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Pulling the Thorn

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John's lying stretched out the whole length of the couch, either staring at the game or asleep. Matt grins and goes down to the foot-end of the couch and squirms in; he's just about wedged himself between John's feet and the armrest when John mutters, "Jesus, kid," and picks his feet up enough for Matt to slip under them.

"Hey, I didn't want to disturb your beauty sleep," Matt says easily. "You need all you can get."

John snorts and jabs his heel into Matt's leg--it's his good one, even if the difference is more academic every day--and says, "I'm watching football here, what do you want."

All he wants, actually, is to sit and zone out watching John watch football, so Matt doesn't say anything--just curls his hand around John's left foot where it's resting on his thigh.

John jerks his foot away like the touch burns.

"Whoa, whoa, sorry! Sorry, are you that ticklish? Sorry." Matt knows he's babbling. It's not for the way John pulled away, but for the way he suddenly turned his head to look straight at Matt, looking right through him. It doesn't happen often, but Matt's found it's a good idea to talk, and keep talking, when John goes away like that.

It only lasts a second, though, and then John's settling his foot back on Matt's thigh, turning his head back to look at the game, so Matt short-circuits the words. He tries to figure out what just happened, and keeps his hands to himself.

He hasn't gotten far with figuring anything out when John says, "It's not ticklish at all anymore, actually. Right foot is, but I mostly just kick. Left foot..."

John shifts his left foot up Matt's thigh slightly, and it can't be anything but an invitation.

John's wearing socks. He pretty much always does unless they're naked, and when they're naked Matt is usually not looking at his feet. Matt filed this away in his head somewhere along with the way John's shoes are always next to the door, unlaced, ready to be put on. It's the one point of housekeeping that John's actually rigid about; it's the same way he treats his gun and badge and phone. Shoes. It's a preparedness thing. And if you're going to need your shoes you want to be wearing socks. Matt gets it.

He looks up at John's face, but John's still looking toward the game--it would probably overstate the case to say he's watching it--so Matt takes a breath and peels John's sock down, leaving his left foot bare. John pulls his foot back again, just far enough to show Matt the bottom of it.

There's a huge scar down the sole of John's left foot. It's old enough to have faded to the same color as the callused skin all around it, but it's ridged and ugly, nearly as long as Matt's thumb.

"It didn't start out that bad," John says, still looking toward the TV. "Stepped on a piece of glass, maybe an inch long. Bled like a son of a bitch. Didn't have anything to tie it up with but my shirt, which was already pretty filthy, but it's not like I cared at that point."

Piece of glass: could have happened to anyone. Tied it up with a filthy shirt, didn't care: John McClane. He's looked up all John's old press, and this is ringing a faint bell, one of those human interest anecdotes out of the whole Nakatomi thing. John McClane defeated twelve terrorists barefoot. Matt remembers adding uphill, in the snow, on Christmas! to that in his head, in a state of slightly hysterical awe. He never thought about this part of it.

"They stitched it up at the ER, antibiotics, blah blah," John said, his voice still low and easy. "I popped the stitches a few days later, running around with my kids--didn't even realize till I took my shoe off and it was full of blood. Foot hurt all the time, but what was I going to do, right? Both feet cut up, shot in the shoulder, I wasn't going on crutches. Wheelchair for cuts on my feet? Fuck it, I could walk, I was fine. Went back to the doctor, they couldn't stitch it again because it might get infected, like it wasn't already fucking infected by that point. Thought it healed up and then it busted open again..."

John's rattling it all off easily, and all Matt can think of is something he read once about beating the soles of people's feet as a method of torture, because there are nearly as many nerve endings as in the hands, and the excruciating pain keeps prisoners from walking or running, to escape. John's talking like it was a hangnail.

"You gotta understand," John says, "I was back with Holly after six months apart, back with my kids, leaving the NYPD and getting a spot with the LAPD, packing up my life and moving across the country. I didn't have time for this shit and I couldn't--Holly wanted me to use Nakatomi, move up the ladder, advance my fucking career. I just wanted to be a cop and the last thing I wanted was desk work, but it was a new city, I was gonna have to take what they gave me. I got paranoid..."

Matt looks up when John trails off, and John's looking straight at him, meeting his eyes.

"I got scared," John says, biting off the words distinctly. He looks away again. "Outta my fuckin' mind. Everything was perfect, everything was shaking out right. I wasn't gonna let a stupid cut on my foot fuck things up. I stopped going to the doctors, let the ones in LA think I got cleared in New York. Didn't let myself limp. Kept it bandaged up, kept my shoes on as much as I could, kept my socks on. After the kids were in bed and Holly was asleep, I'd go in the bathroom and patch it all up--it was fucked up pretty bad, but the worse it got the more I couldn't let anybody see it."

Matt feels like he can't breathe, like he's in a tiny bathroom and can't make a sound no matter how bad it hurts because someone might hear and then it'll all come crashing down.

"Holly--she knew something was up. Thought I was having bad dreams, thought I should see a shrink. And I'd tell her I was fine and I'd tell myself I wasn't even lying because once I got my foot fixed up every night I slept like a fuckin' baby." John snorts, shakes his head a little. "Looking back at it I should've been seeing a shrink for my foot, but what did I know then, right?"

Matt tries to imagine what it's like, to go through this kind of insanity so many times that it's familiar, that you look back at your naïve self dealing with your first case of PTSD and laugh. He doesn't think he wants to know.

"Took seven, eight months but it healed up. Everybody thought they knew why I kept my shoes on all summer in LA, it was almost a joke. Holly never saw it until it was scarred up, and I just said it probably looked worse 'cause it got walked on all the time. Said it didn't hurt so I didn't think about it. She wasn't a doctor, how would she know?"

John falls silent and thats it, that's the end of the story. Except that it's not, exactly.

Matt keeps his voice even, doesn't let the statement turn into a question. "You never told her about it."

John shakes his head a little, but he doesn't say another word.

Matt licks his lip, takes a breath, plays the words over in his head a couple of times to get them right. "But you told me."

John has a hundred nicknames for him and says "I love you" over things like coffee and TiVo. He calls Matt his boyfriend, but the word always has an intonation halfway between a joke and a question. When he calls Holly his ex-wife, the emphasis is never really on ex; they have kids together, and Matt's pretty sure John's always going to be a little bit crazy about her, but he's never told her this. And he's telling Matt without even being asked, when he could have just passed it off as nothing.

"I never told Holly and look where that got me," John says. His eyes are closed, now. He's not even pretending to watch the game. "I got so many new things I could fuck up with you, what's the point of fucking up the same ones over again?"

Matt runs his thumb down over the scar, and just like John said, he's not ticklish. He doesn't flinch from the touch at all. It's a scar, like all of John's scars, and it shouldn't matter, but of course it does.

"Thanks," Matt says quietly.

"Yeah," John mutters, "don't mention it."

Matt knows he won't.