Now That the Dust has Settled (We Can See the Stars)
It happens slowly, for one thing.
Sherlock notices it changing, but for once in his life has learned to keep his mouth shut. Well: that’s not strictly true, is it, he muses to himself. He’s kept his mouth shut about this particular thing for a long time now. He notices John relaxing, little by little. The lines of his frown grow less severe. One day Sherlock wonders if he’s just imagined that John’s started smiling more again, and increases his subtle observation of the frequency of John’s smiles and confirms to himself that he was correct. Gradually John is thawing.
After everything that’s happened, it’s no wonder that he was tense, terse, angry, hurt, scarred and scarred again, old wounds broken open to heal jaggedly or badly, or not at all. This time it’s happening the right way. John’s becoming whole again, slowly. Sherlock watches it, hardly daring to breathe sometimes, not wanting to mar any of it. Contributing anywhere he can possibly see that it might be welcome, anything that he’s capable of doing, of giving. He does not say aloud that there are no limits on what he would do for John. To heal him, to show him that one person that he cares for, at least, is trustworthy. Sherlock is painfully mindful, for the first time in his life, of every single action that he under takes, his sole question its impact on John.
And then one day, a shift occurs. They’ve been living together again for three months now, talking regularly but never all that deeply. All of those discussions and apologies and more discussions have already happened, save perhaps one… but Sherlock does not hold out hope for that one to ever take place. Their cohabitation has been functioning well. They take cases, though Sherlock is careful to screen anything that might remind John unduly of any of their recent past. Anything to do with very young children or a female partner with an incredibly dark past, say. Those he quietly refuses and chooses something more focused on puzzles. He also takes care to choose a few that John can solve himself. He’s improved immensely, Sherlock notes with pride and no small (if extremely private) measure of affection. They work. And they live. Without argument, they keep the flat clean, washing dishes and cooking meals in relatively perfect harmony. They go out sometimes, mostly for brunch or quick meals while they’re out and about. They watch the news and QI and on the surface things feel much the same as they had. But there’s still something constrained between them, at least until one day in April when John comes into the kitchen and says, out of the blue, “Sherlock, I’d like to take a look at that cut on your shoulder, if you don’t mind. You said it was fine but I think you were possibly exaggerating about how fine it actually is.”
It comes out abruptly and Sherlock turns from where he was doing the washing up. This is a bit new and he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. “Have I been – obvious?” he asks obliquely.
John nods toward the shoulder in question (which is, in fact, aching rather persistently). “You’re favouring it. I was watching you from the desk.”
Sherlock works to not let on that he’s pleased by this. It’s been a long time since John manhandled him into being looked after. A very long time, in fact. Since that period after Mary shot him. After her death and his subsequent relapse, John seemed to have washed his hands of any attempts at taking care of him. Sherlock isn’t sure what to make of it; he thought that he’d assumed the role of caretaker now. “Now that you point it out, it does hurt,” he admits. “I should have had a look at it when we got home last night.”
“You were too busy blogging,” John says. “And we were stuffing our faces. Come here.”
“That chicken was good,” Sherlock says, remembering it and drying his hands before going to sit obediently on one of the kitchen chairs. “We should order that again.”
“Which, the crispy Szechuan?” John’s hands are brisk, touching his shoulders lightly. “Get your shirt off. Yeah, that was my favourite, too.”
Sherlock complies silently, folding his shirt and setting it on the table, bare to the waist. He tries not to feel self-conscious. He’s been in far greater states of undress in front of John many times in the past, but not in a long time. And so much has changed between them since those light-hearted days. He feels very naked.
John is standing behind him and he makes a disapproving sound. “Did you wash this out last night?”
“Yes, before bed,” Sherlock says, endeavouring not to sound defensive. One of his many apologies to John included a promise to take better care of his body and he doesn’t want John to think he’s been slacking on this. “Is it infected?”
“Getting there,” John says. “Let me get my kit.”
“I could just come with you to the bathroom,” Sherlock offers.
“It’s fine. I’ll be right back.”
John disappears down the corridor and Sherlock wonders if he didn’t want to be confined with him in such a small space and tries not to feel disappointed. Instead, he gets up and fills and plugs in the kettle so that they can have a cup of tea once John’s finished with the laceration. It was just a scratch, Sherlock thought at the time, a mere grazing of the security guard’s pocket knife. Apparently he should have had a better look last night, but it was hard to see the back of his shoulder and he hadn’t wanted to ask John.
It’s not a bad atmosphere they have now, he muses to himself. It’s peaceful. There was a week when they talked almost incessantly. There was shouting and tears on both sides, sometimes at the same time, but now Sherlock truly believes that everything is out and said now. All the secrets have been aired; nothing has been left unsaid, at last. It was years in coming, but it finally happened. There’s only one thing left, one thing that Sherlock has kept back. He thought that if any such possibility had ever existed, John might have said so during that whole ruckus, but he didn’t, and Sherlock is content to not ask. The dust is settling now, and one day John will start to laugh more often again. It’s beginning; he laughed at something on the telly just the other night, and once last week when Lestrade said something mildly humorous. He’ll get there.
John comes back with his medical kit and starts fussing with alcohol wipes and gauze. Sherlock sits patiently through it, doing his best to not annoy John. He doesn’t wince at the cool sting of the alcohol, nor at the gentle touch of John’s fingers dabbing antibacterial cream into the cut. He cuts medical tape when told to do so and silently gives John the pieces.
“You’re an idiot,” John says, but there’s some affection in his tone, Sherlock thinks. “You should have asked me to have a look last night.”
“I didn’t want to bother you,” Sherlock says automatically.
John’s hands still on his shoulders. Then he says, “That’s what I’m here for, aren’t I? To keep you in one piece?”
For a moment Sherlock doesn’t know what to say. Then he says, “I thought that was what I was here for, now. For you.”
John’s hands don’t move. Sherlock can hear him breathing. Then he says, “I suppose we can call it a mutual thing, then. You put the kettle on, did you? Brilliant.”
“I thought we could have tea,” Sherlock says, hoping that the danger moment is past. His heart is beating rather quickly.
John doesn’t move to switch it off; it hasn’t boiled quite yet. “Lean forward,” he says, and Sherlock obeys. John’s fingers trail over the pattern of whip scars on his back. It’s not the first time he’s seen them. That engendered both shouting and tears at the time, too, mostly on John’s part. “I wish I had seen these when you first got them,” he says, with a sigh. “Instead, I was helping rip them open.”
“John. It’s past,” Sherlock says immediately, bothered. He doesn’t want John getting upset about all that all over again. Without thinking, he reaches back and puts one of his hands over John’s on his shoulder. “It’s over now,” he says. “We’ve – moved on, haven’t we?”
John doesn’t pull his hand out from under Sherlock’s, rather to Sherlock’s surprise; he’s already wincing inwardly at his choice to have put it there in the first place. Oddly, John bends and puts his face into Sherlock’s hair, his forehead leaning there for a moment. “We’re trying our best, aren’t we,” he says, his voice a little muffled. He straightens up and withdraws his hand then. “Or God knows you’ve been.” He goes to the kettle then and busies himself with making tea. With his back to Sherlock he adds, “I’ll… I’ll start doing better, with all that... I owe you, Sherlock. You’ve been amazing. These last few months – yeah.” He turns around now and their eyes meet, and he goes on with a visible effort. “I would have been lost without you, you know. That’s the truth.”
Sherlock’s heart thumps faster still; he feels certain that John can hear it. “As I would have been without you,” he says, very quietly.
For a long moment, their eyes remain locked together. Then John clears his throat and brings the teapot over. “As you said, we’re better together,” he says. Without looking at Sherlock, he nods at his chest. “You can – put your shirt back on now. You don’t want to go spilling tea on yourself.”
“I never spill,” Sherlock says, reaching for his shirt, and to his lasting (and private) delight, John laughs.
“Yes, you do,” he says, but some of the lines around his eyes relax and don’t come back after that.
After that day, the change subtly accelerates. John is easier, more relaxed still. Sherlock counts every occasion of his smiles and gradually more and more frequent laughs and hoards them to himself, dedicating a shelf of their own in his mind palace. John makes more suggestions and reads through comments on Sherlock’s blog to choose cases, too. “Let’s take this one, with the double homicide in SoHo,” he says one day, a case Sherlock privately dismissed as too close to home, given that the husband murdered his cheating wife, but he agrees and they solve the case in two days. That night, John suggests they go see the newly refurbished Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum, somehow remembering that the Egyptian display had always been Sherlock’s favourite. Sherlock agrees despite being astonished by the suggestion, and they spend a happy afternoon poring over the exhibits.
That evening Sherlock’s mother calls and invites them both for lunch the following day and Sherlock hesitates, looking at John.
John catches it and looks up from his laptop. “Yeah? What is it?”
Sherlock moves the phone away from his mouth. “It’s my mother. She wants us to come for lunch tomorrow. You don’t have to come, if you’d rather not.”
John shrugs, then smiles. “Sure, I’ll come. Why not?”
Sherlock watches him dubiously for a moment longer, then, not taking his eyes from John (who has gone back to his email or whatever he’s doing) and says, “All right, we’ll come. What time?”
The next afternoon, they take the train out to the countryside and have a rather pleasant time, in fact. Sherlock’s father meets them at the station and drives them to the house, where the roast is twenty minutes from readiness. The entire house smells delicious. It’s just the four of them, to Sherlock’s private relief, and by unspoken rule, no one discusses any of the events of a few months back. His parents ask John about his practise and what cases they’ve been working on lately, and John answers freely. Sherlock’s mother glances at him once or twice, and Sherlock corroborates everything John says with deliberate care. He can feel that she’s dying to ask more, but she doesn’t. After they eaten their way through slices of both lemon meringue and cherry pie, Sherlock’s father announces that it’s time for a nap and that he imagines they’d like to take a walk to work off the big meal. It’s his subtle way of saying that he’s not going to take them back to the station until he’s had a bit of a sleep, and as Sherlock’s mother is already elbows deep in the washing up, it looks as though they haven’t got much of an option.
John looks at him and shrugs, so Sherlock reaches for his coat and puts it on. They make a token offer of help in the kitchen, knowing it will be summarily refused, which it is, then head outside. Sherlock gives him a tour of the grounds, then chooses a path that will take them down to the lake. They’ve been chatting lightly, hands in their pockets. When they get to the lake, Sherlock sits down on a large rock that he always used to go to as a child. It’s big enough for John to sit there, too, and he does. “It’s beautiful out here,” he says.
Sherlock nods. “It’s a good place to come and think.”
He feels John looking at him. “Is that what you used to do?”
“Sometimes, yes.” It’s a bit cool and Sherlock turns up the collar of his coat.
John laughs. “It is windy,” is all he says, though. He leans his shoulder affectionately into Sherlock’s, and to Sherlock’s astonishment, stays there.
He lets himself lean back subtly, and neither of them says anything more for a bit. It’s comfortable, but Sherlock’s heart is pounding. After a little, he says, “Perhaps we should go back. My father’s naps usually don’t last more than half an hour.”
“All right.” John sounds easy and relaxed. He gets up and stretches. “I might end up having a nap on the train, myself.”
“Trains are rather soporific,” Sherlock agrees. They turn and make their way back to the house.
John does fall asleep on the train, his head nodding until it droops onto Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock hesitates, then holds his breath and lets his own rest on John’s. Neither of them comments on it when they wake later, the train pulling into Victoria station with a lurch.
On Monday afternoon, John comes home and asks if Sherlock has any plans for the evening.
Sherlock looks up from his blog entry about the double homicide. “No,” he says, a bit surprised. “Why?”
John smiles. “I’d like to go out tonight, if you’re up for it,” he says. “I made a reservation, in fact. Just in case.”
Sherlock blinks and tries not to let himself look too pleased about this. “All right,” he says. “When is the reservation? I’ll just have a quick shower, if there’s time.”
“Eight,” John says. “It’s not quite six now. You’ve got plenty of time.” He beams, and it goes straight to Sherlock’s knees as he gets up from the desk.
“What’s the occasion?” he asks, crossing the sitting room toward John on his way to the shower.
John shrugs. “Everything and nothing,” he says. “This. You and I. Together again, as we should be.”
Sherlock thinks of the one thing he has told himself he will never ask, and does not ask it now. Instead, he smiles at John. “Indeed,” he says. “That’s definitely cause for celebration.”
John is still smiling. “I’ll shower after you, I think. Get the clinic smell off me.”
Sherlock makes a noncommittal sound and escapes down the corridor before he can say anything too revealing in response to this.
Dinner turns out to be at Angelo’s, which is wonderful, in fact. Neither of them have been here since before John got married. Somehow, by unspoken decision, they never came here with Mary, either, though she hinted at it more than once. Angelo welcomes them back with tears in his eyes, hugging them like long-lost sons. He brings them everything they order and several things they don’t and insists that the wine is on the house as he lights a candle between them. In the past, they sometimes drank up to three bottles of wine in a single night, staggering back to Baker Street in the small hours. Tonight they keep to one in wordless agreement. They start with figs wrapped in prosciutto and ciabatta with rosemary olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip it in. Sherlock finds that he’s somehow ravenous. They both are. They’re in their usual table in the window, seated kitty-corner to one another, and Sherlock doesn’t think that he’s imagining that John is closer than he needs to be: curious, he thinks, and watches the lines around John’s eyes crinkle as he smiles rather than drooping into frown lines. He loves the smile lines and angles to make John smile again, again. There’s pasta in pesto with scallops so tender John says they could make him cry, tangy with lemon, then chicken parmigiana, crunchy and draped with melting mozzarella. The wine is a crisp sauvignon blanc and pairs perfectly with everything. They eat everything, mopping up crumbs with the rest of the ciabatta, then Angelo brings them tiramisu and espresso on the house, remembering that it’s their favourite.
John looks down at his portion once Angelo’s withdrawn. “I don’t know if I can even eat this,” he says, and Sherlock laughs. John smiles.
“What?” Sherlock asks, too relaxed and satisfied to feel self-conscious just now.
“Nothing. It’s just that I haven’t heard you laugh in a long time,” John says, sounding almost wistful. “It’s got more frequent lately, but…”
That stops Sherlock short. “Really? I’ve thought the same thing about you, actually,” he says. “I’ve been listening for it.”
John smiles again, a slow, lovely smile spreading over his face. Sherlock hasn’t seen him smile that way in a very, very long time. “Have you?” he asks, his voice quite casual, but there’s more beneath the surface, much more. He swallows, his throat moving, and he looks down at his dessert. “Maybe I’ll just have a bite or two,” he says, though the heightened atmosphere that’s suddenly there between them doesn’t disappear.
Interesting, indeed, Sherlock thinks, watching John subtly as they finish the delicious meal. John finishes his tiramisu; Sherlock doesn’t entirely manage it. “I could,” he says when John points it out. “But I feel just about perfect now. I don’t want to ruin it.” He keeps his tone light, but hears immediately that it sounds as though he’s talking about the entire situation. He clears his throat and drinks the last of his espresso.
John insists on paying, or paying for as much as Angelo will allow him to pay, and they slip out into the night. It’s past eleven now and the evening is neither warm nor cool, the sky clear. “That was perfect,” John says with satisfaction. “I forgot how much I love Angelo’s.”
“It was delicious,” Sherlock agrees. “You should have let me pay, though.”
“Nonsense.” John isn’t having this. “I wanted to celebrate. It feels like we’re finally getting back to where we were before everything went to hell. Or…maybe to somewhere better. I think we’re stronger now than we were, or we’re getting there.”
“I think so, too,” Sherlock says, careful not to betray himself. The food and wine and the general relaxed feeling of the evening have taken his edges off and he knows he needs to watch himself.
They turn onto a side street and John points upward. “Look, the stars are out,” he says. “We can’t often see them this clearly.”
Sherlock follows his gaze. “They’re beautiful,” he says, remembering a night long ago on their way to Vauxhall Arches. He wonders if John remembers that, too.
“Sherlock…” John has turned toward him, his eyes hooded, looking at his mouth.
Sherlock’s heart begins to race. He doesn’t know what to say, but that’s all right, because John is leaning in. (Is he – ? Yes, he is – ) Sherlock closes his eyes as John’s lips touch his, soft and warm and very, very gentle. There’s no hesitation, though, and Sherlock is glad – hesitation would have crushed him. He wants John to want this, to be completely sure that he wants it. John is holding him by the shoulders and Sherlock hears himself think, Oh, all right, then and puts his hands on John’s waist.
The kiss draws to an end, and John is looking up into his eyes, his lips parted. “Is this – okay?” he asks, his voice low and husky and very slightly uncertain. Not of himself, though, but of Sherlock. He’s still holding Sherlock by the shoulders and hasn’t moved away.
Sherlock nods. “Very okay,” he says, and John kisses him again, then again. He seems to be in no hurry to stop or move somewhere less public. Their mouths keep meeting and parting, their arms coming properly around each other, and it’s like flying, Sherlock thinks vaguely. It’s euphoric, dizzying and warm and intoxicating in one. John’s mouth is like a drug, or perhaps it’s his entire presence, his body warm through their coats, heart beating tangibly against Sherlock’s chest. They’re standing in a circle of streetlight, kissing without restraint. John’s breath is in his mouth, then his tongue – Sherlock touches it with his own, somewhere between tentative and experimental, and the shock of the touch is unexpected and wonderful. There’s no urgency to it, yet plenty of hunger behind it all the same. He thinks that he could stand here and kiss John all night. There is nothing else in the world that could be better.
Eventually, though, John pulls away, just a little. His eyes are glowing in a way that Sherlock has never before, not even when John was at his happiest with Mary. “Do you know,” he says, an odd sound to his voice and a slight tremor with it, “part of me has been wanting to do this since the first time we ever had dinner together.”
Sherlock’s throat seems to close. “A part of me has always wished that I had answered your inquiry that night differently,” he confesses in return. “I always wondered if I cut this off at its knees as of that night. But you never tried again.”
Instead of looking for reasons, though they’re all quite obvious, John says only, “I should have.”
“I love you,” Sherlock says, then wonders why on earth he permitted himself to say it so suddenly and so soon, but John’s eyes grow even more emotional.
“Do you?” he asks. “After everything I’ve – after everything we’ve – ”
Sherlock nods. “Yes. Undeniably. Hopelessly. Unstoppably. I’ve – tried not to, or at least, I’ve tried not to let it show, but – ”
“But you do?” John’s eyes are so hopeful that it pains Sherlock to see.
He nods. “Yes, John. Always. It’s always been you.”
John makes a desperate sound and kisses him again, then says, between kisses, “Me too, Sherlock – always – underneath the rest – it was always you, always this, I just – couldn’t get there, couldn’t – let myself – but now – ”
“Do you love me?” Sherlock asks, privately dying to hear it confirmed.
“Yes – I love you,” John says wildly, and Sherlock hears himself make a rather undignified noise in return and they kiss with abandon, gripping each other, mouths fierce and hungrier than before. “I want all of this,” John tells him when they stop to catch their breath some time later. “I want dinners at your parents. I want museums and dates and a life with you. Underneath everything else that’s happened in the past few years, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just this. Just you. No one else. Nothing else.”
Sherlock nods. His hands are on John’s lapels. “Now, finally, I think it might be time,” he says. “Now that the dust has settled.”
John shakes his head. “Maybe a lot of that should never have happened. But with Moriarty, and then Mary… and the rest of it. And we had to recover, didn’t we. I know I did. And you were a rock. The things you’ve done for me… I think I must have known that you loved me just from that. Once I really grasped it all, everything you’ve ever done… it gave me enough hope to wonder if you might want this, after all.”
Sherlock nods again. “I never would have asked, though. I’m still happy that you forgave me and came home.”
John puts his arms around Sherlock’s waist and kisses him on both cheeks, then his chin, then his mouth. “I’ll never leave you again,” he vows. “Never.”
Sherlock’s chest floods with enough emotion to drown them both and for a moment he is afraid to speak. He puts his arms around John and holds him as tightly as he can, marvelling fiercely that he is allowed to do this at last, when he’d thought there was no hope of it. He puts his head down on John’s and loves him as hard as he knows how, and it turns out there’s no need to say anything, anyway. Everything is finally understood.
Above them, the stars are brilliant. “Come on,” John murmurs after an eternity. “Let’s get out of here. There so much more to talk about. And – do. I can’t wait to show you how much I love you, in tangible, physical, quantifiable ways to satisfy that big brain of yours, not to mention… other parts of you.”
Sherlock feels a thrill of anticipation run the length of his spine and knows that John will have felt it, too. “In that case,” he says, “let’s go home.”