Title: Stasis

Characters: Alesha Phillips, James Steel

Setting/Spoilers: Midway through Law & Order | UK 1.07 (“Alesha”); the summer between arrest and trial

Rating: R

Summary: Somehow during that summer they manage.

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


A/N: This story follows "Liminal" and "Litmus," but can be read independent of those stories. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] radiantbaby and [livejournal.com profile] persiflage_1 for beta, Brit-pick, and suggestions.



###


In dreams they inhabit that one perfect weekend—perfect in Friday’s awkward angling and learning, in Saturday’s schooling themselves in each other until those moments on that perfect Sunday when everything just fit right. Sometimes they dream all of it, other times only parts, the gawky false and half-starts, the smooth gliding moments like clockwork. They wake aching and apart, then shower and dress for work.


###


Somehow during that summer they manage. James thinks they should have some shelter by now, that the sun shouldn’t burn so bright, but everything is raw and exposed and cracking under its heat. Each day he hopes for the respite of one of the old cool dark places they used to haunt in the office, on the streets, at the pub, but someone’s ripped the ceiling from the sky, and there’s nothing to protect them from each other. The only shelter they can find is in their work, but the pages of each case shield them less and less as they work through them with increasing rapidity.

George commends them for their efficiency and considers sending them each on holiday. He knows they won’t take it, and quietly lightens the workloads of other teams to provide more safe havens.


###


From the start of that perfect weekend, from the moment they'd left the pub, he was in her care. Alesha gently tugged his hand to guide him, not to any of the waiting taxicabs, but to the nearest tube station. They descended, and he fumbled in his pockets for his card, not noticing how quickly she secured their fare and pulled him past the threshold to London’s underground.

The air was different. She seemed different too then, which thrilled him. He knew her—knew her work, her passion for what was right, her voice, her steady calm—and he’d wondered how these things translated to the life he didn’t see.

On the train, which was crowded with people (people, he’d realized with a quiet shock, who could at any moment come before him as victims, defendants, witnesses), he stood behind her, holding fast to the large pole nearest them. The press of bodies pushed him closer to her, and as the car lurched a bit as it rounded a bend, his free hand instinctively circled her waist. He could almost feel her smiling through the layers of clothing, and he was pleased when she didn’t move from him as the car righted itself.

The gentle sway rocked them into and away from—the people, the crowd, each other—and before they knew it, the destination was reached. They exited, almost reluctantly, then ascended and emerged. The world above was quieter, cooler.

It wasn’t until she indicated the Chinese takeaway and the nearby chemist that he noticed they hadn’t spoken a word, not one utterance since leaving the pub. He smiled at this new synchronicity. She procured a meal, he popped into the chemist, then lingered over flowers at an outdoor stand. Roses were his wife’s, orchids for Bea, Faruk loved mums—he was unsure about her likes, until the woman at the stand patted the bucket of blushing peonies. “Her favorite,” she said and grinned. He thanked her while he selected the best blooms, which she wrapped in crinkly tissue and cellophane. He leaned against a street lamp, breathing in her world while he waited.

She nearly dropped the food on the pavement when he pulled her close to kiss her. The flower lady whistled, and he pressed himself harder against her to shut out all of the noise on the quiet street. Each moment in this strange unknown engraved itself on him, pinned itself to him with painful and perfect precision. He was afraid to speak one word that might ruin the exquisite immediacy of her.







###


The routine keeps her going through the summer, the gentle plod of each day keeping her feet on safe ground, her head out of angry clouds. Each day closer to autumn takes her one day further from that late May, from the horrors of workdays, from the comforts of that weekend with—

The routine keeps her going through the summer, the gentle plod of each day keeping her feet on safe ground, her head out of wispy clouds. She works steadily, hungrily. She prepares evidence in murder cases, disappearances, grand larcenies, batteries, assaults. She doesn’t question the cases she’s not preparing, the ones he keeps for himself, the ones George sends across the hall. Instead, she digs into financial minutiae, phone records, email logs and IP addresses, finding patterns, links, connections. She follows endings back to their beginnings, sometimes wondering when he’ll play barrister for the defense with her, when he’ll trace things back to—

The routine keeps her going through the summer, the heavy plod of each day closer to autumn pulling her to the ground, keeping her head away from the cooler, moister air that might be in the clouds. There’s a breeze each week when she sees Dr. Rawls, a moment when she feels like she can breathe, and as the blocks on the summer calendar creep closer to that day come autumn, she schedules a few more breezes in the week, a few more moments to squeeze out bits of fresh air. One day Dr. Rawls takes the air away by asking when she last spoke to her moth—

The routine keeps her. She knows that James is watching her winding down. She keeps working, keeps digging, finding patterns, beginnings.

Alesha remembers the cooler time as well as James, sometimes longing for it, others ashamed of the longing, still others angry that she longs at all anymore. She shouldn’t want this thing that was taken from her that was forced on her that was—

There’s always a little tiny rain to offer respite when the heat is too much, when the cracks start to reveal that small kernel she keeps hidden and locked away from herself. She keeps working, keeps digging, keeps scheduling small spaces to breathe.

The routine keeps her.

###


She disappeared into the kitchen to uncork a bottle of wine while he wandered into the sitting room. Everything was sharp and clear and focused. Her home was ostentatiously modest, a neutral palette against which bits of color and shape demanded his attention. On the shelves he found a modest, but impressive, set of hardbound classics, some with small bookmarks peering over gilt-edged pages. His fingers stroked the tooled leather bindings, some worn and soft, others aged and cracked, and he wondered when they’d find out which were their favorites, which ones they’d return to again and again, what poems and stories would become theirs alone. He wondered what words he’d whisper into her.

Just thinking of the words dared him to break the silence. He looked elsewhere, his eyes settling on a gramophone and a collection of well-preserved records (mostly jazz, mostly classical, mostly music he wanted to feel her naked in). He lingered over the options, narrowing them only when he pulled Davis from the shelf, when the only mood he could attach to the night was somewhere cool and close to blue.

In the kitchen she plated the food, the activity feeling almost like a ritual. She mingled their favorites, wanting to experience his alongside her own. She snipped and stripped the flowers before putting them in small vases to adorn the few rooms in the flat. She surveyed the wine bottles and chose the one closest to the press and sway of their bodies on the pavement, in the subway, down her hall. She heard the slide of the album he’d pulled from the shelf, the soft click of the controls on the player, the gentle thump of vinyl meeting spinning turntable, and she pulled the cork from the bottle.

She was pouring as the first notes breached the air. He couldn’t know why she had these, how often she’d listened to them, how many times she’d tried to explain their miraculous sadness to people too blinded by the sun. In these sounds she feels the least like the law, shifting rhythms tugging her into delicious disarray. She shivered at the precision of his selection, then let out a small gasp as his hands rested at her hips, as his lips explored just one small space of skin, as his voice teased her ear with the first word she’d hear from him this evening.

“Alesha.”

He knew he’d broken the spell of silence, that by speaking he’d brought James Steel and Alesha Phillips into the room with all baggage thereunto pertaining. He felt a subtle shift as they clothed one another in names and was glad to hide in the glass of wine she’d handed him.







###


He plays a game called Hide-not-Seek, shuffling the deck of cases as soon as the one he’s dreading rises to the top. He was glad that he hadn’t told George about the change in their relationship; had he known, Alesha’s case would have been handed over to someone James wouldn’t have been able to trust. He’d known he would be her champion as soon as Matt and Ronnie had called, before they’d even brought in the tape. George had offered to watch it first, but James had insisted on tearing off the bandage quickly. He sat next to George, trusting that the detectives behind him would anchor his feet in the room, would keep him from finding Merrick himself to dispense justice.

He’d visited the gent’s before they’d arrived, splashed cold water on his skin, searched his face to find the reason she’d gone back again, the reason she hadn’t told him what she was planning. He’d remembered the way she’d left the office the day he’d told her he couldn’t move forward, the accusation in her voice, his delayed recognition that she’d lost so much more than he could begin to understand. He stumbled to the stall just in time, and when he’d emptied his guilt, he rested his head against the cool porcelain. She’d made her own choices, but he couldn’t help feeling that he could have prevented this pain.

He rearranges the stack and lands on an early summer mutilation, a thick folder filled with photographs and descriptions of a crime still making the headlines. He prepares for the as yet unscheduled trial.

###


He danced with her after supper, an impulse born of the way her fingers kept stroking the petals of the peonies on the table, the way the wine rippled like velvet in the glasses, the way the saxophone’s rhythms shifted when he turned the record over in the player.

“My father’s,” she whispered in his ear as he held her close and tried to hold back. “These records are the only things he left.”

For a moment he wondered if he was holding brittle pieces of vinyl and paper in his hands, and he handled their soft coverings with care. “Do you miss him?”

She was solid as ever. “Didn’t know him, so there’s not much to miss.”

He’s silent, and she can’t recall the last time he’d gone to Edinburgh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—“

He held her closer to hide his eyes from hers. “It’s OK. I wanted him to know me.” He didn’t tell her that he spends more and more of those weekends driving around the countryside as he waits for Ethan to return from this or that or another friend’s party or outing or game. It’s not a night for this mourning, and though they can’t stop being what they are to others, he wanted to trace the contours of their new identity.

He kissed the top of her head as the needle shifted to another tune. “I like your father’s jazz.”

She pulled away from him just enough to study his eyes before pulling him down to kiss her. “I don’t remember when I’ve enjoyed it this much.”

Later, as the music continued and he moved inside her for the first time, she felt herself soften around him, trusting he’d still want her if she lost herself in disordered rhythms.

“I hardly ever listen to this one.” She was moving over him now, trying to get the timing right. “Seemed too special for everyday.” She closed her eyes as his fingers passed through her hair, as his fingers lingered round her heart. “Used to leave me wanting more.”











###


She nearly knocks him over as he’s walking into the office one morning. He steadies her and then quickly releases the arm he’d caught to keep her from falling once she’s righted herself. Her eyes dart from his as she negotiates the doorway with him, and she finally speaks when she’s safe on the other side.

“I thought you’d be more patient than this.”

He watches as she swiftly walks toward the ladies room, her hand gently wiping the tears that must be falling from her eyes now that she’s escaped him. He’s troubled and puzzled as he opens his brief bag and pulls out his files. As he waits for the computer to finish its morning routine, his eyes wander to the glass wall that divides them, then down to the wastebasket near the door. A riot of pink blooms crests the top of the bin. He quickly retrieves it, then hides it under his desk as she returns to the room. Secure in her office, door closed, she lowers the blinds. He closes his eyes.


###


They’d met up at work that Saturday morning, so careful not to touch that the plants in the office started whispering amongst themselves. The ficus was that much perkier since only it had correctly pinpointed this as the weekend when things would finally move along. The few people present in the office that day took no notice of the force fields surrounding their bodies, too busy with the sorts of tasks that bring one to work on a sunny Saturday morning in late spring, too frustrated that those tasks existed.

No matter how hard they tried to prolong the time not-together, by noon there was nothing legitimately left to do; Alesha made the necessary connections between medical billing records, cell phone calls, and school absentee reports to ensure a short route to a plea bargain on Monday, while James had sketched out his planned line of questioning for Tuesday’s pre-trial hearing in a double homicide. Passion made them perfect.

She’d watched the pen slip between his teeth, watched him roll it around slowly while the tiniest furrow appeared at his brow. He’d snuck glances as she tucked her hair behind her ear, as that slow grin began to spread across her face, the signal that she was soclose to closing the loop. By noon they were ready for more than lunch, but settled for cold sandwiches and drinks from a nearby cafe. They parted with a gentle brush of hands, he rushing home to pack an overnight bag, she on her way to the supermarket for provisions. The plants were a bit disappointed that they didn’t return.




###


James rummages among the blossoms to retrieve the unopened card. “Happy Birthday! I hope these are still your favorites. I miss you. Love, Mum.”He carefully puts the card back in the envelope, then takes the bouquet of peonies outside to the rubbish bin before heading to the shops to arrange delivery of another gift, a book he hopes she’ll find comforting. He instructs the assistant to include the card. He walks along the river.

He calls Matt and asks if he’ll meet him at the pub. They drink in silence until it’s safe to go home.


###


She remembers it’s her birthday when the courier arrives with the conservatively wrapped package. It sits on the table, a silent dinner companion. She opens it while she listens to classical music, smiling at the textured leather binding, wondering when her mother started reading Irish poets.

The day’s shape becomes clear to her when she opens the cover and sees the card from the flower shop. She understands why she found her empty wastebasket on James’s desk, why he didn’t return to the office that day. She calls her mother. She thanks her for the flowers. She pleads work pressure to excuse her long absence and promises to come to a barbecue on Sunday. She calls Dr. Rawls immediately afterward to schedule a Friday session.

###


She was slicing vegetables when his knock announced his arrival. She was in her bed and on her back within 10 minutes of answering the door, James swiftly stripping off her knickers while she unbuttoned and unzipped him. The knife and vegetables waited patiently while he slipped inside her, while they frantically kissed and moved and groaned against each other.

He slowed when he looked down at her face, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted, her body clothed but so open to him. She blinked her eyes open as he stilled within her, his hand moving upward to stroke her cheek. She smiled as her finger traced the lines at his eyes and his mouth, as his eyes closed while she surveyed the landscape of his life before she kissed him, before he began moving, this time tenderly, this time softly, this time making, not doing.



###


Alesha remembers the cooler time, sometimes with longing, sometimes with sadness, and sometimes, when the cracks were just wide enough to expose that small kernel she kept hidden, with something like regret.


###


The barbeque is mostly uneventful, save the expected pressure of loving relatives and friends all concerned that she’s not settled down yet. She squeezes the small stress ball she’d taken from Dr. Rawls on Friday and finds that it helps to have something to bear down on. Her tongue can use a break from all the biting.

When her mother introduces “the nice young teacher” from the neighborhood school, the ball isn’t enough, and she politely disappears into the security of the bathroom, pulling the slim leather volume from her handbag. It opens to the verse he’d whispered into her skin that perfect Sunday. She cries because she's said nothing to her mother. She cries because she's afraid that autumn won't stop the pain. She cries because he said these words to her once and because in spite of this summer he still wants her to have them.

Her mother doesn’t ask why she leaves before sunset, doesn’t ask why her eyes are so red. Instead, she hugs her and kisses her cheek. “You’ll find it in your own time,” she says, then whispers “don’t be a stranger.”


###


He’s at the theatre, a revival of some sentimental musical designed to bring in scores of late summer patrons. His wife would have dragged him to this, and he’s sitting next to the charming daughter of his mother’s friend who just happened to have an extra ticket for this evening’s performance. The theatre smells of perfume and powder, the colorful mass-produced programs the only paper in the room. He’s glad for his tuxedo coat; the building is too cool.

When a couple of tears trace the lines of his face she takes his hand and squeezes it, pleased that he feels comfortable enough so early in their acquaintance to share his passion for art. He's glad that this stranger will never know for what and whom he's weeping.


###


She’d surprised him that Sunday morning by teasing his nose with a peony from the vase near the bed, her tongue moving upward to meet the flower at his mouth. They’d crushed the blossom when they crushed their mouths together. He shifted to sit upright. She lowered herself onto him. Scattered petals clung to skin as legs and arms encircled bodies, as hips rocked, as eyes and breaths met. She watched him watching her as they shuddered together. Later he’d languidly plucked bits of flower from her skin, kissing each revealed spot while placing the petals on other unkissed spaces, pooling them at the apex of her thighs. She didn’t have time to return the favor before she was gasping his name as he replaced the petals with his tongue.


###


Before he leaves them to their work the following Monday, George can’t resist a friendly inquiry. “Was surprised to see you at the theatre Saturday night. Did your friend enjoy the show?”

James vaguely recalls the intermission conversation with George and his wife, then nods dismissively. “I believe she did, yes.”

Alesha’s eyes remain fixed on the papers at the table.

“Hmph. I thought it was dull as ditchwater. At least that young woman seemed lovely. Should we have you over for supper?”

“Thank you, but I don't think so. I won’t be seeing her again.”

“Oh, right,” George mutters as he moves toward the door, vaguely aware the air in the room is getting warmer. “You’ve sworn off that dance.” He smiles at Alesha who’s busy checking over the week’s trial preparations.

James shakes his head, careful to avoid glancing her way. “No, nothing like that. She doesn't like jazz.”


###


There are questions he needs to ask her. The days grow shorter and closer to October, closer to the moment he’ll have to question her on the stand. George had pressed him to take on a second for this case, to choose from one of the bright and capable minds in the building, but he’d refused, wanting to shield her from the indignity of seeing someone else in her chair, whispering questions into his ear, sharing the intimacy of the court. He admits he wants to shield himself as well.

It’s the Friday before the trial opens when he asks her for a moment. They go through the motions, rehearse the questions he’s hammered out, even the tough ones he wants the unmediated answers to, the ones he wants to ask her in the darkness of a bar, on a couch, over dinner, in a park. She’s a good witness, is prepared to answer the questions, knows how much information to give but tells the truth. He starts to press as the defense will press, and for the first time in months he thinks he ought to have taken George up on the offer of assistance. He can’t seem to push her to tell him the things he knows he needs to know; he can’t antagonize her the way that Phyllis surely will on the stand. This is Alesha, not a victim, and he doesn't know how to be anyone but James with her.


###


That Sunday night he’d cooked her breakfast. He fed her eggs and toast and fruit in bed by moonlight, and she wiped the jam from his knee where he’d dropped the toast in a clumsy moment. His skin was still sticky when they were done, so she ran a bath while he poured a glass of wine to share with her. She relaxed as he murmured in her ear, reciting a poem that began “wine comes in at the mouth.” She expected it to be bawdy; she was wrong, and before long the water threatened to abandon the tub to them. Their bodies smelled of vanilla and sandalwood as they perfumed the sheets that night.

They lay together. He stroked her belly as they looked out at the night sky. “A long week ahead of us in court.”

She nodded, then uttered a small “oh” before reminding him that she had a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday.

“Oh, yes. I forgot. Will you make it to the hearing?”

“Of course.” She turned her head toward him, her face a mask of playful indignation. “I was sure to schedule around it.”

“Good.” He tightened his hold on her waist, pressing against her back as he kissed the still-scented skin of her shoulder. “Not sure what I’d do if you weren’t there.”







###


The air is cooling rapidly, and she finds that she can breathe a bit easier, that the heat of the summer is dissipating, that the cracks are starting to fuse and close over, that if she can hang on just a few more days this will end, and she can start—

The air is cooling, she’s breathing a bit easier, the cracks are there-but-closing, a few more days and this will end—

The air cools but heat wells within her. She’s relieved when he pulls back from the question, but a bit disappointed that he doesn’t or won’t play defense with her. For once she wants to urge him to do it for the sake of the victim. She calls Dr. Rawls. She makes a space to breathe. She visits her mum.

A few more days and this will end.

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