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CHAPTER 72 ~ THE RETURN

"You're watching me," Gunther murmured, his eyes still closed as he roused from sleep with the distinct sensation of Valois's silent gaze on his face.

"That is because you present such a beautiful and peaceful picture in repose, mon cur," came the soft reply.

He felt Valois's arm nestle around his waist, and he huffed a faint sigh of contentment. "Never used to be this way," he said, his voice still a little hoarse from sleep. "Always woke up with my shoulders around my ears."

"Then I am grateful to be the one whose presence beside you causes you to sleep so peacefully." Valois's lips ghosted over Gunther's forehead, bringing a smile to his lips.

"And there," Valois continued, so softly that Gunther barely caught it, "is another reason why I love to watch you sleep. Your face is never still, did you know that? You always have a smile dancing around the corners of your lips, or a frown disturbing your brow."

Gunther felt another kiss, this time to the tip of his nose.

"If I see a smile," Valois whispered, "then I cannot help but kiss it. And, if I see a frown, then I caress it away and whisper to you until the smile returns and your slumber is peaceful once again. It is but a faint tilt to your beautiful mouth, but I love to see it."

And now, Gunther was smiling. "Well, I have some pretty nice dreams sometimes, y'know," he said, provoking a chuckle from his husband.

"Indeed. Perhaps, mon cur, you are like a cat whose paws twitch in his sleep when he chases mice in his dreams, hm?"

The smile became an unstoppable laugh, and Gunther hooked a leg across Valois's hip, wrapping himself around him. "Not that kind of dream! You gorgeous, daft, hot Frenchman," he chuckled, then—as he felt just how much Valois wanted him at that moment—the chuckle blended into a soft moan and he pressed closer. "Tell me it's the weekend and I don't have to get out of this bed just yet..."

"Alas, it is Friday."

"Well crap."

Valois laughed. "But, my darling, you are the boss. The weekend starts whenever you wish it to."

After a moment's thought, Gunther sighed. "Yeah, I know, but I'm not that kind of boss."

He felt a gentle kiss on the tip of his nose, then Valois's own nose gently nuzzled his cheek before another kiss was ghosted there. "Indeed you are not," Valois said. "And everyone who works for you, I am sure, appreciates that their boss turns up every day and does not... how is it said? Does not... take the piss?"

"Oh my god, it sounds so weird hearing you say things like that." Gunther snuggled closer, still grinning. "It doesn't feel like you. You're too classy to say things like 'piss'."

"Whereas you are not?" Valois's tone was ripe with humour. "Very well, I shall say it no more. Shall I also cease to use the word 'fuck' when it refers to what I enjoy doing with you?"

"Oh, don't you fucking dare!"

Valois's lips closed gently around his earlobe, followed by the nip of sharp teeth. "Language, mine," he whispered. "Or I shall be forced to spank you."

At that, Gunther finally opened his eyes, and Valois let go and raised his head. They stared at each other in silence for a long moment, then Gunther—with a commendable straight face—murmured,

"Well, the boss does have the privilege of running a little bit late, so please fucking do."

After dinner that evening, Valois took Gunther's hand and led him into the bedroom. Closing the door quietly behind them, he let go and stepped into the middle of the room on his own.

Confused, Gunther just stood and watched as Valois raised one hand to circle it three times around his own head. Something glowed faintly above him, then slowly moved down to envelop his body entirely in a soft, pulsing red mist.

Gunther took a single, nervous step back. What the hell was this all about? It wasn't like Valois to perform visual magic of this level without some kind of advance warning or explanation first. What was going on?

The mist faded, leaving Valois standing there in the gorgeous suit that Gunther loved to see him in. Tilting his head, Gunther watched him warily, unsure whether there was going to be any more unexpected magic.

"Come here," Valois murmured, holding out one hand with a tender and reassuring smile.

Instinctively, Gunther stepped forward, obeying the command that he always heard in his husband's voice, even when they were not clearly scening as Dominant and submissive. Taking Valois's hand, he nuzzled close to him, sagging a little in relief as Valois's arms encircled his body and held him tightly.

"You don't usually get dressed quite so—"

"—magically?" Valois pressed a kiss to Gunther's hair. "No, I do not. But tonight requires a little more ceremony than usual. Have you forgotten the importance of this day, my darling?"

For a heartstopping moment, Gunther wracked his brains, horrified that he might have forgotten some anniversary or other date that meant something to Valois. He was so panicked that he didn't even notice the mist descending again to surround them both, but a hand on his chin raised his face and Valois smiled down at him.

"Not a personal anniversary, no," he reassured. "You have never once forgotten any date that is important, either to me or to both of us. This date is one you have barely learned of, so it is understandable that you have forgotten. Tonight is the Return, mine."

Gunther looked down, only to find that he was wearing a suit that was identical to Valois's in style, but with a different-coloured shirt.

Oh god, the Return. I'm going to be stared at by everyone there...

He'd been dreading this day. Absolutely dreading it. While he had no qualms about standing up in front of several hundred people and giving speeches and presentations, that was business. This was something entirely different, in a place that—while it felt more and more like home every time he went there—was still somewhere he felt out of his depth.

He looked up, and knew that Valois could see the dread in his eyes.

"I, uh, I'm going to need a bit of help with this," he said, inwardly cringing at the quaver in his voice that gave away his apprehension. "I know it's important to you, but I've not been looking forward to being the curiosity of the day in the Veil."

A pale hand caressed his hair, moving across his forehead and down his cheek, melting his nerves and fear away into nothing. With a sigh of relief, he gave Valois a watery smile of thanks, leaning against him.

"Have you got your gift all ready for the other person?" he mumbled against Valois's chest.

"I have indeed. In fact, I am wearing it. If you nuzzle a bit into my shirt you will find it."

Gunther chuckled. "I'll take any excuse to do that," he murmured, using his nose to push aside the ruffles of Valois's fine silk shirt. There, against the warmth of his skin, lay a delicate necklace; an intricate lattice of white gold studded with what Gunther thought at first were hundreds of tiny diamonds, but as he nuzzled closer and stared at one of the diamonds, he realised it was a small vial filled with a pearlescent liquid.

"That's gorgeous," he said softly. "What is it?"

"It is a necklace, mon cur."

A playful thump was the only response to that, earning Gunther a low laugh from his husband.

"Very well," Valois conceded. "It is a necklace created for a vampire to wear. Inside each of those vials is a spell that—when the vial is crushed— will afford the wearer protection against earthly sunlight for one hour. Enough time to save their life, if need be. Or to simply indulge in mortal pleasures once again, such as a walk along a sunny beach."

Gunther looked up, tears in his eyes. "That's the most wonderful, thoughtful gift that any vampire could wish for," he murmured.

"I hope so, anyway. It took long hours of thought to come up with something suitable, and even longer hours of work to craft it." Valois smiled at him. "Are you ready, mon cur?"

Leaning against him briefly—for a moment of additional strength—Gunther eventually said, "Yeah. Yeah, I'm ready."

The Veil was quiet when they entered it, Valois taking Gunther to his home first of all. The usual deep silence of winter, however, was no longer present. Gunther could hear the distant song of birds and the rustle of leaves, and there was something in the air that he couldn't quite define; something that made him feel alive and truly positive.

"You sense it, hm?" Valois murmured, watching him.

Gunther looked back, halfway through pulling back one of the heavy red velvet curtains that draped a window.

"Yeah," he said. "What is it?"

"Renewal," Valois replied, and the smile on his face was breathtakingly beautiful. Gunther stared at him for a moment, then returned that smile. His heart felt light, and he finally turned back to the curtain, pulling it aside.

"Oh!"

Valois was suddenly right behind him, his arms around Gunther's waist.

"The hope that you feel during spring in the earthly realm," he murmured into Gunther's ear, "is multiplied tenfold here."

Gunther stared out at the forest outside Valois's home. The snow had melted, the trees were a vibrant spring green and filled with joyous birds swooping and singing. And in the distance he could see lights dancing and moving.

"The fae are gathering for the Return," Valois said softly. "It will be but a small ceremony. Not as many people as you think. The young ones do not attend until later in the evening, when the wine cellars are opened and the music is played. Only us elders are present for the formalities. Here..."

Gunther looked down. Valois was holding out a short lighted taper. The flame was small and bright, and it was clear that Valois wanted him to take it, so he did. A moment later, and another taper appeared in Valois's hand.

"We carry these to the glade where the ceremony takes place, and we light that place with our presence," Valois murmured, holding out his other hand.

Gunther took it, and they walked out of the house, making their way through the trees along a shallow stone path to where tall arches rose up like sentinels from mighty oaks and delicate willows. Waiting for them by the gate was Elsanine, dressed formally in white and with a golden circlet threaded with bright leaves on his head. He, too, was holding a taper, and he smiled at them both before bowing low.

Releasing Gunther's hand, Valois returned the bow, and Gunther followed suit.

"Well-met, my dear friends," Elsanine said, gesturing for them to follow him through the gate. "It is inexpressibly good to see you both. And welcome, Gunther, to the Ceremony of the Return. I have been assigned by the king to stay with you and guide you through the proceedings, since Valois will play a much more important part in them than he usually does. Follow me, and we will light the glade."

Inside the glade fae and vampires, weres and witches were carrying their tapers to tall urns that nestled amid the greenery. Each taper was placed inside the top of an urn, which lit the glade with tens of flickering flames. Elsanine guided Valois and Gunther to a pair of urns near the dais.

"As one of the Returnees and a guest of honour of the king, your flames will light the ceremony itself," he said, as Valois placed his taper into one urn and waited while Gunther placed the other.

All of Gunther's nerves had flown at the beauty of this place. He loved ancient buildings and old ruins, and while the glade was anything but ruined there was something about it that spoke deep inside his heart. He turned to Valois, and realised that his husband was watching him with a strange mixture of emotions. His eyes were wet, but he was smiling, and Gunther leaned in to kiss him softly.

"Yes," he whispered against Valois's lips. "I love your home."

"I am glad." Valois nuzzled Gunther's cheek. "Wish me luck, mon cur. For all the times that I have witnessed this ceremony, I have never taken part in it. I am a little nervous myself!"

Gunther kissed him again. "That's the luckiest kiss I have," he said with a smile.

"Then it is all I need. Go with Elsanine now, and he will show you where to sit."

'Where to sit' turned out to be on the dais itself, right at the very front; something that Gunther had not expected at all. Elsanine, seated beside him, whispered that—as an honoured guest—there was no greater place for him, but it still didn't make him feel any less on display.

The ceremony began remarkably quickly, though, and no more than about fifteen Supernaturals were present when it did. After an initial glance and a nod of recognition and respect, none of them stared at Gunther, which left him feeling a bit more relaxed, and within minutes he was transfixed as the king and queen walked out onto the dais and the ceremony began.

He wished he could understand the language of the Veil, as the introduction was carried out entirely in that formality. Elsanine whispered to him what was happening—the words of welcome to the new season, the fae greeting to the returnees—but it wasn't the same as being able to understand it himself. He made a private vow to ask Valois to teach him the language, or at least to arrange lessons, if that were even possible.

And then there was his husband, standing on the grass before the dais. Gunther watched as Valois placed a hand to his heart and bowed low to the king and queen, who returned the gesture and spoke more of those beautiful, musical words. Valois, too, spoke in that tongue, and if Gunther had found himself entranced when his husband spoke French to him that was nothing compared to how he felt when he heard him speak the language of the Veil.

Someone else was being introduced, and—since Valois's position for this ceremony was to welcome the representative of all returning Supernaturals—then this person must be that representative. A tall figure stepped out of the shadows, an amused smile quirking his lips, and the dignified ceremony was interrupted by a peal of laughter as Valois spotted who it was. Even the king and queen were smiling as they stepped aside and returned to their seats as...

...Arcturus came forward to take his place.

"I could not ask for anyone better to be here as my returnee," Valois said, nodding faintly to the king and queen over Arcturus's shoulder as he hugged his old friend tightly.

Smiling, Gunther turned to Elsanine to say something, but the words died on his lips. Clearly Elsanine had not expected this, and his eyes were damp with tears. For a moment, Gunther was completely thrown, and then... oh, of course. Elsanine had not seen his lover for seven years and seven months. Not only was that a long time to be apart—Gunther couldn't even begin to imagine being separated from Valois for that long—but, as a vampire, Arcturus was susceptible to many dangers during the long Banishment. So, for Elsanine, just seeing him and knowing that he had survived another season in the earthly realm...

Gunther reached for Elsanine's hand, took it, and squeezed it. Elsanine blinked quickly, ducked his head, and then smiled at him. It was a weak smile, but one filled with relief and happiness.

"Not long now," Gunther whispered, "and you can hold him again."

Elsanine winked at him, whispering back with a mischievous grin, "And the rest!"

Gunther almost choked, biting his lip so hard that it hurt. "And there was I, thinking that the fae look so beautiful and innocent."

Elsanine just chuckled and nodded faintly to where the ceremony was now continuing. "There now follows a traditional exchange of gifts," he murmured, craning his neck a little to see what was on the table at the front of the dais. "I see a book... but nothing else?"

"Valois is wearing his," Gunther said softly, as he watched his husband step back from his friend and return to the solemnity of the ceremony.

"Each gift must be a personal one that the giver has crafted themselves," Elsanine continued. "Though the welcome is one from all of the Veil to all its returnees, because of the bond of friendship between both participants, the gift is to them alone."

Arcturus twisted to reach behind himself and pick the book off the table. It was a thick, leather-bound volume that was closed by a heavy strap. The close-packed pages looked old and—to Gunther's experienced eye when it came to antique books—the text within was clearly handwritten; that much he could tell from the unevenness of the paper.

Arcturus held the book in front of him, and Elsanine translated his words directly for Gunther:

"My gift to you, dear friend, is my life's work. This history of the Veil goes back to the earliest times that I can access. It is given to you with a full heart in the knowledge that you will read my words and treasure my efforts."

Slowly, Valois took the volume, turning it in his hands and looking down at it with an expression of amazement and tenderness.

"I have not the words to express the generosity of this gift, nor what it means to me," he said softly, his words translated close to Gunther's ear by Elsanine. "I can only hope that my gift lifts your heart as much as this does mine."

Gently, Valois put the book back down on the table. Before he gave his own gift, though, he reached out and embraced Arcturus. Gunther could see whispered words being exchanged, but since Elsanine did not translate them for him he had no idea what was being said.

After a few moments, Valois broke the embrace, reached up behind his neck, and undid the necklace he was wearing. Holding it out, he arched one eyebrow, and Arcturus bent his head to permit him to fasten it around his own neck.

"My gift to you, dear friend," Valois murmured, "is the warmth of earthly sunlight once more. Within each tiny vial on this necklace is a spell that grants immunity to its effects for one hour. Whether to save your life, or to allow a walk on a sunny beach with your beloved, it is given with love—"

Here, Elsanine's soft translation faltered, and Gunther squeezed his hand again. Another embrace was shared between the two men standing in the glade: this one closer and heartfelt. Gunther could see the emotion in it, as Arcturus clasped Valois tightly to him in a hug that spoke volumes for how deeply he was moved by the gift.

"Tomorrow morning," Elsanine whispered in Gunther's ear, "I shall take my love's hand and we shall watch the sun rise, before we walk together through the dappled sunlight of an earthly forest. And I shall be able to do so because of Valois. I cannot thank him enough for this gift."

Gunther raised a hand to his eyes to wipe away a tear. "It means as much to you as the gifts of life you have given him over the centuries mean to me," he managed, hoarsely. "He's told me how you have healed him and renewed his mind after each mortal death he's endured."

"Then we are both companions in gratitude." Elsanine took that hand, drying the dampness of tears on it with his fingertips. With his other hand he raised Gunther's chin, then he smiled at him, before leaning forward to ghost a soft kiss to Gunther's forehead.

At that moment, something fluttered deep within Gunther; some strange little spark of what felt like a bright light or a small flame. Puzzled, he tilted his head as Elsanine drew back and let go of his hand.

"Was that—?"

Elsanine nodded. "A little bit of fae magic now lives within you. May it serve you when you need it. Now... come. The ceremony is done, so it is time for good wine, good music, and a great deal of making merry."

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to be continued