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CHAPTER 41 ~ INTRUSION
Esme Tanner beamed broadly as she opened the door and saw her daughter standing on the step. "Hello, dear! I wasn't expecting you until Friday. Come in and I'll put the kettle on."
Natalie pecked a kiss on her mother's wrinkled cheek and stepped into the warm, welcoming little house. The clean scent of lemongrass oil filled the air and her shoulders sank down into the relaxed state they always occupied when she came home. Esme had always diffused lemongrass oil, even when Natalie was a little girl. "Best air-cleanser there is!" she'd said, and the smell of it always took Natalie back to her happy childhood.
"So," Esme said as she bustled around, filling the kettle and placing it on the hob. "Itchy brain?"
Natalie laughed, tapping between her own eyebrows. "Yep, right here. You said it might happen one day, didn't you?"
"Mmhm. Your witch sense is increasing as you grow older. Some get it young, some have to wait. Most female witches begin to sense it in their early-to-mid thirties, so you're about spot-on, I'd say. Is it still vague, or is it forming around something?"
"It's forming around someone. And not who I expected, either." Natalie sighed. "My boss, Mr Goth."
Esme grinned. "You didn't expect it to be him? I knew you had a thing for him the first time you popped 'round to see me after starting work there and couldn't stop talking about him, dear."
"Not like that!"
"No?" Esme arched a wicked eyebrow at her daughter. "Not even one teeny little thought about it?"
"Oh shut up," Natalie mumbled, going a bit pink. "Maybe a teeny little one, all right? But it's not like that now. It's..." she sighed. "It's a worry. A concern. Something doesn't feel right."
The kettle began to whistle and Esme wrapped a cloth around the handle before lifting it off the hob and tilting it to pour steaming hot water into the teapot.
"Well," she said as she replaced the lid and snuggled a knitted cosy down over the pot, "that's never a good sign. A worry?"
"Yeah, which is why I'm here early. Would you do a crystal ball reading for him?"
Esme turned to look at her. "He doesn't know you're asking, does he?"
"No, and I know I'm supposed to ask him first, but that's one of the other reasons why I'm here. He didn't come into work this morning, but he didn't call in or email or anything, and his phone's not even going to voicemail, let alone ringing." Natalie realised she was wringing her hands and shoved them behind her instead. "That's not like him. He always lets me know if he won't be in, because he knows I have to cancel his meetings and whatnot. I'm worried about him."
"But not enough to call the police instead of coming to me." Esme sighed. "There's something more to this than just your boss being incommunicado, dear. Has there been anything in his life that's seemed out-of-the-ordinary lately?"
"Well, he's had a lot of personal problems. His wife and all that. You read the paper; you know about that."
"I do." Esme turned back to the teapot and poured two delicate china cupfuls out. Plopping a sugarcube into one and stirring it, she handed it over to her daughter. "And I also know that he has someone new in his life."
"That's the out-of-the-ordinary thing." Natalie sipped her tea. "His new boyfriend is a witch, but he claimed that he was no ordinary witch."
Esme's teacup hesitated halfway to her lips. "I think, then," she murmured, "that we do indeed need a crystal ball reading. Come with me."
"Well, that's the strangest thing I've ever seen," Esme muttered ten minutes later as the crystal ball hovered between her hands.
Natalie bit her lip, an equally deep frown biting between her brows. "What?"
"He's in the Veil."
"The witch realm?"
"It's the Supernatural realm, dear, but that's the problem. No human can get in the Veil. It's completely blocked to them."
"Can you go and get him?"
Esme chuckled. "No, because he's not alone. Although--" Now she, too, was frowning. "--whoever he's with does not want to be found. They're cloaked. And, my girl, before you ask if it's a wool or velvet cloak, I mean they're cloaked from my view. Hidden."
Natalie peered into the crystal, but all she could see was a slightly green haze. "His boyfriend's name is Valois," she murmured. "I don't know if that'll be of any-- OH!"
The crystal ball had suddenly dropped back into its stand and Esme was staring at it, her mouth open.
"Well!" she exclaimed. "That's who he was with all right. I sent that name into the Veil and I was thrown out! Well, I... I... gracious! That's never..."
Natalie shot her mother a worried look. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, dear. Just a bit shocked. That's never happened before, and I don't know how it happened. It shouldn't even be possible. I'm a seventh generation witch, as you know. I have authority in the Veil that means I can always access it!"
"How could you be thrown out? It's not permanent, is it?"
"Only someone with a much higher authority than I possess could do it, and I'm about as high as they come these days, my dear. Not many witches are prepared to study for as long as I have, nor to progress as far as I have. If this Valois was indeed the one who threw me out then he has an extremely-high level of magical power." Esme looked up at her daughter. "And no, it's not permanent. I suppose you could say I was snooping around his house and he threw me off the premises, if that makes sense?"
"Now I'm even more worried." Natalie bit her lip. "I've met Valois. He's a lovely man, Cares for Mr Goth no end. They love each other to bits; you can see that as soon as you're in a room with the pair of them."
Esme gazed at the crystal ball for a moment. "Hm. If he is indeed that powerful then it might explain why your Mr Goth is in the Veil. No mortal is permitted there, but an extremely-powerful witch might be able to manage it, however briefly. The more likely possibility, though, is that they have entered into some kind of pact; one that binds them so closely that Mr Goth is able to move into the Veil with Valois."
"Pact?" Natalie blinked. "Like they got married or something? They'd better not have done; not without inviting me!"
Esme rolled her eyes, then laughed. "Sweetie, we're talking witchcraft here, not your collection of romance novels. I mean the kind of pact that is sworn both in the world of reality and the world of the Veil. It's a rare thing that is normally only undertaken by two or more Supernaturals; a vampire and his fledgling, for example. Or a witch upon entering a coven. I've never heard of a Supernatural forging such a bond with a human."
"Mr Goth is all right though, isn't he?"
Esme smiled. "He appeared to be perfectly fine. The emotions that I picked up from him before I was thrown out were ones of happiness, peace, love, and safety. There was a tiny edge of wariness as well, but if this was his first experience of the Veil then that's perfectly natural. It can seem an unsettling place the very first time you go there. He's fine."
Relieved, Natalie sat back in her chair. "I still feel itchy," she grumbled.
"I think," Esme murmured, "that it's about time I took you under my wing, so to speak. I've got a wand that I've been saving for you since you were a little girl."
Gunther shifted in Valois's arms, snuffling as he roused to wakefulness. He blinked, looking up at the ceiling, then turned his head as he realised he was lying on a bed.
"Shit. I fell asleep?" he mumbled. "Sorry."
"Out like a light." Valois chuckled. "It's fine. You had a little bit of emotional trauma, so the Veil sent you to sleep while your brain processed it. You should feel much better now."
Turning his focus inward for a moment, Gunther analysed how he felt, then he sighed. "Something still doesn't feel right. It's like... something's nagging in my gut."
"Here?" Valois placed a gentle hand over Gunther's solar plexus, and he nodded.
That hand felt comforting, but it didn't soothe the nagging sensation. He watched as Valois clearly focused on something for a moment, then he turned his head slightly and sniffed.
"I smell something."
"Lemongrass," Valois said, his voice slightly distant.
"Did you light some incense or something?"
"Then where's it coming from?" He turned back to Valois, and then his eyes widened. "What--?"
Valois looked angry, and a moment later the lemongrass scent had vanished. "Earth witch," he muttered, his face finally softening into a tender look again. "I draw attention from them sometimes, because of my age and power. They get curious, and intrusive."
"What just happened?" Gunther whispered, nestling closer, worried now.
"An earth witch tried to find me and I threw her out. Think of them as akin to paparazzi, if you wish to understand them. They push their lenses into your life because there exists curiosity about you."
"Oh, paps." Gunther pulled a face. "She got in here? You mean she saw us?"
"Non, mon cœur. It is not a physical presence as you would know it. Walking in the Veil when one is in the mortal realm is a kind of... hm, how to explain so that you will understand? It is like what you may know of as astral projection. Sending the mind out into another realm, carried by a spiritual body that is connected to the physical form. Does that make sense?"
"Sort of. A bit like a ghost?"
Valois chuckled. "Something like that, but not as permanently-dead. Now, this nagging that you feel... I think I can explain it."
"The Veil is simply telling you that you are not in your natural state at this moment."
Gunther frowned. "What does that mean? I'm fine, apart from that uncertain feeling."
Valois kissed him. "Mon cœur," he whispered, "your natural state is submission. The Veil senses no collar, it sees no skin, it hears no deference. And yet it knows that you should not be here, but to complete your promise to me. That is why you feel so uncertain."
"... oh." Gunther closed his eyes, his lower lip trembling a little as he buried his face in Valois's throat.
Valois sighed, very softly. "Have I lost your trust, my darling one?"
Miserably, Gunther nodded. "A bit, yeah," he croaked. "Sorry."
Silence followed that admission, and Gunther felt awkward enough that he had to fill it. "It's just that... your promise to me was that no hurt would come to me from the world but that it would be stopped by your hand and your heart." He sniffled, choking back a sob. "But the hurt came from you."
Valois wrapped him up tightly in his arms, rocking him.
"Mon cœur," he whispered, over and over. "I am sorry. So sorry. I hope that some day you can find the space in your heart to forgive me."
"Don't ever lie to me again," Gunther begged. "Please, not ever again. If I can't trust you not to lie, how can I trust you with my life?"
"I won't, my darling boy. I promise I won't."
Gunther looked up at him. "Swear it. Swear it on something that means something to you. Not on me; on something else."
Valois looked shaken, but Gunther was determined to have this promise sworn. No more lies, god-fucking-dammit!
Slowly, Valois raised his left hand, showing Gunther the ring that he always wore. "This never comes off my hand," he murmured. "I cannot explain to you why, but - aside from you - it is the most precious thing in my existence. I swear on this ring. No more lies."
Gunther stared at him for a long moment, searching his face, looking into his eyes. Then, finally satisfied, he nestled down again and the nagging ache slowly began to fade.
"My collar's still at home," he mumbled. "But... I'll accept the one of your will, if the Veil would be happy with that."
In response, Valois held up a soft strip of leather in his hand. "Time and distance mean nothing to me," he murmured. "Remember?"
"I forgot," Gunther said, his voice small and still a bit lost as he raised his head to allow Valois to buckle the collar back around his neck. The cuffs were a little more difficult, as he still had his shirt on, but as they settled around each wrist he finally relaxed.
"Too comfy to get up and get undressed," he mumbled. "Can't you magic my clothes off, or something?"
"It is done."
With the soft weight of his clothing gone, Gunther settled down just a little more into a happier place. "Feels better. Feels right."
"It is your natural state, my boy. Naked and collared and submissive. You are home." Valois paused, then added softly, "Do you love me?"
"I love you."
"And do you trust me?"
Gunther hesitated; the slightest of pauses as he searched deep within himself. Nothing felt wrong now. He was in his rightful place. "I trust you, Maître," he whispered.
"Then all is well." Valois kissed him. "Be at peace now. Sleep, and I will hold you."