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By the Book (2/3)

BBC Sherlock

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

Summary: Sherlock has discovered time-travel via the British Library. But when he takes John on a tour of eighteenth century London, not everything goes according to plan.

Betaed by Ginbitch

Part 1



It becomes apparent extremely quickly that John does not like chronological tourism. He moans about the smell, and the state of his shoes, though that's his fault for not wearing wellingtons, as Sherlock had advised. Then he moans about the food and the beer. He has the look of a man who'd like to moan about the drunken mothers suckling their babies on street corners, and the one-legged beggars, but can't think of any comments that aren't just long strings of swearwords.

"You've been in third world countries before," Sherlock points out. "Surely this isn't much different."

"Yeah, but that was over there. This is here, my home. Was my home, will be my home."

"That's not the spirit that made the British army great."

"Yeah, well it isn't great at the moment, is it? It's the scum of the earth, and I feel about the scummiest right now." John relapses into a silence that Sherlock considers distinctly mulish.


It's a Saturday afternoon, which is handy, so Sherlock decided it's best to treat this as a short weekend break. Give John an evening out, find a reasonable hotel, wander around the city a bit on Sunday morning, when it'll be quieter, and then head home. What would be best for the evening? He has a strong suspicion that John's ideas of entertainment don't extend to attending public hangings. (Besides, he's got all the data he needs from them already). John not really into classical music, and the last time Sherlock went to the theatre here, he ended up screaming himself hoarse telling an oblivious audience that King Lear was not supposed to end happily. Then he overhears someone mentioning that the Bartholomew Fair is on. He'll take John off to Smithfield for that, try and find some acrobats, that might cheer him up.

That works  out quite well – John enjoys the slack rope dancers and the rest of the show, especially given the lack of Chinese gangsters. He does mutter a bit that if he's going to be ignored or bumped into by hordes of smelly Londoners he could just go on the Tube. But even that has its compensations , once Sherlock points out that if John stands sufficiently close to him he's less likely to get jostled. All in all, it's an encouraging evening.

Sherlock has made a clever choice of hotel for afterwards, he thinks. Respectable, clean, likely to be almost filled up, so he can explain to John how sharing a hotel bed is standard practise in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, there are no spare beds at all – extra customers with the fair on, presumably -  and John freaks out about sharing a bed with someone who can't see him.

"It's straightforward," Sherlock says. "You get in the bed, you maybe nudge them a bit, use a candlestick if necessary, and they either budge over or decide the room's haunted and leave."

"No!" John yells. "I, I, no...just no."

So they spend the night roaming the streets of London, which seems to calm John down after a while. Perhaps in the darkness he finds it easier to forget when he is, to imagine he and Sherlock are adrift in the more insalubrious bits of modern London. By dawn, Sherlock thinks it safe to introduce the idea of coming back in time again. They can bring supplies, of course, choose somewhere to go that John might find interesting.

"Any time in the eighteenth century, and even a bit of the nineteenth," says Sherlock, as they watch a cart jam begin to form on London Bridge, "and it's not limited to London either. If I can find enough print to concentrate on, I can go anywhere. So what I was wondering about was the Battle of Waterloo. Don't you think that would be a fascinating spectacle? Or would you prefer Culloden?"

"Do you take me for a bloody war tourist?" John shouts, and stalks off in disgust.


That is when it really goes wrong. Because of chasing after an indignant John, he lets the two maps of London in his head, past and present, unmesh temporarily, so that he doesn't realise till it's too late that John's instinctive aim of getting out of London somehow means they're heading into the Old Nichol slums near Shoreditch. But of course, Sherlock's real error was made long before that. He hadn't worked out the probabilities correctly...

He knows that there are people in Georgian London who are desperate enough to steal the clothes off your back, that there are armed men, that there are mentally disturbed people. He should have thought about the intersection of all three groups, especially in the rougher areas of London. Above all, if there's a clothes thief with a jack-knife around, psychotic enough to be able to see them, Sherlock should have realised that he'd target the normal-sized man with the warm-looking jumper, obviously a stranger to the city, rather than the confident giant with the fancy coat on.


Which is why, early on that Sunday morning, there's now a man bleeding to death on the pavement. John hadn't planned him to kill him, of course – Sherlock's almost certain of that – but the attack was so sudden and frenzied that John and the man both went down in a flurry, and somehow the knife ended up in the man's side, not John's. John became eerily calm then, crouching over the body, pressing at the wound, ordering Sherlock to dial 999. It took Sherlock several minutes repeating it till John registered that 1730 has no ambulances, no paramedics. And then John just stood up slowly, and walked away from the dying man, his hand shaking, looking as if he would have liked to throw up if he could only find a bit of gutter clean enough.

So it's Sherlock watching over the dying man. Macheath, his name is, according to his sidekick, a wiry little rat of a man, who's obviously disturbed enough to see them, but not quite vicious enough to try anything. Sherlock isn't quite sure at first why the second man has emerged from the shadows, and started chatting to him, as Macheath's life oozes away. Then he realises that he's staying around so he can rifle Macheath's body when he's dead. Possibly steal his boots as well, given his covetous glances at them. Better get John out of the way before he sees that bit.

"I'll leave you in peace to say your farewells to your friend," he says. "I think it's time to go home, John. Come this way."

John's jumper is stained with Macheath's blood and he looks grey with shock, but he responds to Sherlock's voice, and it doesn't take Sherlock long to find his way back to the BL. He drags John into one of the toilets and starts trying to clean him up. It's only when he has John's jumper off – it's never going to be the same again, is it? – that Sherlock realises that not all the blood on it had been Macheath's. There's a nasty gash down the inside of John's right arm.

"You should have said," he protests. "If I'd known you were injured, I could have done something immediately."

"It wasn't bleeding that much," John replies. "I thought it'd probably stop on its own."

"You should have let me bandage it up right after the attack."

"I didn't want that. What I want," John says, with the exaggerated calm of someone who's only an inch away from shoving Sherlock's head down a toilet, "is for you to find a first aid box right now. Because that will have sterile dressings in it. Sterile is good in these situations, sterile is very, very good."

As he hurries off, Sherlock thinks: I should have known  going time travelling with a doctor wouldn't be straightforward.


He'd managed to get John severely pissed off  with both himself and time travel, Sherlock thought, which was not good. On the other hand, he was used to talking John round. So the first thing to do was to prove that Macheath was really not a nice man, and that Georgian London would be better off with him dead than alive.

Unfortunately, while his investigations showed Macheath was definitely not nice, they also revealed that he'd technically never been alive. Unless someone in the real Georgian world decided to name themselves after a character in The Beggar's Opera - which implied a level of obsession that was frankly worrying -  John had accidentally killed someone fictional. In a way that also had disturbing echoes of a twentieth-century song about Macheath.

So, Sherlock thought, hypothesise a world  that is somehow created by the books in the tower, the pressure of their words, fact and fiction compressed together to create some alternative reality. In that alternative reality, Sherlock was pretty certain that Macheath was actually dead, or at least gone to meet his maker, whether God, John Gay, or some omniscient Library Syndicate. He'd seen numerous corpses already in the other world, because dying was what eighteenth century people did.

Which did suggest all kinds of possibilities for rewriting the past. Of course he wouldn't try that if it was definitely the real past, because if you did you might rip a hole in the fabric of space/time and end up with the Nazis back in power. At least that was what happened judging by the books on time travel he'd hurriedly read. And, he told himself, if you can't trust at least some of the books you read, what are you doing in a damn library anyhow? But changing a few stories would be spectacular, but more or less harmless.

He concluded a few days later – it had turned out to be a three lecture problem – that tampering with Georgian literature wasn't likely to be much of a thrill. If he did manage to insert a plot into Tristram Shandy, or even explain to Robinson Crusoe some of the more interesting things he might do with Man Friday, who would actually notice other than a few obsessive scholars? And people had already stuck wet shirts and zombies into Jane Austen, he couldn't top that. Then it occurred to him. Why not cut off 200 years of prejudice against scientists at the root, by stopping Victor Frankenstein creating his monster?

For some reason, however, he couldn't make it work. He travelled to Ingolstadt, to Geneva, even to Thonon-les-Bains,  seeking  Frankenstein, and he couldn't find him. He lost count of how many volumes of Cornelius Agrippa he removed from obscure Alpine villages, so he could at least stop Frankenstein getting ideas. But every time he got back to 2010, Mary Shelley's mad scientist was still there on the page. Something  wouldn't let him remove that story.


Sherlock eventually decided he was wasting his time trying to change fiction. People weren't really interested in it. Certain people. Certain people who lived in 221B Baker Street. If he was going to convince John of the wonders of time-travel, he needed something more tangible. Perhaps he could go back and kill a tyrant or two, make the world a better place in that way.  The problem was, however, that the only target he could think of was Napoleon, and he couldn't help feeling that if anything was going to start ripping holes in the fabric of something or other, it would be finishing him off prematurely. And he was strangely uncomfortable with the concept of 'ripping' and 'books' getting too close to one another.

Besides, he couldn't be sure whether John might consider premeditated assassination of anyone a bit not good, even someone who was definitely not a nice man. Even worse, he suspected he  wouldn't get a helpful answer from John if he tried to check in advance. John knew that Sherlock was still going back to the eighteenth century, but he was trying very hard to ignore the fact. Indeed an extra alternative reality was being forcibly created in 221B by John's mind, in which Sherlock was not doing anything weirder than normal.

Perhaps, rather than killing, Sherlock thought, what he needed to do was save someone's life in the past, so they have time to write more words, more books for the libraryverse. Unfortunately, his two favoured candidates for saving, Lavoisier and Galois, were tricky. He suspected it was harder to rescue people from the guillotine than the Scarlet Pimpernel made it look, and Galois' death in a duel wasn't till 1832, later than he'd ever been able to travel. It also wouldn't be the same saving your hero's life if they didn't even notice it was you that had done it. And would saving the lives of even brilliant chemists and mathematicians be enough to impress John? Really impress him?

But saving something was definitely a good idea. George III's snuff box was still sitting on the mantelpiece of 221B; that hadn't evaporated or exploded. So if he could find an object, he could preserve it, rescue it. Then, when he was walking into the BL one evening, it occurred to him, and it suddenly seemed so obvious. He'd been to their exhibitions often enough to know about the Ashburnham House fire, when a sizeable part of Sir Robert Cotton's collection of medieval manuscripts went up in smoke. The surviving volumes had ended up in the British Library, but there were things lurking in their archives that were more carefully preserved chunks of ash than anything readable. He didn't care much about manuscripts, himself, but it would undoubtedly please the library if he rescued a few more. And preserving the nation's literary heritage surely counted as patriotic, didn't it? John would approve of that.


It took weeks of planning in both centuries, though possibly the same weeks, because time in the two worlds didn't run entirely in sync. (When Sherlock thought about it, the obvious explanation was that if you can lose track of time when you're reading a really good book, time in a book-created world is going to be relativistic, not fixed). He had to make repeated trial runs till he could get back reliably to the right date, and had observed the fire frequently enough to know when and where to move in. Then he had to read up on what exactly got burned and make his wish-list of volumes to save. It was at that point that he realised it was a two-man job, if he was going to get everything he wanted. So he needed to rope John in again, which was not going to be simple.

Somehow, however, he persuaded John to come along, with the promise of rescues from burning buildings to be effected. Sherlock perhaps underplayed the saving valuable manuscripts angle, as opposed to saving poor innocent bystanders, but John eventually agreed to help just this once, and accompanied Sherlock back to the BL. This time in clothes he really didn't care about, and with ample supplies of food and medical equipment.


It goes wrong yet again, of course. John's mental drag on them manages to throw Sherlock's temporal positioning out by a crucial fraction and they end up several days too early. He supposes they could break into Ashburnham House in advance, and remove the most important manuscripts before the fire, or even just put the fire out before it gets too big, but that would be much less exciting. He's promised John danger, and he's not going to get away now with simply offering the chance to reshelve some dusty volumes, or remove flammable materials. But the delay means that the coffee John is prepared to drink runs out too soon, which doesn't help his increasing grumpiness. John moans at length about the heartlessness of Georgian society and the inadequacies of London's infrastructure, and it doesn't seem to help telling him that it'll all work out fine in 100 years time.

The other problem is that Sherlock gets so fed up with John's moans about the eighteenth century that he starts tuning him out, and doesn't pay enough attention to John's other complaint, that he thinks someone is watching them. He doesn't register, till it's too late, the implications of his own thoughts that it's only kleptomaniacs and poltergeists who could really enjoy this version of the past. He's also forgotten that he isn't the only inquisitive mind wandering around modern-day London. And the biggest mistake of all, when it's finally the night of the fire, is that he doesn't stay with John, but has them split up for maximum effectiveness in saving manuscripts. He can't understand afterwards how he could have been so reckless...


He is emerging from the choking smoke of the library – he hadn't realised before quite how noxious burning vellum is – with a stack of bound volumes, when he spots two figures approaching, moving to block his path. He is still trying to work out who exactly they are, and how they can see him, when they draw close enough that their features are highlighted by the glare from the flames. Moriarty, brushing the ash off his smart suit. And John, trussed up beside him, with a look in which his normal dogged stoicism on such occasions is mixed with something that says he is really, really pissed-off with the eighteenth century. Once Sherlock gets close enough, he can see that what is strapped round John is a bandolier full of black powder cartridges. With a fuse attached to it. And Moriarty is holding a lighter in the hand that he isn't keeping behind his back.  Oh, shit, Sherlock thinks.

"Good evening," Moriarty says, smiling one of his more deranged smiles. "So nice to run into you at last. I've been looking forward to this. It's time to play my little game: 'Whose turn to burn?' So, to start with, have you borrowed any good books?"

"I've got the Nowell codex of Beowulf,  Cotton Genesis, Gildas, some Otho A volumes-"

"Glad to see you picked out the valuable stuff. I just knew you'd do your homework. So, on the one hand, we have some of the world's most important manuscripts. On the other, we have John. Which one do you let burn, which one do you save? Really, it seems to me quite easy, because no-one's going to remember Johnny-boy here in 50 years time, let alone 250. On the other hand, the way you're neglecting your little pet, it can't be long till the RSPCA decides to prosecute you."

"I'll give you all the manuscripts if you let John go."

"Oh, Sherlock, darling," Moriarty is giggling now. "You don't think this is about stealing things, do you? That would be boring! No, tonight is about burning the heart out of things, because I like fires. So, first of all, you're going to put all the books you're carrying on the ground, and you're going to open them up, because things burn better like that. And then, I've got a little bottle of something for you."

"I'm sorry, I'm not drinking this evening," Sherlock says, as he bends and slowly lowers the volumes onto the flagstones. The fuse of the slow match probably gives John five minutes once it's lit, and Sherlock's got gloves on, so he can put out the fuse with his hands. But if he's wrong about the burn rate, or Moriarty throws the lighter at John, or the flying fragments of burning manuscript which are already drifting around in the wind get too close, the cartridges may blow up immediately. He must do exactly what Moriarty says.

"Catch," said Moriarty, and throws a small plastic bottle at him. Sherlock catches it, opens it – making sure he doesn't spill any of the liquid it contains - and sniffs.

"Petrol? Not very authentic."

"Oh, but they'll be very eighteenth century flames," Moriarty replies. "Make sure you get it all over the manuscripts now, we don't want anything left over."

Sherlock pours over the liquid, throws the bottle behind him – no-one's going to notice it amid the debris – and waits. Trying to calculate flash points and speeds and angles, and knowing  that the answer is: 'I wouldn't start from here, if I were you'. Here's hoping Moriarty doesn't want the Westwood singed, and he'll  retreat once he's lit the blue touchpaper. He's reaching inside his coat now, and Sherlock wonders if he's going for a gun. But of course, it's another lighter, and for a moment Moriarty just stands there flicking the lighters in each hand, as if he's the world's campest gun-slinger. Then he yells: "Time to play," and as one lighter arcs towards the pile of manuscripts, the other one licks the end of the fuse attached to John...

Afterwards, Sherlock is proud that he doesn't even stop to check whether the manuscripts have caught light, the 'woompf' as they go up merely an irrelevant detail. His whole focus is on John, as he rushes up to him, and grabs the fuse, crushing the flame in his hand. Then he half-pushes, half-carries John, as they run, run into the dark, hoping that Moriarty will have stared at the burning books for just long enough to wreck his night vision. Round a corner, duck into a dim alley, he has his tiny torch out now, he's dragging John by the hand, and he can hear how near he is to collapse. So, back him against a wall that doesn't look too collapsible, and then the clasp knife's out, and he's cutting through the cords holding the cartridge belt onto John. Rip it off, and then hold John up as the adrenaline rush gives out, and his legs fold. For five minutes, perhaps, or maybe a lifetime, John is solid and alive and panting against Sherlock's chest, clinging onto him like he's a drowning man and Sherlock is a life raft. Then John looks up, and says, trying to smile:

"For a criminal genius, he's bloody repetitive, isn't he?"

Sherlock smiles back. "Always has been. Why five pips, rather than three? Are you OK to move? I can support you if you need it."

"Probably OK on my own, just don't go too fast. Can we go home?"

"Yes, but I need to make sure we've shaken Moriarty off, so it may need to be a bit of an indirect route."

"OK," John says, and then with a desperate effort, adds: "Ready when you are."


He got John back to 211B eventually, though John was grimly silent, and practically walking into walls from exhaustion by the end of the trek. Not that Sherlock was feeling exactly chatty, because it was hard to escape the notion that he had comprehensively screwed up everything. On the positive side, he had proved that John was literally beyond price for him, and apart from a few rope burns, he didn't think John was injured this time. On the negative side, he'd nearly got him killed again, and been outwitted by Moriarty, and managed to get the only manuscript of Beowulf burnt to a cinder. Not a good few days' work. Still, at least nothing more could go wrong...

It was only when he'd got John safely at the flat, that it dawned on him that he was wrong about that as well. His next night shift at the BL was supposed to start an hour ago, and given that he was already on his last written warning for performance, they were not going to be happy about that.


"Evening, Sherlock," his shift supervisor greeted him. "Still not got the hand of which is the big hand and which is the little hand on your fancy watch? Or has someone yet again fallen under the Tube train you were on? It's almost like the suicides are targeting you, isn't it?"

"You need to check the Cotton manuscripts," Sherlock announced. "I, I overheard there was a plan to try and steal the Beowulf codex, and several other manuscripts as well. I was investigating that, that's why I'm late. We need to make sure they're all OK, nothing's happened to them. I've got a list of the shelfmarks to check here." He started scribbling them down.

"You're kidding, aren't you?" the supervisor replied, but when Sherlock stared at him, something  must have registered. "OK, you're not. But, we haven't got access to half this stuff, it's all in the strong rooms. I'll need to get one of the curators to investigate."

"How soon can we get hold of someone?"

"Realistically, tomorrow morning. Have you got anything definite about what's being planned or when? Is it some kind of raid?"

"Break in," said Sherlock. "I don't know the details, but...," He paused, and then went on. "There's a friend of mine got quite close to the ringleader. I need to check if he's got any more information, if he's OK."

"You've got a fr-, OK, you go and check on him. Tell him not to do anything rash. If someone is planning something big, it could be dangerous. I'll get the rest of the team on high alert, do a sweep of the building."


"I need to speak to Mr Holmes," the voice on the phone said the next morning. BL manuscript curator, thirty-something, married, normally very pleasant, but she'd come in early at the supervisor's special request to check out the possibly stolen manuscripts, and she hadn't liked the result. But she was cross, not worried, which meant, which meant...


"I don't know what you think you're playing at, but the British Library's not here for your personal amusement."

"The manuscripts are all OK?"

"They are fine, nothing has been touched. I checked every shelf mark you gave me and there's nothing, no sign of any disturbance. But we found your tie."

"My tie?"

"Well I presume it was your little game to leave it there? As a clue, maybe, while you pretend to be some kind of detective hero?"

"Can you tell me what you're talking about, please?"

"There was a tie found in the atrium, tied to the railings round the Tower. Put there some time during the night."

"What did it look like?"

"Black with skulls on it. And it had blood stains on it. Not a very funny joke, Mr Holmes. I don't think the British Library is really the right place for you to be working. Good day."


"Beowulf is safe," Sherlock announced, bursting into the bathroom where John was lurking. "Good news for scholarship, bad news for declension-hating students."

John was staring at his tongue in the mirror. "Right, erm, what?"

"The manuscripts that were burnt yesterday? They weren't burnt after all. Not in this world. Nothing happened."

"What do you mean nothing happened? Those books you were trying to save, they went up in flames. I saw them. And I've still got the lump on my skull where Moriarty coshed me. Or are you telling me that I imagined all that? Because if I've started dreaming about the eighteenth century, I need psychiatric help right now."

"Causality," said Sherlock. "It doesn't fit. You can get hurt, maybe even killed, but the books are OK. Why?"

"Don't know, don't care, I'm going back to bed. Can you phone the surgery, please, and say I think I'm coming down with something, and I'm afraid I won't be in today."

"Oh, of course." It all made sense now. "People aren't immortal in that world, books are. That might seem entirely logical to some kind of...entities."

"Excuse me?"

"And that explains Moriarty's tie."

"Nothing explains that," John said firmly. "Who wants to go around with skulls on their tie?"

"He was wearing that yesterday, wasn't he?"

"He obviously keeps that and the suit for special occasions, like when planning to blow me up. You know, Sherlock, I didn't enjoy that in the twenty-first century either."

"Well, the good news, John, is that something nasty may have happened to Moriarty this time."

"Sounds good. What?"

"I don't know. But don't you think that a partially sentient library might get very pissed-off with someone who deliberately burns books?"

Part 3



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 28th, 2011 10:24 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of the library's revenge on Moriarty - can't wait to see what that will be... and Sherlock yelling at the happy ending of King Lear, and going around obscure Alpine villages removing copies of Cornelius Agrippa! I think I may have uttered an oath when John turned up in the bandolier (he really doesn't have any luck in this one, does he?).
Mar. 29th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
The whole fic started as a gratuitous excuse to strap John into the eighteenth-century version of a bomb jacket, and have Sherlock choose between him and valuable manuscripts, because I had a craving for John whumpage. I think Ginbitch rightly pointed out that the fic's a bit low on C18 flavour, but I suspect that's because I just can't get enthusiastic enough about the Georgians to make Sherlock really care. But given the current Frankenstein theme in my f-list, I thought that should get shoehorned in

The more C18 aspect of the fic is its episodic (or possibly even picaresque) nature. So I'm afraid there's no more Moriarty in the final episode, but there are other long-promised characters.
Mar. 29th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
oh good! I wondered if STC might appear...
Mar. 29th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
I love this, particularly Sherlock's spectacular failure to get John interested in cart jams, war tourism, fights with notorious fictional criminals, attempts to stop Frankenstein giving scientists a bad name, and attempts to touch him up/blow him up.

And Macheath was actually dead, or at least gone to meet his maker, whether God, John Gay, or some omniscient Library Syndicate.

Suspect John was bothered by hordes of smelly Londoners rather than hoards.

Looking forward to the appearance of my fell-walking friend!
Mar. 30th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
There are a few more bits of the eighteenth century to come that John is going to get upset about. As I said, he's just not a natural time-tourist.

I have corrected the hordes - I suspect my mind was already dwelling on Beowulf. As for STC, I'm afraid he's not going to be doing anything healthy and outdoors in this fic.
Mar. 30th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
"And that explains Moriarty's tie."

"Nothing explains that," John said firmly. "Who wants to go around with skulls on their tie?"

GENIUS. (And, uh, I totally would if I thought I could get away with it.)

I'm loving this. Can't wait for the last part.
Mar. 30th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC)
I only realised about Moriarty's tie in TGG after talking to Foxturk at the January London meetup. I think you can buy ties like that - they're designed by Alexander McQueen.
Mar. 30th, 2011 10:53 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow, no way I'm going to be able to afford that then.

I got Moriarty's tie pretty quickly, but it took someone posting about it to make me notice Mycroft's umbrella one. I kinda love that they have a wee tie motif going on - makes me want them to put everyone in suits just to see what ties they'd be wearing. (In my head, Molly's has kittens. Poor Molly, that's just not a good tie.)
Jan. 15th, 2012 04:07 am (UTC)
> John had accidentally killed someone fictional


And a partially sentient, murderous library. Really great fun.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )