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A Hand On Your Face In The Dark

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June drags by, slow as a hearse.

Barba had planned this trip months in advance with mixed feelings -- not least of which was apprehension -- but now he can hardly wait to get on the plane. The morale at SVU is non-existent since Dodds’ death, and Barba won’t admit it but he hasn’t been doing very well either. He’d never been to a funeral like that before, and something about all those solemn uniforms and the wail of the bagpipes had left him more mournful than he'd been prepared for. He’d barely even known Dodds, but still. The man had been awfully young. He tries not to dwell on it, but then his thoughts only turn to his own mortality.

The death threats haven’t stopped, or even slowed, and Heredio’s arrest hasn’t turned up anything new. While there’s some relief in the squad knowing -- it had been exhausting but oddly comforting to go through every hang-up number, every vile text message, in excruciating detail with a grim-faced Benson -- he still doesn’t feel safe. He still looks over his shoulder as he walks down the hallway to his apartment, still holds his breath as he opens the door, still keeps his phone in his hand as he walks through each room, checking to make sure they’re all empty, and ready to call Benson if they’re not.

And he’s still having bad dreams.

So yes: he’s impatient to get away. So is his mother, especially since she (around the same time as Liv) learned about the threats. He’s only just barely been able to ward off her demands that he stay with her “until all this goes away,” and it’ll be a welcome break to spend time with her without the stress hanging over both their heads. 

But there’s something about the trip to Cuba that makes him nervous, too. He doesn’t let himself look quite directly at the feeling, but he knows he’s undertaking something significant here. The sting of the malaria vaccine, the embossed visa in his passport, the vacation paperwork filled out, the plane tickets printed and the hotels booked -- each little piece of evidence feels as if it points towards something huge, but he’s not sure what. Maybe he’d be more sure if he let himself examine the feeling at all. But he doesn’t want to, so he doesn’t.

June in New York is muggy and oppressive, but Barba leaves his apartment windows open at night. At least in Cuba there will a breeze. He wonders if they’ll be able to smell the ocean from Havana. He wonders whether his grandparents used to sleep like this, under only a light sheet with the night heat heavy over them. He wonders whether their son longed to visit someplace colder, or whether he never dreamed of leaving.

That’s another thing Barba doesn’t want to think about. So he doesn’t.

***

FRIDAY, JULY 1.

He comes into the precinct in a light summer suit, and Benson nearly does a double-take because he’s not wearing a tie. “Starting vacation early, Barba?” she smirks, gesturing at his outfit -- a dove grey sports jacket over a light purple shirt. No pocket square or suspenders today, but sharp as ever.

He rolls his eyes even as he automatically pats at his lapels to make sure his suit is perfectly in place. “Is it a vacation if you’re spending the entire time with your mother?” He’s returning her smirk but his fingers drum at the handle of his briefcase, and it’s not just coffee tremors. She knows better than to point it out to him, and instead turns to walk them to where the squad is gathered, reviewing evidence.

“That’s a good question,” she replies; “you’ll have to tell me the answer when you get back.”

“If I survive,” he mutters, and when she laughs his mouth quirks into something that’s almost a smile.

“Nice look,” Fin comments to Barba as the ADA surveys the whiteboard. “No tie, I like it. Taking your fashion ideas from me now, huh?”

“I’m here as a courtesy today,” Barba deadpans. “Keep up the commentary and I’ll be on my way.”

Rollins looks as if she’d like to do just that, for the fun of it, but instead she gestures to the photos they’ve got tacked up: “Good thing we’re just wrapping up the Hudson case, then,” she teases. “We got you that signed confession you asked for, by the way. A nice little gift to send you off.”

“More paperwork! Thank you, Detective.” There’s good humor under his snark, and she takes it as such.

Carisi inches his chair forward -- “So, who’re they giving us while you’re gone, Counselor?”

Barba raises an eyebrow. “Try to contain your excitement for my replacement; he’s only temporary.” His eyes flicker to Benson, holding hers for a moment with a significant look, and she wonders what he’s not saying about the other ADA. “His name is Scott Baker,” Barba belatedly answers, setting his briefcase on the table and opening it up. “He’s smart enough. Usually works with Homicide, but he took a few SVU cases back when he was in Queens. You’ll be in good hands as long as you play nice,” he says briskly, then looks more pointedly around the room as he neatly slides the paperwork Rollins gave him into his briefcase. “Well, is that everything?”

Carisi grins. “What, you came all the way down here just to bug us for five minutes, then you’re gone?”

Barba actually returns the smile, but Benson doesn’t miss the way his eyes flit to her again. “I’m feeling benevolent today,” he responds magnanimously, even as he clicks his briefcase closed and turns back towards the elevators.

“I’ll walk you out,” Liv offers before he’s even taken a step, and he looks pleased. She waits until they’re almost at the elevators before she asks, “So. Baker?”

They’ve been walking nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, and when he turns to face her the lopsided grin he gives is deliciously close. Neither of them moves away. “He’s fine, really,” he answers quietly. “Too quick to cut a deal, maybe. And I don’t think he likes me very much, but you won’t let him turn you against me, will you?”

She chuckles. “Of course not.” He straightens his jacket again, and she has a sudden, perverse urge to lift her hand and rumple him. Even in his near-vacation-wear he’s just a bit too perfect. She’d muck up his collar, she thinks idly, even mess his hair, leave it standing at all ends. She’s still smiling, imagining the look on his face, when the elevator opens with a ding.

“I’m not leaving until the sixth, you know,” he says suddenly, holding the doors open with one arm before he steps in. He looks to her as if he’s a bit surprised by himself, not sure why he’s telling her this. She waits. “I think -- well, it’ll be good to have some time to get ready.”

“Got that many clothes to pack?” she jokes gently, then continues before he can use it to deflect. “I get it, Barba. It makes sense.” She hesitates, wondering if she should suggest they meet up, maybe have dinner, between now and Wednesday. But she figures he could use the space, the time to relax -- the long weekend will be his real vacation; Cuba, she senses, will be something more difficult.

She leans forward, almost thinking to hug him goodbye, but claps him on the shoulder instead. “Take care of yourself, yeah? Have a safe trip. Don’t let your mom drive you too crazy.”

He snorts, steps into the elevator. “Good luck staying sane yourself, trying to keep all of them under control without me,” he snarks with a nod towards the squad room.

There’s a joke on the tip of her tongue -- something like we managed just fine before you came here -- but it doesn’t feel right, or even completely true, so she settles for a smile. Lets him have the last word. The smile he gives back looks just a bit bereft as the doors close between them, almost confused. As if he wanted to say something more but didn’t quite know how.

***

WEDNESDAY, JULY 6.

Ignoring his mother’s openly nosy look, Barba swallows down the valium almost as soon as they take their seats. He finishes the tiny complimentary water bottle while he’s at it, then settles in. Lucía pulls out her magazine, shuffles loudly through its pages for a moment, then does the same. He’s relieved she’s in a rare quiet mood; he’s exhausted and touchy, not up to chattering away with her like usual.

He closes his eyes as the plane engine rumbles to life, praying that the pill will let him sleep without dreaming. The last nightmare had left him in a cold sweat. He can barely remember it -- just a flash of William Lewis towering over him on the courthouse steps, whispering threats in Heredio’s voice. Or maybe it had been in the elevator of his apartment building? He’s been having nightmares throughout the long weekend, so maybe he’d dreamed them both, each on different nights. Wherever he was in the dreams, he’d somehow known that just somewhere out of sight, Benson was lying dead.

Barba shifts nervously in his seat without opening his eyes. He can hear Lucía turn a page, gets a whiff of her perfume as she does. It smells like her apartment, and reminds him of their monthly lunches. She'll often pick up a tie for him -- something nice that caught her eye -- when shopping for herself, and she lets them accumulate over months before remembering to bring them to one of their lunches, and then he gets six all at once. Even after sitting in the restaurant, then the cab, they always smell like her apartment when he pulls them out at home. He breathes in again and relaxes his shoulders a bit. The plane is picking up speed, and his stomach drops pleasantly as, all at once, its wheels leave the ground.

His thoughts are coming blessedly slower already, and wander ahead to Cuba. He imagines green mountains, a bright ocean, flowers and creeping vines and thick grass. He tries not to imagine the city where his father grew up, although that’s just where they’re headed.

When he does drift off, it’s into a dreamless sleep.

***

THURSDAY, JULY 7.

The door to the Lieutenant’s office is closed when ADA Scott Baker arrives. He pauses at the front desk, nodding vaguely to the officer manning it as he holds up his ID, his eyes scanning the room instead of meeting hers. There are cops bustling about, answering phones and escorting criminals to and from the holding cells, but Baker sees very few detectives. Only two, actually, a gangly man and a tired-looking blonde. He sighs -- this is what he has to work with?

He’s heading over to the man’s desk -- Carisi, he reads from the nameplate -- when a stocky black man with an earring in one ear (an earring? Really? No tie, either, Baker notes, struggling not to raise an eyebrow) opens the door of the Lieutenant’s office. He’s followed by a serious, good-looking brunette -- this must be Benson, he thinks. They’re mid-conversation when she notices Baker, and he doesn’t miss the wary look that flickers over her face. Well, then. Barba must have said something to her, he thinks, remembering how the DA had mentioned that the ADA and the Lieutenant were close. Typical. That man never knows when to shut his mouth.

“Lieutenant Benson,” Baker greets her, offering his hand -- may as well at least try to get off on the right foot. “I’m Scott Baker. I’ll be covering ADA Barba’s cases while he’s out of town.”

Her handshake is firm and brief. “It’s nice to meet you,” she says, and he’s reassured by the calm, professional way she speaks and carries herself.

“You too,” he says genuinely. “I’ve only heard great things.”

“Nice to know anyone’s saying great things about SVU at the DA’s office,” she laughs, sounding rueful. “We’re a bit short-staffed,” she adds, and though her voice doesn’t change its level tone, Baker sees the strained looks on the other detectives’ faces. He remembers William Dodds’ boy -- a real shame, what happened there. But he’d been hoping they’d have moved past that by now.

Benson turns to gesture to the three detectives, all standing now. “These are Detectives Carisi, Rollins, and Tutuola.” She gestures to each in turn, and there’s an awkward moment as each of them shakes his hand (“you can call me Fin,” the stocky man says) and another one afterwards as they all stand there, each waiting for someone else to speak.

“Actually,” Benson says after a moment, “I was wondering. We secured a signed confession in the Hudson case. I know Barba took the paperwork over to the DA. Will that one be going to trial?”

Baker chuckles. “No, no, we can’t afford another case against the university. I’m working with the DA to secure a deal between the victim and the administration."

Benson frowns slightly, and the others look similarly concerned.

“What about the rapist, how is he involved in the deal?” asks Detective Carisi.

Baker eyes him, trying to remember the courthouse gossip -- is this the one who wants to be a lawyer? “He won’t be staying at Hudson,” he answers.

“But he’s going to prison, right?” Carisi presses. “I mean, we got his confession and everything.”

“It’s under discussion with the DA,” Baker answers, with a look that clearly adds and this is not. “But regardless, you all did good work on that case. Good, solid work.” He smiles at them. “If the rest of the cases you bring me are like this, it’ll be smooth sailing.”

Fin laughs. “Not into the cases no one else will take, huh?”

Baker grins. “You can save the Hail Marys for ADA Barba,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to take away a chance for him to showboat, would we?” He’d expected them to laugh, but none of them seem to have gotten the joke.

“Barba doesn’t take difficult cases to showboat,” Benson says coolly. “He takes them because he knows every victim deserves to have someone fight for them. Even the ones who aren’t ‘perfect’ victims.”

Baker clears his throat. “Of course.” He doesn’t like the preachy tone she took with him, but he’ll let it slide. “Well, hopefully we won’t have to put too many of these victims through a trial at all,” he says. “Regardless, I’ve heard you’re dedicated detectives and I look forward to working with you all.”

This earns him a few smiles, and he feels fairly confident as he heads back to his office: he’s going to do good work here.

***

 THE SAME DAY.

Even the air is different here.

That’s Rafael’s first thought as they step off the plane at José Martí International Airport. Even inside the building he can sense it, and as they leave Terminal 2, walking through open-air halls to Arrivals, the feeling only grows stronger. A strange fluttering high in his stomach, or maybe in his chest.

The air is soft and heavy with humidity, a presence in itself like an arm slung comfortably around his shoulders. The evening temperature is a touch too warm, but when a slight breeze picks up it’s just perfect. Rafael thinks he can smell flowers. Honeysuckle, maybe, and he takes in a sweet breath.

A family chattering loudly in Spanish passes them, and he realizes with a start how slowly he and his mother are walking. He glances at her and she looks dazed. He thinks probably does too.

The strange feeling retreats a bit at the familiar annoyance of customs. “Dios mío, this line,” Lucía mutters. “I didn’t think there would be so many tourists coming already.”

Rafael snorts. “Mami, we’re tourists,” he says, knowing the word isn’t quite right even as he speaks it.

“Mijo, we’re exiles.” There’s a half-smile on her face, like she’s laughing at herself for making one of her characteristic over-dramatic declarations, but he knows she’s only half joking.

And she’s half right.

An exile. Rafael has never used that word to describe himself before, and the dizzying dissonance of it -- or lack of dissonance -- doesn’t have time to sink in before he reaches the front of the line. He’s still wide-eyed when the customs agent waves him forward.

“Name?” the man asks in English.

He blinks, then slides over his passport. “Rafael Barba,” he says. Pronouncing it properly, with the easy, lightly rolled Rs that he usually flattens out when he introduces himself in New York.

The man nods, and for some reason Rafael is slightly offended when he continues in English: “Is this your first time in Cuba?”

“Sí,” Rafael says pointedly.

The man’s face doesn’t change its look of concentration. “What is the purpose of your trip?”

Rafael is tongue-tied for a moment before he can answer. “Ocio,” he says, glancing sideways at his mother, who is giving the same answer to an agent two booths down. Leisure. Like “tourist,” the word isn’t right, but he’s not going to hash that out with this man. Ernesto Núñez, his nametag says. Why won’t he reply in Spanish?

“And what do you do for a living?” Ernesto asks, holding the stamp just over Rafael’s passport.

“Soy un abogado,” Rafael answers, angry now that the man refuses to switch languages. Is he too stupid to hear that he’s fluent? What is he trying to say, sticking to English as if Rafael is the kind of American who can’t understand anything else?

Ernesto shrugs, apparently satisfied. The stamp comes down on the passport, and he gestures for Rafael to step back to have his photo taken for his tourist card. Rafael doesn’t have time to adjust his face before the flash goes off, and even before the picture comes out he knows how he’ll look: lowered brows, dark eyes, pinched mouth. Not like a man visiting for leisure, but maybe that’s fitting.

The printer makes a heavy cha-chung noise as it spits out the card. After tearing it along its serrated edge, Ernesto hands Rafael his half. “Keep this on you,” he instructs, “and you will return it when you come back to the airport.”

Rafael hoists his bag higher on his shoulder, impatiently taking the card along with his passport without looking at his picture. He’s about to turn to leave when the other man suddenly gives him a genuine, wide smile.

“Thank you for helping me practice my English,” Ernesto says, enunciating carefully although his accent is already nearly perfect. “Welcome back to Cuba.”

Nodding quickly with a smile he hopes is as friendly as Ernesto deserves, Rafael hurries away. His heart is pounding. He glances behind him to make sure his mother is still occupied at her booth, then takes a deep breath, blinking quickly as he looks up at the ceiling. The strange mix of emotions in him isn’t one he’s felt before, and it takes him a minute to pick them apart: shame for thinking so poorly of a kind man, and a not entirely unpleasant combination of gratitude and embarrassment at being welcomed back to a place he’d never been before, and never tried hard enough to visit sooner.

He’s regained his composure by the time Lucía joins him. They’re both quiet as they collect their luggage and wait at the taxi stand for a cab to take them to the hotel. The sun is going down by the time they reach the front of the line, and Rafael -- who had been zoning out a bit -- realizes how tired he is as he loads their bags into the trunk. He gives the driver the name of their hotel, and is relieved when the man only grunts affirmatively in response rather than trying to start a conversation.

Rafael rolls down the window -- actually rolls it, with a crank; it’s an old car -- and rests his head on the frame. Next to him Lucía is doing the same time. He takes a deep, slow breath, then another, and with each one he feels it more and more: he’s here. On this island he never thought he’d see. Where his father grew up, then fled from to escape Fidel -- who, retired now, still lives in the city Rafael’s father left behind forever. And here he is, just under a year after his country and the country of his father, of his grandparents, of all the ancestors he knows of, have opened their doors to each other again for the first time in decades.

It’s a lot, and he knows it’s throwing him off. Poor Ernesto. Normally Rafael could have read him right away, seen he was a good guy, but today -- well, today he’s not quite himself. He’s not quite sure who he is here, this place he’s heard of all his life but never been before.

He wishes his abuelita could have come with them, could have been here to show them her old home and to see it again herself.

He thinks his mother is thinking the same thing, because he can hear her take a shaky breath.

He quietly takes her hand, and she squeezes. They both stare out into the dark, heads turned away from each other. 

***

FRIDAY, JULY 8.

It’s two days after Barba leaves town that a call comes from the hospital. Fin takes it, making a few notes as the nurse gives her mandatory report. Benson is standing in the doorway of her office when he hangs up, and he catches her eye right away. “Liv, we got a vic at Mercy General. Four months pregnant, beat up pretty bad but she’s not talking to the nurses.”

She nods. “Ok, Fin, Rollins, you take this one -- try to get a statement from her.” Carisi glances up, a bit anxious as the other two head out. Benson knows she chose the right two to go; Fin was the one who took the call and Amanda is getting better at building rapport with mothers. But that’s not why Carisi looks bereft, is it?, she thinks. It’s not being left behind -- it’s being the only one left. Her mouth twists slightly as she goes back into her office, leaving him to his paperwork.

She doesn’t look at Dodds’ empty desk.