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CHAPTER 61 ~ STARS

"Oh wow," was all that Natalie could say as she followed Gunther through the snowy landscape of the Veil. It should have been freezing cold, but she was perfectly warm and comfortable, and she supposed the two naked men in front of her felt the same, too.

The ground beneath her bare feet was spring-green grass, the snow having melted away as Elsanine walked over it. Natalie turned to look behind herself, and watched as the cleared path slowly re-froze. The thought of that snow catching up with her made her quicken her pace to catch up with Gunther again, and before she knew it she was following him beneath a tall grey stone arch and into...

"Oh!"

Elsanine had stood aside and was ushering her into the beautiful, warm spring air of a bright clearing filled with green. Plants and flowers bloomed like some kind of hothouse wonderland, through tall arches that surrounded a babbling stream dotted with fountains. Once again, Natalie looked back, staring at the snowy landscape behind her, before turning to face the sunny warmth of the Grove.

"How the hell...?" she whispered.

Elsanine smiled at her. "I shall explain later. Come, let us help Gunther to settle Valois against one of the trees."

Feeling rather awkward, Natalie hung back a little as Gunther and Elsanine gently laid Valois on the ground and helped him to lean back against the trunk of a tall ash tree. She watched as Valois held out his arms and Gunther settled down into them, curling up and resting back against Valois's chest, closing his eyes as an expression of utter bliss and contentment stole across his face. Valois, too, closed his eyes and buried his face in Gunther's hair, and Natalie felt a hand touch her arm.

"We shall sit over there, by the stream," Elsanine murmured. "I need to keep watch over them, but we will be distant enough not to disturb them if we wish to talk."

Natalie sank into one of the two chairs by the water's edge, not taking her eyes off the pair beneath the tree.

"They look so happy," she said, wistfully.

"They are happy," Elsanine replied, sitting down in the other chair beside her. "The Veil has been Valois's home for a thousand years, and Gunther is now as comfortable here as he is in Sunset Valley."

"I'm still a bit... surprised to see him like that." Natalie bit her lip and glanced at Elsanine. "Is that bad of me?"

"Not at all. You must understand that the Veil has... hm, how shall I put it to one so new to its ways?" Elsanine pondered for a moment. "The Veil has... plans. That will suffice for now. It extends over all of time, both forward and backward. It sees all and records all. It knew, from the moment Gunther was born, that he was destined for Valois. And, indeed, from the moment when Valois was born—though it was so long ago—he was destined to eventually be with Gunther. And Gunther was always destined to be submissive to Valois at this time, even when he thought himself dominant in his earlier relationships. That is the way it is. I suppose the simplest mortal definition of it would be Fate."

"You said you're older than Valois. Did you know all of this, even when he didn't?" Natalie asked.

Elsanine was silent for a moment. Then he sighed. "Yes, I knew. Valois has long been my dearest friend here. I worried for him as I watched him die over and over, as I saw him seek love and lose it again and again, so I consulted the records and saw that there was one waiting for him who would finally bring him the happiness he so desperately sought."

"And Gunther?"

Elsanine smiled. "You are so fiercely protective of him, aren't you? That is good to see. Gunther has—from what I've seen—had but a few close friends who would put their lives on hold to help him out. I think, too, that there is something more at work here?"

His piercing look made Natalie blush. "Well," she mumbled. "Nothing that'll ever happen, and I wouldn't dream of trying to—"

"Nonono, it's all right." Elsanine placed a hand on her shoulder, and beneath it Natalie felt warmth and soothing. "I sense the attraction there, and the sorrow and regret, child. But the Veil has a plan for you, too. That much it permits me to say."

"Did it have one for you as well?" Natalie tried to turn the conversation, embarrassed at how easily Elsanine could read her.

"Of course. It has a plan for everyone under its aegis. Although," Elsanine chuckled, "my own kin were shocked when its plan for me came to fruition. You might see the result of it soon, as a matter of fact. He said he would call upon me while I was at work today."

"Oh, is he your...?"

"Lover?" Elsanine smiled at her. "Yes, and more. In the Veil there is a concept similar to the earthly notion of 'soulmates'. Here it is called aeternus, which has a meaning of 'eternal and everlasting'. We take a vow for life, which is far more binding than that of earthly marriage vows."

Natalie grimaced. "Yeah, I know how easily those can be broken," she muttered. Then she looked over at Gunther and Valois. Gunther was still curled up in the same position, but his head was now resting back against Valois's shoulder. The expression of peace and contentment on his face made Natalie's heart ache.

"God," she whispered. "He looks like the stars have been handed to him on a plate."

"They have, in a way," Elsanine said. "He and Valois have taken that same vow, twice now. Once in the world of reality and once here in the Veil. And Valois has told me they will seal it with wedding vows in the real world very soon, too."

Natalie brightened. "Oh, yes! I'm looking forward to that. I'm going to be bridesmaid... well, even though there's technically no bride. And Gunther asked me to give him away." She turned to Elsanine. "Will you be going?"

"I have not been invited."

"What? Well that won't do!" Natalie folded her arms. "I'll make sure you are, if you're Valois's best friend here."

Elsanine chuckled. "I take no offence from the lack of invitation, child. I rather think Valois worried overmuch for Gunther. After all, having a fae and a vampire turn up at his wedding might be a little... strange for his guests."

Natalie blinked. "A fae and a vampire? How can you be both?"

"I'm not. The vampire would be my 'plus one', as you mortals say. And here he is, right on cue."

Natalie twisted around in her chair, watching as a tall man with ashen skin and silver hair walked into the Grove and made a beeline for where she and Elsanine were sitting. He held out one hand, his lips curving into a broad smile that revealed sharp white fangs.

"Turu," Elsanine murmured, getting to his feet and embracing the man. "You had a safe journey, dear one?"

The man kissed Elsanine tenderly and murmured something in his ear, tracing a fingertip along the top of a shimmering white wing. Elsanine shuddered and whispered, "Not in front of my patients, please!"

Natalie grinned. Oh, so a fae's wings were like that, were they?

"Only to their lover's touch," the stranger replied to that thought, turning to her and bowing low. "Arcturus Fenelon, madame. I am delighted to make your acquaintance."

Natalie went pink. Oh crap. She'd thought the whole vampires reading minds thing was only in books. "Um, nice to meet you. Er, I'm Natalie Tanner. Gunther's secretary. Which, uh... probably doesn't make any sense at all..."

"Stop teasing her, Turu." Elsanine hooked an arm around Arcturus and drew another chair up for his lover to sit in. "Natalie is new to the Veil, so everything is a question for her."

"Such as how a vampire can walk in the sun," Arcturus said as he sat down. "The sun of the Veil is different, madame. It does not burn my skin as that of the earthly realm does."

"Well if you're going to winkle my thoughts out of my head with a mental pin I may as well ask all the impertinent questions first." Natalie poked her tongue out at him, earning herself a raised eyebrow, followed by a slow grin.

"I think you and I are going to be firm friends," Arcturus chuckled. "I appreciate honesty and forthrightness in a mortal. It's such a refreshing change from the usual prevarication and dissembling. Ask away."

Natalie beamed. "Okay! Um, well... oh no, I can't ask that one." She bit her lip as a question swam into her head and she squished it down hard. No, that one was too personal. Even negative.

"That question does not offend me," Arcturus said softly. "I only kill during the years when I am apart from Elsanine and he cannot visit me. It is that killing which earned our relationship the disapproval of his kin."

Natalie stared at them both, noticing the way that Elsanine took Arcturus's hand, holding it tightly.

"You're apart for years?" she asked. "Well, that sucks."

"Seven years and seven months," Elsanine murmured. "But after that we have seventy years together. Vampires can only enter the Veil during the Resting seasons, one of which is coming to an end very soon. We have but two years left together before he is banished from the Veil—like all otherkin who are not fae or witches—for the Short and Long seasons."

"Elsanine visits me in the earthly realm when he can during those times," Arcturus continued, "but he has duties here, and his free time is limited."

"So... you find other ways to, well, slake your thirst or whatever it is when you're here?" Natalie leaned forward in her chair, Gunther and Valois completely forgotten now, thanks to this fascinating diversion.

"Oh yes," Arcturus said, very softly, with a look at Elsanine that made the fae blush and glance away.

Natalie giggled. "Okay, I'll stop that line of thought right about here."

"You see the collar that he wears?" Arcturus nodded to Elsanine's neck, around which a slender white collar was bound. Natalie had noticed it, but refrained from saying anything about it. She nodded.

"I asked him to wear it," Arcturus continued. "It's magical, and it prevents me from seeing him as a source. Once, when we'd first met, I fed from him, and—"

"I offered." Elsanine's head went down and his fingers tightened briefly around Arcturus's hand. "I thought it would be a romantic gesture for me to make. I didn't know then how strong his nature was."

"—and I almost killed him," Arcturus finished. "I vowed that never again would I put his life at such risk, so I begged him to wear that collar. I love him too much to lose him."

"Arcturus, you old rascal."

The voice came from across the Grove, and Natalie looked over to where Valois was sitting with his eyes now open and a warm smile curving his mouth. Well... wow. That was a quick improvement!

Arcturus laughed. "Qui avons-nous ici?" he said, rising to his feet to bow elegantly. "Mon compatriote, le suprÍme sorcier de la France! Tu es bien, mon ami?"

"Le suprÍme sorcier dans le monde." Valois wagged a finger at him, then chuckled. "I am well, and getting better by the moment, my dear friend. I hold my heart here in my arms, and my back is to the strength of nature. It is good to see you again."

"You also," Arcturus said as he sat back down. "May your recovery be swift, and your heart soon full." He finished that sentence with a filthy wink that made Valois laugh loud enough to rouse Gunther, who was clearly dozing quite contentedly in his arms.

"Hm?" Gunther mumbled, looking up at Valois, then smiling as he saw that his lover was awake and far more present than he had been in the healing rooms.

"You're better now?" he murmured, to which Valois nodded.

"Almost there, mon cúur. Rest again, and I shall wake you once I am ready to take you home."

Natalie watched as Gunther nodded and closed his eyes again, drowsing back into that contented and peaceful sleep which—now that she noticed it—took years of work and stress off his face.

"Shall we?" Elsanine said, gesturing to a small table which had appeared in front of them. On it rested a delicate tea set that shimmered with magic, and—while Arcturus poured—Natalie pondered on how weird her life had become, as a witch, a fae, and a vampire sat in a brightly-blooming spring garden in the middle of winter, enjoying a genteel cup of tea.

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