John remembers battle.
He can picture with perfect clarity the blaze of the Afghan sun throwing shadows on the mountains. He can call up the hard northerly edge of his major’s voice ordering his unit to flank, to advance, to hold fire. He can capture the sharp moment of stillness that overtook him when his finger would tighten on the trigger, steady as a zealot’s faith. He knows how like blood panic tastes — dirty coinage not worth the copper used to mint it.
These things wake him at night, heart drumming an uneven staccato, trigger finger cramping around emptiness. He rubs the ache of memory from his two perfect legs.
“So.” She echoes him so often that now it threatens to get the tremor in his left hand going.
“So are we done here?” he says. “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, hurrah.”
“John. You know it’s not that simple. We’ve talked about this.”
John counts to ten as he lets out his breath — hot inside and so cool, so curious, out.
“I don’t want to philosophise with you,” he says. “Just — sign whatever form you need to sign says I’ve graduated, and we can be out of each other’s hair.
“Tell me then,” she says. “This difference between fantasy and reality you’re so keen on.”
John closes his eyes. They’ve been over this. She keeps squabbling over the respective definitions of “fantasy” and “reality” instead of addressing the fact that his life — all their lives now — are absurd and barely conform to either.
“I’m a soldier,” he says. He pulls breath into lungs the way he’s been taught, holds it. “I was a soldier.”
“Steadfast,” John says, and he can’t keep the bite of snark from his tone.
Ella only cocks her head. John sighs.
“One-legged,” he says. “Always left in the tinderbox under the bed while everyone else got to play war.”
“And now I’m piss and shit and I can’t stand the beat of my own fucking heart, is that what you want to hear?”
Ella sits back and uncrosses her legs only to recross them the other way round. She closes her notebook.
“John,” she says. “You know that sounds like a threat against yourself.”
“I remember the paint of my uniform chipping off. I remember the grubby little boy who would never bloody play with me. All the while I know, I know I kept Murray from bleeding out in the desert even when a bullet tore my shoulder apart. How can anyone bear it? How can you?”
Ella is silent for a torturous moment during which John barely contains a scream. She has always refused to tell him where she is from, even who wrote her. She always says, “this isn’t about me, John,” and makes him tell her about how tin feels, transmogrified into bone. Or rather, how he feels about the whole odious process.
“Some of us are luckier,” she says finally. “Some of us were porcelain dolls growing dusty on shelves until the right little girl came along, and some of us were threadbare velveteen, so well-loved our biggest problem was how our stuffing always came out. But you’re a soldier. In this life and the last. That’s hard, John. And I’m trying to make it easier, not harder. Please meet me halfway.”
John shifts his gaze out the window. He wonders how everything can be so cheery and green now that the fairies have left the world.
“I’m not very good company,” John says, but there is a glint in Stamford’s eye John doesn’t remember, a kind of trick of the light that reminds him of every storybook trickster from Africa to Scandinavia. He opens his mouth to ask where Stamford’s really from but John finds himself alone in the lab with a stranger and Mike bloody Stamford nowhere to be seen. The stranger is a pale, dark-haired man swathed in Britain’s most expensive bespoke greatcoat, and he addresses John without looking up from his microscope.
“Hans Christian Andersen — common ground, how thoughtful of Mike.”
John shifts his weight on from one foot to the other, braced on his cane.
“I’m sorry, what?”
The stranger’s right hand flexes over the eyepiece of the microscope, a white, fluttering thing.
“Look at you,” he says. “Limping along as if you’re still made with the end bit of a spoon, as if you’ve still got only the one leg.”
John’s body stills like it would in the moment before the crush of hand-to-hand. He straightens and squares his shoulders.
The stranger looks up at last and John’s breath is sucked away as if it never was, as if his lungs are as fictitious as his memories, as if he is still tin and paint, nose in the carpet while his brothers storm a paper castle.
The stranger stands, and that coat slides off his body and —
“Jesus Christ,” John says, because where his left arm should be the stranger has a wing instead, white as princesses and strong as princes, fully extended and spanning the room. In its presence John is seven centimetres tall with a musket on his shoulder. In its presence he is disoriented, old life overlaid by new, or is it the other way round?
“I molt in the summer, would that bother you?”
“I — what?”
“Potential business partners should know the worst about each other.” A smile, painfully false, split the strangers face into a crooked caricature of good cheer.
“Who said anything about business?”
Eyes the colour of fairy dust pin him, and John feels the absence of oxygen, the necessity of these heavy lungs.
“You miss your ballerina, yes?” The stranger tucks his wing against his body and slings his coat back on. John can see how it has been fashioned to accommodate the wing while still giving him a dramatic silhouette. He swans toward the door with a theatrical twirl of the fabric. “Your boy, your brothers-in-arms, even that hideous goblin in the jim-in-the-box. There’s a battlefield you long for, but it’s not the one in this world.” He pauses by the door. “Come by my flat tomorrow, six o’clock, we’ll talk business.”
He is halfway out of the lab when John is able to push the words out from the confines of a dry throat.
“So that’s it?”
“Is what it?”
“We’ve only just met and now we’re business partners?”
“I was dragged here by — by an old friend. I wasn’t planning on going into business with anyone. We don’t know a thing about each other. I certainly don’t know where your flat is. I don’t even know your name.”
Those eyes cut.
“I know you want the stories back,” the stranger says, and John sways against the fulcrum of his cane. The stranger swoops out the door before popping just his head back in. “The name is Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B Baker Street.”
“Oh?” Barely contained preening. “What did you think?”
“Twelve brothers? Vengeful queens? Enchanted coats? The fairies are gone, Sherlock. I thought—” John cuts himself off. He wonders if it is too tactless to mention the gigantic pink elephant in the room. Or, rather, the gigantic white swan’s wing.
The wing shakes out before folding back up against Sherlock’s back. He does that thing where he looks straight through John’s fleshy bits into a chest full of cramped organs and knows everything.
“You thought someone like me couldn’t exist here anymore,” he says. “You thought talking toys and scheming creatures were confined to a past rendered imaginary, that soon memory would fade and you would be the only one who insisted the stories in the books were historical fact rather than cautionary tales for children. You thought you were alone.”
John cannot speak. He settles for holding that otherworldly gaze.
“Well,” Sherlock says. He clears his throat and looks away. The wing twitches upward, but does not spread. “So did I.”
But Sherlock Holmes, with his one fantastical wing, with his casual references to John’s story and the people who once occupied John’s particular nursery world, makes him sane again, makes him steady. John thinks he loves that wing, the way a man loves a bit of broth after weeks of starvation.
He finds, sitting in an armchair in the slouchy, comfortable flat and listening to Sherlock lecture on commonalities of fairy story theme and motif across cultures, that he wishes to touch the wing. Is it silky, is it fluffy? Is it as warm as the flesh of a human being? Whatever that feels like. John swallows and hunches over when he feels a tingle of electricity wrap around the base of his spine. He remembers being Three-Continents Watson. He remembers how it goes — how to smile and tilt his head, how to skim a hand over hip and breast, how to make her laugh, how to kiss the hollow at her neck.
But he also knows better than his memory tricks him into believing. He knows he’s barely five years old and has been so for more than a hundred years, knows he was a gift and a poor one at that, knows he falls in love every morning with a spinning ballerina far better than he could ever hope to be. He even knows his fate at the end of each day: to melt with her in the fire and shine, replete in the knowledge that against all odds she loves him back.
John falls in love every day. John loves deep and true and instant, and in the end he dies for it, only to wake again and see her across the room, silver spangle glinting, leg high up in the air in her eternal arabesque penchée.
John doesn’t know how it’s supposed to go in this brave new world. He knows only that he loves, and it’s as destructive as a swallowing flame.
“Stonehenge?” John says. He drops the last box in the corner and flops down onto the bed with a gusty sigh. The mattress sags underneath his weight. Sherlock looms over him, wing poised as if to take flight. He blocks the light, and the result is a pale halo round his curly head.
“Too obvious, don’t be an idiot,” he says.
“Oh don’t be like that, most everyone is.”
“Then think of places on your own. I can’t imagine I’m much help in an investigation anyway.”
The bed groans as Sherlock’s weight joins John’s. John jolts but Sherlock is right there, kneeling before him, face too close. It makes John want to crawl out of this human skin, push Sherlock away — or drag him closer. John wonders who is committing the faux pas here — after all, before Sherlock was a swan he was just a regular prince, and even when he was swan he got to be human every night. Surely he knows how people behave. John is the one stumbling around discombobulated, flabbergasted at the tick tick tick of his beating heart.
“Sherlock,” is all he can say amid the churning of his gut.
“No no, John,” Sherlock says. “I need an assistant. The lumps at New Scotland Yard are useless. You know the type — Grimmers in denial.”
“I — I suppose.” John has no idea what that means.
“I tried to file a mass missing persons report for the fairies when this entire debacle first occurred; a former elf called me a freak. Me! As if I were the one sneaking naked into shoemakers’ workshops to do thankless work for which someone else would take credit.”
“I suspect we’re all of us freaks,” John says.
Sherlock blinks those fairy dust eyes at him once before turning away and propelling himself off the bed with the force of his wing.
“So you see my dilemma.”
“Then it’s settled. Come on, we’ll miss the next train to Oxfordshire.”
“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done,” he says, laughing. Sherlock is laughing too, a deep, smooth sound that rumbles through John’s innards and makes him delirious.
“And you invaded Afghanistan,” Sherlock says, and John sobers, brow furrowing.
“No,” he says, “I didn’t.”
Sherlock’s eyes widen and he snaps his jaw shut before tearing his gaze away. He steps up to the hut and raps at the door three times.
“We know you’re in there!” he shouts. Out of the corner of his mouth he says to John, “She’s always in there.”
“Who?” John says.
Sherlock knocks again, louder.
Suddenly there is a great gust of wind and they are both pitched to the ground as the door flies open. John hisses as he wobbles back up into a sitting position, but Sherlock lies on his side, still but for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. John reaches over to him.
“A fool in a genius suit,” comes a sneering voice from the doorway. John looks up, and before him is a stout, hunchbacked old woman clutching a pestle in thick fingers, wiry hair in disarray around a face marred with warts. “What is he doing, hiding that wing? How does he expect to soar?”
John feels a calm overtake him and he rose to his feet.
“Madame,” he says. “I realise we’re trespassers on your property, but I’m afraid if you don’t undo whatever it is you’ve done to him, I will make you regret it.”
Shrewd black eyes fix on him for a long moment before the old woman’s bloodless mouth curls up and she snorts.
“Steadfast indeed,” she says. Her bearing shifts from defensive to lax and she steps back as if to let him in. “I didn’t do anything to that great idiot. He fell on his own damned wing and crushed some feathers. If he didn’t swan about in that preposterous coat of his, he’d be fine.”
John glanced back at Sherlock, who seemed to be getting his bearings. He was poking at himself underneath the coat.
“Anyway,” the old woman went on. “There’s tea. None of that English kack you lot peddle — good, hearty, real tea. It’s a fortune you came for, and it’s a fortune you’ll get. Imbeciles.”
Inside the hut is low-lit and crowded: things in jars, other things hanging from the ceiling, things in every possible niche. It is neat and tidy, not a speck of dust anywhere, but John feels oppressed by the sheer volume of material goods pressing in on him. The old woman sets to making an incredible racket in preparing tea, and Sherlock sits beside John at a tiny table, colour high on his cheeks and face pinched into a scowl.
“Let me see,” John says, and Sherlock peels the coat off gingerly. The wing sags out once freed, limp and pathetic, stained red here and there where feathers have been bent and broken. John identifies a break at the carpometacorpus and hisses through his teeth in sympathy. “We’re going to have to set that,” he says.
Sherlock, struck dumb perhaps for the first time in his life, only presses his mouth flat and dips his head in one sharp nod.
When John sets the bone right, Sherlock pales and sways, but does not shout. John fashions a sling from a cloth the old woman threw at him, and Sherlock sits quietly, blanched and listless, until the old woman joins them. She sets mugs in front of them hard, tea sloshing over the edges onto her hands and the tabletop. She gives no sign of having been injured, and merely slides into a seat across from them. She jerks her hooked nose at the tea sitting in front of Sherlock.
“That’ll heal you up, fool,” she says. “Budem!” She raises her mug, and John raises his and kicks Sherlock in the shin until he does the same, and they all knock back tea like shots of the hard stuff and that’s when John realises his mug is at least 50% “hard stuff.”
“Jesus,” he says.
“What a funny expletive for a toy soldier,” she says. “Not funny ha-ha, of course.”
“You know,” Sherlock cuts in. “You know where they went with all our stories. So just tell us how to get them back and we’ll be on our way.”
The old woman zeroes in on Sherlock with those awful eagle’s eyes and John feels a moment’s sympathy, but shrugs it off when he decides it’s just Sherlock getting the same treatment he gives everyone else.
“You want to go back to your castle with your hideous parents and twelve siblings crowding around you everywhere?”
“I was free,” Sherlock snaps. “I was grace and wind and no one told me what to do.”
“Well, now you’re a cripple with a deformity everyone judges,” says the old woman, mouth twisting. “I wonder what that’s like.”
John looks down at the tabletop. In his peripheral vision, Sherlock’s jaw clenches, but he says nothing.
The old woman sits back and adopts an air of carelessness. “Besides,” she says, “this is just like you were at the end of your story anyway. What’s the difference, except that now you aren’t caught in an eternal fugue state, reenacting the same events over and over? I daresay it’s an improvement. You can do anything now. Your fate is not yet written.”
“Maybe it wasn’t much of a life, but it was mine,” Sherlock says.
“You’re a coward. Cowards and fools, the both of you.”
“You said you’d do our fortunes,” John says before Sherlock can give himself a heart attack. He’s turning colours.
“This is it, morons: free will is a gift. Don’t squander it.”
“That’s shit,” Sherlock snarls.
“The fairies are gone and they’ve left us all here on our own. It’s time you accepted that and left the boo-hooing to the babies. Leave my house. Never come looking for me again.”
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” Sherlock says. “Magic is gone — I should be swan or man, not some kind of abomination!”
John can’t help it — his hand moves as if of its own volition. It closes gently on the back of Sherlock’s neck, which is pink and hot to touch.
“You’re not an abomination,” he says. “You’re the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Sherlock turns an incredulous look on him, knitted brow and pursed lips and weak jaw falling into neck.
“The things you know, how you can look at someone and see. Even — even when you’re tumbling off rocks. You’re amazing. Fantastic. Brilliant.”
Sherlock shuts his mouth and visibly swallows.
“What part of leave my house don’t you twits understand? Get. Out!”
And then they are out, in the middle of a field on their bums, hut nowhere to be seen and Sherlock’s discarded coat in a heap beside them.
John stands and helps Sherlock up. They should find the nearest town, but instead Sherlock invades John’s space — too close again, too close — and stares down into John’s eyes. John doesn’t even register the crick developing in his neck.
“My brothers,” he says, a whisper against John’s lips, “their punishment was that they were swans whenever the sun shone. My punishment was that I was a man at moonrise.”
John shakes his head.
“The truth is,” Sherlock goes on, “that when I thought of the spell breaking, it was never a man I wanted to be.”
“Now all spells are broken,” John says.
“And here I stand, punished still.”
John took Sherlock’s hand in his, and with his free hand he smoothed down the feathers of Sherlock’s injured wing.
“Maybe — maybe this is the price we pay for free will. Our bodies will remember our stories for us.”
“Don’t tell me you believe that rubbish she was trying to sell,” Sherlock says with a scoff.
“I don’t see any ballerinas,” John says. “And even if I did, I’d choose you. I’d choose you, Sherlock Holmes.”
Sherlock sets his forehead against John’s. It’s warm, and it’s comfortable, and Sherlock smells good.
This is what it is to touch someone, John thinks. This is what it is to want and have.
“So what should we be, if not cursed princes and tin soldiers?” Sherlock says.
“Anything we want,” John says.
“I should like to show the crack team at Scotland Yard what nitwits they are,” Sherlock says, standing tall as if ready to preen.
“Then that’s what we’ll do.”
The sun is bright and it makes Sherlock look luminous as the full moon. They set off toward town, wherever that is, John holding the ends of Sherlock’s feathers all the while.
Eventually, he will even meet another Holmes brother.
(Mycroft? Sherlock? Who else is there?)
(Ceneric, Everwin, Kenelm, Merehwit, Ælfgar, Seleferth, Caedmon, Hengist, Anláf, and Daegmund, of my brothers.)
(Christ! Did your parents hate you all?)
(You know I have a sister. Is Elisa suitably middle-class enough for you, John?)
(Oh, come off it.)
For now, in a hut somewhere between worlds, a cane lies abandoned. A woman who has never been young or beautiful hefts it in a gnarled hand and tucks it behind a bookcase full of true stories no one will ever believe.
Beautiful art by Pesa! Thanks so much!