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The Little Queen

Chapter Text

 

It was still dark when the news alert came through.

She hadn’t been surprised. The news has been full of it for weeks, of course, ever since his doctor had made that first unscheduled visit. She’d watched with an emotion she couldn’t identify, knowing what was coming – her Uncle had been sick for a while, and she’d never seen Sir John Conroy happier.

He’d always been kind to her.

She stands as Lehzen enters her room, her face a mix of nervous excitement and apprehension, and watches as she curtseys slowly - reverently.

‘Your majesty.’

 

***

 

She watches as they drive down the busy London streets in the pre-dawn haze. People would only just be finding out now, she knows; there’s a protocol to these things. They went to sleep with a King, and woke with a Queen.

She wonders what that felt like. Her uncle had been a good king, and the people had liked him. The mourning period would be long enough; it had begun days ago, really.

Would they like her? Would they want a Queen?

Would they want her?

She pets Dash who is sleeping soundly on her lap. ‘Things are going to change, Dash,’ she whispers.

She can almost smell the freedom. She just hopes she will have the courage to take it when the time comes.

 

***

 

He straightens his tie in the mirror, his eyes switching between the television and his suit. He’d been woken in the early hours with the news, just one in a long line of people to be told that King George had passed away after a short battle with pneumonia, and a longer battle with liver cancer.

He sighs. A new Queen meant the Accession Council meeting, a recall to the House, and countless other duties that all must be rendered in the next twenty-four hours.

He glances at the television to see a photo of his new Queen; the woman he’ll pledge allegiance to for what would most likely be the rest of his life, he realises. He’d seen images of her before; the media had been quite careful not to discuss life after the King, but had managed to carefully slip in some photos of his ‘family’ – in particular, his niece. Brown hair, blue eyes, and practically a child.

He’d not really paid much attention; that part of his life was over now, and the sooner the better.

 

***

 

She’s escorted into a small room where Sir John and her mother are waiting.

‘Your majesty,’ Sir John says as he kneels and kisses her hand. She almost grimaces; it’s just so strange to have him bow to her after everything. After Kensington.

‘Sir John,’ she replies, watching him carefully.

‘Your majesty,’ he begins, ‘whilst your education has been thorough and detailed, you are still young and there is still so much you have yet to learn. If you wish, I would be more than happy to step in as your Private Secretary to help you govern as well as we all know you can.’

She stares at him, eyes wide and panic rising in her chest. Private Secretary.

‘Oh, yes, Drina. Sir John will be able to help you,’ he mother beseeches. Victoria’s eyes flick between the two of them as she realises that this is her chance.

Freedom was only a few short words away. She’d been waiting for this moment for so long. Her breath comes in short gasps, and she realises she needs to speak before they do. Before they realise what she’s about to say. She can do this. She can. She just has to say it.

She glances at the floor, mustering every inch of courage and strength and independence he’d spent twenty years trying to squash.

‘Thank you for your offer, Sir John, but I will not be requiring your services.’

She can’t help but feel a distinct sense of satisfaction – the relief – at the strength in her voice and the way his mouth drops open just a little.

‘Drina!’ her mother cries.

She turns to her mother. ‘I will choose my own advisors, Mama. You will not interfere.’

 

***

 

He is surprised by just how young she looks. He knows her age – she’s twenty-two – and is well-educated, and, by all reports, an intelligent young woman. Not that there have been many reports; she’s been kept on an incredibly tight leash.

She’s about four feet tall in heels, he thinks, and he feels the pull of pity. Being a woman in this role is going to be challenging enough; being so young and looking even younger is not going to help.

She’s just a child, he thinks, not for the first time. Too young and inexperienced to fully understand just what her name has determined for her fate, yet old enough for the weight of expectation to be dropped quite solidly on her shoulders. He knows of what awaits her; he’s been in his own job long enough to know what people expect of her.

Looking at her now, he knows one thing for sure: she is absolutely going to need help from someone, somewhere.

She just looks so young, and her eyes tell him she is absolutely terrified.

 

***

 

She’s terrified.

She knows what she has to say, but she’s never been good at public speaking and she really, really doesn’t want to stuff this up.

She suddenly understands all those metaphors about being out your depth and drowning. She feels them in her soul; that feeling of knowing you know nothing, but not having any real idea of what you don’t know. The feeling of inadequacy she was so used to, only magnified a hundred times.

Just when she thought she could escape…

She takes a deep, determined, wobbly breath. She wants to prove them wrong. She can do this, and she can do it alone.

I think.

The voices are still screaming in her head, drowning out all else, as she walks through the door.

 

***

 

The Accession Council meeting is where she first sees him. Among a sea of serious, solemn, much-older-than-her faces that she knows she won’t remember despite the importance of the meeting, he’s the only one that smiles at her.

She’s drowning, panicking, and there’s no one there to save her. She can hear their voices over the buzzing in her head, telling her it’s not good enough, that she’s not good enough, that she’s a stupid girl. That she’ll never be a good Queen.

But then he smiles, and she stops and stares at him for a moment. It’s only a tiny smile, but a smile nonetheless. A sliver of hope.

When she stumbles over her speech, she unconsciously looks to him. He gives her a tiny encouraging nod and smiles again.

She has no idea how she would have made it through that meeting without him, her unknown saviour, and that thought both terrifies and humbles her.

Perhaps she does need some help.

 

***

 

‘The Queen wishes to see you,’ Emma tells him down the phone as he leaves his office, heading home for the official twelve days of mourning.

‘Me?’

‘Yes, you. You made quite the impression at the Council.’ He can hear the laughter in her voice.

He closes his eyes briefly before letting out a small sigh.

 

***

 

She’s patting her dog when he is shown into her study, and she could be like any teenage girl in her bedroom. A teenager dressed in a black dress with frills, in an ornately but beautifully decorated 300-year-old bedroom. She looks up as he enters and he’s struck by just how blue her eyes are. And how wide.

‘Your majesty,’ he says, bowing slightly, ‘please accept my condolences on the passing of your Uncle.’

‘Thank you,’ she says, and he can tell he’s being studied. She’s not shy about it either; her eyes are piercing. He nods, before taking a breath and deliberately reverting to a mild confusion and interest in his voice. ‘You requested to see me, ma’am.’

His face is the picture of contrived innocence, and she almost laughs in surprise. He is clearly not intimidated by her, or if he is, he’s hiding it well. The Prime Minister certainly hadn’t been quite so…interesting.

She thinks he’s mocking her. Of course he is. Why would he be kind to her?

But maybe he’s not mocking her.

‘I wanted to thank you for your…assistance… earlier today,’ she says, watching him closely. Her voice is so different to the one he’d first heard at the Council, all strength and authority, as opposed to wavering and clipped sentences. His lips twist slightly before he nods.

‘It is a pleasure to be of service, ma’am,’ is all he offers, and she smiles before carefully placing the spaniel on the floor.

‘It occurs to me that perhaps I need…a mentor,’ she says slowly, looking back up at him. ‘My education, whilst…detailed, appears to have left me with some…gaps that need to be filled.’ She struggles to avoid using Sir John’s words. She wouldn’t let him control her. Not here. Not anymore.

Melbourne frowns thoughtfully for a moment before nodding.

‘That may be wise, given the circumstances, ma’am. You have yet to appoint your Private Secretary, I assume – may I suggest you ask Lady Portman for a list of recommendations?’

She nods. After a short pause, she asks, ‘Who would you recommend, Lord Melbourne?’

He raises his eyebrows in surprise, and then tilts his head in slight annoyance. He should have seen that coming. Why else was he here, other than to be viewed and assessed almost under a microscope? ‘I would be happy to make some suggestions to Lady Portman for your consideration, ma’am,’ he replies slowly.

She smiles slightly, clearly satisfied by something – he’s just not entirely sure what, and it’s disconcerting. He’s always been quite good at reading people, and his experience has long taught him to think on his feet, but there’s something about her that unsettles him slightly. He hasn’t been anything vaguely close to flustered in quite a while, and he doesn’t enjoy the sensation.

She is the Queen, after all, he reasons with himself. He shouldn’t be entirely relaxed. And she’s young – much younger than anyone he’s really had to deal with on this level before.

He changes tack slightly. ‘I believe Sir John Conroy would expect to be on that list, your majesty,’ he says slowly, watching her carefully for a reaction.

She turns to him, her eyes flashing. ‘John Conroy is out of the question.’

Well, that answers that question, he thinks. But he can’t help his surprise at the strength of her reply, and she quietens somewhat. ‘He wants to control me, the way he’s tried for the last twenty years. The way he controls my mother,’ she adds, and he’s not entirely sure she’s still talking to him.

She does need help, he thinks, and he can’t help himself.

‘Then he doesn’t make the list,’ he says simply.

She turns to him in surprise. She knows that John Conroy’s transition to Private Secretary is a logical and expected one…but perhaps not quite so set in stone as she had dreaded. Despite her refusal, she knew he was still a possibility.

Who was she fooling? Her list of allies was purposefully thin – he had seen to that.

She didn’t have friends. Queens didn’t have friends, she knew.

It was time to start making her own allies, but she also was painfully aware that her choices were slim, and that the list of those she trusted was virtually non-existent. She was alone.

Until now, perhaps.

 

***

 

Well, she was everything and nothing like he expected.

She was young, he’d been right, and so small. She couldn’t have been much above five feet tall, and it certainly had been an odd sensation looking down at his new monarch. But there was a strength in her voice – a strength with a tremor, for sure, and a lot of fake confidence that anyone with any observational skills would see right through – but a strength that had surprised him, given her history. She hadn’t been completely cowed by Conroy, he thought a little triumphantly. There was a fire in her eyes, an eagerness to succeed, but a wariness. She couldn’t hide her fear, no matter how imperiously she looked at him, how high she held her chin.

She was going to struggle, the little Queen, but he shrugs off the familiar pang of pity. There was nothing he could do for her; he was no one, now – just the way he wanted it.

 

***

 

She’s walking down the hall towards the dining room when she sees him standing in the hallway. He’s waiting for her, she knows it, and she feels herself shrink.

It’s just like Kensington all over again. She’ll never be free of him.

Then he doesn’t make the list, a small voice whispers in the back of her mind.

‘Your majesty, a moment of your time?’ he asks.

She stops and slowly turns to face him. ‘Sir John.’

‘I saw Lord Melbourne leaving the palace earlier today,’ he starts, and something in her stomach clenches. He’s been watching her – of course he has. Nothing has changed, really, she thinks.

But then she remembers she’s Queen now. Everything had changed.

She says nothing, clenching her jaw and waiting for him to continue.

‘Are you sure it’s entirely wise to be summoning ex-Prime Ministers at random to the Palace, ma’am?’ he asks, but it’s no question, she knows.

‘I’m not entirely sure it’s your business who I speak to anymore, Sir John,’ she replies, and she hates herself for the slight tremor in her voice. She hates that he can do this to her, even now.

‘It’s just that Lord Melbourne…well, let’s just say that his reputation is well known,’ Sir John says slowly. ‘It’s not the kind of reputation you want attached to your reign, especially not one quite so young.’ He says the last bit slowly and she feels the anger burn in her chest.

‘Thank you for your concern, Sir John,’ she says through her teeth, biting down on the rest of the sentence. She won’t argue with him. He always wins when they argue, and she hates it. She hates him.

But she’s Queen, now. She doesn’t have to argue with him anymore.

‘As you wish, your majesty. I’d just hate to see you make such a public mistake so soon.’

She feels all the coolness of the threat behind his words, and it sets a small shiver down her spine. He steps aside and she strides past him, furious.

She’s furious at him, but also at herself. She’s the Queen now; he should not intimidate her like that anymore.

She wondered when she’d begin to feel like a Queen.

 

***

 

She looks up as Emma walks into the room with her usual folders of paperwork. ‘Lord Melbourne suggested that you might be able to compile a list people who would be suitable candidates for my Private Secretary.’ Emma nods. ‘I’ve asked him to contribute some names to that list.’

‘His experience would be helpful, ma’am. Thank you.’

Victoria nods, reaching out to take the folders from Emma. ‘How long have you known Lord Melbourne?’ she asks as nonchalantly as she can.

‘Since childhood, ma’am,’ Emma replies, smilingly a little too knowingly for Victoria’s taste. ‘He’s a good man.’

She takes a breath before she says the next part. She has to know. ‘With a chequered past, I’m told.’

Emma frowns resignedly. ‘Some would say that.’

‘What would you say?’ she asks too quickly, and she bites down on her tongue. A Queen is not eager for anything.

But she watches as Emma pauses, pursing her lips in thought. ‘I’d say he’s a good man who has suffered at the hands of life,’ she replies.

Victoria frowns at her response. Emma had said nothing at all, she realised. She would have to be more direct – only she had no idea what to ask, only what Sir John had said. She doubts he would actually lie directly to her face. ‘I have heard that his reputation is less than savoury,’ she says, watching Emma’s response carefully.

Emma sits in the chair opposite Victoria. ‘His wife,’ she says carefully. ‘She wasn’t…well, ma’am. She managed to hide it for so long, but perhaps…perhaps they weren’t as suited to each other as they initially thought,’ she says. Victoria nods, understanding at least some of that idea. ‘She had affairs. One particularly public one.’ The distaste was clear in Emma’s voice. ‘William – Lord Melbourne was devastated. And humiliated in the papers. It was horrible.’

‘I can imagine,’ Victoria replies, her eyes wide and her stomach a little sick at the thought. The papers were evil, she knew. Mama and Sir John had made sure she understood that. She had to guard herself carefully, she knew.

‘His wife died a few years ago now,’ Emma says, and she’s surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that he would be a widower. That didn’t fit at all, she thought. Old men were widowers, and Lord Melbourne certainly wasn’t old. ‘But he is a good man, your majesty,’ Emma says firmly, and Victoria can see how eager she is for the Queen to understand. ‘He’s had quite a full career, and is well-liked amongst his peers.’

She can still hear Sir John’s voice in the back of her mind. Perhaps he was trying to trick her, trying to make sure she had no one and had to ask him for help.

Emma certainly thought Lord Melbourne was good. She was fairly sure she could trust Emma, but…

But then he had been kind to her, helped her at the council meeting without knowing her at all. 

Emma stands to leave, and she calls after her. ‘I don’t think the list requires a great deal of your time, Emma.’

Chapter Text

She’s just finished putting the last of her dresser drawer in a box when Lehzen appears. She knows she doesn’t really need to pack because she’s the Queen now – there were men all over the palace shifting furniture and packing up her life – but these were little things she didn’t really want anyone else touching.

‘We’re ready to go, majesty,’ she says, and Victoria nods, excited. There was a buzz in her veins, a heady feeling she couldn’t control, and didn’t want to control.

‘I am coming,’ she says, folding the lid down and turning to face Lehzen, who is still standing at the door, a concerned frown on her face. ‘What is it?’ Lehzen takes a step forward.

‘Majesty, Lady Portman has confirmed that Lord Melbourne will meet you at the Palace,’ she says, and Victoria nods.

‘Excellent,’ she replies, pleased. She’d hoped he would come. But Lehzen’s frown deepens, and she feels the pull of irritation. What could she possibly be upset about now?

‘Drina-Majesty,’ Lehzen corrects, her head lowering a little, before she steps forward, and goodness, she’s unhappy. ‘I must tell you that Lord Melbourne is…disreputable.’

‘Disreputable?’ Victoria replies. ‘I have already asked Lady Portman to look into Lord Melbourne’s background, and she assures me all is well.’

‘But Majesty, the stories,’ Lehzen starts, and she can’t hear this.

‘Lehzen,’ she snaps, the warning clear in her voice, and Lehzen bows and leaves quickly.

Victoria watches her go, and she’s angry. Lehzen’s always been on her side against Mama and John Conroy, but now, in this most important decision, she chooses to betray rather than support.

Besides, she’s sure that Lord Melbourne can’t be half as bad as they all make him out to be. He’d been kind to her when he hadn’t needed to be, and Emma had seemed so sincere in her praise of him. And he’d been Prime Minister, and a pretty popular one too, apparently. Surely her people wouldn’t vote in someone that terrible, would they?

 

***

 

She surprises him.

He’s at home reading when Emma calls. ‘Busy?’ she asks, and he grunts. ‘The Queen has requested your presence at Buckingham Palace,’ she says.

‘Me?’ he asks after a moment.

‘She’d like your assistance with some matters,’ is all Emma says, and he frowns.

‘When?’

‘Her majesty will be at the Palace in two hours.’

One hour and forty-five minutes later, he finds himself standing at the back entrance to the palace; the same one he’d used for the years he would meet with the King. He turns to see a convoy of cars and flashing lights arrive just a few minutes after him.

She steps out of the car and her reaction is priceless; she’s staring up at the columns of the balcony, awe written all over her face. He supresses a grin and walks over towards her.

‘Your majesty,’ he calls, bowing slightly.

She spins around and smiles at him. ‘Lord Melbourne! I am so glad you were able to make it,’ she says, as if he’d had a choice.

‘Of course, ma’am,’ he replies.

He turns to see another woman get out on the other side of the car, and she’s frowning a little at him. He can’t help but be amused; he has no idea who this woman is, but she clearly knows him. And she doesn’t like him. He’s impressed.

‘Thank you, Lehzen,’ Victoria says and the frowning lady rather reluctantly gets back into the car. ‘Lehzen was my governess,’ she explains, and he can see her cheeks pink a little.

‘A young lady’s closest ally,’ he says knowingly, and she stares at him for a second before nodding in agreement.

‘I was hoping you would show me around the palace,’ she says, and he’s a little surprised, and more than a little curious at her choice of guide.  

‘I’m not sure I’m that familiar with all of it, ma’am,’ he says, ‘but I’ll do my best.’

She walks inside and he follows, pointing to direct her, and explaining what he knows about the building. The wonder in her face is child-like and Augustus’s face flashes in front of his eyes for second. He glances down, the stabbing pain in his chest subsiding slowly.

At least he can help her.

The palace is full of long hallways and so many rooms and she practically skips from one to the next. He follows behind her at a more sedate pace, answering her questions, pointing out views from windows, ancestors in paintings on walls. The wonder never leaves her face and he can’t help but smile; her excitement is infectious.

She stops when she reaches the Throne Room, approaching the throne carefully before sitting on it.

She peers down at her feet.

‘Yes, before your first reception, we’ll have to find you a throne that fits,’ he says, frowning. ‘Your uncle was taller than you.’

‘Everyone is taller than me,’ she retorts and there’s only the faintest hint of bitterness in her voice. He understands. ‘It is hard to be dignified when your feet are six inches from the floor,’ she agrees in a lighter tone, and he nods once.

They continue, and before he can stop her, she’s raced into what will be her bedroom. He pauses awkwardly at the door. She turns to see him standing there, her face confused, and he figures it’s not technically her bedroom yet, so he steps inside.

As she’s done in most of the rooms she’s actually stopped in, she goes straight to the window and peers out. ‘I think this will do nicely,’ she says after looking around for a moment, and he doesn’t comment. He’s not going to say anything about the Queen’s bedroom.

She turns to look at him, her chin slightly higher than before and he thinks this is her tell; she’s about to say something she’s not completely sure of, make an announcement of some kind. ‘Thank you for your recommendations for my Private Secretary,’ she says, and he nods.

‘You are most welcome, ma’am. I hope you found them helpful.’

‘Oh yes, very helpful,’ she says, and he nods. ‘Although, I must admit that my selection did not come from your list,’ she adds, and he’s not quite sure what to say to that.

‘I understand, ma’am.’

‘I also noticed that your name wasn’t there,’ she says and his eyebrows rise a little at that. He lets out a little laugh.

‘No, ma’am. I was hardly going to recommend myself,’ he says wryly, and she nods. He thinks that perhaps she’s misunderstood him; his name was never meant to be on any list, no matter who was compiling it.

‘Well, then, I suppose it’s good that Lady Portman speaks so highly of you,’ she says, levelling her gaze and him and he blinks. ‘Lord Melbourne, I believe with your experience as both a Lord and as Prime Minister, you would make an excellent Private Secretary.’

And she’s surprised him.

‘Me, ma’am?’

‘Do you disagree that you are more than qualified?’

‘Well, no, ma’am. Well, a little. I have not had the military experience that the most recent private secretaries have had,’ he adds, but a glance at her face stops him in his tracks.

Her chin is still held high, but her eyes are slightly wider than before, and there’s a tiny furrow in her brow now that tells him that she’s worried. She wants him to accept, he realises. His mind quickly fills in the gaps that today should have already filled: John Conroy.

He cannot – will not – do that to her.

But he has to raise the obvious issues. He is not the best choice for so many reasons.

‘Ma'am, you know I'm a Whig politician. Or I was, until recently.’

‘Yes.’

‘And that I still have a seat in the House of Lords, simply by virtue of my title.’

‘Yes,’ she says, and the look on her face shifts slightly, and he thinks she’s beginning to see what he’s saying, and she doesn’t like it.

‘The Monarchy must be seen as impartial in political matters. It could look partisan on your behalf to have an ex-Whig Prime Minister as your Private Secretary.’

She purses her lips a little, and he can see that the new Queen is determined, but determination can be a two-sided coin, he knows.

‘But, as you say, you're no longer a minister,’ she says.

‘No, ma'am,’ he replies, and he’s not entirely sure he knows where she’s going with this.

‘And you would be willing to resign your membership of your party?’ she asks, and he can suddenly hear it in her voice – the fear. The worry. This is what she’s unsure about – she knows what she’s asking, and she’s not sure if he’s willing to give it.

She’s counting on him to accept, but she’s well aware just how easily he could have said no straight up. Could still say no.

He should say no.

‘Of course, ma’am,’ he replies, and she blinks at him.

‘Would you try to shape my political opinions and sway me to a particular political belief system?’

He’s taken aback. ‘Not deliberately, ma’am.’

‘Then surely there is no problem.’

He sighs, studying her. She will have her way, he thinks. He should not accept her; it would not be a good look, especially when the news became public – if it did. The public would not particularly care he thinks, but it wasn’t the point – the Queen still needed to be seen to be beyond politics, beyond everything. The Tories would scream the House down.

Unless…

He feels the warning in his gut, that this would come back to bite him – to bite her, one day – but he also feels the pull of duty. To protect the new Queen. She won’t pick a stranger, he thinks. In her mind, he suspects, it’s either him or Conroy. Better the devil you know. He can appreciate the sentiment.

Perhaps they would survive the bite, he thinks. If he was careful – if she was careful. She was the unknown quantity, really. He could manage himself, and perhaps the Tories if he tried hard – Wellington wouldn’t start a fight if he didn’t believe in it, and he would happily make whatever concessions Wellington asked for if it came to that – but he couldn’t control her.

And she’s still staring at him, waiting for his response, and her breathing has become shallow.

It would be a fight from the start, and he’s surprised that he’s willing to do it. Even now, his mind is whirring, thinking of everything he’s going to need to do to get this through, the people he’s going to need to sway, the promises he’s going to have to make.

It would be anything but easy; anything but the quiet life he’d been aching for since Caro. Since his little boy.

‘I would be honoured, ma’am,’ he says quietly, bowing his head slightly, ignoring the warning that’s shifted and is now screaming quietly in the back of his mind, and hoping that he sounds as sincere as he feels. He knows that as he says it that he actually is honoured; that he wants this. When faced with the task of guiding her, leading her, protecting her, he finds that he wants it. He hasn’t really wanted much in a long time, and the feeling isn’t entirely unwelcome.

Her smile is both relieved and satisfied, and he’s strangely pleased the little furrow in her brow is gone.

He looks around, realising where they are, and gives her a small smile. ‘Can I show you something, ma’am?’ he asks, and her eyes widen in surprise and anticipation. She almost jumps up from her seat, and he turns and leads her down a hall to a painting.

He knows she recognises it the minute they get there; her eyes go soft and wistful, and the sadness in her voice almost makes him regret bringing her here. But better he show her now than her stumble across it in a weak moment, where the pain of loss could do so much more damage.

‘I did not know him personally, ma’am, but I’m told he was an excellent Duke and a fine man.’

He watches her as she stares at the painting of her father, and he is fascinated emotions that play across her face. Sadness, regret, fear. Anger.

He realises quickly that she wears her heart on her sleeve; every emotion she feels passes across her face and can be found in her voice, and he is absolutely going to have to do something about it if this had any chance of working for longer than about five minutes.

She looks down. ‘They think because I am young and small, I am incapable of being Queen,’ she bites out, and his eyebrows rise a little at that. Clearly, this is a conversation she’s had before. And recently.

But she’s at least a little self-aware – she was small, and she did look young, and whoever dressed her needed to be fired. She was dressed like a girl, he thought - no wonder everyone treated her like it. Something else for him to fix – with Emma’s help. Emma got him into this, he thinks – she can play her part.

‘I think they’re wrong ma’am,’ he says, confidently. ‘Your education may perhaps seem to be a little lacking in areas, and appearances can be deceiving, ma’am,’ he says with a small smile. ‘To me, ma’am, you’re every inch a Queen.’

He sees her lips quirk in amusement and satisfaction and he’s pleased. The little Queen needs reason to smile more, he thinks.

‘Thank you,’ she says, before narrowing her eyes slightly. If he was going to be her Private Secretary, he needed a name shorter than Lord Melbourne. Besides, he didn’t seem like the kind of person to dislike a nickname. ‘Lord M,’ she adds carefully, ensuring the inflection in her voice makes it clear that she’s testing the waters; that he’s free to disapprove, but she hopes he doesn’t – she’s already begun to think of him as Lord M in the privacy of her mind.

But he just raises his eyebrows slightly in surprise, she thinks – she’s a little pleased that she’s surprised him – and gives her a small, amused smile and it’s settled.

Lord M, he thinks.

Well, then.

He’s not surprised, in hindsight. She’s young, and he has a feeling the little Queen will need these little quirks, these things that make her feel safe. If this little nickname is the price he has to pay, he’ll more than gladly pay it. He’ll wear it with honour.

 

***

 

‘She wants you,’ Russell says, and he can hear and see the incredulity and almost disdain in Cabinet Secretary’s voice and all over his face, no matter how much he’s clearly trying to hide it.

‘Yes,’ he replies, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

‘And you said yes?’ Melbourne winces internally – Russell was no longer trying to hide anything.

‘Yes.’

‘What were you thinking?’

Melbourne sighs. ‘Do you have any idea what it’s been like for her?’ he asks, levelling his gaze at the younger man.

‘No one is going to care!’

‘She is the Queen, and she’s likely going to be the Queen for a very, very long time. We should care.’

‘But she’s supposed to be impartial,’ Russell argues, and he knows this.

‘It’s me or John Conroy,’ Melbourne says bluntly, and Russell sits back in his seat, still eyeing him, and he’s glad for the relationship that he’d slowly developed with the fellow politician over time – the trust that had naturally built over time and experience.

‘Wellington is not going to like this,’ Russell says after a moment.

This, he knows. ‘No.’

‘You’re asking a lot.’

‘Yes.’

Russell eyes him for a few moments. ‘I’ll talk to him. But I can’t guarantee anything.’

Melbourne nods. ‘I appreciate any assistance you can give.’

He watches as Russell throws his hands in the air. ‘I don’t even know what I’m going to say,’ he says, and Melbourne purses his lips.

‘Ask him about his meeting with the Queen.’

 

***

 

He gets the phone call later that afternoon.

‘Who the hell do you think you are?’

He doesn’t wince at the Prime Minister’s bellow; he knows this man too well. There’s far too much water under the bridge for them to be anything other than entirely candid with each other. ‘Wellington,’ he says by way of greeting. ‘Thanks for calling.’

‘Tell me why I shouldn’t let this blow up in your face.’

‘You know why,’ Melbourne replies steadily, and he can hear Wellington’s angry sigh. He’d been counting on this; Wellington’s sense of duty, his old-fashioned love for the monarchy. He was a father, and a grandfather. And he’d already met his sweet, wide-eyed, slightly terrified new Queen.

‘And there is no one else?’

‘She made it fairly clear that it was a two-horse race.’

‘I don’t like it, Melbourne.’ And he says nothing to that. There is nothing he can say to that. He knows he’s the best of two very bad choices. ‘If there is any hint of bias – anything at all, I’ll be the one leading the charge for your head.’

‘I would expect nothing less.’

‘Russell and I will be watching.’

‘I would do the same.’

And Wellington’s sighing again. ‘She’s very young.’

‘Yes,’ Melbourne says heavily, feeling all the weight of his decision and of what he was asking. But he knows that whilst he’s far from the best choice she could have made, at least Wellington knows they can work together. And if all he has going for him at the moment in Wellington’s eyes is that he’s not John Conroy, well, he’ll have to settle for that for now. ‘Yes, she is.’

‘Good luck,’ Wellington says before hanging up, and Melbourne smiles triumphantly down at his phone.

Chapter Text

 

When he officially starts as her Private Secretary only a few days later, she thinks she may have made the right choice. She doesn’t really have much of an idea what a Private Secretary does, other than organise her life for her – but then she doesn’t really have a complete idea of what that’s supposed to look like either.

‘Good morning, ma’am,’ he says as he walks in, tilting his head in a funny kind of small bow, and she smiles.

‘Good morning, Lord M,’ she replies, and she’s pleased he’s finally here. She’s floundered a bit, and Sir John has taken every opportunity to remind her of what she’s missing. But Emma has been a godsend and a blessing wrapped in one neat, efficient, lovely package, and the rest of the staff have been nice too. She hasn’t really had that much to do, other than settle into the Palace, unpack some of her personal stuff. Explore.

She could count on her hands the number of times she’d been to Buckingham Palace. She’d always felt small there; like the house was too big for her, or she was too small for it. She imagined it as a stern old Grandmother; she was a very little girl who wasn’t yet allowed to play in the world her uncle hadn’t finished with. She had to wait until she was older – until she was more grown up.

As she’d walked along the walls that cradled the paintings of her ancestors, she’d realised she didn’t feel grown up at all. She’d wondered if she would ever grow into it, if she’d ever feel big enough.

She’s lost count of the number of times she’s gotten lost over the past three days. She’s never going to admit it to anyone, either.

‘Enjoying your new home?’ he asks with a smile.

‘I keep getting lost,’ she says before she can stop herself. Idiot. He’s going to think her silly; a child. Who gets lost in their own palace?

‘Oh, yes, ma’am. I got lost the first time I came here – a few times, in fact,’ he says, and her eyes flick up to his face. ‘It’s a maze, and a large one.’ And she thinks that maybe he’s not teasing her; his voice is serious, and almost…sympathetic. ‘I’m not sure Google Maps does inside Buckingham Palace, though,’ he adds, and she can’t help but smile. He’s definitely teasing her now, but she doesn’t mind - it’s not unkind. ‘I doubt your security would approve of that.’

It’s then that he spots Dash who is curled up in a ball on a cushion on the floor and she swallows. He’s going to think her juvenile for keeping her dog so close all the time. She’s going to have to give him up now, her faithful companion, now that’s she’s Queen. Queens don’t keep their pet dog with them all the time. Queens don’t need pet dogs as their constant companions.

‘Oh, hello,’ he says walking over to where Dash is now awake and wagging his tail. ‘I haven’t officially met you,’ he says as he squats down and holds his hand out for Dash to sniff and then promptly lick.

‘That’s Dash,’ she says quickly. ‘He’s mine.’

‘Hello, Dash,’ Melbourne says, scratching the dog’s head, and Victoria can see that Dash is loving every second of it.

‘I’ve had Dash since I was thirteen,’ she explains quickly, as Melbourne stands. ‘Sir John doesn’t think I should keep him now that I’m Queen.’ She’s babbling, she knows, and bites down on her tongue.

He frowns a little. ‘And what do you think?’

She’s taken aback, speechless for a moment. ‘I want to keep him. He’s mine,’ she blurts out. ‘He’s been a source of great comfort,’ she adds, a little more quietly.

‘Then I don’t see why you should give him up, ma’am,’ and he genuinely looks confused, she thinks.

They say Queens don’t need lapdogs. They say I’m a child.

‘Your uncle had a number of dogs,’ he adds thoughtfully. ‘Though they really were a little too big to be roaming around the palace, I’d still run into them from time to time.’ He looks down at Dash. ‘I doubt Dash is going to be a problem for anyone. Except perhaps the kitchens,’ he adds with a small smile, and she breathes again.

It’s a few hours later and he brings up the Coronation, and her heart’s in her throat again.

‘When will it be?’ she asks, and he frowns thoughtfully.

‘There’s no great rush, ma’am. It will take a great deal of planning. Early next year, perhaps,’ he says, and she sighs with relief. ‘We’ll schedule a practice run or two closer to the time, of course,’ he says slowly, and she realises he’d noticed her panic.

‘I am pleased to be Queen,’ she explains. ‘I’m just not all that good at public speaking,’ she admits.

‘Well, you won’t have to do too much speaking in this case, at least not when too many people will be able to hear,’ he says. ‘Mostly walking. And sitting. And wearing the crown,’ he adds.

‘I remember thinking that it wouldn’t fit me,’ she says, and the corners of his mouth turn up slightly.

‘I’ve heard it’s quite heavy,’ he says, and she blinks.

She remembers seeing her Uncle wearing the crown once, and the size of it had overwhelmed her, but she’d never really considered that it would be heavy. What if it’s too heavy? What if she can’t hold it up? She had no idea how strong her neck was. Surely it wouldn’t be that heavy… but then most of the monarchs before her had been men. Men with bigger heads and thicker necks than her. Stronger.

She swallows at the thought.

‘It will be televised,’ she half-asks, already knowing the answer.

‘Oh yes, ma’am. We can’t really get away from that,’ he replies, and oh goodness, if she fails the entire world is going to watch her humiliation live. He must sense her fear because he puts down the book he’s holding. ‘We can practice as many times as you like,’ he says gently, and she nods. She’s already thinking of ways she can strengthen her neck. She remembers pictures of African women carrying baskets on their heads from one of her books; some of them were small, but they’d managed. Maybe she could too.

When he arrives one day a couple of weeks later with a bucket with a swatch of fur wrapped around the bottom and some weights taped at even intervals around the sides, she thanks God for her Lord M.

 

***

 

‘Melbourne,’ Wellington says, and he nods to the older man before glancing at his feet. Wellington must look confused, he thinks, because she speaks after a few moments.

‘I’ve asked Lord Melbourne to sit in on our meeting,’ she explains to the Duke.

‘Perfectly fine, ma’am,’ the Duke replies, and Melbourne can tell it’s anything but. He winces internally; he doesn’t particularly care about Wellington’s feelings in general – he was deliberately and carefully neutral there – but he didn’t like how it made her look. Needy. Dependent.

He also doesn’t want Wellington to think he’s controlling her that much. He's only been here a week.

But he would sit in the chair and take notes as surreptitiously as he could, and hope that this is the last time he’d have to do this.

He suspects it won’t be.

It takes all of two minutes before she’s turning to ask him a question about the role of the Minister of State in Veteran’s affairs, and he can feel Wellington’s gaze on him, waiting to see what he does. But there is no way he can tell her to ask Wellington – the actual Prime Minister – in front of him, so it’s just awkward all around.

‘Yes, ma’am, that would be the purview of the Under-Secretary specifically,’ he replies, and he glances from her to Wellington, and he thinks she gets the idea when she turns back to Wellington to continue her line of questioning.

Six questions in less than twenty minutes later, he can see Wellington’s patience with his new Queen – and her Private Secretary – is just about to hit the reserves. There’s a brief pause as the conversation comes to a natural stop, and he takes advantage of it.

‘Ma’am, some tea?’ he asks, and she looks surprised, but nods anyway.

‘Yes, thank you, Lord M,’ she replies, and he can hear the poorly-disguised confusion in her voice. And Wellington’s looking at him with an eyebrow raised and he thinks that no one outside of Emma and perhaps one of the staff has heard her refer to him as Lord M before, and he could do without that look from Wellington right at this moment. He thinks that perhaps he wouldn’t have minded at any other time, but it just adds to the whole skewed picture so neatly he can’t help but wince at the timing.

‘Can I offer you some tea, Prime Minister?’ she asks Wellington who blinks at her before quickly thanking her. Melbourne makes a mental note to remind her that she’s the Queen, and that particular job is almost never hers.

‘Ah, you asked me to remind you that you wished to discuss the latest troop commitments in Afghanistan with the Prime Minister, ma’am,’ he says, as he stands.

‘Yes,’ she says reluctantly, watching him stand, and he gives her the briefest of nods as he turns and heads out the door.

‘Tea for her majesty and the Prime Minister, please,’ he says in a sigh to Emma, who nods and picks up the phone.

He would not be able to continue this, he thinks. Wellington would lose it eventually, and he wouldn’t blame him – he wouldn’t have been pleased about the whole situation either. She was young, yes, and inexperienced, but there was only so much give in this awkward three-way relationship.

‘It’ll be up in a minute,’ Emma says, and he nods, leaning on her desk. ‘I’ll bring it in,’ she adds deliberately when he doesn’t leave.

‘I’ll wait,’ he says, before frowning.

‘You’ll wait,’ Emma replies doubtfully, and he glances down at her. ‘Not going well?’ she asks, and he sighs again.

‘Not from Wellington’s perspective,’ he replies, pursing his lips, and he can see Emma’s tongue curl into her cheek, but he says nothing.

When Wellington leaves not long after, he gives him a tight smile that Wellington almost returns, and he gets the message.

He was going to have to extricate himself from these meetings.

‘Ma’am, I don’t really think you need me present when you speak with the Prime Minister,’ he says a little while later, and she turns to him, her eyes wide.

‘Why not? Of course I need you there, Lord M,’ she replies. ‘There’s so much I don’t yet understand.’

‘I think the Prime Minister should be able to answer your questions,’ he says, and she frowns, and he knows he’s going to have to explain this. Delicately, too.

‘Do you remember when you first asked me to be your Private Secretary, and I said that it could potentially be seen as partisan on your behalf?’ She nods, still frowning. ‘I think having me, an ex-Whig Prime Minister, answering your questions about government business in front of the current Tory Prime Minister could be considered less than impartial,’ he says carefully.

He watches while she considers his words. ‘But I don’t know the Duke,’ she says, but he can hear the truth behind her words. She doesn’t trust the Duke yet.

He wonders again what he did to earn such implicit trust from her so quickly, and what it is about almost everyone else that means they have to work so hard to earn it.

‘You will get to know him, ma’am,’ he says gently. ‘You should get to know him.’

She lets out a sigh, and he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s won this round. ‘You can always come and ask me anything you wish to know after your meetings,’ he promises.

‘The Duke seems nice enough,’ she says uncertainly, and he has to be careful here. He could so, so easily sound bitter, and she doesn’t deserve that. His history with Wellington is his own, and he will not let her be swayed by his past.

‘The Duke is a very capable Prime Minister,’ he says carefully. ‘And he is most definitely loyal to his monarch.’ And he can see that has done approximately nothing to assuage her fears. ‘He’s a good man, ma’am,’ he adds, as much as his belief in that statement is tinged with pain.

‘Very well,’ she replies, and he counts this one in the win box.

 

***

 

 

Her loose business pants and blouse the next day remind him that he really needs to talk to Emma. He’s a man, sure, but even he knows she could look so much better than she does, and that if she wants to be treated like a Queen, she needs to actually look like one. The power of clothing choices was not lost on him, even if he hadn’t much of a clue what that actually meant practically for women. But there were people they could employ who did, and he suspected Emma would know just the right person.

There were so many things they needed to work on that he occasionally finds himself momentarily overwhelmed. He knows he has to be patient; so much is just going to take time and experience, and if they rush things, if he pushes too hard, she’ll break and they’ll have to start again. But he’s pleased this is one problem that can be essentially solved for her, and quite quickly, he thinks. It’ll do wonders for her self-esteem; despite all the bold statements and seeming surety, he knows that underneath it all she’s still that terrified, wide-eyed girl he first saw at the Council. She’s just relaxed a little, out of the spotlight for now.

He’s just not entirely sure how to broach the situation with her. He doesn’t really know the Queen well at all yet – he’s known her for barely more than a few weeks. But he does know she’s young, and a little tempestuous by nature, with so little emotional intelligence it’s almost staggering; but also kind and compassionate. And scared. Her past at Kensington is a relatively unknown quantity, and he’s just not entirely sure how that will factor into her reactions and responses - yet.

In this case, he decides he’s going to have be direct. If she’s angry, then she’s angry, and he’ll have to wear it until he can talk her around.

‘Ma’am,’ he says, ‘I’d like to suggest that you employ a stylist,’ and he’s watching her carefully.

Her head flicks up and her eyes are wide. ‘Really?’ And he thinks perhaps she’s not upset at all. She sounds almost…excited at the prospect.

‘Yes. As Queen, it’s important that your wardrobe choices reflect how you wish to be viewed by not only those around you, but the public as well.’ He watches as a small smile spreads across her face, before she frowns a little.

‘Lehzen has always chosen my clothes, with Mama’s approval,’ she says thoughtfully, and Melbourne nods, waiting for the inevitable. ‘But I am Queen now,’ she says, her voice stronger, and he resists the urge to smile.

When he arrives the next morning, Emma’s surprised to see him. ‘Harriet Sutherland is due any minute,’ she says, eyeing her watch and him. ‘Why are you here?’

He lets out a small sigh. ‘Her majesty requested that I be present.’

Emma’s eyebrows rise so high he has to actively resist the urge to comment.

‘I’m only staying to officially meet Ms Sutherland – as I should – and then I’m leaving,’ he says firmly.

Emma’s lips twitch and he shoots her a look. ‘Does the Queen know that?’

‘Oh yes,’ he says firmly, and he ignores Emma’s pointed look.

When Harriet arrives minutes later, both he and Emma usher her into the Queen’s study, and Melbourne is pleased to see that the Queen takes a liking to Harriet almost instantly. She’s tall, stylish and confident; everything he suspects the Queen wishes she was. Harriet, unsurprisingly, is not fazed by the young Queen’s status for long, quickly assessing her most exciting project to date, before sitting her down and opening a folder with photos.

‘Ma’am,’ he interrupts before they can get too ensconced in discussions about colours and fabrics and shapes, ‘I’ll return this afternoon with your paperwork.’

And when she frowns a little, he can almost hear Emma’s unvoiced laugh. ‘You’re not staying?’ she asks, and he shakes his head.

‘This is very much not my area, ma’am,’ he says firmly. ‘But Lady Portman and Mrs Sutherland are more than capable.’

Her nod is very clearly reluctant, and he gives her a small smile before leaving.

The realisation that he would have stayed if she’d asked him to sits rather uncomfortably in his stomach.

 

***

 

He knows that he has absolutely made the right decision when she appears at the end of the hallway in a pale blue dress that’s covered in a long, simple pale blue jacket and heels, and he can’t look away.

He’s struck by how different she looks as she walks towards him, all legs and blue and beautiful long, long brown hair that’s been pulled back from her face and hanging curled down her back, hidden slightly under a fascinator. But more than that, she’s elegant. Dignified. A young Queen.

He feels the pride well in his chest. If outward appearances were anything to go by, she would succeed today.

‘What do you think, Lord M?’ she asks when she stops a few feet away from him, and he’s dully aware he’s been staring. He manages to process the vulnerability in her voice and in her eyes – her eyes were so blue today – and he gives her a soft smile.

‘Lovely, ma’am,’ he says, before nodding once. ‘An excellent choice.’ She smiles tentatively before looking down at her feet. He thinks perhaps she doesn’t wear heels often.

‘New shoes, ma’am?’ he asks, and she looks up at him guiltily.

‘I’ve been practicing,’ she admits. ‘Mama would never let me wear heels.’ Mama wouldn’t let me walk down stairs alone.

‘Ah,’ he says.

‘I feel like I can barely walk,’ she mutters, and his eyebrows rise a little at that.

‘It didn’t look that way to me, ma’am,’ he says. She gives him a disbelieving smile, and he is dully aware that his brain is quietly screaming at him, an incoherent mess of appropriateness and duty and staring and beauty. But he squashes it; she needs to hear reassurance now, and reassurance is what he will give.

‘I just hope I won’t fall over,’ she says worriedly.

‘I’m sure you won’t,’ he says, as he sees Harriet walk up behind them. ‘I don’t think Ms Sutherland would select shoes that she thought would present a problem.’

‘Certainly not,’ Harriet says, and Victoria turns. ‘The heels are quite wide, ma’am. The grass won’t be a problem. Just walk slowly and deliberately, as we’ve practiced.’

Victoria nods, and he can see she’s trying to feel convinced by their assurances. He can understand. She has so much yet to experience, his young Queen, and she has to do it herself, to learn what she’s capable of. To learn how to do the work that is her birthright, heels and all.

‘If you’re ready, ma’am,’ he says, and she nods.

‘Would you mind if I held your arm?’ she asks quietly as they begin to walk down the long hallway. He looks down at her, concerned, but holds his arm out straight away. She takes it gratefully, and he marvels at how small her hand is on his forearm. For all her elegance, she really is just tiny. She grips his arm tightly for a moment before relaxing. ‘Just until we reach the doors,’ she says, and he nods.

‘As long as you like, ma’am,’ he replies.

She’s still holding on to his arm when they reach the foyer, and he can see the question in Emma’s eyes.

‘Your first Royal Garden Party, ma’am,’ Emma says after a moment, her voice light and a smile on her face.

‘Yes,’ Victoria says, letting go of his arm to peer through the window to the people outside. She turns back to Melbourne, and he can see the nerves have returned in droves. ‘There are so many people.’

Not really, he wants to say, but that’s not helpful. For her, for this first real event, it might as well be thousands.

‘There are a few,’ he agrees. ‘But you won’t have to meet them all at once.’

‘I won’t have to meet them all,’ she almost asks, her voice a little panicked. ‘I thought it was just a selection.’

‘It is, ma’am,’ he assures her, but he can see it’s not working. The nerves are getting the better of her. He makes a mental note to teach her some breathing techniques. Tomorrow, preferably. She’d been so calm of late, so focused on learning her role – on being Queen mostly alone in the palace – he hadn’t thought she’d succumb to nerves quite this badly. He had misjudged, clearly.

‘Monarchs have been meeting their people for centuries, ma’am, and everyone out there is very excited and pleased to meet the new Queen. You have nothing to worry about,’ he says quietly.

She looks up at him, her eyes wide, and eventually nods.

‘This will be a very tame crowd, ma’am. Emma and I have made sure of it,’ he adds, and she nods again. He watches as she takes another breath.

‘I am ready,’ she says, and he gives her a small smile before nodding to the guard at the door.

He can’t help but smile as her chin tilts up slightly before she walks towards the door.

Chapter Text

When he arrives, Emma’s face is pensive, and she tells him Conroy has been in there for at least the last fifteen minutes. He sighs and nods in resignation; the Queen will need cheering up.

It varies, depending on who has visited, he’s learned. If it’s the Duchess, she will be upset, but relatively easy to cheer up if he’s patient. If it’s Conroy, she’ll be angry, but more at herself than anything, he’s realised. If it’s both, then it can take a lot longer.

He hates to see her upset. Seeing her bullied makes his blood boil.

‘This is not a game!’ he hears a voice shout and his feet propel him through the adjoining door to where he can see Sir John standing only a few feet from the Queen. Her eyes fly to his, and the anger – the rage – at the look on her face almost, almost overwhelms him; she’s defiant, but so, so small. Cowed. This must have been her childhood, his mind helpfully supplies, and he draws in a deep breath, desperately quashing the desire to tear Sir John limb from limb.

He thinks he’ll never forget the look in her eyes at that moment; it will haunt him forever.

‘Sir John,’ he says after a moment – a moment where he ascertains that the Queen is now standing at a safe enough distance from Sir John, and where he finally pushes down the rage that threatens to blind him – ‘might I remind you that despite any connection you may have, you are speaking to the Queen of England.’ He can hear the barely disguised fury in his own voice, how his voice becomes louder at the end, and he’s thankful at that moment that he’s also standing at a safe distance himself from Sir John; neither of them need his start as Private Secretary to the Queen to be his end. He watches as Sir John’s expression turns from anger to shock, and, he’s mildly satisfied to note, to some form of mild fear, before he bows slightly to Victoria and stalks out the other door.

Melbourne takes the few quick steps to where Victoria is standing, her shoulders slumped and her eyes closed. ‘Are you alright, ma’am?’ he asks, his voice as quiet and as soft as he can make it.

‘Yes,’ she says after a moment. ‘I am fine.’ She looks up at him, all wide eyes and unshed tears and all he wants to do in that moment is pull her into his arms and hold her, and the strength of the sensation shocks him a little. When did he begin to care that much?

This is the Queen. He cannot hug her, he tells himself, so he settles for giving her a small smile.

‘Of course you are,’ he says softly. ‘I apologise for intervening in your discussion with Sir John.’ She lets out a huff of a laugh at that point, and turns away to look at out the window. And, he notices, to rest against the wall.

‘Sir John is displeased with some of my choices,’ she informs him after a moment, her voice stronger.

Melbourne pulls a face behind her. ‘I don’t see why your choices concern him, ma’am,’ he says, careful to add a hint of confusion in his voice. She glances up at him, her smile almost rueful. ‘You are the Queen, ma’am, and he is wholly unrelated to you in any way.’

‘He is my mother’s Private Secretary,’ she explains, as if it meant anything. ‘And her closest friend.’

‘But not yours,’ he replies. ‘Your Majesty,’ he adds deliberately after a moment, and she turns to look at him, her smile a little more genuine this time.

‘No,’ she says, and he can see the strength return to her as she considers the implications of his words. ‘No, he’s not.’ The edges of her mouth curl up a little, and she glances down at her feet. ‘And that I think was what he was so angry about.’

Melbourne nods; he’s not surprised at all. But she’s smiling tentatively at him now, and he can’t help but give her a small smile back. ‘Shall we start on your letters for the morning, ma’am?’ he asks, and her smile widens as she nods.

 

***

 

His phone rings in his pocket one day when they’re talking – he’d obviously forgotten to put it on silent. He apologises before pulling it out to see who’s calling. It’s Peel – he flicks it to silent and makes a mental note to call him back. He’d just be leaving a message anyway.

‘What kind of phone do you have?’ she asks.

‘Emma said I needed an iPhone,’ he says resignedly, and she nods. ‘I’m still figuring out how to use it,’ he admits.

‘Could I get a phone?’ she asks, and he blinks. He realises he’d always assumed that she had one – it never occurred to him that she wouldn’t have a phone. She was, despite her title, a twenty-two-year-old woman in the twenty-first century. But he’s never seen her with one, and in hindsight, he reflects, he’s not surprised. He can’t imagine why the Duchess or Conroy would have seen the need for her to have one – she’d barely left Kensington from what he can tell, and never alone.

She most definitely should have a phone, he thinks. If for nothing else than the fact that she was a twenty-two-year-old woman in the twenty-first century. His mind whips through the pros and cons: the security issues and the ease of access to social media balanced against the need for her to be contactable and to know what she was talking about with the most basic of technology. The monarchy may be in some ways a relic of a bygone era, but he thinks perhaps it should be dragged into the twenty-first century, and she was just the monarch to do it. He’d talk to her Director of Security Liaison, Alexander Cockburn, but he couldn’t see why not.

‘I suppose so,’ he says, eventually. ‘If you wanted one.’

‘Really?’ she says, and her face brightens.

It takes him only two days to speak to Alex and organise her a shiny new iPhone, complete with secure email and access details. He’s amused by her excitement when she pulls it out of the box, but she stops after a moment. ‘I don’t really know how to use it,’ she admits quietly, looking up at him.

‘And I am not the person to be asking,’ he points out. ‘But I can probably work out at least how to turn it on.’

They spend a good fifteen minutes going through all the set-up prompts and typing in all the details he’d been given by the Director before they’re successful in setting it up, and then she’s staring at the home screen in wonder.

‘And this is about the time I bow out,’ he says. ‘Harriet will be here at three to go through some clothing options for your next event, and to help you play with your new toy,’ and she grins. ‘But first – you have a meeting with your Director of Security Liaison at one. He has some concerns about social media, given that this is a new field for you, ma’am,’ he says, and she nods, eyes wide.

She’s taking photos of a rather unamused Dash when a message appears later that evening.

Having fun?

She grins. His was the first number she’d put in – he’d left it on a scrap of paper inside the box. She just wasn’t sure if she was allowed to message him or not. Would he mind her messaging him at strange hours? And when he wasn’t technically at work? He might find it – find her – annoying. She’d decided not to risk it. She really didn’t know him all that well yet, despite having spent part of almost every day with him over the past month. She didn’t want to make him angry. Sir John would get so angry so quickly.

But now? Well, it would be impolite not to reply, she thinks.

Yes. Thank you for organising my phone, she replies. She stares at the screen for a few moments before the little bubble with the dots appears, and she feels the grin spread across her face – the thought that he’s looking at her message now, replying to her as she watches, thrills her.

My pleasure, comes the reply. Use your power for good appears moments later, and she grins before pressing a few buttons and biting her lip, waiting for his reply.

He laughs out loud when a picture of Dash appears on his screen a few moments later.

 

***

 

This is by far one of her favourite parts of the day, he knows – the letters. They’re carefully vetted, obviously – first by his Deputy and his assistant, then again by him, because she doesn’t need to see any of that, ever. There are far too many for her to read them all, anyway – her novelty has not yet worn off. There are so many sweet letters from little old ladies in small villages and hamlets all over the country telling her how lovely she looks on the television and wishing her the best, young children telling her they liked her dress or her tiara, foreign dignitaries wishing her all the best for her coronation.

He finds her sitting quietly one morning – he’d dropped the letters off before excusing himself for a meeting with his Peel, before returning an hour later. The look on her face is contemplative, he thinks, but there’s a hint of worry in her brow.

‘Penny for your thoughts, ma’am,’ he says, when she doesn’t stir at his entering. She blinks and looks up at him, her forehead still crinkled. She’s holding a letter in her hand. ‘Still drafting your responses?’ he asks, and she purses her lips.

‘They’re so kind,’ she says, and he looks at her, waiting. ‘They all tell me how wonderful it is that I’m Queen, and how I’m a role model for them and, for some of them, their daughters, and…’ she trails off. He waits.

Outside of public speaking, she rarely struggles to speak, to articulate her thoughts clearly and determinedly. But when she’s flustered or is struggling with an emotion she can’t deal with or even identify – and there are many of those, he thinks – she stumbles over her words. And the way she stops abruptly and looks away, very clearly collecting her thoughts, tells him she hasn’t been allowed to be anything less than perfect.

‘They expect so much from me, and they are right to do so. I don’t want to let them down,’ she finally says.

He’d wondered if she’d get to this, and when. She was a series of walking contradictions, his little Queen: vulnerable but blunt, petulant but intelligent, fragile yet so strong. He could see it in her face, occasionally – the fear – but he hadn’t been sure if it was fear of her own failure, or the impact of her failure on others. She’s compassionate, but occasionally her immaturity still surprises him.

But he’s proud of her; of her concern for her subjects. She needs to hold this – not let it weigh upon her like a millstone, but consider the impact of her actions. It’s a lot to ask, he knows, especially now. Too much, sometimes.

So he sits next to her on the couch. ‘You won’t, ma’am,’ he says.

‘You don’t know that,’ she interjects before he can finish.

‘You won’t,’ he repeats, ‘and when you do, they’ll only learn that no one is infallible. And then, when you rise above it all, they’ll learn that Queens learn from their mistakes. And then when you go out there again, they’ll learn that to be a Queen is to do your very best, despite all those who would tear you down.’

She stares at him, and he can see the worry still etched into her face, but it’s joined by something a little softer now. Hope, he thinks.

But she is right to be concerned, he knows. People are wary - she is young, and has yet to prove that she has the dignity and weight of authority and the wisdom to rule. But he can see that they want to like her, most of them - youth is accessible, understandable. It's this dissonance in her subjects that she lives every day, and it's a tightrope. One false move and she'll fall, and fall far.

He prays she never has to work too hard for forgiveness and redemption.

 

***

 

It’s one of the biggest events of the year behind her fast-approaching coronation, and she’s struggling. The annual dinner for the Diplomatic Corps is a white-tie event, an assembly of foreign diplomats and representatives, and it’s when he really begins to realise just how unprepared for her role she really is.

When he’d said that her education had been a little lacking in certain areas, he hadn’t realised just how much of an understatement that was.

He’s going through her schedule with her when it comes up, and he can see by her face that she’s worried about this one. He understands why – there will be over a thousand men and women there, all part of the diplomatic centre of Britain, all very highly qualified and highly educated people, and all much, much older and far more experienced than her. Whilst she’s slowly mastering the Garden Party – he’s so pleased at how much she’s learned and changed and grown – this is something else entirely. He reminds her that it’s months away, that she’ll be prepared for it all, that he’ll teach her who she should know, and that both he and Emma, and Wellington, will be there.

She seems to settle a little at that, and he thinks no more of it.

He brings her a list of the representatives a week later, with the most important names highlighted for her to memorise. He’d suggested they spend an hour or so with Emma making flashcards – her being part of the process would help her remember the ones she created – and she’d laughed at him before pulling out her new iPad (her latest toy in Harriet’s new quest to ensure she can at least keep up with fashion, Lord Melbourne.). Within a few minutes, she’d downloaded a flashcards app and was busy googling faces that corresponded with the highlighted names on his list – the people she really needed to know by sight.

But when she asks him why it’s obvious that the Israeli ambassador and the Iranian ambassador should not be stationed next to one another in the reception line, he stares at her for a few moments, his mouth open just a little, before blinking. He makes a mental note to request from the Baroness a list of exactly what she’d been taught by her private tutors for twenty-two years.

Then he makes a mental list of everything he needs to teach her in the next eight weeks just for this event alone based on a worst-case scenario, and his mind starts making lists upon lists and he lets out a breath.

She’s still staring at him, and he can see she’s starting to colour at his lack of response.

He says something quickly about a recent disagreement and that would be impolite to put the ambassadors in a situation that could potentially reignite those tensions, and she nods, but he knows she can still see his mind spinning and he forces his face to calm, and to look right at her.

‘Your majesty, how much in the way of recent political history did you study with the Baroness?’

He can see her falter a little, and he thinks he knows the answer already.

‘Not much,’ she says. ‘Our history lessons focussed mainly on European history.’ She pauses. ‘Although, my second-last tutor did start teaching me about some more recent matters – we talked a lot about the Cold War, and US-Russia-British relations, but then she left after only a few weeks.’ She looks up at him. ‘Sir John said she’d been offered another position at a university.’

‘Hmm,’ he replies, knowing exactly what had happened to that tutor, and he’s working to control his expression.

He wonders how anyone could be so irresponsible, so desperate for power, to leave her so underprepared for a job the world had known she would have almost from her infancy. And now that Sir John’s plans had fallen through – he’d failed – she was left floundering in that very unforgiving world. 

‘It would appear we have some work to do,’ he says, making his voice as light as possible. How he was going to teach her all of this in such a short space of time, he had no idea.

He knew one thing for sure – he was going to need some help.

 

***

 

He enlists the help of everyone he thinks will be of some use – Wellington, Emma, Harriet.

When he speaks to Wellington, he can hear the reluctance in the man’s voice. Wellington’s biggest fear was that Melbourne would turn her against him, against his party, and make her a partisan Queen, but here he is, offering Wellington more influence than ever. He hoped Wellington would see it for what it was – both an olive branch and a request for help.

‘What are you asking, Melbourne?’ he says, and Melbourne sighs.

‘She knows virtually nothing about modern politics outside of what she’s learnt in the last few months,’ he explains. ‘Conroy…’ and he trails off, knowing anything he says is unlikely to be positive, and is probably best left unsaid. ‘She’s going to look a fool at the Reception if something isn’t done.’

‘I agree on all fronts, but I’m not sure what you want from me outside of what I’m already doing.’

He sighs. ‘She respects you, Arthur. She needs you to teach her what I cannot.’

He hears Wellington chuckle humourlessly down the phone. ‘You were PM, Melbourne. What could I possibly teach her about the modern world that you can’t?’

‘The most recent events that I don’t have access to in the detail you do. She doesn’t need a history lesson; just enough that she doesn’t step on any toes and embarrass herself. Or you,’ he adds, reminding Wellington that her failure makes them all look stupid.

He can hear Wellington thinking. ‘Okay,’ he concedes, and he can hear the reluctance in the older man’s voice. ‘I’m not convinced she’ll listen to me as well as she listens to you, Melbourne.’

‘She can’t just hear it from me,’ he says. ‘She needs to learn to listen to more voices.’ And when it comes out of his mouth, so final like that, he’s reminded of the truth in the statement. And of how important it is that he says it.

Wellington chuckles. ‘I think we’re a way off from that yet,’ and Melbourne cringes. This is not the conversation he wants to be having.

‘I appreciate your assistance, Arthur,’ he says, and he means it.

‘You’re welcome, Melbourne, but I’m not really doing this for you.’

And Melbourne smiles. ‘Of that, I am fully aware.’

When he arrives the following week, he sees Wellington on the way out.

‘I was aware of the gaps in her understanding, but I didn’t realise just how bad it was,’ Wellington says to him quietly. Melbourne purses his lips and nods. ‘You’ve got your work cut out for you. But she’s smart, and eager to learn. How long have you got?’ he asks, and Melbourne looks at the date on his watch.

‘Twenty-one weeks and two days.’

‘And the Coronation?’

‘Three weeks after that.’

Wellington lets out a chuckle and pats him on the shoulder. ‘See you next week.’

Chapter Text

It’s late and he’s tired when he sees John Conroy appear from the shadows and stand in his way. He’s been waiting for this; he knows Conroy is still lurking around the palace, and he knows why. He just has to be patient. He figures it probably hasn’t really occurred to her yet that Conroy doesn’t actually need to be here at all. And despite it all, he suspects she loves her mother, and probably struggles to think of them as separate entities. He wonders briefly what the Duchess would do if Conroy was given his marching orders; he’s not convinced the Duchess would choose her daughter, and he hates the idea of Victoria being all alone in the palace.

He is painfully aware of why can’t stand the idea that a mother would choose her lover over her child.

And it’s because of that – because he cannot trust himself here – he’s not going to get involved.

‘Sir John,’ he says by way of greeting. ‘Have you been waiting for me?’ he asks flippantly.

‘There is some concern about the Queen’s published engagement schedule,’ Sir John replies, and Melbourne is reminded of a snake.

‘Yes, I suppose it is concerning that the Queen should finally be allowed to plan her own life,’ Melbourne replies, not trying to hide the contempt in his voice.

‘Some would suggest you’re turning her into a puppet for your party’s own political benefit.’

‘As someone who can’t see past their own self-interest, I imagine that it does look very much like that to you, Sir John. But I hold myself to a higher standard.’ He sees Sir John almost snarl, and he finds it unsurprisingly satisfying to know that he’s gotten under his skin. ‘There are those who would wish the Queen to fail. To what end, I cannot possibly fathom, but they do.’ He stops, knowing there is little point in going on; his point has been made.

Sir John’s chin rises infinitesimally, and Melbourne almost smirks. ‘Some consider the Queen to be too young to rule independently. Too inexperienced.’

He frowns slightly and nods once. ‘She is young, and quite inexperienced, yes. But I find the Queen no longer needs someone to tell her what to do. When given the chance, I think the Queen makes some of the wisest decisions I’ve seen in someone of her age.’ He ignores Sir John’s almost-huff of derision and continues. ‘I find the Queen refreshing. Her youth and enthusiasm is exactly what is needed to revitalise the monarchy. She is a remarkable young woman, and I consider it the greatest privilege of my career to serve her.’

‘Yes,’ Sir John sneers. ‘A very short, and yet very colourful career. Or is that your personal life?’

His face hardens slightly. There was nothing that Sir John could say to him that he hasn’t heard or read before, and Sir John was so very low on the list of people whose opinions mattered. But it wouldn’t help the Queen to continue this conversation, and he didn’t particularly want to either.

‘Good day, Sir John,’ he says, stepping past the taller man.

Sir John’s words followed him as he walked down the hall. His life had been colourful, yes, especially for someone of his position. But despite all that, despite all his failures – all the important things he’d ruined, all the responsibilities he’d failed to uphold – he somehow has been given a second chance in her. Another reason to live. Something to devote his life to.

And devote he would.

He just didn’t understand how Sir John couldn’t see the beautiful young woman underneath the title - her fire, her passion for life, her intense desire to do well, to please her people. Her spirit that had resisted all those years under Sir John’s heavy thumb.

She reminds him that perhaps there are things worth fighting for. Things he can believe in again. People he can believe in. And it’s been so, so long since he’s believed in anything at all.

 

***

 

She loves her coffee, his little Queen, and he’s mildly surprised by that.

When he arrives one morning, coffee from his now-favourite little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop at the back of Hyde Park in hand, he can see her eyeing it, but he doesn’t get an opportunity to say anything before they’re interrupted by Emma, so he leaves it.

Later that day, when they’re halfway through a lesson on Singapore, he feels the need for coffee – there’s only so much British colonialism he can stand in one day, sans much caffeine. He stands and stretches a little. ‘Coffee, ma’am?’ he asks, and her eyes widen.

‘Yes, please,’ she practically begs, and his mouth twists in surprise. He thinks she’d love the little shop – it’s all wood and iron and potted plants and large, ornate gold mirrors, and at forty-two, he is an outlier in the average age of the customers. For the briefest of moments, he toys with shoving a hat and sunglasses on her and just ducking up the road, but he dismisses the idea quickly: Alex would kill him, and then Palace Security would start on him. So he wanders around to Emma’s desk – she’s all too happy dispatch a kitchenhand – and within twenty minutes, she’s tentatively sipping on a latte.

And her eyes go wide, and she gasps. ‘This is so good,’ she says in wonder, and he smirks at her.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘One of the few benefits of British colonialism – Australian baristas,’ he announces. But he frowns after a moment. ‘There is a full coffee machine in the kitchens, ma’am.’

‘Yes, but it’s inefficient to run the machine for just one coffee,’ she says. ‘So I just usually have instant.’ And somehow instant coffee doesn’t really match with royalty in his head, but he doesn’t say anything.

The next morning when he arrives with two coffees in a tray and a smirk on his lips, she looks at him like he’s the sun and he thinks vaguely that there isn’t much he wouldn’t do to see that look on her face again.

 

***

 

‘So, you’ve made her Mistress of the Robes?’

Despite years of training, Victoria still feels the urge to roll her eyes. It had been a rather pleasant morning, just her, Harriet and her mother discussing her Coronation robes. Her mother had managed to keep her disdain and opinions to a minimum, and Victoria was grateful. ‘Yes, Mama, Harriet is my stylist.’

Now that they're alone, her mother makes no effort to hide her displeasure. ‘Sir John is worried that your Lord Melbourne is filling your household with his friends.’

‘Nonsense, Mama. Harriet is more than qualified for the role – she’s a Duchess, and she’s a designer in her own right. She had a show only a few months ago.’ She stands to put away the folder Harriet had left with the swatches of fabric; she would come back to that after a little while when Emma was back and show her. She grinned to herself: perhaps she would take the folder into Lord M and ask his opinion on her fabric choices. She could already see the look on his face in her mind.

‘Yes, your clothing certainly has changed,’ her mother says, and Victoria can hear the disapproval in her mother’s voice as she eyes the jeans and cardigan her daughter was currently wearing. Her mother’s opinion on denim had been made clear many times; it was the working man’s clothing, and thus far beneath her daughter who would be Queen. ‘But your dress for the Garden party last week was very nice, Drina. Very elegant.’

‘Thank you. Harriet chose that one,’ she adds.

And the Duchess sighs dramatically. ‘All these beautiful new clothes for you and none for your Mama.’

‘Mama,’ she starts, but she’s interrupted. She doesn’t want to have this conversation again.

‘I sit here in these worn-out clothes, these rags, as your mother. It is embarrassing, Drina!’

‘Mama, I am not responsible for how you spend your money.’

‘I have no money to spend!’ her mother cries.

‘And whose fault is that?’ Victoria retorts. Sir John, she wants to cry, but the Duchess is already storming from the room.

  

***

 

There are the days she feels cowed; frustrated and angry under the weight of the state and her own head. Gentle encouragement - and a walk in the garden - is his method. (One day, on a whim, he picks her a flower – a daisy. He spots it in her hair ten minutes later.)

She has to move, his little Queen. She cannot stay still. She’s constantly fidgeting, moving around. He quickly learned to break up their meetings into no more than hour-long chunks without some kind of break – not only because a person can only focus for so long, and he’s only human too – but also because eventually her fidgeting begins to drive him crazy. She gets antsy if she’s cooped up for too long.

When there’s a particularly difficult or complex issue to think or talk through – and there have been so many of those recently – he takes her for a walk in the gardens. The fresh air and the change in scenery helps to clear her mind, and his. It doesn’t take long for their conversations to turn from matters of state to other, more personal topics, but he doesn’t mind. She’s sharp, and her edges need blunting, and he’s happy to be the rock she shaves those edges against. Rather him than someone who doesn’t understand; someone who would hurt her in return.

She runs in the morning or the evening most days, he knows – and hadn’t that been a small disaster at the beginning.

No one had cared at Kensington; no one had really known who she was, and security had been so, so tight that no one was getting close even if they had wanted to. She’d had more than enough manicured grass and well-tended paths to run on – thanks to Sir John’s emphasis on his young charge’s safety – and she’d taken advantage of the small moments of freedom where she could just get out. He understood why.

It wasn’t until she’d arrived at the palace and eight days and fifteen hours into her reign she’d almost – almost – thrown a tantrum when she was told that she couldn’t run outside at moment’s notice as security needed at least an hour’s notice and would she mind running tomorrow at all?

He’d found her later that evening staring out a window, pressed against the wall and a cabinet, still in her running gear. She had looked so small and so young and so, so tired.

‘I’ve just moved from one cage to another, haven’t I?’ she asks, her voice thin and quiet, when he comes to stand next to her.

He sighs. Yes, he wants to say, but what a beautiful cage it is. He knows that it not what she needs to hear, and it’s not entirely true anyway. A cage it may be, but at least now she is the Queen of her cage. He wants to talk about privileges and responsibilities, but he knows she knows – if not fully understands – all that.

She’s just overwhelmed.

‘What happened, ma’am?’ he asks instead.

‘I wanted to go for a run.’ She lets out a small, humourless laugh.

‘Ah,’ he says, nodding once before frowning. ‘Outside the Palace?’ he clarifies, and she nods. She’d obviously seen the paths and the trees – the parks around the palace were beautiful, and he can more than see the attraction for her. ‘I assume Palace security weren’t in love with that idea, ma’am,’ he says more than asks.

‘No.’ She purses her lips, her face resigned. ‘It’s my fault. I should have considered the idea more carefully,’ she says, her voice slightly stronger but still miserable, and he’s impressed she’s owning her responsibility already.

The Director of Security was never going to allow her to run through St James’s Park, or Green Park, even with a horde of security running with her – it was too open, her run would be eventually become too predictable, and she’d be an easy target for anyone with time and patience. They’d have to close down the whole park, and he wasn’t interested in creating more PR issues than he already had to deal with. Besides, he suspected she wouldn’t let them do it anyway when she eventually realised what she was asking. She’d already ordered that portion of the gardens at Kensington reopened to the public after they’d been closed twenty-two years ago when a young princess had moved in.

His brain solves the problem instantly – convert a room to a gym with a treadmill – but the less rational side of him tells him that the purpose of her running isn’t entirely to stay fit. People in cages crave freedom.

‘You do have the Palace gardens here, ma’am,’ he says slowly. ‘They’re quite extensive.’

She nods. ‘They’re dark at night. And I don’t know the paths.’

He nods. ‘Ah.’ But this is not the problem, really.

‘Without our cages we cannot appreciate freedom,’ he says, and she glances up at him. ‘The cage of a Queen is a gilded cage, but a very strict one. And those who create the cage don’t necessarily realise that they do, or only perhaps see the gold.’ He pauses. ‘I suppose it makes the moments of your freedom so much more precious, ma’am.’

The next morning Victoria smiles when she arrives at her study to find two men standing at the door, talking with Emma. ‘Your majesty, this is the Head Gardener of the Buckingham Palace Gardens, and the Deputy Head Gardener. They’re here to take us on a short tour of the gardens, and have plotted out some two and four-kilometre running routes for you.’

 

***

 

It’s getting closer to the Diplomatic Corps Reception and he thinks that perhaps the task he’s undertaken is just too big. She’s really very bright – her intelligence is not in question – but he’s asking a lot of her. Perhaps too much. After one particularly disastrous session where he’d all but given up within the hour and moved on, he’d gone back to his desk and revised the list of what she needed to know down to its absolutely most basic form. He’d have to confer with Wellington closer to the time for more specific talking points, he knew, but after several hours, he’d cut everything down to the basics and collapsed into bed at some ridiculous hour in the morning – a practice he was becoming more and more familiar with.

He’s done up notes for her, of course, but despite her best efforts, he knows, there’s just so much to learn, and her attention span just isn’t that great, and there is such a thing as information overload. She can’t just read it though; she has to talk it all through, ask questions. She’s just naïve enough initially to think she can solve some of these great world problems herself in a simple sentence, and he has to be careful not to laugh at her too often – it’s really quite sweet, he thinks, her desire to fix it all, her compassion for those who have suffered – and there are also times when he agrees completely. Now he’s resorting to using her stationary as teaching tools, and drawing maps and diagrams on pieces of paper, and it’s hard, hard work.

But despite it all, the moments where she remembers something she’d forgotten so often, or when she finally joins all the dots on a particularly difficult issue, or when she finally just understands, are the moments that give him life. The way her eyes widen and she laughs and claps occasionally – there were even high-fives when she was really pleased – make it all worth it.

He’s aware he’s a walking, talking cliché, but he doesn’t care at all.

But she’s tired after weeks of this, and so is he, and it’s getting harder and harder to get through it all. So today he’s decided she’s going to have a break, and work only on her letters and other less heavy tasks. He’s included a few more than usual, so that her time is filled up a little more, but he thinks she won’t notice. There are some really lovely letters in this bunch; some very cute drawings from some of her younger fans that he knows she’ll love.

So he arrives at her study, tray with two coffees in hand, to find her lifting a painting off one of the far walls of her office, and he’s confused.

‘Tired of Wallerstein, ma’am?’ he asks, and she turns.

‘Oh, no,’ she says, and he raises his eyebrows. ‘Just making room,’ she says, grabbing her coffee from him with a quiet thanks before walking back to a desk in the middle of the room where he can see a projector. He watches as she turns it on, and walks back around to her laptop. After a few seconds, her background appears – a picture of Dash on what he recognises is probably her bed, no less – and she grins at him triumphantly.

‘What’s this all for?’ he asks.

‘Well, I was going to ask Emma to buy a large map of the world, so I could follow along and so you didn’t have to keep drawing them – which is ridiculous, really – why don’t I have a map of the world? But then I realised that maps keep changing, especially after World War Two. They barely stay the same for more than a few years. I was talking to Harriet, and she has one of these set up at her office, where she watches the runways and shows, and I realised, with a little help from the internet, that I could just do this.’ And with a flourish, she clicks something on her computer and a map of the world in 1946 appears on the wall. Her eyes are bright and she’s got this satisfied little smirk on her face. ‘What do you think, Lord M?’ she asks, and he can’t help but chuckle.

He thinks she’s brilliant, his little Queen.

Chapter Text

He should have seen it coming; it had been too quiet for too long. She’d managed to fly mostly under the radar, the press seemingly happy with the official photos and reports from the mostly private functions she was holding. The Instagram and Twitter accounts had never been so active, and he was happy for as much good publicity as they could get.

She wouldn’t do much too publically just yet; she hadn’t been officially crowned, and it wasn’t really appropriate for her to be out and about acting like a Queen when the formalities were yet to be held. She was officially Queen, and had been for months – ever since her Uncle’s death, technically – but the public likes its traditions and ceremonies and he’s not about to do anything different. She’s different enough for most already. 

But it all comes crashing down one morning when the papers arrive.

He sees the headline and frowns, reading on.

She’s not going to be happy. He’d be furious if he thought it was worth it. He knows who is behind it; it didn’t take him more than about a second to work that one out. He wonders if she’ll figure it out too. He’s not sure what he’d prefer.

The picture is clearly pre-Harriet, easily six months old; she’s just stepped out of her car, wearing a dress that looks like a sack, her hair in a braid, and she looks about twelve. He didn’t expect anything less from The Sun, really. But the Daily Mail he thought was perhaps a little less deliberately obnoxious.

WHERE IS OUR QUEEN?

We have a new queen – we’re told. Apart from the select few who have met Queen Victoria, our new sovereign has been hiding in her palace, too afraid to meet her public except at the few private functions and traditional summer Garden Parties, held in the gardens at Buckingham Palace…

There has been some speculation that the Queen is perhaps not entirely fit for royal duties. Sources inside the palace speculate about her mental health…

At twenty-two, one would expect a monarch to have at least completed some university-level education, but speculation is rife that the Queen is unable to complete higher studies and that her private tutors found her deficient in several areas…

‘Lord M, have you seen the paper?’ she cries as he walks into her study.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Full of nonsense, as usual,’ he says dismissively, but his nonchalance only seems to make her angrier.

‘What are they talking about? I’m right here, in the middle of London!’ she cries, slamming the paper down on her desk. ‘How can they say this – any of this – about me? They don’t even know me!’

‘Of course not, ma’am,’ he says patiently. ‘That’s why they print it. You are still a novelty, ma’am, and will be for quite some time yet.’

‘They’re saying I’m afraid to meet the public,’ she says, a little more quietly, her brow furrowed and she looks so confused and angry and sad. He wonders that there’s not more accusation in her voice; he’s the one who recommended – along with Wellington and the Cabinet Secretary – that she not participate in too many official functions until after her coronation. It was their decisions that have led, in part, to this.

‘Are you?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘Well, yes, a little…but I’m not hiding!’

‘No, ma’am, you’re not.’

‘And they say that there’s something wrong with me! That I’m too stupid to go to University,’ and her voice trails off at the end. He levels his gaze at her, determined that she should understand this.

‘Ma’am, the papers will print whatever they think will sell, with very little – if any – evidence to substantiate their wild speculations. I think we both know that you are anything but stupid.’ She gives a small sigh, her lips pursed, and he can tell she’s listening. ‘There’s not much we can do about this now, although, with your permission, ma’am, I’d like to lodge a formal protest with the editor.’

‘Yes, of course, if you think it would help,’ she replies, still troubled. He knows he can’t solve this now; she’ll have to work her way through all of this on her own for herself. He can advise, guide, instruct and suggest, but she has to learn to deal with the rubbish in her own way. And there’ll be a lot of it, he knows. She will never escape it.

‘Give it time, ma’am. As you said, they don’t know you yet. In time, they’ll see what I see: an elegant, dignified, intelligent, compassionate young Queen who loves and desires to serve her people.’

Her face relaxes a little at that into something closer a smile, and he’s satisfied for now.

It’s two days later and at the end of a conversation about the history of Jordan when she asks.

‘Could I go to university?’

He raises his eyebrows. He hadn’t realised she was still thinking about this.

‘Technically, yes,’ he replies honestly. ‘There’s nothing stopping you, ma’am.’

‘So if I wanted to study at Oxford or Cambridge, I could?’

He turns to look at her. ‘Yes, if you wanted.’ He thinks she’d likely be the first reigning monarch in History to study at University, but he figures she’s going to be the first at a lot of things, so perhaps this wouldn’t matter too much. She’d probably have to study part-time in order to manage her duties as Queen with her study, but he thinks it’s possible. Whether she’d get in to Oxford or Cambridge is another question entirely…

She lets out a thoughtful noise, and he feels a small headache threaten in the back of his head.

Well, at least the preparations for the Diplomatic Corps dinner hadn’t completely killed off her desire to learn, he thinks. But he’s not sure how much more he can take at the moment, let alone her.

‘Whilst I’m all for higher education and learning, ma’am, do you think perhaps we could just get through the next few months first?’ he asks, and she grins at him.

‘Of course, Lord M.’

 

***

 

She’s surprised to see him earlier than usual one morning – surprised, and pleased. She thinks she’s finally managed to memorise all the names and faces and titles in her flashcards, and is keen to show him.

‘Good morning,’ she says, smiling up at him, and she’s pleasantly surprised when he smiles widely back down at her in greeting. ‘You’re cheery this morning,’ she comments as she grabs her coffee from the tray in his hand.

‘To business that we love we rise betimes and go to ’t with delight,’ he announces, and she blinks. ‘Shakespeare, ma’am,’ he says after a moment. ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’

She pulls a face. Shakespeare had not been her favourite, and yet her tutors had insisted that she study each of the tragedies, one by one. She’d grown to hate him, the Bard, the creator of so much of the language she spoke. She felt vaguely guilty, but she just couldn’t bring herself to enjoy it. It had just been so tedious.

‘What’s that face?’ he asks, and she can hear the shock in his voice. Of course her Lord M loves Shakespeare. She looks at him guiltily, eventually owning up.

‘I did not enjoy studying Shakespeare,’ she half-admits, half-grumbles.

And the look of surprise and almost scandal on his face would make her laugh, except that she feels the equal pull of embarrassment. She should love Shakespeare. She’s the Queen of England - she cannot dislike the works of England’s most iconic playwright and poet. And yet…

‘Well,’ he says, when he finally finds his voice. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ She hides behind her coffee, watching him process this new information, waiting for his next reaction. He tilts his head to the side slightly. ‘Can I ask what you found disagreeable, ma’am?’

She’s a little shamefaced, she finds, when she answers. She thinks briefly that perhaps this is why they think she’s unintelligent; what intelligent person dislikes Shakespeare? ‘I found them…boring. Hours upon hours of reading, the language was so complicated…’ she says. She can’t really articulate it; the language had been so difficult to wade through that by the time she’d figured out a key line or phrase, she’d lost the thread of the story. And in a play like Hamlet, that was suicide.

‘Reading?’ he repeats, and she frowns.

‘Yes,’ she answers, not quite sure what he means.

‘Did you never see the plays performed?’ he asks slowly, and her eyes widen slightly.

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t go to the theatre,’ she explains, and his face softens slightly.

‘Well, that, ma’am, would explain it,’ he says. ‘Shakespeare was never meant to be read. His plays were meant to be performed – on a stage, with actors and sets and crowds of people milling about,’ he explains, waving his hands around a little.

‘Oh,’ she says, and she feels stupid. They’re plays. Of course they’re meant to be performed. But leaving Kensington had been difficult enough; going to a full theatre was out of the question. Mama would never have taken her to a theatre full of people where she could get sick or hurt. Besides, it had probably been too expensive.

She looks as his eyes narrow slightly, a shadow of something passing across his face before disappearing again behind a smirk.

‘But the theatre can come to you, ma’am,’ he says, a teasing note to his voice. ‘Or film, at least. Leave it with me,’ he says, and she nods eventually. She wasn’t sure how Shakespeare could be enjoyed quite as much as he made it sound like it could be, but she was curious, and she trusted him in everything else – she would also trust him in this. 

Late the next afternoon she receives a message; would she mind if he called in quickly?

Of course not, she replies, frowning slightly at the question with lack of explanation that was rather unlike him.

When he appears half an hour later, he has a bag with him and that familiar smirk that she loves.

‘I have a present for you,’ he says, his voice low and teasing, and she laughs.

‘Ooh! What is it?’ she asks, and he chuckles at her.

‘That defeats the purpose of gift-giving, ma’am,’ he says, and she throws him a look. ‘Hold out your hands,’ he says playfully, and she’s a little confused, but she does as she’s told. She sees something flicker across his face at her hesitancy; did she do something wrong?

A moment later he’s pulled out a bag of chocolates from Melt, a box of macarons from La Duree, a bag of caramel popcorn, and some crisps, and he’s somehow piled them all up on her hands, and goodness, he knows her well.

‘Wow,’ she says. ‘What’s all this for?’

‘Well ma’am,’ he said, ‘you can’t watch a movie without snacks,’ he says, pulling out a DVD from the bag and holding it up for her to see. She lets out a laugh as she reads the front cover.

‘It is time to begin a real Shakespearean education, ma’am,’ he says, ‘and you have to start with Mr Branagh.’ He tilts his head to the side slightly. ‘Your Uncle did knight him for services to the arts, particularly Shakespeare.’

Much Ado About Nothing,’ she reads out loud as she puts his ‘snacks’ on her desk and picks up the DVD. ‘I’ve not read that one.’ The cover looks decidedly happy – too happy for Shakespeare, she thinks.

‘It’s one of his comedies,’ he explains. ‘I thought it best perhaps to start with something light.’

Her heart is full as she stares down at the cover of the DVD. He’s so good to her, her Lord M. ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘I think,’ she adds, narrowing her eyes a little. She’s still not entirely sold on the Shakespeare-could-be-interesting idea, but she’s willing to give it a go.

She smiles back at her, his soft, sweet, knowing little smile. ‘Don’t thank me yet – Hamlet is four hours long,’ he smirks and her eyes widen. Four hours. But then he’s turning and heading for the door. ‘Enjoy Beatrice and Benedick,’ he says, and he’s leaving and she’s so confused.

‘What? No!’ she says, and he stops, turning to look at her. ‘You’re not staying?’ she asks, frowning.

‘Oh, no, ma’am. I have plenty of work to do,’ he says, not quite meeting her eye, and she shakes her head.

‘But you can’t leave,’ she says, and she can almost hear the whine in her voice. She stops; Queens don’t whine. ‘Who will explain the parts I don’t understand?’ she says, her voice firmer.

His eyebrows rise slightly and he looks amused. ‘You? Not understand?’ he asks, and she can feel her grasp slipping.

‘I’ve never read this one,’ she argues again. ‘I would appreciate your assistance.’ The look on his face tells her he isn’t buying it for a moment. ‘And your company,’ she adds, but he’s still not completely sold. ‘And you always explain these things so well,’ she adds carefully, and she knows she’s won after just a few moments; his mouth quirks slightly and his eyes narrow. She’s not stupid; she’s discovered which buttons to push, and in what order.

‘If you wish, ma’am,’ he says, his voice a long-suffering sigh, and she resists the urge to throw the bag of popcorn she’s still holding at him. She smirks triumphantly anyway.

He’s not fooled; she’s smart, his little Queen, and he knows she likes to play. But she’s lonely, too, he thinks, and she hasn’t quite found the right people to completely fill that hole just yet. The Duchess of Sutherland is a great friend now, he knows, but he can’t quite see her enjoying a twenty-odd-year-old Shakespeare adaptation, and Emma has children.

He tells himself he is the best person for this job just now. Someone else will take his place one day, but until that day, he’ll enjoy these moments with his little Queen.

When he walks through his front door much later that night, he’s still smiling. She’d laughed at most of the jokes, thrown a cushion at the wall-come-projector screen at Claudio’s rejection of Hero, and smiled sweetly at the ending.

He hadn’t explained a word.

And he realises later when he’s nursing a whiskey in his study and ruminating on the evening – the fact that he’d spent a good part of the night watching her laugh, her wide-eyed wonder, her frustration, and decidedly not the film – that perhaps it’s not entirely the business that he loves and goes to with delight.

 

***

 

Emma notices the little things.

She notices the way that William seems to love his work again, enough to devote countless hours to it when he’d been slightly more than a lifeless doll in a chair in the House of Lords only months earlier. 

He’s constantly in her study, and whilst he had initially resisted quite forcefully, it hadn’t taken long for the Queen to convince him to have dinner with her in her dining rooms one night when it had been somewhat of a hectic day of engagements and paperwork, and they hadn’t finished whatever it was they were doing.

She notices that at some point during the long hours of his patient tutelage each day, they will end up in the gardens outside, walking around as he quizzes her on something or other, or as they talk. She thinks that perhaps the political history of most countries isn’t quite as amusing as their quiet –or not so quiet, occasionally – laughter would often indicate.

She notices that he brings her coffee of a morning – every morning – and she rarely eats lunch – and often dinner – without him now.

She notices the complete lack of any sense of personal space they seem to have for each other. William has been closed off for so long that she has to devote some time to memories and photographs which only confirm her suspicions; beneath his closed, very British exterior, William loves through touch. But he’s a traditionalist when it comes to the Queen, so he does the next best thing.

The Queen, she notices, is the same; everyone else is at arm’s length, which is perhaps as it should be, at least in public. But she has a smile and laugh reserved almost only for him; for when he speaks quietly into her ear to encourage her at a function, or to make her smile when she’s tired but has to keep going.

She notices that he smiles again, and even laughs.

She notices that he seems to be the only one who can make her smile when she’s sad or angry; that he’s the only who can calm her when she flies into a rage, reason with her when she’s querulous and irrational. She notices that absolutely all the staff know this as well.

She notices John Conroy tell the Duchess quietly one evening that her daughter seems almost besotted.

She agrees.

She thinks the Queen is not the only one.

Chapter Text

She’s off in her own little world when she enters the library, so when she turns to see her Mama there with Sir John, she’s caught off guard.

‘Drina,’ her mother says in that little breathless tone that tells Victoria everything she needs to know about the forthcoming conversation. ‘How fortunate. Sir John and I wanted to speak to you.’

‘Did you?’

‘Your upcoming coronation is the perfect time to consider your mother’s new role. I think the people would appreciate it if the Duchess were given a title that reflects her position. 'The Queen Mother' seems fitting,’ Sir John states, as if the conversation was already over, and she hates that he can do this, that he thinks he owns her still.

‘But your current title belonged to poor dear Papa,’ she starts, turning to her mother and frowning, before Sir John interrupts.

‘Yes, and now that you are Queen, the Duchess should be viewed through that lens. It would reflect beautifully on you both; the relationship between the Queen and the Queen Mother would be something to be proud of,’ he declares, and Victoria almost laughs at him. He has overplayed his hand this time, she thinks not a little triumphantly, and she almost feels the laughter bubble up inside of her. Does he really think her that childish that she cannot remember?

‘I see no reason to change your title,’ she replies, looking straight at her mother and pleased at how aloof she sounds, before turning and leaving the library before she can see the hurt on her mother’s face.

  

***

 

She was resilient, his little Queen. She didn't really know it yet, but she was.

It’s late one evening when the headlines and the gossip and the arguments and the study and the pressure of the previous months catches up with her and she tucks herself into a ball on the chair she’s spent most of the morning in.

‘They don’t think I can do it, do they?’ she asks quietly.

‘Who, ma’am?’

‘Everyone. They think that because I am young I am incapable of being Queen. They’re waiting with their lenses and their lip-readers and their disapproving stares for me to fall on my face in the mud,’ she spits, before quieting again.

She feels rather than sees him crouch down next to her. ‘And I know you will prove them wrong,’ he says quietly. She turns to look at him; his face is soft, but serious. ‘It is your youth, your enthusiasm and passion that sets you apart from the rest and that proves that you were born to wear the crown. You have a natural dignity and compassion that cannot be taught. That, ma’am, is what will make you a great Queen.’

‘Do you think I can do it?’ she asks in a small, quiet voice and he knows that's not what she's asking. Of course she can do it. She has no choice, and she knows it. She wants reassurance, for him to remind her that she can. That is his role for now, until she no longer has to ask; a role he revels in.

He's alive again. She has given him purpose again, his little Queen, and he will see her succeed because he knows without doubt that she can. That she absolutely deserves to.

‘Have I ever given you reason to think otherwise, ma'am?’ he says, the corners of his mouth turned up in a tiny smile. She smiles tremulously back at him, and she doesn't need to answer. ‘You can do anything, ma'am,’ he says with such affection in his voice that her eyes widen slightly and she bites her bottom lip before looking away.

‘You have so much confidence in me,’ she whispers after a moment, looking back at him. And the look on her face reminds him that he absolutely has to stop himself from mentally cursing Sir John so much, otherwise the next time he sees him he'll punch him. No, the best revenge on Sir John is for her to be a great Queen without him. Every success, every achievement without Sir John’s help is the sweetest, most perfect revenge. And he will delight in every moment of it with her.

‘Yes, ma’am. And I believe it is entirely deserved.’ And he feels something swell within him at her gaze, something familiar but thought long-dead, and the shock of it forces him to look away before standing. ‘I should return to my office, ma’am,’ he says, glancing down at her. ‘There is still much to do.’

‘Already?’ she asks, and he nods.

‘It’s after two o’clock, ma’am,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘I’ve been here for most of the day.’ His brain reminds him that this is not at all unusual, and he mentally kicks himself.

‘Oh,’ she says, and that familiar feeling returns for just a moment, and his mind is screaming at him to get out.

‘I will see you tomorrow, ma’am,’ he says, giving her a small smile before heading out the door.

When he’s lying in bed early the next morning and all he can see is her soft smile and wide eyes, he tells himself he’s just a little infatuated with this beautiful, fiery young woman he spends a good chunk of his days with.

Infatuations pass in time.

 

***

 

With this new revelation comes an almost complete inability to judge his own emotions, and he hates it. He hates himself for his soft heart, for his inability to say no to the fire in a set of young, blue eyes.

‘It’s been so long since I’ve danced,’ she says wistfully as she enters the ballroom, and he’s glad he’s organised this in the middle of it all. She won’t need to dance at the Reception – just the ball – but she’s spent so much time working towards the former in the past few weeks that he can see she needs a break. The lessons will give her something small to look forward to, just once a week. And, really, it’s not all that long till her Coronation anyway.

When Wellington had mentioned some kind of celebration before the ceremony, she’d directed that look that he knew all too well right at him. ‘Can we have a ball?’ she’d asked, and he’d resisted the urge to glance at Wellington. There hadn’t been a Coronation Ball in a hundred years; they just weren’t done anymore, probably because they hadn’t had a monarch under the age of fifty in that hundred years. But he’d simply raised his eyebrows thoughtfully, before deliberately looking at Wellington, who had shrugged, clearly not opposed to the idea.

‘Just a small one,’ she’d said, and he’d smiled.

‘That guest list would be rather long, I think, ma’am,’ he’d said, and she’d frowned.

‘It would be quite expensive,’ she’d agreed, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself looking over at Wellington who looked just as surprised as he felt, but eventually shrugged and nodded.

‘Well, ma’am, I’m hoping you’ll just have the one coronation, so perhaps a little extravagance is acceptable,’ he says, and her response is a combination of derision and hope, and just a little excitement.

Thus, there is to be a ball and, therefore, dancing lessons.

He thinks she won’t feel the need to go for a walk in the gardens on these days, and his heart is torn – despite the mountains of work that required his attention, he hadn’t realised just how much he enjoyed that time. Not that he needed to dwell on it; perhaps it was good that he wasn’t spending quite so much time with her. Alone.

‘Not as long as me. I don’t remember the last time I danced,’ he lies. Memories of a white dress and a tuxedo and soft violin come flooding back, and he blinks.

‘I suppose it’s not something people do much anymore,’ she says, and his eyebrows rise at that.

‘I would imagine that the percentage of people in England who can successfully waltz is quite low, ma’am, and even lower for those younger than fifty.’ She looks at him, and he remembers that her childhood didn’t allow for much interaction with the real world. ‘Some of the more exclusive schools still teach some ballroom dancing,’ he adds quickly. ‘But it’s not generally a skill that people feel is needed anymore.’

‘It’s a pity,’ she says. ‘It’s so relaxing,’ she says, and his heart tells him she would look beautiful dancing a waltz.

‘Hmm,’ he mumbles, before looking around. ‘Your tutor appears to be late,’ he says, frowning and looking at his watch. His phone rings and it’s Emma. 

‘Mr Christoff is running late. There is traffic,’ he tells an expectant Victoria a few seconds later as she’s pulling on her heels, and she nods.

‘Well, you’ll just have to practice with me until he gets here,’ she declares, and he can practically hear the alarm bells going off in his head.

‘Oh, no, ma’am. Really – I wasn’t joking when I said I hadn’t danced in a long time,’ he argues and she frowns at him.

‘Then how are you going to dance at the ball?’ she asks, and he can feel his mouth opening, but there’s nothing coming out. He doesn’t have an answer for her.

‘I suppose I hadn’t imagined that I would dance,’ he eventually stumbles out, and she’s looking at him like he’s sprouted a second head.

‘Wouldn’t dance?’ she asks, and she walks towards him. ‘It’s a ball, Lord M. Of course you’ll dance.’ She stops in front of him and pulls her phone out of her pocket, scrolling, and he blinks a few times, desperately trying to figure out how he’s going to get out of this. But in a few short moments a song is coming out of the tinny speakers, and she slips the phone into the front pocket of his suit jacket and looks expectantly up at him, her arms out from her sides, clearly waiting for him to slip his arm around her waist and grasp her tiny hand in his…

And if the music hadn’t told him already, her posture would have: of course, of course, it’s a waltz.

His brain is screaming all kinds of warnings at him and he blinks. He shouldn’t be doing this, he knows. He’s already in far too deep for his own liking, and dancing with her, alone, in a large ballroom on a wet afternoon was not going to help. But he’s reminded by her intent expression that she has no idea of the chaos in his mind; all she knows is that she’s asking her Private Secretary to help her practice for the most important event of her life to date. He couldn’t – can’t – refuse her that.

He looks at her carefully for a moment before resigning himself to his fate. So he slides his hand around to her waist, under the long, loose, soft braid that hangs down her back, and takes her other hand in his, and starts moving with the music.

He hasn’t done this in so, so long, but she makes it so easy, and he knows all too well now that she’s only having lessons to calm her own nerves.

It’s doing nothing for his.

She’s watching him, a small smile on her face, and he can’t help but give her a small smile back before fixing his eyes on her shoulder. Here, in this room, with her, he’d drown in her eyes, and he absolutely cannot afford to let her see. Her tiny hand is almost enveloped by his, and he feels like his hand covers up the whole of her back, and he’s obliquely aware of how warm and firm her skin is through her t-shirt.

This is the first time he’s ever actually touched a part of her that wasn’t her palm in a high-five, and his chest tightens at the thought.

He’s a fool.

Her voice breaks through his reverie. ‘You dance rather well for someone who hasn’t danced in a long time,’ she teases, and he gives her a small smile.

‘I suppose your feet never forget, ma’am,’ he replies, forcing himself to look up at her. ‘I wonder why you’re bothering with lessons,’ he shoots back, and she ducks her head.

‘I wanted to be sure of myself,’ she admits, and he nods. ‘It’s such an important evening.’

‘That’s wise, ma’am,’ he agrees, and he can see her happiness at his approval. Something swells in his chest, and he squashes it back down.

He sees movement out of the corner of his eye as he leads them around and his head flicks over to see a tall blonde man standing next to Emma. He stops immediately, letting go of her and stepping away a little before he realises what he’s doing.

‘Your real tutor is here,’ he tells her with a small, sly smile. He gives her a silly little bow – which she returns with a little curtsey and a giggle – and pulls her phone from his pocket, handing it back to her before turning to face the intruders.

He decides he doesn’t much like the look on Emma’s face.

‘Beautiful, your majesty. You are a natural dancer,’ the tall man says as they approach, and he wonders just how long they’d been standing there. He can feel the flush creeping up his cheeks and he curses his stupid, stupid heart and his stupid head for getting himself in this situation in the first place.

‘Ma’am, this is Johannes Christoff,’ Emma states, and the dance teacher gives her a small bow. ‘He’s here to take your dancing lessons,’ she says, and Melbourne shoots her a look when she glances at him, and she wisely says no more.

‘It’s lovely to meet you,’ the Queen replies. ‘This is Lord Melbourne, my Private Secretary,’ she says before Emma can speak again, and he makes a mental note to remind her that she isn’t really supposed to introduce anyone. He nods and shakes Christoff’s hand.

‘I can see that you’re no stranger to dancing yourself, Lord Melbourne,’ Christoff says, and he gives a small nod.

‘Courtesy of a mother who wanted all of her children proficient,’ he explains quickly, and he sees out of the corner of his eye Victoria turn to look at him. He hasn’t really spoken of his family, he realises. ‘But I leave you in Emma and Mr Christoff’s capable hands ma’am,’ he says to her, before nodding to Emma and Christoff and making a hasty departure.

He can still feel her tiny, warm hand in his, the warmth of her hand on his arm, the taut muscles in her back under his fingers, and his mind is spinning. He allowed her to flirt, and flirted back. It was all completely silly and innocent until it wasn’t, not for him, and he’s not entirely sure he can pinpoint when and where things changed.

It dawns on him as he reaches his office that she almost certainly has no idea what she’s doing – not doing. Her experience with men – and boys – was almost entirely limited to John Conroy and the occasional visit from a cousin. She’s likely never actually even considered that her behaviour could be anything other than what she intended – whatever that was. He’s overestimating her – she’s not actually doing anything other than being herself.

He’d said to Emma before that she was guileless, his little Queen. Perhaps, just perhaps, he’d been more right than he’d known.

This is all on him now.

He desperately needs to keep this under control before it ruins everything.

Chapter Text

When the first article about the relevancy of the monarchy surfaces not long the announcement of the Coronation Ball, he wonders how she’ll deal with them, these challenges to her very existence. So when he arrives the next morning with her letters and finds her standing in the middle of her study, her hands clasped and that look on her face, he takes a breath and waits.

‘I need to pay off my uncles’ debts. I cannot start my reign with the excesses and ills of the past hanging over my head,’ she announces.

He frowns thoughtfully and nods. ‘I think that would make you quite popular, ma'am.’

She frowns. ‘Will people find out?’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Wellington will probably want to tell Parliament.’

‘But surely that's a private matter? I will be paying it from my own purse.’ And he frowns a little.

‘You could ask the Duke to say nothing of it if you like, ma'am, but I would imagine he'd likely protest. It might not be so bad to have people know,’ he says and her frown settles more into confusion. ‘The public haven't really had much of chance yet to get to know you. This would be one way you could show them who you are, and your intentions for your reign.’

She’s still frowning but it’s turned into something more thoughtful. He knows she’s been schooled in something of the media and its power, but he thinks perhaps her lessons have been wholly negative; he doesn’t think she’s ever really considered actively using the media for her own good.

‘What do you think?’ she asks, and he raises his eyebrows a little in surprise.

‘Well, it would certainly silence some of the critics for a little while, but it would make the question of your finances public discussion, so it has the potential to be a two-edged sword,’ he says. ‘But it must be your decision.’

He watches her think about it for a moment, before she looks up at him again.

‘If the Duke wishes to tell the Parliament, he can,’ she says in that tone that tells him she’s absolutely made up her mind. And so he nods, smiling.

She’s going to be a popular Queen, he thinks - she's articulate, beautiful, young, clearly not given to the indulgences and extravagances of her Uncles. After years and years of old men, she was a breath of fresh air.

The spring had come. 

 

***

 

She’s heading into her rooms when she meets her mother in the hall. 

‘I hear you have paid off your uncle’s debts,’ she states, and Victoria nods.

‘I have.’ She pauses, waiting.

‘And yet you have no money to spare for your dear Mama,’ the Duchess replies, her tone accusatory and she feels the anger rise, not only at her mother but at herself – she should have known. She should not have expected anything less from her mother. ‘Your allowance is more than generous!’ Victoria cries.

‘I have expenses as your mother, Drina!’

‘And this is why they write these horrible articles!’ she flings back.

The Duchess looks like she’s swallowed something sour. ‘How dare you compare me to that man – those men!’ her mother spits.

And she doesn’t say anything to that, and her mother storms past.

She lets out a growl and kicks the wall, slightly ashamed to see the scuff mark her boot leaves behind.

 

***

 

She gets ravenous right before she gets sick.

When she complains about being hungry for the third time that hour, he quietly sends a message to Emma to ask the kitchens to prepare something small for the Queen to munch on.

When she complains again that afternoon, he frowns a little. She complains that all she’s done is eat for the last twenty-four hours, and that she’s so tired – the bags under her eyes had told him that yesterday. A thought hits him, and he bites his tongue and sends another short text message.

When Emma appears at the door a few minutes later with a small bag of chocolates, she looks thrilled, and he smiles and rolls his eyes.

The next morning, she looks terrible and he’s confused. She insists that’s she’s fine, but he knows better – she’s pale, and she looks miserable – and tries not to argue with her about the doctor. That’s not his job – she has a mother, and Lehzen, and Nancy, and Emma, and even Harriet – all of whom have already mentioned resting and have filled her to the brim with vitamins. But she’s stubborn, his little Queen. Desperate to prove herself still. He understands.

Predictably, it all goes downhill quite quickly. By her third cup of some kind of herbal tea Emma insists on making and what seems like her hundredth sneeze, he suggests quietly that perhaps she take a short break to rest, which would be fine with him because he needs to speak to the Foreign Minister about a possible state visit from the German Chancellor anyway. She eyes him, looking for the deception, but he plasters a carefully concerned mask on his face, and she finally nods.

‘I’ll be back in an hour,’ she decrees, and he smiles.

When he rings Emma three hours later, she tells him that she’s still asleep.

 

***

 

She’s out for at least seven days, much to her disgust. The doctor declares that she has influenza – where she managed to pick up the flu, he has no idea – and this is the one time he’s happy to join forces with her mother. She needs to rest.

By the third day, she’s awake for more than an hour at a time. He knows this because she rings him to see what she’s missed, and she sounds like death warmed up.

‘Ma’am, you have missed absolutely nothing that cannot wait until you are well.’

‘I am well enough now.’

When he just hums in reply, she lets out a huff, eventually hanging up after he tells her to go back to bed.

By the fifth day, she’s bored. He knows this because she tries to come up to her study to do some work. He’s in his office, so Emma tells him later how the Duchess had found her sitting at her desk in her pyjamas, wrapped in a blanket, and that Emma now knew where the Queen got her temper from. He’d smiled; he’d known that one for a while.

Emma’s story explains the message she’d sent, asking him to ring and request that she come up to her study to sign something. He replies by telling her to go back to bed. He toys with promising to visit her later in the day, but decides against it.

So she starts sending him photos of Dash. She sends him twelve photos of her dog before he replies.

Bored, ma’am?

Going crazy.

I can see that.

No, you can’t, because I’m stuck here!

And he chuckles. When he doesn’t reply, she starts sending him photos of random pieces of furniture, and then the view from her bedroom window, Lehzen looking rather unimpressed (he’d snickered at that one), her pillows, more of the furniture, and her pink-sock-covered feet.

He thinks she’s trying to be annoying, but he just finds it amusing.

So he sends her a photo of his chair, and his desk, his rubbish bin, the window, an unsmiling Robert Peel, and eventually, his coffee.

Not fair, she replies, and he realises she won’t have had coffee for a week. The tea would be holding the caffeine withdrawal at bay, but still. That’s rough.

I apologise.

Bring me one and you’re forgiven.

By the seventh day, he’s not surprised to receive a message asking for some detail about the role of the King in Thailand. She must have snuck away; he can imagine that she’s really, genuinely starting to lose her mind, stuck in her rooms with only Lehzen and her mother for company.

‘How are you feeling, ma’am?’ he asks when he’s standing at her door, and she jumps before her face breaks into a grin.

‘Better, thank you,’ she says, and she looks better. Not actually well, but better.

‘Are you sure you should be up here, ma’am? You probably don’t want to bother doing too much if you’re too sick to retain anything,’ he says, and she drops her highlighter on the desk in front of her.

‘I can’t go back there,’ she says, shaking her head, and he understands. But she really isn’t that well still, he can tell. Her voice is still scratchy, and her face pale.

An idea hits him, and he frowns thoughtfully. He thinks she won’t mind being bribed.

‘How long have you been up here, ma’am?’ he asks.

She eyes him. ‘Not very long,’ she says and when he raises an eyebrow, she sighs and looks at her watch. ‘Nearly two hours.’

Hmm. He’d suspected as much.

‘I have a copy of The Taming of the Shrew at home,’ he says, ‘one filmed just down here at the Globe Theatre, so it’s live,’ he says, waving his hands dismissively. And when her face lights up, he can’t help but smirk. ‘I assume you haven’t seen that one yet?’ he asks, and she shakes her head.

And this is where he’s not quite sure he’ll win. ‘I could bring it in later this afternoon,’ he says slowly, and her eyes narrow slightly at what is clearly not the end of his sentence – she’s not stupid, his little Queen – ‘if you were feeling well enough rested to watch all three hours of it.’ He schools his face into a mask of aloofness, and he can see she’s thinking, processing his subtle bribe. But the lure of freedom – substantive time away from her mother – is too great.

‘Fine,’ she says, standing, and he has to work to keep the smile off his face. ‘But you have to stay and watch it with me,’ she bargains, and he mock-frowns for a moment.

‘Deal,’ he says, as if he hadn’t intended to keep her company all along.

He reasons that they’ve spent a good seven days apart now, and he tells himself that it would be unkind to refuse her on this, not when the only company she’s had is her mother and Lehzen for a solid week. Even Harriet had been banned from visiting; he feels sorry for her just for that alone.

When she throws a cushion at him later that night when he teases her and says that perhaps Kate deserves a husband like Petruchio somewhere around the start of Act 4, he realises how much he’s just missed her, his little Queen. 

 

***

 

One afternoon he’s rubbing his eyes – it had been a long day, and he’s spent most of it in and out of her office – when he looks over at her wall. She’d made habit recently of leaving the screen on and the background pictures of her laptop cycling through every fifteen minutes or so. The photos were from a variety of the events she’d attended – mostly the official Palace photos – along with some beautiful shots of the British countryside she’d found on the internet somewhere. It had become quite entertaining, and occasionally the photos became a welcome distraction from long hours of memorising and studying and working.

He’s surprised then to see a photo of himself appear. He blinks at the wall in surprise. It’s from one of the more recent Garden Parties, he can tell – the sun is out, and he’s in a top hat and tails – and he thinks that perhaps Emma took the photo because it’s not quite as perfect as the rest.

But it says everything.

It’s the look on his face that makes him swallow. The photo has been taken from a good six or eight feet away – far enough away that he’d not even been aware that it was being taken – and he’s standing to the right of the photo next to the Queen, Dash sitting at her feet. The party is clearly over because the sun is setting off to the side the grass covered by shades of orange. He’s obviously just said something amusing because she’s laughing, her eyes bright as she looks up at him, and his…he recognises that look from his photos with Augustus; Emma and his sister had always been quick to point out the way he’d looked at his wife and, later, their son.

It’s adoration.

Oh, he’s such a fool and an idiot and how could he do this?

She must notice him staring, because she speaks and it distracts him from his self-flagellation. ‘It’s one of my favourite photos,’ she says. ‘Emma took it.’

He turns to look at her and her eyes are wide and a little anxious, he thinks, but he’s too distracted to understand why straight away. ‘You don’t mind me having it, do you?’ she asks, and he blinks before he lets out a small laugh.

‘No, not at all,’ he assures her. ‘It’s a lovely photo of you, ma’am,’ he says.

She lets out a huff. ‘It does remind me of how short I am. If there was one thing I could change about myself, it would be to make myself taller.’

He glances back at the photo; even in her low-ish heels, she is still a solid six inches shorter than him. ‘I wouldn’t change anything about you, ma’am,’ he replies before he realises what he’s saying. She’s looking at him with those wide eyes and he drops her gaze, cursing his weakness. How can this woman, this beautiful young Queen of his, reduce him to this?

But he cannot blame her. It is he who is caught in a spell she never intended to cast – never realised she could cast, he suspects – and he will ride out this silly little infatuation he’s got going without her ever knowing a thing.

But she’s still looking at him with those wide eyes and he must redirect her attention before this goes any further.

‘It reminds me of how old I am,’ he says with a rueful smile.

‘You are not old, Lord M!’ she laughs, and he pulls at his hair.

‘I think the few grey hairs I have betray me, ma’am,’ he says with a wry smile, and she laughs again and shakes her head. ‘They say grey is the colour of wisdom,’ he adds jokingly.

‘Then your head should be grey,’ she replies, and he laughs at that.

‘I don’t think I’m quite ready for that kind of wisdom,’ he says, and she grins at him.

When he looks back at the wall, the photo has changed.

Chapter Text

Her hair is so long.

He’s never seen hair that long on a person in real life before.

She has it out one day when he arrives; it’s long and mostly straight and a beautiful, natural dark brown and she’s pinned it back at the sides away from her face. It cascades down her back like a waterfall. There’s just so much of it; he can’t look away. He’s never seen it out before - she’s always got it wrapped up in a bun or something, or it’s curled and somehow doesn’t seem as long as it does that day. It covers her entire back.

She catches him looking and she frowns. ‘Is everything okay, Lord M?’ she asks, and he nods quickly.

‘Oh, yes, ma’am,’ he says, and he knows he’ll have to explain. ‘I hadn’t realised how long your hair was,’ he says lightly.

‘It’s always been long,’ she says, shrugging, and he nods, changing the subject.

When he arrives at her study a week later, he stops dead at the door.

Her hair is gone.

She’s wearing it out again but now instead of the soft brown almost-blanket that had covered her back, it’s much shorter, now only going a good few inches past her shoulders - no longer the soft brown waterfall that had almost dwarfed her.

She’s standing, leaning against her desk and reading some document or other, her hair falling down around her face still, but then she tilts her head up a little and turns and pushes one side back behind her ear and he’s struck by just how much older she looks.

She’s not quite so little anymore, his little Queen – she’s starting to grow up. He swallows at the thought.

He watches her a little longer; she bites her thumb as she’s reading and her eyes narrow – he knows that look of concentration so, so well – and when she stands taller, turning to put the paper down, he knows he’s not looking a girl anymore. She was beautiful, his little Queen.

And he was in so much trouble.

He shakes his head slightly, tearing his eyes away from her. He feels it in his gut; he knows this feeling all too well. He needs to get a handle on this. He’s a grown man, for goodness’ sake – he can control a little crush.

She'll always be his little Queen, but she certainly doesn't look it anymore.

This will not be a problem, he tells himself, and he’s pleased to find he almost half-believes it.

He takes a deep breath and a step forward, and she turns at the sound of his arrival and smiles. ‘Good morning,’ she says, and she immediately drops his gaze slightly and blushes, and he thinks he knows why. He twists his lips before walking in as he makes a split-second decision - he’s going to have some fun with this.

‘Good morning, ma’am,’ he says nonchalantly. ‘I have your letters here. Would you like to start with those, or shall we continue with the foreign policy?’

She stares at him for a second, blinking, before shaking her head slightly. ‘Foreign policy,’ she says quickly, glancing at her feet before looking back up at him, and he almost feels bad, except he doesn’t. She needs to be teased a little; needs to learn to be teased, and needs to learn to give as good as she gets.

‘As you wish,’ he says, passing her a coffee and sitting down in his usual chair at the extra desk they’d attached to hers. ‘Where do you want to start today?’ he asks, looking at her expectantly, and she blinks at him again before pushing her hair behind her ear and looking down at her laptop. He almost smiles; the pink is so pretty on her cheeks. She flounders for a moment, and he has to resist the urge to grin.

‘Argentina?’ she asks. ‘We started talking about the Falklands War yesterday,’ she says, grabbing her notes and a highlighter, before glancing up at him. He deliberately nods and starts arranging his paperwork. He can hear her huff a little, and he works hard to keep the smirk off his face. She’ll get there, he thinks.

It takes another fifteen minutes before she’s become genuinely upset with him, and he lets it go.

‘Is everything okay, ma’am? You seem a little off today,’ he asks, schooling his features into a mask of concern.

‘I’m fine,’ she huffs, and he can’t help but smirk now. She stares at him for a moment, frowning.

‘I’m going to ask Emma for tea,’ he says, standing and heading towards the door. ‘Would you like some?’

‘Yes, please,’ she replies a little sulkily, not looking up at him. So he stops and waits; it only takes a few moments for her to look back up at him. He angles his head to the side a little, as if examining her.

‘Yes,’ he says nodding, and she blinks at him before blushing again.

‘Yes, what?’ she asks – this time she can’t hide the sulk in her voice, and he smiles teasingly at her.

‘Yes, your hair looks lovely, ma’am,’ he says quietly, and he hadn’t thought it was possible for her to blush even more than she already was, but he was wrong.

‘I didn’t think you’d noticed!’ she almost cries, and he lets out a huff of amusement.

‘How could you think I wouldn’t notice you, ma’am?’ he says, before walking out the door.

When he returns she’s still sulking a little and he gives her a teasing look. ‘Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?’ he asks.

‘No,’ she admits. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ The hurt is still there, just a little, but it’s mixed with a good dose of confusion.

He shrugs, and he can’t keep the smirk off his face. ‘Just having a little fun, ma’am,’ he says, and she huffs again, looking away, before glancing back at him. He knows he’s won when the frown on her face breaks into a small huff of laughter and a reluctant smile. ‘My apologies, ma’am,’ he says, not sorry at all, and she narrow her eyes at him.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she announces, and he laughs.

‘Good,’ he replies, and he ducks, laughing, as she picks up and throws one of Dash’s soft toys across their desks at him.

 

***

 

 

It’s one week away, and he can tell even now that she’s nervous.

There are times she gives him whiplash - she is the picture of modern royalty in her elegance and grace, a wisdom beyond her years. And then she's almost a teenager again, as if she were more right than she knew when she said that her uncle’s crown wouldn't fit. On these days, when it wobbles precariously atop her head, he chooses his words and the issues of the day carefully. He cannot teach her those days; he has to show her, to require that she draw it out of herself.

Today is one of those days.

She’s done so, so well in the past months; she’s learned so much, and can now converse quite easily about current world events. Even Wellington’s impressed, and that’s saying something.

But now that it’s only days away, she’s panicking. It comes in the form of mood swings, and the occasional almost-tantrum.

He arrives one morning to find her stamping around her office, muttering about cleaners and moving things and why can’t they just leave her alone? He raises his eyebrows and watches.

‘Morning, ma’am,’ he says as she stomps up to him and takes her coffee. ‘Sleep well?’

‘Fine,’ she grumbles, and she still hasn’t actually looked at him yet.

He doesn’t need to see much of her face to notice that she hasn’t slept well – again – she has the faintest of purple tinges under her eyes, and he worries now that if she doesn’t breathe, if she doesn’t find a way to deal with her anxiety, she’s going to get sick and they really, really don’t need that now.

‘Is everything okay, ma’am?’ he asks carefully after a moment, and she lets out a groan of frustration.

‘I can’t find my phone!’ she growls, and he blinks.

‘Would you like me to call it for you?’

‘I think it’s on silent,’ she mutters, and now she’s going through his small desk and he cringes at the way she’s just picking up piles of paperwork before tossing them back down haphazardly.

It was going to be a long day.

He pulls his phone out, and opens Safari, directing it to the ‘Find My iPhone’ page. He types in her login and password – he’s had that memorised since the day she got it – and waits patiently, eyeing her and the screen. She eventually looks up at him just standing there in the doorway, and her face is thunderous. She blinks at him a few times, and he knows what she’s about to say – maybe shout, he thinks. But he holds his phone up to her, and she stomps over to where he’s standing.

‘I’m no expert on the palace, ma’am, but I think that’s probably your rooms,’ he says, zooming in a little on the flashing green dot on the screen.

She lets out a huff before storming out the door.

He sighs, dropping his briefcase down on the desk, and trying to rearrange the now-chaotic mess of his desk. Not that it hadn’t been untidy before, but he had a system, and she’d messed it up.

He didn’t mind that she was nervous; in fact, he’s pleased. Nervous means she cares. She just needed to be far less petulant about it all. She was still so young in some ways, his little Queen, despite all that she had grown and changed.

It doesn’t take long for her to reappear – with phone and mood. It takes another twenty minutes and a whole lot more snapping and moodiness and just general petulance before he stops and looks at her, pursing his lips.

‘Ma’am, I’m going to head back to my office for a little while,’ he says, and she drops the pen she’d been holding.

‘Why?’ she demands, and he raises his eyebrows at her. Her face softens a little, and he stands.

‘Would you call me when you’re ready?’ he asks, and she nods, looking back down at her desk. She’s not quite ready to give in just yet, he knows, and he won’t force her; it would be unkind.

It’s a little while later when she calls. ‘I’m going for a walk in the gardens,’ she says. ‘Would you mind joining me?’

‘I would like that, ma’am,’ he says, standing and grabbing his coat.

He finds her standing in the sun on the balcony outside her rooms. He leans against the railing beside her, his arms folded, looking out over the gardens.

‘I think sometimes I add to your grey hairs,’ she says quietly after a little while, and he knows it’s her way of apologising.

He turns to look at her and the corners of his lips curl up slightly, and she knows she’s forgiven. ‘Then I wear them proudly, ma’am.’

But her face is vulnerable, and he watches as she swallows, looking back out over the gardens.

‘Harriet brought my dress over yesterday,’ she says, and he nods. ‘I tried it all on, including the tiara I’m going to wear. She said I looked like a Queen.’ He smiles ruefully, waiting. It takes only a few seconds. ‘I’m afraid,’ she whispers.

And there it is.

He moves to stand next to her, their shoulders almost touching, and he leans on his arms on the balcony so that he can see her face. She’s biting her bottom lip. ‘I know, ma’am,’ he says kindly. ‘But I also know that you are brave.’

She looks at him. ‘Queens aren’t afraid,’ she says quietly, and he can’t really believe what he’s hearing. But he can, because she says things like this all the time. Stupid things about the way Queens should be and not be, what they should feel and how they should think, and he thinks that perhaps only about five percent of what she says is actually accurate. The rest of it is skewed and twisted and has only required careful undoing and carefully-managed new experiences.

‘Queens are human,’ he laughs. ‘And humans feel fear.’ She doesn’t look convinced, and he stands, looking down at her. ‘This is an important evening, yes. You are right to care about it. But you have spent months preparing, and I am sure you are ready for this.’

She looks up at him, her eyes wide, but he thinks he sees a little more hope in them. ‘You will be there,’ she half-asks, half-states, reassuring herself.

‘And Emma, and Wellington. And Peel. And Russell. And everyone else who will be more than happy to help should you require assistance.’

She takes a deep breath, and nods, and he thinks she will be okay.

 

***

 

He stares at the calendar on his desk.

It was getting closer, that day. But he was stronger now. He had something to live for. Someone.

She needed him.

He thinks he might, just possibly, be able to survive this year.

Chapter Text

 

He prepares himself for her arrival. She’s going to look incredible, he knows. He knows that Harriet has been working towards this for months, that she’s been getting dressed for the past couple of hours, doing goodness knows what – whatever women do to prepare for events like this.

He takes some deep breaths, forcing himself to be calm. He’s seen her so often now for the Garden Parties and the occasional official function that he knows she’s beautiful when she gets dressed up.

She is going to look beautiful tonight, he tells himself. Elegant. Regal. Lovely. He is fully prepared to be stunned.

He pulls out his phone for the tenth time that minute, and stares at the unlocked screen.

Emma’s soft ooh behind him tells him she’s here.

And, despite it all, he still can’t stop staring.

Her dress is a soft cream, the top to her tiny waist a fine lace with little capped sleeves, and the bottom a soft, flowing material that splays out around her feet. The dark-ish blue of her Order of the Garter sash matches perfectly.

When he drags his eyes up to her face, the musky pink of her lips captures his eyes, and he swallows thickly. Her hair is all wrapped up in curls at the base of her neck, and she’s wearing the tiara he’d suggested – it’s the Cambridge Lover’s Knot – and it’s as perfect for her tiny frame as he’d thought.

She’s radiant, his little Queen.

He watches as she walks up to him. She gives him a nervous smile, and takes a breath as she reaches him. Harriet’s done something with her make-up – her eyes are all smoky-looking and the blue of her eyes somehow matches the sash perfectly, but it’s all still elegant and understated and incredible. He swallows again, mentally berating himself. He will not gawk at her like some love-sick boy.

He clasps his hands together behind him and gives her a small smile.

‘What do you think, Lord M?’ she asks, and her voice is full of worry as she smooths her hands across the sash. As if she thinks that somehow, in some way, he might disapprove.

‘Perfect, ma’am,’ he says softly, and she bites her lip. He can feel Emma’s stare behind him, and he’s acutely aware that Harriet is coming up right behind the Queen.

‘You look rather handsome, Lord M,’ she says, and he huffs an embarrassed laugh. He knows Emma is laughing behind him - he’s worn a coat and tails too many times to really care, except that he does – he’d done and undone his bowtie four times before he’d given up and asked Emma for help.

Emma, naturally, hadn’t been able to resist.

‘How many times have you done this before?’

‘Enough.’

‘And yet you can’t seem to manage tonight.’

‘It’s a new bowtie. And it’s an important night.’

She hadn’t bought his flimsy excuses any more than he had, but she’d let it go, thankfully.

‘Thank you, ma’am,’ he replies. ‘Shall we?’ he asks, holding out his arm – she had asked for it every time he formally escorted her anywhere, and it had very quickly become habit – and she nods, her smile gone.

They walk in silence up to the ballroom, and he thinks he can hear her muttering names and titles under her breath. She stops in front of the doors, and this is it, he thinks. Her first official State Reception. The biggest night of the year on the standard royal calendar, and it’s her first.

He sends a silent prayer up to a God he thought he’d forsaken long ago.

He nods to Emma as she walks out through a side door, and he comes to stand next to his Queen, turning to face her profile. Her breaths are coming quickly, and her face is a mask of anxiety.

‘Breathe,’ he reminds her, and she stops, taking a deep breath through her nose and letting it out through her mouth, her eyes closing for a moment. ‘You will be fine,’ he murmurs quietly, and she glances down at the ground before looking up at him. ‘Wellington will meet you on the other side of the doors, and I’ll be right there behind you.’ She nods, and he can see she’s working to control her breathing, like he’s taught her. Even if she fails spectacularly tonight, he’ll still be so proud of her. She’s worked so, so hard for this.

He looks down at her, his face serious. ‘You look like a Queen.’

‘I don’t feel like one,’ she whispers.

‘What does being a Queen feel like, ma’am?’ he asks quietly.

‘I don’t know,’ she replies, looking up at him, and he thinks it’s a small realisation for her.

‘Then why don’t we find out?’ he asks, the corners of his mouth curling up slightly, and she gives him a small, tremulous smile in return.

‘Queen Victoria,’ he says, looking over her hair, her tiara, her face, before fixing on her eyes. He watches as she takes a deep breath, eventually looking forward at the doors that slowly open in front of her.

He steps backwards out of the way as the doors open, and lets out a small breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding as she lifts her chin.

 

***

 

She feels tight and awkward but she smiles as she’s introduced to each of the officials in the line.

She’s using all the tricks Lord M had taught her; pausing when unsure, emphasis on certain words, choosing her words carefully, controlling the conversation so she knew almost exactly where it was going – no surprises. He’d told her that most people are on the back foot when meeting her already – all she needed to do was take advantage of that, and she’s trying so hard to keep up as Wellington introduces her to guest after guest. Their names and titles and talking points flash before her eyes as she meets most, and she is so grateful for his suggestion of flashcards. Anyone she forgets Wellington knows anyway, so she’s fairly safe.

She knows he’s right behind Wellington as she’s introduced to the various officials, listening as she makes polite inquiries after their health, their recent arrival in London, or whatever the easiest topic is. She can feel him there, the warmth of his gaze on her. She occasionally glances at him, and his eyes are always there to meet hers. She finds solace in his eyes, relief for a moment from the chaos. There were so many people; people she didn’t know, couldn’t trust. So much colour and movement and she’s swimming along with it. All it would take would be one moment of panic, one look, one glance, one mistake even, and she’d be under, unable to resurface on her own. He is her life saving buoy, and she will keep him well within reach.

It’s during the dinner that she has time to breathe, take it all in. She is seated alone as the only member of the royal family, and she’s pleased when he takes the opportunity to speak to her.

‘How am I doing, Lord M?’ she asks, and he gives her a small smile.

‘Beautifully, ma’am,’ he murmurs, and she remembers that she shouldn’t speak so loudly.

‘I think I’ve remembered everyone,’ she says lowly. ‘But it’s easy when you’re introduced,’ she adds.

‘Yes, it will be a little more challenging after dinner,’ he says. ‘But Emma will also be with you then, and so will I.’

She lets out a breath. After dinner, when they’re all just mingling, will be the real test, she knows. When she has to be able to hold conversation with almost anyone in the room.

‘I’m not sure I’ll know what to say,’ she says.

‘You will be fine, ma’am,’ he says, reading her mind, and she smiles gratefully at him. ‘Besides, anything the Queen says is interesting,’ he says with a small smirk, and she smiles.

Later, when she’s standing next to Emma after a successful conversation with the Israeli Ambassador, she remembers their first lessons, and she’s so, so grateful for her Lord M. The thought of doing this on her own makes her head spin and her stomach clench, and she presses down on the thought as she glances over to where he’s standing in the corner. His eyes are meet hers and she gives him the smallest of smiles, which he returns, and the world is right again.

 

***

 

It’s all going so well.

She’s elegant and poised in her dress and tiara. Her smiles are dignified and gracious, and she gives them freely. They’re not the wide grins he loves; they’re smaller, more official smiles – she learnt something from her time at Kensington – but no less genuine, he thinks. But then he’s not entirely sure she’s really learned how to be anything other than she is yet. She’s getting there, he knows, learning to be both Queen and Victoria, and he can see her trying tonight. But there’s a healthy measure of honesty in everything she says, and occasionally he’ll hear a surprised laugh or see a wide smile on the face of an Ambassador or their partner, and he knows that Victoria has said something the Queen perhaps, in time, might not.

But she’s beautifully charming, even as he can see her nerves.

‘Are you going to watch her all evening?’ Emma says beside him and he lets out an amused huff.

‘She’s just…she’s completely artless. She says whatever she’s thinking, no filter at all. She still has no real idea how to deal with politics yet beyond what we’ve taught her. She’s far too impulsive. And yet...’ he trails off.

Emma’s eyebrows rise slightly as she watches his expression, and he knows he’s revealing too much.

‘I worry that she will be taken advantage of,’ he says, and Emma nods.

‘I can see that,’ she replies, and he thinks perhaps that he’s going to avoid Emma and her knowing tone for the rest of the night. For the rest of his life, if he has to. ‘Have you introduced her to Emily?’ she asks after a moment.

‘No,’ he says, and he’s still in two minds about the whole thing, although he knows realistically that she’s going to meet them anyway, and better he be there to control the situation – as much as he can control his sister.

He’d been quick to advise her that his new brother-in-law had become the Shadow Foreign Secretary just before her ascension, and she’d simply nodded – it had been one in a long line of things he’d officially informed her when he’d taken the role. But she hadn’t put two and two together until she’d seen the guest list for the dinner. She’d practically squealed in delight when she realised his sister would be there, and he’d cringed inwardly. He knew his sister well; this would most likely not end well for him. 

‘I’m not entirely sure she’d forgive you if you didn’t introduce her to the Queen,’ Emma says at his elbow. ‘No, actually, I’m entirely sure she wouldn’t.’

He knows this.

It’s later in the evening when he pulls her aside. ‘There’s someone I would like you to meet, ma’am, if you have a moment,’ he says, his voice low and a knowing twist to his lips. He’s rewarded with a wide grin after a moment in which she realises who he means, and he leads her to where Henry and Emily are standing.

‘Ma’am, Lord Palmerston you’ve already met, but may I introduce Emily Temple, Viscountess Palmerston. Lady Palmerston is my sister,’ he adds, as if she didn’t know already.

‘Oh, it’s so lovely to meet you,’ she says, when Emily has finished curtseying. ‘When I became aware you were attending, I told Lord M I had to meet you.’

Emily, of course, takes full advantage of the situation. ‘It’s such a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. William speaks of very little else – when we do see him.’ He feels his jaw clench, but maintains a carefully neutral expression. He glances at his brother-in-law who is clearly working hard not to laugh.

‘Oh really?’ Victoria laughs, but he thinks he can see her cheeks pink a little. ‘You do work very hard, Lord M,’ she declares. ‘I’d hate to think I was keeping you from your family.’

He shakes his head. ‘Not at all, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Emily has only recently returned from a rather long honeymoon, so I think it’s probably she that’s the busier one,’ he adds, and Emily’s lips twist briefly in amusement.

‘Oh, yes, congratulations,’ Victoria says. ‘Lady Portman said it was a lovely ceremony.’

‘Thank you, ma’am,’ Emily replies. ‘We were happy,’ and she glances at Palmerston who’s nodding and smiling.

And Melbourne thinks this about the right time for her to segue into another conversation that doesn’t involve his sister, but the Queen has other ideas. ‘Lord M speaks so fondly of your children,’ she says, glancing up at him mid-sentence. ‘He seems to thoroughly enjoy spending time with them.’

‘Oh yes, and they him,’ Emily replies. ‘Uncle William is very much the favourite. He spoils them terribly.’

And the Queen is laughing at him, clearly surprised. ‘What are uncles for?’ he argues in his defence.

‘George has decided he’s going to apply for the RAF, but Will has decided that he wants to be Prime Minister just like his uncle. He’s already working on his charm and debating skills,’ Emily says to Victoria, who laughs delightedly.

‘Oh, I would love to meet them,’ she says, and alarm bells start clanging in his head and he blinks. ‘Would that be possible, Lord M?’ she asks, turning to him, and he doesn’t need to look at Emily or Henry to see the surprise on their faces.

‘Perhaps, ma’am,’ he says, stalling, and her face falls just a little. ‘I’m sure something can be arranged,’ he says after moment, and he kicks himself for caving so quickly, but really, what else was he going to say? ‘You should continue, ma’am,’ he says, and she nods.

‘It was a pleasure to meet you, Lord Palmerston, Lady Palmerston,’ she says as he moves her away.

‘I should invite Lord and Lady Palmerston to dinner, don’t you think?’ she says quietly, after they’ve moved away, and he’s flustered.

‘I’m not sure that would be entirely appropriate, ma’am, given his current position in the government,’ he says, and it’s not an entirely weak excuse. She could probably get away with visiting Palmerston’s house, he thinks, but having them at the Palace was another thing altogether.

She frowns. ‘Is government to dictate all my relationships, Lord M?’ she asks not a little bitterly, and he lets out a small sigh. Yes, he wants to say. Yes, because you chose me. And I let you.

‘Unfortunately, it will many of them, ma’am,’ is all he says, and he can tell she’s not satisfied.

‘It seems unfair,’ she says, and he nods.

‘It is,’ is all he can say.

 

***

 

The evening is almost over when Harriet catches Emma’s eye and smirks before crossing the room to join her.

‘She’s done well,’ she says quietly, and Emma nods.

‘Very well,’ Emma agrees, nodding to the Duke of Sutherland as he moves to stand next to his wife.

‘You weren’t kidding when you said they were close,’ he mutters, and Emma’s lips twist.

‘William certainly is…attentive,’ she replies. ‘She relies on him a lot.’

‘I’ve never seen Melbourne so interested in a woman he wasn’t bedding,’ Sutherland mutters quietly, and Harriet turns and smacks him on the arm as Emma lets out a horrified laugh before covering her mouth with her hand.

‘What?’ he says. ‘It’s obviously working. She’s even charmed the pants off Wellington,’ and Emma can’t help the laugh that escapes her at the Duke’s – clearly unintentional, if his horrified facial expression was anything to go by – pun. Even Harriet can’t help but laugh behind her hand after giving him a horrified glare.

‘God, he’s not, is he? Melbourne?’ Sutherland says suddenly in a low, urgent voice, barely enough for either Harriet or Emma to hear, and she feels herself gasp as she hears Harriet do the same.

‘No, of course not!’ Harriet growls quickly, glaring at her husband.

‘Good. Didn’t think so. Just…checking,’ he mutters, shaking his head, and Emma can tell he didn’t really believe it himself.

She looks around to see the subject of their conversation talking with the Prime Minister, and she shares a look with Harriet that tells her that they’re both thinking exactly the same thing: if George Sutherland is asking that particular question after half an evening, then who else is?

 

***

 

‘She seems to be holding her own,’ Wellington says to him from beside him. Their eyes are both on the Queen, only a few metres in front of them. She’s talking to Wellington’s wife, and Melbourne thinks she’s probably safe enough there to be left alone for a few moments.

‘She does,’ he agrees. ‘It looked a little awkward with the Canadian Prime Minister,’ he says questioningly.

‘She asked after his wife.’

‘Oh,’ Melbourne responds, his lips twisting before letting out a breath.

‘He was polite enough to say that he wasn’t actually married just yet, and we moved on rather rapidly after that,’ Wellington adds, and he makes a mental note to thank the openly gay man later – that was a faux pas big enough to unsettle her completely if she had realised.

But Wellington had been kind, and had led her through most of the major introductions, and he was grateful. He’d hadn’t really believed that the older man would have been anything other than the gentleman that he usually was, but it still could have been a whole lot worse.

‘She did very well, other than that,’ Wellington says after a moment.

‘Thank you,’ he adds. ‘Tonight would not have happened without your assistance.’

‘I did very little,’ Wellington says. ‘You, on the other hand, have performed a small miracle,’ he announces grudgingly, and Melbourne feels his jaw clench.

‘It was all the Queen,’ he says. ‘She just needed some assistance.’

Wellington lets out a small almost-humourless laugh next to him. ‘Whatever you say, Lord M,’ he replies, before returning to his wife and the Queen.

 

***

 

‘God, you weren't kidding. She's lovely,’ his sister says at his elbow, and his lips twist in amusement. 

‘She's so...happy. And innocent. And chirpy. It's almost disgusting,’ she continues and he can't help let out a laugh at the horror in her voice. 

‘She's very young,’ he agrees.

‘Yes,’ she agrees firmly. ‘She really seems as sheltered as you said.’

‘She would have been more exposed to the world in a convent,’ he mutters, and he can hear Emily let out a snort.

‘And yet, she thinks the world of you.’

He lets out a noncommittal noise; the Queen was smiling shyly at something, and looking down at her skirt – he thinks the Chilean Ambassador’s wife must have said something about her dress--

‘Goodness, William,’ he hears his sister breathe out at his elbow, and he turns to look at her, confused. She stares back at him, the kind of look she used to give him when she was about to call him thick. ‘You really do pick well, don’t you?’ she asks almost incredulously, and now he’s really lost.

‘What are you talking about, Emily?’

She just stares at him, and her face turns from an almost disapproving stare to something more like incredulous.

‘You really… Do you have any idea how much you talk about her?’ she asks, and he frowns.

‘Who?’ he asks before he realises. ‘The Queen?’

‘Yes,’ and that infuriating look is back. He frowns again, struggling to think of how to respond.

‘Obviously not,’ he replies eventually, turning to watch the subject of the conversation which was a far more pleasant sight than his sister’s incredulous face at that moment.

She lets out an amused chuckle at his elbow. ‘So, when should I expect the Queen for dinner?’ she queries, and he lets out a small sigh at the rubbish attempt she’s making to sound less than amused at his expense.

‘I’m hoping she’ll forget,’ he admits.

‘Don’t count on it.’

‘It won’t look good, Emily,’ he says quietly.

‘Why not? Henry is a Lord now, and a backbench minister, and it's not like she's asking me to be Mistress of the Robes,’ and he turns to look at her. ‘Has it occurred to you that perhaps no one else, except you, will really mind?’ she asks, and he looks away.

‘Wellington will mind.’

‘And you care what Wellington thinks?’ she spits, and he’s not surprised at the venom in her voice. She’d always taken every slight against him personally, defended him when no one else would.

‘I have to, while he’s Prime Minister.’ He ignores her snort of derision.

‘He didn’t seem to offer you the same courtesy,’ she mumbles, and he shoots her a look. He was not rehashing his sordid past with her again – particularly not tonight. ‘She is lovely,’ she says after a few moments. ‘Very sweet.’

‘Yes,’ he agrees.

‘Adores you, Lord M,’ she adds quietly and the fact that she’s the second person that evening to throw her little nickname for him – a nickname he treasures – in his face is not lost on him. He can feel his sister’s gaze on him, but he refuses to return it; he knows what he will see there. She’s always been able to see right through him, and he will not let her see more of this than he absolutely has to.

What little there is to see will be gone soon enough, he tells himself.

 

***

 

It’s late when she takes her leave, and he can’t help but smile at her exuberance. They exit the ballroom and are walking – she’s practically dancing – down the hall when she stops and turns her wide eyes on him.

‘I did it,’ she says breathlessly after a few moments.

‘You did beautifully, ma’am,’ he says, and she throws her hands in the air, twirling as she walks, her skirt flaring as she moves. It really was a beautiful dress, he thought – she was beautiful. Even now, after hours of talking and smiling and charming some of the smartest people in the country, she looked radiant.

‘Oh, it was so hard,’ she says, turning again, and his eyebrows rise slightly.

‘You didn’t make it look hard,’ he says, shaking his head at her, and she laughs.

‘I think you and the Duke and Emma had a lot to do with that,’ she says, and he nods once. ‘Are you proud of me, Lord M?’ she asks light-heartedly after a few moments, and behind the smiles and the laughter he can hear the desperate cry for approval in her voice.

‘How could I not be, ma’am?’ he says, and she closes her eyes with a happy sigh. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said she was perhaps a little bit tipsy, but given that she’s had all of half a glass of champagne all night, and more than enough food, he’s fairly sure she’s just high on adrenaline and success.

She walks further down the hall and impulsively pulls one of the balcony doors open, and he follows her out. The summer night air is cool, but not cold, and she takes in a deep breath.

‘I can’t believe it’s over,’ she says, looking out over the gardens, and he nods.

He can. He’s exhausted. ‘It certainly has been quite the event,’ he agrees.

‘And that’s every year?’ she asks, and he nods.

‘It won’t be quite so difficult next time. You won’t require a crash course in modern world history and politics again, I don’t think,’ he jokes, and she giggles.

‘No, I think my meetings with the PM will do well enough,’ she agrees.

And then they’re looking out over the gardens quietly together, and he feels content in a way he hasn’t felt in years. She makes him happy, his little Queen. He turns slightly to look at her as she stares out over her garden. She was so young, so impossibly young, but her elegance and dignity was beginning to shine through. She reminded him of his flowers; the new buds that look so little like the flowers they would become. But she was becoming the most exquisite flower, his little Queen, and it was his privilege to watch her.

And he’s acutely aware that he probably shouldn’t be standing here alone on a balcony with this beautiful woman who has wormed her way so thoroughly into his heart. Oh, but she was so beautiful tonight. He had earned this, these few minutes with her, these few minutes where they could relax and celebrate.

So he excuses himself and walks quickly back to where there are still glasses of champagne set up, and he steals two. The soft smile she gives him when he returns with them minutes later and proposes a toast to her is enough to keep his heart going forever.

They’ve been sitting on her balcony just talking about anything and everything for what feels like moments when he realises the time, and he stands. ‘Ma’am, with your permission, I’d like to retire for the evening,’ he says, and her face drops slightly.

‘But it’s so early!’ she cries, and he looks at his watch.

‘It’s after one, ma’am,’ he says. ‘We’ve been out here for two hours.’

‘Oh.’ And she’s frowning a little, and he wants to tell her he’ll stay, that they can sit there talking and revelling in her success until dawn, but he can’t. They really probably shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now, he thinks. There are boundaries, lines that are being blurred. But she’d deserved this tonight. They both had.

‘Well done, ma’am,’ he says softly, and she’s looking at him with those eyes of hers, and he’s lost.

‘Thank you, Lord M,’ she says, and he can feel the weight of her thanks, knows that she means it all.

‘It was my pleasure, ma’am,’ he says, giving her a small smile, before picking up the two champagne glasses and heading for his office.

He thinks he’ll return them in a few days’ time, when no one is looking.

 

***

 

When he arrives the next morning, Emma tells him she hasn’t appeared just yet, and he nods.

‘Last night went well,’ she says, and he smiles.

‘Yes,’ he says firmly, nodding. ‘She did well.’

‘I didn’t see you afterwards,’ she says, eyeing him, and he looks away.

‘I escorted the Queen to her rooms and left,’ he says, and it’s not really a lie.

He thinks that this is how it starts; the omissions, the variations on the truth. He’s been here before. He knows what this looks like. He knows how it ends.

Emma’s eyebrows rise and she nods, and he thinks she believes him, but there’s something else odd on her face, something he can’t quite place. But he’s not sure he actually wants to know, so he looks down at the folders in front of him.

Later, when he’s sitting at his desk working through his paperwork and waiting for her to call, he thinks he’s going to have to be far more careful in so many ways.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He knows that he cannot succumb to it this year.

It’s the same day as her Coronation Ball.

When he’d told Emma the date, she’d stared at him. But there had been little he could do; it was one week before her Coronation, and a weekend, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault that it was right around that time.

So he says nothing, thinks nothing, and the date is planned and put in calendars and officially announced, and he thinks he’s going to have to be stronger this year.

As the day approaches, he throws himself into his work – not that that is hard; she’s easily the most wonderful and all-consuming distraction he’s had in such a long time – but it’s always the dark, cold hours that bring him back to reality. When he’s lying in bed, or waking from a nightmare, those days, those weeks, those moments come tumbling back, and the feelings overwhelm him.

He thinks perhaps it will be enough. He can almost ignore it if he distracts himself enough.

He has to ignore it. He can’t do this to her.

He can’t.

 

***

 

She thinks her mother must be able to smell her success, because every time she achieves something, wins at something – anything – her mother appears to tear her down just a little.

‘Drina. We must talk about my title,’ her mother says frostily, coming to stand in front of her whilst the jeweller fiddles with something on the crown that’s sitting in a velvet-covered box next to her.

‘We have, mama,’ she replies, and she can hear the boredom in her own voice. ‘I don’t see any reason to change it,’ she says as the jeweller puts whatever tool he was using down and lets out a small sigh, crossing the room to fetch something.

‘It seems your Lord Melbourne has turned you against me,’ her mother says quietly, and her head flicks up. She’s tired of this, so tired of these jibes and insults directed at him, her Lord M, the man who has helped her to become who she was born to be. The only one who sees the Queen, not Drina. The one who has shown nothing but unwavering faith in her and her abilities.

The one who treats her like a woman – a Queen – and not a little girl.

‘I make my own decisions, Mama, and I see no reason to make you Queen Mother, no matter how much Sir John might like it,’ she almost snarls, and she watches as her mother’s face hardens even further at her daughter’s refusal. But she doesn’t have time for this; she has to find Lord M so he can see her with her crown on, see that all her practice with the bucket he’d bought her had paid off.

Oh, she hopes it has. She’s not sure what she’ll do if it hasn’t.

‘It is a shame you don’t have a bigger head, Drina. It is too small for the crown, I think,’ her mother says quietly, and it hurts, oh, how it hurts and she feels the burn of impending tears in her cheeks, but she will not let her mother see her pain, and so she turns on her heels and leaves them all behind.

 

 

She’s so determined to find him that she almost barrels right into him in the hall.

He lets out a little noise of surprise. ‘Ma’am,’ he says, and she can hear the query in his voice. She’s not crying; she’s proud that she’s managed to squish that back down from where it came. Now she’s just angry and frustrated and ugh.

‘Lord M! I’ve been looking for you,’ she says a little too loudly, just glancing at him. ‘The jeweller is here with the crown for the coronation.’ She knows he knows this – he was the one who’d set it all up – but she has to say something.

‘Yes, I was just coming to see if you needed assistance,’ he replies, still looking at her and frowning, and she lets out a sigh, before turning and heading back down the hall. He falls into step beside her.

‘Is everything okay, ma’am?’ he asks quietly, and she sighs.

‘Mama,’ is all she says in reply, and he lets out a soft noise of understanding. ‘Sir John thinks she needs a new title. The Queen Mother,’ she explains a few moments later.

‘I see,’ he says quietly after a moment, and she knows he won’t pry or offer any kind of comment or advice. He never does, when it comes to her mother, only ever asking after her.

‘I don’t…I don’t think she deserves it,’ she says quietly.

‘That is entirely your decision, ma’am,’ he says noncommittally again, and she feels a momentary pull of irritation – why won’t he tell her what to do?

But she knows he won’t, so she sighs. ‘She wants an increase in her allowance as well. She’s always saying how she has no money for clothing appropriate for the mother of the Queen,’ she almost mocks at the end. ‘I don’t even know what she spends it all on.’ She sighs, and he thinks she has enough to carry without trying to carry her mother as well. ‘It’s all Sir John,’ she says quietly. ‘The title was his idea, I know it.’

‘It’s very likely, ma’am,’ he agrees as they enter the room where the jeweller is now standing alone, somewhat awkwardly, with the crown.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Perrett. Where were we?’ she says, and he marvels at the change in the tone of her voice; she’s gone from young woman upset from fighting with her mother to Queen Victoria, regal and elegant in her knitted jumper and trousers.

He doesn’t tell her that he’d arrived at precisely the right moment to hear the entire exchange from behind the partially open door, how he’d closed his eyes in pain at the Duchess’s harsh words to her daughter.

But as with everything, he files away this new information, to be thought upon later, and focuses on his little Queen as she stands, waiting to try on the crown that she had been so fearful of wearing not even a year ago.

‘I have made some changes to the padding based on the measurements sent through, Your Majesty,’ he says, standing in front of her. ‘All that is left is for you to try it on, ma’am.’

She swallows, her breath catching in her throat. What if it was still too big? Or too heavy? The Coronation was so close now; there wasn’t enough time for her to make any more real changes, or to strengthen her neck any more. This was it. If it didn’t fit, if she wasn’t able to hold it up…

‘The moment of truth, ma’am,’ Lord M jokes with grin, and she can’t help but return his smile briefly as she stands stock-still, waiting for the jeweller to lower this heavy symbol of her birthright onto her head, praying…

It’s heavy, and soft, and definitely a little wobbly, but then she’s standing there and it seems to mostly fit and it’s not too heavy – she’ll definitely be able to hold it up for a little while, she thinks – and she can’t help but let out a breath.

‘Perfect,’ he declares quietly but firmly from where he stands a few feet back, his head tilted slightly and a little smile on his face, and she grins triumphantly at him, her Lord M.

She can do this, she thinks.

Her mother was wrong.

 

***

 

He looks at Emma when he thinks he can hear music coming from the Queen’s study. It sounds like something he’d hear on the radio; whatever they play on the radio nowadays. He’s not particularly familiar with whatever it is, and he’s surprised that he’s hearing it at all.

Emma simply smiles. ‘Harriet,’ is all she says by way of explanation.

‘Ah,’ he says in reply, before walking through to her study, and he lets out a small laugh. She’s got the music up quite loud, and she’s dancing.

Well, he assumes that’s what she’s doing. It’s certainly not the waltzing she’s been practicing for the Ball, but there’s music and she’s moving in time with the beat, and he thinks with a grin that it looks like his little Queen is going to experience something like a vaguely normal life after all; just ten years later than anyone else of her generation.

He wonders with a smirk how long it will take her to see him.

His question is answered within moments – her face flushes when her eyes land on him, and he’s amused to see her dance over to where her phone is sitting on a speaker.

‘Good morning, ma’am,’ he says once there is silence, still grinning at her. She smiles back, her face red, and her embarrassment is really quite adorable, he thinks. ‘I see those dancing lessons have paid off.’

‘Spotify,’ she says, pushing her hair behind her ears, and he nods in understanding.

‘I hear Ms Sutherland has been making suggestions,’ and she’s confused for a moment before she realises Emma has dobbed her in.

‘Do you like it?’ she asks, and he frowns in mock-thought.

‘It’s not Mozart, ma’am,’ he says, and she rolls her eyes at him.

‘Mozart?’ she says incredulously, and he shrugs.

‘I’m old, ma’am,’ he reminds her, putting his briefcase down on his desk, and she shakes her head at him.

‘Not that old, Lord M,’ she mutters as she moves around to her desk, and the emphasis makes him smile.

‘I like some more modern music,’ he admits, and her eyes brighten. ‘Have you heard of David Bowie?’ he asks, and her frown tells him she hasn’t.

He spends a solid thirty seconds the next morning standing outside her study door listening to the end of ‘Letter to Hermione’ and smiling to himself.

 

***

 

He stares at the ceiling.

It had been different this year; he’d had something to distract him for the weeks leading up to it. Something in the form of his beautiful little Queen, and the impending Reception and her Coronation.

He’d hoped it would be enough.

But as he stares at the ceiling in the early hours, feeling nothing but blank pain, he realises distantly that it’s not going to be.

 

***

 

 

He drinks himself into a stupor the night before the ball. Well, he starts sometime not much before dawn that morning, when he’s finally finished everything he has to do, sending the emails he has to send, reminding Peel and Emma of everything he thinks he has to, to ensure it is all absolutely perfect for her ball.

So when his phone beeps at ten that morning, he’s passed out on his bed and doesn’t even hear it.

 

***

 

When he doesn’t arrive with his smile and their coffees by 10am, she goes looking for him.

‘Emma, where is Lord M?’ and she doesn’t quite understand the look on Emma’s face.

‘He said to tell you that he has some matters to attend to, but that he would see you later tonight,’ Emma says, and she feels the familiar pull of panic low in her stomach.

‘But…there’s still so much to do!’ she replies, and Emma smiles at her.

‘I have a list, ma’am, and there really isn’t that much for you to do. Your letters are here,’ she says, handing her a folder. ‘Outside of that ma’am, Harriet will be here at two.’

But she feels anxious, uncomfortable. She needed him here to…well, to be here, she thinks.

She can’t do this without him.

‘But he will be here later,’ she says, and Emma nods firmly.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

 

***

 

Emma watches as the Queen walks away, bewildered and clearly upset, and she curses whoever thought that today would be a good day to hold one of the most important events of their young Queen’s life.

But the world can’t stop for William Lamb, she thinks, no matter how much she wishes it could.

So she sends him a message.

She’s looking for you. Come when you can.

 

***

 

When he hasn’t appeared by 5:45pm, she starts to panic a little. The Queen was due to enter in fifteen minutes, and would be appearing at her desk in less than five, and she was studiously avoiding thinking about how she would react when she realises her Lord M wasn’t there.

She’s already called him four times.

She knows what she’d find if she were to arrive unannounced on his door-step; she’s been there before. She just hopes he’s salvageable at some point soon.

‘Where is Lord M, Emma?’ the Queen asks, her voice a little higher in pitch than normal and Emma winces.

‘He’s on his way, ma’am,’ she lies. ‘But he won’t be here for your entrance,’ she adds, and she thinks that the Queen is about to panic. Harriet is biting her lip, her eyes wide, and Emma shoots her a warning glance. She’s going to need all the help she can get if this was going to have even the remotest chance of working. ‘He’d be so proud of you, ma’am, if you did this without him,’ she says, and she sees the Queen swallow.

‘I can do this,’ she says eventually, her voice trembling and Emma’s not sure if she’s even managed to convince herself at all.

‘You can. We all know you can.’ And the Queen nods absently.

And when she’s standing at the doors, Emma takes his place at the Queen’s side, and she knows she is a very, very poor substitute.

‘Are you ready, ma’am?’ she asks, and the Queen lets out a breath.

‘I…Yes,’ she says, her voice suddenly stronger. ‘Lord M would want me to be.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ Emma says, a small smile on her face. She watches as the Queen takes several breaths, before her chin lifts slightly.

‘He’ll be here soon,’ she half-asks, glancing at Emma, who nods firmly.

‘Yes, ma’am.’ She’ll go and get him herself if she has to.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He knows he should be there.

He just…can’t. Not today. Not today of all days.

He can’t go out there and pretend to be happy and jovial and pleased when the ghost of his most soul-destroying failure haunts him.

But he knows she needs him, and the pressure of making a decision, of deciding to go or stay, is enough to make his mind blank out completely. And so he stares at the ceiling, succumbing to the darkness and pain and nothing that overwhelms his senses.

He hears his phone ring for what feels like the fiftieth time in the hour he’s been conscious, and he knows it’s her.

He can see her face in his mind. He cannot conjure it when he tries; all he sees is curly brown hair against the white of a pillow when he tries to focus on anything. But slowly, so slowly, she begins to appear unbidden, when he allows himself to sink under the waves; her blue eyes, her smile. He thinks he can almost hear her laugh every now and then.

Augustus would have loved her, his little Queen, and the thought triggers a flood of silent tears that flow over his temples and into his hair where he lies on his back on the floor.

Emma’s text message haunts him. I know what day it is, William, and I’m sorry. But she needs you.

She needs him.

She needs him.

He hasn’t been needed in so long, and the last time someone had needed him… He’s organised too many funerals.

But his little Queen needs him and he finds that now, as he lies on his back on the floor of his bedroom, the hangover still banging at his temples, that the thought of her is just, just enough. She is his star, and he cannot escape the pull of her for long.

He finds to his surprise that he doesn’t want to.

Augustus would have loved her, his little Queen, and his mind is filled with a new image, one that makes his heart almost beat again.

She’s the only thing that has made his life worth anything again. He wouldn’t – couldn’t – let her down any more than he already has.

And with what feels like superhuman, titanic, mammoth effort, he grabs at his phone with arms that feel like lead and forces his fingers to move.

On my way.

 

***

 

She can’t see him. She’s looked and looked, but she doesn’t need eyes to know of his absence. He’s not here, her mind says over and over. He’s abandoned her, on this day. She looks to Emma, who looks back at her, concerned. She knows Emma has tried to contact him, but he still hasn’t come.

He’s been there at every function, at every meeting, behind the scenes; standing surreptitiously against a wall, or behind a curtain, or in the crowd. But he’s there, and she breathes because she knows she is not alone.

But tonight, she cannot breathe at all.

Emma and Harriet look around with barely concealed anxiety, and she knows he’s later than even they had anticipated, and that sends her stomach into a spin. She’s grateful for their presence, their assistance, but they’re not him, and tonight of all nights, she needs him. There are too many people here, too many names she can’t remember, too many things she doesn’t know.

But he’s not here and…and…

She wonders what she’d done wrong.

Surely, he wouldn’t leave her unless she’d done something to make him angry or upset with her. Emma said that he’d had something to do, something important…but maybe Emma was wrong. Maybe Emma didn’t want to tell her that he was angry.

Maybe.

The waiter offers her more champagne and she gladly takes it. Sir John and Mama’s warnings echo in her mind – don’t overdo the champagne – and she thinks vaguely that they’re right and that she shouldn’t drink much. Champagne always makes her feel light-headed and giddy, and she needs to be at her best tonight. But he’s not here, and she can’t breathe.

She takes several long sips of the champagne before the Duke of Grafton asks her to dance and she knows she should say yes.

 

***

 

She’s dancing with the Duke of Grafton when he arrives, and he knows he’s late. She would have been announced a while ago – it’s well after ten now – but he knows she would not have been left alone for long between dance partners and Emma and Harriet and Wellington and Alfred.

If he didn’t have twelve missed calls and six text messages from Emma, he’d fool himself into thinking that she hadn’t even noticed his absence.

‘You’ve been missed,’ a voice says at his elbow, and Emma wraps her hand under his crossed arm to find his hand and give it a squeeze. He squeezes back; she knows how hard this day is for him, and he appreciates her sympathy.

‘She appears to be doing just fine,’ he replies.

‘I think she’s had quite a bit of champagne,’ Emma says quietly, and he flicks his head around to look at her. ‘I’m sorry; there wasn’t much I could do. She’s eaten, but…’ her voice trails off and he frowns. Champagne and nerves were never a good combination, especially not in someone so small.

He closes his eyes for a moment. He should have been here.

He watches her closely for a while; her cheeks are flushed, yes, but that could just be the dancing. She’ll have danced with a few of the Dukes by now and many others, he knows. She’s not particularly unsteady on her feet, he thinks, but it’s hard to tell. The music is too loud and she’s too far away for him to hear what she’s saying to the Duke, but she’s smiling and so is he and he feels a small shift in his stomach he promptly ignores.

Emma eventually squeezes his hand once more and pulls away, leaving him alone in the corner, watching his young Queen. She’s radiant. Her dress is perfect; the deep blue regal and elegant. She is the brightest star in a brightly lit room. He can see that everyone sees it, the way she outshines them all.

And, despite it all, he can feel himself almost, almost smiling.

 

***

 

She knows she should be more subtle, but she can’t help but look around the room for him every few moments. The Duke is lovely, and she responds to his inquiries after her health and the palace and everything, but after every answer, she finds her eyes scanning the room.

He’s abandoned you, a small voice whispers.

But he wouldn’t do that, she tells herself firmly. He wouldn’t.

And then her feet bring her around one more time and everything stops and he’s finally here and she can breathe again. She glances at him another couple of times, just to be sure her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her, but it wasn’t. He was definitely standing there in the corner, and he was watching her. The thought sends a pleasant shiver up her spine, and she feels safe for the first time that night.

 

***

 

And then the song is finishing, and she’s curtseying, and he sees out of the corner of his eye who he thinks must be the son of the Russian President approach. He purses his lips; this is not ideal. The Russian ambassador had sent his apologies two days’ earlier, saying that he would send the son in his place, and Melbourne hadn’t been fooled for a moment. But there had been little he could do.

He is very tall, and very handsome, and not too much older than Victoria, he notices. And they’re dancing, and Melbourne feels his face grow hot at just how close the boy holds her.

Within moments his hand is far too low on the Queen’s back, and he works to suppress his fury.

Alfred is, as they had arranged, only steps away. ‘Alfred, I think it’s time Mr Nikolaevich found another dancing partner,’ he almost growls, and the younger man nods. He watches as Alfred strides onto the dance floor and speaks to the dancing couple. But Nikolaevich isn’t interested in giving her up, he can tell, and it takes Alfred’s hand on his arm to pull him away, and she’s left standing in the middle of the dance floor.

He watches as she spins on her heel, and he thinks she’s looking for someone, and she looks just a little unsteady on her feet. He’s going to have to do something.

But then she’s frowning again and looking around and he’s already moving when his mind tells him that she’s looking for him.

 

***

 

She watches as her dance partner is led away by an apologetic but firm Alfred, and she’s lost. She spins around on her heel – where was he again? – but she can’t see him now.

Her mind is spinning; she’d moved too quickly.

But she was sure it was him she’d seen. Her eyes flit across the faces, the people who mean nothing to her, the people she doesn’t know…

And there he is, striding towards her, and oh

He stops in front of her and she stops. ‘Would you do me the honour?’ he asks, and he’s here and she’s suddenly hot. She swallows and he moves towards her, and the look on his face stops her heart for a moment. He’s so safe and lovely and handsome, her mind tells her, and she feels her face flush, and suddenly it’s all she can think about. And then he’s close and he’s placing one hand on her back and she moves without thinking, her eyes locked on his and her hand wrapped in his larger one, and he’s leading them. It’s everything and nothing like that first afternoon he’d helped her practice.

And she’s floating.

‘I thought you weren’t coming,’ she manages to say, and he drops her gaze.

‘I’m sorry. I had a matter to attend to,’ he replies. Part of her mind tells her she should be confused – what on earth could he possibly have to do on the day of her Coronation Ball? – but the voice floats away as soon as it arrives.

‘I thought you were angry with me.’

His eyebrows rise and he glances around. ‘You? Never.’

He’s acting strangely and she can’t figure out why. Her brain is a fog and she can’t see through it. But it doesn’t matter; he’s here and she’s dancing with him and she’s not entirely sure how she feels, only that she feels.

How had she not felt this before?

‘You dance so well,’ she says happily, and he lets out a small huff of amusement. ‘I wish I could dance with you every night,’ and she means it. She loves this, this other-worldly feeling, this forced intimacy. She realises distantly that this is one of the few times he’s actually voluntarily touched her and yet here he is, holding her in his arms, and her skin burns with the thought.

‘I think perhaps you should drink some water,’ he says, and she frowns, confused.

‘Water?’

‘Yes, ma’am. You seem a little flushed,’ he says, glancing at her before looking around again.

‘I’m enjoying the dance,’ she says, and she thinks he must have misunderstood her because he looks embarrassed for a moment. ‘I’m enjoying dancing with you,’ she explains.

‘I’m glad, ma’am,’ he says quietly, not meeting her eyes.

And then the song ends and he lets her go and bows and he’s not touching her anymore. He gives her that small smile, the one he gives her when he’s teasing her, and she smiles back, allowing him to lead her out of the dancing area. Before she knows it, he’s lead her out of the room into a smaller room, and he’s pressing a bottle of water into her hands and telling her to drink.

‘Why am I drinking water?’ she asks, after she’s taken several large mouthfuls, and she then marvels that he’d known - she had been a little thirsty.

‘I’m concerned you haven’t drunk enough today, ma’am. It’s been a big day, it’s easy to forget at these things,’ he explains haltingly, and she’s still confused. He’s looking around now, but she’s not sure at what; they’re all alone in this big, beautiful room she’s not sure she’s even seen before.

‘Emma’s been forcing food and water down my throat all day,’ she replies, putting the lid back on the water bottle and dropping it on the table. He turns to look at her.

‘You seem tired, ma’am,’ he says. ‘You should consider resting in here for a moment.’

Rest? Why would she rest? This is her night; she is almost officially and ceremonially Queen and nothing is going to stop her from celebrating all that she’s been liberated from and all that she’s found. From celebrating with him; her guide, her mentor, her saviour. Her Lord M.

‘I don’t want to rest, Lord M. I want to dance with you,’ she says, grabbing at his hands and pulling him towards her. But she’s all unbalanced and he’s strong and stiff until he’s not and then she’s falling. But he saves her, her Lord M, of course he does, and her hands are on his chest and his hands are on her waist, and he’s very close and warm and his eyes are deep and she’s falling, falling…

She watches his eyes dart all over her face and she feels herself suck in a short breath at the intensity of his gaze. She’s suddenly still and she knows something fundamental has changed. She can see it in his eyes, in his face. He’s never looked at her like that before.

She feels the breath catch in her throat. He’s so close, and his eyes are on her mouth and then he’s looking back up at her eyes…

But he’s the first to break the spell when he looks down, gently moving his hands from her waist to rest on her upper arms and taking a small step backwards until there’s space between them, and she feels the loss of his warmth through her dress.

‘Not tonight,’ he stumbles out, adding on the ‘ma’am’ a moment later, and he won’t look at her until he suddenly does, and she knows that they’re no longer speaking about dancing. His face is so serious and uncertain and so, so sad and that look she’s never seen before is still there. But his words cut like a knife and she feels the dread of rejection and embarrassment lower over her like cold, wet blanket.

Her breaths come in gulps and she moves away from him, each step agony. He doesn’t move, the same solemn, sad look on his face, and she can’t stand it any longer.

She flees.

 

***

 

He sends Emma after her. She must return to the ballroom, speak to her guests. Say her farewells when appropriate. She cannot make a mistake tonight.

He’s not going looking for her; he’s acutely aware that it would only heighten her embarrassment, and she needs all the self-esteem she can get.

He also doesn’t trust himself. His mind is spinning, replaying the scene in his mind over and over: their eyes had met and it was in that moment that he had realised how far this had gone, what a mess he’s made. It’s not the meeting of their eyes, he’d realised – it was the holding. It was the way time had stopped and the whole world had melted away and everything, absolutely everything, was just the two of them standing there. Only this time, they’d both noticed. He’d seen it in her eyes, the way her breath had caught. The way her hands had rested on his chest.

He could still feel them.

He returns to the ballroom to wait until she appears, hiding in a corner that has full view of the doors and waiting, acknowledging those who came close. It’s been a good thirty minutes and he’s halfway through a conversation with Baron Dormer when she appears through the nearest door, Emma right behind her. He watches her closely; her chin is high and her walk confident.

He sees right through it, and curses himself.

But she continues to make the rounds, Emma and eventually Alfred by her side, and she’s smiling prettily for her guests, and the knot in his stomach slowly loosens. The effects of the champagne seem almost entirely gone; she is remarkably calm and composed, but he can tell her laugh is just a little off, her smile just a little wobbly. He’s not going to risk her seeing him and destroying the little façade she’d built; he’s careful to walk around behind her as he leaves the ballroom. He has more than enough work to do at his desk. He knows Emma will watch her, ensuring she says goodnight to those she must, and leave at an appropriate hour herself.

His heart aches.

 

***

 

It’s late when he leaves – or early, rather – and he’s glad they’d organised a late start for her administration staff. They were barely going to get home before they needed to turn around again. Emma had texted him to say that the Queen had taken her leave, and so he’d emerged from his office – from his daze – to ensure the night ended well.

He’s just stuck his head into the ballroom one last time to check on Alfred and send him home and is walking down the hallway when he spots her standing near the doors. He comes to a jerky stop when he sees her, but slowly continues walking when he realises she’s seen him.

It occurs to him that she’s been waiting for him; she’d known he wouldn’t leave her, not really. He takes in a deep breath and releases it slowly as he approaches her. Her face is nervous and vulnerable and his heart breaks at what has happened. What he’s done.

When he gets close he looks up at her and their eyes meet and it’s so, so painful that he blinks. She drops his gaze instantly.

‘You should be asleep, ma’am,’ he murmurs, looking down at her.

‘I am returning to my rooms now,’ she says, and he nods. He watches as her chin rises, and his heart swells at what he now knows is coming. His brave, brave little Queen.

‘I wanted to apologise to you,’ she says, and his heart breaks a little at how her voice trembles. ‘My behaviour this evening was inappropriate.’

He shakes his head. ‘No, ma’am. I am the one who should be apologising. I should have advised you I was going to be late. I should not have left you so unattended.’ He can’t look at her. He hears her let out a little breath.

‘I’m sure that whatever detained you was important, Lord M,’ she says, and he lets out the tiniest huff of breath at the sincerity in her voice. If only she knew.

‘Important or not, it was unkind and unprofessional, and I am sorry.’

He hears her let out a small laugh. ‘Here I am trying to apologise to you and you end up apologising to me,’ she half-laughs, and he smiles as he looks up at her.

And it’s back, that thing that he’s been trying to suppress, been trying so desperately to squash – that thing he fears has a life of its own now, now that it’s been fed.

‘A Queen is never wrong,’ he declares quickly, and she gives a small laugh.

‘If only,’ she replies, and lets out a sigh. ‘I will see you this afternoon,’ she says, her statement more of a question and he nods quickly.

‘Of course, ma’am,’ he assures her, and he’s pleased to see she’s settled somewhat. This was just a bump in the road, he thinks, and he knows he’s a master at fooling himself. ‘Sleep well, ma’am,’ he says, before stepping out the door.

 

***

 

Her face is the only thing he can see as he lies in bed.

Her innocence, her purity calls to him; she is untainted by the world, uncowed by her handlers, desperate to prove herself and be the best she can be. She’s naïve and raw and so, so trusting and he’s like a moth to a flame; he basks in the simplicity of it all, the warmth of her on his skin. His world had grown so cold, so dark, and she has become the sun. She doesn’t have a hidden agenda, a double-meaning in everything she says and does; she just wants to be a great Queen, to do the task assigned to her in this life. It’s so, so refreshing, so warming, so pure that he feels an almost animalistic instinct to protect her, to shield her from it all.

But now…

He has to stop this.

She had been so close, so beautiful. The way she’d looked him...

His treacherous heart will walk him down this road to its own destruction, he knows. He’s done it before; only this time, the stakes are so much higher. Now his heart has betrayed him, as he knew it would, he can no longer hold her close to protect her, wrap her tight in his arms and hide her from it all. He must now shift, pivot and make himself the target, draw their fire away from her as he stands as the mark. It’s himself as well, now, that he must protect her from. He’s now the closest enemy; the fox inside the gates.

He cannot love her. He doesn’t have enough heart left to give, even if he could. Even if he was allowed. Even if it was a remotely good idea.

Loving her will destroy both of them.

 

***

 

His face is the only thing she can see as she lies in bed.

The pillow is wet with her tears; tears of anger, of embarrassment. She’d been so, so stupid. So arrogant. So childish.

She didn’t deserve the crown she would be wearing only days from now, she knew, and the pain of it all curls inwards in her chest and she lets out a sob.

She couldn’t even be trusted with the champagne at her own Coronation Ball.

The sad, pained look in his eyes haunted her.

What had she done?

He had been nothing but her kind, gentle pillar of strength, her greatest support, her saviour from Mama and Sir John. And now it was ruined.

Everything was different now. She didn’t know how, but it was. Something had changed. Shifted. Her was her Lord M, and he always would be, but there was just something…new. She didn’t like it, this new thing, whatever it was. She just wanted everything to be the same as it had been for the past almost year – the happiest almost-year of her life. The thought of that changing, morphing into something else, curls ruthlessly through her mind and into her chest and that cold, wet dread of rejection returns.

He had left her, after that moment, that…whatever it was in the ballroom, and she thinks that perhaps even her apology may not be enough.

He had looked so…so…she wasn’t even sure anymore. She’d never seen that look on his face before, doesn’t know entirely what it means.

But she had made him sad, she knew. Whatever he had looked like, that strange combination of emotions on his face – the sadness, the pain – they had all been her fault. She had done that. She had put the sorrow in his eyes, forced him to push her away when she’d been so childish and unrestrained and undisciplined.

A little spark of hope in her heart that was attached firmly to his reaction to her apology tells her that he may just forgive her. That perhaps all was not yet lost.

Emma’s gentle encouragement had made it possible. It had occurred to her when she’d been almost finished her goodbyes – she’d known he was gone almost as soon as she’d entered the room. When she couldn’t see him, couldn’t feel his eyes on her. She couldn’t breathe.

Emma’s kind, knowing eyes – her soft suggestion that perhaps she could catch him in the hallway in a few minutes when she’d asked where he was – had been enough to convince her that she was doing the right thing. She couldn’t last the night without knowing, without speaking to him, without apologising for her behaviour. Without seeing his eyes emptied of that haunted, sad look; the look she had put there.

They hadn’t been, not quite, but he’d smiled at her, that soft, familiar smile that quietened the voices that had been screaming in her mind for what felt like hours. Perhaps there was hope.

As she lies in her bed, she prays until she falls asleep that she hasn’t lost him, her Lord M.

 

***

 

The cold, harsh light of day – the grey skies of London – remind him that she’d had quite a bit to drink the previous night. The thought is a two-edged sword, he thinks: he’s hopeful that the moment was only brought about by the alcohol that had been running through her veins – the apology she’d given him hours later had been remarkably sober, but she had been really quite wobbly on her feet – but he cannot deny just how good it had felt to hold her, to have her look at him like that.

He wondered again when he’d allowed himself to start seeing her as a woman.

But her face in that moment had also told him something else; she has no idea what she’s capable of. The dangerous part of him, the part that had courted trouble his whole youth, thinks maybe it’s good that she begins to understand that she is a woman; the effect she could have on men. She had no idea, his little Queen, of just how beautiful she was – how attractive she could be. Of what love was – what lust was. He thinks that she’s beginning to learn, and as in so many things, it may just fall to him to be her teacher.

His heart ached; this was not a lesson he wanted to teach her. This lesson would sting, would hurt perhaps as much as the pain he knew without a doubt that she’d endured at Kensington. And he would be sure he couldn’t do it if he loved her any less.

And oh, he loved. His heart beat because of her.

He prays it was just the alcohol.

No matter what, they couldn’t continue like this, and it was his responsibility to fix it. There were boundaries that defined their relationship: boundaries that came with position and rank and title and gender. And they were so blurred now he almost couldn't see them.

He could rely on her to only blur them further, if he let her, but that wasn't her fault. She was guileless, his little Queen, almost childlike in bestowing her affections. It wouldn’t occur to her that the boundaries needed to exist, let alone what those boundaries should even look like.

No, he had to be the one to define them far more tangibly for both of them. Only he didn't know how without hurting her. 

How did he let it get this far?

He knew. Oh, he knew. 

It was his weakness that had led them here. His weakness for a set of beautiful, young blue eyes; a beautiful, radiant smile that she directed so often at him.

His heart had been waiting for the right moment to betray him, and it had caught him at his weakest. It had been a perfect storm of love and sorrow and fear and vulnerability in both of them on that night, that most painful night, that had led to this.

But he couldn’t blame her; he could never blame her for this. It was all him.

He didn't want to redraw the boundaries fully; they needed at least some of that blur for now. She was young. She would eventually know what was required of her and not rely on him quite so much for everything, and then he could pull back, withdraw more and more.

So he only would draw the ones they needed - the critical ones. The ones that kept their actions blameless and her reputation sparkling. The ones that kept his heart as intact as possible. The ones that would protect hers. 

The most important boundary, the one he could most clearly enforce, was simple: he could not – would not – touch her, outside of formal requirements. 

Certainly, no more dancing.

 

Chapter Text

 

It feels odd to arrive so late, despite the few hours’ grace they’d decided on for everyone who’d worked the Coronation Ball. It hadn’t helped; he’d barely slept anyway.

He should be on a high; the night had been by all accounts extremely successful. Despite the little…incident in the middle, she’d carried herself gracefully and impressed everyone.

But it’s more complicated now.

He’s greeted by Peel with the morning papers, and he cringes. He wonders if she’s seen them yet; if she’s awake. Perhaps he can get in first, stop Lehzen…

He shakes his head. He can’t shelter her from everything, and nor should he. This was fairly tame, really – just some speculation about her dancing with the son of the Russian President, some quotes about how close they’d been. A stupid sub-headline in The Times about increased British-Russian relations.

He feels a mild anger build in his chest, and enjoys it for a moment, before dismissing it.

But there are no photos outside of the official ones, luckily. They’d clearly succeeded in getting all the mobile phones, he’s pleased to note, and this would die quickly without the visual. Besides, she was new, and the public was hungry to get to know their new Queen. And the media would be more than happy to capitalise.

No one seemed to have noticed her brief absence in the middle of the ball, or the way her feet were perhaps a little more unsteady than they should have been, or the way her cheeks had been flushed from the champagne and happiness. He finds himself biting his lip at the thought; they had been lucky.

But really, all in all, the media seem quite enamoured of their new Queen, as they should be. The others all have glowing reports of their new, beautiful little Queen; how elegant she’d looked, how everyone had been so happy to meet her, how sweet and lovely she’d seemed. And if he knew his little Queen, she’d go one of two ways – be gleefully happy at the success of the ball, or be frustrated at the insinuations. He wasn’t entirely sure where she’d land this time – it wasn’t quite that simple. There were layers of complexity now, layers he was keen to see removed.

He avoids Emma’s gaze when he arrives at her office, nodding when she tells him she’s ready, and walks straight down the hall to her study.

He wonders briefly what she’d told Emma, but then shakes his head; he’s not entirely sure he wants to know. Emma would make it clear soon enough, he thinks.

He takes in a breath before he enters her study. It’s up to him to set the mood if he can, to control the fallout as much as possible.

When he enters the room and meets her wide, slightly terrified eyes, it’s a little awkward – he’d known it would be – but he gives her a small smile and he watches as she visibly relaxes. She’d been anxious about seeing him this morning, clearly.

She reaches tiredly for the coffee in his hand, but otherwise she looks fine – no evidence of a hangover, he thinks to himself, and whilst he’s pleased she seems mostly well, he worries about just how much she remembers of the previous night. Enough to make her apprehensive about his appearance this morning, he thinks. But then she was young; she’d bounce back quickly. Perhaps…

He blinks a few times; he’s being an idiot, getting himself all tied up in knots over nothing. It was nothing. Too much emotion and alcohol and exhaustion and nerves and now she was a little embarrassed.

‘Congratulations, ma’am,’ he says with a smile. ‘A very successful evening.’

She nods happily, but there’s still an element of shyness in there. It’s then he sees the newspapers in her hand and on her desk and he thinks the distraction will be good. ‘Read the paper this morning, ma’am?’ he asks lightly, and it generates exactly the response he wants.

‘Are they going to do this every time I speak to a member of the opposite sex?’ she demands, the derision clear in her voice, but he thinks he hears something else too.

‘Oh, yes, ma’am. Until the day you marry,’ he says firmly, and when her eyes widen slightly he thinks he knows what he couldn’t put his finger on.

‘But I’ve no intention of marrying anytime soon,’ she says, trailing off before letting out a small groan. ‘They said this would happen,’ she mutters.

‘They?’ he asks, knowing exactly who she’s talking about.

‘Mama, Sir John. They said I should marry quickly to end the speculation,’ she adds, and his eyebrows rise at that. They really have sheltered her, he thinks. There’s no way anyone would believe that.

Unless…

But that doesn’t bear thinking about right now.

‘I’m not entirely sure that’s the solution, ma’am,’ he says. ‘The press does not give up easily. And besides, once you’re married, they’ll just move on to impending children. There’s always something.’

She lets out a small huff of annoyance. But he sees his opportunity, and takes it.

‘Having said that, ma’am, much of England doesn’t live in the twenty-first century when it comes to royalty and marriage, especially not women. You should be careful who you’re seen with in public, unless you are willing for the public to speculate about some kind of relationship,’ he says. ‘It’s not fair, but it is what it is.’

She’s frowning. ‘Except you,’ she states after a minute, and it’s an afterthought. But it tells him so much, and he almost lets out a relieved sigh then and there.

‘Not even me,’ he replies, and she frowns a little.

‘But you’re my private secretary!’ she says, and he can hear the exasperation in her voice.

‘Yes, ma’am. But the press will look for scandal wherever they can find it, and more than happily invent it if needs be.’

She lets out another irritated huff, and he really has to stop her from taking everything so personally. She still hasn't really learned yet that she must be two people: the Queen for the public, and Victoria for herself. The Queen will marry and have children one day, as will Victoria. But Victoria should not allow speculation about the Queen bother her so much.

‘My life really isn’t my own, is it?’ she asks, like she’d once thought it might have been, and he sees his opportunity.

‘The Queen belongs to the people, ma’am,’ he agrees. ‘But you belong to you alone, and to those you choose to belong to.’

He can see her thinking about what he’s saying, and he thinks she might understand just a little by the way she eventually nods slowly.

‘All other reports seem to suggest that the evening went quite well,’ he says, knowing he can’t avoid this. They need to debrief the evening – well, most of the evening – and it’s going to be awkward, he knows, but it cannot be helped.

‘Yes,’ she says absent-mindedly, her thoughts still on his previous words. The idea that she should be two separate people felt so disingenuous, so fake. She feels her own automatic resistance to the idea, but she resists the urge to dismiss his words completely. He’s never lead her astray before, and he’s been a public figure himself, so he would understand at least to some degree. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps the venn diagram doesn’t need to be a circle; perhaps there is a way to be both the Queen and Victoria. She doesn’t need to lie, but she can’t share all of herself with everyone all the time - it would be exhausting.

Her thoughts are interrupted by his question, and she looks up at him while her mind processes his words. ‘Did you enjoy yourself, ma’am?’ he’s asked, and she realises he has this look when he asks her a question; like he genuinely wants to know the answer. He looks at her expectantly, like he's waiting to hear what she has to say, not dismissing her outright before she's even opened her mouth, or asking a question simply because it’s the polite thing to do.

He treats her like a Queen – he always has – but more than that, he treats her like a person, and it's been so long since anyone has done that. She can't remember the last time someone spoke to Victoria, not the Queen. She thinks she understands what he means a little more now. He sees both of her, requires different things from each.

Did she enjoy herself? Her mind flashes back to his eyes on hers in a dimly-lit room, the way his eyes had been dark and serious and sad. Apologetic, almost.

She shakes her head; she’d spent far too much time in her own head going over that moment, cringing at the embarrassment she’d made of herself. Worrying herself silly about the damage that she’d done to their friendship. But looking at him this morning, he hadn’t changed; he was the same Lord M she knew and loved.

Maybe, just maybe, it would be okay.

‘Yes,’ she says, dropping his gaze, and she knows she’s terrible at lying. ‘I did.’ She looks back up at him, and his gaze is soft and expectant and not awkward at all, and her heart slows – he’s trying to make this easier on her. He’s so good to her, her Lord M. But she still feels still a little awkward, and she thinks she knows how to break the tension – a little trick he taught her.

‘I think perhaps for future functions, I should limit the amount of champagne I drink,’ she says carefully, and he lets out a huff of a laugh, and the tension is broken. She’s pleased to have made him smile, but more, so much more than that, she thinks that perhaps he’s forgiven her.

It’s going to be okay.

Later, she wonders when exactly he became her Lord M. But the thought warms her heart; despite it all, he is hers.

 

***

 

She’s survived two of the biggest tests so far – not just survived, but passed with flying colours. Everyone thought so; even her mother had told her how elegant she had looked at the ball.

But this was the third and final for the foreseeable future, and arguably the biggest.

When he arrives at her rooms that morning, just two days after the ball, she’s already dressed and mostly ready; Harriet, herself dressed beautifully, appears to be making the final touches to her hair.

She was nervous, he could tell, but it was tempered with the knowledge of her successes. She knew she could do it now; it was just now a matter of doing it again. He thinks she’s mostly worried about the crown. It was the weak link in the chain; the place where the most could go wrong. Despite everything Perrett had done, she really was just a small woman, and the crown had not really been designed with a young Queen in mind.

‘Ready, ma’am?’ he asks, and she looks at him with those wide eyes, but then her face firms and she nods.

‘Yes,’ she says, and he smiles.

 

Afterwards, he’s impressed that he doesn’t actually cry. He watches transfixed as she walks up the aisle, her head held high, and the emotion he feels startles him with its intensity.

If he’d been asked to describe how he felt, he would have struggled to find words. She was regal, elegant, resplendent in her dress and robes, and when the crown is placed upon her head in front of everyone he’s already sent up multiple prayers to a God he’s becoming rapidly familiar with again. It wobbles just the tiniest bit, infinitesimal really, but then she’s standing there, the Queen in every sense of the word, and his heart is overflowing.

She was the sun, and he was basking in her light.

Later, at the reception, her eyes find his the moment she enters the room and he can see her eyes become glassy as she sees his own unshed tears. But then he gives her the smallest of bows, blinking, and she’s smiling so, so happily at him, and oh, he adores her, his little Queen.

 

Chapter Text

 

She’s beautiful, his little Queen.

When she’s dressed for a formal event, she takes his breath away, he’ll easily admit. He’s only a man, and he can appreciate that whilst his Queen isn’t gifted with height, she is careful to look after her figure, and Emma Portman and Harriet Sutherland know exactly what she should wear.

But this particular night, she is gorgeous.

Her hair is up and away from her face in a beautiful mess of loose, soft curls. The dress is long and some kind of silk and clings to her curves in a way that he’s almost ashamed to admit short-circuits his brain. The fabric scoops around just underneath her collarbone, and the tight fit accentuates her tiny waist. It’s elegant and sophisticated and he is acutely aware that she is very much a woman.

He wonders, not for the first time, when he started seeing her as the Queen and as a woman. He thinks perhaps it doesn’t matter now. It’s rather all too late for that kind of reflection.

She walks up to him and he can tell she’s wearing heels because her eyes are almost level with his mouth rather than his shoulder. His mind registers that her dress is the exact same shade of blue as her eyes.

‘What do you think, Lord M?’ she asks, standing in front of him, and he hates the part of himself that’s glad he’d been kept behind to sort out some paperwork.

‘Stunning, your majesty,’ he manages in time to see Emma smirk behind her. Her smile is wide but still a little shy, and he smiles at her in return. ‘Enjoy the film.’

He shoots Emma a dirty look as the Queen passes him, but she just smirks at him.

(He’s decided that Emma Portman knows far, far too much and a part of his mind whispers that this is not a good thing, but he ignores it. He trusts her with his life, and trusts her to know where the boundaries lie – even if she does like pushing them a little every now and then.)

Despite his little Queen’s protests that he, too, needs to have fun every now and then, he manages to convince her that his duties do not – and should not – extend to film premieres, and that he’ll attend the movies like the commoner that he is.

But she corners him one afternoon, and tells him rather imperiously that she has decided that she will attend the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of some of Mozart’s most popular works for the anniversary of his death and she absolutely requires someone to attend with her, and he can’t help but laugh before she’s even finished her sentence at how devious she is. He’d given her the invitation the previous morning with a little smile, and she’d grinned and made a joke about this being his kind of fun. He’d reminded her much to her amused outrage that she was the one invited, not him, and perhaps that was good because she needed to learn to appreciate real music. This, clearly, is what she’d come up with in the twenty-four hours since.

‘You must come with me,’ she all but demands with twist of her lips, and he’s still smiling. She’s clever, his little Queen. She asks him what he has planned for that evening, and he shrugs, shaking his head. He knows there would most likely be nothing; he’d just go home and work, or watch whatever on TV. Besides, he thinks he’s becoming quite adept at slipping in and out of places either before or after she does. Few people notice him – he’s no one now when she’s around. It’s liberating after years of the spotlight.

So he acquiesces, and her smile widens, and he feels a little happier than he had when he’d arrived that morning.

His mind reminds him to be careful. Despite it all, despite his feelings and the beyond blurred nature of their relationship, he was an employee and, at best, a friend, and should be nothing more. He’s pleased to note that everything seems to have returned to normal after the ball; the awkwardness that had tinged their meeting afterwards was gone, and they’d gone back to their usual easy relationship. She had been nothing more than high on the adrenaline and the beauty of the evening and the champagne and her gratitude towards him. His heart still beat for her, but as long as hers did not return that beat, they were safe.

He didn’t think attending a concert for Mozart would be an issue, but he still needs to outline the boundaries for her. ‘It’s not really appropriate for me to be seen attending these kinds of public functions with you, ma’am,’ he says the morning of the concert, and she frowns at him.

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m your Private Secretary, ma’am. I’m technically nothing more than an employee, and should be treated as such.’ And the look on her face would be comical, except that he knows she doesn’t understand this, and she really needs to understand this.

‘Don’t be ridiculous! You might be my Private Secretary, but you’re also my friend,’ and the way she ends uncertainly on the word friend makes his heart cry out just a little.

‘Of course, ma’am, but that’s not how it will be perceived.’

She lets out a huff of frustration. She hates this, having to consider and reconsider every action, every movement. It goes so contrary to her nature; what you see is what you get with his little Queen. But she will learn. ‘So you will sneak in a side door?’ she asks a little bitterly.

‘No, ma’am. I’ll just arrive in a separate vehicle, and enter right before or right after you. It’s really only that initial arrival part, where the photographers will be all around wanting to take photos of you – and of anyone you choose to accompany you,’ he explains, and she relaxes a little, but he thinks she understands now what he’s trying to say.

‘So you will still sit with me?’

‘If you would like me to,’ he says, and she seems to settle at that.

The concert is excellent, and he knew it would be, and she – well, she is stunning. He has to remind himself constantly that he cannot watch her all night, not here where he is just as much a guest as anyone, when eyes will be on him because he was with her. But when she arrives, he’s standing at the top of the steps at the entrance, he’s hidden partly by the darkness and partly by her security, and he can just observe.

She’s come so far in so many, his little Queen, from those first awkward statements at the Privy Council, and he is so, so proud of her. She’s gorgeous, wearing something that Harriet herself had designed, she’d been excited to tell him. It’s elegant and long and covers everything from her neck to her feet, and he thinks the kind of netting that wraps tightly around it is a cream colour except for the little flowers of various sizes and earthy pastel colours that cover it. She stops for the photographers for the briefest moment, and he know she’s only doing it for Harriet, before waving gently to the crowds and moving slowly towards the entrance, offering them all a soft smile as she walks up the stairs.

His heart swells at the sight of her beauty, her grace, her elegance, and he feels that pull low and strong, that thing that he knows now most definitely has a life of its own, despite how desperately he’s tried to starve it.

She is beautiful, and he wants her.

The strength of the thought shocks him and he swallows against it, pushing it away. He cannot, cannot have her. She is not his to have, and she never, ever will be.

She’s walking up the stairs towards him, but he can tell she can’t see him yet by the way her eyes dart around, and soon she’s close enough that he can see that little furrow in her brow. He steps out of the shadows just slightly and that thing in his stomach is pleased to see her let out a breath – that little furrow in her brow disappear – at the sight of him.

He tilts his head towards the door, and she continues in with a small smirk, but without stopping. He waits a moment for her security to pass him with a nod, and for some more of the guests to start to filter through, before he heads in.

It’s not until they’re about to leave that he relaxes a little. She’s spent the intermission charming various members of Parliament, Lords and Ladies, and even the odd celebrity, and he’s happily standing in the background, talking to his own former colleagues and trying very hard not to watch her too much.

Russell raises an eyebrow at him as he approaches where he’s standing a few feet away from the Queen. ‘Enjoy the concerto?’ he asks, and Melbourne knows exactly what he’s asking.

‘Yes, it was an outstanding performance,’ he replies, and Russell’s lips twist at his non-answer as he moves away with a nod.

They’re standing at the end of the hallway, waiting for her security to clear the area behind the building so she can leave quietly through a back door. ‘What did you think, Lord M?’ she asks, a small smirk on her face, and he nods.

‘An excellent performance, ma’am,’ he announces, playing along.

‘I agree,’ and she can’t hold the grin in any more. ‘I’m glad you were able to attend.’

‘I wouldn’t miss a performance of Mozart, ma’am,’ he replies seriously, and she lets out a giggle, and he can’t help but smile back at her silliness.

It takes just a moment for the clicking sound to register, and he’s moving without thinking to stand in front of her, his arms back and pushing her behind him. It only takes him another moment to realise what has happened: a photographer is now being manhandled by one of her security. He purses his lips in annoyance.

Well, he knows what to expect in the papers tomorrow, he thinks. He wonders which page she will – they will, perhaps – earn. Probably not the front – not enough to put them there, he thinks bitterly. Concerts of classical music don’t tend to inspire too much bad press. But perhaps a few pages into a magazine…

‘Lord M?’ she asks quietly from behind him, and he turns as he watches the photographer disappear around a corner with several police officers.

‘Just a wayward lens, ma’am,’ he says, turning back and smiling to reassure her.

She purses her lips, and he can tell she’s a little perturbed by the intrusion. ‘I suppose Harriet’s dress will get more attention, then,’ she comments, and he smiles.

‘Quite possibly, ma’am. Ms Sutherland should be grateful for your efforts,’ he adds as they begin to walk down towards the waiting car, and she grins.

 

***

 

‘I’ve just sent you an email,’ Peel announces from across the hallway, and Melbourne’s eyebrows rise. Peel doesn’t usually herald impending emails, so he switches straight to his inbox and clicks on the link in the email. It takes his brain about two seconds to realise what he’s seeing and he rolls his eyes. ‘Not again,’ he mutters under his breath at the all-too-familiar list in front of him.

‘Look familiar?’ Peel asks not a little derisively from where he now stands in the doorway.

He huffs an annoyed breath. ‘Yeah,’ he replies. He’s not quite sure why he’s made the list again; he hasn’t been on it since he was Prime Minister. It must be something he’s done recently, some photo he’s missed in the magazines or the papers. They’d been on the lookout for the photo from the Mozart evening, but it hadn’t surfaced in the weeks since, much to his surprise.

But he frowns; his team were pretty thorough, as was Press & PR. He’d be surprised if they had missed anything. The fact that Peel has this tells him that they’re fairly well on top of things. But he’s just one name in many, and he thinks that perhaps he’ll stay down the bottom this year, now that he’s out of the spotlight. No one really cares too much now; he’d hidden himself well enough, made himself boring enough that they’d pretty much ignored him for well over a year. His announcement that he was taking a leave of absence from the House of Lord hadn’t even rated much of a mention.

‘I doubt it’ll turn into much,’ he tells Peel. ‘I haven’t made the papers in years.’

Peel doesn’t look convinced. ‘They have long memories.’

‘True,’ he acknowledges. ‘Let’s hope that nothing triggers that memory,’ he says, but even he doesn’t really believe his own words. Something has triggered someone’s memory, or he wouldn’t be staring at his name on the screen now, so many years later.

Perhaps he was just making up the numbers. That was likely it; someone’s gone through the old lists, looking for someone or something exciting, and they found him. He almost smiles to himself; when they had the likes of Wellington and Russell to choose from, he’s not surprised. The Duke was getting on.

He’ll just be sure to keep his head down, and it will all turn into nothing.

No one cares about him now, and that’s just the way he likes it.

 

Chapter Text

 

He’s reminded rather suddenly that she listens to everything he says one afternoon when Wellington’s phone number appears on his screen.

‘What have you been telling her about our asylum seeker policy?’ Wellington demands down the phone, and Melbourne’s a little taken aback. His mind starts working through their conversations that week, and he frowns.

‘Nothing specific,’ he says slowly. ‘We haven’t actually discussed it at all.’ And he’s not sure why they would have; that bill had died a long and painful death months ago. Unless… he makes a short note at the bottom of a notepad by his desk.

‘Then why did I just get the third degree about it?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says honestly. ‘It really hasn’t come up at all.’ And there’s silence for a moment. ‘What did she say?’ he asks, not relishing the thought of Wellington shouting down the phone at him, but he’s also really keen to know what on earth she said to make the older man so angry with him.

‘She said that our current policy on refugees was not in line with what she would expect from her government in the twenty-first century – that it was archaic and close-minded!’ Melbourne smirks, and the pieces begin to fall into place. He’d heard that Lyndhurst had been trying to push some of the changes through in a Private Member’s Bill when it had all gone south not long before Melbourne had left the House, and it had appeared in the papers when a journalist had actually paid close attention to what was happening in parliament. She must have just spotted it in her morning reading – it hadn’t been a huge article, and she hadn’t said anything about it and he hadn’t mentioned it. Lyndhurst’s bill had quickly died a quiet death, but he’d heard through the grapevine that perhaps the ideas weren’t quite as dead as they’d appeared to be. Lyndhurst could be like a dog with a bone when he wanted to be, and if the Tory party wanted something done, well…

He wasn’t going to admit that it was only slightly gratifying to discover that the bill he’d personally argued against when he’d been a minister was something she disagreed with as well.

‘She compared it to our Foreign Policy in the 30s,’ he ends with, and Melbourne frowns; the 30s sounded familiar…

His eyes close briefly as he realises where this has come from. ‘Ah.’

‘What?’

‘There’s an opening of a new Jewish Museum she’s been invited to sometime next year; we aren’t sure if she should attend given the security concerns.’

‘So?’

‘Well, the Holocaust and general anti-Semitism did come up in conversation.’

And he thinks Wellington must be alone by the swearing. ‘Melbourne,’ and he can hear the warning and threat all mixed into one in the other man’s voice.

‘I did not discuss Tory policy with the Queen, Wellington. She came to her own conclusions.’

‘Conclusions that just happen to be the same as yours! And of those women you’ve surrounded her with!’ he growls, and Melbourne forces himself to be civil.

‘She has a mind of her own,’ he retorts.

‘A mind that hangs off your every word, Lord M!’ Wellington shoots back, and Melbourne feels his jaw clench.

‘This was not me,’ Melbourne says after a moment, his voice steely after he’s composed himself and is fairly certain he’s not going to lose it down the phone, and he hears Wellington let out a huff. ‘I made a promise to be as impartial as possible, and I have done my absolute best. She’s not going to agree with you on everything, Wellington. And she certainly doesn’t with me.’

‘I find that difficult to believe.’

‘Well, there’s not a lot I can do about that,’ he says angrily, but he finds he can’t really blame the Prime Minister. He would feel the same if their positions were reversed, he thinks. But he can’t resist one last jibe. Wellington was underestimating his little Queen, and he was happy to keep it that way for now. ‘Have you considered that, for all her youth and lack of political experience, perhaps the Queen has a point?’ he asks, and he doesn’t really try to keep the smugness from his voice.

He can’t help but smile a little when Wellington hangs up in his ear.

 

***

 

Even though she rarely misses anything, he still checks everything she’s signed at the end of each day, so when he flicks open the last document in the pile of that day’s paperwork, he’s surprised to see that she’s missed a page.

But then his eyes narrow, and he reads the front of the document before flicking back to find that she hasn’t signed any of it. He stares at it for a moment, thinking, before letting out a huff of surprise and almost amusement. He knew she knew about this – he’d made sure of it very early on, when she’d first started getting that kind paperwork – but…

This was not a fight he needed – she needed. He knew how she felt – Wellington’s conversation had told him that. And it was like her, his little Queen, to be stubborn and obstinate on an issue she cared about, and it appeared that she cared about this more than he’d realised. But he hadn’t thought for a moment that she would actually go this far.

He’d been a little amused at her expression when he’d put it in front of her that morning; she’d made an irritated face at it, like the document had somehow personally offended her. But she’d listened and nodded at his explanation of what it was, and had given absolutely no hint that this was coming.

He looks at his watch; she’s probably just finished a meeting with the new ambassador to Hungary. He rings Emma only to find that she’s already left her office, so he meets her in the library.

‘Ma’am, you haven’t given Consent to this Private Member’s Bill,’ he says, holding up the document.

And she smiles, her chin high, and he thinks she’s been anticipating this conversation. ‘No.’

He begins to feel a slight throbbing at his temples. ‘Can I ask why not?’ He knows very well why, and she really should not do this.

‘I don’t agree with it.’ He closes his eyes for a moment. How was he going to deal with this?

‘Ma’am, that’s not really the point of Queen's Consent,’ he says, and he wonders briefly if she listened at all to her tutors on the Constitution because he’s about a thousand percent sure this does not qualify as an emergency, and if the press got hold of this, oh, the articles they would write about royal interference in democratic processes and his head spins a little at the thought. Articles of that nature this early in her reign would not – could not – end well for anyone even remotely attached to her, let alone what it would do to her.

‘Why not? I don’t think this is in the interests of the nation,’ she says, her chin held high, and he thinks the battle is already lost. ‘The original bill this came from was debated endlessly in parliament months ago, and it was massively unpopular. This is just deception, the Tories trying to push through something they know isn’t right,’ she says, and he sighs. ‘The public has made their position clear. This way I can simply refuse to give my consent to the bill even being discussed.’

He closes his eyes for a moment. Technically, technically she can do this, prevent it from ever even making it to the floor. It affects crown interests in that it’s now technically an amendment of the Housing and Charities Acts; the original discussion was around the housing of asylum seekers while their applications were being processed. But her consent was merely a formality; no one would expect that she wouldn’t sign it – especially not this new, young Queen, still untried and untested in politics.

Well, based on her conversation with Wellington a few weeks’ back, perhaps he might not be so surprised.

‘On whose advice, ma’am?’ And she frowns slightly. ‘Usually, when a monarch refuses consent, it’s on government advice,’ he explains. He doesn’t think she’d speak to anyone without his knowledge – that would be really quite concerning, given that he handles her appointments – but he has to ask.

‘I had no advice. I decided for myself,’ she states, and he rubs at his forehead. It’s clear she knows about this; her bi-weekly lessons with her tutor on the Constitution were evidently having an effect.

‘Are you sure you want to do this, ma’am?’ he asks instead of the million other questions he has.

She frowns slightly and takes a step closer to him. ‘Why are you so concerned about this, Lord M? I think my reasons are sound and defendable, and I don’t think the Crown really benefits either way from the amendments.’

And he thinks that no matter how sound or defendable her reasons are, it is going to do nothing for her already slightly strained relationship with her Prime Minister, or the public if it got out that she’d prevented discussion of a bill on the floor – even one as unpopular as this. He knows it’s highly unlikely; this kind of thing was not public information, but it would only take one request for information by someone with a grudge and some time and persistence…

That, and Wellington is still going to request his head on a platter. He wonders briefly if Wellington’s ever brought him up with her. Likely not, he thinks, given their first meeting, and the way he’s been throwing her little nickname for him in his face at every available opportunity.

‘This will not please your Prime Minister, ma’am.’

‘I am not in the business of pleasing Prime Ministers, Lord M,’ she says rather incredulously, and he’s going to have to explain.

‘Ma’am…I was not a supporter of the original bill,’ he says heavily, and when he looks up at her, her eyes are narrowing and he thinks she understands.

‘You think the Duke will think you’ve told me to do this.’

‘He thinks I’ve filled your head with my own political leanings on this matter, yes,’ he says.

‘But you haven’t!’ she cries. ‘I don’t agree with their stupid proposals about segregated housing and what is essentially slave labour! I told the Duke this at our meeting.’

‘I know, ma’am,’ he tells her quickly, and she frowns, before her eyes drop and she wanders away from him, clearly thinking.

He knew this would happen; he knew it would come to this. She would have to choose between her job and him: her desires and inclinations as Queen, and this Private Secretary she’s chosen, with all his political history. No matter how hard he’s tried, how he’s tried desperately to be impartial, to make his own views very clear from the alternative in their discussions, it’s still come to this.

And once again, he thinks for the briefest moment that perhaps, just perhaps, he shouldn’t have said yes to a blue-eyed girl-Queen all those months ago.

But then she turns to him, her chin high, and he awaits her decision.

‘If the Duke asks, I will inform him of my reasons for not giving my consent to this bill, and remind him that as Queen, I have the right to refuse consent on bills that affect the interests of the Crown, a right I will use sparingly, but when I feel is necessary. And I will also remind him that I am a grown woman with my own mind, and will not be told what or how to think by anyone, least of all by my Minsters.’

And that’s that, he thinks, as he stares back at this woman before him, whose voice had hardened on that last sentence.

He can see her there still, his little Queen, but he thinks that she perhaps isn’t so little anymore.

  

***

 

He makes a habit of making himself scarce when Wellington is due for his weekly visits, and he makes doubly sure this week. He’s had enough of the older man’s voice yelling at him down the phone; he doesn’t need it in person.

But it would seem that he cannot avoid it this week.

‘Wellington would like to see to you,’ Emma tells him down the phone, and he purses his lips. ‘He doesn’t look pleased.’

Melbourne isn’t surprised, if she said to Wellington half of what she’d said to him a week ago. But he thinks it would be better if his entire department didn’t know about Wellington’s disagreements with the Queen – at least not from Wellington – so he heads him off in the hallway.

‘I tried to convince Her Majesty it wasn’t a good precedent to set,’ he starts, and he can see Wellington’s frown deepen.

‘Her exact words were ‘I have my own mind and I will not be dictated to by anyone, least of all current or former Prime Ministers’,’ and Melbourne has to bite down hard on the laugh that bubbles up in his chest. It would seem she’s refined her little speech in the week that has passed.

‘She’s had a tutor in constitutional matters,’ he explains. ‘But, apparently, she’d already covered this before her ascension – which isn’t particularly surprising, given the circumstances.’ He’d shuddered to think what Conroy could have done with Queen's Consent when he’d found out. ‘She’s done this all on her own.’

And the way Wellington is eyeing him tells him that he may have just convinced him. ‘What does she hope to gain?’ Wellington asks, and Melbourne sticks his hands in his pockets and looks down at the ground.

‘I think, perhaps, we are underestimating our Queen,’ he says, his eyebrows raised as he glances back up at the Prime Minister. He’s thought about this, letting their discussion play around in the back of his mind, and he keeps coming to the same conclusion. ‘I think she hopes to do what she thinks is the right thing.’

Wellington huffs, before shaking his head. ‘I am too old for this,’ he mutters, and Melbourne’s lips twist. ‘A monarch with a conscience. Who would have thought?’ he adds dryly, and Melbourne smiles at that.

‘Who, indeed.’

 

Chapter Text

 

He answers his phone and it’s Wellington’s PA, and he knows something is up because it’s an official call. ‘Please hold.’

Wellington’s on the phone only moments later. ‘There’s been an explosion. Shopping centre in York,’ he says gruffly, and Melbourne feels his stomach drop. He spins around in his chair to his television, grabbing at the remote and flicking the screen on. ‘None of the visuals appear have made the news just yet, but it will have made social media,’ Wellington says. ‘I expect it’ll be on the television in minutes.’

‘It already is,’ he says, watching the shaky phone footage being shown on the screen in front of him, the news banner down the bottom screaming in red and white letters about an explosion. He’s already out the door and walking quickly down the hall towards her office; he tosses the remote to a confused Robert Peel on his way out. ‘Casualties?’ he asks, and Wellington huffs.

‘It’s school holidays.’ There’s silence at the end of the line for a moment. ‘The Queen, Melbourne,’ Wellington says. ‘I don’t think she’s seen much like this before.’

He’s so very well aware that she hasn’t. He’d been the one to show her images of the World Trade Centre bombings on September 11, before the Diplomatic Corps Dinner. She’d almost teared up at the images of something that had happened in another country when she was just a child; he can’t imagine how she’ll react to this. Despite how much she’s grown and changed and learned, he knows that she’s still so soft, his little Queen.

And despite the strain of the previous months – years – he feels a rush of gratitude for the Duke’s consideration and care for their young, sheltered Queen. He knows how these things work; he must have instructed his PA to call within minutes of being told himself. ‘Thank you, Arthur,’ he says as meaningfully as he can, as he drops his phone and comes to a halt at Emma’s desk. He knows it’s all over his face; he sees Emma already standing out of the corner of his eye, grabbing at her phone.

‘She’s in her rooms,’ she says after a moment, and he nods, before pushing through the door and jogging down the hall. He prays she’s not on her phone, that she’s just reading a book or something – anything except watching television.

She has such strength, his little Queen, but she’s so, so tender, so easily bruised.

He sees Nancy standing at the end of the hall. Her face becomes anxious at the sight of him rushing towards her, but he doesn’t have time to explain. ‘The library,’ she says before he can speak, pointing down the hall, and he calls his thanks as he jogs past. He grabs the doorframe as he arrives, and his heart sinks.

He’s too late.

The images of smoke rising from the crowded shopping centre, people running past Special Forces Police, Ambulances and Police cars with flashing lights and white sheets cover the screen. Her head whips around at his arrival, her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide and glassy, and he knows she’s only just seen it. She spins back towards the television, and he walks slowly over to sit next to her on the lounge.

His heart is so heavy; the scenes are like they always are - heart-breaking scenes of death and pain, shock and anguish. He’s seen it so many times before, but the pain and shock are still the same; he feels it in his chest. But she’s new to this; she’s not prepared to see people on trolleys under white sheets, to see small children crying in the arms of yellow and blue-covered police. Her people.

They watch for a little while, listening to the newsreaders tell them more and more, before she lets out a sob next to him, the tears in her eyes spilling over onto her cheeks, and his heart breaks at the sight of his little Queen with silent tears running down her face. Before he realises he’s moving, his arm is around her shoulders and she’s falling into him, her head on his shoulder, her knees curling up to her chest, the tears slowly running down her face as she watches the horror unfold on the screen in front of her.

Eventually it becomes too much, he thinks, because after a little while – after a particularly heart-rending image of a group of dust-covered fathers hugging their children – she turns and buries her face in his shoulder, grabbing on to the lapel of his jacket, and he wraps his arms around her, drawing her to him. It’s awkward, the way they’re sitting, so he slides back a little and pulls her with him so that she’s curled up next to him, pressed into half to his front, half to his side.

It occurs to him that he’s breaking his rule in a big way, and he’s torn, but not torn at all. She needs him in this moment, his little Queen – this horrible, horrible moment. This is friendship, he thinks – one friend comforting another – nothing more. He can do this one thing. There won’t be many of these moments, he thinks, and for now, until she’s just a little stronger, a little more experienced, a little less raw and new and young, he won’t deny her this. She has no one else she will do this with, he thinks. He can’t imagine that she allows her mother to see this side of her any longer.

So he holds her in his arms, gently rubbing circles on her back, while she quietly cries.

‘You shouldn’t watch too much,’ he says quietly after a few minutes, when she’s been still for long enough that he thinks the worst is over.  ‘It will only upset you more.’

She pulls away just a little, snuffling and sitting up, and he feels the loss of her warmth at his side. It’s enough to jolt him into moving; he pulls his arm away from around her shoulders. The immediate pain is gone. Boundaries, he tells himself.

‘They’re my people,’ she says quietly. ‘I can’t not watch.’

‘Yes, you can,’ he says. ‘You aren’t serving anyone by exhausting and upsetting yourself, ma’am.’

‘But what can I do? I want to help!’ she cries. ‘I should be able to do something!’

She’s so naturally compassionate, his little Queen. Her heart is so big and full of love for her people, and he’s so proud of her, but she needs to learn where to direct it. ‘You can’t protect everyone from everything ma’am. That’s not your job, and it’s not possible.’

She looks almost mutinous for a moment before her face falls into something more like frustration, and she turns back to the screen. ‘I feel so powerless,’ she says quietly.

‘Right now? Yes, ma’am. You have to let the emergency services do their jobs,’ he says. ‘But later? You have a power that no one else in the country has,’ he says, and she stares at him.

 

***

 

It’s a little over a week later and she’s walking through the Children’s Wing of York Hospital, and he thinks she might not make the car before she falls apart.

She’s been so strong, talking with each of the children and their slightly star-struck parents, smiling and laughing, mostly ignoring the photographers, handing out her little Tower Guard teddy bears – she’d insisted on the bears, even when she’d learned that some of the children were not really that young. Every child loves a teddy, she’d told him, and he’d simply nodded, acquiescing to her wisdom in this area.

Augustus had loved his bear.

He’d arranged for some of the emergency services to be there, along with some of the doctors, and she’d spoken so well he’d been surprised. It isn’t until he sees her face as she walks towards him between seeing the children and meeting the emergency services that he realises she’s barely holding it together. But she takes a deep breath and pushes on, and he’s so, so proud of his little Queen.

But now, at the end, it had been a long, emotional day, and he could tell she was faltering. She makes it to the doors to the carpark before her face crumples and her hand goes to her mouth. She steps outside of the door and turns towards the brick wall to the side, still shaded by the entrance, and stops, her hand on the wall almost holding her up as she lets out a sob. His heart breaks. She had given so much, held herself so well all morning, and now there was little left.

But he knows, this time, he cannot comfort her – touch her – not in front of all her security, out in the open, where he’s sure there are hidden photographers just itching for photos.

Not again. Not this time. He has to maintain the boundaries.

This is just emotional exhaustion, tears after a long, emotionally challenging day. She needs the release; she doesn’t need him. Besides, he tells himself, she has to learn to comfort herself, and to seek this kind of comfort from those who are allowed to give it. This is something she will do countless times as Queen, and she has to learn to do it without him.

He won’t be around forever.

So he stands beside her, facing her and shielding her from the world outside as she hits the wall with her fist, his own hands curled into balls in his pockets, and he despises himself just a little more with each passing moment, with every tear that he knows is falling. Every tear that falls cracks his heart open just a little further; he feels every sob in his chest. But he cannot blame her. It is he who is the weak one; he who loves when he shouldn’t.

And oh, he loves.

He’s known for a while, and he’s almost – almost – come to accept it.

And it’s slowly killing him, these moments where her heart cries out for love, and he cannot give it. He cannot establish – allow her to establish – that level of casual intimacy. He cannot allow her to love him in return. He must, absolutely must, build those walls. It’s for the best, for both of them, he tells himself, and oh, he longs to hold her in his arms, to protect her from all that would make her cry like that.

‘Breathe,’ he reminds her softly, more for himself than anything else. It takes a few moments, but she pulls herself together, taking a series of deep breaths. She looks up at him, her face red and wet, and he hates himself so, so much.

He may not allow himself to touch her, but he can love her in so many other ways, and so he gives her a small smile, his eyes soft. ‘You were so brave,’ he says quietly.

‘I just…’ and she stops, looking down at her feet. ‘I don’t understand why they would want to hurt children,’ she says eventually, wiping at her eyes.

‘Neither do I, ma’am.’ She’s pulling herself together now, straightening her back and taking a deep breath, and when she nods, he turns and leads her to the waiting car, his hand resting gently on her back. He can’t seem to bring himself regret acquiescing when she’d begged him to come instead of the Lord Chamberlain or one of his deputies.

They’re well on the way home when she speaks.

‘I think I understand,’ she says, before turning to him. ‘It was so wonderful to make those children smile again – to know that I could do that.’

And he smiles back at his little Queen and nods. ‘I’m glad, ma’am.’

 

Chapter Text

 

She’s invited to so many things, and it’s part of his job to filter those invitations. He gives her most of them – well, most of the reasonable ones – so that she can choose what she will attend for herself. She’s still so new to this, has no idea what she really likes and doesn’t like, that he’s more than happy for her to try almost anything.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she’s most definitely going to accept the one he’s just opened. He checks her schedule quickly to make sure she hasn’t already accepted some other invitation before he slides it to the bottom of the pile.

He sticks around a little longer than usual that morning just to see her reaction. She eventually lets out a small squeal of excitement, and he grins.

She loves the Ballet. He’s discovered it was the only thing she’d been taken to as a child, and it hadn’t even been here in the UK; it had been on a visit to Germany to see her cousins. So when it comes to her birthday, well, that’s an easy one, he thinks. But it’s not his place to organise her a party of any kind – it’s not a milestone, and he thinks she’d probably prefer something quiet, given the hectic pace of the past few months, so he rings a very excited Harriet who promises to throw her something small at the palace.

‘What’s this?’ she asks, pointing at her screen one morning, and his lips twist slightly when he sees what she means. He’s blocked out the afternoon and evening of the day after birthday, but he hasn’t put any details in.

‘That is a surprise, ma’am,’ he says, and she looks at him, a little surprised herself, and definitely a little confused.

‘A surprise?’ He nods, and her frown morphs slightly into a confused smile. ‘For me?’

‘Who else, ma’am?’ he asks laughingly, and she smiles that confused, slightly incredulous smile that she gets when she realises she’s going to experience something new and possibly wonderful for the first time. It’s look that he adores, but is also tainted with a now-smaller amount of anger; this kind of look should be reserved for significant events, for the big things in life – not surprise birthday events at the age of twenty-three. But he’s dealt with that, has filed it away in the box with all those other elements of her past that make his heart sad and all the little joys of childhood she’d missed out on.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Is it for my birthday?’ she asks, and he nods. ‘But…’ and she trails off, looking confused. ‘Harriet’s already told me she’s organising a dinner,’ she says a little reluctantly, and he nods.

‘Yes, she told me,’ he acknowledges.

‘Oh. Okay.’ She very obviously doesn’t know what to do with this information, and he takes pity on her.

‘Don’t worry about it, ma’am. It’s all organised. You don’t have to do anything.’

And she nods, smiling a little wider at him, and he feels his stupid, traitorous heart swell with affection for his little Queen.

 

***

  

He steps into the near-empty carriage, leaning back and resting his head against the carriage wall next to the door. It had been a long day, but a good one. She’d been frustrated at the bureaucracy around the Australian Prime Minister’s as-yet unannounced but definitely impending visit, but a few well-timed comments had slowly brought a small smile to her face, and then a fully-fledged grin directed at him. He felt himself smiling as he thought about it. Yes, today had been worth the frustrating phone calls and vaguely-worded emails and the piles and piles of paperwork.

A rather loud giggle broke into his reverie. He looks in the direction of the noise to see two teenage girls – they couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen (what on earth were they doing on the tube at this time of night?) and they were, most evidently, giggling at him. He quickly looks away, automatically shaping his face into his most neutral look. He glances down at his jacket, pants, shirt, shoes.

Nope, all good.

He grinds his teeth together. The girls weren’t giggling so much now that they’d seen that he’d seen them, more looking what he assumed was at their phones, but it was still unsettling. They were too young to remember him as PM, and he can’t think of any other reason for their sudden attention. He lowers his head and shuffles to try to hide a scan of the carriage. There was only him and the girls, and another young woman on her own, also on her phone. He watches as she turns an irritated glare on the two giggling girls who completely ignore her.

He’s almost decided to ask them what they were laughing at, when the young woman walks past and grabs the handrail next to him, facing the doors as if to get off.

‘You might like to check Twitter, Lord Melbourne,’ she mutters quietly, emphasising his name. His head flicks around to look at her, and she gives him a small sideways look, a wry smile on her face. ‘Or perhaps just wait for the magazine in the morning, if you’re hoping to keep that smile on your face for tonight.’

He can feel himself gaping, and closes his mouth shut with a snap.

Bollocks.

He watches as she gets off the train with a casual ‘Evening,’ before turning back into the carriage.

It takes one more giggle for him to decide to catch a taxi the rest of the way home.

 

***

 

He can see, even from as far back as he is, that Emma Portman is trying hard not to laugh. ‘Don’t,’ he warns her, as he approaches her desk. She lets out a snort at that, and he sighs.

‘It must be nice to be objectified at your age,’ she says with a completely straight face.

‘Not. Funny.’

‘Oh, I think it’s hilarious,’ Lady Emma replies. ‘I’m going to start a scrapbook.’

He throws a withering look her way before she waves him into the Queen’s office with a smirk.

 

***

 

She’d spent far more time than she’d ever care to admit thinking of the best way to greet him that morning.

‘How does it feel to be considered one of the sexiest politicians of 2017?’

‘Do you practice those poses for the paparazzi, or does it just come naturally?’

‘Which month of the 2018 Politician of the Year calendar would you like to be?’

She thinks perhaps it should feel weird reading about her Lord M on Glamour Magazine’s website; he’s not a celebrity or someone famous. He’s just her Lord M.

But there’s one photo that draws her in. It’s obviously not posed at all – he’s just turned around and is looking directly at the camera, and his gaze is so serious and a little intense, his eyes a little hooded, and she sees it’s only a couple of years old. And he has a beard.

She’s never seen him with a beard before. He looks so different; not like her Lord M almost at all, if it weren’t for his eyes. It’s his eyes that surprise her; they were so light and pale in that shot and she thinks she’s seen that look in his eyes before.  

Something tightens in her stomach a little, and she’s not entirely sure how she feels about the whole thing.

But she knows without a doubt that he’s going to hate the fact that he’s in the media again, and for something so inane, so banal. She knows how hard he’s worked to manage her ‘public image’, as he calls it, and she suspects he’s going to be displeased that he’s somehow missed this.

She’s going to have some fun, she thinks. It’s her turn.

She still isn’t entirely sure she’s decided on the best greeting when he walks into her office. She gets so few opportunities to tease him – to really tease him – that she doesn’t want to ruin this one. She still needs to get him back for the day she got her hair cut.

She just hopes she does it right. She doesn’t want him to get angry with her. But then she thinks he probably won’t be; he’s never really been angry with her before, just endlessly patient. But there’s always a first.

‘Good morning, ma’am,’ he greets her, handing her a coffee, and she knows she’s not quite succeeded in hiding entirely the smirk that is threatening to spread across her face.

‘Apparently, you’re the reason why I always look good,’ she states matter-of-factly, and she bites down on a grin when he stops and very clearly bites down on some kind of retort himself. ‘I think Harriet might be a little offended at that,’ she continues, and she can’t help but smile when he closes his eyes and lets out a sigh.

‘I take it you’ve seen the article, ma’am?’ he asks, and she’d been right – he is rather nonplussed.

‘Oh yes. And it’s all over Twitter. You’re a hashtag!’ she laughs, and he shakes his head, pursing his lips in a vaguely futile effort not to smile at her exuberance. This was not good, not matter how amusing she found it.

‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘And I can never catch the tube again,’ he mutters, and her eyebrows rise at that.

‘The tube?’ she asks, and he looks back at her.

‘It’s nothing, ma’am, sorry.’ He looks really quite annoyed now, she thinks, and she’s a little confused. ‘Ma’am, whilst I’m sure everyone is deriving some amusement at my expense out of this, this is not good news. You need to be the focus, not me.’

‘And I am, Lord M. It’s just one article in a magazine,’ she reminds him.

‘And, apparently, half the internet,’ he replies quietly. ‘This is how scandal starts, ma’am. Someone takes an interest, and then they start digging – they already have. This cannot end well.’

She narrows her eyes slightly at him, confused. He isn’t usually this upset by the media. ‘Why are you so affected by this?’

He turns to face her, and shakes his head. ‘My apologies, ma’am. I am only trying to protect you.’ He claps his hands together. ‘We should run through the guest list for tomorrow’s lunch.’

But she doesn’t move and he doesn’t look at her and she can’t quite work it out, but she doesn’t want to push. So she nods and sits at her desk and he passes her the folder, and she resolves to watch him for the rest of the day.

 

***

 

He’s quieter than usual, and preoccupied, and when he leaves he barely looks at her, and she really doesn’t understand. She wonders if his heightened annoyance is because they’re talking about him, but then she thinks he’s not the kind of person to get this upset about media reports in general, let alone anything so simple. It’s not like they were unkind; in fact, they were extremely flattering. The few photos that accompanied were quite well chosen, she thought – the one of him as PM delivering some kind of speech was one of her favourites. He looked powerful, in control. Strong. She could understand why he’d been quite a popular Prime Minister. The story hadn’t even mentioned his wife, just that he had a ‘tragic backstory’ that made him seem like the sympathetic character in some kind of tale.

And then a thought struck deep and sharp: perhaps he didn’t want everyone to know he was her Private Secretary.

Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he didn’t really like working for her. Maybe she was too silly, too childish, and he regretted saying yes. And oh goodness, what if did regret saying yes, now, after all this time?

Or maybe she’d done it wrong, somehow messed up her teasing. Maybe she’d read the whole situation wrong, and this wasn’t something that you teased someone about. Yes, that was an infinitely more palatable suggestion, and more likely, too. Surely if he didn’t enjoy being her Private Secretary, his eyes wouldn’t always speak kindness and gentleness to her, his voice softness and warmth, his explanations endless patience? Surely…

And she wasn’t sure at all, and she could feel the anxiety bubbling in her stomach.

She had to see him, to talk to him. To apologise for what she’d said. She couldn’t stand to think that he was upset with her, especially over something so silly. She was so stupid. Why did she even think she could do this?

So she sends him a message a little later, asking, if he was free, would he like to go for a short walk in the sunshine? It really was a beautiful day, she thought – one of the first for the year, she thinks a little ruefully, eyeing the grey clouds that were forming on the horizon. It would be churlish to not take advantage of it. And she thinks he probably won’t say no.

If he says no, she’s not sure what she’ll do.

He’s at her door within minutes, and she smiles tentatively at him before they head down the hallway and down the stairs to the grass outside. Neither of them say anything, and she knows now she’s done something wrong. She just wasn’t sure what exactly it was.

What if he really was mad at her? Well, she would deserve it, she thinks. She’d been unkind.

And so she takes a breath and lets it out slowly, trying to calm the butterflies that were taking over her stomach. ‘I’m sorry I teased you earlier today.’

And she knows he’s turned to look at her, but she can’t look back at him, afraid of what she would see. ‘What? What is friendship if it cannot withstand a little teasing?’ he says lightly.

‘You seemed unusually affected by it though.’

And he’s still looking at her – she always knows when his eyes are on her – and so she wills her eyes to meet his, but she finds that he doesn’t look angry. His face is troubled, but it’s his usual soft look, and she thinks he’s studying her a little. She frowns a little, and he lets out a small sigh, looking back ahead at where they were walking.

He clasps his hands in front of himself. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I…I know the pain and humiliation of a scandal. And I have no desire to see that happen to you.’

She frowns in confusion. ‘I…I don’t understand,’ she says after moment.

He lets out a short breath. He promised he’d always be honest with her. She knew so little of the world, of people and what they were capable of, both good and bad. Perhaps it was time she knew just how bad people could be, and just how easily that could all resurface and taint everything he touches – including her. And if he cannot be honest with her about his own life, then what was he really doing? He swallows. ‘I assume you have heard about my wife.’

She was silent for a moment. Harriet had told her the story; how his wife had humiliated him, had affair after affair. But Harriet had also told her how he’d stood by her to the end. How he’d never given up on his wife, this woman he’d loved. How it had almost broken him. So she uses what he’s taught her and forces her words to be kind. ‘I heard that she left you for another man, and passed away not long after you reconciled.’

He smiles ruefully. ‘When you put it like that, it sounds almost civilised.’

And she has to tell him. ‘I’m not sure I could forgive such a betrayal. I wonder that you could.’

He turns to look at her, surprised at the hardness of her voice, and he’s reminded of just how inexperienced she is at life and love. But he cannot give her that experience in a day and he knows the limits of explanation. Now wasn’t perhaps the best time for that explanation, either.

He’s silent for a minute, and when he speaks again, his voice is soft. ‘Perhaps you’re too young to understand.’

And that’s the closest he’s ever come to treating her as young, but she’s still confused about so many things. ‘But surely they would not dredge up the past; what does that matter now?’

‘They will not consider what matters, they will only print what they think will sell. And I’m told that based on the response to this online, anything further on me will sell. Add you into the mix, ma’am, and it’ll sell like wildfire – good and bad.’

‘Oh,’ she says, and she thinks she understands why he’s so upset by this, and oh, she’s so relieved. ‘So you’re not angry with me?’ she blurts out before she can stop herself.

‘Angry? No. Why?’

‘I thought you were angry with me this morning,’ she says quietly, and she feels so, so silly. Of course it wasn’t about her. Not everything was about her. Stupid.

‘Not at all, ma’am,’ he says softly, and he stops, turning to face her, and his face is grave, but his eyes still soft. ‘I was frustrated at the article, and I let it get to me, ma’am. I apologise for taking that out on you.’

She nods, and he gives her a small, almost rueful smile, and they continue to walk.

‘So I suppose you won’t be accepting Harriet’s invitation to model for her winter show then?’ she jokes after a few moments, looking tentatively up at him, and she’s pleased – and relieved – to see him let out a laugh.

 

Chapter Text

 

‘Did you see the article about Lord M this morning?’ she asks, smirking as Harriet walks in.

Harriet looks shocked. ‘What? No! What did I miss?’

Victoria gapes at her. ‘I am shocked, Harriet,’ she teases. ‘How did you miss this?’ She holds up her iPad after a few moments of searching. She can’t help but laugh at Harriet’s expression – she goes from reading to wide-eyed to open-mouthed and laughing.

‘Oh, goodness, ma’am,’ she cries, and Victoria grins.

‘Isn’t it funny?’

‘Hilarious!’ Harriet agrees, studying the photos. ‘These aren’t bad photos,’ she says, and Victoria nods in agreement.

‘But Lord M doesn’t seem to think so.’

Harriet’s eyebrows rise knowingly. ‘I assume he wasn’t overly happy?’

‘Oh, not at all.’

Harriet shrugs. ‘It’s not bad press,’ she says, and Victoria nods.

‘That’s what I said. But then he started talking about scandals, and I suppose he has a point.’

Harriet frowns. ‘Did you know he’s been named Sexiest Politician before, ma’am?’

She turns to look at Harriet, shocked. ‘Really?’

‘Oh, yes. Just before he became Prime Minister.’

And something tightens in her chest and she’s really not entirely sure how she feels about this information. And she’s not sure how she feels about that uncertainty, and she’s now just confused. He was her Lord M. He’d obviously had a past – he’d been married, of course, they’d just spoken of it – but this felt…different. She didn’t know why it was, only that it was.

But she smiles at Harriet and looks down at her iPad. ‘This, I have to see,’ she says, and she thinks perhaps she sounds little strained. She wonders how she missed this when she’d googled him a few days ago.

It had been a revelation, googling people. She’d made the mistake of googling herself, and had eventually regretted it. Some of it had been just lovely – sweet, like some of the letters she received – but she also knew that the papers lied, and so did the internet, it seemed. She had wondered at the time why he hadn’t warned her, but then she’d answered her own question – even if he had warned her not to google herself, she’d have probably done it anyway. She knows – and he’d known – she wouldn’t have been able to resist.

She types in the date and search terms and the pages and pictures begin appearing.

And goodness.

She swallows as she stares at the much younger face of her Lord M, and she feels a tinge of pride. Her Lord M was handsome. He was still her Lord M – she’d recognise those eyes and that mouth anywhere – but his hair had been slightly longer and curlier, she thinks, and he’s just…younger. Lighter. He doesn’t quite look like he’s carrying the world on his shoulders.

‘I found it!’ she crows to Harriet, who moves to sit next to her, and they spend the next few minutes giggling at the various photos and captions.

And despite it all, she thinks that she likes her Lord M just the way he is now.

She decides, however, that she does like the beard.

 

***

 

She’s clever, his little Queen.

She’s learned very quickly where his most obvious buttons lie, and pushes them quite happily when it suits her. He knows she does it, and often knows when she’s doing it – or at least as she’s doing it – but he humours her anyway.

Today is one of those days. They’re walking down through the garden – it had rained for a solid twenty-four hours after their walk yesterday and as soon as the sun had poked its head out from behind a cloud, he knew it was useless trying to keep her inside. She’d already begun bemoaning the unpredictable spring rains. She’d grabbed her laptop and folders and he’d grabbed his laptop and briefcase, and they were headed for the little pavilion in the middle of the gardens.

‘So have you booked your photoshoot yet?’ she asks as innocently as possible.

‘Do we have to talk about this, ma’am?’ he asks, pained, and she laughs.

‘Are you embarrassed, Lord M?’ she teases, and he lets out an anguished little noise.

‘Yes,’ he admits, a little laughingly. The fact that most would consider this positive news is not lost on him, especially after the way he’s spent most of his adult life being dragged so thoroughly through the mud. But he still hates it, hates being the centre of attention. Hates that people are reading about him. He’s meant to be in the background now, behind her, not the focus. He hopes that they forget about him soon; he thinks they probably will. These things have a tendency to be a flash-in-the-pan kind of press, so he hopes that all he has to do is wait, but he’s been on the end of too much for that wait to keep him anything but vaguely nervous. Not for himself, though, never for himself – he couldn’t really care less what they said about him. He’d stopped reading the papers when his life had fallen apart. But her? Well, she was fresh, new, untainted, and he would not allow them to tar her with the same brush they’d used on him.

She laughs as she steps up on the edge of one of the fountains, walking along the sandstone, and he eyes the arm that’s holding her laptop out over the water to balance. She’s deliberate in her actions, his little Queen, but she’s also a little clumsy. Not that she’d admit it.

‘Why?’ she asks, stopping and turning to face him, and she’s genuinely curious. ‘They’re not saying unkind things about you.’

‘Yet,’ he mutters, and when he looks at her face, he realises that, for what he thinks is the first time in the entire time he’s known her, she’s at eye-level with him. He finds it disarming, and he can tell she does too.

‘What colour are your eyes?’ she asks, staring at him, and he ducks his head and huffs a laugh.

‘I don’t know, really… I think they’re green, ma’am, but I’m not really sure,’ he replies. ‘I don’t really look at them.’

And she’s staring into his eyes again with her big blue ones, examining him and clearly trying to decide, and he can’t help but smile at her earnestness.

‘I’ve always thought they were a light brown, or maybe green, but now outside in the sunlight…’ she trails off, leaning a little closer to him.

‘What do you think?’ he asks with a smile, and she frowns thoughtfully.

When she bites her lip in concentration, he feels it low in his stomach and suddenly the mood has changed. Her mouth drops open just a little, and when she sucks in a breath he thinks vaguely that he understands those articles that suggest staring into someone’s eyes in order to fall in love with them.

He lets out a breath and blinks, pulling back slightly, and it’s enough to make her do the same. They walk on for a few moments before she speaks.

‘They’re golden – in the sunlight,’ she announces, and he feels the corners of his mouth turn up slightly.

‘And yours, ma’am, are very blue anywhere,’ he counters, trying to lighten the mood again.

‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘Mama used to say that it was the only thing German about me.’

‘Well, I doubt your subjects mind so much that their Queen is rather English,’ he teases, and she grins.

‘I think perhaps you’re right, Lord M,’ she states. ‘But then you are supposedly an expert in beauty.’ And she’s laughing as he groans and covers his face with his hand.

It was these moments that reminded him of the Coronation Ball; that it would be so, so easy for her to develop a fairly serious crush – if she hadn’t started already. It was dangerous, this game they were playing; so, so dangerous. But as long as she remained unaware of his love, her sometimes-dreams would remain dreams. He couldn’t allow them to turn into hopes.

 

***

 

He sees the gossip. He could avoid it, if he wanted to, but he doesn't - it's important to know what the public think. What the media tells them to think. He ruthlessly squashes the small part of him that secretly loves the idea and focuses on the largest part of him feels anger at the slight on her reputation.

And when he scans through the alerts he’s got set up on everything and anything to do with her on his phone as he lies in bed the next morning, he closes his eyes and lets out a sigh.

He’d been right.

‘Recognise this?’ he asks, showing her the photo on one of the culture pages of The Guardian. It takes her approximately two seconds to go from happy to outraged.

‘That photographer!’ she cries, and he nods. ‘But I thought he wasn’t allowed to take photos there,’ she says, and he shakes his head.

‘He wasn’t. He was given a caution by the police.’

‘But the photo…?’

‘These cameras are quite sophisticated, ma’am. As soon as a photo is taken, a copy is uploaded somewhere that we don’t have the right to access.’

‘Ugh,’ she mutters, frowning, before looking back at the page.

‘The article isn’t all bad,’ he says while she reads. ‘It’s mostly about the concert. And they do seem to like Ms Sutherland’s dress.’ And her lips twist in amusement.

She reads through the article and her eyebrows rise a little. ‘They think…this line near the end,’ she says, looking up at him. ‘The implication…’ And she’s blushing a little and he’s amused that she can’t seem to say it.

‘They’re implying that perhaps we spend more time together than is strictly necessary,’ he says, a smirk on his face. ‘Yes. A clarification is being printed tomorrow,’ he says, and her eyebrows rise even further.

‘That was quick,’ she says, and he nods.

‘They can say what they like about me, ma’am. They cannot say what they like about you.’ And she nods. He’s not going to tell her that he threatened to delay their access to future royal public events if they were going to continue to cast aspersions on the reputation of his little Queen.

‘Do you think they’re right? That we spend more time together than we should?’ she asks quietly after a moment, and he can hear the strain in her voice, what it’s costing her to ask this. But as he looks at her face, all he can see is worry and concern that she’s perhaps done something wrong – and a good dose of confusion. He doesn’t think she really quite understands just what they’re alluding to, but it’s clear she knows it’s not good. But nonetheless, they’re not really entirely wrong. He’s more than aware of how much she relies on him; it’s a tightrope he walks every day.

So he lets out a little amused huff. ‘Probably, ma’am,’ he admits. He’s not going to lie to her, but he’s also very aware of balance she knows nothing about. ‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ she admits. ‘I’ve never had a Private Secretary before. Unless you count Sir John,’ she says, and she cringes a little. ‘I think we work well together,’ she says decidedly after a moment, and he nods.

‘I agree, ma’am.’

‘And I like that we’re friends,’ she adds, and he smiles.

‘So do I, ma’am.’

And her smile becomes a little firmer, and her face a little less vulnerable, and he’s pleased.

He thinks later that perhaps the stories could be used for good. The media would speculate as they always did, and he could dismiss it all as idle gossip brought about by a public who loved a hint of a story no matter how ridiculous and barely there it was, and thrived on scandal. It would give them both an out. If there was to be mud, it would stick to him – he would make sure of it. Her reputation was spotless – one thing to be thankful for from her seclusion at Kensington. He would make sure it stayed that way.

 

Chapter Text

 

He’s developed a solid relationship with his barista, the kind of relationship one has with a barista they see every day – but in his case, there’s two of them. They’re friendly and mostly unshaven and the very definition of young Australians working in London (except for the fact that they’re twins, he realises one day, when they both appear clean-shaven). And, pleasingly, they hadn’t been in the UK when he was PM, and appear to have no idea who he is. That, coupled with the fact that the coffee really is very good, is what keeps him coming back.

Eventually, though, one morning when it’s bit quieter than usual, one of the twins asks him where he works. He trots out his pre-prepared reply – he’s just a lowly public servant working up near Downing Street – and they nod.

He knows things are really bad – really very bad – when he arrives to get his usual coffees, and twin number one – Joe – does a small double-take when he sees him. It’s such a cliché, he thinks bitterly, as he gives the barista a tight smile and waves his card in front of the machine.

She’s going to be rather disappointed if he has to give up her coffee of a morning. Maybe he’ll buy one of those pod machines, he thinks. She could keep it in her office.

But they say nothing else that morning, and he thinks it might be alright. He may not have to resort to coffee in a little metal shell.

It’s two days later when twin number two, Jack, asks, as he passes the tray over to Melbourne. ‘I keep meaning to ask – who’s the second coffee for?’

And there are so, so many reasons why he cannot answer that question truthfully – her safety being the most important – so he keeps his face as neutral as possible. ‘My assistant,’ he says, before giving the man a small smile and a nod. ‘She loves your coffee.’

‘Ah, awesome,’ Jack replies, nodding. He can tell he’s disappointed, but he really, really can’t tell him that he’s been making coffee for the Queen of England for a couple of months shy of a year now.

He probably shouldn’t be buying coffee for the Queen of England from a coffee shop on the edge of Hyde Park every day, either, but he’s not about to stop now.

 

***

 

He’d known it wouldn’t die down quickly – that was a little naïve, even for him – but he hadn’t anticipated brand new photos every day.

He also should have known that they’d gotten off a little easy with the Coronation Ball. Normally, he knew people would respect the Monarch and the monarchy enough to not take photos, and even if they didn’t, it was usually more for a souvenir – they very rarely then sent the media such a gift. But clearly someone’s desire for money – or scandal – was now, quite suddenly, after all this time, trumping that respect. And he thinks he knows who that someone is.

He’s going to struggle to fight this on two fronts, but it would appear that this was his challenge now.

He toys with telling her, with letting her know exactly who is behind the plot to see him fall and her fail, but he decides against it; he can’t really see what good it would do. She knows to be careful already, and this would just make her more anxious than she already is. Besides, he knows his little Queen; it would set her on the warpath, and he thinks that perhaps her heart may not emerge from that unscathed.

She may just work it out for herself anyway. She was smart. But then she wasn’t particularly well-versed in these kinds of politics, either. He would have to deal with this himself, he thinks. He’s not entirely sure how just yet, but he has time.

They haven’t spoken of the Coronation Ball since the day after, and that was tinged with just a little awkwardness. He wonders briefly if that awkwardness will make a return with these photos. He’s pleased that the photo is from a little distance, and her face is partly obscured. The look on her face when they’d danced at the Ball was seared into his memory, and he thinks it’s one that shouldn’t be shared with the world. He’d let out a sigh of relief when he’d finally finished the article and there was no mention of champagne.

He knows she’s seen the article when he arrives because she holds up her iPad when he walks in the door. ‘I thought people weren’t allowed to take photos at the Ball,’ she says after greeting him and taking her coffee.

‘They weren’t.’ And he frowns. ‘You’re reading the news early, ma’am,’ he says, and she shrugs.

‘Harriet messaged me.’ And he nods. He’s okay with that. He’s happy as long as she’s not googling herself every five minutes. He knows the pain that can come with that.

The headline he thinks is perhaps the most vaguely offensive – QUEEN DANCES WITH SCANDAL – and he’s surprised it wasn’t the first thing she mentioned. But the day was young; she’d get to it.

‘If they weren’t supposed to be taking photos, then how are there photos of me dancing with you? And with the Russian president’s son. And Lord Grafton.’

He wonders if she’s figured out why those particular photos are the ones they chose to publish; the ones with him and with two of the better-looking men with the poorest reputations. Probably not, he thinks. ‘Someone broke the rules,’ he says, and she shoots him a look.

‘Obviously. Who?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says carefully.

‘Can we find out?’

‘Not really, ma’am. Not unless the editor is willing to give up his source, and the chances of that are extremely slim,’ he says, and she lets out a huff.

‘I can’t trust anyone,’ she says, and his heart breaks a little at that. At least it wasn’t too rough a lesson for this particular truth.

‘You will have to choose your confidants carefully,’ he agrees. ‘But you can trust a few people.’ And she smiles at him, and he’s pleased she’s not too upset at this - that’s his job. He’s already drafted a letter to editor of The Daily Telegraph that he’ll get Peel to edit and likely tone down a little before he sends it off to Press and PR to handle.

‘They print such rubbish,’ she says. ‘But you were right.’ She looks up at him, her face sad.

‘It doesn’t bother me what they print about me, ma’am,’ he assures her, ‘apart from the slight on your reputation.’ And really, with what little they printed about him, it would be a little sensitive of him to get offended. He’s read far, far worse.

‘If I were to dance with only completely perfect men, then I would never dance with anyone,’ she scoffs, and he can’t help but agree. ‘At least they’re relatively nice photos,’ she adds after a moment.

Well, at least she could see the bright side, he thinks. She’s learning to shrug it all off. ‘Don’t you think?’ she says, coming to stand next to him with her iPad. The slightly grainy off-colour photo of the two of them took up the whole screen. ‘You look very elegant, ma'am,’ he agrees, and she huffs a little at him. ‘It’s an old man dancing with a beautiful young Queen,’ he mutters, and she frowns at him, now clearly exasperated.

‘You are not old, Lord M,’ she insists.

‘If only that were true.’

‘What, is forty-two old now? Don’t tell Emma. I’m not sure she’d forgive you.’

He glances at her, amused. ‘I’m impressed you know my age, ma’am.’

‘Everyone seems to know mine,’ she retorts, and he can’t help chuckle at her indignation.

‘Fair enough.’

‘It’s in the article anyway,’ she says with a smirk, and he rolls his eyes.

He thinks he’s done enough to dispel her anger at the photos, and really, the articles were really quite complimentary for the press. He just hopes they stay that way.

 

Chapter Text

 

And they’re so high after all her successes that when they crash to the ground so hard and fast it makes his head spin.

He picks up the papers that are sitting on his desk and their coffees and walks slowly to her office. In this world of instant news and long lenses, she has to be careful. So, so careful. She knows this; she’s known it since long before he came into the picture, and he himself has been doing this public dance for most of his life. He knows how cruel the papers can be, how they’ll twist anything to make a story. But this isn’t that. This is someone else, someone closer to home who has given them this. Someone clearly and methodically taking advantage of the current situation. Someone who would still do anything to see her fail and him gone.

And oh, they’ve picked their situation well. His jaw clenches.

But this is the game, his mind reminds him, the game that he’s played for years. But of late he’s relaxed, become slack, allowed his heart to rule his head, and it’s down to his folly now they were both in trouble.

Emma sees him coming and her face changes at his expression. He just holds up the paper for her to see, and she lets out a heavy sigh.

He pauses at her office door to take a breath. She hasn’t arrived yet, so he puts her coffee down on her desk before sitting down on the lounge, dropping the papers on the seat next to him. It’s not long before she comes striding in, all smiles and youth and her but he can’t bring himself to return her smile, and her face drops quickly when she sees his. ‘What’s wrong?’

He grabs the paper next to him and hands it to her, and it only takes a glance at her face to see the fear that’s written all over it. He sees all the emotions play across her face in the few seconds it takes her to read the headlines and the first few paragraphs – fear, anger, embarrassment, panic.

 

PARTISAN QUEEN

Melbourne creates Whig Queen

What kind of influence is the ex-PM having on our Queen?

The Daily Mail has discovered that our new Queen is clearly anything but impartial in her political views. At a recent dinner held at the Palace for the new United States Ambassador, the Queen was overheard saying that she thought that the Duke of Wellington was a ‘good PM – for a Tory’. Other sources have confirmed that the Queen lends her support to a number of Whig-favoured charities… Most of the positions in the Queen’s household, including her Ladies-in-Waiting, have Whig leanings…

Lord Melbourne was leader of the Whigs and Prime Minister from January 2009 through to his resignation in late 2010 after his wife’s death…

 

When she turns to him, her eyes are scared and her face ashen, and he thinks that she’s going to punish herself more than enough for the two of them.

‘Did you say it, ma’am?’ he asks as gently as he can, but he already knows the answer. It’s written all over her face.

She looks down at her shoes, and the way his heart sinks tells him that a small part of him had hoped just a little that it was a lie. ‘I didn’t mean it to sound so terrible,’ she says. ‘I was joking. I regretted it as soon as I said it. I like the Duke,’ she says miserably, and he lets out a sigh. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers as she sits down next to him on the seat.

He’s not angry. She sounds so miserable that there would be little point to him being angry anyway, even if he was. He thinks to himself that if she was going to make a mistake, this really wasn’t that terrible. And he’s so glad it happened after her visit to the hospital. She’d needed that lesson, to learn what she could actually do – it would only be misconstrued if she did anything like that now.

But this did have some serious potential; this meant a shift into full damage control. And she’s going to have to start with Wellington.

‘What can I do?’ she asks, her voice small.

‘Well, you could apologise to the Duke,’ he says, and she nods. ‘But that’s all.’

She frowns. ‘But shouldn’t I say something? Apologise to…to everyone? Make some kind of statement?’

She sounds terrified at the thought, and he’s impressed that she’s even suggested it. But he shakes his head. ‘No, ma’am,’ he says. ‘That would only add fuel to the fire, and it would only give credence to their claims. It’s best to let this die off on its own.’ And her frown is shifting into something more thoughtful.

‘Oh.’

‘And perhaps avoid making any other comments about any politicians that aren’t the standard line,’ he adds gently, and she nods again. 

When he leaves her office later that morning, his mind is still working overtime, thinking of all the ways they could control this, all the things they could do or say, or not do, not say. It’s the beginning of the end, he thinks briefly, and after a second the thought hits him like a freight train. It really could be the beginning of the end.

He swallows as the whole idea threatens to overwhelm him. The last few days had been nothing; a silly article and some internet chatter about his apparent attractiveness that would have easily faded into nothing, if not for this.

But he couldn’t think about that now. This wasn’t about him; it was about her, and about pulling her out of this slump.

Her crown was wobbling precariously now, and it was his duty to help keep it on her head.

 

***

 

When he’s put through to Wellington, he can hear the older man sigh. ‘I know she didn’t mean it,’ he says by way of greeting.

‘The Queen would like to apologise,’ he replies matter-of-factly.

‘I see.’

‘Today, if possible.’

‘So soon.’

‘She wishes to rectify her mistakes quickly.’ He doesn’t tell Wellington that it’s eating her alive, this mistake.

‘I assume you want me coming in the front entrance?’

‘That would be helpful.’

‘Her first real blunder,’ Wellington says. ‘And it would have to be this, Lord M.’

He really, really doesn’t need the reminder.

 

***

 

She looks terrified, and he doesn’t blame her at all.

‘The Duke is here,’ he tells her softly, and she sucks in a deep breath before nodding. She’s biting her lip, and he hates this. He hates that she has to learn this lesson, hates that she’s so, so anxious. He hates that this was her mistake, and that she alone can fix it. He hates that he cannot string Conroy up by his toes from the underside of London Bridge.

‘I’ll be in my office,’ he says gently. It would not help matters to be hovering around; Emma will tell him when Wellington is gone. He watches as she purses her lips, and he knows what she wants to ask, can see it in her eyes. But she cannot, she knows, and she knows he would only tell her no anyway.

But then she sucks in another breath and nods, and he gives her a soft smile.

 

***

 

She curses her tongue for the millionth time as she watches him leave her study. Stupid, stupid.

If only she hadn’t relaxed, if only she hadn’t been arrogant enough to think that she could do this. That she could speak her own mind. Now, so much was broken and ruined.

And she’d hurt him, her Lord M. She’d made him look like something he wasn’t, and that? Well, she’d never forgive herself for that. She could only hope that he forgave her. Not that she deserved it.

She still hadn’t really figured how she was going to apologise to him. She wanted to mean it, for him to know just how sorry she was, but she didn’t think she could do that yet without crying. She didn’t want to cry in front of him.

She can hear the soft footsteps of Emma and the Duke on the carpet outside, and she closes her eyes.

Breathe.

 

Chapter Text

 

Her personal popularity has slumped to a new low, no longer buoyed by her novelty. To be fair, she didn’t have a long track record to compare it to, but still. He’d tried reminding her that her Uncle’s highest popularity rating hadn’t even been as high as her lowest, but it hadn’t really helped.

The press had been fairly brutal over the past forty-eight hours; her apparent partisan beliefs, her disdain for the current Tory government, speculation around her lack of basic social graces. At least that business with Lyndhurst’s second bill hadn’t come out, he thinks to himself.

Yet.

He doubts Conroy knows about that; he suspects that Conroy’s friends in the Tory Party aren’t really as many as he’d like to think, and his little Queen’s distaste for her mother’s Private Secretary is no real secret – anyone with common sense had figured that out when she’d chosen Melbourne over the man who had managed her life for a solid twenty years the moment she had her freedom.

He takes some small comfort in the fact that Wellington and friends still seem to prefer him to Conroy.

But there’s always Cumberland, he thinks bitterly. He hopes Wellington can keep him reigned in, but it’s with some animosity that he acknowledges to himself that it’s unlikely. Her remaining uncle was remarkably adept at getting his own way, and he wouldn’t put it past the man to leak it out of sheer spite.

He thinks perhaps he’s managed to shield her from most of it, even calling Harriet, who’d been furious on her friend’s behalf but promised to do whatever she could.

He’s halfway through some paperwork when his phone rings. ‘She’s supposed to be at the Veterans’ Reception at two and Harriet’s here, but no one can find her,’ Emma says, and he lets out a sigh.

‘Okay,’ he says, hanging up, before slumping in his chair a little.

She was taking this hard, and he couldn’t blame her. Her first official screw-up, and it’s all over the news, not helped by the fact that the Tories were having a field day behind the scenes, playing the victim all over the place. Her meeting with Wellington had been hard – walking out of her study and leaving her to it had felt a little like tearing himself in two – but it had been successful. By all accounts, Wellington had been gracious and she had been so, so sorry. But she’d been exhausted afterwards, retiring to her rooms early. She’d been quiet this morning, and he’d eventually left her to her work after he’d elicited at least one weak smile. She needed time, he knew.

Perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an appropriate distraction.

But he thinks he knows where she is, so he grabs his jacket and walks slowly through the palace and out to the little rotunda at the end of the gardens that she loves; it was built by her ancestor for his wife and was the epitome of renaissance architecture in that period, hidden away on the little almost-island in the middle of the lake. He thinks she likes the ancient-Greek-style columns, the beautiful limestone walls, but, most of all, the seclusion.

He wonders why no one has checked there yet.

When he reaches the doors, he sees her sitting on one of the benches just inside and his heart breaks. She stands when she hears him, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen her look so blank, so beyond anxious that there’s nothing but wide-eyed panic on her face.

He gives her a small, understanding smile, and then there are tears in her eyes and running slowly down her cheeks and he moves with his heart’s permission, not his mind’s. As he opens his arms, she stumbles into them like she’s done it a million times before, her cheek pressed against his chest and her hands grabbing at his jacket, desperately trying to cling to something, anything, and he knows she’s no longer able to stop herself drowning in her pain. He wraps his arms around her and holds her close, his thumb rubbing on her shoulder blade and her fists curled on his chest. He’s breaking one of his rules and he can’t bring himself to really care right now. He can care later, when she’s not falling apart in front of him.

He has to talk himself out of the almost unconscious urge to press a kiss into her hair.

‘I can’t do it. I can’t,’ she’s mumbling into his chest, and he understands. He really does. He knows what it feels like to walk back out into the arena when they’re all baying for your blood. ‘I've made everything worse, haven’t I?’ she asks, her cheek pressed to his chest, and he purses his lips. There is no answer to her question that isn’t going to make things worse, so he changes topic.

She needs to know she can do this. She needs to know that she can overcome these things, that she can face her mistakes head on with grace and dignity. That even as Queen, she’s not perfect, and must own it. She can’t succumb to this paralysing fear of failure and of self-criticism that he knows without a doubt she learned as a child. She has to know her worth, to know that she’s better than this, and that she can pull herself out of it.

But he can’t just say that. That will just come out as trite and unhelpful and isn’t really equipping her with the tools to deal with it long-term. But there isn’t time for that now, and it only takes a moment for his mind to settle on the answer. He immediately shies away from it, but his heart tells him it’s the best way. They don’t have weeks, months, years to rebuild her self-confidence; she’ll have a room full of war veterans waiting to meet her in an hour.

He knows she listens to him, and he would do anything for her, he thinks – anything to soothe the wounds of the past days. So he takes a breath and tells her his own story.

‘I don’t think I ever told you why I was late to the Coronation ball,’ he says as he slowly unwraps his arms from her shoulders, and she pulls back slightly, looking up at him with red-rimmed eyes and that same blank stare, but this time there’s a slight furrow in her brow that tells him she’s listening.

‘Did you know I had a son?’ he asks. ‘Augustus. Gus. That day was the anniversary of the day he died.’

He’s never really told the story, spoken the worst days of his life out loud, he realises. There was no one left to tell. The very few that remained had witnessed it all first-hand.

‘When Caro left, it was just he and I, and he became quite anxious that I’d leave him too. He’d constantly be asking to speak to me on the phone when I was at work, asking when I’d be home. He’d wait by the front window of Dover House, his little watch in his hand. If I was a minute late, he became quite upset.’ He could still see his son’s little hands pressed to the glass, his little face watching for him. ‘He wouldn’t go to sleep until I’d read him a story, and for while he wouldn’t sleep unless I was there in the room with him.’ He swallows. ‘And then he got sick; we spent days at the hospital, trying to figure out what was wrong.’ He can feel his voice cracking, his eyes burning, but he can’t falter here; he has to finish this. To tell her how he survived, so that she can too. ‘When he died, I thought there was no reason to continue living.’

He hears her suck in a breath. ‘How can you say that?’ she asks, horrified.

‘Because I don’t believe that anymore,’ he says quickly. ‘When he died, I think a part of me died inside too. I felt nothing for so long.’ He looks down at her enraptured face, and the corners of his mouth turn up just a little. ‘And then I met this incredible young woman, this new Queen of mine, and I became her Private Secretary, and her friend, and I found a reason to get out of bed every morning.’ He lets out a gruff laugh. ‘It’s a terrible cliché, but it’s almost like colour returned to the world. It had been…grey for so long.’

And she’s still staring at him with those wide eyes of hers, and his heart is so full for his little Queen.

‘We can’t turn back the clock. Nothing will bring Gus back, just as you cannot unsay what has been said. So, you must find a way to keep going.’ And her face crumples a little again.

‘But it’s not just me. It’s you too!’ she cries, and he shakes his head. ‘They’re saying horrible things about you, and it’s my fault.’

‘They’ve said far worse, ma’am, and I’m sure they’ll find many, many more cruel and malicious things to print. But that is part of the democracy in which we live. It helps to keep us accountable, even when what they print is unkind or even untrue.’

She swallows, and he sees another tear slip down her cheek. She swipes at it with her hand. ‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbles, sniffling. ‘I hate crying.’

‘I think most people do,’ he agrees, and he gently rubs her the outside of her arms when she shivers. She’s only wearing a light jumper and it’s freezing. She must have just run when it all became too much.

‘You must not let it get to you,’ he says firmly. ‘You know well enough that most of the press will print whatever they think will sell.’

She looks up at him, her red-rimmed eyes still wide. ‘How? How do you do it?’ she asks.

He lets out a sigh. ‘After Caro’s death, I resigned as Prime Minister and I stopped reading the newspapers, stuck to reputable sources of news I knew would be unlikely to delve into the sordid private life of a now-nobody. Not even my title or position was enough to keep them interested that long,’ he explains. ‘Even when Byron published his book, it was headlines for a few days, and then it all died away.’ He lets out a sigh. ‘You read what’s reputable, you consider their arguments, and you discard the rubbish. You don’t take it all on.’

She’s staring at him, but the tears are gone and he thinks she understands.

And she steps back and nods, and then shivers violently. He pulls off his jacket and wraps it around her shoulders, and she shoves her arms through the sleeves, wrapping them tightly around herself. He almost chuckles; his suit jacket is a dress on her tiny frame. He rubs her arms again, and she gives him a tiny smile.

‘Now, you have a reception to host, Your Majesty. You must smile and laugh, and never let them know how hard it is to bear.’

He walks beside her as they head back up to the palace, and he picks one of the last flowers left, a little purple thing struggling against the frosts that still greeted them each morning, and hands it to her, and the little smile she gives him makes everything, all of it, worth it. No matter how much he’s dragged into this, how much this will cost him, he can’t bring himself to regret saying yes. 

Later that evening, he gets a message.

Did I do okay?

You were splendid, he writes back.

I couldn’t smile much. He’d noticed for the few minutes he’d been there, but hadn’t said anything. She’d smiled more than enough for the Vietnam War veterans she met, who’d all told Emma later how lovely and sweet she was, their pretty young Queen.

But I think I will be able to smile at the lunch tomorrow. And he smiles down at his phone. You’ll be there?

Of course, ma’am.

Then I’ll definitely be able to smile.

 

Chapter Text

 

It takes another twenty-four hours for him to actually begin to think a little more calmly about the whole situation, to take a step back and see it for what it was.

Actually, it’s nothing he does at all.

It’s more the hundred-plus photos – he’d stopped counting, eventually – that he’d found blu-tacked to almost every conceivable space in his office upon his arrival the next morning. He couldn’t help but laugh as most of his staff, who had gathered just down the hallway – quite obviously in preparation for his arrival – had burst out laughing when he’d shouted Not funny out the door.

It wasn’t funny; he was really quite sick of seeing his own face in print and on his screen and he could do without paper versions of every photo the press dredged up of him in the past few days taped to his bookshelves. But the vaguely nervous faces of his staff and their clear intent to try to lighten the mood and bring a little humour to the situation had forced him to relax. It was, in a round-a-bout way, rather sweet of them. He wonders if he’s been that obvious, or if they just knew him well enough now to know that he hated this kind of publicity.

They’d merely laughed when he’d commented about their workload – that they’d found the time to do this to his office – and left him to pull them all down.

He wonders how much it has to do with her meltdown yesterday. He’s entirely sure that all the palace staff know, despite how discrete Emma and Harriet had been.

He’s about half-way when he hears a snort from the door. He turns to see Emma’s face contorting into a faux-sympathetic look, which he rolls his eyes at, and she lets out a laugh. ‘I assume you were in on this?’ he says, standing on his desk to pull one that was dangling from the light fixture in the middle of the room.

‘No, not at all. Helena called me a minute ago,’ she replies, fingering the photos that were now piling up on his desk. ‘This one’s lovely,’ she drawls, and he ignores her. ‘Really. You should keep these. You could give them out as souvenirs,’ she jokes. ‘Can I keep this one?’ she asks after a moment, and he can’t help turning to see which one she means.

He rolls his eyes and shakes his head at her; it’s one of his first as Prime Minister, judging by his suit and hair. ‘Keep whatever you like,’ he mutters. ‘No, actually, I take that back. You can’t keep any. I’ll just find them everywhere,’ he says, and she shakes her head amusedly at him.

‘Perhaps I’ll give this one to Victoria,’ she comments dryly after a few moments, and he looks around before frowning; it’s the one from the Mozart Concert. That damned photographer, he thinks, but he can’t really damn him too much. It’s one of his favourite photos for reasons he refuses to examine too closely.

‘No,’ he says, eyeing her.

‘Oh, I think it’s quite a lovely photo,’ she replies, looking back down at it. ‘He did a good job, given the circumstances. I think she’d rather like a printed copy.’ Her lips twist slightly as she looks back up at him, and he drops her gaze.

‘I would imagine that if she wanted a copy, all she would need to do is save it from the digital version,’ he says as he turns and continues to pull down the photos from his bookcase.

‘She already has,’ Emma says, and he very deliberately doesn’t stop what he’s doing. ‘But I suppose you haven’t seen that it’s one of her backgrounds on her computer.’ There’s a pause as she very clearly waits for his response.

‘Nope,’ he replies.

‘Harriet has it in the scrapbook as well. She insisted.’

‘Well, it’s a nice photo of her, as you say,’ he replies as nonchalantly as he can, placing what he hopes is the last of the photos in the now rather high pile on his desk.

‘Yes, it is,’ Emma adds, and she has the same look in her eye that she did after the Diplomatic Corps Dinner, and after the Coronation Ball. A look he finds makes him feel uncomfortable.

‘I think I’ll send it to Emily,’ she says. ‘There are so few recent photos of you smiling.’ He can’t help but let out a long-suffering sigh at that, but he doesn’t protest. She wasn’t wrong.

But their silliness – the stupid pile that’s still sitting on the corner of his desk hours later – reminds him that he needed to calm the hell down.

It was nothing, and it would be nothing, and now that she’d apologised and accepted her mistake and everyone was happy, the press would eventually let it go and it would die. Even if Cumberland tried to tell someone about her refusal to allow Lyndhurst’s bill, it would not likely make much in the way of waves; it was only the once, and unless they had something else equally as damning, it wasn’t much of a story, even for the Mail.

Yet, anyway.

He didn’t think they had anything else on her. But then again, he hadn’t known about her comment about Wellington either. She had sworn she hadn’t said anything else, nothing she could remember that she thought would be bad, but who knew what they’d take and twist. The fact that it’s been four days and it still hadn’t appeared gave him hope; there was no reason to wait on this. It wasn’t big enough to drop alone.

He wonders briefly if Conroy and Cumberland were working together. He thinks likely not; he thinks both were too arrogant to admit they may appreciate the assistance of the other. Besides, Cumberland doesn’t have much to gain in this other than to simply unsettle his niece, and he doesn’t think that would trump his political ambition; Wellington would likely be livid if it got out that she’d refused consent on a bill from his government. Opposition bills were one thing, but to be in government and have a bill refused Consent was something else entirely – especially if it came out exactly what that bill had been about. It had been mightily unpopular in the end. It really wouldn’t do anyone any favours for that to come out, he thinks – including him.

He’d been so caught up in protecting her from it all, shielding his little Queen from the pain that the press so dearly loved inflicting, that he’d taken it all on board himself. He needed to step back, assess everything objectively.

The feel of her warm face pressed into his shirt, her fists curled against his chest as she’d cried haunts him.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He had to step back, for her sake as much as his. He couldn’t serve her best if he was all wrapped up in his own emotions.

He’s just not entirely sure how.

 

***

 

And the articles come thick and fast, and, even when he’s at his most objective about it (which he will admit is really not all that objective, no matter how hard he’s trying) he’s not entirely sure that this topic really deserves this level of scrutiny. But the media clearly disagree, and they dredge up everything.

The headlines, he thinks, are unimaginative.

Whigs’ Playboy Finds a New Job

Playboy Private Secretary

Melbourne’s Mistresses

He’s been out of practice; he’d forgotten how long a week could feel when you were the main topic of conversation. But a week it had been since that first stupid list he’d somehow been deemed worthy of, and he had to admit that he could see no signs of this abating.

Fortunately, nothing too much else appears to have come out of the woodwork about her; they’re just repeating the same lines over and over, and he’s grateful. But he’s a veritable gold mine, he knows, and the press leave no corner unsearched.

They’re clever this time, he thinks. They’ve tested the waters around the Queen and found him ready and waiting, so now they’re shifting the focus and going after him. He’s a nobody, really. He can’t bring the full weight of the Palace down on their heads when they say nothing particularly negative about her.

He is, however, really quite pleased to see that none of them seem to be too interested in publishing all that much from Byron’s letters; most of it isn’t about him, and the worst of it was too explicit to publish in the press anyway. He could do without that reminder of his most public failure.

He gets a call from a friend at The Guardian late that evening, warning him they were about to publish a rather long article about his influence over the Queen under the guise of his new role as Private Secretary – a double-page spread – and he sighs. He’d been waiting for this, for them to finally put two and two together – these things took time to research and write – but he’d known it was coming, and he’s grateful for the warning. It’s neatly wrapped in an expository text about the role of the Private Secretary to the Queen, but all the examples are about him, and not all of the comments are favourable, or indeed, fair.

And when he looks at who wrote it, he feels a stab of anger. Of course, of course it would be him. Dickens. The man had been obsessed. It stands to reason that he’s still following him, waiting for his opportunity to tear his life apart yet again, uncaring of the damage he would do to everyone else along the way.

But there isn’t a whole lot he can do. The article says nothing that isn’t true; it just carefully omits parts of the truth that would make him look less like a puppet-master, pulling the strings of his young, vulnerable marionette-like Queen.

They weren’t wrong; she was young, and she was vulnerable. But they just ignored the fact that she was strong and passionate and intelligent. Beautiful.

He wonders briefly what she must think of him now, this Private Secretary she has chosen. Did she choose him knowing all this?

And when he sits at his desk at home late that night, whiskey in hand, he wonders how much longer he can hold on to her, his little Queen.

 

Chapter Text

 

He doesn’t usually make a habit of watching television, but he knows he needs to stay on top of this if he’s to have any hope of controlling it. Or, more realistically, riding it out.

Glancing at his watch, he flicks the television to Sky News while he wanders around getting dressed. It had come up on one of his alerts that they were going to talk about him that morning, and if his guess is right, it’ll be right in the middle of their prime-time. News about the new Queen was always prime, even when it wasn’t technically about the Queen. Scandal surrounding the Queen? Well, that was television gold.

‘Speaking of attractive older men,’ the hostess starts with, and he cringes. No matter that it was about him - that was never, ever a good line. ‘The Queen’s Private Secretary, it has recently been revealed, is none other than Lord Melbourne, the former Prime Minister,’ she says almost conspiratorially, and his eyebrows rise. This is not new information; that stupid article had come out days ago, and if anyone had actually cared to remember, he’d had to notify the House of Lords of his intention to abstain from the House to do the job in the first place.

The headline at the bottom of the screen tells him all he really needs to know – ‘Her Majesty’s Scandalous Private Secretary’ – but he watches anyway. He watches, grimacing, as they discuss his political career; his achievements, his resignation as Prime Minister. And, of course, with the discussion of the resignation comes the reasons why.vHe hits the mute button when they start to talk about Caro. It was inevitable; with Caro would come Augustus. Byron. The most painful part of his existence to date, casually discussed as it if were yesterday’s breakfast.

The ache in his heart returns when the pictures appear, unimaginative in their order. Happier times with the three of them; Augustus and him at a local park after Caro had left; Caro with Byron. A picture of one of the emails, and Byron’s interview. Him in sunglasses, striding down the street, clearly trying to avoid paparazzi.

The hospital.

The ambulance outside his house.

The funeral.

The tiny, tiny coffin. Had his boy really been that small?

And then Caro’s, only a couple of years later.

He’s lost in thought when he notices the scene has changed; they’re back to the panel now, and they’re avidly discussing something. He flicks the volume button again and their voices are roaring back to life. Suddenly there’s a picture of her on the screen; it’s one of the first official Palace photos, and it’s pre-Harriet, and he knows why they chose it. It’s been almost a solid year now, he thinks bitterly, and she’s changed so much since then. It’s so little like the beautiful, intelligent, articulate woman he sees every day.

‘I just question whether perhaps the appointment of Lord Melbourne is the best decision,’ one of the male panellists asks.

‘Are you saying he’s not qualified?’ another asks, and he’s slightly appeased by the incredulity of her voice.

‘I don’t think you can reasonably argue that a man with a career in politics as long and as successful as Lord Melbourne’s is unqualified for this job,’ one argues.

‘He’s less than impartial, as we’ve heard,’ another fires back. ‘The Queen’s private secretary is not supposed to support a particular political party.’

‘It’s worth noting that Lord Melbourne resigned his membership of the Whigs when he started as Private Secretary to the Queen,’ the main host interjects, and he’s pleased that finally someone is bringing in some facts.

‘No one is questioning his qualifications,’ the other replies. ‘Just his suitability to be spending so much time with the Queen,’ he says, and there’s an outcry. He realises why else they chose that particular photo of her; knows where this is going. ‘Of course I am in no way suggesting anything about the Queen,’ he says, clearly trying to defend himself, and Melbourne wonders how long his career will last after this. ‘But Lord Melbourne’s recent history suggests that perhaps his influence may not be the best.’

Before he can think, a familiar picture flashes up on the screen, and he closes his eyes. He knows the picture well enough that he doesn’t need to look anymore. It’s similar to the earlier one; him walking down the street in sunglasses and his favourite leather jacket, clearly unimpressed at the flashing bulbs of the photographers. But he’s not alone; next to him is Annabelle Norton, and it’s very clearly not daytime.

He should have known they’d drag this up. It had been years ago – a good three years ago now – but it would seem that the scandal would dog him until his dying day. They’d never been anything but friends, he and Annabelle, despite it all. There had been the one drunken kiss, early one morning at a party, but they’d both recognised that quickly for what it had been – two lonely, heart-broken people, desperate for affection. But she was attractive in so many ways, and he had loved her briefly, this beautiful, broken woman whose strength to fight for her boys he had admired beyond anything.

But it didn’t help that Annabelle and her brutish, businessman husband were now rather bitterly divorced, but that’d had little to do with him; they’d been separated when he met her.

But then another image appears next to it, and he lets out another sigh. It’s a frowning, much younger William Lamb with his arm around one Elizabeth Branden, socialite and actress, and that’s about the only reason she’s on the screen. Their ‘relationship’ had been little more than a brief fling and friendship – he was one of the few people in the world who knew she was actually not only - or particularly - interested in men. But she’d had a reputation to uphold, and in his petty desire for revenge, he’d been more than happy to help her uphold it. Now that he’s older, he’s happy enough to admit that he’d loved her, briefly; he’d been in love with the crazy way she expected far too much of him, and didn’t judge him for any of it – the way she’d so obviously recognised his wounds and patched him up as best she could.

The speaker continues. ‘The situation with Annabelle Norton was less than savoury,’ he says.

‘But really; does it matter what Lord Melbourne does in his spare time? And that was really quite a long time ago,’ another asks.

‘All I’m saying that is that the Queen’s Private Secretary really should be entirely impartial – as much as possible – and have a spotless reputation, and Lord Melbourne most certainly does not meet that criteria.’

He’s vaguely aware of the outrage that statement causes on the show; the way that one of the other panellists defends him, defends the Queen, but the words ring in his ears. He feels a sense of outrage himself – how dare they think that he would lead the Queen astray? Why do they assume that he’s in this for his own benefit, when he’s only ever wanted what was best for her?

But the larger part of his heart – his mind – tells him that they were right. Despite his entirely noble, spotless intentions, on paper, he’s a mess. He himself wouldn’t want him so close to the young, so very impressionable Queen.

He flicks the television off; he’s seen enough.

 

***

 

He finds he’s not entirely surprised when he looks down at the name on the screen of his ringing phone, but he doesn’t mind; it’ll be nice to speak to an old friend. ‘Hello, Elizabeth,’ he says.

‘William! I haven’t seen you in months,’ she starts. ‘Unless you count the front cover of the Daily Mail, or perhaps in Glamour Magazine?’

He sighs. ‘And I’ve seen a rather unflattering photo of you and I on the TV this morning,’ he replies, and she grunts in annoyance.

‘Yes, I saw that. Asher mentioned it. Did you see the cartoon in the Mail?’

He rolls his eyes. ‘The one where I’m nursemaid, or the one where I appear to be pulling the strings?’

‘Oh, I haven’t seen the strings one,’ she chuckles.

‘It’s not their finest work,’ he replies. ‘I’d give it a seven out of ten.’

She laughs, and there’s silence, and he waits. ‘William, they’re all calling about you,’ she says quietly. ‘I’ve told them where to shove it, obviously, but it’s been a good week now.’

He sighs. ‘I’m sorry, Liz.’

‘Don’t be. I don’t care – Asher deals with it all. I care about you,’ she says, the emphasis clear.

‘I’m alright.’ He says nothing at her humourless laugh. He knows what she would tell him to do; he’s never been loud enough or brash enough or impulsive enough for her.

‘And that Queen of yours?’

He purses his lips. ‘She knows nothing of this,’ he says, shaking his head, and he’s so angry and sad for his little Queen. ‘She’s trying so hard, and they just…’ he trails off. ‘She’ll be okay,’ he settles on, and it’s the truth. She will be fine, no matter what happens.

‘Oh, William,’ and he closes his eyes. He’s never been able to hide from her, this woman he’d once loved so long ago. ‘Don’t go back there,’ she almost commands, and he lets out a huff. ‘Don’t make me drag you out of that again,’ she half-commands and half-pleads, and he nods to himself.

‘I won’t. I promise,’ he says, and he just prays he can keep this one.

 

***

 

She can’t believe that even now, in the twenty-first century, they want to paint her portrait. They had the Rover sending images in high definition back to Earth from Mars, and yet here she sits, in her Coronation Robes and full regalia whilst the portrait painter the palace had officially commissioned – a tall man named Hayter – paints her portrait.

And it was taking forever.

But Harriet’s promised to keep her company – keep her from going crazy – and she’d already told Emma tongue-in-cheek that it was part of her job description to keep the Queen from losing her mind – so she sits and tries fairly unsuccessfully not to move.

‘Goodness, all this stuff about Lord Melbourne in the papers is getting a little out of hand,’ Harriet comments, flicking at something on her iPad, and Victoria lets out a huff.

‘It’s ridiculous,’ she replies, trying not to move her head. ‘And it’s making Lord M so frustrated.’

‘Yes, he wasn’t best pleased with the most recent one from The Guardian,’ Emma agrees.

And she feels it now, what’s made her feel unsettled for the last few days; she’s worried about him. He’s always been so nonchalant about the press. In fact, nothing’s ever seemed to really worry him all that much. But he’d been off the last few days; distracted. Preoccupied. Almost…unhappy.

She doesn’t like it at all.

‘Well, the press do like a good scandal, even when one doesn’t exist. And they’re so very good a creating them,’ Harriet says.

‘I’m a little concerned about him,’ she admits quietly. ‘He doesn’t really seem himself at the moment.’

From her left, Victoria hears a soft clearing of a throat, and she flips her head back around.

‘You know, ma’am, I haven’t seen William smile so much as he has in the past year,’ Emma comments after a few moments, looking up from her paperwork, and Victoria frowns. ‘He’s so much happier than he used to be.’

‘Really?’ Victoria asks, and she’s confused.

‘Oh, yes,’ Emma replies.

‘I remember. He was always complaining about how trivial it had all become; how tiresome all the politics was,’ Harriet interjects, and Emma nods.

‘He was set to retire not long before you became Queen, ma’am,’ Emma adds.

‘George had been trying to convince him to stay, but he’d said it was a lost cause.’

Victoria’s frown deepens. Retire? ‘But Lord M isn’t old enough to retire,’ she replies. Her mind drifts back to a conversation in a little pavilion at the end of the gardens just days earlier; of sad eyes and aching pain and his warm, strong arms holding her while she sobbed. He’d been about to retire. But then he’d agreed to be her Private Secretary. She’s having trouble reconciling these two different versions of her Lord M. He’d been so unhappy before, she knew – he’d told her – but now… Well, she wasn’t entirely sure he was happy with everything that the media was saying just this week, but his small smiles and kind words and gentle laughter were such a constant in her life that she really couldn’t imagine him as anything other than as he was.

She was beginning to see that he was an iceberg, and she really had only just begun to see below the surface. This Lord M she didn’t know intrigued her.

‘Your Majesty, sorry to interrupt, but could you just hold the sceptre up a little higher,’ Hayter calls from his seat, and she realises she’s let it drop.

‘I agree, ma’am, but that’s all in the past now.’ Emma lets out a little huff of amusement. ‘It’s funny; it wasn’t all that long ago that he was telling me that Edward and I should visit him at Brocket Hall when he retires; bring the children up for the weekend. Now? Well, I’ve never known William to be on time to work so many days in a row in my life,’ she laughs and Victoria lets out a huff of a laugh with her automatically.

‘I don’t remember Lord M ever being late,’ she says after a moment.

‘No,’ Emma says knowingly, and Victoria feels a swell of happiness and affection and something else she can’t quite name. ‘Yes, he’s definitely much less interested in retirement,’ Emma says after a few moments, before looking down at her paperwork, and Victoria can’t help her small smile.

‘Ma’am,’ a slightly pained voice calls, and she automatically turns her head and readjusts her hands.

Chapter Text

 

He’s in his car on his way to the Palace when Emma rings.

‘You have definitely reinvigorated your fan club,’ she says, and he lets out a sigh.

‘What now?’

‘I have a young man on the phone from a coffee shop up near Hyde Park,’ she says, and he frowns. ‘His name is Joe. He says that you get coffee there every morning.’

And he’s so confused. ‘Yes,’ he says.

‘He says that unless you’re feeling particularly photogenic today, you might want to take up his offer of delivering your coffee this morning.’

Emma hasn’t heard William Lamb swear in over a year, but she can understand why he does today. She waits, hearing him sigh heavily.

‘That would be very much appreciated. I’ll ring and pay over the phone,’ he says resignedly, and she hangs up. She knows he’s not thinking of himself – he could quite happily have the instant coffee at her desk, or the pod machine coffee in their office. But the Queen would be quite disappointed to miss her coffee, and Lord M was not going to disappoint his Queen if he could help it.

This was all getting just a little bit out of control in so many ways, she thinks.

 

***

 

‘Could I speak to Joe, please?’ he says into the phone. He waits, listening to the shuffle of people and the sound of grinders in the background, before Joe picks up the phone.

‘Yo.’

‘Joe? I wanted to thank you for your consideration in delivering my coffee this morning.’

He hears the momentary stunned silence on the other end before Joe speaks. ‘No worries, mate. There were four of them that we could see from the shop, but Jack reckons there were a few more down the road.’

Melbourne sighs. ‘I’m sorry to be the cause of all this trouble. I’m afraid they’ll probably hang around for a while,’ he says.

‘I don’t mind for us. It’s great for business – everyone wants to know who they’re waiting for. And they drink a heap of coffee.’

Melbourne lets out a small chuckle at that. ‘I’m sure they do.’

‘So what time do you want your coffee delivered in the mornings?’

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t ask that of you. You’re far too busy.’

‘Nah, it’s all good. I wouldn’t want you and your assistant to miss out.’ He doesn’t miss the so very brief hesitation on the word assistant. ‘Besides, it’s a nice walk.’

‘8:30am would be ideal,’ he says grudgingly.

‘Done.’

 

***

 

She’s mindlessly scrolling through her Twitter feed when she sees it.

It’s him, and he’s not alone.

Her fingertips automatically click the link, and then she’s looking at the headline – Her Majesty’s Scandalous Private Secretary – and frowning. But like most of the articles, it’s the pictures that draw her in. She doesn’t believe their words – she knows she can’t and she shouldn’t. The press lies for a living, makes something out of nothing, fans the flames of scandal willingly and happily, caring not for who they destroy in their quest for dominance and money.

But photos can’t really lie, she thinks. They’re photos.

It’s him, much younger, dressed in a suit and tie with a woman at his side, and she feels something twist in her stomach. She was tall and fair with long, wavy brown hair, and Victoria thinks she could be a model, but she knows who this must be, this beautiful woman on his arm.

Caroline Lamb.  The wife that he had loved and who had left him, wounding and humiliating him.

She should hate this woman who had so callously broken his heart in full view of the world – and she certainly feels the pull of anger, but it’s not a fiery thing that makes her want to spit words of venom. It’s a hardness that she feels, a detached yet hard and fierce sort of protectiveness for him, her Lord M, she realises. She doesn’t particularly care who hurts him, only that he hurts. And oh, that stirs an emotion in her chest; that familiar sense of worry and… and - almost dread.

They’ve been treading water on this for too long. She can’t wait until it’s over, until this cloud that’s been hovering over their heads disappears and they can relax and laugh and just go back to the way things were.

But his wife was beautiful, she thinks, looking back down at her screen, and her stomach is still doing that odd, twisting thing that she doesn’t quite understand. And she thinks momentarily and none too guiltily that she’s almost glad that Caroline Lamb no longer walks the earth.

 

***

 

It would seem that she’s trying to stay as on top of this as he is, and he’s not sure he’s entirely pleased about that. It’s good that she’s taking an interest, that she’s aware of some of this, but it’s also making her angry. And anxious.

She knows this isn’t good now, this pivot in the focus to their relationship, but he doesn’t think she’s aware of just how bad it really is. And this is one thing he does not want her to learn just yet; this can be learned in hindsight when it was all over and she couldn’t get worked up about it.

If he survived.

‘This article makes me sound incompetent and you a bad influence on me,’ she announces when he walks into her office the next morning. ‘And they have that photo from the Coronation Ball, and the one from the Mozart Concerto. It’s a two-page spread!’

‘It does make you sound young and inexperienced,’ he replies, and she tilts her head slightly in acceptance.

‘I don’t like the way they talk about you,’ she says quietly, frowning at him as he puts his briefcase on the floor next to the desk, and he knows she can feel it, this strain on their relationship. She had become rather perceptive, his little Queen.

‘Neither do I, ma’am,’ he agrees, deliberately keeping his voice as light as possible. She’s frowning at him, and he can tell she wants to say more, but she perhaps doesn’t quite know how. He thinks she’s not used to this kind of language – the insinuations, the underhand comments about the beautiful, young, innocent Queen and her cynical, womanising Private Secretary. There had been allusions after the Coronation Ball, but they’d been veiled and non-specific and he thinks she hadn’t really considered exactly what they were insinuating about her. She’s been so sheltered, so hidden from the world that this kind of thing has never really come up before, and certainly not in such stark reality and blatant reference to her. She’s awkward and uncomfortable and he’s not going to push her to talk about it at all. ‘There is not much I can do, ma’am. There is little that is technically untrue in the piece.’ And he lets that hang there, the truth about his past, and he wonders again if her opinion of him will change.

But then she frowns a little, confused. ‘Coffee?’ she asks, and he glances at the floor.

‘It’s on its way,’ he says, and she still looks confused. ‘It is now being delivered, ma’am,’ he explains. ‘There were photographers waiting for me on Monday.’ And her mouth forms a little O, and he thinks she is beginning to realise the extent to which they’ll go to get a photo. Alex has already requested an increased Police presence around the perimeter of the gardens and he’s pleased they have; they’ve already confiscated two long selfie-stick-style devices and caught two amateur photographers on ladders only three days in. The trees around the walls of the gardens were thick, but not impenetrable.

And then her face crumbles a little and her shoulders drop. ‘I’m sorry, Lord M,’ she says quietly. ‘This is all my fault.’

‘No, ma’am,’ he says, shaking his head firmly. ‘That is not true. This is, unfortunately, the life of royalty in the twenty-first century,’ he says.

‘But you aren’t royalty!’

‘No, ma’am, but I am connected to you, and I have been a public figure. The public have a strange way of deciding who they wish to hear about.’

‘It’s not fair.’ When she looks up at him, he can see the frustration and concern in her face, and he thinks she’s sweet, his little Queen, to worry about him. But she needs to worry more about herself than him.

‘Don’t worry about me, ma’am. As I’ve said before, there is little they can say that they have not already printed.’ She looks unconvinced. ‘You will ride this out, ma’am,’ he says, injecting as much hope into his voice as he can find. It isn’t much, but he thinks it will be enough to fool her.

She nods, but the look on her face stops him, and he thinks she’s been worrying about this for a while.

‘I guess they’re learning that even Queens make mistakes,’ she almost whispers, and he blinks for a moment before he remembers a conversation on her couch so, so long ago, and he’s reminded of just how closely she listens to him. Just how much she relies on him. The warning bells that have been going off in the back of his mind for days start ringing just a little more insistently, and he swallows.

‘And they’re about to watch their Queen rise above it all,’ he reminds her, and she gives him a small momentary smile before dropping his gaze again, and he waits.

‘Do you regret saying yes?’ she asks after a moment, her voice small, and he thinks she doesn’t want to hear his answer by the way she has to drag her eyes up to his face. He wonders how she can be so blind, this beautiful young Queen of his, this woman who has captured his heart and holds it in the palm of her hand. This incredible woman who astounds him every day with her fire and her passion and her love for life. This woman who is bringing spring to a world that has lived in winter’s shadow for so long. This woman who chose him to help her do it.

‘Not for one moment,’ he replies slowly when she’s finally looking him in the eye, his voice as serious as he can make it, and when she bites her lip, her gaze still soft and vulnerable, the mood changes. He lets it hang there, the weight of his words and their meaning, before nodding to her once and walking from the room before she can see the tears in his eyes.

 

Chapter Text

 

Friday 13 May

 

The last one, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, is the headline Mrs Melbourne.

He has made a career of not allowing the media to get to him, especially not glorified tabloids like the Daily Mail, but this one throws him, and it’s everywhere, in all the papers. It’s like they had a meeting to decide collectively on cruel epithets and this was what they decided upon. He feels everything all at once: anger, frustration, fury. That they’d dare drag her name through the mud like this.

But in there, under all of it, is guilt.

He doesn’t hate that headline anywhere near as much as he should; not even remotely close to it.

He can no longer see the wood for the trees, can no longer be sure in his responses. He’s lost control of that thing that lives inside of him; that thing that lives for her smiles and her laughter and her very presence. That thing that sparks warmly in his gut at the sight of their new name for her; a name that paints her as his.

Even his wildest imaginings had not come up with this most painfully beautiful title, but now he knows his dreams will be haunted by it. He cannot unthink this now that they’ve planted the seed.

And the secret fire it brings to his belly tells him everything he needs to know.

He's not ready to give her up. But he's beginning to realize that giving her up may be the best thing he can do. 

With his resignation, the whole scandal would come to a head. It would be painful for a week or so, but they would soon forget. And she could go on being the Queen they want - the Queen he knows she can be. Without him.

The desperation and rage that had been simmering for the past week bubbles up in that moment and he hurls the paper across the room before falling back into his chair, breathing heavily, his anger deflating and morphing into something sharper, a throbbing in his chest.

As he runs his fingers roughly through his hair, his mind slams him with the thought of her reaction and his eyes burn. He has to push away the thought; his chest is already aching at the thought of not seeing her again. Oh, what he wouldn’t do to stay at her side.

But this is what is best for her and is therefore his only option. There are no shades for grey here, no equivocating. No more considering the options. It's both a relief and a noose around his neck. 

He’s sitting at his desk, staring blankly at the screen in front of him, when his phone rings. He recognises the number; he’s been waiting for this.

‘Wellington,’ he says, and his voice sounds distant in his ears.

‘Have you seen the Mail?’

‘Yes.’ There’s silence for a moment, but he knows what he has to do. ‘I’m resigning.’

He’s distantly aware of Wellington heaving a long sigh, but the buzzing in his head is starting to take over everything. ‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet,’ Wellington says, but there’s little conviction in his voice. He lets out another sigh when Melbourne says nothing. ‘Have you spoken to her?’

‘Not yet.’

And there’s a silence of another kind at the other end. Pity.

‘It might yet blow over,’ Wellington says, the faintest hint of hope in his voice, and Melbourne closes his eyes and says nothing. ‘Where else can they go now?’ he asks a little dryly, and Melbourne resists the urge to snap at him. They both know that if this was going to blow over as easily as Wellington is implying, it would have well and truly done so by now. He knows exactly who is fanning this, and he is virtually powerless to stop them.

‘It’s done,’ he says, closing his eyes against the chaos in his head.

Wellington sighs again. ‘I’m sorry, Melbourne,’ he says, and he almost believes him.

‘Yeah,’ he mumbles, before hanging up the phone.

He thinks telling her might just kill him. He rests his head in his hands, and he can feel the sting of tears forming behind his eyelids. He would not let her see his tears.

She had brought him back to life. She was the reason he was still going, why his heart still beat. It beat for her in so many ways. And now he had to give her up.

It would be enough, he tells himself, to see her succeed. To read in the papers how she was winning the hearts of her people, how they loved her. How she was revitalising the monarchy.

He really was very good at lying to himself.

 

***

 

‘Your Lord M has been in the news a lot lately,’ her mother says from where she sits on the other side of the room.

‘Has he?’ Victoria replies, trying her best to feign disinterest.

‘Drina. Don’t pretend that you don’t read the newspapers.’

‘Not the gossip sections, Mama.’

‘A suggestion from Lord Melbourne, I assume?’ she asks, and Victoria resists the urge to roll her eyes. ‘You seem to hang off his every word.’

‘Mama,’ she warns, not turning around from where she was tying her shoelace.

‘Some would say he’s rather attractive,’ her mother adds slyly. Her head spins to stare at her mother, but she’s not looking at Victoria and so she quickly looks away.

‘Are you considering remarrying, Mother?’ she replies after a moment, not looking up. ‘I think Sir John might be a little offended.’

‘Drina! Sir John is merely a friend and advisor,’ the Duchess exclaims.

‘As is Lord Melbourne,’ Victoria responds icily.

‘You must be more careful, Drina,’ her mother says, ignoring her daughter’s frosty glare. ‘People will not care too much about me, but they will most certainly speak about you. They are already saying unkind things.’

Victoria didn’t respond. She knew her mother was right, but she pushed the thought away. Lord M was only a friend and advisor. But she was uneasy; he’d tried harder to hide it all from her, to shield the concern in his eyes, but he hadn’t quite succeeded. She was watching him closely, her Lord M, and what she saw made her worry.

‘Have you seen this?’ Her mother asks, handing Victoria her iPad. Victoria rolls her eyes at her mother before taking the iPad.

 

MRS MELBOURNE?

Does the Queen see more than just a Private Secretary in Lord Melbourne?

Questions are being raised about the nature of the Queen’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, her Private Secretary and closest confidant. An unnamed source close to the Queen tells The Daily Mail that the former Prime Minister is constantly at the Palace late into the evening, and regularly dines with the Queen…

‘They are very close,’ the source says. ‘It certainly isn’t an employer-employee relationship.’ And is it any wonder? The 42-year-old widower was named one of Britain’s sexiest politicians in 2009 and again in this year…

Lord Melbourne is no stranger to scandal, or to powerful women. His high-profile affair with socialite Annabelle Norton and on-again-off-again relationship with actress Elizabeth Branden…

 

Victoria thrusts the iPad back into her mother’s hands, her heart racing.

‘I do not consider The Daily Mail a reputable news source, Mother,’ she declares a little too loudly. ‘And neither should you.’

‘I do not, Drina. But there are many who do.’ She hears her mother sigh, before fixing her gaze on her daughter, her voice suddenly serious. ‘Be careful, Drina. He has a history of stealing hearts. Make sure he does not steal yours.’

Victoria glares at her mother’s retreating form before sagging back into the chair in front of her.

 

***

 

She’s been following his hashtag ever since she’d discovered he was one, and at first it had been amusing and a just little strange. There had been so many people – women, mostly, and hadn’t that been interesting – tweeting about how good-looking he was, how lucky she was to be working with him every day.

She agrees.

But this latest headline was everywhere in just a few hours, and she’s really, really not sure how she feels about it. Her stomach is in knots, and she feels the pull of shyness and something else she can’t name whenever she thinks about it.

She sees the other kinds of tweets, the more explicit ones that talk about how they don’t blame her, about his eyes and her innocence and just exactly what they would like to do to him, and she always scrolls past them quickly.

She wonders suddenly what he thinks of it all, and she can feel the blush spread across her cheeks at the thought.

But it’s the photos again that draw her in; there were so many now, and he was with so many different women. Beautiful women. Sophisticated, older women.

But the press lied, she knew. They would twist anything to make it sound bad, and make up whatever they needed to sell papers. He’s always told her to ignore them, to seek the truth from the source, but also to be careful of her own image. He’s even taught her how to use them for her advantage.

She’s not even sure what this is now. She knows it’s bad; he’s always defended her reputation, she knows, contacting editors and papers and requesting retractions of things that were untrue. But she’s read the article so many times now and she can’t really see anything that wasn’t true in it, outside of the obvious allusions to their friendship. But they’d been saying that for weeks, implying that perhaps there was something else going on, suggestion that they were more than just friends, that they were…were…and her stomach is in knots again at all the innuendo and insinuation and she doesn’t know what to think.

But she lets out a breath, forcing herself to step back again, consider the arguments and discard the rubbish like he’d told her to. She thinks that this isn’t anything new. They’ve been speculating about their friendship for a while; they were just now finding new and creative ways of talking about it.

They weren’t doing anything wrong, she knew. He’d said that they were probably too close, too much like friends rather than employee and employer, but she wasn’t about to change that and he didn’t seem to want to either. He was her friend, and he always would be. Nothing they could say would change that, she thinks. She wouldn’t let it.

She would focus on the facts. He did spend a lot of time at the Palace, but he had to – he was her Private Secretary! And he did occasionally have dinner with her. Well, it had become more of a regular thing around the Diplomatic Corps Dinner, when she would ring down and find him sitting at his desk late into the evening, having eaten nothing since the lunch she’d shared with him. She’d request his presence at her dining room – and threaten to go down and get him, if he refused – to eat with her, and occasionally Harriet or Emma.

She loves those nights, where it’s just the two of them, and they talk about anything and everything and he tells her stories from when he was still in office, and she tells him about her childhood and her extended family and her Uncle who still emails her once a week.

And he really was quite handsome, she thinks. He’d deserved that award. It’s not surprising that he should have attracted the attention of so many women, she tells herself. She knows he’s single now; he’s told her as much himself.

But Mrs Melbourne? She thinks that she should perhaps feel more offended, but it was just so…ridiculous that she couldn’t seem to summon up any kind of real anger. She feels a giggle bubble up in her chest as she repeats the title they’d given her to herself. Ridiculous.

The last photo is the same one they’d trotted out for most of the articles; him in his tuxedo at the Mozart Concerto, smiling at her as she laughs back at him.

He was handsome and safe and home, her Lord M, and she smiles as she feels the warmth spread through her: no matter what they said, what they took and twisted, he was hers.

 

***

 

His legs are like lead; he's walking through treacle down the halls of Buckingham Palace. It's almost surreal – he doesn't know how he's moving, only that if he stops, he'll never start walking again.

He can feel the tightness in his chest, the dull ache that rests behind his ribs, and he thinks he deserves it, really. It was selfish of him to say yes. He should never have allowed her to keep him this long either. The worst part is that he cannot bring himself to really regret it.

He loves her so, his little Queen. She has been a bright star in his slowly decaying world, and now it was for his sins that he was required to give her up.

He stops at her door and just watches her for a moment; she’s sitting at her desk, reading through something and making notes, her eyes focused and her pen between her teeth. And then she sees him and her face brightens and he thinks this is the most cruel punishment the fates could have devised.

‘Lord M! You’re early.’ And she sounds so pleased to see him, he thinks bitterly. He’s allowed her name to be dragged through the mud and yet her response is happiness when he appears.

He nods, not holding her gaze, and she stands, her face dropping, contorting slightly into something like fear. ‘Lord M? What’s wrong?’ she asks, and he can hear it in her voice.

‘Have you seen the Mail, ma’am?’

He can almost hear her swallow. ‘Yes,’ she replies, her eyes not leaving his face.

And he has to force the words out. ‘Ma'am, I've been speaking with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary. They feel, as I do, that given the circumstances, it would be best for you – for your reputation, and your relationship with parliament and the public – if I were to resign.’

He hears his voice catch on the last word, and his eyes flick to the ceiling. He cannot cry. He must be strong for her. 

When he blinks and his vision clears, she's staring at him with those wide eyes and her mouth is hanging just a little open, and his heart is breaking, ripping in two in his chest. He wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it, if it wasn’t absolutely the best thing for her. But oh, how it hurts.

‘But…’ she trails off, and he can see she’s panicking, but there’s nothing he can do to soothe her now. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says, shaking her head and coming to stand before him. ‘They’re just headlines, just newspapers. It’s rubbish. No one cares what they say.’ Her voice is breathy with panic and fear.

‘You know that’s not entirely true,’ he says, shaking his head, his voice low and gravelly with emotion.

‘But…why…’ And he can’t drag his eyes away from her devastated face. ‘Do you really mean to forsake me?’

And oh, she has no idea how much this is costing him, he thinks, how much his heart is breaking. She doesn’t understand that he would never leave her if he thought he could stay. He only wants the best for her, for her to be safe and protected and happy, and she can’t do that now while he is there next to her, clouding her reign with his past.

His eyes sting with unshed tears and he swallows. ‘I don’t think I have a choice, ma’am,’ he eventually stumbles out, and she’s shaking her head at him, and the tears start falling and then she’s running and he can’t stop her.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 14 May

 

He knows it’s Emma before he even looks at his phone.

She’s refusing to leave her room.

She’s upset.

She hasn’t eaten since yesterday.

What do you want me to do?

Call her. Send her a message. Something. She won’t listen to any of us.

Have you tried Harriet?

Harriet, Nancy, me. Lehzen. Even the Duchess.

His tongue felt thick in his mouth. He couldn’t call her; he couldn’t bear to hear her tears over the phone. But he clearly needs to do something. Emma wouldn’t ask if she thought she had another option.

Emma is worried about you.

He stares at the screen of his phone, waiting for the little dots he knows will appear. Now that he thinks about it, he’s almost surprised that she hasn’t tried contacting him already. It was a Saturday – a blessing and a curse – but he knew that weekends didn’t really mean all that much to the Queen.

And when her response – I’m fine. – appears on his screen a good few minutes later, he lets out a sigh.

She tells me you haven’t eaten.

I’m not hungry. And he would have let out an incredulous laugh at that if he could laugh. She’s always hungry, his little Queen.

I don’t believe you, ma’am.

When she doesn’t reply, he wonders if he’s crossed a line.

Sir Robert Peel is my deputy, and will take over as your Private Secretary once everything is sorted. And it’s killing him to type these words. He’s a good man, ma’am. He will do a good job.

He’s not you.

And as the tears burn his eyes, he knows he can’t say anything to that.

 

***

 

Sunday 15 May

 

It’s late, well past sunset, well past her normal bed time, and she’s spent most of the day and night in bed, her pillows now wet with her tears. Now, it just feels like a cage.

She has to get out.

So she pulls on her running gear and heads out into the darkness of the gardens; the lights are on, but she knows these paths like the back of her hand now anyway, and she needs to run, needs to feel the wind on her face, her heart pumping in her chest, the speed of her legs, the burn of the cold air rushing into her straining lungs.

She runs.

She doesn’t know how long she’s been running for before it starts raining, and she can’t hold it in anymore; she falls to her knees in the dirt and curls up in a ball on the ground and cries. It’s back, that desperate feeling that has haunted her most of her life, that feeling that disappears when he’s around. That feeling that defined her childhood, her teen years, that feeling she thought she’d managed to leave behind at Kensington when she’d become Queen and he’d become her Private Secretary and her friend and he’d introduced her to so many wonderful people, people like Emma and Harriet, people she could now call friends.

She’d gotten so used to being happy.

But now, it’s back, that feeling, like her chest is hollow and aching.

She’s alone.

But more than that, so much more than that – she’s lost him. He was hers, her Lord M, her faithful, patient teacher and friend and he was gone, just like that, and the ache, the pain in her chest is overwhelming.

She can’t. She can’t. She needs him. How was she to live without him?

Her mother finds her a little while later, and later she thinks perhaps it’s ironic that of everyone, her mother would know where to look for her distraught daughter.

‘Oh, mein liebling, my Drina, it’s the middle of the night, my love. You are saturated! How long have you been out here? Oh, mein liebling,’ she can hear her mother rambling next to her as she pulls her up out of the dirt and mud and into her arms.

‘Oh Mama, how will I manage?’ she sobs, pressing her wet face into her mother’s warm shoulder, suddenly desperate for the closeness, the comfort of her mother.

‘It’s so hard, I know,’ her mother replies. ‘I know.’

‘It’s not fair. He’s the only one who understands,’ she sobs, and she feels her mother’s warm hand stroking her sopping hair.

‘Not the only one, my love. Not the only one.’

 

***

  

‘Ma’am, a word,’ he calls from behind her, and she flinches at the sound of his voice. But she turns anyway, knowing he’ll just find her later if she doesn’t hear him out now. ‘I’ve heard about Lord Melbourne,’ he says. ‘I’m very sorry you’ve had to give up your Private Secretary.’

She’s surprised. It had been a little less than two days-- Of course. Mama.

‘I would merely like to let you know that you have not been completely abandoned, Your Majesty. There are still those who are willing to step in to those vacant roles and provide the assistance you so clearly need.’

And she realises he’s been waiting for this, for Lord M to leave, and the fury explodes like a volcano inside of her. ‘That won’t be necessary, Sir John,’ she bites out, and he speaks before she can finish.

‘It’s imperative that the Queen have a dependable and capable Private Secretary. It is really very hard to find people you can trust; people you can rely on to stand by you when things get tough.’

His words make her stomach twist in knots. She can’t hear this. She won’t.

‘I am quite capable of organising my own household,’ she declares, and his face contorts into that expression she’s so familiar with, the one that tells her he’s about to be cruel. She feels herself brace as best she can for the impact, knowing that it’s going to hurt.

And hurt it does.

‘Are you sure, ma’am?’ he asks, his eyes narrowed slightly. ‘After one disastrous choice, do you think it’s really wise for you to be making any more significant appointments on your own?’ he sneers under veil of concern, and she can’t help but swallow.

But she’s alone now – he is not here to rescue her this time – and she must be strong. So she lifts her chin and squishes her panic down as much as she can and uses one of the tricks he’s taught her.

He can still save her even when he’s not here, she thinks, and the thought blinds her a little, so she blinks and fixes her gaze on her target.

‘Good afternoon, Sir John,’ she says quietly, before turning and walking away.

 

***

 

Sir John’s words circle around and around in her mind. She pushes them away again and again, but her traitorous mind just won’t leave them alone, and she finds herself halfway through a thought process before she can catch herself.

He had left her, abandoned her when things had gotten rough. He’d said it was for her; that things were rough because of him, because of his past, and she believed him. That if he left, things would calm down and she would be fine. He’d told her that he did not regret being her Private Secretary.

Not for one moment.

She most certainly did not regret asking him. Perhaps the world did not approve, but they didn’t understand. How could they? They didn’t know him like she did.

He is soft and calm where she is not. He's all soft smiles and calm reasoning when she feels angry and chained down and drowning. He's kind where she's had criticism, and he teases her gently when he knows she'll laugh. He is so, so gentle with her, and she knows she doesn’t deserve it.

Occasionally she can hear the frustration in his voice, and sometimes she revels in it; she likes to argue, and occasionally she’ll be just belligerent enough to get a rise out of him. But she can never do it for long; the moment he shows any kind of unhappy emotion she caves, her heart crying out.

She thinks it’s comforting sometimes to know he’s not entirely perfect, that he’s human like her.

But then there are the times when she is angry and he is frustrated, and they reach an impasse. There have been days where he’s left earlier than usual, and she knows it’s her fault. It’s taken her a long time, but she’s becoming more and more aware that she can’t always have her own way.

But this time she can’t give in. She will not give him up.

Everyone speaks like this is the end, like he’s gone and he’s never coming back. Like she has no choice.

And they’re right. She doesn’t have a choice.

She can’t do this without him. She doesn’t know who the Queen is on her own just yet.

She isn’t the Queen without him.

 

***

 

Monday 16 May

 

She hasn’t slept much, up all night thinking about how best to approach this, to convince him to stay. The media hadn’t gotten wind of it yet; it had only been just over forty-eight hours, and most of those hours had been weekend – but still, she’s surprised. They had seemed to know everything almost before she did, but they were clearly not all over this. How long would it take? Did she have time to convince him before the headlines appeared? And she knew what they would be – something about how he’d resigned in disgrace, forced by public pressure to leave.

They might even say she’d fired him.

The thought catches her in the chest. No, she thinks. Never. She would never, ever do such a thing.

So she waits, the words and phrases a chaotic mess in her mind, whirling around as she paces her study. She feels frayed, on edge, like she’s a single thread being pulled too tight.

She has to do this. She has to convince him to stay, that it will all blow over. That it didn’t matter what people said, or thought – she knew the truth, and people would eventually realise that it was all rubbish.

She sucks in a breath. She has time. She has some knowledge about how these things work; he has to give a certain period of notice – he couldn’t just up and leave.

And then she hears footsteps, and…

She frowns when Sir Robert arrives at her office door, holding a very familiar cardboard coffee cup in front of him and how dare he bring her Lord M’s coffee? ‘Where is Lord M?’ she demands before he can speak, and she doesn’t care that he looks rather discomforted.

‘He has taken a short leave of absence, ma’am. He apologises for the sudden nature of his departure,’ he explains.

Leave of absence?

‘I’m not entirely sure, ma’am,’ Emma replies awkwardly, when Victoria storms up to her desk moments later.

Victoria raises an eyebrow. ‘Where might he be?’

‘He is most likely to be at his house here in London, ma’am,’ Emma concedes, and she frowns. ‘He felt it best to avoid the palace for the next few days, until everything dies down,’ Emma adds quietly. ‘Doesn’t want to add fuel to the fire.’

‘But...’ She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have a response for that. She knew there were photographers camped out at the entrances; she’d seen them with her own eyes from one of the windows. He’d pointed them out to her one afternoon earlier that week, a few hours after she’d asked why their coffees were being delivered. But she’d counted on his reliability, his steadfastness in the face of everything up to this point. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he might choose to stay away.

This is ridiculous, she thinks. She has to see him. She has to convince him to stay.

She could ring him, talk to him over the phone, but she dismisses the thought. That wouldn’t do. She has to see him, see his face, his eyes, and she can’t do that over the phone.

Well, if he won’t come to her, she’ll have to go to him.

Chapter Text

Monday 16 May

 

It’s been a long time since he hasn’t had anywhere to be on a Monday morning, and it’s nowhere near as pleasing as he had anticipated a year ago. The reason, he well knew, was five-foot-two with blue eyes.

He doesn’t think about it too much. He can’t. If he does, he’ll drown in his sorrow and in reality and he can’t do that yet. She still needs him, his little Queen, and he won’t let her down. He still has work to do, so he decides against the whiskey, going for coffee instead, and heads for his study.

The whiskey will come later.

 

***

 

She’s sitting in the car on the way to his house, curled low in her seat and the hood of her jumper pulled tightly down to cover her face, and suddenly, out of nowhere, it grips her.

What was she doing?

What would he say when he saw her? She was going to his house uninvited - what if he turned her away? What if he said no? Refused to come back? Refused to help her? Refused to see her?

She can feel the panic rising in her throat and she thinks she might be sick, right here on the back seat of the car.

But she closes her eyes and swallows against the backflips her stomach was most determinedly doing. She was being ridiculous. This was Lord M. Of course he’d at least see her. And if she could just see him, just talk to him, she knows she has a chance at convincing him.

Besides, she knew he would see her. She was the Queen. She wasn’t going to give him a choice.

 

***

 

She watches from the car as Peter speaks into what she assumes is his security system, before he nods to Callum who pulls the car door open for her. His street is quite lovely, she thinks, as she glances around; all white houses and bright flowers hanging from street lamps and huge green trees that allow only dappled sunlight through, and she thinks it’s perfect. But then Callum’s slightly tense Ma’am reminds her that he’s a little nervous about this short excursion out of the palace unannounced and unplanned, so she takes pity on her poor security duo and heads up the stairs to where a man she assumes is Lord M’s butler is holding the door open for her.

And oh, his house is lovely. The large, bright, open entrance hall is dominated by a rather grand and imposing dark wood staircase, and there’s a large, brightly coloured Indian-style rug that covers a good portion of the otherwise white-tiled floor. It’s him, she thinks; so very English, but with a hint of something else underneath.

She takes a few steps forward, and stops; she has no idea where she’s going. She assumes he’s in some kind of office; Emma had said he was working from home. She turns to the butler who immediately bows.

‘Your Majesty,’ he almost splutters. ‘If you would be so kind as to wait here, I will inform Lord Melbourne of your arrival—’

‘There’s no need to announce my arrival,’ she says, pulling her hood back from her face and shaking her head. ‘Please just show me to Lord Melbourne’s office.’

And the butler blinks at her, and she wonders if she’s said the wrong thing, but there’s not time for that now. She has to see him. She raises an eyebrow at the butler – who, by his stammering, seems to have no idea what to do with her now – before she turns and walks over to the nearest doorway and into the room. He was around here somewhere. If the butler was not going to be helpful, then she would just look in every room until she found him.

And her mind registers that she’s walked into a library, and the room is beautiful. The full-to-overflowing shelves that line three of the walls go right to the high ceilings, much like her own library, and the panelling is a lovely warm brown wood, and she thinks he fits here, her Shakespeare-quoting Lord M.

‘Your Majesty,’ she hears from behind her. ‘It’s just this way, ma’am.’ She turns to see his butler hovering awkwardly at the door, his arm out as if to point the way, and she purses her lips and nods, following him out of the room and up the stairs.

When she’s shown into his office, he has his back to her, sitting at his desk. But he whirls around at the sound of people entering the room and his face is thunderous and she sees for a moment how he could be quite intimidating when he wanted to be, and her heart’s suddenly in her throat.

‘What could possibly…’ and he trails off when he sees her, the shock and surprise clear on his face.

But then she notices the rest of him. His hair is all curly and messy and he’s wearing brown pants and a blue button-down shirt that’s not quite done up and…socks.

She feels her breath catch in her chest at the sight of him. Her whole body reacts to him, and she suddenly realises why they voted him sexiest politician.

 

It takes about a second for his brain to realise it’s her, and he blinks at her while his brain processes the fact that it’s her and she’s in his study.

It takes about a second after that for his brain to tell him she’s wearing the tightest black jeans he’s ever seen on her, black boots, a denim jacket over a black hoodie.

Of all the things he’s seen her wear, all the beautiful gowns and business clothes and dresses and her running gear and even something like her pyjamas at one point, he’s never seen her quite this…casual. Relaxed. Normal.

She’s standing in his office, in his home, her long hair in a ponytail, wearing denim and a hoodie and looking perfect in the simplicity of it all and he has to swallow.

He stares at her for too long; it’s not until his butler moves away that he’s jarred into action. The Queen of England is standing in the chaos that is his study, and he has no idea what on earth is going on.

Until he does, and he lets out a breath.

‘Forgive…the mess, ma’am. I wasn’t expecting visitors.’ Certainly not you, he thinks, and she’s at the top of a very short list of visitors that would matter, really.

She looks around and her lips twist slightly. ‘Evidently,’ she says, her eyes wide and her voice tentative and he lets out a huff of incredulous amusement.

Of course, today is one of those days where the Queen decides to tease him. But then he looks up at her bright, nervously smiling face, and he has about a million questions, at least four of them about what she was wearing, and what on earth was she doing?

And then her eyes drop to his chest and he remembers that he hadn’t quite done up all the buttons on his shirt that morning, and his hands fly to the buttons as he feels the flush creep up his chest towards his face. He looks back at her, and her eyes are still wide and the phrase a deer in headlights really works right now.

But then his mind catches up – the Queen of England was standing in his study. Alex was going to have his head for this, his mind suddenly supplies, and it dominates all other thoughts. ‘Where are Peter and Callum?’ he asks a little urgently, walking forward and glancing out the door to the hallway. They must be around somewhere, if for no other reason than she doesn’t know how to drive.

‘They’re in the foyer. Oh, well, Peter’s in the hallway, I think,’ she adds, and she’s far too relaxed about this.

‘Does Alex know you’re here?’ he asks, because it’s fairly clear to him now that this little excursion of hers likely wasn’t planned.

She frowns at his questions. ‘Of course. I couldn’t take one of my cars, not with the formal escort and all. He let me borrow his,’ she says.

And his stare is just a little incredulous. How could she be so cavalier with her own personal safety, especially now? She’s seen the most recent devastation first hand, and yet, here she stands with just two bodyguards in his rather un-secured home. He was going to have Alex’s head for this.

But his mind plays that conversation for him, and he thinks that perhaps he’ll go a little easy on Alex; he suspects that if he looks outside, he’ll see more than one unfamiliar car.

It doesn’t change the fact that she’s here. ‘Ma’am, you shouldn’t leave the palace without the proper security. It’s not safe!’

But then another thought hits him: what if someone had seen her?

But then she’s speaking. ‘Peter drove me. And I think I’m quite safe here, Lord M,’ she says, her tone making it clear she thought he was overreacting, and he sighs. Yes, he thinks. Now only my entire household and your security know you’re here. ‘Peter and Callum have already checked the house all over – they insisted, even though it’s your house and I’m sure it’s fine. And I trust them,’ she says slowly, seemingly reading his mind, and he raises his eyebrows before blinking and shaking his head. But she’s just standing there, and he should probably do something, and he flails around a little before his eyes settle on the lounges behind her.

‘Come, please, sit down,’ he says, walking past her and waving at the couches. ‘Would you like some tea?’ he asks, when she’s sitting in front of him, and she blinks.

‘No, thank you,’ she says, so he nods, grabbing his desk chair and pulling it up to sit in front of her, before fixing his eyes on hers and waiting, his eyebrows raised.

‘Why didn’t you come to the palace today?’ she asks after a moment, and he purses his lips.

‘I thought it best not to. Despite the obvious, you need to work with Robert Peel now.’

‘But I don’t want to work with him, I want to work with you,’ she says, and there’s a petulance in her tone he’s so, so familiar with, but she speaks before he can get a word in. ‘Lord M,’ she almost, almost whines. ‘How can you just leave like that?’ And her face settles into something smaller, more hurt. ‘You didn’t even say goodbye.’

And he cannot believe what he’s hearing. What she’s saying. How completely unobservant and clueless she is – how can she not see how this is killing him? ‘Do you think I want to, ma’am?’ and her face shifts, and he thinks she might, perhaps, understand. ‘It doesn’t matter about my feelings, or even yours. You are the Queen and your reputation is paramount. Your entire existence depends on this. You have started so well, ma’am, and I will not see your reputation suffer when I can do something about it, no matter how much I want to stay with you.’ His voice trails off at the end and he thinks by the look on her face that he’s said too much, revealed too much. ‘Sir Robert is very capable and reliable and will do a good job, ma’am,’ he adds, looking away and changing the subject. ‘Just tell him what you like and don’t like and he’ll learn it all.’

Her face is a little mutinous, and he knows he hasn’t convinced her.

But then it shifts slightly. ‘I thought perhaps that if you couldn’t come back officially as my Private Secretary, then perhaps you could come back as a consultant,’ she announces, and her eyes are suddenly so wide and hopeful and he blinks. ‘I would pay you out of my own purse, and then you wouldn’t technically have to be part of the official palace staff,’ she adds, and he can’t help but let out an incredulous huff, his heart softening. But there was no way it would work, and she knows this. She’s just grasping at straws now, trying to solve the problem on her own, and part of him is proud of her resourcefulness and creativity. But he gives a small shake of his head, a gentle smile on his face, and her face falls.

‘Why not?’ she demands more than asks, and he needs to redirect this, to calm her before it all becomes too much.

 

‘I think you must know why,’ he says quietly, and she’s confused for a moment, until she remembers; her reputation. It wouldn’t make sense for him to resign and then for him to be at the palace every other day; it would defeat the purpose of his leaving, really. But there’s a strange earnestness in his eyes, in his face, and she’s maybe not entirely sure she completely understands. ‘Are the photographers still camped out at the all palace entrances?’ he asks gently, and her shoulders drop. Of course he was right. Of course he would have already thought of all of this. ‘Give Sir Robert a chance,’ he almost pleads, and she can feel the voices in her head screaming again, desperate to take control, but she swallows, pushing them back down enough that she can just think.

‘Will you come for dinner tonight so I can tell you about it?’ she asks hopefully, and surely, he can still come for dinner. Surely she still has time. But he lets out a breath and looks a little exasperated with her and no, this is not fair. She will not lose him, her Lord M, no matter how many photographers choose to take up residence at her front door. ‘Why not? Even if you can’t be my Private Secretary, you can still be my friend!’ she cries, and his face falls, and she feels like crying.

‘I am honoured to be your friend and will be for as long as you wish, ma’am,’ he says, his voice low and gravelly, and she swallows at the emotion in his voice and his face, and she doesn’t understand him at all, how he can do this when he so clearly doesn’t want to. ‘And when this has all settled and blown over, I’ll come and you can tell me everything. But until then, I cannot be seen at the Palace.’

And her mind is spinning, the voices almost out of control now. Cannot be seen at the Palace. ‘How long will that be?’ she cries, and anything he says here she knows will be too long. She won’t survive that long without him, she thinks.

‘A week, perhaps. Maybe two,’ he says gently, and she can feel her eyes burning. ‘It will depend on what happens to distract them – how long it takes the stories to die.’

Two weeks, she thinks, and oh no, that’s too long. She can’t do two weeks without him. ‘Can I call you?’ she asks quietly, hopefully but tentatively at the same time, and he smiles.

‘Of course, ma’am,’ he replies, and she feels the voices screaming in her head subside just a little. ‘And you can email, and message, if you like. But you must work with Sir Robert,’ he adds firmly, his gaze stern, and she nods reluctantly. She will try, if only because he says she should. Only for him.

Working with Sir Robert will give her time, too, she thinks. Time to come up with something else that will convince him to stay. ‘Wellington will be at the function for the Archbishop’s retirement tomorrow, and I’ve asked him to ensure that he stays close to you to give you as many photo opportunities as possible,’ he explains. ‘Just make sure you smile, laugh a little, look happy to be there and to be with Wellington and the other MPs.’ And she nods again. ‘It’s important now that you are seen to be as impartial and independent as possible,’ he adds.

But he won’t be there, she thinks, and her heart is heavy.

 

Chapter Text

Monday 16 May

 

‘I know it’s late, and I’m sorry, but I thought you’d like to know.’

‘Know what?’ Her heart sinks. She already knows what Harriet is going to say, but a small part of her hopes against hope that her intuition is wrong.

‘Lord Melbourne’s resignation has made it to the news,’ she hears Harriet say quietly down the phone.

‘How?’ she cries, grabbing her iPad from her bedside table.

‘I don’t know,’ Harriet sighs. ‘The only report I can find just attributes it to the eponymous ‘source inside the palace’.’

And Victoria thinks that if she ever gets a hold of that source inside the palace, she’s going to find it rather difficult to restrain her temper.

 

***

 

Tuesday 17 May

 

She stares at the ceiling.

She has to meet with Sir Robert today.

 

***

 

His phone is ringing and he grabs at it, squinting against the light to see who it is.

‘Liz,’ he mumbles through the headache that had already taken up residence in his head, thumping a steady beat behind his eyes.

‘So I assume you haven’t seen the paper yet this morning?’ she asks, and he lets out a sigh before opening his eyes to look at his phone before squeezing them shut and covering them with his hand.

‘Not yet,’ he mumbles, slowly removing his hand from his face and squinting against the brightness of his phone screen.

‘Water,’ she says matter-of-factly as she puts him on speakerphone, and he can hear her moving around in the background. He presses against a familiar icon on the screen, and he closes his eyes as the headlines load. He’d drunk enough last night to drown a small town.

‘Bad?’ he asks.

‘By the sounds of you, I assume it’s true.’

Oh. 

He opens his eyes, and the headline is right there, timestamped and all, and he’s surprised it’s taken this long. That’s got to be a record, he thinks. Sixty-eight hours.

But seeing the words there in black and white, her picture next to his at the top of the page doesn’t hurt any less. ‘Yes,’ he mumbles, and she lets out a sigh. ‘Well, partly. I did resign.’

‘I assume it was a mutual decision?’

He can’t help but let out a small snort at that, which he immediately regrets as the pounding at his temples becomes more insistent. ‘Not quite.’

There’s a silence that he doesn’t break.

‘What will you do now?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he says. He hadn’t thought of anything beyond drowning his sorrows.

An image fills his mind; Brocket Hall was calling his name.

‘Well, at least Ant will be happy. He’s been chasing you for the Red Cross for forever.’  

‘Hmm.’

There’s a pause as he debates the merits of trying to stand; now that she’d mentioned water, it was all he could think about. He puts his phone on speaker and drops it on his bedside table.

‘I assume the rest of it is true,’ she says a little too flatly for his liking.

He stumbles into his bathroom and downs an entire glass of water with two panadol before he answers. ‘What’s the rest of it?’ he asks, because he’s too hungover and it’s too hard to think about any of it.

‘That you’re sleeping with her.’

And his brain explodes. ‘They said that?’ he cries, stumbling forward and grabbing at his phone.

‘No, of course not,’ she says. ‘But I can read between the lines.’

He throws his phone down again on the bed in front of him, that stupid, ridiculous headline teasing him from where it screamed out from the screen.

And he runs his hands over his face. This last article had crossed a line; they’d been made brave by the hype and the constant drip-feed of information and the competition for the next headline.

And there had been almost nothing he could do. Oh, the angry letters had been sent – via PR, of course – but given that at best they’d violated her ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ as the code of ethics stated – which Peel was currently following up –  he could do little else to protect her. He will not risk her relationship with her mother over him, whatever little there is left.

But to hear it out loud? ‘God, Liz, it’s the Queen,’ he stumbles out.

‘Yes, it is, William.’ He splutters a little and he can almost hear her laughing at him down the phone. ‘Okay, okay. Just wanted to be sure.’

‘Just what do you think of me?’ he mutters, and she chuckles again.

‘Perhaps that was a little unfair.’

And the pounding in his head is starting to dominate everything. ‘A little?’ he mumbles from where he’s crawled back into bed.

‘Okay, a lot.’ She’s still chuckling, and he can feel his face burning with embarrassment. ‘Well, you do have a reputation to maintain.’

‘Liz!’ he moans, and she laughs again.

‘Call me tomorrow, William,’ she says before hanging up, and he sighs heavily before burying his head in his pillows.

 

***

 

She walks through the door to her office, and it’s all wrong.

Sir Robert jumps up from where he was sitting on the lounge by the door, standing awkwardly and watching her as she stops in front of him. When she turns to face him, she realises that he doesn’t have her coffee this time. She knows it’s unfair to count that against him, but a small part of her still does. 

‘Good morning, Your Majesty,’ he greets her with a stiff little bow.

‘Good morning, Sir Robert,’ she replies flatly. He stares at her for a moment and she blinks, waiting.

‘Oh, I have your letters and invitations, ma’am,’ he says, pulling a folder from his briefcase, and she sucks in an irritated breath.

‘Thank you,’ she says, taking the folder from his outstretched hand before turning and walking around to sit at her desk. The folder feels lighter than usual; she frowns as she opens it and flicks through the papers.

‘Where are the rest of the invitations?’ she asks, and he frowns.

‘I was under the impression, ma’am, that you only looked at a select few.’

‘Well, I certainly don’t look at all of them, but usually much more than this,’ she replies, and he nods awkwardly.

‘I will review the invitations again,’ he says, and she nods after a moment. She hears him clear his throat quietly. ‘There’s also some legislation to sign, ma’am,’ he says, and her head flicks up. ‘You also have the reception at six o’clock tonight, ma’am.’

‘Yes, Sir Robert. I can see my calendar,’ she says, almost interrupting him, and her stomach twinges a little at how rude she knows she sounds. She can almost see Lord M’s raised eyebrows in her mind, and she clenches her jaw against the emotion. Well, if he was here, she wouldn’t have cause to be annoyed then, would she?

‘Where is the paperwork for the new legislation?’ she asks, and he pulls out a folder from his briefcase and hands it to her.

She opens it to the first page and scans it; it was the bill Wellington had been trying to pass for months around the adjustments to income tax. Lord M had been explaining it all to her, and how it would affect various groups. She would have to try to read it herself, she thought, now that he wasn’t here to explain all the changes they’d made, and she feels the pain of his absence again. 

But she couldn’t dwell on that anymore; she had work to do. She sets it aside to attempt to read later – that would require coffee and full concentration, she knew – and returns to her letters. ‘I’ve put tabs where you are required to sign, ma’am,’ Sir Robert explains, and she looks up at him, frowning.

‘Thank you, Sir Robert, but I would still like to know what I’m signing.’ And when he looks a little confused for a moment, she frowns. ‘I may not exercise much power within the workings of the government, Sir Robert, but I still like to keep abreast of what my government is actually doing,’ she explains coolly.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replies, and the surprise in his voice is clear.

He thinks she’s stupid, her deputy Private Secretary, and a wave of fury crashes over her at the thought. But she quells it immediately. Sir Robert was not Lord M.

She had taken her Lord M for granted, and now he was gone. She would need to learn to work with Sir Robert, as much as the idea left a bad taste in her mouth.

‘What time is the Prime Minister arriving?’ she asks, not looking up from her computer.

‘Ah, I took the liberty of rescheduling his meeting to next week,’ he says hesitantly, and her eyes flick to his face. ‘Your Majesty has the dinner with the archbishop tonight, and I was informed that time was required to prepare.’

She stares at him, sorting through what he’s just said. Surely not…

‘What time was Wellington’s meeting scheduled for?’

‘Three o’clock, ma’am.’

‘And the dinner commences at?’

‘Pre-dinner drinks commence at six o’clock, ma’am.’

‘You thought it would take me two hours to get ready for a dinner?’ she almost shouts, standing, and Peel turns an even brighter shade of red.

‘I was advised that you required a minimum of two hours, in case of delays.’

‘And there was two hours!’ Her voice is most definitely raised now, and she doesn’t care. How dare he treat her like a…a…brainless harpy who is more concerned with getting dressed up than the business of government? ‘You will not reschedule my appointments without confirming with me first,’ she demands quietly, and Peel’s eyes almost pop out of his head.

‘But ma’am, that’s-that’s a significant portion of my responsibility. It would take up a substantial amount of time…and seriously compromise my ability to perform my role,’ he splutters out, and she couldn’t care less in her anger and offence. He would need to learn who he was dealing with, this new Private Secretary of hers.

‘Nevertheless, Sir Robert, I find that I would like to take a more active interest in my appointments.’ And she can see it in his eyes, the protest, the indignation, and something clicks in the back of her mind, something… ‘Thank you, Sir Robert,’ she says, sitting down again. ‘I will contact you when I have finished my correspondence.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ she hears him stumble out after a moment, before he turns and leaves, and she lets out a sigh, before pursing her lips.

Maybe…it’s there, in the back of her mind, something she can use, but she can’t quite see it just yet. But she had time – time to think, to plan. Perhaps, just perhaps, she might still win this round.

 

***

 

‘You’re hungover.’

And he thinks he has far too many women in his life, and all of them far too interested in his wellbeing and why can’t they just leave him alone to drown in his sorrows? ‘Nope.’

‘You’re also a terrible liar.’

It irked him that she wasn’t wrong. ‘What do you want, Emily?’

‘Is it true?’

‘Yes,’ he says on a sigh.

He hears Emily let out a disbelieving laugh. ‘I can’t believe she just let you go.’

Melbourne closes his eyes. ‘She…didn’t.’

‘Oh.’

‘It’s for the best, Emily.’

‘Do you feel the express need to deliberately sabotage every good thing in your life, or does it just come naturally?’ she cries, and he cringes. Despite the panadol and gallons of water, his head was still a little sensitive. ‘You were obviously perfectly happy working for her.’

‘Have you been reading the papers?’ he shoots back.

‘Oh, and you do now?’

‘I have to.’

‘And you’ve suddenly started believing it all?’

‘Not all of it was wrong, Emily,’ he says quietly. ‘I won’t let her be dragged down by my stupidity.’

She snorts. ‘I don’t think anyone else actually sees it that way.’

‘No, they just see a marriage-wrecking, womanising ex-politician spending copious amounts of time alone with their innocent young Queen!’ he shouts, and stops, rubbing his hand over his face. He must be really very hungover; he’s not even sure where that came from.

Maybe he’s still drunk.

Emily is silent down the phone for too long before she speaks.

‘William Lamb, you have never let the press bother you before. Don’t start now,’ she says quietly.

‘It’s not just about me!’ he almost cries.

‘And what are you teaching her, then? That it’s alright to sacrifice yourself on the altar of possible public opinion served up by the press?’ she shoots back, and he lets out a huff. ‘You and Emma are the only ones with any sense in that place. You’re stronger than this – you have to teach her the same.’

‘It’s too late now,’ he mumbles.

‘Oh, I really don’t think it is, Lord M,’ Emily replies wryly.

It hits him later when he’s staring off into space that he hasn’t once, in any of the articles, read her little nickname for him in the press.

 

***

 

It’s late and she’s tired and she just misses him, her Lord M, and his gentle explanations. She’d bitten off far more than she could chew with this new legislation. She just didn’t understand all of this language. It was heavy, dense text and even if it had been in basic language, she didn’t have the economics knowledge to really decipher it. She needed him to explain it.

I don’t understand some of the changes in the tax bill.

It takes a little while for him to respond, and she feels a little guilty. It was quite late.

Ask Peel, ma’am. He will explain it. Or the Duke.

And she throws her phone down on the other side of the couch. It bounces a few times before sliding down between the cushions and she lets out an annoyed noise. She doesn’t want to ask Peel, and she feels the pull of annoyance and hurt and tears. She just wants him back.

She felt adrift, lost, just drifting along at the mercy of the waves, and her lifesaving buoy was nowhere to be found.

 

Chapter Text

Friday 20 May

 

‘How many this morning?’ she asks Emma as she peers out the window from behind one of the curtains. It was overcast, but she could still see the tourists gathering at the gates. The photographers were sometimes difficult to spot, especially later in the day when they blended in easily with the crowds, but now, this early, they were quite obvious to her now-trained eye. Watch long enough, and you’d notice that they were the only ones not actually taking photos of the palace she called home.

‘I count only two today, I think, ma’am,’ Emma replies, looking out from the other side of the window. ‘And I’m fairly sure the one who was in the trees on the edge of Green Park yesterday has given up.’

‘Excellent,’ she says. With every day the photographers become fewer, her argument for his return grew. He’d been right; without anything new to go on since the news of his resignation had broken on Monday, the headlines had all but disappeared. And oh, hadn’t she yelled at Peel when he’d suggested an official statement about his resignation. She cringed slightly at the memory of Peel standing awkwardly in her office only yesterday, suggesting that perhaps if they issued a formal statement confirming that Lord Melbourne had resigned that the photographers might give up and they could all come and go in peace.

What good was peace if she didn’t have Lord M?

She couldn’t issue a statement. It would be like the final nail in the coffin, the signal to him and the world that she’d given him up. That she’d given up on him.

And oh, she would never, ever give up on him, and she would never, ever let him think that she had.

She still had time. Emma had more than happily told her that he was required to give two weeks’ notice, and that technically, as he’d not officially given her a resignation in writing, that two weeks hadn’t officially begun yet.

She thanks God for whoever thought that Emma Portman would be a good Personal Assistant.

‘There weren’t any new stories again this morning,’ she tells Emma rather smugly, and Emma smiles knowingly at her.

‘I noticed that too, ma’am.’

 

***

 

 

She wanders out to Emma a little while later with the folder with her letters, and Emma gives her a sympathetic smile.

‘Could you let Sir Robert know I have finished with these?’ she says, and Emma nods. She is not hiding from Sir Robert; this is part of Emma’s job. She’s just frustrated.

She thinks also that Sir Robert doesn’t mind not seeing her at the moment.

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Emma holds up a cardboard coffee cup, and Victoria blinks against the pain in her chest. ‘I was just about to call you – it was delivered a little late this morning,’ she explains, her face soft, and oh, he was so good to her, her Lord M.

He wasn’t even here and he was still looking after the little things. She’d had coffee every day this week.

She takes her coffee with a quiet thank you and wanders back to her study, curling up in a ball on her lounge.

She can’t get the image of him just standing there in his study out of her head. She’d never seen him in anything less than a suit and tie until that moment. She knows in her head that he’s a man, her Lord M, with a house and a life and a past, but it had never really seemed real – more like an idea, an intangible thing she’d never really cared to contemplate all that much.

There’s something else about that image that has haunted her in the quiet hours since her visit; something she can’t quite put her finger on, but she cannot get the picture of him standing there so…rumpled…masculine…out of her head, and she finds that she doesn’t actually want to.

But there, in his house, the home he’d lived in for so long, all dishevelled and relaxed and human, she realises that she doesn’t really know him at all. He’s seen her at her best and at her worst; she’s danced with him in an elegant ballroom as the Queen and she’s cried her heart out in his arms as Victoria.

She’s never even seen him get all that angry.

She doesn’t really know anyone, she realises, and she feels so, so small.

So alone.

But then his face flashes in front of her eyes. Do you think I want to, ma’am?

She can see it in his face, the pain, and she knows he really didn’t want to leave. This is hurting him too. She hadn’t really seen it when he’d told her, too consumed by her own shock and distress. But in the quiet moments when all she can see is him and the soundtrack in her mind is their conversation only days earlier, she can see it - he doesn’t want to abandon her any more than she wants him to. But he’s noble, her Lord M, called by duty.

She thinks he’s a little too swayed by his sense of duty.

She thinks of his words to her at her lowest; when she’d seriously thought about abdicating and running away. He’d told her that he’d had no reason to continue living – until he’d become her Private Secretary, and her friend. But now he was only one of those things, and she was afraid that just being her friend wasn’t going to be enough to convince him that the world should continue turning, that he should get out of bed in the morning. That his world shouldn’t slip back into the black and white existence it had been.

He had found the strength to go on; she would too. But she wouldn’t allow him to sacrifice himself for her. She would not allow him to give this up, to give up the only reason he has to continue. Emma’s words play in her mind; that he’d seemed so much happier since he’d agreed to be her Private Secretary.

She would not allow his world to become devoid of colour again, not if he didn’t want it to. And she thinks that he very, very much does not want it to.

He needs her just as much as she needs him.

 

***

 

The silence of his house mocks him. He is so used to noise now, even the noise in his head of her voice through the day as he replayed their conversations, but even that is silent now.

It mocks him for thinking he somehow was worthy of happiness. Of her.

She’s doing well enough without him. He’d seen the photos of her with Wellington at the Archbishop’s farewell dinner; she’d been as beautiful as always, and there was a lovely one of her smiling as she talked with her Prime Minister and his wife. But she cannot hide from Emma, who is more than happy to give him regular updates on the Queen’s general unhappiness, despite how much he knows she’s just trying to make him feel guilty. He knows she hopes he’ll give in and return, but in reality, her words are having the opposite effect. She’s reminding him that his little Queen is suffering because of him, because of his weakness, his inability to think further than his own selfish desires.

He’s been so caught up in her light, in her orbit, that he’d missed what had been going on around him. It was like being woken from a particularly delightful dream, the harsh, jarring, grim cold of daylight so garish compared to the warmth of her light.

But he cannot cut off all contact with her – he’d promised that they’d still be friends, at least, and he wants to – so when she sends him a photo of her coffee later that day with a Thank you, he replies and tells her she’s more than welcome.

 

***

 

She’s tired and on edge when her mother asks. ‘How is your new Private Secretary? Sir Robert?’

Her eyes flick to her mother’s, narrowing. ‘He is fine.’

‘Just fine?’

‘He is very capable,’ she replies after a moment, repeating his phrasing and not trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She doesn’t care.

‘But you do not like him.’

She lets out a sigh. ‘I don’t know him very well yet, Mama.’

‘You know, Sir John would more than happily step in and help you,’ her mother starts, and Victoria’s head flicks around.

‘Mama,’ she warns, her voice hard.

‘Let him help you, Drina,’ her mother pleads. ‘He has always been there for us,’ and she can’t listen to this. She won’t. She can’t go back there. Not now that she knows what it’s like. What he’s shown her.

Freedom.

She can feel her heart racing and the screaming in her mind becomes more and more insistent. ‘I will never let that man control me again,’ she spits before standing and fleeing the room. 

 

***

 

She marches out to Emma’s desk and stops as another idea dies in her mind. Emma looks up at her expectantly, waiting, but she doesn’t even know what she wants now.

She lets out a breath. There was little point in visiting him now, she thinks. She needs more time to think things through. He would not come back on the strength of his own need; she needed something more.

Emma’s voice breaks through her thoughts. ‘I was actually just about to call you, ma’am. I believe you may have been looking for something earlier this week.’

She frowns, staring at Emma’s knowing look for a few seconds before it hits her. ‘Yes,’ she replies quickly, and her chest is suddenly tight.

‘I think Sir Robert mentioned something about having something delivered to his office at around 2pm,’ Emma says nonchalantly.

He would be here. At 2pm. She glances at her watch - it was 1:45pm. She had fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes to plan what she would say, the words she would use to convince him to return.

‘I think I have a question for Sir Robert that I didn’t ask this morning,’ she says slowly, because there is no way she’s having this conversation in front of Sir Robert Peel.

‘Shall I request his presence, ma’am?’ Emma says, already reaching for her phone.

‘I would appreciate that, Emma.’

 

Chapter Text

Friday 20 May

 

‘Melbourne,’ Peel greets him as he walks through the door into their foyer of his department.

Old department, his mind supplies.

‘Peel,’ he says. He hasn’t really heard from her how their first meeting went other than her request for assistance with the tax bill, and he’s not entirely sure he wants to ask. He’s been trying to read between the lines, but Peel is almost frustratingly official; the tone of his emails never changes. But he has to know, so he turns and heads to Peel’s office.

Peel’s face tells him everything - he just glances up at him, his mouth in a frown and his face reddening. ‘She’ll come around eventually,’ Melbourne says quietly after a moment, wincing a little.

‘Her Majesty has requested that I confirm all appointments with her, including all rescheduling,’ Peel announces stiffly, and Melbourne closes his eyes for a moment before glancing down at his feet.

Well.

Peel hadn’t put that in any email over the course of the week.

‘I advised Her Majesty that that would make it very difficult to actually do my job.’ Melbourne nodded; he was absolutely right. That would make any Private Secretary’s job really very painful. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought she was trying to make this as difficult as possible.

But then Peel’s phone rings, and Melbourne is surprised to hear a sigh come from the other man’s mouth. ‘I’ll be right over,’ he says heavily into the phone, before glancing up at Melbourne. ‘Her Majesty has a question,’ he announces, before standing and walking around his desk and past Melbourne out the door. Melbourne resists the urge to tell him it could potentially be about the tax bill; it’s probably best that Peel doesn’t know that the Queen is still in contact with him about things that weren’t really supposed to be his responsibility anymore.

He stares at the chaos that is his own desk and frowns. It was going to take a while to sort through. He’d tidied some of it last Friday night, but he’d been too consumed with grief and too desperate for his whiskey decanter to make much headway, so it needed to be dealt with today.

He turns and looks down the hall without thinking before closing his eyes and sighing. It’s killing him that she’s only a few seconds’ walk away, a walk he’s done a thousand times. It’s a walk he will make one more time later today. The letter feels like it’s burning a hole in his jacket pocket, and he cannot wait to give it to Emma in a few hours’ time when he knows she’ll be back in her rooms and not in her study and highly unlikely to run into him. It’s for the best. It would not do her any good to see him just now.

He has fully accepted the fact that he’s a coward.

He pushes the thought out of his mind and starts working through the first pile. He’s only a couple of documents through when he hears footsteps. ‘That was quick,’ he says, but the footsteps stop and he turns.

And she’s standing in front of him, her face a mask of determination and anxiety and the sight of her hits him like a truck.

He’s missed her so, so much, his little Queen, and her face is so soft and beautiful and he knows exactly who is behind this, and he thinks that Emma Portman should stop meddling.

‘Lord M,’ she says breathlessly after a moment.

‘Ma’am,’ he says automatically, and he can’t seem to drag his eyes away from her.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she says, and he can see her heart right there on her sleeve, and no, no, he can’t do this. He’s only just barely holding his own heart together; he’s not sure he can hold hers too.

‘It’s been less than a week,’ he half-laughs humourlessly instead, and she blinks at him, and he knows exactly why she’s here. Why does she persist in doing this to him? He knows how much she wants him to return, and he thinks that after her excursion to his home she would have at least some idea of how much he doesn’t want to leave. But still she stands here, ready to do this all over again.

‘I tried to do as you asked. I tried to work with Sir Robert,’ she says, almost pleads, and his eyebrows rise slightly at that – his frustration must have appeared on his face. He’s slipping, he thinks.

‘I can see that,’ he says wryly, and she frowns briefly. ‘Confirming every appointment, ma’am? That’s going to make his job almost impossible,’ he warns her, and she’s definitely annoyed now.

‘He doesn’t understand! He rescheduled my meeting with the Prime Minister because he thought I needed more than two hours to get ready for a dinner,’ she mutters darkly and he frowns, his mouth opening and closing a little as he works out just how to say what he wants to say. But they can’t have this conversation here, half in and out of his office, so he steps back and holds his arm out, and she moves into the room and sits in one of the soft leather arm chairs.

‘Sir Robert is an excellent man, very organised and principled and committed to his job, but I fear he has never quite understood…social skills,’ he says a little haltingly as he sits in the chair opposite her. And when he looks up, she’s looking at him almost happily, and he has to drop her gaze. He can’t do this. He has to push her away, to move away. He can’t do this again.

‘Ma’am,’ he begins, and stops, throwing his hands in the air a little.

‘Did you see that the photographers are almost all gone?’ she asks, and he blinks.

‘I did not,’ he replies haltingly.

‘Emma and I have been keeping watch. There were only two this morning, although one of them we weren’t entirely sure about. He was acting a little oddly. And there haven’t been any articles about you or this since Tuesday,’ she says and the hope in her voice is killing him. She’d been so quiet since her little sojourn to his home that he’d thought she’d given up and accepted that he wasn’t coming back. He’d been naïve enough to assume that he’d convinced her. His mistake, it seemed.

‘Whilst I’m thrilled that the interest in this is disappearing,’ he starts, ‘It is still not in your best interests for me to come back. I shouldn’t even be here today, but Emma was kind enough to organise a car for me so that I would hopefully be able to avoid any of those photographers waiting outside the gates.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she says, and he thinks for a moment that perhaps she doesn’t really want to. ‘No one cares about this anymore. You said that if a story is out of the press for a week, it’s dead. It will have been just about a week on Monday.’

He sighs. ‘Ma’am, your power is almost entirely in your reputation. What you wear one night is for sale the next morning online. What you say could be tweeted within moments, as you well know,’ he reminds her, and she pouts a little. ‘One of the benefits of Sir Robert is that he is very, very unlikely to draw a scandal,’ he says dryly, and she frowns at him.

‘Sir Robert treats me like I’m a stupid girl,’ she spits, and he mentally curses Peel for pressing that one most sensitive button of hers. Had the man listened to any of his advice? ‘You never treated me like a child,’ she says, and her voice has returned to a kind of soft pleading.

‘Yes, well, as I said, he perhaps doesn’t have the greatest understanding of women,’ he concedes, frowning a little, and he briefly wonders again how the man ever married. ‘But you will have to learn to work with him,’ he says again, and he knows that semi-mutinous look that’s now on her face so well now. But she has to understand this. He will make sure she does, if it’s the last thing he does. ‘There’s something more at stake here than just my feelings, or yours. You are the Queen of England. You are someone the people of Britain – of the Commonwealth – the world, even – look up to and respect. You represent everything that is British – everything that is good and right for so many. They hold you to a higher standard, and you must respect that.’

‘And I have done nothing wrong!’ she cries.

‘But I have!’ he cries, before looking away, softening just slightly. ‘And you are being tainted by the association.’

I am the problem, he wants to cry. You are perfect, and you are suffering because of me.

 

He lets out a heavy sigh, and she can feel her heart sink, and she knows that tears are not far away. She’s scrambling, desperate to keep it together, to think, to focus. If only the voices in her head would stop screaming so loudly…

‘If I return now, the press would merely crow that they were right all along, that I had somehow manipulated you.’

‘And they would be wrong!’

‘But the public wouldn’t know that! It’s all about how it looks, ma’am!’

And he’s very clearly frustrated with her now, and she’s beyond frustrated – she’s angry – and why can’t he just see?  ‘I’m not a piece of clay to be moulded by anyone!’

‘No, definitely not, but that’s not how it will be seen! It doesn’t matter that you don’t like Peel, it matters that he is not me!’ And then he’s closing his eyes and shaking his head and she thinks he’s exasperated with her. And suddenly she’s all nerves and fear and panic and she thinks for a moment that she is not going to win this.

And she can feel her determination fading as the panic rises.

She’s going to lose him.

 

‘You are always telling me not to read the papers, not to listen to what they say,’ she says weakly.

‘This is different, ma’am,’ he replies, his voice quiet again.

‘How?’ she demands, her voice high and he can tell she’s about to cry and he can’t watch her cry over him again.

Because it’s almost true, he wants to cry. Because I love you.

And the thought stops him in his tracks because in his anger and frustration it almost, almost left his mouth.

He has to redirect this. He has to make her see. He cannot stay. He loves her, and along with everything – the damage to reputation, the whispers about her private life, the almost-loss of the sweetness and innocence that has so far won the hearts of her people – that headline hit far, far too close to home. He will not let that happen. He won’t allow them to see her as anything other than as she is: their sweet, beautiful, innocent, compassionate young Queen. He loves her far too much to let that happen. He loves her too much to stay.

He says nothing. He can’t look at her; she’ll see it on his face. She’ll know. It’ll be the Coronation Ball all over again, but this time, there’s no champagne or success or ballrooms to hide behind. So he closes his eyes and shakes his head once, praying that she will just see that she cannot have her way here.

‘Don’t you want to be my Private Secretary?’ and her voice breaks his heart. He’s not felt pain like this in so long.

‘More than anything, ma’am,’ and his voice is full of everything he has because he can’t help it. ’But not at the expense of your reputation.’

And when he looks into her eyes and sees the tears there, tears because of him, he mumbles a broken I’m sorry before standing and walking out the door.

 

When she arrives at her study desk late the next morning to pick up her laptop, her crying-sore eyes spot the envelope resting on top, his familiar sharply-looping scrawl on the front, and she stares at it until the fresh tears blind her.

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday 24 May

 

He thinks that sometimes it’s the little things that seem the most brutally unfair.

Today is her birthday.

He’s had her present sitting in his office for weeks, and he’s already asked Emma to give it to her for him, so he knows she’ll get it, but oh, what he wouldn’t give to be there to see her open it.

 

***

 

She lies in bed, staring at the ceiling.

Today is her birthday.

She does not feel like celebrating at all.

 

***

 

Her mother and Sir John are waiting for her at breakfast.

‘Happy Birthday, Drina,’ her mother coos, and something about her mother’s voice sets her on edge. But she goes forward and returns her mother’s hug. ‘You seem to have developed a sudden interest in Shakespeare,’ the Duchess says, and she hands her a soft, rectangular-shaped present, wrapped in tissue paper.

‘Thank you, Mama, Sir John,’ she replies, her voice even as she pulls the wrapping paper off. It’s a book; a soft leather-bound copy of King Lear, and it’s beautifully soft and worn, and she loves it. Her heart swells and softens and she almost smiles at her mother.

Until she opens the book to where the bookmark rests, and she feels her stomach tighten into something painful.

‘How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child,’ she reads, and her head shoots up to see a smug look on her mother’s face.

She throws the book on the floor and storms from the room.

 

***

 

She keeps her phone with her all day – well, as much as she can with all the carriage rides and waving and ceremonies. It was her birthday, after all.

When she’s heard nothing by the time she returns to her rooms to dress for her dinner, she thinks that perhaps he’s forgotten, and she blinks the tears away.

 

***

 

She’s farewelling the Duchess of Wellington – she’d been as lovely as Victoria had thought from the few times she’s spoken to the older woman, and Harriet had been a genius to invite her – when Emma appears with a hesitant smile on her face.

‘Ma’am, I have this for you,’ Emma says, carrying what appeared to be a large-ish box wrapped in pearlescent purple paper, and she frowns. Emma had already given her some perfume and a beautiful pen. ‘I was asked to deliver it.’ And the look on Emma’s face says it all, and she looks back at the box as Emma sets it down on the table in front of her.

She can feel her eyes burn. She looks away, biting her lip before clenching her jaw. She would not cry. She wouldn’t. He had forsaken her. He didn’t want to be her Private Secretary anymore. She would not pine after him.

She hates that she is still desperate to know what he would give her for her birthday.

She looks down at the card that’s resting just underneath the purple ribbon that encircles the box and sucks in a shaky breath, glancing up at Emma and Harriet before pulling it from its place and sliding it open, and stopping. She’s not sure she can bear to read his words to her on her birthday, not here, not in front of everyone, so she places the card on the table next to her, and pulls at the ribbon. It comes apart easily, and she slides it off, before pulling the paper off at the sides and opening the top. Her mouth falls open just a little, and she hears Harriet’s sharp intake of breath. She pulls the larger of the two boxes out of the bigger box they sit in and stares at it, swallowing a little.

‘Wow,’ Harriet says after a moment. ‘That is a very good camera.’

She knows; she’s been looking at digital SLRs online for weeks, ever since she’d spent a good half an hour talking to the official palace photographer after her last garden party. She’d been playing with her phone, but she wanted to do more, and she’d quickly realised the limitations of an iPhone camera. They were just so expensive; she didn’t think she could justify it, really. She wasn’t going to be like her uncles, spending ridiculous sums of money on frivolous things, and she thought an expensive camera when she had an official photographer would count as frivolous.

She wonders when he bought it, how long he’s waited to give this to her. He’d never said a word.

She puts the camera back in the box, and pulls out the smaller box; it was a lens to go with it.

When she goes to put the lens back, she sees there’s a simple piece of white card at the bottom of the box. She reaches down to pick it up before she can think.

I hope you will enjoy capturing the little moments – and perhaps some of the bigger ones.

And she’s so tired of crying, thinks she has to run out of tears at some point, but she finds that she hasn’t yet, because despite it all, despite her best efforts, she can feel them pooling in her eyes. She puts the lens back in the box blindly, blinking at the tears she’s desperate for Emma and Harriet not to see, and picks up the card she’d put down earlier. She has to know what he’s said to her, what else he’s written to her.

Inside was small, pearlescent folded card, and a simple piece of white card.

Surprise. Happy Birthday.

Yours always,

Lord M

She opens the smaller pearlescent card and lets out a shaky sigh, as she feels the familiar tightening of her throat yet again. She runs her fingers over the familiar embossed logo of the Royal Ballet, fingering the rough edges of the two tickets inside.

Surprise, indeed.

She swallows and stands, walking over to the window and looking out but seeing nothing through the blur of her tears. She hears Emma approach from behind, her hand coming to rub gentle circles on her back, and she rests her head on the older woman’s shoulder.

How could she think she could just give him up?

 

***

 

It’s late and dark and she’s been sitting on her bed with Dash curled up on her lap for what feels like hours.

Thank you for my present, she types, pausing before she bites her lip and hits send. His reply is on her screen in only a few short seconds.

You’re most welcome, ma’am. Happy birthday.

She’s spent the better part of an hour toying with the idea of asking him, but she knows what he’d say. Her heart tells her to throw caution to the wind; to ask him anyway and make him tell her no. Force him to deny her. But as much as she wanted him to feel that pain, she also really, really didn’t want to see his refusal on the little screen in front of her, so she hedges her bets a little.

I don’t have anyone to go with.

And when his reply appears on her screen a good few minutes later – I have it on good authority that Ms Sutherland loves the ballet almost as much as you do – her heart tells her that perhaps he’s not quite as unaffected as she would like to imagine that he is.

 

***

 

Wednesday 25 May 

 

The night is cool and her dress is beautiful and she feels like she’s walking through a fog. It was all wrong. He should be here, walking beside her.

Harriet had indeed been thrilled to be asked to accompany the Queen to the ballet, although Victoria hadn’t been able to avoid the almost pitying look in her friend’s eyes when she’d asked; Harriet had known she was a second choice. It was the same look that she’d been greeted with tonight, but that had vanished after a few moments and a more conspiratorial one had replaced it.

‘There weren’t any photographers this afternoon,’ she’d said quietly as they’d walked down the hall towards her rooms. Victoria had glanced up at her, her eyes wide, and Harriet had nodded once.

She’d felt a swell of hope in her chest at the thought, but she’d squashed it. She had been so sure of herself, that she’d be able to convince him.

She’d been wrong already. Twice.

She couldn’t be wrong a third time. She didn’t have the strength.

But as she sits in her seat waiting for the show to begin, she thinks she has nine days left, and no ideas.

But she must smile and wave and never let them know how hard it is to bear.

 

***

 

Thursday 26 May

 

He can’t resist. He knows what she’s going to say, but his sick heart has to hear it anyway. It’s early, but he knows she’ll be awake. Her coffee should be arriving right about now.

Did you enjoy the ballet?

Her reply appears within a minute, and he doesn’t particularly like how it warms his heart, the speed of her response.

It was wonderful. I loved it. Thank you.

And despite it all, he feels his lips curl up into the smallest of smiles.

I’m glad. You’re welcome.

And when her reply appears only a few minutes later – I wish you’d been there – he remembers why he didn’t want to message her in the first place. He’s already seen the photos; she’d looked beautiful.

So do I, he thinks, but he doesn’t reply.

 

***

 

She growls when she opens her inbox. She was so tired of Sir Robert and his bland, rule-following, grey-cardboard efficiency.  But then she thinks that Lord M was just as efficient, but he just wasn’t so…annoying. Her phone rings and it’s Emma. ‘Sir Robert, ma’am.’

‘Please send him in.’

She waits until he’s just inside the door before she speaks. ‘Surely there cannot be this many changes required to my official diary?’ she asks, and Peel grimaces.

‘Unfortunately, ma’am, there are. And you did request that I confirm every new engagement and any changes to the schedule with you, ma’am,’ and he’s doing little to hide the annoyance in his voice, she thinks, and she feels her own anger rise, but she can’t really say much. He’s doing exactly as she asked. ‘I have brought your letters, ma’am, along with three new pieces of legislation for you to sign.’

‘Wellington’s been busy,’ she mutters, but Peel says nothing. ‘Thank you, Sir Robert. I’ll let you know when I’m done,’ she says, and he gives a little nod of his head.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he says, but when she hears him shift uncomfortably on his feet, she looks back up.

‘Sir Robert?’

‘Mr Harper’s office – your legal counsel – has requested an appointment, ma’am,’ he says, and she blinks, frowning.

‘I know who Mr Harper is,’ she mutters. ‘Yes?’

‘They requested it last week, ma’am. I believe that the implication was that this appointment was of a somewhat pressing nature,’ he says stiffly. ‘To do with the most recent press activity,’ he adds, and she frowns again.

‘Fine. Book him for whichever morning you deem most appropriate,’ she says, waving her hand, and he nods.

She watches as he leaves before letting out a sigh and slumping down in her chair. She really couldn’t be bothered looking through all her appointments, but she needed to, she knew, in case Sir Robert got it into his head that he had to cancel a meeting with foreign royalty because she had a hair appointment or something.

She’s scrolling through the list that Peel’s put together, and there are so many new things, and so many changes and so many events she’s not sure if she should attend or not and she feels so overwhelmed and she wishes he was here with his kind words and gentle explanations.

But if he was here she wouldn’t be doing this right now, and she lets out a huff.

She wonders what has been most pressing about the past weeks that Mr Harper thinks his meeting is urgent, she wonders, before dismissing the thought. Her lawyers probably don’t particularly care about the headlines; at least, not enough to need to meet with her about it. He probably wants to finalise Lord M’s departure, she thinks bitterly.

Eight days left, and still no ideas.

She looks down at where Dash is curled up in a ball on his little bed in the corner just behind her, and she envies him, her little dog. ‘If only I could sleep the day away with you, Dash,’ and the little dog’s head rises at the sound of his name. ‘You have no idea how lucky you are.’

But then a thought hits her and she blinks.

Yes.

Well, he would have to return then, wouldn’t he? His sense of duty would demand it.

She races out the door and around the corner to where Emma is sitting. ‘I think I have a plan,’ she announces. ‘But I’d appreciate your help.’

And when Emma smiles knowingly after she’s explained her idea, she thinks that maybe, just maybe, it’s third time lucky.

 

Chapter Text

 

Friday 27 May

 

He blinks at his screen. ‘She’s sick?’ he asks when Emma answers.

‘Her Majesty is unable to attend to her letters and appointments today,’ Emma says rather imperiously.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I’m not sure, William.’

‘Emma,’ he warns.

‘She didn’t say,’ Emma says, and there’s something in her voice that puts Melbourne on edge. ‘You could call and find out for yourself.’

‘Yeah. Thanks,’ he says, before hanging up.

She’s only ever been sick once – she’d barely been able to stand and had still tried to drag herself to her desk. There’s something else going on, he thinks. He’s just not sure quite what – yet.

 

***

 

‘Do you think it’ll work?’ she asks quietly, and it’s the most vulnerable she’s seen the Queen since her birthday. She’d been so confident in her plan, her plotting to get her Lord M back, that Emma’s almost surprised that she’s questioning it now.

Emma smiles a little sadly. William was nothing if not noble and duty-focused when it came to the Queen, and she knew why.

His heart was all too clear to her.

She wonders if perhaps that was part of the problem.

‘I’m not sure, ma’am,’ she answers honestly. ‘But I do know that we don’t treasure what comes easily.’

 

***

 

Monday 30 May

 

When Peel tells him over the phone three days later that she’s still too unwell to work, he rings Emma again.

‘Four days?’

‘It would appear that the Queen is quite unwell, William,’ Emma says a little too matter-of-factly for his liking.

‘What’s going on, Emma?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You know exactly what I mean,’ he growls down the phone. ‘She could be on death’s door and she’d still try to answer her letters.’

‘I’m not sure what else to tell you, William,’ Emma says, and he clenches his jaw.

‘Okay,’ he mutters before hanging up.

 

***

 

I hear you’re unwell, ma’am.

And she almost drops her book and cringes. She hadn’t factored this into her plans. She hadn’t heard from him in days – since his message about the ballet – and hadn’t even considered that he’d go around Emma and contact her directly. In hindsight, she thinks she should have known better.

So she races up the hallway to where her Personal Assistant was sitting. ‘He’s messaged me,’ she says a little breathlessly before stopping. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ she admits.

And the way Emma cringes makes her think she’s not surprised. ‘He rang a few minutes ago. He was…concerned.’

‘I don’t want to lie,’ she says frowning, and Emma smiles.

‘Then don’t, ma’am.’

 

***

 

I’m taking a leave of absence.

And he stares at the screen in front of him, blinking. A leave of absence? What is she going to gain from a leave of absence? Surely she’s not that distraught…

‘Emma.’

‘William.’

‘Please. What’s going on?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Emma,’ he pleads. He has to know. He has to know what he’s done, what’s going on. He might not be able to do much, but maybe he can…

He can’t stand the thought that she’s hurting any more than he’d known she would, and that it would be entirely on his head.

She lets out a sigh, and he knows he’s won. ‘She doesn’t want to work with Peel.’

Of course. Of course she would just be stubborn. She’s as stubborn as a mule, his little Queen, and whilst her ability to put her (albeit tiny) foot down when she cares is one of the things he’ll never admit he loves most about her, in this it will not serve her well. ‘She doesn’t have a choice!’

‘That’s not how she sees it.’

He can’t believe this. He can’t believe that it’s come to this, that she’s refusing to work with his deputy, the man who would be her Private Secretary once his notice period has been served. Peel must be beside himself.

Well, he will be when he figures it out.

‘So, what is she going to do – be ‘sick’ for the rest of her life?’

‘I think she’s hoping it won’t come to that,’ Emma says quietly, and he ignores her tone, ignores what she’s saying. And he’s racking his brain, thinking of what’s coming up that she cannot miss, that would actually be disastrous, but he was coming up empty. She would disappoint a few people, but nothing that couldn’t be rectified…

And it hits him that she won’t have signed anything in a week. She was usually so prompt with her paperwork; even the difficult pieces she’d implored both he and Wellington to explain to her after a solid few days of her attempts to read it on her own. Well, that wasn’t going to end well. ‘She’ll have to meet with Wellington. Her meetings with Wellington are on Mondays or Fridays. She can’t avoid those for long.’ If anyone could pull her out of it, it would be the Duke. If she saw him, that was.

And what if it got out that she was sick, that she wasn’t well enough to do her most basic duty? The press would be all over her, all over them.

Or worse – so, so much worse, he thinks – the real reason for her absence.

He swallows, rubbing a hand over his face. He wouldn’t think about that now. He couldn’t. It didn’t bear thinking about.

‘I wouldn’t underestimate her, William. She’s very determined.’

And he can feel his jaw clench. No matter what, no matter how much Emma thinks she’s helping, she is not. But he has to trust the Queen’s judgement, he thinks. He cannot return because she…she throws a tantrum. Because that’s exactly what this is, he thinks, and how could she do this?

But the flare of anger dissipates as quickly as it appears; he knows exactly why she’s doing this, and the conflict within him is physically painful. He can feel it in his chest.

But he can’t go back. Not now. As she was so fond of telling him, everything was settling nicely after his resignation had become public. If he returned now, it would only stir things right back up again. It would have made the whole exercise pointless.

But the tight knot that’s been slowly forming at the bottom of his stomach for days has suddenly become much bigger and he thinks he only has a very short window in which to contain this.

She can only hide from her mother for so long.

‘I think, Emma, the Queen knows her duty.’

I hope you enjoy your break, ma’am.

  

***

 

Tuesday 31 May

 

Peel eventually gives up and calls him the next day.

‘Her Majesty is still unwell,’ he says. Melbourne notes the emphasis on the word ‘unwell’ and cringes inwardly. ‘And the paperwork is piling up. I’ve had to reschedule her usual meeting with Wellington twice – goodness knows what he’ll say if I have to reschedule it again.’

‘I’m not sure what you want me to do.’

He can hear Peel shift in his chair. ‘Why do I get the feeling that there’s more going on than I’m privy to, Melbourne?’ he asks.

He lets out a sigh. Well, it’s only taken him a week, he thinks, and he debates the merits of telling Peel. He’s not entirely sure yet how it would reflect on her, the fact that she’s taken a ‘leave of absence’ right around the time she’d been forced to let Melbourne go, so he decides to say nothing for now.

‘I’ll speak to Emma,’ he replies.

‘I’d appreciate that. I don’t need both Wellington and the Cabinet Secretary breathing down my neck.’

 

***

 

She was so tired.

The one downside of celebrating your birthday in public as Queen is that everyone wants to share their best wishes the very next time they see you, which, for some, could be weeks later, so despite her role in the function being very minor, she was exhausted. Everyone was just so lovely, so sweet and kind, but even their well-wishing had only managed to put a smile on her face for a moment.

She hadn’t realised how hard smiling was without him.

But Peter and Callum and Harriet had been wonderful; they’d pleaded the recent events for her increased security and had ensured that she had left quietly and quickly at the end of the meeting. She doesn’t really want to be alone when they return to the palace, and so she asks Harriet if she wouldn’t mind staying for a little while. 

They’re sitting on one of the balconies off her rooms, tea in hand and Dash curled on Victoria’s lap, when Harriet speaks.

‘Is Lord Melbourne still being horribly stubborn?’ she asks, her voice a mixture of indignation and gentleness, and Victoria frowns a little, nodding. ‘Well, I don’t think you should give up, ma’am,’ Harriet says. ‘You still have time. And it’s all gone from the papers now. They don’t even know what to print anymore.’

And at the mention of the papers, Victoria’s stomach clenches. ‘They’ve said such horrible things about him,’ she growls, and Harriet nods.

‘The papers will twist anything,’ she says. ‘Even the most innocent of relationships.’

And Victoria’s confused. ‘What do you mean? I thought all that rubbish in the papers was made up.’

Harriet laughs a little. ‘Not all of it – most of it has just been warped and misrepresented.’ Victoria stares at her, and Harriet stares back. ‘Lord Melbourne isn’t a saint,’ Harriet laughs a little incredulously after a moment.

‘What do you mean?’ And it’s conversations like these that make her curse her sheltered upbringing; she didn’t really understand how these things worked. She’d always been told that it was expected that she would marry, have a family, be faithful to her husband and the crown. She knew that people did the wrong thing, had affairs, but that she would never be one of them. She knew how painful affairs were; she’d seen it in his face when he’d told her of his wife.

But the more she learns, the more she realises that perhaps that isn’t how the rest of the world works anymore.

‘There were rumours,’ Harriet says, a cheeky smile on her face that Victoria automatically tries and fails to replicate. ‘Goodness, you’ve seen those eyes. Those cheekbones. The man could seduce lamppost if he wanted to.’

The tightness in her chest constricts her breathing, and she grips onto her tea cup, looking out over the dark gardens but seeing nothing. Rumours.

‘I don’t blame him,’ Harriet continues. ‘After all that rubbish with his wife and Byron. And I don’t know how he can look Wellington in the eye without hitting him.’

‘Wellington?’ she almost yelps. ‘What about Wellington?’

And Harriet’s face has changed; she looks like she suddenly regrets this whole conversation. But she has to know now, whatever this is between Wellington and Lord M. She has to know.

Harriet purses her lips slightly, but Victoria knows she’ll tell. ‘Wellington had an affair with Caroline not long before Augustus died.’

Wellington. Affair. Caroline.

‘From what I heard, it was only a very short thing, never made the papers, but…’

Her breath is coming in gulps now, and all she can hear in the back of her mind is him telling her to breathe, like he always does.

He’s always been there for her; her rock when all else was shifting and shaking beneath her feet. She’d considered what he would have to sacrifice politically to be her Private Secretary when she’d asked him, but Emma had been so positive, and she’d been so desperate that she hadn’t really considered what she was actually asking.

She realises now she’d really had no idea what she was asking of him.

It hadn’t been her fault; no one had told her…but she hadn’t asked, either. She should have asked.

But she hadn’t; her ignorance and selfishness had forced him to work so closely with a man who…who…

She swallows; she feels sick just thinking about it.

But then something clicks in the back of her mind, something…she can see it now, all the pieces starting to fit into place, and she just needs time, time to think, time to grab them from the air and slot them into place and then she’d understand, understand why he had felt it his duty to give her up. Why he felt so, so strongly about her reputation. How to get him back.

‘What have I done?’ she breathes, and she can feel Harriet’s hand on her back.

‘Ma’am? Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ she says, staring up at Harriet. ‘I’m fine.’

But her mind is spinning, and she needs to think.

 

***

 

The thoughts buzz around in her mind like bees, refusing to be caught until they’ve exhausted themselves.

Affairs.

Byron.

Wellington.

It makes so much sense, but none at all.

Wellington was a Tory, and Lord M had been a Whig. She’d always assumed that was why they’d been so at odds, why there had always been a tension between them.

But this?

She would never have imagined this. That the Duke…

She’d been so, so angry. How could the Duke, someone she respected and admired, do something so…so terrible! So immoral. So…

But it had cooled into something else, something more like hurt. Something else that told her that she was just a little girl in a world she’d only been allowed to play in for such a short time that she didn’t know the rules yet.

His words return to her, his mantra that they couldn’t hurt him more than they already had. There is little that is technically untrue in the piece. She’d always been a little surprised at his lack of venom, the way he’d simply shrugged when it came to their discussion of him. And everything she’s ever read about him comes racing back and she blinks against the picture that’s forming in her mind, this slightly darkish edge to her beloved Lord M.

She really, really didn’t know him at all.

But then she remembers Harriet’s words: even the most innocent of relationships, and she thinks that perhaps she’s overreacting, and the light returns to her image of him.

But the press hadn’t mentioned Wellington, and she can feel a tear slip from the corner of her eye and into her pillow.

She’d been so cruel.

She hadn’t meant to be – she hadn’t known. But it had been her ignorance, her sheltered life that had hurt him once more, and she pounds the pillow with her fist.

Maybe he didn’t want to come back? Maybe he didn’t want to work with Wellington anymore? Maybe it was too hard for him, and this was his escape?

But she thinks back to her visit to his house, his visit only days ago here at the Palace, and she pushes away the thought. Do you think I want to, ma’am? He’d never lied to her before about anything, so if he said he didn’t want to leave, then she would believe him.

But Wellington… She knows that knowledge is power. He’s always told her that; to listen and learn and play your cards just right. She’s just not entirely sure how to use this knowledge just yet – if it even can be used. She just needs an idea. Something. Anything that would convince him. Nothing she’s tried so far has worked. She's losing him; she can feel it. He's slipping away, slowly but surely.

She would eventually have to meet with Wellington – oh, how was she going to look him in the eye now? – or sign some of the legislation that was piling up on her desk. There was only so long she could hold out, and she wasn’t entirely sure Lord M wouldn’t call her bluff.

Lord M would know what to do, she thinks, and she rolls her eyes. The biggest problem in her reign to date and of course, of course he wouldn’t be here to help her solve it.

There were so many layers to this now, so much complexity that she was struggling to keep all the pieces together in her mind. She was new to this, this level of political and personal intrigue and games and she wasn’t enjoying it at all. But it was a challenge, and she would rise to it. She would not give up on him.

The layers were political, and personal…

Ma'am, I've been speaking with the Prime Minister…he thinks it would be best if I were to resign.

And the thought hits her like a freight train and she knows exactly, exactly how she’s going to get him back, her Lord M.

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday 31 May

 

‘Peel is now calling me,’ he says when Emma answers the phone.

‘This doesn’t sound like my problem,’ she says in a slightly sing-song voice, and he feels the frustration rise.

‘It’s going to be everyone’s problem when someone leaks to the press exactly what’s going on,’ he replies, his voice hard, and he hears Emma sigh. He knows she understands this; she’s been doing this almost as long as he has. They both know what will happen if the press finds out she’s refusing to work with anyone but him. They’ll have a field day; she’ll look weak and childish and he’ll look like a monster. They’ll prove those stupid cartoons true that paint him as her minder, her nursemaid. The puppeteer.

‘I know. What do you want me to do, William?’

‘Talk to her!’ he almost shouts, and when Emma lets out a huff, he sighs. ‘She has to forget about me, Emma. She cannot rely on me anymore.’

‘And just who else is she going to rely on, William? The Duchess? Conroy?’ Emma’s voice is hard and frustrated and he opens his mouth to fire back, but he finds he has nothing to say. ‘She needs you, William. After Harriet and I, she doesn’t have anyone else.’

His heart seems to pause in his chest, his mind suddenly silent and loud with a buzzing all at the same time.

Emma was right. She was alone.

She would likely never trust the Duchess again, and as much as he hated that their relationship was so broken, he could understand why. Besides, the Duchess was far too wrapped up in Conroy, and until he was gone, that was very much a deal-breaker on many levels.

That left Lehzen, Harriet, Emma…and him. From her perspective, she’d lost him, one of her few allies. She felt alone, exposed. Unprotected.

Her reaction suddenly seemed just that bit more rational, more understandable. He lets out a heavy sigh, and Emma hums.

‘It’s not as simple as I think you’d like it to be, William,’ she says gently. ‘You’re her mentor, her closest friend. She loves you.’

‘I know,’ he whispers after a moment, and he closes his eyes against the pain of it all.

‘But you’re in love with her, and that’s the problem. Isn’t it?’

He sucks in a breath at her words. He’s known that she’s known for a while; for months. But he says nothing to that; he can’t. ‘It’s over now. It has to be,’ he says instead, his voice low but even he can hear the lack of conviction in his words.

‘Oh, I’m not sure it is. Or that it needs to be.’ He can hear her take a breath. ‘And I don’t think it should be.’

 

***

 

Wednesday 1 June

 

Emma’s face tells her that she’s known all along.

‘It was a very long time ago, ma’am,’ she says, and Victoria frowns.

‘He’s never liked Lord M,’ she argues back. ‘He doesn’t like that he’s my Private Secretary. He thinks that Lord M is turning me against him, against his whole party! Of course it’s him!’

‘Maybe, ma’am, but Wellington is a powerful man. And he’s smart. This won’t be easy. And if it doesn’t work…much could be lost. You would be essentially blackmailing him, ma’am.’ Emma’s voice is full of reluctance and hesitation, and she knows why. It was going to be hard; she would have to get everything just right, say just the right things, time everything perfectly. There was so much room for error, she knew. To fail would be disastrous.

But she would risk it. She didn’t have a choice; it was the only card she had left. She had to play it now, and play it well. She can feel the desperation rise in her throat again; it’s been sitting there for hours, just bubbling away as she tries to squash it.

But she is the Queen. She has to fight for the important things, and this? Oh, this was the most important thing. Her friends, the people she cared about, were the most important.

He needed her.

‘I won’t let him fade away again,’ she whispers, staring at nothing. She looks down at Emma’s wide eyes, watching them fade into sympathy and understanding and what she thinks is a little compassion, and she knows she’s doing the right thing for him. For both of them.

She needed him. She couldn’t live without him, no matter what Wellington wanted.

But then she lets out a laugh as the realisation hits her. ‘It was never really about me at all,’ she says.

‘Oh, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, ma’am,’ Emma says with a small, rueful smile that Victoria doesn’t quite understand.

 

***

 

He flips over the calendar in his office and sucks in a long breath.

That date that has haunted him for so long now is mere weeks away, and the thought of surviving it alone, without her, without knowing that he’ll see her smile the next day, that she’ll be there waiting for him with her brightness and sunshine, unleashes something wild in his mind; a return for the briefest moment to the dissociation and nightmare of those days. But then it’s gone, squashed down by his own survival instinct, and he blinks, letting out a long breath, trying to control the adrenaline of those seconds that was coursing through his veins.

He’s not sure he can survive it without her.

He’s not particularly sure he wants to, and the thought shocks him.

Emma’s words play in his mind. He can feel it in his stomach – the dread. Maybe, just maybe, he’d made a mistake.

But then he’d never deserved her in the first place.

 

***

 

‘Drina, it’s ten in the morning. Why are you in here?’

Victoria jumps up from her position on the lounge, almost dropping her iPad. Damn. ‘Mama. I’m reading,’ she explains, holding up her iPad.

‘Reading on that? What happened to books? Or are you too sophisticated for those now?’

Victoria rolls her eyes before lying back down on lounge. ‘It’s the news, Mama.’

She can hear her mother huff a little. ‘You have finished your letters early today,’ she says, sitting in the chair opposite, and Victoria deliberately doesn’t meet her gaze.

‘Yes.’

‘So quickly. Well, I suppose now that your Lord M is not here to distract you, you get things done much more efficiently,’ she says, and Victoria sits up, ready to yell, but her mother is still speaking. ‘I suppose Sir Robert isn’t quite as exciting. Sir John says he is known for his competence, but not for his sense of humour,’ she adds, and Victoria frowns.

‘He is a very capable Private Secretary,’ she replies, crossing her legs in front of her.

‘He must be. You’ve barely been in your study all week,’ her mother replies, and Victoria frowns, shrugging.

‘The requirements on my time are different at the moment,’ she says, struggling to think of what to say.

‘Yes, I’m sure they are.’

They both look up as Sir John appears at the doorway. ‘Your Majesty, ma’am,’ he greets, before frowning at Victoria. ‘Good to see that you’re busy, ma’am.’

‘Drina is working from her iPad today,’ the Duchess says. ‘So much new technology.’

‘Yes,’ Sir John says, his eyes narrowed. ‘I’m sure it’s all much easier.’

And the way he’s looking at Victoria makes her skin tingle, like he knows something she doesn’t, and she feels the fear swirl around in her stomach. ‘Sir Robert is out of the office today, and so I am taking the opportunity to catch up on some other reading,’ she explains. ‘I have a meeting with the Prime Minister tomorrow morning, and the Ambassador to France tomorrow afternoon.’ And she’s not really sure why she’s justifying herself to Sir John, only that she somehow feels desperately like she has to.

‘You are quite busy,’ he replies, still frowning, before turning back to the Duchess. ‘Ma’am, shouldn’t you be preparing for your lunch at the British-German Association?’

‘Oh, yes,’ she replies, standing, and Victoria blinks. ‘I am their patron, Drina,’ she explains.

‘Yes, I know,’ she lies. ‘Enjoy your lunch.’

‘I will, thank you. Enjoy your reading.’

And the look that Sir John gives her as he leaves makes her worry about what she’s missed.

 

***

 

Thursday 2 June

 

‘I’m pleased to hear you have returned to full health, Your Majesty,’ Wellington says, greeting her, and she blinks at him for a moment before she remembers: Peel would have told him she’d been too ill to work.

‘Thank you, Duke,’ she replies. ‘I apologise for delaying our meeting, and for being available on an unusual day.’

‘Perfectly fine, ma’am. Couldn’t be helped.’

Her stomach tightens at the silence - she’s so nervous she thinks she might be sick. But she can’t be; she has to be strong if she wants to achieve her aim. She can’t fail. She can’t. She has to have him back, her Lord M. She would fight for him.

Breathe.

‘I am so very behind in it all,’ she says. ‘And adjusting to a new Private Secretary…’ she trails off and the Duke nods.

‘I’m sure it will all take some getting used to, ma’am, but there’s no rush.’

‘The papers have been so unkind to Lord Melbourne,’ she says, taking a sip of her tea and desperately trying not to look like she’s scrutinising his every movement.

Breathe.

‘They can be cruel, ma’am,’ Wellington agrees.

‘Yes,’ she says, lifting her gaze to the man sitting opposite her. ‘Especially when someone’s feeding them such juicy information,’ she adds, watching carefully for his reaction. He frowns for a split second, looks confused for just a moment, before shifting in his seat.

Breathe.

‘Do you suspect someone, ma’am?’

Victoria frowns. ‘Perhaps. There are very few people who would have that very specific kind of information.’ She levels her gaze at Wellington, and she watches as his chest puffs out a little.

‘Ma’am, if you’re suggesting—‘

‘I’m not suggesting anything, Duke. Only considering what would be best for my household.’ He says nothing to that, his eyes narrowed at her, and she continues. ‘So much fuss made about Lord Melbourne’s influence,’ she says, trailing off. ‘The public seemed quite scandalised at the suggestion that politicians might be influencing the monarchy in such a way.’ The Duke is eyeing her now, his breathing a little faster than she thinks is normal, and she feels the thrill of success begin to flood through her. He’d been right; knowledge was power.  ‘But I also think whoever is sharing this information might find it in themselves to bring change, if there was motivation. Or, perhaps, redirection.’

And Wellington goes very still, saying nothing, only staring at her, and this is going very well.

Breathe.

But she has one card left in her hand still to play, and she thinks she will play it.

‘I’m quite aware that Lord Melbourne’s past is viewed by some as less than savoury, much of it reported in the Daily Mail in the last month. But I think Lord Melbourne has been rather unfairly targeted; scandal seems to dog the aristocracy.’

Breathe.

‘I think that, perhaps, Duke, your own reputation is not quite so spotless.’

‘Ma’am?’ His voice is ever so slightly stressed now; she can hear it in the tone, in the speed of his response.

Breathe.

She forces herself to take another sip of her tea before speaking again. She must seem relaxed; there was no margin for error, particularly error brought on by panicking, so she pauses, gathering herself before levelling her gaze at him. ‘I am quite aware of your…personal history with Lord Melbourne, Duke.’

And his gaze drops for a moment as he shifts again in his seat. ‘I see, ma’am.’ He looks back up at her, and she can see that he’s angry. ‘I wasn’t aware that Lord Melbourne discussed such things with you.’

‘Oh, he doesn’t. Lord M has never said a word against you. I may be young, Duke, but I have friends.’

‘I see, ma’am.’

Breathe.

‘Although I’m quite sure that these…rumours…are quite well-contained…at the moment.’ And she wants to jump up and down and laugh at the way her voice is smooth and steady and the way the Duke turns a rather unattractive shade of pink. ‘But I do rather resent being a pawn in a political or personal game,’ she adds, her voice hard, and the Duke just stares at her.

But this is where she thinks she may – perhaps, if she can keep it steady, finish things off coolly and carefully, not faltering – she may just win. It would not do to have the Duke of Wellington off-side any more than he already was. She needed to make her position clear, but also offer an olive branch. She was willing to put this all behind her, and to recognise that perhaps there may have been a kernel of truth to the perception that had permeated all the articles. A problem she was willing to rectify.

Breathe.

‘But as I said, Duke, I’m only considering what’s best for my household. I have not finished appointing all my ladies-in-waiting, and I am keen to see some diversity in my household.’

His eyebrows rise at that, and he blinks. He hadn’t been expecting this, she can tell, and she’s pleased. ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He pauses, studying her for a moment, before deciding something. ‘May I suggest the Duchess of Buccleuch, Lady Anna Scott? She is perhaps a couple of years older than yourself, ma’am, but quite friendly. My wife tells me she’s sensible and clever, and quite good with fashion and society and other matters that may be of interest to you in a lady-in-waiting.’

And she nods once. ‘Thank you, Duke. I will consider Lady Anna.’

She stands, and he follows, taking a breath, and she can see he really doesn’t want to say what he’s about to say. But she also knows that he values his reputation in this particular area a little too much to leave it to the mercy of his young, angry Queen. ‘Perhaps I might speak to Lord Melbourne, ma’am. It is possible that his departure was a little too hasty.’

‘If you wish, Duke. If you think your speaking to him might make some difference,’ she says a little too quickly, too earnestly, and she thinks by the look on his face that she’s revealed too much.

He looks down at her not unkindly, and she hopes that they can salvage at least something of a vague sort of friendship after all this. She really did like and respect the Duke, despite it all.

‘And, ma’am, if I may: I suggest re-examining a little closer to home for the players in this particular game.’

And she stares at the Duke as he leaves, and for the first time she wonders if she’s just made a huge mistake.

 

Chapter Text

Thursday 2 June

 

He’d abandoned her.

He’d left her alone, his little Queen, had abandoned her at the first sign of trouble. He’d panicked, overreacted, and played right in to Conroy’s hands.

He closes his eyes, allowing the whiskey to flow through his veins.

He’d known that headline had hit far too close to home, had targeted a place in his heart he was desperate to keep hidden from the world – from her. And yet he’d still overreacted, panicked at the first sign of danger, and he’s ashamed. So, so ashamed of what he’s done to her.

This is his fault, he thinks.

He’s better than this. Emily had been right. When had he started listening to the news?

He knew; it had been right around the time they’d started talking about her.

Before, he would have scoffed, told her to ignore the comments, and made sure he was seen in public with someone who would deflect the rumours away from her and on to him. Drop a hint here or there, pose for a photo or two. Liz would have more than happily helped. He’d have laughed at it, made fun of the photos and cartoons, and continued on merrily with life.

She would have learned to do the same.

But unlike him and so many others, she didn’t deserve their rubbish, the crap that they’d fling around about her, and that, coupled with his love for her, had made him far too protective. He knew the pain those stories could cause; the impact they could have on so soft a heart and mind, and he’d been so, so desperate to shield her from it all.

His reaction made his traitorous heart all too clear, and now so much had been tainted and ruined by his inability to control his own emotions.  

But maybe Emma was right. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as over as he’d thought. Maybe he had panicked, given in to Conroy too easily. Maybe he’d shown his hand just a little too early.

But he doesn’t know anything anymore, so he closes his eyes and lets the alcohol mute the pain once more.

 

***

 

Wellington eyes the door to the press room with a level of disdain he reserves for the boyfriends of his daughters. But he’s made his decision, and he would abide by it, as much as it made his stomach tighten.

He’d resisted the urge to ring Melbourne and hurl abuse down the phone at him. What would he say? Melbourne had done nothing other than win the heart of the Queen with his charm and his good looks; a Queen who would very clearly fight tooth and nail to keep him. Even when her assumptions and conclusions were wrong.

Yes, he’d have to deal with that. But he couldn’t really fault her for it. From where she stood, in all her youth and inexperience, it all made perfect sense.

In his charitable moments, he thinks that Melbourne probably doesn’t even know that she knows. He doesn’t particularly care if the world finds out; given everything that had happened in all of their sordid lives, it really was a tiny blip on the radar. But she could turn it into so much more, if she wanted to. She could bring down his government if she tried hard enough, played her hand carefully. Had the kind of help that would be more than willing to exert that kind of power.

He doesn’t think she would go quite that far. She still hates Conroy, he thinks. And it’s so, so clearly not what she really wants, and he thinks Melbourne is going to have to teach her how to really bribe someone properly if she’s ever to try this again. He’s had too much of a bird’s eye view into the Queen’s affections, and it’s really quite clear that she just wants Melbourne back.

He doesn’t think she’s quite that vindictive, but he’s not going to wager his government on the caprice of a twenty-three-year-old Queen who has just lost her favourite toy.

He would do this for her, his Queen, and for himself. He won’t begrudge her her Lord M, if that was what she really wanted. Besides, Melbourne really had bent over backwards to make this awkward three-way relationship work, and he couldn’t deny that she was flourishing under his patient encouragement – even if he didn’t like some of her opinions. But there was time for that.

He wonders for the briefest moment before letting out a snort and shaking his head. No, the papers weren’t wrong; Melbourne and the Queen were far, far too close. But it wasn’t the kind of close they were insinuating.

She was so very clearly infatuated with him, and he with her, but he would bet his house on the fact that neither of them knew just how strongly the other felt. And oh, he prayed it stayed that way, at least until he retired. He was too old for that level of scandal.

He was too old for this level of scandal, and he rolls his eyes. Melbourne had always just been a little too romantic for him; a little too chivalrous, too bent on doing the right thing over what was practical.

Her attempts at an olive branch, at trying to assuage his fears of a partisan Queen, were admirable, if nothing else. It wasn’t going to help much; heaven knew she listened first and foremost to her Lord M, but he couldn’t fault her for trying. And he was more than keen for a voice that favoured his Party in the Palace. Balance was crucial, and even more so when his party did eventually depart from power.

But most of all, he thinks – she’s not going to be able to get rid of Conroy on her own. Conroy was too smart for that, had been playing the game for too long. He would more than happily destroy her for his own advantage – and had been, over the past months. He’s not sure what Conroy’s endgame is; he suspects it’s just Melbourne’s job and the power and influence that would come with it. But no matter what it was, it was only going to benefit Conroy, and whilst he doesn’t love Melbourne’s influence, he would take William Lamb over John Conroy any day. At least Melbourne has some honour; Conroy’s a worm. His country and his Queen would not be best served by allowing John Conroy any more power than he already had.

No, Conroy had to go, and she would need help. After the events of the past months, he thinks Melbourne won’t mind the task.

He sighs as he enters the room, blinking against the lights. He gives his speech, something small and unimportant, and answers a few questions briefly before his eyes find what they’re seeking. Bingo.

‘Charlie,’ he calls, pointing slightly at a young man in a blue shirt.

‘Is it true that the Queen asked Lord Melbourne to resign?’

‘Really?’ he asks disdainfully, and the reporter nods his head, smirking. ‘It’s not the place of the Prime Minister to comment on Her Majesty’s household,’ Wellington replies, his tone as disinterested as he can make it. ‘And as far as I know, there has not been any official statement from the Palace about any kind of change in senior positions in the Royal household.’

‘Sources inside the palace are reporting a rift between yourself and Her Majesty over Lord Melbourne’s position – which holds considerable political influence – and that she fired Lord Melbourne to appease the Tory government,’ the reporter calls, and Wellington scoffs disgustedly. ‘Word is that he resigned at your request,’ the man adds slyly, and Wellington thinks that the editor of The Guardian has primed his reporter just a little too well. His lips flatten.

‘Her Majesty alone selects the members of her household, and it behoves me to say that the government should not, has not and will not play any part in those most private decisions. I am honoured and privileged to work with Her Majesty, and at no point have I or will I request something so wholly unrelated to me or my position,’ he almost snarls. ‘And, again, it is not the place of the Prime Minister to comment on the Queen’s household,’ he adds, turning away.

‘Lord Melbourne hasn’t been seen entering or leaving the palace in nearly three weeks,’ the reporter pushes.

Wellington arches an eyebrow. ‘From what I understand, Lord Melbourne has taken a long-scheduled leave of absence. He’s been trying this rather novel idea called a holiday, something I may just try myself very soon,’ he says, and the press gallery sniggers. ‘And given that I met with Her Majesty just this morning, I’d say I’m probably the best source of information on that topic.’ And when the reporter nods and sits, Wellington thinks the first part of his job is done.

  

***

 

Friday 3 June

 

When he wakes, he’s confused. He looks around; he’s still in his chair, his head is thick and heavy, and his phone is beeping at him. He lets out a huff when he sees it’s Emma, but the only text in the message is a weblink. He clicks it anyway before forcing himself to stand and move; his throat was dry and his head was now pounding.

When he returns, the page has loaded and he stares at it for a few seconds, blinking, not entirely sure he’s actually awake.

Surely he wouldn’t feel quite this hungover in his dreams.

 

 

MELBOURNE STILL PRIVATE SECRETARY

Is Lord Melbourne still Private Secretary to the Queen - with the support of the PM?

Despite rumours to the contrary, the Prime Minister yesterday confirmed that he had not requested the removal of Viscount Melbourne as the Queen’s Private Secretary. Sources inside the Palace indicated a rift had formed between the Queen and the Tory Prime Minister over the former Whig Prime Minister’s appointment, a role that exerts considerable influence…

The Prime Minister explained Melbourne’s apparent recent absence from Buckingham Palace as a ‘scheduled holiday’, and indicated that all was well between the Monarchy and the Government…

 

And he’s so confused, but he can’t speak to anyone like this, so he drops his phone on the seat of the chair and heads for his shower.

 

***

 

‘I was wondering when you’d call,’ Wellington greets him.

‘I’m on holiday?’

‘Yes.’

He blinks a few times. ‘How long am I on holiday for?’

‘Oh, I’d say the Queen anticipates your return on Monday.’ And Melbourne lets out a sigh, torn between shouting and caving into the older man’s clear request, but mostly he’s just confused. He doesn’t like the feeling. ‘It’s dead, Melbourne,’ Wellington says after a moment. ‘The hounds have moved on, lost the scent.’

‘Clearly not,’ he retorts a little incredulously.

‘Ah, Melbourne, you know better than that. You’ve gone soft,’ Wellington says a little smugly, and Melbourne’s brain is suddenly firing on all cylinders. ‘You’ve read whatever they’ve written, or you wouldn’t be calling me.’

He thinks back to the article. A rift…

And it’s all beginning to make sense, except he’s still missing just one piece of the puzzle. Why was Wellington defending him? He could easily have silenced the idea of a rift between the Queen and her Prime Minister without the little addition of his ‘holiday’. Wellington always been against his appointment, and despite everything, all their successes and her achievements and their sudden ability to work together, he doesn’t really think that Wellington was too unhappy to see the back of him. What on earth could have prompted Wellington to defend him like that? He suspects that as much as he knows Wellington loves the Queen, he wouldn’t be doing this out of the kindness of his heart.

But maybe he was. Maybe she’d gotten under his skin. God knows she was good at that, his little Queen. He was the living, breathing exhibit.

He wonders briefly why he hasn’t had a phone call from Emma. But he’s still not sure about any of it, so he goes fishing. He needs to know why he’s having this conversation at all.

‘I trust you met with the Queen yesterday,’ he says slowly. ‘Peel was having trouble rescheduling as the Queen has been quite unwell.’

‘Oh yes, Her Majesty seems very well now,’ Wellington says none too derisively. ‘You’ve taught her well, Melbourne. Perhaps too well. She’s become quite the little politician.’

Oh. Oh no.

What has she done?

And he has a million questions, most of which are to do with how on earth she managed to get the kind of dirt on Wellington that would make him defend William Lamb to the media, and oh, she’s likely in so far over her head and if Emma knew, had helped...

‘She has to get rid of Conroy. You’ll have to convince her,’ Wellington says, breaking into his thoughts. ‘You’ll probably have to do most of that. Actually, maybe not, after today,’ he mutters.

Conroy.

And oh, he thinks he knows exactly what she’s done and he runs his free hand through his hair. She’s pulled all the pieces together and made a picture, and when the picture made sense, she’s run with it. He’s torn between cursing her and being ridiculously proud of what she’s managed to somehow do.

Maybe that had been all it was. She’d added two and two and was desperately trying to leverage that information against her Prime Minister in exchange for him, and oh.

It hurts. It’s so painful a thought that he closes his eyes and sits in his chair. That she would do that for him, the desperation she must have felt…

He prays that Wellington was kind. It can’t have been an easy conversation.

‘I’m not quite sure that’s up to me,’ he says slowly.

Wellington snorts. ‘Are you kidding?’

‘I don’t want to interfere.’ He sighs. ‘The Duchess,’ he explains.

‘He’s interfering in everything,’ Wellington says, and oh, he knows. He’s standing in his study on a Friday afternoon because of it. But his first concern is still her.

‘I don’t think she knows.’

‘Oh, she knows,’ Wellington adds smugly. ‘I told her.’

‘Oh. Good,’ he mutters, throwing his free hand in the air.

‘Well, not in so many words. But I think she’ll figure it out.’ He lets out what Melbourne thinks is something like a laugh. ‘The damage has been done. You can manage the fall out. You made the mess, Melbourne. The least you can do is stick around to clean it up.’

And when Wellington hangs up in his ear, he wonders what on earth has happened – what else she could possibly have said to her Prime Minister – to create a world in which he’d just had that conversation.

 

Chapter Text

Friday 3 June

 

When he looks at his watch as his phone rings, he thinks she must have been busy with one of the children. ‘That took a solid fifteen hours, Emily Temple. You’re slipping.’

‘You’re on holiday?’ she asks incredulously.

‘Apparently.’

‘Please tell me you know what’s going on. Henry’s been digging around since the press conference, but he hasn’t found anything. Wellington is playing this very close to his chest.’

He’s not surprised; he would too. ‘I have my suspicions.’

‘Have you spoken to her?’

‘Not yet,’ he says after a pause.

‘William,’ she says, he thinks she sounds more and more like their mother every day. He hears her let out a sigh. ‘You’re coming for dinner on Monday after work and you are going to tell me all about it,’ she decrees, and he doesn’t miss the emphasis.

‘I look forward to it,’ he replies, and she huffs.

‘I’m glad it’s sorted,’ she says a little more quietly. ‘I think you’re good for each other. You need her just as much as she needs you.’

He closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. Between Emma and Emily, he hated, hated that he was so transparent. ‘It’s not sorted just yet,’ he adds a little futilely, before letting out a sigh. ‘Yeah,’ he mutters. ‘Maybe.’

She snorts. ‘See you Monday.’

 

***

 

 

Saturday 4 June

 

He wanders in, standing at the back, just watching her talk and smile at her guests – all of whom are admiring Hayter’s portrait which has taken centre stage in the middle of the room – and he feels the warmth bloom in his chest. He’s missed her, missed this.

It only takes a few seconds – five at most – before she’s frowning slightly and looking around and her eyes find his. Her mouth drops open and her cheeks pink, and then she’s biting her lip and dropping his gaze before looking back up at him. He gives her a small smile that she doesn’t return, and he thinks she’s squashing her hopes back down, afraid of being hurt again, and his heart aches just a little. He’s done that. He’s made her gun-shy.

He glances around the room, and his eyes land on Conroy, who is looking at him with something akin to shock. But he can’t hold Melbourne’s eye; he looks away almost instantly, his mouth twisting in distaste.

He smiles; he’s going to win this. Oh, he was going to destroy John Conroy for what he’s done to his little Queen, if it was the last thing he did. And he was going to relish every moment.

But that was not going to happen today, he thinks, as he turns back to where she’s standing now, her eyes flicking to his every few moments. He’s already thinking about it, how to make it work, to force Conroy’s hand, but he’s not going to bring it up today. That’s quite firmly on the agenda for next week.

If she took him back.

It still sat in the back of his mind, niggling him more than he’d care to admit, that thought that perhaps she wasn’t going to take him back. That it was too late. That his notice period was officially up as of 5pm yesterday and she was going to hold him to it. He may have already lost her.

He would deserve it – more than deserve it, he would have earned it. He didn’t deserve her, his little Queen. He had abandoned her, played right into Conroy’s hands, let his emotions control his head. No, he deserved little more than for her to turn him out on his ear.

He really hopes she doesn’t.

But then Peel is speaking at the front, and everyone’s attention is diverted, and he takes the opportunity to slowly work his way through the standing crowd to the front of the room, where she’s standing just off to the side. He’s halfway through the crowd when she steps forward to the podium to speak, and her eyes immediately find his. He almost automatically gives her a tiny smile and a nod, and she drops his gaze instantly, focusing on the paperwork on the podium in front of her. And the memories of a similar room and a tiny, new, terrified Queen standing before him come flooding back; but this time she is not tiny, nor terrified, and he’s so proud of her clear voice and kind words for the artist.

He doesn’t miss the fact that every time she looks out into the crowd, her eyes eventually, somehow find his.

By the time he reaches her, the ceremony is over; she’s thanked Hayter for his work, thanked her guests for coming, and he moves through the milling crowd to stand just behind her.

‘It’s lovely, ma’am,’ he says quietly, and she lets out a huff.

‘I think I like it,’ she says haltingly, before her back straightens and she turns to face him, her eyes wary and face vulnerable, and he’s thrown a little by it.

‘I gave you a letter, ma’am,’ he says quietly, looking down at his feet briefly, and oh, just where did those butterflies that were now swarming in his stomach come from? ‘If you’re willing, ma'am, I’d like it back.’

The way her mouth drops open just slightly makes him think that perhaps she hadn’t actually anticipated that any of this would actually work. That she’d be able to convince him to return. ‘Really?’ she asks a little breathlessly.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

And then she’s smiling at him and biting her lip, and he can’t help but grin back, the warmth blossoming in his chest now spreading across his face.

But then she drops his gaze, and she’s blushing, and he wonders what on earth he’s said or done. ‘I don’t have it, Lord M,’ she declares.

He frowns. ‘I left it on your desk.’

‘I know. I, uh, tore it up,’ she admits, biting her lip and looking away from him. He closes his eyes and shakes his head, letting out a quiet laugh.

Of course she did.

 

***

 

He’s standing off to the side with Emma when he sees Wellington coming. She must see him too, because she mutters a quiet good luck before walking off.

‘Melbourne,’ he says by way of greeting, turning to stand next to Melbourne, surveying the scene in front of them.

‘Arthur.’

‘Good to see you got the message,’ he says, and Melbourne’s lips twist.

‘I’m wondering when the press will,’ he replies, and Wellington nods.

‘I’m confident that they’ll leave well enough alone now. It’ll just appear to be business as usual,' he says. 'But you do have some unfinished business. Don’t leave that too long,’ he warns and Melbourne nods slowly. Conroy has lost this round, but he thinks round two won’t be far away. Wellington turns to mock-study Melbourne’s face. ‘I’m surprised you don’t have more of a tan.’ Melbourne just rolls his eyes, and Wellington lets out a sigh. ‘I told you you’d given up too soon. You’ve lost the fight, Melbourne.’

Oh, he feels it in his chest. That’s where Wellington was so right and so wrong. He would fight tooth and nail to keep her safe. He would sacrifice everything, everything he had, to ensure that she was the best Queen she could be.

He would not fight for himself.

‘Perhaps,’ he says. ‘Or perhaps I was fighting for the wrong thing.’

‘Don’t make me regret this, Melbourne,’ is all Wellington replies with before moving away.

 

***

 

He’s standing on one of the balconies of the Palace, waiting, allowing what was left of the sun to warm his skin. He’d more than happily acquiesced to her request that he stay behind after the unveiling – he’d anticipated that she’d want to talk – and so he waits while she changes. It was still cool – summer was taking its sweet time this year – but the sun was out and he thinks she just doesn’t want to be locked inside any more. He has some idea of what the last three weeks have looked like for her; they’ve looked much the same for him.

She appears a few minutes later in jeans and a jumper with flowers all over it, and with two coffees in hand, and he smiles as he takes his. They stand in silence for a moment, before he speaks. ‘I had a very interesting phone call yesterday,’ he says, and she looks up at him in what he knows she thinks is innocence, but is not fooling him for a second. He waits, his eyebrows raised, but she says nothing. He almost laughs at the way her lips tremble ever so slightly after a few moments. ‘Might I enquire as to your conversation with the Duke, ma’am?’ She goes bright red but says nothing, and his lips twist in amusement at his little Queen. ‘I’m pleased to hear there’s no rift between the monarchy and the government,’ he teases gently.

‘Wellington just wanted you to go because he thinks you’re corrupting me,’ she says, and he nods.

‘I can see how you came to that conclusion, ma’am,’ he says carefully. He’s not going to correct her today; that can be Monday’s job. Or Tuesday’s, he thinks, if she really hasn’t done any work in the past week. Conroy wasn’t going anywhere this afternoon.

‘There was something else,’ she says in a rush, ‘about the Duke.’ And the way her cheeks go an even deeper shade of crimson sets off warning bells in his head. He’d been right; she’d somehow, somehow found something else. He turns to face her more fully. She is so, so uncomfortable; she’s dancing on her feet a little and playing with her fingertips in the way she does when she’s worried about what she’s going to say.

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘It was about…the Duke and your wife,’ she says quickly, staring up at him, and he’s blindsided.

‘Oh,’ he says, in lieu of anything intelligent, as he processes this new information. He can feel his mouth open and close as he desperately thinks of the right thing to say here; her eyes are still burning into him. ‘That was a long time ago, ma’am,’ he says, blinking.

‘That’s what Emma said,’ she says, and he closes his eyes for a moment. ‘I’m sorry, Lord M. Harriet told me. She didn’t mean to, it just sort of slipped out. There were so many stories about you in the press and I thought…’ and she trails off, and she’s so anxious and worked up about it and he has to calm her. He thinks he’s going to have to explain this, all his sordid past. Well, whatever of it she hasn’t already read on the internet, and anything he says will probably be far more tame.

‘I…I’m not…angry with the Duke, ma’am,’ he says slowly, before letting out a huff. ‘Well, not anymore.’ He looks out at the freshly-mown lawns in front of them. ‘Caro was…unhappy. We both were, and we…fought. A lot. Even after she’d returned, it wasn’t great. I was away a lot, and…’ he trails off, unable to look at her in his shame. ‘Neither of us is blameless, as I’m sure you’ve read.’ She’d been vindictive like that, his dead wife. It had stung like nothing else, but he wasn’t perfect. He’d let his own eyes wander more than he normally would have, in his own petty revenge. He wasn’t sure he’d ever forgive Wellington, though.

But it was all ancient history; he had put it aside for her. ‘As I said, it was a very long time ago, ma’am,’ he says eventually, forcing himself to meet her gaze. ‘It’s all water under the bridge now,’ he says as flippantly as he can, but she’s still staring at him, and he hasn’t fooled her.

‘I would never have told anyone,’ she says quietly. ‘I just…’

‘I know,’ he says, letting out a breath, and she turns to stare at him. He meets her gaze, the small smile on his face masking everything.

He absolutely has no idea if she would have made good on her apparent threats to the Duke. She had been very clearly desperate, his little Queen, spurred on by the pain of loneliness and hurt, and desperation had skewed everything. Now, in hindsight, in the light of relief, it’s different.

‘I think, Lord M, that you care deeply. You just don't like to show it,’ she whispers, and he can’t bear to look at her any longer but he can’t drag his eyes away from this beautiful young woman standing in front of him. He can see her there, his little Queen, but oh, she’s certainly not so young or little anymore.

‘I think you know me too well, ma'am,’ he says quietly, with a small smile. When she returns his smile with her own tiny one, he forces himself to look away, back out over the gardens, and take a sip of his coffee.

But she doesn’t know, not really. He told her it was for her reputation, that she needed to protect herself, and that he wasn’t what was best for her, and he hadn’t lied. It had been the truth. There had just been so many more layers to it than she knew.

He needs to explain, somehow, his change of heart. He’s imagined this conversation a thousand times in the past twelve hours, and each time he cannot think of the right words to explain. He cannot tell her the truth – not all of it, anyway – and anything else just seems not enough, somehow.

But first, before anything, he needs to apologise. ‘I am sorry for hurting you, ma’am,’ he says quietly, in lieu of any kind of real explanation, and her face is so soft and vulnerable, and his heart aches. Even if his decision had objectively been the right one, he’d still caused her pain. ‘It was not my intention.’

In a round-about way, it has all worked out fairly well, he thinks. His resignation had forced the issue to a head; the press had reported his resignation, and the stories had died. He just never imagined that it would end quite the way it has.

‘I know,’ she says. ‘I think I understand. You know what it’s like for people to think things of you that aren’t true - what it’s like for them to treat you based on your reputation rather than who you are.’ He watches her carefully. ‘You didn’t want that for me.’

He’s surprised at how perceptive she is in this, but she has had some time to think about it. ‘No, ma’am.’ He studies the coffee his hands for a moment. He should say something. Try to explain further. ‘I think…’ he lets out a huff of a laugh; he just can’t find the words. ‘I overreacted,’ he says bluntly. ‘I should have been more patient.’

She gives him a half-smile. ‘It’s okay, Lord M,’ she says gently. ‘I understand. You did what you thought best at the time.’ He nods slowly; that certainly was a fair assessment. ‘You’ll stay?’ she asks in a quiet voice, and he nods.

‘It would seem I have no choice, ma’am,’ he replies lightly, a small smirk on his face, and she smiles.

It takes a moment, but then she lets out a giggle, and he a quiet laugh, and he allows his heart this moment of lightness, where he can just be happy.

 

*** 

 

She watches him smile, laugh, and she knows, knows for sure, is absolutely certain that she’s done the right thing. She had fought for him, her Lord M, and she had won. She had him back.

His smile, his quiet laughter, tells her that he’s pleased, too. She had vowed not to let him fall apart again, not to allow the colour to seep from the edges of his world till there was nothing but grey, and she couldn’t do that unless he was by her side. 

But she knows why he gave her up, and as she watches his smile slowly fade into something more relaxed, she knows that he willingly sacrificed his own happiness for her.

He’d told her that being her Private Secretary had brought the colour back into his world, had given him reason to smile again, reason to continue with life, and he’d been willing to sacrifice all that for her. To protect her from the press, and from herself. And oh, the thought fills her chest and she thinks she might burst with this emotion that she realises is gratitude. She doesn’t deserve him, her Lord M, and she would treasure every moment that she has with him.

She knows what she could have had. But instead, she has him.

Before she knows what she’s doing she’s wrapping her arm around his and squeezing it, pressing herself into his side for a moment before pulling back a little. She feels his other hand cover hers at the crook of his arm and squeeze gently, and she feels a happy twinge in her chest.

‘Thank you,’ she whispers, looking up at him, and when he turns his warm, soft gaze on her, something curls low in her stomach, some other thing that replaces the swelling in her chest – something that she thinks she's beginning, slowly, to understand.

 

***

 

It’s much later when he’s driving home that he thinks something has changed. He’s not sure what yet; can’t put his finger on it, but something is different. Perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised; they’ve weathered this storm together and separately, and he thinks it has revealed more than he’d like about their friendship. He would have to be as careful as ever. He loved her so, this beautiful Queen of his, but he would never allow her to see it.

But there really was no going back now; he would simply have to contain it, and do a far better job of it than he’d done so far. As Wellington had said: he needed to clean up his own mess. He doesn’t think Wellington really knew just how right he’d been, and on just how many levels.

He knows one thing for absolute certain: he had misjudged. She relied on him far more than he'd cared to see, and not just as her Private Secretary. Her fighting so hard has made it so very clear that she cares all too much.

He would have to do better. He’s just not entirely sure how.

 

***

 

Monday 6 June

 

When he walks up to the counter, Joe grins widely. ‘How was the holiday?’ he asks with a smirk, and Melbourne grins back.

‘Quite relaxing, thanks.’

‘Won’t need the coffee delivered anymore?’ the barista asks, and Melbourne shakes his head.

‘No, I think we’re good for now,’ he replies, looking around.

‘It’s been quiet for ages,’ Joe says quietly. ‘They gave up pretty quickly.’

‘They always do,’ he replies, waving his card in front of the machine. ‘Thank you for all your help,’ He says as Joe passes him the tray. ‘Everyone was quite grateful for your efforts.’

‘All good, mate. Happy to help,’ he shrugs. ‘She’s our Queen too.’

Melbourne grins at that.

 

When he walks through the gate to the palace, a voice calls from the other side. ‘How was your holiday, Lord Melbourne?’ and his lips twist in amusement. He turns to see a young woman standing at the gate, a photographer next to her. ‘Very relaxing, thank you,’ he replies, not stopping.

‘Where did you go?’ the reporter asks, and she must be new if she thinks he can trap him so easily.

‘Oh, here and there,’ he replies noncommittally.

‘So there’s no truth to the rumours of a rift between Her Majesty and the Prime Minister?’ she calls after him, and he lets out a laugh.

‘After all this time? Of course not. But you print what you will,’ he says.

 

When Peel sees him walk through the door in his suit and tie, coffee in hand, he lets out a long, heavy sigh that is quite distinctly relief and Melbourne can’t really blame him. ‘The rumours are true, then,’ Peel says from behind his desk when Melbourne walks into his office.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘My resignation was officially rejected on Saturday afternoon.’

‘I see,’ Peel says, his eyes narrow. ‘Well, she hasn’t touched anything in over a week.’

‘I guess we’ll all be a little busy for a while then, won’t we?’ he replies, quirking his eyebrows slightly. ‘Including Her Majesty.’

‘Fantastic,’ Peel says, and Melbourne smiles.

‘I think we’ll find she’s had a fairly quiet weekend,’ he says as he heads back to his own desk.

‘You’ll find,’ Peel calls from behind him. ‘You. You will find.’

‘Yes, I will find,’ he replies, he lets out a quiet chuckle when he hears Peel mutter Thank God under his breath.

 

When he arrives at Emma’s desk, she gives him a look. ‘Good morning,’ she says, and he raises an eyebrow at her.

‘Did you even try to convince her that attempting to blackmail the Prime Minister wasn’t the best idea?’ he says quietly but forcefully.

‘Oh, yes. I don’t think she could see the wood for the trees by that point,’ she replies, and he eventually nods.

‘You should have called me.’

‘And said what?’

‘You should have told me what she was going to do.’

She snorts. ‘What would you have done? Tried to talk her out of it?’

‘Yes!’

‘Well, aren’t we all glad that I didn’t call, then?’ she says, her tone hard, but smug, and he sighs.

 

When he walks into her office with his usual coffee tray, it’s like he’d never left, except for the wider-than-usual smile she gives him, the way she practically jumps out of her chair to greet him. He can’t help but grin back at her as she takes her coffee; his tattered heart is so, so full, and oh, he has missed her so, his beautiful Queen, with her eager blue eyes and smiles that light up her face. He wonders how he found the strength to give this up – to give her up.

‘Good morning, Lord M.’

‘Good morning, ma’am.’

 

Chapter Text

Monday 6 June

 

But no matter how pleased she is to see him, how happy he is to have her back, his little Queen, they need to deal with the practical fallout from the last three weeks.

That means piles and piles of invitations and letters and legislation and it’s a mess. Half of it is in her office, and half of it has been rather unceremoniously dumped (yet characteristically of Peel, organised into neat folders) on his desk. He’s just managed to find it all and re-sort it into various different folders – the man really had no clue what she liked and didn’t like – and he’s heading to her office, his arms full, when she appears in front of him in the hallway. ‘I know who it was – who leaked all that rubbish to the papers. It wasn’t the Duke,’ she says a little breathlessly.

He blinks, surprised. She’s probably only just worked it out, he thinks, by the tone of her voice and the way she’s clearly run some of the way to his office. But the little furrow in her brow and the way her eyes are wide and bright tells him she’s angry and hurt – and he thinks perhaps a little resigned, too. He just frowns a little and nods, and her eyes narrow a little at him. ‘You already know.’

‘I have my suspicions.’ He’s acutely aware that they’re just standing in a hallway of the palace where anyone could overhear. ‘Shall we continue to your office, ma’am? These folders are rather heavy,’ he lies, and she nods after a moment.

‘It was Sir John,’ she says bitterly as he places the folders on the desk.

‘Yes, I think so,’ he replies, and she stops pacing angrily to stare at him.

‘You think so?’

‘I don’t have proof, ma’am,’ he replies. ‘But it makes sense.’ She stares at him, her gaze heavy, and he waits for a moment for her to process it all. ‘You seem very sure, ma’am,’ he says carefully, and he watches as her shoulders deflate a little, and he thinks she understands what he’s getting at; he’d have thought she’d be a little less eager to make another mistake like this. ‘What makes you so sure?’ he asks as matter-of-factly as he can. Work it through logically. Learn this.

‘I went back through as many of the articles as I could find and made a list of what they seemed to know – facts and information.’ He blinks. Well, that explains why she hadn’t made much headway into her letters over the weekend. ‘It had to be someone who knew the inner workings of the palace,’ she says, and he nods. ‘They knew that you often worked late, stayed to have dinner often, and where you got our coffee from,’ she says, holding out her hand and counting off her fingers. ‘They knew what I had said about the Duke,’ she continues.

‘A direct quote, ma’am,’ he interjects, and she hums in agreement, tilting her head slightly as she considers the implications of his words.

‘Yes. And they had the photos from the Coronation Ball. And they knew you had resigned before you’d officially submitted any paperwork – before most people knew. I only told Emma, Harriet, Nancy and Lehzen, and I assume Sir Robert knew,’ she says. He nods; he’d sent him an email that Friday right before he’d left.

‘And your Prime Minister,’ he adds.

‘And Mama,’ she adds a little awkwardly, not looking at him, and he thinks she’s a little embarrassed at her behaviour that weekend. Emma had told him she’d only finally come out from her room on the Sunday after the Duchess had spent some time with her; he’d wondered at the time what the Duchess had said to convince her.

‘But assuming at least some of the Palace staff also knew, that’s still a very long list of people,’ she says quickly, and he doesn’t blame her. ‘I was thinking this morning about it all, and I wondered who else might want to discredit you in the press. Who would know all of that and what would they stand to gain by your departure? And then it was so obvious,’ she says quietly. He grimaces at the way she’s so obviously beating herself up over it all, all her mistakes and what he knew she would see as her own weakness. ‘I should have known,’ she all but whispers, and he shakes his head.

‘No,’ he says firmly, and her eyes flick up to his. ‘You couldn’t have known that he would stoop so low.’ He can feel his own anger rise again now, bubbling away. 

‘He’s always resented you, and he’s always wanted to control me. He even told Mama you were manipulating me!’ she cries, and he nods. He knows. But then she goes quiet again, dropping his gaze. ‘It was the timing of the news of your resignation that confirmed it,’ she says, and he nods after a moment, and he can feel the tug of a smile. She was so clever, his little Queen, to figure that out. It had taken him a good few days to put that together, even after Liz had called.

‘It took too long,’ he agrees, and she nods.

‘Mama only found out on Sunday morning,’ she says slowly, and she can’t meet his eyes, and this hurts. He can see it on her face, in the way she’s biting her lip.

‘Everyone else found out Friday night. The Duchess would have told Sir John sometime on Sunday or maybe even Monday morning, and it appeared in the news on Monday afternoon,’ he finishes for her.

‘Sir John knew by Sunday evening,’ she says quietly, and he stares at her for a moment before nodding slowly. Of course, Conroy would have twisted the knife at the first available opportunity. ‘I can’t believe she would…’ she trails off, looking up at him, pained. ‘She knows how much I hate Sir John.’

‘I imagine that she believed she was doing what was best for you, and for him. I don't believe for a moment that the Duchess would ever deliberately hurt you in such a way, ma'am,’ he reassures her, and he believes what he’s saying: he’s sure the Duchess wants what is best for her daughter, and in her mind – a mind that has been warped by Conroy’s twenty-year reign – it is not Melbourne who fits that role. ‘No, if I were to guess, I would bet this was all Sir John.’

‘But surely he cannot imagine that I would ever allow him to be anything in my household, even with you gone!’ she says angrily. ‘I have told him so many times!’

‘He’s an ambitious man, ma’am. And it's hard to look a gift horse in the mouth.’

She frowns, confused. ‘Gift horse? What do you mean?’

‘I suspect there was quite a bit of money paid for those photos of you at the Coronation Ball, ma’am.’

‘Money,’ she breathes, and she’s frowning. ‘Well, that explains my mother’s new bracelet,’ she mumbles, and he frowns. ‘He bought it for her,’ she explains. ‘She tells me she can’t afford clothes, but he buys her a diamond bracelet.’

Well, that answers that question, he thinks. The going rate for private photos of the Queen was higher than PR had estimated. He’d have to send an email.

‘He has to go,’ she says, interrupting his thoughts, and he nods.

‘Yes, ma’am, I think that would be wise,’ he agrees, but stops. This is where it was difficult. ‘But you can’t really make him do anything,’ he says slowly, and she frowns.

‘What do you mean?’

‘He’s technically not a member of your household, ma’am. He’s comptroller of the Duchess’s household. He doesn’t actually work for you.’

He watches as she realises what he’s saying. ‘So Mama would have to fire him,’ she says, and he nods. ‘That’s never going to happen.’

He tilts his head in acknowledgement. ‘It’s unlikely,’ he agrees, and she stares up at him, and he knows she’s waiting for him to come up with a solution, and it pains him more than he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t have one for her. Yet.

Even if she were to tell her mother about Sir John’s role in discrediting him – and the tarnishing of her daughter’s reputation at the same time – he doesn’t think it would be motivation enough to make the Duchess give Sir John up; she’d likely just blame him instead for corrupting her daughter. And that’s assuming the Duchess didn’t already know, which he thought was entirely possible, but somewhat unlikely.

It’s Conroy that’s been dominating his thoughts for the past forty-eight hours, and he was still no closer to a solution. Conroy had failed, and he knew it, and he’s absolutely certain that he’s going to want to exact some kind of revenge. He’s all too aware of the Queen’s history with Conroy. It’s been sitting in the back of his mind, an obstacle in her path to freedom. He’s been waiting for the announcement, for something that tells them that it’s coming, that tell-all book about the young Queen’s early years at Kensington Palace. He knows why Conroy hasn’t done it yet – it would ruin irreparably his relationship with both the Duchess and the Queen, and Conroy wasn’t quite done with them yet. But as soon as the easy money dried up…

He has to warn her.

He really, really doesn’t want to. She’s not going to react well, he thinks. He doubts it’s even occurred to her that Conroy would do such a thing.

As much as Wellington was right – Conroy had to go – he also knows it’s not going to be easy.

‘Give it time, ma’am,’ he says instead. ‘We’ll think of something.’

She lets out an angry huff, but nods. ‘I’m going to ban him from the palace! Everywhere but Mama’s rooms,’ she declares, and oh, no, she can’t do that. He understands, he really does – he has already imagined what he’ll say when he sees Sir John in the hallways of the palace next – but she has to be careful.

‘Does Sir John know that you know it was him, ma’am?’ he asks.

She thinks for a moment before shaking her head. ‘I haven’t seen him since Saturday, at the unveiling of the portrait,’ she says.

He nods. ‘Can I suggest that you perhaps wait until you know exactly how you’re going to remove him? If he thinks you know what he’s done, he’ll likely close ranks, be on his guard, and it’ll be that much harder to do anything.’

She lets out a breath, but nods, and he can see she doesn’t want to. She wants to scream and shout and tear Sir John limb from limb and oh, he understands. Betrayal hurts like nothing else, and he has long since accepted that he would struggle not to end anyone who hurt her.

But she can’t. Not yet. She has to be patient. They both have to be.

Looking at the anger in her eyes, the desire for revenge, he knows without a doubt that he’s going to have to be patient enough for the two of them. She has grown and changed so much, his little Queen, but she is still learning not to let her emotions rule her. This is going to be a long road, and she’s going to need all the self-control she can get.

‘Be patient, ma’am,’ he says gently, and she shakes her head, her hands in fists.

‘That’s not going to be easy, Lord M,’ she says, pacing a little.

‘I know,’ he agrees. ‘But think of it this way: Conroy’s lost, ma’am. If his aim was to get rid of me, ma’am, well, I fear he underestimated his true opponent – you.’

She looks up at him, and he watches as she processes his words. He’s made a study of watching her think; next to her laugh, it’s become one of his favourite pastimes, just watching her work through or slowly realise something. All her emotions show on her face in the subtlest of ways; her eyes become a little unseeing, her lips move a little, and she gets that little furrow in his brow, the one that makes him smile when it disappears. He can’t help but smile a little at the way her face transforms from anger to an almost smug happiness this time. ‘But you’ve only won the battle, ma’am. You now have to win the war. If Sir John can wait twenty years for this, I think we can wait a few weeks while we figure something out. You are far stronger than he’ll ever be,’ he finishes with, and her smile turns a little shy before she nods.

‘We’ll come up with something,’ she repeats, and he nods.

‘Yes, ma’am.’ I just have no idea what.

‘I need to apologise to the Duke,’ she says out of the blue, and he nods. ‘Again,’ she adds, and he can’t help but smile at her wry cringe.

‘I think he will be as gracious as he was the last time,’ he says, and she shakes her head at herself.

‘The Duke is kind to me,’ she agrees. ‘I think he’s probably too kind to do what I accused him of.’

He lets out a huff of a laugh. ‘Maybe. He is a politician, ma’am,’ he jokes, and she smiles wryly at him.

‘Would you have done it?’ she asks after a moment, the little furrow in her brow returning.

‘I doubt it,’ he concedes after a moment’s reflection. Especially not if I knew you, he thinks. There’s no way he would be able to hurt her the way Conroy had – the way Conroy had spent twenty years trying to mould and suppress her, to turn her into a puppet for his own ambition. He squashes the thought down; his own anger was there, simmering away. He just had to keep it under control for now, until they could come up with something, some way to get rid of Conroy without hurting her further. He worries about what Conroy will do in his revenge, but he thinks for now they have at least some time, and that’s all he needs.

But there’s just one more thing he needs to deal with today, and he doesn’t really want to, but he knows that he really, really should. She’d been so, so brave, his little Queen, in her desperation to have him back – he would do everything he could to not allow the conditions that created that kind of desperation in her to return – but she really cannot do this again. ‘Can I make one other suggestion, ma’am?’ he says, and she looks at him and nods. ‘Despite what the movies might suggest, blackmail rarely works out well for the person doing the blackmailing.’ And her cheeks pink, and she drops his gaze, nodding slowly. ‘Having said that, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a…satisfying conversation with the Duke of Wellington before,’ he adds after a few seconds, his lips twisting slightly.

And when she smiles a little bashfully, he can’t help but smile back at her.

 

Chapter Text

Week of Monday 6 June

 

She’s about to grab her phone and call to Dash when she sees it – he’s left his phone behind. It’s unlike him, she thinks; he’s so careful with everything, but it had been a long and busy day, his first day back, and he’d been a little distracted when he’d left. She picks it up and the screen lights up, and she blinks.

The screen is filled with the face of a little boy with dark curly hair and brown eyes – soft brown eyes that seem to look into her heart, and her mind fills in the blanks for her.

Augustus.

She’s captivated by the sweet smile and the big dark brown curls and the way his cheeks dimple in the same way Lord M’s do when he’s smiling, her heart aches for this adorable little boy.

But then his phone screen fades to black, and she frowns, pressing the home button again, and the screen springs back to life. She smiles a little as she studies the little boy’s face; she thinks he can’t have been more than six or seven years old in the photo. She thinks he’s adorable, this little boy, whose cheekbones already belie his parentage, and something softens in her chest.

She sucks in a breath when she remembers. His little boy.

The pain of it surprises her; it seems so patently unfair that this beautiful little boy, his son, should have been taken from him. So cruel.

She lets out a breath as she taps the home button again.

He doesn’t quite have her Lord M’s eyes, she thinks, as much as they are bright and kind as they gaze at her – she knows whose eyes he has – but he definitely has his smile.

But then the screen blinks out again, and she frowns a little as a cold settles over her. She’s prying, looking at something personal that he hadn’t willingly shared, and she turns the phone over in her hand and walks out to Emma. ‘Lord M left his phone behind,’ she tells her, and Emma’s eyebrows rise.

‘I’ll call his office,’ she says, picking up the handset of her phone.

‘It’s okay,’ Victoria says, and Emma blinks at her, and she’s surprised herself. ‘I can take it down to him,’ she shrugs, and she watches as Emma’s eyebrows rise even further.

‘Are you sure, ma’am?’ is what she eventually decides on, Victoria thinks, and she nods in reply, shrugging.

She’s only been all the way down to his office once before, not all that long ago – Emma had given her directions – but she’d been distracted that day, so desperate to see him, and so it takes a few moments to figure out where she’s going once she gets a little way down the hall. But she eventually finds her way, and when she arrives at his office door, she pauses. He’s got his head down, and he’s focusing on something on his desk, and she can’t help but watch him as he works.

It only lasts a moment; he looks up, and the look of surprise on his face makes her grin. ‘Ma’am!’ he exclaims, standing up from behind his desk and frowning slightly at her.

‘You left something behind, Lord M,’ she says, waving his phone in the air, passing it to him as he approaches.

‘Oh. Thank you,’ he says, frowning again. ‘You didn’t need to deliver it personally, ma’am. I would have come and collected it.’

She shrugs again, and she’s really not sure why she’s doing this. ‘I haven’t really seen your office before,’ she says by way of excuse as she looks around. It wasn’t a large room, made smaller by the built-in bookshelves and the general clutter – he wasn’t neat, her Lord M – but it was all warm colours and high ceilings and leather and dark wood, and she’s reminded very briefly of his library.

‘I apologise for the mess,’ he says, seemingly reading her mind, glancing around. But she feels like she should ask him, tell him that she knows. That she’s seen the picture of his son on his phone, that image that had felt so private.

‘Your lock screen,’ she starts, and he looks at her. ‘I didn’t mean to pry, it turned on when I picked it up,’ she explains, and he shakes his head in acknowledgment and dismissal. ‘Is it Augustus?’ she asks a little timidly, and his eyebrows rise momentarily in surprise, and he glances down at the phone in his hand.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It’s my favourite photo,’ he admits a little more softly, and she hadn’t realised just how desperately she wants to hear more about this little boy that had been his. This little version of her Lord M.

‘He has a sweet smile,’ she says, grimacing as she realises what she’s said. Had. Had a sweet smile.

‘Yes,’ he replies, his face a little sad, and she suddenly regrets everything, wishes she could take it all back, the pain she’s caused. But then he looks at her, his gaze a little shrewd before it softens. ‘He was autistic,’ he says quietly, and she blinks.

Autistic.

‘He was fairly high-functioning, but he didn’t love eye contact,’ he explains, his voice soft as he glances down at his phone. ‘That’s one of the only photos where he’s actually looking into the camera.’

And oh, her heart is breaking and why did she have to ask? She has to make it better.

‘I wish I could have met him,’ she says, and when his eyes crumple just a little, his chest sinks in just slightly, she wants to flee, to run from his pain-filled gaze, to reach out and hug him and take all the pain away.

‘I think he would have liked you, ma’am,’ his voice low and rougher than she thinks she’s heard it in a long time, and she can’t help but bite her lip and smile.

He would have liked her.

 

***

 

She’d promised. He’d held up his end of the deal, and she would, of course, honour hers.

Maybe she’d be nice, she thinks. She would never be Harriet, or Emma, but maybe that was okay. She would make the most of this, whatever she was met with.

Maybe it would be good for her. Lord M always encourages her to think about different perspectives on things, always tries to get her to stand in someone else’s shoes on so many issues. Maybe Anna Scott would be another perspective. Someone else to learn from.

She turns to Harriet. ‘She’s twenty-nine.’

‘Yes.’

‘And she mostly does charity work.’

Harriet nods. ‘She works a lot with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development – it’s the Church’s international development charity, and the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.’

She nods. ‘I’d never heard of it before yesterday.’

‘Me neither, ma’am, but they apparently do a lot of great work around the world.’ Harriet purses her lips. ‘I wonder just how Catholic she is,’ she muses. ‘She’s already got a son, and she’s been married for not quite two years,’ Harriet says, raising her eyebrows and smirking a little. Victoria frowns a little, shaking her head. ‘Very strict Catholics don’t believe in contraception,’ Harriet explains quietly, glancing at the door. ‘They think it’s immoral – something about it being a barrier between husband and wife.’

‘Oh,’ she says, blinking. ‘Well, I guess we’ll find out,’ she replies, and Harriet nods.

‘I’m sure she’s lovely,’ Harriet says. ‘George says her husband has a good reputation, even if he is a Tory.’

Emma appears with a short, pretty woman with dark brown hair following behind her. ‘Ma’am, Lady Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch,’ she says, and Victoria smiles politely as the Duchess curtseys.

‘Your Majesty,’ the Duchess says.

‘Duchess. Thank you for coming.’

‘Of course, ma’am,’ she says. ‘When royalty calls, one heeds the call.’

Victoria blinks. ‘Oh. Well, thank you.’

She introduces Harriet before accepting the tea that Emma has poured for them. ‘I believe your husband knew my Uncle,’ she starts, and the Duchess nods.

‘Oh, yes, ma’am. The late King stayed at Dalkeith a number of times. That was a few years before our marriage – before I really knew Walter,’ she says, and Victoria nods. ‘I did not have the pleasure of meeting the King.’

‘Dalkeith Palace is in Scotland?’ she enquires, following the natural line of the conversation, and the Duchess smiles.

‘Yes. It’s just beautiful, ma’am.’

‘I’ve not been to Scotland,’ she admits. ‘Well, not a visit I remember.’

The Duchess’s eyes widen. ‘Oh, ma’am, it’s some of the most magnificent country. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Nothing like the south of England.’

Victoria smiles. ‘Yes, I’ve seen photos. It looks rather stunning. Wild and rugged.’

‘It has a wild beauty, ma’am,’ the Duchess agrees, before frowning slightly. ‘Has Your Majesty not been to the Castle at Balmoral yet? Or Holyroodhouse?’

Victoria purses her lips. ‘Not yet. I’ve been more focused on London for now. I do have plans to visit soon,’ she explains, but the explanation rings hollow in her ears. Should she go to Scotland? She should ask Lord M.

She could really use her camera in Scotland.

‘Of course, ma’am. I imagine it has taken some adjustment,’ the Duchess says, nodding seriously.

‘Some,’ Victoria says, shifting uncomfortably under the Duchess’s gaze. ‘Although I feel quite settled now.’

‘Of course, ma’am,’ she says, and there’s a thick silence in the air. Victoria can feel the flush creeping up her neck; just how much has the Duke of Wellington told Lady Anna? She can feel her heart racing in her chest at the thought. He wouldn’t have told her everything, she thinks. But then perhaps she already knew. Maybe he had told her the whole story. Maybe she knew everything – all about Lord M and his wife and the Duke and she feels sick at the thought of everyone knowing.

Breathe. She chose this, chose her path. She’d known what she was getting herself into. This meeting was always going to be awkward, and she had to overcome that and do her job.

Explaining her choice to a very confused Harriet had been almost impossible.

I made a deal with Wellington.

A deal?

Yes. I needed something from him, and this was the compromise.

It was a deal that she was going to ensure Sir John paid for, and dearly.

‘I understand you have Sir Robert Peel working in the Office of the Private Secretary,’ she hears the Duchess say, and Victoria forces her voice to be light and even. She knows by now that her cheeks are bright red; she can feel them.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘He was Acting Principal Private Secretary whilst Lord Melbourne was on holiday,’ she replies as evenly as she can. She can feel Harriet’s eyes on her.

‘Oh, of course. He’s an excellent man – one of the finest men I know. He’s good friends with my husband,’ the Duchess explains.

‘I see,’ Victoria replies automatically, blinking. ‘He is certainly most…capable,’ she stumbles out.

‘I understand you’ve done quite a bit of work with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development,’ Harriet says after a moment, and she lets out a breath she didn’t realise she was holding. She lets Harriet chatter away with Lady Anna for a minute, just listening to them talk about young orphans in South-East Asia, and she feels the familiar pull in her chest, the one that makes her want to run, and she squashes it ruthlessly. She was the Queen, and she was strong. Stronger than this. She had held her own with the Duke of Wellington; she could do this. It didn’t matter what Lady Anna knew or didn’t know. It would have no impact whatsoever.

Lord M was back, and everything was back to normal. Everything was good now, she reminds herself, and the thought makes her smile.

And the Duchess seems nice enough. She’s dressed well, and the fact that the Duchess of Wellington thinks she’d be a good addition to her Ladies really says enough about how sensible and competent she would be.

She waits for the conversation to come to a natural conclusion before speaking. ‘Lady Anna, I was wondering if you would be willing to work in the role of one of my Ladies-in-waiting,’ she says. ‘I have yet to fill all the positions, and you have been quite highly recommended.’

The Duchess blinks, clearly a little surprised, before smiling. ‘I would be honoured, ma’am,’ she says. ‘My mother served Queen Adelaide a number of years ago, and I would be honoured to continue that responsibility.’

 

She collapses on the lounge when the Duchess has left. She was exhausted, but it was done.

She thinks that perhaps the Duchess doesn’t know all that much, judging by her reaction to her request. The Duke had stayed silent.

It had been a kind of payback, she thinks wryly. Wellington was getting his revenge for her accusations, for the horribly awkward conversation the older man had been forced to sit through with his young Queen. Horrible man, she thinks, but she couldn’t blame him. She deserved it. They were even now.

The Duchess had been quite lovely, she thinks, and she obviously took her position seriously. Maybe she would fit in well enough.

Harriet pours some tea and puts it on the table next to her with a comforting smile, which Victoria returns gratefully. ‘She seems nice. Sensible,’ Harriet says. ‘Not too Catholic,’ she jokes, and Victoria smiles as she sits up on the couch.

‘It will be nice to spend time with someone who is a little closer to my height,’ she replies, and grins when Harriet lets out a laugh.

 

***

 

When he answers a question about the political history of some country or other over the phone for the third time in half an hour, he starts getting flashbacks of pens and pencils as props and maps on walls where paintings had once sat. He flicks his screen over to her calendar.

‘Ma’am, can I ask what you’re doing?’

‘Reading through the notes we made last year for the Diplomatic Corps Dinner,’ she informs him. ‘It’s the end of next week and I’d forgotten all about it.’

He’s impressed that she’s doing this on her own; he hadn’t even had to suggest anything. It’s down in his diary to discuss the next morning – on the list of urgent things to deal with, this hadn’t really been too high. He was fairly confident that she would be fine this year, between her conversations with Wellington and the talking points she’d been given already. But it would seem that she’s beaten him to it. She mustn’t feel as confident as he does about her capacity. ‘It’s a good idea to review, ma’am.’

‘I thought so.’ He hears her sigh. ‘I can’t believe it was a year ago.’

His heart twinges a little at the memories; countless hours spent in her office in front of her little projector, debating the merits of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, or the contribution of colonialism to the spread of communism in post-war Asia. He missed it, that time with her, where they’d talk about anything and everything and he’d leave at the end of each day exhausted, but satisfied.

‘It certainly doesn’t feel like it,’ he agrees.

‘So much has happened since,’ she says, and he thinks she sounds wistful. ‘I enjoyed our lessons.’

‘I did too, ma’am,’ he agrees.

‘When you weren’t tearing your hair out?’ she laughs, and he chuckles.

There’s silence for a while on the other end of the phone, and he puts his own phone on speaker, setting it on the desk next to him, returning to his own work. He smiles to himself; they haven’t done this in a while, he thinks. She’d started it one day when she was reading in her rooms over a year ago; she’d had a question about something to do with the dinner, and he’d been sorting something out on his desk, so he’d just shut his office door and put her on speaker, answering her questions while he tidied whatever it was he was tidying at the time.

He’d realised later how ridiculous it was, what a waste of money it was, that they’d sat on the phone for well over an hour in on-and-off silence while they’d both worked, her asking the occasional question and him explaining or looking up something on his computer. She was all of two minutes’ walk away in her rooms.

He’d made some kind of comment, and she’d sighed and said that Dash was asleep on her lap and she was comfortable, and he could practically hear the blush spread across her cheeks over the phone. The next time she’d rung him when he’d been in the building, she’d told him she was using the wifi and thus it wasn’t really a phone call and is costing nothing, and he’d chuckled at her ingenuity.

But she’s not in her rooms this time, and sometimes it’s easier to do this face-to-face.

‘Are you planning on continuing your study for much more of today?’ he asks.

He can hear her fiddling with the paperwork down the phone. ‘I’m about a third of the way through this part. I’ve divided it up in to sections so that I’ll get through it all by the start of next week,’ she tells him.

So when he appears at her door with his laptop, a pile of paperwork and two coffees, she looks happy to see him, but confused. ‘I thought my phone battery might have a better chance of lasting until I get home if I just moved down here for a little while,’ he says wryly, and she just grins at him.

An hour and what feels like a hundred questions later, he’s all but abandoned anything that requires sustained thought and is scrolling through his twitter feed, reading various articles and making a mental list of what’s happened in the last twelve months that she’ll need to know. He’d forgotten, in all his nostalgia, just how exhausting it had all been. It had been hard work, bringing her up to speed on the political history of most of the world in just a few short months. Her questions now are insightful, thoughtful things, and he thinks with a touch of sadness that she no longer tries quite so hard to solve the world’s problems in a sentence. There’s a depth to her now, a complexity that is becoming more and more evident. Her exploration of the world outside her walls was beginning to have an impact.

She had changed, his little Queen, in the year that had passed.

‘I’m sorry, Lord M,’ she says from her desk, and he looks up at her.

‘What for, ma’am?’

‘You have so much to do,’ she says, grimacing and glancing at the phone in his hand.

He wants to shake his head, tell her no, this is exactly where he wants to be – needs to be – this was part of his job too – but it’s not entirely the truth. The piles of paperwork and emails were almost intimidating; he really did have quite a lot to catch up on. He’s never lied to her, so he tilts his head in acceptance. ‘This is important too, ma’am,’ he says, and she gives him a small, pleased smile.

He’s not entirely surprised when she asks if he’d like to work from her office for a couple of hours each day for the rest of the week, and he’s definitely not going to say no.

The paperwork could wait.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 11 June

 

They’ve never really spoken much about her time at Kensington. What he knows he’s gleaned from a thousand conversations about anything and everything else along with what little he learned from the King when he was Prime Minister, but it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that she was sheltered beyond what would be considered even vaguely reasonable by most.

The biggest tell is her lack of emotional maturity; she’s growing in leaps and bounds, but there have been times when he’s reminded of his fourteen-year-old nephew. Or his two-year-old niece. She just hasn’t had the socialisation, the rough edges to rub off on, that most people had – and it showed. He’d initially thought that it would take years for her to reach something like an appropriate age match; he and Emma had shared many a discrete look in her early days. He’d been happy to have that job – was still happy – to be the rough stone that blunted her still-sharp edges.

But he’d been wrong; like so many, he’d underestimated her, his little Queen. It had been the work of many – he and Emma, but also Harriet, Wellington, the rest of her staff, and even the public – but she was finally getting there. She was clever, intuitive, and fairly anxious to fit in and do well as Queen, and the pressure she was placing on herself – probably unconsciously, he knows – was having an effect.

The events of the recent weeks had also played a part. He’s not entirely sure just how big a part yet, but he could see it every now and then, in a look she’ll give, or in the way she’ll say something.

There was also the practical side of things. Occasionally he’ll mention something, or an invitation will appear, and he’ll deduce from a questioning tilt of her head or the way her eyes seem to brighten that this is something new. Sometimes she tries to hide it, and he doesn’t call her out on it; he’s more than happy for her to go searching for most of it on her own. Google will answer most of her questions and allow her to salvage some dignity. But then there are times when she’ll come out with a question days later, after the conversation was well out of his working memory, and they’ll talk about these inane little parts of life that he’d completely taken for granted. He’d realised one day in a rare conversation with Harriet that she and Emma both do the same thing.

But she’s so elegant and regal and intelligent and she knows so much about so many things now that he has to continually remind himself of just how sheltered she has been, and despite all of Harriet’s and Emma’s and his best efforts, there are just things she didn’t grow up with in the same way they did; the kinds of things she should just know being a twenty-three-year-old English woman.

But her sheltering was a little odd, a little sporadic, and he thinks Conroy himself eventually must have just given up on a few things because whilst she’d had very little idea about how the internet worked, she’s seen quite a few movies and television shows he would not have imagined she’d have been permitted to see by either Conroy or Lehzen.

She’s read all the classics, as one would expect, but not seen many of the adaptations; so, where he had Shakespeare, Harriet and Emma had Austen and Bronte and Gaskell. He was more than happy to leave them to it.

They’re standing at the doors one afternoon waiting to go outside for the first of her second year of Garden Parties with Harriet and Emma and Anna, only waiting on the Earl. She and Harriet are standing at the window, peering out at the people milling around on the grass outside and commenting on the dresses when Harriet lets out an excited ooh. ‘There she is!’ she says excitedly, and he watches as Victoria frowns.

‘Who?’

‘It’s Maggie Smith!’

‘Oh, is she the actress? I don’t really know her,’ Victoria says, and his eyebrows rise.

‘Didn’t the Earl send you the list for today?’

‘Oh yes, I just didn’t realise she was so famous,’ she replies, turning to look at him. ‘What has she been in?’

‘She’s Professor McGonagall,’ Harriet says, frowning. ‘Harry Potter?’ she says incredulously at Victoria’s lack of response, and there’s a slightly stunned silence as Harriet, Emma, Anna and he all look at each other. ‘You’ve not seen Harry Potter?’ Harriet says quickly, and he can see Victoria’s cheeks turning pink.

‘No. I remember asking about it once, but Lehzen said they were children’s books,’ she says, her voice trailing off, and Harriet looks at him helplessly. He understands why.

‘She wasn’t really wrong,’ Anna agrees. ‘They are, mostly. Brilliant, though. Worth reading, ma’am,’ she adds.

‘Yes. We’ll just have to rectify that then, won’t we?’ Emma says matter-of-factly.

‘Is it important?’ she asks, her eyes flicking to his, and he can see she’s panicking a little.

He tilts his head. ‘It’s a little unusual that you haven’t read them, ma’am,’ he says, a little nonchalantly. ‘But it’s not a problem. The Dame was made a member of the Order for far more than her work on a series of films – she’ll probably be quite pleased not to talk about it.’

‘Oh,’ she says quietly, still looking at him uncertainly. He groans inwardly; of course, it would be today that they had decided he wouldn’t attend the Garden Party, he thinks. He’d managed to convince her that, just for now, when everything was settling, it would be best for him to be seen only at functions where he would be expected; her Garden Parties are really her Lord Chamberlain’s domain, not his. Despite all that she had grown and matured and won her battle, she was still wary, still uncertain. She knows she could lose him now, that it was possible, and it had made her almost clingy. He didn’t mind; he knew it would just take time.

And he’d missed her, his little Queen. He didn’t mind spending a few more minutes with her every day, whatever the reason.

But her eyes are still wide and her cheeks a little pink, so he shakes his head infinitesimally at her, giving her a small half-frown, and he’s pleased she seems to settle somewhat at his reassurance. ‘She does a lot of charity work, I read, and has done a lot of theatre,’ she says, her voice still a little wavering.

‘Oh yes, ma’am,’ Harriet agrees, seemingly picking up on the mood, her face now a picture of calm reassurance. ‘I think Lord Melbourne’s right – it’s probably best to stick to that today. She’d get questions about Harry Potter constantly; it’ll be refreshing for her to talk about something else.’

He can see Anna nodding at her from the corner of his eye, and watches as she lets out a breath and turns back to look out the window again.

He wonders how they’ve managed to get through her reign to date without realising she hadn’t read Harry Potter. He wonders what else she hasn’t read, hasn’t seen, hasn’t done that they’re all just taking for granted still – the things they’ve missed. How do you compile a list of cultural experiences you don’t even know you’ve had? She was the Queen, and she’d grown up in England; there was an expectation that she would at least know the basics. He lets out a small sigh, and makes a mental note.

 

When he arrives at her office Monday morning, Harriet is there.

‘I’ve told Her Majesty that she really should read the Harry Potter series,’ she tells him. He looks over at the Queen, hiding his amusement at the blank look on her face; she’s holding what looks like the first book, and he can see her confusion at the pictures on the cover. He notices that the other books are in a pile on her desk, well-worn with all completely different covers, and he bites his cheek to cover a smile.

‘I agree,’ he announces when he’s swallowed his laughter, and she looks up at him and blinks.

Harry Potter is a British institution – like tea, and the monarchy. You have to read them,’ Harriet tells her. ‘You’ll love them, ma’am,’ she assures her, so she nods.

‘Okay,’ she says, and Harriet smiles.

‘They do look like children’s books,’ she tells him minutes later when Harriet has left for work.

‘They are, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Well, they start quite young, but from what I can tell, the later ones are quite dark.’

She frowns up at him. ‘From what you can tell?’

‘I’ve really only read the whole of first one,’ he admits, before letting out a sigh. ‘I was reading them to Augustus,’ he adds, and her mouth falls open briefly before she purses her lips and nods sadly. ‘I just never really got around to finishing them.’

‘Well, if Harriet thinks it’s important, then I’ll read them.’

He frowns a little, trying to figure out how best to explain what he wants to explain. ‘Ma’am, there’s probably not a person – adult or child – in England who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books,’ he says, and she blinks at him. ‘Ms Sutherland wasn’t really overstating it much when she said the series was a British institution. They seemed to transcend traditional age barriers.’ He smirks a little. ‘I may have caught your uncle reading the last one just before one of our meetings one afternoon,’ he adds, and her mouth drops open a little, and he nods knowingly.

‘Wow,’ she replies, her slightly open mouth twisting into an incredulous smile, and flicks open to the first page.

‘Perhaps you could start tonight,’ he adds, eyeing the folders that were still piled on her desk, and she smirks at him.

 

***

 

Week of Monday 13 June

 

‘Lord M, the Earl has just submitted his resignation,’ she tells him with a frown when he arrives at her office at her request later that day. ‘He has cancer.’

He sighs heavily. ‘Yes, he spoke to me just before his appointment with you,’ he replies.

‘It’s horrible,’ she says quietly, and he nods.

‘He told me he anticipates a full recovery, ma’am.’

‘Yes, that’s what he told me too. Still, it’s a little scary,’ she says, and he nods. He knows that; his own father had succumbed. It had been quick, but brutal. ‘He said that he couldn’t focus entirely on his duties while he was unwell.’

Melbourne nods. ‘You’ll have to appoint someone new, ma’am.’

She frowns slightly. ‘I’ve not appointed anyone to such a senior role yet,’ she says worriedly, and he raises his eyebrows at her, before letting the slightly incredulous grin spread across his face at her confusion.

‘I beg to differ, ma’am,’ he almost laughs after a few seconds, and she frowns at his smile.

‘Who?’

He drops his head slightly, a smirk on his face, and it takes a few moments before she flushes pink.

‘Oh. You,’ she says, scrunching up her face momentarily, and he chuckles at her.

‘I think your first appointment showed a wisdom and understanding of the requirements of the role,’ he jokes, pursing his lips. ‘Although we do know there are some who disagree.’ She pushes his arm playfully, rolling her eyes, and he can’t help but smile. ‘Shall I ask Emma to do up a list?’ he asks more seriously, and the way her head flicks around and her lips twist in a kind of smile makes him frown slightly. He’s not entirely sure what he missed.

‘That would be helpful,’ she says, the ghost of a smirk on her face still, and he nods. She must notice his confusion because she smiles a little more after a moment. ‘The last time I asked Emma to put together a list for a senior position, there was really only one name on it,’ she says a little wryly, and it takes a moment for him to understand what she’s saying, and his lips twist a little.

‘I put some thought into that list of names,’ he says, his eyes narrow, and her cheeks pink a little again, but she holds her ground.

‘I know,’ is all she says somewhat smugly in reply, and he resists the urge to shake his head at her.

 

***

 

When he arrives at her office Tuesday morning, she smiles up at him triumphantly. ‘Done!’ she announces, holding up that oh-so-familiar folder – her year-old notes on the modern history of the world – proudly, and he grins at her.

‘Well done, ma’am,’ he says. ‘That’s no mean feat for a week.’

‘Thank you,’ she says proudly, before her mouth twists a little. ‘Better than four months,’ she jokes, and he shakes his head in amusement. ‘I did have one other favour to ask,’ she says, and he raises his eyebrows. ‘I asked the Foreign Secretary’s office for a list of all the new Ambassadors and other relevant people who’ve started in the last twelve months and I’ve updated their names and faces on my flashcards, and I’ve checked them all against the list you gave me of those attending, so that’s covered. But so much has happened over the past year politically that I haven’t really kept up with, and I was wondering if you’d like to stay for dinner tonight and explain some of it to me? Just a quick review; I thought we could just go region by region.’ Her face is so hopeful, but wary, and he eyes her a little.

She doesn’t need his help. They’ve had so many conversations about the events across the world this year, and she’s worked so hard to stay on top of it all, with his and the Duke’s help, that all she really needs to do is understand and memorise the talking points.

She’s missed him as much as he’s missed her, he thinks, but the thought doesn’t thrill him quite as much as he thinks it might have a year ago. It sits awkwardly at the back of his mind, her desire to keep him close. But it’s been a difficult few weeks, he concedes, and he understands. She will settle soon enough.

He’s just happy that he still gets to see her every day.

‘I think I could do that,’ he agrees, and she smiles. ‘I have allocated a little more time than usual for your meeting with the Duke this Friday, ma’am,’ he tells her gently, and she scrunches up her face a little at him. She hasn’t seen the Duke in the week since his return, and they have yet to have that awkward conversation. She doesn’t seem as anxious this time though, he’s pleased to note.

‘Yes, thank you,’ she says, before letting out a sigh.

‘He’s been away, and you do have a little more than usual to discuss,’ he says wryly, and she pulls a face. ‘But I thought you might also like to ask the Duke to run through the talking points for the Dinner with you,’ he says.

‘Yes, that’s a good idea,’ she agrees, but her mind is elsewhere. ‘The Duke thinks you told me,’ she says quietly after a few seconds, and he grimaces a little – he knows exactly what she’s talking about, and he doesn’t like that she’s still thinking about this. ‘I told him you hadn’t, that you would never do such a thing, but I’m not sure he believed me.’

‘It’s not unreasonable,’ he says quietly after a moment. ‘I didn’t think that many people knew.’

‘Harriet knew.’

‘Yes,’ he says heavily. This fact is why he’s still baffled as to why he hasn’t read about it in the papers; it would have made the perfect scandal to finish both of them, and reduced her to a pawn in the personal games of her most powerful subjects. It would have all been just so…undignified. ‘I suppose there’s not much you can do about that, ma’am.’

‘I don’t like that he thinks it,’ she says a little more emphatically. ‘It’s not true. You’ve never talked about the Duke that way.’

‘The Duke is a politician, ma’am, and a good one, and as you well know, knowledge is power. Every piece of information is stored away to be used at the perfect moment.’ He shrugs. ‘He told me you were becoming quite the politician yourself, ma’am,’ he says wryly, and she purses her lips at him.

But she lets out a frustrated sigh after a few moments, and he thinks it’s sweet that she’s trying to defend him to the Duke. It says volumes about her respect for her Prime Minister that she cares what he thinks about anything.

‘I think it’ll be fine, ma’am,’ he says. ‘I think that if the Duke really thought that his private life was a serious topic of discussion between us, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.’

She nods after a moment and, for the first time, he worries just a little about how she’s going to handle that particular conversation.

 

Chapter Text

Week of Monday 13 June

 

He knows that for all his words, for all her calm now, how much Emma tells him she’s relaxed since his return, the moment she sees Conroy or her mother she could explode.

She needs to be distracted.

Her calendar is relatively full already, especially now that it’s summer, but there are still whole days where she has nothing really on other than the paperwork she mostly does in the morning and some event in the afternoon or evening, and these blocks of time where she’s alone somewhere in the palace, and where the Duchess or Conroy could appear out of nowhere, make him nervous.

She has grown so much in the past year, but she’s still learning how to moderate her reactions to the things she cares most about. It’s safer to simply remove the problem until she’s settled more, and since they couldn’t exactly remove the Duchess from the Palace, they would have to remove her. He hates the idea that she can’t be free in her own home, but it’s only temporary. He’ll make sure it is.

Conroy will want his revenge, but for now he’ll likely just settle for those little barbs he flings her way, the ones that always seem to find their mark. If he can keep her out of his line of sight, this has a far greater chance of succeeding.

On top of that, Emma’s words to him over the phone only days ago also worry him.

She needs you, William. After Harriet and I, she doesn’t have anyone else.

She needs more friends.

As much as Emma and Harriet and he were working on it, they were just three people, and he knows that perhaps they don’t call her out enough. She needs more people to bounce off, to see that there were more perspectives in the world than just theirs. He was pleased to hear about her new Lady-in-waiting, but one more wasn’t really enough.

She needs to rely on him less. He’s known it for a while – too long – he’s just been too selfish to really do anything about it, telling himself it wasn’t really that bad, that she was learning and growing and would naturally move away from him as she grew more confident. But the events of the previous weeks had proven him very, very wrong. It wasn’t what he was doing – it was what he wasn’t doing that was the problem. He needed to join Harriet and Emma in actively encouraging her to slowly increase her circle of friends. Not only as Queen – Harriet and Emma would one day not be available to attend something, and she would have no one – but also as a woman.

He was acutely aware that he was more than happily allowing her to hold him too close.

Her current reading list has given him an idea; he thinks they can probably kill two birds with one stone. But he can’t do this alone – at all, really – so he enlists some help.

‘It was Sir John behind the newspapers last month,’ he tells Harriet as she and Emma stand in his office later that evening. She cringes, but then shrugs.

‘I’m not surprised,’ she says. ‘Victoria says he hates you.’

Melbourne nods in response. ‘But Her Majesty has also figured out that it was him,’ he adds, and Harriet cringes again.

‘Did she let him have it? I would have.’

‘No. She wants him gone, so I’ve convinced her to hold off until there’s a clear plan in place.’

Harriet frowns as he explains the situation. ‘So Conroy is still working for the Duchess?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, good luck. He’s going to open his mouth and she’s going to lose it,’ Harriet declares, and both he and Emma nod. ‘She detests the man, and she will even more so now.’

Well, if he’d had any questions about just how much Harriet knew, they were answered now. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ he says. ‘I think it would be best if we try to keep any interaction between her and the Duchess and Conroy to an absolute minimum.’

‘Good plan. How?’

‘We want to keep her distracted as much as possible, outside the palace.’

Harriet frowns for a moment, before she realises what they’re getting at. ‘We need to fill her calendar and keep her busy.’

He tilts his head in acknowledgement. ‘Essentially, yes.’

She frowns. ‘It’s summer. How hard could it be to keep her entertained?’

‘I’m not concerned about what she could attend. The problem would be in organising it in time; there simply wouldn’t be enough notice for most things, and with the Earl’s resignation, anything is going to be more of a challenge than usual.’

‘Surely not everything needs to go through the Lord Chamberlain’s office?’ Harriet asks.

‘No, not everything,’ Emma says. ‘Just the ones where she would interact with the public, and we can limit those,’ Emma says. ‘Pick the best ones.’

‘Yes. I gather PR are still a little concerned about her image, although they’re being rather coy with me,’ he says, raising his eyebrows.

‘Can’t imagine why,’ he hears Emma mutter, and he shoots her a look.

‘She still needs to be seen as independent and impartial. I think there are enough public engagements in her calendar at the moment, but we can add more if you think we should. I was actually thinking more fun, personal events.’ Harriet nods, and he can see her thinking already. ‘Perhaps you might include her new Lady-in-waiting,’ he says, and Harriet’s eyes widen before her lips twist in amusement.

‘Anna Scott? Sure. We can go for a picnic,’ she jokes, and Emma chuckles. He frowns a little. ‘The Duchess of Buccleuch told the Queen on their first meeting that she thinks Robert Peel is one of the finest men she knows,’ Harriet explains, trying not to laugh, and he closes his eyes briefly.

‘Good,’ he says after a moment, and Emma looks at him quizzically. ‘Need I remind you what you told me? That the list of people she can rely on is not long – it’s not long enough,’ he says, and Emma blinks at him. ‘And Wellington was right – her circle is very one-sided. She can’t always hear what she wants to hear.’ He knows his voice sounds even – he can hear it. But Emma has known him for too long, and he can’t hold her gaze.

‘Anna Scott was Wellington’s suggestion,’ she says quietly, and his eyes shoot to hers. What on earth was Wellington doing suggesting Ladies-in-waiting? This wasn’t the nineteenth century – she could choose whoever she liked, regardless of the politics. He watches as she glances at Harriet before speaking again. ‘It was part of her trade-off at their last meeting,’ she explains. ‘An olive branch.’

He can feel is mouth drop open. Trade-off.

It explained why the Duke hadn’t been quite as angry as he’d imagined he should have been when he’d spoken to him that day. She’d certainly tried to blackmail him, yes, but she’d also tried to bargain with the Duke. For him.

He closes his eyes and drops his head. Oh, this was worse. This was so, so much worse.

A tiny bit of him that he hates is thrilled at just what she’s done – the extent of what she’s done in her desperate attempts to keep him, what she’s risking and committing to for the long term for him – but he can’t squash it as his heart swells and aches in his chest at the same time.

He looks up again, nodding, before letting out a breath. ‘It’s been an interesting month,’ Emma says with a small smile, and he stares at her, wondering what else he doesn’t know. But that’s not a conversation for now – not in front of Harriet, he thinks. As much as he thinks the Duchess of Sutherland is lovely and sweet and an excellent Mistress of the Robes and great friend to the Queen, he’s not entirely sure she can keep this secret.

‘The Garden Party on Saturday also made me wonder what else she hasn’t done that would be expected of a British monarch in the twenty-first century,’ he says, before sucking in a breath.

‘Yes, I’ve been thinking about that too,’ Harriet replies, obviously pleased with the subject change herself. ‘I’ve been working on the music, but I’m sure there’s other places she hasn’t been, books she hasn’t read.’

‘Has she done any of the major landmarks?’ Emma asks suddenly. ‘She’s obviously done Westminster, but has she done anything else?’

‘Given that she’d never been to the Ballet here in London, I’d assume not,’ he replies dryly, and Harriet is nodding.

‘Leave it with us,’ Harriet says, the smile spreading across her face.

 

***

 

‘I’d like to do this,’ she says, handing him one of the letters he’d given her in the previous week. ‘I think it’s important.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replies, looking down at the invitation. He’s not surprised. It’s the opening of the new Children’s Wing at the hospital in York; the one she’d spent a day at handing out teddies and learning so much about what she could do as Queen. Delay in construction had meant that it hadn’t been ready earlier in the year when it should have been, and wasn’t ready when the attack had happened, and there had been criticism of the hospital. Yet another element of her role she had discovered: she could bring a smile to the faces of even beleaguered hospital executives.

But along with the opening is a commemoration service; it had been half-term break, and the opening is scheduled for the first anniversary of the attack.

‘It feels so long ago,’ she says. ‘So much has happened since.’ He nods in agreement. ‘The letter says that grief counsellors will be on hand,’ she says, frowning slightly, before looking up at him.

‘I imagine that recollecting the events will be quite traumatic for many, ma’am,’ he says quietly. ‘Especially for the children. Or those that lost children.’

And her eyes widen and he knows what she’s thinking, so he plasters on what he hopes is a calm, mostly unaffected face and hopes she’ll move on.

‘Oh,’ she says, dropping his gaze. ‘Yes, of course,’ she says eventually. ‘I suppose all the children will still have the bears I gave them, so I won’t take those,’ she announces, looking up at him.

‘Probably, ma’am,’ he agrees. ‘Whilst the bears were very warmly received, I imagine your presence will be enough this time.’

 

***

 

When the Earl suggests it, he thinks it’s a good idea. She hasn’t left London yet, and whilst she’s the Queen of England, she’s also technically the Queen of Scotland, too, and it would be good for her to be seen there, even for just a brief trip. She can always make a longer one in summer next year, he thinks, and he makes a mental note to suggest it to whoever replaces the Earl. She needs to get away, he thinks, and given that she hasn’t actually left London yet, he thinks she’ll be rather excited.

But Scotland in winter.

For all his Britishness, he doesn’t love the rain. And whilst Scotland was truly stunning on a sunny day, it more than made up for it by raining the other 364 days of the year. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into. She’ll have to get used to running in the rain, he thinks.

The Earl is on reduced hours until he officially leaves and so he’s left it with Melbourne to discuss with the Queen in their morning meeting. He doesn’t mind; the Earl is good man, and he’ll be sad to see him go.

But it would seem she’s beaten him to it. ‘Lord M, I was talking with Anna yesterday at the National Forest lunch, and she suggested that I visit Scotland,’ she says excitedly when he arrives. ‘Her husband’s family comes from just south of Edinburgh.’

‘It’s funny you should mention that, ma’am, because the Earl was thinking the same thing,’ he says with a smile, and her face brightens. ‘The Visitor’s Centre at Holyroodhouse Palace is being renovated between Christmas and New Year, and he thought it might be a nice opportunity for you to spend Christmas outside of London this year.’

And the way her face brightens makes him smile. ‘Oh! I would love to!’ she cries. ‘I’ve never been to Scotland. At least, if I have, I don’t remember.’

‘Yes, the Earl noted that, and thought perhaps you might hold a reception or two while you’re up there. He was going to suggest that you head up a few days before Christmas, and return just after New Years’, when the Visitor’s Centre is open again.’

‘That sounds perfect, Lord M,’ she says happily, and he narrows his eyes slightly at her. ‘I’m going to take my camera,’ she says gleefully.

‘I should warn you, ma’am – it gets cold in Edinburgh in December, but it doesn’t always snow.’

‘I don’t mind.’

‘And it rains. A lot. Possibly not a lot of photography opportunities.’

She shrugs. ‘Then I guess I’ll have to amuse myself indoors.’

‘Probably no snowmen.’

‘I’ll survive,’ she says, shrugging, and he just smiles and shakes his head at her. She’s clearly just happy to get away.

Emma appears at the door at that moment. ‘I’m going to Scotland for Christmas,’ Victoria announces and Emma smiles.

‘I do think a holiday is in order, ma’am,’ Emma says, and she grins, turning to him. He raises his hands in defeat.

‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ he says jokingly.

 

***

 

She thinks her mother needs lessons on hiding her displeasure. She’s never been good at it.

‘I see your Lord Melbourne has returned,’ she says as she walks in for breakfast.

‘Last week, Mama,’ Victoria replies calmly. She knows that her mother knows this; she’s just baiting her. Breathe. Don’t overreact. Don’t give it away.

‘I thought he had resigned.’

‘He did. But I convinced him that it was unnecessary.’

‘So chivalrous, to fall on his sword like that,’ her mother comments, and she frowns. ‘No wonder you didn’t want to let him leave.’

‘I didn't want him to leave because he is a good Private Secretary, and a good friend,’ she says, proud of how even her voice is.

Her mother frowns at her. ‘You rely on him too much, Drina,’ she chastises. ‘You need to learn to stand on your own two feet.’

And oh, if her mother knew everything, what she’d done these past weeks, how she’d had to fight for him on her own with only some help from Emma, she wouldn’t say such things – talk such rubbish.

But she felt it, that queasiness that came with fear. Maybe her mother was right. Even just a little. But she also knew all her mother wanted was for Sir John to be her Private Secretary and for Lord M to be gone, and she was not going to let that happen.

‘I am, Mama. And you’re the only one who cannot see that,’ she bites out.

‘Drina, there is no need to get so angry. I only worry. Lord Melbourne will not be your Private Secretary forever. He will want to move on, do something new eventually, and you will have a husband soon enough who will be able to take on some of his duties and help you be Queen.’

She blinks at her mother.

Husband.

She swallows, forcing her food down her throat as the darkness of the past that dictated the future suddenly takes over her mind. A husband. Marriage. Forever bonded to another, someone who would clip her wings and chain her to the ground, lock her in her gilded cage for the rest of her life.

No. She was not entertaining that thought now. She was not interested in getting married just yet, despite all her mother’s prodding and poking. She had too much else to do, too much to see and experience and she couldn’t get married. Not yet.

She wants to live first.

But his words come back to her, and she knows she shouldn’t fight. She has to keep calm.

‘Yes, Mama,’ is all she says in reply.

 

Chapter Text

Week of Monday 13 June

 

She really had done absolutely nothing in that final week he’d been away, and despite trying to catch up on the Sunday afternoon before he officially returned, she’d really not made much headway.

So when they’d finally found it all and sorted it all out, she had ended up with quite a stack of yellow manila folders – not to mention the dark red boxes that had been full to overflowing. She’d worked on them solidly all week – between all the engagements she’d had in her calendar and everything extra Harriet had been organising, refusing to let him reduce the number of letters she would respond to on the basis that her people shouldn’t pay for Sir John’s cruelty and ambition – but she still had quite a bit left to catch up on.

He finds her that morning on the floor with a pile in front of her where she’s clearly camped out in an attempt to sort out some more of it. As they both look at the pile, and then at the folders in his hands, she lets out a huff before eyeing him. ‘I blame you,’ she says in mock-accusation, and he raises his eyebrows.

‘Oh really?’

‘Yes,’ she says, before shaking her head as she lifts one of the folders with one of the pieces of legislation she’d snubbed for a week. ‘Actually, I blame the Duke,’ she decides, before hefting one of the thick documents from the pile on her floor into her lap.

‘I’m sure he’d consider it payback, ma’am,’ he jokes, and she snorts a laugh.

It’s hours – and two coffees later – and they’re still sorting through the piles of paperwork, organising her calendar and signing documents when she holds up a piece of paper.

‘Oh, I wanted to ask you about this,’ she says. ‘The Earl thought it might be a nice idea, but he thought I should talk to you about it,’ she explains as she hands him the letter. He’s grateful to the Earl; the job of Lord Chamberlain isn’t easy at the best of times, but the last months must have been really been quite a challenge on multiple levels.

It takes him a few moments to process the words on the page, and he lets out a huff of a laugh. She’s grinning a little hesitantly at him, and he shakes his head in amusement.

Vanity Fair. Well, I suppose the most recently published photos of you aren’t quite as official as we’d like, ma’am,’ he says.

‘That’s what the Earl said,’ she says happily.

He thinks a photo shoot will be a good and a bad thing; she’ll be more relaxed, less anxious than she otherwise would be with the distraction. This would give them a chance to control the narrative a little more, to put something out there to change the image that had been presented in the past months. But then there’s always the risk that she’ll speak her mind, and as much as she’s grown and changed, he’s still a little wary. He doesn’t like that he cannot control this, especially not after everything that’s happened in the past months.

He knows she’s learned her lesson, after everything with him and the Duke, but he’s more worried about what she’ll say inadvertently, the discussions on topics she won’t even see as an issue. Like him. She’s just so…honest. For all that she's learning to hide it, she still wears her heart on her sleeve, his beautiful Queen.

So when he tells her a few days later it’s all organised and the date is provisionally set for the first week in July, she smiles happily at him before her smile drops slightly. ‘I’ve never done a photo shoot or an interview before,’ she says a little uneasily, and he nods.

‘Yes, your first interview, ma’am,’ he replies as lightly as he can, but it doesn’t do much to soothe the little furrow in her brow. The ghosts of her failures haunt her eyes, and he’s keen to see them removed. ‘I have the list of possible questions and topics for discussion. You’ll prune it and then rehearse some answers with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and you will be fine, ma’am,’ he tells her.

She purses her lips a little, before letting out a small breath. ‘Okay.’

 

***

 

When she arrives a few minutes later than usual at her office the next morning, yawning, he’s confused.  ‘I see this will be put to good use, ma’am,’ he teases as she reaches for her coffee.

‘I was up late finishing the first Harry Potter book,’ she explains, her tired eyes wide and bright. ‘Harriet was right – they’re so good.’

He smiles at her enthusiasm. ‘I’m glad you’re enjoying them, ma’am, he says, amused.

‘They’re brilliant. The owl – Hedwig – and the train and Hogwarts! And He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named hiding in the turban. And Hermione is brilliant. I couldn’t put it down.’

‘I can see that,’ he chuckles as she yawns again, blushing.

But then she’s looking at him, and her face falls and she bites her lip and he’s confused. ‘I’m sorry, Lord M. I don’t have to talk about them if it makes you sad,’ she says in a rush, her face contorting a little with worry and sadness, and he blinks at her before he realises what she’s saying.

Augustus.

Oh.

He shakes his head and smiles. ‘It’s okay,’ he says gently. ‘If I never thought of anything that reminded me of Augustus, I’d never actually think of anything,’ he says, and she’s still frowning a little, but she nods anyway. ‘Book number two tonight?’ he asks, and she blushes again.

‘I’m almost halfway through book two,’ she admits after a moment, and he laughs.

 

***

 

‘I was wondering,’ she says tentatively when he arrives to collect her paperwork later that day, ‘if maybe you’d like to read them with me,’ she says a little breathlessly, and he thinks she’s studying his face for his reaction.

‘Read what, ma’am?’ he frowns.

‘The Harry Potter series,’ she says. ‘I thought it might help make things better,’ she says nervously, dancing on her toes a little. ‘You don’t have to; I understand if you just want it to be a memory, but I thought that maybe it might make you feel better – to make a happier memory because it really is everywhere and I thought that if you didn’t always think immediately of Augustus when you saw Harry Potter things, it would help make everything not so…grey,’ she says in a rush before stopping, and he blinks at her, frowning slightly. There’s something else in her words, something more…

It’s almost like colour returned to the world.

Oh.

He’s aware that he’s always been transparent with those who know him well; Emma, Emily, even Fredrick. But he hadn’t realised that she had now joined that list, in some measure, his little Queen. Of all the things that trigger the avalanche of pain, these books were not particularly high on the list at all, but she knew at least that anything with Augustus meant anguish on some level. His heart softens at her compassion; her consideration for something he knew she couldn’t possibly understand, but was so desperately trying to.

‘Lord M?’ she asks after a moment, and he realises he’s been silently staring at her for too long. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,’ she says, dropping his gaze.

‘I’d like to, ma'am,’ he says, and her eyes shoot back up to his. He takes a breath, leaning against the edge of her desk, pausing, contemplating how to explain this to her. ‘It will always hurt, losing him. I cannot think of a worse pain a person could experience,’ he starts, and he believes it. Even Caro’s death hadn’t hurt quite as much as holding his little boy as he took his last breaths; or perhaps it was just a different kind of pain. ‘There are some things that I think will always bring that pain back. But not everything. Gus loved books – he was a voracious reader. There are so many books we read together, and whilst he did love Harry Potter…’ He trails off, looking across at her. ‘I think I would enjoy reading them with you,’ he says, and she nods, her eyes wide, and he thinks a little glassy.

‘I’m just not entirely certain about one thing,’ he adds, and her head tilts slightly in query. ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do a book a night,’ he admits, and she lets out what he thinks is a half-amused, half-embarrassed chuckle. ‘You forget my age, ma’am. Us old folk need our sleep.’

She batts at his arm playfully, rolling her eyes, and he nods emphatically in jest. ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do a book a night,’ she admits, her hand covering a perfectly-timed yawn. ‘A book a week?’

‘A week, ma’am? Have you seen the size of those later books?’

‘True. A book a month, maybe? That will give you time to catch up on the first and second ones.’

He agrees and she smiles triumphantly, and it’s not going to be easy, he thinks – nothing about that part of his life would ever be easy or simple – but maybe, just maybe she’s right.

And even if she’s not, even if it just hurts, he thinks that perhaps that will be good, too. He’s been so afraid of that pain that swallows him whole when he lets it, and even when he doesn’t. Maybe this little part of his shared life with his son doesn’t need to be owned by the darkness that the pain of loss brings, that darkness that lives constantly on the edges of his world now, in the periphery, partly banished by the brightness of the woman he now served. Maybe, just maybe, it will remind him in some tiny way of some of the beauty and goodness his little boy had brought to his life.

He thinks that maybe it’ll make this year just a little more bearable.

He’s managed to avoid thinking about it too much, too busy catching up on everything and simply enjoying being back with her, but time stops for no one, least of all him. But the pull of the darkness doesn’t seem quite so strong this year, somehow.

He’s still sure to check her calendar to make sure his absence for that day is there.

 

It hits him like a freight train, much later in his office when it’s quiet and his mind works through his subconscious without his permission – the realisation, just what she’s trying to do, has been trying since probably not long after he left. He’d always assumed she’d fought for him because she wanted him back; that she was simply being stubborn and a little petulant and determined to get her own way. He is one of her allies, and her friend; he knows how much she relies on him, and for so much. She was not willing to give him up, her Lord M, to go back to the darkness of her time before her freedom. He’d always assumed without ever really giving it any thought at all that it was all about her.

He’d never thought… In her own way, she was trying to rescue him too.

And he’s back in the little pavilion on that cold afternoon with her fists grabbing at his jacket, her tears wetting his shirt, her wide, red-rimmed eyes watching him, hanging off his every word, as he’d explained how she’d managed to drag him out of the darkness and into the light again.

Oh, and what a bright, warm light she was, his beautiful Queen, and he will never, ever understand why she chose to shine it on him.

 

Chapter Text

Friday 17 June

 

She lets out a sigh as she stands in front of the almost intimidatingly-large but now familiar doors of the ballroom, Lord M by her side.

It’s been a year. It had been her first major event, the Diplomatic Corps Dinner, and she’d been terrified. It had been all she could do not to be sick on the walk down; the only thing keeping her going was his strength as she’d gripped his arm all the way from her rooms to the ornate doors, knowing that she would not be left to flounder on her own.

Now, she just feels a generalised sort of anxiety; the kind she feels when she knows she’s most definitely the dumbest person in the room.

‘Ready, ma’am?’ he asks softly from her side, and she turns her head and looks at him.

‘Do you remember?’ she asks, and his face curls into a little smile.

‘I remember praying you wouldn’t hyperventilate,’ he jokes after a moment, and she lets out a huff of laughter. ‘I remember thinking you looked like a Queen,’ he says, his voice a little more serious, and she looks up at him again, her heart swelling with affection.

‘I remember thinking I couldn’t do it without you,’ she says, and he drops her gaze.

‘That’s not true, ma’am,’ he replies, shaking his head, and she lets out a huff. How could he think that? She was only standing here today because of him. Emma, and Harriet, and Wellington, yes, but mostly him.

‘I think you’re looking at the past with rose-coloured glasses, Lord M.’

He smiles a little at that. ‘Perhaps,’ he says. ‘I remember the Canadian Prime Minister,’ he says after a moment, and she can feel her face turning red.

‘Oh, don’t remind me,’ she groans, and he’s chuckling beside her. ‘I will not make that mistake again.’

‘I have no doubt, ma’am,’ he laughs.

‘I’m glad you’re back, Lord M,’ she says, and she truly means it. She’s nowhere near as worried as last time; she knows what to expect now, knows what to say and how to say it. She’s had so much practice now – learned and applied all the tricks he’s taught her – that they’re almost second nature. But she couldn’t do this without him, her Lord M. He was meant to be here, by her side, with her through everything. She can’t face the world without his strength, his eyes that follow her and keep her warm and safe.

He smiles, that sweet little shy smile that appears when she says something nice about him. She loves that little smile; it makes her feel so warm inside.

‘Me too, ma’am.’

 

***

 

It’s everything and nothing like a year ago. She’s as regal, as elegant as she was the last time, resplendent in a sea-green dress, heels and beautiful gold tiara, the order of the garter sash again matching perfectly and her hair in curls against her neck.

She’s beautifully charming as she smiles and laughs and entertains little pockets of her fifteen hundred guests happily. But there’s a calmness to her, a confidence and sophistication that hadn’t been there a year ago, and he struggles not watch her the entire evening.

He needs to be more careful this year. He’s been back all of a fortnight, and they did not need to add fuel to a fire he knows could be rekindled at any moment with very little evidence. He knows how his gaze turns when he looks at her for too long.

‘Well, this is far easier than last year,’ Wellington says as he takes up residence next to him, both sets of eyes on the Queen who was laughing and smiling with the Italian Ambassador and his wife.

‘Yes,’ Melbourne replies emphatically. ‘Much.’

‘Just imagine how fun this would have been if you’d decided to remain departed.’

Melbourne resists the urge to roll his eyes. ‘She would have been fine. She would have just relied on you more,’ he shoots back.

Wellington just snorts scornfully. ‘How goes things with Conroy?’

He lets out a sigh. ‘It’s proving a challenge,’ he says. ‘Any suggestions?’

‘A diplomatic posting in Syria?’

Melbourne almost snorts. ‘Perfect.’ He pauses. ‘I assume all went well this afternoon?’

Wellington nods. ‘Oh yes. She was very apologetic, very genuine. Again. Do you think we could not hit the trifecta of apologies? Two in one year is more than enough.’

He eyes at the older man; he thinks perhaps his party – or his wife – is giving him grief over something because whilst the Duke rarely beats around the bush, he’s not usually quite this acerbic. He’s on fire tonight, and Melbourne is clearly the target. He supposes Wellington thinks he deserves it, and he agrees – at least a little.

‘I am sure the Queen shares your sentiment.’

Wellington lets out a huff. ‘Yes, I’m sure she does. She was rather adamant about certain points,’ he says, and Melbourne closes his eyes for a moment. ‘I think I managed to convince her that I, too, consider you almost as perfectly noble as she seems to think you are.’

‘You know I had nothing to do with that,’ he grinds out. ‘She only told me later. Harriet Sutherland let it slip – how on earth she knows, I don’t know,’ he says, looking at Wellington who frowns. ‘If I’d known she was…’ he trails off, shaking his head a little and rubbing at his temple.

‘Yes,’ Wellington says on a sigh. ‘Strangely enough, I believe you.’

Melbourne lets out a sigh. His concern for Wellington’s opinion of him rests solely in keeping their awkward three-way relationship with the Queen at least mostly stable.

‘I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it is,’ Wellington says slowly after a long moment, and Melbourne glances at him. ‘She seems to engender that kind of reaction in everyone she meets. Even Greville now thinks she’s delightful,’ he mutters.

Melbourne lets out a huff of a laugh before he can stop himself. ‘Yes,’ he agrees.

‘Just do me one favour,’ Wellington says, his tone just a little harsher, and Melbourne looks at him. ‘Give me fair warning before you choose to announce anything, Lord M,’ he says, and Melbourne blinks. ‘Better yet – wait until I’m retired,’ he adds before turning and walking off.

 

***

 

Wellington’s words ring in his ears.

Surely, he didn’t think…surely…

Wellington has had a bird’s eye view into their relationship for far too long, and Melbourne knows she’s more than happy to make it clear to everyone just how important he is to her, and she to him. But to think…

He shakes his head. He’s overreacting, he thinks. Wellington is just irritated at being pulled into the mess in the first place, and he’s getting his own back, poking Melbourne where he knows it will hurt, given the rather specific fun of the past month. He was good at that.

Maybe the Prime Minister had been right; he’d gone soft in his time with his Queen and away from the chaos and backstabbing of politics. He couldn’t take a hit anymore.

‘Is it that obvious?’ he asks Emma a little later, when they’re both standing to the side, and she looks up at him inquiringly. He just looks over at the Queen, and he hears Emma let out a small sigh.

‘To me? Yes,’ she admits. ‘But I’ve known you forever, and I see the two of you every day,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think anyone else really sees enough to make that kind of judgement. Or even really entertains the possibility.’

‘Emily.’ She just tilts her head at him knowingly, eyebrow raised, and he nods, acknowledging her point. Emily has always known him too well, and has always loved stirring up trouble. ‘Wellington,’ he adds, and Emma rolls her eyes.

‘Wellington is just cranky she called him out and he’s taking it out on you,’ Emma says bitterly. ‘He deserved it.’ He purses his lips. ‘Relax, William. It’s nothing. Besides, no one with half a brain cell really believes what they print in the papers.’

No, he thinks. Especially not when it’s so close to the truth.

 

***

 

‘You should know I have invited the Queen to dine at our house,’ Emily says, and he frowns at her. He’d seen them talking but had resisted the urge to join them; it would only end badly for him, and really, Emily was the wife of the Shadow Foreign Secretary and a Viscountess in her own right, and they’d already met once. It was perfectly normal that they would talk. He just doesn’t really want to know what they’re talking about.

‘Why?’

‘Don’t worry, you’re invited too,’ she says placatingly, and he would glare at her if he thought it would actually do anything. ‘She asked about the kids,’ she explains. ‘I couldn’t not say something, especially after we spoke about meetings in general terms last year.’

Yes, you could, he thinks. ‘Excellent.’

‘What? You’re not the one who’ll be entertaining royalty in your home,’ she says dryly, and he shakes his head at her.

‘You make your own bed,’ he retorts, and she lets out a huff.

‘She does seem…older this year,’ she says a little more seriously, and he nods. ‘I don’t think you were the only one who didn’t cope particularly well with your holiday.’

He lets out a sigh. ‘It’s been a long year.’

‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘But some things don’t change, Lord M,’ she says quietly, looking up at him not a little concernedly, and he thinks that things are getting just a little bit out of hand again.

 

***

 

‘I did it! Again!’ she cries jubilantly, spinning around in circles ahead of him, her arms in the air, as they walk down the corridor and away from the ballroom, and he can’t help but smile as the memories of a jubilant Queen Victoria dancing down the very same hallway a year ago flood his mind.

She had been beautiful again tonight, his little Queen. She was beautiful, in her dress and with her smile, all grace and elegance and dignity – more so now that she had grown. She’s worked so hard and for so long, and it’s all starting to pay off.

‘Yes. Well done, ma’am,’ he says, and she grins at him before letting out a sigh.

‘It was easier this year,’ she says.

‘I should think so, ma’am,’ he replies dryly, and she shoots him an amused look.

They reach the corridor that leads to his office and he slows, and she turns to look at him, confused. ‘Where are you going?’

He knows what she will say, but he thinks it’s not a good idea, not tonight. Not after everything; all of Wellington’s jibes, Emily’s knowing looks. ‘My office?’ he replies after a moment, pointing down the hall, and she frowns at him and shakes her head. 

‘You have to stay, Lord M. It’s tradition, now,’ she tells him, and he thinks her voice sounds almost a little hurt.

‘Is it?’ he half-laughs, and she nods firmly. Once does not make tradition, he thinks, but he’ll play along.

‘Yes,’ she confirms, and he nods his head once.

‘Far be it from me to mess with tradition, ma’am,’ he says. ‘But I do remember another part of this tradition,’ he adds, before turning and heading back to where the champagne was still set up. The grin she gives him when he returns makes it worth it, he thinks.

Emma was right. He would enjoy these quiet moments, away from the prying eyes of those who would tear them down, who would take their friendship and twist it into something unrecognisable. She had won tonight, again, his beautiful Queen, and he would celebrate with her.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 18 June

 

She sees her mother coming out of the corner of her eye and she feels her heart beat just a little faster in her chest.

She’d managed to avoid her almost entirely for so long, save for once – to arrive at breakfast just as she was leaving, or to leave after only a few mouthfuls and surviving the morning on coffee. But she knows that walk; her mother is on a mission. It’s too late to get up and leave; Mama has already seen her and it would be too obvious. She would have to see what she wanted.

She takes a deep breath before letting it out and reminding herself of his words. Patience.

She still didn’t have a solution, and he hadn’t said anything either. But she would wait, keep her eyes open and her mind alert. He knew how to do these things, and he would teach her.

‘I am so offended, Drina,’ her mother huffs, almost throwing herself down on the chair opposite, and Victoria blinks.

‘What’s wrong, Mama?’

Her mother turns her furious gaze on her. ‘The impertinence of that man, insisting that Sir John sign that contract again,’ she says, and Victoria is now well and truly lost.

‘What contract?’

‘The one about the conditions for being a part of the household. The one that tells everyone what they can say and cannot say and where they can go and who they have to report to. It’s insulting, Drina.’

Oh. That contract. ‘Oh Mama, it’s just a formality. Mr Harper insisted that we review the contracts after all that rubbish in the papers, and all the staff have to re-sign because they made some changes,’ she replies.

‘I wasn’t aware your lawyers were so interested in protecting your Lord Melbourne,’ her mother practically hisses, and Victoria sees red.

‘They’re interested in protecting me!’ she cries, before catching herself. Patience.

‘And is Sir John your enemy?’ her mother replies, and Victoria clamps her mouth shut, and her mother continues. ‘I simply do not understand why Sir John is expected to sign such a ridiculous contract when it is clear he is a devoted and dependable member of my household. How dare they doubt his discretion and loyalty in asking him to sign such an agreement? It is an insult to all his years of devotion to us!’

She feels the rage build within her and the voices in her head are screaming and she can’t do this. She can’t. She has to get out or she’ll say something - scream something - and she can’t do that. She has to be patient. She won’t ruin this. She has to wait, to hold it all in for now.

She stands and takes a breath, forcing herself to be calm.

‘Sir John, like everyone, including Lord M, signed that contract when they started working here at the palace, Mama. It’s important, and I’m not going to change it.’ And oh, this is her chance, she thinks. This could be the thing that makes him go. ‘Sir John must sign the contract like everyone else if he wishes to remain a member of your household.’

And she spins on her heel and walks out before she can say anything else.

 

***

 

Monday 20 June

 

‘You’d be so proud of me, Lord M,’ she says dryly. ‘Mama was so angry.’

‘Oh?’ he says, rubbing at his eyes. Sleep was once again becoming optional; he’d spent most of the night staring at the ceiling, dozing in and out of nightmares.

‘Sir John is insulted by the new contracts. Mama doesn’t think he should have to sign one. He’s been such a loyal and devoted member of her household for so long and how dare they ask him to sign such an agreement?’ she half-mocks, and he lets out a huff of amusement at her imperious voice. ‘But I said he had to sign it again if he wanted to work here at the Palace,’ she says smugly.

And suddenly his mind is blank and spinning all at once. ‘Contract, ma’am?’

She frowns. ‘The one that Mr Harper insisted I update after everything. I assume you’ve signed yours?’ she teases.

‘Yes, of course,’ he replies quickly, staring at her. ‘Why is Sir John signing one?’

‘Because he works here at the palace,’ she says slowly, and he really is confused. Surely… ‘Lord M, I don’t understand,’ she says eventually, interrupting his thoughts.

‘Sir John isn’t part of your household, ma’am, so he shouldn’t have to sign that contract. The Duchess would have her own,’ he explains. ‘Mr Harper would know that.’

‘Oh, my Uncle changed all that before he died,’ she replies. ‘Mr Harper reminded me when he was here the other day. Any household that is based in any of the Queen’s properties is bound by the same contract that governs the Queen’s household, even if the household is entirely separate,’ she says, almost as if she’s memorised it, and he blinks as it sinks in. ‘He signed the stupid contract when I became Queen. I don’t know why he’s kicking up such a fuss again now,’ she grumbles.

He can’t believe it. It’s that simple. His respect for the old King has just increased a hundred – a thousand – percent. He knew the old King had loved his niece, he knew there had been rifts – the King had made no secret of his contempt for his sister-in-law – but to do this was brilliant. Never did he think it would be this easy.

‘Got him,’ he whispers, his eyes wide. Got him.

‘Lord M?’ He can hear the confusion and concern in her voice, but he can’t stop the smile spreading across his face as he focuses back on her.

‘He signed it when you became Queen.’

She shakes her head, clearly confused and frowning more deeply at him now.  

‘The contract that your household staff are required to sign makes provisions for staff sharing information publicly, including leaking anything to the press. It’s part of the confidentiality clause, which is what Mr Harper was reviewing – he’s essentially not allowed to say anything about you or the inner workings of the palace in any public space. Sir John has broken that,’ he says, and this is where it gets tricky, he thinks. ‘If you had evidence, you could sue him for breach of contract.’

And her eyes widen. ‘And then Mama would have to fire him,’ she breathes, and he purses his lips. ‘Technically not, but it would look terrible if she didn’t.’ She frowns, thinking, and he can see she’s as doubtful as he is of her mother’s desire to get rid of her advisor, even in the face of such a scandal.

But oh, this could be it. His heart is racing in his chest, and he forces it to calm. It would be unkind to get her hopes up. ‘And at this stage, we don’t have any real evidence, ma’am,’ he says as seriously as he can. ‘But perhaps you won’t need it.’ He sits back in his chair. It could work. It would have to work, he thinks. But they’d have to get her lawyers involved. He cringes slightly; Harper had already informed them that he’d be away for several weeks for surgery, and he’s not sure she should trust anyone junior with this. They would just have to wait. ‘Ma’am, can I suggest you make another appointment with Mr Harper for when he returns?’

 

Chapter Text

Monday 20 June

 

‘Good morning, sister,’ he says into his phone.

‘You’re cheery,’ Emily replies dryly, and he sighs.

‘I’m busy.’

‘Catching up on all that paperwork you abandoned on your holiday?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Would now be an appropriate time to issue the Queen that formal invitation to a dinner party at our house, or should I wait a few more years?’

He blinks. ‘I’ve been back for all of five minutes, Em.’

‘It’s been a fortnight, William, and you can’t tell me you need time to settle in.’

He sighs. ‘Who else will be invited?’

‘You.’

‘And?’

‘…Henry?’

She can’t be serious. ‘Just the four of us?’

‘And the kids.’

‘Emily,’ he warns.

‘Fine. I’ll invite Emma and Edward, and George and Harriet Sutherland. And I’ll even invite Anna Scott, if you like. I hear she’s become one of her new Ladies – I’m so interested to hear that story.’ And there was no way in hell that story was ever leaving his lips – or Emma’s, if he could get to her in time. He’s almost surprised that Emily doesn’t already know all about it, but then Emma could be the most discreet of people when needed. And he’s glad she appears to have considered this important enough to keep quiet – for now. 

‘You’re feeling generous today,’ he says instead.

‘Well, you did promise the Queen that she could meet your niece and nephews quite a long time ago, and I’d hate for you to break a promise. Besides, she seems fun.’

He rolls his eyes. ‘How magnanimous of you.’

‘I know. I do what I can.’

He knows his sister too well; this invitation can only mean trouble, and trouble for him, and he thinks he’s had enough trouble for a lifetime. ‘Fine,’ he eventually says. ‘Send your invitation.’

‘I already have,’ she says smugly, and he sighs.

 

***

 

She gets so many requests to be patron of so many different charities – all of them worthwhile causes – and he knows it hurts that she can’t say yes to them all.

It’s the children’s charities he knows that sting the most. Ever since the terrorist attack in York, she’s been determined to say yes to everything she possibly can that involves children. He thinks perhaps she’s also making up for her own childhood, exorcising her own demons just a little. But if this is how she works it through, throws those chains off her back, then he’s more than willing to do whatever he can to support that. He also tries not to have too much input in this; these are decisions that will affect her long after he’s gone, and it’s important that she chooses what she wants, not what others want for her.

He gives her them in bunches periodically; all of the reasonable ones, and she sorts through them with varying degrees of frustration and interest – there are only so many hours in the day, so many things she can attend, and she knows she cannot overcommit herself. Once she’s committed to something, she’s likely in it for life, so she has to choose wisely. There are so many factors for her to consider on top of her own personal considerations; the size of the charity, any other patrons they may have, whether they receive government funding or are solely reliant on donations. He knows she finds it overwhelming, so one of his deputies is tasked with working with the Lord Chamberlain’s office to do up a mini-fact sheet with links to the relevant websites for each of the charities to help her decide. It often takes her a long time to decide; weeks, sometimes, and he doesn’t press, just making a note on his list of things to do to ask her for them after a fortnight or so.

But there seem to be more children’s charities than usual in this bundle, he thinks, and so when she hasn’t returned them all to him after the three weeks he’d tentatively allowed her this time, he asks. Her huff of frustration, the way she picks up half the bundle and skims them and throws her hands in the air in surrender, confirms his suspicions – she can’t decide.

‘There are so many, Lord M. And they’re all such wonderful charities,’ she groans, and he nods.

‘Yes, ma’am. But you really can’t help them all,’ he points out, and she sighs.

‘I know,’ she says, absent-mindedly pushing her fingers into her hair above her temple. ‘I hate that there seems to be a need for so many,’ she says quietly.

‘Childhood should be happy time,’ he agrees. ‘But at least when it’s not, there are people to turn to.’ She nods, and he can see she’s not there with him at all; he wonders where she’s gone. ‘Shall I give you some more time to think about it, ma’am?’ he asks gently after a few seconds, and she lets out a long sigh.

‘Please.’

 

***

 

 

He loves Emma Portman. He really does. She’s been there for him through everything; through Caro, through Augustus, through the years of stupidity and politics and tragedy. He wouldn’t give up her friendship for the world.

But there are times when he thinks she’s bored. How, as a wife and mother and Personal Assistant to the Queen of England, she is bored, he’ll never know, but the way she stirs the pot tells him she’s clearly not got enough to worry about. That, or she really just enjoys making his life difficult. She has a bird’s eye view now; she enjoys watching him pick up the pieces of the messes she creates. Maybe it was some kind of payback for picking him up so many times.

It’s late, and they’re standing on the balcony down near her rooms. Harriet has been away for a week on some show, and when she invites him to stay for dinner on one of the few nights she has free, he doesn’t have the heart to say no. He thinks she’s just a little lonely; she had invited Emma to stay for dinner a few nights ago, and he thinks perhaps that Anna Scott is still a little too new for one-on-one time.

He’s also more than happy to keep her distracted on the nights she’s at the palace.

‘Oh, I was talking to Emma this afternoon,’ she says suddenly, her face an excited kind of hopeful, and he automatically plasters a calm look on his face.

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘All the people who have held the post of Lord Chamberlain in the history of the English monarchy have been men,’ she starts, and he blinks.

‘Yes, that’s why the role was titled the Lord Chamberlain, ma’am,’ he half-jokes, and she lets out a little huff.

He knows what she’s going to ask. They’re just managing to seemingly strike a more comfortable balance with the media and the public after the months of rubbish, and he’s loathed to put that in jeopardy. The aristocracy – the old men who still claimed their birthright as some higher calling, some noble existence – would unlikely take this lying down. It would alienate her further with them, but also ingratiate her with some of the younger public, he thinks. But it would likely make the news, again, make her decisions the topic of debate, again, and he’s not so keen to see that. He doesn’t like change for the sake of change; it only brings prying eyes and comments and criticism, and really, if it isn’t broken, then don’t try to fix it.

But maybe there’s more to this than he thinks. She definitely does things with little thought – acts on a whim more regularly than he enjoys – but her decisions have been a little more considered of late. She’s far more aware in a practical way of the importance of her more public decisions now, and experience has tempered her just a little.

‘I’d like to appoint a woman,’ she announces, her chin tilted up just slightly in that now so-familiar gesture of confidence and just a little defiance.

He purses his lips thoughtfully before shrugging and making a thoughtful noise. ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She narrows her eyes at his lack of objection. ‘I can’t see why not, ma’am,’ he adds. ‘I’ll have to check that there isn’t some obscure law that dictates that the position must be held by a man – but I would be surprised if there was.’ She gives him a questioning look. ‘I imagine that when the role was created some time in the Middle Ages it was not conceived that a woman would ever hold the role, but you never know.’

She tilts her head in acknowledgement. ‘Probably not,’ she agrees.

‘It will be vaguely controversial, ma’am,’ he says seriously. ‘You would be breaking literally centuries of tradition. The traditionalists will cry about tradition, and those more progressive will applaud you for bringing the monarchy into the twenty-first century.’ And he knows she hates this, having to think about every decision from more angles than seems entirely fair. ‘There will likely be some discussion in the press about it, especially given how popular the royal household has been of late,’ he says, raising his eyebrows, and he sees her face fall, and he knows where her mind has gone, but it would be remiss of him not to warn her. ‘You could chat to Press and PR if you’d like, ma’am, but I don’t think it will be a problem,’ he adds, and she nods.

‘Thank you,’ she says, nodding, and he wonders a little that Emma didn’t warn her of this. It’s all a little too fresh and raw still, he thinks, even though he’d returned a couple of weeks ago now. The revelation about Conroy’s betrayal – her mother’s possible betrayal – is still just a little too painful.

She says nothing for a long while, looking out over the balcony, and he lets her think. He can’t rescue her from everything. She needs time to process, to think through it all.

He knows she’s still avoiding her mother. He wonders if the Duchess has figured out why. He wonders a little cynically if she’s even noticed.

She suddenly sucks in a breath, and he turns to look at her. ‘You said once, ages ago, that I could choose who I belonged to,’ she starts. ‘I think it’s time I started filling my household with the people I want, Lord M,’ she says quietly, her voice strained. ‘I did not choose Sir Robert, and look how well that worked out.’

He thinks perhaps that wasn’t entirely Sir Robert’s fault, but now is probably not the best time for that lesson. Not while he’s desperately trying to keep her off the warpath after the revelation about Conroy, or while she’s still brittle from the past months.

‘You are the only person I chose,’ she says, looking at him, and the weight of the past months hangs there between them, and he feels it in his chest. ‘Everyone else was chosen for me, or I inherited from my uncle.’ He nods; he understands. It’s painful, betrayal. He’s acutely aware of what it does to your senses, making you question everyone and everything, suspicious of those closest to you.

He wonders vaguely if she will turn on him in her anger. She has never really lashed out at him before. Not with any real strength.

He’s so lost in his thoughts that when she speaks, her voice a broken, sad thing, his heart breaks. ‘You’re the only one I trust, Lord M,’ she whispers.

‘Oh, no,’ he replies, pushing himself up from where he was leaning on the balcony and turning to face her. ‘What about Emma? Harriet?’

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ she says almost a little tearfully, and he resists the urge reach out and hug her.

‘And I hear only good things about Nancy,’ he adds, and she smiles a little. ‘It is important that you trust your senior staff, ma’am,’ he agrees. ‘But I think it’s good to have diversity also,’ he says carefully. ‘It’s good to hear opposing opinions sometimes.’

She nods. ‘I don’t like hearing opposing opinions much,’ she says, and he can’t completely hold in the bark of laughter. She looks at him, frowning slightly, and he narrows his eyes at her mock-questioningly. It takes a moment for her to crack, and she huffs a laugh.

‘I think, ma’am, I can confidently give that understatement of the year,’ he says carefully, eyeing her, and she huffs another reluctant laugh, and he’s pleased to have made her smile. ‘Did you have someone in mind, ma’am?’ he asks, knowing the answer already.

Her face breaks into a determined but more hopeful smile. ‘Yes.’

He nods slowly, and he’s just about to ask, when she speaks again. ‘I’m really glad you’re back, Lord M.’ Her smile has dropped into something smaller, slightly less certain, and it’s these moments that show him just how wounded she had been by the previous weeks, and he curses himself. For all her newfound strength, she was still learning how to paper over those deeper wounds. ‘So am I, ma’am,’ he replies, a small smile on his own face.

When he’s walking out to his car, it strikes him that she’d not really asked him. She was going to do it anyway, he thinks, unless perhaps he’d really been very vehement in his protests against the idea. A year ago she would have turned her wide, blue eyes on him, vaguely terrified, desperate for his approval and support. Now? Well, now, she was she was getting stronger, more independent, his little Queen. Slowly, but surely. It wasn’t without cracks - he saw them regularly - but she was light-years away from the girl-Queen in Kensington. She was learning to trust her own heart, her own voice, and his own heart swells a little; he’s so proud of her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday 21 June

 

‘You look like you should have ordered a slightly bigger coffee this morning,’ she says, and he smiles ruefully at her but it doesn’t reach his eyes, and she’s now officially worried about him.

She can see it, the way he’s been fading over the last week: the shadows beneath his eyes have grown more pronounced, his skin is pale and taut, and he seems sad and tense at the same time, and she doesn’t understand at all.

He’s back now, and he’d seemed so happy to be back, laughing and joking with her, and things had fallen mostly back into their same easy pattern, and she’d felt content again. It wasn’t exactly the same as before – she supposes it won’t be, after everything – she knows he can see how hard she’s trying to be better, and he’s helping. There’s a depth there, she’s realised, a depth borne of their shared pain, the way they’d seen a little more into each other – a depth that she secretly treasures. But things had mostly returned the same easy rhythm she’d loved so much about their relationship, and she’s happy.

But the last few days – maybe a week, she thinks – he’s been fading. She’s worried, because no matter how late she stays up worrying, thinking, cataloguing every moment she can remember, every discussion they’ve had, she cannot, cannot think why.

Something has held her back these few days, but she’s now on the verge of asking him what on earth is wrong. He had been so happy to be back only days ago – she knows he had been – and now? Well, now he looks…haunted.

She’s looking through her calendar when she sees it, and something triggers in the back of her mind, and she continues scrolling but her mind is elsewhere until it hits her. She closes her eyes, shaking her head at her own stupidity. He’d told her the date only months ago, and she’d forgotten already. What a wonderful friend she was.

But he’s fading, and that’s unacceptable.

 

***

 

‘It’s the anniversary of the Coronation in a couple of weeks,’ she tells Emma, who nods.

‘Yes, ma’am. Andrew has organised the dinner,’ she replies.

‘That means it’s the anniversary of the Coronation Ball in a week,’ she says, and Emma nods.

It’s the anniversary of his son’s death, she wants to say, but the words stick in her throat. She looks at Emma, willing her to understand. ‘Lord M is taking the day off,’ she eventually says, and Emma nods slowly.

‘Yes, ma’am. He has done the same every year, no matter what.’

That night is seared into her memory for so many reasons; the giddiness of freedom and too much champagne, the joy of dancing with him, the look in his eyes when she’d begged him to dance with her again, the look on his face when she’d apologised hours later.

The way he’d been hours late with no real explanation.

But she doesn’t know how to ask; she doesn’t want to pry, but she worries.

‘What…what does he do?’ she asks quietly, and Emma’s face quirks in a sad smile.

‘I imagine what I’d do if I lost my son, ma’am,’ she says quietly. ‘Drown myself in whiskey until it didn’t hurt anymore.’ She thinks the shock must register on her face because Emma smiles sadly again. ‘It’s been a few years now, ma’am. He’ll be fine. Everyone grieves in their own way.’

She nods dumbly.

Oh, she hates that, she decides after a few minutes. She hates, hates that he’s alone in his grief and pain and there’s no one there to console him and oh, she hates that he’s done this for so long, and how can they do that to him, just leave him there?

But the emotions settle and she breathes, and she thinks that maybe Emma was right. This was his way of grieving.

She still hates it, but she would respect it. She would respect him. But she would not let him think he was alone.

She has to do something, to help in some way, to let him know that she was there for him, thinking of him. But she also has absolutely no idea where the boundaries are. She was his friend, yes, but so was Emma, and she let him drown his sorrows. She wonders briefly what his sister does, or his brother.

She thinks they must let him grieve in his own way too.

‘Is there nothing we can do?’ she asks Emma a little later.

Emma purses her lips. ‘I’m not sure, ma’am. If there is, I haven’t found it yet. Perhaps someone else might.’

 

***

 

She can’t fix this, she knows. She would be foolish to try. But there has to be something she can do, something she can say or do for him to help.

So she looks up dealing with the death of a child and there are just so many contradicting stories and so much contradictory information and so many things that definitely work and definitely don’t that her head spins and she feels more lost than when she started. She thinks if there was an easy solution, he would have already applied it.

She’s halfway through reading some advice from a bereaved parents’ blog when she realises that she doesn’t even know how he died, and oh, she does not want to ask.

She messages Harriet, who, to her credit, doesn’t ask why.

It was a stroke. Very sudden. So sad.

She’s just typing in the words to look up strokes in children when her phone screen lights up again.

It was in the news.

The next message is a link to an old BBC news report, and she reads with increasing horror of the death of the Prime Minister’s son; the pictures of the Ambulances outside his house, the way they’d made the decision to turn off the life support after three days.

The tiny, light wood coffin resting on his shoulder. His own son.

A tear slides down her cheek, and she thinks she understands grief counsellors a little bit more now.

 

***

 

‘Did Lord M ever see a grief counsellor?’ she asks, and Emma blinks, and she flushes red as she realises what she’s asking. Too personal. Stupid. ‘I don’t…I don’t want to know,’ she says haltingly. ‘I just…maybe it would help,’ she says a little helplessly herself, and why does she speak before she thinks? Surely, surely by now she would know better…

‘It might,’ Emma says slowly.

Her shoulders deflate slightly. ‘I don’t think I’d want to talk to anyone for a long time. Maybe ever. Particularly someone I didn’t know.’

‘Yes,’ Emma agrees. ‘But talking to someone whose opinion doesn’t matter to you can also be cathartic. You can be more honest.’

But then a thought hits her. ‘Where was his wife?’ she asks, and Emma’s eyes drop immediately, her face hardening, and oh, she shouldn’t pry. She shouldn’t ask. ‘I’m sorry, Emma. It’s not…it’s none of my business,’ she says.

‘It’s okay – I understand, ma’am,’ Emma says gently, offering her a smile. ‘I asked myself all the same questions ten years ago.’ She lets out a sigh. ‘You’d find it all on the internet, anyway,’ she says, and Victoria thinks she’s telling herself more than anyone. ‘Caro had only just moved back in when Augustus died. She wasn’t well herself. She didn’t cope at all.’

‘Oh,’ she says, and she feels the weight in her chest. He’d been alone for so long.

‘Augustus was her son too, despite everything,’ Emma says, and Victoria feels a sudden stab of compassion for his dead wife. ‘It was a pretty horrible time all around, ma’am,’ Emma says, and she nods.

‘It seems so unfair,’ she mutters. ‘He doesn’t deserve this.’

‘Who does?’ Emma asks more to herself than anything, but she flushes anyway, before nodding.

No one deserves this kind of pain. No one.

 

Chapter Text

Week of Monday 20 June

 

There’s always been this undercurrent, almost since day one, one that he doesn’t think she’d really noticed until it had been thrown in her face after the Coronation Ball, but one he’s been acutely and ceaselessly aware of.

Her future husband.

He’s pushed it to the back of his mind, ignored it as much as possible, and it hasn’t been too hard; he really doesn’t enjoy thinking about it, and she’s not even remotely interested in getting married. He’s not really surprised; she’s been too focused on being Queen and simply getting through everything the previous almost two years had entailed. Too focused on learning about this world she’d barely discovered, learning about who she really was without the constraints of Sir John and her mother. But now things were settling, and he knew it would surface again soon.

With the Earl on leave until his replacement is finalised, she asks him to help her with the questions Vanity Fair had sent through for approval prior to the shoot. He doesn’t bother asking why she doesn’t ask one of the other members of the Lord Chamberlain’s office to assist; whilst he’d spent his life working with – and against – the press, he certainly wasn’t an expert, but he thinks the trauma of Sir Robert was a little fresh in her mind – for all three of them – so he doesn’t resist. Besides, he thinks she’s still a little shy about everything. He’ll make sure whatever they decide makes its way down there for checking anyway.

So they’re sitting outside in the gentle morning sun – it’s been virtually impossible to keep her inside now that she’d caught up on her paperwork – coffees beside them, and they’re working through the list the magazine had sent through a few days earlier.

And it takes about two minutes into the list of topics for discussion for her frown. ‘Why is ‘Prince Consort’ a topic for discussion?’ she asks not a little defensively, and he draws a line through the words.

‘He’s not now,’ he declares, and she looks at him, still a little outraged, and he shrugs. ‘It’s up to you who and what you discuss, ma’am.’ She’ll have to address this one day, but he thinks it’s probably not entirely unreasonable that she requests not to discuss it at this time.

She lets out a huff of annoyance as she stares at him. ‘I don’t even know what I’d say!’

He frowns thoughtfully. ‘Well, I imagine you could say something like you don’t have any plans to marry at this stage, that you are focused on your role as Queen and serving the people in that capacity.’

She stares at him for a moment before frowning and sighing resignedly. ‘Why can’t you just answer the questions for me?’ she mutters and he lets out a bark of a laugh. ‘You’re so much better at this than I am!’

‘That’s because I’ve been doing this for years, ma’am.’ He pauses, waiting for her to look at him. ‘I had to learn how to do this too, ma’am, and I didn’t have a whole team of people there to help me. That’s why we’re crafting your answers together,’ he says, and she seems to settle a little. ‘One day, you won’t even need me.’

‘Don’t say that, Lord M,’ she says quietly, and there’s a pause as she looks up at him with wary eyes, the ghosts returning.

‘I’ll be privileged to work for you for as long as you’ll have me, ma’am. You know that,’ he replies, and she gives him a small smile, which he happily returns. ‘So, shall I return future husband to the list?’ he asks with a small smirk, and she rolls her eyes at him.

‘If you must.’

He looks at her gently. ‘You know why they ask.’

‘Yes,’ she says on a sigh. ‘I just…aren’t I more than who I choose?’ she asks.

‘Of course,’ he says, letting out a sigh. ‘The public want their Queen to marry, to be happy. To them, it’s a love story, ma’am. There’s nothing they love more.’ He tells himself they’re talking in the abstract, something that is not reality, and likely won’t be for a while yet. She’s not shown the slightest interest in any of the young men she’s met. And he knows full well why his heart twists in his chest at the thought.

She would make the most beautiful bride.

And oh, the pain of that thought is enough to make him blink and he stops that train of thought – the thought of her as a wife and mother – firmly before it even gets going.

‘I suppose,’ she says, breaking into his thoughts. ‘But that’s a long way off,’ she says dismissively.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replies as neutrally as he can.

They work through the rest of the topics on the list, and none of them surprise him; they’ve obviously done their research and are sticking to the agenda they’d proposed – the Queen two years into her reign, as part of a series on powerful British women. They’re all around her time at Kensington; her Father’s death; the relevancy of the Monarchy in the modern world; silly, fun little things about her favourite foods and favourite designers and what she feeds Dash, and she’s relatively happy to answer all of them – although she refuses to talk about her mother or Sir John, and he agrees – but it’s when they get to her household, and more specifically Lord Melbourne, that she pauses.

‘They were always going to ask,’ he says, and she looks quite a bit more concerned at the thought than he thought necessary, and he doesn’t like that he’s not too sure why.

‘I suppose,’ she agrees, before pursing her lips. ‘Are they going to want to talk about everything?’ she asks, and he frowns a little.

‘I imagine they’ll likely ask a leading question, and allow you to say what you wish,’ he says. He almost adds and hang yourself with your own noose, but he doesn’t. That’s not really helpful now, and besides, she’s not in politics, he reminds himself. Not everyone was out to get her.  

‘I…I don’t want to say the wrong thing,’ she admits quietly, and the pain of the previous weeks is so clear in her eyes that his heart breaks a little.

‘I don’t think you will, ma’am,’ he says honestly, and he doesn’t. He thinks she could sing his praises and it wouldn’t be anything really new. They’ve been down that road, speculated like crazy about their relationship and it had all come to nothing, in the end. They’ll publish it, for sure, but it’s not going to be the headlines that it had been. He thinks that unless she declares outright her intent to marry him, tells them in no uncertain terms that the rumours of their apparent relationship are true, no one is really going to think too much of anything she says.

He swallows at the thought, pushing it away.

Besides, she’s smarter now, and far more wary than she’s ever been. She’s learned that lesson.

He looks up at her, and her face is thoughtful. ‘You’re my Private Secretary, and you’ve been an invaluable source of guidance and assistance, given my age and inexperience,’ she says slowly. ‘Along with Emma and the Earl and Harriet and the Duke. I can’t do any of it without you,’ she says, her blue eyes on him, serious and determined, and he gives her a small smile, eager to deflect the intensity of her gaze just a little.

‘Sounds good, ma’am,’ he says, smiling to himself and writing down her words.

 

***

 

She’s pacing, she knows, but she can’t seem to bring herself to stop.

‘Ma’am,’ a soft voice calls from behind her, and she stops, turning to look at him. His eyes are their usual soft, gentle green, and she lets out a breath.

‘I’m nervous.’

His eyebrow rises ever so slightly, his mouth tilting upwards just a tiny bit, and she lets out a huff, rolling her eyes at him as she feels the smile spread across her face. He was infuriating and wonderful at the same time, her Lord M. He always seemed to know what was going on in her head and just how to pull her out of it.

Yes, she’d been right. She had chosen well when she’d chosen him as her Private Secretary. Hopefully she would be able to do the same again today. The Lord Chamberlain was such an important position.

Lady Chamberlain, she corrects herself. Hopefully.

Emma appears at the door. ‘Ms Canning is here,’ she says, and Victoria nods. She flicks her head around to where he was now standing next to a chair to the side, and she thinks he looks a little uncomfortable.

I don’t think you need me, ma’am.

Of course I need you there, Lord M.

You know there is no hierarchy here, ma'am. If you choose her, Ms Canning will technically be my equal. I would have no authority over her at all.

She’d almost scoffed. As if she would trust anyone over him.

All the same, I would appreciate your assistance. Besides, you’ll have to work closely with her. It would be good to have your perspective.

He’d eventually conceded with a Fair enough, ma’am.

She hears the soft footfalls and looks up as Charlotte Canning walks into the room and curtseys, and she is really nothing like Victoria is expecting, and she blinks.

But some of the pieces begin to fall into place, and she smiles a little.

‘Your Majesty,’ she says gently, and Victoria likes how her voice is steady. Most people seemed to have a slightly tremble to their voice when they meet her for the first time; she could still remember Lord M pointing it out at her first Garden Party. But Charlotte Canning’s voice is nothing but polite deference, and Victoria stares at her.

‘Ms Canning,’ she says. ‘Thank you for coming.’

‘Thank you for inviting me, ma’am,’ she replies, her face a small smile, and something in Victoria warms slightly. She watches as her eyes flick to where Lord M stands, and he offers his hand.

‘William Lamb,’ he says, as they shake hands.

‘Lord Melbourne,’ she replies, and the way his lips twist ever so slightly throws her a little, but neither of them says anything, and when Charlotte looks at her almost expectantly, she points to the lounge.

‘Please,’ she says, sitting. ‘Emma has spoken to you about why you’re here,’ she starts, and Charlotte nods.

‘Yes, ma’am. I must say it’s an honour to be considered for such an important role,’ she replies, and Victoria thinks she means it, the way her voice sounds a little incredulous.

‘Your resume is rather impressive.’

‘I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve been given, ma’am.’

She nods. ‘I note that you can speak Hindi,’ she says.

‘I was born in India, ma’am,’ Charlotte explains. ‘My father was a British diplomat, my mother a politician’s daughter. We moved to the UK when I was eight.’

‘You appear to have continued the tradition,’ Victoria says, smiling a little, and she's pleased to see Charlotte’s smile in return.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

Victoria studies her for a moment. She thinks it’s best to get this out of the way early; to see if she can handle the pressure. Lord M had told her to start with some small talk, to make her guest feel more comfortable, but she thinks Charlotte Canning isn’t the kind of woman who enjoys small talk for the sake of it.

‘It’s likely that some objections will be raised to your gender,’ she says, watching carefully. ‘The role of the Lord Chamberlain has been since its inception the purview of men.’

‘I’m sure there will be, ma’am. And to my colour. And my background.’ She lets out a small sigh. ‘I am sure it will be nothing different to what I have endured in the past, ma’am. Just a little more public,’ she adds.

‘How do you anticipate handling these objections?’

‘The same way I always have, ma’am. Ignore them, and then silence them with my success.’

She smiles before glancing at Lord M, who gives her a tiny, amused smirk in return.

Perfect.

 

***

 

When the news breaks that the Queen has chosen a woman for her new Lord Chamberlain, and worse, not someone from the aristocracy, it prompts exactly the reaction he’d imagined it would.

‘I really don’t understand why they’re so upset,’ she says, waving the remote at the television, and he snorts.

‘Maybe we should listen, ma’am,’ he suggests, pointing at the television, and she flicks the mute button on a man who is halfway through saying something.

‘—tradition. Political correctness is infecting even the monarchy.’ And of course they’d get Perceval on, he thinks. The man hasn’t had a progressive thought in his sixty years of life. He probably thinks she’s too young to be Queen, he thinks a little uncharitably, but he’s so tired of people tearing her down simply because they can.

‘I’m not sure how a woman doing a job she is eminently qualified for counts as political correctness,’ another panellist argues. ‘Charlotte Canning has been Head of Public Relations for IBM and Burberry and has years of experience in managing the public profile of quite a number of British politicians, including William Grenville and Sir John Moore.’

‘All popular business brands, and a politician hardly equates to a member of the royal family. The Lord Chamberlain requires an understanding of the delicate balance the monarchy strikes with the people—’

‘And you’re saying a woman cannot understand that balance? A woman whose role prior to returning to Britain was as the Ambassador to India’s wife?’ Melbourne’s lips twist at the dangerous note in the woman’s voice.

‘I am saying that someone who has worked with the monarchy in their lifetime should hold the role.’

She turns to him, frowning, and the television goes silent.

‘Ma’am,’ he says carefully, and her shoulders deflate slightly. ‘You know that anything you do will be examined from a hundred different angles,’ he says, and she nods.

‘Do you think I made the right decision?’ she asks, and he raises his eyebrows at her. She can’t always turn to him for this; she has to learn to trust her own decisions. He won’t be around forever.

‘I don’t think you need me to tell you that, ma’am,’ he says gently.

‘You do not mind that her husband is a Tory supporter?’ she asks.

‘It’s not for me to mind, ma’am,’ he says, a little exasperated. ‘This is your decision.’

‘Yes, but I don’t see why I should make it entirely alone,’ she retorts with some strength, and he has to concede her that. She lets out a sigh, before turning and pacing. ‘It’s such an important decision.’

‘Yes, it is,’ he agrees. ‘And you have done all I think you can do to make the most informed decision possible. You have the Earl’s approval, and everything you’ve heard has been positive. She has more than enough experience in Event Management and Human Resources and PR, and in International Diplomacy, and you liked her when you interviewed her,’ he says. ‘Is there anything else?’

She purses her lips. ‘It will make Wellington happy,’ she says a little too flippantly, and he shakes his head.

‘Since when are you in the business of pleasing former or current Prime Ministers, ma’am?’ he asks dryly, his lips twisting slightly and an eyebrow raised, and it takes her a moment, but then she’s grinning wryly at him.

‘True.’ But then she’s pacing again, and she looks up at him for a moment, before looking away, her face firm. ‘Yes. Charlotte Canning will do a good job,’ she says, and he can tell by her tone that she’s convincing herself as much as anything.

He just prays she’s right.

 

Chapter Text

Monday 27 June 

 

It’s the day before and he’s faded so far that she’s now genuinely concerned for his health, let alone anything else. He looks terrible.

She wonders how she didn’t see it last year.

She knows. She doesn’t want to examine it too closely. It stings that she’d been so wrapped up in herself she hadn’t noticed the change in him. Maybe she had, but had assumed he was busy and tired with the Coronation and the Ball and everything.

Her heart tells her the truth.

But she holds her tongue, says nothing, and he doesn’t offer, and they dance around each other a little, she thinks.

He must know she knows. He told her. It had been months ago, but he’d still told her – the date and everything.

He must know.

But she’s still no closer to finding something, anything that might help, and she’s beginning to feel small again, like she’s a child just entering the adults’ world, and maybe there isn’t a solution to this, maybe she can’t do anything, and it all just seems so unfair.

So she searches once more, reading everything she can, until finally she stumbles across the answer, and it’s that same thought that she’d had a week ago.

Ensure those who are suffering know that they’re not alone.

 

***

 

It’s late and all he wants is to go home and curl up into a ball and fall apart, but he has work to do, so he pushes on through the fog of pain and exhaustion.

He’s just coming back from collecting some paperwork from the Treasurer’s Office when he finds her on the floor of his office leaning up against a bookshelf, reading what looks like the third Harry Potter book.

‘I’m avoiding Mama,’ she explains a little nervously, and he sees right through it. Seven hundred and seventy-five rooms in Buckingham Palace and she chooses his office to hide in, on this day of all days.

He’d wondered briefly if she’d remember – she’d been so upset that day – but he’d tried to squash the thought. It would hurt too much if she didn’t, and it wouldn’t be her fault at all. But in hindsight, it did explain why she had been almost tiptoeing around him for days.

‘I didn’t think you’d mind if I hid in here for a bit,’ she adds, and he smiles down at her. Despite it all, she can still pull smiles from him, even small ones, without even trying.

‘You’re always welcome to hide in my office, ma’am,’ he tells her, and she smiles back up at him.

‘Where are you up to?’ she asks teasingly, waving the book at him.

‘Not as far in as you,’ he admits, dumping the paperwork he’d been carrying on his desk.

‘Want to stay and read with me for a while? I brought the second one because I know you haven’t quite finished it. And snacks,’ she says, and he can see she’s trying so hard to seem relaxed about it, to give him an out if he wants to say no. 

‘Sure,’ he says, not even really understanding why, but he takes off his tie and plonks himself down on the carpet next to her, taking the offered book and a few pieces of caramel popcorn. 

Within moments she’s leaning against him, her arm from shoulder to elbow firmly pressed against his as she focuses on the book in front of her, and she’s so sweet, his beautiful Queen.

It’s a good hour later, when she’s lying on the floor next to him with her book in the air and his back is a little stiff from sitting on the ground, that he thinks to speak.

He’s been watching her on and off for a little while, watching her giggle and outright laugh at parts - and then refuse to spoil him until he caught up - and squirm around to find a comfortable position, but in all that time, she’s never stopped touching him in some way. Her shoulder was currently pressed against his thigh just above his knee, and if he just reached down, he could push that little bit of her fringe away from her face, that stray bit caught on her eyebrow that had been bothering him for longer than he cared to admit.

He knows what she’s trying to do, and he thinks his broken, aching heart couldn’t possibly love her more, his beautiful Queen. 

So here, in the safety of his office floor, with this beautiful woman who is so compassionate and so desperate to keep him alive, he tells her a story of his boy that he’s been thinking about ever since she asked him to read these books with her. 

‘Augustus loved Hedwig. He asked for an owl for his tenth birthday – specifically a snowy owl.’

She drops her book on her chest and looks up at him from the floor, her eyes wide. 

‘I told him that, unfortunately, Hedwig was a magical owl, and that only magical owls could be kept as pets in London. He told me that I should change the rules because I was Prime Minister.’

He looks down at her captivated, half-smiling face, watching as she bites her lip. ‘He was right,’ she declares. ‘You should have.’

He nods. ‘That started the obsession with owls. I don’t know how many books he read on owls, but I would come home from work and he would tell me everything he’d learned about owls that day over dinner, and dinner would take hours because he remembered almost everything he read, I think.’ He sighs. ‘And then one day he told me that he’d read that JK Rowling said that we shouldn’t keep non-magical owls as pets because they needed their freedom and so he didn’t want one anymore, and I shouldn’t change the rules.’

‘Good thing you didn’t change them then,’ she says slowly.

‘Yes,’ he agrees. 

She pushes herself up from the floor to sit next to him again, her shoulder pressed firmly against his upper arm, before she speaks. ‘Do you have any other photos of him?’ she asks tentatively, her voice soft and gentle, so he pulls out his wallet from inside his jacket and pulls out a worn photo of a toddler with large dark curls and big brown eyes.

She lets out a soft ooh. ‘He was so cute,’ she says, studying the picture in front of her. ‘Those little overalls are so sweet.’ She looks up at him. ‘He looks like you.’

‘Yes, he did.’

She stares at the photo for a few moments longer before handing it back to him. ‘Thank you,’ she says, and his throat tightens a little, so he just nudges her a little with his shoulder. When she loops her arm through his and rests her head on his shoulder he feels the tears burn behind his eyes, so he just sits, resting his head against the books on the shelf behind him, and breathes as he watches her read.

 

***

 

The message comes through at five the next the evening, when he’s awake and his head is fuzzy and he’s just staring at the ceiling, and he blinks when he reads it. 

Sir Robert was here. Emma said he looked like he was walking towards his own beheading. I wonder if I should buy a toy guillotine for when you’re away? I could strategically place it on my desk.

He feels the pull of a smile that doesn’t reach his face.

He reads Emily’s much earlier message next.

Love you.

He stops for a moment, staring at the words on the screen, all that his sister had done for him over the past ten years creeping back into his mind, and so he replies with a couple of x’s.

Emma’s message appears a few minutes later.

You’ve been missed. And then a second: I missed you too. 

But he finds he can, for once, think through the fog and haze, and so he replies to her, his beautiful Queen.

I think they sell toy ones at the British Museum.

Her reply is almost instant. Can we go one day?

Of course.

Another message comes through a minute later, and he can see her tentative, nervous face in his mind.

Are you okay?

He’s spent the previous twenty or so hours wallowing in grief and alcohol and pictures of his boy, but it hasn’t been quite the same unbearable, unending pain that had tormented him for the weeks around this time every year for the past ten years.

He just missed him, his sweet little boy, but he thinks perhaps it’s time to allow the memory of his smiles and laughter, his quirky comments and love of learning, cloud this most painful of days as well.

He’d realised on his way home that night that he’d allowed his grief to overshadow those beautiful moments, those wonderful things about his son that he’d loved. She’d reminded him that there can be happiness in grief; that not everything needed to be hijacked by the tragedy of death. That it was okay to grieve, to feel the soul-destroying pain, but that it was okay to remember the good times, too.

I’m okay.

 

***

 

When he arrives the next morning, Emma stands and pulls him into a hug, which he gratefully returns, before she pulls back and studies his face for a moment. Seemingly mostly satisfied with what she sees, she returns to her seat.

‘You know, she never said a word all day. And she was polite to Robert.’

He wonders for a moment if he should tell her. ‘I heard,’ he says, decision made, and she frowns, confused. ‘She messaged me last night,’ he admits, and Emma’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘Add the British Museum to your list of things to do. She’s never been,’ he calls over his shoulder as he heads for her office.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 29 June

 

He’s been so distracted, so focused on putting one foot in front of the other for the past week, that it’s slipped his mind.

He doesn’t often walk the halls of the palace; there’s usually not much need to go anywhere other than the various offices of the staff and her office. But then there are the nights he stays for dinner, the usually rare nights he meets her at the palace entrance for some official Palace function she’s told him he must attend – but those are even more now in between the Earl’s departure and Charlotte Canning’s commencement.

It’s one of these nights that he sees Sir John for the first time since the unveiling of her portrait, and he feels his heart speed up a little in his chest at the sight of the man who had so brutally abused his position – his Queen – for his own gain. The man who had made his Queen think she was less than she was. The man who had made his Queen cry.

He loathes him.

He thinks it’s ironic; for all his worry and concern around what she would say when she saw him, he was the one who felt most in danger of being charged with assault.

But he can’t avoid him when he appears quite suddenly from behind the door to the Duchess’s rooms. ‘Sir John,’ he says as he walks past, not stopping.

‘Lord Melbourne. Welcome back to the Palace,’ Sir John says, and Melbourne stops, turning to face him, inclining his head in acknowledgement. ‘I see you just couldn’t stay away.’ Melbourne frowns slightly, unwilling to speak. ‘But then I suppose the Queen is a high prize, even for a former Prime Minister,’ Sir John sneers, and he feels his jaw clench.

‘If you view the Queen as a kind of property to be bought and sold.’

‘And you do not? Your reputation suggests otherwise.’

‘You may think what you like, Sir John. I can’t bring myself to care for your opinion on anything, really.’

‘I suppose very few opinions really matter, when you have the undying devotion of the Queen,’ he retorts, and Melbourne lets out an exaggerated sigh. ‘I did find myself wondering what exactly it was that caused you to return,’ Sir John says. ‘All that fuss, and then all is suddenly well again.’

He’s heard enough. ‘If you’ll excuse me, Sir John,’ Melbourne says, going to turn, but stopping as Sir John speaks again.

‘She always did throw tantrums to get her own way. It is a rather unpleasant behaviour that it would appear she hasn’t yet grown out of.’

And there it is, he thinks, the hint, the tell-tale snide remark that revealed so much. He’s been waiting for it, and it would seem that Conroy has been waiting to drop it. He’d missed it the first time, misinterpreted the warning signs as the snide comments of an inconsequential and bitter man. But no matter how obvious it is this time around, he cannot give any indication that he sees the comment for what it is. No matter how much he wants to tear the man apart here in the hall of the palace, he must practice what he preaches and wait.

‘It seems to me, Sir John, that the Queen is not the one throwing the tantrum,’ he retorts, spinning on his heel and striding away before he can say or do anything else.

And oh, he is going to eviscerate John Conroy if he hurts her again.

He’s not sure he’ll forgive himself if he lets him.

 

***

 

Her meeting with Harper is tomorrow, and she has to ask, and he still hasn’t brought it up.

He’s deliberately put off that discussion, waiting to see if she figures it out on her own. But they have to prep for the meeting at some point, and putting it off isn’t helping.

He’ll have to tell her this morning.

He wonders how she’ll react. She’s stronger now, he’s seen it in her eyes, but she’s still unsettled and will be until this whole mess is sorted out. They all will.

Anything to do with Conroy sets her on edge; it’s a combination of fury and loathing and a healthy dose of anxiety, too. For all her strength, Conroy was still a looming shadow in her mind. Objectively, he held no power over her anymore, now that she was Queen, but she wasn’t breaking the shackles of nearly twenty years of emotional manipulation in a day, no matter how hard she tried.

When she greets him with a smile and a giggle as she shows him the silly photo she’d taken the night before of him and Harriet at the concert, he just can’t. She’s had so little reason to smile of late, and he’s too weak and selfish to say anything that would remove that smile right now. She’s tired, he can see; she has lines under her eyes this morning that she wouldn’t normally have. It’s been a long few weeks, and she’s been flat out with everything.

He’ll talk to her this afternoon, he thinks. There was some time he’d deliberately blocked off in her schedule that afternoon just in case. They can go for a walk in the gardens.

When he tells her before he leaves that he’ll be back to discuss the meeting later, she just smiles and nods, and his stomach sinks.

 

***

 

‘Good to see you’re spending your time wisely, ma’am,’ she hears from behind her, and the surprise is enough to make her sit up before her brain can tell her who’s speaking.

‘I don’t think how I spend my time is any of your concern, Sir John,’ she counters, not looking up at him as he walks past.

‘Drina!’ Her mother’s voice makes her look up. ‘Don’t be so rude!’

‘I think it was Sir John who was being rude, Mama,’ she shoots back, and her mother frowns at her before following Sir John. She lets out a huff before lying back down and reopening her book. But as much as she tries to keep reading, she can’t focus now – she’s too annoyed – so she pulls out her phone.

He appears at the doors only a few minutes later, a mildly puzzled look on his face, and she suddenly feels little silly. She’s overreacting. Again.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you early, Lord M,’ she sighs. ‘I’m sure you’re busy.’

He tilts his head in acknowledgement, shrugging a little in that funny way he does when he sees her point, but thinks she’s focusing on the wrong thing. ‘Never too busy for a walk, ma’am,’ he says, giving her a playful look, and she grins back and they head down the stairs. It’s overcast, threatening rain, but she doesn’t care. She’s pleased she’d called him now. He always knows how to make her smile.

Besides, she’s missed their walks in the gardens. She’s been so busy of late that they haven’t really been able to do anything much other than official business, and whatever Harriet or Emma or Anna had organised for her, and he so rarely attended anything with her anymore.

‘Sir John,’ she says after a minute, and he lets out a hum.

‘I figured, ma’am.’

‘He thinks I don’t use my time wisely,’ she says, and he lets out a laugh.

‘I’m sure.’ She frowns up at him. ‘Ma’am, when you’re angry with someone, do you ever just say whatever you think will hurt them most in that moment, just to inflict some kind of pain?’ he asks, and she blinks.

‘Yes,’ she admits. ‘Oh.’ Of course. Sir John was just baiting her. He was annoyed that Lord M was back, and that he had lost. She lets out a sigh. ‘I shouldn’t let him get to me. I just…he just makes me so angry,’ she admits. ‘And Mama just follows whatever he says.’ She looks out towards the trees. ‘I could just ban him from the palace,’ she muses, imagining Sir John’s face when she told him, how it would contort with anger, how his lips would purse as though he’d bitten into something sour, and there would be nothing he could do about it. Oh, it would be so good. ‘And I’d have him charged with trespassing if he tried to see Mama. That would be extremely satisfying,’ she says.

‘You could, ma’am,’ he says, pursing his lips, and she thinks he doesn’t understand she’s just dreaming. She would love him to say yes, that she could absolutely ban Sir John, but she knows that she cannot, and she knows why. ‘But it wouldn’t solve the problem, ma’am, and I imagine now that it would only create a larger one.’

‘Larger?’ She watches as he cringes slightly, looking up, and the look on his face makes her heart sink a little in her chest.

When he speaks, it’s slow and halting. ‘I imagine there’s a market out there for a rather long book all about the Queen’s early years at Kensington Palace.’

Oh. His words stop her in her tracks and she stares at him.

A book. About her.

Sir John – Sir John – would write a book…all about her as a child and a teenager and oh, no…

Her mind frantically catalogues the things he could write about, what he could say, the stories he could tell, how he could make her look small and stupid and weak and absolutely nothing like the Queen she wants to be, and how people would read it – would believe it – and her heart is throbbing wildly in her chest and the voices are screaming silently in her head and she thinks she’s going to be sick.

But then he’s standing in front of her, his hand on her upper arm, and she can’t do this. ‘No,’ she says, shaking her head at him. ‘He can’t.’ He can’t. He can’t put all of it – all of her life – in a book, expose everything about herself that she hates, all the stupid things she’s done, for the world to mock and ridicule and judge and know. But he would; she knows he would, given the chance, and he would say it was just the truth. But it would be his truth: it would be spiteful and malicious and pitiless and he can’t write terrible things about her. Lies about her. The truth.

And they would all read it, talk about it, laugh, judge, disapprove, mock, and she would be left there, open on the operating table as they dissected her entire life as she watched, helpless…

‘I’m hoping not,’ he says, and her mind is absently aware that his thumbs are stroking both her arms, and she looks up at him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says quietly. ‘When Mr Harper comes for his meeting tomorrow, you need to ask for the contract Sir John signed when he first started working for the Duke, your father,’ he says, and she nods, trying to focus on his words. ‘I’m hoping that it has the same kind of confidentiality clause that yours does now. It should, but we won’t know until Mr Harper can find it and check.’

His words are calm and slow, and she nods, blinking, and is there no end to the havoc Sir John would wreak? Would he destroy everything that was important to her? Everything she loved?

Would he ruin everything she’s done, everything she’s worked so, so hard for?

And suddenly she’s crying, the tears slowly sliding down her face and oh, it hurts, her chest is aching, burning with anger, and why, why does he always want to hurt her? Why does he hate her so much?

‘Ma’am,’ he whispers, and he wraps his arms around her, pulling her to him and she goes willingly, burying her face in his chest, her head fitting neatly under his chin, and she’s so angry and it hurts and by the time her fist hits the solid that is his chest she’s barely hitting him at all because she’s so angry but it hurts.

He just holds her there in his arms, letting her press her fist against his chest, holding her tighter still when she feels her anger slide completely into despair and she slides her arms inside his jacket and grasps at his sides and oh, it hurts.

It hurts like the past, like his resignation, like her mother’s pleasure at her failure, like all her failures mixed into one.

But his arms feel like home, like safety and warmth, and she hasn’t felt this in so, so long. She never wants to let go, and it’s like everything from the past months just erupts out of her, and she cannot, no matter how hard she tries, help but sob against his chest as he holds her close, his arms rubbing her back, rocking her gently. She can feel his cheek pressed against the top of her head, and oh, she knows now for sure that she cannot do this without him, her Lord M, and the desperation makes her chest ache.

She can hear him mumbling into her hair, telling her it would be okay, that she would be okay, that he’s sorry, and she doesn’t know what he’s apologising for but she doesn’t care, because she hadn’t realised before now how much she loves his voice, the way it’s soft and gentle, it speaks kindness and warmth when she needs it, but how low and deep it becomes when she knows he’s struggling with his own emotions, and that depth reverberates through her soul as she presses her head against the solid warmth of his chest, the sobs slowly dying in her throat until she’s just resting, eyes closed, against him.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers, her hands flat against his chest now as he holds her close, and he’s still rocking her gently, side to side, and she never, ever wants him to let go. But he’s still telling her it’s okay, that she’s okay, and she lets out a long shuddering breath.

‘Why does he hate me so much?’ she asks, scrunching her face up against fresh tears, and she doesn’t understand what she did, what she’s done, to make Sir John treat her so cruelly. She’s tried, she has, she’s thought long and hard about what she could have done differently, but she’s never been good enough. Ever. Not even when she tried her hardest did she ever meet his standards for long.

‘He doesn’t see you,’ he says quietly. ‘He has never seen the Princess, the beautiful young Queen. He has only ever seen himself. You were only ever a means to an end.’

But then he’s unwrapping his arms a little, and no, she doesn’t want to let go, but she knows she has to, so she pulls back slightly so she can see his face, and his hands go to her upper arms. ‘It was never about you,’ he says deliberately, seriously, and she focuses on his words. ‘If it was, he would have realised very early on that your fire was never going to be extinguished.’

She thinks on his words for a moment and realises he’s right. She’d forgotten. It was never about her; it was only ever about her crown – the power and the prestige it would bring him. He gives her a small, sad smile, and she nods.

‘Thank you,’ she whispers, and he nods. She blinks, and another tear slides down her cheek, and before she knows what’s happening, he’s brushing it away with his thumb.

‘What are friends for, ma’am?’ he says more lightly, dropping his hand from her shoulder, and she smiles weakly before taking another step forward and resting her forehead on that flat, hard part of his chest just below his collarbone. It takes him a moment, a moment where she suddenly thinks that she’s crossed a line, that she should step back, but then his arms are around her again, and he just holds her firmly but gently to him and she thinks she never, ever wants him to let go.  

‘What were you doing that Sir John thought you were wasting your time, ma’am?’ he asks, frowning, as they walk back up towards the palace a while later, when she thinks she feels ready to face the world again and her face has lost some of its blotchy redness. But she doesn’t really want to go back inside, not just yet, so she detours slightly to sit on one of the chairs near the door.

‘Reading. I’ve almost finished the third book,’ she says, and she watches as he blinks and his face flattens, and he’s angry, and at himself, she thinks, but she can’t think why. But then she remembers that they were reading the books together, and he’s somehow blaming himself for this, and she puts her hand on his arm.

‘I should be free to read a book, I think,’ she says carefully, and he nods at her.

‘What you do with your time is none of Sir John’s concern, ma’am,’ he replies a bit woodenly, and she shakes her head at him.

‘Where are you up to?’ she asks deliberately, and he blinks at her.

‘I’ve just finished the second book,’ he says, letting out a breath, and she nods.

‘Then I think I’m spending my time very wisely,’ she asserts, looking at him, and he returns her gaze for a heartbeat longer than normal before nodding once, and she thinks he understands. ‘Besides, I think learning about British institutions like Harry Potter is a very good use of the Queen of England’s time,’ she declares. ‘Especially since it’s really due to Sir John’s negligence that there are gaps in my education.’

He looks at her for a moment, a smile on his face. ‘I agree, ma’am.’

When he texts her later that afternoon with a picture of a DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a question mark, she sighs happily. They haven’t watched anything new since before he left – she’s just been so busy – and she’s missed those Shakespeare nights, just the two of them.

Yes! I will provide the snacks.

 

She’s lying in bed later that night and she closes her eyes and remembers how warm and strong his arms felt wrapped around her, how safe and protected and loved she felt, and something in her chest swells and something low in her stomach stirs.

She doesn’t examine it closely.

She had him back now, her Lord M, and Sir John was going, and everything was perfect just the way it was.

Nothing needed to change.

 

Chapter Text

The way Harper smiles at the Queen makes him think that she must remind him of his daughter or granddaughter. But it’s perfect, especially at the moment; her smile in return is wide and genuine, and he thinks she could do with more of that. He wonders if Wellington still smiles at her in the same way, given everything.

‘Thank you for coming to the palace again, Mr Harper,’ she says, smiling back at him. Harper kisses the back of her hand as he usually does, and Melbourne suppresses his smile at the Queen’s almost-giggle.

‘I’m so sorry I was unable to come sooner, ma’am,’ he apologises. ‘Knees are the first to go,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘So inconvenient.’

‘Are you recovered now?’ she asks, and he nods quickly.

‘Oh, yes, thank you, ma’am. Just need to get rid of this wretched thing and I’ll be perfectly fine,’ he replies, resting the walking stick against the edge the table. ‘Lord Melbourne,’ he says, shaking Melbourne’s hand. ‘How was your holiday?’ he asks, his eyes bright, and Melbourne’s lips twist.

‘Delightful, thank you,’ he replies dryly, and Harper nods, frowning.

‘That’s actually why I’ve asked you here,’ she says as they sit, and Harper nods.

‘Ah, yes, ma’am. My office tells me you wished to speak only to me. What can I do for you?’ he asks, looking directly at the Queen, his eyes kind but shrewd.

‘I think I may have uncovered the source of the information that has been fed to the media of late,’ she says, and Harper nods. ‘I think it was Sir John Conroy, my mother’s Comptroller. I believe the information published in the press may constitute a breach of contract.’

Harper nods sagely. ‘It’s possible, ma’am. Those contracts weren’t perfect, but even with the few loopholes we’ve closed, they were still quite specific. Do you have any evidence?’

‘No,’ she says, letting out a breath. ‘This is where I was hoping that perhaps you might be able to assist, Mr Harper.’

The older man purses his lips and leans back in his chair a little. ‘Well, the first logical step would be to investigate whether or not the information printed in the media does, in fact, constitute a breach of the Palace contract. In the course of our investigation, if we were to discover evidence that led back to a particular individual or individuals, then you would, of course, be in a position to make a decision about legal recourse, ma’am,’ Harper replies, and she nods.

‘I would like for you to investigate, Mr Harper.’

Harper nods. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replies, scribbling down some notes on the pad in front of him.

‘There is one other thing,’ she says, sucking in a breath, and he wills her on, to be strong. ‘I am concerned that private information about my childhood might also be made public,’ she says, her voice just slightly wobbly. He watches as she takes a quick breath and lets it out, steadying herself. ‘Lord Melbourne suggested that my father may have had a similar contract in place for Sir John when he first started working for him when I was a child.’

‘It’s possible, ma’am,’ he says thoughtfully, looking at Melbourne and nodding, before frowning. ‘We would have a copy of anything from the Duke’s estate, so locating a copy if it existed should not be too difficult, and as one of the beneficiaries of his estate, you would be entitled to access to it,’ he muses, before frowning. ‘This is, however, assuming that the Duchess didn’t ask Sir John to sign a new contract at any point that removed that requirement for confidentiality. But you could perhaps successfully argue your right to privacy as a member of the royal family, and, if it was Sir John, that he was technically an employee of a member of the royal family at the time. But it would be challenging,’ he adds carefully, before glancing at Melbourne. He gives him a small nod; they’ve had this discussion. He doesn’t think the Duchess would have been quite that responsible with her paperwork. Sir John, however, definitely may have.

‘Yes. I understand that this may be difficult,’ she says.

‘Well, it was before my time, ma’am, but I will look into it for you.’ Harper looks pensive for a moment, his eyes flicking to Melbourne’s. ‘I should warn you that it could potentially be difficult to obtain an original copy of that first contract. Unfortunately, ma’am, the Duke was not the most reliable person when it came to paperwork. I imagine that we likely have a digital copy of the original typed contract somewhere, but that could potentially pose a problem.’

She frowns, looking at Melbourne, who shakes his head.

‘I don’t know that you need the signed copy, ma’am,’ he says, and she frowns at him. He notices Harper start smiling as he catches on, and his lips twist. ‘You don’t need to hold the ace to have the players think you do.’

She stares at him for a second before her eyes narrow a little. ‘You mean bluffing?’ she says, and he nods. He can see her processing this new idea, her lips curl at something this disingenuous, and he wants to laugh at the irony. She’d attempted – and mostly succeeded at – blackmailing the Prime Minister of Britain, and she was worried about bluffing Conroy.

But he can’t say any of that in front of Harper. ‘You may not have to, ma’am,’ he says. ‘I would suggest that we cross that bridge when we come to it.’

She nods, letting out a sigh, and Harper seems to pick up on the mood. ‘I’ll do my very best, ma’am,’ he declares, and she gives him a small smile.

‘Thank you, Mr Harper. I know you will.’

‘This is going to take some time, ma’am,’ he says, and she nods. ‘We’ll have to look through every article that mentions you, Lord Melbourne or any other member of your staff, and anyone else connected with the royal family,’ he says, and she just nods. She’s obviously thought this through, he thinks.

‘Yes, I realise that this will be a significant amount of work,’ she says, letting out a small sigh.

‘Nonetheless, ma’am, your privacy is crucial. And I would suggest that setting a precedent that allows members of staff to get away with this kind of thing is not something you wish to do, especially this early into your reign, ma’am,’ Harper says.

‘Definitely not.’

‘It’ll work out, ma’am,’ he says, when Harper has left and she’s still looking pensive.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘There are just so many things that could still go wrong.’

‘Yes. But Mr Harper is an excellent solicitor, and there’s really not much point in worrying,’ he reminds her. ‘Don’t let Conroy win any more than he already has.’

She nods a little more strongly, and he smiles. But she’s right; this is by no means a done deal. There was much to do yet, and she still had to hold it together until it was done.

He just prays the Duke cared for his infant daughter who would be Queen as much as the old King cared for the niece he barely knew.

 

***

 

He’s sorting through the last of the paperwork she’d given him, and he smiles; she’d finally chosen her charities for this quarter. He reads through the pile she’s clipped together as accepted at the top. It only takes a few seconds to realise what she’s done, and he drops the paperwork in his hands onto his desk and lets out a long breath.

Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust

The Stroke Association

The National Autistic Society

Starlight Children’s Foundation…

She can’t do this, he thinks. She cannot show such partiality for no other reason than it wasn’t fair.

That, and someone would notice eventually, he thinks.

So he picks up the folder and walks slowly down to her office, stopping at Emma’s desk. ‘Did you help with the selection of her charities?’ he asks, eyeing her, and he watches as she lets out a sigh. He knows she would know; she would have sorted the paperwork into their relevant folders for him to collect.

‘No, not at all,’ she tells him, and he lets out a breath. ‘She did ask if there was anything she could do to help.’ He looks at her. ‘She was so worried about you, William,’ she tells him quietly, her voice heavy, and he nods reluctantly. ‘This is her way of helping.’

She looks up at him expectantly when he arrives, and he glances at his feet before looking back up at her. ‘I see you’ve made your decisions about which charities you will give patronage, ma’am,’ he says and he can see it in her eyes. She’d known he’d say something; of course she did, his beautiful Queen that grew stronger and bolder every day. She’s been waiting for him.

‘I have,’ she says. ‘Is there a problem?’ She meets his gaze evenly, and he purses his lips, raising an eyebrow at her.

Was there a problem? No. Not really. She could pick whatever she liked. And yes. A huge problem.

He lets out a huff after a moment, shaking his head and staring at her, his beautiful, passionate, stubborn Queen. ‘The Queen must be seen to be impartial, ma’am,’ he says half-heartedly, and she stands, walking around her desk to stand in front of him.

‘I’m patron of over one hundred organisations in Great Britain alone, and sixty of those are charities, Lord M. My Uncle was patron of over five hundred charities across the Commonwealth,’ she tells him, and he thinks she’s almost rehearsed this little speech. ‘I’ve weighed up all the information, and my own personal preference, and I think these are very worthy causes,’ she tells him, her voice earnest as she tries to convince him. ‘Did you know that there are over four hundred childhood strokes a year in the UK alone?’ she adds quietly, a note of vulnerability hidden behind the strength.

He nods. He knows; he’s donated money to the Stroke Association every year for ten years.

‘The Great Ormond Street Hospital has a children’s charity that works with parents of childhood stroke victims through recovery, but they’re mostly volunteers,’ she tells him, and he nods. ‘Emma said they were really brilliant,’ she adds even more quietly, and he studies her as she stares up at him, confident in her decisions, but eyes that were so soft, trying desperately to read him too, he thinks. ‘I get to choose for me too,’ she says softly, her blue eyes soft with compassion but certainty, and he feels that tightness in his chest, the one that’s all emotion. ‘I know my duty is to everyone, but I can support my friends too.’

He thinks it endlessly, that same thought, the one where he wonders what on earth she sees in him that she seems to care so much. He wonders very briefly if she knows, if she unconsciously suspects his feelings, but brushes the thought aside. She loves her friends fiercely, protects those that she loves with that fire in her eyes, and he was no exception.

‘Thank you,’ he says after a moment, and she gives him a soft, pleased smile.

 

Chapter Text

He won’t admit it, but he’s been both dreading and looking forward to this night since they first settled on a date. She, on the other hand, has been brimming with excitement for days. He supposes he should be pleased; along with everything that Harriet and Emma – and now Anna – have been taking her to, it’s been a welcome distraction from all the rubbish with Conroy.

But she’s about to arrive, and he’s nervous.

He’s a fool.

‘Would you like to start with wine, or should we just cut straight to the whiskey? You look like you could use one,’ Emily says at his elbow, and he shoots her a look.

‘Wine,’ he says. ‘I’ll save the whiskey for later.’

‘You really are nervous about this, aren’t you?’ she says, pouring his glass.

He lets out a sigh. ‘Yes,’ he admits. ‘She’s still learning,’ he says quietly.

‘She’ll be fine. We’re all friends.’

She appears minutes later, right behind Emma and Edward, and her eyes search for his as soon as she enters the room. She’s nervous too, he realises. He wonders why.

But she’s beautiful in a simple green patterned dress and stockings and her hair hanging loose past her shoulders. She looks so much older than her twenty-three years, he thinks, and he swallows, looking down at the glass in his hands.

He really is a fool.

‘What would you like to drink, ma’am?’ Henry asks. ‘We have wine, or champagne perhaps? Or something else?’

He looks up and her eyes flick to his at the mention of champagne and he feels lips quirk in amusement. He raises an eyebrow quickly at her in jest, and can’t help the smile when she looks away, her own lips pressed together in an attempt not to laugh.

‘Wine, please,’ she replies, and he glances down at his own glass, trying to keep the smile off his face and not succeeding at all. He’s thrilled they can joke about this now. It had been a year, and she was learning to laugh at herself, even at the big things.

‘I think you’re laughing at me, Lord M,’ she says quietly as she comes to stand next to him.

‘Never, ma’am,’ he jokes. ‘I wouldn’t dare laugh at the Queen.’

‘No, I believe not,’ she says. ‘But you would definitely laugh at me.’

His eyebrows rise at the distinction she’s made, and he wonders if that’s what she’s trying to do tonight, to throw off the crown and just be Victoria.

And oh, she can’t do that to him. Tonight was already far too close to his heart.

‘Perhaps,’ he hedges slyly, and she grins at him.

‘Where are your niece and nephews?’ she asks suddenly, looking around. ‘Aren’t they eating with us?’

‘I imagine Emily has banished them to the playroom or their bedrooms for the evening, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Boys tend to be bored by dinner parties, and Frankie’s only two,’ he says, and she nods.

‘Oh. I was hoping to meet them,’ she says, trailing off a little. ‘But I can appreciate that Emily has more than enough to do,’ she says seriously, and he feels the pull of a smile.

‘I’m sure a meeting can be arranged, ma’am,’ he says, and she looks up at him.

‘I don’t wish to cause trouble,’ she says, frowning, and he shakes his head.

‘I’d be surprised if Emily hasn’t already planned something. I’ll handle it.’ They both look up as Harriet arrives, and she smiles at her friend. ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’

 

***

 

‘Turns out I was right,’ he says when he reappears a few minutes later. ‘Emily has them all prepared,’ he jokes, and she smiles delightedly.

‘Ma’am, this is George, my eldest,’ Emily says, as she introduces her to a tall, dark-haired boy who she thinks is determined to look serious.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty,’ George says, bowing slightly, and she’s impressed.

‘It is a pleasure to meet you too, George,’ she replies, nodding to him. ‘I understand you want to be a pilot in the RAF,’ she says, and he blinks before nodding seriously.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘That sounds both thrilling and terrifying,’ she admits, and he nods, smiling a little. ‘My father was in the Army,’ she says. ‘He was a soldier. But I don’t think they’d let me follow in his footsteps,’ she adds, and George frowns and shakes his head a little.

‘Women are allowed now, ma’am,’ he says with a note of confusion, and she nods.

‘Yes, but likely not Queens,’ she adds with a rueful smile, and his cheeks pink before he nods.

‘Of course, ma’am,’ his voice serious again, so she takes pity on the teenager.

‘I wish you all the best with your studies.’

‘Thank you, ma’am,’ he replies, bowing his head briefly again before moving to stand with his father.

‘George is going to dine with us,’ Emily tells her as they walk towards the nursery, and she smiles. ‘He’s fourteen and has suddenly decided that he needs to grow up.’

‘Oh,’ she laughs. ‘He’s very serious.’

‘Not that he’d admit it, but he was terrified of meeting you, ma’am,’ Emily says conspiratorially, and Victoria’s heart melts.

‘He was so well-spoken.’

‘It’s amazing what the presence of royalty can do to a fourteen-year-old’s behaviour, ma’am,’ she says, and Victoria lets out a laugh.

 

***

 

She thinks Emily’s children are all adorable – and blond-haired Will at nine years old was already a charmer – but it’s little Charlie that takes her breath away.

He’s the spitting image of Augustus.

‘Charlie, this is the Queen,’ Emily says, standing behind him.

She squats down until she’s eye-level with the six-year old, who wriggles nervously. ‘Good evening, Your Majesty,’ he says slowly, and she swallows at the small lump in her throat and smiles at him.

‘Hello, Charlie,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’

‘It’s nice to meet you too,’ he says, and she smiles at how clearly rehearsed it sounds. But it’s adorable, she thinks, and she wonders if Augustus would have sounded the same. 

‘They’re lovely,’ she tells Emily as they watch the boys play.

‘Thank you, ma’am,’ Emily replies with a sigh.

She wonders if this is what it would have been like to have siblings, as she watches Will and Charlie duel with the characters on the screen in front of them. People to play with. Fight with. People to love you, no matter what.

She wonders if she might have had siblings if her father hadn’t died.

‘They’re all so different,’ she says, and Emily glances at her.

‘Yes. George and Will look like their fathers,’ she says, and Victoria blinks. Fathers. ‘And Charlie is William in miniature, as you can see. And Frankie is really the only one where I got a look in,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet her, ma’am, but she’s in bed.’

‘Oh, that’s fine. One day,’ she says quickly. She needs to ask Lord M what Emily means by fathers. She knew Henry was her second husband, and about Lord Cowper…

‘And now we’ll get to see just how lovely they are, ma’am,’ Emily says before turning to the boys. ‘Bedtime!’

 

***

 

Emily excuses herself to check on dinner on their way back and she’s standing in the doorway when she sees him talking to George, so she watches for a moment. They’re deep in discussion about something – what, she can’t tell – but he seems genuinely interested in what the boy has to say. It’s nothing like her own childhood; children should be seen and not heard, she’d always been told. She was to be Queen of England, but never to speak until someone requested her voice.

She wonders if he looks that interested when he speaks to her.

But then his eyes catch hers and he gives her a small smile before turning back to George, and she waits for him to come over and talk to her.

But he doesn’t.

He just continues his conversation with George, and she watches, but the longer she watches him the more she thinks he’s not coming to talk to her and she frowns a little as she looks down at the glass in her hands.

She looks back up at him after a few moments, and he glances over at her, and when his eyes don’t hold hers for long, she thinks she understands, and she looks around.

She’s the Queen, yes, but this is not Buckingham Palace, and he is not working. He’ll always be Lord M, but here, he’s not her Private Secretary. He owes her nothing.

And she realises that this is what she’s wanted all along, to just be Victoria, not the Queen, not Your Majesty, just a woman at a dinner with friends, and she blinks.

She has no idea what she’s supposed to do.

She never has to insinuate herself into a conversation at a public gathering; everyone always approaches her, or she’s introduced to various people. She looks around the room at the various groups; Emma was talking with her husband and George Sutherland, and Harriet was talking to Henry. Should she wait? Should she join a conversation? It feels awkward, that idea, she thinks. She doesn’t want to interrupt.

She feels it, that awkwardness she’d so happily lost now that she had him, but he wasn’t there by her side telling her what to do, and she has no idea. She doesn’t want to do it wrong, embarrass herself or anyone.

She looks back at him, begging him with her eyes to help her, to show her what to do, and when he finally glances back at her, his eyes are soft, and he nods towards Harriet.

Right. She should join their conversation. So she sucks in a breath and heads over to where they stand, and Harriet smiles widely at her approach, and something in Victoria’s chest loosens.

‘We were just talking about France, ma’am,’ Harriet says. ‘Henry and Emily spent some of their honeymoon there,’ she says.

‘I’ve never been to France,’ Victoria says, almost sagging with relief at how easy it was. ‘Is it as lovely as people say?’

‘The countryside is, ma’am,’ he says, nodding. ‘Paris is like any city – full of people,’ he says disdainfully, and she and Harriet both let out a laugh.

She glances over to where he’s standing against the wall; George is showing him something on his phone, and he’s staring at the screen intently until his eyes flick up to meet hers, and he gives her a small, quick smile that she happily returns.

 

***

 

‘Ma’am,’ she hears, and she looks up from where she’s been studying her glass. ‘I was just telling George that you’re reading the Harry Potter series for the first time,’ he says, as they walk over to where she’s standing.

‘Yes,’ she says, smiling at his nephew. ‘I’m loving it.’

His eyes widen and he smiles a little. ‘What book are you up to, ma’am?’ he asks, and she sighs, shooting Lord M a look.

‘I have just finished the third one,’ she says with an exaggerated sigh. ‘Where are you up to, Lord M?’

He rolls his eyes, and she can see George is confused. ‘I’m am at chapter nineteen,’ he says proudly, and she’s surprised. He’d been so far behind her that she’d deliberately stopped reading so he could catch up. He nods at her surprised look, and she can’t help but smile at how proud he seems to be of himself.

‘Your uncle hasn’t read them either,’ she explains to George, who blinks at him. ‘So we’re reading them together.’

‘Oh,’ George says, frowning momentarily at his uncle. ‘The third one is pretty good,’ he says. ‘The movie was alright. Who’s your favourite character?’ he asks.

‘Hermione, definitely,’ she says, and she can see him almost roll his eyes. Lord M pokes him in the side, and he shoots his uncle an annoyed but amused look.

‘She’s all the girls’ favourite. Her, or Ginny,’ he complains, and she laughs.

‘Fair enough. I haven’t read too much about Ginny yet,’ she says, and he nods.

‘Nah, apart from the second one, she’s more in the later books. She’s actually pretty cool,’ he admits.

She nods. ‘Who is yours?’

‘Sirius. And Fred and George,’ he says, and she almost rolls her own eyes at him.

‘Of course,’ she says, and grins at the semi-mutinous face he pulls. ‘Fred and George are hilarious,’ she agrees. ‘Have you read the whole series?’

‘Yeah, ages ago,’ he says. ‘Ma’am,’ he adds quickly, his eyes widening, and she can see the blush spread up his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ he says, glancing up at Lord M who’s eyeing him with raised eyebrows.

‘Don’t worry about it. It’s nice to not be called ma’am every now and then. It makes me feel old,’ she admits, and he blinks at her.

‘You’re not old, ma’am,’ he blurts out.

‘I agree,’ she laughs.

‘Certainly not as old as me,’ Lord M says, and she shakes her head at him.

‘You’re not old, Lord M,’ she says, and she sees George frown a little. ‘What do you think, George?’

‘Uh…isn’t it treason to disagree with the Queen, ma’am?’ he asks after looking at both of them, and she can’t help laugh out loud.

‘Yes. Yes, it is, George,’ she agrees, looking at Lord M, who is rolling his eyes and pretending to cuff the back of his now-ducking nephew’s head. ‘I like you,’ she says, and when he flushes bright pink again, she thinks she’s said the wrong thing, so she glances up at Lord M who is just smirking at his nephew.

 

***

 

They’re all sitting at the table later and she’s just watching them all interact, these people who have been friends for so long, who knew each other so well.

Oh, she wants this. The yearning swells in her chest and it’s almost painful; she blinks against it.

Friends. Family. People who loved and cared about you, no matter what. People to spend time with.

She’s never wanted anything so much in her life, and she looks down at the plate in front of her.

‘Ma’am?’ Her head flicks up to where he’s sitting next to her, his face concerned.

‘I’m fine,’ she says, plastering a smile on her face, but she knows she hasn’t fooled him. She could never fool him, she thinks. She hasn’t had enough practice. He knew her too well.

‘I like that you are all friends,’ she says by way of explanation, and his face falls a little.

Queens don’t have groups of friends they have dinner with. Friends who laugh and tease in jest, friends who they can call and visit whenever they like.

‘I think, ma’am, they would be honoured if you considered them friends too,’ he says, his voice low, and she stares at him.

‘I…Mama…’ she starts, trailing off, before stopping. ‘Mama always said that Queens don’t have friends,’ she says. ‘Well, not like this.’

His mouth twists in that way that she recognises is a combination of something like frustration and pity, and he glances down before looking back up at her. ‘Times have changed, ma’am. I think that’s probably for the Queen to decide for herself,’ he says carefully.

His words give her hope. Maybe she could have this. Maybe Mama was wrong. He was right: things were different now to when her mother was young.

‘Besides, I’m pretty sure Harriet would be hurt if she thought you didn’t consider her a friend, ma’am,’ he adds, with one eyebrow raised, and she feels the pull of a smile. ‘And Emma.’

‘Of course.’

‘Can I make a suggestion, ma’am?’ he asks, and she nods. ‘Relax, and just try to enjoy yourself.’

 

***

 

He’s watching her later, when they’re all milling around after dinner, and she seems to be deep in conversation with Harriet’s husband about architecture, he gathers, from the hand gestures they’re making.

‘She seems to have mostly enjoyed herself,’ Emily says at his elbow.

‘Yes,’ he says, letting out a sigh. ‘Thank you.’

‘Thank you. It’s not every day one entertains royalty,’ she says, and he rolls his eyes. ‘You’ve got competition,’ she says after a moment, and he frowns down at her. She just nods across the room, and he looks over to see his fourteen-year-old nephew staring at the Queen.

Well, then. Poor kid, he thinks. He can sympathise.

His mind catches up – what she had actually said – and he frowns a little, looking around to see that no one was listening, before looking back at his sister.

‘Don’t,’ he warns, his voice low, before looking away.

‘Emma told me what she did,’ she says after a moment, and his head flicks around to stare at her. ‘It wasn’t hard to work out, William,’ she pointed out. ‘Between you, Emma and Henry, I just had to piece it all together.’ He lets out a huff. ‘She certainly is brave,’ Emily says, and he lets out a humourless laugh.

‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘She’s been alone for a long time. The prospect of returning to that…’ he says by way of explanation.

‘Well, she’s certainly your type,’ Emily says, her voice low, and he stares at her. ‘Strong, assertive, beautiful, slightly volatile,’ she lists, and he looks away, clenching his jaw. ‘She’s definitely the shortest, though. But also the sweetest.’ He looks down at his glass. She wasn’t wrong; she certainly was the sweetest and most compassionate of the women he’d loved. ‘Absolutely the most innocent,’ Emily continues. ‘Has she even kissed anyone before?’

That’s the last straw. ‘Emily!’ he hisses, and she smirks a little, raising her eyebrows at him.

‘So I take it that’s a no?’

‘How would I know?’ he asks, frowning, and she snorts.

‘I imagine you would,’ she says, and he stares at her, not quite certain of her meaning. She just raises her eyebrows at him. ‘Doesn’t she tell you everything?’

He looks away. ‘No.’ Emily just hums, and he shakes his head. ‘I need to talk to George Sutherland about a trip to the British Museum,’ he says, walking away from his sister before she says something he would actually have to deal with.

 

***

 

She’s watching them later, when George is saying goodnight to his parents, when she realises that it’s so much more than friends she wants.

It’s family.

She’s been watching them all, the way they interact, tease and laugh at each other, the way that Henry looks adoringly at his wife, and the way Lord M teases his nephew, who tries to give as good as he gets.

She watches Emily hug her son, pressing a kiss to his cheek when he’s heading for bed, the way Henry hugs this boy who she realises isn’t technically even his with clearly as much love as his mother.

She wonders what it’s like to be hugged like that.

She thinks back to only a few days ago in the shade of some of the ancient trees in her garden and warm, strong, safe arms, and she thinks that maybe it feels something a little like that.

Her heart burns for what she’s missed, the father she never knew.

She thinks that perhaps even if her father were alive today, it wouldn’t be quite like this. She can’t imagine her mother laughing and teasing her uncles the way Emily laughs at Lord M.

And oh, hasn’t she seen him smile tonight. It made her heart soar to see him so happy, especially after the pain of the anniversary.

She’s caught him a few times looking at her. She thinks he’s worried about her, at this new thing she’s trying. She’s given him cause, really, with her helpless looks and her lack of understanding. She’s never done this before.

And oh, if this is what family is like, this kind of love and acceptance and caring and good-natured teasing, this happiness, then she wants it.

She will have it. She feels the determination rise in her chest.

As much as she doesn’t want to think about it, she knows she should marry, have a family of her own. But she would have this, when the time came. She would not have the life she and her mother had, the unhappiness and pain and loneliness.

Now that she knows what family is, what it can be, she will not have anything else.

 

***

 

‘It was so lovely to meet your nephews, Lord M,’ she tells him as they sit outside in the rotunda near the stairs the next morning.

‘I’m glad you liked them, ma’am. You definitely made an impression on George,’ he says wryly.

‘Oh, he was so sweet. Very serious,’ she says, and he chuckles.

‘He told Emily later that when he’s finished being a pilot, he wants to be your Private Secretary, ma’am.’

‘Really?’

‘Well, a while ago, he asked me what my job entailed. I told him that working for the Queen meant that I got to spend a good deal of my days in her company.’

She frowns, puzzled, so he raises an eyebrow at her, and he smirks when her eyes widen in realisation. She immediately blushes, and he chuckles at her. ‘He is cute. But maybe a little young,’ she says.

‘You’ll break his heart, ma’am,’ he teases, and she looks at him imploringly.

‘Oh, don’t! He’s so sweet,’ she says, and he laughs.

‘I won’t say a word,’ he promises.

But her face grows a little more pensive. ‘I was talking to Emily about the boys,’ she says, and she looks a little wary now, he thinks. ‘She said that George and Will had different fathers. But I thought that Lord Cowper only died a few years ago.’

Yet another thing to explain, he thinks. Carefully, as always, but he knows this will shock her. He suspects she’s been taught about love and marriage in a very specific way.

‘Yes. George is Lord Cowper’s son,’ he says. ‘Will is Henry’s.’ She blinks at him a few times. ‘Emily and Peter’s marriage was not…well, they were very young and our parents didn’t love the idea, so they decided to elope.’ He sighs. ‘There were problems within months, and it had all fallen apart before George was two. They wanted to stay together for George’s sake, but then Peter met Holly, and Emily had already met Henry…’ He trails off, and glances at her. ‘They decided to finalise the divorce eventually, after years and multiple children apart, but then Peter got sick.’

‘Oh,’ she says, after a few moments where he says nothing. ‘I didn’t mean to pry,’ she adds quietly.

‘I don’t think Emily would mind you knowing, ma’am. She wouldn’t have said anything otherwise.’

‘Oh.’

And he wonders what she’s thinking as she sits there. Two Lamb children, two spectacularly failed marriages. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ he says. ‘I should have explained the situation beforehand.’

She blinks at him before shaking her head. ‘No, Lord M, I’m sorry. I’m just…’ She frowns slightly, clearly searching for the words, and he waits. ‘I haven’t seen many happy marriages,’ she says, her voice sad, and he nods.

‘No. Neither have I,’ he agrees quietly.

‘Sometimes I wonder why people even bother getting married anymore,’ she says in a small voice a few minutes later, a bitterness – hardness – to her voice. ‘You don’t need to be married to live together, to have children – to do anything.’

He lets out a sigh. He hates that her view of something so wonderful, something she should be looking forward to, is now being, in her mind, skewed and tainted by the world. But she hasn’t even had a chance to decide for herself what marriage really was and wasn’t. He doubts she’s even really seen a marriage – or any kind of good, decent relationship – up close for any length of time. She has no idea what marriage really is. What it could be.

And what a good role model he was.

‘Marriage is wonderful, ma’am, but hard. And I think people often get married for reasons that aren’t probably the best.’ He glances down at his coffee. ‘Marriage doesn’t mean the same to everyone.’

He looks up to see her eyes go wide. ‘I’m sorry, Lord M. I didn’t mean to… ‘

He huffs a breath and shakes his head a little at her. ‘You should decide for yourself what you want marriage to be,’ he says carefully, looking at his hands before looking back up at her. ‘Only you can decide that, ma’am,’ he says gently, and she looks down before nodding.

‘I think I would want my marriage to be happy,’ she says, and he gives her a small smile.

‘Most people do.’ He lets out a sigh. ‘But – you must get married before you have children, ma’am,’ he declares.

‘Why?’ she all but demands, frowning.

‘Any child born out of wedlock is by law ineligible for the throne. And that is a fight you do not need.’

She stares at him for a moment before looking away, her face somewhat resigned, he thinks. ‘Yes, I know.’ It’s heavy, this topic – too heavy for today, he thinks, but he’s on what he is absolutely sure is the Duchess’s side for this particular point. He’s entirely sure she doesn’t envisage her future as anything other than what she’s been taught – she holds her position and duty in too high esteem to consider anything other than what social expectation has outlined for her – but he also knows just how much the past eighteen months has thrown her childhood into stark relief.

‘Besides, you’re right, ma’am – George is a little young for fatherhood,’ he deadpans, and can’t help but laugh when her eyes narrow at him before she covers her face in her hands and groans.

 

Chapter Text

When the shoot runs horribly overtime, he’s pleased he’d organised it for an afternoon where she had no official functions in the evening. He’d known she wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of a professional photographer – certainly not a whole team from Vanity Fair – so he’s not surprised to find that she spends most of her time chatting to the photographer and the interviewer about lighting and angles and colour and types of lenses, rather than having her photo taken, much to his and Emma and Harriet’s amusement.

Harriet’s thrilled to have another reason to dress her in some of the latest fashion and the two of them have spent what feels like collective weeks planning and organising, so when everyone arrives, she’s positively bubbling with excitement.

‘You have to come back down and see, Lord M,’ she says when he tells her he has work to do once everything is set up and going. But he cannot resist her smile, not now when he’s spent the weeks since his return treasuring every one she’s given him – absence really did make the heart grow fonder, and her smiles are all the more precious to him now after he’d almost lost her – so he quietly promises to return later in the day.

When he finds he’s a little more distracted than usual at his desk, accomplishing little that morning, he chooses not to examine it too closely; the weather really was perfect – all warm sun and cool breezes – and he was restless. So he wanders down to the corridor near her rooms, looking out the window that currently affords him the best view, and just watches. She stands on the back steps of the palace, striking in the long floral patchwork-looking dress Harriet’s selected, before walking carefully back down to look at the screen and talk to the photographer before returning to her pose. He chuckles; she must be driving the poor woman crazy. He wonders briefly how many questions the interviewer has managed to get in.

He’s about to head back to his office when a short bark grabs his attention. He looks down the hall to see Dash racing towards him, and when he squats down to pat the excited little dog, an idea springs brightly to mind and he smiles. He thinks she won’t mind.

When she spots him walking down the lawn towards her, her happy cry of Dash! makes him chuckle. He wanders over to where she’s standing off to the side, the dog in his arms, and she coos delightedly at her pup.

‘He seemed so forlorn without you, ma’am,’ he explains, and she grins up at him.

‘Oh, someone has Lord M wrapped around their little paw,’ she coos to the dog as she takes him from his arms. He tilts his head in acceptance. He thinks perhaps the little dog’s owner is the one who has him wrapped around her little finger, but he’s not going to say that out loud.

‘Having fun, ma’am?’ he asks.

‘Oh, yes, I’m learning so much,’ she says, eyes wide, and he chuckles.

‘Not quite the point, ma’am, but I’m glad you’re finding it interesting.’

‘Harriet is having fun dressing me,’ she says loud enough for Harriet to hear where she was standing next to what looked to him like a rack of dresses.

‘It’s not every day you get to shoot for Vanity Fair, ma’am,’ Harriet shoots back. ‘I know models who would kill to be doing what you’re doing today.’

‘Well, they’re welcome to it,’ she replies. ‘I find the constant changing of clothes and hair and make-up exhausting,’ she tells him.

But he thinks she’s gorgeous, her dark hair brushed back from her face in what looks like a messy, more sculpted version of her usual bun, her makeup soft, and the patchwork pastels and florals of her high-necked dress matching perfectly with the blue of her eyes and the dark brown of her hair. She looks elegant, regal, and youthful all at the same time, and he’s a little in awe of Harriet’s skill.

‘More exhausting than reading through legislation, ma’am?’ he asks, distracting himself. ‘Because I can bring that down for you, if you’d like,’ he deadpans, and she shoots him a look, and he smirks. ‘It’s a lovely day for it,’ he says, before looking down at his watch. ‘But you do appear to be behind schedule.’

Her lips twist. He’s already teased her today.

You must promise one thing, ma’am.

What’s that?

That you will allow the photographer to get at least some photos, ma’am, before you hound her with questions.

He’d merely smirked at the look she’d shot him. It’s all your fault, you know. You gave me the camera.

‘We’re going to do some of the last photos inside when it gets dark if we need to. I’ve already told Lehzen.’

‘How are you finding the questions?’ he asks a little more quietly, eyeing the interviewer who was sitting a good few metres away, typing away on a laptop.

‘She’s barely asked anything. She seems more interested in listening to my conversation with Amalie, the photographer,’ she says, frowning a little, and he nods.

‘Ah. I’ll leave you to it, then, ma’am,’ he says, and she frowns.

‘Are you very busy? It does get a little boring while they set up everything,’ she asks, and he gives her a small smile.

‘I’ll be back in an hour,’ he promises.

When he returns an hour later with coffee for everyone, she tells him in her excitement that he’s her favourite person in the world, and he’s just pleased that no one other than a now-smirking Emma seems to hear it.

He finds them in her library later, and he’s leaning against the door, just watching her be beautiful in a maroon, flower-covered gown that looks like a modern version of something her great-grandmother might have worn, and he’s struck by how mature she looks. How old.

She’s stunning.

He feels that familiar pull in his stomach that reminds him that he’s probably staring, and he pushes himself off the door frame, glancing around.

‘She’s beautiful,’ Emma says quietly at his side. He turns in surprise; he hadn’t heard her coming.

‘Yes,’ he agrees quietly after a moment. ‘Is it going well?’

‘It appears to be,’ she says, as they watch her talk with the photographer. ‘You’ll see the photos later, I assume,’ she says, and he nods.

‘Everything is on approval,’ he says. Neither he nor the Earl were new at this; they’d refused to allow them any access unless they could approve the photos and text that would be published in its entirety.

‘There are some lovely ones of you,’ Emma comments before she walks quickly away, and oh no, no, that was not the plan.

‘Lord M!’ Victoria calls, interrupting his mild panic. ‘Come and see.’

He walks over to where she’s standing with her camera, the one he’d bought her, and she holds up the little screen for him to see. ‘It’s not brilliant on this size screen, but you get the idea. What do you think?’

It’s one of the roses from the garden; it’s in the foreground, the rest of the roses behind it blurred, and it looks like something she’d download from the internet for the background of her laptop. He’s impressed. ‘Wow, ma’am. Did you take that?’

‘I did. Amalie has been showing me how to use some of the features I hadn’t quite figured out yet,’ she explains. ‘It’s been such a brilliant day,’ she says, smiling broadly up at him, and he can’t help but smile back.

‘I’m glad, ma’am.’

She turns as Emma walks up to them. ‘If you’re not too tired, ma’am, Amalie would like just a few more photos.’ She nods and turns to him.

‘Will you stay for dinner? You have to see the photos I’ve taken,’ she says, and he thinks that perhaps he shouldn’t, not tonight, but she must sense his hesitation, and she frowns a little petulantly. ‘It’s only fair, Lord M, since you bought me the camera,’ she argues, and he shakes his head and smiles.

‘If you like, ma’am,’ he says, and she smiles happily at him before following Emma back to the photographer.

He thinks back to her first meeting with Harriet, how she’d been terrified and all but begging him with her eyes to stay, and he thinks she’s getting there, his little Queen, who really isn’t so very little anymore.

She’s grown and changed and he thinks that’s what’s different. She’s still the same beautiful, fiery young woman he’s loved for so long, but the trials and struggles of the past months have refined her, strengthened her. She’s risen to the challenge, done far more and far better than anyone really expected. She knows so much more of what she’s capable of now. She might have fought tooth and nail to keep him, but that same fight has shown that she doesn’t need him quite as much anymore. It’s both a relief and a sadness; with her growing, she won’t rely on him so much, her Lord M. He will eventually become obsolete, replaceable.

Which is how it should be.

But that is a long way off, he tells himself. He knows there will be times where her crown still wobbles, where she reverts to the girl-Queen he met at Kensington what feels like a lifetime ago, but those times are so few and far between. She’s more sure of herself now. She’s lost some smaller battles and won some bigger ones, fought hard and bravely, even when everything seemed against her – even him – and wears her scars with pride.

He’s so proud of her, his little Queen, and of the beautiful woman she’s becoming. She’s slowly transforming into the Queen he knows is there; the Queen that is now flourishing in the light.

 

***

 

He’s sure to walk over to the head photographer as she’s packing up.

‘Ms Baden?’ he asks, holding out his hand. ‘William Lamb – Lord Melbourne,’ he introduces himself, adding his title at the end, and the photographer nods in recognition and shakes his hand.

‘Yeah. Amalie is cool, Lord Melbourne,’ she replies, and Melbourne shakes his head.

‘William is fine. Thank you for everything you’ve done today. It seemed to go very well.’

And the photographer nods. ‘It was great. Her Majesty was a delight to work with,’ she says a little awkwardly. ‘Am I allowed to say that?’ she asks after a moment, her face suddenly contorting a little with concern, and Melbourne smiles.

‘Yes, it’s fine,’ he says.

‘Oh, good. Sorry, I’ve never shot royalty before. I’ve never even met royalty before,’ she adds, and Melbourne’s lips twist slightly. ‘She’s really into photography,’ she says after a moment, her eyes widening slightly.

‘Yes, Her Majesty is a very keen photographer. She was very grateful that you were kind enough to answer her many questions,’ he replies.

‘It was pretty amazing,’ Amalie replies, and Melbourne has to resist the urge to laugh at just how star-struck this photographer – who works with models and celebrities and all the most famous people for a living – is by the Queen. ‘That’s a really brilliant camera for a first,’ she says knowingly, and Melbourne nods. ‘Good selection.’ Melbourne blinks at her before it registers. ‘She said you bought it for her birthday.’

‘Ah. Yes.’ And that increasingly familiar feeling of discomfort settles into the back of his mind, and he resists the urge to shove his hands in his pockets. ‘Ah, the photos from today,’ he starts.

‘Yeah, Michaela will email you their selection. I don’t really have too much to do with it once the editing is done,’ she explains. ‘Oh, I gave a copy of all the photos to…Her Majesty,’ she says, stumbling a little at the end. ‘Just the hi-res JPEGS. Her Assistant had a hard drive.’ She shrugs, smiling. ‘Not technically supposed to, but it’s the Queen. And she was really nice.’

‘Ah. Thank you,’ Melbourne says, swallowing a laugh. Completely star-struck, he thinks, and he doesn’t really blame her. But this is not really why he’s having this conversation. ‘I believe there were some taken of me,’ he starts, his eyes narrowing slightly, and Amalie smiles.

‘Yeah, mostly when you came down with her dog and the coffee before,’ she replies. ‘Nice shots – she really liked them. Cute pup.’

And Melbourne blinks before nodding, and oh, that was not supposed to happen. ‘Yes, he’s much loved,’ he replies, pausing, unsure of exactly how to word this. ‘I would prefer Her Majesty remain the subject of the photos that are published,’ he says carefully, and Amalie nods slowly.

‘Sure, I’ll tell Michaela,’ she says, and he smiles wryly.

‘Whilst I’m sure discretion is something I can take for granted, I would rather they didn’t make it that far,’ he says, and Amalie’ eyes widen before she nods.

‘Right. Lord Melbourne,’ she says after a moment, giving him a thumbs-up, and he thinks she understands what he’s saying. After everything that had happened in the past months, he was not taking any risks. ‘I’ll make sure they disappear,’ she says.

‘Thank you,’ he explains. ‘I appreciate it, and I think Her Majesty would as well.’ The photographer nods before pursing her lips.

‘Actually, would you mind if I just cropped you out of the raws before I send them in?’ she asks. ‘There’s just this really great one with Dash,’ she says, trailing off, eyeing him a little, and he thinks for a moment he’s being studied.

‘Sure,’ he concedes. As long as he doesn’t make Vanity Fair at any point in the future, he doesn’t really mind.

‘Fabulous. Thanks,’ she says, smiling. ‘It’s a really lovely photo,’ she says, clearly trying to convince him, and he smiles.

‘I’m sure I’ll see it,’ he says, and she frowns.

‘Ahh, yes. I assume you’re all good with Her Majesty having those?’ she says.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, that’s fine,’ he agrees. ‘I doubt there would be much I could about it now anyway,’ he says good-naturedly and she grimaces slightly.

‘Sorry,’ and he shakes his head, smiling. At least he knows what some of her backgrounds will be for the next little while.

But then a thought hits him, and he stops, thinking. ‘Actually, I do have one other favour to ask.’

 

***

 

Emma texts him later that evening: I sent you an email.

He sees that there’s no text, just attachments, so he clicks on them.

He thinks he understands why the photographer wanted to keep the ones of her with Dash, and he swallows.

She’s radiant as she laughs up at him, Dash panting happily in her arms, and he curses his weakness.

The next is even more telling, he thinks, and he chews on his lip as he studies it. He thinks it must have been when he was asking her about the questions; they’re standing close together, his back angled slightly towards the camera and his hand in his pocket, and she’s caught them in a silent moment, because it looks for all the world that they’re just staring into each other’s eyes. She has an earnest, open look on her face, and he looks vaguely concerned, and oh, he doesn’t deserve to be sitting at the desk, calling himself her Private Secretary because he clearly had learned nothing from the past months.

He’s been back for all of a month and he quite literally hands the press their much-loved scandal on a platter and all that would need to happen is for the photographer to send the wrong photo, to forget that she was going to crop him out completely, to forget to delete the photos, and it’s all over again. Only this time, there was no coming back from it. It was there in high definition splendid colour for the world to see in the Gardens of Buckingham Palace and he is an idiot and a fool and so, so careless.

His phone screen lights up on the desk next to him. They’re lovely. He runs his hand over his face, letting out a sigh.

They’re going to get us both into trouble.

They’re not leaving the palace.

They already have.

You said she said she’d crop them. And it’s all on approval. They can’t publish anything we don’t approve. Stop worrying.

It’s all well and good for Emma to say, he thinks, but it’s not so much the published photos he’s worried about. It would take nothing, nothing at all, for one of those photos to make it onto the internet.

Besides, she adds, it’s old news now. You’re old news. It’d only make page four.

He rolls his eyes, but her point is clear. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it would be okay. There were contracts and clauses and if anything did leak, there would be hell to pay for Vanity Fair and everyone involved. The damage would be done, for sure, but he hopes the threat is enough.

There was little point worrying about it now. He would just have to wait and see.

 

***

 

Emma notices the little things.

He never swears anymore; the worst she’s heard from his mouth in months is a quiet ‘Damn!’.

And, despite his reputation as a womaniser, she knows better – he’s always had many female friends – but even she’s noticed that he only has eyes for one woman now.

She notices that he has settled into a pattern of loving her quietly. No longer is he tormented, pushed and pulled by emotions. She thinks he’s come to accept it and is just going along with the flow. She thinks he believes the Queen will never see him that way.

She notices that the Queen, on the other hand, loves him as fiercely as she always has. She keeps her Lord M close, even as she grows and strengthens and no longer leans on him quite so much for everything.

She thinks there’s a strength to that fierceness, that tight grip she maintains, a strength borne of the knowledge that the world was a cruel place and her Lord M her hard-won beacon, guiding her through those cold, dark waters.

But most of all, she notices that those once-dull, now-bright green eyes contain a certain softness when directed at his young Queen, but at times contain a fire that she watches him try desperately to quash.

She notices that despite the parade of young, very eligible – and some very handsome – bachelors, the young Queen only has eyes for her Lord M. And those eyes speak the same volumes back to his as his do to hers, only she doesn’t think either of them has quite noticed the other just yet.

She wonders just how long it will take.

 

Chapter Text

First week in July

 

He eyes the email in front of him before picking up his phone.

‘Do you think this is wise?’

‘It’s just a suggestion,’ Wellington says, his voice practically dripping with condescension. ‘Someone to add to your list.’

Of course he has a list, but he won’t admit that to Wellington. He’s been making a list of suitable replacements in his mind since she first declared that Conroy had to go a few weeks ago. He is not adding anyone Wellington suggests to it.

Well, he’d never admit it to Wellington if he did.

It’s also not really his place to have a list at all – as much as he knows she will eventually ask his advice anyway – and it’s certainly not her Prime Minister’s place to be adding to it.

He hates that it’s all so clear to Wellington of all people. As much as they were tentative allies in the protection of their Queen, it’s also Wellington.

‘Your point has been made.’

‘Any progress?’

‘Some.’ He cannot really tell her Prime Minister much at all; it’s not his to share. ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel,’ he offers. It was going to be a long tunnel, he thinks, and he’s still not entirely sure what the scenery will be like at the end.

‘Finally. I’m glad to hear it.’

 

***

 

She’s made it her mission to invite him to everything she can, he thinks, and it’s become something of a game. He has to remind her occasionally that he actually has a job to do. But he hates telling her no, so he says yes to whatever he thinks he can get away with. Which isn’t much, really; he’s so far been to two concerts, and he knows she has plans for more. He thinks it’ll be both a blessing and a curse when Charlotte Canning officially begins in a week.

But he simply can’t attend everything, and nor should he. He’s trying to keep more to the background, to stay away from anything and everything might potentially have a photographer. Despite all Emma’s assurances, he isn’t going to risk anything. But Emma is also one hundred percent on the Queen’s side in this.

‘I see your roses are happy,’ Emma says, looking down at the small vase on her desk. ‘They’re lovely.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he replies, smiling. ‘They are under-appreciated at home.’

‘Come around for lunch on Sunday?’ she asks, and he frowns for a moment.

‘What’s died this time?’ he asks, and she smiles.

‘My azaleas,’ she says with a sigh. ‘I moved them like you suggested, but they’re still unhappy.’

He turns as he sees the Queen appear around the corner, folder in hand. ‘Ma’am,’ he greets and she smiles at him.

‘I was just bringing this out for you,’ she says, handing him the folder. But then she spots the yellow roses on Emma’s desk, and bends down to smell them. ‘Oh, these are lovely,’ she breathes.

‘William grew them,’ Emma takes great pride in saying, and he resists the urge to sigh.

She looks up at him, surprised, and he gives her a tight smile. ‘Lord M! They’re beautiful,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know you grew roses.’

‘He grows many things,’ Emma says, eyeing him with a smirk, and he shoots her a look. ‘But the roses seem to love it here in London,’ she finishes with, and his lips twist.

‘I used to, ma’am,’ he says. ‘The roses really take care of themselves.’

‘He’s the best,’ Emma adds, and he blinks at her. She just smirks back.

‘You’ll have to show me one day, Lord M,’ she says, and he nods.

‘I’d be honoured, ma’am,’ he replies. ‘Perhaps it can be a planned visit, this time?’ he jokes, and she shakes her head at him as she rolls her eyes.

It’s about an hour later when she sends him a message.

The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is in my calendar.

Yes, ma’am.

I think I need a flower expert on hand to explain everything.

He can’t help but smile at her silliness.

The Royal Horticultural Society has advised that Sir Nicholas will be your guide.

I hate to trouble him. I’m sure he’s very busy. It’s such a significant event in their calendar.

He grimaces a little; Sir Nicholas would be really very offended if she chose her Private Secretary over him as her official guide for the day.

I’m sure he’s looking forward to it, ma’am. He’s very proud of the Flower Show.

I suppose.

And with that, he’s won this round.

 

***

 

She’s tired, he can see it. For all their attempts at filling up her calendar to keep her busy, along with all her normal engagements as Queen over the summer, she’s barely had a break, and that, along with the strain of the previous months, have taken their toll. He can see it in her face, her manner; she still looks beautiful, but she’s just a little worn, he thinks. A little thin. Harriet had taken up his challenge with gusto, and she’s had virtually no free time in the weeks since his return. It’s working; she hasn’t seen Conroy since before her meeting with Mr Harper, and her mother has already complained to Emma that she never sees her daughter anymore.

He thinks he’ll ask Peel to get a copy of the Duchess’s calendar if he can. He’d tried once, but Conroy had flat out ignored his requests; perhaps he’ll respond to Peel – or Emma, maybe. She doesn’t need to be gone from the palace twenty-four-seven – just when Conroy is around, which is most likely when the Duchess is around. And most likely during the day.

He thinks he might place a call to Harper, too. He knows these things take time, but Harper has a soft spot for his sweet young Queen – he’d told him as much at their last visit – so he wonders if they might perhaps hurry the process a little.

But when she’s tired, like everyone, she becomes cranky and snappish, he well knows, and he’s oh so keen to keep her as even as he can. So when Amalie arrives at Emma’s desk the next day at midday, he’s pleased he’s organised this little thing for her, something fun that she can do at home in jeans and a shirt that will keep her occupied most of the afternoon. Harriet hadn’t minded an afternoon off herself.

‘So this is still a surprise?’ Amalie asks as he escorts her to the Queen’s study, and he nods.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Her Majesty’s schedule has been rather full of late, and she’s keen to have some time out and learn how to use her camera,’ he explains, and she nods.

‘Cool. We can definitely start in the gardens,’ she says. ‘We’ll start with the basics; grids and lines, rule of thirds – stuff we didn’t really talk about when I was here – and then move on to the more complicated stuff.’

‘Sounds good,’ he says as they get closer to her door. ‘Would you mind waiting here?’ he says, and she shakes her head and smiles.

‘Good afternoon, Lord M,’ she says when he walks in.

‘Good afternoon, ma’am,’ he replies. ‘Sleep well?’

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘It was nice to not have to wake up to an alarm.’

‘Are you busy, ma’am?’ he asks, and she looks at him oddly. He usually knows her schedule inside out.

‘No. I don’t have much now for the rest of the day,’ she says slowly, and he smiles.

‘Excellent,’ he replies, walking to the door and sticking his head out to where Amalie was waiting.

‘I thought perhaps you might like to learn a little more about your new toy from a professional,’ he says, as Amalie walks in behind him. ‘Ms Baden has offered to teach you for a few sessions.’

And the way her face lights up, the smile spreads across her face, makes his whole world shine, and he can’t help but smile back at her.

 

***

 

An hour later, he gets a message on his phone.

It’s a photo of the little pavilion at the end of the gardens, the white of the limestone shining brightly against the dark leaves of the trees that surround it, and he thinks she’s really very good at this. But he’s curious as to why it’s appeared on his phone.

Wow. Lovely, ma’am.

Thank you.

I thought you were using your camera?

I am. It has wifi and I transferred it across.

When he gets another three photos that afternoon – a beautiful photo of the back of the palace, another of the creeping rose vines on the brick walls, and another shot down the gardens towards the lake – he thinks this was a good decision.

When he sees her in the evening at her summons, right before he leaves for the day, he’s reminded of why he has to be so careful. ‘Did you have fun?’ he asks, and she smiles widely up at him.

‘I learned so much. I’m never going to remember it all,’ she says, her eyes wide. ‘But it was wonderful,’ she says, her smile soft, and he nods, dropping her gaze.

‘I’m glad, ma’am. I wasn’t about to see your present go to waste,’ he jokes, and she smiles knowingly at him.

‘Of course not.’ She reaches out and brushes her hand across his arm. ‘Thank you. Amalie told me you asked her and organised it all,’ she says, her eyes wide but soft, and he nods.

‘You’re welcome, ma’am,’ he says. But he can’t hold her gaze, his beautiful Queen, not when she looks at him like that. Not anymore. ‘I will see you tomorrow, ma’am,’ he says, plastering a small smile on his face, and she nods.

When he’s checking his emails later that night, he finds a photo from her. It’s the little Pavilion at sunset, the orange of the sun shining through at an angle from behind the trees, and there’s a note at the bottom of the email.

Thank you.

He lets out a sigh and sets the photo as the background on his computer.

 

***

 

 

She’s frowning when he arrives at her office. ‘I had invited the Duchess of Wellington to sit with us at Wimbledon,’ she says, ‘but her daughter is now due to give birth the day before.’

‘Ah,’ he says. ‘I think grandchildren might trump tennis, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Even Wimbledon with the Queen.’

‘Of course. But now I have a spare seat.’ He raises his eyebrows at her, and of course. ‘Would you like to come?’ she asks, already knowing the answer but asking anyway, and he blinks at her before pursing his lips, his eyes narrowing not unkindly, and ugh. ‘Yes, I know,’ she says before he can speak, letting out a huff.

But this was her life. She had already paid the price for her lack of thought, for not caring enough what the public or the press would think. She was not risking anything, especially not him, again. ‘I’ve invited Amalie,’ she says, and he raises his eyebrows.

‘Oh? She’s now a friend?’ he asks, and she thinks he’s pleased.

‘Maybe,’ she replies. ‘I like her. And I think I can trust her,’ she adds, and he nods. Amalie was just so different and despite some initial awkwardness – which was such a constant in her life as Queen that she’d almost perfected the art of ignoring it – she’d had fun learning about her camera, and spending time with someone who was nothing at all like the people she spent most of her time with. She was so down to earth, so effortlessly cool with her perfect dark skin, and her ringlet-curly, slightly hectic hair, and her style that makes Victoria almost jealous that she’s not five-foot-ten, and her confidence – so far beyond anything Victoria’s really known that she’d almost struggled to keep up.

But that doesn’t really leave too many others on her list of friends, and she frowns.

‘Have you considered the Duchess?’ he asks tentatively, and she just looks at him, disbelieving.

He wants her to ask Mama?

‘Sir John will be gone soon enough,’ he says quietly. She eyes him for a moment longer before her gaze softens. She knows he means well, she knows he does. She’s just not sure that she’s ready to forgive her mother yet. If ever. ‘You wouldn’t have to spend the entire time talking to her. I assume Harriet’s also going?’ he says.

‘Yes.’

‘And Anna?’

She nods reluctantly, and he just looks at her with those eyes that see everything, that seem to know exactly what she’s thinking but don’t judge her for any of it. His gaze draws the best from her, she knows, as reluctant as she is willing to give it sometimes.

‘I’m still angry with her,’ she tells him, and he nods.

‘No one is saying you shouldn’t be,’ he says, shaking his head a little, and she purses her lips. ‘But she’s probably wondering why you’re avoiding her. It could potentially be a good opportunity to spend some time with her without having to worry about Sir John, ma’am,’ he says, and she frowns at him. She hates that he’s making perfect sense with his logic and rational arguments.

‘Maybe,’ she says, and he nods in acceptance. But then an idea strikes her. ‘If I take Mama to the tennis, you have to come to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show with me,’ she decrees, and he eyes her, and she thinks she will definitely win this. He hates how broken her relationship is with her mother, and she knows now that he enjoys his flowers.

He waits a beat longer before speaking. ‘Fine, but Sir Nicholas still has to be your official guide,’ he says, and she smirks triumphantly at him. That was an easy win.

 

***

 

‘Mama would like to Sir John to come to Edinburgh for Christmas,’ she announces that afternoon when the rain is pouring in sheets outside, and his eyebrows rise. He wonders briefly how long Harper meant when he said it would take some time to sort through everything. ‘I don’t know if I can survive living with the man for a week,’ she tells him darkly, and he purses his lips and nods. This is not news to him.

‘Holyroodhouse Palace has nearly three hundred rooms,’ he offers.

‘But one dining room,’ she retorts. He concedes her point with a tilt of his head. She wouldn’t be able to avoid him in Edinburgh the way she avoids him here.

‘Well, let’s hope that everything is sorted before December twenty, ma’am,’ he says gently.

 

Chapter Text

Early July

 

When they arrive, he bids her farewell and leaves to wander the gardens alone. She pouts a little at him, before letting out a sigh at his raised eyebrow. The cameras would be following her today.

He was likely going to struggle to avoid them anyway, he thinks. But he has her route memorised and on his phone, so he heads in the opposite direction – and runs right into Liz.

‘Will!’ she cries, throwing her arms around him, and whilst he’s internally cringing, he also can’t help but smile at how pleased she is to see him. So much for avoiding the press, he thinks as he glances around. But he also can’t help but be happy to see her as he hugs her in return. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asks, taking in his suit and tie before she realises. ‘You’re working.’

‘I am,’ he replies. ‘The Queen is currently in the Rose Garden,’ he says quietly, looking at his watch. There were very few people around; it was early, and they’d deliberately reduced the ticket numbers right down for the first hour she would be there as a security measure. Despite all that, he still wasn’t overly keen to advertise her presence.

‘That explains today,’ Liz says, looking around. ‘Security’s crazy,’ she says, shaking her head, eyeing him. ‘You look good.’

He glances down at his feet. ‘So do you,’ he replies. ‘But you always look good.’

She narrows her eyes at him before putting her arm through his. ‘Mind if I join you?’ she asks quietly, and he smiles.

‘Not at all.’

‘How’s it all going?’ she asks a few moments later, as they wander through the Floral Marquee.

‘Good,’ he says carefully. He’s not sure what else to say. Things had been bad, and now they were good again; a tentative kind of good, the promise of trouble hovering at the back of his mind continually. He’d been a little too blinded by happiness before, and it had caught him off-guard. Not again.

‘I saw that you went on holiday,’ she says, her voice full of sarcasm, and he huffs a laugh.

‘Yes.’

‘How was that?’

‘Not as relaxing as I’d hoped,’ he says, smiling wryly at her.

When she smiles back at him, he gets the distinct impression that he’s being studied. But she looks down at her feet after a second, and he lets it go. She’s always tried to look after him, her bruised autumn rose, as she’d called him once.

‘Still growing your flowers?’ she asks, stopping to finger the petals of some lilies.

He smiles. ‘Some. I’m a little busy now here in London.’

‘Yes, I see,’ she says. ‘You seem to be enjoying this job a little more than the last,’ she says wryly, and he huffs a laugh. He’s not sure enjoying is the word.

‘I am enjoying it. It’s a much more satisfying role.’

‘Than being a politician? I’m shocked,’ she says, and he chuckles. ‘Well, you’re definitely busier. You’re never at anything much anymore. Even Ellie Holland asked where you were a few weeks’ back,’ she comments.

He shrugs a little, not entirely sure what to say. How does he tell her that his life seems to have some purpose now? That he loves her so, his beautiful Queen, has settled into loving her quietly, guiding her as he basks in her light, his life no longer the dull series of greys or the pinball machine of parties and chaos it had been? That he no longer feels the desire to hide the pain of death and loss and futility behind a façade of alcohol and noise? That she has shown him, his beautiful Queen, however inadvertently, that he could love again?

‘I think that season of my life is over,’ he says carefully, looking down at where they’ve stopped in front of a sea of hydrangeas. He looks up and she’s smiling at him softly, almost knowingly, and he nods.

‘I’m not surprised,’ she replies, her voice quiet. ‘She seems lovely,’ she adds a few moments later.

‘She is,’ he agrees. ‘She’s exactly as she seems.’ He looks at her when she says nothing, and she’s just smiling at him.

‘I’m glad you’re happy, Will,’ she says, squeezing his arm.

 

***

 

He finds her later back in the Rose Garden, meandering slowly amongst the rows of colour. ‘How was the scarecrow judging, ma’am?’ he asks, and she shoots him a wry look.

‘It was actually brilliant,’ she tells him a little imperiously. ‘They’re so creative. And they were so proud of their work – as they should have been. I found it difficult to award a winner.’

‘Excellent, ma’am,’ he replies with a smirk.

‘Did you enjoy roaming the Flower Show without me?’

‘I did,’ he says, shooting her a sly look at her choice of words. ‘Flowers have a way of making people smile.’

She nods. ‘They make me happy,’ she says on a sigh, and he understands. ‘It’s your roses!’ she says suddenly, spotting some bright yellow roses in the middle of an archway and walking over to them.

‘Close,’ he says, looking at the tag. ‘Not quite. But very similar, ma’am.’

‘These names are such a mouthful,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how you remember them.’

‘Years of practice?’ he guesses, and she smiles.

‘Emma said you used to grow many different kinds of flowers out at Brocket Hall,’ she says, as they continue walking.

‘Yes. I tried, anyway. My mother was very good.’ She’s watching him, and he smiles. ‘Augustus used to love watering the roses when we were there. He loved all the different colours.’

‘Flowers make people happy,’ she says again, and he nods. ‘Would you show me Brocket Hall one day?’ she asks tentatively, and he blinks at her.

He thinks he’d like nothing more than to show her his family home; the grounds, the river, the bridge. Augustus’s favourite tree. The rooks.

And the way she smiles brightly up at him when he tells her he’d be honoured sits in his heart for the rest of the day.

 

***

 

She checks her Twitter feed every morning now either before or at breakfast. It’s mostly news outlets – The Guardian, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the New York Times – along with other world leaders, important organisations like the UN, and other people she just likes.

Occasionally she checks his tag; it would not do for him to make a return to the headlines. She would not risk losing him again. She’d been blindsided by everything before – she had learned her lesson, and would stay on top of everything as much as she could.

She’s mindlessly scrolling through her feed when she sees it.

It’s a photo of him at the Flower Show, a tall, beautiful woman on his arm and something drops low and heavy in her stomach. She clicks the link, waiting impatiently as the page takes a few moments to load.

On-Again: Lord Melbourne and Old Flame Reunite in the Flowers

He’s smiling, looking down at his feet, and she’s laughing, and she knows this woman – she’s seen her before. Elizabeth Branden. The next photo makes something in her chest tighten and she puts her toast down, the thought of food making her stomach revolt. He’s smiling at her, and she’s smiling at him, and oh, she can’t look at this anymore, she thinks. She doesn’t want to.

She’s being irrational, she thinks a few minutes later as she looks out the window at the rain that was steadily saturating the garden. He’d told her that Elizabeth Branden was just a friend now, nothing more.

Maybe he’d changed his mind.

She unlocks her phone and the picture appears again. He looks happy, she thinks, and that twist in her stomach returns.

She rolls her eyes and lets out a laugh. Here she was, after everything, after the events of the past year, reading and believing headlines.

 

***

 

She smiles up at him when he appears, but she drops his eyes almost straight away, and she kicks herself. She wouldn’t make a big deal out of this.

She was already making a big deal out of it, and she needed to stop. She doesn’t even know why she cares so much.

She takes her coffee with a quiet thank you, and when she glances at him, she realises he’s looking at her rather intently, and she looks away again. Stupid, she thinks. Just ask. ‘You made the internet again,’ she announces, holding up her phone, and to her surprise, he looks away.

She knows very well now what he looks like when he’s uncomfortable; he blinks more frequently, he rubs his forefinger and his thumb together at his sides. When it’s about her, he refuses to meet her eye for long.

He is definitely uncomfortable, she thinks, and she’s not sure why, and the thought does nothing for her nerves.

‘Yes, it would appear that I was unsuccessful in my attempts to remain incognito at the Flower Show, ma’am,’ he replies a little resignedly, and she nods.

‘They’re nice photos,’ she says, and she means it.

He lets out a dry laugh. ‘For paparazzi shots, sure.’

‘I’m glad you weren’t alone the whole time,’ she blurts out, surprising herself. She’s not sure where that came from, and she’s not really sure if she means it, but she should. She should be happy for him, her Lord M. He’s had so much tragedy in his life; he deserves all the happiness in the world, she thinks, and oh, she wants him to be happy but—

She stops herself mid-thought. No, if she was truly his friend, she would want him to be happy no matter what. He’s always telling her that she should be happy, that she needs to weigh her duties with her own happiness, and she would want the same for him. He should be happy.

She tries to ignore the conflict within her, that gnawing at her, that but—

The shame that but brings makes her cheeks hot and she blinks.

‘It was nice to see Liz,’ he says haltingly, and her eyes flick up to his, but he’s not looking at her. ‘I haven’t seen her in a good year.’

She nods quickly when his eyes meet hers. ‘Friends are important,’ she says, and she’s proud of how even her voice is.

‘Friends are important, ma’am,’ he repeats, and his eyes narrow slightly before he smirks a little at her. ‘We’re having dinner tomorrow night,’ he says, and she forces herself to breathe.

‘Oh, that will be nice,’ she replies.

‘Yes. She would like me to meet her girlfriend,’ he says conspiratorially and oh.

Girlfriend.

She feels her cheeks grow hot and she’s not sure whether it’s embarrassment at her assumption about him or the whole idea of girlfriend that’s the main culprit. She looks away, and she knows he can see it, the way she’s blushing furiously, and she glances up at him and it’s in his eyes.

He’s laughing at her.

Oh, horrible man.

But then she remembers the photos, what the press had said months ago – what he’d told her himself about him and Elizabeth Branden – and she’s now really confused, and she can feel her cheeks growing more and more red, but she has to know.

‘But…I thought…you…and her…’ She stops and scrunches up her face, begging him not to make her continue.

His lips twist a little. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ he says, and he’s going to make her say it and she hates him so much sometimes. So much.

‘I don’t understand,’ she eventually settles on because she doesn’t. She doesn’t understand. They had been together for however brief a time, she knew, but now there’s a girlfriend and-- oh.

Oh.

‘Some people have a wider variety of…taste than others, ma’am,’ is all he says, and she can see he’s trying not to laugh now. ‘Not everyone is attracted solely to the opposite sex.’

‘Yes.’ She knew this, in an oblique, abstract kind of way, but it was still a slightly odd feeling after growing up with years of Kensington and Lehzen and scriptures about the sanctity of marriage.

‘But you don’t know anything, ma’am,’ he says quickly. ‘It’s not public knowledge.’

‘Of course,’ she says quickly, shaking her head. ‘I hope it’s a nice evening.’

‘Thank you,’ he replies, and she thinks she’s going to throw something at him if his stupid golden-green eyes continue to laugh at her like that.

 

Chapter Text

Early-Mid July

 

She knows he chooses her letters carefully, that they’re vetted before she gets to see them, and she understands why. She gets around four hundred letters a day, and whilst she’d love to answer most of them, it’s an impossible task.

He knows she loves the ones from the children, the little drawings and handwritten pages, some of them barely decipherable but so sweet in their earnestness. She loves replying to these letters the most, knowing that it will bring them such a thrill to get a letter from the Queen.

But by the time she’s finished this last letter, the tears are slipping down her cheeks and she’s sniffling.

Emma appears at her door at just the wrong moment, and she’s at her desk with a gasp. ‘Ma’am, what’s wrong?’

Victoria shakes her head and passes her the letter, and watches as Emma reads the typed words, glancing at the picture attached at the back of the boy and his slightly worn Tower Guard bear. She watches as Emma’s face crumples a little as well. ‘Oh,’ she says eventually. ‘What a beautiful letter, ma’am,’ she says, handing it back, and Victoria nods, sniffling and wiping her eyes with a tissue.

‘I don’t even know what to say,’ she says. ‘He’s been through so much – so many surgeries, so much pain and rehabilitation. That bombing was months ago and he’s only going home now!’

Emma nods. ‘And he appreciates how lucky he is to be going home at all,’ she says with a shake of her head. Emma was right; many – too many – hadn’t made it home, and the thought still makes her want to cry.

‘But that’s why we have such wonderful children’s hospitals, and charities like the Starlight Foundation, ma’am,’ Emma tells her decidedly. ‘They give these children the kinds of opportunities they would never normally get.’

Victoria smiles a little and nods. They certainly did wonderful things, she knew; they sent her updates all the time, now that she’d been officially announced as patron. She’d told an amused Lord M that she wanted to go to Disneyland in France one day after watching a short video of one of their young recipients meet all her favourite Disney princesses.

And a thought hits her, and she sits up in her chair.

‘Yes,’ she breathes. ‘But maybe we can help too.’ She looks up at Emma. ‘I think I need to see Charlotte.’

 

***

 

When Charlotte appears at her door, she has to remind herself that she’s not Lord M – she’s new, and she hasn’t really settled in yet. Well, she assumes she hasn’t after only a few days.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she tells her, and Charlotte nods.

‘Of course, ma’am.’

‘How are you settling in?’ she asks, and Charlotte smiles.

‘Very well. Everyone is so kind, and the Earl has been in each morning.’

‘Yes, I’m pleased he’s been feeling well enough to make the trip,’ she replies, nodding – she’d made a point of inviting the Earl up to say hello.

‘What can I do for you, ma’am?’ Charlotte asks, seemingly sensing her nerves, and she drops her hands by her sides. She knows it’s her tell, the way she rubs her hand with her opposite thumb; Lord M had pointed it out once, much to her horror.

‘I know it’s late, but I wondered if it would be possible to add another Garden Party to the schedule this year,’ she says, and Charlotte’s brow furrows a little.

‘I’m sure it’s possible, ma’am, but it would depend on your schedule,’ she says. ‘What did you have in mind?’

‘I want to invite children.’

 

***

 

She works hard, his little Queen, and he knows that she expects – but appreciates, too – the hard work of others. He wonders how much of that is his own influence and Emma’s, and how much is from before; he thinks perhaps all her work around the Diplomatic Corps dinner last year set something of a tone – you never know how much you can do until you do it. He’s not entirely sure it’s a good tone, but she seems happy enough, and thus it’s not really his place to tell her otherwise.

‘How terrible would it be if I didn’t attend the State Reception for the Australian Prime Minister?’ she asks him when he arrives at her office at her summons right before lunch, and his eyebrows shoot up. He glances at Charlotte who he thinks is trying not to smile.

‘I’d say fairly catastrophic, ma’am, given that you’re hosting it,’ he replies, and she purses her lips.

‘Does it have to be that Sunday?’

He blinks, his eyes flicking to Charlotte’s, and he can see it in her eyes too; he’s spent hours and hours organising this Reception, with Charlotte coming in now on the tail end to help finish it off, and no, she cannot move it. Wellington would lose his mind, let alone what he’d tell the Australians. ‘Can I ask why, ma’am?’

‘I want to host a Garden Party for the children who were involved in the bombing, and their families. And the children honoured by the Children of Courage this year. And the Trauma Recovery Centre here in London,’ she says, and he blinks. ‘We’re trying to schedule it for some time at the end of September or maybe early October, before it gets too cold.’

‘Sounds wonderful, ma’am,’ he says, as his brain whirrs into action. ‘It’s mid-July now, ma’am,’ he warns, narrowing his eyes at her a little, and she nods.

‘Yes, I know it’s late, but Charlotte thinks we might be able to do it.’

He looks at Charlotte, who is looking rather calm for someone who has been thrown in the deep end of a very large and, at times, rather unforgiving pool. ‘Not that Sunday, ma’am,’ he says gently but firmly, shaking his head, and she and Charlotte nod.

It’s half an hour later and they’ve finally locked in a tentative date and he’s now more than curious. ‘What did you have planned for the party, ma’am?’ he asks, and she looks at him blankly.

‘Something fun,’ she says, and he can’t help the smile that spreads across his face.

‘Did you have anything specific in mind?’

She frowns at him. ‘I’m not sure yet,’ she says eventually, eyeing him a little.

‘You’ll have children from three years right through to seventeen, ma’am,’ Charlotte says. ‘Perhaps something carnival-themed?’

She blinks at Charlotte, and he wonders momentarily if she’s ever been to a carnival before; it doesn’t sound like something the Duchess would have approved of the young Princess attending. ‘Yes,’ she says a little hesitantly, and he nods.

‘A jumping castle, maybe? Some sideshow alley-type games,’ he muses, and Charlotte nods.

‘A reading nook. Face painting.’

‘A mini-soccer pitch.’

‘A lolly-hunt through part of the gardens,’ Charlotte suggests, and he smiles.

He glances at the Queen who is smiling tentatively, eyes wide as she looks between them. ‘Lots of cupcakes and sweets,’ she offers, and he nods.

‘Sugar for all,’ he says, and Charlotte chuckles.

‘And tea and coffee for the parents.’

‘I think it’s a wonderful idea, ma’am,’ he tells her, and she grins happily. ‘Let’s hope there’s enough time to organise it all.’

Charlotte nods. ‘I think there will be,’ she says.

He’s walking back towards the staff offices with Charlotte when she lets out a long breath.

‘Welcome to Buckingham Palace,’ he jokes, and she eyes him.

‘When did you first think you’d bitten off more than you could chew?’ she asks, and he lets out a laugh.

‘The moment she offered me the position?’ he guesses, and she smiles. ‘I think it was when she asked why the Iranian and Israeli ambassadors shouldn’t be stationed next to each other in the receiving line at her first Diplomatic Corps Dinner,’ he says honestly, and she gives him a horrified look. He knows that she of all people would understand, and best she does understand – she’s essentially the head of most of the Queen’s household as the most senior Official, and, he suspects, envisages herself as in this for the long haul. ‘That was a long time ago,’ he says. ‘She’s come a long way in the eighteen months since. But that’s where we started.’

‘Right,’ Charlotte says, nodding slowly, and he lets out a breath.

‘Assume nothing,’ he says. ‘But don’t underestimate her, whatever you do.’

She nods. ‘Noted.’ She looks up at him. ‘What else do I need to know?’ she asks matter-of-factly, and he purses his lips, before letting out a sigh.

‘She doesn’t get on well with the Duchess. Or the Duchess’s Comptroller, Sir John Conroy.’ He shakes his head. ‘Be careful there.’

She nods. ‘Good to know.’

‘Otherwise, Harriet Sutherland and Emma Portman know everything.’

‘Not you?’ she asks, eyeing him, and his lips quirk. He wonders how much she’s read; how much she knows. He assumes she’s read everything she can find; whether or not she believes it is another matter entirely. He would have to be careful around Charlotte Canning, he thinks; he suspects she sees much more than she lets on.

‘No,’ he replies with a small smile, giving a small shake of his head, and she nods after a moment.

‘Okay. Thanks.’

 

Chapter Text

 

When Emma tells him it’s his turn to take her, he doesn’t put up much of a fight. He quite enjoys the National Portrait Gallery, and he thinks she might like to see the paintings of some of her ancestors. Her own portraits would end up in there one day anyway, long after they’re both gone.

He wonders if they’ll end up getting down to the more modern portraits. He doesn’t really mind if they do; he’ll just redirect her, he thinks. The possibility sits at the back of his mind, that it – that he – might become part of the conversation, but he squashes it. It was unlikely.

It’s become something of a ritual; every week or two, Harriet, Emma or Anna – usually a combination of the three – quietly organise to take her somewhere new that she wouldn’t be able to visit during the standard hours without creating some kind of organised public chaos. But she’s a little tired, his beautiful Queen, so he’s requested that Harriet perhaps pull back on her exuberant planning. So far, she’s done a helicopter ride over London, a private boat trip on the Thames, another trip to the Ballet, and more than a few classical concerts at Royal Albert Hall (most of which she’s dragged him along to, arguing that she knows he enjoys them), and along with her very full summer schedule of Royal duties, he’s not surprised she seems a little weary. He feels like he barely sees her anymore.

These trips are always for a night when the Duchess is home; Emma has managed to keep a track of her published schedule, and so it’s fairly easy to work out when she’s likely to be around. She’s struggling, he can see. Every conversation with her mother that references Sir John drains her just a little further, and he knows that it plays in the back of her mind, that fear that he’ll do or say or publish something else about her, something more, and it’s eating away at what little love she has left for her mother.

He hates it. It’s killing him to watch that most precious of relationships be destroyed by that waste of space of a man that has ruled most of her life.

He just hopes that there will be something left to salvage when all is said and done. He prays the Duchess chooses her daughter over the memory of Conroy; he knows for sure that Conroy will choose freedom over the shackles of any kind of relationship with the Duchess.

She will have to forgive her mother first.

He’s been pushing gently, merely raising the idea once or twice, and each time he does, she turns on him, her eyes blazing, and he just quietly holds her gaze. She knows how he feels about this, and he’s not going to back down. She’s strong, and stubborn, his beautiful Queen, but he’s still playing to win.

He treasures the smile she gives him that afternoon when he tells her it will be him that accompanies her on this particular trip. So they work chronologically, starting at the Tudors, and she stops at Elizabeth.

‘She was a great Queen,’ she muses, staring at the painting in front of her.

‘She was, ma’am,’ he agrees.

‘She never married,’ she says, and he shakes his head. ‘I wonder if she wanted to,’ she says after a few seconds.

‘Possibly,’ he says, and she looks up at him. ‘She was close to several men during her life, according to historians.’ She looks thoughtful as she stares up at her ancestor, and he wonders what she’s thinking. They’ve not talked about this much, the idea of her marrying, beyond their discussion about his sister and what she’s said at the photoshoot. He thinks she would like to marry one day in theory, but that she hasn’t really given it much thought. No one had really caught her eye.

She’s young, he reasons. There was still plenty of time for that.

But he pushes the thought away as they continue walking through the rooms, talking about the various people and painters, him offering what he knows and her filling in some of his gaps with her own knowledge.

‘You seem to know quite a bit about medieval and modern European history, ma’am,’ he comments at one point, and she smiles ruefully.

‘The constitution may have been optional, but my mother insisted I know my ancestry.’

‘Ah.’

She stops for a while at quite a few of the portraits: Jane Austen’s drawing (he’d requested that one just for her visit), the Bronte Sisters – she loves Jane Eyre, he discovers – and, of course, Shakespeare. But they’re moving through quite quickly – she likes art, but there’s only so many paintings one can take in in one hit – and before he realises, they’re downstairs in the twentieth century paintings, deep in conversation about whether photos really counted as portraits, and he glances around at the next paintings and kicks himself. He knows this section well enough, he’s come here that often, and he’s just happily strolled in here with her without even thinking, too distracted by their conversation and just spending time with her, and he wonders if she’ll notice.

He thinks not. He is almost the spitting image of the man, as his own son was of him, but even that’s hard to tell from a painting. Even a remarkably good one, as this one is. But he can’t really redirect her now without turning her around, and so he just lets her wander along, waiting to see what will happen. She’ll probably walk right on by, he thinks. Even if she does stop – it was a rather prominent painting, and the way it was positioned by the Gallery makes it stand out – she’d be unlikely to figure it out.

They get closer and his stomach begins to twist, and he curses his own stupidity. This was who he was. He’d long made peace with it, and he would not be ashamed of something so completely outside of his control.

He could never be ashamed of his mother.

But they’re right at it now, and he’s holding his breath and she stops, turning to look at this portrait that’s in the middle of its own section of wall, and she tilts her head slightly as she studies it. He stands just behind her as she reads the little plaque on the wall that he’s practically memorised:

 

George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (18 December 1932 – 11 November 2000).  Petworth House in Sussex and Orchard Wyndham in Somerset, was a British peer, a major landowner and a great patron of art… Several other painters including John Constable, C. R. Leslie, George Romney, the sculptor John Flaxman, and other talented artists received commissions from Wyndham, who filled his house with valuable works of art…Died childless…Bequeathed a significant number of priceless pieces to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery…

‘I don’t think I’ve met a Lord Egremont,’ she muses. ‘But I suppose the title passed with him?’ she asks.

‘Uh, no. It went to his nephew,’ he replies in a rush. ‘You’ve not met him, I don’t think.’

She shakes her head before returning to look at the painting. He understands why: it’s mesmerising. The brushstrokes and wisps of white around the edges give it a dreamlike quality.

Maybe he’s biased.

‘The style of the painting makes him seem kind of handsome,’ she says, and he lets out a surprised laugh. 

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he agrees, blinking a few times, and she frowns a little at him, and he thinks he’s hurt her feelings a little. ‘You’re right. It does,’ he says more seriously, and she turns back to look at it.

It’s sitting there, on the edge of his tongue, and all he has to do is say it, to make the comparison, and he thinks she’d see it, the similarity. But he can’t bring himself to speak the words, to tell her – this woman who holds his heart in her hands – his darkest secret, this thing that has overshadowed everything he’s done – who he is and who he will become.

But she’s still studying the painting, and he can see by the way her hands twitch that she wants to reach out and touch it, to feel the brush strokes. She’s quite tactile, his beautiful Queen; she loves to touch and feel things, and she’s commented once already that she finds portraits a little haunting.

‘I think I’d like this artist to paint me one day,’ she says, and he smiles. ‘He’s very good.’

‘He is, ma’am, but you might find that a little difficult.’

‘He’s dead?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Of course.’

‘I thought you considered portrait painting an old-fashioned thing,’ he teases, and she smiles wryly at him.

‘I do. But Charlotte says that I should have one done at every milestone.’

‘It is tradition, ma’am,’ he muses, looking back at the painting.

‘Yes.’

‘It says he donated quite a bit of art to the Gallery,’ she says. ‘Oh, of course – I’ve seen his name on the plaques.’ He nods; she’s likely seen his name in small letters many times already tonight. ‘That’s rather kind of him. I wonder why he didn’t bequeath it to his nephew.’

‘The current Lord Egremont is no lover of art,’ he says dryly, before looking back at the painting and avoiding her stare, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘I think the former Lord felt that he could share his passion for art more effectively in the National Galleries.’

He can feel her eyes on him, and he’s keen to move on now, away from her stare. ‘Did you know him, Lord M?’

He lets out a huff of breath, and he knows he’s going to tell her, but his chest still tightens painfully at the thought. ‘You could say that, ma’am.’ He looks at her, and he feels the stab of fear in his stomach. ‘Our families were close; I spent quite a bit of time at his estate as a boy,’ he says, and she nods. He sucks in a breath, summoning his courage. She might find out one day, he thinks. He’d rather it be him to tell her than some cruel journalist. ‘I’m pretty sure Lord Egremont is my biological father,’ he says quietly, studying her, holding his breath, waiting for her to get angry with him for lying to her and holding a title that many would argue isn’t rightfully his, if they knew.

He’d never really wanted it in the first place, but it would not have helped for him to refuse his distraught mother’s wishes.

He watches as her mouth drops open and she draws back slightly, and he tears his gaze away and back to the painting he knows is the man who shares his genes, bracing himself.

‘Oh,’ she says after a few moments, and it hurts, that she thinks less of him now. But he wouldn’t lie to her – has never lied to her, not really. ‘I…’ He thinks she doesn’t know what to say at this revelation – what does one say? – so he speaks again.

‘Well, it’s never been officially tested, and my birth certificate certainly has Lamb on it, but it was a source of some tension between my parents.’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ she admits quietly after a moment, and he gives her a small smile.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says just as quietly, and he is. He’s sorry that she will see him as less now, that he’s put a hole in her image of him.

‘No,’ she says quickly. ‘I’m not…I just…’

He smiles a little, gives a bit of a huff, and she stares back at him. ‘My parents’ marriage was not an entirely happy one. My father was away a lot, and my mother…well, I think she was lonely,’ he says carefully, watching her enraptured face. He stares back at the painting. ‘They had been married for almost ten years before I came along. My mother…the strain of a childless marriage when a child is so desperately desired…’ he says, trailing off. ‘I think he forgave her, in the end.’

She stares at him, her face hardening just a little before she flicks her head away.

‘I don’t…’ she starts before trailing off, shaking her head a little. ‘It seems such a huge thing to forgive,’ she says quietly, after a long moment.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he agrees. He knows. Oh, he knows. ‘He discovered officially much later – after Frederick was born – that he couldn’t have children.’

He waits as the weight of his words settle on her. He is not ashamed of his mother, and truly, he has no right at all to judge. The way he’d raged at her when he’d found out – worked it out for himself – and her attempts at explaining the depths of her deception. If only you had stopped asking questions, William, she had cried. He had countered that he deserved the truth.

He’ll never forget the way she had quietly but firmly asked whether the truth was worth it. After all these years, he’s still not sure he has an answer for her.

‘But he forgave her anyway,’ she breathes, her eyes wide, and he nods.

He rarely tells her things, but it’s so important that she understand this – not for him, but for the rest of her life. Hatred and resentment only make a person bitter, and he desperately doesn’t want that for her. ‘Forgiveness is crucial in any relationship – if you consider that relationship worth saving,’ he says deliberately, forcing himself to meet her eyes, and she lets out a breath before nodding. He says nothing for a while, allowing her to think on everything, the weight of this new information, and letting his own mind wander a little.

And when she speaks again, her voice just a whisper, his heart tightens in his chest, and oh, when did she become so perceptive, his beautiful Queen? ‘And so you forgave your own wife.’

He blinks a few times. ‘I suppose,’ he says, nodding, and she’s staring at him with her wide blue eyes, and he’s done for now, he thinks. He can’t handle this level of emotion for much longer, not now. He’s been so focused on loving her quietly, just day-to-day enjoyment of her company, basking in her light from afar, that this foray into closeness almost burns. ‘Although, I think my mother was definitely more subtle.’

She lets out an incredulous huff, and he smiles wanly. But she’s looking between him and the painting, and he thinks she can see it, the resemblance, and he just waits.

‘Do you really think he is your father?’ she asks quietly, and he can hear that she’s trying to be gentle with her questions, but that she really wants to understand.

‘Do you see the resemblance?’ he asks, waving at the portrait, and she looks back up at it.

‘I think you look very much like him,’ she says quietly, and he smiles. ‘You have the same eyes,’ she says softly, turning to look at him, and he takes in a breath at the depth of her gaze.

‘Wait till you see a photo of him, ma’am,’ he says with a small, wry smile. ‘You may also have noticed how similar Emily and I are,’ he says, his lips twisting, and when her eyes widen a little and her mouth drops open before clamping shut again, he thinks she understand what he means.

She’s quiet for a long moment before she speaks again, her voice soft. ‘I wish I knew my father.’ She turns to look at him, and he gives her a small, sympathetic smile.

‘Of course.’

She looks back at the painting. ‘Mama refuses to speak of him. I learned long ago not to ask.’

He keeps his face as neutral as he can; there are any number of reasons why the Duchess would refuse to speak of the Duke, her dead husband and her daughter’s father, although he’s almost entirely sure Conroy is a significant part of the reason. It would not do for the young Princess to enquire about her immediate family too closely, the father that had passed down a birthright, and risk any hold he had over her. The animosity that had existed between the Duchess and the King had been one of the monarchy’s worst-kept secrets.

A small, softer part of him whispers that perhaps it’s for the same reason that he still doesn’t particularly enjoy speaking of Caro.

‘Perhaps one day you will be able to ask why,’ he says gently, and she looks at him thoughtfully before nodding slowly, the understanding slowly dawning on her face: when Conroy is gone.

‘Maybe,’ she says.

There are so many ways she could learn about her father – old news reports, despatches from his days in the Army, articles in various magazines or books. But it would be a poor substitute for those personal stories from the one person left who would have the most personal stories of them all. But if she can’t ask her mother, then perhaps she do the next best thing.

‘There are many who knew him, ma’am. Perhaps you could ask others what they remember. I believe the Prime Minister might be able to suggest some among his Army colleagues who may be able to help. And there’s always the rest of the aristocracy – perhaps you could ask Anna if her family knew him, or perhaps Walter’s family. Even George Sutherland’s family.’

She nods, her face thoughtful, before sucking in a breath and levelling her gaze at him. ‘We make a fine pair, Lord M,’ she tells him, and he gives her a warm smile, the tightness in his chest slowly starting to leech away.

‘That we do, ma’am.’ 

***

 

‘Why did you forgive Wellington?’ she asks tentatively a little later when they’re sitting on her balcony.

She’d insisted that he stay for tea; she’d argued that it wasn’t really that late, and that she’d more than happily let him turn up late the next day. He’d just smiled and nodded; he’d been anticipating this. She’d been quieter than usual for what little time they’d had left at the gallery, and he’d understood why. It had been a big evening; that was quite the bombshell he’d dropped, and completely unannounced. He’d wondered which direction the questions would go; whether she’d be more interested in him and his life, or more the concepts and ideas. He’d been a little surprised by her reference to her own father – she never speaks of the man – although, in hindsight, he knows he probably shouldn’t have been.

‘I don’t think he deserved it,’ she adds, a hard edge to her still-nervous voice.

‘Forgiveness is rarely deserved, ma’am,’ he says. She says nothing, and he wonders if she’s ever had to genuinely ask for forgiveness for anything. ‘I’m not sure I have forgiven him,’ he admits, and when he looks at her, she looks confused.

Wellington had never apologised for what he’d done; he’d always maintained that Caro had told him they were separated, and thus, in his mind, he’d done nothing wrong. He hadn’t wanted to believe him – not sure he ever will believe him; Wellington’s indiscretions were well known in the right circles – but he knows Caro would have said anything to get her way. ‘It’s complicated,’ he says finally. ‘But I have let it go, ma’am. It wasn’t worth holding on to, especially not now,’ he adds, and she nods. ‘Then I suppose I have forgiven him, actually,’ he says eventually, turning to look at her, and he realises that he has – he wouldn’t be standing here now if he hadn’t, he thinks. ‘I had to, I think, if I wanted to be able to work with him.’

She cringes slightly, and he knows what she’s thinking. There is nothing she could have done differently. She couldn’t have been expected to know about his history with Wellington, especially not fresh out of Kensington; the list of people who knew was already extremely short. Although, he is still surprised he didn’t read about it in the papers during his absence.

‘I had to decide what was more important,’ he says slowly, just realising it for himself, and she stares at him for a moment, her mouth curling into a little frown that he knows is just emotion. ‘Time helps,’ he adds, and she nods. ‘I’ve had a good decade to get over that one.’

But he thinks he knows what she’s thinking, and the hurt is still far too fresh. They haven’t even begun to get over it, and can’t – not until Conroy is well and truly gone, and even then, it’ll depend a lot on the Duchess.

He prays she’s strong enough to forgive her daughter.

 

Chapter Text

‘How was your lunch yesterday, Mama?’

‘It was fine, thank you.’

‘Have the curtains been fixed in your sitting room?’

Her mother turns to look at her across the leather car seat. ‘If you came to visit, you would know, Drina.’

She knew it would be like this. She had known it when she’d sent her mother the message, that no matter how nice she was, how polite, how carefully she spoke, her mother had not and would not change. Breathe.

‘To what do I owe the pleasure of this invitation, Drina?’ her mother suddenly asks, and she turns to look at her. ‘Is there some reason I am momentarily freed from my banishment to a corner of the palace, and suddenly permitted to see my own daughter?’

The irritation curls inside of her, but she looks away as she sucks in a breath and lets it out. ‘I thought you might enjoy the tennis, Mama. It’s the Women’s Final.’

‘Surely you have better things to be doing as Queen than watching the tennis.’

‘It’s Wimbledon, Mama, and I’m their patron. As Queen it’s important that I support events like this – British institutions.’

‘I never see you anymore, Drina,’ her mother almost chastises, and she can feel herself on edge, bracing for whatever was coming.

‘I’m busy with my duties as Queen, Mama.’

‘I see,’ she says, and Victoria frowns. ‘You have time for helicopter rides over the Thames, but no time for your Mama.’

She lets out a huff, swallowing each fiery retort that surfaces about Sir John and photos and destroyed trust and emotional manipulation.

‘Perhaps if you had Sir John as your Private Secretary, he would do a better job of arranging your schedule,’ her mother adds, her voice smug, and she can’t get angry, she can’t, she can’t say anything because she knows she’ll say something she shouldn’t and she will not spoil their plans by taking the bait left by her mother.

‘I wouldn’t wish to deprive you of your Private Secretary, Mama. He does such a good job for you,’ she adds quietly.

‘Not as good as your Lord M, apparently,’ her mother shoots back, and breathe.

‘No,’ she agrees rather viciously, shaking her head, just as the car stops and the door opens, and she gets out before her mother can say another word.

 

***

 

She can’t believe she let him talk her into this.

She can’t kill her mother in front of fifteen thousand people and half the world’s television sets at Wimbledon. She can’t even get angry at her.

Emma had pointed out that her mother was really the only family she had left here in England, and she’d eyed him grumpily when he’d mentioned in his soft, gentle way that perhaps it would be nice for her mother to experience some of the fun and exciting things she was – things like the Wimbledon Women’s Final. When he’d asked a few minutes later how many friends the Duchess had, she’d had to bite down on the unkind retort that she didn’t particularly care because she’d never really been allowed friends as a child and so now her Mother knew how it felt and she only had friends now anyway because of him – because it truly was mostly because of him that she had friends to go to the tennis with today, and Sir John is not Lord M.

Well, he was similar in one way – Lord M knew what buttons to push and how to push them and they both knew it. Only, he used his guilt-trips for good.

Objectively, she knows both he and Emma have a point but… It still hurts.

She should try.

It’s only one afternoon, she tells herself. Surely, surely she can survive one afternoon with her mother and three of her friends.

Surely.

She takes heart from the thought that Lord M had suggested it; if he thought it dangerous, he wouldn’t have suggested it himself. He wouldn’t even be there when she returned to hear about it, she thinks a little wryly; it was a Saturday, so she’d have to wait until Monday morning. Perhaps a well-timed text message would suffice.

She waves happily to the crowd as they applaud her entrance; Lord M and Charlotte had both warned her that her arrival would be displayed on the screen and that she’d have to wave, and despite being Queen and performing her duties for the public for over two years now, she’s vaguely nervous when all eyes are so clearly on her. It’s easy to hide when you have something to focus on – something more than not tripping down the steep stairs in heels.

But the applause had felt so warm and pleased to see her that her smile had been genuine, and the butterflies in her stomach had dispelled somewhat.

She puts herself next to her mother in the seating, Anna on her mother’s other side, and Amalie between her and Harriet at the end. It was a warm day, even for July – she’s pleased she took Harriet’s advice and wore the white flowery sleeveless sundress she’d suggested – so she smiles gratefully at Harriet when she appears a few minutes later with a Pimm’s for everyone.

‘I don’t understand why they have to make such noises,’ her mother says after the first rally, as she sips on the ice-cold drink. ‘They sound so…masculine.’

‘No, Mama, it’s about strength and intimidation,’ she says.

‘It sounds terrible. I had forgotten. Are they going to do it the entire match?’

‘Yes, Mama.’ The Duchess pulls a face and Victoria resists the urge to drop her head into her hands.

‘Be cool, ma’am,’ Amalie says to the left of her. ‘Cameras.’

Victoria’s eyes shoot up to the screen at the end; there she is, her face a good six feet tall on the screen, Amalie and Harriet next to her. She forces herself to smile for the camera before refocusing on the match in front of her for a few seconds before turning her head towards Amalie and Harriet, blinking.

‘Do you think they have lip readers at the tennis?’ she asks with a small smile on her face, and Amalie’s eyes widen slightly.

‘I don’t remember ever hearing anything in coverage before,’ Harriet says, frowning, looking for all the world like she does this every day, Victoria thinks.

She does this every day and she’s struggling. Meeting people was one thing; cameras and your face on a twenty-foot screen were another thing entirely.

‘Maybe. They’ll certainly study it and comment on anything vaguely interesting later,’ Harriet adds, her hand rubbing at her nose in what Victoria assumes is an attempt to cover her mouth.

‘Are they gone yet?’

‘Nope,’ Amalie mutters, barely moving her mouth, and she looks so tense that Victoria can’t help the bubble of laughter that erupts from her chest. She can see Amalie then desperately trying to keep the smile off her own face, and it makes her want to giggle even more. But she’s the Queen, she can’t giggle on national television, so she sucks in a deep breath and looks at Harriet who has plastered an overly calm, serene look on her face, and Victoria nearly loses it.

‘Oh, Drina! You’re on the big screen,’ her mother says at her side, and she flips her head around.

‘So are you now, Mama,’ she says, looking up and smiling, and her mother grips her daughter’s arm where it lies in her lap.

‘Oh,’ she says, clearly biting down on what else she was going to say and smiling and waving like some kind of demented doll, and oh, goodness, this was a terrible idea.

She hears Amalie and Harriet snort with laughter next to her, and she can feel her blood pressure rising and she has no idea what to do.

‘You shouldn’t giggle, Drina,’ her mother says, frowning, when the screen has changed. ‘It’s so unbecoming for a Queen. You must be more dignified.’

She’s just about to reply that she knows, that she wasn’t giggling, that she’s allowed to laugh with her friends, and her cheeks are hot and--

‘Duchess,’ Anna says from her position next to Mama. ‘I hear you are to be the patron of the Edinburgh International Festival next year.’

‘Oh, yes,’ the Duchess replies in surprise, turning to Anna and oh, thank goodness.

‘That’s wonderful. And so important to Edinburgh,’ Anna says. ‘It’s on in August each year, ma’am,’ Anna tells Victoria, leaning forward slightly. ‘I saw the Budapest Festival Orchestra earlier this year – they’re due to play at this year’s festival. Just outstanding.’

‘We haven’t been to Scotland before,’ the Duchess says, glancing at Victoria, and Anna’s face lights up, and Victoria lets out a breath as Anna takes over.

She turns back to Amalie and Harriet both of whom are looking a little shamefaced, and she shakes her head at both of them as they both start giggling again.

‘For that, I’m putting her in between you two in the second set,’ she mutters, and they laugh even harder. She can’t help but smile with them.

As she watches the next few rallies in peace, she thinks the Duke of Wellington’s ego is going to inflate to epic proportions if she actually tells him, but she cannot deny that Anna Scott is a godsend. Apart from everything else she’s done, how she’s been so wonderful at every event, all sensible and reliable and eventually just comfortable, today alone deserves all her thanks.

‘Thank you,’ she says quietly to Anna later as they’re moving around a little in the break. ‘For distracting Mama before. She…’ she starts, trailing off and grimacing. How do you describe Mama? she wonders.

Anna smiles and shakes her head. ‘That’s what I’m here for, ma’am,’ she says matter-of-factly, and Victoria smiles gratefully back at her. ‘She reminds me of my mother-in-law,’ she adds thoughtfully. ‘Product of a different era.’

‘Yes,’ Victoria says, nodding her head emphatically. Godsend. ‘Completely.’

 

***

 

She makes good on her threat in the second set, putting herself between Anna and Amalie, with Mama and Harriet at the end.

‘You used to play tennis, Drina, but you stopped rather suddenly,’ the Duchess comments, leaning forward. ‘Do you remember why?’

The memories come flooding back – the hurt, the way she’d just shut down – and she stares at her mother before answering. ‘You told me I wasn’t good enough to continue once I’d learned the basics. Sir John said it was a waste of money.’

‘Oh,’ the Duchess replies, and this was a terrible, terrible idea. ‘Yes, of course,’ she agrees, because of course he was right. Sir John was always right.

It hadn’t mattered that she’d loved learning how to play, loved racing around the court, hitting the ball as hard as she could, the freedom of being outside and away from her mother for a couple of hours every few days…

‘I never quite got the hang of tennis,’ Harriet says quickly. ‘I was too tall. Too gangly. I couldn’t hit the ball hard enough.’

‘I never played,’ Amalie adds. ‘Would’ve been cool, but I was more into basketball.’

‘Oh, those sisters are so good,’ the Duchess adds, and Victoria blinks at her. ‘What are their names? They’re odd names.’

‘Venus and Serena Williams,’ Amalie says from in between them, and Victoria purses her lips.

‘Oh yes! That’s them. So successful. But so loud.’

‘Mama,’ Victoria growls, and the Duchess looks confused.

‘They are! They’re very good, though. Very talented. Their mother is their manager, Drina,’ her mother says knowingly. ‘So successful.’

Victoria blinks and Amalie lets out a low breath and she thinks maybe she shouldn’t have put her new friend in between her and her mother, no matter how much she deserved it.

‘Yes, she is, Mama.’

 

***

 

It’s the third set – because of course – and she thinks that she might just survive. Maybe. 

She’s taken pity on her friends and placed herself next to her mother who is sitting at the end of the row, and she lets out a sigh.

‘I’m surprised you didn’t invite your Lord M, Drina,’ Mama says quietly, and her head flicks around, but her mother is watching the match.

‘Of course not, Mama,’ she lies as they applaud. ‘Besides, Lord M doesn’t find tennis all that interesting.’

‘I see. Sir John—‘ she starts, and Victoria can’t do this today.

‘Mama!’ she growls through her teeth, and her mother stops and stares at her. ‘Do you think—’ She bites down on her tongue. No, her mother didn’t think. That was the problem. She didn’t know. She lets out a small sigh. ‘I didn’t invite Sir John, Mama. I invited you,’ she says quietly, and watches as her mother’s face softens after a moment. She turns away, looking down at the court, and Victoria closes her eyes momentarily. She’s tried so hard all afternoon to be nice to her mother, to include her, to go for more than ten minutes at a time without getting angry or shouting. But now…

But then her mother is picking up her hand from her lap and holding it tightly in her own, and she turns to look at her, but the Duchess is just looking out at the court. Her mother’s hand is cool from her second drink, and soft, just like she remembers. She can’t remember the last time she did this – just held her hand.

She’d spent so much of her childhood holding her mother’s hand as she walked around outside, visited her Uncle, walked through the gardens at Kensington. But since she’d become Queen, she’d barely spoken to her mother, let alone held hands with her.

She’s not sure how she feels about the whole thing, but she thinks that maybe her mother is trying, so she squeezes her mother’s hand. The gentle squeeze she feels in reply makes her sigh.

When she looks up, she can see herself reflected on the big screen, her mother’s hand holding hers, and she lets out another small sigh, and plasters a small smile on her face.

At least Lord M would be happy, she thinks.

 

***

 

‘I’m sorry,’ she says to Amalie, deliberately dropping back behind where her mother was talking with Anna and Harriet on their way to the car. ‘Mama can be so embarrassing.’

Amalie shrugs. ‘It’s fine, ma’am. So’s mine,’ she says, and Victoria frowns a little at her. ‘All mothers are embarrassing every now and then. Especially when it’s something new and you have friends around.’

‘She’s just so…’

‘Old?’ Amalie supplies.

‘Yes!’ she agrees, thinking back to a conversation with Anna only a little while earlier.

Amalie smiles. ‘I thought she was alright, ma’am,’ she says. ‘You should meet mine. Wait, no, that’s never happening.’

‘Why not?’

‘She doesn’t love the monarchy, ma’am,’ Amalie says haltingly, grimacing, and Victoria lets out a little breath.

‘Oh.’

‘Embarrassing,’ Amalie says with a knowing nod. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, it’s fine,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter to me.’ It doesn’t, not really. Amalie was her friend; what her mother believed didn’t really matter. ‘Mothers can be embarrassing,’ she says, smiling and nodding, and Amalie smiles back.

 

***

 

The short car ride from the tennis centre to the Palace is quiet. Her mother has been quiet since the last set, just applauding and cheering at the right moments, pointing out the occasional success to her daughter, but Victoria knows better. She’s subdued, brooding.

She’s so tired of this, so tired of bracing herself for her mother’s words whenever she sees her. She’s too tired today to care. So she sits in the car, watching the world go by in silence, just waiting for whatever insults would be flung her way.

Her mother speaks as they walk into the Palace.

‘I had a lovely afternoon, Drina,’ she says softly, stopping at the end of the hallway. ‘Thank you for inviting me.’

She waits, waits for the inevitable barb, the comment that is a criticism wrapped up in advice, but it doesn’t come. ‘You’re welcome, Mama,’ she says eventually, but her mother doesn’t move, and she waits.

‘Your Papa took me to Wimbledon the year before you were born,’ she says suddenly, her voice softer than Victoria’s heard it in years, and everything stops.

Papa.

‘He enjoyed the tennis. It surprised me at first, given that he was in the Army. I had assumed that he would consider tennis too feminine. But he enjoyed the strategy.’ She smiles sadly and looks down at her hands. ‘We were supposed to go the year after you were born…until he became unwell…’ she trails off.

‘Do you miss him?’ The question is out of her mouth before she can stop herself and she holds her breath as she watches the emotions play across her mother’s face, so many different emotions that she can’t keep up, before she settles on a calm half-smile.

‘Of course, Drina. He was my husband.’

This is her chance, she thinks. This is what he meant. I should ask.

‘Will you tell me more about Papa?’ she asks quietly. ‘One day?’ She swallows against the lump that’s suddenly appeared in her throat, and when she speaks, her voice is barely more than a hoarse whisper. ‘I would like to hear about him.’

‘If you’d like,’ her mother replies after a few moments. ‘You will have to visit me,’ she adds, and Victoria feels the pull of pain, how unfair it was that she should hold this – her past, her Papa – from her.

But she nods dumbly, and her mother gives her another small smile before turning and walking away.

It’s later, when she’s lying in bed that she realises that this is another part of her life that has been hidden – stolen – from her by Sir John. He’s always encouraged the barrier between them, played on her mother’s fears and insecurities, desperate to hold on to his own power over both of them. Divide and conquer, she realises, and the thought makes her burn with anger.

The knowledge that her mother allowed it, either didn’t see it for what it was or simply chose Sir John over her own daughter, makes her eyes sting with fresh tears.

But none of this will matter soon, she thinks with a vicious sense of satisfaction – soon Sir John will be gone and they will be free and maybe, just maybe her mother will be different without Sir John’s cruelty and unkind words.

She prays that Mr Harper can find what he needs, and soon.

 

***

 

You didn’t tell me the trophies were that heavy.

He lets out a huff of amusement before making a mental note to remind any other event organisers that their Queen really was five-foot-two.

I’m sorry, ma’am. I wasn’t aware.

He thinks as he types that he knows what she wants, and he pauses for a moment before deciding to humour her.

Who was he kidding? She would know full well that he’d have been watching.

You seemed to manage quite well. Very regal. I couldn’t tell.

Thank you.

He can almost see the smug smile, and he can feel the tug of a smile on his own face. He wonders how it all went; she looked lovely on the television – all youthful beauty and elegance in her white flowery dress and heels – but she was getting better at hiding her emotions from her people, better at herself to be distracted from the things that would make her unhappy.

She couldn’t hide from him, but even he struggled with a television between them.

Did you enjoy the day?

Mostly. I’m quite proud of myself.

He waits; when there’s no reply forthcoming, he takes the bait again.

Oh?

My mother has returned to the palace unscathed. And none the wiser.

He snorts. Fair enough, he thinks, at the tiny twinge of guilt in his stomach. Very impressive, ma’am. I’m so proud.

He smiles at the little emoji that’s poking its tongue out at him she sends in reply.

 

Chapter Text

End of July

 

When he tells her that they’re leaving at six and that she needs to wear comfortable shoes, she looks thrilled and he can’t help the way his mouth twists into a smile.

‘Where are we going?’ she asks, and he shakes his head.

‘Surprise.’

She stares out the window as they travel, and her excitement is infectious. He knows she’s trying to guess from the landmarks and the general direction, but he doesn’t think she’ll figure it out. The building wasn’t really that obvious - he’d be surprised if she’s even seen it before. It’s well back from the main street, and it wasn’t particularly well signed for one of the most visited places in London.

‘I hope you’ll enjoy it, ma’am,’ he says a little nervously. The last surprise had been the Ballet for her birthday; he doesn’t think this will quite compare.

‘I’m sure I will, Lord M,’ she tells him, like it was obvious, and he marvels a little at how complete her faith is in him.

The crowds are long gone by the time they get there, and when she sees the sign as they pull in, she lets out an excited laugh before turning and grinning at him. He smiles back before getting out of the car to greet a waiting George Sutherland. ‘Welcome to the British Museum, ma’am,’ George says, and she smiles at him. ‘William says you’ve never been.’

‘No,’ she says, shaking her head.

‘Well, I hope you enjoy it, ma’am,’ he says, leading them inside.

He watches her marvel at the brightness of the foyer, craning her neck to stare up at the glass ceiling.

‘Three thousand, three hundred and twelve panes of glass,’ George says. ‘Hell of a cleaning bill.’

‘I can sympathise,’ she mutters.

‘The museum is the world’s oldest national public museum,’ George says, pausing in front of the gift shop. ‘It was founded in 1753, which makes it older than the United States,’ he says, and she smiles. ‘When Sir Hans Sloane first envisioned the museum, he needed a venue, and Buckingham House was one of the locations considered,’ he says with a wry smile, and her eyes widen. ‘Luckily for you, ma’am, the trustees at the time chose the current site, Montague House, instead.’

‘Yes, luckily,’ she laughs.

‘The museum is free to the public, has its own tube station, and is officially the United Kingdom’s most visited attraction. Sorry,’ he jokes, and she shakes her head.

‘Wow.'

‘The museum will stay open for as long as you like, ma’am,’ George says, and her eyes widen. ‘A few members of our security team were more than happy to stay behind so you could wander the halls in peace.’

Her face softens. ‘How kind of them,’ she says.

‘You’re quite popular, ma’am,’ George says with a knowing look, and she blushes a little. ‘Now, I’m happy to show you around, ma’am, but I’m not really an expert and to be honest, the audio guide really is quite brilliant for the key pieces. I thought perhaps it would be best to allow you to wander through for yourself this first visit, and then we could arrange for one of the curators to take you through any of the rooms you were particularly interested in at another time,’ he says, handing her one of the little black boxes and a map. ‘And William has said that he’s going to accompany you.’ She turns and shoots him a grin, and he smiles back at her.

‘Thank you, George,’ she says sincerely. ‘I really appreciate all your time and effort.’

‘You’re most welcome, ma’am.’ 

When George is gone, she opens the map and her mouth drops a little. She looks up at him in concern. ‘There’s over a hundred rooms, Lord M. I’m never going to be able to see it all tonight,’ she says, and he shakes his head.

‘No, ma’am. But I’m sure George would be happy to arrange another visit,’ he says, and she nods.

‘Where do you think we should start?’ she asks, scanning the map before looking around.

‘With one of the most famous pieces in the museum, ma’am,’ he says.

She stands in front of the Rosetta Stone and blinks. ‘Wow,’ she mutters, leaning in to peer at the inscription and listening to the audio guide. ‘I can’t believe this is thousands of years old,’ she mumbles, and he blinks. ‘It’s in such good condition.’

‘Yes, the sand in Egypt is quite good at preservation, and stone is remarkably durable,’ he says, frowning as a thought hits him. ‘Ma’am, have you been to a museum before?’ he asks after a few moments, and she looks at him thoughtfully before shaking her head.

‘Not really. I remember Uncle Leopold telling me that some of the paintings in the Duke of Coburg’s palace were over three hundred years old, but that doesn’t really count.’

Ah. Well, he was in for a long night. He finds that he doesn’t mind at all.

 

***

 

They’ve made it through a good portion of the ancient history when he can see she’s fading. It’s late, and she’s listened to practically everything she can in the audio guide, and he can see she’s desperate to keep going, to see everything she can possibly see, and her excitement has been infectious. He loves the museum, always has, but seeing it with her, with her wide-eyed wonder and excitement, has been fun.

‘Wow,’ she breathes, as she walks into the next room, and he thinks he hasn’t heard the same expression repeated so often in such a short space of time since his son. She stands in the middle of the room, turning and taking it all in – the grey-brown walls, the square marble sculptures that have been arranged to form a long line around the edge of the room. ‘What are these?’ she asks, and he purses his lips.

‘A diplomatic nightmare,’ he mutters before he can stop himself, and she turns to face him, puzzled. ‘They’re the Parthenon Marbles, ma’am. Better known as the Elgin Marbles, after the man who chiselled them off the top of the Parthenon in Athens and sold them to the museum around two hundred years ago.’

‘Oh.’ She looks back at the sculptures, walking over to examine one a little more closely. ‘There’s so many of them. The Parthenon must be huge,’ she adds, turning to look at him, eyes wide.

‘Oh yes. This is a little over half – the other half are in the Acropolis museum in Athens.’ He watches as she walks around to read the little sign in the middle of the room; the carefully-worded treatise on why the British Museum should be lauded for its efforts in preserving Greek history for humanity, of their shared responsibility as nations to preserve and educate. She turns to face him, frowning.

‘Why are they a nightmare?’ she asks, and he lets out a sigh. Was there nothing in his sordid life she wouldn’t uncover with her infernal curiosity, and his inability to keep his mouth shut?

One day, he thinks, he’s going to tell her something, something inconsequential and insignificant, and it’s going to be the final straw and her opinion of him is going to sour. She’ll realise he’s not as wonderful as she seems to think he is, her Lord M. It will come, he knows. He wonders if he’ll see it in her eyes, the moment that her opinion of him starts to shift.

He wonders if it already has, and he’s missed it.

‘Elgin took the marbles when Greece was ruled by the then-Ottoman Empire – with the permission of the Ottomans at the time, who were an invading force – and the Greek government has been trying to reclaim them for almost as long as we’ve had them. Many believe that he stole them, and that they should be returned to Greece.’ She frowns, thinking over his words. ‘It’s complicated,’ he admits. ‘But the popular vote is that the marbles be returned.’

‘Why aren’t they?’

And isn’t that the million-dollar question, he thinks. ‘There are many reasons, but I think the primary concern is that once you start handing things back, ma’am, you may not be able to stop.’

She nods slowly. ‘I think we should give them back,’ she says eventually. ‘They’re not ours. And if they can take care of them, then they don’t really belong to us.’

‘The Museum would argue that they belong to humanity and should be shared,’ he says. ‘And the Greek economy is anything but sound; many wonder how they can afford to keep the lights on in their new Museum, let alone pay for expensive preservation work,’ he points out, and she purses her lips thoughtfully. ‘I agree with you, ma’am,’ he says with a smile. ‘But nothing is ever quite that simple.’

‘It should be,’ she says.

‘Yes,’ he agrees. But he should tell her, lest she go looking. ‘It became an issue again when I was Prime Minister, only very briefly and only because of the person leading the charge,’ he says, glancing at his feet before back at her. She frowns. ‘Byron.’

Her mouth drops open a little before it settles into something he thinks like disapproval. ‘What would he know? He’s a singer,’ she mutters disdainfully, and he lets out a huff.

‘I agree, ma’am, but he was very popular and you know the power of celebrity.’

‘Yes,’ she agrees, staring around at the marbles, before looking back at him. ‘Did he…was he just trying to be unkind?’ she asks eventually, and he knows what she’s asking. He frowns and shrugs.

‘Probably. He’s always been one of those activist-types,’ he says. ‘He was really very passionate about this. And I’d say he was likely betting on the fact that many in my party did not support his cause.’

Her mouth drops open a little before she clamps it shut again, and he can see the anger in the shape of her mouth, the furrow in her brow. He doesn’t tell her that he still doesn’t know why Byron had been so determined to give him such grief over this; Byron had been the one who’d sent Caro packing, not the other way around.

‘But that was a long time ago, ma’am,’ he says, smiling at her before looking at his watch. ‘It’s after eleven, ma’am,’ he says, and she frowns almost sulkily before letting out a sigh.

‘I suppose I should let their security go home,’ she says a little guiltily a moment later, and he nods.

‘I think they might appreciate it,’ he agrees. But they can’t leave just yet. ‘But there’s one more room I think you should see,’ he says, smirking at her, and her eyes narrow at his silliness.

He leads her back out into the Great Court and up a set of stairs and through a few rooms before he stops in a doorway, looking around, before he spots what he’s looking for. ‘I don’t think they have an actual guillotine, ma’am, even in the British Museum’s famously impressive collection, but they do have a print of one,’ he says, walking up to one of the glass cases on the wall, and he grins when she lets out a surprised laugh.

‘I suppose the gift shop is closed,’ she says after a moment of studying the print in front of her.

‘Oh yes. But I believe they have an online store,’ he says, and she grins at him. ‘I don’t think you’ll need a toy guillotine for your desk when I’m away,’ he says after a moment. ‘I think Sir Robert already feels like his head has been bitten off,’ he says wryly, and she looks up at him almost mutinously, almost opening her mouth to speak, but he watches the words die on her lips. She lets out a small sigh.

‘Maybe I was a little too harsh on Sir Robert,’ she says.

She looks up at him when he says nothing, so he shrugs. ‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t there.’

She purses her lips at him, and he merely plasters a serene look on his face, one that he knows drives her a little crazy, but also makes her laugh.

 

*** 

 

‘Was that you?’ Peel asks at his doorway the next afternoon. He looks up and blinks. ‘Why am I asking? Of course it was,’ the other man mutters to himself, shaking his head before turning and walking away.

He stares at the retreating figure, wondering what on earth was going on, when he remembers the events of the previous evening and grins to himself.

When he wanders back down the hallway later that afternoon, he feels the pull of a smile again. He’s proud of her, his beautiful Queen; apologies were terrifying, and some would argue unnecessary in this case. And so when he hands her a small gift-shop bag, she looks puzzled for a moment until she opens it, and he can’t help but chuckle at the way she bursts out laughing.

 

***

 

It’s all been whirring in the back of her mind, all of the things she’s discovered in the past weeks, and she just needs time to think. She lies on her back on her bed, her headphones playing something instrumental and soothing, and she closes her eyes.

Forgiveness is so complicated.

She’d found it almost easy to apologise to Sir Robert. Even the Duke of Wellington hadn’t been that hard, but then she’s had some experience at that. The first time had been horrifying; this time, not so much. Both had been willing to forgive her straight away, although she wonders if that’s a little due to her position; but then they didn’t have to forgive her, not really, and they’d both seemed genuine – Sir Robert, once he’d picked his jaw up from the floor, she thinks with a smirk. His face had been really very amusing.

She knows what he would have her do eventually, and the thought of forgiving her mother makes her stomach clench. The voices in her head scream no, that she doesn’t deserve it, that she hasn’t asked for it. That she won’t appreciate it if it’s given.

Forgiveness is crucial if the relationship is worth saving.

Even Harriet has almost obliquely mentioned letting some of her anger towards her mother go eventually, in a roundabout way – for her own sanity – and she knows that like him, her friend just wants the best for her.

It’s there, in the far distance, that place where she forgives her mother, but it’s so far away that she doesn’t even really know what it looks like.

She doesn’t even entertain the idea of forgiving Sir John. He would never, ever receive forgiveness from her, even if he begged.

Lord M had said that time had made a difference; that ten years had passed and he’d finally forgiven the Duke for that horrible, terrible thing he’d done. A small voice tells her that he’s only forgiven him because of her, and she’s not entirely sure what to make of that.

He’s sacrificed so much for her, she thinks, and something twists in her chest. She wonders how willingly it had been. Did he really want to forgive Wellington, or had he done it because he’d felt obligated, like he had to, knowing that if he didn’t, none of this would have worked?

Her mind drifts back through the past weeks, and oh, she’s been so selfish.

He’d asked for her forgiveness when he’d returned, for hurting her by leaving. He’d overreacted, he’d said, and she’d almost dismissed his apology outright as ridiculous, except for the look on his face. He’d genuinely believed that he’d made the wrong decision, looked so troubled, so upset that she couldn’t help but try to make him feel better. She hadn’t been angry at him at all. She doesn’t think she could ever be angry with him, at least not for long – the thought is so alien to her that even when she’d been hurt by his refusal to come back, it had been more disappointment than anger. He had never intentionally hurt her, but he’d apologised anyway, and oh, she’s so selfish.

She’s thought about this before, about what he’s done for her, what she’s unintentionally required of him, and she’s never once apologised for it.

She’d been so wrapped up in getting him back, her Lord M, that she’d then never actually apologised for what she’d asked of him once she really knew. She’d been cruel in her ignorance, and yet once she’d known, once she’d used her knowledge for her own gain, she’d not even considered his feelings.

He’s happy to be back, she knows. But perhaps she hadn’t rescued him quite as much as she was focused on saving herself.

 

***

 

It’s a week later and he thinks that he should be warier of spending time at night with her. He’d read somewhere that people are more open at night time, more likely to be vulnerable and share themselves, and he knew from years of experience it was true. Night time was when his guard – and hers – were down. Night time was when things happened, tongues were loosened and conversations took place in the alluring safety of shadows and darkness.

He doesn’t regret telling her about his father, not now that it’s so clearly given her something else to ponder, another perspective to add to her growing collection. He knows he can trust her with this.

But then he does regret telling her – just a little. The strength of their friendship was perhaps not enough for such a weight. It may have been a little unkind, he thinks in hindsight.

She does need to know he’s not perfect, that the same rubbish that seemingly taints the entirety of the aristocracy taints him also. Despite their intent to mock, to poke and question, Wellington’s words, that she thinks him noble and perfect, sit restlessly at the back of his mind. All in all, better she find out from him than someone else.

Here he stands on another balcony on another summer’s evening, and he’s only here because she’s invited him for dinner, but the way she’d said it, wouldn’t quite meet his eye, made him think that she has some kind ulterior motive for this particular meal.

‘I was thinking about what you said about forgiveness last week,’ she says, at the end of the meal, and he looks at her. He knows this; she’d apologised to Sir Robert for her behaviour. ‘I think maybe I should ask for yours,’ she adds in a rush, and he blinks at her.

‘Mine? What on earth for?’

She bites her lip, sucking in a breath. ‘I realised that if I hadn’t said what I said about the Duke at the dinner, about him being a good PM for a Tory, none of that rubbish in May would have happened. They wouldn’t have said all those terrible things about you – and no one would have questioned your influence at all. You wouldn’t have felt like you had to leave.’

He resists the urge to shake his head at her. He doesn’t agree – Conroy would have had his day no matter what – but he thinks there’s something bigger here. ‘You’ve already apologised to Wellington for the quip, ma’am. And I don’t think you can really hold yourself entirely responsible for what Sir John does, or what the press publishes,’ he replies evenly.

She shakes her head. ‘Then when you were gone, all I could think about was how to convince you to return,’ she says. ‘I didn’t really stop to think about whether you actually wanted to return, until Harriet told me…’ she trails off. ‘Even if it wasn’t right…I’m sorry, Lord M. I should have respected your wishes and been less selfish about it all,’ she says deliberately, and he just stares at her, this beautiful woman sitting in front of him. This beautiful woman who had fought for him, and not just for herself, but for him.

She looks at him for a moment before looking away. ‘Thank you,’ he replies quietly, and she looks back at him, eyes wide, and so he gives her a small smile. ‘Although I don’t really think there’s anything to forgive.’

She smiles a little sadly at him. ‘I do.’

‘Then consider yourself forgiven, ma’am,’ he tells her simply, before leaning forward and taking a sip from his wine glass before sucking in a breath. ‘I’ve also been thinking,’ he says, looking down at the glass in his hand. ‘I apologise for telling you about my family in such a way,’ he says quietly, and her head shoots up, her wide, serious eyes meeting his, and he looks away. ‘I didn’t intend to, but…’ He trails off. He doesn’t have an answer for that; not one he can tell her, anyway.

‘Oh, no,’ she says quickly, shaking her head, and he looks at her. ‘I like – I appreciate that you told me,’ she says in a small voice. ‘You know so much about me, Lord M,’ she says on a huff, before looking back up him, eyes stronger. ‘I like getting to know you better,’ she almost declares, and he nods.

‘Okay,’ he replies, and she nods once.

Maybe there’s hope for her mother yet, he thinks.