"I'm terribly sorry, Doctor Logue, but I'm afraid you'll have to remain here until tomorrow."
The words hadn't been a surprise to Lionel. He'd seen the snow falling all morning outside the windows, and thought that, even if Balmoral Castle had a large enough staff to clear the roads, the trains couldn't possibly be running.
At least he'd been able to ring up his family to apologize and listen to his boys enthuse about their Christmas presents. Myrtle had assured him that they were all getting on fine without him, though of course he was missed. And of course he missed being at the table with them all, even though he was invited to dine with Bertie's own family, which at Christmas meant many royal cousins and nobles...people who made little secret of their disdain for an Australian commoner.
The staff was unfailingly courteous, sympathetic to Lionel's plight, particularly since the King's Christmas broadcast had gone so well. Lionel had known that Bertie would be busy with distant relatives as well as his daughters, so Lionel tried to keep out of the way. They'd put him in a lovely room, and he retired early, glad that he'd thought to bring extra books in case of delays on the train.
He was half-drowsing over one of those books when he heard the knock and called out a reply, thinking that one of the staff must have returned to ask whether he needed anything, as they had done several times already. After a pause, the door opened. Lionel had turned away to find the page of notes he'd been using to hold his place in the book, so he was astonished to look up and see the King of England smiling at him.
"May I show you something?" asked Bertie, holding out a case to Lionel as he stood.
"Of course. What's this?"
"Scottish cashmere and Harris tweed. What I want to show you is outdoors. I've asked my valet to find a pair of boots that will fit you."
Lionel knew that he was gaping like a fool, but at least Bertie was still smiling. He must have been able to see that Lionel was more than happy to go along with whatever he had planned. "Give me a moment, please," Lionel said, gesturing at the chair he had just vacated and waiting for Bertie to sit before ducking into the bedroom beyond.
The woolen pullover was the heaviest Lionel had ever held, a bit scratchy, though not uncomfortable over his shirt, and the thick wool socks were wonderfully soft and warm. He hoped his gloves would be sufficient for the icy night. When he returned to the outer room, feeling somewhat awkward in the borrowed clothes, he found Bertie flipping through his book, a history of trans-Pacific aviation. "Do you like to fly?" Bertie asked Lionel.
"I've only been up once. It was terrifying. And exhilarating, I suppose, though I didn't feel that until after I was on the ground again."
They smiled at one another. "My brother David loves to fly," said Bertie. "I'll admit that I prefer more sedate modes of transport." He got to his feet, gesturing toward the door. "Shall we go? We'll have to be quiet in the corridor. I'm afraid nearly everyone else is asleep."
Lionel doubted that that was true -- in all likelihood, the various Princes and Dukes were drinking and smoking in a room to which no commoner would ever be invited. Yet Bertie had come looking for Lionel at an hour when he believed Lionel would still be awake, which meant that Bertie must have given his regrets to his own family. It seemed peculiar, but delightfully so.
They crept down a back staircase to a small cloakroom, not the grand one where Lionel had handed his coat to a servant many hours before. The boots provided were a bit large, but Lionel thought they would be serviceable as long as Bertie didn't intend any running or climbing up steep hills.
"Try this on." The coat Bertie handed him had probably cost as much as Lionel's entire wardrobe, but after opening his mouth to claim that his own coat would be fine, Lionel shut it again. Whatever Bertie had in mind, he'd clearly prepared for it, and Lionel thought that it would sound ungrateful to object to any aspect. He took the fur-lined gloves Bertie passed to him as well, watching Bertie wrap a scarf around his neck and put on a hat. There wasn't a servant in sight.
"Has the Loch Ness Monster escaped into the Cairngorms?" joked Lionel.
"Something much better. Come." Bertie held the door for him, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet as Lionel's sons would do if they wanted him to accompany them to see a rat they'd caught. He smiled curiously, stepping outside with Bertie into the bitterly cold Scottish night.
"Are we going far?" he asked, moving quickly to try to keep warm.
"Just up the path."
Since no one had shoveled it, Lionel couldn't see where the path was meant to be, though the partial moon gave off enough light that he didn't fall over in the fresh snow. Bertie took his arm, apparently familiar with the route, and apparently accustomed to air so frigid that Lionel thought after a while his toes might shatter. The lights of the castle faded behind them until the glow of the moon off the snow provided the only illumination.
"There," Bertie called out exultantly at the precise moment Lionel saw it: a ribbon of translucent green light dancing above the hills, soaring high into the sky. The feathers of light turned teal at the fringes as they arced into the distance.
Instantly Lionel forgot that his ears ached and he could no longer feel his hands. He forgot, too, that it wasn't permissible for a commoner to clutch at the arm of the King, squeezing in his enthusiasm, particularly since Bertie covered Lionel's hand with his own and squeezed back, his smile illuminated by the shimmering lines of the northern lights.
Lionel had no idea how long they stood there, watching the emerald curtain unfurl and wave in the freezing night air. His breath made clouds of steam that he waved aside impatiently. Bertie kept hold of his hand, pressing his fingers through their gloves occasionally as the veil rose and fell, until finally it had faded to a faint jade streak.
"Thank you," Lionel whispered, voice shaking only partly from the cold.
"I'd hoped you'd think that was a better Christmas present than a pen or a book." Putting his hands on Lionel's shoulders, Bertie turned him so that they were face to face in the dim light. He tilted his head in the direction of the castle. "No one else there would have appreciated it. Only you, and I wanted to see it with you."
Lionel was losing the battle to keep his teeth from chattering. He could see that Bertie was shivering as well. Before he could make his frigid lips form a reply, Bertie tugged him closer, angled his face, and pressed his mouth to Lionel's.
In the numbing cold, Lionel told himself that perhaps Bertie was trying to keep him warm. He closed his eyes and returned the pressure for what might have been a few seconds or several minutes, with time expanding and contracting as his face and neck and chest warmed from the contact. Bertie's arms slid around Lionel's shoulders, Lionel's around Bertie's waist. The kiss tasted like cigarettes and Christmas wine, like wood smoke and brandy, like flowers pushing through soil in the spring thaw.
"I love you." Bertie spoke so quietly that Lionel nearly convinced himself he must have imagined it. Kings didn't say such things to commoners, even commoners whom they considered friends. Evidently Bertie meant it in some way that Lionel didn't understand.
Which meant that Lionel was safe to reply...at least, he hoped so, fervently, as he leaned back to look at Bertie. "I love you, too." He felt Bertie shudder, knees swaying together, and experienced a moment of terror, picturing Bertie collapsing in the snow and himself unable to haul him to his feet. "But it's much too cold to stay out here."
He thought, for a moment, that Bertie would protest, but Bertie's entire upper body was quaking, his lips trembling. Keeping an arm around Bertie's waist, Lionel turned them back toward the castle. Bertie straightened and began to walk with him, keeping him pressed close.
"Does anyone know exactly where we are?" Lionel asked.
"N-not exaccctly." Bertie wasn't stammering so much as fighting his chattering jaw. "I t-told them w-we wanted to see the s-sky..."
"Never mind. Hush. Walk." They shuffled quickly through the snow, pressed together, and if Lionel didn't precisely warm up as they moved, at least he didn't fear that his feet would fall off.
"Lionel --" Bertie began as they approached the door, pausing, but Lionel shook his head.
"Tell me inside."
Later, he knew that it had been a mistake. Bertie's valet and a few others were waiting, looking anxious, diving forward to help them out of their coats. The King's youngest brother had been taken ill -- drunk, in all likelihood, Lionel thought -- and there had been a great deal of concern when nobody had been able to find the King. The Duke of Gloucester arrived and made it clear from his expression that he believed this to be entirely Lionel's fault.
Of course Bertie didn't have time to explain anything to anyone, and he was marched off before he could tell Lionel whatever it was that he'd intended to say out in the snow. "Tomorrow," he promised over his shoulder as he departed, but Lionel knew that in the morning, the King would have duties as well as family responsibilities, while Lionel would be trying to make his way to the railroad station and home.
Back in his rooms, with his feet soaking in warm water, Lionel shut his eyes and replayed the entire evening from the moment Bertie had knocked on his door. It already felt like a dream -- the snow, the moon, the magical ribbons of light, the happiness on Bertie's face. Was it possible that Lionel had hallucinated the kiss? He'd never had such a physical vision before, but he'd also never experienced a moment of such perfect joy.
He nearly fell asleep in the chair before he dragged himself to bed, sleeping so soundly under the heavy covers that he would have missed breakfast had one of the staff not knocked. The roads were being cleared, the trains were running, and Lionel only saw Bertie for long enough to say goodbye before being hustled into a car and driven toward the train.
In the daylight, the castle looked more formidable yet less magical -- a place where modern royals made speeches and held lavish dinners, not a land with dancing curtains of light in the sky and fairy tale kisses from princes. With a small sigh, Lionel turned away, looking in the direction of ordinary life and home.
"If your goal is to make every Englishman feel connected, perhaps you should focus on the theme of family instead of talking about God or the Bible."
Bertie glanced up from the speech in his hands, which Lionel knew had been written in part by Churchill and in part by Bertie's ministers. "You think I should take out the quotes?"
"Not take them all out, just shift the emphasis. You were saying the other day that you want to remind your subjects that they're all brothers, so say that." Bertie sat back, studying him, and Lionel felt sheepish. They were long past the time when Bertie would have objected to Lionel interfering in matters of state, but Lionel wasn't entirely sure that what he had said made sense. "I was thinking about it last night when I couldn't sleep," he added, wincing.
"It's a very good idea." Bertie nodded slowly, smiling at him. "But why couldn't you sleep? Please don't tell me you had yourself in a state over my broadcast."
"Just restless." Lionel laughed at himself, shaking his head and taking a sip of the very fine tea in one of the very fine teacups he was always offered at Buckingham Palace. "I'm a bit concerned about my son. He's overworking himself at school, he's determined to finish at the top of his class. And I have a young patient I'm worried about, who gets too many bruises. I've tried to ask, but he won't tell me who's hitting him. I don't think it's his father, since his father brings him to my office, but if I make inquiries even indirectly, it may make things worse for the boy."
"I think you take too much upon yourself. You can't fix everything for everyone." Unexpectedly, Bertie's hand pressed Lionel's forearm. "Don't make yourself ill with worrying."
Startled by both the gesture and the words, Lionel laughed a bit, since Bertie was the one who sometimes got sick to his stomach from nerves. "You're right, of course, and there's no reason I should be burdening you with any of this." He glanced at Bertie's fingers resting on his arm, put his own hand over them, and squeezed. "You must think I'm ridiculous to be thinking about your speeches in the middle of the night. What do you think about when you can't sleep?"
The words were spoken so softly and unhesitatingly that at first Lionel thought he must have misheard or wished them into being. Then Bertie withdrew his hand, flushing, looking as surprised as Lionel. He hunched in on himself on the sofa the way he had sat when Lionel had first known him.
"I thought perhaps we were pretending that never happened," Lionel said quietly, setting down his cup and raising his hand to his lips before he caught himself in the gesture.
Bertie's head snapped back as if Lionel had slapped him, his expression equally pained. "No," he whispered, blinking, biting down on his lip. "That's -- that was the h-happiest memory I had."
"Oh, Bertie." Lionel felt his own hands tremble. He couldn't bear the thought that he had wounded Bertie, particularly not where that cherished moment was concerned. Reaching for Bertie's arm, he pressed next to him, and when Bertie didn't pull back, he slid his hands across Bertie's shoulders, tugging Bertie against his chest. "Mine, too."
Bertie's breath caught in his throat, and Lionel felt the tremor that went through him. "You never said --" he began in a ragged voice, pausing to swallow.
"I didn't think you wanted me to say anything. The next time I saw you, everything seemed to be the way it always had been. I thought that was what you wanted."
Bertie shook his head, but said nothing, holding Lionel so close that Lionel couldn't see his face. His hair brushed over Lionel's hand, and after a momentary hesitation, Lionel let himself stroke through it.
"I wouldn't hurt you for the world. That memory is precious to me, but I didn't know what it was to you, so I tried to push it back where it wouldn't get in the way."
"I didn't think I'd ever have the courage to do it, but I imagined doing it for months." Lionel's fingers twitched for a moment, as if the shock of the words had traveled through them like static electricity, before he stroked again through Bertie's hair while Bertie continued to speak. "That Christmas night, it was as if someone had heard all the prayers I hadn't had the guts to say. There was the snow, and the aurora, and you were still awake when I knocked, and you didn't tell me I was mad for wanting to walk out by ourselves at that hour."
"I thought we were both mad, but I wouldn't have missed it." Not even for Christmas at home with his own family, Lionel recalled with a pang of guilt now, because he knew he'd felt none then. "I treat that memory like a photograph that I only dare look at once in a while, lest it should fade. I don't let myself think about it when I can't sleep because I'm afraid I'll try to embellish it or distort it, when I want to be able to recall it exactly as it happened."
"It's not just the kiss." Bertie drew a shuddering breath. "When I said I loved you, you said you loved me too. I'd never dared to imagine that."
Again Lionel's fingers stuttered in their motion. "I thought you already knew," he murmured. "When you said it to me, I thought it must have been because you knew -- my Christmas present."
"It was my Christmas present to myself." Bertie's head lifted. "For one moment, I wanted to be honest with you. Kissing you made me happier than any of my other gifts, but having you say that -- I didn't have words to explain, I was afraid we'd both freeze to death before I found them. Then, later, I was afraid you wouldn't want to hear them."
Lionel didn't have words either, and even if he had, his heart was in his throat, blocking speech. He could think of only one way to answer Bertie: he kissed him. Bertie trembled in his arms, and for an instant it was like being back in the Highlands, when both of them had been shaking with cold. Yet Bertie's mouth felt wonderfully warm, and eager, and his hands slid between Lionel's waistcoat and shirt, unencumbered by gloves. They fell against the cushions in a way they wouldn't have dared to collapse in the snow, legs tangled together.
This was all new, memory superimposing over glorious memory like layers of radiant light. When, finally, they paused to catch their breath, Bertie's swollen lips were upturned in a smile. "Will you come back with me?" he whispered.
The question confused Lionel. They were already in the palace, not in Lionel's consultation room. "I'd follow you anywhere, but I don't know what you're asking," he replied.
"To the Highlands. To the castle. Will you stay, after Christmas? I know it must feel odd to you, with my family there, but the grounds are quite large and there's a hunting lodge, plenty of places for us to disappear..."
"Of course I will. For as long as you'd like." Lionel knew he was going to have to explain things to Myrtle, but he also knew that Myrtle would pack his bags and brag to all her friends that the King had taken her husband on holiday with him. She'd been disappointed that Lionel had refused to travel to Australia and America with the royals.
"I'd leave tonight if I could." Bertie's voice had a breathless catch as if he'd been out in the cold, and his fingers curled against Lionel's back. "But it will take time to make preparations. You won't mind waiting?"
"Not at all. I have plenty of things to think about now when I can't sleep." Their mouths came together again, sliding over one another just as their bodies moved together, and Lionel thought that perhaps he would mind waiting, but at least he would know for sure that happiness was close enough to touch -- that it wasn't only his imagination.
"It's already snowing in the north. Overcast for days on end. Will you be sorry if we don't see the northern lights again?" Bertie's lips quavered against his.
"You've just shown me the northern lights right here, indoors, in the middle of the city." Lionel traced Bertie's smile with his fingers, then shook his head. "No, that's not it. You've shown me that I carry them with me, everywhere, since that night, and I always will."
He paused, wondering how much was too much to say. The man gazing back at him might be Bertie, but he was also the King of England.
Then Bertie kissed his fingertips, and Lionel knew that there was only one thing he could offer which approached what Bertie had given him that night in the snow. Brushing his thumb across Bertie's cheekbone, he added, "Like my love for you."
Bertie closed his eyes and opened them again, damp and luminous. "And mine for you," he echoed. "Lionel, you've already given me everything I wanted for Christmas."
December had brought the coldest days in many years, though Lionel knew that it was possible he was misremembering. Since he'd left the hospital, he had trouble recalling many things he'd once been able to conjure with absolute clarity...the smell of fish frying on a beach in Australia, the color of the night sky over Balmoral, the sound of Myrtle's voice when she sang to herself in the kitchen.
His children were horrified when he went to mediums to try to talk to Myrtle. As someone who had studied science for most of his life, Lionel himself wasn't convinced that there was any reality in the séances. But even if they were nonsense, it made him feel better to try.
Bertie had assured him that he didn't need to travel at Christmas if he didn't feel well enough. By this time, Bertie had done so many broadcasts that having Lionel there, while comforting, simply wasn't necessary, especially not when Bertie had his family around him and knew that Lionel would be missing his grandchildren. "Another time, if you wish," he had promised Lionel.
Yet somehow Lionel knew that there would never be another time. It wasn't just that he had had that ghastly operation, and he knew from the broadcasts that the King had been quite ill, too. Perhaps it was the fact that Bertie hadn't even been well enough to ring him up and tell him how he was doing, or the way Lionel had trouble reading the shakiness of the writing in the letters they had exchanged.
This, then, was the price for years of happiness so complete that Lionel had often thought no man should be given as much as he had. For a while, he had had everything he could ever have wanted: his children had come through the war safely, his work had helped many people, his wife took great joy in him and in their life together, and he had the love of the King. Now his children were grown, his patients were gone, his wife was dead, and Bertie...
There was no possible way, thought Lionel, that he could bear to lose them both.
The trip north might have been hard on his bones, but there were compensations. Being at Balmoral would never be like being among his own friends or family, but over the years, the King's staff and even some of his family had begun to treat Lionel as though he belonged there. Bertie's daughters called him by name, and the Queen greeted him warmly, like an old friend.
Still, Bertie appeared pale and thin, and he needed to rest in the afternoon both before and after his speech. He looked nearly as old as Lionel, though Lionel was fifteen years his elder. He thought that Bertie might not be well enough to venture out into the cold after dark, and resolved to refuse to do so if it would keep Bertie safe.
Yet when the knock came, he couldn't stop himself from answering, and then he couldn't stop himself from following Bertie's smile down the steps and through the cloakroom, straight out into the clear, bitter night.
This year, there was little snow, which thankfully meant less chance that one or the other would slip. Lionel knew that if he were behaving responsibly, he'd insist that one of Bertie's men accompany them at least as far as the edge of the garden, but he also knew that Bertie would never kiss him under the stars with anyone else so near. So he moved slowly and carefully, keeping Bertie close, trying to watch the ground and the horizon all at once.
When at last they paused to look up at the sky, he asked Bertie, "Do you believe in heaven?"
"Of course I do." Bertie sounded shocked at the question. Belatedly, Lionel remembered to whom he was speaking: not just a man, not just the King, but the head of the Church of England. "Don't Christian Scientists believe in Heaven?"
"As a state of mind more than a locality, but I'm afraid I've lapsed from that faith as much as any other."
"Lionel, you were born to be a healer. You know how much you've helped me." Bertie's fingers squeezed around his through their gloves. "There is no doubt in my mind that you'll be blessed for that in the next life."
"If there is a next life."
At that precise moment, color blazed across the sky -- a gleaming ribbon of green, rippling, turning blue and purple in spots as it spread across the horizon. "There," Bertie sang out with the same triumphant tone in his voice as the first time he had showed this to Lionel, all those long years ago. "Look at that, and tell me how you can doubt whether there is a heaven."
Lionel's fingers gripped Bertie's through the thick layers of fur and leather that separated them. He would have pulled off the gloves to press skin against skin, never mind the cold, but Bertie had been coughing all day and Lionel didn't dare risk making him any more ill than he was already.
"Lionel?" Bertie had turned to him, worry in his voice and in his eyes, even as they reflected the glorious dancing aurora arcing over their heads. "Are you all right, love?"
The magic in that word made Lionel forget, at least for a moment, all the cold and the dark and the pain. It was like the first time they had stood on this hillside together and Bertie had shown him the lights sweeping down like curtains across the heavens, then drawn back the curtains with his kiss and given Lionel a taste of paradise, the first of many.
He had been so lost in grief and fear that he'd failed to remember.
"Yes, I'm all right," he said, letting himself lean on Bertie, watching the aurora rise and fall and vanish. The cold had given him a lump in his throat; it was difficult to speak. "Thank you. I needed to see that again, with you, this year."
Bertie wrapped both his arms around Lionel, pressing their cheeks together so that they were both facing the direction in which the northern lights had disappeared. "I know that there is a heaven," he said again. "I promise you I'll find you there. We'll watch from the other side."
Lionel closed his eyes. With the icy wind against him and Bertie in his arms, he could see in memory once more the aurora from the first time he'd stood and watched it with Bertie; he could taste that first precious kiss. He had no business questioning the Defender of the Faith.
And even if Bertie might be wrong about heaven, Lionel felt certain of one thing. "I'll still love you, you know," he whispered around the tightness in his throat. "Beyond the end of your life and mine."
"And I, you." Bertie sighed softly, swaying with him in the cold wind, but when Lionel looked at him, he smiled. "You always know exactly what to give me for Christmas."
"You're the one who first gave this to me." That smile was irresistible, even now. Lionel kissed it. "I only wish we were young enough for me to give you what I gave you for Christmas a few years ago."
The smile widened, and Bertie's eyes twinkled, although the sky was now quite dark. "We aren't dead yet. I'm more than willing to try if you are."
The lights had worked their way inside him, warming him, making him quiver as they moved. "You know that I'd do anything for you," he said. "Especially that."
"Come show me." Bertie turned his back on the faded veil across heaven, fingers laced through Lionel's. Even if it was the last time, there would be time to remember it later, and be grateful. Lionel felt no loss as he let the moment pass, and followed.