"No, no, no. Bloody hell, Anderson. At least try to act like you're loading equipment worth thousands of pounds, eh?" John pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose and took a breath. In theory, he knew how this was supposed to work. Granted, his notion of touring and group travel generally involved more helicopters and heavy artillery than vans and planes and costumes, but the principle was the same: get everyone from point A to point B, and keep them fed and relatively rested, ready to do their jobs. The main difference was that the soldiers under his command in the SAS were trained and expected to follow orders and keep things moving in a straight line. This was... not that. The phrase 'herding cats' kept coming to mind.
It was 7am and the flight out of—where were they, Boston?—was at ten. He stepped up to grab the other end of the synthesiser case and slide it into back of the van. He could see Sally wrestling with boxes of t-shirts, CDs, posters, and other bits and bobs of merchandise. Greg would be with her. He was a good man. And so far he seemed to be the only other one in the lot with any common sense.
There was an unmistakable bite of autumn in the air, enough so that John wished he had something more substantial than a t-shirt under his jacket. For some reason he'd thought the States were warmer than London, but clearly he was wrong, at least today. The sight of Molly returning laden with paper coffee cups and bags of what he hoped was something edible was welcome.
He took coffee and a muffin from Molly and ran over the day's schedule in his head. New York was the next stop. After that... well, shit. He had it written it down somewhere.
Greg walked over to him, drinking the same awful coffee John was holding. "Do you want to wake His Highness, or should I? When I left the room he was still dead to the world."
John looked at his watch and sighed. "I should. I need to clear up a few details about tonight's show. You all right finishing up here?"
"I'll make sure nobody breaks anything," Greg said.
"Give me your room key, just in case I have to go in and get him," John said.
John snagged another cup from Molly and a few of the pastries. He headed back into the hotel. It was rather terrible, really: all gleaming wood and modern and utterly impersonal. He passed through the lobby and up the stairs until he reached Sherlock's door.
"Sherlock? We're about loaded up. Are you awake?" A mutter from behind the door. "Up and at 'em, sunshine. If you want a shower, you'd better do it now."
"Go away." Sherlock's voice was rough and clouded with sleep.
"Come on. I've got coffee," John said, sing-songing the last word.
"Fuck you." A pause. "Captain."
"Ah-ah. That's no way to talk to someone who's bringing you caffeine and sugar. Don't make me come in there after you."
"I haven't a stitch on." There was a shift in the tone of Sherlock's voice. He sounded more awake, and amused.
"You—oh for fuck's sake." John opened the door, expecting the worst. What he got was a glimpse of wild black hair barely visible under a white sheet, one arm wrapped around a pillow. He took the extra coffee over and set it down on the nightstand. Before John could draw his hand back, Sherlock's fingers closed around it and he pressed a kiss into the centre of John's palm. John wouldn't swear to it—although swearing certainly seemed called for at the moment—but he thought he felt a faint brush of tongue before Sherlock let his hand go. The hair on the back of his neck prickled and his cheeks felt hot. Keeping his voice steady, he said, "Right. So you're a fan of bad coffee. Something to keep in mind."
Sherlock's chuckle was low and blurred and half-muffled by the pillow. John swallowed, then said, "Get dressed. I'll wait outside. We need to talk about the set up for tonight." He slipped out and closed the door behind him, realising too late that he'd left his coffee on the dresser.
Greg was shoving the last of the equipment into the van. He looked at John and raised an eyebrow. "You all right, mate? You look... flushed." Damn it.
Straightening up and stretching his back, Greg said, "Winding you up, is he?"
John sucked in air through is teeth. "That obvious?"
"Only for somebody that knows him. Which is, you know, all of us." He grinned. "It'll pass."
"Messing about with the new guy, yeah?" John couldn't explain the slight dip in his belly at Greg's certainty that this was temporary.
Greg caught him around the neck in a near-headlock. "You're just lucky I decided I liked you, mate. I would've made your life hell." John shoved him away and laughed.
Sherlock took up an entire row in the van, curled up and watching the scenery pass by. The flight from Boston had at least been short. John and Greg in front of him talking about something dull: logistics, making plans. The others filled out the back rows, laughing and talking.
By all rights, this forced inactivity, this confinement to a small space with other people, should have been driving him mad with boredom. It certainly had in the past. Sherlock stopped to consider, steepling his long fingers against his lips. Obvious. The last time he'd spent this much time travelling, he'd been high half the time, coming down the other half. Now he was just drowsy—he was sleeping much more now than before, which he found profoundly irritating.
He turned his attention to the two men sitting in front of him. They were facing each other deep in conversation, ignoring him. Greg was a known quantity, familiar right down to his toes. He was background information now, always there. Sherlock studied John's profile. Greg had said something about the circumstances of John's service discharge, but Sherlock hadn't been paying attention. An injury, most likely. He decided to figure it out for himself as a way to pass the time. There was restlessness in the set of John's shoulders. Ah, the inactivity was bothering someone then.
"When we get to DC on Tuesday, just know that Marshall is going to try and skim as much as he can off the take. The bastard always does," Greg said. "And for the love of Christ, don't let him give you a check. Cash only."
"Bad?" asked John. His short, blunt fingers pried at the upholstery on the back of the seat. There was a slight tremor there in his left hand; Sherlock wondered if John even realised it.
"Rubber wishes it could bounce that high," Greg said. "We'd get paid eventually, but best just to avoid the annoyance."
"Right. Anything else I should know about?"
"Yeah." Greg raised his voice just enough to make it clear that he wasn't speaking to just John. "Watch out for that bastard behind us. When he's got that look on his face, it means he's about to cause trouble."
Sherlock pulled his attention away from John to Greg. "What look? This is my face."
"Exactly," Greg said, and John laughed.
"Honestly. I was just trying to learn something about Captain Watson."
"John, please," John said, turning to look at Sherlock. "What would you like to know?"
"There's nothing you can tell me that I don't already know," Sherlock said. "Nothing important, anyway."
"Oh Christ," said Greg, rubbing his face. "Sherlock—"
John glanced at Greg, then turned his eyes back to Sherlock. John's eyes were flint-grey and looked infinitely patient, belying the restlessness in his muscle tone. There was the faintest hint of a smile, or maybe a suggestion of bared teeth. A challenge, then. "All right. What do you know?"
Sherlock heard the chatter from the back of the van quiet, as the others heard what was happening. A larger audience then. He smiled, turning to face his opponent, pulling his feet off the bench and crossing long legs. "Captain John H. Watson. I'd give that your age at... twenty-eight? Given your age and rank, you likely went in to the Army as an enlisted man as soon as you were old enough. No university for you. But you're not entirely stupid, so I'd guess money was a factor."
John looked surprised and looked over at Greg, who raised his hands. "I didn't tell him anything," Greg said. "He just... does this."
Sherlock continued, as though John had just confirmed his conclusion. "Needed to find a way to support yourself, then. You did well enough for yourself in the Army. But something happened, just a few months ago. How badly wounded was your left shoulder, Captain? I would say rather badly, if you were discharged for it. Your left hand shakes when you aren't paying attention to it. Not keeping up with your physio, tch." Sherlock sped up as he got closer to the end. "You don't identify as homosexual or bisexual, but you definitely find men attractive, and have most likely moved beyond any schoolboy stage of experimentation. Likely a partner or two in the Army." He smiled as he reached the coup de grace. "And you're so attracted to me you can't think straight."
Sherlock heard the slight intake of breath from someone behind him, likely Molly. John's face remained perfectly neutral, giving nothing away. "And what," said John, "aside from your colossal ego, gives you that impression?"
"This morning, when you woke me. I caressed your hand and you got so flustered you practically bolted from the room. You left behind your coffee."
Sherlock watched as a faint shade of pink crept across John's ears and down across his neck.
"It was terrible coffee," John said, eyes flickering downward once in what Sherlock read as an admission of defeat. He sat back against the seat, still smiling. Game, set, match to Sherlock Holmes.
An hour after arriving at the Beacon, John realised he should have taken a nap on the plane. From the moment his feet hit the pavement in New York, he was running. Carrying equipment, helping set up equipment, making sure the theatre had what they needed... he had more than one occasion to be grateful for the rather startlingly meticulous lists that Greg had given him the first day.
The first major problem was with merchandising set up. Sally tracked him down as he was arguing with the theatre manager. He saw her standing off to the side and gestured impatiently at the manager. "Look, Matt. I'll be right back. Check the rider, please. You can't just stick a few bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels in the green room and think you're good." He turned to Sally and closed the distance between them.
"John, there's not enough space. Nowhere near." Sally had her arms folded in front of her and gave Matt a glare as he walked past. She turned her hostile glance back to John.
"Show me," John said. He followed her out to the lobby, a soaring two-story Neo-Grecian nightmare. Pillars and marble and huge murals and a vast expanse of floor, how on earth was there not enough room? Then he saw what Sally meant. The merch boxes had been tucked away nearly behind one of the sets of stairs ascending to the mezzanine level. One lone folding table stood near it.
"You didn't even discuss this with them, did you?" Sally asked.
"No. I'm sorry. I'll get it sorted." He ran a hand over his scalp.
"I'm running out of time here, John."
"I know. Just—wait. A minute, okay?" He took off at a jog towards the offices. Right. He needed to get the merch and the food situations sorted, make sure everything was ready for the soundcheck—including Sherlock, who was far as John knew was taking a lovely pre-show nap in the green room, lucky sod. He checked his watch. 4pm, god.
He knocked on the office door, then stepped in to confront Matt once again. "Okay, we're going to need at least one more table for merch. And if it wouldn't be too much trouble, can we actually set them up where people will see them?" He mentally spat on his hands and waded back into battle.
The man standing behind the ridiculously complicated set up of synthesisers, guitar, drum machines, and computers was relaxed, even joking with the house engineer on monitors and Greg out in the sound booth as they worked to get the levels right. This was the third time he'd seen it, but each time John was surprised again at the difference between off-stage Sherlock and onstage Sherlock. Damned if he wasn't capable of being charming when he felt like it.
Of course, that would change once the audience was present, the joking would stop and he would cultivate that air of ethereal—if slightly dangerous and debauched—aristocracy that was his stage persona. Still: the relaxation would remain. It occurred to John that Sherlock off-stage was the one putting on an act.
John heard laughter from the stage and looked out to see Sherlock picking up the guitar—not something he used often, but there were one or two numbers.
"She's going to kill you." Greg's voice came over the PA.
Sherlock grinned, rare and mischievous. He fiddled with the tuning, then started playing a blues riff John would know anywhere, but never would have expected to hear from Sherlock. He vamped it a few bars, then came in with the lyrics, "Mustang Sally, guess you better slow that Mustang down..." John folded his arms and leaned against the side of the proscenium arch with a smile. For a posh kid from Sussex, he wasn't bad. He'd never give Wilson Pickett a run for his money, but John was impressed. It only got better when one of the doors to the lobby opened and John realised who the 'she' in question was.
Sally didn't bother entering the theatre all the way, just stuck her upper body through the door long enough to give the stage a two-fingered salute. Sherlock's response was to dirty up the song even more, complete with a few unmistakable groans that had John somewhere between laughing and aroused. He made a mental note to ask Greg later what the joke was.
John's only break came when the concert actually started. Soundcheck had run long—so far they all had—and the openers were pissed, but that, fortunately, was not one of John's problems. Once Sherlock was onstage, the bulk of John's work was done, unless something blew up. He stopped in the green room and bolted down a sandwich, then grabbed a second one and headed for the sound booth. He chewed the entire way there, not caring about manners—he'd last eaten roughly twelve hours prior, at a guess. By the time he got to the booth, his hands were empty. He let himself in and collapsed onto a stool.
Greg gave him a nod then looked back to the board. The view of the stage from the booth wasn't bad at all. It was a little ridiculous, but not bad. The stage had the requisite swirls of fog, Sherlock in the middle surrounded by electronics. John wondered if Sherlock had any idea how much of his career he owed to Molly Hooper. Molly's lighting was something of a wonder. She had a knack for casting Sherlock's angular features in just the right balance of light and shadow, making him look either angelic or demonic as the music required.
John still wasn't sure he enjoyed that music; at first it had sounded like nothing but thumping bass with occasional orchestra samples and growled lyrics. He had to admit, though: it was impressive, all that sound coming from the mind and hands of one man. And the audience was eating it up.
Things quieted, as Sherlock took up the guitar for one of the more low-key songs. John slid the stool back against the back wall of the booth and listened. The voice that washed over him was low and sweetly roughened. It was... soothing. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, then fell into a light doze.
The green room was crowded and noisy with the better part of the guest list looking to join in the after-show party, ramping up for a meandering trip from green room to assorted hotel rooms. John was just happy to have got through the show. New York had, so far, been a colossal pain in his arse. Matt had settled up, and the money was tucked away safely in John's jacket. He leaned against the wall nearest the lighted mirror and shifted to ease the bite of the jacket against his aching shoulder.
The party was just getting underway. John could smell the tang of cannabis, but there was no haze over the room yet, and it seemed like everyone was holding a drink. He planned to nurse his single beer for as long as he could, feeling a little bit like a babysitter. Across the room he saw Greg chatting up two girls dressed in various permutations of "skimpy" and "black". He'd had a few curious eyes cast his way as well, but the only thing he really wanted to do in a bed right now was sleep.
Molly and Sally were tossing popcorn at Anderson, who was trying his best to impress the house engineer, who'd been working monitors throughout the show. She looked like she could break Anderson with one arm, and also looked unimpressed. Every so often, Molly would look over towards Sherlock. Molly's crush on Sherlock was one of those things everybody knew about, but nobody talked about. John had discovered there were a lot of open secrets. He supposed when you spent six weeks with the same five people, the only concessions to privacy were that you didn't talk about what you knew. It hadn't been so different in the barracks.
Sherlock, still sweat-drenched from three hours on stage, was sulking on the couch, clutching a towel around his shoulders. A rep from some small indie label was sitting next to him trying to start a conversation. John almost felt sorry for him. Sherlock was barely even feigning interest in the man. It looked like the only beverage he had in front of him was mineral water, although he'd been practically chain-smoking cigarettes since coming backstage.
As soon as Sherlock stepped off the stage, John had seen his shoulders tighten as if anticipating the fall of a blow. He hadn't bothered to change out of his stage clothes, although leather pants that tight had to be uncomfortable. Sherlock had sweated away most of the stage makeup, but there was still eyeliner smudged around his eyes.
Sherlock stood up, cutting off the label rep mid-sentence. He stepped up and over the battered coffee table and said, "Get out." His voice cut across the party noise, which dulled in response. The partiers, some dozen in all, looked at him for a moment. "I said get out." They started to shuffle out with a few mutters. To judge by Sally's expression, this had happened before. John shrugged up from the wall to follow them. "Not you, Captain," said Sherlock. "Someone has to keep an eye on me, right?"
"Right," said John, and settled back against the wall with a swig of his beer. He spotted Greg, who was on his way out. He gave John a sympathetic shrug. Christ, what now?
He was still stinging from Sherlock's analysis in the van. He hadn't been wrong. About any of it. It chafed at John, to have been so easily read. John braced himself for more of the same now.
Once the room was empty, Sherlock used the towel to start drying off his hair, tousling it into wild waves. "So. My brother hired you to—what, make sure I stay on the straight and narrow?"
"Actually," John said, moving to the now-empty couch, "your management hired me to keep the money coming in and make sure you get to the shows on time. I have no idea who your brother is. As far as straight and narrow—that's not my problem. As long as you're not fucking off during shows, I don't care what you do."
"Good," said Sherlock, meeting John's eyes in the mirror. "Because I don't do 'straight'." He said the word with a grimace and a crisp bite to the last 't'.
"I'd rather got that impression, yes," John said, voice as mild as an April morning.
"What about you?"
John rested his elbows on his knees, leaning forward and cupping the beer bottle between both hands. "Me? I thought you already had me all figured out."
"But was I right?"
"I don't see where that's any of your business." John gave him a smile, all teeth.
Sherlock turned around from the mirror and walked closer in lazy, sprawling steps. He plucked the beer bottle out of John's hands with long elegant fingers and drank from it, the swallow shivering the white line of his throat. He sat it back in John's hands. "Could make it my business," he said.
And there was the challenge John was expecting. "You really couldn't," he said, leaning back against the couch as if he hadn't a care in the world.
"That sure, are you?" John wasn't surprised when Sherlock straddled his knees as he spoke. "Because you seemed interested this morning."
"Do you do this to everyone, or am I a special case?" John had a suspicion that "breathing" equated to "seemed interested" in Sherlock's mind. He held on to his composure and simply looked up at Sherlock. He was doing well until Sherlock settled into his lap with a discreet little roll of his hips that left no room for doubt where Sherlock thought this was headed. Which was why John reacted the way he did. "Sherlock, get off."
Sherlock leaned in, and the scent of sweat and leather and cigarette smoke mingled with the smell of spilt beer, trickling onto the couch from John's forgotten bottle. The combination shouldn't have been arousing, but it was. Then there was that low chuckle close to John's ear. "I was trying."
John replied through gritted teeth. "Get off my lap."
Sherlock drew back and gave him a second's-worth of a pout, followed by a slow, molasses-dark smile. "Make me."
It was a simple thing really, to catch one slender wrist in his left hand and to press it up and behind Sherlock's back, just so. Just enough for leverage. Sherlock had to stand or be hurt. John followed Sherlock to his feet, keeping the wrist pinned behind him, which also pinned their bodies together. Sherlock squirmed. John's eyes were about level with Sherlock's chin, but height had long since ceased to be a disadvantage for him. "I don't know what game you think you're playing," John said. "I am not here to play. This is my fucking job, and I intend to do it."
Sherlock's eyes were wide and dark, and his breath was a little unsteady as he nodded. John had tripped a trigger of some sort. A small part of his brain filed that away for later consideration. He let go of Sherlock's wrist, and he—impossible brat that he was—immediately grabbed John around the waist and caught him off-guard in a fierce, open-mouthed kiss.
John gave himself a second to enjoy it, then reached up and pressed his hands around the tops of Sherlock's shoulders and pushed, firm and deliberate, separating the two of them. "Not," he said, "happening." His hands slid down and paused on the thin, damp t-shirt covering Sherlock's narrow chest and he applied a bit more pressure, creating even more distance.
There was a tap at the door and Greg poked his head in. "I hate to interrupt." John drew his hands back, and took a backwards step. "But they're throwing us out in fifteen."
That made it nearly 2am. Christ, John was tired. "Ta, Greg," John said, and he tossed a fresh towel at Sherlock, heading for the door. "Back to the hotel in ten minutes, yeah?"
He ignored the rude gesture that followed him out into the hallway.
Greg was standing at the back exit, cigarette in one hand and a grin on his face. "You did well. The last full-time tour manager we had was naked and screaming within ten minutes."
John blinked as the realisation set in. "You're kidding. Jesus."
Greg blew out smoke with a laugh. "Which wouldn't have been so bad—these things happen, yeah? But then she tried to pretend it hadn't, and Sherlock took every available opportunity to gloat.... yeah, she didn't stick with the tour for long after that. So I got to pull double duty for a while."
"Wait. She? But he's—"
"Don't let him fool you." He ground out the cigarette. "He's an equal opportunity bastard."
"Is that what the thing with Sally was about?" John leaned against the wall and bent his right knee experimentally, wincing at the stretch.
"During soundcheck? God, no," Greg said. "That story's so old it's practically myth by now."
John waited. When Greg didn't continue, "Yes, and? Come on."
Greg looked around to see who was listening. "When she first joined up, Anderson tried everything in the bloody world to get her into bed."
"Jesus. Do you lot do anything but screw around?" John laughed, but it wasn't an unfamiliar vibe—too much waiting, too much boredom, far from home.
"Yes, we get pissed pretty regularly too." Greg grinned, then continued. "One night he decides, hey, she must like musicians right? Women love musicians. So he tries to fucking serenade her with..."
"...'Mustang Sally'," John finished.
"He didn't realise we could all hear him. So when he gets to the chorus—you know the 'ride, Sally, ride' bit—he thinks he's going to be sexy about it, right?"
John groaned, half in embarrassment for the tech. "That's what Sherlock was doing on-stage."
"One of these days, Sally's going to go up there and murder him," Greg said gleefully. "Anderson just pretends it never happened."
"So... what happened back there..." John gestures back into the theatre.
"Don't worry. He's pissed off, so I think you passed the test."
"The—what the fuck did Harry get me into here?"
Greg clapped him on the shoulder and laughed as he headed towards the hotel.
Sherlock waited until everyone else had left the Beacon before walking back alone. He didn't have a fucking curfew, regardless of what John Watson thought. He took his time, letting the chill in the air dry the last of the stage sweat. By the time he got back to the hotel, he was freezing, but felt more clear-headed. It was the longest he'd spent by himself (while awake, at least) since leaving the UK. The 'Do Not Disturb' sign wasn't out on his room door, so he assumed that Greg was alone. He swiped it open to see Greg already sprawled on one of the beds, half-asleep in front of the blue light of the television. He blinked when Sherlock turned the bedside light on.
"You're being a first-rate arse," Greg said. "Just so we're clear."
Sherlock was already skimming out of his clothes. "I'm going to shower. Is this something you can lecture me about through the door, or can it wait until I'm finished?"
"He's a good guy, Sherlock," Greg's voice followed him around the corner into the bathroom.
Sherlock leaned around the door, "When have I ever had any patience for good guys?" He shut the door and turned on the water as hot as he could stand it. John Watson was a good guy, he thought as he stepped into the scalding spray. That was the problem. It was infuriating. He'd spotted it in Mike's office: iron control coiled into a compact, delightfully muscular package. A good man, stalwart and true: obvious. And it should have been boring. He scrubbed at his hair before rinsing. Sherlock should have found John Watson utterly and unavoidably dull.
"Make me." And John had. Sherlock's skin broke into goose-pimples despite the hot water. He wanted to see what happened to that control when pushed. So far the results had been promising. He had an overwhelming urge to see who John was in extremis. What had he been like in combat? What did he sound like when he came? The thought raised a tremor in his belly, heat snaking through his thigh muscles. Sherlock took a deep breath and rinsed the last of the soap away, and turned off the water.
Greg was sound asleep when Sherlock left the warmth of the bathroom, hair dripping chill down his back. He used the towel from around his waist to dry the worst of it, then threw himself under the covers of the empty bed before turning out the light.
As he lay there, he realised that the most infuriating and intriguing thing of all about John Watson was that he had said 'no'.