Barabas put the package with the other packages on the dining room table, then reconsidered and moved it to its own little quarantine zone at one end of the table safely away from the others, after which he sat down in a chair and looked at it for a while, his fingers steepled in front of his chin. Maggie whined until he picked her up and set her in his lap, and then she was content to settle down and snore against his knee.
When Christopher came back from Kate's house, he looked at him for a moment, then followed his line of sight and went over to the table to look at the package, careful not to touch it. He made a small sound in his throat upon reading the return address and said, "You know, we didn't send them a wedding present."
Barabas almost choked. "We didn't know when they got married."
"Well, that's no reason to be rude," Christopher protested.
"Also, he kept you in a cage."
Christopher sighed. "We've been over this." They had, and it wasn't an argument Barabas was interested in having again, so he said nothing. Sometimes discretion really was the better part of valor. Christopher looked over the other packages and nudged one with one finger. "This is the one I'd be worried about."
"There isn't a return address on it," Barabas pointed out, although that was, now that he thought about it, reason enough to be concerned all on its own. Christopher had a past, after all.
"That's Julie's handwriting. I recognize it from trying to help her with her homework."
Barabas considered that. "Maybe Erra didn't help her pick it out...and maybe they're not mad that we didn't invite them to the wedding." They hadn't invited anyone to the wedding, except Barabas' mom and Kate (and Curran had tagged along, too) because they needed witnesses, and because Kate and Barabas' mom both would have killed them otherwise. This fact didn't seem to have stopped anyone from being mad at them about it, but it also didn't seem to have stopped people from sending gifts. Hence the state of their dining room table.
Christopher's eyebrows said that he was dubious. "It probably won't explode, at least."
"D'Ambray's?" Barabas asked. "Or Julie's?"
"Hugh's is probably a book." Barabas raised one eyebrow at him, and Christopher explained, "Hugh doesn't know you, but he does know me. Or...he did know me. Plus, the size and shape of the package is indicative."
"You learned to identify a wrapped book at an early age, huh?"
"I was a nerdy child." Christopher very carefully moved the package from Julie (and possibly Erra) into the same mostly empty zone of the table that contained the one from Hugh and Elara d'Ambray. It was also large, rectangular, and flat, but it was too heavy to be a book, and was stamped with various things like 'fragile' and 'handle with care.' In retrospect, Barabas really should have been concerned about it, but the sight of Hugh d'Ambray's name had knocked all other concerns aside.
"I grew out of being a child, at least. Do you want to open them?" Christopher asked, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Or do you want to leave them there in case one of them explodes?"
"I want to leave them there in case one of them explodes," Barabas said firmly, and Christopher laughed. "Personally, I think the one from Julie is a rock."
"You know what, it might be," Christopher said. "I told her once I wanted a marble board for pastry, but I hadn't gotten around to getting one. Still haven't."
Barabas sat up in his chair. "I might get pastries out of this? Open it now!" Christopher only baked when the mood struck him, but he baked like a professional. He said it had once been stress relief, and something about personality types that, he claimed, meant Barabas might prove a better baker than he had a cook, but personally Barabas wasn't willing to risk it when he could just give Christopher puppy eyes and get cream puffs.
"I thought it might explode," Christopher teased.
"I'm willing to risk it." Christopher laughed again and moved away from the table, close enough Barabas could reach out and reel him in next to him with one arm around his waist. Christopher bent down and kissed him, and Barabas murmured, "Hi," against his mouth.
"Hi, there." Maggie whined until Christopher scratched her under her chin. Then he straightened and stood next to the chair, one arm around Barabas' shoulders, both of them looking at the table. "We should start in on thank you notes soon."
Barabas groaned at the thought. "So, Julie got us a pastry board, maybe, and d'Ambray got us a book. Probably. So what do I get out of this?"
"I'm pretty sure the marble board is at least as much a gift for you as for me, in the long run," Christopher said.
"You know what, I can't argue with it."
When they opened them the next day, the package from Julie did, in fact, turn out to be a slab of marble, albeit one with mysterious sigils carved into the edges that meant it would not be getting used to make pastry until those had been thoroughly decoded, which was a bummer, but Barabas supposed it was to be expected from a co-gift from the Rose of Tigris. The one from the d'Ambrays was also, as predicted, a book, something about herbcraft that made Christopher almost as excited as the marble slab and the puzzle it presented had. Barabas smiled and rolled his eyes, and then, after Christopher wandered off to the library with the rock, he picked up the book, calling after him, "Hey, did you want to take this, too?" and fumbled and nearly dropped it—and almost had a heart attack—and something fell out. He bent down to pick it up and froze.
The photo was a little grainy—a surveillance camera, maybe, or perhaps blown up from an original that showed a larger scene. Barabas almost didn't recognize the man in it at first. He was not quite looking at the camera, and he was smiling, but there was something tense around his eyes that was unfamiliar, and Christopher with hair the color of dark gold was completely foreign. It was, he thought, a killer combination with the blue eyes, the classic California surfer boy in a five thousand dollar suit. There was another piece of paper stuck to the back, a note: Came across this, thought you might want it. It was unsigned, though of course it didn't need a signature. Barabas didn't know if Christopher would or wouldn't want it, but he found that he did, that it was good to hold in his hands and see with his own eyes proof that Christopher had had a whole life before the man in the cage. He'd never known that version of Christopher, and he never would. Christopher claimed he wouldn't have liked him if he had, but Barabas wasn't so sure of that. He had still been Christopher, after all, just a Christopher who had made different choices than the ones he would have made now. Barabas had known it before, and he could see it in the photo, now.
Christopher had come back from the kitchen while he was staring at the photo; he looked over Barabas' shoulder and said, "Oh. Oh, wow. I don't know where he would even have gotten that."
"Your guess is as good as mine," Barabas said, "but my guess is that it's from a surveillance camera." How d'Ambray had come into possession of it at the present time was a mystery, but probably it had something to do with the ongoing problems with the remnants of Roland's empire.
"Sounds likely. We did spy on each other a lot." Christopher leaned against his back and hooked his chin over his shoulder. "It's a good picture of me," he said, his voice just a little off.
"It is," Barabas agreed. "You ever think about dying your hair?" Christopher turned his head to look at him, and Barabas grinned and darted in to kiss the corner of his mouth. "Kidding."
"It probably wouldn't take, anyway," Christopher said as he pulled away. "Well. It depends on if it was the magic that turned my hair, or the...the fear."
He'd perked up slightly at the prospect of an experiment, and there was always the puzzle of the marble board to distract him with, but just in case it failed, Barabas wanted to make it clear that, "I like your hair the way it is. I like you just how you are."
"I know," Christopher said, and kissed him again. "Thank you."
"Anyway, your eyebrows showed up even less against your skin then," Barabas couldn't resist adding.
"I hate you," Christopher lied.
"No, look, you can barely tell you have them!"
"I'm giving Kate all of the pastries if that rock turns out to be something I can actually use for baking." Barabas gasped theatrically, pressing one hand to his chest, and Christopher's laughter followed him to the library.
The dye job didn't take, but that was perhaps for the best: you really could barely tell Christopher had eyebrows in the photo. The book, which Barabas suspected of being mostly from Elara d'Ambray, turned out to be very useful. The rock turned out to contain a minor enchantment to keep it a few degrees cooler than the ambient temperature, which was apparently the whole point of using a marble slab for pastry dough, anyway, and made it the best present they got, if you asked Barabas. Certainly it was one of the ones that saw the most use. The photo ended up framed. Barabas kept it in the little home office he rarely used, out of the way where most people never saw it. The comments they got on it were always a little awkward, as was explaining how they'd come by it. But it was good to have.