John still dreams of flight.
Not the run-up and the initial spread of wings, beating and stretching and reaching for the sky; nor the careful, controlled drop, aiming below the landing zone and lifting at the last moment to come down lightly on two feet. Just the flying itself, gliding with only the occasional loft of wings to catch the air currents, spreading the retrices on calves and ankles to correct course when necessary. Feeling the hard, sweet stretch of wing and shoulder muscles with every downbeat, the cold rush of the wind on his face and across his feathers. Every ounce of his attention caught up in the process. Everything that he is, poured into that winged mold and then turned out glorious and complete.
“The dreaming isn't the problem,” he says, voice muffled against the downy wisps of black feather on Sherlock's chest. John is on top as per usual, because it's almost impossible for someone with wings to lie flat on his back.
“Clearly,” Sherlock says, but his tone lacks the usual note of disdain that word holds for things he deems obvious.
When he first came home, afterward, most of his neighbors were also ex-servicemen and had worked with fliers, so they were polite to his face. His sister tried to sympathize, when she was sober. The fliers he saw in the street looked past him, their gazes sliding off as if he was made of ice: cold and dangerous and opaque. The therapist the Army sent him to was an alleged specialist, but she had never flown a day in her life. From everyone else he got the same looks he'd gotten since he Changed at nineteen: curiosity, pity, dread. Relief, because the chance of growing wings was one in a thousand, and they were glad to be among the nine hundred and ninety-nine.
“What does it matter how they look at you?” says Sherlock, a man who has been reviled since childhood for the talent that makes him unique.
“It didn't used to,” John says. “If your brain stopped working, if you stopped being brilliant, would you be able to ignore it so easily when people called you a freak?”
“Don't be an idiot,” Sherlock says, but he doesn't actually say yes.
The pension paid very little for John to do very little. Sit in the flat. Sit on a bench in the park. He applied for jobs just to have something to fill the days, but never got past the first interview. He'd had good grades in school before the Change, had even considered studying medicine, but fliers were excluded from the Army's tuition benefit scheme for veterans. John started applying for positions at St. Bart's because staff got access to the medical school's libraries.
He was standing by the lift when a cool, cultured voice behind him said, “You, a janitor? I would think you had a little more dignity than that.”
“Haven't you heard?” John snapped, turning. “Fliers don't have any fucking dignity. That's why it's perfectly acceptable for every posh git we meet to stare at us.”
Sherlock's lips had quirked slightly, as if he wanted to laugh, and his crest- jet black feathers with bands of indigo, tipped in an arresting sky blue- was laid back against his head. “Staring would be redundant, as I already know everything about you that I care to know.”
John hates the harness with a fiery passion, but without it his wings drag on the floor and constantly get caught on furniture and doorjambs. Sherlock was the first person who John didn't feel humiliated asking for help with the straps; maybe that first time John had asked was when he realized that this thing between them might actually work.
Sherlock fastens the harness for him in the mornings, and he takes it off at night. He makes John lie face-down on the bed and lifts each humerus in turn, stretching and massaging the paralyzed muscles. He smooths out any moulted feathers and preens the brown and bronze secondaries that John can't reach, teasing and straightening them with long, careful fingers.
When they read on the sofa in the evenings, Sherlock lays his head in John's lap and John returns the favor on Sherlock's head-plumage. Sherlock has never asked him for this, but never tries to stop him either. Maybe he senses that John's pride requires reciprocity of some kind, or maybe he just likes the sensation. Sometimes he hums, deep in his throat, when John's fingernails scratch his scalp at the base of his ruff feathers, and his eyes drift slowly closed.
“You hate your life,” Sherlock had noted, holding the stop button on the lift to prevent John from leaving. “Have you thought about killing yourself?”
John's crest rose. “What- that's-”
“Of course you have,” Sherlock said. “The more pertinent question is, would you do it by amputating your wings?”
Probably only a flier would understand how truly obscene that question was, and Sherlock wasn't a flier. Nonetheless, the only answer that John could conceive of was to punch Sherlock in the face. So he did.
There are a couple fliers at the Yard, but of course the name is a misnomer because they strapped down their wings immediately after the Change and have never, never flown. John pities them until he realizes that they are all stupid enough to consider him the half-man.
“It's a one in twenty chance, every time you go up,” Sherlock says mildly. “That's a very great risk to take.”
“Your odds were much worse when you decided to confront Moriarty at that pool,” John retorts, and Sherlock just gives him a small, pleased smile.
Lestrade reopened the case when Sherlock, with John's help, convinced the DI that it was not a suicide; three hours later the victim's brother was in custody on a charge that he had chopped off his sister's crippled wings and left her to die a slow and agonizing death.
“That was bloody brilliant,” John said, flushed with giddy euphoria and panting with effort. His crest was erect again, short brown feathers standing straight up from his head: excitement this time, rather than rage. Sherlock's eyes glittered when he grinned back, and John remembered what it felt like to be whole.
Chasing after Sherlock is the best part of John's life, now.
John tells him this when they are lying in bed, and it makes Sherlock laugh. “Customarily I believe the activity we just engaged in is rated significantly higher on the scale than risking one's life,” he says, running his palm softly along one of John's primaries. “If you weren't a flier, I think I might be insulted.”
“I hated the parachute the Army made me carry,” John says, not quite changing the subject. “If my wings failed, I just wanted that to be the end. I wanted to die flying.”
Sherlock pauses a moment in his petting, clearly deep in thought. “You still will,” he finally says.
John thinks that waking up might not be so terrible, as long as he can look at Sherlock and remember that promise.