The weather report called it unseasonably warm for the end of December, and Neal had to agree. A year ago, standing out on the balcony wouldn't have seemed like a good idea.
Of course, a year ago, he had plans on New Year's Eve.
Neal paused for a sip of wine, rolling the cabernet on his tongue for a moment before swallowing. Yes, last year at this time, there had been a gala at the Channing, organized by none other than Burke Premier Events. In exchange for a full day of helping to set up, Peter had agreed to relax Neal's radius for the night, and he'd rung in the New Year with imported champagne, surrounded by the kind of art he loved. With both Elizabeth and Peter there, he'd had the people who were most important to him there too.
Of course, that was before the return of Vincent Adler, and the discovery of a U-boat filled with priceless treasure. Before he'd been pulled into Mozzie's plan for a final score. Before he'd walked a tightrope for so many months, trying to decide how he could choose between Mozzie and Peter, between past and present.
Before he wound up disappointing both of them, and so many others.
What a difference a year could make.
There was an event at the Channing this year too, again organized by Burke Premier. But this year, Elizabeth had turned the actual running of the party over to an assistant, electing to step back a bit from her previous active role. After her kidnapping ordeal with Matthew Keller, she preferred to stay home more, behind the enhanced security system he'd had installed for them. Since the immediate aftermath of the abduction and rescue, he'd only seen her once, when she stopped at the office to meet Peter for lunch. She'd been proper, polite, thanking him for the work.
He'd been polite and proper in return, demurring, saying it had been no trouble. Somehow managing not to embarrass both of them by dropping to his knees and begging for her forgiveness.
Polite and proper pretty much defined his current working relationship with Peter as well. It had taken some time, and a lot of work by both of them, but they had figured out how to work with each other again. At times, there were even sparks of their old patterns – throwing out ideas in rapid fire fashion, finishing each other's thoughts, solving puzzles that left others scratching their heads. But there were no more invitations from Peter to come home, join them for dinner, work on some files. No late-night visits from Peter, wine and beer in hand, bursting with an idea on a case and wanting to talk it through.
Definitely no invitation to come to the Burke residence to celebrate the changing of the year.
Of course, the underlying tension had affected others as well. Some of the newer agents physically avoided him now, as if afraid that Peter's disappointment with him would wear off on them. Jones and Diana, of course, didn't buy into that – but they naturally took their cue from their boss. They worked with him, occasionally even included him in lunch plans. But the wariness was back, as if they were just waiting for him – expecting him – to screw up… again.
Now Diana and Christie had gone to Greenwich, Connecticut, for the long weekend. Jones was home in Pittsburgh visiting family. Not that Neal would have expected a New Year's Eve invitation from either of them even if they had been in town. Still, it just heightened his feeling of being alone, knowing that they had places to go, and people to be with.
June was on a cruise ship somewhere in the Caribbean with her extended family. Sara was in Lisbon for work – they certainly hadn't resumed the relationship of a few months ago, but they were friends again. Alex was still in Europe. Mozzie was…
Well, to be honest, Neal wasn't sure where Mozzie was. After coming back to help find Elizabeth, Mozzie had, somewhat surprisingly, stayed around. Neal had honestly expected him to disappear again, with whatever portion of the treasure had not been officially recovered. Still, things weren't right between them, not like they had been before. Now, there were longer absences, when several days might go by without seeing or hearing from Mozzie.
Given the betrayal Mozzie had expressed at Neal's decision to stay in New York, it wasn't all that surprising. At least they were speaking, which gave Neal some hope that things might be fixable between them – someday.
But all of that left him standing here, alone, just before the turn of the year. He could almost hear Peter's voice, telling him that it was better than spending the night in prison, which was true. It didn't ease the loneliness though, or the ache in his heart when he thought of what he had lost over the course of the last year.
He finished the glass of wine, taking one more look out across the city. He couldn't actually see or hear Times Square from where he stood, of course, but he imagined he could feel the excitement building as thousands of people gathered to watch the ball drop. He'd gone once, the first winter after he'd come to New York, having always heard that it was something everyone should do at least once in a lifetime.
Of course, celebrating the New Year in Sydney, Australia, one year hadn't been bad either. Hong Kong, London, Paris…
He'd close his eyes at the stroke of midnight, remembering what it was like to be in those places. To have somewhere to be, and someone to be there with.
He was just turning to go in and get a refill on his wine when there was a knock at the door. Since he'd made sure the outside doors were locked – he did feel responsible for security when June wasn't home – that didn't leave many possibilities. He was considering who he knew would have a key as he opened the door.
To say that he was surprised to see Elizabeth standing there, Peter behind her, wouldn't have come close to expressing the shock he felt. For one of the few times in his life, he was literally left speechless.
Elizabeth finally broke the silence. "Hi, Neal. May we come in?"
He stepped back, holding his hand out. "Please."
She walked in, shrugging out of her jacket, and Neal hurried to take it from her. He walked over and laid it on the bed, turning back as Peter closed the door.
The two men stood facing each other in silence for a moment, and then Peter held out the bottle of champagne he was carrying. "It's almost midnight," he said. "We thought this might come in handy."
Neal took the bottle, staring at it as Peter took his jacket off and put it on the bed. "Are we celebrating something?" he asked, barely recognizing the hoarse whisper that came out as his own voice.
It was Elizabeth who answered. "We are. A fresh start."
"El and I were at home, talking," Peter continued. "And we knew something was missing."
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, someone was missing."
"It's been kind of a rough end to the year," Peter said.
Neal laughed – short, sharp, and definitely not humorous. "That's for sure. Peter, you know…"
Peter cut him off with a raised hand and a shake of his head. "Neal, we've been through all of the explanations and the apologies."
Elizabeth stepped in, an arm around her husband. "We need to move forward, Neal. All of us."
"We were trying to concentrate on the good things in our life, instead of the bad, and we realized a lot of them involved you," Peter said.
"We pulled that prom picture out, the two of you in tuxedoes. That kind of started things," Elizabeth added.
Peter nodded. "You've saved my life, Neal. In the Novice case, with the digitalis poisoning. And talking me out of that cell – without you, Lang would have come to and gotten his gun."
Neal finally found his voice. "Yeah, but you wouldn't have been kidnapped in the first place if not for your connection to me…"
Elizabeth put a finger to his lips, stopping him. "We're only doing good memories, remember? I remember asking you to do whatever it took to get Peter home, and you did."
"You gave up more for me then than I could ever have expected," Peter said.
"The ring?" Neal shrugged. "It was worth it."
"There were so many other times when it became clear you were a part of our lives," Elizabeth said. "Like the time you were on our couch, loopy from whatever drugs they'd shot into you at that clinic."
"Yeah, you had a habit of showing up on our couch," Peter grumbled. "Like that first day, when you set off your tracker."
Neal actually felt a small smile cross his face. "I remember you threatened to send me back to prison for that."
Peter threw up his hands . "You were out of your radius, sitting on my couch with my wife, playing with my dog!"
Neal just shrugged. "Satchmo liked me."
Elizabeth smiled and put a hand gently on his arm. "We remembered a lot of other times when you had an impact on our lives, mostly good."
Peter nodded in agreement. "And we thought the New Year might be a good time to start fresh."
"I don't usually make resolutions," Neal admitted quietly. "But I have one this year. I've resolved to do everything in my power to earn back your friendship, and your trust."
Peter nodded, a soft smile on his face. "And I resolve to meet you halfway on the friendship and trust."
"Well then, I resolve to hold both of you to those promises." Elizabeth paused, pointing at the clock on the mantle, which showed three minutes to midnight. "Now, do you have champagne glasses?"
Neal nodded, handing the bottle back to Peter. "I do," he said, moving to the cabinets.
Peter popped the cork on the champagne and Neal laid the flutes out on the table. With glasses full, Neal led them out onto the balcony just as the first fireworks lit up the sky.
They watched the night sky sparkle for a moment, and then turned together, raising their glasses.
"To a better year to come," Peter toasted.
"And to more good memories," Elizabeth added.
"I'll drink to that," Neal agreed.
The glasses clinked softly together before their voices joined. "Happy New Year."
A/N: Happy New Year to all! And here's hoping that Jeff Eastin and his writers have all resolved to fix the bromance in 2012 :-)