"Has Peter been acting…strange lately?"
Elizabeth's fingers stopped carding through Neal's hair. "Define strange."
Neal pushed himself upright, so he was sitting next to Elizabeth instead of lying across her lap. "He starts to say something to me, but then he smiles and walks away." Neal drew his face up in a pout. "It's disconcerting."
"Oh." Elizabeth tugged at Neal a little, urging him back to her lap. "He's buying you a present."
Neal blinked, then relaxed across Elizabeth, let his head sink back into the plush of her velour skirt. "You know, his brain is the twistiest."
Elizabeth laughed and patted his cheek. "But you're still the prettiest."
"Hey, Peter," said El. She was curled up on the couch next to him, poking at her laptop. "When's Neal's birthday?"
Peter blinked up from the files in the Marcone case and rubbed the back of his head. "March, I think. I'd have to check his file."
"That's good," she said absently. She typed a few more words on the laptop, tapped decisively on her trackpad, then typed again.
Peter turned his head to look at her, curled up in the corner in bright yellow sweats with her makeup washed off. She looked about seventeen. "Why is it good?"
"I don't have a heavy schedule for March yet. If you give me an exact date, I can keep the evening clear and we can do something." She glanced up at him and flashed a smile, then turned back to her screen.
"Okay," said Peter. He went back to the Marcone file, but the intense focus of before was broken. "You don't have anything scheduled for Tuesday, do you?"
"No. Why? Do you want to catch a show?" She flicked her fingers a couple of time then closed her laptop screen, turned her head to look at him.
Peter boggled at her, then shook his head and bent back over his paperwork. "You forgot our anniversary."
She frowned at him. "Our anniversary's in September, Peter. It's July."
"No," said Peter. He swung his finger back and forth between the two of them. "Not our anniversary." He swung a circle above his head. "Our anniversary."
Her eyes got really big for a minute, and then she laughed. "I don't think Neal remembers the date, either." She cocked her head to one side. "How did you come up with July 16, anyway?"
Peter's mouth twisted. "It was our first real date." He wiggled his eyebrows. "It was in my calendar."
Neal had pondered, for about a week, the subject of what Peter was giving him a gift for. It wasn't that he didn't think Peter could give a gift just because, and, in fact, Neal had an adorable little netbook to call his own because of Peter's generosity. But pre-planning suggested some sort of occasion; if he was going to give Peter an appropriate gift to mark it, he had to figure out what that occasion was.
Since El didn't know, or at least, hadn't volunteered when he'd talked to her about it, Neal figured that snooping was his first avenue of investigation. Unfortunately for Neal, Peter kept personal appointments on his work calendar. So, Neal knew that anything which involved Peter's personal relationship with Neal wouldn't be there. (Neal certainly checked anyway, both the paper calendar and Outlook, but there was nothing in the next two months of a personal nature except a dental appointment and Peter's mom's birthday.)
That same evening, nibbling his way through a hunter's stew at the Burke's kitchen table, it occurred to Neal that, if he knew what the present was, then he would know approximately how to reciprocate (making allowances for Peter's somewhat feeble gift-giving skills.) He had things upstairs now, nothing monumental or eyebrow-raising, but enough so he could spend the night at short notice: a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a sweater, some toiletries. Once they finished eating, he said, "I think…," and poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. "I'm going to go brush my teeth. Possibly floss." He faked a finger toward his mouth but aborted before he made contact.
Neal had long ago perfected the art of neatly brushing his teeth, and, separately and even longer ago, had learned to toss a room one-handed. Besides, the Burke's bedroom didn't require much tossing. Both Peter and Elizabeth were naturally neat and organized, they didn't keep valuables locked up in the bedroom, and they didn't have anything to hide from each other. (Neal had been astonished when, last August, Elizabeth had walked in the house and said, "This is your anniversary present, Peter. Please don't look at it," and put a plain paper bag on the living room table before heading upstairs to change. He'd been even more surprised that he himself had gone the entire three weeks between announcement and anniversary without peeking, even on the couple of occasions when Peter was out of the house and Neal couldn't accidentally divulge the secret to the other man.)
Neal had no such compunction about his own gift, and he met with rapid success. In a file archive where Peter kept mementos, there was a beautiful handmade card, the inside of which read, "Happy Anniversary, my loves."
Extensive practice in facial muscle control prevented Neal from spitting toothpaste all over the card, but he still felt shock as he read those words.
Neal had told June about his upcoming anniversary, and she had offered the services of her personal chef as a gift to the three of them. Maya had not had cause to prepare a romantic dinner for several years, but she had definitely not forgotten the trick of it. Every dish was made of perfect little bites, arranged like flowers on crackers, or delicious little jewels of flavor heaped on a tray. The three of them had intended to be dignified and sit at the dining room table, use the china, but this was a dinner made for feeding one another, and they did.
The wine was a lovely Sauvignon Blanc and they drank a lot of it. Not so much that they were drunk, but enough that Elizabeth started unbuttoning things because she was too hot, and Peter started giggling, and Neal got quiet but handsy. By the time the final truffle had been nibbled from Peter's fingers, in alternating bites by Neal and Elizabeth, the three of them were wound up in a knot on the couch, Elizabeth's shirt was off, and Peter was squirming from where Neal was stroking underneath the hem of his henley.
"You know," said Elizabeth, in a lazy sort of drawl, into a warm, comfortable silence, "I figured that I should get an anniversary present for the both of you, together. But I had a damn hard time figuring out something you would both want to share."
Neal said nothing, but his free hand stroked softly at her shoulder.
"I take it you decided on something, though," said Peter, and he leaned around Neal to kiss the top of her head.
Elizabeth shook her head, just a little. "I thought of something, but since it couldn't get finished before today, I figured I should make sure you wanted it before I got it made." She smiled. "But, the papers I need to show you are all the way over on the bookcase. I don't think I can get up to get them."
Peter giggled and stood up. "How are you such a lightweight? You're a professional partier." He strolled over to the bookcase, looking for papers. "Is it this green folder, hon?" El didn't answer, and he turned around to find his wife and his boyfriend kissing and ignoring him completely. He shook his head, grabbed the green folder and a blue one he also didn't recognize, as well as the red envelope that contained his own present to them.
They were still locked at the lips on his return, so he swatted Neal's head slightly with the envelope. Neal pulled back and blinked up at him with wide, peaceful eyes. Peter bent down and kissed Neal, fast but warm, then leaned over and did the same to El. Then he sat down on the couch between them. "This is for the three of us," he said, and held the envelope in the palm of his hand, waiting.
Neal plucked the envelope from Peter's hand and opened it. "This is…."
"It's a promise," said Peter.
El scooted minutely closer to the two of them. "What is it?"
Neal handed her the envelope without a word. The sheet of paper inside the card was a computer print out, confirmation of reservations at a vineyard. In Bordeaux. For next October.
"El's calendar doesn't clear up before then, or the timing would have been closer," offered Peter.
"The timing?" asked El.
"My scheduled release date is June 17, 2014," said Neal. His voice was careful, in a way it hadn't been between them for a long time, not since he was convinced Peter really approved of Neal and El.
"This is supposed to be a good thing, Neal. Did I screw up somewhere?"
Neal blinked thoughtfully a few times, then shook his head. "No, Peter, it's good. Just," he shrugged, "echoes in my head. I wasn't expecting," he waved his hand in a way that didn't explain anything, "something bigger than a bread box."
"I love you," said Peter, voice firm. He put a hand on Neal's shoulder and squeezed. "You know that." That second sentence wasn't nearly so confident as the first.
"I know," said Neal, and he put a hand over Peter's, dropped a kiss on the top of El's forehead. "I, uh, made you two something," he said slowly.
"I bet it was art," said El, and her teasing tone defused the silence.
Neal smiled as he stood up, went to the overnight bag which hadn't yet made its trip upstairs. "It's a limited edition print series, at least." He pulled out five stacks of paper, each about the thickness of a stack of bills, maybe eight inches long by five inches wide. He placed the stacks on the couch between Peter and El and then looked away.
The certificates were works of art: intricate abstract borders surrounded five different full-color montages, at the center of which were placed the words
Entitles Bearer to One Truth,
Entitles Bearer to One Lie,
Entitles Bearer to One Explanation,
Entitles Bearer to no less than Four Hours Companionship,
Entitles Bearer to no less than Four Hours Solitude.
"There's limitations and exclusions, of course," said Neal, a little airily. He'd poured himself another glass of wine while El and Peter pored over the theatrical sketch on the Lie note. "You can't ask me about any criminal activity, mine or anyone else's. And you can't use more than one a day."
Peter blinked, and pulled out a single sheet, felt the thickness. "There's at least five hundred of these, Neal."
Neal shrugged. "I'll honor all of them."
El looked up at that, put her hand out toward him. "And if we only use these once a week, or once a month?"
Neal crouched down until he looked Elizabeth directly in the eye. "I will honor all of them."
El smiled and scrambled forward off the couch to the bookcase. She put her hand on the spot from which Peter had pulled the folders. "Um," she said, and she turned around to see Peter waving them both at her. "Oh." She came back and took the green folder from him, and opened it up to show them a set of sketches: cufflinks, a pendant, and earrings with a trilliant cut stone held in a simple prong setting. "I thought the cufflinks for Neal, and the pendant for Peter." She tapped the paper lightly. "I figured you'd want to improve the design a bit before we got them made, Neal." She pulled out the second folder, the blue one, and opened it. "Or maybe we're ready to move straight to rings." The ring also featured a trilliant gem in a prong, but the band itself was woven.
"They're not very subtle," said Peter, but his voice was wistful.
"Only if you know what it says," argued Neal, and he reached for Peter's left hand. "If you wear it here," he said, stroking Peter's pinky finger, "no one will guess, even if they see El's."
"And if they see yours?" asked Peter, slowly.
Neal shook his head. "Until I'm out of criminal justice, I'll wear mine on a chain."
El smiled and took hold of their joined hands. "It'll work. We just have to make it twist to fit."