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Giving Up On Greener Grasses

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'Cause I am giving up on making passes and
I am giving up on half empty glasses and
I am giving up on greener grasses
I am giving up

- Giving Up - Ingrid Michaelson

*

The new apartment is kind of a dump, but Brenda blames that on herself as much as the unit. Yes it’s an older building and yes it’s much smaller than what she’s gotten used to but the neighborhood is nice and so close to her office. The landlord had told her that the building had character and that was certainly true. Hardwood floors, crown moulding, and it was a smaller building, only twelve units. Brenda was on the second floor - if she wasn’t a workaholic, it might be an issue. The noise from above and below, but she basically just comes home to sleep so it’s fine. Everything is fine.

She’d taken the guest bed with her and the loveseat but left the couch. She’d bought some things online and took a friday off so she’d be home when they arrived. David came over that Saturday to help her put them together. It wasn’t that she was incapable of reading the directions - she could read them in three languages for heaven’s sake, but she didn’t really have the tools and some things - like the bureau or some of the bookcases - were just too heavy for her to handle on her own.

“Want some help?” David had offered. She’d hesitated only a moment before nodding.

“Thank you,” she’d said. “Sure. Yes. I’ll even buy you dinner.”

She is closer to David Gabriel now, though she spends less time with him overall. He’d come with her to the D.A.’s office and while she is still his superior, they aren’t police officers anymore and so it seems like a real friendship won’t cause any conflict. They eat lunch together a lot and sometimes get a drink after work. He’s better at making friends than she is. Two years into this job she still feels like an island and David is her only bridge to the mainland. Part of it is that they work with so many lawyers and she just doesn’t trust lawyers, not after all the experiences she’s had with them over the years.

So she has furniture now, but it still doesn’t look like anyone actually lives here. Half her clothes are still in the huge cardboard wardrobe box - apparently walk in closets weren’t a thing in the 1920s when this “vintage” building with “tons of character” was built. She’d bought a set of dishes so now she has four plates, four bowls, four mugs, and she’d taken a some of the silverware when she’d left because none of that had ever matched anyway so she didn’t feel badly about breaking up the set. But it was hard to remember what pots and pans had come with her first house in L.A. and what had come with Fritz so she’d left all that kitchen stuff. What is she going to do anyway, cook?

When she gets home from work on a Friday night, she looks around dejectedly and promises herself that she’s going to really put some effort into making this place presentable this weekend, if only for herself. The only person who has seen it so far is David and though they share meals, she can’t picture inviting him over just to hang out. She doesn’t even have a television. What would they do other than sit around and mope over their terrible taste in significant others? That doesn’t seem like a healthy way to kill time.

Fritz isn’t terrible, she reminds herself for the hundredth time. The end of their marriage was terrible, yes, but that was her fault too. She’d just… stopped. Stopped trying, stopped coming home, stopped being in love. To be fair, she stopped feeling anything. Love or hate or drive or passion. It was hard to hold a marriage together when you didn’t care about anything.

Maybe if her mama had still been alive, she would’ve given into Fritz’s requests for counseling. First for Brenda alone and then together but Brenda can still barely think about the sharp turn her life has taken, why would she want to talk about it to death? To a perfect stranger? No, the only thing she’d been firm about at all in the last year was that she didn’t want therapy. Then what was Brenda’s plan, Fritz had wanted to know. How would they get through this, Fritz had demanded, without help?

“Maybe we won’t,” Brenda had offered.

After that, it was just a matter of details. Yes, Fritz could keep living in the duplex and anything else he wanted. Yes, she’d pay alimony if he thought that was fair. After all, he’d dumped most of his savings into getting her the best lawyer in Los Angeles when she’d been duking it out with Goldman. No, she didn’t need his help moving or finding a place. She’d sort it out on her own.

Now she’s one month into this rental lease and they are legally separated. Divorces take time. Assets to divvy, finances to untangle. She’s not a patient woman by nature but she feels oddly placid about the whole process the second time around. Her first husband had smacked her right across the face and from that moment forward it was a race to get out but this she wants done right and fairly. She wants Fritz to get the better end of the deal, even, because he deserves it. He’d stuck with her for nearly ten years. Ten! She can barely stand herself for ten minutes on a bad day so yes, Fritz deserves the house, the cat, the newer car, the money, all of it. She’s willing to start again from zero if it means being free.

One of the things she’d started doing there, at the end, was avoiding coming home. She’d work late and leave early. This job is certainly not as challenging as police work but it is demanding and she always has something to fill her time. Between managing the budget, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in an open investigation or twelve, and always going in and out of court, the day is over before she even gets to something like a special project or updating their increasingly out of date policy and procedural manual.

No, this is not the most exciting job she’s ever had but it’s the best offer she’s gonna get in Los Angeles and strangely, she doesn’t want to leave. Like so many transplants before her, she has moved out here to the desert and found her home. Keeping busy at work isn’t the problem, it’s her off hours that tend to drag by.

She wakes up early Saturday morning and gathers her hair up in the dull light of the dawn, securing it with a beige hair elastic and then pulling on workout pants, her sports bra, and a light jacket that zips. Socks and then she finds her running shoes still in a heap by the door. She’d never been much for disciplined exercise but she’d started telling Fritz last summer that she was going out running so she could get away for awhile and then she’d realized it was actually easier to just run then figure out a place to hole up for an hour.

It had been rocky at first. Stitches in her side, a rolled ankle, once she’d nearly been hit by a car. But it’s habit now and she does kind of feel good. Stronger and faster and clear-headed.

The good thing about this new place is that it’s about two blocks away from a pretty decent park. There’s lots of grass and a playground but there’s a great running path that circles the whole thing and if she does it twice, it’s a mile. On weekends, she’ll make four loops. She tries, anyway. It isn’t yet seven when she shuts her front door behind her and starts down the steps to street level. She’s not much of a sleeper, anymore.

She tucks her keys and her driver’s license into the pocket of her jacket and zips the pocket closed, taking a moment to stretch on the concrete steps of her building before tucking her chin against the morning chill and heading off toward the park at a brisk walk. She never runs until she gets there, just uses the couple blocks to warm her muscles up. This is the first weekend she’s come so early. She could run at almost any time during the winter but now, even in early April, it gets too hot by mid morning and she ends up a sweaty mess with a sunburn across the bridge of her nose. This early, it’s still cool and not so crowded either. When she approaches the park, she can see that the playground is empty. The only people around are runners, like her, a young man on a bicycle zipping by, and a few people with dogs on leashes.

Brenda misses Joel just for a moment but doesn’t let the thought fester. The cat is much better off with Fritz.

As soon as she hits the running path she breaks into a trot and then from a trot to a run. She’s not running for speed so she doesn’t bother to push herself to go fast and she always hates the first five minutes of any run. This is stupid, she thinks, Why on earth am I doin’ this?

But then something happens, something that always happens. She stops thinking. Focuses on breathing, the thud of her feet on the asphalt of the trail. Her focus narrows to the few steps in front of her, to ducking that tree branch that has grown low and is in need of pruning, dodging the divot in the trail that could stand a patch. She passes two older women walking in matching red t-shirts, a man passes her, running fast and hard.

On her third lap she starts to slow a little, tired and thirsty. When she passes the water fountain she stops to take a long drink and then stands, dragging the back of her hand across her damp forehead and looking out across the park. There are more runners, now, working the loop and Brenda watches all of them, awareness of her surroundings settling back into the forefront of her mind. If something bad happened, what could she remember? The African-American man in the grey muscle shirt who’d lapped her twice already, the women in their red shirts, the young girl with the poodle, leaning over to scoop up her dog’s leavings into a bright blue bag. The other lone woman running in expensive purple shoes, her dark ponytail swinging.

Brenda squints. There’s something familiar about that woman. Something about the graceful lines of her body, running with her head held high, long arms and legs. There’s something about those legs that are really niggling at her.

But the woman runs around the bend and Brenda can’t see her anymore through the trees and so she shakes it off, thinks three laps is probably good enough for today, and starts the slow walk home, warming down as she goes. By the time she makes it up the stairs and into her apartment, she’s more focused on breakfast and a shower. By the time she’s dressed and ready for grocery shopping and dry cleaning and other Saturday errands, all thoughts of the park have drifted away.

But the next Saturday, she gets up early again, puts on her running things, walks to the park and spends more effort noticing her surroundings. Who does she recognize? Are the same people she sees on Tuesdays and Thursdays here on the weekends? That girl with her pooping dog was here last week but the old ladies aren’t here and there are three men running laps and she can’t tell if one of them is the same one who’d shamed her last week. She recognizes the old man on the bench with a newspaper - he’s here everyday. Weekends, weekdays. Brenda had come once at twilight and he’d still been there, reading a paperback instead of a newspaper.

Brenda looks for the woman with the dark ponytail and graceful gait but she doesn’t see her. She runs six laps, three miles, before the sun starts beating down on her shoulders and she heads on home.

oooo

The thing about being alone is, she actually really likes it. She’s had patches of being alone - between Will and meeting her first husband - that small stretch of time between her divorce where she toiled away on the Atlanta P.D. waiting for something interesting to happen in her life. A few days in Los Angeles before Fritz had appeared to alter all the plans she’d made. But for the most part she feels like she has bounced from man to man and she finds now that this solitary life suits her. A few dishes in the sink, her sweater always where she leaves it. The back of a chair, the foot of the bed.

She spends a Sunday afternoon at Target pushing her cart down practically every aisle and buying anything she wants. She buys sheets for the bed, a set of pastel pink ones and a set of white covered in tiny yellow roses. The top sheet is frilly and she buys a couple ruffled pillows to throw on the couch for good measure, too. She buys more dishes to fill out her cupboard, ones that are white and covered with a pattern of bright orange poppies. She buys a shower curtain that is entirely victorian lace, off white, and cream hand towels with a bright blue letter B stitched into them.

She buys a rug for her bedroom that is exotic looking, all deep magentas, with bits of silver and gold. By the time she gets to the checkout line, her cart is an explosion of color. She tosses in a few kit kat bars, proud of herself. When she lugs it all up the steps into her apartment (two trips), she surveys her bounty and tries to think of what her mother would think.

It doesn’t exactly go, Brenda Leigh.

“So what?” she replies carelessly. “I like it all. I like color!” And she does. She puts the towels in her little washer in the hall closet with the dryer stacked on top and starts a load now that she’s actually bought detergent. She stands perilously on the edge of her old solid porcelain tub and hooks the new shower curtain on ring by ring. The little window lets the afternoon sun in and it shines through the lace, dappling across the white tile floor. She spends twenty minutes sitting on the counter in her kitchen, peeling price tags off the bottoms of her new poppy dishes.

Her mother’s voice lingers. What happened to the pretty dishes you and Fritz got for the wedding?

“Fritz kept all that stuff, mama,” Brenda says into the quiet room, dropping another ball of sticky paper into the trashcan that sits just below her dangling feet. “I wanted a clean start.”

It’s tempting to put them all in the cupboard, the pink plastic tumblers she’d purchased, too, but she does the right thing and sticks them in the mostly empty dishwasher. And since she’s standing there, she puts everything in the sink in the dishwasher too and squirts in some lemon scented soap and starts the machine up. For as old as this unit it - cracks in the wall and crumbling plaster, having a washer/dryer and a dishwasher was a luxury she couldn’t pass up.

She digs her cell phone out of her purse to find no texts, no calls.

She hops up on the counter again and calls for Chinese food.

She and David have lunch on Monday, running up the street to the deli and then he drops her off at the courthouse. She’s supposed to serve as an expert witness in a trial. She doesn’t mind that kind of work - she doesn’t have to be familiar, necessarily, with the case but can testify to procedure easily enough. It’s never anything exciting - no murder trials. She’s been called back once to testify on something she’d done as an LAPD officer, had spent weeks fretting over seeing everyone again and then the trial had been postponed and she hasn’t heard anything about it since.

So it’s strange, then, to be sitting in the little cafe adjacent to the courthouse, waiting for her time on the stand, and see Lieutenant Provenza come strolling in. He sees her too, they lock eyes for long enough that one of them has to say something.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant Provenza,” she says with a nod and that smile her mama used to just hate. The forced one she had in all her school pictures that made her mouth look like someone was pulling it apart with two fingers.

“Chief!” he says.

They look at one another for another few beats.

“How is everyone?” she says.

“Good,” he says. “I was just going to get some coffee.”

“Oh,” she says. “By all means, Lieutenant.”

She stares down at her own cup while he moves off to place his order. Her little table has work on it, but she can’t take any of it in when he’s there, the words just blur and she pulls her reading glasses off in frustration and tucks them into the neck of her dark blazer, buttoned snug across her chest. She straightens up her papers and tucks them into the file folder, closing it, and then shoving the whole thing into her black bag. She still has at least fifteen minutes before she has to meet the Deputy District Attorney assigned to this case but she can stand out in the sunshine or hide in the restroom. She doesn’t have to sit here and wait from other ghosts from her past to come waltzing on through.

She stands, coffee in hand and glances back at Provenza who is watching her from the counter where the creamer and sweeteners are, little wooden sticks to stir it all together.

“You look great, Chief,” he says because they’ve locked eyes again. “It’s nice to see you.”

This takes the steam out of her frantic escape and she smooths her free hand down her hip.

“Thank you,” she says. “I hope that things are goin’ well for you all.”

He smiles, nods. He’s holding two cups and she sees him glance at the clock that hangs over the door.

“Don’t want to be late,” he says. “But you know. Don’t be a stranger.”

“Oh well,” she says. “We ran into each other today, didn’t we?”

He pushes out the door with his back and she can’t help but watch through the window as he heads for the courthouse steps. She has to take a few steps away from her table to keep watching and then she sees more of them - she might not have noticed them at all if not for Provenza’s coffee run. Lieutenant Flynn and Detective Sanchez and there’s Provenza, extending a cup of coffee to Captain Sharon Raydor.

He leans in, says something into her ear and she straightens up, turns to look right at the coffee shop and Brenda steps back though it’s doubtful that Sharon can see into the shop with how the sun hits the glass at this time of day. She’s worried, suddenly, that more of them might come in to see her but no one does. Raydor turns away again and then everyone moves away from where she can see them.

When Brenda finally heads into the courthouse, feeling unsettled and on display, the only person she recognizes is the D.D.A. assigned to her case and when she’s done, her testimony complete, she doesn’t see anyone from Major Crimes then, either. Just David in the parking lot to pick her up again, like old times.

“Want to get some dinner?” he asks.

“Not tonight,” she says, trying to sound regretful. She just wants to go home, eat the rest of the pad thai from the night before while sitting on her loveseat and watching a movie on her laptop. She wants to take a bath and slip quietly into bed, maybe pick up the book on her nightstand and read a chapter or two before falling asleep. "Thanks, though."

She wants to ask him if he misses it, their other life. The long hours, the sleepless nights, the heavy weight of a pistol at their hip. She does - but not all of it. Not Will, not the lawsuit, not the pinched look on Fritz’s face or the way Goldman seemed to pop up wherever she wanted him least. But she misses the work, the rush of the chase, the power she felt when she was in an interrogation room.

David brings her to her car and waits until she’s tucked inside of it before driving away.

Tuesday morning she runs a single mile and then heads home to get ready for work. She leaves the longer runs for the weekend when she has more time, but she hadn’t slept especially well and so she sort of gives up halfway through and walks home, her hands tucked into her pockets. It’s early enough that the commute traffic is really just gathering steam at this point and by the time she showers, dresses, and gets into her car, it’s practically gridlock. She lives maybe ten minutes from her office in no traffic but it takes her the better part of an hour to get there.

She doesn’t run on Wednesday but she feels antsy when she gets home and finds she doesn’t want take out, doesn’t want white containers and plastic utensils and little single serving packets of sauce. Her mama says, Go to the store, Brenda Leigh! A woman cannot survive on chocolate alone!

It’s not like she never goes, but she usually only buys staples like coffee and creamer and boxes of snack cakes. But it’s lovely out and the sun is just setting. She knows it’ll be busy with everyone getting off of work but she doesn’t care. She pulls into the parking lot of the grocery store and finds a spot not too far away. Her heels echo on the linoleum inside and she skips her usual hand held basket in lieu of a shopping cart. She’s going to grocery shop. She’s going to buy real food and not just food, but ingredients.

She buys a circle of brie cheese and some crackers. She buys four apples and a clear plastic box full of dark purple grapes. Fritz had always bought the green ones because they weren’t as sweet but now she can get what she likes. Some bananas, an avocado. A head of lettuce. A loaf of sourdough bread, a dozen eggs, a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. A jug of lemonade. Her mama had always had lemonade on hand in the summer and Los Angeles is warming up fast.

She is turning her cart into the cereal aisle when she sees a familiar face scrutinizing the Pop Tarts.

"The ones without icing ain't even worth it," she offers helpfully.

Rusty turns, his blue eyes wide. "Brenda?"

"Hey," she says and this time her smile is real because he looks so good, clean and strong and well-fed.

“Wow,” he says, looking friendly enough but, still. “I haven’t seen you in… forever.”

“I know,” she says. “How are you doin’? You doin’ okay?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Great. Really good, actually. How are you? I see Fritz sometimes but we don’t really talk.”

“Oh,” she says. “I’m good. We’re… fine.” Which is not technically a lie. She is doing well and she and Fritz are as fine as they can be, considering. And who stands in front of sugary breakfast snacks and tells a boy about their divorce?

“Good,” he says.

“Rusty,” she says now. “I’m sorry that after what happened I didn’t stay in touch with you.”

“It’s okay,” he says and he looks like he really believes that, too, which is kind of soothing to Brenda. She’s had such a rough patch of it, so many people disappointed, so many bridges burned that it’s immediately gratifying that this doesn’t seem to be one of those things. “Sharon explained about your mom and how you had to start a new job and I mean, who wants to hang out with the person they almost got murdered with?”

“That was a tough stretch,” she agrees. “But I should’ve called and I’m just so glad you’re doing so well.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m going to Santa Monica College now.”

“Congratulations,” she says. “That’s great.”

“Sharon is like really proud of me so that makes me have to try and not screw it up,” he says.

“She’s quite the task master, as I recall,” Brenda says but the ire is all false. She certainly can remember the frustration she felt when Captain Raydor first started haunting her murder room but by the end of her tenure as Deputy Chief, Raydor felt like the only friend she had left. Well, the only person she could trust. She couldn’t say that they’d become friends, exactly, but they were certainly fighting on the same side. Hadn’t they been?

Brenda looks at Rusty’s cart now, filled with meat and fruit and bags of rice and dry beans, leafy green vegetables and whole wheat bread. Nothing a teenage boy would voluntarily buy.

“Are you still staying on with Captain Raydor?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “We live really close to here actually.”

“Do you?” It’s surprising. She doesn’t volunteer the fact that she lives close now too, doesn’t want to complicate this pleasant exchange. “Tell her I said hello.”

“I will,” he promises.

“It was… it was really great to see you, Rusty,” she says. “But I should get goin’.”

“Oh,” he says glancing at his watch. “Yes, me too. Sharon’s actually home tonight which never happens.”

“She’s got a tough job,” Brenda says knowingly. He smiles again, nods.

“She does. See you later, Brenda,” he says. Brenda pushes past him and turns out of the aisle, abandoning cereal. She goes right to the check out. It was nice to see him but running into him in a different aisle would just be awkward and she wants to go home, eat something and fall asleep.

Maybe this time she won’t dream. Maybe tonight she’ll get the restful, undisturbed sleep she’s been chasing for so many years.

oooo

Brenda runs Saturday morning and when she sees the tall woman with the swinging ponytail and expensive shoes she thinks, finally, oh shit because she knows exactly who it is, why she had seemed so familiar, why those legs are like a red flag to Brenda’s subconscious. She’d watched every man in her division stare at those legs for three years and she’d done a little staring too, truth be told.

She doesn’t tuck her tail and leave or anything but she slows down a little to make sure she’s on the opposite side of the track and then speeds up when she realizes that if she keeps going this slow, everyone is going to lap her, even the two old women who today are wearing purple t-shirts and red visors, their gray hair teased out the top.

She’s on her last lap, tired and already jumpy when she rounds the bend and someone steps out from behind a tree and says, “Brenda!”

Brenda has never had a heart attack, but she thinks it must feel something like this. She jumps and then feels her ankle roll and down she goes. She at least manages to fall mostly on the grass, not the pavement but it’s hard to catch her breath with her heart in her throat, sweat stinging her eyes, and her ankle now throbbing something fierce. If she’d been carrying a gun, she probably would’ve gotten a shot off.

Captain Raydor is standing over her, not even looking that concerned.

“For cryin’ out loud!” Brenda manages finally, embarrassed and a little bit mad. “You scared me half to death!”

Raydor considers this, her stare still stoic and Brenda can’t say she likes the dynamic of the Captain literally standing over her but she doesn’t feel quite ready to sit up. She realizes now that she’d scraped her knee on the way down and blood is seeping through the tear in her spandex pants and now that she knows about it, it’s that shallow scrape that hurts worst of all.

“Are you all right?” Raydor asks, finally.

“Do I look all right?” Brenda snaps.

Raydor straightens up and puts her hands on her hips and finally says, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Yes,” Brenda says. “You did.”

“Chief Johnson, are you following me?” Raydor asks.

Brenda brushes off her hands and thinks she’ll try standing. She pushes up and her ankle gives an angry throb but she ignores it, managing to get to her feet. Of course the scraped knee is the other leg. Wouldn’t want to contain all her misery to just one side. She looks down at her self, shifts her weight to her good leg, and then looks back at Raydor.

“What?” she asks, finally. “Am I what?”

“Following me!” Raydor says, her eyes flashing. She’s not wearing her glasses and has no makeup on, either, and those two things together - it completely changes her face. And her hair is in a low ponytail, also unusual. Brenda sees now how she didn’t immediately recognize Captain Raydor from across the park. She barely looks like herself even now.

“Why on earth-”

“The courthouse. The grocery store!” Sharon says. “You haven’t said a single word to Rusty since you left Major Crimes!”

"I saw Lieutenant Provenza at the courthouse and I saw Rusty at the market. You I haven't seen in ages," she retorts. Not on purpose, anyway. A glimpse the other day and the park is an honest mistake. Who would expect her here anyway? She seemed like the type to run on the treadmill in silence but Brenda can see she has white earbuds tucked under the collar of her shirt.

"You've been running here for weeks," Raydor points out and Brenda feels a familiar surge of triumph - Captain Raydor has given her the upper hand. She walks away now, hobbles toward an empty bench and then sits. Raydor stares after her and then, begrudgingly, follows. But she doesn't sit next to Brenda, just crosses her arms under her breasts and hovers, watching Brenda ease her running shoe off.

"You recognized me here?" Brenda says casually, focused more on peeling off her sweaty sock. But she glances up and Raydor's mouth has puckered a bit and Brenda has her answer. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"At first I..." She doesn't finish that thought and changes tactics. "There is no reason for you to use this park. It's not in walking distance from your office and you don't live remotely near here."

Raydor is worried about a turf war which on one hand Brenda can understand but on the other, there's no need for it. Brenda gave up Major Crimes and she let it go easy. She didn't call to check up on Raydor, she has never dropped by the murder room. She gave Raydor all the space in the world to run that division and now she thinks that, what? A couple years later she's going to try to snatch it back? Brenda may have some nostalgic feelings about those times but even she knows there isn't any going back now.

"You see that palm tree?" Brenda says, pointing behind Raydor into the sky. "The one that leans left?"

Raydor nods.

"Just below. The red roof. That's my building," Brenda offers. Raydor turns back to look at her, a fixed, distant gaze that never wavers.

Brenda shrugs. She can see that Raydor needs more.

“Fritz and I are separated,” she says because why not be kind to Raydor now? Why not talk her down off this paranoid cliff she’d managed to climb up on? Brenda doesn’t want Provenza, she doesn’t want Rusty and she’s fine with sharing the park.

“Oh,” Raydor says.

“I’m not following you, Captain,” Brenda says. “We’re just neighbors, I think.”

Raydor glances back her head tilts up and Brenda thinks she’s looking at that high rise of condos and that makes a kind of sense. Brenda can imagine her there. Raydor turns back and the hard edge of her expression has softened somewhat.

“Your ankle is swollen,” she says.

“Yes, Captain,” Brenda says. Though… “Commander, now, though, probably, right?”

Raydor sighs and finally plops next to Brenda on the bench. She reaches around to a pocket in the back of her seemingly pocketless pants and pulls out her glasses, putting them on her face carefully. “Captain,” she says.

“What?” Brenda says. “That’s some bull!”

“Promotional freeze,” Raydor says.

“Unless you're a smarmy rat named Russell Taylor,” Brenda says and Raydor glances at her sideways and cracks enough of a smile to show teeth.

“You must think I’m completely ridiculous,” Raydor says.

“I honestly didn’t recognize you,” Brenda says. “I mean, I recognized you but I didn’t know that it was you, Captain.”

“I’m sorry about you and Chief Howard,” she says.

“Thanks.”

“And spooking you,” she adds, pointing to the ankle. “You going to make it home?”

“It’s only a couple blocks,” Brenda says.

“I’ll walk with you,” Raydor offers. “It’s on my way.”

Brenda looks at her, the breeze moving the trees above them, scattering the light. She looks sincere enough. Like the Sharon Raydor she’d left behind to run her department, not the Captain who’d opened a use of force investigation on David all those years ago.

“Okay,” Brenda says. She puts on her shoe without the sock, easing her toes in. It’s swollen but not broken or bruised. She can limp on home.

“Do you like your new place?” Raydor asks as they head toward the sidewalk.

“It’s different,” Brenda says. “Smaller than I’m used to but I think I do like it. It’s my own and that’s good, I guess.”

“I felt the same way when I sold the house,” she says. Brenda doesn’t know enough about Sharon’s life to know about her previous address, her life before Major Crimes or outside of it really. She could ask but that might turn out to be a minefield. So she doesn’t.

They falter as they move out of the park and down the street. It’s a slow pace, Brenda limping and Raydor glancing sideways at her. This is unfamiliar territory for them. No hierarchy to fall back on, no rank to pull. Brenda is as professional as possible under the circumstances but if there were a way to snap her fingers and get the Sharon Raydor back of her last few days as a police officer, she’d do it now. It seems like time has made them strangers again.

She takes a particularly hard step and falters a bit, pain shooting up her calf.

“Guess I’m in flats for a few days,” Brenda says through gritted teeth.

“I could go get my car-”

“No,” she says. “Not necessary.”

“If you’re sure,” Raydor says.

“Rusty seemed really good,” Brenda says, desperate for a distraction. “In school and everything.”

“He’s doing wonderfully,” Raydor offers. Her face softens in the most incredible way and Brenda can see what she must be like when she’s with her family, when she’s completely unguarded. How she might have looked when she was 25 or 30 years old. Rosy and full of life. But she’s full of life now, too, maybe more than Brenda who’s limping down the street and bleeding from one knee. Sharon looks healthy and happy and warm to the touch and Brenda should be jealous, maybe, but she isn’t. She just feels like Major Crimes is in good hands, something she wasn’t certain of before and it’s a good feeling.

"You guys get along as roommates?" Brenda asks carefully.

"We do," Sharon says. "Actually we made it formal. I adopted him not so long ago."

“That’s amazing,” Brenda offers. “How wonderful.”

Sharon nods, pleased. “Thank you, Chief.”

“Oh, just Brenda is fine, I think,” she says.

“Okay then,” she says. “Sharon would be fine, too.”

Brenda stops, puts a hand on her hip and sighs. There’s a small flight of steps up to the first floor and then another full flight to her apartment. Maybe she can just sit here on the stoop for awhile until the throbbing stops.

“This is your building?” Sharon asks. “Let me guess. No elevator.”

“Apparently being old and not ADA compliant means a place has a lot of character,” Brenda says.

“Put your arm around my shoulder,” Sharon says.

“Oh, you don’t have to do all that,” Brenda says. But Sharon sends her a stern glare over the dark rims of her glasses and Brenda realizes that Sharon wasn’t making a request. So she acquiesces, puts her arm around Sharon’s shoulder and Sharon, in return, puts an arm around Brenda’s waist and together they take the first step.

“This will only be helpful if you actually give me your weight,” Sharon says as if Brenda is nearing the bottom of her well of patience.

“I wouldn’t need you to be helpful if you hadn’t jumped out at me like that,” Brenda snaps.

“I wouldn’t have had to ambush you if you weren’t actively avoiding me,” Sharon barks back.

“That’s rich,” Brenda says leaning into Sharon as they make it up the front steps and into the building. “How could I be avoidin’ you and stalkin’ you all at the same time?”

“I never said stalking and even you have to admit three times in one week is quite the coincidence,” Sharon says as they head up the next step of the stairs. Sharon’s arm tightens around her and Brenda braces herself between Sharon and the handrail so she can swing her foot rather than step.

“Well I’m sorry I moved into your territory, I didn’t know,” Brenda says though the apology is as hollow as it sounds.

“Maybe working in homicide instead of Internal Affairs has made me a touch more paranoid,” Sharon says after a considerable pause.

Brenda glances over at her and they’ve both worked up another sweat but they’re nearing the top now and once they reach it, Sharon lets go and Brenda does too, leaning for a moment against the wall on one leg.

“Yeah,” she says, finally. “Murder’ll do that.”

Sharon wipes her palms on her hips and says. “Okay. I hope you feel better.”

“Oh, Sharon,” Brenda says, suddenly exhausted. The run and the slow walk home and the lack of food makes her feel a little light headed and there’s no sense in going back to the awkward, stilted silence - what is Brenda going to do? Wait another couple years before talking to her again? That seems unlikely. “Come on in, I’ll get you some water.”

Sharon shifts her weight for a moment from foot to foot and then sighs dejectedly and says, “Fine.”

Brenda fishes out her keys from her pocket and unlocks the door. “I haven’t been here all that long,” she reminds them as they walk in. She limps toward the kitchen but Sharon just points to the sofa.

“Sit down, Brenda,” she orders. “I can do it.”

It’s more a kitchenette than a kitchen. An extension to her living room. She’s spend a good chunk of time making this little apartment feel cozy and like her own, but this is the first time she’s had someone besides David over and it’s hard not to see the place through Sharon’s discerning eyes. Not enough counter space, cracks in the ceiling, several days worth of mail piled on the little table doubling for her dining room table and her desk.

“Cups to the left of the window,” Brenda says.

She takes off both shoes and drops them to the floor and uses one of her new ruffled couch pillows to prop up her foot on the little coffee table. Her back is to the kitchen and she listens to the unfamiliar, yet comforting sound of someone else rummaging around. If she slips her eyes closed she can imagine it’s anyone - her mama, Fritz, anyone but she finds that having it be Sharon doesn’t torture her like it once might have. Sharon in her little apartment is kind of okay. Just like how toward the end there, finding Sharon in her murder room had flooded her with relief, not resignation.

“Here.”

She opens her eyes to find Sharon extending to her a pink tumbler of water and ice.

“Thanks,” she says, taking it. Sharon goes back to the kitchen and returns swiftly with her own water and with a plastic sandwich baggy of ice in a yellow dish towel.

“For your foot,” Sharon says. Brenda takes that too, the little bundle of plastic and towel and cold. It’s such a motherly thing to do, something her own mother would have done exactly and suddenly, Brenda doesn’t want Sharon to leave.

“Have a seat,” Brenda says. The only options are the other end of the sofa or a rocking chair she’d bought at the consignment shop. It’s old and wooden but it reminded her of the south and had been small enough to fit in her car, so she’d bought it.

Sharon picks the rocking chair. Sips at her water and looks around. “It does have character.”

“You hate it,” Brenda accuses.

“I didn’t say that,” Sharon says. “It looks like you.”

“Cheap? Trashy?” Brenda says.

Sharon’s eyes widen and she leans back, the chair creaking. “Homey,” Sharon says. “I was going to say.”

"Oh." Brenda looks around too and then says, "Fritz never liked color. Everything always had to be brown or beige or gray."

"Neutrals," Sharon says with a nod. "That's certainly not the case here."

Maybe Sharon is plainly unaware of how condescending she sounds. Maybe she doesn't realize that her tone is what gets Brenda's hackles up, that she's forever talking down to Brenda. Either way, Brenda is tired of being on the defensive so she decides to let this one - one! - slide.

"How long have you been in the neighborhood?" she asks.

"Hmm," she says. She makes this little sound when she's thinking and Brenda remembers it well, like a tiny engine revving in her throat. "Six years?"

They falter again. The homemade ice pack on Brenda’s foot shifts and makes a crinkly noise as the ice starts to melt. Brenda wants to ask about the squad and the job but she doesn’t want Sharon to feel like she’s getting interrogated, like Brenda is checking up on her. She’s just curious.

“Will seems to think he’s king of Los Angeles,” she says, finally. She’ll come at it from the side, try to circle back around.

“Ahh,” she says softly. “Yes. Our industrious Chief. He’s too important to micromanage Major Crimes, now. Besides, he has Taylor to do that for him.”

“You like it, though?” Brenda asks. “Better than Internal Affairs?”

“It’s different,” Sharon says. “They’d take you back in a heartbeat, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“I wasn’t getting after anything!” she says. “I’m just makin’ small talk. For heaven’s sake, this isn’t going to work, is it?”

“What isn’t?” Sharon asks.

“Us bein’ friendly,” Brenda says. “I thought maybe… you know, now that things are different but all we do is jump down each other’s throats!” Brenda sits forward, lets her elbows rest on her knees, her hands on her forehead.

Sharon is silent for a moment and then leans over to set her water cup on the coffee table. She’s going to just leave, put them both out of their misery and Brenda can go back to overworking, to eating take out from styrofoam boxes, to running alone. But she leans back again and says, “You make me nervous.”

“No I don’t,” Brenda blurts without thinking much about it. Sharon looks irritated, a crease forming between her eyebrows. “I mean, it sure doesn’t seem that way.”

“I’m telling you that it is that way and you do,” Sharon says firmly. “I feel like we had once gotten to a place where we had a good rapport.”

“We did,” Brenda confirms.

“Do you think we could manage that again?” Sharon asks.

“I’d like to,” Brenda says, though the confession feels costly. She half expects Sharon’s face to harden, for her to use an overture of friendship against her, somehow, but Sharon just nods.

“Me too,” she says.

“I hope you don’t think that-” Brenda stops. “What I mean to say is, if anyone were to take over Major Crimes, I couldn’t imagine anyone more qualified than you, Captain.”

“Thank you,” Sharon says.

“Unless you were a Commander. That would make way more sense and be the least of what you deserve,” she adds.

“I think Chief Taylor would demote me if he could,” Sharon says.

“Well I think he wanted to shoot me, so it’s progress anyway,” Brenda says. “So we callin’ a truce or what?”

“Truce,” Sharon says. “Yes, all right.”

But Brenda doesn’t see her again for two weeks.

Chapter Text

It looks like it could rain but the little weather button on her smartphone says there’s only a five percent chance of precipitation so she decides to haul herself out of bed and go for a run. In Georgia, if it looked like rain you could bet it was sure as hell gonna rain, but here in L.A. where the water is needed desperately, it so rarely does.

She walks to the park happy enough to see the sun behind clouds. She can get a few extra laps in if she isn’t burning alive in the barren desert. She stops at a bench to stretch, to straighten the strap of her sports bra that is folded over a little - she’d hurried getting dressed, forcing it over her head, afraid if she took too long there’d be time enough to talk herself out of it. She puts a foot up on the seat of the bench and stretches out her hamstring and then does the other side.

She’s just about ready when she sees Sharon walking toward her across the grass.

“Sorry I missed last week,” she says instead of a normal person greeting like 'hello' or 'how are you'.

Brenda stares at her, confused.

“We had a murder,” Sharon says.

“Okay,” Brenda says.

“You ready? I warmed up on the way,” Sharon says. No glasses again and all her long dark tied back with a black elastic, one of the very skinny ones - the kind that always slip out of Brenda’s hair. Sharon is wearing a light jacket this time and long running pants, not the capri kind that Brenda favors. Brenda just has a dingy old t-shirt on over her sports bra and Sharon looks like something from a catalog. Lean lines and soft curves and Brenda thinks she’s wearing foundation because no one’s skin looks that good this early.

“Sure,” Brenda says.

This is a thing they’re doing now, apparently. Call a truce and get a running buddy. It’s tempting to ask her what the hell is happening but then Brenda thinks, no. Better not. Better just to try and match her stride - see if she can keep up without getting a stitch in her side.

For most of the first lap they’re quiet, respectful of each other’s space and the people around them. During the second lap, though, Sharon says, “Rusty thinks it’s funny that we’re neighbors.”

Brenda glances over but Sharon doesn’t look at her, doesn’t break her stride. It’s hard to talk and run and Brenda is surprised, frankly, that Sharon is making an effort.

“Why?” she says. It’s not like they’re down the hall - they’re not even in the same building or on the same block.

“I don’t know,” Sharon says. “I think he thinks we’re already very similar.”

“Ha,” Brenda says. “I bet you set him straight.”

Sharon is quiet for a moment as they round the bend and navigate around another, slower runner.

“I think we have a very different approach to certain things,” Sharon hedges.

“That’s awfully diplomatic,” Brenda says.

“But he’s right, you know. We do have a lot in common,” Sharon says. “It’s just hard to notice because when we’re together-”

“We’re always fighting,” Brenda finishes.

“I’m the only female department head now that you’re gone,” Sharon says. “The only other woman I spend any amount of time with is Detective Sykes.”

“Let’s walk for a bit,” Brenda says, slowing down a little, breathing hard. It’s too difficult to run and talk at the same time; she’s just not that coordinated.

“My work hours are too unpredictable to rely on church or any other sort of organized community gathering,” Sharon pushes on. “And the majority of my family lives anywhere from several hours away to several states away.”

“It’s an isolating line of work,” Brenda says, feeling a tiny bit sympathetic.

“How did you do it?” Sharon asks.

“Well,” Brenda says. “I mean, I guess I didn’t.”

“You didn’t?” Sharon asks.

“I had Fritz,” Brenda amends. “But he wasn’t exactly separate from work, really. And I had my parents but they almost always had to come to visit me and not the other way ‘round. But I just worked all the time. I mean, I still do. I just work.” She shrugs.

“I see.”

“So I guess you’ve solved the mystery of my failed marriage,” Brenda offers.

“Yes, I’m a regular Nancy Drew,” Sharon says with a sour looking smirk. “I don’t know why suddenly the idea of having friends seems important except for the fact that I can’t figure out how to do it.”

“Clearly I’m not one to give you advice on the matter,” Brenda says.

“Well,” Sharon says. “But that’s what… Rusty saying that you and I…”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “You and me.”

“Right,” Sharon says.

“Friends,” Brenda adds unnecessarily.

“Because we do have things in common,” Sharon says. “Law enforcement, for one.”

“Is there another?” Brenda wonders.

“Running,” Sharon says dryly. “Though I usually give up outside running around now. It gets too hot.”

“What do you do instead?” Brenda wonders. “I can’t stand the treadmill, it makes me go crazy with boredom.”

“There is a gym in my building and I can use the treadmill, but I prefer to swim,” Sharon says.

“Your building has a pool?” Brenda asks.

“It does,” Sharon confirms.

“But it lacks character, I bet,” Brenda says and Sharon guffaws.

“Perhaps,” she says. “Okay, you ready to run again?”

“I guess,” Brenda says.

When they finish their laps and they are sitting for a moment on the grass, Sharon says, “You could come to dinner.”

“Come to dinner? Where?” she asks, confused.

“My place,” Sharon says. “In the spirit of friendship.”

“God, you’re serious about all of this,” Brenda says.

“This isn’t easy for me,” Sharon snaps, her eyes narrowing. “So if you’re not, then I’d appreciate if you’d say so.”

Brenda holds up a hand. “I’m not sayin’ that!”

“I don’t want to waste my time!” Sharon says. It’s that same tone she uses when she’s really losing her temper, when she’s going to forcefully demand that Brenda relent so she can once more go first.

“Sharon,” Brenda says. “Calm down. Jesus.”

Sharon scrunches up her nose a bit and leans back on one hand, her fingers pale against the green grass of spring. Soon most of the green will fade from the landscape, turn brown and wilt in the heat and sun. They’ll be left with scrubby bushes and the only pure green will be sod lawns continually doused in water so they survive.

“I’m just-” Sharon says and then shakes her head. “I told you I was bad at this.”

“It’s nice to know you’re bad at something,” Brenda says softly. “It’s reassuring.”

Sharon’s glance cuts over at her suspiciously but Brenda isn’t trying to be mean, she’s trying to be honest. “You make me nervous, too.”

“Good,” Sharon says sourly.

“I could come to dinner,” Brenda says. “If that’s what Rusty wants.”

“It was his idea,” Sharon is quick to say.

“Do you still have my cell phone number?” Brenda asks.

“Have you changed it?” Sharon says.

“No.” Brenda has to will her blood pressure to stay low, to let Sharon’s snarky tone just graze across her bow. Not a direct hit, not anymore.

“Then I have it,” Sharon says.

Brenda stands up. “Text me about dinner,” she says. “And if this week isn’t good, I’ll see you here next week?”

“Maybe,” Sharon says. “If I don’t have to work. And if it’s not too hot.”

Brenda rolls her eyes. “Well I’ll be here, anyway,” she says and turns to walk away. She glances over her shoulder - Sharon is still watching her, sitting on the grass, her face pinched with effort. The funny thing is, Brenda thinks being friends with Sharon could actually be kind of nice. She likes the woman - she’d won Brenda over the hard way with solid work and determination and loyalty. It’s not something you forget, that kind of consistent effort. Sharon is smart and sharp and Brenda is perfectly happy to go to dinner or run side by side. It just doesn’t seem like that’s what Sharon wants. The whole exercise seems to leave a bad taste in Sharon’s mouth so what’s in it for her, exactly?

Maybe she’s just doing it for Rusty. Maybe that’s a good enough reason.

She feels Sharon’s eyes on her until she gets to the corner but she doesn’t look back and doesn’t relax until she turns and moves out of sight.

oooo

Brenda doesn’t hear from Sharon and maybe it’s just as well. She spends most of the work week in committee meetings and it’s tedious enough that’s she’s grateful for the one day she has to spend in court instead. By the end of the work week she’s actually looking forward to the weekend out of the office and the only people who have called or texted her phone outside of work are her daddy and Fritz.

She and Fritz are certainly on speaking terms and if she’d had to describe their split to anyone she’d use the word amicable but it’s still tense. Mostly they text about finding a time that works for them both to meet with their lawyers or about money - about him switching to LAPD’s health care plan and coming off of hers, about keeping the cars on the same insurance plan because it saves so much money. Same thing with the cell phones but he’s going to cancel her American Express.

Fine, she texts. Not trying to be passive aggressive, but not wanting to engage in anything longer. Longer talks, especially face to face ones, always devolved into him saying, “Well you could just come home.”

But she can’t. He’s not her home, anymore.

I don’t understand you, Brenda Leigh. You’re never going to find another man as good as Fritz, her mother’s warbling voice says.

“I don’t want another man, mama,” she complains into the quiet of her office as she’s packing up for the night. A few files into her purse, her phone, her keys. She’s still got her sweater on because it’s cool inside but it’ll be warm out of doors.

The idea of dating again is hilariously terrifying. And what would the point be? She’s clearly not cut out for marriage, she has proven that time and again. The elevator is empty as she rides down, down to the underground parking garage. It’s almost an hour past the end of the work day. She likes to let the place clear out - she always gets the most work done at the very end of the day when the building is quiet and the phones stop ringing.

Marriage is easy if you find the right person, her mother says and Brenda’s hand balls up into a fist at her side.

“Well which is it, mama? Either I’m never going to do better than Fritz or he wasn’t right for me! You can’t have it both ways!”

Her voice echoes through the parking garage and she looks around, embarrassed, but doesn’t see anyone so she hurries to her car. Her mother chooses not to respond.

Her phone buzzes while she’s driving home but she doesn’t look at it until she pulls into her parking spot and turns the car off. It’ll be Fritz again or maybe David inviting her out to a pity dinner. The last time she’d accepted, there’d been three other investigators there with him and not only had she been the fifth wheel, but she was everyone’s boss and it had made them visibly uncomfortable. David had been surprised - Brenda hadn’t always gone out with the squad but when she had, it had always been comfortable, like family. But she's not Deputy Chief Johnson anymore and she isn’t running a tight ship, she's running an ocean liner. A little distance in this case is a good thing.

But it’s not Fritz or David. It’s Sharon. She’s still listed in Brenda’s phone as Capt. Raydor and the picture that pops up under her name is one Tao had programmed in and it looks like a pair of legs with ruby slippers on coming out from under a house.

She’ll have to change that, probably.

The message says, Dinner tomorrow evening?

She slides the bar and considers her answer. A Saturday night dinner is fine, though not much notice. She could pretend to have another engagement but she’s not sure Sharon would buy that and she doesn’t have anything planned except for take out and Netflix and she’d been thinking about buying an entire cake and spending the whole week eating it.

Okay, she sends back and then adds. See you at the park in the AM?

It takes awhile for Sharon to respond and Brenda sits in her car staring at her phone until the three little dots pop up to indicate that Sharon is typing her message back.

Supposed to be in the 90s tomorrow

Brenda frowns. It’s been warm but it won’t be that hot at seven in the morning!

Suit yourself, she sends back and then tucks her phone away.

oooo

Okay, it’s warm, but she puts on her capri running pants and a tank-top anyway and leaves her jacket on the rocking chair. She’s about to head out the door when her phone blips from the hidden pocket in her waistband. She pulls it out and it’s Sharon again.

Too hot for me. Skip the run and come to dinner early. We’ll swim laps.

Well isn’t that just so presumptuous, Brenda can hardly stand it. Like somehow because they’ve run together one time, Sharon is now in charge!

It’s called being friendly. I know you have trouble recognizing it because it’s not in your nature - her mother’s voice is stern and tinged with just a hint of disappointment and it does the trick because Brenda feels badly, then and wonders if her knee-jerk reactions aren’t just as bad as Sharon’s snotty tone. Brenda reacts badly because she expects that Sharon will be snotty and Sharon is snotty because she braces for Brenda’s poor reactions.

“What could go wrong with that?” Brenda mutters but she texts back, What time?

She changes her clothes, puts on jeans and a tank top that is clean and bright. Somewhere in one of the drawers of her new bureau is her swimming suit. She has only one - she’d bought it for the honeymoon and has never worn it again, but when she pulls both pieces out she realizes that while the bottoms are fine, the top doesn’t even have shoulder straps and will never work for swimming laps. Plus she’s not really comfortable walking around in a bikini in front of Sharon or her teenage ward.

Bathing suit shopping is something you’d do with a girlfriend.

Brenda considers actually calling Sharon for about half a second before scoffing at herself and driving to the nearest mall alone. She buys the first all black one piece she can find in her size and then hits a Starbucks with a drive thru on her way home and orders one of those chocolate chip blended coffee drinks with chocolate sauce drizzled all over the top.

You best not show up to that woman’s home empty-handed, Brenda Leigh.

“Yes, mama,” she says and stops at the grocery store on her way home. She’s not sure what to buy so she gets wine and chocolate cake, looking at it longingly on the conveyor belt. So much for eating it all by herself. Maybe Sharon will send her home with the leftovers. She doesn’t seem like the type of woman who indulges. Not in chocolate, anyway.

She thinks about canceling only every 45 seconds or so throughout the day but she doesn’t do it. If it were just Sharon, she wouldn’t think twice but she remembers how genuinely happy Rusty had seemed to see her in the grocery store, how he’d said “See you later” like he would actually see her again. She wants to make good on that for him. After all, they’re neighbors now. Sort of.

She walks over with the cake box and the bottle of wine in her purse. It’s still warm and so she hustles so the icing doesn’t melt too badly and by the time she gets to the front doors of the imposingly tall building of luxury condominiums, she’s sweating. She realizes she doesn’t even know the unit number but the glass doors are locked anyway and she stands for a moment, looking at the column of names before finding S. Raydor and pushing the buzzer.

Yes?” Sharon’s voice is gravelly through the speaker.

“It’s Brenda,” she says. “Johnson.” She winces.

Come on up, Chief.

The door clicks.

It is a nice building, but too modern for her taste, too sterile. She feels out of place in the lobby, nervous in the elevator holding her cake. She counts down numbers until she finds the right door but it’s the only one that’s open just a crack.

She knocks on the door frame before pushing it open.

“Come in,” Sharon calls. Brenda steps in, clicks the door closed behind her and stands there hesitantly until Sharon appears. She looks more like Sharon from the park, not Captain Raydor. She’s obviously dressed for the pool under her soft looking pants and loosely fitted blouse. She looks at the box in Brenda’s hands with rising eyebrows and plasters a smile on her face. “What’s all this?”

“Oh I brought dessert,” Brenda says. “I don’t know if you - well, my mama always said not to show up empty-handed.”

Sharon takes the box, peers inside. “Your mother was a wise woman,” she says gently. “Thank you.”

“Where’s Rusty?” she says looking around as she follows Sharon deeper inside. It’s darker than she expected. Dark walls, rust colored furniture, slick tiles. It suits Sharon but it feels like a cave. Maybe the light comes in in the mornings, maybe it’s not always like this.

“Oh, he’s not home from school yet,” she says. “But he’ll be here for dinner.”

“What are we having?” she asks.

“Saturday nights are Rusty’s choice,” Sharon says. “So… you know.”

“Pizza?” Brenda asks.

“Probably,” Sharon says. “Is that okay? I should’ve asked.”

“It’s fine,” Brenda says. “I’ll eat anything.”

Sharon smiles a tight-lipped smile. “I know.”

Brenda decides right then to keep the wine for herself.

She has to change into her suit, stowed in the bottom of her bag. There’s a surreal moment where she’s completely naked in Sharon’s guest bathroom before she steps into the suit and pulls it up. She has to reach into the crotch to pull off the plastic liner and she balls it up and drops it in the little trash can next to the sink. Shoves her bra and panties into her purse and pulls back on her skirt and her t-shirt.

“Can’t remember the last time I was in a pool,” Brenda says in the elevator on the way back down. Sharon stands beside her holding an armful of towels.

“Mostly the people who live in this building are single and older so it’s usually kid free,” she says.

“You fit right in,” Brenda says and then realizes it wasn’t probably a very nice thing to say. “I mean…”

“I know what you mean,” Sharon says but she doesn’t look angry. “I used to run marathons, you know.”

“Really?”

“It’s hell on the knees. Now I can only do short distances, like at the park. But swimming is very gentle and just as good for you.”

“I haven’t been running all that long,” Brenda says. “Not seriously.”

“It’s a good way to eat up time if you have time to spare,” Sharon says knowingly. The elevator stops and they exit. It’s the floor above the lobby and she leads them down another hallway and out toward the back of the building. The pool isn’t huge but it’s plenty big enough for the two of them. And it’s empty. Sharon uses a key to unlock the gate and it slams loudly behind them, a metal clang that resonates.

Brenda puts her hair into a ponytail, kicks off her shoes. Sharon is fearless because she strips right down to her suit and leaves her clothes folded neatly on one of the chairs. Her suit is blue and cut like an athlete’s, high at the hip and tight at her shoulders. She’s all leg - Brenda can’t help but stare. They just go on and on.

“You can swim, can’t you?” Sharon asks.

“Yes,” Brenda says, working not to sound petulant while pushing her skirt down and pulling off her top. Her suit fits well enough but it scoops much lower in the back than Sharon’s does and she hopes the force of the water won’t push the straps out of place. She’ll take it easy. She has nothing to prove.

Sharon walks right to the edge and dives in. Brenda has always been the type to ease herself in, one toe at a time. Acclimate to the water. She doesn’t like the shock to her system but apparently Sharon is half mermaid with her perfect form and legs meant for greater things. Brenda isn’t a diver though so she sits at the edge and puts her feet in.

It’s cold. It’s not freezing but it’s not warm like the pool her mama used to do water aerobics in at the senior center back home. That pool always felt practically like bath water. People don’t have heated pools in California - they just have the relentless sunshine.

Sharon is already swimming laps, is clearly not the kind of friend that is into easing someone into a new situation. Brenda gets lulled into watching her, the rhythm of her breast stroke, the way she slices through the water and disappears briefly at the end of the pool only to reemerge going the other direction.

She must notice, at some point, that Brenda is not swimming because she bobs up and wipes the water out of her eyes. It occurs to Brenda that Sharon is what her mama would’ve called a beauty queen. She used to say it all the time when Brenda was younger, when she brought home high school friends or when they saw a movie with a glamorous female lead. “That girl is a beauty queen!”

It’s easy to look good with makeup and styled hair and the right clothes and high heels and good lighting but to look pretty coming up out of a pool like a drowned rat is something else entirely. Brenda isn’t even sure if her mascara is waterproof. She’s going to come up like a drowned raccoon more like. If she ever gets in.

“What’s the matter?” Sharon calls across the water. Brenda knows her time is up and she pushes herself into the pool, cold and all.

“Nothin’,” she says. “Just gettin’ acquainted with the water.”

It’s good enough for Sharon who goes back to her laps. Brenda can swim though she’s not as strong as a swimmer as Sharon is. She swims a few lazy laps and doesn’t bother to try to keep up and then after about four, decides to hell with it and just floats on her back for awhile, her ears below the surface of the water, blocking out most of the noise. She can hear Sharon splashing but it’s muted and distant.

Why is it that someone like Sharon, the type of girl who wouldn’t have given Brenda the time of day back in high school, is having trouble making friends now? Brenda knows the answer, of course. Because by spending the majority of her career in Internal Affairs, she’d cut herself off at the knees as far as making friends at work was concerned and now all she ever has time for is work. She can be friendly with her squad but not too close and now that Brenda herself is gone, the next high ranking female officer is probably Commander McGinnis in Fritz’s division and she just doesn’t seem like Sharon’s type.

Is that what Brenda is? Sharon’s type?

Brenda’s mama would never admit that her own daughter wasn’t the most beautiful girl on the planet, but Brenda is no beauty queen, not like how her mama had used the expression. No, the best Brenda’s mama had ever said about her was that she knew how to use what God gave her. Blonde hair and big boobs and the ability to lie her way out of anything. That last one was worth more than a pretty face any day of the week.

Sharon’s pretty face appears in Brenda’s view, leaning over her with furrowed brow.

“You really gave it your all out there,” she says dryly when Brenda flounders above surface, trying not to be startled and failing. “I’m impressed.”

“Shut up,” Brenda says. “This is your thing, not mine. At least I tried it out.”

Sharon’s mouth twitches. “Perhaps we’ll have to find something that we both like.”

“Does that mean we can get out now?” Brenda asks. The sun has moved behind the building so the pool is cast in shadow and she’s starting to get cold.

“Yes,” Sharon says. She pushes herself up over the edge of the pool and out. Brenda swims to the little ladder and watches Sharon dripping on to the cement, squeezing the excess water out of her hair. She hands Brenda one of the towels and Brenda presses it to her chest and neck. It smells clean and like the inside of Sharon’s condo.

Brenda stands there sniffing it, a little puddle of pool water forming underneath her feet. When she looks up at Sharon, Sharon is watching her, her face twisted into concern.

oooo

Rusty brings home burgers, not pizza.

“What if Brenda doesn’t like burgers?” Sharon says. “This isn’t what you said you were going to bring.”

“Who doesn’t like burgers?” Brenda says, holding the towel more tightly around her. Sharon spins, looks at her with narrow eyes. “I like burgers.”

“Literally everyone likes burgers,” Rusty says. “Don’t be weird, Sharon.”

“What if Brenda was a vegetarian?” Sharon says.

“She’s from the south,” Rusty says. “I don’t think they allow that down there.”

“They do not,” Brenda confirms.

“I’m going to change," Sharon says and turns again, stalks into her bedroom and closes the door.

“Sorry,” Rusty says.

“Is she always like this?” Brenda asks.

“You make her nervous,” Rusty says. “Don’t tell her I told you that.”

“She already has,” Brenda says, picking up her bag. “But I’m on my best behavior, I really am! I’m trying to be nice.”

Rusty shrugs. “I’m glad you came,” he says. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Oh,” she says. “I think I’ll go change, first.”

“Right,” he says.

She takes her purse back to the guest bathroom, hurrying past Sharon’s closed bedroom door. The suit is harder to take off all wet and clingy and she’s cold enough that goosebumps form on her damp skin and her nipples tighten in the open air. She rubs herself briskly with the towel and then puts it and her suit over the shower rod to dry. Pulls on her panties and her bra which drags uncomfortably across her clammy skin as she tries to straighten it into place. She feels better with clothes on but her hair is wet and smells like chemicals and she doesn’t have a brush so she just braids it as best she can. It looks dark and ratty. She’d kept her face out of the water for the most part, so that’s something.

When she emerges, Sharon and Rusty are already seated at the dining room table, their burgers and fries on real plates. There’s a plate for her too. Sharon is wearing fresh clothes, not wrinkled ones pulled from the bottom of a purse and has dried her hair. She even has on lipstick. Brenda is getting real tired of feeling like the ugly step-sister.

“I got you a glass of water,” Rusty says.

“That’s fine,” Brenda says, slipping into her seat.

“Sharon doesn’t like soda with dinner,” Rusty says.

“Rots your teeth,” Sharon says primly, though it all seems like a big act between them.

“I’m not much of a coke drinker,” Brenda says.

“No,” Sharon saws, drawing the word out. “You get your fix in other ways.”

Brenda narrows her eyes.

“Nothin’ wrong with a little indulgence now and then,” she says.

Sharon guffaws, her mouth and her eyes opening wide. “Now and then?”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Rusty announces.

“The inside of my desk is going to smell like Willy Wonka’s factory until the end of time,” Sharon says.

“I just broke it in for you, that’s all,” Brenda says. “And a little sugar might sweeten you right up.”

“I can be sweet,” Sharon says.

“Um,” Rusty interjects. “What’s happening here?”

“Sweet as mud,” Brenda says. “People are never going to confess to someone who’s looking at them like they’re gum on the bottom of a shoe.”

“I’m not interested in confessions,” Sharon hisses. “I’m interested in convictions.”

“Why on earth would you choose to wheel and deal with murderers when you could send them to death row where they belong?” Brenda demands.

“Because I can’t do what you do! Brenda!” Sharon shouts, pushing up from the table, her chair screeching out from beneath her. “No one else can!”

Brenda sits back, surprised and mad and breathing hard and, honestly, a little embarrassed that their one attempt at doing something social and normal had immediately turned into another shouting match. Brenda looks down at her burger, cold now, and smooths her trembling hands across her lap.

“That’s not true,” she says, glancing at Rusty. He’s staring at Sharon with wide eyes and he looks terrified. Sharon looks over at him too, shaking her head a little. “I was just trained for it, Sharon, that’s all.”

“Rusty, I’m sorry,” Sharon says. “I didn’t mean to get upset.”

“Just sit down,” Brenda says, feeling nervous, feeling like she’s lost too much control of this situation. Like barking orders might help restore the balance of things. “I can just go home.”

“You didn’t even eat,” Sharon says. “You should eat.” But Sharon sits and Rusty picks up a french fry and shoves it into his mouth, his eyes darting between them.

“Fine,” Brenda says. “Fine.”

“And it’s not just training,” Sharon adds.

Brenda rolls her eyes and then reaches out to touch Rusty’s arms. “As you can see, we’re still working out the kinks.”

“I thought you guys already had,” he says. “I thought you liked each other.”

“Oh, we do!” Sharon says.

“Sort of,” Brenda says and when Sharon glares at her she adds, “No, we do, we do.”

Brenda takes a bite of her cold burger just so she can’t say anymore words.

“Why don’t you tell Brenda about your classes,” Sharon says. “And Badge of Justice.”

It’s easy to listen to Rusty and Sharon does soften considerably when he’s the one talking. It’s gratifying to hear that he’s doing so well and she knows Sharon is a big part of it, that the sternness and structure that she projects - the very thing that Brenda had bristled so hard against - is really good for Rusty. Maybe it could be good for her, too? To have organized outings, to see movies, to be ladies who lunch. Maybe she doesn’t flat out like Sharon, but she certainly admires her.

Brenda carries her own dishes to the kitchen and thinks about how to broach the subject of going home.

But Sharon pulls out the cake from the refrigerator. It’s still in it’s little bakery box and Rusty says, “No way, cake!” So she knows she has to stay at least through that.

“Can you cut the cake, Rusty?” Sharon asks, handing him a large knife from the wooden block on the counter.

“I guess,” he says.

“And you,” Sharon says, turning on Brenda. She resists the urge to wilt against the wall. “How would you like some wine?”

“Oh,” Brenda says with some relief. “Yes, please.”

“Good,” Sharon says and pulls a bottle of white wine from the fridge. It’s not Brenda’s absolute number one drink of choice but she’ll take white wine over beer or most hard liquor. Sharon looks like she expects a complaint and says, “All right with you?”

“Perfect,” Brenda says sweetly. She won’t let Sharon pick any more fights. Not tonight, not in front of Rusty who is hacking away at the cake.

“How are you supposed to get it onto the little plates?” he asks.

“The first piece always looks ugly,” Brenda says. “That one you eat alone in the kitchen before going back out to serve your guests.”

Sharon snorts.

“Or you keep it for yourself and hope no one notices,” Brenda says. She shows him how to slide the flat side of the knife under the wedge and lift, holding it steady with her thumb. She may be helpless in the kitchen but she knows a thing or two about cake. The wedge flops sideways onto the dessert plate and while it isn’t pristine, it looks good enough. Brenda sticks her thumb into her mouth and licks it clean. Sighs a little with happiness. “I love chocolate,” she says.

“She really does,” Sharon says. She’s tugging at the wine opener and the cork comes free with a little pop.

“Here, gimme that one,” Brenda says to the first piece. “My thumb was already in it anyway.”

While the burgers were a strangely formal affair, they sit in the living room for cake. Brenda and Rusty sit on the sofa and Sharon in one of the swiveling armchairs, slightly distant with her wine and her half slice of cake.

“Just a tiny one for me,” she’d said and Brenda always hates women like that. She'd bitten back any number of snide remarks but she did roll her eyes a little at Rusty when Sharon’s back was turned and he'd grinned.

“What’s your new job like?” Rusty asks now.

It doesn’t feel like a new job anymore, but it still feels like she’s doing someone else’s job. Like it’s temporary, like someone is gonna walk in at any time and say, “Thanks, you can go now.” And she’ll be grateful when it happens.

“It’s good,” Brenda says. “It’s a lot of work.”

“Do you like it?” This is from Sharon, not Rusty and Brenda wants to say yes, of course, what kind of question is that, who stays in a job they hate?

“No,” she can hear herself say instead.

Sharon’s fork lowers to her plate with a clink.

“Oh,” Rusty says.

“I mean,” Brenda says. “I mean it ain’t bad but it’s just… kind of dull.”

“No one shooting at you, though,” Rusty says. “That’s good right?”

Brenda makes herself laugh and says, “It is good.”

Boring, but good. What Fritz wanted, right? Better?

“Andrea says that you’re very well-liked at the D.A.’s office,” Sharon offers. Brenda wonders if that’s even true or if she’s just throwing Brenda some sort of bone out of pity.

“Oh, I am,” Brenda says. “Though to be honest, I don’t have a great deal of interaction with the D.D.A.’s, in fact, I think I saw D.D.A. Hobbs more when I was a LAPD officer.”

“Well what kind of stuff do you do?” Rusty asks. “Do you still make people tell you stuff?”

“Sometimes,” Brenda says. “But we don’t generally have to investigate murders. I supervise investigations mostly and write policy and-” She can see Rusty’s eyes glazing over a little. “-appear in court.” She finishes.

“It’s a very prestigious job,” Sharon says, too kindly. It is a good job for Brenda. She’s qualified for it and good at it and though she doesn’t often think about it, she knows that the longer she stays in this job doing quality work, the more her reputation in this city will recover.

“I guess no one really ever loves their job,” Rusty says. “Work is work.”

Brenda glances at Sharon who is looking right back at her. “I guess not,” Brenda says.

Sharon’s looks like she wants to apologize but doesn’t know how.

oooo

Brenda runs alone the next Saturday, getting up at six instead of seven to avoid the heat.

Sharon texts late that morning, well after her shower, when she’s sitting in a towel on her bed eating a bowl of cereal and reading The Huffington Post on her phone. Just the headlines.

How about a movie?

Brenda frowns, surprised. Their dinner last week had ended on a positive enough note but the majority had been rocky and she didn’t think Sharon would be so quick to get back together.

Today? Brenda sends back.

Matinees are the most economical, Sharon writes which is just such a Sharon thing to say that Brenda wants to hurl her phone right into the wall. And then, Rusty suggested an activity where we don’t have to talk.

At least that makes good sense.

I like popcorn, Brenda sends back. Sharon probably is the type of person who sneaks her own snacks into the theater to save money or worse yet, doesn’t even like to have snacks. Brenda can’t remember the last movie she saw - something with Fritz, probably - but certainly she had popcorn. Oh actually, she does remember the last time she’d gone to the movies. Not the film but that she'd been called out with a murder and she’d left Fritz alone in the theater. David had come and picked her up.

I will pick you up at 2:00, Sharon sends.

Brenda finishes her cereal. She’ll have to wear more than a towel. She’s fallen into the habit of wearing exercise clothes or jeans on the weekends. It’s more comfortable not living life on call but she always feels sloppy when she sees Sharon, especially on the weekend. So she begrudgingly gets up, hangs her towel on the rod and pulls the one off her hair and hangs that, too. She has enough time to do her hair - product and then the blow dryer with the diffuser on the end to make her curls bouncy and light. She puts on her bra and underwear before doing her makeup - dark eyeliner but gloss instead of lipstick and then she puts on a dress and pulls the matching sweater to bring along in case the theater is cold.

But when Sharon arrives, knocking on her door, she’s in tight jeans and an oxford shirt that’s tailored to nip in at the waist. She’s even got flats on, little navy ballet flats that are disgustingly adorable and half of her hair is swept back in a barrette. It looks effortless yet sophisticated - from her simple makeup to her rolled up sleeves.

Brenda now feels overdressed and weird about it even though Sharon doesn’t say anything except, “Are you ready?”

Brenda shoves the sweater into her purse and says, “I guess.”

She doesn’t even know what they’re going to see, not that it matters. It’s hard to have a preference either way when she has no idea what’s out right now. She keeps thinking about buying a television but streaming things on her computer works just as well and so she misses the majority of the advertising that commercials offer. They ride in Sharon’s unmarked and it’s one of the older models - with the radio not built into the dashboard. It sits awkwardly between them, the sound turned all the way down.

“I have a personal vehicle but Rusty uses it,” she says.

“I didn’t ask,” Brenda says.

“You were looking around,” Sharon accuses.

Brenda slumps down in the seat and says, “My mistake.”

Sharon’s hands tighten on the wheel. They go to one of the huge theater complexes, park and walk together toward the massive building. It, like most buildings in L.A., is the color of sand and seems moderately busy for this early in the day but it is a weekend, after all and she sees a lot of kids and teenagers. When they get to the windows, Sharon stops to look up at the digital screen scrolling the showtimes.

“We have some choices,” Sharon says.

“Whatever you want,” Brenda says, easily enough. This doesn’t appear to be the right answer though because Sharon’s mouth tightens and she glances at her watch like she’s ready for the silent part of this outing to begin immediately.

“The next thing that starts is in five minutes - it’s that buddy comedy with the pudgy kid and Channing Tatum.” Sharon shrugs. “But the romantic comedy with that girl from Glee starts at 2:35.”

“What’s that one, the 2:40?” Brenda asks.

“An action movie, I think,” Sharon says. “About… cars? Rusty saw it.”

“Eh,” Brenda says. “Fat kid or chick flick?”

“Hmm,” Sharon says. “Rom Com it is.”

They pay for their tickets separately and then it’s early enough that Brenda says, “Popcorn?”

“I already had lunch, but go right ahead,” Sharon says.

She knew it! Still, she says, “I’ll get a big one in case you change your mind. We can share.” She walks away feeling awfully benevolent, even if Sharon would never admit it.

Sharon goes to the restroom while Brenda waits in line. She gets a large popcorn and a box of Junior Mints. It’s nice to have the sweet to cut through all the salty when the popcorn is gone. Sharon is waiting for her outside of the door to their theater and she pulls it open and lets Brenda go in first.

She’s not in the mood to quibble about seating so she just picks a row and says, “Here?”

“Fine.”

They sit, arranging their purses to hang off the end of the armrests, Brenda has her popcorn in her lap. Sharon makes a big show of pulling out her cell phone and flicking the switch on the side to send it to silent. She slips it into the breast pocket of her shirt so she can feel it if it goes off. Brenda silences hers too, nearly upsetting her popcorn, and then tosses it haphazardly back into her bag. Who is gonna call her? No one that can’t wait and hour and a half, that’s for sure.

She munches through her popcorn slowly, tipping the box toward Sharon who just shakes her head.

They watch the commercials that come on before the previews and then once the lights dim, Sharon leans over and says, “Thank you for coming today, Brenda.”

“Oh,” Brenda says, surprised and confused. It’s like they’re just doing each other little favors. Like being together is a concession from both sides, but actually Brenda feels kind of nice sitting in the cool theater and it’s nice that she has someone to sit next to who isn’t related to her. “You’re very welcome.”

Well into the movie, Brenda tips the half empty popcorn box toward Sharon again and she reaches in to take a handful and it’s something. A little bit of progress. She carries it around with her the rest of the day, warm in her chest - Sharon’s face illuminated by the big screen, her little conciliatory smile, her hand coming out of the box with more than just one piece.

Chapter Text

It’s Brenda’s turn to invite Sharon to do something. She’s thinking about it and realizes that so far it’s really only been Sharon reaching out. Meeting her to run laps, inviting her to the dinner and then to the movies. The movies had been the most successful outing so far. They’d spent the majority of it in silence and had gone straight home afterwards. Actually there had been a few enjoyable moments - sharing popcorn, listening to Sharon laugh. She didn’t just laugh like a normal person, she tried to hold it in, maybe, so it always came out as a little snort. It was strangely endearing. And also, it made Brenda kind of desperate to hear her real laugh. Wouldn’t that be a feat?

So now it’s Wednesday morning and she’s thinking about what they could do, how they could spend a sociable hour or two interacting in a way that didn’t end up in bickering. She’s still trying to decide if she could survive a shopping trip with Sharon when her cell phone starts to ring.

The caller I.D. says Major Crimes which means someone is calling her from a desk phone. That’s unusual. But then, it’s unusual that they should call at all. She picks up the phone and swipes.

“Chief Investigator Johnson,” she answers. She expects Sharon, expects some prim and prissy reason for the call like, “You left your sweater in my vehicle” though she hadn’t or “I gained half a pound from one handful of popcorn, I’m suing you” or something. She braces for the worst, anyway.

“Brenda? It’s Rusty.”

“Rusty!” she says. “Hi. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I hope I’m not interrupting or anything.”

She glances at the clock - there’s nothing on her schedule besides desk work until the afternoon. “No, not at all.”

“So I know this is kind of a long shot but… do you want to get lunch today?” he asks.

She’s glad he can’t see the surprise on her face. But then, this is probably Sharon’s idea.

“Lunch,” she says. “Um, I think that I could do that today.”

“It’s just, I was supposed to eat with Sharon but they all just left to look at some dead person in Griffith Park - not my favorite place, as you’ll recall. So now I’m just like here and bored.”

“Good enough for me,” she says. “Where were you thinking?”

“That cafe where you all get coffee does pretty good sandwiches,” he says. “You know where the deli used to be? But now it’s a cafe.”

“I know where you mean,” she assures him. “I can be there at 12:30. Work for you, kiddo?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Cool. See you there.”

It’s a walkable distance which is good because she’s in more than just kitten heels today. While the actual District Attorney for Los Angeles is a woman, when she has high level meetings like the one scheduled for later today, it’s almost always mostly men so she favors a higher heel. They look down on her enough without having them actually looking down at her. And they pay more attention to her if she looks like she’s out for a little blood. Bold colors, no florals. There’s a time for being underestimated but a policy meeting isn’t one of them.

Fritz had complained once about her dressing up for Will. She’d needed something from him, some extravagant expense that he wasn’t willing to authorize so she’d put on a dress that she knew he liked, wore her hair up because he’d once use to relish in pulling out the pins and watching it fall.

“It’s just a costume,” Fritz had said in accusation. Brenda had, at the time, thought that a particularly naive observation on her husband’s behalf.

“Of course it is,” Brenda had said. “You think the slinky lingerie I wear for you is my true self revealed?” His face had slackened with hurt but it had nipped the fight in the bud for the moment while he regrouped to figure out a new strategy to make her feel not good enough. Besides, why did someone like Fritz wear a gray suit for years, why did he wear a police uniform now? Why did she wear dark dresses with high necks to interview religious conservatives and deep v-necks to interview oblivious fraternity boys? To get what she wanted. To put on a play.

She’d worn that red dress instead of a power suit to her meeting with the mayor when she was being considered for Chief of Police to get what she’d wanted and it had worked two-fold. She hadn’t gotten the job but she had gotten Sharon Raydor’s attention. Had pleased the woman by looking beautiful and fierce and had bought herself a little cooperation from Internal Affairs in the process.

Today’s dress is tight, cut well and is a dark gray but her shoes are a bright pop of red, just enough.

She’s a little late to the cafe, five minutes, maybe. The place is busy but she find’s Rusty at the counter and he has saved her a stool, a small miracle around this time of day. She slips onto it, greets him with a smile but doesn’t touch him. She’s seen Sharon hug Rusty and he always stiffens against the contact before making himself relax and hugging her back. It’s a clear sign of past abuse and anyway, she’s not much of a hugger either.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi,” he replies. “I had to kill a guy to save you that spot.”

“Good thing your mama’s out on another murder, then,” she says, reaching for a menu. “Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m a grown up?” he asks. She narrows her eyes. “Summer session just started,” he amends. “I’m only taking one class.”

“And workin’ on Lieutenant Tao’s show, too, right?”

“Badge of Justice is on hiatus right now,” Rusty says. “Jonny Worth wanted to film a movie in Vancouver so we broke early to accommodate that.”

“So what are you doin’ all day?” she asks.

“Daytime TV isn’t so bad once you get used to it,” he says. “Today was supposed to be lunch with Sharon but you know how that is.”

“Huh,” she says. She has an idea, a little one. It might make Sharon like her. It might also drive home that last nail into the coffin of this ill-conceived attempt at friendship. Either way, something could change. “You’re eighteen?”

“Nineteen,” he says.

“And are you full-time or part-time at your school?”

“Um,” he says, getting suspicious now. “Well, full-time during the normal semester, I guess.”

“You have a car?” Brenda says. “But with me and your mama, that’d be easy to get around, I s’pose.”

“Get around what?” he says. “What would be easy?”

“If you came to work for me,” she says.

“Seriously?”

“We have an internship program, I can pull a few strings,” she says. “Pays not great but it’s more than you’ll make flippin’ burgers.”

“What kind of stuff would I do?” he asks.

“Research,” she says. “Clerical work - filing and answering phones and stuff.”

“Getting you coffee?” he says.

“Maybe,” she grins.

“Not so different from being a production assistant,” he says.

“Lawyers and actors both have huge egos,” she says bringing her focus back to the menu. “How’s the chicken salad?”

“What do you think Sharon will say?” he asks.

“It’s a good opportunity, it’ll look good on your résumé and get you outta her house for at least twenty hours a week,” Brenda says. “On the other hand, it’s me, so she’ll probably hate it.”

Someone finally comes over so Brenda orders her sandwich and Rusty orders his.

“Sharon likes you,” Rusty says.

Brenda laughs loudly, surprised.

“She does!” he says. “She wouldn’t bother seeing you if she didn’t.”

“She can barely stand me,” Brenda says. “It’s okay. I get it. It’s… hard to change your first impression of someone in the end, I guess.”

“So you don’t like her either?” he asks.

“I do,” she says. “I think she’s really smart and capable and I respect that.”

“And you thought that from the first time you met her?” he prods.

“Well…”

“Trust me,” Rusty says. “I’ve seen her with people she doesn’t like. If she really didn’t like you, you wouldn’t get five minutes.”

“That’s good to hear,” she says.

“She’s just… maybe she needs to be wooed a little,” he says.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Brenda says. “Let’s just see what she has to say about you workin’ for the District Attorney’s office.”

oooo

It’s Friday night and Brenda is happily home alone, sitting on her kitchen counter eating ice cream out of the carton. She may never bother with a bowl again, who’ll know besides herself and her mother’s tutting voice in her head?

But then there’s a knock on her door.

She freezes, looks up in alarm.

“Please don’t be Fritz,” she whispers, shoving the ice cream into the freezer, spoon and all. Fritz has never been over to this little apartment because she has expressly never invited him. She likes this little space, her wildly colorful decorating, her dishes in the sink and clean laundry still in the basket. She doesn’t want to see him look around, disappointed but unsurprised.

She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and opens the door.

“Oh thank god,” she says.

Sharon raises one eyebrow. “I guess you aren’t mad that I came over unannounced.”

“No,” Brenda says. “I’m glad you aren’t Fritz.”

“Ah,” Sharon says.

“What’s the matter, you need a cup of sugar or something?” Brenda asks, stepping aside to let Sharon in. She clearly is still dressed for work, slacks today and a silk blouse and a blazer.

Sharon gives her a look, sarcasm and suffering all rolled into one nuanced expression.

“Oh!” Brenda says. “Oh, I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

“Now why-”

“Wait, wait,” Brenda says, waving her hands in the air. “Before you yell at me. You want some wine or something?”

“I’m not here to yell at you!” Sharon says. “But I will drink wine.”

“Have a seat,” Brenda says, turning to the kitchen. “I just have red.”

“That’s fine,” Sharon says, setting her purse onto the coffee table and lowering herself on to the sofa.

Brenda pulls two glasses from the dishrack and inspects the rims for lipstick - she’d just die - but they seem clean so she tucks a half full wine bottle under her arm and carries everything to the coffee table. She’s already pulled the cork out with her teeth when she realizes probably that’s uncouth but Sharon doesn’t say anything until Brenda hands her the wine and she murmurs, “Thanks.”

“Now,” Brenda says. “What’d I do?”

Sharon leans forward. “A good thing, Brenda. I came to thank you.”

Brenda sits hard on the rocking chair. “You did?”

“For Rusty,” Sharon says. “He told me you got him into your internship program. He filled out the paperwork already. He hates paperwork!”

“Oh,” Brenda says. Sharon reaches into her bag and pulls out a folder. The paperwork. “Good. Good, then.”

“Yes,” Sharon says.

“He’s actually… you know we usually get the grandkids of lawyers… these smarmy ivy league boys who come to work in sports cars and spend all day on their smart phones. Someone like Rusty will actually, I dunno, do work.”

“I agree,” Sharon says. “But someone like Rusty, as you say, isn’t always given the opportunity. So thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says. Sharon sets the folder gently onto the coffee table next to the wine.

“Have you eaten?” Sharon asks. “Because I haven’t.”

“No,” Brenda says. “Well. Not dinner.”

“Candy?”

“No!” she says.

“Cake?”

“No!”

“Ice cream?”

Brenda sighs. “Shut up.”

Sharon laughs - not a full out throaty laugh but a real one, close to what Brenda had heard in the movie theater that day and it feels good.

Sharon might be dressed to go out, but Brenda is in pajama pants and her cream colored sweater.

“I could order something?” Brenda says.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Sharon says. “I can go home.”

“No,” Brenda says. “Stay. We can, um… do something. I don’t know. I don’t have a television, I usually just watch on the computer.”

“We don’t have to do anything, we can just talk to one another,” Sharon says. “Friends do that, right?”

“Yeah,” Brenda says. “I guess so.”

Sharon ends up choosing from the big stack of take out menus that Brenda keeps in an otherwise empty drawer in her kitchen.

“I didn’t know you could get Mexican food delivered,” Sharon says.

“You can get anything delivered in this town,” Brenda says happily. “And if you tip the delivery guy enough, he’ll stop and pick up a pie on the way.”

“Wow,” Sharon says. “I’d never think to even ask.”

“Oh, I always ask,” Brenda says. “The worst thing they can do is say no, right?”

Sharon smirks a little and it’s the first time Brenda has seen Sharon look at her with fondness - nothing else lurking underneath.

“What’s Rusty doin’ this evening?” she asks.

“Out, I think. He worked all day on his application so I figured why not? I told him I’d bring it over.” Sharon shifts a little in her seat. “I really should’ve called but I was worried you’d say no.”

“I’m in no position to turn anything down from you,” Brenda says with a chuckle. “You’re my only friend.”

“And Rusty,” Sharon says.

“Okay, my only friend over the drinking age,” she amends.

Sharon excuses herself to use the restroom, Brenda tops off their wine and goes about clearing things off the little table that is the only real thing that creates separation between the kitchenette and the living space. She closes her computer, shoves it onto the kitchen counter and sweeps everything else into another empty kitchen drawer. She just doesn’t have a lot of kitchen things - what is she gonna do, cook? - so filling her drawers with old mail and pay stubs and that lip gloss that gets too sticky on windy days is fine.

She doesn’t have placemats but she wipes the table clean with a damp paper towel and puts out some plates and some silverware and pours them some water, too. When Sharon comes back out she smiles at the effort, kicks off her heels and leaves them on the rug in the living room. Something loosens in Brenda’s chest, the feeling she used to get when she got an A on a test or passed a job interview. Relief, approval, validation. Sharon’s opinion means something to her now.

They still have to wait around for the food and so they go back to their couch, wine in hand, and finally, after some silence, Sharon says, “I had a really bad day.”

Here it is, Brenda thinks. The real reason she’s here.

“Tell me all about it,” Brenda says.

“We pulled a tough case,” she says. “Found a little girl too late.”

There’s not a lot that Brenda can say to make her feel better. There’s no better, really, only distance and time. Eventually, Sharon will wake up and not think about that girl first thing, eventually something else will come along that steals her attention. Maybe something better, probably something worse.

“That’s shitty,” Brenda says.

“Really shitty,” Sharon agrees. “I just - I’m not as good at compartmentalizing everything away like I thought I’d be.”

“No one is with the kids.” Brenda sets her wine glass down, tucks her feet up under her. “You just go home. Have a drink. Talk to a friend.” Brenda tilts her head. “This.”

“I mean, she was so little. Little enough to fit inside…” She shakes her head, two quick jerks and Brenda is left forever wondering. “So… so little,” Sharon says pressing her fingers to her mouth.

“Did you close the case?” Brenda asks.

“The only good news,” Sharon says, clearing her throat. “Relatively routine as far as evidence was concerned. We just followed the trail.”

“Good,” Brenda says. She tries to think about all the times she’d come home, bereft from some heinous act. What had Fritz done to try to make her feel better? In the beginning it had been mostly this - a glass of wine and just to listen to her. Then, later, sex. And then nothing at all. He’d been tired of hearing about it so he’d left her alone or gone to a meeting or just changed the subject. She thinks about offering Sharon something else - not sex, obviously, but something past wine and empty condolences.

“If I were younger, I’d just go out to a bar and get really drunk,” Sharon blurts. Brenda’s eyes widen as she tries to imagine someone so buttoned up sloppy and slurring.

“I can get you drunk,” Brenda says.

“I don’t want to get drunk on wine,” Sharon says. “The hangover would kill me.”

“I never used to buy alcohol because Fritz… well, he was allergic, but when I first moved in I bought a bunch of stuff,” Brenda says, standing and moving to the cupboard over the little refrigerator. She’s just tall enough to get it open and then stands back. “Vodka or light rum,” she says. “I’m not much of a whiskey drinker, unfortunately, but I think there’s some butterscotch schnapps.”

“Wow,” Sharon says.

“I know,” Brenda says dryly. “I bought it all before realizing that sitting alone in your tiny apartment and getting hammered is not actually a healthy thing to do.”

“Sitting alone in a bar isn’t either,” Sharon says.

“Well a beauty queen like you wouldn’t be alone for long,” Brenda says. And then, “Oh! That’s what you meant, isn’t it?”

Sharon has the good graces to dip her head a little, her cheeks coloring. “I’m too old for all that now, Brenda, plus I don’t live alone anymore.”

“You aren’t too old for anything,” Brenda says, dragging her chair loudly across the kitchen tile and then climbing up onto it to look into her liquor cabinet.

The doorbell makes a clanky metallic noise, not exactly a gentle sound. Brenda turns and looks at Sharon who is already rising to her feet.

“My purse is by the door if they need to see the credit card,” Brenda says. She reaches for the vodka - Absolut because it had been on sale and then hops down, pushing the chair out of the way to open the refrigerator door and pull out the lemonade. She can hear the exchange at the door - the passing of plastic bags and Sharon thanking the delivery person.

“I just signed your name,” she says, setting the food on the table.

“You rebel,” Brenda says. She opens the cupboard with plates and pulls open the drawer with utensils in an invitation while she pulls out two shot glasses and two regular sized cups. She lines everything up on the table, even the wine glasses, from small to large while Sharon pulls plates and forks and goes about plating her enchiladas and Brenda’s chimichanga. “Are there limes?”

“Wedges, yes,” Sharon says.

“Good, give ‘em here,” she says. Sharon eyes her set up warily but pushes the small round container of limes over to her. She watches Brenda squeeze a wedge into each shot glass and then fill the rest with vodka. Then, she adds vodka and ice to the larger cups but it’s way more than a single shot per cup. She puts in at least two each and then tops it off with lemonade.

“Brenda…” Sharon says uneasily.

“Shhh,” Brenda says waving her hand in the air. “The shots are for now and then we can have the rest while we eat.”

“I just,” she says. “I’m kind of a lightweight.”

“Well good, because this isn’t very much.” Brenda smiles at her, glad she can finally bring something to the table of this friendship. She may not always be on time or like swimming or have the most interesting job. She may not have her life together anymore, but she can get a lady drunk and make it into a good time. That’s a skill that never atrophies.

Sharon makes a concerned noise in her throat.

“Let me guess, you weren’t really a party girl in college? Weren’t in a sorority?” Brenda asks.

Sharon shakes her head, no. “I did homework, mostly,” Sharon says.

“Well, I did both,” Brenda says. She pushes one of the shots toward Sharon.

“Also I was married to an alcoholic,” Sharon points out. “As were you.”

“Yes, though, they aren’t here, are they?” Brenda asks. “Go on, pick it up.”

“I go to a bar,” Sharon says, picking up the shot glass with her thumb and pointer finger, her pinky sticking out into the air. “I order a scotch, neat. I sip it for an hour. I go home. That is my routine for going to a bar and having a drink on a bad day.”

Brenda snorts. “Is there anything you don’t have a routine for?”

Sharon seems to think for a moment, lifts one eyebrow and says, “Sex.”

Then she throws the shot back and bangs the shot glass down on the table.

Brenda feels her mouth fall open and heat crawl up her neck. Sharon smirks and the heat spreads to Brenda’s cheeks, down her arms and across her thighs.

“I must say,” Brenda says, finally, when she finds her voice, “I find it hard to believe that you could sit in a bar for an hour and every man in the place wouldn’t come up to you. And half the women!”

Sharon shrugs and just says, “Take your shot, Brenda Leigh.”

The only person who still calls her that, besides herself, is her daddy. And her mama, in her head. Her mama is mysteriously absent now, maybe appalled at her daughter for taking shots and eating deep fried burritos, or maybe happy enough that Brenda has made a friend. It usually bothers her to hear her full name out of the mouth of a Yankee - Fritz had only called her that a few times before she’d asked him not to anymore.

“But it’s your name,” he’d said, confused. She didn’t know how to explain that it was a term of endearment not meant for him. That her mama had given her a pageant girl name, something she should’ve hated, but made it sound like love.

But it doesn’t rankle now, out of the mouth of the sassiest version of Sharon Raydor she’s ever seen. So she does as she’s told, tips her head back, takes the shot - tangy and warm all the way down.

oooo

Brenda can’t fall asleep because every time she reclines flat, the room starts to spin. So she stays up, carries her computer into her bedroom and mindlessly surfs, looks at work emails but doesn’t reply to anything because she’s still pretty drunk and she’s afraid it will show.

It’s still dark when she finally goes out to check on Sharon who’d tried to walk home alone. Brenda had put a stop to that, had given her a soft pair of shorts to sleep in and a University of Georgetown t-shirt, too. The light over the oven is the only illumination not coming from the open door of the bedroom. At some point, Brenda had opened all the windows to let the cool night air in and she can hear cars now and a few faint voices coming from the street. Music coming from another unit, faint enough that she can’t name the tune.

Sharon is asleep on the small couch, had scoffed - even drunkenly - at the notion of taking Brenda’s bed.

“I’ll just get a few hours and go home,” she’d said, curling up onto the cushions, her arm tucked under her head. Brenda had watched jealously, then, as she seemed to fall asleep with no trouble at all. Just closed her eyes and was out. She didn’t have to make it look so easy, Brenda had thought thunderously, at the time. Apparently sleep wasn’t a beast that Sharon wrestled with. Sharon made so many difficult things look easy and Brenda tried not to feel taunted by that.

But now, Brenda finds herself strangely grateful for Sharon’s heavy sleep, her soft, occasional snore. The couch cushions sink under her weight, the throw blanket that Brenda had provided just a lump on the floor. Brenda walks out from the bedroom slowly, first behind the couch and then around to the front to stand by Sharon’s feet and peer down at her. She watches her long enough to detect the subtle rise and fall of her shoulders and chest. To marvel at how inky black her hair looks in the darkness. How long and silvery pale her legs are - she’s seen plenty of leg from Sharon but not usually this much thigh and it’s all a marvel. What a fascinating woman, Brenda can admit to herself, the only person awake in the room. What sort of paradoxical life makes someone so beautiful and so rigidly cold?

But then, Brenda is beginning to think that maybe she’s been wrong about Sharon this entire time. Not cold, not rigid, just reserved and careful. She’d heard Sharon laugh tonight, her real laugh, deep and throaty, her green eyes wide like the laughter surprised her, as well. Like it had been so long, she’d forgotten her body could endure such an act.

Sharon has fallen asleep with her glasses on and Brenda reaches out and pulls the dark frames from her face. They slide away easily enough and Sharon doesn’t stir. She folds them up and leaves them on the coffee table, picks the blanket up off of the floor and covers up those long, bare legs.

Maybe, Brenda thinks, she can sleep now.

oooo

Brenda invites Sharon to go get a pedicure with her but is suspicious when she says yes. It’s not the fact that she agrees to go - they always begrudgingly agree to go on these weird outings, it’s the way that she smiles when she says, “Sure! That sounds fun!”

“It does?” Brenda asks. They’re outside at the coffee shop that’s sort of between their buildings. Brenda doesn’t always stop here and she knows the coffee is decent enough in the break room at Major Crimes but she’d walked in and there Sharon was, all dark hair and white legs waiting in the line that was long enough to snake out the door. Sharon had sighed as if put upon when Brenda sidled up to her and joined her in her premium spot in the line but had also let Brenda purchase her vanilla nonfat latte.

“Felt like something sweet,” Sharon had said by way of explaining their run-in.

Now they’re standing outside on the sidewalk in the sunshine, cups warm in their hands, putting off the inevitable workday. And Sharon is smiling like she thinks the idea of getting their toes painted at the same time while sitting next to one another is a brilliant one.

“Okay,” Brenda says. “How about Saturday?”

“I’ll make an appointment,” Sharon says, reaching out to lay a hand on Brenda’s forearm. “I know a place.”

“Sure, sure,” Brenda says. “I gotta go, but I’ll see you this weekend.”

The hand on her arm squeezes before it lets go and even though she’s the one who’d made the first move to leave, she still stands and watches Sharon walk away, her heels a reassuringly familiar thud on the concrete.

David is hovering around outside her office when she finally gets there, a good ten minutes past nine. She can tell it’s a social call because he’s got this expression on his face like he’s trying to figure out how to say it.

“What?” she says darkly, pushing past him through the door of her office and tossing her bag onto her desk.

“I saw you,” he says. “With her.”

“What are you talkin’ about?” Brenda says.

“Captain Raydor!” David says. “You were fraternizing with her outside The Coffee Bean!”

Internally, Brenda rolls her eyes but she just makes herself look a little guilty and says, “But we tried to be so careful! However did you catch us?”

“Okay,” David says, putting his hands up, his palms to Brenda. “Make fun of me, but she’s the one who-”

“No, she isn’t,” Brenda says. It’s too early for this today, she’s just not in the mood. “She’s not and you know that and it’s been over two years! Are you saying you haven’t spoken to anyone in Major Crimes for over two years?”

“They don’t want to talk to me, trust me,” David says.

“That ain’t true!” she says. “They don’t blame you-”

“Yes, they do,” he says.

She huffs. “Sharon and I are friendly, that’s all, and what are you doing watchin’ me anyway?”

“Watching out for you,” he says. “Not creepy like how you make it sound. And since when are you friends with her? You hate her!”

Brenda shrugs. “She’s not so bad once you get to know her.”

“A ringing endorsement,” he says dryly.

“Aren’t you late for work?” she asks. “Shoo.”

“Fine but I’m coming back at lunch and we’re talking about this some more,” he says.

“You used to respect me more, I think,” she says. “I used to be your Chief.”

“You’re still the Chief!” he says. “I literally still call you Chief!”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t feel the same,” she says, plopping into her chair.

“See you at lunch, Chief,” he says.

oooo

Sharon’s nail place is fancy and Brenda’s not surprised. She goes to a hole in the wall one in a strip mall wedged between a mexican food place and store front where a person can cash their own checks if so inclined. Sharon’s nail place is a salon with small crystal chandeliers that hang over each station and instead of the massage chairs with basins at the bottom, they sit with their feet in galvanized tubs full of warm water and hot stones. The stones are big and smooth and sit perfectly in the arches of her feet.

While they’re seated, someone brings them flutes of dry champagne.

“This is… nice,” Brenda says.

“What color did you pick?” Sharon asks looking over at the tray by Brenda’s chair.

“Pink,” she says.

“Hmm.”

“Why, what did you pick?” she demands.

“Red,” Sharon says.

“Well hmm right back to you,” Brenda says. “We like what we like.”

Sharon snorts and Brenda knows now that she likes to get under Brenda’s skin, likes that Brenda lets her, though not on purpose.

It’s not until two women are working on their toes that Sharon says, “Since I’ve got you here, Brenda, there’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“I knew it!” Brenda says. “I knew you said yes to this too easily. You want something!”

Sharon sighs. “Fine, yes. I want something though in my defense I would’ve said yes either way.”

“What is it?”

“As you know, I’m the women’s coordinator for the LAPD-”

“Still?” she asks.

“Yes,” Sharon says.

“How do you have time for that?”

“I prioritize,” Sharon says. “Anyway, you also know that we have a banquet every year-”

“You what? I didn’t know that!”

“Brenda you were invited for seven years straight!”

“I don’t remember goin’ to any banquet!”

“Of course not, you never did,” Sharon says. “You always had a case, or so your division told me.”

“Well, we were busy,” she says.

“You were the guest of honor one year and you still didn’t come,” Sharon says. “But that’s water under the bridge because this year you will attend.” She smiles meanly.

“I was… what? I will? Why on earth would I do that?” Brenda exclaims.

“I’d like you to be the keynote speaker,” Sharon says. “You may not work for our force anymore but you’re still the highest ranked female member of law enforcement in the city. Probably in L.A. County.”

“Yes, but-”

“Plus, your job is as political as anything else, it’d be good for your department as well as mine.”

“Right, but-”

“And it'd be good for your reputation,” Sharon says plainly. “And you’re my friend.”

Brenda sighs, looks down at their feet where the women working on them exchange knowing glances and smirks.

“I mean, I have to say yes, right?” Brenda says. “You used the friendship card.”

“I already called over to your office and made sure you were available,” Sharon says. “It’s in six weeks and the theme is The Women Behind the Badge.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Brenda asks. “That’s so vague.”

“It means that female police officers are people too who deserve support from their peers and to be cared for emotionally as well as physically,” Sharon says.

“You want me to get up there and talk about my emotions?” she screeches. “Did you hit your head or somethin’?”

“Brenda, you can talk about whatever you want as long as the message is empowering,” Sharon says. “I’ll forward all the information to your office, you have plenty of time.”

“What do I know about any of this?” she moans. The woman at her feet gives her knee a little pat.

“All done,” she says and wheels away. Brenda inspects her toes - pink and shiny and her feet moisturized and massaged.

“Thank you,” Brenda manages. This was supposed to be a relaxing activity but now she feels all knotted up.

“We’ll go shopping,” Sharon says. “It’s kind of a fancy affair. We can go to Saks, maybe. Or Neiman Marcus. Make a day of it.”

Sharon looks far away now, deep into her plans.

Brenda feels decidedly left behind.

Chapter Text

David’s laughter is beginning to irritate her. They’re in her apartment eating Chinese food, working late on one of his bigger projects. She’s technically off the clock but he’d asked her to look over some things off the record and had promised to provide a meal and she’d told him to come on over if he wanted.

She has some regrets about that now.

“It’s not funny!” she hears herself whine. “It’s serious!”

“I know,” David wheezes. “That’s why it’s so funny. It’s like a huge deal!”

“It’s just a luncheon,” Brenda says.

“Really, Chief?” David says. “It’s a big fundraiser. It’s sixty bucks a ticket - the D.A. goes every year. And the Mayor and the Chief of Police. How have you never gone?”

“I just…” she says. “Sharon made it seem like it would just be a few female officers sitting around.”

“I went with Irene one year,” David says. “It’s all political - bigwigs hobnobbing, showing that they're publicly feminist and supportive.”

“Crap,” she says. “Sharon goddamn Raydor.”

“Your friend,” David chuckles.

“She thinks because she’s so pretty and smart she can just get away with whatever she wants!” Brenda huffs. “It’s not fair.”

David snorts.

“What?” she snaps.

“It’s just - pot… kettle. Black.” He shrugs.

She opens her mouth to fight back but then thinks for a moment and says, “You know Rusty was the one who thought we should be friends since we had so much in common but we’re having a hell of a time of it.”

“I mean,” David says, shrugging. “At first I was all whoa about it but I can see how you’d be good for each other. The Felix to your Oscar, so to speak.”

“She’s… she’s certainly something,” Brenda says. “I always get the feeling that she’s just puttin’ up with me but we keep spending time together, so I’m not really sure.” She shrugs, jamming her chopsticks into her lo mein and setting the whole container down.

“Do you like her?” David asks. “Because who cares what she thinks if you don’t see the point of it.”

“Yes,” Brenda says firmly, because she does, in a way, like Sharon. Or rather, she wants desperately for Sharon to like her and that seems like the same thing. Why bother with wanting someone’s approval if you don’t care about them either way? “She’s so good to Rusty, I like that. She’s intelligent and beautiful and sits on a much higher moral ground than I do, that’s for sure.”

“So you want to be her friend or you want to date her?” David asks with a smirk. He changes his voice to a high pitched southern drawl and says, “She’s so pretty and smart!” And then he bats his eyes.

“Men just don’t get it,” she says, shaking her head. “Men just don’t get women.”

“Maybe women don’t get men,” he says.

“Either way, that’s why we’re here working late and not out on a hot date with adoring partners,” she says, standing and picking up some of the food to put away.

In the kitchen her mama’s voice says, ”That nice young man David sure likes you.”

And as surprisingly progressive as that is coming from her mother she says, “Not now, mama, and not ever.”

“Huh?” David says looking up. “You say something, Chief?”

“Just thinking out loud,” she says. “Don’t mind me.”

“Okay,” David says. “So I have one more file that-”

He stops when the doorbell clanks. They both whip their heads to look at the door. Brenda had expected some activity this evening but nothing past David and the nice young woman who increasingly often brings her Chinese food.

“Who on earth…?” Brenda says and goes over opening the door without bothering to look through the peep hole. Fritz used to get so mad when she did that and now she does it without thought, like she’s conditioned herself to be spiteful.

Sharon is holding her shoes in one hand, a red wine bottle in the other, and she’s crying.

“Oh!” Brenda says. “Oh, oh, oh, honey, no, come in, come in.” She allows Brenda to reach out, grasp her bicep firmly and pull her into the apartment, but the moment she sees David, she freezes, clams up so hard that she practically stops breathing and stands still, her eyes wide behind the dark frames of her glasses.

“Oh, sorry,” David says, not that he’s done anything wrong except he knows he’s the odd man out here, he’s the one that’s going to have to go.

“Bedroom,” Brenda says. “Come on, I’ll take care of it, let’s go.”

Sharon doesn’t move at first but Brenda just gives her a hard shove and it reboots her and she exhales a shaky breath and sucks in another that sounds like tears. Brenda hurries her into the bedroom, presses her down on to the bed, and then hurries back out, closing the door behind her.

“What’s happening?” David asks.

“I don’t know, but you need to go,” she says. “Pack it up, mister.”

David complies, hurriedly putting files back into folders and the folders back into the cardboard box he’d carted up the stairs to the little apartment.

“Is she okay?” David asks.

“Does she look okay?” Brenda demands.

“I didn’t know she could cry,” he mutters, pushing the lid onto the box.

“David Gabriel I swear to the Lord, I love you like a brother but if you say one more foul word against her ever again, we are gonna have a real problem, you hear me?” Brenda says, her voice low and mean. “Yes or no?”

“Yes, yes, chief, sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean-”

“I know what you meant,” she says. “I’ll see you Monday. Now get.”

“Bye,” he says and scoots right out the door.

The moment the front door closes, the bedroom one opens and Sharon says, “I should go.”

“Like hell,” Brenda says.

She’s not crying any longer, but her face is still red and the way she's wearing her hair today is unusual; she’s parted it down the middle and has it tucked behind her ears and it makes her look youthful, more vulnerable.

“I’ll open the wine,” Brenda says when Sharon doesn’t try to overpower her to get to the front door or anything. Sharon is still holding the wine, though her shoes have been left behind in the bedroom and she still has her purse on her shoulder. Brenda takes the wine slowly like Sharon is a wild animal.

She doesn’t put up a fight except to say, “I ruined your evening.”

“No you didn’t,” Brenda says. She roots through the drawer for a moment for the corkscrew before she realizes it’s still out on the counter and that she never bothers to ever put it away. She’d be constantly taking it out again.

“I assumed you’d be alone,” Sharon says.

“You were right to, I almost always am,” Brenda agrees.

“I didn’t know you and David Gabriel were so close,” Sharon says, though there’s a reluctance in her voice. She’s fishing for more information but doesn’t want to ask. Brenda can read those kind of tells like a book. This is what she’s trained in, after all. To see the things people don’t say and make them say it.

“We were workin’,” Brenda says. “That’s all.” She pops the cork and looks around. She had one clean wine glass and so that she pours for Sharon and then pours herself a little in a glass cup meant for a lowball. She’s not going to make the poor woman drink alone.

“I let a murderer get away today,” Sharon says. She times it so strangely, waits for the moment they’re both holding onto the glass before she starts talking and when she finishes the sentence, Brenda is still holding on.

She shakes herself out of it and drops her hands.

“You’re cryin’ because someone slipped through the justice system?” Brenda asks.

“No,” she says. “My father passed away today.”

Well, that makes more sense. “I’m so sorry,” Brenda says.

“He was 97,” Sharon says. “Quite ill and I know it’s for the best and I got the call this morning, thanked my brother for letting me know, made some arrangements to fly out for the service and went to work.”

“And then your case fell apart,” Brenda says softly.

Sharon nods, her eyes welling up again.

“Stay here with me,” Brenda offers, pointing to the sofa. “We’ll ride it out together.”

“Okay,” Sharon says, her voice shaky at best.

oooo

It’s strange when Sharon is gone to Utah for the funeral. Rusty goes too and even though it’s not like Brenda sees Sharon everyday, it feels strange knowing they aren’t nearby.

“You want me to condo sit?” Brenda had offered and Sharon and rolled her eyes.

“I’ll be gone for three days,” she’d said. “Even my plants can survive that.”

Still, it feels strange when Friday night passes and then Saturday night too and Brenda realizes that not only does she have no plans, but she and Sharon have settled into an accidental routine of seeing each other every single weekend and if not the weekend at least once during the week.

They really have become friends.

Best friends,” her mama’s voice sings gaily over her shoulder.

“Oh my god,” Brenda says, because her mama is right. Sharon Raydor is her best friend. And she’s gone and Brenda misses her and when was the last time they fought more than they laughed? It’s Sunday afternoon and Brenda is alone in her apartment in the sweltering July heat, sweating from every single square inch of her body and all she can think about is that she misses her stupid Captain for no good reason at all.

Mad at herself, mad at her weakness, she grabs her phone. She can’t bring herself to admit anything to Sharon, but she can text Rusty, and does so, asking in what she hopes is a casual way, when they might be arriving home.

His reply comes quickly, the only upside of how teenagers are always on their phones.

We fly in late tonight to LAX

She asks if they have a ride and he responds that they took a taxi.

Send me your flight number. I’ll come get you, Brenda sends.

She waits for a moment, certain they’ll turn her down, but his next text is just an airline and numbers so she opens her laptop and types in the information. The flight doesn’t even land until after eleven but she doesn’t mind. It’s worth being a little tired on a Monday morning. She sends to Rusty that she’ll see them then.

It’s not far to LAX and the traffic is forgiving this late. She gets into her car and rolls all the windows down taking surface streets all the way there. She’s still in her denim shorts and a white t-shirt, her hair piled onto her head, the outfit she’d thrown together in the face of oppressive heat and a small a/c wall unit that always gave under pressure. Now the night has cooled but the air that whips around her as she drives is still warm but it feels good. Pleasant, not hot enough to make the backs of her thighs stick to the leather seats of her car. Fritz had insisted on the upgraded interior. Better for resale, he’d said, though she still thinks leather anything is a place this hot is sheer lunacy.

She circles three times and then pulls up to the terminal to wait it out until either she sees them or a cop tries to wave her along. She has a badge but it’s not the kind of badge that one whips out at traffic stops and security guards. It doesn’t carry the weight of the LAPD behind it. And anyway, it doesn’t matter because she sees Rusty first with a bag on his shoulder and then Sharon, rolling a suitcase behind her. She’s got her navy trench on, belted tightly around her waist. Must’ve been colder on the other side.

She puts the car in park and opens the door, bounding up onto the curb in her shorts and her flip flops and she doesn’t know why, exactly, she does it, but she flings her arms around Sharon and pulls her in for a hug. Sharon is frozen for a moment before bringing her free arm around Brenda and patting her uncertainly.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Sharon says.

“I missed you too,” Brenda says, rolling her eyes. She hugs Rusty too, it seems impolite not to and then opens the trunk of her car and lets him load Sharon’s suitcase and then his bag inside. “Are you guys hungry? You wanna stop somewhere or we could just get you home. Are you tired?”

“Uh,” Sharon says.

“I’m starving,” Rusty says.

“It’s already midnight,” Sharon says. “We all have work.”

“We’ll drive through somewhere on the way,” Brenda says. Rusty gets in the backseat and so Sharon shrugs out of her coat and hands it to Rusty who takes it and nestles it beside him before closing the door. She slips in and Brenda is tickled to see she has travel clothes on - an outfit like her mama would’ve worn once. Sharon’s lacks color but it is travel clothing all the same - a skirt, a jacket that’s soft but has structure. Clothing built for comfort but can pass as anything - business wear, nice enough for a restaurant, not at all sloppy.

It takes some concentration to get out of the maze that is the airport and then Brenda, back on the road and more comfortable says, “How was it?”

“It was a nice service,” Sharon says.

“Sharon has like a hundred brothers and sisters,” Rusty says.

“Five of us,” Sharon says and then, as if that deserves an explanation. “Irish Catholic.”

“I have three brothers,” Brenda offers. “Big families can be fun.”

“Two brothers, two sisters,” Sharon says.

“And like 86 nieces and nephews,” Rusty says.

“Thirteen,” Sharon says. “Wait, no, fourteen.”

“See even she doesn’t know,” Rusty says, laughing.

“Candice had a baby a few months ago,” Sharon admits. “So fourteen. I sent a gift!”

“I’m sure it was very nice,” Brenda says. “What are you hungry for, Rusty?”

“Can we get breakfast?” Rusty asks.

“I don’t think we can do drive through but there’s that diner that’s open 24 hours on Vermont,” Brenda says.

“Oh my god, House of Pies?” Rusty says. “I love that place. Yes! Yes! House of Pies, man!”

Brenda giggles and glances over at Sharon who sighs and rolls her eyes and says, “House of Pies.”

“House of Pies, it is,” Brenda says.

Sharon slips next to Brenda instead of Rusty when they get seated at a booth which makes Brenda feel like she’d done something right after all. Picking them up or giving into Rusty’s hunger. He orders eggs and toast and sausage and a stack of pancakes. Brenda orders a slice of pie and Sharon a cup of decaf coffee and nothing else, but when the waitress brings everything, she sets down an extra fork for Sharon.

“Go on,” Brenda says, nudging the plate of Boston cream pie toward Sharon. “I don’t mind sharing.”

Brenda thinks Sharon will turn her down flat but she eats three separate bites and falls asleep in the car on the way home.

oooo

Brenda wakes up on the sofa to the awful, awful noise of her doorbell. Why can’t people just knock? She’s been sleeping out in the living room where it’s cooler - August has arrived with a hateful fury and she decides that she’s going to ignore the door and try to doze for just a little longer.

Then there’s the key in the door and it swings open to reveal Sharon holding two garment bags with Macy’s slipcovers.

“Oh,” Sharon says. “You are here. I thought maybe you were out running.”

“Too hot,” Brenda says. “And I only gave you keys so you could get the mail when I’m in Atlanta!”

“Turns out they work when you’re here, too,” Sharon says, flashing her a smile. “I brought some dresses for you to try on.”

“I have dresses,” Brenda says, sitting up and rubbing her face.

“Just look at these, please,” Sharon says.

“I haven’t even had coffee,” Brenda complains.

“I will make some coffee,” Sharon says in a patient, motherly voice. “Take these.”

Brenda does, tossing them down on the bed and then, feeling wrung out and spiteful, marches into the bathroom and peels off her clothes, turning on the shower. Sharon can wait on her for all Brenda cares and if she doesn’t like it, she can go right back home.

She takes a cool shower, starting the water at lukewarm and washes her hair, shaves her legs and under her arms, squirts her honey and vanilla scented body wash into her loofah and makes sure to get every nook and cranny clean before rinsing off and watching the suds slip down the drain.

When she opens the bathroom door, a towel wrapped around her head and her body, Sharon is waiting in the doorway to her bedroom, holding a mug of coffee.

“Feel better?” Sharon asks. Brenda makes sure the towel is secure before reaching out and taking the mug, sipping it and finding it’s been prepared exactly to her taste with just a splash of cream and a lot of honey.

“Yes,” she admits.

“Okay,” Sharon says. “Will you look at these dresses?”

“Did you shop for me, Sharon Raydor?” Brenda demands.

“I’m just… I’d like for today to go well,” Sharon admits.

“Oh, honey, it will,” Brenda says. “I promise. I have my speech all worked out and I’m gonna be real charmin’, you’ll see. I won’t let you down.”

“We’ve had over a hundred RSVPs,” Sharon says. “The Mayor is coming, two police commissioners, the District Attorney, Will Pope-”

“Okay, I get it, I get it,” Brenda says, pulling the towel off her head and letting her wet, tangled hair fall. Sharon watches this, her eyebrows furrowing for a moment before she reaches out for the towel. Brenda hands it over and Sharon takes it, walks past Brenda to hang it for her in the bathroom.

“Why does it smell like cake in here?” Sharon calls as Brenda rummages through her underwear drawer.

“My body wash,” Brenda says pulling out a matching set of bra and panties in nude. Sharon comes out again and they swap, Brenda going into change and Sharon moving to the bed to untie the knots in the bottom of the plastic garment bags.

Brenda puts on the underwear and brushes her hair, puts some product in it so it doesn’t start to dry and become unmanageable and then opens the door again. She figures Sharon’s seen her in a swimsuit, this isn’t really all that different and she’s gonna want Brenda to try the dresses on and anyway, they’re all girls here.

Sharon blinks when Brenda comes out and then shakes her head a little and says, “I got twos but I’m worried they might be too big. Jesus Christ, Brenda Leigh, how do you eat so much and look like that?”

Brenda glances down at her body, a little saggier in some places but holding up well. She runs and overworks and under sleeps but she’s got generations of good genes behind her. She shrugs.

“Twos are fine, ‘specially if they’re petites,” Brenda says. “My boobs are too big for zeros, usually.”

“Yes, that must be a tragedy,” Sharon mutters. “So tiny and big breasted and beautiful. How you must weep.”

“Oh can it, queen of the mile long legs,” Brenda says. “We all got our crosses to bear.”

“Okay well this first one was so beautiful I just… I couldn't pass it up, this little Ralph Lauren cocktail dress.” Sharon pulls out a black lace sheath dress, sleeveless and knee length and it is beautiful - something Brenda might not have picked out on her own but she knows will look good and black is always a safe choice for the evening, but…

“I mean, it is beautiful but-” Brenda says.

“But not for a luncheon, probably,” Sharon says, wistfully. “Which is why I bought this one!”

She pulls out the other dress and it’s nearly the same except it has little cap sleeves and is a creamy ivory color, not black. The lace is a little different, not so delicate but still beautiful.

“It’ll go with almost any shoe,” Sharon says uneasily when Brenda just stares at the dress.

“It’s… it’s really pretty,” Brenda says. “Why are you doin’ all this?”

“Because I want you to feel powerful and beautiful and comfortable!” Sharon says. “And then I want you to kick ass!”

Brenda sighs. She’s not that nervous about giving a speech. She has to speak publicly a lot more now and while it’s not a favorite activity of hers, she can certainly do it. She has a kind of canned speech that she gives about her department and for today she added a little bit to make it more personal - she’ll talk about making Major Crimes a successful experience - it can’t hurt to stroke Will’s ego, even if he doesn't really deserve it. That’s politics. She’ll mention the CIA, she’ll skip completely over Atlanta. She even has a little aside about femininity in the work place. Sharon will like it all, she knows. But she also knows Sharon and she’s not going to stop worrying until it’s all over.

She takes the dress off the hanger and pulls the zipper down. Steps into it and turns around holding up her hair so Sharon can zip it up. It fits really well, actually, and Sharon makes a little hum, pleased.

“You think the color is all right?” Brenda asks, turning to look in the mirror above her dresser. “Doesn’t make me look too pink?”

“You look lovely,” Sharon says, meeting Brenda’s eye in the reflection. “What are you going to do with your hair?”

“What are you going to do with yours?” Brenda says back. “What are you gonna wear?”

“I have this green thing, maybe half up,” Sharon says, her lip curling into an uncertain sneer.

“Well bring it over her and we can get ready and go together,” Brenda says. “And bring me the receipt so I can pay you for the dress.”

“No, no, no,” Sharon says. “It’s my way of saying thank you.”

Brenda narrows her eyes but doesn't argue. “We’ll see,” she says.

“I’ll come back in an hour or so,” Sharon promises.

“I’ll feed you a little something before we head over,” Brenda says, turning around so Sharon can get her zipper again. She steps out of the dress and puts it back on its hanger, hanging it in the closet so it stays safe.

“Oh good, I never have time to actually eat at these things,” Sharon says. “I’ll let myself out.”

When she comes back, Brenda has already gone to the store and returned and is frying bacon on her stove, jumping every time the grease pops and hits her with scalding splatter. Sharon knocks once and then lets herself in and Brenda finds that weirdly comforting.

“Smells good,” Sharon says.

“BLTs, I thought,” Brenda says.

“Good, good,” Sharon says. She disappears into the bedroom, presumably to hang up her own dress and then comes back. She’s dressed down - in jeans and a t-shirt, and it looks like she’s done half her make-up and washed her hair. She’s got on foundation, at least, her skin looks soft and clear. Brenda smiles at her when she comes back in. “Can I help?”

Brenda has already gotten all the ingredients out and they’re sitting on the counter. A ripe tomato, a head of lettuce, an avocado. A jar of light mayo, a loaf of wheat bread.

“You want to assemble?” Brenda asks.

“Sure.” Sharon washes her hands and starts cutting thin slices of tomato. When Brenda hands the bacon over, she gets their drinks together - tall glasses with ice and then offers lemonade, diet coke or water.

“Water is fine,” Sharon says, so Brenda makes them both a glass from the filtered pitcher, not from the tap. They eat quietly but it’s not weird, not uncomfortable.

“Is Rusty coming?” Brenda asks.

Sharon shakes her head, swallows the food in her mouth and then says, “He’d be so bored.”

“Yeah,” Brenda says.

“Have I said thank you?” Sharon asks. “I mean, thank you for doing this.”

“Well you didn't give me much choice! But you’re welcome.”

“I have been doing this for years and I know it’s our biggest event but I just feel extra nervous for some reason.”

“Maybe you’ll catch a murder,” Brenda says jokingly and then realizes that the only thing worse that going to this thing would be going without Sharon. “But you’d better not!”

“Let’s just hope for the best,” Sharon says.

oooo

The speech goes fine and is actually the most painless part of the evening. The best part is Sharon’s introduction of her, the part where she says, “My dear friend, Brenda Leigh Johnson.” It makes Brenda’s tummy flip, warmth spreading through her cheeks. She feels like she’s the belle of the ball. Not only is everyone applauding her, waiting for her to speak, but Sharon had claimed her as someone important. She didn't know she would miss it, after the divorce. The feeling of being important to another human.

Brenda hugs Sharon before she goes on. It’s not something they’d talked about or rehearsed but Sharon falls into it naturally and whispers into her ear, “Knock ‘em dead!”

After, Brenda is seated at a table with Sharon and Will and one of the police commissioners and the District Attorney, too. All the fancy people shoehorned into one eight foot round. But there’s also a table of the guys - Julio and Andy and Detective Sykes, Mike and his wife, even Provenza.

“Did you make them come?” Brenda asks, leaning into Sharon while they’re waiting for dessert to be served.

“No,” Sharon says primly, reaching for her water goblet. “I told them you were the keynote speaker and Lieutenant Provenza gave me a jar full of cash the next day and said ‘Six tickets please’.”

“A jar,” Brenda guffaws. “I’m gonna go say hey, if they ever come ‘round with dessert, get me-”

“Chocolate, I know,” Sharon says, waving her off.

She weaves her way over to the table with her old squad and greets them with a smile. She gets a hug from Andy and another from Tao and even Provenza shakes her hand though he’s got a gruff expression.

“I thought we’d get to witness a classic Raydor-Johnson fight, that’s why I came!” he says.

She snaps. “Sorry to disappoint you, Lieutenant.”

“You hugged her,” Julio says like an accusation but she knows he’s got a good poker face and isn't scared.

“We’re friends,” Brenda says glancing over at Sharon who is standing, talking to a woman that Brenda doesn't know. “She didn't mention that?”

“She’s not very open about her personal life,” says Buzz from across the table.

“Well thank you all for comin’, really, it’s nice to see you and it’s so nice of you to support your fellow female officers,” Brenda says.

“Exactly!” Detective Sykes says loudly, so enthusiastically that it makes Brenda jump a little.

Brenda hears her name and she turns to look over her shoulder, sees Sharon holding up a plate of chocolate cake.

“Excuse me,” she says. “So good to see you.”

She gets back to the table at the same time as Will and he pulls back her seat for her.

“Nice to see you, Brenda,” he says as she sits and pulls her own seat forward. “You gave a great talk.”

“Thank you, Chief Pope,” she says. “How’ve you been?”

“Good,” he says. “Busy.”

“How’re the kids?” she asks just as Sharon slips into her seat, setting the cake before Brenda.

His face softens. “Good,” he says. He turns to Sharon and says, “Lovely as ever, Captain Raydor.”

Brenda can’t help but scoff a little under her breath and mutter, “Still a captain.”

Sharon elbows her under the table and says, “Thank you, Chief.”

“You’ve done more as a Captain than-”

“Eat your cake, Brenda Leigh,” Sharon snaps.

“Something to add, Chief Investigator Johnson?” Will says in his booming voice, the one he gets when she’s crossing some sort of line. But she doesn’t work for him, anymore.

“I just find it somewhat ironic that we’re at an LAPD function in support of women officers but the most accomplished officer you have is doing the work of a Deputy Chief but being paid as a Captain,” Brenda says, working hard to keep her voice even and cheerful. “In fact, she actually does more than I ever did - heads this committee, for one.”

“Brenda!” Sharon says, scandalized. “Chief, please excuse us both for a moment.”

“Gladly,” Will says darkly. Sharon grasps her arm and pulls and Brenda goes with her as Sharon stomps toward the restrooms.

“Sorry,” Brenda squeaks as they go. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’ve done it, I’m sorry.”

But Sharon doesn't stop until they’re in the ladies room and then she crosses her arms and turns to Brenda, her face cold with fury.

“I know,” Brenda wails.

“You don’t!” Sharon says. “If you knew better, you would not have humiliated me in front of the Chief of Police among others!”

“I-”

“I know to you Will Pope doesn't hold a lot of water anymore, but he’s still my boss and I have to live with the consequences of you mouthing off and he’s going to think I put you up to it!”

“Well it ain’t fair!” Brenda says. “There’s absolutely no reason for you to still be a Captain, ‘specially after he already promised you a promotion to Commander!”

“Life isn’t fair, sweetheart!” Sharon snaps. “And while I head Major Crimes and this little committee, as you put it, I also sat on the board that helped pick you to be on the short list for Chief of Police and left him off of it which is not something a man like William Pope is going to forget anytime soon or ever!”

Brenda’s hands are balled into fists and she makes herself unclench them. “I… I’m not good at this political stuff!” she complains. “I never could control my mouth!”

Sharon sighs, rubs her forehead for a moment. “I know you mean well.”

“I do!”

“I know, but a woman my age has limited choices and I've learned to be happy with what I have.”

“A woman of your age?” Brenda squeaks. “Sharon, your age shouldn't mean shit! You’re still smarter and healthier and better than half the people out there!”

Sharon smiles at her with sad eyes.

Thank you,” she says. “Now can you please just make nice for another forty minutes and then we can go.”

“You want me to apologize to Will?” Brenda asks, though saying the words leave a foul taste in her mouth.

“No!” Sharon says. “It’s probably best if you don’t say anything else to Pope but that man certainly doesn't deserve an apology from you about anything, not after the way he treated you.”

Brenda is relieved - Sharon is still on her side. She reaches out and grabs Sharon’s hand.

“I’ll be good,” she says.

Sharon nods. “Just forty minutes and then we can go.”

Brenda smiles but says, “Thirty-nine.”

oooo

They go out to a bar after, most of Major Crimes and Brenda. Buzz goes home and so do Mike and his wife and it takes some convincing for Sharon but they go to a place nearby and it’s a cop bar so they get good service right away.

Andy tells them both that they look beautiful and Brenda knows he means it because he’s saying it over a glass of club soda and lime. Brenda drinks wine, of course, but when Provenza comes back from the bar, he has two glasses of ice and some amber colored liquor and he slides one of them to Sharon who is sitting next to Brenda in the long booth, close enough that their sides are pressed warmly together.

“Cheers,” Sharon says softly and sips it. “Lieutenant, you spoil me.”

“Eh,” Provenza says and nothing else. Sharon offers the glass for Brenda to sip but she shakes her head no. Anything Provenza drinks is not going to be to her taste.

They stay for over an hour. Brenda sticks to the one glass but Sharon has a second of whatever she’s drinking and Brenda realizes that she’s a little toasted when Sharon leans over to say something to Detective Sykes and she uses Brenda’s thigh to steady herself. Brenda looks down at the hand in her lap - pale skin, clear polish on the nails, a little thin band of rose gold around her ring finger. The kind of ring that is purely decorative. The hand is mostly on dress but the tips of her fingers are on Brenda’s bare leg and when she looks up, she sees that Andy sees it too and looks a little lost.

“Are y’all on call this evenin’?” Brenda asks Julio who is on her other side.

“Only if something is really a Major Crime,” Julio says, “Like a celebrity or a big gang shooting. Otherwise the Pope has gotten pretty stingy with overtime.”

“Still,” she says. “I should probably get her home.”

Julio grins, his cheeks round and ruddy from alcohol. “Let her have her fun, Chief. She doesn't do it very often.”

“I’ll go get her a glass of water,” Andy offers and Brenda nods.

“Thanks.” Brenda smiles at him and then leans into Sharon, her hand settling on top of Sharon’s. Sharon looks at Brenda and then down at their fingers and her eyebrows shoot up.

“Oh!” she says.

“Gettin’ a little fresh with me, Raydor?” Brenda teases, squeezing the hand before allowing Sharon to pull it away. Sharon grins at this and when Andy comes back with the water, he has another drink for Sharon, too.

“Lieutenant!” Brenda says.

“Last round,” he says. “On me.”

“I always liked you, Andy,” Sharon says, reaching out for the glass with a smile.

“Promise you’ll drink the water, too,” Brenda says into her ear.

“Yes, yes,” Sharon says. “I promise.”

Brenda worries about getting Sharon home, convincing her to leave, but Sharon hits her limit before it becomes a problem. She’s laughing at something and then stops, kind of abruptly and says, “Oh. I think I’m ready to go.”

“Okay,” Brenda says. “Let’s go to the ladies room first.”

Everyone stands when they do and though Brenda can certainly tell that Sharon is a little drunk, she walks all right to the back of the bar and lets Brenda hold open the bathroom door for her. Brenda waits while Sharon locks herself in the stall.

“You okay?” Brenda calls when the toilet flushes but she doesn't come out.

“Yes,” Sharon says. “I just… that last one was probably a mistake.”

“You gonna be sick?” Brenda says. She didn't think Sharon was that much of a lightweight.

“No, I just feel untethered, that’s all,” Sharon says. She opens the door and comes and Brenda looks her over but she seems okay. Her face is a little red but she looks like herself.

“Wash your hands,” Brenda says. “We’ll put some food in you, okay?”

It’s not even that late. Close to dinner time. She’ll take Sharon home, ride up with her in the elevator. Deposit her safely to Rusty. They say their goodbyes quickly and when Brenda asks Sharon for her car keys, Sharon just hands over her entire purse. Sharon leans against the back bumper of her car while Brenda stands next to her, the purse sitting on the trunk while she digs through it for keys. Sharon’s cell phone, four tubes of lipstick, her glasses case - designer - her wallet, what looks like to be a second wallet, a paperback novel, her badge.

Then, finally, a set of keys.

“You purse weighs twenty pounds,” Brenda complains, handing it back to her while she pushes the fob to unlock the door. Sharon looks at it but doesn't take it so Brenda opens the back seat door and tosses it in with her own large tote. Brenda’s is black and boxy and Sharon’s is an expensive leather handbag - standard Los Angeles style, slouchy with a little tassel hanging off the zipper and about four hundred different pockets.

Sharon gets herself into the car and Brenda is glad. Brenda has to scoot up the driver’s seat and readjust all the mirrors. Sharon cracks her window and rides with her head back against the headrest, her eyes closed. Brenda, feeling an unfamiliar wave of maternal instinct, reaches over and pats her knee affectionately.

“Why did you let me drink so much?” Sharon mutters with a smirk.

“Getting you all liquored up is the one thing I bring to this friendship,” Brenda says.

“You bring many things,” Sharon says.

“Oh do I?” Brenda asks. “Pray tell.”

“Oh god, Brenda, I don’t know. You make me laugh,” Sharon says. “You don’t complain about where we eat. You always have wine.”

“I am everyone’s drunk aunt,” Brenda says. “That’s who you just described.”

“My drunk aunt was always my favorite family member,” Sharon protests, finally cracking open her eyes to glance at Brenda and make sure she isn’t really upset. She isn’t. Sharon isn’t wrong about any of those things, so how could she be?

“Anyway,” Brenda says. “I’m glad that event is behind us.”

“You did really well,” Sharon says. “Up until you embarrassed me horribly, but before that, a really nice job, so thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Brenda says. “Only screwin’ up a little is all I ever shoot for.”

Sharon laughs, a real laugh, dark and throaty.

“You know I said that because I really believe you deserve more,” Brenda says. “And Will’s got his head so far up his own ass that he might need a little reminding now and then.”

“Send him an anonymous note next time, okay?” Sharon says.

“Yes, ma’am,” Brenda says. They’re close now, nearly to the park. Sharon cracks the window a little more, turning her face toward the fresh air.

“Chief Howard was going to attend,” Sharon says. “I told him not to.”

“What?” Brenda says. “He was?”

“I think he feels like he needs to make the political effort now that he’s a department head,” Sharon says. “His party line, anyway.”

“You don’t have to… don’t shoot yourself in the foot tryin’ to protect me,” Brenda says. “He’s still your superior officer.”

“Protect you?” Sharon says. “No, I was protecting my event. I didn't need you clamming up at the last minute or him creating some sort of scene.”

Brenda rolls her eyes, turns onto Sharon’s street. It’s tempting to just shove her out of the car and keep driving but it is Sharon’s car, so she resists the urge and instead jams her finger into the garage door opener. It controls a gate to let her into the underground parking structure.

“Where do I park?” Brenda asks.

“Next to that Suburban,” Sharon says, already unbuckling her seat belt.

Once in the apartment, Sharon disappears into her bathroom leaving Brenda alone in the living room. Rusty isn’t home, near as she can tell, though she doesn’t go peek into his bedroom to be sure or anything. She sits on one of the stools wondering if it would be weird to just go home but then she knows she promised to at least make sure Sharon eats something.

When Sharon comes out, she’s out of her heels and Brenda is looking into her refrigerator.

“There’s leftover chicken salad,” Sharon says. “If you’re hungry.”

“For you,” Brenda says. “You need to eat!”

“You aren’t hungry?” Sharon asks, reaching past her for the sturdy plastic container with its bright green lid.

“Well, I’m always hungry,” Brenda says.

“Another thing I like about you,” Sharon says. “If we’re keeping track.”

“Oh, let’s,” Brenda says. Sharon takes over the kitchen, pulling out the bread and two plates, putting together sandwiches like she’s done it a hundred times, a thousand, like she’s going to slip it into a paper sack and send Brenda off to school. But she doesn’t, she hands it to her on a plate.

“Well what about me?” Sharon demands when they’re seated and Brenda has to think for a moment to figure out what she means.

“What do I like about you?” Brenda asks and Sharon nods, her mouth full. “Well…” she drawls. “I think you’re smart and organized and you’ve got your life together.”

“You like me because I’m a grown up,” Sharon says. “How flattering.”

“It ain’t just that,” Brenda says. “You not only take care of the people you love but you take care of yourself too and that’s so good. You buy yourself pretty clothes and nice shoes and always look so put together. You don’t sacrifice your own happiness for other people while still managing to be, at least for me anyway, a good friend.”

Sharon stares at her for a moment, her eyes large and owlish behind the thick lenses of her glasses. Brenda thinks maybe she’d said too much, that should have said that she likes something simple. Something like, ‘I like the fact that you also have no life because it means you’re always around.’

“Oh Brenda,” Sharon says. “Sometimes you just drive me crazy, you know that?”

Brenda shakes her head, feeling shame crawl up the back of her neck unpleasantly. Here she is sitting in Sharon’s house wearing the beautiful dress that Sharon had bought her and she just doesn't deserve any of it.

“I meant it nice, I’m not sayin’ it right,” Brenda says. “I never say it right.”

“You said it perfectly,” Sharon says. “And it makes me crazy.” She tucks her hair behind her ears with both hands and leans back, her long legs crossed.

Brenda doesn't know what to say, doesn't know if she’s done good or bad. She looks down at her sandwich - whole wheat bread, homemade chicken cut into big chunks, a leaf of bright green lettuce. Sharon’s is mostly gone but Brenda has only taken a few bites and now she’s not even hungry.

“I’m a handful,” Brenda says, finally.

“I forgot about having friends, what’s it’s like,” Sharon says. “How it feels to care about someone you aren’t related to. That you have no claim on, really.”

Brenda thinks about Sharon telling the entire room today that Brenda was her dear friend. She hears her mama’s voice say, Your best girlfriend, Sharon which is how she would have phrased it were she still alive.

“You can stake whatever claim on me that you want to,” Brenda says now. “You don’t scare me off, Captain Raydor.”

Sharon smirks at her, just one corner of her mouth curling up.

“I think I’m still a little drunk,” Sharon says, her voice low. And then, “You look so pretty in that dress, Brenda.”

Brenda giggles. “Yes, you are definitely still drunk.”

Sharon lets the other corner of her mouth curl up, too.

But Brenda understands. Sometimes she looks at Sharon and she just sees Sharon, another busy woman who is trying to carve out a little time for herself. But sometimes she looks at her - like now when she’s all gussied up or when they’re fighting or when she’s barking orders and Brenda feels a little crazy too. Like she’s burning up inside.

Chapter Text

It’s too much work, divorce, and too expensive and she sees now why Sharon and Jack wallowed for two decades putting it off until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. She tries to ignore Fritz but he calls all the time, emails her, shows up at her office to tell her to stop putting off appointments with the lawyers.

He should be imposing, standing in his uniform, those stars on his collar, but he’s in her huge office with floor to ceiling windows and she’s sitting at her desk and when she looks at him, he just seems tired and old.

“You feelin’ all right?” she asks before she can think better of it.

“No, Brenda,” he says. “I am feeling frustrated. You’re the one who wants this divorce but you are the one dragging your feet! I don’t want to spend another year doing this with you. If you don’t want a divorce then you can come home today but if you do, will you please keep your appointments.”

She certainly doesn’t miss Fritz telling her what to do.

“Fritz, I can’t always control when I get called into court, you know that,” she says. “You’re the one who tries to make these appointments without asking me first and then when I say no, that won’t work, I look like the bad guy!”

“Because you ignore my emails about sending me dates that will work for you!” Fritz says, his voice rising into a bellow, his face bright red.

“Hush up and calm down,” she hisses.

“I am calm,” he says, taking a deep breath.

“I don’t understand why we have to do all this mediation anyway,” she says. “I told you to just take whatever.”

“I don’t want you to give me things out of pity, I want to divide things up fairly and that takes time,” he says.

It’s frustrating to hear, but reassuring in some strange way. She can never do anything right according to Fritz. She can’t even divorce him right.

“Fine,” she says.

“I emailed you three dates,” Fritz says. “Please choose one. Today. And don’t cancel or forget.”

“I will,” Brenda says. Her phone rings, the one on her desk and she can see by which phone line it is that her assistant is calling from the desk. She snatches the phone from the cradle without apology and says, “Yes?”

“Your next appointment is here, ma’am.”

“Thank you, we’re almost done here,” she says. She hangs up the phone, stands and smooths her skirt. “My next appointment is here.”

“Okay,” he says. “I mean, Brenda, I don’t want to have to come down here every time I want to see you. There’s got to be a better way.”

“I promise to pick an appointment and keep it,” she says. She doesn’t want him to feel like he can drop in and see her any old time but she also doesn’t want him to show up at her office.

He raises his hands in defeat. “Fine. Thank you.”

When he opens the door, he stops and hesitates. Brenda knows why. She knows exactly who has shown up at her outer office when most of the workforce is out getting lunch.

She hears the awkward exchange. “Chief Howard.”

“Captain Raydor,” Fritz says and then moves again, walking past her. Brenda can see Sharon through the door, her hand in her pocket, her hip leaning against the empty desk - her assistant has left for lunch. Good. Sharon walks in, a bag on her arm, and closes the office door.

“Everything okay?” Sharon asks.

Brenda rolls her eyes and shrugs. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Well no, but we could. If you wanted to,” Sharon offers.

“Maybe later,” Brenda says. “When there’s booze.”

Sharon smirks and Brenda has to look away from how mirth lights up her face, how her eyes crinkle up at the corners.

They don’t get time to talk about anything though because someone knocks and then pushes open the door. It’s Rusty.

“What did you bring me?” he says, eying the bag on Sharon’s arm.

“Hi to you too,” Sharon says.

“Sorry,” he says. “Hi. Hi, Chief Investigator Johnson.” He flashes her a big cheesy grin - she’s told him a hundred times that she doesn’t care if he calls her Brenda, but he won’t do it at the office. He’s in slacks and a wrinkled button down shirt, the world’s skinniest tie hanging around his neck. He looks exactly his age, young and ambitious, trying but not too hard. It’s been nice having him around. He doesn’t interact with her much in any official capacity but she sees him around and if they lock eyes while she’s sitting in some meeting in the large conference room with glass walls, he always makes a silly face and she has to work not to laugh. Seeing him makes her think of Sharon which is better than thinking about work or being stressed out or this divorce that seems to be dragging on for all time.

“Hi,” Brenda says.

“I brought sandwiches and some of the leftover pasta stuff from last night,” Sharon says. “Which would you rather?”

“What kind of sandwich?” he asks.

“Turkey avocado or Roast Beef,” she says.

“Do you even have to ask?” Rusty says. She reaches into the bag and hands him a sandwich. “Thank you. You ladies have fun, now.”

“What?” Brenda says. “You aren’t stayin’?”

“Uhhh,” Rusty says. “I mean. I could but I could also not stay?”

“Just go,” Sharon says, dismissing him. “I’ll see you at home.”

“Thank you,” he says. “Bye.”

He closes the office door behind him.

“I think,” Sharon says carefully, “he was worried he wouldn’t make friends, but he has so he’d rather eat with them.”

“I’m glad he likes it,” Brenda says. “I’ll try not to take it personally.”

“Pasta or sandwich?” Sharon asks and then rolls her eyes. “I don’t know why I asked.” She pulls out the tupperware with the pasta and hands it across the desk.

“There’s a vending machine down the hall if you want me to get drinks,” Brenda offers.

“No, I have them,” she says, pulling out a water and then, surprisingly, a can of Diet Coke for Brenda.

“What happened to no coke with meals?” Brenda asks, delighted to have the caffeine fix. She takes it too, pops the tab. There’s something about the sound of a can of soda pop opening that just makes her feel better, like a pavlovian response.

“That’s with dinner,” Sharon says. “And anyway, you’re not my kid.”

They’ve started having lunch together during the work week, usually on Wednesdays if neither of them are too busy. It bridges the gap between weekends, anyway, where they usually do something more frivolous. See a movie, take Rusty to dinner. Last weekend, Sharon had been working so Brenda had wandered over to the condo by herself, unannounced, to find Rusty sitting on the floor in front of the television playing a video game about shooting zombies.

“I wanted to buy something cool with my paycheck,” Rusty had said. “Sharon went for it!”

Of course she did, Brenda had thought. Sharon went for things that made Rusty happy and carefree, when she could.

Rusty had also given her a key to the condo. “We finally got this back from Jack. Sharon said give it to you if I saw you.”

She watches Sharon now, inhaling her sandwich. These lunches are always quick bursts because Sharon always has to get back. Maybe it would be kinder for Brenda to go to her instead of the other way around but neither of them suggest it. There’s no history here in Brenda’s office. They can chit chat, they can sit quietly. None of it has to mean anything.

“You have the long weekend off?” Brenda asks.

“Theoretically,” Sharon says. “Probably. I don’t know who’d have to die for Pope to authorize all of us on a Sunday and a paid holiday.”

“The mayor,” Brenda says. “Pope himself.”

“Ha,” Sharon says.

“We could do something,” Brenda says. She shrugs as she says it hoping she’s coming across as casual, disinterested even. Like she is the one throwing Sharon a bone, not the half-starved beast.

“Oh!” Sharon says. “You could finally buy a television!”

“My life is fine without a TV,” Brenda says.

“There’s always good sales over holiday weekends,” Sharon says. “I’ll go with you.”

“I was thinking more like…” Brenda stops. “Okay, well I hadn’t made a plan or anything, but I was gonna come up with something.”

“Don’t be one of those people, Brenda. Don’t be the kind of person who says in large groups of people ‘I don’t even own a television’ because everyone else always hates that person,” Sharon says. “The kind of person who drives an electric car, who always remembers to bring their canvas bags grocery shopping.”

“Vegans,” Brenda adds.

“Right. I don’t want to be friends with that person.”

“I don’t even remember to go grocery shopping,” Brenda says. “Let alone bring in the bags. I think you’re safe.”

“Good,” Sharon says, balling up her trash. She looks at Brenda’s mostly empty container of pasta. “You can wash that and bring it over on Saturday.”

“Yes, boss,” Brenda says. Sharon smirks.

“Oh, I like the sound of that,” she grins.

Brenda waves as Sharon lets herself out. And she knows that Sharon was joking but she likes the fact that she isn’t Sharon’s superior anymore, that no one has a professional upper hand. It’s eased a lot of the tension between them and Brenda likes the view from a more level playing field.

Her phone starts to ring and she sighs, setting her fork down. Lunch time is over.

oooo

Brenda wakes up with a headache in no mood to go out and purchase electronics. She’s tired of summer, tired of heat, tired of her little apartment, tired of this strange, small life.

She calls Sharon from her bed and says, “I don’t wanna go. I don’t feel well.”

“Okay,” Sharon says. “Maybe tomorrow.”

She didn’t expect to be let off the hook and when they hang up, Brenda feels kind of let down that Sharon didn’t fight harder for her company. Which is ridiculous. She knows she’s being ridiculous.

At least you know, her mama says and Brenda rolls her eyes, pushes out of bed. She’ll make some coffee, she’ll run a bath and sit in the tub until the caffeine eats away at the pain behind her eyes. She runs the bath while the coffee drips into the pot but when she pours it into a mug and sweetens it up, she finds she doesn’t really want to drink it. And when she sips it anyway, it makes her stomach turn.

She eases herself into the tub and sits in the hot water feeling achy and desolate. She knows she’s not herself because she finds herself thinking about Fritz. He was always so nice to her when she was sick - which didn’t happen very often. He always stayed in the bed with her watching some trashy movie on the television while she felt sorry for herself.

She’d seen Fritz last at the office of his lawyer. She’d kept her appointment, they’d talked for an hour and a half about assets. They owned two cars, no property. She makes more money than him and though she’d instructed her lawyer to give in on any alimony demands, Fritz didn’t ask for spousal support and so that was a non-issue. No children, Fritz already had the cat.

“Congratulations, Ms. Johnson,” her lawyer had said afterwards. “In six to eight weeks, you’ll be divorced officially.”

She doesn’t really want Fritz now, she just longs for the idea of someone fussing over her because she feels sick. The idea of going back to Fritz, of moving back into the duplex, of sharing a life - well, she just can’t do it. She won’t. Maybe her life is small now, a little sad and a lot lonely but it’s hers and she’s not afraid of coming home and that’s worth something. A little loneliness. Her mother’s voice in her head.

The bath doesn’t cure her headache but it helps a little. She’s tired again when she gets out, pulls on a clean pair of underwear and a tank top and crawls back into bed with wet hair and falls asleep again.

She wakes up because someone is touching her with cool fingers on her forehead.

“Stop it, mama,” she says. “I’m tryin’ to sleep.”

But even as she says it, she knows it’s not right. That while her mama keeps her company sometimes, the way the needle of a compass always longs for true north, she’s still gone and in the ground.

“Brenda,” she hears. “Sit up a little. You have a fever. You need to take something to get it down.”

Not her mama, then, but someone’s mama.

She opens her eyes and the world takes a moment to reorient to two hands, one holding a pink cup of water and the other two little brown pills.

“What are you doin’ here?” Brenda asks.

Sharon’s face is awash in sympathy. She looks at Brenda with a crease between her eyebrows and the lines at the corners of her eyes fanning out across her temples. She waves the hand with the pills and Brenda opens her own hand so that Sharon can let the pills fall into her open palm. Brenda puts them in her mouth and takes the water, too, drinking enough to swallow the pills.

“More,” Sharon says. “As much as you can get down.”

So Brenda takes another three swallows and then hands it back, shaking her head.

“Okay,” Sharon says, taking the water back and setting it on the nightstand next to the abandoned coffee and Brenda’s cellphone. “I called but you didn’t answer.”

“I was asleep,” Brenda says.

“I rang the bell, too,” Sharon says.

Brenda lies back again, a little more awake now. Sharon is sitting on the edge of her bed, watching Brenda intently.

“I just have a headache,” Brenda says. “I’m okay.”

“And a fever,” Sharon says. “What else hurts?”

“Nothin’,” Brenda says. “Probably just a little bug. A couple people were out this last week at the office. David was out for two days. I probably got it from him.”

“Hmm,” Sharon says.

“Don’t you get it too, Captain,” Brenda says.

Sharon winks at her, stands up. “Have you eaten?”

“I’m not hungry,” Brenda says.

“It’s past noon,” Sharon says. “Did you eat breakfast?”

Brenda shakes her head.

“If I make you something, will you try and eat it?” Sharon asks. Brenda is going to say no but then, she was just longing for someone to come take care of her and here Sharon is, like an answer to her siren song.

“I’ll try,” Brenda says.

“Good,” Sharon says pleased. “Maybe put on a bra first, huh?” As she walks out of the bedroom, Brenda looks down and realizes that the lavender tank she’d put on is flimsy and see through.

She crosses her arms and huffs. No sense in being embarrassed, Sharon was the one who let herself in.

“And pants!” Sharon calls.

Brenda skips the bra, sticking out her tongue at the open door but she does pull on another shirt and a pair of sweatpants. She brushes her teeth and wrangles her hair back out of her face. She’s tired by the time she shuffles out of her bedroom and into the kitchen. Sharon is standing at the stove, pushing eggs around in a pan - a pan that Brenda knows she’d had to wash first. In fact, the whole kitchen looks cleaner than she’d left it.

“How long have you been here?” Brenda asks, sinking tiredly into one of the chairs.

“I let you sleep for a while,” Sharon says. “But when you didn’t wake up even though I was making a racket, I got worried.”

“One day I’m gonna sneak into your place and change a bunch of stuff,” Brenda says, feeling sullen and out of sorts. Sharon just laughs and bangs the spatula on the side of the pan before setting it down and leaning over to turn off the burner.

“I live with a teenager,” Sharon says. “Nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be anymore.”

“I don’t know why I feel so tired,” Brenda says, hiding a yawn behind her hand.

“You’ll feel better when you eat something,” Sharon says. The toast pops up from the toaster and Sharon puts it onto a plate, buttering it lightly from a tub of margarine. She seems as comfortable in Brenda’s kitchen as her own. The eggs go on next and then Sharon sets the plate in front of Brenda. “You want some ketchup?”

Brenda looks up at her, horrified. “No!”

“Hmm, that might be a California thing,” Sharon says. “My kids wouldn’t eat scrambled eggs without ketchup.”

“Like ranch dressing on pizza,” Brenda says. “I never saw that till I moved here.”

“It’s good though,” Sharon says.

“Yeah,” Brenda agrees. “That one I can get behind but ketchup? My mama would’ve banned me from the table.”

“But gravy on everything was fine,” Sharon says with a snort.

“Of course,” Brenda says. She picks up a piece of toast and eats one corner and doesn’t feel sick, so she eats a little more and by the end, when her plate is clear, she does feel better. The advil kicking in has helped, too. “You don’t have to check up on me like I’m one of your ducklings,” she says.

“You’re welcome,” Sharon says dryly, picking up the plate and carrying it to the sink. She rinses it and puts it in the dishwasher. Show off.

“Thank you,” Brenda manages. “But you know what I mean.”

Sharon puts her hands on her hips. Today she’s in those tight jeans and what looks to be a cotton t-shirt. She’s wearing sandals and Brenda tries to think if she’s ever seen Sharon in open toe shoes. The shirt is simple but it fits well and is a pretty teal color. She likes casual Sharon. Her beauty becomes an asset, not something that intimidates Brenda. She just gets to enjoy looking at her without feeling like she’s gotta sprint to keep up.

“You’ve never canceled on me before,” Sharon says. “I wanted to make sure you were okay. That you weren’t upset with me.”

“Why on earth-?” Brenda says. “You haven’t done anything to upset me.”

“Maybe you really didn’t want a TV, I don’t know,” Sharon says.

“I worked sixty five hours last week,” Brenda says. “I think I just got tired.”

“I’ll let you get some rest,” Sharon says.

“No, I wasn’t kicking you out!” Brenda complains. “You could-”

Sharon’s phone starts to ring. She pulls it out of her pocket and looks at it. “Andy.” She swipes and says, “Hello?”

Brenda knows this phone call. She sees the way her face changes, the way she straightens out her spine.

“A body,” Brenda says when she hangs up.

“Four,” Sharon says. “A family. I have to-”

“Yeah,” Brenda says. “Call me later, if you want.”

“Feel better,” Sharon says, but her mind is already whirling and then her body is out the door, too. Brenda is alone, clean kitchen, full tummy, long weekend stretching endlessly ahead.

oooo

What do you think you are doin’?

Her mama’s voice is stern and shocked and appalled. Brenda is barreling down the sidewalk like a woman on a warpath, holding her jacket tightly around her. It’s cooled off a lot tonight and it’s late, after ten, but she doesn't care.

“I am goin’ to Sharon’s,” she says.

It is late! You are goin’ without an invitation, with nothing in your hands! You are gonna embarrass yourself, Brenda Leigh. Turn around.

“I’m sorry, mama,” Brenda says. “But I don’t care about being rude tonight.”

The key Rusty had given her opens the glass doors and the elevator is sitting in the lobby, waiting for someone to call it so the doors part right away. And even though she still has the key when she exits again, she knocks on the door.

Waits a moment and knocks again, harder. Finally she hears movement, the lock turning and then Rusty opens the door, rubbing his eyes in plaid pajama pants and a ratty old t-shirt.

“Brenda?”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “Come in. What’s wrong?”

“I came to see Sharon,” Brenda says. But he’s shaking his head.

“She’s not home yet,” he says.

“She have a case?”

“No,” he says. “She went on a date. She didn’t tell you?”

A date? “A date?” she demands. “With who?”

“I dunno, some guy,” Rusty says. “She’ll be home soon. You could wait?”

She’s certainly not going to wait around for Sharon to come home from a date with some guy and how could Brenda not know that Sharon was dating, that she wanted to date, even? She’d never said anything about it before. Brenda feels a rush of anger, betrayal, and fear.

“No, absolutely not,” Brenda says. “Go back to bed. I can let myself out.”

“Wait a minute, why did you come in the first place?” Rusty asks.

Brenda thinks about her day, all fourteen hours of it, the court case gone wrong, the condescending tone of the communications director, worried more about how the media is portraying one of their investigations and less about finding the truth. She hates being dressed down, especially by pompous men who don’t know a thing about running an investigation for something entirely out of her control. The investigation goes the way it goes and she can’t be concerned with what the press says, that’s a lesson she’d learned a long time ago.

She’d thought about Sharon showing up at her house, crying or pissed and she’d thought, I had a bad day, maybe it’s my turn! But she hadn’t expected Sharon not to be here.

“I just wanted to talk to her, that’s all,” Brenda says.

And that’s still the truth. It might be charitable of her to stay. If it turns out to be a bad date, she can listen to Sharon complain about the bad food and the worse conversation. And if it’s a good date and Sharon is glowing and rosy and excited, well, she can stick around for that too.

“Okay, well, whatever,” he says. “I’m going to drive out to see my real mom in the morning so I have to go to sleep.”

“Goodnight, kiddo,” she says. She waits until his bedroom door closes and then she sits for a moment, looking around the dark, empty condo.

The one lamp that is lit, the humming of the stainless steel refrigerator, how the little red light is glowing on the cable box because something is recording.

She realizes that she absolutely cannot stay here and wait for Sharon because that would literally be crazy and she picks up her purse and slings it over her shoulder. She locks the door behind her, makes it all the way to the end of the hall where the elevator is. She pushes the button, says, “Come on, come on.”

The doors slide open and Sharon is inside, leaning against the wall, her head tipped back and her eyes closed.

If there were somewhere to hide, Brenda would absolutely do it. She’d dive behind a dusty ficus, crawl under a table, slip behind a sofa, no questions asked. But there’s nowhere. Even the door to the stairwell is several yards away and she’d never make it, so here they are. Sharon opens her eyes and her mouth forms a perfect circle of surprise.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hello,” Brenda replies. “I was just leaving.”

Sharon nods like this is normal. Brenda had expected her to come home disappointed or excited but this is nothing. She’s so neutral, so blank. She regards Brenda for a moment and then walks out of the elevator, holding her arm across the threshold so it doesn’t close.

“Do you want to stay for awhile?” Sharon says.

No, Brenda thinks, I’d rather do anything else.

“Okay,” she says. She doesn’t want to hear about the date, doesn’t want to picture Sharon in some cozy little restaurant with some handsome yet faceless probably wealthy man, sharing a bottle of wine, eating cake off the same fork, laughing about how good they’ve got it. How easy it is not to be alone.

“You okay?” Sharon asks as they make their way down the hall. She’s already got her keys in her hand. Brenda eyes them, the gold of the house key, the big keys that say ‘DO NOT DUPLICATE’ that belong to the city building that houses Major Crimes, a little keychain in the shape of an angel.

“Yeah,” Brenda says. “You?”

Sharon tilts her head and hums a little before unlocking the door.

Back inside, Brenda holds her purse close to her side, tries to make herself smaller. Rusty’s bedroom door opens again and Sharon meets him halfway in the dark hall. She can hear Sharon murmur something and then, “Goodnight, sweetheart.”

Sharon seems surprised to find Brenda still standing in the foyer, awkwardly holding her bag, right where she’d left her.

“Well have a seat,” she says.

Brenda lets her purse slide down her arm where it stops at her elbow, jerking Brenda’s whole body. She sets it by the table in the foyer and takes a few steps into the living room. She always sits on the couch but tonight she folds herself into the armchair. Sharon looks at her for a long moment and then says, “Okay,” under her breath, stretching both syllables out into a weary sigh.

Sharon’s hair is down, styled to be sleek and straight. It’s beautiful, it always is, but especially now, gleaming from the recessed lighting that shines down on her when she flips the light switch in the kitchen, but Brenda prefers it with a little more body. Curled at the ends. She’s also wearing a dress - Brenda has seen the dress before so it’s something Sharon wears to work, but instead of a structured blazer to make it professional, her arms are bare and there’s a silver bangle on one wrist. She’s wearing heels that pair nicely with the thin belt around her trim waist.

“You look nice,” Brenda says, though it comes out sounding like an accusation and that’s not quite what Brenda meant to do. She freezes for a moment, mortified. Sharon’s back had been to her and she spins slowly to look at Brenda.

“Thank you, I think,” she says. “What’s with you?”

“What’s with you?” Brenda says. “Where were you?”

“I was out,” Sharon says. “Didn’t Rusty tell you?”

“You sure didn’t,” Brenda complains. Sharon’s eyebrows climb slowly, up, up, up until it breaks Brenda and she says, “Who with?”

Sharon’s mouth opens and then closes again and she changes tactics. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I came to see you!” Brenda says hotly, defensively. She can make murderers spill their secrets, she’s reduced more people to tears during interrogations than she cares to remember but when faced with Sharon Raydor she just goes hot at the collar, all pulsating blood and buzzing in her ears.

“Why?” Sharon asks.

“I just… I just thought,” Brenda says, shaking her head. “I just had a bad day, that’s all. I just thought you’d be here.”

It’s different, Brenda understands now, when Sharon drops by Brenda’s apartment unannounced. It’s different because that’s the kind of person Brenda is, for one. Casual and desperate for friendship but Sharon has a well-structured life, she has a teenager she cares for, she goes on dates. She’s not a mess, like Brenda, so it matters to call ahead. She has a life where things matter and Brenda doesn’t. Brenda doesn’t care about anything in her life. She does her job because what else would she do but if she were fired tomorrow, it’d be no real loss. She doesn’t have any family in the area, doesn’t want to live closer to the family she does have. She doesn’t have hobbies, she doesn’t even have a cat anymore.

The only thing that she remotely even looks forward to is seeing Sharon and now that she’s here, Sharon is looking at her like she’s thirty seconds away from kicking Brenda out and barring her for life. Brenda brings a hand up to her mouth and says, “I’m sorry,” through her fingers.

“Don’t be,” Sharon says. “I had a bad day too.”

The tips of Brenda’s fingers slip between her lips, nails against teeth - a soft click against the enamel that she feels more than hears. “You did?” she says around them, through her clenched jaw.

Sharon comes around, sits on the sofa where Brenda usually does, tucks her hands between her bare knees. The bracelet on her wrist sits against the delicate bone there, gleaming in the lamp light. Brenda stares at it a moment until Sharon says, “Being married was a good excuse to turn down anyone who asked me on a date.”

Brenda nods, pulls her fingers down and mirror’s Sharon’s pose, her hands jammed between her thighs.

“Now that I’m divorced… well that’s what people do right? Try again? And I did turn him down but he was persistent and he asked me to name one good reason why I shouldn’t give him a try and I couldn’t come up with anything so I went.” She lifts one shoulder limply.

“Not wanting to go is a good enough reason,” Brenda says.

Sharon face breaks into a slow, surprised smile and she says, “Yes, it is.”

“Who was he?” she asks, though she hates herself as she does, just loathes herself for asking or caring. For the tight feeling in her chest, for the way she already knows that whatever the answer is, she’s not going to like it.

“Someone who goes to my church,” Sharon says. “I tried it and it was a disaster, lesson learned.”

Brenda finds it strange, somehow, the idea of Sharon at church. She knows she’s Catholic but she thought it was more cultural than anything else. If asked, Brenda is perfectly happy admitting to being Southern Baptist but she hasn’t set foot in a church on a Sunday morning in years and years. She does this too much, assumes that Sharon will be just like her only to be surprised when she’s different. When she’s better.

“You’ll find someone,” Brenda offers and Sharon hums a little.

“That’s certainly what you’re supposed to say,” she says. “Now. Please. Tell me about your day.” She leans in and Brenda can see the skin at her chest wrinkle a little, just at the top of her cleavage. Brenda starts to feel a little panicky, like she’s stitched together too loosely and there’s a real chance things are going to start spilling out.

Honey, her mother says, and she sounds worried too. Go home!

“I have to leave,” Brenda says, standing up. “I just remembered.”

Sharon frowns. “Are you certain you’re feeling okay?”

“Yep,” Brenda says, trying to sound bright. “I just… I just have to go. But I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

She tries to bolt, makes it to the door, has her hand around the handles of her bag, but Sharon is hot on her heels and when she straightens up, Sharon does yet one more thing that catches Brenda off guard.

Sharon’s arms are around her before she even realizes it.

“I’m glad I saw you tonight, Brenda,” Sharon says softly, right into her ear.

Brenda sighs, melts against her. Slowly lifts the hand not holding her bag and rests it against Sharon’s lower back, right at the curve of her spine. She closes her eyes just for a moment.

But then it’s over, Sharon pulling back, giving her a warm smile, opening the door for her.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Brenda echoes faintly.

She makes it to the end of the hall but she walks past the elevator and into the stairwell. She’s never been in here before and it’s dark for a moment before lights flicker on, buzzing and yellow. She sits on the top step and takes a few deep breaths, so deep that after a moment she makes herself dizzy.

But Brenda, her mother says. Why on earth should you be jealous because your friend Sharon went out with a man?

“I don’t know, mama,” Brenda moans, pressing her cold fingers to her hot cheeks. “I don’t know.”

oooo

Brenda only ever cleans after two am unless someone is coming over and maybe not even then. But tonight she stays awake and cleans the tub in the bathroom with powdered cleaner. She adds just enough water to make a paste and the scrubs and scrubs until the muscles in her arms are burning.

It’s not that she isn’t tired, it’s not that she she wouldn’t fall asleep if she just got into bed. It’s that falling asleep is dangerous. She’s been having these dreams and-

She reaches up and turns on the water, wipes and rinses until everything is white and clean and her hands are burning around her nail beds where the skin is thin. She does the sink next, making sure to scrub around the drain so there’s no toothpaste residue, no sprinkle of loose powder from a makeup brush, no slyly coiled blonde strand of hair hiding under the porcelain lip.

She wonders if it’s too late to mop. Will she make it through mopping? Should she just do the bathroom and kitchen or the entire apartment, hardwood floors and all? It’s not that much more square footage wise. She can even mop around the area rug in the living room.

Brenda is leaving for Atlanta in less than 24 hours and Sharon’s kids are coming to Los Angeles for the holiday.

“I just don’t have room for them all, even with the air mattress,” Sharon had said, fretting.

“I’m going to be in Atlanta,” Brenda had offered. “Let one of them stay at my place.”

“They don’t even know you!” Sharon had said.

“You do,” Brenda had pointed out. “And you already have a key.”

So now she’s got to get it up to Sharon’s standard of clean. Is that even possible?

She’d thought about staying home for Thanksgiving but her father had been insistent about her coming home to Atlanta and anyway, Fritz had been sniffing around, trying to figure out her plans.

“Go see your sister,” Brenda had told him, trying not to be unkind. Didn't he understand that the whole point of getting divorced was not to spend holidays together anymore? He’d given her so much grief about working too much and not having a social life that he’d never noticed he was exactly the same way. He probably blamed that on her, too. How he’d wanted to change her and she’d changed him instead.

She makes every appliance in the kitchen gleam before throwing in the towel, hoping that she’s tired enough to fall asleep and not dream. Or at least, at the very, very least, not remember any of her dreams.

She’s been having these dreams and the last time she’d woken up with her fingers between her legs, for heaven’s sake, and it’s embarrassing to wake up like she’s fifteen-years-old again, pumped full of hormones and shame.

She won’t even be able to look at Sharon when she comes over.

She’s mad at herself, anyway, because it’s disrespectful and bizarre. She doesn’t really want to do those types of things with Sharon, she’s just starved for sex and Sharon is the only person she spends any meaningful amount of time with.

You don’t have deviant dreams about your friend David, or about Rusty, either, her mother finds it important to point out.

Maybe she should be going out on dates too. Or to bars alone, just to bring someone home to scratch her itch. But even as she thinks it, she knows that she’s not up for that. She’s never been one for meaningless sex. She needs the connection and not just in her bed, but in her life. Even in the interrogation room, she always found some way to connect before getting them to talk. Otherwise it just didn't work.

She climbs into her bed, arranges the sheets around her. In the morning she’ll changes them, put on a fresh set for Sharon. She closes her eyes, sighs. Thinks about whether Sharon is gonna like her bed, if the pillow top is going to be too soft for her. Brenda likes a soft bed - Fritz never did.

She thinks about whether Sharon will be too warm or too cold - if she should put an extra blanket on the bed or if Sharon is the type of person who, like Brenda, will overheat and kick off pajamas in their sleep and wake up wondering what happened to her pants and how did her shirt get all the way over there?

No, Brenda thinks, don’t think about that. Don’t think about what she’s gonna wear or not wear, don’t think about her hair spread out across the pillowcase.

Brenda always does this. When she likes someone, when she wants someone desperately to like her in return, she always gets overly attached and then things start to get… confusing. She did it when she was a girl, falling into infatuation with her second grade teacher, a kind woman with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Brenda had brought her an apple every day for a week and then had picked all the flowers out of her mama’s garden to bring to school with her. Her mama, of course, had been livid and her daddy had spanked her good and when he’d asked her why she’d done it, Brenda had admitted through her tears that they’d been for her teacher because Brenda just loved her so much.

In high school, she’d joined the cheerleading squad because her friends did and though Brenda is not a particularly coordinated person and was even less so during puberty, she’d wanted so much to be a part of that beautiful group of girls in their pleated skirts and white tennis shoes. She’d used to love when they all did each other’s makeup - her friend Alison had always been the best at doing someone else’s makeup and she’d had this beautiful mouth, shaped like a little heart, and Brenda had fallen in love with those lips, staring at them dreamily while getting done up.

Her mentor in the C.I.A., the woman who’d taught her every good thing she knew about interrogations, had the most beautiful hands, delicate fingers, soft skin, a princess cut diamond ring that always slipped just a little off-center and Brenda had fallen for the hands first and then the rest of her and she’d been determined, then, to be the best. To rise to the top and so she had.

And Will. Jesus, she still burns with shame a little thinking about it. She’d undo it if she could, knowing what she knows now, but at the time, she’d wanted nothing more than to have him entirely to herself. And for the first time, her overwhelming affection and infatuation had been returned. They’d fallen into bed and that had been it. She’d been hooked.

She’d thought she’d learned her lesson after that but now that old familiar feeling creeps up again. Sharon’s reluctant smiles, her thick glossy hair, the soft curve of her calves when she’s in heels. It all makes Brenda want to fall over herself to please Sharon, to make Sharon like her just as much in return. But she knows better this time. She knows that wanting all of someone isn’t healthy, that anything that leads to the mess she’d gotten into with Will can’t be good.

She falls asleep fretting and has a fragmented, confusing dream about the murder room - the old one in Parker Center, not the new one which is strange because Sharon is there but Brenda knows they hadn’t crossed paths until after the move. Brenda is leaning against Provenza’s old wooden desk, looking at her whiteboard and Sharon is there, too, in the green dress she wore to the luncheon. She walks between the whiteboard and Brenda, reaches out to take Brenda’s hand, presses it against her chest, hard between her breasts and says, “Show me.”

Brenda doesn’t know what it means, but Sharon’s skin is warm and it all feels so real, the muted light, the smell of dry erase marker and stale coffee, the way Brenda nods, wanting to give Sharon whatever it is that she desires, the phone on the desk ringing and ringing and ringing.

Brenda wakes up.

Her phone is ringing. She reaches for it blindly, hits the green circle to accept the call and manages to say, “Johnson.”

“Oh, I woke you!” Sharon’s voice comes clear through the connection.

“It’s okay,” Brenda says. “What time is it?”

“8:30,” Sharon says. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and in a few hours, Brenda will be on a plane. “I was going to go for a run before the kids get here. I just called to see if you wanted to come.”

“A run,” Brenda says.

“At the park,” Sharon says. “Never mind, get some more sleep.”

“Gimme fifteen minutes,” Brenda says.

She hangs up and tosses the phone down on the bed beside her, rubs her face and tries to shake off her tiredness. What had she gotten, four hours? It’ll have to be enough.

She sits up, puts her bare feet on the cold floor and wonders just exactly what she’d been supposed to show Sharon anyway.

Chapter Text

Sharon sends Rusty to pick Brenda up from the airport. Brenda had tried to say it wasn’t necessary for anyone to fetch her but didn’t really resist that hard because the idea of someone being there, waiting for her, is kind of a nice one. It’s something she’d taken for granted for a long time and now she knows she won’t always have it - that having it now is conditional and tenuous. Rusty belongs to Sharon, not Brenda, and Brenda really only has Sharon on loan.

Rusty waves Brenda down from inside the car, pops the trunk and doesn’t get out so Brenda hefts her own suitcase inside, nestling it among Rusty’s backpack, a few text books, a pair of old sneakers, and what looks like nothing more than floating garbage.

There’s an awkward moment when she goes to open the door and it’s locked and he has to lean across the empty passenger seat to open the door.

“That gets stuck sometimes,” he says.

“It’s all right,” Brenda says, getting in and setting her purse at her feet, closing the door. “Whew.”

“How was your flight?” he asks, pulling out from the curb without looking and then slamming on the breaks. Brenda braces, her hand flying out to the dashboard. Rusty turns on his signal and pulls out again.

“Uh,” she says, wondering if this is actually a punishment. “Good. Fine.”

“Cool,” Rusty says.

“How was your holiday?” she asks.

“It was interesting,” he says. “I didnt grow up with normal Thanksgiving, you know with the big turkey and the gravy and the rolls and stuff.”

“No?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “Sharon’s a pretty good cook.”

“Pretty good,” Brenda says, suppressing a smile. “Did you help?”

“Yeah, I did the stuffing and made the cranberry sauce. Out of real cranberries, not even the kind out of the can,” he says.

“Sharon’s not really a canned food person, I take it,” Brenda says.

“Depends on what’s inside, I think,” Rusty says thoughtfully.

“And what did you think about her kids?” Brenda asks.

“Have you ever met them?”

“No,” Brenda says. “I mean, I’ve known Sharon for years but we were not what you would call close. Or friendly.”

“Lieutenant Provenza says that you hated each other’s guts,” Rusty says.

“It took some time to find common ground,” Brenda says diplomatically.

“I’ve met Ricky before but Emily is nice. She’s more like Sharon. Her personality, I mean. And her face, too, I guess. Ricky left this morning but Emily’s here until tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Brenda says. She’s slightly disappointed simply because she knows it wouldn’t be right to intrude on what’s left of Sharon’s family time and tomorrow is Monday, everyone back to work so it means she won’t see Sharon again until probably the weekend, unless they meet for lunch which is always really tricky. Maybe it’s for the best, though, maybe the space is good. Brenda had made herself focus on her family during this trip, spending time with her brothers and her daddy. She’d consciously left her phone up in her bedroom or put it to silent when they went out. She didn’t let herself text Rusty and certainly not Sharon. In fact, they’d exchanged exactly one text in the several days she’d been gone. Sharon had sent her a text wishing her a Happy Thanksgiving and Brenda had returned the sentiment. She’s proud of herself, but that pride fades in the wake of her disappointment.

“I’m supposed to get you to come to dinner,” Rusty says now. He glances at her as he exits off the freeway. “We have leftovers. We could feed a moderately sized village.”

“Tonight?” she asks.

“Sharon said you’d say you were too tired and said to tell you that we have three kinds of pie.”

“What kinds?” Brenda asks.

“Pumpkin, cherry, and a caramel apple,” he says.

“Well in that case,” Brenda says.

“Oh good.” Rusty sounds relieved.

“You had me at pie,” Brenda admits. It’s already the afternoon but not quite dinner time so Rusty drops her off home, offering to double park to help her carry up her bag and tells him to go home.

“Come over whenever,” he says. “Come now, if you want.”

“Give me an hour or so,” she says.

“Okay,” he says. “But we’re glad you’re home.”

Brenda’s grandmother - her daddy’s mama, that is - had been the grandparent that Brenda was closest to and one of the fondest memories Brenda has of her Grandma Charlene is sitting together on her old wraparound porch, cradled in her lap reading books or singing hymns or just being with each other. “Brenda Leigh and I are gonna go set for a spell,” she used to say and they’d leave her grandfather and her rowdy brothers behind.

Her grandma always used to say that Brenda’s heart was a garden and it was her responsibility to keep the flowers in and the weeds out. And even later in life, when Brenda was older and would turn to her grandma for advice, she’d say, “Well what does your garden think about it?”

Brenda thinks of the garden walls of her heart now, as she climbs her stairs with her suitcase, face warm with the knowledge that she had been missed. She thinks of Sharon, pretty as a flower and how tempting it is to let her and Rusty all the way in. Even pretty things can grow like weeds though, can take over and strangle everything planted around it.

That woman always did prefer speaking in metaphors instead of just plain English, Brenda’s mama complains. Her mama and her grandma had often butted heads, as Brenda recalls.

“Well what do you think I should do, mama?” Brenda asks huffily, pushing into the apartment. But if her mama answers, she doesn’t hear it - she’s too surprised by what she sees. Her place looks amazing. The floors gleam, everything is tidy, and Brenda can see at least three different bunches of flowers sitting in clear glass vases. A cheery bunch of sunflowers on her dining table, a small bunch of bright pink tulips on the coffee table and Brenda can see another arrangement on her nightstand through to the bedroom, purples and oranges and a pop of yellow though she can’t make out the flowers from the front door.

She steps in, closes the door behind her. The kitchen is spotless and when she finally goes into the bedroom, her bed is made and there’s even a square of Ghirardelli chocolate on her pillow - milk chocolate with caramel inside.

When she opens her refrigerator, there’s a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and a new carton of half and half inside.

Seems like she’s no weed to me, her mama finally says.

“Seems like,” Brenda agrees.

oooo

Sharon answers the door and she’s got her hair clipped back and thick, black liquid liner on her eyes, winged out just a little bit and Brenda’s heart leaps up into her throat, especially when Sharon smiles enough to show her white teeth.

“You’re home!” she says. Brenda can only nod, her lips compressed into a tight line. “Come in, come in, you’re probably starving. Of course you’re starving, you’re Brenda! How was the flight? How was your father? Was it cold? Do you get snow there?”

Sharon carries on the conversation well enough for the both of them and Brenda manages to get all the way to the kitchen just with nodding and shaking her head - hungry, yes, snow, no.

“Jesus, mom,” says what is obviously the daughter because she looks a lot like Sharon. They’re not as close as twins or sisters, but there’s something in the shape of her mouth and their body type that is just the same. “Give her a chance to get a word in.”

“This is Emily,” Sharon says. “Emily, Brenda.”

Brenda shakes her hand, manages to say, “Hello.”

“We’ve heard all about you,” Emily says. “Brenda this, Brenda that. It’s nice to finally meet you!”

“She’s being facetious,” Sharon says but behind her, Rusty shakes his head.

“Complaining about my tardiness and my poor taste in clothing no doubt,” Brenda says.

The table is set for four and Sharon ushers them all into seats before carrying over the food.

“Let me help,” Rusty says, trying to stand again.

“No, it’s fine,” Sharon says. “Nothing fancy.”

“It seems fancy,” Brenda says - there’s still turkey and stuffing and a bowl of gravy with a silver ladle in it - rolls and a green salad and half of a dish of yams with golden brown marshmallows on top. “This looks amazin’.”

“What’s amazing is that you get to eat any of it, what with how Ricky and Rusty were putting it away,” Emily says. “Mom was adamant about saving enough to have you for dinner tonight.”

Sharon looks a little embarrassed, rolls her eyes.

“Is that so?” Brenda asks, pleased.

“It’s no big deal,” Sharon says. “I just wasn’t sure… what with your mother… I didn’t know if you’d get a traditional meal, that’s all.” She whips her cloth napkin over her lap. It’s hard to read her expression clearly but Brenda can see that Sharon is blushing just a little, right on her cheeks where the bottoms of her glasses sit.

They pass the food around, murmuring compliments and making excited noises.

“What did you do for the holiday, Brenda?” Emily asks.

“Oh, my family is from Atlanta,” she says. “I went home.”

“That must’ve been nice,” Rusty says.

“It was,” Brenda says. “My brother, C.J., deep fried the turkey and nearly caught the whole backyard on fire. That part is tradition, the almost dying, though the how always varies.”

“I’ve never had deep fried turkey,” Sharon says.

“It’s good,” Brenda says. “Too good, maybe, and it cooks in a lot less time.”

“Ricky tried it once,” Emily says.

“What?” Sharon asks.

“It was that year you went to Park City and dad was off in Vegas and we all just decided to forget about it,” Emily says. “But I ended up driving to Ricky’s Thanksgiving morning. He was living in that crappy house in San Diego, remember, with his friend Tyler and that other stupid stoner, I forget his name.”

Brenda winks at Rusty because he always is uncomfortable when someone talks about substance abuse. He manages to give her a small smile and shove more mashed potatoes into his mouth.

“Anyway, Tyler had the whole set up, so we bought a turkey but I don’t think we left in long enough because it was all pink in the middle. Or maybe it was still frozen? I don’t know, we ended up throwing it out and ordering pizza.”

It looks like, to Brenda, that Emily has never eaten pizza in her life. She’s so slender, and all muscle, no fat. Sharon is softer, more curves. When she leans forward, Brenda can see cleavage, even though the skin there has started to wrinkle and lose elasticity.

“Well,” Sharon says now. “Isn’t that just what happens when we don’t spend holidays together.”

“Oh, don’t let her fool you with those mom guilt trips,” Emily says to Rusty now. “She worked most holidays anyway.”

This is not the kind of relationship Brenda had with her own mother. They didn’t banter like this, hurling passive aggressive insults through beautiful smiles. Maybe it’s a southern thing but Brenda always showed her parents respect even if it meant lying through her teeth to keep up the charade.

You think lyin’ to me and your daddy about who knows what all your life is better than this? Her mother’s voice is incredulous.

Brenda smiles blandly at the group and tries not to flinch in her chair.

By the time dessert is served, things have settled down again. Emily is chatty and extroverted and is that strange mix of eclectic style and condescension that happens when you’re from both Los Angeles and New York. It’s not bad - she’s young and pretty and while Brenda isn’t exactly sure how any of it works in the world of ballet, she seems to be successful, anyway. Let her live her dream life. Why not? Sharon bites her tongue more than a few times, Brenda knows that look on her face all too well. Once she catches Brenda’s attention and rolls her eyes. Youth is wasted on the young, she seems to say.

“Do you want all three?” Sharon asks, when Brenda comes to help her with dessert. It’s just the two of them in the kitchen. Emily and Rusty are in front of the television, playing on his game console. They seem both to be racing each other and shooting as many people as possible and every time Rusty swears loudly, Sharon flinches but doesn’t bother to correct him.

“I don’t need three pieces of pie, for heaven’s sake!” she says.

“But do you want three,” Sharon says, pulling the cling wrap off of the first pie, what looks to be the pumpkin.

“No,” Brenda says. “Maybe two. I could take or leave pumpkin.”

“Pumpkin is my favorite,” Sharon says, thoughtfully, unwrapping the cherry pie. “It’s what makes it really feel like Thanksgiving.”

“We used to have pumpkin and pecan, though I think pecan is kind of a southern thing,” Brenda says.

“I’ve had it, but I don’t bother to make it because neither of the kids like it very much.” Sharon smirks. “It was Jack’s favorite, another reason I never made it.”

“Spiteful,” Brenda says. “I like it.”

Sharon gives her two slices, a narrow one of the cherry and a bigger wedge of the caramel apple, though how she knows that’s Brenda’s preference is anyone’s guess. Sharon makes Rusty pause the game so they can come serve themselves and then they take it back to the living room and leave Sharon and Brenda to eat alone at the table. Sharon takes just a dollop of cool whip on top of her pie but Brenda prefers real whipped cream or nothing at all.

The pie is good - obviously homemade - the cherry pie has a lattice crust that Brenda picks apart with the tines of her fork, eating each small square that comes free bite by tiny bite.

“What’s the matter?” Sharon asks. “If you say you don’t like my pie, I swear to god, I’ll-”

“No,” Brenda interrupts. “It’s not that. I’ve been thinking about how to bring it up. My divorce went through, that’s all.”

“When?” Sharon asks, setting her fork down on the edge of her plate. She does this, gives Brenda her full attention when they’re talking about something important.

“Last week.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Sharon asks, keeping her voice low.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal right before the holidays.” She shrugs. “It doesn’t matter.”

“We should celebrate,” Sharon says. “This weekend.”

“I dunno,” Brenda says. She thought she’d feel more relieved or excited or anything at all but it’s just more nothing like it always is when it comes to Fritz.

“We’re going,” Sharon says firmly. “We’ll go out-out.”

“What the hell does out-out mean?”

“To a bar,” Sharon says. “Somewhere loud and dark and we’ll take a cab so no one has to drive.”

“I am too old for that!” Brenda says pointedly. “So I know you are.”

“Don’t be catty,” Sharon says. “It’ll finally give you an excuse to wear that black dress.”

“Which one?” she asks.

Sharon looks a little guilty; picks up her fork and uses the side to cut herself a bite sized piece of pie.

“No! You said you returned that!”

“I did! I returned it to my closet,” Sharon says and eats her forkful. Brenda frowns at her, scrunching up her face. “I got it for you and I never even got to see you in it!”

“For cryin’ out loud,” Brenda says. “People are going to start thinking that you like me, Captain.”

Sharon lets out a little relieved, uneasy laugh. “Heaven forbid.”

“Thank you for my apartment, by the way,” Brenda adds.

“Thank you,” Sharon exclaims. “Rusty doesn’t mind the couch but I either had to sleep with Emily or brave the air mattress but when we pulled it out of storage, it had a leak.”

Brenda is impressed that Sharon would give up her own bed for her daughter, though what kind of daughter would let her mama even do that?

“What’s so bad about sharing?” Brenda asks. “What size mattress do you have?”

“Queen but Emily is an active sleeper and a sleep talker and I’d never get any rest. Going to your place was like having my own hotel room.”

“You certainly left it better than you found it,” Brenda says.

“A girl deserves fresh flowers now and again. Rusty went to the flower market with me and helped me pick them out.”

“He’s a good egg,” Brenda says, looking over at him fondly.

“So are you,” Sharon says, firmly. And she smiles at Brenda in the same way Brenda has seen her smile at Rusty - like Brenda is damaged and Sharon isn’t quite sure how to fix her.

oooo

Brenda makes it home before Sharon on Friday but just barely. She’s still in her suit skirt and blouse, though she’s managed to kick her shoes off into the closet. She feels tired and cold and is already sick of the holidays. Christmas is getting so close and Brenda hasn’t made a single plan. She’d ordered most of the presents for her family online and had them shipped to Georgia - her going for Thanksgiving had gotten her out of Christmas but now the big day is only a few weeks away and she’s starting to feel kind of sad.

Charlie had offered to come out and Brenda had said yes, had even promised to buy her the plane ticket, but Charlie had to convince her parents first, so even that was up in the air.

Sharon has finally learned to knock instead of ringing the horrid doorbell. Brenda yells, “Come in!”

She does, poking her head in first and then coming all the way in. She’s in boots today, black ones that go all the way up to her knee and give her a good inch and a half of additional height. Tight black pants tucked into the boots and a slinky purple blouse.

“You’ve already been home to change!” Brenda complains eyeing Sharon’s bare arms, the way the blouse dips down in the back showing a vee of pale skin.

“Perk of being the boss,” she says. “I see you haven’t changed.”

“I literally just walked in the door,” she says. “Why are we doin’ this on a Friday, why can’t we do this tomorrow?”

“Because I already told Rusty that his study group could come over tonight,” Sharon says. “And I already made dinner reservations.”

“I thought we were goin’ to a bar,” Brenda says.

“I’m feeding you first, I’m not a total witch,” Sharon says. Brenda snorts, thinking of the little doodle that had evolved on the whiteboard in major crimes and Sharon glares because she’s thinking of it too. “You’re horrible.”

“So?” Brenda says. “Anyway, I’m not wearing that dress if you’re in pants.”

Sharon sighs, rubs her forehead and says, “I banged my shin and it’s bruised and not cute.”

“Are you okay?” Brenda snipes. “Did you break your leg? Osteoporosis?”

“If you’re going to be a bitch all night, I can go,” Sharon says.

Brenda bites the inside of her lip. “Sorry,” she says. The nicer she is to Sharon, the nicer Sharon is in return and it sends Brenda into a weird tailspin of misplaced desire and so she’s been lashing out instead but that isn’t fair. They’ve come so far and Brenda knows she needs Sharon, needs the friendship. It’s the one thing she has that’s just for herself.

“Apology accepted,” Sharon says. “Let’s feed you, though. Quickly.”

“Where are we going?” Brenda asks. “Can I wear jeans? Do I have to dress up?”

“You always feel better in a dress, Brenda, and that black one is beautiful so just put it on and I swear you won’t be out of place. Put on the MAC lipstick, the Russian Red, and those nude heels and let’s go.”

“Why do you know so much about my stuff?” Brenda asks.

“Because you are not the only observant person in the world,” Sharon says.

“You snooped when you were staying here,” Brenda says.

Sharon shrugs, not at all apologetic. “It’s funny because you have all the components here to be a very fashionable person and yet always with the florals and the pastels.”

“If you’re going to be a bitch-”

“Sorry,” Sharon says. “Fair. Sorry.”

Brenda does feel good in the dress because it fits so well and because when Sharon sees her in it, her face lights up and she says, “Yes!”

“Am I some sort of doll for you?” Brenda asks, fluffing out her hair just the same.

“When we worked together,” Sharon says, “I used to daydream about fixing your wardrobe and now I get to!”

“My wardrobe is fine,” Brenda says.

“Your wardrobe is you and that’s very good but when you were going for Chief of Police, I wanted you to be more femme fatale, that’s all.”

“You bought me a lace dress,” Brenda says.

“Never mind about it,” Sharon says, picking up her purse.

“What coat would you like me to wear, boss?” Brenda asks. “The gold one just came back from the cleaners.”

“What about the beige one?”

“Just went to the cleaners,” Brenda says, pulling the gold one out of the little closet and slipping it on. Sharon doesn’t complain.

The restaurant is nice but not overwhelmingly fancy and they’re seated at a small table in the corner next to a gas fireplace. Brenda really is hungry and grumpy because of it so she eats two rolls out of the basket in the middle and Sharon orders wine for them both and once the bottle comes, Sharon raises her glass and says, “To your independence.”

Brenda clinks her glass against Sharon’s but can’t help but feel that her independence is what led her to this point - a twice divorced workaholic who lives in a crummy one bedroom apartment and has one friend.

She feels her bottom lip wobble.

Sharon’s warm smile shifts into concern and she sets her glass down. “Are you all right?”

“I think I might be a failure,” Brenda blurts.

Of course the waitress chooses now to return, reaching into the deep pocket of her black apron and pulling out a pen, greeting them with a big, if disingenuous smile. “Are you ladies ready?”

“I think we need a minute,” Sharon says.

“I can go over the specials again if you’d like,” she offers.

Sharon turns at levels her with a hard look. “Go away.”

“All right,” the girl says, the smile dropping. She turns and flees.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Brenda chides. “We’re never going to see her again.”

“Brenda, you are not a failure!” Sharon says. “You’re one of the most successful people I know!”

“Professionally,” Brenda says. “And even then, this isn’t… where I thought I would be.”

“Big deal,” Sharon says. “No one is. You can make plans, you can prepare but that’s it.”

“I’m not askin’ for a pep talk,” Brenda says. And she certainly doesn’t need a lecture. But it would be nice if Sharon just commiserated with her for a few minutes. Leaned in and gave her a soft, sad smile and said, “I know how you feel.”

Sharon purses her lips and then sighs. “Do you miss him?”

“No,” she says. “I mean, there are things I miss about that life but I don’t miss bein’ his wife.”

“Why on earth did you marry him in the first place?” she demands.

“When we were dating he was always the one driving the ship. What do I know about relationships, right?” She chuckles but it sounds uneasy, even to herself, because what does she know? If it was between keeping a relationship together for more than a few years or dying, she’d be six feet under for sure. “He wanted to move in together, so we did. He wanted to get a bigger place, so we moved. He wanted to get married and I never could find a good enough reason not to do any of these things.”

“Not wanting to is a good enough reason,” Sharon says. “That was a very smart thing you said to me once.”

“Oh, I give great advice, I just don’t ever follow it,” Brenda says. “Anyway, Fritz was all right and my parents loved him and he put up with me and it just seemed like what I was supposed to do. But I always felt… like you know when you find a really cute shoe and they only have it a half size too small but you buy it anyway?”

“Not quite right,” Sharon murmurs.

“And you think you can live with it and you do for awhile until one day you wake up and you realize that you can’t, anymore,” Brenda says. “And that your whole life has been a shoe that is just a little bit too small.”

There’s a candle lit between them, a small white one in a glass holder and it flickers and Brenda can see the light move across Sharon’s hands.

A man approaches their table. He’s in a suit and tie and non-slip shoes and Brenda can tell right away that he’s the manager and that the poor waitress is too scared to come back.

“How is everything this evening?” he inquires politely. Tensing slightly to see if the woman with the glasses will hiss at him as well.

“So lovely,” Sharon says with a beaming smile, so pure and wide that Brenda has to look away. “I think we’re ready to order! Are you ready, honey?”

“Ready,” Brenda agrees with a nod. She makes a mental note to overtip and order something off the specials menu and just be as sweet as pie so the poor girl knows it wasn’t anything she did wrong. She’d just walked up to a table expecting to talk to Sharon and Brenda and had met Darth Raydor instead. Brenda had told Rusty that Lieutenant Tao had given Sharon that nickname behind her back when she’d first worked with Major Crimes and Rusty’s eyes had gotten so wide.

“That’s amazing,” he’d whispered.

Brenda orders the salmon on special and Sharon gets a strip steak. They get little green salads to start with and the food is good, fresh, overpriced but this is Los Angeles.

When they’re full, idly contemplating the dessert menu, Brenda says, “There are good things in my life, I’m sorry I got so maudlin.”

“Exactly,” Sharon says. “Like me, for instance.”

Brenda nods, fisting her napkin in her lap. “Like you,” she agrees.

oooo

After dinner, they go to the Gallery Bar - also Sharon’s idea. Brenda’s never been but when they get there, some of her anxiety melts away because it’s inside the Biltmore Hotel and the building is extravagant and beautiful. Marble floors, huge columns, and when they edge their way up to the bar, it’s a dark, polished granite. Brenda can see why Sharon likes it, despite it being popular and somewhat notorious to Los Angeles. It’s high class enough that it’s not too loud, no one pushes against her or jostles her or shouts over her to get the attention of the bartender, but it’s still full, buzzing with energy and atmosphere. And there are angels carved into the bar, cherubic faces watching over everyone. Brenda has noticed Sharon’s fondness for them - her keychain, little figurines all over her condo. There’s probably one in her office, too, though Brenda stays out of there.

Just outside the bar is a huge Christmas tree and Brenda wants to look at it, wants to stand close and let the white light wash over her, but there will be time enough for that on the way out, she thinks. There’s an empty stool and a place to stand, so they snag it and briefly argue over who gets to sit.

“Take it, you’re divorced,” Sharon says.

“So are you!” Brenda complains.

“Not twice,” Sharon says and for that, Brenda does take the seat, leaving her coat draped over the back of it and hanging her purse from the hook under the bar, where she can feel it with her knees.

“This is amazin’,” Brenda says. “I had no idea.”

“Yeah, I really like it,” Sharon says, reaching over and pulling a menu over for them to look at. “It reminds me that not everything in Los Angeles is traffic and murder.”

“Just most things,” Brenda says. “Wine is fine for me.”

“No way,” Sharon says. “This place is all about martinis.”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “I don’t know… what should I have?”

Sharon raises her hand delicately into the air at the bartender who nods at her in some complicated series of gestures that Sharon seems to understand. She turns back to Brenda and says, “Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” Brenda says.

Sharon hums slightly, almost too low for Brenda to hear. The bartender comes over though he hardly looks old enough to drive a car. He smiles at them both and leans in.

“How are you two doing this evening?” he says.

“Oh, fine,” Sharon says. “Just fine.”

“Good,” Brenda says.

“My name is Josh, I’ll be your bartender for the evening and if you want two seats together, the couple at the end just closed their tab.”

“Really?” Sharon says.

“Tell me what you want and I’ll meet you down there with drinks,” he says with a wink. Oh God, he’s a baby, Brenda thinks but a beautiful one. But Sharon is not so easily charmed, though she does play along.

“An Old Fashioned and a Black Dahlia, please,” she says. Brenda hops off the stool and gathers her things and heads down to the other end of the bar. Sharon stays behind to hand over a credit card and by the time she comes up behind Brenda, the couple leaving slips off of their stools and Brenda and Sharon claim them easily. When their young bartender sets the two drinks down with a flourish, Sharon thanks him.

“Keep it open or close it out?” he asks.

“Open for now,” she says.

“Which one is for me?” Brenda asks.

“The complicated one,” Sharon says. “A complicated cocktail for a complicated woman.”

The complicated drink is a dark concoction in a martini glass and when she drinks it, a small sip, she tastes the fruit first but then underneath that, a hint of chocolate, like a tootsie roll or the chocolate she used to find behind the little cardboard doors of her advent calendar every December growing up. It’s not bad - strong, but not bad at all.

“What’s in yours?” she asks.

“Whiskey,” Sharon says. “This was my father’s drink of choice.”

“Do you miss him?” Brenda asks.

“I loved him,” Sharon says. “I’ll always miss him but he was very old and… what I miss is how he was a long time ago.”

“Do you still, uh,” Brenda says, pausing to sip her drink. “Do you still think about what he’d say to you during certain situations?”

A little line appears between Sharon’s eyebrows. “How do you mean?”

“I just mean if he were here with you, do you know what he might say?” Brenda hedges.

“I’ve never really thought about it like that,” Sharon says, running her finger across the glossy bar top. “I could anticipate what he might think about certain things, I suppose.”

“But you don’t hear his voice,” Brenda says.

“No, I don’t hear his…” Sharon looks at her. “Oh.”

“It’s nothin’ never mind,” she says. “This drink is pretty good.”

“I like to believe that the people we love never really leave us,” Sharon says. “That we are all products of the love we have received from other people.”

You know what, honey, I like her, Brenda’s mother says.

“I’ll bet,” Brenda says. Sharon nods, pleased.

Sharon is a handsy drunk, Brenda has noticed. Not in a lewd or obnoxious way, but Sharon is always so regal, so self-contained and when she gets a few drinks in her, all of a sudden, there’s all this contact. She laughs at a story about an interrogation that Brenda tells her and leans in a little, puts her hand on Brenda’s knee. And later, when they’re trying to decide whether they want another round or to just go home, Sharon reaches out and tucks a lock of blonde hair behind Brenda’s ear. She does it so casually that for a moment Brenda is even sure it happened at all.

“Maybe one more, we are celebrating after all-” But Sharon stops, reaches into her purse and pulls out a ringing phone.

She answers it, a finger in her other ear.

“Yoohoo!” Brenda says, waving the bartender down. He comes over and she grins at him. “We need a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and the check. Quick as a bunny, please, thank you so much.”

“You got it,” he says.

“Can you say the address again?” Sharon says.

“Gimme the phone,” Brenda says. Sharon looks up, shakes her head but Brenda extends her hand. “Yes, hand it over.”

Sharon gives her a look, an arched brow, but lets her take the phone, just drunk enough to be pliable when Brenda issues orders.

“Hello, who am I speaking with?” Brenda asks.

“Chief? Is that you?”

“Lieutenant Provenza,” Brenda says. “How lovely to hear your voice. Never mind about the address of the crime scene, you’re gonna need to send someone to collect your Captain. We’re at the Biltmore Hotel.”

“Oh, uh, sure,” he says. “I’ll send Sykes. It’s gonna take her at least twenty minutes to get to you.”

“Well that’s okay,” Brenda says. “I’ll put a cup of coffee in her. Tell her we’ll meet her outside.”

“If you say so, Chief,” Provenza says and hangs up.

“Are you ordering around my squad?” Sharon demands.

“Just helpful suggestions and don’t get cross with me, I know you’re no good to drive!” Brenda says.

“Oh you do, do you?”

“Yes, because you’ve completely foregone personal space and you only do that when you’ve been drinkin’,” Brenda says, gesturing to their legs where Sharon has scooted so close to her that they’re knee to knee and Sharon’s right shin is up against Brenda’s left. The smooth leather of Sharon's boot slides against the skin of Brenda's leg as Sharon pulls away.

“Sorry,” she says.

“Don’t be,” Brenda says. “It’s not all bad.”

Josh the bartender comes back with the water and the coffee and the black book that holds their check and Sharon’s credit card. Sharon drinks half the cup of coffee black, scrunching up her face at the bitter brew.

“I have to pee,” Sharon says.

“Go on, we have plenty of time,” Brenda says.

Brenda signs Sharon’s name, making the letters extra loopy with a flourish and reaches into her own wallet to pull out some cash for the tip. Over thirty dollars for two drinks is highway robbery, but then, it had been worth it. Sitting at a grand bar, flirting with a young bartender, their legs tangled up, Sharon’s fingers in her hair.

Brenda takes a sip of the ice water and is just wiping her lipstick off the rim when a man sits down at Sharon’s barstool.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hello,” Brenda says. “You’re in my friend’s seat.”

The man is handsome, probably in his fifties. He’s wearing a navy blue suit and a silvery gray tie and is very tan. He smiles at her and his teeth are so white that it almost hurts to look at. He looks like a news anchor or someone who spends too much time on a yacht.

“I was hoping I’d get a chance to talk to you,” he says. “But I promise to move when she comes back.”

“You could move now,” Brenda says in a light tone. She hadn’t thought a thing about Sharon excusing herself - had been so wrapped up in closing their tab and thinking about Sharon's finger grazing the back of Brenda's earlobe as she tucked her hair away that she’d forgotten what happens to women sitting alone in bars.

“My name is Anthony but my friends just call me Tony,” he says.

“That is a fascinating story,” Brenda says. “Nice to meet you Anthony, we were just leaving.”

She hopes that Sharon had taken her purse with her to the bathroom but Brenda looks and can still see it hanging on the hook - the man’s knees in the way. She curses internally. She’ll have to reach across his lap to get it. Sober Sharon wouldn’t have left that there, she thinks. Ah well, she’ll have to spurn him the old fashioned way and get him to tuck tail and run away to nurse his bruised ego.

“Your friend isn’t even back yet,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Brenda,” she says. “I’m a 49-year-old twice divorced workaholic who still talks to her dead mother.”

He chuckles. “I like a challenge.”

“Sir, you seem like a nice enough guy, but I’m not interested,” she says.

“Not interested in what? Making friends? Meeting new and interesting people?” he says. “We’re just talking.”

She snaps, points at him. “That is exactly what I’m not interested in. Talking.” She stands up and puts her purse on her shoulder, drapes her coat over her arm. “Now please move so I can get my friend’s things.”

This is when she misses her LAPD badge. She has a D.A. Investigator’s badge but it’s not the same. People recognize the badge of a cop, it has gravitas. But hers looks more like sheriff's badge and she just can’t bring herself to shove it into someone’s face. If she could reach Sharon’s badge, she’d fish it out and jam it down this guy’s throat.

She feels a hand touch her back, low and then it slides up to sit between her shoulder blades.

“God, it’s a beautiful dress.”

Oh thank the lord. Sharon.

“You would know, you picked it out,” Brenda says. “You ready to go?”

“I am,” Sharon says. For a moment, Brenda is trapped by her warm smile, the hand on the bare skin of her back, the way Sharon holds her gaze. Then it flickers away for a moment. “Who the hell is this?”

“This is Anthony and he’s the man holding your purse hostage,” Brenda says.

“I was just talking to Brenda,” Anthony says reaching under the bar for the purse and holding it out. Sharon reaches out and takes it but he doesn’t immediately let go.

“Sharon what’s the goin’ rate on aggravated assault of a police officer?” Brenda asks.

“Up to a year in county jail and two thousand dollars in fines,” Sharon says. Anthony drops the purse and Brenda smiles at Sharon.

“May I?”

“Be my guest,” Sharon says. Brenda steps into her, bringing them face to face. It puts her back to the man but she has nothing to fear now that Sharon’s here with her. Brenda reaches her hand into Sharon’s purse, feeling around for the badge. Sharon hums, leans in a little and whispers, “Do you trust me, Brenda Leigh?” right into her ear. Her hot breath, sweet with alcohol, makes Brenda shiver. It’s the second time Sharon has asked her this tonight and Brenda knows her answer isn’t going to change even if Sharon asks her a hundred more times.

“Mmm,” she says, a positive note. She’s trusted Sharon Raydor for a long time, now.

Sharon turns her head slightly and nuzzles into Brenda’s neck, her lips just ghosting over Brenda's jaw while the hand on her back slides slowly down the length of her spine and settles quite low, right at the base of the zipper of the dress, right where her back swells into something more.

Brenda’s fingers clench hard around the badge. It’s tempting to stay there, to tilt her head and open up the length of her neck, to rock forward on the balls of their feet so their bodies press together from chest to hips but instead she exhales slowly and turns back to face Anthony, the badge in her hand.

He slips his hands into his pockets. “My mistake. Have a good night.”

“Nothing scares off a man like two women who clearly don’t need what he has to offer,” Sharon says, slipping her purse onto her shoulder and prying the badge out of Brenda’s hand. “Come on, we have got to go.”

Brenda is a few steps behind Sharon because it takes a moment for her to get her feet going again and when she makes it out the big front doors of the hotel, past the huge Christmas tree in the lobby, an unmarked police car is pulling up. Sharon leans over and the passenger window rolls down. She says something but Brenda can’t make it out. She stops to give Sharon some space and to put on her coat against the chilly night air.

Sharon stands up and says, “You’ll have to roll out with us, I suppose.”

“No,” she says. “That’s all right. I can drive your car home.”

“Are you sure?” Sharon asks. “You’re okay? You’re sure?”

Brenda feels very sober. Very hyper aware of everything that has just happened, of the brisk breeze ruffling the hem of her coat and the ends of Sharon’s hair.

“I’m sure,” Brenda says. “But call me when you get home so I know you’re okay and for goodness’ sake, be careful.”

“It might be really early,” she says.

“I don’t care,” Brenda says.

Sharon nods. “Okay. I’ll call you.”

Then she leans in and presses her lips to Brenda’s cheek, turns on her heel and gets into the car which promptly drives away.

Brenda is left standing there, her fingers against her cheek until her mother’s voice says so gently, Time to go home, Brenda Leigh.

So Brenda crosses her arms against the cold and heads for Sharon’s car.

Chapter Text

Charlie comes in on the twenty-third. Brenda picks her up on a late lunch hour and spends most of the drive back downtown apologizing about having to go back to the office.

“It’s okay,” Charlie says. “I can just hang out in your office. I have my ipad, I’ll be fine.” She pauses. “There’s wifi, right?”

“I’m sure someone knows how to get you on,” Brenda says. “And then after we can go to dinner with David - you remember Detective Gabriel? Well, Investigator, now, but David is just fine. He offered to take us to dinner.”

“Whatever you want to do Aunt Brenda,” Charlie says.

“I know it’s too late to ask this but you’re sure you’re okay spending Christmas away from your parents?” Brenda asks.

She’d spent a long time on the phone with her brother Bobby before she bought the ticket. He’d said that Charlene was an adult and allowed to spend Christmas with whomever she chose.

“I understand that, but I don’t you to be mad at me because she picked me this year,” Brenda had said.

“I’m not mad, big sister,” Bobby had said. “I think it’s a mature decision. Besides, what would you do if she didn’t come out?”

Go see a movie, order Chinese food. Shop online.

“I’d be fine,” Brenda says.

Brenda looks over at her now, her face hidden mostly behind a pair of huge sunglasses. She’s chewing gum, has been chewing since she got off the plane and she rides slunk down low in the seat, one leg tucked up under her. Like she hasn’t a care in the world.

“I mean,” Charlie says now, “It’s weird there without grandma. It doesn’t feel like it used to.”

“It’s different as a grown up,” Brenda says. “I guess when you have your own kids, you try to make it special for them like you remember it bein’ but…” Brenda laughs uncomfortably. “I dunno. It’s different, yeah.”

“How come you never had kids?” Charlie asks. She may be grown but she’s still young and Brenda tries not to flinch at the blunt question.

“Well,” she says. They’re almost to the office now, but they’re sitting at a red light. She turns to her niece. “I was never sure whether I wanted them or not and I thought I probably I shouldn’t have kids until I was sure and I never got sure.”

“I’m not sure,” Charlie says. “They’re cute and stuff but what if I got, like, super fat?”

Brenda rolls her eyes. “You have ages to decide,” she says. They pull into the parking structure - Brenda has a designated space - something she’d negotiated when she got hired. Charlie leaves her suitcase in the trunk but brings her backpack, hefting it onto her shoulders. She’s in black leggings and soft boots and has a red, hooded UGA sweatshirt on.

“Okay, dinner with Detective Gab- I mean David, and then what else do you have planned?”

“Well, we have options,” Brenda says. “If you want to see your Uncle Fritz, we can arrange for that.”

Charlie pushes up her sunglasses and looks at her aunt skeptically. “Really?”

“Just because we’re not married anymore doesn’t mean you have to forget you ever met him,” Brenda says.

“That’s okay,” Charlie says. “I came to see you.”

“Okay,” Brenda says, relieved though she tries not to show it. They reach the elevators and Brenda calls for it. “We were invited to a Christmas Eve dinner with my friend Sharon and some of her family.”

“Have I met her?” Charlie asks.

They step onto the elevator.

“I don’t think so, but she has a son around your age,” Brenda says. “She said we can come Christmas Eve, but if you want to stay in and cook for ourselves, then we can do brunch with them on Christmas Day instead.”

“Whatever,” Charlie says. “I’m just impressed you made a friend.”

“Now why does everyone think that!” Brenda huffs. Charlie smirks, follows her out of the elevator and down the hall, past the empty desk of her assistant who’d taken the whole week off to be with her kids, and into the office.

“Nice digs,” Charlie says. There’s a small sofa against the wall and Charlie drops her bag onto it and sits down.

“I have one meeting,” Brenda says, glancing at her watch. “I’m gonna try to hurry it along so hopefully we’ll be out of here in two hours.”

“And the wifi?” Charlie asks.

“Oh, right,” Brenda says. “Okay, bring your computer thingy and come with me.”

She leaves Charlie with one of the younger investigators still around this late into the day so close to Christmas with strict instructions to return her to Brenda’s office when they got the ipad working.

When Brenda gets out of her meeting, two hours and ten minutes later, she finds Charlie curled up, asleep on the sofa. Her phone vibrates in her pocket. She pulls it out quietly, watching from the doorway and looks at the screen. It’s Sharon.

Did she arrive safely?

Brenda types back slowly an affirmative and then waits, hoping Sharon will reply. They haven’t seen much of each other since the Biltmore and Brenda has been keeping herself kind of distant. Not calling, not letting herself text too much. It’s too easy depending on Sharon’s friendship, too easy to let herself want the company. She thinks about Sharon’s lips against her skin all the time, every day since it happened and that’s a red flag. Brenda knows herself too well and so… space. But she misses Sharon and she can’t even tell if Sharon has noticed because she’s been working so much. The holidays are always a busy time for murders. People snap, people give up.

Are you coming for dinner? I’m doing the shopping this evening for tomorrow.

Brenda bites her lip, snaps and gives up the fight. We’ll be there.

Sharon sends back one of those little yellow smiley faces.

“Charlie,” Brenda calls. “Time to go.”

oooo

Charlie says she likes the little apartment, but Brenda feels strange about it all the same. She finds herself saying the same things over and over again “I don’t need much space” and “It’s so close to my office” even though she knows it makes her sound defensive. The truth of the matter is, she was so eager to get out of the duplex that she didn’t much care where she landed and now she realizes that being an almost fifty-year-old woman living in a tiny one bedroom apartment is kind of pathetic. Maybe she should buy a house.

Then again, any move would certainly take her out of walking distance from Sharon and Rusty and the only person who seems to care that she’s pathetic is Brenda herself.

Charlie sleeps in the bed with her, they lie next to one another giggling and reminiscing and talking about Charlie’s life, mostly. Brenda keeps asking her questions about herself - her classes, boys, her friends, on and on until Charlie’s voice fades into the steady sound of her breathing - she’s fast asleep. It’s tempting to curl up into Charlie, hold her close but it might wake her up and she might not want to be that cuddled up to her aunt and Brenda knows that her own loneliness isn’t something she should ask her niece to help her carry.

Brenda doesn’t sleep well, she wakes up every few hours but Charlie sleeps like a rock and just having her there is comforting enough to lull her back to sleep every time. When Brenda opens her eyes to find daylight, she’s alone in her bed, but she can smell coffee and hear Charlie in the kitchen, talking on her phone.

“She’s fine, mom,” Charlie says. “I don’t know why everyone is so worried. She’s fine.”

Brenda gets up quietly, tiptoes into the bathroom and softly closes the door. Sits on the toilet and watches her feet as she pees. Her body feels her age - sore feet, sore back, always tired but in her head, she still feels like she could be Charlie’s age or sixteen or eleven and a half or anything at all. She wonders if she’ll ever feel grown up on the inside - she wonders if Sharon feels the same way.

Probably not. Probably Sharon was born an adult. Probably she changed her own diapers and put herself to bed when she was a baby.

She flushes the toilet, brushes her teeth. Only glances at herself in the mirror before heading out to find the coffee. Charlie is still on the phone and she waves at her aunt and says, “I gotta go.”

Brenda takes them out to breakfast. The dinner with David the night before had been fun and casual and they’d filled up on french fries and loaded potato skins and had eaten ribs and out of season ears of yellow corn. David was sweet and Brenda really did appreciate the effort he put into making sure Brenda knew that she was still important to him. But they didn’t linger because Brenda knew David had a big family and that they’d all be in town.

In the parking lot, David had hugged Charlie and leaned into peck Brenda on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Chief,” he’d said.

In the booth, holiday music piped through the speakers, Charlie says, “I think I’m still full from last night.”

“I’m getting waffles,” Brenda says, tossing down her menu.

Charlie smiles, rolls her eyes. “Okay, me too.”

While they eat, Charlie says, “Where are we going again, tonight?”

“My friend Sharon’s condo is just a couple blocks away,” she says. “Close enough we can walk.”

“And you know this lady how?”

“We used to work together,” Brenda says. “She’s a Captain for the LAPD. She works for Major Crimes now.”

“So she’s the new you,” Charlie says. “That must have been weird.”

“Sorta,” Brenda admits.

“And she has a kid?”

“Three,” Brenda says. “Her boys will be here tonight, but the daughter didn’t come home, I don’t think. And she said someone else, I’m not sure. She’s really nice, though. Well. She can be really nice.”

“Or she can be a scary cop,” Charlie says. “Yeah, I know the type.” She waggles her eyebrows at her aunt which makes Brenda laugh.

“She’s really smart and she puts up with me, so I like her pretty well.”

“Grandpa said Uncle Fritz… I mean, Fritz is a cop now, too.” Charlie stabs her fork into a strawberry. “Is it weird to talk about him? We don’t have to.”

“It’s okay,” Brenda says, gently. “Just because we couldn’t be married anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still love or miss Fritz.”

“Then why…?”

“People change,” Brenda says. “And it can’t always be helped.”

Charlie looks like she doesn’t have any idea what Brenda is talking about.

“But yes, to answer your question, he did retire from the FBI so he could work for the LAPD.” What she doesn’t say is that his job change was partly the reason things fell apart. That Brenda just couldn’t stand the fact that he’d done it, that he was already several months into the job when he’d admitted that he’d done so against doctor’s orders.

A waiter comes by to drop off the check and top off their coffee. Charlie murmurs a thank you, politely.

“I know it’s Christmas Eve but if you’re feelin’ real brave, I thought we could do a little shopping?” Brenda says. Charlie grins.

“Really?”

“Sure,” Brenda says. “Besides, I already mailed your big present to Georgia so it’s on me.”

“Deal,” Charlie says.

“Anyway, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have anything to wear tonight,” Brenda says.

“Aunt Brenda, you have like eight thousand things to wear,” Charlie scoffs. “I’ve seen your poor closet.”

“Yeah, but nothin’ Sharon hasn’t already seen,” Brenda says. She digs into her purse for her wallet and slips out her debit card, tucking it into the book that holds their check.

“Is your friend hard to impress?” Charlie asks, leaning back, wrapping her warm coffee mug in two hands. She’d put in two packets of sugar and doused it in creamer when she’d first gotten it and Brenda can see the liquid in the mug, milky and sweet. “Like, I have this friend Sarah - well, I mean we’re friends but I hate her - and she’s always trying to one up people in stuff. Always bragging about her grades and how much stuff costs and what her daddy buys for her. Ugh. I hate her.”

Brenda shakes her head. “No. We weren’t always friends. When we worked together, we weren’t all that friendly but now we are. It’s not competition she just… makes me want to be a better person, does that make sense? She’s so good that I wanna be good, too.”

Charlie nods slowly and Brenda laughs, mortified at herself. “I’m ramblin’. Where do you want to shop? What kind of places do you like?”

Brenda takes them to The Grove because it isn’t too far and it has enough variety and it’s touristy. Parking is an expensive nightmare and they circle for awhile before they find a spot. Driving in traffic still stresses Brenda out and Charlie offers to drive home and Brenda might just take her up on it.

“I like LA malls,” Charlie says as they walk toward the shopping center. The sun is shining and while it isn’t exactly warm by LA standards, Brenda feels warm enough in her trench coat. “They’re always outside.”

The place is packed, a madhouse but Charlie doesn’t seem to mind, easily navigating through the throngs of people. It helps that they have nothing to do for hours and hours, no gifts to buy last minute. There’s a Santa Claus set up at one end of the mall with a line that seems to wind for a mile and they stay away from there. They spend nearly forty minutes in an Anthropologie and Brenda buys Charlie a dress. Charlie tries to stop her - “Aunt Brenda it’s too expensive, stop, two hundred dollars for a dress is crazy!” but the dress is so cute and looks so good on her.

“It’s just money, I’ll make more,” Brenda says with a wink. “And it’s Christmas!” It’s a cream colored dress with a pattern of lavender peonies, a deep vee in the back and a more modest vee in the front and the color makes Charlie look tan and beautiful, makes her legs look long and her waist look tiny. The sales person at the fitting room says, “Your daughter looks beautiful!”

“My niece,” Brenda says.

“She looks a lot like you,” the girl says, surprised. Brenda just smiles.

“Are you sure?” Charlie says. “It’s not exactly a Christmas dress.”

“It is if you wear it for Christmas,” Brenda says, sliding her credit card across the counter.

She lets Charlie pick out her outfit and is surprised when, inside the Banana Republic, Charlie hands her not a dress but a skirt and a blouse. The skirt is shorter and tighter than anything Brenda might have picked up, but the bottom is scalloped with black lace and the blouse has a silvery sheen and when she comes out of the dressing room Charlie laughs, delighted with herself.

“You’re like a Barbie doll, this is amazing,” Charlie says. “I bet you’d look good in whatever I put on you.”

“I don’t know, honey, it’s kind of short,” Brenda says, twisting to look behind herself at her reflection in the mirror - to see if her bottom is actually hanging out the way it feels, but all she sees is leg. “I won’t be bending over any, that’s for sure.”

“You can wear hose if you think it’s too short,” Charlie says. “But you have to get it!”

“It might be too fancy,” she hedges.

“It’s Christmas Eve dinner,” Charlie says. “It’s the fanciest meal of the year.”

“Let me ask her,” Brenda says, walking back into the dressing room where her purse is. She pulls out her phone, taps out a text.

Are we dressing up for dinner? The text whooshes out into the air. Sharon must have her phone on her because she starts to reply right away.

I don’t know what you backwoods hill folk do in the south, but here we dress up for Christmas Eve dinner.

Brenda gapes at her phone. “That bitch!”

“What?” Charlie says, pressing into the small doorway. Brenda holds up her phone so she can read it and Charlie laughs. “I like her.” She squints. “Is that the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz?”

“I keep meaning to change it, but I don’t know how,” Brenda says. “Okay. I’ll buy it.”

Charlie claps her hands together twice. “Yay!”

oooo

“What’s in this one?” Charlie asks, holding the wrapped gift for Sharon. Brenda is bringing their gifts and wine, what else?

“An angel,” Brenda says. “She’s real into angels.”

“And for the kid?” Charlie asks, looking at the much smaller box.

“Cash,” Brenda says. They’re walking over, bundled up as best as they can be in the dresses they’d bought. “And his name is Rusty.”

“But I thought you said she had two sons,” Charlie says.

“She does, but I haven’t met the other one yet, so…” She glances over at Charlie, worried now. “Is it really rude? Not bringing him something?”

“He’s a total stranger,” Charlie says. “And he probably didn’t get you anything.”

“That’s true.” Brenda shrugs. Too late now. “We’ll just slip those under the tree real quick and not ever mention it again.”

When they get to the glass doors, Charlie says, “Oh, this really is close.” She squints up at the long list of names next to the intercom. “Which one do we push?”

“It’s okay,” Brenda says, fishing around for her keys in her purse. She feels the plastic of her car key and yanks. “I have a key.”

“You have a key?”

“For house sitting,” Brenda says, though Brenda has never house sat for Sharon. “She has my key, too.”

Charlie is quiet, looking around at the lobby, quiet in the elevator, too.

“Don’t be nervous,” Brenda says, though she’s a little nervous, truth be told. Suddenly, she feels like she might be overdressed or maybe under. She’d taken Charlie’s advice and worn black pantyhose if for no other reason than warmth, but she feels not herself. Too much eye makeup maybe or too high of heels. She hesitates for a moment before knocking until Charlie smirks at her.

“Who’s nervous?” she asks softly.

Brenda knocks hard and can hear Sharon’s voice call through the door, “Come in!”

Charlie falls into line behind her, holding the gifts to her chest. She’d wrapped them for Brenda - they’d stopped at a Walgreen’s on the way home and had bought a roll of paper - green holly leaves with berries and tiny golden bells - and a roll of gold ribbon - tags and clear tape. Brenda had attempted to wrap the angel herself, in its sturdy, velvet lined box but when Charlie saw her struggling to even cut the paper straight, she’d stepped in and gracefully wrapped both of them herself and done a far better job of it, too.

“How’d you get so good at this kind of stuff?” she’d asked but she knows, of course, the answer. Charlie had stuck around, had listened to her grandmother and her mother, hadn’t always had her head in the clouds and one foot out the door. Brenda’s grandma Charlene hadn’t been crafty, though she’d been a fair gardener and had spent summers teaching Brenda how to can and jar fruit preserves. Brenda doesn’t have occasion now to make jam or can beans but she thinks she still could, if she had to.

Sharon greets them as soon as they make it past the little entry way. She’s in a red dress; it has a big full skirt and sleeves that go down to her elbows and Brenda thinks she can see a bow on the back. She’s made up too, more so than usual. Heavy makeup at her eyes and cherry red lips and her hair in soft waves and she stretches her arms out and says, “You’re here!”

“Hi!” Brenda says. Seeing her feels like a jolt of caffeine to her system. She’s been working so hard to keep her distance, to get a handle on her strange feelings for Sharon that she hadn’t realized how badly she has been missing her and seeing her now is like looking at the first tulip in the spring after months and months of gray.

“Come in,” Sharon says. “I’m so glad you’re here! You must be Charlie, look at you, you’re so beautiful, you look just like your aunt.”

Charlie smiles and dips her head. Brenda had let her borrow a green cashmere cardigan and she’s going to let her keep it because it looks way better on Charlie anyway. Goes better with her skin tone, brings out the gold in her eyes.

“Thanks,” Charlie says.

“I’m Sharon,” she says. “Come in, come in and meet my guys.”

They all shuffle in, following Sharon and there is a little bow on the back of her dress, right on her waist and the dress is nearly backless and Brenda can practically imagine her hand reaching out, her fingertips trailing down the pale skin covering Sharon's spine. She sticks the hand not holding the wine bottle into her pocket.

“This is Rusty, this is my son Richard - Brenda, I don’t think you’ve met Richard, yet, and this is-”

“Lieutenant Flynn!” Brenda says.

“Hiya, Chief,” he says with a smirk.

“Andy,” Sharon finishes.

“Charlie!” he says. “Nice to see you again.”

“You too, Lieutenant,” she says. If Sharon is surprised that Andy and Charlie are already acquainted, she doesn't show it.

“Okay, okay, Rusty show Charlie to the tree so she can put those down,” Sharon says. “Brenda come in and take off your coat and hand that wine over.”

She does, hands the wine right to Sharon and slips off her coat, hangs it in the closet while Sharon immediately gives the bottle to her tall, handsome son and then walks over to where Charlie and Rusty are standing by the tree, trying to figure out where to put the gifts among all the bounty.

“So you’re Brenda, huh?”

“And you’re Richard Raydor,” Brenda says. “I’ve heard virtually nothing about you.”

“I wish I could say the same thing,” he says. “But she talks about you a lot. And you can call me Ricky.”

“Ricky,” she says. “What do you say we crack that bottle open?”

“Sure,” he says. “Let me just find the corkscrew.”

“Third drawer from the left,” she says. He grins.

“You know, you aren’t how I pictured you at all,” he says, pulling open the drawer and digging around for Sharon’s fancy stainless steel corkscrew.

“No?” she says.

“No,” he says. “First of all you’re like the world’s teeniest person.”

She laughs, a throaty guffaw that surprises herself.

“And your accent is very disarming,” he says. “Where are you from? Alabama?”

“Georgia,” she says, pulling out wine glasses.

“I thought you were going to be like a giant, deep-voiced harpy with claws,” he says.

“Stop, the flattery is just too much,” she says.

He laughs as he pulls out the cork. “I think you just make her nervous.”

“That is the word on the street,” Brenda says, strangely pleased by it all. When it’s just her and Sharon, they’re sort of normal - well, normal for them, but it’s endearing that Sharon talks about her when she’s not around and isn’t so confident as she seems.

“I think she makes you nervous, too,” Ricky says.

“What makes you say that?” Brenda asks.

“Have you met her?” Ricky laughs. Brenda smiles.

“You laugh like her,” Brenda says.

He pours a glass for her and an extra one and she brings it over to Sharon who takes it and says, “I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“It’s been a busy time,” Brenda says. “And I know Ricky was coming into town. You don’t get to see him very often.”

“Charlie is just beautiful,” Sharon says.

“She’s grown up real good,” Brenda says. “Rocky there for a bit but she seems to have come out the better for it.”

“When does she go back?”

“The day after tomorrow,” Brenda says. “I promised Bobby I’d have her home before New Years, anyway.”

Sharon sips her wine and then reaches out one hand, stopping just before she touches Brenda’s hip.

“Nice skirt,” she says.

“I was worried it was going to be too backwoods for you,” Brenda teases. Sharon rolls her eyes.

“I hope it isn’t uncomfortable for you that I invited Andy,” Sharon says. Andy is standing next to Rusty now, listening to Charlie talk about school. “His children are all at their mother’s this evening and he didn’t have anywhere to go.”

“It’s fine,” she says. “People in glass houses.”

“I didn’t invite you two because you’re pathetic!” Sharon says. “I invited you because you’re easy to please and won’t complain about my cooking.”

“Actually,” Brenda says. “Charlie is a really good cook so if you need any help, she’s your girl.”

“It’s practically done now,” Sharon says. “Just have to put it on the table. But if you come for brunch tomorrow, I’ll put her to work.”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “We don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“That’s one of the things I like about you,” Sharon says. “You make me feel needed and you show up for free food. Don’t let me down, now.”

In the kitchen, something starts to beep and Ricky says, “Mom!”

“Coming, coming,” she says. Sharon clinks her wine glass against Brenda’s before walking away.

Dinner is better than anything Brenda could have come up with, even if she’d had the entire month of December to plan. They have pot roast and twice-baked potatoes, so rich and creamy that Brenda savors every bite. Sharon serves them dinner on her fine china with red cloth napkins and the real silver. It’s all very civilized and it’s usually the kind of thing that makes her teeth itch but she’s surprised to find that she’s having fun, even if they’re a cobbled together, motley sort of group. Still, Brenda makes it a point to check in with Charlie every so often during the evening to make sure she isn’t bored or too tired. After they eat dessert, Charlie asks for Brenda’s phone.

“Where’s yours?” Brenda asks.

“Mine is dying and I want to take a picture of you and Sharon and send it to daddy,” she says. “I think he thinks we’re sitting at home in our sweats eating ice cream out of the carton, or something.”

“There’s an idea with merit,” Brenda says. “It’s in my purse by the door.”

“You haven’t looked at it all night?” Charlie asks, clearly scandalized.

“And just where would I keep it?” Brenda asks. “No pockets in this tiny skirt you made me get!”

Charlie rolls her eyes and walks away to get the phone, comes back in and says, “Sharon!”

“Yes, my dear,” Sharon says, looking up from the pile of dishes in her sink. Brenda knows exactly what she’s thinking - that she wants to start cleaning right away but is afraid it’ll be too rude.

“Come stand over here with Aunt Brenda so I can take your picture,” Charlie says. “I want to show my dad that I’m somewhere nice and not joining a girl gang and selling drugs.”

“Bobby ain’t too fond of Los Angeles,” Brenda says.

“A picture,” Sharon says, though her cheer is clearly false.

“C’mere,” Brenda says. “In front of the tree?”

“No, that’s too bright, I think. How about over by the window,” Charlie says. Rusty, Ricky, and Andy all move away to give the ladies space and then stand in a row, watching Sharon and Brenda situate themselves.

“If Provenza could see them now,” Andy says.

“He still mad about the girl lunch thing?” Rusty asks.

“He was so sure they’d fight. So sure,” Andy says chuckling, shaking his head.

“We can hear you,” Sharon calls.

“Okay, stand a little closer. Good,” Charlie says. “Aunt Brenda, put your arm around her and stop looking terrified.”

“I don’t bite,” Sharon murmurs, stepping closer so they are hip to hip. Her hand slides around Brenda’s waist so she does the same thing, and up close like this, arm in arm, she realizes that Sharon’s waist is tiny and her wrists seem so small. Like she’d never noticed that Sharon was delicate because of her larger than life personality. But she’s thin and pretty and smells sweet, like expensive perfume and Brenda swallows, feels adrenaline pump through her because standing this close makes her want to run.

“Smile,” Charlie says.

Sharon angles her body a little and plasters on a smile and Brenda tries to do the same. Charlie holds up the phone and takes the picture.

“One more,” Charlie says. “Try to look like friends. Smoosh your cheeks or something.”

“Yeah,” Ricky says in a derisive tone. “Smoosh your faces, mom.”

“Yeah, Sharon,” Rusty says. “Smoosh.”

“You boys be nice,” Brenda tries to scold but Sharon sighs loudly, for show, and grabs Brenda’s face and kisses her cheek hard with a big loud “Mwah!”

“Yes!” Charlie says. “Now that is a cute picture.”

“Let me see, let me see,” Sharon says, abandoning Brenda over at the window to circle around the couch and look at the phone.

“Come see,” Charlie says. Brenda smooths her hands over her thighs nervously and walks over, peers over Sharon’s shoulder to see the silly picture. It is cute. Brenda can see the beginning of a smile on her own face and Sharon’s little high heeled foot popped into the air.

“Send it to me,” Sharon says.

“And now you can put it in for Sharon’s new caller ID picture,” Charlie says.

“Why, what was my old one?” Sharon asks.

“Uh, it was shut up Charlene Johnson and mind your business,” Brenda says.

“Whoops,” Charlie says.

“Brenda, what was it?” Sharon demands.

“Well, Lieutenant Tao put it in a long time ago!” Brenda says crossing her arms.

Andy starts to laugh. “No. Still?”

“What?” Sharon demands. Brenda sighs and, squirming, scrolls through her phone until she finds Sharon’s information and hands the phone over. Sharon looks at it, holding it at arm’s length away before rolling her eyes and handing it back. “I don’t even get to be the green witch, I have to be the one that the house falls on?”

“It was a long time ago,” Brenda says.

“We text every day!” Sharon exclaims.

“Are you really mad at me?” Brenda asks. Sharon tries to look stern, gives her a glare that would wound lesser men but Brenda can see the corner of her mouth twitch. “Charlie, put the new one in please.”

Charlie takes the phone and sits down on the couch, immersed.

“Dare I ask what I am in your phone?” Brenda asks.

Sharon smirks, reaches up to rub her thumb along Brenda’s cheek.

“Lipstick,” she murmurs.

“Russian Red,” Brenda says softly, looking at Sharon’s lips.

Sharon hums the affirmative.

oooo

The morning after Charlie leaves, Sharon meets her at the park for a run. Brenda feels quiet and kind of moody and is fearful that she’s going to say the wrong thing so she just keeps her mouth shut. Sharon doesn’t seem to mind and so Brenda will run to only the soundtrack of their heavy breathing and their feet on the ground.

I’m going running, Brenda had texted and hadn’t received a response but when she got to the park fifteen minutes later, Sharon was waiting at their bench, her hands tucked between her knees look tired and miserable.

“I feel fat,” Sharon says. Not much of a greeting but Brenda can certainly relate. She’s eaten so much food in the last few days that she feels a little out of sorts, too. She plops next to Sharon on the bench and because she is so tired that she can’t over think anything, lets her head rest against Sharon’s shoulder.

“You look fat,” Brenda says, her eyes closed. She can feel the laugh rumble through Sharon.

“This was your bright idea,” she says, but lets her head rest on top of Brenda’s.

“I miss spring,” Brenda says. She misses warm breezes and sunny mornings and the way the jasmine vines creep through all the hedges and all at once seem to burst into fragrant bloom.

“All right, get up, lets do this,” Sharon says sitting up and shrugging Brenda off. Brenda pouts but stands up, falls into their usual routine of stretching on the bench. Brenda watches Sharon and mimics her movement, stretching out first the left leg, then the right. “How many laps?”

“I don’t know,” Brenda says rubbing her face. “Until we don’t wanna anymore.”

Sharon rolls her eyes and breaks into an easy jog and Brenda stands and watches for long enough that she has to sprint to catch up. After four laps they stop, head toward home. At the corner where Sharon has to turn and Brenda keeps on straight, Sharon says, “What are you doing for New Years?”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “Well, David wants me to go to this party thing he and some friends are throwing but I don’t know.”

“Chief Pope is hosting a party and ordered all department heads to make an appearance if they aren’t on call,” Sharon says.

“Let me guess,” Brenda says. “No more over time for Major Crimes.”

Sharon lifts one shoulder and rolls her eyes.

“Well,” Brenda says. “I’ll do yours if you do mine.”

“That’s what I was hoping would happen,” Sharon says. “I’ll call you about it.”

Brenda flutters her fingers goodbye.

Sharon does call the morning of the 30th. Brenda’s office is quiet - the courts are still closed, many of the city services on furlough for the time between Christmas and New Years, but she doesn’t have anything better to do than go to work and is happy to hear Sharon’s voice. Things are obviously not so slow over there, she can hear activity behind Sharon’s voice through the line, can hear Julio quite clearly say, “Sit down and shut up you stupid punk!”

“Slow day?” Brenda says sarcastically.

“Average,” Sharon says. “We’re helping with overflow from Robbery-Homicide. But I was calling about tomorrow.”

“You wanna have lunch and talk about it?” Brenda asks.

“I was just gonna eat at my desk,” Sharon says apologetically. “It’s kind of a madhouse over here.”

“It’s quiet here,” Brenda says. “I could come to you. We could talk about it.”

“You… you’d come here?” Sharon asks, surprised. “I didn’t think you were comfortable with that.”

“It’s been nearly three years,” Brenda says. “I think I could probably spend 45 minutes there without burstin’ into flames.”

“Then yes, come on down. Around quarter till one?”

“You want me to bring you something?” she asks.

“No, I’m good.”

“I’m gonna bring you something,” Brenda says.

She can hear the laughter in Sharon’s voice. “I have to go, see you in a bit.”

“Bye,” she says.

Brenda gets so engrossed in her work, though, that when she realizes that she has to go, she has to hurry so she won’t be late and she decides to grab two snack cakes out of her desk drawer and toss them into her purse. She doesn’t know whether Sharon will like it or not, but she’d promised to bring something and anyway, who doesn’t like chocolate cake, creamy filling all dipped in fudge? What kind of horrible monster would turn that down?

She has to sign in down in the lobby, walk through the metal detector, clip a visitor’s pass to her lapel. The young officer helping her looks new and she doesn’t know him but there’s an older man there who does recognize her, she can tell, because he won’t meet her eyes. Like she’s the prodigal son, returning from disgrace. But she holds her head high, calls for the elevator, pressed the number 9 and doesn’t relax until the doors slide closed and she’s alone.

When the doors part again, it’s the general level of mayhem she expects from helping out another division. People in handcuffs lining the walls, slumped in plastic chairs and sitting on the linoleum. No less than three men call her baby as she hauls herself down the hall toward the murder room.

She reaches into her purse for her keycard out of habit before she realizes that she doesn’t have one because she doesn’t work here anymore. She stands at the glass door, her back to the wolves, and she fumbles for her telephone but thankfully Julio looks up from his desk and stands, smoothing his tie across his belly before rushing over to open the door for her.

“Hi Chief,” he says with a small smile.

“Detective Sanchez,” she says. “Seems exciting around here today!”

“Scum bags, ma’am,” he says.

“Julio, I’m not your boss anymore, you can call me Brenda.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. She smiles.

“We’ll work on it,” she says. “Is Sharon… I mean, Captain Raydor around? Or is my coming down here a big waste of time?”

“Go wait in her office,” Julio says. “She should be back any minute.”

The busy murder room saves her, actually, from making small talk with all her former division because other than Julio, none of them are there. She loves them all but time has turned friendship into acquaintance and it’s the catching up - the how are you’s, the small talk about work and life that tires her out. She always wants to pick right back up where they’d left off but it never works out that way. If anything, Sharon is the best example of that. She’d left Major Crimes to Sharon feeling like they might even be friends but it took two years and a sprained ankle to even get them talking again. And now, look at them. Maybe it’s just because Brenda doesn’t have a lot of friends, but from what she remembers, this isn’t exactly how friendship supposed to feel. It’s good, it’s fulfilling even, but it’s not easy.

She feels twisted up inside and when she pushes open the door to the office, her stomach twinges and she presses a hand flat against her abdomen. It’s like looking at a copy of a copy. It’s her office, but it’s not. There’s a plant in the corner, she’d never be able to keep a plant alive, would never even dream to try. The artwork on the wall is different, there’s a little silver angel on the windowsill - she knew there would be.

She walks around to the desk and pulls open the top drawer. Lets out the breath she didn’t know she was holding. Manila folders, a pair of scissors. An emery board.

The door opens before Brenda can close it. Sharon stops and then rolls her eyes.

“What’s mine is yours, I guess,” she says.

“Sorry,” Brenda says and she is. “Just curious.”

“Not all of us have the metabolism of a fourteen-year-old boy,” Sharon says. “If I ate like you, I’d look like Chief Pope.”

“Ha,” Brenda says, walking around to the guest chair. “He does seem to be off his grapefruit diet again.”

“You know I tend to drop weight under extreme stress but that does not seem to be the case for our illustrious chief,” Sharon grins. “Pity.”

“No, he’s a stress eater,” Brenda says. “Speaking of - where’s your lunch?”

“Microwave,” Sharon says. “Yours?”

Brenda pulls a sandwich in a plastic bag out of her purse.

“Lovely. I’ll be right back,” Sharon says. While she’s gone, Brenda sets the chocolate snack cake on Sharon’s desk blotter. A few minutes later, she comes back in, holding a tupperware full of something delicious smelling. Better than turkey on wheat bread. Sharon sits, smirks at the cake. “Cute.”

“So,” Brenda says. “Tomorrow.”

“Can I ask you something?” Sharon asks. “About Chief Pope?”

“You want to get Pope over with first? I don’t care, really, except I think David’s thing is all the way out in Santa Monica, so-”

“Not about the party,” Sharon says. “About the past.”

Brenda puts her sandwich down and reaches for her snack cake, feeling a little defensive. Will has changed so much in the last twenty years and the people in Los Angeles don't at all know the man she'd met in Washington. “He wasn’t always like this.”

Sharon shakes her head. “You know what? It’s none of my business.”

“No, it’s all right,” Brenda says. “Though I doubt there’s much you don’t know after vetting me for Chief of Police.”

“Oh I know the when and the how,” she says. “Just not the why. Especially knowing Chief Howard. Pope just doesn’t seem like your type.”

“Authority figures,” Brenda blurts.

“Excuse me?”

“My type. I always fall for… not power, exactly. But authority.” She unwraps the foil partly revealing half of the cake. “I didn’t know he was married.”

“I know that, Brenda,” Sharon says. “This isn’t an interrogation.”

“He could be impressive,” Brenda says. “And he knew so much about police work and I was unhappy at the state department and the fact that he wanted me was… well, I think I fell for him professionally, at first. I always want to be the best student, always have to be the smartest person in the room and then when you spend so much time at work and things are always stressful…”

“Lines start to blur,” Sharon finishes for her. “It was a long time ago.”

“It really was,” Brenda says. “I’m not proud of it.” She takes a bite of the cake, lets the chocolate soothe her. Sharon watches her for a long moment and then lets out a slow breath.

“Watching you eat that feels like a sin,” she says. “Too much enjoyment for a single human vessel.”

“They’re not quite the same since hostess got bought out but it’s better than nothin’,” she says and swipes her finger through the creamy center and drags her tongue across the pad of the digit. “It’s good, Captain. You should try yours.”

Sharon clears her throat and says, “Maybe later.” But she shrugs out of her blazer and lifts her hair off the back of her neck, like she’s too warm though the office feels fine to Brenda, maybe even cool. “But I think you’re right,” she says when she has settled into stillness once more save for the fork she keeps stabbing into her lunch. “If we do Investigator Gabriel’s soiree first, we can end up at Pope’s which is much closer to home.”

“You want to try for cabs?” Brenda asks. Sharon shakes her head.

“I don’t mind driving,” she says. “I’ll have champagne at midnight be fine.”

“You should be able to have fun too,” Brenda complains.

“I’ve been having far too much fun lately,” Sharon says. “Trust me. I’m happy to drive. In fact, I insist upon it.”

“If you say so,” Brenda says, crumpling up the foil and tossing it into the trash bin. She picks up her sandwich again though it will be a bit of a let down after the sweetness of the cake. “What’s your little nugget doing?”

“Rusty? Who knows,” Sharon says. “He always says hanging out, whatever that means. I encouraged him to invite people over to the condo but that didn’t fly.”

“It’s more fun to go out, I s’pose,” she says. “We’ll have fun, right? Even if they are work parties?”

“We’ll have fun,” Sharon says. “Get dressed up. Let all those eligible bachelors drool over us.” Sharon smiles enough to flash white teeth.

“What’d you say? Two women who clearly don’t need what they have to offer?” Brenda says, stifling a giggle. Sharon squirms a little in her seat, looks a touch uncomfortable.

“Well,” she drawls out, “We may not need it, but don’t you miss it?”

“Men?” Brenda scoffs. “No.”

“Well, not men, just sex,” Sharon says. “I don’t know, maybe it’s being around all these guys all the time. Constantly bombarded with innuendo and testosterone.”

“Oh, that,” Brenda says. “Well, yeah, I do.” She brings a hand to her mouth. “I really do, actually.”

Sharon manages a small smile and then rolls her eyes at them both. “We’re pathetic.”

“No!” Brenda says. “Now we have a goal for tomorrow, that’s all.” She waggles her eyebrows and whatever excuse Sharon is about to spout about how she can’t do that is stopped by Provenza barreling into the murder room and shouting in a booming voice, “Damn it Flynn! What did I say about the 405 this time of day?”

Brenda crumples up the plastic bag and stands. “I’m going to go out the back.” She points at the snack cake still on the desk. “Promise me you’ll eat that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sharon says. “See you tomorrow?”

“It’s a date,” Brenda says.

Chapter Text

Brenda has a run in her pantyhose. “Oh, shoot,” she moans, reaching up under her skirt and yanking them down. She falls back onto the couch when she realizes she’s still wearing shoes and has to unbuckle the straps before the pantyhose will come off and that’s how Sharon finds her when she walks in unannounced. Hose around her ankles as she struggles with tiny buckle on the shiny black shoes.

“Okay,” Sharon says sounding resigned and unsurprised. “How can I help?”

“I just ruined these,” she says trying not to be embarrassed. “I think I caught ‘em on somethin’.”

“Want me to get you another pair?” Sharon asks trying not laugh but she has that weird duckish expression she gets when she’s holding in laughter. Brenda rolls her eyes.

“Help me with these,” she says. Sharon sets her purse down, shrugs out of her coat and lays it across the rocking chair and then perches on the corner of the coffee table and eases Brenda’s feet into her lap. “Thank you.”

“I won’t ask if you’re ready,” Sharon says, managing the first buckle and then the second just as easily because these are the types of thing that come to Sharon easy. Clothes and fashion and mothering someone in desperate need of a little mothering. She eases both heels off and then grasps the saggy top of the hose and pulls until Brenda’s feet are free. She pats one bony ankle affectionately. “Do you have another pair?”

“Not black,” Brenda pouts. “Just sheer.”

“Sheer will look even better,” Sharon says, shoving her feet off her lap and getting up to throw the ruined pair away.

“They aren’t as warm,” Brenda complains.

“So, we’ll mostly be inside,” Sharon says. “Come on, go finish getting ready.”

Brenda knows she’s teetering right on the edge of something and she knows it because it’s a familiar feeling. She’s always walking that fine line of morality, of not quite enough sleep, of a big change she isn’t sure she wants except for that she knows things can’t stay the same. Tonight it’s that same old feeling of being overwound, of trembling hands and frayed nerves. It should be easy because she’s just going to some parties and she’s only going with Sharon and there are no expectations past showing up. This is what she tells herself as she digs through the top drawer of her dresser to find a clean and unmarred pair of nylons. She feels Sharon hover in the doorway for a moment and then fade back into the kitchen.

She pulls out the pair she was looking for, stretching both legs out to make sure there aren’t any obvious holes. She can hear the soft bump of a cupboard door closing and the sound of glass against the countertop. She’s sitting on the side of the bed, balling up one leg of the nylons to stick her foot inside when Sharon comes back holding a shot glass.

“Starting a little early for the DD,” Brenda says, easing her toes in and pulling up to her knee before starting on the other side.

“Oh,” Sharon says, low and sultry. “This is not for me.”

“I don’t need a drink,” Brenda huffs, standing up and tugging to get the nylons on. She flashes Sharon a little in the process but doesn’t care enough not to. She twists, inspecting both legs and then smoothing out her skirt. They’re both in black tonight in deference to the semi-professional functions they’re going to attend. Brenda’s dress is tight and long sleeved and stops just after her knee. Sharon is wearing lace with see-through sleeves and a pretty, scalloped neckline. Her hair is down and sleek and she’s got on heavy makeup, silver jewelry. Brenda likes when Sharon wears bracelets, how they slide around her wrist and catch the light.

“You need a drink in the worst way,” Sharon says. “I need you to relax.”

“I’m relaxed,” Brenda scowls, plucking a stray hair off her shoulder and then her breast. She’s been shedding like crazy, more than usual, even.

Stress, her mother whispers but Brenda ignores her and takes the shot glass from Sharon. It’s clear which means straight vodka.

“Humor me,” Sharon says. Brenda rolls her eyes but gets all down in one go, sputtering a little.

“And warm, too,” she says hoarsely, handing the shot glass back. “Thanks.”

“Now,” Sharon says stepping away and giving her an obvious once over. “I brought you something to wear.”

“Are you kidding me?” Brenda says. “It’s a black dress! What can you possibly have to dislike about this?”

“Not clothes,” Sharon says. “Earrings.”

Brenda reaches up to touch her own earlobe. She’s got on little studs. She hadn’t put much thought into jewelry because she’s not much of a jewelry wearer. Simple studs to work and she doesn’t even wear her wedding set which was the only other jewelry she ever bothered with. She’d tried to give the rings back to Fritz and it had offended him so she’d let the matter drop and now they’re in her jewelry box, waiting to taunt her should she ever look inside. Another reason not to bother with baubles.

Sharon had gone to her purse but is back now with a black velvet box. “These are for you to borrow,” Sharon says. “I was looking for my bracelet and I saw them and thought… well, they were a gift from Jack so I don’t wear them anymore and eventually I’ll give them to Emily, but I thought you might like to take them for a spin since it’s kind of a fun night.”

Brenda takes the box with a furrowed brow and opens the box. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Sharon arches her brow in amusement.

“Jack was a shit husband,” Sharon says. “But he knew his way around a jewelry store.”

It’s a pair of diamond earrings, square cut, and they must be at least three carats each, maybe more. They’re the most beautiful earrings Brenda has ever held in her hands and easily the most expensive. She looks up at Sharon, shaking her head.

“These are too nice,” she says.

“Come on, live a little,” Sharon says. “If we’re going to be each other’s arm candy, we may as well go all out, right?”

“Is that all I am to you?” Brenda asks, handing the box back and reaching out to remove her earrings. “A pretty face?”

“The whole package is pretty,” Sharon assures her. Sharon’s earrings are lovely too, dangling silver drops and they catch the light and play peekaboo between strands of her hair. Sharon’s hair has been on the darker side lately, a fresh dye job, maybe. More brown than auburn until light shines down on her, anyway. She gets the earrings free and Brenda puts the ones she removed on the nightstand and takes the first diamond.

“What if I lose them?” Brenda asks.

“Don’t you dare!” Sharon says. “Just don’t and it’ll be fine.”

Brenda puts the earrings on and then goes to the mirror to inspect them. They’re heavy and beautiful even in the crummy light of her bathroom. She’s got her hair half up but she undoes the clip and rearranges it into a low twist, something that showcases the earrings. Sharon comes in, looks her over.

“Good,” she says. “But take off that pink lipstick, that’s not doing you any good.”

“Barbie dress up time,” Brenda says. She pulls open a drawer that is packed full of makeup with no organization whatsoever. Sharon looks into the drawer with a hand to her chest, scandalized.

“Brenda, get your life together,” she says. “This is no way to live!”

“Seriously, shut up,” Brenda says, reaching in and pulling out a few different lipsticks. Sharon points to a nude one and then carefully reaches in to the drawer to pull out a black eye pencil.

“You need more,” Sharon says. “Thicker. Bolder.”

“Yes, mama,” Brenda says. Sharon rolls her eyes at Brenda as she leans in to add to her eyeliner and then wipe off her lipstick and put on the new color.

“Good,” Sharon says. “Better. You look more… I don’t know. Controlled? Is that right word?”

“Only if you already know that my life is constantly in shambles,” Brenda says, tossing the cosmetics into the drawer and slamming it closed. “Can we go?”

“Yes,” Sharon says.

Brenda gets her shoes back on and as they’re making their way down the stairs out into the night air, she realizes she can feel the shot, warm in her tummy. And that while she feels still wound up, it’s not so bad. She feels bolder with Sharon, more beautiful even though she only feels beautiful because of Sharon’s additions. Pretty earrings, bedroom eyes, her wide mouth made smaller with a neutral color.

“So is this David’s party or a work party?” Sharon asks as they make their way to the address Brenda had put into her phone. It spits out directions in a monotone voice and Sharon follows them precisely.

“It’s not hosted by us, but I think it will be mostly work people and families and stuff,” Brenda says. “I tried to say I wouldn't go but David was pretty insistent that I would be welcome.”

“You’re a likable person, you know,” Sharon says, turning into a parking lot. “You should let them like you.”

It’s valet only and they hand the car over to a guy in a red vest - Sharon pockets the ticket and gives him a tip right up front.

The party is in a restaurant rented out for the night, an old industrial building with exposed brick and pipes along the ceiling. There’s a full bar along the back and while there is some seating along the walls, mostly the long, rectangular room is filled with small round tables meant for standing. Appetizers and cocktails.

“I’ll just make the rounds,” Brenda says. “We don’t have to stay long.”

“This looks fine,” Sharon says. There’s music playing and the lights are on the dim side and it gives it a sort of relaxed air even though everyone is dressed up. “I’ll take your coat, you head for the bar.”

“That’s a good plan,” Brenda says. There’s a coat check and Sharon takes their things over there. Brenda tries to head straight back but she knows too many people and gets caught up in a conversation with some paralegals, another short burst with two of her investigators and she’s only halfway through the restaurant when she finds David standing in a group of people.

“Chief!” David says. “Wow! You look great. Wow!”

He must be a little drunk.

“Thank you, David,” she says, reaching up reflexively. She stops herself just short of touching one of the diamonds. “Seems like this party is a real hit.”

“Half the lawyers in Los Angeles are here,” he says.

“Not the sales pitch I’d start with,” Brenda says. “But it seems fun.”

“You know Sarah,” David says gesturing to the woman on his right. “This is Mark, and I think you know Sean.”

“Yes, yes, how y’all doing tonight,” Brenda says. “Having fun?”

David’s not the only one who has been drinking because Sean leans forward and says, “You’re my boss’s boss!” And then laughs.

“Guilty,” Brenda says, glancing at David who just closes his eyes and shakes his head. “But we’re all off the clock here. Tonight I’m just Brenda.”

“What did I miss?” Sharon walks up behind her, says it over her shoulder into her ear and then hands her a flute of champagne.

“Oh, you beat me there!” Brenda says, taking a half step back to accommodate Sharon into the circle. “Thank you.”

“They had wine but it looked terrible, they had a chardonnay and a 2011 burgundy,” she says.

“Yikes,” Brenda says. “David you remember Captain Raydor.”

“Of course,” he says. “I remember her from two weeks ago when she was in your office.”

“Hmm,” Sharon hums over the rim of her own glass. “Charming.”

“Sharon, this is Sarah Barenstein, she investigates fraud, Mark Wallace, the Director of Victim Services and Sean Brennan, he works for our professional standards department. Everyone, this is Captain Sharon Raydor of the LAPD.”

They all stare at her for a moment, surprised, and then politely shake Sharon’s free hand.

“And David and I are old friends, aren’t we?” Sharon says.

“Yes, Ma’am,” David says.

“I’m Sean’s boss’s boss,” Brenda says, winking at the poor man. His face colors.

“Well you aren’t my boss so go find out where those little quiches are coming from, I’m starving,” Sharon says, nudging her. Brenda rolls her eyes but complies, handing her drink back to Sharon stepping away, winding around until she sees a few caterers with trays. She grabs two quiches as well as a crab cake and a tiny something wrapped in bacon - she takes two of those - and piles her goods onto a napkin.

She finds Sharon and David chatting where she left them, though the others have moved away.

“Here,” Brenda says. “This is gonna have to tide us over until Will’s thing.”

“Oh, you guys have another party?” David asks.

“Yeah, we can only stay a short time here,” Brenda says trying to sound apologetic. “Chief Pope is making Sharon go to his party.”

“Party slash fundraiser,” Sharon says. “Attendance is not mandatory, I just have to go.”

“I bet that’s gonna be swanky,” David says. “No wonder you two are dressed to kill.”

“You like?” Sharon says, giving a little twirl.

“Don’t flirt with my employees,” Brenda says. David just laughs, puts up his hands.

“Don’t worry, Chief, I know your date is outta my league,” he grins.

“Are you seeing anyone, David?” Sharon asks, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hand.

“Not seriously,” David says. “My grandmother reminds me that she’s gonna die soon every time I see her and that I need to get married before that happens but… after Ann, I don’t know. It’s hard to trust people.”

Sharon gives him a sympathetic look, nods. Brenda reaches for one of the quiches but Sharon slaps her hand away.

“That wasn’t your fault,” Sharon says. “No one blames you for that.”

“I blame me,” he says. “Anyway, I’ve moved on and I like the D.A.’s office. I’m so grateful to you, Chief, for bringing me with you. I hope you know that.”

“Thank you, honey,” Brenda says.

“You should come by the murder room,” Sharon says. “I’m sure everyone would love to see you.”

“Oh,” David says. “I don’t…”

“Brenda came by yesterday,” Sharon says. “That was fine, wasn’t it?”

“Three murder suspects offered me non-consensual sex and I only saw Julio.” She manages to snag a quiche and winks at David before saying, “It was good fun,” and popping the appetizer into her mouth.

“You know how the holidays are,” Sharon says. “Anyway, think about it. But we’re monopolizing you, go on. There’s a very pretty woman over by the bar who has been looking at you.”

David whips around to see who she’s talking about. Brenda isn’t convinced that Sharon didn’t just make that up on the spot, but David must like whatever it is that he sees because he holds up his empty cup.

“I am about due for a refill. Please excuse me.”

Alone, they tear through the rest of food and Brenda finishes her drink.

“You had enough of this place?” she asks. Sharon nods.

“I was worried I’d see Jack here, but I’ve managed to dodge that bullet.” She smirks. “He’s probably in Vegas.”

“Oh, I didn’t think about that. He does work for us, doesn’t he?”

“Have you met him?”

“I don’t think so,” she says. “Sorry, Sharon.”

“Don’t apologize to me. You do know your ex-husband is going to be at the next party for sure, right?”

Brenda had not really thought about that.

“That’s fine,” she says. “I’m fine. That’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Sharon asks, stepping into Brenda’s space so they can speak more quietly. “Because the last thing I want is for you to feel-”

“It’s fine,” Brenda says. Sharon reaches out and squeezes her arm.

But when they’re in the car headed back toward downtown, Sharon must still be worrying about it.

“When is the last time you saw Fritz?” Sharon asks.

“When we signed the papers,” Brenda says. “Really, it’s bound to happen. It’s a small town.”

“It’s the second largest city in the country,” Sharon says.

Brenda looks over at her, shaking her head. “Not helpful.”

“Sorry.”

“Do you see him a lot?” Brenda asks.

Sharon flicks on a turn signal, slows to stop at a red light and lets her hands fall into her lap. “Not a lot. Sometimes.”

“How does he look?” Brenda asks, though she feels stupid and weak for wondering.

“Stressed out,” Sharon says. “Mostly.”

“Well.” Brenda sighs, pulls out her phone though the only person who texts her is in the same car, so there’s not much to see. A few emails in her inbox. “Do you talk about me?”

“God, no,” Sharon says. “Why, you want me to casually bring you up?”

“No,” Brenda says. “I do not.”

“Good,” Sharon says. “What would I say? Oh hi Chief Howard, nice to see you, did you know that Brenda is my best friend and I know all about her and you’re a fool for letting her go? No? Oh well, too late!”

“He didn’t let me go, Sharon, Jesus.”

“I’m kidding,” she says.

“That isn’t funny.”

“I apologize,” Sharon says. “Honey, I’m sorry. That was thoughtless.”

“It’s okay, I just… I don’t want people to look at me and think about how far I’ve fallen. Why did I give up my life for a one bedroom apartment and a job I don’t love and a husband who wanted me to stay?”

“First of all, you did that because it was a shoe that didn’t fit,” Sharon says, gunning it into the intersection. Sharon’s driving, she’s in charge, but they’re in Brenda’s car. Sharon doesn’t like to take the motor pool car around when she’s not working and Rusty has her personal vehicle most of the time. When Brenda had finally gotten the second key back from Fritz, she’d given it right to Sharon.

“You’re the only other person who drives it anyway,” Brenda had said. Sharon had smiled, eased it onto her keyring.

“That’s true,” she’d said. “Thank you.”

“People don’t know that my life didn’t fit,” Brenda says now.

“So what?” Sharon exclaims. “So fucking what?”

“Sharon!”

“Brenda!” she says. “From the very first day I ever saw you, from the first words we ever exchanged, you made it perfectly clear that you do not give a damn what other people think about you, so why, why is this different?”

“I don’t know,” Brenda says, burying her face in her hands. “Haven’t you ever just felt fragile before?”

Sharon laughs, a deep bark. “Yes.”

“I feel fragile.”

“I’m sorry,” Sharon says. “I forget sometimes.”

“Forget what?” Brenda asks, furrowed brow and confused.

“That you’re one of us. A human,” Sharon says, glancing over at her with a sly smile. “That you aren’t… I don’t know, better.”

oooo

The second party, Will’s party, is in a ballroom in the Hilton downtown and it’s nice enough. One of the walls is a row of french doors that open up onto a terrace. There’s a live band, caterers in black and white, a full bar, a dance floor. It’s probably the fanciest party Brenda will ever find herself in and hopefully the last because she immediately feels like she doesn’t belong. They hand their coats over to the coat check and Brenda hesitates when it’s time to step into the crowd.

“Let’s go to the restroom first,” Sharon says. Brenda nods. At the sinks, standing next to one another, Brenda snags her wrist and looks at Sharon’s watch.

“Oh, God, it’s not even eleven,” Brenda says.

“We just have to make sure Pope sees us, that’s it and then we can go home.”

“No,” Brenda says. “You know we gotta stay till the ball drops.”

“Okay, yes, I do, probably, but you don’t,” Sharon says. “I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Brenda says. “But I will need a drink. So let’s go and get this over with.”

Brenda knows a lot of people at this party. A few people she knows well - Will, Taylor, people who’d worked closely with Major Crimes over the years and there are people she recognizes but couldn’t say why or how. She expects Sharon to deposit her somewhere and wander off to make her rounds, but she doesn’t. She keeps Brenda by her side. Gets her a drink with some soda in it because Sharon says she looks like she needs a little caffeine and then walks with her, introducing her to some people, re-acquainting her with others.

“Chief Investigator Johnson,” Sharon always says.

“Brenda,” Brenda says to the ones who smile at her and reach for her hand.

Sharon’s deep in conversation when Brenda realizes her drink is empty so she touches Sharon’s back to excuse herself and makes her way over to the bar. She leans against the bartop and when she gets the attention of the bartender, she says, “Vodka coke and a club soda with lime.”

“Club soda, huh?”

Brenda spins, a smile already on her face. “Lieutenant Provenza!”

“Chief Johnson,” he says.

“What are you doin’ here?” she exclaims. “Sharon said Will only ordered department heads to attend.”

“I lost a bet,” he says. “And I don’t want to talk about.”

“Okay,” she says. “What are you havin’, it’s on me.”

“Scotch,” he says. “Thanks.”

The bartender comes back with her drinks and she tacks on the order, sliding cash across the bar. Of course Will wouldn’t have an open bar.

“I can’t say I expected to see you here either,” Provenza says, glancing at the drinks in her hand. “It’s nice that you’ve patched things up.”

Brenda rolls her eyes. “Lieutenant, we’ve been friends for months now, come on.”

“Well, you’re better at divorce than I am because I can still hardly stand to be in the same room as any of my ex-wives!” he says with a chuckle.

“Oh,” Brenda says. “Oh, no, no, I’m uh, I’m not here… I’m here with Captain Raydor.”

“Captain… Captain Raydor!” Provenza says. “Oh! I saw the club soda, I just thought…”

“She’s drivin’ tonight,” Brenda says. “So...”

“Right,” he says. “How responsible.”

“Anyway,” Brenda says. “Fritz and I are not… um, not real close.”

“More natural that way,” Provenza says. She smiles at him, strained and uncomfortable.

“Come say hi to Sharon,” she says. “You should get some credit for bein’ here.”

Sharon is talking to another woman, someone Brenda remembers from the luncheon. Brenda slides back into her spot beside Sharon, takes her empty glass and hands her the fresh one. Sets the empty on a passing caterer’s tray.

Sharon murmurs her thanks, says, “You remember Brenda Johnson?”

“Of course,” the woman says.

“Look who I found,” Brenda says.

“Lieutenant Provenza!” Sharon says. “Here you are!”

“Here I am,” he says. Sharon crosses her arms and looks positively smug.

“Oh my god,” Brenda says, looking between them. “The bet was with you!”

Sharon glances at the woman, at Provenza. “We don’t have to talk about that.”

“Captain,” Provenza says, though he looks like he’s sucking on a lemon. “Would you care to dance with me?”

“Oh, Lieutenant, wouldn’t that be just lovely? Yes, of course,” Sharon says, handing her drink back to Brenda. “Excuse us.”

“Do I even want to know?” the woman asks.

“Probably not,” Brenda says.

It’s unrealistic to be with Sharon the entire night, so Brenda wanders off onto the terrace. It’s cold enough that it’s not very populated so she buys herself a little alone time. It’s about fifteen minutes until the new year and then, hopefully, they can go home. Sharon is better at this than she is, better at small talk, better at mingling, better at keeping the expression of utter boredom and disdain off her face. Brenda has spent the entire night reminding herself to smile and her cheeks ache from the effort.

The doors behind her open and Brenda hears laughter, turns to see a tall, dark haired woman and her ex-husband stepping out into the moonlight.

“Oh,” Fritz says. “Hi.”

“Hello,” Brenda says. There’s a long enough pause that the tall woman with her bright blue eyes smiles uncertainly and steps forward, extending her hand.

“Hello, I’m Allison,” she says.

What’s there to do but shake her hand? Brenda lifts her arm, takes Allison’s long fingers. She’s so tall. Does Fritz like tall, dark haired women?

“Brenda,” she says.

“This is Fritz,” Allison says.

“No kidding,” says Brenda. Whoops. She’d been trying to be nice. But now that she's off the wagon… “I’m his ex-wife.”

“Oh,” Allison says. “Right, Brenda. Right.”

“The second one,” Brenda adds, helpfully.

“Didn’t know you’d be here tonight,” Fritz says.

“I came with Sharon,” Brenda says. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go find her.”

“No, that’s okay,” Allison says, holding up a hand. “We’ll go. Nice to meet you, Brenda.

Brenda wiggles her fingers in a wave.

Sharon finds her on the terrace a few minutes later. She’s not hiding, she’s just still stuck to the spot in shock, still too shaken to go in and put on a brave face for Sharon. It should have occurred to her that Fritz would see other women. He’s handsome and nice and good husband material, she should know.

She can just stay out here until the party is over and everyone else goes home and it’s safe for her to emerge again. Except she doesn’t have her coat and it’s freezing up here and so when Sharon comes out to get her, she’s secretly glad for it.

“How you doing, slugger?” she asks.

“You saw?”

“I saw Chief Howard dancing with a woman and I saw them come out here,” Sharon says. “I didn’t make detective for nothing.”

“He looked at me like… like I was the one who had no right to be here,” Brenda says. “Was he right?”

“No.”

“I left the LAPD but I’m still here,” Brenda says. “Why should he feel bad about bringing a date to his office party?”

“You aren’t here for the LAPD, you’re for me,” Sharon says. “Come on, let’s go in, it’s almost time.”

“I don’t want to go back in there,” Brenda says. “I can’t.”

Sharon looks around, crossing her arm against the cutting wind and says, “Come on.”

Brenda is about to put up a real fight about it but realizes that Sharon is already walking away from her and she’s not headed toward the party. The terrace wraps around and it looks like there’s another ballroom. This one is dark, the doors closed, the chairs stacked. It also seems like it’s smaller, though it’s hard to tell. Sharon tries one door and then the one next to it, but they’re locked.

“Gimme one of your pins,” Sharon says.

“Don’t break in on my account,” Brenda says.

“I’m just doing a public safety check,” Sharon says, reaching up and carefully pulling a bobby pin from her hair. It’s the one holding the front piece of her hair back and hair falls into her face. She tucks it behind her ear.

“You couldn’t have picked a less important pin?” Brenda mutters.

“I chose the one I could see,” Sharon says. “I’ll give it back when I’m done.”

“When it’s bent out of shape?” Brenda says. She watches Sharon try to put it in the lock. “No, you gotta pull the round part off the little edges or it won’t fit.”

“What?”

“The little covers so it doesn’t scratch you,” Brenda says. “Hand it here.” She sticks the end of it between her teeth and bites, scraping off the end of the prongs and spitting out the tiny rubbery bits. “Like you’ve never done this before.”

“Well, no,” Sharon says. “Not like this. Have you?”

“You’ve met my father, what do you think?” Brenda says. “I was always sneaking in and out of our house.”

“I can do it with a lock pick set,” Sharon says.

“My grandma could do it with one of those,” Brenda says and then manages to get the prongs into the lock. She jimmies it for a moment and then twists. “Oh, it’s just a deadbolt, all we gotta do is get it to turn.”

The lock clanks.

Brenda pulls open the door.

Inside Sharon says, “You always manage to keep surprising me.”

They can hear the party through the wall. They can even see the light shining through the top along the seam of the ceiling.

“I think you can push this wall back and make a bigger room,” Brenda says. “Bet Will has us all crammed in there because he didn’t want to pay for the extra space.”

“Oh sure, no overtime for us anymore but there’s a line in the budget for this party,” Sharon says.

Brenda leans against the collapsible wall and puts her cold hands over her face.

“You’re okay, you know,” Sharon says, stepping up to her. “You’re doing just fine.”

Brenda lowers her hands and reaches out to take one of Sharon’s. “You’re a terrible liar,” she says, giving her fingers a squeeze. She’s about to let go, but Sharon hangs on, so she doesn’t.

“I’m a very accomplished liar,” Sharon says. “But I’m telling the truth.”

“Thanks,” Brenda says. “I just feel like… if I haven’t already let everyone down, I’m about to.”

Her throat burns, her vision swims. She can count on one hand the number of times that Sharon has seen her cry. For as maternal as Sharon can be and often is, tears of self-pity don’t seem like something she’d put up with for very long. She’s going to put her hands on her hips, elbows jutting forward, and say, “Pull it together, Johnson!”

But when the first tear falls, Sharon’s face softens.

She lets go of Brenda’s hands and instead cups her face. “You’re okay.”

Brenda nods, Sharon’s hands moving along with her.

“You’re fine,” Sharon says.

“I know,” she sniffs.

Brenda can hear commotion on the other side of the wall; it’s got to be close to midnight. Sharon still looking at her in the dark room, their faces close, her hands cool against Brenda’s hot cheeks. Sharon leans in, kisses Brenda’s cheek, right on the cheekbone, the apple where she puts her blush, just underneath her eye.

“Say it again,” Brenda says. Her heart is fluttering in her chest and she can hear Sharon’s breath, feel it along her skin.

“You’re okay,” Sharon says and kisses her other cheek, down next to her ear where it flirts with turning into jaw. She leans back and looks at Brenda fondly, drags her thumb under Brenda’s eye to wipe away the tears. “Feel better?”

“Thanks to you,” Brenda says. She leans in and returns the gesture, drops a light kiss on Sharon’s cheek and rolls her eyes when she pulls back, a little embarrassed. Through the wall, she can hear people start to count.

Ten, nine, eight...”

But something has changed in Sharon’s expression. The warmth has turned into something else entirely and Brenda knows suddenly and with great clarity why, exactly, she’s been so on edge this evening. Sharon’s glossy hair, her long dark lashes, the way her green eyes keep glancing down at Brenda’s mouth.

Seven, six, five…

Sharon’s hands slide down, rest on the place where her shoulders become her neck. Brenda reaches out and touches Sharon’s waist with her fingertips.

Four, three, two…

Brenda will give herself just this one magical, ephemeral moment to snatch a taste of what she wants. And then things will go back to normal and they’ll see movies and buy dresses and eat dinner with Rusty sitting between them. They’ll get coffee before work and lunch on Wednesdays and laugh over glasses of wine. They’ll be friends, they’ll bump into one another as they walk down the sidewalk, pick each other up from the airport, text during the day. They’ll just be friends. Only friends.

But for now…

One! Happy New Year!

Brenda surges forward and presses her mouth to Sharon’s. Sharon makes a little noise in her throat and curls her fingers against the back of Brenda’s neck.

oooo

Brenda calls Sharon’s landline in the morning but no one answers. She tries not to think about the ride home from the party, how Sharon had seemed overly kind and distant. Too polite. Had taken Brenda to her apartment and dropped her off, how she didn’t want to come up because it was so late. The blank, far away look on her face and her fingers turning white on the steering wheel.

Brenda has made a mistake and now Sharon isn’t answering the phone.

She thinks about calling her cell - maybe they’re out? - but doesn’t want to seem desperate so she makes herself wait three agonizing hours and then texts Rusty to see how his night had gone. It takes him almost ten minutes to reply, an eternity for someone his age. When he does reply, he says good and that Sharon is taking a nap. Like he’s making sure that Brenda won’t try to call again. He’s protecting her from Brenda and it makes her sick to her stomach.

“Stupid,” she whispers to herself. “You are so stupid!”

You just got confused, honey, and made a mistake, her mama’s voice says. Now you know better than to make things uncomfortable for your friend.

It’s the first time she wishes that she didn’t still talk to her dead mama and that her dead mama didn’t talk back. Obviously something is not right inside of Brenda, obviously she is broken. Full of jagged pieces, parts that don’t click together. Inside she is bad and wrong and it’s no wonder that she can never make relationships work, that she hears voices, that she longs for things that she can’t and shouldn’t have. Doesn’t even deserve to have.

Sharon had been just trying to make her feel better and Brenda had stepped all over it, pushed too far and now it can’t be mended.

She looks at her phone all day, takes it with her into the bathroom, sets it on the window ledge when she showers so she can hear if it buzzes. Carries it into the kitchen when she raids the freezer for sweets, takes it to bed with her when she decides to give up and burrow under her covers, maybe forever.

There’s one moment when she’s looking at the long string of messages between her and Sharon over the last several months, one moment where she sees the three little dots pop up like Sharon is typing and she watches them in agony but after a few seconds they disappear and no words ever come.

She cries into her pillow for forty minutes before flinging off the covers and going to the bathroom, yanking open a drawer and digging through its contents until she finds a Tylenol PM. She fumbles with the packaging, tearing through the thick plastic and manages to get the pills out. Puts them in her mouth and sticks her mouth under the sink faucet.

She’ll never go to sleep on her own, she’s stuck in loop of imagining Sharon’s lips on hers, how her bottom lip had touched Brenda’s top lip and how they had shifted to align, how Sharon’s fingers had tightened, how her lashes had been resting on her cheeks when Brenda had pulled away, how big her pupils had been in the darkness of the room.

And then the way Sharon hadn’t quite looked at her from the driver’s seat of her car as she’d said goodnight and driven away.

Brenda realizes that Sharon still has her car.

But it’s too late now. She’ll have to deal with it in the morning. It doesn’t take long for the exhaustion and the medicine to creep up on her and then it feels like she’s only been asleep for a few minutes when her alarm starts to blare.

She gives herself an extra ten minutes when she leaves to walk over to Sharon’s and claim what’s hers, to maybe try to talk to her, to apologize, to promise to pretend that none of it ever happened, but when she goes out the front door of the building, her car is parked on the street.

Brenda makes it until lunch before she decides she can’t take it. She calls over to Major Crimes, but the phones ring and ring until a uniform picks up to tell her the whole squad is out and can he forward her to Captain Raydor’s voicemail?

“No,” she says. “Thank you, no.”

How is she going to make this right? How is she going to apologize? How is she going to explain that it’s nothing Sharon did, that the badness has been growing inside Brenda for her whole life? Maybe her heart isn’t a garden at all. Maybe her heart is a tangle of brambles and the wall she keeps around it is to keep other people safe. Maybe she’s nothing but weeds.

She figures the best she can do is give Sharon the space she so clearly desires, so she’s a little surprised when Rusty shows up at her office the Thursday after the party. She’s about to leave for a meeting and while she’s happy to see him, always, today the sight of him makes her anxious.

“Honey,” Brenda says. “Whatever this is has to wait because I’m headed into a meeting.”

“I just need two minutes,” he says.

She huffs, tucks her hair behind her ear and nods.

“Look, I’m not sure what happened the other night but you guys have to work it out,” he says.

“The other night?” she says. “Nothin’, nothin’ happened. We went to a party.”

“Um,” Rusty says. “Sure, sure.”

Brenda pulls her tote out from under her desk and shoves a few files into it. “It’s fine.”

“You don’t have to tell me what happened,” Rusty says. “In fact, I would prefer that, but please, please whatever it is, don’t let it mess stuff up between you because I know she’ll probably never say it, but I think your friendship is, like, super important to her.”

His face is so earnest and she feels helpless.

“It’s important to me too,” she says. “But I don’t think she wants to hear from me, kiddo.”

“That’s not true! She’s been glued to her phone and I think if you just forgave her, she’d really-”

“What?” Brenda blurts. “Forgive her?”

Rusty nods.

“I don’t think that’s the problem,” Brenda says. “And anyway, I have to, have to go now.”

“I’ll walk with you,” he says. “Anyway I know she feels bad.”

They head down the hall toward the elevator.

“She’s upset I know,” Brenda says. “But I think you’re reading it wrong and if she’s mad, I shouldn’t push.”

“Mad?” Rusty asks. “No, no way, she definitely feels guilty.”

“How can you tell?” she asks.

“Well for one, when Sharon is mad she does not keep it a secret,” he says. The elevator opens and a few people step off so they can step on. Brenda is going up three floors for a meeting that’s going to take most of the afternoon. “Also she’s been cleaning and she only does that when she feels guilty about something.”

“People clean, Rusty,” Brenda says.

“She bought a breadmaker yesterday!” he says. “A breadmaker! And I got up last night to get water and she was cleaning the grout in the kitchen with, like, a toothbrush. That is guilt cleaning, I mean, who does that?”

The doors open and Brenda steps onto the threshold so the doors don’t close again. “What do you want me to do?” she asks.

“I don’t know, call her? Come over? Tell her that it’s fine? We seriously don’t have the counter space for a breadmaker, Brenda.”

She glances over her shoulder, sees the filling conference room. “Let me think about it, okay?”

He nods and when she steps all the way out, the elevator closes on his concerned, yet hopeful face.

She’s an hour into the meeting when she feels her phone buzz in the pocket of her suit jacket. She pulls it out and glances at it under the table. It’s from Rusty.

She just came home with a $400 vacuum.

Buzz.

There’s twelve square feet of carpet in this entire condo.

Buzz.

She’s vacuuming the drapes. THE DRAPES.

“I’m gonna step out for a moment,” Brenda says, heads swiveling to look at her. “Y’all go on without me.”

She ducks into the ladies’ room and locks herself in a stall, leans against the closed door and pulls up Sharon’s contact info. Looks at the picture of them that Charlie had put there, her little smile, Sharon’s popped up foot.

She starts to write out several different messages before finally settling on something totally benign.

Was gonna order pizza tonight. You and Rusty interested?

It’s only a few seconds later when another text from Rusty comes through.

Thaaaaaaank yooooou!!! It’s followed by three little thumbs up pictures.

She doesn’t wait for a text from Sharon. She powers down her phone and hurries back to her meeting. Whatever the answer is, it’s gonna have to wait until she’s off the clock.

Later, in her office, packing up for the end of the day, she remembers her phone, holds the button down to turn it on, the little apple appearing. By the time she’s turned off her computer, packed up her purse, straightened out her desk, the phone has buzzed with a single text message. Two words from Sharon that help to ease the tension in her sternum, the weight that has been hard and heavy all day.

What time?

Chapter Text

David and Andrea Hobbs are haunting her outer office when Brenda comes in with her coffee and a little pink bag with a chocolate croissant inside, still warm and gooey from the bakery. David looks rumpled and tired and is still in yesterday’s suit.

“We found Arnold Cartwright,” he says with no preamble.

“Good morning to you too,” Brenda says. Her assistant shrugs, gazes into her computer screen and pretends, probably, to be somewhere else. “Where is he?”

“LAPD picked him up about three hours ago and processed him,” David says.

“Let me guess,” Brenda says.

“He’s sitting in an interrogation room at Major Crimes,” Andrea says.

“Well David, hon, I don’t know what to tell you,” Brenda says as they follow her into her office. She tosses her stuff down, presses the button to boot up her computer. Worthless assistant. “This was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“Chief, I’ve been after this guy for four months and now Major Crimes is going to completely ignore our investigation into his fraudulent activities and try to get him for murder!”

“Did Mr. Cartwright murder someone?” Brenda asks.

Andrea tilts her head. “It’s beginning to look like it. A couple of someones.”

“Then he should probably go to jail for that,” Brenda says. “What do you want from me?”

“I thought maybe you could call down there,” David says. “See if we can do a parallel interrogation.”

Brenda stares at him.

“Or maybe go down there with me,” David says.

“Come on,” Brenda scoffs, sitting primly in her seat. “When we were on the other side, we worked with the D.A.’s office before, you know the drill.”

“When we were on the other side you made it your personal mission to keep everyone else out of there so you could have suspects all to yourself!” David accuses.

“I shared!” Brenda mutters. Andrea makes a noise of disbelief but tries to cover it with a cough. David just rolls his eyes.

“There’s no reason,” Andrea says in an even tone, “that we can’t get Mr. Cartwright for both murder and fraud and put him away for several lifetimes.”

“Exactly,” Brenda says. “All you gotta do is go on down there and ask!”

“And you think Captain Raydor is just gonna let me in to muck around in her sandbox?” David asks. The same Sharon who ambushed her because Brenda was running in a park too close to her condo.

Brenda tucks her hair behind her ear and looks at the wall right above David’s head. “Of course she will! She invited you down there herself at New Years!”

David shakes his head. “That was to be polite and you know it!”

“Fine,” Brenda says. “Have a seat. I will call over there and butter her up for you, happy? Can’t believe you, scared of little ole Sharon.”

David opens his mouth to retaliate but Andrea shakes her head, so he closes it and pulls a face. Brenda, feeling very benevolent and infinitely patient, picks up the phone and dials Major Crimes, punching in Sharon’s extension. When it starts to ring, she pushes the button to put in on speaker and sets the phone back into the cradle.

Raydor.

“Hey, it’s me,” she says. “I wanted to check in about somethin’.”

Okay, look, I know it’s Wednesday but it’s chaotic over here today, so we can have lunch if you want to eat at three o’clock but otherwise-

“No, no,” she says. “This isn’t about lunch.”

Oh, good,” she says. “Then you should come over this weekend. Rusty has this new friend and he’s coming over for dinner and I feel like, I don’t know, I feel like if it’s just me he’ll feel uncomfortable, do you know what I mean?

Andrea’s eyebrows have started to rise up slowly and David just closes his eyes and shakes his head.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Brenda says. “But I called about something else.”

For the love of… yes, Brenda, I returned the breadmaker!

Brenda reaches out and snatches up the receiver, holding it to her ear. “Captain Raydor!”

“What?” Sharon says, exasperated.

“You have a man in your lock up that is of interest to an investigation my department is currently running,” Brenda says, trying to sound professional and upstanding, trying not to picture Sharon leaning back in her office chair, her long legs crossed, her black heels, her tight skirts. The way the light comes in through that window behind her, the calm inner office in the heart of an always busy place. “Arnold Cartwright?”

Sharon sighs and makes a slight tsking noise with her teeth.

“A person of interest how?”

“He’s the suspected head of money laundering ring. We have a joint investigation with the FBI that we’ve been running for-” She glances up at David who holds up four fingers. “-over three months. Look, I know people don’t end up in your lock up for fraud and we’re not asking for you to give him up, just let me send an investigator and a D.D.A. down there to ask him a few questions.”

“I don’t-”

“It’s your show, Captain. I’ll make sure they know who is in charge.”

David opens his mouth to complain but she holds up a finger and points at him, jabs it in the air. Deputy Chief Johnson would’ve hung up the phone by now; they’re lucky that Sharon is better at playing with others and that she and Brenda get along - outside the office, anyway.

“Who are you sending?” Sharon asks.

“I’ll tell you what,” Brenda says, sounding just sweet as pie. “I’ll send you down Andrea Hobbs, how about that?”

Andrea smiles, rolls her eyes, tilts her head. Used to being a pawn between these two offices.

“Ha, sure. And who else?”

“And David, it’ll be fine so I’ll just send ‘em on down and you can-”

Sharon barks out a dry laugh. “No way, no deal, no how. You can come down yourself but if you send my division David Gabriel? You know exactly how the guys are going to deal with that. You and Andrea or you can have Mr. Cartwright when we’ve finished trying him for murder in the first degree.”

Were Brenda alone in her office, she might try to sweet talk Sharon into giving in, were she to do this over again, she’d make the call in solitude. But David is leaning forward, straining to hear both sides of the conversation.

“All right, Captain, have it your way. Though you did invite him to your murder room not three weeks ago.”

“Not for this,” Sharon says and hangs up.

She sets the phone back in the cradle and looks up at them. “David, I still want you to come along, you know the case better than I do.”

“You got it, Chief,” he says.

“I will meet you both downstairs in half an hour,” Brenda says, shooing them away. Even though this is a bit of a hiccup to her day, she’s still going to eat her chocolate croissant before it goes completely cold.

oooo

Arnold Cartwright seems like a real piece of work.

“He hasn’t called a lawyer yet,” Provenza says, pointing a gnarled finger at the monitor in the electronics room. “But we haven’t asked any questions yet, either, so it may just be a matter of time.”

Cartwright is alone in the interrogation room staring at the empty table in front of him. He’s a huge guy, hulking even, with a mean face and a hard expression.

“What do we know?” Brenda asks.

“We know he locked two of his low level lackeys in a wooden shed and burned it to the ground,” Provenza says. “Apparently he’s also a little sketchy with money.”

“A little,” David says dryly, from the back. “Just in the pocket change amount of fifty seven million.”

“And how do we know he’s responsible for the fire?” Brenda asks, rubbing her forehead tiredly.

“The fire department was called because a neighbor saw smoke and they reported the bodies,” Flynn says. “The land is owned by one of Cartwright’s puppet companies. Also we have audio from a phone call last week where he threatened to light some people on fire. Not a metaphor, I guess.”

“The moment we set foot inside that room, he’s gonna ask for a lawyer,” Brenda says.

“He hasn’t yet,” Provenza says.

“You don’t get this high up in the food chain by being an idiot,” Andrea says. “Chief Investigator Johnson is right.”

“Okay,” Brenda says. “I think the best way to play this is for Sharon and I to go in there together.”

“Good,” Andy says. “Double team him.”

There’s a long, silent pause until David and Provenza burst into snorting laughter and Buzz just looks slightly horrified.

“Thank you for that, Lieutenant. How very necessary that comment was.” Brenda glares at him. “Where is Captain Raydor, anyway?”

“She was on the phone,” Andy says, glancing sideways at Provenza. Provenza rolls his eyes.

“What?” Brenda says.

No one says anything at all until Buzz gives in, always the first to break under pressure. “She was talking to her ex-husband.”

Brenda scrunches up her nose in distaste.

“Oh, so you’ve met him, too?” Andy says.

“No,” Brenda says. “But I’ve heard enough about it. It might work out, actually. She’ll already be mad. Okay, someone bring Mr. Cartwright here a cup of coffee and I’ll go get your Captain.”

“Why should he get coffee?” David complains.

“Because I need him to like me. He doesn’t know me, I need him to think I’m here to help.” David was a good detective, he’s a good investigator, too, but he never really had gotten the hang of asking the right questions, of leading someone down the garden path. Especially Brenda’s style. David wanted to walk in, ask the hard questions and leave. But some people need a little buttering up.

Brenda looks down at her outfit and knows it’s not right. Now that she doesn’t do interrogations daily anymore, she’s been dressing more for her higher up position and while she looks more powerful in tailored suits and solid colors, it’s much less adaptable. Today she has on a black pencil skirt and a navy blazer. She wishes she had something with color or a sweater or something to soften it up.

“Okay,” she says, mostly to herself. No one questions her, they all know what she’s like when she’s making a plan.

Sharon is still on the phone, Brenda can see her through the window of her office. Sharon is beautiful no matter what, a byproduct of being a beauty queen. Even if she were in the schlubbiest of sweats with frizzy, messy hair and a ring of dark, smudged mascara under her eyes, she’d still be pretty enough to turn heads. But now she looks pinched and drawn and while it doesn’t diminish her beauty, Brenda can admit she looks unlike her normal self. This is what Jackson Raydor makes her look like and Brenda has a sudden urge to find the man and step on his neck with her pointiest, highest heel. How does one marry someone like Sharon and then let it all play out like this? Brenda wants to go in there, smooth out the deep crease between Sharon’s eyebrows with her thumb.

She remembers vividly Sharon's thumb wiping under her eye and she has to suppress a shudder. Steels herself.

Brenda knocks lightly on the door as a courtesy before pushing it open. Sharon glances up, nods her permission for Brenda to come in and sit down. Brenda doesn’t sit, leans instead against the filing cabinet with her arms crossed.

“Times up, Jack,” Sharon says. “I have to go.” She rolls her eyes at Brenda, trying to play off the moment as unimportant. Things have certainly been better between them since their pizza dinner at Brenda’s. Rusty had never been to Brenda’s apartment before, so it was nice to have them over and Rusty was enough of a buffer that they’d managed to interact in a way that didn’t feel too out of sorts. But there’s been this weird layer between them of false, forced cheer. Brenda had heard it on the phone earlier and can see it on Sharon’s face now. She’s trying so hard to make things seem casual and instead it all seems fake. She and Sharon are not the kind of friends to gossip about nail polish or complain about men or chit chat over lattes but that’s what Sharon is loudly projecting.

They weren’t the kind of friends who pressed their mouths together in a dark, empty room either, until they were.

“They’ve given you a hundred chances, that’s why and if you can’t figure out how to apologize to them in a meaningful way, then I don’t know what to tell you! They’re grown adults and I can’t make them talk to you and I wouldn’t even want to ask them to try. Clean up your own mess for once.”

There’s a few tense moments of silence before Sharon says, “Fine.” And then aggressively hangs up the phone.

She looks up at Brenda, tired and mad. Before New Years, Brenda would have offered to talk about it but now… and anyway, they have work to do.

“I need good cop, bad cop,” Brenda says.

“Fine, which one do you want me to be?” Sharon asks, standing and smoothing out the wrinkles from her skirt. She’s mostly in beige today with a light purple shell underneath her jacket.

“What do you think?” Brenda asks, dryly. “Do you have back up clothes here?”

“Yes,” Sharon says slowly. “Why?”

“Can I see?” Brenda asks. Sharon just points to the tall cupboard in the corner. When it was Brenda’s, it’d been filled with boxes that had never found a home after the big move, but when she pulls open a door, she can see half of it is empty and has been made into a proper closet. There’s at least three outfits here which is a testament to how pear-shaped this job can go sometimes. Brenda reaches out to touch a cream colored blouse.

“That’ll do,” she says already reaching up to unbutton her navy blazer and shrug out of it. “May I?”

“Of course,” Sharon says, moving to the blinds to snap them closed. Brenda’s got on a white tank top under her jacket so she’s not gonna flash the world, but she appreciates it nonetheless. The blouse slips off the hanger and Brenda undoes the buttons. It smells like Sharon’s house, clean and pressed and orderly. It’s a little loose when she buttons it up but maybe that’s just because she prefers a tighter fit to things. Brenda is compact and curvy, but Sharon is slim and lithe. “Why are you doing this?”

“I need to look more… approachable,” Brenda says. “More good cop.” She turns back to the closet. “No sweaters? Have I ever seen you in a sweater?”

“I have one,” Sharon says, moving behind her desk and opening one of the long drawers. She pulls it out and it’s teal. Not a cardigan with buttons but one of the kinds with extra fabric that hangs down in the front, that you can wrap around yourself.

“Oh, I bet that’s a pretty color on you,” Brenda says, taking it. Sharon doesn’t react to the compliment at all and Brenda wishes she hadn’t said it. “I’ve never seen you wear this.”

“I forget it’s here,” Sharon says. “And it’s so bright.”

“It’s perfect,” Brenda says. She puts it on and it’s a little long in the sleeve but she pushes the sleeves up to her elbow and that becomes hard to tell. “Do I look nicer? Do I look like someone who wants to help out a murdering thief?”

“Tuck in the blouse,” Sharon says. Brenda nods - that’s a good idea and she’s used to just deferring to Sharon’s fashion sense now. She has to unzip her skirt to do it, but when she tucks everything in and zips back up, she looks at Sharon questioningly.

“You look very nice,” Sharon says, the lines by her eyes deepening as she squints. Like saying so has taken some effort.

“I care about the murders,” Brenda says. “But I need to convince him that the only thing we care about is the money so he thinks he’s gotten away with the murders. It’ll make him sloppy, later on. Then we can trip him up, get him to admit to both.”

“How about you go in there and do you and I follow your lead,” Sharon says.

“Look mean,” Brenda says, holding open the door so Sharon can walk through.

“I bet I can manage that,” Sharon says dryly. “I’ll just think about my shit for brains ex-husband.”

They stop in the hallway just outside the interrogation room. Julio is standing watch outside the door and he dips his head at Brenda and she waves at him, but she turns to Sharon and does what she probably should’ve done back in the office.

“You okay?” she asks.

“What? Let’s just go in there and get this over with,” Sharon says.

“Okay but I just… wanted to make sure,” Brenda says reaching out to touch Sharon’s forearm. Sharon jerks her arm away and glances at Julio.

No, things are definitely not right between them.

oooo

Rusty was right - when Sharon is mad, it’s not a secret. She’s calm enough until the moment she closes the interrogation room door behind them and then she turns to level Brenda with a glare, one she hasn’t seen the likes of in some time.

“Now hang on,” Brenda says. “I know that didn’t go exactly to plan, but-”

Sharon doesn’t let her finish, just stalks down the hallway, through the murder room. Brenda follows her because she’s not sure what else to do and while she’s aware of the rest of the squad, of David and Andrea too, looking on, she doesn’t stop. Sharon passes by the elevators and then pushes open the door to the stairwell.

Brenda goes in after her.

Sharon stands on the concrete landing between flights and floors with her back against the wall. It smells like industrial cleaner and stale coffee and the occasional stolen cigarette break. Sharon’s face is flushed in the unflattering light and her hands are balled up. Brenda stops halfway down the steps, wrapping Sharon’s sweater more tightly around her.

“You always get exactly what you want,” Sharon says. Her voice is soft but it still bounces around the small concrete area and seems to hit Brenda right in the stomach. “I don’t know when I forgot that.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose, you know that,” Brenda says. “And now you have time to put together an airtight murder case while he’s in trial for the fraud.”

“That’s not the point, Brenda!” Sharon says. “The point is I let you in here knowing you were going to walk all over me! Knowing you were going to take over and I should’ve told you no, but I didn’t because it’s you!”

Sharon tips her head back, her hair shifting to reveal the long, pale column of her neck.

“We never could manage the friendship when we worked together,” Brenda says. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have come down here.” She doesn’t bother to point out that she hadn’t wanted to, that she knew it was a bad idea, that Sharon had demanded it.

“Maybe we should… I don’t know,” Sharon says, shaking her head. “Maybe it’s too much.”

Brenda feels the hot prickle of tears and comes down the last few steps to stand in front of her. Sharon lowers her chin to look at her, her mouth open slightly, a little crooked in that way that drives Brenda completely to distraction. Brenda feels like she’s got to scramble, triage this situation. Say whatever she has to say, do whatever she’s gotta do to make sure Sharon doesn’t cut her out.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Brenda says.

“Do you even know what you’re sorry for?” Sharon asks with a disbelieving laugh. “Because I know you and I know that if you had this interrogation to do all over again, you’d do it exactly the same. Because you always think you’re right.”

“I don’t… that ain’t true,” Brenda says.

“You came in with a plan and you made sure everyone was going to follow it and you knew I’d let you because we’re too close now. Too tangled. Too in each other’s lives. You know everything that’s going on with me, you text my kid, you wear my clothes.”

“That goes both ways,” Brenda says defensively. “You don’t even knock any more! You just walk right into my house, drink my booze, rifle through my makeup, tell me what to wear, how to do my hair! You can’t blame me for what you participate in fully, too!”

“You’re right,” Sharon says and her glance drops down to Brenda’s mouth, she’s looking at it still when she repeats, “It’s too much.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Brenda says.

“For what?” Sharon asks.

“For kissing you,” Brenda whispers. “For making things wrong between us.”

Sharon’s gaze snaps up, her eyes wide and her brows high, her forehead wrinkled with surprise.

“Brenda, I-”

“Things have been tense and it’s my fault but, it doesn’t have to be. We can just forget it ever happened, you know?” she says. “Because I’d been drinkin’ and I’d just seen Fritz and I know, I know you were just trying to do right by me and I took it too far and I’m sorry.” She shakes her head, the back of her throat burning, her heart racing in her chest. “If it’s too much, I’m to blame. I’m always too much.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to talk about that,” Sharon says finally pushing off the wall so she’s standing up straight.

“I thought you were mad,” Brenda says. “You wouldn’t look at me.”

“I didn’t know what to think,” Sharon says. “I don’t know what to think.”

“It don’t matter,” Brenda says, taking a deep breath in and flashing her a forced smile. “I’m gonna leave Andrea and David here to help you work out any final details. Maybe they know somethin’ that’ll help you with your murder case and I promise to you that the next time our offices cross paths on a case, you won’t see me. Not even my shadow.”

“Okay,” Sharon says.

“And I’ll give your clothes back,” Brenda says. “You want me to wash ‘em?”

“No,” Sharon says.

“‘K,” she says. “And the next time I’m about to overstep my bounds, just tell me before I make a fool outta myself in front of you.”

“You aren’t a fool,” Sharon says.

“That’s a kind lie,” Brenda says.

“And that sweater is a pretty color on you, too,” Sharon says.

Brenda manages another weak smile but Sharon’s looking at her mouth again and Brenda wonders if it’s already too late; even though they’ve patched things up here, New Years still is going to hover between them. The night when Brenda pushed too far, where she showed too much of her hand. Brenda’s always taking advantage of people, always figuring out how to get what she wants. Does she do it with Sharon, too?

“Please,” Brenda says softly now. “Tell me what I can do to help us get back to normal.”

Sharon shakes her head. “You didn’t do anything wrong that night,” she says. “And I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Brenda needs some time to process this, to compare Sharon’s words to the ones in her head that continually remind her that she’s selfish and greedy and wrong, but it’s time she doesn’t get because Sharon breathes out hard and gets look on her face like she’s made a choice about something. Then she reaches out and grabs Brenda by the shoulders and comes in fast.

Sharon is kissing her.

Brenda panics for moment, worried she’s going to have to apologize again, make this right again, it’s going to be tense and weird again. Except no, that isn’t right.

Sharon is kissing her. She relaxes a bit, closes her eyes. Sharon up close smells like vanilla and jasmine and roses all mixed up together and it’s not cloying or too sweet, but just right. Their mouths are pressed together but Sharon stays still until she feels Brenda soften and then she moves her mouth and for a moment it’s just like the first time in the dark room with the stacked up chairs and the false wall and the sea of people counting on the other side. A soft press of lips. No different, really, than the way families kiss except for maybe it lasts longer. Closed mouths pressed together.

Brenda breathes out through her nose a tilts her head a little because this is nice, too nice, so nice that she thinks that if she’s going to hell, she may as well earn her ticket there. Tilting her head causes movement and the movement causes friction and then things start to change.

Sharon’s hands in her hair for one, holding her head, anchoring her. And some how they’ve moved close enough that she can feel their bodies pressed together - breasts and hips and knees - and Brenda is kissing her back, now, too. It must be good because Sharon makes a noise, just a little one, like a small whimper and that’s when Brenda decides that she’s going to ease open her mouth.

Then she can’t think anymore at all. It’s like taking too many shots too fast in a row. One moment you’re fine, the next you’re dizzy and drunk. Sharon’s still holding her face and Brenda’s hands have found purchase on the swell of her hips and while it’s Brenda who opens her mouth, Sharon’s tongue makes the first move and when their tongues touch, Brenda gets a sharp jolt of arousal that starts in her stomach and spreads like warm honey down and out.

Sharon is a confident kisser. She’s confident in many aspects of her life, so Brenda isn’t sure why she’s surprised by this. But Sharon kisses with a purpose, with a fiery heat that seems to rev things up even more. Not just lips and tongues anymore but noses and spit and teeth. Brenda feels nails against her scalp and when the kiss finally breaks, it’s because Sharon has wrenched herself away.

“Brenda,” she says. “You’re hurting me.”

Brenda blinks at her, still dazed. Still drunk. And then realizes what Sharon means. She releases the fingers that she’d been digging into Sharon’s sides.

She steps back, Sharon’s fingers slipping free from her hair and falling back down to her sides.

Brenda reaches up and touches her lips, damp and swollen.

“What’d we just do?” she asks.

Sharon shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says. She reaches up to smooth her hair, clears her throat and gives Brenda a smile, anxious and gone in a flash. “We just handled the tension, that’s all.”

“Nothing,” Brenda repeats.

“Doesn’t have to mean anything at all,” Sharon says. She nods at Brenda, like they’ve reached the conclusion of a very productive meeting and then turns and sprints up the stairs. She’s out the door before Brenda can gather her wits.

oooo

Maybe you could call your brother, her mother offers conversationally.

Brenda’s in the tub, he knees drawn up to her chest, her chin on her knees. Only the ends of her hair are wet where they float in the water around her. She hadn’t meant for this to be a real bath, just a hot soak but had been so distracted by her own thoughts that she’d gotten in without putting her hair up. Now she’ll have to wash it. Or at least wet it down.

“Mama, I don’t think Jimmy knows a single thing about kissin’ women,” Brenda says. She mumbles it, her chin against her knees making enunciation difficult, but she has a feeling her mama knows what she says whether she bothers to say it out loud.

Don’t be sassy with me, her mother scolds and this causes Brenda to sigh, to stretch her legs out and let her body sink into the water, hair and all. As if being under water will protect her from a voice in her head.

“You like Sharon,” Brenda says, though her voice sounds foreign in her ears through the bathwater. She can hear only the muffled noise of her own heart and the slow trickle of water draining through the overflow at the front of the tub. Sharon had met Brenda’s mother only one time really, as she recalls, and Willie Rae had been kind to Sharon because that’s the kind of woman Willie Rae was. She’d always been welcoming of Brenda’s friends - especially in high school. Brenda often brought home friends with her for dinner after cheer practice and for study groups. There were a few who always asked to come home with Brenda and she’d thought it weird at the time, but Willie Rae had seen what Brenda hadn’t at only sixteen. Skinny girls in second hand clothes and scuffed up shoes who were hungry and desperate for the family that Brenda took for granted. She wonders if Willie Rae would really grow to like Sharon or if the voice in her head likes her simply because Brenda herself does. "She smells like jasmine," Brenda says, though why she's trying to convince her dead mother of anything... "And vanilla... and... I can't quite place it."

Honey it's only the most recognizable smell in the world, her mother says with a chuckle. Chanel number five!

How does her mother know that? Best not to think too hard about the voices in her head, Brenda reasons with herself. Save that can of worms for another day.

I just think you’re going through a rough time and what you’re doing with Sharon is makin’ it harder than it has to be, her mama says.

She’s not wrong. But shouldn’t Sharon get credit for all the good she’s done for Brenda? Brenda can’t remember the last time she had a best friend. Fritz, she supposes, but even she knows it isn’t the same as having a female friend. She’d had a lot of friends in high school but hadn’t been singularly close to any one of them and she’d done well enough in college but had been dedicated to her studies and hadn’t really clicked with anyone.

Junior high, then? She’d been close with a girl she’d gone to school with but they hadn’t lived in the same neighborhood and had gone to different high schools.

She watches her toes at the end of the tub, her breasts breaking the surface of the water.

She hasn’t called Sharon. That’s the pattern right? Kiss and don’t call? Except for this time, Brenda doesn’t expect Rusty to step in to play referee. Maybe Brenda hasn’t been alone in her attraction to her pretty and accomplished friend in the last few months, maybe that attraction is something that Sharon has for her in return but attraction and feelings aren’t the same thing. It’d be one thing if Brenda just daydreamed about touching Sharon but it’s all the other stuff that she thinks about that makes Brenda fret that it’s more than just… lust. Coffee dates and shopping and spending time together at home. Her favorite days are when Sharon drops by or when she’s invited to the condo. She fantasizes about slipping her hand into Sharon’s just as much as she does about dragging her lips up that long, ivory neck.

Brenda sits up, the water splashing loudly as it moves around in the tub.

Sharon doesn’t want hand holding and nights on the sofa and borrowed clothes. She doesn’t want a relationship. She has a good life full of balance and grace. Two words that clearly don’t describe Brenda.

Saturday morning, Brenda runs at the park but Sharon isn’t there. She’s just letting herself into her apartment when her phone starts to ring. The picture of Sharon and herself at Christmas is jarring to look at and she considers briefly letting it go to voicemail before rolling her eyes at herself and sliding the bar while pushing open the door. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Sharon says. “It’s me.”

“Hey,” Brenda says uncertainly.

“You okay? You sound out of breath,” Sharon says.

“Just came home from the park,” Brenda says. “What’s up?”

“Today? It’s raining!” Sharon exclaims.

“It is barely drizzling,” Brenda says. Her hair is a little damp but it was more like running through a heavy fog than anything else.

“Well,” Sharon says. “I applaud your dedication to fitness.”

“Uh huh,” she says, toeing off her shoes. “Something I can do for you, Captain?”

Sharon is quiet for a moment and then says, “I probably deserve that.”

“Probably,” Brenda says. But it’s difficult to stay mad at Sharon. She’s not even sure she is mad. She feels a little tender about the whole situation, a little sore. Talking to Sharon now feels like pushing on a bruise but not talking to Sharon would probably be worse.

“Rusty and I are going to brunch,” Sharon says. “Will you come with us?”

“Do you want me to?” Brenda asks. “Or should I just forget you ever asked?”

Maybe she’s a little mad.

“I would very much like for you to come,” Sharon says.

“I need to shower,” Brenda says. “I need at least half an hour.”

“We’ll come pick you up,” Sharon says. “I think… I think we should eat brunch together and spend some time with Rusty.”

“Ah,” Brenda says. “Okay. Well, I’ll be here.”

She doesn’t dress up. She’s spent too much time worrying over what Sharon is gonna think of her that she just can’t care on a Saturday when her muscles are tired from running and she hasn’t been sleeping well and her mama is giving her the silent treatment yet still tsking away in the back of her mind just so her only daughter can’t forget that she’s there, ever haunting. She pulls on jeans, the skinny kind that she can wear with her soft boots, the kind that Sharon wears around the house but Brenda will happily wear into public like she’s twenty years old. She layers up - a pale pink tank top, a t-shirt, her gray hoodie that is so soft that it’s like wearing pajamas but it zips up and is fitted enough that it doesn’t actually look like pajamas. When Sharon texts that they’re downstairs, she shuffles down to the street with her hood up and sees Rusty’s car double parked. Sharon is already in the backseat.

“Sup, homie,” he says to Brenda when she gets in. Sharon snorts from the back seat.

“Good morning to you too,” Brenda says pulling down her hood. “How come I get the front seat?”

“I like to be chauffeured around,” Sharon says. “Also it’s so roomy and clean back here.”

Brenda twists to look behind her. Next to Sharon is Rusty’s school bag and the floor of the backseat is littered with empty water bottles, plastic wrappers, old sneakers.

“Yeesh,” Brenda says. Sharon’s legs, clad in black pants and ankle boots, are tucked as far over as she can manage.

“She’s trying to be nice,” Rusty says. “Something about not letting the guest sit in the filth.”

“Actually what I said was that it’s filthy back here and I’m continually appalled.” Sharon sniffs. “Watch the road, Rusty.”

When they get to the little restaurant, they’re seated right away despite the crowd and when they’re taken to their table, it’s set for three even though there are four chairs. Like she’d called ahead and made reservations, certain Brenda would come. Brenda orders coffee first and Sharon says, “Better make it a pot.”

She hides behind her menu, scanning through her choices. Eggs Benedict, french toast, denver omelette.

After several moments, she looks up to find both her brunch companions staring at her.

“What?” she says. When no one says anything, Rusty elbows Sharon and she jumps and tries to cover it by resting her chin on her hand.

“You’re just quiet, that’s all,” she says.

“You know how I am before coffee,” she mutters.

“I feel like we haven’t seen you in forever,” Rusty says. “I’m glad you came today.”

“Thank you, honey,” she says. It's not Rusty's fault she's bent out of shape. The coffee arrives and Brenda has to sit through the long moments of the server setting the cups onto the saucers, pouring the coffee. There’s a little silver pitcher full of creamer, those long packets of raw sugar and Brenda’s just about to ask for honey when Sharon beats her to it.

“Honey, please,” Sharon says. “And waters all around, too.”

Sharon takes splenda in her coffee if anything at all. When the server comes back, it’s with those little boxes of honey, like jam, and she pours two into her mug and some cream. Everyone is quiet until she has a sip.

“Good?” Sharon asks.

“Better,” Brenda says. “Rusty, I hear you made a new friend?”

Sharon had tried to invite her to dinner over the phone. Before Arnold Cartwright. Before the stairwell and Sharon’s tongue in her mouth. Before all of that.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “There’s this guy in my media studies class that is kind of cool.” He shrugs, fiddles with the plastic corner of his menu.

“You met him?” she asks Sharon who nods.

“I did. We had him for dinner.”

“What’s he like? What’s his name?” Brenda asks.

“Michael,” Rusty says. “He’s not like anything, he’s just like… a guy that I know.”

“Just a random guy that you brought home to meet your mama,” Brenda says. Rusty slumps down in his seat a little.

“Whatever,” he mutters and Brenda grins.

“Is he cute?” she asks.

“Sharon!” Rusty complains. “Help me.”

“He is cute,” Sharon says. “He’s a blonde.”

“Hey!” Rusty says. "That's not the kind of help I meant."

“You like blondes,” Brenda says to Sharon, a challenge, maybe. Her eyes widen a little but she doesn’t argue.

“We’re just friends,” Rusty says. “He’s nice, that’s all.”

“That’s how it starts,” Brenda says. “Just bein’ friends and then who knows what can happen? All of a sudden your whole relationship ain’t what you thought!”

“Okay!” Sharon says, slapping her hands down on the table. “I think we’re ready to order, where is that server? Rusty, what are you going to get? I’m thinking that spinach omelette, doesn’t that sound good?”

“Scrambled eggs and bacon,” he says. “Will you order for me? I have to pee.”

“Sure,” Sharon says. The moment he’s out of earshot, Sharon leans forward and stares at Brenda over the rim of her glasses. She’s wearing makeup - mascara at least, because her lashes are so thick and dark. “Listen to me very carefully. Knock it off.” She enunciates each word to show how serious she is. And Brenda does feel bad - she should be trying to be a role model for Rusty, not a petulant woman staring down fifty in a hoodie and fake uggs, the only thing holding her hair out of her face are the sunglasses still pushed on top of her head despite the gray weather.

The server comes back to take their order - Sharon gets her vegetable filled omelette and orders Rusty’s breakfast, too.

“French toast,” Brenda says, handing her menu off.

“Rusty needs stability and to see us as productive and capable people,” Sharon continues. “Every adult in his life before me has let him down and I am going to break that streak if it kills me. Or you.”

Brenda rolls her eyes. “You and I havin’ a spat is not goin’ to ruin Rusty’s life,” she says. “You want to teach him that being an adult means bottling up your feelings? Pretendin’ you don’t have any at all? That’s healthy.”

“Okay, clearly we need to talk about this,” Sharon says. “But not right now.”

“Fine,” Brenda says. “When?”

“I’ll come over later,” she says. “Rusty is going out with Michael.”

“Just friends,” Brenda says. “Good luck with that, kiddo, better not take the stairs.”

Enough!” Sharon hisses.

Rusty comes back from the bathroom, looks between them.

“What’s up with you two?” he asks. “Usually it’s all giggles and doe eyes.”

“Your mama gets grumpy when she’s hungry,” Brenda says.

“Preaching to the choir,” Rusty says, sitting down.

“You two are ruining my brunch,” Sharon says, picking up her coffee mug and scowling into it.

“Sorry,” Rusty says and he does sound sincere.

They’re only halfway through the meal when Sharon’s phone starts to ring.

“Womp womp,” says Rusty. “There goes your Saturday.”

Sharon sends him a scolding look and pulls her phone out of her big bag. Her fingernails, usually a neutral color or coated only in clear polish, are varnished a deep red, nearly burgundy. She slides one perfect finger along the bottom of her phone and brings it to her ear.

“Good morning, Andy,” she says.

“Andy,” Rusty whispers to Brenda with a little smirk. Brenda doesn’t like that at all, doesn’t care for Rusty’s playful, knowing tone or the implication that Andy is more than Lieutenant Flynn to Sharon. But Brenda doesn’t know for sure - Sharon doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about work, speaks even less about her interaction with Brenda’s former squad. And Andy Flynn had been at Christmas dinner so that was not just a courtesy extended to Brenda alone.

Does Sharon eat brunch with Andy, too? Catch a movie with him? Paint her nails a dangerous red with him in mind? Corner him in a secluded location and slant her mouth across his?

“Let me just…” Sharon is saying now, digging a pen out of her bag. She jots something down on her paper napkin. “No… it’s fine. Have Julio start a neighborhood canvas and see if Dr. Morales is available today. I’d rather not wait until Monday to have the body looked at.”

“Nothing like a little murder to liven up a breakfast,” Rusty says. Brenda feels she can’t really participate in this side conversation. Sharon is her best friend but there’s so much about her that Brenda still doesn’t know, that Sharon doesn’t share. She feels a pang of guilt for giving her such a hard time today - no wonder Sharon keeps her at arm’s length. What kind of friend is Brenda? What kind of person? A numb lady with a chest full of weeds, that’s who.

Sharon hangs up, an apology already etched into her features.

“Is it bad?” Brenda asks.

“It’s always bad,” Sharon says. Which is true, of course, but there’s a dead body and then there’s three dead bodies and then there’s dead children. Even badness has a sliding scale.

Brenda is the only one who takes a to-go box home, warm on her lap with her half eaten french toast. Rusty gobbled his down too fast for there to be leftovers and Sharon ought to be grateful she’s not going to a crime scene on a full stomach. Sharon doesn’t drop Brenda off first, though it’s only a few moments out of the way. She just drives home, parks, her head already at work, her body on autopilot. It makes no difference to Brenda where she finishes her breakfast so she quietly follows them out of the car, through the dark parking garage, into the elevator, down the hall. Sharon breaks off immediately to go change her clothes, Rusty heads for the sofa. Brenda gets herself a fork from the kitchen and pops her box into the microwave, just to warm it up again. Rummages through Sharon’s refrigerator until she finds a bottle of syrup.

When Sharon comes out again, she’s in one of her suits, a black one like she’s headed to a funeral. She’s clipped her hair back and has her navy trench over her arm. When she spots Brenda sitting at the counter, her mouth full of her food, she seems to realize that Brenda does not actually live here.

“Sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “We probably should’ve-”

“It’s all right,” Brenda says, winking at her. How many times had she made promises to meet Fritz somewhere or pick up dinner or call at a certain time only to come home late, her head somewhere else all together? She never remembered what she was supposed to have done until she saw his hangdog expression or, later on, his expression of cold anger. She doesn’t want that for Sharon. She wants Sharon to look at her and see a light burning in the darkness.

“Have fun tonight, Rusty,” Sharon says, walking over to touch the top of his head. “Call me if you need anything.”

“We’re just going to a movie,” Rusty says. “No big.”

“Whatever you say,” Sharon says knowingly. She turns to Brenda.

“See you later,” Brenda says. “Even if it’s late.”

“I’ll do my best,” Sharon says. It’s not exactly a date set in stone, but Brenda believes her anyway because that’s who Sharon is. A woman who is always trying her best to be good and kind and just.

When Sharon closes the door and locks it behind her, Rusty twists to look at Brenda over the back of the couch.

“You two are really weird,” he says.

She sighs. “Don't I know it.”

Chapter Text

Brenda can hear the key slide into the lock. She sleeps with her bedroom door open because she’s the only one who lives there anyway and because there’s almost always dry cleaning hanging on the door and it doesn’t actually close. So she hears the lock turn right away.

She supposes it’s technically Sunday morning and not Saturday at all anymore but she’s still going to count it as Sharon keeping her word. It’s dark and it’s hard to see the front door from the middle of her bed so she doesn’t see Sharon hesitate but she can hear that she opens the door and doesn’t come all the way in - had she expected Brenda to wait up for her? Had she expected warm lamps lit and the wine uncorked at one in the morning?

The fact that Brenda is waiting up for her isn’t the point. She wasn’t sure she’d come, but she couldn’t sleep thinking she might. And now, here she is.

“I’m awake,” Brenda calls.

She hears the door close, can see the light from the kitchen turn on. Only now is Brenda overwhelmingly tired. Her limbs feel heavy, she’s reluctant to leave the warm, soft center of her bed. She listens to Sharon move around her apartment half awake, the sound of her heels on the hardwood and then just her bare feet. The sound of her keys hitting the counter, the kitchen faucet running. Finally the sound of her coming to the doorway of the bedroom. Brenda opens her eyes but it’s hard to make out anything past the shape of her. Her hair is big, though, wavy and full of body. Probably from the wet weather - a crime scene outdoors.

“You aren’t tired?” Brenda says. Her voice sounds sleepy even to her own ears.

“I’m so tired that I’ve looped back around to being awake again,” Sharon says. “And I thought you wanted to talk to me.”

“I always want to talk to you,” Brenda says. “You can come in, you know.”

“Do you want me to turn on a light?” Sharon says. She shrugs out of her leather jacket, hangs it on the doorknob.

“I can see you well enough if you come closer,” Brenda says. She sits up enough to prop herself up on her pillow and scoots to give Sharon enough room to sit on the bed. She hesitates only long enough for it to be noticeable and then perches. Her toes are covered in the same blood red varnish as her fingers; Brenda catches just a glimpse before she tucks them up under her. She stays at the foot of the bed, Brenda at the head.

“It’s raining,” Sharon says.

“That’s what you came here to say?” Brenda asks with a laugh.

“No,” Sharon says. She’s quiet for a long moment, an intense look on her face that shifts into a brilliant, unsteady smile. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“There’s no right or wrong way,” Brenda assures her. “Just tell me how you feel.”

“I am trying to do just that,” Sharon says. “I feel like I don’t know… I am not the type of person to go around and kiss my friends.”

“I have some evidence to the contrary,” Brenda says, curling her fingers into her lap.

“I am not the type of person who kisses women,” Sharon offers.

“Neither am I. I think the three wedding rings between us can attest to that,” Brenda says.

“But… the first time I saw you, I thought that you were very pretty,” Sharon says rolling her eyes. Mostly at herself, Brenda thinks. “When Pope brought you in from Atlanta. Someone got ahold of the memo about you meant for the brass and it circulated pretty thoroughly. You were so pretty that I felt threatened by it and then, when we met finally… I had already decided not to like you.”

“I can see, now,” Brenda says, “how that might have been an isolating job for you.”

Because even if Sharon had wanted to make friends with her, the new girl in town, people don't get friendly with Internal Affairs. Brenda wouldn't have, not off the bat like that.

“You should’ve been different,” Sharon says. “We got off on the wrong foot.”

But Brenda doesn’t begrudge Sharon anything now. If they had been polite to each other at the get go, if they would have worked well together, would Sharon be sitting here now? At the foot of Brenda’s bed while the rain pelts the glass of her window?

“You think I’m pretty?” Brenda asks.

Sharon snorts and it makes Brenda giggle and it helps ease things back to a more tolerable level.

“I think I’ve been flirting with you,” Sharon says. “I mean, I know I have but it wasn’t on purpose. Not at first.”

“I just got confused,” Brenda admits.

“Me too,” she says. “Listen. We can go back, if you’d like.”

“We keep sayin’ that,” Brenda says. “That it doesn’t have to mean anything and that we can go back.”

“We do,” Sharon says. “You’re my best friend and I don’t want to lose that just because I’m attracted to you.”

“We’re attracted to each other,” Brenda says. “This isn’t something that’s happening to just you.”

Sharon shakes her head. “I told you that I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I think...” Brenda says and she can feel her heart pounding. She’s not sleepy anymore because there’s adrenaline coursing through her and when Sharon reaches up and pulls the glasses from her face, it makes her fingertips tingle with anticipation. Her eyes are so clear under thick lashes. “Nobody has to know what we do when we’re alone.”

Sharon exhales like someone has pushed the breath out of her.

It’s the first time they kiss leisurely. No crowd of people, no threat of discovery. Just warm lips and tongues. Just fingers sliding through silky hair, hot skin, heavy breathing. Sharon moves her mouth along Brenda’s neck and then Brenda, returning the favor, nips her way along Sharon’s jugular.

“That smell,” Brenda moans, the first words spoken in quite awhile. “What is it? It makes me crazy.”

Sharon chuckles and Brenda can feel it in the skin of her neck where Brenda’s mouth still lingers. “Chanel.”

“Number five?” Brenda asks, freezing.

“My kids get me a bottle every year for my birthday,” Sharon says. “Why?”

“I just like it,” Brenda says. Now is not the time to think about Sharon’s kids or her own mother. Maybe Sharon is thinking the same thing because she tilts her head and catches Brenda’s mouth again. Kisses her again and again until Brenda balls up her hands in the bed sheets just to keep them to herself.

Sharon pulls back, looks a little embarrassed at her own enthusiasm. “I have to go home.”

Brenda glances at her night stand and oh god, it’s already after three which means they’ve been necking on her bed for close to two hours like high schoolers afraid of rounding the next base.

“You should get some sleep,” Brenda agrees. “Thank you for coming over.”

“Are we sure we’re okay with this?” Sharon asks.

Brenda nods.

“Okay,” Sharon says. She uncrosses her legs, stands, something popping loud enough for Brenda to hear. “Okay,” Sharon says again, tucking her hair behind her ears. It looks all tousled. She puts her glasses on and slips her hands into her pockets. “Okay.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Brenda says, getting out of the bed. She’s in a long sleeved henley and cotton shorts and she pads after Sharon as she gathers her things - her coat, her bag, her shoes. At the door, Sharon smiles at her.

“Goodnight, Brenda,” Sharon says. Brenda wants to kiss her again and Sharon wants it too, Brenda can tell, because they both hesitate, the moment stretching out between them but it’s so late and just because Brenda wants to press the length of her body against Sharon doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. She knows that, at least intellectually, though her body has other ideas. They’re in waters uncharted. What does Brenda know about touching women beyond touching herself?

“Goodnight,” Brenda says, opening the door.

When she closes the door, she slumps against it and takes a deep, shaky breath.

oooo

Brenda’s meeting with the Chief of Police is scheduled for eleven in the morning on a Thursday and Brenda only bothered to schedule an actual appointment to illustrate how serious her request is.

Pope looks overworked to say the least. She can’t tell if he’s gotten back to his heaviest weight or if the uniform - a size too small, probably - is just making a bad situation worse. He doesn’t seem thrilled to see her, though she’s dressed to be disarming. Hair up how he likes it, a floral skirt and a matching sweater set. She looks more like the Brenda he knew in Atlanta and not the woman Los Angeles has shaped. Thinner, harder, maybe, but certainly sharper and less apologetic. Brenda can see the change in herself and knows that it’s not all bad. Professionally, she’s grown. Personally, well. Things are certainly different.

“Chief Investigator Johnson,” he says. “I suppose this is what I get for dodging your calls?”

“That certainly woulda been easier,” she agrees. “But I thought maybe you just wanted to see my smiling face.”

He gives her a false smile, sarcasm evident. Extends a hand to offer her a seat, which she takes, dropping her tote into the other chair and crossing her legs.

“I really am here on somewhat official business,” she says.

“Somewhat,” he says, sitting in his chair, the leather creaking.

“Well, I won’t deny that I’d get something out of it,” she says. “They’re sending me to the Homeland Security conference in D.C. this month.”

“The one on electronics?” he asks, his brow furrowed.

“Armed Forces Communications and Electronics,” she says.

“And they’re sending you?” he laughs. “To a conference about communicating and also technology?”

“Ha, ha,” she says. “They send me to everything because I’ve worked for so many law enforcement agencies. And I’m a woman.”

“And this has what to do with me?” he asks.

“I think you should send Captain Raydor,” Brenda says.

He blinks at her, his mouth falling open.

“Now, this ain’t me tryin’ to tell you how to do your job,” Brenda says. “But she is the head of your anti-terrorism unit and will have to liaison with Homeland Security in the event of a terrorist attack.”

“I’m sure there are benefits but it’s really not in the budget,” he says.

“It’s just the conference fee and the plane ticket,” Brenda says. “She can stay in my hotel with me. And think about it, Will, here you are about to stare down the last year of your term. Your promotional freeze has lasted virtually your entire tenure as chief and the LAPD has essentially become a farm force for other cities. You’re hiring good people, training them, and then they’re leaving en masse to go work for San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York. Major Crimes is the most successful project you’ve ever piloted and Sharon has told you before she’s eligible for her Captain’s pension. You think she’s gonna hang around forever with no raise, no promotion, no token gesture that anything she’s doing at all important to you?”

He rubs his forehead and looks at her through narrowed eyes. “So your plan to get me to send Captain Raydor to this conference with you is to outline my many failures?”

It isn’t but Will is not exactly the poster child for police chiefs across the nation. The best she can say for him is that he’d maintained the status quo which was good when the economy was in the tank but things are, if only marginally, better now and she can’t see why he keeps sitting on his hands.

“I’m saying,” she says, exasperation creeping in. “This is an inexpensive way to show one of your division heads, and maybe all of them, that you haven’t totally forgotten about them and that their careers are important to you. That morale is important to you.”

“And what does Captain Raydor have to say about this?” he asks.

“I haven’t told her,” she says. “It needs to be your idea, don’t you think?”

“Don’t you think it makes more sense to send Deputy Chief Howard as the head of the Special Operations Bureau?”

Petty, Will is so petty but she’d expected this. “Go ahead,” she says. “The more people you send, the better. People notice what kind of showing agencies make at these national conferences. Send ten people. It can only be good for you.”

“It’s something to think about,” he says. “Why do you care so much?”

She shrugs. “Had things gone differently, I would’ve never left the LAPD. I care what happens. It’s my city, it’s my home. And you used to be my friend.”

“We’re still…” But he trails off. “I’ll think about, Brenda. That’s all I can say.”

She nods. “Thank you, Chief Pope. Thanks for your time.”

She pops down to the ninth floor before she leaves. She’s totally unannounced and expects not to find Sharon but she’s there, in her office, Amy and Tao at their desks doing paperwork. It looks like the end of a case, maybe. The drudgery after the thrill. Amy buzzes her in and Brenda opens the glass doors.

“Hi y’all,” she says.

“Hi Chief,” Tao says. “She’s in there.”

“Thanks,” Brenda says, walking across the murder room. Sharon sees her, lights up at the surprise and waves her in.

“What are you doing here?” Sharon asks, standing up. It’s true, Brenda had just seen her the night before. Brenda had dinner at the condo with Sharon and Rusty. They’d watched an hour of television while Rusty did homework and Sharon worked on her laptop and Brenda mentally worked through what she was going to say to Will. Sharon had walked her to the elevator, had given her just a soft kiss on the cheek. They were always careful, now. No funny business in Sharon’s building where Rusty might see and misunderstand.

“Oh, I had a meeting nearby,” she says. “You wanna go out for lunch?”

Sharon glances at her computer, the clock on the wall. “Why not?”

“That’s the spirit,” Brenda says. “Where do you want to go?”

There’s a sushi bar not too far - not walkable but close enough that driving doesn’t seem like a chore and Sharon offers because parking in her car is always easy. Brenda likes riding with Sharon and it doesn’t matter who is driving. It feels comfortable just sitting next to her. She likes when Sharon drives, though, it gives her a chance to sneak glances at her while she’s concentrating on the road and if Sharon knows she’s doing it, she lets it pass. Allows Brenda to drink her fill.

They get a small table and put in their order right away. They get a vegetable roll - Sharon’s choice - and and rainbow roll, Brenda’s favorite, but they share both.

“What was your meeting?” Sharon asks, tearing the paper off her her chopsticks.

“What?” Brenda asks.

Sharon’s chopsticks crack as she breaks them apart. “You said you were nearby because you had a meeting. What was the meeting?”

The best way to get away with a lie, Brenda knows, is to offer up something more embarrassing than the truth.

“I lied,” she says. “I didn’t have anything, I just wanted to see you.”

Sharon stills for a moment. “Just call!”

“I know, I know, I just… I don’t know.”

“What if I hadn’t been there?”

“Then I would’ve gotten a walk,” Brenda says. “I just started thinking about you and I lost my head a little.”

Sharon looks at her over the rim of her glasses, “Careful now,” she says with a small smirk glancing around, though everyone here is a stranger. “We’re not exactly alone.”

But her foot nudges Brenda’s under the table.

“Can we be?” Brenda asks. Sharon’s eyebrow arches. “Alone, I mean?”

“I bet we could carve out a little time,” Sharon says. “How about Saturday?”

“Saturday is good for me,” Brenda says. “You could come over.”

“I could,” Sharon says. “I would like that.”

Brenda smiles, has to push her happiness down off her face when the sushi comes so she’s not grinning at their server like a total moron. When she glances up at Sharon, she has her lips pressed together in just the same way.

oooo

Sharon is at her apartment when Brenda gets home.

“Shoot,” Brenda says, trying to juggle her grocery bags and get her keys out of the door. “I’m late.”

Sharon just rolls her eyes, stands and walks over to take one of the bags. Brenda tosses her keys onto the little table by the door and closes the door with her foot.

“You’re here now,” Sharon says.

“I realized I didn’t have anything,” Brenda says, setting her bags on the floor. “Like, anything.”

“It’s been a busy week,” Sharon says, setting hers onto one of the counters and peering inside. “Three boxes of ding dongs?”

“Don’t look in there!” Brenda squeaks.

“Two bags of Hershey kisses and I didn’t know you could buy kit kat bars in bulk like this.”

“It’s cost effective,” Brenda mutters. “I told you I had to replenish.”

“I thought you kept your sweets at work,” Sharon says.

Brenda feels her face warm. “That bag is still in the car.”

Sharon barks out a laugh. “Believe me, it’s with all the affection in the world that I say this, but you are a skinny bitch and I hate you.”

“Yeah well, the line for people who hate me starts back in Atlanta,” Brenda says.

Sharon’s smile falters a little. “What happened? You okay?”

“Yeah,” Brenda says. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. Just a little tired, I think. It’s been crazy at work and my daddy’s been talking about coming for a visit but I don’t like the idea of him traveling alone.”

“One of your brothers, perhaps?” Sharon offers.

“Lord,” Brenda says shaking her head. “No. Heaven help me, no, the last thing I need is two Johnson men. I mean I love my brothers, but we’re not… we don’t visit outside of my parent’s house.”

“You have three?” Sharon asks, taking one of the other grocery bags. She knows Brenda’s kitchen as well as her own so she can unpack her groceries easily enough.

“C.J. - named after my daddy. He’s the oldest. Then Bobby, then me, then Jimmy,” she says. “Don’t you already know everything there is to know about me? You vetted me for Chief.”

“That doesn’t tell me everything,” Sharon says. “Information is always purest from the source.”

“I suppose so.”

Sharon shoves a bag of apples into the crisper and closes the refrigerator. “And they’re all in Atlanta?”

“Jimmy and Frank live in New York, now,” Brenda says, dumping a pound of coffee beans into the plastic container she keeps by her coffee machine. The whole kitchen smells like coffee now. “Shall I make a pot?”

“That’s okay.” Sharon says. “Your brother is gay?”

“I mean,” Brenda says. “He’s never officially come out to any of us but that is everyone’s understanding, yes. We all like Frank, they’ve lived together since, gosh, like ‘95?”

“I always took you for the youngest, Brenda Leigh,” Sharon says. Brenda knows when she’s being teased, that Sharon’s just verbally poking her in the ribs to see if she’ll flinch.

“I was the only girl,” Brenda says. “Same thing. Your mama must’ve had her hands full. Three girls right? And two boys?”

Sharon nods. “My mother died, actually, when I was three. But my father remarried when I was five to a wonderful woman so… to me, my stepmother is my real mother.”

“Do you remember her? Your real mama, I mean.” Brenda asks.

“Not really,” Sharon says. My older siblings do, maybe, but… my younger brother and sister are half, though none of us think of it like that.”

Sharon folds up her paper grocery bag, now empty. She’s obviously not used to talking about her family because it’s closed her up, a little. Her body language is all off, rigid and uncomfortable. Brenda walks up to her, takes the bag from her and sets it aside.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel bad,” Brenda says. “I just like knowing about you, that’s all.” She reaches out, grabs Sharon’s fingers.

Sharon’s eyes glance down to Brenda’s mouth and that’s always her undoing. While Brenda is particularly adept at reading body language, Sharon’s been a cop for a long time and she knows how to hold herself, knows how not to give everything away. So it’s particularly gratifying that she just can’t seem to help it when she’s looking at Brenda. Brenda would want Sharon no matter what but the fact that Sharon wants her back just cranks everything up to eleven and it’s Brenda who pushes up onto the balls of her feet to press their lips together.

Sharon kisses her back, humming a little, her fingers clenching against Brenda’s. It’s eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning and the light is filtering into her kitchen, spring is around the corner, and Brenda is kissing her best friend so slowly and softly that she might just burst at the seams. Sharon’s lips are soft enough that Brenda doesn’t even mind the bump of Sharon’s glasses or how she’s taller because she has on a little heel and Brenda’s in flats.

Sharon pulls away and says, “I don’t… I’m not ready for more than this.”

Brenda’s feels a stab of shame and says, “I’m not askin’ for more.”

Sharon nods and then furrows her brow, says, “We don’t have to stop though, right?”

The desire swells again and any shame she feels is stamped out at the hopeful look on Sharon’s face. “Come sit down with me,” Brenda says. Brenda’s couch is just a loveseat, small and cozy and it sinks down a little in the middle so when they both sit on it, they slide into one another which is just fine.

Brenda wonders, though, if kissing Sharon will ever not feel surreal. Time stretches out like taffy, like they’ll always be awash in the ethereal, golden light of this particular morning on this particular day. When Sharon is kissing her, she can’t hear the cars on the street or her noisy neighbors upstairs or the parrots that live in the tree outside her window that squawk incessantly. All of that fades and all Brenda knows is the lips attached to hers, Sharon’s fingers circling her wrist and squeezing every time their tongues touch. How it’s enough for awhile until it isn’t and Sharon shifts her leg so it’s on top of Brenda’s instead of pressed against it.

Brenda can feel them both holding back. She concentrates on keeping her hands to herself, is concentrating so hard on not crossing any lines that it’s startling when Sharon seems to give in, whimpering and then throwing her knee over Brenda’s thighs and hovering over her. Sharon likes to kiss Brenda with her hands in Brenda’s hair, likes to hold her head hard. She’d done it in the stairwell, fighting against her better judgement and losing and she does it now, groaning into Brenda’s neck and sinking down so slowly onto her lap.

Brenda presses her hands against Sharon’s back because she’s got to touch somewhere, she’s just got to. Her back is hot, clammy, like she’s worked up a little sweat and Brenda doesn’t mean to do it but her hips move all on their own, jerking up against Sharon in her lap. Just a little pressure. Just a tiny bit of friction and Brenda thinks maybe her head will clear again.

Sharon groans and so Brenda does it again, something wicked curling inside of her.

Sharon is moaning, deep in her throat and the noise makes Brenda brave so she catches Sharon’s bottom lip between her teeth and gets her fingers just under the hem of her shirt so she can feel skin, soft and smooth and perfect, Brenda just knows it.

Sharon pulls her lip away and Brenda makes to follow, to get back what has been taken from her but Sharon turns her head and gasps, “My phone, my phone is ringing.”

A string of firecrackers could’ve gone off on her coffee table and Brenda’s not sure she would’ve noticed. Sharon crawls off of her, gets to her feet though she looks a little wobbly. Brenda stares at her feeling a little drunk. Not the soft kind of tipsy that makes her feel warm and numb but like she’s just on the wrong side of drunk, like if someone were to mouth off to her, she’d end up in a fist fight. She wants to dig her nails into someone, wants to bite down on something hard and not let go.

She watches Sharon find her phone and answer it with an impatient “Hello?”

She’s flushed and sweaty and rumpled. Brenda doesn’t often see her rumpled. Brenda likes that she’s the one who mussed her up.

“Hi, hi honey,” Sharon says. It’s Rusty then. “I’m with Brenda.” Sharon closes her eyes, does the conversation in the dark. “Mmm, sure. Okay… we’re going shopping, I think. Fine, just not too late, okay? I love you, too.”

She drops the phone into her bag and presses her back against the wall. Sharon’s eyes are dark and heavy and she looks at Brenda like she’s a last supper. Brenda darts her tongue out to moisten her lips.

“Well that was something,” Sharon says, finally.

It’s so strange to feel again. But looking at Sharon now she can feel a kaleidoscope of things - desire and lust and affection and fear and anxiety. How long had she been fading away? Year after year with Fritz, trying to trick her own brain into believing she was something she was never gonna be. How she’d forgotten that loving someone is different than being in love. She’d expected her love for Fritz to carry her through the rest of her life and it didn’t even make it through a decade. People always think of a broken heart as something heavy and fragile being dropped - a sudden shattering. But Brenda’s heart feels more solid, like a stone in her chest and the breaking had been gradual. Like water gushing over it relentlessly, wearing down a groove until it wore straight through and all she had left was two pieces that didn’t fit together anymore.

I thought your heart was a garden, her mama’s voice says. Now it’s a stone?

She tries not to flinch at the intrusion, at the slightly disgusted tone of her mother’s voice. Has she been here the whole time, watching and judging?

“Somethin’ else,” Brenda agrees.

She pushes her mother out of her mind. Even if she’s nothing but a patch of tangled weeds, well. Even weeds can grow good and strong.

“Maybe we should-” Sharon starts to say.

“Shopping?” Brenda asks.

“What was I supposed to say?”

She shakes her head. “You really want to go? Get outta here for awhile?” Go to where there are people, is what she doesn’t say. Strangers to act as chaperone, to force them to keep wandering hands to themselves.

“Okay,” Sharon nods. “Yes.”

Because if Brenda can’t spend the afternoon with her hands on Sharon, she’ll take an afternoon with Sharon’s at least in arm’s reach and anyway, she really does need a TV.

oooo

Sharon calls in the middle of the day and Brenda hates it, but she’s got to send it to her voicemail. She’s working, waiting for a conference call and it’s nearly five before she can call Sharon back.

“I was starting to worry,” Sharon says. “Where are you?”

“I’m still at work, where are you?” she demands.

“Pacific Palisades,” she says.

“Swanky,” Brenda says.

“I think you know I’m not here sightseeing,” Sharon says.

“Oh,” Brenda says. “Still, don’t you ever just dream of having that much money?”

“You and I and my entire division could pool our money and we’d still never afford to live here,” Sharon says. “And that’s buying the smallest house on the block.”

She hears something in the background and then Tao saying, “Hi, Chief!”

“Are you after my professional opinion about something?” Brenda asks.

“No,” Sharon says hotly. “I don’t need you to do my job for me.”

“I just mean how does he know who you’re talkin’ to?” she asks. Sharon is still so territorial.

“Because the only other person I talk to who isn’t currently at this crime scene is you,” Sharon says.

“And Rusty.”

“We left him at the office doing homework,” Sharon says.

“Why are you calling me then?” she asks.

“We’re waiting for the medical examiner so… I have a couple minutes to tell you something,” Sharon says. “I talked to Pope.”

“Uh huh?” Brenda says, sitting up a little.

“He wants to send me to a conference which is just… so out of character I think I made him repeat it three times.”

“Oh,” Brenda says. “Well isn’t that a good thing? Must means he values you.”

Sharon scoffs and Brenda can hear the wind blowing where ever she is. She wonders if she can see the water, if she’s gonna come home smelling salty and looking sun-kissed with new freckles across her nose. Brenda swallows.

“Or that he’s starting to worry about keeping his job into another term,” Sharon says. “Anyway, it’s all the way in D.C. so I don’t know. I’d hate to leave Rusty alone for three days and it’s just the flight and the conference, I’d be on my own for food and lodgings. And I’m not even sure if I’m interested in the conference at all.”

“D.C.?” Brenda says. “When?”

“Three weeks,” Sharon says. “Homeland Security.”

“Get outta town,” Brenda says. “Did you know I was going to that?”

“What?” Sharon demands loudly. She must draw some attention to herself because she says, “You are?” at a much more reasonable volume.

“Yeah, I’ve been registered forever.” Brenda tries to sound casual, bored even. “It’s going to be tedious but D.C. is lovely in the spring so I thought why not? If you’re worried about… I mean, I have a room already so… you could just bunk with me, Captain.”

She freezes, paralyzed, waiting for Sharon’s answer.

“Something to seriously consider,” Sharon says. “Oh, there’s Kendall. I have to go.”

“Let me know what you decide,” Brenda says and ends the call.

She’s been home for several hours when Sharon calls again.

“My, my, twice in one day,” Brenda says. “To what to I owe this immense pleasure?”

“I have to tell Chief Pope my decision in the morning,” Sharon says. “I asked Andy if he’d come stay in the condo while I was gone so Rusty wouldn’t be alone.”

“So you’re gonna go?”

“Our nation’s capital in the spring,” Sharon says. “Not a bad way to spend a few days. If your offer still stands.”

“Of course,” Brenda says. “What are friends for?”

Sharon laughs uncomfortably and says, “Hmm, friends.”

“Or whatever,” Brenda says.

“You want to come over?” Sharon blurts it out and Brenda thinks that maybe she hadn’t meant to say that, not at all. Just the idea of being in the same room as Sharon makes her whole body clench and tingle. But she spends less time at the condo than Sharon spends over here and she has to wonder if she’s going to survive an evening over there where she’s not allowed to touch what she sees. The last time she’d gotten to touch Sharon, they’d been in her car parked on the far side of the park and Sharon had gotten her hand half way up Brenda’s skirt before she’d yanked it back and held onto the wheel, breathing heavy.

Brenda had wiped her mouth and pressed her thighs together. Frankly, she’s not sure she’s ready for everything either but her body certainly is and it’s getting difficult to focus, walking around so turned on all the time. Half the time she’s barely got the door closed behind her before she’s got her hand down her own underwear.

So can she go over there tonight? Her staff might not survive another day of her with her teeth on edge and overly fatigued.

“Sure,” Brenda hears herself say. “Let me just put on some shoes.”

Weak and foggy-brained, that’s what Brenda is. A chicken shit basket case who has fallen so hard for her best friend, who she didn't even used to really like all that much. A woman so unprepared for the road ahead that she’d had to look up the word bisexual online because she felt bad about still thinking about sex with men sometimes, too.

On the walk over, she tries to remember all the reasons she never cared for Sharon in the first place but all she can picture is dark hair and pale skin and long, long legs. How her mouth looks when she smiles. How well she cares for Rusty, how her cheeks turn pink whenever they run. The little noise she makes in her throat when they kiss.

“Did you eat?” Sharon asks when she answers the door. Brenda shakes her head no. She’s in jeans, a black t-shirt, her pink jacket. She must look like someone who needs to be taken care of.

“I saved you a plate,” Sharon says. “Come on, I’ll warm it up.”

She steps in and looks around. “Where’s Rusty?”

“At work,” Sharon says. “He’s helping out on Lieutenant Tao’s show again this week. I guess half the crew is out sick with some flu.”

“He’s not here? He’s not coming back?”

“Not until late,” she says. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Brenda says. “I just… didn’t know.”

“You want some wine?” Sharon asks. “I have a white open or I think there’s still that cab bottle we could uncork.”

“White is okay,” she says.

Sharon touches her elbow as she passes and goes to the kitchen. Brenda shrugs off her coat, hangs it over the back of a chair. Sets down her bag, takes off her shoes. Makes herself at home. She feels a little out of sorts now. She’d come over here expecting one thing and feels like she’s been given something completely different. An evening alone with Sharon in her clean, well decorated condo. Her beautiful, brightly lit life. The television is still on in the living room and it’s on low, droning the evening news.

The microwave beeps and Sharon pulls the plate out with a dishtowel and sets it on the counter so Brenda can eat on one of the stools. Pours her half a glass of wine and then tops off her own glass. She stays in the kitchen, watching Brenda pick up her fork, inspect the piece of chicken, the broccoli with cheese, the dinner roll.

“Are you going to watch me?” Brenda asks. “That feels weird. Don’t watch me eat.”

“Sorry,” Sharon says. It’s not a real apology; her inflection makes it clear that she thinks Brenda is a little crazy. While Brenda eats, Sharon putters around. She turns off the television and double checks that the sliding glass door to the balcony is locked. She wanders down the hall and Brenda can hear her doing the laundry. Banging metal doors and then the washer filling with water. When Brenda is finished, she rinses her plate and puts it in the dishwasher and then carries what’s left of her wine with her to find Sharon.

She’s never been in Sharon’s bedroom before so she lingers in the doorway. Sharon’s got her back to Brenda so she doesn’t notice at first. She’s folding clothes, all the darks tangled across her mattress. Of course Sharon is the type to make her bed before she leaves for the day, of course she’d have two matching nightstands with matching lamps on either side.

“Want some help?” Brenda says. She turns, smiles at her.

“I’d take some company.”

She walks in but hesitates at the edge of the bed and doesn’t sit on it until Sharon pats the mattress in an invitation. Sharon’s bed is comfortable and has one of those duvet covers that feels as soft as suede though Brenda knows she can probably throw it right in the washing machine. It’s brown, everything seems to be some variation of brown - well that’s not fair. Beige? Taupe? But even the sheets and the bed skirt. It’s all soft, though. And there is color in the room - art on the walls, the lamps, the dark furniture. Brenda reaches out and pulls what looks like one of Rusty’s t-shirts to her. It’s inside out, so she rights it and smooths it out before folding it and setting it aside.

“How’s your new case goin’?” she asks. “Your wealthy dead body?”

“Mmm,” Sharon says. “Not the owner of the house. The housekeeper body was reported by one of the neighbors. The owners are out of town but are coming back in the morning.”

“The maid?” Brenda asks. “How’d she die?”

“Hanged herself,” Sharon says. “But I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“She’s got two little kids at home and is a single mom. Her family is all in Mexico. Who would just leave their kids like that?”

“Maybe she just got overwhelmed by it all,” Brenda says but Sharon shakes her head.

“Mothers just don’t… not without some sort of plan set up. But there was no note. The kids just never got picked up from daycare.”

“That’s awful,” Brenda says.

Sharon reaches over and takes the t-shirt that Brenda had folded and drops it to the top of a stack of Rusty’s things.

“Be right back,” she says and disappears down the hall. Brenda reaches out to touch the second stack of clothes - the things that belong to Sharon. On the top is a pale green camisole with narrow, lace straps. Something to be worn underneath something else - a suit jacket, a blouse. Practically underwear. She yanks her hand away, tucks it into her lap.

Sharon comes back and Brenda watches her put away her stack of clothes, quickly sorting it between drawers and then she turns, sticks her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and looks at Brenda expectantly. “What would you like to do?”

Brenda pats the bed next to her.

Sharon sits next to her, adjusting the pillow behind her back and then stretching her long legs out, crossing them at her ankles. She has socks on, Brenda can’t see her toes. There’s a small television sitting on top of the dresser and Sharon leans over, grabs the remote off the nightstand and flips it on. Brenda finds it telling, always, to see what station a television turns on to. Brenda almost never bothered unless she knew her case was going to be on the news, but whenever she turned on the television after Fritz, it was almost always left on a sports station.

Sharon’s TV turns onto the food network. Brenda stretches her legs out too and nudges Sharon’s foot with her own. Sharon smirks, allows it. Allows Brenda to drag her foot up her denim covered leg. See, Brenda is coming up with a little plan. She’s starting to wonder just how long it’s been since someone has touched Sharon. Not just… not sex, even, but just human physical contact outside of a professional setting. Maybe Sharon needs to be eased back into someone touching her reverently. Someone running their fingertips along her skin because it’s so soft and so pale that it’s a sin not touch her.

Brenda touches Sharon’s wrist, the bone there, the pale blue veins under the skin. She traces the blood flow up her arm to the crook of her elbow and touches the delicate creased skin. Sharon jumps, a little ticklish.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Shh,” Brenda says. “This is the only time I’m ever gonna learn how to make a lemon meringue pie and you’re chattering through it.”

“Oh,” Sharon says and chuckles, low and soft. “My apologies.”

Brenda studies her hands next, the crescent moons of her nail beds, each bump of her knuckles. Sharon gasps a little when Brenda swirls one finger along her palm. Sensitive skin just on her hands. It makes Brenda wonder where else she’s sensitive. She reaches up and tucks Sharon’s hair behind her ear, touches the bare lobe and the shell, drags a finger down the line of her jaw and to her neck. Her neck to her collarbone. Sharon is flushed now, turning a splotchy pink.

“You got pretty skin,” Brenda says.

“The secret to meringue is room temperature egg whites,” Sharon says, though she sounds a little out of breath.

“Is that so,” Brenda says, moving her hand down Sharon’s arm to her rib cage. Brenda feels Sharon huff in a surprised breath but still, she doesn’t ask Brenda to stop. Brenda fits her fingers into the grooves of Sharon’s ribs and leans over, drops a little kiss on her shoulder.

“Also,” Sharon murmurs. “The eggs should be a couple days old or they won’t… they won’t hold.”

Down her ribs, across the soft plane of her stomach. She can feel Sharon instinctively suck in and so Brenda doesn’t linger. Just touches the swell of her hip, runs a warm hand over her thigh. Sharon’s ankles uncross.

“Is it better to whip them by hand or use an electric hand mixer?” Brenda asks, drumming her fingers across Sharon’s knee.

“I use a whisk,” Sharon says, letting her head fall back against the headboard. Her eyes flutter closed. “But then, I’m a purist.”

“That does not surprise me,” Brenda says feeling bold and sliding her hand back up to the edge of Sharon’s shirt. “That does not surprise me one iota.” She slips a few fingers under and feels the warm skin of Sharon’s belly and Sharon groans, just a little. Brenda smiles to herself and pushes her whole hand under, splaying her hand flat over Sharon’s belly button. Rubs slow circles on the skin. “Roll over,” Brenda says, bravery making her ambitious. “I’ll rub your back.”

“I…”

“Just do as I say, Captain,” Brenda says. “You had a tough day. You deserve a little TLC.”

“This is the most complicated friendship,” Sharon says, but she rolls over, crosses her arms and rests her head on them.

“It’s not,” Brenda says. “It’s simple.”

She rubs circles over Sharon’s shoulder blades before slipping her hand under the shirt. Rubbing and then scratching. The scratching makes Sharon, god, she almost starts to purr.

“Christ,” she moans.

“See?” Brenda says. “Not complicated at all.”

oooo

She doesn’t remember falling asleep. Sharon has rolled onto her side but Brenda’s hand is still under her shirt, resting where her spine curves, her fingernails against the band of Sharon’s bra. She sits up, propping herself on her elbow. Rusty’s home, turning off the television in the bedroom. It must be really late. She pulls her hand to herself, flushing with embarrassment. Rusty looks at her, gives her a small smile. Raises a finger to his lips and reaches out to flip the lightswitch. The room plunges into darkness, it settles over them like tiredness, like fog over the hills.

Beside her, Sharon shifts and sighs. Brenda, her heart beating so fast, puts her head back down. Closes her eyes.

Chapter Text

They’re on the same flight, so Rusty drops them off at the airport before school. Brenda sits in the backseat this time, silent and brooding. She and Rusty still haven’t talked about him finding her in his mama’s bed. She knows it was innocent enough considering what could’ve happened, the sort of things they’ve done that he could’ve stumbled upon, but still. Has he talked to Sharon about it? She doesn’t know. She’d crept out the moment she’d heard his bedroom door close, gathering her coat and shoes and bag and locking the door behind her, walking home in the middle of the night, her hands balled into her pockets, her mind in the gutter.

At the curb, while Brenda hauls their bags out of the trunk, Sharon stands with her arms around Rusty, murmuring into his ear. It’s early, their plane leaves at 7:05 and Rusty looks like he’s not retaining anything that Sharon is saying to him, but he is boneless in her arms, accepting the love she drapes over him. She pushes his hair out of his eyes and Brenda just catches her saying, “Listen to Andy, okay? No giving him the slip.”

“I promise,” Rusty says.

“I left you some cash,” Sharon says. “Groceries not take-out.”

“It’s three days,” Rusty says. “Please go so I can go back to bed.”

Brenda pulls up the handle on Sharon's black suitcase, expensive and indestructible. Brenda has learned that carrying a bag instead of a hard suitcase with wheels is more work in the short term but when overhead bins start getting full, she can usually manage to find a space to stuff it in and not have to check anything. She sets her bag on top of Sharon’s suitcase.

“Have fun,” Rusty says to Brenda, and she gives him a quick hug too, patting his back.

“Be good, kiddo,” she says. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Sharon scoffs. “Be better than that.”

“Rude,” Brenda says. Rusty rolls his eyes, gets back in the car.

“Text me when you get there,” he calls. “So I know you’re safe.” And he drives away.

“Okay,” Sharon says to herself. “He’ll be okay.”

“He’s gonna be fine,” Brenda says, grabbing the handle and rolling both their bags toward the automatic doors leading into the terminal. “He’s going to sleep in and eat junk, but he’ll be perfectly safe.”

“Well I put his security detail back on while we’re gone, so let’s hope so,” Sharon says.

Brenda doesn’t comment on this. It seems wildly overprotective but also, she’s not a mother. She doesn’t know that fierce, blinding love like Sharon does. And she does know what Stroh is capable of, no matter where he’s hiding out. If Sharon wants to err overwhelmingly on the side of caution, she’s not going to shame her for it.

“I can take my bag,” Sharon offers.

“I have it,” Brenda says. They’d checked in the night before so they already have boarding passes. They bypass the check-in stations and head right for security.

“Look, there she is,” Sharon says.

“There’s who?” Brenda asks.

“Commander McGinnis,” Sharon says. “She’s the other person Chief Pope is sending. She’s on our flight.”

“What?” Brenda says. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought I did,” Sharon says. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” she demands, but it’s too late anyway. Commander McGinnis has seen them - her face shifts into a bland smile and when Sharon walks up to her, they shake hands.

“Captain,” she says.

“Commander,” Sharon replies. Protocol, after all, even in a space so liminal as an airport terminal. “Have you met Chief Investigator Brenda Leigh Johnson?”

“How do you do,” she says, shaking Brenda’s hand as well. It’s a good shake, warm, not timid. “Your reputation precedes you.”

“Well you do work for my ex-husband, so I imagine it would,” Brenda says. The Commander’s expression falters into uncertainty.

“That’s not quite what I meant,” she says.

“Oh,” Brenda manages.

“Brenda has foot-in-mouth syndrome so early in the morning,” Sharon says, glancing at her and shaking her head slightly.

“If we can get through security, there’s a Starbucks on the other side,” Commander McGinnis says.

Already this trip is slipping away from her. It’s Brenda’s orchestrations that have Sharon coming at all, but now it feels like she’s tagging along with the LAPD and not the most politically powerful career woman of the three. McGinnis gets into line first and then Sharon who looks over her shoulder at Brenda with her eyebrows practically to her hairline. Brenda just shakes her head. Why did she say that? She has no idea.

McGinnis is kind enough to let it pass and be the least awkward of them all. They get through security, find their gate. Brenda offers to go on a coffee run, waves off all offers of money. She knows what Sharon wants without asking - McGinnis looks supremely uncomfortable accepting anything but finally relents and asks for a black tea. Brenda works hard not to frown. She doesn’t trust people who don’t drink coffee, especially cops. The line at the Starbucks is ridiculously long, but she doesn’t mind. Better than small talk, better than sitting next to Sharon and remembering not to touch her or stare at her.

Brenda orders their drinks - a skinny vanilla latte for Sharon and a mocha with extra whipped cream for herself. The tea for the Commander and then a blueberry muffin, a croissant, and a piece of banana bread. They can argue over snacks later. Sharon probably already ate. Was probably up at 4 in the morning to put on makeup and fix herself a healthy, fibrous breakfast. She has to get one of those cardboard trays to carry the drinks and shoves the pastries on there too, walking carefully. When she approaches their seats, Sharon hops up to help her, easing the tea out to hand off to McGinnis and peeking in each little pink bag before handing them out. Sharon leaves the sweet muffin for Brenda, gives the croissant to McGinnis who looks at it for a few beats before reaching out and murmuring her thanks.

Brenda can recognize someone who is unfamiliar with friendship all too well.

Brenda does feel better with coffee and sugar in her, feels awake enough to just shut up and let Sharon make small talk. She busies herself on her phone, replying to an email from the office and then replying to one from Charlie who’d sent her a paper to edit for one of her classes. At the bottom of Charlie’s email, she asks after Sharon and tells Brenda to tell “her pretty mom friend hello” so Brenda elbows Sharon gently and shows her the screen.

“From Charlie,” she says.

“Hmm,” Sharon says, though she smiles. “Mom friend.”

“Pretty mom friend,” Brenda says. “Pretty.”

“Is Charlie your son?” McGinnis asks.

“My niece,” Brenda says. “Charlene.”

“I met her at Christmas,” Sharon says. “So we’re all old friends now.”

“You two really are friends, aren’t you?” McGinnis asks. “Office gossip had you at each other’s throats when you were a Deputy Chief.”

“That’s all true,” Sharon says.

“That was a long time ago now,” Brenda says. “People change.”

“Do they?” asks McGinnis, sipping her tea.

“I have to believe they do,” Brenda says.

Sharon smiles at her, her eyes crinkling up in the corners.

It takes forever to board the plane but because of Sharon’s compulsive need to check-in to the flight the exact moment they were able to, they’re in the first boarding group. McGinnis is in the third.

“Want us to save you a seat, Commander?” Brenda asks and McGinnis and she shifts a little.

“Sure,” she says. “If it’s no bother.”

“Of course not,” Sharon says.

“You can call me Ann,” she offers. “You too, Captain.”

“By the end of this trip, I’m sure a first name basis will feel natural,” Brenda offers. “See you in a few minutes, Ann.”

“Why is it,” Sharon asks, once they’re on the jet bridge, shuffling slowly toward the airplane, “that when it’s just you and me, you’re smart and funny and sweet but when literally any other person is with us, you turn into a persnickety, awkward blabber mouth?”

“You think I’m funny and sweet?” she asks.

Sharon frowns at her.

“I mean, I already know I’m smart,” Brenda says.

“Never mind.”

“Hey you just called me a blabber mouth and awkward and that other word!”

“Persnickety,” Sharon says.

“Yeah,” Brenda grins. “I just like hearin’ you say it.”

“I don’t want to sit next to you,” Sharon says.

“Too bad,” Brenda grins. “I am sorry though. I think I’m just a little jumpy when it comes to Fritz.”

“Understandable,” Sharon says. “You know, he never talks about you. And you barely talk about him. There’s no need to be nervous.”

“Anxious, then,” she says. They’re nearing the door of the plane now. “It’s like… I don’t know, retroactive, or something. I know I got out but I still feel trapped when I think about him. And he really didn’t do anything wrong? I shouldn’t feel it at all.”

“Don’t you think it’s a good sign that you feel anything about it?” Sharon offers, stepping delicately over the threshold into the plane. Brenda’s in a soft cotton dress and kitten heels, Sharon opted for black slacks and ballet flats, a blazer and a pretty lavender scarf. Her beauty, as always, is so effortless that it’s daunting. Conversation is hard and Brenda files after Sharon toward the middle of the plane where there are still rows of seats. It’d be easier, maybe, if they were assigned instead of this free for all, but then probably they’d be scattered. Brenda thinks this is better - she’s willing to sit with Ann if it means she can sit with Sharon.

They settle in - Brenda with the shortest legs in the window seat. Sharon graciously leaves the aisle seat for Ann even though Sharon is all leg and Ann isn’t much taller than Brenda.

“You think it’s good I feel like crap?” Brenda asks. She keeps her eye on the moving line of people, watching for Ann’s pale blonde head.

“Brenda when we first started seeing each other again, you were so out of it and numb that half the time I was mean to you just to make sure you would react,” Sharon says. Brenda knows she’s just sitting there gaping at Sharon but she’d thought… she’d thought honestly that no one had noticed that. Or could have noticed that. She’d still gone to work and fed herself and went shopping and paid her bills. She’d worked really hard to do all the normal things adults did.

“What about the other half of the time?” she manages.

Sharon rolls her eyes and they don’t talk about it anymore because she says, “Here’s Ann.”

So Brenda gets to stew about this on a cross country flight. Wonderful.

Brenda must get fidgety because when they level out in the air and the seatbelt lights come off, Sharon reaches into her bag and pulls out a paperback book and hands it to Brenda who takes it with a furrowed brow. She looks at the cover. It’s a mystery, obviously used and well read. It has a little green sticker on it that marks the price as fifty cents.

“What’s this?” Brenda asks.

“I thought you might get bored and the library was having a used book sale. I picked up a stack for you.” Sharon shrugs. “Do you not want it?”

“It’s in Russian,” Brenda says.

“You speak Russian very well,” Sharon says. “Books always lose something in translation, don’t you think?”

It’s not that Brenda can’t read the book, it’s not even that Brenda doesn’t prefer to read them in Russian, it’s just… the fact that Sharon knows. The fact that she could anticipate this about Brenda. Had thought ahead, had planned a kind act.

“Thank you,” Brenda says.

“I have a German one too, but it looks kind of trashy. It was hard to tell from the cover.” Sharon pulls it out and Brenda can see immediately that it’s a romance novel. And not the classy kind.

“I will be taking that one as well, thank you,” Brenda says, snatching it out of Sharon’s hand. On the other side of Sharon, Ann laughs a little.

“You two are funny,” she says.

“What else you got in there, snacks?” Brenda asks, peering down into the bag at Sharon’s feet.

“I have some stuff in case of emergency,” Sharon says.

“Chocolate?” Brenda asks, leaning over even further. She can see something in there, a little glint of silver. She gasps. “A Ding Dong!”

“That is for an emergency!” Sharon says. “You can’t have it now.”

“Who gets to decide what an emergency is?” Brenda asks philosophically. “Some might say that being trapped in this metal bird for the next five hours constitutes an emergency.”

“If you eat it now, you’re going to wish you had it later,” Sharon says.

“Yeah, but I bet you have an extra secret one in there too,” Brenda says.

Sharon stares at her through narrowed eyes. “You can’t have that one yet either.”

Brenda pumps her fist in victory and leans back in her seat, content simply knowing it’s there. Sharon looks at her and then drags her gaze up to Brenda’s eyes and whispers, “Read your book, Brenda Leigh.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Brenda says.

oooo

Ann’s sister picks her up at the terminal and it’s a surprise to them both.

“I’m not staying at the hotel,” she says apologetically. “But I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Of course,” Sharon says, ever gracious. “Have a good time.”

Ann’s sister is a darker version of Ann herself - more of a dishwater blonde. She doesn’t get out of the car, Ann just tosses her bag into the back of her sister’s four door sedan and gets in the front seat.

“I think the hotel has a shuttle, but what if we just took a cab?” Brenda says.

“Fine by me. I’ve had enough of being crammed in with people.” Sharon does look a little weary, tired and short tempered. Maybe she’s worried about Rusty, maybe she doesn’t care for air travel. Maybe it was weird having a third party to watch them together. It was for Brenda, who kept having to sit on her hands to keep them off Sharon’s elbow, her knee, out of her hair. And now comes the daunting part - two nights alone in a hotel room.

“We’re at the Marriott,” she says as they get in the taxi line. “There’s some pre-conference stuff tonight but what do you say we just get some dinner and take it easy.”

“Whatever you want,” Sharon says. “I’m not exactly emotionally invested in the conference.”

“And yet here you are,” Brenda says.

“And yet,” Sharon agrees.

It’s a short ride, easy enough to check into the hotel. Brenda asks for two card keys and stands tiredly while the woman behind the counter goes through her spiel - walking distance to the Mall, close to the White House, perfect hotel for tourists.

“We’re here for a conference,” Brenda says. “But if we have any questions, I know where to ask.”

Brenda turns to find Sharon, standing in the lobby, chin up shoulders back, her hand resting on the handle of her suitcase. She always looks regal, intimidating, like she belongs. And Brenda knows that she’s tired and hungry and short tempered but still. But still. She’s so beautiful.

Sharon catches her staring, smiles at the dopey expression on Brenda’s face.

“Ready?” she asks. Brenda nods, hands over the paper envelope that has their key cards. It’s her room, but Sharon always feels like the one in charge to Brenda and it’s almost a relief, handing over control. If only of a little thing. Sharon takes it, leads them to the long bank of elevators. They wait only a few moments before doors part and two men in suits exit, smiling at them, saying, “Good afternoon, ladies.”

“Thank you,” Sharon says, always gracious.

They’re alone in the elevator as they ascend. Brenda shifts a little, the bag on her shoulder heavy and Sharon takes it for her, sets it on top of her rolling suitcase. Brenda murmurs her thanks. Their room is a ways down the hall and when Sharon pushes the door open, it reveals a room that at best could be described as cozy. There are two beds, however, something that Brenda had called and asked for. Not that she doesn’t relish the idea of sharing a bed with Sharon for an entire night - or more - but she didn’t want to force the issue when Sharon seems skittish about contact. She didn’t want to walk into the room and have it feel like a badly written sitcom where one of them offers to sleep in the bathtub.

“Snug,” Sharon says. “But the view is lovely.”

Brenda lets the door close behind her.

“Well,” Brenda says. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

“I could eat,” Sharon says, sitting on the edge of the bed, the one closest to the window. “You used to live here, I’m happy to follow your lead.”

“There’s plenty of stuff in walking distance,” she says. “Care to take a stroll with me, Captain?”

The weather is perfect. It’s cool but sunny, enough of a breeze that they don’t get overly warm if they’re not standing in the shade. When Brenda lived in the area, she would’ve walked away from the monuments and touristy places, but she walks toward the mayhem instead. Sharon gushes over the architecture, the marble buildings, the awnings over small cafes, the zooming traffic, the green trees and patches of grass in the midst of such a large city. It’s still the afternoon, not quite four, which means they’ve gotten out just before everyone gets off work and things get crazy.

“How about here?” Brenda says. They’re outside a little italian place. Sharon shrugs and nods.

“Okay.”

It’s mostly empty inside because of the off hour, but there are a few people at the bar in the back. The bartender tells them, hollering across the empty room, to sit anywhere, so they find a little table by the wall and seat themselves. Once they’re seated, Brenda feels the day catch up with her and is tired, slouching and resting her chin on her hand.

“Did you tell Rusty we got here in once piece?” Brenda asks.

“I sent him a text message when the plane touched down,” Sharon says.

They get waters, a basket of bread between. Sharon orders a salad, Brenda gets pasta. It’s a quiet, companionable meal because they’re both a little tired and out of sorts from travel. Brenda wishes this was a vacation, that they had the days to stretch out before them. Museums and cafes and monuments and posing for pictures or whatever else people do on vacations. But instead they’ll have to get up early, make small talk, network, attend panels. Brenda hates conferences, hates that she has to spend all this time and energy for very little payoff. She might hear about something interesting, might take one or two good ideas or contacts home, but mostly she’s here so that the D.A.’s office can say that she was.

Sharon reaches across with her for and spears some of Brenda’s pasta, pops it into her mouth. Brenda doesn’t even mind.

“You want to order dessert?” Sharon asks but Brenda shakes her head.

On the way back to the hotel, they stop at the Ronald Reagan building, where the conference is being held. There’s not much happening yet, a few people milling around, but there is a table set up to check-in. The first sessions begin tomorrow at eight am so at least checking in now buys them a little more sleep in the morning. They get plastic name badges that hang around their necks with stretchy elastic. Brenda Leigh Johnson, Bureau of Investigation Chief, Los Angeles District Attorney, Los Angeles California. It’s a mouthful all written out like that.

Captain Sharon Raydor, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles, California.

“Mine is not… quite as impressive,” Sharon says, comparing the name badges with a frown.

“I find you impressive, Captain,” Brenda says.

“It’s not fair to you, but I forget how high you are up on the organizational chart sometimes. Not because you’re not capable or deserving, I just know you so well now.”

“Hard to reconcile my professional life with the steaming pile of crap that is my personal one?” she asks, tucking her badge and the folder that had come with it into her purse.

“Exactly,” Sharon smirks.

Outside, they pause and Brenda says, “What next?”

“I’d like a nap, frankly,” Sharon says.

“Oh good,” Brenda says, relieved.

But it’s like they’re two sets of people. Sometimes they’re friends, peers, two women out to lunch or attending a conference and sometimes they’re the other thing. Linked fingers, kisses in dark cars. Fingers on skin. And Brenda is never exactly sure when the switch is going to take place, it’s hard to anticipate. They’ve been alone with each other all afternoon and it’s been pleasant, though distant, but the moment they step into the hotel elevator to go back to their shared room, Brenda knows she’s not standing next to Captain Raydor anymore. Sharon stands close enough to her that their arms brush.

In the room, Brenda sets her bag down and says, “Look, this doesn’t have to be weird.”

“I didn’t think it was,” Sharon says unwinding the scarf from her neck, taking off her coat.

“I just know we’re in this uncertain place and I don’t want you to feel… pressure about anything,” she says.

“I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t want to,” Sharon reassures her. “Are you okay with it?”

“Rusty saw us,” Brenda says. She wasn’t going to say anything about that, but she realizes now that she’s said it, it has been weighing on her.

“I know, he told me,” Sharon says.

“He did?” Brenda asks. “What did you say?”

“That we fell asleep watching TV,” Sharon says. “Which, incidentally, is the truth.”

“Yeah, but…” She shakes her head. “He wasn’t suspicious?”

Sharon laughs. “Of what, Brenda? He knows we’re friends. We weren’t caught in the act of anything other than being tired at the same time and in the same place.”

“He didn’t seem surprised,” Brenda says.

“We’re together a lot these days,” Sharon says. “I’m not… I’m not embarrassed of you. You know that right? You’re not something I’d try to hide from my son, no matter what our… situation is.”

Brenda nods but she can’t pretend it’s not gratifying to hear, even if she can’t believe it one hundred percent.

“I just worry, that’s all,” Brenda says, crossing her arms. “And I didn’t want you to think I was lyin’ to you.”

“Is that why you’ve been weird all day?” Sharon asks. “Because Rusty saw us?”

"I’m just tired,” Brenda says. “Just out of sorts.”

“We’ll sleep for a little while,” Sharon says, her voice low and soothing. “No pressure.”

“Okay,” she says.

Sharon locks herself in the bathroom and Brenda kicks off her shoes and pulls off dress so when she crawls into the bed, she’s just in her underwear and her black tank top. The bed is pretty comfortable. It should be for how much she’s paying for this hotel. Her office will reimburse up to a certain amount, but she’d opted for convenience over thrift. She’d been living most of the year under the impression that the majority of her paycheck would be going to her ex-husband and now that it’s not… she realizes this is the most financially stable she’s ever been. She’s paid off her car and she’s been thinking seriously about trying to give Fritz all the money back that he’d spent trying to protect her from Gavin. It had been his inheritance, after all. They’re not in a real good place right now, so she’s got to think about how to go about it. Sending him a check for his birthday probably isn’t going to cut it.

Buying a house is probably the next step she should take.

She presses her face into the pillow and sighs. Why does her brain always want to think about things like this right before she goes to sleep? On the other side of the wall she hears the toilet flush and then the sink running. When Sharon comes out, she looks at Brenda and hesitates.

“Would you prefer…?”

“With me,” Brenda says. “That’s what I’d prefer.”

Sharon nods once, turns to her suitcase and unzips it, digs around for a moment and pulls out a pair of pajama pants. Brenda almost tells her not to bother, but while Brenda is comfortable with Sharon seeing her in a towel or in her underwear or any manner of ratty old t-shirts and shorts, she realizes that the most casual thing that she’s ever seen Sharon in is her bathing suit. So it doesn’t surprise her when Sharon changes in the bathroom, comes back out with her outfit folded and she lays it carefully on top of the suitcase before turning to Brenda and pulling off her glasses.

“Should we set an alarm?” Sharon asks. “Try to do something a little later so we don’t wake up at three in the morning?”

“Just get in the bed Sharon, for crying out loud, only you could over think a nap.”

Sharon scowls at her but walks around to the other side of the bed and slips under the covers, rolling to face Brenda.

“You’re grouchy when you’re tired,” she whispers.

Brenda closes her eyes and says, “Shut up.”

She can’t see it, but somehow she can feel Sharon’s smile anyway.

oooo

It’s dark when Brenda wakes up and she has no idea if that means it’s eight thirty or if it’s two in the morning. She slips out of the bed. Sharon is still asleep, breathing heavy and warm beside her. She glances at the clock and the red numbers say that it’s a quarter past ten. Late, but not so late that they couldn’t go down to the bar and get a drink or something. She closes the door to the bathroom before she turns on the light, the fan whirring. She pees, rubbing her face and then stands in front of the sink, washing her hands. When she looks up at herself in the mirror, she hears her mother’s voice.

What if you do this and you decide you don’t like it?

“Mama,” she whispers. “Please don’t do this.”

I don’t want you to ruin your friendship is all.

“You don’t want two gay kids,” Brenda says to her own reflection and saying it out loud makes her flinch. “Or whatever I am.”

I love all my kids no matter what! her mother says, obviously offended.

“Then love me no matter what happens next,” Brenda says. She shuts off the light and opens the door softly, padding back out into the bedroom. Sharon has moved just a little, rolling toward the spot where Brenda had been. She finds her phone in her purse, the charger too, and is grateful there’s a plug built right into the lamp that sits on the nightstand between the two beds so she doesn’t have to fumble around for one in the dark. She sets an alarm for 6:30 and plugs the phone in. It chirps as it connects to the power source and Sharon shifts again. She sets the phone on the nightstand and gets back into the bed, rolling until she comes up against Sharon, her arm slipping over her waist, their feet tangling. Maybe Sharon isn’t a cuddler, but Brenda is going to turn that tide or die trying.

“What time is it?” Sharon murmurs without opening her eyes.

“We got plenty of time,” Brenda says. Sharon stretches, laughs.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Shh,” Brenda shushes. Sharon seems happy enough to comply, holding Brenda as she wishes to be held. Brenda smooths her hand over Sharon’s hair, pushing it out of her face and then rubbing her thumb over her forehead, her eyebrow, down the slope of her nose to her bottom lip. Sharon’s lips part and the tip of her tongue touches Brenda’s thumb. “Oh, I see how it is,” Brenda says.

“If you want it to be,” Sharon murmurs. Brenda leans in, replaces her thumb with her mouth. Sharon is warm and sleepy, slow to respond but Brenda is fine with going slow. Slow, easy kisses and the material of Sharon’s t-shirt between Brenda’s fingers. After a while, Sharon seems to wake up a little more because her kisses become less about the soft drag of their lips and more aggressive, more insistent. Brenda is very aware of their limbs, of how one of Sharon’s legs has wormed between her bare ones, how their hips seem to shift into alignment. Sharon slips her hands into Brenda’s hair; Brenda gets her hand up under Sharon’s shirt. She’s hesitant and slow, gives her plenty of time to call it off but Sharon just throws her shoulders back and so Brenda cups the weight of one breast, squeezing gently and feeling a hard nipple under the soft cup of her bra.

“Okay?” Brenda asks.

“Yeah,” Sharon says. “Yes.”

She’s so enraptured with this new sensation, the foreign yet strangely familiar feeling of a breast against her hand that she almost misses Sharon’s mouth sliding off of hers and over to her ear to catch her earlobe between her teeth. Sharon’s breath is hot and heavy and it makes her shudder and tense up. She’s so wet already that she’s a little concerned that she ought to be embarrassed and Sharon panting into her ear only sets another shiver of arousal running through her. When her thighs clench together instinctively, they’re blocked by Sharon’s knee.

“Wait, wait,” Brenda pants, dragging her hand down to Sharon’s ribs. “Wait.”

“What?” Sharon asks pulling back just enough to try to see Brenda in the darkness. She squints and Brenda wonders how well she can see without her glasses.

“If we’re gonna stop, we should stop now,” Brenda says. “I can’t… you’re so…”

“We don’t have to stop,” Sharon says. “Unless you want to.”

“Nope,” Brenda says and captures her mouth again. Sharon smiles against her, she can feel it, and it seems like her hands are everywhere - her back, her arms, her hips, her thighs.

“How long have you not been wearing pants?” Sharon manages to ask when she encounters the bare skin of Brenda’s leg.

“Whole time,” Brenda says against Sharon’s neck. Sharon groans and rolls so she’s on her back and Brenda tumbles on top of her. Brenda’s not exactly sure what to do next, but Sharon presses her thigh up between Brenda’s leg and Brenda whimpers at the contact and grinds down against it, desperate for the pressure.

“Good,” Sharon murmurs. “Just like that.”

Brenda would do anything that low voice told her to do, raspy and a little breathless. And it is good, but it isn’t quite enough. Pleasurable but muted and Brenda longs for skin against skin. She sits up, making sure her knees are on either side of Sharon and reaches down, crosses her arms and tugs her shirt over her head. Sharon’s hands go right to the newly discovered country, sliding warmly across her stomach, up to where the lace covers her breasts. They slip around her, fumble for just a moment at the clasp that sits just under her shoulder blades and she feels the give when the bra comes apart and slips down her arms. Sharon plucks it away, tosses it to the side and leans forward.

Hot and so good and sharp and warm and wet. Sharon worries a nipple with her teeth lightly and then soothes it with her tongue - kisses just underneath it where the skin is soft and sensitive. Presses her nose between Brenda’s breasts and breathes deep, nips at the inside of the other breast.

“You too,” Brenda says. She’s not sure how she’s down to just her panties and Sharon is still in all of her clothes but it doesn’t seem right and when she props herself on her elbows, Brenda tugs at her shirt and gets it over her head. Sharon’s hair spreads out against the pillow when she lies back again like a dark halo, like blood, like garden vines creeping up a wall.

“Are we really doin’ this?” Brenda asks.

“I think so,” Sharon says. And then she smiles, sweet and soft. Reaches up behind herself and undoes her own bra, tosses it away and reaches for Brenda. She tucks her face into Sharon’s neck and groans. So much softness, so much skin. It’s a relief to be pressed together and some of the ferocity of the moment settles. Brenda noses into her hairline where Sharon smells most like herself. Sharon rubs her hand up and down her spine and murmurs, “We’re okay.”

Brenda kisses her, the little dip of her top lip, the fullness of the bottom. Runs her tongue along the front of Sharon’s teeth until they part. They kiss and kiss, Brenda could just go on forever, partially stalling for time because she feels uncertain about the next practical step but also because it feels so good and warm and right. But then Sharon turns her head to the side, frees her mouth and utters a deep, “Please.”

Maybe that’s what Brenda had been waiting for anyway. Permission or motivation or something. Because as soon as Sharon says it, a lilt of desperation in her voice, Brenda feels confident enough to slip her fingers beneath the waist of Sharon’s pants and her underwear and give a hard tug. Sharon cants her hips up, moves her body with Brenda to get the clothes off and onto the floor. Her beautiful legs are bare and smooth, pale in the small amount of light that comes in through the window and Brenda is grateful neither of them bothered to draw either the sheer curtains or the heavy drapes.

Brenda kisses her knee, slides her hands up her thighs and is surprised to find that the bareness continues.

“Jesus,” Brenda says, her breath hitching with desire. “Jesus.”

“Is it okay?” Sharon asks, sitting up a little, looking down her body to see what Brenda is seeing.

“It’s beautiful,” Brenda says.

“Well, you know,” Sharon says. “I have a full service salon.”

Brenda snorts back laughter and then tilts her head. “Can I…?”

“Please,” Sharon says. “Please touch me.”

Brenda reaches out as Sharon’s legs fall apart and cups her in the palm of her hand. The heat is incredible, but the softness of all that bare skin is what really gets Brenda. Sharon presses into her and she feels the first smear of moisture and it makes everything feel like velvet when skin slides against skin.

Brenda knows what she’s doing only biologically. She knows the anatomy that she shares, but it’s like looking at something in a mirror, kind of. This is not the angle she’s used to. But she’s not scared anymore, not with the way Sharon is writhing beneath her. She drags one finger up, spreading the moisture and Sharon bares her teeth, her eyes closed tight. Her finger slips inside before Brenda can think much about it, that’s how wet and ready, how swollen Sharon is. Sharon huffs out a breath and clenches hard around Brenda’s finger.

“More,” she says. So Brenda pulls her finger slowly, dragging it out and then pushes two back in. Out and in. She speeds up a little and Sharon hums, arches her back. With her thumb, Brenda feels out for Sharon’s swollen bundle of nerves and when she finds it, Sharon pistons up with a ragged cry.

“Show me,” Brenda says. “Show me how you like it.”

Sharon is hesitant before reaching down and touching herself. Maybe she’s embarrassed or maybe she’s distracted by the way Brenda hooks her fingers, trying to reach deeper inside Sharon, trying to feel more but finally her fingers make contact and Brenda watches closely and then, after a few moments, pushes Sharon’s fingers out of the way and replaces them with her own, working Sharon with two hands and replicating the small, tight circles.

Sharon’s arms fly up to cover her face she moans into the skin of her arms.

“God,” she pants. “God. God. Brenda, I can’t.”

“You can,” Brenda says. “You are.”

Because isn’t sure that she can be inventive or acrobatic right now. She’s not sure what the correct procedure is for two previously straight women having sex but she thinks, with some confidence, that if nothing else, she can get Sharon off at the very least. And Brenda knows how to be relentless. She keeps at it, increasing the pressure and then pace while Sharon twists and pants and moans. Brenda knows she’s right there, right at the edge.

Brenda has been thinking about sex a lot lately, a lot and specifically about sex with Sharon Raydor and every time she’s let her mind wander this far, she’s come to the conclusion that she is probably not comfortable with the more oral aspect of lesbian sex. She doesn’t love doing it with men and women are so much more wet, more messy. The idea simply has never appealed to her. So it’s a surprise now when Brenda moves one hand and replaces it with her mouth. She does it without thinking, she does it because she wants more than anything to see Sharon come apart.

“Oh!” Sharon manages and it’s all she needs. Brenda can feel the spasms, the gush of moisture against her fingers and her chin. And the things she thought would bother her about this just don’t. It’s just the overwhelming smell of Sharon that she loves, the taste a non-issue and she feels flushed with power at having brought her to this point. Brenda keeps thrusting, keeps moving her tongue until Sharon touches her head, pushing her away. “Enough,” she says breathlessly. “Enough.”

Brenda sits up, pulls her fingers away gently. Wipes them on the bedsheets and allows Sharon to wrap her up in her arms, breathe heavily into her hair while she rides out her pleasure. Brenda is happy to hold her back, feeling her twitch and shudder.

“I was going to go first,” Sharon says, after a while. “I had a plan.”

“I like my plans better,” Brenda says and Sharon laughs and it sounds like honey, sticky sweet and slow moving. Sharon kisses her, doesn’t complain about the taste, doesn’t shy away or act any differently. Brenda is profoundly relieved. She always has the small fear that her feelings are one sided, that Sharon is tolerating her. What if she’d gotten what she wanted and closed herself off? But she seems more open than ever, languid and not shy. Sharon kisses down her neck, palms her breast, nudges her legs apart with her knee.

Brenda is still nervous, closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Sharon had seemed to let go so easily, to part her thighs and give Brenda all the access she wanted. Brenda wants to do that for Sharon, too, she does.

“Relax,” Sharon says. “It’s just me.”

“Just,” Brenda chuckles. “Just a beauty queen.”

“I think you’re so beautiful,” Sharon says earnestly. “Your hair, your mouth. You’re so… so hot.” Sharon kisses her again. “So fucking hot.” Sharon’s mouth latches on to skin on her neck and sucks hard. Pain blossoms just like pleasure, blood rushing up, nerves on fire, body pulsing. She pushes down her own underpants, relieved to be free of the wet, clingy fabric. Sharon doesn’t waste time, slips her hand between Brenda’s legs.

“Like this,” Sharon says. “Get on top of me.”

Brenda complies, in no position to do anything other than trust her. Sharon lies on her back and Brenda perches on her hips like she’s done with so many lovers before. When Brenda sinks down, it’s onto fingers and she finds that Sharon’s palm grinds into her just right when she thrusts her hips. She’s jerky, at first, unsure and overly excited and Sharon puts her other hand on her hip and guides her. “Find your rhythm,” she murmurs. “Just like this.” Sharon pushes her hips up, driving her fingers home and Brenda moves down and it’s so good, better than chocolate, better than the most expensive wine, better than catching a liar in the act, better than it all.

She pushes her hand through her hair, holding it up and out of her face and looks down at Sharon who is watching her with her bottom lip caught between her teeth.

“Good girl,” Sharon says. “So good.”

Oh God. She moves her hips faster, feels the muscles in her thighs and abdomen begin to strain. Sharon keeps up her counter thrust, and Brenda feels as full as any man has ever made her feel. She looks at Sharon, her kind eyes looking glassy and fevered, her dark hair, the hard peak of each breast, the flush that spreads across her chest and shoulders, deep enough that Brenda can see it even in the dark.

There’s a moment where she hangs, right there on the edge, and then she tips, clenching tight, shuddering and gushing and it doesn’t matter that she’s only a handful of days away from fifty years old, it doesn’t matter that she’s got two ex-husbands, it doesn’t matter that she has pubic hair where Sharon has none, it doesn’t matter that her hair is wild and curly and she can hear herself whining high and desperate. The only things that matter are the orgasm, blinding and jagged, and the woman who catches her when it comes to an inevitable end.

Sharon smooths a hand down her sweaty spine and whispers soothing and low, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Brenda Leigh. I’ve got you.”

Brenda finds Sharon’s hand, sticky and warm, and threads their fingers together. Holds on tight.

oooo

Brenda maintains a low level of anxiety until the alarm goes off, afraid it will be different in the light of day, and in a way, it is. It’s a pleasant surprise, though. Instead of things being awkward or stilted or tense, Sharon is surprisingly quiet and tender. They move around the tiny hotel room in a tired haze. Sharon showers while Brenda picks up the clothes scattered around the room and drops them on the floor of the little closet. Sharon leaves the shower on for Brenda and they trade, Sharon wrapped in a white towel, Brenda letting the hot water flatten her hair and beat against the sore muscles in her back.

She’d been worried that it wouldn’t feel the same, sex with a woman. That she’d come away feeling unfinished, but her thigh muscles feel like jelly and she’s got that pleasant, satisfied burn of penetration that she’s used to, the thing she always counts on as a physical reminder of a night well spent. Sharon’s fingers had been just as satisfying as any man and more dexterous to boot. No matter what the task, Brenda keeps finding Sharon to be better.

She washes her hair with Sharon’s shampoo and conditioner, the bottles she’d left on the edge of the tub and soaps up with the little bar that smells like citrus. When she shuts the water off and pulls open the plastic curtain, Sharon is there with a towel around her hair in her underwear. Brenda feels a little shy and drags the towel off the rod, holding it in front of her. Sharon smiles at her, leans in to steal a wet kiss. Her mouth tastes minty and warm.

Brenda dresses while Sharon dries her hair in the bathroom and when Sharon comes out, her hair gleaming and perfect, Brenda is horrified to feel her eyes well up. She just feels so emotional about the whole situation and is out of practice. She turns her face away, clears her throat. When she feels like she can look at Sharon without weeping, she stands up, smooths her skirt and buttons her blazer.

“Did you bring anything with a higher neckline?” Sharon asks. Brenda furrows her brow, turns to look at her reflection in the mirror over the chest of drawers. A splotchy purple love bite at the base of her neck, where the line gives way to her collarbone. Brenda remembers receiving that well enough, though it’s been a long time since someone has marked her. She feels a flush of heat.

“Come with me,” Sharon says when Brenda doesn’t reply except to reach up and touch the mark with her fingers. She follows Sharon into the bathroom and sits on the closed toilet. Sharon rummages around her her make up for a tube of concealer and a yellow bristled brush. She squirts a little of the ivory liquid on the brush - too pale for Brenda’s skin, but close enough, maybe. Brenda tilts her head to expose her neck and pushes her hair out of the way. Sharon dabs the brush against the mark and whispers, “Sorry.”

“I’m not,” Brenda says. Sharon is still in her underwear, nude briefs and a matching, full cupped bra. Brenda reaches out to touch the lace at her hip, hooks a finger in the elastic waistband and gives a little tug so it snaps against her skin. Sharon hums, just an echo of the kind of noises that had driven Brenda crazy only a few hours ago.

“Better,” Sharon says, tossing the brush onto the counter. She touches Brenda’s chin and tilts her head up, kisses her again. It’s so tempting to fall into it, to open her mouth, to grab her by the hips, to…

Sharon straightens up, says warmly, “Your hair is gonna dry like that.”

“Oh, shoot,” Brenda says, hopping up. She spends some time wetting it back down again and scrunching product into it, but it’s already started to curl so she just uses the hair dryer to blow out the front and pins the rest of it back up. By the time she’s got just the basic makeup on, Sharon is ready. Armani suit, her glasses, her purse on her shoulder, her red lips. She looks like a cop but one from television - beautiful and deadly and in charge. She’s got her badge clipped to her pants just to the side - Brenda can see it peek out from beneath her jacket only when she moves a certain way.

Brenda powders her face and then the spot on her neck. If someone gets right up close, they’ll be able to see the coverage but from a distance, it’s not real noticeable and anyway, who cares? So what if someone figures out that Brenda is desirable?

She drags on some lipstick and throws a few things into her purse - her phone, the room key, the conference schedule.

“Okay, okay, ready,” Brenda says. Sharon holds up her coat for her so she can slip into it. When she turns around to face Sharon, Sharon puts her arms around her and Brenda is startled by the hug. She hugs her back tight, smiling fondly at her.

“You know what?” Brenda says.

“What?”

“I think we’re okay,” she says.

“We’re definitely okay,” Sharon says.

“Good,” Brenda says. “Now I need a mocha in the absolute worst way.” She’s starving, too. She realizes they ate dinner so early and never left the hotel room again.

“We have half an hour before the first session starts,” Sharon says. She pulls open the door and holds it open for Brenda and they emerge into the hall. Brenda can see the change happen in Sharon as soon as the door shuts behind them - she straightens up a little and then, in a flash, she’s back to Captain Raydor again. It’s terrifying and fascinating all at once and Brenda worries her lip, knowing that outside the room they have to be professional and not much more than friends but she also knows she’s going to spend the entire day thinking endlessly about Sharon in her bed. As Sharon walks ahead of her down the hall toward the elevators, Brenda realizes exactly what is doing it for her in this moment.

It’s authority. Sharon has it in spades. Brenda may have a fancier job, more responsibility, make way better money but Sharon is in charge here and Brenda gets off on that hard.

Sharon pushes the button to call for the elevator and throws a glance over her shoulder.

“You coming?” she asks.

Brenda nods. “Right here with you, Captain.”

Sharon smirks. “Good girl.”

The elevator doors open.

Chapter Text

It’s all so boring. She knows there’s good stuff being said here, but she can’t hear any of it, not today. Sharon is off in another room, sitting next to Ann McGinnis while Brenda rots here, listening to three white men in the same gray suit talk about intergovernmental cooperation.

Apparently, something of worth has been said because there’s light applause happening around her and she joins in, hitting her hands together three times before letting them fall listlessly back into her lap. She can, at least, look forward to lunch after this. She’s still hungry, the scone she’d scarfed down hours ago not nearly enough. She and Sharon and, she supposes, Ann, are supposed to meet downstairs for lunch. There’s a food court in the building or they could venture out into the world. That seems more appealing. It had been cold this morning but Brenda suspects it’s nice now, later into the day. Sunny, breezy.

She tries not to let her mind wander back to the hotel room but that’s a losing battle. Tonight, she wants to turn the lamp on, wants to touch every part of Sharon that she couldn’t see last night. Wants to watch every micro expression, see every shade of color in her hair, to see just how pink she gets when she comes.

Brenda clears her throat, shifts in her seat.

“This is dreadful,” says the man sitting next to her. He’s tall, dark hair and bright blue eyes. She looks at him for a moment, surprised he’s even talking to her.

“I wouldn’t know,” she says softly back. “I’m not even payin’ enough attention to know that.”

He grins. “I’m Chuck.”

“Brenda,” she says softly. She can’t see his name badge clearly enough to know where he’s from, but if she has to guess, it’s CIA or NSA or one of the intelligence agencies. They all have a look. Polished but nondescript. Governmental, but standard. Nice enough to fit in but never standing out. She used to be one of them - her mentor always hated the florals. They were too memorable. She glances at her watch - three minutes to freedom.

He sees her sneak a look at the time and says, “Think they’ll let us go on time?”

Someone stands and launches into a long winded question about cross jurisdictional authority and Brenda winces. “No.”

He smirks. He’s cute, Brenda has to admit it. She’s learned her lesson about handsome men who work for the federal government, but she can admire him aesthetically. He slumps a little and his name badge shifts enough that she can see it. It says Charles Micheals, State Department, Washington D.C.. State Department. Yeah right, Brenda thinks.

It takes another seven minutes before they’re free and she hops up.

“Do you have lunch plans, Brenda Leigh Johnson of Los Angeles?” he asks, tucking his hands into the pockets of his slacks.

“I do,” she says apologetically. “But you can certainly walk me down to the lobby.”

“You know, I hate to judge, but you don’t sound like a Californian,” he says as they spill out of the room into the hallway.

“I hate to judge, but you look exactly like a government employee,” she says. He manages to look slightly offended and she relents. “I’m from Georgia.”

“A southern belle,” he says.

“Not quite,” she replies. They pass the elevator where the crowd waiting to get on is several people deep and head down the stairs. It’s only two floors and when they emerge onto street level, she glances at him. “Well, Chuck, it was nice to meet you.”

“You too,” he says. “I’m going to the session on biosurveillance after lunch,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, already looking past him toward the row of windows. It’s easy to spot Sharon - her hair, her legs. She’s saying something to Ann, glancing at her watch.

“Maybe I’ll see you there?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says again. She is planning on going to that, too, simply because it’s the only marginally interesting sounding thing happening in the afternoon before the three o’clock session on data-driven management, but he’s looking so hopeful. She doesn’t want to lead him on. “Maybe,” she says. “Excuse me, I gotta go. My people are waiting for me.”

“Bye,” he calls but she’s already rushing toward Sharon who looks at her sternly.

“You’re late,” she says.

“Sorry, we went over,” she says.

“Who’s that?” Ann asks. Brenda turns back to see Chuck who is still standing there, who waves at her. Pathetic.

“Some puppy who followed me home,” Brenda says. “CIA goon.”

“You were a CIA goon!” Sharon says.

“Was,” Brenda complains. “Not anymore!”

“And you always say you’re so bad at making friends,” Sharon murmurs to her. Brenda rolls her eyes.

“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, Captain,” she shoots back.

“Lunch?” Ann asks.

There’s many options, but everywhere is crowded so they step onto the street, walk about three blocks and find a little cafe with sandwiches and salads. Brenda sends Sharon to snag a table and promises to bring her something healthy and she and Ann wait in line together.

“What made you leave the CIA?” Ann asks. Her tone is friendly, conversational and so Brenda answers honestly.

“Chief Pope,” she says. “I wasn’t real thrilled with the work. I was never home, I had a cover so it was difficult to meet people. Will offered me a job at the DCPD and I accepted.”

“I thought you came from the Atlanta PD,” Ann says.

“I did,” she offers. “I transferred to Atlanta from D.C. because it was promotional. Captain to Commander, plus it was home, so it was an easy choice. And then Will again, brought me out to head Major Crimes. I guess you know the rest.”

“I know that Will Pope wouldn’t be chief without you,” Ann says. “I know that most good things he ever got credit for came right out of Major Crimes.”

Brenda stares at her for a moment, legitimately surprised. She didn’t think she had much of a reputation left after the year Goldman spent dragging her through the mud. It’s interesting to know that someone like Ann, someone who’d spent her entire career with the LAPD - someone who works for Brenda’s ex-husband - would openly show support.

“Thank you,” she says. “That’s kind to hear.”

“Captain Raydor,” Ann says and then, dipping her head a little, “Sharon. She worked tirelessly, campaigning for you to be Chief of Police. I’m only sorry it didn’t work out.”

Brenda feels a stab of guilt. Even all those years ago, Sharon was already a better friend than Brenda has ever been and they didn’t even like each other yet.

“I’m not sure I was ready for that job back then,” Brenda says as they inch toward the register. “The mayor and I didn’t have much chemistry.”

“Different mayor now,” Ann points out. “But it’s certainly not an easy or popular job. I’ll give you that.”

Brenda doesn’t get to say anything else on the matter. It’s time to order. She gets Sharon and herself the same summer salad, fresh fruit and greens, a light vinaigrette. Two bottles of water and the biggest cookie in the world to share. Brenda doesn’t tend to share sweets, not with anyone and not ever, but she knows Sharon will only nibble at it and leave her with the lion’s share which is more than enough. She pays, carries her plastic number and the waters to the table. Sharon looks bored, her chin resting in her hand, her phone on the table in front of her.

“Hey stranger,” Brenda says. Sharon is better at flirting, makes it seem natural. Before, all Brenda could think about around Sharon was sex and now, deed done and behind them, she feels even more unsure. More than friends, nothing like partners. She wants to be familiar but not inappropriate.

Sharon winks at her, kindly, picks up her phone and says, “Andy and Rusty are alive, they have both checked in.”

“It’s only been one night,” Brenda says. “And Lieutenant Flynn is a dad, right? He knows what to do with teenagers.”

“No one knows what to do with teenagers,” Sharon says dryly. Brenda sits on Sharon’s side of the table and Ann comes up before too long with a bottle of cranberry juice and her own plastic number. She settles into her wooden chair.

“How was your session?” Brenda asks.

“Fine,” Ann says. “I’m still not sure what we’re doing here, honestly. It’s an interesting conference but geared more toward federal employees and small business owners.”

“Who knows why all of a sudden Chief Pope-” And here, Sharon positively spits out the title, “wants to appear supportive but I suspect it has more to do with politics than with us.”

Brenda, wisely she thinks, keeps her mouth closed about that. When she’d proposed the idea, she’d been thinking more about getting out of L.A. for a few days with Sharon at her side and had thought, maybe, that Sharon would appreciate the break in routine. She had not expected their dark suspicion.

“Sending the only two high ranking women he has left, no less,” Ann says.

“It’s something he can look back on,” Brenda says, despite herself. “Something concrete he can say when someone inevitably throws his static record in his face. No promotions, no raises. But look, here, in March, I spent just enough money to send two people to the only law enforcement conference that might possibly be of any worth.”

Sharon blinks at her, her eyes big and owlish behind her glasses. Brenda can see them narrow slightly, can see that she’s tired by the soft, dark skin underneath them.

“I’ve not ever known him to have such a long view of things,” she says. Brenda feels guilty but she’s determined not to look it. She just gives Sharon a little smile, turns and looks right at Ann.

“Tell me more about your sister,” she says.

oooo

Chuck Michaels sniffs Brenda out like a goddamn bloodhound. She’s sitting next to Ann, saving a seat for Sharon who is in the restroom and he settles himself right into Sharon’s empty chair before Brenda can even say a single thing.

“You came,” he says, smiling.

“No,” Brenda says, flustered. And then, “I mean, yes, I came but that seat is taken.”

“Oh,” he says. “Well I can move when they come back.” And flashes her a grin. “I know who you are, Brenda Leigh Johnson of Los Angeles. I did a little research.”

“That’s creepy,” Ann says from her other side. Brenda looks over at her, grateful for her stoicness, how her pale hair and eyes and skin make her seem cool and distant. She hasn’t even looked up from her program booklet.

“You’re the Closer,” he says. He waggles his eyebrows.

“I’m the what?” Brenda says, seriously uneasy now. That’s an old nickname from an old time. It confirms her CIA suspicions, however, though she does not care for the idea that he called into his office to check up on her. She’d left the CIA for a reason, because she hadn’t been happy there, because the things she’d found herself doing didn’t sit right morally. Because she never wanted to be someone who ended up with something like The Johnson Rule attached to her name and yet, that’s what she has become and she knows her time at the CIA has almost everything to do with that. That they’d trained her to interrogate but they’d conditioned her as well. When she’s in the middle of an interrogation, when she’s got the scent of a lie, she turns ruthless. She loses her perspective. She does bad things.

“They still talk about you in training,” he says. “Have you thought about coming back to the company?”

She does consider it from time to time, only because a job offer comes through about once a year. But it requires relocating back to Washington, it requires doing the things that keep her awake at night, it requires more than she is willing to give.

“I don’t care for the snow,” she says. “Excuse me, Mr. Michaels.”

She stands up, feels only a pang of guilt for leaving Ann in proximity to this guy but also, Ann is a police commander who can take care of herself. She rushes into the restroom and thankfully, finds Sharon at the long row of sinks, washing her hands. Sharon looks up, sees Brenda in the mirror.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

Several other women are there and a few turn to look at Brenda, the woman who’d burst into the restroom and just stopped short.

“Nothin’,” Brenda murmurs and promptly locks herself into an empty stall.

She may as well pee since she’s in here, though it’s everything she hates about public restrooms. The toilet seat a little too warm, the not great smell, a small puddle of water on the tiled floor by her foot. She hurries up, wipes and flushes and rights herself and then opens the door, feeling silly for hiding in the first place.

Sharon is leaning against a wall, waiting on her. Most people have cleared out because the session is starting right now. There’s one closed stall door with a pair of feet below it, but otherwise they are alone. Brenda steps up to the sink and runs the water over her hands knowing Sharon is watching her. Watches her soap up and rinse, watches her wave her hand in front of the paper towel dispenser and wait for it to acknowledge her. She dries her hands and walks over to Sharon, throws away her paper towel, and hesitates only a moment before leaning in to touch their lips. Just real quick. When the toilet in the occupied stall flushes, Brenda steps back.

“Brenda-”

“I don’t miss D.C. and I wouldn’t move back here and I wouldn’t do anything without askin’ you first,” she says.

Sharon reaches out and touches her elbow, a little line between her eyebrows appearing. “All right.” Brenda nods. They might be just a little more than friends, but even Brenda knows they aren’t dating or together or in any sort of real relationship and that’s fine. Brenda isn’t even a year out of her divorce and Sharon has Rusty to worry about and half the time they still fight dirty, verbal jabs and backhanded compliments and it’s not the right time to do anything crazy like promise forever.

But Sharon should know that Brenda cares. That Sharon’s opinion matters to her.

“I love Los Angeles,” Brenda says.

“I know, honey,” Sharon says. “Come on, we’re late.”

The stall door opens and the woman who steps out looks at them and then turns away and Sharon holds open the door to let Brenda out into the wide hallway, the big windows showing them nothing but blue sky.

They have to slide past several people to get to their seats, but Chuck is gone and Brenda doesn’t waste time scanning the room for him. Sharon reaches down for her bag, rummages a little and then pulls out a foil wrapped Ding Dong. Hands it to Brenda who takes it gratefully. Pats Brenda’s knee.

At the end of the day, Ann leaves again, gets on the metro to go back to her sister’s house and says she will see them at the airport in the morning. Brenda has received dinner invitations all day from various acquaintances but she’s turned them all down. And if Sharon has been offered any invitations of her own, she doesn’t say anything.

“I could eat,” Sharon says as they approach the lobby of the hotel. It’s close to the conference center, but they don’t see many of the conference attendees milling around once they’re inside and Brenda knows it's the price of the rooms that drives most people farther down the block. But here is nice and there’s a bar and a restaurant in the lobby.

“We can go out, we can stay here,” Brenda says. “We could always have them send something up to the room.”

“Let’s just eat here,” Sharon says, veering away from the elevators toward the restaurant. “On me.”

“We can just charge it to the room,” Brenda says, glancing over the menu presented just outside the restaurant area. It’s a steakhouse which is fine. It’s tempting to order a big steak smothered in garlic butter but lord knows she won’t. A salad maybe, or a sandwich.

“You think I don’t know the small fortune you’re spending on this hotel?” Sharon says. “I can buy dinner.”

Brenda rolls her eyes but decides not to fight this particular battle.

When they’re seated, Brenda orders wine and Sharon orders a real cocktail, a martini, and Brenda is tempted to make some quip about getting her all liquored up but she doesn’t. She still feels kind of off from this odd day, from the momentous night before and she’s nervous that any attempt of humor on her part is bound to miss the mark. Instead she looks around - mostly men at tables in suits, laughing over drinks. There are women at the bar, but not many. One table that she recognizes from the conference only because one of them has failed to remove their name badge.

“What are you thinking about?” Sharon asks her.

“Steak,” Brenda says.

Sharon smiles over the top of her menu and says, “Liar.”

“Is Rusty going to pick us up from the airport?” Brenda asks.

“He’s supposed to,” Sharon says. “I’ll remind him in the morning.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t find this conference a good use of your time,” Brenda says.

“Oh, I did,” Sharon says. “Maybe it wasn’t the most professionally stimulating but there were other benefits.”

Brenda doesn’t even have time to get flustered because the waiter comes back with their drinks and a basket of bread to sit between them. Brenda orders the steak salad and Sharon smiles and says, “I’ll have the same.”

Two salads in one day means Brenda doesn’t feel guilty about tearing open the warm bread roll and smearing butter across the fluffy inside. Doesn’t feel bad about drizzling creamy dressing over her salad when it comes and sipping her wine until she's full and sleepy and warm. Sharon seems to deflate a little once the plates are cleared away. They didn’t get a lot of sleep and the time change is always rough and they have a long flight tomorrow, too.

Sharon pays for the meal, throws back the last of her drink and they stand.

“I could use a nap,” she says.

“A nice eight hour long nap,” Brenda says fondly. “I think that can be arranged.” Because while she wants to put her hands all over Sharon, wants to touch her hair and her skin and her hidden, secret parts, they’re not twenty five anymore.

In the room, Brenda excuses herself to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face and when she comes back out, Sharon is asleep on top of the covers of the bed.

Brenda eases off Sharon’s shoes and pats the bottom of her bare, narrow foot.

“You’ll hate yourself if you don’t change,” Brenda says. “Come on. Teeth, makeup, and then you can sleep.”

Sharon groans, sitting up. “Why am I so tired?”

“Well,” Brenda says gently. “You’re very old.”

“Oh, bite me,” Sharon mutters, shouldering her past her into the bathroom.

“Just say where!” Brenda calls through the closed door.

Brenda is already in bed when Sharon comes out. The only light left on is the lamp on the nightstand and Brenda sets down her phone, pulls off her glasses, and throws back the blankets for Sharon. Sharon gets in, curls onto her side, her face clean, her eyes already closed. Brenda shuts off the lamp, slips down until she’s flat on her back. Chews in the inside of her cheek for a moment, wondering if she should just follow suit, roll over and conk out or if Sharon wouldn’t mind…

“Oh, just come here,” Sharon says, the words somewhat muffled by her pillow. Brenda exhales, rolls up against her. Sharon hums happily. “Did you have a good day, Brenda Leigh?”

“I’ll be happy to get home,” she says. “I bet you miss Rusty.”

“I do,” she says, though it turns into a yawn. Brenda props herself up and leans in to kiss her cheek - gets mostly ear but that’s okay. Sharon smells good, minty and like the fancy makeup removing wipes, flowery and fresh. “But this was nice too.”

It doesn’t take long before Sharon is snoring softly beside her.

It takes Brenda much longer to fall asleep.

oooo

Four laps around the park and Brenda doubles over breathing hard. It’s always tough to get back into the swing of things after missing several days. She’s exhausted already, stumbles once on the way back home. It reminds her of Sharon jumping out at her on the running path and a ghost pain throbs in her ankle sympathetically. That was a year ago now. Has it really been so long?

She glances at the clock on the kitchen microwave when she gets in and swears softly. She’s gonna be late for work. It doesn’t truly matter - not five or ten minutes, even, but she still feels guilty about it. Like being late for school, like getting an A- or the fact that she got 99 out 100 on her driver’s license test. She doesn’t have to be perfect, but why not try?

You haven’t had someone grade you in 25 years, her mama says. Not everything is a test!

Brenda pauses, surprised. Her mama hasn’t talked to her since D.C. and Brenda was starting to think that maybe she was gone for good, drinking sweet tea with Jesus and Aunt Sally and the little baby sister that died before Brenda was born but after Clay Junior. She thought maybe she’d gone too far with Sharon for her mama to stick around.

“I gotta go to court this afternoon, that’s all,” Brenda says. “I have a schedule to keep.”

It’s a quick shower, she shaves her legs just up to her knees and makes sure to wear a dress long enough to cover them. The royal blue one. It reminds her of Sharon, reminds her of standing outside that drug house, hands shaking and everything smelling like blood. She’d lost the cardigan but the dress had made it out miraculously unstained.

Though to be fair, everything reminds her of Sharon. Real life has come crashing back down and it’s as hard to find time for one another as it ever was. Sharon’s working a case and she never answers when Brenda calls except to ask if she can call back and when she finally gets around to responding to texts, it’s always an absurd hour. Brenda is getting used to waking up to texts from Sharon - apologies, mostly. The occasional thinking of you or one that was just a little picture of a chocolate donut and a little glass of red wine. Brenda had called, responded to Sharon’s crisp “Raydor” with “Is that an invitation?”

“It was supposed to be,” Sharon had said. “But we found another body. I’ll have to call you back.”

Brenda showers off the sweat, squeezing the last dregs of her body wash into her washcloth and scrubbing down. Maybe she’ll go to the store after work. Maybe she’ll buy herself something really decadently sweet. After all, it’s her birthday in two days. She hasn’t mentioned it at work, hasn’t mentioned it to Sharon or Rusty or David. Her daddy had been making a fuss about coming out a few months ago, but he lately has seemed resigned to staying in Atlanta and missing the big day. She told him that it was for the best, that maybe she could come home again for a little while in a couple months.

She wants to go to sleep the night before her birthday and wake up the morning after. Fritz had always planned to take her on a trip for the big five oh since she’d worked straight through her 40th, but then, they hadn’t made it that far.

The day before her birthday, Sharon stops by Brenda’s office for five minutes and it’s a surprise, though a pleasant one. Brenda wishes she could blow off the rest of her day and spend it following around Sharon like a puppy, spend it like Sharon used to spend it with her, shadowing her every move and scratching down little notes in a book. Except Brenda would write things like “pretty hair” and “amazing skin” and “legs for miles.”

Even if she could call it a day at 11:43 am, she knows this is nothing more than a drive-by. She can tell just by looking at her that Sharon has squeezed Brenda in on her way to somewhere else.

“Andy’s waiting for me in the car downstairs,” Sharon says, closing Brenda’s office door behind her.

“Okay,” Brenda says, furrowing her brow. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Sharon says, coming towards her. Brenda stands. “Everything. I don’t know. Nothing in this case is going how I thought it would and all of a sudden Pope wants to do an audit of every department, including mine, so I have a departmental budget meeting every week for the next six weeks, like I possibly have time to talk about the line item for staples and dry erase markers while the people of Los Angeles are getting murdered.”

That’s interesting. It probably means Will is trying to find money for something, but for what?

Sharon stops in front of Brenda and says, a little whiny, “I have five minutes and I’d like to spend them kissing you if that’s all right.”

“Yes, that would be fine by me,” Brenda says.

“Don’t mess up my hair though,” Sharon says.

“Me?” Brenda says. “You’re the one who always-”

Sharon kisses her right through her complaint and it’s easy to forget what she had been saying anyway. Oh, it has been way too long. Sharon tastes familiar and good and even though they’re in a rush, Sharon still kisses like it’s a lazy summer Sunday where the sun takes forever to set and the day stretches out on and on. Brenda pulls away to breathe and Sharon lets her for just a moment before catching her mouth again.

They touch tongues only a little. They’re still in Brenda’s office, after all, they still have people waiting on them.

Sharon pulls back and sighs, a little calmer. Her dark pink lipstick is smeared and Brenda lifts a thumb to wipe it away from above her top lip. Sharon presses her lips together in a blot.

“You know when you don’t have sex for a long time and you kind of stop thinking about it?” Sharon says. “You think about it, but you don’t crave it in the same way?”

Brenda nods.

“It’s like you flipped a switch in me,” she says. “I miss it now. I need it.”

Brenda rolls her eyes, whimpers. “You’re killin’ me.” The phone on Brenda’s desk buzzes. “Hang on,” she says and picks it up with a terse, “What?” She’s got meetings all day with her investigators and there are two waiting outside right now. “All right, gimme a minute to finish up with Captain Raydor.” She hangs up. “Come over tonight.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Sharon says. “But promise me you’ll come over tomorrow for dinner.”

Brenda searches her face for a tell, for a hint that Sharon knows what tomorrow is to Brenda but she doesn’t see anything.

“Sure,” Brenda says.

“I’m serious,” she says. “If you don’t show up, I’m going to send one of my goons after you.”

“I will,” Brenda promises. Sharon’s phone buzzes and she glances at it. “Andy?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Come over tonight,” Brenda says again. “Just try. No matter how late.”

“I’ll try,” Sharon says, leaning in to peck her cheek before grabbing her purse off the chair and slinging it over her shoulder. “Bye.”

“Bye-bye,” Brenda says.

“Fix your lipstick before you let anyone else in here,” Sharon says before opening the door and disappearing again. When Brenda pulls out the mirror from her desk, she sees Sharon’s lipstick has stained her lips pink. She uses her pinky to smooth it evenly and then picks up her phone. Says, “Send ‘em in.”

oooo

Brenda wakes up to Sharon slipping into her bed. She doesn’t know what time it is, doesn’t even care.

“You’re here,” Brenda says, her voice croaky but genuinely happy.

“I can’t stay the night,” Sharon says. “But…”

“Come here,” Brenda says, throwing one arm around Sharon’s neck and pulling her close. Their mouths meet in a collision, hard against lips and teeth but it’s easy to compensate and Brenda doesn’t mind the sting. It seems like, when her hands start to wander, that Sharon has shed some layers but she’s still wearing the black slacks from earlier today and the silk shell she’d had on under her jacket. Brenda is tired, though willing, but she certainly doesn’t have time for removing clothes. She manages to get Sharon’s slacks unbuttoned and unzipped and she slips her hands in to find her warm and slick.

Sharon gasps, sinks her teeth into Brenda’s neck and jerks her hips away.

“Shhh,” Brenda says. “Let me make you feel good.”

Sharon does relax a little then, groaning into the skin of Brenda’s neck, kissing where she’d bitten her instead and pressing into the fingers.

“You were thinkin’ about me,” Brenda says. "About doin' this."

“Yes,” Sharon hisses as Brenda penetrates her with one, slender finger.

It takes a little longer than the first time. It’s an odd angle and the clothes are restrictive. At one point Sharon shoves her pants down just over her hips so she can open her legs a little wider and that helps a lot. Brenda doesn’t mind taking her time, though, because it’s just a slower build and by the time Sharon does come, all the blankets have been kicked away, her pants are around her knees, her little blouse riding up around her ribs and Brenda can see a glint of sweat at her hairline. She looks an absolute disaster and Brenda loves it.

Sharon clenches hard around three of Brenda’s fingers and goes rigid.

Brenda tends to cry out when she orgasms but Sharon goes quiet - no moans, not even breathing. And then she exhales and turns to jelly.

“Good,” Brenda says, pulling her hand away slowly. Sharon watches Brenda’s slippery fingers, watches Brenda stick them into her mouth and lick them clean. Hum happily. She’d been wrong, before, when she’d been nervous about the taste of things. That had been silly and a fear born out of nothing but ignorance.

“Yeah,” Sharon agrees. “Very good.” She surprises Brenda by kicking her pants the rest of the way off and pulling her blouse over her head.

“You don’t… it’s late and I know you can’t stay,” Brenda says. “I don’t expect anything.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sharon says. “I’m not leaving now.” She makes quite the picture, her hair curling at her nape, her black bra pushing everything up into place.

“You’re really pretty,” Brenda says.

“Thank you,” Sharon says. “Take off your clothes.”

Brenda snorts back her laughter and pushes her shorts and her underwear down her hips. Brenda would complain about Sharon being bossy but in bed she really, really doesn’t mind it. Sharon could bark orders at her all night and she’d comply to every one.

“Shirt, too,” Sharon says. Brenda has a lot of insecurities but being naked has never really been one of them, much to her mama and daddy’s consternation. She was always one of those babies who pulled off everything, diaper included, always bought the skimpiest bathing suits she could get away with. So she bares her breasts with little shame, allows Sharon to drink her fill. Sharon kisses her mouth, her breasts, the little mole next to her belly button. “I want to try,” Sharon says.

Brenda props herself up on her elbows, a little confused. “What?”

“I want to use my mouth,” Sharon clarifies, realizing, perhaps, that Brenda has not been privy to whatever internal thoughts she’s been having on the matter. Brenda flops back on the bed and clenches her eyes tight.

“Okay,” she manages. Her first husband had never gone down on her, not once. They’d dated whirlwind, the marriage had been thankfully short so maybe they’d just never gotten around to it? But Brenda knows better, knows that he’d been the type of man to expect a blowjob every 28 days from Brenda but would have not once returned the favor. Will had done it plenty but had not been particularly good at it and Fritz, well, he was more of a special occasion guy. Anniversaries, Christmas, birthdays. So this is appropriate, then, Sharon pushing her legs open and blowing lightly on Brenda’s swollen folds. Tentatively licking at first and then growing bolder.

Brenda forces herself to relax and thinks, humorously, “Happy birthday to me.”

But of course, Sharon does what Sharon does best - learns quickly and masters the skill. Brings Brenda to the edge and then gives her a hard shove over. And when Brenda manages to come back around, to open her eyes and string two words together, Sharon looks good and smug.

oooo

Brenda wakes up to see a fifty-year-old in the mirror staring back at her. Oh, she knows she was already fifty a few hours ago when Sharon had her face buried between Brenda’s thighs, but it’s morning now and things seem very real. When her mama turned fifty, her daddy threw a huge party in Atlanta. Brenda had been in college then, had flown home special as a surprise. Had called that morning already in Kennesaw at C.J.’s townhouse and said, “I’m sorry I can’t make it, mama, it’s snowin’ something fierce here in D.C.” Hadn’t even felt bad about the lie. And when she’d shown up at the party, her mama had laughed and clapped in delight, had gotten teary as she hugged her and said, “I knew you were lyin’! I just knew you wouldn’t let me turn fifty alone!”

That had been their joke, see. They were always surrounded by boys, by men. If they had each other, at least they weren’t alone.

Brenda turns the shower on and sighs. Here she is, half a century into her life, and she’s all alone.

I’m here for as long as you need me, sugar, her mama’s voice says. But Brenda has been starting to suspect that her mama’s voice isn’t very good for her anymore. Before, she’d been so lonely and adrift and numb. She’d needed the idea of her mama as a guardian angel to anchor her to the earth, but it’s become a crutch. How long does her mama plan on sticking around, anyway? The rest of Brenda’s life? Is she gonna be 80-years-old and still arguing with a voice in her head about manners?

Brenda plans to say nothing about anything to anyone. Plans to keep her head down and barrel through this day just as fast and cleanly as she can. The only concession she’d made to herself was her schedule. Avoid court, avoid all high level meetings except one. She has a few investigators scheduled to check in with her about high profile cases and a meeting with the mayor. She’s met the mayor several times since working for the D.A.’s office and this meeting is about David Gabriel’s high profile investigation of one of the councilmembers.

She’s not nervous, really. David does good work and Brenda’s been keeping a close eye on the case. If it had been the previous mayor, she might be concerned. She’d learned the hard way that she’d had no chemistry with that man, with a man who’d appointed someone named Tommy as the Chief of Police, but the new mayor is young and energetic and friendly. He’s always willing to work with other city agencies and his father was a very decorated police officer with the LAPD so he and Brenda get along just fine.

She’s just packing up to meet David downstairs when her assistant knocks and comes in with a huge bouquet of flowers. It’s a beautiful arrangement and she immediately knows it’s from Sharon because everything is purple. Lavender roses, hydrangeas, peonies.

“Oh, would you look at that,” Brenda says. It’s in a beautiful crystal cut vase. “Right here on the desk is fine, Sarah, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, hovering only a moment to see if Brenda will say more. But she’s a good enough assistant to know that after a moment of silence, she should return to her desk and so she does. Brenda plucks out the card and reads it quickly. It’s not Sharon’s handwriting but it’s her words all the same.

Happy birthday to my dearest friend. Can’t wait to see you later. XO, Sharon.

Heartfelt but not suspicious, should someone else read the sentiment. It means that Sharon had known all along today was her birthday and had said nothing! That bitch. Brenda can’t complain though. She’s tired today, but the few hours they’d spent together last night were wonderful and the flowers are a nice touch. She’d been worried that what they’d done in D.C. wouldn’t translate back to their real lives, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s harder here, certainly, to make the time and juggle responsibilities, but it’s worth it. At least to Brenda. She hopes to Sharon, too.

David drives them to city hall and Brenda lets him lead the meeting. It’s his investigation, after all, and the mayor just wants to be kept up to date. She chimes in here and there but when it’s over, the mayor holds her back and she tells David she’ll meet him in the lobby.

“Everything seems to be by the books here,” he says.

“Mayor Garcetti,” she says. “There’s nothing I take more seriously than this sort of investigation. I’m not at all interested in embarrassing the city.”

“Good,” he says. “And you can call me Eric.”

“Perhaps when we’re not standing in your office,” she says, only teasing a little. It’s nice to be friendly, it’s nice, for once, not to be the bad guy in a situation involving an investigation.

“I’m actually headed down to your old stomping grounds. The P.A.B.,” he says.

“Really?” she says. “It seems like they should be coming to see you, whoever it is.”

“It’s nice to get out,” he says. “Plus I think Chief Pope wants to show me in person his new plan for the budget.”

Brenda snorts before she can stop herself. “Let me guess - you gave him more money and he’s still proposing cuts?”

The mayor smiles, shakes his head. “I appreciate a fiscally conservative public servant but the city is in a much better place than it was five years ago.”

“Will is a penny pincher, he always has been,” Brenda says. “I’ve told him to unfreeze promotions a hundred times if he wants to keep this job…” She stops. “None of my business, really.”

“No,” he says. “You have an impressive police record yourself, Chief Johnson, I’d like to hear your opinion.”

“All right. Knowing Will, and I know him well, he’ll tell you he wants to double the officers on the street and freeze promotions for at least another year to pay for it,” Brenda says.”But morale is gonna suffer unless people start to feel they have a future. He needs to, at least, reinstate the promotional tests for Lieutenant, Captain, and Commander. For instance, you could save a ton of money by just getting some of those old Crown Vics off the street and replacing them with newer cars - hybrids, cars that don’t spend half their time in the motor pool getting tuned up just to run.”

“We’ve talked about hybrids but there were concerns about horsepower,” the mayor says.

“Maybe,” Brenda says, shaking her head. “But I think surely that’s been compensated for by now. I remember that complaint eight years ago! And if you order a fleet with built in video, you save money too instead buying a bunch of external units that need to be installed to bring an old fleet up to speed.”

The mayor smiles at her. “So you’ve been thinking about this?”

“No, I just… it’s just an example. There are ways to save money that are practical and don’t come at the expense of the officers that make up the force. I also don’t think spending money up front to save money long term is a bad investment.”

“That’s often true,” he says.

“But then,” she says, shaking her head. “I wasn’t raised here. I wasn’t here for Rodney King or for Rampart, so I have a different perspective and that’s not always popular.”

“Some might call that an asset,” he says. “What other forces were you on?”

“Atlanta P.D. and Washington D.C.,” she says. “A little time in the intelligence community.”

“It’s a shame you left the force, though I know the D.A.’s office was thrilled to have you,” he says. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.”

She asks after his family and that carries them through the elevator ride. David looks relieved to see them, tucks his phone into his pocket and stands.

“I’ll mention your motor pool idea to Chief Pope,” the mayor says in parting.

“Don’t tell him it was my idea,” she says with a smile. “Let me know how it goes.”

They shake hands and as soon as they step apart, two aides flank him - they’ve probably been hovering the whole time.

“I didn’t know you and the mayor were so close,” David says.

“I didn’t either, frankly,” she says. “He asked me to call him Eric.”

“Did you?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “But I think… never mind, it doesn’t matter.”

“Come on, then,” David says. “I’ll take you to lunch. On me today.”

“As long as no one sings, okay?” she says. “I couldn’t stand it.”

“Deal,” he says.

She thinks about her meeting with the former mayor, the interview that Sharon had claimed to be a chemistry test. If it had been with Mayor Garcetti, she might be in a real different place right now.

Oh well, she thinks, slipping into the passenger’s side of David’s car. Doesn’t matter now.

oooo

When she gets home, Rusty’s waiting on her couch, Sharon’s keys in his hand. He’s got on a white button down shirt and a skinny green and blue tie, jeans and a sport coat. She’s surprised to see him but not upset. He’s always welcome in her home, always. Well, maybe not when she’s screwing his mama, but any other time is fine.

“Hi honey,” she says. “Don’t you look nice.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

“Your mama send you to make sure I don’t flake out?” she asks, kicking off her shoes and tossing her tote onto the rocking chair.

“She didn’t phrase it like that, but yeah,” he says. “I’m just supposed to escort you here and home so you don’t have to walk alone.”

“You’re sweet,” she says. “Your mama is cold and untrusting, but you I like.”

He grins. “She’s not so bad.”

“Let me change and then we can get this over with,” she says. She changes into a pink dress, flat sandals. When they walk outside, the sidewalk smells sweet from all the jasmine winding through the hedges that has burst into bloom. It’s her favorite, it reminds her of being young, it reminds her of pressing her nose into Sharon’s skin.

“I know you’re tired,” Rusty says. Brenda had gotten lost in her own thoughts and hasn’t said much for the block and a half that they’ve walked. “But she worked really hard so-”

“She’s a great cook, I know I’ll like whatever it is,” Brenda says and then, “Do I really look that tired?”

“Well, she got home super late and she said she stopped by your apartment before she came home so I imagine you didn’t get a lot of sleep,” he says.

“She told you that?” Brenda asks, going still inside. Holds herself carefully so she doesn’t give anything away.

“She said she wanted to be the first one to wish you happy birthday,” he says.

Well, she’d certainly accomplished that in her own way. Brenda smirks at the memory.

“What did you guys do, anyway?” he asks, his blue eyes wide, his hands in his pockets as they walk.

“What?” Brenda asks, nearly tripping over her own feet in surprise.

“How do you celebrate a birthday at two in the morning?”

“Oh,” Brenda laughs uneasily. “Girl stuff. You know. Girls.”

“I honestly don’t know that much about girls,” Rusty says. “Not sure I want to.”

“Girls aren’t so bad,” she says.

“Not my particular cup of tea,” he says. “But I like Sharon and I like you.”

He unlocks the glass doors to the condo building and holds the door open for her. In the elevator he starts looking a little nervous.

“We went a little crazy on your present. I hope you like it.”

“I thought dinner was my present?” she says.

“It’s part of it,” he promises. When they get down the hall and to the door, he says, “We’re supposed to knock.”

“For heaven’s sake,” she says and pounds on the door. “Might as well have just stayed home and eaten take out for all this-”

But she doesn’t finish the thought or the sentence because when the door opens, something extraordinary happens.

“Daddy!”

Brenda finds herself wrapped in his warm arms like so many times before and it’s not the sight of him that makes her cry, but the smell of him, so familiar, so deeply ingrained into all her most important memories. “Daddy,” she says again, but this time it’s a sob.

“I couldn’t miss my best girl’s birthday,” he says, laughing at her display but he sounds a little choked up, too, truth be told. She gets so worked up, so emotional, that it takes her a moment to realize that the person standing behind her daddy isn’t Sharon at all.

“Charlie,” she manages. “Oh honey, come here, come here.”

Her niece grins, hugs her mess of an aunt. “I couldn’t let grandpa fly all the way out here on his own,” she whispers.

Brenda looks past Charlie to see Sharon watching the display. She nods at Brenda once, as if extremely pleased with herself and turns away, heads into the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Charlie and her daddy stay two more nights. Brenda calls out of work on Friday so she can spend the day with them and they’ll have Saturday too. They’ll leave Sunday morning so Charlie can get back in time for her Monday class. But she has them for two days and that’s worth something. Sharon has to work Friday, but she promises to meet them for dinner. She and Clay seem to have become friendly - apparently she’d talked to him quite a bit in arranging for them to come out for her birthday.

Brenda floats several ideas - Disneyland, the beach, the movies, but Clay takes one look around her apartment and orders Charlie to look up open houses on Brenda’s laptop.

“Oh daddy,” she says. “This place is fine. I like it here.”

“It’s tiny,” Clay says. “You don’t even have space for us to stay with you. We had to get a hotel room!”

“It’s a real nice one,” Charlie jumps in, trying to mediate. “Sharon booked the room for us.”

“I know this is not ideal, but I just don’t have time and you know, daddy, I’m never home all that much anyway,” Brenda says. And that certainly used to be the case when she was still on the force and working a detective’s hours but while she does work long weekdays, she’s home nearly every weekend. He looks at her like he can smell her bullshit a mile away.

“Okay,” Charlie says. “This website lets you input some parameters - house specifications, neighborhood, architectural style. You can even put in your credit score and your salary and a down payment and it can predict how much you should spend.”

Brenda sticks her thumbnail into her mouth and holds it between her teeth. “Really?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Okay, sit here and fill in everything you know.”

“We really don’t have to do this now,” Brenda says. Clay is walking the perimeter of her living room, gazing up at the ceiling with a look of consternation.

“That crack,” he says. “That been here the whole time?”

“I dunno, daddy,” she says, exasperation creeping in. “I’ve only been here a little over a year.”

“Hmm,” he says. “Single paned windows, too.” He knocks hard on the glass and it rattles through Brenda’s teeth. “You always have this much noise from upstairs?”

“Only when you’re here,” she mutters, plopping into the chair Charlie vacated for her. Charlie smirks. “Where are my glasses?”

“Here,” Charlie says, grabbing them off the kitchen counter and handing them to Brenda. She slips them on her face and gazes at the screen. Starts to peck things in the field. “Seriously?” Charlie squawks behind her. “Seriously?”

“What?” Brenda asks.

“That’s your salary?” Charlie says.

“That girl Sharon,” her daddy says. “Her condominium is nice. Maybe you could do something like that!”

“Maybe there’s an empty unit in her building,” Charlie says.

“Okay, wait, stop,” Brenda says. “I’m two blocks away and you think I don’t live close enough to Sharon?”

Charlie rolls her eyes. “We just like her, that’s all, and she seems to make you happy, too.”

“I don’t think I’m a condo person,” Brenda says. She rubs her face in frustration. “I wish I had never sold my house out here in the first place!”

“Why did you?” Charlie asks.

“Fritz,” she says, trying not to spit the name. “The house was perfectly fine for two people but he didn’t like things that weren’t his idea in the first place.”

“What was it like?” Charlie asks.

“It was a craftsman,” she says. “Furnished. Good neighborhood. It was only two bedrooms, one bath, but it would’ve been fine.”

“So let’s look in that neighborhood,” Charlie says. “That house is gone, but there’s gotta be something similar.”

“Buying a house in Los Angeles,” Brenda says, shaking her head. “It’s like tryin’ strike gold except instead of a river and gold pan you have a sidewalk and, and… a toothpick, oh, I don’t know, Charlie, it’s really hard!”

“Your incredible metaphors aside,” Charlie says dryly. “It’s not gonna hurt anything to look.”

“Your friend Sharon,” Clay says. “What does she think of this place?”

“She likes it fine,” Brenda says tersely. She’s happy her father likes Sharon, she’s happy everyone seems to be falling all over themselves over how great Sharon is, lord knows that’s a lesson she’s finally learned but it’s a delicate balance. It’s hard to be around her family and Sharon at the same time. She feels like she’s being pulled in too many directions. Like if she looks at Sharon too long or not long enough, everything about how she feels will become visible, just marching right across her face. She might be the best liar this side of the Mississippi, but as far as Sharon is concerned, Brenda never quite feels like she has a handle on things.

“Hmm,” Clay says. “You must spend a lot of time at her place.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snaps, looking up from the computer screen.

“I just mean she seems too classy to spend time in this place,” Clay says. “You’re the most successful of all my children and you’re livin’ here, I just can’t fathom-”

“You don’t like it! Daddy! Loud and clear!” she says.

“Grandpa,” Charlie says. “Why don’t we let Aunt Brenda fill out her form and we’ll go pick up lunch. I’ll drive. Come on.”

Brenda is grateful, nods. “Thank you. Yes, that’d be fine. Here, hon, take my keys.” She waves at her purse and Charlie goes over and digs them out.

“Come on, Grandpa,” she says. “We can look up real estate agents on yelp while we’re out.”

The moment they’re gone, Brenda calls Sharon.

“Raydor,” she answers, though it’s her cell phone so she knows good and well it’s Brenda on the other end.

“Have I thanked you for my birthday gift yet?” she snaps.

“Yes,” Sharon says.

“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much.”

Sharon chuckles. “Is the honeymoon over?”

“No,” she says. “It’s just daddy hates my apartment and now they want to go house hunting but I’m not sure I’m ready for all of that.”

“Maybe, but you know that makes good financial sense,” she says. “To buy rather than rent.”

“I know,” Brenda says. It’s not like she hasn’t been thinking about it.

“But you don’t like change,” Sharon says. “I get it. You’ve had a lot of change… recently.”

“Anywhere I move would be moving away from you,” she says in a rush. “I don’t want that.”

“If you find a place that you like, we’ll talk about it okay?” Sharon says. “In the mean time, try to enjoy your very elaborate and complicated gift and I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”

“Where do you want to go? I can make a reservation,” she says.

“No need, I was planning on cooking,” Sharon says.

“You just did, I can’t ask you to do it again,” Brenda says.

“It’s my pleasure,” she says. “But I have to go so if you can survive today, just come over around seven.”

“Okay,” she says. “I- okay. Bye.”

She hangs up and puts her phone down, horrified with herself.

What had she almost just said?

oooo

Brenda is so high strung and worn out by the time they get to Sharon’s building that she forgets to buzz up and just unlocks the lobby door with her key. No one says anything but she can see her father thinking about it all the way up to the 11th floor. Charlie shoots ahead when the elevator opens and is the first one at the door - she knocks and smiles back at Brenda.

Rusty opens the door and says, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Charlie says with a smile.

“Come on in. Hi, Mr. Johnson,” he says. “Chief Investigator.”

“Mr. Beck,” Brenda says.

They all file in and Sharon greets them from the kitchen. Brenda gets a flash of her own mother in the kitchen back in Atlanta at Christmas time in her ruffled red apron, sees it right over Sharon in her own kitchen. Sharon’s red apron isn’t ruffled but the feeling she gets is just the same. Like coming home.

“Hi guys,” she says. “Come in, come in. What can I get you to drink?”

It takes a while to get her alone, but eventually Charlie and Rusty go out on the balcony and her father uses the restroom so Brenda all but drags Sharon into her bedroom and closes the door behind them.

“Hi,” Sharon says.

“We looked at three houses,” Brenda says.

“Great,” Sharon says a little uncertainly. “Did you like any of them?”

“I guess,” Brenda says. “There was a three bed, two bath that was nice but I dunno.”

“And this is some sort of bedroom only secret you needed to share?” Sharon asks, with a smile that Brenda knows is supposed to calm her down.

“No I just… I just…” Brenda can’t help it - her chin starts to wobble, her eyes filling.

“Okay,” Sharon says, putting her arms around Brenda and pulling her into a hug. “It’s hard, I know. I remember. Fifty is hard.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she says, but she hugs back hard. “I just don’t know why you put up with me, that’s all.”

Sharon chuckles.

“No really,” Brenda says. “Why do you?”

Sharon pulls back and looks at her, that concerned line between her perfect eyebrows. “Because you’re Brenda.”

“What does that mean?” Brenda asks.

“It means you’re my best friend. You’re my…” Sharon shakes her head. “You’re everything to me, you’re what I thought I could never have.” She smiles, runs her hands down Brenda’s arms. “And Rusty trusts you and I do too.” She leans in and kisses just the corner of her mouth. “We will continue this conversation after your family has gone home.”

Brenda nods. “Okay.”

“And if you like that house, I’ll come look at it with you,” Sharon promises. “Come on, now. I made brownies.”

“With frosting?” Brenda asks, sniffling a little.

“Don’t push your luck,” Sharon says, opening the door. Clay is sitting on the sofa, alone in the living room.

“I was starting to worry I’d been abandoned,” he says.

“Nonsense,” Sharon says. “If I made coffee, would you have some?”

“I reckon I would,” Clay says. Brenda goes to the sliding glass door and pulls it open just enough to stick her head out. Rusty and Charlie are hunched over one tiny, glowing phone screen, laughing.

“What are you two doin’ out here?” she asks.

“Watching vines,” Charlie says.

“What’s that mean?” Brenda asks.

“Internet stuff,” Rusty says. Which means he’s not going to waste time explaining it to her.

“Y’all come back in and get some dessert,” she says. “And then I’ll take you guys back to the hotel.”

“Can I stay in the apartment with you tonight?” Charlie asks. “Grandpa snores.” Brenda glances back to the kitchen where Sharon is standing over her glass tray of brownies, spreading white frosting over the top.

“Sure,” Brenda says. “Whatever you want, kiddo.”

When her daddy is in his hotel room and Charlie and Brenda are home, tucked into her bed in the dark, Charlie says, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” she says.

“It’s not really a question,” Charlie says. “It’s more about something Rusty said tonight when we were outside.”

“Okay,” Brenda says, starting to feel a little nervous.

“About Sharon,” she says. “And about you.”

Brenda is silent and sucks her bottom lip in between her teeth.

“Rusty seems to think that Sharon has like, a crush on you?” Charlie says.

Brenda exhales, laughing nervously. “We’re best friends,” Brenda says. “We’re very close.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Charlie says. “He thinks you have a crush on her too.”

Brenda clenches at the comforter in her hands.

“I mean, or whatever you call it when you’re not a kid anymore. Do adults get crushes?” she asks, but it’s rhetorical and Brenda doesn’t answer. “She is very pretty.”

“Charlie-”

“I was like, well what evidence do you have, Rusty?” Charlie says. “And then he actually laid out a pretty compelling case, I gotta say.”

“What did he say?” Brenda hears herself demand.

“Well, that you guys have keys to each other’s apartments,” Charlie says.

“That’s a safety issue!”

“And that Sharon comes over here a lot at strange times,” Charlie says.

“She works very abnormal hours,” Brenda says.

“That you’re always getting ready for stuff together and touching each other’s hair and sharing makeup and stuff,” Charlie says.

“For cryin’ out loud, Charlene,” Brenda says, relaxing a little. “That’s just called being friends.”

“And he saw you kiss her once,” Charlie says.

“What?” Brenda squeaks. “When?”

“Ha!” Charlie says. “Do you kiss her?”

“This is really… this is not really something we should…” Brenda says helplessly.

“I kissed a girl once,” Charlie says. “Sophomore year at a party. It was okay. Like, it wasn’t as weird as I thought it was going to be but I also didn’t feel like it was amazing or anything.”

Brenda sits up, pushes her hair out of her face and turns on the lamp. Charlie looks up at her with squinting eyes.

“Oh no, you’re mad,” she says.

“Where did he see us kissing?” she demands.

“In the car, I think,” she says. “Like you were dropping Sharon off and you guys just leaned in. That’s all he told me.”

That isn’t so bad, she thinks. That can be explained away. Friends kiss, even. Lean in, friendly pecks. Hello, goodbye.

“Listen,” Brenda says. “It’s not… it’s not like we’re lying.”

“Holy crap,” Charlie says, sitting up with her hand over her mouth. “I thought he was being paranoid. But you guys are actually dating?”

“No,” Brenda says. “No! It ain’t like that. We’re just friends. Just… really good friends.”

“So you’re doing a friends with benefits thing,” Charlie says.

Brenda shakes her head. “I don’t-”

“You’re just having sex,” Charlie clarifies.

Brenda wants to say no, that it’s not like that either but she realizes it’s exactly like that. They’re best friends and when they’re alone they have sex but they don’t go on traditional dates, they don’t hold hands in public, they’re not girlfriends, they’re not a couple.

“Somethin’ like that,” Brenda whispers.

“Wow,” Charlie says. “Wow, Aunt Brenda. That’s so hipster of you.”

Brenda shakes her head. “You can’t tell Rusty, honey, you just can’t.”

“How is that not lying?” she asks.

“It’s up to Sharon to explain it to him,” Brenda says. “He isn’t like you and me. He didn’t grow up in a good home and he needs time to process things. Sharon is his mama and she gets to decide about stuff like this for him. So I don’t care if he asked you to snoop around or figure something out but you can’t tell him.”

Charlie nods.

“Or grandpa!” she says.

“Yeah, like I want to talk about gay sex with grandpa, get real,” Charlie says, flopping back onto the bed. Brenda cross her arms, rubs her hands over her biceps. “It’s not a big deal. As long as you’re happy or whatever. I really like Sharon, actually. She’s cool.”

“She is cool,” Brenda says, and reaches over to turn the lamp off again.

“So you’re not in love or anything?” Charlie says. “It’s just benefits?”

“It’s complicated,” Brenda says. “It’s not like we’re teenagers anymore. We have careers to think about. We can’t just… change our minds and… come out.” But guilt gurgles in her tummy as she says this because she has no idea what Sharon thinks of any of it and hasn’t spent enough time thinking on it to know how she really feels, either.

“People can get married now,” Charlie says. “It’s not like it used to be.”

“You don’t know this yet,” Brenda says sadly. “But we both work in fields that are very male and it’s just not that different for women, yet. Not really.”

“That’s shitty,” Charlie says. “You know who would have really liked Sharon? Grandma.”

“Oh, she does,” Brenda says. “Did, I mean. She did. They met once.”

“I miss her,” Charlie says, rolling over onto her side.

“Me too,” Brenda says.

oooo

A courier drops off a package for Brenda to her office - her assistant has to go down to the lobby to sign for it and brings it up, knocking lightly on her door and bringing it in.

“Where’s it from?” Brenda asks. Sarah looks down with a frown.

“The mayor’s office,” she says. “Were you expecting something?”

“No,” she says. She sticks the whole package into her purse and stands. “Whatever it is is gonna have to wait.”

She forgets about it until she gets home and sees it in her bag while she’s reaching in for her house keys. She pushes open the door and is just reaching into her bag to pull the thick brown envelope out when she realizes someone is in her apartment.

“Hello, stranger.”

“Sharon!” she says. “You’re here! But it isn’t even dark!”

“We wrapped up our case today,” she says. “I should’ve called but Rusty has his evening class tonight, so…” She trails off. “Did you have plans?”

“No,” Brenda reassures her. “It’s good. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.”

This causes Sharon to close up real quick. Brenda can see it as clear as anything - can read Sharon’s body language just as easy as she’d gobbled up that German romance novel on the plane ride home. But while it’s her first tempting instinct to lie or to charm, with Sharon she’s been working so hard to play it straight. To be honest because honesty is something that Sharon values.

“Oh?” she says.

“Nothin’ bad,” Brenda says. “You hungry? We could order somethin’.”

Sharon looks frustrated, her lips tight but nods. “That would be nice.”

Brenda points to the take-out menu drawer and says, “I’m going to go change.”

She puts on jeans and leaves the tank top she’d been wearing under her blazer on, replaces it with a light sweater. Takes her hair down and shakes it out. It’s gotten long again, long enough that sometimes she gets headaches from having up all day. She’s due for a trim, for a whole spa day, maybe. She glances through the open bedroom door at Sharon who is looking through glossy menus, one hand on her small waist. Maybe that’s something they could do together? Before she wouldn’t have hesitated - friends go to the spa! But now, she worries it might seem too much like something a couple would do and frustration wells up inside of her. This is the problem! This is what they need to talk about and Brenda knows herself enough to know she’s never wanted to talk about anything like this before with previous partners, so why now, with Sharon, does she feel willing to lay it all on the line?

“I’m fine with Chinese,” she says. “It’s the fastest.”

Brenda nods, reaches for her phone in her purse.

“Wait -” Sharon says. “Wait. If you have something serious to talk about that’s going to end up with me wanting to leave, I’d just as soon not order dinner first.”

Brenda sets her phone back down and Sharon squints her eyes, the lines that Brenda loves so much deepening at her temples.

“I see,” she says.

“No,” Brenda says. “I’m not… it’s not bad! I just want to talk about Charlie’s visit and Rusty.”

Sharon blinks, surprised. “You want to talk about Charlie and Rusty,” she repeats.

“Listen,” Brenda says, stepping up to her. Just so they’re closer, just so if Sharon bolts, Brenda can have a fighting chance of hanging on to her. “I’m all for us figuring things out on our own. I’m all for privacy but I think maybe it would be better not to hide it from Rusty?”

“We’re not,” Sharon says. “We aren’t hiding. We’re just not advertising.”

“Okay, well that’s a fine line,” Brenda says. “Regardless, he shared with Charlie his suspicions about… the nature of things between us. And she shared that with me. So I think it’s a matter of time only, really, before he starts asking you questions about it. Do you know what you’re gonna say?”

“I…” She shakes her head. “If he asked me straight out, I wouldn’t lie to him.”

“Nobody is calling you a liar,” Brenda says. “But honey - he’s so smart and observant and he’s going to figure it out.”

“He’s a journalist,” she whispers.

“And he’s already got the story,” Brenda agrees. “I’m not sayin’ you sit him down and give him the play by play but maybe we just don’t work so hard at hiding it? Give him something to ask about.”

“Lead him down the garden path,” Sharon says dryly. “I know how you work.”

Brenda smirks. “Tried and true, though. Now, that’s all I wanted to say about it. Let’s order.”

“Something to think about,” Sharon says. But it’s not until after they order, after Brenda uncorks a wine bottle and pours two glasses that Sharon picks up the conversational thread again and says, “I gave Rusty all the space in the world to come out to me. I never thought I’d have to figure out how to come out to him, too.”

Brenda sits next to her on the sofa, leans in, nudges their knees together. “I’ll keep whatever secrets you want.”

“I don’t want you to do that,” she says. “I don’t want keep secrets from him.” She dips her head and smiles over her wine glass. “But a small part of me wants to keep you all for myself.”

“Well you’ve got me right now,” Brenda says. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Oh, you think you’re cute,” Sharon laughs. But she leans in, brushes her mouth against Brenda’s. Teases for awhile, pulling away when Brenda leans in for more, smirking when Brenda whimpers.

“Mean,” Brenda mutters. It doesn’t matter anyway - the doorbell clangs, the food arrives and Sharon knows better than to stand between Brenda and food. Brenda turns on the television while they eat - if Sharon thinks anything about it coming on to HGTV, she keeps her opinions to herself. It used to drive Fritz crazy, how she liked to watch home improvement shows yet had no interest in improving her own home. But there’s something comforting about watching other people pull their life together. Choose floors and paint colors and accent pillows. Value aesthetics as much as anything else in life.

“This is weirdly soothing,” Sharon says.

“I know,” Brenda agrees.

“This is your food network,” Sharon says. “Or like when Rusty watches golf.”

“Golf?” she says, surprised.

“I know, it is interesting,” Sharon says. “I offered to get him lessons but he has no desire to play it. He just likes the commentators and how evenly paced everything is. Little ball in the little hole. Not so complicated.”

“Hey whatever happened to that boy he was seein’?” Brenda asks. “Michael?”

“Hmm,” Sharon says. “He didn’t tell me exactly but it didn’t work out. He’s talking to someone else now and hasn’t told me about that either but it’s obvious. He’s always texting someone.”

“Like mother, like son, I guess,” Brenda teases. Sharon glares and picks up their dishes. Brenda hops up to help, closing the containers and stacking them so she can carry them to the refrigerator. They clean efficiently together. Sharon rinses the dishes, Brenda wipes down the coffee table where they ate. It doesn’t feel like a chore, it feels domestic. And Brenda knows that when they’re done, Sharon will turn that laser focus back onto Brenda and lately it’s been a very good thing.

“More wine?” Brenda offers.

“No,” Sharon says, drying her hands on a kitchen towel and hanging it back up. “No, that’s not what I want.”

“Dessert?” Brenda says.

“Of a kind,” Sharon replies, the corner over her mouth twitching.

“Oh, I think I know what you’re after,” Brenda says. “Follow me.” Sharon trails her to her bedroom, shedding shoes and jacket along the way. It’s all still so new and they don’t know exactly how to ask for what they want, but they’re figuring it out together. Brenda’s bed is unmade, rumpled and her shoes are still on the floor by the closet door, her nightstand piled with books, bobby pins, reading glasses, a little ball of wadded up silver foil. None of this phases Sharon; she still kisses Brenda, still climbs into the bed with her, still buries her hands deep into Brenda’s hair.

She’s pushing Brenda’s sweater off her shoulders when she hesitates and says, “You’re still okay with all of this, right?”

“Huh?” Brenda asks. She feels like she missed something - it’s hard to think when she’s blissed out on kisses and touching, when all she can smell and see and hear is Sharon. It’s the best drug she’s ever been on, that’s for sure.

“This,” Sharon says. “Sex. Us.”

“Are you?” Brenda asks.

“I’m being serious,” Sharon says. “I don’t want you to feel like we can’t stop because of my enthusiasm.”

“That’s very sweet,” Brenda says. “But listen. Are you listening?”

Sharon rolls her eyes. “Yes.”

“Good, because I want you to really hear me here,” Brenda says.

“I’m listening!” Sharon says.

Brenda leans in, her mouth close enough to brush against Sharon’s ear. “I want you to do real bad things to me, Captain.”

Sharon closes her eyes, as if she needs just a moment to collect herself. Opens her eyes to see Brenda’s wicked smile.

Kisses that smile right off of her face.

oooo

The after is good, too. The after is great. Still, Brenda wonders what it would be like to just roll over and fall asleep, her head pillowed on those perfect breasts. To tuck into Sharon for the rest of the night, to wake up to see that ivory skin still bare and bathed in the morning light. But Brenda doesn’t ask her to stay because she understands that unlike herself, Sharon has someone to go home to. So she stays in bed, wrapped up in the bedsheet and watches Sharon hunt through the clothes on the floor. She picks up a pair of panties and then another - both black.

“Are these mine or yours?” she asks, finally. “Do we just have the same pair of underwear and were wearing them on the same day?”

“I dunno,” Brenda says.

“What are the odds of that, do you think? I mean actually? The probability?”

“Put them both in the hamper and take a clean pair from the drawer and don’t kill my buzz by asking me to do math,” Brenda says. Sharon complies, pulls a pale pink pair from the drawer and steps into them. Brenda likes boyshorts and she’s never seen Sharon in that cut before and it’s cute. It makes her thighs look adorable. And she doesn’t mean to do it, doesn’t realize she’s even out of bed until she’s pressing Sharon up against the dresser, kissing her all over again. Sharon laughs into her mouth surprised, maybe, at her gusto and presses against her shoulder lightly.

“Brenda,” she says. “I don’t have time to start over.”

“Yes you do,” Brenda says, kissing her jaw instead. “I just need twenty more minutes.” She claims lips again and she can feel Sharon’s hesitation still, can feel the moment, too, that she gives in. Starts kissing back. It doesn’t matter that they’re still sticky and warm from the first time, it doesn’t matter that Brenda is tired and she knows Sharon is too. There’s something about those pink, lacy briefs that just does it for Brenda. She covers Sharon’s bare breast with one hand and then slides it down her ribs, over her belly, right past the lace and the cotton. Sharon’s head falls back.

“Careful,” Sharon whispers. She’s still sensitive, more sticky than slippery but Brenda can be gentle, too. She can ease one finger in, can press her hand against Sharon’s swollen clit, can feel the new arousal mixing with the old. “Oh,” Sharon breathes. Sucks in a fast breath when Brenda adds another finger. “Is it… is it because I’m wearing your underwear?” she manages.

“No,” Brenda says, watching her face so carefully. Every time her eyebrows furrow, when her mouth goes slack with pleasure. “It’s the pink.”

Sharon groans and says, “Pink?”

Things are certainly slippery down there now. Brenda grins, moving her fingers faster and Sharon holds onto the dresser, now, so she has some support. Spreads her legs a little more and looks down where Brenda’s hand is moving behind the pink fabric.

“I never see you wearin’ pink,” Brenda says. “It’s sexy.”

“It, uh,” Sharon says, and Brenda can feel her clench down on her fingers a little, chasing the pleasure. “Clashes… hair.” No more full sentences for Sharon. That’s just fine, Brenda thinks. She dips her head to brush her lips over Sharon’s collarbone, the little spray of freckles there. Sharon thrusts against the hand but then huffs a frustrated sigh. “I can’t.”

“Just relax,” Brenda murmurs into flushed skin. She glances up at Sharon’s face, flushed and glowing but she can see frustration there, like she’s trying. Maybe it’s too much - the standing and Brenda’s insistent fingers. But there’s something else they could try. Something Brenda’s been thinking about. “Okay,” she says instead and regretfully pushes down the panties. Sharon steps out of them, follows Brenda to the bed. “Sit down.”

Sharon looks mildly concerned when Brenda yanks open her nightstand drawer, downright conflicted when Brenda pulls out a vibrator.

“Is everything you own pink?” Sharon asks. It’s a deflection, Brenda can tell because Sharon crosses her arms and brings her knees together. The vibrator is simple, pink, shaped like a penis. Brenda had bought it on the internet ages ago, well before the divorce. She and Fritz had always played an elaborate game of both of them pretending like he didn’t know it was there. They’d never used it together which makes it feel okay to bring it out now.

“Some things don’t get made in pink,” Brenda says, crawling onto the bed.

“That’s, um, large,” Sharon says, squinting at it.

“I wasn’t planning on putting it inside you,” Brenda says. “Unless that’s something you want?”

“Maybe another time,” Sharon says and isn’t that something? Brenda files that away to think about later. She wonders if it’s something Sharon misses. She does a little - not having something jammed up inside her as much as how much easier it is to ride an actual penis as opposed to a manufactured one. Getting the fake one not attached to anyone to stay still long enough is a challenge. Of course, now she’s thinking about Sharon wearing a fake penis and it’s weird, yes, but also weirdly hot? “Brenda?”

“Hmm?” she says, looking at Sharon.

“What do you want to do?” Sharon says pointing to the vibrator. “With that?”

Brenda sets it down on the bed because obviously Sharon is feeling a little threatened by it. She has to think for a moment about how to sit, but she pulls Sharon’s legs until one of them is draped over hers and one under and then scooches until they’re closer. It’s not graceful, she can just tell by Sharon’s suppressed smile that turns into a smirk but that smirk melts right off her face when she scoots in the last little bit and they slide together, all warm, slippery heat. They work together for a few moments, thrusting and moving against each other and it’s pleasurable but it’s not enough, not even when Sharon starts kissing her, not even when Sharon shifts so she can sit up and hug Brenda to her, her long legs curving around Brenda like a dancer.

They kiss and kiss and then the black tendrils of desperation start creeping in on Brenda’s vision and from the way Sharon is panting, Brenda knows she feels it too. Before she just wanted to make Sharon feel good but now she wants to lose herself in it just as hard. She reaches out, patting the mattress until her hand wraps around the cool latex shaft.

“What-”

“Trust me,” Brenda says. She shifts her hips back and slips it vertically between them and it’s weird at first, too cold, too dry but they shift again, coating it a little and it settles more comfortably, their bodies holding it into place. Brenda twists the top and feels the first soft jolt as it starts to softly buzz. Brenda presses into it which pushes it more firmly against Sharon.

“Oh,” Sharon says. “Okay. That’s… that’s fine.”

Brenda smiles, wraps her arms around Sharon and pulls her closer. “You like it.” She twists to the next setting and the buzzing gets louder, the vibrations more intense. Sharon gasps, the tip of her tongue coming out to settle on her top lip for just a moment. She moves her hips again and something must shift right into place because she drops her head to Brenda’s shoulder and lets out a deep moan. That noise shoots pleasure up Brenda’s spine as well as any vibrator does and Brenda gets serious, focusing on the sensations, the waves of pleasure, the thick smell of sex in the room, how Sharon’s lips find Brenda’s salty neck and whimper into her skin. “You’ll come like this, won’t you?” Brenda whispers.

Sharon nods against her, humming an affirmative. She digs her nails into Brenda’s back.

“Are you close already?”

“It’s so good,” Sharon moans. “It’s too… come with me.”

Brenda slides one hand down to Sharon’s lower back and braces her, thrusting harder now. The vibrator slips a little and Sharon reaches out to hold it in place and it’s even better because now they can really grind against it and Sharon is whimpering with every panting breath. Oh yes, she’s very close.

“Turn it up,” Brenda instructs and Sharon doesn’t even hesitate, just gives the top a hard twist and the vibrator roars up to the full setting, sending a jolt straight to Brenda’s clit, up her spine, out to each fingertip, just white hot intensity that feels like it lodges right in Brenda’s throat.

Sharon, though, little miss proper Sharon who comes quiet as a church mouse takes a deep breath in and then wails, curling in on herself as the orgasm wracks her whole body and that’s enough to send Brenda flying too. It’s Sharon who finally pulls the toy away, unable to stand it, and they press back together, filling the space. Brenda can feel the spasms as Sharon clutches at her, their breasts pressed together, their legs tangled, their sweaty, flushed skin the only thing keeping their bodies from falling entirely to pieces.

It takes awhile for Sharon to come back to herself. She’s trembling in Brenda’s arms, her gasps uneven, her eyes scrunched closed.

“You okay?” Brenda asks. The toy is still buzzing beside them, glistening. Brenda would turn it off but she’s not sure Sharon wants her to let go.

“Mmm,” Sharon says.

Not exactly an answer. Brenda risks it, reaches over and turns the vibrator off and the silence settles around them. Sharon opens her eyes and they’ve got the glossy sheen of tears.

“Oh, honey,” Brenda says. “It was too much.”

“No,” Sharon says. “I mean… it was good. I just… I went 58 years thinking that I wasn’t that interested in sex or that maybe I just wasn’t good at it but… I think I was with the wrong sort of partner all along.”

Brenda gives her a soft smile. It’s a sweet revelation and Brenda feels honored that Sharon has shared it with her. For Sharon, her bisexuality is hitting her like a freight train and Brenda can get how that might happen, but for Brenda, here in the thick of things, it just makes a perfect sort of sense. Of course sex with Sharon is as good as any sex she’s ever had with men. Of course women are beautiful, they always have been. No, the real shock of all of this for Brenda is the idea that friendship can grow into something like this without incurring damage. She’s never been friends first - always dated right from the start and got to know men along the way but this is so much better, laughably better. To already have the foundation of trust, to discover the physical intimacy in a safe environment. Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Brenda kisses her cheek. “It’s definitely not you,” she says reassuringly. “You’re so beautiful and smart and I’m forever impressed by how you make me feel.” Another kiss on the other cheek. “Thank you for indulgin’ me.”

Sharon finally breaks her vice grip and leans back enough so they can untangle and stretch out. “I wish I could stay.”

“It’s probably for the best as I’d just want to do this all night long and we’d never get any sleep,” Brenda says but only because she wishes she could stay too.

“I’m already too old for twice in one night, I’m not sure I’d survive till morning,” Sharon says, lying back. “I need a shower.”

“You deserve one,” Brenda says. “Go crazy.”

Brenda’s phone rings when Sharon’s in the bathroom, the shower not quite drowning out the sound of Sharon’s drowsy humming. She pulls the cell phone off the nightstand and sees that it’s Rusty.

“Hi honey,” she says. “I thought you were at school.”

“I was, but I’m home now,” he says. “Is my mom there?”

“She is,” Brenda says. “I have leftovers. You want to come over? You can walk her home.”

“Okay,” he says. “Give me like fifteen minutes.”

“Perfect,” Brenda says. Brenda slips on her robe, belts it tight and puts up her hair with a plastic clip. Picks through the dirty clothes on the ground. Sharon had come over in slacks and a blouse. The slacks are fine, but her blouse is a little damp from when Brenda had mouthed a nipple right through the fabric so she roots around in her drawers to find Sharon a pair of less enticing underwear and a clean t-shirt to wear home. She knocks before going into the bathroom but still pulls back the curtain a little. Sharon is just standing there under the spray; her hair gets so dark when it's all wet.

“Rusty called,” Brenda says. Sharon’s eyes look up, meet hers. She looks tired but satisfied and though she’s obviously thinking heavy thoughts, Brenda isn’t worried. “He’s coming over to walk you home.”

“He’s coming here?” Sharon asks.

“I’m gonna feed him and then you two can walk home together,” Brenda says. “I left you clothes on the bed.”

Brenda pulls on underwear under her robe, unties the robe’s belt and puts on a bra before tying it up tight again. Good enough.

She moves her dry cleaning into the small closet, the hangers all screeching on the rod as she shoves everything aside to make room. Then she closes the bedroom door so Sharon can sort herself out in peace. Brenda catches her reflection in the kitchen window, her smudged makeup, her rosy skin. Oh well. Rusty’s already drawing conclusions, they may as well be the right ones.

He knocks instead of ringing the bell, good kid, and when she opens the door he looks a little startled. “Hello, Mrs. Robinson,” he says.

“Ha ha,” she replies, letting him in.

"Where’s Sharon?”

“She’s almost ready,” Brenda says. “You want to warm up your dinner or eat it cold?”

“Warm please,” he says. So Brenda gets out a clean plate, the beef and broccoli, the chicken fried rice, the last of the eggrolls and warms everything up for him.

“I have water or diet coke or, uh, cranberry juice, looks like,” she says, peering into the refrigerator.

“Diet Coke,” he says, so she pulls him out a can and even cracks it for him before handing it over. He sits at the kitchen table and she moves her tote out of the way and sits in the other chair.

“How was class?” she asks. “You’re getting close to the end of the semester right?”

“Yeah, finals in two weeks,” he says. “I feel kind of swamped and Sharon’s already talking about transferring to a regular four year college, so I don’t even know.”

“Really?” Brenda asks, the bulky brown envelope from the Mayor’s office catching her eye from her bag once again. She reaches down for it. “Where?”

“She says USC or UCLA but, I’m not sure I’d even get into schools like that.”

“Of course you would,” she says flopping the package onto the table. “You’re smart and you’ve got an interesting story.”

“There are some pretty cool schools in Orange County,” he says. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Hmm,” Brenda says, tearing open the package. “Probably just go to whichever school gives you the most money.”

“That’s how you decide?” Rusty asks. “Really?”

“It is these days,” she says. She peers in the envelope, pulls out a thick piece of letterhead that has a handwritten note on it.

I do hope you’ll seriously consider this. It’s far past time for someone like you to head the force. Eric.

She looks behind the letterhead and sees it - application for Chief of Police. This one is blank, of course, but familiar nonetheless. Good lord. She shoves it back into the envelope.

“What’s that?” Rusty asks.

“Nothin’,” she says. “Nothin’, nothin’. Work stuff.”

Thankfully, Sharon comes out dressed except for her bare feet and her wet hair tucked behind her ears, her glasses on her head, her face clean and makeup free.

“Hi,” she says. “How was class?”

“Hello,” he says, eyeing her suspiciously and then turning back to Brenda in her robe. “What… what’s happening, here, exactly?”

Sharon smiles at him, comes over and drops a kiss on the top of his head. “Just spending some time with Brenda while you were gone,” she says. “But it’s late and we all have early mornings so finish up so we can go.”

Rusty watches them as he shovels down the last of his food and carries his plate to the sink.

“Dishwasher,” Sharon orders.

“Don’t bother,” Brenda says. “It’s clean. I’ve just been picking the clean dishes out to use.”

Sharon sighs heavily. “Of course you have.”

“We’re not all domestic goddesses,” Brenda says. Sharon doesn’t dignify her with a response, just steps into her shoes, bends over to pick up her purse. Brenda’s white shirt is a little short for her long torso, so she can see a sliver of skin when Sharon bends. She can see Sharon’s dark bra through the light fabric. She swallows, shakes it off. Walks them to the door.

“See you this weekend, maybe?” she asks hopefully.

“Count on it,” Sharon says and then, after only a little pause, one maybe only Brenda notices, she leans in and kisses Brenda lightly on the mouth.

“Um,” Rusty says loudly. “I have many questions.”

“We’ll take the long way home,” Sharon says. “Goodnight Brenda.”

“Goodnight you two,” she says. She shuts the door behind them and locks it, spins so she can rest her back against it.

Stares at her purse like something dangerous is inside.

Chapter Text

David is still the official liaison to the LAPD so she calls him to her office and Andrea too, because Andrea is still the best lawyer she’s ever met. She has Sarah fix a pot of coffee in a silver carafe and has picked up an assortment of pastries and when David and Andrea come in, they both look at the spread suspiciously.

“Oh God,” Andrea says. “What did you do?”

“Nothin’!” she says and then hedges. “Well. I just would like your advice on something.”

Andrea crosses her arms and Brenda understands why she’s such a good trial lawyer. She’s pretty and brilliant and more than a little intimidating.

“And David, I called you here to get your perspective as the LAPD liaison,” she adds.

“On what?” David asks. “What could I possibly know that you already don’t?”

“Have some coffee,” Brenda says. Her office has a conference table and she sits in one of the seats, opens her hand to the food. It’s good to move away from the desk, she thinks, to show that Brenda isn’t the expert here. Andrea shrugs, pours herself a cup and then David does too and they all sit.

“Chief?” Andrea says.

“Brenda,” Brenda corrects. “I can’t ask you not to say anything about this to the D.A. but I hope a little discretion will be okay.” Andrea nods.

“Of course,” she says.

“I need to know… I need your opinions on whether or not I even could,” Brenda says. “My transition from the LAPD to this office was fast and it was murky, so I’m not sure if I even could…”

“What?” David says. “What? I feel like I’m missing something here.”

But Andrea is smart and it doesn’t take long for her to put it together.

“This is about Will Pope, isn’t it?” she says. Brenda tilts her head, not quite a nod but it’s enough. “You think they won’t give him another term?”

“I’m not sure,” Brenda says. “The job got flashed, it’s out there, they’re accepting applications nationally.”

“Wait, Chief,” David says. “Are you going to apply to be Chief of Police? Again?”

“That’s what I need to know,” Brenda says. “I took this job, in part, to avoid the fallout from what I did to Philip Stroh. Had I stayed on the force, surely there would have been consequences. Censure, I might’ve been fired. But I left and so I’m not 100% sure what’s on my official record and what isn’t.”

“Record or not,” Andrea shrugs. “People know what happened. It’ll come up with the Police Commissioners.”

“Right,” Brenda says. “They love me.”

David grimaces but shakes his head. “On the other hand, Stroh just isn’t L.A.’s problem anymore,” David says. “Or California’s.”

“Or the United State’s,” Andrea adds. “Interpol is looking for him. Seems like if everyone had listened to you earlier, he wouldn’t have been able to kill again.”

“That’s certainly one way to spin it,” Brenda says.

“The only way,” Andrea says. “You’d have to make that really clear. You knew he was a serial rapist from day one and a murderer and that’s the kind of keen insight and instinct the Chief of Police should have.”

Brenda nods, slides a chocolate muffin toward herself.

“What does Sharon say?” Andrea asks.

Brenda breaks off part of the top of the muffin. Pops it into her mouth and looks up guiltily.

“You haven’t told Captain Raydor?” David says. “Who has more than a decade of experience with the Professional Standards Bureau and is your best friend in the world?”

“I’m gonna,” Brenda says. “I wanted to talk to you all first.”

“Brenda,” Andrea says gently. “She’s going to know better than we do what your status was when you left.”

There’s a question there, a big resounding why that Andrea didn’t come out and say but Brenda can hear nonetheless. Well, in for a penny…

“If I apply,” Brenda says. “If I get it, there’d be some concerns with chain of command.”

She shoves another huge piece of the muffin into her mouth and stares hard at the shiny varnished wood of her table. Counts to three in her head and then looks up. Andrea looks mildly puzzled. This time, it’s David who solves it. Not at first, but…

“No one can stop you from being friends with her, Chief, that’s just OH MY GOD!” he sputters, realization hitting him mid-sentence.

Brenda shoots him a stern look. “I’m not interested in your personal opinion, only your professional one,” she says.

“I swore up and down that was just a rumor,” David says, ignoring her, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I defended your honor!”

“My honor doesn’t need defending, firstly,” Brenda says. “And secondly, what rumor?”

“Oh!” Andrea says. “Oh. Poor Lieutenant Flynn!”

“What?” Brenda says. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Oh, he has a crush on the Captain, that’s all,” Andrea says, waving her hand once like it doesn’t really matter. Brenda will certainly be asking Sharon about that later.

“What rumor?” Brenda demands again.

“Well,” David says. “You came to the new years party together and then… you went to the LAPD one as well together, so… conclusions were drawn. People talk.”

She stares at him horrified.

“Just because two women are friends-” she sputters. “Not every female in law enforcement is automatically-”

“Of course not,” David says. “But you can’t get mad five seconds after you tell me it’s true!”

“Okay,” Andrea says, picking up her paper cup of coffee and standing. “Yes, I think there’s a real chance you could get back into the LAPD and you need to talk to Sharon about it. Anything else, I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear.”

“It’s not getting back in, Andrea, it’s the Chief of Police!” Brenda says.

“You had my support the first time, Brenda, you’ll have it now, too,” she says, kindly. Brenda nods.

“Thank you,” she says.

David doesn’t leave when she does, just sits and stares sullenly at his boss. “Can we talk about this? Off the record? Off the clock?”

“We can get a drink after work if you want,” she says. “We can talk about it.”

“Thank you,” he says. “I got some questions!” He picks up his coffee too, leans over and snags a cruller before heading for the door, shaking his head and muttering something that sounds distinctly like, “Crazy ass white women.”

oooo

They have a regular place they like to go, a restaurant that is halfway a bar. There’s always a big afterwork crowd, but they manage to snag a high top table in the lounge. David orders for them both, Brenda’s merlot and beer for him. She’s a little tired, but David has been a good employee and a better friend and it’s somewhat relieving, the idea of telling someone about everything that’s been happening to her.

When she’d left Fritz, she was willing to trade anything for her freedom, to get away from that wrong life that didn’t fit but freedom is isolating and lonely and now that she has Sharon and Rusty, she finds that friendship is good and important and she thinks she could nurture this one, too. Her and David.

“Okay,” David says. “I looked into it and as long as you disclose the relationship up front, they can’t ask you to end it, so that’s not really going to be an issue.”

“Relationship,” she says, feeling uneasy. “All right.”

“How do you go from hating each other to this?” David asks after Brenda doesn’t say anything for awhile. She picks up her wine glass, brings it to her lips. It’s the house wine, she can tell. She hadn’t specified a label and so this is what she gets. She sets the glass down again, smiles at him.

“I guess you have to ask yourself why you let that person bother you so much in the first place,” she says. “Usually when I don’t like someone I just ignore them but Sharon… Sharon always got under my skin in the worst way.”

“I remember,” David says.

“It was Rusty’s idea, you know. That we should be friends? And it didn’t work at first but at some point we just got used to it and then… and then I realized that I actually kind of liked Sharon. She’s really smart and she’s got this sort of organized and purposeful way about her that I just find really, um, attractive.”

Brenda blushes, turns her head a little.

“I guess I just didn’t know you felt that way about women,” he says.

“I certainly feel that way about Sharon,” she says. “David, if I throw my hat back into the ring for Chief, my life is going to be very closely examined and I don’t know if it’s gonna hold up. This thing with Sharon is new and it’s fragile and I can’t ask her and Rusty to live through that! I don’t even know if she’s willing!”

“If she’s not?” David says.

Brenda shakes her head. She can’t think about that yet.

Because what Brenda has figured is this: if her heart is a garden, the only thing growing in it, maybe the only thing that has ever grown in it, is Sharon. And if Sharon decides that she doesn’t want to be a part of what comes next for Brenda, then Brenda may as well close up shop all together.

“You don’t even seem like you want this - why are you even considering it?” David asks.

She sighs. “The Mayor asked me to.”

The look on David’s face - part jealousy, part surprise - is going to have to wait because her phone is buzzing in her purse. She fishes it out, answers it just in time.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi,” Sharon says. “Where are you? Are you outside?”

“No, I’m just… I went out with David and it’s loud here,” she says. She glances at him and he rolls his eyes, picks up his beer and turns slightly away like she’s going to need privacy. Like she’s going to tell Sharon now, over the phone. She’s bad at this, but she’s not suicidal.

“Oh, I thought maybe you’d come to dinner,” Sharon says.

Panic flares and she searches her memory. “Did I say I was coming to dinner?”

“No,” Sharon says. “It’s just… Friday night. I thought maybe you’d turn up anyway.”

“I can turn up for dessert,” Brenda offers.

“Oh, come on!” David says. Brenda rolls her eyes - she’d been being genuine. Like, for cake.

“I don’t want to cut your evening short,” Sharon says hesitantly.

“You wouldn’t be,” Brenda assures her.

“It’s just that now that Rusty knows, there’s no reason you couldn’t stay… longer.”

“I’ll see you in a little while,” Brenda promises firmly.

“Here’s what I think,” David says to her when she hangs up and suddenly he doesn’t look like that young cop who’d driven her around that first year. He looks like a man, wiser and careful and ambitious.

“Tell me,” Brenda says and she means it.

“Before,” he says. “Before Captain Raydor, before we left Major Crimes, you always seemed like you were getting pulled in two directions. Getting pulled apart and then, after you… left… you just seemed sad but lately you’ve seemed more like… you.”

“More like me,” she repeats.

“The first time I saw you in an interrogation room - we didn’t like you, remember? We didn’t trust you, but the first time I saw what you could do it was like watching someone win olympic gold, it was amazing and I could see that underneath all that southern charm and blonde hair there was someone really amazing. And I see that version of you more now.” He shakes his head. “I’m not sure I’m saying it right except with Fritz, it seemed like he wanted you to be a specific sort of something and with Captain Raydor, you’re just you.”

“Thank you,” she says.

He nods. “You’re welcome.”

She picks at the corner of her cardboard coaster.

“Besides, being friends with the Chief of Police, man there’s gotta be some perks there,” he says.

She nods in agreement. “Gotta be.”

oooo

Police Chiefs that have come up through the same police department are always well liked by the rest of the department but Brenda isn’t nervous about that. It’s all well and good to spend your career in one place if you can swing it, but her experience with the CIA, with the Atlanta PD, with DCPD, and now at the DA’s office is all highly beneficial for getting appointed as chief of anything.

Brenda also knows that while some chiefs spend ten to fifteen years at the top of the LAPD pyramid, that is not usually what happens. It’s a job with a high turnover rate and whether or not she even makes any short list at all, she knows Chief of Police William Pope has done nothing that can be considered remarkable and his time is coming to a swift and bitter end.

She stares at the paperwork in her bag, the surprise ebbing away into anxiety. It’s not that she’s not qualified, technically, to be the Chief of Police. She was qualified the first time around and now she’s got an even more diverse set of skills but the fact of the matter remains that she’d left the LAPD in disgrace. Some of it of her own making, some of it because she’d been thrown under the bus driven by Will Pope and had been too blind to see it.

Still, people can’t be held accountable for where their talents lie. Brenda is a good investigator, a great administrator, a savant of an interrogator. And while she feels fear, it doesn’t hold her back. It spurns her forward, makes her shout into the face of criminals, makes her sprint into the line of gun fire, makes her lie and cheat and manipulate all in the name of blind justice.

She keeps meaning to take the application out of her bag but she can’t seem to do it. She hasn’t written so much as her name on there and she knows she won’t until she talks to Sharon. But she’s got another talent that she’s honed over many years of practiced use and that is procrastination. She parks on the street between their buildings, a block away from home, a block closer to Sharon and Rusty’s luxury condo. Sits in the driver’s seat and grips the wheel tight.

“Mama,” she whispers. “What am I supposed to do?”

Oh, says her mama. Are you still talkin’ to me?

“Don’t be mad,” Brenda hisses. “I’m fifty-years-old and you’re dead.”

You already know what to do, anyhow, her mama says. It’s what me and your daddy told you to do for your entire life and you’ve never, ever done it.

“I’m only really lookin’ for helpful suggestions,” Brenda says.

Tell the truth, Brenda Leigh.

“The truth is delicate,” Brenda complains. “I’m not against tellin’ it on principle but there’s better ways to deliver it than just blurting it right out.”

How would you know? her mother says.

“Hey!”

Go inside and tell that woman that you’re in love with her!

“Mama!” she says. “I’m talking about the job!”

It’s all the same thing, honey, Willie Rae says and she sounds a little sad.

Brenda lets go of the wheel and her hands fall into her lap. She’s good with body language, she’s better with voices. Even hardened criminals, big burly men with tattoos and leather jackets and a face full of scars, even their voices shake when they lie, when they’re afraid, when they’re about to tell the truth for the first time in forever. She can hear that hard kind of truth in her mama's voice now.

“You’re not stayin’,” Brenda says. “You’re leavin’.”

I do think it’s time, her mama says. You’ve already found your way back home.

“Mama,” Brenda says, helplessly. It’s trite, yes, but it’s hard to say goodbye twice. “Mama, I…”

It’s already different, though. The feeling she’s carried with her since finding her mama dead in her guest bed, since leaving the duplex, her husband and her cat behind. That feeling of being lonely but never quite alone, is gone. Now she does feel alone. Alone in her car, alone in her head.

“Bye, Mama,” she says.

oooo

Rusty answers the door and says, “She bought you chocolate ice cream special, it’s got this like, ribbon of fudge that goes down the middle and chocolate chips. That’s three kinds of chocolate."

"Sounds good,” she says.

“She buys us soy vanilla ice cream that’s sugar free. Do you see what I’m saying?” Rusty says, lowering his voice. He still hasn’t let her in.

“What?” she says.

“It means if you guys having sex keeps me in real sugar, I support you one hundred percent.”

“Rusty Beck!”

Sharon’s voice from behind them, scolding and horrified. Rusty has the audacity to wink at her before pulling his face into something more contrite and turning around.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Come in here this instant,” Sharon says to Brenda and Brenda isn’t sure why she’s in trouble now, too, but Sharon is a mother and has the voice for it and Brenda scoots in, pushes the door shut behind her.

The chocolate ice cream is good, they all have little bowls of it. It’s a small carton, and teeny tiny bowls, something Brenda would use for dipping sauce before she’d consider wasting three bites of ice cream on getting it dirty, but then the last time Brenda pulled a carton of ice cream out of her own freezer, there was still a spoon stuck inside of it, so maybe she’s no judge.

They sit around and chat for awhile about nothing - about the heat wave settling back down on them like opening an oven door. Hot from below and then rising up from the sand and concrete, the asphalt and glass. Sharon’s condo is cool and comfortable and the cost is the constant humming from the air conditioner. Brenda’s apartment is stuffy and her air conditioner insufficient and they talk a little bit about the listings for houses that Brenda gets everyday in her personal email. She shows them a picture of a craftsman three miles from her old house, a two bedroom, two bath and Sharon offers to go see it with her but Brenda says no. It’s a cute house, a manageable price but doesn’t feel like the one for her.

She keeps almost telling them. Her fingers twitch, thinking about reaching for her tote, the words sitting sour and thick just on the tip of her tongue.

But then Rusty makes a big show about how he’s going to bed. Talking loudly, wishing them goodnight, calling from the end of the hall, “I’m closing my door now!”

“What in the world?” Brenda asks.

“I asked him if he had any problems with you spending the night sometimes,” Sharon says. “He said as long as we keep the funny business out of the common areas.”

“He said ‘funny business’ and ‘common areas’?” she asks.

“No,” she concedes. “He said as long as we don’t get busy on the couch.”

“Ah, there it is,” Brenda says. “The vernacular of youth.”

“You’re welcome to,” Sharon says. “By the way. Don’t feel obligated, but if you wanted to, you could stay.”

The moment has passed, she knows. The window for truth telling closed for the evening and she lets herself relax just a little. One more day isn’t gonna hurt.

“Okay,” she says.

She’ll have to get up extra early to go home and shower and change in the morning, she’ll have to charge her phone in the car. She’ll forego her Thursday morning run all together.

Sharon cleans up the kitchen, though Brenda’s not sure what’s left to do after the ice cream bowls and sticky spoons get rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher. Still, Sharon wipes down the gleaming countertops, the stove, rinses out the sponge and leaves it balanced on the lip of the sink. She leaves the light underneath the microwave on for the night, a soft glow, like a candle in the window for weary travelers. She checks the locks on the doors and then ushers Brenda and her big purse into the bedroom and closes her door.

“I have a spare toothbrush for you,” Sharon says. “You could keep it here, if you’d like.”

Brenda nods. “All right, thank you.”

“It’s pink,” Sharon says and Brenda rolls her eyes but she can’t complain because her toothbrush at home is pink too, at least the grip on the white handle. When Sharon hands her the package, she realizes that it’s exactly the same as her one at home. Same brand, same soft bristles, same everything. That’s not an accident, Brenda suspects. Sharon is a snooper. “Go ahead.”

Brenda closes herself in the little bathroom and takes a deep breath, watching herself in the mirror as she sits on the toilet, leans over and wipes. She feels a little unsure and untethered, even here with Sharon all around her. Her shampoo, her makeup, her crisp hand towels hanging perfectly square on the rod. Here she is on the edge once again. On the cusp of a new job, newly motherless, and sitting on a secret like an egg about to hatch.

When she comes out of the bathroom, Sharon is half dressed, bare legs and unbuttoning her blouse and she’s so strikingly beautiful that tears well up in Brenda eyes and she says, “Sharon?”

“Hmm?” Sharon says, but when she looks at her she looks worried. “What is it?”

“I wanna stay,” Brenda says, her voice warbling. She thinks of her own mama, singing hymns in church, her airy voice never very strong. That’s just what she sounds like now, butchering a line of hallelujahs all in the name of praise. “But I’m not sure I can… I’m not sure that tonight is…”

“Oh,” Sharon says. “Oh honey, no, that’s fine.” She opens her arms, waves Brenda over and holds her hand against the back of Brenda’s head when she slides easily into the hug. “I want you here for more than sex, Brenda Leigh.” She sighs. “I just want you.”

Brenda doesn’t deserve this life, this woman, her warm skin and her open heart.

Sharon provides her with a nightgown, light and pale blue. She feels like a little girl slipping it over her head and the hem falls only to mid-thigh. She slides into the bed while Sharon is in the bathroom, curling up with her cheek against the cool pillow. From the other side of the closed door, she hears a creak and then Rusty’s voice, clear and a little higher than normal.

“I’m getting some water!”

Sharon can’t hear him and Brenda doesn’t reply. Just listens sharp and hard until she hears him make his way back to his bedroom and the door click closed again. Sharon comes out only a few moments later, her face so clean that she shines. She’s in a little sleep set, satin shorts and tank edged with lace. She turns off one of the lamps, leaving only the one on the nightstand on.

“You ready?” Sharon asks.

“Did you set an alarm?” Brenda murmurs.

“Five-thirty,” Sharon says.

“I’m ready,” Brenda says. Sharon pulls the chain on the little lamp and the darkness is absolute only for a moment. Sharon gets into bed and rolls immediately to hold Brenda and Brenda’s lets herself be held. Sharon’s forearm between her breasts, her knees tucked into Brenda’s bent legs. Her lips pressed against Brenda’s shoulder once, twice, and then the nuzzle of her little round nose that Brenda just adores.

“Whenever you want to talk about it,” Sharon murmurs. “I’m here.”

Brenda tenses for a moment and then relaxes. “Okay,” she says.

Not the truth, not a lie, and the best she can offer.

oooo

Brenda dreams she’s just a little girl in a garden with her Grandma Charlene, pillowed on her lap like it was a big feather bed. The garden flourishes around them, flowers blooming, bees buzzing, vegetables heavy and ripe on the vine. Her grandmother hums something familiar, like a church hymn and smooths down Brenda’s hair over and over again.

“Grandma, can we stay forever?” she asks feeling lazy and indulgent in the warm sunshine.

“Oh honey,” her grandmother says. “You know nothing lasts forever. Just ask them.” She points to the gate to the garden and Brenda can see them all standing on the other side of it. Fritz and Will and her mama and Turrell Baylor, long dead relatives, murderers who’d died in prison, a whole line of people that Brenda has left behind. And there, just behind them all, a flash of russet hair in the sun.

oooo

Sarah drops some mail on Brenda’s desk, a square envelope in thick, creamy paper. The city seal on the back, a gold sticker holding the flap closed.

“What is this?”

“You’re getting a lot of mail from the Mayor these days, Chief Johnson,” Sarah says.

Brenda scoffs, tears the sticker in half to open the envelope and pulls out an invitation. “Oh for heaven’s sake! It’s for a 4th of July barbecue, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Sarah asks, reaching out for the invite. Brenda hands it over. “It’s at the Getty House!”

“So?”

“So it says Brenda Leigh Johnson and family,” Sarah says. “This isn’t some formal dinner. He invited you to his house for a family party!”

“He’s a very nice man, that’s all,” Brenda says dismissively.

“Do you want me to call Captain Raydor’s office and get it on her calendar?” Sarah asks, setting the invitation back onto Brenda’s blotter.

“What?” Brenda asks. “Why would you…?”

“She’s just usually your plus one to things,” Sarah says.

“No,” Brenda says, thinking maybe she ought to give a little more credit to her assistant. She’s probably known for longer than Brenda herself. Fielding phone calls and lunch dates and stolen minutes carved out of hectic days. “No,” Brenda says again. “I’ll ask her myself.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sarah says. “Speaking of Captain Raydor, her invitation to the women’s LAPD luncheon came yesterday. Should I add that to your calendar?”

Brenda sighs. “You’d better. When is it?”

“Next month,” Sarah says. Brenda waves her away.

“Okay, okay, let’s talk about it later,” she says. “What do I have to do right now?”

“Um, Paul wants you to sit in on that meeting at ten,” she says.

“That first,” Brenda says. “Then everything else.”

She’s worthless at the meeting. Squirmy and overtired. The only way she keeps herself still is by thinking about Sharon, who’d slept like a log, her fingers curled against Brenda who had woken up all night long, over and over, every two hours. Sharon in the morning is strangely alluring - not so very strange, because Brenda is drawn to all sorts of things about Sharon, but this one surprises her. It’s so… domestic. Her pale robe tightly cinched around her narrow waist, her morning bedhead, her eyes behind her glasses, makeup free. She’s got pale lashes like Brenda herself, but makes them dark with mascara. Sharon, while tactile, is not particularly cuddly but all morning she kept reaching out for Brenda - for hugs, to brush her fingers over some piece of skin. Like she was making sure Brenda was really there.

“I’m sure Brenda can get those numbers for you,” Paul says. He’s the Chief Deputy, a job that, organizationally, is lateral to Brenda’s own. If she were a man, that might be true, but she isn’t and even if Paul doesn’t outrank her, he acts enough like her boss, and everyone else’s, that it’s a battle she’s chosen not to wage. Brenda has never gotten very far with big shows of power, no, she prefers people to underestimate her. They’re more easily manipulated that way.

“Sure,” Brenda says easily, though she has no idea which numbers he means. At all. It’s fine, she’ll go through the meeting minutes tomorrow and figure it out. The meeting shifts to personnel, and this Brenda tries to listen to because there’s vacancies all over the place and unlike her predecessor who’d delegated most of the hiring away, Brenda likes to sit in on interviews. If she’s sending investigators out into the field, she needs to know they’re good in person, not just on paper.

After the meeting breaks, Paul holds her back and says, “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

Never good. She puts on her best southern smile and says, “Of course.” She smooths her hair, a gesture to disarm him. It’s pinned half up today, twisted and tucked at the crown of her head, with most of the heft still hanging free down her back.

“Let’s go to my office,” he says.

His office is on the same floor as hers, though it’s three doors down and sits in the corner of the building. She prefers hers - the view doesn’t partially overlook the parking lot but he gets to say corner office, for whatever that’s worth. She follows him in, closes the door.

“What’s up?”

“Listen,” he says. “You’ve been with us how long now?”

She hates the way he says it - he’s been here maybe nine months longer than she has? God, what an absolute ass.

“Four years,” she says. “Just about.”

“You and I both know you could stay here until you retire and we’d be lucky to keep you,” he says.

She nods, offers a tight smile.

“Thank you, that’s nice to hear,” she says.

“But if you’re leaving, it’d be kind of you to at least give us a short list of possible replacements. Since we’re doing the hiring anyway, it’d be easy to ask people to come in for your position as well and not make it into a big thing. Make the transition easier,” he says.

She shakes her head. “Paul, I’m not sure where you get your information but if I’ve resigned, that’s news to me.”

He levels her with a long stare and says, “You don’t have to play coy. It’s not a secret that the LAPD is your first love.”

She shakes her head, surprised. “Who told you I was applyin’?” she demands.

“You’ve applied before,” he says. He’s not going to tell her, obviously, where he gets his information. It’s possible David had let something slip somewhere along the way but she hopes, she prays that’s a hard lesson he’s already learned and she certainly doesn’t think Andrea is the culprit. Maybe it’s not from her side of the fence. Maybe someone in city hall.

“And I didn’t get it then,” she says. There’s no sense in doing this, really, and she puts a hand on her hip, shifts her weight from one foot to the other, her heels sore in her tall shoes. “I haven’t decided anything, okay? It’s a big choice and I’m thinkin’ about it but I haven’t done anything yet so don’t push me out the door before I’m ready, okay?”

He chuckles. “Okay.”

“If I do, I will help you out,” she promises.

“For what it’s worth,” he says. “I think you’d be good.”

She rolls her eyes. “Like last time, I’d be the token woman and I’d make it only so far before they hire some man. And anyway, they might keep Will on.”

He snorts. “No they won’t.”

Brenda wonders if Will can hear his own death knell ringing out across the city. If he’s got a plan or if he’s just going to retire. What’s left of their friendship had died when she’d made the short list and he hadn’t and he’d spent the whole last year of her time at Major Crimes hanging her out to dry. If she takes Chief of Police out from under him now, he might try and have her killed. If she swipes his job, it’s the least of what he deserves. She realizes she doesn’t care half as much about getting the job as she does about Will losing it.

“I’ve got some things to sort out personally before I can make that leap, so sit tight, and I’ll let you know,” Brenda says.

In her own office, she flops into her desk chair, kicks off her shoes under her desk and chews her bottom lip. She’s got to tell Sharon. Her time is up, obviously. If Paul knows, then it’s just a matter of time before the political gossip spreads. She looks at the fancy invitation to the 4th of July at the Mayor’s historic home and realizes that’s part of his campaign for her to apply and if she goes, will be the start of her own campaign for the job.

She picks up her desk phone, dials Sharon’s desk.

It rings and rings and rings. She lets it go another two rings and is about to hang up when someone picks up.

“Provenza.”

“Lieutenant,” Brenda says surprised. “You’re answering the Captain’s phone?”

“Yeah well, I could see it was you, Chief,” he says.

“Where is she?”

“Morgue,” he says. “She’s got her cell phone, though.”

“It’s all right,” Brenda says. “It’s not that important.”

He chuckles and she rolls her eyes. She didn’t think she’d miss him, but she does, a little. It’s Andy that Sharon is tight-lipped about, brushing off Brenda’s questions about what had happened and what could be happening still, but it’s Lieutenant Provenza that Rusty refers to as her work husband. That seems true enough. They’ve known each other a long time, circling one another like vultures for years but now have settled into something easier.

“How’s it goin’ over there?” she asks. “Sharon said something about a bunch of budget meetings?”

“Ah yes,” he says. “Pope’s been trying to clean house a little. Trying to reallocate funds to better support community needs. His words in the most pompous memo I’ve seen in some time.”

“That means what?” she says, though more because she’s thinking out loud. “He’s trying to… rob Peter to pay Paul somewhere? Has he been shifting personnel?”

“A truckload of new patrol officers,” he says. “Took a few detectives from Robbery-Homicide and gave ‘em to SOB.”

“Major Crimes is still intact, I see,” she says.

“His crowning achievement,” Provenza says. She hears the creak of leather, like he’s settled himself behind Sharon’s desk.

“Maybe trying to start a new division,” Brenda murmurs. “That’s worked for him in the past.”

“He did recall a bunch of the Crown Vics,” Provenza says. “Word on the street is that we’re getting a bunch of new souped up SUVs and some pansy electric cars.”

She sits up. “Electric or hybrids?” she asks.

“What’s the difference?” he mutters.

“Okay,” she says. “Thank you.”

“Anytime, Chief,” he says. “You want me to have her call you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. How’s the investigation goin’?”

“Slow,” he says.

“So she’ll be home before eight o’clock, you think?” she asks.

“I’ll push her out the door myself,” he promises.

oooo

Brenda doesn’t go home first. If she does, she thinks she won’t be able to talk herself into leaving again. Instead she drives from downtown straight to the condo, lucks out that one of the visitor spots is vacant and she slides her car right in. She’s got the invitation, she’s got the blank application, she’s got the disclosure form to submit to LAPD human resources.

She stands out on the sidewalk for a few minutes, afraid she’s going to throw up.

Sharon tells the truth. She values the truth. She thinks the truth is a kindness. Brenda wants to be kind but lacks discipline and practice. Sharon deserves this kindness from Brenda, though, even if it’s the last thing they do together.

She lets herself into the building, swallowing down the acidic taste in the back of her throat. Knocks at the door but then uses her key. The television is on, Rusty turns to look at her and the waves one arm wildly over his head.

“Come on in,” he says. “Third mom.”

“Oh please,” she says. “You don’t want someone like me for a mom.”

He turns back to look at her again, studies her for a moment. “Are you okay, Brenda?” She feels shaky, she knows she’s got dark circles under her eyes. But, it’s the way he says her name. He can be so gentle sometimes. She presses her lips together, wills herself not to start crying on the spot. Nods uneasily.

“Where is she?” she whispers. Rusty looks frightened now, starts shaking his head.

“She’s really happy,” Rusty says. “I’ve never seen her this happy.”

He sounds desperate now.

“Honey-”

“If you’re gonna dump her-”

“No!” she says. “No. I would… I’m not… I just have to tell her something and she’s not gonna like it, that’s all. I would never dump her. I love her.” Besides, can you dump someone you aren’t even dating?

But the love is true enough. It doesn’t make it any easier, the truth telling, but Brenda does love her and that part wasn’t as hard to say out loud as she thought. Easier to say about her, at least.

Rusty nods. “Okay. Sorry, I just… she’s the most important person in my life and I don’t want her to get hurt, you know?”

“Me too,” she says.

“She went to take a shower. I guess the morgue was extra gross today.” He scrunches his face up. “I didn’t ask.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” Brenda says. “This involves you, too.”

“Fabulous,” he mutters.

She lets herself into the bedroom. Closes the door behind her. Sharon has closed both her bedroom door and the bathroom one, so Brenda knocks first and then pushes it open to a wall of steam.

“Rusty?”

Sharon’s shower has a glass door and it opens a little, her dark head pokes out and she squints. “Brenda.”

“Yeah,” she says.

“I’m almost done,” Sharon says. “I… I didn’t know you were coming over.”

“I just wanted to talk to you,” Brenda says. She sits down on the closed lid of the toilet and Sharon slides the shower door shut again.

When she shuts off the shower, she opens the door again and reaches for her towel She doesn’t step out until it’s secure around her and she starts. She hadn’t realized Brenda was still here. Her glasses are on the counter and she puts them on, looking a little miffed to be honest, but as soon as she can see again, she says, “Are you crying?”

“A little,” Brenda says miserably, honestly. She’s just leaking. Like she has only so much capacity for feeling things after being numb for so long and she’s been using it all up on loving Sharon and now there’s nowhere for all this dread and anxiety to go but up and out.

“Well, let me get less naked and we can talk about it,” Sharon says. She hesitates - waiting, no doubt for some smart aleck retort from Brenda but she just sniffs, wipes her face and nods.

“Okay.”

“Hmm,” Sharon says, concerned. She doesn’t dress. She dries herself briskly and then puts the towel on her head, twisting it up and then shrugging on her robe, the same one from this morning. Brenda gets herself off the toilet and loiters in the doorway of the bathroom, the steamy heat to her back, the cool evening shadowing the bedroom before her. Sharon sits on the edge of the bed but doesn’t pat the mattress. So Brenda crosses her arms hard across her chest and stays standing.

“I got some things to say,” Brenda says.

“I know,” Sharon says softly. “You haven’t been sleeping. You’ve been jumpy.”

“I’ve been tryin’ to do the right thing and tryin’ not to hurt anyone along the way,” Brenda says. Sharon chuckles, a raspy noise of disbelief.

“That’s noble, sweetheart, but not always how it works,” she says. “Just say it.”

Brenda shakes her head. “You might change your mind about me,” Brenda says. “About this.”

“About this,” Sharon says. “We don’t even know what this is.”

Brenda points at her. “Right. You don’t think that’s a problem?”

“Just because we haven’t hashed everything out yet doesn’t mean it’s a problem,” Sharon says. “I just thought we were… settling into things.”

“Oh,” Brenda says.

Sharon offers her a sad smile. “Don’t take this the wrong way, okay? But I’m not your ex-husband.”

Brenda feels a wave of guilt. Maybe that’s fair. Maybe she’s tiptoeing around Sharon because she’d had to tiptoe around Fritz for so long, his demands, his fragile feelings, his hair-trigger temper that he never admitted to. Like he was an endless well of patience, like he didn’t throw coffee mugs to the floor and slam doors and sleep on the couch like she was some sort of leper.

“I know we’re just friends,” Brenda says now. “I know we’re just tryin’ something out but I feel like… I feel more.”

“Just friends?” Sharon says.

“Or somethin’ like it,” Brenda says.

Sharon brings her hands up to her face and gives it a hard rub. Yanks on the towel and all that dark, wet hair tumbles down to her shoulders and Brenda’s heart lurches. Even scrubbed clean, even pale and tired and lines on her face, even without the pencil skirts, the heels, the tailored jackets she’s still the prettiest thing that Brenda’s ever been this close to.

“Let’s put the relationship stuff aside for the moment and see if you can get through the job stuff because I’d like to eat dinner at some point tonight,” Sharon says. “And drink, probably.”

“Okay,” Brenda says. “That’s fair. We can…”

She stops.

Stands up straight, crosses her arms again, narrows her eyes.

“You know?”

“About Chief of Police?” Sharon says. “Jesus, you think I’m an idiot.”

No, Brenda’s the idiot. She reaches for her purse, left on top of the dresser and reaches in. Pulls out the application in its tattered envelope, the invitation to the barbecue, the single sheet of paper that Brenda’s already affixed her signature to. Starts spreading things out, crouched at Sharon’s feet.

“It wasn’t my idea,” she whispers. “And look-” Here she thrusts the blank application to Sharon who takes it with some surprise. “I haven’t filled it out. I wasn’t going to do anything without telling you. I told you that, I told you I wasn’t going to do anything without talking to you first I just… I couldn’t find the words, Sharon, I still can’t and I know that this new and I know-” She’s crying again. “I know there’s absolutely no benefit for you or for Rusty to go through the scrutiny of me applying so how can I ask you for that?”

Sharon reads the note from the Mayor and then lifts that sheet away to look at the application.

“Brenda this is due next week. You haven’t turned it in?”

“No,” she says. “I haven’t even written my name.”

“Okay, well first of all, you need to apply online. This was a token, a gesture. A very nice one but we are way past paper applications.” She looks at Brenda over the rims of her glasses.

“Oh.” She sniffles a little. She’s not a pretty crier - her nose turns red and runs. She doesn’t like people to see her cry.

“You really should’ve come to me sooner,” Sharon says, shaking her head. “I could’ve really looked into whether or not there are going to be legal issues regarding your conduct with Stroh but the good news is, I pulled your jacket right before you left for the D.A.’s office, so tomorrow, I can go over it one more time to make sure there’s nothing glaring that is going to prohibit your application.”

“You pulled my jacket?” Brenda asks. “Why?”

Sharon sighs. “I was going to figure out a way for you to stay. I didn’t want you to go.” She shrugs.

“So you’re saying I should apply then,” Brenda says.

“Okay, get off the floor, come up here,” Sharon says. Brenda stands, her knees cracking. Sharon moves all the paperwork aside and Brenda sits next to her, wiping under her eyes and facing Sharon. “You don’t even like your job.”

“It’s not that bad,” Brenda says.

“It’s boring,” Sharon says. “I think you would be a very good Chief of Police. Even better than you could’ve been six years ago. I think you should definitely apply.”

“What about…” Brenda takes the relationship disclosure form. “What about this?”

“Well,” Sharon says. “If you get the job, then we’ll talk about it.”

“And until then?” Brenda asks. She reaches out and tugs on a wet lock of hair. Sharon leans in for a kiss but Brenda hesitates. “I’m all snotty.”

“I don’t care,” Sharon says. She kisses the corner of Brenda’s mouth, slides her lips over to kiss her properly. Brenda tries to pull away but Sharon presses forward, open her mouth, licking Brenda’s lips, her teeth, her tongue. Brenda steadies herself with one hand on Sharon’s knee. She can feel the soft fabric of Sharon’s robe slip and then just the skin of her thigh.

There’s a loud knock at the door.

“Not to interrupt but I’m literally starving to death out here!” Rusty’s voice is loud and clear.

Sharon pulls back, sighs. “We’ll be right out,” she calls back. Mouths a quiet apology.

“It’s okay. I told him this involved him too, he’s probably worried.”

“Worried and starving,” Sharon says. “Kid is going to eat me out of house and home.”

“Get dressed,” she says. “I’ll go talk to him.”

“And then we’ll spend the rest of the night on that application,” Sharon says. “I can’t take another five years of Will Pope. Or god forbid, Taylor.”

“Lord help us all,” Brenda says. “We’d have to move.”

Sharon chuckles.

“Anyway,” Brenda says, standing, gathering up her paperwork and shoving back into her bag. “Thanks. Thank you, Sharon.”

Sharon nods. “You’re welcome.”

Out in the living room, Rusty sees her and says, “Finally.”

Brenda tosses him her phone, grateful that he catches it, and says, “Order a pizza.”

“On a weeknight?” he says. “Really?”

“Why not?” she asks.

“You are such a good influence on her,” he says. “Please never leave.”

“That’s the plan,” Brenda says.

Chapter Text

The party starts officially at four but she and Sharon don’t arrive until five-thirty. Sharon had gone shopping, had shown up to Brenda’s apartment with a white dress patterned with red polka dots and a thin red belt. The skirt flares out enough to hide two pockets and Brenda can fit everything she needs in there without carrying her purse. Her lipstick, her cellphone, her driver’s license and a credit card. A little cash. Her car keys.

Sharon was adamant about leaving her big purse behind. Sharon is so fussy about her purse. Brenda notes that Sharon gets to carry a purse. Points it out in the car and receives only an eyeroll for her trouble.

Sharon’s in jeans, real tight ones, and a royal blue blouse that suits her so well that Brenda just can’t stop staring. It’s enough that Sharon makes a frustrated noise and says, “You look like you’re about to pounce on me! Quit it!”

“You’re so pretty,” Brenda says.

“Shut up,” Sharon mutters. “I can’t believe I’m going to this thing with you.”

Sharon has been wildly supportive of the whole Chief of Police thing, helping her with the application, using her legal know-how to research Brenda’s actual eligibility only to find it was Pope who hadn’t bothered to press charges or file an incident report against her so it’s Pope, now, who is going to lose his job to Brenda because he’d thought himself rid of her. And Brenda feels grateful and lucky but also, suddenly, their whole life has become a quest for Brenda to be the chief and it’s getting tiresome.

“It could just as easily not be me,” Brenda keeps reminding her. Sharon likes to talk about the job like it already belongs to Brenda, like she’s measuring for curtains in Will’s office already but Brenda isn’t one to count her chickens before they’re hatched. “They could decide for a hundred reasons not to let me back in.”

“Technically you retired. People unretire all the time.” Sharon says. She’s the one driving - she’s the one in flat white sandals. She’d taken one look at Brenda’s shiny red pumps and taken the keys right out of her hand.

“No, they just come back as consultants on contract,” Brenda says. “If I go back into active service, it’s going to be a financial nightmare. Benefits, social security. I don’t even know all what.”

“Well with your new salary increase, which I imagine to be substantial, you can hire someone to navigate your finances for you and possibly invest some of it wisely and I don’t know, Brenda, maybe at some point you could move out of your dorm room and into a real house.”

“Don’t be cross with me!” Brenda says. “When am I supposed to go house hunting? Between making nice with every official in the city, doin’ my actual job and seein’ you that’s at least 26 hours a day.”

“Thank you for making me third on that list of chores,” Sharon says sarcastically.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! You aren’t a chore, you’re the one thing I like about my life right now! You and Rusty,” she says.

“Why is it that every time you apply for this job you immediately decide you don’t really want it and proceed to make my life a living nightmare?” she says. “If you aren’t happy with the D.A. and you don’t want to be Chief of Police then find a third thing!”

“I do want to be Chief of Police!” Brenda says.

“Then act like it!” Sharon shouts, though her shouts always come out like a growl, rough and low. “Make nice with the mayor! Buddy up to the union. Make promises. Shake the hands of politicians. Play the game!”

Brenda scowls, slumps down into her seat, pushing her heel into the carpet mat at her feet. “I’d be good at it without the song and dance.”

Sharon doesn’t even dignify this with a response.

“I don’t know why I’m in trouble, all I did was tell you you’re pretty,” she says.

“You want me to feel complimented?” Sharon says. “Tell me I’m smart. Tell me I’m funny. Say that you love me. I don’t need you to tell me I’m pretty all the time. Pretty fades.”

“First of all, clearly it doesn’t because if anything I think you’re more beautiful now than when I met you,” Brenda says. “Secondly, I don’t really think you’re all that funny. And finally, you think you’re going to trick me into telling you that I love you like that? Please. I’m offended.”

Sharon snorts. Brenda stares out her window.

“I’m funny,” Sharon says.

“You’re clever,” Brenda says.

“You really don’t think I’m funny?” Sharon’s glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. Her long lashes dark with mascara, curled up so they don’t brush against the lense of her glasses.

“Oh my God, please tell me we’re almost there. Where is this place? I thought it was close and yet somehow I feel like I’ve been in this car for a hundred years already,” she says.

Brenda loves Sharon and she suspects that Sharon knows that and that Sharon loves Brenda right back but there haven’t been any declarations of the sort and lately Sharon’s been goading Brenda into saying it first, leaving her openings or just telling her to do it but Brenda doesn’t want to break first, doesn’t want to say it just because Sharon has decided she’s ready to hear it. So now it’s a whole thing. One more thing to sit heavy between them, one more knot that Brenda doesn’t know how to untangle without just slicing through, regardless of damage.

“This place is only one of the most recognizable residences in the city,” Sharon says. “And we’re not driving there, we’re driving to a parking lot where they’re going to shuttle us over - did you not even look at the invitation?”

Brenda cracks the window but it’s hotter outside than in. She’s just nervous and sweaty. “I just forgot,” she says. She feels strange without her purse, like she’s forgotten something important. She’s going to spend the whole evening convinced that she’s left something behind and patting at her pockets.

“We don’t have to stay that long,” Sharon says in a more soothing tone of voice. She must know that Brenda feels a wreck and Brenda knows she’s being moody and childish because of nerves. Brenda resolves to be nicer to her for the rest of the day. Beautiful Sharon who is willing to put up with her crazy, to be her plus one at an event meant for families just so Brenda can secure a job that is going to take up all her time.

“Yes we do,” Brenda says miserably. “It’d be rude to leave before the fireworks.”

“No, it won’t.” Sharon says. “You will make nice for a few hours and then you will say you have another engagement and we will leave. Besides, you can see the stadium fireworks well enough from the condo.”

“I don’t care about fireworks,” Brenda says. “But if you want to watch them, we can.”

Sharon flicks the turn signal, slows in the line of cars that are trying to park.

“The invitation is in my purse,” Sharon says evenly. “Will you get it, please?”

Brenda reaches back to the seat, leaning just far enough to snag the handles of Sharon’s leather bag. Digs through it for the invitation, pulls it out. The bag smells like expensive leather, like Sharon herself - the way she smells when Brenda steals a kiss just after she’s reapplied lipstick, or when she’s just dabbed a bit of scent between her breasts right before she gets dressed.

“Thank you,” Brenda blurts. “Thank you for this. For today.”

A corner of Sharon’s mouth curls up, a little smirk. “Of course.”

She sets the bag at her feet and holds the invitation on her lap. It’s going to take a while to get into the parking lot and so when Brenda’s phone rings, she fishes it out of her pocket and squints down at the screen.

“It’s Bernadette,” Brenda says. Bernadette is her real estate agent - the woman who forwards countless listings to Brenda’s email all week long and Brenda hasn’t liked any of them. Too far from the office, too big, too small, not right. Brenda doesn’t know why she’s being so picky except for that her life feels so chaotic right now that she just can’t imagine adding one more spinning plate to the mess.

“Answer it,” Sharon says.

Brenda slides her finger along the bottom of the screen and says, “Chief Johnson.”

Sharon snorts.

“Oh!” says Bernadette - she’s got a lilting Irish accent, a transplant like Brenda who will never pass as a local. “I’m glad to have caught you!”

“What can I do for you?” Brenda says. “On this holiday?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to disturb your time off, but this house came across my desk and I just had to… I think it’s perfect. I think it’s just right. I wanted to alert you right away.”

“Okay,” Brenda says. She pulls the phone away and touches the button to turn on the speaker so Sharon can hear too. “Tell me about it,” she says.

“It’s a three bedroom, two bath vintage tudor, just under 1800 square feet,” she says. “It was built in 1924, it has a patio and a garden. It has hardwood floors throughout. It-”

“Where is it?” Brenda asks. The last couple days have been listings in Pasadena and it had taken some time to convince Bernadette to stop sending her those. It’s too far. She’d spend her whole life on the 110.

“It’s in Eagle Rock,” Bernadette says. Brenda looks at Sharon who tips her head to the side and nods a little.

“It’s not that much closer!” Brenda says.

“Well-” Bernadette starts because she thinks Brenda is talking to her.

“How much,” Brenda says when Sharon’s mouth gets hard with frustration.

“Nine eighty nine,” Bernadette says. “But it just passed thirty days on the market so I think that’s negotiable.”

The number is still like a slap to the face but Sharon glances over at her and says softly, “If you get the job, Brenda, that’s easily managed.”

If Bernadette hears Sharon, she says nothing about it.

“Well,” Brenda says. “I guess I’d like to see it. Can we see it?”

“They’re showing tomorrow,” Bernadette says, sounding relieved. Brenda’s only ever wanted to look at one other property and it had sold before she’d even managed to do that. “I’ll send you the details and can meet you there.”

“All right,” Brenda says. “Thank you. And have a happy holiday. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye bye,” Bernadette says and hangs up.

“You’ll come with me, right?” Brenda says.

Sharon takes the invitation from her hand and rolls down the window as she approaches the parking lot attendant.

“Of course,” she says. “I will if you want me to.”

oooo

The Mayor greets her holding his young daughter who keeps her face buried in her father’s neck. Most of the party is happening outside on the grounds, despite the heat. There’s a carnival feeling - a big bounce house, a cart making cotton candy that Brenda has talked herself out of visiting already, a small petting zoo. There are kids everywhere, the children of important Los Angeles residents. Brenda feels kind of adrift being here. She’d asked Rusty to come too, but he’d declined as politely as he knew how to, by laughing in her face and saying no. It was hard to truly be offended when she was so busy being jealous of his freedom.

They’d found their spot at one of the round tables, draped in red cloth, surrounded by white chairs, topped with a navy blue umbrella to offer at least some shade. There are a few misting stations set up where cool water is sprayed but it mostly evaporates before it hits Brenda and anyway, standing under one of those would be a nightmare for her hair.

Sharon has gone to find the restroom, so Brenda is alone when she spots Eric making his rounds. Brenda plasters on a smile and shakes his free hand.

“Happy independence day!” he says. “I’m glad you made it.”

“Happy fourth,” Brenda says. “Thank you. Your home is lovely.”

“I’m just borrowing it,” he says. “This is my daughter, Maya. Maya, can you say hello to Chief Johnson?”

Maya peeks out shyly but doesn’t say anything.

“You can call me Brenda,” she says, though the child seems unimpressed and Brenda has no real experience with kids this young and therefore has nothing to fall back on.

“This is overwhelming for her,” Eric says. “She’ll go down for a nap soon.”

“Ah,” Brenda says.

“I can’t remember - do you have children?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says. “No. Uh-uh. I have a niece that I’m close to, but she’s grown now.” She almost mentions Rusty except that Rusty’s grown now, too, and not hers. Not in a way that she can claim to an acquaintance. “I’ve always been pretty invested in my work.”

“A little bird told me you submitted your application,” Eric says. “I was glad to hear it.”

“It’s hard to say no the the mayor,” she says with a grin. “He can be very persuasive.”

“I do try,” he says. “Are you here alone?”

There are other people seated at their table, but they all have kids so Brenda’s been standing on her own, getting the lay of the land. She can see some familiar faces in the crowd but hasn’t yet ventured out. She’s been waiting for Sharon to come back so they can make a plan. Plus Sharon is better at small talk and leading Brenda away from conversational landmines.

“No,” she says. “I’m here with…” She pauses here, unsure of how to continue. “A friend.”

“Good,” he says. “Well you just have fun.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Don’t let me keep you away from important business.”

“It’s a holiday,” he says. “No business. Just fun!”

Brenda isn’t sure that she buys that. She can’t be the only candidate for Chief here today. Maybe the only one without a spouse or a family but doesn’t that make her an asset? He’s just about to move on when he pauses and says, “Your friend?”

She turns and looks over her shoulder to see Sharon walking toward them. They’re alone enough that it’s obvious that Brenda is Sharon’s destination. Brenda smiles and says, “You know Captain Raydor, don’t you, sir?” when Sharon makes it over to them.

“Of course,” he says. After all, the mayor always attends Sharon’s banquet every August. “How are you, Captain?”

“Well, thank you,” she says, shaking his hand with a genuine smile. “And who is this little angel?”

“This is Maya,” he says. Maya offers Sharon a small smile and sticks her hand into her mouth. “That’s high praise, Captain,” Eric says. “A smile!”

“She looks like she’s ready for a nap,” Sharon says.

“That was just where we were headed,” he says. “Excuse me ladies. Please, enjoy the festivities.”

“You’re so charming,” Brenda says, as he walks away.

“Nonsense,” Sharon says. “Just used to these sorts of events.”

Brenda sits in her seat and Sharon lowers herself gracefully into the next chair.

“I hope they serve food soon,” Sharon says. “I saw the caterers prepping, so it shouldn’t be too long. There’s a beverage station already set up. I can get you some water or some lemonade.”

The table is set with empty glasses and cloth napkins but it's still empty.

“I’m okay,” she says.

“Your cheeks are pink, Brenda Leigh,” Sharon says. “Come on. Let’s go get some water, you can talk to some people, and we can eat and go home.”

“Okay,” Brenda says, but as soon as Sharon starts to stand again she says, “Wait!” Puts her hand on Sharon’s thigh so she stays seated.

“What?” Sharon says. Her hair is clipped back, her eyes so green. Even sweaty and hot and unsure, Brenda wants to lean in and kiss her. Even in front of all these people. It probably doesn’t matter because she’s the diversity candidate, that she’s the woman in a pool of men that is going to be mostly white and with a few African-American candidates for a city that is overwhelmingly Hispanic. “What is it?” she says when Brenda hasn’t done anything but stare.

“I do love you,” Brenda says. “I’m sorry I haven’t said it before.” She feels better for having said it, but worse, too. Sharon's deserved to hear it long before this.

Sharon grins, shakes her head a little. “I am lovable, that's true.”

“You really are,” Brenda says. “But, don’t say it back to me now.”

Sharon's smile fades a little. “But Brenda-”

“No,” Brenda says. “Don’t. Save it for when I really, really need it, okay? Save it up for me.” Because at least that way, even if it never comes, Brenda will be able to think it’s always just on the horizon. Something to hold on to.

Sharon nods. “If you say so.”

A caterer, a young man in a white shirt and black bow tie comes around with a metal pitcher sweating condensation and pours icy water into their empty goblets and Sharon thanks him, makes Brenda take a few sips. It tastes cold and lemony.

Sharon knows more people than Brenda as they make polite rounds, it seems like, but over by the face painting station, Brenda sees Will Pope and groans.

“Try not to make it worse,” Sharon says when he spots them, pulls a face and comes over.

“Brenda,” he says.

“Will,” she says in return. “How nice to see you!”

“How surprising to see you,” he says. “And you, Captain Raydor.”

“I got invited, just like you,” Brenda says. “Did you bring the kids?”

“Yeah, they’re playing with some friends.” He looks over his shoulder, but there’s no escape route there.

“Well,” Brenda says. “This heat is somethin’ else.”

“Chief Pope,” Sharon says. “Detective Sykes is thrilled with the new hybrid that’s been issued to her. I think the change is going to be incredibly successful.”

“Anything to make Los Angeles a greener city,” Will says, glancing at Brenda with a small, smug smile. It's a smugness he doesn't deserve for an idea he didn't have. How long has he been allowing other people to feed him administrative plans only to take credit for himself? Brenda can't stand it, she won't.

“Let me guess,” Brenda says. “Built in video, bulletproof doors and windows? Did you find a retailer to cut you a great deal if you bought in bulk?” Will’s smile falters. “Gotta spend money to make money, right Will? Make an investment in the city? Police hybrids go hand in hand with the mayor’s Great Streets initiative. More bike lanes, planting trees, safer streets for the citizens, supporting local businesses. Where on earth did you come up with an idea like that, I wonder?”

“Honey,” Sharon says. “Look, they’re serving dinner. Let’s let Chief Pope find his family and go eat.”

Will’s shocked expression stutters over to Sharon now. “Honey?” he manages.

Brenda leans in, narrowing her eyes. “We’re real good friends, Will, don’t you know that? Real good.”

“Excuse us, Chief,” Sharon says, wrapping her warm fingers around Brenda’s arm, just above her elbow. Brenda allows herself to be pulled away. “No need to rub his nose in it, Brenda.”

“You’re the one turning this into our coming out party,” Brenda says.

“Well, you’re in love with me,” she says with a wicked smile. “Maybe I want to shout it from the rooftops.”

“You’re terrible and you’re goin’ straight to hell,” Brenda says.

“Probably,” Sharon says. “But not for this.”

After dinner, Brenda and Sharon walk through the historic house, looking to say their appropriate goodbyes. They find the Mayor in one of the living rooms, talking to a small group. Brenda hesitates in the doorway but he waves her in, introduces her around. “And Captain Raydor of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

“How do you do?” Sharon says.

“We just wanted to thank you again, sir, for your hospitality,” Brenda says. “We can’t stay.”

“You can’t leave so soon!” he says.

“My son is at home,” Sharon says. “He likes to watch the fireworks together.”

“A noble reason,” Eric says. “Well, nice to have you to our home, Captain Raydor. Brenda Leigh Johnson. See you again soon.”

“Yes, sir,” she says. “See you soon.”

oooo

It’s just starting to get dark when they open the door to Sharon’s condo and Brenda doesn’t expect to see Rusty at all. She never used to be home on holidays when she was his age. Brenda is thinking about Sharon’s shower, about washing away the sweat and sunscreen and anxiety of this day. When they spend the night in Sharon’s bed, they only ever sleep. Sharon is shy about doing anything more with Rusty down the hall. When they spend time in Brenda’s bed, there’s not much sleeping and she’s not shy at all.

So it’s somewhat surprising when Sharon drops her keys in the bowl by the door and rounds the corner only to shriek and says, “Oh my God!”

Brenda bumps into her with an “Oof!” and manages only to see Rusty with his back to them, shoulders hunched as he buttons his pants and another young man, identity unknown, clambering to his feet and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What?” Brenda says.

“I didn’t think you were coming home!” Rusty says, his voice high and panicked.

“Okay,” Sharon says. “Okay. We’ll just… come on, we’ll just go. We’re going. We’ll go to Brenda’s.”

“Shit,” Rusty says. “Shit. Shit.”

“I’m Brenda,” Brenda says to the nervous looking young man standing awkwardly in the kitchen. She walks around Sharon who seems to be frozen in place, watching Rusty fumble around and extends her hand and he takes it.

“T.J.,” he says.

“Nice to meet you,” Brenda says.

“Come on,” Sharon says. “We’re leaving right now.” Then she grabs her keys and heads right out the door again.

“Be safe!” Brenda calls, shutting the door behind her. Then she starts to laugh.

“It’s not funny!” Sharon says.

“Oh come on,” Brenda giggles. “It’s funny! You’ve been so worried about Rusty catching us in the act and we just walked in on him getting a blow job in the kitchen! That’s funny.”

Sharon covers her face with her hands and groans, so Brenda calls for the elevator which is still on their floor and maneuvers Sharon into it.

“Oh my God,” Sharon says again. “I saw it.”

“It’s all right,” Brenda says, though it’s some effort not to keep laughing.

“No, it’s not, I saw his penis, I saw it and I can’t unsee it!” Sharon says from between her fingers.

Brenda bursts out laughing again.

“He’s twenty years old, Sharon, he’s grown,” Brenda says, trying to temper her mirth when Sharon levels a cold glare at her. “And considering his history with sex, don’t you think it’s good that he’s even interested in sexual relationships?”

“I’d prefer he not be interested in them in my kitchen,” Sharon says. Brenda touches her back, guides her out of the elevator and out of the lobby. They’ll walk to Brenda’s apartment, even though they’re tired and sore.

“Someone offers to give you a BJ in the kitchen...” Brenda shrugs. “What guy would turn that down?”

“Can we not talk about it?” Sharon says. Still, Brenda pulls out her phone and sends Rusty a text that says, I’ll talk to her, don’t worry.

“What are you doing?” Sharon demands.

“Telling Rusty that it’s gonna be okay!” Brenda says. “I’m sure you scared the snot out of him.”

“What on earth am I going to say to him?” Sharon asks, looping her arm through Brenda’s and pulling her tightly against her.

“Nothing,” Brenda says. “If he apologizes, accept it. If he pretends nothing happened, be grateful you dodged the bullet.”

“That’s it?” Sharon says. “Your plan is to do absolutely nothing and not deal with it at all?”

“Oh no,” Brenda says. “Now we get to have sex at your house all we want.”

Sharon snorts.

“Loud, rowdy sex,” Brenda presses. “What’s he gonna say about it now?”

Sharon opens her mouth to say something but has nothing to argue that with so just closes it and says, “Hmm.”

Brenda lets them into her apartment, pulling everything out of her pocket at once and dumping it onto her coffee table. And because Sharon is so used to coming over to the apartment for sex, when Brenda turns around to face her, ready to offer her something to drink or something more comfortable to wear, she’s not surprised to see Sharon watching her with an increasingly familiar expression. Heavy lidded eyes, open mouth.

Brenda smiles at her.

“Somethin’ on your mind, Captain?” she drawls, laying on the accent good and thick.

“It just seems like,” Sharon says. “To me, that if they’re having sex, we should at least get to have sex too.”

“We could come to some sort of arrangement,” Brenda says. “But not until I shower.”

“How about a bath?” Sharon says.

“Together?”

She cocks her head. “Think we’ll fit?”

“Oh,” Sharon says. “I think we can certainly try.”

This is Brenda’s favorite mood of Sharon’s - a little tired, her guard let down. Sassy and sexy and flirty. It was the Sharon she’d fallen for when she’d been flirting hard without realizing it, tucking Brenda’s hair behind her ear and watching her from afar. Stealing kisses in stairwells and in empty rooms.

Sharon runs the bath which is just fine with Brenda. She knows it’s a luxury for Sharon. Her only tub is in Rusty’s bathroom and it’s not a place she wants to soak. So she leaves her in there to tend to the water and pours them both a small glass of wine. Were she alone, she’d drink it out a plastic cup but she decides to risk real wine glasses over Sharon’s scorn.

When Brenda comes into the bathroom with the wine, Sharon’s got the old porcelain tub filled with water and fragrant bubbles. It smells like a mixture of her body wash, sweet and decadent, and something else, something more delicate and floral. Sharon twists her hair up and secures it with Brenda’s plastic butterfly clip and takes off her glasses. Starts on the buttons of her blouse, revealing pale skin, the curve of her breasts, the dark blue of her bra. She slips the blouse off and drops it in the laundry basket Brenda keeps in the corner of the bathroom. She undoes the button of those tight jeans and then pauses.

“There’s no graceful way to take off pants this tight,” she says regretfully.

“Sit on the counter,” Brenda says, setting the wine glasses down on the ledge of the tub. “Push ‘em down a little, I’ll help.”

“I’m too old to be sitting on counters,” Sharon says, but she does push the jeans down to revealing matching panties. Brenda loves a nice set of lingerie; Sharon knows it. Has been wearing more of it for her.

“My old lady,” Brenda says, patting the tile. Sharon rolls her eyes, pushes up with a grunt and allows Brenda to pull the tight jeans off her legs. Brenda can see the shadow of the seams indented into her skin, runs her finger down the red line. Sharon shivers.

“Turn around, I’ll get your zipper,” she says. Brenda complies, turning around so Sharon can tug her zipper down, can lean in to kiss the vee of skin she reveals. “Go turn off the water.”

It’s a bit of logistics, figuring out how to sit. She’s used to sitting back against a hard chest, being the little spoon but they end up stepping into the hot water facing one another and sinking down. Brenda is small enough that she can sit crossed legged and Sharon draws her knees up to her chest, rests her chin against them and smiles.

“We fit,” she says.

“Look at that,” Brenda grins. She leans in and steals a kiss.

They talk for a long time, whispering about nothing, giggling softly to one another, rubbing noses and toes. It feels like being young and newly in love, it feels like having a very best friend.

oooo

They barely make it out of the bathroom alive. There’s water on the floor, they slip and slide on the tile, on the hardwood, dripping and distracted as they stumble toward the bed. It had started out as just a bath, talking to each other in low comfortable murmurs and touching each other gently and reverently and then Sharon had kissed her and kissed her again and kissed hard and things had quickly gotten out of hand.

The sheets are damp beneath them as they roll around in Brenda’s bed. She’s on top for a moment but Sharon’s legs are longer and stronger and it’s easy enough for her to use Brenda’s weight against her to take control, distracting her with her tongue and her fingers. Brenda reaches up, feels around for the plastic clip and pulls it from Sharon’s hair, throwing it hard toward the end of the bed. She hears it hit the wall and clatter to the floor. Sharon’s hair falls and it smells like a long day in the sunshine, like something dark and earthy. Brenda breathes it in, tilts her head away so Sharon can nip at her neck as she hitches one of Brenda’s legs up onto her hip.

She hisses as she feels one finger against her and then inside of her.

Sharon knows her well, now, after a few months of tumbling around in bed and Sharon isn’t here to tease. She slips another finger in, curves both so they press hard into the spot that makes Brenda cry out and push her hips against Sharon’s hand. Sharon kisses her neck, her jaw, her mouth and then reaches down with her other hand to rub at Brenda’s clit.

“Please,” Brenda manages, “Please.”

The pleasure is relentless, it crashes over her in wave after wave and there’s no pause, no ebb, only flow and she feels like she’s panting too hard, like she can’t catch her breath. The air is cool on her damp skin, her nipples feel painfully tight. Sharon’s panting too, groaning into Brenda’s skin, whimpering in sympathy when Brenda cries out. It takes Brenda a moment to realize that Sharon is thrusting against her, hot and wet on her thigh and there’s something about that, Sharon stealing her own pleasure while working Brenda hard that tips Brenda over the edge.

She claws at Sharon, grabbing hold of skin and hair and gripping at whatever she can, but she doesn’t chase it, doesn’t languish in it. As soon as she can get her wits about her, she rolls so Sharon’s back is flat on the bed, slides down her, pushes her knees apart and buries her tongue in her wet heat.

“Jesus!” Sharon says. Brenda smiles into her, proud to have gotten the jump on her even with a fuzzy brain and trembling muscles, still clenching at nothing with little aftershocks. Then she dips her tongue inside before moving up, tonguing her clit and then sucking it between her teeth and biting down lightly. Sharon’s hands in her hair, her hips bucking up against her face. But Brenda doesn’t let her shake her off. She pushes in one finger, two fingers, twists and scissors them.

When Sharon comes, she clenches hard, sucks in a breath and freezes like the whole world stops for just a moment. Like she’s suspended somewhere temporary but extravagantly grand. And then she falls, slumping back down with a groan. It's enough to take the edge off anyway and there's a whole long night still yet to spiral out around them.

Brenda kisses up her belly, the underside of her breast, the bright red skin at the base of her neck. Tucks her head in there, Sharon’s arms and legs around her. She can feel Sharon’s heart thudding just under her skin.

“I love you,” Sharon says.

“Hey,” Brenda manages, though she doesn’t have the energy to produce real ire. “You were supposed to wait.”

“I can’t,” Sharon says. “I can’t wait anymore.”

Brenda kisses her clavicle, jutting and freckled and says, “I know how that feels.”

oooo

Brenda buys the house. All three bedrooms, all two baths. The fireplace that has been bricked up and is only decorative, the patio, the pool in the backyard. The roses in the front, the marble counters in the kitchen. Sharon comes with her and Rusty too and they’re both quiet as they walk through the empty house, trying not to sway Brenda one way or another, but when she nods and says, “Okay,” both Sharon and Rusty look proud and pleased.

It takes time to move in, once it almost falls out of escrow, but then it doesn’t and the house is hers.

She hires movers to move her teeny tiny apartment into her big empty house and when she explains the situation over the phone, the guy on the other end of the phone laughs and says he’ll send a couple guys over and they’ll get it done in a few hours. It doesn’t even take the whole day.

Brenda spends the first night after her move at the condo and then the night after that and only when Saturday rolls around again does Sharon drag her over to the house to at least set up the bedroom. “If you don’t actually spend any time here, it’s just a million dollar storage unit,” she says. She has enough furniture for the bedroom and the smaller sitting room, but what’s supposed to be the main living room is empty. She has some things for the kitchen, but nowhere near enough to fill up the white cupboards. Having four of everything made sense in her little apartment; here it just seems ridiculous.

“You know,” Sharon says when Brenda starts to fret about when she’s gonna find the time to buy furniture. “Lieutenant Provenza’s house actually looks pretty good.”

“That was quite the non-sequitur,” Brenda say. “You may have to do some explainin’.”

“Oh, his female companion-”

“Girlfriend.” Brenda rolls her eyes at Sharon's delicate phrasing. She's trying to be respectful but female companion just makes the poor woman sound like an escort.

“Whatever, she has a friend who stages houses,” Sharon says, ignoring the correction. “They come fill the house and then whatever you like you pay for and if you don’t like it, they can put something else in and you can try it out for a while.”

“How much does that cost?” Brenda wonders.

“Well,” Sharon says. “I don’t know but it’s my understanding that most of the furniture has been used in other stagings so it’s not absolutely brand new and in that way you save a little money, though I think probably at best you break even. But you don’t have to coordinate delivery, you don’t have to build anything. You don’t have to shop.”

“Sold,” Brenda says. “Sold, sold.”

“I’ll have Provenza ask her for the number,” Sharon says. “Maybe we could have them over to the condo for dinner or something.”

They’re sitting on Brenda’s mattress in her new bedroom, their voices bouncing off the bare walls. “Really?” she says.

“Sure,” Sharon says. “Why not?”

“I never much socialized with the team,” Brenda says. “I wasn’t real good at all that.”

“You don’t say.” Sharon’s voice is dryly amused.

“What have you told them?” Brenda asks. “About me, I mean.”

“Nothing,” Sharon says. “But then, no one has asked.”

“Not even Flynn?” Brenda says.

“Please don’t tell me you’re still jealous of Andy Flynn,” Sharon says.

“He likes you!”

“Lots of people like me, I’m very likable but that doesn’t mean I return their feelings or that I want to date them.”

“So you don’t like him, then?” Brenda asks.

“I like you,” Sharon says. “That’s all you need to worry about.”

But it’s hard to find a night for their dinner party because Sharon picks up a case and Brenda’s working extra hours, trying to figure out who might replace her, should she have to resign. Plus, the mayor has been inviting her to more events, effectively trotting her out at high publicity functions. She thinks it’s so people can get used to seeing her, her name, her face. She makes the society pages and then, a week after that, there’s a small little article speculating as to whether or not she’s the mayor’s choice for the new Police Chief and if she is, she’d be the first openly gay female police chief in the country. It doesn’t mention Sharon by name.

Charlie calls the morning it comes out and says, “What the heck?”

“How are you reading the Times?” Brenda demands.

“I put a google alert on your name,” Charlie says. “Are you going to be the Chief of Police? And since when are you openly gay?”

“Since now, I suppose, though I’m not really that gay… I dunno what I’m supposed to call it,” Brenda says. “What did grandpa say?”

“I didn’t tell him,” Charlie says. “But someone somewhere is going to see it, so you’d better call him yourself.”

“Ugh,” Brenda says. That's a chore she's going to put off forever. That's one she's going to avoid until it blows up in her face because she'd rather clean up the wreckage than face that particular fear head on. “Okay. Okay. Come visit me soon.”

“Okay,” Charlie says, laughing. “Bye.”

Her father may not see the article, but everyone in Los Angeles certainly does. Brenda takes her lunch hour to go down to the Police Administration Building and rides up to Major Crimes fretting and fussing. When she gets there, she can see straight through the door and the glass walls of Sharon’s office.

Sharon and Fritz, standing face to face.

“Oh boy,” Brenda says under her breath, buzzing for entry. She presses her finger down hard on the bell until someone lets her in, and she waves her thanks at the uniformed office before barreling across the murder room to the office and throwing open the door.

Both of them turn to look at her with the same hard expression.

“Not a good time, Chief Johnson,” Sharon says.

Brenda is all for professionalism but Sharon almost never calls her by her title unless in front of a crowd or in bed and Fritz is hardly a crowd.

“You guys have a case?” she asks.

“Police business doesn’t concern you, Brenda,” Fritz says and not kindly but it doesn’t sting because she can see Sharon suppress the urge to laugh.

“This ain’t about the Times?” Brenda asks, looking between them.

“Why, was there an article in the Times about how SOB is taking ten percent of Major Crimes’ budget?” Sharon asks.

“Ten percent?” Brenda asks. “Interesting.” What in God’s green earth is Will tryin’ to do? Force Provenza into retirement? Shake up divisions? Piss off Sharon for sport?

Sharon turns to look at her. “Why? What was in the Times?”

“Nothin’!” Brenda says. “Nothin’, y’all carry on. Bye, now! Bye bye,” she says and gets herself right out of that office. She goes to hide in electronics only to find that’s where the rest of Sharon’s division has holed up. They stare at her for a moment, all of them. Mike and Julio, Andy looking quite grim indeed, even Buzz and Detective Sykes. But it’s Provenza who steps forward holding up the newspaper with glee on his face.

“Something you’d like to share with the class, Chief?”

She clears her throat. “I did apply for Chief,” she says. “But it’s not a sure thing by any stretch.”

“And?” he says.

“And the rest ain’t none of your business!” she says. She can’t look at Andy so she looks at Mike instead who grins at her.

“She has been in a good mood for a while,” he says. “I think it’s very nice.”

“Well,” she says, at a loss. “How long has Chief Howard been in there?”

“About ten long minutes,” Provenza says.

“Shoot,” she groans. “I knew this was gonna get messy.”

There’s an awkward pause and then Julio says, “I heard your new house has a pool, ma’am.”

“Oh,” she says. “Yes, it does. We’ll have you guys over once it’s, um, furnished.”

“We?” Andy says.

“You know, Chief, Patrice has a designer friend,” Provenza says. “I could have her call you with his information.”

“Wait, we?” Andy says again. “Is Sharon living with you now?”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Provenza,” Brenda says, “I would like that. And Lieutenant Flynn for heaven’s sake! No, she’s not, but if she were, what business would it be of yours? And anyway, that stupid article didn’t say anything about Sharon! It could be talking about anyone.”

He shuts up but he looks grim. It’s hard not to feel a slight pang of sympathy - she’s in love with Sharon, too, after all.

The door to electronics opens and Fritz sticks his head in looking, if possible, even more angry than when she’d left Sharon’s office. He looks up at the crowd only momentarily and says, “Brenda? You want to come out here for a second? Please?”

She glances back at the group but there’s no help there. Buzz and Mike and Amy all appear to be looking very intently at the dark monitors, Andy is still brooding at his own feet and Provenza is gazing up at the ceiling tiles. She follows Fritz out and back toward Sharon’s office.

But he stops her just before opening the door and says, “I wish you would’ve told me a long time ago that this was something that you needed. Could’ve saved us a lot of time and money.”

“I…” Brenda says. “I didn’t know.”

He holds open the door for her.

Sharon looks like Sharon, cool and unflappable and Brenda is jealous of her ability to be so calm and collected because she feels like she’s getting called into the principal’s office.

“Okay,” Sharon says, standing up. “Let’s talk about the Times thing later.”

“Um,” Brenda says.

“Captain Raydor and I understand that, professionally, it would be best for our respective departments for Will Pope to step down and for you to take his place,” Fritz says. “If you promise not to shake up my division or unfairly favor Major Crimes, you have my public support.”

Brenda should be surprised, but she isn’t. Fritz is a good man who cares about his job and while he has every reason to hate her and Sharon, too, he doesn’t. At least not openly.

Brenda nods. “I can work with that,” she says. Anyway, she has no plans for reorganization or shake ups, at least not for the first year. Every new Chief always comes in and tries to make a name for themselves by changing a bunch of stuff and it's always a nightmare that backfires, so Brenda has real definite plans of skipping that particular step. Even if it means living with Russell Taylor for a while longer yet.

oooo

There’s a longer article the next day, an op-ed piece about how Los Angeles sorely needs a female chief of police, how the country needs one in the wake of Ferguson and all of the brutal police killings, how Brenda would not just be a Diversity Hire because her credentials are spelled out too, making it clear that she's well qualified. This article doesn’t name Sharon, but somebody must be feeding someone at the Times information because it says that Brenda’s partner is an LAPD officer.

They read the article together in Sharon’s bed before work and then, when Brenda gets to her office, there’s an email saying that the District Attorney wants to see her. She’s about to head over, when her desk phone rings and she gets it. It’s Sharon.

“Pope just retired,” Sharon says without preamble.

“Guess he thought he could save face,” Brenda says.

“They named Taylor as the interim,” Sharon says. “Two more weeks of Pope and then… when are they supposed to announce you?”

“They’re supposed to announce the first week of November but it ain’t me yet,” Brenda says. “I haven’t even seen a short list! And now I’m probably about to get fired because of these newspaper articles!”

“Well, you’ll get a month off to sort out your house before your new job starts,” Sharon says. “That’s not a bad plan, actually.”

“Hanging up now, goodbye,” Brenda says. She sets the phone back into its cradle.

She swings by the break room before heading over to the D.A.’s office. She’d stopped for coffee before coming in but it’s never quite sweet enough, so she digs through the cupboard the find the honey bear. The honey is old, starting to crystallize in the bottle and she’s squeezing hard, trying to get the viscous liquid moving again.

“Brenda?”

It startles Brenda and the honey bear goes flying out of her hands, skittering across the counter and clattering loudly into the stainless steel sink.

The District Attorney is a friendly woman named Jackie who is about ten years older than Brenda. They get on well enough; two women high up the food chain tend to immediately find common ground.

“Sorry,” Brenda says, embarrassed and flustered. “I was just on my way to see you.” She fishes the bear out of the sink and sets it on the counter. She’ll drink her coffee bitter.

“That’s all right,” Jackie says. “I just wanted to offer my congratulations. I’m thrilled, just thrilled at the prospect of a female chief of police for Los Angeles. It’s long, long overdue.”

“It’s not a done deal yet,” Brenda says. “I hope you don’t feel like I tried to pull somethin’ over on you.”

“Eric told me he was going to encourage you to apply,” Jackie says. “And it may not be official, but Eric always gets what he wants.” She smiles, reaches out to shake Brenda’s hand. “Let me know if you need anything, all right?”

Brenda nods, shakes her hand, watches her walk down the hall. She puts the plastic lid back on her coffee and holds the warm cup close to her chest.

Oh god. She might actually get this job.

oooo

Parrots squawk all over Los Angeles, it seems. The noise wakes Brenda up but in a familiar, reassuring way. Some things change, some always stay the same. Sharon sleeps beside her. She sleeps the sleep of the dead - falling asleep quickly and staying there, rising only when her chirpy little alarm sounds. She doesn’t toss or turn or waking up crying. She’ll wake up, though, if Brenda has a rough night, Brenda has found. She’s woken up a few times with Sharon hovering over her, concerned lines on her face, asking if she’s okay. She always is in the end.

This morning the birds wake her but the sun is already bright and streaming into the big bedroom window. Under the covers, she can feel Sharon’s foot against her leg.

Brenda lets her sleep, slipping out of the bed and padding into the bathroom for her morning constitutional and then out into the kitchen to start the pot of coffee. While that’s brewing, she cleans up a little. There are still candy wrappers everywhere. She’d gotten used to living in apartments in urban neighborhoods where there weren’t a lot of kids out and about, but they’d gotten so many trick-or-treaters last night that she’d sent Rusty to the 7-11 to pick up more candy. And then had eaten a ton of it herself. So much, in fact, that she feels a little jittery from all the sugar, even hours later.

Maybe it’s not the sugar causing the jitters, though.

The door to the room that Rusty sleeps in is still closed and she listens hard for a moment before cracking it to see that he’s just a lump under the covers, snoring softly. They stay at the condo during the week, usually, because it’s closer to everyone’s work, but they stay at the house on weekends and lots of the time, Rusty comes too, which Brenda loves. He’s started calling her Bren lately, like a little nickname. “Where’s my mom, Bren?” he’ll say. It’s cute. He’s also started calling Sharon mom more than by her name, like something has shifted inside of him. Like something has told him he’s finally found a family that might stick.

She closes his door softly and pads back to the kitchen to watch the coffee brew. When the machine beeps, she pours two mugs and doctors them up right. Carries them through the little living room with the soft teal couch and the hand woven rug, the art Sharon had picked out on the walls, back to the bedroom. She sets a white mug on Sharon’s nightstand and sips at her own. Sharon stirs a little but doesn’t quite wake up.

In the other corner of the bedroom is a big, overstuffed chair, so Brenda just settles herself right into it with her coffee and looks out the window at the garden and the blue water of the swimming pool, sparkling in the morning sun.

It’s going to be a long day either way, so she’s going to steal a few moments of quiet.

But Sharon wakes before too long, her feet moving first, just a hint of movement under the covers. Then she rolls from her side to her back and stretches, letting one forearm fall against her forehead. Finally, she opens her eyes, yawning and blinking. She sees the coffee cup when she’s squinting to see the clock and turns to look at Brenda’s chair.

“You’re awake,” she says. Brenda nods before she realizes Sharon probably can’t see that subtle of a movement without her glasses.

“Yeah,” she says.

Sharon pushes up onto her elbows for just a moment before dropping down again with a groan.

“We should go running,” she says.

“Let’s skip it today,” Brenda says. “You can swim later if it warms up.” It’s been a long, unseasonable indian summer and it shows no sign of breaking. The mornings, like now, are cool and she can see the leaves on her sycamore tree browning but it’s nothing like autumn at home in Atlanta and by mid-afternoon it'll be eighty degrees.

It’s not like Brenda to skip a jog, even a short one. It’s one of the few disciplines she keeps and Sharon reaches for her coffee mug and sits up just enough to sip at it, and then clear her throat and say, “Today?”

Brenda doesn’t say anything, the warm ceramic mug in both hands.

“Today!” Sharon says. “It’s today!”

“For the whole rest of the day,” Brenda confirms.

“You smart ass,” Sharon says, pushing back the covers. “I’m still going to make you breakfast. What do you want? Pancakes? I think there’s still strawberries in there. Waffles?”

“I don’t think I have a waffle iron anymore,” Brenda says.

“Pancakes,” Sharon says, stepping into her slippers and reaching for her glasses. She slips them on and smiles. “There you are.”

“You don’t have to cook,” Brenda says. “It’s not the first day of school. I’m not going to take a test.”

“Rusty will want breakfast,” Sharon says. “Don’t be selfish.”

Brenda rolls her eyes. Sharon’s always short when she wakes up but it’s a shortness tempered with sleepy warmth so Brenda tries not to take it to heart. Sharon finds her robe on the hook by the closet and slips it on, belting it and running her hands through her hair a few times.

“Don’t rush off,” Brenda says. “Finish your coffee. He’s still asleep. Anyway, I might have to work all weekend so…”

She trails off, unsure. Then again, she might not.

“I’m going to brush my teeth,” Sharon says. That’s a euphemism for go pee, Brenda has learned. Sharon is all for intimacy but it stops quite abruptly at the bathroom door.

“Okay,” she says.

Brenda relocates to one of the stools at the island in the kitchen. If Sharon really wants to make her breakfast, she’s not going to help but she’ll certainly keep the cook company. When Sharon reappears, she leans in to kiss her but Brenda turns her head at the last minute and gives Sharon only cheek.

“You haven’t brushed your teeth,” she says accusingly.

“Makes my coffee taste weird, I’ll do it after,” Brenda says.

Sharon starts pulling things out of Brenda’s cupboards, most things newly purchased and still unused. She’s glad Sharon seems to know where everything is because Brenda certainly doesn’t. Brenda just watches her for a while and it’s not until she cracks an egg against the rim of a metal bowl that Sharon mentions it.

“When are you supposed to get the call?” She tries to sound casual, bless her heart.

“I can’t rightly say,” Brenda says. Sharon doesn’t like that sort of answer at all and levels a look at Brenda over the rim of her glasses. “It comes when it comes!”

“We’re just supposed to wait around until that happens?” Sharon says. “To just be okay with that?”

“I guess so,” Brenda says. “You don’t have to, I suppose.”

“Oh sure,” Sharon says, tossing the eggshells into the sink. “Rusty and I will just go to the beach or something, just go out and fritter the day away.”

“You’re such a joy today,” Brenda says. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

“Just pined after me for a year with your big brown puppy dog eyes,” Sharon says with a smirk. “All that quiet longing.”

“I did no such thing,” Brenda says but Sharon barks out a laugh because they both know it’s a lie, and a bold one at that.

The door down the hall opens.

“The beast rises,” Sharon says. She means it as a joke, Brenda knows but then she does look a little frightened for a moment and says, “Rusty!”

Brenda turns and sees that Rusty’s still got his Halloween makeup on, pale white face, dark eyes, though smeared. Some of it had worn away in the night as he slept.

“Did you ruin the sheets?” Brenda asks.

“I’ll wash them,” Rusty promises which means yes. No wonder Sharon always bought him dark, patterned sheets. The little yellow flowered sheets on his bed never stood a chance. “Coffee?”

“Yep,” Brenda says. “And breakfast, too.”

“Oh, what did we do to deserve breakfast?” he asks, pulling a mug from the cupboard and pouring himself coffee.

“Your mama has to channel her nervous energy into something,” Brenda says. Sharon scrunches up her face a little in distaste but doesn’t say anything in her own defense because Brenda isn’t wrong.

“Set the table,” she says, instead. Brenda isn’t sure who she’s talking to, so she hops off her stool and she and Rusty both do it, carrying plates and silverware and glasses into the dining room. There’s a dark wooden table in here and six chairs, though Brenda would’ve been happy with four. Sharon had said she’ll have to entertain if she gets a political job so Brenda had kept the chairs, in the end. Plus, this way they’ll have enough for when Ricky and Emily come to visit, and Charlie too.

They’re halfway through breakfast when the landline rings.

Everyone freezes.

“You get it,” Brenda blurts on the second ring because she feels paralyzed in her seat. Sharon takes control, hopes up and grabs the phone, pushes the button and answers it as easily as anything.

“Hello?”

Brenda has never looked at anything as hard as she’s looking and Sharon’s face now. Not a monitor in the electronics room, not the sneer of a cold blooded killer, not even her mama laying in her casket.

“Yes, hello. Good morning to you too, sir,” Sharon says. She listens for a few moments. The smile starts out small, reserved, but then it starts to grow. “She is, she’s right here. Hold on a moment, please.”

Sharon holds the phone to her chest and gives Brenda a big, very real smile. “It’s for you.”

Brenda nods, relief flooding her system, pressure lifting from her chest. She breathes out in a huff. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Sharon says and hands her the phone. Brenda takes it, their fingers brushing.

She brings the phone to her ear and says, “Chief Johnson.”

Sharon watches her with her clear eyes, her pretty hair, her long legs and just beams.

Brenda feels her heart constrict in her chest, feels her pulse start to race, feels herself fall just a little bit more in love.