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Neighbors

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The smoke alarm’s shrill sound was enough to make Nancy’s ears hurt, not to mention poor Luna’s, so she opened the oven and carefully using an oven mitt, extracted the burned Christmas cookies, carrying them to the nearest window. Cracking it open, she tried to guide all the smoke outside before someone called the fire department. Wanting to err on the side of caution she opened the other two windows in her apartment as well, letting in the cool December air.

She wasn’t much of a cook, but a pre-Christmas get-together with her new friends required all of them to bring food, and for a reason she no longer understood, she’d been determined to bake cookies from scratch. 

Stupid.

With a sigh, she turned to clean up her kitchen, until realizing that something was amiss. Her orange ball of fur hadn’t reappeared even after the fire alarm had gone silent. 

“Shit,” she cursed aloud, striding to her bed, kneeling on the floor to take a peek underneath it. No accusing, gleaming green eyes looked back at her. 

Her eyes focused on the opened windows, and she cursed again. Luna had never run away before, and New York City in December wasn’t a good place for an indoor cat. Hoping against hope, she stuck her head out of all the windows, calling out to her cat gently.

“Luna, where did you go?” She cooed, still not seeing or hearing her cat. What if she’d fallen off the fire escape? Her stomach sank. Cats could survive a fall from the 3rd floor, but they could still be hurt by it, too.

Taking out a box of wet food, she dumped it all in Luna’s cup and placed it on the window sill. The chicken was her favorite. Maybe she’d smell the food and hunger would bring her home, while she checked outside and talked to her neighbors. 

It was chilly outside, and Nancy huddled in her coat. Poor Luna wouldn’t make it out here for long. Wiping at her eyes furiously, she refused to give up. Although Nancy barely knew the other people living in her building, she was fully prepared to knock on every door to find Luna. That cat was the most loyal friend she’d had since she’d come to this city.

She started from the first floor, but half of the apartments were empty, or at least nobody answered the door. If she couldn’t find Luna today, she’d have to have some flyers made so she could slip them underneath the apartment doors for all her neighbors. An old woman on the first floor, who introduced herself as Mrs. White, invited her inside for coffee and seemed to feel very sorry for her losing her cat, but she hadn’t seen Luna. The other door that was opened revealed a man who only spoke Spanish, and with her own broken version of the language she managed to find out that he’d seen no cat. 

The second floor had two more empty apartments, and although there was music coming out of the third one, nobody came to the door, until she’d already turned her back to it.

“Ummm… Hi?” Called out a quiet male voice. Her heart skipped a beat at the familiarity. 

Nancy pivoted quickly, coming face-to-face with Jonathan Byers. Her Jonathan. How was he in her building? She hadn’t seen him in so long. 

He was wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of boxers in addition to a bewildered expression, he was just as surprised to see her.

“Oh,” she managed, at a loss for words. It still hurt to see him in a way that made her want to tear out her own heart to make the pain stop. He didn’t look that different, aside from his hair being a little longer than he used to keep it.

“Uh, hi Nancy,” he said, finally starting to recover from the shock.

“Hi.” Closing her eyes, she tried to get a hold of her emotions. “Do you live here?” She asked.

“Yeah. And you?” She’d known he’d moved to New York, but obviously not exactly where in the city. 

“I moved in a few months ago.”

Jonathan nodded. “Did you come here to complain about the music? I can turn it down,” he promised.

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “My cat ran away when I opened a window. She’s an orange tabby. You wouldn’t have seen her?” Continued Nancy, almost knowing the answer already.

He shook his head in a solemn manner. “No, I haven’t seen a cat. Do you have a flyer or something? So I can keep an eye out for her?” He asked.

“No, not right now. I haven’t had time to get one made and copied yet,” she admitted. 

Shifting his weight from one foot to the other in an awkward manner, he clearly considered his words carefully. “I could help you… I mean, I still do photography, so...” He trailed off, averting his eyes from hers.

Nancy gave him a small smile for his kindness. It didn’t come as a surprise to her, but the situation had to be uncomfortable for him, too. She wondered if he felt the same pain she did, and if she wanted him to. 

“That’d be great if it’s not too much of a hassle,” she answered.

“It’s not a problem,” he said, before coughing into his arm.

“Are you sick?” She asked, narrowing her eyes. 

He gave a shrug. “It’s a mild cold, and I’m not too sick to help you out. Promise,” he assured her. 

“What do you need from me?” She asked.

“A photo of the cat, and the info you want to put on the flyer. I can run to the school and get the copies done there real cheap.”

“El told me you study photography.”

“Yeah, it’s my last year.”

Crossing her arms in a defensive manner, she forced herself to look into his eyes. “I’m really glad you got what you wanted after all, you deserve it,” she replied, meaning the words. The last time they’d spoken he’d been determined to stay with his family, even if it meant never going to college. 

His reply came out quiet and soft, almost like a whisper. “Thanks.”

The awkward silence stretched out, but she felt that their shared past deserved at least some acknowledgement. When she at last decided to get back to business and pretending she was totally fine with living in the same building as Jonathan, she spoke again. “I graduated last spring, moved here and adopted Luna. The cat,” she clarified.

“Right. I’m really sorry you lost her.”

She nodded. “Thanks. I’ll get the photo and come back in a minute,” she told him.

***

The apartment was sparsely decorated, but there were photographs all over, many of them showing his family: mostly his mother and Will, but also El and even Chief Hopper. Once upon a time she used to be part of this.

“This is a great photo,” she sighed, lifting a frame featuring Jonathan with his brother at Will’s high school graduation. 

Coming to stand beside her, he nodded. “Yeah.”

If the Byers hadn’t moved to freaking New Mexico, this would’ve also been Mike’s graduation. Bitterness raised its head in her heart at the lost chances. Time and distance and financial troubles had separated them, and she knew their joint decision had made sense for both of them, but sometimes… Sometimes she still hated it from the core of her entire being. As well as she knew that breakups happened to a lot of couples like them, some desperate part of her had always insisted it won’t happen to us, we’re Jonathan and Nancy.

“I’m sorry, it’s just hard to wrap my head around you being my neighbor,” she said with a laugh.

He gave her a melancholy smile. “It’s a small world.”

“Seems like it.”

“So, did you have that photo of your cat?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it right here.”

“She’s a pretty cat,” he complimented with a smile, accepting the photo from her.

“I know. I… I know it may sound ridiculous, but she was sort of my first friend here. I don’t want to lose her,” she confessed. 

Avoiding her eyes, he spoke in a low voice. “It’s not ridiculous at all.” 

Taking a deep breath, she did her best not to tear up. His sympathy was so painfully in character to him, bringing back all the times he’d comforted her. Was Jonathan lonely in New York?

***

As Jonathan drew up the poster for the missing cat, he wondered how it was possible he hadn’t seen Nancy around the building until now. Maybe you should look somewhere else aside from the tips of your shoes.

Hearing his mom’s half-amused voice in his mind made him smile. That was what she’d been telling him for years, wasn’t it? Having him shot us at his doorstep had nearly sent him into cardiac arrest. Her face was permanently engraved into his mind and whenever he felt lonely, it was often memories of her that he sank into. What they’d once shared was one of the bright spots in his life. There was no resentment on his end. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t entirely true. Nevertheless, his resentment wasn’t justified. She hadn’t wronged him, or dumped him. It just wasn’t meant to be. 

Their breakup had launched a crisis in his family, with his mom not sleeping or eating, but telling him to call her and talk it out. She’d blamed herself, and seeing her heart break while dealing with his own feelings on the matter had been… Rough. But that was life, wasn’t it? Yet sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if they’d made it, if they’d found a way. That was despite knowing that breaking things off had been the right thing to do. There weren’t any journalism jobs at a small town in New Mexico, and he couldn’t… His decision to put his own dreams on hold had been necessary. It had all worked out in the end, hadn’t it? His family was all right now, and he got to study what he wanted. Nancy had a degree and hopefully held no grudges. More than anything else, he hoped she was happy. Now he had a chance to help her find her cat, and he wasn’t going to leave her hanging, even if she decided she never wanted to see him again after this.

“This is ready to be copied now,” he told her. He was going to take the subway to the school and be back with them before it was too late to knock on her door. 

“Great. I really do appreciate you doing this for me,” she answered. 

“Anytime.”

“If you ever need help in return, let me know, okay? I want to return the favor.”

“Sure.” He was never going to ask her for anything, but he appreciated the offer.

The next morning Jonathan was making himself a cup of coffee, when he happened to peek out the window. An orange cat was crouched on the fire escape of the building next to his. Luna.

Sneezing, he hurried to dress. Nancy , he had to tell her about the cat, before it got away again. His heart hammering, he knocked on her door frantically, but she wasn’t home. Oh hell, how was he going to catch a cat on his own? 

He left the warmth of the building to head to the place on the fire escape he’d seen the cat perching. Luna was still there, her tail swishing every few seconds. She was on the same level as the 4th floor windows. He had to get her to come down somehow.

Food . He’d get some cat food. 

He practically ran to the nearest grocery store, frantically searching for cat food, or something that could be used as cat food. Nancy had mentioned that Luna liked chicken, hadn’t she? 

By the time he had everything set up for the cat, he was shivering. Stupid cold.

Wrapping himself in a blanket, he threw himself on the couch and closed his eyes. Within minutes, a warm weight landed on his chest, startling his fevered mind. His eyes flew open to meet Luna’s intense glare.

“Oh, it’s just you. Hi there.” As he knew zip about cats, he felt a little uncomfortable. 

Experimentally, he reached out to stroke the cat’s cheek. She sniffed at his hand at first, but didn’t move away from his touch. So far, so good . After a while, Jonathan heard- or felt- another noise. The cat was purring.

“So you like this then, huh?” He asked, still amazed that this creature was so willing to trust him. 

“Well, you can stay there for a while. We’ll go and see your mom in a few hours. She’s been really worried about you, you know?” He murmured as Luna kept purring. 

He kept nodding off throughout the day, and Luna stayed with him most of the time. As much as he loved dogs, he kind of had to admit he was starting to understand cat people a little better. He and Nancy used to joke around about getting a pet one day when they had their own place. She’d insisted on a car while he preferred the idea of a dog. The memory made him wistful now. 

“We loved each other, Luna,” he sighed softly, still petting the cat. “We really did.” Luna replied by chirping at him. “I’ve got no idea what that means,” he mumbled. 

After 5 PM he forced himself off the couch and gathered up the stuff he’d bought for Luna. It wasn’t as if he had any need for cat supplies, so Nancy should take them.

When he was almost ready to go, he turned to look around for Luna, but she was gone, apparently in no hurry to go home.

“Come on, Luna, I’ll take you back to Nancy,” he pleaded with the cat, getting on his knees. 

A plaintive meow came from underneath his couch. 

“It’s going to be okay, Luna. Come on, you’re safe, I’m not taking you back outside.”

The cat meowed again, but the treat in Jonathan’s hand was too tempting for her to resist. Picking her up, he was finally ready to return her to Nancy.

***

As he knocked on Nancy’s door, the improbable thought of this particular cat not being Luna after all crossed his mind, causing panic. Nancy would be heartbroken. When it took her a while to answer the door, he considered going back home and staring at the photo of Luna one more time to make sure he was bringing her the right cat. But how many totally tame orange tabby cats hung around their building?

Before he had a chance to leave, the door opened, revealing an ecstatic Nancy as her eyes landed on the cat. 

“Oh my God, you found her!” She exclaimed, practically throwing her arms around the cat.

“She was on the fire escape,” he replied.

“You have no idea how much this means to me, Jonathan. Thank you so much.” He saw a tear glimmering in the corner of her eyes and resisted the urge to wipe it off. 

“It was nothing,” he replied, shrugging. Seeing Nancy’s broad smile as she reunited with her cat made him happier than he’d been in a while. Actually, despite the cold he had, the last 24 hours were quite possibly the best he’d spent in this city. Sadly, all good things had to come to an end. Maybe they’d still run into each other in the hallways from time to time, perhaps even throw around a greeting in passing every now and then? If she didn’t think it’d be too uncomfortable.

“Merry Christmas, Nancy,” he said. “Take care.”

“Jonathan, wait up!”

“What?”

“I was supposed to be baking cookies when Luna ran away, but they turned out terrible, so I went to the store and bought a box. Would you like a few?”

Suddenly remembering he hadn’t eaten all day, his stomach rumbled. “Sure, sounds good.”

She hesitated on the doorstep, as if considering whether to ask him inside or not. “You- you don’t have to ask me in,” he said, wanting to avoid the weirdness that was sure to appear in their interactions if he entered her apartment. Also, maybe he didn’t want to know what her place looked like. It was easier to go on that way, this time with the knowledge that the love of his life lived so close to him. 

Nancy faced him and nodded. “Right. I’ll bring you the cookies, hold on.”

After giving Luna one last scratch behind her ears and carrying a small bag of sugar cookies, he returned to his floor and apartment. Just as he wondered how to stop himself from thinking about her even more now that they were neighbors, his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hi honey, how are you? Are you still sick?” It was his mom, who still called him on most days. 

“Hey Mom, I’m feeling a little better now. How’s everyone?”

“We’re good. Anything special going on with you, Jonathan? You sound weird.”

Jonathan frowned. Sometimes he could swear his mom had to be a psychic. 

“No, nothing weird. I helped a neighbor find her cat today.”

“You did? That’s great. Is the neighbor nice?”

Smiling, he shook his head. “Yeah, she is. Very nice.”

“It’s a start, Jonathan.”

“I was just helping her.”

“And I just want you to be happy, that’s all. You’re a wonderful young man, it’s about time you showed that to a nice girl.”

Exhaling, he considered telling her the truth, but decided against it. This was nothing, after all. Nothing would change.