AN/ A culmination of a number of different influences. This fic is therefore all the fault of M. Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, M. R. James and by related extension Mark Gatiss' Crooked House. Thank you, gentlemen, for making me unable to sleep at night.


We all create stories to protect ourselves
House of Leaves


Epilogue

When Sherlock opens his eyes, he is alone.

"John?" he calls out, throat dry, eyes straining to see past the horizons of his vision. His surroundings are not familiar, or if they stir any recognition within him, only that of a half recalled nightmare, a nauseating recollection, a disparate smell of burnt sulphur and charcoal in his nose.

He doesn't try and sit up, a leaden weight over his limb disinclining him against that option, and also, a stronger reason. A sudden inexplicable fear rising in his chest as his call is greeted by only silence. The form of primal fear repressed from childhood, the one everyone knows, even Sherlock, holding it in some crevice deep inside of him – the fear that when he shouts, one day the world will look back with unfeeling blank eyes, and no-one will answer.

In the darkness, his own stertorous quick breathes sound like someone else is in the room with him. Right behind his head, where his eyes can't see and he can't turn his head, next to his ear, and the breathing is not merely the intake of air but the exhale of whispers, cruel laughter, muttering to him, about him, knowing something he doesn't and taunting him with it.

The fear is stupid. Childish. Come on, think. He tries to backtrack, the how and why he came to be here. Yet his mind is frustratingly uncooperative, offering up only blurred half-truths, the blend of memory and dream discomforting, the alien qualities of his surroundings distracting him. Black pall swathes of shadow draping obscure corners, creeping over the ground, snagging with what faint light there is and moulding unspeakable shapes on the floor.

"John?" He whispers louder, and he might sit there in the dark saying the same name for hours, the syllable losing its form, meaning, like when you write a word over and over again and it becomes something that for some reason looks wrong, is wrong, and Sherlock would still keep whispering, shouting, calling, in the dark where patches of black marry into even deeper shades, and the wrong as if the word were a talisman to keep the monsters away.

He does not believe in monsters, immature pre-logic ideals that have lingered in the human psyche as an evolutionary throwback, but alone, cut from any data he can use to distract himself, in the dark he could believe anything.

The things that lurk in the dark, dressed in the skin of shadow, bullet-sleek and stinking of blood, the rotting of wood and damp of old houses, the breathing through desiccated lungs so low it can only be heard as silence. The things with the heartbeat like the tick tock of an deep welled clock, and even as they crept closer, chuckling and growling with the sound of creaking steps and the clunk of the radiator, Sherlock would scrunch his eyes shut against the inevitable and continue his mantra with the faith of a doomed man; JohnJohnJohnJohnJohn...

"I'm here Sherlock"

The voice is low. Soothing. A head is leaning over him, taking up his whole view, his whole expanse of sight; familiar features, the faint bags ingrained under his eyes, a half smile designed to calm him, a dry hand touching his forehead gently.

Hands bound behind his back with plastic grip encasing his wrists, and the wooden floorboards dig impressions of roads with their gaps on the flesh of his knees. Those monsters in this head, they're real, and were born human, with flesh and blood and that capacity for cruelty, and they're telling him this is his fault, what happens now, that if he didn't push his fucking nose into where it wasn't wanted, then it wouldn't have to come to this.

They have names, records in a police file he rifled from one of Lestrade's filing cabinets, but they merge into a single form with many parts without gender, pulled together by uniform anger, sharp fingernails and bathed in the witching hour. They are faceless in the nightmare, all except their eyes; Sherlock could tell a history from posture, a lifetime from a million clues, mud and habits and wedding rings and skin tone, and none of that cushions the data he can see as clear as glass in those eyes.

Those eyes, the ones that are thinking of killing him, running through the motions like the words of a song they've rehearsed, fine tuned and practised on lesser prey, and when they say 'You're going to die tonight', it's like the words are scored into wood, into stone, enduring, and he doesn't doubt them, not once.

"What happened?" he rasps, raising his hand to grip John's forearm, feeling it solid against his grasp that's near feverish with intensity. The monsters retreat back, shrink and cower, muttering and grumbling into the edging of the room, not willing to attack with the presence of another.

John, above him, constant and steady as he so often is, his outline illuminated with a glow akin to moonlight from the gaps in the curtain yanked over the grimy window on the second floor. Sherlock's mind supplies that there must be from a source somewhere close, most likely a street lamp outside.

"You got yourself kidnapped again, you idiot" John murmurs a reply, his tone controlled, pitched at just the right level, placing his hand over Sherlock's in a gesture of solidarity and affection "You got a bit too close to what they were up to, so they reacted. Brought you here."

"Where are they now? " Sherlock is going to ask more, but as he attempts to sit up, a nausea swamps him, overwhelms him. There's a sickness rising up from heart level, his thorax filled with it, whatever it is, disguised as sickness but really taking on so much of the characteristics of wavering illness so he can no longer call it fear.

"Not so fast" John plants a hand on his chest, central, fingers splaying over the area where that beating organ is still thrumming as though something caged with frantic wings, clipping the bars, slamming against them to get away from the shadows.

Claws that briefly catch, fall away, a game they're playing, slewing corners and crevices and conquering them for vantage, a pantheon of crackling creaking floor and black walls with a legacy of utter absence, and the faster he would try and run, the more he would become lost in the maze a simple room has suddenly become, light/dark outlines becoming definite walls, a labyrinth, and with something sinister and terrible at the very centre...

John is here. Stop that.

The doctor keeps a litany, running his fingers through Sherlock's sodden hair, giving him gentleness, giving him the tender emotions that the shadows can never defraud.

"It's ok." he says, and Sherlock believes in that, because faith is the only key he has to escape the sensation of something still being wrong, equivocation, something lurking beneath the surface, at the centre of the maze, tattered and starved of sunlight, feeble fingers tugging at his sleeve for attention "I called Lestrade before I ended up here. Let him know you were in trouble. With any luck, he'll have tracked us down fast enough to apprehend them before they get away"

John moves his hand away, the imprint of heat slow to fade. "Now, don't try and sit up fast." He uses his 'doctor voice', as Sherlock terms it, eyes flicking over him, taking in his own personal brand of data that he needs for a diagnostic. "They've kept you drugged, so you might feel a bit woozy."

"What with?" Sherlock asks, examining his surroundings as best as he is able. John is blocking most of his vision, and lying on his back is of course severely impeding any useful information he can glean, but this is what he needs; Questions, an influx of data, analysis and correlation, keeping him grounded, keeping his mind working, thoughts roaring and writhing and springing from him, making him not have to think of the dark, the nightmares that come in addled flashes, sensory input that forces itself on him.

"They seemed indecisive, so they tried a bit of chlorpromazine, before they settled on lorazipam" John sets out the detail without emotion and Sherlock is grateful "Not a smart idea to mix drugs anyway, especially not sedatives like that, so there'll be side effects. Confusion, heavy limbs, possible anterograde amnesia"

"There was shouting..." Sherlock says, scrunching up his face, and why can't he remember, why is it so hard to piece his thoughts together, why are thoughts flitting, taunting, like catching the history of a shade where someone has moved over the sunlight "Someone was screaming..."

They've dragged someone before him, head down, alien in the poor light – the hair is choppy, looks blonde, but it could be any colour couldn't it, it wont be the exact sandy shade his mind would assume, the figure is shorter than average, the posture and body shape suggesting male, but that barely counts towards a conclusion, it could be anybody, anybody at all – parading the figure like a prize, crowing, laughing, encircling the two.

Sherlock's had his head up, determined to keep his pride, not to give them anything, because his own death does not frighten him, nothing frightens him, because fear is a construct of the mind, and he will not beg, not to them, not to anybody.

But then they pull up the stranger's head by his hair, digging their fingers into the scalp, and oh god, it's John, but then it would never, could never have been anyone else. John, who shouldn't be here. John, who has a gun to his head, whose eyes aren't wavering from Sherlock's, that strange storm of blue and brown and green, who isn't saying anything, isn't begging or pleading, isn't rising to the taunts, jeers that are called out at him. The barrel of a gun is prodded against his head, pushing too hard, cold against hot flesh, but John doesn't look afraid. John is not frightened of death, not of mortal men nor monsters because he has faced them all, and the only expression he is wearing now is an apology.

God, Sherlock, I am so sorry. Sherlock reads the message in their brief eye contact, and stifles something trembling in his chest.

'We said we'd make you pay, Sherlock Holmes" a voice says, one of the many, and the safety catch clicks off, thunderous in the sudden quiet, of expectation from the spectators, trepidation from the players on this stage. "We did warn you about what would happen if you kept coming after us. And you had to find out about the murders didn't you? Had to go try and tell the cops."

And it is Sherlock that is shouting, who is frightened of death, not his, but it'll kill him all the same, and he sees trajectory, impact, size of exit wound, calculating everything on automatic, knowing exactly the way John's eyes will roll back with half his skull fragmented out, traversing, wrecking through both hemispheres of the cerebrum, the way his body will slump, twitching, or if he's lucky, and isn't that the worst word he could use to describe it, the bullet will hit the brain stem and kill him instantly.

And he's viewing it like video footage, rewind, repeat, the motion, the widening of John's eyes, and he's raging against it, against the knowledge, angry and resisting, saying no, no, get off him, leave him, he's done nothing, it's me you want isn't it, and nothing he says makes any difference at all.

That gun doesn't move from the doctor's temple, and John's eyes don't move from Sherlock's face.

"Whatever you saw wasn't real, Sherlock. It was the drugs talking."

"But I saw – "

John's eyes close, sorrowful, apologetic.

And then a gunshot.

"It was a nightmare." John repeats, and how can he be so sure when Sherlock's remembering it all with a swollen heart ticking out some fearful eulogy in the hollows of his chest "You're safe now, ok?"

He's screaming, blood on his collar, flecks of it on his cheeks, his voice making inhuman noises of rage that shouldn't be possible in the human range, howling, screeching wordless, reaching extremes and if he could just go back and relive the last few seconds, change it, make it wrong, make this be a story not his own that he is not part of, where there isn't blood on his face. Where there isn't a dead man in front of him, who used to have a name, had a history, who smiled just-so, who Sherlock was going to grow old with and never stop loving, a man who isn't there anymore.

And he's kicking, his arms still behind his back, biting at the hands that hold his shoulders down to keep him still, wanting to draw something from them with his teeth, wanting to take back in turn what they stole, and it's pitiful, gaining no ground, and still he's making feral screams like sandpaper grinding his throat, everything around him muting to black.

John can't be dead, can't be because he promised, promised he'd never leave him, that he'd always be there to watch Sherlock's back, to protect him,and it's a lifeline as his lungs burn, jolting an arrhythmic heartbeat, because John promised. And John wouldn't lie to him.

He keeps shouting, raging at the black and the monsters, and when the barrel is aimed at him, he welcomes it, doesn't care, isn't able to anymore.

The screaming only stops when the trigger is pulled again.

"You are safe, Sherlock. Trust me"

He lets out a shaky breath "Yes." he says, the nightmare receding back. John is here. Alive. With him. John does not believe in the monsters, and John will always be there, to protect him, to be his shadow. John wouldn't lie. "I trust you"

John nods once, then smiles like a prompt, waiting for Sherlock's heart to catch up to the beat of his own. I am here, are the words he doesn't say, I will not leave you, but Sherlock reads the subtext in the cracked skin of his palms, finds solace in trapping John's hand under his in a moment for which there are no words necessary.

There is the noise of shouting, the sound of the cavalry arriving, Lestrade shouting names, worried, stomping through the rooms downstairs, calling out to them both. The words are smothered, being taken up by the floorboards and the crumpled fabric of filthy curtains, as though it is all happening so very far away, the street lamp from outside not wavering, John not seeming to pay the intrusion much heed.

"Come on" he presses a feather-light kiss to Sherlock's forehead, wiping back damp sticky curls "Let's get you home. Lestrade can take it from here."

It takes Sherlock a moment to realise that John is sliding his arms under his neck, his knees, taking the detective's weight and lifting him up into his arms, cradling him against his chest, long legs dangling over one side.

"I can walk, you know" he squirms slightly, a little of his old character pervading back into his speech.

John chuckles, hefting him up in his arms in a comfortable hold "Don't be an idiot" he chastises fondly "You can barely keep your eyes open."

"This is completely unnecessary" Sherlock responds, no bite to his words, more arguing for the sake of the familiarity of it, the grooves of their speech patterns forged over years of companionship.

"Just rest" John says, siren soft, and Sherlock has to agree with his suggestion, loosening taut muscles to relax into the hold, his body too heavy to be comfortable moving in awake, tiredness sweeping in like the tide to bear him out to stranger lands "I'll look after you. I promise"

"I wouldn't doubt it" Sherlock rests his head in the hollow of John's neck, letting his eyelids lower, and the doctor just holds him closer to him, tighter. Blocking out the rest of the room so the detective doesn't notice the two shapes on the floor behind them that break the monotony of the floorboards. Faint light outlining a cable-knit jumper stained crimson, turning white the tips of blonde hair, and near to that a mess of dark curls that merge right in with the shadows.

John doesn't glance back. He already knows what he'll see there.