Author note: Hello again, my loves – it's been too long, hasn't it? :)
There isn't much I can say about this story without ruining the premise, except from the following: It is exclusively Sandra-centric, and that I made the conscious decision very early on to leave out anyone but the core quartet in this. The 'quartet' in this instance features Jack rather than Steve, and is consequently set sometime before season nine – anywhere before that when Jack's illness-free. I love Steve, but this tale works far better without him.
Now read on, my friends, and enjoy/digest/immerse yourself in the delights of my bizarre mind...
Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
- William James
Sandra Pullman is, illogically, floating. It's stupid, preposterous, bizarre, impossible – human beings have never been capable of levitation.
… Well, until now, because she is most definitely hovering independently several feet from the ground. She's spared the joy, intrigue and potential panic of being biologically unique by the fact that her brain is almost entirely addled – the fact that she's floating means nothing, much as the facts that she's naked, completely alone and in a vast non-realm that's completely pitch black also don't matter – she's just there. Her reality causes her no alarm, no curiosity, no remote reaction at all – she's at peace. Her mind quickly decides that this situation is abnormal, and should most certainly bother her – somehow though, she couldn't care less. It's a strange scenario – to simply be is an alien concept to humanity. Even when one is relaxing, they're breathing, they're thinking, or trying not to think – Sandra's simply present. She's pretty sure she isn't respiring or contemplating anything – to be truly sure of that though, she'd have to concentrate on it, which seems far too much like hard work.
She lays back, still ludicrously in mid-air, and falls back to sleep – assuming she'd been to sleep in the first place. She neither knows nor cares – for once, the detective in her is completely satiated, and it's beautifully refreshing. She'll work it out later – if she can muster the relevant effort. If not, stuff it. Who cared?
When Sandra awakens, she's still deliciously murky and, disappointingly, back on the ground. Her mind is a soup of bewilderment, uncaring and idiocy, with a peppery twist of contentment – possibly rocket. She's a terrible chef, so maybe she's thinking of radicchio. Well, 'thinking' is a strong word – she's not thinking of anything. She's stitching a half-arsed conclusion together from blobs of feelings and scraps of knowledge that have no purpose. She's not really awake either, not in the traditional sense – she's conscious and sentient, but that's where the line of sense turns into an abstract worthy of a maestro. There's no concepts to this place – no colour, no words, no shapes, no beings, no sky or land or water, no temperature variants to chill or heat her pleasantly warm body, no trivial instances of someone forgetting to make someone else a cup of coffee – no idea of what a coffee even is. It should matter that nothing matters, but for whatever reason – because dreaming one up is still far too difficult – it just doesn't. It's just simplicity itself – something that her life, she assumes, probably isn't, or else she wouldn't be enjoying it so much.
If 'enjoyment' exists here. It doesn't seem like quite the right word, somehow.
The darkness of her surroundings and mind gently pull her back into unconsciousness, and she allows its welcoming embrace an easy victory – maybe when she comes to again, everything will make sense.
Or maybe it won't. It just doesn't matter a single damn jot.
When she returns to sentience once more, it's because there's a voice in the darkness; an indiscernible one, one whose words she doesn't understand, as though they're speaking in a particularly complex foreign tongue – it's indecipherable muttering at best, but some idiot is disturbing the comforting inkiness, and it's annoying her. This is her salvation, for Christ's sake, and will they shut their bloody mouth and have some respect? No! The complete bastard.
She knows, however, in much the same non-way as she knows she's awake, that the being beside her is friendly – she can't move, hasn't been able to since this reality presented itself to her, and whoever it is could quite comfortably take advantage of that – but they won't. They're still murmuring away, but they're safe, kind, loving – gentle, in a way that human beings so often aren't. It doesn't matter how much she strains her ears, concentrates with all her might – the person could be male, female, young, old or chatting away in colloquial Russian for all she can comprehend.
What she does know, however, is that they're making her think, and the images they're conjuring of jellied eels are frustratingly eluding her clarity, and they're still bloody going on...
She storms back to the darkness this time with the ferocity of a hurricane, cursing the person nearby and not once considering why she can't quite hear someone she's well aware is right beside her.
Someone's touching her. There's a hand on her arm, and the sensation is akin to a drizzle of rain falling upon her from a great distance; soft, tickling and barely there, but there enough to be questioned. She reflexively looks towards the heavens, and notes with surprise that directly above her is a raincloud that permeates the otherwise total blackness – a raincloud wearing spectacles, no less. Her mind is sufficiently clear now for that to warrant querying without it simply annoying her – rainclouds weren't generally seen in Specsavers, were they? Unless their eyesight never diminished, of course...
Because, naturally, they had eyes to begin with.
Her own exasperation does nothing to diminish her newfound thirst for knowledge – why is the first thing she's seen in what feels like forever a raincloud? Does that mean anything? Does anything mean anything here? What is here?
… Why the bloody hell is a raincloud experiencing astigmatism (because she's pretty sure those glasses are bifocals)?
Queries stalk her brain, on the cusp of comprehension but never quite reaching it – isn't it obvious why it has glasses, it's a representation! - and driving her crazy in the process. The effort of attempting to clear the cerebral fog drags her, screaming internally, back to the suddenly far less welcoming darkness.
Sandra's final thought for a while is that whatever's going on here, and whoever's masterminding it – they've picked the wrong bitch to mess with, and god help the lot of them when she gets hold of them.
Sandra waits for a moment to establish what she instinctively knows is the truth – someone, nearby, is crying. The sound rips through the fabric of the darkness like a knife through sodium, the strike shocking. Every tear is a waterfall, every droplet upon her forearm a ravine of heartbreak, and god, it hurts, unimaginably so – if she had possessed any doubt that she was awake in some capacity, it would vanish now, because this is too painful to dream.
"Can't do this," it whispers, as softly as a breath through a cloud, and it astonishes her that she can both understand it and be so deeply affected by it. "Not again..."
Can't do what again? The words make sense, but their meaning brings no associated acknowledgment aside from anguish – the speaker could still be anyone, but they must be close to her, if it's this awful to hear their tears.
"I'm alright", she longs to shout. "Can't keep a good woman down. If you knew me, properly, you'd know that."
She can't, however, say a damn thing, and suddenly, she wants to roar, to scream, to move, to show whoever's there that she won't be defeated, because she's Sandra Pullman, and it doesn't matter how hopeless and impossible the situation is, she'll emerge from it victorious. Anything will do; the curl of a toe, the twitch of a finger, the wrinkle of a nose, and the more she tries, the lighter her surroundings, and her body, become, until they're almost white -
It's all too much, she realises as her energy fails her – but she'll come back.
She'll come back and she'll come back stronger, because she's Sandra Pullman, and that's just what she does.
"Twenty-four hours, Guv."
What? Sandra craves. What's twenty-four hours? Can't be a day...
A sob catches the voice that she now recognizes as classic Cockney. She knows a Cockney, doesn't she? Or perhaps a Frenchman...
Bit of a difference love, her mind mocks darkly, but she entirely ignores it in favour of listening.
"Twenty-four hours, Sandra. That's your limit. You're physically alive, y'know – why can't you just wake up?!"
Clarity smashes through the Superintendent's wall of fog, the hammer blow leaving her rigid with horror as she emerges from the rubble.
She's comatose. It suddenly seems so obvious – it's why she can't move, can't speak, can't touch -
But he's right, this Cockney Francophone or whatever he is – she IS alive. She's hardly running at optimal cerebral capacity, but she can think, realise, acknowledge, FEEL, and she's damned if anyone's taking that away... because the alternative is incomprehensible. Surely her brain activity should be being monitored or something -
"Christ, I miss you," murmurs the same voice desperately, "you've got no idea, Sandra. You bustled into my life, all our lives, and they just... switched. I was another pointless retiree, and suddenly I'm Supercop – my existence 'ad a purpose again that wasn't just my daughters and my sex life. I was nailin' bastards again, doing what I've always felt I was born to do, forging friendships strong enough to last a lifetime, making a bleedin' DIFFERENCE – that's what you gave me, Guv. You're the link, the thing that brought us together and keeps us together when the rest of the Met 'as long since given up on us, and GOD, we love you – I love you. You do our bloody 'eads in, you're the most argumentative, stubborn, wonderful cow I've ever met, but bloody 'ell, Sandra – we need you. All of us. Any of us could leave, but you... you're our heart. Just come back to us, would you? Come back to me. I'd give my left arm to 'ear you tell me that I'm an idiot. Please, love..."
The whispered ramble fractures her very soul into shards, and she's not sure she's ever wanted to obey anyone more than she does right now – good lord this hurts, far more than any physical pain's she ever felt, and surely there should be a medical device that measures how broken her heart is, and if there isn't, there damn well should be -
I'm not sure I can come back...
It's an amendment on her previous vow to return, and it immediately feels wrong, as though the statement is the colour green attempting to encroach on the age-old partnership of black and white – but it's accurate. She can't see a way forward – she's paralysed, physically and vocally, and does she even WANT to go back to a world where that's a permanent reality?
A cold, shallow laugh causes goose-pimples to erupt up her imaginary flesh, seemingly finding her new uncertainty hilarious.
The voice continues, its message undeterred.
"Jack 'asn't got a clue what to do with 'imself – caught 'im in 'ere the other day cryin' his bleedin' eyes out, the poor sod, and Brian... well, you know what 'e's like at the best of times – 'e can't 'andle it either. I'm the lynchpin, and I'm bloody shit at it, Sandra – even Esther's gutted, she's so fond of you..."
So many names, so much surrounding confusion – they're unrecognisable, all these people, but somehow, somewhere buried beneath lock and key, for no apparent reason, they matter. She'd have to rely on luck to pick them all out of a customary sextet line-up, but on a plateau further down than recall, they're all there – as though they've all carved their names into her very being.
Is the curiosity worth the battle though, really?
"You know the worse bit, though?" Whispers the devastated man beside her. "That this isn't YOU, Sandra. This isn't the you I know, that we all know and respect – you've given up. My boss, my friend, would battle until the effort bloody well killed 'er, and you're not, and christ, that scares me, honestly, because I'm supposed to be some front of bleedin' courage and jesus, I can't fucking do it, you know – not when you're not even tryin'. I'm only soddin' human, and I don't ask you for so much as a lift 'ome, but I'm asking you this, love, pleadin' with you – just wake up. I'm not ready for the end of this crazy UCOS adventure, not sure I would be if I lived for the next century, and god only knows I'm not ready to lose you."
The heartfelt sentiments of the frantic man beside her imprint themselves on the fragments of her shattered heart, and as much as they burn her every nerve with sympathy, despair and agony, she is far more aware of the indignation that rises a tide within her.
… Not trying? Given up?
Sandra Pullman does NOT give up. She might have her doubts, her cynicism, but she doesn't back down. She hadn't backed down when her father's death had devastated her; she hadn't backed down when she'd been one of only three women in her Hendon class; she hadn't backed down when she'd been the only bird smack in the middle of CID, the subject of ten misogynistic jokes a minute on a slow day; she hadn't backed down when her marriage had failed miserably, nor when any other relationship she'd ever had had followed suit...
She'd risen above it, like a phoenix from the ashes of ballsiness, had stamped on the lot of them on her way to the top, never stopping until they all had to give her the respect she deserved, keeping the momentum until she'd well and truly stepped out of daddy's shadow. Every time her heart was smashed to pieces, every time she was the bloody cause of it, she fought on because nothing defeated her. No conundrum was too vexing, no suspect too big, heavy or dangerous, and every single time she'd gained control and succeeded against all odds, she'd left the morons gaping in her wake, because she was the best. She's always had to be, really; she's an emotional retard who's never been able to hold onto a bloke or a friendship for longer than five minutes, so only her fight has ever proven her strength.
This man, whoever he is, can do one – she's never quit yet, and she isn't about to bloody well start now!
A beam of light slices through her mental darkness, and she mentally winces at its luminosity even as she hesitates as the Cockney presses a gentle kiss to her forehead and whispers a tearful goodbye.
Oh hell no. You get BACK here, you bastard! You get back and you WORK IT OUT! Why the fuck do you think I hired you?!
No sooner has the mystery figure gone and she's questioned what her mind means by having 'hired' him that he's replaced; this time, by a gentle, equally devastated Northerner, who immediately brushes a tentative thumb over the back of her hand.
"'Ello," he murmurs, voice almost entirely broken. "I know I do your 'ead in, Sandra – I know I do everyone's 'ead in, actually, but we're friends, and I'm painfully lackin' those. You believed in me, boss, when no one else would look twice – you and Jack picked up that file, saw me sittin' opposite you and you took a gamble, and you've never known, could never know, how grateful I am that you did. Because of your judgment, I've 'ad eight of the best years of my life, kept my mind active, sent down countless murderers, rapists, drug barons – and I've found FRIENDS. Not people who mock me behind my back, couldn't actually give a shit, just want me to take the fall – actually genuine folk who'll tolerate my numerous faults and how bloody strange I am and like me anyway. You've saved me from myself, Sandra, from the alcohol and the boredom, and I love you for it, I really, really do. Not like I love Esther, obviously, but... you're the ringbinder to our filin' system, Guv'nor. We all just disappear into obscurity without you, and I -"
The Northern man falters, grips her hand tighter, and if she thought the Londoner's words had ached, it was nothing compared to this – his sheer gratitude and anguish struck her very core like Excalibur with its quiet force.
"I'm not 'aving this, y'know. Can't normally shut you the 'ell up."
Silence; just the unique ray of brilliance shines invitingly into Sandra's brain before a strangled chuckle rings from her companion. So much fear, familiarity, so many memories on the cusp of comprehension that it's driving her to distraction -
"You'd 'ave punched me for that. I'd give anything for you to smack me with a right 'ook – anything to be able to go back to work with my mates – ALL my mates – and drink coffee and put away killers. I need that, Sandra – I need order, continuity... you. I need YOU. We all need you... so come back, will you?"
His shaking hand lays a sloppy, trembling kiss upon her palm, and again, she's not left alone for more than five seconds to contemplate her own agony before more light filters into the forgotten corridors of her head, and she's joined by yet another irritatingly familiar stranger. This one doesn't speak for a while, merely sits there and cries as he caresses her fingers, and nausea envelops as her mind recalls vaguely that this is far from the first time she's seen this man so upset.
"Bet those two buggers have been telling you how much they need you."
The words are unbearably bitter, classically English in accent, and switch the blood in veins to ice. They're also fond though, somehow – he doesn't mean their biting sentiment, she intrinsically knows.
"'Oh Sandra, I'd be so bored without you picking me for UCOS!' 'I'd be on permanent babysitting duties!'" He coldly mocks, before inhaling a ragged breath that entirely belies his anger. "Really, gents? I'll be honest with you, Sandra, because frankly I'm not in the mood for pleasantries, and you probably can't bloody hear me anyway – without you, I'd be dead. There we go, I've admitted it. Only took me eight years too – bit of a personal record, don't you agree?"
Oh, but she can hear, and nothing prepares her for it, although he's alluded to it so many times; if whatever the other two have said has been the icing on the cake of despair, this man's just added the glazed cherry.
"Always was good at setting the tone."
His hollow bark of laughter is truly awful, chilling her even as the new light warms her from within.
"I'm not one for sentimentality, not really – you know that," he continues, "but you've made my life worth living. The amount of times I thought about ending it all... I sort of lost count after it hit thirty, if I'm honest. Well, I didn't – I just stopped bothering to make a note. I considered it the morning you turned up, bleating on about how much you'd been screwed over – I sat there and thought how weird it was that I'd been thinking about chucking myself down the stairs that very morning. And there you were, and I joined more to shut you up than anything. Didn't realise what that meant at the time of course, not really – I just knew you were good. The best, in fact. Stubborn, hard-arsed cow, but capable of such warmth and brilliance... call it curiosity, and maybe I'd be a very dead cat, but I had to know what it was like to be bossed by you. So we picked our colleagues, got into it, and I realised – I'd bloody missed this. What was missing from my life wasn't entirely Mary – it was a purpose beyond that of being a carer. And we've done fantastic things, although I knew from day one: that Ice Queen bitch that I'd spent so many years shaping had long since stepped out of my spotlight."
Sandra is fairly certain she can't cry in her own mind, but somehow she's sure she's managing it anyway.
"I took a risk with you, I'll be truthful, all that time ago when I was cherry-picking people for the Murder squad – I never questioned your determination or your ability, but I wasn't sure you had the balls of some of the men. Wrong again, of course – I made the choice half through guilt for your father, and I never regretted it once. I'd like to hope you've never regretted picking me eight years ago, either, because I certainly don't regret agreeing. Best damn move I've ever made – it's given me people, a motive, to live through and for, and all because you thought I was good enough. Ironic, much?"
She can almost feel the smile he directs at her, and she knows without having a clue how and a recollection regarding the fact that he is more than good enough, and more than worth anything she could ever have done for him.
"See, I KNOW you, Sandra," he elaborates. "Far more than those two ever likely to, and I want you to know how brilliant you've always been. You've never acknowledged it, I'm sure – it's just your duty, isn't it? You're a tour de force, a hurricane of energy and power and determination, and this, you laying here like this... it's so wrong, sweetheart. But you know what? I UNDERSTAND it. If you can hear me, if you can feel... it must hurt. You must be in such pain, such darkness and confusion, and from one friend, one father figure to the best daughter a man could ever know – I believe in your ability to beat this."
The magnitude of this man's support blazes through her mind, empowers her even as it bewilders her – why does he have such belief in her? How can anyone have such gratitude, such awe and belief in another?
He grasps her fingers, and the sudden pressure releases shivers down the length of her cranial nerves; his own digits tremble lightly, belying his confidence – questioning himself, not her. Never her – he's trusted her instincts for decades. Why should now be any different?
"I may never have been so injured, but I've lost myself so many times," he whispers. "You get into that pit, that place where you just cannot see a way forward – and whilst it's nearly unimaginable that you of all people couldn't get past something, I know what it's like... and all that's kept me going at those moments is you. You, Gerry, Brian, UCOS... everything we do, everything we are – supporting one another because the alternative, ignorance, never enters our heads. But I've got one up on both of them, Sandra, because I've seen you rise from the ashes more times than I've had hot dinners, and you can do it again. They say you can't keep a good woman down, and there aren't any better women out there – so wake up. Wake up, show me I'm an old fool yet again for ever doubting you – prove yourself once more, when it's all you've ever done for the decades I've known you. I still believe in you, after all this time – and I always will, because I know better than anyone what you're capable of..."
So many names, so much bewilderment; such a storm of semi-formed memories, whizzing like tornadoes on an unformed path of knowledge – so overwhelming, so nonsensical – but through the maelstrom of confusion, Sandra Pullman clings like a barnacle to this man's belief, to his kindness, to the simultaneous beauty and horror of the sentiments of all three of the men who have visited her -
We love you – I love you...
I need order, continuity... you. I need YOU...
Just come back to us, would you? Come back to me...
Without you, I'd be dead...
You've saved me from myself, Sandra...
I still believe in you, after all this time...
Strength envelops her, and suddenly, with a upshot of wondrous clarity, she realises what's been missing, why she isn't in the world of the conscious.
She's never subscribed to a faith, never had trust in a divine entity – all she's had through her life is her own ability to bounce back, her incessant need to prove that she isn't just another no one – that she's unique, brilliant, instinctive, that nothing will get her down. It's the first time in decades that she's forgotten who she is, why she won't give up, what she strives for – and all it's taken are three people she can't remember, three glorious, loving men, who have all the belief and adoration for her in the world. She's lost her way for far too long; no more, because she has people... people worth fighting for. People worth absolutely everything...
She doesn't smile as she embraces the vivid flash of light that permeates every nanometer of her mind, because she can't – but she's never felt quite so at peace taking a leap of faith. It should be a challenge to fight for one's life, but it's beautifully simple to one who enjoys the battle so much.
Long day at the office, her mind whispers as she leaves her own mental prison. Time to head home, Pullman...
After so long in the darkness, her eyes immediately protest at the harsh luminance of her true consciousness, and her ears don't react much better.
"You blinked! Gerry, Jack, get in here – she just bloody blinked!"
A pause, and a double intake of breath.
"Oh, thank GOD – Sandra, can you hear me?"
She tries to tell the man that yes, she can, and will they all please lower their bloody voices – but she finds rasping so much as a syllable impossible as her throat's like parchment. Someone gently presses something plastic to her lips and she sucks through the straw like a woman possessed, her thirst seemingly infinite; she coughs, clears her throat and blinks frantically as her surroundings come into some form of focus. Her addled mind flatly refuses to process it all, and she instead reflexively locks onto the nearest person. She glances at him quickly and shifts her gaze onwards to the next man, and the next, until all three of them are clear to her vision. They still elude her recollection, but they're visible – wonderfully, completely visible, and deathly quiet. The trio wait, she notes, with such hesitancy; their collective breath is drawn, tears shine in their eyes and every emotion and question under the sun mixes and churns with almost hysterical impatience on their faces – will she recognise them? Can she speak? What, if anything, can she remember?
A storm cloud with glasses trails through her head; a waft of the distinctive scent of jellied eels impossibly strikes the air; a wrinkled hand brushes across her palm without moving and instantly, she knows them all.
Her best friends, who've never left her through the shadows of her own mind. Her only friends. Her brothers in all but blood, the only people to ever see her for precisely what she is and love her, flaws and all.
Christ, how could she ever have forgotten them?
It sodding hurts and costs far more effort than such things realistically should, but the small smile and the barely audible words she directs at them are more than worth it.
"Will you... shut UP?"
The threesome choke in unison with emotion, and only Jack manages not to cry as they all embrace a part of her and whisper their relief and delight. She can't return the hold, of course – she's still far too physically weak – but her eyes slide closed to prevent her own tears and to bask in their comfort. They all adopt turns to press a chaste kiss to whichever cheek they're nearest to, and although this level of contact is normally way off-limits, she doesn't even consider protesting – she needs this, just for today, and so do they, and god, how she loves and appreciates them all, wants to thank them, both for being here now and for being them generally – for being so deeply supportive and genuine...
There'll be time for that later, though, and time to ask all the questions her curiosity burns with a need for acknowledgment of – like why she's here, what's happened to her, is this a hospital, because it rather resembles one, how long she's been out for the count – but for now, her consciousness is sufficient. Anything else is too big a luxury for her biting exhaustion.
"Hello Sandra," whispers the man she now recalls as Jack, brushing his thumb across her digits and smiling tearfully as she gives him the smallest squeeze of reassurance in response. "How are you feeling?"
He's speaking too slowly, and she makes a mental note to chastise his protectively patronising tone at a later date, however much her cerebral treacle appreciates it. She considers his question briefly – her head's a smog worthy of London transport's collective exhaust fumes, her entire body throbs with pain and she must look horrific... but she's awake, blissfully alive. She has the most wonderful friends anyone could ask for, a career she adores, and she's beaten certain doom.
Her response has never been more honest.
She smiles at them all as he nods with a degree of concerned satisfaction, and she acknowledges a simple fact.
With UCOS, with her friends, with the people that believe wholeheartedly in her, she'll always be okay.
Terribly cheesy ending – I do apologise. ^_^ In my mind, Sandra's been shot by a crazed suspect, but I've left it open to your own interpretation. Do drop me a review if you feel so inclined and have the time – it would be appreciated greatly. :)