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CHAPTER 56 ~ RETURN

In the two hours after waking up at home, Gunther had several things to reacquaint himself with. The oddest one was the burden of wearing clothes again. He had become so accustomed to being in nothing but his own skin that draping it in cloth felt unnatural, and his shoes were like weights on his feet.

"I shall miss all of this beautiful skin," Valois murmured, kissing Gunther's shoulder seconds before the shirt covered it. Gunther hesitated, then smiled, buttoning the shirt up.

"I think I will, too," he said. "Feels so strange, even though I was only out of my clothes for four days. I guess now I understand the appeal of naturism."

Valois chuckled. "I would agree with you there, but for the fact that naturism is very public, and I selfishly prefer to keep the naked vision of you all to myself."

With the shirt buttoned, Gunther turned to face Valois with a murmur of, "I suppose the collar and cuffs would be best coming off now, rather than at the last minute, so I can get used to the lack of them."

"Or you could wear the ones of my will all the time," Valois replied, unbuckling the collar and gently removing it. "That is, unless we're alone together for any extended period of time, at which point the leather ones can replace them. Do you think you're ready for that?"

"At work, too?" Gunther touched his throat, mourning the loss of the leather that had bound it for four days. "I— Can I think about it tonight and decide after work tomorrow?"

"Bien sr, dear one." The cuffs followed the collar, going back into their elegant little box, which was then tucked away in a drawer of Gunther's desk. "Take all the time that you need."

"It's just that, once I know my schedule, I might wear them when things won't be too intense for me. A day without any big meetings, and the like. At least initially, anyway."

"That sounds like a very sensible idea." Valois locked the desk drawer and pocketed the key. "Why don't you go into Mortimer's room, hm? Just for a few minutes."

Gunther tilted his head for a moment, then smiled. "Yeah," he said softly. "Okay."

Standing there in the small room, surrounded by his son's precious things, Gunther leaned against the wall with his arms folded. Art covered every blank surface, from the huge wooden dragon head that Mort had pestered him to buy when they'd attended a fantasy fair together, to the little hand-painted star hanging from a ribbon by the bed with 'You are my star!' written on it that Esther had given to Mort for Snowflake Day the previous year.

And there, taking pride of place on the battered old suitcases where Mort kept his art materials, was his beloved old teddy. His fur had been singed in the manor fire and one of his eyes had been missing since Mort was a toddler, but just the sight of him made Gunther smile.

"If that bear could speak," he heard Valois murmur behind him, "what a tale he could tell, hm?"

"He was mine once, y'know." Gunther nestled back against his lover, folding his hands over the arms that encircled him from behind. "Dad brought him home one night when I was about six or seven. I'd been teased at school for weeks, and came home crying almost every afternoon. Dad said that Teddy would be my guard and look out for me." He frowned. "It's strange, because a couple of days later, the kids at school stopped teasing me."

"Did they?" Valois kissed the side of Gunther's neck. "Then Teddy was indeed your guard, hm? Do you feel a little more grounded now, mon cur?"

"Yeah." Gunther closed his eyes and smiled as those kisses traced ticklish lines up and down his neck. "Mind you, if you keep doing that..."

Valois chuckled. "Then maybe it's best if I stop doing that and start doing dinner, hm? Given that our young artist will be home soon."

"Dad! DAAAAAAAAAD! I'M HOOOOOOOOOOOOME!"

Mort came barrelling into the house like a whirlwind, dropping his suitcase and a massive art case in the hallway before he followed his nose into the kitchen.

Gunther was ready with his arms open, and Mort ran into them breathlessly, hugging his dad and lifting his feet off the floor. Gunther hoisted him up, swinging him around a little, as best he could in the kitchen, then set him down again.

"I take it that you had a good time, then?" he said, laughing as Mort looked up, still not letting go.

"Oh my god, it was awesome! Hi, Valois! We did oils and watercolours, and there was this life class thingy where someone posed for us, and Esther and me got top marks for that, and then we went out on the bus to this place that had old ruins and stuff, and we drew those, and we camped out one night and cooked sausages over a real fire that we made, and we learned all about natural pigments, which was really cool because people used them hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and then I"—he buried his face in Gunther's shirt—"*mumblemumble*"

Gunther blinked, trying to parse all of that. "I think I missed the last bit. Say again?"

"*mumblemumble*"

He shot a glance at Valois, who was stirring a pan of bolognaise on the stove. One raised eyebrow was the response, as Gunther looked back down at his son.

"Out with it."

Mort pulled away just a tiny fraction, but this time his words could be made out.

"I kissed Esther."

"Was it nice?" Gunther asked. "More importantly, did she think it was nice?"

Mort nodded, his cheeks flaming. Like father, like son, Gunther thought with a grin.

"Well that's great then. Kissing girls is really nice, if you ask me. I've done it a lot in the past, although I prefer kissing one particular boy now."

"Ew." Mort looked up, laughing. "I so don't wanna know the details. What's for dinner? It smells great."

"Hey there." Gunther stuck his head around Mort's bedroom door later that night. "Got a few minutes?"

"Sure!" Mort put down his sketchbook and pencils. "I forgot to ask: did you and Valois have a nice time while I was gone?"

"We did, yeah." Closing the door behind him, Gunther sat down on the edge of his son's bed. "We went away for the weekend. Just got back a few hours before you did, actually. Listen, I... uh, we need to talk about a few things."

Mort squinted for a moment, then flushed a bit pink. "If you mean that talk, we had that years ago. And it was embarrassing!"

Gunther laughed. "Well, it's an extension of 'that talk' I suppose, but since you and Esther seem to be getting a bit serious now, I think we need to chat man-to-man about some things, yeah?"

Settling back against his pillows, Mort shrugged a bit. "Okay."

"I might be your embarrassing old Dad, but I was fifteen once myself, and I remember the things I did back then." Gunther eyed his son. "And I remember the things I wanted to do, but didn't, because I was scared of what my own dad would say."

"We haven't done anything like that!" Mort flushed right up to his hairline.

"Well, y'know, you might. So I thought, just in case..."

Gunther reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out some thin shiny packets. Holding them out, he smiled at his son as Mortimer stared at them, then up at him.

"You went and bought some condoms for me?"

"Yeah. Because I was embarrassed as all hell to buy my own when I was your age. Keep one in your wallet at all times, okay? And always use one."

Mort reached out and took the packets, turning one of them over to read the writing on it. "They showed us how to put one on in biology class at school," he mumbled. "They used a banana."

Gunther bit his lip as Mort looked up at him. Then, as his son started giggling, Gunther did, too. The awkward moment was broken, and he hugged Mort tightly.

"There's some other stuff, too, and it's not embarrassing at all, okay?" he said softly. "It's about treating a girl right. Always, always treat her like a lady. Listen to her, and show her that you're listening to her. Buy her flowers for no reason other than she loves them. If she ever gets upset about anything, give her a hug, but without any strings attached. If she ever gets upset with you, then apologise, but make sure you mean it. You remember what I said about saying sorry and meaning it?"

"Yeah. You say stuff like 'I'm sorry that I upset you' instead of 'I'm sorry if you were upset'. You own your apology; you don't make it sound like it's the fault of the other person for getting upset about what you said or did."

"Exactly. So you treat her like a princess. To that end, I'm going to increase your pocket money, so you can buy her little things if you want to, okay? Only, I rather think Esther would prefer things you've made for her. There's more care and love that goes into something handmade than goes into something that's shop-bought. I've been given gifts like that, and they were worth more than anything you can buy."

"What sort of gifts?" Mort looked up at him.

"Hm. Well, when I was at school I really liked this girl, and she really liked me. But her family were poor and she couldn't afford to buy me anything for my birthday, so she made me a card. Like you and Esther, she was very good at drawing, so she drew the card herself, and wrote a little poem to go inside it. I loved that card more than all the shop-bought cards I got that year."

"That's really sweet. And I love the star Esther made me for Snowflake Day last year, so yeah, I understand that."

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, then Mort asked, "Do you like Esther?"

"I do, yes. I think she's a lovely girl, and Valois thinks the same, too. I'd love to welcome her into our family, if you both decide that's what you want."

"I'd like to," Mort said quietly. "I don't know if I'm in love with her, or anything. How did you know you were in love with Valois?"

"Well, there aren't any clear signs, so all I can tell you is that you'll just know. It's not what you want to hear, I suspect, but it's all I can give you. You'll know deep down inside. It's a gut instinct."

"I think... I think I've got that," Mort whispered. "I feel funny inside when I'm with her. Like I don't want to leave her. When I'm not with her... I really miss her."

"That sounds quite a lot like love to me. Are you going to ask her out on a date?"

Mort went a bit pink. "I dunno where to go."

"The beach is always a great place," Gunther mused. "Plenty of things to do and places to eat, although it's not really hot enough for a beach date yet. Hm, what about the coffee house? They have live bands some evenings. Or, y'know, you don't need to go someplace special. Just take your sketchbooks and a picnic and cycle off somewhere to have a nice few hours alone together."

"A picnic sounds fun!"

"Let me know when you've asked her, and I'll get Valois to pack you something up. He puts together awesome picnics."

"Can she come over for dinner some days?"

"Of course she can." Gunther smiled. "Just let either me or Valois know in advance so we can make sure there's enough food to go around, okay?"

"Okay. Thanks, Dad. You're the best."

Gunther kissed Mort's forehead. "I try," he murmured. "Now, it's late, so it's time you were in bed. Goodnight, son. I love you."

"G'night. Love you too."

A few minutes later, Gunther curled up on the couch with a relieved little sigh as Valois's arms went around him.

"Everything all right?" Valois murmured, to which Gunther nodded.

"Yeah. He's in love." He chuckled. "I feel kind of old, but so proud of my boy. He's just so..." He raised one hand and waved it expressively, to show that he had no words for how he felt.

Valois kissed him. "He's had a good example in front of him all his life. I am so proud of my boy, too."

Gunther closed his eyes and sank back against the inexpressible comfort of Valois with a contented sigh. He was home, in every sense of the word.

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