The sight of Sandra shrugging on her coat and tugging at the collar changed Gerry's mind about going straight home and forgetting this place existed for a while. She didn't look lonely, exactly -- not that he'd ever say so if she did -- but she looked like maybe she could use some company. And he had originally intended to celebrate the end of the audit, anyway, before the new deadline and the trouble over the time cards and the unsettling realization that he owed Brian a favor now, so why not try to go with some variation on his original plans, even if the rest of the team was clearly uninterested. "Sandra."
The look she gave him told him he was still advised to tread carefully. "Got any other screw-ups to confess?"
"You wound me, Sandra, you really do."
She rolled her eyes, but her voice softened. "What do you want?"
"To invite you to dinner, if I haven't already exhausted all the patience you might have had with me."
She snorted. "I've let you live this long, what makes you think I'd lose patience now?" A dry look. "Is this some pathetic attempt to get back into my good graces?"
"Well, your collective good graces. The invite was supposed to be for everyone, but since Jack looks like he's about to drop and Brian is even less fit for human company than usual..." A little smile flickered across her face at that. "So what do you say? Just the two of us. Nothing implied in that, of course," he added after a moment's pause.
She gave him a thoughtful look before breaking into a grin. "Yeah, all right. Why not? And don't worry," she added as she grabbed her purse, "I'd never accuse you of implying anything."
He gave an appreciative laugh. "Don't think I'm quite that tasteless?"
"I don't think you're quite that subtle."
"Turn left just up here," Sandra said, pointing. "No, directly in front of you, not the intersection."
Gerry turned the car to follow her instruction, edging into a side street he hadn't even noticed. "Should have let you drive."
"Which I suggested before we left," she returned mildly.
Gerry didn't say anything. She had offered, of course, once they'd both realized it would be simpler to take one car and either return to the station after dinner or just have one of them pick the other up on the way to work in the morning. (And given the trouble Gerry had had finding the place, it had proven to be a sound plan.) If he did say something, she'd no doubt turn it into some joke about the fragile male ego not being able to handle letting a woman drive, despite knowing that he meant no such thing. Instead, he focused on the little building she'd just directed him to, and the sign that simply said, "Fine Japanese dining." "Another of your hidden haunts?"
"I can't give all my secrets away at once, can I?" she said with a smile as she stepped out of the car.
"I should hope not. The restaurants are half the reason we put up with you." It was a rule of life in UCOS now: If it involves food, always trust Sandra's recommendation. Gerry had long ago lost count of the little places she'd dragged the three of them to and the orders she'd made on their behalf. Barring the aftermath of the Indian food -- which had still almost been worth it -- she hadn't led them wrong yet.
She laughed. "Really? Only half?"
"Well, the fact that you're also much more attractive than any other commanding officer I've had counts for a lot."
"Now that's damning with faint praise."
This restaurant was definitely one of Sandra's little places: well lit and decorated, small and busy but not crowded, and with a tiny Japanese woman at the door who brightened the moment they entered. "Sandra! Haven't seen you in ages. And you brought one of your boys, I see."
Gerry gave Sandra a sidelong glance as they sat down. "You're developing a reputation."
"As a madwoman with questionable tastes, it seems," she agreed, sounding not at all put out. "I suppose if I'm going to be infamous for the company I keep, I could certainly do worse than you lot."
He feigned shock. "What, including me?"
"I hate to break it to you, Gerry, but I've faced much worse." A snort. "Hell, I've dated much worse."
This comment raised a sudden feeling of indignation in Gerry. It was a galling thought, the idea of someone he held so dear going out with someone who didn't deserve her. "It's always the way," he scolded. "It's always the smart ones who have crap taste in men."
Sandra raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah? And what about your ex-wives?"
"Brilliant, all three of them," Gerry returned, undaunted. He snapped open his menu, pretending not to see her smirk. "I'm being serious. You should know better than to waste your time on the ones who don't know what you're worth."
The smirk softened, turned into something sweeter. "I'll keep that in mind."
"See that you do," he mumbled, out of the feeling that he should say something, and tried to ignore her quickly-smothered snicker. "So you're the expert on all this foreign food. What do you recommend?"
A grin. It was obvious that she'd been waiting for an opening. As usual, her recommendation was a little bit of everything, and the bulk of it things Gerry couldn't even pronounce. It had been an unexpected but pleasant bit of common ground to find when he met her; in his normal circles someone who understood and shared his passion for food as an art form was a rare find. And to add in the refreshing rarity of a woman who didn't feel the need to feign dainty reserve during a meal, well, it was just another thing that set her a cut above most of the women Gerry had known. Even if she did have bizarre taste. "Octopus? Honestly?"
"Trust me on this one," she reassured. "I wouldn't steer you wrong. It's not as if I'm going to try talking you into anything raw."
"Raw I might be willing to try after a few pints. It's things with more legs than they need that I don't trust."
"And here I thought you had a sense of adventure."
"There's having a sense of adventure, and then there's having no sense of self-preservation."
"Oh, come on! It's seafood, not a biological weapon!"
He gave her a dry look. "And if it was classified as both, you'd still try it at least once."
A speculative expression. "Probably. But trust me on this one, all the same."
It was the one thing he drew the line on, in the end, but by the time he sampled everything else she'd talked him into trying he almost reconsidered. "You see?" he said, his mouth full. "This is what I was talking about. There may be someone out there who could manage UCOS better than you do, but nobody's ever going to beat you for after-hours expertise."
"And that's all it takes to buy your loyalty, is it? Sake and gyoza?"
"And someone who knows how to appreciate them, that's the important part. I'm not that easy to get rid of."
"Don't I know it."
Gerry gave her his best, most charming smile, the one he knew she was completely immune to. "As if you'd really want to. How empty would your life be without me there to piss you off?"
Sandra looked as if she were thinking seriously about that. "You do have a singular talent for it," she admitted. "I imagine the day I'm not pissed of at you for something it's going to be because one of us is dead. And even then I'm sure you'd manage to screw it up."
"Remind me not to let you plan the memorial."
She gave a little bark of laughter. "Wouldn't that be a sight. 'In memory of Gerry Standing: Beloved ex-husband, devoted father, complete idiot.'"
He made a token sound of indignation, and the wicked little grin she gave him in return left him enchanted. It was a smile he'd seen a thousand times before in the office, usually peering over the rim of a coffee cup rather than over a mass of tentacles hanging from a pair of chopsticks -- as he'd observed earlier, her taste in food was excellent but that made it no less bizarre sometimes. It was the little look that always followed the sharpest of her barbs and said, "You know I don't mean a word of it." As often as she teased Jack and Brian, he'd never seen her turn that look on either of them. She was hardly ever as cutting with them as she was with him, granted, and he suspected that it was usually meant to take some of the sting out of the insults from the other two as well -- not that he minded being the one they all ganged up on, because who else in that crowd made such an easy and willing target? -- but that smile was still something he'd grown fond of for both its meaning and its exclusivity.
And it struck him that here, away from the others, it not only meant "I don't mean it," but also "I still like you, even when it's just you and me." And that was something he knew better than to take lightly.
He scoffed and returned to their little game. "You'd never even mention my family," he said.
Sandra's brow furrowed. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Because I know you. If you were in charge of remembering me, all I'd get would be a plaque that said, 'Gerry Standing, bloody good copper,' and you'd consider that all that needed saying."
She opened her mouth, looking like she wanted to argue, and found herself unable to. "Well, it would sum up the most important points, wouldn't it?" she finally managed.
"From your point of view, certainly," Gerry agreed. It would also be the highest compliment he could ask for; anyone can get someone to say he was a good man once he's dead, but getting Sandra Pullman to say he was a good copper would be a coup for anyone. He took a bite of shrimp to cover his suddenly pleased expression. "Workaholic," he scolded gently.
"Layabout," she retorted, less gently but without malice. A little shrug. "Anyway, it would be true."
That caught him off guard; he paused in the act of reaching for his glass and sat back. It wasn't as if she'd never praised her boys for a job well done, but there was always context for it, always some specific bit of detective work that she wanted to call attention to. She wasn't in the habit of being quite so generally complimentary. "Well, now isn't that a thing to say."
"Oh, come off it," Sandra said, some of the playful note dropping out of her voice. "It can't surprise you that I think the world of your skills."
"No," Gerry admitted. The fact that she'd kept him on the team at all was proof enough, really. "I'm just surprised that you'd come out and say it like that. You start handing out compliments, you're going to make me paranoid." He gave her an overly wary look. "Do you know something I don't? You're not planning that memorial any time soon, are you?"
"Depends," she said. "Are you planning on giving me any more reasons than usual to want to kill you?"
He mimicked her thoughtful expression from earlier. "No, just the usual ones."
"Then as far as I know, you're safe." Her smile as he laughed was a genuine one, sweet and simple. "Look, if I say it too often you'll get complacent, but I do know the value of reminding my people why I picked them from time to time."
"Especially when we've done something really stupid?"
"For my sake as much as yours," she agreed. "To remind you of why you shouldn't screw up, and to remind me of why I should forgive you if you do occasionally." A pointed look. "Or more than occasionally, in some cases."
He pretended not to have noticed that last remark. "Yeah? And should we be doing the same for you? Taking the time to point out that all three of us would be gone in a heartbeat if they tried to replace you? Reminding you that you're worth ten of Strickland and his stuffed shirts?"
"Oh, you hardly have to do that," she assured him, eyes wide and guileless. "I already know it."
Gerry snorted. "Yeah, and you make damn sure that everyone else does, too." Privately, he was of the opinion that anyone who needed to be told that Sandra was a force to be reckoned with had no business serving on the police force, but he knew better than to encourage her.
"Exactly," she said smoothly. "And it makes my life easier when the rest of you remember it."
He shook his head in amusement, taking in her bright smile and the cool, casual way she leaned over the table. Even in a completely relaxed state she carried herself with a kind of confidence and intelligence that few people he knew could match. "I can't imagine how anyone could ever forget."
A bit of rain had kicked up as they left the restaurant, just enough to make Gerry drive a little slower than he normally would. He opted to count that as a bonus; he was not about to complain about a little extra time with Sandra when both of them were in such a pleasant mood. "Should I take you straight home, then? Save you a trip?"
"If you don't mind picking me up tomorrow, yeah."
"We'll make a road trip of it."
Sandra chuckled. "What, swing by the office for coffee and then dash off to somewhere more interesting?"
"You can't tell me you wouldn't love it." Gerry paused, and then gave her a sideways look. "Or, knowing you, maybe you can."
"Just because I enjoy my job..." Sandra started to protest.
"No, I enjoy my job," he corrected, "paperwork notwithstanding. You have an obsession. And you're not going to like hearing this, but I do worry about that sometimes. We all do."
"Oh, for God's sake!"
It was the response Gerry had expected, sharp and impatient and coupled with a look of disgust. "Complain all you want, it won't change anything. You're devoted to your job and you love what you do, and I respect that, but there's such a thing as taking it too far. Trust me, I was married to the job for years, and to three wonderful women who didn't appreciate coming in second place."
She snorted. "The job, really? That was the reason your marriages didn't work?"
"It was a reason," he countered. "The fact that I'm insufferable was the bulk of it, I'm sure, but the job didn't help." He softened, shaking his head at her. "God knows I'm not trying to tell you to find a nice man and settle down and give up your career --"
"Damn well better not be."
"I'm just saying, consider where you are and if it's the only place you want to be. And if it's not, then you deserve more."
There was a moment of silence, and Gerry risked taking his eyes off the road long enough to check Sandra's expression. It was an odd sort of smile, pleased and thoughtful. "No wonder you're so uncertain about a direct compliment," she said. "You pick the most roundabout ways to say something kind." She touched his arm. "You don't need to worry about me. I'm as happy as I need to be. It's second place to becoming fabulously wealthy and buying my own tropical island, of course, but it's a close second. If you want to worry about my safety when we're working I suppose there's not much I can do about that, but as for the rest of me...I'm fine, really."
Gerry wasn't entirely sure if he believed her, but doubted the further arguing would get him anywhere. Besides, she certainly seemed happy enough most days, and especially at the moment. "Good," he finally said, and the drive continued in comfortable quiet.
It was practically a disappointment to finally pull up to her door and break the peaceable stillness that had settled over the both of them. "Right, then. Here you are."
Sandra seemed equally reluctant for the drive to end; she had settled so contentedly into her seat that Gerry had half expected her to fall asleep on the way. She forced herself to sit up and reached for the door handle. "Thanks for the ride."
"And thank you for the company." It was still drizzling unpleasantly, and whatever chivalrous nature Gerry had left compelled him to offer an umbrella. "Walk you to your door?"
It was the same look she'd given him when he made the original invitation, a pause and then a grin. "Yeah, all right, Why not?"
Gerry knew he was being silly, getting playfully overdramatic in response to her accusations that he worried too much about her, but since she was playing along he hardly felt the need to rein himself in. "Your humble servant," he said, coming around to the passenger side to hold the umbrella over her head.
"'Humble'?" Sandra repeated. "That'll be the day." But still she ducked in beside him, as grateful as if he were keeping a hurricane at bay rather than a few spatters of rain. He continued to stand over her as she dug for her keys and opened the door. "Thank you," she said again.
"It's my pleasure, really," he insisted.
"Not entirely yours," Sandra told him. The wicked little smile as she said it was the only warning he got before she caught him by the coat and kissed him.
It was as welcome as it was unexpected. Gerry couldn't honestly say he'd never thought about the possibility, but... A woman who should know better, and his commanding officer, for God's sake... "Have you gone completely mad?" he laughed.
Sandra hadn't let go of him, nor had she lost the smirk. He wasn't bothered by either. "You're the one who said I have crap taste in men," she pointed out in a low voice.
"I wasn't saying that was a good thing." All the same, he found his free hand creeping up towards her face, brushing back the ends of her hair and settling against her cheek. This was a beautiful and brilliant woman of whom he'd grown deeply fond, who knew him better than anyone had in a good while and still liked him, who was giving him a soft and inviting look that made his head spin, and all he could think was, Why not?
"You also said the problem was men who didn't know what I was worth," she said. "And I think you know my value as well as I know yours."
He was ready when she kissed him this time, cupping her face and silently cursing the difficulty of kissing someone properly while holding an umbrella. When she took a slight step back he let her pull him along, gently leading him forward into her living room.
By the time the door closed behind them, the umbrella was the last thing on his mind.