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CHAPTER 21 ~ TRANSFORM

When Gunther woke he blinked, momentarily disoriented. The room was dark and he was horizontal, his head still resting in Valois's lap.

"What's happened?" he mumbled through a yawn. "Power cut?"

"Non, mon cur," Valois's gentle voice reached him. "Do you not recall waking briefly and telling me that you had a headache? I did not switch on the lights for that reason."

Gunther frowned. "No, and I don't have one now. What time is it?"

"It lacks but four minutes to the midnight hour."

"You say that as if something witchy is going to happen." Gunther chuckled, then - at no return of that laughter - he hesitated. "It's not... is it?"

"It might." Valois laid his palm gently against Gunther's cheek. "Remain still and quiet for me, please. I must focus."

"Okay," Gunther whispered, something akin to nervousness beginning to churn in his guts. Something definitely was up. He'd never seen... or, rather, heard Valois being this serious before.

The clock in the hallway ticked - an inexorable, reassuring constant - and Gunther latched onto the sound in the otherwise eerie, dark silence of the house. Between that and the warm hand still against his skin, he managed to keep the worst of his fears at bay.

And then, just a few minutes later, he heard the clock's mechanism begin to wind up to strike twelve. It wound and wound, and then... stopped.

The silence was almost unbearable; heavy and oppressive. He couldn't even hear Valois breathing, and he realised he was holding his own breath, too.

Something began to glimmer in the air before them, finally offering a gleam of light in the room. The glow increased and something was inside it, but he couldn't see. Valois caressed his cheek softly, soothing him, but said nothing.

Squinting, Gunther tried to see what it was that floated inside the glow. It looked like... like an hourglass? Oh, then it was definitely something witchy to do with Valois. Was this how he opened up those gateways to other times, or something?

And then, without warning, the light flashed brightly, making him screw his eyes shut. There was the sound of a crash and shattering glass, and the light died. And, now, he did have a headache.

"I don't feel good," he moaned, forgetting Valois's entreaty for him to stay still and quiet. "I think I'm gonna throw up..."

"Hush, mon cur. It will pass." Valois sat him up, gathering him into his lap. "Hold onto me. Put your arms around me and rest your head on my shoulder."

Gunther did as he was told, straddling Valois's thighs and clinging to him, the wave of nausea slowly passing. He could feel Valois gently stroking the nape of his neck, and that soothed away the worst of the headache, too, but he still felt weird.

He kissed Valois's ear and whispered, "Do you mind if I go to bed? I feel like I'm coming down with flu, or something."

"Of course not." Valois sat him up and smiled at him. It was a smile that he'd never given Gunther before, and it stopped Gunther in his tracks.

"What... why are you looking at me like that?" And then: "Valois? What just happened? You're crying! Oh god, don't cry, please. What's happened? Is something wrong?"

Valois shook his head, heedless of the tears spilling down his face, his smile wide and open and loving. "Nothing, mon cur," he said. "Kiss me and we shall both retire for the night, and - should you fall ill - I will care for you and love you." As I shall love you for all eternity.

The next time that Gunther woke, the sun was just rising over the distant hills of Champs Les Sims and dappling the walls with light. He still felt a bit... weird, though he realised now that it wasn't a sickness type of weird; more it was the kind of uneasiness that leads one to the certainty that the gas was left on or the front door not locked when on vacation. Something had shifted, and he felt very strange and unsettled as a result.

What settled him, though - and instantly, at that - was the sight of Valois sleeping beside him on the bed. The night had been too warm to bother with bedcovers, and they had simply fallen asleep wrapped up in each other instead.

Valois, so pale upon the rich, red covers. Frozen in the beauty of youth, his skin a peach to the touch; soft and vulnerable. Immutable and unchanging, like some warm, living statue moving through time.

With a soft sigh, Gunther settled down again, curling up to him and breathing in the familiar scent of his skin. How many months had it been now, since Valois entered his life and saved him from the wreck of his loveless marriage? He frowned as he tried to count back. It had been... had been... now when did they usually host that big party? Was it... March? April? No, it had been foggy. Autumn, then?

Closing his eyes, he gave up. It didn't matter anyway. He was here now, and Valois was everything to him. Yes, of course there was a job back home, but he was supposed to be relaxing away from all of that. Doctor's orders, after all. And god, it felt so good. He hadn't taken a vacation in years, and he really, honestly could get used to this lazy life, far away from boardroom meetings and long-distance teleconferences.

Opening his eyes, he gazed at Valois's peaceful face, wanting so desperately to kiss those slightly-parted lips, yet at the same time reluctant to break the moment by waking him. While Valois slept, Gunther could just drink in the beauty of him without feeling embarrassed that he was staring. And, oh god, he was so in love that it almost hurt.

Carefully, Gunther raised one hand and let the backs of his fingers hover just above Valois's cheek. He wanted so badly to touch, to stroke, to caress; could feel the warmth of the skin just a hair's-breadth away, but instead he just looked for the longest time before letting his hand drift up to the shock of scarlet hair that had so distracted him when he first met Valois. Now it was something he looked for in the world around him, feeling grounded and centered whenever he saw it, because it meant that Valois was close by, but back then it had fascinated him.

"I love you, too, mon cur," Valois whispered, his lips curving into a smile as he cradled Gunther's hand against his cheek. "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"

"I didn't want to wake you." Gunther murmured. "You looked so peaceful. So beautiful. I could watch you sleep for hours." He paused. "Is that creepy?"

Valois chuckled, finally opening his eyes. "Not at all creepy, because if it is then I am creepy, too." He pulled Gunther's hand to his lips, kissing his palm. "I ask again: did you sleep well?"

"I always do when you're with me."

"And do you feel better this morning?" Valois looked up at him. "Last night you said you felt unwell..."

Gunther nestled down beside him. "Actually," he nuzzled Valois's throat, "I feel amazing. Really... I dunno. Alive? Yeah, really alive. Like that positive feeling you get at the start of spring, or something."

"Oh?"

He could hear the smile in Valois voice, and he grinned. "Yeah. Oh, and really fucking horny, too."

"Then I think we must do something about that."

"That's the best idea you've had so far today, Monsieur Fulcanelli."

"Hm, not quite. While you were busily watching me I was daydreaming about what I planned to do to you today." Valois purred. "Now that was the best idea I've had so far today..."

To say that Gunther's legs were shaky as he left the shower almost an hour later would be an understatement. He stood as still as he could while Valois towelled him down and kissed almost every inch of him, but he had to lean on Valois's shoulder as he was led back to the bed and gently tucked in.

"Perhaps," Valois said, as he bent to ghost a kiss over Gunther's still-damp forehead, "you now have an even greater appreciation of what magic is capable of, hm?"

"God, yes," Gunther rasped. "I had no fucking idea it could be used in, well, fucking."

"Nor that it would be so powerful when it was. There is an incredible electrical aura around you right now, if only you could sense it. It's tingly." Valois laughed softly. "Mon cur, sex is the most primal of things. Understand that the power that magic can draw from it is almost beyond mortal comprehension." Another kiss. "Which is why you can barely walk, my beautiful boy. Rest now. I will wake you before lunch."

"Love you," Gunther mumbled, already drowsing into sleep.

"My life," came the whispered response, but he was already out like a light.

Something was buzzing, and Gunther blinked open fuzzy eyes to stare at the ceiling. What the hell was buzzing?

Propping himself up on his elbows, he looked around the room. The sound was coming from the nightstand, and he tugged open the drawer. Oh, his phone. That was odd. He hadn't received a single call since he'd been in France, so who the hell was calling him now?

He didn't recognise the number on the screen, but he picked it up and swiped to answer it anyway. Only then did he see - and stare at - the twenty-six missed calls, voicemail messages, and texts. Not to mention that the battery was fully-charged, when he hadn't even looked at the damn thing in all the time he'd been here. What the--?

"Hello?"

"Mr Goth?" It was a woman, and her voice sounded familiar.

"...yes?"

"Oh, thank god I've got hold of you! I've been calling and calling and everything went to voicemail!"

"Who is this?"

The was a pause, then: "Um, it's Natalie." Another pause. "Your secretary? At work?"

"Oh!" He struggled to sit up and clear his head. "Is everything all right? Christ, I'm sorry if you've been trying to get hold of me. The doctor said I should rest, so I've not been checking my phone or anything."

"Well yes, I know. You've, um, you've been gone for quite a while now, but things are ticking over at work. Mr Danner has been covering for you since you went over the company discretion time for sickness, but he's not as nice as you to work for. That's not why I'm calling, though."

"Wait... over the company discretion time?" Gunther frowned. He knew the three-month company discretion time because he'd instigated it and he was nowhere near going over that! "I've not been gone that long."

"You've been away for almost four months. It's fine, though. You're the CEO so there's not much the board of directors can do about it. They trust you and everything's going okay at the moment. They've started making noises about wanting you back soon, but--"

FOUR MONTHS?!

Gunther actually held the phone away from his ear and stared at it. But... but he'd only been here for about three weeks!

"Mr Goth?" Natalie's distant voice made him put the phone back to his ear. "Mr Goth, that's not why I'm calling. Please, this is urgent!"

"I'm listening," he replied, in as calm a voice as he could muster. "What's happened?"

"There's... oh god, I don't know how to tell you this." Natalie sounded like she was crying, her words hiccupped and hesitant. "There's been a horrible accident. At your house."

For ever after that, Gunther would swear he finally understood the meaning of the phrase 'like a bucket of cold water' as Natalie whispered:

"You need to come home."

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