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James leaned back in his chair, slightly drunk and completely happy. Or, not completely. Almost completely happy. Only a cigar was missing to make his life perfect.

James pulled out his gold and platinum lighter, flicked it, and considered it for a few moments before lighting up. He wasn’t overly fond of the feel of smoke settling into his lungs or of the taste of tobacco, which is why he only smoked the mildest blends his money could buy. What he enjoyed, what he lived for, was this moment. Flicking his lighter and communing with the flame at the end for a few moments before igniting his cigar. Oh, James didn’t hate staring at the burning end of his stogy, but the process of lighting it was magical. There was something eternal and true in fire, a reality that he had never found in cosmetic dentistry, nightclubs, or even younger women. Not that he was complaining—he loved his life these days—but he liked to be reminded that there was something more out there as well, should he ever wish to find it.

James glanced over at his companion and saw that Terry felt the sacredness of the moment as well. Terry had on the lazy contented look that told James that his friend was going to wax philosophical in a few moments. Not that James minded; he enjoyed listening to Terry. His friend was much smarter than he was (though not as smart as Patrick) and always had interesting things to say.

Right on cue, Terry dragged deeply on his cigar and began. “The cigar is a sacred organ of masculinity.” James grinned. Organ of masculinity, eh? Perhaps he didn’t quite have everything a man could want at the moment. Ah well, he was too content at the moment to go searching for a woman. Imagining Elizabeth’s face at that declaration, James began to laugh. Terry ignored him and continued his monologue. “Some things, some places, some practices have to remain the sole preserve of the male.”

Ah, so Terry was off on another man-versus-woman rant, was he? James had heard many, many such lectures over the years, and knew the expected responses. He zoned out, and went back to his contemplation of his cigar. The burning ember on the end of it, so red and so beautiful.

Terry didn’t pay any more mind to James’ abstraction than he had the dentist’s laughter. “That’s not to say that Germaine Greer and her posse don’t have a point. They do. Women should be universally equal. But not everywhere.” Terry jerked his cigar behind his shoulder and declared, “It’s penis envy, pure and simple.”

James grunted his expected, “yup,” as he began to inspect the objects of Terry’s scorn. In the next room, but visible from their table, were two women in tailored black suits, smoking thin cigars. One was a cool beauty with black hair trimmed fashionably in a bob; the other had long, wavy auburn hair pulled back in a severe barrette. The second woman entranced him with her haughty and arrogant air. Something about her reminded him of Elizabeth. A younger Elizabeth, almost as beautiful as his wife had been on the day he met her. As an added attraction, he guessed that a career woman—as her clothes proudly pronounced her to be—probably didn’t know how to cook. Women who don’t cook don’t own cleavers.

Terry had already forgotten about the women suffering from penis envy. “A cigar represents the ultimate symbol of manhood. A tangible, phallic motif. Personally, I blame Zoe Ball.”

James didn’t have a clue who that bird might be, so he forcefully agreed, “Oh, yeah!” Admissions of ignorance always led to extended lectures.

Terry smiled, well pleased with James’ support. “The Cult of the Ladette. Rebellious teen girls drinking beer and supporting Arsenal.”

“It’s unnatural,” James muttered, never taking his eyes off the woman with long hair. Especially now that she had noticed him, and had established eye contact. The force of her unblinking stare left James idly wondering whether she had been a cobra in a previous existence. Thinking of snakes caused his own surgically enhanced serpent to stir.

“You know,” Terry continued thoughtfully, “what amazes me is that... they assume that because they imitate male behavior, it’s not only confrontative, but that men are going to find it attractive.”

Christ, James yelped to himself. What the fuck is she doing? But James knew what she was doing. She was giving a slow and thorough blowjob, right in public. To her cigar. In, out, and painfully, pleasurably slow. Mesmerized, James trailed the length of her cigar from her red, moist lips to the red, burning tip. He followed the burning ember of her cigar as it moved towards him and then away. Every time the red tip moved in his direction, the fire in his belly began to rage hotter and hotter.

Terry was oblivious. “No, no. The cigar. A fat, stout--”

Fat. Stout. Hard. Impossibly hard, in fact. And still the cigar was going in and out, making him harder than he had ever believed possible.

“—stogy. Should be... um... a sanctuary. A thing a man can wrap himself around.”

She was bringing her tongue into play now, wrapping it around her cigar with the most amazing agility he had ever seen.

“Hmm.”

Was that Terry humming, or him?

“Engorge, engulf it.”

What the fuck were these two doing to him? The beautiful stranger giving him a floorshow and Terry providing unwitting commentary. If his mate kept using words like those, James was in serious danger of cumming right here and right now.

“So he can find himself. Warm, deep--”

James couldn’t help ramming his own cigar in at that, just as deep as he wanted to thrust his cigar substitute. It wasn’t the most intelligent thing he could have done, and he began choking.

“--peace.”

Terry finally finished his little speech, just in time to notice his friend’s distress. He pounded James on the back while paradoxically attempting to touch him as little as possible. Clearly Terry was mortified by James’ little attack, and was ashamed to be seen with the choking man.

James supposed that he should have been embarrassed himself, but he wasn’t. He was too caught up in the fact that his fantasy woman had broken eye contact with him the second he started to cough. She was disgusted by him, a man who couldn’t hold his smoke.

For the second time in less than a year, a young woman found him wanting. Inadequate. Simply not good enough. James blinked and the haughty beauty across the room was gone, replaced by short hair dyed an aggressive red and thick lips with too much lipstick. The scornful voice that haunted his nightmares screamed inside his head, “Well, hello Mr. Floppy. What’ve we got such a sulky face on for, then?”

James opened his eyes again, only to find Terry regarding him with concern. “Are you alright, James?”

“Fine,” he gasped out. “Just fine.”

Terry didn’t look convinced, but wasn’t sufficiently concerned to pursue the matter any further. He gave a slight shrug, leaned back with his scotch, and began ranting once again about Matthias and glorified con men posing as wedding planners. James didn’t even pretend to listen this time. As usual, Terry didn’t mind. The stockbroker enjoyed the sound of his own voice enough for the both of them.

The career women suffering from penis envy had turned their attention to another man, one on the far side of the room. They were both doing their show for the lucky bastard now, and James once again found his attention riveted upon the glowing red tip of a lit cigar. He knew that it would burn him, just as Scarlet had burned him a few months ago, and he wasn’t sure that he was up for that again. But he couldn’t look away either.

As James watched the scene unfolding before him, he wondered whether it might not be time for him to give up cigars. He had enjoyed the flames for over twenty years, but he was chasing fifty now. Perhaps he was getting too old for fire.

Out, in, out, in. Slow, steady, rhythmical. Red embers hypnotizing him with their slow dance. Languid comfort that could shatter his soul.

Too old? No. Fuck no, in fact. Yes, he hadn’t been able to hold his smoke for Scarlet, but heaps of money and a willingness to undergo a painful operation had turned that around for him. He now had enough smoke for a dozen Scarlets; certainly more than enough for those two women across the room.

He didn’t need to give up fire, he needed to alter it. His experiences could feed the flames rather than smother them... if he had the right combustible. He needed a change.

What James really needed was a visit to the tobacconists. After all, there were all sorts of fire.

 

THE END