Steele Your Birthday
By Suzy Steele
Author's note: this is set in my personal version of Season 5, several months after the events of 'Bonds'.

Laura Holt Steele turned the unmarked #10 white envelope around in her hands. It wasn't even a birthday card envelope. A little frown mark appeared on her forehead, off-setting the enticing effects of her strapless indigo gown and loosely coiled coif.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind when you said you had a birthday present for me."
The man who portrayed Remington Steele smirked. "I know."
She held up the envelope to the shaded lamp suspended over the curved table of their booth at the restaurant Steele had taken her to. The action was not terribly helpful because Michel's was exceptionally chic and thus tastefully dim. She couldn't see through the envelope. "It also doesn't look like it was produced using skullduggery." She sounded doubtful.
"Oh, I promise you. It absolutely was." He held a hand over his heart, like the Boy Scout he never was. The smirk deepened.
"Well, that's disappointing."
"It is?" One eyebrow went up. The gesture only heightened the sensual effect that Steele in a tuxedo had on Laura, a fact which he damn well knew.
"Yes." She sighed dramatically. "The Hope Diamond was so appealing."
"It's cursed, you know. Wouldn't touch it. Even for you."
"You're just saying that because breaking into the Smithsonian intimidates you."
Muffled outrage replaced the smirk. "It certainly does not! God forbid I should stoop so low as to steal from your fine government. Not to mention a Federal museum."
"Careful, Mr. Steele. Your morals are showing."
"Hardly. Too damn easy. Downright insulting to a man of my talents."
She tried unsuccessfully to suppress her smile. "We were talking about my present." She gave the envelope an exaggerated sniff, all the while watching him scowl. "It doesn't smell like chocolate."
The reality was that the two of them had never made a big deal over birthdays. Partly because gift-giving seemed so awkward during those years when it was unclear where their relationship stood. Mostly because there was no fair way she could reciprocate. He'd never divulged his birth date, and Laura was pretty certain that the date that had been printed on those five phony passports wasn't real. For the US passport Laura had given him two years ago, she had selected the date he joined the agency, along with the year that had been in his original forged passports. But even that date they celebrated as an event rather than a birthday, because they both knew it was equally false. Now, with Daniel's revelation and sudden passing, it had become clear to her that he hadn't known the answer and never would. It grieved Laura, because she couldn't give him at least this one tangible link with his past. But it also risked creating pity for his situation, and the one thing that he had assiduously guarded against, no matter the circumstances, was self-pity. So the convenient solution had been that Laura's birthdays were marked with flowers and restaurant dinners, but never with a tangible item that might compel the recipient to return the obligation.
But this, apparently, was one of the things that had changed since their marriage several months ago.
It was yet another seismic shift in what Laura had formerly perceived as the landscape of their relationship. Once again she discovered that what had started as a marriage of convenience had instead rearranged their relationship's entire topology.
And, to be honest, this unexpected prospect of creating a birthday obligation terrified her, because she had no clear idea on how to resolve the dilemma. So she kept her tone light, working hard to avoid creating expectations.
And because, frankly, they both still loved bantering with each other. Fortunately, that substantive feature was still retained in the landscape.
"It's something you've always wanted," he now hinted.
She held the envelope up to her forehead and closed her eyes, mimicking a psychic reading of its sealed contents. "Oh, I know what this is."
"You do?" Annoyance replaced mock outrage.
"Umm hmm. It's your promise to complete all your paperwork in a timely manner. You're right. I have wanted that practically forever." She was practically purring.
"Is there a point to this? Or are we going to be playing detective all night?"
"Depends on what you're planning to detect. And where." She gave him a seductive look.
His expression lit up. "Oh, there's definitely a detective portion to the evening's events." He glanced surreptitiously around the restaurant, busy for a Thursday night. "But we can't start it here."
And she distinctly felt his stocking foot caress her bare ankle. Hidden, fortunately, by her long gown and that exceptionally dim lighting.
Her breath caught audibly and warmth flushed her face and bare shoulders. The smirk came back.
"Mr. Steele," she managed once her voice came back, "you're wearing loafers?"
"Happy birthday." He took a sip of his cabernet, watching her over its rim. "Admit it. You haven't a clue what's in the envelope."
She debated whether to tease him further over it. But there was something in his expression, an irresistible look of satisfaction that appeared when he knew he'd done exactly the Right Thing. And she was dying to know what that Right Thing was.
"All right. Please pardon the table knife." She slit open the envelope and discovered it contained a single sheet of paper.
Letterhead? This is strange.
She glanced at her husband before unfolding it to read. His smirk was gone, replaced with the warmth of love. And a soup?on of anxiety. Her confusion grew. Goodness. What is this?
She unfolded the letter and stared at the letterhead. "Mills College? The Department of Music?"
He was giving her no help, so she continued to read:
Dear Mrs. Steele,
Thank you for your application to our music performance mentorship program. We have reviewed your audition tape. Our evaluation team was quite taken with your piano performance. They particularly wish to highlight your sensitivity to and use of rhythmic variation in the Chopin etudes. Your tempo choices and decisions regarding the pedaling in the Shostakovich preludes were equally noteworthy. The review committee believes that your technique and approach is of sufficient caliber to benefit from our directed study program.
Therefore, we are pleased to admit you to the piano performance program at Mills College and extend to you this opportunity to accept private study under the tutelage of Prof. Mlle. Marina Balachenka. Please contact us at the number at the bottom of this letter to initiate your weekly lesson schedule with Mlle. Balachenka.
Please accept our most sincere congratulations, Mrs. Steele, and we look forward to your joining our program.
Yours sincerely,
It was only on her fourth reading that the letter finally began to make sense. She looked up at Steele and discovered that he was watching her reaction with real trepidation.
"What is this?" She held up the letter. She didn't quite keep the frustration from her voice. "I didn't apply to their program. What are they talking about? What audition tape?"
He prevaricated, which was what he did whenever he felt at a disadvantage. "I did say there was some subterfuge involved."
"But I didn't apply!"
"You're not going to turn them down, are you?" It was his first sign of alarm.
"For starters, I don't play professionally. This is a program meant for professionals. Not amateurs like me who diddle around the keyboard."
"I'd hardly call it 'diddling'. You play the piano wonderfully. They agree. All the reason to develop your talent and skills further."
The landscape suddenly looked familiar and the old anger flared at its recognition. "Hang on," she hissed, careful to not draw the other diners' attention. "You did this completely behind my back! I thought we were through with games of subterfuge! Total honesty, remember?"
But instead of arguing back, as she expected and as he would have done in the past, he instead reached across the white tablecloth and trapped her hands in his own. He surprised her with a caressing gesture across the knuckles. "We are, love. We are. Just listen for a moment, would you?"
"I'm listening." Although her every nerve fiber shouted not to. Marriage changes this, too.
"This is my gift to you. To Laura who is my wife. I sought for you something special. Something you've repeatedly asked for."
"Music lessons?" she asked, incredulous. "I never asked for nor want music lessons."
He held onto her hands, his fingers reflexively caressing hers. "Laura, listen to me. What's the single greatest thing that kept us apart all these years? What kept you from making the commitment?"
"I don't see where this is going," she said, trying to dodge what had suddenly become an uncomfortable conversation, at least for her. And especially on a birthday.
"What held you back, Laura?" he persisted. "Even after you finally understood my commitment to you?"
"All right, Mr. Steele. I'll bite. It's the huge disaster that was my parent's marriage, of course. That I'd end up like them, like I was with Wilson. You know that. Why are we talking about this?"
"When we were in Acapulco, Laura, you told me that what terrified you most was that you'd become like your mother. Because she'd subsumed herself into your father."
"Yes," she agreed, her voice gone quiet. "And became a shell of herself when he left."
"Well," he continued, "this is my way of helping you to avoid your mother's mistake."
The old familiar panic began and sent her heart racing. Oh, my God. He's going to leave me. Is this his way of saying it's time to go? Today? Of all days? Her muscles must have betrayed her tension, for he gently squeezed her hands. She instinctively started to pull away, but he wasn't letting go. He was, she realized, personifying the bond.
"I'm not ever leaving you, Laura. You know that. Nor will I permit you to subsume yourself into anyone. Especially me. I never wanted that for you. So, given your terror of past history, my gift for you is to gently push you out the door at regular intervals and have you enjoy opportunities that don't involve me. Consider this," and he nodded at the letter, "as your first nudge."
"You are?" she managed to say through an abruptly tightened throat. "I mean, it is?" I am an idiot. The heat in her face grew, this time with shame at having misunderstood.
"I have no intention of letting our marriage become like your parents'. I'll do everything in my power to avoid it. Including," and he gave her that familiar sidelong smile, "forgetting about me now and again. Well, just for an hour or two."
She swallowed hard in a futile effort to keep the tears back. "Mr. Steele? Are you saying that you're not interested in dissolving this union when our two years are up?"
Apparently he found the painting on the wall behind her to be suddenly riveting. "I like that you said 'our'," he told the artwork.
It all suddenly became clear. Her hands flew up to cover her mouth and, despite them, her smile lit the entire room. "Nobody has ever done anything so utterly perfect before! This is the most perfect present ever!" She could hardly see him from the tears that stung her eyes, but she was pretty certain he was grinning back at her.
"Better than diamonds, eh?" She nodded wordlessly. "You're still the most unique woman I've ever met, Laura Holt Steele. And every day reminds me how very glad I did."
She shook her head. "This is one of those moments that remind me that maybe I don't deserve you. Have I told you lately that I've married the nicest man I could ever hope to meet?"
"I think you just did."
They sat and simply gazed at each other, basking in their shared happiness. Finally, their waiter could stand it no longer and, tip be damned, interrupted the reverie with their cooling entrees before the chef was too badly insulted.
As Laura speared another choice bite of salmon, her mischief reasserted itself.
"You know, the more I think about this, Harry, the more I like your idea." They had settled on 'Harry' for him, since to Laura it seemed the closest they'd come to his real name.
"Think of the possibilities, eh?" he said, repeating a philosophy he had shared with her, long ago. "A capital suggestion, Laura. You could run more triathlons. Take up pottery. Or dancing again."
She gave a little shrug. "Maybe. Or art theft. I've never really been happy with my rope descent technique. And how to pick out the most marketable painting. Or safe-cracking. There's another skill that could be handy."
"Laura? Let's not get carried away with this."
"Or a lover? I mean, if you're pushing me out the door, I ought to consider the possibilities."
He favored her with a dark glare and a mock growl.
"I don't know, Harry," she said. "You might live to regret this. I mean, if you push me out the door, what makes you so sure I'll come back?"
His foot lightly traced the back of her calf.
"Oh, you'll come back," he said confidently. "And perchance you shouldn't, I'll just steal your heart away again. After all, it worked magnificently before."