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CHAPTER 62 ~ YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED
~ A FEW MONTHS LATER ~
"I feel weird. Do I really have to wear this tomorrow?"
Gunther shot an amused glance over at Mortimer, who was trying on his new suit for what was probably the third time in a week.
"Yes," he said. "At least, everyone else will be dressed up, so do you really want to feel out of place in jeans and a t-shirt?"
Mort tugged at the bow tie and pulled a face at himself in the mirror. "Well, couldn't I wear them afterwards? Y'know, at the party thing?"
Crossing the room, Gunther slung an arm around his son's shoulder and looked at his reflection. Mort was shooting up so quickly, rapidly becoming a handsome young man, and Gunther's heart gave a little tug.
"It's just for one day, and it would mean a lot to me if you'd wear this for the entirety of that day, son," he said softly. "Wear it for me, and for Valois, hm?"
He watched as his boy studied himself in the mirror for a moment.
"Okay," Mort finally said, with a big grin, then he paused. "Um... I've been meaning to ask you something about Valois..."
"Yeah. Well... it's about what I call him." Mort looked a bit uncomfortable. "I mean, I know I can use his name and stuff, but... d'you think he'd mind if I called him something else sometimes, too? 'cause when I'm talking about you guys at school it feels weird to talk about my Dad and Valois."
For a moment, Gunther wondered what on earth his son might be wanting to call Valois, then something inside him twisted into a tight and happy little knot as he realised what Mort was getting at.
"What did you think you might call him, then?" he asked, as steadily as he could.
"I thought... maybe... stepdad?" Mort looked up at him, hesitantly.
Gunther smiled, trying to hold back the tears that wanted to well up in his eyes. "I think," he said softly, "that Valois would absolutely love it if you called him that. I know I would love it."
"Yeah. That's a special place in your heart, and I'm so happy that you're letting him occupy it."
Mort squinted up at him, then grinned. "You're such a sap sometimes." He poked Gunther's arm, breaking the moment into a laugh for both of them.
"He's out in the garden right now." Gunther ruffled Mort's hair, earning himself a grimace as his son tried to wriggle away. "Why don't you go and tell him yourself? I think he'd love to be asked if you can call him that."
"Get changed out of that suit first!" Gunther called after him, as Mort started to head outside. He grinned as he watched his son swerve in mid-run and leg it into his bedroom instead.
As much as he wanted to witness that conversation, Gunther held back out of respect for Mort's privacy, walking into the kitchen to wash up the breakfast dishes as something to take his mind off it.
Fifteen minutes later, Valois walked in, just as Gunther was putting away the last of the plates. His eyes were damp, and he just walked over to Gunther and hugged him tightly, wrapping his arms around Gunther's shoulders instead of their usual place around his waist: a gesture that spoke volumes about how much Mort's simple question had affected him.
"Your son is the mirror of you," he murmured in Gunther's ear. "A beautiful, loving soul."
Nestled safely in Valois's arms, Gunther breathed in the scent of him and sighed happily. "I almost cried when he asked me if I thought you'd mind," he said. "He'd accepted you already, but now you're family to him."
"It means more to me than he'll ever know," was the tender response, as Valois kissed Gunther's temple and nuzzled there with a soft sigh of contentment. "I have not been accepted into such a loving family for many centuries."
"Y'know," Gunther said, very softly, "right now my heart's so full, I don't think it could hold another drop."
Valois's arms tightened just a little, then he huffed a faint laugh. "Best make a little more room in it, then," he murmured. "Because I think tomorrow might have a few more drops for you."
Gunther smiled. "It's funny, but I'm not even nervous. I was shaking like a leaf before I got married the first time. Lolita told me my hands were clammy when we exchanged rings."
A sudden thought made him look up. "Oh, I forgot to ask. Natalie said something about Elsanine and Arcturus not coming to the wedding. If you want to invite them as a last-minute addition, we could easily accommodate them. I'd love to have them there, and... well, you don't have any of your friends present to watch you get married. I thought you might want... y'know..."
"They have said that they will attend the evening celebrations." Valois kissed him. "The ceremony itself is during the day, and Arcturus cannot safely tolerate earthly sunlight for more than a few minutes. Elsanine has told me he will try to attend during the day—even if only for the important moment of the vows—if he can."
Gunther nodded. "I'm glad to have met your friends. I'm even more glad to know that you've had them for so long. I feel better now, knowing you at least had someone always there for you throughout your life."
"Elsanine has healed me more times than I care to remember, although I know that he keeps accurate enough records to be able to tell me exactly how many times that is." Valois chuckled. "You could, I suppose, say that he is the closest thing that I have to a brother."
"He doesn't take any shit from you, does he?" Gunther said, laughing as Valois pulled a rueful face and shook his head. "Good! Ego-prickers are rare in this world, and we all need one."
"Who is yours, pray tell?" Valois asked, sliding a hand into Gunther's hair and caressing gently as he looked down at his boy.
"Natalie," came the instant response.
"Ah, yes. I should have known. How is she now? Recovered?"
"Recovered enough to crack the occasional joke about my arse, yeah." Gunther rolled his eyes. "I'm never going to live that down. She even tried to get me to sit on the photocopier so she could have a memento to take home and frame!"
At Valois's perplexed look, Gunther just burst out laughing. "Doesn't matter. Just Natalie being Natalie, as per usual."
"I'll admit that she is more mercurial than any woman I have ever known," Valois said, still with a vaguely puzzled expression. "Her moods turn on a pin, and I genuinely believe she is slightly crazy."
"She's scatty in a good way," Gunther agreed. "I would never have hired her if I didn't think she could do the job better than anyone else I interviewed for it, but I also saw she had a great sense of humour. When you have such a close working relationship with someone—potentially for many years—you need to be able to laugh with that person from time to time. Business can be so dry and serious, especially at my level; a never-ending round of boardrooms, meetings, mergers, and directors. I'm pretty hands-on for a CEO; I like to keep in touch with everyone who works for me, right down to the young lad who gets the coffees in every lunchtime."
He realised that Valois was watching him closely, and he bit his lip. Had he said something wrong?
"No, nothing wrong," Valois said softly. "I forget sometimes that my boy is of such importance to anyone but myself, and that you have such a responsible position." A slow smile curved his lips, which he placed close to Gunther's ear as he murmured in a low, husky voice, "I also find it incredibly hot to listen to you talking about business and hiring and mergers. The juxtaposition of your dominance at work and your submission to me gets me..."
Gunther inhaled sharply as Valois tugged him close and ground against him to finish that tailed-off sentence. Holy fuck. He whimpered as Valois began to kiss him, slow and deep, until he thought he was going to sink to the floor right there and then.
"Oh my God, will you two get a room?!"
Panting, Gunther tore away from Valois, who shot the figure in the doorway a startled look. Mort was standing there, covering his eyes but peeking out between his fingers every few seconds to see if the coast was clear.
"Honeymoon doesn't start until tomorrow night!" he squeaked. "Now can I get some cereal without you both going at it like rabbits or something?"
Mortified, Gunther stared at him, then at Valois. There was a horrified silence for a moment, then Valois's lips twitched. On seeing that, Gunther couldn't hold back any longer. He cracked up laughing, grabbing Valois's hand and leading him out of the kitchen, ruffling Mort's hair along the way and earning himself a small "Argh!" as he did so.
Slamming the bedroom door behind them, Gunther leaned against Valois, laughing under his breath.
"Oh god," he snorted. "We've traumatised him for life."
Slowly, Valois raised Gunther's face, smiling down at him. "He'll understand soon enough," was all he said. "Now... where were we?"
~ THE NEXT DAY ~
~ 06:19am ~
~ 06:19am ~
The morning dawned bright and clear, sunlight peeking out from high streaks of white cloud. Gunther stretched, nuzzling against Valois in the comfort of their bed. He felt an arm go around him, pulling him even closer.
"Good morning, mine," Valois murmured. "Did you sleep well?"
A warm hand rested possessively on Gunther's arse, and in response to it he all-but wrapped himself around Valois.
"So, do I get one last fuck as a single man?" he asked, pressing breathless kisses to Valois's chest. "I mean, it'll be your last chance to have your fiancé before he becomes your husband."
"Loath though I am to question the possibility, are you sure you want that today?" Valois kissed the crown of Gunther's head. "It is such an important day, and many eyes will be upon you. Would it be too much of a distraction for you to ache in that way?"
Gunther looked up at him. "Oh god, no. If anything, it'll be a comfort to me. In fact..." He could feel his face heating up a little, and he couldn't help but notice how the pupils of Valois's eyes grew larger and darker in response to that. "Uh... in fact, I was going to beg for the collar and cuffs of your will, too. I want to feel that I belong to you in every way when we exchange our vows."
"Oh, my darling boy." Again, Valois kissed him. "Hear me. As your master, I will not do this, and this is why: not only will many eyes be upon you, but some of those eyes belong to your superiors at work. Wearing your collar and cuffs brings out your submission to such an extent that it may be noticeable to those watching. I cannot, in all conscience, allow anyone to see you in that vulnerable state. I am sworn to protect you and guard you from any harm, and it is out of love for you and that desire to protect you that I say no to your request."
Oddly, Gunther didn't feel disappointed by that refusal. He understood why it was made, and in fact Valois's words only served to make him feel even more loved and protected.
"Okay," he said softly, with a smile. "That makes sense. Thank you."
"On the honeymoon, however..." Valois's eyes glittered with the unspoken continuation of that sentence, making Gunther whimper and press closer with a soft, "Oh god, yes. Please."
~ 10:03am ~
"HEY, DAD! THE FLOWERS ARE HERE!"
"I'll get them." Valois kissed Gunther's cheek, putting down the teatowel and heading out of the kitchen.
Gunther finished washing up the breakfast plates—a prosaic enough thing to be doing on the morning of his wedding!—and then dried his hands before walking into the living room.
Valois had arranged many of the wedding details in secret, with a little help from Mortimer, who desperately wanted to do something of his own, so Gunther had no idea what the flowers would be like.
"So, we all wear one of these?" Mort was asking, holding up a delicate little buttonhole of exotic red flowers and examining it.
"Oui. We call this a boutonnière in France."
"Oh, Valois," Gunther murmured. "They're gorgeous! And... is that a bouquet? Uh, I didn't expect to be carrying one of those down the aisle!"
Mort stifled a giggle and nudged Valois. "That's for Natalie, so she has something to hold as your bridesmaid."
"Ah. Okay." The look of relief on Gunther's face must have been priceless, because it made Valois chuckle and walk over to him.
"As if I would ask you to do something like that, mon cœur," he said, kissing Gunther's cheek.
"Now," he said briskly, as he pulled away again. "The suits! Mortimer, you and I will be leaving for the ceremony first, so we must be ready first."
"We're not going with Dad?" Mort frowned.
"Non. It is our duty to wait nervously in front of the wedding guests, while Gunther is permitted to be fashionably late."
Gunther laughed at his son's puzzled face. "Don't worry. I'll make sure I turn up. Natalie won't let me get lost or anything."
"The car will be here to pick you up at half past one, so be ready by then, mon cœur."
Gunther stared at him. "You hired a car?"
"But of course! I would not dream of expecting you to drive yourself to your wedding!" Valois looked scandalised.
"But how are we going to get to the wedding?" Mort walked up to Valois, looking worried.
Gunther's heart gave a little skip of happiness when he saw Valois slip a comforting arm around Mort's shoulder, and Mort didn't pull away as he normally did with anyone but Gunther or Esther.
"We will have our own car, of course," Valois said. "I hired two: one for the groom and best man, and one for the other groom and his bridesmaid. Although, really, I suppose Natalie should be... the groomsmaid?"
~ 01:12pm ~
"Oh wow, Dad."
Gunther looked up as Valois helped him with his cufflinks, fixing them into place and arranging the ruffled sleeves of his red silk shirt so they fell beautifully from the jacket cuffs. Mort was standing in the doorway, looking smart in his formal suit.
"Hey there," Gunther said, with a smile. "All ready?"
"Yeah. You two look... wow. Those suits are amazing."
"Thank you. All Valois's doing, what with his French eye for fashion."
"I simply know a little about good tailoring," Valois murmured, smoothing down Gunther's lapels and pinning on his buttonhole. A moment later he picked up another buttonhole and held it out to Gunther. "Will you do the honours for me, mon cœur?"
Feeling rather emotional by now, Gunther just smiled and nodded, pinning on Valois's buttonhole and settling it neatly. Then he just gazed at Valois for the longest time.
The moment was broken by the doorbell ringing, which Mort went to answer. When Natalie bowled into the house like a whirlwind, she found Gunther and Valois sharing a tender kiss in the living room.
"Here, none of that until we're all chucking confetti at you!" She giggled, making hearts around her eyes with her fingers. "Oh my god, just look at you both. Damn it, there's no way I'm going to have enough tissues for this."
"Ma chère, you are a vision." Valois walked over to her, gently cradled both of her elbows, and kissed her on both cheeks. Holding her away from him so that he could look at her, he smiled. "Take good care of the precious thing you are bringing to me, oui?" he murmured.
"'course I will." Natalie beamed, looking up at him. "No bumps, scrapes, or grass stains, I promise."
Valois laughed. "Incorrigible woman! Now, Mortimer. You have the rings?"
"Yep. All safe in a little pouch in my pocket." Mort patted said pocket, then took out the small red velvet pouch to show it. A moment's hesitation, then he checked inside—probably for the hundredth time, Gunther thought—and put the pouch back into his pocket, satisfied that the rings hadn't vanished into thin air since the last time he'd checked them.
"C'est bien. Then we shall head out, as I think our car has just arrived," Valois said, as the sound of wheels crunching over the newly-graveled driveway sounded outside.
He walked back to Gunther and kissed him tenderly, whispering, "I love you," before he turned back to Mortimer and the two of them left the house.
~ 01:23pm ~
Gunther stood alone in the house with Natalie, and now the butterflies began to kick up in his belly.
"You look as if someone just turned off the lights," Natalie said softly. "You feel that way every time he walks out of the room, don't you? Like your heart went with him?"
"Yeah." Gunther fiddled with his cufflinks, his fingers trembling a little.
Natalie walked over to him, taking both his hands. "Stop that," she said with a little grin. "You look perfect. No need to fiddle or fidget."
She sighed. "You know, I've got to say it, and then I'll shut up about it. You look bloody gorgeous today. That man of yours is so lucky to have landed himself my handsome sweetheart of a boss. Oh no you don't." She wagged a finger at him as he was about to protest. "You are a sweetheart, so don't you go trying to convince me you're a hard-nosed businessman."
Gunther laughed at that, conceding defeat. Then, "Oh! I almost forgot!"
He turned and reached for the little bouquet of red roses that Valois had ordered, the rest of the buttonholes having already been sent to the venue for the guests to wear.
"Valois got these for you to carry," he said, holding out the flowers.
Natalie took them, breathing in the scent of them with a happy little smile. Then the sound of a second set of wheels slowly crunching over gravel made them both look at each other.
"Well," Natalie said. "Ready?"
Gunther nodded, and she held the front door open for him. As he walked out into bright sunshine, Gunther couldn't help but choke back a little tearful laugh. Valois really had thought of everything.
Outside the house a beautiful open-top classic car stood waiting, with red ribbons and bows tied to it, and masses of red flowers draped across the hood and lowered roof. The chauffeur held the door open for Gunther and Natalie to get in, then tipped his hat before getting into the driver's seat and reversing out of the driveway.
~ 01:55pm ~
"I told Valois yesterday that I wasn't nervous," Gunther whispered as he stood beside Natalie, out of sight of the waiting guests. "But now I'm shaking like a fucking leaf."
"You won't be in a minute," Natalie murmured, hooking her arm through his. "I'm not allowed to tell you much, but Valois has been pulling some serious strings. The ceremony itself might be a short one, but he's made sure it'll be something you'll never forget."
She looked up at him and smiled. "He said he'd guide you if you get lost, so just enjoy everything, okay?"
He stared down at her. "What has he got planned? He didn't tell me any—"
"He told me to just tell you to trust him, as you always do." Natalie squared her shoulders. "C'mon. Let's go."
~ 02:00pm ~
As they walked onto the grass, Gunther forced his jaw to remain shut, because it wanted to drop open. There before him was a simple white wooden arch surrounded by flowers, and in front of it a set of seats with all of his friends and family sitting on them. And the sound...
"Where's that coming from?" he whispered as the most heavenly sound of a choir began to echo around the green. Even the guests sat up, looking around, but Natalie just squeezed Gunther's arm.
"Look up," she whispered back.
He did, and this time his jaw did drop. Hovering high above the guests, half-hidden in the trees, was a small group of fae, all singing the exquisite music that filled the air, and all sized similarly to Elsanine when he had visited Gunther in the garden months ago. The guests clearly couldn't see them, but they could hear them.
And then, there at the front of the choir, Gunther saw Elsanine, and tears began to choke his throat. But there was no time to cry, because they had reached the back of the seated guests, and Natalie was gently steering him down the aisle that had been created between the two sets of chairs.
He could feel eyes on him, but he was almost oblivious to everything except the tall figure in white standing at the front, with that distinctive red hair that he looked for at every moment in his life.
Beside Valois stood Mortimer, staring up into the air, his mouth open. For a moment, Gunther wondered if Mort could see the fae choir, but then Valois turned and smiled at him, and all thoughts of anyone else were gone.
The registrar stepped out, and it was then that Gunther got the second shock of the day. It was Marsha Dixon, the clerk who had sold him the engagement ring he'd bought to propose to Valois. She was smiling at him, and then she winked as Natalie stopped walking and grinned at Valois.
The music continued, but much quieter, as Marsha began to speak:
"The most important thing in life is to love someone. The second most important thing is to have someone love you. The third most important thing is to have the first two happen at the same time. That is what has happened to Valois and Gunther. They have fallen in love and have come to make a public commitment of their love for and loyalty to one another."
She smiled at them both as she continued. "Valois and Gunther, you have requested that I marry you. Do you both do this of your own desire and free will?"
Glancing at Valois, Gunther could feel his heart filling fit to burst. As one, they both replied, "We do."
"If any of the witnesses know of any reason why we may not legally continue with this wedding let them speak now or forever hold their peace"
Only the sound of the choir filled the air, mingled with summer birdsong.
"Then let us continue." Marsha nodded at Natalie.
Valois turned fully to face Gunther, and held out his hand. Carefully, Natalie placed Gunther's hand in Valois's and then stepped back, moving away to an empty seat on the other side of the aisle.
"Valois, please speak the vows that you have chosen."
Taking Gunther's other hand as well, Valois looked intently at him. His gaze did not waver as he spoke:
"Gunther, I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband. Before these witnesses I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you, with all your faults and your strengths, as I offer myself to you with my faults and my strengths. I will help you when you need help, and will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life. I am yours, always."
Behind him, Gunther heard a faint sniffle from Natalie, and if he hadn't already been smiling then that would have done it.
"Gunther," Marsha said softly, "please speak the vows that you have chosen."
Gunther didn't know until afterwards when Natalie told him, but his voice cracked with emotion on the final words.
"Valois, I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband. Before these witnesses I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you, with all your faults and your strengths, as I offer myself to you with my faults and my strengths. I will help you when you need help, and will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life. I am yours, always."
Out of the corner of his eye, Gunther saw Marsha gesture to Mortimer, who stood up and held out the rings very simply in the palm of his hand. Valois took one of them and gently slid it onto Gunther's finger.
"Gunther, I give you this ring as a symbol of our vows, and with all that I am, all that I have, I honour you. With this ring, I thee wed."
Gunther stared down at the band of shining gold on his finger, then he looked back up at Valois. A gentle nudge in his mind told him to pick up the other ring from Mort's palm, and he took Valois's hand. Carefully, he slid the ring onto Valois's finger, where it nestled against the large red stone ring and his engagement ring.
"Valois," he said, "I give you this ring as a symbol of our vows, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honour you. With this ring, I thee wed."
Marsha smiled at them and murmured, "You may now share a kiss."
As Valois's arms went around him, Gunther tried not to melt against him. The kiss was slow and tender, but held back from full passion, and Gunther loved Valois all the more for that. His lover—no, his husband—respected his family and friends enough to not let them see him completely lost in a kiss.
"Turn around," Marsha whispered, and—still dazed—Gunther did, holding tight onto Valois's hand.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Mr and Mr Fulcanelli-Goth."
The voices of the choir faded as applause rang out across the green. Mort was hopping around and cheering, and Natalie forgot all about propriety, launching herself at the newlyweds and embracing them both in a big hug, sobbing even as she laughed.
The dignified proceedings having broken down into celebration before the new couple had a chance to process back down the short aisle, Gunther decided to lighten it fully by taking Natalie's little bouquet from the seat of her chair where she'd left it.
"Ready?" he called, turning his back on the guests. He heard chairs scraping and people jostling, and then he threw the bunch of flowers up and back over his head, turning quickly to see who caught it.
Lo and behold, it was its original owner! Natalie's arm reached above the others, plucking the bouquet out of the air in mid-flight. She burst into giggles, and the ceremony ended in laughter.
"Congratulations," Gunther heard someone say. Still holding Valois's hand, he turned and saw Marsha.
"I had no idea—!" he began, and she chuckled.
"I've been moonlighting as a registrar for years. Once I saw your name on the list of upcoming marriages I just had to ensure I was the one who officiated."
"Thank you so much," Gunther said, resting his free hand briefly on her arm. "You've been a star right from when I bought the engagement ring, and I hereby invite you to the evening celebrations tonight."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world. Meanwhile, you have speeches to make, a cake to cut, and a first dance to have."
"Shall we go and make a start on that now, husband?" Valois murmured.
"I think we will, husband." Gunther leaned against him, and they walked toward the marquee with their guests following.