When John first woke up, he could that he was on powerful narcotics. Thus he was not at all bothered that the technician recording his vital signs was sporting a large pair of glossy white wings. "Oh, hello," she said when she noticed him staring at her. "How are you feeling?"
"Pretty," was about all John was able to get out, before he slipped under again.
It was harder to ignore the second time, when consciousness was there to stay. The doctor explaining his injuries to him was very clever and very patient, and optimistic about a full recovery; he felt rather bad that he couldn't pay attention. "Dr. Watson?" she asked eventually. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," John said, staring at her wings.
Because these were definitely not a dream. These wings were brown, and they spread slightly as she leaned closer to him with a pen light. Pupillary response, he realized. She was checking him for brain damage. "I'm fine," he said again, more firmly, forcing himself to make eye contact. "How's Sherlock?"
The doctor straightened up, and her wings twitched once before folding smoothly against her back. "He woke up a few hours before you did, but he's in much the same shape. I'll see if I can arrange for you to see each other."
Sherlock arranged it himself not long after that; John had slipped into a wing-free doze, but started when the door of his room opened. Mycroft (the most likely explanation for the private rooms and men in suits loitering just visible in the corridor) came in, shuffling in backwards; a moment later it became clear that he was wrestling with a wheelchair full of Sherlock. At that point John was not entirely certain what surprised him more: that Sherlock had successfully badgered his brother into any demand or scheme of his devising, or that both of them were sporting enormous black wings.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Watson," Mycroft said, looking as close to embarrassed as John had ever seen him. His wings were pulled tight to his body, almost totally hidden when he faced forward, and the feathers had an oily blue-green sheen, like a cormorant. "You're looking well."
"Don't be patronizing, Mycroft, he looks awful," Sherlock snapped. He had the pinched expression and rigid posture of someone who was in significant pain, and his wings were mantled over his shoulders as if for protection. The feathers were lighter than Mycroft's and sparsely ticked with gray, and John couldn't quite see how they fit against the back the wheelchair--it hurt to look at, like an M. C. Escher drawing come to life. "What are you staring at, John?"
John shifted his eyes back to Sherlock's face. "Nothing. Sorry. Why are you out of bed?"
"He wouldn't be satisfied until he had seen you alive and well with his own eyes," Mycroft said dryly, and Sherlock started to turn and glare, but evidently thought better of it; he didn't wince, exactly, but his wings twitched and he arrested the movement.
"That's flattering, but you really shouldn't be moving around," John pointed out. "You'll pull a stitch or something."
"I'm fine," Sherlock said, waving the arm with the IV in it.
"Right," John said. "You only look about how I feel, so if I feel as awful as I look..."
Sherlock scowled. "That doesn't even make sense."
"It's a syllogism," John suggested.
"Perhaps," Mycroft suggested mildly, "neither of you should be attempting formal logic at your current dosages?" Sherlock pouted, and his wings drew closer over his shoulders, nearly covering the thin blue dressing gown he was wrapped in. "Now, I agreed to five minutes of this nonsense, and we have currently spent ninety seconds--"
"Thirty-five!" Sherlock protested.
"Counting since we left your room, ninety," Mycroft said, and while his manner remained perfectly calm his wings did give a short, soft rustle. "Ninety-five, now. Please get to the point."
Sherlock's hands tightened on the arms of the wheelchair and his exhaled loudly through his nose. "Fine," he said, and, "John," but he didn't seem to quite know what to do next.
"We're going to be fine," John said loudly, guessing at the gist of what was going on inside Sherlock's head. "And we're going to get him. You were a idiot and I forgive you for it. That thing that you did was also good. That about cover it?"
Sherlock's wings relaxed so abruptly they looked like they'd fallen off. "Yes," he said stiffly. "Rather."
"Good," John said, closing his eyes to the whole spectacle. "Now please get back to bed before you make anything worse."
John concluded a couple of things over the next few days. One was that the wings weren't an hallucination--he had no other neurological problems and pretty much the same psychological problems he'd always had. Another was that they weren't going away, no matter how his medications changed. A third: not everyone had them. Harry still looked perfectly normal, as did most of the staff in the ward, but Lestrade came by to visit and his wings were a silver-gray color, and slightly ragged looking, like they needed a good brushing. If you brushed feathers. John wasn't entirely certain.
Obviously no one else could see the wings, and after a bit of thinking he decided that they couldn't actually be there--well, not there there. Nobody's clothes had been modified and nobody had trouble sitting in chairs. His attempt to prove this experimentally on the white-winged technician ended in shrieks and flustered apologies, but at least he knew no one had actually sprouted extra limbs overnight.
They were all in his head, which was both worse and better, because he still didn't understand why.
He knew better than to tell anybody; he already had a history of PTSD and conversion disorder on his file, and no desire to add hallucinations to the list. Besides, aside from being bloody distracting they weren't hurting anything--they were just there, and occasionally they moved or twitched, but once he got over the novelty of it he could pretty much ignore them. He did start keeping a list of wing people, to see if there was some sort of a pattern, but he couldn't figure out how to denote all the colors and anyway Sherlock saw it.
"What's this?" he asked, once again up when he wasn't meant to be and bothering John for lack of entertainment. For a man who could lay on the couch unmoving for days when the mood took him, he was terribly fidgety now that he actually needed to rest.
John snatched the list away from him. "Nothing."
"It had my name on it," Sherlock said, because of course the git could read impossibly fast. "Also Mycroft and Lestrade."
"Christmas cards," John said.
Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "It also has an entry for 'the nurse with the thing on her neck.' Also, it's April."
"I'm getting an early start," John said. "Mind your own business."
Sherlock's wings spread slightly, even though he normally went around with them half-open, as if he was always one or steps away from taking flight and John really needed to stop paying attention to these things. "Interesting," he said, and spent the next fifteen minutes staring intently at John.
John turned on the room's little television and tried to ignore the fact that Nicholas Clegg had black wings with white stripes, like a magpie.
He had to make a new column on the list later, after a bit more telly and their first post-Moriarty case: because the owner of the factory where the body was found had wings, too. They were boney things, with a hooked claw protruding from the top joint, and folds of veiny skin hanging off the frame. They looked greasy and pale, and twitched restlessly while he talked; John did not hear a single word.
In the taxi back to Scotland Yard, Sherlock said, "What was it?"
"What was why?"
"You were distracted," he said. "Staring at something over White's shoulder. It obviously distressed you. What was it?"
Great slimy bat wings, John shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing specific. Just...I get a bad feeling around him."
Sherlock nodded. "As well you should, considering what he did to that girl. And I strongly suspect we'll find the others in the retaining pond on the grounds. And there are others, of that I am entirely confident."
That night, John watched the news, and tried to find a pattern and failed. When he finally went to sleep he dreamed of Moriarty taking flight on leathery wings.
The numbers, when calculated in a password-protected spreadsheet titled "Taxes," fell out like this:
No more than ten percent of people had either sort of wings. Of them, the feathery kind outnumbered the bat wings roughly two to one. Most of the police fell on the feather side of the equation, as did a majority of health-care professionals, those being two major categories of people that John could safely sample from; the bat wings cropped up on some of Sherlock's less savory contacts, about a third of the criminals they apprehended, and Josef Stalin, which John only noticed while they were stalking a suspect through the history section of Waterstones. But quite a few perfectly ordinary people had wings of either sort--not bad people, not remarkable people, just clerks and waiters and the non-serial-killer types of cabbie.
The bat wings always matched the person's skin tone, more or less; some them had sparse, coarse hair on them. The feathery ones could be just about any color and pattern. He had no idea if he was just imagining the way they spread and mantled, folded and twitched, or if it really had something to do with a person's state of mind; thinking about it too much made his head hurt.
Sherlock had noticed John's occasional wing-related distractions, but never raised the subject directly; rather, he alternated to following John's gaze, looking right at the impossible wings but never seeing them, and staring at John, as if the answers were writ on his face. This was one thing John was fairly certain Sherlock was never going to deduce, though sometimes he considered asking him about it just to see how he'd react. Eliminating the impossible and all that.
As it turned out, Sherlock wasn't the one he needed to ask, though.
It was a very British summer day, damp and rainy; Sherlock was in one of his moods, laying face-down on the couch with his head pillowed on one arm, refusing to speak. (One wing was hooked over the back the couch; the other trailed on the floor, at such a dramatic angle John had to stop himself several times from going over to see if it was broken. It couldn't be broken because it wasn't corporeal, dammit.)
John was trying to concentrate on a crossword puzzle and ignore Sherlock's intermittent sighs of pathos when Mrs. Hudson came up. "Ooo-eee, just me...I made some soup for tea and I thought you boys might like some...just this once, of course..."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," John said. "Sherlock would thank you, but he is currently regressed to the age of sixteen."
Sherlock raised his free hand (from under his wing) to make a rude gesture, which in John's opinion only validated the point.
"Oh, don't be like that, dear," Mrs. Hudson said, admirably unfazed. She passed John a mug of soup and set Sherlock's on the coffee table before carefully arranging an afghan over him. "I'm sure something properly awful will happen any day now. Mustn't give up hope." Sherlock just made an unintelligable noise, though that was more than John had got out of him all day, and with a pat on his head Mrs. Hudson stepped over his slack wing and bustled out of the flat.
It took John several minutes to realize what he'd seen, to process it and register why it was significant. When he did, he nearly dropped the half-full mug of soup, and his skin prickled hot and cold all over. Mrs. Hudson had stepped over...but no, Sherlock's arm had been...after he flipped them off...she had stepped...
Sherlock was still not showing any sign of life, and did not react when John set his mug aside and went downstairs at a brisk pace. Mrs. Hudson was in her kitchen, putting cool soup into individual containers for later. "Oh, hello, John," she said. "Is there something you needed? Or just a break from Himself up there?"
"Mrs. Hudson..." There really was no elegant way to say them. "You can see them, can't you?"
She blinked at him, and then suddenly said, "Ah." She looked at John critically. "I'll fix us some tea."
John took a seat at the table, pushing a cutting board aside. Mrs. Hudson finished tidying up while the kettle boiled, and only when the tea was ready did she sit down across from John and took a deep breath.
"When I was a girl, I was raped," she said very calmly. "Don't make that face, dear--it was a long time ago. It was a different time...people simply didn't talk about such things. I didn't tell anyone, and there were times when I thought...well. Mostly I tried to pretend it hadn't happened at all, and go about things normally. Keep calm and carry on and all that.
"There was one girl from school, though--Maureen, I think her name was. She seemed to guess that something was wrong." Mrs. Hudson's lips quirked slightly. "I didn't like her very much, to be honest. She always seemed a bit stuck-up. But for some reason, a few days after...afterwards, while I was waiting for the bus, she walked up to me and gave me an ice cream. And she said, 'Virginia, I know you've been feeling out of sorts this week, so I got you this.'"
She smiled at John widely. "You can't make up for such things with ice cream, of course, but the gesture--what she said--It was enough that she had noticed, and she'd at least tried. And so I hugged her, right there at the bus shelter, and I think I got ice cream all over her jumper. And when I let her go...she had beautiful wings, John. Blue and white, like a jay. I've never seen another pair like them."
"You didn't think you were going mad?" John asked, toying with his mug.
"Of course I did," she said. "But as madness goes, it could be worse, couldn't it?"
There was that. John finally remembered that there was tea in his mug and he should drink it. "So are there others? Like us?"
"I've met a few." She shrugged. "Most people don't like to talk about it, of course. Why would they? Although one fellow had such a daft theory..."
"What was it?" John asked quickly. "I mean, did he know why...why us? Why this?"
She was quiet for several minutes before she said, very quietly, "Personally, I think it means you're good. Or that you can be good-- really, a deep-down sort of goodness--though not that you have to be. Or...you know, the opposite." She smiled again. "It's how I know Sherlock's a nice boy deep down, even when he goes all moody. They're not the only good people in the world, or the only bad people--just look at my husband--but it means they're special." She shrugged. "That's just what I think, of course."
"Makes good enough sense to me," John said.
They sat in silence for a bit, drinking their tea, while John thought things over. He wondered what Sherlock would think of that theory, and which side he and his brother came down on. He wondered what the daft theory was. He wondered what else could bring this on. "Why us, do you supposed?" he asked, after a while.
Mrs. Hudson shrugged. "Perhaps we're the ones who most needed to know?"
He didn't stop seeing wings, of course. Sherlock didn't didn't grow any less suspicious of John's "hunches" about people or his tendency to look over peoples' shoulders instead of at their faces to see if they were lying, but he also steadfastly refused to raise the subject directly. As madness went, it wasn't so bad.
Of course, it couldn't last. The tipping point came one evening while John was trying to watch the evening news while Sherlock picked over evidence from a case. He was trying to prove to Lestrade that a series of thefts and a murder were all interlinked, and in his usual fashion had decided to tack all the relevant data to the mirror over the hearth with cello tape.
He paced, criss-crossing John's line of sight, until John snapped, "Sherlock, if you please?"
"Oh, it's the same every night," he snapped. "War, famine, pestilence, and football results. I'm working."
"You also make a better door than a window," John said.
With a huff, Sherlock stopped his pacing and stared fixedly at his mad collage. Unfortunately, the edge of his left wing still cut off two-thirds of the screen. "Could you...?" John asked, but didn't know how to finish the sentence. Close the wings you don't actually have?
"Thinking," Sherlock said loudly.
John sighed, stood up, and physically moved Sherlock a foot to the right, sliding his hands under the great black wings to grasp his hips. Sherlock stared at him for a moment, and then at the space between him and the television set, which of course to him was empty air. His wings, as if in revenge, spread even wider.
John tried to lean to the side to see around it, without looking like he was leaning to the side or peering around the edge of anything. That just got him Sherlock's Deduction Face, the look that disassembled him into his component parts for analysis. "I thought you were working," he said huffily.
"Now I'm not," Sherlock said, and turned on his heel with a crispness that would've moved a few sergeants of John's acquaintance to tears. He crouched down, perhaps to study John from eye-level, and his wings arched outward as if they actually needed to counterbalance the movement. They curled up and outward like some kind of bizarre Renaissance painting, but at least they weren't blocking the telly anymore. John stared furiously at the screen, completely oblivious to whatever shocking truths had just been posted to WikiLeaks.
Sherlock stood up again and leaned towards the screen, and then away from it. Then he crouched behind John's chair with his chin just about on John's shoulder, breathing very softly while he looked at whatever John was looking at. He came back around the front and looked at the screen itself.
"Your head," John informed him, "is in the way."
"But it wasn't before," Sherlock pointed out.
"I give up," John declared, and got up to turn the set off. He had to reach over Sherlock's shoulder to do it (the remote having met a suspicious end some weeks before) and he tried very, very hard not to reach around the wings, because it wasn't like it was going to--hurt, or anything. It wasn't like they were there.
But Sherlock turned suddenly, and John's reflexes got the better of him; when he saw the tucked outer joint of the wing coming at him (radiocarpal, or the closest thing, if he'd got the anatomy right)--when John saw what looked like several feet of bone and black feathers about to plant into his solar plexus, it was an automatic motion to dodge out of the way.
They both froze, and Sherlock stared at the wide-open space between them, at the wings he couldn't see.
"Interesting," he said slowly.
"Piss off," John said brittlely, and retreated to his room.
Sometimes, in his dreams--his nightmares--Moriarty had wings, leathery bat-wings that abused the air as he vanished into a stormy sky.
Sometimes Sherlock said Will caring about them help me save them? and those glossy black feathers started falling out in handfuls, leaving nothing behind but stretched white skin.
Sometimes John could touch them, sink his fingers into the smooth softness, feel the power of the muscles and the warmth of living blood inside them, instead of only looking.
And sometimes, very rarely, John dreamed of flight.
Sherlock was relentless, watching John's every move, and of course the more determined he was not to notices the wings the more they seemed to crop up everywhere. White wings, red wings, multicolored wings like some kind of mad tropical parrot--they caught his eye, they got in his way. And Sherlock was following his every move, hawk-like. (Or some kind of predator, at least. He didn't know if there were actually black hawks in the world and when he tried to Google it he kept getting some ice hockey team from Chicago.)
He picked up some extra hours in the surgery just to avoid the question, which was pathetic, and ultimately got Sherlock shot. John took off as soon as he got Lestrade's text, of course, and barged into the A&E just in time to see the attending doctor finish stitches on a messy-looking gash in Sherlock's upper arm. Sherlock was trying to get a good look at it while he did so, which wasn't helping. "What happened?" John asked, skidding to a halt.
"What do you think happened?" Sherlock said mildly. "I took tea with the Queen, of course."
"Oh, grow up," John said, but of course if Sherlock was this bitchy and in the A&E instead of the ICU the graze was probably the only damage. "Lestrade told me you were shot."
"Lestrade is a gossiping hen," Sherlock said. "He keeps asking me where you are and making pointed implicatures about your influence on my character. I told him your absence was hardly my fault."
John felt his face heat up, and averted his eyes. Naturally the first thing they latched onto was a doctor--not the one doing Sherlock's stitches, but one at another bed, talking to an elderly woman on oxygen. His wings were smallish, pigeonish, utterly boring to the extent wings on people could be boring. He glanced over them briefly and looked for something less awkward.
But in the next split second, Sherlock said "Oh," and his eyes widened. He stopped trying to look at his stitches and started trying to look at his own back instead, which was hardly an improvement when there was still a needle in his skin. His left wing stretched all the way over his shoulder, close enough he could've scratched his nose with it, but of course Sherlock didn't see a thing.
"I'll be in the waiting room," John said, as briskly as he could. There was no point in fighting a deduction. "We'll share a cab, yeah?"
"Just tea, thanks," Sherlock said vaguely, and twisted his uninjured arm around his back to feel his shoulder blades.
John made eye contact with the doctor, who was young and bright-looking and clearly didn't deserve any of this. "You've my permission to sedate him, if that helps," John told him ernestly, and went back to the waiting area to prepare himself, if he possibly could, for the conversation to come.
Sherlock, surprisingly, restrained himself all the way back to the flat. Or maybe he was still processing some of the data. John consulted his prescriptions and thought of three ploys to ensure Sherlock actually went back for his follow-up appointments.
As soon as they were up the steps, however, Sherlock said quietly, "There is something on my back."
John didn't say anything. He didn't even know what to say.
"I found your list, you know," Sherlock continued, which, well, John had pretty much given up on changing his passwords long ago. "No common thread among all the names, collectively or according to the groups you put them in. But it's something about backs--you can see it from the front but not clearly, the best angle is from the back. There's no other reason to stare like that."
"Is that as far as you've got?" John asked, sitting in his chair.
Sherlock perched--there really wasn't a better word for it--opposite him, still in his coat. His arms were tightly folded, and his wings were folded down over them, nearly meeting again under his chin. It looked like he was wearing a peculiar feathery cloak. "Whatever you see, you give it a great deal of space. At first I thought it was revulsion, but your reactions don't fit--most of the time you like to look at it. No, this thing is big, needs space. It's mobile, too, because you eyes track it even when the person you're watching is keeping still, but it doesn't move very far. Radius of, say, three feet maximum?"
That was a genuine question. "More like seven or eight," he said, though he'd never seen anyone's wings fully extended so that was mostly an estimate.
Sherlock's eyebrows went up, because of course by correcting him John had implicitly admitted to seeing something. "Aha. Now. You aren't suffering any other visual anomolies, no motor control or memory issues--I've been testing you. If anything, you are psychologically healthier than you were six months ago; your hand rarely even shakes anymore. If this is an hallucination, it's remarkably consistent and unlikely a symptom of any underlying neurological disease. Is there anything else I've missed?"
"No," John said, because nothing he'd said was actually wrong.
Silence stretched out between them, taut as wire.
"Well?" Sherlock finally asked.
"Don't be obtuse, John," he said witheringly.
"I'm not--" and then he realized he'd been, a bit. "Are you waiting for me to tell you the answer?"
Sherlock's wings opened a little, nearly quivering with tension; indignation, probably. "I can deduce nothing about that which I cannot observe," he said stiffly. "Your reactions tell me a great deal, but not enough."
John had a moment to marvel over this admission of fallibility; another to make his decision. "I'm not going to tell you."
"Why not?" Sherlock demanded, almost whining.
Because Sherlock would ruin it. Sherlock would deduce it, analyze it, demand descriptions and comparison. Because Sherlock, John thought, would never see wings on his own. "Because it's mine," John said out loud.
"I cannot begin to detail the absurdity of that statement," Sherlock said.
"Then tell me, why should I tell you?" John asked. "You said yourself I'm stable and healthy. It doesn't hurt anyone else, either, and I'll be sure to let you know if you're blocking the telly again."
Sherlock stood up on top of the chair, and his wings opened wide, stretching nearly to the mirror on the hearth; he looked larger than life, like an avenging angel in a Renaissance painting. "You," he declared, "have an irrational obsession with privacy."
John just laughed at him. "Get down from there, you silly goose. You're on medication."
Sherlock made an indignant noise as John walked away from him, into the kitchen, with the intention of making something to eat. But a moment later, he burst out with a quiet, breathy, "Oh!"
The next thing John knew, Sherlock was crowding up behind him, pressing his palms flat against his shoulder blades. He froze with one hand on a jar of marmalade, while Sherlock said, "Impossible, of course...but it fits..."
He'd never looked, John realized. All this time and he'd never paid attention...
"Worked it out, then?" he asked quietly as Sherlock prodded him.
"Naturally," Sherlock said, and then went for his coat. "I need you to phone Lestrade immediately."
John blinked, not quite sure what they were talking about anymore. "Lestrade?"
"About the girl," Sherlock said imperiously. "The dead one. She had tattoos, that why he cut her up--just send a text, these exact words, Male, late twenties, at least one facial piercing or visible tattoo but not both. Go on, send it."
John felt absurdly relieved as he fished his phone out of his pocket. "You did just get shot a few hours ago," John reminded him.
"The murderer's brother!" Sherlock called, vanishing down the stairs. "I'll explain everything later. Have you sent it?" The door slammed before John could answer anyway.
Later, after Sherlock had explained about the case (a rebellious girl from a wealthy family, mutilated corpse mistaken for a fetishist) John went up to his bedroom and locked the door. He stripped to the waist, because it felt right, even though he knew there was no need. He opened up his wardrobe to look at the long mirror on the inside door.
They were brown, of course. He hadn't expected anything more dramatic. Light tan with patches of darker shades mixed in--desert camo, he thought, and wasn't sure how to feel about that. He couldn't feel them--there was no weight, no warmth, no smooth, slightly rumpled feathers under his hand when he reached back--but he willed them wider, and in the mirror his saw his wings stretch out to nearly fill the room.
"John!" Sherlock called up the stairs. "I've ordered Chinese. You're having the sweet and sour pork. Also there is a film with more explosions than dialogue starting in ten minutes, if you are so inclined."
"Be right down," John called back, and chose a shirt from the wardrobe. His wings folded back down, neat and tight against his spine, so he could hardly even see them at all.
Sometimes when John caught himself staring at someone's wings he caught Sherlock staring at him. But he never raised the subject again, and John never did tell him, or anyone else. He met a few more people who could see wings and they talked about their theories, but no two stories were alike, and in the end he gave up wondering how or why. It was just a miracle, a grand secret, and partly his to keep: the angels all around them, as if London were nothing more than the head of a pin.