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Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (6 page)

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The power is great, the attention fun, but the people—the
people are everything. He has a bit of a caring-too-much problem about most things, including whether people can pay their medical bills, or marry whomever they love, or not get shot at school. Or, in this case, if kids with cancer have enough books to read at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

He and Henry and their collective hoard of security have taken over the floor, flustering nurses and shaking hands. He’s trying—really trying—not to let his hands clench into fists at his sides, but Henry’s smiling robotically with a little bald boy plugged full of tubes for some bullshit photograph, and he wants to scream at this whole stupid country.

But he’s legally required to be here, so he focuses on the kids, instead. Most of them have no idea who he is, but Henry gamely introduces him as the president’s son, and soon they’re asking him about the White House and does he know Ariana Grande, and he laughs and indulges them. He unpacks books from the heavy boxes they’ve brought, climbs up onto beds and reads out loud, a photographer trailing after him.

He doesn’t realize he’s lost track of Henry until the patient he’s visiting dozes off, and he recognizes the low rumble of Henry’s voice on the other side of the curtain.

A quick count of feet on the floor—no photographers. Just Henry. Hmm.

He steps quietly over to the chair against the wall, right at the edge of the curtain. If he sits at the right angle and cranes his head back, he can barely see.

Henry is talking to a little girl with leukemia named Claudette, according to the board on her wall. She’s got dark skin that’s turned sort of a pale gray and a bright orange scarf tied around her head, emblazoned with the Alliance Starbird.

Instead of hovering awkwardly like Alex expected, Henry is squatting at her side, smiling and holding her hand.

“… Star Wars fan, are you?” Henry says in a low, warm voice Alex has never heard from him before, pointing at the insignia on her headscarf.

“Oh, it’s my absolute favorite,” Claudette gushes. “I’d like to be just like Princess Leia when I’m older because she’s so tough and smart and strong, and she gets to kiss Han Solo.”

She blushes a little at having mentioned kissing in front of the prince but fiercely maintains eye contact. Alex finds himself craning his neck farther, watching for Henry’s reaction. He definitely does not recall Star Wars on the fact sheet.

“You know what,” Henry says, leaning in conspiratorially, “I think you’ve got the right idea.”

Claudette giggles. “Who’s your favorite?”

“Hmm,” Henry says, making a show of thinking hard. “I always liked Luke. He’s brave and good, and he’s the strongest Jedi of them all. I think Luke is proof that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who your family is—you can always be great if you’re true to yourself.”

“All right, Miss Claudette,” a nurse says brightly as she comes around the curtain. Henry jumps, and Alex almost tips his chair over, caught in the act. He clears his throat as he stands, pointedly not looking at Henry. “You two can go, it’s time for her meds.”

“Miss Beth, Henry said we were mates now!” Claudette practically wails. “He can stay!”

“Excuse you!” Beth the nurse tuts. “That’s no way to address the prince. Terribly sorry, Your Highness.”

“No need to apologize,” Henry tells her. “Rebel commanders outrank royalty.” He shoots Claudette a wink and a salute, and she positively melts.

“I’m impressed,” Alex says as they walk out into the hallway
together. Henry cocks an eyebrow, and Alex adds, “Not impressed, just surprised.”

“At what?”

“That you actually have, you know, feelings.”

Henry is beginning to smile when three things happen in rapid succession.

The first: A shout echoes from the opposite end of the hall.

The second: There’s a loud pop that sounds alarmingly like gunfire.

The third: Cash grabs both Henry and Alex by the arms and shoves them through the nearest door.

“Stay down,”
Cash grunts as he slams the door behind them.

In the abrupt darkness, Alex stumbles over a mop and one of Henry’s legs, and they go crashing down together into a clattering pile of tin bedpans. Henry hits the floor first, facedown, and Alex lands in a heap on top of him.

“Oh God,” Henry says, muffled and echoing slightly. Alex thinks hopefully that his face might be in a bedpan.

“You know,” he says into Henry’s hair, “we have got to stop ending up like this.”

“Do you
mind
?”

“This is
your
fault!”

“How is this
possibly
my fault?” Henry hisses.

“Nobody ever tries to shoot me when I’m doing presidential appearances, but the minute I go out with a fucking royal—”

“Will you shut up before you get us both killed?”

“Nobody’s going to kill us. Cash is blocking the door. Besides, it’s probably nothing.”

“Then at least
get off me.

“Stop telling me what to do! You’re not the prince of me!”

“Bloody hell,” Henry mutters, and he pushes hard off the ground and rolls, knocking Alex onto the floor. Alex finds himself wedged between Henry’s side and a shelf of what smells like industrial-strength floor cleaner.

“Can you move over, Your Highness?” Alex whispers, shoving his shoulder against Henry’s. “I’d rather not be the little spoon.”

“Believe me, I’m trying,” Henry replies. “There’s no room.”

Outside, there are voices, hurried footsteps—no signs of an all-clear.

“Well,” Alex says. “Guess we better make ourselves comfortable.”

Henry exhales tightly. “Fantastic.”

Alex feels him shifting against his side, arms crossed over his chest in an attempt at his typical closed-off stance while lying on the floor with his feet in a mop bucket.

“For the record,” Henry says, “nobody’s ever made an attempt on my life either.”

“Well, congratulations,” Alex says. “You’ve officially made it.”

“Yes, this is exactly how I always dreamed it would be. Locked in a cupboard with your elbow inside my rib cage,” Henry snipes. He sounds like he wants to punch Alex, which is probably the most Alex has ever liked him, so he follows an impulse and drives his elbow into Henry’s side, hard.

Henry lets out a muffled yelp, and the next thing Alex knows, he’s been yanked sideways by his shirt and Henry is halfway on top of him, pinning him down with one thigh. His head throbs where he’s clocked it against the linoleum floor, but he can feel his lips split into a smile.

“So you
do
have some fight in you,” Alex says. He bucks his
hips, trying to shake Henry off, but he’s taller and stronger and has a fistful of Alex’s collar.

“Are you
quite
finished?” Henry says, sounding strangled. “Can you perhaps stop putting your sodding life in danger now?”

“Aw, you do care,” Alex says. “I’m learning all your hidden depths today, sweetheart.”

Henry exhales and slumps off him. “I cannot believe even mortal peril will not prevent you from being the way you are.”

The weirdest part, Alex thinks, is that what he said was true.

He keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It’s honestly disconcerting. He knows exactly what to say to each Democratic senator to make them dish about bills, exactly when Zahra’s running low on nicotine gum, exactly which look to give Nora for the rumor mill. Reading people is what he does.

He really doesn’t appreciate some inbred royal baby upending his system. But he did rather enjoy that fight.

He lies there, waits. Listens to the shuffling of feet outside the door. Lets minutes go by.

“So, uh,” he tries. “Star Wars?”

He means it in a nonthreatening, offhanded way, but habit wins and it comes out accusatory.

“Yes, Alex,” Henry says archly, “believe it or not, the children of the crown don’t only spend their childhood going to tea parties.”

“I assumed it was mostly posture coaching and junior polo league.”

Henry takes a deeply unhappy pause. “That … may have been part of it.”

“So you’re into pop culture, but you act like you’re not,” Alex says. “Either you’re not allowed to talk about it because it’s unseemly for the crown, or you choose not to talk about it because you want people to think you’re
cultured.
Which one?”

“Are you psychoanalyzing me?” Henry asks. “I don’t think royal guests are allowed to do that.”

“I’m trying to understand why you’re so committed to acting like someone you’re not, considering you just told that little girl in there that greatness means being true to yourself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and if I did, I’m not sure that’s any of your concern,” Henry says, his voice strained at the edges.

“Really? Because I’m pretty sure I’m legally bound to pretend to be your best friend, and I don’t know if you’ve thought this through yet, but that’s not going to stop with this weekend,” Alex tells him. Henry’s fingers go tense against his forearm. “If we do this and we’re never seen together again, people are gonna know we’re full of shit. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not, so I have a right to be clued in about what your deal is before it sneaks up on me and bites me in the ass.”

“Why don’t we start…” Henry says, turning his head to squint at him. This close Alex can just make out the silhouette of Henry’s strong royal nose. “… with you telling me why exactly you hate me so much?”

“Do you really want to have that conversation?”

“Maybe I do.”

Alex crosses his arms, recognizes it as a mirror to Henry’s tic, and uncrosses them.

“Do you really not remember being a prick to me at the Olympics?”

Alex remembers it in vivid detail: himself at eighteen, dispatched to Rio with June and Nora, the campaign’s delegation
to the summer games, one weekend of photo ops and selling the “next generation of global cooperation” image. Alex spent most of it drinking caipirinhas and subsequently throwing caipirinhas up behind Olympic venues. And he remembers, down to the Union Jack on Henry’s anorak, the first time they met.

Henry sighs. “Is that the time you threatened to push me into the Thames?”

“No,”
Alex says. “It was the time you were a
condescending prick
at the diving finals. You really don’t remember?”

“Remind me?”

Alex glares. “I walked up to you to introduce myself, and you stared at me like I was the most offensive thing you had ever seen. Right after you shook my hand, you turned to Shaan and said, ‘Can you get rid of him?’”

A pause.

“Ah,” Henry says. He clears his throat. “I didn’t realize you’d heard that.”

“I feel like you’re missing the point,” Alex says, “which is that it’s a douchey thing to say either way.”

“That’s … fair.”

“Yeah, so.”

“That’s all?” Henry asks. “Only the Olympics?”

“I mean, that was the start.”

Henry pauses again. “I’m sensing an ellipsis.”

“It’s just…” Alex says, and as he’s on the floor of a supply closet, waiting out a security threat with a Prince of England at the end of a weekend that has felt like some very specific ongoing nightmare, censoring himself takes too much effort. “I don’t know. Doing what we do is fucking hard. But it’s harder for me. I’m the son of the first female president. And
I’m not white like she is, can’t even pass for it. People will
always
come down harder on me. And you’re, you know,
you,
and you were born into all of this, and everyone thinks you’re Prince fucking Charming. You’re basically a living reminder I’ll always be compared to someone else, no matter what I do, even if I work twice as hard.”

Henry is quiet for a long while.

“Well,” Henry says when he speaks at last. “I can’t very well do much about the rest. But I can tell you I was, in fact, a prick that day. Not that it’s any excuse, but my father had died fourteen months before, and I was still kind of a prick every day of my life at the time. And I am sorry.”

Henry twitches one hand at his side, and Alex falls momentarily silent.

The cancer ward. Of course, Henry chose a cancer ward—it was right there on the fact sheet.
Father: Famed film star Arthur Fox, deceased 2015, pancreatic cancer.
The funeral was televised. He goes back over the last twenty-four hours in his head: the sleeplessness, the pills, the tense little grimace Henry does in public that Alex has always read as aloofness.

He knows a few things about this stuff. It’s not like his parents’ divorce was a pleasant time for him, or like he runs himself ragged about grades for fun. He’s been aware for too long that most people don’t navigate thoughts of whether they’ll ever be good enough or if they’re disappointing the entire world. He’s never considered Henry might feel any of the same things.

Henry clears his throat again, and something like panic catches Alex. He opens his mouth and says, “Well, good to know you’re not perfect.”

He can almost hear Henry roll his eyes, and he’s thankful for it, the familiar comfort of antagonism.

They’re silent again, the dust of the conversation settling. Alex can’t hear anything outside the door or any sirens on the street, but nobody has come to get them yet.

Then, unprompted, Henry says into the stretching stillness, “
Return of the Jedi.

A beat. “What?”

“To answer your question,” Henry says. “Yes, I do like Star Wars, and my favorite is
Return of the Jedi.

“Oh,” Alex says. “Wow, you’re wrong.”

Henry huffs out the tiniest, most poshly indignant puff of air. It smells minty. Alex resists the urge to throw another elbow. “How can I be wrong about my own favorite? It’s a personal truth.”

“It’s a personal truth that is wrong and bad.”

“Which do you prefer, then? Please show me the error of my ways.”

“Okay,
Empire.

Henry sniffs. “So
dark,
though.”

“Yeah, which is what makes it
good,
” Alex says. “It’s the most thematically complex. It’s got the Han and Leia kiss in it, you meet Yoda, Han is at the top of his game, fucking
Lando Calrissian,
and
the
best twist in cinematic history. What does
Jedi
have? Fuckin’ Ewoks.”

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