"What is it?" Brian asked, reaching for the bottle.
"Drugs," AJ replied firmly.
"You sick, D?" Nick asked.
"Not those kind of drugs," AJ snapped, his anger barely under control. He turned to Nick. "Get Kevin. Now."
Nick scurried to follow the order, unnerved by AJ's commanding tone.
"Ah, AJ. Maybe you should just give that to me," Howie said softly, holding out his hand.
"No. Fucking. Way."
"AJ…" Brian started, but was interrupted when Kevin strode into the room, Nick hard on his heels. AJ dropped the bottle into Kevin's hand and stood, arms crossed, glaring at Howie as Kevin took a peek at the bottle's contents.
"Well," Kevin said slowly. "That certainly explains a lot."
"It does, doesn't it?" AJ replied with a bite to his voice.
"Guys…" Brian started, but was once again interrupted by his cousin.
"So, Howie. How long have you been taking steroids?"
Nick gave a little chirp of dismay and sat down on the nearest chair.
"Give it to me, Kevin," Howie ignored the question and held his hand out for the bottle.
"Not until I get some answers."
"You are not seriously going to give that shit back to him?" AJ exploded.
"How long?" Kevin repeated, his deep voice rumbling.
'I can take him,' Howie thought, looking at the taller man. Then the futility of the situation hit him. He could take Kevin, maybe, but he sure as hell couldn't take them all. And they weren't going to sit by while he beat the crap out of Kevin. Not now. He sighed. "A few months."
"Months!" Brian gasped, falling onto the room's bench. "I can't believe this."
"What I can't believe is that it's only been a few months," AJ sneered. "You've been acting like an asshole for lot longer than that. You started this pathetic work-out-all-the-time bullshit almost 6 months ago. You expect me to believe you weren't doing this shit then?"
"You're one to talk," Howie snapped.
"Yeah, I am," AJ retorted, moving directly in front of his group mate, yelling in his face. "I'd have thought you'd have known better than to get into that shit after what happened with me."
"AJ," Kevin said warningly, pulling him away from Howie.
"What the fuck were you thinking, D? That shit'll kill you," AJ growled.
"Fuck off, Age. You don't know anything."
Kevin grabbed AJ just as he was about to throw himself at the smaller man. He cursed as he held onto AJ's flailing body, sighing as Nick came to his assistance, pulling AJ back against the wall. Kevin nodded his thanks to the younger man and turned back to Howie.
"Has it been that long, Howie? Have you been taking this stuff for that long?"
"What if I have? None of your business."
Kevin curled his hand into a fist, then, realizing what he'd done he put his arms behind his back. "Actually, it is my business. It's all of our business."
"I don't see how it is," Howie retorted. "It hasn't affected me doing my job. I still gave 120% every night on that stage. I just look better doing it now, is all."
"That's not it, D, and you know it." Brian stepped forward. "You've been hell to live with for the last little while. We've all noticed it. Even mentioned it to you a few times. That stuff… sure it'll make sure your body is cut, but it has other side-effects. Mood swings is sure as hell one of them."
"Those weren't mood swings - that was just me burning off steam after a show. Give me a break, Bri. You do the same thing."
"We all get a little strained," Nick said quietly. "You've been a lot more strained lately, though."
Howie snorted. "No more than the rest of you. I've got it under control."
"Under control?" AJ parroted angrily.
"More than you ever were," Howie snapped. "At least I can control my situation. I'm not some stoned-up drunk like you are."
All four men stood in shock for a moment. Then Brian and Nick stepped forward to restrain AJ as he tried to get to Howie.
"You see, Howie," Kevin said softly. "The old you would never say something like that."
"Yeah, well, the old me just let you all push me around all the fucking time. The new me isn't going to stand for it."
"And doing drugs is going to help you do that?" Brian asked.
"No, it doesn't." The others looked at Nick. "Look, D, you all know I've had my little bouts with pot and stuff, but I clued in. Especially with what happened to AJ. It just isn't worth it. We could have lost him. I don't want to lose you."
And that, he thought to himself, was the crux of the problem he'd been faced with for months now. All the stuff he'd learnt… all he wanted was his Howie back. The Howie who didn't sleep around with his group mates' girlfriends. The Howie who didn't beat up on his own girlfriend. The Howie who wasn't so damn prickly that he flew off the handle when anyone contradicted him. The Howie who didn't do drugs, and especially not steroids.
That was really what this whole thing with Kat and Leighanne was all about . What he'd been trying to do with this whole game he'd been playing: trying to get that Howie back.
And now it looked like it was never going to happen.
Howie sighed. "Look, Nick, I'm not hurting anyone with this. I'm just… I'm taking care of ME for once, not everyone else."
Brian shook his head. "But that is the problem, Howie. You aren't taking care of yourself. You're taking steroids. Do you have any idea what they can do to you?"
"Yes, Brother Brian, I am," Howie snapped.
"So mood swings, aggressive behaviour, threat of heart attack and stroke, and possible liver failure is taking care of yourself?"
"You're one to talk, AJ."
"Yeah, I am! Who better?"
"I think we've already established that you don't seem to think much of AJ and his problems, Howie. What I don't understand is why you think you are better than he is when the two of you were both doing the same thing," Kevin said.
"Because he did it just because he couldn't handle shit. I'm doing it and doing it fine. It hasn't affected me in any other way than the one I wanted," Howie replied bitingly.
"Umm, Howie? I think you're kind of wrong there," Nick said, his voice cracking with emotion. "The Howie I knew wouldn't shout at us like that. Especially if we were trying to help."
"Nick…" Howie started. He thought for a moment and then sighed. "Okay, so I have been a little impatient recently. But I have been extra stressed too. It could be just that," he finished. There was a note of hope in his voice, but even he didn't sound like he really believed it.
AJ rubbed a hand through his thin hair, then noticed something and stepped forward, raising his wrist. "The Howie I knew wouldn't do this either." Around his wrist small bruises were starting to show from when Howie had grabbed him earlier.
Howie winced, slipping onto the bench. "I did that?" His voice was soft, sounding lost.
Kevin knelt down in front of him. "See, Howie? It is affecting you. Affecting us all. I can understand you wanting to look buff, but this… this has got to stop." He glanced at the others. "There has to be a better way for you to get what you want without putting your health in jeopardy."
"I just… I wanted something for me." He emphasized the last word.
"I get that, Howie," Brian said. "I really do. But not this way."
Howie nodded slowly.
"So what do we do now?" Nick asked softly.
"We do nothing," Kevin replied. "Howie's going to dump this shit down the toilet."
"And then he can come to AA with me," AJ put in. "It'll be a party!" He tried to be enthusiastic. Howie smiled regretfully. "Yeah. I guess. Thanks AJ. I'm sorry for what I said."
AJ gave him a hug. "It was the stuff talking, not you. I know that. Better than anyone."
"So," Howie looked at all four men in turn. "You going to send me to rehab too?" His fear of that was clear in his voice.
"Dude, I thought it was great," AJ replied. "But if you aren't up for it maybe we can get you a counselor or something. I mean, I needed something more drastic, but maybe you don't. We might as well start slow and see how that goes."
Brian looked a little skeptical, but Kevin nodded. "I'd rather have Howie here where I can still see him and help him than away in some hospital," Nick stated. "I wanted that with AJ too, but you didn't listen to me."
"Nick, they were right though," AJ answered. "I needed that."
"Guys, can we focus on Howie here?" Kevin turned to the man in question. "What do you think, D? Think we can work this out without going all the way? Or do you even want to kick it?"
"If it's affecting me, yeah. I just… I didn't think it was. But I guess I have been kind of surly recently. So maybe, yeah. As long as I can keep this body."
Brian turned away so that Howie wouldn't see him roll his eyes. Nick saw it, however.
"That isn't important, though."
Howie let his gaze fall on Nick's midriff, and then looked up again, a look of mild scorn on his face. "Maybe not to you."
"You're right, Howie. It isn't important to me. I think you look fantastic. But I thought you did before too. You always took such good care of yourself. I admired that. I know I'm a slob but, like, I'm happy, you know? I'll never look as cut as you or Kevin, but it doesn't matter as much to me. I have other things to worry about. And right now you're one of those things."
Howie blinked, sudden tears coming to his eyes. He turned to Kevin. "You're right. He has grown up. A little too well too."
Nick blushed. "Howie that was sort of what you used to say to me. Whenever some newspaper called me fat and I got upset. You told me to do my job well and worry about the important stuff not what someone who didn't know me thought. If I grew up good it's 'cause of you. And I don't want to lose you."
None of the others could think of anything to top that and Kevin handed the bottle back to Howie. He looked at it for a moment, then stood and poured the contents into the toilet, flushing it. AJ put an arm around his shoulder, hugging him and Howie leaned his head against him. The others stepped back as the two started murmuring to each other, knowing that they needed some space.
Back in the control room Kevin gave Nick a hug, telling him that he did good. Nick nodded, but didn't look like he really believed it. If anything he looked more lost than he had before. Brian tried to talk to him, but he just shook him off, electing to practice on his guitar.
When Howie and AJ joined them, Howie made it clear that, despite everything, he wanted them to stay and finish the work they'd started. Kevin pulled the guitar out of Nick's hands, threatening to break it over his head if he didn't stop, and Nick grinned, realizing he'd been playing the same three chords over and over again. Just as he had been earlier. Throughout the afternoon Howie made a point of having a short conversation with each man, making apologies and discussing options. He talked with Nick first: a long conversation that left both of them a little choked up.
Nick thought about telling Howie that he knew about his other extracurricular activity, but something AJ had said about taking 'baby steps' stuck in his mind. Now was not the time to deal with absolutely everything. This stuff first. The other later.
Which meant another problem, at least for Nick. He'd been so focused on dealing with Howie's sleeping around that he hadn't made any plans for what to do if something else came up. As upsetting as that was, this took precedence. And there was no way that Kat was going to stick around while this got resolved. She was already at the end of her rope.
It was over. She was going to leave. He had lost.
As well as working on their songs, AJ also made some calls and made some appointments for Howie with his counselors. He even asked about a personal trainer - someone other than Miriam - who would help Howie keep the body shape he wanted, though without the use of steroids. That thought alone made tears start to trickle down Howie's face and he snuggled up to AJ, trying to re-bond with the younger man, especially after all the hateful things he'd said to him earlier.
Nick's mood didn't improve as the afternoon progressed. He tried calling home a couple of times but there was no answer. Either Kat was out or she was already gone. Howie asked him a few times if he was still upset with him, but Nick shook his head, telling him that he was annoyed because he couldn't reach Jeanne. That caused Kevin to hover over Nick a bit more, a fact that the others picked up on immediately. Brian shot them quizzical glances, while AJ just shrugged, his concentration more on Howie.
Howie's focus was still on reassuring, and being reassured by, AJ, however he was also highly aware of Nick. As horrid as he had been to AJ, he'd been even worse to Nick. Fortunately, Nick didn't know that Howie was behind that accident with the flying ropes - something that Howie had been regretting for a while. What had possessed him to try and hurt Nick that way? Just to get him out of the way a little, so that he could ensure that Jeanne was put in her place. He'd been afraid of her emotionally hurting Nick and he'd ended up being the one who'd almost caused the man physical damage.
And despite that she was still causing Nick pain.
Howie sighed. He'd never had a chance to fix things there. The two had been in lovebird heaven and he'd stepped back, letting them enjoy that, hoping that things wouldn't fall apart the way Nick's other relationships had. And now it was crumbling. In spite of Kevin's assurances that Jeanne was nothing like Tina, how could they really be sure? And yes, Nick had grown up - hadn't he proven that today? - but he was still the youngest. Their baby. The one they always looked after.
It was clear that he had screwed up majorly, letting Miriam get him started on those damn pills. He hadn't told them that she was the one who'd started it (though he had a suspicion that AJ had guessed). Still, he'd known what he was doing. Sort of. The point was he'd screwed up. He'd focused on himself, yes, but he'd gone overboard. He saw that now. The bruises on AJ's wrist made that damn clear. Judging from the reactions of the others they were going to support him wholeheartedly while he got that stuff out of his system. They were even going to help him with the thing he needed for himself.
He'd let his need to have power over something of his own get out of control. He'd neglected his duties as the group's protector. Heck, he'd let it get so out of control it had ended up being him that they'd need protecting from. But that was going to get fixed. What wasn't getting fixed was Nick's problem.
That was something he could do. Even though Nick'd never know it, it was a way that Howie could pay him back for his kindness and support today. It was the right thing to do.
"Kev? I'm gonna split now."
Kevin eyed him warily. "Are you sure you should? Should you be alone?"
"Honestly? Not sure. But I do know that you guys'll have my back if I slip up. Or kick my ass. One of the two."
Kevin chuckled. "That we will. Where you going?"
Howie felt a surge of anger as Kevin's questioning, but repressed it with a sigh. "Just… it's been a long day. And my being here is probably not helping. You guys are getting a lot done and I have something I need to care of. For Nick. So, I'll just head out and see you all tomorrow, okay?"
"Call if you need anything."
"I will. But I won't," he grinned, giving Kevin a wink as he headed towards the door.