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Take into the Air My Quiet Breath

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In London, there is a young man. He is pale, too thin, his dark hair a halo of wild curls, his eyes red-rimmed with sleeplessness. He is sitting on a sofa that is not his own (he has no furniture that is his own). He doesn't fit on this sofa; his body is too long, too sharp, his limbs a jumble of angles.

There is the sharp point of a needle pressed to the soft skin at the inside of his elbow.

The needle is finely-honed and clean. He grits his teeth as it pierces his skin, against the slight rubbery resistance offered by his vein.

It's been nine years since Sherlock last dreamt himself free of gravity. He's been beholden to it ever since.

 

*

 

The dreams start in Afghanistan.

The wings themselves are the most real part. John becomes intimately acquainted with them, from the downy scapulars to the  sturdier primaries, gentle-vaned and flexible where they curl around his ribs. He finds he can flex them, furl them close against his back.

When the feathers stir along his ribs his nerves vibrate with a restless impulse. He dreams of running and leaves a trail of scattered coverts in his wake; when he picks one up, runs a probing fingertip along the grain to feel the pliant spring of the rachis, he almost doesn't mind.

 

*

 

On Montague Street, Sherlock is trying something new. The morphine pushes everything out of focus, gives it a slight glow. It makes him sleep but it also makes him sluggish, pulls him inexorably earthward.

 

*

 

John unfurls his wings and lets gravity fall away, slipping over his shoulders like water, and the earth falls with it. The rush of the air between his feathers is like an extension of his breath and just like that he's lifted high over the sand.

He looks forward toward the mountains; when he looks down he can see too much, has a too-wide frame for the chaos and sand and bright flashes of muzzle fire.

He looks down and slams back to earth.

John wakes with a shout. He flings back the sheets and breathes, waiting for the cool night air to dry the sweat from his skin.

 

*

 

The cocaine makes the quiet walls of the flat sparkle with colour. It may not make Sherlock soar but at least he doesn't have to sleep, can pretend he never even had the dreams. Can pretend he doesn't miss them.

 

*

 

For the space of seven glorious weeks--nearly six hundred daylight hours--John feels the press of the earth against the soles of his feet, doesn't mind that he has to concentrate to keep it there. He holds the weight of his wings close against his back while he works. His days are full of blood and hoarse screams and the frantic motion of hearts still too young.

He learns how to look down without falling.

Then his feet leave the ground and he ends flat on his back, a fresh hole in his shoulder. Under the force of the chemicals in his veins he spends so much time asleep that he dreams his wings grown inward, the umbillici curling down like roots to twine between his ribs.

 

*

 

Sometimes--if he pushes himself hard enough, long enough; denies his body the physical anchors of food and sleep--Sherlock leaves the Met and stumbles home on feet that seem disconnected from the pavement.

He doesn't admit his fears that this is as close as he will ever get.

 

*

 

John wakes to the sound of rain, the smell of clean laundry. He's in London.

It's his last morning in hospital, and he's about to discover that gravity will no longer hold him.

 

*

 

The John Watson Sherlock meets is leaning on a cane. It contorts his spine, imposes a twist on his shoulders that Sherlock can't make fit with the man in front of him.

When John leaves his cane behind Sherlock feels better, lighter, than he has in years. He's elated; they run and run until all they can do is laugh. Sherlock's laugh is like water; like he can do anything.

(And he can, or near enough. Almost anything, almost near enough. Anything but--)

Listening to John fight himself in sleep, that first night on Baker Street, gives him a hollow feeling in his stomach he can't explain, the earth shifting dizzyingly beneath him. Sherlock grits his teeth against it and tears at the strings of his violin, trying not to listen.

 

*

 

The wings are rooted too tightly in John's chest to be dislodged, their presence a visceral ache. Umbillici like scar tissue, tough and integral, a knitting of tissue to tissue to bone. Though he aches for a view of the rooftops the air--in London, in the flat--is too thick with too many things. Not enough stars, not enough blood (or, perhaps, too many stars, too much blood).

John's dreams are as much, or as little, at home here as he is himself.

He can't imagine being anywhere else, living anywhere else. Not while he's awake, at least; not while he needs all his concentration to hold his wings furled close along his spine, to keep himself grounded during his waking hours.

His breath evens toward sleep and though he's still there, in his room, he can already feel the electric rush of air stirring his allulae, a whispered promise of flight to draw him deeper. The wings unfurl and lift him from the bed, his connection to the earth too tenuous to hold him, his body torn between gravity and the inexorability of flight.

It would rip him in two if he let it.

Letting it split him open would be the easiest thing in the world, as easy as the first time he let gravity slip away like water flowing over his shoulders. It would be lovely to relax into it, melt away through the rift.

As easy as falling asleep.

But there's still work to be done with his feet on the ground so John fights himself back down to earth, night after night; lands heavily and wakes shouting at the ceiling above him, invisible in the dark.

 

*

 

They're in an alley behind an old bank building. It's January already, cold enough that their breath puffs out into the air in front of them.

Sherlock's thoughts are bright and sharp as the winter sunlight, sparkling with the excitement of a new case. He's crouched low over the body they've been called out to see; when he turns to ask John his opinion on the lividity pattern--Sherlock knows how to interpret it already, of course, but he wants John to see it too; wants John to be the one person who can see the world as Sherlock sees it, in all its brilliant detail--John isn't paying attention at all.

"John."

"Sorry. I was-- miles away." He says it with a wry twist of his mouth that wrenches something in Sherlock's chest.

"I could see that. Do try to keep up, John; I wouldn't bring you along if I didn't need you here."

With me, he means, and though it all comes out sharper than he intends, John just smiles and kneels beside him, close enough that Sherlock is tempted, briefly, to lean into his warmth. John leans in, bracing his hand against his thigh; he’s forgotten his gloves, and Sherlock stifles an absurd impulse to cover it with his own.

"I'm here now," John says. "Show me."

 

*

 

John jolts awake sometime in the dark, quiet hours before dawn. He places his feet carefully on the ground, one at a time; takes deliberate steps down the stairs, conscious of the reassuring upward pressure against his soles.

Sherlock is still awake, sitting on the sofa. He looks at home here, like he could never be anywhere else (but London, but this flat, but this sofa at this moment). His bare toes curl into the carpet; his fingers curl around the neck of his violin.

Sherlock’s eyes flash up at him as passes through to the kitchen. John pauses to watch the movement of Sherlock’s shoulders beneath the thin fabric of his dressing gown, his body an extension of the bow which is, itself, an extension of a thought.

It’s late and John knows he should urge him to sleep but it’s reassuring, somehow, to know that Sherlock is still awake. Sherlock’s impossible genius; here to act as witness to the fact that John is, too.

There are slides laid out by the sink, a methodical arrangement John’s too tired to parse. He stares at them while he fills a mug with water.

He wonders if he, too, could be trapped like liquid between two slivers of glass; pinned by that sharp attention, those deft fingers. Whether they would press against his wrist as they press against the strings; what Sherlock would make of his pulse.

John’s own exhaustion is weighing heavily on him; his wings feeling heavier by the moment, his feet and head grown too light. He climbs the stairs back up to his room reluctantly, already halfway to floating when he wants, more than anything, to stay.

 

*

 

It's an accident that Sherlock finds out at all.

He's never spoken to John about the nightmares but he listens--he can't help it--until the night he finds himself standing outside John's door, fingertips pressed to the thin veneer of the wood.

John has always been an open book but Sherlock knows enough to recognise that some of what's written there is in a language he can't translate. John's face has always been his most expressive instrument of speech and Sherlock thinks if he can just see it, can just connect it to the half-swallowed words, he'll be able to understand.

The light from the corridor reveals John sleeping on his stomach beneath a quilt too heavy for the season. He's curling downward into the empty space between his body and the mattress, a scant four inches that grows even in the time it takes Sherlock to remember how to breathe.

John turns, bringing his face into the light. His expression is pained, his features twisting so violently that Sherlock can feel its echo all the way down his spine, an electric crackle of his sympathetic nervous system.

Not a language he doesn't know, then, but something else entirely; primal, half-forgotten and long-missed. Even secondhand his veins thrum with a  familiar compulsion to move, the echo of his feet hitting the pavement, and he considers only briefly turning away and setting out into the night. Oh, London, how he loves it; but this is deeper, vaster. This is ineffably more than anything he could find out there.

He takes two steps into the room before John arches abruptly and falls, plummeting the six inches down to the mattress. His eyes snap open and find Sherlock's immediately. In the light they look frightened, angry, blue as the desert sky.

John watches Sherlock cross the room without speaking, lets him sit on the bed without pulling away. Beneath the quilt (heavy, yes; not heavy enough) John's chest is heaving, his back tight. Sherlock sets his hands lightly against John's scapulae, spreads his fingers wide. John shivers and turns his face into the pillow.

"Can you still feel them?" is the first question Sherlock asks. It comes out breathless.

John doesn't laugh, or not quite, but the next thing he says isn't precisely an answer, either. "You have them too, then?"

Sherlock moves his hands, scratching lightly at John's skin beneath the layers of fabric, feeling the tension draining from John's muscles, feeling his breathing steady.

"I-- not since I was a boy, but never--" Sherlock swallows. The dreams are rare enough, he knows, and while he's heard rumours of those whose wings have slipped over the transliminal barrier into the waking world, those reports are rarer still. Once or twice a generation, if that; he's never quite believed it. And yet, somehow, he's been lucky enough--

No, not lucky. He's never quite believed the reports but he has read them, and he can't believe his next thought wasn't his first one: that there's a reason these reports remain so unsubstantiated. That this physical manifestation of subliminal flight would eventually pull John right out of his mind; right out of his body, given enough time.

"John."

John twists, slowly enough that Sherlock can follow with his hands, long fingers still splayed wide over the backs of John's shoulders. His eyes meet Sherlock's again, his expression one of wry sympathy.  

"You've missed them."

Sherlock pulls his hands away abruptly. "I've missed the dreams, but not-- you should have told me."

John rolls onto his back, presses himself up to sitting. He leans gingerly against the headboard and Sherlock finds himself wondering just how sensitive the skin of his shoulders has become. He wants, suddenly,  to test it, wants to strip off John's shirt and run his fingers across it without any intervening barriers.

"I can think of worse things." John is watching Sherlock's mouth, his own twisted into something almost like regret. "And there isn't anything to be done, really. So."

There's a practised frankness to the words that sends a rush of heat up the back of Sherlock's neck. He's so abruptly furious that he's dizzy with it; has to squeeze his eyes shut against it.

When he looks again the first things he sees are John's eyes, quizzical and tired and kind and still blue as the desert sky. At the sight of them, Sherlock's fury dissolves into something else entirely, something liquid and warm and just as sharp.

"And would caring about them," John says slowly, evenly, not turning away, "help to save them?"

Sherlock isn't sure precisely what he means to say in answer to that, but he needs to say something.

"John--"

That's as far as he gets before John's mouth is on his, warm and insistent. One of John's hands is curled around the back of Sherlock's neck, cupping the base of his skull. His hands slip beneath the hem of John's tee shirt to find the warm, soft skin at his waist, and Sherlock knows it's the answer to a different question entirely but still the best answer he could give.

 

*

 

They land together on John's bed, Sherlock's chest pressed close against John's back, one arm curled across John's waist. Sherlock's body is comfortingly gravity-bound, shifting gently with his breath, long-boned and heavy; heavy enough, John thinks, to keep him there.

 

*

 

Sherlock slips into the dream like it's been waiting for him, quiet and patient. Like it's something he had simply set aside to return to later, rather than lost.

He can feel the weight of the wings curled against his back, heavier than he remembers. He twists to try to get a look at them and sees John instead, standing beside him, patient and smiling and steady.

"It takes some time," John says, his voice catching in the rising wind, "before they unfurl properly. But I don't want to wait for that, do you?"

And no, Sherlock really doesn't; even curled against his back he can feel his feathers stirring in the air. It makes him itch to move, makes him want more, more air, more of the delicious rushing sensation as it slides across his skin.

John grabs his hand, palm to palm. "Ready when you are.”

Then they're off, running and running until they're breathless; until gravity falls away and all they can do is laugh.