London at sunrise was quite the sight to behold. John stood with his front pressed to the wall of the roof terrace of 221, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea. His wings were bent slightly outwards and then into his body, protecting him, the brown and beige feathers along with the occasional grey one ruffled by the morning breeze whose scent was London.
To the east, the sun blinked over the city, making the red buses and black cabs and tall buildings and shops and homes and people look infinitely small compared to its enormity. Accented shouts could be heard from the street below as the café received a delivery. The groan of vehicle engines and the high-pitched squeak of brakes were audible as the city set about preparing for its day.
Up on the terrace with the chimneys and smoke and the sunrise, John wondered. He clambered up onto the wall that surrounded the roof, and slowly, ever so slowly, spread his wings to their full span.
Curled around him in the dock, Moriarty’s wings were fish-belly pale, nearing translucent, the same sallow colour as his face. The light from the tall, old windows in the courtroom shone through the leathery bat skin, veins and arteries just visible underneath the thin membrane.
If John squinted, he could see the fine layer of white hairs dusted across the wings. They were at the same time nothing and everything like John expected them to be. The huge, albino wings curved and flexed around Moriarty’s slight form, wrinkling when they pulled into his body.
Moriarty turned to smirk at John, wings jutting out from his shoulders, the thin, bony fingers sweeping down from the sinister wrist at the very top of the appendage. They were restless, constantly fluttering and flapping; at full span one minute, shrunken the next. Shuddering, John wrapped his own wings close around himself.
On the witness stand, Sherlock’s wings were spread wide and proud, matching his stance.
‘James Moriarty is a spider.’
Wrong, thought John. Wrong.
Moriarty looked across at John, and grinned.
It was only occasionally now that John went back to Baker Street, to call in and check on Mrs Hudson. She hadn’t rented the flat yet and she told him over pots of tea and pink wafer biscuits that she wasn’t going to, either.
‘Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s wings--’ John said towards the end of one visit, desperation wrapping itself around the words that fell unbidden out of his mouth.
She held up a hand and closed her eyes, shaking her head. ‘Don’t get torturing yourself with that sort of thinking,’ she said, lamplight throwing her wrinkled palm into shadow.
‘But I never told him that--’
‘Even if you’d told him, you don’t know whether he would have been able to fly.’
‘Stop it,’ Mrs Hudson snapped, her gaze uncharacteristically hard. She stood up, taking John’s cup off him before walking into her kitchen.
‘I’d... I’d better be off, now,’ John called.
A muffled sob was the only reply.
Mycroft’s wings were the same inky black as Sherlock’s, though just a touch smaller, the wingspan not quite as wide, from what John could tell. Like Mycroft himself, his wings were constantly poised and ready, immaculate-looking, held stiffly behind him as though he were always just a moment from taking flight.
Warning John about the assassins who’d taken up residence on Baker Street, Mycroft talked in his usual calm, deliberate manner. Afternoon sunlight poured through the windows of the Diogenes Club and danced across his feathers, tones of green and blue shimmering amongst the ebony.
‘Those assassins, then,’ John said to Sherlock, back at the flat, disturbing an experiment involving a human thigh bone and a rusty hacksaw.
‘Mm,’ Sherlock replied, wings sagging, relaxed feather tips brushing the cold floor. Contentment rolled off him in waves as he tortured the bone with the saw. The electric light in the kitchen brought out notes of auburn and a deep red in Sherlock’s wings, sparsely placed amongst all the other feathers.
‘Your wings match your hair, you don’t know that,’ John murmured, quietly enough that he wouldn’t be heard over the back-and-forth sound of jagged metal on bone.
‘What?’ Sherlock said, head jerking up from the splintering bone laid on the table. His eyes looked small and not at all striking through the scratched plastic goggles he wore.
‘Nothing.’ John smiled, shrugged his coat off and moved over to the kettle. ‘Tea?’
The wings of other people held little joy for him now. He experienced next to no pleasure or surprise or delight at rainbow feathers, peacock-patterned wings, pearlescent grey ones that glowed with the orange light from a streetlamp in a park in Stratford where John lived in Harry’s box room on a single fold-out bed, his toes brushing the wall each night as he tried to sleep.
Harry didn’t have wings. They sat at breakfast in silence together at weekends, and it was nothing like the silence John and Sherlock used to share in the still, quiet moments at 221b. Harry looked small and lost in her kitchen with the beige and brown cabinets and the tea-stained counters.
John idly thought that the cabinets matched his wings.
The second time John saw Moriarty’s wings, they were no less sinister. Still milky white and lightly furred, still restless and repulsive. Sherlock looked every inch the avenging angel as he rounded on Moriarty in Kitty Riley’s flat, as he followed Moriarty into the bedroom where the curtains shifted in the breeze from the open window.
Did he know? John thought.
Could he fly?
John’s wings slumped as he packed his belongings into cardboard boxes. His movements were mechanical: shirts and jumpers in one box, trousers and coats in another, books in this one, bedding in that one, all sealed up and packed away, ready to be driven the few miles to Harry’s in East London.
‘I wish you wouldn’t go,’ Mrs Hudson said from the doorway to John’s bedroom, quiet and sad. Her fingers plucked nervously at the collar of her blouse.
‘I can’t stay, Mrs Hudson,’ John replied, dropping a tin of photographs into one of the boxes. The hinge caught and the lid swung back and Sherlock smirked up at him from a newspaper cutting, eyes keen, wings spread. John slammed the tin closed again.
He couldn’t stay. Not whilst Sherlock still bled into every corner of the flat, not whilst there were still papers and case notes and discarded books and pipettes and flasks and test tubes scattered around, not whilst there was still a dip in the seat of Sherlock’s chair.
Not whilst there was a bat, preserved and pinned behind a frame on the mantelpiece.
London in the morning was quite the sight to behold. John’s heart raced as the taxi pulled up outside Barts, as he jumped out, phone pressed to his ear.
‘Turn around and walk back the way you came.’
John argued and Sherlock shouted until John did as he was told and went back to where he was and looked up, and up, and up.
Sherlock’s wings hung limp, his posture resigned.
‘Oh God,’ John breathed. He refused to believe the rubbish that Sherlock started to come out with; said as much, tried to convince Sherlock that he knew, he knew that Sherlock wasn’t a fake, that he could never be a fake.
John shook his head and started forward, startled by Sherlock’s voice, loud and urgent, in the earpiece of his phone. Sherlock ordered him still and John’s wings began to flex in agitation, opening and closing as he stood back on the spot where he’d originally been.
Shifting from foot to foot, John shook his head as Sherlock spoke.
‘No,’ John said, his voice flat, refusing to believe for a second that Sherlock would do this. ‘No.’
Sherlock’s wings spread wide, the sunlight gleaming on the sleek black feathers. He threw his phone to one side and widened his stance, the edges of his wings fluttering in the breeze that swirled around the rooftop.
John shouted Sherlock’s name, loud, desperate, let the wings save him, they’re real, they have to be, I can see them, they’re real, he could fly--
Sherlock’s wings spread wide,
and he fell.