[ If you have been linked here directly, please click here first to read the disclaimer. ]
CHAPTER 43 ~ AFTER
Safe in warm, strong arms, Gunther let his head rest against Valois's shoulder as he was carried back to the house. Half in a dream, he watched the falling snowflakes against the darkness of the trees behind them, feeling an affinity with the way they drifted gently to their fate.
"I love this place," he murmured. "It's so peaceful."
"As do I," Valois replied. "It has been my home for centuries, no matter where I reside in the real world. And it is your home, too, now."
He turned his head to smile down at Gunther. "It welcomes you. Can you feel that? Listen to what it says to you. You may hear it, or you may only feel it."
Gunther was silent for a few moments. "I just feel very peaceful," he whispered. "Like a child whose mother has sung him to sleep."
Valois ghosted a kiss across his forehead. "That is the Veil, my darling boy. It is singing a welcome to you, and you are feeling it as something that you know well. You are truly home."
"I kind of want to cry, too, but I don't."
"Sweet one." Valois had reached the door to his home, and it opened for him automatically. "That is simply the relief of security," he said, as he stepped inside. The door closed quietly behind him and he continued walking. "All your life you have craved someone to take away the struggles and worries that you have faced; someone to hold you and make it all go away. Now you have that, so it is understandable that you will feel emotional for a while."
"Will we stay here for long?" Gunther murmured, as Valois laid him down on the bed. "What's happening in the real world right now? Does time stop there while we're here?"
"Well now." Valois settled comfortably beside him. "Time does not stop there, but it does slow down." He held out an arm and Gunther snuggled up against him. "For every day that we are here, perhaps half a day passes by in the world of reality."
"How long have we been here? I've lost count."
"Two full days, therefore one full day has passed in the earthly realm."
"Oh, good." Gunther sighed. "I was worried that Mortimer would be waiting for me to bring him home, and worrying that I hadn't turned up. I wasn't supposed to pick him up until Friday, so that makes today... Thursday?"
Valois's hand was soothing in his hair, sifting it gently. "Oui, mon cœur. We are in the night between Wednesday and Thursday in the real world, so Mortimer has one more day of fun with his young friend before papa brings him back down to earth and school with a bump."
At that, Gunther laughed. "It feels so strange to think of my little boy being in love. God, it seems like only last week he was running around the garden in his wellies, playing at aeroplanes or something."
"You are happy with his choice of love, hm?"
"Oh yes. Esther's got her head screwed on the right way, I know that much. Very smart girl, so she'll give him a run for his money in the intelligence stakes." Gunther sighed happily. "Plus they both love art, so I can see theirs being a house filled with easels and frames on the walls."
"And artistic children, too," Valois murmured.
Gunther's breath caught in his throat; roughly somewhere that a lump was forming. He nodded. "I'm not sure I'm ready to be a grandfather just yet," he joked.
"Mon cœur, you will adore it, I'm sure."
"I tried to be there for Mort." Gunther sighed. "I know I wasn't there as often as I should have been. I coped with my marriage problems by spending far too much time at work."
"But, in the end, darling boy, who does Mortimer run to when troubled, hm?"
Now a tear did trickle down Gunther's cheek. "He wants his daddy," he whispered. "I... I suppose at least now he'll have his daddy for his whole life, won't he? I don't know what to do about that." He looked up at Valois. "We should tell him, I think."
"He is your son, mon cœur. You must tell him whatever you wish him to know. Do you think that he will understand?"
"I think Esther will help him understand, especially since you said she's a witch. That means she'll know about the Veil, right?"
Valois pursed his lips. "Well, no. She will not know of it until she is taught of it. Her father did not know his wife was a witch, and still does not know because she died before her powers were such that she knew of them. Thus it follows that Esther has no knowledge of her own powers, although they may soon begin to manifest in strange ways that she cannot explain."
"Did yours do that?"
"Non," Valois murmured. "I was trained from a very young age. I was born as I am and had a tutor as soon as I was old enough to understand words... and blows."
Gunther winced. Shit, he hadn't intended to make Valois remember what was clearly an unhappy childhood. "So... how might Esther discover her, uh, witchy stuff?"
"Do not worry, mon cœur." Valois soothed him with a kiss. "Those memories hurt me no longer. As to Esther, hm. Little inexplicable things may happen. For example, she might drink a cup of coffee, take the cup to the sink to wash it, and find the cup is full again. Or she might throw a ball in the air, and it might not come down again; but she will then find it on the nightstand in her bedroom."
"That's... weird. And scary." Gunther shivered. "In fact, that's the kind of thing that could make you question your sanity."
"It is, rather." Valois chuckled. "Although I was trained in it, for the longest time it felt very strange when things occurred without my commanding them. A witch holds immeasurable power that grows stronger as they are trained. At first, it is wild and uncontrolled. Only with guidance do they learn to command it at will."
"Would—" Gunther blinked. Crap. "Sorry, Maître," he whispered. "I forgot."
"Darling boy, there is no requirement for deference at this moment unless you wish to give it. I would rather we had a discussion like this with you in a mindset of full participation, as opposed to feeling you must hold back for fear of offending your master. Speak as you wish."
Gunther kissed the back of Valois's hand; a small and respectful way of showing his gratitude. "Would you train her?" he continued. "I mean, if she wanted training?"
"If she requested it, then certainly. However, she must recognise and understand it first. Sometimes this can be difficult, and the more modern and secular the age we live in, the harder it can be to persuade a young person that they are magical."
"I know Mort used to like watching Teen Witch High on TV." Gunther chuckled. "It was a show for kids, all about a high school for witches and wizards." He paused, then looked up at Valois. "That's something I'm curious about, actually. I thought witches were female, and that male witches were called wizards?"
Valois shook his head. "Fairy tales, with respect to the fae that I know. All witches, regardless of gender, are called 'witch'. It does not bother me. Most mortals are raised on books of fairy tales, and as they grow older they read of Gandalf and Harry Potter. The only name I am truly bothered by is 'warlock'. Many mortals confuse the male witch with a warlock, and for many of our kind—myself included— that is an offensive term to use."
"I've never used that word, but I've heard it bandied about. Why is it offensive?"
"Many communities do not distinguish between 'wizard' and 'warlock' when referring to a male witch." Valois frowned. "The name comes from the Old English word waerloga, which means 'oath-breaker', whereas the name 'wizard' is from the Middle English word wys, meaning 'wise'. A warlock is a male witch who has broken the codes of his community and is exiled. To call a male witch a warlock is to insult him greatly."
"It's also probably not a very smart thing to do, in general," Gunther observed.
Valois chuckled. "Well, no. Not very smart at all. I believe it was Tolkien who wrote, 'Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger'."
"Can I ask a very silly and possibly offensive question?"
"There is no harm in asking."
"Have you ever turned anyone into a toad, or something like that?"
The laugh that Valois gave at those words filled the bedroom, making Gunther grin like an idiot. It was rare to see Valois so amused by something that he could barely contain it, and so Gunther just watched him giggle and chuckle until he calmed down.
"You are the most adorable little—" Valois grinned. "No, I have not! Although, I have been tempted to do so many a time. For all its stereotypicality, it is actually quite a complex spell to perform. It would be far easier to inflict a more normal, yet still uncomfortable affliction upon a mortal one wished to punish."
Valois gave him such a mischievous look at that. "Well, there was one time when a policeman pulled me over for driving too fast," he murmured. "It was the end of the month and he had not filled his quota of bookings for motoring offences. I knew that he was taking a chance and was hoping that I had been carelessly not paying attention to my speed. I had been below the speed limit for the entire distance that he had tracked me, but since I was pleasant to him when he approached me, I suppose he thought he could get away with it..."
Gunther's eyes widened. "A cop?! What did you do to him?!"
"The poor man suddenly went very quiet, let me off with a hasty caution, and ran into the nearest bushes. I believe he was there for quite some time and felt somewhat drained when he had finished... relieving himself."
Gunther blinked. "You gave him the shits?"
Valois just winked, and Gunther burst out laughing. "Oh my god! Now that's a skill to have!"
"Mmm, it has its uses. And, if you think about it, it is far easier to speed up the natural process of digestion than it is to completely rearrange every molecule in the human body to form a different organism altogether."
"Well, when you put it that way..." Gunther mused, "it is, yeah. I'd have given anything to be able to do that to the kids that bullied me at school when I was younger."
"Alas, most witches do not discover their talents so young. Mid-to-late teens is when witch skill begins to manifest, but many witches do not develop the full witch sense until their late twenties, and sometimes into their thirties. Of course, there is always the fact that witches naturally live longer than mortals, so they have the time to develop those skills, if they wish to."
Gunther's amusement died, and something inside him slowly began to sink. "Wait," he said. "So Esther will live longer than Mort?"
"Half as long again, at least. In mortal years, witches usually live for around a hundred and fifty years, give or take ten years here and there."
"So that means Natalie, too? She said her mum was a witch and she has some witch in her."
"Natalie will live longer than most mortals, yes."
"So Mort will be the first to die..." Gunther whispered, and Valois hugged him close.
"Yes, my darling boy," he said gently. "And those that he loves will all be there with him, holding him safe when he goes. Is that not what all mortals could hope for? To be surrounded by love at the end?"
Gunther wiped away his tears and nodded. "Yeah," he said roughly. "I know it is. Hell, of course it is." He sniffed. "Doesn't make it any easier, though."
"Mon cœur, it is many decades away from us. Dwell not upon it now, but think instead of his budding romance, his beautiful young love, the prospect of seeing him marry and have children, hm?"
"All right." Gunther gave him a watery smile. "I'm not old enough to be a grandpa, y'know."
Valois kissed him. "But you will be the best grand-père that ever existed, I am sure of it," he murmured.
"I want to give him a great big hug."
"And so you will. Tomorrow, we shall return home. Sleep now, and when you awaken we will be at home in our bed."
"Which one?" Gunther mumbled, snuggling down as the covers drifted softly over him, never even questioning how Valois managed to get them both into bed in the blink of an eye.
"Whichever one you wish for." He was pulled close to Valois's warm, naked body, and he sighed happily.
"Don't care. Just home," he whispered, before dreams of white skin and pale green mist claimed him.