A/N:A thousand thanks to Inamberclad for the beta. This is a standalone fic and not a sequel to "Playing the Hero". I'm still working on that one. As usual, I played around with the story after the beta so all goofs are mine and I'm not sharing. I don't get anything from this except the joy of writing Jim Brass.
A Little Stick Therapy
The crowd inside Orleans Arena was a small but vocal mix of law enforcement, family and friends, all gathered to watch the annual LVPD vs. FBI hockey game.
Down on the ice, Jim Brass went through his stretches, casting occasional glances into the crowd, hoping to find one particular face. He wasn't sure she'd come, especially after the fight they'd had earlier that day, but he really hoped she would.
Crossing his right leg over his left leg then twisting his upper body to the right, he understood her concern. Ten months ago he'd been shot in the chest and it was only by the skill of several surgeons that he'd survived. Although his doctor had released him four months ago, he still had the occasional stiffness in his back. But he needed this; he needed to get his life back to normal. And that's what he'd tried to explain to her. Still, it was hard to win the argument when she'd been at the hospital, when she'd seen the scars and witnessed his recovery. So he'd left her sitting on the sofa, her arms crossed in defiant anger as she pretended to watch some inane reality show on the television.
Looking up, seeing her familiar slender figure at the top of the stairs in section 102, he got to his feet and took one final skate around the ice, smiling as he turned quickly and skated the last 100 feet to the bench backward.
Standing at the top of the stairs, glancing again at the ticket he'd left for her on the table, she looked down the rows below to see a few familiar heads. Hesitating, she quickly scanned the ice, catching sight of his #53 jersey on the far side of the rink. Watching him, she felt the last tendrils of her anger slip away. Even from her vantage, she could tell he was happy. He'd once mentioned that he wanted to play professional hockey when he was a boy and now she could practically picture a young Jimmy Brass tearing up the ice.
She caught his eye as he took his place at left defenseman and as the puck dropped and he skated into the action, she felt the worry return, berating herself as she made her way down the stairs. The man faced some of the worst scum Las Vegas had to offer every day and yet, she was worried about a frozen puck and five guys wielding sticks. Was this what it was like being in love?
Reaching the row of familiar faces, she said, "Mind if I join you?"
Catherine Willows looked up from her aisle seat, "Sofia, I'm surprised to see you here."
"Are you kidding? And miss a chance to see LVPD kick some FBI butt?"
"Brass is playing defense," Nick chimed in. "PD is going to get their butts whipped."
Taking the empty seat next to Catherine, Sofia looked to the ice as the crowd reacted to the puck drop. "I don't know. I hear Jim's pretty good."
Catherine looked curiously at the blonde detective. She knew Jim and Sofia were tight, especially after everything they'd been through over the last year or so, but on more than one occasion, Jim had alluded to having plans after work. Perhaps Catherine had underestimated just how tight Jim and Sofia were.
"Culpepper has 10 years on him," Nick was saying between a mouthful of hotdog.
Sofia held out her right hand. "Care to make a friendly wager, Stokes?"
He smiled. "What do you have in mind?"
"Not what you're thinking, that's for sure."
"Ten bucks?" Nick stuffed the last of the hotdog into his mouth.
"Twenty plus loser has to buy beer for all of us."
Nick rubbed his hands together. "Like taking candy from a baby."
"I can't believe you bet against your own team," Catherine said.
"Hey, twenty bucks is twenty bucks."
"Brass plays hockey?" Making her apologies as she stepped past Catherine and Sofia, Sara Sidle handed off one of the two beers she was carrying to Nick then took the open seat on the other side of Stokes. "How come I didn't know that?" She cringed as two players slammed against the boards.
"None of us did," Catherine said, leaning forward to look past Sofia and Nick. "Sofia said she heard he was pretty good though."
Sara looked on as Brass stole the puck away from an FBI forward then sprinted towards the blue line before sending the puck to a crossing teammate. "Wow, who knew? I guess it makes sense though. All that pent up frustration and aggression have to go somewhere."
"Yeah," Nick laughed, as one of the PD players was called for hooking. "Gives new meaning to stick therapy."
Halfway into the second period and the score was tied at one apiece. Unfortunately, all the latent hostility between the police and the feds had trickled over to the game and more than once tempers had flared.
Brass took the puck and raced down the ice, trying to fend off one of the agents at the same time. Skating around the back of the net, he circled once then passed off to a PD teammate who launched a shot at the net, only to have it bounce off the goalie's outstretched glove. Brass put his head down and went after it, coming up against the boards with the two opposing players on his back. He felt the impact as both men slammed into him, fighting to get the puck that was now between his right skate and the boards.
The scuffle over the puck persisted, with Brass and the two men scrambling to gain control. At the same moment the puck spurted across the ice, Brass saw a blur and felt the sharp pain in his forehead, knocking him onto the ice. Lying there he could almost hear Sofia's footsteps on the metal steps as she walked out of his life forever.
Seeing Jim go down on the ice, Sofia was on her feet in an instant, her heart thumping in her chest. All of the action had taken place on the other side of the ice so she hadn't seen what exactly had happened.
"Can you see anything?" Catherine asked, also on her feet.
"No, too many people in the way."
Two referees and most of the players had gathered around Jim, blocking any chance Sofia had of being able to see him. But as the players finally dispersed, she finally saw Jim emerge with a trainer at his side, holding a bloodied towel against his face as he guided Jim to the bench.
"Man, was that Brass?" Sara asked.
"Ow, that's gonna leave a mark," Nick said, cringing. "I thought this was a friendly game."
"Is hockey ever friendly?"
Sofia didn't hear the rest of their comments. She was already past Catherine and on the stairs before she realized that if she took a step towards the bench, her co-workers would know.
"I'm, uh, going to grab a beer. Can I get you guys anything?"
Both Nick and Sara declined while Catherine thought for a moment, amused at how quickly Sofia caught herself. "How about a diet Pepsi?" Reaching for money, Sofia waved her off.
"I got it."
Sofia disappeared up the stairs and into the concession area, taking a quick right and heading over two sections and a little closer to the bench.
Jim was sitting now, holding the ice pack as a trainer applied a butterfly bandage to the cut. Even from several rows up, she could see the darkening bruise forming around his right eye and with a sigh of relief, knew he was done for the night. But just as the thought crossed her mind, Jim was standing up with his stick and getting ready to hit the ice once more.
Turning in a huff, Sofia headed over to the concession stand, slamming her money on the counter and taking a huge gulp of her beer and trying not to spill Catherine's diet soda, cursing everything about Jim Brass as she headed back to her seat.
Settling into her seat, Sofia had just taken another sip of her beer when Catherine leaned in close and whispered, "So you and Jim, huh?"
Jim had told Sofia a few months ago that if anyone would figure it out, it'd be Catherine. And right now, Sofia didn't care who knew because as far as she was concerned, it was over anyway. "Yeah, well, we all make mistakes."
"Not happy that he went back out there?"
"Not happy he's out there at all but that didn't help."
"Boys will be boys."
Sofia rolled her eyes. It was no excuse for what she considered stupidity. "Yes, but most boys didn't get shot in the chest and nearly die ten months ago."
Catherine knew where Sofia was coming from but at the same time, she felt the need to defend her friend. "Brass is a good guy. He's got his faults but you could definitely do worse."
"Well, if you're interested, he's going to be available later."
"Aw, come on, Sofia. You saw him out there. He's just fine." Sensing that the younger blonde wasn't buying it, Catherine continued. "Look, you know what the job is like, how bad the stress can be. If anyone needs an outlet for all the shit he's been through, it's Jim. Maybe hockey probably isn't the best choice but he's good and he's obviously enjoying himself. Cut him some slack, okay?"
Sofia sighed deeply. Catherine was right: she was completely overreacting. She knew she'd been acting like something of a mother hen ever since he left the hospital—they'd had more than a few arguments to that effect—and if she didn't support him he'd grow to resent her.
But that didn't mean she couldn't still be mad at him.
Jim came into the dark restaurant and looked around. Seeing only Catherine at the table, he felt the knot in his stomach tighten. He knew Sofia was watching when he came off the ice and he could almost feel the intense heat of her glare as he went back out again. He'd try to explain why he did what he did later—that is, if she'd let him. But judging by the lack of her presence, he wondered if she'd finally had enough.
Ambling over to the table, trying not to let out how sore he was already, Jim tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. "So where's everyone?"
"Nick and Sara said to tell you congratulations. They were going to be here but thankfully for Nick, they got called in."
"Thankfully?" Brass sat down rather gingerly.
"Yeah, he and Sofia had a bet. If PD won, Nick had to buy us all drinks. He said he'd pay up another time."
"Nick bet against his own team?" Brass ordered a beer and a glass of ice from the waitress. "And how about Sofia?" Brass hoped his expression didn't give anything away. No one knew about his relationship with Sofia but if anyone picked up on it, it would be Catherine. Hell, he might as well just tell her and get it over with. She probably knew anyway.
"Not sure where she is. She left after the game and I haven't seen her since." Catherine knew full well that Sofia didn't leave. She just wanted to see Jim squirm a little more. Although she'd defended Jim, Catherine understood the anger Sofia felt and if roles had been reversed, she'd have been angry too. And in Catherine's book, women had to stick together, especially where thick-headed men were concerned.
"Look, Cath, there's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"You mean about you and Sofia?"
Jim scratched the back of his head, laughing at his own joke. "How long have you known?"
"I knew you were seeing someone but I didn't know it was Sofia until tonight. She gave it away when you went down. And don't worry, the secret's safe with me."
"Thanks but after tonight, there might not be a secret to keep."
The waitress returned with Jim's beer and a tall glass of ice as well as a fresh, clean, cloth napkin. "I thought you might need this to go with the ice."
Jim smiled at her. "Thanks."
Catherine watched the exchange with amused interest, narrowing her eyes at Jim as he watched the young woman walk away.
Turning back towards her, he caught her eye and smiled apologetically.
"You keep that up and there definitely won't be." Catherine took a sip of her own drink. "For what it's worth, you still have a secret but you owe me."
"That bad, huh?" He dropped a few ice cubes out of the glass and onto the cloth napkin.
"She was ready to kick your butt to the curb."
"Cath, I got hit with a high stick. It wasn't any worse than what could happen every day in the interrogation room."
"But what happens in the interrogation room, while not anticipated, is at least part of the job. Getting hurt on your down time—that's different."
Pressing the makeshift ice pack against his eye, he tilted his head to get a better look at Catherine. "She didn't leave, did she?"
"No, she got a call but couldn't get reception in here. She'll be here in a few."
Jim let out a relieved sigh. "Did she tell you we had an argument earlier today? She didn't want me to play tonight. It's like she knew or something."
"Women's intuition, Jim. Don't ever question it."
He raised his eyebrows and nodded in resignation. Leaning forward, as if confiding in his friend, he said, "So just how pissed off was she?"
"I wasn't kidding when I said she was ready to kick your butt to the curb. She was worried when you went down but she was pissed off that you went back out there. And I can't say as I blame her."
Brass leaned back in the chair and raised the icepack to his head. "Yeah, that probably wasn't the smartest thing I ever did. I gotta get used to someone actually worrying about my sorry ass."
"Jim, we all worry about your sorry ass. The difference here is she loves your sorry ass."
He lowered the ice pack. "And you don't?"
"Not on your life." Catherine smiled, taking some of the sting out of her remark.
Jim's hand covered his heart as he feigned a wounded look. "Cut me to the quick."
Sofia strolled up to the table, taking the seat next to Jim. "What'd I miss?"
"Cath being mean to me—again." Jim took her hand and gave it quick squeeze, feeling a bit reassured when she squeezed back.
"Nothing you don't deserve, I'm sure," Sofia said, taking a seat in the chair next to him.
"I shoulda known better. You women always stick together."
Catherine raised her beer to Sofia. "Damn right!"
"I'm getting beat up more by you two than I did by those guys on the ice."
"We'll chat about that later," she answered with a frown—although she did have to admit that the cut and the developing black eye did give him an edge she found particularly sexy.
"So, you want to tell me how long you two have been carrying this relationship off?"
Brass looked at Sofia and raised his eyebrows, conceding that it was her story to tell, while he leaned back and rested his arm on the back of her chair.
"Well, it started with Bell's death and just sort of grew from there, I guess."
"Does Burdick know?"
"Yeah, I told him," Jim chimed in, leaning forward and adding a few more ice cubes to his ice pack. "I figured I'd use getting shot to my advantage. He was a lot more agreeable then."
"Ah," Catherine said, suddenly understanding. "That's why you two rarely work together any more."
"That was one of the conditions: I couldn't report to Jim and I can't work with him."
"Seems like a fair trade."
"Yeah but it means we don't get many nights off like this one. I had to practically bribe Vartann to trade with me tonight."
Jim frowned and picked at the label of his beer. "It also means she's working with Nick and Warrick more."
Catherine raised an eyebrow at Sofia, questioning Jim's sudden mood change more than his words. Sofia answered with a roll of her eyes and Catherine understood immediately. Jim was jealous.
"Well, Warrick is married and Nick doesn't believe in dating co-workers so I don't think you have anything to worry about."
Jim looked up quickly. "Who's worried? I'm not worried."
Sofia put her hand on his shoulder. "No, you're jealous."
Smirking, Jim said nothing.
Her grip on his shoulder tightened. "I told you, you have no reason to be jealous. Nick and Warrick are nice looking guys and all but I'm not attracted to them. I like a man with a little more substance, a little more age and experience."
Looking at Catherine he said, "I feel like a piece of cheese."
Laughing, Sofia said, "Okay, let me explain it like this. At then end of the day, I want someone comfortable; someone who keeps me warm and safe."
"Yeah, well, I've seen the way you wield a shotgun. I think you have a better chance of keeping me warm and safe."
Listening to the exchange, Catherine suddenly felt a twinge of her own jealousy. Jim and Sofia obviously had something. She'd never seen Jim as happy as he was now and honestly, she wanted some of that happiness. She wanted someone to keep her warm and safe and Jim Brass certainly met the criteria.
She'd had her chance with Jim several years ago and she'd let it slip away. Now she almost wished circumstances were different and she was in Sofia's place.
"Okay, talk to me," he began as he maneuvered the car out of the parking lot an hour later. "Still mad?"
Although they'd arrived in separate cars, Sofia had insisted on taking one car home. Jim hadn't come close to exceeding his two-beer limit but she knew he was tired. Exhaustion was almost as lethal behind the wheel as alcohol. Unfortunately, he'd insisted on driving but she did manage to make him promise to pull over if he started getting drowsy.
"You were though."
"I know it's a little late for apologies but I'm sorry. I don't expect you to understand but I had to go back in."
"I get it, Jim."
He glanced at her crossways before turning his attention back to the road. She didn't get it and if she hadn't been mad a few minutes ago, she probably was now. "I promise I won't play any more hockey."
Sofia turned quickly. "No, I don't want you to promise that. I want you to do whatever you want to do. I don't want you to change just because I don't like something." She shifted in her seat, watching the neon lights blur together as they rushed by. "I'm like my dad: I worry too much."
Jim slipped his hand onto her thigh and gave it a light squeeze. "I guess I should be worried when you stop worrying, huh?"
Sofia managed a smile. "Yes." Taking his hand, interlocking her fingers with his, she said, "So about this jealous streak of yours, do we need to talk about that as well?"
She took that as a definite yes. "What bothers you more, me working with Nick and Warrick or with Tony Vartann?"
He didn't answer but she felt more than saw his shoulders stiffen at the mention of Vartann's name. She knew Jim didn't care for the other detective and was more than happy to sign his transfer to days. Unfortunately, now that meant Sofia often partnered with Vartann.
"Look, I told you I went out with Vartann once. I thought he was a jerk then and my opinion hasn't changed. You have absolutely no reason to be jealous."
The light changed to red and Jim slowed to a stop, pulling his hand away from hers. "I know I have no reason to be jealous and you can tell me all day that I shouldn't be jealous and honestly, I'm not. I'm worried." She started to protest but he cut her off. "Honey, I'm almost twenty years older than you. At some point, you're going to want a newer model who's sleeker and faster and has a hell of a lot more tread on the tires."
"Jim, stop." She turned in the seat as much as the seatbelt would let her. "Let me just remind you that I pursued you. I'm the one that asked you out and had to convince you to kiss me. Remember? We've been through a lot over the last year—some of it has been great and some of it has been really, really bad—but I'm still here. I want this to work and I'm willing to do what's necessary to make it work."
"You're making this sound serious," he said as the light turned green and he shifted into first.
"I am serious. Are you?" For one brief moment Sofia felt a rush of panic. What if she'd completely underestimated him; what if he wasn't ready for a commitment? They hadn't really discussed the long term before and having the conversation in the car on the way home wasn't what she'd had in mind. Then again, nothing in her relationship with Jim had really gone as planned.
It was a simple question with such heavy ramifications that Jim was quiet for a long moment, obviously contemplating his answer. They had a lot of issues to work out but he kept coming back to one thing: he loved her.
Jim always considered himself an old-fashioned guy. Love and commitment were important words for him. He hoped they were just as important to her. Maybe he was naïve that way but he just couldn't get around it.
"Yeah, I am."
"Then let's make this work and stop worrying about jealousy and making comparisons to cars." Sofia leaned back in the seat and looked out the window. "That's such a guy thing."
They pulled into the driveway of Jim's house a few minutes later and as soon as they had walked through the front door, he'd given her a kiss goodnight and headed to bed. So it was no surprise to find him lying on his stomach, his right arm wrapped possessively around one of the pillows and snoring softly when she finally came into the bedroom a couple of hours later.
Undressing by the light from a bedside table lamp, Sofia had learned many months ago that years of working a variety of shifts meant that Jim could sleep through most anything including lights, ringing phones, blaring TV sets and the occasional thunderstorm.
Hearing a rustling from the bed, she glanced over to see that he had kicked off nearly all the covers, leaving only a sheet that went as far as his hips and exposing his broad back and the scar that ran between his shoulder blades.
Leaning against the bathroom sink as she absent-mindedly brushed her teeth, Sofia found herself staring at the scar and thinking about something Jim alluded to earlier. She'd still been a bit miffed but the way he'd said it had stuck in her mind nevertheless.
I don't expect you to understand but I had to go back in.
At the time she'd thought he'd meant he had to go back in because they were short-handed—something she didn't understand because they seemed to have plenty of players. But now she understood.
He had to.
Tonight wasn't really about hockey. Tonight was about proving something to himself, to his peers and to the guys who reported to him or worked with him every day. Law enforcement was a brotherhood—with a few sisters tossed in. They depended on each other; they needed to know that in a tough spot, each had the other's back.
Although she wasn't completely sure, Sofia wondered if what happened to Jim wasn't done on purpose, a test to see if he was strong enough to take the punishment and tough enough to go back out there. Even if that weren't the case, she understood why he did it. He had to erase any doubts they might have had about him and show them he could still have their backs.
And tonight Jim proved that even though he was down and nearly out, he was still just as tough as he ever was.
Until tomorrow morning when he'll barely be able to move.
Reaching into the medicine cabinet, she pulled out the bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol and set it next to the clock radio on his side of the bed then crawled in beside him.
Jim muttered something incoherent as he rolled onto his side and slid his hand over her stomach, the tips of his fingers resting on her hip.
How could she explain that this was what she loved about him? This was what she'd meant when she'd said he made her feel warm and safe?
This was the kind of love she'd craved from a man and Jim Brass could give it even in his sleep.