A/N: My apologies for the posting delay. I meant to have this up a week ago but real life had other ideas. This has spoilers for "Bang Bang" and "Way to Go" but at this point, I don't know if they really are spoilers.

I have to give props to emergency beta Nancy. My regular beta is in the process of moving so Nancy graciously stepped in and did a fabulous job. However, I also did to her what I do to Ethereal Journey and added in some extras so all mistakes you find are mine and mine alone. I hate sharing.

One last note: thanks to all of you who've read my little fic and especially those of you who've left a review. I really appreciate it! And just a little PS: Nell, you rock!

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Playing the Hero

Part III

Waving off yet another champagne-filled crystal flute, Sofia leaned against the back of the black Charger, watching drunken suspects continue to mill around the garden with eyes hidden by dark aviator sunglasses. She'd already completed her interviews and now she was just waiting for Jim to finish his last interview so they could head back to PD.

Three months had passed since she'd told him that she was giving him time to figure out what he wanted but despite plenty of opportunities, Jim had said nothing. Sofia had accepted her fate—that whatever Jim wanted, it didn't include her—and she had tried to move on. Working in such close proximity to Jim had been a little difficult for her at first and she couldn't deny feeling a little hurt by his actions but they were still partners and she wasn't about to let her personal disappointments interfere with her job.

She'd come to realize that maybe Jim was right. Maybe she was infatuated with him because he was hurt and vulnerable. She still cared about him—she hadn't been lying when she said she'd always have his back—but now it felt different. Though her feelings for him hadn't gone, they certainly had subsided.

At least that's what she told herself.

xoxoxoxo

Jim Brass stared just over the left shoulder of Adam Chase, trying not to focus on the scene taking place behind him while Adam fondly waxed on about his recently deceased mother's sacrifices. Jim knew he should be interested. Earlier that day, Diane Chase, noted criminal defense attorney, had been trussed up to the back bumper of a classic Bel Air convertible and dragged down the driveway like a rag doll. But Adam had given Brass all the pertinent information nearly ten minutes ago. Right now he was just letting young Adam go on because honestly, it was much more interesting to watch the waiter behind him down all the leftover champagne.

Walking back to his car, not really registering anything going on around him, Brass couldn't shake the feeling that lately he was just going through the motions. He'd tried to maintain the tough-guy image, the bland, cynical façade that he'd honed to perfection over the years. But he was slipping. Lately, it was getting harder to keep the personal from bleeding into the professional. Even with Sergeant Adams. Jim had felt so much better busting the other cop but a couple of days later and Brass started to question his own actions. Had he really busted Adams because he'd been a troublemaker or was it simply because of what he'd done to Jim? Brass liked to think it had never been about revenge but in some ways, he knew he'd made it personal.

Sliding into the car, he closed the door and leaned his head against the headrest. Jim always prided himself on never crossing the line, never letting his personal problems affect his job. But it was getting harder to keep the two completely separate. He was losing his grip on his personal life but then truth was, he felt like he hadn't had a grip on anything for quite some time.

"Jim, you okay?"

Visibly jerking out of his reverie, realizing that Sofia had probably been sitting there, watching him the entire time, he forced a smile. "Yeah, I'm fine. Hey, are you hungry? Want to grab a bite before we head back?"

"Sure. But please, not Frank's."

"Yeah, that place doesn't have the best memories for me either."

xoxoxoxo

The invitation for the retirement party for Captain Walt Murphy, Jim's counterpart on the day shift, was supposed to be a small gathering but judging by the crowd in the rented room at Caesars Palace, Brass figured someone must have put out a flyer for free beer. He'd only found a few familiar faces in the room but that was to be expected. Most of these guys were coming into work when Brass was heading home.

Sitting alone at one of the tables back in the corner, watching the room and nursing a Sam Adams, Brass noticed her arrival. Coming from the day shift, Sofia had been greeted warmly, obviously well acquainted with many of the cops and civilians present. Seeing how easily she blended in, how easily she was accepted, made Brass feel a little envious. When he'd walked in, the crowd parted and the conversation quelled as everyone turned to stare. He'd learned to ignore the surreptitious glances and loud whispers but being treated like an outcast with a communicable disease still hurt. He just did his best not to let it show.

His eyes never left her, following her as she broke away from the group and made her way over to his table.

"Mind if I join you?"

Brass looked up at her and frowned. "Careful, you might catch what I have."

Glancing around the room, Sofia immediately saw what he meant. His was the only table with available seating.

"I'll take my chances." Sofia pulled out the chair and sat down. "Nice turnout."

Brass picked at the label on his beer. "Yeah, Walt's a good guy."

They sat in silence mostly, Sofia watching Brass while Brass watched the crowd.

Jim had been tempted to toss away the invitation, claim he didn't know, but deep down he knew he had to go. Walt Murphy was a friend as well as a colleague and retirement was a big deal for a police officer. Walt had put in more than thirty years. Brass knew it wasn't his decision to retire; he'd hit the mandatory ceiling and was being forced out. As far as Brass knew, Walt had no plans after retiring, no grandchildren to spoil or even a wife to annoy. The similarities weren't lost on Jim either. Walt Murphy was ten years older but for the most part, his life was just a preview of what Jim could expect.

Brass took a long draw on the long neck, finishing the beer quickly then looking over at Sofia's own nearly empty bottle. "You ready for another?"

"Sure, I'll take whatever you're drinking." Sofia watched him slip past her, his hand brushing across her shoulder as he went by.

Jim made his way to the busy bar and raised his hand in an effort to get the bartender's attention, leaning against the railing when she told him to hang on.

"Man, these retirement parties are a drag."

"No lie. When my time comes just give me my fuckin' pension and I'm out the door."

The two men were standing so close to Brass, he couldn't help but overhear their conversation. Jim easily recognized the man closest to him as Roy Kennington, an overly cocky dayshift detective, but he couldn't place the other man.

"Maybe getting gunned down in a firefight really is the way to go. You know, never see it coming and die a hero."

"Yeah, but with your luck, you'd get gunned down by one of your own." At the other man's nudging, Kennington looked over and met Brass's withering glare. "Sorry, Captain. Didn't see you there."

Brass left the bar just as the bartender stepped up to take his order.

xoxoxoxo

Sofia saw Jim walk past the table and immediately followed, catching up with him just outside the door.

Brass didn't offer an explanation, only a very terse, "I need to get out of here," when she touched his shoulder.

"I'm coming with you."

"This is my problem, not yours."

"I already told you, I'll take my chances. Besides, I'm not going to let you go home when you're this angry." Her hand slid down his shoulder to his arm. "Come on, let's take a walk. Give you a chance to cool off."

The last tendrils of sunlight gave the sky a pinkish glow as they left the lobby and emerged into the warm, dry air. Under different circumstances, it was the perfect night to take a stroll along Las Vegas Boulevard. But not tonight. Jim had taken a brisk pace and it was all Sofia could do to keep up with him.

Brass stopped in front of the fountain as the lights suddenly illuminated the spray of white water. Taking a deep breath, he realized this was the very same place he'd last had some semblance of a decent conversation with Ellie. Despite a very tumultuous beginning, they'd seemed to make peace with one another that night, if only for a few minutes. But all that had changed in Los Angeles. Whatever ground they'd gained in Vegas had been completely eroded in L.A., leaving nothing but an empty hole in Jim's gut. He loved his daughter but every day he feared the worst.

Ellie: yet another spectacular failure.

"So, are you going to tell me what happened back there?"

Suddenly feeling very weary, Brass stared at the water shooting into the air, mesmerized by the way the light reflected off of each tiny droplet. He'd heard her question but he wasn't in the mood to talk about it just yet.

"One of the guys at the bar said something." Sofia didn't ask the question, she stated it knowing perfectly well that's what happened.

Jim lowered his gaze to the sidewalk. He really was angry but mostly at himself—just as he had been for the last five months. "I overreacted. Look," he said, looking up and slowly rubbing the place over his right eye where the headache had settled. "I think I'm just gonna go home."

"Walk you to your car?"

He laughed. "I should be walking you to your car."

"That's okay. I'm just going to head back inside for a little while. I never got a chance to say good-bye to Walt. Walk halfway?"

"Nah, you go ahead. I'm just going hang out here for a couple of minutes."

Sofia got the hint. He really wanted to be left alone but was too polite to tell her to get lost. "Okay, then. I'll see you later."

Jim gave her a half smile and a wink then watched her until she disappeared safely inside the hotel. Resting his elbows on the ledge, he turned his attention back to the fountain, surprised at the way the dancing water and the roar of white noise gave him a sense of calm he hadn't felt in a long time.

xoxoxoxo

Sofia barely heard the knock at her door and if it hadn't persisted, she would have rolled over in bed and ignored it. Making her way down the hallway, cautiously sliding her gun from its holster, she peered through the peephole. As another knock sounded on the metal door, she set the gun down and answered, her face registering concern as Jim Brass stood in the brightly lit corridor.

"Jim? What are you doing here?"

"Can I come in?"

"Sure." She opened the door wider, allowing him to pass. "Are you okay?"

At first she wondered if he'd been drinking. He'd said he was going home but that was no guarantee that he didn't knock back a couple before coming over. Still, she knew Jim wouldn't drive drunk. He would never take that risk.

"I'm sorry to get you out of bed and all." He couldn't help but crack a smile at what she was wearing: a worn UNLV t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. Any other time he would have been turned on by her appearance but not now.

"It's not a problem, really. Do you want something to drink?" Glancing around, she hoped Jim wouldn't notice the mess. It wasn't that she didn't clean; it was just that unlike Jim, she had a tendency to let the clutter get out of hand, leaving stacks of unopened mail and magazines all over the place.

"No, I'm good." Jim stood firmly in the hallway, leaning his back against the wall for needed support. What he wanted to say wasn't going to come easily "Sofia, I been thinking about this."

"This?" She could sense his uneasiness from the moment he arrived and now it was beginning to bleed over to her.

"Us," he clarified. "This thing between us, you don't know how bad I want to give it a chance. The problem is I'm not even half the man you think I am. And I don't know if I can ever be anything more."

Sofia reached for his hands, feeling the cool strength as he squeezed back. "I've seen you at probably the lowest point in your life, I've seen you at your most vulnerable and I've seen you at your very best. Jim, you're every bit the man I think you are."

"I don't want you to be disappointed with me."

"Love me back. That's all I ask."

Her expression was honest and sincere and made Jim hate himself even more. "I want to," he said. "You don't know how much I want to, but I don't know if I can—not yet anyway."

Looking at him, seeing the pain etched around his eyes, she finally understood. He had to make peace with himself before he could ever love someone else. "I'm willing to wait."

They stood together in a tight embrace for what seemed like forever before Sofia finally pulled away. "Stay with me?"

Faintly, Brass nodded. He didn't want to go back to a dark, empty house; he didn't want to be alone. He'd had far too much of that lately. And maybe, just maybe, the comfort of a warm body would help to wash away the memories.

Taking him by the hand, she led him to her bedroom.

She watched Jim undress, watched him meticulously line the creases of his trousers together and then lay them over the back of a chair.

He stood impossibly still as Sofia helped him off with his shirt, taking the hem and lifting the dark polo over his head, then folding it neatly and placing it with his trousers.

Stripped down to his boxer-briefs, Sofia liked what she saw, even if Jim did look slightly embarrassed. Not the body of a thirty year old by a long shot but apart from a little softness around his middle, it was obvious Brass kept himself in shape.

They sat together on the bed, not really sure what came next. Sofia hadn't asked him to stay because of some sort of sexual need and Jim seemed to understand that. Besides, she suspected he wouldn't be up for it and the last thing she wanted to do was give him yet another reason to doubt himself.

"You have a tattoo?" Sofia ran her fingers over the dark ink on his right shoulder, tracing the lines.

"Yeah, it was a rite of passage for every New Jersey cop. Besides, it wouldn't look right for a guy in Vice not to have one."

"But Jim, it's a snowflake."

"It's for Ellie. When she was little—about three, I think—she told her mom and me that she didn't want to be called Ellie any more. She wanted to be called, Snowflake. Nancy told her she couldn't change her name and she got really upset. So I told her that even though she'd always be Ellie, she could be my little snowflake." Jim grew quiet as he recalled the memory, of a time when Ellie would come and sit on his lap and he'd read her stories until she fell asleep. He missed that little girl so bad sometimes, it hurt. "Anyway," he said, clearing his throat, "that was always my name for her—until she got older."

Sofia didn't know the particulars of Jim's relationship with his daughter but she knew they weren't on the best terms and that the girl had been in some kind of trouble in the past. She also knew that trouble had nearly gotten Jim killed. Hearing him recount the story though, hearing the slight crack in his voice, she knew that Ellie would always be his Achilles' heel.

Without saying a word, she leaned over and kissed his cheek. She'd only been fooling herself when she tried to tell herself it was nothing but infatuation. She was in love with Jim Brass, pure and simple. And she was pretty sure he was in love with her too—even if he couldn't bring himself to accept it.

xoxoxoxo

As the sun blazed over the Las Vegas skyline, Sofia Curtis drowsily opened one eye then reached out and ran her hand over the void next to her. Feeling the cool cotton sheets and realizing he'd been gone for a while, she sat up quickly and looked around the room. His clothes were gone and so was he.

Sighing in frustration, she tossed back the covers and got out of bed. After a quick stop in the bathroom, she headed into the kitchen where the aroma of fresh coffee took away a little of her irritation. Pouring herself a cup, she noticed the note he'd left on the counter.

Although he'd thanked her for her company and for the best night's sleep he'd had in months and despite his promise to call her later, there was a finality to the note that made her think that it was the last she'd see of Jim Brass.

xoxoxoxo

Driving into work, Brass couldn't lose the feeling of guilt. He knew he'd taken the easy way out at Sofia's by leaving her a note. He also knew he was a shit for doing it.

Pulling into the LVPD parking lot, he parked the car and sat, not ready to go inside just yet. Leaning his head against the headrest and closing his eyes, he could still feel the warmth of her body. She'd slept most of the night curled up against him and he'd liked that. He felt comfortable with her, relaxed, but mostly it was nice to feel like someone actually wanted him. Sofia didn't judge him or make him feel like some sort of outcast; she seemed content just to know he was there.

But in the light of a new day, Brass had awoken feeling apprehensive. What if she wanted more from him? And what if she couldn't give it to her? He couldn't disappoint her again. He didn't want to see the hurt in her eyes as she told him it was okay; he didn't want to know that once again he'd let her down. So he'd left before the questions could be answered. Nancy always said he was gutless like that. For once she was right.

Startled by the knock on his window, Jim quickly rolled down the window.

"Sorry, sir," the young uniformed officer said. "Saw you sitting there with the engine idling and wanted to make sure everything was okay."

"Yeah, I'm fine. Didn't get enough sleep, I guess."

"I hear that. Okay, then take it easy."

"Sure, thanks." Turning off the engine, Jim slowly got out of the car and crossed the parking lot, feeling every one of his fifty-five years and hoping like hell it would be an uneventful night.

xoxoxoxo

Seeing Brass walk down the corridor, Catherine called out, "Hey, Jim!" then ran to catch up with him as he stopped. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, it's fine, why?" He was getting awfully tired of everyone asking him if he was okay. Did he really look that bad?

Jim started to turn away but her hand on his arm stopped him. "Well, I haven't really talked to you in a couple of months. Are we okay?"

Brass shrugged off the question with a shake of his head. "We're fine, Cath."

"Everything okay with Sofia?"

He cocked his head slightly. "You working the homicide over on Viking?"

It was too blatant to be a hint; it was more like a slap upside the head. "Um, no, I think that's Warrick and Grissom. Look, maybe we can have dinner sometime?"

"Sure. I'll catch up with you later." He grinned as he turned to leave but the smile never reached his eyes.

Catherine watched him leave, aware that this wasn't the first time she'd been left looking at his back as he walked away.

Somehow, she wasn't sure they really were fine but then nothing about Jim had really been fine since last November and Catherine wasn't sure it ever would be.

xoxoxoxo

Brass still wasn't sure how he came to be here, alone in a hotel room with a frightened young woman looking to him as her personal Jesus and a deranged man who'd already murdered three people, shot a security guard and had no qualms about killing two more.

It wasn't the first time Brass had stared down the barrel of a gun and it wasn't his first hostage negotiation. He'd stepped in once before back in Jersey and still had nightmares about the end result. This girl, Jackie she said her name was, didn't deserve to have her brains spread like a cheese calzone all over a cheap hotel room and Brass was going to make sure she didn't. Whatever happened, he was not going to fuck this up. He couldn't live with himself if he did.

On the other side of the door he could almost feel the collective heartbeats of the SWAT team, anxious and ready for him to give the kill word. Jim smiled inwardly, careful not to alert Willie Cutler to his own private joke.

He just wondered if anyone else would get it.

xoxoxoxo

Sofia Curtis strolled down the corridor, curious at the crowd gathering around the break room television. "Hey, what's up?"

It was one of the uniformed officers that spoke up first. "Hostage situation at the Lucky Dragon. Murder suspect shot one of the casino security guards then grabbed a woman and is holed up in one of the rooms."

"I heard the negotiator is stuck in traffic so one of our guys had to go in," another officer chimed in.

"Any idea who?" Sofia asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee and stepping to the front to get a better look at the live coverage.

"Yeah, it's Brass."

Sofia felt the Styrofoam cup slip from her grasp but didn't move as the hot coffee splattered onto the floor.

xoxoxoxo

Standing across from Willie Cutler, chewing the wad of gum as his adrenaline pulsed, never breaking eye contact with the gunman, Brass knew that his chances of walking out of the hotel room were somewhere between slim and none. But he hadn't forgotten about Jackie. He wasn't going to let her down. He wasn't going to have her blood on his conscience. There just wasn't any more room.

Brass knew what he had to do. Keep Cutler's attention focused on him. Keep him talking and pray the girl didn't do anything to distract him. It would all be over in a matter of seconds. Brass felt relaxed. No pressure, no fear, no pain—just an inexplicable feeling of relief.

This was the easy way out. Play the hero, die protecting a young woman and everyone forgets about the mistakes. Redemption would come in one word.

"Jim."

The End.