"I thought you old married men were supposed to look..." Chris's words faded out as he surveyed Howie's face.
"What? Happy?" The grin was certainly the same, not that he'd have expected the grin to change, exactly.
"Sure," Chris said, "but aren't you also supposed to get, like, fat? All that easy living, not having to go out and chase girls, you're supposed to let yourself go a bit. Aren't you?"
"My wife wouldn't appreciate it," Howie said, primly. "Besides, we're still touring, you know. Got to keep in shape for that. Shall we go in?"
"Hmm." Chris watched Howie from the corner of his eye as they were escorted to their table. Howie wasn't just in shape. He was in terrific shape. They sat, and Chris confirmed his observations—no wrinkles, no thinning of the hair, Howie might as well not have aged a day. How the hell had he managed that? "Seriously, have you had—" He was going to say, had work done, but even as the thought formed Chris knew that wasn't the answer.
Howie darted a bright, warning glance at him, and opened the menu. "What's good here?"
"Everything's good, or I wouldn't come here," Chris replied. "Are you going to tell me you look like that because you only eat organic food that was hand-picked by virgins?"
Howie ignored the question. Chris could see he wasn't going to needle Howie into telling him anything, at least, not like that, and applied himself to choosing his meal.
After the waitress had taken their order, he had another try. "Was I even close with the hand-picked by virgins guess?"
Howie frowned at him. "I thought we were here to talk about our charity events," he said. "I'm looking at doing something in the fall, and I don't want it to clash with your Halloween fundraiser."
So they worked out a couple of reciprocal appearances, and Howie gave Chris some contacts and Chris gave Howie some contacts, and they swapped ideas on how to make their fundraisers rock, but all the time Chris kept looking at Howie and thinking, that ain't natural.
He allowed himself a dessert today, after a successful working lunch he figured he deserved pie, and as he pushed the emptied plate away, replete and satisfied, asked casually: "So, what's your secret? Did you make a pact with the devil for eternal youth?"
"No! Not—" Howie stopped abruptly, and made a big production of wiping his mouth clean with his napkin.
"You didn't! Howard, you—seriously? You made a pact with the devil?"
Howie sighed. "Not the Devil. One of the minor ones. A demon."
"Holy fucking shit." Chris had to think about that for a moment. "You—you sold your soul?"
"Of course I didn't sell my soul," Howie said indignantly.
"I thought that's what demons always wanted, all the worldly treasures you can ask for, price, one human soul."
"Sure, but I didn't sell him mine," Howie said, calmly. "I sold him Lou Pearlman's."
Okay, coffee through the sinuses, bad idea. Chris got his breath back and mopped himself—the waitress brought him a clean napkin and a fresh cup without his even having to ask, because this was that kind of place—and stared in awe and disbelief.
"You sold Lou Pearlman's soul? How the fuck did you manage that?"
Howie frowned. Chris remembered, a little late, that Howie had never approved of the kind of language that came all too naturally to him. Back in the day, Howie'd actually sought him out to instruct him not to teach Nick those words (as if Nick needed any instruction, with a family like his).
"I wasn't going to sell my own," Howie said, and sipped his coffee with dignity.
"Yeah, sure, I mean, no, but—how come you got to sell somebody else's soul? And, also, Lou seriously has a soul?"
"Apparently," Howie said. "At least, he didn't object when I put the clause in our agreement. I thought it might come in handy one day."
"Huh," Chris said. "If Lou knew souls could be bought, I'm surprised he didn't have that written in to our contract."
"Oh, this was after."
"After we all escaped from Transcon. There was an issue... I'm not going to give you the details, because it's not my story to tell, but I blackmailed him."
Chris's mouth fell open. At least he wasn't drinking, this time. "You—"
"I didn't tell anyone else, because Kevin would have taken him to court, and AJ would have taken him into a dark alley, and Brian would have taken him to pieces, and I didn't think we needed the extra publicity. So I dealt with it." Howie sipped tranquilly at his coffee, but there was a steeliness in his eyes that made Chris think that perhaps, yes, this was a person who could barter with a demon and come out a winner. "And one of the clauses in the agreement I had him sign was, well, he handed over his soul to me. I guess he didn't think he needed it. So when the demon showed up and made me an offer, I had a soul all ready. With paperwork."
"That is..." Chris had to think about this for a moment. "That is the most awesome thing I ever heard in my life. So he gave you eternal youth and extreme hotness in exchange for Lou Pearlman's soul? That has to be the best bargain in the history of man-demon contracts."
"Not for the demon," Howie said, with an understandable hint of smugness.
"Yeah. If Lou's soul wasn't already in Satan's possession, it was surely headed that way without any need for bargaining," Chris said.
"To be fair, it wasn't eternal youth. I'm going to age eventually, just not for a while yet."
"And extreme hotness," Chris reminded him.
"Mmm," said Howie, lowering his eyes demurely.
Chris coughed. "I suppose... now you're married..." he began, because Howie really was unreasonably hot.
"Mmm?" Howie raised his eyes, and Chris gulped.
"Would you—I mean, it's been a long time since college, but..."
"As it happens," said Howie, "you're on my List."
"Oh!" said Chris, gratified.
"And I think," Howie went on, "you'll be pleasantly surprised."
"Because I actually asked for three things in exchange for the soul, and the demon granted all of them."
Howie smirked at him. "What else would you ask for?"
Chris thought about it. Ah. Ahaha. Oh. "We should stop at the drugstore. Sounds like we'll need plenty of lube."
As they left the restaurant, Chris thought he could detect just the tiniest hint of sulphur in the air.