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Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (30 page)

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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
á
rbol, 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?”

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