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By the Book (3/3)

BBC Sherlock

Rating 15 (violence, drug-taking, slash, attacks on literature, crack)

Summary:  Something nasty in the library stacks may have got Moriarty, but there are other dangers lurking in the eighteenth century for John and Sherlock.

Betaed by Ginbitch

Part 1, Part 2



Sherlock's positive mood survived for a few days, but started to unravel when it became clear that he'd managed to do something unforeseen to John's subconscious, something that went beyond his normal reactions to Sherlock nearly getting him killed. (He also felt slightly guilty about the fact that John now had a normal reaction to Sherlock nearly getting him killed). The problem this time was that John didn't want to leave the flat, disappeared up to his room when Mrs Hudson appeared, and, in fact, gave every impression of not wanting to come into contact with anyone except Sherlock.

When Sherlock found the thermometer left by the basin one morning, it dawned on him. John wasn't sick, but he was worried he might have caught something in the eighteenth century. So what could it be? And why hadn't John gone for medical tests, which was the obvious thing to do? It took him several patches and quite a bit of research to work that one out, and then he bounced up to John, sprawled in his chair, eating toast and watching crap telly.

"You do know that smallpox requires prolonged exposure to spread it?" he announced. "And that you're not contagious during the incubation period, anyhow?"

John practically choked on his mouthful, and Sherlock ended up slapping him on the back more than strictly necessary.

"There were people there with pustules," John said, switching off the TV. "Smallpox can be spread by bedding and clothing as well. We were in some horribly insanitary places, and we should have thought of the risk before."

"There's no reason to think we're going to pick anything up."

"Why not? I get knifed there, and I'm still injured here. You pick up a snuff box, and it and the contents survive. What stops us bringing a virus back?"

At least with John, you got vaguely evidence-based paranoia, Sherlock thought. "The chances are vanishingly small."

"It's bloody smallpox, Sherlock. The only disease they've ever eradicated from the whole world and you want to risk bringing it back?"

"So why haven't you gone to Barts? Or the London School of Tropical Medicine or whoever? We can go there right now, if you like."

"And how exactly do we explain how we might have been exposed to smallpox? Got any ideas, genius?"

"Tricky," Sherlock had to admit. "I'd rather not get into the time travel aspect. For one thing, I suspect Mycroft would get involved, and I really don't want him near any past world where America's still part of the British Empire. He'd be terribly tempted to interfere in some way."

"And I don't want to be suspected of bioterrorism," John retorted. "You're right. I'm not infectious yet, and if we just wait out the incubation period, it'll probably be fine. It's just-"

"Your subconscious is screaming, 'Plague, plague, I'm going to die a hideous death and so is anyone I so much as breath on'?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"But you don't feel the need to stay away from me?"

"If you die of smallpox, my subconscious would reckon that served you right."

"I see your point." He wondered if would have to break the habit of a lifetime and actually apologise, but fortunately John knew better than to expect that. Instead, John simply smiled a little wanly, and said:

"I know I'm overreacting. It's just...will you promise me something?"

"Of course," he said and, just for a moment, meant it, because John asked so little from him, and he asked so much of John.

"Don't go back to...there, unless you've been vaccinated.  I know it's a very small risk, but even so..."

Sherlock decided immediately to make the promise and weasel out of it later.

"That's fine, I'll make sure I do that," he said, smiling at John. "Now is there anything enjoyable you want to do while we put ourselves into quarantine? Oh, and do you need me to check you anywhere for rashes? Anywhere you can't easily check yourself?"


Whatever John might consciously think, his inner public health official was convinced that he was now the equivalent of Typhoid Mary, so he was most relaxed staying in 221B. And he let Sherlock check him for rashes with surprising regularity, and even allowed him to feel his forehead quite a bit for the first signs of any fever. Which almost made up for the fact that John took the opportunity to increase Sherlock's knowledge of popular culture (which involved watching a lot of rather tedious DVDs). Sherlock was also beginning to suspect that John might have outwitted him on the vaccination front. In order to get hold of smallpox vaccine, he needed the kind of paperwork that would almost certainly attract Mycroft's attention. Some lateral thinking was needed, he decided.


"I need to go to Liverpool tomorrow to see some people who research voles," Sherlock told John ten days later.

"Voles?" John said absent-mindedly, looking through the newspaper. "Do they have them in Liverpool?"

"Possibly they import them specially for the research." He had concocted several plausible explanations as to why he needed to learn about voles, and why John couldn't come with him, but fortunately they weren't needed.

"I need to go to the surgery tomorrow," John said, "Grovel to Sarah as to why it's taken me more than a fortnight to recover properly from flu."

"I still think you should have told her it was amoebic dysentery. Less...boring."

"She's a GP, she's not going to be impressed or even sympathetic for anything short of leprosy. I was reckoning we might watch Citizen Kane tonight, if that's OK."

"I have to get a very early train tomorrow."

"OK. Tomorrow night, then?"

Try and be helpful, Sherlock, he told himself, because John's not going to be happy when he finds out what you're planning.

"Looking forward to it," he lied.


Citizen Kane was worse than he expected, because it might be a masterpiece, but it was all about the kind of things that Mycroft was interested in - like rich Americans and newspapers and power - and was thus tedious by definition. About halfway through, when the tedious magnate and his tedious failed-opera singer of a wife were being tediously depressed in their tedious castle, Sherlock gave into temptation, grabbed the remote and switched it off.

"Oy, I was watching that," John said, slumping down even further in his chair.

"Do you know what I was doing today?" Sherlock said, rolling up his sleeve, to reveal the bandage on his arm.

"You went to see a man about a vole. Did one bite you? If so, I hope it hasn't caught anything nasty."

"Liverpool University have a project checking the effects of cowpox on field vole populations. They've been doing studies, infecting them and seeing the results. So, I persuaded them to infect me as well."


"You will be glad to hear, John, that I now have cowpox. Which means that as soon as I recover, I will be immune from smallpox, and safe to go back to the eighteenth century. Edward Jenner would be proud of me."

"Well I'm not!" John yelled, and the row kicked off.


For a change, it was Sherlock who stormed off, unable to bear the hurt way in which John was looking at him, as if he'd somehow cheated. Which he had, of course, but surely John should be used to that by now? He wasn't sure why it upset John so much, or why it upset him so much that John was furious, and hurt, and disappointed with him. He just knew that he was going back to the eighteenth century, whatever John said, because who the hell cared what John thought? They had changed some of the key codes at the British Library, but not enough to keep him out. He went up to the  Tower, rested his head on its doors, not caring where he might go. Just mentally telling It – whatever It was – to take him somewhere, anywhere.


He walks out of the portal into a small fetid room with a couple of beds in it. A large shambling man springs up rather painfully from where he's been sitting, feeding a man in one of the beds.

"For God's sake, get out," he yells. "There's smallpox here."

"I've been inoculated," Sherlock replies. The Library's playing tricks on him, isn't it?

"Are you a doctor?" the young man asks.

"No. But I've...I've come to help nurse him." He doesn't quite know why he's said that, it's really not his area. But there's something about the man's smile that is peculiarly winning.

"Welcome to the Pest House, then," says the man, sticking out his hand. "Trooper Silas Tomkyn Comberbache of the 15th Light Dragoons, at your service."

"Sherlock Holmes," he replies, shaking Comberbache's hand.

"Oh, you've enlisted under a false name as well, have you? Though it hardly seems worth concealing who I am any more. The truth is, my name is Sam Coleridge. And what's your real name?"


From the torrent of words  that pour out of Sam in the next hour or two, Sherlock eventually manages to gain some hard data. It's 1794 and Sam's run away from Cambridge in disgrace. From the fact that Sam can see Sherlock, the disgrace probably involves drink and opium, although Sherlock is soon wondering if Sam's mind is scrambled enough even when clean to be conscious of time-travelling intruders. Why else would he decide to redeem his disgrace by trying to become a soldier like some of his brothers, rather than the idiotic, brilliant poet he's clearly intended to be? And why is he now cooped up in the Henley Pest House with boils on his buttocks and Trooper Henry Wilson to nurse through smallpox?

More to the point, what is Sherlock doing here? He tries to tell himself that there's some logic to how he's ended up meeting Sam. That the Tower, when his mind enters it, must also enter his mind, to ensure conservation of something or other. And that it would, of course, work by means of words, not simply ideas. So if he's got smallpox and Kane's Xanadu on his mind, that somehow maps to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Pest House in this world.  But what is more alarming is the possibility that this is the Library's equivalent of Amazon's recommendations: 'People who attempt to save medieval manuscripts also like meeting Romantic poets'.


But the thing is, in a way, it's right. Sam's not the kind of man who Sherlock would normally have much in common with: he's never had time for would-be mystical poets with radical political views, let alone someone who can talk even more than he does. But right now, someone who's pleased that Sherlock's in the eighteenth century, can get through hours of discussion without ever mentioning tidying the flat, and is also the world's most incompetent soldier, has a strange appeal.

Sherlock ends up spending several weeks with various incarnations of Sam, and soon decides that early Coleridge is more fun than late Coleridge.  Fortunately, Sam's dreaminess is such that he'll greet someone as an old acquaintance in 1791, even if he's first met them in 1794. Sherlock suspects that Sam secretly believes Sherlock's a hallucination. Certainly at one point, Sam seems deeply confused about the distinction between Sherlock, someone from Porlock, and a possibly hypothetical drinker of hemlock. That's also the evening that they have a particularly heated argument about whether a pleasure dome can really be stately and still remain pleasurable. It's the most fun Sherlock's ever had discussing scansion.


In contrast, when he did make it back to 221B occasionally, desperate for a clean shirt or a Marmite sandwich, John was always there, silently sulking. No, not sulking, you needed volatility to sulk properly. This was natural stubbornness, hardened further by years of army life. John might think that he was exhibiting patient, willing-to-be-reconciled- if you-apologise restraint, but the strong undertones of wanting to kill Sherlock with his bare hands were clear to the experienced observer. Sherlock half expected mugs to start exploding when John glared at them, and he wondered if his skin would start to blister and peel off if John was ever willing to look at him directly for more than a few seconds. He felt more and more like one of the thousand thousand slimy things that Sam kept complaining about seeing.  Not even Sam would know what to say to John in that kind of mood, and he was probably the wrong sort of poet anyhow for that.

The next time he had to go back to the flat - he'd promised Sam the loan of a book with some decent photographs of albatrosses - he managed to turn up on Sunday afternoon, when John was normally at the gym. But as he turned into Baker Street he spotted John heading back to the flat, still in his shorts, despite the cold, talking on his phone. How did he know? Oh, Sherlock's mobile, of course. The GPS tracking feature had been safely randomised – not disabled, too obvious – but the fact that there was a signal at all was a telltale sign that Sherlock was back in the twenty-first century. Mycroft's doing, he feared. He switched his phone off reluctantly – it felt like having part of his brain surgically removed – and waited to see if John would leave the flat again. Eventually, however, he had to go in, and attempt to avoid the mutually assured destruction of saying anything to John. Then he headed rapidly back to Sam, who was, as usual, in a helpful, friendly mood.


It's because of Sam's helpfulness and friendliness that Sherlock nearly ends up an addict again. Sam used to help his brother out at the London Hospital, he saved Trooper Wilson's life, and he's frankly keener on nursing people than Sherlock thinks is entirely sane. So when Sherlock gets some kind of horrible stomach bug from some particularly dodgy milk, Sam happily starts dosing him with a variety of patent remedies. Several of which turn out to be full of laudanum.

Sherlock knows, from the pleasurable haze, from the feel of his limbs, what he's had, less of a rush than heroin, his body relaxing from its cramps for the first time in hours. He also knows, three days later, when he's starting to wonder what symptoms he should use next time to justify Sam giving him another dose, that he's in serious danger. If he doesn't get out of this century soon, he may not be able to. And some of the dreams he's been having suggest he really ought to get back to 221B and see whether his subconscious has been picking up the right signals after all. But there's just one more thing he needs the laudanum for...

He leaves his mobile phone under the bed he's been sharing with Sam, so he won't forget and turn it on in the present. He knows the theoretical dangers of leaving advanced technology in a past time, but Sam has barely get to grips with the principle of the reflecting telescope,  let alone anything involving electronics. He may not even notice the phone's there for weeks.

When he gets back to the British Library, Sherlock starts taking the drops of laudanum, hoping he can get the dosage right. Just enough for mild euphoria, not enough to slow him down or leave his pupils too dilated. Though he will have an excuse for that aspect of his appearance. Ideally, he'd be slightly less crumpled and sweaty as well to start with, but hopefully the state of his clothing isn't going to matter for too long. If he's got this right. If he hasn't, he might as well end up in Georgian London permanently, because the twenty-first century isn't worth it anymore.

Despite the high he's on, he manages to drift up the stairs of 221B almost noiselessly. Then he bangs open the flat door, and John starts and jumps up from the TV programme he's fallen asleep in front of. By the time John has got with it enough to start protesting, Sherlock, on a gloriously uninhibited wave of something that's not entirely laudanum-based, has got himself wrapped thoroughly enough round John's surprisingly responsive body for John's verbal protests to seem pointless even to John. In fact, they end up fairly rapidly with the kind of bed-sharing that Sherlock actually enjoys – fewer lice, softer pillows, and lots more fornication than in his experience of the eighteenth century.


It was unfortunate that John found the bottle of laudanum in Sherlock's coat pocket the next day. Sherlock wasn't sure he ever wanted to move again, but John had decided that someone needed to tidy up the discarded clothes in the living room before Mrs Hudson started deducing things. The resulting row was spectacular, but Sherlock barred the exit to the flat, so John couldn't storm out without manhandling Sherlock aside – and they both knew what was going to happen if they started grappling. John contented himself by smashing the bottle and its contents into the sink, and was then briefly distracted by worrying that he might be accidentally poisoning London's water supply. (John was far too conscientious, Sherlock thought, even when near to losing it completely).

John then tried to compensate for this conscientiousness by calling Sherlock every rude name he knew from the army. Sherlock half-heartedly retaliated by calling John an addle-brained sapskull, but he was really too content  to do much more than stand around adoring John.

"You're going to have to choose between the drugs and me," John yelled at one point.

"Then I'll choose you, of course," Sherlock blurted out, and suddenly realised that was one promise he wasn't planning to weasel out of. John kept shouting at him for a bit longer, after that, because he had several weeks of fury to burn out, but they ended up with some reconciliatory sex, which made it the most enjoyable quarrel Sherlock had ever had with anyone.



It was a day or two later that it occurred to Sherlock that the 'no drugs' policy also meant no going back to the eighteenth century. Because now he knew the bliss lurking in every bottle of black-drop, paregoric, Godfrey's Cordial, Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup and all the rest of them, and the temptation if he did go back would be just too much. Drugs were dangerous enough, but drugs and books were a lethal cocktail for him. After all, he'd once spent a month trying to work out how to synthesize soma, and he was already back on a chapter a day of De Quincey. Still, most people could manage without the Georgians; he should be able to as well. It was a shame he couldn't say goodbye to Sam, but he probably wouldn't have remembered him anyhow.

He did go and lay flowers on Sam's grave in Highgate, though – opium poppies, of course. And he had one more debt to pay. He sat in the atrium in the BL, and hand-wrote his thank-you letter and  scrunched it into a tiny ball. And then he waited, till one of the fetchers went into the King's Library Tower, and he could throw the letter through the briefly opened doors. It was inadequate to express his feelings, of course, but it was at least words. And whatever he didn't know about the Tower - and would never know now  - he did know it was keen on the written word.

Note: many of the actual facts lurking in this about Coleridge are taken from Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989). Rictor Norton's website has vast amounts of entertaining information about the C18 and its gay and non-gay history.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
(no subject) - shehasathree - Apr. 3rd, 2011 07:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 4th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed that - it took a bit of lateral thinking from me, as well as Sherlock, to work that twist out. But the poxy voles of Liverpool are genuine. And a lot of the stuff on laudanum I got from Alonzo Calkins, Opium and the opium-appetite (1871), which is partially available via Google Books. (We only supply informative crack round here).
Apr. 3rd, 2011 08:38 am (UTC)
Great fun, thank you!
Apr. 3rd, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
this is the Library's equivalent of Amazon's recommendations: 'People who attempt to save medieval manuscripts also like meeting Romantic poets'.

TOTAL AND UTTER GENIUS! And Comberbache!!!!!
Apr. 4th, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC)
I found out about Comberbache ages ago and the story has been brewing on and off ever since. Though the Library seemed to develop more peculiar twists (like the recommendations function), every time I need to fill one of the gaping plot holes.
Apr. 4th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
Hahaha, your real name is Jeff Bezos, rite?
Apr. 4th, 2011 12:20 am (UTC)
oh I did enjoy this! laughed out loud at STC assuming Sherlock had enlisted under a false name, and at the argument about the pleasure dome and scansion. loved the rows and reconciliations between Sherlock and John, the fact that John has a normal reaction to Sherlock nearly getting him killed, the evidence-based paranoia, the not!sulking...
Apr. 4th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC)
Sherlock, of course, gets away with almost everything, as usual, including abandoning the eighteenth century with barely a backwards glance. But someone who knows more than I do about the period really ought to start doing more Coleridge fanfic, because he's such a bizarre character. Like the time when he was pretending to be Leander swimming the Hellespont, bashed into someone and got accused of being a pick-pocket. And Coleridge h/c fiction is just begging to be written, as my next (factual) post will make clear.
Apr. 5th, 2011 03:42 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed this.
Apr. 19th, 2011 06:31 pm (UTC)
This was a terrific story. I never knew Coleridge was so interesting.
Apr. 19th, 2011 11:17 pm (UTC)
Coleridge was astounding, if also weird. There's a bit in one biography about him and hurt/comfort fic that I ended up posting about.
May. 11th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
This is absolute genius, you had me hooked from the first Pratchett reference :) Love it!
May. 12th, 2011 06:36 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it - I don't often manage to sneak Pratchett into my stories, but he is one of my favourite authors, and very useful for filling the massive plot holes in this story.
Aug. 7th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, and do you need me to check you anywhere for rashes? Anywhere you can't easily check yourself?"- Oh my! And Comberbache - good.
Great story! Slightly crazy and very interesting.
Jan. 15th, 2012 04:19 am (UTC)
But, his phone-- isn't his phone still there? (looks for sequel)

> "There were people there with pustules,"

That is so John! :)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )