Title: Litmus

Characters: Alesha Phillips, James Steel

Setting/Spoilers: Law & Order: UK, 1.02 (“Unloved”); slight ones for 1.04 (“Unsafe”) and 1.05 (“Buried”)

Rating: PG-13

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

A/N: This story references, but runs semi-tandem to, "Liminal"; I think you should be able to read one without having read the other. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] radiantbaby and [livejournal.com profile] persiflage_1 for beta, Brit-pick, and suggestions. Feedback and concrit welcome.



###


Each morning she dresses in the law, the base colors of her closet reminiscent of the tones they wear in court—black, white, charcoal grey. Even her hair participates, operating out of the house in only two modes, and never a strand out of place.

She can’t resist swathing herself in colors before donning the charcoal coat, then adds on a scarf, a red brief bag, a hint of lipstick. Perhaps she can’t quite resign herself to the starkness.

She’s a long way from the chaos of the council estate. When she walks into the offices each morning, when she enters the courtroom, she knows she’s home.

Mostly.


###


She’s been waiting for this one to come onto their radar for a month now, since the day Steel told her to call DS Brooks and to charge a thirteen year old boy with murder. That was an unpleasant enough task, but she couldn’t dispute the bare facts of the case: forensic evidence, the state of the victim’s body, and CCTV footage clearly proved that the boy, Jono Blake (his name is already burned in her memory), caused his friend’s death.

Still, she’s not quite prepared when they turn their attention to trial preparation. The images of the beating, the cold listing of the elements of the body found on Jono’s clothing and shoes: she hopes that she never gets used to reading about—much less speaking formally about—things like “brain matter traces found in the lacing of both shoes” or “spatters of the victim’s blood at the hem of alleged assailant’s denim trousers.” She thinks that the clinical descriptions may help the forensic examiners to continue to do their own jobs with a level of detachment, but she insists on reminding herself that “brain matter traces” are evidence of the caving in of a real, live, human skull, and that the blood on the boy’s denims once flowed through a moving, vital, vibrant young body. Usually, that’s enough to get her head in the right space, but this time, things are different.

She keeps stumbling on “boy’s denims.” Thirteen years old and a murderer.

A woman walks into the office, clearly just from court, her shiny black skirt and jacket a bit tighter than the suit Alesha favors for those days. Before Alesha can say a word over James’ listing of the case law he wants her to retrieve for this prosecution, the woman is seated before his desk, shushing her and playing with his cube.

She watches their banter, the way James’s face almost lights up at the sight of—was it “Bea” that he called her?—and before she knows what’s she’s doing, Alesha’s reciting the facts of the case as clearly as the forensics report she’s been reading.

She’s as surprised as James—although she suspects for different reasons—when the truth comes out, when Bea reveals that she’s planning to capitalize on the boy’s small stature as grounds for his defense. She worries that such a defense might be enough to hang the jury. She avoids inspecting her own response.


###


She looks at him differently when she discovers they were lovers.


###


Alesha’s seen him consider the defense’s side in witness interviews. She recalls her discomfort as she watched him wind-up a potential witness to ensure she’d stand up to scrutiny; she also remembers his discomfort when the witness behaved in keeping with her emotional state. His facility for thinking like the defense was often useful and sometimes gave them an advantage in court. She just prefers his eyes trained on prosecuting the crime, not on denying it.


###


Gathering Jono’s history is a trip back through her childhood. How many mothers like Tracy Blake did her mum hide knowledge of, how many children was she forbidden to play with, not because of anything she could understand, but because of what her mother knew of them and feared for her? As she walks through Luther Grove on her way to visit Mrs. Baxter, Jono’s foster mum, she forces herself to stop for a moment, to sit and watch and let it sink in. Her feet want to keep walking, to pull her away from this life as they’ve done for as long as she can remember, but her brain parks her on a bench.

Children laugh and play and scream, mothers (and some, but not enough, fathers) leave for or return from jobs that will never get them out of this life. She remembers those researchers in America who tried to link race and poverty to ability and achievement, and she wonders if they weren’t right, if not on the facts, then on the effects. When this is all you know, it’s hard to imagine things can be better.

She resolves to call her mum when she gets home.


###


At Mrs. Baxter’s she finds herself reaching for the safe language again, for the legal rationale she’s repeated like a mantra since this case landed on their docket.

“We have a duty to prosecute Danny’s killer.”

Mrs. Baxter asks the question that Alesha keeps pressing to the back of her mind.

“Whose duty is it to speak for Jono?”


###


She makes her appeal that evening, but she’s not surprised at George’s response or James’s. Their concerns echo the voice of her advisors in her head, and she’s reminded of history of their profession. Barristers deal with the law. Solicitors deal with the people. She operates somewhere between those old rigid distinctions, but right now, she hates not being able to speak for Jono.


###


She’s schooled her face in preparation for the trial, but she can’t keep from appealing to him when she sees the top of Jono’s head barely cresting the railing on the dock. The trial is private, no wigs today, and somehow that makes drawing his attention to the boy’s stature more like something she’d do.

The trial continues and it’s almost too easy. James still can’t believe that Bea is actually using size as a defense. Alesha fixes her attention on the wood grain on the judge’s dock. At least it will be over soon.


###


Everywhere around her people scurry and phones ring; everything is noise and confusion and just the tiniest taste of what the system will be like if this theory of Bea’s

(and now she does understand exactly what James saw in her, McArdle’s dispassionate ability to reduce the entire situation to the bare essence of fact, to isolate the defense of one from the protection of many, making her the sort of woman a man like him would have to find appealing)

actually manages to get Jono’s name cleared.


Perhaps George was right. Maybe this is exactly what she wanted. Not the dismantling of the system, not the anarchy of a land without law or any recourse to authority. No, what she wanted, she realizes, is the recognition of colors and shadings, the system’s consideration of what might make a thirteen year old murder suspect out of a Jono Blake.

Still, the fact that George could actually think she was happy about this chaos and that James didn’t defend her makes the gulf between their roles feel wider and more pronounced. She wanted them to see Jono, the child, but this isn’t quite the way she’d have managed it. This is the barrister’s way, she thinks, to reduce his actions to the colorless operation of genetics.

Her thoughts lead her to speculate on what life must be like for him now, waiting in jail for the next stage of the trial. She wonders how he’s coping with it, how he’s holding up under the weight and the pressure. She’s certain that Mrs. Baxter has been to see him and that his mum hasn’t.


###


The initial chaos caused by the admission of McArdle’s defense eventually gives way to other case work, other trials needing attention. She’s watching him more closely now and starting to understand what makes him tick a bit better as each day passes. The pressures of conscience seem to weigh heavier with each trial lately. The weight makes him vulnerable to her eyes, peeling back layer upon layer until she’s seeing him exposed. She can tick off the roles he wears on her hand— barrister, colleague, father, lover (she blushes when she finds herself lingering over speculations on that score)—but it isn’t until the business with Slade that she understands the difference between the defender and prosecutor.

It’s the news footage that does it, the report he’s watching as he sits on the floor surrounded by a sea of paper. He tells her this was his first case on the opposite side, and he’s so awkward standing there next to David Ackroyd’s widow, so stoic and sure. The man before her now is altered and, she’s quite certain, questioning every decision he’s made. He was right the first time—if she had any doubts, they were washed away by Slade’s sleazy surety outside of court today—but no matter what she says about that, she knows he’s going to sift through the files until sunrise.

She sees the shape of his life now, the narrowing that comes with embracing a singular mission. On the walk home she bites her lip as her mind wanders. She wonders if there’s space in his life for her.


###


The answer comes gradually and lingers at what feels like friendship until he’s reassembled what Slade stripped away. He touches her hair. He shares her cab. They kiss goodnight. For the first time since she joined the office, she feels like the unknown. He finds he likes it.


###


“It’s her defense.” His voice is low, but firm, and she’s practically tripping over her feet to keep up with his brisk pace as they walk from the courthouse to the pub.

“Can’t she see that she’s ripping him apart?”

“It’s a defense.” His tone is terse and thick as a permanent marking pen, and the line she dare not cross is etched before her as clearly as the ones separating the slabs of the pavement at her feet.

She crosses it anyway.

“Would you have done this? Were you on that side would this have been your recourse, your choice?”


###


She’s not looking at a barrister now. No, sitting here, mulling over the case file that hasn’t changed a lick since they walked in thirty minutes ago and ordered the first round, he’s a lover grappling with a new realization about the woman he loves.

Loved, she reminds herself, mouthing, but not uttering the word aloud. She’s still not quite used to the idea that she might one day have called him “lover.” He hasn’t kissed her again, hasn’t walked her home or shared her cab or touched her hand. Almost as quickly as that new door opened, this case reawakened and slammed it shut.

His silence allows her to turn this revelation over in her mind, to attach what she’s learned about why he’s no longer on Bea’s side of the table to the mystery of her role in his past. She wonders if they ended when he stopped believing in defense at any cost. He doesn’t strike her, seeing him now, as a man who could go that far. She finishes her drink and leaves him to his thoughts.


###


He phones to tell her that Bea found him at the pub, that Jono wants to confess. “She thanked me,” he says wearily before hanging up, “for not making it hard for her.”

She’s sad, but not surprised. Nothing will surprise her after hearing a mother so fervently deny responsibility for her son, after watching McArdle continue to press her defense, after watching Steel finish the job of prosecution, each of them demolishing Jono.

She shakes her head to clear it, feeling she’s not being quite fair to James on this score. Sometimes in court she can see his layers shifting, and today she sensed the father coming to the surface each time he looked at the boy in the dock.

She rings her mum after his call, eager to connect with someone who understands where Jono has come from, anxious for some wisdom about how to make sense of everything around her. She went to the law to help people, to provide safe spaces, to work against those who take advantage of the weakest in society. She’s always believed that people can choose who they’ll become in life, and that the only way to achieve anything is to get up in the morning and do what it takes.

She also knows that sometimes want and choice aren’t entirely enough, that deep wounds and learned patterns and a lack of enough love can stunt even the seedling that gets the most water, the most sun.

“No one can save him,” her mother says when she’s done with her unburdening. “In the end, he’s got to save himself.”


###


Alesha waits outside while James meets with Jono in his cell. Thirteen and self-defined as murderer. Her fingers brush over the photograph of the child on the front page of the newspaper, the last mention society will make of him until perhaps the day he dies in prison. She hopes that he’ll accept their offer of help. She’s grateful that Dr. Rawls was so willing to work with him and that George, thrilled that the system won’t break on this day, has allowed them both this moment of conscience.

She takes his hand as they leave the jail. He squeezes it tightly as he guides her past their usual pub and into a quieter one with dark paneling, leather sofas, and private nooks.

“I’m sorry I shut you out.” The waitress has brought their drinks (his neat, hers colorful) and coats and scarves rest easily on the unoccupied chair in (what will quickly become) their corner. His manner is easier too, his arm resting on the back of the leather settee, and she can almost see his every layer reassembling to put this man before her. “Bea…this case…It was confusing and chaotic. It reminded me how complicated things could get when you--.“

“I understand.” She rests a hand on his knee to stop him. “Just don’t do that again.”

He gives her a small, warm smile and a nod. His fingers brush her shoulder through her sweater, the rose one she wore the last time he touched her. “We could start over, if you want to.”

“We barely started before,” she responds. “Besides,” she says thoughtfully, her finger gliding around the rim of the glass, “you can never erase where you’ve come from, can you? You can only decide where you’re going next.” She takes a sip of her drink, then slides to close the short distance between them. “We continue from here.”

He’s quiet as his arm settles around her shoulders, and he presses his lips to her hair. “I’ll have to tell George about this on Monday.”

“No,” she shakes her head as she breaks slightly away to smile at the puzzled expression on his face. “We'll tell him.”

"Yes," he murmurs as his hand cups her cheek, and he lowers his mouth to meet hers. "We'll tell him Monday."



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