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The Good Neighbor

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He’s late. Again.

It’s the third time this week, and the real kicker is that this time, it’s not even his fault. Not that it makes it any better.

Matt hurries towards the door of his apartment. He hasn’t had time to shut the windows but that should be alright, it probably won’t rain today, if he’s lucky. The crisp spring scents of the city fill up the yawning apartment, sounds from the traffic outside pushing up and in along with them. Matt shoulders his suit jacket onto one arm then to the other as he gets to the door, finding the cool familiar outline of his keys with his free hand on the table by the door. He runs a hand through his hair impatiently, still a little damp from the rushed shower. He pockets the keys, realizing his tie is probably anything but straight, but he can fiddle with it as soon as he has any kind of time. Foggy’s probably already been at the office for an hour, pouring through at least three cases worth of documents, taking the heavy load as usual.

Matt tries to blink the sleepiness away, firmly pushing his circular glasses up onto his nose as he finally shoves his way out of the apartment. The handle of the door clunks shut with the same weary sound it always does and he gives it a kick just to be sure it’s made it all the way. The weight of his phone in his pocket gives a buzz, just a friendly little reminder of exactly how late he is.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Matt swears under his breath, turning to the stairs.

There’s a sound within the apartment across the hall. Matt stops, one foot on the top step.

He grits his teeth. He’s late already. It doesn’t matter. He can worry about it later. But the apartment is right there, the only other one on the floor, just across the wide, worn down landing. He can hear the footsteps, solid against the old floors.

Should he? Would it really make any difference? He drums his fingers once, twice, against the top of his cane. Fuck it. If he’s going to be late it’s at least going to be someone else’s fault.

He crosses the familiar space across the landing easily. His knuckles hesitate for a moment above the peeling paint of the door, but he tightens his jaw and gives three good hard knocks.

The footsteps inside the other apartment stop. Matt knocks again, harder this time. After a moment, the steps turn his way, solid and sturdy on the old wooden floors. Matt takes a step back as he hears a heavy hand hit the doorknob.

The door pulls open. The deep grumble of a voice answers. “Yeah?”

The smells he remembers from the last time he walked past him on the stairway meet him again: strong coffee, gun cleaner, generic soap mixed with lingering hints of sweat, and something else as well that he can’t quite place, oatmeal maybe? He might have been eating breakfast when he knocked.

Matt clears his throat crisply. “Hi.”

He can feel the man’s eyes watching him skeptically, steadily. “Morning, councillor.” His voice grates like a pipe on concrete.

Ah. ‘Councillor’. That’s right. Matt takes a deep breath. Perfect. Just perfect.

“I forgot.” Matt says. “You’re an officer in the 35th. Isn’t that right? You know me from the station.”

“I might.”

“I think you do,” Matt pushes back.

“Look,” he feels the man’s weight shift, hears a scuff as though he’s propped himself on a thick forearm on the door-jam. “You want something, or what?”

Irritation sparks under Matt’s skin. “I’m late. For work. Again.”

“Oh yeah? That’s too bad.” He can feel the lopsided smirk drag onto the man’s face. “And, how’s that any kind of my problem?”

“Your TV.”

“What about it?”

“You had it on, late last night. And the night before. It’s loud.”

“Funny,” the man shrugs, “no one else was complaining.”

“We’re the only people on this floor.”

“Huh,” Matt can feel him looking around, tone distinctly unimpressed. “Guess that’s so.”

“Then this morning…,” Matt leads hopefully, “…the music?”

“Let me guess, too loud?”

“For 5AM? Yeah, you could probably call it too loud.”

“I workout,” he shrugs, “I listen to music.”

Matt remembers the dull thudding pushing through the walls, must have been a punching bag, smacking again and again and again, with the scathing soundtrack of Metallica coming right along with it.

Matt shrugs. “Maybe, go to a gym?”

“You gonna tell me how to work out, councillor?”

“My name’s Matt,” he says sharply.

The man’s quiet for a moment, gaze heavy and persistent. “Yeah. So I gather.”

And god this isn’t getting him anywhere. He’s wasting his time, and even later than when he started. “It’s loud, alright? All of it. I couldn’t go to sleep with the TV. And when I finally did get to sleep the music woke me up again, so now I’m late, for the third time this week.”

“Sure are chatty for someone who’s late. For the third time this week.”

Great. Well, what the hell else did he really expect? Matt rolls his eyes behind his glasses. “Look, just, can you try to keep it down? Alright?”

“Yeah,” the man’s tone tightens. “Sure, councillor. You got it.” The door swings shut in his face.

Perfect. Just perfect. The day just keeps getting better.

It’s almost eleven by the time Matt makes it through the familiar glass-knobbed door. He hurries into the office, shutting the door behind him and trying to catch his breath. “Sorry, sorry.”

He can hear Foggy shuffling things about in the back office. “Again, Matt? Seriously?”

The office feels the same as always, open windows letting the feeling of the city roll around between the walls. The sound of the air-conditioning unit two floors down, and the packaging plant on the ground floor. The smell of Foggy’s shampoo, the same one he’s been using since they were nineteen, old plaster walls and bagels that must be waiting on one of the desks.

Matt follows Foggy’s voice to the left, feeling his steps slide right over the little bump of the doorway. He sighs, leaning heavily against the doorframe. “I officially hate my neighbor.”

“Yeah, you and the rest of Manhattan, cry me a river,” Foggy says. He sounds like he’s sitting behind the desk, eyes down and focused as he moves through stack upon stack of files. He can’t be sure but it feels like the stack might be bigger than yesterday. “Mine cooks cabbage.”

Matt blinks. “What?”

“My neighbor. Cabbage. All day. I mean literally, all day. I don’t even think I remember what cabbage smells like anymore, it’s just become a part of me by now.”

“Ah, so that’s what that smell is,” Matt teases.

“Ha, ha,” Foggy pronounces. “But seriously yours can’t be worse than the cabbage baron. Isn’t it just that little old lady who looks like she witnessed the descent of the ten commandments? She got a thing for boiled vegetables, too? Beets maybe? She looks like she’d be into beets.”

“Nah, it’s not her, not anymore. She moved… or died… something. Not sure. Anyways, someone new moved in, about a month ago.”

“Loud dog? Loud sex?” Foggy raises an eyebrow. “Both?”

“Neither.”

“So? What?”

Matt finds the seat opposite the desk and sits down with a sigh, finally reaching up to adjust his tie properly. His hair’s still wet on the edges and he’s a little sticky from hurrying over here so fast.

“He’s a cop.” He says.

“Oh,” Foggy’s head tilts back slightly, brow furrowing. “And that’s… bad?”

“I’m starting to think most of the cops in this neighborhood aren’t our biggest fans. Him especially.”

“Come on, that’s not true,” Foggy insists, “I mean maybe a few would rather we took longer vacations, sure, but it’s not as bad as all that. No one’s willing Acme safes to drop on our heads or anything.”

“Wouldn’t place any bets against this guy.”

“Really?” Foggy leans forward onto the papers with a rustle. “So what? You think this guy just has it in for you because of what you - we - do? Just cause we’re lawyers? Doesn’t that seem a bit paranoid Matt, I mean even for you? You’re sure he’s not just… kind of a dick in general?”

“Uh, no, I am absolutely convinced he’s kind of a dick in general. But I don’t think that’s it.”

“What makes you say that?”

Matt rolls his eyes. “I don’t know, it’s just… I think it’s just me. I mean he keeps his recyclables right outside the door for pickup every Tuesday. He calls that lady who yells at her cats two floors down ‘ma’am’.”

Foggy snorts. “Seriously?”

Matt furrows his brow. “Actually, I think he calls all the women in our building ma’am.”

“Is he Southern?”

“No,” Matt shakes his head, “no, he sounds like he’s from here.”

“Polite New Yorker, huh? Call the press.”

“Yeah, right, polite to everyone else.” Matt leans forward with a sigh. He pushes the balls of his hands up under the glasses, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “If I have to hear that Metallica album one more time, Foggy, I swear to god.”

“Don’t want to ride the lightning?”

Matt gives him a look. “At 5AM? Take a guess.”

Foggy tosses up his hands. “Fine, fine. Hey, I’m not the one who made you late, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah no, I know.” He reaches out to the desk, feeling for a laptop. It meets his fingers and he snaps it open, pulling it in front of him. “Sorry. Again.”

He can feel Foggy watching him still, even as the keyboard lights up under his fingers. “You know,” Foggy starts slowly, starting to look through his own papers. “They call people that in the army. It’s a military thing.”

“Call people what?”

Foggy glances back at him. “Ma’am.”

Matt pauses. “They do. Don’t they?”

Foggy moves one stack of papers across the table next to his own computer. “You don’t think that’s it, do you?”

“What?” Matt let’s his fingers trace over the top of the folders, finding his way. “This new case?”

Foggy shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe. Could be. Right?”

Matt finds what he was looking for. He slides the statement that’s become all too familiar in the past few days into his hands, running fingers across the words. “Like I said, I didn’t care where the shots went. I just shot and hoped it was enough. But it wasn’t. And here I am. So that’s what I got to say.”

Matt sighs, leaning back in his seat. “Remind me why we’re doing this again?”

Foggy seems almost as tired as he feels. “Because we’re straight up morons with hearts of solid gold.”

“We getting that printed on the business cards?”

“Might as well let people know what they’re signing up for.”

Matt hadn’t known what they were signing up for. Not with this one, not by a long shot. They were dragged in so easily, just like all the others. A girl sitting patient and rooted by their door, waiting for them to come in, clutching a file to her chest like some precious thing. Just a file, filled with old pictures of her and her sister, the sister’s service records, hand scribbled memories of phone calls and notes left behind, everything, anything: a life cut apart and pasted together again, carefully summed up and placed into one slim manilla folder. The girl had pushed it into his hands awkwardly, buttoning it all up with a: “Please. She’s going to ruin her life. Whatever she has left of it. Please, you have to help.”

“You think we’re getting a reputation?” Matt asks.

“For what?”

“Being straight up morons.”

Foggy let’s out half a laugh. “Yeah. Guaranteed.” He tosses down the folder in his hands. “So what? You want to call up the girl. Tell her we’re just going to let her sister tell the D.A. office and their plea deals to fuck off? Let her land herself in prison for the rest of her life?”

Matt smiles. “Know what they say about Catholics.”

“They’ve got a thing for bruised knees?”

Matt pulls a fresh stack of papers into his lap. “Gluttons for punishment.”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

Matt flicks open the top file. “You know, normally the client wants us to keep them out of jail.”

“Yeah,” Foggy snorts, “lucky us.”

“You talked to her again?”

“I talked at her again. I don’t think she likes me. She looks at my hair like it’s going to jump on the table and try to snake up her arm or something.”

“I have my own concerns.”

“Hey!” Foggy shoots back. “I use two conditioners, alright? It doesn’t get classier than that. Little girls in Sweden to go bed every night praying for hair like this.”

Matt can’t help smiling. “You told her their latest offer?”

Fogy sighs. “I told her. Got nothing. Bupkis.”

“Did you sell it?”

He can feel Foggy’s exasperated expression. “Yes, Matt, I sold it, alright? With a nice bow on top, chocolates on the side, and a big helping of ‘it’s really not going to get any better than this’.”

“And bupkis, huh?”

Foggy stands, pacing across towards the window. “I don’t know. It’s…. What are we supposed to do? She wants to go to prison, Matt. She told us she did. It’s the D.A. that wants her to take a deal, them and her sister. But they’re not our clients. She is. Should we just listen to her? Let her go to jail for exactly as long as she wants.”

“As in forever?”

Foggy leans against the window jam. “Yeah. Right.” He looks over his shoulder. “So this is what we do now? Help people who don’t want it?”

“It’s what we’re doing today.”

“Cause we’re gluttons for punishment?”

Matt grins. “That’s right.”

“Well,” Foggy turns back from the window. “The good news is so is our client. So at least we’ve got that in common.”

“Then what’s next?” Matt leans back in his chair. “She told her sister she’d wait two weeks before submitting herself to sentencing, right?”

“And that was two days ago.”

“So we still have time to convince her she should take the deal.”

How,” Foggy insists. “You didn’t see her yesterday, Matt. She needs a therapist. A good one. For like, at least three years, if they’re really on top of their game. We’re not the right ones for this.”

“We’re the only ones for this,” Matt says firmly. “Look, I know, it’s a challenge, and yeah, you’re probably right. But she signed her life away for this country, for our lives, the least we can do is sign away two weeks for her’s. Two weeks to try and see what happens. And if we can do it we’re giving someone back a life to live.”

He can feel Foggy staring back at him, into the dark red circles of the glasses. “You sure she deserves it?”

Matt wets his lips, thinking for a moment. “No. I’m not. But there are some things everyone deserves.”

“Like what?”

Matt stares back at him. “A chance at forgiveness.”

It turns into a long morning, and an even longer afternoon. It’s pointless for them to go back down to the station without at least something new to bring to the table. They can take a day, even two, make sure they’re ready to give it the best shot they can. And who knows? Maybe staring at prison walls without visitors for a day or two would help them make the case that it isn’t exactly the most thrilling way to spend the rest of your life.

Josie’s is ready and waiting for them when they need it, just like it always is. It’s finally warm enough that they can leave the door open, spring breeze making it two feet inside before they’re snuffed out in the smell of dried booze and stale sweat.

He and Foggy find relatively dry seats at the bar and order, like they always have to; even if Josie must know their drinks by now, she’d never let them know it. Matt listens to the hum of the drunken conversation, the clack of billiards, the buzz of the neon lights. He’s always wondered what color the lights are, but he’s never quite wanted to ask. It’s nice to try and imagine, and the sound almost paints the picture for him: heady cheap glare, red, or orange, or green, catching on the spotted glasses, the thick lacquered table, the grimy puddles outside. He’d guess red. He’s almost positive.

They’re two drinks in when the gaggle of giggles, plastic tiaras, and belted demands for martinis stumbles through the door. How a bachelorette party made it into Josie’s completely beats him, but it only takes a few more drinks before an apparently fearless bridesmaid takes command of the jukebox.

He and Foggy laugh into their third beers as the sound of every regular groaning escalates and yet another Beyonce track comes blasting out of the speakers.

“Can’t you kick them out, Jos?” one man grumbles a few seats down.

“What for?” Josie growls back. “Don’t you think I get sick of looking at you sorry shits every day? I could use a goddamn break.”

Matt lifts his glass in her direction with a grin. He doesn’t have to see to know she completely ignores him.

“Um, hell-loo?” a voice suddenly sounds at his elbow. Foggy elbows his ribs hard and Matt turns.

“Uh, hey?” Matt answers, wincing as he works the pain out of his side. They must be good looking, Foggy has a built in snap reflex when attractive women surprise him, and Matt’s ribs often pay the price. He’s almost positive it’s “they”, two, maybe three from what he can tell, with more of the gang still towards the back, draining another pitcher of beer and screaming at the billiard table.

“So… What’re you guys up to?” The same girl asks, more slur than anything else.

Foggy shrugs, “Not too much.” Matt can tell he’s beaming.

Another girl leans heavily onto the bar next to them. “You two. You.” He thinks she’s pointing. “You should come dance.”

“Come dance?” Matt repeats.

“That,” Foggy calls, lifting his glass in triumph, “is an excellent idea!”

See!” the girl on the bar just about yells, slapping her friend’s arm. “It wasn’t ‘stupid Tracy’ to ask. It was smart Tracy to ask. Smartest. Hands down.”

Foggy’s already clambering to his feet, following them back to the group as Tracy continues to assert her obvious superiority. But one of the girls is still lingering. Matt can feel her watching him.

“I didn’t—“ she starts, skeptically, and he knows the tone before she even starts. He can feel the way she’s looking at him. He’s felt it every day of his life. “I didn’t want,” she continues. “I mean, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to. If it’s,” and there’s the predictable confused guilt slipping into her tone, “if it’s… I don’t know, if you don’t want to.”

Matt puts on the practiced smile: easy, natural, friendly. He learned that smile when he was fifteen, learned that it hid that little scratch of fury in his chest anytime someone implied that he needed permission to not do something he wasn’t comfortable with.

“I’d love to dance,” he says, smile charming and utterly disarming, “thanks for asking.”

He can feel the girl’s relief washing over her. By the time they get to the group the party is ordering yet another set of tequila shots. It doesn’t take too much encouragement for him and Foggy to join in, and when Matt feels the tentative slide of a lime against his lower lip he bites down with a grin.

“Wait, wait, waitwaitwait—“ a girl’s voice calls against the music and the din of the bar. He knows that tone, too; it’s the tone of someone who has an excellent drunken idea. “I know exactly, exactly! What we need.” Matt can hear the bride-to-be protesting behind her, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good.

He feels a sturdy female hand grab his shoulder, turning him about-face with authority.

“Whoa, hey there.” He hears Foggy call, sounding like he’s getting the same treatment.

“Just hold still for a second,” the girl’s voice says. It’s quieter, closer to his cheek. Matt listens, holding still. He feels something slide down around his head, into his hair. It feels like a plastic band. He lifts tentative fingers up. There’s two little horns sticking out of his hair.

He snorts. “Perfect.”

“Oh come on!” Foggy calls. “I get the halo? How is that fair?”

“It’s exactly fair,” the girl slurs with a thick smile, “trust me. See, Shay, you’ve got one for each shoulder now. All set.”

The bride-to-be must be smothering her embarrassment into her drink based on sound of gurgling laughter. He can hear Foggy pulled back into the group. Someone’s turning the tequila bottle over for another round. The warmth of a body slips closer to his side.

“What’d you think?” It’s a soft voice, heady with booze and excitement and the crowded air of the bar. “Can I dance with the devil?”

Matt tilts his head just slightly in her direction, turning his cheek enough to feel her breath as a hand slips around his arm. “I don’t know, bit risky.”

He can hear the girl smile, hand tightening pleasantly against his arm. “I’ll take it.”

It’s at least one more shot and half another Beyonce album before they start stumbling towards the door. And god, he really shouldn’t be dancing when he’s this drunk. At least he’s not making a spectacle of himself for too long. The girl, Christa, is already asking him how far his place is, hand sliding up between his jacket and shirt in a teasing way as she holds firmly onto his arm and they head for the door. Foggy must catch sight of them because Matt thinks he hears him call something over the sound of pop-music and disgruntled regulars. But he can’t quite hear him. Matt turns to call back. He turns too fast, and with a little tickle of panic, loses his footing.

Christa lets out a shocked squeal, completely letting go of his arm in her surprise. Matt braces, ready for the crack of the floor on his knees but it doesn’t come. Someone’s already caught him.

There’s a thick hand around his upper arm, a hand that’s lifting him back upright very easily. Matt realizes through the tipsy haze he’s grabbed onto an equally solid shoulder to support himself. He gets his footing again, muttering quick apologies the entire time.

“Easy there,” a deep voice says.

Matt blinks. The smell hits him: strong coffee, gun cleaner, and something else.

Matt takes a stumbling step back, instantly dropping the grip he had on the man’s shoulder.

“Hey! Matt!” Foggy’s yelling from the back. “You alright?”

And god isn’t this is perfect, just perfect. He can hear the man’s grin, smug and lopsided where he’s sitting at the bar. “Yeah, Red, you alright?”

Red? That’s new.

“Shit.” Fuck. The fucking horns. Fuck. Fuck. Matt runs a hand quickly through his hair, shoving the things off.

“Oh no!” Christa cries plaintively from behind him. “They matched your glasses! They’re too cute!”

“Oh yeah,” the rough voice echoes with that self-satisfied smile, “too cute.”

“Come on,” Matt says, getting Christa’s arm again and stumbles towards the door. He’s not blushing. Definitely not. They can’t exit fast enough and as soon as they’re out, the bright air of spring nights floods around him.

He takes a good deep breath, trying not to feel so dizzy. He focuses on the smells: rain waiting just around the corner, the cart selling roasted nuts three blocks down, fresh heady mulch on the park greenery two blocks behind them. He lets his breath out again, feeling the drunken fog wrap back around him in a comfortable, gauzy sort of way.

Christa’s still laughing, more to herself than anyone else it sounds like. Matt turns in the right direction, heading for his apartment and she turns with him. She lifts herself up against his arm. “I’m sorry I let go. I’m terrible. Christ, just, that’s so bad. So bad. I shouldn’t have let go. I don’t know why I did. Reflex. Butterfingers.”

“That’s alright,” Matt says.

“But hey! You’re alright! I wish there were big ol’ jacked dudes around every time I tripped on the subway, christ. I trip a lot, by the way, even when I’m not tequila-faced.” She laughs again and he smiles along with her. “Did you know that guy? The one with better reflexes than me? He looked like he knew you? You know him?”

Matt shakes his head. “He’s just my neighbor.”

“Man,” Christa reflects. “Lucky you.”

“Yeah,” Matt grumbles. “Lucky me.”