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CHAPTER 70 ~ DEPARTURE

~ SIX MONTHS LATER ~

"Okay, so you've got everything?" Gunther eyed the small pile of suitcases in the hallway as Mortimer and Esther milled around, chatting excitedly without any regard for the importance of such things as checklists or making sure they actually did have everything. "Passports? And you've got the scholarship documents, right?"

"Yeah, yeah. We've got it all," Mort said. "Stop fussing, Dad! We'll be fine!"

Gunther felt Valois's arms go around his waist, and soft lips kiss the nape of his neck.

"They have everything," Valois murmured, nuzzling at his ear. "Do not worry, mon cur. If they have forgotten a single thing, I can take it to them in a matter of moments."

Gunther heaved a sigh and relaxed, nodding. "I know, I know." He watched as Mort slung an arm around Esther and whispered something in her ear that made her giggle and give him a playful little thump.

"I'm acting like an old mother hen," Gunther added as he smiled at their antics. "But this is their first time away together, outside of art camp. And they're going to be so far away..."

"Hey, you two," Mort piped up. "What time should we be leaving?"

"Right about now, actually," Valois said, with a glance at the clock. "Gunther, would you load the suitcases into the car, please?"

With a slight smile, Gunther picked up the cases. He knew what Valois was doing: keeping him busy so he wouldn't start fretting again! He carried the cases out to Valois's car, loading them into the trunk, and as he closed it he saw Mort open the rear passenger door for Esther. Flicking a glance at Valois, he grinned as Esther kissed Mort's cheek and got into the car, shifting along so Mort could clamber in beside her.

"Such a gentleman," Valois murmured, ghosting a kiss across Gunther's lips. "Just like his father."

"Like both of his fathers," Gunther said. "And no, I'm not deflecting this time. Take some credit yourself!"

Valois chuckled as Gunther opened the driver's side door and held it for him. "Very well. Thank you, my darling," he said as he slipped into the driver's seat and Gunther closed the door.

With Gunther finally in the front passenger seat, and all seatbelts secured, Valois reversed out of the driveway and onto the main road, flicking the car radio on with a wave of his hand as he accelerated away from the house.

The drive to Bridgeport International Airport went by much faster than Gunther would have liked. Mort and Esther chatted in the back seat, asking Valois for last-minute recommendations for restaurants and things to see—as if they hadn't grilled him enough already and been given an exhaustive list of galleries, beautiful locations to paint, tiny little shops hidden down side streets, and other places that only a true Parisian would know of. But Gunther was rather quiet in the front seat, watching the scenery go by as he listened to the conversation, and he began to drift a little...

"Wake up, mon cur."

Blinking, Gunther opened his eyes. The car was still, its engine had stopped, and they were surrounded by other vehicles in a parking lot. Above them, the elegant concrete facade of the airport loomed.

"Oh my god," he mumbled. "I fell asleep?"

"Almost the whole journey, yes. Mortimer and Esther have gone to find a luggage cart." Valois smiled at him. "The flight appears to be on schedule, and they have plenty of time to check in and do some duty-free shopping before they go through to Departures."

Gunther sighed. "I'm going to miss them so much," he whispered.

"As will I, my darling. But we will not spoil their excitement with sorrowful faces, hm? Chin up; they're coming back now."

Gunther smiled, opening the door and getting out of the car. Valois was taking the cases out of the trunk as Mort wheeled the luggage cart across the parking lot.

"Hey, you're awake then?" Mort teased, nudging Gunther with his elbow. "I thought it was only babies who fell asleep on long car journeys."

"Brat." Gunther ruffled his son's hair, earning himself a pained look that satisfied him. "You'll miss that, admit it."

"Nah. This'll be the first time I get to keep my hair looking good for more than a few hours without you messing it up!" Mort grinned at him.

"So, you said the Picasso museum was in the Marais? The old Jewish quarter of Paris?" Esther was asking Valois, who nodded.

"Indeed. Many winding streets are there, and you may get a little lost while finding it, but it is a place worth getting lost in," Valois replied. "In fact, the more lost you become, the more treasures you find."

"Hey, I like that," Mort said. "That would be a great title for a series of paintings."

Valois chuckled. "I have provided inspiration? I am honoured! But, for now, let us get you both checked in so we can lose these suitcases to the tender mercies of the airline."

An hour or so later, they were all sitting in a booth in an Irish-themed pub in the main airport lounge. Mort was eyeing the lunch menu as Gunther walked back from the bar carrying a tray loaded with beers, soda, and snacks.

"Haven't had a pint of the black-n-gold in years," Gunther said as he set the tray down on the table and Valois scooted over enough for him to be able to sit down. He laughed at the look on Mort's face as he eyed the pint glasses. "Give it a try once you're old enough, son. It's something of an acquired taste, but it's worth it."

Valois reached for a pint and tilted his head as he examined the near-black liquid with its creamy head of froth. "Well," he murmured, "nothing ventured, nothing gained," and he took a sip.

"Hm. Not bad," was the verdict. "It will never trounce a fine wine for body and flavour, but I appreciate its richness, and... hm, the taste develops, I see. Deep and roasted with a heavy hint of dark wheat..."

Mort rolled his eyes and picked up the remaining soda after Esther had taken one. "Only you would describe a pint of Guinness like you would a glass of wine, Papa."

"Ah, but new experiences should be documented in such a way that one will remember them," Valois said. "You recall what I said to you about using both art and words to capture everything that you see and experience on your travels? A selfie here and there is fun, bien sr, but there are more lasting ways to record your experiences."

"I remember, yes," Esther said, with a smile. "And thank you for the beautiful travel journals you gave us."

"Oh, and the pens!" Mort suddenly said, his eyes lighting up at the memory of the two beautiful engraved brass fountain pens tucked safely away in their luggage. "Those are gorgeous. I've never seen pens like them."

Gunther chuckled, taking a sip of his beer. "You'll never catch Valois with a ballpoint pen in his hand. Always a fountain pen, eh?"

"But of course. A fountain pen preserves and encourages elegant penmanship in and of its own accord."

Esther watched Valois for a moment. "You know," she mused, "I've never known anyone else who talks quite like you do. You have such a way with words. It's wonderful."

Casting a sidelong glance at his husband, Gunther grinned as he saw Valois look somewhat abashed.

"Merci, ma chre," was all Valois said, but he looked infinitely pleased, although the faint and rare hint of colour on his cheekbones amused Gunther.

The next hour or so passed in pleasant chit-chat over a light lunch, until Gunther glanced up and saw that Mort's and Esther's flight had appeared on the departure board.

"Looks like Departures is open for you both," he murmured, feeling Valois clasp his hand briefly beneath the table.

"Oh! Uh, do we have to leave now, or something?" Mort turned around to stare anxiously up at the screens.

"Not just yet, no. You have a while yet before they start boarding. Probably another hour or so. But we should be making a move soon."

Valois's hand tightened around Gunther's momentarily. "Before we all leave this delightful pub—" he began, looking uncharacteristically hesitant, "—I want to tell you both something, and it is rather important."

At the sudden serious change of tone, Gunther's heart leapt a little. What was this all about? Even Mort and Esther had sat forward in their seats, both of them looking more anxious than Gunther had seen them in a long time, if ever.

"It is nothing to worry about," Valois murmured, "but it is something that you do not yet know about me and my abilities, and I wish you to be aware of it, in case you have need of it, all right?"

"Okay," Mort whispered, and Esther nodded.

"If, at some point during your travels, you have need of me," Valois continued, "then send me a text or a message, and I will be with you in a matter of moments."

Mort blinked. "What do you mean, with us?"

"I mean right there with you. One of the greatest of my abilities is that of travel through time and space. If I wish it, I am able to disappear from one location and reappear in any other location around the world. And so, if anything happens that makes you wish you had either Gunther or I with you to help, then simply send me a message and I will be with you within a few seconds."

Mort's eyes widened. "Wow," he breathed. "Uh, okay. Um, thanks. That's... that's actually really comforting to know."

"Will I be able to do that one day?" Esther asked, staring at Valois.

"Alas, no." Valois gifted her with a rueful smile. "Only I have that ability. It cannot be taught or learned. One day, when you have returned from your travels, perhaps I will explain how and why it came about, but for now I just wanted you both to have that reassurance: that if you need me, I can be with you very quickly."

Gunther watched his son with a smile as the slow realisation clearly dawned on him.

"So... when you say you're going shopping for wine... you're not popping down to the off-license, are you?" Mort asked.

Valois laughed. "Correct. I am 'popping' to my vineyards in France."

"I wish that could be taught," Esther sighed. "It's got to be so handy! I mean, we could just go to Paris without all this airport rigmarole!"

"Very true, but the journey itself is part of the experience, is it not?" Valois reached across the table to rest his palm on the back of her hand. "Neither of you has flown before, so that is an exciting thing in itself. And then—"

They all looked up in unison as a message came over the airport tannoy:

Good afternoon. This is the pre-boarding announcement for flight 376A to Paris. We are now inviting those passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes time. Thank you.

Mort looked down. "I guess we should go through to Departures now," he murmured.

"Indeed you should." Valois gestured for Gunther to leave the booth, and he followed suit. "Up with you both now," he added with a genuine smile. "The adventure begins!"

Esther was all smiles as she stood up, and even Mort managed a grin as they all left the bar and made their way to Passport Control.

"Remember what I said," Valois said to both of them as they joined the end of the queue. "If you need me, you know how to get hold of me, all right?"

"Okay." Esther wrapped him in a big hug, and Mort rushed at Gunther.

"You'll be fine," Gunther whispered in his ear, enfolding him in a tight embrace. "Just think about all the fantastic things you'll see there. I want lots of updates. If you both don't flood Simbook with photos I'm going to come over there and haul you home again, you hear me?"

Mort giggled. "Don't you dare! I'll post lots of pics, I promise."

They swapped over, Gunther hugging Esther and Valois pulling Mort into a tight embrace, whispering something into his ear. Mort brightened at whatever Valois had said, and both he and Esther were smiling as they moved forward into the queue, passports at the ready.

Gunther felt Valois clasp his hand as they stood and watched Mort and Esther go through Passport Control. With a final grin and wave, they were lost from sight, and Gunther's hand tightened around Valois's.

"I'm going to miss them so much," he whispered, feeling tears welling up.

"As will I, my darling," Valois said softly. "Shall we head back to the bar, to toast them on their way?"

"Yeah." Gunther gave him a watery smile. "That'd be good."

An hour, and three drinks later, and Gunther had finally relaxed. They'd watched from the bar as Mort and Esther's flight took off, both raising a glass in salute.

"Hey, did I ever tell you about the first time I flew?" Gunther's eyes shone with more than a little alcohol as he picked up his fourth drink.

"I do not believe so, mon cur." Valois smiled, resting a hand on his arm as he guided him back to the booth. "Tell me, what happened, hm?"

"Oh god, I was so sick. The poor flight attendant..." Gunther chuckled, leaning against Valois, his gaze turning to the darkening sky as he felt Valois's arm encircle his waist. "I'll bet she was glad to see the back of me and my green face..."

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