A couple of drunks down at the end of the bar were watching the ball drop in Times Square, and mournfully singing along with the crowd on television:
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never bought to mind
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And days of old lang sign…
Toby couldn't decided which was more annoying: that they slurred the words together, or that their flat, off-key disharmony produced an effect similar to fingernails scratched down a chalkboard. He did suspect, however, that little purpose would be served by pointing out they didn't quite have the lyrics right.
It was those little things you noticed, staying sober.
And it wasn't that he couldn't drink. There was, after all, no one left to disappoint any longer; Holly and Harry had made it clear over Christmas their expectations of the old man had diminished to microscopic levels years ago, and it was only some vague sense of obligation that made them come around for the holidays. No, he could get pie-eyed soused if the mood took him. It was just … New Year's Eve still meant something to him; one particular New Year's Eve was about the only memory he ever cared to keep sharp and clear.
It was a deceptive celebration, people casting off the old year and all its disappointments, and looking with bright-eyed expectation to the new one looming on the horizon, ripe with a promise of better things to come. Didn't work out like that, not ever, but there was a vestige of magic to it that still held some flicker of appeal for him. Right now, somewhere in the world, someone could be standing on the brink of all those possibilities, excitement bursting through their veins because it felt like everything was turning around for them and only good things lay ahead.
If they were especially fortunate, they might even get to hang onto that for longer than twenty-four hours before life crashed down on them again.
Christ, maybe he would have a drink, he was thinking, just as the door blew open, bringing a blast of cold air and a cloud of snow, and --
"Hey, babe, how's it goin'?" Chris Keller asked, slipping onto the stool beside him.
"You … can't be here," Toby said slowly, checking in the mirror over the bar, both their reflections caught there, the bartender and drunks paying them no heed.
"Why not?" Chris asked, sitting there and looking exactly like Toby remembered him: young, beautiful, that light up the room smile in place -- so incredibly, vitally there, in tight jeans and black leather jacket, a red scarf around his neck like he could feel the cold.
Still staring, Toby said, "Because … you're dead."
"Ahhh," Chris waved that away as an inconsequential detail. "You look good, Toby."
Now he knew he was imagining this. He knew he looked like he felt, old and worn out beyond his years. Oz had taken such a toll on him--
"Guess I didn't help any, huh?" Chris said, leaning an elbow on the bar and studying his face, his own expression thoughtful.
"So you read minds now?"
"Always read yours."
Toby replied with a snort. "You're sure about that?"
Head tilted, Chris replied with a sanguine shrug. "Well, maybe not always." He signaled the bartender, who came down and set a glass before him, poured some single malt Scotch into it, and then went back to keep the drunks company.
"Ghosts drink?" Toby said, watching Chris raise the glass to his lips, swallow.
"I'm no spook, Toby," he said, and caught his hand. "Real enough for you?"
Well, yes -- warm and so very solid, he could even feel a pulse beating away, but, "This is just in my head."
"That was always your problem, you know; spent so much goddamn time thinking, you never learned to trust your heart."
"Oh, well, thank you, Dr. Keller." Toby slipped his hand free, cast him an irritated look. "That's what you've been doing on the other side, becoming an expert in human relationships?"
"Nah, I always knew what made people tick." Chris took another sip of his scotch. "What I didn't know was how to make us work."
"And now you do?"
"Got some ideas."
Toby blew out a skeptical huff. "A little late in the day, don't you think, Chris?"
Smile inscrutable, Chris said, "Depends what calendar you're using."
"I… don't even know what that means."
Smile huge and enigmatic as a Cheshire Cat's, Chris said, "You will." He slid off the stool then, reached for him. "Dance with me?"
"Always wanted to dance with you to something slow and sexy," Chris murmured, drawing him close, swaying him to the music.
"Yes, I'm sure that would have gone over gangbusters in Oz." When the hell had the old jukebox in the corner started playing … something slow and sexy?
"Hey, bet that was gonna be next on McManus's list: hoe-downs every Saturday night."
Despite himself, Toby smiled, and couldn't seem to overcome a compulsion to slip his arms around Chris as the woman on the jukebox sang about how her lonely days were over.
"See," hands around his waist, Chris kept them moving, "this isn't so bad, you and me and our song."
"We don't have a song."
"Ahhh, sure we do," Chris purred against his ear. "This one was written just for us." He slid one hand up Toby's back to cup the nape of his neck, fingers tangling in the curls there -- curls that had been long gone for years, and yet Toby could have sworn he felt the gentle tug as Chris pulled at them. "I've missed you."
Toby nodded, ran a thumb along his jaw. "Me too."
And when Chris tilted his head, coming in for a kiss, Toby didn't fight that, either. After all, it was New Year's Eve.
"Is that all you came back for?" he said as Chris deserted his lips to nuzzle his neck.
"Isn't it enough?"
After a moment, Toby nodded again. A kiss had always been their finest moment. He pulled Chris close for another one, long and lingering and loaded with all the familiar mingled joy and heartache.
Stepping back, Chris touched his face, his own expression full of love and regrets. "I gotta go."
Toby nodded, swallowed. "Will I see you again?"
"Oh yeah," and Chris' smile was huge despite the glimmer of moisture in his eyes.
Replying with a huff, Toby demanded, "When?"
"When it's time," Chris said, playing one more enigmatic card. He cupped both hands along Toby's face, memorizing every feature, pressing one more kiss to his lips, Toby's eyes drifting close to store up every sensation…
And when he looked again, Chris was gone.
Outside, pulling his coat around him, Toby looked up at the starlit sky and smiled, remembering what Chris had told him so long ago … "Here, or in heaven." He nodded to himself, knowing he'd been right all along to not believe God was the bitter and selfish thing Sister Pete had believed.
"See you in heaven, baby," he whispered to the night, already feeling so much less lost and alone.
At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
At last the skies above are blue
And my heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
I found a dream that I can speak to
A dream that I could call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
You smiled, and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
And you are mine at last…