Mother Knows Best

by

Rosemary

Sequel to Intimations of Intent

Originally Published in the zine Primal Instincts


"Well, now that that's settled, who's hungry?" Naomi Blair cheerfully inquired, her red hair fluttering around her thin, beautiful face as she spun towards the kitchen. Her hazel eyes were still alight with excitement, her gold-studded red shawl billowing out around her.

Still nonplussed by his mother's reaction to the armed carjackers who'd burst into the loft not ten minutes ago and held them all at gun point, Blair watched in amazement as Naomi bustled about their kitchen as if she owned it.

"Now I know where you get it from, Chief," Jim Jim stage-whispered to him as they both watched the humming redhead take a tin foil-covered pan from the fridge. Jim's chiseled, handsome face was bright with admiration.

"Mmm?" Blair questioned, still too stunned by his mom's ad-libbing to take his eyes off her. He'd known this woman his entire life and she still surprised him at least once a day.

"She's totally unfazed by what happened," Jim continued. "She's a natural, Chief. Just like you."

The open appreciation in Jim's voice drew Blair's attention from his mother. Once again, Blair found himself inclined to stare, but for different reasons. The short-sleeved, lime green shirt Jim had changed into highlighted his roommate's perfectly defined musculature to a T. Big and hard, there wasn't an ounce of wasted flesh on the detective's supple body.

Blair looked up into the stark, powerful planes of his friend's features, trying not to feel so goddamned tiny beside the man. But it was a lost cause. Jim didn't need attitude to intimidate; he could do it by presence alone.

Jim was so good to him, so playful with him at times that there were moments when Blair could almost convince himself that he had a shot with Jim, that his friend's feelings for him might extend beyond the platonic, but then he'd stand next to Jim and the absurdity of the proposition would be hammered home. In his heart, Blair knew that he had about as much chance of playing for the Lakers as he did of his handsome housemate falling for him.

"So what do you say, guys?" Naomi interrupted Blair's morose musings, her cheer infectious as always. "I made a veggie lasagna."

"You did?" Blair perked up. Two of his all time favorite feasts in one weekend. "You gotta taste this, Jim. You'd never know it wasn't beef."

Jim got that trapped-with-the-Martians-but-trying-to-make-the-best-of-it smile he'd been wearing in those infrequent moments since Naomi's arrival when he wasn't actively ogling her.

Not that Blair could blame his partner. Naomi attracted men faster than honey did flies. In that skin tight red body suit and matching gold-studded diaphanous shawl, his mom was hard to miss and even harder for a man to ignore.

"Believe me, I'd know," Jim insisted in an undertone audible only to Blair's ears. "What's in it, if not beef?"

"Tofu." Blair grinned, really enjoying his friend's awkward attempts at being polite.

"Thanks, anyway, Chief, but I'll pass on this one," Jim said, grabbing his jacket from the rack of coat hooks on the green wall beside the front door. "Ah, Naomi, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to take a rain check on dinner tonight. I'm due at the precinct."

"You work too hard, Jim. Don't they give you any time off?" There wasn't a red blooded, straight male on the planet who could have resisted Naomi's beseeching tone, never mind her huge doe eyes.

Amused, Blair watched the man he thought of as his partner flounder and practically melt under Naomi's gaze. He'd learned himself how susceptible the dour cop was to puppy-dog eyes pleading, but he was a rank amateur next to his mom. Naomi was a virtuoso, a true artist. The look, the silent come-on – all of it was designed to twist a man's guts in knots.

Blair could almost smell the pheromones flooding the room. God only knew what it was doing to Jim.

His breathing visibly labored, he saw Jim shake his head, as if to clear it. "Sorry, some other night. Besides, you two need some time alone to visit. I'll catch you later, Chief. Naomi," Jim nodded at them, his eyes hot and slightly unfocused.

"Yeah, sure, Jim." His smile fading, Blair watched his friend flee. Jim was never going to make it through the weekend if Naomi kept that up. Once Blair heard the truck turn the corner, he turned to his mother. "Come on, ma. Give Jim a break."

"Huh? What do you mean?" She looked innocently over her shoulder at him from where she was inserting the lasagna pan into the oven, blatantly ignoring the nearby microwave. No nuked food for his mom. "Would you set the table, sweetie?"

"Ah, yeah, sure." Distracted by her apparent oblivion to the effect she'd had on his roommate, Blair gathered the cutlery and crockery together while she tossed a salad.

"Why don't you go wash up, Blair?" Naomi suggested when he was done.

"No matter how old a guy gets, his mother is always his mother." Blair smiled, the little boy in him still loving when it was just the two of them and he was the center of her universe. That he so infrequently had been the epicenter of his busy, popular mom's world when little was something he tried not to dwell on when they were together, telling himself that it was quality, not quantity that counted.

"And your baby is always your baby," Naomi responded in kind, coming over to give him a hug. "It's so good to see you again, sweetheart."

Blair held her tight for a long moment. His eyes squeezed shut, he tried to capture her warmth and the brightness of her love, imprinting it in the hollow space in his heart that never seemed to get enough of her. As always, Naomi pulled back first, leaving only empty arms and the fragrance of sage and sweet grass behind.

Inexplicably bereft, Blair swallowed hard and watched her glide cheerfully back to the kitchen. He tried his best not to view that insignificant episode as a microcosm of their entire relationship. His whole childhood often seemed to be nothing but a series of incidents where he was always reaching for her warmth while Naomi stayed forever just beyond his grasp, too busy and happy to even notice his need. Blair knew that it shouldn't matter now that he was a grown man, but it still hurt. So much.

His throat still tight, he forced a smile and mumbled, "I'll go wash up."

"Sure, sweetie," Naomi replied, her bright tone broadcasting that she was utterly oblivious to the fact that her only son was on the verge of tears.

Reminding himself that he was no longer prone to anxiety and panic attacks, Blair headed for the bathroom, doing his best to ignore the little boy inside him who wanted to lock the bathroom door behind him and weep his eyes out.

He never knew why Naomi had this affect on him. She'd never been mean or negligent to him a day in her turbulent life. It just seemed that he was always trying to get something from her that she was incapable of even acknowledging. There was always something else so much more interesting going on in her life than Blair's personal crises.

Twenty minutes later he was more himself again as he took his seat at the glass table.

Naomi had prepared quite a spread – salad, garlic bread, and the aromatic lasagna that she was just placing on the center of the table as he settled down.

"That looks great, mom," Blair complimented, eyeing the bubbling cheeses of the lasagna pan, the spicy scents of garlic, oregano, and sweet basil tickling his nostrils. "Jim doesn't know what he's missing."

"You like Jim a lot, don't you, Blair?" Naomi questioned as she scooped a huge, steamy portion of the lasagna onto his plate.

"Of course, I like him, ma. He's my best friend." Blair grinned, loading salad onto the plate, then reaching for the mouthwatering garlic bread.

"Tell me about him."

A thousand alarm bells going off in his head, Blair tried to ignore the cold chasm that opened up inside him at that seemingly innocuous request.

"Uh-uh," he denied, his curls bouncing against his cheek as he gave a firm shake of his head. "No way, ma. Jim's off limits."

Her quicksilver laughter filled the loft. "Off limits?"

"I live with him. He's my best friend..."

Naomi's smooth brow creased in a frown. "You've always tried to set me up with guys you like, even that adorable sophomore...what was his name...Larry?...last year. And Larry was younger than you."

"That was different," Blair denied, feeling cornered.

"How?" she asked, seeming puzzled, but not upset, as she took a bite of her salad.

He wasn't in love with Larry, Blair wanted to shout. Instead, his gaze dropped to the lasagna on his fork as he answered, "Jim just went through a divorce a little while ago. He's pretty vulnerable right now and..."

"Oh, sweetie..." It was the tone of voice she used whenever she caught him trying to cover up how the kids in the new school were teasing him.

The sympathy in those three tiny syllables nearly undid him. Almost afraid, Blair glanced up at her face.

She knew. It was there in the compassion softening her every feature, the almost palpable air of worry that had settled over her.

"I take it Jim doesn't know how you feel about him?" Naomi guessed.

Blair shook his head, not knowing why he suddenly felt so scared. It wasn't like Naomi was going to condemn him for his feelings for Jim. His mom was one of the original hippies. No one was as open minded or supportive as she was. Yet, he still felt as if his body had been forcibly bared before strangers.

Her long fingered hand encompassed his left hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "Love isn't something to hide, honey."

There were times when Blair was incredibly grateful for his mom's optimistic, always-look-on-the-bright-side approach to life. But then, there were other times – like this - when he just wanted to scream his head off when she spouted these Pollyanna philosophies.

Falling in love with a straight cop, an ex-covert ops agent who could kill a man with a teaspoon was not a cause for celebration in any sane man's universe.

Mastering his frustration, Blair cleared his throat and confessed in a husky whisper, "Hiding it is the only chance I have, mom. Jim finds out, and I'm history."

"Don't you think you're being unfair to your friend?"

"Huh? What do you mean – unfair? It's not like this is something he'd ever want to hear."

"Jim cares about you, Blair. Look around this place. It's not some flophouse of a bachelor pad like I was expecting. It's a neat, clean home. And you're part of the home, sweetie."

Blair sighed. "You don't know, like, how much I wish that were true, mom, but...I'm just the science geek that lives in the spare room."

Naomi gave him a stern look, then cautioned in a too-serious tone, "If you keep spewing that negativity around, I'm going to have to smudge the place with sage again. Jim will be upset with me."

In spite of himself, Blair found himself responding to her attempt to jolly him past his sorrow. He forced a small, wavering smile, appreciating her concern, even if he wasn't very optimistic about her ability to really help him.

Nevertheless, he paid close attention as she spoke again, "Don't underestimate yourself, Blair. If there's one thing I know about, it's men. That man cares about you. A lot."

"But not that way," Blair protested, miserable.

"Have you asked him?" His horrified stare seemed answer enough, for she continued, "Then you really don't know how he feels about you."

"And neither do you, Naomi," Blair shot back. "If I make a mistake here, I lose everything, mom. My best friend, my home, even the basis for my thesis. I can't risk that. There's just too much at stake."

"Nothing hurts more than loving someone you can't have, Blair. I know. I've been there more times than you can imagine. I hate to see you unhappy that way," Naomi whispered, truly concerned.

"I'm not really unhappy. At least, not most of the time. Jim doesn't exactly date a lot, so it isn't, like, in my face all the time..."

"What do you mean `Jim doesn't date'?" Naomi interrupted, appearing stunned. "Are all the women in Cascade blind or gay?"

"Neither," Blair actually chuckled, loving her all the more that she could make him laugh over this most painful of realities. "Jim's just a little shy sometimes, that's all. He and his wife broke up a year or so ago and..."

"And I think that you're a bit too close to this situation to see it clearly," Naomi determined. "I've seen the way that man looks at you, Blair. He practically glows when you're around."

Wishing that the world were really the way that Naomi saw it, Blair forced a weak smile. "I...hope you're right, mom, but..."

"But?"

"But for now, as a favor to me, could you...steer clear of Jim?" Blair practically begged. That kind of competition he didn't need. Every man Naomi ever met fell in love with her. If Jim joined their ranks...

Blair already felt like he was living in a soap opera half the time without turning it into a Greek tragedy.

"Of course, Blair. I'd never..."

He squeezed her hand, wanting to get the hurt out of her hazel eyes. "I know you never would, but guys just can't help falling for you, mom."

Blair hated the shadow that came into her smile. "Falling is easy. It's the holding on that's hard."

He thought about all the men who'd passed through the hectic whirlwind that was his mother's life, recalling how few had stayed by her side for longer than a month. Wherever the wind blew, Naomi followed. No fixed address. No strings. No excess baggage. This bright spirit lived only in the now, never worrying about tomorrow or yesterday.

For so many years, Blair had shared that vagabond existence, hating it as much as his mother thrived on it, always longing for a stability that never seemed fated to be his. All his life, it seemed that whenever he came close to achieving his goal, Naomi's wanderlust would shoot his dream to pieces. For years, Blair had secretly resented his mother for all those times he'd had to pack up and leave his life behind. It was only now that he was a man grown, now that he'd found the home he'd ached for his entire life, that Blair began to sense just how much Naomi's gypsy ways cost her.

Aside from himself, Naomi didn't have a thing in this world that she could call her own. No fixed home, no husband, no close ties to family, few friends that could be tracked down in times of need. Blair found it strange to think that under all Naomi's boundless enthusiasm, she might be as lonely and hungry for real love as her anxiety-ridden offspring.

Beginning to understand what the parade of failed romances that had so rocked his childhood signified, Blair softly suggested, "Maybe you have to hang around long enough to convince someone that you're safe to hold onto."

For a second, her shimmering mask slipped and Blair saw for the first time the pain that lay beneath it. He had the uncomfortable, guilty feeling that he'd just kicked her when she was down. But then, like the survivor she was, Naomi covered, seeming almost to flick a switch to bring down the cheer and optimism that protected her from the merciless truth.

"Like you've done with Jim?"

Recognizing that the window of opportunity for discussing Naomi's personal life had slammed in his face, Blair sighed and decided not to press the issue. "Maybe."

She wouldn't talk about her avoidance of permanent commitment any more now than she would the night she'd dragged him screaming and crying from Steve's.

Run-from-the-truth-mode was a hard groove to break out of. Being stuck in it himself with this situation with Jim, Blair knew he had no right to judge Naomi. Like mother, like son. The only difference was that Naomi had enough self-preservation instincts not to hang around torturing herself with impossibilities.

So, instead of playing the hypocrite, Blair returned to her original question about how Jim and he met, giving her a highly abridged synopsis of the months he'd spent with Jim. Strangely enough, Blair found that just being able to talk about his feelings helped. Piling anecdote upon anecdote, he regaled Naomi with amusing snippets of the life he lived here with Jim.

Dinner finished, Blair lit a fire in the hearth. Nestled on the couch, laughing deep into the night, it was almost like old times again, when it was only Naomi and him on the road to some nebulous reality. Only tonight, there was no fear. It felt good to share the security he'd found in this unlikely place with another soul-weary traveler.

"And Jim bought the French doors because of what you told him about that room you had when you were a kid?" Naomi asked when Blair reached that part.

He couldn't help but notice how, even now, after almost sixteen years, Naomi still didn't mention Steve by name.

Absently, he wondered if twenty years down the line Jim Ellison would be the name that he never spoke aloud, but carried like a canker in his heart.

Dismissing the morbid musing, he smiled. "Yeah, Jim really blew me away with that. If I hadn't...had feelings for him before that, I would have fallen for him right then and there."

"And you think someone that thoughtful would cut you out of his life if you told him how you felt?" Naomi challenged, sounding so certain.

Blair watched the flames dance in the center of the iron black fireplace, his love for Jim seeming very much like that contained blaze, a burning light hidden in the center of a dark reality.

Quietly, he related the rest of that particular incident. "When I saw the doors he got for my room, I got all...mushy. I hugged him and...and I think he might have sensed what I was feeling. He shot out of here like a spooked deer, running from his own home. I don't ever want Jim to run from me again, Naomi, for any reason."

"Did he say anything when he came back?" Naomi's brow was puckered with concentration, her tone the same she'd used to counsel him through a hundred childhood crises.

Blair shook his head. "No. It was so weird. Like it never happened at all. But things have been different between us ever since. Now there's, like, this...thing between us all the time. We'll go camping or out to a game and have a really great time, then on the way home or sometimes right in the middle of what we're doing, Jim will just suddenly, like, close down on me. He'll clam up, then make some snippy comment and, like, push me as far away as he can manage. I'm beginning to feel like Blair Sandburg, the Incredible Human Yo-Yo. I think he panics when he realizes what...what I want from him."

Firelight glimmered through the red highlights in Naomi's hair as she nodded, looking almost like she'd expected the puzzle that was tearing him apart.

"You, ah, don't seem surprised," Blair prompted when she remained silent.

"I'm not. Your Jim strikes me as a pretty conservative kind of guy, sweetie."

"Yeah, he could be the poster boy for the Great American Dream," Blair grinned. Sometimes it still shocked him that he'd fallen for someone so straight-laced, let alone male.

Naomi's expression telling him that he was missing her meaning, Blair probed, "But you weren't just making an observation, were you, mom?"

She shook her head. "Blair, honey, how do you think the poster boy for the Great American Dream would handle...feelings for another man? You're scared yourself and you were raised in an open minded environment. Don't you think that someone as conservative as Jim might run from those feelings?"

Blair felt his jaw drop open. "Are you serious? You think Jim... No way, Naomi. You're way off base."

"Blair, GI Joes like Jim don't adopt twenty-six year old waifs. They don't move in with a flower child or put up with their roommate's mom coming into their home and rearranging their personal space..."

Abruptly, Blair realized that his mother had been testing Jim when she'd rearranged the furniture so that it would be in sync with the harmonic convergences of the loft, just to see how he would respond. But being a loyal, patient friend didn't mean that Jim wanted him in his bed.

Deciding to nip this lunacy in the bud before it destroyed his life, Blair protested, "Jim didn't explode because he's smitten with you. The reason he keeps me around has nothing to do with desire and everything to do with convenience. I help him out on the job. That's the sole basis of our relationship, as much as I wish it weren't."

"You're selling yourself short again, sweetheart..."

"Naomi, please, this isn't helping anything."

"Okay, you win. I'll butt out."

"I didn't say..."

"Of course, you didn't. But I hear you, anyway." She smiled. "Now go and get the pictures of that dig you were on last spring and we'll change the subject. All right?"

Not quite trusting that innocent expression, Blair rose to his feet. "Okay."

Relieved when he was actually allowed to let the painful topic drop, Blair went to fetch the photo album.

Naomi meant well. She just saw happy endings everywhere. And the one thing Blair knew was that there was no happy ending to this story.

Sighing under the enormity of it all, wondering just when his life had become this complicated, Blair tugged the enormous photo tome from its place under his nightstand and hauled it out to the living room.

This wasn't exactly his idea of a good topic change. Whenever they looked at this damn book together, they spent so much time bickering over where they were living when each of the shots was taken that Blair hardly ever enjoyed the experience. The fact that Naomi couldn't recall the names of more than one out of every ten of the male faces in the cozy family photos only accentuated his pain. But he supposed it beat sitting around detailing just why James Jim would never want him.

When he thought of it that way, that trip down memory lane looked downright attractive.

*~*~*

"Hey, Naomi, how're you doing? Is Blair around?" Jim Ellison greeted as he walked into his loft, already knowing the answer to his question. One heartbeat, one scent – neither of them Blair's. He'd known as soon as his truck turned onto the street that his housemate wasn't home yet. But as they hadn't taken Naomi into their confidence about his enhanced abilities, Jim figured that it would look strange to Blair's mother if he failed to ask after his friend.

Dropping his keys in the basket beside the door, Jim paused to admire Naomi's lithe figure as she moved around the kitchen preparing a tray of tongue, crackers, mustard, and – he sniffed the air for a clearer blast – cheese.

Tonight Blair's mother was dressed in a long, shimmery olive green gown with a laced bodice that had a rather medieval look to it. She was a truly amazing woman. Her smile was as blinding as when Blair had introduced them three days ago, her eyes completely unshadowed by her recent ordeal. Like her son, Naomi Sandburg was obviously very good at bouncing back. To look at her now, no one would ever guess that she'd been kidnapped at gunpoint this morning.

"Hiya, Jim. Blair's not here. He had to cover a class for a friend."

"Again?" Jim grimaced as he hung up his jacket. "Damn."

"What's wrong?"

Jim shrugged. "Blair misses a lot of his classes helping me out at the station. He made a deal with three of his colleagues to switch classes with them on demand, so long as they cover for him when he's with me."

"This is a bad thing?" Naomi asked, her tone and the sideways tilt of her head very reminiscent of Blair.

"This is the third eighteen-hour day he's put in this week. The kid never sleeps," Jim grumped, not understanding the voltage of the smile Naomi gave him. It seemed an odd response for a mother to have upon finding out that her son was working himself into exhaustion. But what did he know about mothers, anyway? His own had walked so long ago that he barely remembered her.

"It's kind of you to be concerned. You're a good friend."

Embarrassed and not knowing why, Jim felt himself flush. "Yeah, well..."

"Did you eat yet?" she asked, watching him out of those huge, entrancing hazel eyes with an intensity that made him sweat.

Nearly hypnotized by this intensely desirable feminine beauty, Jim found himself giving a negative shake of his head to her question before he remembered the food tray she was preparing. Tongue. His stomach rolled at the mere thought.

"Good. You strike me as a man who's open to new experiences."

"It depends on the experience," he hedged, his pulse quickening to a jackhammer beat at the double entendre.

The smiling temptress took a forkful of the pink meat off the tray and practically cornered him against the counter. Her delicate hand, so like Blair's, touched his barrel chest, simply resting there.

The heat off that light contact seared him like a branding iron. Each breath brought with it the heady rush of Naomi's fragrance – nothing artificial, no perfumes, or smelly hair-styling gels, just the pure woman scent of her with the slightest hint of sage and sweet grass smoke mixed in. On her, the previously aggravating aromas smelt...incredible.

His beleaguered mind felt his senses begin to swirl and sort of fall back from him, hearing, sight, and touch fading slowly out until only Naomi's enticing bouquet existed...

"Jim...JIM! Are you all right?"

Fortunately, he hadn't zoned that far. Her concerned tone snapped him back. Giving himself a mental shake, he tried to concentrate on anything beside her scent.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he covered, breathing hard as he stared down into her wide eyes. He could feel the heat from her tiny body tingling down his entire front, centering at his groin. She was so close, so damn attractive, but...

But Naomi wasn't the Sandburg he wanted.

Jim knew that he and this beautiful woman could have a wild and exciting romp together, but just thinking about the pain that kind of betrayal would put in Blair's crystal blue eyes cooled his ardor faster and more effectively than a cold shower. Reminding himself that this was his best friend's mother, he fought for control.

"Try some?" Naomi urged, lifting the fork to his lips.

Like her son, Naomi was a natural-born tease. Jim knew that she didn't really mean the invitation in her bottomless hazel eyes, but as he lost himself in the opaline depths of those bluish, green, and brown orbs, the woman's intent hardly mattered. All there was was the near lethal effect. Steamy looks like that ended up with clothes shredded and two sweaty, naked bodies grappling on the rug.

Fingers twitching as Jim held them locked at his sides for fear of burying them in that silken gown, should he lay hands on her, his mouth opened to request some much needed breathing room. If he could only get one cool breath to clear his senses of her intoxicating presence, he might just be all right.

The beefy, tenderloin-like scent of the tongue assailed his nostrils as Naomi popped the meat into his open mouth. Giggling like a school girl, she stood close as he coughed, then chewed in self defense.

Firmly not thinking about just what part of the cow the fleshy pink meat in his mouth had come from, Jim sampled its unusual flavor. It was really quite appealing if he didn't concentrate on the rough ridges of taste buds speckling its top.

"Mmmm..." he approved after a few moments, "Not bad."

"Want more?"

Jim doubted that there was much any man would refuse Naomi when she looked up at them like that. However, agreeing would offer an escape from her enticing proximity, if only a temporary one. "Sure, why not?"

"Great," she grinned, stepping back.

He almost slumped with relief. Even from three feet away, he could still feel her heat burning him. Needing to put more space between them, he clutched at the first excuse that came to mind. "I've got to clean up, Naomi."

"Okay. I'll add some more food to the tray."

Freed from her sensual spell, Jim watched his friend's mother glide back to the refrigerator before he turned to the loft stairs and practically fled the room. With Naomi as his first role model, it was little wonder that Blair had turned out to be the unconscious flirt he was.

Five minutes later, dressed in clean pants and his comfortable green short-sleeved shirt, Jim stood at the foot of the stairs and stared at the glass table in the dining area. The single candle Naomi had lit in its center sent a pulsing gold ring throbbing through the diamond bright depths of the glass. The candle's flickering, fey light made the chrome borders glint pure as sterling silver.

His senses sparked by that solitary flame, Jim breathed in the scents of melting wax, trying his best not to view this meal as a romantic dinner for two. Christ, but he wished Blair would get home. This was a disaster in the making.

Inexplicably nervous, Jim hovered behind his chair, staring at the plate and place settings waiting there. This was too domestic, too intimate, and it had been entirely too long for him.

"Sit, please," Naomi urged as she returned from the kitchen with three times as much sliced tongue on the silver tray. In her right hand she gripped the stems of a pair of delicate crystal wine glasses.

Once again, Jim was fought the urge to zone-out as his senses were caught by the prism of light refracting from the fluted goblets.

As they settled down, sorting out helpings and drinks, Jim relaxed some. Naomi had toned down the come-hither look. For the moment, things were almost comfortable, or as comfortable as they were likely to get while he was alone with this too-tempting woman who was firmly off-limits.

He was surprised by how at ease he was in Naomi's presence when he wasn't actively ensnared in her sensual web. With her bright smile and easy ways, she had a knack for relaxing people.

Normally, even with women he liked – sometimes especially so with women to whom he was sexually attracted – Jim found it impossible to relax. But with Naomi, there didn't seem to be any pressure. She didn't act as though she were waiting for him to make his move or to keep her entertained with scintillating conversation. Nor did his partner's mother seem to mind the silence that bothered so many. Like Blair, Naomi seemed to enjoy simply being in the moment with him.

"I'm glad that you decided to stay on for another night," Jim admitted as he took another tentative bite of the tongue. Finding it as tasty as before, he chewed with greater enthusiasm.

"So am I. I so rarely get to spend time with Blair anymore, and it's been a real treat getting to know you."

Jim chuckled. "I don't know many women who'd call getting kidnapped by carjackers a treat, Naomi."

"I'd be willing to bet that you don't know any women like me at all, Jim Ellison." She gave him that smile again, the one that turned his insides to Jell-O and had him thinking thoughts that would totally alienate his partner.

For a crazy moment or two, Jim actually considered taking this flirtation on to the next level. The attraction between them was powerful, some of the purest chemistry he'd ever experienced. Just looking into her steamy, bedroom eyes, he knew how mutually satisfying the encounter would be.

And, who knew, maybe it would be the perfect method to burn this insane longing for Blair out of his blood, to finally purge himself of his forbidden, impossible desire.

He knew that if he violated his partner's trust and took this oh-so-willing beauty to his bed, Blair would leave. That was a given.

No Blair, no temptation. Problem solved.

Only, even if he were prone to using innocent people that way, he liked Naomi too much. Even more frightening, there was a part of him that acknowledged that Blair's leaving wouldn't necessarily solve his problem. If nothing else, the past few months had proven to him that, whatever these strange feelings he bore for his unconventional housemate were, they were not fleeting in nature.

Letting the temptation of the moment pass, Jim chose his words carefully, working to defuse the sexual overtones of the conversation. "You're right, I don't know any women like you. In fact, I've never known anyone like either you or Blair."

As he'd hoped, the mention of her son's name distracted Naomi completely. "He is something special, isn't he?" Her pride in her son was almost tangible.

Jim gave a humoring nod, keeping things light.

Naomi appeared to have other plans, however. Her expression oddly intense, the lovely new-age maven asked, "You care about Blair a lot, don't you, Jim?"

"He's a good friend. The best," Jim demurred, not quite gruff, but losing all traces of humor. She'd seen how much her son risked to stay by his side. He didn't want her thinking that he took Blair's dedication lightly.

"You know, I've been meaning to thank you," Naomi continued in her enchanting musical tone.

"For what? If it weren't for your help, our case would have fallen apart two days ago."

A pleased blush tinted her cheeks pink, giving her a girlish air. In the dim illumination, Naomi looked as young as her son. The baby-fine strands of her hair shimmered like raw silk in the flickering candle light were achingly tempting. If this were any other woman, Jim would have been reaching for her at that moment.

"Not for that. You've given my Blair something that he's always needed, something he never found with me." His expression must have revealed his confusion, for Naomi continued, "You gave him a stable home, Jim. I can't tell you how much it means to me to finally see him truly happy."

Discomforted by her gratitude, Jim tried to shrug off the significance of his effect on Blair. "Blair's always happy."

"No," Naomi corrected, "he always seems happy. It's not the same. But these last few days with him, he's like a different person. No anxiety or panic attacks. He seems so settled here, so confident, so...brave."

Recalling the embarrassing scene in Simon's office where Naomi had told Blair that the kid wasn't cut out for police work, Jim quietly stated, "Your son is one of the bravest men I've ever met, Naomi. He mightn't be into the macho posturing that most guys mistake for guts, but he has more raw courage than a squadron of Navy Seals."

She blinked at that, taking a long sip of her wine. The light from that single candle danced through the burgundy fluid like liquid rubies as it sloshed around her glass. "I guess I just never saw that part of him before."

"No?" Jim paused, carefully considering his next words. The last thing he wanted to do was to alienate one of the most important people in his friend's universe, but, by the same token, he wasn't going to put on a false face for her. "I would have thought that all those times Blair packed up and started over in a new place would have shown you what he was made of."

Breath held, afraid that he'd been too honest, Jim waited for an explosion, the `Just who the hell do you think you are?' that would have been entirely justified.

To his surprise, Naomi didn't respond negatively or even defensively to his near-accusation. Her gaze level, she softly admitted, "It wasn't always easy on him. I know that."

Jim stared down at his plate, trying to let the moment pass as was socially called for. But in his mind's eye, he kept seeing the unspoken pain that had dimmed Blair's normally bright gaze on that early morning when Blair had told him about the gypsy life Blair had led in childhood. Remembering that pain, something in him just couldn't let the topic drop that easily.

"It tore him apart, Naomi. Every time," Jim reported, not accusing, but not letting her off the hook either.

"I know. Maybe I should have done what my parents wanted when I had a fatherless child and put the baby up for adoption, so that the kid would have a normal life, but... Blair was mine, Jim, and I loved him more than anything from the moment I laid eyes on his puckered up, screaming, little red face. Maybe it was selfish of me, but..."

"You don't have to explain anything to me, Naomi," Jim hastily interrupted, intensely uncomfortable.

"I think that maybe I do." Something in her gaze made him even more nervous, and this time his uneasiness couldn't be explained away by sexual heat. She was looking at him as if she could see straight into his soul. He found himself holding his breath as Naomi continued, "You're the first person who ever loved Blair enough to take me to task for all the times I hurt him. He's very fortunate to have found someone like you."

She'd said the word love...

When he could force his frozen vocal chords to work, Jim gulped, "I think maybe you have the wrong idea, Naomi."

"Do I?"

God help him, but he couldn't meet her eyes and bluff his way clear. Try as he would, the lie that would cover his ass and keep his secret locked safely away refused to pass his lips. Jim knew that any other cop would have been consumed with macho indignation at the slightest suggestion of loving another man, but he couldn't work up the bluster needed to throw her off the scent. Naomi had only brought the truth out into the light – the same as he'd done to her just a moment before. What's more, there'd been nothing accusatory in her attitude.

Even so, Jim wasn't ready for this. He couldn't even face what he felt for Blair in the sanctuary of his own heart. How the hell could he admit what he felt to Blair's mother, for Christ's sake?

Years of training surfaced as his fight or flight instincts kicked in. Not surprisingly, it was flight that won out in this instance.

Staggering to his feet, he stammered, "Thank you for dinner, Naomi. I have to...~

Her slender hand darted out to grasp his wrist tight as an iron manacle. "Don't go, Jim. Please?"

Hidden behind the wall of ice that had quelled killers, he glared down at her offending hand, waiting for the silent intimidation to do its trick.

To his complete consternation, she seemed as immune to the silent threat as Blair. What was it about these Sandburgs, Jim wondered. Didn't they recognize when they were about to be torn to shreds?

Instead of withdrawing, Naomi's fingers slipped down to surround his clenched fist. "Love isn't something to be ashamed of," she whispered, her eyes holding nothing but compassion. So like Blair...

His features like rock, Jim simply stared at her, unable to believe that she'd guessed his deepest secret or that she was so unbothered by it. From the way Naomi was behaving, you'd think that it was every day that a forty-one year old cop fell in love with her twenty-six year old son. There didn't even seem to be any surprise in those understanding eyes, just caring and open acceptance - like she was really concerned for Jim personally, rather than as just as a friend of her son.

"Love?" he repeated, trying to keep his features blank as he tested her certainty. Maybe she really didn't know.

Naomi took a deep breath, the expression of intense concentration on her lovely features very much like Blair's when he was going out of his way to choose his words with care. "I'm not making any assumptions about its nature. With love, it's not the form of expression that counts. Only the emotion itself."

The breath Jim had been holding whooshed out in a shocked exhalation. Her unexpected tact told him that she really did know how he felt.

"Sit down, Jim. Please?"

Like an automaton, he sank numbly back into his chair, his gaze dropping to his plate.

"It's not something to be ashamed of," she repeated, soft and calm, as nurturing and supportive as Blair in his best Guide mode.

After a shocked moment, he murmured, "Most people wouldn't see it that way."

"My son wouldn't be involved with those people," Naomi countered.

"We're not..." Jim's chin shot up, his features stiffening in rebellion as he sought to explain a situation he couldn't fathom himself.

"I know," she quickly assured, giving his hand an encouraging squeeze. "This is all new to you, isn't it?"

Jim considered just walking out on the conversation, like he did when things got too heavy with Caroline, but stonewalling hadn't helped him these past few months. Every day he felt like he was getting in deeper. Safe ground was so far out of sight that he couldn't even remember what it looked like any more. All there was in his world was Blair and this dark, violent ocean of dangerous emotions. His self-contained heart had never felt so adrift.

Jim knew he was long past the stage of needing help. He was fast approaching desperation. But by its very nature, this wasn't exactly the sort of topic he could explore with just anyone. These days, there were only two people he took his problems to – Blair and Simon. For separate reasons, neither of the two could help him in this.

The approach-avoidance games he was playing with Blair were hurting them both. Maybe if he could hash this mess out with a neutral third party, he'd find a way past these impossible longings. That the third party would turn out to be Blair's mom was just another bizarre twist in this Outer Limits Reality he lived with Blair in his life.

"New to me?" Jim repeated. "Half the time I feel like I fell down a rabbit hole and crashed right into the middle of the Mad Tea Party."

"And the other half?" she asked with an encouraging smile.

Cornered by his respect for the truth and his regard for this special lady who'd brought Blair into the world, Jim struggled with his reclusive instincts that were howling for him to clam up.

He searched her open face, fully as terrified as he'd ever been in his life. He didn't know how much he could tell her, how much was safe. Would Naomi go running straight to Blair with anything he confided to her? And, even if she did, would that necessarily be a bad thing?

"Jim, this is strictly between us, if that's what's worrying you," Naomi assured, sounding as if she'd read every fear in his heart. "I'm not going to force you to talk to me, but I'm a good listener if you feel like talking."

With anyone else, the assurance would have been a nice way of pressuring him to open up, but Naomi looked like she really meant the words. Her beauty went far deeper than a pretty face and willing body. Abruptly, Jim completely understood how every man she met could fall instantly in love with her, not just 'in lust' with her as his cynical mind had translated what he'd taken to be Blair's euphemism.

Maybe he could trust her, he decided, but he still wasn't sure if he wanted to talk about this. Finally, he just gave up on the fight. He wasn't handling this well alone. Maybe she could give him a little perspective, gently let him see how preposterous the very idea of Blair wanting him was.

His body almost trembling with apprehension, Jim dropped his gaze to the bright pink meat on his plate and quietly admitted, "Since he moved in here, it feels like this empty building's become a home again."

There, that was both discreet and honest.

To his complete bafflement, Naomi's face lit up like a sunrise. "Ahh..."

Like Blair's, her smile was infectious, magical. It made his reticent heart feel like he hadn't made a monumental blunder.

"Have you tried talking to Blair about this?"

"No," he pinned her with his stare, "and I don't intend to. I'd appreciate it if you kept this to yourself as well."

"But...why?" Her lovely features were totally confused, maybe even a little sad.

His jaw dropping, Jim just gaped at her. Surely, she couldn't be encouraging him? What mother would encourage a man nearly her own age – a man who'd just confessed sexual feelings for her son – to pursue the issue? How could she want to see them together?

"Naomi, look at me. I'm nearly twice his age. I could have fathered him."

"You're exaggerating a bit there, I think. And even if you aren't, so what? You're older. If it hasn't prevented you from being friends, why would it matter now?

Staring into those compelling, passionate eyes, Jim was stunned to realize that Blair's mother really was 100% behind this lunacy. "Doesn't it bother you that I'm a man?"

She grinned wickedly at his awkward phrasing and lightly teased, "No, Jim, it doesn't bother me at all that you're a man. In fact, I rather like men."

"You know what I mean," Jim insisted, his cheeks warming.

"Yes, I understand your concern, but, no, it doesn't bother me. I don't have those kinds of prejudices. It actually bothers me more that you're a cop than that you're a man." His flabbergasted expression must have been priceless, for her smile brightened as she explained, "I taught my son to look for love in this world. I'm not going to fault Blair for where he finds it. You're a good man and you care about him. What's more, Blair worships the ground you walk on. How could I disapprove of you?"

Jim sighed. This was not going the way it should. She was supposed to talk him out of this madness, not convince him to go for it. Somehow, without noticing it, he'd tumbled back down that rabbit hole again.

"You should talk to Blair, Jim."

Outwardly composed, but churning inside, he shook his head in firm denial.

"Why not?"

Reality slapping him in the face, Jim told it like it was. "Naomi, your son isn't exactly disadvantaged in the romance department. If Blair felt this way...he would have said something."

"I suppose that you have the market cornered on fear of rejection?"

The quiet probe shook him more than it should have. "Are you trying to tell me something? Has Blair..." He quickly bit back the question, realizing that he was asking this woman to violate the most basic of confidences.

Naomi seemed to pause to consider before carefully replying, "When Blair first told me that he'd moved in with a cop, I thought it was a delayed rebellion. I mean, think about it, Jim, how does a hippie's son rebel against his parents? I figured that you were a phase that he'd grow out of, like bell bottoms and no makeup in the sixties. But then, the more Blair talked about you, I realized that you weren't a phase at all. He wasn't living with you to rebel against anyone or anything. He was living here because of you. He talks about you like you're Batman, Superman, and the Beatles rolled up in one. You mean the world to him, Jim. If you talked to Blair about this...I don't think he'd turn you down."

Jim gave a sad smile. "I know he wouldn't turn me down, Naomi."

"Then what's the problem?"

Jim tried to find a polite way to explain. Naomi was Blair's mother, for Christ's sake. Realizing that there was no discreet way to phrase this, he gave her the truth. "Blair is out with a different woman every night of the week. He's like a kid in a candy shop, tasting every sweet that comes within reach."

Her cheeks blushing a bit, Naomi looked down and confessed, "It runs in the family, I'm afraid."

"I'm not complaining, Naomi. I remember what it's like to be twenty-five, I mean, twenty-six. But...I'm not a kid anymore. I can't...I won't be the latest Sandburg flavor of the week. Maybe the time will come when Blair won't need the variety anymore, when he'll grow up, I guess. Until then, it's just not possible."

"You're playing for keeps and you're afraid he's just playing?" Naomi said softly, regretfully.

"Can you tell me he isn't?"

Part of him was praying that she'd lie to make him feel better. But, after an extended pause, Naomi said, "Blair and I are both explorers, Jim. I don't know that either of us is capable of playing for keeps."

"And I'm a possessive S.O.B. that doesn't like to share. I won't put chains on something that doesn't want to be mine. Blair is...like a wild bird, flying free and happy. I won't clip his wings or cage him. The one thing I've learned after forty-one years of living is that you can't go into a relationship expecting your partner to change for you."

"You're a very wise man, Jim Ellison."

He gave a slow, deliberate shake of his head. "Not wise. Careful."

"And if Blair does care enough to forsake all others?" Naomi asked with studied calm. Jim could hear her heart drumming double time as she reached to pour them more wine.

"It'll never happen."

"Never is a very long time, Jim. Blair is nothing if not changeable. If he wants something enough, he'll work for it. If you could just see the changes he's gone through these last few months, you'd understand."

"Changes?"

"Well, for starters, a year ago his hair didn't even clear his earlobes."

"Right," Jim laughed at the idea of a Blair without his dramatic curls. Whenever Jim thought about his friend, that beautiful hair was the first attribute that came to mind. He could no more imagine Blair without curls than he could Blair not talking. "Blair with ears."

"Seriously. The last time I saw Blair, my son was a bespectacled science nerd. Cute as a button, to be sure, but a science nerd all the same." The way Naomi said it, made her sound proud. "You should have seen him then. Heck, you should have seen him when he was little."

"I wish I could have," Jim surprised himself by admitting.

"Would you like to?" Naomi grinned.

"Huh?"

"Blair has our family photo album here. I'll make a deal with you, Jim. You show me yours and I'll show you mine."

She was incorrigible, just like her son, all grin and enthusiasm and come-hither glances. If he hadn't fallen for her son, he'd have gone for her in a big way.

He found himself returning her grin, a shyness coming over him as he asked, "Why would you be interested in my ancient history?"

Hell, Caroline hadn't even asked to see his baby pictures until they'd been engaged almost six months. Naomi had just met him three days ago and already she had him spilling his guts and swapping baby pictures.

Shocked, Jim realized that Naomi was treating him the way any mother might their child's prospective spouse.

Her gaze softened. "Blair's lived with you longer than he has anyone else. You're family now, Jim."

Strangely touched, he swallowed hard.

"You do have a photo album, don't you?" Naomi asked.

"Upstairs, somewhere, I think," he finally admitted.

"Good, go get it."

It must be something in the Sandburg blood, Jim theorized as he found himself nodding in agreement. A Sandburg turned those puppy dog eyes on a person, and that poor soul was lost, finding themselves agreeing to the most incredible, outlandish suggestions without a second thought.

Tearing himself away from the warmth of her presence, Jim spent the next ten minutes searching through the bottom of his upstairs closet.

"No luck?"

Sitting on the floor in front of the closet, Jim shook his head, and looked back over his shoulder to where Naomi stood paused at the top of the staircase. The huge photo album she mentioned was wedged under her left arm. A silver tray laden with wine, glasses, tongue and crackers was balanced between her right arm and hip.

"God! The room's all bed!" she exclaimed in delight, eyeing the enormous, king-size bed with a grin. "Entertain up here often?"

"Not much since a certain science nerd moved in," Jim answered in kind, enjoying the byplay.

An hour ago, being alone in a bedroom with Naomi would have rattled him completely, but something in the air had changed between them now. A little startled, Jim recognized what the difference was. Since he'd opened up to her about his feelings for her son, she'd tuned down the silent come-on, as much as any Sandburg was capable of toning down their sexuality.

"It's not up here," Jim said. Turning his back on the mess he'd made of the closet, he promised himself that he'd straighten it out later.

"I'll take a rain check. Do you still want to see these?"

"You bet."

Her gaze moved questioningly to the big bed.

Sighing in defeat, Jim ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. "We do anything in that bed other than look at pictures, he'll be hurt."

Jim hated being so blunt, but he didn't want any misunderstandings between them, not now.

"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I've never intentionally hurt Blair. Tempting as you are, James Ellison, I promise to behave."

Accepting her at her word, Jim flicked on the lights and took a seat on the far side of the bed. He reached over and took the heavy album from her, watching as the svelte redhead set the food tray down between them and poured two glasses of wine. Only when the goblets and food had been sorted out did Naomi settle on the far side of the enormous mattress, a chaste five feet away.

Oddly eager for these glimpses into Blair's formative years, Jim opened the book that held some of the secrets of his Guide's past.

*~*~*

"It's a pity that Jim got called in so early this morning," Naomi lamented as the green Corvair pulled into an empty parking space outside Cascade's airport.

"Yeah, he really wanted to see you off." Blair glanced over at his mom, quickly looking away. He still hadn't completely recovered from that moment of anxiety when he'd walked into the loft last night to the sound of his mother's laughter echoing down from Jim's bedroom. It was like his worst nightmare given flesh – Naomi stealing Jim from him.

But he hadn't caught them in a clinch. They'd both been a little worse for drink, but they'd also been fully clothed on opposite sides of the bed. From what Blair could see, all his best friend and mom had been doing together was looking at old pictures of his childhood and laughing. Yet, something indefinable had changed between the two. Blair had sensed an intimacy that hadn't been there before, and, for some reason, that unsettled him more than if he'd caught them making out.

"Blair, are you going to tell me what's bothering you or are you going to let me fly back to L.A. not knowing why you're mad at me?"

"I'm not mad at you, Naomi," he denied too fast.

"Is this about Jim and me last night?"

He really hated it when she read his mind like that.

"Jim said nothing happened last night," Blair reported with tight control, staring at his fingers as he fumbled the keys out of the ignition.

Was this where she'd tell him that they'd lied to him, that he and Jim were going to have a new roommate soon?

"I gave you my word about that, sweetie," she gently reminded. "Even if I hadn't, do you think I'd do that to you after what you told me?"

Blair gulped, feeling like a total ingrate. "No, mom, I know you'd never...it's just that... He likes you – really likes you."

"Maybe, but you're the Sandburg he's living with, honey."

"We've been over this territory before, mom. Let's not re-hash it again," he begged. "Your flight takes off in fifteen minutes. They're probably boarding already..."

In all the years Blair had known her, Naomi had never once made it to an airport without having to race down the terminal for a closing door.

"We have a few minutes. We're going to discuss this," Naomi said in a no-nonsense tone that Blair had heard perhaps a total of three times in his life.

"What's to discuss? I've got the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of winning here." Blair could feel her eyes digging into the side of his face. For a horrified moment, he thought that he might lose it and spill the tears that had been stinging his eyes since he'd seen Naomi and Jim in bed last night, when once again his roommate's heterosexuality had been hammered home.

"I agree. You don't have a chance – if you don't change your approach."

His head spun around to face her, his long curls stinging as they whipped into his cheek. "What do you mean?"

"Blair, the other night we spoke a lot about what you want and need. Have you stopped to consider what Jim might need in his life?"

"I really hate it when you play shrink. What are you talking about?"

"How well do you know your friend? What kind of person do you think Jim wants to share his life with?"

"I..." Blair paused, abruptly realizing that he'd never given the idea a single thought.

The real question was, what was Naomi getting at? It was obvious that she and Jim had talked. Blair knew from long experience that his mother would never directly betray a confidence, but she wasn't above pointing her son in the right direction.

"We're not talking about you at the moment, Blair. What do you think Jim wants in a potential mate?"

"A woman," he answered, knowing that he sounded like a sullen child, but too downhearted to care.

"Self pity doesn't become you. You've got two choices here, love. You can go on as you are and wallow in misery and self pity."

"Or?" he prodded, knowing there was more. With Naomi there was always more.

"Or you can take a good, long look at your life and make the hard changes necessary to achieve your goal."

God, that was all he needed now, new age philosophy. Still, Blair couldn't count the number of times Naomi had been right, all the times when everyone else told him that he was too small or too young or too weird for something and she was the only one who encouraged him to go after what he wanted in life. He wouldn't be here now if it weren't for her optimistic beliefs.

Trying to distance himself from the pain, Blair asked as calmly as he could, "What sort of changes?"

"Blair, the one thing I know in this world is men. Your Jim is very special, very...careful with his heart. You've already got one foot in the door. He's opened his home to you..."

"That's totally different from letting me into his bed," Blair interrupted, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose, right between his eyes where the tension headache was forming.

"And whose fault is that?" Naomi inquired, sharply for her.

"Huh?"

"The basic rule in life is to know what you want and go for it. You say that Jim is what you want. Is that true?"

He nodded, watching her, sensing that she was almost protective of his friend, like she was just as worried about Jim getting hurt here as her son.

"You can't win the prize you're after playing this game. Change your approach."

"I don't get it," he confessed, the weight of her stare making him squirm like a guilty child.

"Jim isn't a man who plays romantic roulette with his heart. He's a conservative guy. He likes stability and reliability..."

"I know, ma. I've been trying so hard to follow his house rules and..."

Now it was Naomi's turn to interrupt. "That's surface stuff, Blair. You need to work on the foundation here."

"I still don't get it."

"Okay, try this. Can you honestly see Jim Ellison standing in line for his turn with someone who claims to want to share his life – woman or man?"

With that simple question, Naomi knocked his world right out from under him. Mind spinning, he simply stared at her, overwhelmed by the scope of his error. All those girls he'd used as a safety valve to take his mind off his true desire, never realizing all the while that his parade of casual sexual liaisons was driving Jim further away. How stupid could he be?

"Jim is too old to be the Sandburg flavor of the week, sweetie," Naomi said gently.

He gasped at the wording. That Sandburg flavor of the week' comment was pure Jim. Jesus, how much had she told him?

"Naomi, you didn't...I mean, did you tell Jim how I felt about him?" He could feel his heart slamming against the wall of his chest as the air in the Corvair suddenly thinned out. Absently, he recognized the telltale signs of an encroaching anxiety attack, and was too upset to even care.

What did it matter if he died here in this parking lot? If she'd told Jim, his life was as good as over.

"Of course I didn't tell him!" she hotly denied.

"Then how…?"

"You know him that well, to recognize the way he phrases things?" Naomi marveled. Blair supposed that such familiarity was a novelty for someone whose significant others rarely hung around long enough for her to be certain of their last names, let alone the way they thought or felt about things.

Miserable, he nodded. "I know him."

"Then you should know him well enough to know that he needs fidelity, and if you don't think you can give him that, then you shouldn't be swimming in this pool, Blair. You could end up hurting him a lot more than he'll hurt you."

Blair stared at his mother, unable to believe what she was saying. She really was protective of Jim. God, what had his partner said to her?

"What did you two talk about last night? This is, like, so weird, Naomi. How do you know this stuff if you didn't tell him how I felt?" he panicked.

"I didn't tell him. We talked about life. He...he's lonely, Blair. He needs something to hold onto. That something could be you. Just...go slow. Don't scare him and, be sure you really want what you think you do, honey. You breeze in and out of this man's life and you could destroy him. So be sure before you act."

The new age maven of spontaneity and following the heart counseling that he look before he leap? This was so out there, he was beginning to suspect that she'd been taken over by one of those pod creatures on Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Only, it wasn't any space pod that had gotten into Naomi, his stunned mind realized. It was precisely the same thing that had gotten to him. Somehow, some way, Detective James Ellison had gotten under her skin, too. God only knew how hard it had been for Naomi to keep her promise and not seduce Jim, Blair recognized.

"I...I will, mom. Promise."

"Good," she grinned, "Well, sweetie, I've gotta run now." She leaned over to give him a warm hug and huge kiss. Her smile was pure sunlight. True to her nature, there wasn't a man born that Naomi Sandburg didn't leave dazed and confused, including her son. "I'll call you after my retreat, honey. Drive carefully."

Slowly, it penetrated that she was leaving. "Mom?" he squawked, adrift in this new sea of possibilities.

Caught in a blaze of morning sunlight that punched its way through the ever-present cloud cover at that moment, Naomi paused to smile back at him over her shoulder. "Yes, sweetie?" She asked, like there wasn't a plane about to take off in four short minutes.

"I... Thanks for everything. I really love you, Naomi."

She rushed back to the driver's side to give him another bear hug and mushy mother kiss. "I love you too, Blair, more than anything. Good luck, my angel. Give Jim my love and, when things work out between you two, give him a kiss for me."

"You think they will?" Blair questioned, trying not to sound the uncertain, scared geek that the bigger kids used to pick upon.

"I know so," she ruffled her hand through his shaggy curls. "How could he resist? You're absolutely beautiful!" Naomi beamed, then with another quick hug, she was rushing for the terminal, a vision of floppy cape and glinting red hair.

Thunderstruck, Blair sat in the parking lot for the longest time, staring off into space, his mind racing on overdrive.

It was time to form a new game plan. Dump the girls, concentrate on finding out just what Jim wanted in a lover, and make sure he fit that mold. Sometimes life was just that easy.

Thinking that there was no time like the present to initiate positive changes, Blair's mind raced on. There was a pair of tickets for tonight's college basketball game in his pocket. He'd planned on asking Mollie or maybe Sam, but now...

His hand was reaching for the cell phone Jim had forced upon him before the thought was even completed.

"Ellison." Terse and to the point, no one would mistake whom they'd called.

"Hello, Jim," Blair chuckled, tingling at just the sound of Jim's voice.

"Hey, there, Chief. How's it going? Did Naomi get off all right?"

Encouraged by the way Jim's entire tone brightened, Blair found himself grinning at the phone. "Yeah. She said I should kiss you goodbye for her."

Yesterday, Blair would never have dared to voice that comment. Even now, it was a test of sorts, to see how bad Jim would freak. He really had no idea how his oft-times uptight roommate would respond to such open flirtation – and he wasn't going to kid himself that it was anything other than flirtation anymore. Even Jim had jokingly called his behavior 'courtship ritual' the day after Blair had moved in. Why bother to disguise it now?

To his astonishment, the detective gave a quiet laugh. "She did, did she? Just don't deliver it in the office, okay? These last three days we've had enough domestics in the squad room to keep the rumor mill churning for the next six months." Jim didn't sound especially worried.

"Domestics?" Blair tentatively repeated, his heart leaping, his stomach fluttering at Jim's casual use of the word.

"That little show down you and Naomi had in Simon's office the other night attracted a bit of attention, Chief."

"Sorry," he apologized, his cheeks burning at the thought of his reserved friend being hassled over that humiliating scene. It seemed like he was always a source of embarrassment to Jim. The guy was just so together it was frightening.

"Don't sweat it. So what's up, Chief? You're at the university all day today, right?"

"Yeah." Blair paused and sought for a normal tone. Absently, he wondered if the Sentinel could hear the nervous pound of his heart through the cell phone. "What time do you get off tonight, Jim?"

"Sixish. Why?"

Deep breath, then Blair took the plunge. Christ, you'd think he'd never asked his roommate to a social event before. "I, ah...have a pair of tickets for tonight's basketball game. Wanna come?"

"What happened? Mollie find out about Sam? Or did Ann find out about them both?" Jim laughed.

Damn. How to handle this right...keep it light...

"Nah, I just thought that it would be great to go to a basketball game for once with someone who wasn't waiting for a home run or a touchdown, you know?" Relieved, he could hear Jim chuckle. Man, but he loved the sound of his serious friend's laughter. "So, what do you say, Jim?"

"Sounds like a plan. I'll swing by and pick you up around six-thirty. We can grab something to eat. My treat."

"Jim, you don't haveta..."

"You got the tickets. I'll get the food. Fair's fair."

"The tickets were a freebie, man."

A distracted note entered Jim's voice as something in the office obviously caught his attention. "Ah, be right there, Captain. Gotta run, Chief. See you tonight."

The line went dead, leaving Blair grinning at the cell phone in his hand like a dotard. Life was truly fabulous.

More excited than he'd been the day of his very first date, Blair reluctantly kicked into teacher gear, realizing that he was almost as late for his class as Naomi had been for her plane.

Turning on the ignition, Blair took off. The Corvair was squealing out of the airport like the garishly painted Torino in a cop show popular when he was a kid, fish-tailing as only those big old cars could as he raced for Ranier, ironing out his strategy in Project Ellison.


The End

Go to Sequel: Freefalling

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