On a shady street in Brooklyn, a fire hydrant sends a spray of water into the air and beneath its arch, a gaggle of children splash around, laughing and squealing. Louis can't blame them. Summer is ending and taking its tireless heat with it. And it’s not just the kids, but everyone, it seems, making one final grab at seasonal fun.
It’s Friday afternoon and he’s running late. He knows how long it’ll take for a train to come and how long it’ll take the train to get him where he’s going. And he knows he should start leaving a bit earlier when he’s got someplace to be. But the trouble is Louis never really wants to go anywhere, if he’s honest. It’s more that he feels he has to. It’s loneliness and FOMO and the nagging voice in his head that insists one missed night equates somehow to a whole life of failure. That this is the start of it all.
Stay at home and die — alone, penniless, miserable.
If he weren’t perpetually single, he probably wouldn’t think this way. And sometimes he’s aware of how absurd he’s being and overcomes that voice and stays home anyway.
But more often, he gets dressed and gets on the train and allows Zayn and the others to talk him into meeting them at some bar that’s either really shitty or horribly overpriced. And If he’s lucky, there’ll be food he doesn’t have to share. (But usually, he has to grab a dollar slice on the way home.)
Bachelorhood is sweetest in New York. No, he’s not being sarcastic. He’s never heard of sarcasm before in his life.
He exits the subway in Soho and pulls up his maps. A five-minute walk later, he steps into a neon-lit haunt and sees Zayn right away at the bar.
“Hey,” Louis says, stepping into the hug Zayn offers. He’s distinctly aware of someone stood on his other side, watching them, who obviously must be the friend Zayn brought along. He steps back, his expression already morphing into something congenial and polite.
He faces the stranger and blanks.
For reference, his conversation with Zayn earlier that day had gone something like:
‘I want you to meet my friend.”
‘Someone you’re dating?’
‘Nah, just a friend. He’s kind of new to the city and needs to meet ppl. He’s from Cheshire.’
And he’s gorgeous, but that’s the bit Zayn neglected to mention.
Immediately, Louis thinks about the baseball cap he’s wearing and his five-o’clock shadow. He’d barely glanced at himself before stepping through the door. Mentally, he facepalms. Physically, he forces a smile.
“Hi,” the boy says, extending a hand. “Harry.”
“Louis.” They shake. His hand is sort of big. His fingertips calloused. He’s tall and slim and slouchy, nice arms, perfect smile. His hair is short with springy locks sort of shooting everywhere, curling over his forehead. Wide eyes, but not in a comical way. Wide-open and observant. All he’s wearing is a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and Vans. But he is drop-dead gorgeous and Louis has to look away from him, responding in that way he does around boys he’s got a crush on. Which is ridiculous. He’s literally just met him.
Harry looks away too, but after Louis orders a drink and they get a table, their eyes meet again. And they smile at one another. And look away.
“Just going to run to the loo,” Harry says.
He gets up, leaving Zayn and Louis alone.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louis says, barely waiting until Harry is beyond earshot.
Zayn’s brows crease. “What?”
“What kind of a friend does this? I’d never do this to you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You didn’t tell me he looked like that ,” Louis says. “Fucking hell—”
Zayn rolls his eyes, taking a sip of his drink. “You just said last week you’re not interested in dating.”
“That’s not the point!”
“He’s not even your type, Louis.”
Louis’ eyes widen. “Since when ?”
“He’s 30!” Zayn says. “You don’t date younger men.”
Louis pauses for a second. True, but also— “That’s still not the point. A good friend says, ‘Hey, want you to meet a friend of mine. Just so you know, he’s really fucking fit.’ And anyway he’s only two years younger.”
“You don’t even like dating men your own age,” Zayn says, his brows wrinkled.
“You’re grasping at straws.” Louis shakes his head, sipping his drink irately. “I’m staying for one drink and then I’m leaving. I won’t be the victim of this ambush any longer than I have to.”
Zayn ignores him, lifting a menu.
Harry returns, his eyes meeting Louis’ again. “Did you two order?”
“Louis says he’s only staying for one drink,” Zayn says. The amusement in his voice isn’t immediately obvious, but Louis knows him and hears it well.
“Really?” Harry asks. He has the audacity to look disappointed.
Louis shrugs. “Might stay for a bite, I don't know.”
“This place has the best nachos, I heard,” Harry says. “Maybe we could all share a plate?”
Louis is definitely going for a slice of pizza after this. “Sure.” He doesn’t bother looking at the menu. “How do you two know each other?”
“We have a mutual friend,” Harry says. “Clemena.”
Who Louis knows is Zayn’s coworker. She lived in NY a year ago and fucked around exclusively with Zayn until she relocated to their ad agency’s Miami office. Her reasoning was the pursuit of warmer weather. Zayn thinks it’s more to do with commitment issues. He says he’s over it all now.
“I was mostly friends with her online, through Twitter,” Harry says. “When I told her I was coming here, she connected me with Zayn. And we’ve been hanging out ever since.”
Louis narrows his eyes at Zayn. “Has he hit on you yet?” he asks Harry.
Harry laughs. “No, he has not,” he says, then pouts at Zayn. “My tits not nice enough for you?”
Louis and Zayn sputter. They all dissolve into laughter. But Louis is the only one who swoons. He loves a sense of humour. He loves it even more when it’s impolite. Combined with everything else about Harry, he might be in trouble.
“Love your tits mate,” Zayn says in the kind but comical way only he can.
Zayn’s Uber pulls away from the kerb and it dawns on Louis that Harry is still standing beside him. Louis smiles awkwardly. “How are you getting home?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I’m actually still hungry,” Harry says. “You?”
“I’m starving, mate,” Louis says and Harry snickers. “I was planning to grab a slice of pizza after this, to be honest.”
“Wow, you had it all worked out?”
“I always do,” Louis says. “I’d invite you, but it’s not a very social place. You just hand them a dollar, they hand you a slice, and you hop on the train, you know?”
“Oh, got it,” Harry says. It could be Louis’ imagination but he looks vaguely disappointed.
“I mean, we could go to Five Guys,” Louis says. “If you‘re trying to get me to stay.”
Harry smiles. “You’re not craving pizza specifically?”
“I could eat anything right now,” Louis says. “To be honest, if I’m craving anything it’s a proper fry-up. Been thinking about it for weeks. I make the best fry-up, mate. Just haven’t had the time.”
“I’d like to see that,” Harry says. “The best fry-up.”
“You sound unconvinced.”
“I mean… Mine is pretty great.”
“Not better than mine, though.”
Harry shrugs, unbothered. “Alright.”
“Listen, I love being right. I especially love when people tell me I’m right. I’m absolutely willing to prove it, so I can hear you tell me how right I am. It’s your call,” Louis says. Harry doesn’t immediately respond. When he looks at him, he’s completely thrown by how pleased he looks. Has anyone ever looked so pleased with him when he’s purposefully being a twat? Louis shoves his hands in his pockets. “You just name a time and place.”
“You’re willing to prove it right now?”
“Well, that’s a bit difficult, seeing as we’re not standing in a kitchen.”
“I’m only six blocks away,” Harry says. “But no pressure.”
“You want me to do a full English right now?”
“Do you need a day or two to prepare?”
“Fuck off, no, I do not,” Louis says. On one hand, his competitive feathers are entirely ruffled. He has to prove himself. His pride simply can’t withstand further teasing. On the other hand, the more Harry teases, the more Louis wants to tease, and he’s not just referring to a bit of banter. He’s attracted to Harry, obviously . As dishevelled as he feels, he thinks Harry is attracted to him too. And there’s nothing like the bleak, dickless expanse of summer to convince a person that a cook-off at 10 P.M. is a good idea. He shrugs. “Fine. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
The walk to Harry’s East Village apartment is short, so there’s no time for Louis to reconsider his choices. On the way up, Louis does wonder how Harry affords this place and if, when they walk in, there’ll be five roommates crammed in the living room. As it turns out, it’s just Harry and a girl named Claire, a friend of a friend of a friend, who’s currently visiting family in Sweden.
“It’s actually her apartment. Or her grandmum’s or something,” Harry says, turning a light on in the living room. There’s heirloom furniture everywhere, but it’s not tasteless. A slightly weathered brown velvet couch. A high-gloss wood cabinet housing the telly. Lots of rugs. Probably Persian. A painted tea set on the kitchen table. “I’m staying with her until I find something else.”
“So you’re not paying rent?” Louis asks, candidly.
Harry looks at him like he’s crazy. “Of course. We’re splitting it.”
Louis makes a mental note of that.
They convene in the kitchen. It’s small in general, but big for Manhattan. Tiny and artsy with colourful tiles and kitschy wares. Harry fiddles with his phone and soon after, Shania Twain starts crooning from a speaker in the corner.
“Good thinking,” Louis says. “I’ll need a victory soundtrack.”
Harry ignores him. “How do you want to do this? You go first?”
“Nope. Best for last,” Louis says. He takes a seat on one of the leather stools at the bar, facing Harry. “Also, I don’t know where everything is.”
Harry drums his hands on the counter, idly. “Alright then.” He ties on a millennial pink apron from a hook by the fridge with the initials H.S. on the corner. He then unclips the tiny hair claw on the pocket of the apron and fixes his hair into a little knot atop his head. Louis smiles, terribly endeared, but adamantly unfazed by this whole performance. Who cares that he has a personalized apron? That says nothing about his skill.
Harry washes his hands and gets started. “What do you do by the way?”
“I’m the choir instructor at P.S. 38.,” Louis says. “And I do piano lessons during the summer. One day, maybe I’ll get into musical theatre. It’s why I’m here.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Harry says. “I’d ask you to sing for me, but I’m sure you get that all the time. It seems like, with careers in the arts, people always want you to validate it on the spot.”
“I do get that sometimes, but I wouldn't mind singing for you. Only thing is, since I’m about to completely embarrass you, cooking wise, I don’t want to seem like a show-off, you know? Best to not reveal all my cards at once.”
“Right, of course,” Harry says, trying to not laugh. “You mind if I put a spin on this by the way?”
“Whatever lessens your disadvantage.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Harry decides with a sigh.
He gets all his ingredients out. Sausages and bacon that it looks like he purchased from a butcher, plump red and yellow tomatoes, a carton of mushrooms, eggs, and a can of baked beans. “I don’t have the right bacon and I don’t have black pudding.”
“It’ll do,” Louis says, fiddling with a stack of puzzle-piece-shaped coasters. “How are you liking New York?”
Harry gets started on the sausage and bacon. “Better now than at the start of the year.”
“That’s when you moved?”
“After Christmas last year,” Harry says. “I actually arrived on New Years. And it was kind of miserable. It was so cold and I was alone and sad, I guess. And then, I don’t know, I got over myself. And I got in touch with Zayn like Clemena told me too. And it’s been better.”
“Sounds like you were right to throw a little fit. You can hang out with us next New Year’s.”
Harry glances away from the hob. “I’d like that,” he says, so earnestly Louis is once again thrown. And then Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know’ is on and the moment passes. This is how it goes for the next twenty minutes or so. When they aren’t humming along or moving minutely to the music, they chat about New York mostly.
Louis is vaguely aware of what Harry is doing, but altogether unthreatened by Harry adding onions and brown sugar to his baked beans or a splash of cooking wine to his mushrooms. In truth, Louis has only ever used salt and pepper for seasoning, but he thinks the merit of a first-class English breakfast lies in perfectly seared and perfectly browned ingredients. He’s done this enough times that he’s quite confident in this area, if nothing else.
“I’ve got some brioche, if you’re okay with that,” Harry says.
Louis resists an eye roll. “Whatever.”
It’s not until Harry starts plating his meal that Louis grows mildly concerned. He’s sure he’s seen similar techniques while watching Iron Chef. Harry slides the plate across the counter towards Louis and hands him a fork as well. Louis regards him suspiciously as he finnagels some sausage and tomato onto his fork with a bit of egg and beans. He jams it all into his mouth.
It takes considerable effort not to moan. Or orgasm, even.
It’s incredible. Way more flavourful than he’s ever had it but in a subtle way. It’s the same dish he grew up eating but somehow better. Somehow exciting and zesty. It’s also perfectly grilled or crispy where it's meant to be. Louis wishes he were at home alone, in his pyjamas in his bed so he could shovel it all into his maw as quickly as humanly possible. As it is, Harry’s eyes are on him and Louis’ pride is in jeopardy, so he puts his fork down carefully and asks, “So, what are you? A chef?”
With his hands folded behind his back and a smug little smile on his face, Harry says, “Yes, actually.”
Louis exhales. “You’re not like Bobby Flay famous, are you?”
“We’re acquainted, but no.”
“What the fuck,” Louis whispers. He lifts his plate. “I’m taking this with me.”
Harry laughs. “Where are you going?”
On the couch in the living, Louis does a quick Google search. His suspicions are immediately confirmed. “You’re Google-able!”
“I know,” Harry says, humbly. He’s sitting on the arm of the couch now.
There are pictures of him with chefs at fancy venues, pictures of him holding awards, a link to an article in the Independent that once featured him.
“Is that Wikipedia?” Harry asks, sounding horrified. “Please don’t read that. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
Louis puts his phone down. “Fine. Where do you work?”
“Augustine,” Harry says.
As in a very fancy, very celebrity-ridden French restaurant in Chelsea with locations in London, Paris and San Francisco. A film or two has been shot there, in its marble and ivory dining rooms or its ivied balconies. TV specials have been centered on it and its owner, Anne Augustine — thrice Michelin-starred, winner of obscure awards, author of acclaimed books.
“Shit,” Louis says. “That’s incredible.”
“It sounds more incredible than it is,” Harry says. “I have an in with the owner.”
“Um, okay, you mean Anne Augustine?” Louis laughs. “Are you two best mates?”
“Sometimes,” Harry says, cryptically. And when Louis crosses his arms and waits for more, he adds, “She’s actually my mum.”
It’s silent for a beat or two afterwards. Louis is quite good at sniffing out bullshit, but there’s none to detect here. He gawks. “Sorry, what?”
“I know,” Harry says again, more solemn than before.
“She did Barack Obama’s birthday dinner last year, Harry! My mum records her show religiously,” Louis says, hoping these facts will convey the full scope of his internal hysteria.
“Yes,” Harry says. “But she’s really not a celebrity. She’s done a lot of high-profile things. But she’s genuinely a very normal person. And we don’t get along all of the time.”
“Harry,” Louis says. “She has a show on Netflix.”
Harry snorts. “It’s not her show. She’s just on it.”
“Alright, whatever. So, you and your mum are famous and this hasn’t come up until now. Does Zayn know?”
“Maybe Clemena’s said something, but we haven’t talked about it. I’m really not famous, Louis,” Harry says, sounding a little desperate to be believed. “I mean, people might know of me in the industry, but if they do, I’m Anne’s son. I don’t have a cookbook. I’m not on a show. And that Wikipedia page is one paragraph long. It’s embarrassing that it even exists. Your food is getting cold.”
Louis collects his plate and carries on eating. “Alright, but you’re like her protege, yeah? Your mum’s?”
Harry unclips his hair and runs his hands through it roughly. “Before we get into this, do you want a drink?” he asks.
So, Harry makes them bourbon cocktails with apple and maple supposedly — also, disgustingly delicious — and fixes a less fancy plate of food for himself.
“I don’t consider myself her protege. She taught me a lot, but I don’t think she wanted me to be a chef… Plus, she’s more traditional whereas I’ve taken French cuisine and merged it with Japanese cuisine—” Harry trails off. “I have a restaurant in London. It’s about three years old. And we’re opening a location in New York. That’s why I’m here. In addition to sitting in at Augustine.”
Louis props his arm up against the back of the couch and rests his forehead against his fist. “Does the French and Japanese fusion have to do with why you don’t get along all the time?”
Harry has a sip of his drink. “Uh…”
“Or we can stop talking about this?”
“No, it’s fine,” Harry says and it seems like he means it. He slouches in the couch, balancing his glass on his knee. “That’s part of it, I guess. She’s just pretty tough on me. If we’re not talking about food, it’s all fine. I think, if I’d become a doctor like my sister, things would be different. ‘Cause there’s not much she could say about that. But I think, once I followed in her footsteps, it’s like she felt she had to control everything. Like if I wasn’t successful maybe that would reflect badly on her. And I mean, there aren’t many women in the industry who’ve made it as far as she has, so she has more to protect. I don’t know, and she’s really busy, so I’ve never had a chance to ask.”
“It’s good of you to think about it from her point of view,” Louis says.
Harry shrugs. “I’m just guessing. Also I’m making this all sound so morbid, but it isn't. I’m really lucky. I always have been.”
“Listen, you don’t have to do that. You can be honest with me. Even if you think you sound ungrateful,” Louis says. “Just as long as you don’t judge me when I whine or complain, which I do often.”
“Deal,” Harry says, and they tap their glasses together. “You should come by the restaurant sometime. I’ll comp you.”
Louis wiggles his brows. “Look at me,” he says. “I’ve got friends in high places now.”
And it never occurs to him that he shouldn’t refer to Harry as a friend or that he’s lost sight of his original goal to get horizontal with this boy by midnight. Because by then, his big brother instincts have kicked in. He looks at Harry reclined on the couch, every part of him unguarded and unassuming. His palm open or loosely curled around his glass, his shoulders slumped, slightly oily curls falling over his forehead. Louis considers his humor and his humility and his palpably zealous spirit. And suddenly, his concern for Harry is much less sexual than he would have anticipated upon meeting him.
“So tell me more about your restaurant,” Louis says. “What’s it called?”
Harry’s smile is back. “Yuzu. It’s named after a Japanese citrus tree. You want to see something cool? Or well, it’s not that cool yet, but someday, it might be very cool.”
“I’m not sure, to be honest.”
“Come on.” Harry takes Louis’ hand and tugs him to his feet anyway. He walks him to the balcony. Because of course they have a balcony. There’s a white-framed greenhouse the size of a wardrobe set up there with some plants and herbs growing in assorted pots. And in the center is a dwarf tree of vibrant dark green leaves.
“You know you can absolutely grow a lemon tree in New York,” Harry says, sliding the greenhouse door open. “It’s difficult and they’re temperamental as fuck, but it’s been done. I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried a yuzu tree. But I’m giving it a go.”
He looks so infectiously enthusiastic, Louis finds himself smiling and leaning in to inspect the tree as well. “Did you name it?” he asks. “Has to have a name.”
“She’s Stevie,” Harry says. “For Stevie Nicks.”
“Can’t go wrong with that. Do you talk to her?”
“Every day,” Harry stands up straight, crossing his arms. “Also, now that you’ve met her, you have to come by again and talk to her too. Like, often.”
Louis shakes his head, exasperated. “Yeah, alright. But I get dinner whenever I do.”