Love or Sympathy (But Never Both)

by Aosora Hikaru (青空ヒカル)


She’d moved the files around in front of her about twenty times now, Nora was sure. It was another criminal case — murder this time — and as the public defender assigned to the case, she had quite the burden. It had been hell to find a jury, since this case had been all over the news this past year. Who doesn’t love the juicy details around a woman and her lover murdering her husband?


Nora looked up as the prosecutor walked behind her, and her heart leapt in her chest, joy lighting up her whole face. She knew she shouldn’t be this happy to see a prosecutor, the person she’d be defending her client against, but she just couldn’t help it. They had a happy history together, if you disregarded what they each did for a living. “Good morning, Elsa.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what you do today,” Elsa said with a smile of her own, inclining her head with a nod. She was always better at keeping everything professional in the courtroom than Nora was. She never flirted, not in the open, unlike Nora, though Nora was positive everyone in the entire county court system knew what they had.

This case would be some of her hardest work yet, as Elsa was one of the most talented prosecutors in the county, but Nora knew she couldn’t give up on her client. Even if she had already confessed to the crime, and even if there was an abundance of evidence guaranteeing a guilty verdict. Nora had an ace up her sleeve, and she intended to use it. “So am I.”

They rose as the judge entered and spoke, and then the trial began in earnest. Nora drew a deep breath as Elsa walked to the center of the courtroom to begin her opening statement.

“Good morning, your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. My name is Elsa Strauss, and as the prosecutor in this case, I will prove to you beyond any doubt that on the evening of March 23, 2015, the defendant Veronica Baldwin, with the assistance of Ryann Purcell, murdered her husband Joseph Baldwin.” After pointing out Veronica, who sat hunched over in a chair with eyes to the floor, Elsa turned to face the jury. “That evening, Mrs. Baldwin and Ms. Purcell fed Mr. Baldwin drink after drink until he was too intoxicated to realize what he was asked to do, the danger he was about to face. They persuaded him to climb up onto the roof. And up there, Mr. Baldwin lost his footing and fell to his death.

“They didn’t stop there,” Elsa continued as she planted her hands on the sides of the lectern. “They didn’t call the police at this point, no. Mrs. Baldwin and Ms. Purcell then wrapped Mr. Baldwin’s broken, bloodied body in a tarp, dragged him to Mrs. Baldwin’s truck, and threw him into the bed. They drove him into the woods and set the truck on fire with his body still in it. Then, with no remorse, they drove to California as if nothing had happened.” With a slow turn of her head, Elsa met each of the juror’s gazes. “At the conclusion of this trial, we will ask that you return a verdict of guilty.”

Seated next to her client, Nora pressed her lips together and patted a hand on Veronica’s knee. She considered objecting to Elsa’s final statement, but the damage had already been done with the jury, and it would serve her client better to not set them up as ones who would nitpick every fine point. Neither she nor Veronica had any illusions that this was anything but an open-and-shut case — Veronica herself had told Nora these exact details, in this exact order — but still, Nora hoped they could use the abuse Veronica had endured at Joseph’s hands, her ace up her sleeve as it were, as an excuse defense. Veronica had also expressed concern for Ryann, whose case wasn’t set to start until Veronica’s had completed, since Ryann was the one who had plotted out the murder in the first place.

“Try not to worry,” Nora whispered to Veronica. “I’m positive the jury will empathize with you after we present our evidence.”

“Yes, but will it be enough?” Veronica said, her already soft voice made softer by the position of her head, eyes cast down to the floor.

Nora shrugged. “They’ll likely still convict you, but I’m trying for a lesser charge.”

“So I’m fucked anyway.”

Nora closed her eyes. “Don’t say that. I’m putting everything we’ve got into this. I need you to believe and work with me too.”

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Elsa said, her voice raising as though she’d heard Nora and Veronica talking over her opening statement, “The defense will argue that Mrs. Baldwin acted in self-defense, to protect herself from further alleged abuse at the hands of her husband.” Again, she took the time to gesture to Veronica as she spoke. “Before you make a final decision, I would implore you to consider all of the evidence presented today.”

It took all Nora had not to roll her eyes.

“I would ask at the conclusion of this case that if we have met our burden of proof, you would find the defendant guilty.” Elsa nodded to the judge, then took her seat at the table reserved for the prosecution.

“Defense, would you like to make your opening statement?” The judge leaned forward, his gaze fixed upon Nora.

Nora nodded and squeezed Veronica’s knee before standing and taking her place at the lectern, her notes spread in front of her. “Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Nora Finch and I am pleased to be here representing Veronica Baldwin during this most trying time in her life.” Nora turned to give Veronica what she hoped was a reassuring look. “My client stands accused of murder in the first degree. As I’m sure you all understand, this is an extremely serious crime. However, at the conclusion of this case, I ask that you will accept a lesser charge.”

She paused to allow that to sink in for a moment, and turned a page in her notes. “This case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is about a woman who felt trapped and threatened, and acted in self-defense to ensure her own life would no longer be in danger. The prosecution hopes that you will disregard what Mr. Baldwin forced my client to endure, the utter hell in which he forced her to live. I’m sure you’ll find, however, that the evidence and testimony will be too strong to ignore.

“The defense will call three witnesses to the stand: the first, a neighbor of the Baldwins who heard frequent arguments and saw the bruises on Mrs. Baldwin’s body; the second, Ryann Purcell, who has known my client since high school and saw first-hand the damage Mr. Baldwin did to my client; and the third, Veronica Baldwin herself, who has agreed to testify in her own defense and recount what led to her drastic decision to protect herself — indeed, to save her own life — by any means necessary.”

Out of the corner of her eye Nora saw Veronica perk up just the slightest bit at the mention of Ryann, and she felt even more pity toward her client than she already had. It must be difficult to be separated from the one you love, knowing that you’d never see them again no matter what. She cleared her throat, then said, “At the conclusion of this case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask that you weigh all that my client has endured when you consider the possible verdict. I ask that you not find her guilty of murder in the first degree, but rather voluntary manslaughter. Thank you.”

Nora gathered up her papers then, and settled back down next to Veronica at the defense table. Now the witnesses would be called, and the true battle would begin.

Nora closed her eyes and rubbed her fingertips against her temples, her elbows braced on the table in front of her.

“You heading to the cafeteria for lunch?” Elsa said, her low, even voice coming from behind Nora’s chair.

Nora shook her head, her arms shifting with each movement. “No, not today.”

“Good,” Elsa said, and that was all Nora needed to hear.

So Elsa needed to blow off some steam, too. Good, indeed. This had proved to be a cutthroat case just as Nora had expected — Elsa was able to poke as many holes in Nora’s reasoning through cross-examination as Nora was to her. The stress had started to settle at the base of Nora’s skull, but she ignored the pain in favor of taking the bait Elsa had laid in front of her.

The door to the prosecution’s witness preparation room was just ajar when Nora approached, and she couldn’t help but smile to herself. At least Elsa had the courtesy to choose that one, instead of the defense room. It would make it so much easier to focus when she prepped the defense witnesses later.

She was careful to close the door behind her when she entered, and she grinned at Elsa, who sat perched upon a desk, legs crossed at the knee, and her skirt hitched up enough to show the suspender ribbons of her garter belt.

“Jesus, Elsa, you wore the garter belt today?” Nora’s grin didn’t fade, in spite of what she said; instead, she approached the desk as though she were stalking her prey. “You know what that does to me.”

“I thought it could be some… encouragement,” Elsa leaned back, a hand planted on the desk behind her, and reached up with the opposite hand to unbutton her blouse. “Maybe if you could work out some frustration in here, it’d make it easier for both of us out there.”

It only took three long strides to put Nora in front of Elsa, and she let her hands ride Elsa’s waist as she bent to kiss the delicate skin Elsa exposed. “You just want me distracted and imagining what you look like under that skirt,” Nora whispered against Elsa’s neck.

Elsa made a soft sound, a cross between a laugh and a moan. “That would be unethical.”

Nora snorted as she suppressed a laugh herself, then she slid her hands down Elsa’s hips and back up again. Her fingertips grazed the stockings then Elsa’s bare thighs as she slipped the skirt up Elsa’s legs. “You are terrible.”

“Oh, please,” Elsa whispered as she tipped her head back to make more room for Nora, her fingers still opening her blouse button by button. “You love every second of this.”

Nora shrugged, though she conceded Elsa’s point. “One day we’re going to get caught, you know.”

Done unbuttoning her blouse for now, Elsa cupped her hand to the back of Nora’s head and pulled her up for a kiss. It was a short one, though it promised more later, if Nora could be patient. When they broke apart, Elsa grinned. “That just makes this even more fun.”

“And what will we tell them?” Nora couldn’t help but grin in return as she pulled Elsa’s skirt up as high as she could, then set to sliding Elsa’s blouse off her shoulders. She didn’t have time to strip Elsa completely — and what a waste, with the undergarments Elsa had selected today — but she’d try to enjoy as much of that soft skin as she could.

Elsa let her eyes drift closed as Nora exposed more of her, and she murmured, “You’re the one who’s good at defenses. You do the talking.”

“You’re impossible,” Nora whispered as she kissed along Elsa’s collarbone.

Elsa merely hummed in return, and slipped her fingers up into Nora’s hair. It seemed Elsa wasn’t content just to let Nora take her time — she must have had other things planned, and this would only be a quickie. She’d need to text Elsa later, Nora decided. This wouldn’t be enough for a full release of her stress.

Following Elsa’s guidance, Nora trailed a line of kisses down Elsa’s chest while she ran a hand over the smooth silk of her bra — Nora let out another exclamation of mixed frustration and enjoyment at that discovery — and rubbed the nipple under it to a peak with her thumb.

Even that focused stimulation got a reaction out of Elsa. She moaned low in her throat and her breathing picked up, making her chest rise and fall faster under Nora’s hands and lips. Nora didn’t have the time nor freedom to remove Elsa’s bra, so this would have to be the best she would get today, unless Elsa wanted to come over when Nora sent her the inevitable text inviting her there later tonight.

“Come on,” Elsa wriggled on the desk under Nora’s hands as she pressed her fingertips against Nora’s scalp. “Don’t waste our time here.”

Of course Elsa was right; the recess would only be so long and if Nora had any hope of reciprocity she needed to stop dawdling. She kept one hand on Elsa’s chest and slid the other one down between them, cupping the space between her thighs. “You’re so wet already,” she gasped against Elsa’s skin.

Elsa hummed as she brought Nora up for another kiss. “I’ve been thinking about you for a while,” she said between brushes of her lips against Nora’s. “Admittedly, it made it harder to focus.”

“We have to stop working on cases together,” Nora murmured even as she worked Elsa’s underwear over enough to slide a couple fingers over the soft flesh underneath them. “We’ll never do our clients justice if we keep thinking about fucking each other.”

“Hey.” Elsa leveled a stern glare at Nora. “No serious talks. You have a hand literally in my pants and that’s all I want to think about right now.”

“Just make sure you keep quiet,” Nora said as she slipped two fingers inside Elsa. “Don’t want us to get caught, after all.”

Elsa’s eyelashes fluttered as her eyes fell closed, but she clamped her lips shut over a moan. She rolled her hips as much as she could while sitting on the desk to meet Nora’s fingers. Her chest began to rise and fall with faster, shallower breaths.

Nora grinned, then nipped at Elsa’s lips as she moved her fingers faster within Elsa. “This is so worth the risk.”

She didn’t reply, but Elsa’s body spoke for her anyway. She leaned back again, dropping a hand from Nora’s hair to plant on the desk behind her as she splayed her legs out to make more room for Nora. It was truly a beautiful sight, Nora thought, to see Elsa give herself over to the pleasure. She was elegant like this, all spread out, long limbs and slender neck stretched in beautiful surrender.

It was difficult to keep quiet. Even Nora herself struggled to keep her noises under her breath, though Elsa’s obvious pleasure didn’t make it any easier. Nora caught her lower lip between her teeth to remind herself to stay silent, her fingers and thumb rubbing in tandem both within and outside of Elsa. This proved to be Elsa’s undoing; she brought the other fist down from Nora’s hair to press against her mouth, her body curling in on itself, fingernails digging into the desk under her. Always one to see how far she could push Elsa, inside of the courtroom and in their own private flings, Nora even pushed her farther here even though she’d already peaked.

“Enough,” Elsa gasped around her fist, and Nora complied.

She had her fingers halfway to her own lips before Elsa took Nora’s hand in her own and drew the fingers into her mouth. The way she cleaned them was obscene, and if Nora hadn’t already been resolved to text Elsa later to get her own release, she’d be set to it now. “You’re terrible,” Nora said.

Elsa grinned around the fingers, then slid them from between her lips with a soft pop. “I know. Text me later?”

“I had already started to compose the message in my head,” Nora said with a grin. “Your place, or mine?”

As she buttoned up her blouse again, Elsa pursed her lips with a thoughtful noise. “How about yours?”

“I’ll grab dinner for us on my way home, then. I’ll text you when I get there.”

“Sounds good,” Elsa said. “I presume you’d prefer if I kept all of this on?”

Please,” Nora said.

Elsa only grinned in response, hopped off the desk and tugged her skirt back down where it belonged, then slipped out into the courtroom again.

The recess would be over any minute now, and Nora needed to gather her wits and eat an energy bar before court resumed.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Elsa said, this time not from the lectern, but from the center of the courtroom itself. “Again, I am Elsa Strauss, and I am the prosecutor in this case.” She clasped her hands behind her back and turned to face the jury. “In my opening statement, I mentioned…”

Nora shook her head. A sinking feeling had settled itself into her gut, and from how Veronica seemed even smaller than she had during the opening statements, Nora knew she felt it too. They were going to lose this case. She’d had compelling evidence, photographs and medical reports included. The affair Veronica and Ryann carried out, however, combined with the infrequency of doctor’s visits after alleged beatings and the witness neighbor insisting that the Baldwins had been quiet and kept to themselves — and thus didn’t create enough of a disturbance to raise his suspicion — did not help their case.

Veronica was doomed.

Elsa’s voice grew loud enough to drag Nora back to the present, and she realized Elsa faced them now even as she continued to address the jury. “I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to reject what the defense claims is a valid argument in favor of the irrefutable evidence of what Mrs. Baldwin did to her husband’s body, so she could flee to California to live with her lover. No one should have to endure abuse,” she said, turning back to the jury as though she were unwilling to meet Veronica’s eyes by accident during this speech; “however, no one should have to endure the death and subsequent desecration of his body Mr. Baldwin faced.” Elsa raised her chin, drew a deep breath, and said, “What Mrs. Baldwin did was premeditated and heinous. I ask that you find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged. Thank you.”

Elsa looked up and met Nora’s eyes as she walked back to her own seat, and Nora could see a small measure of pity on Elsa’s face. She knew how hard Nora had worked, and she knew what Veronica had endured, but she had a job to do. Nora knew that, too. As much as she hated knowing that Veronica’s fate was sealed, she had to respect that Elsa was, in fact, one of the best at her job.

Nora took a deep breath, glanced over at Veronica, and stood.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…”

Nora did her best. She laid out the details of the case again, reiterating the abuses Veronica had endured. She described how Veronica had been isolated from friends and family — all except Ryann, who refused to let go of her despite Mr. Baldwin’s efforts. Without Ryann in her life, Veronica would have had no one but her husband and his fists. Killing her husband, Nora argued, was the only way Veronica could guarantee that she would live to see the next month, much less the next year.

Once she completed her closing arguments, Nora took her time taking her seat again. She’d done all she could. It was out of her hands; now it was up to the jury. She tried to find a small measure of hope but came up empty.

As Nora settled into her seat, the judge turned to the jury to dispense their instructions for coming to a verdict. He went through the legal requirements for the jury to find Veronica guilty, then he patiently explained the difference between first degree murder (which was what Elsa asked for) and voluntary manslaughter (which was the charge Nora requested). As he spoke, Nora glanced over at Veronica. Her head hung as she stared at the floor, and she picked the skin of her fingertips in silence. Veronica was thinner than she was when Nora first met her as the public defender assigned to her case, and Nora knew it was because she was too anxious about this case to eat anymore. Prison wouldn’t be good for her, even if she’d likely be protected there, surrounded by women who knew what it was to be abused.

Nora couldn’t help but grimace as the jury filed out of the courtroom, though she did her best to suppress the expression. In the end, they didn’t deliberate long. It was as Nora feared. They were called back into the courtroom only a couple of hours later, and the foreman of the jury stood, papers in hand, and read off the verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree. Ryann’s trial could start now, and with Veronica’s guilty verdict it would be even more difficult to prove Ryann’s innocence in this.

Veronica was led away in handcuffs. Nora couldn’t bear to watch her leave.

“I’m sorry,” Elsa murmured as she walked past, and Nora believed she was.

It was a long drive home from the courthouse; not necessarily because it was far away, but because everything felt like it took longer after losing a case. She felt robotic as she drove the car, her mind both focused on the road and yet at the same time, back in the courtroom. She arrived at her house without incident, and with no real idea how she’d gotten there.

With the car parked in the driveway she let her head fall back against the headrest, her eyes closed. She’d known this case would be rough from the start, but she hadn’t anticipated it being this draining. Her mood had swung in the opposite direction from the high it had been in the prep room with Elsa during the lunch recess. She couldn’t find it in her to even pull her phone out of her purse, much less call or text Elsa.

Nora spent nearly a half hour there in her car, engine running but radio off, trying to piece together what exactly had gone wrong in her defense. She thought she’d nearly figured her own mistakes out when her phone chiming broke into her thoughts.

Elsa had grown impatient and sent her own text message. Nora read it, and her eyes went wide. I can’t park with your car blocking the driveway.

She looked up at her rear view mirror and there, sitting behind her, was Elsa in her own car. When Nora turned in her seat to look at her Elsa waved, then pointed to her own phone. She must have been reminding Nora what the text had said.

With a grin, she hit the button on her garage door opener and pulled into her garage, leaving the driveway open for Elsa to park her own car. She climbed out of her car as quickly as she could and hugged Elsa. She always knew what Nora needed. “I’m glad you came.”

“Yeah, well, you had a rough afternoon,” Elsa said with a grin as she held up a bottle of wine. “And I figured you could use this… and the reminder of what I’m wearing under this suit.”

“Lucky for you,” Nora said with a grin, “I have wine glasses ready and waiting.” She hesitated, then frowned. “I didn’t grab any dinner.”

Elsa shook her head and smiled. “We’ll order delivery. What do you think about a classy dinner of Chinese and wine?”

Nora laughed. “Perfect.”

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