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Trigger warnings for this chapter:
Additional notes for this chapter, for American readers: I am going with a European attitude toward drinking here. In many European countries, there is no lower age limit for drinking in the privacy of one's own home. Children as young as 12 can enjoy a glass of wine with their dinner in France, for example. This is why Gunther and Valois are happy for Mort and Esther—who are both almost 17 in this chapter—to drink wine at home.
CHAPTER 68 ~ PAPA
"Hi, Dad! Welcome ho— Wow, that's a tan and a half!" Mort giggled as he flung himself at Gunther. Behind them, Valois put down the suitcases in the hallway and closed the front door.
Gunther hugged Mort tightly, then looked up as he spied Esther walking out of Mort's room. He arched one eyebrow, then pulled away slightly to look down at his son with a wicked grin.
"Did you have a nice time while we were gone?" he asked, as Esther reached them.
Mort went a bit pink, then laughed as Gunther held out an arm for a hug from Esther. "Yeah, we did," he said. "Me and Esther are dating now."
"I'm glad to hear it. Hello, love. Has he been behaving himself?"
"Mostly." Esther smiled at him as she kissed his cheek. "You look great. Happy and hearty. And hey, your hair looks lighter. Is that from the sun?"
"Yeah, it is. And I look happy and hearty because I'm very much both of those things." Gunther watched, his heart full, as Mort made his way over to Valois and hugged him, too.
"You look great too, Papa," Mort said. "I thought Dad was kidding in his postcard when he said you'd got a tan, but you have got one! Well... a bit of one, anyway."
Valois chuckled, rolling his eyes. "I suppose it is a tan, for me, yes. Bonsoir, Esther, ma chère. Ready to resume your lessons as soon as Gunther and I have had a day to settle back home?"
"Absolutely!" Esther kissed Valois on both cheeks—the French style that suited her so well—as Gunther crouched down to unzip his carry-on bag. "I'm raring to go. I'd only just begun to get to grips with that configuration spell when we stopped for my exams."
"I suppose we should get the presents out of the way first," Gunther said, pulling several wrapped packages out of the bag. "You both wanted things to do with Egyptian art, so you can arm-wrestle for who gets ownership of each of these. Come into the lounge so you can open them."
"Oh, we'll share," Mort said, linking arms with Esther as he escorted her into the lounge. "No arm-wrestling needed!" he flung back over his shoulder.
Gunther turned to look at Valois, who raised an eyebrow and then smiled.
"I feel like he's suddenly grown up in the past couple of weeks," Gunther whispered, as Valois took some of the packages from his hands. "I left behind a teenager and I've come back to a responsible young man."
"I think he has grown up, my darling boy." Valois kissed him. "Love has a way of doing that," he added in a low voice, tipping Gunther a wink as he walked into the lounge.
Half an hour later, Gunther curled up against Valois with a glass of red wine in his hand. Across the room, on the other couch, Esther was equally curled up against Mort, looking through one of the gorgeous Egyptian art books they had brought back.
"There is something inexpressibly comforting about being back at home on one's own couch," Valois murmured, taking a sip of his own wine. "Is there not, mon cœur?"
"Yeah," Gunther sighed happily. "Feels a bit strange not to feel the floor vibrating from the ship's engines, though," he added with a soft laugh. "I'd kind of got used to that. Talk about sleeping like a baby when you've got that sound beneath you."
"Indeed." Valois sat forward to pick up the bottle so he could refill their glasses. After he'd done so, he held the bottle out to Mortimer. "Refill?" he asked, and Mort looked up.
"Oh, thanks." He took the bottle and topped up his and Esther's glasses, though both of them were mostly untouched. They were too engrossed in the books to pay much attention to the alcohol, and Valois sat back, his fingers sliding into Gunther's hair as Gunther rested his head on his shoulder.
"You look comfy," Esther said, after a while, rousing Gunther from his contented drifting.
"I think he's asleep," Valois whispered.
"m'not," Gunther mumbled. "I was just resting my eyes."
"Of course you were, mon cœur. That's why I had to rescue your wine glass fifteen minutes ago, hm?"
A playful little thump was Gunther's response to that. "Jetlag," was all he said. Then, a minute or two later, "Shall we turn in?"
"That sounds like an admirable idea." Valois kissed him. "Mortimer, will you make sure to lock up before you go to bed, please?"
"Sure. G'night, you two."
"Bonne nuit. Come along, up with you." Valois heaved an already dozing again Gunther onto his feet and flung an arm around him. "Must I carry you?" he chuckled.
"I can't help being tired," Gunther protested. "Taking into account the journey from the port to the airport and then the wait at the airport, we've been travelling for almost twenty-four hours!"
There was a moment's pause, then Gunther gave a startled yelp as Valois swept him up in his arms. Behind them, Mort and Esther burst out laughing, and even Gunther managed a grin as he wrapped his arms around Valois's shoulders and held on.
"I don't think the honeymoon's over yet," Esther stage-whispered to Mort, who snorted.
"Oh, it will never be over, ma chère. I can guarantee that." Valois winked at them both as he carried Gunther out of the lounge and into the bedroom.
Morning brought with it the delights of a full fry-up for breakfast, and a huge pile of laundry. Valois busied himself with opening the mail that had arrived for them while they were away, and Mortimer lounged on the couch, sketching. After lunch, Gunther was outside hanging out the second load of the day when Mortimer walked into the kitchen to help Valois with the washing-up.
"Can I ask you something?" he said, as he picked up a teatowel and began drying the plates.
"Of course," Valois said, pausing to mutter at a stubborn little burnt patch on the underside of a pan. Instantly, the patch vanished with a tiny sparkle of magic, and Mort grinned.
"That's gotta be so handy. Why don't you just magic it all done?"
Valois shrugged as he started scouring another saucepan. "I enjoy the work. And I think that was not the question you wanted to ask, am I not correct?"
"Oh. Yeah. Uh... well I wanted to ask you about something romantic I want to do for Esther. I want to take her out to dinner somewhere posh. You know, where you have to dress up really nicely and stuff. But... I should let her choose where we eat, right? I mean, isn't that what the man's supposed to do? I know I should, but it would spoil the surprise."
Valois hesitated, then turned to face Mortimer, his hands still in the suds of the washing-up bowl.
"Non," he said softly. "If your intention is to surprise her, then you should choose. However, if being able to choose where you both eat is something that makes her happy, then she should choose. Every time."
Taking his hands out of the bowl, he reached for a towel to dry them.
"Aren't you going to do that pan?" Mort asked, but Valois shook his head as he put the towel back and made his way across to the kettle, switching it on.
"It needs to soak for a while," he said, so Mortimer hung up the teatowel and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets.
"Mortimer..." Valois began. "Most of the things that society expects of a man in a relationship are... well, to be very blunt... bullshit. All of this 'the man must always be the strong one' is just... well, so wrong."
He took down three mugs from the cupboard, spooned sugar into one of them, then dug out the teapot.
"The most important thing about being in a relationship is making your partner happy," he continued. "Even if that means not being the strong one. Even if it means doing things that society perceives as weak and unmanly. There is nothing wrong with being 'the weak one'. The more you know your partner, the more you know what makes them happy. And sometimes what makes them happy is when you let them be the strong one, no matter how insignificant the situation."
Mort leaned back against the counter, watching him. "You mean like letting them buy you flowers and stuff, rather than the other way around?"
"That is one thing, if you love flowers, yes." The kettle had boiled, and Valois poured a little hot water into the teapot, swilling it around before he tipped it out. He added four teaspoons of loose-leaf tea, then poured in more water, settled the lid on the pot, and snugged a knitted cosy around it.
"But there are other, smaller things that you can do to make your partner happy," he said with a little smile as he watched Gunther hanging out the washing outside the kitchen window. "Even the simplest thing, if it brings joy for your partner, is something you can—indeed should—do, or let them do."
Valois turned away from the window and smiled at him. "Take the time to watch your father," was all he said, softly, before he returned to the washing up.
At dinnertime, Mortimer followed his nose as Valois called out that the food was ready. As he entered the kitchen, he gave an appreciative groan of, "God, that smells goooood. I missed your cooking, Papa."
Valois chuckled. "Merci. The highest of compliments. Here." He held out a loaded plateful and Mortimer took it, carrying it over to the dinner table. He sat down and picked up his fork, then hesitated as he saw his dad pull out a chair for Valois, who sat down in it.
"Thank you," Valois murmured, as Gunther set a plateful down in front of him. Then, once Valois was seated, Gunther put the pans to soak in the sink before he finally sat down himself.
Mort frowned a little, thinking about that, but the smell of his dinner was too much to resist, and he tucked in.
"Oh, I forgot the wine." Gunther began to get up again, but a hand on his wrist stilled him. Slowly, the bottle of wine drifted across the room toward them, and Mort almost dropped his fork in surprise. Once it was over Gunther's wine glass, the bottle tipped gently, filling the glass.
"Mortimer, do you want some?" Valois asked.
"Uh, yes please."
The bottle moved over to his glass, pouring slowly, and then finally it filled Valois's glass before corking itself and floating over to the fridge. Valois winked at Mort, who couldn't help but laugh.
"You'll get used to it," Gunther said, smiling. "Esther will be able to do stuff like that sometime soon, too."
"I know she told me she can't wait to learn the restoration ritual, whatever that is."
"Ah." Valois laid a napkin across his lap and finally picked up his knife and fork. "That is the favourite spell of every homeowner. It is, in short, the 'do the housework for me' spell. I used it every day until I met Gunther." He took a mouthful of dinner and turned his head just slightly to look at Gunther.
Mort almost missed that look, but he didn't miss the fact that his dad hadn't started eating yet. He only picked up his knife and fork after Valois had taken his first mouthful. Okay, that was... odd. Was that what Valois had been talking about earlier, about making your partner happy? But why did Dad waiting to start eating until Valois had begun to eat make Valois happy? He could understand the pulling out the chair to seat your partner kind of thing. That was sort of sweet and romantic, and he filed it away as something he could do for Esther sometime.
He shrugged inwardly, too concerned with polishing off his own meal to worry about that right now. He'd ask Valois about it another time.
He entirely missed the astute glance that Valois gave him.
Over the next couple of weeks, Mort did indeed watch his father, seeing him in an entirely new light since that conversation with Valois. He noticed how there were always vases of fresh flowers in every room, placed especially close to where Valois usually liked to sit. He saw how, when Valois cooked dinner, Gunther always served the meal and then washed up afterwards. He even realised how much housework his dad actually did, and he felt rather guilty that he'd never even noticed how busy Gunther always was around the house before now.
In a hundred small ways, he saw how much Gunther deferred to Valois or made his life pleasant and comfortable in as many aspects as he could, and he saw how happy that made Valois in return. Likewise, he didn't miss the constant brief caresses, gentle touches, and soft kisses that showed Gunther how much Valois loved and appreciated him, and which—in turn—lit Gunther's face with happiness.
Mortimer had a hell of a lot to think about each night as he lay in bed, but eventually he came to an understanding of it all. Yes, his fathers had what society would deem an unconventional relationship, but it was a beautiful relationship; probably the most beautiful that Mort had ever seen or heard of. Their mutual tenderness was something to aspire to, and over the following months Mort paid very close attention to whatever Esther seemed to like and love, and he made every effort to do those things for her as much as he could.
Valois looked up from his newspaper. "Hm?"
"Can we talk for a bit?" Mort hovered in the doorway, not wanting to intrude on Valois's peaceful moment. Gunther was back at work, the fire was lit and crackling in the grate, and the silence of the room felt so nice that it had drawn Mortimer like a magnet.
"Of course." Valois folded the newspaper and put it on the table. "Come and sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"That'd be great, thanks—" Mort began, hesitating as two mugs of tea suddenly appeared on the coffee table. He laughed as he sat down next to Valois. "I really shouldn't be surprised about this sort of thing by now, should I?"
"A blasé attitude about magic takes time, mon fils," Valois chuckled, picking up one of the mugs and cradling it in both hands as he sipped from it. Mortimer watched as his papa kicked off his shoes and curled his feet up beneath himself: an uncharacteristically casual pose for the man he'd come to think of as always refined, controlled, and elegant.
"I've been thinking about what you said in the kitchen the other week." Mort reached for the other mug and took a gulp of tea. "And I've been watching you and Dad."
"And what did you learn from your father?"
"That he's the best husband in the world." Mort's smile broadened into a wide grin as he saw Valois's eyes soften at those words.
"That he is," Valois murmured. "In small ways, he reminds me of my mother. His heart is as full of love as his hands are busy."
"He makes your life comfortable in every way, doesn't he?" Mort asked, stroking the pad of his thumb thoughtfully over the handle of the mug. "He looks after you. From doing the housework to making sure you have flowers in every room. He loves doing that, and you..."
Valois arched an eyebrow, clearly waiting for the other half of that sentence.
Mort struggled to put it into words. "You... you love the fact that doing that makes him so happy. I mean, I can see that he makes you happy by seeing him so happy because he can do those things for you... oh hell, that's not even making sense!"
"It is a little convoluted, but it makes perfect sense," Valois murmured.
"I've noticed, though—" Mort shifted in his seat, fixing his gaze on the crackling fire. God, this was awkward...
"Why does he sometimes sit at your feet even when there's enough room on the couch for him next to you?"
Valois smiled. "Because he likes to lean against my legs and have me caress his hair," he said softly. "You know, like Esther enjoys curling up on your left side while you thread your fingers through her hair?"
Suddenly, the mug in Mortimer's hand was the most fascinating thing in the world. "Oh. It's just that I thought—"
Valois waited, then uttered a soft sigh. "Mortimer, you are almost seventeen," he murmured. "We are both grown men, and I love you like the son I never had. I will not be upset or offended by anything you say."
Mort hung his head a bit. "It's just... I noticed that sitting at your feet thing, and some other little things, and it felt... wrong to think they might be something they're not," he mumbled.
"And what did you think they might be?"
There was a heavy silence. Then, Mort finally said, "It looked like some of the things he was doing for you were things..." He bit his lip and shot Valois a nervous glance. "Things a servant might do, or something like that."
"And what would be wrong with thinking that?" came the soft reply. "If doing those things made him happy, and seeing him so happy in turn made me happy?"
Oh. Oh... wow. Uh... well... uh... okay. Mort stared down into his mug, digesting those words for a moment.
"Nothing. I just... I didn't know if I was reading it wrongly. Plus, well, y'know... he's my dad and all that."
Valois chuckled. "I think you're old enough to be past the 'Ew, Dad, gross' stage by now. So I will be blunt with you. Gunther enjoys looking after me, taking care of my needs, waiting on me, making things comfortable for me, dancing attendance on me, even—if you want to call it that—serving me. However you want to phrase it, it is what he loves doing. It makes him happy."
Okay, Mort needed a change of subject here. Because, no matter what Valois said about being over the 'Ew' stage by now, this was his dad they were talking about!
"And what makes you happy?"
"Being able to give him the opportunity to do all of those things," Valois said simply, his gaze momentarily wistful and focused on memories. "When I see his eyes shine with contentment as he looks up at me when he's sitting at my feet and I'm caressing his hair. Or when I feel the happiness radiating from him as I thank him for the flowers beside my favourite chaise longue, or for holding out a chair for me, or for any of the many little things that he does for me. That is what makes me happy."
Mortimer was silent for a long time. He'd seen those contented looks his dad gave Valois. And, while he'd not felt any radiating happiness or anything like that, he could see that Dad was so much happier these days. Like ridiculously happy sometimes. He joked and laughed a lot more than Mort ever remembered him doing before he'd met Valois.
"I've tried some of those things with Esther," he eventually admitted. "She loved it when I held out her chair, and when I washed the dishes after her dad had made dinner the other night. She said she usually washed up because her dad had cooked, but actually she hates washing up."
"And do you hate it?"
"Not really, no. Dad always washed and I wiped, so I'm used to doing it. I don't mind it at all. In fact, it's sort of zen. I daydream a bit when I'm doing it. But"—Mort grinned—"the look on Esther's face when I just got up from the table after dinner and started washing up was... really nice to see. So I'm always going to do it from now on."
"Come here." Valois held out an arm. Mort looked at him, then smiled and leaned against him.
"I consider this a lesson well learned," Valois murmured, and they both lapsed into a comfortable silence for a while, watching the fire together and sipping their tea.
"Looking back," Mort said about ten minutes later, after the clock had struck five, "I remember Dad trying to do things for Mum, too. But she never seemed happy, no matter what he did."
"They were both happy once," Valois murmured. "But, you know, couples drift apart if only one of them is making most of the effort and the other does not attempt to match it."
"I remembered you telling me once that Dad's favourite meal is spaghetti bolognaise, and I asked him if Mum knew it was his favourite. He said she did... but I don't ever remember her cooking it for us. Not ever. I've thought about that a lot." Mort laughed sheepishly. "Probably more than I should have, actually."
"It is strange, the small things that stay with us and affect us. And how simple it would have been to make your father happy by cooking his favourite meal, hm?"
"I know, but she never did." Mort sighed. "That's just so sad, really, and it speaks volumes about the state of their relationship. I know Dad tried so hard to be there for me whenever he could... apart from the time Mum sent me off to prep school. I've... had a lot of time to think about that, and about how much it hurt me that he never got in touch once during that time."
"If it is any comfort or consolation," Valois murmured, "then I know for a fact that he feels more guilty about that than he does about anything else in his entire life. But, mon fils, his marriage was falling apart at the time. Indeed, his world was falling apart. He... was not in a good place emotionally during those months. It is no excuse, I know, but perhaps hearing it from another's lips it will not seem like an excuse, hm?"
Mort stretched an arm out to put his empty mug down on the table and settled back, still with Valois's arm around him.
"He once told me it was really bad, but he never told me how bad," he mumbled. "But I heard a lot of things. I heard him and Mum arguing almost every night. Well, I heard him trying to calm her down and I heard her screaming at him, anyway. I heard plates smashing once, too, and the next day we had to eat dinner off paper plates. I think Mum broke every bit of crockery we had that night."
"Ah," Valois murmured, and there was no small amount of humour in that single word. "The joys of a Crockery Moment. I have had one or two of those in my time."
Mort looked up at him, caught the wry gleam in his eye, and smiled sadly. "Yeah, I guess it's therapeutic, right?"
"Oh indeed, and far better for one's throat than screaming oneself hoarse."
"Well." Mort subsided again. "I hope I'm never on the receiving end of one. It sounded terrifying. Dad had a cut on his face the next morning, too. Must've been caught by a broken bit of plate or something."
He felt Valois's hand tighten almost imperceptibly on his shoulder, but he carried on musing. It was as if, now that he'd opened up that particular box of memories, he wanted to share them all with someone, get them all out in the open, so maybe they'd stop bothering him. And god, they had been bothering him. A lot.
"I sometimes saw him with bruises and scratches, too," he said quietly. And this time he did feel that tightening hand. He looked up at Valois, who looked momentarily furious before he composed his face into calmness again.
"I was too scared to say anything." Mort shuddered. "I thought she might hit me, too."
The firm hand became a loving hug, as Valois pulled him close and added his other arm to the embrace. Mort went into it without a sound, letting a few tears dampen Valois's jacket.
Eventually, he raised his face and sniffed. "Thanks for listening," he croaked. "I feel better now I've told someone."
Valois didn't answer, and Mort looked up at him, suddenly realising why.
"He never told you about that, did he?" he whispered. "Shit. Sorry."
Finally, Valois met his gaze, and all he said was a very soft, chiding, "Language."
Mort nodded, even though Valois himself had sworn in front of him a few weeks previously. "Sorry," he said again, automatically. Then, anxiously, he added, "You're not angry with him for not telling you, are you?"
"Relax," Valois soothed. "You did not get him into trouble. I am sorrowful that he could not share that pain with me, but... it was at a time when he believed he had to be strong. Remember what I said about society's expectations, Mortimer? What it expects of a man? To be strong and silent? Your father—"
His words were cut short by the front door opening and Gunther's happy voice calling out that he was home.
"He's early. It's only just after five," Mort whispered, but Valois just smiled, letting him go as he got to his feet. By the time he'd reached the living room door, Gunther had opened it and was standing there, looking in somewhat curiously at the lit fire, the two empty mugs of tea, his husband walking over to greet him, and his son looking a bit uncomfortable on the couch.
"Uh, have I interrupted something?" He fixed a worried look onto Valois, who embraced him and kissed his cheek.
"Not at all, mon cœur. Mortimer and I were just discussing many things, from magic to Esther, from his examination results to society's expectations of relationships." Valois looked back at Mort and smiled. "It was rather an enjoyable bonding moment for us."
"Yeah, it was," Mort piped up. "You're home early, Dad."
"Well..." Gunther rubbed a hand along the side of his neck and stretched out his shoulder muscles briefly. "I was in a boardroom meeting for five bloody hours. Talked myself hoarse over this new merger we're planning, so when it was all done and dusted I told Nat I was heading home for an early weekend."
"You're tense," Valois murmured, digging the pads of his fingers into Gunther's shoulders. Mort saw Gunther wince and nod.
"Well, I think tonight we shall be forgiven the unhealthy luxury of a takeout, and then I'll indulge you with a nice massage, hm?" Valois leaned closer to Gunther, who looked up at him with a little smile.
"Time out!" Mort jumped off the couch. "If you two are gonna start with the smoochy stuff I'm out of here!"
One Chinese takeout later, Mort headed to his room while Valois helped Gunther dispose of the cartons. He tucked some uneaten noodles into the fridge for reheating into another meal the following day, then rested his hands on Gunther's shoulders.
"Into the bedroom with you. These need massaging down from around your ears," he murmured. "And then... we need to talk."