiny braids there to the sound of Harry’s laughter. His heart is so full it could burst, a feeling unlike anything he’s experienced before, and he gets it, suddenly, why love causes wars and moves mountains and is the biggest cliché in the world. He would give Harry everything that’s his to give.

He drapes one of his arms over Harry’s shoulder, tangling them further, and rests his open palm on Harry’s chest, right where his heart is beating.

“What?” Harry looks up at him, smiling.

For a crazy second, Louis considers just telling him. Considers letting the words slip out of his mouth, the first time in his life they’d have that kind of meaning, but. They’re on a train, sat with someone who’s probably eavesdropping on everything they say, and Louis has already dropped a bombshell today.

“Nothing,” he grins, and hopes Harry realises that what he actually means is everything.

Harry kisses the underside of his jaw, feather light. “You sure? Everything okay?”

Louis looks at him – at the bow of his lips, the slope of his nose, the one little ringlet of hair that falls without rhyme and reason into the middle of his forehead.

“I’m good, love,” he promises, and means it with everything he has. “I’m really good.”

*

The signature this week is a fruit loaf. Louis sort of, kind of really hates candied fruit, and back when he was putting together the recipe, he had a difficult time coming up with something that wouldn’t make him gag as he prepares it.

The brioche loaf he’s settled on is a massive risk – not a whole lot of fruit, really, and it needs extra rising time he may or may not have. It’s safe to say he’s stressed when he makes his way into the marquee on Saturday morning – thankfully, Harry is there to hold his hand when nobody’s looking.

There are four of them left: Louis, Harry, Niall and, over in the corner by himself, Ben. Louis constantly feels his eyes in the back of his skull. So far, nobody has come to drag him away and kick him out, so he figures he really is okay.

They start the clock on three hours, and Louis starts sweating immediately. The marquee seems so quiet and empty compared to the beginning, and the stakes are as high as they’ll ever be.

“Louis,” Jen stops next to him just as he tips his dough out of the mixer bowl and onto the counter, first unit in tow. They’re really going to ask Louis questions while he’s kneading.

“Brioche fruit loaf, is that right?” she reads off the list .

“Yup,” Louis confirms.

“Says here you estimated the prep time at five hours.”

“Yup,” Louis confirms again. He lays into his dough, focuses on the familiar push-pull-turn rhythm of it instead of Jen’s hilariously monotone voice trying to stress him out.

“How do you plan on finishing on time?”

Louis grits his teeth just as the camera light comes on, shining bright right into his face. It’s the beginning of May, and perpetually sunny outside; he has no idea why it’s necessary.

Maybe it’s a method of torture, he reasons. Shine a ridiculously strong bulb into their eyes until they crack and have a breakdown on national television.

“I’m not sure, to be honest,” he admits, because—well, he isn’t. He’s cut each rise by twenty minutes, but he still has to do it twice. “Brioche is a very fluffy bread. If I don’t have enough proofing time left, it’ll be a disaster.”

It’s exactly the kind of catastrophic statement they’re looking for, of course. Jen nods at him with a tight smile, ticks something off on her clipboard, and joins the second unit, who are flanking Niall as he juggles a jar of sultanas.

Behind him, Harry makes a comforting little noise, and Louis turns to him with a smile.

“Alright?” he asks, and Harry beams in answer. “Didn’t kill the yeast, then.”

“Hey,” Harry pouts and, with a glance around to make sure there are no cameras trained on them, joins Louis at his station.

Louis is unaffected. Absolutely cool as a cucumber. He sweats through another five minutes of kneading, until the clock at the front of the tent reminds him that he absolutely has to stick his bloody dough in the proving drawer. Through it all, Harry watches him in silence, eyes bright and snacking on Louis’s candied lemon peel. It’s shop bought - Louis was ashamed to put it on his ingredient list, but this is still a competition. Sacrifices must be made.

Once everyone’s dough is rising, the two of them grab Niall and have a sitdown in the holding room. Ben stays behind to answer more of Jen’s questions, and Louis can’t help eavesdropping through the tarp.

“So it’s just called a tea loaf, then?” she asks, and he replies with a “yes”. He sounds like a pompous arse even when he says one-syllable words.

“Where did you get the inspiration?”

“Oh, I just put together all my favourite things, sultanas, cherries, lots of butter. But the real secret to the flavour is the fresh ginger.”

Louis frowns. Ben’s sounds like a perfectly good loaf, but there’s something nagging in the back of his mind. If he weren’t so tired, it would probably be easier to figure out.

Harry, who’s spread out half on top of him, sharing the only sofa in the room, perks up.

“Niall,” he whispers. Louis watches, curious, as a small frown settles between his eyebrows. “Niall, where’s Zayn?”

Niall is currently spread out on the floor. There’s a pile of sugar packets on his chest that he stole from the tea station, and he’s opening them one by one and pouring the sugar into his mouth.

“Dunno,” he says, and takes a deep breath. “Zayn!” he bellows, so loud Louis could swear it echoes. From the other room, Jen and Ben tut disapprovingly at the same time.

It takes Zayn approximately ten seconds to appear. He pops his head in through the tarp, eyes wild and hair sticking up in all directions.

“What?” he asks, out of breath. He’s holding a lit cigarette. “What happened?”

Niall grins at him from the floor. “Dunno,” he says again, and Louis wonders if saying as little as possible is his way of conserving energy for the rest of the day. “Harry wants t’ talk to you.”

Zayn’s shoulders slump in relief. He looks over to Harry, and, by extension, Louis. To his credit, he doesn’t even raise an eyebrow at how tangled they are.

“Harry,” he says, and puts his cigarette out in the grass before he steps inside. “What’s up?”

“Can you get us Ben’s recipe?”

He sits up, leaning into Louis’s side, and practically vibrates in his seat. Louis only gets more confused.

“Sure,” says Zayn as he pats his hair into place. “What for?”

“Just get it,” Harry says, brisk, and then blushes. “Please,” he adds.

Zayn shrugs and disappears into the marquee, where Ben and Jen now seem to be in a friendly conversation about the pros and cons of candied fennel. A minute later, he comes back with a crumpled sheet of paper that he hands to Harry, then sits down on the floor next to Niall, a curious look on his face.

Harry takes approximately ten seconds to blurt out: “This is Paul’s recipe.” Suddenly, everything makes sense.

Louis remembers, now, remembers reading over the recipe when he was assembling his own. Fresh ginger is such a strangely specific thing to put in a fruit loaf, and he’d thought, back then, about trying it out, stealing the idea and making it his own.

He hadn’t thought to steal the entire thing.

Down on the floor, Zayn blinks. “Pretty sure I got that off Ben’s counter.”

No,” Harry says. “Give me your phone.”

Zayn is the only one of them who’s allowed to have his mobile on him while on set. He looks at Harry distrustfully as he hands it over, and Niall pats him on the shoulder in consolation.

Louis leans closer into Harry’s space, watches him Google “fruit loaf recipe” and tap on the very first result. The BBC Food website opens on the screen, and there it is, clear as day: Tea loaf. By Paul Hollywood.

“Four hundred grams of flour,” Harry reads. “Forty grams butter…zest of three oranges, one teaspoon cinnamon, three teaspoons fresh grated ginger. Put the flour, salt, sugar, butter, yeast, milk and water into a bowl and mix with your hands. And so on.”

Louis looks to the paper, to the screen, and back again. The very same words stare back at him, black on white and very, very clear.

“Oh my God,” Harry says. Louis had expected him to sound serious, but instead, he’s barely holding back laughter. “Oh my God. He copied the instructions, too. This is—“ and he stops holding back then, barking a laugh into the palm of his hand, “this is copy-pasted.”

“What,” Zayn says, flat, and crawls over to them. Louis giggles into Harry’s shoulder as he watches his eyebrows dance all over his face.

“What the fuck,” he says, after he’s gone through the whole thing. “What the fuck?”

He seems genuinely outraged, but his expression only makes Louis laugh harder. He can’t believe Ben was threatening him less than a week ago.

“He copied the recipe, babe,” Niall says, kind as he scratches Zayn’s nape. “You can finally kick him out.”

“Finally?” Louis asks. “Does everyone hate him?”

“Yes,” comes the unanimous reply.

Over the next forty-five minutes, as the dough rises and the crew putters around the tent wiping away flour and milk spills, Zayn talks to Jen. Then he talks to the judges. Then he phones to London. They all watch him pace around the room anxiously, his voice rising with every minute until he’s almost yelling down the line.

“What do you mean there’s nothing you can do?” he roars into the phone as his necks turns a deeper shade of red by the second. “How is this not against the rules? Are you—“ he cuts off abruptly, then looks at the screen. “They hung up on me,” he says, dejected.

“They’re not going to do anything?” Harry asks. He’s moved to full-on sit on Louis’s lap, and his eyes are wide with the injustice. “He can stay?”

Zayn sighs and rubs his eye until it’s leaking tears. “I guess so,” he says. “Paul knows, though. They couldn’t possibly keep him. Especially not over any of you.”

Louis shakes his head. “I can’t believe he threatened us when he’s out there doing this. What a snake.”

“He threatened you?” Zayn asks, blinking. He seems to be unraveling slowly, and Louis considers not telling him; he doesn’t look like he could take it.

Harry finds Louis’s hand and holds it in his. “He told Louis he’d tell production. About us.”

Zayn sits down. Niall immediately moves to wrap around him, trying to give comfort in his very own koala-like way.

“Oh,” Zayn says. “Was that what he was trying to do?”

“He told?” Louis asks, surprised, and any laughter that may have been left in him flies away with his next exhale. His stomach quivers nervously.

“I think so?” says Zayn, scratching his chin. “On Sunday, before we left, he—he mentioned the two of you, I think.”

“You think?”

“I wasn’t listening,” he waves a hand. “I never listen to him. But he did say your names, now that I think about it. And something about sleeping together.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. “You realise you could’ve told us this.”

“I didn’t think it was important, mate. Anybody with eyes can tell that the two of you are shagging. No offense.”

“None taken,” Harry beams. He’s so bizarrely happy with the idea of being obvious, and Louis can’t fault him, really. Now that Harry’s his boyfriend, he does kind of feel like parading around the grounds holding his hand.

Boyfriend, God. What a juvenile word, and yet it makes Louis’s skin buzz every time he thinks it.

He tightens his hold on Harry and sinks deeper into the sofa, feeling every spot where they’ve melted together, warmth to warmth. “D’you think he thought you’d pass it on, or something? Get us kicked out?”

“Maybe,” Zayn nods, and pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his inner pocket. “He probably thinks we’re friends, that I’d do him a favour out of the goodness of my heart or summat. Would’ve been real fucking hypocritical, too, since—you know.”

Niall immediately worms into his personal space, throwing his arms around Zayn’s shoulders and making exaggerated kissing noises. Harry laughs, curled up on Louis’s lap, and the strange tension that hung in the air dissipates.

When they walk back into the tent, where four bowls of dough are risen and ready, Louis is only a little ashamed of how satisfied he feels.

Ben’s going home tomorrow. It’s time for Louis to get his trophy.

*

Later that night, Louis is lying face down in the sheets, trying to get his breath back. He’s hot, sweaty, and only a little bit worried that they just broke the bed.

“Did you check underneath the mattress?” Harry asks when he walks back into the room, bare feet loud on the wooden floor.

“Haven’t moved yet,” he mumbles into the pillow, only vaguely aware he’s getting spit all over it. “Feel too good. And m’ legs hurt.”

He doesn’t need to see Harry to know there’s a smug smile on his face. He gets to feel it, though, when Harry presses it into his neck together with a bite.

“Sorry,” he says, and sounds anything but. “You’re the one who decided that you were going to ride me.”

“Say that a bit louder, please,” Louis grumbles even as he smiles ridiculously. “I don’t think the sheep heard you all the way outside.”

He finally peels his eyes open then, and finds Harry’s face hovering inches from his own.

“Did you get the flannel?” Louis asks, and raises an unimpressed eyebrow, anything to conceal how terribly in love he feels right in that moment.

Harry smiles until his eyes disappear, and closes the minuscule distance between them to kiss Louis into the pillow. His lips are still wet, still puffy and warm from the two of them being attached at the mouth for close to an hour. Louis is just leaning into him when, suddenly and completely without warning, he slaps a wet flannel down on Louis’s stomach.

Louis shrieks. Harry runs away, pressing himself to the wall across the room, giggling helplessly. Louis’s nerve endings are screaming, but he takes a second to appreciate just how precious Harry is before he pounces.

“You dickhead!” he shouts, so loud the walls of the room echo it back to him, and untangles himself from the mess on his bed. He balls up the flannel, aims, and hurls it straight at Harry.

“Mercy!” Harry squeaks as he ducks, breathless with laughter. “I’m sorry!”

“Too late,” Louis grins.

They last a good fifteen minutes like that, chasing each other around the small room and leaving wet marks all over the walls. Harry is the first to give up – he lies down on his own bed, still made and not slept in since Friday, and raises his arms in surrender when Louis drops the wet cloth on his face. He stays still when Louis straddles him, but as soon as his hands move to his sides, poised to strike, Harry’s palms clamp down on Louis’s wrists. His fingers wrap the whole way around.

“No,” Harry says, stern, but the impression is ruined by the flannel that’s still half covering his face. “No tickling. That’s evil.”



“Oh, so I’m evil now. You’re the one who forced me out of bed!”

“But you looked so peaceful,” Harry giggles. “I wanted to ruffle you a bit.”

Louis leans down and bites his nipple. “I was resting. You shagged the soul out of me, Styles.”

“So I’m good in bed then?” Harry asks, grinning.

“Shut it,” Louis says, feeling so, so warm despite the ever-present chill of the room. He reaches for the towel, peels it off Harry’s face, and presses it into his hand instead. “And clean me up.”

Harry raises absolutely no protest, just smiles softly as he rubs the wet fabric over Louis’s stomach. His tongue pokes out between his teeth as the tries to get rid of the now-dry come that’s stuck to Louis’s skin. Louis kind of wants to bottle the essence of everything Harry is and carry it with him everywhere. Make it into a necklace, maybe.

“All done,” Harry beams when he finally defeats the last stubborn spot, and Louis wastes no time in throwing the flannel across the room and flopping down on top of him. He feels warm; foolish in the best way.

“Thanks,” he mumbles into Harry’s shoulder, tasting the sweat on his skin.

“Welcome,” Harry mumbles back. His fingers trace little paths into Louis’s back, indecipherable words and images, and every bit of the day’s tension leaves Louis’s muscles.

“Excited about tomorrow?”



“Hmm,” says Louis, trying to put together a sentence. It gets increasingly difficult as he melts into Harry’s arms, sleep slowly taking hold of his senses. “I haven’t made doughnuts in years. Liam refuses to eat fried things, and I always feel awful when I eat the whole batch alone.”

Harry chuckles, but there’s a strange tone to it – like he’s holding something back. Louis kisses his collarbone, pets his stomach. He breathes, and waits, and hopes that maybe, Harry will voice whatever is on his mind.

The room sinks into darkness as the outside light over the entrance flicks off, a sure sign that everyone’s going to sleep for the long day ahead. They both lie still in the silence, just touching, being, and the nervous fizzle underneath Louis’s skin gets to be too much.

“What is it?” he asks, quiet, as gentle as he can. Half of Harry’s face is hidden in the shadows, the other half lit a pale white by the moon, and his expression is unreadable.

“I—“ he starts, then sighs. “I just. I really want to ask you something, but I don’t know how.”

Louis blinks, instantly alert. “Just ask,” he says and finds, in that moment, that he means it. He’s already split himself open for Harry in so many different ways, and he thinks he’d answer him anything if it put his mind at ease. “However you think is best. It’s okay.”

Harry closes his eyes. Exhales.

“You only ever talk about Liam,” he says.

Louis is confused. It must show on his face before he can get any words out, because Harry shakes himself and tries again: “That’s not what I—oh, bollocks. What I meant was, whenever you talk about your life, you only ever mention Liam. Like—like he’s the only person you have. But you mentioned your sisters, the other day, and I really…I really want to know more about you.” He stills, breathes. “Or—no, just forget. I’m sorry, God, I—“

“Harry,” Louis interrupts. His fingers have gone numb, but he tries to reach out for Harry’s face anyway, to pet his cheeks and tell him it’s alright.

Just like that, there is a boulder inside Louis’s stomach. He feels so inexplicably heavy, like somebody’s just dropped the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“It’s okay,” he says, first, trying and failing to organise his thoughts. “You can ask me anything. I never want you to feel like you can’t.”

Harry’s gaze is worried when he looks down at him, his bottom lip held between his teeth. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to answer,” he says, so, so soft. “That’s not why I asked. I only want what you’re willing to give.”

Louis’s throat clogs with tears. He drops Harry’s eyes and finds his hand, seeks solace in the familiarity of it, in the way Harry’s fingers slot in-between his like they were meant to be. It’s like standing on a precipice, deciding whether he wants to fall or not, and all the while there’s a wind in his back, pushing him closer to the edge. He doesn’t know what’s on the bottom, just hopes, desperately, that he’ll find Harry there waiting for him.

Maybe it’s time, he thinks. Maybe this is where he tears down the last wall and gives himself completely.

“I have four. Sisters, I mean,” he says, before he thinks any more, before he stops himself.

Underneath him, Harry takes a sharp breath, “Lou.”

Louis meets his gaze, feeling cracked open all the way to his core, and finds nothing but concern, love, shining in the green of his eyes. He tries to smile, to communicate that he’s okay – or will be, as long as Harry’s arms are around him to hold him together.

“Lottie’s the oldest one. She’s seventeen now, I reckon. Almost an adult. Jesus,” he gives a watery chuckle, staring down at the dip between Harry’s collarbones. “Fizzy’s the middle one, and then the twins. Phoebe and Daisy.”

He can’t help smiling to himself, then, when he thinks of their two youngest tearing up the house, making a mess at every opportunity, slip-sliding down the hallway in their socks and singing at the top of their lungs. It hurts, the memory – physically hurts.

“Twins,” Harry says, barely loud enough for Louis to hear.

“Yeah,” he smiles. “Yeah. I probably wouldn’t even recognise them if I saw them now.”

He knows how he sounds, hears the love, the soft, melancholy kind of pain in his voice as well as Harry probably does. Now that he’s opening the wound, picking at it stitch by hasty stitch, he knows he’s going to break eventually. Maybe he’ll have finished talking by then.

“What happened?” Harry breathes. His chest flutters against Louis’s.

“Things,” Louis says, with a bitter twist to his mouth. “Life. I—I came out to my mum. When I was eighteen.”

Harry’s responding inhale is so sharp it must hurt. Louis powers through it, keeps his eyes on the column of Harry’s throat before he loses the last scraps of his courage.

“I’d just finished school, you know? It took me two tries to get through my A Levels, and after I managed that, I thought I could do anything. I thought—I don’t know what I thought, really. Things weren’t good at home, mum and dad were fighting all the time, and I…I thought, maybe. Maybe I could bring the attention to myself for a while. So that the shouting would stop and the girls wouldn’t feel so bad.”

It’s hard to get the words out already, the lump in his throat growing until it threatens to choke him. He presses firmer into Harry, breathes his scent in through his nose, and lets it soothe him. Harry brings up a hand to twine in his hair.

“But she, ah. She didn’t take it so well.”

Harry squeezes his hand until Louis feels the delicate bones inside shift. He’s more grateful for it than he could ever put into words.

“I think—I think if we’d had time, you know? If we sat down and talked it over, it would’ve been okay.”

“But it wasn’t,” Harry says.

“It wasn’t,” Louis nods, and lays his chin on Harry’s chest. “She was so stressed, you know? So tired. She said—she said horrible things, and I don’t know if she meant them or not, I just remember being so hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry breathes, and when Louis chances looking up at him, he finds his eyes swimming with tears. Louis is still trying to bite back his own, gnawing on the inside of his cheek and feeling it bleed.

“She told me to get out,” he says, and the memory plays behind his eyelids, too real, too alive. “So I—I got out. I got out, and I never went back.”

“Never?”

“Never. I was so humiliated, you know? By the time I’d let it go through my head, I was convinced she didn’t want me back. I still don’t know if she does, because I never—“ he takes a breath, and finally loses the battle against his tears. “I never tried.”

“Lou,” Harry says, heartbroken, and Louis crawls up to him when he’s pulled, lets Harry wrap his arms around him and buries his face in the curls behind his ear, where he feels safe. At home.

“I feel so guilty,” Louis admits, the one thing that has been weighing on him the most, that he’s managed to bury the deepest. It comes out of his mouth just like that, easy, like it hasn’t kept him awake through countless nights. It’s because of Harry, he knows, because of how safe he feels when they’re like this.

“Why?” Harry asks, loud after all their whispered words. “You have nothing to feel guilty about, Louis. Nothing.”

Louis sniffs. “I left my girls alone,” he says, and feels it bite. “I just left them when they needed me the most. I thought I was coming back, at first, but then I just…wasn’t brave enough.”

Harry shakes his head. His cheek brushes over Louis’s lips, soft and warm and there. “I’ve never met anybody braver than you.”

Louis shakes his head in return. “It took me five years just to tell someone this. To find someone I wanted to tell.”

“That says a lot about other people,” Harry smiles, a soft, breakable thing. “Not you.”

He’s so sweet, God, so beautiful. Louis slips his ankle in-between his, searching for something to anchor him.

“I never blamed her for any of it, either. It was always on me. All of it was my fault.”

“What about the woman at the train station?”

Louis tries to chuckle, going for dry, and it comes out somewhat of a sob instead. “Yeah,” he says, sniffing. “Yeah. She—she was awful, but I don’t think I was really talking to her.”

He lets the reality of it sink in for a moment, the fact that he gave his feelings words for the first time in five years; the fact that the person who got to hear it was a complete stranger on a train platform.

It’s done now, though. It’s just another thing Louis can’t change.

“So. That’s why I’m here,” he says into Harry’s shoulder, slowly getting his breathing back under control, swallowing the tears.

“In my bed?”

Despite himself, Louis smiles. “In the competition. Twat.”

“Sorry,” Harry pets his nape in apology. “Why is that?”

Louis takes a deep breath. This is the last piece of the puzzle that’s himself. It’s all he can give Harry, right now; hopefully all that he’ll need to see the whole picture. It’s scary, still, but infinitely freeing at the same time. Like maybe, just maybe, instead of falling off the precipice, Louis could spread his arms against the wind and fly.

“I’m…not really sure, to be honest. I’d just run away, was kipping at Liam’s until I figured out what to do, and the first season of Bake Off was on the telly. I thought—maybe if I got the prize, you know? Maybe if I had something to show for myself, if I could make her understand that there are other things to me, besides being gay. That I’m worth something. That she could…” Love me, he doesn’t say, but he thinks Harry hears it anyway.

He’s almost forgotten about the self-loathing, the dark hole he’d been stuck in for years on end. No matter how much he’s built himself up, how long ago it was, remembering makes some of those feelings come back. They settle in his mind like an old friend.

“Anyway,” he clears his throat, even as he feels Harry take a breath to say something. He doesn’t think he could take it, not right now. “Baking used to be something that was just for the two of us. I’d really just run around the kitchen and lick all the spoons, but it always made me feel close to her. We stopped eventually, when I got too old to get away with not helping, but it was the one thing that has always made me feel close to her.”

“Oh, Lou.”

Louis chuckles wetly. “ Is that pathetic? It probably is,” he sniffs. “But when I saw the show, I thought I could do it. I’d never actually been in the kitchen alone, so Liam’s mum let me try out in hers, and I felt—I felt okay again. It was natural. Like I’ve always known how and just never properly tried before.”

Zayn’s words from weeks ago come back to him suddenly. Have you seen yourself in the kitchen? You’re a natural. He might be, after all.

Maybe he just hasn’t had time to stop and realise.

“So I put my everything into it,” he continues, smiles when Harry squeezes his waist. “I got Liam and we moved down South. God, we got the shittiest flat. It didn’t even have a kitchen, really, just a double hob and an oven that didn’t work properly, and I didn’t even care. I’d go to work and then bake all through the night. I never went out unless it was for groceries. I was just—a recluse, I suppose. I’d let Liam talk me into a pub night once in a while, but the entire time I was itching to go back in the kitchen.”

“Sounds like you,” Harry says into his hair, his smile audible. “When I first met you, at least.”

Louis blinks, surprised. His lashes are wet, and they stick together uncomfortably when he tries to look up at Harry.

“Not anymore?”

Harry kisses him on the temple. “No,” he says softly. “Not anymore.”

Louis knows he’s right. He knows, and he doesn’t mind.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “So I applied when I thought it was time, and here I am trying to win my mother’s love back.”

Harry chuckles, deep and hesitant, chest rumbling against Louis’s.

“You’re so much more than that,” he says. “You’re so brave. So wonderful. I can’t believe I found you.”

“Harry,” Louis looks up, up until he meets Harry’s eyes again. The honesty he finds there steals his breath.

“No, I’m serious,” he shakes his head, curls twisting against the pillow. “You’re incredible. You already know you’re a fantastic baker, but you’re, like, the best human. I just want to sit and admire what you’re like.”

“Harry,” Louis repeats, and his eyes start stinging for an entirely different reason. He can’t quite believe the amount of love he feels burning in his chest for this boy, the wonderful, wonderful enigma that is Harry Styles. Louis wants to dedicate his whole entire life to making him happy.

He sits up, even though all his limbs feel rather like jelly, and straddles Harry’s hips. He’s naked still, and it’s only the thin fabric of Harry’s pants that separates them, but he can’t really be arsed to think about sex right now. He wants to get to Harry’s lips, to kiss him, feel them connect and take a moment to thank whatever force governs his life for letting him have this.

Harry’s lips are warm and open, already waiting for him, and they kiss softly, slowly, like they have all the time in the world.

“Thank you,” Louis tells him. Harry frames his face with his hands, long fingers stroking Louis’s temples, wiping leftover moisture from the corners of his eyes.

“No need to thank me,” he replies, right against Louis’s mouth, like he doesn’t care about pulling away. “’S just the truth. You’re going to have the world one day.”

We, Louis tries to carve into his lips. We’re going to have the world. I don’t want it if it’s not with you.

They trade whispers long into the night, jokes and secrets and things they didn’t know about each other yet. Louis stays in the circle of Harry’s arms the whole time, cradled in warmth, and when the morning sun starts creeping over the horizon, he feels big enough to fit the entire world into the palm of his hand.

*

He gets through Sunday with barely one eye open. He also burns himself with piping hot oil countless times, but it’s worth the bloody delicious doughnuts he manages to put in front of Paul and Mary.

Harry and Niall both finish strong, too strong, and to everyone’s immense relief, Ben does go home. Paul’s stinkeye makes his childish, huffy exit from the marquee a hundred times better.

And Louis, well—Louis takes Star Baker. Again.

He’s tied Richard’s record from last season, is going into the final with his two best mates from the competition, and outside, Somerset’s indecisive weather has finally turned into a warm, sunny spring.

As he fights sleep on the train back to London, Louis thinks that life couldn’t possibly get better.

*

Week eight: Final

Life is awful.

“I can’t believe they want four quid,” Louis bellows, perhaps a bit drunkenly. His voice echoes in the half-empty pub, and earns him a scathing look from the bartender. “This is an outrage. It was fifty pence cheaper the last time.”

“Different pub, mate,” Niall supplies helpfully. He seems to have no trouble chugging down one overpriced pint after another – probably because Zayn’s the one with his wallet out.

Louis sighs, wistful, and slumps against the back of the booth. “I want a pint,” he says.

“I’ll get you one,” says Harry. He’s leaning into Louis’s side heavily, sipping on his schnapps – honestly, who drinks that – and giggling at every word that comes out of his mouth.

They’ve been at the pub for close to two hours now, and Louis has barely been able to look away from him. This is the first time they’re actually out in public together, and Harry shines underneath the bright London lights. His hair is mussed from the day they’ve spent in bed, his cheeks pink with alcohol, and the sight of his glistening lips makes Louis’s throat feel parched. He wants to absolutely wreck him, but also to hold his hand and wander the streets until morning.

“You can barely walk,” he points out, and brushes some of Harry’s curls away from his face. “I’ll get my own, darling. Don’t worry about it.”

“’M not drunk,” Harry protests, and crosses his eyes as he looks into his empty shot glass. “Maybe a little. I’ll sober up when we go outside.”

Louis grins at him, indulgent, and gives him a kiss before he leaves for the bar.

He’s only gone a couple of minutes, really – just enough for the spotty bloke behind the counter to glare at him and pour him a pint with a bit too much foam. When he comes back, though, Harry and Niall seem to be involved in a passionate conversation Louis has no clue about.

“I can’t believe that,” Niall is saying as Louis sits back down, loud enough to drown out the music and sporting a foam moustache. “You’re crazy. It’s not gonna work.”

“Is so,” Harry pouts. “I’m gonna practise. I’m like…the best baker of all time. Except for Lou. Sorry, Lou.”

Louis wants to cry a little because of how adorable pleasantly drunk Harry is. His eyes seem to have gone greener, and he’s walking his hands across the tabletop like a spider, weaving through all their empty glasses. Louis presses closer to him, until they’re shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, sharing warmth in the chilly corner of the pub.

“I have no idea what the two of you were talking about,” he says, but it seems that Harry’s attention has wandered away, to the twinkling fairy lights strung above the bar.

Opposite them, Niall leans back and drapes his entire leg across Zayn’s lap. “The final,” he says, and the duh is implied. “Did y’know Harry’s wedding cake is gonna be carrot?”

Louis smiles into his beer, “I did.”

“And you didn’t talk him out of it?”

“I think he can pull it off,” Zayn interjects. He’s mostly been sitting shrouded in half-darkness all evening, sipping on a gin and tonic and smiling like he knows something they don’t. Louis suspects he’s faking the mystery to hide the fact that he’s a massive dork. He has, on one occasion, seen Zayn tear up while eating a slice of particularly delicious cheesecake.

He smiles at Harry kindly, now, and leans forward with his hand resting on Niall’s knee. “Plus, we’re always looking for out-of-the-box. Makes it more fun.”

“And generates drama for the viewers,” Louis says.

Zayn grins, and clinks their glasses together. “And that. Cheers.”

Louis doesn’t get to form a reply. He gets distracted by Harry resting his head on his shoulder, heavy weight and hot breath that explodes on Louis’s neck.

“Hey, Lou?” Harry asks, mumbling, and Louis almost instinctively brings one hand up to scratch at his scalp.

“What’s up?”

“What’re you making?”

Oh.

Across the table, both Zayn and Niall perk up in sudden interest, and Louis fidgets on the bench.

“It’s a surprise?” he tries but, judging by the quirk of Zayn’s eyebrow, he’s not very successful.

“Come on,” Harry says with an audible smile, and lays his big, big hand palm down on Louis’s knee. “I’ll make Zayn tell me.”

Right. One look at Zayn’s face tells Louis that he definitely knows every detail of his recipes – was probably there when Louis made the panicked call last week, trying to squeeze in some last minute changes.

“Zayn won’t tell you,” he says, and scans the room for something to distract Harry with. “Zayn’s my friend.”

“Zayn wants to know why you’re being so secretive,” Zayn says. He’s leaning across the table inquiringly, joined by Niall and his curious drunken eyes. Louis feels rather like one of those pinned butterflies.

“I want to outshine these two,” he answers. “Can’t tell ‘em the battle plan.”

Harry giggles, burrows deeper into Louis’s neck and presses a kiss there. It seems to be enough of an answer for him, and he doesn’t ask anything else.

Zayn, predictably, is the one who looks like he doesn’t believe a word out of Louis’s mouth. Thankfully, he gets distracted by Niall’s wandering hands, and five minutes later, they’ve moved on to talk about Paul’s strange love of bananas.

Louis lets out a relieved breath and gulps down some more of his beer. Saturday, he thinks as he feels Harry slump heavier into his side. Harry will find out on Saturday.

If Louis is lucky, he might not even laugh in his face.

*

When the weekend finally rolls around, the tension is running so high Louis feels like it might suffocate him.

He’d barely gotten three hours of sleep last night, kept up by the nonstop whirring of his brain and Harry tossing and turning next to him. He’s paying for it now, as they stand by their stations bright and early, waiting for the camera crew to set up. He’s had to resort to drinking coffee, and his hands are shaking now, fingers drumming restlessly against the countertop.

As bizarre as it sounds, he’s missing Harry. They’ve moved him two rows ahead and across the aisle, and Louis can just about see him fidget nervously with the buttons of his shirt. They’d stood in their room this morning just holding each other for a good ten minutes, and Louis’s skin is itching with how far apart they are now.

“Good luck, mate,” Zayn slaps him on the shoulder, and Louis jumps, startled. It’s the caffeine. Probably.

“Thanks,” he replies weakly, and watches as Zayn checks that his oven is working and plays with the stove, turning up the flame and then killing it with a hiss. He’s quick about it, methodical, no doubt spurred by the impatient tapping of Jen’s foot. He doesn’t stay to chat like he usually does, just gives Louis a thumbs up and a smile, and moves forward to make sure that Niall hasn’t broken anything yet.

The challenge this morning is thirty-six petit fours of at least three different varieties. Louis knows it’s going to come down to the last second, and when the clock starts ticking down, his heartbeat skyrockets. His blood feels like pure adrenaline flowing through his veins.

“Good luck, lads,” Niall says from the front of the room, and his voice carries in the tense silence.

“Good luck,” Harry joins. From where he’s standing, Louis can tell that there’s a tremor in his hands even as his fingers wrap around the handle of a saucepan.

“Yup,” is all Louis can get out, already mangling his butter into something vaguely resembling cubes.

It takes them all almost forty-five minutes to get their batter and dough ready, and nobody says a word throughout. Mary and Paul stay put at the front, hands folded behind their backs as they receive instructions from Jen, and Mel and Sue are sitting on the side, watching them quietly. It seems that everyone’s letting them work in peace, if only for a while.

As soon as the ovens come on, so do the cameras, and the two units start making their way through the marquee. The air fills with noise and voices, much more like the Bake Off tent Louis is used to, and he relaxes a little when he moves on to making his fillings.

It’s a whirlwind, really, thinly veiled chaos. Jen shouts very loudly to be heard, and the crew shouts back. They all drop things every once in a while, scattering ingredients all across the carpet, and the out of sync whirring of Niall’s three stand mixers only contributes to the cacophony.

“Louis,” Paul says, jovial, when they make it to his station. “Hello. I see you’re quite busy here.”

Louis wipes his sweaty forehead with a dishtowel and swallows a quip. “Very busy,” he nods, trying to make sense of all his bowls. “Quite excited, though. It’s intense with just the three of us.”

Mary looks over her shoulder, to where Harry is running around covered in blueberry jam. “Indeed,” she says seriously, and Louis bites down on a grin. “What is it that you’re making?”

Louis wishes they didn’t make him rattle it all off when he barely remembers his own name. Such is the price of being on reality television, he supposes.

“I’ve got some macaron shells cooling over there,” he points vaguely to the left, where he’s put his tray on the ground in a helpless attempt to make more space. “Those will have a mint chocolate ganache. My sponge is in the oven right now, I’m just going for a nice strawberry frosting there, some fondant, and the last thing I’m making are tartlets.”

Paul tilts his head, contemplating. “It all sounds rather simple,” he says.

“It is,” says Louis. “It’s supposed to be. I just want to do my best for you, and I think nice, bold flavours are the way to do that.”

To his own surprise, he doesn’t feel even a twinge of disappointment as he looks at Paul’s furrowed eyebrows and the pinched line of Mary’s mouth. He knows he’s taking a risk, but he also knows, more than ever before, that this bake is him. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do, and he’ll be proud to put in front of them once judging time comes.

That, unfortunately, seems to be entirely too soon. Louis is up last, following the raving critiques that both Harry and Niall received, and he has big, big shoes to fill.

He looks over them after he sets his serving tray down, his beautiful little cakes and tarts and biscuits. His mini sponges are draped in light blue fondant, quilted, with a little star-shaped dragée pressed into each intersection and looking like they came straight from the window of a bakery; the lemon curd in his tartlets is baked to pale yellow perfection, and the macarons are beautifully domed and identical.

He’s a good baker, Louis is. Really good.

“Alright,” Paul says once Jen gives him the go-ahead. “Let’s see.”

They go through the sponge first – beautifully moist, very pretty, amazing eye for detail – and then move on to the macarons. The crunch sounds just right, and Mary calls the mint chocolate ganache a clever idea, but Louis can see confusion building as they look over his petit fours.

“Tartlets,” Paul says when he reaches the bottom tier. He picks one out, flips it over, and smiles. “No soggy bottom, of course. What’s the filling again?”

Louis wipes his sweaty hands into his apron. He feels countless pairs of eyes in his back, Zayn, Niall, the crew—and Harry.

“It’s, uh,” he stammers, and knows they’ll probably make him do that take again, “it’s lemon curd.” He takes a breath. He’s got nothing to lose here, he knows – he’s told Harry things that made him feel much more vulnerable than this, but his stomach still quivers nervously as he adds: “And dark chocolate.”

“Lemon and chocolate?” Mary perks up, leaning forward as Paul cuts the tartlet in half. “What made you think of that?”

Somewhere behind him, Harry makes a strangled sound. He gets it, then. He understands.

“Just—“ he waves a hand, resisting the urge to run it through his styled hair lest Jen come over and slap him, “life.” What a ridiculous answer. “I wanted to find something that’s really simple and really special at the same time. You wouldn’t think the flavours go together very well, but once I dug deeper, I realised that they complement each other beautifully with the—the sour balancing out the bitter, and the sweetness binding it all together. I found it kind of metaphorical, I suppose, because we often find the best things in places we’d never think to look for them.”

The back of his neck prickles, and he has to fight the urge to turn around. He focuses instead on the sweet look Mary gives him, and on Paul’s squinted eyes while he chews.

“Amazing,” is his verdict. “You balanced the flavours beautifully. I honestly don’t think I could have thought of this myself.”

“Thank you,” Louis breathes, shaky. He’s just starting to relax when Paul continues.

“But,” he says, complete with that signature eyebrow quirk, “what we told you earlier still applies. You did wonderfully on each individual bake, and your time management was exceptional, but as a whole, these are a bit underwhelming. You’re up against very strong competitors, and unfortunately, I think you may have shot yourself in the foot today.”

“Thank you,” Louis repeats, considerably more strained, and smiles. “Cheers.”

He takes his tray, turns around, and walks almost all the way to his station before they call cut. He keeps his eyes down, and while they wait for their break, he rearranges the petit fours to fill the gaps that the judging has left. He feels – strange, really. He’s not used to getting a critique that’s anything other than positive, but at the same time, he knows he did well. He’s satisfied with himself, and that’s a feeling that he’d never paid much attention to before.

Finally, they’re let out, and Louis sprints into the holding room before anybody else. He’s only avoiding Harry a little bit.

*

“I can’t believe you beat me because your twist was better,” Louis grumbles as he pulls on his cigarette. “That’s ridiculous.”

“I think it was more about the technique than the twist itself,” Niall says happily, jogging a little to keep up with Louis’s nervous pacing. “Can’t help being a natural.”

Louis frowns. Of all the technical bakes they could’ve been given for the final, pretzels were the one thing that he wasn’t expecting. He’d ended up being in the middle, having run out time to repair his twists properly after they fell apart in their baking soda bath.

He realises now, as he stares at the distant setting sun, that there is only one challenge separating them from the end. By this time tomorrow, they’ll have received the verdict and said goodbye to everyone. In a week, the marquee is going to be collapsed and put away, no longer waiting for them to come in and make a mess. It’s a bittersweet realisation, to say the least.

“I can’t believe I fucked up again,” he shakes his head, completely forgetting that Niall was trying to have a conversation with him.

“You didn’t fuck up,” Niall says, and gives him a heavy pat on the shoulder. “You were good.”

“I got two alright critiques,” Louis says. “Looks like I’m not the one to watch anymore.”

Niall shrugs. “You have to be prepared for everything,” he says. “Only one of us is going to win. It’s like—real. It’s happening in about twelve hours.”

“I know,” says Louis as he worries his bottom lip between his teeth. “God, I know.”

See, Louis is not only a realist, but has also seen every single episode of this show. He knows that mediocre performance doesn’t result in getting the grand prize, and that’s what he’s been all day today – mediocre.

Still, he can’t bring himself to be anything but nervous. He’s not angry, he’s not sad – not devastated like he perhaps should be, like he would have been just a few weeks ago.

“Oh,” Niall says suddenly, startling Louis out of his reverie and staring somewhere over his shoulder. As soon as Louis turns to look, he takes off, yelling a “later” and hopping through the grass towards the B&B.

“Hi,” says someone else behind Louis’s back. The one syllable is all it takes for Louis to relax.

“Hi,” he replies. He doesn’t turn around, just drops the butt of his cigarette and keeps staring into the sunset. Harry is soft and warm when he presses himself to Louis’s back, arms wrapping around Louis’s waist, pulling him closer until they could very well be one body.

“Someone will see,” Louis says, even as he lays his hands over Harry’s to keep him where he is.

Harry smothers a laugh in his hair. “Don’t care, “ he says, and kisses Louis on the temple. “You avoided me today.”

It’s straight to the point, then. Louis, for his part, very much appreciates that Harry is wrapped all around him even as he points out that Louis has been an arsehole.

“I’m sorry,” he says first, and tries to make it as genuine as he can. “I was—nervous.”

“What about?”

Louis reaches up blindly, hands closing on thin air until he finds Harry’s hair and tangles his fingers in it. Harry moves his head closer, lower, hooks his chin over Louis’s shoulder.

“Just, you know,” he starts finally, “didn’t know what you’d think.”

“About your bake?” Harry asks, and Louis, all of a sudden, really needs to see his face. He turns around, feels Harry’s arms loosen to let him move and then lock back up tight over the small of Louis’s back.

And of course – of course – he’d had nothing to worry about. Harry looks like the personification of a galaxy, his eyes bright and wonderful as he looks down. His cheeks are pink, still, from the heat inside the marquee, and his face is lit up with every shade of the setting sun. Louis traces the hollows of his dimples with his fingers.

“About my bake,” he says. “Didn’t know if you’d still want me, now that I’ve made a tit of myself in front of the judges.”

Harry barks a laugh, unexpected and bright, and leans down for a proper kiss. Louis meets him with his lips parted. It feels soothing, after a whole day of being in the same room without touching each other.

“I want you always,” Harry says when he pulls away. “And I can’t believe you did that.”

“Put lemon and chocolate together?”

“Yes,” Harry answers, and his shiny lips stretch into a smile. “The sweetness binding it all together,” he quotes. “We often find the best things in places we’d never think to look for them.”

Later, Louis will blame his blush on the setting sun.

“And the sponge cakes had stars on them. Was that…”

In lieu of an answer, Louis reaches out for Harry’s arm, to where one sharp point of the star is just poking out of his shirtsleeve. He leaves his fingers there, running over the soft skin, when he looks up at Harry’s smiling face.

“That was really soppy of me, wasn’t it,” he says, grinning, feeling the warmth in Harry’s expression seep in through his skin like sunlight.

“Terrible,” Harry agrees, and kisses him again. “Absolutely awful. There definitely won’t be any shots of me smiling like an idiot in the background.”

Louis laughs. He wraps his arms around Harry’s shoulders, pulls himself up until they’re hugging.

“What about the macarons?” Harry asks, his mouth moving somewhere around Louis’s shoulder.

“Mint,” Louis replies. “Wonderful for your stomach, and all that. They were supposed to be vanilla and lavender, but I changed my mind.”

Harry pulls away, grins, shakes his head. “I can’t believe you.”

Louis takes his hand, takes a step back, and starts pulling him towards Harptree Court.

“I’ve been told I’m pretty unbelievable,” he throws over his shoulder, and Harry’s laughter rings in his ears even after silence falls over them.

*

When Louis comes back from his shower later that evening, he finds Harry talking on the phone. He’s twisted up like a pretzel, lounging on Louis’s bed in nothing but a pair of boxers, and grinning widely as he speaks.

“I know,” he’s saying when Louis opens the door. “I’m so excited. Can’t wait to see you.”

Louis raises his eyebrows as he enters, silently asking who’s on the other end. Harry seems to be tied up in his conversation, though, so he leaves him be, and goes about finding something to sleep in.

He drops his towel, lets it pool around his ankles in a wet heap, and hears Harry stumble over a word.

“I’ll call you later,” he says – not that Louis is eavesdropping. His backpack just happens to be lying right at the foot of the bed. “Yeah, Louis is here. Okay. Okay, love you too. See you tomorrow.”

Louis manages to pull some pants on before Harry is plastered against him, curious hands pinching at naked skin.

“That was my mum,” he says before Louis can voice the question. “I haven’t seen her in ages. I had to call her, I was so excited.”

He looks excited, too, with his wide eyes and messy hair that’s started falling out of his bun, and Louis can’t help but feel warm at the happiness he’s emanating.

Deep down, though, somewhere Louis doesn’t like to delve if he can help it, he feels a twinge. It’s not fair, a voice in his head insists even as he tries his hardest to silence it. Niall’s got his entire family flying in from Ireland, down to his baby nephew and his eighty-seven-year-old gran, and Harry’s invited a good number of people, too. It’s just Louis’s table that’s going to be near empty. Five of the seats there could be occupied, and they’re just—not. Liam’s the only one who’s coming.

Harry catches on in seconds. “Oh, Lou,” he says, small and sad. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think—“

“It’s okay,” Louis smiles, and he really, really hopes he’s telling the truth. “I’ve got Liam, and everyone here. I’ll be fine.”

He takes Harry’s hand and pulls him over to their tiny window. They can just about fit into the alcove, shoulder to shoulder, squinting into the night as they try to make out shapes on the dark grounds.

“Look,” Harry says, then takes their entwined hands and presses them to the glass. There’s a pale glow flickering in the distance, far enough that it takes Louis a few blinks to see. “They’re setting up. Zayn said we’ll get to see it all done up in the morning.”

Louis thinks he can see shapes, tall silhouettes of people walking about and moving boxes.


“It’s really the end,” he marvels. God, what a journey it’s been.

“It is,” Harry says, and wraps his free arm around Louis’s chest from behind. “Talk to me if you feel sad tomorrow, alright?”

“Darling,” slips out of Louis’s mouth, as soft as the wan light of their table lamps. His chest aches, part pain, part happiness.

His family might not be coming; they won’t see this, won’t see one of the places that Louis treasures most, won’t get to experience the fun and the laughter and the nerves, the warmth that surrounds the marquee even on freezing cold mornings. They won’t see Louis doing something he adores with every fibre of his being, won’t see how far he’s come, and won’t be there to congratulate or console him. They won’t get to see what – who – he’s somehow managed to find here.

It’s not as devastating as it would have been mere weeks ago, though. He’s not smoking and staring moodily into the night, or blinking back tears.

He’s—okay.

“I’m serious,” Harry says, even quieter, like the whole world has narrowed down to just their embrace. “Promise me. Please.”

“I promise,” Louis says, and watches as the lights in the distance fade, one by one. “I promise.”

*

“Should I go change?” Niall asks, looking both of them over head to toe. “Is it that serious? Do I need to button up?”

Harry giggles, tying his apron around his waist. He’s closed one more button than usual today in an attempt to be formal, but Louis suspects it'll come open anyway as the day goes on.

Louis himself is wearing an actual shirt, too, rather too tight for his liking. It’s short-sleeved, with a ridiculous-looking Peter Pan collar, and Liam talked him into it that morning over the phone.

“You’re fine the way you are, babe,” Zayn’s voice comes from behind them, and his hand lands discreetly on the small of Niall’s back. “You’ll all be gross and sweaty by the end anyway.”

“I see you’re excited,” Louis quips.

“Very,” Zayn says, nodding until his hair is flopping into his face. “People always unravel in the last challenge. It’s my favourite.”

“How does it look outside?” Harry interrupts, hands clenching excitedly. “Is it pretty? What’s the theme this year?”

“Er,” Zayn falters, “pastels? And like, vintage. There’re these sick-looking roses on the tablecloths.”

Harry looks very happy at the prospect. Louis steps a little closer to him, just enough so their feet touch, leeching his energy until it’s time to go to their stations.

“That reminds me, actually,” says Zayn, and Louis’s attention returns to him. “They assigned your tables yesterday. You’re supposed to carry your bakes there when the shooting moves outside. Niall’s number one,” he grins, and squeezes Niall’s shoulder. “Harry and Louis, you’re number two.”

Louis suppresses the pleasant shudder that goes through his body when he hears their names together like that. They roll smoothly off Zayn’s tongue until they sound like one, HarryandLouis, a unit.

He gives voice to his confusion instead: “Weren’t we all supposed to have our own table?”

“You only have one guest, right?” Zayn asks, bless him, without a hint of pity or curiosity or any other emotion that would make Louis want to pick everything apart again. “Maybe they just put them together with Harry’s guests. To save space, or summat. We only have seven tables, and we have to fit all the other contestants plus their families.”

Louis nods. Next to him, Harry seems to be vibrating in place, radiating a child-like, exuberant kind of energy that feels contagious.

“How much longer until we get to see everyone?” he asks.

“Not sure,” Zayn shrugs. “People are too busy to tell me anything today. I guess six hours is the maximum, yeah?” he waves towards the clock at the front of the room, where an ominous red six has appeared.

“Shit,” Louis says unconsciously. That’s it. Six hours until it’s all done and over with.

“I know,” Niall laughs, shaky. His cheeks are redder than usual as the fidgets; not even Zayn’s steady presence seems to calm him down. Louis, equal parts excited and terrified, appreciates that he’s not the only one feeling that way.

When they finally get called to their marks, Harry squeezes his hand silently before they part. Louis squeezes right back, just a little too tight, and goes to his station with cold sweat already trickling down the back of his neck.

For the last time, Mel and Sue smile at them from the front of the marquee.

“On your marks,” Mel says, and Louis takes a breath.

“Get set,” says Sue. Louis’s hand clench tight around the edge of the countertop.

“Bake!”

Their voices have barely faded when the awful buzzer sounds. The cameras come on, Jen gives a signal from the back of the room, and the seconds start ticking down. They’re off.

Louis’s first step is getting his sponges baking. He’d asked for springform pans, not willing to take the risk of something getting stuck, and it takes him a while to figure out how to work the clasp. By the time he’s hastily spilling sugar and cracking eggs into the mixer bowl, Niall’s oven is already preheated.

He makes up the difference, thankfully, when he dares to steal a second mixer and get his buttercream started while he lines the pans. He can feel Paul watching him like a hawk, off to the side, and can’t help being nervous when he thinks of what his critique is going to be today. He’s gone for a simple recipe again, lemon and chocolate sponges with sweet, fruity fillings – they are making a wedding cake, after all, and he wants to do his best decorating the outside, which means leaving enough time to make his own fondant. Again.

Everyone’s sponges go in the oven at around the same time, and Louis is too busy setting his timers to notice the commotion around him. It’s Niall who pulls his focus away, when he yells something Louis can’t quite understand and runs out of the tent.

Louis blinks. “Did he give up?” he asks the person closest to him, who happens to be Zayn.

“He’s going outside to meet his family,” Zayn replies, arching an amused eyebrow. “Like Jen just said you can.”

“Oh.”

When Louis looks to Harry’s station, he realises that it’s been abandoned, and Harry is running down the long side of the tent straight towards them.

“Lou, come on,” he pants, and his hand closes around Louis’s wrist automatically. “We only have fifteen minutes, we have to hurry.”

Louis bites his lip and digs his heels into the carpet. “I think, um. I think I might just stay here? I have a lot of work to do.”

A tiny frown settles between Harry’s eyebrows. It’s such a sharp contrast to the smile he’s been sporting all day, and Louis wants to kick himself in the shin.

“You okay?” he asks, even though he’s obviously buzzing to get out of the marquee as soon as he can. Louis loves him so, so much.

“I’m fine,” he shrugs, pushing the reset button on his spare timer until it refuses to turn back on. “Just, you know. I can talk to Liam later.”


Well. That, and he’s not sure how he’s going to handle seeing Harry and Niall surrounded by so many people they love. It’s going to be a whole lot of crying and laughing and oh, we’re so proud of yous, and while Liam will no doubt do all three within the span of a minute, he’s just—different. He’s practically been Louis’s mum for the past five years, but he can’t replace her, no matter how much Louis wishes he could.

“But he’s got to be so excited to see you,” Harry tries, even though he knows they last talked less than three hours ago. “And I think—I think you might be surprised. Um. Shit. I shouldn’t have—bloody hell, just come with me.”

He tugs on Louis’s wrist, gentle, and Louis turns desperate eyes on Zayn.

“Who’s looking after the cakes? They’re very complicated, I can’t just leave them—“

“I’ve baked a lemon sponge before, you tit,” is Zayn’s reply. “I’ll look after them just fine. Go,” he says, and it’s gentle, almost suspiciously so.

With his last defence gone, Louis gives in to Harry’s insistent pull. They weave around the empty stations and out into the sun, and the first thing that hits Louis is the noise.

Harptree Court has always been so bizarrely quiet, and though it used to grate on Louis’s nerves in the first few days, he’s gotten used to it – even looked forward to escaping the ever-present city noise. Now, all of that is gone, and the air is filled with lively conversation and children’s shouts. There’s laughter and yelling and banging on tables. Glasses clinking, and the sudden noise of a shattered plate on the ground. When Louis looks around, he sees people everywhere, more than he’d ever thought there would be.

“Wow,” Harry breathes as he pulls Louis forward. He’s smiling, wide and beautiful.

They pass table number one first, where several voices are yelling over each other. Niall is sitting next to a woman who can only be his mum, bouncing a toddler on his knee.

“Oh, look,” Harry says as he slows down, “a baby.”

The way his eyes light up gives Louis some very intense feelings in his general chest area. He hopes that Harry won’t ask to hold Niall’s nephew at any point during the afternoon, or Louis might accidentally start planning things way too advanced for the current stage of their relationship.

“Theo, wasn’t it?” he says as he subtly pulls Harry back on track, towards where he thinks he’s spotted Liam’s terrible new haircut.

“Yes,” Harry confirms, and keeps looking over his shoulder as Louis pulls him away. “I’ll have to go and meet him after we’re done filming.”

Louis doesn’t think Theo is going to do much more than stare at Harry and maybe drool on him a little, but he stays quiet.

Finally, when a very old woman with a cocktail in her hand moves out of their way, Louis spots the unmistakably muscular shoulders of one Liam Payne.

“Over there,” he tells Harry, but it seems they’ve found table two at the same time, if his wild grin is any indication.

“I’ll see you in a second, okay?” he turns to Louis, kisses him on the temple, and jogs ahead.

“What,” Louis says, suddenly feeling very cold. He turns away when he hears Harry’s voice cracking on a loud shout of “Mum!”, and heads around the table to where Liam is sitting.

Except.

There’s someone else perched on the chair next to him. A young woman, by the looks of it, with blonde hair that falls past her shoulders, dressed in a soft, white jumper.

Louis’s first and immediate thought is girlfriend. Liam has been complaining about his lack of a love life for a while now, and though none of it makes sense, Louis is immediately happy for him. He doesn’t understand why Liam wouldn’t tell him, why he’d spring this on Louis unannounced, but the profile of his face is soft and smiling as Louis comes closer, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

He gets ready to put on a convincing smile and shake her hand, wiping his palms on his posh shirt as he approaches. Behind his back, Harry’s voice is climbing higher as he explains every last detail of his wedding cake.

He’s just about ready to call out an obnoxious greeting, pretend to give Liam a hard time, when his companion tilts her head just so, and Louis takes a look at her face.

He stops, suddenly rooted on the spot. All his breath leaves him in a rush.

“Fuck,” he chokes out, then covers his mouth with a hand, and his eyes start stinging within seconds.

They must hear him – Liam turns to look at him, wide-eyed, but Louis barely registers him. He can only look at the woman – girl, really – as she flips her hair over her shoulder and blinks in surprise.

Louis would recognise her anywhere.

“Oh my God,” he says, still struggling to breathe, and his feet feel like they’re made of lead when he tries to move, to come closer, run until he’s close enough to touch, make sure she’s not an illusion. He’s crying, probably, the breeze suddenly cold on his face, but he can’t quite feel anything except the panicked beating of his heart.

“Louis,” she says, and she sounds different, looks different. Louis still sees her when she was five and stuffing her face with mud in the garden, nine and crying because someone at school told her she looked like a mouse, eleven and glaring daggers at mum because she wouldn’t let her wear that top she liked.

He gets himself to move just as she does, with a look on her face that’s sadness and excitement all at once, and they meet in the middle. She wraps her arms around his waist, buries her face in his shoulder and sniffles out: “Hi.”

Louis blubbers, but he manages to hug her back tight, one hand on the back of her head.

“Hello, my love,” he whispers, the name he used to call her when they were both still kids, and hears her laugh through a sob.

She’s shaking, he notices, or maybe that’s him, entirely too overwhelmed to process what’s happening.

Lottie’s here Lottie’s here Lottie’s here, his brain repeats on a tireless loop. She’s here, and her hair smells of vanilla shampoo. Louis is holding her in his arms, after five years of regret and wishing and wondering, and even though they haven’t said anything yet, he knows, somehow, that they’re going to be okay.

“How are you here?” he asks when they pull away, just enough too see into each other’s faces. Hers is infinitely more grown up now, all high cheekbones dusted with blusher, though the mascara running down her face reminds him of all the times she’d scraped her knee on the sidewalk and then cried into his shirt.

“Liam brought me,” she smiles, wiping her face with her sleeve.

Over her shoulder, Louis spots Liam standing about with his hands in his pockets, hideous plaid shirt tied around his waist and a smile on his face.

“I did,” he confirms, not even bothering to pretend that he wasn’t eavesdropping. “Thought she might like it here. It’s nice.”

Finally, Louis feels a smile settle on his face. “I can’t believe this,” he says to Lottie, then turns to Liam. “I can’t believe you managed to keep it a secret.”

“You and me both, mate,” Liam grins. “Almost told you on the phone this morning, I was so excited.”

Sometime later, when he manages to let go of his sister, Louis hopes he’ll remember to give Liam a hug that’ll last so long it will become uncomfortable. Right now, he’s thinking about something different.

“You wanted to come though, right?” he asks, looking at Lottie seriously. They’re almost the same height now; he doesn’t even have to look down anymore.

She burrows deeper under his arm, as unwilling to separate from him as he is from her. “Of course I wanted to come,” she says. “I haven’t seen you in years, Louis. I missed my ridiculous big brother a lot.”

Louis blinks back a fresh wave of tears. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Lottie finds his hand and squeezes it. “Nope,” she says, no-nonsense, “none of that. You don’t have to apologise. Not to me, or Fiz, or the twins. You took care of us for so long, and all we’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”

“Okay,” Louis sniffs, still crying and thoroughly embarrassed, though he can’t quite bring himself to care. “How are you, though? Were you—did they—“

“They got divorced,” she says, quiet, but the sadness that flickers on her face passes quickly. “Half a year after you left.”

Louis has figured as much. Nobody has thought to tell him, though, to let him know.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “You shouldn’t have had to go through that alone.”

She shakes her head and smiles, easy. “We had each other,” she says. “You told me—when you finished school, do you remember? You said that you might actually get to go to uni, and then I’d be the big sister. You said not to be afraid of it, because I’d—“

“Always have someone to make you smile,” Louis finishes. “God, yeah, I remember.”

“That’s what I did,” she shrugs. “I became the big sister. Was good at it, too. Learned from the best.”

Before he can change his mind, Louis leans forward and kisses the crown of her head. She used to complain whenever he did that, protest that she was too big to be babied, but now, all she does is giggle.

“I missed you so much,” he tells her, feels the truth of it down to his core. He hadn’t even known how much he'd missed her, missed all of his girls, until he saw her sitting here ten minutes ago.

“You too, Lou.”

“I have to go soon,” he says, already feeling sad about it. There’s still hours to go, hours until he gets to sit down surrounded by his favourite people and let everything sink in – let himself believe that this is real.

“Go win the bloody Great British Bake Off, you mean?” she asks, laughing. “I almost had a heart attack when I heard.”

“Sorry?” he asks, sheepish, and she takes a step away. The way she pinches him in the arm is eerily reminiscent of their childhood.

“Good luck, tosser.”

“Thanks, Lotts,” he grins, and steps away himself, trying to put distance between them before he changes his mind and drops out of the competition just to stay here. He gives her a silly wave, which she returns, and points at Liam in a gesture that hopefully conveys “later”.

When he turns his back to them, his gaze immediately falls on Harry. His hair is ruffled, the second button of his shirt open, and he looks radiantly happy. He spots Louis when he approaches, and calls out to him.

Louis is only a little hesitant when he steps under his outstretched arm, melting into his side. There’s a good dozen curious eyes on him, and several of them remind him of Harry’s.

“Hello,” he says. It’s apparently all it takes for a woman – who can’t be anyone else but Harry’s mum – to step forward and plant a smacking kiss of his cheek.

“Hello, darling. You must be Louis,” she says, her face kind.

“Um,” says Louis eloquently. Above him, Harry stifles a laugh. “Yeah. Yes. That’s me. It’s lovely too meet you…”

“Anne,” she says. “This is my daughter, Gemma,” she pulls Harry’s sister closer. She’s pretty, Louis notices. Looks like Harry, complete with the smile and the friendly dimples in her cheeks. “And we’re here to cheer you on.”

Louis blinks. “Pardon?”

“Oh,” Anne tuts, and reaches out to fix the collar of Louis’s shirt. “Of course he didn’t tell you. Harry.”

Mum,” Harry returns, and he sounds so bratty Louis has to look up at his pouty face and laugh.

“See, Harry here was worried that you wouldn’t have enough people here to support you, so we decided to cheer for you both. The more the merrier, and all that.”

“We made a sign, too,” Gemma grins, tapping her toe against a sheet of cardboard that rests under the table. “We’re waiting till the cameras are on to pull it out.”

Louis’s heart is well on his way to bursting today. He’s so genuinely touched, and he smiles at them as wide as he can, hoping to convey everything he can’t quite say through the lump in his throat.

Harry’s family really does look just like him, down to the old woman snoozing in a chair who’s probably his nan. They all have those endlessly kind eyes and easy nature – amazing hair, too.

“Thank you,” Louis finally manages to croak out, just as Zayn shouts something from the marquee, probably calling them back. “I—it’s so lovely to meet you. I’ll see you later?”

Anne smiles with a twinkle in her eye, like she knows something he doesn’t. “You most certainly will. Good luck, boys.”

“Thanks, Mum,” Harry says, and squeezes Louis’s shoulder.

“Thank you, Anne,” Louis repeats as he lets himself be pulled away. “Congratulations on your son.”

It feels like the right thing to say then, because Harry is so, so wonderful, which Louis will tell him all about as soon as he gets a chance.

He hears her giggle just as the tarp falls back into place behind them, and Harry barks a laugh that sounds eerily similar.

“Why did you say that?”

Louis shrugs, helpless. “I have no idea.”

*

This is the end, Louis’s brain says, annoyingly. This is the end. This is the end this is the end this is the end.

They have an hour left, according to the clock. Sixty minutes is all that’s separating Louis from going back to life as he knows it.

He’s been giving it his best, or so he hopes, wanting to do well for his sister, for Liam, for Harry’s family who huddled around him like he was their own son. There are no do-overs here; this wedding cake has to be, without question, the best thing that Louis has ever baked. He’s going out with a bang if there ever was one.

He seems to be doing quite well, if Zayn’s approving looks are anything to go by. The judges have disappeared into their own tent, taking their suspiciously squinted eyes with them, and Louis breathes a little easier knowing that Mary didn’t see him overmix the buttercream just a smidgen, and that Paul wasn’t there when one of his sponges came out of the oven domed.

As he rolls out the paste for his fondant flower, he can’t help sneaking a few looks at Harry. He’s humming as he hops around his station, spatula in hand, spreading frosting on top of his crumb coat. He’s baked a pair of shortbread turtle doves to put on top, and brought a wreath of lavender to put around the base of the cake. It’s shaping up to be gorgeous.

In the front, Niall is the only one trying for three tiers, and Louis is surprised to realise that he’s actually pulling it off. His cake is tall and formidable, draped in snowy white fondant, and he seems to be cutting dots out of sugar paste and sticking them on in some sort of pattern, probably going for something cool and modern. Full of surprises, Niall is.

Louis glues on his rose filigree laughing a little at how stupidly transparent he is. I’d always imagined it white, Harry had said. With a few pastel accents, lavender, maybe? Or pink. And here Louis is, in the final of the most intense thing he’s ever been part of, making a white wedding cake. With pastel accents. Pink ones.

He just happens to think that Harry is the greatest thing that’s happened to his life in a long, long time. It’s not that Louis wants to marry him. Probably.

As they move into the last fifteen minutes, Louis has to tie a dishtowel around his head to keep his sweat from dripping all over the cake. It’s a combination of his heart beating like a drum, and the bright sun that has decided to show up, slanting in through the marquee’s plastic windows. They’re all unraveling, it seems – in the front, Harry has sweated a giant wet patch through his shirt, and Niall’s talked Zayn into waving a newspaper in his face to cool him down. Bizarrely, Louis thinks that this is exactly how it should be – wild, frantic, just the three of them racing to the finish.

Louis gives his absolute everything. He glues on his flower, tries to catch his breath, and as soon as Sue calls time, he’s slumped on the ground under the counter, guzzling water. The clock buzzes, Jen takes the first unit around the tent for some reaction shots, and then the mad rush is over.

Done.

When he picks himself up and looks around the room, a tight band of nerves clenches around his stomach. Harry and Niall both did amazingly, it seems. He realises, then, that he might not be enough.

Somebody goes to fetch Mary and Paul, and while the crew resets for judging, Harry leaves his station and heads straight to Louis. It’s only when Louis sees his face that he realises how frazzled he is – his cheeks are burning red, and his hair has gone wild and curly on his sweaty temples.

Louis smiles at him weakly, and when they’re close enough, they slump into each other without a word. They both need it, Louis thinks, feeling like he just ran a figurative marathon. They’re sticky and wet and covered in sugar, but he wraps his arms tight around Harry’s waist and doesn’t let go until Zayn clears his throat from the front of the room.

“Hi,” Louis says when they pull away.

“Oops,” Harry grins, rubbing off a smear of flour that he’d left on Louis’s cheek. “And hi. “

“How’re you feeling?”

“Good, I think,” Harry says, pulling on his lower lip with his fingers. He looks over his shoulder, to where his cake seems to be holding up impressively in the heat. “It came out exactly the way I imagined, so,” he shrugs. “I’m happy, whatever happens.”

Louis pets his hip affectionately, under the counter where nobody can see. “It’s incredible,” he tells him. “I’d get married with a cake like that.”

There’s a twinkle in Harry’s eye when he laughs. “Thank you,” he says, genuine. “I haven’t actually seen yours. Didn’t have much time to look behind me.”

“Well, uh. There it is,” Louis waves a hand in the general direction of it. “It’s quite small, you might miss it.”

Harry slaps him upside the head. “Don’t say it like it’s bad thing. The challenge was two tiers minimum, just because Niall…” and he trails off then, letting the rest of the sentence die on his tongue. “Oh,” he says instead, looking over Louis’s shoulder, to where his cake leans just the smallest bit to the left, due to some faulty buttercream.

Louis bites down on his lip. “D’you like it?”

Harry lets him go, and steps around him to get closer to the cake. He reaches out a careful pinkie, and pokes at the pearl dragées that Louis has pressed into the center of each flower.

“It’s beautiful,” he says finally, face slack, so easy to believe. He traces his fingers over the fondant filigree, reverent, and screw it all to hell, Louis does want to marry him. Kind of. A lot. “I’d make this for my wedding. Exactly the way it is, with the flower on top and everything, and the fresh flowers would match.”

Not the time to propose, Louis tells himself, though his hands are itching to do something. How did he even end up here?

“It’s what you said you’d want, right?” he asks, figuring he’ll just go for it.

“What?”

“The cake,” Louis shrugs, digging his hands deep into the pocket of his apron. “White, pastel accents. I figured you’re probably the kind of person who likes flowers.” 


“I love flowers,” Harry beams, and understanding dawns on his face as he looks at the cake, then Louis, then back. “I love you.”

Louis’s heart stutters. He doesn’t even begin to process, just opens his mouth, intent on saying it back, telling Harry just how much he wants everything with him, but—but. Probably sent by Louis’s old pal the universe, Zayn swoops in and clamps his hands down tight on Harry’s shoulders.

“On your marks, gentlemen, please,” he says, and there’s an angry vein pulsing on his temple. “We’ve been calling you for five minutes.”

They have enough time to exchange one wide-eyed look, and then Harry is physically pulled away. Louis’s mouth snaps shut.

Later, he hopes to convey with the stare that he aims at Harry’s back. I’ll tell you later, and every day after that.

Then the judging starts, and he knows by now that he has to look straight ahead, where Mary is smiling at them with a squinting Paul by her side.

Louis, to his misfortune, is up first. His legs feel like pudding, and he’s barely able to still his shaking hands for long enough to pick up the cake platter.

“Very impressive on the first glance,” Paul says immediately. Louis can hear the but at the end clear as day. “It’s a nice, clean design. I imagine many people would actually want to make this the centrepiece at their wedding.”

“This flower,” Mary cuts in, touching the fondant petals of Louis’s sort-of-chrysanthemum. “You made it yourself, correct?”

“Of course,” Louis nods. He feels a lot like he did that very first weekend in the marquee, when he hung on every word that came out of their mouths, desperate for approval. “Rolled out some hundred-odd petals and glued them on one by one.”

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” she tells him with a tight-lipped smile. “As is the rest of it. Very intricate work, and you made your own fondant, too.”

“As always,” Louis says.

“As always,” she nods. “Now, what are we going to see inside?”

Paul brandishes his scary knife, fingers splaying over the top of the cake as he cuts in carefully. The wedge comes out clean on the inside, three layers of sponge and two layers of filling, fondant even and rolled as thin as Louis had dared. It’s a nice cake.

“The top tier is a lemon sponge, bourbon and vanilla buttercream, and raspberry jam. On the bottom is chocolate, chai spiced buttercream, and passionfruit.”

There’s a displeased tilt to Paul’s mouth when he cuts another wedge from the bottom.

“These are lovely,” he says.

Doesn’t sound like it, Louis wants to quip, but he holds back. Not the time.

“Very, very simple though. I have to say I was expecting more from you, Louis.”

“I understand,” Louis says, the only thing that he can say, really. It smarts a little, is a bitter pill to swallow from someone Louis respects so much, but it passes just as quickly as it came. Louis knows what he’s done right, knows what he’s done wrong. Their opinion is just that – theirs. Louis will respect it, use it to propel himself forward, but he refuses to fall apart over their negative critique. It’s not the end of the world, after all.

They taste the cake then, and Louis can tell by their expressions as they chew that it’s damn good. Simple, yes, but he knows his flavours.

Harry looks at him with big, sad puppy eyes as Louis carries his cake back, and Louis shoots him what he hopes is a reassuring smile.

As it happens, Harry is up next. His critique is absolutely raving – Louis doesn’t think he’s ever heard Paul make so many different noises of pleasure at once – and Mary physically leans across the table to shake his hand. Harry babbles grateful nonsense, and Louis feels warm down to the tips of his toes.

The real surprise, of course, is Niall, who needs help from the crew to get his monster of a cake to the judging table. His three tiers are covered in fondant dots, fading from red on the bottom tier to a pale orange on the top, and the sponges inside are coloured the same. It’s an honest-to-God ombré cake, modern and festive and classy all at once – a shining example of Niall’s secret brilliance, really. Louis can’t believe how much work he got done in six hours.

“Unbelievable,” is Mary’s verdict.

“Incredibly impressive,” is Paul’s.

Niall cheeks are red as he listens to them, hands clasped underneath his chin. Louis remembers him referring to himself as just a little Irish lad once, and he suspects that time is over now. With the smear of batter across Niall’s cheek and his eyes swimming with overwhelmed tears, the way he laughs when Paul gives him a conspiratorial wink, the entire country is going to fall in love with him.

He goes back to his station, and they all stay still as the cameras get one last long, serious shot. Silence falls over the tent, deep and final, and Louis—Louis knows.

He’s not walking away with the trophy today.

*

As Jen tells them in no uncertain terms, they’re to stay inside the marquee until she gives the go-ahead for them to march out with their cakes. She doesn’t specify where in the marquee, though, and Harry takes advantage of that as soon as the tarp falls closed behind her.

He grabs Louis by the hand and pulls him into the holding room, ignoring Zayn’s feeble squawk of protest. It’s empty, of course, somewhat separated from the rest of the tent, and as soon as they’re inside, Harry turns around and kisses him.

It’s a little wild, a little rough, uncoordinated as Harry stumbles then settles into his feet. Louis opens for him, lets their tongues collide, enjoys the chapped edges of Harry’s lips after having to stare at his back for hours on end.

“What was that for?” he asks when he pulls away, breathless, and Harry bumps their foreheads together.

“You made me a wedding cake,” he says. A bit presumptuous, perhaps, but he’s completely, one hundred percent right.

“I did,” Louis smiles, and leans back to peck Harry’s nose. “And you talked your family into being my fanclub.”

“They offered!” Harry says, giggling. “I swear. Mum wanted to make t-shirts with both our faces on, but I told her that your sister was coming, so she might feel left out—“

Wait. “Wait,” Louis says. “You knew?”

“Oh,” Harry blinks, and takes a step away. “Um. Yeah, yeah I did. I gave Liam the idea.”

“You what.”

“I—promise you’re not going to be mad?”

Louis wants to attach himself to Harry permanently. At the mouth, if possible. “There is no universe in which I could be mad at you right now, love. Just tell me.”

Harry sighs. “Well, I—I promise I didn’t look at anything else, but I went into your phone and got Liam’s number. I thought maybe he could get in touch with your sisters, you know? You missed them so much, and I just…” he shrugs. “I was hoping they wouldn’t be angry with you, that they’d agree to come. So you’d have more people you love cheering you on.”

“Harry,” Louis says, not quite sure where to go from there. “I—I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You don’t have to,” Harry smiles, soft, and reaches out for his hand. “I did it because I love you. And I hoped that you wouldn’t mind me snooping around your things because you might love me too? Maybe? I mean—I’m not expecting anything, everyone moves at a different pace, it’s just that that’s what it felt like when we—“

“Silly boy,” Louis whispers, smiling hopelessly. A breeze slithers in, throwing Harry’s hair into his eyes. “Of course I love you.”

Harry lights up. “Yeah?” he asks, taking Louis’s other hand, too.

Louis kisses his knuckles. “God yes,” he grins, feeling his own happiness inflating inside his chest like a balloon, pressing against his ribs until it’s hard to breathe. He feels dizzy, but in the best way. “How could I not?”

Harry shakes his head, eyes shining, and leans forward to kiss Louis. His hair gets in the way, though, and they end up having to untangle it and push it away from his face, bumping knuckles and giggling.

When their lips finally touch, Louis wraps his arms around Harry’s shoulders and promises himself to never let go. Harry loves him, he loves Harry, and it’s their very own miracle.

Everything has been just this side of too much today, and Louis is overwhelmed, but he also feels the best he has in a long time. Things seem brighter, louder, more vivid, like breaking the surface of the water after being under for too long. Louis wonders, in the back of his mind, if this is what life is supposed to feel like.

“They’re probably ready by now,” Harry says into Louis’s lips after a while, but makes no move to pull away.

“Probably,” Louis agrees, and continues kissing him.

It’s always like that first time, he realises. Every time Harry’s mouth is on his, it’s the goosebumps and shivers and tingling skin all over again. It’s the warmth that Louis had felt before he ever knew what Harry’s lips tasted like exploding inside him.

Zayn finds them ten minutes later still tangled with each other, and Louis could swear he sees a fond little quirk to his lips when he rolls his eyes.

“Wait,” Harry says as they’re walking out, fingers still wrapped loosely around Louis’s wrist. He reaches over to a vase of daisies that someone had tucked into the corner of the room as a decoration, and plucks one of the flowers out. He reaches for Louis’s hair, brushes it away from his ear, and tucks the daisy behind it.

Louis laughs in surprise. “Why?” he asks as he touches the flower carefully. It’s silky soft, with layers upon layers of petals.

Harry shrugs. “For good luck,” he says. “And it’s pretty, just like you. You should keep it on.”

Another delightfully quirky Harry thing, then. Louis feels warm with the gesture, even if it’s small, and he leans forward to kiss Harry and tell him the best he can.

“Good luck, eh?” he smiles. “Alright.”

He takes his own daisy, a big thing with a bright yellow centre, and pops it inside one of Harry’s empty buttonholes.

“Good luck to you too, darling,” he grins when Harry looks at him surprised. “Let’s go.”

They walk out of the marquee carrying their cakes proudly, wearing matching flowers. Louis sees more than one eyebrow rise, and only just stops himself from snogging Harry senseless in front of everyone, running cameras included. He feels a little like he’s got fireworks trapped inside his chest, exploding into little shocks of happiness whenever Harry’s eyes meet his over the table.

This is the way it should be, he thinks. This is the way life should feel.

*

When they line up to hear the judges’ decision, Louis wants, more than anything, to hold Harry’s hand.

Applause rises all around them when they’re called forward. Over Paul’s shoulder, Liam is smiling at him, and Lottie is waving both of her hands in the air, showing him a thumbs up. Gemma is holding up a sign that says GO LOUIS above a drawing of a cartoon whisk; next to her, Anne’s sign says GO HARRY and boasts a drawing of a carton of eggs with eyes. Louis is delighted to see that Harry’s family is just as weird as Harry himself.

As soon as everyone gets into position and all the cameras come on at once, silence falls over the festive little scene. Going into this, Louis had hoped that the nervous staring and long pauses were created artificially for the benefit of the telly, but it seems that Jen is content to let them stew in their own juices.

“Bakers,” Sue says finally, smiling at the three of them. The trophy in her hands gleams in the afternoon sun, and Louis is sweating buckets. “The judges have made their decision. The winner of the Great British Bake Off 2015 is…”

She trails off, and the silence is just as long and awkward and suffocating as it had always seemed on the telly.

In the whirlwind of it all, Louis has barely had time to realise that, after five years of watching it from his living room, he’s actually taken part in the Bake Off. It probably won’t start sinking in until well after it’s over, until he’s looking at himself on a television screen and realising what a journey this whole thing has been. How far he’s come. How proud he is.

As he wipes his palms on his trousers, he’s certain that he knows what the verdict is going to be.

Sue takes a breath. Louis trembles.

“Niall Horan!”

Niall blinks. It takes him half a second to understand, and then he’s yelling an “Oh my God!” and taking his head in his hands.

The garden erupts with noise around them. Louis leads the shout, yelling out all the nervous energy that’s built up inside him right into Niall’s ear, hugging his hunched form and patting him on the back.

“Bad man!” he yells, and thinks he hears Niall laugh somewhere. “Well done.”

Harry’s draped his arms over them, too, flush against Louis’s side and ruffling Niall’s hair. It takes a long, long while for the judges and Mel and Sue to fight their way to them.

“Congratulations!” Mel is grinning, and Paul and Mary and both smiling and shaking his hand. Niall gets his bouquet, then the trophy, and he raises it above his head with a dazed expression on his face. His cheeks have gone pink, Louis notices, and his eyes suspiciously glassy.

Louis holds in his reactions while the cameras are still on, but he doesn’t hesitate to twine his trembling fingers with Harry’s when they bump into each other.

Paul is the first to break away from the congratulatory huddle, still carrying the bouquet that he lays into Harry’s arms.

“Congratulations,” he says, and has to look up to look Harry in the eye, which Louis finds exceptionally funny in his fragile state of mind. “You did amazingly throughout the whole competition, and you’re going to get very far.”

He’s kind, the way he always is when the cameras are off, and Louis thinks he sees Harry blink back tears, even as he smiles.

“Thank you so much,” he says, and presses his face into the flowers like he can’t resist smelling them. “Thank you for everything. I’ve learned so much from you.”

Louis’s attention is pulled away by Mary, who approaches quietly like a cat. She smiles at him, and he readily accepts the hug she offers. He feels a few flowers in the bouquet break between them, but it doesn’t matter to him much – she smells like vanilla extract, of all things, and her arms are firm around him, like she knows he might fall apart any second.

“Hats off to you,” she says when they separate. “You have been absolutely extraordinary. The most talented baker I’ve met in years. I will hear about you in the future, yes?”

“Of course,” Louis says, more than a little lost for words with how honoured he feels. Mary Berry just gave him a compliment – quite a big one, too. “Thank you so much.”

She hands him the flowers carefully, and from her hands, they kind of feel like a trophy.

Paul steps over to him, too, and shakes his hand without saying a word. The respect is plain to see in his eyes, and when he says “Well done”, it gets progressively harder for Louis to swallow around the lump in his throat.

“Thank you,” he says, to him and the other contestants that swarm around them suddenly, hugging and shaking hands and telling him they were sure he’d win. Louis barely knows some of them, and he’s shocked by the genuine expressions on their faces, the sadness as they tell him that he’s meant for great things.

He thinks he sees Liam and Lottie trying to make their way to him, but they’re still rolling, and the crew have them surrounded, trying to get those emotional ending shots they’ll cut to happy music.

Louis accepts every hug, every handshake, every kind word aimed at him with a sense of shock. Thankfully, they call cut soon enough – then, the microphones are gone, the cameras are off, and Louis bursts into tears.

Harry is with him immediately, wrapping his entire body around Louis until the noise around them fades, and all Louis can hear is the strong beating of Harry’s heart.

“I’m so sorry,” he says into Louis’s hair, leaving a kiss there. “I’m sorry, Lou.”

Louis shakes his head. “I expected it,” he says.

“Really?” Harry asks, and he sounds surprised. “I thought it was going to be you, until the last second. I thought they were going to call out your name and I was going to lose it and kiss you on national television.”

Louis laughs into a sob, clenching his fists in the back of Harry’s shirt. “Niall deserves it,” he says, and it’s the truth.

“He does,” Harry agrees. His big palm draws circles in the middle of Louis’s back. “But so do you.”

“Maybe,” Louis sniffs, and shrugs. “But I think—I think I’ve kind of won anyway.”

And fuck if that isn’t the truth. He’s got the entire world and then some breathing in his arms.

They stay that way, right in the middle of the clearing, holding on to each other, until a breeze picks up and sneaks his way under Louis’s shirt. He’d cried a wet patch into Harry’s chest, he realises, and he spends the way to their table trying to pat it dry.

“Darlings,” is how Anne welcomes them, hugging each of them with one arm, and Louis very nearly starts the waterworks again. He ducks away politely to give her time with her son, and rounds a couple of chairs until he reaches his own portion of the table.

There, Liam is sitting splayed out on his chair, hands drumming against his thighs and biting his lip – a sure sign he’s nervous. Lottie has a hand on his shoulder, saying something quietly, and Louis can’t quite believe that she’s still here.

“Hey,” he says when he reaches them, and his sister barely looks up before she flies into his arms.

“Bloody nervewracking, that was,” she says. “Please don’t sign up for any more of these.”

Louis laughs, and it feels like the weight of the entire world tumbling off his shoulders all at once. “I’ll try,” he tells her, and doesn’t even wince when she punches him in the arm.

“Are you okay?” Liam asks, still worrying his lip, eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“It’s not sinking in yet,” Louis says, “but I am. Promise.”

“You sure, though?” he asks again. Louis is suddenly kind of flooded with love for his best friend.

“Come here, Payno,” he opens his arms, and Liam stands right up to slump into him. It feels like ages since they had a good sitdown and a chat, just the two of them, and Louis vows to fix that as soon as possible.

“You did it, mate,” Liam murmurs, the seam of his snapback digging into Louis’s ear. “Bloody hell, you did it.”

“I did,” Louis says, and thinks about how Liam, only Liam, can at least begin to understand how this feels. He’s been there for the long years of Louis running himself to the ground, offering silent support and concerned puppy looks, always watching, never wavering. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Liam laughs and claps Louis on the back, heavy and familiar.

There’s an understanding between them as they pull apart, something that doesn’t need words to be said. Things have changed so, so much, but the two of them are solid, and they always will be. Louis can’t imagine what life without Liam’s worried eyebrows would be like, anyway.

He’s still got tear tracks drying on his face when all of them finally sit down. He ends up sandwiched between Lottie and Harry, an arrangement that he’s one hundred percent okay with, and he glows when he watches the two of them lean back in their chairs so they can whisper and giggle about something.

The wedding cakes get cut and passed around, and Louis receives as many praises as he gives. A significant part of his fondant filigree ends up going straight into Harry’s mouth, and the giant, sticky flower off the top somehow finds its way into Lottie’s hair. Louis has a fabulous time smearing buttercream all over Liam’s jeans without him noticing. Anne quizzes him on his recipe, declaring it the most divine cake she’s ever tasted, which makes Harry pout and Louis beam with pride. He tells her all of it, down to the last detail, and doesn’t forget add his secret tip for beating the eggs to perfection.

For a little while, Niall and Zayn come to join them at the table. They’re not really trying to hide the fact that they’re holding hands.

“Congratulations, Irish,” Louis says, and holds out his fist for a bump.

“Thank you, Tommo,” Niall replies, bright red with happiness and a significant amount of champagne. “I appreciate it. Ben came up to me and said I don’t deserve it, which I probably don’t, but, like. It’s nice to see you don’t think so.”

“Ben?” Louis asks, choking on a piece of Harry’s shortbread dove. “I haven’t even seen him.”

“Yeah,” Zayn grins, squinting into the sun. Louis realises he’s taken his jacket off. “Theo got some cake in his hair, so he sort of—left.”

“Left?”

“Stormed off,” Niall specifies. “He was very loud about it, too. Jen chased him down, but she couldn’t find him. Said they could sue him for it if they tried hard enough.” He looks towards the Horan table, by far the loudest of the bunch, with pride. “Great little fella, that nephew of mine.”

Louis throws his head back and laughs, imagining Ben’s disgruntled ferret face as he tried to get frosting out of his hair. Harry giggles next to him, bouncing in his chair not entirely unlike a happy toddler.

Louis tilts his face up into the sun, closes his eyes, and leans back in his chair.

“Hey, Haz,” he whispers, and hears Harry set his fork down.

“What is it?” he asks. He sounds so concerned still, bless him.

“Come here.”

“I am here.”

“Closer,” Louis whispers. He opens one eye to see Harry leaning in and reaching out a hand. His fingers land just above Louis’s eyebrow and trace an unfamiliar shape there.

“You’re so beautiful,” he says, low, just for the two of them. Louis feels a little like he took the sun out of the sky and swallowed it whole.

“Shh,” he says, grinning, and opens his eyes to focus on Harry’s face. “I was going to get all soppy, and now you’ve ruined it.”

No,” Harry pouts. “I take it back. Well, I don’t, you’re still beautiful, but forget I said that for a little while. What did you want to tell me?”

Louis’s smile is so wide it hurts in the corners of his mouth. “I love you,” he whispers, looking into Harry’s eyes. They’ve gone as green as the fresh spring grass all around them. “That’s what I wanted to say.”

“I love you,” Harry responds immediately. Louis gets such a thrill from hearing him say it, even now that his nerves are gone, a full-body shiver that leaves him wanting to hear it more, over and over again. Every day. “God, I love you. I’m so lucky I found you, d’you know that?”

Louis shakes his head. He lets his fingers tangle in Harry’s hair, right where they’re supposed to be.

“You’re a fool,” he says.

“The dessert?” Harry shoots back, cheeky.

Louis shakes his head. “You’re certainly fruity enough.”

Harry barks a laugh, falling forward until he’s slumped against Louis, nuzzling his jaw. His breath comes out in little puffs as he giggles.

“Hey, love?”

Harry pulls away, raises his head. “What?”

Louis doesn’t reply, just pulls him in for a kiss.

Harry’s lips taste like lemon and raspberries, sweet as he opens up for Louis, lets him take his bottom lip between his teeth.

Somebody clears their throat next to them – Liam, probably. Louis puts both his hands on Harry’s neck and pulls him closer.

Later, Jen pulls him away to film his last ever interview on the Bake Off. She’s smiling for the first time since Louis has known her, kinder now that the most stressful part is over. It’s just Louis and a single camera when he sits down, the small light shining right in his face, the same old comfortingly familiar song and dance.

“So, Louis. Many of us were very surprised that you didn’t win today. Any comments?”

Louis smiles. “Not really, no. Niall deserved this, and I’m glad he won.”

She takes it for what it is – a dismissal – and jabs a finger into another line on her clipboard.

“Do you think you’ve learned anything in your time in the competition?”

“Well,” Louis starts, swivelling on his chair. He looks to his right, out into the sun, where Harry, Lottie and Liam are all sprawled on the ground. Liam’s pretending to drop grasshoppers down Lottie’s shirt; Harry is lying down off to the side, spread-eagled with his feet bare. Theo is sitting on his chest, playing with the daisy tucked inside his buttonhole, and Harry’s face as he looks up at him is absolute, pure joy.

“I’m not quite sure where to start.”

*

final

* * *

“You’re nervous,” Harry laughs as he pokes Louis in the ribs.

“Am not,” Louis says, even as he wipes his sweaty palms on the towel he’s been provided, courtesy of one of the many assistants that mill around backstage.

“You are,” says Harry. He wraps his hands around Louis’s wrist, long fingers stroking over his pulse point. Louis feels calmer immediately, leaning into Harry’s warmth, but it’s the cold metal of his ring that grounds him – reminds him that, no matter how shaky he gets, he doesn’t have to do this alone. “It’s okay. We’ve been here so many times before, and they always love us. We’ll be fine.”

Louis nods. “Alright,” he says, and breathes in through his nose. “Let’s do it.”

Just then, another assistant pops into the room. “Five minutes, gentlemen,” he says, and leaves the door open behind him, a clear signal that they’re supposed to follow.

The set looks the same as it did a month ago when they were here last – spotlights, cameras, panicked production people running around. Zayn pacing restlessly off to the side, chewing on a toothpick, and in the middle of it all, Niall Horan.

Louis last saw him yesterday, for a brunch that ended up costing much more than it was worth, but he looks different, still – his hair seems to be a brighter blonde, and the make up artist has covered his red cheeks.

“Do we have enough of this?” he’s asking, looking skeptically into the bowl of pumpkin purée he’s got sitting on the counter. “Harry’s probably going to drop some of it on the ground.”

“Heey,” Harry pouts, and Niall whips around.

“Lads!” he shouts, just as someone from behind a camera says “We’re ready”.

Louis gets in a wave, and then Niall is turning back to the front, putting his Very Serious TV Face on. From under the stage, Zayn blows him a kiss, and Louis suddenly feels his teeth develop cavities.

“Hello!” Niall shouts, and the studio goes quiet around them. They must’ve counted him off while Louis wasn’t looking. “Welcome to A Slice of Brack. Me name is Niall Horan, I’m Irish, and I like to bake.”

It’s a line by now, a catchphrase that the entire country knows. Every Thursday at six, millions of people will sit down in front of the telly and say it along with him: Me name is Niall Horan, I’m Irish, and I like to bake. Harry and Louis have made it a tradition in their flat – there are, after all, few things more delightful than watching Niall flail around the kitchen while half a dozen cameras are aimed at his face.

“As always, I won’t be baking alone today. By extremely popular demand, my least favourite guests are back – here are Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, also known as the faces behind Takes Two to Mango.”

It’s their fifth time here, but Louis is still not used to it – still can’t quite fathom that when Niall calls out Louis Tomlinson, he means him. He stands rooted to the spot for a while, even though Harry starts tugging at his hand.

Naturally, the crew loses patience with him eventually. They’re physically nudged up the stairs and into the spotlights by insistent hands, and then Louis is staring into Niall’s face, grinning and familiar, and everything realigns.

There are hugs and handshakes in greeting, and then they all stand in a line behind Niall’s pristine counter. Under it, Harry presses his thigh into Louis’s.

“Now, lads, I don’t have to introduce you anymore, but I’d like to take the opportunity to say congratulations.”

He sounds so official. Louis wants to giggle a little at how well trained he is, but he’s been told time and time again that it’s not appropriate.

“For those of you who don’t know, Louis and Harry here recently won the Guild of Food Writers Award for Food Blog of the Year. I personally told the judges they should be disqualified based on the blog name alone, but nobody listened to me, and now I get calls in the middle of the night that are just Louis cackling into my ear.”

“That was once,” Louis defends himself. “I was dr—um, inebriated.”

He had been – it was right after they picked up said award, high on life, and the bright lights of London in the middle of the night made them think it would be a good idea to go get some celebratory drinks. Five tequila shots later, Harry was stretched out in the booth, mumbling I love yous into Louis’s thigh, and Louis had the brilliant idea of phoning Niall and telling him how sorry he is that he didn’t win Food Broadcast of the Year.

Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how it panned out.

“We’re very proud,” Harry picks up, ever the charming professional, and intertwines their fingers on the counter. It makes Louis shiver, even after two years. “We work very hard on making the blog what it is. Plus when we started it, Louis told me that it’d never take off with a name like that, and I’m very happy to have proven him wrong.”

Louis covers his microphone. “Twat,” he whispers, and Harry, as expected, cackles in response.

Niall rolls his eyes, kicks Louis in the shin, and faces the camera again. “We’re baking a classic today,” he says. “The dessert that put mister Styles here on the nation’s radar during the Great British Bake Off two years ago. A pumpkin and cream cheese Swiss roll.”

Harry blushes, but Louis’s memory of Harry’s first bake makes him laugh. He remembers Paul’s excited face, Mary’s curious eyes, and above all, his own thoughts - Harry is the adorable one. The one that the whole nation is about to fall in love with.

His prediction had come true, too – people across Britain had tweeted pictures of themselves crying after the finale revealed that Harry wasn’t the one to win. It’s just that somewhere along the way, Louis had managed to fall in love with him, too.

They’ve split the tasks beforehand, and they all put aprons on and move to their respective sections of the counter. Niall guides the viewers through the ingredients, and goes about lining his pan. Louis presses a discreet peck to Harry’s shoulder, cracks some eggs, and tenses as he gets ready for Niall’s questioning.

A Slice of Brack is, by most industry standards, not your traditional baking show. After Niall’s win and the nation-wide celebrations that followed, the network had decided to snatch him up and make him the next Jamie Oliver. It soon turned out that Niall, unfortunately, couldn’t talk about food as well as he could make it, and in a last-ditch attempt to save his ratings, the actual Jamie Oliver was invited to a taping.

The rest, as they say, is history. Louis still remembers sitting in their living room, hugging a bottle of wine to his chest and thinking he was about to witness a disaster. The opposite happened instead – everyone who tuned in to BBC Two that evening got a solid thirty minutes of Niall cracking awful jokes and making a legend of the television industry delightfully uncomfortable while the recipe instructions rolled quietly on the screen. The show generated buzz, everyone from Harry’s now-famous ginger friend Ed to Alan Carr got invited, and Louis and Harry now have a famous telly personality for a friend.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean they’re exempt from the questioning – quite the opposite, really. Because they see Niall approximately five times a week, he knows everything there is to know about them, and is ruthless in exposing their secrets to the public.

It’s all in good fun, of course. Most of the time.

“Speaking of Bake Off,” Niall grins as he lines their tray. “I have it on good authority that the two of you will be going back to Somerset soon.”

“Smooth,” Louis quips. Harry huffs into his dry ingredients, and a cloud of flour rises from the bowl.

“Thank you,” Niall tells him. “Back to you, though. Rumours say you might be trying some knots.”

Louis sighs. He dumps the pumpkin into his bowl, mixes, and passes it to Harry. “We’ve been engaged for a while,” he says. “It really was time to pick a place.”

Harry nudges his foot, and Louis turns to look at him, no doubt sporting what Fizzy has dubbed his “Harry face”. Millions of people have watched him fall in love right on camera and be extremely unsubtle about it; they know exactly how stupid he is for Harry, and he kinds of likes it that way.

Harry’s engagement ring gleams under the strong lights, simple and silver and shiny. Louis reaches out to trace it with his fingers when he says: “Harptree Court is where we found each other. We thought it was appropriate.”

Harry dimples, eyes shining like they always do when their wedding is brought up. “It really is such a gorgeous place. Perfect to get married to the most gorgeous man I know.”

Niall groans, and from somewhere in the front, so does Zayn. Louis can’t flip either of them off while the cameras are on, so he gives all his attention to his boy instead. He wraps his fingers around Harry’s wrist, pulls his hand away from the bowl, and kisses his knuckles. “Love you,” he murmurs, and the microphones pick it up.

“This is revolting,” Niall says with a laugh in his voice. He can’t afford to be serious about it – Louis’s mobile contains footage of him singing an incredibly bad karaoke rendition of I Will Always Love You to a blushing Zayn. He had been off his face, of course, and Louis and Liam talked him into it, but the video exists. Louis is ready to put it up on Twitter whenever he feels like it.

“Thank you,” Harry tells Niall gracefully, and then murmurs a “Love you,” right back to Louis.

“Any exclusive goss you can give me?” Niall asks, leaning into Louis’s personal space. “You’ve got the best men picked out, surely.”

“Actually,” Louis says, ignoring Niall’s suggestive eyebrow wiggling, “I’m supposed to give a shoutout to my sisters. They’ve told me that they won’t go to the wedding otherwise, and we can’t do without bridesmaids and flower girls.”

He grins at the camera and waves. He’d talked to Lottie just that morning, and she told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted her five seconds of fame. She was kidding, but Louis is not going to risk it – he wants all of his family there. Anne and Gemma and Robin are coming, of course, and his girls will be staying with them the entire week before the wedding, but—but.

There’s one invitation that he’d sent, after not sleeping for a week, that nobody responded to. Harry told him they’d still save her a chair, and Louis knows he shouldn’t be hoping, but it’s hard. His mum does, after all, let the girls see him whenever they please, and according to Lottie, she asks after him. They just—haven’t spoken in seven years.

“Hi, girls,” Harry waves into the camera. He’s got the widest smile on his face, clearly having the time of his life, and Louis debates snogging him on the telly, right then. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time anyway.

“Best men, though,” Niall pokes again, clearly fishing for an answer that neither of them are going to give. While he decides what to say, Louis accepts the filled tray from Harry and slides it in the oven.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” he replies. “My best mate Liam is going to be mine, and Harry has his flying in all the way from Australia. You can sit in the front, though, if you’d like.”

Niall purses his lips, looking remarkably like a small child. He looks around the station, clearly planning something. After a second, he reaches for the jar of flour, and before Louis has any time to retreat, he dumps a fist of it down the front of his apron.

“You—“ Louis starts, but the hits keep coming. He shrieks and grabs a bowl of sugar to defend himself with.

“Gentlemen!” somebody shouts from behind the cameras, but they’re all in battle mode by now. Harry has ducked under the counter, a small chunk of cream cheese in hand, and his hand is currently inching towards Niall’s crotch. Louis is most definitely marrying the right person.

It takes a while and approximately five different people to pull them away from each other, and by the time they’ve calmed down, the set looks like a tornado hit it. There are empty bowls upended on the counter, the floor is covered in flour, and Niall has butter smeared in his eyebrow.

Just in case he still feels like retaliating, Louis retreats into Harry’s arms.

“We’re staying to clean this up, babe,” Harry informs him immediately.

“I know.”

Louis assumes that the cameras have stopped rolling by now. He goes up on his tiptoes to give Harry a kiss, and is only a little grossed out at how floury it tastes.

“Ew,” Harry giggles into his mouth.

“Ew,” Louis agrees, and kisses him harder.

There are spotlights aimed on them, and dozens of people tittering about in a panic, but Louis can’t bring himself to focus on anything but his soon-to-be-husband. It’s always been like that with Harry, and he has a feeling that it always will be – like the entire world could melt away around them and Louis wouldn’t care, because Harry keeps him steady, keeps him anchored.

He feels like coming inside after a snowstorm, like the first sun after days of rain, like walking out of a plane and knowing you’re back home. Harry’s arms take all the weight off Louis’s shoulders, and he never even has to ask. Harry's brought him life, more than anything or anyone, just stepped right in and repainted every gloomy thought Louis has ever had with colour.

Two years on, Louis knows nobody has ever given him as much as Harry Styles. Soon to be Tomlinson, if Harry ends up getting his way.

“I love you,” Louis tells him, just like he does every morning and every night and every time he catches Harry with his head in the fridge, trying to think of something for lunch. “Can’t wait to marry you.”

Harry grins. “Love you too,” he says. “Can’t wait for the honeymoon.”

Their quiet laughter is interrupted when Niall clears his throat. “You know, lads,” he says as he wipes his face with a towel, “I’ve got a very serious question that I need you to answer.”

“What’s that?” Louis asks.

“Who’s making the wedding cake?”

~fin