[ If you have been linked here directly, please click here first to read the disclaimer. ]
CHAPTER 30 ~ OUT
Safely in his office with the door closed, Gunther sipped his coffee and set it down on his desk before digging his phone out from his jeans back pocket. He swiped his thumb over the screen, tapped in the passcode, and hit the speed-dial number for Valois, pacing around the room as he listened to the dial tone.
It was answered within four rings, Valois's voice warm and tender and still a little rough around the edges from sleep.
"Good morning, mon cœur. You left early today."
"I had to come into work," Gunther said quietly, realising he was probably wearing a hole in the rug. He sat down and sighed. "I... Shit, I don't want to do this."
"Wait one moment and I will be there. I can all-but feel the tension bleeding off you down the line."
"I need some help, yeah." Gunther was horrified to hear that come out as a whimper. Since when did he cower at the thought of telling potentially bad news to someone? "I gotta tell Nick... I gotta... fuck. I have to come out at work, Valois. I don't know if I can do this!"
"Put the phone down, mon cœur," a gentle voice said behind him. "I am here now."
As long fingers slid into his hair to massage his scalp, Gunther let his hand drop to his knee, thumbing the call off. He sat back, leaning into the comfort of that touch. You always know. Every time, you know what to do.
"I told you, mon amant chéri, we are linked so closely that I sense your every mood. My sleep was an unsettled one, and when the telephone woke me I knew you were worried about something. Now tell me: what is this 'coming out'?"
Gunther couldn't help a slight smile at that. He forgot, sometimes, just how old-fashioned his lover was.
"I have to tell them about my sexuality," he explained. "That's what it's called these days. It's short for 'coming out of the closet'."
"Not a very comfortable place to be," Valois observed, the pads of his fingers working magic on the tense knots at the base of Gunther's skull. "Is this modern world so fixated on who other people love?"
"Yeah. It is. In some places it's fine. In others... you could be killed for it."
"And you are worried what your colleagues will think of you for having a man as a lover?"
"Not so much that, no." Gunther heaved another sigh. "It's more what they'll think of me for that after what happened to Cornelia. They're going to think that I was seeing you before Cornelia... had her problems, and that that's what caused them."
"You are so sure of this? You do not think that they noticed things were wrong before?" Valois ghosted a kiss over the crown of Gunther's head and continued with the massage. "I was at that party, remember. The tension between you and your wife was so palpable it filled the air like smoke. I am sure I was not the only one to sense it."
"I don't know," Gunther said, in such a small and lost voice that it scared him even more. "Can't you help? Please? Use magic, or something?"
"I have no need to use it. You go to see your colleague Nick, oui?" To Gunther's miserable nod, Valois replied, "He knows already that your marriage was failing. He has spoken of it many times with his wife. He has been worried for you, mon cœur."
"How do you know--? Oh. Oh, I forgot. Sorry." Gunther closed his eyes, willing his shoulders back down from around his ears. He opened his eyes again and stared at the floor. "But what about the rest of the town? The ones that didn't go to those parties and only know about what happened to Cornelia after reading it in the newspapers?"
"Now those I can help with." Again, Valois kissed the crown of Gunther's head. "They will be sympathetic to you, my own. I promise you this. Now stand and kiss me, and you will go to see your friend Nick, knowing that he already understands."
The soothing hands withdrew from his hair, and Gunther got to his feet, slipping his phone back into his pocket. Now that he could see Valois, he smiled. "You look gorgeous," he murmured, going into the open arms that waited for him. "I still can't get over seeing you when you dress casually. You're usually so elegant."
"Hm, well this was done to bring that smile to your face, so it worked." Valois kissed him, his hands sliding possessively to cover Gunther's arse. "Still sore?" he murmured against Gunther's mouth.
"Mmmhm," came the blissful reply.
"I am with you, always."
Exiting the elevator, Gunther walked slowly down the corridor to Nick's beautifully-appointed office. Dark, burled wood surrounded him, bearing testimony to his friend and colleague's love of all things Art Nouveau.
A brief stop at the secretary's office, and Gunther was told with a bright smile and a, "Good to see you back again, Mr Goth!" that Mr Alto wasn't busy and that he could go right in.
And so he did, leaning one hand against the bookshelves and watching Nick for a moment.
"Hey, hi," he said softly.
Nick looked up, clearly startled by hearing that voice. "Gunther!" He closed his laptop and sat back in his chair. "Well I'll be damned! How are you, old boy? Settling into your new home?"
Gunther smiled, immediately put at-ease by Nick's warm welcome. "Yeah, settling in. Mortimer will be going back to school soon, so I thought I'd best come in. Put my head up over the trench wall, as it were."
"Ahh, yes. How is Cornelia?" Did Gunther imagine it, or did Nick's eyes narrow slightly?
"Uh, as well as can be expected, I suppose." Gunther moved away from the bookcase, shoving one hand into his jeans pocket as he walked further into the room. "The doctors have put her in a secure unit."
Nick sighed and steepled his fingers, then gestured to the seats in front of his desk. Gunther sat down in one, hunched over slightly.
"Forgive me," Nick began, "but I've been meaning to--" He sat back in his chair. "I think," he interrupted himself, "that we both need a drink. Neat?"
Gunther shook his head. "Rocks," he said. "It's too early for neat."
"This is '61 Glenlivet," Nick declared, rising from his seat. "It's never too early for a drop of that, neat. But, as you wish." He dropped some ice from the bucket into an elegant glass, filled both it and a second with a generous slug from the decanter, and returned to the desk, setting the iced glass down in front of Gunther.
"I want you to stop me if I'm being too forward," Nick said, as Gunther took a fortifying sip and the whisky burned comfortingly down his gullet. "But both Vita and I noticed a long time ago that things were not... harmonious between you and Cornelia."
Despite the drink, Gunther's throat dried up. He brought a hand to his mouth and nodded, looking down at the floor. "Yeah," he rasped. "It's been... bad for a long time."
Nick sighed. "I'd feared as much, but how does one broach that kind of subject?" He shook his head. "Did Cornelia's illness have something to do with it?"
"It might have." Again, Gunther reached for the whisky glass. "All I know is that she made my life hell for years. Mortimer's, too."
Nick picked up his own drink. "And now...?"
"Now I'm about to make the entire town think I'm the biggest fucking bastard alive." Gunther knocked back the rest of his whisky and put the glass down on the desk. "I'm going to file for divorce. I should have done it before the fire and her diagnosis, but..." He shrugged. "I just couldn't do it."
Nick just nodded. "I'm sorry, old boy. It was very obvious to both Vita and I that Cornelia was behaving extremely unpleasantly towards you. I, for one, completely understand your need to get away from her by means of a divorce. However, I assume you're more worried about the opinions of the rest of Sunset Valley?"
Gunther's laugh in response to that was mirthless and bitter. "Oh, I think I'm going to hit the gossip rags with a vengeance, don't you?"
"Not if we can get a pre-emptive strike in first you won't. Let me think about it, all right? I have some contacts in the media. This could be spun quite positively, if you don't mind taking a small hit to your dignity."
"Better that than a large kick to the nuts." Gunther sighed, briefly closing his eyes. "There's something else, too. You remember the last party I threw?"
"I do indeed."
Gunther steeled himself. "I... met someone there. And since then that person has... has come to mean so much to me that I--" He shook his head. "Damn it, there's no way this can be spun, Nick. I've got someone else now, and everyone is going to assume that was going on before Cornelia fell ill and was the reason why she fell ill."
Nick was silent for a moment, and Gunther could almost see him turning the events of that party over in his mind. And then--
"Well, the party was invite-only, and confined to your friends and colleagues, so if you met this person at-- Oh! I remember now, yes. The young chap with the red hair. Told us all that you were feeling unwell and that the party would have to wind down. Yes, I remember. Played piano at some point, didn't he? Seemed very pleasant. We spoke briefly about antiques and Art Nouveau. He had quite the collection himself. French, wasn't he?"
Gunther blinked at him. "What?" he said, hoarsely, his stomach suddenly doing backflips worthy of an Olympic gold.
Nick chuckled. "My dear old chap, you didn't think I was going to judge you for that, did you? I may be old-fashioned in my artistic tastes, but I'm pretty forward-thinking when it comes to modern matters."
"Christ." Gunther sagged in his chair, covering his eyes with one hand. "In all honesty, I've been shitting bricks over this, for days."
"Unfortunate turn of phrase, that." Nick's eyes twinkled over the rim of his whisky glass.
Gunther shook his head ruefully and grinned at him. "You're fired. So fucking fired. Get me another drink and I might re-hire you."