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New Year, New Start

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It was Neal’s opinion that being sick anytime sucked. Being sick over the holidays really sucked, and being sick on New Year’s Eve, when the entire world was celebrating and you couldn’t have so much as a sip of champagne, sucked most of all.

It was especially frustrating given how much he’d been looking forward to his New Year’s Eve plans this year. They hadn’t been anything particularly special, but Peter and Elizabeth were having a small get-together. Neal and Peter were finally back on even footing after everything that had happened with his father and Hagan, and Neal had looked forward to toasting the new year and a blank slate with him.

But his health had other plans. The cold he’d been nursing since before Christmas had landed him in the ER the day before with full-blown bronchitis. His chest and ribs were sore from coughing, and even though his fever was down and he could actually think today, Neal knew he wasn’t well enough to go out. But that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it. He made himself a mug of hot tea and settled in on his sofa for an evening of TV and sulking.

He hadn’t been there very long when his phone rang. He glanced at it and saw to his surprise that it was Peter. “Hey,” he said when he answered. “Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year,” Peter said. “Are you dressed?”

Neal blinked. “Am I dressed? Um. Sort of.” If track pants and an oversized sweatshirt counted as dressed. “Why?”

“You couldn’t come to the party, so we’re bringing the party to you,” Peter said. “This is your five minute warning.”

Neal’s eyebrows shot up. “What? Peter, that’s really nice of you - really, really nice - but I’m not exactly fit for company right now.”

“It’s me and El, and probably Mozzie in a few hours. Diana canceled because Theo has the sniffles, and Jones apparently had a last minute date. Four minutes,” he added, and disconnected.

Neal blinked at his phone for a moment, then stood. The room spun, but he managed to stay upright, He had four minutes to clear away some of the used tissues that’d managed to proliferate and find a slightly nicer sweater.

Even that much activity left him light-headed and breathless, but not quite enough to need the inhaler they’d given him at the hospital. He was just pulling his sweater over his head when he heard Peter’s knock. “Coming,” he called, but Peter didn’t wait. He and El trooped in, loaded down with grocery bags.

“Hey, Happy New Year,” Peter said. “How’re you feeling? Better?” Peter had been there for the ER trip the day before, and Neal had narrowly escaped staying at the Burkes’ house. He probably wouldn’t have, except that they’d had the party planned for that night.

“Yeah, I am,” Neal said. “Hey, El. Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year, sweetie,” she said, standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “I’m glad to see you on your feet. From what Peter said, I wasn’t sure I would.”

“You know me, nothing keeps me down for long,” Neal said. He managed to find a smile for her. “Thanks for you doing this. You really didn’t have to.”

Peter shrugged. “I have to admit, it might not’ve been totally altruistic. Once Jones and Diana canceled, it was going to be the two of us and Mozzie, and -”

“- you wanted a buffer,” Neal said.

Peter’s hand landed on Neal’s shoulder and squeezed. “If you start fading, we’ll get out of your hair, but I thought we could at least have dinner.”

“Thanks,” Neal said, touched. He let Peter sit him down at the table and pour him a glass of sparkling apple juice before opening a bottle of champagne for himself and Elizabeth. El busied herself at the stove with a variety of covered dishes; she and Peter chatted idly, and Neal let himself relax. He was among friends, he reminded himself. There was no reason to pretend to feel better than he actually did.

“Here we go,” El said, sliding a platter of appetizers onto the table.

“Wow, these look amazing,” Neal said, taking in the variety of finger foods: tiny quiches and tarts stuffed with cheese and caramelized onions, as well as three kinds of stuffed mushrooms.

El winked at him. “My secret is caterers who owe me favors. Dinner should be ready in about half an hour.”

Neal was a born social orchestrator, but his favorite thing about his friendship with Peter and El was that in these sorts of situations, he never had to do any orchestrating with them. It was always so easy. He and Peter talked about work, of course, but at the moment, there wasn’t much to say there; there would be a spate of post-holiday credit card frauds to deal with in January, but with the last two weeks having been broken up by the holidays, there wasn’t much on the team’s plate. El, on the other hand, had had a very busy December, and had only just managed to talk one of her assistants into working New Year’s Eve so that she could spend it with Peter.

“I had to trade her a long weekend in January,” El said. “But it’s worth it.” She smiled at Peter and reached over to take his hand.

“I’m surprised you two don’t go out,” Neal said, as he nibbled at a goat cheese stuffed tartlet. “I’m sure you have all sorts of connections, El. You could get into one of the really exclusive parties if you wanted to.”

“Sometimes we do that,” El said. “But it’s an odd-numbered year, so it was Peter’s turn to pick.”

“Next year, I’ll have to pull out the monkey suit,” Peter said. “But this year we stayed home. Sort of.”

“I’ll have to make sure I’m around for that,” Neal said with a smile. “Maybe El can get an extra invitation.”

Peter mock-frowned at him. “So I can spend the whole night making sure you aren’t pocketing small items of value from the home of El’s potential clients?”

Neal gave him a look. “First of all, I wouldn’t do that. Secondly, tell me that wouldn’t be more interesting than spending the night making small talk with rich people about the stock market.”

“Hmm,” Peter said. “That’s true.”

El rolled her eyes at them fondly. Neal shrugged, unrepentant.

Dinner was a beautiful rack of lamb that El actually did claim credit for, along with roasted veggies and garlic mashed potatoes. Neal hadn’t had much of an appetite recently, but at least his sinuses had cleared enough for him to taste the perfectly seasoned lamb. He managed two pieces and a healthy amount of mashed potatoes. Elizabeth looked pleased with herself.

After dinner they moved over to the sofa and turned the TV on to watch the festivities in Times Square. Mozzie showed up about ten, bottle of wine in hand, though Neal noticed that he didn’t open it. He picked up the champagne Peter and El were drinking, sniffed, and then went over to Neal’s wine rack. Neal rolled his eyes, but decided not to say anything. Mozzie had more likely than not brought a decent enough vintage.

By ten-thirty Neal was starting to nod off. Peter and El offered to head out, but Neal shook his head. Getting a cab would be impossible this close to midnight, and he didn’t want to ring in the new year asleep and alone. Peter and El pulled out the Monopoly game they’d brought, and Neal curled up on the sofa under a throw with his head on El’s shoulder. He chuckled sleepily as Peter accused Mozzie of trying to launder money through Park Place.

“I should have known better than to play Monopoly with a Suit,” Mozzie sniffed.

“I should’ve known better than to play Monopoly with - with whatever you are,” Peter said, waving a hand at Mozzie.

“Poker?” Mozzie suggested.

Neal had his eyes shut, but he could hear Peter rolling his eyes. “I don’t think so. Parcheesi, maybe.”

“Careful, Peter,” Neal mumbled. “He and June are serious about their Parcheesi.”

“Traitor,” Mozzie accused. Neal smiled.

The next thing he knew, El was shaking him awake. “Neal, sweetie, it’s almost midnight.” Neal roused enough to stand up and bat his eyelashes at her until she relented and gave him half a glass of champagne. Peter wrapped one arm around him and one arm around El, and Neal leaned into him subtly as they counted down to midnight. He let Peter go to kiss his wife as the ball dropped, but then Peter turned back to him and pulled him into a fierce hug.

“Happy New Year,” Peter said, voice a little rough.

“Happy New Year,” Neal said. He drew a deep breath, then immediately regretted it. He managed to suppress the urge to cough. “Peter -”

“Hey,” Peter said, pulling away to look at him. “It’s a new year, all right? New year, new start.”

“New year, new start,” Neal echoed. Peter gave him one last squeeze and let him go. But the warmth of that hug, of Peter’s promise, of the three most important people in his life changing their New Year’s Eve plans to be with him, stayed with him long after everyone had left.