Title: Liminal

Characters: James Steel, Alesha Phillips, Luke Slade

Setting/Spoilers: Law & Order: UK, 1.04 (“Unsafe”)

Rating: PG

Word count: 1,865

Disclaimer: The show and characters belong to ITV; I’m just borrowing them for a bit of fun.

A/N: Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] persiflage_1 for beta and brit-picking. Feedback and concrit welcome.



###


She’s already robed and seated at the table when he enters the room, her hair a smooth, impenetrable surface. He stands before the row of lockers and studies her as he buttons his black suit coat. She seems all coolness, impervious to the prickling heat welling up inside his own body, this slow boil of worry and concern that things might not go his way in court today. Seeing Slade free, even though cuffed, on the steps of the courthouse has unnerved him, and he is thankful that his colleague appears so calm. The solicitor’s costume suits her—she’s better with people, with the public, more schooled in human relations—but he momentarily longs for the color and softness of her office attire, for the easy conversation they invite. To that Alesha he might be able to speak the concern, fear, and doubt she must have seen written on his face as they stood outside.

He shakes his head to clear it as she nervously taps her pen against the file.

“I don’t think you’ll find anything new there.” He reaches for the robe in the closet, and as his fingers brush the fabric, he is thankful that Slade won’t be similarly attired, that the mantle of the profession will not rest as easily on his frame as the lingering smell of the cigarettes he was smoking outside the court building. He tenses as her voice breaks his thought.

“It’s time.”

He wants more time here, in this room where they can linger on the threshold of being the barrister and the solicitor. He slips the robe over his shoulders and stares at the wig box on the shelf before removing its contents. The wig is a small, light, and almost inconsequential connection to others who’ve gone before him, but he knows that it weighs years on his soul each time he places it on his head.

Today it carries the Ackroyd family and years of his own certainty. It’s never been quite so heavy.

Her touch and voice are gentle so as not to startle him. “James? Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” The barrister takes a small look at the empty hanger and the bare shelf before leading the solicitor from the room.


###


The courthouse steps are characteristically unyielding. He twists segments of the cube, desperate to find just one smooth expanse of color, one uncomplicated plane on which to rest his eyes. The wig is back in its box, the robe on its hanger, but the years press on him as he awaits Alesha’s return with the verdict. He finally lands on nine squares yellow as he hears her approach. Before she sits down next to him he knows what she will say.

Slade holds court with the press on the steps before extending a newly-freed hand to his in a gesture of goodwill. James doesn’t waste a word on him.


###


They have a drink in the local pub. She’s tangerine tonight, and he uses every remaining ounce of will to keep from pulling the pins from her hair, to finish her transformation back into that person he thinks he can talk to. He wonders why she hasn’t done it herself, why she keeps the curls so tightly contained now. What is it about this day?

“James? I’m going to get a cab home. Want to share?”

He stares at the half-finished bottle. He looks at his watch. Far too early to face that emptiness. “I think I’ll stay a bit longer.”

She nods and then stands to put on her coat and scarf. She waits a moment, but his eyes remain fixed on the green bottle. He looks up as she turns away and watches her walk out the door.


###


When their main witness disappears, he begins to regret the tradition of court dress, his robes and wig distinctly separating him from the jury. His opponent wears his crime as neatly as his suit, but that’s immaterial to the twelve citizens in the box; the dust on Slade’s shoes is from the same pavement they’ve walked to enter the court today, and though James knows his own shoes are likely far more dusty and worn than Slade’s, to the jurors he inhabits another realm.

Court dress can’t protect him when the jury returns, can’t hold in the cry that breaks from his lips at the words “not guilty,” can’t shield him from Slade’s smug smile, George’s disappointment, Louise’s childhood pain. Alesha is in place, separating him from Slade. He avoids her eyes. It’s enough that she’s there.


###


She’s cloaked in a dark sea today, but her color and softness are lost on him, separated from him by the expanse of George’s desk, by the distance between this moment and the maybe-future-time he’ll be allowed back into this world. Adrift, he clutches the letter as he walks away, not seeing her move to use George’s chair as mooring.


###


Alesha watches, all awkward and open as he packs his personal items. Even in his frustration, he knows his words have unsettled her; he’s rejected her offer of assistance at the hearing, and as he departs he acknowledges what they both know: that the roles of barrister and solicitor are the only things that bind them.

He punches the button on the lift. The ride to the street brings a rush of associations, until he’s outside trying to sort out when he lost control of everything, when the mantle slipped from his shoulders. He thinks of Slade’s persistence, of the calculations and the obsession that prepared him for this victory, and James wonders if he’s lost his own edge, if the shift in sides of the courtroom all those years ago hasn’t blunted his instinct to win. The irony does not escape him; the first case he tried in this new role may be the reason he’s just tried his last.


###


She’s still that blue-green of the ocean, but now she’s grounding him, bringing him back to basics. It starts with a question that leads to a puzzle before they find an answer to use as leverage on the way to answering the next question. As he walks home from their clandestine research session, he breathes easy for the first time in weeks. The tide may be turning, and Slade’s victory may be shorter-lived than he’d dared to hope.

He’s glad that he called her after the run-in with Slade. They are we. They are friends.


###


When it’s over and balance is restored, the robe doesn’t seem quite so isolating, and the wig feels a fraction lighter. They win another case, and he’s almost charmed when she meets him on the steps, her shoulders a dense carpet of blushing roses but her hair still in court. At the pub their laughter is reserved and genuine. She tells him a childhood story about resolving a schoolyard dispute over a doll. She smiles at the memory, her eyes not seeing the glass they’re focused on, her fingers tracing the cool slick rim. The moment takes him, and his hand reaches out to touch an escaped curl.

He immediately regrets what he’s done, her downcast eyes and rapid retreat to the ladies room suggesting that he ought not to have removed his suit jacket and loosened his tie, that perhaps “we-as-friends” is as out of bounds as things between them will go. He colors as he realizes that he is now impatient with the rigidity of their roles; he’s long since cast aside the split between barrister and solicitor, senior and junior. He straightens the tie as he waits for her, rolls down and buttons his shirtsleeves, and motions to the waitress to bring the check. He wants the comfortable barriers in place when she returns.

As he reaches for his suit coat, he feels her before he hears her, her body close as she maneuvers onto the stool next to him.

“Are you leaving?” she asks.

He leaves the coat on the chair and turns to see that she’s let her hair down.

Her eyes take in his altered appearance, and she realizes what he must have been thinking. “Oh.” Her voice is small, her body shifting to widen the space between them. “I just thought—“ Her voice trails off as she moves to step down from the stool, then starts as he moves his hand to her arm to stop her.

“I’m not leaving, not yet, not until,” his voice is shy, “you’re ready to go.”

His smile is warm and hopeful, and for the first time in as long as she’s worked with him she feels entirely uncertain about where she stands. She finds she likes it.

When the waitress arrives with the check, they select a few items from the menu instead. The tie and shirtsleeves relax as the space between them becomes increasingly permeable.


###


They share a cab, glad to have escaped the pub where people may know who they are. In this mobile space they can be anyone, and they choose to be the sort of people who tentatively brush fingers until one of them (Alesha insists it was James; he argues it was her) refuses to be satisfied by whispered glances at skin. Fingers entwined, James experiences the absolutely certain thrill of not-knowing, of the ground beneath his feet shifting as the taxi travels closer to her flat. He squeezes her hand, and her thumb strokes the back of his. They stare straight ahead, smiling-yet-stoic faces intermittently illuminated as they pass street lamps.

The cab stops. He pays the driver, who pulls away as James walks her to the building door. She opens it, and they stand in the threshold, the soft glow of the entry lamp erasing any identifying features to passersby. They are two people standing in a doorway, considering what move to make next.

She extends her hand to pull his head down, and she presses her mouth to his. It’s awkward at first, a mess of differing heights and tastes and expectations about what constitutes a good first kiss. It settles into place when he counters her move with his own hands, the palm of one cradling the back of her head, the fingers of the other finally stroking her soft curls. Her hands wrap round his waist and pull him closer until there are only clothes between them, the costumes that feel like too much definition and separation when bodies long to press into each other.

Right before her fingers start to knead and stroke the skin of his back through the shirt, before one or both of his hands slip to feel the softness of her sweater, one of them (he swears it was her; she insists she was startled by a barking dog) breaks the connection. She rests her head against his chest; he rests his chin atop her head. Each presses a small kiss into the body still separate (but not entirely, not forever). He watches as she goes inside, then stands on the pavement until her flat is illuminated and she appears at the window. He smiles up at her, waves goodnight, then walks home in the crisp night air.

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