"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.