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CHAPTER 39 ~ FLIGHT

Gunther drove mindlessly out of Sunset Valley, not caring where he was headed. The gas tank indicator sank with the sun and still he drove, completely lost and completely uncaring. His head was a mess, he couldn't think straight, and most of the time his vision was blurred by recurring tears.

"How could you do this to me?" he whispered, over and over into the emptiness of the car. Over and over until it became a wail of anguish as a thick bank of trees loomed up ahead.

Somehow, he'd found his way down a dirt track that led into a forest. Easing on the brakes, he looked around, sniffling. Snow had started falling and was settling on the windshield as the moon rose higher in the night sky. The gas tank was almost empty, and with a sinking feeling he realised that as he'd grabbed the car keys on his way out of the house he'd left his phone behind.

He was alone, in the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold night, with no way of contacting anyone. And the one person he knew he could reach, even without a phone, was the one person he didn't want to see right now. He didn't even have a blanket in the car, and he realised that once the fuel ran out so would the car's heating. And he was in his shirtsleeves.

The world grew whiter around him as he sat helplessly with the engine ticking over, wondering what the hell to do. He hadn't seen any sign of human habitation for miles before he arrived at this forest; no villages that he might be able to reach if he started reversing now. Maybe if he drove into the forest it might provide a bit of shelter until the sun rose? It was about all he could think of to do, so he slowly inched the car forward, flicking the headlights on full so he could see where he was going.

The dirt track led deeper and deeper into the forest. Twigs cracked under the car wheels and the only light now was coming from the car. Looking around nervously, he began to have second thoughts about this. He could start reversing now, maybe, but as he braked and looked behind him he realised the rear lights weren't bright enough to guide him through the maze of trees he'd already driven through.

Forward it was, then. Idiot.

Another ten minutes of careful driving, and the needle was touching the red. Just as a sob began to rise from the pool of fear in his gut, Gunther saw something flickering up ahead. A light! Two lights! Windows!

He drove as close as he could. It was an old house made of stone. Gothic-styled, which was weird enough to find in the middle of a forest, but it had a roof and walls and what looked like warm flickering firelight behind the windows. And two huge, beautiful unicorn statues guarding the gates.

"Yeah, and probably a wicked old witch lurking inside who's starving hungry because she hasn't eaten any lost little children lately," he muttered to himself as he carefully opened the car door. The chill night air rushed in, freezing his shirt-sleeved arms within seconds. Taking the keys from the ignition, he stepped outside, wrapping his arms around himself as he closed the car door. He wouldn't lock it. Not yet. He might need to get back inside in a hurry, after all.

Shit. Should've left the engine running, too.

Three, four, five steps and he'd reached the door. Hesitating, now shivering and chilled to the bone, he raised a hand to knock...

... and the door swung silently open before he could touch it.

His stomach dropped. "Hello?" he called out, his voice deadened by the trees around him. "Anyone home?"

Warm air greeted him, gusting out of the house from what sounded like a large, roaring fire. With the icy forest behind him and a fireplace in front of him, there was no contest. He took a step forward over the threshold and cautiously peeked inside.

"Anyone home?" he asked again.

Before him, he saw a swathe of rich red curtains blocking out much of the room, hung from railings that descended from the ceiling. Large, ornate glass lanterns sprouted from the wall, and as he edged further into the room he peered around the curtains.

Silently, the door closed behind him, and his heart joined his belly somewhere down by his feet as he heard the latch click shut.

I'm going to wake up in a minute and realise I fell asleep watching a horror movie.

There was nobody in the room, so he crept around the curtains until he could see the fireplace. It was huge, almost fully taking up one entire wall of the room and stretching from floor to ceiling. A large gothic bookcase covered the left side wall and a door led off to the right. A comfortable red couch sat before the fire, flanked by two red armchairs and resting on a beautiful old rug. On the coffee table between them was a smaller standing lamp like those on the wall, and an opened bottle of champagne. Behind the couch a small victrola sat open on another table.

The second door opened and Gunther froze, a sob of fear caught in his throat, unvoiced.

"Welcome to the Veil, mon cur," a soft voice said, as Valois stepped into the room and stood by the fireplace.

Gunther stared at him, feeling utterly, utterly lost and helpless. "What are you doing here?" he whispered.

"You are in my home."

"I'm not!" Gunther wrung his hands, sinking to his knees in his distress. "I drove away from your home. I drove away from you!"

"And you drove straight to my real home. You found your way to the Veil, mon cur. With no guidance or help. You drove straight to me."

"I didn't!" Now Gunther was sobbing. "I didn't! I just... I..."

The world turned black as he crumpled to the floor.

When he came to again, he was laying on the couch and Valois was sitting in one of the chairs, quietly reading. The fire crackled and blazed and for the longest time Gunther didn't dare move. The sound of the fire was comforting, even if Valois's presence made him uneasy. And, oh god, he felt guilty about that. So guilty that it was like a knot in his gut. It hurt. It hurt like hell to be so close to Valois and yet to feel so far away from him.

"If you are hungry," Valois murmured, "then I can cook something light for you."

"Starving." Slowly, Gunther sat up, rubbing a hand across his eyes and watching Valois warily.

Closing the book, Valois put it on the table and rose to his feet. "The night is dark and extremely cold, and you do not know your way out of the Veil," he said softly. "Please do not harbour any notions of 'escaping'. You need not fear me."

"I won't," Gunther mumbled. For a start he wouldn't have the first clue where to go, and as Valois walked through another side door Gunther picked up the book that he'd been reading. He felt numb inside, wanting to reach for anything as a distraction, and books had ever been that for him.

"Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum?" he whispered, staring incredulously at the title. "Part of his unfinished Instauratio Magna?"

Opening the book, he made straight for the frontispiece. Sure enough, it was the original 1627 edition, and his jaw fell open. This one single book was absolutely priceless! How many more like it did Valois own?

He stood, making his way to the bookcase. One after another, more incredibly-rare and costly volumes came into his hands; he of all people appreciating their worth after his many years of collecting. And yet, when they had first met at the party, Valois had professed no knowledge of alchemy whatsoever!

"Ah, you have found my library."

Gunther turned, a vellum-bound volume of Joannes Agricola's Treatise on Gold in his hands. "You said you knew nothing about alchemy," he whispered.

The reply was an apologetic little shrug and a slight smile. "I cannot bring this library into the real world, and I knew that if I spoke of it then you would want to see it. It would be difficult to explain why I could not show you even one book, so I thought it best to..."

"Lie?" Gunther put the book back on the shelf.

"Yes," Valois said softly. "To lie. A small white lie, to save myself from telling a bigger, blacker one. Your meal is ready. Will you not come and eat?"

Gunther opened his mouth to protest that he wasn't hungry any more, but his stomach insisted otherwise. With a sigh, he trudged into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Valois put a plate in front of him, on which sat a delicate nest of lightly-steamed vegetables topped with two slices of beef.

"You cooked meat and veg that fast?" Gunther eyed him suspiciously, as he picked up the knife and fork that Valois put down on the table.

In response, Valois held up one hand and - a second later - a salt cellar appeared in his fingers, sparkling with magic.

"...oh," was all Gunther could say, as it was placed on the table.

"The meat and vegetables were all cooked by my own hand, and properly at that. No magic involved." Valois sat opposite him. "I slipped out of time while you examined the books. I prepared the meal, and then served it."

"Physics." The beef was juicy and tender, and tasted so damn good, and Gunther's stomach was soon full and happy, even if the rest of him still felt hollow.

"Yes. Physics." Valois smiled at him. "Which, I think, was not your most favoured subject at school, hm?"

"I hated it," Gunther mumbled between delicious mouthfuls, his brain nagging him about that old adage: The way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

"You were, no doubt, the boy who haunted the school's library when you should have been studying the properties of matter."

At that, Gunther couldn't help a mirthless laugh. "I was. Got caught a few times, too."

"Ah. A frequent visitor to the headmaster's office?"

"Yeah, and my arse was frequently befriended by his cane, too." He pulled a small face at the memory of that.

Valois chuckled and sat back. "Somehow, I find it hard to believe you were such a naughty child."

"I was horrendous. If I liked the lesson, then I behaved myself. If not, then I'd be the one bunking off behind the bike sheds for a smoke or something."

Smalltalk. This is just smalltalk. Bits and pieces of awkward conversation between two people who love each other but just don't know HOW to love each other.

With the meal finished, Gunther set his knife and fork down on the plate. "So," he said with a resigned sigh. "This is the Veil? I didn't know it had weather."

"This is the outer part of the Veil, yes. Some of us live here - the older ones, mainly. The younger Supernaturals have no interest in anything other than what they can get while here."

"Will you tell me exactly how old you are? I think you owe it to me."

"You probably won't believe me."

"Try me."

"I was born in nine hundred and seventy eight Anno Domini," Valois murmured.

Gunther blinked. "Come again?"

Valois smiled sadly. "Hard to believe, I know. I have lived through more than three Ages of the Veil, and they keep very accurate records here. Even if I have forgotten how old I am, I am always reminded when I return here."

"You're..." Gunther stared at him. "You're over a thousand years old?!"

Valois nodded. "I was born in Resting Fade," he said softly. "The longest autumnal season in the Veil, and the most beautiful. The leaves are forever falling, but they never clog the ground. The Veil is always perfect, in every season."

The slowest and subtlest of realisations came over Gunther. He's been alone for over a thousand years. Lonely for a millennium. Is it any wonder that, when he found you, he wanted you to stay with him?

He looked up at Valois, surprised to see that his eyes were damp. "You were so lonely," he whispered, and Valois lowered his gaze and nodded.

"That still doesn't excuse what you did. I can't forgive you for that. Not yet, maybe not ever. You lied." At Valois's half-opened mouth, he held up a hand. "It was a lie of omission. I should have been told and you didn't tell me. Hell, why didn't you just ask?"

Valois looked down at the table and was silent for several minutes. As it had been back at the house in Sunset Valley it was unsettling to see him so hesitant, but at least it felt truer than anything else that had happened since Gunther had arrived home that afternoon.

"Would you have said yes if I had asked?" Valois whispered.

Gunther was silent for a moment. Then, he said hoarsely, "I would have followed you to the end of the world."

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