Sherlock hesitated briefly before dragging the blade across his skin, leaving, only for a split second, a hollow line before it was filled with blood.
He felt a flash of emotion that was a mix of things, some that he couldn't decipher, but recognized that there was relief as well as guilt somewhere in there, mixed up with all the other ones he didn't know how to name.
He watched it for a minute more, just watching.
The blood slowed and pooled in the corners as well as in the gap the cut had made. It wasn't deep this time. That was good. He'd made mistakes before, cut too deep, ones that he were sure required stitches which he didn't seek out. He couldn't.
He was always more careful after those ones, the scars they left never fading enough for his liking, providing the harsh reminder that even the great Sherlock Holmes wasn't infallible.
He could have laughed about that. He was doing this, wasn't he? That should have been evidence enough.
Evidence. Evidence that he found but couldn't decipher. Entirely his fault his fault hisfaulthisfault-
He shook his head, like he could shake the thoughts free that were tormenting him, tip his head and let them fall out his ear to examine on the floor. Instead he focused on the blood for one last look before he cleaned and covered it. That sometimes helped, but not this time. It wasn't enough.
He picked up the blade off the floor where he had left it, not even noticing, after he'd made the first cut.
Only one more, he told himself. And that's all.
But there was never any telling if that would hold true.
The blade hovered over his skin for a second and he decided where to cut, finally settling on right next to the previous one. Easier to hide that way.
He pulled it across his skin, tugging only slightly as it ripped through his flesh.
It was his flesh, but it didn't feel like it. Not now, not when he was doing this. He often wished he could feel the same way when he was shot, stabbed, or broken, but this seemed to be the only time it worked. This one was slightly deeper than the last, the blood welling up before dripping off his arm and onto the floor. He would have to clean that up.
He waited patiently for it to stop before he washed it out in the sink and stuck a bandage on it.
Again cursing his choice of colour in washcloths, Sherlock scrubbed at the floor. He needed to invest in some darker coloured ones, he noted as he stared at the light grey one. He hoped the blood would wash out in the sink or John would start noticing the dwindling numbers.
Thankfully, it did well enough, and Sherlock surveyed the bathroom one last time before stepping out and scurrying off to his bedroom.
He was tired.
He awoke in the morning to find John lounging on the couch with a cup of tea, paper unfolded in front of him but ignored in favour of the laptop.
“Working today?” Sherlock called, flipping the kettle on.
John stared at him. “I haven't worked there for almost a month now. I only work during emergencies, remember?”
Sherlock wracked his brain. He actually didn't, which may have frightened him more than the information itself actually did.
“Hmm,” Sherlock hummed in response, digging through the cupboards for a tea cup. He finally found one that looked acceptable and dumped a couple spoonfuls of sugar in. “Anything interesting?”
John shrugged. “A couple of home invasions and some robberies, probably by the same people. No murder though. Lestrade may come calling for some help on the home invasions; I don't think he's realized they're connected.”
“Of course not,” Sherlock muttered under his breath. The kettle finally singing, he poured water into his teacup and headed to the couch, setting his cup on the table before throwing himself onto the cushions.
He lay there for a moment, staring into the distance, listening to the sounds of the world outside. Dull. Dull people going to dull jobs in their dull, dull lives.
Just the thought of it was enough to make his skin itch with the boredom.
He closed his eyes and sipped at his tea, listing all the things he could do that day.
He'd been working on a new violin piece, one that he couldn't quite get the ending right for, but he could tell it was right there, at the tip of his bow, just out of his reach. There was also the experiment he'd been doing with the grass, one John had been relatively happy to find in the fridge, given that it wasn't growing mould (yet) or had come from a living person. But that experiment was boring. Then there was the one with fire which John would most definitely not approve of.
Sherlock glanced over at him. He was still pecking at his laptop, no doubt detailing the failure of the previous case.
Sherlock didn't even notice it, but he groaned. John looked up abruptly.
“You okay Sherlock?”
“You groaned. Just now. Alright?”
“Fine,” he dismissed John with a wave of his hand.
“Alright,” John replied uneasily, like he knew Sherlock was hiding something, but wasn't willing to push it.
Sherlock was thankful for that.
Sherlock managed to push that case out of his mind with the arrival of a new one, one that he absolutely wouldn't screw up on. Because he failed last time, and there was no failing twice in a row. That would be unimaginable, and he did not have enough skin or blood to weather that storm.
And it was going well, it was, so very well, he'd spotted the crucial evidence and had taken it back to the flat to experiment on in the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves to smash the poor little bugs to bits to examine their insides.
“And once I mix the solution-”
“Sherlock,” John said quietly.
“Oh, what is it now?” Sherlock huffed, stopping short when he saw what John was gesturing to. “Oh...” he trailed off. He'd forgotten about his arm. Forgotten that when he rolled up his sleeves John would be able to see the scabs, no longer covered, but still entirely evident.
“Oh,” he echoed.
John stared at them for another minute, but Sherlock made no motion to cover them up. “Sherlock what are those?”
Sherlock sighed. “John, it's fairly obvious what they are. Self inflicted injuries.”
“On your arms.”
John kept staring.
“You won't understand,” he said stiffly.
“Not if you don't explain it to me,” John pleaded.
“You can't understand,” he snapped.
“Try me,” John insisted, his voice losing the pleading tone in favour of a more demanding one. Sherlock knew that tone. It was his doctor tone he used when convincing Sherlock to take his scarf off to check his neck, or that his face laceration would need stitches. He's sure heard it enough times.
But this was one matter in which he would not budge. This was not something John could fix.
“No,” he bit.
John just stood there for a while, looking at him. Sherlock looked up, expecting to see him glaring, but was shocked to find him standing there looking almost... sad. No, that couldn't be it. And yet...
Perhaps he was disappointed. That would do. Disappointed in Sherlock for doing that, and disappointed in himself for not noticing, both of which were superfluous. Or perhaps it was guilt, for not noticing earlier, for doing anything.
All of which were perfectly valid options, but despite Sherlock's difficulty reading emotions, he could tell none of them were it.
It was pain. And pain didn't make sense. There was no reason for John to be hurting. There was nothing about this that should hurt him.
It was illogical.
But the man was persistent. “Just... answer me this. Why.”
Oh god. That was the question he hated the most because there was no one answer and there was no right answer. There were hundreds of reasons each right and each wrong in their own respects, all varying from one moment to another, and none of them for John to understand.
“Why not?” he replied flatly, avoiding eye contact. He knew John wouldn't settle for that, but he was mostly stalling for time until he could get the right words.
“Sherlock,” he said, but it wasn't in a scolding tone, it was pleading again. The sort of tone that managed to work its way into his head and pull out bits he wanted to keep hidden.
He closed his eyes.
That one was more of a question, wondering if Sherlock was ignoring him, or sleeping, or simply remembering.
“Thinking,” he replied, sorting through the words and trying to pile them into stacks that would make sense after they spilled out of his mouth. It was hard work.
“Why what?” he asked finally? John looked confused. “Why do I do it or why did I not tell you?”
He continued without waiting for a response. “I didn't tell you for obvious reasons, like what you're doing now.” John opened his mouth to protest, but Sherlock shot him down with a wave of his hand. “And as for why I did it, the cutting,” he continued, using the word that John hadn't been able to, “That's a whole lot more complicated because there is no single reason.”
John collapsed onto the couch next to him, waiting for him to continue.
“I know you've seen that the two are very recent, and those are from the latest case. I failed.” His voice broke as he said that and cursed it for betraying him.
He could see John stiffen, perhaps wanting to reach out and comfort him, but Sherlock wanted none of that. He got to his feet and continued speaking while pacing around the room.
“I've explained to you how my mind works, constantly in need of stimulation, because it will find it elsewhere if it is not provided, whether good or bad. And sometimes it was drugs, and sometimes it was cutting. Oddly enough, cutting seemed to be the safer and healthier alternative.” He laughed harshly. “And when things like that happen, failure, that tends to head more the cutting way than towards drugs, which I suppose is better considering that Lestrade doesn't let me work when I'm high. The cuts are a lot easier to hide, which doesn't lead to the never ending cycle of continuing failure.”
“You still haven't explained why,” John pointed out.
Sherlock glared at him, but John only shrugged. He was getting immune to his glaring. It wasn't fair. Sherlock vowed to work on that.
“I've told you what my mind is like, constantly racing, tearing itself apart if it doesn't have something constructive to do, like the work. And when it has a failure to focus on, it grabs it and runs with it, tearing around my brain doing laps until I swear the path it's worn is bleeding. All the what ifs, the things I did wrong, the things I could have done, the things I missed, the ones I should have connected sooner, and maybe if I did those, I would have been able to save her. I wouldn't have failed.”
“You caught him Sherlock,” John pointed out.
He shook his head. “It doesn't matter,” he whispered sadly, thinking of the little girl he hadn't been able to save. “It doesn't matter,” he repeated.
John was at his side in a flash, yanking painfully at his hair to pull his head up and force him to look at him.
“Ouch,” he complained. “What?”
“Honestly Sherlock, sometimes you're so stupid. Of course it matters. It always matters. Yes, it's awful that we couldn't save the girl, but think of all the others you have saved, all the ones after the girl, all the others. It matters Sherlock. Of course it does. And it doesn't even have to be a life, because you helped Angelo and Mrs Hudson and me. So don't you dare tell me it doesn't matter. Because it does. And I know it must be awful inside your head, all the things you must keep locked up in there, buried away so no one, not even yourself, can find them, but those sorts of things always manage to find a way out. You should know that by now.”
He paused for a breath, given Sherlock a chance to protest.
“John, you're hurting me.”
“Sorry,” he apologized, releasing his grip on Sherlock's hair.
“So I guess what I'm trying to say is... I don't want to have to live knowing you do this. I'm not sure I can. So please, please, try to stop. For me?” he pleaded.
Sherlock mulled that over for a moment. This was for John, but this was huge, even for him.
“You know very well that I can't promise anything,” he said quietly.
John nodded mournfully. “Of course. But you have to promise me you'll try. Just try. Okay?” he pleaded.
Sherlock examined John's face.
It was definitely pain that was etched all over it, he decided.
Sherlock gave him an almost imperceptible nod, but John picked up on it.
“Great,” he declared. “Really, that's great.”
Sherlock really hope he could do it. For John's sake at least.
And he tried. So very hard. And it actually went well for a while, he managed not to carve open his skin, even through the case where Soo Lin had died, which really was entirely his fault, but he and John made it through that one together.
But then there was the bombs, and Moriarty, and John in a vest next to the pool, Sherlock's hopes of a normal life flashing before his eyes. It couldn't have all been a trick, could it? His mind pleaded that it wasn't, and then that it was, because the only alternative was that John was really strapped to bombs, was really going to die right there in front of him.
But neither option was good.
And even after they both made it out of their alive, a mysterious phone call having saved the day, Sherlock was still on edge. John thought he talked him through it, stayed up all night with him until the shock wore off and the exhaustion settled in and he collapsed on the couch. Sherlock covered him with a blanket, then headed to the bathroom, berating himself the entire way.
He may have gone a little overboard, the usual two not doing it, requiring another two, then another. And it still wasn't enough. But he knew the only thing he could do to make it enough would bleed him dry before John even woke up and come to see what was going on. And even then, it wouldn't help. So he clawed at his skin, leaving scratch marks trailing up and down his arms and legs and torso, some even creeping up to his neck, and curled up into a ball and cried until he fell asleep.
He woke up before John did and cleaned the dried blood droplets up off the floor, not bothering to worry about the washcloth. John would know anyway.
Sherlock wondered if he looked as awful as he felt, but the mirror couldn't show that kind of pain. It showed he look exhausted and pale, red lines streaking up his neck, but nothing his scarf wouldn't cover. It couldn't show how hollow his eyes felt, or how damaged the heart was that he claimed not to have, and yet everyone, including Moriarty, knew he did.
He bandaged his arms up, saving John the trouble of doing it and pain of having to see them. When it was finished, he returned to the living room and stood over John, who'd barely shifted since falling asleep the night before, still where Sherlock had left him underneath a blanket.
“I need them John,” he whispered. “I deserve them. I deserve the pain that those people suffered. I couldn't save them. I couldn't save you. It's only fair.”
But John slumbered on, a fact Sherlock couldn't decide if he was relieved about or if it broke him.
He moved on.
John awoke hours later, a cup of tea waiting for him, which was unusual in itself. What was perhaps even more unusual was the fact that Sherlock was cooking breakfast.
Attempting to anyway. Apparently he didn't know that sausages couldn't go in toasters. Typical.
“You really don't have to Sherlock,” John protested. And by that he meant Sherlock really didn't have to. Or should. It would probably be better for the flat, John's sanity, and for London in general if Sherlock didn't cook. Ever again.
John could tell. They both knew he could. They both knew he would. He didn't say anything until after breakfast, which managed to not be entirely a disaster, John digging the sausages out of the toaster before they could catch on fire, and sticking some bread in instead.
“Did you clean them well?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” Sherlock replied.
“That's good. How many?”
“Six cuts. What else?”
Sherlock scowled. Typical of John to see through that.
“Multiple scratches,” he admitted.
“Hmm. Just with your nails?”
John sighed. “Okay. I was hoping that our talk last night would have helped.”
John looked at him wordlessly.
Sherlock nodded. “I didn't die on the bathroom floor,” he commented, shrugging his shoulders like it was not the huge deal they both knew it was.
John paled. “Sherlock-” he began.
“Don't. Just... don't.”
And so he didn't.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
Summer came. The air conditioning in 221B broke. Sherlock tended to have a shorter fuse the hotter it was. John was similar.
“Just put shorts on Sherlock,” John moaned, listening to the consulting detective complain about the humidity for what must have been the sixth time that day, if not that hour alone.
“Don't like them,” he dismissed, waving a hand at John as he continued to pace.
“Then for god's sake stop pacing. Just sit down,” he pleaded.
“I can't John!” he bellowed. “My mind is already bored, I can't risk sitting down as well.”
John groaned. “You're going to give yourself heatstroke. Pick one of them. I don't want to end up in A&E with you today.”
Sherlock scowled, but skulked off down the hallway towards his room, hopefully to put on shorts.
But Sherlock emerged moments later, decidedly shorts-less and headed up the stairs to John's room.
“Sherlock!” John called, more than slightly panicked. “Sherlock?”
There was no reply, but Sherlock return a minute later, legs bare.
“I don't own any shorts, apparently,” Sherlock noted, gesturing to the shorts that he was now wearing, slightly too short and too baggy for him. John's shorts.
John groaned. “You could have asked first. Go put a t-shirt on. The long sleeves just look ridiculous. I trust you have one of those, correct?”
Sherlock scowled at him. “Of course I do. And I don't.”
“Whatever. Just go put one on,” he ordered, smirking.
Sherlock stalked off again, returning a moment later looking decidedly self conscious in a grey t-shirt.
“That's better,” John noted, not feeling as stifled just to look at him.
“Whatever,” Sherlock noted, waving a hand at John. This turned out to be the wrong thing to do, because it allowed John to spot the scars crisscrossing each other on his arm, causing him to look more closely, spotting them on the other arm as well, and even the legs.
“You may as well ask,” Sherlock noted dully, not even bothering to look at John. “Do you want to see them?”
“What?” John stammered.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “I can feel you staring at them. Do you want to see?” he asked, looking directly at him now.
“Okay,” he said uneasily.
Sherlock sprawled himself out on the couch, rolling the short sleeves of the shirt up to around his shoulders and motioned for John to come over.
He did, stepping closer hesitantly.
“I don't bite,” Sherlock huffed, rolling his eyes. John didn't bother pointing out that wasn't true, as Sherlock had proven before.
“I was drugged then,” he muttered. John only smirked.
John examined Sherlock's arm first, where most of them seemed to be concentrated. The ones there were deeper too, some of them likely would have required stitches, which of course weren't gotten. Typical Sherlock.
“You can touch them if you want,” Sherlock informed him. He sounded bored, like it was an experiment that he wasn't allowed to participate in.
John reached out, but hesitated, like Sherlock was a painting in a museum that he wanted to test the texture of, but was roped off. Sherlock huffed at him and grabbed his arm, planting it firmly on his own.
“That wasn't so hard now, was it?” He smirked at John as he blushed despite the heat. John's hands were practised and traced the scars up and down his arm, taking care to note each one. There were a lot.
When he was finally done, John sat back and continued to catalogue them with his eyes, noting which ones were newest, which ones were deepest, and trying to pair them up with the corresponding events.
Sherlock must have noticed this, because he bean pointing them out.
“These are the first two you discovered,” he noted, pointed to them. John would never forget those, not as long as he lived. They made him feel awful, all cold and then hot, making him shake. Sherlock must have noticed this, but ignored him. He continued, going further back, pointing out a particularly bad one that caused him to pass out, explaining that one was when his father died. He wasn't sure why he did that, as he was never very fond of his father, but it had been one of those perfect storm sort of things, a time filled with raging teenage hormones, a final comment from his father on his deathbed, and his death as his final act. He pointed out the very first one for John, one that was barely visible now.
And he pointed out the last ones that he'd done, the ones from the night at the pool, when he couldn't help John, couldn't save him. Those ones were still red, not quite faded yet.
Sherlock finally finished and waited for John to say something.
“I don't pretend to try and understand,” he began. “But... I want you to know that I'll always try. And I'll always be there.”
Sherlock nodded. “Of course you will be. You live here after all.”
John opened his mouth to correct him, but spotted the smirk on his face.
“Right,” he said, rolling his eyes.
They sat there silently for another moment before John began again.
“This is the first time I've seen you in something other than long sleeves and pants. If you're self conscious about them, I have a friend at the hospital who is really great with that sort of thing, removing scars and tattoos if you want-”
“No!” Sherlock yelled.
Taken aback, John stopped. “Okay. Sorry. Is there some reason?...”
Sherlock sighed. “You're right about not being able to understand. And there really isn't any way I can change that. But just try, okay?”
Sherlock hesitated before speaking, and John could tell he was gathering his words.
“It was never about the scars,” he began. “The end goal was never to scar myself, that wasn't it at all. But now they're there, and they're a part of me. They may not be a good part of me, but they still are, just like your bullet wound or your psychosomatic limp.”
John glanced down at his leg and frowned.
“I don't want to change that part of me, no matter how awful it may look, or how many people stare when I wear short sleeves. Because I don't care what anyone else thinks.”
John pondered that.
“Doesn't it remind you of the awful things you went through to get them?” John asked, still completely puzzled.
Sherlock shook his head. “That's not it at all. I mean, they are there as a reminder, but not so much of the awful times, but of what... didn't win. I won because I am stronger.”
John nodded. He definitely understood that bit.
“They're more a... map. A road map of the places I've been and the things I've done.”
John nodded. He liked that. “A road map,” he echoed. “No more stops, okay?”
Sherlock smirked. “I'll try.”