Spice of Life by LilyK

Spice of Life - LilyK

While I wait for Sandburg to put in an appearance, I sit in the middle of the busy Indian restaurant late on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, allowing the smells to waft through my nasal passages and rest on my tongue.

The names dance through my brain while the tantalizing smells dance along my taste buds. Ginger, garlic, cilantro, cumin, cayenne pepper, cardamom. I love spicy foods, and now that I'm in control of my sense of taste, I can indulge. Thanks to Sandburg, that is. He's pretty much responsible for my ability to control these darned senses. He's a great guy.

Shrimp masala sounds delicious I decide, perusing the menu while the helpful waiter brings my glass of iced mineral water. Blair loves the spicy shrimp dish. Picking out a vegetarian accompaniment to satisfy my health-conscious partner, I decide on chana bhatura, a wonderful blend of chickpeas with herbs served with unleavened bread. Knowing that Blair asked me to order so he could cruise in and eat, I make my final decisions, adding the finishing touch of kheer, a sweet rice pudding also teaming with fantastic spices.

I sit back, smiling after I order, thinking once again about Sandburg. How he trusts me so much, from protecting him to feeding him. Taking a sip of cool water, I grin into the glass. Sandburg is damned entertaining, a fun companion, an exasperating friend, and so very important to me that I don't know what I'd do if-

“Jim!”

I blink, almost startled at the friendly female voice that cuts through my reverie. When I look up, a smile immediately crosses my face. “Margaret!” I rise, holding out my hand. “Oh my God, Margaret Patterson! It's been at least three years. How are you?”

Margaret laughs in that melodic way I remember so well. “Jim Ellison, it's so good to see you! I'm doing just fine, thank you.”

“Sit down, please.” I skirt the table and pull out a chair. When Margaret sits, I return to my place and smile. “What are you doing here? Is this a coincidence or what?”

“I have a confession to make. This isn't a coincidence at all!” Margaret stops her explanation when the waiter appears and orders an herbal tea. When he leaves, she returns her attention to me. “I ran into Blair yesterday, and he invited me to join you both.”

“Wonderful!” I sip my water before I ask, “How long have you been back in Cascade?” I hope my question doesn't dredge up painful memories, so I make the inquiry as casual as possible.

“Not long. Only a few weeks.” Margaret reaches across the small table and feather-light, brushes the back of my hand. “It's okay, Jim. If you don't mind, I'd rather tell you.”

“No. It's fine. I didn't want to bring up painful memories. Tell me whatever you need to.”

“Thank you. You were always very understanding.” Margaret stirs a bit of honey into her tea, releasing the smell of mint, and sips the hot brew. “Mmm. Very nice.” She smiles at me and continues, “After the diagnosis, I moved back East. Dad lasted about eighteen months and Mom was a real trooper, but since she broke her hip five years ago, she wasn't able to give him the personal care he needed.”

“That must have been rough for the family.” I notice while we're talking that Margaret smells faintly of peaches and cinnamon, mixed with a bit of winterberry in the background. It's a pleasant scent.

“Yes, it was, but Dad was very brave. My brother, Charles, was a Godsend, and my mother's family helped out immensely. We were able to care for him as a family. Anyway, he passed, and it took a while to settle the estate. Now I'm back in Cascade.”

“You didn't want to stay in Boston?”

“I love Cascade. When Mom agreed to move back with me, it was a simple decision. So now we have a two-bedroom condo on the Marina. She loves it! She's joined a seniors' group, and she has more of a social life than I do.” Margaret laughs again, the sound tinkling pleasantly to my ears.

“I'm surprised, Margaret. A beautiful woman like you should have been snatched up by the first eligible man.”

Margaret blushes. “Thank you, but not so far. What about you, Jim? You're still quite the attractive guy. Are you taken?”

I almost choke on my drink. “No,” I say firmly, wiping my chin. “Nobody special. Just me and Sandburg still plugging along.”

“Ah, Blair. He's such a wonderful person! I've always loved that guy.”

“Oh?” I say, feeling a tiny stab of jealousy. I wonder if it's because he's close to Margaret and if there's more than friendship between them. I ignore the tingle and concentrate on Margaret's pleasant voice.

Margaret must have picked on something in my face because she says, “Blair is one of the nicest people I know, Jim, but I can't see us ever being more than very good friends. He's the brother I always wanted. I treasure our friendship, but otherwise...” Margaret gives me a brilliant smile while she shrugs. “Speaking of Blair, where is he?”

I glance at my watch. “He went over to Motor Vehicles to renew his driver's license. His birthday's next week, and he's put it off until it's almost too late. I'll give him a call.”

Margaret rolls her eyes and gives a theatrical shiver. “Going to the DMV is like going into the jaws of death,” she says with a laugh.

“No kidding. Last time I needed new plates it took four hours standing in line.”

Fishing my fancy new cell phone from my jacket, I have no sooner touched the phone when it rings. A quick glance at the caller ID window on it has me smiling.

“Chief, where are you?”

“Hey, Jim,” Blair says pleasantly before his tone turns exasperated. “I'm still in the damned line. I've got at least another hour to go. Did Margaret show up?”

“Why, yes. She did.”

“She looks great, doesn't she?”

“Yes, Sandburg.”

“So, anyway. Go ahead and enjoy, man. Take good care of Margaret and bring me home the leftovers.”

“Deal, Chief. One take-out dinner coming up.”

“Later, Jim.”

“Right.”

I pocket the phone and with a shrug, say, “He's not going to be able to make it, so I'm under strict orders to feed you and bring him home some take-out.”

Margaret laughs. “You don't mind?”

“Of course not. Don't be silly. You and I enjoyed each other's company for six months before you had to leave. We'll enjoy each other's company again. Speaking of food, here comes the order. I hope you're hungry and like what I've ordered. We can ask for something else...”

“Whatever you ordered will be great. I'm famished, and I love Indian food,” Margaret says, smiling at me.

Together we share the delicious meal. I end up asking for another order of shrimp-to-go since Margaret and I manage to clean the plates they set before us. All in all, it's a very nice dinner, which would have been perfect if Sandburg had been able to join us.

----------------------------------------------

“Chief, are you sure you're okay?” I ask, deeply concerned. My partner lies on our sofa, foot propped up on a pillow.

“Yeah, Jim. Thanks.” He grimaces while he shifts restlessly. “It's just a sprain.”

“But still, I think you should go to the hospital.” With my Sentinel touch turned up, I skim the skin under my fingers, barely able to feel the bruising. “It's not bad, that's true, but I'll bet it still hurts.” I put the icepack gently on the bare ankle.

“Give me twenty-four hours, and I'll be as good as new,” my friend tells me.

“You need to be more careful, Chief. You could have been hurt a lot worse.”

Blair sighs and nods. “Who knew that that darned cat was lying on the steps? I didn't want to step on it and when I finally saw it, I overstepped, that's all. I'll be fine. Stop fussing and go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course! Hell, man, I bought those tickets months ago! You are definitely going.” He locks his hands behind his head and glares at me, blue eyes flashing.

“Okay. Okay. Down, boy.”

“Besides,” Blair tells me, “Margaret has been looking forward to this for weeks, ever since I suggested it. She's a Jags fanatic, almost as bad as you. She'd kill me if she missed the game, and she told me she didn't want to go alone. Go and enjoy!” Blair waves me toward the door. “Trust me, Jim, you'll have a great time.”

I laugh. Trust me. It's kind of an inside joke with us after all these years. I told Blair not long after I met him that those were the two scariest words that I could ever hear from him. Now I wonder how I could have ever not trusted him. He's loyal and faithful and kind and caring. God, I make him sound like a Golden Retriever! Chuckling, I shrug into my jacket.

“If you insist,” I say with a tinge of regret. “I had planned on watching the game on the tube.”

“Jim Ellison, quit being such a hard-head and go. The tickets are paid for. Margaret's waiting. I'll hang out and watch the game on TV.”

“You need anything?” I ask, fetching another bottle of water, a bag of chips and two apples. Setting the snacks down on the coffee table within easy reach of Blair's hands, I smile warmly at him.

Blair smiles back at me, his ocean blue eyes lighting up. “I expect full details when you get home.”

“Deal, Chief. Thanks. You're a real pal.” A final glance around to be sure Blair's settled and I then leave for the game.

The evening is great. Margaret whoops and hollers with abandon, something I like in a woman. She knows how to have fun, just like a certain partner of mine. After a quick bite to eat at a fast food joint, I take her home amid her thanks for a grand time. She hops from the truck, not waiting for me to walk her to the door, and waves once before she practically skips down the sidewalk to her unit. I wait until she's safely inside before I leave, happily content after a pleasant evening. I hurry home to give Blair the details, just like I promised.

-----------------------------------------------

“But I thought you liked Margaret,” Blair says. I could hear the tiniest bit of exasperation in his voice, even over the phone.

“I do like her, but Chief, it's your birthday! I want to spend it with you.”

“Ah, gee, Jim. That's really nice. And I want to spend it with you too, but I can't get out of this assignment. We've been working on this for what, three months? You know that Durant doesn't suspect me of being a cop and if I don't show tonight, he'll start to become suspicious. I have to do this.”

I sigh into the receiver. “Yeah, I know, but it's your birthday!” I repeat. “Besides, I need to back you up.”

“No way, Jim! You know that you can't go near that place again! Last time you did, you broke out in hives and ended up in the hospital overnight! Brown and Rafe will back me up on this, but it's still our bust. You've done all the preliminary work. You've spent long hours getting this ready. You know it's ours, don't you, Jim?”

“Yeah, I know. Sometimes, though-”

Blair knows what I'm going to say so he cuts off my words. “No. Those senses are what gives you your edge. My edge, too. Together we can do it and they're a big part of why we're successful. So no more whining and on Sunday we'll celebrate. We're both off , and we'll have a good time.” Blair's voice takes on a soft tone. “Please, Jim.”

“Okay, okay. Enough begging already. I'll do it, but only because you want me too.”

“You'll have a great time.”

“Stop with the platitudes, Sandburg. I said I'd go.”

“With a smile on your face?” Blair cajoles.

“I can do a smile, Chief. For you.”

“Cool. Oh, hey, Brown's calling me. I have to run. I'll be home about midnight. Bye, Jim.” The dial tone echoes in my ear.

“Be careful!” I sigh, knowing he didn't hear me, but also knowing that he'll be as careful as he possibly can be.

Who knew that when Sandburg became a cop, he'd love undercover work so much? It scares the hell out of me that something will happen to him, but he's a grown man, and this is his choice. He's a good enough detective that Simon gives him his pick of assignments when he can. Together, our closure rate is the best in the state. Thanks to Blair.

I straighten my tie, pick a piece of lint from my jacket and leave to meet Margaret at Cascade Panorama Tower restaurant. Blair loves the place. It's perched high on the top floor of the ritzy hotel with a 360-degree view of Cascade. During the day, it's fun to look out over the city, but at night, it's breathtaking with all the city lights twinkling for blocks and blocks.

When I arrive at the restaurant, Margaret is waiting in the hotel lobby. She rises from her seat and crosses over to me with a warm smile.

“Jim!”

“Hello, Margaret,” I say, leaning down to kiss her cheek. When she returns my small kiss with one of her own, I smile. Tonight I smell the winterberry, but it's mixed with allspice and roses.

“You hungry? The reservation is for seven.”

“Blair called and explained.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. He's working on an important case.”

Margaret puts a hand on my arm. “Do you mind if we skip the fancy dinner, Jim? I'd like to walk on the pier and talk to you.”

“No, I don't mind. Whatever you like. Let me cancel the reservation and then we'll take a walk. It's a bit cool tonight. Will you be okay?”

“That's fine. This is important.”

I know my raised eyebrow asks a question, but Margaret just smiles. I call the restaurant and cancel, then I hold the front lobby door open and follow Margaret while she strolls down the street. She hooks her hand on my arm, and I pat her fingers, smiling. We talk about inconsequential things until we reach the waterfront two blocks away.

There are quite a few people out and about enjoying the clear, cool evening, and we join the strollers along the pier. The calm water laps at the dock. Boats motor by, and I glance through the portholes, noticing the people on board relaxing, talking and eating while they cruise the sound. It's a perfect evening. I wish Sandburg were here to share it with me. I let out a small snort, and Margaret looks at me with a puzzled gaze.

“Sorry,” I say. “I was just thinking Sandburg would have enjoyed the evening. It's just about perfect. It's rotten that he had to work.”

“Yes, it is.” Margaret smiles at me. She is a nice woman. She is pleasant and easy to talk to, just like Blair.

“Jim, do you mind if I'm forthright with you?”

I stop. “No, not at all. I'd rather you were, actually.”

“Good. I thought you'd say that. I hope I can convey this without offending you. You know that I value your friendship. I like you very much, and I adore Blair.”

“Thank you. I doubt there's anything you can say that would offend me.”

“You're an honorable man. You have all the traits that I would want in a companion -- in a husband, but like a lot of guys, I think you're somewhat -- oblivious to what's going on. I'm not saying this to be condescending, Jim. Believe me.”

I chuckle. “Actually, Sandburg says the same thing about me. He thinks I'm clueless about a lot of things.”

“Such as?”

I shrug. “Oh, women. Relationships. Once my ex became jealous over somebody I was interested in, and I had no clue why she was upset. We'd been divorced almost two years, and I didn't understand the ice and fire she was shooting at me. Sandburg had to give me some spiel about how anthropologically speaking a relationship never ends and how the human race resists change. He's always lecturing me about something,” I add with a laugh.

“You like Blair,” Margaret says.

I pause for a moment before I say, “Well, yes. He's my partner. He's my best friend. He's saved my backside so many times I've lost count. I don't know what I'd do without him around, but you know that. Why?”

“I don't want you to get angry at Blair, but I think he's been setting us up. You and I. I think he wants us to get together.”

“Together?” I say, truly confused.

“Yes, Jim,” Margaret says, putting her hands together and lacing her fingers, giving them a little wiggle to demonstrate her words. “As in -- a couple.”

“Oh,” I say stupidly, then fall silent. I like Margaret, but as a lover? I can't even begin to conjure a picture of us in bed together. I am speechless, afraid I'll say something incredibly silly or tactless. Luckily, Margaret has more to say.

“The reason I brought it up is because I don't think that's what you want, Jim. And the reason is...” Margaret stops and takes my hand. The light from the street lamp illuminates her face and her wide brown eyes hold mine. “The reason is I think you're in love with Blair.”

I remain carved in stone for at least two minutes. Margaret waits patiently for me to process this information and when I actually, truly and honestly think about this startling fact, I realize with a shocking jolt that she is right, one hundred percent.

“Jim? Are you angry with me? I'm sorry. I've overstepped the bounds of friendship.” Margaret drops my hand and steps back. “Take care, Jim,” she says softly, turning to leave, mistaking my silence for anger.

“Margaret, wait,” I finally manage to blurt out. “Can we sit down?” I feel my body shaking a bit and figure I should sit before I fall over and embarrass myself. Before the truth of her words sink in fully and my world tilts on its axis. I'd hate to fall off the edge. It's so embarrassing.

Margaret sits on one of the many benches lining the dock and I sit next to her. She is quiet, and I sit back, crossing my ankles, trying to appear casual. I gather my thoughts and try to put into words what I should say. I decide simple is better.

“You're right.”

“Oh,” Margaret says breathlessly. “Well, from my perspective, I think it's wonderful. I love Blair, and you're a fine man. You always speak so highly of him, and he does of you. You've been good friends for a long time, and I think you're both right for each other. Blair talks about you constantly when we're together. I know he loves you, Jim, and I think Blair would be willing to return your love.”

“But why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, why has he been trying so hard to get us together? From my angle that means he's obviously not -- in love with me.” I feel a sudden stab of pain over the very thought that Blair might not love me, and I don't mean as a friend.

“I don't think that's true at all. In fact, I think the reason that Blair's been working so hard to get us together is because he must think you're ready for a permanent relationship. You might not have said in so many words, but Blair is quite intuitive. It's the anthropologist in him. He's very good at studying people, and he knows you better than anybody else on the planet. I'd bet a million dollars he knows you're -- lonely.”

“But I'm not! Really, I'm happy. Blair's a great friend. We do all sorts of things together. We work together. We go camping, to basketball games. We spend most of our time together.”

“Jim, I know that and you know that. Blair even knows it, but I honestly believe that he realizes that you want more. You want a commitment. You want a permanent relationship and the fringe benefits that come with that type of relationship.”

“Fringe benefits?” I say, puzzled for a second.

Margaret gives me a tender smile. “Steady companionship. A home life.” Margaret's smile widens. “Sex, Jim.”

“Oh!” I know I'm blushing, and I study a button on my coat while I wait for my face to cool.

“Do you love Blair?”

I take barely a moment to think before I admit, “Yes.”

“It's really personal for me to ask this but, do you find the idea of physical relations with Blair -- inappropriate or distasteful? You know as well as I do how gay men are portrayed in society. Things have gotten better the last few years, but there is still a lot of homophobia out there.”

“I don't know,” I say honestly. “I've never actually thought about -- sex with Blair. I like touching him.” I'm surprised I admit this fact, but when I realize it's true, I smile. I've liked touching Blair since I first met him. I like the way he smells. I like the way he looks. I like the way he feels, at least the little bit I've had my hands on. I suddenly wonder what the rest would feel like. Again, I feel the heat rise in my face. Clearing my throat, I turn to Margaret and ask, “Do you think I should tell him how I feel?”

“Definitely. It's his birthday. I think it would be a wonderful present.”

Not one to run from a difficult decision, I rise and say, “I'll do it.” Now that I've made the decision, I feel -- relieved and so very happy. I hold out my hand to Margaret, and she slips her warm fingers into mine.

“I'm so delighted!” she said with a laugh.

“Me, too.”

Arm and arm, we walk back toward where our cars are parked. On the way, I buy her an ice cream from one of the sidewalk vendors.

“Sorry about dinner,” I say when we reach her car. Taking her keys, I unlock the driver's door for her and open it. She slides in and gives me a warm smile.

“Jim Ellison, I do love you!”

I smile, knowing that the pronouncement is from one friend to another.

“I love you, too, Margaret. We'll hit another game together soon. The three of us,” I add, knowing that Margaret will be in our lives for a long time. I'm pleased about that.

“It's a deal, Jim. And tell Blair I said hello.” After I hand her the keys, she starts the car and gives me a wicked grin. “Give him a kiss for me.” Closing the door, she waves and drives away.

I take the opportunity to walk for a little while longer. I think about what Margaret said, about Blair thinking I might be wishing for a permanent relationship. Then it hits me. About six months ago, we went to Brown's wedding. I remember now that on the drive home we talked about how great it was to have somebody to come home to, to share things with, to sleep with, and to have that special 'something' with. Blair must have thought I was wishing for those things, and I suppose he'd be right. I did wish for them. Still do, but now I wish for them with Blair.

----------------------------------------------

I open the door to the loft and stand very still, breathing deeply. Blair is in his room. His scent is as familiar to me as my own. Citrus, tangy and sweet. Vanilla, flavorful and warm. A touch of anise, licoricey and dark. Underlying it all, balsam, woodsy and strong. I set down what I'm carrying on the kitchen counter, hang up my coat, put my keys in their basket, and pick up my shopping bag.

“Sandburg! I'm home.”

“I'm on the net!” Blair calls. “Be out in a sec.”

I smile. “Okay.” I hold the bag in my arms and grin. Deciding that I'm as impatient as a two-year-old tonight, I shrug and go to Blair's door. “Say, Chief, may I come in?”

“Sure, man. I'm logging off.”

I push open the French doors and enjoy the sight of Blair, hair messy, sloppily dressed in gray sweatpants and one of my Cascade PD t-shirts, five sizes too big. The navy blue does nice things to his eyes. I know because he turns to look at me and gives me the nicest smile.

“Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks! Sit down.”

I cross to the unmade bed and sit. I rub my hand on the sheets, releasing the smell of Blair-concentrate. It stirs my blood like nothing ever has -- and I like it.

Blair shuts down the computer and turns in his chair. “So, dinner last night was good? I'm happy to hear that.”

I smile at my see-through partner. We already talked about my 'dinner' with Margaret last night when I came home. I told him I had a good evening, but didn't go into a lot of detail. He didn't push, most likely hoping that 'something' had happened and I was being gentlemanly. I almost snort when I say, “It was fantastic. Wonderful. Illuminating. Educational.”

“Wow! Really? Very good.” Blair's smile is sincere, but I sense a small hitch in his breath. So small, I wonder if I imagined it. I focus intently on his body. His heart rate is barely quicker than normal. His temperature rises a degree. A minute trace of pheromones wafts toward me, making my blood hum. Does he know that I can smell the tiniest bit of his arousal? It is so slight that even he is probably unaware of it. But I'm not. It looms large in my senses.

“Come over here and sit, Chief. I have something for you.”

“A present?” he asks, as expectant as a child on Christmas morning.

“Yes. It is your birthday, after all. Sorry I didn't have it yesterday, but it hadn't come in yet.”

“Oh, cool! That's okay, Jim. You're within the forty-eight hour window.” Quickly, he closes the space between us and climbs onto the bed to sit cross-legged.

Laughing, from the bag I take a plain brown cardboard box that reveals nothing and hand it to him, saying unnecessarily, “This is for you.”

“Thanks, Jim,” he says, taking the box almost reverently with both hands. He places it in the space created by his crossed legs and after giving me another wonderful smile, he opens the top. “Oh, God, Jim! It's wonderful! Fantastic!” Reaching in, he pulls out the basket.

Handmade, Navajo, with the symbol of kokopelli dancing around the sides. Blair's mouth has fallen open.

“God, Jim. Oh my God,” he repeats. “It's so amazing.” He admires the coils of white and black mixed with earthen shades of dark red, rusty brown and muted yellow. “This is for me?”

“Yes, of course.”

“But Jim, I know what these cost. This is too much.”

“Don't, please. Just -- enjoy it. There's something else also.”

Blair takes a decidedly shaky breath and I can see his eyes are bright blue. “You're the best, Jim. I -- love you, you know?” He says the words, but puts that spin on them, that 'brotherly-love' spin that he's careful to use. Tonight things are different, even though he doesn't know it -- yet. “What's this?” he asks after opening the smaller box, holding a handful of small dark brown unmarked glass vials with black lids, each able to hold an ounce or two.

“These are something very special, Chief.”

“Really?” He's definitely puzzled and that insatiable Sandburg curiosity is running full tilt. “Do I guess or do you tell me?”

“You may open each bottle and take a little sniff. You guess what's in each one, and if you can't guess, then I'll tell you a bit of folklore for each of them.” At his raised eyebrow, I say, “Perfectly consumable, Chief. No hazardous waste or anything.”

“That is so great, Jim. I love the idea!” he says enthusiastically, laughing aloud.

“Good. Okay. Pick one.” I can't take my eyes from his face, and I enjoy the sight of Blair, head bent and chewing on his lower lip, fingering the vials while deciding.

“I pick -- this one.” He triumphantly holds up one of the plain bottles, clearly enjoying the 'game'.

“Good choice,” I say softly, knowing which vial he's chosen. I can smell the individual scents even with the bottles tightly capped.

Blair opens it and sniffs lightly. “Hmm.” His brow furrows sweetly before he grins. “Cilantro?” he says, clearly confused, not at the herb but at the reason for it.

“Right. Now think about your ancient folklore studies at school, Chief.”

“Okay.” His forehead crinkles for a moment before he smiles and says, “I've got it. Coriander, or cilantro, was once used to encourage people to fall in love. If you ground the seeds into powder and mixed them in red wine, it was a love potion. Some herbalists believe it also increases intelligence.”

“You're too smart for your own good, Chief. I thought you'd figure out the idea pretty quickly.”

“I love games,” he says happily, reaching for another bottle. Uncapped, he sniffs lightly. “I know this one. Rosemary.”

“Right again.”

“Is it?”

“Is it what?” I ask, smiling.

“A declaration of love? That's why people used to give rosemary.”

“It has other properties,” I say, giving him a vague smile on purpose. “It helps with depression, eases headaches. It can even increase mental clarity and eliminate negative feelings.”

“Yeah, right,” Blair says with a chuckle, obviously surmising something already from our little game. “Let's try another,” he says, choosing a bottle. He twists off the cap and sniffs. Concentrating, he finally admits, “This one has me stumped, Jim.”

I grin. “Saffron.”

“Oh, that one I don't know. I mean I know about it in food, but what are its alchemic properties?”

“I chose this one for you personally since I thought it was right up your alley. Saffron tea is said to bestow the gift of clairvoyance on the drinker. The other benefit that I thought you might like is it's supposed to greatly enhance the body's healing powers. This way, if you decide to get whacked on the head again, you'll heal faster.”

Blair gives a bark of laugher. “Funny, Jim. Very funny. I'll have you know that I haven't been smacked on the head in at least six months.” Crossing his arms, Blair tries to appear stern, but fails miserably because when our eyes met, he can't hide his smile. “Dick,” he mutters, grinning.

“Pick another,” I say, enjoying the puzzle I've concocted.

Another vial is chosen. One sniff and Blair says through his grin, “Allspice. It's considered the lucky spice. It promotes good health and prosperity. I like this one, and I appreciate the sentiment.” Blair reaches for another vial and he holds it in his hand, looking into my eyes. “You went to a lot of trouble to do this, Jim. Thank you. It's very special. Nobody has ever done anything like this for me. It's great. Just great.” Turning the top, he muses out loud, “I hope I get the entire message when I finally open the last one.”

“You will, Chief. I have faith in you.”

Grinning at me, Blair sniffs the vial. “I love basil. I know that it is said to encourage feelings of love. And it reduces stress and releases sexual energy. Do I need basil, Jim?”

I shrug, keeping to my nonchalant attitude. “It's just a game, Blair.”

“Just a game. Right.” Blair gives me a knowing smile while uncapping another bottle. “This one reminds me of... I'm not quite sure. I like it, though,” he says thoughtfully.

“Cardamom.”

“Oh, right! It's used in curries. You got me on this one, Jim.”

I feel myself almost blush when I say, “Folklore says it strengthens the bonds of a union, and makes a powerful love potion.”

“Ah,” Blair says softly. “I'm beginning to see a pattern here, I do believe,” he says with a mischievous grin. “Let's try another.” Opening the next to the last vial, Blair inhales lightly. “I know this herb.” Again, he chews on his lower lip for a second before his eyes light up. “Marjoram. It's marjoram, Jim.”

“Yup.”

“Wait a sec. I know this one. Lovers sprinkled this on their partner's food to strength the bonds of affection. This one I think I'll keep a close eye on,” he says devilishly, dropping it into his shirt pocket. “One more and all will be revealed.”

I snort with amusement and watch carefully while Blair opens the last bottle and sniffs. He raises an eyebrow and after a moment's thought, says seriously, “This is dill, Jim.”

As if that explains everything, I remain silent while Blair sits quietly and carefully watches me. I want to appear keep up my casual appearance, but I don't have a prayer of that any longer. Not tonight. Tonight, I'm so emotional that it would only take a word or a look from him and I'd be on my knees, wrapping my arms around his waist and pressing my face into his stomach, declaring my undying love and devotion. Firmly, I reign in my feelings.

“Jim?” Blair finally breaks the silence. “Are you -- sure?” he asks very quietly.

I look directly into those sky blue eyes and say adamantly, “Yes, I'm sure. Very sure.”

Still surprised, Blair's mouth falls open for a moment before he says, “Dill is a dominant spice. It stimulates sexual desire, and I'm sure you know that combining it with phallic symbols only increases the effect. The ancient Romans gladiators ate dill because it gave them courage. It's very powerful.” Blair lays the last bottle into the small pile with its companions and rises to his knees. He crosses the small space between us and slips his arms around my neck. “What about Margaret?”

I look into his eyes and smile. “She's a good friend. Nothing else. Besides, she's the one who kind of set the record straight, so to speak.” I put my hands on his waist. “So, tell me why you tried to set me up with somebody else.”

Blair looks at me seriously when he says softly, “I wanted you to be happy, Jim. If it meant with someone else, then so be it. I'd never stand in your way if you were in love and that was the person you chose. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I answer just as softly. “You stupid son-of-a bitch.” When his mouth drops open in surprise, I laugh. “Why didn't you say something about how you felt? Did you think I'd be angry... or worse?”

Blair shrugs. “I wanted to, Jim, but I admit, I was worried you'd be -- upset. In the past four plus years, you've never indicated that you dated guys, and I didn't want to hurt our friendship.”

“So you thought setting me up with some lady was the way to go?”

Blair drops his face. “I wanted you to be happy. That's the most important thing, I think.”

“I want to be happy. and I will be happy -- with you. So promise me you won't pull any more of this self-sacrificing shit on me, okay, Chief?”

“Deal, Jim,” he says with a delighted laugh. “So what did Margaret say to set the record straight anyway?”

“She's an intuitive woman. Just like you. I think that's one reason I like her a lot. She reminds me of you, but not nearly as sexy.” I enjoy Blair's pleased expression for a second before I say, “She knew before I did. That you were the one for me. She's the one who kicked my ass in the right direction.”

“I knew I loved that woman.” Blair smiles at me and moves even closer. His eyes search my face as if he can read my mind if he just looks hard enough. I am patient through his scrutiny, holding his waist lightly and giving him a chance to get a handle on what I've revealed with the little game.

“Jim?” he finally whispers.

“Right here, Chief.”

“Message received.” Slowly, Blair closes those last few inches that separate us and brushes his velvety lips against mine. “Loud and clear,” he adds, moving back enough to see into my eyes. He must have seen what he was looking for because he gives me the warmest, most tender, most loving smile I've ever seen. “Jim, I love you, man. Very, very much.”

“You taste wonderful,” I say softly before slipping a hand behind his head to bring our mouths together again. Silken lips brush against mine and after a long minute, I finally move back just enough so that I can say, “I love you, Blair. You're the spice of my life.”

“Variety is the spice of life, Jim.”

I kiss Blair's spicy lips. “Variety? I can do variety. First, I'll make love to you right here. Then we'll use the sofa. There's always the kitchen floor,” I add with an evil grin.

Blair laughs, deep and melodic. “Your bed, too. Don't forget that. The truck. The roof.”

“The roof?”

“Under the stars.”

“Outside?” For a second I'm almost shocked, but then I realize that, with Blair, it will be fun. I shrug and kiss him again. “I'm game. Then we can move onto the beach. The Cascade National Forest campgrounds. At the top of the ferris wheel at the Cascade Pier.”

“The ferris wheel? No way! Heights, Jim. Remember?”

“I'll protect you, Chief.”

“Thanks.” Blair gives me a wet, sloppy kiss. When he finally releases my lips, he licks his and says smartly, “I do love spicy. Now let's start on that variety.”

The End

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Author's Notes: Thanks to Lyn and Chris for their current beta work. This is an older story, so it was beta'd a good while ago by DebraC and written for her also, for all of her help and support. And a big thank you to Ankaree for the art. Also kudos to my MME listsibs. They do good work.

This story originally appeared in the zine, Bonded from DE Press.