Red, White &Royal Blue By Casey McQuiston , Chapter 5

So, the thing about the kiss is, Alex absolutely cannot stop thinking about
He’s tried. Henry and Pez and their bodyguards were long gone by the time Alex made it back inside. Not even a drunken stupor or the next morning’s pounding hangover can scrub the image from his brain. He tries listening in on his mom’s meetings, but they can’t hold his attention, and Zahra bans him from the West Wing. He studies every bill trickling through Congress and considers making rounds to sweet-talk senators, but can’t muster the enthusiasm. Not even starting a rumor with Nora sounds enticing. He starts his last semester, goes to class, sits with the social secretary to plan his graduation dinner, buries himself in highlighted annotations and supplemental readings. But beneath it all, there’s the Prince of England kissing him under a linden tree in the garden, moonlight in his hair, and Alex’s insides feel positively molten, and he wants to throw himself down the presidential stairs. He hasn’t told anyone, not even Nora or June. He has no idea what he’d even say if he did. Is he even technically allowed to tell anyone, since he signed an NDA? Was this why he had to sign it? Is this something Henry always had in mind? Does that mean Henry has feelings for him? Why would Henry have acted like a tedious prick for so long if he liked him? Henry’s not offering any insights, or anything at all. He hasn’t answered a single one of Alex’s texts or calls. “Okay, that’s it,” June says on a Wednesday afternoon, stomping out of her room and into the sitting room by their shared hallway. She’s in her workout clothes with her hair tied up. Alex hastily shoves his phone back into his pocket. “I don’t know what your problem is, but I have been trying to write for two hours and I can’t do it when I can hear you pacing.” She throws a baseball cap at him. “I’m going for a run, and you’re coming with me.” Cash accompanies them to the Reflecting Pool, where June kicks the back of Alex’s knee to get him going, and Alex grunts and swears and picks up the pace. He feels like a dog that has to be taken on walks to get his energy out.
Especially when June says, “You’re like a dog that has to be taken on walks to get his energy out.” “I hate you sometimes,” he tells her, and he shoves his earbuds in and cranks up Kid Cudi. He thinks, as he runs and runs and runs, the stupidest thing of all is that he’s straight. Like, he’s pretty sure he’s straight. He can pinpoint moments throughout his life when he thought to himself, See, this means I can’t possibly be into guys. Like when he was in middle school and he kissed a girl for the first time, and he didn’t think about a guy when it was happening, just that her hair was soft and it felt nice. Or when he was a sophomore in high school and one of his friends came out as gay, and he couldn’t imagine ever doing anything like that. Or his senior year, when he got drunk and made out with Liam in his twin bed for an hour, and he didn’t have a sexual crisis about it—that had to mean he was straight, right? Because if he were into guys, it would have felt scary to be with one, but it wasn’t. That was just how horny teenage best friends were sometimes, like when they would get off at the same time watching porn in Liam’s bedroom … or that one time Liam reached over, and Alex didn’t stop him. He glances over at June, at the suspicious quirk of her lips. Can she hear what he’s thinking? Does she know, somehow? June always knows things. He doubles his pace, if only to get the expression on her mouth out of his periphery. On their fifth lap, he thinks back over his hormonal teens and remembers thinking about girls in the shower, but he also remembers fantasizing about a boy’s hands on him, about hard jawlines and broad shoulders. He remembers pulling his eyes off a teammate in the locker room a couple times, but that was, like, an objective thing. How was he supposed to know back then if he wanted to look like other guys, or if he wanted other guys? Or if his horny teenage urges actually even meant anything? He’s a son of Democrats. It’s something he’s always been around. So, he always assumed if he weren’t straight, he would just know, like how he knows that he loves cajeta on his ice cream or that he needs a tediously organized calendar to get anything done. He thought he was smart enough about his own identity that there weren’t any questions left.
They’re rounding the corner for their eighth lap now, and he’s starting to see some flaws in his logic. Straight people, he thinks, probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves they’re straight. There’s another reason he never cared to examine things beyond the basic benchmark of being attracted to women. He’s been in the public eye since his mom became the favored 2016 nominee, the White House Trio the administration’s door to the teen and twenty-something demographic almost as long. All three of them—himself, June, and Nora—have their roles. Nora is the cool brainy one, the one who makes inappropriate jokes on Twitter about whatever sci-fi show everyone’s watching, a bar trivia team ringer. She’s not straight—she’s never been straight—but to her, it’s an incidental part of who she is. She doesn’t worry about going public with it; feelings don’t consume her the way his do. He looks at June—ahead of him now, caramel highlights in her swinging ponytail catching the midday sun—and he knows her place too. The intrepid Washington Post columnist, the fashion trendsetter everyone wants to have at their wine-and-cheese night. But Alex is the golden boy. The heartthrob, the handsome rogue with a heart of gold. The guy who moves through life effortlessly, who makes everyone laugh. Highest approval ratings of the entire First Family. The whole point of him is that his appeal is as universal as possible. Being … whatever he’s starting to suspect he might be, is definitely not universally appealing to voters. He has a hard enough time being halfMexican. He wants his mom to keep her approval ratings up without having to manage a complication from her own family. He wants to be the youngest congressman in US history. He’s absolutely sure that guys who kissed a Prince of England and liked it don’t get elected to represent Texas. But he thinks about Henry, and, oh. He thinks about Henry, and something twists in his chest, like a stretch he’s been avoiding for too long. He thinks about Henry’s voice low in his ear over the phone at three in the morning, and suddenly he has a name for what ignites in the pit of his stomach. Henry’s hands on him, his thumbs braced against his temples back in the garden, Henry’s hands other places, Henry’s mouth, what he might do with it if Alex let him. Henry’s broad shoulders and long legs and narrow waist, the place his jaw meets his neck and the place his neck meets his
shoulder and the tendon that stretches the length between them, and the way it looks when Henry turns his head to shoot him a challenging glare, and his impossibly blue eyes— He trips on a crack in the pavement and goes tumbling down, skinning his knee and ripping his earbuds out. “Dude, what the hell?” June’s voice cuts through the ringing in his ears. She’s standing over him, hands on her knees, brow furrowed, panting. “Your brain could not be more clearly in another solar system. Are you gonna tell me or what?” He takes her hand and lets her pull him and his bloody knee up. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” June sighs, shooting him another look before finally dropping it. Once he’s limped back home behind her, she disappears to shower and he stems the bleeding with a Captain America Band-Aid from his bathroom cabinet. He needs a list. So: Things he knows right now. One. He’s attracted to Henry. Two. He wants to kiss Henry again. Three. He has maybe wanted to kiss Henry for a while. As in, probably this whole time. He ticks off another list in his head. Henry. Shaan. Liam. Han Solo. Rafael Luna and his loose collars. Sidling up to his desk, he pulls out the binder his mother gave him: DEMOGRAPHIC ENGAGEMENT: WHO THEY ARE AND HOW TO REACH THEM. He drags his finger down to the LGBTQ+ tab and turns to the page he’s looking for, titled with mother’s typical flair: THE B ISN’T SILENT: A CRASH COURSE ON BISEXUAL AMERICANS.
“I wanna start now,” Alex says as he slams into the Treaty Room. His mother lowers her glasses to the tip of her nose, eyeing him over a pile of papers. “Start what? Getting your ass beat for barging in here while I’m working?” “The job,” he says. “The campaign job. I don’t wanna wait until I graduate. I already read all the materials you gave me. Twice. I have time. I can start now.” She narrows her eyes at him. “You got a bug up your butt?” “No, I just…” One of his knees is bouncing impatiently. He forces it to stop. “I’m ready. I’ve got less than one semester left. How much more could I possibly need to know to do this? Put me in, Coach.”
Which is how he finds himself out of breath on a Monday afternoon after class, following a staffer who’s managed to surpass even him in the caffeination department, on a breakneck tour of the campaign offices. He gets a badge with his name and photo on it, a desk in a shared cubicle, and a WASPy cubicle mate from Boston named Hunter with an extremely punchable face. Alex is handed a folder of data from the latest focus groups and told to start drafting policy ideas for the end of the following week, and WASPy Hunter asks him five hundred questions about his mom. Alex very professionally does not punch him. He just gets to work. He’s definitely not thinking about Henry. He’s not thinking about Henry when he puts in twenty-three hours in his first week of work, or when he’s filling the rest of his hours with class and papers and going for long runs and drinking triple-shot coffees and poking around the Senate offices. He’s not thinking about Henry in the shower or at night, alone and wide awake in his bed. Except for when he is. Which is always. This usually works. He doesn’t understand why it’s not working. When he’s in the campaign offices, he keeps gravitating over to the big, busy whiteboards of the polling section, where Nora sits every day enshrined in graphs and spreadsheets. She’s made easy friends with her coworkers, since competence translates directly to popularity in the campaign social culture, and nobody’s better at numbers than her. He’s not jealous, exactly. He’s popular in his own department, constantly cornered at the Keurig for second opinions on people’s drafts and invited to after-work drinks he never has time for. At least four staffers of various genders have hit on him, and WASPy Hunter won’t stop trying to convince him to come to his improv shows. He smiles handsomely over his coffee and makes sarcastic jokes and the Alex Claremont-Diaz Charm Initiative is as effective as ever. But Nora makes friends, and Alex ends up with acquaintances who think they know him because they’ve read his profile in New York magazine, and perfectly fine people with perfectly fine bodies who want to take him home from the bar. None of it is satisfying—it never has been, not really, but it never mattered as much as it does now that there’s the sharp counterpoint of Henry, who knows him. Henry who’s seen him in glasses and tolerates him at
his most annoying and still kissed him like he wanted him, singularly, not the idea of him. So it goes, and Henry is there, in his head and his lecture notes and his cubicle, every single stupid day, no matter how many shots of espresso he puts in his coffee.
Nora would be the obvious choice for help, if not for the fact that she’s neck deep in polling numbers. When she gets into her work like this, it’s like trying to have a meaningful conversation with a high-speed computer that loves Chipotle and makes fun of what you’re wearing. But she’s his best friend, and she’s sort of vaguely bisexual. She never dates—no time or desire—but if she did, she says it’d be an even distribution of the intern pool. She’s as knowledgeable about the topic as she is about everything else. “Hello,” she says from the floor as he drops a bag of burritos and a second bag of chips with guacamole on the coffee table. “You might have to put guacamole directly into my mouth with a spoon because I need both hands for the next forty-eight hours.” Nora’s grandparents, the Veep and Second Lady, live at the Naval Observatory, and her parents live just outside of Montpelier, but she’s had the same airy one-bedroom in Columbia Heights since she transferred from MIT to GW. It’s full of books and plants she tends to with complex spreadsheets of watering schedules. Tonight, she’s sitting on her living room floor in a glowing circle of screens like some kind of Capitol Hill séance. To her left, her campaign laptop is open to an indecipherable page of data and bar graphs. To her right, her personal computer is running three news aggregators at the same time. In front of her, the TV is broadcasting CNN’s Republican primary coverage, while the tablet in her lap is playing an old episode of Drag Race. She’s holding her iPhone in her hand, and Alex hears the little whoosh of an email sending before she looks up at him. “Barbacoa?” she says hopefully as Alex drops onto the couch. “I’ve met you before today, so, obviously.” “There’s my future husband.” She leans over to pull a burrito out of the bag, rips off the foil, and shoves it into her mouth. “I’m not going to have a marriage of convenience with you if you’re always embarrassing me with the way you eat burritos,” Alex says, watching
her chew. A black bean falls out of her mouth and lands on one of her keyboards. “Aren’t you from Texas?” she says through her mouthful. “I’ve seen you shotgun a bottle of barbecue sauce. Watch yourself or I’m gonna marry June instead.” This might be his opening into “the conversation.” Hey, you know how you’re always joking about dating June? Well, like, what if I dated a guy? Not that he wants to date Henry. At all. Ever. But just, like, hypothetically. Nora goes off on a data nerd tangent for the next twenty minutes about her updated take on whatever the fuck the Boyer–Moore majority vote algorithm is and variables and how it can be used in whatever work she’s doing for the campaign, or something. Honestly, Alex’s concentration is drifting in and out. He’s just working on summoning up courage until she talks herself into submission. “Hey, so, uh,” Alex attempts as she takes a burrito break. “Remember when we dated?” Nora swallows a massive bite and grins. “Why yes, I do, Alejandro.” Alex forces a laugh. “So, knowing me as well as you do—” “In the biblical sense.” “Numbers on me being into dudes?” That pulls Nora up short, before she cocks her head to the side and says, “Seventy-eight percent probability of latent bisexual tendencies. One hundred percent probability this is not a hypothetical question.” “Yeah. So.” He coughs. “Weird thing happened. You know how Henry came to New Year’s? He kinda … kissed me?” “Oh, no shit?” Nora says, nodding appreciatively. “Nice.” Alex stares at her. “You’re not surprised?” “I mean.” She shrugs. “He’s gay, and you’re hot, so.” He sits up so quickly he almost drops his burrito on the floor. “Wait, wait —what makes you think he’s gay? Did he tell you he was?” “No, I just … like, you know.” She gesticulates as if to describe her usual thought process. It’s as incomprehensible as her brain. “I observe patterns and data, and they form logical conclusions, and he’s just gay. He’s always been gay.” “I … what?” “Dude. Have you met him? Isn’t he supposed to be your best friend or whatever? He’s gay. Like, Fire-Island-on-the-Fourth-of-July gay. Did you
really not know?” Alex lifts his hands helplessly. “No?” “Alex, I thought you were supposed to be smart.” “Me too! How can he—how can he spring a kiss on me without even telling me he’s gay first?” “I mean, like,” she attempts, “is it possible he assumed you knew?” “But he goes on dates with girls all the time.” “Yeah, because princes aren’t allowed to be gay,” Nora says as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Why do you think they’re always photographed?” Alex lets that sink in for half a second and remembers this is supposed to be about his gay panic, not Henry’s. “Okay, so. Wait. Jesus. Can we go back to the part where he kissed me?” “Ooh, yes,” Nora says. She licks a glob of guacamole off the screen of her phone. “Happily. Was he a good kisser? Was there tongue? Did you like it?” “Never mind,” Alex says instantly. “Forget I asked.” “Since when are you a prude?” Nora demands. “Last year you made me listen to every nasty detail about going down on Amber Forrester from June’s internship.” “Do not,” he says, hiding his face behind the crook of his elbow. “Then spill.” “I seriously hope you die,” he says. “Yes, he was a good kisser, and there was tongue.” “I fucking knew it,” she says. “Still waters, deep dicking.” “Stop,” he groans. “Prince Henry is a biscuit,” Nora says, “let him sop you up.” “I’m leaving.” She throws her head back and cackles, and seriously, Alex has got to get more friends. “Did you like it, though?” A pause. “What, um,” he starts. “What do you think it would mean … if I did?” “Well. Babe. You’ve been wanting him to dick you down forever, right?” Alex almost chokes on his tongue. “What?” Nora looks at him. “Oh, shit. Did you not know that either? Shit. I didn’t mean to, like, tell you. Is it time for this conversation?” “I … maybe?” he says. “Um. What?”
She puts her burrito down on the coffee table and shakes her fingers out like she does when she’s about to write a complicated code. Alex suddenly feels intimidated at having her undivided attention. “Let me lay out some observations for you,” she says. “You extrapolate. First, you’ve been, like, Draco Malfoy–level obsessed with Henry for years —do not interrupt me—and since the royal wedding, you’ve gotten his phone number and used it not to set up any appearances but instead to longdistance flirt with him all day every day. You’re constantly making big cow eyes at your phone, and if somebody asks you who you’re texting, you act like you got caught watching porn. You know his sleep schedule, he knows your sleep schedule, and you’re in a noticeably worse mood if you go a day without talking to him. You spent the entire New Year’s party straight-up ignoring the who’s who of hot people who want to fuck America’s most eligible bachelor to literally watch Henry stand next to the croquembouche. And he kissed you—with tongue!—and you liked it. So, objectively. What do you think it means?” Alex stares. “I mean,” he says slowly. “I don’t … know.” Nora frowns, visibly giving up, resumes eating her burrito, and returns her attention to the newsfeed on her laptop. “Okay.” “No, okay, look,” Alex says. “I know, like, objectively, on a fucking graphing calculator, it sounds like a huge embarrassing crush. But, ugh. I don’t know! He was my sworn enemy until a couple months ago, and then we were friends, I guess, and now he’s kissed me, and I don’t know what we … are.” “Uh-huh,” Nora says, very much not listening. “Yep.” “And, still,” he barrels on. “In terms of, like, sexuality, what does that make me?” Nora’s eyes snap back up to him. “Oh, like, I thought we were already there with you being bi and everything,” she says. “Sorry, are we not? Did I skip ahead again? My bad. Hello, would you like to come out to me? I’m listening. Hi.” “I don’t know!” he half yells, miserably. “Am I? Do you think I’m bi?” “I can’t tell you that, Alex!” she says. “That’s the whole point!” “Shit,” he says, dropping his head back on the cushions. “I need someone to just tell me. How did you know you were?” “I don’t know, man. I was in my junior year of high school, and I touched a boob. It wasn’t very profound. Nobody’s gonna write an Off-Broadway
play about it.” “Really helpful.” “Yup,” she says, chewing thoughtfully on a chip. “So, what are you gonna do?” “I have no idea,” Alex says. “He’s totally ghosted me, so I guess it was awful or a stupid drunk mistake he regrets or—” “Alex,” she says. “He likes you. He’s freaking out. You’re gonna have to decide how you feel about him and do something about it. He’s not in a position to do anything else.” Alex has no idea what else to say about any of it. Nora’s eyes drift back to one of her screens, where Anderson Cooper is unpacking the latest coverage of the Republican presidential hopefuls. “Any chance someone other than Richards gets the nomination?” Alex sighs. “Nope. Not according to anybody I’ve talked to.” “It’s almost cute how hard the others are still trying,” she says, and they lapse into silence.
Alex is late, again. His class is reviewing for the first exam today, and he’s late because he lost track of time going over his speech for the campaign event he’s doing in fucking Nebraska this weekend, of all godforsaken places. It’s Thursday, and he’s hauling ass straight from work to the lecture hall, and his exam is next Tuesday, and he’s going to fail because he’s missing the review. The class is Ethical Issues in International Relations. He really has got to stop taking classes so painfully relevant to his life. He gets through the review in a haze of half-distracted shorthand and books it back toward the Residence. He’s pissed, honestly. Pissed at everything; a crawling, directionless bad mood that’s carrying him up the stairs toward the East and West Bedrooms. He throws his bag down at the door of his room and kicks his shoes into the hallway, watching them bounce crookedly across the ugly antique rug. “Well, good afternoon to you too, honey biscuit,” June’s voice says. When Alex glances up, she’s in her room across the hall, perched on a pastel-pink wingback chair. “You look like shit.” “Thanks, asshole.” He recognizes the stack of magazines in her lap as her weekly tabloid roundup, and he’s just decided he doesn’t want to know when she chucks one
at him. “New People for you,” she says. “You’re on page fifteen. Oh, and your BFF’s on page thirty-one.” He casually extends her the finger over his shoulder and retreats into his room, slumping down onto the couch by the door with the magazine. Since he has it, he might as well. Page fifteen is a picture of him the press team took two weeks ago, a nice, neat little package on him helping the Smithsonian with an exhibit about his mom’s historic presidential campaign. He’s explaining the story behind a CLAREMONT FOR CONGRESS ’04 yard sign, and there’s a brief write-up alongside it about how dedicated he is to the family legacy, blah blah blah. He turns to page thirty-one and almost swears out loud. The headline: WHO IS PRINCE HENRY’S MYSTERY BLONDE? Three photos: the first, Henry out at a cafe in London, smiling over coffees at some anonymously pretty blond woman; the second, Henry, slightly out of focus, holding her hand as they duck behind the cafe; the third, Henry, halfway obscured by a shrub, kissing the corner of her mouth. “What the fuck?” There’s a short article accompanying the photos that gives the girl’s name, Emily something, an actress, and Alex was generally pissed before, but now he’s very singularly pissed, his entire shitty mood funneled down to the point on the page where Henry’s lips touch somebody’s skin that’s not his. Who the fuck does Henry think he is? How fucking—how entitled, how aloof, how selfish do you have to be, to spend months becoming someone’s friend, let them show you all their weird gross weak parts, kiss them, make them question everything, ignore them for weeks, and go out with someone else and put it in the press? Everyone who’s ever had a publicist knows the only way anything gets into People is if you want the world to know. He throws the magazine down and lunges to his feet, pacing. Fuck Henry. He should never have trusted the silver-spoon little shit. He should have listened to his gut. He inhales, exhales. The thing is. The thing. Is. He doesn’t know if, beyond the initial rush of anger, he actually believes Henry would do this. If he takes the Henry he saw in a teen magazine when he was twelve, the Henry who was so cold to him at the Olympics, the Henry who slowly came unraveled to him over months, and
the Henry who kissed him in the shadow of the White House, and he adds them up, he doesn’t get this. Alex has a tactical brain. A politician’s brain. It works fast, and it works in many, many directions at once. And right now, he’s thinking through a puzzle. He’s not always good at thinking: What if you were him? How would your life be? What would you have to do? Instead, he’s thinking: How do these pieces slot together? He thinks about what Nora said: “Why do you think they’re always photographed?” And he thinks about Henry’s guardedness, the way he carries himself with a careful separation from the world around him, the tension at the corner of his mouth. Then he thinks: If there was a prince, and he was gay, and he kissed someone, and maybe it mattered, that prince might have to run a little bit of interference. And in one great mercurial swing, Alex is not just angry anymore. He’s sad too. He paces back over to the door and slides his phone out of his messenger bag, thumbs open his messages. He doesn’t know which impulse to follow and wrestle into words that he can say to someone and make something, anything, happen. Faintly, under it all, it occurs to him: This is all a very not-straight way to react to seeing your male frenemy kissing someone else in a magazine. A little laugh startles out of him, and he walks over to his bed and sits on the edge of it, considering. He considers texting Nora, asking her if he can come over to finally have some big epiphany. He considers calling Rafael Luna and meeting him for beers and asking to hear all about his first gay sexual exploits as an REI-wearing teenage antifascist. And he considers going downstairs and asking Amy about her transition and her wife and how she knew she was different. But in the moment, it feels right to go back to the source, to ask someone who’s seen whatever is in his eyes when a boy touches him. Henry’s out of the question. Which leaves one person. “Hello?” says the voice over the phone. It’s been at least a year since they last talked, but Liam’s Texas drawl is unmistakable and warm in Alex’s eardrum. He clears his throat. “Uh, hey, Liam. It’s Alex.” “I know,” Liam says, desert-dry.
“How, um, how have you been?” A pause. The sound of quiet talking in the background, dishes. “You wanna tell me why you’re really calling, Alex?” “Oh,” he starts and stops, tries again. “This might sound weird. But, um. Back in high school, did we have, like, a thing? Did I miss that?” There’s a clattering sound on the other side of the phone, like a fork being dropped on a plate. “Are you seriously calling me right now to talk about this? I’m at lunch with my boyfriend.” “Oh.” He didn’t know Liam had a boyfriend. “Sorry.” The sound goes muffled, and when Liam speaks again, it’s to someone else. “It’s Alex. Yeah, him. I don’t know, babe.” His voice comes back clear again. “What exactly are you asking me?” “I mean, like, we messed around, but did it, like, mean something?” “I don’t think I can answer that question for you,” Liam tells him. If he’s still anything like Alex remembers, he’s rubbing one hand on the underside of his jaw, raking through the stubble. He wonders faintly if, perhaps, his clearas-day memory of Liam’s stubble has just answered his own question for him. “Right,” he says. “You’re right.” “Look, man,” Liam says. “I don’t know what kind of sexual crisis you’re having right now, like, four years after it would have been useful, but, well. I’m not saying what we did in high school makes you gay or bi or whatever, but I can tell you I’m gay, and that even though I acted like what we were doing wasn’t gay back then, it super was.” He sighs. “Does that help, Alex? My Bloody Mary is here and I need to talk to it about this phone call.” “Um, yeah,” Alex says. “I think so. Thanks.” “You’re welcome.” Liam sounds so long-suffering and tired that Alex thinks about all those times back in high school, the way Liam used to look at him, the silence between them since, and feels obligated to add, “And, um. I’m sorry?” “Jesus Christ,” Liam groans, and hangs up.

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