Title: Since You Went Away

Authors: i-must-go-first & UbiquitousMixie

Rating: T (Overall M)

Word Count: 8272

Disclaimer: Not ours. Please don't sue.

Summary: A late-night craving and a coincidental meeting lead a certain deputy chief to discover that there's much more to the inimitable Captain Raydor than meets the eye, and to realize that her mama was right: sometimes all a single woman really needs is a good girlfriend.

Authors' Note: Hold onto your hats, kids. The captain and the deputy chief are about to buy some furniture. Comments are our lifeblood...let us know what you think! Enjoy!

Chapter Three: Designing Woman

"Well, well, Captain Raydor." Louie Provenza placed his usual emphasis on her rank, keeping it slight enough that she couldn't call him out for being overtly insubordinate. "To what do we owe the displeasure of your company?"

"Last time I checked, lieutenant, your name wasn't on the door," Sharon responded smoothly, gliding across the break room with her eye on the prize: the coffee pot, its carafe still beautifully three-quarters full. She would have cheerfully endured - well, maybe not cheerfully; but she would have endured considerably more than the worst Provenza could toss at her to secure a proper cup of coffee. It was ten a.m. and her caffeine level was dipping dangerously low: the reusable filter in the antiquated coffee maker on her floor had acquired a sizable hole, dumping generous heaps of grounds into anything brewed in the machine. Sharon Raydor's mother had raised no fool, so the captain had high-tailed it to Major Crimes at the earliest possible opportunity, secure in the certainty that there would be an abundance of freshly-brewed coffee, and that it wouldn't be Folgers.

"Might as well be," Flynn replied, adding the tiniest slug of milk to his own coffee and sloshing it around in his mug. "Don't worry, Provenza - I bet if you ask nicely the captain won't take the last of the french vanilla creamer."

Sharon allowed herself a sedate smirk, screened from view by the curtain of her hair, as she grabbed a mug at random (it looked clean enough for government work) and filled it with the steaming dark brown liquid. She took a quick gulp, relishing the way the heat made her throat tingle without burning, and then topped up her mug. She was surprised Major Crimes still had anything as pedestrian as a regular coffee pot; she half expected to hear that Deputy Chief Johnson was demanding a full-on restaurant-ready cappuccino machine.

Now, now, Sharon, she schooled herself. Brenda is your friend; you're not allowed to have nasty little thoughts like that about your friends, at least not until you become really close friends. Just because the Major Crimes budget is approximately twenty times the size of FID's and you keep running out of pens that actually write, not to mention coffee -

"Oh, Captain Raydor, there you are. You're not in your office."

Obviously not, Sharon thought, as she hadn't yet figured out how to clone herself, but she merely cast Will Pope a solemn, inquiring look. "I just stepped out for a moment to get some coffee, chief. Did you need me?"

"Why hasn't your investigation into Sargent Velazquez's OIS been wrapped up?" Pope demanded, the tone of his voice suggesting his obvious disapproval.

Sharon immediately took a bracing breath, grinding her teeth in chagrin at the man's persistent need to butt into her affairs. Why was he still acting Chief of Police? She thought longingly of the days when Brenda had been up for the job and even spared a moment of remorse at having lost Chief Delk. She exhaled slowly. "There is still some question as to the validity of his claim of shooting in self-defense. We are following up on the possibility that he may have had a prior relationship with the victim."

The Chief sighed impertinently, and Sharon cast a quick glance at Flynn and Provenza, who were watching in rapt fascination. Flynn leaned closer to the other man, whispering something indistinguishable into his ear. Irritation flared up within her.

"I assure you, Chief, that we are doing everything we can to expedite the closure of this case."

"I hope so, Captain. We need him back in Robbery/Homicide."

She shoved her free hand into the pocket of her purple blazer and curled it into a fist, choosing not to point out that the evidence collected thus far indicated that Velazquez would not be returning to his job and that the division would likely be short a detective. She pressed her lips into a thin line and nodded tersely. "Understood." She still had fifteen hours remaining in her reporting cycle; when her suspicions were confirmed, she would break the bad news to him then.

Before Sharon could excuse herself, the door of the break room burst open and in swept the seething blonde deputy chief.

Provenza turned to Flynn. "This is gonna be good."

Flynn looked askance at the older man - not that he disagreed with the sentiment, but sotto voce his partner's gleeful growl was not. He shuffled toward the door, sweeping a reluctant Provenza along with him.

"Will!" Brenda cried demandingly, as if oblivious to the presence of anyone else. "Why do I have Commander Taylor in my murder room tellin' me David Gabriel needs to report to Robbery/Homicide right away? We are right in the middle of an investigation, and even if we weren't, I think if Robbery/Homicide is gonna be given permission to poach members of my team I ought to at least be the first to know about it!"

She planted her hands on floral-print-covered hips, arms akimbo, and scowled.

Flynn and Provenza exchanged a loaded look of anticipatory horror. Oh, this did promise to be good.

Pope's features had taken on that long-suffering, oddly smug cast. "Thanks to a leisurely OIS investigation, Robbery/Homicide is down one detective, and they have four open investigations to your one in Major Crimes. Gabriel is the only qualified detective I can lend to them until Velazquez is cleared." The acting chief risked a small smile. "If you're not satisfied, Chief Johnson, take the matter up with Captain Raydor."

"Oh." The smaller woman's mouth opened and closed abruptly around the single syllable, and her gaze shifted to the dark-haired captain, who stood patiently by, cradling her coffee. Pope sidled casually toward the door, stopping just beside the two lieutenants. The three of them formed a row, all but pressing their noses against the glass of the break-room window. Brenda shifted her weight from one pump to the other. Sharon stood perfectly motionless, ready to conciliate or attack as necessary.

A moment ticked by while they eyed one another warily. Their brand-new friendship was about to be road-tested. The brunette took in the blonde's increasingly displeased expression and felt her stomach flutter unpleasantly, a reaction she attempted to squelch immediately. As the head of FID, it wasn't as if having people dislike her was a novelty. Even as she scoffed at herself, though, she acknowledged that she would be extremely - disappointed - if Brenda Leigh rejoined that list because Sharon was simply doing her job and doing it thoroughly.

"That's not wrapped up yet?"

"It's been fifty-seven hours," Raydor responded carefully.

"Fifty-seven, huh?" The barest hint of a smile flickered over Brenda's features as she turned toward the coffee pot. (Everyone else was drinking it; why shouldn't she?)

Sharon felt a flicker of hopefulness. "Fifty-six hours and -" she consulted her watch - "forty-seven minutes, to be precise."

"And you're very precise, captain." Brenda kept her voice pitched purposefully low, uninterested in putting on a show for the three men who were watching them as if they were a couple of caged lionesses. "You were probably on the math team in high school."

The other woman's only answer was a smirk.

"I can't see you with a pocket protector and thick glasses, though," the deputy chief continued.

Sharon snorted, very nearly spraying Brenda's sweater with coffee (which might have improved its appearance, in the captain's opinion), and her eyes twinkled. "Maybe I'll tell you someday." Or maybe she'd make Brenda guess what she'd been like as an adolescent; that could be good fun for a slow day in FID.

"Too bad about Velazquez. I don't suppose you have a rough idea of when he'll be...?" The smaller woman trailed off, smiling hopefully.

"OIS investigations are confidential," the captain replied evenly.

"Of course they are. But if, hypothetically, I had some big special assignment to give Detective Gabriel, say, tomorrow evenin' -?"

"Hypothetically and completely off the record, I'd suggest you make other arrangements."

Brenda pouted. "Well, that's inconvenient. Don't the officers of the LAPD realize that I need them all to behave so my squad stays intact?"

Sharon hid a grin in her cup as she took another slug of the steaming, ground-free coffee. "They must have missed the memo where they were asked to be on their best behavior solely for your benefit."

"And Tao typed it up all pretty, too," Brenda teased. She sighed, cocking her hip against the counter and turning her back completely to the windows, no longer wanting to acknowledge the presence of their audience. "I swear, Will's takin' extra delight in rufflin' my feathers lately."

"More so than usual?" the brunette asked, pursing her lips. She considered her earlier exchange with him and nodded. "I don't think it's just you."

"I heard somethin' somewhere about male menopause. If anyone's got it, it's him."

Sharon laughed and noted with mild annoyance that the three men outside the break room were exchanging perplexed glances. She couldn't recall the last time she had so much as broken a smile this early in the work day and decided to hold onto the pleasant, foreign feeling instead. "I think you may be right."

Brenda smirked and ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it back behind her shoulder. She rubbed at the tense knot at the nape of her neck, thinking again of having to work her case without Gabriel. She groaned. "Of all the times to lose Gabriel..." She stomped her foot.

Sharon felt for the blonde, fully understanding just how difficult it was to have members of her team shuffled around amidst departmental changes and setbacks. Brenda, she knew, took it particularly hard (and never without a fight). "Tough case?"

"Yeah." Brenda replied with a frown. She set down her coffee and crossed her arms over her chest. "Somethin's not sittin' right with me. We've got two dead twenty-year-old girls who appear to have suffocated themselves and I'm still waitin' on cause of death and it's takin' forever. Right now all we've got to go on is a letter that suggests it may have been some sorta suicide pact."

"That's a gruesome way to go," Sharon remarked, curling up her lip in distaste. "You don't think it's suicide?"

"No, I don't."

"Well, a triple came over the radio not too long ago, so I imagine Morales is up to his elbows, literally," the captain said, her tone laced with sympathy. "You might have to wait a little longer."

Brenda huffed out a sigh, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "For heaven's sake, he's had my bodies since last night! That's it, I'm callin' down there right now." Yanking her phone from her pocket, Brenda's eyes widened in dismay as she stared at the black screen. What else could go wrong this morning? "Battery's dead," she said tersely. "You mind if I use yours?"

"Of course not." Sharon removed her own phone from her blazer pocket, unlocked the screen with a quick swipe, and passed it over. "It's in the contacts. Obviously."

As Brenda nodded her thanks and wasted no time, Pope called, "Oh, Captain Raydor?" With a quick chagrined look intended only for the deputy chief's eyes, Sharon briskly crossed the room and stepped out into the hall, calmly replying, "Yes, chief?"

Perhaps sadly, Brenda Leigh didn't need the help of Sharon Raydor's contacts list to dial the morgue; she knew the number from memory. The extension rang so many times that the chief very nearly gave up hope, and then heard the receiver being lifted from its cradle.

"Morales's Palace of Murder, Misery, and the Macabre. Tell me the stiff you're calling to inquire about is a drink or a cock, and not another gang member or co-ed."

Brenda felt her eyes widen to dimensions that would've done a missionary in a whorehouse proud. "Dr. Morales!" she exclaimed, scandalized and rather afraid their trusty pathologist had developed a fondness for the nose candy.

A long pause ensued. "Y-yes," stammered the pathologist. "Chief, ah, Johnson. I - I'm so sorry. I thought you were -"

"Captain Raydor," Brenda murmured, her eyes narrowing as she looked out into the hallway where the other woman stood talking with Pope, her face carefully expressionless. "Because I'm usin' her phone."

"Yes, chief. What can I do for you?"

Brenda didn't answer right away. She was distracted by the more immediate question at hand: why in the world would Morales answer the phone that way to Sharon Raydor, the tight-ass shrew of FID? Not, Brenda amended hastily, that she saw the captain that way, but almost everyone else in the LAPD did. She felt her stomach do something unpleasant as a peculiar feeling settled over her, something she hadn't experienced in ages.


Why else would Dr. Morales be so casually blase with Captain Raydor if not for the fact that they were friends? Brenda hadn't actually thought that she was Sharon's only friend, but it had simply never occurred to her to wonder who else might be in the captain's inner circle. How many others were there? And how chummy were Sharon and Dr. Morales? She had always appreciated the coroner's dry wit and vast intelligence, but had also always felt that he never liked her much. For the briefest of moments, she imagined a scenario wherein Morales and Raydor mocked her behind her back. She bit her thumb. I bet Sharon even knows his first name.

"Uh, Chief?"

"Right. Do you have an ETA on my cause of death?"

The man paused for a moment, and Brenda could just imagine how mortified he was. She pictured him in the morgue, hitting his head against one of the steel cabinets.

"I should have something for you within the hour," he replied.

Brenda wondered if he'd have been this accommodating if she had called from her own phone and glanced at Raydor as she re-entered the break room. "Thank you, Doctor. Thank you so much."

They both hesitated for a moment before he ended the call. Brenda stared at the phone for a moment and bit her lip.

"Everything all right?" Sharon asked, plucking the phone from Brenda's fingers and slipping it back into her pocket. "You look as though someone just insulted your mother."

Brenda gave an embarrassed little laugh. "Just, um, a little confusion there. He thought I was you."

Sharon raised an eyebrow. "And?"

The blonde's flushed cheeks were answer enough for the captain, who chuckled. "Ah. I see."

"I didn't realize you two were so...close."

"We're good friends."

Brenda nodded slowly, having decided that it would be best not to say anything for fear of sounding like a jealous seven-year-old. Her tight-lipped response was moot, however, when Sharon immediately recognized the look on her face.

So Brenda was jealous? Sharon found it deliciously flattering.

"Are we still on for furniture shopping this weekend?" the captain asked.

Brenda's awkward smile turned genuine. "Yeah! I'd love to," she replied, perhaps a little too eagerly. She hoped her audience had dissipated; her exclamation would certainly have been overheard by loiterers.

"How's Saturday?"

"I've gotta stop by and feed Joel in the morning, but I could pick you up after?"

"Around 9:30? Give me a call when you're on your way over."

Brenda frowned slightly. "10:30," she countered, and the other woman shook her head grimly.

"No, Brenda. With the amount of work we need to do, 9:30 is pushing it." Sharon headed for the door, but stopped and turned back, looking from her mug to the slender blonde. "And bring me coffee," she specified. "Black, one sugar."

Leaving Brenda shaking her head, she sailed by Flynn and Provenza with a flutter of her fingers. "Bye, boys," she tossed off. "You all have a real nice day."

Sharon Raydor hated to be kept waiting. She'd grounded her children for tardiness. She'd broken up with a man for his lack of punctuality. She'd even fired an officer for repeatedly showing up late to crime scenes. She wondered, as she noticed that it was now 9:51, if she'd be able to maintain a friendship with the least punctual person she knew.

Perhaps it was a habit she could teach the deputy chief to break.

When the honk of the car horn sounded from outside, Sharon took her time gathering her purse and jacket, leaving the other woman waiting for as long as she could stand before even she bristled at her own stalling tactics.

Sharon got into the car, immediately taking note of two crucial facts: firstly, Brenda was not her bright, enthusiastic self and secondly, perhaps more importantly, there were no coffee cups in the console's drink holder. Luckily for Brenda, Sharon had anticipated this and had already had a cup.

"Sorry I'm late," Brenda offered dully, pulling away from the curb before Sharon had even buckled her seatbelt.

The brunette pursed her lips and gave the woman a slow once-over, pondering just how concerned she should be. She remembered that Brenda had obligated herself to taking care of the cat in Agent Howard's absence. Was this what happened when Brenda was separated from her cat, or had something happened to spark this unpleasant mood? "Is everything all right?"

"Oh, sure. Everythin's fine," the blonde replied absently, tapping her thumbs against the steering wheel.

Sharon frowned. "How was Joel?"

"He's fine. Y'know...distant and snooty as ever. He was always more Fritzi's cat than my own."

The captain noticed that the corner of Brenda's mouth twitched into a near-frown at the mention of the man's name. Had he come home early? Left her a note? Was she jealous of the cat's loyalty to his master? "Brenda, you seem upset."

"Huh? No... I'm f-"

"Fine. Yes, so you've said." Sharon sighed. "I'm related to enough passive-aggressive females to know that 'fine' never actually means 'fine.'"

When they reached a red light, Brenda looked at her imploringly. "Really, Sharon. I don't...I'm okay. Really. I just miss my cat, is all."

Sharon sighed, not believing her for a second, and decided not to push it. "All right."

Brenda forced a cheerful smile. "I hope you're ready for this, 'cause I find shoppin' to be really overwhelmin'."

"Should I have brought along a few Xanax?"

That, at least, elicited a laugh. "All those people and sales folk and all the different options..." Brenda shuddered. "I'm glad I don't have to brave all that on my own."

"You do realize it's just a shopping trip, that you're not facing down a firing squad?"

The other woman tipped her head back as her foot pressed down on the accelerator and they shot through the newly-green light. "I'd prefer the firin' squad."

Sharon compressed her lips and gazed out at the Saturday morning traffic, swallowing the urge to sigh again. She'd been looking forward to this, perhaps a little more than she should have been. The captain was both flattered and, frankly, relieved that the deputy chief had requested her assistance; who knew what unimaginable floral-print horror might have lured Brenda Leigh with its siren song otherwise? And Sharon enjoyed shopping. She enjoyed it with the sense of pleased, surprised accomplishment that always accompanied the performance of an activity for which someone had a real aptitude. For Sharon, things that started with 's' seemed to come easily: shopping, skiing, shooting... Sex, as far as she remembered, but it had been a while.

A horn honked sharply and she jerked herself back to the present. The point was that she was a good shopper, with a keen eye for form and material, and a good sense of what an item was actually worth. It pleased her that Brenda Leigh was enlisting her superior skill. She could help the other woman and have a good time while she was at it.

The truth, though, was that if Brenda Leigh had batted her eyelashes and asked nicely, Sharon probably would have agreed to participate in any number of activities, including, but not limited to, re-grouting her bathroom or watching wrestling. It was unexpectedly pleasant - and the tiniest bit thrilling, if Sharon was brutally honest with herself - to have someone, particularly another career-driven woman who was relatively close to her own age, want to spend time with her simply because she enjoyed the captain's company.

It wasn't that Sharon was some sad, friendless hermit, but her whole world had gradually shrunk over the last eleven months. Old friends felt the need to have deep, penetrating conversations about all the feelings they thought Sharon should be feeling "under the circumstances" (as if any of them knew a damn thing about her circumstances); and even if work had left her the time to seek out new acquaintances, she couldn't summon the energy. Dating was out of the question.

And then there was Brenda Leigh Johnson, arguing with her over a chocolate bar.

The more she thought about it, the more sense it made for the two of them to be friends. On paper, at least, they had a great deal in common, and the strong animosity they'd initially felt for one another was itself a connection.

Sharon sipped from the travel mug she'd brought with her and surreptitiously surveyed her companion. She didn't think Brenda had changed her mind about having her along. It was more like she'd changed her mind about the entire outing.

As the blonde circled the parking lot, stalking a parking space, the captain briefly considered giving her an out. She could turn to her and say, "Brenda, are you sure you want to do this today? We can reschedule." It was the same impulse of sympathy that had occasionally made her want to say something like, "You know, Vivvy, you don't have to practice your violin if you really don't want to," and she did the same thing now that she'd done then: she ignored it. Vivien had needed the discipline of learning to play the violin; Brenda Leigh needed a new sofa.

The car was barely in park when Sharon sprang out onto the asphalt. "Come on," she said briskly. "Time's a-wasting."

Brenda pulled herself from the car as if she were already on the verge of collapse. Sharon knew the feeling. When the younger woman was fully upright, with her enormous purse slung over her shoulder and the car locked, they set out across the parking lot, and Brenda's gaze finally landed on Sharon's shiny green mug. "Oh, no," she gasped, an expression of dismay pinching her features, "I forgot your coffee!"

Sharon just smiled. "No worries, Brenda Leigh," she responded breezily. "I have some."

Brenda sulked, her generous lips pulling into a full-on pout. "I forgot mine too. I was gonna stop and get us some on the way to your house but..." She sighed. "I forgot."

"If you had done that, you'd have been even more late than you already were." Sharon pressed her mug into Brenda's hand, certain that something had happened during the time after Brenda left her own house and before she arrived at Sharon's. "Drink," she ordered. "I think you need the caffeine more than I do."

The blonde smiled gratefully and appreciated the warmth of the mug's contents radiating through her palm. She stared at the mouthpiece that had only just touched the other woman's lips and felt an inexplicable blush creep over her cheeks. They'd shared a slice of cake together, an act of such intimacy that Brenda never indulged in it with other people (not even Fritz, who had known better than to assume he was entitled to half of her sweets). It wasn't that she didn't like to share (which, truth be told, she didn't); for Brenda, sharing was an intimate gesture. It meant surrendering any sense of ownership, allowing someone access to something that didn't belong to them, and enjoying something so much that the only way it could be fully appreciated was to allow someone else to experience it as well.

And yet, for the second time, Sharon had invited her to share, had invited her into her own personal sphere. Perhaps it was this that solidified the reality of their friendship in Brenda's mind. Sharon was comfortable with her, and the force of that realization assuaged a little of the self-doubt that had been plaguing her all morning. She took a long sip before handing the mug back over, undeniably thankful for the slight burn in her throat.

"Thanks, Sharon," Brenda said.

Sharon nodded and directed Brenda inside the store, following closely behind in case Brenda considered making a run for it. The younger woman allowed herself to be guided, brown eyes darting madly between sofas and armchairs of every possible color combination. Sharon nearly laughed at the expression of overwhelmed concern on Brenda's face. "Come on. Let's start over here."

They walked for several minutes, pausing only for Brenda to rub her hand along a suede loveseat and, a moment later, yell "Extortion!" at an overpriced reclining armchair. Sharon observed Brenda the way she had observed her children when released into the wilds of Toys-R-Us. In Sharon's opinion, a great deal could be said about a person based on what they were immediately drawn to on a shopping excursion. Her son had always gone straight for the books, whereas her daughter had tended to drift between the soccer balls and motorized airplanes.

Brenda, on the other hand, seemed completely out of her element. Her shoulders were noticeably drooped and her right hand, which clutched at the strap of her purse where it rested on her shoulder, was tightened into a fist. Sharon pursed her lips. How was she supposed to prove her superior shopping skills if Brenda had checked out before they even began?

"This is nice," the blonde said, coming around the side of a hideous floral-patterned sofa to sit on its bulging cushion.

"No," Sharon declared. "Absolutely not."

Brenda slumped down into the cushions. "Why not?"

"Because it's ugly, Brenda Leigh. You can do better than that. I know you have it in you."

"What if I don't?" the younger woman said with a sigh, tracing one of the fluorescent green leaves.

Sharon inhaled deeply and planted her hands on her hips, giving Brenda her most imperious Captain Raydor glare. "What happened at Agent Howard's, Brenda?"

Brenda sat in silence for several moments before finally admitting: "There was a toothbrush."

Sharon furrowed her brow and sat down beside her. "A toothbrush," she repeated. "I would hope that Fritz would have a toothbrush..."

"It wasn't his," Brenda mournfully confessed. "He takes his toothbrush with him when he travels. There shouldn't have been anythin' in the cup but there was. And his toothbrush is always, always green and this one was orange. Orange!"

"Oh." It was not a surprised 'oh,' nor an empathetic 'oh'; not even a curious 'oh.' It was just an 'oh.'

"He's seein' somebody," Brenda burst out, half hoping Sharon would argue with her just so she could lay out the irrefutable evidence once again.

"And this is something you haven't discussed," the dark-haired woman instead continued, treading carefully.

Brenda scowled. "The divorce isn't even final yet! Don't you think it's just a little soon to be havin' co-ed slumber parties?"

With effort, Sharon refrained from asking Brenda if she'd be more comfortable if she thought Agent Howard's new partner was a man. "I suppose that depends on the circumstances," she replied as neutrally as she possibly could.

The blonde sniffled, and Sharon felt her spine stiffen. She'd rather be filling out reports in triplicate than spending her Saturday with a soggy near-divorcee. Public displays of emotion made her uncomfortable; she was pretty sure it was genetic (although Danny hadn't inherited the gene).

"What kinda person gets involved with somebody whose wife left him five minutes ago?" Brenda groused, her lip trembling alarmingly. "And before you say it, no, he was not havin' an affair with her. I'm the one who decided to end things. Well, I mean, it was mutual, but I'm the one who brought it up. If I hadn't, everything'd probably still be just like it was."

Sharon paused to contemplate that degree of passivity in a spouse - at least she and Paul had had a few blazing, blow-the-doors-off rows - and then her lip curled in distaste. Until today Brenda Leigh had seemed remarkably free of baggage, and now she was a snivelling mess. This turn of events suggested that the deputy chief was one of those people who just wanted whatever she didn't have - not one of Sharon's preferred character traits.

Even in her own mind the captain thought that sounded harsh. Maybe the unexpected sight of the incriminating toothbrush had just been the jolt Brenda needed to show her what she really wanted, and it was neither a new sofa nor a new girlfriend.

The thought filled Sharon with an ineffable disappointment that channeled itself into irritation. Hot, cold, yes, no: why couldn't people just make up their minds and stick to their decisions? And why did the vast majority of them seem to think you had to be paired up like an animal on the ark for your life to be worth a damn? Sharon was just fine being single, thank you. Was it really too much to ask to have one rational, reasonable, adult female friend who felt the same way? Here Sharon was giving up both her time and her caffeinated beverage to help Brenda - being a good friend, in short - but that counted for nothing in the face of the Great Orange Toothbrush Caper.

Maybe, she reflected, the sex had just been that good. But if Brenda Leigh was to be believed and Agent Howard was really that passive, Sharon found that possibility hard to credit.

"Well, like you said," Sharon put in abruptly, "the ink on the decree is still wet. I'm sure you can probably get your toothbrush back into Agent Howard's cup, so to speak, if that's what you really want." With that she stood, readjusting the shoulder strap of her own, much more modestly-sized handbag.

Brenda blinked up in glassy-eyed confusion. "Who said anythin' about gettin' back together with Fritz?"

"Isn't that why you're upset?"

"Good Lord...no!"

Sharon pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm afraid you're going to have to spell this one out for me, Brenda."

"Because!" Brenda wailed petulantly, channelling her inner seven-year-old. "Look...if Fritz is gonna date people, that's his business."

"Why, then, were you snooping in his bathroom?"

"I wasn't snoopin'!" Brenda snipped defensively. "I had to pee and when I was washin' my hands, I saw it. It's not like I was lookin' for things. I wasn't pokin' around with a magnifying glass."

"Weren't you?" Sharon countered, finding it difficult to believe that Brenda Leigh Johnson had managed to tame her penchant for sticking her nose in where it didn't belong.

"No! I don't care if Fritz is seein' someone. I mean, the least he could do was wait till the divorce is final or till he moves back to D.C., but it's his own business." Brenda stared wide-eyed at the other woman, wishing that she could just invite Sharon into her brain to impart some order to her thoughts. She knew she was babbling nonsensically. Even she didn't understand why she was being so illogical. As usual, it had only taken one potentially tiny trigger, like the infamous toothbrush, to catapult her headfirst into a string of jumbled thoughts that had been lying dormant and neglected in the back of her mind. "I know this doesn't make any sense."

"No, I'm afraid it doesn't." Sharon looked at the woeful expression on Brenda's face and felt a stab of pity that caused the sting of irritation to ebb away. "You don't want to be with Fritz."

"No," Brenda repeated firmly.

"And you're not jealous of the possibility that he is seeing someone?"

"No. Well, yes. She's probably young and perky and...young." The blonde let out a huff of a breath. "I'm not gettin' any younger, Sharon. All I could think of was how I'm gonna be fifty and a divorcee twice over."

The older woman blinked and relaxed a little into the lumpy sofa, attempting to follow Brenda's convoluted thought process. A toothbrush had made her feel...old? She could have laughed if it weren't so ridiculous. However, she supposed that this was a more manageable alternative to Brenda being lovesick over her ex. Perhaps there was hope for Brenda yet. Sharon promptly stood and held out her hand. "Come on. I'd prefer to talk about the joys of ageing on a less abhorrent piece of furniture."

Brenda rolled her eyes and grasped Sharon's hand, squeezing slightly as she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She was surprised by how warm the other woman's skin was. "I don't see what's so bad about this one."

"No, Brenda. Just...no." Extracting her hand, Sharon then placed it on the small of Brenda's back and pointed her toward a row of more acceptable choices. As they headed along the aisle, Sharon sighed as if taking in the fresh air. "Don't you feel better already?"

"One day I'm gonna find out what florals ever did to offend you so badly," Brenda threatened.

"Not before I find out why you had a meltdown over a toothbrush."

"It's not the toothbrush. It really isn't. I just stood there lookin' at it like a fool and thinkin' about what my life had become, y'know? I've worked so hard for so long just to end up right back where I started."

"Right back where you started? As a highly intelligent, well-respected member of the law enforcement community - as, in fact, the highest-ranking female member of any major urban police department in the country. Yeah, now I completely see why you're so despondent."

Brenda stopped abruptly. "In the country? Really?"

Sharon nodded.

"Are you sure?"

"It's my job to be sure."

Brenda contemplated this for a second, but refused to be distracted from her pity party. "But that isn't what I mean. The longest relationship I've ever been in just ended, and I'm not even sure why I couldn't make it work. I'm just this pathetic single woman who can barely boil water. I don't have any children. I can barely keep a cactus alive. All my possessions are in cardboard boxes. I have a futon in my living room."

Sharon spun around with her hands on her hips, genuinely annoyed. "Listen to you. Brenda, have you ever had a burning desire to be a mother?"

The younger woman paled and shook her head adamantly.

"And cooking? You yearn to learn to cook?"

Another shake of the head, slightly less adamant.

"Well then, who the hell cares? You're far too intelligent to measure yourself against those standards, and if that's what you want to spend your Saturday doing, go right ahead, but I'm leaving."

She actually took a step, and Brenda lunged out and grabbed her wrist. "Wait, wait. I guess I'm just feelin' a little sorry for myself."

The captain pursed her lips. "Oh, I hadn't noticed."

"Don't be mad. I don't think I could stand it if you got mad at me right now," the blonde wheedled. "I'm just feelin'... vulnerable. It seems so easy for most people, like Fritz, to pick up all the pieces and do the thing with the couple and the family and the nice house with the nice car. I feel like such a mess in comparison. What if I can't do better?"

"What's 'better'?" Sharon retorted, raising her eyebrows. "Is there some objective standard, a yardstick? If there is, I'd like to know about it so I can find out how I measure up after fifty-four years on this planet."

Brenda folded her arms. "You make it sound ridiculous when you say it like that. You make me sound ridiculous."

"Not you; just this conversation. Where's the woman who was so happy to be relaxed and free, to have her own space and be able to come and go as she pleases and eat take-out every night if she wants to?"

The smaller woman released a heavy sigh. "That woman realized her 'own space' is kind of a shit-hole."

The brunette snorted out a laugh. "No, it's a work in progress, as someone told me. So let's make some progress." Sharon airily waved a hand between them. "Look, I don't have any eligible bachelors on speed dial to offer you, but I can teach you the basics of cooking and cactus-care, and you can borrow my son if you really want him. And if you start that bullshit about being 'old' again, I will let you buy one of those ugly-ass floral sofas."

"But then you won't be my friend..."

"No, I won't," Sharon retorted. "I have some standards."

Brenda grinned, feeling a little of the anxiety ease from her shoulders. She'd been silly to get so bent out of shape about all of this, and she'd been even more foolish to think she could hide her melancholy mood from the only woman who had, in such a short span of time, proven to be a better friend than she'd had in decades. Now that she'd heard Sharon's blunt point of view on the matter, she realized all she'd really needed was a swift kick in the backside. It wasn't as painful as she'd expected.

"You'll feel better when you have a proper sofa," Sharon continued, admiring the sleek look of a black leather armchair. She ran the palm of her hand against the cool material.

Brenda scrunched her nose at the couch. "No leather. Fritzi's got a brown leather sofa...I don't want anythin' even remotely close to that. Plus it makes crunchy noises when you move on it. No brown at all."

"Good girl," Sharon praised with a smile, noticing with appreciation that the enthusiasm had returned to the other woman's chocolatey brown eyes.

"What about this one?" Brenda asked, skipping ahead to sit on a beige loveseat with entirely too-thin cushions.

"I thought you said 'no brown'?"

"This isn't brown. It's beige."

"Which is a lighter tone of brown."

"Well what's wrong with it? I thought since it's neutral it'll match all sorts of other things..."

"No. No beige. Absolutely not."

Brenda got to her feet. "What did beige ever do to you?"

"It existed," Sharon quipped back.

Brenda dragged her feet along the aisle, heading for a section of black sofas. "Maybe we should go to Sephora later. I'm gonna need to stock up on anti-wrinkle cream after this."

Sharon snorted. "I can only imagine the havoc you'd create in a makeup store."

"Hey! I'm good at makeup! Once I figured out the lipstick thing..."

"That must have been before I knew you."

"Yes, thankfully. I'm sure you'd have mocked me into next week..." She unceremoniously plopped onto a wide black couch, blinking up at Sharon.

"Black's not a smart idea, especially if you ever plan on getting another cat."

Brenda pursed her lips and stood back up. "Why don't you lead the way then, hmm?"

"I thought you'd never ask."

"Since when do you wait for someone to ask?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, was that the sound of you giving me carte blanche?"

"No!" Brenda exclaimed, drawing herself up to her full height "No, no. Lead on." As the words left her mouth, though, the blonde thought she might have been better off if she'd just left Sharon to her own devices - if only it wouldn't have been so personally humiliating to admit that she could break a hardened criminal in fifteen minutes, but the idea of shopping for a simple item of furniture reduced her to a quivering heap of nerves. Of course, she was pretty sure the captain had already figured that out, toothbrush-induced meltdown aside.

"All right, then, let's approach this differently. When you look at the sofas, try not to see the colors -"

("That's what my mama always taught me," Brenda murmured.)

"- and just focus on the form. Most of these can be covered in a variety of different colors and textures."

"Includin' flowers?" Brenda teased weakly, and Sharon ignored her.

"So have a look around, thinking about size and shape. I'll follow you."

Having Sharon Raydor follow her around a furniture store was slightly less intimidating than having the woman follow her around a crime scene, since at least she didn't have her little notebook with her. At first Brenda felt sure that Sharon had set her an impossible task, but after a few minutes she realized the other woman's advice had made this easier. She was wary of trusting her instincts when it came to color and pattern, but she immediately knew that the ultra-modern designs were too, well, modern; the model with the spindly legs looked like it wouldn't hold a pudgy kitty, much less an actual human; the sectionals were far too big; and anything without arms lost by default. She was left with a manageable pool of options, and she and Sharon walked around, trying them out.

"I feel like I'm in 'The Princess and the Pea,'" Brenda joked, giving a slight, cautious bounce as she sat down on a sturdy sharp-cornered couch.

"Goldilocks," Sharon retorted, settling herself on the other end of the display model. "You look the part. What do you think?"

"Hmm." The deputy chief shifted back and forth. "These cushions at the back could be a little fluffier, couldn't they?"

"Agreed." The brunette stood up quickly. "Next?"

Brenda squinted and pivoted slowly, looking around the showroom with the same eagle-eyed focus she turned on crime scenes. "That one," she decided, pointing (which her mama had told her not to do). Sharon followed the line of her finger toward a vintage-inspired sofa with a gently curving back and art nouveau curves in place of the boxy angles of her previous choice, and her warm smile made Brenda feel like she'd just gotten a gold star from one of her elementary school teachers.

"Ooh, it's all velvety," Brenda cooed, stroking one of the cushions, and then whipped her head around to look at Sharon. "Is that bad?"

The captain chuckled. "Not if you like it."

Brenda had liked the floral prints too, but Sharon wasn't immediately putting the kibosh on this one, so the blonde felt marginally more confident. She flopped down right in the middle of the center cushion and leaned back. "Oo-ooh, it's nice," she enthused in the same birdlike coo. She patted the place beside her. "Come sit."

Sharon sat down with more grace, her knee brushing Brenda's, and nodded with cautious approval.

"It's not too squishy," Brenda said, smiling happily, tiptoeing around the first flushes of infatuation with the sofa that might come to be her very own, aware that she needed to stay in the getting-to-know-you phase for a little while before she allowed herself to fall head-over-heels. "But it's not too firm, either. What do you think?" She looked hopefully at her companion, as if she were bringing a new boyfriend home to meet the family. "It's the right size, isn't it?"

Sharon nodded noncommittally, leaning over to consult the price tag on the booklet of fabric swatches hanging from the arm on her end of the sofa. Brenda Leigh sucked her lower lip into her mouth.

"How much?" she asked fearfully.

The older woman smirked, turning the laminated square of paper to show her. "I think it's reasonable," she said, "and you make a lot more money than I do."

Brenda squinted, trying to make out the tiny numbers on the bottom of the display sheet. Not wanting to dig her glasses out of the bottom of her purse, she leaned over Sharon's denim-clad lap until the blurred figures came into focus. "Oh, that's not as bad as I thought it would be."

Sharon leaned back into the cushion, trying to seek a little space from the woman whose breasts were now pressing into her thighs. She rolled her eyes at Brenda's disregard for her personal space. "I told you," Sharon replied. When the other woman didn't immediately move, she added, "Will you get off me, Brenda?"

"Oh," Brenda said sheepishly, sitting upright. "I was readin' about the delivery options. Sorry."

"Delivery options? You've made your decision?"

"Yes," Brenda said dreamily, burrowing herself back into velvety softness of the sofa. "This is the one."

Sharon smirked, watching the woman close her eyes and nestle in as if she were a kitten. "Why Brenda Leigh, back in the saddle so soon?"

"Mmm...nope. I'm off the market now for good."

"You're mixing metaphors."

"So? This is true love...and love don't care if you mix your metaphors."

Sharon chuckled, finding Brenda's bubbly enthusiasm infectious. A slow grin crept over her face and she settled back, allowing herself to consider the possibility of future movie nights on this couch. She closed her eyes and reveled in the fact that yes, she had succeeded, and yes, she would be perfectly content on this particular piece of furniture.

"May I help you, ladies?" came a chipper, high-pitched voice. Brenda jolted, snapping open her eyes to see the perky blonde salesgirl standing, hands clasped, in front of them. She squinted to read the name embossed on the name tag: Amber.

Sharon politely acknowledged the young woman, who looked far too young to be legally working in retail. "I think we've found a keeper."

"You've made an excellent choice," Amber said, her high ponytail bouncing as she collected a small brochure for the specific line of furniture and handed it to Sharon, who passed it to Brenda. "Chenille is a very comfortable, durable fabric. This sofa comes with a one-year warranty and a three-day guaranteed delivery. Also, you'll notice on the second page of your pamphlet that the matching armchair comes at a discounted price if you buy them together."

Brenda pursed her lips. "Is there even room for a matchin' armchair?"

"It would be a tight fit but I think you could manage it," Sharon conceded. "Do you want an armchair?"

"I dunno. I hadn't thought about it. I was too preoccupied by the whole couch affair." Though her apartment was small, it was not her intent never to have company, and she couldn't quite imagine everyone squished together on one couch. "All right, why not?"

"Great!" Amber beamed. "Have you thought of a color?"

Brenda and Sharon exchanged a glance. Brenda looked at the color swatches and, bypassing the black, gray, and beige, was left with only red and olive green. "...Red?"

"Oooh, very daring!" Amber excitedly added, and Sharon rolled her eyes.

"Yeah?" Brenda looked to Sharon for confirmation. "What do you think? Is that too crazy?"

"It's very...you. Nothing says 'screw you, midlife crisis' like a bright red sofa," Sharon said with a smirk.

"I am not havin' a midlife crisis. It was a...moment. A fluke," Brenda retorted, her cheeks flushed. She turned to the salesgirl. "I'll take it."

"I think you two will be very happy with it." Amber's smile widened. "Can I just say that I think it's great that your partner is so supportive of your decorative choices? My mom was never this accommodating with her wife when they were married."

It took a few seconds for Brenda's brain to stutter into action - not because she'd just fallen off the turnip truck, or because she thought women being married to other women was a thing, but because the idea that anyone would just go and assume she was married to the likes of Sharon Raydor was just so utterly...

So utterly... what, exactly? Avoiding Amber's delighted smile (her parents must have spent a fortune on dental work), she risked making eye contact with the captain, as if seeking clarification of her own response. She immediately wished she hadn't looked, because Sharon was sporting her full-on Raydor glare, the one she wore when Brenda crossed her red and black crime-scene tape or ignored her seventy-hour reporting cycle.

No, the deputy chief realized, this expression was even more lethal than that. Sharon looked as if Amber had just convinced Brenda Leigh to buy a whole suite of that floral-print furniture.

For her part, the blonde felt herself doing a slow burn, her cheeks surely the same fetching crimson as the sofa that would soon have pride of place in her living room. "Divorced!" she blurted incongruously. "I'm... divorced."

Sharon rolled her eyes ceilingward, evidently not appeased by her friend's confession.

Amber blinked, utterly oblivious to her mistake. "Oh, then that makes it even nicer that you still get along so well! Will that be cash or credit?"