Red, White &Royal Blue By Casey McQuiston , Chapter 2

With a resounding smack, Zahra slaps a stack of magazines down on the West Wing briefing room table. “This is just what I saw on the way here this morning,” she says. “I don’t think I need to remind you I live two blocks away.” Alex stares down at the headlines in front of him. THE $75,000 STUMBLE BATTLE ROYAL: Prince Henry and FSOTUS Come to Blows at Royal Wedding CAKEGATE: Alex Claremont-Diaz Sparks Second English-American War Each one is accompanied by a photo of himself and Henry flat on their backs in a pile of cake, Henry’s ridiculous suit all askew and covered in smashed buttercream flowers, his wrist pinned in Alex’s hand, a thin slice of red across Henry’s cheek. “Are you sure we shouldn’t be in the Situation Room for this meeting?” Alex attempts. Neither Zahra nor his mother, sitting across the table, seems to find it funny. The president gives him a withering look over the top of her reading glasses, and he clamps his mouth shut. It’s not exactly that he’s afraid of Zahra, his mom’s deputy chief of staff and right-hand woman. She has a spiky exterior, but Alex swears there’s something soft in there somewhere. He’s more afraid of what his mother might do. They grew up made to talk about their feelings a lot, and then his mother became president, and life became less about feelings and more about international relations. He’s not sure which option spells a worse fate. “‘Sources inside the royal reception report the two were seen arguing minutes before the … cake-tastrophe,’” Ellen reads out loud with utter disdain from her own copy of The Sun. Alex doesn’t even try to guess how she got her hands on today’s edition of a British tabloid. President Mom works in mysterious ways. “‘But royal family insiders claim the First Son’s feud with Henry has raged for years. A source tells The Sun that Henry and the First Son have been at odds ever since their first meeting at the Rio Olympics, and the animosity has only grown—these days, they can’t even be
in the same room with each other. It seems it was only a matter of time before Alex took the American approach: a violent altercation.’” “I really don’t think you can call tripping over a table a ‘violent’—” “Alexander,” Ellen says, her tone eerily calm. “Shut up.” He does. “‘One can’t help but wonder,’” Ellen reads on, “‘if the bitterness between these two powerful sons has contributed to what many have called an icy and distant relationship between President Ellen Claremont’s administration and the monarchy in recent years.’” She tosses the magazine aside, folding her arms on the table. “Please, tell me another joke,” Ellen says. “I want so badly for you to explain to me how this is funny.” Alex opens his mouth and closes it a couple of times. “He started it,” he says finally. “I barely touched him—he’s the one who pushed me, and I only grabbed him to try and catch my balance, and—” “Sugar, I cannot express to you how much the press does not give a fuck about who started what,” Ellen says. “As your mother, I can appreciate that maybe this isn’t your fault, but as the president, all I want is to have the CIA fake your death and ride the dead-kid sympathy into a second term.” Alex clenches his jaw. He’s used to doing things that piss his mother’s staff off—in his teens, he had a penchant for confronting his mother’s colleagues with their voting discrepancies at friendly DC fund-raisers—and he’s been in the tabloids for things more embarrassing than this. But never in quite such a cataclysmically, internationally terrible way. “I don’t have time to deal with this right now, so here’s what we’re gonna do,” Ellen says, pulling a folder out of her padfolio. It’s filled with some official-looking documents punctuated with different colors of sticky tabs, and the first one says: AGREEMENT OF TERMS. “Um,” Alex says. “You,” she says, “are going to make nice with Henry. You’re leaving Saturday and spending Sunday in England.” Alex blinks. “Is it too late to take the faking-my-death option?” “Zahra can brief you on the rest,” Ellen goes on, ignoring him. “I have about five hundred meetings right now.” She gets up and heads for the door, stopping to kiss her hand and press it to the top of his head. “You’re a dumbass. Love you.”
Then she’s gone, heels clicking behind her down the hallway, and Zahra settles into her vacated chair with a look on her face like she’d prefer arranging his death for real. She’s not technically the most powerful or important player in his mother’s White House, but she’s been working by Ellen’s side since Alex was five and Zahra was fresh out of Howard. She’s the only one trusted to wrangle the First Family. “All right, here’s the deal,” she says. “I was up all night conferencing with a bunch of uptight royal handlers and PR pricks and the prince’s fucking equerry to make this happen, so you are going to follow this plan to the letter and not fuck it up, got it?” Alex still privately thinks this whole thing is completely ridiculous, but he nods. Zahra looks deeply unconvinced but presses on. “First, the White House and the monarchy are going to release a joint statement saying what happened at the royal wedding was a complete accident and a misunderstanding—” “Which it was.” “—and that, despite rarely having time to see each other, you and Prince Henry have been close personal friends for the past several years.” “We’re what?” “Look,” Zahra says, taking a drag from her massive stainless steel thermos of coffee. “Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing.” “Have you met Henry?” Alex says. “How am I supposed to do that? He has the personality of a cabbage.” “Are you really not understanding how much I don’t care at all how you feel about this?” Zahra says. “This is what’s happening so your stupid ass doesn’t distract the entire country from your mother’s reelection campaign. Do you want her to have to get up on the debate stage next year and explain to the world why her son is trying to destabilize America’s European relationships?” Well, no, he doesn’t. And he knows, in the back of his mind, that he’s a better strategist than he’s been about this, and that without this stupid grudge, he probably could have come up with this plan on his own.
“So Henry’s your new best friend,” Zahra continues. “You will smile and nod and not piss off anyone while you and Henry spend the weekend doing charity appearances and talking to the press about how much you love each other’s company. If somebody asks about him, I want to hear you gush like he’s your fucking prom date.” She slides him a page of bulleted lists and tables of data so elaborately organized he could have made it himself. It’s labeled: HRH PRINCE HENRY FACT SHEET. “You’re going to memorize this so if anybody tries to catch you in a lie, you know what to say,” she says. Under HOBBIES, it lists polo and competitive yachting. Alex is going to set himself on fire. “Does he get one of these for me?” Alex asks helplessly. “Yep. And for the record, making it was one of the most depressing moments of my career.” She slides another page over to him, this one detailing requirements for the weekend.
Minimum two (2) social media posts per day highlighting England/visit thereof. One (1) on-air interview with ITV This Morning, lasting five (5) minutes, in accordance with determined narrative. Two (2) joint appearances with photographers present: one (1) private meeting, one (1) public charity appearance. “Why do I have to go over there? He’s the one who pushed me into the stupid cake—shouldn’t he have to come here and go on SNL with me or something?” “Because it was the royal wedding you ruined, and they’re the ones out seventy-five grand,” Zahra says. “Besides, we’re arranging his presence at a state dinner in a few months. He’s not any more excited about this than you are.” Alex pinches the bridge of his nose where a stress headache is already percolating. “I have class.” “You’ll be back by Sunday night, DC time,” Zahra tells him. “You won’t miss anything.” “So there’s really no way I’m getting out of this?” “Nope.” Alex presses his lips together. He needs a list. When he was a kid, he used to hide pages and pages of loose leaf paper covered in messy, loopy handwriting under the worn denim cushion of the window seat in the house in Austin. Rambling treatises on the role of
government in America with all the Gs written backward, paragraphs translated from English to Spanish, tables of his elementary school classmates’ strengths and weaknesses. And lists. Lots of lists. The lists help. So: Reasons this is a good idea. One. His mother needs good press. Two. Having a shitty record on foreign relations definitely won’t help his career. Three. Free trip to Europe. “Okay,” he says, taking the file. “I’ll do it. But I won’t have any fun.” “God, I hope not.”
The White House Trio is, officially, the nickname for Alex, June, and Nora coined by People shortly before the inauguration. In actuality, it was carefully tested with focus groups by the White House press team and fed directly to People. Politics—calculating, even in hashtags. Before the Claremonts, the Kennedys and Clintons shielded the First Offspring from the press, giving them the privacy to go through awkward phases and organic childhood experiences and everything else. Sasha and Malia were hounded and picked apart by the press before they were out of high school. The White House Trio got ahead of the narrative before anyone could do the same. It was a bold new plan: three attractive, bright, charismatic, marketable millennials—Alex and Nora are, technically, just past the Gen Z threshold, but the press doesn’t find that nearly as catchy. Catchiness sells, coolness sells. Obama was cool. The whole First Family could be cool too; celebrities in their own right. It’s not ideal, his mother always says, but it works. They’re the White House Trio, but here, in the music room on the third floor of the Residence, they’re just Alex and June and Nora, naturally glued together since they were teenagers stunting their growth with espresso in the primaries. Alex pushes them. June steadies them. Nora keeps them honest. They settle into their usual places: June, perched on her heels at the record collection, foraging for some Patsy Cline; Nora, cross-legged on the floor, uncorking a bottle of red wine; Alex, sitting upside down with his feet on the back of the couch, trying to figure out what he’s going to do next. He flips the HRH PRINCE HENRY FACT SHEET over and squints at it. He can feel the blood rushing to his head.
June and Nora are ignoring him, caught in a bubble of intimacy he can never quite penetrate. Their relationship is something enormous and incomprehensible to most people, including Alex on occasion. He knows them both down to their split ends and nasty habits, but there’s a strange girl bond between them he can’t, and knows he isn’t supposed to, translate. “I thought you were liking the Post gig?” Nora says. With a dull pop, she pulls the cork out of the wine and takes a swig directly from the bottle. “I was,” June says. “I mean, I am. But, it’s not much of a gig. It’s, like, one op-ed a month, and half my pitches get shot down for being too close to Mom’s platform, and even then, the press team has to read anything political before I turn it in. So it’s like, email in these fluff pieces, and know that on the other side of the screen people are doing the most important journalism of their careers, and be okay with that.” “So … you don’t like it, then.” June sighs. She finds the record she’s looking for, slides it out of the sleeve. “I don’t know what else to do, is the thing.” “They wouldn’t put you on a beat?” Nora asks her. “You kidding? They wouldn’t even let me in the building,” June says. She puts the record on and sets the needle. “What would Reilly and Rebecca say?” Nora tips her head and laughs. “My parents would say to do what they did: ditch journalism, get really into essential oils, buy a cabin in the Vermont wilderness, and own six hundred LL Bean vests that all smell like patchouli.” “You left out the investing in Apple in the nineties and getting stupid-rich part,” June reminds her. “Details.” June walks over and places her palm on the top of Nora’s head, deep in her nest of curls, and leans down to kiss the back of her own fingers. “I’ll figure something out.” Nora hands over the bottle, and June takes a pull. Alex heaves a dramatic sigh. “I can’t believe I have to learn this garbage,” Alex says. “I just finished midterms.” “Look, you’re the one who has to fight everything that moves,” June says, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, a move she’d only do in front of the two of them. “Including the British monarchy. So, I don’t really feel bad
for you. Anyway, he was totally fine when I danced with him. I don’t get why you hate him so much.” “I think it’s amazing,” Nora says. “Sworn enemies forced to make peace to settle tensions between their countries? There’s something totally Shakespearean about it.” “Shakespearean in that hopefully I’ll get stabbed to death,” Alex says. “This sheet says his favorite food is mutton pie. I literally cannot think of a more boring food. He’s like a cardboard cutout of a person.” The sheet is filled with things Alex already knew, either from the royal siblings dominating the news cycle or hate-reading Henry’s Wikipedia page. He knows about Henry’s parentage, about his older siblings Philip and Beatrice, that he studied English literature at Oxford and plays classical piano. The rest is so trivial he can’t imagine it’ll come up in an interview, but there’s no way he’ll risk Henry being more prepared. “Idea,” Nora says. “Let’s make it a drinking game.” “Ooh, yes,” June agrees. “Drink every time Alex gets one right?” “Drink every time the answer makes you want to puke?” Alex suggests. “One drink for a correct answer, two drinks for a Prince Henry fact that is legitimately, objectively awful,” Nora says. June has already dug two glasses out of the cabinet, and she hands them to Nora, who fills both and keeps the bottle for herself. Alex slides down from the couch to sit on the floor with her. “Okay,” she goes on, taking the sheet out of Alex’s hands. “Let’s start easy. Parents. Go.” Alex picks up his own glass, already pulling up a mental image of Henry’s parents, Catherine’s shrewd blue eyes and Arthur’s movie-star jaw. “Mother: Princess Catherine, oldest daughter of Queen Mary, first princess to obtain a doctorate—English literature,” he rattles off. “Father: Arthur Fox, beloved English film and stage actor best known for his turn as James Bond in the eighties, deceased 2015. Y’all drink.” They do, and Nora passes the list to June. “Okay,” June says, scanning the list, apparently looking for something more challenging. “Let’s see. Dog’s name?” “David,” Alex says. “He’s a beagle. I remember because, like, who does that? Who names a dog David? He sounds like a tax attorney. Like a dog tax attorney. Drink.”
“Best friend’s name, age, and occupation?” Nora asks. “Best friend other than you, of course.” Alex casually gives her the finger. “Percy Okonjo. Goes by Pez or Pezza. Heir to Okonjo Industries, Nigerian company leading Africa in biomedical advancements. Twenty-two, lives in London, met Henry at Eton. Manages the Okonjo Foundation, a humanitarian nonprofit. Drink.” “Favorite book?” “Uh,” Alex says. “Um. Fuck. Uh. What’s the one—” “I’m sorry, Mr. Claremont-Diaz, that is incorrect,” June says. “Thank you for playing, but you lose.” “Come on, what’s the answer?” June peers down at the list. “This says … Great Expectations?” Both Nora and Alex groan. “Do you see what I mean now?” Alex says. “This dude is reading Charles Dickens … for pleasure.” “I’ll give you this one,” Nora says. “Two drinks!” “Well, I think—” June says as Nora glugs away. “Guys, it’s kinda nice! I mean, it’s pretentious, but the themes of Great Expectations are all like, love is more important than status, and doing what’s right beats money and power. Maybe he relates—” Alex makes a long, loud fart noise. “Y’all are such assholes! He seems really nice!” “That’s because you are a nerd,” Alex says. “You want to protect those of your own species. It’s a natural instinct.” “I am helping you with this out of the goodness of my heart,” June says. “I’m on deadline right now.” “Hey, what do you think Zahra put on my fact sheet?” “Hmm,” Nora says, sucking her teeth. “Favorite summer Olympic sport: rhythmic gymnastics—” “I’m not ashamed of that.” “Favorite brand of khakis: Gap.” “Listen, they look best on my ass. The J. Crew ones wrinkle all weird. And they’re not khakis, they’re chinos. Khakis are for white people.” “Allergies: dust, Tide laundry detergent, and shutting the fuck up.” “Age of first filibuster: nine, at SeaWorld San Antonio, trying to force an orca wrangler into early retirement for, quote, ‘inhumane whale practices.’” “I stood by it then, and I stand by it now.”
June throws her head back and laughs, loud and unguarded, and Nora rolls her eyes, and Alex is glad, at least, that he’ll have this to come back to when the nightmare is over.
Alex expects Henry’s handler to be some stout storybook Englishman with tails and a top hat, probably a walrus mustache, definitely scurrying to place a velvet footstool at Henry’s carriage door. The person who awaits him and his security team on the tarmac is very much not that. He’s a tall thirty-something Indian man in an impeccably tailored suit, roguishly handsome with a neatly trimmed beard, a steaming cup of tea, and a shiny Union Jack on his lapel. Well, okay then. “Agent Chen,” the man says, extending his free hand to Amy. “Hope the flight was smooth.” Amy nods. “As smooth as the third transatlantic flight in a week can be.” The man half-smiles, commiserative. “The Land Rover is for you and your team for the duration.” Amy nods again, releasing his hand, and the man turns his attention to Alex. “Mr. Claremont-Diaz,” he says. “Welcome back to England. Shaan Srivastava, Prince Henry’s equerry.” Alex takes his hand and shakes it, feeling a bit like he’s in one of Henry’s dad’s Bond movies. Behind him, an attendant unloads his luggage and carries it off in the direction of a sleek Aston Martin. “Nice to meet you, Shaan. Not exactly how we thought we’d be spending our weekend, is it?” “I’m not as surprised at this turn of events as I’d like to be, sir,” Shaan says coolly, with an inscrutable smile. He pulls a small tablet from his jacket and pivots on his heel toward the waiting car. Alex stares at his back, speechless, before hastily refusing to be impressed by a grown man whose job is handling the prince’s schedule, no matter how cool he is or how long and smooth his strides are. He shakes his head a little and jogs to catch up, sliding into the back seat as Shaan checks the mirrors. “Right,” Shaan says. “You’ll be staying in the guest quarters at Kensington Palace. Tomorrow you’ll do the This Morning interview at nine —we’ve arranged for a photo call at the studio. Then it’s children with cancer all afternoon and off you go back to the land of the free.”
“Okay,” Alex says. He very politely does not add, could be worse. “For now,” Shaan says, “you’re to come with me to chauffeur the prince from the stables. One of our photographers will be there to photograph the prince welcoming you to the country, so do try to look pleased to be here.” Of course, there are stables the prince needs to be chauffeured from. He was briefly worried he’d been wrong about what the weekend would look like, but this feels a lot more like it. “If you’ll check the seat pocket in front of you,” Shaan says as he reverses, “there are a few papers for you to sign. Your lawyers have already approved them.” He passes back an expensive-looking black fountain pen. NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENT, the top of the first page reads. Alex flips through to the last page—there are at least fifteen pages of text—and a low whistle escapes his lips. “This is…” Alex says, “a thing you do often?” “Standard protocol,” Shaan says. “The reputation of the royal family is too valuable to risk.”
The words “Confidential Information,” as used in this Agreement, shall include the following: 1. Such information as HRH Prince Henry or any member of the Royal Family may designate to the Guest as “Confidential Information”; 2. All proprietary and financial information regarding HRH Prince Henry’s personal wealth and estate; 3. Any interior architectural details of Royal Residences including Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, etc., and personal effects found therein; 4. Any information regarding or involving HRH Prince Henry’s personal or private life not previously released by official Royal documents, speeches, or approved biographers, including any personal or private relationship the Guest may have with HRH Prince Henry; 5. Any information found on HRH Prince Henry’s personal electronic devices … This seems … excessive, like the kind of paperwork you get from some perverted millionaire who wants to hunt you for sport. He wonders what the most mind-numbingly wholesome public figure on earth could possibly have to hide. He hopes it’s not people-hunting. Alex is no stranger to NDAs, though, so he signs and initials. It’s not like he would have divulged all the boring details of this trip to anyone anyway, except maybe June and Nora. They pull up to the stables after another fifteen minutes, his security close behind them. The royal stables are, of course, elaborate and well-kept and about a million miles from the old ranches he’s seen out in the Texas panhandle. Shaan leads him out to the edge of the paddock, and Amy and her team regroup ten paces behind.
Alex rests his elbows on the lacquered white fence boards, fighting back the sudden, absurd feeling he’s underdressed for this. On any other day, his chinos and button-down would be fine for a casual photo op, but for the first time in a long time, he’s feeling distinctly out of his element. Does his hair look awful from the plane? It’s not like Henry is going to look much better after polo practice. He’ll probably be sweaty and disgusting. As if on cue, Henry comes galloping around the bend on the back of a pristine white horse. He is definitely not sweaty or disgusting. He is, instead, bathed dramatically in a sweeping and resplendent sunset, wearing a crisp black jacket and riding pants tucked into tall leather boots, looking every inch an actual fairy-tale prince. He unhooks his helmet and takes it off with one gloved hand, and his hair underneath is just attractively tousled enough to look like it’s supposed to be that way. “I’m going to throw up on you,” Alex says as soon as Henry is close enough to hear him. “Hello, Alex,” Henry says. Alex really resents the extra few inches of height Henry has on him right now. “You look … sober.” “Only for you, Your Royal Highness,” he says with an elaborate mockbow. He’s pleased to hear a little bit of ice in Henry’s voice, finally done pretending. “You’re too kind,” Henry says. He swings one long leg over and dismounts from his horse gracefully, removing his glove and extending a hand to Alex. A well-dressed stable hand basically springs up out of the ground to whisk the horse away by the reins. Alex has probably never hated anything more. “This is idiotic,” Alex says, grasping Henry’s hand. The skin is soft, probably exfoliated and moisturized daily by some royal manicurist. There’s a royal photographer right on the other side of the fence, so he smiles winningly and says through his teeth, “Let’s get it over with.” “I’d rather be waterboarded,” Henry says, smiling back. The camera snaps nearby. His eyes are big and soft and blue, and he desperately needs to be punched in one of them. “Your country could probably arrange that.” Alex throws his head back and laughs handsomely, loud and false. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Hardly enough time,” Henry says. He releases Alex’s hand as Shaan returns. “Your Highness,” Shaan greets Henry with a nod. Alex makes a concentrated effort not to roll his eyes. “The photographer should have what he needs, so if you’re ready, the car is waiting.” Henry turns to him and smiles again, eyes unreadable. “Shall we?”
There’s something vaguely familiar about the Kensington Palace guest quarters, even though he’s never been here before. Shaan had an attendant show him to his room, where his luggage awaited him on an ornately carved bed with spun gold bedding. Many of the rooms in the White House have a similar hauntedness, a sense of history that hangs like cobwebs no matter how pristine the rooms are kept. He’s used to sleeping alongside ghosts, but that’s not it. It strikes further back in his memory, around the time his parents split up. They were the kind of married lawyer couple who could barely order Chinese takeout without legally binding documents, so Alex spent the summer before seventh grade shuttled back and forth from home to their dad’s new place outside of Los Angeles until they could strike a long-term arrangement. It was a nice house in the valley, a clear blue swimming pool and a back wall of solid glass. He never slept well there. He’d sneak out of his throwntogether bedroom in the middle of the night, stealing Helados from his dad’s freezer and standing barefoot in the kitchen eating straight from the quart, washed blue in the pool light. That’s how it feels here, somehow—wide awake at midnight in a strange place, duty-bound to make it work. He wanders into the kitchen attached to his guest wing, where the ceilings are high and the countertops are shiny marble. He was allowed to submit a list to stock the kitchen, but apparently it was too hard to get Helados on short notice—all that’s in the freezer is UK-brand packaged ice cream cones. “What’s it like?” Nora’s voice says, tinny over his phone’s speaker. On the screen, her hair is up, and she’s poking at one of her dozens of window plants. “Weird,” Alex says, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Everything looks like a museum. I don’t think I’m allowed to show you, though.” “Ooh,” Nora says, wiggling her eyebrows. “So secretive. So fancy.”
“Please,” Alex says. “If anything, it’s creepy. I had to sign such a massive NDA that I’m convinced I’m gonna drop through a trapdoor into a torture dungeon any minute.” “I bet he has a secret lovechild,” Nora says. “Or he’s gay. Or he has a secret gay lovechild.” “It’s probably in case I see his equerry putting his batteries back in,” Alex says. “Anyway, this is boring. What’s going on with you? Your life is so much better than mine right now.” “Well,” Nora says, “Nate Silver won’t stop blowing up my phone for another column. Bought some new curtains. Narrowed down the list of grad school concentrations to statistics or data science.” “Tell me those are both at GW,” Alex says, hopping up to sit on one of the immaculate countertops, feet dangling. “You can’t leave me in DC to go back to MIT.” “Haven’t decided yet, but astonishingly, it will not be based on you,” Nora tells him. “Remember how we sometimes talk about things that are not about you?” “Yeah, weirdly. So is the plan to dethrone Nate Silver as reigning data czar of DC?” Nora laughs. “No, what I’m gonna do is silently compile and process enough data to know exactly what’s gonna happen for the next twenty-five years. Then I’m gonna buy a house on the top of a very tall hill at the edge of the city and become an eccentric recluse and sit on my veranda. Watch it all unfold through a pair of binoculars.” Alex starts to laugh, but cuts off when he hears rustling down the hall. Quiet footsteps approaching. Princess Beatrice lives in a different section of the palace, and so does Henry. The PPOs and his own security sleep on this floor, though, so maybe— “Hold on,” Alex says, covering the speaker. A light flicks on in the hallway, and the person who comes padding into the kitchen is none other than Prince Henry. He’s rumpled and half awake, shoulders slumping as he yawns. He’s standing in front of Alex wearing not a suit, but a heather-gray T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms. He has earbuds in, and his hair is a mess. His feet are bare. He looks, alarmingly, human.
He freezes when his eyes fall on Alex perched on the countertop. Alex stares back at him. In his hand, Nora begins a muffled, “Is that—” before Alex disconnects the call. Henry pulls out his earbuds, and his posture has ratcheted back up straight, but his face is still bleary and confused. “Hello,” he says, hoarse. “Sorry. Er. I was just. Cornettos.” He gestures vaguely toward the refrigerator, as if he’s said something of any meaning. “What?” He crosses to the freezer and extracts the box of ice cream cones, showing Alex the name Cornetto across the front. “I was out. Knew they’d stocked you up.” “Do you raid the kitchens of all your guests?” Alex asks. “Only when I can’t sleep,” Henry says. “Which is always. Didn’t think you’d be awake.” He looks at Alex, deferring, and Alex realizes he’s waiting for permission to open the box and take one. Alex thinks about telling him no, just for the thrill of denying a prince something, but he’s kind of intrigued. He usually can’t sleep either. He nods. He waits for Henry to take a Cornetto and leave, but instead he looks back up at Alex. “Have you practiced what you’ll say tomorrow?” “Yes,” Alex says, bristling immediately. This is why nothing about Henry has ever intrigued him before. “You’re not the only professional here.” “I didn’t mean—” Henry falters. “I only meant, do you think we should, er, rehearse?” “Do you need to?” “I thought it might help.” Of course, he thinks that. Everything Henry’s ever done publicly has probably been privately rehearsed in stuffy royal quarters like this one. Alex hops down off the counter, swiping his phone unlocked. “Watch this.” He lines up a shot: the box of Cornettos on the counter, Henry’s hand braced on the marble next to it, his heavy signet ring visible along with a swath of pajamas. He opens up Instagram, slaps a filter on it. “‘Nothing cures jet lag,’” Alex narrates in a monotone as he taps out a caption, “‘like midnight ice cream with @PrinceHenry.’ Geotag Kensington Palace, and posted.” He holds the phone for Henry to see as likes and
comments immediately pour in. “There are a lot of things worth overthinking, believe me. But this isn’t one of them.” Henry frowns at him over his ice cream. “I suppose,” he says, looking doubtful. “Are you done?” Alex asks. “I was on a call.” Henry blinks, then folds his arms over his chest, back on the defensive. “Of course. I won’t keep you.” As he leaves the kitchen, he pauses in the doorframe, considering. “I didn’t know you wore glasses,” he says finally. He leaves Alex standing there alone in the kitchen, the box of Cornettos sweating on the counter.
The ride to the studio for the interview is bumpy but mercifully quick. Alex should probably blame some of his queasiness on nerves but chooses to blame it all on this morning’s appalling breakfast spread—what kind of garbage country eats bland beans on white toast for breakfast? He can’t decide if his Mexican blood or his Texan blood is more offended. Henry sits beside him, surrounded by a cloud of attendants and stylists. One adjusts his hair with a fine-toothed comb. One holds up a notepad of talking points. One tugs his collar straight. From the passenger seat, Shaan shakes a yellow pill out of a bottle and passes it back to Henry, who readily pops it into his mouth and swallows it dry. Alex decides he doesn’t want or need to know. The motorcade pulls up in front of the studio, and when the door slides open, there’s the promised photo line and barricaded royal worshippers. Henry turns and looks at him, a little grimace around his mouth and eyes. “Prince goes first, then you,” Shaan says to Alex, leaning in and touching his earpiece. Alex takes one breath, two, and turns it on—the megawatt smile, the All-American charm. “Go ahead, Your Royal Highness,” Alex says, winking as he puts on his sunglasses. “Your subjects await.” Henry clears his throat and unfolds himself, stepping out into the morning and waving genially at the crowd. Cameras flash, photographers shout. A blue-haired girl in the crowd lifts up a homemade poster that reads in big, glittery letters, GET IN ME, PRINCE HENRY! for about five seconds until a member of the security team shoves it into a nearby trash can.
Alex steps out next, swaggering up beside Henry and throwing an arm over his shoulders. “Act like you like me!” Alex says cheerfully. Henry looks at him like he’s trying to choose between a million choice words, before tipping his head to the side and offering up a well-rehearsed laugh, putting his arm around Alex too. “There we go.” The hosts of This Morning are agonizingly British—a middle-aged woman named Dottie in a tea dress and a man called Stu who looks as if he spends weekends yelling at mice in his garden. Alex watches the introductions backstage as a makeup artist conceals a stress pimple on his forehead. So, this is happening. He tries to ignore Henry a few feet to his left, currently getting a final preening from a royal stylist. It’s the last chance he’ll get to ignore Henry for the rest of the day. Soon Henry is leading the way out with Alex close behind. Alex shakes Dottie’s hand first, smiling his Politics Smile at her, the one that makes a lot of congresswomen and more than a few congressmen want to tell him things they shouldn’t. She giggles and kisses him on the cheek. The audience claps and claps and claps. Henry sits on the prop couch next to him, perfect posture, and Alex smiles at him, making a show of looking comfortable in Henry’s company. Which is harder than it should be, because the stage lights suddenly make him uncomfortably aware of how fresh and handsome Henry looks for the cameras. He’s wearing a blue sweater over a button-down, and his hair looks soft. Whatever, fine. Henry is annoyingly attractive. That’s always been a thing, objectively. It’s fine. He realizes, almost a second too late, that Dottie is asking him a question. “What do you think of jolly old England, then, Alex?” Dottie says, clearly ribbing him. Alex forces a smile. “You know, Dottie, it’s gorgeous,” Alex says. “I’ve been here a few times since my mom got elected, and it’s always incredible to see the history here, and the beer selection.” The audience laughs right on cue, and Alex shakes out his shoulders a little. “And of course, it’s always great to see this guy.” He turns to Henry, extending his fist. Henry hesitates before stiffly bumping his own knuckles against Alex’s with the heavy air of an act of treason.
Alex’s whole reason for wanting to go into politics, when he knows so many past presidential sons and daughters have run away screaming the minute they turned eighteen, is he genuinely cares about people. The power is great, the attention fun, but the people—the people are everything. He has a bit of a caring-too-much problem about most things, including whether people can pay their medical bills, or marry whomever they love, or not get shot at school. Or, in this case, if kids with cancer have enough books to read at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. He and Henry and their collective hoard of security have taken over the floor, flustering nurses and shaking hands. He’s trying—really trying—not to let his hands clench into fists at his sides, but Henry’s smiling robotically with a little bald boy plugged full of tubes for some bullshit photograph, and he wants to scream at this whole stupid country. But he’s legally required to be here, so he focuses on the kids, instead. Most of them have no idea who he is, but Henry gamely introduces him as the president’s son, and soon they’re asking him about the White House and does he know Ariana Grande, and he laughs and indulges them. He unpacks books from the heavy boxes they’ve brought, climbs up onto beds and reads out loud, a photographer trailing after him. He doesn’t realize he’s lost track of Henry until the patient he’s visiting dozes off, and he recognizes the low rumble of Henry’s voice on the other side of the curtain. A quick count of feet on the floor—no photographers. Just Henry. Hmm. He steps quietly over to the chair against the wall, right at the edge of the curtain. If he sits at the right angle and cranes his head back, he can barely see. Henry is talking to a little girl with leukemia named Claudette, according to the board on her wall. She’s got dark skin that’s turned sort of a pale gray and a bright orange scarf tied around her head, emblazoned with the Alliance Starbird. Instead of hovering awkwardly like Alex expected, Henry is squatting at her side, smiling and holding her hand. “… Star Wars fan, are you?” Henry says in a low, warm voice Alex has never heard from him before, pointing at the insignia on her headscarf. “Oh, it’s my absolute favorite,” Claudette gushes. “I’d like to be just like Princess Leia when I’m older because she’s so tough and smart and strong, and she gets to kiss Han Solo.”
She blushes a little at having mentioned kissing in front of the prince but fiercely maintains eye contact. Alex finds himself craning his neck farther, watching for Henry’s reaction. He definitely does not recall Star Wars on the fact sheet. “You know what,” Henry says, leaning in conspiratorially, “I think you’ve got the right idea.” Claudette giggles. “Who’s your favorite?” “Hmm,” Henry says, making a show of thinking hard. “I always liked Luke. He’s brave and good, and he’s the strongest Jedi of them all. I think Luke is proof that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who your family is—you can always be great if you’re true to yourself.” “All right, Miss Claudette,” a nurse says brightly as she comes around the curtain. Henry jumps, and Alex almost tips his chair over, caught in the act. He clears his throat as he stands, pointedly not looking at Henry. “You two can go, it’s time for her meds.” “Miss Beth, Henry said we were mates now!” Claudette practically wails. “He can stay!” “Excuse you!” Beth the nurse tuts. “That’s no way to address the prince. Terribly sorry, Your Highness.” “No need to apologize,” Henry tells her. “Rebel commanders outrank royalty.” He shoots Claudette a wink and a salute, and she positively melts. “I’m impressed,” Alex says as they walk out into the hallway together. Henry cocks an eyebrow, and Alex adds, “Not impressed, just surprised.” “At what?” “That you actually have, you know, feelings.” Henry is beginning to smile when three things happen in rapid succession. The first: A shout echoes from the opposite end of the hall. The second: There’s a loud pop that sounds alarmingly like gunfire. The third: Cash grabs both Henry and Alex by the arms and shoves them through the nearest door. “Stay down,” Cash grunts as he slams the door behind them. In the abrupt darkness, Alex stumbles over a mop and one of Henry’s legs, and they go crashing down together into a clattering pile of tin bedpans. Henry hits the floor first, facedown, and Alex lands in a heap on top of him. “Oh God,” Henry says, muffled and echoing slightly. Alex thinks hopefully that his face might be in a bedpan.
“You know,” he says into Henry’s hair, “we have got to stop ending up like this.” “Do you mind?” “This is your fault!” “How is this possibly my fault?” Henry hisses. “Nobody ever tries to shoot me when I’m doing presidential appearances, but the minute I go out with a fucking royal—” “Will you shut up before you get us both killed?” “Nobody’s going to kill us. Cash is blocking the door. Besides, it’s probably nothing.” “Then at least get off me.” “Stop telling me what to do! You’re not the prince of me!” “Bloody hell,” Henry mutters, and he pushes hard off the ground and rolls, knocking Alex onto the floor. Alex finds himself wedged between Henry’s side and a shelf of what smells like industrial-strength floor cleaner. “Can you move over, Your Highness?” Alex whispers, shoving his shoulder against Henry’s. “I’d rather not be the little spoon.” “Believe me, I’m trying,” Henry replies. “There’s no room.” Outside, there are voices, hurried footsteps—no signs of an all-clear. “Well,” Alex says. “Guess we better make ourselves comfortable.” Henry exhales tightly. “Fantastic.” Alex feels him shifting against his side, arms crossed over his chest in an attempt at his typical closed-off stance while lying on the floor with his feet in a mop bucket. “For the record,” Henry says, “nobody’s ever made an attempt on my life either.” “Well, congratulations,” Alex says. “You’ve officially made it.” “Yes, this is exactly how I always dreamed it would be. Locked in a cupboard with your elbow inside my rib cage,” Henry snipes. He sounds like he wants to punch Alex, which is probably the most Alex has ever liked him, so he follows an impulse and drives his elbow into Henry’s side, hard. Henry lets out a muffled yelp, and the next thing Alex knows, he’s been yanked sideways by his shirt and Henry is halfway on top of him, pinning him down with one thigh. His head throbs where he’s clocked it against the linoleum floor, but he can feel his lips split into a smile. “So you do have some fight in you,” Alex says. He bucks his hips, trying to shake Henry off, but he’s taller and stronger and has a fistful of Alex’s
collar. “Are you quite finished?” Henry says, sounding strangled. “Can you perhaps stop putting your sodding life in danger now?” “Aw, you do care,” Alex says. “I’m learning all your hidden depths today, sweetheart.” Henry exhales and slumps off him. “I cannot believe even mortal peril will not prevent you from being the way you are.” The weirdest part, Alex thinks, is that what he said was true. He keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It’s honestly disconcerting. He knows exactly what to say to each Democratic senator to make them dish about bills, exactly when Zahra’s running low on nicotine gum, exactly which look to give Nora for the rumor mill. Reading people is what he does. He really doesn’t appreciate some inbred royal baby upending his system. But he did rather enjoy that fight. He lies there, waits. Listens to the shuffling of feet outside the door. Lets minutes go by. “So, uh,” he tries. “Star Wars?” He means it in a nonthreatening, offhanded way, but habit wins and it comes out accusatory. “Yes, Alex,” Henry says archly, “believe it or not, the children of the crown don’t only spend their childhood going to tea parties.” “I assumed it was mostly posture coaching and junior polo league.” Henry takes a deeply unhappy pause. “That … may have been part of it.” “So you’re into pop culture, but you act like you’re not,” Alex says. “Either you’re not allowed to talk about it because it’s unseemly for the crown, or you choose not to talk about it because you want people to think you’re cultured. Which one?” “Are you psychoanalyzing me?” Henry asks. “I don’t think royal guests are allowed to do that.” “I’m trying to understand why you’re so committed to acting like someone you’re not, considering you just told that little girl in there that greatness means being true to yourself.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and if I did, I’m not sure that’s any of your concern,” Henry says, his voice strained at the edges.
“Really? Because I’m pretty sure I’m legally bound to pretend to be your best friend, and I don’t know if you’ve thought this through yet, but that’s not going to stop with this weekend,” Alex tells him. Henry’s fingers go tense against his forearm. “If we do this and we’re never seen together again, people are gonna know we’re full of shit. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not, so I have a right to be clued in about what your deal is before it sneaks up on me and bites me in the ass.” “Why don’t we start…” Henry says, turning his head to squint at him. This close Alex can just make out the silhouette of Henry’s strong royal nose. “… with you telling me why exactly you hate me so much?” “Do you really want to have that conversation?” “Maybe I do.” Alex crosses his arms, recognizes it as a mirror to Henry’s tic, and uncrosses them. “Do you really not remember being a prick to me at the Olympics?” Alex remembers it in vivid detail: himself at eighteen, dispatched to Rio with June and Nora, the campaign’s delegation to the summer games, one weekend of photo ops and selling the “next generation of global cooperation” image. Alex spent most of it drinking caipirinhas and subsequently throwing caipirinhas up behind Olympic venues. And he remembers, down to the Union Jack on Henry’s anorak, the first time they met. Henry sighs. “Is that the time you threatened to push me into the Thames?” “No,” Alex says. “It was the time you were a condescending prick at the diving finals. You really don’t remember?” “Remind me?” Alex glares. “I walked up to you to introduce myself, and you stared at me like I was the most offensive thing you had ever seen. Right after you shook my hand, you turned to Shaan and said, ‘Can you get rid of him?’” A pause. “Ah,” Henry says. He clears his throat. “I didn’t realize you’d heard that.” “I feel like you’re missing the point,” Alex says, “which is that it’s a douchey thing to say either way.” “That’s … fair.” “Yeah, so.” “That’s all?” Henry asks. “Only the Olympics?”
“I mean, that was the start.” Henry pauses again. “I’m sensing an ellipsis.” “It’s just…” Alex says, and as he’s on the floor of a supply closet, waiting out a security threat with a Prince of England at the end of a weekend that has felt like some very specific ongoing nightmare, censoring himself takes too much effort. “I don’t know. Doing what we do is fucking hard. But it’s harder for me. I’m the son of the first female president. And I’m not white like she is, can’t even pass for it. People will always come down harder on me. And you’re, you know, you, and you were born into all of this, and everyone thinks you’re Prince fucking Charming. You’re basically a living reminder I’ll always be compared to someone else, no matter what I do, even if I work twice as hard.” Henry is quiet for a long while. “Well,” Henry says when he speaks at last. “I can’t very well do much about the rest. But I can tell you I was, in fact, a prick that day. Not that it’s any excuse, but my father had died fourteen months before, and I was still kind of a prick every day of my life at the time. And I am sorry.” Henry twitches one hand at his side, and Alex falls momentarily silent. The cancer ward. Of course, Henry chose a cancer ward—it was right there on the fact sheet. Father: Famed film star Arthur Fox, deceased 2015, pancreatic cancer. The funeral was televised. He goes back over the last twenty-four hours in his head: the sleeplessness, the pills, the tense little grimace Henry does in public that Alex has always read as aloofness. He knows a few things about this stuff. It’s not like his parents’ divorce was a pleasant time for him, or like he runs himself ragged about grades for fun. He’s been aware for too long that most people don’t navigate thoughts of whether they’ll ever be good enough or if they’re disappointing the entire world. He’s never considered Henry might feel any of the same things. Henry clears his throat again, and something like panic catches Alex. He opens his mouth and says, “Well, good to know you’re not perfect.” He can almost hear Henry roll his eyes, and he’s thankful for it, the familiar comfort of antagonism. They’re silent again, the dust of the conversation settling. Alex can’t hear anything outside the door or any sirens on the street, but nobody has come to get them yet. Then, unprompted, Henry says into the stretching stillness, “Return of the Jedi.”
A beat. “What?” “To answer your question,” Henry says. “Yes, I do like Star Wars, and my favorite is Return of the Jedi.” “Oh,” Alex says. “Wow, you’re wrong.” Henry huffs out the tiniest, most poshly indignant puff of air. It smells minty. Alex resists the urge to throw another elbow. “How can I be wrong about my own favorite? It’s a personal truth.” “It’s a personal truth that is wrong and bad.” “Which do you prefer, then? Please show me the error of my ways.” “Okay, Empire.” Henry sniffs. “So dark, though.” “Yeah, which is what makes it good,” Alex says. “It’s the most thematically complex. It’s got the Han and Leia kiss in it, you meet Yoda, Han is at the top of his game, fucking Lando Calrissian, and the best twist in cinematic history. What does Jedi have? Fuckin’ Ewoks.” “Ewoks are iconic.” “Ewoks are stupid.” “But Endor.” “But Hoth. There’s a reason people always call the best, grittiest installment of a trilogy the Empire of the series.” “And I can appreciate that. But isn’t there something to be valued in a happy ending as well?” “Spoken like a true Prince Charming.” “I’m only saying, I like the resolution of Jedi. It ties everything up nicely. And the overall theme you’re intended to take away from the films is hope and love and … er, you know, all that. Which is what Jedi leaves you with a sense of most of all.” Henry coughs, and Alex is turning to look at him again when the door opens and Cash’s giant silhouette reappears. “False alarm,” he says, breathing heavily. “Some dumbass kids brought fireworks for their friend.” He looks down at them, flat on their backs and blinking up in the sudden, harsh light of the hallway. “This looks cozy.” “Yep, we’re really bonding,” Alex says. He reaches a hand out and lets Cash haul him to his feet.
Outside Kensington Palace, Alex takes Henry’s phone out of his hand and swiftly opens a blank contact page before he can protest or sic a PPO on him
for violating royal property. The car is waiting to take him back to the royals’ private airstrip. “Here,” Alex says. “That’s my number. If we’re gonna keep this up, it’s going to get annoying to keep going through handlers. Just text me. We’ll figure it out.” Henry stares at him, expression blankly bewildered, and Alex wonders how this guy has any friends. “Right,” Henry says finally. “Thank you.” “No booty calls,” Alex tells him, and Henry chokes on a laugh.

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