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"Hrr? Whassamatter?"

Natalie came awake with a start, opening her eyes and staring up at... oh. Gunther. She blinked, scrubbed a hand over her eyes, then glanced around. Right then. She was still in the Veil, and Gunther was perched on the edge of the bed she'd fallen asleep on, smiling down at her.

"Hi there," he murmured, ignoring the tongue she stuck out at him. "Sorry to wake you from your beauty sleep, but Valois is recovered enough that we need to take him to the Grove. Elsanine wanted me to tell you that you can either return to reality, or you can come with us."

"If you think I'm going to go home when I'm the reason he's like this, then you've got another think coming," Natalie mumbled. "But first, who do I have to murder to get a coffee around here?"

"Nobody." Elsanine's hand was in front of her face, holding a delicate cup of steaming hot coffee. He smiled down at her. "I'll leave that with you, and Gunther can explain a few things while I check that Valois is ready to be moved."

Natalie hugged the cup like it was a lifeline, sipping slowly and turning curious eyes onto Gunther. "So, what have you got to explain to me?"

She watched as his cheekbones coloured slightly, then she frowned as she realised he couldn't meet her gaze. Then he got up and moved over to the chair beside the bed, as if he felt he should put some distance between Natalie and himself before he said whatever it was he had to say.


"Uh..." he began. "I have to explain something about the Veil to you. You're a witch, so you need to know about these things anyway." He palmed a hand to the nape of his neck, scoured his tongue over his upper lip, then finally met her gaze.

"There's a thing in the Veil called 'natural states'," he said. "Every visitor here has a natural state, and when they come here to do certain things—like replenish their magical power—the Veil sort of likes them to be in their natural state. They don't have to do it, but from what I understand things work quicker if they do. A werewolf, for instance, would be in their transformed wolf state. Elsanine's another example. He can go into the real world and hide his wings if he wants to, but here he lets them show, because that's his natural state. That's his nature, if you like. Does that make sense so far?"

"Sort of." Natalie took another sip of her coffee. "It doesn't explain why you're blushing like a peony, though."

He only coloured all the more at those words. "Well... then we move on to you. You're a witch, so your natural state isn't a business skirt suit and court shoes."

"Ooh! Do I get to wear a long gown and a pointy hat?" Natalie giggled.

Gunther smiled at that. "Well, maybe not the pointy hat, but you can wear a long gown if you want to. It's not a witch's true natural state, but Elsanine said you might be embarrassed by what you should be wearing—or, rather, not wearing—and the Veil will make allowances for that, at least while you're so new to your Craft. Elsanine will help you to transform once you've finished your coffee."

Not wearing? Natalie pondered that for a moment, but her natural curiosity got the better of her. "Soooo... I'm guessing you and Valois have natural states, too? He's a witch as well, but I'm pretty certain the Veil doesn't want him in a dress."

"His natural state is the one he adopts when he walks in the Veil to replenish his power," Gunther murmured. "That is: he's naked."

Natalie raised an eyebrow. "So the old wives' tales about witches dancing naked in the moonlight are actually true?"

"Well, I'm not sure about the dancing, but yeah. He told me that's the fastest way to replenish his power. He can do it by being among nature in the real world, too, but in the Veil it just... fills up quicker."

Natalie traced a fingertip around the rim of her coffee cup. "And your natural state? Out with it, boss man. I'm sure I can take it."

"My natural state is the same as Valois's," Gunther said quietly. "Naked."

"Ooh, nice. So I get to see your arse again, do I?" Natalie grinned at him as she sipped the last of her coffee, but his hand on her wrist brought the cup down again, and she shivered as he fixed her with an intense look that made her feel bad about cracking a joke about all this.

"Naked," Gunther continued, very softly, "and collared and cuffed, and kneeling at Valois's feet."

There was a long silence, as Natalie stared at him, digesting that breathtaking and honest admission. Then she said slowly, as it dawned on her, "That's your meditation?"

"That's my meditation." Gunther paused, then almost whispered, "I'm submissive, and Valois is my Dominant. He's my..." He swallowed. "My Maître."

It took a moment of scouring her schoolgirl French for Natalie to translate that. Master? Wow. Just... wow. That was... well... and Gunther and Valois were nothing like the characters in those books she'd read a while back, either. Then again, Valois did like red a lot, so he might have a Red Room of— uh, nope. Not going there.

She smiled, leaning forward to rest her hand briefly on his arm. "You're full of surprises. I'll be honest and say that's the last thing I expected you to say, but... it sort of makes sense."

"How so?"

She shrugged. "You're an extremely powerful man, in an extremely responsible position. You have to relax somehow, so I can see that being a way of doing so. I mean, it's complete relaxation, right?"

Gunther nodded. "Yeah. I put myself utterly in his hands and he takes all of those cares away from me. All I have to do is give him my obedience and love and trust, and he shelters me." He smiled. "He's my safe harbour."

"Makes sense. And it makes me love him even more, that he can give that to you."

He stared at her. "I... didn't think you'd take it quite this calmly," he admitted.

At that, Natalie grinned. "Well, there were a few little signs and clues. Not so much that I guessed the whole truth of it, but I knew Valois was the top in your relationship."

She watched as his cheeks pinked up again, then she poked his arm. "Chill," she giggled. "Nobody else has seen you with him like I have. And nobody else has seen you wincing when you shove your hands in your pockets."

"Oh god." He looked away, then back at her, unable to keep himself from laughing, though he looked embarrassed. "That's two fucking intimate revelations you've had out of me today. Don't expect any more. Like, ever, okay?"

Natalie was about to answer that with something naughty, when she noticed Elsanine walking back over to them. She handed him her empty coffee cup, watching with a start as it vanished from his hand in a shower of tiny white sparkles.

"All done?" Elsanine murmured, and Gunther nodded. The fae laid a hand on his shoulder, his fingers tightening briefly in a comforting squeeze.

"Go to him," he said softly. "I've told him what you planned to do. He is proud of you, but worried for you. I've fetched your collar and cuffs from your home, so that he can put them on you."

Gunther looked up at him, then smiled and nodded again, getting to his feet and crossing the room. The white curtains closed behind him, and Natalie sat back against the pillows behind her.

"Well," she said to Elsanine. "Apparently I'm going to get a snazzy long frock?"

"Mon cœur," Valois murmured as Gunther drew the curtains shut. "You have told her?"

Turning back to the bed, Gunther nodded. "She feels guilty that she caused you to be in this state, so she's refused to go back to reality, and Elsanine said she can't stay here alone. She would have to see our relationship anyway, so I thought it best to tell her upfront."

Valois held out a hand, and Gunther took it, sinking down onto the bed. He drew that pale hand to his lips and kissed the palm of it, earning himself a weary smile.

"I've been so worried about you," he whispered. "I didn't know you could use all your magic up like that, and be so... helpless."

"It happens rarely." Valois closed his eyes, cupping his hand against Gunther's cheek, his thumb gently stroking the skin there. "I have not had to call upon my crystal magic for centuries."

"Thank god Elsanine was here," Gunther said fervently. Then he glanced at the two small leather boxes resting on the broad headboard of the bed. "He brought my collar and cuffs from home, so you could put them on me."

"He is such a good friend to me." Valois smiled. "Help me to sit, my darling boy. I have not the strength yet to do so unaided."

Gently, Gunther manoeuvred Valois into a sitting position, propped up by pillows. Then, he began to undress, folding his clothes and placing them neatly on the seat of the other chair in the small room. Finally, he knelt beside the bed and waited while Valois buckled the collar and cuffs onto him, leaning in close when he realised that Valois was still too weak to make much effort.

No sooner was the last buckle fastened than all the worry of the past hours just faded away.

"I'm home," he whispered, looking up at Valois with shining eyes. "How far is it to the Grove?"

"Not far." Valois sank back against the pillows. "Perhaps a three minute walk. It is perpetual spring there." He sighed, his eyes sliding shut again. "A beautiful place," he whispered.

Gunther pressed an urgent kiss to Valois's hand. "Are you sure you're well enough to go there?" he asked, watching his master with anxious eyes.

"Elsanine has done all he can. Now it is the turn of the trees." Valois opened his eyes briefly, and smiled. "Will you carry me, my boy? A service for your master?"

Tears welled in Gunther's eyes and he nodded. "I'd carry you to the ends of the earth if I had to."

Again, Valois smiled, and his voice sounded so tired and faded. "Just set my back to a strong tree and settle yourself into my arms. Together, those things will renew my strength."

Gunther sat quietly for a while, sinking into the state of comfort that his collar and cuffs always afforded him. Bending his head, he kissed Valois's fingers again. "Why is it taking so long for you to recover?" he whispered.

"Think of the power I hold," Valois murmured. "A thousand years of it. Imagine a great silo filled with tons and tons of wheat; enough to feed a village for weeks. Even months." He opened his eyes and looked at Gunther. "Normally, that silo is topped up whenever one quarter of its capacity is gone, and it takes but a short while for the villagers to refill it."

Gunther nuzzled Valois's hand, kissing it over and over, hoping the love he was showing helped in some way to speed the healing.

"And now," Valois sighed, "imagine that silo emptied of every single grain."

"And the villagers must work harder and longer to refill it," Gunther said, understanding now.

"Yes." The word was exhaled on a soft breath. "The flowers and lake water refilled the silo with small buckets, but the trees will refill it with..." Valois stopped talking, too exhausted to come up with a comparison.

"Backhoe buckets," Gunther volunteered with a smile, earning himself a faint chuckle from his master.

"Something like that, yes. It is not a pleasant thing for me, mon cœur, to feel so weak and unable to protect you. I wish circumstances hadn't forced you to tell Natalie of your submission, but my darling boy, it was so brave of you."

Gunther felt his face heat up at that. "I wasn't sure if you'd be happy with it, but I knew she would refuse to go home, so she would see it anyway. It was best to tell her in my own words. Brace her for it, I guess." He paused, then bent his neck, pressing his forehead to the back of Valois's hand. "If you're unhappy with me doing that, I'll submit to any punishment you choose to administer, once you're well again, Maître," he murmured.

He felt Valois's fingers slide into his hair and rest there.

"It is true that I don't wish to share your submission with anyone else," Valois said quietly. "But you made... hm... an executive decision. Your business head told you what was best to do in the circumstances. The businessman is immune from punishment, and my boy does not deserve it, for the businessman overrode his natural desires and submission to his master."

Relief flooded through Gunther at those words, once he'd turned them over in his head and made sense of them. He'd been more worried than he cared to admit about whether Valois would be angry over his decision to tell Natalie about their relationship.

Valois's fingers gently sifted through Gunther's hair, stroking and tousling.

"My good, obedient boy," he whispered. "Come, mine. Help me up. It is I who shall be carried in your arms, for a change."

Natalie looked up from the gorgeous pale blue frock that Elsanine had helped her to conjure herself into. She turned a broad, beaming smile onto him, about to thank him, when the curtains to Valois's small room were pulled aside a little by a pale hand, then a lightly-tanned bare leg kicked them further open.

She blinked, then felt her face heat up as Gunther strode out into the main room, as naked as the day he was born... except for a thick black leather collar buckled around his neck, and even thicker black leather cuffs strapped around his wrists. Valois—equally naked—was cradled tenderly in his arms, and Gunther was looking at him with such an expression of mingled love and worry that it was all Natalie could do to keep focusing on them and not turn away out of respect for their privacy.

"Ready?" Elsanine asked softly, walking over to them.

Gunther raised his face and nodded, and Natalie could see that his eyes were wet with tears. She wanted nothing more in that moment than to give him a great big hug, and to apologise profusely for not being able to control her magic, to the point where Valois was in this state. But this was a private moment, and she was damned if she'd intrude. She could hug him later. Besides, it would be weird if she hugged him while he was... like that. Hell, she couldn't even view his nudity as something sexual right now, even though his body was gorgeous and he was just her type. She knew it was all for Valois, but that didn't stop her from experiencing a twinge of regret for what might have happened had Valois not come along.

Oy. She'd deal with all of those emotions later on. Right now, she owed both Valois and Gunther her full support.

"Natalie?" Elsanine was calling her name. "I shall lead, and you must walk behind Gunther. The Veil will clear a path through the snow at our feet, and we shall not feel the cold."

He placed a gentle hand on Valois's shoulder. "Come, my dear friend. Let us make you fit and well again."

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