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CHAPTER 67 ~ MEMORIES
"I am so not ready for this honeymoon to be over," Gunther sighed as he picked out a salad from the buffet. "I've never felt so relaxed as I do now."
"It doesn't have to end tomorrow if you do not wish it to," Valois murmured, close beside him. He dipped a pair of metal tongs into the salad bowl to load up his own plate. "We could stay here indefinitely, you know that."
Gunther hesitated, flicking him a glance. "The time thing you can do, right?" he said softly, aware that other people were at the buffet with them.
"Bien sûr. If you wish for another week, or a month, it is possible. Let us sit outside and eat tonight, hm?"
Gunther followed Valois out onto the quieter waterside deck, waiting until he'd chosen a table. Putting down his own plate on the table, he pulled out a chair for Valois, who paused momentarily, then smiled at him as he sat down in it.
"Merci, mon cœur," he said, clasping Gunther's hand briefly. That little touch was reward enough, coming as it did with the small wave of love that Valois had begun to send his way now whenever he was especially pleased with his behaviour.
Sitting down in his own chair, Gunther waited again until Valois had begun eating before he started in on his own salad.
"We ought to go home, I suppose," he said, after a few mouthfuls. "I miss Mort like crazy. Esther, too. Maybe we can come back here for another vacation soon?"
"I would like that." Valois reached across the table to rest his hand briefly on Gunther's wrist. "I have always been fond of this country. Its incredible history... speaks to me. I feel that it understands me." He tilted his head. "Does that make sense to you?"
"Yeah, it does. Egypt knows what it's like to live through centuries of change," Gunther said softly. "I guess it'll speak to me sometime in the future, too."
"Indeed it will. Do you have many days free once we return home, or do you go back to work immediately?"
"Oh, I made sure I had at least one day before I went back to work." Gunther chuckled. "We're taking a load of laundry home with us, for one thing. I want to get that all done before I stick my arse behind a desk again."
Valois smiled. "I could have done that in a few moments, you know. There is a reason why I have never had a washing machine in any of my homes."
Gunther couldn't help but laugh at that. "Yeah, it is a bit of a chore, but... it's also a service." He looked up at Valois, adding softly, "That's why I don't mind doing it."
The look that he received at those words made him feel warm and happy inside. Valois didn't actually say anything, but he didn't need to.
"I shall return to Esther's training once we are home again," he eventually said, after they had finished their salad and exchanged it for their main course. "We barely had a few lessons before her school examinations began. I was loath to distract her during those, so we had to put her training on hold. I think... are the examinations now finished?"
"Yeah. Mort had his last one the week before the wedding. He was nervous as hell." Gunther chuckled. "He's not fond of math."
"Were you fond of it when you were his age?"
"I didn't mind it. Mainly because I was good at it. Dad used to say I was born with a head for business. I was never that great at the more artistic things, although I can knock out a great doodle when I'm stuck on a two-hour teleconference. I guess Mort gets his love of art from—"
"From his mother. Of course." Valois smiled at him. "Speaking of maternal traits, I have been wondering... Esther's father ought to be informed of her abilities, especially as they increase. However, this would result in his questioning their origin, and thus he would need to be told about his late wife's true nature. I will admit that I am at a loss as to how to approach this."
"Not only his daughter and his late wife, but also his prospective girlfriend, if all the signs at the wedding were anything to go by," Gunther said. "Ted's one of life's skeptics. I think he'd need a practical demonstration before he believed in magic."
"That can be arranged." Valois arched an amused eyebrow. "Solid tea or coffee usually convinces skeptics rather well, I've found."
"It certainly convinced Esther when you did it to her." Gunther sat back for a moment, glancing around at the slow-moving landscape. "And I rather think you turned into Mort's hero at the same time." He grinned. "Nothing I've done has ever impressed him as much as that solid tea."
"I doubt that very much," Valois murmured. "Mortimer's hero is his father, not me. I may have impressed him with a magical trick, but you impress him with your honesty and your values every day of his life."
Gunther quietened at that, looking down at his dinner. "Well... I've tried to, anyway..."
"My darling boy, you have more than succeeded. Your son will become a fine young man, I know it."
Gunther looked up at him. "Your son, too, you know. He calls you 'Papa', remember?"
Valois's smile at those words was soft. "How could I ever forget? Never did I think that I would be gifted that word from any mouth, let alone the son of my aeternus."
"Aeternus. I love that word," Gunther whispered. "The more I understand it, the more I love it."
Valois had finished his dinner, and placed down his knife and fork. "Every supernatural has one, be it another supernatural or even a mortal. The concept of the aeternus can cross species, as well. Look at Elsanine and Arcturus, for example. Elsanine's kin are still furious with him—even after all these centuries—but they cannot do anything about it. The aeternus is decided by the Veil, and once the decision is made it is final."
Gunther frowned as he finished the last of his meal. "They're furious with him?"
"Of course. He is a fae and Arcturus is a vampire."
"I... don't get it. Why would that make Elsanine's kin angry with him?"
"Mon cœur, the fae honour and value life and all living things more highly than anything else. And the vampire kin... well, they are undead and they kill in order to survive. And then, of course, there is the long and bloody history of the fae and the vampire kin. They were at war once, you know."
Startled, Gunther almost dropped his fork. "They were?"
"Many thousands of years ago, yes. Before even I was born. Elsanine and Arcturus had not long been together when the war broke out. Their respective kin tried to pull them apart." Valois sighed. "They were forced to fight on opposing sides. I remember Elsanine telling me that he felt no fear or anger when dispatching other vampires, but if he had come up against Arcturus in the field of battle he would have thrown down his sword. He would rather die than harm his aeternus."
Gunther stared at him, trying to picture beautiful, gentle Elsanine and sophisticated, urbane Arcturus on a battlefield. "That... I don't even know what to say to that. How did it all end?"
Valois smiled sadly. "With the Banishment. You recall that I told you most otherkin are banished from the Veil for all save the Resting seasons? The Banishment was the end of the war, and it was decided upon by the Veil itself."
Gunther put down his knife and fork. "Is it bad that I wish I were a writer? Because I wasn't joking earlier when I said your life would make an incredible movie. So would theirs."
Valois reached across the table. "Give me your hand."
Gunther held out his right hand, and Valois took it between his palms.
"Now close your eyes and wait."
Obediently, Gunther closed his eyes. The scent of the air around him changed to the familiar clearness of the Veil in winter. Slowly, a vision appeared of a painter behind his easel, looking out at two figures who stood in front of a stone wall. Gunther recognised Elsanine immediately, and he realised that the other figure was Arcturus. His hair was longer than Gunther knew it, and he was dressed in dark armour, but it was clearly him. Elsanine, too, was dressed in armour, or at least what he guessed was the fae version of it. They both looked like something out a medieval romance.
Valois's voice drifted into the vision:
~ That portrait was painted on the eve of the war. Elsanine has it still, hanging in the study of his home in the Veil. At the time that was painted, neither of them knew if the other would survive. ~
The vision faded and Gunther opened his eyes, unsurprised to feel tears welling in them. Gently, Valois brushed those tears away.
"In centuries to come, mon cœur, there will be time aplenty for you to discover these things. Diverse and strange histories await you in the Veil's Great Library, if you choose to study them. Enough for a thousand movies and more."
An hour and one exquisite bottle of wine later, Valois led Gunther up to the open-air lounge. With one arm around Gunther's shoulder, he kept turning his head for kiss after kiss as they walked, and Gunther snuggled close to him, his arm firmly around Valois's waist. He wondered vaguely what their fellow passengers made of the two lovebirds who were quite clearly inseparable, but no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than another kiss made it fly away again.
They sat down away from the other small knots of couples and friends, and Gunther nestled back against Valois's chest, closing his eyes as he listened to the canvas awning overhead flapping in the light breeze and the low hum of the ship's engines.
"My life has been a series of perfect moments lately," he murmured, smiling as he felt Valois's fingers sift through his hair, over and over.
"As has mine, my darling boy."
"Will you do something for me, since we're talking about the past tonight?"
"If I am able to do it, mon cœur, then of course."
Tilting his head back, Gunther looked up at his husband. "Tell me about some of the people you have loved?" he ventured. "You showed me Elsanine and Arcturus from centuries ago... can you do that for your past lovers, too? It's just... well, I want to know that you were loved and not lonely throughout your life."
Valois looked down at him for a moment, then he smiled. "Very well. Who do you wish to know about?"
"Tell me about the first man you ever fell in love with. What was he like?"
"Ah, that would be Philippe—or, as I called him, Master Philippe, since I was apprenticed to him." Valois's smile softened and he took Gunther's hand. "Close your eyes," he whispered, "and I shall show him to you."
As it had with Elsanine and Arcturus, the vision slowly came into being, as if clouds of mist were being blown away. Gunther saw a tall man with coppery hair down to his shoulders, and a neatly-trimmed beard and moustache.
"A redhead!" he murmured in surprise. "I didn't expect that, for some reason. And— Oh! Oh my god, Valois. Look at you!" He chuckled. "You look so young."
"Well, I was so young." He could hear the smile in Valois's murmured reply. "Barely twenty summers of my life had passed when I was apprenticed at the vineyard. Master Philippe was such a kind and gentle man. I was blessed to have him as my master during those long, hard years toiling among the grapes."
"He taught you your trade, huh?"
"He did indeed. And I fell in love with him so slowly and gradually that I didn't even realise it."
"I hope he loved you back..."
"Alas, he did not. He loved me as a son, not a lover." Valois heaved a small sigh. "Those were days of... well, love between two men was an abomination, according to the Bible, which ruled all lives. Master Philippe actually broke my heart."
"Then I hate his guts." Gunther watched as the vision unfolded of Valois sitting beside his master in church. He heard the priest droning on and on, he recognised the verse—Leviticus 20:13—and he saw Philippe nodding his approval as Valois seemed to shrink in on himself in the pew.
"Yeah, I really hate his guts," he muttered.
"There is no need to hate him. He was of his time, mon cœur, that is all. He was still the kindest man one could wish for as a master. Many masters were brutal and violent toward their apprentices. However much he broke my heart, I still worked my hardest for him and did my best to earn his praise."
Gunther sighed, opening his eyes. "Can you show me something a bit... happier?"
Valois's hand caressed his hair again. "I can show you a happier time with a lover I adored, but it did not end happily. Will that suffice?"
"Was it the happiest you've ever been?"
"Apart from my relationship with you, it was the most blessed and loved time of my life, my darling boy."
"All right then. Who was it with?"
Again, he closed his eyes, and again the mists cleared.
"Oh... wow." He shifted on the seat as he saw Valois dressed in what looked to be something like 18th century clothing. Breeches, a long coat, buckled shoes, and a tricorne hat, with his hair tied back in a queue at the nape of his neck. He was walking down a corridor, and Gunther squirmed a little. "Damn," he muttered. "That... you looked..."
"That was a wonderful time for tailoring, was it not?" Valois's amused voice drifted into the scene.
"Hell yes. God, that looks so hot on you..."
"Nicolas thought the same, oddly enough," Valois chuckled, as his vision self walked through a door into a beautiful room hung with expensive paintings and lined with couches. "The salon of our home," he explained. "Nicolas humoured my love of red when he had it decorated."
Waiting for Valois was a handsome man wearing similar clothes and a powdered grey periwig. He held out his arms, his face wreathed with smiles, as Valois walked into his embrace.
"I can see how much he loved you, just looking at his eyes," Gunther murmured.
"Your beautiful self aside, he was the love of my life," Valois said softly. "We were both rich, and both had matrons throwing their daughters at us. Well, figuratively speaking, of course. Apparently we were desirable catches." He chuckled. "I suffered through endless smalltalk with visiting young ladies and their desperate mamans, as did Nicolas. I am quite sure the local gossip mill was rife with rumours as to why neither of us married, eligible bachelors though we were."
The scene changed. Gunther could see an ornate double bed, and in it was Valois... on his back with Nicolas above him, and it was quite clear who was fucking who. The sight stopped Gunther's breath in his throat.
"You—" was all he could manage.
"I loved him completely and utterly," Valois murmured in his ear. "With every fibre of my being. There was nothing I would not have done for him. He would not countenance taking that role. It was completely not in his nature. And so I, though it was not completely in my nature either, changed my own role."
Gunther kept watching until the scene faded, and finally he opened his eyes.
"Wow," he mumbled. "I think you just blew my fucking mind."
He heard Valois laugh behind him, felt both of Valois's arms go around him to pull him close, and relished the kisses Valois lavished on the nape of his neck.
"I'll... I'll be honest," Gunther admitted. "I thought you were one hundred percent dominant, but that—"
"Mon cœur, I am one hundred percent dominant," came the murmured reply. "But for Nicolas, my love was so strong that I was willing to... shall we say... 'roll over'?"
Gunther couldn't help but giggle at that. "One day I'm going to pester you to let me watch all of that. Because damn it was hot, even though it was a hell of a surprise seeing you like that." He tilted his head to look up at Valois. "But... you said it didn't end happily?"
Valois shook his head. "Nicolas was an aristocrat. A marquis. The time this took place was that of the Revolution in France. We both met our end at the merciless hands of la guillotine."
Gunther shuddered. "One of your many deaths."
"Oui, mon cœur. And, to my everlasting sorrow, they forced him to watch as I was executed first." Valois sighed. "I knew the Veil was ready to receive me, and had already resigned myself to my fate. But I would have given anything that he could have gone first, to spare him the sight of my death. They did it, of course, to torment him yet further. I was merely the lover of an aristocrat, thus I was of much less concern to them than he was. They wanted to punish him as much as they could, so they made him watch me die before they killed him."
Quietly, Gunther covered Valois's hands with his own, turning his body just a little so he could nestle his face in Valois's throat.
"I love you," he whispered. "And I love him, for the love that he gave you. I wish I could tell him that. I wish I could thank him."
Beneath his comforting hands, he felt Valois's fingers move, his thumb bending in toward his palm, turning the ever-present ring once around his finger. It felt oddly warm when it returned to its usual position, but Valois said nothing. Instead, he simply kissed Gunther's forehead, buried his face in Gunther's hair, and lapsed into a comfortable silence.
Closing his eyes, Gunther exhaled softly and relaxed into another perfect moment, as the ship sailed on through the twilit evening, and an ibis took flight from the riverbank.