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By the book (1/3)

BBC Sherlock

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

Summary: In the grand tradition of Sherlock library fics, here is some British Library crack

Betaed by Ginbitch


Sherlock had once glanced at a novel of John's in which someone claimed that a large enough library could bend space and time, and that all libraries were somehow mystically connected together. Of course, the character who'd noticed this was an orang-utan, so the theory presumably wasn't meant to be taken entirely seriously. He'd thought nothing more of it till the night at the British Library.

He'd broken into the BL because he'd been fed up with the speed of their fetching, and he'd spent a very satisfying few hours reading 1970s biology textbooks (because Mr Sims had got his degree from Reading in 1978, and now Sherlock finally understood why he'd got his ideas about heredity so subtly but crucially wrong). He headed out of the stacks, and only once in the atrium did he open the bottle of water in his pocket and wash the dust out of his mouth. He might technically be an illicit user, but he was prepared to obey most of the library's rules. Indeed, he'd not only reshelved the books he'd been using, but also one or two misplaced volumes he'd noticed. They ought to be grateful to him, really.

As he drank, he found his gaze, as usual, drawn to the King's Library Tower, scanning up and down the vast glass and metal cage filled with leather-bound volumes, till he started to feel dizzy. It was even more potent after the shoddy paper and bindings of the late twentieth century, this sense of solidity, ordered purpose, controlled knowledge. He'd always found attempting to define and memorise the pattern of colours was the perfect way of distracting and relaxing his mind when the noises in it got too much. Tight-packed shades of brown, red, green, flickers of light off gilding, the occasional startling shades of cream and blue: one day he would crack the code.

But now the individual volumes were almost invisible in the dim security lighting, and he was mainly conscious of the vast bulk of the whole thing. Six storeys high, but you could almost imagine that it went even higher and lower, a column of books that could take you from the depths of the earth to the heavens. He never quite understood why they called it a library. Oh, of course, it was a working library, you could request books from there, he'd even done it once, but it didn't look like one. The gaps between the shelves were almost nominal, he wondered if they needed specially slender book-fetchers, or perhaps children, bred to this one task. What it really was, he suddenly realised, was the core of a book-powered reactor, it was that that kept the library alive, even in the depths of night. He knew the humming was really the heating and security systems – must remember, no more than eight minutes more here in order to avoid the patrol – but he could imagine it came from the tower itself.

On an impulse, he went down to the first floor, to the sole entrance, easing his way in silently through the white-painted gates marked 'Staff only', and went to stand by the heavy black metal doors that led into the tower itself. He didn't attempt to open them, there were probably all kinds of alarms that would set off. And besides, if you opened the doors, wouldn't it breach some kind of containment field, so that the concentrated force of knowledge would flow out, dissipate? But how could even four inches of solid metal stop that? And the doors weren't completely solid, but patterned with small square holes, and even now he wasn't sure if they were windows into the collection, or mirrors to reflect the readers back at themselves. No, they were windows to something, to the power inside. For reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with logic, he leant his head on one door, and then slipped off his gloves – risky, might leave fingerprints, but they'd surely never check – and placed both palms on the doors, pressing in almost imperceptibly. Words in his mind, words in there, imagine them swirling round together visible in the air, no, imagine his mind sucking in the knowledge from there, it seeping in through his pores, flowing through his blood. The doors are giving beneath his touch, even though he is barely pressing them. But still, the metal and the glass are melting like ice at the heat of his hands...

Looking up, he steps into the tower, but it isn't the glass and metal box anymore, but  a long dark library, wooden shelves stacked with barely-visible heavy volumes, which he somehow knows are not quite the same ones as before. When he gets his pencil torch out, the titles of the books blur beneath his gaze, gold-blocked letters dancing incomprehensibly, but he realises that there are heavy wooden doors at the end of each bay. He chooses one and swings it open cautiously, and walls into another library. For a split second he thinks he's in the old British Museum Reading Room, which he bluffed his way into, aged fifteen. Then he realises that this room is not round, but octagonal, and almost empty of people. The only occupants are an elderly white-wigged man arguing with a bloated oaf in a waistcoat. They don't look up at him, just carry on their heated discussion about the civil list.

He deduces 'film set for historical drama' in 10 seconds, 'One of the King Georges' in 25, and 'actually, not a film set' in 30 seconds. Which leaves historical re-enactment , or mental confusion on either his part or that of the men in breeches. He goes over to them, smiles, and sticks out his hand.

"Sherlock Holmes," he announces, "the world's only consulting detective."

They don't react to him by as much as a blink, which suggests it's his dream, not theirs. He wanders round the library briefly; he can pull the books off the shelves here, read them. He glances at the title page of one: 'An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism'. The date is 1774, which gives him a lower bound for the period, if his dream is being logical. Though could his unconscious mind really have come up with a title like that? And the whole thing is far more prosaic than his normal dreams. Somebody is usually dead by this point in them, but there is no sign of upcoming murder, despite the continuing argument of the men behind him.

What now? There are doors at opposite sides of the octagon: some instinct tells him to head towards the one on the right, it is somehow, brighter, clearer. He walks towards it, through it, into shadows, and his legs abruptly ram into the brass-topped railings round the Tower. Once he's stopped swearing and looked round, there is the rest of the modern BL.


Having hallucinations less than 24 hours into a case suggested there was something wrong with him, but the alternative was...peculiar. Once he'd sorted out Mr Sims and his twin, he went off to the reference books. The results, as he'd expected, were inconclusive.  George III's books had been housed in a library, the Octagonal Library, that looked remarkably like the room he'd been in, and he was sure he'd never seen a picture of that before. But while the older man might plausibly have been George III, the fat lump he'd  been arguing with fitted Gillray's savage caricatures of George IV more than the portraits he could find. There was something odd going on.


It took him nearly a month to become a night security guard at the BL, because he knew he would require some time to experiment. It was also handy not to be hanging around 221B at night, when John was doing unnecessarily provocative things, like lying in his bedroom in his pyjamas. Probably in his pyjamas. Sherlock needed something he could explore safely.

It is surprisingly easy to repeat the dream, or non-dream, once he's focused on the books in the Tower. This time, there is no-one there in the Octagonal Library, or in the other rooms around it. The next thing is some tangible proof. He pulls a book off the shelf and then stops. He'd thought he was capable of anything, but he cannot bring himself to deface the innocent volume he holds, let alone remove it from the library. He puts the book carefully back in its place and looks round. There must be a way out of the library into the rest of the palace.

He finds a small door which leads into someone's bedroom, the king's he presumes, for all its bare floors. He waits for the maid he sees in there to start screaming, but she doesn't, even when he sits on the bed and calls her an idiot. He's definitely imperceptible, which is a strange, but somehow enjoyable situation. He looks round for something to take back with him, something distinctive that has to come from here, not there. Then he spots a small, beautifully patterned box on a sideboard and pockets it. The maid gives a gasp and hurries out. Oh, so objects that I move are perceptible, just not me, he thinks.

In a moment of clarity, as if his mental database of London streets has suddenly developed a supplement to eighteenth century palaces, he knows that if he goes through the door into the dressing room and then turns right, he will find the way back into his world. Time to check if his instinct's right, he thinks, and cautiously takes the route emblazoned in his mind. Sure, enough he finds himself back in 2010.


"A client sent me this as a reward," he announced to John the next morning, producing the box. "We need to check if it's been stolen."

"Have you ever considered having honest clients?" John asked.

"Far less profitable. It's a silver snuff box, late eighteenth century, I'd say, Belongs, belonged to George III, I believe."

"You've been watching Antiques Roadshow again?"

"Time to check where it's supposed to be. If it's been stolen, I'd expect it to be from somewhere in London, the thief wouldn't have time and opportunity to go elsewhere. So can you take a picture and go and talk to Grinling at the Art and Antiques Unit?" He really hoped that he hadn't stolen the box during some blackout or psychotic episode, because that would come under John's 'definitely not good' heading.

John was still looking at the box with an extreme distaste that had nothing to do with aesthetic judgement.

"It's heavy," he said, picking it up gingerly from the coffee table. "Do you think there's something in it?"

He hadn't thought of that. "Let's have a look," he replied, reaching for the box.

"No!" John yelled. "Gloves, don't open it without gloves. There might be some contraption inside."

"You're getting paranoid, John," Sherlock said scornfully, but he did slip on his gloves before cautiously opening the box. "You see, nothing but snuff."

"Could be poisoned, definitely carcinogenic."

"I'll analyse it," Sherlock said patiently, and added quickly, "In the lab, not here."

John still looked concerned. He wondered about giving John a reassuring hug, but he suspected John was getting suspicious about who was being reassured. So he settled for what he hoped was a genial smile.

"If we find this is genuine, I don't think I'll need to take any cases for a couple of weeks," he said. "Which is good, because I'll need to do some time-travelling in the British Library."

"I'll take that as a metaphor for historical research," John retorted. "Now do you want some breakfast before you go back to the future?"


Sherlock couldn't work out the central mystery of how or why, but he could at least explore the mechanisms and the constraints. The journey always seemed to start from what he had come to term the library portal, but the door that allowed his return could be anywhere. As long as he could calm his mind, he never had problems knowing instinctively where it would be. He had not yet detected any consistent relationship between the different doors within the portal and his exit point, but he had worked out that he could transport himself to a specific library, or even just a collection of books, if he concentrated on it hard enough.

It was probably just as well that he was not limited to the King's Library. The ability to see him was apparently inversely related to rationality: to most people he was invisible, but not to animals, small children, drunks, and lunatics. He was fairly sure that he was not doing George III's chances of recovery any good, given his alarmed reaction when he noticed him. What was more, George when mad was no less tedious than when he was lucid.

He wished he could control the when of his movement as easily as he could control the where, but his temporal imagination seemed to be far weaker than his spatial one. He normally ended up in the later eighteenth century, but concentrating hard on a particular event could sometimes force him to appear near it. He couldn't escape from the Georgians yet, though. Still, at least he hadn't got stuck with the Tudors.


The experiments at conquering time and space distracted him for a while from the fact that experiencing  the Georgian world soon lost its thrill. He always wore boots now, in case he had to go outside, but the smell of a world with insufficient soap and too many horses lingered on them, and on everything else he wore. He wondered if John ever noticed, and if that was why he sometimes kept his distance from Sherlock.  And with no-one he wanted to talk to able to perceive him, it was oddly underwhelming being in the past, unless you were a would-be poltergeist or kleptomaniac. If he wasn't interested in the current Prime Minister, why should he care whether somebody assassinated  Percival Spencer, or whatever his name was? He needed someone to come with him and share the experience.

Fortunately, he'd trained John sufficiently that when he said they were going on a dangerous night-time mission to the British Library, John simply asked if he needed to come armed. (He'd decided not; if he could drop a pound coin off London Bridge and almost knock a hole in a barge, they could possibly cause an earthquake in Lisbon with a gun). When they got to the  atrium that night, he wondered for a moment about just having John watch while he transferred himself, so he could find out exactly what happened when his own body started seeping through the tower.  But leaving John alone in such a bizarre situation was almost bound to end badly. He sometimes felt that leaving John alone anywhere that wasn't a securely guarded 221B was rather risky.

So instead he showed John how to lean against the tower; he suspected that telling him to imagine pouring himself into the library shelves wasn't going to be much use. Then Sherlock wrapped himself around him, bare hands braced to either side of John's, their cheeks almost touching as their foreheads leant side by side against the heavy doors. John's spine was stiffening – he was long since resigned to Sherlock messing with his mind, but he could still get twitchy when Sherlock started messing with his body. But they had to stay in contact, Sherlock was sure, for this to work. If he could get it to work.

It's so hard: the metal doesn't just evaporate beneath his fingers, he has to force it with hands, his mind, the dead weight of John's prosaicness dragging him back. But they break through at last, and Sherlock hustles John through the portal before he can stop and wonder what is going on. In less than a minute they emerge into a bookshop he knows near St Paul's. He doesn't think wandering through a palace will suit John, he'll worry he isn't smartly enough dressed.

John stands in the bookshop, blinking, as Sherlock rapidly surveys the evidence for their date. Grub Street Journal, prints of Walpole and Turnip Townsend, an article about the recent visit of some Cherokee Indian chiefs...Daylight outside, which is good, probably summer, but he can check in a moment. John is still just standing there, blinking.

 "Aren't you going to ask where we are?" Sherlock says at last.

"I'm not sure I want to know."

"You're in London, Paternoster Row."

"I see. It's just..." John comes to a halt, licking his lips nervously.

"Do you want to know when we are?"

"It's not 2010 then?"

"1730, probably summer. I'll try and get a sun sight when we get outside. Are you OK, John?"

"Have I gone mad? Am I on drugs?"

"No to both."

"Is Mycroft involved in any way?"


"Then I'm fine. Probably fine. You've discovered time travel, then?" John doesn't sound quite as impressed as Sherlock had hoped.

"Something like that, yes," he replies.

"But you know how you get us back to the present?"

"Yes, that's no problem."

"Right. Well, anytime you feel like you're ready for the twenty-first century, that's fine by me. What do we do now?"

"We go out and do some sightseeing, John. Welcome to eighteenth century London!"


Part 2


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 24th, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC)
THIS IS LOVELY! A kind of slightly Tenth Doctor whiff about Sherlock, and more than a taste of Connie Willis - LOVE IT!
Mar. 26th, 2011 01:57 pm (UTC)
I must admit that I hadn't heard of Connie Willis before, but her work sounds very intriguing. If I ever get more time for reading, I might investigate it. The fantasy author who most inspired this, of course, is Terry Pratchett, from whom I have shamelessly nicked several plot devices.
Mar. 25th, 2011 06:15 pm (UTC)
hurrah for delicious library!fic and the eighteenth century! loved the description of the King's Library Tower particularly, and the little flashes of what's going on between Sherlock and John.
Mar. 28th, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC)
Jan. 15th, 2012 03:50 am (UTC)
> to most people he was invisible, but not to animals, small children, drunks, and lunatics.

He's Sam Beckett!

Love how Sherlock decides to bring John. What a fun adventure.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )