"You really don't know how to build a fire," Denny groused as he laid the poker back in its cradle and cranked the handle of the wood stove to lock. He pulled off the bulky leather fire gloves and tossed them atop the wood basket. To no one's surprise, the manicure beneath remained as pristine as the moment it had emerged from beneath Ming's buffer sponge.

"I don't know how you ever got any decent sex before you met me," Denny added, as easily if it were on topic. As it doubtless was in his own head.

"Pure flukes, I'm sure," Alan agreed with cheery ease. He popped off his shoes and wiggled sock-clad tootsies toward the stove. Behind the tempered glass of the decorative door, eerily silent flames began to spark and dance, as if to some secret music only they could hear.

"It's point number eight in the fine art of seduction," Denny continued. "Get them alone by a fire. It comes right after 'buy them something nice' and 'wine & dine them until they're sluggish.'"

Alan chuckled. "Indeed. Thank you for dinner, by the way. It was splendid."

"Any time."

Denny freshened both their cocoas--his in the 'Fishermen do it with their poles' mug, Alan's in the 'Fishermen do it wet & slippery' one-- with another splash of Cointreau before groaning into his chair. "How can a grown man not know how to build a fire? It's what separates us from the beasts." Absently, Denny fondled the molded relief figure of the barely clad fisherwoman protruding from one side of his mug.

Wisely, Alan chose not to salt his reply with any observations about the relative prevalence of wood stoves in their respective birth-years. Instead he opted for a separate truth. Taking the mug in both hands more for the comfort of the slick ceramic than for any more visceral craving of taste or thirst, he leaned back and began to speak.

"When I was seven, I appealed to my father for permission to join the Cub Scouts. He refused. He said I should remember this: that boys should never go off into the woods with older boys or strange men. He said that bad things happen to little boys who do such things. Then he signed me up for T ball.

"Then when I was thirteen and at some odds with my father over--shall we say-- issues of adolescence, I again proposed the Boy Scouts, thinking it might instill in me some mysterious tribal knowledge so far undisclosed to me. Ineffable knowledge that might allow me to become the man my father wanted me to be.

"This time it was my mother who vetoed the idea. She pronounced it legally and socially risky for me to be seen going into the woods with younger boys."


With a wry wrench of his features, Alan paused to check on Denny, but there was no other discernible reaction from behind the mug.

"I suppose that had something to do with my…dalliances with much older women," Alan continued. "Thinking I could garner my mother's affections if only I oriented to the antithesis of her expressed…disgust.

"I was wrong." Alan continued talking directly into the flames, doggedly declining to take notice that the whole of Denny's attention was now focused squarely on his aspect.

"I was always one for extremes. Even then." Alan took a sip and finally met Denny's gaze, just the hint of a mischievous lilt upturned to demonstrate that whatever else he chose to leave unsaid about that time, it has now been made all right.

Or mostly.

There was a creak of bones and mission style chair as Denny repositioned to relight his cigar. It took some time. "Nothing wrong with extremes," he said when done. "But they're over-rated. You have to be sure you don't skip the middle. That's where the juicy best is. "

"I'm working on it," Alan said. He wiggled his toes a little closer to the stove.

Denny grunted into a puff of smoke. "Yeah, well, you didn't miss much with the Boy Scouts. No women. Baden-Powell was a homosexual, you know."

"Very likely. If so, he was undoubtedly an intensely unhappy one."

"What about you? Are you happy?" Like a shot, Denny's eyes were back on Alan's face.

Alan let slip a humorless noise. "Oh, it's been so long, I don't think I could even still find a yardstick to measure happiness against. But I can say this: since I've been here, for the first time in many years I am not unhappy, and that is a stupendous relief. And I thank you for that."

"You should be happy, Alan. Life's too finite not to be."

"I'm working on it," Alan repeated.

"Good. I can't do everything for you, you know."

Alan chuckled a little, and Denny's eyes returned the laugh in kind.

For a while they sat in silence.

"Does it bother you, Denny?"


In a motion that would have seemed awkward on anyone else, Alan twisted his torso around in his chair for a better sight line of Denny. "You are certainly the current love of my life if not the great one. Does that bother you?"

"Why not the great one?" Denny demanded.

"Well," Alan almost laughed, but not really. Not quite. "That's a one time thing. I can't possibly make such a judgment. Life's not over yet."

"Damn straight." There was an uncharacteristically messy flurry of ash to the carpet as Denny punctuated the point with a jab of his cigar in the air.

Yet Alan still sat twisted. "You didn't answer my question: does it bother you?"

For a moment, Denny seemed to actually consider. "Well, I'm used to being the great one, but under the circumstances, I can live with it." He sounded almost philosophical. Wise. Profound. "Just don't go getting any designs on my yardstick."

Alan laughed out loud. "I don't want to have sex with you."

Denny bolted up from his chair. "Why the hell not? You just said--"

"Sex and love are two entirely disparate things, as you very well know." Alan seemed to search some mental database for the correct answer. "I prefer my men a little more--"

"More what?" Denny bellowed. "Who's more anything than I am?"

One of the perks of his friendship with Denny was that it gave Alan the unaccustomed opportunity to play the role of the mature and soothing voice of reason. Of course at this point, that was like trying to catch a Category Five in a windsock.

"Denny, I love you, so of course I find you attractive--appealing even--but sexually, I prefer my men…younger. With more stamina."

That may not have been the best choice of socks.

Denny leapt to his feet. "What the hell would you know about it?" He wasn't laughing anymore.

Alan collected his mug and shoes. "This is preposterous. I'm not having this inane discussion. Thank you for a lovely day. I'll see you in the morning. Good night." Alan went into the bedroom and closed the door.

"The hell you aren't!" Denny shouted after him. "I bought you dinner! Don't think you can walk away like this! Alan!" Leaving the near-naked fisherwoman with the pole on the table to fend for herself, Denny stalked off after him and slammed the bedroom door closed behind them.