Lord Melbourne finds himself superfluous and though he expected it, his heart still drops. He's writing himself out of Victoria's narrative so to speak, allowing others to bid for her heart and it's difficult to bear.
She demands that he comes to Windsor with her and since she visited him at Brocket Hall, confessed her feelings to him, he finds it harder and harder to say no to her. He's already hurt her once, he can't hurt her more than necessary. But when Lord Alfred returns alone with news of the Queen and his Serene Highness in the forest by themselves, he's tempted to find himself a quiet corner and a decanter of something that will make him forget that any of this is happening. Instead he forces himself to walk outside and waits for Victoria and Albert to return, his ears straining under his top hat to hear the rhythmic pound of horses.
And soon they come, though only one rhythm returns back to the stables. Albert rides in on his horse and Melbourne looks behind him to see if Victoria follows him. She does not and he pays attention to the Prince clambering off his horse. A servant takes the reins and soon it is only the two of them, Albert looking at Melbourne, shuddering with barely contained rage before he snaps and strides forward, stands so close that Melbourne can see each individual hair of Albert's moustache.
"This is all your fault!" Albert accuses before storming off, leaving Melbourne even more confused. He'd find out more if it wasn't for the servant bringing an apologetic message, requesting his return to the House. Melbourne finds Emma and asks that she tells Victoria that he cannot dine with her but that he will come back as soon as possible. He thinks nothing more of the Prince's behaviour until news filters through that the Coburgs have left for their home country, Victoria's wedding finger empty.
Victoria decides there is no point staying at Windsor. She has Lehzen make arrangements to return to Buckingham Palace and the next day, she is meant to be in her carriage with Lehzen and her Ladies but instead, she hides behind the stables, muffling her cries with a gloved hand between her teeth, the taste of new cotton bursting on her tongue.
She doesn't want to stay at Windsor, a foreboding palace forever known as the place she let an opportunity slip. Lord M told her to keep her heart intact, keep it for someone else but Albert doesn't want it, her unwilling heart. She neither wants to return home where she knows Mama and Uncle Leopold will lecture her, tell her that she's wasted twenty years worth of planning. It's suffocating her and without Lord M to assist her, she's drowning under the pressure and she chokes back another sob. Lehzen awaits for her so Victoria quickly dries her eyes, tries to compose herself before being helped into her carriage with red, barely dry eyes.
The silence is deafening and Victoria stays silent, Harriet and Emma's tense conversation washing over her as she pets Dash, a solid comfort in her lap. Rather than joining the conversation, she looks out of the window and mulls over what cut that connection between herself and her cousin.
"Perhaps you should marry Lord Melbourne."
"How dare you! May I remind you that while you were looking at paintings, I was ruling this country. You are just a boy and Lord M is twice the man you will ever be."
Albert left her after that, leaving Victoria to tend to Dash until she could find the castle again.
There is some truth to his comments. Lord M was far more a man than Albert, a clockwork prince wound too tight. He could have insulted Lehzen. He could have insulted her Ladies. He could have even insulted Dash but instead, he hurt her more than she thought possible, painful comments about her first friend, the only one who understood, the only one who had her heart and rejected it.
Lord M avoids her for a few days, using the House as an excuse but eventually word gets out about the Queen's behaviour, barely touching her food, refusing to play the piano and Emma finds herself desperate, sending Melbourne a short message saying it all, unwilling to have a repeat of what happened the last time he attempted to put distance between them.
"She needs you. - Emma"
He rides into the grounds of Buckingham Palace and is immediately directed to Victoria, who sits on the floor in front of the painting of Elizabeth I where they spoke in metaphors, unmarried Queens and companions. She says nothing when she inevitably hears him walk down the corridor and he cannot think about what could make this situation any better and so he sits down next to her, not even touching in fear of some Lady or footman finding the Prime Minister and the Queen sitting on the floor. They say nothing, simply looking at the painting until Victoria moves closer to Melbourne to rest her head on his shoulder and to touch their hands together along the sides.
Such simple contact seems to break her and Melbourne feels her whimpers before hearing them and is confronted with a crying Queen. Propriety be damned, he briefly searches each end of the corridor for loitering servants and upon a clear inspection, he brings Victoria under his arm and she curls into his chest, suppressed pain finally releasing. He rubs circles into her back and kisses her on the head when he forgets himself but it calms her down and slowly the shivering sobs subside until she's limp, her full weight resting on Melbourne, her arm around his waist and his ears burn to think of the rumours, the headlines.
They stay together until the sun is replaced by the moon and Melbourne stands up, offers his hand out for Victoria. She takes it and grabs the other one, holding both his hands.
"Thank you, Lord M," she says quietly. He dips his head in respect and continues to hold her hand as they walk to the dining hall, unwillingly dropping it as they stand in front of the door, where they then share knowing looks across the table, still made up for the missing Coburgs.
Melbourne senses a shift in their friendship. Albert is gone but Victoria is not free. News spreads of screaming matches between the Queen and the Duchess, tense silences broken up by hateful words. And King Leopold, he simply remarks about all his work wasted, a perfect match ruined.
Victoria spends even more time with him, desperate to escape her family. They continue to work together but rather than Melbourne sitting opposite Victoria's ornate desk, they sit together on sofas and window seats. She paints as usual though Melbourne becomes her muse and model most days and not even Lehzen can drag her away from him.
There's a certain kind of unspoken domestic bliss between the two. When they are not working, Victoria signing letters or Melbourne teaching her in the ways of politics, they are riding out or reading in the library, taking turns to read out for each other.
After one such reading session, when Victoria offers her hand out to hold Lord M's as they read separate books, they finds themselves in an almost empty room, home to her grand piano. She sweeps off the collecting dust and invites Melbourne to sit with her as she warms up and progresses into a slow waltz. It's as the last note dies in the air that Melbourne realises just how much he loves her.
He considers leaving for Brocket Hall, leaving the Queen to accept suitors far more worthy than he is, a mere Viscount. But every time he brings it up, Victoria finds some reason to keep him by her and Melbourne isn't quite sure if he should be grateful or not. He knows the rumours continue to circulate, even in Europe where royal courts talk about the Queen of the United Kingdom and her inappropriate devotion to her Prime Minister (and vice versa). Victoria surely knows of this but she heeds no warnings from neither her mother nor Lehzen. Instead she continues to spend the majority of her day with Melbourne, riding out or dining together.
Victoria once asked him if he was happy before. "Yes", of course he answered. But he was happy here too, even if nothing was meant to last forever. The fragile happiness that they had harvested couldn't survive more Princes and Grand Dukes and Melbourne was ready to once more write himself out of the narrative, even if it hurt more than losing his son. He tries to reject her, once at the coronation ball, twice at Brocket Hall and attempts at thrice but Victoria, as per usual, doesn’t go along with his plan.
He retires to Dover House after a long day, Victoria in a melancholy mood after the Duchess reminds her that she must produce an heir. For this reason, Melbourne's surprised to receive a message late at night, requesting his presence. He complies, orders his carriage and finds himself ushered to Victoria who stands in front of the portrait she has of Elizabeth I. Before she turns around to see Melbourne, he recognises bursts of colour in her hair, realising that they are his flowers, those that he sends everyday in his secret language. It's dark outside and the soft candlelight bounces against the flowers in her hair and he falls in love even more, something he previously thought impossible.
Victoria hears footfall behind her and turns around to see her Prime Minister transfixed by the flowers in her hair. "Lord M. I'm glad you're here."
He's silent for a few seconds before kneeling and kisses her hand. "As am I ma'am, though I am wondering why such a late visit was desired."
She turns back around to look at the painting and so does Melbourne, standing up and remembering their previous conversation.
"Not all Queens marry, ma'am."
"You once told me that when I gave my heart, it would be without reservation. And that is almost true, Lord M. I tried to love Albert, I promise. I thought that if I indulged him, perhaps I could love him as much as I love you."
Melbourne would react but years of politics have taught him to school his face into neutral consideration. He wouldn't have been Prime Minister if otherwise.
"He left me in the forest, I'm sure you're aware of that. Do you know why?"
He simply shakes his head, allowing her to continue.
"He told me to marry you and I said that you were twice the man he would ever be. And then it all made sense."
Victoria turns to face Melbourne and hold his hands, looking at him with that smile that in another life, Albert would be privy to but in this, it was only Melbourne's.
"At Brocket Hall, I told you that you were the only companion I could ever desire. But now I know that not to be true."
Lord M feels his heart in this throat and tries to keep his expression neutral. Was this it then? Was this the end of their story?
"I don't want the person I love to be hidden as if they were shameful. I want to be able to tell everyone, tell the entire world that I love this person.
Lord M, I know your inclinations, no matter how frequently you argue that you are a rook and that you have mated for life. But I realised something. I love you and I know you love me.
Lord M, will you marry me?"
Surely, he thinks, this is simply a dream. Soon he will wake up to a cold bed with whisky in his veins. But it isn't. Victoria's hands are warm and heavy in his and here it is. Another chance at happiness, duty be damned. Oft there are few chances at happiness and the cosmos has given him multiple. He moves closer until their foreheads are almost touching.
"Only a fool would turn you away, ma'am," he answers with a smile he reserves only for her. Victoria gasps and throws her arms around his neck, laughing loudly as Melbourne picks her up by the waist and holds her so that she's taller than him. They both cry, tears of happiness intermingling and he brings her closer so that he can kiss the tears off of her lips.
Time becomes a liquid thing and Melbourne couldn't tell how much has passed before placing Victoria, his fiancée down.
"This won't be an easy matter, will it?"
Melbourne chuckles as he holds her face between his hands. "No, it won't be. But I don't care anymore. I regret to inform you that the leader of your government has resigned, ma'am."
Victoria laughs as she loops her arms once more around his neck, Lord M's hands moving down to hold her by her waist. "I think I can forgive him for that but I shan't forgive him if he continues to call me ma'am. I would like him to call me by my name."
Melbourne rests his forehead against hers, eyes closed as he whispers, "Victoria."
"William," she whispers back, everything suddenly fitting into place. She never needed the Russian Grand Duke. She never needed Albert.
No, all she wanted and needed was her beloved William. And all he wanted and needed was his beloved Victoria.