It's one particular morning that Sherlock bursts in to use the bathroom (ever no boundaries when it concerns him) and John has nothing but a towel around his waist where he stands before the mirror, shaving cream all along his jaw. He freezes, razor in hand hanging in midair, and blinks at Sherlock.
But his flatmate simply ignores John and moves to the toilet, flipping it open and going about his business. John doesn't look, doesn't say anything; he simply resumes shaving, bringing the blades to his skin and dragging upward along his neck to his chin, nose lifted in the air.
He looks down, rinses the razor in the sink, and lifts it again. It's only when the stream stops and the toilet is flushed that John says anything. "You know, you could knock every once in a while."
"You weren't naked, nor doing anything risqué. I heard you get out of the shower and gave enough pause for you to dry off and moisturize. And then my bladder couldn't wait a moment longer, so I've no apologies to make." And with that, Sherlock shrugs and is about to turn and leave when something seems to catch his eye in the mirror.
John doesn't notice; he's too busy tending to the stubble on his cheek to pay any heed. But Sherlock opens the door and lets the rest of the fog around the mirror clear to reveal a perfect reflection of John, instead of the circle of only his face and neck. When the mirror clears, Sherlock is staring at one certain location, and John's gaze flickers over to Sherlock, finally noting the staring.
"What?" John asks, lowering his razor before he takes another stroke. He only has the right side of his face left, now. "What are you looking at? See a spider on the wall that needs killing?" and he smiles a little at that.
Sherlock shakes his head and instead steps closer, his robe and tee shirt brushing John's damp, bare back. "Your scar, the one from your definitive injury in Afghanistan; I've never seen it before." He frowns. "It's not as it should be. It puckers too much for a single bullet, and the starburst's radius is too broad. It begs the question: what happened, John?"
John had winced at the mention of his scar, and now he's sighing reluctantly. "Do I have to tell you?"
"Naturally," Sherlock retorts. "You know that I will continue to pester you until you do. When I want to know something, I don't let up until I acquire the information."
John makes a sort of snorting grunt that's akin to saying, 'Yeah, I know; you can say that again. And sometimes it's bloody annoying when you do it.' He sighs, then moves his razor to his face, his arm at an angle. "You know," he remarks as he opens his mouth to smooth out his cheek as he drags his razor down it, sluicing white foam and leaving hairless skin in its wake, "Most soldiers – most people, even – don't like taking about their scars, Sherlock. They bring up bad memories and painful burdens."
"But that's why I find scars so fascinating," Sherlock counters fluidly, smiling slightly, his eyes lit up. "Every single scar has a story to tell; the person with it had to have gotten it somehow, and they must remember how. And when they don't, that's a story in itself, because what could wound them enough to scar but they don't recall it? It's brilliant for cases when I have to trace the source of the scar. It usually holds the answer to the entire case."
"Yeah, okay, I guess I get that: you like scars on victims because it reveals things for your job. But then why ask me about mine? It's not relevant to any case. And it's not like you care. You don't care about sentimental things like past wounds," John murmurs, and for a moment, he pauses after rinsing his blades and doesn't bring the disposable razor back up to his face. He isn't looking up just yet, Sherlock realizes, because he doesn't want to see Sherlock's face in the mirror.
This hurts. Stings, actually, because it makes those words all the worse. Sherlock's brows come together. "I do too care, John. Not much about anyone else – I wouldn't ask a stranger who wasn't pertinent to a case – but you are my friend. And friends care. That is the whole point in having them, isn't it? Or have I missed something in the pattern of amiable relationships?"
"The fact that you're being logical even about caring just sort of confirms it, Sherlock; you're just scientifically curious, not genuinely concerned, and for that, I don't feel comfortable telling you." John replies. And that hurts, too, dammit.
Sherlock feels a flare of anger; his brows pinch together completely, his stomach churns heatedly, and there's a flash in his eyes recognizable even through the mirror. He grabs John's naked shoulder and whirls him around so they can face each other without the medium of a reflective surface. He peers directly into John's eyes as he says rapidly, "It's not just about cases or logic, John. Scars are fascinating because, while some are common – like cat scratches or dog bites or plastic surgery or C-sections – others are infinitely captivating because they are medically and psychologically appealing: brain surgeries, spinal surgeries, freak accidents, daredevil tricks gone awry, crashes, battle wounds, muggings, murder attempts, domestic abuse.
"The possibilities are an ongoing list because humans are so fragile and yet so strong; they can get injured rather easily, by even some of the simplest things and depending on the unique circumstances, and yet, they survive and come out with only a mark on skin. They become torn and frayed, but they don't unravel. So that, John, is why scars intrigue me, and why I have, admittedly, been waiting for a chance to see yours and ask you about its origins."
The doctor gapes at him for a lasting moment before caving in. "Fine, you'll get your story. But can you let me finish shaving and dressing first?"
Sherlock nods curtly. "Yes, that will suffice." And he turns sharply on his heel and heads for the living room.
John shakes his head, caught between smiling and rolling his eyes. He chooses to do neither and instead finishes his daily routine with a nonchalant expression. When he enters the living room, Sherlock is fingering the strings of his violin, playing seemingly random notes, looking a bit lost in thought or impatience; John can't tell which.
As soon as John sits in his armchair, Sherlock stands from his and focuses his attention. "Do you mind removing your shirt? I had thought you wouldn't dress fully. I intend to examine the scar while you tell your story, you know."
"Oh," John frowns, but he concedes with a slight sigh and fingers on his shirt buttons. No jumper today, just a casual plaid shirt. He undoes each button quickly and flips the fabric from his torso, draping it over one of the arms of his chair. He settles back into his original position and throws up his hands. "There. Happy now?"
Sherlock nods, his eyes perhaps scanning the expanse of John's skin for a moment too long before settling on John's left shoulder. He removes his lens from his pocket and stoops over John to inspect and magnify the marked tissue.
"Do I really need to tell you about it? Can't you make your own conclusions just by reading it with that lens of yours? With that brain of yours, I bet you have the whole tale sorted already."
He crouches down in front of John, just off to the side, and reaches up to delicately trail his fingers over John's rippled skin. It's just barely healed; still a bit pinkish in the center, at the heart of the circle where the bullet must have been embedded, but otherwise fully recovered. It spreads out from that point, almost like a circle within a circle, and around it there are wrinkles like veins; all of it reminds Sherlock of bullets in glass, the way it becomes a spider's web with a hole in the center, and radial lines crack all the way up or down at various points. He imagines, for a moment, John as a doll with a crushed arm and chest, and it makes his heart clench.
"I'd rather hear it straight from the horse's mouth," Sherlock comments idly, seeming half-lost in thought.
John starts speaking once Sherlock finally lifts his fingers from their intricate tracing of John's scarred flesh. He clears his throat. Sherlock takes this as cue to move back to his own armchair to prepare to listen to John's anecdote.
The doctor speaks at a measured pace, hesitant, obviously uncomfortable with revisiting the memory. Sherlock tries his best to being open and nonjudgmental. "Uh. So, um. It was about a week or two before they sent me home to heal and recover in a hospital, a-and leave my duties. My regiment was broken up, separated from a few bombs planted in the road we were on. –There are many like that, you know, in both Iraq and Afghanistan: homemade land mines to send us to Kingdom Come, get us off their roads. Luckily, the first one going off tipped us not to continue, so we took a detour, collecting our wounded from the blast and moving on. But in the detour, a sandstorm blew by and we got lost in it, separated from one another. I took shelter with six non-med soldiers in a collection of rocks.
"In short, I guess, we were ambushed. Some men from a nearby village wanted us gone, so they came at us with stolen guns, firing at will. We barely made it out of there, found only by some of our regiment before the separation. Two of my men got shot, and one was dead instantly, and the other I took up over my shoulder and carried to the truck coming our way to rescue us.
"It wasn't always like that. Most of the time we were in fields, just trudging on to the next checkpoint or back to camp from a mission, nothing serious. Sometimes we were fired at, but never for too long – they don't have the ammunition we do in Afghanistan – and no major damage was ever taken, not really. Hell, half the time I was there, I only saw people come in wounded, and I took care of them, and never saw any action myself. I stayed mostly at base camp and was bored off my arse. But not that day. We were moving to a larger group, and it got so messy.
"They aimed for him, the lad in my arms. His name was Schwartz, but I don't remember his first name, only his dog tags, and those don't always put the first name on them, you know. He was young, maybe twenty-five, and not a bad looking kid; I'm sure he had a girlfriend or a young wife waiting for him back home. And this will sound absurd, especially to you, but I had this constant thought while I was carrying him: I had to get him home safe to her, whoever she was, because I was meant to do it, meant to bring them together again. So when I saw that they were firing at the sand and sparse grass to my left, probably trying to hit us both, I lost it. I set him down and pivoted and grabbed my gun and fired back at them, all while standing in front of him, guarding him. I didn't even know him that well, but I had to protect my own."
"And that's when you were shot," Sherlock utters lowly, so not to break the flow.
John nods slowly. "And that's when I was shot." He sighs gruffly and runs a hand through his hair, glancing away for a second. "There were no other medics, and we were too far from camp to get help. So I took the kit in the truck while Schwartz and I and a couple others loaded it and drove off, and I ignored the searing pain in my arm and the numbness spreading down my dominant hand and just worked on Schwartz and the few others who were bleeding before tending to myself. I had to dig the bullet out with my bare hands, and that accounts for half of the scarring, because it was brutal and jarring on that truck, and I didn't have the proper tools, and I could have bled to death, I reckon. But I got the slug out and patched myself up before growing dizzy. The men let me sleep, then, and God, we were a sight when we pulled in to base. My hands were covered in blood, my uniform soaked and ripped, and my shirt half-off, and sand everywhere.
"I had to use someone's canteen to clean my wound, but the conditions weren't right, so I wasn't surprised when I woke up with an infection the next day. Another med officer tended to me, helped my fever and fixed what I couldn't. And, basically… that's what happened. Now you know." John fidgets and touches his shirt. "Are we done? I'd like to put this on again. It's a bit chilly in here."
It is, of course, perfectly seasoned in the room, and not cold at all, and John is simply looking for excuses, any that Sherlock will permit him. But Sherlock isn't letting this go just yet. "That doesn't account for why it was so traumatizing for you to cause the psychosomatic limp to follow. What else happened? What aren't you telling me?"
"We lost Schwartz," John remarks coldly, and his eyes are shielded temporarily by his eyelids. When he opens them again, he looks a deal worse for wear than he had a millisecond ago. "Even with my aid, he didn't make it. And I found out I was right: he did have someone at home waiting for him. A younger brother, a widowed mother, and his recent bride. They were married while he was on leave, just before he was called into service again."
"So that's what scarred you emotionally? Failing to protect a stranger?" Sherlock frowns, trying to comprehend the odd concept of human emotion, more fragile than the human body itself.
John huffs an ironic laugh. "Yeah, imagine how much worse it would have been if he'd been my friend, like you. I'd be a real mess then."
It's meant as a sarcastic joke in poor taste, but there is always truth behind the best lies, always some ounce of honesty in sarcasm. So Sherlock studies John closely, then, and moves to kneel before him again. The detective has an inquiry etched onto his face, and John raises a brow to help bring it out. Sherlock searches John's eyes, then murmurs, "Would you really?"
John frowns. "Of course I would. You're my best mate. If I'd failed to protect you like I had him, I dunno what I'd do with myself. Does that really need saying? I'd think it'd be obvious."
"Sometimes I need you to state the obvious because I need to know it is the obvious, and not just to me," Sherlock says, and there is something about the way he delivers the line that startles John. Must be the hint of genuine emotion there, so different from Sherlock's usual matter-of-fact speech.
When Sherlock stands again, no longer eye-level with John, he leans over and touches John's scar again, and this time, it feels new. John sits straighter in his chair and peers up questioningly at Sherlock, whose own face is unreadable. Sherlock's eyelids lower and he looks almost sympathetic for a moment, and the lack of apathy is definitely what must be new about it. Before, Sherlock studied John's scar with medical interest; now, he's studying it with compassion.
John's lips part and he has to remind himself to breathe, because Sherlock is bringing his face closer, falling down onto one knee, both hands on John's shoulder, now, feeling out the starburst of skin in detail. A thumb traces the innermost circle from the tip of the bullet; the other circles the less formed outer ring from where John dug it out. And then the index and middle fingers map out all the other ripples of flesh surrounding it all, feeling where the stitches and bandages must have been to seal it all up.
Before either of them realizes it, the trance lulls Sherlock's eyes closed and he spreads his fingers and places his lips on the uneven skin. John tenses in his chair, eyes going wide, and stares at Sherlock's hair to the left of his vision and watches as Sherlock doesn't quite kiss the scarred flesh, but does seem to feel out every wrinkle of the old wound with his lips, sensitive skin on sensitive skin, and John's heart skips a beat before kicking up a notch in pulse.
Sherlock's right hand grips the curve of John's shoulder while his left palm rests over John's sternum, no doubt feeling out every increased heartbeat. Vaguely, John wonders if part of Sherlock's mind is taking his pulse, calculating how it's sped up exactly. And just as vaguely, John is aware of how Sherlock's long fingers are rubbing subtly over John's collarbones. But what John is mostly focused on is the way Sherlock's tongue has come out to taste the scar, as if to soften the skin and heal it further, will the mark away.
John feels like this has crossed some sort of line beyond Sherlock's normal personal space invasion and casualness of touch, since it means so little to him. It feels so much more intimate, and John can't begin to fathom Sherlock's reasons for this, what stirred inside him to initiate this, and he really can't fathom what his own feelings are when it comes to feeling Sherlock's mouth on what John has previously thought to be the most hideous part of his naked body.
But Sherlock seems to be telling John that he accepts him. Accepts his pain, his burdens, his emotional and sentimental attachments, his memories of conflict and his struggles. It's as if Sherlock is saying through touch, 'I accept this as another beautiful part of you, even if you can't see it.'
And John doesn't know what to do with this newfound statement, this unusual affection. He simply inhales shakily and brings a hand up to Sherlock's left shoulder to slowly ease him away. Sherlock's lips linger on John's skin even after his tongue leaves it, and his fingers don't quite leave John's chest and shoulder as he pulls away. When their eyes meet, Sherlock looks comprehensive and John is sure his own face reflects his confusion, and in so many words, they know not to bring this up again.
But Sherlock's right thumb drifts back to John's scar and rubs over it, and he looks like he wants to kiss John, or maybe John is thinking somewhere that he wants Sherlock to want to kiss him, but in the end, Sherlock pulls away and hands John his shirt, and only then does John realize his left hand has been giving the arm rest of his chair the death grip.
The detective leaves the room, headed for his bedroom, and John is left in silence. When he finally regroups himself to put his shirt back on, he runs a hand over his face.
He's a bit afraid. This… Well, it goes without saying that it changes their relationship a little. Or a lot, John isn't positive, but it feels changed nevertheless. And it frightens him, because he wants more change, but in the same token, wishes it would go back to how it was.
But, at least, John doesn't feel ashamed of his scar any longer. It's as though Sherlock helped him forgive himself for that day, as if he helped him understand that he did all he could to save Schwartz and that this scar is like a badge of bravery, not a mark of failure.
So John breathes carefully and buttons up his shirt and nods to himself before going to put the kettle on. He could use a cup of tea after all of this.
And in the meantime, Sherlock stands in the centre of his empty room, fiddling with his hands, feeling the skin on the backs of his knuckles and wondering why it feels too smooth all of a sudden.