Red, White &Royal Blue By Casey McQuiston , Chapter 9

“Do not,” Nora says, leaning over the passenger seat. “There is a system and you must respect the system.” “I don’t believe in systems when I’m on vacation,” June says, her body folded halfway over Alex’s, trying to slap Nora’s hand out of the way. “It’s math,” Nora says. “Math has no authority here,” June tells her. “Math is everywhere, June.” “Get off me,” Alex says, shoving June off his shoulder. “You’re supposed to back me up on this!” June yelps, pulling his hair and receiving a very ugly face in response. “I’ll let you look at one boob,” Nora tells him. “The good one.” “They’re both good,” June says, suddenly distracted. “I’ve seen both of them. I can practically see both of them now,” Alex says, gesturing at what Nora is wearing for the day, which is a ratty pair of short overalls and the most perfunctory of bra-like things. “Hashtag vacation nips,” she says. “Pleeeeeease.” Alex sighs. “Sorry, Bug, but Nora did put more hours into her playlist, so she should get the aux cord.” There’s a combination of girl sounds from the back seat, disgust and triumph, and Nora plugs her phone in, swearing she’s developed some kind of foolproof algorithm for the perfect road trip playlist. The first trumpets of “Loco in Acapulco” by the Four Tops blast, and Alex finally pulls out of the gas station. The jeep is a refurb, a project his dad took on when Alex was around ten. It lives in California now, but he drives it into Texas once a year for this weekend, leaves it in Austin so Alex and June can drive it in. Alex learned to drive one summer in the valley in this jeep, and the accelerator feels just as good under his foot now as he falls into formation with two black Secret Service SUVs and heads for the interstate. He hardly ever gets to drive himself anywhere anymore.
The sky is wide open and bluebonnet blue for miles, the sun low and heavy with an early morning start, and Alex has his sunglasses on and his arms bare and the doors and roof off. He cranks up the stereo and feels like he could throw anything away on the wind whipping through his hair and it would just float away like it never was, as if nothing matters but the rush and skip in his chest. But it’s all right behind the haze of dopamine: losing the campaign job, the restless days pacing his room, Do you feel forever about him? He tips his chin up to the warm, sticky hometown air, catches his own eye in the rearview mirror. He looks bronzed and soft-mouthed and young, a Texas boy, the same kid he was when he left for DC. So, no more big thoughts for today. Outside the hangar are a handful of PPOs and Henry in a short-sleeved chambray, shorts, and a pair of fashionable sunglasses, Burberry weekender over one shoulder—a goddamn summer dream. Nora’s playlist has segued into “Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton by the time Alex swings out of the side of the jeep by one arm. “Yes, hello, hello, it’s good to see you too!” Henry is saying from somewhere inside a smothering hug from June and Nora. Alex bites his lip and watches Henry squeeze their waists in return, and then Alex has him, inhaling the clean smell of him, laughing into the crook of his neck. “Hi, love,” he hears Henry say quietly, privately, right into the hair above his ear, and Alex’s breath forgets how to do anything but laugh helplessly. “Drums, please!” erupts from the jeep’s stereo and the beat on “Summertime” kicks in, and Alex whoops his approval. Once Henry’s security team has fallen in with the Secret Service cars, they’re off. Henry is grinning wide beside him as they cruise down 45, happily bopping his head along to the music, and Alex can’t help glancing over at him, feeling giddy that Henry—Henry the prince—is here, in Texas, coming home with him. June pulls four bottles of Mexican Coke out of the cooler under her seat and passes them around, and Henry takes the first sip and practically melts. Alex reaches over and takes Henry’s free hand into his own, lacing their fingers together on the console between them. It takes an hour and a half to get out to Lake LBJ from Austin, and when they start weaving their way toward the water, Henry asks, “Why is it called Lake LBJ?” “Nora?” Alex says.
“Lake LBJ,” Nora says, “or Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, is one of six reservoirs formed by dams on the Colorado River known as the Texas Highland Lakes. Made possible by LBJ enacting the Rural Electrification Act when he was president. And LBJ had a place out here.” “That’s true,” Alex says. “Also, fun fact: LBJ was obsessed with his own dick,” Nora adds. “He called it Jumbo and would whip it out all the time. Like, in front of colleagues, reporters, anybody.” “Also true.” “American politics,” Henry says. “Truly fascinating.” “You wanna talk, Henry VIII?” Alex says. “Anyway,” Henry says airily, “how long have you lot come out here?” “Dad bought it when he and Mom split up, so when I was twelve,” Alex tells him. “He wanted to have a place close to us after he moved. We used to spend so much time here in the summers.” “Aw, Alex, remember when you got drunk for the first time out here?” June says. “Strawberry daiquiris all day.” “You threw up so much,” she says fondly. They pull into a driveway flanked by thick trees and drive up to the house at the top of the hill, the same old vibrant orange exterior and smooth arches, tall cactuses and aloe plants. His mom was never into the whole hacienda school of home decor, so his dad went all in when he bought the lake house, tall teal doors and heavy wooden beams and Spanish tile accents in pinks and reds. There’s a big wrap-around porch and stairs leading down the hill to the dock, and all the windows facing the water have been flung open, the curtains drifting out on a warm breeze. Their teams fall back to check the perimeter—they’re renting out the place next door for added privacy and the obligatory security presence. Henry effortlessly lifts June’s cooler up onto one shoulder and Alex pointedly does not swoon about it. There’s the loud yell of Oscar Diaz coming around the corner, dripping and apparently fresh from a swim. He’s wearing his old brown huaraches and a pair of swim trunks with parrots on them, both arms extended to the sun, and June is summarily scooped up into them. “CJ!” he says as he spins her around and deposits her on the stucco railing. Nora is next, and then a bone-crushing hug for Alex.
Henry steps forward, and Oscar looks him up and down—the Burberry bag, the cooler on his shoulder, the elegant smile, the extended hand. His dad had been confused but ultimately willing to roll with it when Alex asked if he could bring a friend and casually mentioned the friend would be the Prince of Wales. He’s not sure how this will go. “Hello,” Henry says. “Good to meet you. I’m Henry.” Oscar slaps his hand into Henry’s. “Hope you’re ready to fucking party.”
Oscar may be the cook of the family, but Alex’s mom was the one who grilled. It didn’t always track in Pemberton Heights—his Mexican dad in the house diligently soaking a tres leches while his blond mom stood out in the yard flipping burgers—but it worked. Alex determinedly picked up the best from both of them, and now he’s the only one here who can handle racks of ribs while Oscar does the rest. The kitchen of the lake house faces the water, always smelling like citrus and salt and herbs, and his dad keeps it stocked with plump tomatoes and clay-soft avocados when they’re visiting. He’s standing in front of the big open windows now, three racks of ribs spread out on pans on the counter in front of him. His dad is at the sink, shucking ears of corn and humming along to an old Chente record. Brown sugar. Smoked paprika. Onion powder. Chili powder. Garlic powder. Cayenne pepper. Salt. Pepper. More brown sugar. Alex measures each one out with his hands and dumps them into the bowl. Down by the dock, June and Nora are embroiled in what looks like an improvised jousting match, charging at each other on the backs of inflatable animals with pool noodles. Henry is tipsy and shirtless and attempting to referee, standing on the dock with one foot on a piling and waving a bottle of Shiner around like a madman. Alex smiles a little to himself, watching them. Henry and his girls. “So, you wanna talk about it?” says his father’s voice, in Spanish, from somewhere to his left. Alex jumps a little, startled. His dad has relocated to the bar a few feet down from him, mixing up a big batch of cotija and crema and seasonings for elotes. “Uh.” Has he been that obvious already? “About Raf.”
Alex exhales, his shoulders dropping, and returns his attention to the dry rub. “Ah. That motherfucker,” he says. They’ve only broached the topic in passing obscenities over text since the news broke. There’s a mutual sting of betrayal. “Do you have any idea what he’s thinking?” “I don’t have anything kinder to say about him than you do. And I don’t have an explanation either. But…” He pauses thoughtfully, still stirring. Alex can sense him weighing out several thoughts at once, as he often does. “I don’t know. After all this time, I want to believe there’s a reason for him to put himself in the same room as Jeffrey Richards. But I can’t figure out what.” Alex thinks about the conversation he overheard in the housekeeper’s office, wondering if his dad is ever going to let him in on the full picture. He doesn’t know how to ask without revealing that he literally climbed into a bush to eavesdrop on them. His dad’s relationship with Luna has always been like that—grown-up talk. Alex was at the fund-raiser for Oscar’s Senate run where they first met Luna, Alex only fifteen and already taking notes. Luna showed up with a pride flag unapologetically stuck in his lapel; Alex wrote that down. “Why’d you pick him?” Alex asks. “I remember that campaign. We met a lot of people who would’ve made great politicians. Why wouldn’t you pick someone easier to elect?” “You mean, why’d I roll the dice on the gay one?” Alex concentrates on keeping his face neutral. “I wasn’t gonna put it like that,” he says, “but yeah.” “Raf ever tell you his parents kicked him out when he was sixteen?” Alex winces. “I knew he had a hard time before college, but he didn’t specify.” “Yeah, they didn’t take the news so well. He had a rough couple of years, but it made him tough. The night we met him, it was the first time he’d been back in California since he got kicked out, but he was damn sure gonna come in to support a brother out of Mexico City. It was like when Zahra showed up at your mom’s office in Austin and said she wanted to prove the bastards wrong. You know a fighter when you see one.” “Yeah,” Alex says. There’s another pause of Chente crooning in the background while his dad stirs, before he speaks again.
“You know…” he says. “That summer, I sent you to work on his campaign because you’re the best point man I got. I knew you could do it. But I really thought there was a lot you could learn from him too. You got a lot in common.” Alex says nothing for a long moment. “I gotta be honest,” his dad says, and when Alex looks up again, he’s watching the window. “I thought a prince would be more of a candy-ass.” Alex laughs, glancing back out at Henry, the sway of his back under the afternoon sun. “He’s tougher than he looks.” “Not bad for a European,” his dad says. “Better than half the idiots June’s brought home.” Alex’s hands freeze, and his head jerks back to his dad, who’s still stirring with his heavy wooden spoon, face impartial. “Half the girls you’ve brought around too. Not better than Nora, though. She’ll always be my favorite.” Alex stares at him, until his dad finally looks up. “What? You’re not as subtle as you think.” “I—I don’t know,” Alex sputters. “I thought you might need to, like, have a Catholic moment about this or something?” His dad slaps him on the bicep with the spoon, leaving a splatter of crema and cheese behind. “Have a little more faith in your old man than that, eh? A little appreciation for the patron saint of gender-neutral bathrooms in California? Little shit.” “Okay, okay, sorry!” Alex says, laughing. “I just know it’s different when it’s your own kid.” His dad laughs too, rubbing a hand over his goatee. “It’s really not. Not to me, anyway. I see you.” Alex smiles again. “I know.” “Does your ma know?” “Yeah, I told her a couple weeks ago.” “How’d she take it?” “I mean, she doesn’t care that I’m bi. She kind of freaked out it was him. There was a PowerPoint.” “That sounds about right.” “She fired me. And, uh. She told me I need to figure out if the way I feel about him is worth the risk.” “Well, is it?” Alex groans. “Please, for the love of God, do not ask me. I’m on vacation. I want to get drunk and eat barbecue in peace.”
His dad laughs ruefully. “You know, in a lot of ways, your mom and me were a stupid idea. I think we both knew it wouldn’t be forever. We’re both too fucking proud. But God, that woman. Your mother is, without question, the love of my life. I’ll never love anyone else like that. It was wildfire. And I got you and June out of it, best things that ever happened to an old asshole like me. That kind of love is rare, even if it was a complete disaster.” He sucks his teeth, considering. “Sometimes you just jump and hope it’s not a cliff.” Alex closes his eyes. “Are you done with dad monologues for the day?” “You’re such a shit,” he says, throwing a kitchen towel at his head. “Go put the ribs on. I wanna eat today.” He calls after Alex’s back, “You two better take the bunk beds tonight! Santa Maria is watching!” They eat later that evening, big piles of elotes, pork tamales with salsa verde, a clay pot of frijoles charros, ribs. Henry gamely piles his plate with some of each and eyeballs it as if waiting for it to reveal its secrets to him, and Alex realizes Henry has never eaten barbecue with his hands before. Alex demonstrates and watches with poorly concealed glee as Henry gingerly picks up a rib with his fingertips and considers his approach, cheering as Henry dives in face-first and rips a hunk of meat off with his teeth. He chews proudly, a huge smear of barbecue sauce across his upper lip and the tip of his nose. His dad keeps an old guitar in the living room, and June brings it out on the porch so the two of them can pass it back and forth. Nora, one of Alex’s chambrays thrown on over her bikini, floats barefoot in and out, keeping all their glasses filled from a pitcher of sangria brimming with white peaches and blackberries. They sit around the fire pit and play old Johnny Cash songs, Selena, Fleetwood Mac. Alex sits and listens to the cicadas and the water and his dad’s rough ranger voice, and when his dad slumps off to bed, June’s songbird one. He feels wrapped up and warm, turning slowly under the moon. He and Henry drift to a swing at the edge of the porch, and he curls into Henry’s side, buries his face in the collar of his shirt. Henry puts an arm around him, touches the hinge of Alex’s jaw with fingers that smell like smoke. June plucks away at “Annie’s Song,” you fill up my senses like a night in a forest, and the breeze keeps moving to meet the highest branches of the
trees, and the water keeps rising to meet the bulkheads, and Henry leans down to meet Alex’s mouth, and Alex is. Well, Alex is so in love he could die.
Alex falls out of bed the following morning with a low-grade hangover and one of Henry’s swimsuits tangled around his elbow. They did, technically, sleep in separate bunks. They just didn’t start there. Over the kitchen sink, he chugs a glass of water and stares out the window, the sun blinding and bright on the lake, and there’s an incandescent little stone of certainty at the bottom of his chest. It’s this place—the absolute separation from DC, the familiar old smells of cedar trees and dried chile de árbol, the sanity of it. The roots. He could go outside and dig his fingers into the springy ground and understand anything about himself. And he does understand, really. He loves Henry, and it’s nothing new. He’s been falling in love with Henry for years, probably since he first saw him in glossy print on the pages of J14, almost definitely since Henry pinned Alex to the floor of a medical supply closet and told him to shut the hell up. That long. That much. He smiles as he reaches for a frying pan, because he knows it’s exactly the kind of insane risk he can’t resist. By the time Henry comes wandering into the kitchen in his pajamas, there’s an entire breakfast spread on the long green table, and Alex is at the stove, flipping his dozenth pancake. “Is that an apron?” Alex flourishes toward the polka-dotted thing he’s got on over his boxers with his free hand, as if showing off one of his tailored suits. “Morning, sweetheart.” “Sorry,” Henry says. “I was looking for someone else. Handsome, petulant, short, not pleasant until after ten a.m.? Have you seen him?” “Fuck off, five-nine is average.” Henry crosses the room with a laugh and nudges up behind him at the stove to peck him on the cheek. “Love, you and I both know you’re rounding up.” It’s only a step on the way to the coffeemaker, but Alex reaches back and gets a hand in Henry’s hair before he can move, pulling him into a kiss on the mouth this time. Henry huffs a little in surprise but returns it fully.
Alex forgets, momentarily, about the pancakes and everything else, not because he wants to do absolutely filthy things to Henry—maybe even with the apron still on—but because he loves him, and isn’t that wild, to know that that’s what makes the filthy things so good. “I didn’t realize this was a jazz brunch,” says Nora’s voice suddenly, and Henry springs backward so fast he almost puts his ass in the bowl of batter. She sidles up to the forgotten coffeemaker, grinning slyly at them. “That doesn’t seem sanitary,” June is saying with a yawn as she folds herself into a chair at the table. “Sorry,” Henry says sheepishly. “Don’t be,” Nora tells him. “I’m not,” Alex says. “I’m hungover,” June says as she reaches for the pitcher of mimosas. “Alex, you did all this?” Alex shrugs, and June squints at him, bleary but knowing. That afternoon, over the sounds of the boat’s engine, Henry talks to Alex’s dad about the sailboats that jut up from the horizon, getting into a complex discussion on outboard motors that Alex can’t hope to follow. He leans back against the bow and watches, and it’s so easy to imagine it: a future Henry who comes to the lake house with him every summer, who learns how to make elotes and ties neat cleat hitches and fits right into place in his weird family. They go swimming, yell over one another about politics, pass the guitar around again. Henry takes a photo of himself with June and Nora, one under each arm and both in their bikinis. Nora is holding his chin in one hand and licking the side of his face, and June has her fingers tangled up in his hair and her head in the crook of his neck, smiling angelically at the camera. He sends it to Pez and receives anguished keysmashes and crying emojis in response, and they all almost piss themselves laughing. It’s good. It’s really, really good. Alex lies awake that night, drunk on Shiner and way too many campfire marshmallows, and he stares at whorls in the wood panels of the top bunk and thinks about coming of age out here. He remembers when he was a kid, freckly and unafraid, when the world seemed like it was blissfully endless but everything still made perfect sense. He used to leave his clothes in a pile on the pier and dive headfirst into the lake. Everything was in its right place.
He wears a key to his childhood home around his neck, but he doesn’t know the last time he actually thought about the boy who used to push it into the lock. Maybe losing the job isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. He thinks about roots, about first and second languages. What he wanted when he was a kid and what he wants now and where those things overlap. Maybe that place, the meeting of the two, is here somewhere, in the gentle insistence of the water around his legs, crude letters carved with an old pocket knife. The steady thrum of another person’s pulse against his. “H?” he whispers. “You awake?” Henry sighs. “Always.” They sneak through the grass in hushed voices past one of Henry’s PPOs dozing on the porch, racing down the pier, shoving at each other’s shoulders. Henry’s laugh is high and clear, his sunburned shoulders bright pink in the dark, and Alex looks at him and something so buoyant fills up his chest that he feels like he could swim the length of the lake without stopping for air. He throws his T-shirt down at the end of the pier and starts to shuck his boxers, and when Henry arches an eyebrow at him, Alex laughs and jumps. “You’re a menace,” Henry says when Alex breaks back to the surface. But he only hesitates briefly before he’s stripping out of his clothes. He stands naked at the edge of the pier, looking at Alex’s head and shoulders bobbing in the water. The lines of him are long and languid in the moonlight, just skin and skin and skin lit soft and blue, and he’s so beautiful that Alex thinks this moment, the soft shadows and pale thighs and crooked smile, should be the portrait of Henry that goes down in history. There are fireflies winking around his head, landing in his hair. A crown. His dive is infuriatingly graceful. “Can’t you ever just do one thing without having to be so goddamn extra about it?” Alex says, splashing him as soon as he surfaces. “That is bloody rich coming from you,” Henry says, and he’s grinning like he does when he’s drinking in a challenge, like nothing in the world pleases him more than Alex’s antagonizing elbow in his side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alex says, kicking over to him. They chase each other around the pier, race down to the lake’s shallow bottom and shoot back up in the moonlight, all elbows and knees. Alex finally manages to catch Henry around the waist, and he pins him, slides his wet mouth over the thudding pulse of Henry’s throat. He wants to stay tangled
up in Henry’s legs forever. He wants to match the new freckles across Henry’s nose to the stars above them and make him name the constellations. “Hey,” he says, his mouth right up in a breath’s space from Henry’s. He watches a drop of water roll down Henry’s perfect nose and disappear into his mouth. “Hi,” Henry says back, and Alex thinks, Goddamn, I love him. It keeps coming back to him, and it’s getting harder to look into Henry’s soft smiles and not say it. He kicks out a little to turn them in a slow circle. “You look good out here.” Henry’s grin goes crooked and a little shy, dipping down to brush against Alex’s jaw. “Yeah?” “Yeah,” Alex says. He twists Henry’s wet hair around his fingers. “I’m glad you came this weekend,” Alex hears himself say. “It’s been so intense lately. I … I really needed this.” Henry’s fingers give a little jab to his ribs, gently scolding. “You carry too much.” His instinct has always been to shoot back, No, I don’t, or, I want to, but he bites it back and says, “I know,” and he realizes it’s the truth. “You know what I’m thinking right now?” “What?” “I’m thinking about, after inauguration, like next year, taking you back out here, just the two of us. And we can sit under the moon and not stress about anything.” “Oh,” Henry says. “That sounds nice, if unlikely.” “Come on, think about it, babe. Next year. My mom’ll be in office again, and we won’t have to worry about winning any more elections. I’ll finally be able to breathe. Ugh, it’ll be amazing. I’ll cook migas in the mornings, and we’ll swim all day and never put clothes on and make out on the pier, and it won’t even matter if the neighbors see.” “Well. It will matter, you know. It will always matter.” He pulls back to find Henry’s face indecipherable. “You know what I mean.” Henry’s looking at him and looking at him, and Alex can’t shake the feeling Henry’s really seeing him for the first time. He realizes it’s probably the only time he’s ever invited love into a conversation with Henry on purpose, and it must be lying wide open on his face.
Something moves behind Henry’s eyes. “Where are you going with all this?” Alex tries to figure out how the hell to funnel everything he needs to tell Henry into words. “June says I have a fire under my ass for no good reason,” he says. “I don’t know. You know how they always say to take it one day at a time? I think I take it ten years in the future. Like when I was in high school, it was all: Well, my parents hate each other, and my sister is leaving for college, and sometimes I look at other guys in the shower, but if I keep looking directly ahead, that stuff can’t catch up to me. Or if I take this class, or this internship, or this job. I used to think, if I pictured the person I wanted to be and took all the crazy anxiety in my brain and narrowed it down to that point, I could rewire it. Use it to power something else. It’s like I never learned how to just be where I am.” Alex takes a breath. “And where I am is here. With you. And I’m thinking maybe I should start trying to take it day by day. And just … feel what I feel.” Henry doesn’t say anything. “Sweetheart.” The water ripples quietly around him as he slides his hands up to hold Henry’s face in both palms, tracing his cheekbones with the wet pads of his thumbs. The cicadas and the wind and the lake are probably still making sounds, somewhere, but it’s all faded into silence. Alex can’t hear anything but his heartbeat in his ears. “Henry, I—” Abruptly Henry shifts, ducking beneath the surface and out of his arms before he can say anything else. He pops back up near the pier, hair sticking to his forehead, and Alex turns around and stares at him, breathless at the loss. Henry spits out lake water and sends a splash in his direction, and Alex forces a laugh. “Christ,” Henry says, slapping at a bug that’s landed on him, “what are these infernal creatures?” “Mosquitos,” Alex supplies. “They’re awful,” Henry says loftily. “I’m going to catch an exotic plague.” “I’m … sorry?” “I just mean to say, you know, Philip is the heir and I’m the spare, and if that nervy bastard has a heart attack at thirty-five and I’ve got malaria,
whither the spare?” Alex laughs weakly again, but he’s got a distinct feeling of something being pulled out of his hands right before he could grasp it. Henry’s tone has gone light, clipped, superficial. His press voice. “At any rate, I’m knackered,” Henry is saying now. And Alex watches helplessly as he turns and starts hauling himself out of the water and onto the dock, pulling his shorts back up shivering legs. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll go to bed.” Alex doesn’t know what to say, so he watches Henry walk the long line of the dock, disappearing into the darkness. A ringing, scooped-out sensation starts behind his molars and rolls down his throat, into his chest, down to the pit of his stomach. Something’s wrong, and he knows it, but he’s too afraid to push back or ask. That, he realizes suddenly, is the danger of allowing love into this—the acknowledgment that if something goes wrong, he doesn’t know how he will stand it. For the first time since Henry grabbed him and kissed him with so much certainty in the garden, the thought enters Alex’s mind: What if it was never his decision to make? What if he got so wrapped up in everything Henry is— the words he writes, the earnest heartsickness of him—he forgot to take into account that it’s just how he is, all the time, with everyone? What if he’s done the thing he swore he would never do, the thing he hates, and fallen in love with a prince because it was a fantasy? When he gets back to their room, Henry’s already in his bunk and silent, his back turned.

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