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CHAPTER 3 ~ BEETHOVEN
After the worst night's sleep he'd had in many a year, Gunther lay in bed until he heard the front door slam and Cornelia's heels tip-tap their still-angry way down to the garage before he got up and scrubbed a hand across his eyes. His belly was still lurching somewhat, but at least the room had stopped trying to hurl itself out of its own windows. Breakfast would be out of the question, but maybe a cup of tea would settle his stomach, not to mention his aching head.
He crept out of his bedroom like a naughty schoolboy, tip-toeing across the landing to press an ear to Mortimer's bedroom door. From within came the loud, snuffling breathing of a child still deeply asleep, and Gunther softly let out the breath he hadn't realised he was holding, turning to head downstairs and into the kitchen.
A dense morning fog had crept across Sunset Valley overnight just in time for the weekend, and as he waited for the kettle to boil Gunther stared out of the kitchen window and wondered how in God's name he was supposed to get through the next two days while the office was closed.
He could always shut himself away in his home office, but since Cornelia had insisted the entry to that room be an arch instead of a door he didn't even have any privacy in there. Not a single door in the manor had a lock and key, mainly because Mortimer had been the kind of toddler who would quite happily have locked himself into a room and then decided to see what keys tasted like.
The kettle began to sing on the hob, and Gunther turned with a sigh to make his tea. He needed to get a lock installed on at least one damned room in this house so he could have somewhere - anywhere - to shut himself away for a few hours.
The spoon stopped, mid-stir, in his cup. The party. Oh shit, the fucking party. It was tonight, wasn't it? FUCK! That was why Cornelia had left so early, to get her hair and nails done and check on the catering arrangements.
"I can't do this," Gunther whispered to the teacup. "I can't fucking do this. How the hell can we present a united family front to half of the town when we're falling apart at the seams?"
The cup couldn't provide an answer, though, and Gunther threw the teaspoon into the sink, resting both hands on the counter and breathing slowly, trying to calm his racing heart. They could do this. He could do this. Whether Mortimer could be trusted not to blurt something out, though...
"Hey, Mort?" he called out as he picked up his tea and headed back upstairs. "Mort, get up! You want to have a sleepover with your friends tonight?"
"What the hell are you doing up here?"
Gunther turned a page of the book he'd been staring at for the past two hours and said calmly, "I'm reading."
"Oh, you're reading." He could practically feel the sarcasm dripping from Cornelia's voice. It was probably oozing across the floor and burning away the leather of his shoes. "Well, when you've finished 'reading' that chapter, perhaps you'd better get changed into something more suitable for the party. Given that, you know, people will start arriving in ten minutes."
"We're not hosting this party next year," Gunther said quietly. "Not again. I'm done with it."
Cornelia snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. It's only six or seven hours of schmoozing and tolerating the important people in the town - including, I might add, people who will further your work ambitions. You can shut yourself away with your ledgers and books every other day of the year, but this one night you WILL stand beside me as my devoted husband."
Gunther closed the book and looked up at her. She was a vision in black and purple lace, her high collar drawn tight around her throat in a way that had once quickened his pulse and made him think of ropes and restraints. She'd dressed to attract his eye and his dick, he could see that. All the things he'd once found desirable about her were the things that she'd accentuated tonight.
"Six or seven hours of lies," he said.
"Oh, darling," Cornelia smirked. "If I can tolerate your miserable, cheating, drunk-arsed existence for six or seven hours, then you can damn well tolerate my presence for the same length of time. United front, remember? And good call on sending the boy to the Jacobsons' place for the night."
"The boy," Gunther's voice rose in a growl as he got up from the couch, "is our son and he has a goddamned name."
"And you're dragging that name through the fucking mud!" Cornelia's hand flew out, making sharp and painful contact with Gunther's left cheek. His head snapped to the side and he kept it there, breathing hard but not willing to face her any more.
"Now, you're going to grow a fucking pair, get dressed and make yourself presentable, and we're going to face the world as the happily-married founding family of Sunset Valley for the next few hours," Cornelia hissed. "And when we're done you can drag yourself, moaning about your unhappy lot in life, to wherever you want again for the remaining three hundred and sixty-four days of the year."
She turned on her three-inch heels, in a cloud of nightshade perfume and lace, and stomped out of the attic.
It took four generous brandies before the stiff collar of Gunther's formal evening coat stopped feeling as though it was trying to become Cornelia's throttling hands-by-proxy around his neck. He stood in the quiet of the library by the piano, one hand resting on the cold black wood, and thought bitterly of how much it reminded him of his wife. At least the piano gave him solace and sang beneath his touch; two things which Cornelia never did any more.
The party was in full swing, although Gunther had made frequent short visits to this off-limits room in order to restore his equilibrium, under the excuse that he was probably coming down with the flu and needed the calmer air every now and then.
Nick Alto had already buttonholed him about a new business proposition for almost an hour, thankfully distracting him from Cornelia's bright, false laughter as it rang through the kitchen. Occasionally, she had brushed past Gunther, pecking a kiss to his cheek or touching a hand to his elbow. Each time, his skin had wanted to crawl off his bones, but he forced a stiff smile to his lips, and even managed to slip an arm around her waist as they both chatted to the Landgraabs in the hallway.
Now, though, in the silence of the library, he sank onto the piano stool and a sob welled up in his throat. God, how many more hours left of this night? There was no clock in here, but it felt like an interminable torture. Surely they must be more than halfway through by now?
He raised the piano lid, resting his fingertips lightly on the keys. He'd played this instrument a lot early in their marriage, learning ballads and love songs to serenade his young wife with as she lounged on the couch with dreams in her eyes and their precious son growing in her belly. Now, all he wanted to play was...
"The Funeral March?" a quiet voice said, just behind him.
He stopped playing, twisting around on the stool to stare up at the man who'd managed to walk in without a sound. In fact, he'd managed to walk in without even so much as lighting the room up as well, because any of the doors leading into the library should have flooded a panel of bright warning light onto the floor when it ... was... uh, did Gunther even invite this... this...?
"I prefer the darker songs, too," the man said, placing his drink on the top of the piano. "But sometimes, even the maestros of the dark and despairing wrote the music of hope."
He moved closer, and Gunther let him. In fact, Gunther couldn't even move as the man stepped right up behind him, reaching over him, one arm either side of him. Long, slender fingers touched the keys, and soft notes dropped into the air.
"You know this one?" the man whispered, close to Gunther's ear.
Gunther swallowed. "The Emperor." His voice was hoarse. "E-flat major. Adagio Un Poco Mosso. Beethoven's most... most beautiful..." He closed his eyes, tears welling as the strain of the past few months suddenly rolled up from his solar plexus. "Always made me think of rain."
Somehow - and he would never understand it, no matter how hard he tried - the music dissolved the pain. The restriction of the collar around his throat loosened, and he could breathe. He sat quietly on the stool, letting the man's arms encircle his body, those pale fingers dancing over the piano keys with the light touch of a master. In the distant recesses of his mind he felt sure that the party must have stopped and that everyone was standing inside the room, listening to this beautiful, heart-stopping music and seeing him utterly surrender to it. For all he cared, they could set fire to the manor and he wouldn't want to move to save himself.
There was only a piano in the room with them, but Gunther had heard this concerto performed with a full orchestra many times, and as the simple notes fell into the air around them, he could also hear the violins, the flutes, the soft notes of the cellos.
And then, all was quiet. He inhaled shakily and opened his eyes.
"Better?" the man asked, so softly and so close that Gunther could feel the warmth of his breath wash over his ear and slip down the side of his neck. He nodded, his voice lost to him. The reply to that nod was a gentle smile, and then the man took Gunther's hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed the back of it.
What... oh God. What... did he just...?
"I— Did Cornelia invite you?" Gunther whispered. "I'm sorry, I don't know you, and this party was invite-only. I really—"
The man straightened, and now Gunther could finally get a good look at him. He was impeccably-dressed in a black suit similar to Gunther's own, but with a scarlet shirt beneath it. Equally scarlet was his hair: a startlingly-vivid hue of red that could not help but draw the eye. His skin was pale as a shade's, and his eyes were a strange colour that Gunther couldn't even make out: dark and yet almost a deep, rich ruby.
"I will confess that I invited myself," the man said. "I enjoy a good party and I slipped in behind your friends as they entered." He gave a small, one-shouldered shrug, followed by a boyish smile that could make anyone forgive him the greatest sin. "So yes, I'm your gatecrasher for the night."
Slowly, not quite trusting his knees to hold him yet, Gunther stood, keeping one hand on the piano lid. "Well," he said. "I should thank you for the—" He waved his free hand at the piano. "I was— I needed soothing, and you managed it. You, uh, you have no small skill with this instrument."
"I learned from a master," the man said. "And from a young age, too. Music is the perfect solace for a weary heart, I find."
"I'm surprised the party didn't stop and come to hear you play." Gunther walked around the back of the piano to gaze out of the window into the fog. "It was exquisite."
He turned to look back at the man. "Well, Mr Gatecrasher, will you not introduce yourself? I like to know who visits my house."
The man executed a low, courtly bow. "Valois Fulcanelli, at your eternal service," he said as he straightened. His lips curved into that gentle smile again. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr Goth."
"Fulcanelli?" Gunther frowned. "As in the alchemist?"
"Very distant ancestor," Valois said. "I believe I am the last to carry the name in this world. You are well-read, to know of it."
"I have a copy of Le Mystere des Cathedrales on the bookshelf just behind you." Gunther nodded to the row of his most ancient and precious volumes. "I'm a long-time and passionate collector of antique writings."
"Really?" Valois turned, examining the shelf until he found it. "My goodness. Never thought I would have the chance to hold a copy of this. May I...?" His hand paused just above the book's spine.
"Be my guest. It was written by your ancestor." Slowly, Gunther made his way around the piano, watching Valois. "Just don't drop it," he added, by way of a joke. "It cost me a pretty penny and no small amount of sweating at the auction. I wanted it so badly and someone very determined was bidding against me on the phone."
"Yes," Valois said softly as he drew the book down from the shelf. "Yes, they were." He looked up, his eyes slightly darker than before, though he was smiling. "They were, I'm sure of it. It's a treasure of a book to own."
Gunther watched those pale hands open the book and carefully turn a few pages. "You have an interest in alchemy?" he asked.
Valois closed the book, returning it to its place on the shelf. "I suppose I should, given my name. However, I have no idea where to begin. Aside from this"—he gestured to the bookshelf—"there aren't exactly many alchemy textbooks out in the wild, are there?"
"Well, there's a bookstore in the town that does have a small selection of antique volumes," Gunther heard himself say, as the realisation that there was still a party going on outside the library hit him like a punch to the gut. "Perhaps they could help you? I, uh," he smiled, "I should get back to my guests."
"Ah, yes. Duty."
"No, just being a good host." Gunther reached up to adjust the collar of his jacket, and his hand stopped. He was touching bare skin, not the high-necked collar of the formal suit he'd put on for the party. "What—?"
He looked down at himself. "I... this isn't how I dressed for this evening," he whispered as he saw the loose, open black jacket and button-up soft jersey shirt that he was wearing. "Fuck, Cornelia will pitch a fit if she sees this. How the—?!"
"You look perfectly all right to me," Valois said, taking a step closer. "Quite comfortable, in fact, which is more than you looked when I walked into this room."
"You don't understand!" Gunther snapped. "This is a formal gathering. I can't go out there looking like—"
A pale finger rested against his lips, silencing him. Valois was standing right in front of him, invading his personal space and close enough that Gunther had to back up against the piano. Unfortunately, his uninvited guest followed him, and then there was nowhere else to go.
"I came in here because you needed comfort," Valois said softly as he took his finger away from Gunther's lips. "Do not return the solace that I gave you with words of anger."
"I... I'm sorry. I just—"
"Hush. I know." That pale hand spread into Gunther's hair, cradling the back of his head, and once again his solar plexus kicked up a tumult of long-buried emotions that he fought against. "You want this charade to end so that you can curl up in your bed and cry yourself into an exhausted sleep."
Every cell of Gunther's conscious mind railed against that notion. This was a stranger, for fuck's sake! He'd just walked in and... and taken over. Who was he to say things like that? In fact, how did he even know this was all a charade?
But then, every cell of Gunther's weary heart made him sink his teeth into his lower lip and nod, his eyes damp as he stared up at Valois. He didn't know why, but somehow he hoped Valois could do something about it. There was something commanding about him that reminded Gunther just a little bit of his father, and his father could always make the bad stuff go away.
Valois smiled. "It is done. The party is over. Everyone has gone home and your wife is asleep in her bed. Goodnight, Mr Goth. I'll see myself out. Sleep well."