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CHAPTER 35 ~ PAUSE
In the morning, Gunther got up reluctantly and showered alone, leaving Valois still asleep in bed. He'd bent down and kissed Valois's lips, smiling as his lover murmured something drowsy and settled down again. It still felt odd to see Valois so relaxed and vulnerable, and he knew he was privileged to witness such a rare thing.
Now, with hot water pounding his shoulders, he hummed quietly to himself, glancing occasionally in the rapidly-steaming mirror every time the collar moved against his neck. He still wasn't used to seeing nothing where he could feel something, even after all this time with the occasional torment of the cage, but already the collar was a comfort to him and he wasn't looking forward to its removal before he left for work.
Oh god, work. That's something else I'm not bloody looking forward to. He grimaced at his reflection, turning off the shower and stepping onto the bathmat. Holding a meeting with the board of directors, in which he was going to come out about his sexuality and admit that he was divorcing his wife, all while looking as if he'd been in a boxing ring? Yeah, that was going to be a bundle of laughs, wasn't it?
The bathroom door opened and Valois walked in, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "You're up early, mon cœur," he murmured, pressing a kiss to Gunther's still-wet cheek.
"Work." Gunther pulled a face. "I have that boardroom meeting, remember?"
"Ahh yes." Valois took a heavy bath towel from the heated rail and began to rub Gunther down, making him grin.
"Taking care of my every need?" he murmured, and Valois looked up from where he was drying Gunther's legs. His lips curved in a smile as he nodded and carried on until Gunther was completely dry.
"I love you," Gunther whispered.
The towel went back onto the rail and Valois cradled Gunther's face in his palms.
"I love you too, my beautiful boy." Valois kissed him. "Ready for the collar to come off?"
"Does it have to?"
"Yes, it does. You need all of your focus on what must be done today, and no distractions." Again, Valois kissed him as the sensation of both collar and cuffs faded, leaving him feeling empty and a bit lost.
"Non, not lost and never empty," Valois whispered against his mouth. "I will be there with you, just a few steps away in your suite. Everything will be all right, I promise."
"I look awful." Glancing over Valois's shoulder into the mirror, Gunther examined the scrapes and bruises on his face.
"You look as if you can take care of yourself when somebody attacks you." Valois kissed him again. "Have you seen the morning newspapers?"
"No. I got up and came straight in here. Why?"
In reply, Valois held out a copy of the Sunset Herald that he surely must have magicked up out of thin air, because he sure as hell hadn't been carrying it when he entered the bathroom. Gunther took it, unfolding it to reveal the headline:
"Is this real?" Gunther stared at him. "How the hell--?" He hesitated, then shook his head. "You had a hand in this, didn't you? You must have!"
Valois gave a one-shouldered, Gallic shrug. "I do what I can, when I can. A little nudge here and there, hm?"
Dropping the newspaper on the bathroom counter, Gunther wrapped his lover in a tight embrace and kissed him. Breathless, he pulled back just a little, smiling broadly. "You're amazing. They're really going to be behind me all the way on this?"
"Bien sûr. I told you to trust me. Your friend Nick has pulled those strings that he holds with his connections in the media, and I helped a little, too. Everything will be fine today."
"I still have to come out, though--" The small protest was stopped in its tracks by Valois's arched eyebrow, and Gunther sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. I trust you."
"You worry too much, mon cœur. Of course, you think that your board of directors are what you call 'fuddy-duddy', hm? Old men in grey suits who will overlook your contributions to the company, the profits and sales that have soared under your tenure, the way that every member of your staff adores you and is motivated to do their very best... you think they will forget all of that and judge you solely on the fact that your lover is a man."
Gunther could feel his cheeks heating up, and he could see Valois's little smile at that.
"Well, when you put it that way..." he began, then he cocked his head. "Do they really think that highly of me?"
"Pfah!" Valois pulled away and flapped both hands at him in exasperation. "Dieu! Must I crack your skull to make you realise your worth?"
Taken aback, Gunther stared at him, then burst out laughing. "Okay, okay! I believe you. God, that's the most adorable thing I've ever seen you do."
"I do not 'do' adorable, unless it is to make you smile." Picking up the newspaper, Valois grinned and kissed Gunther again. "Now get dressed and I will drive you to work."
"A suit, mon cœur?" Valois looked him up and down twenty minutes later. "I will not deny that you look beautiful, but will you not feel uncomfortable?"
Gunther adjusted his tie in the mirror. "The board of directors would expect nothing less," he murmured, casting a sideways glance and a smile at his lover. "I've been in business since my teens. Suits are a way of life for me. Besides," he pecked a kiss to Valois's lips, "more often than not you're in a suit, too."
Valois conceded the point, looking down at himself with a rueful smile. "I shall console myself, then, with thoughts of getting you out of it as soon as your meeting is over."
"Now that I can get behind." Putting his phone into his briefcase and checking for the presence of his wallet, Gunther nodded. "C'mon, then. Let's go."
"Good morning, Mr Goth." Natalie greeted Gunther with a sunny smile that wavered as she saw the marks on his face. After a moment to collect herself, she offered Valois the same - if slightly wobbly - smile. "Oh, and Monsieur Fulcanelli, too. Nice to see you again."
"And you, ma petite lionne." Valois took her hand and kissed the back of it, making her giggle and wink at Gunther.
"What is it with women and Frenchmen?!" Gunther threw up a hand, but he was grinning nonetheless. "Coffee would be fabulous, Nat. Is everyone in?"
"Mr Alto is in his office, and Mr Dixon turned up just before you did. Mr Pakefield's having his usual lie-in, by the looks of things." Natalie busied herself with the coffee maker. "Monsieur Fulcanelli, would you like a cup, too?"
"If it would not be too much trouble, thank you." Valois smiled at her. "And, please, call me Valois. Such formality is not necessary with me."
"Well." She gave one cup of coffee to Gunther and started on a second one. "I never like to presume. Plus, I've been working for His Knibs here long enough that formality comes as a given. All of his important visitors, and all that." She winked at Valois.
"You are a treasure, ma chère, and I am sure that His Knibs would be lost without you."
"I only hired her for her coffee-making skills, y'know," Gunther observed, taking a sip and simply enjoying the banter.
Natalie poked out her tongue at him. "You're a mean, mean boss. I can type, too!"
"Yeah; backwards and in high heels. I'm going! I'm going!" Gunther retreated to his office, letting Valois deal with both secretary and coffee.
"I read about it in the paper this morning," Natalie murmured as she waited for the coffee. "Didn't actually expect to see it. Is he okay?"
"Oui. I was as upset as you, ma chère." Valois paced over to perch on the edge of her desk. "I could have beaten that reporter into a pulp when I saw what he'd done."
"He should be glad you didn't get your hands on him," was Natalie's grim observation as the coffee maker gurgled and spluttered. "I rather think you could make him regret he ever lived."
"That is most certainly a possibility I have considered."
Natalie tapped her fingers on the filing cabinet; a restless and worried manicured tarantella. "I wish... grr, I wish I had more witch in me than I do. I could have helped you out there."
Valois smiled. "So fierce," he murmured. "I need no help, but I thank you for your offer. I am fairly certain that you would have constructed a most... devious method of punishment for him."
"Damn right I would." Natalie handed over his coffee and set to work on a cup for herself. "It'd probably involve his balls and a rusty spork. Oh dear, did I actually say that?"
"Miaou!" Valois chuckled. "Le petit chaton est un lion!"
"Kitty's a lion all right." Natalie shook her fist at an invisible reporter. "Gah! If I ever see him, I swear I won't be responsible for my actions!"
"Then you will be relived to know that Gunther handled him quite well by himself." Valois said. "He told me what had happened. Well, after I insisted on it. Your boss is quite useful in a fight, apparently."
"Doesn't surprise me one bit." Natalie stirred her own cup of coffee and took the hearty gulp of a seasoned caffeine addict. "I saw him throw someone out of the building once. Literally. He'd had to fire the company's junior accountant because he'd been caught embezzling funds, and well... the guy was escorted down to Reception and he started yelling about unfair dismissal, and then he got violent. Mr Goth didn't even bother calling Security. Instead, he actually grabbed hold of the idiot and physically threw him out. Never seen anything like it!"
Valois sipped his coffee and slipped off the desk again. He leaned in close and whispered, with a wicked glint in his eye, "That, ma chère, is unbelievably hot."
"Yeah, and you're not talking about the coffee, are you? Well, you just leave off molesting him until after he's had his meeting." Natalie winked at him. "Can't have him traipsing in there looking like he's been fucked through a hedge backw-- oops."
"Madame, your imagination knows no bounds." Valois saluted her with his cup. "I approve."
And, with that, he disappered into Gunther's office, leaving Natalie giggling.