Title: Since You Went Away

Authors: i-must-go-first & UbiquitousMixie

Rating: PG-13 (Overall M)

Word Count: 3795

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: Apologies for the delay between chapters-Ms. I-Must-Go-First has been sickly, but we wanted to make sure we posted in time for the holiday. Here's a little Thanksgiving morsel to enjoy along with your turkey and pie. (Or, you know, your peanut butter and jelly.) Let us know what you think! Comments are love.

Chapter Seven: Annie, Get Your Gun

Brenda had known for months that this day would come but had been entirely unprepared for the reality of it. It had been nothing like she expected. There were no tears. There was no hostility. There were no wistful goodbyes. One minute she was Mrs. Fritz Howard, and the next she wasn't.

She'd gone home after she received the official decree, having no desire to deal with the pitying glances of her division. After closing the case on Rosalie MacGuire and arresting Big JJ, Monica Stern, and Officer Reyes, Major Crimes had little more to do than sift through Taylor's cold cases. She wasn't an emotional wreck as everyone had expected her to be, but she capitalized on the assumption anyway, invoking her right to take the afternoon off. She'd stopped by a bakery and bought herself a cake, followed by a hardware store to buy a gallon of paint and various painting accessories.

Brenda would celebrate and mourn her new-found freedom alone in her kitchen.

She set herself to her task with a single-minded focus, taping off the edges of her ceiling and cabinets and quickly cleaning and putting away the various things she'd left on her counters. It wasn't the neat, tidy work of a professional, but it suited her purposes well enough. A flutter of excitement over painting the boring tan walls of her kitchen a bright, cheery yellow replaced the hollow feeling in her stomach and she smiled, feeling as though she might make it through the day without succumbing to the prickling feelings of failure that nagged at the back of her mind.

Brenda tipped back the cover of the cake box, scooping a dollop of frosting off with her finger. She sucked off the creamy, sugary confection and thought, I've been married and divorced twice. I'm a horrible wife.

It was then, as she put the cake in the fridge, that she vowed never to get married again.

She set to mixing the paint, skirting a call from her mother. She felt a momentary surge of guilt, knowing her mama only wanted to make sure she was all right, but Brenda couldn't take the disappointed, sympathetic tone of her mother's voice; she felt bad enough without Willie Rae's unintentional assistance. Before she put away her phone, Brenda tapped out a brief text to Sharon: It's official. I'm a free woman.

Brenda took a deep breath and swept her hair back into a messy ponytail, deciding to stop feeling sorry for herself. So she'd been in two less-than-perfect marriages - she'd loved her husbands and she'd tried her best to make them work. Perhaps it was the idea that she couldn't be good at everything that gnawed at her. As much as she hated to admit it, Brenda Leigh couldn't win them all.

She rolled the first coat of paint onto the wall with gleaming satisfaction, watching the bland tan color slowly begin to disappear under the vibrant warmth of the yellow. As she stretched her arm and vigorously covered more and more of the tan, she conceded that Sharon had had a point: beige really was no good at all.

For the next two hours, Brenda channelled her energy and focus into painting her kitchen. She swore loudly whenever she touched the roller to the ceiling or a cabinet but found that the exercise was exactly what she needed to keep her thoughts at bay. She wouldn't have minded some company but decided that the alone time would do her good.

She was kneeling on the counter, using a paint brush to carefully touch up the edging, when there was a knock at the door. Brenda looked down at herself, at her paint-covered t-shirt and denim shorts, and glanced back at the front door. The knock sounded again. "Shoot," she muttered to herself, sliding off the counter. She set down the brush and hurried to her door, swiping away an unkempt lock of blonde hair from her cheek before opening the door.

"Sharon! What're you doin' here?"

The captain's green eyes darted over Brenda's form, taking in the splotches of paint on her arms, clothes, and cheek. She smirked. "I got your message earlier. When you didn't respond, I thought I'd better stop by when I got out of work to make sure you were okay."

"Oh! You wrote back?" She stepped aside, letting Sharon enter the apartment. "Sorry...I've been paintin' the kitchen. Guess I didn't hear it."

Sharon smiled at the sight of Brenda's new red sofa. "Painting, huh?"

Brenda shrugged. "After today, I needed a change."

Sharon reached out, the pad of her thumb wiping away the streak of yellow paint on Brenda's cheek. The younger woman automatically focused on the bright smear now marring Sharon's pristine skin, but the captain didn't appear fazed. "Let's see," she prodded, and Brenda obligingly led the way to the kitchen.

It didn't look too bad, Brenda thought, anxiously surveying the work-in-progress mess that she'd left. There was still a stray streak of yellow on the white ceiling, and the drop cloth had seen better days, but that was what drop cloths were for. She cast a sidelong glance at her friend, hoping for approval.

The smile that graced Sharon's face was genuinely warm. "It looks lovely, Brenda."

Brenda flushed with pleasure at the approbation. "I don't suppose you want to help me finish up? Although probably not while you're wearin' your nice clothes."

"I'll help," Sharon responded gamely. "But not tonight. We have somewhere to be. Now, do you want to go like that, or would you rather change first?"

"Go where?" Brenda demanded, a little dazed.

"That would be telling," Sharon retorted with a smirk. "Nowhere fancy. You're fine the way you are."

Brenda looked down doubtfully, quickly surveying her attire. Normally she'd insist on at least changing out of the paint-spattered t-shirt, but today wasn't a normal day. It was the first day of her official freedom as a newly single woman, and she decided that newly-single Brenda didn't care what anyone thought of her. Besides, she looked good in yellow.

"Okay," she said. "Let me get my purse."

She thought Sharon looked a bit surprised by her easy acquiescence, but the brunette knew better than to question her sudden good fortune.

After a series of twists and turns on an assortment of back roads (well, back roads by Los Angeles standards; not by rural Georgia standards) to avoid the jammed freeways, Sharon pulled into a parking space in front of a long, low, unassuming structure. As she extracted the key from the ignition and popped the door locks, Brenda looked over at her and raised her eyebrows. "You brought me to the firin' range?"

"It would appear so, wouldn't it?" Sharon grinned. "Come on."

Sharon had driven them to a public range Brenda had never visited before, not to the LAPD facility; and the young woman who checked their IDs greeted the captain as if they were acquainted. "Indoor or outdoor?" she asked, and Sharon tilted her chin, deferring to the smaller woman.

"Pick your poison, Brenda Leigh."

"Um." Brenda quickly licked her lips and looked around, surveying the facility. "Indoor's fine."

"It's quiet tonight," the young woman said, supplying them with protective eyewear, earplugs, and earmuffs. She indicated that the two women sign in and then pointed down the hall.

"It won't be for long," Sharon replied with a smirk. She nodded her thanks to the attendant and guided Brenda into the long corridor, passing a man who was shooting at, and missing, his target. She led Brenda to the last two stalls, furthest away from the room's only other occupant.

"Wanna tell me why we're at the shootin' range?" Brenda asked, setting down her headgear and purse. She reached into the black bag's depths and extracted her holstered weapon.

"When Paul and I divorced," Sharon began, extracting her glock from the holster around her waist, "I felt completely out of control of my life. So, I came here."

"Were you that angry?"

Sharon slung her hair over her shoulder. "I suppose I was, to an extent. I had two kids to raise and I was on my own. I needed to reaffirm my sense of self."

"So you decided to shoot somethin'?"

Sharon grinned again, an expression Brenda hadn't thought her face capable of wearing until a few months ago. "To hell and back." She nodded in the direction of the paper target. "Go on. Give it a try and tell me you don't feel better about your life."

Brenda nodded, not entirely sold on Sharon's coping mechanism. She wasn't angry at Fritz or at herself, but she trusted Sharon's intuition. She loaded her weapon, slid into her eye and ear protection, and clicked off the safety. She glanced at Sharon in the booth beside her before aiming her gun.

Sharon admired the younger woman's form, taking in the determined gaze in her deep brown eyes, the solid but not tense squaring of her arms and shoulders, and the steady stance of her legs. The shorts were somewhat shorter than Sharon had initially thought, showing off the defined muscle tone in Brenda's legs.

She hadn't realized she was staring until she heard the firing of the gun. Her gaze flicked to the target, which now had a hole through the place where its heart would have been, and back to the cocky blonde cradling her handgun. "There, now, captain," Brenda drawled after lifting the protective ear muffs, "that's how the real police do our shootin'."

Sharon's eyes narrowed. Brenda wanted to tease, did she? Paint her as a hapless desk jockey? "Is it?" she returned coolly. She signalled to the younger woman to drop her protective gear back into place, and when she had, Sharon squeezed off six shots in rapid succession, efficiently emptying the magazine of her gun. She then tilted her head, considering. If the human outline on the target had been a real, especially vicious criminal, his brain matter would now be somewhere in Nevada.

"Not bad," Brenda drawled when they had both again lifted the highly fashionable protective gear, and Sharon rolled her eyes. The woman could be insufferable when she chose. "But bein' able to shoot at a paper target hardly proves you can do the same in the field."

The brunette smirked condescendingly and flipped her hair back over her shoulder, lowering her gun to dangle by her thigh. "Face it, Brenda. I'm a better shot than you. It's hardly anything to be ashamed of: I was first in my academy class in marksmanship."

The blonde didn't appear convinced. "That's nice, capt'n. And when was the last time you actually discharged your weapon in a professional capacity?"

"It's been a while, since I spend most of my time investigating the officers who deem it necessary to go around blasting the crap out of animate and inanimate objects in order to prove their prowess," she responded equally snidely. On the surface this sounded exactly like the sort of exchange Captain Raydor and Deputy Chief Johnson might have had a year or two ago; the difference lay in the twinkle in Sharon's eyes and the amused grin that threatened to break over Brenda's features at any second.

"Again," the deputy chief decided, signalling to the range supervisor for new targets. Sharon shrugged, all cool nonchalance, and again flipped her implausibly perfect hair over her shoulder. It occurred to Brenda that, still wearing her stilettos and without so much as a crease in her designer suit, Sharon Raydor looked like an older, more interesting version of one of Charlie's Angels.

They both emptied the chambers of their guns. The captain's shots were undeniably cleaner. Brenda Leigh frowned. If Sharon had brought her here as a way for Brenda to vent whatever frustration she felt at the end of her second marriage, being out-gunned by the other woman was having precisely the opposite effect. "Switch with me," she decreed authoritatively, holding out her unloaded weapon, and Sharon had the nerve to flash her what Clay Johnson would've called a shit-eatin' grin as she complied.

"Yes, chief," Sharon taunted. "Whatever you say, chief."

This time one of the captain's shots went a little wide, but not wide enough to alter her conviction that she was a better shot than the deputy chief.

"Outside," Brenda decided tersely. "Shotguns." Her muscles had tightened a little and her pulse was thumping faster with irritation and adrenaline, and, truth be told, she couldn't deny that the sensation was not entirely unpleasant. Sharon was certainly taking her mind off any desire she might've had to shoot Agent Fritz Howard. The younger woman just wondered if the captain had intended to accomplish her goal by making Brenda want to shoot her instead.

Sharon's laugh rang out. "Shotguns? You wouldn't prefer a sub-machine gun? An uzi? A Kalash?"

"They got those?" Brenda retorted, re-holstering her handgun, and then exited her little booth and strode briskly down the hallway. Sharon's high heels clicked and clacked as she followed equally briskly behind.

They rented a pair of shotguns, the attendant giving an amused smile at the flushed faces of the two officers. The blonde inspected both of the guns, comparing their empty chambers, clean double barrels, and the tension in the triggers. Satisfied that they were of equal caliber, she flashed a grin at the captain. "Let's see how you do with a moving target."

Sharon nearly snorted. "Have you ever seen my handiwork with a shotgun, Brenda?"

"No, but I've heard all about it. Flynn keeps that beanbag on his desk, you know." She held the door open for Sharon, allowing her to pass.

Sharon chuckled. "Ah yes...the day I earned their respect. I remember it fondly."

"They like to exaggerate," the deputy chief quickly added, hoping to deflate a little of the captain's well-earned hubris. "I think I need to see for myself."

"Perhaps this wasn't the best of ideas."

"Why's that?" Brenda asked, observing as a man and a woman on the field shot at two clay pigeons that were released.

"What sort of friend am I to have brought you here only to bruise your ego?" The captain smirked teasingly.

Brenda raised an eyebrow. "That sounds like a challenge to me, Captain."

"So it is."

"You're gonna eat your words," Brenda replied haughtily, not entirely convinced of her own excellent qualifications. She was more than confident in her abilities, but she had learned her lesson about doubting Sharon's. "Best out of ten shots; loser buys dinner."

"Deal."

Clay had been taking Brenda Leigh and her brothers out to their uncle's farm in the country to shoot makeshift skeet since she was twelve years old. No way could some city-bred East Coast Yankee compete. She caressed the butt of the gun, learning its curves and contours, surveying the range - they all grew to look pretty much the same after a point - and finally looking over at her companion. She snickered quietly. Sharon was by far the most incongruous feature in this landscape. Brenda looked much more at home in her paint-splattered shorts and t-shirt.

Her gaze tracked up to the other woman's face and found green eyes studying her with condescending humor. "I know you're not judging the book by its cover." Sharon caught someone's eye and lifted one hand, and a male voice called out, "Okay, ladies, range goin' hot."

Through eight rounds, it looked as if all the boasting on both sides of the aisle was for naught: the two women were equally matched, pairs of clay discs shattering as regularly as if they were programmed to detonate. Brenda was focused utterly on the moving targets, on the way the gun felt in her hands and balanced against her shoulder, on the confident strength of her own body shifting to offset the recoil. Her mind cleared, her thoughts streamlining to the essentials. She was a strong, confident woman; she was Brenda Leigh Johnson - and she had a gun. She could deal with all of life's problems as easy as she was dealing with these silly little bits of clay, blast them to bits and send them scattering in the wind.

"I was first in marksmanship too," she said contentedly, dropping her shoulders for just a moment. "And my trainin' was considerably more recent than yours."

"Hah," Sharon scoffed, an explosive burst of sound from her soft mouth.

This interval was longer than the others had been. As she awaited her penultimate turn, Brenda lowered her weapon and looked over at Sharon again.

And her eyes widened. She looked away, and then looked again.

Gone was the business-suited FID captain. She had stripped the expensive jacket off and casually tossed it behind her, leaving her in dress pants and a flimsy little white camisole that exhibited the muscles of her upper arms, softer than Brenda's but still strong and well-defined. She'd yanked her hair back into a ponytail, but a few strands had escaped to curl around her ears and against her cheek. Her skin shimmered with perspiration. And her feet were bare.

Good grief. Instead of a desk jockey for the LAPD, she looked like a fitting companion for Indiana Jones, or better yet, like that character from those video games and that movie starring Angelina Jolie, the one about -

"Oh, shoot!" Brenda Leigh cried, dismayed, because she hadn't. Sharon's eyebrows arched as both women watched the skeet fall benignly to the ground.

Sharon's befuddled gaze cleared after a couple of seconds, and the most triumphant, maddening smirk Brenda had ever seen adorned her features. "Why, chief," she drawled, "did something distract you?"

Brenda narrowed her eyes. "Now that's just not fair," she whined, adamantly avoiding the way the camisole clung to the curves of Sharon's breasts (had she known that Sharon Raydor looked this good under all those expensive suits?). "You did that on purpose."

Sharon feigned innocence. "Did what, chief?" She hoisted her gun, preparing herself for her next shot, lest she miss it altogether as Brenda had.

Brenda scowled, watching the other woman poised and ready to best her. She stomped her foot, undeniably irritated that her concentration had been broken. "You must be feelin' pretty threatened," Brenda said, "to go to all that trouble to distract me. Whatsa matter, captain? Didn't think you could beat me fair and square?"

The brunette fired, nailing her skeet with practiced ease. She flashed Brenda a smug smile. "Oh I know I can beat you. It's too bad your attention was elsewhere."

The chief's glare could have melted ice. She readied herself for her final shot, obliterating the last clay disc. She met Sharon's gaze with a cocky smile. "Wasn't elsewhere that time. Looks like your ploy didn't work all that great."

Sharon shook her head, her ponytail brushing her back as she lifted her shotgun for her final round. She watched the sky, her stomach clenched in anxious readiness.

"I think maybe your son was right," Brenda continued, her voice carrying a teasing lilt. "Strippin' down like you did to catch my eye...maybe you do wanna date me after all."

Sharon's eyes widened as she fired her gun, cheeks reddening as her bullet narrowly missed her skeet. She turned to Brenda and drew her mouth into a thin line. "You play dirty, Brenda Leigh."

Brenda laughed, her smile contagious as she waved off the man who had been firing their skeet. "Thanks!" she called out before turning back to the other woman. "So do you. Would you have me any other way?"

Sharon brushed the dirt from her feet as she slipped back into her heels. "No, I suppose I wouldn't. It wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you didn't give as good as you got."

"Turnabout's fair play," Brenda added. "I gotta say though, I'm impressed." She watched as Sharon bent to retrieve her jacket, her eyes accidentally peering down the shadowy dip of her cleavage. "You've got skills, captain."

Sharon fell into step beside the deputy chief as they headed back toward the building. "High praise, coming from you."

"And? Has your opinion changed about me?" Brenda asked, blatantly fishing for the captain's complimentary assessment.

"You're not too shabby," Sharon replied. "I'll give you that."

"Not too shabby?!" Brenda scoffed. "I'm good and you know it."

Sharon held open the door. "Your ego's big enough without me feeding it." The blonde swept past the captain, setting her gun on the counter. When she looked back, Sharon had shrugged back into her blazer. "Let's agree that we're evenly matched and leave it at that, shall we?"

The blonde preened, proudly accepting the admission. As they paid for their rentals, Brenda silently brimmed with unspent adrenaline and immense satisfaction. She couldn't remember the last time she felt so overwhelmed by the raw, unbridled pleasure of her own skill. She felt, for the first time in far too long, completely capable. She felt infused with power, with righteous self-assurance. She was single and she would be just fine.

They wandered back into the parking lot and headed for Sharon's car. Swept up in giddy excitement, Brenda spontaneously threw her arms around the older woman and gave her a swift hug. "Thank you for this," she said, nearly laughing when Sharon's hands awkwardly patted her back. She pulled away, grinning widely. "You're a great friend."

Startled by the impromptu hug - their first - Sharon slipped her hands into her pockets. "I'm glad it helped."

"It sure did! C'mon...I'll buy us dinner."

"Of course, you know," Sharon said as she unlocked the car, "you're right. To settle this matter once and for all, a field test would be necessary."

Brenda quirked an eyebrow, grinning with amusement. "What do you suggest?"

The captain pursed her lips, all straightforward innocence. "Those ties Commander Taylor wears..."

The younger woman snorted out a laugh. "Like walkin' around with a big target strapped to his chest."

"They've gotta be good for something," Sharon agreed, sliding into the driver's seat.

Brenda Leigh grinned as she fastened her seatbelt. "It'd be too easy, though. No real test of skill at all, which is kinda too bad." She tilted her head, considering. "How do you feel about Mexican? I think I deserve a margarita."

Sharon smirked as she whipped the car out onto the road. "After today, you deserve two." There was a beat of silence. "Besides, it's not like I have to pay for them, since you can't out-shoot me."

Brenda huffed and gazed out the side window to hide her smile, glad not to be alone with her thoughts and her paint-roller.