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Baking Up a Betrothal

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Most of Thomas and Juliet’s clients actually present them with pretty straightforward stuff to deal with. Most of their work is tracking down missing items, finding out where someone is disappearing to every day after work. Normal PI stuff. Just because they got together while pretending to be married and taking cooking lessons doesn’t mean that sort of undercover work is normal.

Except somehow, here they are again, cooking together and pretending to be in a much more serious relationship than they actually are. This time though, they’re baking, and they’re keeping an eye on another one of the couples.

“Really, Magnum,” Juliet says, way too amused at his surprise, “I expected that you would do at least the minimum of research.”

“I did!” He rubs the back of his neck. “I mean, I knew it was a baking competition, and I got us signed up for the same taping as those two.”

He nods toward one of two other couples who are there. This case is an odd one; their client insists that this couple, Trey and Melanie, shows up everywhere she and her fiance go, and she wants proof. Thomas saw their suspects were signing up for a couples’ cooking competition, and he saw a perfect opening.

And it is a perfect opening. He just sort of… missed the point of the competition.

Which is why they’re now looking at a bunch of example wedding cakes and listening to a rundown of expected and acceptable behavior before the host comes in.

“Whoever gets the closest to recreating the cake they’re assigned wins our grand prize: $10,000 to be used toward your upcoming wedding!”

Magnum clears his throat. “Right,” he tells Juliet, who looks unimpressed. “So, we’re engaged. That’s cool, right?”

At least it’s not like they’re at a point where they should be considering getting engaged or anything. That would be awkward. Instead, they’re just…

Well. He’s not actually sure what they are, since she won’t talk about it and he hasn’t felt like really pushing the matter, but they’re sleeping together more nights than not. He’s pretty sure Rick and TC have both figured it out, and he knows Kumu has, but that’s okay, because Thomas and Juliet aren’t actually hiding their relationship. They’re just not exactly advertising it.

Or they weren’t. Now they’re signed up for a televised baking competition, under their own names because the producers or whoever wanted to see ID, and they’re supposed to be acting engaged, with a wedding firmly enough in their future that they’re competing for funds for it.

Maybe it’s still gonna be a little awkward. 

“How good are we supposed to be at baking?” Juliet asks.

It’s a fair question, really, and luckily, it’s one Magnum does know the answer to. “Not at all! It’s an ametuer cooking competition. No official experience required or allowed.”

They pull themselves together some when the cameras start rolling, because they are nothing if not professional, most of the time. The host is a little over the top, a little too invested in how big of a deal a cake is in happily ever after, but Magnum supposes that makes sense, for a host.

Someone should be into the show.

The episode is broken into several rounds. For the first round, they have to decorate a cookie depicting their proposal.

It’s possible that Thomas gets a little carried away with the whipped cream, but still, he thinks the final effect is pretty good. Maybe it would’ve been better if they were actually able to discuss what their fake proposal looked like.

It’s interesting enough, though, that the host comes to judge their cookie first, and Magnum totally counts that as a win.

“So tell me,” says Jeffrey Smith, looking pointedly into the camera before looking back down at their cookie, “what, exactly, is going on here?”

“Well,” Magnum says, happy to explain, “all this here, that’s glue.” He knows nobody else will pick up on it, but Juliet definitely gives an exasperated sigh, in British.

The host waits a beat before responding. “Glue?”

“Yeah!” Magnum’s ready for this; he’s been thinking about the most ridiculous story he can get away with.

Juliet, evidently, doesn’t want to hear his story about their fake proposal. “You see,” she interrupts smoothly, “we were refinishing one of the gazebos at our home. Magnum here accidentally spilled some glue we’d set aside for repairs.”

Oh, he likes her story better than his. “Right! It spilled all over, and I went down on one knee so I wouldn’t slip. And obviously, she thought I was proposing.”

“I turned him down,” Juliet picks up. “That’s this red bit here. I told him I wasn’t a cheap woman and I needed a proper ring with a proper proposal, not something spontaneous.”

Magnum lets the smile pull at his lips, knowing people will see affection rather than mirth. “Only what she didn’t know is I actually had a ring in my pocket. I’d been carrying it around for months, just waiting for the right time. Obviously I hadn’t planned to do it right then, but when she was telling me I was too cheap to have a ring. How could I not? So of course I pulled it out and showed it to her.”

Jeffrey seems both scandalized and intrigued. “Of course. That was probably the best option, given the circumstances.” He turns to Juliet. “So then you said yes?”

“No.” Her lips don’t so much as twitch, despite how bright her eyes are. She’s amazing. “I turned him down again.”

“Yeah,” Thomas says, admiringly. “She really made me work for it. But eventually, I convinced her it was the right way to go, and she let me put the ring on her finger.”

“It was only then we realized that it took so long, Thomas ended up glued to the floor.”

Magnum laughs and takes Juliet’s hand, wanting nothing more than to make contact with her and having every excuse to do it. “Yeah. It was so great.”

“I see,” says the host, though he clearly doesn’t, and he moves to the next couple, who they should probably pay attention to since they’re the ones they’ve been hired to watch.

Except Trey and Melanie are boring . Magnum can’t imagine them doing anything illegal, especially something as unstable as stalking. Their proposal was a cliche, a ring in a glass of champagne at some fancy restaurant.

When he does eventually propose, Magnum doesn’t plan to be nearly so cheesy.

If! If he proposes. They’ve only just started dating. He’s getting ahead of himself. He’s not even sure he can call her his girlfriend.

The third couple is the one who wins the first round, with a decently decorated cookie showing a starlit beach. As their reward, they get first choice of which style of cake they want to recreate. They also get to choose everyone else’s cake, and they assign Juliet and Thomas a boring, three tier, plain white cake.

The host announces the next stage: “You have 30 minutes to choose your recipes. This will determine what your cake tastes like, so choose wisely!”

There are two books of recipes in front of each team. Juliet leafs through the frosting recipes as Thomas watches over her shoulder.

“Wait,” he says when she passes something called whipped cream frosting. “What’s wrong with that one? That sounds good.”

“What’s wrong with that,” says Juliet, “is that I have some standards for my wedding cake.” She says it liltingly, like maybe she’s finally having fun, and Magnum grins.

“Fine. What about a whipped cream filling?”

“We are not having a twinkie for a wedding cake.” She turns and aims a withering look at him to punctuate her point.

Magnum only grins wider. “Alright. Then I vote… Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.”

Juliet sighs and looks at the pristine white cake they’re supposed to be imitating. “Does that look like chocolate frosting to you, Magnum?”

“Fine then. Chocolate cake with vanilla frosting.” He thinks it’s a pretty good compromise, honestly. 

“Do you know how hard it is to keep chocolate crumbs out of vanilla frosting?” Juliet goes back to leafing through frosting, and Thomas finally opens his book of cake recipes.

He thumbs through them quickly. “Oh, but it might be worth it for this one.” He shows her a recipe for a dark mocha cake.

Higgins tries to play it cool, but he can see the way her eyes light up as she looks at the photo of the dark, moist cake. “Fine,” she says evenly. “But I choose the frosting.”

She picks a vanilla frosting that’s pretty boring, but it does look a lot like what they’re aiming for, so he lets it go.

“Is this what you’d want for a real cake?” Magnum asks as they wait for the round to finish, when none of the cameras are pointed directly at them. His wording should be safe even if someone overhears them, anyway.

It was apparently the wrong question; Juliet’s shoulders tense in the way they do when she’s actually upset with him, in the way that’s not so fun. “What makes you think I want one?”

Thomas eyes the nearest camera before responding. He’s not entirely sure what just happened, and he can’t just ask when it might get them kicked out. “What’s a wedding without a wedding cake? Isn’t that the best part?”

“For some people, maybe.” She looks at him, and her face is the polite mask that she puts on for others.

She never puts it on for him. Not anymore. Or at least, he thought she didn’t.

Clearly this still goes deeper than a reluctance to talk about relationship status, and apparently, this baking competition is stirring up more than just cake batter.

Speaking of.

“Okay!” announces the host, rubbing his hands together excitedly. “Now that you’ve all had time to choose your flavors, it’s time to collect your ingredients.” He makes a show of checking his watch. “You have five minutes. Go!”

Five minutes seems like a long time to grab a few ingredients, but what does Magnum know?

Juliet speaks up, handing Thomas the frosting recipe and taking the cake one for herself. “You take that list, I’ll take this one. Meet back here.”

The no-nonsense plan is easier to deal with than her odd reaction to wedding cake, but Magnum still feels unsettled. It slows him down, and he only barely makes it back to their station in time. Juliet gives him a look, and he shrugs.

“Hey, I made it.”

The host starts with the couple they’re watching, this time, and…

“Vanilla cake with vanilla frosting?” Magnum whispers to Higgins. “Seriously, these two are way too boring to be a concern.”

There’s a ghost of a smile, but she still seems like maybe she’s annoyed with him. Since he knows he didn’t do anything wrong, it’s kinda rubbing him the wrong way. He knows he shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s him she’s annoyed with. It’s hard not to take that personally.

The host makes his way over to them, and Magnum can tell he notices the strain, but mercifully, he doesn’t say anything about it, simply moves on to the third couple. Other than a weird moment where their suspects glare at Magnum for some reason, everything is pretty uneventful, and Higgins and Magnum work in near silence.

They make a good team, and they really don’t have to talk, most of the time, but usually they do anyway. They communicate, they talk shit, they argue, they do anything other than just coexist.

Once their cake layers are in the oven, the contestants are encouraged to mix and mingle or just take a break. Magnum exchanges a look with Juliet, and then they go join the couple they’re supposed to be watching.

At least, they try.

“We don’t want you spying on us,” says the guy, Trey, as soon as they approach. His fiancee, Melanie, crosses her arms as if in agreement.

Magnum, for the first time today, thinks maybe these two aren’t entirely what they seem on the surface. He holds up his hands, an obvious sign of peace. “Hey, this is just a friendly competition. Your cake is already in the oven. We’re harmless.”

“We’re winning,” says Melanie.

Magnum looks toward Higgins in disbelief and sees that she’s shifted entirely into business mode. She’s ready and able to handle whatever these two throw at them, and Magnum feels a rush of affection before he focuses back on Trey and Melanie.

“Sure,” Magnum says, easy, lowering his hands. “I’m sure your vanilla cake will be a great hit with the judges.”

Trey’s eyes narrow. “At least we’re not trying to get fancy. We’re going with a tried and true strategy. Not mocha . Who ever heard of a mocha wedding cake?”

Magnum can feel the cameras focusing in on the scuffle. Trey and Melanie clearly take note, too, looking at the cameras and almost visibly shifting back to bland and boring, with matching fake smiles.

Huh.

Weird almost-confrontation over abruptly enough to leave him unsettled, Magnum gestures for Higgins to join him outside the main room, where they might be able to have a conversation in something resembling privacy. She follows without argument or apparent objection.

“So that was weird,” Magnum says as soon as they’re alone in the hallway. They keep walking, moving farther from anyone who might overhear them. “They’re definitely hiding something, right? They’re way too determined to win.”

“It is a rather large prize,” Higgins responds. “It would be worth a lot to someone who wants a nice wedding.”

Magnum can’t help himself. “Which isn’t you, because you don’t want a wedding.”

Juliet shoots him a look. “Is that really what you want to discuss right now?”

“Honestly? Sort of, yeah.” He slows to a stop, and she turns to face him, arms crossed. “Look, Higgy, it’s not like I need perfect labels, but you won’t even tell me whether you want us to be exclusive. Not that I’m seeing anybody else, but that’s something we should be able to talk about, don’t you think?”

Juliet is quiet, but at least she’s listening, so Magnum continues. “You’ve seemed fine when we’ve pretended to be married in order to get information. What makes this so different? Why’s a fake engagement so much harder than a fake marriage?”

Maybe she is going to respond, but before she can, they hear footsteps making their way down the hall. When Magnum turns to look, he sees Trey coming toward them.

Trey is coming toward them, and he’s holding a gun.

“See,” says Magnum conversationally as he holds up his hands, “I told you we should’ve brought weapons today.”

Juliet’s hands are up, too. “I still maintain we had no reason to bring them. This is a baking competition, and Trey and Melanie seemed harmless.”

“Yeah, but--” Magnum is cut short.

“Shut up,” says Trey, waving his gun. He doesn't hold it like someone who is very comfortable with guns, but he seems angry enough to use it. Maybe he won’t hit where he’s aiming, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. Trey looks around, almost frantic. “Don’t yell. Anyone else comes, and I’ll shoot them, too.”

“Is this all just for a win?” Magnum asks. “Because we’re totally willing to throw the competition.”

“Shut up!” Trey’s eyes fix on something just behind them. “In there. Now!” Magnum looks over his shoulder and sees a door labeled Supply Closet

“Alright,” Higgins says, voice calm and even. “We’re going.”

“Keep your hands up,” Trey orders.

Magnum and Higgins turn and walk slowly in the direction of the closet. This isn’t their first rodeo; they know not to make any sudden movements or noise, not with someone armed and unpredictable watching them.

“Open the door.”

Magnum complies, then goes inside when Trey gestures for him to. Juliet follows. It’s not a huge closet, but there’s at least enough room that they both fit without having to touch. Unfortunately, it’s not big enough for it to have been designed to hold people; the inside of the door has just a metal cap instead of a doorknob. If Trey closes the door, they’re stuck.

“You don’t need to do this,” Juliet offers. “We can just leave.”

“You’ll go to the cops.” Trey takes hold of the doorknob, keeping the gun trained on Juliet. “You’re staying in here until the competition is over. I see you before then, you’re dead. You get anyone else in the competition involved by banging or shouting or anything else, they’re dead. Got it?”

“Got it,” Magnum answers, watching the gun, hating that Juliet is closer to it than he is.

It’s almost a relief when the door shuts and the gun is no longer on them. Magnum exhales and immediately reaches for his cell phone, trying not to bump his elbows against the shelving. Juliet watches, resigned, as he calls Katsumoto.

“What is it now?” answers the detective, and Magnum grins despite himself.

He answers quietly, just in case Trey hasn’t gone far, but he expects the other man wanted to get back to the competition. “We were in a baking competition, keeping an eye on some folks for a client,” Magnum explains. “Turns out they were worth watching. The guy, Trey Richards, he’s armed. He locked me and Higgins in a closet, said if anyone comes after him, he’s shooting people.”

It actually sounds a little worse put all together like that, and Magnum isn’t surprised when Katsumoto curses and starts yelling at various people to get them mobilized. “Only you, Magnum. Hang tight. We’ll handle it. Give me your location?”

He does, then ends the call and puts away his phone. With the screen off, it’s actually pretty dim in the closet. Not a lot of light comes in around the edges of the door, and he can’t really see Juliet’s expression, but he can see how tense she is. 

“Katsumoto's on his way,” Magnum says, “but with an armed suspect and people around to use as hostages, it’s gonna be a while before anyone gets us out of here.”

“I know how this works, Magnum,” Higgins snaps.

“Why are you so mad at me?” Magnum counters. “What is wrong with you today?” He knows that wasn’t the right choice of words, and he winces as soon as he’s said them.

“What is wrong with me,” bites Juliet, “is that we are in a new relationship and you’re insisting on talking about marriage.”

“I’m really not!” Magnum really wishes he had room to gesture or pace, but if he moves at all, he’ll be touching Juliet or knocking things off shelves. “I really just want to know whether we have an actual relationship or whether we’re just… partners with benefits.”

Juliet is quiet, and Magnum feels himself deflate.

“Come on, Higgy. It’s me. Talk to me. Please?”

When her response comes, it’s barely above a whisper. “Bad things happen to people I care about, Magnum.”

“You saying you don’t care about me, Higgins?” He inches closer, so their shoes touch. “Because I don’t believe it. You might not really say it. You don’t even have to say it. But you care about Kumu, and you care about the guys, and you care about me. Saying it isn’t true doesn’t change that.”

“Of course I care.” She sounds defeated, and Magnum badly wants to wrap her into a hug, but he doesn’t think that’ll help. Not yet. “That’s the problem.”

Thomas breathes deep, then exhales deliberately. “Do you need… Should we go back to just being partners?”

“No.” Her response is quick, and something in Magnum relaxes. He reaches out and touches Juliet’s arm. She doesn’t pull away. “No, I don’t want that. I want…”

Magnum shuffles the tiniest bit closer and takes her other arm, too. “What do you want, Higgy?”

She huffs. “I want you , Thomas. I must have lost my mind.”

He slides his hands up to her shoulders, then carefully lowers his forehead to hers. He can't see her at all anymore, but he can still picture how she must look: spine still straight but shoulders starting to relax, eyes closed, mouth soft but still ready to argue.

"I get it, Higgins. You know I do. I've lost people, too." Magnum closes his own eyes. "We've talked about this before. I know how easy it is to shut yourself off in an attempt to keep safe, but what kind of life is that, in the long run?"

"A lonely one." Juliet sighs. "I do want a relationship with you, if you'll still have me. Exclusive, if you don't mind." The last is nearly a threat, and Magnum can't help the chuckle in response.

"Exclusive it is."

"And," she says, pulling back enough that Magnum has to lift his head. She pokes his chest, ignoring his exaggerated yelp of pain, "don't expect me to tell you I love you all the time or anything so romantic as that."

Magnum grins. He takes one hand from her shoulder and cups her cheek. "Is that you saying you love me?"

"Shut up, Magnum."

It's not a no, and the kiss that follows is a pretty enthusiastic, if non-verbal, yes.

"And don't you dare propose until we've been dating for at least a year."

"Aww, Higgy, I knew you liked me."

It takes the police department only about 45 minutes to get them out of the closet, which is actually pretty impressive. 

It only takes about 5 minutes for Magnum to rest a hand on Juliet's back when he doesn't strictly need to. Katsumoto notices, of course, but he just rolls his eyes. It makes Magnum wonder whether the detective already knew.

Trey and Melanie are arrested. Apparently, they talk the second they're questioned. They planned an extravagant wedding, made the poor decision to borrow from a loan shark, then panicked and decided they needed to get the repayment money by any means necessary. Thomas and Juliet's clients were supposed to be contestants on another competition, and Trey and Melanie were trying to scare them off.

The solved case is a perfect excuse for celebration at the bar, and it takes about 30 seconds before his friends start their teasing.

"Heard you and your partner got locked in a closet," says TC.

"Just for a bit," Magnum replies, taking a swig of his beer. Juliet, next to him, toys innocently with her own drink.

"We don't want to know how you passed the time," Rick says.

"No," Magnum agrees, turning to look at Higgins, "you really don't."

She smiles at him, softer than she usually allows in public. Out of his peripheral vision, Magnum sees Rick and TC exchange a small amount of cash.

The rest of the night goes basically the same as usual, until they're leaving.

"Let's go home, Thomas," Juliet says, taking his hand before they're quite out of sight of the guys.

Magnum's pretty sure he hears a high five. Their friends are way too invested in their love life.

She keeps hold of his hand on the drive back to Robin's Nest, and about halfway there it hits Magnum with so much certainty that it doesn't even scare him: he's going to marry this woman. Waiting a whole year to ask is going to be damned near impossible.