"You sure this is the last of it, Jim? I don't think I hauled enough boxes of completely useless books up here."
"The books, Bones? Really? I figured you'd be bitching about the sofa instead."
McCoy collapsed onto said piece of furniture with a groan, head tipping back over the cushions. "I'm getting too old for this shit. I figured I was done moving folks around after I got married." He cracked one eye open to glare at Jim. "And the sofa was no picnic, but at least it serves a purpose. We got these newfangled inventions now. They're called PADDs. Maybe you've heard of 'em?"
Jim emerged from the kitchen with a pair of beer bottles, handing one off to his best friend before casting a protective glance towards one of his boxes. "They serve a purpose," he defended himself. "They're priceless antiques."
"You can buy 'em for five credits apiece off the public literary database and keep 'em in your PADD forever," McCoy drawled, taking a long swig from his bottle.
"You've got a stethoscope in your desk," Jim tried another tactic. "A stethoscope, Bones. Those things became obsolete how many centuries ago?"
"One or two, and it's still more modern than than just about anything in your book collection."
"Fair enough." Jim shrugged, setting his unopened beer on the floor and sagging into the sofa. "There's just something comforting about them. Fiction wrapped up in history. And I like the way they smell."
McCoy shrugged, taking another long swig before he spoke again. "Shouldn't complain so much, anyhow. Made the deal of the goddamn century with you."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I'm not gonna wither away and die just because I spent one New Year's Eve out of twenty two taking care of my niece."
"You do know you can't take her into a bar?"
"Aw, Bones, but she's so cute. I can't think of a bouncer in the whole city who'd kick her out of a good party."
McCoy snorted, shaking his head. "You know what? You go right ahead and take her to a bar. See how long it takes before she starts squalling about the noise and the smell and how much she wants to go home and play tea party with Uncle Jim."
"Yeah. We're not doing tea parties anymore."
"I warned you about the sugar."
"And the caffeine."
"And how much she likes to do hair."
"I get it, Bones."
"Probably our best family Christmas card to date, though. You look good in red. Thanks for that."
Jim groaned. "I hate you."
"Love you too, kid," McCoy grinned.
In their first year at the Academy they'd had their fair share of study sessions, bar fights (although that was mostly Jim), and an endless stream of marriage counselors that required heavy drinking binges afterward.
A year into the program, Jim got tired of living in the Starfleet dorms. "If we're gonna drink all my beer and pass out on my floor, we oughta do it someplace where I don't piss off my roommate," Jim had muttered after McCoy had met with his first lawyer about the potential divorce. "Sulu's getting tired of it and he takes fencing."
"Not the prissy swishy kind. The kind with katanas and a whole lot of ass kicking. I think he can kill a man with his pinkie."
And so Jim had decided to find his own place. It was small, sure, but there was enough room for him and the bed and the couch and the books, which was all he needed. It was near enough to the Academy that he could walk to his classes still, and for the first time in his life, he learned what it was like to have a bit of privacy.
Two days later the novelty wore off and he started prowling the building in search of decent company.
He found the landlord first, an older Andorian woman with garlic breath and far too many cats for his comfort level. There was a Scotsman on the first level rooming with what appeared to be a hobbit with scales, and Jim was fairly sure he could smell an illegal still emanating from their storage closet. He learned within a week that there was a newlywed couple living above him, and he found a kind of perverse glee in giving them thumbs-up signs whenever he spied them leaving for work in the morning. And finally there was an Orion woman, Gaila, who lived on his floor and whose fridge was always stocked with something pink and ninety-proof. She was lots of fun to have over for Monday night football, even if she did always manage to sneak off with one of his friends before he could make a pass at her.
Despite all his new acquaintances, he realized after two weeks of living there that he had no idea who his neighbor was. Jim himself was in an end unit, no neighbors to one side but a big bay window looking out into the San Francisco streets. But to the other was someone, or maybe even more than one someones, but for all the silence that came through he would have sworn it wasn't occupied.
He knew that wasn't the case. There was a small woven mat in front of the door that showed signs of wear. Occasionally he'd see a package there when he left for an evening class, and it was always gone by the time he came home. But he never heard the door open or close, never heard anyone coming or going. Asking the other boarders proved useless, because they came up with such a hodgepodge of gossip that it was impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.
"Ooh, the Romulan spy," said Scotty (of course his name was Scotty, Jim thought, because the accent and the faint smell of haggis and the bottles of Scotch all over the place weren't quite enough to turn him into a walking cliche). "Ye'll never catch hair nor hide o' him. Keenser thinks he's building a bomb in there."
"Such a sweet pair," the Andorian landlord said in between opening cans of cat food. "So quiet! So private! Been together for years, you know."
"Alcoholics Anonymous dropout," Gaila decided, downing her sixth pink abomination. "I think he's either wasted all the time or just plain passed out. If it ever starts smelling funny over there, better call the authorities. You know what dead bodies smell like, right?"
It became something of a hobby, trying to figure out the mystery of apartment 5-G, a little puzzle for Jim to tinker with in between classes and commiserating with his soon-to-be-divorced best friend.
"No bars," McCoy reminded him sternly when he dropped off his daughter that evening.
"Seriously? You don't trust licensed childcare professionals with your kid, but you'll drop her off here with that kind of warning?"
"I know you're not a pedophile or a murderer."
"Licensed, Bones. They look up things like that on a person's record."
"What's a pedal-file?" Joanna asked, not looking anywhere near as innocent as a four year old ought to.
"Hey, I got a princess movie going on the holovid," Jim distracted her. "Better get in there before you miss the first musical number."
"Bye Daddy," Joanna replied instantly, pecking her father on the cheek and squirming to be put down. She tore into Jim's apartment without a backward glance.
McCoy handed over a small pink duffel bag. "Bedtime's at seven. She's allergic to peanuts. No-"
"No junk food, no soda, nothing even remotely resembling fun for her until she's eighteen," Jim recited dutifully. "And it's New Year's Eve! We're gonna stay up and watch the ball drop!"
McCoy glowered. "Just keep in mind, kid - I'm in charge of your medical exams."
Jim gave him his best charming grin. "Better get going. You've got your cow to attend to."
"Her name's Jocelyn."
"Terrible name for a cow. Should've gone for an Elsie."
McCoy rolled his eyes. "Good night, Jim."
Jim waited until McCoy had just started his descent on the stairs before calling back into his apartment, "So what'll it be, Jojo? The Cowgirl or Firestone? I think it's ladies' night down at Firestone."
"Very funny!" came the shout from the stairs, and Jim grinned and barricaded himself in his apartment before McCoy changed his mind.
"What's Firestone?" asked Joanna from her perch on Jim's favorite chair.
"A place where absolutely no juice, chocolate milk, or ice cream is served," he answered solemnly, tossing her a pink stuffed rabbit from the duffel bag and setting it down on the coffee table.
"BOR-ing," she returned, snuggling her rabbit and staying quiet for the remainder of the film.
When it was over, Jim was startled out of his light doze by a sudden lapful of little girl. "I'm hungry," she informed him.
"All right, whatcha hungry for?"
She thought about it for a full ten seconds. "Cookies."
"Yeah, no. You need dinner food, not dessert food."
She made a face. "All we ever eat is rabbit food. Know what tofu is?"
He did, but he humored her. "Nope. What's tofu?"
He let out a short bark of a laugh. "I wouldn't put it past your mommy. How about pizza?"
Her eyes lit up. "I haven't had pizza in forever!"
He scruffed up her messy brown curls. "And I just happen to know a place down the street with an ice cream parlor attached. How's that sound?"
She squealed in delight, throwing her arms around his neck and squeezing so hard that he had to fight for his air supply. "You're the best Uncle Jim ever!"
"Yep, I know." He gave her a peck on the forehead. "Go get your coat on and grab Uncle Jim's keys off the table and we'll get going."
She bolted from the apartment about twenty seconds after he'd spoken, and he rushed to shrug into his leather jacket before chasing after her, shutting the door behind him. "You oughta be a pilot someday, Jojo," he chuckled. "You can take off faster than any shuttle I've ever seen."
"I don't wanna be a pilot," she informed him, jutting out her lower lip in an over-dramatic pout.
"No? What do you want to be?" It changed every time he asked her. So far she was going to be a presidential movie star who liked to raise horses and unicorns. On Mars.
"A ballerina. Mommy put me in lessons last month." She turned around to face him, putting on a show. "This is first position." And she put her little booted feet together at the heels. "This is second position." And she spread her legs comically wide, looking something like a squatting duck. "Third position." Boots squashed back together again. "And this is a grand jeté!" And she leaped into the air.
A heartbeat in time after she'd done it, Jim realized she was at the top of the stairs.
A heartbeat after that he was scrambling to catch her in time, but it was too late. She landed on the edge of the first step, toppling over with a cry and landing on the small clearing ten steps below.
"Jo!" he yelled, and by the time he got to her she was already red in the face and crying. "Joanna, baby, are you okay?"
She couldn't speak at first, fisting one hand in his jacket and sobbing into his shoulder, snot bubbling against the leather. Her other hand was gripped tightly around her boot, clutching at her ankle.
"Did you break it, sweetie?" he asked, sparing one hand to gingerly touch her foot. He'd barely grazed the thick cushioning of her boot before she started screaming again, and he hastily retracted his hand and went back to cradling her against his chest. "Shh, baby. Don't worry. Let's get back in the room so we can check you out, hmm?" He gathered her close, wincing at the small rivulets of snot developing on his favorite leather coat, and walked the dozen or so steps back to his door.
His locked door.
"Joanna? Did you grab Uncle Jim's keys like I asked?"
She shook her head miserably against his shoulder, spreading the little snot stains. "I forgot," she whimpered.
"That's okay, baby," he crooned, trying to keep her held with one hand while digging in his pocket with the other. "I'll just call up a locksmith and see if they... can..."
He didn't have his comm unit.
She sniffled mightily. "What?"
"I think it's in my other jacket."
She started crying again. "We're gonna die!"
"Oh for Pete's sake, Jo, we're not gonna die. We're just locked out. C'mon, I bet Miss Gaila can take us in and let us use her phone."
Except Gaila wasn't there when he knocked on her door. Neither were her neighbors. Or theirs.
"I think they're all out partying, Jojo."
She wiped her nose on her sleeve, which did nothing but smear the mess on her face. "What'll we do?" she asked in a quavery voice.
He eyed the door of apartment 5-G. Well, he'd tried every other door on this level. Might as well try the last one before he started trolling the whole building. "Here, maybe Uncle Jim's neighbor is home," he told her in what he hoped was a soothing manner. He kissed the top of her head as he knocked on the door, hoping, praying that he wouldn't have to carry a crying four year old through every floor of the building hoping for a kind Samaritan to take them in.
He honestly hadn't expected a response when he knocked, and sure enough, none came. He let out a dejected sigh. "Sorry, Jojo. I don't think Mister Scott is around, but maybe Mister Keenser-"
He'd already taken a few steps away from the door when he heard it unlatch. He whirled around, expecting a sharp Romulan agent, or a foul-smelling drunk, or-
The door was only open a few inches, but he could see a set of dark eyes peeking out from thick-framed glasses, long fingers holding the door in place. "Yes?" came a quiet voice, almost inaudible in between Joanna's hiccuping little cries.
"Yeah, hi, sorry," said Jim, so relieved that he was slurring his words together in his haste. "I'm your neighbor, I just moved in a few weeks ago, and I'm babysitting my best friend's little girl, and she's hurt her foot, and I kinda locked myself out of my apartment, and all I really need is to use a comm unit or something, and I know this is a huge imposition and you've probably got a big New Year's party going on in there or something, but if you don't mind-"
The door opened a bit wider and Jim got a better idea of the man behind it. His hair was dark, glossy, and tousled haphazardly about his face. He had deep-set brown eyes behind those ridiculously thick-framed glasses, black like the rest of his clothing. He was maybe a half inch taller than Jim himself, starkly pale in the darkness of his apparel, and his face was a mask devoid of emotion.
"You require the use of a communication unit?" he said, still so quiet that it was difficult to hear him.
"Yeah, sorry, I just need someone to come unlock my apartment, I can make the call and be out of your hair in thirty seconds, I swear." Jim shut himself up before he could babble for another five minutes, putting on his very best lost puppy face.
The man's eyes darted to Joanna, whose lip began to tremble. She whimpered and burrowed her face into Jim, one hand still clutching her foot.
"Come," the man offered, cracking his door open just enough to be considered an invitation.
Jim breathed a sigh of relief and darted inside, Joanna still sniffling at his hip.