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Meet the Neighbors

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It was a lovely day out, and Sarah was stuck inside the office waiting for new arrivals.  Typical.  She didn’t even work here, but she volunteered once a week, a fact that she knew the other residents thought was odd at best and unethical at worst.  She didn’t care, though.  So she had some civic pride, sue her for caring about the upkeep of their home!  It had been hard enough getting a job good enough to keep her here after Justin left her, and she was darn well going to keep a good thing going.

But it would be nice if Melanie didn’t always stick her with the worst shifts.  Sarah stared out toward the pool and tapped her pen against the desk, impatient.  She was supposed to be passing off keys to the new couple moving into apartment 218, but they were late.  Almost 30 minutes already.  She certainly hoped that it wasn’t typical for them.  The last thing this place needed was another self-absorbed couple that shirked the rules and expected everyone else to cater to their whims.

Another 15 minutes later, and she had all but given up on them.  There was only a quarter hour left in her shift, and then it would be someone else’s problem anyway.  But as she starting packing her purse, grabbing her greek yogurt from the mini fridge under the desk, the door burst open, sending the bell up top into a cacophony of jingles.

“I’m just saying,” said the man coming in, “it’s about time she took some fucking notice.”

Sarah winced at his language as she straightened, ready to remind him that he was in polite company—families lived here, for goodness sake—when she caught sight of him and stopped in her tracks.  The ripped jeans normally wouldn’t have phased her, being at least fashionable if in somewhat poor taste, but the mud caking their hem around heavy work boots was a different story.  Not to mention the untucked and unbuttoned flannel with—were those torn sleeves?  What on earth?

“Come on, Mick,” someone said plaintively behind the dirty man hogging the doorway.  “I know Debbie can be a bit much—”

The first man barked a short laugh as he moved further into the room, letting the door fall back against whoever was behind him.  It reopened a second later, revealing a tall, red-haired man who looked completely opposite to his rough companion.

“—but she’d do anything for Frannie,” the newcomer finished, as if a heavy wooden door hadn’t been closed in his face seconds before.

The dirty one scoffed.  “Sure, Gallagher,” he responded.  “But stop pretending her version of anything is the same as yours.”

Oh, no.  Sarah swallowed as she realized that these two—Gallagher and his companion—were most likely who she was waiting on.  At least, that last name matched the one scrawled at the top of the move-in paperwork that Melanie had handed her that morning, though she supposed there was a chance that it was a coincidence.  Giving them both another once-over, ignoring the way they kept talking as if they hadn’t even noticed her, she decided that must be it.  After all, she couldn’t imagine that the man in the torn jeans would ever live here.  Besides, Melanie had said that a couple was moving in, and no one else seemed likely to appear.  

“Excuse me,” she said loudly during a break in their conversation, “but can I help you?”

Both men quieted immediately, and she abruptly found herself on the receiving end of two very different stares.  The dirty one’s eyes were cold and hard, his eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline as he raked his gaze over her from head to toe and back.  She half expected him to leer, used to attention from his type when she walked down still-developing streets, but instead his mouth twisted in something like a grimace. She almost shivered at his intensity until he looked away, leaving her looking into the softer green eyes of his companion.  That one, Gallagher she reminded herself, gave her a grin as he stepped forward to put himself between them, and she found herself relaxing without intending to.

“Hi, are you Sarah?” he asked, his tone completely changed and much more charming than it had been just a moment ago, when he was speaking to the other one.  “Melanie told us to meet you here, I’m Ian Gallagher.”  Of course he was.  “You have keys for me?” he prompted when she didn’t offer right away.

At least he wasn’t so bad; the red-head was polite if nothing else, a vast improvement already over the impression they both made when they first came in. If she just focused on his wide, open smile, maybe she could ignore the scowl already taking over his friend’s face.  Surely the other man wasn’t moving in with him.  There didn’t seem to be many redeeming qualities about the first man so far, blue eyes and strong arms aside, and Gallagher seemed the type to need more romance than a thug like that could offer.  She couldn’t imagine why he had brought such surly company along at all, but maybe he needed the muscle to help move in.  Sarah supposed she couldn’t fault him for that—he probably wanted to get things set up so his girlfriend could settle in properly.

Suddenly she was aware that they were watching her again, and that she had taken much too long to process such a simple request.  “Of course!” she said with a brightness she didn’t feel.  There would be no faulting her customer service, of that she would make sure.  “I have your keys right here, Mr. Gallagher,” she said, opening the top desk drawer.  It squealed on unoiled slides, revealing a short stack of paper with a plain keyring balanced right on top.  She grabbed up the whole pile and slid it shut with a hip, not looking at Gallagher as she added, ”and Melanie said that your partner would be with you?”

When she risked looking at the red-head again, he seemed a touch confused, his eyes darting between her and the man that had come in with him.  Sarah refused to follow his gaze and see what that one looked like now, even though she could still feel eyes on her.  

“Uh, yeah,” Gallagher replied.  Sarah heard a snort from the other side of the room, but refused to recognize it.  Neither did Gallagher, but he did look up like he was trying not to roll his eyes before he reached a hand out for what she held in an obvious appeal.  “Well, we’re ready to get settled, so…”

“Oh, of course!” she agreed readily.  “Well, here we are, Mr. Gallagher,” she said as she held out the bundle of paper and keys.  “You’re right upstairs and to the left, and I’m right here if you need anything!”  

This time, the cough from across the room sounded oddly like the words “bootlicker bitch”.  But before she could even process the gall of that outrageous response to common courtesy, Gallagher was taking the keys from the top of the stack of papers and turning away.

Sarah reached out just fast enough to grab him by the arm, her polished nails biting into his skin when he didn’t stop moving quite quickly enough.  He went still, and the atmosphere in the room got heavier, making the hairs on her own arm bristle.  She let go immediately, but couldn’t let the sudden discomfort of the situation stop her from doing her job.

“Don’t forget the move-in paperwork, Mr. Gallagher,” she said firmly, holding out the full stack of papers again.  He seemed to relax at the explanation, though the mood of the room didn’t lessen.  She really wasn’t looking at that other man now.  Gallagher stuck his new keys in the pocket of his snug jeans and went to take the papers from her, one hand above and one below, but she didn’t let go.  “You’ll need to fill this out and upload it to the resident portal,” she told him.  “Everything is new, of course, but we recommend taking pictures in case anything comes up on future inspections.”

He hesitated a moment when she loosened her grip, before sliding it all slowly out of her hands.  As he did so, his bottom hand brushed hers, and she felt the unmistakable imprint of a wedding ring.  

Even odder that he wouldn’t bring his wife with him for this than just a girlfriend, she thought, but distractedly tucked that information into the back of her mind.  Maybe he just wanted to spare his partner the behavior of his help.  And as he finally took his things with a muttered, “uh, thanks,” and turned to leave without a goodbye, clearly moving to hustle the other man out the door, she was almost sure that was it.

“Wait, inspections?” the one was saying in a too-loud voice as they left.  He sounded incredulous.  “What the fuck, Ian, why would they be inspectin’ anything?!”  His vocabulary had not improved in the minutes that he hadn’t been talking.

Gallagher opened the door and ushered him through with a hand firmly set on his back, glancing back to Sarah and talking over the endless, agitated comments coming from his friend as they left.  

“Bye Sarah, and thank you!  I’m sure we’ll see you soon!” he called over his shoulder.

“Like fuck we will, asshole, you little…”

Their voices faded as the door slammed shut behind them, leaving Sarah standing in sudden silence.  Well.  That was something.  She wasn’t sure she looked forward to having the tall one as a neighbor if his rough companion was ever going to make another appearance, even if he seemed pleasant enough on his own.  Maybe his wife would be better company.

Then the clock struck twelve, and she started.  She could worry off the clock, but she had to get going, and fast.  She had a meeting at one for her actual job, and she couldn’t miss that for whatever this drama was.  She finished packing up, hoping against hope that the two men would be long gone before she left the office.  She’d see the red-head again, she was sure, but after today she knew that there wasn’t enough time in the world to prepare her to see his friend again.  With any luck, she wouldn’t need to.

———————

Unfortunately, she saw the short, foul-mouthed one again first.  He was standing just outside the office door, hands in raggedy pockets, scuffing his dirty workboots against the clean pavement when she locked up, ready to head up to her own apartment after her shift just two days later.  He didn’t seem to notice her as she stopped still with her key still in the door, watching him stare out across the open courtyard and empty pool.

She hesitated to approach him, but loitering was specifically prohibited in their bylaws, and there was no sign of Mr. Gallagher at all.  If he wasn’t visiting a tenant, he really did have no business here.  Bolstered by that knowledge, she pulled her back up straight and approached.

“Excuse me,” she started quietly.  In the right or not, there was no need to court trouble, and he didn’t look like the type to appreciate brash interruptions.  But he didn’t seem to hear her at all, just pulling a hand out of his jeans to pluck an unlit cigarette from behind his ear and place it between chapped lips.  And oh, that did it, there was absolutely no smoking allowed in common areas!

“Excuse me!” she said louder.  The man started, twisting around to stare her right in the eye.  His gaze was as disconcerting now as it was when they first met, pale blue eyes cold and calculating as he scanned her briefly before returning his eyes to hers.

“What?” he said shortly.  His disinterested tone was at odds with his sharp attention, and she suppressed a shiver.

“You can’t be here,” she answered immediately, refusing to be cowed by his demeanor.  He could try to be as intimidating as he liked, but she was in the position of authority here.

As soon as she thought it, she realized that an authoritative presence might not be the best thing to put forward around this one.  He dug around in a deep pocket and pulled out a cheap, worn lighter, using it to light up his cigarette without breaking eye contact.  When he took the cigarette from his mouth with two fingers to exhale, she couldn’t help but notice the smudge of ink across his knuckles, and she almost gulped.  Yeah, this one probably had problems with authority.

It was too late to back down, though, so she doubled down instead.

“If you’re here for your friend Mr. Gallagher,” she tried, “then he should have explained the rules to you.”

He took another careless drag, and drawled, “Rules, huh?”

“Yes!” she said.  She knew she sounded too excitable, but it was better than sounding afraid.  “We have very strict guidelines for visitors around here, sir, and if you can’t—”

“Sir?” he choked out, suddenly laughing and almost dropping his cigarette.  His abrupt change in attitude startled her, as did the sight of sharp white teeth against his pale face, and she didn’t have a response ready for that at all.  “Do I look like a sir?” he managed, leaning down to rest his unoccupied hand on one knee.  “Geez, lady,” he practically wheezed out, “you gotta loosen up.”

She was saved from having to find a response to that when Gallagher, all long legs and shocking red hair, appeared from the door to the complex gym.

“Mick?” the new tenant called out when he spotted them.  “What are you doing down here?”

Thank goodness for small mercies.

“Oh, Mr. Gallagher!,” Sarah greeted eagerly.  Strong independent working woman or not, she wasn’t going to turn down backup right now.  “So good to see you, how are you and your partner settling in?”

His eyes bounced between her and his friend, who had straightened and was now leaning against the wall of the office with one dirty, booted foot against the clean white plaster.  Sarah winced.

“Alright…” the red-head answered slowly as he made his way closer, skirting the pool until they were all on the same side of it.  Something seemed to pass between the two men as he neared, something with raised brows and pursed lips, but she did her best to ignore it.  

“So happy to hear it, really,” she offered.  And she was.  Mr. Gallagher had been nice enough so far, and the sooner they got settled, the less she would hopefully see his current companion.  And on that front— “Just so you know, though, we do have a strict policy for guests,” she started, “so if you and your wife could just—”

“His what?” came an angry squawk from the friend.  He pushed off the wall and took a step toward her, shoulders suddenly bunched up nearly to his ears, and threw his still lit cigarette to the ground.  Sarah took an immediate step back, watching with wide eyes and grabbing at her purse strap like she could get the mace out of its depths by sheer force of will.

“Mickey,” Gallagher said lowly, moving forward to place a warning hand against the other man’s chest.

“Oh, are you not married Mr. Gallagher?” Sarah rambled.  “I’m sorry, I just assumed, with the ring—I felt it when you—”

Felt it?”  The rough one had stopped his advance when Gallagher touched him, but now he was turning on the other man instead, bringing up both arms to shove against broad shoulders.  Gallagher took a half step back.

“What the fuck does she mean, she fucking felt it, Ian?” There was no hiding how incensed he was, and Sarah was completely confused, once again, by his turn of character.

“I don’t know!” Gallagher was shouting back.  Neither man was paying her any attention anymore, and she knew she should use that to her advantage.  But there was something weirdly desperate, almost intimate, about the way Gallagher’s wide eyes didn’t leave his friend’s face, and she couldn’t stop herself from butting in yet again.

“Just, when he took the papers,” she said clumsily.  “The contract, the other day, in the office—I thought he had a wedding ring.  I’m sorry if I misunderstood—”

They were looking at her again, and she cursed her incessant need to meddle. Gallagher looked ready to respond, but his friend beat him to it.

“Oh, he’s fucking married alright,” he said shortly, trying to step closer again.  Mr. Gallagher’s lips tightened, but his eyes were oddly soft when he pushed back with the hand still on the other man’s chest.  “He ain’t got no fuckin’ wife though.”

“Um.”  Sarah licked dry lips and backed away a little more, letting her purse fall off her shoulder into easier reach.  “I don’t understand…”

“Mickey…,” Mr. Gallagher warned again at the same time.

“He’s married to me, bitch.”  She hadn’t moved fast enough, nor had Gallagher caught him firmly enough, and the words were hissed right into her face from just inches away. She could feel how wide her eyes were, how red her cheeks had gotten, and it apparently spurred him on.  “Oh, you got a problem with that?” he all but whispered.

Sarah swallowed.  This close, his eyes were even bluer, his hair a dark contrast, and his lips were pink were they shaped around the the threat.  Despite herself, she felt something more than fright, and she pushed it down as hard as she could.  “Not at all,” she whispered back.  “I just--”

“Come on, Mickey, let’s go—” Gallagher was saying, pulling his friend—his husband—away.  He left her space easily, but pulled out of Gallagher’s grasp as well, face still hard.

“No,” he told him.  “I wanna hear about this wife of yours, douchebag.”  Sarah thought he sounded hurt more than angry at this point.  “Did you not fucking tell ‘em about me?”

Gallagher sighed.  “Of course I did, Mick,” he answered, “your name is on the goddamn lease—”

“It fucking better be bitch, we’re payin' for this shit with money from my fucking business!”  And with that revelation, Gallagher’s husband was suddenly gone, storming off around the pool and into the building that held his—their—apartment.

“It’s our business,” Gallagher reassures her after a beat, without even glancing her way, like that was the biggest takeaway from all of…that.

“Right,” she agreed faintly.  “Of course.  Um, I’m just going to…” she motions away from the office door that they are somehow still standing right outside, and he nods immediately, stepping back.

“Of course, of course,” he says.  “You should get home.  Oh, and don’t worry about my husband,” he added as he walked backward in the direction the other man had gone.  “He’ll get over it, he’s just…adjusting!” he finished with a wince when a crash came from behind him.  A ceramic pot rolled across the concrete at the edge of the pool, leaving a trail of dirt behind it.  Sarah wondered absently what had happened to the sapling it used to hold.

“I’ll fix that,” he said quickly, jogging across the open area and disappearing around the corner.

Sarah stared at the dirt surrounding the crisp white pool, then at the charred spot on the pavement where a heavy boot had crushed that burning cigarette into the ground.  Absently, she knelt down and brushed at the ash stain, knowing it would do no good.  She’d have to get Billy out here with the hose to clean it up.

Standing, she walked away, in the opposite direction of the two men that apparently lived in her building now.  Something told her that a hose wouldn’t be enough to clean the place up after them now that they were here to stay.  Mentally moving Ian Gallagher from taken, to married, to married to a man that could rip her spine out through her throat and smile about it in her head, she tried to focus on that and not how unexpectedly sweet Gallagher had looked chasing his lover after that ridiculous scene.  She may be a confident single woman taking charge of her life and taking care of her home, she thought as she got into her little red car and pulled out of the parking lot toward the closest bar, but Christ she needed to get laid if that mess had almost sparked something in her.