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Trigger warnings for this chapter:
Discussion of past domestic abuse.

CHAPTER 69 ~ MOMENTS

"Is something wrong?" were the first words out of Gunther's mouth once he was alone in the bedroom with Valois. "I thought that Mort looked a bit uncomfortable when—"

"Hush, and settle down on the bed," Valois soothed. "Nothing is wrong with Mortimer, I promise. Lie still and I will massage your shoulders. You are unbelievably tense this evening, mon cur."

Now on his front on the bed. Gunther shifted a little as he felt Valois straddle his hips. "Well," he mumbled into the pillow, "hearing 'we need to talk' when you're barely through the door is not exactly calming."

"You could have at least taken your shirt off first," he heard Valois chuckle above him, before the material vanished from his back and reappeared draped over a nearby chair. "There," Valois added softly as his thumbs dug into the muscles of Gunther's shoulders. "Much better."

Gunther could only wince and huff out a pained grunt of agreement. God almighty, he was really knotted up. The merger meeting hadn't gone well; the directors of the company that DP were planning to take over had made all kinds of ridiculous demands and stipulations, and it had taken all of Gunther's many years of acquired skilful negotiation techniques to come to a final agreement with them.

"I think this requires a little magical assistance, too," Valois murmured, and a moment later Gunther gave a soft, blissful little moan as a deep, soothing warmth drifted deep into those tense muscles.

"Oh god, that feels good," he said, feeling like he was going to be absorbed into the mattress, so loose and comfortable and happy was he in that moment.

"If there is one thing that I do extremely well," Valois said with a faint chuckle, "it is giving a damn good shoulder massage."

"You do a lot of things extremely well," Gunther mumbled, drowsing into the pillow as the warmth went deeper and deeper and Valois's hands stroked and kneaded, easing out every ache and knot. "But yeah, you do this really fucking well."

"Thank you, my boy," came the response, and Gunther heaved a contented sigh as he felt all the tension leave his body. Even his scalp relaxed, and he realised vaguely that he'd been well on his way to a splitting headache, too.

"Tell me," Valois murmured, as his hands continued to work magic—both figurative and literal—with the muscles of Gunther's back. "Did your ex-wife hit you often?"

The question stopped Gunther's drifting reverie in its tracks, like he'd been flung against a brick wall.

"Uh?" he managed, his brain a brief whirl of confusion and panic.

"Did she hit you often"? came the calmly-repeated question.

Shit.

".... sometimes," he eventually admitted, feeling his shoulders begin to crawl up to his ears again. Instantly, those soothing hands were on them, massaging them back down.

"Hard enough to bruise?"

He screwed his eyes shut and whispered, "Sometimes," again.

"Did she slap you? Scratch you? Draw blood?"

He felt his shoulders shudder as he hitched in an involuntarily sharp breath and nodded.

"Sometimes?" Valois said very softly, close to his ear.

"Sometimes," Gunther managed, his voice so quiet he could barely hear it.

Valois's hands were still massaging his shoulders and back, even though he was bent over him. "Was it truly 'sometimes'?" he whispered. "Or was it so frequent that it did not deserve a second thought? Were you so... accustomed to it that you thought it not worth mentioning to me? So accustomed to it that you thought... you deserved it?"

Somewhere deep inside Gunther's body, a well of long pent-up emotion began to overflow, and he buried his face in the pillow as his solar plexus trembled and shivered.

"I am right here," Valois soothed. "Do not turn away from me, my darling boy. Answer me."

"I..." Gunther managed; a soft, helpless whimper of a word. "I... don't know."

"Deep down you do know. You thought you deserved it, did you not?" Valois's accent was a little more pronounced than usual—a clear sign that he was holding back emotions that he didn't want to upset Gunther even further—as he spoke softly into Gunther's ear. "You reasoned that she was angry with you, and that she must have been angry with you because you hadn't been a good boy."

"It—" Gunther choked out. "It wasn't like that with her. I never submitted to her."

"You did, mon cur. You may not have knelt for her, but she knew what you are, and she took full advantage of that knowledge."

Gunther's breath stopped in his throat. "No," he whispered, his voice hoarse, horrified at the very thought of that. "She never knew. I never told her!"

Valois kissed his ear tenderly. "My darling, you did not need to tell her. You are a dominant man when at work, but when you are relaxed at home, the submission in your blood cries out to anyone who has a... nose for it. She sensed it. She scented it. She knew."

"Why are you telling me this?" Gunther whimpered. "Why now all of a sudden?"

"Because it is like a rat, nibbling and gnawing away at a tiny part of you. You can ignore it, but it is still there, taking little bites out of you every now and then. The rat needs to be brought into the light, so it can be seen and... exterminated."

Something in the way that Valois said that last word made Gunther shudder. And then he finally put two and two together, and in a dismayed whisper, he said, "Oh god. Mort knew, didn't he? He told you!"

"A little boy hears screaming and plates smashing late at night, and the next morning he sees his daddy with a cut on his face while they eat breakfast from paper plates," Valois murmured, and Gunther uttered a low, anguished moan as he buried his face deep into the pillow and sobbed.

"I thought he didn't know!" he choked, his voice muffled. "I hid it from him!"

"Mon cur, children see more than the adults around them give them credit for. Theirs are the silent eyes that observe and absorb." Valois stopped massaging and now settled himself down on Gunther's back, both hands sliding under his arms, palms cupping his shoulders as he held him tightly. Covering him. Comforting him.

"You did what you could to shield him from it," he murmured. "It was not your fault that he knew."

"I should have done more," Gunther wept. "Oh god, he's been carrying that around with him for years."

Valois's embrace tightened. "It was not. your. fault."

"Make him forget," Gunther begged. "Please! Do that thing where you can make him forget. I can't... I can't live with him knowing that. He must have been so scared—"

"My darling, he has made peace with it. He's got it off his chest, so to speak. Now it is time for you to understand that, and to forgive yourself. Even though there is nothing to forgive."

"I can't!"

"Stop that." It was gentle, but nonetheless it was a command. "You are becoming hysterical. Calm yourself."

Gunther hitched in a frantic breath, then held it. Above him, Valois's body was warm and reassuring, holding him firmly. He felt Valois's lips nuzzling his ear, kissing his cheek, and he exhaled in a hoarse gasp, then inhaled sharply again.

Valois let him do that a couple of times, then he rested his palm against Gunther's throat. "Hold still," he murmured, and Gunther froze. After a moment of utter silence, he could feel something pouring into his body from that cradling hand. It was a slow, soothing heat much like the one Valois had used during the massage. It flowed through his limbs, relaxing his muscles. It seeped into his head, making his brain feel like it was enveloped in a soothing warm bath, and he exhaled and flopped completely on the mattress, tears trickling silently down his face.

"My darling, beautiful, blessed boy," Valois murmured, still pouring the soothing magic into him. "You did nothing wrong. Everything wrong came from her. The blame, if any must be ascribed, rests with her alone. You, mon cur, are a submissive who simply had the wrong master for a while."

The wrong master. That stopped the whirl of Gunther's thoughts dead. He... had never even thought of it that way.

"She wasn't my—"

"In all-but-name, she was. She sensed your true nature, whether she acknowledged it by name or not, and she abused it." Valois kissed the tip of Gunther's ear. "And you, mon cur, tried so hard and so often to please her. To be a good boy."

Gunther hitched in another breath. "Help me," he whispered. "Please... help me to forget what she did."

"No, mine. I will not do that." A gentle finger tucked a lock of Gunther's hair behind his ear so that Valois could nuzzle and kiss there over and over. "I can help you to live with the knowledge, but I will not use magic to make you forget it. It is not a thing to be forgotten."

"Why not?" Gunther knew he sounded like a whiny little boy, but he couldn't help it. He felt like one: helpless and needing someone strong to make it all better.

"Because, my love, if you forget her you might forgive her," Valois whispered.

At those words, Gunther finally realised the truth. Valois was scared of losing him if he forgot what Cornelia had done to him. If you forget her you might forgive her had an unspoken qualifier: and what would happen to me then?

To keep Valois's trust and safety, he had to live with what Cornelia had done to him. Forgiving someone who had wronged you was supposed to be the greatest thing you could ever do, but Valois didn't want him to forgive Cornelia. In truth, Gunther had barely given her a thought lately, unless Mort had mentioned her in passing, but this was a new revelation, and Valois's silence since that admission shook Gunther to the core.

"You hate her," he murmured.

"For what she did to you? For how she treated you? For what she put both you and your son through?" Valois paused. "Yes, I hate her. How else could I regard someone who hurt so greatly the man I love with everything that I am and ever will be?"

Gunther parsed those words, sensing the bitterness and barely-restrained fury behind them. He remembered the terrifying rage he'd seen in Valois's eyes after his fight with the newspaper guy, and he had no doubt that—when angered like that—Valois could be very very dangerous.

"I..." he whispered. "I tried not to hate her, for Mort's sake. She's still his mother, and... hate is such a draining emotion to bear. I just don't even think about her anymore." He turned his head. "Not now that I have you."

Valois's fingers once again moved in his hair, caressing and tousling it.

"I do not give her much thought, either," Valois murmured. "And for the same reason. However, when she rears her head into our lives in any way, even in the memories of her son, I am forced to confront it. And I will admit that I dislike doing so."

He kissed Gunther's cheek as Gunther closed his eyes and sighed. "However," he continued, "now that Mortimer has released those memories, he felt... hm, how can I put this? During our conversation, as it turned to those unpleasant things, I sensed his distress and so I monitored him as I monitor you when your life grows intense. I was aware of his tension and worry lifting as he shared his unhappiness." Another kiss. "And, my love, I can assure you that your son is free of that worry now. His... spirit, for want of a better word, was lighter after a hug and a few tears."

Gunther rubbed his face against the pillow, letting it absorb his own tears. "Thank you for being there for him," he said hoarsely.

Before he could add anything to that, Valois slid off him to lie beside him, and Gunther immediately went into his waiting arms, clinging to him.

"Mon cur, I heard the silent 'because I was not' at the end of that sentence," Valois said tenderly. "He calls me 'papa' and I am blessed to be his father as much as you are now. It was an honour to be trusted with the burden that he could not share with you. And, my darling boy, the only reason he could not share it with you was because he did not wish to hurt you by bringing up the memories of it again. It was the love that he has for you which stayed his tongue, not anything bad that you had done or should have done better."

All Gunther could do was nod miserably in response to that, and he heard a faint sigh above him. His heart sank. Now he'd disappointed Valois, too.

"Sit up," Valois murmured, giving him a gentle push. "Come on. Up with you, my darling. I have something to show you."

Rubbing the heel of his hand over his nose, Gunther sat up, leaning against Valois's side once his husband was also vertical. He managed a slight smile as he saw how Valois was sitting: cross-legged with his shoes kicked off. He looked so comfortable, and Gunther nestled against him as he waited to see this... thing he was going to be shown.

"One moment while I request it," Valois said softly, and a few seconds later a small wooden box rested in his lap.

"Ahh, here we are." He picked it up and examined it. "It is a beautiful one, too, as I expected it might be."

Gunther watched, quietly. The box was indeed beautiful: a dark glossy wood with an exquisite marquetry-inlaid design on its lid, of elegant leaves curling around a stylised letter 'G'. The box was about the size of a cigar humidor, and two small golden clips held it shut. Valois flicked them gently with his thumbs, and the lid opened of its own accord.

"Wow," Gunther breathed, suddenly fascinated. "What are those?"

"These, my darling boy—" Valois gestured with his hand across the black velvet inside the box, where about twenty small crystal cubes nestled, "—are your moments. The Veil has kept them for you, and I think now is a good time to introduce them to you."

"My moments?" Gunther looked up at him. "Can I touch them?"

"Of course. They are yours, after all. You made each and every one of them."

Gunther had no idea what Valois was talking about, and his hand hesitated over the cubes.

"Any one?" he asked.

"Does any particular one call to you?" Valois's voice was soft in his ear. "Sometimes a specific moment pulls us."

Gunther looked at the crystal cubes for a while. The one at the very top left of the box, tucked in the corner, seemed to glow faintly from within.

"That one does," he murmured.

"Then take it out and cradle it in your hand."

Carefully, Gunther picked the cube up between his thumb and forefinger. It was less than an inch all around, and it glittered in the low lamplight as he placed it gently in the open palm of his other hand. He felt Valois's palm against the back of that hand, curling his fingers tightly around the cube, and then...

"Oh god," he whispered, as the room around him faded and something white bled into his vision. "What... what's happening?"

"You are entering the first moment that you ever created," he heard Valois say. "Look around."

He did, and after a few puzzled moments the scene around him coalesced. He was in a private hospital room. A curtain was pulled around the bed, but the room was filled with flowers and ribbon-tied balloons. Almost all of them were blue, and the windowsill was filled with It's a boy! cards.

A nurse suddenly pulled the curtains back, and Gunther inhaled sharply as he saw himself standing beside the bed. Cornelia lay in it, smiling wearily up at the vision of him as he cradled a blanket-wrapped bundle. His face was lit with joy as he gazed down at the tiny baby in his arms.

"You can move in this moment," he heard Valois say, very faintly. "You cannot be seen, for the moment was forged many years ago. But you can move."

Somehow, he managed to take a step forward, then another. He approached himself in this beautiful scene, and watched as his fingers tenderly tucked the blanket around the baby's face.

"Mort," he whispered, feeling the warmth of tears on his face even as the vision of him in the room also wept. "This... this was the moment when I held him for the very first time."

"A perfect moment in your life," Valois murmured. "And the Veil captured it because you asked it to, in your heart."

He looked around, entranced. He could smell the flowers in the room, hear the birds chirping outside, hear his vision-self sniff and choke out a sob of Oh god, love, he's so small and perfect. And... he could feel the emotions he had felt back then: the outpouring of love and protectiveness that overwhelmed him in the moment when he first held his newborn son in his arms.

"This..." He couldn't articulate everything that was racing around in his head at this moment. "It's... it's incredible. Like... like a 3D photograph that you can move inside and relive."

Slowly the scene faded, and he was back in the bedroom. Looking down, he saw that Valois had guided his fingers open from the loose fist they had held around the cube.

"Another, perhaps?" Valois murmured, as he put the moment back in the box.

Instantly, Gunther reached for another cube, two or three along from the first. He held it in his palm, closed his eyes, and curled his fingers around it.

This time, Mort was a little older, crawling around on the living room floor of the manor. Gunther watched as his vision-self laughed, picking Mort up and turning him around time and time again as he chased his giggling little son around the living room. Mort's infectious little baby chuckle made him smile, and his vision-self was making growly monster noises every time he picked Mort up.

Daddy's gonna getchoo! he growled, as he picked Mort up for yet another turn around the room, and then Mort crowed his perfect little laugh.

Dada!

His vision-self stopped dead, bringing Mort down into his arms to stare at him in delight. Emotion suffused the room, and again Gunther relived that heart-stopping joy, this time upon hearing his little boy say his name for the first time.

Oh my god. Say that again! his vision-self whispered, and Mort beamed up at him.

Dada!

He could remember this moment with perfect clarity: the first time Mort had said 'Dada', and his face almost hurt from smiling as he watched the ear-splitting grin on his vision-self's face as he called Cornelia! He just said 'Dada'! and carried Mort into the kitchen, making airplane noises as Mort crowed happily, over and over: Dadadadadada!

"So many perfect moments," Valois murmured as the vision faded. "And almost every one with your precious son."

Sniffling, Gunther wiped the tears from his face as he put the crystal cube back in the box. "Could he see them, too? Is that something he can do? I'd love for him to see these."

Valois kissed him. "If you wish it, then yes."

"Have you got a box like this?" Gunther suddenly asked. "Does everyone have one?"

"Everyone who has access to the Veil has one, yes." Valois chuckled. "Mine is rather larger than yours, given that I have had many more years to acquire my moments. It is somewhat... layered."

His mood completely turned on its head by the infectious joy of the moments he'd just relived, Gunther laughed. "I'm picturing it a bit like my mum's old cantilevered sewing box, opening up to reveal treasures. Only yours are memories and not bags of pretty buttons."

"Now there is an enchanting thought, and since you mention it, it does rather look like an old sewing box," Valois mused. "Perhaps, when we next visit the Veil, I will show you."

"Would you let me experience some of your moments?" Gunther asked.

"Bien sr. I am sure you would delight in seeing me as a small child, running around after chickens and playing in the dirt." Valois smiled down at him.

"Damn right I would. I suppose... wow, I wonder how big Elsanine's box of moments is, then? He's a lot older than you, isn't he?"

"Thousands of years older, yes. I have not been privy to his moments, but no doubt he has many of them. Although... hmm. The Fae tend to regard every moment as exquisite, so whether he has many that are special enough to warrant creation like this, I do not know."

"They probably involve Arcturus, and aren't the kind that either of them would share with anyone," Gunther said, with a mischievous smile. "I wish they could visit us. I'd love to sit and talk for hours with them both. Could we invite them to dinner, maybe?"

"We certainly could, but Arcturus does not eat mortal food, so it may be a trifle... difficult to accommodate him." Valois closed the box, clipping the small golden clasps back into place.

"Oh." Gunther frowned. "I suppose he doesn't drink wine either. And I'm not sure I want"—He shuddered—"glasses of blood, or what-have-you in the house."

"Mon cur, Arcturus has no need of such things until he is banished from the Veil outside of the Resting seasons. He simply exists without need for sustenance at all other times."

Gunther leaned against Valois, stroking a fingertip thoughtfully along the edge of the wooden box still in his lap. "How does that even work? That's got to be depressing, really. I mean, good food and fantastic wine... god, I'd miss those if I were a vampire."

"I will admit that I have never asked him." Valois's arm encircled Gunther's back, his palm clasping gently around his shoulder. "He is usually open to questions, though, so perhaps one day you will find out."

Gunther heaved a contented sigh, letting his thumb play over one of the clasps of his 'moments box'. Then, after a few minutes of thought, he murmured, "Would you like to see one of these?"

Valois seemed surprised, but infinitely pleased by that offer. "If you are willing to share one, then it would be an honour, my darling boy. Do you wish to choose one for me?"

"No." Gunther thumbed the clasps open again, and the lid raised slowly. "Just pick any random one, and tell me what you see."

Before Valois did that, he tucked a finger beneath Gunther's chin, raising it so that he could kiss his lips gently. "Thank you," he whispered, "for this trust."

Returning back to the box, he looked down at it for a moment, then plucked out a cube from somewhere around the middle of it. He placed it in his palm, then closed his fingers around it in a loose fist.

"Ah," he murmured. "I am in a garden, with the gate behind me, and it is a beautiful sunny day. Flowers surround me, bees are droning, and... I hear laughter. There are no traffic sounds, so this must be a quiet village or a day of rest."

"I think I know where you are," Gunther said, snuggling closer, his heart filling with a curious mixture of happiness and sorrow. "Is there a hedge to your left?"

"There is. A tall one."

Gunther closed his eyes, remembering that house. "Walk forward under the apple tree, and then you'll see a small vegetable plot just to your right."

"I do indeed, and I also see two young people fooling around with watering cans in that vegetable plot." Valois's voice was warm and happy. "Two young people who are very much in love. The girl has bright copper-gold hair, and she wears a simple blue and white cotton dress."

"Lolita," Gunther whispered.

"And the young man looks at her with eyes that have nothing but stars in them. Ah, my darling boy, the love that I see and feel here is beyond measure."

Silently, Gunther nodded, lifting a hand to wipe away a tear.

Valois chuckled. "And she has just soaked you with the spray from her watering can."

More tears fell, but this time Gunther couldn't help but laugh. "I remember her doing that. She told me later it was because she knew what I would do in revenge."

"Indeed. You're chasing her around the garden! And now you have cornered her up against the wall, and... I think that, for the sake of that lovely young woman's modesty, I should stop viewing this memory right here, because mon Dieu, you have wandering hands!"

Gunther could feel his face heating up. "Uh, yeah. Well, we'd only been married for a couple of weeks, so uh..."

Valois opened his eyes and placed the crystal cube back into its box. Gunther felt a gentle nudge—a slight body-check against him—and he looked up to see Valois grinning down at him.

"Honestly," Valois mock-chided. "In a garden? In public?!" He winked, adding a whispered, "Exhibitionist."

Gunther blushed up to his hairline, then laughed. "Trust you to pick that one!"

"Well," Valois mused. "I suppose that at least we are now... even? You have seen me with Nicolas, and..."

Chuckling, Gunther closed the box again. "I think I'd better vet all of these for suitability first, before I let Mort see any of them. I'll just show him the ones that he's in."

"A wise decision, mon cur. And I have another decision for you to make now."

"Hm?" Gunther looked up at him. "What sort of decision?"

Valois smiled, and his eyes were filled with mischief. "One that goes 'how do you feel about having an early night?'"

Gunther's lips twitched. "Hmm. Might have to think about that one." He paused for just a second, then added, "Okay, I've thought about it. Hell yeah."

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