Peter Malloy stared bleakly at the glass in front of him, the smell of whiskey lingered comfortingly in the air.
Why on earth did he feel so miserable? Until some time this morning he was totally enjoying himself. Not only had he a good story going on--suspecting someone of being gay always sold--but today's wedding disaster had shown that his intuition had been right. Howard Brackett was gay after all, he'd come out at his wedding, and Peter's cameraman had the whole scene on film, a fact with which his network was highly satisfied.
At first, Peter had only been doing his job, teasing the truth out of Howard for no other reason than getting the footage he needed. After a while, however, he'd come to realize that Howard was a real, sympathetic person, and he had started to actually like Howard and enjoy his presence. The teacher was just so very unlike the aloof and phony celebrities Peter was surrounded with most of the time.
Maybe that was the reason why, for the first time in his life, Peter had scruples about what he had done.
It had started about the time Howard hit him after the supposed-to-be wedding. Howard seemed to be coping well at first, a bit hysterical maybe, yet somehow relieved. But that patient, civilized and, well, not-so-manly Howard would beat someone showed how upset he really was.
That was the moment when Peter began doubting if he had done the right thing. He hadn't wanted to destroy the teacher's life--granted, at first he hadn't exactly cared about Peter's life, but now he honestly wished him to be happy.
Well, maybe he had hoped deep down in his heart that Howard could be happy with him?
At that thought, he thumbed his forehead on the wooden bar, loud enough to draw a curious glance from the bartender. He began to feel even more miserable. So he not only made a mess of Howard's life because that was his job, but because of his private feelings.
What a professional he was!
As if on cue, Emily Montgomery, the abandoned bride, stormed into the bar, still in her gorgeous white wedding gown. The look on her face was that of exasperation on the verge of hysteria. With an impatient ring in her voice she demanded a drink and heaved her lacy mass of crinolines and petticoats on a stool right next to Peter.
If Peter's day had been bad, than hers had been hell on earth. He pushed a bowl of peanuts towards her, followed by a second one; the lady looked as if she could use something to eat.
Emily received her drink with dour satisfaction and started to blurt out her sorrow--her words interrupted every now and then by a sob or a peanut stuffed into her mouth. Peter figured he deserved some sort of punishment for his part in destroying her wedding day, the day she'd waited three years for, as she so emphatically told him. He listened, feeling worse every second, and nodded toward the bartender for another drink.
Yeah, he deserved nothing better.
Trying his best to comfort Emily and lift her barely existing self-esteem, he idly wondered how he would cope with three years of repeatedly watching Funny Lady, admittedly not one of Barbra's best. While sipping at his own drink, he let his imagination explore the implications of that thought, and was too preoccupied in doing so to realize that Emily, in her misery, had mistaken his comforting gestures and now tried to get his attention.
"I love you", she said. "You're nice."
"I'm not nice." All the bad feelings, the self-accusations, the guilt that he managed to forget for a moment returned full force. "I'm a hack," he continued. "I'm show business garbage."
What did Emily know about him? Nothing at all. It had been he who had tried to convince Howard that he was gay; it had been he who had even forced a kiss on the man in order to get his point across.
What if Howard wasn't gay? What if Peter had only confused him and set him under pressure to think of himself as gay? What if Peter's actions had only served to confuse him, make him question his sexuality? He might have misread the teacher's reaction to that kiss.
Or maybe Howard was a bisexual who could be perfectly happy as a married man? As a matter of fact, Peter had wished him to be gay because of his own career, because it fit a cliché, because he would have liked it, that was all, and for that he had sacrificed Howard's and Emily's lives.
No, there was nothing nice about him.
"Will you sleep with me?" Emily asked all of a sudden, unaware of Peter's depressed mood.
Being abruptly pulled out of his self-pity, Peter turned slowly towards her. "What?" he asked, not believing what he just had heard.
Emily grinned at him stupidly for a few awkward seconds, then launched into another loud tirade. "Three years!" she screamed accusingly to the air in front of her. "Three years of sunsets and long talks and loving, supportive friendship..."
"Oh my god!" Peter exclaimed. He had had no idea! So Howard had never slept with Emily?
And Emily had gone along with it all those years, never suspecting anything? A sudden relief washed over Peter, and he had to suppress a grin.
Well, maybe, after all, it was a good thing that he had prevented the marriage.
"I'm ready!" Emily told everyone who cared to listen, and Peter believed her. She was a beautiful, lovable woman and a successful teacher, and he had no doubt that she would find a man who would appreciate and satisfy her in any way.
But that man wouldn't be Peter.
"I can't," he said.
Which didn't dissuade Emily from her idea at all, on the contrary, and all Peter could do was tell her that he was gay, although he feared that those particular words might not sit too well with her these days. She looked as if she was having an encountering of the third kind, frozen for a couple of heartbeats, her bosom heaving--really, any heterosexual man would find it a very attractive bosom--then she stormed out of the bar as fast as her attire would allow her to move. She slammed the door behind her, but the effect was somewhat ruined by the fact that her voluminous gown got stuck in it. Impatiently, she yanked herself free and disappeared into the warm night.
Peter sighed, not missing the irony of the whole situation: Emily choosing another gay man to ask for sex after being dumped by her gay groom, while that man was lusting more after the other half of the former couple and was the reason for Howard's coming out in the first place. Or at least that was what Peter liked to think: that Howard discovered his homosexuality because of Peter's kissing abilities, or even better, because he felt something for Peter...
Swallowing the remainder of his drink, his optimistic self won over, and when Peter left the little bar, he decided to stay a few more days in Greenleaf. The story was over, but maybe he wasn't finished here yet. He wouldn't be Peter Malloy if he didn't give in to his feelings and at least try a pass at Howard Brackett, however small his chances of success might be after all that had happened in a certain teacher's life.
Howard Brackett looked surprised when he entered the town's only diner and saw Peter sitting at a table, but it was a mostly neutral expression, his anger seemed to be gone at last. The now-again-teacher even took the seat Peter was offering him across the table.
"You're still here?" Howard asked, a bit tired maybe, but otherwise the friendly man which everyone in Greanleaf loved so much, and which Peter most definitely would like to know better. "I thought the story was over."
"Yeah, well," Peter said. "You know, I'm a romantic. I want to see a happy ending."
"I consider myself happy to have my job back and know that people support me," Howard answered. "And after all, I am relieved that I spared Emily a horrible rest of her life."
Peter grinned, but suppressed a know-it-all, 'See? I told you.'.
Howard continued, "What more could I possibly ask for?"
His self-esteem was nearly as low as his former fiancée's, no wonder they had stuck together as long as they did.
"What about your private live?" Peter asked. "A relationship?"
Howard smiled ruefully, which made him look extremely cute--and that, in turn, made Peter's heartbeat accelerate. "As you may have noticed, I'm not exactly a stud. You may have to wait a long time for that happy end to happen."
Peter smiled back warmly. 'We will see,' he thought to himself.
"You know," Howard continued, "It takes some time getting used to... being gay."
"But at least Greenleaf, and your mother, will have their great white wedding," Peter said.
"Yes," Howard sighed. "And my parents really deserve it, after all they have gone through."
"May I come?"
Howard's look became guarded. "Since when do you ask?"
"You won't hear my father saying he's gay," Howard said, his voice laced with a hint of chill. "Or anything else for that matter."
"He already did say that."
"That was a nice gesture. You know what I mean: there will be no story."
"I won't do any harm." Peter tried for his most charming smile. "Promise."
Howard sighed, then relaxed. Peter took that as a yes.
The now off-duty reporter felt a bit nervous as he rang the bell of Howard Brackett's door. Although Howard didn't object to his coming the wedding, and although the two of them had shared a nice meal and an interesting, warm-hearted conversation the other day, Peter knew that it was a bit bold to come and fetch Howard to the wedding.
But still, fidgeting wasn't quite like Peter; in his job as well as in private he had always been a very open and straight-forward person, relying on his intuition and charm and rarely having second thoughts. Most of the time things had worked out well enough, and those times they hadn't--well, he had gotten over it, optimistic as he was. Only this time, the thought that there would be other men waiting for him if Howard turned him down wasn't as comforting as it used to be.
Luckily, it was Howard's brother who opened the door, and his simple mind didn't think of any such thing as shutting the door in Peter's face.
When Peter entered the hall, obeying Walter's welcoming gesture, Howard himself came running down the stairs opposite the door. He was shrugging into a shirt, and his naked upper body was as attractive as Peter imagined it would be; slender, with muscles showing that he not only taught English, but sports as well, and his chest covered with just the faintest hint of hair. It took Peter a great deal of willpower to raise his eyes from that delicious display of skin upwards to meet the eyes belonging to the body.
Howard stopped dead as he saw the reporter. "You?" he uttered in a comically low groan.
Peter beamed at him and nodded.
"What on earth are you doing here?" Howard demanded.
"Well, I was just thinking... do you have someone to accompany you to the wedding?"
"I... why... uh, no," Howard admitted.
"That's what I'm here for." Peter spread his arms, offering himself with a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows.
Howard's eyes widened, his eyebrows rose to his hairline, and his lips twitched in disbelief. For a few heartbeats he just stood motionless, then he frowned in disapproval, took a resolute breath and opened his mouth to protest. But all that could be heard was the chime of a clock somewhere in the house. The unexpected sound caused Howard to jump.
"Damn." he cried, turned on his heels and ran back up the stairs while trying to slide the buttons of his shirt into the buttonholes. "Damn."
Peter grinned in relief. It could have gone worse. If he managed to just hand around Howard long enough to make it clear that he'd stayed in Greenleaf only for private reasons, and that his private self was much less abrasive than his professional one, maybe then he could have a chance.
Walter excused himself with a sincere smile, oblivious to the awkward tension lingering in the air, and left Peter on his own. The reporter waited in the hall for several minutes to give Howard time, then followed upstairs. The sound of low muttering led him to the bedroom, where he found Howard standing in front of a mirror, struggling with his bow-tie.
"There you are," Peter announced.
Whether Howard didn't care about his presence or was just too busy to object, Peter didn't know, but he wouldn't waste this opportunity, and so he entered the room. He approached the other man and came to a halt behind him--boldly within Howard's personal space, yet with enough distance between them to not be too obtrusive.
For a few seconds, Peter just relished in the proximity of their bodies, not being close enough to touch, but still being able to inhale what must be, beneath the faint odor of soap and aftershave, Howard's smell.
Peter craned his neck to watch Howard's neat hands fumbling with his bow-tie, and--taking advantage of his unusual perspective--let his gaze wander up Howard's throat. He suppressed the sudden desire to kiss that enticing piece of skin, but couldn't quite help staring.
Howard's hands stilled, and Peter could see how his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. Reluctantly, he drew his eyes away and searched Howard's gaze in the mirror. The other man stared back at him warily.
Peter smiled lightly. "You ready?"
Howard dropped his gaze and gave his bow-tie one last adjustment. "Nearly," he mumbled slowly, then turned until they were facing each other. He stood straight to show off his appearance, wordlessly begging for Peter's approval, and the reporter looked him up and down.
"Very snappy," he commented. That was an understatement, since the man looked gorgeous, but he figured he'd better be careful. Peter reached out to give the final touch to the other man's bow-tie. Not that it was necessary, it looked as neat and perfect as the rest of Howard, but Peter wanted an excuse to touch.
"Nervous?" he asked.
"No, why should I be nervous? It's just a wedding," Howard said, "I just..." His gaze hooked on Peter's own bow-tie, obviously spotting a flaw, and he lifted his hand to tuck it into place. "... want everything to be... perfect."
"It will be." Peter assured him. He reminded himself that Howard's fumbling with his bow-tie was nothing personal, but still his heart skipped a beat or two.
Howard's expression became guarded when he removed his hands.
"Is your cameraman here?" he asked, his voice all at once professional, and an uncomfortable distance replaced the warm friendliness that had settled between them during the last few minutes.
"No," Peter answered honestly. "Not today. I'm not filming this. There are some things more important than showbiz."
"Really? Like what?"
Peter doubted that Howard would believe if he said, 'You', so he shrugged and settled for something not far from the truth instead. "I don't know." Then he added with a pleased beam, "But didn't that sound good?"
When Howard smiled that genuine smile of his, Peter thought that he could melt away right where he stood. He had loved Howard's warm, sparkling smile from the very first minute he had witnessed it, but it had never been directed towards him. Knowing that he for once caused Howard to smile that way made him feel good inside.
"Guys, we are starting," Walter called into the silence.
Peter was reluctant to let the magic of the moment go, to draw his look away from the other man. Howard held his gaze and seemed more content than Peter had ever seen him before, even the haste of the wedding preparations forgotten for now.
"Preacher's waiting." said Walter, and finally, casting one last smile at Howard, the reporter turned and went outside, Howard and his brother close behind.
The wedding ceremony was indeed perfect; white and romantic, full of love and flowers and music. At first, Peter kept himself in the background. He felt a bit like an intruder and just wished not to be in anyone's way, not to be any further trouble in Howard's life. But as everyone welcomed him kind-heartedly, he warmed up, and by the time the festive room turned into a disco, he joined the cheerful mass. Luckily, no one knew that it was he who had gone to the effort of convincing Howard that he was gay. If they had known, they might have been less friendly toward him
Howard was obviously enjoying himself. He had shed his jacket and opened his formerly so carefully adjusted bow-tie and was dancing like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.
Peter smiled at that comparison. He tried to stay near Howard, waiting for a good opportunity for something of which he didn't exactly know what it could be--but that turned out to be a hard task. Howard was a favorite amongst the inhabitants of Greenleaf, and he was constantly surrounded by people wanting to talk to him and dance with him. The more surprised and pleased he was when he unintentionally bumped with his back into Howard's. The other man wheeled around, with a look of polite excuse on his face, but never missing a beat to the dance. When Howard recognized his opponent, his expression changed into something more intensive, as if he'd suddenly realized, at just this moment, what it really meant to love men, what it meant to desire men physically. They stared at each other for several beats, rocking to the music, while Howard's captivating, dark eyes made Peter feel light-headed. He gave what he hoped was his most inviting smile, winked seductively, before Howard was swept away into the dancing crowd.
The party continued until long past midnight, and only after the last guests had left did Peter have Howard finally to himself. The room was empty now and quiet, the stereo had stopped playing some time ago. The floor was strewn with the reminders of the party--crumpled chips, stains of chocolate and cream, paper napkins and withered flowers. Empty chairs were standing everywhere across the room, some of them tipped over. Howard was sitting amidst the mess and stared dreamily into the air, his discarded jacket dangled from the back of his chair.
"You love weddings, don't you?" asked Peter.
"Yes, I do." Howard sighed contently.
"I'm sorry that yours didn't work out."
"I'll get over it." Howard sat still for a few moments, and Peter just stood next to him and watched him.
"Considering how much I love this..." Howard waved a hand at the whole scene. "It's amazing that all those years I was searching for excuses to delay my wedding and never noticed it."
Peter touched Howard's shoulder comfortingly, slightly stroking the muscles beneath the shirt with his thumb.
"You wanna dance?" he asked after a while.
"What?" Howard's head jerked up.
Peter stepped to the stereo, found a CD labeled 'Best Love Songs of All Time', and placed it into the CD tray. Then he returned to Howard, bowed ever so slightly and stretched out his hand. Howard hadn't moved an inch since Peter's question, frozen all of a sudden. He even seemed to have stopped breathing.
"Uh," Howard finally gasped, "I've never, uh, you know, danced with a man." He blushed, while his expression was torn between curiosity and discomfort. "That way, I mean."
"Then it's about time." Peter grinned.
Eventually, curiosity won over, and Howard stood up and grabbed Peter's hand, still stiff and insecure. It was funny how Howard, who could move so graceful and energetic if he felt secure of himself or was lost in whatever it was that he was doing, could be so clumsy at times.
Peter pulled him close carefully, and whispered in his ear, "Shh, relax. Otherwise you will be ruining my new shoes." Peter heard the other man chuckle faintly, and then, indeed, felt him relaxing.
The teacher gave himself over to Peter's lead, and soon they swayed in step to the slow music.
As the song ended, they came to a halt. Howard raised his head from where he'd rested it on Peter's shoulder, and Peter studied him for his reaction.
"And?" Peter asked.
"Unfamiliar," said Howard. "But not bad," he murmured as an afterthought and smiled. "I mean, you are so tall, and you smell so good... so masculine. And you are so muscular..." He idly stroked Peter's chest to demonstrate his point.
"Whoa," Peter whispered and wondered who was seducing whom.
Then there was that look again on Howard's face, intense and aware and dark-eyed. Waiting. Peter's heart began to race, while the rest of his body was stunned, his brain included.
"Would you kiss me once more?" Howard finally whispered. "You know, just so that... I can be sure..." His voice was failing him, not able to match the courage its owner had so unexpectedly wound up.
"Uh, sure." Peter rasped, mentally slapping himself for being too overwhelmed to remember even the most simple of things. He leaned in for the requested kiss, and the last thing he saw was Howard closing his eyes and raising his head in anticipation.
Their lips met in a tender, yet electrifying touch. Slowly, Peter explored Howard's pliant lips, nibbling gently, licking. This time, there was no need to rush, and Peter enjoyed the slow pace; it was so unlike their first, admittedly a bit forced, kiss.
This time Howard responded eagerly without a moment's hesitation. His lips parted to permit Peter entrance, and when Peter obliged, their tongues eagerly touched. In spite of his willingness, however, Howard was still insecure at first, waiting for Peter's guidance, carefully imitating him. After a while, however, he got bolder, and finally gave himself over to passion, all insecurity forgotten.
The kiss deepened, growing more hungry with every heartbeat, and Howard's mouth was warm, sleek, and oh so delicious. Peter gasped in surprise when, unexpectedly, he felt a hand stroking through his hair. Howard gave a low moan in return, barely audible, yet it's effect went directly down to Peter's groin.
Feeling his own arousal grow, Peter broke the kiss at last, albeit reluctantly. He didn't want to rush the other man, or scare him, not after his previous interference with Howard's life had been so close to disastrous. Peter had the unfamiliar feeling that Howard was worth more than a short affair, that the frail something which was developing between them was too precious to risk for a fleeting moment of passion.
"Well," Howard said after a few seconds, "I guess I'm still gay." A slight breathlessness belied his nonchalant tone.
"You'd better." Peter laughed. "I wouldn't want to lose you to any woman after that kiss."
Howard raised an eyebrow at him, smiling half sheepishly, half smugly. Then he had to stifle a yawn. As if finally remembering were he was, he looked around. Panic flashed across his face.
"We've just... I mean every one could have..." He took half a step away from Peter and drew his hands away as if he had burned himself. He blushed in an extremely becoming way.
"Don't tell me they don't do that in Greenleaf either, since tonight I've seen otherwise." Peter grinned, deliberately leaving unspoken whether he meant the close dancing, the kissing, or both.
"But I... we..." Howard started, then gave up. With a second look around the room, he sighed, "What a mess."
"Tomorrow is enough time to worry about that."
"Yes, you are right." Howard stepped away to grab his jacket and shrugged into it. "I'm going home."
Peter helped him arrange the collar and let his hands linger on the other man's shoulders. He decided that it was safe enough to ask "Mind if I come with you?"
Howard took a deep breath. "There are some more things I have never done with a man besides dancing. And kissing."
"I know," Peter whispered and placed a kiss on Howard's forehead. "I won't do anything you don't want."
A few silent moments passed in which Peter anxiously watched Howard's reaction, wondering if maybe he had pushed things to fast.
At last the teacher spoke. "One should think I've wasted enough time already, mmh?"
And when Howard smiled his nervous yet so gentle and radiant smile, Peter felt like an inexperienced, excited teenager himself.
It was as he had told Howard days ago: Sometimes the worst thing you think can happen turns out to be the best thing. And Howard was definitely the best that had happened to him in a long time.