by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
August chose a window on the thirtieth floor instead of a bird’s nest on the roof, favoring, as he tended to, a better network signal over a wider visual range. The office’s lights were off to hide his position, but his vision brightened automatically and allowed him to work quickly; he cut a square out of the window large enough to see through comfortably and set his rifle’s bipod mount on the sill.
The operator’s channel sounded in his right ear. A woman’s voice asked, “LEOs, are you in position?”
Three male voices followed, all in affirmation, and August scanned the street that sprawled in front of him to identify them. He tapped behind his ear to skim a set of security camera feeds; he found one officer casually inspecting oranges outside of a bodega, a second standing at a crosswalk and watching the traffic signal, and the third in uniform beside a staircase down to the subway. He shut the feed off and located them from his perspective.
“PSC, are you in position?” the operator asked.
“In position,” August said. “You’re all clear.”
August had to up his resolution several times to make out which street sign said TOWNE, but once he found it he was able to scale back; 208’s delivery entrance had a dingy yellow light over it, illuminating it easily. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll alert you all once he’s cleared the door. I’m covering you, but proceed with caution. We need a positive identification more than we need an immediate arrest.”
“This channel’s secure, right?” one of the officers asked.
August breathed a laugh. “It had better be.”
“Channel is secure, yes,” the operator said.
Most of the Group’s contractors loathed playing angel for law enforcement, but August had never particularly minded it. He found a traffic camera with a better view of 208 and kept his focus through that. It didn’t take very long for the door to open. “Suspect is leaving 208 now,” he said. “He’s carrying a large gym bag and a backpack. Looks nervous.”
“Confirmed, PSC,” an officer said. “Suspect is heading south, repeat, south.”
Not toward the train. August asked, “Operator, do we have intelligence on an accomplice?”
“We do not, PSC. Suspect should be acting alone.”
August watched the guy half jog down the street, toward the building August was in; that was going to make his position useless in a minute. He could take the shot now, but unless the suspect attacked someone first, it would essentially be murder. “Pull back,” he said. “Repeat, pull back. I can’t guarantee cover.”
A voice spoke behind him, not in his ear. “You can’t even cover your own back.” A voice like that almost always belonged to someone with their safety already off; August blinked his vision back into short focus and took a deep breath.
He let go of the rifle and stood slowly, hands up and open, turning to see a man with a pistol aimed casually at August’s chest. “Sal told me they were going to have a birdie on him,” the man said.
Keythrong security contractors were strictly trained not to speak during potential hostage or kidnapping situations. August just tried to keep his face clear of panic.
“Look at you: no headset, no scope on your rifle. What would they send a fancy thing like you for? We’re just paper-runners.”
“PSC, we are sending back-up. Repeat, we are sending back-up. Please hold on–” The operator’s voice spoke both in his right ear and from a boxy radio receiver in the man’s other hand.
“You can’t lock a channel’s signal if you can’t lock your own head’s,” the man said. “Poor kid.” He lowered his gun a few degrees and fired a single bullet into August’s left leg, and aside from a moment of incomprehensible pain, that sound was the last thing he remembered.
August awoke, after a fashion, to someone fitting an anesthesia mask over his face. He was swathed in silence and agony, and his vision was blurred; he squinted and saw his cousin Jules monitoring something on his med tablet as something cold slid into August’s lungs. Jules was in the neurosurgery division, so that probably wasn’t good.
“Hey,” a voice said. His brother Octavian was sitting beside the operating table as though it were a kitchen’s, leaning an elbow on it.
August frowned. “Hey,” he said.
They were the same age now. August hadn’t realized that, even on his last birthday. “You shouldn’t be doing this stuff,” Octavian said. “Seriously. Just do what you want to do, and Dad can go to hell.”
“That isn’t what you told me,” August said. “You said I should. Because you didn’t want to.”
Octavian smiled sadly. “Can’t I have a change of heart?”
“No, you can’t,” August said, and Jules grasped his head to adjust the mask. Everything went away for a while.
August woke up again. He was no longer in suffocating pain, but he was sore all over in a way that didn’t really make sense. He was half afraid Octavian would still be there, but August wasn’t even in the same room anymore; there were curtains half-drawn around his bed and an IV taped to the back of his left hand. His father was on the other side of the room, speaking to a doctor or nurse. August reached up to tap behind his ear, but someone grasped his wrist before he could fumble for the sensor. Jules looked down at him and shook his head.
Jules was the same age as August’s brother — actually the same age, born two months earlier — and like a lot of the family’s cousins, he and August were in the habit of treating one another like irritating siblings. There wasn’t any teasing animosity in his manner at the moment. “What’s wrong?” August asked, or tried to; his throat scraped but didn’t make any noise. Jules produced a penlight and shone it into one of August’s eyes and then the other. August blinked drowsily in objection.
Jules put the light away and picked up his med tablet. He frowned at it, and then began hesitantly tapping it like he was going through menus he wasn’t familiar with. Finally, he spoke, watching the screen; August still couldn’t hear anything.
He handed the tablet to August. It was running a speech-to-text application. CAN YOU READ THIS -
August eyed Jules suspiciously. “Yes. What did you do to my implants?” He couldn’t hear his own voice, but the tablet dutifully transcribed his question.
DO YOU REMEMBER BEING SHOT -
August nodded. He couldn’t watch the tablet and Jules’s face at the same time, so he just watched the tablet. YOU WERE ELECTROCUTED - THE BULLET HAD AN ESD PIN IN IT - IT TARGETED YOUR IMPLANTS WHEN IT CONNECTED WITH YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM -
“…Oh, fuck.” August glanced sidelong over at his father before looking up at Jules. “You guys can fix it, can’t you?”
The tablet said nothing. Jules carefully seated himself on the edge of August’s bed. YOUR IN BAD SHAPE -
August made a weary face at the transcription. “Okay.”
WE REMOVED YOUR OPTICAL IMPLANTS WITHOUT DAMAGING ANYTHING - BUT YOU HAD HEARING LOSS ALREADY -
“Well, yeah, but…” August tapped for a menu to make the thing stop printing in all caps. “No. The doctors fixed my ears when I was a baby.”
those doctors installed implants that bypass your cochleae - they thread in directly with your auditory nerves -
“Which fixed my ears,” August said. “I can’t be deaf, Jules. We can install new implants.” He had no idea whether he sounded authoritative or just bratty. He wondered how this app could catch ‘cochleae’ but not contractions.
well technically you are deaf - and when the esd blew your implants it burned the nerves - The transcription paused. so now your extra deaf -
August tried to punch Jules in the side, but he ached too much to give it much of a go. “So extra fix it, asshole.”
your shouting -
Jules rubbed his eyes. August finally thought to wonder how long Jules had been awake. i cant fix it - He shook his head. i am so sorry august - i cant fix it -
August stared at the tablet screen for a long time.
Once he was released from the hospital, August didn’t leave his apartment for days. The electricity from the pin had discharged in his implants, but it’d passed through his entire body to reach them; he ached badly enough that he just wanted to lie down most of the time. Left to himself, he was more disoriented by his returned-to-normal vision than his hearing loss. He could pretend the phone’s ringer was off or that there was no traffic outside; it was harder to remember he couldn’t check the security camera feed from the lobby.
They hadn’t found the man who’d shot him, which disturbed August less out of outrage than professional alarm. ESD pins were very specifically for destroying electrical equipment without leaving traceable evidence. August used them occasionally to pick locks. There was no reason at all to load bullets with them unless one wanted to do exactly what had been done to him.
The Keythong Group was far from the only private security firm with state and federal contracts, but they were unquestionably the most efficient and innovative. A single Keythong contractor could replace an entire tactical team. There was no marketplace version of the visual augmentations August used; in that respect he’d been something of a show pony for the R&D division. The Group did not release medical information about its contractors, but August was the CEO’s son: young, dark-haired and sleek, and capable of hitting a target from ten city blocks. People in the know tended to know about August.
They were not supposed to know he was deaf, but hearing implants weren’t as sexy anyway; they had long been available to those who could afford them. Revealing that little flaw in the diamond couldn’t have been the aim of the attack, but it had done so with brutal effectiveness. There wasn’t enough money in the world that could restore his hearing now, and that was, as much as everyone tried to comfort him, something of a political embarrassment.
Jules dropped by a week after the surgery to examine him. August had sort of kept his med tablet, though he could have run the same applications on his phone; holding something in front of himself with both hands was more grounding. Jules hadn’t said anything about it, anyway. He eyed the digital scan on his otoscope with equal grimness. i cant remove the implants yet without damaging the nerves further -
“Does it really make a difference at this point?”
it might eventually - you never want to inflict more damage than there already is -
August bit his lip. “Hey. How… how exactly do the implants work, anyway?”
Jules shut off the otoscope. what do you mean -
“Do they use some kind of signal? Like, their own signal, not the operation channel’s.”
ah - Jules thought for a moment. i believe the transmitter and receiver use rf signals -
“What kind of range?”
very short - they only have to talk to each other - the range cant be more than a few feet -
August rubbed the dead sensor behind his ear and frowned.
stop touching it - Jules went to the window and rather dramatically flung open the curtains August had been keeping closed. we have got to get you out of here -
“I don’t want to go anywhere.”
too bad - get dressed -
August groaned and flopped over on the couch. He was nicely unaware of Jules’s opinion of that until Jules grabbed his shoulder and shoved the tablet back into his hands. im referring you to someone -
hes not a shrink - Jules yanked up on August’s arm; August resisted more out of inertia than any real objection. jesus what are you twelve -
Jules didn’t call for a car, opting instead to lead August to the subway. Not having access to security cameras in public places was beginning to seriously stress August out. Jules glanced at him with mild concern at one point. are you okay -
The question was nearly lost in the wash of conversation the tablet was picking up from the commuters around them. He still couldn’t get used to not being able to hear his own voice, much less anyone else’s, and he stared at the mass of transcription the tablet was producing before he remembered to answer. “Fine.” He tapped for the app’s settings menu again and adjusted its sound sensitivity.
He was aware of Jules watching over his shoulder as he fussed with it, and eventually he said, you should stop staring at that thing so much you know -
“What?” August asked. “What’s wrong?”
not wrong just - well - first of all it isnt yours - August glanced up at Jules sidelong, and Jules waved his hand. you can have it if you want it but its not a security blanket - you should be looking at people -
August was going to object, but the train was pulling into the station. The complete silence in its wake was surreal. He shuffled in and sat down, balancing the tablet on his lap like he’d missed Jules’s comment all together.
The station list on the train’s map screen was an interesting one. “Where are we going?”
August frowned at the lack of elaboration. “…You aren’t taking me to a CAM clinic, are you?”
you dont have to say it like that -
“Oh, no.” There was some entertainment in seeing Jules try and fail not to look defensive, but not much. “Those places aren’t licensed. They get shut down all the time.”
Jules rubbed his face with both hands. for gods sake do you think id take you somewhere unlicensed -
“What are they going to do, stuff ginseng in my ears?”
im taking you to a health care technician - hes an associate of mine -
“A health care technician?” August wasn’t sure what that meant, aside from being deliberately vague. “How’s he your associate?”
i write prescriptions for his patients -
“You–?” August tried to make his voice lower, but he couldn’t tell how necessary that was on a train. “That’s illegal!”
Jules looked genuinely surprised. no it isnt -
im a doctor - i can write prescriptions for whomever i want -
“Are you joking? I can’t tell. This thing doesn’t say.”
well - not for controlled substances - but anything else is fine -
“If people need prescriptions, why don’t they just come see you? Or, like, any real doctor?”
august - The tablet spelled out his name and stopped, and after a moment August looked up. Jules grasped his shoulder and said something slowly and deliberately. August didn’t catch the shape of it at all; when Jules let go of him, he looked back down. not everyone is as fortunate as you -
He looked up again, indignant. “Fortunate?”
Jules shook his head.
Well, now August knew considerably more about a relative he’d had always taken for generally law-abiding and unshady. But the station he gestured for him to stand up at wasn’t in a particularly bad part of the city, which lessened the likelihood of an illegal ER in the back room of a chopshop.
Their destination wasn’t anywhere so exciting; to August’s surprise, it actually was a CAM clinic, not a place that could only be referred to as such by euphemism. There was an OTC pharmacy at street level, stocking cold medication and bandaids and vitamins, with a well-lit stairwell in the back and signage for several people’s offices. Not very shady at all. August hugged the tablet to his chest and watched Jules greet a woman at a counter.
Did reading other people’s conversations count as eavesdropping? He’d always been cheerfully aware that following perps through neighborhood camera feeds was low-effort spying, but this seemed different. For no other reason, than because it would be obvious when he did it.
The woman got up and headed up the stairs, and Jules turned back to him with raised eyebrows. August returned the expression amiably: it wasn’t particularly offensive slumming, as slumming it went. He pointed over his shoulder at the vitamins and said, “There is ginseng.”
Jules either did not consider that worthy of response or of putting August through the trouble of one.
The woman returned with a tall man in a white coat who smiled broadly at Jules; August watched them greet one another as though they were characters on a muted TV. He hadn’t been made to interact with non-company people since he’d been shot, and he found himself inexplicably freezing up as Jules turned at gestured to him. Both men stared at him expectantly, so he finally tipped the tablet away from his chest.
thank you for seeing us i really appreciate it - this is david terrance hes a primary care hct - david this is my cousin august -
oh - you brought captioning -
August looked up, startled. “Um. Sorry. It’s good to meet you.”
whatever works right - David Terrance smiled. come on - He gestured for them to follow him.
There were several examination rooms open on the third floor, but he led them through to a busy but uncluttered office. He pulled a chair to the desk opposite his and handed August a clipboard bearing forms and a pen. August held it over his tablet awkwardly and skimmed down the information it was asking for; he’d never seen a doctor who wasn’t one of his father’s employees, and he had never had to hand over so much medical information at once. It was probably standard. All the same, he cleared his throat and asked, “Can I see your license?”
Jules winced. august can you just be a normal person for ten minutes -
Terrance glanced back at him. whats wrong -
“Your license to practice,” August said.
Terrance pointed over August’s head to a set of framed certificates next to a filing cabinet. He had an interesting amount of paper record-keeping. August stepped over to examine them.
its okay -
sorry he thinks hes a cop -
your cousin you said -
just a ray of sunshine today -
“I can still see what you’re saying.” The certificates looked perfectly legitimate; Terrance was licensed to evaluate patients and issue referrals for secondary care, and he was operating legally within the clinic itself. August didn’t know what any of that was supposed to do for him.
The two men continued to chat as August came back to the desk and started writing out titles and dates and phone numbers. He tried to remember a timeline for his medical history, mostly ignoring the tablet until Terrance waved a little for his attention. what kind of hearing loss did you have to begin with -
August looked at him blankly. “What kind?”
what type -
“Oh.” August shook his head. “…I don’t know.”
Terrance nodded, and Jules waved for his attention. hes nonsyndromic -
that sounds right -
August looked back and forth between both of them and suddenly realized he was an idiot.
Terrance gestured for the clipboard. August hadn’t signed the consent portion yet, but he handed it over anyway and sat back in his chair with his tablet. august - Terrance glanced up. like the month -
private security contractor - He tilted his head. twenty two - He flipped the top page and read for a few moments. you were shot a week ago -
August nodded again. “That’s fine now.”
Terrance frowned and looked to Jules. are you his doctor -
Jules shrugged. sometimes - he has a lot of doctors - im the one who saw him last week -
i see - so - Terrance gave August a long, searching look, and August found his fingers locking around the edges of his tablet. are you asking for therapy recommendations -
oh - no - he doesnt need therapy - Jules paused. he just needs a place to start -
Terrance glanced at August again. where do you want to start -
August shook his head a little. he doesnt want to start - Jules said. thats part of the problem -
well - Terrance paused. im not a therapist - and im not interested in being someones deaf mentor -
of course i know - forgive me for presuming - your the only person i know with any experience with this -
its fine but - Another long pause halted the tablet’s transcription. if you dont mind i think id like you to go downstairs for a few minutes -
August jerked his head up. “Hey, but–”
Jules cut him off with a jerk of his hand. He smiled at him, nodded at Terrance, and ignored August’s pleading stare as he stood up and saw himself out of the office, closing the door behind him. August just watched the door for a long moment, and then back at the desk sidelong.
There was absolutely no reason to be scared; he wasn’t in any danger. Even so, he started badly when Terrance gestured for him to pull his chair closer to the desk. August forced his body to unlock and did so, but Terrance made the gesture again; August sat upright and moved to the edge of the seat, and Terrance leaned forward and plucked the tablet out of his hands.
“No,” August said, “no, please, I need that–”
im not taking it away - Terrance held it upright on the desk between them. im going to hold it here - you can still see it right -
August swallowed and nodded. i need you to look at me when you talk so i can see your face - youve been staring down at this the entire time youve been here - Terrance tipped the screen back to glance it. are you using the emi app -
“It’s… whatever Jules set it to.”
Terrance laughed. this is terrible for transcription - its basically translation software for tabers -
August laughed, too, nervously. “It’s pretty awful, yeah. So…” With nothing to hold on to now, his hands fisted themselves on his knees. “Are you just… lipreading?”
at the moment yes -
“And you can understand everything I’m saying?”
no - your hard to understand because you dont want to look at me - Terrance smiled. i could recommend better speech to text apps - He eyed him for a moment. but i dont think you would use them -
August swallowed. That kind of eye contact was uncomfortable to maintain, and he found himself looking away without realizing it. He jerked his gaze back with a wince. “This is… kind of weird, isn’t it.”
what is -
“Us… both talking? When we can’t hear each other.”
Terrance shrugged. a little - but - He thought for a moment. i made your cousin leave because he wasnt helping - i want you to understand that first -
“Oh.” August frowned. “Okay. …What do you mean?”
your accident was a week ago - theres no rush to decide how your going to make this transition and it isnt his responsibility to see you through it - He switched to holding the tablet up with one hand so he could flip through the medical forms August had filled out. when he says hes the one who saw you last week he means this gunshot injury -
and thats when your implants were damaged -
“Yeah. Well… it’s not that I was shot so much as I was electrocuted.”
Terrance frowned at him and turned the tablet around, apparently to check that he’d read that right. “It was a special kind of bullet. So… I was born with…” August gestured to the side of his head vaguely. “Something wrong with my inner ears. So I got the implants. When I was electrocuted, the charge went through them, so now there’s nerve damage.”
Terrance raised an eyebrow and turned the tablet around again. i see - it is interesting that your deafness is both congenital and postlingual - but let me explain whats going on - He visibly took a deep breath, shoulders rising and falling. August was momentarily fascinated by that; he felt like he could hear it, almost. its not your fault that your deaf - its not your parents fault - it isnt anyones fault - and it definitely isnt your cousins fault - but he thinks its his fault -
August blinked. “He does?”
i dont see this from doctors very much but i see it from family a lot - usually mothers - no one likes to ask what did i do wrong but the feeling is still there - what they ask instead is how do i fix it - is my child a candidate for implants or amplifiers - when can we start verbal therapy - how do we make sure this person can function in hearing society - Terrance smiled. and then i give them a referral because i dont specialize in treating deafness or hearing loss - like your cousin they think i must know more than their doctor does -
“Oh,” August said. “So we’re kind of wasting your time.”
Terrance gestured to himself with two fingers in a V shape for August to keep his eyes up while speaking. no not at all - look - you havent adjusted yet because its only been a week - you will figure things out at your own pace - this is normal - He shrugged. you grew up speaking - this tablet isnt very good for what your using it for but i think at this stage its more of a comfort object - i think your going to be fine -
“Should I learn to lipread, too, then?”
you probably already can to some degree - you need to practice watching peoples faces -
August sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Do you know sign language?”
i do yes -
“Should I learn sign language?”
Terrance hesitated. you can do whatever you want - i dont know if learning to sign would be useful to you but thats a decision you can make yourself -
“Why wouldn’t it be useful?”
do you know any deaf people who dont have implants -
August was pretty sure he didn’t know any other deaf people at all. But the question was more specific than that, and therefore, in a way, broader: his family’s wealth and medical access made it so something like hearing loss was simply erased. If he knew any other deaf people, he wouldn’t know about it, just as no one had known about him. When he didn’t answer, Terrance said, i dont want to discourage you - i just dont know if thats a community you have access to -
“But… there is a community?”
its the community I work in -
“So your patients are deaf people who don’t have implants? Is that… a common thing?”
Terrance laughed a little. implants arent a practical solution for most people -
“No, I know, they’re expensive and the surgery sucks. I guess… I didn’t know deafness was that common.”
well - Terrance hesitated for a long moment. thats a complicated subject -
“Yeah. Okay.” August sighed deeply. “So I need to suck it up and learn to lipread.”
if you want to learn to sign you just have to make deaf friends - are you good at making friends -
“I’m terrible at making friends,” August said.
Terrance picked up a pad of paper. you need to rest and you need to get used to not having the implants - nothing you decide to try is going to be final or change everything - it will just be what works and what does not - He wrote down a phone number and labeled it ‘David.’ if eventually you decide to try sign language text me and i will introduce you to friends -
you talked for a long time - Jules said. what did david say -
The train was far less crowded heading back uptown; August inched the tablet’s sound sensitivity up again. “He told me not to rush.”
thats it -
August sighed. “Pretty much.”
He thought he would at least get away with gun practice without having to wear the bulky ear protection now, but the guy minding security wouldn’t let August in without them. Range rules.
“So when do I get the visual implants back?” he asked.
August had taken to following Jules around since Terrance — David — had given his reading on the situation; he was on imposed medical leave anyway. Jules didn’t seem to mind, but the man was judgmental as hell. He gave August an alarmed look and swallowed his bite of salad. do you want them back -
“Christ, yes. My target scores are awful.” He showed him the feed on his phone. Jules barely looked at it.
you could wear glasses like everyone else -
August looked at him blankly. “But I want the implants back.”
i wouldnt - Jules set his fork down. i dont know - we can scan you in a few months and see if opening you up again is a good idea -
you realize you are holding a phone in one hand and a tablet in the other -
that isnt an awkward user experience for you then -
“I like the tablet.”
Jules rubbed his eyes. i had no idea you were this neurotic -
“I’m not neurotic. I’m traumatized. You’re supposed to be understanding.”
your phones voice recognition is probably like fifty times better than that things -
“It can understand words like ‘neurotic’ and ‘congenital’ but it never has time for apostrophes, ever. It’s fascinating.”
Jules frowned. you know i think i was wrong about you not needing therapy -
“Yeah,” August sighed. “Probably. But anyone you find for that is going to have to talk to me through a tablet.” He lowered the phone and looked at Jules thoughtfully. “Do you think I should learn sign language?”
sign language - no -
you grew up hearing and you dont have any deaf friends -
“I could make deaf friends.”
do you even have any hearing friends -
August shrugged. “Cops like me. I’m getting a bunch of ‘get well soon’ cards from cops.”
and not to pile on but if your having this much trouble learning speechreading i cant really imagine you learning sign language -
August glared. “Lipreading is really hard. Like, impossibly hard. Like, basically all of the sounds you make are inside your mouth. You only use your lips for a fraction of it.”
people learn to speechread - david does it really well remember -
“David didn’t understand what my name was until he saw it written down,” August said. “You caught that, right?”
Jules raised an eyebrow.
“Because when you say my name it looks like aah-uuh! I can’t see it when anyone says it, either!”
Jules waved at him to stop shouting. do you know what the first thing you have to learn in sign language is -
August shook his head.
the alphabet - Jules said. every letter has its own handshape - you have the memorize the hell out of all of them because half of sign language is spelling things and having things spelled at you -
August frowned. “It is?”
Jules gestured to August’s phone. look up a video - find a video of someone just signing at their webcam hell find a bunch of videos - whenever their hand pauses about here - Jules held a loose fist up to just below the level of his collarbone. and makes a bunch of quick shapes all at once that is a word being spelled - watch for how often that happens and how fast it goes by and try to tell me that would be easier to learn than speechreading -
“…I could speechread better with my implants.” August was honestly taken aback by the hostility and let the subject drop.
He did, however, take him up on the advice. When August got back to his apartment that night, he nursed a beer moodily and watched an entry in a video diary belonging to a deaf woman named Joanna. He had no idea who she was, and less than no idea of what she was saying. When the entry was over, he watched the next one, and then the one after that.
He’d seen sign language on occasion, but he’d never really watched it before. It was weirdly expressive — or Joanna was, anyway, constantly making faces as she talked about whatever it was she was talking about — and it was very fast. The rhythm of it was close enough to speech’s that he found himself reflecting on how he was never going to hear anyone speak again, even as he was quickly realizing that he was probably never going to be able to understand what Joanna was saying.
An hour later he had finished both the video diary’s playlist and his pack of beer, and he had mostly cried himself out. He leaned back in his desk chair and devoted real emotional energy into hating being stuck in-between and unable to communicate with anyone; combined with six beers and the aftermath of sobbing his stupid face out, he was just left exhausted. He checked the time on his phone and found it was nearly two in the morning.
The piece of paper with David’s phone number was on his desk where he’d left it weeks ago, folded over once and nearly thrown away by accident half a dozen times. August reached over and picked it up.
This was not a good idea. He was not going to be able to summon a passable excuse later for whatever stupid drunk thing he was about his text his cousin’s friend with. There wasn’t even anything he particularly wanted to say. For some reason he settled on “why aren’t you a real doctor” and hit send.
A minute or two later he followed that up with “it just sucks because you seem like a better doctor than anyone else I know” by way of explanation. And then “this is august btw.”
He watched the screen for a minute, and then he sighed and let his hand with the phone fall against his chest. He was half-asleep when it vibrated with a new message; he bolted upright, cursing. “Are you all right?” David’s response read. August squinted at it and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m fine,” he texted back. “Just drunk.” “I’m sorry.”
A few minutes later, David replied, “Me too. We should probably both go to bed.”
Why was he drunk at two in the morning on a Thursday? “Are YOU all right?”
“I will be. Thanks.”
August’s thumb hovered over the screen, but he couldn’t think of anything to say to that, and he eventually laid his phone on the desk. His problems weren’t the world’s problems.
His father wanted to move him from surveillance to crisis and hostage negotiation. That was probably a wise decision, and it was good that he wasn’t being dismissed. “What happened to Octavian will always be very painful for both of us,” his father wrote, “but I will have greater faith in our team knowing your competency and past experience are supporting them.”
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME,” August typed. He deleted that. “Thank you. I’ll consider it.”
August decided that, despite his headache, he was going to go out today. He swallowed a handful of aspirin and took a very long shower, and he tore into his last laundry delivery to find a nice sweater. He left the tablet on his dresser and went outside.
The city piers were only a half-mile or so from his apartment. Usually when he went there it was to lean over the rails of the boardwalk and watch the water, but today he walked along its length with the bankers on their lunch breaks and the tourists. It wasn’t comforting, exactly, but it did make him feel better after a while. Less hungover, anyway.
His phone buzzed in his jacket’s pocket while he was watching seagulls do battle over a hotdog bun in blissful, eerie silence. “Belatedly, I’m not sure if I understand your question,” David had texted.
August frowned and scrolled up a little. He sighed. “Don’t worry about it,” he responded. “I was upset and wanted to talk.”
“Do you still want to talk?” A few moments later, “I took the day off. We could meet somewhere.”
“I’m at the piers but I didn’t bring my tablet.” “I’m practicing being deaf.”
“Well, you obviously have your phone.”
One of the gulls snatched up the bun and flew down the boardwalk with it, and the rest of them followed. “Yeah. Come up here and let me buy you a coffee.”
It took him about forty-five minutes. August was leaning on the railing and reading a news story when David tapped his shoulder; he jumped, and David smiled and said something that was probably ‘sorry.’ “It’s okay,” August said. “Uh. Hi.”
He wasn’t sure if David made him nervous because he was deaf or because he was tall. They were both dumb reasons. David made a small gesture to August’s phone; August frowned and hesitantly handed it to him. David pulled out his own phone and busied himself with both for a minute or two, and then passed August’s back.
There was a new application window open. It printed out, That one is pretty good. It doesn’t know medical jargon but it’s much better for conversation.
“Thank you,” August said. He looked up and smiled. “I’ve been trying to lipread.”
How is that going?
August laughed. “I think you have to be faking it.”
Not faking. But a lot of it is guessing, and sometimes you just miss things.
So, David said, what are you upset about?
August squinted up at him. “What were you upset about?”
I didn’t say I was upset.
“You were awake in the middle of the night and you took today off. It sounds like something is wrong.”
David raised his eyebrows, but he shrugged a little and said, I broke up with someone.
August blinked. “What, last night?”
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” August said. “Now I feel like an asshole for bothering you.”
No, don’t. We’ve been on and off for a while.
“But you’re off now?”
We are– David pulled a face. Very off right now.
“Okay. Well.” August looked down the boardwalk. “I’m going to be gross and predatory and ask if you still want a coffee.”
David glanced down at his phone and laughed. I’d love coffee. Thank you.
They got a table outside and didn’t say anything for a while. August went through the settings in the application David had given him, but it was pretty straightforward.
Okay, David finally said. Your turn.
August sighed. “I got depressed watching sign language videos.”
That made David laugh, which did help with the adolescent mopiness of it all. I thought it would be something like that.
“Something stupid, you mean?”
It’s not stupid, David said, though he wasn’t very convincing still laughing. I didn’t know why else you would text me.
“It looks really hard,” August said. “And Jules yelled at me when I tried to talk to him about it.”
He yelled at you?
“…Yeah, I couldn’t tell if he was yelling. But he was really… animated about it.”
Any new language will be hard, David said. Your cousin doesn’t know anything about sign language.
“He says if I can’t learn to lipread, I won’t be able to learn sign language.”
David rolled his eyes at that, and for a few moments he looked out over the water with angry furrow in his brow. August bit the inside of his lip. He’s just being manipulative, David finally said.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” August said. “But I don’t know why.”
He doesn’t want you to be deaf.
“Well, I don’t want to be deaf, either, but I am, so what am I supposed to do about that?” A couple at the next table glanced over at him, and he scrubbed at his eyes in frustration.
It took David a long time to answer. There are a lot of things that people– as a whole, will look at and say, this needs to be cured. This shouldn’t exist. You’re going to be surprised for the rest of your life by how defensive and angry everyone is going to be about it. All I can tell you is the same thing I said before. You can do whatever you want. Whatever works for you is your solution.
August sighed. And if what works for you is a speech to text application, David continued, that’s fine. Fuck everyone who tells you anything else.
“Okay,” August said. “Thank you.” He reread it all a few times. “…Is there really an alphabet to learn first?” he asked.
David blinked and nodded. The alphabet is important.
“Can you just… show me that?”
David said, Sure. He stood and turned his seat away from the table. Here, face me.
August did the same; David asked, Are you right or left handed?
Okay. Hold up your right hand like this and repeat me. August held his hand up in front of himself; David grasped his wrist and pulled it out level with his shoulder. Right here.
The alphabet actually wasn’t very difficult. Most of the handshapes were very simple, though several of them looked alike enough to elicit a groan from him when he mixed them up — an unfair number of them were a fist with the thumb in a slightly different position. Reading the letters was harder than making them. David ran him through the alphabet a dozen times before he started him in on actual words.
August squinted as David repeated a series of letters to him for a third time, glacially slow and achingly patient. “Hell,” August said. “That’s my name, isn’t it.”
David grinned at him, and August pinched the bridge of his nose. He picked up his phone from the table and read, Don’t make that face. You’ve got it.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got it.”
You’ll have to practice it a lot before it comes naturally.
August stood and stretched hard. “But you’re going to help me, right?”
You don’t need anyone else to practice. Spell out the words you see on signs, or the station lists on the train.
“Well… yeah, sure, but…” It had gotten dark, and now David was reading his phone instead of watching August speak, too. “That’s not really what I mean.”
David glanced up at him from where he was still seated. “Your ex is an idiot, you know,” August said.
Yes, David said. I know.
“Okay,” August said. “…I’ll text you tomorrow.”
David nodded, and August turned away and started the walk back up the boardwalk.
He let himself back into his apartment, turning on lights here and there. His mind was buzzing, but it was settling into another headache; he went and splashed water on his face before he put in an order for dinner and sat down to check his company mail. His father had responded, expressing pleasure and pride and asking that he report to his office the next morning.
There was a second email from the city police’s ballistics laboratory, addressed directly and solely to him; he had to read it three times before he could summon the energy to respond to it properly. He stood up from his desk and went back around the apartment to turn all of the lights back off. Crouching down beside a window, he rapidly tapped “hey are you home yet” to David.
The response came nearly five minutes later. “No. Almost.”
“where do you live”
“Northside, by Greenmarket.”
“can I come over? its an emergency”
That took a minute to get a reply. “Now?” Before August could start pleading, that was followed by, “Of course. What’s wrong?”
August stood and slipped his shoulder holster on one-armed as he typed. “I will tell you when I get there pls give me the address”
When he got it, he found a pen and scrawled it onto his left palm. Then he blanked the conversation history entirely and tossed his phone on top of the tablet on the dresser. He pulled his jacket back on over the holster and left the apartment, locking it and bolting for the stairwell.
He didn’t stop running when he reached the street. He glanced back and saw that his lights were on; as he was watching, they went off again.
He had no idea how to get to Greenmarket aside from the train. He ran down into the station and then slowed to a walk as soon as he reached the security camera’s range. He tried to look nonchalant on the platform, sweating and frequently looking back at the stairwell; when the train came, no one immediately suspicious got on the car with him.
The station names on the list all seemed a lot longer all of a sudden. He took deep breaths and fingerspelled them to himself.
He was the only person to get off the train at Northside. He looked around himself nervously and did not run the three blocks to Greenmarket.
“Hi. Sorry. Thank you,” he said to a bewildered-looking David when he opened the door. “I couldn’t bring my phone. Do you have lights rigged to your doorbell?” He swallowed. “Can I come in?”
David nodded cautiously, and August slipped inside and locked the deadbolt nearly before David could step aside. He leaned back on the wall and sat down on the floor where he was. David stared down at him for a moment, and then walked away.
August hugged his knees to his chest and shivered. David came back with his phone and a glass of water, both of which he offered to August. What’s going on? he asked.
“Somebody’s trying to blackmail my dad.” August gulped the water down, coughing a little. “It’s happened before. I mean, it didn’t work before, but all the more reason to try again, right?” He rubbed the back of his neck. David gently took the phone back and squinted at August’s babbling. “Sorry,” August said again.
David slipped his phone into the pocket of his jeans and offered August his hand; August stood up and let David take his jacket off him. If the gun and holster gave David any particular pause, it didn’t visibly make it past his overall confusion. “It’s okay,” August said. “No one followed me.”
David raised an eyebrow at him, but he led him into the apartment to sit on a couch instead of the floor.
The place was tiny. Under normal circumstances it would have been charming, but there weren’t any lights on in the next room and the overall effect was creepy. David sat beside him and squeezed his shoulder; August unbuckled his gun holster. He wasn’t sure where to put it, so he just laid it on the table in front of the couch.
David made the letters O-K and pointed at August with his brow drawn. August nodded. “Could I have more water?” he asked.
David gestured to the glass August was still loosely holding, and August handed it to him. Once David had gotten up and left the room, August was left alone with the bookshelves and the tangled holster and all of the endless silence, and he found himself on his feet again.
He joined David in the kitchen; there wasn’t any room to pace in there, either, but he relaxed somewhat anyway. David eyed him and handed him the water.
There was a heap of broken dishes in the sink. August froze with the glass at his lips and pointed. David shook his head like he was too tired to even think about it and ushered him back into the living room.
“Sorry,” August said again. “I must seem crazy.”
David nodded emphatically, and August coughed. David pulled out his phone and just handed it to August. You seemed pretty calm two hours ago.
“I know. I shouldn’t be panicking. I got away.” He wiped his hair back from his forehead. “This is how my brother died, which is just the stupidest fucking thing, but he didn’t have any training. I have tons of training. I’m fine.”
Your brother? What?
August shook his head. “Some group kidnapped him from his dorm and held him for ransom, but, um, there were some miscommunications, apparently, and… that didn’t really work out for anyone.”
David stared at him. Now they’re after you?
“No, no.” August drank some water. “This is different, this is inside the company. Police ballistics tracked the bullet I was shot with back to one of our labs — that was our own tech, apparently. But anyone who was keeping tabs on me inside the company would have had a hack on my email, so it was pretty stupid of the police to contact me about it, actually.” He drank more water while David stared at him. “So what’s with the dishes?”
David shook his head a little. My boyfriend broke them.
“Why didn’t you throw them out?”
I don’t know.
August nodded. He finished the water and set the glass on the table with his holster.
David hugged him. He wasn’t expecting it, but it was pretty much the only thing in the world he wanted, so he twisted around to hug him back. He wondered if this would finally be truly unbearably weird for David if he tried to kiss him, but David tipped August’s head back and kissed him first.
There was something curiously poetic about having this be silent: no breathing, no clothing rustling, no wet mouth noises. August thought that he probably ought not eroticize his own medical condition, but it was interestingly new. When David slipped his hands into August’s shirt, he gasped a little and said, “Wait, wait,” against his mouth.
David lifted his head. August said, “We have to turn the lights off. If anyone comes by here they’ll see that you’re home.”
David’s expression at that was inscrutable, but he sighed deeply and got up. August watched him go around the couch to shut the lights off in the kitchen and then in the living room, plunging the entire apartment into darkness, and he knew immediately that he had not thought this through entirely. But David tousled his hair as he came around the couch again and returned as though he’d never been interrupted.
They pulled August’s shirt off as a cooperative effort, and for a few minutes August just laid still as David kissed him and pet his chest. He weakly reached up to grasp the back of David’s sweater eventually, but David pushed his arm down again. August tried gripping his hair instead; that was apparently acceptable.
He went for the sweater again when David sat up on top of him to unbuckle the belt he’d never gotten a chance to take off at home. David pushed his hands away again, but August twisted his arms to unlock David’s grip and reverse it, and for a moment they were both still. Then David tugged on his arms gently, and August let go, and August sat up to pull David’s stupid sweater off. That absolutely meant that August was going to submit to being undressed now, and that was okay.
He wouldn’t have thought on the face of it that having a guy get aggressive on him right after he’d had to flee for his safety would have been particularly appealing, or that David would have been a particularly aggressive guy. But he laid still while David sat back further to yank his shoes off, and he lifted his hips so he could be rendered naked on someone else’s couch, and he was remarkably relaxed about it. David’s weight settled on top of him again; August’s hands found his face as he kissed his throat. He didn’t have much warning before David slipped an arm between them and grasped August’s cock.
August probably made some sound or other at that. He tried to push his hips up into it, but David was very deliberately pinning his legs. “Jesus Christ,” August muttered, but after a moment of lying tense, he allowed this, too.
David just gripped him and held him still for a long time, which made submitting to being kept still progressively more difficult. August cursed and pleaded openly, taking advantage of the fact that neither of them could hear it. It didn’t occur to him that it was anything but lost on David until David drew himself up a little and wrapped his free arm around August’s shoulders, holding him against himself, and said something — August could feel it in his chest. Between that and having been jostled upward, his body jerked violently and he came probably despite David’s best efforts. He held him anyway, and August nearly sobbed.
“Fuck,” he finally managed. “If that is your thing, I am going to break all of your dishes, too.”
David looked down at him and made a gesture with one hand, sort of flicking his fingers away from his face, that so perfectly expressed ‘I can’t tell what you’re saying and I don’t care’ that August just cracked up. David grinned and helped him up off the couch.
He turned on the light in his bedroom, but August’s terror had been pretty effectively neutralized. He’d also left David’s phone in the living room, but he decided he didn’t really care about that, either. He flopped down in the unmade bed on his side and closed his eyes. “I need to call my dad,” he said. He opened his eyes again. “Shit. I can’t call my dad. He’s going to have a heart attack.”
David was watching him with his head tilted, frowning a little, and August realized that most of his face was obscured by a pillow. He sat up and and brushed his hair back. “Why are you still wearing jeans?”
David shrugged. August rolled up onto his knees and grabbed him by his belt loops.
There was considerably less wrestling in sucking David’s cock. David stroked August’s hair without being forceful, and when he got tired of that he rubbed the back of August’s neck and his shoulders. August had to stop for a moment to look up at him and say, “You’re weird, you know that?” David said something back that looked equally declarative, but August didn’t understand it. Touché, he decided, and returned to what he was doing. David’s hands were back in his hair when he came, and if he was holding him in place a bit for that, August was willing to forgive it.
David staggered back from him, and he turned on his heel and sat down next to him on the bed. After a moment, August moved back to where he’d been lying before. He expected David to join him, but he just looked down at him. He touched a small scar on August’s chest.
“The door was locked, right?” August asked.
August sighed. “Okay.”
David smiled and squeezed one of August’s hands. He said something, and to August’s surprise he did catch it, probably because he’d seen him say it before. “You’re going to be fine.”
August thought about that for a while. He lifted his free hand and said, O-K.