Read Red, White & Royal Blue Online

Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (12 page)

He doesn’t realize he’s been talking for an hour until he finishes retelling what happened at dinner and Henry says, “It sounds like you did your best.”

Alex forgets what he was going to say next.

He just … Well, he gets told he’s great a lot. He just doesn’t often get told he’s good enough.

Before he can think of a response, there’s a soft triple knock on the door—June.

“Ah—okay, thanks, man, I gotta go,” Alex says, his voice low as June eases the door open.

“Alex—”

“Seriously, um. Thank you,” Alex says. He really does not want to explain this to June. “Merry Christmas. Night.”

He hangs up and tosses the phone aside as June settles down on the bed. She’s wearing her pink bathrobe, and her hair is wet from the shower.

“Hey,” she says. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says. “Sorry, I don’t know what’s up with me. I didn’t mean to lose it. I’ve been … I don’t know. I’ve been kind of … off … lately.”

“It’s okay,” she says. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, flicking droplets of water onto him. “I was a total basket case
for the last six months of college. I would lose it at anybody. You know, you don’t have to do everything all the time.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” he tells her automatically. June tilts an unconvinced look at him, and he kicks at one of her knees with his bare foot. “So, how did things go after I left? Did they finish cleaning up the blood yet?”

June sighs, kicking him back. “Somehow it shifted to the topic of how they were a political power couple before the divorce and how good those times were, Mom apologized, and it was whiskey and nostalgia hour until everybody went to bed.” She sniffs. “Anyway, you were right.”

“You don’t think I was out of line?”

“Nah. Though … I kind of agree with what Dad was saying. Mom can be … you know … Mom.”

“Well, that’s what got her where she is now.”

“You don’t think it’s ever a problem?”

Alex shrugs. “I think she’s a good mom.”

“Yeah, to you,” June says. There’s no accusation behind it, just observation. “The effectiveness of her nurturing kind of depends on what you need from her. Or what you can do for her.”

“I mean, I get what she’s saying, though,” Alex hedges. “Sometimes it still sucks that Dad decided to pack up and move just to run for the seat in California.”

“Yeah, but, I mean, how is that different from the stuff Mom’s done? It’s all politics. I’m just saying, he has a point about how Mom pushes us without always giving us the other Mom stuff.”

Alex is opening his mouth to answer when June’s phone buzzes from her robe pocket. “Oh. Hmm,” she says when she slides it out to eye the screen.

“What?”

“Nothing, uh.” She thumbs open the message. “Merry Christmas text. From Evan.”

“Evan … as in ex-boyfriend Evan, in California? Y’all still text?”

June’s biting her lip now, her expression a little distant as she types out a response. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“Cool,” Alex says. “I always liked him.”

“Yeah. Me too,” June says softly. She locks her phone and drops it on the bed, blinking a couple times as if to reset. “Anyway, what’d Nora say when you told her?”

“Hmm?”

“On the phone?” she asks him. “I figured it was her, you never talk to anyone else about this crap.”

“Oh,” Alex says. He feels inexplicable, traitorous warmth flash up the back of his neck. “Oh, um, no. Actually, this is gonna sound weird, but I was talking to Henry?”

June’s eyebrows shoot up, and Alex instinctively scans the room for cover. “Really.”

“Listen, I know, but we kind of weirdly have stuff in common and, I guess, similar weird emotional baggage and neuroses, and for some reason I felt like he would get it.”

“Oh my God, Alex,” she says, lunging at him to yank him into a rough hug, “you made a friend!”

“I have friends! Get off me!”

“You made a friend!” She is literally giving him a noogie. “I’m so proud of you!”

“I’m gonna murder you,
stop it,
” he says, alligator-rolling out of her clutches. He lands on the floor. “He’s not my friend. He’s someone I like to antagonize all the time, and
one
time I talked to him about something real.”

“That’s a friend, Alex.”

Alex’s mouth starts and stops several silent sentences before he points to the door. “You can leave, June! Go to bed!”

“Nope. Tell me everything about your new best friend, who is a
royal.
That is so bougie of you. Who would have guessed it?” she says, peering over the edge of the bed at him. “Oh my God, this is like all those romantic comedies where the girl hires a male escort to pretend to be her wedding date and then falls in love with him for real.”

“That is
not at all
what this is like.”

The staff has barely finished packing up the Christmas trees when it starts.

There’s the dance floor to set up, menu to finalize, Snapchat filter to approve. Alex spends the entire 26th holed up in the Social Secretary’s office with June, going over the waivers they’ve gotten for everyone to sign after a daughter of a Real Housewife fell down the rotunda stairs last year; Alex remains impressed that she didn’t spill her margarita.

It’s time once more for the Legendary Balls-Out Bananas White House Trio New Year’s Eve Party.

Technically, the title is the Young America New Year’s Eve Gala, or as at least one late-night host calls it, the Millennial Correspondents’ Dinner. Every year, Alex, June, and Nora fill up the East Room on the first floor with three hundred or so of their friends, vague celebrity acquaintances, former hookups, potential political connections, and otherwise notable twenty-somethings. The party is, officially, a fund-raiser, and it generates so much money for charity and so much good PR for the First Family that even his mom approves of it.

“Um, excuse me,” Alex is saying from a first-floor conference table, one hand full of confetti samples—do they want a metallic color palette or a more subdued navy and gold?—while staring at a copy of the finalized guest list. June and Nora are stuffing their faces with cake samples. “Who put Henry on here?”

Nora says through a mouthful of chocolate cake, “Wasn’t me.”

“June?”

“Look, you should have invited him yourself!” June says, by way of admission. “It’s really nice you’re making friends who aren’t us. Sometimes when you get too isolated, you start to go a little crazy. Remember last year when Nora and I were both out of the country for a week, and you almost got a tattoo?”

“I still think we should have let him get a tramp stamp.”

“It wasn’t going to be a
tramp stamp,
” Alex says hotly. “You were in on this, weren’t you?”

“You know I love chaos,” Nora tells him serenely.

“I have friends who aren’t y’all,” Alex says.

“Who, Alex?” June says. “Literally who?”

“People!” he says defensively. “People from class! Liam!”

“Please. We all know you haven’t talked to Liam in a year,” June says. “You need friends. And I know you like Henry.”

“Shut up,” Alex says. He brushes a finger under his collar and finds his skin damp. Do they always have to crank the heat up this high when it’s snowing outside?

“This is interesting,” Nora observes.

“No, it’s not,” Alex snaps. “Fine, he can come. But if he doesn’t know anybody else, I’m not babysitting him all night.”

“I gave him a plus-one,” June says.

“Who is he bringing?” Alex asks immediately, reflexively. Involuntarily. “Just wondering.”

“Pez,” she says. She’s giving him a weird look he can’t parse, and he decides to chalk it up to June being confusing and strange. She often works in mysterious ways, organizes and orchestrates things he never sees coming until all the threads come together.

So, Henry is coming, he guesses, confirmed when he checks Instagram the day of the party and sees a post from Pez of him and Henry on a private jet. Pez’s hair has been dyed pastel pink for the occasion, and beside him, Henry is smiling in a soft-looking gray sweatshirt, his socked feet up on the windowsill. He actually looks well-rested for once.

USA bound! #YoungAmericaGala2019
Pez’s caption reads.

Alex smiles despite himself and texts Henry.

ATTN: will be wearing a burgundy velvet suit tonight. please do not attempt to steal my shine. you will fail and i will be embarrassed for you.

Henry texts back seconds later.

Wouldn’t dream of it.

From there everything speeds up, and a hairstylist is wrangling him into the Cosmetology Room, and he gets to watch the girls transform into their camera-ready selves. Nora’s short curls are swept to one side with a silver pin shaped to match the sharp geometric lines on the bodice of her black dress; June’s gown is a plunging Zac Posen number in a shade of midnight blue that perfectly complements the navy-and-gold color palette they chose.

The guests start arriving around eight, and the liquor starts flowing, and Alex orders a middle-shelf whiskey to get things going. There’s live music, a pop act that owed June a personal
favor, and they’re covering “American Girl” right now, so Alex grabs June’s hand and spins her onto the dance floor.

First arrivals are always the first-time political types: a small gaggle of White House interns, an event planner for Center for American Progress, the daughter of a first-term senator with a punk rock–looking girlfriend who Alex makes a mental note to introduce himself to later. Then, the wave of politically strategic invites chosen by the press team, and lastly, the fashionably late—minor to mid-range pop stars, teen soap actors, children of major celebrities.

He’s just wondering when Henry’s going to make his appearance, when June appears at his side and yells, “Incoming!”

Alex’s gaze is met by a bright burst of color that turns out to be Pez’s bomber jacket, which is a shiny silk thing in such an elaborate, colorful floral print that Alex almost has to squint. The colors fade slightly, though, when his eyes slide to the right.

It’s the first time Alex has seen Henry in person since the weekend in London and the hundreds of texts and weird in-jokes and late-night phone calls that came after, and it almost feels like meeting a new person. He knows more about Henry, understands him better, and he can appreciate the rarity of a genuine smile on the same famously beautiful face.

It’s a weird cognitive dissonance, Henry present and Henry past. That must be why something feels so restless and hot somewhere beneath his sternum. That and the whiskey.

Henry’s wearing a simple dark blue suit, but he’s opted for a bright coppery-mustard tie in a narrow cut. He spots Alex, and his smile broadens, giving Pez’s arm a tug.

“Nice tie,” Alex says as soon as Henry is close enough to hear over the crowd.

“Thought I might be escorted off the premises for anything less exciting,” Henry says, and his voice is somehow different than Alex remembers. Like very expensive velvet, something moneyed and lush and fluid all at once.

“And
who
is this?” June asks from Alex’s side, interrupting his train of thought.

“Ah yes, you’ve not officially met, have you?” Henry says. “June, Alex, this is my best mate, Percy Okonjo.”

“Pez, like the sweets,” Pez says cheerfully, extending his hand to Alex. Several of his fingernails are painted blue. When he redirects his attention to June, his eyes grow brighter, his grin spreading. “Please do smack me if this is out of line, but you are the most exquisite woman I have ever seen in my life, and I would like to procure for you the most lavish drink in this establishment if you will let me.”

“Uh,” Alex says.

“You’re a charmer,” June says, smiling indulgently.

“And you are a goddess.”

He watches them disappear into the crowd, Pez a blazing streak of color, already spinning June in a pirouette as they go. Henry’s smile has gone sheepish and reserved, and Alex understands their friendship at last. Henry doesn’t want the spotlight, and Pez naturally absorbs what Henry deflects.

“That man has been begging me to introduce him to your sister since the wedding,” Henry says.

“Seriously?”

“We’ve probably just saved him a tremendous amount of money. He was going to start pricing skywriters soon.”

Alex tosses his head back and laughs, and Henry watches, still grinning. June and Nora had a point. He does, against all odds, really like this person.

“Well, come on,” Alex says. “I’m already two whiskeys in. You’ve got some catching up to do.”

More than one conversation drops out as Alex and Henry pass, mouths hanging open over entremets. Alex tries to imagine what they must look like: the prince and the First Son, the two leading heartthrobs of their respective countries, shoulder to shoulder on their way to the bar. It’s intimidating and thrilling, living up to that kind of rich, untouchable fantasy. That’s what people
see,
but none of them know about the Great Turkey Calamity. Only Alex and Henry do.

He scores the first round and the crowd swallows them up. Alex is surprised how pleased he is by the physical presence of Henry next to him. He doesn’t even mind having to look up at him anymore. He introduces Henry to some White House interns and laughs as they blush and stutter, and Henry’s face goes pleasantly neutral, an expression Alex used to mistake as unimpressed but can now read for what it is: carefully concealed bemusement.

There’s dancing, and mingling, and a speech by June about the immigration fund they’re supporting with their donations tonight, and Alex ducks out of an aggressive come-on by a girl from the new Spider-Man movies and into a haphazard conga line, and Henry actually seems to have fun. June finds them at some point and steals Henry away to gab at the bar. Alex watches them from afar, wondering what they could possibly be talking about that has June nearly falling off her barstool laughing, until the crowd overtakes him again.

After a while, the band breaks and a DJ takes over with a mix of early 2000s hip-hop, all the greatest hits that came out when Alex was a child and were somehow still in rotation
at dances in his teens. That’s when Henry finds him, like a man lost at sea.

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