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Gunther woke before dawn. A quick glance at his alarm clock told him he'd only had about four hours of sleep, but he felt as if he'd had a full eight or nine. He yawned hugely and stretched; a satisfied, catlike sprawl beneath the covers that ended in a deep, slow sigh.

What in hell had happened last night? First, that godawful interminable party, and then... well, then Valois had happened. Gunther wished he could still hear that music, but it was already faint in his memory and he sighed again, sadder this time. He couldn't even really remember how he got to bed; only that Valois had smiled at him and told him to sleep well.

Oh, and the kiss to the back of his hand. What was all that about? And the finger on his lips, and... and the hand in his hair. Gunther shifted uncomfortably in the bed and then, horrified, jerked his hand away from where it had been slowly and sweetly pulling on his dick.

Fucking hell, he thought, kicking back the covers and sitting up. He looked down at his crotch with a rueful frown.

"Yes, I know I stopped," he muttered. "And you'll be best served by a cold shower in a minute."

One tepid shower (and, yes, one really fucking wonderful wank; he was only human, after all) later, Gunther was dressed and in his home office, tapping away on his laptop. The sun was still half an hour from rising, but the birds were beginning to make their voices heard and as he waited for his search engine to return results Gunther stretched across the desk to push open one of the small windows, the better to hear the birdsong and also to get some of that glorious fresh morning air into the small room.

"Fulcanelli," he muttered, beginning the process of scrolling and clicking the links that caught his eye. He knew the story, of course—the master alchemist who had reputedly lived far longer than any man before him—but he was interested in the descendant, not the ancestor.

He finally found Valois, on—of all things—what looked to be an accidentally-uploaded text file of the tenant register of a rental agent. He was renting a modest property on Water Lily Lane, and Gunther realised he could probably see that house from the attic. Should he...?

"Don't be so fucking stupid." He hit the back button and continued his search, but every other avenue drew a blank. All he had was that address and the maddening itch to see Valois again. Yeah, the one that luxurious jerk-off session in the shower hadn't quelled in the slightest.

He parked in the empty lot behind the small house, killing the engine and sitting in the leather-lined silence for a good four minutes before his fingers found the inner door handle and he took a deep breath.

"This is the most insane, stupid fucking thing you have ever done," he muttered to himself as he got out of the car and flicked the keyfob towards it, listening for the blip of the lock before he looked around.

This was the kind of close neighbourhood where curtains twitched and fences were gossiped over. God, what was he even doing here? This was going to be all over the town in a few hours. Maybe he should just get back in the car and go home.

I don't want to go home. That's not home. Not any more.

There was a light on inside the house, and he tried to peek without turning his head too obviously. The decor looked to be scarlet, so no surprises there. And someone was moving around inside, too.

He heaved a sigh, squared his shoulders, and strode in what he hoped was an I'm here on a business matter-type manner up to the front door. No, he wasn't huddling in the shadow of the porch as he raised his hand to the doorbell and then back down again three times before he finally pressed it. Damn it.

It was an age of the world—or thirty seconds; whichever felt longest to Gunther—before the door opened and he saw Valois standing there. God, the man was dressed as if he was going to a formal party, and he looked... he looked...

"Uh," Gunther said eloquently, rubbing an unconscious hand over the nape of his neck. "Hi."

Oh, smooth. Really fucking smooth. Now watch him piss himself laughing.

"Hello," Valois said, his mouth curving into a smile as he held the door open wide. "It's good to see you again. Would you like to come in?"

Wordlessly, Gunther accepted the invitation, stepping over the threshold and into the small hallway. His nostrils caught the scent of some kind of incense, and his eyes caught the sight of red. Wow, a lot of red. Everything was red.

"You, um, you like red, then?" He gestured around him as Valois closed the door and turned to face him.

That earned him a chuckle. "Well, since I was cursed with this hair colour, I decided I may as well go all the way with it. You came to talk? I half-expected you, although perhaps... not so soon?"

"I, um," Gunther shoved his hands into his pants pockets. "Yeah, I did. You don't mind?" He looked up, knowing he was doing a piss-poor job of hiding his pain. "I mean, you seemed to understand last night, and there isn't anyone else in my circle that I can talk to. You just, well you got it. You knew."

"Of course. It was bleeding from you," Valois said softly. "You were like a raw wound walking. You still are."

Biting his lip, Gunther looked down at the floor and nodded. "When you played for me... it was the most settled I've felt for months. I've been trying to keep it all from everyone, to hide it from my friends and coworkers, from the rest of the town, from my own son, even. I can't... I can't—"

"Hush." Valois laid a hand on Gunther's arm, and for the first time Gunther noticed the large ring he was wearing, set with—of course—a red gemstone. "My home is yours, Gunther. May I call you that?"

To Gunther's nod, Valois again offered that gentle smile. "Then consider this your safe house. The door will ever be open to you, should you need it. Now, come. Sit."

Gunther sank onto the beautiful sofa, surprised that it was so comfortable when it looked like the kind your arse would hate you for if you sat on it for more than ten minutes. Valois settled onto the seat beside him, crossing one leg over the other at the knee and resting his elbow on the sofa back, his expression one of infinite patience.

"Where to begin?" Gunther sighed, sagging forward to cradle his cheek in his palm. "My marriage is, well it's not even on the rocks. It's already dashed to pieces and I'm just waiting for the townsfolk to realise that there's wreckage to be plundered. I can't bear to be in the same room as my wife, and I'm terrified for my son, who surely must hear the screaming matches, even if he doesn't see them."

"May I ask a very personal question?" Valois's soft voice broke through Gunther's misery.

Gunther nodded.

"Is there anyone else in this marriage? Another man for her, or another woman for you? Or," he added delicately, "any variant of that?"

Gunther closed his eyes and exhaled shakily, before nodding again. "Sort of," he whispered. "My ex-wife. She... ah... she died several years ago and, since we have a family cemetery attached to the house, I had her headstone shipped to Sunset Valley so she could be buried near me."

"I take it that your wife was unhappy with that decision?"

A snort was the eloquent reply. "Understatement of the century," Gunther muttered. "Lolita barely haunted the place, but the one time she did was the time when I saw her. I was drunk, and I... oh God."

He didn't see Valois's raised eyebrow, but he sure as hell felt its surprise in the air between them. "Just a kiss," he whispered. "That's all it was. But my boy had come downstairs because he'd heard me stumbling around. He saw us kissing, and then my wife walked in and all merry hell broke loose."

His shoulders were crawling back up toward his ears, tension bleeding through his neck and up around his head in a tight band. How many headaches had he endured in recent months, for fuck's sake? He was so sick of this. Sick, and tired, and weary, and oh God, couldn't someone just make it all go away?

Pale fingers carded into his hair, gently but firmly pulling his head down to Valois's shoulder. He went without a murmur, closing his eyes as he leaned against the one person who understood; or at least who seemed willing to listen without judgement. Those fingers drifted through his hair, over and over, and slowly the tension left his aching head as his shoulders relaxed and he slipped into a dreamless slumber.

Disoriented, Gunther opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. He wasn't at home. Where the hell—? Oh... ohhhh shit.

"Fuck, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he began, but the hand resting in his hair wouldn't let him sit up.

"It's fine," Valois said quietly. "You were exhausted and needed the rest. You weren't out for long."

"But it's dark outside!" And it had been early morning when he'd got there! God, had Valois really sat there all day, letting Gunther use his shoulder as a pillow?!

"Then close your eyes and you won't see the dark outside. Only the dark inside."

Gunther blinked, then laughed, doing as he was told. "Your shoulder must be dead. You honestly sat here all day while I drooled down your best suit?"

"It's not my best suit," Valois said. "And you didn't drool. You snuffled a few times, perhaps. It was quite adorable."

"Hmf." Gunther snorted. "Don't let that get out around the town. My reputation as the grumpy, weirdo gothic freak businessman will be ruined."

Quite without thinking, he rested his hand on Valois's thigh, his fingers gently stroking the exquisite cloth of the man's pants. "It feels like a best suit," he murmured, fighting off the drowsiness that was threatening to overwhelm him again. "Is it Italian?"

"French," came the reply. "From my home country. I wear it, and I feel just a tiny bit closer to my old land."

"I do believe you're something of a romantic, Monsieur Fulcanelli."

"Guilty as charged, Mr Goth. Are you comfortable?"

"Quite. I—" Gunther hesitated, then opened his eyes again, briefly. How in hell had he managed to get down here without even realising it? He was lying with his head in Valois's lap! "Uh, you don't mind?"

"Not at all. I am perfectly content, as long as you are."

"I am." Gunther closed his eyes again and breathed out a sigh that felt like home. "God, I am."

The next time Gunther woke, he was alone. A soft blanket had been draped over him and tucked in very carefully. One lamp had been left on, presumably to guide him should he need to find his way around in this strange house.

He scrubbed a hand over his eyes and raised himself up on one elbow, looking around. Evidently, Valois had finally had enough of being a pillow and gone to bed for the night.

I can't believe I slept for so long. He has the patience of a fucking saint. And, God, I need to pee.

It was then that he saw the note.

He chewed his lower lip, looking up at the other two doors in the hallway. One would lead to the bathroom and the other to the bedroom. One was slightly ajar and there was a soft light on inside. The floor looked to be tiled, and—despite his hesitation—Gunther smiled. Valois really was the perfect host, ensuring that his unexpected guest felt absolutely at home and knew where everything was.

Pushing the blanket aside, he got up, casting a rueful glance down at his rumpled clothes as he made his way into the bathroom. The antique absinthe posters on the walls surprised him, but then Valois was French and didn't the French drink a lot of that stuff? Gunther had tried it a couple of times when he was at university, but hadn't really thought much of it, beyond its capacity to offer clarity of thought.

He left the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind him, and stood in the hallway, staring at the other door.

I should just go back to the sofa. This isn't me. I'm not... I've never...

Well that was a load of bull, for a start. He had experimented, again back in his uni days. A really sweet guy had got the hots for him, and one night the usual student quantities of alcohol had got the better of Gunther. He could barely recall what happened. Some kissing, yes. Hands down pants, sure. Anything more? Well, he didn't wake up sore or anything, but that's not to say he was the one who—

He looked down. His hand was resting on the doorknob.

Oh, fuck it.

Valois was, indeed, asleep. He'd clearly been reading, since a book was open on the table beside the bed, and a lamp cast its glow over the pillow where he slept.

Gunther watched in silence for a long time, his thumb playing unconsciously over his bottom lip, torn between fear and need. On the one hand, he desperately wanted the comfort of simple human warmth, and he knew instinctively that Valois would offer that without hesitation. But, on the other hand, there was that whole wife back home, important businessman, what if the press find out? terror that filled his mind.

"Your worries are so loud, they're making my head hurt," Valois murmured, not opening his eyes. "Take the bed, or do not. Sleep, or do not. But there is no need to worry. What happens in this house is beyond the world, the wife, the work, and the media."

A pale hand emerged from the bed and pulled back the covers on the empty side. "Trust yourself, for once."

So he did.

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