"Ye verily, I say unto you… I see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it is good," he said as he flopped into the armchair.
Kevin snickered. "You know when AJ starts speaking in Biblical terms that Hell has frozen over."
AJ flipped him off casually. "Like I'm the only one who is looking forward to the tour being over next week. Like I am the only one who is going to burrow under my covers and not wake up for a month."
Brian laughed. "A month? We'll be lucky if we can get Kevin up in time for the next tour."
"Did someone say 'next tour'?" Howie rubbed the waters from his head as he too collapsed into a chair. "Can't we just end this one and never do it again? I'm beat."
Nick snorted. "Not as "beat" as I wish you were…" he thought. He turned to Brian, leaning back in his chair. "I used to wonder how that Rip Van Winkle guy could do it. Sleep for 40 years or whatever. After this tour… I'm gonna give the guy a run for his money."
"I still say my cuz'll beat you," Brian replied. "Once old Thunder-snores gets going it is damn near impossible to get him conscious again."
"And we want him conscious because…?"
"Because no one else can kick your ass as well as I can, McLean."
"Howie could," Nick said quietly.
AJ snorted. "Like hell, Junior."
"You notice his muscles recently, Aje?" Nick replied evenly.
The other three men glanced over at Howie, who preened somewhat under their gaze. Then they looked. Really looked.
"Damn!" AJ muttered.
Kevin was in shock. He knew how much Howie was working out - they'd all joked about it - but he'd never really looked. Never really seen the change in his group mate.
Sitting there, in only his boxers, Howie was still as short as ever, but where he had been wiry before now he was ripped. His arms were corded with muscle, legs bulging with power. His waist was shaped as before, but now his six-pack before was so well-defined it looked like someone had sketched as 'superhero' stomach there. As if someone had poured Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles into Howie's body. It looked good. But it also looked awful.
Well, maybe not awful as much as wrong. Abnormal. Strange. Not-Howie-like at all. And not in a good way.
"Ready to hang up your Body Beautiful title?" Howie asked with an arch of his right eyebrow.
"Jesus, Howie," Kevin breathed. "If you want it that bad you can have it. You didn't need to go this far."
Howie frowned. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I think what Kev is trying to say is… umm… Howie? You went a little overboard don't you think?" Brian stuttered. "I mean, fit is one thing. But you look like… Damn."
"Like you just need to be oiled up so you can compete in the Mr. Universe pageant."
Trust AJ to cut through it all and say exactly what they were thinking - though perhaps not as tactfully.
Howie stood quickly, glaring at him. "Fuck you."
"Howie…" Kevin started.
"No, fuck you, Kevin. Fuck you too, AJ. What the hell is your problem? I look good. I look great. I'm in the best shape of my life and I did it while still maintaining the same schedule you guys did. You're all just fucking jealous."
The others sat there a little stunned. Howie didn't usually use that kind of language. Finally, Nick lifted his hand. "I'm not."
"Yes, you are, tub of lard," Howie sneered.
Nick stood, staring straight at him. "No. I'm. Not," he said firmly, biting off each word. "I know I've been lax in the past, but I am not fat. I am my own size and weight and that is just fine. I'm also not some sort of muscle-bound…" The only word that came to mind was 'moron' but somehow, seeing Howie's flushed and angry face, hearing him panting almost bull-like, the last thing he wanted to do was wave a red flag in front of him. "Thing," he said lamely. "I'm fine with how I am and how I look."
"Yeah, right," Howie snorted. He turned to the others. "What the fuck is your problem? I look great, I am doing fine, I am still dancing and singing my ass off. It's just firmer now." He turned so they could get a quick look at it. "And the ladies are loving it."
Brian nodded. "I can attest to that. Good thing Miriam isn't around. That turnstile by your door'd piss her off." He glanced around. "Anyone want to switch rooms? It's getting hard to get any sleep."
"Shut up, Brian. And if you fucking say anything to Miri," he threatened, a finger pointing right under Brian's nose.
"Sit down, Howie," Kevin snapped authoritatively. And Howie was too used to just following his orders that he did so immediately. Then glared at Kevin when he realized what he'd done.
"Look, D. We are just worried is all," Kevin said calmly. "You never gave any indication you wanted to be Iron Man. So we are a little surprised. I mean we all knew you were working out a lot… we just hadn't noticed that you'd gotten so…"
"So what?" Howie scowled.
"So nothing," Kevin conceded. "Just a little surprising is all. Looks good on you."
Howie preened a little before getting up and heading to the other room to finish getting dressed.
"You shut up, Brian. What the hell was I supposed to do?" Kevin glared. "Tell him what he really looks like? He's obviously proud of it so let him stay that way. It's probably a reaction to all the tour stress. Give him some time off and he'll be back to his old self."
"He started this last tour," AJ replied, with a shake of him head. "If anything he's getting worse."
"And angrier," Nick said. "Come on, guys, you've all noticed it. We always end up pussyfootin' around each other if we spend too much time together, but Howie's been a real bitch to live with. For a while now. Before he'd just snap at you. Now he'd snap your neck."
"He does get pissy a lot," AJ nodded as he ruffled through his clothes. "Fuck! I need a cigarette. Why can't one of you smoke?"
"We're too smart," Brian grinned elfishly before leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. "So what do we do about it? Howie, I mean."
Nick shook his head. "You wanna tell him to shape up? I mean usually it's one of you telling me to do that, but fuck; it ain't going to be me. He'd rip my head off."
Three pairs of eyes turned toward Kevin. Who groaned. "Why do I have to be the oldest? So not fair."
"Suck it up, cuz. You know you live to lay down the law."
Kevin shot him an evil look. He sighed. "Can't we just wait until the tour is over? Tell him to stop later? Once we're all rested. Or he's stopped. Whichever comes first."
Brian, AJ and Nick glanced at each other quickly. The 'new and improved' Howie scared the crap out of them. He'd been grouchy and irritable for ages, but suddenly they'd realized that he was more than physically able to back up any threats he made. None of them wanted to approach him. It didn't surprise them that Kevin wanted to avoid it too.
"I suppose," AJ said slowly.
"I can let it go," Brian nodded. "But if he blows before the end of the tour it's yours to deal with."
"Yeah," Nick agreed. "Yours and whoever he blows up on." He sighed. "And knowing my luck, it'll be me."
Kevin was about to respond to that when Howie appeared in the doorway. "Yo, guys, gonna finish getting dressed or what? I want to get back to the hotel. I could use a drink."
AJ groaned, thinking about how good a shot of Jack Daniels felt as it poured down his throat. Yes, he knew he couldn't have it: one shot was too often followed by another and another… but if he had the strength, the will, there is few things he'd want as much as to feel that thick, sweet liquid roll over his tongue and down, warming its way down to his stomach.
"Cheer up, Aje," Brian said, knowing where the other's man's thoughts were headed. "They have smokes back at the hotel."
AJ perked up, grabbing his pants and pulled them up over his thin waist. "So they do. You're a good friend, Rok."
"Yep," Brian continued. "Cigarettes of all sizes and shapes. All with that warning label plastered all over them. Not that you bother reading them. Just hope you never get pregnant, dawg. And, hey, have you seen what your lung looks like after a pack or two of them? Black and yucky. To say nothing of your breath…"
AJ groaned and turned to Nick who has come over to pull his shirt off the hanger behind AJ's head. "Can you shut him up please?"
"Hey, when the man is right, he's right."
"Yeah, but does he have to be right when I am in the middle of a nic fit?"