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"You're very quiet this evening, mon cœur."

Gunther tilted his head against the back of the couch to look up at Valois, who was standing behind him, both hands braced either side of Gunther's head as he bent forward to smile down at him.

"Mort's growing up so fast," he murmured. "I guess I thought he'd be my little boy for longer."

Valois carded his fingers through Gunther's hair, and Gunther closed his eyes as a tender kiss ghosted across his forehead.

"He will always be your little boy," Valois whispered, his lips tickling Gunther's skin. "And you will always be his daddy, hm?"

"Yeah. I know." Smiling, Gunther curved his hand briefly across the nape of Valois's neck. "Do you miss your parents?"

Another kiss, then Valois straightened and sat down beside him. "My father, not at all, for I never knew him. Maman... yes. I think of her almost every day."

Gunther leaned against his shoulder. "What was she like?"

"Slender; what would, I suppose, be called 'petite' in today's fashion terminology. And so beautiful, with dark brown hair and brown eyes, and a heart as full as her hands were busy." Valois's words were soft and tender, and Gunther looked up at him as he continued. "She dressed simply, of course, for we were poor and each had but one change of raiment."

"Your colouring came from your father, then? What about you? What did you wear?"

"The same as most boys of my age. Breeches, a rough tunic, and sturdy leather boots. We had a small farmstead and I worked the land. Rain or shine, I would be found digging and sowing, weeding and harvesting." Valois shrugged. "And that was all before my lessons."

"I thought only monks could read in medieval times?"

"Lessons in magic," Valois corrected him. "Although, yes, I did learn my letters as well, for I had to understand the spell books I was given to work from."

Gunther closed his eyes, trying to imagine a young Valois, his hands covered in dirt, working on a farm. It was a vision completely at odds with the elegant man that he now knew.

"I can't imagine you as a farmer," he murmured.

"Well," Valois said with a sigh, "it was till the land or starve. What little spare food that we had I took to the market to sell. And with that money we paid the taxes and tithes demanded of us."

"Couldn't you just magic up money?"

Valois chuckled. "That would have made life much easier, wouldn't it? Alas, no. I began my lessons as Esther begins hers now. Simple manipulation spells, mostly. Conjuring from thin air is far more advanced, and I did not reach that level until later. By then... I had already left home."

"To see the world and seek your fortune?" Gunther asked, and Valois smiled down at him.

"My life was not a fairytale, mon cœur." His fingers sifted through Gunther's hair. "You look tired," he said softly.

"I am." Gunther sighed. "It's funny, really. I'm never going to get old, but it's like I am getting old. I feel like I need a break from work."

"From work, or from your cares and responsibilities?"

Gunther thought for a moment. "From the responsibilities," he eventually admitted. "Can we... I mean, Mort's off to that art camp this weekend. Can we maybe spend the weekend...?"

"Mon cœur, why do you hedge your words? Simply ask for what you need."

Gunther swallowed. "Can I spend the weekend at your feet, please, Maître? I think I need that."

"I think you do, too. And yes, you may do that. In fact, like Mortimer, we shall go away for the weekend, hm? To somewhere safe where you can sink fully into your place and let go."

For the first time in days, Gunther felt a little bit of the weight he'd been carrying around lifting off his shoulders. "I'd like that," he whispered, nuzzling closer. "Where to?"

"The Veil."

Gunther chuckled. "So our weekend will actually be four days, right?"

"Because of the way that time works in the Veil, yes it will be four days." Valois's hand stilled on the nape of Gunther's neck. "Mon cœur, I have noticed for some time that you were in need of this. Why did you not simply come to me for it?"

"I..." Gunther spread his hands helplessly. "I didn't want to impose," he finished lamely.

"My darling boy, it is never an imposition. If you ever feel pressured, sad, stressed—anything at all like that—I want you to come to me and kneel at my feet, or simply ask for either of your collars, depending on where we are." He kissed Gunther's forehead, adding in a whisper, "I am your safe harbour. Remember?"

"Oui, Maître."

"Good boy. Now, let us discuss this weekend. You badly need this; I have felt that much for some time. Therefore I think it is time for more lessons in instinct, but this time in the instinct to simply submit when you need to, rather than to wait for me to notice that you need it."

Gunther was silent. He should have just asked. Why the hell didn't he just ask? It wasn't as if Valois would deny him that comfort, after all!

"That," Valois murmured, "is not a criticism, by the way. I know that you held back out of love and respect and a desire not to impose. But those barriers must fall, and they will fall over the course of this weekend, mine. It will be intense, and you may struggle with much of it, but know that the things I will do are only done to help you understand."

Gunther nodded, not trusting his voice. Butterflies were flexing their wings in his belly now, because this sounded... scary.

"Have I not always taken care of you?" Valois chided gently. "Those nerves have no place. Let them fly away. Yes, it will be intense, and you will be restrained in ways that you will feel are punishments, but you will learn to love them for the freedoms they truly are." He caressed Gunther's hair. "Have I not always told you, mine, that you will fly free under my hand?"

A choked sob escaped from Gunther's throat and he wanted to crawl inside Valois's heart and stay there forever. He nodded tearfully.

"Oh, my boy." Valois cradled him close. "You are already in there, and I will never let you go. Now, look at me."

Slowly, but obediently, Gunther raised his head. Tears were cooling on his cheeks, and he felt the pad of Valois's thumb wipe them gently away. Valois smiled at him, and it was like the sun coming out. Gunther had no idea why every one of his smiles didn't affect him like that, but sometimes—just sometimes—Valois would give him that smile, and the world would be the right way up again. He tried to return it; watery at best, but hopeful.

"That's my beautiful boy. Now, chin up and go kiss your little boy goodnight, then come to bed and you can sleep in your collar tonight."

Standing in the doorway, Gunther gave one final wave to Mortimer as his son excitedly boarded the bus that would take him off to art camp. He watched as Mort plunked himself down in the seat that Esther had saved for him, and something in his heart gave a little tug as he saw the way his boy looked at her.

Quietly, he closed and locked the door as the bus drove off, turning back to the bedroom with a sigh. Before he was fully there, though, Valois stepped out and smiled at him.

"I think we will need more wall space by the time he comes home," he said softly.

Gunther chuckled, palming one hand to the nape of his neck. "We are starting to run out of it, yeah." He chewed momentarily on his lower lip, met Valois's eyes very briefly, then lowered his gaze.

Carefully, he clasped his hands behind his back and sank to his knees at Valois's feet, resting his cheek against Valois's thigh and exhaling a long, slow sigh. A gentle hand cradled his head, holding him there, and—although the hard floor hurt his knees a little—the sheer relief of putting himself into his Maître's hands once more made him close his eyes, and his shoulders finally sank back down to the natural position that they hadn't held in weeks.

"Good boy," Valois murmured above him. "Happy to be home?"

"Oui, Maître," Gunther whispered, nuzzling his face against the soft fabric of Valois's pants.

The sounds of the world around them—distant traffic, the tick of the hall clock, the singing of birds trying to attract their spring mates—all ceased, leaving Gunther surrounded by the scent of Valois and the sound of snowy silence.

"We will take an hour or so to get comfortable," he heard Valois say, and he opened his eyes to the familiarity of the Veil house around him. "Perhaps a light breakfast, hm? Mortimer may be able to go for an entire morning on a bowl of sugary cereal, but I need something a little healthier."

"Should I strip, Maître?" Gunther asked, looking up.

"Of course. Fold your clothes and place them in the small chest of drawers in the bedroom. That is the place for your things from now on. Anything you wish to bring here may be kept in there."

"Merci, Maître. And may I walk?" Gunther shifted a little uncomfortably on the stone floor.

The smile that Valois gave him was kind. "When you are on this floor, yes. I do not wish for your knees to become damaged. I will arrange a softer flooring for you when you return in your natural state, that you may move in the way that I desire you to."

Both of Gunther's knees cracked as he stood up, and he winced.


He watched, feeling a little uncomfortable as Valois crouched in front of him. That... wasn't right. Maître shouldn't be—

Valois rested his hands over Gunther's knees, his lips moving silently. A soothing heat radiated from his palms, through Gunther's clothing and skin, sinking deep into the bones beneath. Oh god, that felt so good...

After a few minutes of that blissful warmth, Valois rose to his feet again and kissed Gunther's cheek.

"What did you just do?" Gunther whispered, and Valois chuckled.

"I gave you what most mortals in their forties would kill for: your knees restored to the healthy condition of your teens."

"Oh god, I love you."

"You will be spending four days on them, my boy. They must be in the best condition possible. Now, go and undress." Valois caressed Gunther's hair, adding, "Oh, and your engagement ring can stay on, all right?"

Glancing down, Gunther realised he'd been twisting it nervously, not wanting to remove it. He smiled, turning his head to kiss Valois's wrist, then he walked into the bedroom.

Four days on my knees. I haven't even spent one whole day on them yet, so this is going to be... well, it'll be difficult. His shirt fitted, neatly folded, into the small top drawer that was now his, as he toed out of his shoes. But I'm here to learn. Instincts? The instinct to simply ask for what I need, rather than to expect my needs to be noticed. He sighed, his pants and socks joining his shirt. It's so hard, with Mort around, to know when it's safe to go to my knees, and when I shouldn't risk it. Lastly, his underwear—only worn for a couple of hours, thankfully, because he'd be wanting them again in four day's time—neatly rolled and tucked into the back of the drawer.

He looked down as something tickled underfoot, and his eyes widened as he saw the stone floor slowly... growing a soft, deep red carpet. He stared at it until it was thick and lush, and then he sank to his knees with a grateful thought aimed at his master.

Valois liked him to crawl, and to do so slowly and elegantly, so he moved as carefully as he could—mindful not to drag his knees on the fresh carpet— through the door that opened for him automatically, and into the kitchen.

Valois had his back to the door, already cooking something that smelled incredible. Gunther's first instinct was to crawl over to him and kneel at his feet, but something stayed him in the middle of the room. Valois half-turned and gave him a loving smile.

"It is safer for you over there," he murmured. "A hot stove and naked skin are not a comfortable mix."

Gunther bowed his head, feeling somewhat alone and vulnerable on his knees in the middle of the room. With nothing nearby to lean against, he felt like he was on display.

"You are," Valois said softly. "And beautifully so, too."

A vision came to Gunther at that moment, of himself kneeling naked on a pedestal in the middle of a large hallway that looked just like Valois's home in France. People milled around him wearing elegant clothes and paying him no mind whatsoever as they chatted. It was a party of sorts, a graceful soirée, and Valois was the host. Gunther could see that familiar red hair out of the corner of his eye as he knelt quietly and tried to become as still as the other statues around the room. His skin tingled as a blush crawled across his cheekbones; he was just another piece of art on display.

He snapped back to reality as Valois turned to face him, bearing a single plate. One exquisite eyebrow arched at him and Valois smirked.

"I think you enjoyed that," was all he said, as he took the plate to the table and sat down. He patted the side of his knee, and Gunther crawled towards him.

"You are here to learn this weekend," Valois said, in between mouthfuls, "that what you receive from me are privileges, and not rights. You have, of course, basic rights, which are my duty of care to you. You are entitled to shelter, food, warmth, and safety. And, of course, love. My attention, over and above all of that? Is a privilege. Sleeping in my bed, in my arms? A privilege."

Valois held out a hand to him. Cradled in his palm—not held in his fingertips, where it was easier to eat—was a generous spoonful of... what exactly was that? Rice?

"It is kedgeree," Valois said. "Rice, smoked haddock, a few Indian spices. A healthy brunch. Eat."

One shaky breath, then Gunther bent his neck, not quite sure how he could get the rice into his mouth with anything approaching the elegance that Valois always demanded of him. Carefully, he parted his lips and managed to pick up most of the food. It was, as ever, utterly delicious; the curried spices adding a kick to the smoky fish. He swallowed, then went back for the remaining grains of rice and flakes of fish, ending up licking Valois's palm clean.

"Good boy. Now, to continue. You are also here to honour your instincts. You will learn to go to your knees whenever you need to. Yes, I understand that you worry your son will walk in and see you, but there are ways to prevent that from happening. As soon as you honour that instinct you are under my hand, and it is my duty to shield you from anything that may hurt you or those around you. Do you understand?"

"Oui, Maître."

A second handful of food was held out to him, and as he ate it, his master continued.

"You will also learn to appreciate the freedom of restraints. For most people, that is an oxymoron, but in your mindset you will come to understand the truth of it. Blindfolded, you learn the value of touch. Bound, you learn the value of stillness. Caged, you learn the value of companionship."

Gunther's lips faltered against Valois's hand, and he almost dropped the food that he'd just manoeuvred into his mouth. Caged?! A bolt of panic shuddered through him, and he swallowed quickly lest he choke. He tried to calm himself, breathing slowly as Valois waited in patient silence. Caged. Oh god... caged.

"Eat," Valois murmured, and Gunther choked back a faint sob as he bent his neck again to lick up the last of the food from his master's palm.

When he was done, the still-damp hand slid into his hair. He wasn't sure if Valois was drying his palm or what, until that hand firmly pulled his head down so that his cheek rested against Valois's side.

"This is your ground, mine. Calm and still now."

He closed his eyes, willing back the panic and tears. Calm and still. Master's touch. Calm and still. I can do this.

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