“Bones?” Jim spoke to Leonard’s turned back. He didn’t even turn to face Jim, his fingers thrusting a quick “No.” behind him. Short, and it made his point very clearly. Jim, for once in his life, shut his mouth. Leonard was mad, and not the kind of annoyed that Jim usually teased him to. This was real, fuming anger, the type that Jim knew better than to antagonise.
So he waited, silent, for Leonard to turn back to him, tricorder in hand. He could see Leonard’s lips moving in angry muttering, but couldn’t make out the words. He didn’t dare ask for clarification. They both knew Jim couldn’t hear it, especially with his hearing aids thrown haphazardly on the floor of his quarters.
That wasn’t why Leonard was so mad. It would be just another day if Jim had just left his aids in his room, no matter how haphazardly. The crew was used to that, they had picked up habits for when their captain wasn’t going to hear for the day. The crew signed, all the alarms flashed, and Jim had enough residual hearing to get by without them. They knew not to push. Today was different though, and as far as Leonard knew, a first.
Jim had been born hard of hearing. He could hear things, but not enough. He knew when people were talking, but speech was distorted. He couldn’t figure out the direction of sounds. He heard enough to pass the initial tests, for no one to worry, not until the age where children learn to speak. That’s when the in depth tests happened, when he was diagnosed. Winona was a good mother, but wasn’t cut out for raising two sons on her own, especially one that was part of a world she didn’t understand.
He was fitted with hearing aids almost immediately.
To say he hated them from the start was an understatement. The molds were uncomfortable, and the sounds were weird. Little Jim did all he could to get rid of them, even before the influence of other children’s probing questions. He got used to them as he grew older, but never really kicked the habit of leaving them off whenever he could.
His mother also sent him to a school where the classes were taught in sign language. Standard Sign Language was useful, and it was easier to understand than spoken language. It quickly became his prefered means of communication. Winona, of course, like many other hearing parents, insisted he speak, to use Standard when he could. He did have the advantage that he could hear quite a bit, but it quickly turned into a disadvantage.
Jim used hearing aids, he could talk, and he could sign. Things should have been good, but instead he still didn’t hear well enough. He didn’t care about how well his ears worked, but everyone else seemed to. He still needed too many accommodations to be considered equal to a fully hearing person. People didn’t always want to deal with that, and so Jim didn’t fit in with hearing people. He could hear too much, could function too well as a hearing person to be considered deaf. It was hard for him to make friends at the school, as most chose not to speak, and chose not to get involved in a hearing world. So Jim was stuck in the middle of two worlds, not fitting in with either, and finding himself frustrated and alone.
He was a teenager when it started. Science had advanced enough that the hearing aids helped. They had cochlear implants that also helped, but Jim wasn’t a candidate and he still would function much the same as he did before. Since science couldn’t make him hearing, he decided to make himself deaf. He’d fit in somewhere.
It started with loud music. Louder. He’d get into fights. Set off Fireworks. Small things, things that people wouldn’t notice. It wasn’t accepted to make yourself deaf, and at first he hadn’t realised that’s what he had been intending. His stepfather, in a way, abusive as he was, helped. Dealing out blows to the head that left Jim’s ears ringing. No one noticed, it was all too subtle, but when his hearing aids had to be adjusted, Jim was a little proud.
It was slow, too slow, and by the time Jim realised he wanted to be in Starfleet, that he needed to hear, he thought it was too late. It wasn’t, but he hadn’t realised that until Captain Pike came to the small dingy bar and urged him to join. Starfleet could deal, they had all sorts of disabilities that they accommodated for. He had an interpreter for his classes, notes written up for him, and not one person thought it was weird.
Jim hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t thought about how out of place he was. Not while he was in Starfleet, but the self-harm continued unconsciously. He’d do things without intending to, too used to doing them. He hadn’t felt out of place in Starfleet, and even less on the Enterprise. Not until today.
He had almost forgotten that there were two worlds. That he wasn’t part of either one. The crew had learned Standard Sign, almost without prompting, and so Jim hadn’t needed to worry about wearing his aids everyday. Hadn’t thought about needing to hear. He could hear all he needed to without them.
So when they had been on shore leave on Earth this time around, and Jim had been around hearing people who weren’t his crew or Starfleet, he was surprised at how he wasn’t able to fit in, how easily he couldn’t follow a conversation. Insult was added to injury when, in an attempt to feel normal, he was similarly rejected by the deaf. It wasn’t that he was violently rejected, but he felt similarly out of the loop and made fun of. There were often comments about his hearings aids, and occasionally he caught people signing “hearing minded” behind his back.
He felt inadequate, and his usual methods of self-harm weren’t enough. He hadn’t been thinking about what he was doing, not about the damage he’d cause with the directional sonic generator, not only to his ears but to himself, and hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t alone. Bones, of course, had stopped him. Almost instantly did he regret his intentions, and now he was here in Sickbay, with a very angry Leonard McCoy tending to him.
Nothing had happened, Leonard had found him before he had, but for once Jim didn’t argue the visit.
Finally, Leonard set down the tricorder. Jim almost flinched, expecting the angry signing, and he wasn’t disappointed.
“What the hell was that?” The signs were quick, angry, hard. If Jim had had his hearing aids in, he’d be able to hear the slapping of two hands meeting. He understood, he did. Jim was Leonard’s best friend, and he was worried.
Jim was silent, unmoving. He couldn’t explain. Everything had made sense to him at the time, and some part of it still did, but Leonard wouldn’t understand. No one really could understand it. He was stuck in between two worlds, not fitting into either, no matter how he felt safe in his bubble on the Enterprise.
Leonard’s shoulders dropped and he leaned in, his features softening, and he placed a hand on Jim’s shoulder. It was warm and comforting, and Jim let a breath out that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. “Jim?” The sign was gentle now, calmer.
“I don’t know, Bones.” Jim hurried to continue when Leonard’s expression hardened. “I don’t know how to explain it. You’re not,” he paused, “me. You can’t know what it’s like!”
When Jim didn’t continue, Leonard urged, “Try,” the sign pushing out towards Jim like encouragement.
Jim sighed and began slowly; he wasn’t used to sharing things like this about himself, but if it was going to be anyone, it would be Leonard. “I don’t fit in.” He pointed to his ears. “I hear too much, I don’t hear enough. It has always been a problem.” He wasn’t looking at Leonard, just looking at his hands producing the signs. “I’m not hearing enough, because I need all these accommodations. Yet, I am oral, I can hear a lot. I don’t fit in with deaf people.
“I’ve done things like that for as long as I can remember. Never with the sonic generator. But.” His hands were freezing, pausing and stumbling over his words. “With other things. It never did much, but it made me feel better.” He really couldn’t look at Leonard anymore. “I can’t be hearing, maybe I’d fit in by being deaf? By being deaf enough?” Putting it into words, it seemed so silly.
He could see Leonard shake his head out of the corner of his eye, could see his mouth move but not the words that formed there. Finally, he waved and brought Jim’s attention back to him. For a moment it looked like he was going to sign again, but instead he took Jim’s hands into his own and held them for a moment, squeezing comfortingly.
“I can’t understand,” Leonard started, signing much softer than just a few minutes before, anger already bleeding out to care for his friend, “but that seems really difficult, Jim.” He paused again, thinking about what to say. “Starfleet is about celebrating differences. In everyone. Not just people who are fully one thing or the other. Diversity doesn’t work like that.” He frowned a little, but he continued before Jim could say anything. “Look at Spock. He’s both human and Vulcan, he knows a bit about not fitting in with two different worlds. It’s a struggle for him, but would you want your first officer, hobgoblin that he is, any other way?”
Jim couldn’t help but smile a little at the insult. He knew it was affectionate. “No, I wouldn’t.” but he didn’t need to say anything, Leonard already knew and just continued on.
“Celebrate yourself. You’re different, and you’re everything Starfleet is about. You’re strong and confident about everything else, why not in this way? Be proud of who you are, you’re just as valuable as you are.”
“Yeah,” Jim agreed. He found himself almost shaking. It’d been a long and rough day and it was really taking a toll on him. He blinked a little, trying to hide how emotional he was being, how affected he was by Leonard’s words. No one had said anything like that to him before. He’d always felt so alone, and for a little while, he realised he didn’t have to be. That he wasn’t actually alone and there were other people out there who may not be like him, but may feel the same way. How could he forget about Spock? How could he forget about all the other people, human or alien, disabled or nondisabled, who felt like this? “I never thought about it like that.”
Leonard smiled and slapped Jim on the shoulder, in the friendly way that they do. “See!” He leveled a serious face at Jim again. “Now. This has to stop. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. It is self-harm, and you could get seriously hurt.” Jim nodded but it wasn’t enough for Leonard, who continued “You’ve been doing this for as long as you can remember? It’s not going to be so easy to give up. I want you to see a ship psychologist.”
For once, Jim couldn’t possibly argue with him, no matter how much he wanted to get out of it, he knew he had to do this. It was important, and what he was doing to himself was dangerous. “I will, Bones.” He promised. Leonard gave him a stern look and he promised again. “I promise, set up an appointment for me and I’ll go.”
Leonard seemed to believe him, and nodded before pointing to his office. “Okay then. Now, a drink?”
Relieved, Jim nodded and let him lead the way.