Red, White &Royal Blue By Casey McQuiston , Chapter 4

“It’s public knowledge. It’s not my problem you just found out,” his mother is saying, pacing double-time down a West Wing corridor. “You mean to tell me,” Alex half shouts, jogging to keep up, “every Thanksgiving, those stupid turkeys have been staying in a luxury suite at the Willard on the taxpayers’ dime?” “Yes, Alex, they do—” “Gross government waste!” “—and there are two forty-pound turkeys named Cornbread and Stuffing in a motorcade on Pennsylvania Avenue right now. There is no time to reallocate the turkeys.” Without missing a beat, he blurts out, “Bring them to the house.” “Where? Are you hiding a turkey habitat up your ass, son? Where, in our historically protected house, am I going to put a couple of turkeys until I pardon them tomorrow?” “Put them in my room. I don’t care.” She outright laughs. “No.” “How is it different from a hotel room? Put the turkeys in my room, Mom.” “I’m not putting the turkeys in your room.” “Put the turkeys in my room.” “No.” “Put them in my room, put them in my room, put them in my room—” That night, as Alex stares into the cold, pitiless eyes of a prehistoric beast of prey, he has a few regrets. THEY KNOW , he texts Henry. THEY KNOW I HAVE ROBBED THEM OF FIVE-STAR ACCOMMODATIONS TO SIT IN A CAGE IN MY ROOM, AND THE MINUTE I TURN MY BACK THEY ARE GOING TO FEAST ON MY FLESH. Cornbread stares emptily back at him from inside a huge crate next to Alex’s couch. A farm vet comes by once every few hours to check on them. Alex keeps asking if she can detect a lust for blood. From the en suite, Stuffing releases another ominous gobble. Alex was going to get things accomplished tonight. He really was. Before he learned of exorbitant turkey expenditures from CNN, he was watching the
highlights of last night’s Republican primary debate. He was going to finish an outline for an exam, then study the demographic engagement binder he convinced his mother to give him for the campaign job. Instead, he is in a prison of his own creation, sworn to babysit these turkeys until the pardoning ceremony, and is just now realizing his deepseated fear of large birds. He considers finding a couch to sleep on, but what if these demons from hell break out of their cages and murder each other during the night when he’s supposed to be watching them? BREAKING: BOTH TURKEYS FOUND DEAD IN BEDROOM OF FSOTUS, TURKEY PARDON CANCELED IN DISGRACE, FSOTUS A SATANIC TURKEY RITUAL KILLER. Please send photos, is Henry’s idea of a comforting response. He drops onto the edge of his bed. He’s grown accustomed to texting with Henry almost every day; the time difference doesn’t matter, since they’re both awake at all ungodly hours of the day and night. Henry will send a snap from a seven a.m. polo practice and promptly receive one of Alex at two a.m., glasses on and coffee in hand, in bed with a pile of notes. Alex doesn’t know why Henry never responds to his selfies from bed. His selfies from bed are always hilarious. He snaps a shot of Cornbread and presses send, flinching when the bird flaps at him threateningly. I think he’s cute, Henry responds. that’s because you can’t hear all the menacing gobbling Yes, famously the most sinister of all animal sounds, the gobble. “You know what, you little shit,” Alex says the second the call connects, “you can hear it for yourself and then tell me how you would handle this—” “Alex?” Henry’s voice sounds scratchy and bewildered across the line. “Have you really rung me at three o’clock in the morning to make me listen to a turkey?” “Yes, obviously,” Alex says. He glances at Cornbread and cringes. “Jesus Christ, it’s like they can see into your soul. Cornbread knows my sins, Henry. Cornbread knows what I have done, and he is here to make me atone.” He hears a rustling over the phone, and he pictures Henry in his heathergray pajama shirt, rolling over in bed and maybe switching on a lamp. “Let’s hear the cursed gobble, then.” “Okay, brace yourself,” he says, and he switches to speaker and gravely holds out the phone. Nothing. Ten long seconds of nothing. “Truly harrowing,” Henry’s voice says tinnily over the speaker.
“It—okay, this is not representative,” Alex says hotly. “They’ve been gobbling all fucking night, I swear.” “Sure they were,” Henry says, mock-gently. “No, hang on,” Alex says. “I’m gonna … I’m gonna get one to gobble.” He hops off the bed and edges up to Cornbread’s cage, feeling very much like he is taking his life into his own hands and also very much like he has a point to prove, which is an intersection at which he finds himself often. “Um,” he says. “How do you get a turkey to gobble?” “Try gobbling,” Henry says, “and see if he gobbles back.” Alex blinks. “Are you serious?” “We hunt loads of wild turkeys in the spring,” Henry says sagely. “The trick is to get into the mind of the turkey.” “How the hell do I do that?” “So,” Henry instructs. “Do as I say. You have to get quite close to the turkey, like, physically.” Carefully, still cradling the phone close, Alex leans toward the wire bars. “Okay.” “Make eye contact with the turkey. Do you have it?” Alex follows Henry’s instructions in his ear, planting his feet and bending his knees so he’s at Cornbread’s eye level, a chill running down his spine when his own eyes lock on the beady, black little murder eyes. “Yeah.” “Right, now hold it,” Henry says. “Connect with the turkey, earn the turkey’s trust … befriend the turkey…” “Okay…” “Buy a summer home in Majorca with the turkey…” “Oh, I fucking hate you!” Alex shouts as Henry laughs at his own idiotic prank, and his indignant flailing startles a loud gobble out of Cornbread, which in turn startles a very unmanly scream out of Alex. “Goddammit! Did you hear that?” “Sorry, what?” Henry says. “I’ve been stricken deaf.” “You’re such a dick,” Alex says. “Have you ever even been turkey hunting?” “Alex, you can’t even hunt them in Britain.” Alex returns to his bed and face-plants into a pillow. “I hope Cornbread does kill me.” “No, all right, I did hear it, and it was … proper frightening,” Henry says. “So, I understand. Where’s June for all this?”
“She’s having some kind of girls’ night with Nora, and when I texted them for backup, they sent back,” he reads out in a monotone, “‘hahahahahahahaha good luck with that,’ and then a turkey emoji and a poop emoji.” “That’s fair,” Henry says. Alex can picture him nodding solemnly. “So what are you going to do now? Are you going to stay up all night with them?” “I don’t know! I guess! I don’t know what else to do!” “You couldn’t just go sleep somewhere else? Aren’t there a thousand rooms in that house?” “Okay, but, uh, what if they escape? I’ve seen Jurassic Park. Did you know birds are directly descended from raptors? That’s a scientific fact. Raptors in my bedroom, Henry. And you want me to go to sleep like they’re not gonna bust out of their enclosures and take over the island the minute I close my eyes? Okay. Maybe your white ass.” “I’m really going to have you offed,” Henry tells him. “You’ll never see it coming. Our assassins are trained in discretion. They will come in the night, and it will look like a humiliating accident.” “Autoerotic asphyxiation?” “Toilet heart attack.” “Jesus.” “You’ve been warned.” “I thought you’d kill me in a more personal way. Silk pillow over my face, slow and gentle suffocation. Just you and me. Sensual.” “Ha. Well.” Henry coughs. “Anyway,” Alex says, climbing fully up onto the bed now. “It doesn’t matter because one of these goddamn turkeys is gonna kill me first.” “I really don’t think— Oh, hello there.” There’s rustling over the phone, the crinkling of a wrapper, and some heavy snuffling that sounds distinctly doglike. “Who’za good lad, then? David says hello.” “Hi, David.” “He— Oi! Not for you, Mr. Wobbles! Those are mine!” More rustling, a distant, offended meow. “No, Mr. Wobbles, you bastard!” “What in the fuck is a Mr. Wobbles?” “My sister’s idiot cat,” Henry tells him. “The thing weighs a ton and is still trying to steal my Jaffa Cakes. He and David are mates.” “What are you even doing right now?” “What am I doing? I was trying to sleep.”
“Okay, but you’re eating Jabba Cakes, so.” “Jaffa Cakes, my God,” Henry says. “I’m having my entire life haunted by a deranged American Neanderthal and a pair of turkeys, apparently.” “And?” Henry heaves another almighty sigh. He’s always sighing when Alex is involved. It’s amazing he has any air left. “And … don’t laugh.” “Oh, yay,” Alex says readily. “I was watching Great British Bake Off.” “Cute. Not embarrassing, though. What else?” “I, er, might be … wearing one of those peely face masks,” he says in a rush. “Oh my God, I knew it!” “Instant regret.” “I knew you had one of those crazy expensive Scandinavian skin care regimens. Do you have that, like, eye cream with diamonds in it?” “No!” Henry pouts, and Alex has to press the back of his hand against his lips to stifle his laugh. “Look, I have an appearance tomorrow, all right? I didn’t know I’d be scrutinized.” “I’m not scrutinizing. We all gotta keep those pores in check,” Alex says. “So you like Bake Off, huh?” “It’s just so soothing,” Henry says. “Everything’s all pastel-colored and the music is so relaxing and everyone’s so lovely to one another. And you learn so much about different types of biscuits, Alex. So much. When the world seems awful, such as when you’re trapped in a Great Turkey Calamity, you can put it on and vanish into biscuit land.” “American cooking competition shows are nothing like that. They’re all sweaty and, like, dramatic death music and intense camera cuts,” Alex says. “Bake Off makes Chopped look like the fucking Manson tapes.” “I feel like this explains loads about our differences,” Henry says, and Alex gives a small laugh. “You know,” Alex says. “You’re kind of surprising.” Henry pauses. “In what way?” “In that you’re not a totally boring asshole.” “Wow,” Henry says with a laugh. “I’m honored.” “I guess you have your depths.” “You thought I was a dumb blond, didn’t you?”
“Not exactly, just, boring,” Alex says. “I mean, your dog is named David, which is pretty boring.” “After Bowie.” “I—” Alex’s head spins, recalibrating. “Are you serious? What the hell? Why not call him Bowie, then?” “Bit on the nose, isn’t it?” Henry says. “A man should have some element of mystery.” “I guess,” Alex says. Then, because he can’t stop it in time, lets out a tremendous yawn. He’s been up since seven for a run before class. If these turkeys don’t end him, exhaustion will. “Alex,” Henry says firmly. “What?” “The turkeys are not going to Jurassic Park you,” he says. “You’re not the bloke from Seinfeld. You’re Jeff Goldblum. Go to sleep.” Alex bites down a smile that feels bigger than the sentence has truly earned. “You go to sleep.” “I will,” Henry says, and Alex thinks he hears the weird smile returned in Henry’s voice, and honestly, this whole night is really, really weird, “as soon as you get off the phone, won’t I?” “Okay,” Alex says, “but, like, what if they gobble again?” “Go sleep in June’s room, you numpty.” “Okay,” Alex says. “Okay,” Henry agrees. “Okay,” Alex says again. He’s suddenly very aware they’ve never spoken on the phone before, and so he’s never had to figure out how to hang up the phone with Henry before. He’s at a loss. But he’s still smiling. Cornbread is staring at him like he doesn’t get it. Me fuckin’ too, buddy. “Okay,” Henry repeats. “So. Good night.” “Cool,” Alex says lamely. “Good night.” He hangs up and stares at the phone in his hand, as if it should explain the static electricity in the air around him. He shakes it off, gathers up his pillow and a bundle of clothes, and crosses the hall to June’s room, climbing up into her tall bed. But he can’t stop thinking there’s some end left loose. He takes his phone back out. i sent pics of turkeys so i deserve pics of your animals too.
A minute and a half later: Henry, in a massive, palatial, hideous bed of white and gold linens, his face looking slightly pink and recently scrubbed, with a beagle’s head on one side of his pillow and an obese Siamese cat curled up on the other around a Jaffa Cake wrapper. He’s got faint circles under his eyes, but his face is soft and amused, one hand resting above his head on the pillow while the other holds up the phone for the selfie. This is what I must endure, he says, followed by, Good night, honestly. HRH Prince Dickhead Dec 8, 2019, 8:53 PM
yo there’s a bond marathon on and did you know your dad was a total babe
HRH Prince Dickhead I BEG YOU TO NOT Even before Alex’s parents split, they both had a habit of calling him by the other’s last name when he exhibited particular traits. They still do. When he runs his mouth off to the press, his mom calls him into her office and says, “Get your shit together, Diaz.” When his hard-headedness gets him stuck, his dad texts him, “Let it go, Claremont.” Alex’s mother sighs as she sets her copy of the Post down on her desk, open to an inside page article: SENATOR OSCAR DIAZ RETURNS TO DC FOR HOLIDAYS WITH EX-WIFE PRESIDENT CLAREMONT. It’s almost weird how much it isn’t weird anymore. His dad is flying in from California for Christmas, and it’s fine, but it’s also in the Post. She’s doing the thing she always does when she’s about to spend time with his father: pursing her lips and twitching two fingers of her right hand. “You know,” Alex says from where he’s kicked back on an Oval Office couch with a book, “somebody can go get you a cigarette.” “Hush, Diaz.” She’s had the Lincoln Bedroom prepared for his dad, and she keeps changing her mind, having housekeeping undecorate and redecorate. Leo, for his part, is unfazed and mollifies her with compliments between fits of tinsel. Alex doesn’t think anyone but Leo could ever stay married to his mother. His father certainly couldn’t. June is in a state, the perpetual mediator. His family is pretty much the only situation where Alex prefers to sit back and let it all unfold,
occasionally poking when it’s necessary or interesting, but June takes personal responsibility for making sure nobody breaks any more priceless White House antiques like last year. His dad finally arrives in a flurry of Secret Service agents, his beard impeccably groomed and his suit impeccably tailored. For all June’s anxious preparations, she almost breaks an antique vase herself catapulting into his arms. They disappear immediately to the chocolate shop on the ground floor, the sound of Oscar raving about June’s latest blog post for The Atlantic fading around the corner. Alex and his mother share a look. Their family is so predictable sometimes. The next day, Oscar gives Alex the follow-me-and-don’t-tell-yourmother look and pulls him out to the Truman Balcony. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas, mijo,” his dad says, grinning, and Alex laughs and lets himself be hauled into a one-armed hug. He smells the same as ever, salty and smoky and like well-treated leather. His mom used to complain that she felt like she lived in a cigar bar. “Merry Christmas, Pa,” Alex says back. He drags a chair close to the railing, putting his shiny boots up. Oscar Diaz loves a view. Alex considers the sprawling, snowy lawn in front of them, the sure line of the Washington Monument stretching up, the jagged French mansard roofs of the Eisenhower Building to the west, the same one Truman hated. His dad pulls a cigar from his pocket, clipping it and lighting up in the careful ritual he’s done for years. He takes a puff and passes it over. “It ever make you laugh to think how much this pisses assholes off?” he says, gesturing to encompass the whole scene: two Mexican men putting their feet up on the railing where heads of state eat croissants. “Constantly.” Oscar does laugh, then, enjoying his brazenness. He is an adrenaline junkie—mountain climbing, cave diving, pissing off Alex’s mother. Flirting with death, basically. It’s the flip side of the way he approaches work, which is methodical and precise, or the way he approaches parenting, which is laid-back and indulgent. It’s nice, now, to see him more than he ever did in high school, since Oscar spends most of his year in DC. During the busiest congressional sessions, they’ll convene Los Bastardos—weekly beers in Oscar’s office after hours, just him, Alex, and Rafael Luna, talking shit. And it’s nice that
proximity has forced his parents through the era of mutually assured destruction to now, where they have one Christmas instead of two. As the days go by, Alex catches himself remembering sometimes, just for a second, how much he misses having everyone under one roof. His dad was always the cook of the family. Alex’s childhood was perfumed with simmering peppers and onions and stew meat in a cast iron pot for caldillo, fresh masa waiting on the butcher block. He remembers his mom swearing and laughing when she opened the oven for her guiltypleasure pizza bagels only to find all the pots and pans stored there, or when she’d go for the tub of butter in the fridge and find it filled with homemade salsa verde. There used to be a lot of laughter in that kitchen, a lot of good food and loud music and parades of cousins and homework done at the table. Except eventually there was a lot of yelling, followed by a lot of quiet, and soon Alex and June were teenagers and both their parents were in Congress, and Alex was student body president and lacrosse cocaptain and prom king and valedictorian, and, very intentionally, it stopped being a thing he had time to think about. Still, his dad’s been in the Residence for three days without incident, and one day Alex catches him in the kitchens with two of the cooks, laughing and dumping peppers into a pot. It’s just, you know, sometimes he thinks it might be nice if it could be like this more often. Zahra’s heading to New Orleans to see her family for Christmas, only at the president’s insistence, and only because her sister had a baby and Amy threatened to stab her if she didn’t deliver the onesie she knitted. Which means Christmas dinner is happening on Christmas Eve so Zahra won’t miss it. For all her late nights cursing their names, Zahra is family. “Merry Christmas, Z!” Alex tells her cheerfully in the hall outside the family dining room. For holiday flare, she’s wearing a sensible red turtleneck; Alex is wearing a sweater covered in bright green tinsel. He smiles and presses a button on the inside of the sleeve, and “O Christmas Tree” plays from a speaker near his armpit. “I can’t wait to not see you for two days,” she says, but there’s real affection in her voice. This year’s dinner is small, since his dad’s parents are on vacation, so the table is set for six in glittering white and gold. The conversation is pleasant enough that Alex almost forgets it’s not always like this. Until it shifts to the election.
“I was thinking,” Oscar says, carefully cutting his filet, “this time, I can campaign with you.” At the other end of the table, Ellen puts her fork down. “You can what?” “You know.” He shrugs, chewing. “Hit the trail, do some speeches. Be a surrogate.” “You can’t be serious.” Oscar puts down his own fork and knife now on the cloth-covered table, a soft thump of oh, shit. Alex glances across the table at June. “You really think it’s such a bad idea?” Oscar says. “Oscar, we went through all of this last time,” Ellen tells him. Her tone is instantly clipped. “People don’t like women, but they like mothers and wives. They like families. The last thing we need to do is remind them that I’m divorced by parading my ex-husband around.” He laughs a little grimly. “So, you’ll pretend he’s their dad then, eh?” “Oscar,” Leo speaks up, “you know I’d never—” “You’re missing the point,” Ellen interrupts. “It could help your approval ratings,” he says. “Mine are quite high, El. Higher than yours ever were in the House.” “Here we go,” Alex says to Leo next to him, whose face remains pleasantly neutral. “We’ve done studies, Oscar! Okay?” Ellen’s voice has risen in volume and pitch, her palms planted flat on the table. “The data shows, I track worse with undecided voters when they’re reminded of the divorce!” “People know you’re divorced!” “Alex’s numbers are high!” she shouts, and Alex and June both wince. “June’s numbers are high!” “They’re not numbers!” “Fuck off, I know that,” she spits, “I never said they were!” “You think sometimes you use them like they are?” “How dare you, when you don’t seem to have any problem trotting them out every time you’re up for reelection!” she says, slicing one hand through the air beside her. “Maybe if they were just Claremonts, you wouldn’t have so much luck. It’d sure as hell be less confusing—it’s the name everybody knows them by anyway!” “Nobody’s taking any of our names!” June jumps in, her voice high. “June,” Ellen says. Their dad pushes on. “I’m trying to help you, Ellen!”
“I don’t need your help to win an election, Oscar!” she says, hitting the table so hard with her open palm that the dishes rattle. “I didn’t need it when I was in Congress, and I didn’t need it to become president the first time, and I don’t need it now!” “You need to get serious about what you’re up against! You think the other side is going to play fair this time? Eight years of Obama, and now you? They’re angry, Ellen, and Richards is out for blood! You need to be ready!” “I will be! You think I don’t have a team on all this shit already? I’m the President of the United fucking States! I don’t need you to come here and— and—” “Mansplain?” Zahra offers. “Mansplain!” Ellen shouts, jabbing a finger across the table at Oscar, eyes wide. “This presidential race to me!” Oscar throws his napkin down. “You’re still so fucking stubborn!” “Fuck you!” “Mom!” June says sharply. “Jesus Christ, are you kidding me?” Alex hears himself shout before he even consciously decides to say it. “Can we not be civil for one fucking meal? It’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake. Aren’t y’all supposed to be running the country? Get your shit together.” He pushes his chair back and stalks out of the dining room, knowing he’s being a dramatic asshole and not really caring. He slams his bedroom door behind him, and his stupid sweater plays a few depressingly off-key notes when he yanks it off and throws it at the wall. It’s not that he doesn’t lose his temper often, it’s just … he doesn’t usually lose it with his family. Mostly because he doesn’t usually deal with his family. He digs an old lacrosse T-shirt out of his dresser, and when he turns and catches his reflection in the mirror by the closet, he’s right back in his teens, caring too much about his parents and helpless to change his situation. Except now he doesn’t have any AP classes to enroll in as a distraction. His hand twitches for his phone. His brain is a two-passenger minimum ride as far as he’s concerned—alone and busy or thinking with company. But Nora’s doing Hanukkah in Vermont, and he doesn’t want to annoy her, and his best friend from high school, Liam, has barely spoken to him since he moved to DC.
Which leaves … “What could I possibly have done to have brought this upon myself now?” says Henry’s voice, low and sleepy. It sounds like “Good King Wenceslas” is playing in the background “Hey, um, sorry. I know it’s late, and it’s Christmas Eve and everything. You probably have, like, family stuff, I’m just realizing. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Wow, this is why I don’t have friends. I’m a dick. Sorry, man. I’ll, uh, I’ll just—” “Alex, Christ,” Henry interrupts. “It’s fine. It’s half two here, everyone’s gone to bed. Except Bea. Say hi, Bea.” “Hi, Alex!” says a clear, giggly voice on the other end of the line. “Henry’s got his candy-cane jim-jams on—” “That’s quite enough,” Henry’s voice comes back through, and there’s a muffled sound like maybe a pillow has been shoved in Bea’s direction. “What’s happening, then?” “Sorry,” Alex blurts out, “I know this is weird, and you’re with your sister and everything, and, like, argh. I kind of didn’t have anyone else to call who would be awake? And I know we’re, uh, not really friends, and we don’t really talk about this stuff, but my dad came in for Christmas, and he and my mom are like fucking tiger sharks fighting over a baby seal when you put them in the same room together for more than an hour, and they got in this huge fight, and it shouldn’t matter, because they’re already divorced and everything, and I don’t know why I lost my shit, but I wish they could give it a rest for once so we could have one single normal holiday, you know?” There’s a long pause before Henry says, “Hang on. Bea, can I have a minute? Hush. Yes, you can take the biscuits. All right, I’m listening.” Alex exhales, wondering faintly what the hell he’s doing, but plows onward. Telling Henry about the divorce—those weird, tumultuous years, the day he came home from a Boy Scout camp-out to discover his dad’s things moved out, the nights of Helados ice cream—doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it probably should. He’s never bothered to filter himself with Henry, at first because he honestly didn’t care what Henry thought, and now because it’s how they are. Maybe it should be different, bitching about his course load versus spilling his guts about this. It isn’t. 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 twentysomethings. 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. “You don’t dance?” he says, watching Henry, who is very visibly trying to figure out what to do with to do with his hands. It’s endearing. Wow, Alex is drunk. “No, I do,” Henry says. “It’s just, the family-mandated ballroom dancing lessons didn’t exactly cover this?” “C’mon, it’s, like, in the hips. You have to loosen up.” He reaches down and puts both hands on Henry’s hips, and Henry instantly tenses under the touch. “That’s the opposite of what I said.” “Alex, I don’t—” “Here,” Alex says, moving his own hips, “watch me.” With a grave gulp of champagne, Henry says, “I am.” The song crossfades into another buh-duh dum-dum-dum, dum-duh-dum duh-duh-dum— “Shut up,” Alex yells, cutting off whatever else Henry was saying, “shut your dumb face, this is my shit!” He throws his hands up in the air as Henry stares at him blankly, and around them, people start cheering too, hundreds of shoulders shimmying to the shouty, Lil Jon–flavored nostalgia of “Get Low.” “Did you seriously never go to an awkward middle school dance and watch a bunch of teenagers dry hump to this song?” Henry is holding on to his champagne for dear life. “You absolutely must know I did not.”
Alex flails one arm out and snatches Nora from a nearby huddle, where she’s been flirting with Spider-Man girl. “Nora! Nora! Henry has never watched a bunch of teenagers dry hump to this song!” “What?” “Please tell me nobody is going to dry hump me,” Henry says. “Oh my God, Henry,” Alex yells, seizing Henry by one lapel as the music pounds on, “you have to dance. You have to dance. You need to understand this formative American coming-of-age experience.” Nora grabs Alex, pulling him away from Henry and spinning him around, her hands on his waist, and starts grinding with abandon. Alex whoops and Nora cackles and the crowd jumps around and Henry just gawks at them. “Did that man just say ‘sweat drop down my balls’?” It’s fun—Nora against his back, sweat on his brow, bodies pushing in around him. To one side, a podcast producer and that guy from Stranger Things are hitting the Kid ’n Play, and to the other, Pez is literally bending over to the front and touching his toes as instructed. Henry’s face is shocked and confused, and it’s hilarious. Alex accepts a shot off a passing tray and drinks to the strange spark in his gut at the way Henry watches them. Alex pouts his lips and shakes his ass, and with extreme trepidation, Henry starts bopping his head a little. “Fuck it up, vato!” Alex yells, and Henry laughs despite himself. He even gives his hips a little shake. “I thought you weren’t going to babysit him all night,” June stagewhispers in his ear as she twirls by. “I thought you were too busy for guys,” Alex replies, nodding significantly at Pez in the periphery. She winks at him and disappears. From there, it’s a series of crowd-pleasers until midnight, the lights and music blasting at full capacity. Confetti, somehow blasting into the air. Did they arrange for confetti cannons? More drinks—Henry starts drinking directly from a bottle of Moët & Chandon. Alex likes the look on Henry’s face, the sure curl of his hand around the neck of the bottle, the way his lips wrap around the mouth of it. Henry’s willingness to dance is directly proportionate to his proximity to Alex’s hands, and the amount of giddy warmth bubbling under Alex’s skin is directly proportionate to the cut of Henry’s mouth when he watches him with Nora. It’s an equation he is not nearly sober enough to parse.
They all huddle up at 11:59 for the countdown, eyes blurry and arms around one another. Nora screams “three, two, one” right in his ear and slings her arm around his neck as he yells his approval and kisses her sloppily, laughing through it. They’ve done this every year, both of them perpetually single and affectionately drunk and happy to make everyone else intrigued and jealous. Nora’s mouth is warm and tastes horrifying, like peach schnapps, and she bites his lip and messes up his hair for good measure. When he opens his eyes, Henry’s looking back at him, expression unreadable. He feels his own smile grow wider, and Henry turns away and toward the bottle of champagne clutched in his fist, from which he takes a hearty swig before disappearing into the crowd. Alex loses track of things after that, because he’s very, very drunk and the music is very, very loud and there are very, very many hands on him, carrying him through the tangle of dancing bodies and passing him more drinks. Nora bobs by on the back of some hot rookie NFL running back. It’s loud and messy and wonderful. Alex has always loved these parties, the sparkling joy of it all, the way champagne bubbles on his tongue and confetti sticks to his shoes. It’s a reminder that even though he stresses and stews in private rooms, there will always be a sea of people he can disappear into, that the world can be warm and welcoming and fill up the walls of this big old house he lives in with something bright and infectiously alive. But somewhere, beneath the liquor and the music, he can’t stop noticing that Henry has disappeared. He checks the bathrooms, the buffet, the quiet corners of the ballroom, but he’s nowhere. He tries asking Pez, shouting Henry’s name at him over the noise, but Pez just smiles and shrugs and steals a snapback off a passing yacht kid. He’s … worried isn’t exactly the word. Bothered. Curious. He was having fun watching everything he did play out on Henry’s face. He keeps looking, until he trips over his own feet by one of the big windows in the hallway. He’s pulling himself up when he glances outside, down into the garden. There, under a tree in the snow, exhaling little puffs of steam, is a tall, lean, broad-shouldered figure that can only be Henry.
He slips out onto the portico without really thinking about it, and the instant the door closes behind him, the music snuffs out into silence, and it’s just him and Henry and the garden. He’s got the hazy tunnel vision of a drunk person when they lock eyes on a goal. He follows it down the stairs and onto the snowy lawn. Henry stands quietly, hands in his pockets, contemplating the sky, and he’d almost look sober if not for the wobbly lean to the left he’s doing. Stupid English dignity, even in the face of champagne. Alex wants to push his royal face into a shrub. Alex trips over a bench, and the sound catches Henry’s attention. When he turns, the moonlight catches on him, and his face looks softened in half shadows, inviting in a way Alex can’t quite work out. “What’re you doing out here?” Alex says, trudging up to stand next to him under the tree. Henry squints. Up close, his eyes go a little crossed, focused somewhere between himself and Alex’s nose. Not so dignified after all. “Looking for Orion,” Henry says. Alex huffs a laugh, looking up to the sky. Nothing but fat winter clouds. “You must be really bored with the commoners to come out here and stare at the clouds.” “’m not bored,” Henry mumbles. “What are you doing out here? Doesn’t America’s golden boy have some swooning crowds to beguile?” “Says Prince fucking Charming,” Alex answers, smirking. Henry pulls a very unprincely face up at the clouds. “Hardly.” His knuckle brushes the back of Alex’s hand at their sides, a little zip of warmth in the cold night. Alex considers his face in profile, blinking through the booze, following the smooth line of his nose and the gentle dip at the center of his lower lip, each touched by moonlight. It’s freezing and Alex is only wearing his suit jacket, but his chest feels warmed from the inside with liquor and something heady his brain keeps stumbling over, trying to name. The garden is quiet except for the blood rushing in his ears. “You didn’t really answer my question, though,” Alex notes. Henry groans, rubbing a hand across his face. “You can’t ever leave well enough alone, can you?” He leans his head back. It thumps gently against the trunk of the tree. “Sometimes it gets a bit … much.” Alex keeps looking at him. Usually, there’s something about the set of Henry’s mouth that betrays a bit of friendliness, but sometimes, like right
now, his mouth pinches in the corner instead, pins his guard resolutely in place. Alex shifts, almost involuntarily, leaning back against the tree too. He nudges their shoulders together and catches that corner of Henry’s mouth twitching, sees something move featherlight across his face. These things— big events, letting other people feed on his own energy—are rarely too much for Alex. He’s not sure how Henry feels, but some part of his brain that is likely soaked in tequila thinks maybe it would be helpful if Henry could take what he can handle, and Alex could handle the rest. Maybe he can absorb some of the “much” from the place where their shoulders are pressed together. A muscle in Henry’s jaw moves, and something soft, almost like a smile, tugs at his lips. “D’you ever wonder,” he says slowly, “what it’s like to be some anonymous person out in the world?” Alex frowns. “What do you mean?” “Just, you know,” Henry says. “If your mum weren’t the president and you were just a normal bloke living a normal life, what things might be like? What you’d be doing instead?” “Ah,” Alex says, considering. He stretches one arm out in front of him, makes a dismissive gesture with a flick of his wrist. “Well, I mean, obviously I’d be a model. I’ve been on the cover of Teen Vogue twice. These genetics transcend all circumstance.” Henry rolls his eyes again. “What about you?” Henry shakes his head ruefully. “I’d be a writer.” Alex gives a little laugh. He thinks he already knew this about Henry, somehow, but it’s still kind of disarming. “Can’t you do that?” “Not exactly seen as a worthwhile pursuit for a man in line for the throne, scribbling verses about quarter-life angst,” Henry says dryly. “Besides, the traditional family career track is military, so that’s about it, isn’t it?” Henry bites his lip, waits a beat, and opens his mouth again. “I’d date more, probably, as well.” Alex can’t help laughing again. “Right, because it’s so hard to get a date when you’re a prince.” Henry cuts his eyes back down to Alex. “You’d be surprised.” “How? You’re not exactly lacking for options.” Henry keeps looking at him, holding his gaze for two seconds too long. “The options I’d like…” he says, dragging the words out. “They don’t quite seem to be options at all.”
Alex blinks. “What?” “I’m saying that I have … people … who interest me,” Henry says, turning his body toward Alex now, speaking with a fumbling pointedness, as if it means something. “But I shouldn’t pursue them. At least not in my position.” Are they too drunk to communicate in English? He wonders distantly if Henry knows any Spanish. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Alex says. “You don’t?” “No.” “You really don’t?” “I really, really don’t.” Henry’s whole face grimaces in frustration, his eyes casting skyward like they’re searching for help from an uncaring universe. “Christ, you are as thick as it gets,” he says, and he grabs Alex’s face in both hands and kisses him. Alex is frozen, registering the press of Henry’s lips and the wool cuffs of his coat grazing his jaw. The world fuzzes out into static, and his brain is swimming hard to keep up, adding up the equation of teenage grudges and wedding cakes and two a.m. texts and not understanding the variable that got him here, except it’s … well, surprisingly, he really doesn’t mind. Like, at all. In his head, he tries to cobble a list together in a panic, gets as far as, One, Henry’s lips are soft, and short-circuits. He tests leaning into the kiss and is rewarded by Henry’s mouth sliding and opening against his, Henry’s tongue brushing against his, which is, wow. It’s nothing like kissing Nora earlier—nothing like kissing anyone he’s ever kissed in his life. It feels as steady and huge as the ground under their feet, as encompassing of every part of him, as likely to knock the wind out of his lungs. One of Henry’s hands pushes into his hair and grabs it at the roots at the back of his head, and he hears himself make a sound that breaks the breathless silence, and— Just as suddenly, Henry releases him roughly enough that he staggers backward, and Henry’s mumbling a curse and an apology, eyes wide, and he’s spinning on his heel, crunching off through the snow at double time. Before Alex can say or do anything, he’s disappeared around the corner.
“Oh,” Alex says finally, faintly, touching one hand to his lips. Then:“Shit.”

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