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Somebody Loves You

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Part One

I.

Captain Sharon Raydor
Dept: Major Crimes

A week and a half into her transfer to Major Crimes, seeing her name associated with the elite division still hadn’t gotten old for Sharon Raydor. As she observed the day’s stack of incoming mail, she allowed herself to acknowledge how much she liked seeing this simple reminder scrawled in black ink.

Major Crimes was her new home.

It didn’t hurt, either, that her daily mail traffic was considerably lighter than it had been when she worked in FID—having an entire wall of her former office lined in boxes containing OIS reports was something that she certainly did not miss. The cloying, claustrophobic feel of her previously cramped quarters made this new office feel like a spacious sanctuary, uncluttered and bare.

Any attempts to personalize her office in FID had been moot due to the lack of space available. This office, however, was a blank slate, waiting to reflect the woman who occupied it, not the work she did. She’d brought in several personal touches from home—her favorite mugs for tea, a few watercolors—but her nesting wasn’t complete. She was determined to make her mark on this office in a way that its previous occupant had not…when she had the time, at least. Meeting resistance, both at home with her young ward and at work with her coworkers, had left little time for Sharon to deviate from her routine.

At this time of mid-afternoon, her routine called for her perusal of her inbox, and so Sharon contemplated the interdepartmental envelopes and interoffice memos, no doubt filled with such thrilling contents as the misuse of fax machines and staffing changes. It was the Priority Mail box at the bottom of the stack, however, that caught her attention. Curious, she reached for it, careful not to upend the various memos and files still awaiting her attention.

Sharon’s eyebrows rose as she noted that the package originated in the District Attorney’s office. She couldn’t recall expecting anything--case files were generally hand-delivered--and so she reached for her letter opener, slicing away at the tape that secured the parcel’s edges. She tipped the box, emptying the contents into her waiting palm. Inside the box was a rectangular item wrapped in royal blue paper, upon which was taped a folded note.

She recognized the handwriting immediately.

If it was strange that Sharon’s heart rate quickened upon the sight of her name scrawled out in familiar blue ink, it was even stranger that Brenda Leigh Johnson would actually send her a gift to begin with. Sharon was completely mystified. How long had it been since she’d heard from Brenda Leigh? Nearly a month had passed, during which time Sharon’s phone calls, text messages, and emails had remained unanswered. It had been a drastic change from seeing and talking to the woman nearly every day for months. One day she was working at the LAPD (albeit suspended), and then next she was not. They had gone from speaking multiple times a day to complete radio silence. If Sharon hadn’t known that Brenda had planned on visiting her family in Atlanta, she would have been worried that something had happened to her.

And yet, out of nowhere, Brenda had reappeared. Unable to resist the pull of her curiosity, Sharon put on her glasses, peeled the note carefully from the gift, and began to read.

Sharon—
I saw this and couldn’t resist buying it for you. Consider it a belated office-warming present. I know that Major Crimes is in good hands.
I hope you are well, Sharon.
--Brenda

The captain’s cheeks flooded with heat at the surprising intimacy of the short note. She read it several times, each time hoping that she would discover a postscript. She was struck by a sudden pang of emotion as she realized that she truly missed the other woman, had missed the tender beginnings of the friendship that had become stagnant after Brenda’s departure. Sharon couldn’t blame her for disappearing given the circumstances surrounding her resignation, and yet she wondered if she had done something to push the woman away.

She smiled at her own silliness, knowing she had acted professionally and warmly toward the former deputy chief right until the end. Nevertheless, she had managed to construct a narrative of why Brenda had fallen out of touch. Her thoughts had begun rationally, imagining that Brenda was focused on caring for her father and adjusting to her new job, and had rapidly become more illogical with each unanswered text message. Until receiving this package, Sharon had convinced herself that the woman had been harboring jealousy and resentment toward her for taking the helm of the team Brenda had loved, shutting Sharon out as a result. She had explored all of these thoughts with her therapist, which had helped to diffuse the immediate concern, but even Dr. Kennedy’s words of wisdom had not had the same soothing effect as the receipt of this package.

A note and a gift didn’t necessarily prove that Sharon’s imagination had gotten away from her, but she could feel the anxiety-fueled narrative beginning to blur and lose cohesion.

Still, when she was feeling particularly vulnerable, Sharon even entertained the possibility that the reason for Brenda’s lack of contact had been more…personal. Despite the fact that they’d mutually agreed to move past that solitary occasion, the captain couldn’t help but wonder if that one allowed moment of intimacy had done more damage than she anticipated.

She halted that train of thought immediately. This gift, whatever it was, had nothing to do with that night—of that she was certain. She couldn’t allow herself to be swept back into that moment or the emotions associated with it.

Sharon glanced over the note one final time before setting it aside, picking up the gift. She slid her thumbs beneath a taped edge, noting the careful precision of the wrapping and wondered if Brenda wrapped it herself or paid someone else to do it. It looked too neat—too perfect—to have been done by the former deputy chief, but Sharon chided herself for making the assumption. She repeated the process with all of the corners with the same maddening slowness that had driven her parents and siblings crazy on Christmas morning when she was a child. She had taken great care not to rush, savoring the sweet anticipation because it excited her and filled her with promise and a sense of possibility. Rushing it meant that it would be over too quickly, and even ten-year-old Sharon, with her pigtails and glasses and braces, knew that she wanted to prolong the anticipation for as long as she could stand it.

After several moments of contemplation, Sharon drew apart the crisp blue wrapping to see Brenda’s gift.

Sharon blinked—and then let out a bark of laughter.

Inside the paper was a rectangular wooden sign, inscribed with an imploring bold white message: WORK WITH ME PEOPLE. She chuckled to herself, awed by the playfulness of the gift. It was perfect. The only thing, Sharon realized, that would have made it better would have been if Brenda had delivered it herself.

Sharon reached for her cell phone and dialed the number she had committed to memory years ago. After several rings, the call was directed to voicemail. “Hello, you’ve reached Brenda Leigh Johnson. Please leave a message!”

The captain smiled at hearing the woman’s voice, though she could not stop herself from feeling the sting of disappointment that it was only a recorded message.

She hung up, deciding against leaving a voicemail, and turned to her computer.

She began to type.

II.

Brenda jolted awake, her cotton t-shirt fused to her skin by perspiration. She vaguely acknowledged that she could barely breathe as her heart thundered in her chest, and so she sat up, closing her eyes while she took in one great lungful of air after another. She exhaled slowly, remembering how Fritz had once explained that she’d relax if she slowed down her exhaling. As if by habit she reached a hand over to his side of the bed, remembering too late that he was still sleeping in the guest room.

She opened her eyes.

It seemed unfair, somehow, that he should have to sleep in the guest room while Brenda Leigh slept, albeit poorly, in their marital bed. When the problems began, she had slept in the second room. Months later, after her mother died, he volunteered to swap. She knew it was the one final kindness that he would do as her husband.

She sighed, looking over at the clock. 3:38 a.m. She’d managed to get in an hour more of sleep than she had the night before, and for that she was grateful. She ran the back of her hand across her damp forehead, brushing away the blonde hair that was plastered to her face. She couldn’t remember the details of this particular dream, only that she had been trapped in some sort of room with no windows or doors. The suffocating terror she’d felt in her dream still lingered as she clung to wakefulness and she shuddered. Fritz had told her about a study he’d read once, stating that people had a harder time falling asleep if they used their phones or watched television in bed. She didn’t want to go back to sleep, and so she reached for her phone, activating the screen to check her email. She deleted the junk mail that clogged her inbox, discarding all of the “forward if you love Jesus!” emails from her sister-in-law and the coupons for various retail stores. All that remained was the unopened email from Sharon Raydor.

The blonde repositioned the pillows behind her back as she scooted upright against the headboard, resigned to the fact that it would be hours before she fell back to sleep, if at all. In the darkness of her room, she contemplated the email that had been sitting in her inbox for several days. She couldn’t immediately name the reason why she had avoided the captain’s call when she had received the package—Brenda had been available, sitting at her desk. She had watched the phone ring and had been rendered frozen, unable to bring herself to answer the call. She had wanted to, but she couldn’t. Fifteen minutes later the email had shown up, stirring within her a sense of anticipatory hope that she had clung to for days. It was ridiculous to have saved the email, and yet another mark of Brenda’s rudeness and poor manners.

Her momma would have been appalled.

She’d clung to that anticipation like a blanket, wrapping herself in it. She’d listened to the captain’s voicemails and read her text messages, and this email was all that remained. As soon as she opened it and devoured its contents, it would be over, leaving Brenda feeling deflated and out of touch.

It would be her own fault if they remained out of touch—she had been the one to avoid making any effort to respond to all of Sharon’s attempts. Even now, Brenda wasn’t sure if she would--could--respond to whatever Sharon had written.

Brenda closed her eyes and conjured the captain’s image. Sharon had been a source of strength for Brenda, an anchor when it had felt like she was floating away. Brenda felt unmoored more than ever and wondered if the friendship they had fought to create could exist now that Brenda had neglected it so. It was difficult to acknowledge that she had no other friends; she had never needed any because the job had been enough. The job had been friend, partner, and parent.

Now, though, Brenda no longer had the job, and it had been a harsh reality check when she acknowledged that because of the job, she no longer had a friend, a partner, or one of her parents.

Her chest ached, a dull, ever-present pang. She missed her friend Sharon. She missed the idea of her husband. She missed her mother.

Brenda made up her mind; she re-activated the screen and tapped on Sharon’s email.

From: S. Raydor
To: B.L. Johnson
Subject: Many Thanks

Brenda,
I just received your gift, and I must say that it made a stressful week infinitely better. I got a good laugh from it and I’ve set it out on the shelf in my office for the world to see. (Perhaps, with a little prompting, they’ll work
with me!) You couldn’t have chosen a more fitting “office-warming” present.

I tried to call you, but a brief voicemail struck me as a little too impersonal – hence this email. Thank you, Brenda. The kind gesture meant a lot to me. I only wish you had stopped by to deliver it yourself.

I’ve missed you, Brenda, and have hoped that you are well. I hope you’ll stay in touch.

Best,
Sharon

Brenda smiled, skimming over the brief missive a few times. She imagined the captain holding the sign, laughing, and choosing a spot to display it in her office. How strange it was to refer to it as Sharon’s office and not feel the expected stab of jealousy. Instead, as tears prickled unexpectedly in her eyes, Brenda felt only the pull of loneliness—a loneliness of her own creation.

She got out of bed, strolling quietly into the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of milk and, rather than take a few Oreos from the package, took the entire thing with her into the living room. The loud crinkle of the container made her cringe. She peeled back the plastic as quietly as she could and set it beside her on the sofa. After a gulp of milk and a cookie, she pulled the laptop from the coffee table and set it on her lap.

Illuminated only by the bluish glow of the computer screen, Brenda Leigh logged into her email and stared at Sharon’s note. She reread it four more times, memorizing the little details. Sharon was nothing if not forthright and genuine, and Brenda knew that the other woman had meant every word. If anything, Brenda owed her the same.

Biting her lip, she opened up a new email and began to pluck away at the keys.

From: Brenda Leigh Johnson
To: Sharon Raydor
Subject: Hello

She tried out several different subject lines, ranging from “you’re welcome!” to “no subject,” before she settled for a simple greeting. If it was this hard to type a subject, how would she manage with the rest of the email?

Sharon,
I’ve been staring at this email for I’m not sure how long now; it’s late, as you can see, and I’m clearly not asleep. I’m glad you enjoyed your gift. I can just imagine the look on Provenza’s face when he strolled into your office and saw it. Did he roll his eyes? I’ll just bet he did.

Perhaps, Brenda considered, Provenza had not yet warmed up to the captain. She considered deleting those lines but left them in. She needed something light to segway into what was bound to be a convoluted, poorly-written mess of an explanation. It seemed that she could not stop herself from exposing her thoughts to the other woman. This blank text box was her confessional—if she could not say it in person, face to face, where else could she say it? Who else would listen? Who else would care?

I just…well, I suppose I wanted to just apologize for disappearing on you…for not coming by the office myself. I wanted to. I’ve thought a lot about you and the rest of the team but I find myself feeling like it’s too fresh…too soon. It’s been what, a month now? It feels like yesterday, and it feels like a year. So much has changed. My life is so much different from the way it used to be. I am so much different. In some ways, I don’t feel like myself anymore. Or maybe I do. Maybe I’ve just shed my skin and the new skin doesn’t fit quite right yet. I think if I were to come back now, even just to stop by and say hello, I would fall back into that person I used to be. I don’t want to be her anymore. I can’t be. I’ve lost too much being her and I think if I stepped back into that old skin, I’d lose myself completely.

I’m sure this must all sound like nonsense to you—it sounds like nonsense to me. I haven’t been sleeping well. I keep having these dreams, the kind where you wake up feeling like you’re suffocating. Before I started this email, I had been dreaming about being trapped in a room underneath the Parker Center. It’s like I’m at the bottom of a well and it starts out with everyone looking down at me from the very top—my momma, you, Fritz, my brother Jimmy, my niece Charlie—and then one by one, everyone stops looking and I’m alone. I have that one a lot.

That’s beside the point, really. I don’t know why I told you that. I don’t know why I’ve told you most of the things I have, Sharon. There’s just something about you, and I feel compelled to just…be myself with you. To be honest with you. I’ve always felt a strong connection to you, you know. Surely you know that, right? And I think that’s why I’m sitting here on my couch, writing you a wordy email in the middle of the night—because you’re my friend, and I want to continue to be your friend, and I hope you’ll still BE my friend despite the fact that I’m probably not a very good friend to have anyway.

So, that’s that. I’m sorry, Sharon, for blowing you off. I would really like to stay in touch, but I hope you’ll understand why I need to maintain a little distance—at least for a little longer.

Upon completing that paragraph, Brenda noticed how her heart was beating a quick, steady tattoo against her chest. She twisted apart an Oreo, licking away the frosting in slow, broad strokes of her tongue. She contemplated what she had written. She could send it as is, but there was something missing—something she knew she needed to add.

Since I’m pouring my heart out here, there’s just one more thing. I know we agreed we wouldn’t talk about this again, but I needed to say it. I don’t regret what happened between us—and even now, I wish you hadn’t stopped me.

B.

Before she could come to her senses and delete her message, Brenda clicked send. With a great yawn, she diligently logged out of her email and placed the computer back onto the coffee table. She felt as if a great load had been lifted from her shoulders.

Setting aside the Oreos and the few remaining sips of milk, Brenda nestled back into the couch and closed her eyes. Perhaps now she could sleep.

III.

It had been with great resolve that Sharon had waited until after dinner had been cooked and the dishes cleaned and the leftovers saved to read Brenda’s response to her email. Her curiosity had eaten at her all day, especially after noting that the email had been sent in the middle of the night. It was, at least, a response—she had spent considerable time preparing herself for the possibility that Brenda might not respond at all. It certainly wouldn’t have been a surprise, given her recent track record.

Now, as she tucked her feet beneath her where she sat on the sofa, laptop perched on her lap, she was grateful that her patience had won out. She logged into her email, biting her lip in curiosity as she opened Brenda’s response.

“Everything okay?” Rusty asked, his keen eyes watching her over the top of his Calculus textbook.

She smiled, recognizing the worry etched upon his young features. It made her heart hurt that this young boy had such an old soul and had experienced so much hardship in his sixteen years of living. He worried far too much. “Yes,” she reassured with a kind smile. “Just an email from Brenda.”

His eyebrows rose, and he closed his book. “Brenda? Seriously? I thought she dropped off the face of the earth.”

She snorted. “So had I, to be honest.”

“So…how is she? I never heard from her after, y’know, everything. Guess she couldn’t be bothered to respond to a text.”

Sharon nearly winced, though she couldn’t blame Rusty for his frustration. It rankled her to know that Brenda had let him down, especially given the ordeal they had shared at the hands of Philip Stroh. If they had had this conversation prior to reading Brenda’s email, Sharon may have sided with him. Now, she had other worries to consider.

“I wouldn’t take it personally, Rusty. It sounds like she may be going through a difficult time. I hadn’t heard from her either.”

“Who knew she’d turn out to be a flake?” He huffed, staring out at the balcony. “Weren’t you guys like friends or something?”

“Something like that.”

Rusty nodded, shaking his head slightly. “That’s too bad. Hey…can I watch tv now? If I have to look at one more formula tonight, I’ll go cross-eyed.”

Though she was skeptical about how much he’d actually studied that night, Sharon was willing to give him a break. She nodded, handing him the remote control. “Let’s try to keep the volume down a little lower than usual. I don’t think our neighbors need to hear what we watch tonight.”

He exaggeratedly pressed the lowered volume button before he began to channel surf. Shaking her head at his juvenile display, Sharon returned her attention to Brenda’s email, taking in each word. By the time she’d finished reading the entire message twice through, her heart was racing.

She scanned the last few lines again, her cheeks burning as she remembered that night. She had tried to convince herself that that had been why Brenda had disappeared—it was easier that way because it was firm, final. It sent a clear message that it had been a mistake. If it was a mistake, then it was unlikely to happen again. That was perfectly fine with Sharon—she was not keen on repeating her mistakes, no matter how enjoyable they may have been at the time. The memories of that night should have been foggy, but they weren't. They were clear and sharp, as if that intimate moment had only happened an hour ago.

She took a deep breath and counted to five—the last thing she needed was to get so caught up in the memory that Rusty noticed and asked questions she couldn't answer. More pressing than her memories was the rest of Brenda's email, the haunting words of a woman who was not all right at all.

She thoughtfully pondered her response. How to approach someone who badly needed a friend, who at the same time remained at arm's length?

Leaving Rusty in control of the remote, Sharon poured herself a glass of pinot noir and headed to the balcony, seating herself on a chair with her laptop poised in her lap. The evening air was warm, though it felt cool against her still-flushed cheeks. Fortifying herself with a sip of wine, she reread Brenda's email. Her heart tugged at the woman's raw introspection, wondering how difficult it must have been for the woman to bare her thoughts so explicitly when she previously had so much trouble letting anyone inside her impenetrable walls. She had been single-minded and driven, but the lawsuit had chipped away at that until Sharon had forced her way through the cracks to find the vulnerable woman beneath. That was the woman who was in contact with her now; with no protective wall, the air was probably harsher on her flesh.

She began compose her response.

Brenda--

I am touched that you trust me with these innermost thoughts and feelings. Your email came as a surprise to me, but I was grateful for your honesty and found myself relating to the way I understand you to be feeling now. I once read in the journals of Sylvia Plath that she considered herself a victim of introspection—those words were very meaningful to me as a melancholy sophomore undergrad, and they're especially relevant now, perhaps to both of us. In your case, though it's not something you do altogether often, this introspection does not have to be a bad thing. To see oneself is to know oneself, and I wonder if the discomfort you mentioned is the feeling of recognizing things about yourself that you didn't know existed.

This is merely speculation, of course. I don't mean to psychoanalyze—I suppose it's my way of reflecting and understanding and sharing my own perspective with you in the hopes of giving clarity to your thoughts. Or, maybe I'm just projecting.

I was thinking about the dreams you mentioned, of being trapped inside a well. It reminds me of an oubliette, a prison where its captives were oft forgotten. Do you fear abandonment? Are you afraid of being forgotten? While I know with confidence that your loved ones would not and could not forget you, I cannot speak for them, and I doubt you'd believe me if I could. I can only speak for myself, and I could never forget you, Brenda. I'm certainly not going anywhere.

I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds here. I felt, toward the end of our working relationship, that we had grown close—it felt to me that we spoke the same language, or at least that we understood each other when it seemed that others did not. If I've misunderstood your email, perhaps I am no longer fluent in “Brenda”--but I hope I am.

Sharon contemplated what she had written thus far, her heart beating slightly faster as she realized just how much of herself she had poured onto the screen. Had Brenda felt the same way when she wrote the previous night? Had it also surprised and excited her? The wine she nursed made her feel bold, confident—perhaps it was foolish, but Brenda had been so forthcoming...why shouldn't she? She scanned Brenda's comment about what had happened—almost happened—and wondered what to say. The most honest response would be that she regretted putting a stop to things, but despite her outpouring of honesty, she couldn’t bring herself to type the words. The computer screen felt too impersonal a means of communicating exactly what she felt about that night.

You brought up what happened that night. There's a lot to be said for that moment of weakness—but I believe it would be better to have that conversation face-to-face. I will respect your need for distance right now provided that you will respect my preference to save this particular topic for a verbal conversation rather than a virtual one.

She could not identify why she felt so stubborn about this—she had given up clinging to the possibility of anything similar ever happening again. She had even given up hope that Brenda would utter the words she had written in her email. Sharon only knew that if she were going to continue this old-school correspondence on Brenda's terms, she needed to hold something back.

Adding a final line to her note about hoping to hear from Brenda again soon, Sharon signed her email and sent it off into cyberspace. She pondered when the other woman might respond—if she responded at all.

Glancing back through the glass door, she watched Rusty has he laughed at something on television. She frowned; seeing him smile was something she still was not used to, and she deeply wished that she could wipe away all of the bad in the world so he could enjoy what remained of his childhood.

Though she now understood the reasoning behind Brenda’s lack of communication, it still bothered her that Rusty had also been a recipient of the former deputy chief’s cool and distant behavior. Sharon’s understanding was one thing, but asking the same of a teenage boy who had been through a series of traumatic events was quite another.

Making up her mind, Sharon opened another email and addressed it to Brenda. She did not want to chastise the younger woman, nor did she want to scare her off when she was clearly already skittish. However, her maternal protectiveness was in full swing, and Sharon felt the need to address her concerns about Rusty.

PS. Rusty asked after you today. His hurt tone indicated to me that he was pretty disappointed after you disappeared given everything the two of you went through together. I hope at some point that you will feel ready to reach out to him the way you’ve reached out to me.

S.

Hitting send, Sharon closed her computer and headed inside.

IV.

She could have cut the tension in the kitchen with a knife. Fritz kept his back to her, stirring his coffee so loudly that each pass of the spoon clinked the sides of the ceramic mug. The noise made her bristle. She’d managed four and a half hours of sleep, but the dreams had left her on edge, and the noise only served to irritate the hell out of her.

“I think it’s stirred,” she snapped, instantly regretting the harshness of her tone. He looked back at her, his face unreadable. “Sorry,” she mumbled to his retreating back after he dropped his spoon loudly in the sink and headed toward the living room.

It was so strange to be unable to read him, but that said plenty in itself. He’d moved beyond the pitying, slightly hopeful half-smiles and politeness and now kept a cool distance, further evidence to Brenda that they truly had moved past the point of no return. She wished she could talk to him, but what would she say? I’m sorry for not being the woman you married? I’m sorry that the ways in which I’ve changed haven’t been convenient for you? I’m sorry that we couldn’t make this work?

She knew that he was simply waiting for her to make the final move -- to cut him loose, despite the fact that he wanted it as much as she did. There was a part of her that wished he’d be the one to file; if he did, it would be at least one less reason that Brenda was the bad guy in all of this, but even so, he would probably consider himself the injured and persecuted party if he were the one to do it.

She sighed, staring into the honeyed depths of her coffee. She made a mental note to file the divorce papers as soon as she could pull herself away from the office.

Feeling edgy and gloomy, Brenda opened her laptop, signing into her email for the sole purpose of locating and opening Sharon’s latest two emails. She’d known they were there the night before but she had saved them, anticipating the morning’s gloom. She had hoped that the emails would cheer her up, but she knew that it was likely to be more complicated than that.

She read through them both. The first email, a longer, incredibly expressive email, inspired in Brenda a bevy of thoughts that she did not immediately know how to respond to. She marked it as unread so that she could go back to it later in the day when she’d had more of a chance to think about it. The second and shorter email was more pressing, and made Brenda burn with guilt.

Rusty.

She had truly dropped the ball with him, and that made her feel like a Grade A Bitch. They’d been through a horrible ordeal together, both surviving a near-deadly altercation with Philip Stroh, and Brenda had completely let Rusty down by bailing on him when he needed an ally. Granted, Brenda had hardly been in an appropriate mindset to help anyone when she’d barely been able to help herself, but the guilt gnawed at her. The fact of the matter was that she’d gotten so wrapped up in her own stuff that she’d forgotten about Rusty.

Perhaps Fritz had been right: maybe she was the most selfish person this side of the Mississippi.

Blushing from embarrassment at Sharon’s gentle chastisement, Brenda retrieved her cell phone from the depths of her black tote and scrolled through her incoming text messages until she found Rusty’s. She hadn’t even bothered to add him to her address book. Shaking her head at herself, she added him to her contacts and reviewed the handful of messages he had sent to her.

The first message had been sent nearly a month ago, only days after the events in her kitchen with Stroh. Hey, remember that one time we were both nearly murdered by a crazy serial rapist? How fucked up was that? That had been followed, several hours later, by another message: Sorry if that was messed up. I didn’t mean to assume that we’re like war buddies or something. Anyway. Hope you’re okay.

More than a few days later, he had followed up with another brief text. It’s cool that you never responded. I was just wondering if you would still make good on your promise to help me find my mom? No one here’s doing anything and you seem like a lady who gets shit done even if you’re not officially a cop anymore. I’d really appreciate it. Emergency foster housing really blows, and it would be great to be back with my mom again.

A week later, he shared that he was now living with “that cop with the hair who’s obsessed with the rules.” Not long after that, he retracted his request altogether. Never mind. Guess asking for a favor was too much to ask after you saved my life. Doesn’t matter anyway, cuz my mom didn’t want to be found after all.

Another week after that was Rusty’s final message: You know, the least you could’ve done was say that you didn’t want to be pestered by a lame kid. I get the hint. Have a good life, Brenda Lee.

She set down her phone and rubbed her stomach with both hands, which churned uncomfortably with a mixture of guilt and shame at how deeply she had let him down. The boy had been hit in the head with a shovel, thrown off a cliff, stabbed in the leg…to say nothing for being abandoned by his mother and forced to resort to prostitution to survive. Brenda had been no better to him.

Making up with Sharon had been easy compared to this. When she had received Rusty’s last few messages, she’d been so unsure of what to say to him that she had let herself use being in Atlanta as an excuse. She’d convinced herself that she could take her time responding because she’d been absorbed in packing up her mother’s things for donation. The truth was, Rusty had needed her a lot more than inanimate clothing had, but she had been capable of handling only one painful task at a time.

Now, a month later, Brenda was out of excuses.

She chewed her lip, contemplating how she could possibly respond in a way that would matter to a wounded, damaged boy. She also had to be careful in how she approached him; she didn’t want it to sound like the only reason she was writing was because Sharon put her up to it. Rusty, like any other teenager, was suspicious, but he had extra reason to be. He’d been forced to resort to awful things in order to survive—it was no wonder he was paranoid and questioned the sincerity of the people who came into his life. The last thing she wanted to do was put herself and Sharon in a precarious situation with him.

Just do it, she admonished herself. She scoffed at her hesitance—was she really the same woman who had chased a murderer into an elevator and smashed his head against the wall?

Picking up her phone, she bit the inside of her cheek and began tapping out a very, very belated response. Hey Rusty, remember me? It’s Brenda, just in case you deleted me from your contacts. I was thinking about you today and I wanted you to know that I’m so sorry for not responding to you sooner. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Asking for forgiveness from Rusty was a hell of a lot more than she deserved, but she felt it couldn’t hurt to put the young man in a position of power. It was his choice, and it seemed that he didn’t have the luxury of making too many of those these days. She hoped, at least, that he would appreciate the effort.

Her conscience somewhat assuaged, Brenda got up to rinse out her coffee cup, thinking about Sharon’s first email. Whatever she had been expecting to hear certainly wasn’t what she received. What Sharon had said about the two of them speaking the same language shocked her not because it was odd, but because it was true. Sharon had always been the one person who truly understood her thought process and her motivation—she had known without ever needing to be told. She’d never really thought about it before, but the truth was that Sharon got her in a way that no one did…sometimes even more than she got herself.

As she set her clean mug in the dish strainer, Brenda found herself missing Sharon more than ever.

V.

Sharon looked up from her paperwork as Rusty barreled into her office, dropping his heavy bookbag onto the floor before flopping into “his” chair. She smiled at him as she removed her glasses, pleased to note the difference in his entire demeanor. A month ago, he had been hostile and angry. She couldn’t blame him for that, but she was impressed at the growth he had displayed. After school, he came to her office to tell her about his day not because he had to, but because he wanted to. It gratified her to know that he trusted her and looked to her as a parental figure rather than a glorified babysitter with a gun.

“How was your day?” she asked, leaning back in her chair. She picked up her cup of tea, wishing she’d had the time to microwave it—or at least that she could have drunk it while it was warm.

“You are never gonna guess who texted me today.”

Sharon raised an eyebrow, keeping her face expressionless. “Who?”

“Brenda! Can you believe that?”

“That is a surprise. How do you feel about it?”

“It’s weird, I guess. She actually apologized for being such a flake. She asked me to forgive her.” He fished his phone out of the pocket of his slacks, scrolling through his messages. “I was gonna be all ‘Brenda who?’ but I decided to give her a break. I mean, she really should have to work for it but I remembered what you said and thought maybe she’d gone through enough.”

“That’s very big of you,” she conceded, impressed by his response. Rusty continued to surprise her with his capacity for forgiveness—despite his severe abandonment issues, he had gone so far as to forgive his mother, so she was not surprised that he had chosen to forgive Brenda. Watching him, his guard ever-present, Sharon was reminded of Brenda. Her email to the other woman had served a dual purpose: to urge Brenda to make amends with a wounded boy, and to give them both an opportunity to support each other in healing from the traumatic ordeal Stroh had put them through.

“I can totally be the bigger person,” he agreed, scratching behind his ear. “Can I grab a soda before I start my homework?”

“Of course,” Sharon agreed.

“Cool.” He stood and grabbed his backpack. His phone beeped, and he laughed. “She must be bored. She’s been texting me all afternoon.”

Sharon chuckled. “Or maybe she’s just glad that you’ve forgiven her.”

“Could be both. See you later, Sharon.” Face buried in his phone, Rusty shuffled his way out through the Murder Room, leaving the captain shaking her head in his wake.

If Brenda were free to text Rusty, Sharon wondered if she had also been free to respond to her email. She had refrained from checking too frequently throughout the day, still wary that Brenda might not maintain their correspondence. With a few quick clicks of her mouse, she was pleasantly surprised to see that she had an unread message from the chief investigator waiting for her in her inbox.

Sharon,

I wanted to start by thanking you for telling me about Rusty. I feel just awful for how I treated him. Do you think I’m a terrible person? I remember what he told me that night that we put that sonofabitch away…he said that I cared more about the dead than I did about the living. He was right, in a way. I’ve worked hard to leave that person behind, to be better and to try to be the sort of woman who cares about the living. I just hope it’s not too late. Oh – he just texted me! What’s he doing with a phone in school??

Anyway…

Your email really surprised me. I had always known that we understood each other, but I don’t think I realized just how much. Maybe that’s why it felt so important to me to reach out to you. You speak my language…do I speak yours? No one’s really ever understood me the way that you do, except for maybe my momma.

Your idea about my dream made a lot of sense. I think I AM afraid of being forgotten. I’m on the verge of my second divorce and it gets real lonely at night when I’m by myself, thinking about the people I’ve lost. Some of that’s my fault, I know, but I’m trying to make up for it. I guess it’s no wonder that I have those sorts of dreams, huh? It makes me feel good to know that you’re not going to forget me. It’s reassuring to know that I’ve still got a friend out there.

What, you mean that I don’t get to call ALL the shots? You want me to wait to talk about what happened until we talk in person??? I guess that’s fair. What kind of a hypocrite would I be if I expected you to talk when I wanna talk and how I wanna talk? I will say this though, Sharon….I think about that night a lot, and I hope we’ll be able to talk about it at length when I’m feeling…ready to see you in person. I promise that won’t be TOO long from now.

I hope we’ll be as close as we used to be. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want us to be closer.

B.

Sharon leaned back against her chair, drumming her fingers against the desk as she scanned the message once more and tried to wrap her mind around everything Brenda had confessed. Brenda never came across as the type to make a production about sharing important news, so it was hardly a shock that the woman would slip in the news of her divorce in the same way she’d share that she was buying a new pair of shoes.

Sharon had no idea about the state of their marriage; every interaction with Fritz Howard had been professional and friendly, but she had not picked up on any of the marital discord that was clearly going on at home. How long had their marriage been compromised? Had her…mistake with Brenda had anything to do with it? She bristled at the thought, but reconsidered the significance of that moment of indiscretion.

As she processed the fact of Brenda’s divorce, she simultaneously recalled what Brenda had written about that night. She wanted to be closer to Sharon than she had been before. Sharon could not help her cheeks from warming at the thought. She had spent countless nights convincing herself that their moment of indiscretion had been nothing more than a mistake, something that she should and would deeply regret if she chastised herself enough for it. Despite her greatest efforts, she did not regret it, and she thought about it just as much—if not more—than Brenda did.

What did it all mean? What did it mean that Brenda thought of that night frequently, and that she was divorcing her husband? What did it mean that Sharon’s heart quickened at the thought?

Sharon shook her head, stopping herself from being derailed by this train of thought. She could not afford to get ahead of herself, not when she was in the process of rebuilding a friendship with Brenda Leigh. In many ways, they were building a foundation of a friendship, connecting and getting to know each other in ways they hadn’t over the course of the years they had known each other. Whatever might happen in the future would be irrelevant unless they had constructed a meaningful friendship built upon equal footing.

That, she decided, was the main point she needed to get across to the other woman. Eyeing the clock, she realized that she had exactly seven minutes until she had to meet with Assistant Chief Taylor—plenty of time to compose a response.

Brenda,

Thank you for making that effort with Rusty. I have been endeavoring to interfere as little possible where he is concerned, but I did want to share that he was overjoyed that you contacted him today. It was refreshing to see a smile on his face…though maybe I’ll have to have a chat with him about the use of his cell phone during school hours…

I am sorry to hear about your divorce, Brenda Leigh. I won’t pry for details, but if you’d like to talk more about this, I think you know by now that I am here for you.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will be close again. I think we already are.

S.

---

Part Two: Two Months Later

I.

The delivery kid’s eyes were wide as he stepped off the elevator, peering curiously around corners. He’d never been inside a police station before—unless you counted the time when he visited his uncle in prison, which he didn’t. This was, like, straight out of Law and Order, and he wondered if he’d see some gruesome crime scene photos...if he ever made it out of the hallway. Heading down the hall, he daydreamed about the possibility of solving a murder on his very own. Before he could round the corner, a short Latino man appeared in front of him, arms crossed over his chest.

“Can I help you?” the officer asked in a stern, no-nonsense tone, and the delivery guy gaped.

“Uh.” He cleared this throat. “I, uh, have a delivery for a Captain Radar. I’m supposed to bring this right to him and make sure he gets it.”

The man’s lip twitched, but he didn’t crack a smile. Instead, he snatched the bag from his hand and peered inside, inspecting the receipt. “You mean Captain Raydor, and she is busy right now. This is as far as you go, I’m afraid. You can tell your boss that she got it.”

The kid peered around the cop’s stocky frame but saw nothing but hallway. “You guys, like, solving a murder in there?”

“Solving three.”

The kid’s eyes widened. “Woah. Wow. So uh…”

“Elevator’s this way,” the officer said, pointing behind him.

He had already been paid, tip and all, but that didn’t stop him from staring expectantly at the officer. The man raised an eyebrow. “Get out of here, kid. There’s a killer on the loose and you’re keeping me from doing my job.”

The delivery guy nodded emphatically, nearly tripping over his sneakers as he headed back to the elevator. Behind him, Julio Sanchez’s typically serious face broke into a grin. Kids were so easy to scare off. Indulging in his curiosity, Julio peeked into the bag again and got another look at the receipt. One diet soda, one chicken and avocado salad, one packet of vinaigrette. It was not the food that had caught his attention, however: it was the confirmation phone number, which was not the work or cell number of Captain Raydor. He knew exactly whose number it was.

He smirked as he walked down the hallway before wiping his face of expression when he entered the Murder Room. He found Sharon Raydor where she had been ten minutes prior, reorganizing crime scene photos on the whiteboard to construct a new timeline of events.

Julio stood obediently beside her. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“Yes, Julio?”

“Your lunch is here.”

She looked at him then as she placed a magnet on the board. “Lunch? I didn’t order—“

He held up the bag. “I think a friend is looking out for you.”

Her face was expressionless for a moment before her cheeks colored slightly. “Oh. Thank you, Julio. You can put it there; I’ll eat later.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, you need to eat. As soon as we get those lab results back, we’ll have a break in the case and there won’t be much time for lunch breaks.” He nodded toward the board. “I’ll finish this here.”

She smiled gratefully at him. “Thank you.”

“Anytime, ma’am.” Julio held out the bag, allowing her to take it. He leaned in, lowering his voice so that he would be unheard by his coworkers. “Tell Chief Johnson I said hello.”

It amused him to see her fluster slightly, opening her mouth in surprise, slipping her hand into her blazer pocket, and nodding tightly. Julio smiled as he turned toward the whiteboard.

Sharon disappeared inside her office, shutting the door behind her. She opened the delivery bag, examining the receipt and confirming that it was in fact Brenda who had sent her lunch. She smiled, touched, and reached for her phone, typing out a quick message. Brenda Leigh, did you order food for me?

Her stomach growled and, still grinning, she opened the bag and set out her food before her, feeling a flutter of something in her gut at the acknowledgment that Brenda even knew the type of food she liked. Over the past several months, they had corresponded often, emailing and texting almost every day. They’d spoken on the phone a few times, but Sharon had yet to actually see Brenda in person. She swallowed her disappointment at the fact. She’d kept to her resolve to be patient and allow their friendship to flourish without the pressure of Sharon’s desire to see her, but it hadn’t been easy. Still, it was incredibly gratifying to look back at how many strides they had taken in their relationship. Brenda was as open and forthcoming as ever, and Sharon had even managed to be more...personable in her emails. Brenda had called her on her formality early on, and the captain had been surprised to notice that the other woman had been correct; she conjured a formal tone in her emails as a way of distancing herself. Sharon knew that she had done this to protect herself in case Brenda disappeared again. When it became obvious that Brenda was sticking around, Sharon relaxed considerably.

Brenda’s response was almost immediate.. Andrea told me you caught a monster of a case last night when I was leaving the office. I figured you probably haven’t had time to eat. Lunch is an important meal of the day, you know. Even YOU can’t order hunger to wait.

Stabbing a forkful of salad, she responded single-handed. What would I do without you?

Brenda: Starve to death, probably.

Brenda: Need a chief investigator to help? It’s still so weird to have Saturdays off...

Sharon smiled, spearing a slice of avocado with her fork. I wouldn’t selfishly call the D.A. just to get you assigned to the case. Besides, that would require you to actually come here, and we would have to actually work together.

Brenda: I can think of worse things…

The brunette’s eyebrows rose. Brenda had hinted about wanting to see Sharon, but she had not made any move toward suggesting a meeting or even overtly saying as much. Sharon was not going to push her. Rather than take her bait, Sharon changed the subject. How is the new apartment?

Brenda: Oh, it’s fine. Anyway, I know what you’re doing here. You’re just trying to keep me out of your Murder Room. Are you afraid I’ll steal your case?

Sharon rolled her eyes, chuckling at the idea of Brenda Leigh attempting to reclaim her old job. She couldn’t quite picture it; Brenda had taken such strong measures to leave that life behind that the mental image was nearly impossible to conjure. She chewed a cherry tomato, tapping out a response with her thumb. Just be grateful that you’re not here. You’d be going out of your mind waiting for the lab results that would make or break your entire case!

Brenda: I always found it useful to call them every 15 minutes.

Sharon: Oooooh, so that’s why they were so edgy when I first took over Major Crimes. It all makes sense!

Brenda: Oops.

Brenda: What are you doing the rest of this weekend, assuming you catch your murderer?

Sharon: After we catch our murderer, which will hopefully happen today, Rusty and I have plans to do a little shopping. He is having dinner with his biological father this week and I think he’d like to make a good impression in a new suit. And what about you?

Brenda: As if he’ll need a new suit for that! He mentioned he was meeting him this week. He’s gonna do just fine!

Brenda: I need to unpack…for real this time.

As Sharon swallowed a bite of lettuce and took a sip of her Diet Coke, Sanchez knocked on her door. “Ma’am, we’ve got results. Our suspect is a DNA match.”

She smiled, satisfied that her team’s hunch had been correct. “All right, let’s move on this. I’d like for you and Lieutenant Flynn to bring him in.”

He nodded, his otherwise serious face breaking into an anticipatory half-smile. “You got it.”

Taking a final bite of her salad and one last sip of her soda, Sharon tapped out a final text. Must run. Case to solve. Thx for lunch!

Brenda’s last text was almost immediate. Go get ‘em, tiger.

II.

Pulling a twizzler from her purse, Brenda absent-mindedly chewed the licorice as her eyes quickly scanned racks of clothing she had no interest in buying. She could do with a new sweater or two, but her mind was far from clothing. She fished out her cell phone, checking to see if she had received any new messages. She had not, at least not since the last time she had looked…

…twelve minutes ago.

She wasn’t surprised. Sharon had told her that she’d be busy today with Rusty, taking the young man shopping for a new suit. Rusty had confirmed as much when she texted him earlier that morning. As for herself, she was supposed to be busy with unpacking, but after discarding three broken plates, she decided she should probably invest in new dishware.

It was purely coincidence that she’d ended up at the same mall Sharon and Rusty were in.

Mostly.

Brenda was probably crazy for this, stalking through department stores hoping to catch a glimpse of Sharon Raydor. She hadn’t seen her in months and it was starting to drive her a little crazy. Despite her own insistence that she wasn’t ready to see her, Brenda had not-so-secretly hoped that Sharon would try to talk her into going out for dinner or drinks—she wouldn’t have had to twist Brenda’s arm. She wasn’t surprised though; Sharon was nothing if not respectful, but after months of just imagining the captain’s face, Brenda missed her something awful.

It was even more bewildering to Brenda that Sharon had waited around for so long—why? Friendship? Romance? Her heart quickened at the thought. Brenda had been playing such a serious game of push-pull that it was a wonder Sharon hadn’t gotten whiplash.

She was grateful that Sharon had stuck around. It was such an exhilarating, wonderful feeling to have a friend like Sharon. Brenda had evolved into the type of person who could sustain such a friendship, and the fact of it impressed her. It felt good to have someone who contacted her every day to see how she was doing and to talk about their days. It felt good to experience these butterflies and the anticipation of each incoming message. She could barely stifle a smile—Sharon Raydor missed her. She cared about knowing if her sleeping habits had improved, what she was making for dinner, what caused her bad moods, what her favorite movies were. Sharon cared about her. It was almost as if they were dating, only without having seen each other at all in months.

(They had FaceTimed a few times, but that didn’t count. Brenda had used it to give Sharon the grand tour of a few prospective condos…though if she were being honest, she had used it as an excuse to see her.)

Trundling along in a department store made her feel silly—and a little bit stalkery. (She hadn’t put an illegal GPS tracker on Sharon’s car, though, so that was a plus, right?) What on earth was wrong with her that she couldn’t pick up the phone like a normal person and just ask Sharon out for dinner? She rolled her eyes at herself, and then she stopped abruptly, her eyes zeroing in on the people who stood across the aisle in the menswear. Her brown eyes widened in surprised at the sight of the very people she’d been looking for. Sharon Raydor and Rusty Beck were only a few yards away, and she sucked in a surprised breath.

Everything happened quickly after that. The force of her gasp was so strong that she inhaled the mouthful of partly-chewed twizzler, and her eyes widened in panic as the licorice lodged itself in her throat. She gasped and coughed in an attempt to get it out, flailing her arms around in a state of alarm. She hadn’t choked on anything since she was a child. She couldn’t breathe, and as she struggled for air, Brenda fearfully wondered if Sharon would be the last thing she ever saw before she died.

She must have caused a commotion, because only seconds later a strong pair of arms wrapped around her chest, clasping beneath her ribcage and forcefully thrusting upward. After only two quick thrusts, the licorice shot out of her mouth, sticking to the mirror beside her.

She heaved in a great lungful of air, rubbing her sore throat as she feebly turned around to thank the person who had saved her. As her eyes met her savior’s, she wondered if she might instead die of embarrassment.

“Brenda?! Are you all right?” Sharon asked, her voice high with alarm.

“Oh my god…” The blonde closed her eyes, hoping that she’d wake up and realize she’d been having a nightmare, but when she opened them again, she was staring into the concerned faces of Sharon and Rusty. “Thank you, Sharon. Looks like you saved my life again!”

“This is craziest coincidence,” Rusty marveled, staring wide-eyed at the blonde.

“It really is,” Sharon commented, her features relaxing as she became reassured that Brenda was all right. She let go of Brenda’s elbow, which she had been gripping tightly. “How fortuitous that we were here to help you.” Her eyes watched Brenda carefully, and the blonde blushed harder. She was so busted.

“I know…it’s really so strange that you were the one to come to my rescue,” Brenda agreed dumbly. “Thank you, Sharon. Really. I’m just…I’m mortified. This is not how I pictured seein’ the two of you for the first time in months.”

The teenager smiled, amused by her embarrassment. She couldn’t fault him, not when the smile that graced his features was the first one she’d ever seen. “It’s cool, Brenda. It happens. At least you’re amongst friends, right?”

She pressed a hand to her forehead. “Can I start over?” she asked, looking from Sharon to Rusty to Sharon again. Without waiting for a response, she pulled Rusty into a hug. “You clean up good!” she said, admiring his crisp, clean shirt and new slacks.

When she pulled away, her eyes settled on Sharon. Her heart began beating quickly as she realized that she was really, truly in Sharon’s presence. Was it healthy for her heart to beat so fast, especially after a near-death experience? “You look…great. Really great, Sharon. It’s so good to see you!” It came out in a breathless exclamation, and Sharon grinned. Her smile was as radiant—if not more—as she remembered.

Sharon stepped forward, wrapping her arms around Brenda’s torso for the second time in minutes. Brenda smelled her perfume, her shampoo; her eyelids fluttered closed at the feel of a very real Sharon Raydor pressed against her and the brush of her hair against her cheek. Brenda held her tightly, inhaling deeply, and sighed happily. She didn’t want to let go. She felt dizzy. She felt like bursting into tears.

When Sharon pulled away, her hands grasped Brenda’s shoulders and squeezed. “It’s been a long time.”

“I know. Too long,” she agreed, feeling ashamed. She looked momentarily down at her feet before catching two pairs of eyes staring at her.

“You didn’t mention you were coming here today too,” Rusty pointed out, adding just a touch of accusation to his voice. “You should’ve…we could have met for lunch or something. Maybe you wouldn’t have choked.”

Sharon’s eyebrow rose ever-so-slightly—she never missed a beat, that Captain Raydor. It was no surprise to Brenda that Sharon would realize their meeting was not a coincidence at all. “What brings you here, Brenda?” she asked slowly, the corner of her mouth lifting into the barest hint of a smirk.

“Broken dishware,” the blonde replied with a laugh, knowing it would sound like a lie. “I was unpacking and only one of my plates survived the move.”

“That sucks,” Rusty lamented.

“Oh, it’s all right. Besides, I didn’t have to embarrass myself even more by chokin’ in front of a total stranger.” She gave a sheepish grin, grateful and overwhelmed and happy all at once. “I’m so glad I ran into you both.”

“There’s no reason to be embarrassed,” Sharon soothed, placing a hand on Brenda’s arm. The blonde felt as if she might burst into flames.

Before Brenda could be completely caught up in how amazing it felt to actually touch Sharon after months of just thinking about it, Rusty interrupted her thoughts. “Hey, what do you think of this tie?” he asked, holding the tie in question up to his neck. “Sharon says it’s too ‘mature’ but I like it.”

Brenda pulled her eyes from Sharon’s and looked at Rusty. “Hmm. I’m inclined to agree with Sharon on this one. I don’t think that’s really your color. What about….” She hummed, browsing the vast selection. “…this one?” She held up a green tie. “This would be a great color on you.”

“Oh, I agree,” added Sharon.

Rusty frowned. “I don’t know. It’s all right but…it’s not the one I would choose. I thought the point was to pick out something that I feel comfortable in so I can put my best foot forward when I meet the sperm donor?”

Brenda snorted, and Sharon gave a slow nod. “You’re right, Rusty. You should choose the one you like best,” the captain judiciously agreed. Brenda smiled, appreciating the way Sharon granted the teenager his autonomy--even if it meant choosing a tie that wouldn’t look good on anyone, not even the handsome young man.

He narrowed his eyes, regarding his foster mother suspiciously, before he glanced over the assortment one more time. “Okay. This is the one.” He showed them both the white and brown tie.

“It’s very ‘you’,” Sharon said, and Rusty scoffed.

“That means you hate it, doesn’t it?”

Brenda chuckled. “You’re a good lookin’ kid, Rusty. I bet it’ll look even better when you’re wearin’ it.”

“At least Brenda’s on my side.”

Sharon gave a patient smile, and Brenda melted a little at the sight of it. “Rusty, you know very well that I’m always on your side.”

He nodded. “Yeah, you’re right...even if you question my taste in clothing.”

“Maybe that’s how you know she likes you. She used to question mine all the time,” Brenda offered cheerfully, shooting the captain a playful glance.

Sharon smirked. “Give it time, Brenda Leigh. You may hear more of that if I start seeing you regularly.”

“I can hardly wait,” she drawled sarcastically, but she wouldn’t have minded, not if it meant seeing Sharon.

Rusty and Sharon shared a laugh. Brenda bit her lip as she observed the pair of them, her heart clenching at the effortless ease of their relationship. Brenda existed on the periphery, available to them both a phone call or email away. She had closed herself off from being a bigger part of this relationship, and she was surprised to note the lingering feeling of regret because of it.

“We could still get some burgers or something now that the Great Tie Debacle is over, couldn’t we?” He looked expectantly between Brenda and Sharon.

The brunette blinked, watching Brenda closely. “If Brenda would like to join us, she would be more than welcome.”

The younger woman was torn between wanting to shout an enthusiastic yes and make a hasty retreat. As wonderful as it was to see Sharon, to look at her with her own eyes and not have to resort to memories to recall her face, she felt as though this had all been moving too quickly. Before the twizzler incident, Brenda hadn’t decided what she’d do if she did spot Rusty and Sharon in the mall. She hadn’t been given much of a choice in the matter. Embarrassment still lingered, along with a very strong desire to cling to the other woman and not let go. “I probably shouldn’t…I’ve gotta finish my errands and update my will, just in case I choke again and don’t have the pair of you around.” She smiled, though at their crestfallen expressions she nearly changed her mind. Her heart ached at the sight of their matching frowns, and she was secretly pleased and validated to see that they were disappointed.

“Excuses, excuses,” Rusty said, allowing Brenda to hug him one final time. “Some other time, maybe.”

“Definitely another time,” Brenda insisted. She bit her lip as she hugged Sharon again, closing her eyes as she savored the contact.

“I hope to hear from you soon.” Sharon smiled, squeezing Brenda’s arm.

“You will. I promise.” The blonde waved her hand. “Bye now,” she said, heading for the exit.

Her heart was still pounding as she hurriedly made her way outside, and she placed a hand over her chest to steady herself. Her head spun and she took in a few deep breaths. Her interaction with Rusty and Sharon had not gone in any way, shape, or form like she had planned. She shook her head, reaching a hand into her purse. She grabbed the half-eaten package of Twizzlers and glared at it. “Traitor,” she mumbled at the candy, pushing the package vehemently into a nearby trash can. As she brushed back a strand of hair from her face, she felt her purse vibrate, and she smiled once she pulled out her phone.

Sharon: You stalking me, Johnson?

The blonde smirked. I thought it would go a bit more smoothly than that. Thanks for saving me from dying a painful death in the middle of a mall.

Sharon: Aah, so you don’t deny it then. You were stalking me.

Brenda bit her lip. She couldn’t deny it, not when she was making an effort to be honest with Sharon. It was easier to own up to it here, from the safety of her cell phone, than it would have been to admit it to Sharon’s face in front of Rusty. I have no excuse. I just wanted to see you.

Several minutes passed, and Brenda took the opportunity to return to the car, her need for dishware forgotten. She nervously chewed her cheek until her phone vibrated again.

Sharon: I thought we would talk about that together, rather than it just being on your terms.

Brenda’s stomach churned with guilt. Like I said, I’ve got no excuse—and I think I paid for it by that little incident. Please don’t be mad?

Sharon: How can I stay mad with a woman who was so excited to see me that she choked on her candy? To say nothing for the fact that she asked a 16yo boy where we would be today…

The blonde snorted. Didn’t know I could be so suave and romantic, did you?

Sharon: Romantic, huh? Are you trying to romance me, Brenda Leigh?

Brenda’s head spun. She had no idea how to respond. Do you want to be romanced?

Another several minutes passed, and Brenda agonized over whether Sharon was debating how to let her down gently or was simply distracted by her foster son. When her response finally came, Brenda flushed. Sharon wrote, I’d think you’d know the answer to that by now.

The blonde grinned, her heart quickening again. You’re right. I think I do know the answer.

III.

Sharon knew she was dreaming.

She’d had this dream before, and the dream version of herself was played by her 30-year-old self. Brenda was her present age, and the beautiful lines around her eyes crinkled as mischief flashed in her eyes. Dream-Brenda grinned, licking her lips.

Sharon wasn’t sure which was more disappointing: enacting her fantasy in a dream rather than in reality yet again, or no longer being her younger self. Her hands, where they threaded through silky blonde hair, were smoother, her muscles tauter, her body more wet and responsive. Dream-Sharon thought, to hell with it.

She arched her hips against Brenda’s mouth and she sighed and moaned while the blonde licked and sucked at her clit. She was close, so close, and only because she’d had the dream before did she groan in frustration while Brenda was still fucking her with her tongue.

As always, Brenda sat up with a grin, wiping the arousal from her chin. “You’re dreamin’, Capt’n,” she drawled in her honeyed accent. “It’s time to wake up now.”

Sharon’s eyes snapped open, and she groaned groggily, confused by the sensation of her body wound tight like a spring. She vaguely recalled The Dream, constructing a watercolor memory of Brenda Leigh grinning from between her legs. Blinking, Sharon looked down the length of her bed, disappointed to confirm that she was alone. She sighed, her body thrumming with tension in need of release. A slight shift of her hips proved that she was wet.

Acknowledging that she’d never be able to concentrate at work in this state, Sharon gave herself permission to slip her hand beneath the blankets, working its way effortlessly into her underwear. She hissed, realizing just how swollen and ready her clit already was. This wouldn’t take long at all.

Recalling her dream and the wonderful things Brenda had been doing with her mouth, Sharon allowed her rampant desire to wash away the guilt she felt at touching herself to thoughts of the other woman.

Spreading her legs a little wider, Sharon opted to ruminate on a different fantasy, one she typically conjured when she was daydreaming. She vividly remembered that night at Brenda’s, that first, tentative kiss, followed by a second kiss that had broken apart all of the barriers between them. The attraction they had shared, the desire, the love—it had all been let loose like Pandora’s Box until Sharon had stopped them. Only this time, in her fantasy, Sharon hadn’t stopped the younger woman’s hands from unbuttoning her blouse. She hadn’t shied away from Brenda’s kiss-bruised lips and had instead reclaimed them. She imagined what it would have felt like to have Brenda’s hands on her, unclasping her bra, touching her breasts…

Sharon stifled a moan, moving her hips in time with her hand. She felt so good, and only Brenda could have made her feel better.

On the nightstand, her phone buzzed, and her eyes snapped open. “No,” she croaked, reaching for the phone with her free hand. “Please not a crime scene…” She nearly laughed when she saw that the person texting her was the very woman she was fantasizing about.

Brenda: I can’t get over how good it was to see you yesterday. You look better than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.

Brenda: I think maybe I’d like that to happen again, only without the choking and pseudo-stalking. I hope it’ll happen soon.

Brenda: It’s crazy…maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but texting you makes me feel brave. I just…I can’t stop thinking about you, Sharon.

With only the faintest twitch of her fingers, Sharon came with startling force. She clutched her phone in her hand as she rode out each wave of pulsating pleasure, pretending instead that Brenda had made it all possible. In a way, she had.

With trembling fingers, she tapped out a response. I can’t stop thinking about you either.

IV.

Sitting in Dr. Melissa Kennedy’s office the following morning for her monthly check-in, Sharon found her thoughts returning to The Dream. It had not been her intention to discuss the dream with her therapist, but Mel was astute as ever and picked up on her troubled thoughts immediately.

“Is something bothering you, Sharon?”

Sharon weighed her willingness to discuss something so personal but immediately dismissed the thought. She’d shared much worse with Mel over the years, and knew she might achieve a little clarity if she looked at the dream a little closer. She chuckled to herself for her brief reticence, shifting slightly in the armchair. “I’ve been having a recurring dream for the past few months—I’m making love to a woman, only I’m twenty-five years younger, and the woman is always her current age. It’s…disconcerting.”

Mel nodded. “This woman, is she younger than you are? The same age?”

Sharon flushed then. “It’s….well, I’ve told you about her before. The woman in the dream is always Brenda. She’s nearly a decade younger than I am.”

“Aah,” Mel said, nodding again with a sage smile. “She’s the woman you’ve been corresponding with, the former co-worker.”

“Yes. The one I have feelings for.”

“I see. What exactly is it about the dream that is troubling to you?”

“Oh, my age. I’m not concerned about the fact that I’m having sexual dreams about her, but I find it odd that I’m always much younger.”

Mel smiled. “Just checking. Let me ask you this, Sharon—are you self-conscious about your age?”

“No. Well, not specifically. I’m aware that I’m older than she is. It’s strange…it’s as if I’m subconsciously afraid that I’m too old for her, or like she won’t want me if I’m used goods. Rationally, though, I don’t believe that’s true.”

“And the recurring dream persists.”

“Yes.”

Mel shifted in her chair, resting her elbow on her desk as she gesticulated with her hands. “You know, it’s fairly common for men and women your age to have thoughts like this at this stage of life, whether they’re hyperaware of the aging process or scared of death or simply resisting the disconnect between the body growing older and mentally feeling younger. I think you’ve pretty aptly summed up what’s bothering you about this dream. If I’ve heard you correctly, it sounds like you feel like you might be too old to appeal to her.”

Sharon winced at the paraphrasing, which fell slightly short of how she felt. “It honestly feels like more than that—we have danced around these feelings for years now, and when we openly acknowledged them several months ago, I stopped it from continuing because she was married at the time. Well, actively married--she wasn’t legally separated like I am.” She chuckled, navigating her muddled thoughts. “It’s almost like I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not getting any younger, and there’s no reason to wait anymore.”

Mel smiled. “Are you giving yourself permission to pursue this relationship?”

Sharon grinned, feeling light and giddy and filled with a sense of possibility. “I think I am.”

V.

Brenda sat cross-legged on her brand-new sofa, staring down her laptop and cell phone as if they were perpetrators in an interview room. It wouldn’t take much to pick up the phone, dial Sharon’s number, and tell her everything that was on her mind. She was a CIA trained interrogator, a former deputy chief of the LAPD—she’d faced down mobsters and serial killers and rapists and murderers, and yet the prospect of baring her soul to the woman she had fallen for was completely terrifying.

Her momma would have admonished her for her cowardice. Her heart tugged at the thought of her sweet mother, may she rest in peace. She’d been too busy and too wrapped up in her own life to make the time for her mother, and she had lost her chance forever. She’d never know what her mother had wanted to say. Tears of regret and loss stung in her eyes. It was too late to talk with her momma, but it wasn’t too late to talk to Sharon. A little shiver skittered down her spine at the realization that anything could happen at any time, and she could lose Sharon in an instant.

She forced the thought away. She struggled to find her voice. It seemed that it was infinitely easier to talk via written correspondence when she could compose (and recompose) her thoughts in a coherent way. It was so much more simple to be forthcoming when she had the luxury of editing and perfecting what she wanted to say.

Maybe, she thought, if she typed how she felt, it would be a step closer to being able to say it in person. If she wanted to see Sharon, and she did, she’d need to take a step in that direction.

Brenda leaned forward and began to type.

Sharon—

I’m such a coward. I wish I could just pick up the phone and say all of this to you, but I’m afraid the words won’t come out, or that I’ll make a mess of it somehow. I told you I missed you and that I think about you all the time, and I meant it. I have all these feelings and I just don’t wanna keep them bottled up anymore and

Brenda stared at the blinking cursor, biting the inside of her cheek. They had emailed almost every day for two months, and Brenda had no trouble baring her soul. She had told Sharon things about herself that she had never told anyone. She had always kept parts of herself closed off and she had always avoided talking about her feelings like the plague, but typing to Sharon had been…freeing. She had discovered things about herself that she may never have acknowledged had it not been for the other woman’s friendship. She wanted more of that, but she didn’t want to be hidden behind a screen forever.

She glanced away, scanning her eyes around the room until the framed photo of Willie Rae hanging on the wall caught her eye. If she hid for too long, she might never get the chance to say what needed to be said. She took a deep breath, blinking away the tears that stung in her eyes, and summoned her mother’s courage.

Closing the laptop with her foot, Brenda picked up her cell phone and punched in the number that she’d known by heart for years. She held her breath while she waited.

“Raydor,” Sharon said by way of greeting, her tone clipped and frosty. It was far from the greeting that Brenda had expected.

“Uh, hi. It’s Brenda. Is it a bad time?”

The captain let out a weary sigh. ”Brenda, I’m sorry.” Her voice softened. “I didn’t even see that it was you.”

“Are you workin’?”

“I’m home.”

“Sharon, is everythin’ okay?”

“Honestly, no.”

Brenda’s adrenaline surged. “What happened? What’s goin’ on?”

“Rusty and his father had…an altercation.”

“What kind of altercation?”

Sharon hesitated.

“Sharon, is Rusty okay?” Her voice had taken on a shrill tone, and she was on her feet, looking for a pair of jeans to slip over her bare hips before the other woman could sigh and respond.

“I’m not sure. Rusty told him about his history and Daniel hit him. He put his hands on my—“ She exhaled sharply, and Brenda’s heart ached. “I’m so furious, Brenda. That man is lucky he’s still alive.”

Brenda’s eyes flashed red. “He’s lucky I don’t have a gun anymore. Listen, I’m comin’ over.” She passed the phone between both ears so she could shrug her purple sweater over her white tank top. She was braless, but that would take more time than Brenda had. She stepped into a pair of flip flops and grabbed her keys and her purse.

“What? Brenda Leigh, you don’t have to—“

“I’m comin’.”

VI.

Sharon stared down the hall toward Rusty’s bedroom, blood roaring in her ears. She commended herself for maintaining her composure around him while she documented and tended to his wounds. She had come up with a plan to deal with him that did not involve breaking the law, and it was the years of self-restraint, therapy, and upholding the law had kept her from turning up at his house and dealing with him on her own. Still, the thoughts replayed on a loop in her mind.

Rusty was in bed, hopefully asleep, and she was livid. The force of her anger made her teeth hurt. How anyone could justify putting their hands on a child was beyond the realm of her understanding—what they had planned for Daniel was almost too good for him, but would be the best option for Rusty in the long run.

A knock at the door pulled Sharon from her darkening thoughts, and her heart began to beat a little faster in nervous anticipation. She wiped her palms against her denim-clad thighs, finger-combed her hair, and opened the door.

Before Sharon could issue a proper greeting, Brenda had rushed inside. The younger woman wrapped Sharon in her arms, holding her tightly. “I couldn’t let you deal with this on your own,” she said by way of explanation, cupping the back of Sharon’s head with her hand.

Sharon hadn’t realized until she needed the support until that moment. It felt so good to be supported, to be taken care of, that she melted into the embrace, curling her own arms around Brenda Leigh’s waist. She squeezed tightly. “Thank you, Brenda.” She kept her voice low, careful to not disturb her neighbors or Rusty. “This wasn’t how I pictured seeing you again.”

Brenda stepped back, her mouth twisting into a sad half-smile. “Me neither. I just couldn’t take the thought of you two on your own.” She peered past Sharon into the condo. “Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Sharon stepped aside, observing as Brenda looked around curiously. It was so strange and so natural to see Brenda in her home and her heart ached at the sight of it. Her presence had filled the condo over the last two months, but to actually see her was exactly what Sharon had needed.

“Great place!” Brenda remarked, resting her hand along the back of the sofa. “Is Rusty up?”

“I don’t think so—I hope not. He’s had a rough night.”

Brenda shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that sonofabitch hit him. I could kill him.”

“Get in line,” Sharon replied grimly. “I could use a drink. Would you like some wine?”

“I’d love some.”

“Is white all right? I think that’s all I have,” Sharon explained, leading the way to the kitchen. Only a few of the accent lights were on, shining pale yellow light above the stove and beneath the cabinets. The dim lighting matched her mood, and so she made no move to switch on the overhead lights.

“White’s fine by me.” Brenda cocked her hip against the counter, watching Sharon as she poured two generous glasses of chardonnay. “Sharon, are you okay?”

The brunette shrugged as she handed a glass to the other woman, leaning back against the counter. “I struggled with the idea of trusting this man, and now this—“ She shook her head in disbelief. “It breaks my heart that he’s had to go through this after everything he’s been through already. I try so hard to protect him and now…” She held up a hand, completely helpless.

Brenda set down her glass and came closer, resting her hand on Sharon’s shoulder. “Hey, this isn’t your fault. Not even you could have prevented this.”

“I could have withheld the information from the very beginning until I found a better way of looking into him.”

Brenda gave a sad little laugh. “Y’know, you could’ve called me. I woulda cut those corners for you…but I don’t think we would have found anythin’ to indicate that he would do somethin’ like this. You did the right thing by Rusty. He needed to make the choice to meet him. It’s no one’s fault but Daniel’s that he turned out to be an abusive prick.”

The brunette sighed, sipping her wine and hoping that it would calm her nerves. “I know. I—I know.” She drooped her head, her shoulders sagging. For the second time that night, Brenda Leigh enveloped her in her arms.

“I’ve got you,” Brenda whispered, stroking Sharon’s hair. “I’m right here.”

“I can’t believe you’re really here,” Sharon marveled, snaking her arms around Brenda’s lithe, warm body. It felt so good to hold her, to actually be able to see and touch and smell her. She’d been given a rare gift through their emails: unrestricted access to Brenda’s innermost thoughts, something that might have taken twice as long to acquire in person. She wondered if they’d ever have gotten this close if their relationship had taken a more “normal” progression. She wasn’t going to question it; she was just grateful to have her.

“Of course I’m here.”

“How did you know I’d need you? What made you call?”

Brenda hesitated. “Actually, I had been writin’ you an email and, well, I decided it would be better to talk in person.”

Sharon pulled back, her eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Talk about what?” she asked cautiously. She took a sip of wine, watching closely as Brenda did the same.

“Not anythin’ bad. About us. About me.” Brenda gave a shy smile. “I don’t wanna hide behind a screen anymore. I’ve got all these feelin’s and it’s about time I do somethin’ about ‘em.”

Sharon relaxed, immensely relieved that Brenda was not running away from what had been growing between them, and instead savored the feeling of butterflies in her stomach. “What kinds of feelings?”

“Good ones. Scary ones. New ones.” She twisted the wine glass on the countertop, watching the chardonnay swirl. “I’m better at email,” she confessed, biting her lip.

“I like this better.”

“Me too.” Brenda took another sip of wine. “Y’know, I’ve wondered a million times why you stopped us that night. I wanted you so badly I didn’t know what to do with myself and I thought...I worried you didn’t want me the same way.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m still not sure,” Brenda said with a breathless laugh. “You wouldn’t let me talk about it.”

Sharon blushed. “When I came to see you that night, it was to check on you. Uncovering that David was the leak was a blow to us all, and I wanted to make sure you were all right. I was concerned. I had no idea that an innocent talk on your sofa would...escalate the way it did.”

“I didn’t plan it, y’know,” Brenda offered. “Havin’ you there when I was feelin’ so vulnerable and so...at odds with everythin’...it was like nothin’ made sense but you. Everythin’ I had felt for you till that point had been blurry, and when you grabbed my hand it all became clear. I kissed you because...well, because it felt like the right thing to do.”

Sharon nodded, her fingers reaching out to tease along the back of Brenda’s hand where it rested on the counter. “It felt right to me too. I think about that kiss all the time. I’ve never felt that way in my life. I didn’t want to stop, but I had to. You were with Fritz--”

“We were practically separated at that point.”

Sharon raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know much of anything about you at that point outside of work. All I could think was that I finally, finally had this moment with you, and you were married. I didn’t want to taint it by indulging in something seedy and illicit with you. I wanted you, but not like that.”

Brenda nodded solemnly. “Makes sense.” She exhaled slowly, turning her hand so that her palm slipped into Sharon’s. “We’ve waited a long time.”

Sharon’s body felt hyperaware of Brenda’s proximity, and she shivered as the other woman’s fingertips tickled the inside of her palm. “Yes, we have.”

“Sharon?”

“Hmm?”

Brenda stepped closer, closing the gap between them until their bodies touched. She tilted her head, her hair falling over her shoulders, framing her pale face as her dark eyes studied Sharon’s mouth. “I don’t wanna wait anymore,” she whispered.

Sharon smirked at the other woman’s hesitance. “So let’s not,” she suggested, moving her face closer to Brenda’s, so close that their lips brushed as she spoke. They both shuddered. Brenda made a soft sound in her throat and Sharon felt as if she might explode. She brushed their lips together again gently, reveling in how soft Brenda’s mouth was, wanting to savor the contact. Her heart thundered in her chest and the sound was deafening. “I’ve wanted you for so long, Brenda Leigh.”

“Me too,” Brenda agreed, her tongue darting out to lick her bottom lip and, as a result, Sharon’s as well. The captain groaned softly.

Sliding her fingers through the mess of blonde curls, Sharon held Brenda’s head in place while she slanted her mouth firmly over Brenda’s, kissing her with every ounce of passionate urgency that she felt. They exchanged dozens of slow, wet kisses, tasting and exploring and savoring as if they had all the time in the world.

Brenda’s tongue once more darted out, this time emboldened, and she teased Sharon’s lip until the other woman parted her mouth and granted her access. Their tongues met, stroking languidly against each other, as Brenda’s hands roved over Sharon’s back. Every little sound that echoed in both of their throats seemed to translate to the same shared thought: finally.

Sharon arched her body against the younger woman’s, which Brenda took as encouragement to pin the captain’s body against the counter. Their hips bumped together, sending an electric shiver of pleasure down Sharon’s spine.

She tore her mouth away in order to gasp for breath, and Brenda’s lips clasped onto Sharon’s throat, sucking and nibbling at her pulse point. Sharon clutched at Brenda’s hair, careful not to pull too hard, and sucked in a harsh breath when she felt Brenda’s wandering hands brush against the sides of her breasts.

Her head swam. This was moving so quickly and Sharon felt powerless to stop it. They were finally free and ready to pursue this and Sharon wanted nothing more than to immerse herself completely in Brenda Leigh Johnson, but a shrill voice in the back of her head chastised her for rushing too quickly into this physical exploration when they had only just gotten to know each other. There should be dinners and wooing and dates and bases, and Sharon was ready to skip all of it just to reach home.

“I’ve thought about this so much,” the blonde whispered, her tongue darting out to trace the shell of Sharon’s ear. “All the time.”

Sharon’s body burned. Did Brenda think of this the way she did? Did Brenda touch herself? She redirected Brenda’s head, crashing her mouth against the blonde’s in needy, frantic kisses. She shifted her hips, bringing her thigh to rest between Brenda’s legs. The blonde eagerly ground against her, whimpering against the brunette’s mouth.

The delicious friction was driving Sharon crazy. She wanted Brenda so badly that she feared if she didn’t stop now, or slow down, that she’d end up fucking Brenda for the first time against her kitchen counter. It was not at all how she pictured it. It wouldn’t have to be all roses and candlelight and Barry White playing on the stereo, but Sharon knew that she didn’t want it to be a quick fuck in the kitchen. She inhaled a deep, bracing breath before she placed her hands on Brenda’s hips, pulling back slightly. “We should...oh, we should slow down.”

“Slow down? Why?” Brenda breathed heavily, her eyes wild in the near-darkness. “Are you stoppin’ me again?”

“I’m not stopping us because I’m not interested, Brenda Leigh. You know I want you. We’ve taken this long to reach this point and I’d rather not rush into it.”

Brenda let out a soft groan before she tipped her forehead against Sharon’s, her breath hot on Sharon’s face. “I guess you’re right, but I don’t want you to be...I don’t see the point in waitin’ anymore, but you’ve respected me this long and I owe you the same.”

Sharon was touched by Brenda’s words, however grudgingly they were muttered, and she was surprised. Brenda Leigh had always been pushy and insistent about taking what she wanted, and Sharon was impressed by the clear evidence of the changes the woman had made in her life. It made her feel like she was important, that their relationship was important, and seeking instant gratification was not the primary concern.

“Oh Brenda, you are so wonderful,” she whispered, ghosting her lips once more against the other woman’s. She nipped playfully at Brenda’s lip.

Sharon heard it then: the squeak of Rusty’s bedroom door. She strained to listen and, when she did not hear the sound of the bathroom door closing, she pulled away. “Rusty’s coming,” she whispered.

Brenda’s eyes widened in alarm and she sprang back, running her hand through her unkempt hair as Rusty rounded the corner to the kitchen.

Seeing the two of them, he jumped. “Jesus! You scared the hell out of me.” He caught a better glimpse of Brenda and widened his eyebrows. “Brenda? What are you doing here?”

“Sharon told me what happened...I came to see if you were okay.”

He shrugged. “Not having the greatest night of my life,” he said darkly, pulling open the fridge to reach for the milk. Sharon met him halfway and handed him a glass.

“Have you been asleep?” Sharon asked, watching him carefully. He did not seem suspicious of what they were doing, but Sharon was not inclined to take any chances.

“On and off.” He swallowed a large gulp. “My head hurts.”

Brenda and Sharon both frowned, and Sharon could tell that Brenda was reigning in her alarm at how bruised his face was. “You can take some more tylenol now,” Sharon offered after a quick glance at the clock, calculating how long it had been since his last dose. “That should help.”

“Can I do anythin’ for you, Rusty?”

“Got a time machine?” he asked, and Brenda rushed to hug him. She stopped just short, unsure of whether the embrace would be welcome, and instead gingerly put an arm around his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, squeezing him tightly. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

He patted her awkwardly on the back, scratching his head as he pulled away. “Thanks for checking on me, Brenda. I’m gonna go back to bed.”

They each bade him goodnight, watching him trudge back to his room. Sharon let out a sigh of relief. “That was close,” she said breathlessly.

“He looks awful!” Brenda frowned, resting beside Sharon against the counter. She sighed. “You don’t think he noticed anythin’, do you?”

Sharon shook her head. “No, I don’t think he did.”

“Good. The last thing he needs to worry about now is whatever’s goin’ on between us.”

“When you put it that way, it sounds ominous. What is happening between us?”

The blonde laughed softly, toying with a strand of Sharon’s hair. “Well...it’s like we’ve been havin’ this sort of long distance relationship. I’d like to close that distance a bit. I’d like to date you.”

Sharon warmed instantly. “I’d like that too.”

Brenda kissed the tip of Sharon’s nose. “Good. I guess I should go. I think you should get some rest -- you’ve had a rough night.” Mischief flashed in her eyes. “I could tuck you in, if you wanted…”

Sharon cupped Brenda’s cheek, brushing her thumb over her lips. “Oh, honey, if you did that, I’d never let you leave.”

The blonde grinned. “Don’t tempt me then.” She kissed Sharon once more, humming her pleasure against the woman’s lips. “All right. I’m goin’. Are you gonna be all right?”

Sharon nodded. “I will be. Thank you for the support, and the talk. I feel very good about us.”

“So do I.” Brenda headed for the living room, but paused before she rounded the corner. “I know you’re not ready to take that step, but I was wonderin’...”

“Yes?”

“Do you wanna make this official? You an’ me?”

Sharon flushed, the butterflies returning. “Brenda, are you asking me to be your girlfriend?”

“I know we technically haven’t even gone on a date, but….yeah.”

Sharon grinned. “The answer is yes. Let’s do this.”

VII.

Standing in the kitchen the next morning, Sharon stirred her coffee and licked her spoon, grinning around it as she remembered the night before. A shiver coursed down her spine as she recalled hot, wet kisses, heartfelt words, and tender touches. It occurred to her to wonder if she were dreaming, but this was very much reality. She could hardly wrap her mind around how quickly things had changed; they had gone from purely written communication and now they were actually, properly dating. She pinched herself for good measure.

As she rinsed her spoon to place it directly in the dishwasher, her phone vibrated in the pocket of her blazer. She activated the screen and grinned to see that Brenda had sent her a photo of a bouquet of flowers. She laughed, rolling her eyes and typing a quick response. Oh, such a romantic!

A response came quickly. Only the best (and cheesiest) for my brand new GIRLFRIEND. Happy?

Sharon smiled. Very.

Rusty shuffled into the kitchen, and Sharon slipped her phone into her pocket. She refrained from deeply frowning at the sight of his sagging shoulders and depressed demeanor. She couldn’t blame him for being depressed. The maternal pang in her chest was painful, and she wished she could protect him from all of the evils in the world--starting with his lackluster parents. “How are you feeling, Rusty?”

“Like I got smacked around by my sperm donor,” he replied blandly, allowing the fridge to slam just enough to be perceptible to Sharon after he pulled out the orange juice. “Are you gonna be mad if I don’t make breakfast for us today? I could make you some eggs or something but I don’t have much of an appetite.” He grabbed a glass for his juice and sat down at the dining room table.

“Of course you don’t have to cook,” Sharon replied gently. “I’ll make you some toast. You’ve got to eat something. We can even put a little ointment on your lip.”

“I can take care of it,” he replied stiffly.

Sharon frowned, watching him carefully. She had anticipated that he would be in low spirits following the events of the night before, but his prickly demeanor felt like a return to his abrasive attitude when he had first come to stay with her. Setting her coffee down on the table, she took the seat beside him and covered his hand with her own. “Rusty, would you like to talk about what’s on your mind?”

He stiffened and leaned back in his chair, cupping his glass with both hands. “I dunno...would you like to talk about what’s going on with you and Brenda?”

Sharon blanched slightly, surprised at the accusation in his tone. “Brenda and I are close friends, Rusty.”

Close. How close, Sharon? ‘Cause I saw how you two stared at each other at the mall. I’m not blind. And last night, when you were standing all close in the dark…” He gave her a pointed look. “Looked like more than just friendship from where I was standing.”

“Does that bother you?”

He scoffed. “What bothers me is the sneaking around and hiding whatever’s going on. You expect me to be honest with you so I think it’s only fair to expect the same.”

She nodded slowly. “You’re right about that, but it’s also fair that I, as an adult, maintain some privacy about my personal life. But I will share with you that Brenda and I have decided to start seeing each other.”

“Greaaaat,” he mumbled under his breath, taking a large gulp of his orange juice.

“Rusty,” she said sternly, and he flicked his eyes to meet hers. “I don’t understand where this attitude is coming from and, frankly, I don’t like it. You like Brenda, or so you’ve told me. Would you care to enlighten me?”

He shrugged. “It’s cool. It’s whatever. You two are gonna date and you’ll be all wrapped up in each other. It’s what adults do. You’ll go all ga ga for each other and you’ll forget I exist. Yeah...it’s cool. Can’t wait for that.”

Sharon’s heart tugged. “Rusty, I am not your mother. My relationship with Brenda is not going to change my relationship with you, nor will it tarnish the relationship you have with her. Nothing will change, other than the fact that we’ll likely be seeing more of her. I don’t know about you, but that would make me very happy. I think it might be nice for you to see more of her since you’ve grown so close. I think we could both stand to have a little more happiness in our lives, don’t you think?”

He shrugged again. “I’m gonna need some time to think about this. I’ve got a lot on my mind right now, okay?”

“That’s fair.”

Rusty stood, returning the carton to the fridge. “Just, y’know, don’t expect me to be throwing you a party or anything.”

“All I expect is your civility.”

He nodded. “Uh...can you show me where the ointment is?”

She smiled gently. “Of course.”

VIII.

Brenda gaped at the ornate flower arrangement, touching the delicate pink and white petals of the stargazer lilies. They were breathtaking--and they were eight million times nicer than the silly photo bouquet she’d sent to Sharon the day before. Sharon, for all intents and purposes, was not taking this lightly. When she dated, she went all out, and they’d only been official for a day.

Blushing, Brenda read the card, which she was pleased to find was written in Sharon’s hand. She pictured the woman at the flower shop, selecting the flowers herself and writing out the card before she left for work. The card was brief, but it made the chief investigator’s heart beat a little faster.

B--
Can’t stop thinking about you.
Yours,
S

She dialed the captain’s work number, leaning in to inhale the scent of the flowers while it rang. After three rings, Sharon picked up. “Raydor.”

“Johnson here. I received a special delivery.” She smirked, unwittingly twirling a strand of hair around her finger.

The captain hummed, and Brenda imagined the woman swiveling in her office chair, twirling the phone cord around her long fingers. “Did you?”

“They’re beautiful, Sharon. You spoil me.”

“Just you wait.”

“I don’t wanna wait. Will you have dinner with me tonight?”

“Are you asking me on a date?”

Brenda grinned, hearing the smile in Sharon’s tone. “Yes, I am. What do you say?”

“I would love that.”

The blonde could have squealed, but she refrained -- her office door was open. “Perfect. I’ll pick you up at 7?”

“I look forward to it.”

When Brenda hung up, she was unable to control the grin plastered across her face. She was going on a date with Sharon Raydor. She considered how far she had come over the past several months--she had been in a dark place, vulnerable and afraid of being forgotten, and she was now embarking on a brand-new relationship with the one woman who had stuck around through it all. Brenda had pushed people away and had lost the rest, but Sharon had remained, and it meant more than she could ever completely comprehend or put into words.

As she reached into her desk for the files she’d need for the briefing, she heard a slight gasp from the doorway. She looked up to find Andrea Hobbs gazing longingly at her flowers.

“Wow,” Andrea said, taking in the large bouquet, “somebody must love you.”

Brenda flushed. “Yeah, I think they do.”

Andrea smiled knowingly at her co-worker. “Oh, I know that look. It’s really great to see you looking so happy these days, Brenda.”

It was a simple statement, but it warmed Brenda’s heart to know that Andrea had thought to comment on it. “Thanks, Andrea.”

The D.D.A. gave a friendly smile. “See you in Ross’s office?”

“On my way!”

As she stuffed the files into her purse and took one final sniff of her lilies, her phone chirped. She grabbed it out of the purse and, after flicking it onto silent, she eagerly looked at the message. She had been wrong in assuming that Sharon had sent her a message. The one she received instead made her eyebrows climb her forehead.

It was a text from Rusty. Look, I won’t say I’m thrilled but you had better be good to her or you’ll have me to deal with.

The chief investigator laughed, dropping the phone back into the depths of her purse. She would respond later. For now, she was oddly touched that Sharon had told him and that Rusty was so protective of his foster mother that he’d issued a warning. It was endearing, and it filled Brenda Leigh’s heart with hope.

---

Part Three: Epilogue

I.

After three weeks, four dates, and one intimate phone call, Sharon was going crazy. Brenda had been more than respectful of Sharon’s request that they take things slowly, but she had reached her breaking point.

Lying on Brenda’s sofa, necking like teenagers, Sharon’s entire being screamed for release. She wanted desperately to fulfill their mutual desire. It had been rough work to set those boundaries; she had wished many times that she could just throw them out the window in favor of giving in to what they both wanted, but Sharon knew she needed to follow her gut. This new relationship was precious and undeniably important, and she didn’t want to ruin it by jumping too quickly into something they might not have been ready for. Those months of emailing had created a bond, a strong connection that they’d have needed months and months of conventional dating to perfect. Now that they had it, and had taken the time to woo each other and simply be in each other’s company, Sharon knew it was time.

She certainly hoped it was time.

Brenda cradled Sharon’s hips between her legs, her bare foot rubbing against the back of Sharon’s calf as her tongue teased inside her mouth. She squirmed, her hands clutching Sharon’s ass before she realized what she was doing. She let go, sliding her hands up to the safety of Sharon’s back while she whimpered at her own lack of self-control. “Sorry,” she mumbled against Sharon’s cheek.

“Put them back,” Sharon ordered, nipping her teeth against the blonde’s jaw.

“Huh...oh...If you’re not ready…”

Sharon pulled back slightly, gazing down at her brand-new girlfriend, her eyes clouded with desire. “I’m ready, Brenda. You can touch me wherever you want.”

The younger woman’s eyes widened just so before darkening, and she grinned wickedly. “Are you sure?”

Sharon nodded, flipping her hair over her shoulder so she could have an unrestricted view of the woman beneath her. “I want you, Brenda Leigh.” Her voice was low, husky, and Brenda groaned at the sound.

“Oh, I want you so bad,” the blonde groaned, her hands unceremoniously reaching for the hem of Sharon’s gray t-shirt. She pulled it over her head, tossing it to the floor as she took in the sight of her captain, clad only in jeans and a purple bra. “Oh my…” She bit her lip as her fingers tentatively reached out to ghost a faint caress against the swell of her breast where it met the bra. “Even better than I imagined…”

“Take me to your bedroom,” Sharon asked, scooting backward to give Brenda room to sit up. It was a slightly awkward maneuver, and they both laughed as Brenda hoisted herself up, careful to avoid kicking Sharon as she swung her foot free.

“We’re so smooth!” Brenda realized breathlessly, grabbing Sharon’s hand before tugging her to her feet.

Sharon chuckled. Despite the urgency of her needs, it felt so good to laugh, to be silly and not caught up in the hundreds of ‘what ifs’ that came with the first time of any sexual encounter. That fear and anxiety she’d felt in relationships past at this stage was only a distant memory; with Brenda, she felt safe and loved and completely at ease.

Her dreams about making love to Brenda as a thirty-year-old had stopped completely. The real Brenda made her feel not like old, used goods, but like the most special, vibrant woman in the world.

Feeling overwhelmed by the rush of sentimental thoughts, Sharon reached for the woman before they made it to the bedroom, pulling her into a slow, sweet kiss. She teased her fingers against Brenda’s arms, causing the other woman to shiver.

“What was that for?” Brenda asked with a smile, brushing her lips against Sharon’s.

“I just love you, that’s all.”

Brenda pulled back, their eyes meeting. It was the first time either of them had said it. “I love you too, Sharon.”

Sharon’s heart tugged. “I like hearing that.”

“That’s good...’cause I plan on sayin’ it a lot.” Brenda flicked her tongue against Sharon’s earlobe.

Sharon shivered and allowed Brenda Leigh to guide her into the bedroom. The blonde’s hands were everywhere: her shoulders, her waist, her back, her stomach, and finally her breasts, cupping the satin-and-lace bra and squeezing gently. Sharon sucked in a breath, knowing that her nipples were so hard that the woman would no doubt feel them pressing into her palms. She squeezed again and Sharon groaned. It had been so long since she had done this with anyone, but the fact that it was happening with Brenda set Sharon on fire, making her feel as though she may be utterly consumed by flames.

Sharon’s hands crept between them, making quick work grabbing the hem of the blonde’s camisole. She swept it over her head, taking in a breath at the sight of her pale, full breasts straining against a white bra. She searched for Brenda’s mouth, sucking her bottom lip into her mouth as she deftly pushed the elastic waist of Brenda’s skirt over her hips, her thumbs catching on the lace of her underwear. The blonde whimpered and stepped out of her skirt where it pooled at her feet.

“You are breathtaking,” Sharon confessed, staring wide-eyed at the nearly-naked woman before her. Dream-Brenda had nothing at all on the real Brenda. As she reached out her hands to take her in her arms, Brenda playfully swatted them away.

“You’re overdressed.” She unsnapped Sharon’s jeans, kneeling so that she could pull the tight-fitting denim over her hips. She tugged the jeans until Sharon’s legs were free and, when her long legs were bare, the blonde pressed a kiss to her knee as she smoothed her hands up the length of them. “Wow,” she mumbled, trailing hot kisses along her inner thigh. The brunette’s legs trembled as Brenda neared the apex of her thighs, and when she pressed a kiss at her center through the damp fabric of her matching purple underwear, Sharon moaned.

Brenda shot to her feet, encouraging Sharon to lie on the bed before straddling her, reversing their earlier position on the couch. It was no surprise at all to Sharon that Brenda would be assertive in bed; the very fact that Brenda had stalked her at the mall fueled Sharon’s fantasies, making her feel certain that the blonde would go for exactly what she wanted.

It was clear that Brenda wanted Sharon. Though the captain’s need to touch and feel and explore was strong, so too was her desire to be thoroughly taken in every way by the other woman. The part of her that wanted to slam the blonde against the bed was overpowered by each lick, each kiss, and each bite that Brenda rained upon her body. Under most circumstances, she would insist upon going first, but her overwhelming arousal had other ideas.

Brenda tugged at the straps of Sharon’s bra, hooking her fingers into the cups to pull them down, freeing Sharon’s taut nipples. She immediately took one into her mouth, sucking and rolling the hardened peak against her tongue. She hummed, the vibration of her voice causing Sharon to cry out. Sharon stroked her hands everywhere that she could touch, grabbing fistfulls of hair and freeing the clasp of Brenda’s bra. She scratched and teased and touched, reveling in the soft, smoothness of Brenda’s skin. Brenda switched breasts, lavishing the other with equal attention, using her hand to wedge beneath Sharon’s body and the mattress to fumble with the bra clasp. The brunette arched her back to help, thrusting her breasts further into Brenda’s face. The blonde nipped at the swell of her breast as she tossed the bra aside.

Brenda ground her hips down against Sharon’s, and Sharon felt the first indication of how aroused the other woman was. She was all heat where their bodies met, and Sharon groaned as she gripped Brenda’s hips, chasing the delicious friction. She guided her down, arching her hips to meet Brenda’s, and they both groaned.

Releasing Sharon’s nipple with a ‘pop’, Brenda reclaimed Sharon’s mouth. Their tongues stroked and caressed, exchanging the type of sloppy kisses that turned Sharon on more than she could bear. She whimpered, and Brenda must have read her mind, because her hand snaked between them, slipping beneath the elastic of Sharon’s panties. She lifted her hips to meet Brenda’s hand, letting out a soulful wail when those fingers scratched through neatly trimmed curls to glide against her sex. She was gloriously wet, instantly making Brenda’s fingers slippery as they searched her folds and caressed her most intimate places.

They did some rearranging of limbs, allowing Sharon to widen her thighs while Brenda straddled one leg, grinding her own sex against Sharon’s toned thigh. She dug her nails into Brenda’s hips, moaning when Brenda’s fingers circled her clit. She rubbed and stroked that sensitive spot, pressing a little harder than Sharon typically liked, but she was too far gone to care. And then, when the pressure was almost too much, Brenda slipped two fingers deep inside and Sharon tore her mouth away to cry out.

“Oh God...you feel so good,” Brenda hissed against her ear, swiveling her hips against Sharon’s thigh. She thrust her fingers harder, and Sharon hooked her leg around Brenda’s hip.

“Yes,” Sharon whispered, scratching her nails against Brenda’s back as her lover’s fingers drove deep inside, pressing up against her inner walls. She gasped for breath, wrapping her arms against Brenda’s neck as she gave herself over completely to how unbelievable she felt. Brenda’s fingers were insistent and, while they lacked the finesse of intimately knowing Sharon’s body, it was exactly what she needed. Brenda’s palm grazed her clit with each thrust and Sharon undulated her hips, meeting each thrust with a counter-thrust of her own. It was not long before she could no longer remain balanced on the edge and she tumbled over, falling down, down, down into the bliss of a powerful, toe-curling orgasm.

Brenda’s fingers carried her through her orgasm, stroking her until the touch was too much for Sharon. She twisted away from Brenda’s hand, using the opportunity to roll Brenda onto her back. She kissed her deeply, her body still tingling. “That was…” she laughed, kissing Brenda hard. “Brenda, that was incredible.”

“Mmm...I’ll say.” Brenda’s sticky fingers trailed a lazy pattern along her back. “I can’t get enough of you.”

Sharon kissed her way down Brenda’s throat and sternum, preparing to devote equal attention to Brenda’s breasts. “It’s my turn now,” Sharon husked, and Brenda gripped the back of her girlfriend’s head while she laved and toyed with her pebbled nipples. Sharon reveled in the feel of her in her mouth, never wanting to stop but eager to explore the rest of Brenda’s body. Brenda, she knew, was also eager, shifting and squirming beneath her while she sighed and whimpered and keened.

“Oh, please, Sharon...you’re drivin’ me crazy. I can’t...oh, please!”

Sharon grinned, thoroughly pleased with herself. She kissed her way down Brenda’s belly, pausing along the way to nip and nibble. She learned and catalogued where Brenda was ticklish and where Brenda went wild, and by the time she settled between the blonde’s legs and removed her underwear, she was prepared to memorize every detail. She inhaled the musky scent of her as she lovingly stroked her thumbs against her swollen labia, gratified to discover that the younger woman was aroused. Sharon looked up the length of her body and met Brenda Leigh’s gaze; the captain grinned, and then she lowered her head.

Brenda’s guttural moan indicated to Sharon that she enjoyed the way the captain’s tongue stroked the length of her slit, gathering her wetness and savoring it. “Mmm,” she hummed, teasing and stroking and swirling every inch of Brenda’s sex. She was hot and pink and ready, though Sharon would have guessed that Brenda was ready anyway by the way she clasped a fistful of her hair with one hand and clutched the headboard with the other. The younger woman swiveled her hips against Sharon’s mouth, creating a scintillating counter-rhythm that made her breasts sway.

“Please, Sharon,” the younger woman whined, and Sharon set her mind to giving her exactly what she wanted.

With the tip of her tongue, Sharon teased her lover’s clit, making note of every whimper and cry and moan. She never, ever wanted to stop doing this. When the younger woman began to tremble, Sharon concentrated her efforts on stroking her tongue in the spots Brenda responded to the most, quickening and slowing her motions until the blonde came unexpectedly with a sharp cry. She shuddered and keened and shook, and Sharon carried her through it until her girlfriend could do nothing more than collapse and release her grip on Sharon’s hair. Sharon stopped then, pressing a gentle kiss against her sensitive clit.

Climbing up the length of Brenda’s body, Sharon settled in beside her, resting a possessive arm over her girlfriend’s stomach while she draped a leg over Brenda’s still trembling thighs. She kissed her cheek, her temple, her head, squeezing her gently as she did. Her heart hammered in her chest and she wondered if it was possible to die from pure, utter happiness.

“Oh Brenda Leigh, I love you.”

Brenda turned to look at her then, her mouth twisting into a grin. “I’ve known for a while,” she said, tracing nonsensical patterns on Sharon’s arm.

“What have you known?”

“That you loved me.”

“How did you know?”

“All the little things. I knew when you had soup delivered to my office that time I was sick, and when you texted in the middle of the night to see if I was sleepin’ any better, and every time you emailed me.” She licked her lips and brushed her knuckles against Sharon’s cheek. “I knew when you stayed, even when I didn’t deserve you.”

“You always deserved me,” Sharon replied, kissing Brenda’s shoulder. “I’ve loved you for a very long time, Brenda Leigh.”

“An’ I’ve loved you, Sharon.”

The captain chuckled throatily. “I think I knew as well -- though honestly, I thought you might wait to tell me in an email.”

Brenda scowled, playfully swatting at her lover’s arm. “Hey...it took me some time, but I got here, didn’t I?” She urged Sharon onto her back, straddling her once more. “Besides, there are some things you just can’t effectively express in an email…” She grinned, pressing her breasts against Sharon’s.

“Oh yes?”

“Mmm, oh yes. Let me show you...”

---

END