Aright, so. This piece started off as fanfiction, and it still reads a little bit like fanfiction, but I wrote it in a week, and it’s really quite long, and I am immensely proud of it.
It was written for the following prompt:
- Baking competition reality show, one is a contestant, the other is the host, falling in love (or lust) over cupcake tins and buttercream –
The Wheel Bake Off
It had been a long drive from the country into the studio in London where the competition was to be filmed, Ryan’s van empty of its usual contents of ladders and toolboxes and thick coils of extension cord. Instead it had all been replaced with boxes of pastry gear; things that Ryan had no name for. Clear plastic bags, containers of metal tips, rainbow cartons of sparkling sugar. Alicia was bouncing in her seat, but she had the grace to smile at him whenever she thought he started looking too nervous.
Ryan was not a baker.
Yet, somehow, here he was, on his way to take part in a televised bake-off.
(He had doubts he’d be allowed to participate, given that his name wasn’t on any of the paperwork, but there had been a look in Alicia’s eyes that told him to be far more worried if any paper-pusher involved tried to get in her way.)
It had all started reasonably enough, nearly a year ago, when Alicia and Jane had first stumbled upon the bake-off. They’d filled out the paperwork, and sent in their application, then heard nothing for months. Then, they’d gotten a notice that they’d been shortlisted. In order to continue through the selection process, they had to go into the city and do a taste-testing for the producers of the show. Once they’d gotten through that, it would be determined whether or not they would actually be able to be considered for being contestants.
However, as time passed, life happened – quite literally – and Jane found out she was pregnant.
It was unfortunate timing, how near the date of the contest was to the due date of the baby, but Jane and Alicia had agreed that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Ryan had offered to drive them all up. He’d been pressed into service a few times for wedding-cake delivery, and thought it would be best to offer while he could still pretend that he had a choice in the matter. (Though, he would have offered regardless of circumstances. Jane and Alicia had been through a lot, and they were two of the most steady, hard-working people that Ryan had ever met. If he could do anything to help them out, he was glad to do it.)
The contest was the opportunity of a lifetime for the two women. If they won, they would have enough to open a bakery together. Jane would be able to quit her job as a cleaner, and Alicia could move on from her position as secretary.
It would be a dream for both of them.
But Jane’s child had different plans, and so when Ryan received a tearful phone call at two in the morning, Alicia somehow managing to explain that Jane had gone into labour, and they wouldn’t be needing a ride after all, because she couldn’t do the show alone.
Ryan had done the only sensible thing one could do at that point: he had volunteered his services.
Of course, he had volunteered.
He had just never truly expected Alicia’s stunned silence, and the heartbreaking hope in her voice when she said ‘Truly?’.
Ryan couldn’t possibly say no.
Ryan also couldn’t bake.
But when Alicia sniffed and said “Then we’ll do this, Ryan Pendleton.” He’d heard the steel in her words.
“For Jane.” Alicia had said, and Ryan knew that he would do whatever he possibly could to be helpful.
Even if his knowledge of stoves was entirely limited to what kind of electrical and gas hook ups needed to be in a kitchen for it to work.
And that was how Ryan found himself – not cowering, he wasn’t afraid of a baking competition!- but standing deferentially behind Alicia, as she unleashed the finest examples of her sharp wit and deceptively home-spun charm. Underneath her dropped consonants was a mind of laser precision. Behind those wide, innocent eyes was a woman who had perfected just how to flutter her lashes to get what she wanted.
The officials had looked at Ryan and noted his lack of presence in the paperwork, and Alicia had laid them to shame. Just the right amount of pout, the hint of tears in her voice. She tells them of Jane, lets her voice hitch just enough on the mention of Jane’s child, and suddenly everyone is smiling and nodding and ever-so-agreeable as to the last minute change of participants.
Jim Tadson has been the host of ‘The Wheel Bake Off’ for four years. When the producers came up and told him that Alicia’s Partner Jane Carter was to be replaced with Ryan Pendleton, he took it in stride. It was impossible to get very far in the television industry without getting singularly used to last minute changes. Now he had no bio, no previous knowledge, nothing to work with, but no matter. He was good at his job.
As he had nothing to work with, Jim decided to try and find some time before the show to talk a bit with the newcomer, just to get the basics covered – where he was from, the reason he joined the competition. There were other fairly standard questions that were usually covered in the applications; the person’s history as a baker, if they had a signature pastry of any kind. One of the thing that made Jim so very good at his position was his ability to pull out the humanizing details. He knew how to steer a conversation so it would be rich with personal tidbits and anecdotes that would help the audience connect to the people on the screen.
Jim found Ryan with Coral, the make-up artist for the show. It was ‘reality television’ so Coral’s job was mostly helping to make sure nobody looked washed out under the bright lighting of the show. She also did touch-ups before any of the personal interview sections, or any ‘conffessionals’ that were filmed. Coral was also Jim’s best friend on set. Any field of television was cut-throat (even if it was a baking competition) and Jim and Coral had found each other in the sea of backstabbing and gossip.
Which is why it was particularly unfair for Coral to be smirking at him as she applied mascara to Ryan’s already prominent eyelashes.
She sent an evil look at Jim before she turned back to Ryan and said ‘We’ll need to put some liner on you as well.’
Jim hated her with all of the passion that could only possibly come from love.
So. Much. Hate.
‘Jim is here to talk to you and make your face move around so my job gets harder.’ Coral said with a smile.
‘Somebody needs to make sure you stay on your toes.’ Jim said, walking over so he could lean against the make-up desk and see Ryan while they talked.
‘Um.’ Ryan said, frowning in confusion.
Coral glared and Jim laughed. Ryan certainly did have an expressive face. He also didn’t look terribly comfortable in a make-up chair, shifting constantly like he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself.
‘So, Ryan. You’re stepping in at the last minute, I hear.’
‘Er. Yes. It wasn’t planned at all. But I couldn’t say no.’
‘So you’ve known Alicia for a while then?’
‘Yeah, we’ve been best friends for years. I think she was – twelve, maybe?- when I first met her? She moved into the neighbourhood. We actually met because of cooking. She has six brothers, and when they moved in, she had this shit oven. And I think it was her birthday, it might have been one of her brothers, but she was telling me how impossible it was to bake anything in her kitchen. And, it was just me and my dad, and we had this huge kitchen that we never used, so I told her she could use ours. I’ve always been pretty handy, I told her that she could use ours for as long as it took for me to fix hers.’
‘I like a man who’s good with his hands.’ Jim said, completely without thought and then wanted to kick himself. No flirting on the job!
Ryan blinked, and looked startled, but then smiled, slow and hot. ‘I might be good with other things too, if you care to find out.’
‘Save it ‘till the show’s over, boys!’ Coral said with a pointedly wicked look in Jim’s direction.
Ryan blushed and ducked his head, only for Coral to snap at him ‘Ay! Keep your head up, I’m not done with you yet!’
‘So. Did you ever fix Alicia’s oven, then?’ Jim said, attempting to get the conversation back on track.
‘I did manage to get hers working, but by that point, my dad and I were both pretty addicted to her cooking. So we just gave her a free pass for whenever she wanted to make anything. I’m pretty sure she’s the only thing that saved me from scurvy when I was a kid.’ Ryan paused a moment and laughed, ‘My dad says that it’s her fault that he gained a stone and a half.’
‘So. Alicia’s been cooking forever. How about you? What got you into baking?’
All the humour left Ryan’s face, and he took on a distinctly strained, pinched appearance. Coral sent Jim an angry look.
‘Nothing got me into baking.’ Ryan looked up at Jim, dark irises contrasting sharply with the clear whites of his eyes. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’
Jim opened his mouth but Coral gave him a deathglare that clearly meant ‘HE NEEDS TO STOP TALKING SO I CAN DO MY FUCKING JOB’, so instead of asking more questions, Jim gave his most reassuring smile and said ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll be fine.’
Coral nodded and smirked.
It was not a friendly smirk. It was an evil smirk. It was the smirk of a friend who knew far too much and was planning to use that information dangerously.
This was going to shaping up to be the most interesting episode of Wheel Bake Off that had ever happened.
The next time that Jim saw Ryan, it was when all of the contestants were lined up, and the rules of the challenge were being explained. There were three teams competing in three rounds. Every round a different team would spin the wheel to find out what challenge they needed to complete. It was really a formality, as by the time anyone actually got onto the show, they were all well-versed in what was expected.
The first team was based out of Barnes in London. Tarquil Ayers and Luarence Bancroft, the two men had met at Pastry school in France. They’d then moved back to London and opened a shop together. They now ran the highly successful ‘Evening Rose Tea Shoppe’.
The second team was a married pair – Leida and Raghnaid Graeme – who worked on an oil-rig off the coast of Aberdeen. They ran a business they called ‘Highland Coo-pcakes’, and Jim hadn’t seen them silent for a single moment. They seemed to be constantly cackling about something. Or maybe they were just talking. Jim was good at understanding people from all over the UK. But, these two were particularly incomprehensible. They’d been married for nearly twelve years, which probably didn’t help matters. They had black aprons, but fuzzy red buttons in the shape of highland cows, and fuzzy highland-cow-inspired hats.
Then there was Callen and Carter: Cakes and Confections – notably missing the ‘Carter’ part of the team, whose place had been taken by one very consternated looking Pendleton.
Ryan looked dark and serious, hanging on every word as the terms and conditions were read. He was wearing a tight black t-shirt and had his hair pulled back in a faded olive bandana.
He also looked a bit like he’d forgotten to have a costume ready for dress-up day. His apron was bright turquoise, bordering on neon, with thick yellow embroidery along the edges of it, and in large, loopy font ‘Jane’ was written acRyan the chest.
Jim had to bite his lips to keep from laughing.
It was then that Coral appeared out of nowhere. ‘He’s a bit cute that one, eh?’
Jim turned to her. ‘Don’t you dare.’
‘It’s been a while.’
‘Mmmm…’ she said, ‘We’ll see.’
‘Oh! Would you look at that? I think that’s you cue? What are you doing here?’
‘Coral, I swear if you-’
But Coral was wearing a shit-eating grin, and backing into the shadows of the studio.
Jim had a sinking feeling that he was going to have a lot more trouble with this episode than originally expected.
Jim’s first job was to introduce the judges, starting with the standard panel and ending with the celebrity guest for the episode.
‘Monica Azikiwi, who owns eight restaurants in six different countries on four different continents. David Nikley, host of ‘Fresh, Quick Cooking’ and author of the newly-published ‘Allergen-Free Cooking’. Janaelle Bhedoyan, Michellin three star chef at the Waters Inn. Mickey Raptis, who has been working in conjunction with London’s Cordon Bleu school for the past eight years. And today, we’re also joined by the wonderful Cassy Landenon, who is starring the film ‘Boxelet’ which is coming out next month!’
The Evening Rose team had won the match of Paper-Scissors-Rock that had happened, and they were the ones who would be the first to spin the wheel and decide the first challenge.
Tarquil was the one who went for the spin. His stubble was perfectly maintained to look just the polished side of rugged, and his hair was slicked back except for the single frizette left to artfully dangle into his eyes. He spun the wheel. The pointer clicked against the edges of the different options as the wheel spun, slowed, then finally stopped.
‘Looks like we have a Spice Cabinet Challenge!’ Jim said, turning to smile directly at the camera, ‘So now we’ll head over to Joseph, who is at our Challenge Pantry!’
Cameras swivelled and dollies were pushed, zooming in on Joseph who stood in the corner of a spice-rack style set, which baskets on the shelves. The baskets were each labelled with a different challenge name. Picking up the basket labelled ‘Spice Cabinet’, shook it vigorously, then opened it and pulled out a slip of paper.
‘What’s our challenge Joseph?’ Jim asked, letting his voice flow into the loud and swooping tones he used for his job.
‘Ooh, it’s a tough one today, Jim!’ Joseph said, and then flipped the paper around to be seen by the camera. ‘The challenge is…. Curry!’
‘Oh, and that is a tough one!’ Jim said, and he would not look at Ryan. Not check to see if the ridiculous not-a-baker who had somehow ended up in a baking challenge had that same pinched, panicked look on his face. He would do his job, which was to turn to the camera and say, ‘For the Spice Cabinet challenge, our contestants are given a challenge spice from our Spice Cabinet, and they must incorporate that spice into their cakes for the round. The contestants have three hours to complete this challenge starting….NOW!’
As always, it started with a frenetic rush for the contestants to get to their kitchen spaces, a flurry of planning and nerves.
The cameras gave the contestants a few moments to get a bit settled before swarming in. Jim’s eyes went to the C&C team, but he put it aside. He would go there last, give them as much time as he could before he interrupted.
Jim walked acRyan the stage and over to the middle kitchen where the Team Coo-pcakes had stuck a large, stuffed highland cow magnet to the fridge and continued their cackling.
‘Ach! ‘n’ ‘n’ ‘ll sti’ th’ curry ‘n’ ‘a cay’?
‘Nah! strai’ ‘n a crayme!’
Jim had to pause for a moment before he managed to pick through what they were actually saying. And even then ‘I think what we have here is a plan to put the curry spice not into the cake, but directly into a buttercream. It’s a bold move, they’re putting all their bets on the frosting. However, frosting doesn’t heat up, so they won’t end up with any nasty surprises after the spices bloom in the oven. And the high fat content of a buttercream frosting will prevent the spice from packing too much heat. Let’s hope it works out for them!
‘And now, we’re on to Kitchen Number One, where we’ve got our team from Evening Rose, what have you got for us today, boys?’
‘We’ve decided that the only way to truly do a curry cake any justice is to mix up our own curry. To truly take advantage of the complex layers that come from good curry, the only way to find the perfect blend is to make your own. So, we’ll be making our own curry and then adding it to a basic white sponge. Then we’ll be filling it with freshly whipped cream, to really get acRyan the natural sweetness of cream, and topping it with a cinnamon buttercream. To truly emphasize the natural complexity of curry, it’s best to be paired with simple flavours.’
‘I see, very ambitious!’ Jim said. ‘Hand-blended curry being used by team Evening Rose. And now, we’ll be heading over to Kitchen Three to see how C, C, C & C is doing.’
Jim walked back acRyan the stage. Alicia had a piece of paper down, and she was going down her list, while Ryan nodded, looking like he hoped he could somehow absorb her knowledge if he frowned hard enough.
‘And how are things over here in Kitchen Three?’ Jim asked, smiling for the camera, but he couldn’t help it if his voice slipped from it’s show-tones and into something a bit softer when faced the absurd storm cloud who had somehow come to participate in a cupcake competition.
‘We’ll be doing a coconut-curry combination’ Alicia said. ‘We’ll be making a yellow curry cake, filling it with a coconut white truffle ganache, and then we’ll be makin’ a mango cream frosting to get a bit of that citrus zing in it.’
‘And I think we have the first team actually planning to put curry into their cake, here in Kitchen Three. Alright, now back to Joseph, and we’ll see what he has to say!’
Jim shot them a reassuring smile and walked off to confer with Joshua and the panel of judges.
Jim left the kitchen, and Alicia elbowed Ryan in the side, hard. ‘Ryan, you cannot be makin’ eyes at Jim Tadson while we’re on the show!’
Ryan stood up straight. ‘I was not-’
‘Ryan Taylor Pendleton, if you think I don’t know what you look like when you’re about to set yourself to moonin’ after someone, you’ve got a whole other thing comin’.
‘I know that!’ Ryan hissed, and then proved her point further by glancing after Jim who’d gone to talk to the judges.
‘I promise that after the show you can drool over him as much as you like, but we have cake to bake, and we’ve only got two and half more hours.’
Ryan let out a breath. ‘Right. We’re here to bake.’
‘We’re here to win.’
‘Aye. For Jane. Now, I’ll be needing you to make the ganache. Do you know how to do that?’
‘Right. Well. Start by melting the white chocolate, and just…don’t burn anything. Can you do that?’
Alicia sighed. ‘It’ll have to do.’ and she turned to her own work station; a living hurricane of red hair and sugar.
The challenge was nearing the halfway point when Jim noticed Ryan standing in the pantry corner looking decidedly lost.
It might not be encouraged, perhaps, but Jim was allowed to go talk to contestants at any time. Even if they were looking distinctly lost at sea.
‘I see you’re looking for something sweet?’ Jim said smiling in the way that he knew showed off his dimples.
‘Well, I came looking for sugar, but if you’re offering…’ Ryan raised an eyebrow, and Jim laughed.
‘Maybe after the show, we could have our cake and eat it too.’ Jim said, hoping desperately that there hadn’t been any microphones close enough to pick up the exchange.
‘That would be the cherry on top then?’ Ryan said.
Jim snorted. ‘That was bad.’
‘You laughed!’ Ryan pointed out.
‘Maybe I have poor taste.’ Jim said.
‘I think I might have to take offence at that comment.’
‘OI RYAN. YOU GOT IT?’ Alicia’s voice cut through their banter. Ryan winced.
‘Fuck.’ he said, softly.
‘What is it?’ Jim asked.
Ryan gestured to the expanse of baking supplies held in the storeroom. ‘Which one of these is icing sugar?’
Jim managed to stop laughing long enough to help. ‘It’s the one that looks like snow.’
Ryan hesitated, then held up a clear container filled with baking soda.
‘No. Definitely not. You really don’t know how to bake at all, do you?’
‘It’s that bad?’ Ryan asked
‘I’m going to teach you how to cook after this. It’ll be fucking charity.’ Jim muttered to himself. ‘I’m not technically allowed to help.’ Jim said, ‘but most people who watch the show have noticed that we always keep all of our different types of sugar in the same place, on the bottom shelf to your left there.’
‘Oh, sweet fuck thank you.’ The relief in Ryan’s voice was palpable.
‘Sweet fuck is right.’ Jim said, before he could stop himself.
Ryan stared. ‘Did you say something?’
But Ryan smiled, and Jim had the sinking feeling that Ryan had indeed heard him, and how in the world was he supposed to get through filming like this.
There was half an hour left in the first challenge and it had become painfully clear that Ryan honestly had no ability to cook in any fashion.
Aside from Jim’s not-entirely legal help, Ryan had managed to almost mix up coconut milk and coconut water. That time he’d been saved by Alicia, who had pointedly plucked the carton out of his hand and told him to go find something that required a can opener.
He had almost poured the cupcakes into tins without papers. At that point he’d actually been stopped by the Graemes, who seemed to have caught on that Ryan was far from experienced, and they’d started making a point to come check on him, (which was both hilarious and incoherent).
Ryan had nearly poured their yellow curry into the bowl of frosting ingredients instead of the cake batter. He had been caught by Alicia *almost* before he had started pouring. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed, though Alicia put a rule in place that Ryan had to ASK TWICE POUR ONCE before doing anything for the rest of the day.
He had been stopped from using liquid measuring cups to measure dry ingredients. This had also been noted and corrected by the Graemes, who at that point had pinned one of their ‘HEEELUND COOOS’ onto Ryan’s turquoise apron. (Ryan had stared at it in utter bewilderment, while Leida had stolen the measuring cup from his hand. Raghnaid had then swept in with the proper measuring cup. Leida had then given Ryan a kiss on the cheek, and Raghnaid had given him a pat on the head, and Ryan had been left standing in the kitchen looking vaguely as if he’d just been spit out by a tornado.)
The Evening Rose team was distinctly less helpful, which almost caused a fight. Jim had been with the judges, when Tarquil and Laurence had cornered Ryan.
‘Something that’s helpful if you’re running out of time is to bake your cupcakes at twice the temperature for half the time.’ Tarquil had said, frizette flopping stylishly over one eye.
Ryan had stared at them. ‘That’s not how baking works, I thought?’
‘Just a friendly tip.’ Laurence had said, ‘if you’re worried about time.’
‘Right.’ Ryan had said. ‘Thank you. I’ll-’
‘OOOH!’ Leida had stormed over, ‘Y’re a rie’ lyh’n skummbah’ ‘r’n’t’ chya?’
That was when Jim noticed the commotion. Leida looked furious. Tarquil looked smug. Laurence looked like he was about to run away to hide, and Ryan looked like he desperately wanted to be back in his own kitchen.
This was the exact sort of situation that it was Jim’s job to be preventing.
Jim, however, didn’t even make it over before Alicia had approached the tangle of people.
‘I see we’re all doing very good work here, but I’d like to have my assistant back now, if’n you all don’t mind.’
Leida had looked up and smiled at her and taken a step towards the Evening Rose team, blocking their path. ‘O’ co’rse, lassie!’ She said, and Ryan had quickly gotten himself back to the C & C kitchen.
Alicia had sent one final glare at Tarquil and Laurence. ‘We won’t be needin’ any help from your likes, thanks ever so much.’
The two women shared a look of understanding before they each went back to their own kitchens, that much more committed to keeping an eye on Ryan.
Ryan, who was in none too bright a mood back in the kitchen. He was busy piping frosting onto the cooled cupcakes. (He’d almost started with the batch that had come straight from the oven before Alicia had reminded him that the base of buttercream frosting is, in fact, butter, which melts when it gets too hot.)
‘Ryan, if you frown any harder you’ll turn the cupcakes sour. What’s wrong?’ Alicia asked.
‘I know I’m not a baker, but I don’t need everyone fighting my battles for me.’ Ryan snapped, ‘I don’t need you to come running to my rescue when you have better things to be doing!’
‘The most important thing was for me to get you back here, where I need another set of hands.’ Alicia told him firmly. ‘I’m not fighting battles for anybody but me and Jane today, and I need you here with me to do that.’
‘Right.’ Ryan said, and his frown didn’t improve, but his attention to the frosting did, so Alicia took what she got.
It was after the first round that Jim finally began to understand the dynamics of the situation. Ryan had been a bit nervous in the make-up room, but willing to talk and have a bit of a laugh. Ryan had even been willing to have a bit of an illicit flirt in the corners of the stage at the beginning of the challenge, only to turn around and freeze everyone out at the end of the first round.
They were filming the confessionals, giving the crew time to go through and re-set the stage for filming the second challenge. Jim, as always, sat off camera and asked questions that would get edited out of the actual show when it aired.
Jim had made sure to be the one interviewing Alicia, because it meant that Joseph would be interviewing Ryan in the other confessional room, and as much as Jim deeply wanted to be in a confessional with Ryan, he was also quite keen on keeping his job. In an interest to not accidentally end up flirting the interview away, Jim was playing it safe and interviewing the actual baker on the team.
‘You lost this first round, but only there are only eight points between you and the first place. How are you feeling right now?’ Jim asked.
Alicia sat in the chair and stared straight at the camera. ‘I can’t say I’m surprised that we lost. It’s close enough though that we’re still in the running and we’re not going to go down without a fight, that’s for sure.’
‘You’re not surprised you lost?’
‘Well, Ryan. I mean, bless ‘im, but he’s no Jane.’
‘Right, and what happened there?’
‘She actually just had her child, about thirty minutes ago, now? A little girl. They’ve named her Charlotte. I can’t wait to meet her, she looks sweet as a peach.’
Jim paused. He’d known that it was something to do with Jane being pregnant, but he hadn’t realized that Alicia’s original partner had actually been going through labour while they were filming.
‘Wow. So, how was it different, working without your usual partner?’
‘I miss her something fierce, to be sure.’ Alicia said with a laugh, ‘Me ‘n’ Jane’ve been cooking together for nearly five years now? I’ve gotten used to being able to turn around and see what she thinks of things. But Ryan – Ryan is a good hand in a pinch. I can’t say I wouldn’t rather have Jane here, o’ course, but I would never be able to this by myself. I’d never have had a chance if he hadn’t offered to help.’
‘How did that come about, exactly? He’s the first one to admit that he doesn’t know his way around a kitchen.’
‘Oh, no. He really doesn’t. Which is why I was so gobsmacked he offered. He was originally going to drive me and Jane here. We borrow his van sometimes for deliveries and things, and he offered to let us use it to get our stuff here. When Jane called that she was going into labour, I called him to tell him we wouldn’t be needing him to drive us up. He knew how much it meant to us, though, and he asked if there was anything he could do. I said ‘not unless you can conjure up a new partner for the show!’ and then he volunteered.’
‘And you managed to get him on the show.’ Jim said.
Alicia smiled in the way of an evil overlord entirely confident in their next plot.
‘Some things can’t be planned for.’ She said, ‘It would hardly be right to penalize me for it.’
Jim had seen a lot of people in his job over the years, but he was getting the distinct feeling that Alicia was not a wise person to cRyan. He made a mental note to keep her away from Coral at all costs.
‘And Ryan really is a steady help. I’m glad to have him.’
‘There were a few times when things got a bit rough though. What happened there?’
Alicia paused, biting her lip, then looked directly at the camera again. ‘It’s not easy – this is hardly the kindest crash-course in cooking. Ryan is the best sort, but I think… It’s hard to be surrounded by specialists in their field and know that every mistake you make is going to end up on every T.V. screen in Britain. It’s fine so long as we’re too busy to have time to think, but I think the slow times get to him.’
‘Tarquil and Laurence certainly don’t help?’ Jim said.
‘Ryan has some buttons that are quite easy to push, and those two seem to be hitting them all.’ Alicia agreed, rather diplomatically. ‘I think that if I’m not careful though, I might turn around and find that he’s been adopted by ‘heelund cooos’. She laughed.
‘Yeah. You might have to watch out for that one, actually.’ Jim agreed with a grin.
The lighting crew was finalizing the last of their checks before they began shooting the second challenge, and that was when Coral found Jim.
‘You didn’t interview him.’ She said.
‘Coincidence.’ Jim said.
Coral laughed. ‘You’re such a fucking liar, Jim.’
‘You know, some people are nice to their friends, Coral.’
‘Yeah, and I bet those people are boring.’ Coral said with a snort. ‘It’s cause you can’t go two sentences without flirting with him, isn’t it.’
‘I can actually be professional.’
‘Oh, I know.’ Coral said, ‘but I bet you wouldn’t mind finding out what’s under that apron after the show’s wrapped.’
‘I’m not dignifying that with a response.’ Jim said.
‘Because it’s tru-ue!’ Coral sing-songed.
Jim glared at her.
‘Don’t worry. I went in and watched his interview for you. He’s quite sweet on you. It was adorable. He kept almost saying things and then remembering that he was in front of a camera. You should watch it uncut. The editors are going to have one hell of a time trying to come up with anything that makes sense out of that one. It’s pretty impressive, really.’
‘Why do you tell me this right before filming? We just had an hour off. Why did you not tell me this then?’
‘This way is more fun!’ Coral said, with the brightest, sunniest, shit-eating grin.
‘You are so lucky I love you.’ Jim said.
‘Yep!’ She said before blowing him a kiss and heading back-stage to be out of the way of filming.
C,C,C & C were the ones who were in line to spin the wheel for the second challenge. Alicia had spun, and and when the wheel had slowed to a stop, the challenge selected was ‘NO BAKE’.
Jim spared a moment to feel a bit bad for all of the teams involved. They seemed to be landing some of the most difficult options on the show. The ‘No Bake’ challenge was exactly what it sounded like: all of the contestants had to somehow complete the challenge of creating deserts but they had to do it completely without use of an oven.
It was a tough challenge, and one that had tripped up some of the most experienced contestants. People came in with ideas of what to bake. They didn’t often spend that much time on potential ideas that didn’t actually involve baking. ‘No Bake’ was a challenge that almost never had a middle ground. Teams usually either smashed it, acing it with creativity and innovation; or this was where they would crash and burn.
Only time would tell how this one would shake out.
‘Alright Teams!’ Jim said, stepping away from the camera to sweep an arm out at the kitchen sets. ‘You have three hours, and for this one, your oven stays off! Good luck, and your time starts…NOW!’
‘How do you bake without an oven?’ Ryan asked once they’d gotten back to their kitchen.
‘Well. None of it is baking, technically, but there’s plenty you can do with a stove top and a freezer.’
‘So what will we be doing then?’
‘I am not entirely sure yet,’ Alicia admitted, ‘But I think it will involve lots of chocolate.’
An alliance of sorts seemed to have formed over the course of the first challenge and the break in filming. The Graemes had indeed seemed to have adopted Ryan, and in doing so, sparked up a cold-war of sorts. The Evening Rose boys found themselves with a spitting Scottish shadow every time they even made a step towards the kitchen where Ryan and Alicia worked.
Leida and Raghnaid were building a sort of tart, using crushed nuts held together with dates (and just a hint of chili) as a pastry crust. The tarts were then going to be filled with a rum and ginger custard, to be topped with candied ginger and a thin drizzle of dark chocolate.
However, every moment of time when the Graemes weren’t working furiously on their own dishes they could be found lending a helping hand to Alicia and Ryan. (Alicia had gotten her own ‘Heelund Coo’ pin about twenty minutes into the second round when she’s rushed in to the Graemes kitchen and grabbed a pot off the stove top before it could boil over.)
Alicia had decided on a dish heavily inspired by divinity. She had a mixture of cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate and port that she’d added to beaten egg whites. Then, she’d thickened the mixture with sugar that had been heated to turn it into a soft, chewy candy-like mixture. This was then shaped into balls, put on a stick and dipped to have a dark-chocolate coating. This was going to be paired with a honeydew sorbet and whipped cream that had been sweetened with honey.
None of them cared to find out what the Evening Rose team was up to.
Unfortunately for Jim, the real trouble started in round two, and he didn’t even notice when it happened.
Jim had been busy interviewing Alicia about where she got her inspiration to try a variation of divinity; something that he hadn’t actually seen before on the show, and was honestly quite interested to find out.
He didn’t notice Raghnaid go to the pantry to start digging through things.
He didn’t notice Coral casually slide up and motion to where Jim was standing, talking to Alicia, and maybe spending far too much effort *not* looking at Ryan.
He didn’t notice the look of dawning comprehension on Raghnaid’s face or the twin smiles of matchmaking and mischief that broke out on the pair of them.
In short; Jim missed the most important thing that happened on the set that day.
Or, possibly the second most important thing that happened on set that day.
The second challenge had drawn to a close – Alicia’s sorbet hadn’t set up properly, but quick thinking and a few packets of gelatin had left them with chocolate candies on sticks that Alicia was calling ‘Brownie Batter pops’, and beautifully layered concoction of delicately green honeydew jelly and honeyed cream.
The Graemes had their tarts, which had turned out beautifully, and they’d also put together what they were calling ‘pocket doughnuts’ which were squares of dough that had been fried until the puffed up, then dipped in cinnamon sugar and cut open, so they could be filled with a berry coulis.
The Evening Rose team had created a gorgeous miniature trifle; a thick disk of white chocolate which had been layered with hazelnut butter and whipped cream, then topped with grated apple, and an ice-box cheesecake that was was marbled with dark chocolate and blueberries, and topped with pink himalayan salt.
The dishes had just been presented to the judges when Ryan leaned over to Alicia and whispered.
‘I thought you couldn’t get cracks on a cheesecake that doesn’t get baked. Isn’t that what you told me? That cracks in cheesecake come from overbaking?’
Ryan hadn’t realized that there were microphones close enough to pick up every word he said.
Alicia did, and she’d quickly turned to tell him to button it, but the damage was done.
The worst part was: Ryan was right. A cheesecake that had never been baked wouldn’t develop cracks.
Tarquli was outraged, red-faced and screaming. Laurence just went pale and stared at his shoes. It wasn’t very long until the truth came out. Tarquil and Laurence had noticed all of the attention being piled upon Ryan and Alicia and they had decided to take advantage of the fact that no one was looking in their direction.
They knew that the standards of silence, contemplation and nerves when dishes were being presented to the judging panel. It had never once occurred to them that they would be caught. Let alone that the one to point out their cheating would be the one person who least deserved to be in the challenge (by their reckoning, at least).
It wasn’t often that contestants tried to cheat on the show, but it wasn’t the first time. The rules for the show stated that anyone who didn’t complete the challenge received no points for the entire round.
The Evening Rose team landed a zero.
Ryan and Alicia were suddenly in a very close second place.
The next break between filming was… well, ‘fraught’ was the first word that came to Jim’s mind. There had been a switch in the interview schedule, the producers deciding that in order to get better reaction footage they would do team interviews, starting of course with the Evening Rose team, and what Coral had started referring to as ‘C4’ because Ryan and Alicia were certainly causing a bit of an explosion.
Jim was on top of his life. He was organized, he was sharp, he was aggressive when he needed to be; all skills he used every single day. He wasn’t entirely sure how he managed to lose every single one of those skill sets when he needed them. He forced himself not to scowl and curse whatever bad-luck demon had cRyaned his path when he was on his way to work that morning. Instead he put on a smile and sat behind the camera to interview Alicia and Ryan.
‘For someone who doesn’t know anything about baking, you sure called that one out fast.’ Jim said.
Ryan looked up, and it wasn’t the Ryan from on stage. This was not a look of someone fumbling through unfamiliar territory. This was a cold, glittering, calculated predator’s gaze. ‘I don’t know about cooking. But I ask and I listen, if they think some Poncey fucking London education is going to get them-‘
Alicia shoved her elbow into his stomach – with quite a good deal of force, if the sincerely pained look on Ryan’s face was anything to go by – and glared him into silence. He glowered at her, but she simply raised an eyebrow at him. ‘We’re not here to make friends, but we’re certainly not here to be making enemies. You can save your soapboxing for when it’ll be having your name attached to it. Not mine, and certainly not Jane’s.’
Ryan folded his arms and clenched his jaw and stayed silent for the rest of the interview.
Outside of the interview room, though Jim couldn’t seem to get away. Or get out of the way. Jim had never been tripped, pushed, or generally knocked about on set so much in his life. And, ever so *mysteriously*, every time he got shoved, it was always in the direction of one brooding Ryan Pendleton.
Jim finally managed to get a hand around Coral’s arm.
‘You are not subtle.’
‘I’d say you should take him out for a drink, but he’s already Dark and Stormy, isn’t he?’ Coral said with a cheeky smile.
‘Which is why he doesn’t need me tripping over him.’ Jim said pointedly.
‘Nah, I bet he’d cheer right up if the thought he could sweep you off your feet for a bit.’ She nudged Jim and nodded to where Ryan quickly looked away and tried to pretend he hadn’t just been caught staring.
‘What exactly are you trying to say, Coral.’ Jim said with a put-upon sigh.
‘He’s not exactly subtle either.’ She smiled and then gave Jim one more shove in Ryan’s direction – just for good measure.
Jim sighed. He wanted Coral to be right, but he wasn’t sure. He’d seen the fury that had settled through Ryan when Alicia had spoken diplomatically to defuse the situation. She had never been apologetic – the Evening Rose team had cheated, they deserved to lose points – but it was not and never had been their intention to try to discredit anyone. Alicia and Jane had gotten onto the show through skill and tenacity, and though Jane wasn’t there to participate directly, it would be skill and tenacity that would see them through to the end.
Alicia had been clear – she wanted to win, but she wanted to win by merit, instead of other participants being penalized.
Ryan had been a silent storm by her side.
Jim was so caught in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the Graemes enter the room; or the diabolically mischievous look that passed between Leida and Raghnaid when they realized that they had Jim and Ryan in the same room.
And that was how Jim and Ryan wound up locked in a closet together.
Or at least, Jim thought they were locked in the closet. It was entirely possible that the door had simply been propped shut by something. He honestly wasn’t going to put anything past Raghnaid and Leida at this point.
Jim shifted away from something sharp that was digging into his back and found himself chest to chest with Ryan. It really was not a large enough room for two grown men and the amount of random shit that had come to live in space.
‘You know,’ Jim said conversationally, ‘When I say that I’m so much happier out of the closet, it’s usually a bit more metaphorical than this.’
‘You’re gay?’ Ryan asked.
‘Well, bi,’ Jim said, though that was hardly news to anyone anymore, since he’d come out three year prior. ‘Shit. You really never have watched this show, have you.’ Jim paused, and then realized ‘Oh, god. I bet you watch sport, don’t you.’ Jim could feel Ryan’s breathing; hot in the penetrating darkness. It was incredibly distracting, to say the least. ‘Are you the type who memorizes matches?’
‘No!’ Ryan said, ‘I do not.’
‘Really?’ Jim asked.
‘I don’t actually have a television.’ Ryan admitted softly.
‘…how do you live?’ Jim said, trying to focus on anything other than the way that he could practically feel how solid Ryan’s body was. Jim was keeping his hands firmly in his pockets, just so he couldn’t get any ideas about touching.
‘I have a laptop!’ Ryan protested, ‘I don’t live in the stone-age!’
‘You have a laptop with you apparently don’t use to actually watch anything!’ Jim said, but was met with silence. Ryan was quiet for a long while, and Jim suddenly had the feeling that he’d manage to step in it quite badly, and was internally scrambling for ways to undo whatever he’d said that had made Ryan so uncomfortable as to end the conversation.
‘I am too.’ Ryan finally said, quiet in the pitch black closet.
‘What?’ Jim said, pulled from his reeling thoughts.
‘Bi.’ Ryan said, ‘I am too.’
But there was something in the way that he said it, this wasn’t the Ryan who picked battles and fought back. This wasn’t the Ryan who was willing to put himself through anything if it meant helping his friends. This was something softer, something fragile. Something for whispered conversations held in the comforting acceptance of the dark.
‘Do people know?’ Jim asked, finally.
‘Alicia knows. Jane does. Plenty have probably figured it out. It’s not – I won’t deny it, if it comes up. I just don’t make a point of telling people, is all.’
Jim pulled his hands from his pockets. This was a different kind of touch, the kind that meant nothing more than reassurance and connection. He drifted a bit before he managed to find Ryan’s shoulders. ‘I’m not saying you should do anything you aren’t ready to do, but it really is getting better out there. Every single day, it’s getting better.’
‘I like you.’ Ryan said.
Jim couldn’t help the rush he felt at the words.
‘But you’re…not supposed to like people on camera?’ Ryan asked.
‘Ah.’ Jim said, ‘Not exactly. I need to be…impartial, on camera. I’m not technically supposed to get involved with any of the contestants while they’re on the show. It might show favouritism.’
‘After the show, though.’
‘After the show, it’s my life and quite frankly nobody else’s business.’ The conversation lapsed after that, both of them moving a bit restlessly, trying to get comfortable in the small, cramped space of the closet.
‘There are no cameras in here.’ Ryan said, after a while.
Jim smiled in the dark. ‘Are you suggesting we snog in the closet?’
Jim was pretty sure he felt Ryan shrug.
‘Do we have anything better to do? We’re in here until they let us out.’
Jim paused for a moment and thought it over. Then he decided that being locked in a closet was already so far away from anything even remotely resembling professionalism, that it really probably didn’t matter what he got up to whilst being locked in said closet. ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I could go for that.’
The first kiss was off-center as they fumbled in the darkness. It didn’t take long though for them to find each other and start exploring.
Jim revelled in the texture of it, Ryan’s warm, rough hands against his face, dry, chapped lips against his own.
Ryan marvelled at how everything about Jim was smooth. Soft skin, hair that felt like silk beneath his fingers.
It was surprisingly gentle, there in the dark. There was no battle, no play for dominance or show of force. It was the relief after steadily building pressure. It was safety and at the same time, exploration.
They had just paused to catch their breath when the door to the closet opened. Cora, Leida and Rhagnhaid were all standing there looking smug.
‘So boys.’ Coral said, ‘How was your seven minutes in heaven.
Jim glared. ‘Coral. I hate you so fucking much.’
‘No you do-ont!’ She sang back at him.
Jim blinked against the light coming in and then looked back up at Ryan. He sighed. ‘No I don’t.’ he admitted, stepping out of the closet, and pulling Ryan with him.
The teams were back on set and lined up for the third and final spin of the wheel, and Ryan was trying very hard to concentrate on proper behavioural etiquette for a cooking show. Apparently ‘proper behaviour’ did not include pointing out cheating from other teams. Apparently it also did not include getting thoroughly distracted by sense memory, the satin press of Jim’s mouth on his in the dark, the way they’d both tasted a little too sweet from trying all of the dishes made and the way that Jim had fit against him and-
Alicia elbowed him hard, and gave him a look that he easily deciphered as ‘no making eyes at Jim Tadson while we’re on the set!!!’
Because Alicia clearly wasn’t part of the conspiracy of locking him in closets with Jim. No, Alicia was a beautiful woman, and the best friend he’d ever had, and he loved her so much for not locking him in closets with Jim.
Even if it was a possible that being locked in a closet had somehow become one of the best moments of his life. It wasn’t just the way Jim kissed, it was the way he talked, the way he seemed to understand-
Alicia had a good deal of experience with elbowing Ryan, and she was putting it to good use now. She glared and and nodded to where the Graemes were standing next to the wheel.
The Greames counted to three (or, at least, Ryan thought that was what they said) and spun the wheel like they did everything else: cackling wildly and applying far more force than was probably necessary.
The wheel spun.
It landed on the smallest category. A slim, golden sliver. Ryan looked to Alicia. The small golden triangle wasn’t labeled. He didn’t know what it meant. She reached down and took his hand, squeezing it tightly.
‘Shhh!’ she hissed back.
‘And this is something we’ve only seen once before here on Wheel Bake-Off!’ Jim said to the cameras, ‘The Mega-Bake challenge!’
‘This challenge is three times bigger than our normal challenges. It’s a test of stamina, that we’ve only seen once before. The Mega-Bake Challenge is all about increasing the scale. It’ll be three times as hard, three times as long, but it also means that the prize will be three times as big. That’s right! Whoever wins tonight isn’t going to be getting fifteen thousand pounds, no. The winner tonight will be walking away with forty-five thousand pounds! But by the end of this challenge, they’ll deserve it.
The mega challenge gets broken into three segments, each one still three hours long. The contestants have those nine hours to fully complete the challenge given to them.
Let’s head over to Joseph to see what that challenge is going to be!’
Joseph stood in the corner set again, and this time he had a container about the size of a teacup in his hand. He gave it a shake, pulled off the lid, reached inside and pulled out a slip of paper.
‘Today’s mega-challenge will be “Arthur’s Ark”!
Each team will have nine hours to bake dishes fit for the return of King Arthur – the only catch, the teams will have to design and build a display for these dishes as well. We’ll see how well our bakers can swap between their stove-tops and saw blades for this one.’
Ryan stood, tensed for the call that would send them off to their kitchens, but it didn’t come. Instead the cameras were wheeled off, and Jim came back to talk to them all.
‘Alright, we have some additional set up to do for a mega-challenge. We’re going to leave the set to let our crew get everything together for a much longer shoot, and I’m going to show you to the building zone. After that, you’re going to have about thirty minutes before the challenge actually starts. You will have a thirty minute break between each segment, but just a recommendation, eat some food. Maybe see if you can sleep. It’s been a long day already, and it’ll feel like eternity after another nine hours.
This challenge is hard. Take care of yourselves.’
If Ryan and Jim locked eyes at any point – well. None of the cameras were on anyway.
The half-hour passed quickly. All of the contestants seemed to be only half-focused on whatever they were being told. They had, technically, been given extra time to be shown around. In reality it was extra time for planning. Everyone was distracted with ideas; twists on the theme, what was too ambitious and what just might work, given the time frame.
When they finally got back to the kitchen set, and time was called and the challenge started, it wasn’t a mad rush. It was calculated determination.
Team Evening Rose was still technically in the running – though they’d had no points for the second round, it was still possible for them to win, if they pulled out all the stops and managed to create a miraculous, near-perfect response to the challenge, and the other teams did poorly.
The Graemes shared a kiss, and then did some kind of handshake that might have also been part arm wrestling, before one of them stayed in the kitchen, and the other went off to the build site.
In the C4 kitchen, Ryan had turned to Alicia and told her, very seriously, ‘I know I’m not the most help in the kitchen, but you know me. You plan for something you can bake, and tell me what you want built. You know I can do it.’
Alicia had looked at him, and smiled. ‘I know you can.’ She’d said. Then her look turned wicked. ‘We’re going to win this one Ryan. And this is how we’re gonna do it.’
Her sketch was ambitious, but Ryan knew – if she could manage to get everything baked in nine hours, then he could build her anything she needed. Her plan was to make a swan cake, and then ‘I want it to swim, Ryan. See this center piece here? It’ll be the Lady of the Lake. Then there’ll be the swan, which will be swimming in the lake.’
‘Then here, this piece. I was thinking sword in the stone. Maybe you could make the sword something that could come out?’
‘What if the sword was a cake knife?’ Ryan said, grinning wildly, caught up in her enthusiasm. For the first time all day he could actually help. It was one thing to just be a pair of hands when any body would do. This was something that he could actually participate in. He was good at this.
Alicia’s eyes got wide at the idea. ‘Yes! The sword could be the knife, because for the third piece, I wanted a dragon.’
‘A dragon?’ Ryan said, then leaned forward, and pulled Alicia’s plans acRyan the table. ‘How would you feel if we could make that dragon breath fire?’
Alicia smiled, and Ryan’s chest hurt at the sight of it. He knew he was no Jane, but Alicia had been his best friend for more than a decade. He knew how much it would mean if they could actually win. They had been through so much together, and Ryan would do his best to move the stars if it meant her dreams coming true.
Only now he didn’t have to move the stars. Now, he got to use the skills he’d been building for his entire life.
They had somehow managed to stay in the game this far, and they may have been far from the best bet at first odds, but somehow the ball had managed to land squarely in their court, and for the first time all day, Ryan actually understood the rules.
Their eyes met acRyan the papers full of outlines and plans.
‘For Jane,’ Alicia said, ‘And Charlotte.’
‘For Jane and Charlotte.’ Ryan agreed.
Ryan had called himself ‘fairly handy’ during their brief non-interview before the show. Jim had no way been expecting…this.
Ryan had traded in his turquoise and yellow apron for what were presumably his own clothes; a tight black vest, his same olive bandana, and sheetrock-stained jeans that had probably been black at some point. When Jim finally saw him, Ryan was working a table saw, leaning forward in a way that showcased the lean lines of his body, and the distinct way his jeans clung to the curve of his arse.
Jim was glad Coral wasn’t there to see him choke on his own spit.
Jim knew better than to sneak up on someone using dangerous equipment, so he waited until Ryan had shut the saw off to make his approach.
‘So what are you making here?’ Jim asked
Ryan looked up from his boards, and smiled.
Jim’s brain was melting. It was like staring into the sun. Where the hell had *that* been hiding?
Under brooding eyebrows most likely.
Then Jim remembered that he did actually have cameras with him at that point.
It turned out it didn’t even matter. The cameras couldn’t do anything to dim Ryan’s enthusiasm. He left the table saw, and brought them over to his workspace, where he explained his projects. The first thing he had to get done was the dragon. He was going to be building the base of it, but Alicia’s cake needed to fit directly into the framework, so it could be an edible thing that also had the capacity to breath fire.
He showed the schematics he’d sketched out; the metal piping he was using to funnel propane out and away from the flammable wood.
‘I’m just roughing this one out, mostly. It’s Alicia who will be painting all of this.’ He turned to a pile of wood that he’d collected. ‘This is going to the greatest one, I think. I’m going to build a moat.’
‘A moat?’ Jim asked, just to make sure.
‘Yeah.’ Ryan said, and then his smile took on a different shade. ‘To prevent anyone from…storming my castle.’
Jim knew he shouldn’t. He tried to resist. Ryan looked up at him through long, coal-dark lashes and Jim lost the battle.
‘It is a very impressive moat.’ Jim said, ‘but are you sure it would keep someone from storming your ramparts?
‘I know how to protect my keep!’ Ryan said, alight with playful spark.
‘They might be particularly determined.’ Jim said, stepping closer.
A harsh cough sounded from the corner. Leida looked up from her hacking to blink at them innocently.
‘I’m soo terahbly sohry!’ She said, but she gave them a look that said otherwise.
It was enough for Jim to remember his job and the numbers of cameras that were currently on them, and finally manage to control his mouth to stop flirting back.
‘What about…that?’ Jim asked, pointing at a large pile of extremely thin plyboard, and the polystyrene that had been collected and dumped on top.
‘I’m really excited for this one.’ Ryan said, eagerly shifting gears again, ‘It’ll be the toughest one for sure. I have to be really careful to make sure that the display platter has enough buoyancy to displace the weight of her cake, and we won’t know what that is until it’s finished. We’re only gonna have one shot with this, because if it sinks – well. It won’t sink. I think I’ve found some dock-rated polystyrene. So, that should keep up anything, let alone a cake. That’ll be the one to watch though.’ Ryan’s delight shone through so clearly. Jim would have been quite happy for him to keep talking forever.
‘What all that?’ Jim asked, pointing to a pile of electrics that Ryan had, shoved up against a few planks of plyboards.
‘Oh that! Well. Our original plan was to have a sword in the stone, and the sword would be the cake-knife. But then I thought, what if the stone was a case, a bit like a clamshell, and to get it to open someone would have to pull the sword out?’
‘That sounds like the sword I’d like to pull.’ Jim said before he could stop himself.
‘I think you might be able to give it a go, if you play your cards right.’ Ryan said. His mouth was smiling but his eyes were leering and Jim had no idea how he did it.
‘I might need a few practice rounds. It is Excaliber, after all.’ Jim said, trying desperately to make the conversation sound a bit less like he might want to get Ryan back in their delightfully private closet.
‘Mmm.’ Ryan purred, ‘It is Excaliber, but I’ve heard that if you’re the chosen one, you should have no problems at all.’
That was when Jim decided that maybe retreat was the better part of valour, and went to go see what the other teams were up to.
By the end of the first 3 hours, Ryan had indeed completed the dragon frame. Alicia was about halfway through covering the armature in fondant, so when she painted it, it would be impossible to tell where the cake ended and the framework began.
She had the cakes baked that would become her swan, and had her cupcake batter deposited into baking tins and ready to be put into the oven at the beginning of the next section.
Team Coo-pcake had taken a very different track. Instead of going for three separate features, they had decided to combine all of theirs into one *very* large piece. They had also chosen a to do a dragon, but there’s wasn’t going to be anything one person could lift. Rhagnhaid had wound up being the one to stay in the kitchen, while Leida was the one who spent most of her time in the workshop. They had a system in place though. When Rhagnhaid needed help lifting a cake from one table to another, he’d come running. When Leida couldn’t quite reach the angle she needed to nail everything into place, she got Rhagnaid.
It didn’t matter that no one else understood a word they said. They worked with practiced efficiently and some of the smoothest teamwork that Jim had ever seen.
The Evening Rose team seemed to be having more difficulty. When they had been unable to come to a consensus over what to do, they had decided that each person would simply make their own dish, and their own display. Then at the end, the two would be presented side by side. Tarquil and Laurence had lost their rhythm though. Tarquil seemed to move past everything with a self-assured stride; confident in his own abilities and worth. Laurence, on the other hand, was hardly willing to leave the kitchen, turning pale, and looking desperately guilty whenever he cRyaned paths with a contestant from a different team.
The tension was mounting in their kitchen, and not in a good way at all.
The editors were going to love this episode. They wouldn’t have to do anything to try and create drama. It was already there, and so much better than anything anyone could have tried to stir up.
It was during the second phase of the mega-challenge that the strain started to show. They had hit the twelve-hour-mark, but that was only of time when the cameras had actually been on. The day had been much longer for everyone, and fatigue was starting to set in.
The Graemes were faring best of all, used to long hours on the oil rig and ready to call on each other for support.
Alicia and Ryan were clearly starting to fray at the edges, snapping and pushing at each other when things didn’t quite go to plan. The paint job on the dragon was turning out to be far more difficult than anticipated, and the giant bowl that Ryan was building to hold the moat kept springing leaks.
None of it compared to the meltdown that was happening in the Evening Rose kitchen.
Tarquil had been moving a set piece – he’d built a tall, arcing stand, with several small platforms balanced on thin, willowy curves of wood. He’d built a truly stunning array of red and white sugar roses that were going to climb the display like a trellis. His plan was to then fill the different platforms with sculpted chocolate figurines. Where the other teams had gone for large-scale pieces, Tarquil was of the mind that he wasn’t making a dish for a celebration, he was making a dish for a returning king, and as such, everything had to be to a much higher standard, but it could afford to be small and delicate; detail-oriented
Laurence was working on a project of beautifully decorated nesting chocolate shells. He had drawn his inspiration from the idea of reincarnation. He started with a solid, dark chocolate truffle, and then build steadily larger shells to go around it. Each layer was hand-painted in a way to represent changes in popular art. Laurence was only making five – enough for each judge to have one. It was slow and painstaking work, making hollow half-spheres of chocolate, putting the completed pieces inside and then sealing it shut and painting it with food colouring.
Tarquil was placing his roses on the stand that he’d built, and he didn’t notice when one of the support stands started to bend to the will of gravity. It was subtle, at first, listing ever so slightly over to one side, causing the platform it supported to dip dangerously. It was slow, steady movement; until it reached the point of no return. Then it was if everything happened at once. The support strut snapped down to the counter with a crack, and the platform slid to the ground before rolling along the counter.
The platform hit the rack where Laurence had his chocolate shells drying, causing one of the complete eggs to wobble, then fall to the floor, where it shattered on impact.
Laurence could only stare in horror at the shattered pieces of painted pieces of tempered chocolate that now lay in a scattered mess acRyan the floor of their kitchen space.
The silence fell, thick and heavy; filled with the weight of despair.
‘I can’t make another one.’ Laurence finally said. ‘I can’t – I don’t have time to start from scratch with another one.’
Tarquil stared. ‘Well you have to find a way.’
‘What the fuck are we supposed to do then?’ Tarquil said, anger evident in the rising volume of his voice, ‘Are you just going to give up?’
Laurence looked at the ground. ‘I can’t do another one,’ he said, and his voice was soft.
‘Well a fucking lot of good you are, aren’t you. You’re fucking pathetic.’ Tarquil sneered.
Laurence looked up, with fire in his eyes. ‘I’m pathetic?’ he said, ‘I am pathetic? It wouldn’t even matter if I couldn’t fix this if you hadn’t convinced me that we wouldn’t get caught cheating! There’s no way we’re going to win this, and it’s all your fault!’
‘My fault? I wasn’t the one who thought it would be okay for us to fucking bake shit! You were the one who thought we would never get caught! And now you want to say this is my fault?’
‘It is your fault! If you can’t handle the competition you never should have come with me!’
‘You think I’m the one that can’t handle this competition?’ Laurence stated, and there was ice dripping from his voice. ‘I’m not the one who has to resort to breaking the rules in order to get things done. I’m not the one who can only come up with ideas that don’t work!’
‘Well you’re the one who can’t stand the pressure!’ Tarquil screamed back.
‘I can take the pressure!’ Laurence said, steady and angry, ‘I just don’t think we need to cheat to win, Tarquil.’
‘We’re in last place!’
‘Only because we were disqualified for the last round! I told you it wasn’t worth it!’
‘But you did it anyway.’ Tarquil pointed out.
‘And I shouldn’t have. Maybe if we hadn’t done that, we’d still be in this competition, but right now? We’re not.’ Laurence said, ‘And we shouldn’t be! We broke the rules. We’re not going to win!’
‘If that’s what you think, maybe you should just leave right now.’
Laurence stared at Tarquil for a long moment. ‘That’s what you want. You want me to leave if I don’t agree with you.’
‘It seems like it’s the most helpful thing you could do right now.’ Tarquil said, and his voice was acid.
‘Fine.’ Laurence said. ‘Good luck with it.’ He took his apron off and threw it on the counter, ‘Good luck with losing.’
And then he walked out.
Out of the kitchen, out of the set, out of the show.
This was the most honestly dramatic piece of reality television that Jim had ever worked on.
The break after the second round was much anticipated, and not nearly long enough. Jim had gone into the back after interviews, with hopes to catch Ryan.
He did catch Ryan, but Ryan and Alicia had commandeered a couch and fallen asleep on each other. Alicia’s head was tucked into Ryan’s shoulder, and his head rested on top of hers, both clearly dead to the world. Jim had to stick a knuckle in his mouth to keep from audibly cooing at the sight of them.
He left the room before Coral could come in to find him melting into a puddle of cuteness overload.
The third section started, and it wasn’t a rush. There was no one running to the kitchen. It was the hard, slow drag of a marathon. The sparkle and shine had long worn off, at all that was left was clinging to the dull, plodding, tattered remains of commitment to follow through to the end. It was the beginning of the thirteenth hour of filming, but most of the contestants were nearing the at least twenty hours without sleep. It was the final leg, and the weariness was clear.
Team Coo-pcake had built a dragon, that, while only one meter tall, was nearly three meters long. It was posed with an open mouth that had a lolling, scarlet tongue hanging out of it’s mouth that was to be the platform for the cake that Rhagnhaid had built. The cake was in the shape of Camelot Castle, and had been carved and covered in fondant. All that was left was detail work.
Their dragon had almost been completely finished as well. Leida had laid the base coat- a bright grass green – and was mostly focusing on the final touches of the pyrotechnics. The Graemes had decided that the only way to have a true dragon was to have a dragon that shot fire. Their plan was for the cake to rest on the dragon’s tongue, which would be near the level of the counter. From the dragon’s open mouth, however, they were going to have flames shooting out, which would be angled up to miss the cake, but would be incredibly impressive to watch.
Ryan had finally managed to get his moat to stop leaking. He’d completed the mechanics of the shell that would hold the sword in the stone, and all he had left was to build a Lady of the Lake figurine. Back in the kitchen, Alicia had long since finished her dragon cake. She was working on the final touches of her swan cakes, and starting to bake the end of her cupcakes so they would be cool in time for her to frost them.
Tarquil was alone in his kitchen, trying valiantly to finish his dish, while enduring the silence and judgmental staring from the Graemes.
Jim almost felt bad for him, being tempted more than once to offer help – (it wasn’t particularly smiled upon, but seeing as how Laurence had scarpered off, Jim knew that he wouldn’t get into too much trouble for helping a little bit.)
Tarquil had spurned any attempts at assistance though, turning cold eyes and judgemental words onto anyone who thought they might be able to actually help him accomplish his goals.
After the fourth time that Jim had been shot down, he decided to leave Tarquil to his own fate.
It was strange, because time seemed to drag so slowly for every contestant. Minds were tired and reflexes were slow. Alicia and Ryan in particularly were starting to show the strain. Alicia had been up for something approaching thirty hours, having found sleep to be rather impossible after receiving the phone call that Jane had gone into labour. Ryan wasn’t much better off.
Jim had worried about him, but Ryan had issued a casual reassurance that he was done cutting things, so the worst he could do to himself at that point would be to put a nail through his foot, and he’d done that before, so it couldn’t be all that bad.
Jim had held himself in check, and not bustled Ryan back to the couch in the break room to get sleep before he put a fucking nail through his foot. Instead he reminded himself that the cameras were rolling, and there was only an hour and a half left before it would be all over anyway. He left Ryan to building sets, and went back to the kitchen area to talk with the judges.
There were only thirty minutes left in the competitions, and the kitchens were mayhem. Ryan had brought in the moat he’d built on a rolling cart, and hooked up a hose to the sink in order to actually have water in the moat.
When he’d made the floating platforms, he hadn’t thought about ever having the platforms on a stable surface, so the pieces of polystyrene that he was using were rounded on the bottom. They were going to have to floating to get flat enough to actually place the cakes on them without worry of the cakes sliding off, or collapsing to one side. Alicia’s dragon was finished. They needed to fill the moat, place the swans on the floating platforms, frost the cupcakes, and put the cupcakes in the clamshell-style ‘stone’ that was going to be held shut with the cake-knife ‘Excaliber’.
The Graemes had wheeled their monstrously huge dragon in (with help from Ryan and Alicia as well) and were working on finishing touches to the cake, and to the dragon.
Tarquil stood in his kitchen, alone and putting the finishing touches on some of his figurines.
It seemed like no time at all when Jim called out the five-minute warning.
Then there was the rush, the flurry. Ryan was frantically frosting cupcakes while Alicia was oh-so-carefully placing the swan cakes on their platforms, now that there was enough water for the platforms to float.
Leida and Rhagnhaid had finished their their cake and were putting finishing touches on the dragon – though they’d run out of time to have any kind of a test run on the fire-breathing.
Two minutes left had Tarquil placing his gorgeous, willowy platform on to the judges table and arranging his chocolate figurines amongst the sprays of sugared roses. Alicia and Ryan were hurriedly placing their cupcakes into the stone, and testing the edges to make sure that the lid wouldn’t ruin the frosting on them.
One minute left.
The Graemes gigantic dragon was in place, and Rhagnhaid ran back to their kitchen, plucked the highland cow magnet off the fridge and balanced it on top of the dragon’s head. Ryan closed the top half of the stone, and held it in place while Alicia slid the stone into place. Tarquil grabbed one of the eggs that Laurence had finished and placed it at the base of his project.
‘CONTESTANTS, STEP AWAY FROM YOUR PROJECTS!’ Jim called, projecting his voice to every corner of the set.
The five remaining contestants stood next to their entries. Adrenaline was heavy in the air (Jim thought that maybe adrenaline was the only thing keeping the contestants standing after fifteen hours of filming and fully nineteen hour on set. Jim was feeling tired, and he wasn’t even competing.)
As the first participant to spin the wheel, Tarquil got to present his dish first. He blew his frizette out of his face, and walked to the judges table when called. ‘The return of King Arthur isn’t about the people.’ he said, ‘It’s about the return of King Arthur.’ He stepped up to his display, ‘I have made desserts fit for the King of Albion.’
The judges left their table to look at the display, looking at the way that the sugar roses curled around the wooden struts to support the platforms. Each one was a complete and distinct tableau, depicting knights in valiant battle or a group of courtiers dressed for a dance. One was of the round table, another of Arthur and Merlin consulting each other next to a truly spectacular oak tree made of marzipan. There were six in all, and each one was stunning. Tarquil had also taken one of Laurence’s eggs, and added it to his display, explaining the importance of repetition and yet change throughout history, as represented in the egg, that could be opened like a set of stacking dolls.
It was a beautiful display, and incredibly impressive.
Jim turned to the camera ‘But will it be enough to make up for the zero last round?’
Alicia and Ryan, representing ‘Callens & Carter’ (and both back in turquoise aprons) were next in line to present. The judges walked up to the table, and Alicia directed them to look at the sword in the stone first. The sword in the stone worked beautifully. The judges each wanted a try at pulling Excaliber out of it’s stone sheath, and every time it worked perfectly. The sword would be pulled from the stone, which would then open slowly, revealing the dozens of cupcakes hidden inside. The stone then wouldn’t latch shut again until the knife had been replaced.
Next the judges were directed to bring Excaliber with them and to look at the lady of the lake. The swans were floating on the placid surface of the fake ‘lake’ and Ryan’s rough-hewn statue of the lady of the lake held just enough colour to hint at mystery. Well-defined facial features fades into blocked out wood, giving the appearance of a woman emerging from the mist. It was truly artfully done. Alicia’s sleeves ended up getting quite wet though, as they hadn’t quite considered what would happen while trying to cut a cake that was floating in water. Alicia wound up having to reach in and hold the platform still against the force of the knife the judges were using to cut into the cake.
The final piece for the judges was their dragon. She was beautiful and small, but looked completely seamless. It was impossible to tell where the cake ended and the wood began. Ryan held a match to the nozzle of the flame while Alicia slowly turned the gas on until it caught.
It was a beautiful, small thing, a tiny spout of flame, smaller than Ryan’s little finger, but it was perfect.
When Ryan looked up and caught Alicia’s eye, she looked near tears with happiness, and he smiled back.
They had come here to win, and now, with forty-five thousand pounds on the line, they were up against a three meter dragon.
There was something that passed between them in that moment, the kind of wordless understanding that comes from years of friendship. Something settled and still and proud. They had come out in far from ideal circumstances. Despite it all, they fought, as they always had, as they always would. Together they had always dragged each other out, laughed in the face of long odds or pitying looks. Everything they were they had built for themselves, and this was a moment of reckoning.
They had done the best they could, somehow managed to stay in the running despite setbacks and skill levels.
Winning would change everything.
There wasn’t anything else to be done. Their presentation was over. It was up to the judges, and to the three meter monster that the Heelund Coo-pcakes had put together.
It passed between them, unspoken.
I’m so proud of you.
Thank you for everything.
Can you imagine if…
Then it was time for the final team to have their showing. The Graemes walked up, both wearing their ‘Heelund Coo’ gear.
‘Yeh riddy?’ Leida said, smiling wildly at Rhagnhaid.
‘L’t’s see’s’m fieyer!’ he said, smiling back. She flipped a knob, and he hit a button and a huge spout of flame came pouring from the dragon’s mouth, nearly a meter long and sparking like a firework.
The Graemes were so busy cackling that they didn’t even notice when the fire melted the top spires of their cake Camelot.
There also wasn’t an off switch, so there was a wait of nearly eight minutes while everyone waited for the fuel reserves to be used up, so the judges could actually cut into the cake they were trying to judge.
Aside from the melted spires, it was a masterpiece of skill. Each brick of the pseudisodomous walls had been hand painted, and no detail had been spared. There were guards in every tower, and spaced out along the curtain wall. The drawbridge was down, but so was the portcullis, and inside the castle were there were townsfolk going about their days. Rhagnhaid had built not only a castle, but thatched-roof buildings inside; peasants and livestock, every one an individual.
‘Some truly incredible skill here in round three!’ Jim told the cameras, honestly. ‘But who will walk away with, what today will be our *forty-five thousand* pound prize? We’ll find out in just a few minutes!’
Jim, as the host, stayed with the judges during the deliberation. Joseph then had the job of herding exhausted, keyed-up bakers back to the break room so the judges could go over scores.
It was far from an easy task.
Eventually Joseph managed to win them over with a promise of food being waiting for them in the break room. (Usually they didn’t provide food after the second break, but mega-challenges were an exception for many rules.)
Tarquil turned his nose up at the spread – which had just been delivered by an intern who had run to a fast-food place down the street. Rhagnhaid and Leida had shared a fierce kiss and then dug into the food. Alicia wouldn’t stop pacing long enough to eat anything. She was restless and tense, and she had the vague air of a shaken soda bottle that was on the verge of being opened. Ryan only managed to get her to stop pacing when he’d stood in her path and handed her mobile to her.
‘I can’t call Jane! It’s near on two in the morning! She just had a child!’
‘Then text her to see if she’s up, because she just had a child.’ Ryan said pointedly. ‘She very well might be up.’
Alicia took the phone. ‘We don’t know anything yet.’
‘All the more reason to call her now. Then you won’t have to wake her up when we find out what happens.’
‘Ryan…’ She started and then trailed off. She looked up and it was easy to see the twelve million thoughts swirling through her mind.
Ryan pulled her in for a tight hug. When Alicia finally stepped back, she took a deep breath and said, ‘Right.’
‘Go call Jane.’ He said again.
She stuck her tongue out at him. ‘As if I’d be callin’ anyone else. It’s still two in the morning!’ But she was smiling when she walked to the corner to see if Jane was, in fact, awake.
Ryan then walked back over to the table and filled a plate. He eyed the couch for a moment before deciding that if he sat down for too long, he would probably pass out, nerves or not, so instead he leaned against the wall and started eating mechanically.
They’d been in the studio for nearly twenty hours, but those fifteen minutes seemed longer than the entire day.
It felt like an endless limbo, caught on the anxious, exhilarating edge of ‘what if’, that had an edge sharper than a razor. One side made the blood feel like lightning and bubbles; elation and the infinite wonder of unlocked possibility. The other was an endless dark side of regrets and lost chances; guilt and regret, filled with the over-examination of every flaw, and the million different paths that might have meant a different outcome. It was far from an easy place to be.Ryan felt like he was waiting on an executioner’s block.
Alicia ended her call with Jane, and walked over.
She nudged Ryan with her hip then caught his eye.
‘Whatever happens out there,’ she said, ‘we did good today. Win or not.’ She looked hard into his eyes, trying to see if she thought he was believing her. ‘You mark me, Ryan. We did ourselves proud out there. I’m not gonna say it was perfect, or it was easy, but nothin’ worth doin’ ever is. We didn’t leave anything behind. Everything we’ve got? It’s all out there. We don’t have anything left, and that’s all anyone can ever do.’
‘I want you to have this.’ He said.
‘You want me to have? I want me to have it!’ She said with a laugh, kicking at his booted foot. ‘But I wouldn’t’ve even had a chance if not for you.’ Alicia met his eyes, and she was serious again. ‘Not a lot of people would’ve done what you did, Ryan. Even fewer would have made it this far. And look at us now! We’re standing here, nervous in the waiting room, because we have a chance to win this thing. Nobody ever would have thought so this morning, but we proved ‘em all wrong. You’re my best friend, Ryan, and there’s nobody I’d rather have with me right now.’
He raised an eyebrow at her last statement. ‘Not even Jane?’
Alicia laughed and smacked him on the arm, ‘O’ course I’d rather have Jane, y’ lump! But seein’ as how she was a bit pre-occupied with larger causes…I really couldn’t have done it without you.’
‘Alright everyone! We’re back out for the final numbers!’ Joseph’s voice cut through the relative quiet of the room, and the five contestants quickly lined up to see the judges, and have their fates decided.
The contestants got back to the kitchen set and lined up in front of the judges. The judges went back over the dishes in the order they were first presented, starting with the now-incomplete team from The Evening Rose.
‘After quite a blow in the second round, and the devastating loss of a team-mate mid-challenge, Tarquil has showed incredible tenacity and commitment in completing this challenge.’ Jim summarized for the camera. Let’s see what the judges had to say about his final display. Over to you, Monica.’
‘It really was beautiful,’ Monica said, ‘but there wasn’t much to actually eat on it. Your sugar work was incredible, it also felt like there was so much decoration there was no substance.’
David went next, saying, ‘I really do agree with Monica. Incredible skill level, excellent execution. You’ve built a work of art. It’s just not a very edible work of art. Moulding chocolate comes in handy, but it hardly tastes good.’
‘Beautiful but inedible.’ Janelle said, nodding a bit sadly. ‘It may look fit for a king, but it wouldn’t make it past the taster.’
‘I know it’s hard, especially when your partner walks out on you halfway through.’ Mickey said, ‘You really did an amazing job sticking with it, and managing to come up with a finished project even though you were by yourself. You truly should be commended for that. Your actual desert though, felt…lacking. It was just missing something. This felt more like the stage for something. A feast for the eyes and not for the mouth.’
‘I like sugar.’ Cassy said, ‘so I thought all the roses were great!’ she laughed. ‘It was almost too pretty though? I almost felt a bit bad about eating it, because it was so lovely to look at.’
‘And that was fractured team from The Evening Rose, presenting despite their difficulties.’ Jim summarized into his microphone, ‘Now we have our very own odd couple of the Wheel Bake Off – Callen & Carter Cakes and Confections – with a very last-minute stand in. I hear that there’s a new Carter in the world, though to explain the absence?’
Alicia lit up at the mention of Jane, bright happiness shining at the thought of . ‘Aye, a little girl. Just a few hours ago, actually.’
‘Well, our congratulations to the Miss Carters, then.’ Jim said with an honest smile. ‘Now, to the judges!’
‘Three separate pieces was very ambitious.’ Monica said, ‘and yet you managed to pull all of them together, working almost entirely by yourself. I’m going to be very frank. You’re the type that I would hire on the spot, Ms. Callen. Tonight you have shown yourself to be creative, independent, driven and capable. I’m very impressed. Your swan cake – sponge with strawberry and cream. It was beautifully understated and simple, which worked very well in contrast to your cupcakes. Lavender cake with cardamom buttercream. A daring combination, but you balanced it perfectly. Finishing it off with a sultana spice cake, you truly captured a wide array of flavours, and you did every one of them with truly commendable skill.’
Alicia gaped, and brought a hand up to cover her mouth. Ryan grinned, bubbling over with giddy pride for his friend. He’d known she was amazing for years. It was far past time the rest of the world started to see it too.
‘You’ve got good taste in friends, too.’ Daniel added, ‘The sword in the stone was absolutely ingenious. Interactive and engaging but also clean and truly beautiful use of the theme. The only thing was the swan cakes being a bit difficult to actually get into. Once they were cut however, the mastery really did carry all the way through. The design elements were exquisite, and so was the cooking. There was something for everyone, which I think would be very fitting for the king of the Round Table. I was particularly taken with your cupcakes as well. It’s a unique combination, and not an obvious one. Very well done, both of you.’
‘I wasn’t sure if I thought you would be able to pull this challenge off at first.’ Janaelle said. ‘You did more than pull through. You created an incredible and unique visual display and then you backed it up with superb baking. Every single cake was done with incredible care and competance. Your spice cake was wonderful; dense and moist without being too heavy. Your cupcakes, too. Inspiring decision, honestly. It’s not often that I’m faced with a new combination, but you managed to surprise me. I am truly impressed.’
‘Alicia, you are the baker of the team, so when it comes down to it, the points are in your hands.’ Mickey said. ‘Throughout the show today, we’ve seen you display incredible patience and compassion when things maybe don’t turn out as you’d like them to. Many people, in stressful situations take it out on the people around them. You support the people around you, even when they may not have the skill-level you have. In one challenge you’ve managed to show a wide range of skill. It’s easy for a sponge cake to get overpowered with other flavours, but you balanced everything perfectly. Balance actually might just be a good word for every part of your work on this challenge – your cupcakes were incredible. Just the right amount of floral to dance with the spice. Sometimes such different flavours can feel like they’re competing, but here, they just blend so beautifully. Ryan – you may not be the best baker we’ve ever had on the show, but you were quick to listen and to learn. You also weren’t afraid to play to your strengths, and that showed through in an amazing way in this challenge. Every single display piece you made tonight is incredible. You built a fire breathing dragon, a functioning sword in the stone, and an entire lake. If you ever get tired of building houses, I imagine you could get plenty of work building sets. The theatricality of your pieces is just incredible.’
‘I don’t really know what to say that hasn’t been said. I kind of want to keep the sword though.’ Cassy said with a laugh. ‘Take home Excaliber. It truly was beautiful though. The lake was my favourite. It seemed so brave to me to actually float your cakes in the water! Even if it was hard to cut them that way, the effect of the swans on the lake was magical. I also thought the sponge cake was fantastic. It sort of reminded me of a cream tea. It was delicious. For having a team member who supposedly can’t bake at all, you guys did an incredible job.’
By the time Cassy had finished speaking, Alicia was properly in tears, wiping at her eyes and smiling wetly. She took Ryan’s hand and squeezed it so hard she could feel the bones shifting, but he just squeezed back. They might just have a chance to win.
The reviews of the three meter dragon were next. Leida and Rhagnhaid stood proudly by the slightly charred muzzle of their beast.
‘The fact that you managed to build a nine meter anything in nine hours is incredible. The fact that you built the most impressive flame-thrower I’ve seen in all of my time on this show is also incredible. Your cake was also a masterpiece. The detail work was exquisite. It was simple, but elegant. Chocolate, and buttercream, just enough brandy to give it complexity. Very well done.’
‘That flamethrower – I was a bit afraid for the table to be honest. And it didn’t stop! I had a thought to get a stick and try to toast some cheese, for a moment there. And your cake did get a bit toasted. Other than that, though. Truly impressive.’
‘I think you lost focus on your cake. The scale – and the flamethrower – are quite a feat. The cake you made is good, but it’s not particularly interesting. I look at this dragon, and I want to know what you could do if you focused more on your baking and less on the fireworks. Your cake was good, but I want to know what you could’ve done when you haven’t lit your cake on fire.’
‘I think that Janaelle does have a point.’ Mickey said, ‘Your cake was very good, the people in it were amazing. There was so much detail. The dragon – the dragon is amazing. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything close to this big happening on the show. It’s quite stunning, honestly, but I do have to wonder what we could have had if you had focused a bit more on the baking and a bit less on the building.’
‘I thought the cake was delicious. I love chocolate cake.’ Cassy said. ‘And I don’t know about everybody else? But I want one of these. I’m gonna hire you for my next birthday party if this is what you guys do. That was amazing!’
‘We have Tarquil, valiantly completing the third round, without a partner, and without any points from round two.’ Jim said, summarizing to the cameras, ‘We have Alicia and Ryan, our underdogs who have surprised us all. Will this round be enough to put them on top? And we have the Graemes, who have built what is most certainly the largest pastry we’ve ever had in the studio!
There can only be one winner though. Who will it be? We’ll find out right after this break!’
Ryan sent a shocked and anxious look at Alicia upon hearing Jim’s words – surely they weren’t being sent back to the lounge room?
Alicia smiled and squeezed his hand. ‘That’s just for the show. We don’t have to wait.’ she whispered.
Ryan smiled at her nervously. This was it.
‘You’ve all done incredibly well.’ Monica said, standing from the table. ‘These challenges are extremely difficult even in the best of circumstances, which many of you did not have. Win or lose, you have all done well simply by completing the challenges here today.’ She paused and then looked at the contestants.
‘Tarquil. You did very well, and showed incredible drive in finishing this challenge by yourself. Unfortunately, however, it simply wasn’t enough. Your dish, while beautiful, just didn’t have the substance behind it. Full marks on appearance, but the flavours just didn’t come through. Twenty-seven points.’
‘Twenty-seven points for what’s left of the Evening Rose team.’ Jim said, ‘When added with the previous 46 from round one, the unfortunate zero from round two, that brings the total to seventy-six total points for the challenge!’
The cameras panned back to Monica, still standing at the table. ‘Alicia and Ryan. You have done your missing team member proud tonight. Your creativity and teamwork came together to create a truly stunning display. Fifty-four points.’
Alicia gasped, and looked at Ryan, with the hope shining, bright and tangible in her face.
Jim was the one with the official scores. ‘Thirty-eight points for round one,’ he said, ‘Forty-eight points for round two, and fify-six points for round three! That brings the kitchen representing Callen and Carter to an unexpected one hundred and forty points!’
If it was possible, Alicia’s grip on Ryan’s hand got tighter.
Monica started speaking again. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many highland cows in a kitchen, but they seem to work for you two, as does most of what you do. You have your own unique style, and that has shown through in every part of this challenge today. Sometimes, however, style overcomes purpose, and we end up with torched towers instead of what could be a truly pristine vision of Camelot. You’ve created the largest display we’ve ever seen, and it might just be a little bit too big for this challenge. Forty-two points.’
Alicia held her breath.
Jim turned to the cameras. He knew that if he looked at the contestants now, he’d never be able to hold it together. ‘For our team Heelund Coo-pcakes, a score of forty-five from round one, a score of fifty-two from round two, and forty-two from round three, for a total of…one hundred…and…THIRTY NINE POINTS.’
Alicia’s delighted cry was barely audible from where Jim was standing. He turned to see that Ryan had swept her off her feet to spin her around in pure, unadulterated happiness. The Graemes were looking on, smiling brightly at the sight.
Tarquil looked like he was ready to burn something down.
‘Rising to the top, in a true twist! The underdogs have won it! Forty-five thousand pounds will be going home to Callen & Carter. Congratulations to all of our contestants, and thank you for joining us!’ Jim said, finishing by rattling off the information of their sponsors and the list of accreditations that came at the end of every show.
Jim turned back around to see that Ryan and Alicia had both been crushed into a hug by the Graemes. ‘Ach! We knew y’ c’d do eit!’ Rhagnhaid was saying, kissing Alicia on the cheek.
‘Y’r boath fie’terrs, th’ t’o o’ ya.’ Leida added, adjusting the highland cow pin on Ryan’s apron. ‘If’n y’ e’err com’ up t’ A’b’r’deeen, y’d best be lookin’ ‘s up, y’hearr?’
Alicia sniffled, and wiped at her eyes, even though she hadn’t stopped crying. ‘And if you’re ever near Cornwall,’ she said, ‘You best not be goin’ anywhere else.’
Jim didn’t even notice Tarquil stalk off the stage. Ryan had turned, and caught his gaze. The ecstatic smile on Ryan’s face transformed him completely, and Jim smiled back, happy to be caught up in such an obvious display of the purest joy.
Ryan disentangled himself from the Graemes (not noticing that they let him go as soon as they saw Jim looking) and walked over.
‘Does this count as the show being over?’ Ryan asked.
‘The cameras are still rolling.’ Jim said.
‘Are any of them pointed over here?’
Jim looked around. ‘No-’
He was cut off by Ryan’s mouth on his.
It tasted a little like sugar, and a lot like happiness, and maybe just hints of something that could even be love.