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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.

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 8.

The vic, Amira Williams, does not look happy to see two detectives in her hospital room. Although, Rollins thinks ruefully, it doesn’t look like the woman could have smiled if she wanted to. Her face is swollen and bruised, and her left wrist is in a cast. A hairline wrist fracture, the doctor had said, adding with a significant look that she also had multiple rib fractures, all at different stages of healing. Then there had been the ER nurse’s testimonial: the vic had driven herself to the hospital, broken wrist and all, insisting at first there’d been an accident before suddenly breaking into tears on the examination table and whispering something, nearly inaudible, about being afraid of her husband. This was enough for the nurse to call SVU, and Rollins is glad she did.

Amira’s non-injured hand rests on her stomach. She’s a petite woman and looks closer to three months along than four, thinks Amanda, remembering the odd discomfort of her own pregnancy.

“Are you from the judge’s office?” Amira asks as soon as Fin flashes his badge. He and Rollins exchange a wary look. “I already told him,” Amira goes on, “I changed my mind. You can leave.”

“Detectives Rollins and Tutuola,” Fin answers easily. “We’re from Manhattan SVU.”

Amira’s eyes dart back and forth between them, looking almost panicked. “Changed your mind about what, honey?” Rollins asks, leaning her head to one side to better meet Amira’s eyes.  

The woman looks like she wants nothing more than to be left alone, so she can lean the hospital bed back down flat, turn off the lights, and fall asleep. But Rollins’ gaze doesn’t waver.

“Nothing,” Amira says evasively, then hastily adds, “it was a mistake on my part. I misunderstood something.”

Rollins senses that Amira will clam up completely if she’s pushed on this, so with a glance to Fin she switches tacks. “Okay, that’s alright,” she says quietly. “But can you tell us how this happened?”

“It was an accident,” she answers quickly.

“Yeah, that’s what the nurse told us you said,” Rollins nods, “but there’s not a scratch on your car. Can you tell us what kind of accident?”

Amira hesitates. “It wasn’t a car accident. I -- I’m not sure who it was.”

“So someone did this to you?” Rollins asks. “Can you tell us what they looked like?” She knows what the nurse said about her husband, but she wants to wait and see if Amira will bring him up herself.

Sure enough, the first thing she does is alibi him. “My husband, Earl, he was still at work,” Amira says, avoiding Rollins’ eyes. “Someone broke into the house. It was a man,” she adds, glancing up, “and, I don’t know, maybe he thought no one was home and he wanted to take some things. I guess I surprised him.” She’s picking at the blanket with her right hand, fingers moving in time with the steady beep of the monitor. “It happened really quickly.” She’s almost whispering now. “He pushed me down the stairs. That’s all I remember.”

Rollins exchanges a look with Fin, and he steps forward. “You drove here this morning, right?” he asks, notepad out. “But the doctor mentioned this happened last night.” Amira hesitates, and her hand freezes. “Why didn’t your husband take you to the hospital when he got home?” He asks the question innocently, but they all know what’s behind it.

“He -- we thought I was fine,” Amira says quickly. “It didn’t really hurt, and we even did that thing, you know, where you shine a light and your pupils expand and it means you didn’t hit your head too hard? So we knew I was okay. And then this morning after he went to work, um, my wrist really started to hurt, so I came here.”

“You’re four months pregnant and you didn’t come here right away?” Rollins asks gently. “Or file a police report? Did the guy take anything?”

Amira looks close to tears. “No, I could tell the baby was fine! I could tell right away, she was kicking and everything, she’s fine.” Rollins nods slowly. “I just -- I fell, we thought I was fine, and then after he left for work this morning I realized I wasn’t so I came here.” It rolls of her tongue as neat as a recitation.

“You fell, or someone pushed you?” Rollins asks.

“He pushed me,” Amira snaps. “The intruder. I already told you that.”

“Okay,” Fin says smoothly. “How about your husband? Why didn’t you call him to take you here?”

“I did call him. I mean, I called him when I got here. I knew he was in a meeting earlier and I just, I didn’t think it was a big deal, it’s just my wrist, so I waited to call him,” she says.

“It’s your face, too, honey,” Rollins says softly. “Not just your wrist.”

Amira is suddenly angry again, glaring at Rollins as best she can. “I know . It hurts.” She shuts her eyes, takes a breath, and visibly calms. “Listen, it’s fine. I’m fine. I don’t even know why you’re here.”

“If there’s been a crime, we’ll need to follow up on that,” Fin says.

“Okay, well, I don’t know what to tell you,” Amira says flatly. “I barely saw him. He was, I guess he was tall. White. He was wearing a mask so I didn’t see his face.”

Rollins nods, businesslike. “That’s alright, what you gave us helps.” She looks up from her notepad. “We’ll need you to come down to the station later to give a formal report.” Amira hesitates, and Rollins decides to push her just a bit. “Listen, I know you don’t want to come down and file a false report. Is there something else you haven’t told us?”

She knows it’s a mistake the second the words leave her mouth. Amira’s face goes blank even as she looks Rollins straight in the eyes.

“I don’t want to make any report,” she says. Her voice is perfectly steady. “And I’d like you both to leave now.”

They do, and as Rollins glances back she sees a faint look of surprise on Amira’s face. As if she's not used to people listening when she says “no.”

Rollins and Fin are quiet as the elevator takes them down. Neither of them needs to say it: they're both wondering where the hell Earl Williams is, and when they'll get to talk to him.

***

SATURDAY, JULY 9.

They’d spent the previous day exploring Havana -- walking along El Malecón and breathing in the ocean air, visiting the Plaza de la Revolución and looking up at Che Guevara’s likeness with wary eyes, admiring all the old cars and complaining to each other about the music blasting far too loudly from them. They’d gotten shaved ice, and Rafael had gotten a sunburn. They’d avoided his father’s old neighborhood, and avoided talking about avoiding it.

Today, the Barbas are in no particular rush; they don’t need to start out until the early afternoon.

Rafael spends nearly the whole morning asleep, and Lucía leaves him to it (God knows he needs it, she thinks); she sits out on the sunny balcony with her magazines and her notebook. He’s grumbly when he wakes up, and keeps grumbling until the hotel’s ancient coffee maker croaks to life, at which point he stands over it -- both hands firmly planted on the counter -- until it spits out a cup’s worth of weak coffee, which he drinks while he waits for the next to brew.

He’s in a better mood by his third cup, and wanders out to the balcony to squint at their surroundings with Lucía: taller buildings block them from seeing the ocean, and below them buses and cars honk at each other in a poor imitation of the volume of New York traffic.

“It’s not a very nice view,” she sniffs, and he grunts in agreement before getting his book (Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect ) and pulling up a chair to join her. “Your sunburn is going to get worse,” she comments idly, and he ignores her, knowing as well as she does that it’ll peel away into a tan soon enough.

They read in comfortable silence together for an hour or so, Lucía pausing to write in her notebook every now and then, until Rafael stands and stretches. “Should we go get the car?” he asks, already heading inside to get ready.

 

It’s a bright blue Plymouth station wagon. Rafael stares at it for a moment before turning to the owner, a grizzled 70-something man nothing like the polished businessman he had pictured when the hotel clerk referred him, promising “he's the best, I send all the tourists to him, he has all the best cars.” This does not look like the best car, not even compared to the other ancient models they saw on the street during their cab ride over here.

Rafael glances from the owner to the car, then back again. “What’s the year on this -- ? No, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.”

Lucía rolls her eyes. “Please ignore my rude son,” she says to the owner, who remains stoic. As soon as they're out of his earshot, loading their bags in the back, she looks at Rafael skeptically. “Are you sure you can drive this thing, mijo?”

“Better than you can,” snips Rafael as he settles into the driver’s seat, and Lucía (who hasn't driven since she lived in Miami in the 60s) scoffs. “It’ll just take me a few minutes to figure out the stick shift.” He’s driven stick before, but never with a car this old. He eyes its owner, who is standing back with his arms folded, clearly wondering if he made the right choice renting his Plymouth out to these Americans. “Here,” Rafael says, digging out his wallet, “just -- he’s making me nervous, just give him some more pesos and ask him to leave us alone. Nicely.”

“You just don’t want him watching while you ruin his gears with your so-called ‘figuring out the stick shift,’” Lucía says, ignoring his eye roll as she takes the money. Rafael tries to look busy as she chatters away with the man, and is relieved when he nods and walks away smiling.

“Happy?” Lucía asks, opening the passenger door. “Ready, or do we need to wait for him to be a mile away? No?” She slaps the dashboard with mock impatience. “ Dale , Rafi, let’s go.”

He rolls his eyes again, but she’s only teasing, and there’s a smile tugging at his lips too. It disappears as soon as he turns the key in the ignition and the Plymouth lets out an awful groan -- but then the engine turns over, starts sounding like a normal car, and he shifts into drive.

This time the noise is much worse. “Rafi, what are you doing to this poor man’s car!” Lucía exclaims as he curses. “And watch your language.”

He swears again, but under his breath this time as he jerks at the gearshift, eases it into place, and pushes down on the gas pedal. Finally the car starts to lurch forward. It still doesn’t sound quite right, but it’s moving.

“Thank God,” Lucía says, throwing her hands up dramatically as they rumble down the road, their bags jostling loudly in the back and the sun in their faces.

The windshield is spotless, Rafael has to admit, and the car runs much more smoothly that it looked like it would -- probably would run even better if he was any good at driving stick. But he'll get better as they go, he figures. He lowers his aviators against the afternoon sun as they head out of Havana.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Half the squad is supposed to be off on Saturdays, but they’re so short-staffed everyone’s pulling overtime for the Williams case. And although they still haven't been able to get ahold of Earl, they’re mostly agreed: it’s a case about the Williams couple.

“It’s hard to say for sure because they won’t let us into the apartment,” Carisi grouses, “but there’s no evidence there was ever any intruder. We talked to the doorman and he didn’t see any strangers coming into the building that day, and there have been zero reports --” he makes a little zero with his fingers -- “of other break-ins or intruders in the area, even though the M.O. on this one doesn't read like a first time.”

“The superintendent is taking forever to get back to me, but as soon as I get it I’ll check the security footage to make sure,” Rollins adds. “But from the way Amira was talking at the hospital, she’s covering for her husband.” Fin nods.

“Okay, pending the footage, we may be able to rule out an intruder,” Benson says carefully. “But let’s go back for a moment. Amira and Earl Williams -- what do we know about them as a couple? How long they’ve been married, when they met, do we have any of that? Any concrete reason to suspect him?”

Rollins nods. “I haven’t had time to dig deep yet, but looking at their social media accounts and profiles on their company websites, it looks like they met in grad school in Pennsylvania. He’s from California, she’s from Texas -- maiden name Seif -- and they both graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2014. He does computer programming and she’s an engineer, so, different programs, but there are pictures of them as a couple going back to late 2012. So they’ve got some history.” She glances around at the rest of the squad. “A relationship like this, I’d be surprised if this is the first time she’s gotten hurt like this.”

“Okay,” Benson nods slowly. “Rollins, we need you to look more in-depth at their social media accounts. Get what you can from looking at what’s public, and I’ll talk with Baker about getting a warrant to look into their accounts from the inside. Fin, Carisi, you two follow up with Williams. Talk to him on his turf, somewhere he’s comfortable and won’t get nervous -- just get as much from him as you can without letting him know he’s a suspect.”

“How can this guy think he’s not a suspect?” Carisi asks. It’s mostly rhetorical -- he knows how, but it still amazes him how self-blinded these types of men can be. “What an idiot.” Rollins nods absently.

“Just don’t spook him,” Benson says sternly. “We can’t afford for him to lawyer up this early in the investigation. Don’t even mention that we’re looking at the security camera footage, okay?”

Fin grunts in agreement as he stands up. “You got it, boss.”

Benson watches the two of them for a moment as they start to confer over Williams’ schedule, then returns to her office. Adjusting the photo of Noah on her desk as she sits down (his smile is contagious, always, even on the worst days), she sighs and picks up the phone. Her fingers automatically dial Barba’s office -- she catches herself, hangs up before the first ring completes, and punches out the number on the post-it note she has taped to her computer.

“ADA Scott Baker’s office,” a receptionist answers.

“This is Lieutenant Benson,” she replies. “I need to speak with ADA Baker about an ongoing case.”

“I’ll transfer you,” the receptionist says brightly, and promptly puts her on hold.

A few moments later, Baker picks up and answers.

“ADA Baker, this is Lieutenant Benson,” she says. “I’m calling --”

“Benson!” he says, sounding pleased. “Nice to hear from you. How is your day going?”

“Fine,” she answers, a bit taken aback. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m doing well,” he replies, sighing expansively. “That hot dog stand down by the courthouse moved, so it took me a little while to find my lunch, but I got it after all.” He chuckles to himself.

“Um.” Benson frowns at her desk. “Right. I was calling about an investigation?”

“Ah,” he says, and she thinks there’s a slight edge of annoyance in his voice. Is he really upset she doesn’t want to waste time talking about hot dogs? She decides to ignore it. “Well, what can I help you with, Lieutenant?”

“We need a warrant to look into the social media accounts of a married couple, Amira and Earl Williams,” she says. “She’s been the victim of an attack, and we have reason to believe her husband is responsible.”

“And what reasons are those?” Baker asks.

Benson knows their evidence is thin even as she outlines the case for Baker, so she follows up to add: “regardless of whether Earl Williams is responsible, we know that Amira was attacked by someone , and being able to look into her social media would go a long way towards figuring out who did it.”

“Unless it was a random intruder, as she alleges,” Baker says dryly. “Listen, I can’t get you a warrant for this. That may change if you can get more evidence that Mrs. Williams was attacked by someone she knows, but until then… there’s just not enough to go on.”

“Understood,” Benson answers, her mouth twisting slightly.

“And Lieutenant,” Baker adds, “in general, while we’re working together, it may be a better use of our time if you loop me in later on in investigations. I don’t need to know every detail of the early stages. Call me when you’ve got solid evidence for a warrant, or if you’re preparing to make an arrest. Sound good?”

“Well, I certainly didn’t intend to waste your time,” Benson says, struggling to keep the annoyance out of her voice. At least when she was frustrated with Barba, she thinks, she didn’t have to pretend she wasn’t. “I’ll keep that in mind next time.”

“Thank you,” he says crisply. “Have a good day.”

“You too,” she says, but he’s already hung up.

***

SUNDAY, JULY 10.

It’s a long drive. Looking at the map in New York, tracing their fingers along unfamiliar roads, they had decided to split it into two days, take the whole weekend to get there. More time for sightseeing, Barba had said, watching his mother out of the corner of his eye. She’d nodded as she flattened the curling edges of her old paper map (who knows if those roads were even still there, he thought with only a little exasperation). “Yes,” was all she had said then, which he knew meant and more time to figure out what to say when we arrive, and let’s not talk about this. So they didn’t.

And now they’re on their second day of wending their way along the road that will take them past Las Tunas, past Guantanamo even, to nearly the easternmost tip of the island, where his abuela had grown up. The road is awful: bumpy and full of potholes so bad that sometimes Rafael can’t avoid them at all, and can’t even slow the car enough to smooth out the jolt and fall of them because the Plymouth might stall entirely if he does, leaving them stranded, and that’s the last thing he wants, having to get out and push it in the muggy heat of the middle of nowhere.

It doesn’t help that he’s not very good at driving. Well -- he’s getting better, not that anyone would know it from his mother’s criticisms. “Rafi, you’re going to rattle the teeth from my head if you keep driving through potholes like this.” “Rafi, slow down around this curve, do you want to get us killed?!” “Mijo, why don’t you hurry up a bit, or do you want to get there next week instead of tomorrow?” But she says it all with a smile, only really snapping when he tries to grab that old map from her hands -- “stop, you’re going to tear it, I’ll tell you where to turn” -- and most of the time he’s smiling too.

He does rely on her to tell him whenever they need to turn south or west: he’s not sure of the roads at all despite studying them and putting together their itinerary. (That’s what Rafael calls it, an itinerary, although Lucía teases him for using such a stuffy word.) He’s the one who, over several infuriating emails through a so-called travel agent and then several more with the actual proprietors, booked the bed-and-breakfast places they’d stay in along the way. He’d chosen them carefully for location, safety, and -- scrounging up whatever facts he could find about them (and giving an idle appreciative thought towards good detective work) -- the likelihood that Lucía would genuinely enjoy them. She isn’t good at being in other people’s homes, likes to fuss about any perceived mess, rearrange their knick-knacks, turn up her nose when the curtains clash with the bedspread. Rafael is exactly the same but pretended he was only being picky for her sake as he booked the spots.

As the afternoon wears on and they get closer to the bed-and-breakfast where they’ll be staying, he finds himself wanting to ask her about the town where they’ll arrive tomorrow. He’s not even sure what he wants to ask -- it’s not as if she’s been there before, or knows more about it than he does -- but finally he clears his throat and glances over at her. She’s staring out the window, drumming her fingers on her knee.

“You said she still might have family there,” he says. It’s a question disguised as a statement, as if he knows where the conversation will go.

Lucía doesn’t look at him. “Yes,” she says.

“So?” he prods. “Who?”

She shrugs, then leans forward to fiddle with the radio. “I don’t know.” It’s an obvious lie -- he knows that tone, and she knows he does, but Lucía doesn’t even pretend to be abashed. Instead she tries to tune into a station, but only catches snatches of songs coming through the static. It’s an unpredictable, annoying sound, and Rafael has to resist the urge to snap at her to stop.

“Come on, Mami. I know she wasn’t married. Isn’t that why she left? He was married to another woman?”

Lucía shoots a glare at him. “He wasn’t,” she says. “Neither of them were married. And my grandparents didn’t want them to be, either, so they moved your abuela to Miami, thank God.”

He knows his mother and his grandmother were both always grateful for that, truly. Thankful that Lucía could be born an American citizen, that Catalina left years before other Cubans had to flee from something much more large and ruinous than a pregnancy out of wedlock. And thankful to escape the utter shame and scandal of that pregnancy, too, a judgment that Rafael, despite all those years of Catholic church as a child, knew he still couldn’t quite imagine the all-encompassing nature of, the way it would have made his grandmother’s life unlivable had she stayed.

“And did he marry?” Rafael presses. His hands are tighter on the steering wheel now.

“How should I know?” Lucía snaps, jabbing at the radio’s buttons.

“You talked about it, didn’t you?” He knows they did. He’d always wished they’d included him in those conversations, even though he knows he was always too young and then too far away to be invited.

Lucía slumps slightly in her seat, abandoning the radio. She doesn’t turn it off, though, and the static hisses away like a third voice in the car. “She always said he may have.”

“So there might be other Barbas there,” he says. If little else, at least he knows the basic family tree: a grandfather with the name Barba, which Catalina passed down to Lucía even as she kept her maiden name Díaz, and which Rafael himself then took back as soon as he turned eighteen, shedding his father’s surname like he did El Barrio and everything else painful and low he left behind for Harvard.

“I don’t know,” Lucía repeats. “She didn’t hear much from him, Rafael.”

He blinks, startled to learn his abuela had ever heard from Lucía’s father at all after leaving. “But they spoke? What did he say? Did she tell you?”

“Mijo, none of it is certain,” she bites out, gesturing emptily at the air in front of her as if to show him all she knew, or didn’t know. “You and your questions, you know she didn’t like to talk about it, or you would know if you’d spent more time with her.”

Rafael jerks the gear shift too harshly as they start up a hill, and there’s an awful grinding noise as the car briefly stalls -- he presses his foot hard against the accelerator, and they heave forward suddenly, both of them jerked forward without warning and then dropped back as the car starts to move up the slope.

“Careful!” she admonishes.

“It’s fine,” he grits out, his knuckles white as he grips the wheel. She’s right and he hates it, hates himself for letting it be true, for still trying to make up for it a year later with those monthly lunches with his mother, with this fucking trip. “It’s fine, don’t tell me anything, surprise me.” Rafael knows he sounds bitter and passive-aggressive, but he can’t help it. “Keep it to yourself, if that’s so fun for you.” He resists the reckless impulse to gun the engine on their way down the hill, and settles for pointedly turning off the radio. The resulting silence is somehow worse than the static, but he doesn’t turn it back on.

They both glare out at the road for a minute or so, and Lucía relents first.

“She said she thought he had another daughter,” she says, and although her voice isn’t soft at least it’s a bit quiet. “You might have cousins there. Well, half-cousins.”

There’s another thought he can’t quite wrap his head around. “How is this the first I’m hearing this?” he demands. “You didn’t think to tell me when we were planning this trip?”

“I don’t even know if any of it is even true, Rafael,” she answers impatiently. “Neither did your abuela. It’s all based on rumor, think about that for a moment, rumors going all the way across the ocean like that, and think about how mixed up they could get. What’s that word you like to use so much?”

He rolls his eyes; she knows the word, is just asking rhetorically to make a dramatic statement of it. “Hearsay? Is that it? Think about all that hearsay,” she continues, waving her hands again, with sharper, angrier gestures this time. “Who knows. And there was never any point in asking much more; we never thought we’d be able to come back here, none of us. Not even you. So just calm down.” As if she’s so calm, he thinks bitterly, but doesn’t say it.

“You can’t know everything in advance,” she adds, drumming her fingers against the dashboard. The map still rests in her lap, its corners fluttering slightly in the breeze coming through the window.

“I know,” he snips. “But you should have told me what you knew, Mami, or what you’d heard. Once you knew we were coming here, you should have told me.”

Lucía shakes her head. “Well, now I’ve told you.”

Rafael still doubts she’s told him everything she knows or suspects, but there’s no point in pressing her more. So he glares through the windshield instead, trying to figure out why he’s so angry. Yes, it’s the lying -- now and for years before, no one ever telling him. And yes, she was right: it’s also that he never showed up for those conversations, never gave his abuela a real chance to tell him. But, he thinks, his anger flaring again, his hands fists around the steering wheel, was Mami really blaming him for getting out and staying out? They both know he made the right choice by leaving. It’s not his fault he made it so many years before she did.

He lets out a breath, trying to calm his skittering nervousness at the idea that someone could be waiting for them at the end of the road. Did he have a family? The idea sends a not entirely pleasant thrill through him. Would they like him? Somehow the thought that they might, that he might like them too -- if they even exist, he reminds himself -- upsets him more. All those lost years. Except that even had they always known about one another, not much could have happened differently. Not really. Maybe he and Lucía would have been on this road one year earlier, with a better idea of their way, but anything more than that? No. Cuba was closed, shut off from them. What would have been the point, knowing there was anyone left there when he never could have spoken to them, let alone visited?

Rafael chews the inside of his cheek. There would have been a point, he knows. There would have been a difference. They should have told him. He should have known.

There’s something else, too.

What kind of person had he been, this man who his abuela left behind? What kind of children did he raise? Did he raise them at all, or abandon them to their mother as he did to Lucía? Rafael wants to ask her: “Were they in love? Was he a good man?”

What he really wants to know is why his great-grandparents refused to avoid scandal by allowing them to marry.

The only reason Rafael can think of makes his stomach turn, but there’s no way he can ask his mother if her mother was raped.

Outside the car, jungle greenery is turning more sparse -- he thinks maybe they’re approaching the town where they’ll be staying the night.

“Are we close?” he asks Lucía after a moment. He keeps his voice level.

She squints at the upcoming intersection -- no stop signs, no traffic lights, just two deteriorating roads crossing each other with the start of a town just visible around the bend of the one they’re not on. She looks back down at the map.

He pauses at the intersection, letting the car idle as she looks closer. “There’s no street signs,” she mutters, still sounding angry. “Maybe we should ask for directions.”

She sounds like she hates the idea as much as he does, so he waits patiently for her to take it back.

After a moment, she looks up from the map. “No, we don’t need to. This isn’t the town, I’m sure of it.”

He looks at her skeptically and she refuses to meet his gaze, keeping her head straight and her chin up as she looks out in front of them.

“Fine,” he says after a moment. He switches gears smoothly this time, and they continue forward.

When they eventually settle into a passing-for-comfortable silence, Barba forces himself to focus on being pleased that he’s gotten much better at driving, at least on the flat parts of the road. He doesn’t say anything about it, though; to do so would just be asking for a sarcastic reply and he’s not in the mood. Instead he tries to appreciate the breeze coming through the windows and feel grateful that his sunburn has finally stopped itching and has started to turn into a real tan.

The corner of his mouth twitches towards a smile when he thinks of how Benson will tease him about it -- “nice tan, Barba; I can’t believe you actually spent time outside ,” he can hear her saying.

It only takes them another hour or so to reach the little town where they’ll be staying the night, and by then they’ve both decided they’re happy to pretend the earlier argument never happened. It’s a relief to park the car outside the little house where they’ll be staying, and Rafael shakes out his right arm as he gets out; it’s sore from wrestling with the stick shift all day. He’s hungry, too, and tired, and still a bit grumpy, but he puts on a good face for the proprietor as he and Lucía haul their bags inside.

It’s a nice establishment -- the building clearly used to be a home, but has been thoroughly renovated, with a large front room featuring a check-in desk, a table stacked with tourist brochures, and a wall decorated with the flags of the countries of the guests who have stayed here over the years: Spanish, Canadian, British, Italian, German, Mexican, French, Russian, Argentinian, and, looking brighter and newer as if it’s just recently been added to the wall, American. There’s an air conditioning unit on the far wall, but it’s a pleasant day, so it’s off and the windows are all open. When the wind blows through, Rafael can smell the ocean. All the travel guides said this town was good for tourists, and he can see why. The place is quiet except for the woman typing slowly at the old computer at the front desk -- Rafael gets a glimpse of a cozy but empty dining room down the hall, and realizes all the other guests must be out for the evening, enjoying the fine weather and the nearby beach.

For a moment he regrets they didn’t arrive earlier to do the same, but he’s so tired from the drive that he can’t bring himself to mind too much. He just wants to eat, then sleep. Without dreaming.

“Hello,” he says, approaching the desk as Lucía wanders over to the table and starts flipping through a brochure. “Reservation under Barba, please.” He sees his mother glance at him out of the corner of his eye, and wonders what she’s thinking.

As soon as they get up the stairs, she tells him. “You’ve lost your New York accent,” she says, and he’s more relieved and touched than he’ll admit to hear her relaxed, teasing tone is back. “Your Spanish is different; you sound like a real Cubano now,” she adds, unlocking the door to her room as Rafael does the same just across the hall.

Lucía’s voice is still light and happy as she continues: “You sound just like your father.”

He stares at the door in front of him. Room 10. The brass numbers are held to the wood of the door with screws of the same color, dull in the hallway light. The door itself is a rustic sort of red and matches the curtains at the windows at the end of the hall. The windows are open up here too, the breeze still coming in and carrying with it the suddenly loud sound of tree frogs -- under that, the distant break of waves makes him think of the static on the radio.

Maybe she’s turned around, seen the way his shoulders have tensed under the strap of his bag. Or maybe she’s staring at her door too, listening too, and maybe she’s heard that he stopped breathing a moment ago. Or maybe she’s just realized the obvious too late.

Whatever the reason, she sounds sorry when she speaks again. “It’s a good thing, mijo,” she says quietly. “You fit right in, like you were born here.”

He shakes his head once, slowly, and opens the door. “Goodnight, Mami.”

 

Later, lying in bed, he can’t muster up the energy to be angry. Instead he’s just bewildered that she could have said it at all, much less in that happy tone, as if she thought it was a compliment. As if it could ever be possible for him, on any day, in any place, in any imaginable scenario and in any not imagined either, to be flattered by a comparison to the man who used to beat them both. He knows what she would say if she could hear his thoughts now: mijo, he meant well. He just didn’t know how to control himself.

The truth is that Rafael can’t remember his father’s voice except as a shout, can’t remember the man speaking anything but threats and slurs and insults and demands. He doesn’t want to remember anything else, either. What’s the point? Whatever apologies his father may have wept, whatever sweet kind things he may have said or done for his wife or his son, he still said and did those other things too. There’s no use remembering visits to the park and the movies, or family lunches, or singing together in the car, because Lucía’s wrist still has fracture lines in it and Rafael’s ribs do too; their bodies still bear, deep inside them, they way he chose to hurt them, the way he did it over and over and over again. He hadn’t been thinking of any of those sweet moments when he hit them, when he threatened to kill Lucía if she ever called the cops, when he shoved Rafael down the steps of their apartment building, right there in public, in front of Alex and Eddie, and Lucía too. There weren’t many steps, and it was a short fall, but it had nearly cracked Rafael’s head open.

He didn’t care then. So why should his son care now? The man who did those other sweet, kind things never really existed in the first place. There’s no reason to pretend he did, or to apologize for him all these years later. No reason for his family to mourn him.

Rafael can’t understand why his mother does it anyway.

But he’s been wondering about that for years, and he doesn’t want to think about it now. He doesn’t want to turn his thoughts towards tomorrow, either, still nervous at the thought of who or what might meet them at his abuela’s old home.

So he doesn’t.

Instead he lets his mind skip like a stone, across the ocean and back to New York: lightly from his office (was Baker’s paralegal nearly as competent as Carmen? He hoped so, for the sake of the squad) to the courthouse (where he knew Baker was not as competent as himself) to the precinct.  

It would be dark there, now, and almost quiet, late on a Sunday night. Benson would be off duty and at home with Noah. This is a comforting image, and he finally closes his eyes, shifts a bit to sink deeper into the bed. Noah must be asleep by now, but Liv might be up with a glass of wine and, hopefully, a book instead of case files. Alone, but maybe not too lonely, maybe used to it now that she and Tucker had been done for -- what, a month or so? He’s not, of course, keeping track. But they’d broken up shortly before Dodds died in May, so over a month now. Closer to two than to one.

Alright, maybe she’s a bit lonely, a bit sad, he thinks with a pang, giving another pained thought to Dodds.

But he likes to imagine she’s mostly happy after a good day with her son. Relaxing, finally, after a long week. Maybe she’s in her yoga pants and an old t-shirt, something comfortable… a different kind of pang goes through his body as he imagines Liv tucking her hair behind her ear while she turns the page, shirt hanging loose with nothing underneath as she leans over for her wine --

God. Was he really imagining what she was wearing? He groans, rolls onto his stomach. Spares a thought for the guests in the next room and buries his reddened face in the pillow to muffle his second groan, his frustration, as he wills his body to relax. Just stop. Sleep, goddamn it.

But there’s no air conditioning in his room, no cold shower either, and the trade winds that had been breezing cool through the window are gone -- somehow he hadn’t noticed that until now. There’s a sick, heavy feeling in his stomach -- something about those thoughts, about imagining that… it was unfair. Dishonest to her. Or would be, if he ever did something about it, but he hasn’t. There’s no evidence to hide, no lie that needs telling. He can still look her in the eye, he thinks with a pathetic flood of relief; he’s not keeping anything from her. He didn’t touch anything. He didn’t.

He takes deep, slow breaths, grinding the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees spots. Then he lays his head down again, keeping his hands under the pillow despite the heat.

It takes a while for sleep to find him, and he doesn’t sleep well.

Chapter Text

MONDAY, JULY 11.

It’s dreary in New York on Monday, and Benson isn’t looking forward to spending the morning with Baker. Barba’s been gone for ten days -- only five of them in Cuba, she reminds herself -- and already she’s getting annoyed with his so-called replacement.

Her mild impatience with Baker is nothing, however, compared to what she feels when the courthouse clerk tells them which judge Amira had visited the month before her attack.

“Oscar Briggs?” Benson repeats, not trying to hide her disgust. The clerk nods, looking a bit nervous at this reaction, and Liv shakes her head as she turns away.

“Something I should know?” Baker asks, sounding wary.

She sighs, hesitating. “He overturned a conviction we got a few years ago,” she answers after a moment, schooling her voice into a more professional tone. “It was a good jury and they made the right call on a tough case, and he just…” she gestures helplessly, “threw out their verdict. I still remember the look on her face -- this poor girl, Evie Barnes, she’d been through hell, and he talked to her like she’d done it all on purpose, to ‘jumpstart her career.’ Like she’d gotten raped for attention.”

They’re at the elevators now, but they pause before calling one to take them up to Briggs’ office. “Evie Barnes,” Baker repeats slowly. “That was that porn star case, right?” She nods warily. “Isn’t that the one where ADA Barba -- well, he kind of lost it, didn’t he? I heard he was almost held in contempt.” There’s a bit of contempt in Baker’s own voice as he says it, as if he can’t imagine anything more undignified.

Liv wonders if he’s ever cared enough to risk anything for a victim. Probably not , she thinks. “He wasn’t wrong,” is all she says, not deigning to look at Baker. She jabs at the “up” button three times in a row. “Anyway, if Amira went to Briggs for a restraining order and walked away without one…” She shakes her head. “I wonder what he said to her.”

“Let’s not rush to judgment,” Baker says mildly as they step into the elevator. Benson rolls her eyes, but she does it behind his back, and doesn’t say anything.

She also doesn’t rub it in -- just gives Baker a significantly raised eyebrow -- when it turns out she was at least a little bit right.

“I walked the young lady through the burden of proof required for a temporary restraining order,” Judge Briggs is telling them. “When I explained that there would need to be a full hearing, she chose not to pursue the option.”

“Did you tell her that a temporary order would take immediate effect?” Benson asks, keeping her voice level. “Or that the hearing wouldn’t take place for a few weeks at the earliest?” Next to her, Baker shifts uncomfortably.

Briggs eyes her warily. He hasn’t said anything about it, but she knows he remembers her from the trial, where she’d advocated for the Evie and stood by Barba when he took on great risk to do the same. “I did. I also told her that she’d need to testify at the hearing about a pattern of physical abuse, and that a temporary order could only be granted if she was willing to swear under oath that she was facing an imminent threat of physical harm.”

“And she was,” Benson states. “She’s been attacked. She just got out of the hospital yesterday.”

To his credit, Judge Briggs looks genuinely distressed at this. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he says, quickly adding “but she wasn’t willing to swear to that at the time. If she wants to seek an order now, I’d be able to grant her a temporary one. Pending a hearing, it could be extended.”

“She’s been released into the care of her husband,” Baker clarifies. He’s talking about Amira as if she were a child. “As I understand it, she was the one who called him to the hospital. I doubt she’ll be seeking an order against him. Even if he is the one who did it, which we don’t yet know for sure.”

Benson shakes her head, choosing to ignore this last statement and focus on Amira’s behavior. “Victims of long-term domestic abuse don’t always behave consistently. She may go back and forth, even change her mind a few more times, before she’s ready to leave.” She gives Briggs a look. “She needs all the support she can get. Why didn’t you send her to me when she disclosed her abuse to you?”

Briggs looks at her like he can’t believe she’s serious. “She wasn’t even willing to admit a crime had occurred,” he says, shuffling his paperwork loudly. “Listen, I understand you’re conducting an investigation, but unless you have any more pertinent questions -- ?” He looks between the two of them. “No? Well, I know we’re all very busy. Best of luck to you in your investigation.”

Benson nods tersely and turns to leave.

“ADA Baker,” Judge Briggs says suddenly, just as Benson starts to open the door. “I hope you’re not so quick to jump to a trial as your predecessor. This case clearly needs more work before it can be taken to court. If it comes to that.”

Benson’s grip on the door knob tightens slightly, but she doesn’t turn around.

“Thank you, Your Honor,” is all Baker says, and he sounds a bit caught off guard.

Benson bites back a response of her own. This isn’t her territory, and she won’t do Barba any favors by berating a judge who already dislikes them both.

Baker glances at her nervously as they return to the bank of elevators. “Predecessor, huh? He does know that Barba’s coming back, right?” he jokes with a weak chuckle. “I guess he just doesn’t want him to.”

Baker sounds embarrassed, like he doesn’t want her to think he shares Briggs’ presumptive ideas about his place (or Barba’s place), and Benson is surprised to feel some warmth towards him. She gives him a dry smile, and they share a moment of cringing amusement as the elevator takes them down.

***

THE SAME DAY.

He’s awfully quiet this morning , Lucía thinks, but she doesn’t comment on it. Rafael doesn’t seem to be in the mood to take teasing lightly. So instead she cranks the passenger seat window down as they rumble out of town, lets her head rest back against the seat, and watches the land roll by as they start to cover the remaining miles between them and her mother’s home town.

Rafael is grateful for the silence -- or, rather, for the lack of conversation; today the car isn’t so quiet because the radio is finally picking up a few stations. The jazzy pop tunes are all earnest voices backed by bright trumpets and cheerful drums -- it makes for a happier drive, even if they’re still avoiding any discussion of what had been said yesterday. It also helps to distract him from the useless, uneasy effort of trying to remember his nightmares, or what he’d been thinking of just before he fell asleep. Who he’d been thinking of. What she’d been wearing. He shakes himself slightly and focuses on the road.

They made a late start, and so it’s not until a little after 2pm that they stop for lunch at a restaurant just outside of Camaguey. They take an outside table, just beside the little metal fence that divides the restaurant patio from the sidewalk -- the metal is hot from the afternoon sun, but their wooden chairs are comfortable, as is the breeze that breathes idly down the street. Lucía orders a sandwich while Rafael sticks with black beans and rice, and they sit in companionable silence as they wait for the food to come, watching the few people who are out and walking about on a workday afternoon. The street they’re on is dotted with shops, restaurants, and businesses, and popular enough that he’d had to park a few blocks over, but for now they’re nearly the only ones on it. The distant buzz of traffic, the jabbering mynah birds in the tree behind them, and the loud, cheerful noises coming from the kitchen -- all of this, with green mountains around them and the sun warm shining down -- it’s nice. Rafael stretches back slightly, eyes shut, and breathes it in.

He leans forward again when the food comes, digging in hungrily, and for a few minutes he’s so focused on his meal he doesn’t notice that his mother is just picking at hers.

Rafael sets down his fork and cocks his head at her, wiping his mouth even as he looks at her through narrowed, shamelessly curious eyes. She rolls her own eyes and looks pointedly away from him.

“What are you thinking?” he asks after a moment, voice matter-of-fact.

She lets out a huff of air, folds her arms, and then unfolds them. “Nothing. Just trying to figure out what people say if they happen to meet long-lost family suddenly in a strange place.”

He raises his eyebrows. “If you’d told me sooner, maybe I would have had time to brainstorm ideas for you,” he says. She glares at him.

“It’s a tricky one,” he concedes with a casual shrug, taking a bite of rice. “You must be really worried.” He’s mostly teasing, but he really doesn’t intend to help until she actually asks for his opinion. It’s a petty game he’s playing, he knows, but if she took so long to tell him everything he could take some time helping her figure out what to do with it all.

He can see her figuring this out as she glares at him, and then she scoffs. “Fine. What would you say, then, Mister I’m So Good With Words?”

Rafael opens his mouth to answer, and is startled to realize he doesn’t actually know the answer. He clears his throat, and decides he should start with a line of questions. “Well, what do you want from the interaction?” he asks. “Do you just want each of you to know the other exists and then leave, or do you want to have lunch, or really talk and keep talking even after we go home?”

“I don’t know,” Lucía huffs. “It depends on whether I like them or not.”

This startles a laugh out of him, and she smiles a bit.

“Okay,” he says, focusing back, “how do you want to introduce yourself? What kind of impression do you want to make on them?”

He looks almost studious as he considers the possibilities, brow furrowed and eyes turned inward. Lucía feels a swell of love for him, her thoughtful boy. She knows she could have said and done a few things more kindly, and although she’s not surprised he’s helping anyway she’s still touched.

“I want them to like me,” she admits.

Her son leans over and squeezes her hand where it rests on the table between them. “They will,” he says. Then pauses, looks at her again. “Well, what do you have to work with? What do you know about them?”

She shrugs, but she’s not annoyed like she was in the car yesterday when he pressed her for answers. “Just what I told you,” she says. “Hardly anything.”

Rafael jabs at his food with his fork, picking at it without eating anything. “What do you know about your father?” he asks, speaking quietly. It’s Lucía’s turn to eye him now, and he doesn’t quite meet her eye. “Why didn’t Abuela’s parents let her marry him?”

She sighs. “I don’t know.”

“Did he hurt her?”

“No,” Lucía says immediately, and it comes out harsher than she meant it to. “No,” she repeats, more softly now. “No, mijo, it wasn’t like that.”

He nods once, his shoulders still tense, and she sees he’ll need some convincing. Always assuming the worst -- it makes her sad to see it, but she ignores that for now. “She loved him,” she says instead. “I only heard her talk about him a few times, but he was very sweet to her. They were young, you know; she was only 19 when I came along. They didn’t know what they were getting into.”

She purses her lips and looks at him -- he’s playing with his food, but listening intently. “I think his parents didn’t like your abuela,” she says. “Or she didn’t like them, or both. Anyway, she never had anything nice to say about them, and I always had the impression they had something to do with her leaving.” Lucía shakes her head, still indignant on her mother’s behalf. “I think his family had a lot more money,” she tells Rafael. “You know your abuela didn’t grow up with much, and maybe these people, this rich family, they just didn’t want their son with a girl like that, no matter how sweet and nice, so they did whatever they did, I don’t know,” she continues, shrugging expressively. “But if that’s what happened, then the joke’s on them, because my mami got out and ended up having a nice life in Miami and New York, and they stayed and had to see all the young people try to run away to America and have all their money stolen by the government!”

“Mami, hush!” he urges, slapping lightly at her hand.

“Oh, it’s fine, Rafi,” she replies. “Do you see anyone listening? Is Fidel under the table over there? No? We’re fine. You hush.”

He rolls his eyes -- they’re nearly 300 miles from the Castros’ birth place, but it feels much closer. And Havana feels very far away. Still, he leans back in his chair, relieved at the revelation about his mysterious grandfather.

“So. Is that what you’ll say to them, any long-lost relatives we might find?” he asks wryly. “Just, ‘hello, my name is Lucía, your father should have married my mother and then he wouldn’t have lost all his money, ha ha’?”

She swats him with her napkin. “You’re not being helpful, Rafi. Help me think of something good to say, come on.”

That’s how they spend the rest of the day, trying to brainstorm ideas as they bounce down the last bit of road, as they check into the little hotel, and as they sit outside again, this time for dinner. Here they talk more quietly. It’s not a particularly small town, really more of a suburb of Santiago -- but they’re both aware of the possibility, however faint, that somewhere close by might be the people they’re discussing. It’s an idea that nearly gives Lucía goosebumps.


They decide, as they’re finishing up dessert (a banana custard tart, one for each of them since neither is good at sharing with the other), that they’ll wait a day before saying anything. Get acquainted with the area, get some idea of the people and the place and the context of Catalina’s youth. And then, after discussing their observations -- then they’ll find them, if there is anyone to be found, and make themselves known.

***

TUESDAY, JULY 12.

Earl Williams hadn’t expected the SVU detectives would come to him while he was at lunch -- he’d assumed they’d insist on seeing the apartment -- but he’s happy to have the chance to invite them to sit and eat with him. It’s a nice little bistro, not one of the cheap trashy types one could find up and down the street, and he likes the vaguely private club atmosphere provided by the deep red of the leather booths, the dark mahogany of the bar, and the absence of any obnoxious flat-screen TVs blaring whatever sports game or news show was most likely to distract the diners.

“Hey, thanks for agreeing to meet here,” he smiles, gesturing at the seats across from him. He’s taken a whole booth; they know him here, after years of lunches out of his office that’s just across the street, and usually give him good seats. “I appreciate you guys not interrupting things at the office, you know -- it’s a lot easier here. Hope you don’t mind I started without you.” He’d been hungry and they were late, but he wouldn’t point that out.

“No worries, thanks,” the taller detective says, folding himself into the spot. “Dominick Carisi, call me Sonny.” He happily accepts the menu that Williams passes to him.

“Fin,” the other detective says with a nod, taking his seat after a moment of scanning the restaurant, scoping it out for no reason Williams can understand. It doesn’t matter , he thinks.

“Thanks for coming,” he repeats. “I really appreciate you keeping me in the loop here. I want to help however I can, you know, to find whatever piece of shit did this to my wife.” There’s a pause, and he almost expects the detectives to exchange some kind of look, but they don’t even glance at each other. Sonny just nods as he puts down his menu, and Fin leans back casually in his seat, looking at Williams through relaxed, half-lidded eyes. “So, uh,” Williams licks his lips. “You guys have any leads?”

“Maybe,” Fin says noncommittally. “We just need to ask you a few questions. Glad to hear you wanna help.”

“Of course, of course,” Williams nods, forking some salad into his mouth. It’s a big bite, and he'll have to keep chewing before he can answer whatever’s coming.

“Ok, can you let us know where you were the night Amira was attacked?” Sonny asks, taking out a notepad and pen, poised.

Williams chews for several long moments, nodding as he does. He takes a sip after swallowing his salad to make sure there’s nothing in his teeth when he answers. “Like she said, I was still at work. I work late a lot, even on Fridays,” he explains with a grimace and a shrug. “You guys work long hours, you get it.”

The taller detective, Sonny, nods. “Totally. Do you remember about what time you got home? As exact as you can.”

“Well,” Williams starts, then hesitates when the waiter pauses at their table.

“Anything for you two gentlemen?” she asks, glancing between Sonny and Fin.

“My treat,” Williams offers quickly, and feels a twinge of unease when they shake their heads and send her on her way.

It dissipates when Fin shrugs, almost bored: “We’re not gonna be here long, man. No worries.”

Williams lets out a puff of breath in relief. “Right. Right, so what was your question?” he asks, turning back to Sonny.

“What time did you get home?”

“Um, I think around ten. Ten or eleven that night,” he says, cringing inwardly at how evasive he sounds. “Closer to eleven, actually, because I remember seeing the clock in the cab pass 10:30. I felt bad I was getting back so late.” He takes a steadying breath. “I had no idea.” He feels awful, he really does, but it won’t do anyone any good to tell them he’d really gotten back around nine.

“Okay,” Sonny says. “Now, did you notice anything weird when you first got home, before you saw Amira?”

Williams nods quickly. He’d expected them to ask this. “I knew something was wrong right away because the door was unlocked. All the lights were off, and I remember running through the place turning them on while I looked for Amira.” He allows his voice to waver a bit, and appreciates how Sonny nods sympathetically while Fin takes careful notes, hanging onto his every word. “She, um, she was still at the bottom of the stairs when I found her,” Williams says quietly. “I must have got there right after he left, whoever did it.”

“Had he taken anything?” Fin asks without looking up from his notepad.

“I don’t think so,” Williams says slowly, like he’s trying to remember, to visualize the inside of the apartment. He shuts his eyes and suddenly there’s the wrenching horror of seeing her fall down the stairs -- the instant, awful terror of the baby, the baby, how could I -- he shakes himself, opens his eyes, and finds both detectives staring at him. “Sorry,” he says hoarsely, and it’s some solace to hear that his voice does sound truly wrecked. “Sorry, I just -- I can’t believe this happened. No. I don’t think he took anything.” He clears his throat, takes a drink of water. “He probably got spooked after she fell, and ran away.”

Nodding, Fin takes another note, then looks up. “How come you didn’t take her to the doctor right away?” he asks, switching tacks, and it takes Williams a second to catch up.

“Amira didn’t want to go to the hospital,” he sighs, as if he’d tried to convince her otherwise. “She was just so tired, she said we should wait until the morning and see how she felt then. And when we woke up she said she felt fine. I left for the office while she was still getting ready for work -- I didn’t even want to go in, and I didn’t think she should either, with her face like that, but she insisted. You know how stubborn women can be.” Fin chuckles, and Williams forges on, reassured. “So I left, and I guess a little while after that she started feeling pretty bad and headed to the hospital. She’s really sweet, you know; she didn’t even want to interrupt my meeting. But I came over to the hospital the second I heard she was there. I was right there with her.”

Fin nods. “I remember her saying you were coming.”

Sonny looks a bit confused, though, like there’s something he can’t quite figure out. “Wait, but -- going back,” he says with an apologetic smile, “when Amira said this intruder attacked her, you didn’t call the police?”

“That was Amira’s idea too,” Williams answers eagerly. “She’s exhausted all the time lately, between working and the pregnancy, and she just didn’t want to have to deal with,” he gestures vaguely, “all that. An investigation. We figured, you know, we change the lock, tell the doorman, it won’t happen again.” He thinks the detectives look uncertain, so he leans forward and speaks quietly, regretfully. “She’s going through a lot. I just… I didn’t want to push -- to pressure her on this. Between you and me, I know we should have called you guys right away.”

Sonny nods throughout this, leans back when Williams is done like he gets it right away and doesn’t even need to ask anything else. Williams is so gratified he can’t help but smile. They like me, he thinks with bubbly relief. He doesn’t know why he’d even been worried -- he was a likeable guy. Everyone said so. Both the detectives are all smiles as they gather their things, and Fin even apologizes for taking up so much of his time.

“No, no, I’m glad you guys came by,” Williams insists. “I’m glad I could help. I hope you catch the son of a bitch.”

Sonny smiles, looking him in the eye. “Us too.”

Williams waves as they head out, and goes happily back to his salad. Mostly happy. He’s still got this niggling uncertainty, like he’s forgotten something, but he pushes the feeling aside. It’s fine .

Once they’re far enough down the block, Fin and Carisi pause to confer. “Well, at least we got him nailed to a timeline,” Carisi sighs. “I bet you anything the security footage shows him getting back way earlier than eleven.”

Fin makes a noncommittal sound.

“What, you don’t think he did it?” Carisi sounds shocked.

“Nah, he did it,” Fin says. “But you see his hands?”

Carisi hesitates, remembering, then frowns. “They weren’t banged up at all. Not even his knuckles.”

“Makes me wonder what he hit her with,” Fin says darkly.

***

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13.

Strictly speaking, Lucía hasn’t exactly stuck to their agreement.

Not that she’s intentionally gone against it, of course, but if yesterday she happened to ask the owner of the most popular cafe in the town square if he knew any Barbas, well, that could still count as simply getting acquainted with the area. And if she happened to do this while Rafael was occupied at the bookstore two streets down, then that was his own fault for failing to get his nose out of a book and keep up with her.

She’s not quite sure why she couldn’t bring herself to ask in front of her son, or why a growing part of her almost wants to go alone. Only for the first time. Only to say hello and find her footing -- then she’d introduce him right away. It’s just that he’s so observant, always alert and watching and figuring things out, and she’s not sure she wants those narrowed eyes on her when she first meets her sister. (She knows it’s a sister.) Not that he would be passing judgement, of course. Just -- she doesn’t want a spectator to her rawest emotions. Not even her son, even though (or because?) he’s already seen her at her worst, many times, battered and bloodied and helpless to protect either of them. She hates, hates, hates that he ever saw her like that. That she ever allowed it.

She shakes off the thought and again leans into the idea of going alone.

But she imagines the wounded look on his face if he were to find she did, and she knows she won’t.

Still, it takes her some time to tell him what she knows. It’s after breakfast, and they’re wandering around the town, not-so-aimlessly towards the residential area, when she steals a look at him. The cafe owner had mentioned, when he told her where the Barbas lived, that there was also an area nearby from which one could see the water -- so that’s what she said when she’d proposed the walk: “Let’s go this way. I heard there’s a spot on the northern side of town where you can see the ocean.”

From the way Rafael keeps glancing at her, she knows he can tell there’s something else going on. She can also tell he doesn’t know what it is, and for a moment she’s a bit entertained, knowing how crazy it makes him to be kept in the dark. But as they get closer, she knows she has to tell him.

She pauses at the bottom of the hill leading up to her sister’s street. They haven’t even started climbing and already her heart is pounding, and she feels a bit sweaty despite the breeze and the shade of the tree-lined street.

“Well?” he asks, cocking his head at her.

She rolls her eyes at his almost exasperated tone. “ Well ,” she mimics, “I found out where they live.”

“How?” he demands immediately, as if asking for evidence.

“I asked,” she snips. “And the man at the cafe told me.”

“He just told you,” Rafael repeats doubtfully. “He just happened to know their address and gives it out freely to any stranger who asks? He could have been lying. We could be walking into a human trafficking ring, you know.”

This time Lucía’s eye roll is more dramatic. “You need to go on vacation more if this is the way that job makes you think,” she tells him.

He glares at her. “Don’t avoid the question.”

“Fine,” she huffs. “Yes, he just told me. He knows the family. And he doesn’t just give out the address freely. He wasn’t going to give it to me at all. Until I, you know, I just told him I’m looking for my sister, do you know where she lives, all of that.” She doesn’t mention that she’d teared up a bit in front of the man -- how mortifying -- but he didn’t need to know that anyway.

“Okay… so we’re going there now ? Thank you for informing me,” he says dryly.

“You’re lucky I let you come along at all,” she teases, and he huffs and rolls his eyes playfully because he doesn’t know she really did consider leaving him behind. She feels bad for a moment, but she did bring him along, so it’s fine, it’s fine.

They start up the hill and it’s steeper than it looked, despite the many switchbacks the road takes on its way up. By the time they reach the top her legs are aching and she’s practically gasping. She’d be embarrassed if he weren’t in much worse shape.

“You need to exercise more, mijo,” she tells him through her pants, taking off her wide-brimmed sun hat to fan her face. “You should join my running club.”

He’s nearly hunched over, his hands braced on his knees as he catches his breath, and his glare isn’t quite so intimidating when it’s aimed up at her from below. She shakes her head at him and starts walking again before she’s quite ready, just to make the point.

Rafael catches up with her quickly, though, and they’re both breathing normally by the time they get to the right street. She pauses, and again he glances at her, but they both remain quiet as they continue.

The even-numbered houses are on their left, and she watches they numbers rise as they walk: 238, 236, 234, Rafi is getting impatient, 232, and then they’re outside 230. It’s not a big house, but it’s nice, and a dusty pink color that looks happy without being obnoxious. The home is well-kept, that’s clear just looking at the outside. There’s a garden in front with flowers and vegetables, and a woman (a bit younger than Lucía) hacking away at some vines near the edge.

Lucía takes a breath, deeper and more shuddering than she’d meant to, and the woman looks up. Her hair is long and curly, and her face is round, but somehow she looks startlingly like Lucía.

“Are you Clarita Barba?” Lucía asks. She doesn’t glance at her son but she knows that by the time she’s finished her question his eyes are done widening and have narrowed, levelled at her. She can practically hear him glaring: Mami, you didn’t tell me you knew her name! But she hadn’t known for sure -- her mother had always been so evasive, mentioning only a few names, years apart, and almost never repeating them, hardly explaining them… So Lucía hadn’t been quite sure, until now, when the woman responds.

She nods slowly, putting down her little handheld scythe and walking over. She leans on her fence as she appraises them quickly, their American clothes and uncertain faces. Feeling immensely awkward, Lucía takes off her sunglasses. For a moment the woman’s face is unreadable, and then gives a small, uncertain smile.

“Are you Lucía?” she asks, and Lucía nods several quick times, ignoring some kind of lump in her throat. She sniffs loudly.

Clarita’s smile falters briefly -- a fluttering, vulnerable movement -- then comes back, still small but more certain now. “Oh, my God,” she whispers, then again, closer to a wail this time, “oh, my God! Eduardo, Tony, come out here!” She’s leaned halfway over the fence and Lucía’s hand is hot between hers, both of them shaking. Both of them crying, both of them loud because the are Cuban, and they’re going to do this right. And she’s holding her sister now, the tips of the fence jabbing into their stomachs but it barely hurts, as two men come from the house, one of them looking so like Rafael that she starts to cry harder.

“I always hoped I could meet you someday,” Clarita is telling her, squeezing her harder. “What a blessing, what a blessing. I can’t believe you’re here!” She takes Lucía’s face in her hands, leans back to look at her, and Lucía’s hands raise to do the same. They’re laughing now, too. “Oh, my God. My sister!” She pulls her close again. “ Mi hermana mayor!

She pats Lucía’s back, then drops her arms. “You have to come inside,” she says, leaving streaks of garden dirt across her cheeks as she wipes away a wet line of tears. “Wherever you are staying, leave and come here, okay? My boys can get your things. You have to stay with us. Come.” She leans to open the garden gate for them, and gestures down the path to the front door, where Lucía’s newfound nephews wait with confused smiles.

Lucía turns to Rafael, who looks as if he’s staring into the sun, and her heart aches at his wide-eyed gaze. How could she have thought of doing this without him? Or assumed that he’d be a spectator to her emotions rather than feeling so deeply himself he can hardly see? She has to pat him on the shoulder before he blinks and meets her eye, and even then, both of them are still struck dumb.

She takes her son’s hand as Clarita holds open the door and welcomes them in.

 

***

THE SAME DAY.

“Got him,” Rollins announces, rolling her chair back slightly to wave the rest of them over. Carisi, Fin, and Benson lean over her screen as she points to a blurry, pixelated man striding towards the apartment building entrance. She hits pause with a practiced finger at just the right moment, and Williams’ face is clearly recognizable in profile as he glances across the street.

Rollins taps at the timestamp. 07/07/16 08:52:22PM . “He came home just before nine that night,” she says, glancing up at Fin and Carisi. “But he told you guys eleven, right?”

Carisi nods. “He hedged, but yeah, he said between ten thirty and eleven. Definitely not nine .” He turns to Benson, hands in his pockets, waiting for instruction.

“Okay, good,” the lieutenant says, pulling off her glasses. “But we need more before we can take this to Baker. These kinds of abusive relationships often escalate slowly. There’s got to be a history of what he was doing to her for all the months, or years, that he wasn’t hitting her hard enough to put her in the hospital. So let’s find it, and prove it.” She gauges them quickly. “Rollins, you said she and Williams met at Carnegie Mellon? Make some calls, talk to her friends, classmates, professors -- there’s gonna be a lot of people, so Carisi, you get on that too. Fin, try to get her medical records from when she was in Pennsylvania. We need to figure out exactly when those earlier injuries happened, and whether she and Williams were together when they did.”


They’re already scrambling to start their tasks by the time she closes her office door.  

Chapter Text

 

THURSDAY, JULY 14.

It’s a strange feeling, Rafael thinks. Having a large family. There are five Barbas now, and his aunt Clarita’s memory stretches past through far more generations of them than his abuela could have known or remembered. He’s heard most parts of her story: Catalina Díaz left Cuba in late 1947, and a few months later his own mother was born in Miami, where they stayed for years -- Cuba just across the Straits, open to them for over ten years, but they never visited. So his mother grew up in America, cared for by her mother (who never married) and her grandparents (who doted on Lucía, but never spoke of her father). And before Lucía was old enough that she might have gone to Cuba on her own, Castro had taken power and there was no going back.

Yes: maybe they never told him the details, but he knows the Díaz side through and through his heart.

Rafael knows less about his father’s side and he doesn’t much care to find out. Won’t even speak that man’s last name anymore, let alone seek out others who bear it.

But the Barba side. That’s the name he chose . His mother’s name, his grandfather’s name, the name of everyone around him… well, he supposes they probably all have Clarita’s husband’s last name, but they feel like Barbas. A family he never knew, or knew of -- his mother’s father, and now her sister, her nephews -- his cousins -- all of this is so new it almost dizzies him where he stands in their doorway.

Clarita must be able to read it on his face.

“Here, sit down,” she urges, gesturing him and Lucía to the cushy couch against the living room wall. He sinks into it gratefully. “I’m going to get you some water,” she adds, so eager to welcome then she doesn’t ask whether they’re thirsty.

This leaves the two men standing awkwardly in the doorway: Eduardo and Tony, he remembers she called them. They look as stunned as he imagines he does himself, and rather than breaking the silence he takes a breath, and a moment to look around.

It’s smaller than the inns they’d stayed at on their drive here, but the layout is similar: two stories with steep stairs leading up from the living room, and a hallway beside it, doors on either side as it runs back towards a kitchen (he gets a glimpse of open windows, sunlight); the doors, he figures, lead to a bathroom and maybe to a bedroom, with more upstairs.

The living room windows face east but although the afternoon sun has left this side of the house there’s still plenty of natural light, which casts itself warmly around them, onto a worn but well-kept pair of armchairs facing a small TV that’s nonetheless larger than he would have expected. His eyes shift to the hangings on the wall: an arrangement of family photos, a few large paintings that are unnervingly to Rafael’s taste and not unlike the modern art he has in his own apartment back in New York, a large crucifix, and an even larger framed poster of Fidel Castro that Lucía is eyeing suspiciously. The end table to his left holds an ashtray (he notices suddenly that the room, despite the breeze through the windows, reeks of cigarettes), a vase of flowers that look a few days old, and a few knick-knacks including a little enameled box. All of this he takes in within seconds. And then there’s the way the light is soft on the faces of his cousins.

The older one speaks first. “Um, I’m Eduardo Estrada,” he says, extending his hand with nervous formality.

Rafael automatically leans forward to shake his hand: “Rafael Barba,” he says politely, matching his cousin’s firm grip.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the younger brother says, waving his hands dismissively at their strained voices and stiff postures -- Lucía lets out a surprised but delighted laugh at his impatiently friendly tone.

“Come on,” he says, gesturing for Rafael to stand, and pulling him into a hug when he does, slapping his back with enthusiasm. “I’m Antonio, but everyone calls me Tony,” he adds, stepping back with a grin, and for a brief moment Rafael is reminded of Carisi and his nickname that no one uses. He smiles back.

“So how long have you been in Cuba?” Tony asks, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he surveys his cousin and his aunt. “Did you visit Havana? How did you get here, did you drive? How long did it take?” It’s been a while since Rafael has been caught speechless or let someone talk over him, but Tony’s motormouth is going too fast for him to answer any of his questions.

“I hope you came right here and didn’t waste any time with all those tourists in town,” Tony continues; “Eduardo and I will show you all the good Santiago spots. Rafi, you like music, dancing? I can take you to the best clubs.”

“He’s too old for that,” Lucía interjects, delighted to tease him in front of their newfound family.

Tony laughs. “So is Eduardo, the two of you can hang out then.”

Eduardo is grinning too now, and the whole room feels more relaxed now, more familiar already.

“Don’t get to know each other without me!” Clarita yells from the kitchen, but she’s back almost immediately anyway, pressing sweaty glasses of ice water into Rafael and Lucía’s hands. “Don’t worry, it’s not like in Mexico,” she assures them even though they’re both already sipping at it. “We have good water here, though some of the tourists don’t expect it.” Like Tony, she says the word -- turistas -- with just a hint of contempt.

“What about coffee?” Rafael asks.

Tony shrugs. “It’s good, when it’s not blowing up,” he says without a hint of teasing humor.

Rafael starts slightly. “What do you mean?”

Clarita rolls her eyes. “Nothing. There was just a mistake they made a few years ago.”

“It wasn’t a mistake,” Tony protests. “There wasn’t enough coffee so they ground up peas to put in the grounds, to make less of it go further, except they don’t mix well together. A lot of people’s coffeemakers blew up. I think a few people died from it.” Now he does have a hint of mischievousness on his face, and Clarita slaps his arm lightly.

“No one died, ” she says, laughing slightly at Rafael’s scandalized face. “But he’s right, a few coffeemakers exploded. It’s all fixed now, they don’t do that anymore. And to answer your question, we have plenty of coffee.”

Lucía gives Rafael a look, and they’re both thinking the same thing: “they” means the government, the Castros, everything Lucía was raised to distrust, and this little revelation isn’t helping what they think of it all. But the two of them manage to hold their tongues.

Clarita, he guesses from looking at her and knowing she’s a few years younger than his mother, was probably raised entirely under Fidel’s rule. Even if she was born before Batista and his government fell, the Castros would be the only leaders she has ever really known. He wants to ask about that -- about coffee shortages, the lines they’d seen outside a few Havana grocery stores, the terrible roads he drove over for days -- but he doesn’t. Glancing at Tony’s slightly disgruntled look, Rafael guesses that he might be the one to ask, later, once they know each other a bit better.

For now, though, Clarita wants to show them something. “Come,” she says, gesturing Rafael and Lucía down the hallway. He expects her to start a little house tour by showing them the kitchen or even the bathroom, but she stops short both of either and Rafael sees the shrine. It’s tucked into an alcove just at the start of the hallway, which is why he hadn’t noticed it from his spot on the couch.

It’s lovely. There’s a crucifix hanging at the back; it’s much smaller than the one in the living room, but still larger than the one Rafael keeps on a chain around his neck. Around and below it are several large candles (none of them lit) and a few flowers, fresher than the ones in the vase in the living room. In front of all these, but still a safe distance from the edge of the shelf, are a few photos in silver frames. Just in front of these is a single, low candle, and this one is burning.

“This is my Carlos,” Clarita says softly, lightly touching the picture of a handsome young man who looks an awful lot like Tony, especially around the nose and forehead. “He died in 2000. Tony was only a teenager.” She glances at Lucía, who squeezes her shoulder comfortingly.

Rafael is unspeakably grateful that Lucía doesn’t mention her own husband, and Clarita points to two pictures facing each other in a two-part folding frame. They’re a man and a woman, pictures taken when they were older. In the man’s face Rafael can see hints of Eduardo, and of himself.

“These are my parents,” Clarita continues. “My mami, and our papi.” She takes her sister’s hand. “Mami didn’t like it, but he used to light a candle for you at the church every year on your birthday. February 12th.”

Lucía is crying again now, and Rafael turns away as the two sisters hug, briefly touching the crucifix tucked under his shirt, the one he’s worn every day for most of his adult life. The slight weight of it grounds him, no matter what the priests used to say about people like him, no matter that he stopped going to church years ago and hardly ever prays.

He pauses in the doorway to the living room: the hallway is small and he’s not sure where to go. He wants to give them privacy but Eduardo and Tony are sitting in the armchairs, talking to each other in low voices, and even if he felt comfortable interrupting he still wouldn’t want them to see his face right now. He’s not sure what it looks like but he feels raw, uncertain, and despite the touch to the cross on his chest he’s utterly thrown off balance -- a balance that, despite the death threats and Dodds’ death, he’d taken almost for granted in his life in New York.

Absurdly, Benson comes to mind: he can imagine her soft voice, the certainty in her eyes. He has no idea what she would do or say if she were here with him, but somehow just the thought of her brings him back to himself.

Feeling just a bit more centered, he steps tentatively into the living room and is gratified when both of his cousins look up smiling. “Oye, Rafi, cheer up,” Tony says. It’s clear he has no regard for whatever his cousin is feeling, but for now it’s enough that he wants Rafael to be happy.

Rafael smiles for him and joins them, sitting on the edge of the couch closest to them -- Eduardo has just started telling him about the Santiago restaurant they’re going to take him to, when Clarita and Lucía, both sniffling slightly, re-enter the room.

“You have to stay with us,” Clarita says, repeating what she’d told them in the garden. She’s speaking to Rafael too, but can’t seem to tear her eyes from her sister just yet. “Eduardo and Tony will help you bring your things over. Rafi,” she says, turning to look at him after a moment, “you don’t mind sleeping on the couch, do you?”

He hesitates, glancing over -- he’d be sleeping directly under that looming portrait of Fidel. He doesn’t like the idea, but he can’t well say that to her when she’s the one who hung it up in the first place.

“It’s very soft,” she tells him, misattributing his hesitation to worries of physical discomfort, “and I promise you it’s cleaner than the boys’ rooms. We’ll bring you plenty more pillows and blankets. I’ve slept there before myself, back when Tony was a teenager and used to get home so late -- ” she gives her younger son a look -- “so it should be okay. What do you think?” She smiles before he’s even done nodding: “Good! And Lucía, you take my bed, I will sleep on the couch in my room. Eduardo?” she asks, turning to him, and he nods, already headed upstairs to get the bedding ready.

Rafael meets Tony’s eye as their mothers bicker, the two women perfectly aware that Lucía’s protests are only to be polite and that she’ll end up where Clarita says. Tony grins at him and rolls his eyes.

Yes, Rafael thinks: I can get used to this.

***

THE SAME DAY.

After spending the rest of their shifts the previous day calling Amira’s grad school classmates and professors, Rollins and Carisi are at the victim’s workplace, Carter Engineering. It’s an open-office design filled with wide desks covered in papers, tablets, and computers, with studious-looking engineers working individually or in groups on… well, Carisi has no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like it involves a lot of difficult math, and he takes a moment to appreciate that Amira must be really smart . He also notices that the office is filled predominantly with men, and he’s pretty sure Earl wouldn’t like that very much.

He and Rollins have come to talk to the people who know her now, not just from school -- but despite the fact that these people work with her every day, it doesn’t seem like any of them know her much at all.

“Amira Williams?” asks Arthur Gupta, the department manager, asks when they inquire about her. He’s behind his desk like his work is more important than this conversation, and keeps glancing at the blueprints covering his desk as if he can hardly wait to get back to them, but he’s polite enough and quick to cooperate. “Yes, she’s a good employee. Why, did something happen to her? I know she’s called in sick the past few days, is she okay?” He shifts slightly, obviously uncomfortable with the topic, the sunlight coming through his corner office windows glints across his glasses, his cufflinks, his computer screen.

“She’s alright,” Rollins says, “but we’re here because she might be helpful in a case we’re working and we need to vet all our witnesses.” The lie rolls smoothly off her tongue, and Arthur visibly relaxes. “Can you tell us more about her?” Rollins asks politely.

“Sure, sure,” he nods. “Uh, so she’s hard-working, and more innovative than some of the other guys here, but she’s pretty quiet too. I mean, I like her, sure, but she doesn’t really speak up in meetings or even at her employee reviews. Kinda withdrawn, actually.”

“Okay,” Rollins says, glancing at Carisi, who jumps right in.

“Hey, I know you’re busy,” he says, gesturing to the papers strewn around Arthur’s desk. “Is there anyone else here who knows her well, someone else we can talk to?” he asks.

Arthur tilts his head thoughtfully. “You may want to talk with Molly Klein,” he suggests. “She and Amira have worked on a few projects together and they’ve gotten to be friends, I think.”

“Great,” Rollins says. “Is there a place we can speak with her privately?”

“Sure, you can use our conference room,” he replies, clearly eager to be left to his work. He escorts them to the space, which is indeed private, with wood paneling and a heavy door, and leaves them there while he goes to get Molly.

“He seem nervous to you?” Carisi asks Rollins in a low voice after the door shuts with a satisfying click .

She shrugs. “Yeah, but not in a suspicious way. Just in a socially awkward engineer way,” she replies dryly, and Carisi is inclined to agree.

A sharp knock and then Molly enters. She’s taller than Rollins, and her brown curly hair is pulled back in a loose bun, the temples of her glasses tucked into it as the glasses rest on her head. She’s pretty, Carisi notices absently, in an unremarkable, almost bland kind of way. But the look of worry on her face is anything but unremarkable: she looks almost afraid.

“Is Amira okay?” she asks urgently before the door even shuts all the way behind her. “What happened? I haven’t heard from her in days, do you know -- ?”

“She’s okay,” Carisi placates, cutting her off before she can work herself up too much. He does feel bad for her, although part of him is happy to see Amira obviously does have at least one person who really cares about her.

Unlike Arthur, Molly doesn’t immediately relax at this reassurance. Instead, she looks skeptical, but she also seems ready to listen.

“Okay,” she says slowly. “So what do you need from me?” She doesn’t sound annoyed -- just the opposite; it seems like she really wants to know, wants to help.

“Why don’t we sit down?” Rollins suggests, gesturing to the cushy chairs around the shining oak conference table.

Molly nods, taking a chair. Rollins walks around the table to sit across from her, and nods to Carisi as he chooses a seat beside Molly, casually aligning himself with her. She looks back and forth between them, eyes sharp and worried until they settle on Carisi when he starts to speak.

“So,” he says, clearing his throat, “Amira has been injured, and we’re trying to figure out --”

“Was it Earl?” Molly’s voice has a cold anger in it, and her gaze is perfectly steady as she watches Carisi’s face.

He blinks in surprise, knowing even as he does that he’s given Molly her answer. “Well,” he says, glancing a bit helplessly at Rollins (who looks surprised too, but also grimly pleased that they’ve found an ally so quickly), “that’s a possibility we’re looking at.”

Molly’s mouth tightens into a flat line. “It was him,” she says definitively. “I promise you, it was Earl.” She shuts her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, then opens them again. There are tears in them now, and Carisi has to resist the urge to comfort her because she’s not done talking yet. “She’s scared of him,” Molly continues, emphatic. “She never admits it, but it’s obvious. What did he do to her?”

When Carisi doesn’t answer, she looks to Rollins, who keeps her face sympathetic but guarded. “We can’t discuss the details,” Rollins says evenly, “but anything you can tell us about their relationship, and about Amira’s feelings about him, would be helpful.”

Shaking her head slightly, as if to shake off frustration at this non-answer, Molly exhales through her nose and looks down at the table. Carisi notices her leg bouncing at the same time she does and it takes a visible effort for her to still it.

“Well, she doesn’t really have a social life outside of him,” she says slowly. “I think I’m kind of her only friend.” Her mouth twists slightly as she tells them this, in a way that Carisi thinks looks both sad and angry. “I get the sense he doesn’t like her to have friends. He wants her all to himself, so that he can do whatever he wants to her.”

Rollins nods slowly. “And what gives you that impression?” she asks gently.

Molly looks up thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” she admits. “A lot of little things, I guess. She never comes to office happy hours much anymore and she usually says it’s because she has to get home to him. And there have been a few times when he’s picked her up -- like, he’ll come to the office sometimes to get her after work, and she gets this look on her face. And so does he, actually.” She shakes her head again, puts her hands flat on the table as she chooses her words carefully. “There’s a pattern to it. I’ve been paying attention,” she tells them, and Carisi feels a flare of appreciation, even affection, not just at what a good witness she’ll make, what an asset she’ll be in a trial, but at what a good friend she is.

“It happens like this,” Molly continues firmly, holding her hands apart, palms facing, as if to demarcate a timeline. “Amira will do something he doesn’t like. Once it was that she did come to a happy hour. Another time she stayed late at the office, like, really late, and I was there too, a few of us were rushing to finish an SEP -- a Systems Engineering Plan,” she clarifies at their confused expressions. “It’s always that kind of thing, her getting home late or spending ‘too much time’ with people from work.” She uses air quotes here, rolling her eyes angrily, and Carisi is briefly reminded of Barba.

“And then,” Molly goes on bitterly, “the next day, he’ll show up. Like he has to mark his territory. And like I said, she gets this look on her face whenever she shows up. Actually, it’s more like a non-look. She just goes totally blank. Sometimes she won’t even look at me or meet my eyes, it’s like she shuts down, and she just gets her things together and leaves with him. And he looks scary. Like he’s angry but holding it in.” She rubs her eyes, frowns when her fingers come away with some mascara on them.

“It’s only happened a few times,” she says quietly, after a moment. She dabs at the area around her eyes and Carisi can’t tell whether she’s fixing the smudged mascara, covering up a few tears, or both. “But I notice every time. And I notice when she comes in with bruises.” She looks at him with eyes both pleading and determined, as if she’s afraid he doesn’t believe her yet, but is ready to convince him if she has to. “I don’t like him,” she tells him. “I don’t think he’s a good person.”

Carisi does believe her. And he agrees. But he can’t really tell her that -- he’s not here to commiserate; he’s here to get a statement, sort out the facts as objectively as possible, and figure out what Molly’s testimony might sound like if this goes to trial. So he keeps his face as neutral as he can.

“Okay,” he says, voice almost too soft and kind, just on the edge of unprofessional sympathy, as he looks at Molly’s almost distraught face. “That helps, Molly, thank you. Is there any chance you can remember any dates, any particular day or month any of those times happened?” He’s hoping she can, so that they can cross-reference the incidents with Amira’s medical records. There’s no doubt in his mind that if they can get the right information from Molly, they’ll find that the dates match up with when Amira has been hurt.

Molly brightens. “Actually,” she says eagerly, “I have a diary. I write in it nearly every day, about all kinds of stuff, including -- well, usually a few things about Amira too. Maybe that would help?” Molly asks, looking slightly flushed to Carisi’s watchful eyes.

“We’ll need to take it into evidence,” he nods, wondering what kind of person writes about her friend in her diary every day . He puts the thought aside to examine later.

She hesitates. “I can’t just send you scans of the pages where I mention her?”

Rollins shakes her head. “We need to go through the whole thing. Do you have it on you now?”

Molly blanches, and Carisi feels bad for her, but they really do need that diary.

“Um, yeah…” she answers reluctantly. “I can get it from my purse, just a second.”

She ducks out of the conference room and hurries to her desk, and Rollins gives Carisi a significant look that he doesn’t quite understand.

“What?” he asks her, and she grins at him.

“Come on,” she teases. “Molly has a crush!”

“I know,” Carisi insists, although he hadn’t quite thought to put it in those terms until Rollins did.

“I think it’s cute,” Rollins says. “And it works out pretty good for us too, huh?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “Always better to have a written record.” Part of him is annoyed with Rollins for needling at him about Molly’s apparent sexuality, however fondly, but another, larger part, is pleased that she’s comfortable enough to do it when he only recently came out to her himself. She looks like she wants to add something, but the door opens again and she closes her mouth.

Molly looks very reluctant, holding her diary tight in hand. “Can you guys just be really careful with this?” she asks plaintively. “And, like, you don’t have to read everything in it,” she adds quickly. “There are a lot of parts that have nothing to do with Amira -- actually,” she interrupts herself, brightening a bit, “I could use sticky notes to mark all the pages that do have to do with here! So you don’t have to read the stuff that isn’t -- the more, you know, private stuff.” She’s actually blushing now, and Carisi is a bit embarrassed on her behalf too. He’d hate to have strangers pawing through his most private thoughts, no matter for how noble a cause.

Rollins has no such qualms. “I’m sorry, like I said, we have to go through the whole thing.” She pulls out a consent form. “Can you please look this over and sign it so we can take the journal into evidence?” Rollins softens slightly at Molly’s alarmed, wide-eyed expression. “We’ll get it back to you as soon as we can,” she says.

Carisi nods earnestly. “This is really gonna help Amira,” he tells Molly. Despite what he said to Rollins, he’s not sure whether it’s true -- he can’t be, at least not until he reads through it -- but apparently his tone helps, because Molly relaxes slightly, and hands over the diary.

When they get back to the squad room, Amira’s medical records have just come in. So has Scott Baker.

“Guys, we’re just getting started,” Benson says, waving them over to the whiteboard, where she’s standing with Fin and the ADA. The board is covered with a timeline spanning years, months ticked off at even intervals and marked with specific dates and events. Fin has tacked up X-Rays, academic transcripts, and doctor’s notations at the edge of the board. Right away, Carisi zeroes in on late 2012, maybe early 2013, as the start of something bad. Sure enough, that’s where Benson picks up.

“Alright, look,” she says to Baker, pointing at the start of the timeline: September 2011. “She starts grad school at Carnegie Mellon, she’s a straight-A student.” She moves her hand further down the timeline, to where Carisi had been looking. “November the next year, she meets Earl. Almost right away, her grades start slipping.”

“We already knew this,” Baker says, and Carisi bristles at his impatient tone. “I read what Amira’s advisor told Detective Rollins on the phone yesterday. He also said it’s common to see that in a student’s second year, or when a student starts a new relationship.”

Benson’s lips tighten into a thin line for just a moment before she replies. “I’m sure it is common. But Amira’s medical records prove there was something else going on here.” She passes Baker a packet of papers; Carisi cranes his neck and glimpses hospital bills for a fractured wrist, a concussion, several sprains. Baker pages through too quickly for him to see more, and Carisi wonders whether Baker himself is even really reading them.

Benson continues. “Before meeting Earl, she only went to the doctor once or twice a year for regular check-ups. Four months after she meets him, she starts showing up every few months.”

“The records show a lot of injuries consistent with abuse,” Fin adds as Baker thumbs through the pages. “And they get worse as time goes on. Like the lieutenant said: escalating.”

Baker is sitting by now, surveying the whiteboard with a frown. “Okay,” he says slowly, “this is good. This helps. But it’s not enough.”

It’s all Carisi can do to keep himself from groaning. Is this guy kidding?

“It’s all circumstantial,” Baker explains. “The timeline looks damning the way you’ve got it set up here, but a defense attorney will pull that apart in less than a minute. I mean, anything could have caused those injuries. They’ll argue it could all be coincidental, accidental, whatever. Maybe she started partying after she met him, she started drinking, maybe some drugs, took a few tumbles -- there’s a million scenarios they could make up to explain this.”

Carisi is relieved when Benson interrupts the ADA to say, much more tactfully, what had been on the tip of his own tongue. “Actually, a lot of those injuries are considered consistent with abuse because they can’t just happen accidentally. These kinds of fractures,” she explains, tapping at an X-Ray of Amira’s wrist, “happen when someone’s arm is twisted by --”

“Okay, okay,” Baker says, looking a bit unnerved as Benson starts to demonstrate the motion on her own arm. “We can have a medical expert testify to that, if this goes to trial. All I’m saying now is that we don’t have enough to arrest anyone yet. And you can dig up all the old classmates and professors you can find -- we still don’t have anyone who knows Amira now who can testify to her being afraid of Williams.”

“We got that ER nurse who made the report,” Fin interjects. “Said Amira specifically mentioned being afraid of her husband.”

Baker huffs slightly. “I said someone who knows Amira. Someone who can testify to her ongoing behavior, her wellbeing, her state of mind. Not someone who met her once, right after she’d had this accident.”

Benson looks about ready to bite Baker’s head off when the word “accident” comes out of his mouth, and this time Carisi does interrupt her. “We might be able to help with that,” he interjects, eager for the chance to finally share what Molly gave them. “Uh, Rollins and I just got back from talking with some people at Amira’s office, and we got something.”

Rollins nods, leaning forward. “Yeah, it doesn’t sound like Amira has very many friends. But there’s this one woman, Molly Klein? She works pretty closely with her and they go out to lunch together, happy hour, that kind of thing. Molly said she figures she’s probably the closest friend Amira has right now.”

And she wants to be more than Amira’s friend, Carisi thinks, but he keeps that thought to himself for now, making a mental note to mention it to Baker if this goes to trial and he puts her on the stand. “Molly said that Amira’s afraid of Earl,” he shares instead. “She said Amira told her that Earl gets physical sometimes when he’s angry.”

“That’s textbook hearsay,” Baker replies, with all of the dismissiveness and none of the instructiveness with which Barba used to talk to him, back when Carisi was still a law student. “We can’t use that.”

“I know,” Carisi soldiers on, “but she’s also willing to testify to a change in Amira’s behavior. She keeps a diary, too, and she can provide specific dates for some of Amira’s actions -- missing work, walking like she’s in pain, acting odd, all of that kind of stuff.”

Benson looks impressed, and he practically glows when she says “good work, Carisi.”

Baker is more skeptical. “Well, that we can use,” he admits. He glances at Benson and hesitates. “But this still isn’t enough to bring him in.”

She frowns. “We may not be ready to make an arrest yet, but we’re close,” she tells him. “We need to get him in here to ask him some questions. I’m confident that we’ll get enough from an interview to make an arrest.”

Standing up from his seat at the table, Baker lifts his hands in mock surrender. There’s something sarcastic, even passive-aggressive, about the gesture that sets Carisi’s teeth on edge. “All I’m saying,” Baker warns, “is that he’s a smart, successful guy. You want to have all your ducks in a row before you let him know he’s gonna need a lawyer.”

Carisi exchanges a look with Rollins, and can tell by the arch of her eyebrow that she’s thinking the same thing: we know how to do our damn jobs.

“Well,” Benson says with a tight smile, “we can take one more run at Amira before we bring in Earl, then. We’ll ask her to come by for an interview tomorrow.”

“I think that sounds like a good idea,” Baker says, buttoning his suit jacket and picking up his briefcase.  

There’s silence for a moment after he leaves, and Carisi doesn’t quite meet Benson’s eye as she surveys their tense faces. “Okay, guys,” she sighs. “I know this isn’t what we’d planned, but while we’re working with ADA Baker, I think it’s wise for us to accommodate him, if we can.”

Carisi wonders what she knows about him that they don’t, and Benson must have noticed the look on his face, because she decides to clarify.

“Look, Barba let me know before he left that Baker is very quick to jump to a deal. If he’s not sure about the case, we don’t want to push it. Let’s make this as airtight as possible so that if it needs to go to court, it’ll get to court, okay?”

Carisi feels a brief twinge of envy to hear that Barba have told her this without sharing it with the rest of the squad, even after Carisi had shadowed him, but the feeling passes, or at least is overcome by his determination to do as Benson says and build the best case possible for Amira. He kept it concealed pretty well during that lunch, he thinks, but Earl Williams makes his skin crawl. Amira he hasn’t met yet, but he’s already worried for her. Frowning, he turns back to his work and wonders whether Amira will even be willing to come in for more questioning.

He hopes so.

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 15.

Rafael wakes up just before sunrise. As Clarita had promised, the couch is comfortable, especially with all the pillows they’d tucked in for him; the thin quilt Eduardo had pulled from the linen closet for him lays lightly on him now, pleasantly warm in the slight chill of the dewey early morning.

Despite all this, he hadn’t slept well. But at least he can’t remember his nightmares; he’s grateful for that. On other mornings he’d wasted too much time haunted by fragments of recollections, of images, of the cold feeling of a gun to his head or a knife to his throat.

But this morning there’s just the soft golden light creeping up the wall and the chatter of birds outside, and it’s easy to shake off the unease of a nightmare he can’t remember anyway. It’s harder to ignore the dark eyes of Fidel Castro staring down at him from the picture on the wall, though, so instead of staying on the couch, Rafael gets his book and walks quietly to the kitchen. He glances at the shrine on his way, but doesn’t feel quite ready to stop and look his grandfather in the face.

The back of the house is dimmer, and -- after making and making himself a cup of café con leche, with much more milk in it than he ever has in New York -- he flicks on a light to read by. He’d gotten this anthology of poetry a few days ago at the bookstore near the town square. He’s not sure what to call this area, actually; it’s somewhere between its own town and a suburb of Santiago, yet close to the rural areas; a strange in-between place that right now, as he sits in the half-light in an unfamiliar room, feels almost unreal.

He’s just finished a short poem -- give a white rose to your enemy as to your friend, the poet says, and Rafael is not inclined to agree -- when Eduardo, yawning, comes into the kitchen.

“Early riser?” he asks amicably, strolling to the counter to pour himself some coffee, into which he adds at least twice as much milk than Rafael had.

“Yes, although I try not to be when I'm on vacation.” He gets the sudden urge to tell his cousin about his nightmares, but to his relief the feeling passes before the words can leave his mouth.

“That's too bad,” Eduardo says with a sympathetic smile. “I'll make us some breakfast. It's good to get up early anyway when Tony’s staying here. He eats all the eggs if you don't beat him to it.” He pulls a carton of eggs and a slab of bacon from the old, slightly dented refrigerator. The gas stove hisses for a moment, then sparks, and he lowers a pan over the flames.

For a few minutes they sit in companionable silence, Rafael reading as Eduardo stands over the sizzling pan. The room slowly fills with the smell of bacon, and as it does the morning sun manages to climb high enough that its light suffuses through the western windows and sets the room aglow.

Rafael looks up from his book when Eduardo sets their plates down, and his cousin suddenly looks delighted.

“You’re reading José Martí?” Eduardo asks eagerly.

Rafael nods, raises the book so Eduardo can see the cover.

His cousin grins and rattles off a stanza: “Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma, y antes de morirme quiero echar mis versos del alma.”

Rafael blinks with surprise. A sincere man am I, from where the palm trees grow, and before I die I want to pour forth the verses of my soul. “You know it by heart? It’s a long poem.”

“We memorized it in school,” Eduardo smiles, taking a seat across from him, “and I never forgot it. Mami loves Castro, but I love Martí. All of his poems. He was a true revolutionary.”

Rafael opens his mouth to ask “and Castro wasn’t?” but thinks better of it -- it’s not the time to invite debate -- but Eduardo is more than happy to wax on about the finer qualities of revolutionaries at six in the morning, and answers Rafael’s question for him anyway.

“Without Martí, there would be no Fidel,” he tells Rafael earnestly. “He died for Cuba in the fight against Spain, but he left us with…” he gestures around the kitchen, as if to say the whole room could be filled with his gratitude and admiration for the man. “With all those words,” he finishes. “Yo sueño con los ojos abiertos.” I dream with eyes open. “He dreamed of a better world; he wrote out the path, and Fidel followed it.”

He says this like it could possibly be so simple, so natural, so fated, and for a moment Rafael pities him for being so naive. But that’s no way to treat the man, so he takes a bite of bacon to buy himself time to figure out what he does feel. In the end, he settles for a question. Always better to work with more information.

“And is it a better world?” he asks, voice gentle, with none of his real skepticism coming through. At least, he hopes none comes through, but Eduardo doesn’t look affronted so he thinks it’s alright.

“It’s not perfect, of course,” Eduardo answers. “But it’s always getting better. Just look at Mariela Castro. Thirty years ago, you’d be thrown in jail for being gay. They’d call you a pervert.”

Rafael’s head snaps up from his plate -- does Eduardo think -- ?

“But not anymore,” his cousin continues, and Rafael realizes he means “you” generally.

Although… he appraises Eduardo quickly. This time, though, he must not be as subtle as he thinks, because his cousin sees his face and quickly shuts his mouth. That’s it, Rafael thinks. He feels a rush of affinity with Eduardo, but he can tell that the man desperately doesn’t want him to say anything about it. So he doesn’t, not now, but resolves that he will before he leaves. Eduardo deserves that much.

“Anyway,” his cousin says, rallying slightly, “Martí is our national hero for a reason. A great man.”

Rafael nods. “Mariela sounds like a great leader too,” he ventures, hoping Eduardo will accept at least this hint with happiness, but instead he ignores it.

“He’s buried here in Santiago, you know,” Eduardo tells him around a bite of eggs, referring still to Martí. “There’s a whole mausoleum for him at the cemetery. I can take you this weekend.”

“Sure,” Rafael says with a crooked, half-sad smile. “That sounds good.”

 

He cleans up their dishes as Eduardo finishes getting ready for work. After his cousin leaves, Rafael thumbs through the book, looking for the poem he’d quoted, the one about dreaming while awake.

But like Eduardo said, it’s a poem about hopes for freedom, not literal dreams .

Rafael doesn’t know what he’d expected.

Only that he wishes, almost desperately, for his nightmares to end.

***

THE SAME DAY.

After a week of Amira ducking her calls, Rollins has finally gotten the woman on the phone and convinced her to come talk to them. Benson isn’t especially pleased with the way she’s done it -- “we don’t have much to go on to investigate this intruder, so either we can get a warrant for your apartment or you can help us by answering a few questions down at the station” isn’t a good way to win a victim’s trust, and she lets Rollins know it. But at least Amira is coming. Even if Benson will have to do some extra work to build rapport after the threat that brought her here.

She reviews Fin and Rollins’ notes from the hospital while she waits for the woman to arrive. Amira had been all over the place, she sees -- going from stoic to scared to angry and back again -- but this doesn’t surprise her. It makes sense that someone in pain and torn about a major decision would be a bit volatile. She hopes that Amira coming down means she’s closer to making the right decision: turning in her husband. She knows that it’s her job to make sure that happens.

Benson is standing in the doorway of her office, chatting with Fin and keeping one eye on the entrance to the squad room, when a small, dark-haired woman walks in. Her face isn’t bruised anymore, not like in the hospital photos, but she’s still recognizable from the pictures Rollins pulled from Amira’s social media. She looks nervous, picking at the strap of her purse and looking around with quick, uncertain glances.

Fin was about to pull up ultrasounds of his grandson on his phone, but Liv apologizes and excuses herself, striding over to the woman at the door.

“Hi,” she says with a straightforward smile. “Are you Amira Williams?”

The woman looks surprised, but nods. Closer up, Benson can easily tell that it’s not that her face isn’t bruised; she’s just done a good job of covering up the damage with makeup. In general she might seem very put together to someone not looking too hard: manicured nails, a nice dress, low but fashionable heels, and thick hair in loose coils past her shoulders. But her hands are shaking, and her dress has long sleeves despite the heavy summer heat outside. Benson wonders how bad the bruising is underneath them.

“I’m Lieutenant Benson,” she says, offering her hand. Amira’s handshake, at least, is firm and confident. “Thank you for coming in today.” In response Amira gives her something between a smile and a grimace, and Benson gestures her forward -- “Come on, we can talk in my office; it’s more private. Do you want anything to drink, or a snack from the vending machine?”

“Um, maybe some tea?” Amira asks hesitantly, like she doesn’t want to impose, even though she clearly resents being here in the first place.

“Sure,” Benson says. “You can sit right here,” she adds, gesturing to her couch; “I’ll be right back.”

A minute later she is, and gives Amira a hot cup of decaf Oolong before sitting next to her on the couch. She gives the other woman a few moments to blow away the steam and take a sip before she speaks.

She’d already decided when she was re-reading Amira’s file that she would stay matter-of-fact, neither tip-toeing around Amira nor bullying her. She keeps her voice level and honest: “So, did you have to miss work to come down?”

Amira’s mouth twists slightly, but she seems to respond well to Benson’s tone and answers willingly. “Actually, I think I’m going to take a leave of absence from work,” she admits, still not quite meeting Benson’s eyes. “An extended leave,” she adds after a second. “For the rest of the pregnancy and then my maternity leave. I don’t know. I haven’t discussed it with my boss yet. I might just quit, I don’t know.” Her voice is flat through all of this but it’s easy to sense the turmoil lying underneath.

“And what does Earl think of that idea?” Liv asks, sensing Amira wants to add something.

“He likes it,” she shrugs. “He thinks it’ll be good for me to get more rest, to be home more.”

More isolated, easier to control, Liv thinks, but she doesn’t say it.

“And do you like the idea?” she asks instead.

Amira hesitates. “I don’t know,” she says finally, raising her eyes to meet Benson’s. “I really don’t. I can’t tell how I feel about it. I guess I need to think about it more before I decide.”

Benson nods slowly. “That sounds smart.” She’s careful to keep her face neutral, but she’s making plenty of internal notes: Amira’s uncertainty, her disconnect from her own thoughts and feelings, her prioritization of Earl’s desires over her own… all signs of the damage done by long-term emotional abuse. We need to get this guy.

“Does Earl know you’re here today?” Benson asks. She already knows the answer, but she wants to see what the other woman’s reaction will tell her.

Amira takes a shaky breath. “Um, no. I didn’t think it was -- I mean, he’s in Boston for business right now, actually, he doesn’t need -- I just didn’t want to bother him about it.”

She’s trying very hard to give Benson a bright, cheerful smile, but her eyes are watery and she’s clutching the paper cup of tea like it’s a lifeline. It’s painful, seeing someone so on edge -- but, Benson thinks grimly, it does make her job easier, Amira being closer to a tipping point than she’d anticipated.

So Benson waits, knowing Amira will feel a compulsive need to fill the silence. It only takes a few seconds.

“Look, he just… it would have upset him if he knew I was coming,” Amira explains. “That’s why I waited until he was away. He didn’t like that those other detectives came to the hospital, or that they kept calling, because it’s really not anyone’s business --” this she says almost apologetically, clearly echoing Earl’s words rather than her own thoughts -- “and I just thought, okay, if I come down then they’ll stop calling and he’ll calm down and it’ll be fine.” She seems to realize she’s been talking at length, and abruptly stops, sips at her tea.

“Okay,” Benson says. “So, Amira, what happens when Earl doesn’t like something, or when he’s not calm?”

The woman is actually trembling now, and for a moment Benson thinks she’s about to burst into tears -- but then Amira surprises her.

The younger woman takes a deep breath and sets down her tea, closes her eyes, and takes another breath. “Okay,” she says, her voice unsteady. “Okay, um.” She really can’t meet Benson’s eyes now, and she actually bows over under the weight of whatever she’s about to say -- elbows on her knees, her face in her hands. “I knew this was going to happen,” she says after a moment. “ Fuck .” Her voice is getting higher, and Liv is almost alarmed now, but doesn’t move -- she doesn’t want to spook her or interrupt. “This is why I didn’t want to come in,” Amira says through her hands. “I knew, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it together, it’s so stupid, it’s not even a big deal, I didn’t want to bother anyone about it --”

She’s spiraling quickly, and Benson decides it’s time to interrupt. “You’re not bothering me,” she tells Amira firmly. “And whatever it is, if it has you this upset, then it’s not stupid. It’s something you need to talk about.” She tilts her head, trying to get a better look at Amira’s face through the curtain of hair hiding it. “You’ll feel better once you’ve told me,” Benson promises gently.

Now Amira does start to cry. She’s completely silent as she does, but her shoulders are shaking and her hands are clutching at her face, manicured fingernails all but digging into her skin.

“I’m sorry,” Amira chokes out. “I’m sorry, this is -- I just --”

“Here,” Benson says, passing her a box of tissues, and she’s relieved when Amira sits up slightly and lowers her hands from her face to take them.

She apologizes again as she blows her nose, and though she seems just slightly calmer afterwards, she still can’t meet Benson’s eyes. “Um,” she says after a moment. “Could you repeat the question?”

“What happens when Earl gets upset?” Benson asks calmly.

Amira nods quickly, squeezing her eyes shut. “He hurts me.” She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Sometimes,” she amends. “I don’t think -- I don’t think he really realizes -- he just can get so mad , and his eyes go kind of blank, and it’s like he’s not there anymore? And when he calms down he’s really, really sorry,” she continues, voice almost desperate, eyes open now and looking pleadingly at Benson.

“Was he the one who hurt you last week, who pushed you down the stairs?” Benson asks quietly.

“Yes,” Amira whispers after a moment, staring at her hands as if they’re not her own. “There wasn’t any intruder. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Benson says, her voice low and encouraging. “But I’m going to have to ask you to be specific here, Amira. What happened? How did he hurt you?”

Amira shakes her head slightly, opens her mouth and then shuts it again. “He grabbed my hair and -- look, he’s working on it, he has a therapist, he’s working really hard. I don’t want -- I didn’t want to come down here because we’re working on it together, you know, and I don’t want to fuck that up.” Her voice falters. “He’s a good person. We love each other.”

Benson shakes her head sympathetically. “Amira, love isn’t just a feeling. It’s in actions, too. Earl hitting you, beating you? Those aren’t acts of love.”

Amira’s shoulders sag slightly. “I know. But like I said, he’s working on it.” She doesn’t sound quite convinced of it.

“That’s great,” Benson says softly, letting that particularly delusional point go for now. “That’s great for him. I’m glad he’s working on it. But Amira, in the meantime, he shouldn’t be in any kind of relationship. Not until after he learns to deal with his anger differently.”

“He’s my husband, ” Amira insists. “We’re together, I can’t just leave him indefinitely, for -- for however long it takes -- we have to work on this together.” She raises her gaze from the couch to Benson’s face, and suddenly looks horrified. “Oh my god. You’re not going to arrest him, are you? Please -- I just didn’t want to make a false report, I didn’t want people to think there was an intruder when there wasn’t, that’s all -- please, I don’t want to make a report about this, please don’t do anything to him --”

“Amira,” Benson interrupts quietly. “I’m going to be completely honest with you here.” The other woman visibly braces herself, her hands twisting in her lap. “Now that I know a crime has been committed, I am legally obligated to move forward.” Amira opens her mouth to interrupt, but she forges on. “You have a few options here. You can refuse to talk to the ADA, or even recant your disclosure to me, in which case we would still have to continue the investigation but it would be much more difficult for all of us.” She leans forward slightly, wanting to calm Amira’s hands with her own but holding back. “Or you can trust your instincts. Trust yourself.”

Amira looks up slightly, eyes wide and afraid.

“You went to that judge to get a restraining order all on your own,” Benson reminds her. “That must have been really hard.”

She nods hesitantly, and Benson mirrors the motion.

“That was brave of you,” she continues. And she means it. “Can you tell me why you decided to do that?”

Amira closes her eyes again, only briefly this time, then looks back at Benson. “Yeah,” she says softly, starting to pick at the material of her dress. “I was afraid of him.” She shakes her head slightly. “Afraid of my own husband. It feels so strange to say that.”

“What made you afraid?” Benson asks, when it looks like Amira might need some prompting.

“Well, that’s what’s weird,” Amira says slowly, tilting her head slightly as if she’s trying to figure it out herself. “It wasn’t any one thing. I just… I’d been afraid for ages, you know, scared that I was going to mess up or do something that made him lose his temper, scared I was going to set back all the work he was doing in therapy, and I guess I finally convinced myself that I was really going to do it? That it was inevitable, that I was going to really fuck things up, and I got so upset thinking of how -- what he might do -- what it would do to us -- and I started thinking, ‘okay, if I can just get some space and some time, I can figure this out, I can be better,’ but I knew he wouldn’t like that idea because he always says we have to work on this together. We’re a team .” Her voice cracks a bit. “But I just wasn’t thinking straight, I was so panicked. It felt like there was this timer counting down, and I was going to fuck up really soon, so I went to the judge and -- it was a bad idea. It was always a bad idea. Even if he’d given me a restraining order It wouldn’t have helped anything.”

“It could have prevented what happened last week,” Benson reminds her, quiet but firm. “Your instincts were right about one really important thing, Amira. That it was only a matter of time.”

Now she does take the other woman’s hands, which tense and then immediately relax. Benson ducks her head slightly so she can catch Amira’s lowered eyes, and only continues once she has her full attention.

“Amira, it was only a matter of time because that’s the kind of man Earl is. He’s someone who lets his rage build up, and then he lashes out with violence against the people close to him. Against you. The restraining order was a good idea. Because someone who loves you, someone who’s on your team? They don’t hurt you like this. Amira, it’s not your fault that he did this to you. You didn’t mess up.” She squeezes her hands gently to emphasize her words. “You were doing the right thing, trying to get away. You were doing what was right and healthy for you and your baby. I want you to promise me you’ll remember that. Can you do that?”

Amira’s hands are trembling again, but she nods. “I promise,” she whispers.

Benson gives her a smile. “Good. That’s really good.” She pauses, watching some of the confusion leave Amira’s face, and decides it’s time to push a bit. “So, remember that you were doing what was right back then, when you tried to get the restraining order, and remember how scared of Earl you were… what are your instincts telling you to do now?”

Amira looks her in the eye. “I want to make a report.”

***

THE SAME DAY.

“You drove this thing all the way from Havana?” Tony asks incredulously, and follows it up with a low whistle. He stoops to better examine the blue Plymouth. They’d fetched their things from the inn using Clarita’s car, and only this afternoon had Rafael driven this one up to park it on their street. Now Tony is back from his job at the mechanic’s shop and looks eager to continue his work, and just a bit pleased at the opportunity to jab at his cousin over the old, beat-up car. “It didn’t stall going up the mountains?”

“No,” Rafael answers nervously. “Well, almost, a few times, but then it kept going.”

“Damn, Rafi, you must be good with the stick shift,” Tony says approvingly. “Even if you did choose a piece-of-crap car.”

He sounds genuinely impressed, and Rafael shoots a smug look at Lucía, who rolls her eyes in begrudging recognition of his driving abilities.

“But no way are we driving this into town.” Tony shakes his head; he’s walking around the car now, examining it from every angle. “I’ll fix it up before you leave. We can take Mami’s car to the restaurant.”

Clarita’s car is a gray 1986 Pontiac that doesn’t look like it’s in much better shape than the Plymouth, but after they all get in -- Clarita driving, Lucía in the passenger seat, and “the boys” (as the two mothers have already taken to calling them) all crammed in the back seats -- Rafael can tell the difference. The engine runs sure and steady, and between the well-kept city roads and this car’s better suspension system, the ride goes much more smoothly too.

Tony, the youngest of them though not the shortest, is crammed in the middle seat, and Rafael rests his head against the window as he watches the almost-rural suburbs turn into city. One- and two-story homes are replaced by apartment buildings; agricultural stores by government-owned markets; trees by streetlamps. He notices more businesses than he’d expected, too, and not all of them look state-owned.

He tries to remember whether the relaxed foreign relations sanctions had come with loosened regulation of free labor and private businesses, but he hasn’t been keeping up with the news as much as he should even in New York, let alone in Cuba. Tony’s mechanic shop, he thinks, is privately owned -- Eduardo works for the government, but Rafael doesn’t have a good idea of what it is exactly that he does.

They’re passing government buildings now, or at least buildings that look like them: all stone and sweeping columns. Though the stones are a warm, almost pinkish tan color, rather than marble, it’s the same classical Greek architecture that capitals all over the world have adopted as their ideal regardless of whether their countries practice the type of democracy the ancient Greeks imagined. America doesn’t, at least not anymore, Rafael thinks -- and neither does Cuba, but in a very different way.

He lifts his head from the window as they leave the government area behind and begin to wend their way down narrower streets, where children play outside just as out in the more rural areas. They dart back and forth, almost heedless of the slow-moving cars, and Rafael suddenly remembers something he’d read a long time ago: that Cuban parents send their children to play out of the house, always. Because you never knew what a child would overhear at home and tell their own parents, who might in turn report you to one of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution -- a house every several blocks, a neighbor ready to inform on you to the government. A kind of neighborhood secret police. So: the children play outside.

He’s shaken out of his thoughts when Clarita parks the car with a jolt, and turns smiling to look at them in the back seat. “We’re just a few blocks away,” she tells them; “the parking is always terrible there, so it’s easier this way. Let’s go.”

They clamber out, Tony groaning dramatically as he stretches from the ride. It’s still light out as they walk to the restaurant, and Rafael enjoys the not-too-heavy heat, the occasional smell of a cooking dinner as children open the doors of their homes, each coming back to their parents. He wonders briefly what it would have been like to grow up in a neighborhood like this. Not in Cuba, but some freer, warm place where children could play until dark and never fear for their safety.

He glances at his mother, wondering if the same what-ifs are passing through her mind, but Lucía is laughing at something Tony said. Rafael frowns slightly, wishing he’d been paying attention to them -- to his family -- instead of letting his mind wander to someplace that was never even real.

The restaurant isn’t too packed when they arrive, and they get a nice seat on the patio. Clarita lights a cigarette as soon as she sits down, even before opening the menu, and Eduardo does the same. Lucía and Rafael exchange a grimace, but don’t say anything. Even if Clarita and Eduardo put theirs out, every other person on the patio is smoking, too, and the smell is inescapable. For all its disgusting attributes, all the trash put out on its streets rotting in the summer heat for pickup, Rafael misses New York in this respect. At least he could breathe there. Usually.

Still, he starts to get used to it, and by the time they order their food he’s able to pretend it’s not there, like tuning out an obnoxious conversation two seats over on the subway.

They tell the waiter their orders, agreeing to eat family style. He shrugs his off-white summer jacket onto the back of his chair and automatically goes to roll up the sleeves of his shirt, except he’s wearing a pale green polo and there are no sleeves to roll up. It’s kind of nice.

“So Papi sold sugar?” Lucía is asking Clarita, who nods.

“I mean, he was no Fanjul, but he had a lot of money before the Revolution.”

“That must have been hard,” Lucía says sympathetically, “losing so much.”

Clarita tilts her head, looking at her sister as if she had said something very strange. “We didn’t lose it. The money went to the people.”

Rafael senses that his mother ought to drop this now, but Lucía laughs -- “But you still lost it when he took it, yes?” she pushes, drawing her hand around her chin and down to mime a beard: the universal gesture for Fidel Castro.

“It went to the people,” Clarita repeats sternly. “Papi worked hard for it, and he wasn’t so happy to see so much of it go, but we all know it was right. You Americans may not believe it, but not all rich men are selfish, Lucía.”

“We’re not only American. We’re Cubans too,” Lucía says, and though it comes out as a retort Rafael can see she’s a bit hurt by the implication. He’s not sure whether to be touched or annoyed that she’s including him in her “we.”

“Real Cubans know what Fidel has done for this country.” Clarita’s voice is calm and flat, but she won’t meet her sister’s eyes.

For a horrible moment, Rafael is sure his mother is about to say something reckless, right here in public -- something like Castro ruined this country, or You’re a fool if you think he’s not a selfish man.

Instead, she holds her tongue. But Rafael knows perfectly well she’s not going to apologize either. She never will.

For his part, he’s curious.

He has no love for Fidel, feels uncomfortable even calling the man by his first name with the familiarity even many of the exiles have, but all he knows of the man outside of history books is what his father told him.

Papi had been an exile, just short of a refugee. He’d escaped to America a year or so before things got really bad, before Operation Peter Pan brought all those Cuban children over the straits. Before all those parents said goodbye to them, thinking they’d follow in just a few months, but were trapped instead. Papi’s family was separated too, though, and the small fortune they’d sent with him ran out far too quickly. He’d always been bad with money. But at least he wasn’t a minor, vulnerable to the state that sent those Cuban children to foster homes or “youth hostels” where many they were abused, mistreated -- no, Papi didn’t have to go through that, but he saw it happen. Saw how often it happened, how common it was.

And then his parents disappeared.

This wasn’t so common.

Papi never found out what happened to them. He always said they were political prisoners, that they’d been rich and important, but Rafael was skeptical.

Although Papi didn’t quite trust the American government, not after he’d seen how they’d treated those children (as if he treated his own son so well), this dislike was nothing compared to his feelings about Fidel: a demon , he used to call him. Tanks rolling into Havana signaling Doomsday. The men who came down from the mountains -- from these mountains around Rafael now, from Santiago -- they were thieves, an army of devils. Destroyers of what, for Papi, had been Eden itself. And all of this Lucía (between her husband and the Miami expats she grew up around) believes fervently too.

Of course Rafael knows that Castro is an authoritarian. He knows that the newspapers here are run by the state, that political prisoners are very real, that despite relaxed regulations many Cubans are still not quite free to leave. Back in Havana he had quickly understood that the military propaganda on the hotel TVs wasn’t even directed at Americans, but meant to intimidate Cubans, to remind them who’s in charge. He doesn’t forget why the children play in the streets. He knows. He gets it.

But he’s also sure that none of it can be as simple as Papi had put it.

Castro is a man, not a demon. Clarita is a smart woman, and she adores him. There’s more to the story than his father, with his black-and-white worldview, would ever accept (let alone admit), and Rafael wants to know it. He wants to be able to review all the evidence before making a judgment, because although he knows that Castro is guilty, he’s not so sure that all the people who follow him, who believe in him, are necessarily accomplices.

All this passes through his mind in a matter of moments -- just the amount of time it takes for the water to arrive and distribute their plates of food.

He comes back to himself. The silence is tense, so he breaks it with a compliment: “Even the best Cuban restaurants in New York don’t have food that smells this good,” he says. It’s not necessarily true, but that doesn’t matter.

Lucía barely restrains herself from rolling her eyes, but Clarita appears mollified. Eduardo’s face is unreadable, and Tony is pointedly focused on the food, heaping ropa vieja onto his plate and quickly filling his mouth with it. Rafael gets the sense that he thinks differently than his mother about all of this, but that Tony knows better than to argue the point now. He decides to ask his cousin about it later.

For now, though, as the conversation relaxes, he realizes with surprise that he really is happy, in a simple, sweet way, just to be here. With his mother and aunt, who are now bickering happily about the best way to cook traditional sopa de pollo. With his cousins, who are also watching this with amusement. And the food really is very good, even though he can hardly smell it as Clarita lights another cigarette and sends its smoke twisting up into the night air.

 

Later, to Rafael’s surprise, it’s Tony who seeks him out. Rafael, having had hardly anything to drink (unlike everyone else) and perfectly sober, had volunteered to walk to the car and bring it around for everyone to pile in. “I’ll come with you,” Toby had said casually, and now they’re strolling down the few blocks between the restaurant and their parking space, Rafael waiting in expectant silence for whatever Tony has to say.

“Want to hear a joke?” Tony asks finally.

“Sure,” Rafael says, already laughing slightly in surprise; he hadn’t expected this.

“Okay. What are the three great successes of the Revolution?”

Rafael blinks, startled. “Um…” He knows it’s rhetorical, just to set up the punchline, but he hates not having the answer to any question posed to him.

“Education, health care, and sports,” Tony answers. “And what are its three failures?” He waits a beat just for show, then: “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He laughs, but it’s almost a nervous sound.

Thinking of the lines outside those Havana grocery stores, of the stores themselves with some goods entirely missing, of the hungry beggars on the streets of every town he’s visited (more of them even than in New York), Rafael can’t quite bring himself to laugh.

Tony shoots him a sideways glance. “I guess it’s not actually very funny,” he admits after a moment.

“So,” Rafael says slowly, following Tony’s lead by keeping his voice low. “You agree with my mother.”

He darts a glance at his cousin, who frowns slightly. “I guess -- I don’t think any rich man is honest. Here, or in America, or anywhere. And Fidel is rich, so.” He shrugs expressively, as if to say what are you gonna do and someone has to do something at the same time.

“Are you happy here?”

Tony’s answer is sure and immediate: “Not really. I want to move to Havana, but you have to get a permit to leave the rural areas. They don’t want so many people coming to the cities. But my wife and I don’t have kids, at least, so maybe it will be easier for us.”

Something about the way Tony says “my wife,” on top of the fact that he’s never met the woman, tell Rafael not to ask about her.

“Eduardo likes Fidel more than I do,” Tony adds after a moment, just as they get to the car. “Well, he likes Mariela .”

“Yes, he mentioned that this morning,” Rafael replies absently as he unlocks the driver’s side door.

Tony snorts in contempt, and Rafael glances up in surprise.

“Of course he did,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. “He better not go around telling people so much if he wants to keep that job of his.”

Rafael narrows his eyes. “Why, because she uses her government role to call for for equal rights? I would have thought you’d like that.” He climbs into the seat and leans over to unlock the other side so Tony can get in.

Tony shakes his head as he sits down, and slams the door just a bit too hard. “Those aren’t the rights we need to focus on right now,” he says.

They would be my rights, if I lived here , Rafael considers saying. Oh, he does love to catch people off guard, to use as weapons what they think should be vulnerabilities. To win arguments. But he doesn’t want this to be an argument in the first place, even though Tony is very wrong . He turns the key in the ignition, and feels his cousin watching him out of the corner of his eye as the engine turns over.

“You can’t just decide whose rights are more important,” Rafael tells Tony as he shifts into drive. “Real change has to include everyone equally, if it’s going to succeed in making a place better. That includes the people Mariela talks about.”

Tony glares at him. “You sound like --”

For a sickening moment, Rafael is certain he’s about to say a queer. A fag. That this is going to be over as quickly as it began. No more family. Or, rather: the same old family.

“Like such an American,” Tony finishes lamely.

They both know what he was going to say.

For a moment Rafael is absurdly grateful that Tony has made this allowance for him -- but immediately that feeling is subsumed by hatred, at himself, for being such a coward. For accepting what he knows, objectively , is bullshit. He’s cut ties over less before, with friends, coworkers, lovers. The only one he’d worked to convince -- taken years to bring around -- was his mother. Because she was family, and, unlike Rafael’s father, she had always been willing to listen, and to try to understand.

Rafael isn’t sure whether Tony is willing, and part of him wants to push the issue, demand that Tony look directly at it and change his mind. Rafael might take the time if he thought that was likely, or if he had the time in the first place. But he doesn’t. And what good would it do for Eduardo, pulling the pin from this grenade of a conflict, tossing it between them, then walking away?

He doesn’t like letting it go, but even more than that he doesn’t like the idea of breaking this fragile sort of balance they’ve established. And so, like his mother, he holds his tongue.

(He knows he’s a hypocrite if he pretends to be holding back only for Eduardo’s sake, and not his own desperation for this family.)

But here he is. It’s Cuba. It’s his family. What are you gonna do?

***

THE SAME DAY.

Baker gets down to the precinct within an hour of Liv’s call, and seems pleased when he walks into her office and sees Amira signing the official, detailed report Benson had just finished transcribing and printing out. He looks tired, and Benson can’t blame him. Amira hadn’t come to the station until the late afternoon, and her disclosure and report had taken a while on top of that; it’s nearly 9PM now.

Benson stands to greet him. “Amira, this is ADA Scott Baker,” she says, then turns to Baker -- “This is Amira Williams.”

He smiles as he shakes her hand. “Amira, nice to finally meet you.” This earns him a strange look from both women, and he quickly adds: “I wish it were under better circumstances.”

Benson remembers what Barba said, how Baker usually works homicide. Not used to living victims, she thinks with grim amusement as she hands him the report.

He clears his throat as he looks it over, nodding. “Alright, this is good,” he tells Benson, speaking as if Amira isn’t in the room. She’s still in the chair in front of Benson’s desk, where she’d sat to read over the report and sign it. She looks up at Liv like she wants to say something, but Baker is oblivious. “I think we’re in a good enough position, with this, that you can go ahead and arrest the guy,” he says.

“I think,” Amira begins hesitantly, and he glances down at her in surprise -- “I think maybe you shouldn’t arrest him right away.”

Baker sighs with exasperation. “Mrs. Williams, you can’t keep going back and forth like this. You made the statement, the officers make the arrest, that’s how this works.”

“Let her finish,” Benson tells him tersely, practically glaring daggers.

Amira shoots her a grateful look. “I just meant, he gets defensive really quickly, and when he gets defensive he gets mad. So maybe you should just talk to him first? Are you allowed to do that if you know you’re going to arrest someone, to act like you don’t suspect them?”

Benson likes this idea. A lot. “Yes, we’re allowed,” she tells Amira with a smile, savoring Baker’s surprised expression. “That’s really helpful, Amira, thank you.”

Baker clears his throat again. “Well, I’ll leave that in your capable hands, Lieutenant,” he says smoothly. “Thank you for keeping me informed about this.” He nods to Amira, tucks his copy of the witness statement into his briefcase, and leaves.

Once he’s out the door, Benson turns to Amira and rolls her eyes. “Sorry about him,” she says dryly, and Amira actually laughs. Her whole face transforms when she smiles and suddenly she’s radiant -- in the brightness of it all, Liv gets a glimpse of Amira as she must have been before Earl got to her: a young, smart graduate student excited for the future, unbruised and hopeful. It’s a sad vision, tinged by the present, but Amira is smiling, if only for a moment, despite everything that’s happened today -- everything that’s happened over the years since she met her husband -- and Liv thinks maybe she’s going to be alright, in the long run.

But first: Earl. “How long is that business trip you mentioned?” she asks.

“He gets back from Boston Sunday morning,” Amira answers, and her voice is steady with resolve.

Benson nods. “Do you feel safe staying at the apartment until then? We can set you up at a hotel if --”

“No, it’s okay,” Amira says. “You’re going to bring him in first thing on Sunday, right? So he won’t come back there?”

“We’ll have someone waiting for him at the airport,” the lieutenant promises. She rests her hand on Amira’s shoulder, squeezes gently. “We’re gonna keep you safe.”

Benson really believes she’s telling the truth.

Chapter Text

SATURDAY, JULY 16.

Lucía hadn’t expected Rafael to say yes when Clarita suggested they all go out for a drink. The boys had spent the day at the beach (she’s glad she bullied her son into packing swim trunks, but feels gracious enough not to remind him that she was right and he was wrong), and Lucía had thought they’d all want to go to bed early. Tony and Eduardo certainly seemed beat, sprawled lazily around the living room.

But: “No, Mami, I took a nap at the beach,” Rafael told her; “I’ll come for a drink.”

She thinks now he probably regrets it. Clarita has introduced her to a very nice man, just a few years younger than herself, and they are having a very nice time. “He’s an excellent dancer,” Clarita tells Lucía; she knows him from when they were in school, or from work, or from around town -- Lucía’s not sure, but although it’s only been a few days, she trusts her sister’s judgment. And it turns out she’s right: the man (Juan, he said his name was) is good on the dance floor, if a bit more forward than Lucía is used to. As he spins her she catches a glimpse of Rafael. He’d tanned a bit at the beach, not burned, but his cheeks now are bright pink and, his eyes focused on the bartop as if it’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen.

Taking pity on him, Lucía returns to the bar, and she’s not sorry when Juan follows her. She’s settled in between her new friend and Clarita, and chuckles at the sight of Rafael buried in his drink at the far corner.

Feeling wicked, Lucía lets her hand settle on the man’s thigh. Clarita lets out a hoot of delight, and Lucía laughs too. Maybe it’s the rum, or the handsome stranger, but she’s feeling lighter and happier than she has in years. (She knows the real reason, of course, and feels the deep joy swell in her chest when Clarita, asking whether she wants another drink, calls her hermana. ) She pats the man’s thigh again, and they’re both giggling when Lucía looks up to see Rafi has finally glanced over. He looks scandalized , and she can’t help but laugh louder.

Poor Rafael is bright red in the face as he walks over, returning Juan’s friendly smile but clearly ready to go. “Mami, I think I’m going to head back,” he says, looking everywhere but at his mother’s hand.

“I think that sounds like a good idea, mijo,” she smirks, and immediately he’s on his way out.

“Don’t worry,” Clarita calls after him as he bolts for the door, “I’ll take good care of her!”

 

Rafael is relieved to escape the stuffy, cigarette-smoke smell of the bar, and even more relieved to get away from the sight of his mother with that man. He’s glad she’s having a good time, of course, but Christ he does not need to see his mother like that. He shakes himself slightly and starts the walk up the hill.

But any thoughts of a peaceful night evaporate as he nears the house. Music is pouring out the windows, even louder than at the bar, and he half-expects to walk into the equivalent of a frat party -- but when he walks in the unlocked door it’s only Eduardo and Tony, hanging out in the living room with speakers set up and the volume turned high.

Tony, clearly already a bit drunk, is dancing along to Enrique Iglesias. “Rafi!” he cries, looking up as Rafael comes in. He looks delighted to see him, which shouldn’t surprise Rafael after the day they’d had at the beach, but still feels like a pleasant surprise after their almost-argument last night. “They kicked you out of the bar so soon?”

Eduardo shakes his head, chuckling. “I told you, Rafael, that place is no fun. It’s all old folks.”

“Even older than me?” Rafael jokes, carefully hanging up his light summer coat at the door and flicking a bit of dirt from its sleeve. He knows he’s being fussy, and he can feel Tony’s eyes on him. He puts a smile on his face before he turns around.

“Even older than you, mi viejo,” Eduardo grins. “But it’s okay, we won’t kick you out of here.” He tosses over a can of Mayabe and Rafael manages to catch it, although the can is still sweating from the fridge and he fumbles a bit.

Tony laughs again as he continues his terrible one-man, partnerless approximation of a rumba routine. “Mariquita. You’re worse at catching than Eduardo is at throwing!”

A sour look passes quickly over his older brother’s face, and Rafael understands: mariquita. Sissy. With another meaning lurking underneath. He feels a swell of protectiveness for Eduardo, and so it’s him he joins on the couch. Even if everything else is unfamiliar -- the climate, the country, the idea of having a large family -- these kinds of insults aren’t, and he knows how to handle them.

Rafael smiles easily as he leans back and cracks open the beer. “Maybe if you teach us how to throw we can teach you how to dance? Dios mío, no wonder you can’t keep a woman with moves like that.” He says it teasingly, and Eduardo roars with laughter.

Tony rolls his eyes so dramatically that, for Rafael, it’s like looking in a mirror. “You come all the way from La Yuma just to insult me, Rafi, I’m honored,” he snarks. His eyes flit over to his brother, and for a moment Rafael worries he’s about to say something else about women, and failing to keep them -- but apparently Tony decides to let it go because he dances his way into the kitchen (Rafael can feel Eduardo relax next to him) and quickly returns with a handle of Bacardi in one hand and three shot glasses in the other.

“If the old ladies are getting drunk tonight, then so are we,” he announces.

And they do.

Rafael is used to nursing a glass of scotch over an hour or more. Okay, he’ll knock the first one back on a bad day before taking his time with the second. But even on his worst days -- even when he lost the Mehcad Carter case, or thought he’d lost Liv to Tucker, or lost Alex to Alex’s own damned, blind stupidity -- he never did shots. Only the one, with Carisi, after Dodds… well, he’s not going to think about that particular day, awful despite Carisi’s kindness.

Not that drinking necessarily means an awful day, or that doing shots means a bad night.

In fact, he thinks as they all take their fourth shot in thirty minutes, this seems like an awfully good night. He and Tony laugh as Eduardo grimaces at the bitterness of the rum, but this time all three of them are in on the joke, and all three of them are drunk. By now they’re all on the couch, Rafael sandwiched between his cousins, with their knees knocking at the coffee table where the shot glasses, rum, and beer cans lie in a messy array.

“Okay, okay, one more,” Rafael says, trying to focus. He’s losing their game of Kings, which is unacceptable, but he can still salvage his pride if he wins this round.

“I’m bored of this one,” Eduardo groans. “Let’s switch to something else.” To Rafael’s alarm, he whips out a pocket knife and flips it open.

“Relax, Rafi!” Tony laughs. “Eduardo, look, his eyes are practically bugging out of his head.” Eduardo glances up with a smile, then kneels on the floor, puts his left hand on the coffee table, and spreads out his fingers. “He’s really good at this,” Tony says to Rafael. “Just watch.”

“No, no, this is a terrible idea,” Rafael says, but he’s transfixed and can’t quite look away as Eduardo starts to slowly move the knife in a terrifying pattern, stabbing the table between his fingers. Rafael now notices that the table is covered in scratches like the ones Eduardo is making, in addition to some gouges that look pretty deep. “Wait-wait-wait-wait,” he blurts, almost slurring his words as Eduardo’s right hand, the knife hand, picks up speed. He wants to wave his own hands in front of his cousin’s face to get him to stop, but he’s afraid he’ll make him trip up and stab himself.

To be fair, Eduardo doesn’t yet look like he’s in danger of stabbing himself -- Tony’s right; he is very good. But this is still a terrible idea, Rafael knows. “Wait,” he repeats, “listen, wait, let’s play a different game. How about a different game?”

Eduardo looks up just a moment before slowing his hand, and the knife nicks one of his fingers. “Shit,” he remarks mildly, shaking out his left hand.

The music has changed, and, unperturbed by the blood, he hums along to some tune about a Cuban woman who’s moved to Miami, leaving her lover to sing about how crazy she was to leave Havana. “Cuentame como te va yo por aqui, muy bien -- to por alla, que bola?” Tell me how you are. Me over here, I’m doing great -- you over there, what the hell? Rafael shifts slightly in his seat.

“Fine,” Eduardo says once he’s satisfied with the state of his finger. “What game?”

Rafael hesitates, realizing he has no idea. He hasn’t played a drinking game in years, not since law school -- and suddenly he remembers Rita leaning forward with her predatory smile as they sat on her apartment floor in Cambridge as she told him what they were going to play.

“Never have I ever?” he suggests with a wince, knowing it’s a bad idea even as he says it.

His cousins look at him blankly, and he realizes it probably doesn’t quite translate. He’s going to have to explain it. He drags a hand over his face with a heavy sigh. “Okay,” he says. “Never have I ever -- yo nunca he alguna vez -- it’s a game where you take turns saying something you’ve never done.” Tony looks like he’s getting bored already, which for some reason encourages Rafael -- he always likes to convince people. “And then the others drink if they have done whatever the first person said.”

Eduardo nods slowly as he cleans his knife with a handkerchief, and to Rafael’s great relief he shuts it again and puts it back in his pocket. “So what are some of the questions?”

“They’re not questions,” Rafael corrects him. “You make a statement, and it can be anything.” He glances at Tony with a smirk. “For example, ‘never have I ever been divorced.’”

Tony stares at him stupidly. Eduardo elbows him. “You’re supposed to drink if it’s true about you,” he says.

“I’m not divorced ,” Tony says petulantly. “We’re just separated. But fine.” He takes a drink of Mayabe. “My turn now. Never have I ever been an old bachelor.”

Well, Rafael has to give him that one. He rolls his eyes at Eduardo as they both take a sip of beer, and although he doesn’t particularly like the taste he’s glad they’ve switched back to Mayabe instead of continuing with the rum. If he’s reading Tony’s gleeful look right, he’s going to be drinking a lot, he thinks ruefully.

Eduardo clears his throat and leans forward to take his turn. “Never have I ever been to New York.”

“You’re not supposed to single people out,” Rafael complains, although singling people out is exactly how everyone plays the game -- or at least that’s what Rita taught him when she drank him under the table. He takes a sip and tries to think of what he’s going to say. By the time he lowers his beer he’s smirking. “Never have I ever lived with my mother past the age of eighteen.”

Eduardo and Tony erupt into protests: “I don’t really live here, it’s only because Rosa kicked me out; I’ll be back at my place by this time next week --” “--I only stay here to take care of Mami, I could afford two of my own houses if I wanted to, but --”

“No excuses!” Rafael says, drunkenly wagging his finger. “You have to drink.”

They grumble as they obey, but Tony’s mood seems oddly improved. “I really will be back there soon,” he says earnestly. They’re all on the floor by now, coffee table pushed away, Tony and Eduardo cross-legged and Rafael with his legs stretched out with his back leaning comfortably against the couch.

“Rosa is just doing it to make a point,” he continues, taking another sip of beer. “She thinks I cheated, but like I told her, I was only flirting; it was nothing.” Eduardo rolls his eyes. “As if I would ever want another woman,” Tony says, shaking his head with dramatic mournfulness. “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, Rafael, I’d swear it on the Bible.” He fumbles with his phone -- an old Android model -- and pulls up a picture of himself on the beach with a woman who really is quite beautiful.

Rafael nods appreciatively, which Tony apparently takes as an invitation to elaborate. “Beautiful,” he nods, “and Jesus, you wouldn’t believe how good in bed, Rafi, the noises she makes --” he’s actually gesturing now, and laughs at the look on his cousin’s face. “What’s the matter, Rafael, you and your friends don’t talk about the ladies? Shit, hermano, I’ve heard Americans are uptight, but you should see the look on your face. Relax! Don’t tell me you don’t have a woman back in New York?”

He can’t stop himself from blushing even as he kicks himself for it. Tony pounces.

“Who is she, Rafi? What’s her name, huh?” He looks fiendishly delighted at his cousin’s obvious discomfort.

“She’s not -- I don’t. I don’t ‘have a woman,’” he says, using sarcastic air quotes. “Anyway, women aren’t things you can have , they’re --”

Tony waves his hand dismissively. “You know what I mean, stop trying to change the subject. Who is she?”

Rafael glances at Eduardo, who’s fallen silent and avoids his gaze. No help at all, but Rafael feels bad, knowing he can’t really expect Eduardo to jump to his defense when doing so would only turn Tony’s attention to his own love life. Rafael also knows that trying to avoid the question will only make Tony more persistent.

“She’s just a friend,” he says after a moment, fiddling with the tab of his beer can.

“Ohhh, Rafi,” groans Tony. “You mean you haven’t made a move yet? Come on, hermano, you gotta put yourself out there if you’re gonna put it in anywhere.” Rafael doesn’t conceal his disgusting at this particularly crass turn of phrase, but Tony is impervious to his judgement. “So what’s she like, what’s her name?”

He’s got a vague sense of panic, dulled by the alcohol and the friendly warmth of the comfortable living room so unlike the little apartment where he grew up. “Uh,” he manages, feeling a distant sympathy for all the witnesses he’d been short with during prep. Was this what it felt like to be cross-examined? He can’t make up a name quickly enough -- briefly thinks of Yelina, but doesn’t want to summon up that particular spectre -- so he just tells the truth: “Olivia.”

He immediately regrets saying it -- it feels wrong to be sharing her name like this, telling his cousins things he’s never told her, but he doesn’t know what else to say. He finishes his beer quickly, face burning.

“O liiiii via , ” Tony repeats, and he actually turns down the music to better hear his cousin try to squirm out of this. Even Eduardo’s smiling by now. “And what’s she like, Rafi?”

God . If Rafael is going to do this, he needs to be much, much drunker. He stalls for time by pouring himself another shot of rum, then two more for his cousins when Eduardo jabs at him pointedly.

He sighs loudly when, after downing his, Tony’s still looking at him expectantly. “She’s… she’s very principled,” Rafael says lamely after struggling for a moment to find the right words. “And stubborn. Determined.” The townhouse incident and William Lewis rear their heads, and his mind flinches away from the thought of them. “She’s very brave,” he adds. “She’s a cop,” he adds, wanting them to understand just how brave she has to be, “but she’s very kind, too. At least she is when she’s not angry.”

“But what does she look like?” Tony frowns, entirely missing the point.

Rafael rolls his eyes. “You want a police sketch?” he asks sarcastically. “It’s not like I carry around pictures of her.”

“Not even on your phone?” Tony asks, and before Rafael can respond his cousin has snatched it up from where he’d placed it (carefully, after the knife game ended) on the coffee table.

“Hey, no, I use that for work,” Rafael snaps, standing up to grab at the phone. Tony is surprisingly strong despite his wiry look, and playfully shoves him back; Rafael lands heavily on the couch.

“I thought you said you were some government lawyer,” Tony protests. “They let you take your phone to Cuba?”

He’s got him there. “Well, it’s not my government phone,” Rafael admits grudgingly, “but I still use it for work. Give it back.”

“Come on, Tony,” Eduardo says, but he’s laughing and his scolding is completely unconvincing.

“This lady cop, you work with her?” Tony asks. “So you have pictures of her on here?” He waggles the phone at Rafael, who halfheartedly leans forward to grab it although Tony takes it back out of reach as he knew he would.

“No, I don’t have pictures of her on there,” Rafael snips at him. He’s not too upset -- the phone is password-protected, after all. But he still doesn’t like anyone else touching it, let alone his drunken newfound cousin. “I don’t go around taking pictures of my coworkers.”

He knows, but doesn’t mention, that Olivia does have pictures of them on her phone. Or did once, at least -- it had been her birthday, the squad got her a big cake; she’d been in a goofy mood and so had he. Carisi had used her phone to take a few pictures of the two of them on the couch in her office, mugging for the camera even with forkfuls of cake in their mouths. He had wanted to ask her to send them to him, but now he’s glad he never worked himself up to it, because he’s telling the truth when he repeats to Tony: “I don’t have any pictures of her, okay? Give me back my phone. You’re crazy.”

Tony shakes his head sadly, as if he’s disappointed in Rafael. “Fine, fine. We’ll just take your word for it then, that she even exists.”

Rafael knows Tony is trying to goad him, but he can’t help but walk into it all the same. “She exists . She’s my best friend.” This last part comes out plaintively, and he’s horrified with himself.

Eduardo smiles even as Tony groans. “That’s nice, Rafi,” the older cousin says.

“It’s nice, it’s nice,” mocks Tony. “Rafi, listen to me. Please tell me you’re getting some from her.”

Rafael feels his face growing hot again. “It’s not like that,” he says sharply. He thought he’d left escaped these kind of obnoxious machismo conversations when he left El Barrio and Harvard behind, but apparently not, he thinks with a stab of annoyance.

“It’s not ‘like that’ because you’re too much of a pussy to make a move.” Tony’s voice is condescending now. “Women like that, these stubborn bitches -- no offense, Rosa is like that sometimes -- you just gotta try a little harder, you know? You ever just tried to just grab her and kiss her?” Tony shakes his fists in front of his chest, as if shaking a woman by the shoulders.

If he wasn’t so angry, Rafael would have laughed out loud at the idea of being stupid enough to try to grab and kiss Olivia Benson without her consent. But he is angry. “I hope that’s not how you treat your wife,” he says, his voice low and deadly. Tony blinks in surprise at this dramatic change in tone. “And I hope you know better than to talk that way again in front of me.”

“Come on, Rafi --”

Don’t. ” The pleasant buzz is gone, and now he just feels ridiculous, and slow, and like he’s going to have a horrible headache soon.  

“Hey, let’s just calm down,” Eduardo says. His voice is genial, and Rafael thinks he’s probably very used to playing peacemaker for his brother. “Don’t worry, Rafi, he’s all talk. Tony would never dare touch Rosa like that, he knows she’d kill him.”

This earns him a glare from his brother, but Tony doesn’t disagree. Rafael relaxes his shoulders slightly, and feels a twist of embarrassment in his stomach for ruining the friendly teasing mood they’d had going.

Tony bounces back more quickly. “You said your phone has no photos on it, Rafi, we gotta fix that. Come on,” he adds encouragingly, handing Rafael his phone. “You have the good camera, unlock the phone so I can take some nice pictures of you two. Don’t worry, I won’t do anything to it.”

Rafael hesitates, but he wants to restore that unfamiliar yet brotherly feeling from before, so he does as Tony says: enters the password and hands the phone back.

Tony grins. “Okay, you two, stand next to each other -- come on, smile already. Not like that,” he instructs when Rafael gives a begrudging grimace of a smile. “A real smile. Eduardo, tickle him.”

Rafael’s already laughing as he bats away his cousin’s hands, and soon all three of them are happy and relaxed again, jabbering away: Eduardo lounging in the chair across from the couch where Rafael is sprawled, and Tony still sitting on the floor, where he intermittently fiddles with the speakers and drinks his Mayabe. When Eduardo makes a particularly excellent joke, Rafael roars with laughter he hears the clicking sound of his phone camera -- he gives Tony a frown even as his cousin takes another picture, but lets it go when Tony gives him a charming smile and suggests a selfie, tossing the phone to Rafael, who catches it easily this time.

Tony and Eduardo sandwich him on the couch and Tony manhandles Rafael’s arm so he’s positioning the phone at the right angle -- “no, hold it higher, Rafi, and look at the camera, don’t look at the screen” -- they’re all stupid-drunk, grinning widely, and it doesn’t even occur to Rafael to think how he must look; it’s not like anyone is going to see these pictures anyway.

Tony slides back to the floor to play with different filters for the pictures, and Rafael leans his head back on the couch, relaxing into the cushions and for once oblivious to Castro’s eerie stare above all of them.

“It’s too bad Papi isn’t here to meet you,” Eduardo says at some point later, when the music is off and they’re all close to sleep.

“When did he die?” Rafael murmurs, all of them too tired and too plastered to feel much pain.

“2000,” Tony answers. “Cancer. He was only 49.”

Rafael blinks slowly. “My dad died that year too. But he was 60.” He swallows. It doesn’t seem fair that Eduardo Sr., who by all accounts was a good man, should die at the same time as his own father yet live not nearly so long.

Eduardo must mistake Rafael’s mournful tone for grief, because he reaches up from his spot on the floor and pats his cousin’s shoulder. “Too bad we couldn’t meet him either,” he says.

“No,” Rafael says calmly, rubbing his eyes. “No, that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t have liked him.” And he wouldn’t have liked you, he thinks, but even in his drunken state he has the sense not to say it. He would have called you “un maricón,” just like he did to me. A faggot. He might have called Eduardo worse, actually, because at least Rafael likes women as well as men, and Rafael doesn’t get the sense that Eduardo is that way.

Tony yawns loudly. “Well, I’m going to bed.”

“Me too,” Eduardo says, groaning as he sits up.

“Tony, you still have my phone,” Rafael says, his voice muffled because in his exhaustion he doesn’t quite see the point of lifting his head from the pillow.

“I want to keep playing Candy Crush,” Tony whines, and Rafael doesn’t protest.

He’s not sure how much time has passed, but he’s face-down on the couch, on the verge of welcome sleep, when the door creaks loudly open. Lucía and Clarita stumble in, even louder than the door. He groans pointedly as he lifts his head. “Mami, por favor, it’s past 1AM.”

Lucía cackles, waving a napkin in the air as she kicks off her shoes. “I got his number!” she crows.

Clarita tries to shush her, but is made ineffective by her own giggles. “You should have seen them, mijo!” she says to Rafael, her “whisper” voice somehow just as loud as Lucía’s. “Dancing all night, every song, such a beautiful couple.” This last observation she delivers with a kiss to each of Lucía’s cheeks.

“Mami, Tía,” shouts Tony from some other room, “please, be quiet!”

“As if you’ve been enjoying a deep sleep for hours,” Clarita chides, gesturing widely at all the bottle and cans as if Tony can see her. But they do quiet down, and soon they’ve gone upstairs, and the room is blessedly quiet again.

As Rafael drifts into sleep, he feels a vague yet deep gratitude that it’s been so easy, becoming a family.

***

SUNDAY, JULY 17.

It’s late. Or rather, the very early morning: Benson is still awake at 2am. Noah’s been asleep for hours and she’s exhausted, but there’s so much paperwork to do after Amira’s report, in preparation for Earl’s questioning -- and, she hopes, for his eventual arrest. She’s got it spread out over the whole coffee table, her wine glass carefully placed on the end table where it won’t spill over everything, and her phone next to her on the couch. It buzzes just as she’s just thinking (with some unpleasant combination of grief and bitterness) of how short-staffed her squad is, and she frowns, hoping it isn’t a work emergency.

When she swipes the text open and sees it’s the furthest thing from that, she actually laughs out loud: it’s Barba. Drunk.

Someone -- obviously not him, she can tell right away, although it’s from his number -- has sent her four or five pictures taken over the course of what looks like a delightfully raucous night. Barba is tanned and polo shirted, his hair has fallen into a soft, sweet sweep across his forehead, and he’s actually cheesing for the camera with his arm around a man who looks so much like him they’re clearly related (she’s surprised, wonders why he never mentioned he’d be seeing family in Cuba). He’s got thick stubble, nearly a beard, and before she can stop it the thought crosses her mind that it looks both soft and scratchy, just the texture she’d like to slowly run her hand through.

Barba and the other man are in what looks like someone’s living room, standing near a table littered with beer cans and a single, far-from-full bottle of Bacardi. He’s practically sprawled across the couch in the next two pictures: in the first, he’s laughing -- really laughing -- at something someone has said, and in the next he’s frowning slightly, having noticed the camera, and trying to school his features into something resembling dignified seriousness.

Liv chuckles, then feels a bit guilty. Clearly he hadn’t meant for anyone, let alone a coworker, to see these pictures, and here she is gleefully scrolling through them. He probably doesn’t even know they’ve been sent to her, or else they’d have been followed up with some kind of furiously embarrassed apology text. She wonders, with a lick of shame, if she ought to delete them, or at least stop looking -- but the next photo is a selfie and she just can’t resist.

It’s Rafael holding the phone this time, and his thumb is covering part of the camera, leaving a bright blur at the edge of the image that’s only a bit pinker than his alcohol-flushed cheeks and nose. His relatives (cousins, she’s guessing) are sitting on either side of him. The older one looks ready to pass out, his head on Rafael’s shoulder and his eyes half-shut; the younger one, who she suspects is the one responsible for sending these, is looking directly into the camera with an expression Liv can only describe as mischievous. Rafael is also looking at the camera, with that big, lopsided grin she’s only seen a few times. He’s alarmingly handsome when he’s happy.

She looks at that picture for a long time. Something about it -- she’s not sure what -- makes her almost sad.

The phone buzzes again in her hand: <Rafi sasy HOLA!!>, someone has typed out poorly with drunken fingers under a new picture of Barba passed out (mouth slightly open, fast asleep) on the couch, and Liv barks out another laugh, surprising herself. What the hell, she thinks: may as well respond.

Her fingers hesitate over they keys as she fumbles with what she even wants to say. She settles for < Nice tan, “Rafi.” Glad you’re having fun. I hope you’re not still hungover when you get back. > She puts down the phone and takes a sip of wine -- then picks it up again and sends off what she’s really thinking. < I’ve seen you drink before, but not like this! Bring back a bottle of the good stuff for us and we can try to match it sometime. > He’ll be back in -- she glances at the clock and realizes it’s already Saturday -- ten days.

This is the first time she’s heard from him since he left, and she wonders whether the poor cell service in Cuba will even let him see her texts between now and his return.

She isn’t sure whether she should regret sending that second one, and decides not to think about it.



Chapter Text

SUNDAY, JULY 17.

The gangly detective -- Sonny, Earl remembers -- is all jovial energy as he drives him to the station, but Earl isn’t quite convinced.

“Sorry I freaked you out back there at the baggage claim,” Sonny is saying, glancing over at him in the passenger seat. “I know, I know, it’s the weekend, you wanna get home, but my Lieutenant said it was urgent. I think one of the other detectives found a suspect, some guy who works in the building.”

This sounds plausible enough to Earl, who doesn’t like the look of any of the maintenance workers himself -- he can easily see one of them being found guilty of some thing.

“Yeah, she’s a real stickler,” Sonny continues, really just complaining now. “She wants to go over every little thing you already told us, and you should hear how she’s riding us, too -- holy cow, let me tell you, it’s annoying.”

He sounds genuinely frustrated, and Earl feels a mix of pity and contempt that the poor guy has to deal with a woman like that as his boss. But by the time they reach the station (it takes them nearly forty minutes from LaGuardia despite the light Sunday traffic), he just wishes the guy would shut up. The constant jabbering, the Staten Island accent, the obnoxious hand gestures -- it’s driving Earl a bit crazy, and he’s grateful when Sonny parks the car and they climb out.

Despite this, his stomach twists with worry as they walk into the station, and the feeling only grows stronger as they take the elevator up, enter the precinct, and wind through a crowd of desks towards a closed door that looks awfully ominous. The detective opens it to reveal a bare room with a metal table and what’s obviously a two-way mirror in the wall. Earl hesitates as the word interrogation comes to mind. Does he need a lawyer?

But there’s Sonny again, babbling away: “I know it’s not the most comfortable space, but protocol is protocol, am I right? So we gotta do it in here. Can I get you a soda or anything? Chips?”

He looks gratifyingly eager to please, and Earl relaxes slightly, nodding. The nervousness rushes right back, though, when Sonny lets the heavy metal door swing shut behind him, leaving Earl alone. The chair beneath him is cold, and he leaves his hands awkwardly in his lap because those metal loops attached to the table are for handcuffs, for criminals . There’s a bitter metallic smell in the air that sets his teeth on edge, and again he wonders if he needs to call that lawyer his friend used a while ago -- he thinks his name is John Buchanan? He swallows, then mentally shakes himself. No. He’s a grown man, not some weak, scared idiot. He can handle this without needing anyone to hold his hand.

The door opens again only a few moments after it shut, and Earl is taken aback when, instead of Sonny, a pretty woman detective walks into the room carrying the diet coke he’d requested. Maybe it’s because she’s blonde, almost petite, but right away she reminds him of Mrs. Kemper. His ninth grade English teacher. She’d always liked his writing, been a good listener, made him feel special. Important. He flushes a bit -- isn’t it silly to miss some woman you knew when you were fourteen? Isn’t it stupid to be worrying about then when you’re talking to the police? -- but he gets control of himself right away, and smiles at her.

Rollins notices his brief blushing look, and gives him a soft smile. “Hi,” she says, sitting down across from him. Judging from the look on his face, she and Liv were right in guessing a female detective would disarm him, at least at first. Already he seems more at ease than when Carisi, playing up his Obnoxious Boy Cop act as much as he could, had brought him in. “I’m Amanda,” she introduces herself as she slides the coke over to him.

It’s still sweating from the cool of the vending machine, and leaves a little dewey trail behind it. She watches as Earl, still looking at her, absentmindedly taps at the water droplets. “Hi,” he says after a moment, then stops, clearly unsure. There’s no social script for this, no familiar introductions or pleasantries, so Rollins fills them in for him.

“Thanks for coming in,” she says, echoing Carisi’s earlier apologies but with a sweetness he had lacked.

“No problem,” Earl says, visibly relieved at the opportunity to be magnanimous. “I mean, it’s a bit of a pain, coming in on a Sunday, straight from the airport. Kind of ruins the weekend. But you probably feel the same way.” He flashes her a charming smile.

Rollins pulls a sympathetic grimace. “Yeah, it sucks,” she agrees. “But we can make this pretty quick, I think, and we’ll both be home in time for lunch.”

“Great,” he says, opening the can of Coke. It gives a cool hiss. “That’s perfect.”

“Great,” Rollins echoes, figuring he’s the type of guy who likes to know he’s being listened to, likes to think his mere words shape the thoughts of everyone around him. She shuffles through her paperwork as if she hasn’t already reviewed it meticulously, but is careful that the manila folder is tilted so he can’t see anything in it.

She waits a moment, letting him get just a bit uncomfortable in the silence so she can be the one to helpfully relieve it. “So,” she smiles just as his eyes start to dart between her face and the two-way mirror, “the night Amira was attacked, you said you got back around eleven?”

He nods quickly, tapping at the side of the Coke can. He still hasn’t taken a sip. “That’s right.”

Rollins frowns down at her papers as if confused. “Okay,” she says slowly. “It’s just, well --” she glances up, face apologetic -- “we pulled the security footage, and it looks like you got back a lot earlier than that?”

He blinks twice, then raises the can to his lips. Buying time. His hands are steady as he puts it back down, but he resumes his tapping at it -- a tinny sound, as quick and regular as a metronome. “I guess that’s possible,” he admits. “I might have been thinking of a different night.”

She waits.

“I get home at different times on different days,” he explains. “Maybe I was thinking of the night before.”

She nods thoughtfully. “Right, but, see -- Amira was attacked earlier in the evening, so, if you did get home at nine, you would have been there while it was happening, or just just afterwards.”

His eyes widen juuust slightly, but Rollins doesn’t want him panicking just yet, so she gives him an out.

“That’s actually a really good thing,” she tells him earnestly. “We’re actually hoping you saw something? If you can try to remember, even little things that you think aren’t important could really help us. Maybe you saw someone in the lobby, or down the hallway, when you were headed to the apartment?”

Earl hesitates, looking past her as if transfixed by the mirror. It takes a visible effort for him to drag his eyes back to meet hers. “The other detective, Sonny, he said you guys think it might be one of the maintenance guys?”

Rollins gives him a serious nod, but he doesn’t quite relax. She guesses he’s trying to think on his feet, to come up with a lie that’s not too obvious, not overly helpful, but a hint to send her in the right -- or rather, wrong -- direction.

“I don’t think I saw any of them that night,” he says slowly. He shuts his eyes as if trying to remember, and finally stops tapping at that damn can, laying his hands on the table instead and then quickly bringing them back to his lap. “Okay, so I got home around nine, that’s what the security footage said… so it must have been just after, thank god I didn’t find her too late.”

Rollins makes a mental note: he’s avoiding saying Amira’s name. It’s a tell; Rollins sees it all time, the way abusers dehumanize their victims in these little, subconscious ways. Take ownership over every part of them, even their names.

“Um, it was a warm night. I came into the lobby and said hi to Armand -- that’s the doorman,” Earl clarifies, opening his eyes. “Have you talked to him? You should talk to him. He’s a friend of mine, he’d be happy to help.”

Rolling her eyes inwardly, Rollins keeps her face open. Translation: I don’t think he thinks I did anything.

“Anyway,” Earl goes on, “I used the elevator, and I don’t think anyone else came on while I was on my way up. You should check that footage too.” Rollins nods and makes a note as if they haven’t already reviewed this. “And I came down the hall, and I didn’t notice anything wrong because the door was unlocked but it was closed. Except…” He leaves a pause that’s just barely short of dramatic. “Well, I noticed this smell. A kind of chemical-y smell, like cleaning supplies.”

Rollins is impressed despite herself. People usually make things up based on the senses they rely on most: sight or sound. But making up a smell? That’s creative enough that it almost rings true.

“And cigarettes,” he adds after a moment, like it’s just occurred to him. Which it has. “It wasn’t a really strong smell, but those guys smoke all the time, out on the fire escape. Even though they’re not supposed to.” His eyes light up. “Actually, that’s probably how the guy left! I mean, I don’t think there are any cameras out there, not like in the elevator, so he could have gotten away really easily.”

“Okay, that’s great, that helps,” Rollins enthuses. But it’s just the opposite. She’d been hoping that in recalling the night in detail he’d slip up and reveal something about his own behavior. Instead he’s just covering his bases, and doing it far better than she’d expected.

Well then. Time to switch tactics. The faster the better, to really catch him off guard. Rollins gives him one last smile -- her first genuine one. Playing nice with a scumbag is never fun. But this part?

She’s going to enjoy this.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Rafael wakes up to a headache and a fuzzy recollection of whatever awful dream his brain had deemed right for him last night. Something in the courtroom -- gunfire, Judge Barth on the ground, just like when Johnny D had tried to make a run for it, except this time Rafael had been shot down too, had collapsed bleeding while his mother sat calm in the gallery, her hands folded neatly in her lap. There had been more, plenty more, he’s sure. But he can’t remember it. Maybe pickling himself in rum is the trick, he thinks, even as he debates whether it’s worth it to open his eyes to the glaring sunlight.

Bracing himself, he does just that, and hisses as the dull pain in his head instantly turns sharp and aggressive. A wave of nausea rises in him as he swings his legs off the couch, but he swallows the feeling down and lurches to the kitchen for water. There he finds the rest of the family in similar states of distress; he’s a bit embarrassed that he slept later than everyone else, but is consoled by the fact that he’s clearly the best rested and the least hungover. His mother looks particularly ill, slumped forward with only her elbows braced on the table keeping her up. She’s hunched over a cup of coffee but seems to just be smelling, not drinking, it. He wonders whether part of her look of misery is due not to the hangover, but to the fact that tomorrow morning they’ll be leaving for Havana.

“Morning, Rafi,” Eduardo croaks from his spot leaning against the counter. “Sleep okay?”

“Yeah,” he lies, trudging over to pour himself some much-needed coffee.

“I don’t normally ever drink so much,” Clarita is telling her sister in a low voice; Lucía mumbles something inaudible in response.

Tony lifts his head from the table when Rafael sits next to him. “Here’s your phone,” he mumbles groggily, sliding it over. “I got to level 51 on Candy Crush before it died.”

Rafael tries to be exasperated that Tony let his phone run out of battery, but can’t work up the energy.

“So,” he says after downing most of his coffee. “What are we doing today?”

Lucía sighs dramatically without looking up, as if the very idea of doing something today exhausts her. Rafael can’t blame her, but Clarita has brightened a bit and clearly has an answer.

“We’re going to church,” she tells him.

Aside from accompanying his mother to Christmas Mass, Rafael hasn’t been to church in years. He’s not sure he wants to go at all, let alone here (where he knows that the ceremony will be mixed with unfamiliar indigenous and West African traditions) or today (when he’s pretty sure he couldn’t follow even the normal Latin incantations anyway). Before he can think of an excuse, Eduardo steps in to rescue them both.

“I’m taking Rafi to the José Martí memorial,” he tells his mother. “We can meet you after Mass.”

“I’ll go with you, Mami,” Tony offers before Clarita can try to convince Eduardo otherwise.

She scoffs fondly. “You just want to make eyes at Rosa from across the pews.”

“So?” he says with a shameless shrug. “We were married in that church; it’s not wrong to look at her there.”

Clarita rolls her eyes, and even Lucía has a smile tugging at her lips.

“Fine,” she concedes. “Rafi, Eduardo, you can take my car. We’ll walk to church.”

Two cups of coffee and a brief shower later, Rafael is ready to go. He kisses his mother on the cheek -- “drive safe,” she tells him blearily -- and heads out with Eduardo.

 

The Havana Monumento a José Martí is enormous. As tall as some of the smaller New York skyscrapers. Here at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery his mausoleum is small in comparison, though it still looms over Rafael and Eduardo as they walk beneath its column-raised mass, deep in cool shade and contemplation.

It’s Eduardo who breaks the silence. “When Fidel dies,” he tells Rafael quietly, “he’ll be buried here too.”

Rafael makes a noncommittal noise, and his cousin gives him a sidelong look.

“You don’t like him, do you.” It’s not a question.

Although it’s a lovely weekend day, there’s no one else at the memorial. But Rafael glances around just to be sure. Speaking openly is much easier in Havana, where students and would-be activists and multinational capitalist corporations are all free, for the most part, to exist, as long as they don’t exist too loudly. Out here are Fidel’s roots, his people, and Rafael isn’t so sure about what he can or cannot say. Still, the graveyard is quiet, and the solid, solemn feeling of the mausoleum around and above them somehow muffles their speech, lends it secrecy where secrecy may not really be.

“No,” Rafael says. “I don’t.”

Eduardo chews on this for a little while, leaning against a thick pillar. “You think he’s a dictator.”

“I think he puts dissidents in prison and hasn’t let go of his power for sixty years.”

“He gave it up to Raúl in 2008.”

Rafael raises an eyebrow. “Symbolically handing the reigns to his brother doesn’t count.”

His cousin frowns, but doesn’t disagree. “Your presidents are no better,” he says, as they start to slowly walk around the memorial again.

“Some of them came close, maybe,” Rafael concedes mildly with a shrug. “But at least they all leave after their eight years.”

“Look at all the wars they started. We know better than to meddle with other countries.”

Rafael sucks in a breath, trying not to get annoyed. Did Eduardo really bring him all the way out here to pick a fight, today, on his last full day in Santiago?

“I’m not any fan of war,” he says flatly, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like a regime of cruelty and censorship just because it comes with isolation.” He turns to face Eduardo. “You do realize that too much isolation is no good, either. Have you ever left Cuba?”

“No,” Eduardo says defensively.

“And do you feel free here?”

Eduardo hesitates. “In some ways.”

“And in others?”

His cousin avoids his gaze, instead staring up at the arches above them. “I’m not stupid,” he says at last. “I know what you’re asking.”

Rafael debates putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, but holds back. He settles for taking on a gentler, kinder tone than he’d used before. It’s a sincere tone. “I’m that way too,” he tells the other man softly.

Eduardo’s upward gaze doesn’t waver. “What about your Lieutenant friend?” His voice isn’t bitter, but it’s something close to that.

“I’m…” Rafael hesitates. Bisexualidad, like its English equivalent, has always felt too clinical a term. “I’m both,” he says.

“Then it’s easier for you.”

“Sometimes.”

Eduardo scuffs his foot across the cement ground. “Some people say he was like that,” he says quietly, gesturing vaguely at Martí’s mausoleum. “But no one knows for sure. He died when he was only 42.”

“Yes…” Rafael says cautiously, not sure where this is going and not liking it.

“He wanted to die,” Eduardo continues. “He wrote a poem about it. No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor: yo soy bueno, y como bueno, moriré de cara al sol.” Do not put me in the dark to die like a traitor: I am good, and like a good thing, I will die with my face to the sun.

“You don’t --”

“No,” Eduardo says immediately, to Rafael’s immense relief. “That’s not what I want. But I like… I like the idea of being in the sun.”

This time Rafael does reach out, slings an arm around his cousin’s shoulder. “You should come to New York sometime,” he says, surprising them both.

Eduardo ducks his head, but can’t hide his smile. “Maybe I will.”

***

THE SAME DAY.

Rollins slaps the folder shut and leans forward in her seat, just a little, letting her smile fall. To his credit, Earl picks up on the change from her earlier, friendly demeanor right away, before she even says anything. He already looks defensive. Good. Time to call him on his lie about an intruder from the building staff.

“The thing is, Earl,” Rollins says quietly, “your wife? She doesn’t remember any maintenance guy.”

Earl scrambles for an excuse. “Maybe she hit her head too hard, can’t recall --”

“No, her memory’s fine,” Rollins tells him. “She says it was you who pushed her down the stairs.”

Earl looks wide-eyed, stunned, and almost betrayed. He’d really thought she was on his side, and Rollins feels grim satisfaction at this confirmation that she’d been convincing. He opens his mouth, shuts it, opens it again, and she jumps in to really fluster him before he can come up with another lie.

“Yeah, she says that you got home around nine,” she continues, and now she really does consult her notes on the statement Amira had given to Benson after she’d finally decided to make a full report. “She says you were already in a bad mood, and that she was tired and didn’t have the energy to make you feel better. ” Rollins raises her voice slightly when Earl tries to interrupt, and she puts down the file -- she’s got the rest of it down by heart, and she wants to watch his face as she tells him what he did.

“She says,” Rollins continues, her words heavy with contempt for Earl, who is bristling at this, at being spoken to this way, let alone by a woman -- “she says you got more angry when she tried to end the conversation. She just wanted to go to bed, because she’d had a long day too, but you couldn’t have that, could you, Earl?”

“She wouldn’t -- you don’t --”

“I don’t what?” She parrots his words in a mocking way. “I don’t understand? You’re right, I don’t. So why don’t you tell me your side, huh?”

Earl looks angry, but he still can’t quite find the words, so she stands up, hands on the table as she looms over him where he sits, so out of place, behind the table.

“Amira told us that she could tell you were going to get physical. She could tell because you’ve done this a few times before. She tried to go upstairs. She tried to get away from you. But you followed her.” Rollins slaps her hand on the table and is glad to see Earl jump a bit at the gesture, at the sound it sends around the little room he’s trapped in. “You followed her, and you grabbed her by her hair --”

“She would never say that. I’m not stupid, I know how cops lie,” Earl snaps. He’s clearly trying to keep his voice under control, but he’s leaning forward in his seat, his face too close, but Rollins refuses to cede ground. “That’s not how it happened.”

“So it did happen.” She smiles, a mockery of the sweet look she’d given him when she first came in. “It happened when you were there.”

“That’s not what I said.” He looks almost furious now: face flushing red, nostrils flaring. “If you’d just listen, I could tell you what happened.”

But he’ll only lie again, and Rollins has wasted enough time listening to that, so she pushes on: “It happened when you were there, Earl; we both know that. We both know you bashed her head into the wall and then pushed her down the stairs.”

Earl stands suddenly, knocking the chair back and jostling the table -- the coke falls, spills fizzing across the surface -- for a moment she thinks he’s going to lunge at her but instead he turns sharply and starts to pace up and down the room. His shoulders are raised and his hands are clenched into fists; he’s radiating tension, but keeping himself under control.

“I did not do that,” he says emphatically, without meeting Rollins’ eyes. “I got home, the door was unlocked, she was at the bottom of the stairs. I found her like that, right away. I was there to help her.”

“Right away? Really? Because you told Detective Carisi and Detective Tutuola that you had to walk through the apartment, taking time to turn all the lights on --”

“I ran through,” he insists. “You’re not listening, I knew something was wrong and I found her right away! I helped her.”

Rollins practically sneers at him, shaking her head. “That’s how you help women, by hurting them to show them when they’re wrong? Come on, Earl. You got mad, you hit her, you pushed her.” He looks unnerved, and she leans into it. “Did that make you feel like a man? Make you feel strong? Amira’s five foot five and pregnant, she couldn’t fight back, but you didn’t care -- didn’t care about her, didn’t care about the baby --”

He wheels around, red-faced, veins bulging in his neck, and kicks the table, hard. It’s bolted to the ground, but it shakes from the force of his blow and the Coke can goes skittering across the floor -- for a moment he freezes, staring at it. It’s easy to tell how badly he wants to kick something again. He’s slipped up, given her just the tiniest glimpse of what Amira’s so scared of.

But he’s not quite out of control. At least not yet.

Instead, he speaks. “I love my wife, I love my baby.” They should be tender words, but they come out cold and hateful. “Why are you saying all this shit?”

She gauges him quickly: she can tell, just from this brief conversation, how much he hates when people don’t listen to him, or worse, when they flat out ignore him.

“You pushed her,” she insists, blowing past his question like she couldn’t hear it, voice calm like she doesn’t notice the anger in his.

“I would never --”

“You pushed her, and you wouldn’t let her go to the hospital.”

“She went to the hospital the next day. She was fine .”

“You wouldn’t let her go.” Amanda speaks evenly and shakes her head, refusing to even look at him now, and she can feel the outrage radiating off of him that she would dare to disregard him this way. She expects him to lash out again, and though her face is relaxed her body is tense, ready to react if he goes after her. She knows Benson is watching behind the mirror, ready to spring into action if necessary, but still. She needs to be prepared.

But he surprises her for the second time: he takes a deep breath. Clenches his fists, unclenches them, repeats the motion a few times until his hands are relaxed.

He sits down.

The chair is sitting further away from the table now and he leans forward slightly as he rests his elbows on his knees, staring at Rollins with an unnerving intensity. He’s looking at her like he really knows her, and hates her. In the brief silence, they can hear the gentle drip of soda falling from the table to the floor. The sickly-sweet smell of it pervades the room.

“Okay,” Earl says quietly. “I was there.”

There it is.

“I’m sorry I lied. I was scared. I knew you wouldn’t believe me if I told the truth.”

“Which is?”

“I was there, but I didn’t hit her.”

“No?” Rollins says with exaggerated skepticism, hoping to draw him out. It works.

“No,” he repeats. “ She was the one getting aggressive. I know --” he cuts off Rollins’ scoff -- “I know, she’s small. But she can be really nasty, say some really awful things. She looks sweet. She is sweet, usually, but that night she was in one of those moods…” Earl snaps his fingers, leaning back. “Hormones,” he declares. “Probably the pregnancy hormones.”

Rollins raises an eyebrow.

“That must have been it,” he goes on. “Otherwise she wouldn’t have dared talk to me like that.”

The word dared rolls of his tongue casually, mild and easy, as if it weren’t a mark of his guilt.

“Yeah, she was yelling,” he tells Rollins. “Telling me I’d be a good-for-nothing father, that the baby wouldn’t love me -- you know how much that hurt me? God, it was horrible. Cruel.”

His eyes are actually wet now. He really believes this shit , Rollins thinks, or at least he wants to .

“And she kept going on about other stuff, too, the same old things she’s always mad about.” He adopts a grating, high-pitched voice that’s jarringly at odds with the soft, hurt voice he’d been using just moments ago. “Shit like,‘you don’t make enough money, you spend too much, you have to think of the baby,’ as if the baby isn’t all I ever think about. ” He huffs. “I make more than her anyway, but I buy a few things for myself and she flips out like suddenly we won’t be able to send the kid to college.”

Rollins makes a note to look into his financials, but watches carefully as he grows more and more agitated, working himself up to something.

“Anyway, I didn’t want to hear it anymore, so I tried to leave but she followed me up the stairs. And when we got to the top, she was right in my face, really screaming, and she shoved me. Really hard. And I guess when I stumbled back I bumped into her because she lost her balance too. And she fell.” He’s looking earnestly at Rollins now, and her stomach turns when she sees his eyes are again wet with crocodile tears.

She nods slowly, leaning back in her chair. “And what about the bruises all over her face, then?” she asks, watching him carefully.

His eyes dart away for just a moment, then return to meet hers. “The stairs must have banged up her face when she fell.”

“When you pushed her, you mean.” Rollins taps her pen on her file, an idle, almost lazy gesture. He’s starting to look uncomfortable again. His rant, she senses, had, at least in his mind, been on his terms. His narrative to shape as he wanted. His convoluted attempt to cast Amira as a villain. But being called on his lies? By a woman? That’s keeps throwing him off.

“You don’t get a black eye from falling down the stairs,” Rollins tells him. “Not like that. So let’s try this again, and this time you tell me what really happened.”

He opens his mouth, then closes it. She thinks maybe they’re close to something -- something more usable than the half-confession he’s given, one that she knows could easily fool a jury. He looks down at his hands. He just needs a little push, she thinks.

“Earl, we need to get your side. All of it,” she tells him. “Because Amira already told us hers.”

He looks up, and doubt flickers across his eyes.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks mildly, almost as if she’s bored with their conversation. “I’ve got her statement right here. Signed.”

He glances from the file in her hands up to her face, then back again. Licks his lips, looks at the two-way mirror, then down at his unmarked hands. That vein in his neck is pulsing again, and he’s tensing up. She can practically see him starting to swell with anger, and she’s so sure he’s about to say it: some kind of confession, some explosion of hatred for his wife, some proof, if only in his tone, that he would be capable of beating her.  

Instead, he takes a deep breath and says: “I want a lawyer.”

Fuck.

 

Just as Rollins had figured, Benson is waiting right outside the door. She looks tired, but put together and in command. Rollins lets the door shut behind her and almost expects the lieutenant to lecture her either for pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough -- Rollins still can’t always quite predict how she’ll react, even after all these years, even after they’ve built something close to a friendship.

As it turns out, her Lieutenant doesn’t have a reprimand for her at all.

“Good work, Rollins,” she says, and it’s clear that the disgust in her voice is directed entirely towards the man in the interrogation room. “You got as close to a confession as we’re probably gonna get. A good cross-examination and enough smart women on the jury, he’ll get put away for a while.” She smiles grimly.

Rollins feels warm with this praise, but doesn’t smile; she’s all business: “So what’s next?”

“He’ll get his lawyer,” Benson says, and it doesn’t seem to bother her much that he’s demanded one. “But we’re going to arrest him right now.”

Now Rollins does grin. Sharp-toothed and ready.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Rafael and Eduardo rejoin the rest of the family at a different graveyard.

Abuelo’s plot is towards the back of the cemetery, and next to it is one reserved for Clarita. They’re set at the edge of the hill, where the breeze brings a hint of the ocean’s smell through the branches of the trees. The sounds of the town are muted by distance and foliage. It’s peaceful and lovely.

Rafael thinks of his father’s final resting place: a narrow graveyard deep in the city, behind the church they went to when Rafael was a child. The kind of graveyard that’s been there for long enough that you know there are bodies buried below bodies, and maybe even more below those, generations of skeletons stacked one after the other. He hasn’t visited since the funeral. He’d only attended that for his mother’s sake, and he remembers standing there, listening to the hollow noise of the dirt falling, shovelful by shovelful, onto the coffin, and wondering silently how long it would be until his father’s body sank deep enough into the earth that someone else’s would take its place. A different stone above it, a different name, with the man deep below erased, finally, forever.

Maybe that was too harsh , he thinks now. But maybe not.

His thoughts of his father would have ended there -- he would have come back to this graveyard, this moment, the light wind and his family around him -- except that his tía unknowingly drives him back.

“We lit some candles at the church,” she tells Rafael softly. “For your abuelo here, and then I lit one for my Alberto, and your mami lit one for your papi.” She shakes her head sadly, oblivious to the feeling she’s set twisting through him. “All the men in this family die too soon.” She takes his hand and squeezes it as she gazes at her own sons, who are bent at their father’s nearby headstone. “But not you boys.”

You won’t hear the bullet that’s coming for you. That’s what Heredio had said, wasn’t it? Well, Rafael thinks, maybe this is it here: the men in my family die early. My only warning.

He shakes the notion off as he does the thought of his mother, well-intentioned to the point of betrayal, lighting a sacred candle for the man who nearly killed her. He squeezes his aunt’s hand back, and they stand a respectful distance as Lucía kneels at the grave of the father she never knew, and prays.

 

They all rally a bit when they get back to the house, where it’s bright and warm and they can raise their voices without any fear of disturbing mourners, or the ones they are mourning. Still, there’s a tinge of melancholy as they cook dinner together (Rafael making the rice and chopping vegetables, Lucía cooking them, Clarita adding the beans and cilantro, Tony and Eduardo setting the table) because it’s the last night all of them will be together.

At least the last time until he and his mother return to Cuba, or the others visit New York, but the closer Rafael gets to leaving the less and less real that possibility seems real to him; the more strange and separate the two worlds feel. America and Cuba, New York and Santiago -- he feels almost a different person in each, and can’t picture how one would mix with the other.

He thinks for a moment of Amaro, thousands of miles away in California, and wishes the Cuban detective were still at SVU, despite the hostility he’d often had for Barba. He imagines returning to Manhattan and… what, getting lunch with the man? Going out for drinks? This too he can’t quite picture, but he feels a pang that there will be no one to commiserate with, no one to tell the story who will fully understand. He’ll have his mother, of course, but he wishes there was someone more objective, or at least someone who hadn’t been present for this whole trip, who he could talk to about it. Bounce ideas off of. Figure out what all this had meant, what it means, what it will mean years from now. Where it will go, if anywhere. Whether he’ll come back. He knows Benson will provide a sympathetic ear and he does look forward to seeing her, he can hardly wait, but Amaro would have really understood.

Rafael is picturing the detective’s face when it morphs into that of Alex, then Yelina. Then Eddie.

Well. Of the four of them, there’s at least one he can still talk to.

As the family joins hands to bow their heads in prayer over their food, he quietly decides to visit Eddie when he gets back to New York. It’ll be good to see him again, anyway.

These thoughts fade quickly, though, giving way to the present. Dinner is good. The black beans and rice, the slow, sweet conversation, the easy familiarity they all have with one another -- it’s good . They make a good family.

“Seconds?” Clarita offers, already rising to dole out more black beans and rice.

They take their time over the meal, and with each other.

 

An hour or so later, just as they’re clearing their plates, Rafael’s phone buzzes. Although he’s hardly checked it since landing in Cuba -- partly because of the poor cell reception, partly because he doesn’t want to run up an enormous data bill, and partly because he’s enjoyed the relief from stress both regular and threatening -- he’s been keeping it in his pocket, close to him at all times. Frowning slightly, he pulls it out now. There must have been a window of good reception, because a total of fourteen texts have come through.

Feeling sick, he excuses himself from the room.

This, from they day they’d landed in Havana: < hope ur trip is nice, it’ll be ur last one. can’t wait to see u when u get back to town. > By far one of the tamer threats he’s received, but it’s followed by more, one or two for each of the ten days he’s been here, all from different numbers that undoubtedly came from already-discarded burner phones.  

< trying to decide whether we shd cut your tongue out before or after we shoot you. what do u think? >

< probably before. if we shoot u in the head ur tongue might be too fucked up after to cut it out. plus will be fun to see u speechless for once Rafael. >

< we’ll leave it in long enough that u can beg for ur life. >

And so on.

Making sure his face remains impassive, he steps back into the kitchen, where Tony and Eduardo have started smoking while Clarita and Lucía scrub the dishes. He’s deleting the texts one by one when his phone buzzes again. Two new messages, sent very early this morning, from Olivia.

2:16AM: < Nice tan, “Rafi.” Glad you’re having fun. I hope you’re not still hungover when you get back. >

2:18AM: < I’ve seen you drink before, but not like this! Bring back a bottle of the good stuff for us and we can try to match it sometime. >

His whole face flushes when he scrolls up and sees what on earth she’d been responding to. Goddamn it, Tony.

“What is it, Rafi?” his mother asks teasingly. “You’re blushing!”

“No I’m not,” he says, cringing at how petulant he sounds.

She puts down a soapy dish, resting her hands on her hips with a smirk. “Who texted you, hmm?”

Clarita turns around too and grins. Rafael glares at Tony, who is suddenly very focused on ashing his cigarette.

“It’s nothing,” Rafael snips at her, shoving the phone back into his pocket. He’ll figure out how to respond later, he figures, rolling up his shirtsleeves to help dry the dishes. “Just work.”

“Is it from Olivia?” Lucía asks sweetly, and both Tony and Eduardo look up at Rafael expectantly.

“It’s just about work,” he insists, although he’s not even sure why he’s lying. Tony was the one who sent the pictures, not him, and Liv’s response had been teasing but friendly, nothing inappropriate or shameful.

“Hmm.” Lucía looks at him through narrowed eyes, but to his relief she doesn’t push the issue.

As he dries plates with a worn but bright dish towel, Rafael allows himself to think about drinking with Olivia. Not like he had last night: as much as he’d enjoyed that while it lasted, nothing was worth the hangover he’d woken up to. No, the idea of getting really drunk with Liv doesn’t particularly appeal to him; nor does it feel realistic. Instead his mind wanders to the couch in her office where they share a glass or two now and then, to celebrate a win or bemoan a loss or just to take a breath and relax, side by side. Maybe he will bring back a nice bottle of Cuban rum for them. Maybe -- he puts down the dry plate and picks up a wet one. His aunt is humming pleasantly at his side as she scrubs away, and his mother smiles at him as he passes her dishes to put away. This is nice, too. Right here, in a good home after a good meal.

Maybe he’ll cook for her sometime, he thinks, at his apartment or at hers. The thought of that is sweet and comfortable. A good idea.

Chapter Text

MONDAY, JULY 18.

It’s going to be a long drive.

They all wake a bit before 5AM, when the summer sun is just starting to peek over the horizon. It’s not the best light for a family photo, but (aside from the drunken snaps Tony had taken on Rafael’s phone) they hadn’t thought to take one until now. Clarita shamelessly makes her neighbor, who is getting ready for at a local bakery, come from his yard into hers to take the picture on an old hand-held camera she’d dug out of some closet.

“Take a few,” she instructs the poor man, who keeps glancing at his watch. “I want a lot to choose from. Smile, everyone.”

Rafael thinks they’ll all look awfully tired in the picture -- if they’re even visible where they stand in the half light in front of his cousins’ house -- but their smiles will be wide and real. Despite the goodbye.

Clarita finally releases her neighbor and hands off the camera to Tony, who hangs it by its strap around his neck. Despite his tough-guy machismo act, he’s obviously struggling to keep the smile on his face at the prospect of farewells, which Rafael finds oddly touching.

“I’ll develop them today,” Clarita is telling them, “and mail them right away. They’ll be waiting for you when you get back home from Havana.” She turns to her sister and adds: “I have something for you.”

She pulls a thick, sturdy envelope from her pocket. It’s small, made of heavy brown paper, and unsealed. Lucía takes it carefully and peers inside.

“It’s soil, from our garden,” Clarita tells her, “to take with you. It’s not much because otherwise you wouldn’t get it past customs, but it’s enough to fill a small flowerpot. You can grow something in there and it will be from here.”

It’s such an Old World tradition, Rafael knows, and it moves something deep inside him. Lucía, too: she starts to cry, and -- being careful not to spill the soil -- pulls her sister into a long, tight hug.

One after the other, Eduardo and Tony do the same to Rafael; then Clarita embraces him; then all of them are sniffling just a bit. Even Rafael’s eyes are a bit watery.

“Well,” Lucía says after clearing her throat a bit. “We’ll come back.”

It’s not like last night, when he had his doubts: hearing his mother speak those words, Rafael believes them. Believes that they’ll make it back here to this house, this soil under their feet, the warm ocean nearby and the mountains around them solid and strong. He believes that they’ll meet again soon, maybe as soon as next year.

Not entirely without humor, the ironic thought occurs to him (he’s thinking of his phone, now, the texts that came through yesterday, the hang-ups that will inevitably resume when he gets back home) that, yes, well: they’ll meet here again if he survives that long.

All the men in this family die too soon.

Their goodbyes last at least thirty more minutes.

The drive back to Havana takes all day.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Two unexpected calls in as many days, and both of them bringing excellent news -- John Buchanan is in a terribly good mood. And so is his new client. He doesn’t like Earl Williams much, but he rarely really likes his clients. It’s their wallets that interest him, far more than their personalities and even more than their crimes. Alleged crimes. He figures Earl probably is responsible for his wife’s beat-up face, but that doesn’t concern him. He’d happily defend the man at trial either way.

But it looks like it won’t come to that. He’s gotten Earl out of the tombs, freshly showered, thoroughly counseled, in a nice suit, and things are looking good.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” ADA Baker says, ushering Buchanan and Earl into his office.

“My pleasure.” Buchanan doesn’t bother to hide his curiosity as he peers around at the trappings of it: the shelves aren’t quite full, but there’s still an impressive collection of law reference books, most of them specific to homicide. Its windows are small, looking out from the back of One Hogan Place, but still let in a fair amount of natural light.

He’s only been in Barba’s office once or twice -- unlike Baker, that son of a bitch almost never offers a deal -- but he remembers that his place is different. More space, with more books and piles of paperwork and crap filling it, a fireplace and and tall, sweeping windows (one of which, oddly, had a sink under it). A nicer office than Baker’s, but, Buchanan thinks as he takes a seat, he’ll take this slightly cramped room any day if it means an easy win.

There’s a brief silence before Baker clears his throat and leans forward, arms folded on his desk. “I’ve reviewed Mrs. Williams’ statement,” he says, not looking at Earl, “and I’ve looked extensively at Mr. Williams’ interview.” He nods, almost as if to himself. “It seems to me that all of this would best be settled out of court.”

Buchanan gives an exaggerated pause as he turns to his client. Earl looks almost smug; it’s clear he always figured he’d get away with this. Buchanan would say the man should be grateful to be so lucky, but then again it isn’t exactly surprising things would turn out this way. Sometimes the boy’s club comes through. It’s not a club Buchanan feels any particular loyalty to, but he does relish the privilege it bestows on him in cases like this.

Baker is just starting to look annoyed by the silence, so Buchanan breaks it: “That sounds amenable to me,” he tells the ADA. “I think we can agree that a misdemeanor like this doesn’t warrant any prison time.”

“Well,” Baker hedges, “battery isn’t a misdemeanor. It sounds like you did lay hands on your wife, Mr. Williams,” he says gravely, addressing Earl directly for the first time.

“In self defense!” Earl insists, and Buchanan raises his hand to stop his client from continuing any further.

“If you review the interview transcript,” he says smoothly, “I believe you’ll find that my client explained he merely bumped into his wife after she pushed him. A simple accident. There was no real assault at all and certainly no battery, at least not coming from him.”

“Right…” Baker frowns at the paper on his desk, and then at Buchanan. “But Mrs. Williams’ statement says something very different.”

Buchanan’s smile is slick and slow. “That’s not what she told the detectives the morning after the alleged incident,” he reminds Baker, “which was when her memory of the event would have been at its most fresh.” He gauges Baker quickly, and thinks it’s safe to push a little further. “And we all know how women can exaggerate sometimes,” he says. “Especially when they’re pregnant, all these hormones in the mix -- it’s not the most reliable testimony. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

The ADA looks skeptical, but Buchanan is confident, and waits him out.

“Hmm,” Baker says at last. “Well, I can’t entirely agree with you, Mr. Buchanan. I admit I don’t find compelling evidence of battery, but there was an assault there.” He turns again to Earl, and speaks to him now almost like a disappointed teacher would. “Mr. Williams, do you understand the difference? What your wife described was battery, a physical attack. What you’re claiming is an accident. Now, that’s just not how this reads to me.”

He gives Buchanan a significant look. “What I get from all this is that you were having an argument. Okay, we all know what that’s like, we know how nasty it can get. God knows my ex wife really lit into me sometimes. And sure, maybe there were a few times I would have liked to give her a bit of a push, just to get her out of my face. But here’s the difference, Mr. Williams. I never did that, because that would have been a crime . I knew where the line was, and I never crossed it. I’m not so sure that’s true of you.”

Earl opens his mouth, glances at Buchanan, and shuts it.

“Now,” Baker continues, “I do believe you are remorseful for your actions. If you can demonstrate a willingness to change your behavior in the future, I’m prepared to knock the charge down to Simple Assault, which would mean probation and some anger management. In addition to that, I’m going to file a restraining order on Mrs. Williams’ behalf stating that you are to stay at least a thousand feet from her at all times until your anger management is complete, or until such a time as she chooses to void the order. Do you understand?”

“Wait,” Earl protests, “why a restraining order? That doesn’t make any sense. We should be going to couples counseling, we should…” he wilts in the face of the glare Baker has levelled at him.

“I think couples therapy would be a good idea,” Baker tells him, “ after you’ve completed anger management.” Earl slumps slightly in his chair, looking truly miserable, but the ADA ignores him and turns to Buchanan. “Does this all work for you?”

Buchanan knows the answer, but runs down the list in his mind one more time just for the satisfaction of it: Simple Assault (misdemeanor). Probation. Anger management. A restraining order. All this instead of Aggravated Assault (felony) or Battery (crime), either of which would have required prison time (unacceptable).

“Yes,” Buchanan smiles. “It does.”

It only takes them an hour or so to hammer out the details.

When Buchanan and Earl get up to leave, Baker holds the door open for them. He looks pleased, like he’s cut a deal to be proud of, and Buchanan’s somewhat sincere thank you only broadens his smile. He figures Baker probably hasn’t been able to relax away from felony charges in ages, not in all those years working with Homicide; this might even feel like a bit of a vacation to him.

“First case with Manhattan SVU?” Buchanan can’t help asking as Earl trudges down the hall and waits for him sullenly at the elevators.

Baker sighs, and for a moment he looks like he’s about to say something about the unit, then thinks better of it. He glances at Buchanan. “You know, I used to be a defense attorney too.”

This isn’t entirely surprising, and Buchanan laughs. “Dodging the question, huh? Good lawyer.” Something in Baker’s eyes prompts him to add: “Or politician.”

The other man looks pleased. “Not to show all my cards, but I’ve been thinking about that a bit.” He spreads his arms slightly, chest squared, as if he really wants Buchanan’s honest opinion: “Don’t I look like a good candidate for office?”

Buchanan gives him a sickly smile. “I’d say you’ve got a good shot at it -- you’re no Rafael Barba.”

Baker preens. As if that were a compliment to either of the ADAs.

***

TUESDAY, JULY 19.

Rafael is still bone-tired from yesterday’s odyssey of a drive -- and, if he’s being honest, from the emotional intensity of the last several days. He almost wishes he was back at his New York apartment where he could rest for a while in silence, surrounded by familiar comforts.

The silence, at least, he gets. Lucía, inexplicably, seems energized , and she’s happy to leave him to his book while she goes shopping (“the exchange rate is a dream, Rafi; I can get little gifts for all the teachers in the school, and some nice clothes, oh, and maybe even a few ties for you, and…”).

He stays out on the balcony all afternoon, even when the sun has him sweating where he sits. He’ll take a long, cool shower later, but for now he wants to let the muggy air lay heavy on him, and just be .

For a little while he pages through Octavia Butler’s Kindred , but he’s just a bit too drained to pay it the attention it deserves, so instead he switches to Lucía’s magazines. They contain an abundance of inane articles about various celebrities, interspersed with a few surprisingly insightful essays on travel and politics, and the occasional column on things like organic gardening tips and DIY vase decorating. He enjoys a few of the glossy, full-page ads, not because the expensive suits therein are particularly striking but because they don’t hold a candle to the outfits he assembles each day.

When he drifts into a light sleep, his mind is sun-soaked and peaceful.

He doesn’t dream at all.

***

THE SAME DAY.

For the first time in a long time, Benson is stunned into silence. Despite his grumbling about less-than-airtight cases, she knew Barba never would have done this. She stares at Baker, her mouth open, for a beat too long -- he starts to look uncomfortable, but it’s nothing compared to the look on his face when she starts talking.

“You cut him a deal?” she demands, utterly incredulous. “Without even speaking with me first? Baker, we built you a solid case --”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant, you’re not the one who has to try the case. You’re not the lawyer here, and you --”

She bowls right over him, all but stabbing her fingers into her other palm as she counts off her points: “We’ve got a clear history of abuse in her medical records, plus her attempt at getting a restraining order; we’ve got written records of changes in her behavior from Molly Klein’s diary; we’ve got testimony from her parents and her professors that she became more and more distant as he isolated her over the period of their relationship --”

He tries to butt in, “yes, and her professors and classmates all gave conflicting reports on --”

“We’ve got Williams,” she continues, heedless, “ admitting that he lied at first. We’ve got physical evidence -- by the way, we got this without any support and without having the benefit of a search warrant, so we probably could have gotten more -- we’ve got the disclosure to the ER nurse, and Williams basically confessed --”

“I don’t know how Barba defines the word, Lieutenant,” interrupts Baker, almost snidely, “but that was not a confession, and I’m not going to waste everyone’s time taking this trial. Williams is charming, professional, smart; a jury’s never gonna believe he’s some lowlife wifebeater. If we’re lucky they’ll admit he gets handsy, has issues with his temper, but they’ll send him to anger management at most. Anger management is already part of the deal I cut, plus more, including a restraining order, and I spared us all a trial. He’s out of their apartment, he’s on probation, he has to check in with his PO every week: it’s handled.”

She levels him with a disgusted look. “ Handsy ? Is that how you describe a history of escalating physical abuse?”

“Now you’re willfully misunderstanding me,” he snaps, and she’s perversely glad that he’s the one who starts raising his voice first; it fills his office as he goes on. “I don’t appreciate that. I said that’s what the jury would think--”

“And it’s your job to convince them otherwise!”

“It’s my job to get the best outcome possible, and that’s what I did with this deal.” He clicks his briefcase shut, then hesitates. She can see he’d meant to storm out, but it’s his office and he doesn’t want to cede ground. Macho bullshit. She’s not moving, not until she’s done speaking her mind.

“This conversation is over,” is what he settles for, and her nostrils flare.

She leans forward, jabbing her finger onto his desk to make her final point. “This is over for you .” Her voice is low and furious. “But you’ve made sure it’s not over for Amira. She’s not safe.”

“She’s got that restraining order she wanted,” Baker says. “She’ll be fine.”

Benson shakes her head in disbelief. Is he really this stupid? “He’s going to keep escalating,” she tells him as she gathers her things. “He’s going to be more angry with her now than he’s ever been before. And when he goes after her again?” She’s almost whispering now, but her voice is vicious. “That’ll be on you.”

She walks out before Baker can get in the last word: another thing, she thinks, that Barba would never let happen without a fight.

He’s been gone 18 days (that’s been 18 days with this piece of shit Baker) and as far as she’s concerned, he can’t come back too soon. She needs an ADA she can work with; Amira needed ADA who could have fought for her. All these victims do. That’s why she’s so angry he’s not here, Benson reasons: she’s without a true equal when he’s gone. (And yes: she misses her friend. That’s all.)

She glowers as she leaves One Hogan Place, the noon sun uncomfortably hot on the back of her neck. She considers stopping at the street stand for a sandwich and a coffee, just to take a moment to get her temper under control, but doesn’t want to risk running into Baker on his lunchtime hot dog run. She’s weighing the idea of angry-walking back to the precinct instead when her phone buzzes.

It’s a text from Amira, stilted and formal, but clearly upset. Obviously she’d gotten news of the deal even before Benson had. Unbelievable , the Lieutenant thinks.

< Hi, Olivia. I’m so sorry to bother you about this, but I was wondering if you might be able to meet me at my apartment tomorrow? It’s not an emergency and please don’t hesitate to say no if you’re busy. Earl got his stuff and left. I just don’t think I can stay there. Am at a hotel now. Would so appreciate if you were able to come with me while I pick up a few things. Let me know, and thanks so much. >

She texts back right away: < Of course, no problem. I’ll be first thing in the morning. > She’s concerned, but a bit relieved she’ll be able to get out of the office for a few hours, at least. She loves being Lieutenant, she really does, but she misses the groundwork, some days.

Her phone buzzes again, and for some reason her first thought is that maybe it’s Barba -- or maybe his relative, texting another funny picture -- but it’s Amira again, texting her address to Benson with a profuse thank-you. Benson confirms she got the text, then pockets her phone and begins to make her way back to the precinct. She knows it will help to clear her mind, make her more ready to work by the time she gets to her desk. But for now, at the start of her walk, she just feels at a loss.

Chapter Text

WEDNESDAY, JULY 20

Lucía has always been an early riser, even on vacation -- so she’s already up at 7AM, puttering around the shared bathroom, rearranging Rafi’s shaving kit ( so much space this boy takes up! ) so she can spread out and do her makeup, when she hears a noise from his room. She pauses, eye cream in her hand, to listen. There it is again: a kind of strangled whimper. She puts down the tube and grips the counter for a moment, debating. Retreat to her room and let him pretend, later? Or pull him out now? It only takes her a moment to decide to do what she stopped doing years ago, back when he was a little boy, when no matter how bad his dreams were, she knew he was safer hurting in his sleep than getting hurt awake.

His room, like hers, has only flimsy curtains at the window; it’s half-light and she can easily see him on the bed. He’s lying on his stomach, head turned to the side at a tense angle. His neck will be sore later today, she thinks as she sits next to him, the bed creaking slightly as she does. His forehead is furrowed, his eyes squeezed shut. His lip twitches, and she lays her hand on his cheek. It’s too warm. She knows that under his pillow are his hands, curled into fists.

“Rafi,” she whispers, moving her hand down to his chin, shaking his face gently. “Mijo, wake up.”

He obeys her so quickly and so violently she startles, suddenly standing, and he’s halfway across the bed from her, each of them staring wide-eyed and blank at the other. She grapples with words for a moment -- the only sound is his breathing, as heavy and loud as gasps. “I-- Mami, I--” he stutters, and it’s seeing him at a loss for words, even more than hearing his whimper earlier, that breaks her heart.

She sits down on the bed again, and pats the space next to her. He barely hesitates before scooting over to sit closer.

He used to actually cling to her until he was four or five, and then he learned better.

It wasn’t that she stopped wanting to hold him. Just that she knew he’d be better off if he weren’t such a mama’s boy. Her husband never liked to see him so weepy, and told her not to encourage it with ministrations like this, and she supposes -- still -- that he wasn’t entirely wrong. Boys need to be tough, after all, and although he only ended up running to his abuela for comfort he did turn out strong, and she’s proud of him for that.

That doesn’t explain, though, why she’s so touched he’s letting her rub his back now. She decides not to think about it, and just pets her hand briefly over his morning-soft hair, and waits for him to find his voice.

“I think I had a bad dream,” he finally says, a bit lamely. As if he finds it anticlimactic, and his reaction overblown. She shakes her head, although she thinks his eyes are probably shut. His voice is hoarse and he clears his throat once, then again.

“What happened, mijo?” she asks, keeping her voice soft so as not to break the spell in this half-light, half-dark room on an island they don’t quite know. This strange space where, without looking at each other, they can tell the truth, or at least come close.

He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and she thinks she knows what’s coming.

“It was Papi.” He hasn’t called him that since he was little, not since before he hit high school. Once he was a teenager, old enough that he started mouthing off to his father, it was just you, spat to his face, or him, gritted out to a placating Lucía.

“He wasn’t -- he wasn’t there, I don’t think. I think it was on the phone.” He pauses, and she waits silently, hand still moving steady through his hair. “He, um. He was saying the things that, that they’ve been saying. They know where I live, they have a bullet with my name on it,” and his voice gains confidence as he lists the evidence and facts from the real world, threatening his real life. “But it was him saying it. And I tried to hang up and call -- dial 911 --” (Lucía thinks he was about to say something else, a name, but she lets it pass) “-- but I couldn’t. And then I woke up.”

He shifts away and she feels a little bereft, her little boy gone so quickly. But he’s more himself now, more certain after delineating precisely what he could remember, so she nods briskly and stands up.

“You know he would never say those things to you, Rafi,” she tells him, and watches something flicker across his face -- disbelief? Resentment? She waits for him to contradict her, but to her relief he doesn’t. He rubs his eyes instead, and swings his legs off the bed, bare feet planted firmly on the floor.

She thinks he’s ready now to put this away, but he looks up at her sheepishly: “Thank you for waking me up.” She smiles softly, pats his cheek again, and goes back to the bathroom. Behind her, he opens the curtains.

 

***

 

THE SAME DAY.

Amira looks pale and crumpled standing outside her apartment building, and barely glances up when the Lieutenant arrives. She’s wearing hardly any makeup, and her bruises have faded enough that someone passing by might not notice they were even there.

"Hey," Liv says gently, touching the other woman's shoulder. "I got your text. Is everything okay?"

"Um," Amira says, not meeting her eyes. "I don't think I can stay there." She wipes her eyes quickly. "I -- he moved his things out, it's stupid, they even changed the locks but I just..." She raises her eyes to meet Liv's, and it seems to take a monumental effort because she drops them almost immediately, looking at the ground. "I'm sorry I made everyone go to all this trouble. I should have realized it would be like this, with the deal. I should have let him stay there, it's not fair--" her voice is getting higher, more distressed, and she's picking at her sleeve almost compulsively.

"It's ok," Liv says soothingly. "You haven't done anything wrong, and it makes perfect sense that you wouldn't want to stay here." She paused, watching Amira for a moment before she speaks again. There was something about the way she’d said he moved his things out. “Amira…”

The woman looks up.

“Were you there when he came to get everything?”

Amira’s hesitation is the only answer she needs.

“That was a violation of his restraining order,” Benson tells her, just barely holding back from an angry tone. “And it was dangerous, Amira, you shouldn’t --”

“I just wanted to explain to him,” Amira says plaintively, “and it wasn’t dangerous, there was a police officer there the whole time, just like the ADA said there would be.”

This time Benson doesn’t bother to hide her fury: “Did the ADA know you would be at the apartment?”

“No, no,” Amira assures her. “I didn’t tell him, I didn’t tell anyone. Except Earl, to let him know I’d be there.”

Benson takes a moment. She pinches the bridge of her nose, then lowers her hand and looks at Amira. The woman looks back almost pleadingly, wanting Benson’s approval. She’s not going to get it.

“What did you say to him?” Benson asks. “I need to know the exact words.”

Amira shuffles her feet, and Benson is reminded that they’re out on the public sidewalk, becomes aware of the sun beating down on her sweating neck. But she’s not going to waste time moving into the shade, or sitting down. She can handle the slight discomfort, and so can Amira.

“I told him I was sorry,” she says softly, “but that it was the right thing. The deal, I mean. I told him that he had really hurt me, and that I was right to get help, and that it’ll be good for us to stay away from each other for a bit, while he gets help too.” A touch of pride has crept into her voice, and Benson gets it, she really does -- facing someone and telling them they’ve hurt you, that takes courage. But all her instincts are telling her that’s not the only reason Amira chose to do it.

“So you told him you’d be getting back together.”

Amira doesn’t meet her eyes when she answers. “I mean, yeah, after he gets better. He’s never been to anger management before so it’s not like we know it doesn’t work. I think it’ll work. He’s going to try really hard.”

“Is that what he told you?” Benson asks, and she can’t quite keep the contempt from her voice. She winces and hopes Amira knows it’s all for Earl, not her.

“He was really, really good,” Amira tells Benson, meeting her eyes. “He wasn’t angry like before. He gets it, Olivia. He said he knew he’d messed up, that I was right to get help. He said that what I did was a favor to him , that it was a real wake-up call.”

God, there’s a lot of work to be done here. As Benson takes stock of the full situation, of Amira’s textbook vacillations, her frustration turns towards herself for not seeing this coming. She’s seen this at least a hundred times before. Her throat constricts with apprehension as she remembers Micha Green, who’d gone back to Caleb Bryant over and over until he killed her. That’s not going to happen this time.

“Okay,” Benson sighs. “Okay. So, why do you want to get out of the apartment?” She asks kindly: it’s a genuine question.

“It reminds me too much of him,” Amira says softly. “I think if I’m there I’ll miss him even more, and then I might call him but I know I shouldn’t, so…”

“Those are good instincts,” Benson tells her -- a stern affirmation. “Will you be alright on your own for a bit? Is there a friend you can stay with?”

“My parents are coming on Friday,” Amira replies. “I’ll be ok at the hotel until then.”

Benson watches her carefully before accepting that answer as the truth. “Alright,” she says finally. “Let’s get your things.”

Amira nods, swallowing hard. She keeps her head bowed as they walk through the lobby, and when Benson gives the doorman a polite smile he looks utterly stricken. This sort of thing, Liv understands, just doesn't happen in this kind of building. Except that it does. Every day. She shakes her head as she and Amira step into the elevator.

They ride in silence up to the ninth floor, Amira staring at her feet as Benson automatically makes note of where the security cameras are and how they're angled.

When they get to Amira's apartment, number 906, the woman fumbles for a moment with her new key before sliding the bolt open and holding the door open for Liv, who thanks her quietly and steps in.  

It's a beautiful apartment, obviously recently renovated. There’s an open layout, so from the front door Liv can see the living room to her left. Tall, wide windows face let in the afternoon sun, and the light on the hardwood floors gives the apartment a warm glow. But it’s not warm, not even when Benson stands directly in the sunlight to take in the missing spaces in the living room: the chair facing nothing, the empty tabletop beside it, all the things that Earl has taken with him visible in their absence. It’s chilly, actually, the air conditioning working at a low hum to keep the summer heat firmly outside.

The dining room and kitchen are to the right.

Directly ahead are the stairs.

They lead up to the lofted bedroom, Benson guesses, but for now she follows Amira as the woman avoids even looking at them and instead heads into the kitchen. She’s already gathering things -- snacks, bottled water, a can opener -- when Benson joins her.

Liv glances down at the random, haphazard pile Amira has accumulated, then looks up to find the other woman staring at her a bit helplessly.

“I don’t really know what to bring,” Amira says after a moment.

“That’s okay,” Benson replies. “Remember, you can always come back and get more things. You can call me and I’ll come with you again, if that’s what you need. For now, why don’t we just get together a few things you really like, some comfort food? Nothing you have to cook.” Amira swallows, nods. “Is there anything special you’ve been eating for the pregnancy?” Benson asks. “Maybe vitamins, or…?”

Amira has already brightened a bit. “Yes! Yes, I forgot about the neonatal vitamins. Thank you.” She hurries to the pantry and busies herself there, putting various bottles and snacks into a large Whole Foods canvas bag.

Benson looks around the kitchen for something she can do to help, and notices Amira has already baby-proofed the room. The lower cabinets all have child locks and foam padding carefully fitted over their corners. A few sonograms are stuck to the refrigerator with colorful magnets -- art magnets, probably from the Met, Benson thinks -- along with a newspaper clipping. She leans closer to read it, and sees “Earl Williams, Jr.” highlighted. It’s some article about some new app and the coding team behind it. The paper’s edges are neat and sharp, and she wonders whether it was Amira or Earl who carefully cut it out, marked his name, and put it up for everyone to see.

A bit flushed, eyes brighter than before, Amira pops back out of the pantry with a bag full of things. “Okay,” she says, setting it down on the counter, and quickly balancing it when it sags and tilts. “Okay, I think I need to go upstairs to pack some clothes.”

She looks hopefully at Liv, who immediately replies “I’ll come with you,” matching Amira’s tone, which is as energetic and positive as Liv has ever heard her. It’s doing Amira more good than either of them predicted, she thinks, to get ready to leave this space.

Olivia glances behind her as she follows Amira up the stairs, wondering briefly how it must have felt to tumble down them. Had Amira been facing forward? Or had she fallen backwards when he shoved her, and landed on her back?

She’s just shaken the thought off when Amira pauses at the top of the stairs. She waits for Benson to join her on the landing, then gestures to the wall. “That's where I hit my head.” She says it casually, but she’s watching Benson carefully for her reaction.

It takes Benson a moment to see what she’s pointing to: a shallow dent in the wall plaster, just below the height of  Amira’s head as she stands now.

“I thought he pushed you, and you fell?” Benson asks, uncertain as she glances from Amira to the dent to the bottom of the stairs.

“Oh, I did,” Amira says. “But I -- he hit me there first.” Benson must look confused, because Amira clarifies. “He grabbed me by the hair,” she tells her, gesturing to the back of her own head, “and slammed my face into the wall.” There's an uncertain smile on her face, as if she's not sure it really happened, or if maybe it happened to someone else. Not her. Not her husband, her marriage, her bruised face. Not her life.

Benson squeezes Amira’s shoulder. “I'm sorry he did that,” she says simply, and Amira starts to cry.

They're silent tears, and she quickly wipes them away like she did earlier, standing on the street before they came up.

“It’s fine,” she says after a moment. “It won’t happen again.” She takes a shaky breath, then turns and heads into the bedroom.

A lick of fury goes through Olivia as she helps Amira fold a few shirts (silk, simple but lovely) into a suitcase. Anger not only at Earl but at Baker, whose deal has ensured the apartment can never be examined as a pristine crime scene. Even if she takes a photo now, she thinks, any lawyer could argue that the mark (now clean -- and cleaned by who?, she wonders) had always been there, or that it had been caused when Earl moved his things out. She realizes she's still thinking in terms of a trial. But Baker has tanked that too.

While Amira’s getting a few things from the bathroom, Benson takes a few pictures of the dent anyway. Just in case.

 

***

 

THE SAME DAY.

Rafael is still a bit bleary (and a bit discomfited) by the time they head out of the hotel for a walk around the city. He’s grateful that they’re sightseeing. It gives him an excuse to avoid meeting his mother’s eyes, and it’s a distraction from his dream and, worse, what she’d said about his father.

It doesn’t quite feel like sightseeing, though. Not like last time, when they wandered the road by the ocean with ice cream and smiles. No, Havana looks different now, after their time with Clarita and Eduardo and Tony. Part of him appreciates it more: the freedom of the place, the young people all over chattering away without quite looking over their shoulders, the wildly different styles they wear -- punks, ravers, goths, and some Rafael isn’t even sure what to call.

They turn down G Street and it’s like seeing a familiar friend in wildly different clothes: Rafael can tell right away this Havana’s Christopher Street or Castro District (he spares a wry moment for the irony of that particularly weighty name). It’s not the tight shirts or short shorts that the boys wear; those are common around Havana, where it’s always hot and men like to show off their muscles. It’s something about the way they move, and talk, and circle around one another with unashamed eagerness. He feels a pang for them, knowing with hard-earned certainty that away from this, the space they’ve built and claimed for themselves, they can’t feel so safe and open. Another pang for Eduardo, who has no such space in the first place.

Rafael risks a glance at Lucía, who is resolutely looking up at the architecture of the buildings. So, yes: she realizes it too. His resentment towards her flares. She’d come around a long time ago to tolerate what she used to call his proclivities, but tolerance was as far as she would go and he knows she’ll never come closer, won’t even try. Some days he’s grateful she worked so hard to understand for him, and other days, like today, he’s angry she didn’t -- doesn’t -- work harder.

He doesn’t want to deal with whatever she’s going to say. It’ll be either some comment in bad taste now, or a complaint disguised as concern later, or perhaps both, and he is not in the mood, so he touches her arm with a smile: “Let’s go check out La Habana Vieja,” he suggests, and with visible relief she agrees.

Old Town is uncomfortable in a different way. Many of the beautiful, classical buildings have fallen into a disrepair that could have been romantic in a photograph or a movie, but here it’s just sad. The Plaza Vieja is wide and lovely, colorful buildings with elegant balconies looking over it from all sides and tourists wandering around the shops and cafés just like Rafael and Lucía are, but although there’s no monument he remembers from a book he’d read that they’d auctioned people off as slaves here. A few streets down is another unmarked spot where rebels were shot down by Castro’s forces, and less close but still looming is the enormous, palatial Museo de la Revolución .

No place is untainted.

His mood grows worse and worse as they walk further and further, and though he blames it on his aching feet he finally gets fed up and announces that they’re going to stop and eat something. Lucía looks grateful at the suggestion, and they choose the first restaurant they see. As he looks over the menu he realizes his neck is sore too, and as he’s rubbing it he catches his mother looking at him with fond sadness.

“What?” he snips, and she rolls her eyes.

“Nothing.” She peers down at her menu and he glares at his.

He starts to feel better after they begin to eat -- he hadn’t realized how hungry he’d been. The wine helps, too, and he’s really relaxing when Lucía drops a bombshell on the neatly laid table between them.

“I want to go to Miramar tomorrow,” she tells him.

He puts down his fork and knife. That’s his father’s old neighborhood.

“I’m not going with you,” he says flatly.

“Rafi --”

“I’m not.” He wills her to let it go, but of course she doesn’t. Of course.

She puts down her utensils too with a heavy sigh, as if he’s burdening her.

“You know I don’t ask much of you, mijo,” she says quietly. “I don’t ask you to come with me to his grave, I don’t ask you to sit with me on his birthday or death day. Rafi, I even didn’t ask you to come to the hospital with me when he was dying, though God knows I needed you with me there.”

Three sentences in and the guilt is already starting to claw at him. He’s not hungry anymore.

“I lit a candle for you too, you know,” she adds, and he looks up in confusion. “At the church the other day, with Clarita. I lit a candle for you and for your papi.”

“You shouldn’t have.” He was going for dry sarcasm but the words come out pure bitterness instead. He takes a sip of wine but it doesn’t wash the bad taste away.

“Rafi, you have to make your peace with him.”

She actually reaches across the table to take his hand, but he jerks it away into his lap and immediately feels terrible for having done so.

“You know you won’t feel better until you forgive him,” she tells him, and there’s such earnest love in her voice he feels sick.

“Is that how it was for you?” he asks. “You forgave him so quickly I’m surprised you could tell the difference.”

She shakes her head in disappointment. “You should have seen him in the hospital, Rafi. He was in so much pain. He talked about you.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” he snaps.

“He was so proud of you,” Lucía continues, and her voice is wavering now; he knows that if he were to look up he’d see tears in her eyes. “I told him how well you were doing in law school and he was so proud. He asked about you every time I visited.”

“I know.” She’s right, she’d never asked him outright to come see his father in the hospital. But she’d told him this at the time, over and over: he misses you so much, mijo; he asks about you; he wants to know how you’re doing. Every time asking him to come, over and over, in a way she knew she could deny later. He takes another sip of wine, then another after that.

“You have to make your peace with him,” she repeats.

He forces himself to look her in the eyes. “He beat you, and he beat me. I found my peace the day he died.

She looks like he’s slapped her across the face. But he’s not the one who did that.

“You go visit him yourself,” he says, and he’s surprised to hear himself speaking so calmly. “I’m not coming.” He moves to get up, but he finds he has more to say and though he knows he shouldn’t say it he can’t bite the words back -- “You shouldn’t have forgiven him,” he tells her, and now his voice is trembling, and he hates it. “You should have left him the first time he hit you, or at least the first time he hit me, and instead you waited until I was already gone?”

Her eyes are wide and wet and he doesn’t care.

“Why did you wait so long, Mami?” he asks, and he’s horrified with himself -- his voice is high, they’re in public, this is not the time or the place, he should never have started this -- “All that time when I was little you stayed, and then after I left, that’s when you decided to go?” He shakes his head jerkily, without wanting to, without hardly any control over the movement. “Why leave him at all, then? If you didn’t care enough to protect me and if you’d already forgiven him, why not just stay, if he was such a good man?

She opens her mouth, shuts it again.

Rafael knew she wouldn’t have an answer.

“I’m not going with you,” he tells her again. “I’m not.” He stands up, finally, and with shaking hands digs through his wallet to lay a few bills on the table. “There, finish your dinner, it’s paid for. I’ll see you at the hotel.”

He wants, badly, to find a bar and submerge himself in scotch, or whiskey, or rum, or whatever the fuck they have, but he knows it’s a bad idea. It’s probably a bad idea, too, to walk this unknown city alone at night.

But he can’t stand the idea of going back to the hotel, so he doesn’t.

 

***

 

THE SAME DAY.

Benson and Amira are back downstairs, almost ready to go, when there’s a knock at the door. Benson’s first thought is Earl, and her hand goes to the gun at her hip -- just rests there, ready -- while Amira, with barely a hesitation, goes to the door. She peers through the spyhole first and Benson sees her shoulders relax before she opens up to a tall, dark-skinned man with a friendly but worried face. He looks closer to Benson’s age than Amira’s, and from his suit it looks like he’s just come from work.

“Hey, Imran,” Amira says. “Come on in.” Benson doesn’t miss the embarrassed tone in her voice.

“Thank you,” he says to her as he steps inside, looking nervously at Benson. She realizes she’s still got her hand on her gun, and drops it to her side instead. It’s too late to hide her badge, and she feels guilty for it -- there’s no way Amira can pretend everything is fine now, not with a cop in her apartment. Not with those bruises on her face.

Amira must have realized the same thing, because she introduces Olivia by title. “And this is Imran Gurmani, my neighbor.”

Imran and Benson shake hands awkwardly. There’s an uncomfortable silence.

Amira is the one to break it. “I’m just going to -- I’m going away for a bit,” she tells Imran. “My parents are coming into town, so…”

“Oh, that’s nice!” he says sincerely. “That’s good.” He hesitates. “Are you doing well?”

Amira smiles blankly. “I had to go to the hospital the other day,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling good. But I’m doing better now.”

He nods, although he doesn’t look like he believes her at all. “Aisha said I should drop by,” he explains -- “My wife,” he adds, glancing at Benson. “She tried coming by the other day when you weren’t here, but she sends her love.”

“Oh, thank you,” Amira says, and her smile softens into sincerity. “Please give her mine.”

“Of course, of course.” He coughs nervously. “Anyway, I should go, but. I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better,” he says, and then his voice turns serious and heavy with meaning. “Please take care of yourself. And let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.”

Amira smiles and looks almost, almost happy. “I will. Thank you.”

“Does he come by often?” Benson asks after Imran has left.

“Yeah, I guess. He’s nice,” Amira says absently, zipping up her duffel bag. I don’t know him very well but I’m kind of friends with Aisha? Like, we chat now and then when we see each other around the building. And Imran fixed our sink once. Anyway, they’re always trying to get me to go to masjid, no matter how much I tell them I’m not really a Muslim.”

She sighs, sounding annoyed, and Benson has to hide a smile at how much better, more expressive, the other woman seems already. Amira shakes her head. “But neither of them know about…” she gestures vaguely around the room. “What was going on. I mean, at least they didn’t used to.” Her shoulders slump and she suddenly is back to looking defeated, embarrassed. “Obviously they know now.” She looks so lost, and Liv’s heart breaks a little bit for her.

“Do you want to get a late lunch before we find you a hotel?” she asks gently, and Amira nods quickly, visibly relieved.

“Can we do fast food?” Amira asks, and she sounds almost like a little kid. “We've been on this health food kick lately and I'm just so craving chicken nuggets.”

Benson laughs as she easily hoists Amira’s duffel bag into her shoulder. “Sounds good to me,” she smiles.

McDonald’s is mostly empty, the lunch crowd several hours gone by the time they get there. It’s a good thing, too, because Amira’s bags are too large to fit comfortably under their seats, so they take up twice the space as Amira and Benson themselves.

Amira looks better and better as they eat, and as she does she becomes more animated, gesturing with french-fry-greasy hands and slowly brightening smiles.

“So are you married?” she asks Benson, cramming another fry into her mouth, and the question catches Liv a bit off guard.

“No,” she says, “but I have a son.”

“Oh,” Amira sighs softly, her eyes suddenly hazy with love. “I think mine is going to be a boy, too. What’s his name?”

“Noah,” Liv smiles. She pulls out her phone and Amira coos over each sweet picture of him in a way that makes Benson’s heart swell.

When they pull back to keep eating, their faces are both soft and happy. Amira’s shifts slightly into curious, then almost embarrassed, before she speaks again. “Did you… I mean, can I ask about his dad?” she asks hesitantly.

Benson swallows her bite of hamburger. “He’s adopted,” she tells Amira, and she’s spoken that oversimplification so many times it rolls easily off her tongue.

“Really? Oh, but he has your eyes. That’s so sweet.”

Benson smiles again. “He is sweet. Have you thought of any names for yours?”

Amira smiles down at her plate. “We were thinking Abraham, maybe,” she says, “but it’s such a big name for a little baby. And a bit old-fashioned. So I don’t know, we’ll think -- I mean, after -- once he’s done with anger management and has been in therapy for a while, you know? We’ll think of something.”

It’s all Benson can do not to groan out loud, though she knows it would be the opposite of helpful to do so. Instead she takes a careful sip of water and considers her options. It takes her a moment to settle on what she thinks is the right response.

“Have you considered going to therapy yourself?” she asks quietly.

Amira hesitates. “Well,” she says reluctantly, “I mean, maybe? I don’t know, it doesn’t seem… I’m not sure it’s for me.”

“I go, you know,” Benson tells her. “I could ask my therapist to refer you to someone good.”

“You do?” Amira’s eyes are blank with surprise. “I wouldn’t have thought -- no offense, I mean, I just didn’t expect it. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”

“No,” Benson says kindly, “there isn’t. I think you should consider it. It’s a very practical, helpful thing to do.” I think a good therapist would help you stay the hell away from your husband, is what she means.

“Maybe,” Amira hedges. “I’ll think about it.”

With great effort, Benson lets it go. They eat in silence until Amira puts down her burger.

“I know you don’t like him,” she says softly, looking Benson in the eyes. “I get it. I really do.” She sighs. “I love him so much, you know? I really love him. But sometimes I don’t like him either.”

Benson nods, and waits for Amira to fill the silence.

“It didn’t used to bother me so much,” she continues, almost musing. “I remember the first time it happened I felt so sorry for him. He felt awful. And he hadn’t even hurt me that much, it was just a slap. And he apologized right away, he was crying and crying. I don’t even remember what we were fighting about.”

Amira’s face is soft and calm, her eyes distant, but her hands are busy shredding the paper napkin in front of her. Tear by tear until it’s in ribbons on her tray, and then her hands, seemingly independent of her mind, pick up the next one.

“He was so sorry, and I felt so sorry for him,” she repeats. “I remember he sat down on the couch with his head in his hands and I sat down next to him, and he laid down and I put his head in my lap and I just stroked his hair and told him it was okay until he stopped. And he never did it again, not for more than a year, I think. He worked so hard to be better.”

Benson bites her tongue.

“I guess he got worse as life got more stressful,” Amira shrugs. “And I got less patient with him, which I don’t really feel bad about, because I know it’s hard for him but he should be better. Especially now, with the baby.” Her mouth twists into an almost-grimace. “But at least he’s trying. And you’re right, you know, we should be apart until he’s better. I just -- I miss him.”

All the vivaciousness has left her by now. She’s slumped down in her chair, eyes teary.

Benson reaches over and takes her hand. “The distance is good,” she says softly. “You’ll get used to it.”

Amira shakes her head. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Thinking of that distance, of Amira’s parents, of her friend Molly and the support she’ll have while she’s away from Earl, Benson does feel hopeful. She squeezes Amira’s hand. “It’ll be okay,” she tells her. “I know it’s hard now, but it’ll be okay.”

Amira nods. They finish their meal in silence.

Chapter Text

THURSDAY, JULY 21.

“Any news?” Benson asks Fin as she strides into the precinct -- he’s been here for a few hours already, working the early shift so he can leave early for his son’s baby shower.

He leans back in his chair. “Yeah,” he replies with a sigh, ticking items slowly off his fingers. “Rollins and Carisi are set to interview that witness from the Halsteader case. Hudson University wants to talk with you about that kid who already confessed a few weeks ago. And we got a new vic who thinks his rapist might have been his teacher, but he's not sure -- I got the report ready for you.”

Benson smiles, taking Rollins’ chair for a minute to sit down across from him. “So when are you gonna take the Sergeant’s exam and start getting paid for all this extra work you’re already doing?”

Fin allows a lazy grin to spread across his face. “I don’t like tests.”

“You’d like a raise, though, wouldn’t you.”

He gives a noncommittal shrug, but he’s still smiling a bit. She gives it a few months before he caves and fills out the application. He might already have started studying , she thinks and hopes she’s right -- it would be good to have her old friend as her second-in-command.

But that’s the future, and the present is what demands her attention.

“How about the other thing we discussed?” she asks quietly.

Fin leans forward just slightly, elbows resting on his desk; to anyone passing by he’d look casual as could be, but his lowered voice says otherwise. “Earl showed up to anger management like he’s supposed to. No strange behavior.”

“Hmm.” Benson frowns.

“You still want me to keep an eye on him?”

She hesitates, knowing Baker will report her in a second if he finds out she’s keeping tabs on a man who, in Baker’s eyes, is taken care of as far as the law is concerned.

“Let’s focus on the Halsteader case and this new vic for today,” she says after a moment, standing with a slight grimace. “I’ll call back Hudson. But check in on Earl again tomorrow.”

He nods. “How’s Amira doing?”

Benson sighs. “She’s okay. She misses him, but that’s to be expected. Her parents are flying in tomorrow, though, and I think that’s going to be a big help.”

Fin nods again, looking a bit happier this time, and Benson claps him on the shoulder on her way to her office. She’s grateful for his discretion, his sparing way with words, and the way he takes for granted -- as she does -- that sometimes you have to bend the rules a bit to make sure the right guys don’t do wrong again. He’s got her back, and she has his. And together they’ve got Amira’s.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Rafael wakes late.

He hadn’t set an alarm last night, knowing his mother would be up early and out the door not long after that, and having no interest in speaking with her beforehand. Besides, he’d been exhausted after walking all day and part of the night. At least now he feels rested.

Not wanting to spend another day lazing on the balcony, he showers, dresses in a cream linen summer suit -- light blue shirt, no tie -- and then heads out with no particular destination in mind.

He browses through a bookstore (where he considers another Martí collection before realizing the one he already has contains all the same poems), a shop full of odds and ends (some lovely, some tacky, some bizarre; he considers a lovely sterling silver pen and stand before deciding it's not Liv’s style, and too heavy to take back anyway), and a high-end men’s clothing store (he gets a few pieces, including a muted pink tie patterned with peonies). Stepping out of this last with bags in hand, Rafael is startled to realize it's late afternoon already, and he's very hungry.

The restaurant he chooses is just down the street from the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. Where his grandparents are buried.

Rafael stares at the bags at his feet, thinking perhaps his wandering hadn't been as aimless as he'd thought, and deeply disliking the idea. The gall of his subconscious, sending him this way without his permission or knowledge.

His food arrives and he puts the tombs from his mind, letting his hunger fill him and then letting the food fill that. It's delicious -- a particularly spicy pollo aporreado  -- and it does the job, distracting him, but then he's done and the cemetery is still there.

He's consolidated all his purchases into one small shopping bag, but he still feels a bit ridiculous carrying it around with him as he walks the cobbled paths that wend their way around solemn tombs. It's quiet here, late in a Thursday afternoon. He imagines children coming home from school, families getting ready for dinner, most thoughts far from the dead and from grief.

Not that he's grieving. He never knew his grandparents, hardly knew anything about them. His father loved them fiercely, he knows, which made the man tight-lipped and stony-eyed on the topic. They had been rich before Castro, or so the story went. They used most of their remaining money to send his father to America before it was too late, and tried to follow him after. They died before their time. They had no other children.

Rafael knows other scraps of stories, too: his grandmother was a singer, and met Frank Sinatra once, though Rafael has no idea when or how old she was. She had been impressed by him, his father always said, saying it in such a way it was clear he was impressed to, by both Sinatra and his mother. And Rafael’s grandfather had been a judge. His mother likes to remind him of that now and then. The man had sat in the criminal courts, convicting thieves and murderers and -- undoubtedly -- rapists. Rafael’s father liked to talk about the uncaring way his own father used to respond (or not respond) to the threats he got from these violent men. It was a point of pride; proof, in Rafael’s father’s eyes, that the judge was dispassionate, just, and brave.

Nothing ever came of those threats, and Rafael wonders -- would his father have thought him brave for his own unflinching response to Heredio on the steps, in the elevator? Or just stupid?

He reminds himself it doesn't matter what he would have thought.

Wrenching his mind from this particularly unpleasant train of thought, he realizes he has no idea where his grandparents are actually buried. The cemetery is old and enormous, with no discernible order -- not even chronological -- to the way it's all laid out. The graves themselves vary wildly too, from simple granite tombstones to marble angels to looming, iron-gated mausoleums holding whole generations of families. Despite the smaller plots it's a far grander place than the grassy Santiago hill where Rafael’s abuelo is buried, and certainly more than the crowded little graveyard where his father has rotted away into what is now just a skeleton.

It's beautiful, here, but eerie too.

He looks around for some kind of map or a groundskeeper’s station, but can't find either. So, knowing it's pointless, he walks the paths for a half hour, then another, scanning for his father’s surname and wondering why this apparently means so much to him.

It's not like Rafael could learn much from standing above their bodies, if he found where they were buried. And he only has a few questions, anyway.

What was it like, living here all your lives?

What was it like, dying here?

How did you raise your son? Did you make him into what he was, or did he become that way in your absence? What would you have done, if you knew?

Nothing a headstone could answer.

He realizes he doesn't even know who buried them, or how much they'd been able to pay for a plot.

Shortly after that, he decides it’s no use. So he leaves.

Lucía is back from Miramar by the time gets to the hotel. They don’t discuss last night’s conversation.

Rafael knows they never will.

He’s just about ready to go home.

***

THE SAME DAY.

She’s surprised when he calls, but she’s missed him so much she doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“I didn't expect to hear from you so soon.”

“I don't really want to talk to anyone else,” he explains, and she can hear the smile in his voice.

She realizes she’s picking at a loose thread on her skirt, and forces herself to stop. “How are you?”

“Tired,” he answers honestly, and his voice is so soft she feels a pang in her heart for him. “How about you?”

She swallows, leans back in her chair. “I miss you,” she whispers.

There’s a hesitation on the other line, and for a horrible moment she thinks he doesn’t feel the same, but then --

“I miss you too.” He lets the words sit between them for a minute. “Do you want to get dinner?”

She chews at her bottom lip, considering. “We shouldn’t.”

“Oh,” he says quietly. “I understand.”

“Well…” She knows this is a bad idea, but in public, at their usual bar, just like normal -- no one could think that inappropriate, could they? She just wants to see him, talk face-to-face. There’s so much to talk about, now, and tomorrow they won’t be able to.

“Listen,” he interrupts her thoughts, “if it’s a bad time, don’t worry about it. We’ll meet up later. That’s probably better anyway, right?”

But as he pulls away she only feels the urgency more, and maybe that’s why he’s doing it, but she doesn’t really care, because it’s not wrong for him to miss her any more than it’s wrong for her to miss him.

Lieutenant Benson had said it was normal to miss him.

So, Amira thinks: This is normal.

“No,” she tells Earl. “Let’s go to our usual spot. At seven?”

“At seven,” he agrees. “I love you.”

She only hesitates a millisecond before repeating the words back to him. She thinks he can’t have noticed.

***

FRIDAY, JULY 22.

Rafael and Lucía spend their last hours in Cuba on the beach, trying to enjoy the light, sea-salt breeze that lifts the humidity and makes the air more pleasant than it'll be in New York for months. But they're both shifty with unease that morning. Not speaking much to each other but not Not Speaking to each other. Not dreading the return home but not sure they want to stay here either. Not tired, not energized; not happy, not particularly sad. Just a bit flattened. Both of them laid out on the plastic beach chairs that, along with the umbrellas above them, are free for hotel guests, and staring off into space by way of the sun flashing on the waves. Brightness all around them but not reaching through the shade of the umbrella -- not quite touching them.

It’s early, and the beach is nearly empty, and Havana seems at once more beautiful and less so than when they first came.

They're quiet on the ride to the airport. Rafael thinks of its namesake, wondering what Martí would make of having this international hub, this portal to other places, bearing his name. Eduardo would have ideas about that, and Rafael finds he already misses his cousin more than he'd expected he would.

By the time they hand back their tourist visa stubs and get on the plane -- Lucía’s packet of soil undetected by customs officers -- Rafael really is exhausted. He doesn't bother with a Valium this time, and he's fast asleep when a buzzingly anxious Lucía takes one from his bag and swallows it down herself.

She studies his profile as it starts to kick in. He doesn’t look much like his father, and she knows he counts that as a blessing even though she thinks it’s a bit of a pity. But she doesn’t really want to think about any of that now. She doesn’t want to think, either, about how he’d snatched his hand away from hers at dinner the other night, when she’d only been trying to explain what he’s refused to understand for years and what he’d only benefit from accepting, and -- it’s fine, she reminds herself, and with the pleasant sleepiness creeping in around the edges of her eyes it’s easy to push her anger down.

She takes his hand instead, his right hand. The same one he hadn’t let her hold before.

There are little marks in his palm, the shape of half-moons, like he’s dug his fingernails into the flesh there. Clenching his fist, she thinks, and she knows why, but that’s just another thing she doesn’t need to think about.

So instead she lets his hand drop back onto the armrest, and she leans against the window, and, their faces turned away from each other, they both sleep.

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 22. 

It's late afternoon when Rafael gets back to his apartment building, but despite his deep (and blessedly dreamless) sleep on the plane, he's exhausted. Still, he stops at his mailbox, only hesitating a moment before twisting his key in the lock and swinging the little door open.

As he expected, it’s full of letters. He gathers all of them under his arm without looking, locks the box, and trudges to the elevator with his mail and his suitcase.

Only once he's safely in his apartment -- after he's checked all the rooms, phone in hand, just in case -- does he sort through it all.

There are almost a dozen familiar flimsy white envelopes with no return address. He moves to set them aside as usual, so he can take them to the precinct where the experts can examine them, catalogue them, inevitably find them free of usable evidence, and then add them to his own personal box of evidence. But out of morbid curiosity he picks one at random to open now. Like all the others before it, it’s typed and printed on crisp white paper, neatly folded.

Welcome Home counselor. You better watch your back because we are watching you and we will be visiting very soon. You can lock your doors but we will get in. No-one will be coming to help you so you had better say good-bye to your loved ones because it won’t be long now. Too bad there will be no-one to take care of your mom when she gets old I guess she will die like your grandma did all alone. That will be your fault after what you have done. You can ask your Cop friends to save you but there will be nothing they can do because we are going to get you. Get Ready.

He stuffs the letter back into its envelope with a grimace -- What did I expect? Tossing it aside with a hand less steady than he'd like, he takes a breath, then turns to the other mail.  

Bills. Junk. Heartfelt pleas from the ACLU and End The Backlog for more donations. All to be expected. There's also one much larger envelope, with his address written by hand and the return address illegible. He's baffled by it until he registers the international stamps.

It’s the picture Clarita promised would be waiting for him by the time he got home. He’s surprised it made its way through the international postal system -- especially on the Cuban end -- so quickly, and it’s a warm, pleasant sort of surprise that drives out most of the cold, sludgy fear the letter had put into him.

It’s a wonderful picture. He drinks it in as he wanders over to the couch: Tony’s half-sad grin; Eduardo’s face serious like an old-fashioned portrait; Lucía and Clarita grinning with their arms around each other; and Rafael, standing between his cousins, tired but smiling. The early morning light falling onto all their smiling faces. The house pink behind them, the sky above pale, the garden green and bright.

It’s a portrait of a family. Of a home.

As he sinks down into his overstuffed couch, photograph in hand, Rafael allows himself to relax and take in his own home: the apartment he's so tensely walked through just a few minutes ago. Instead of looking intently for any signs of a break-in, he lets his eyes and his mind wander in a pleasantly lazy way around the room. The afternoon sun has spread itself across the accent wall across from him. He’d picked a very pale, ambiguous gray for it, knowing the color would change with the time of day. In the early morning it’s a sleepy blue; when the sun is going down it’s close to purple. Right now it’s something close to a shade of dusty rose, soft and warm. Its tone suffuses the rest of the room -- the three full bookshelves, the low coffee table where he takes his breakfast, and the end table piled with more books. The glass of the television, and over the framed photographs and art prints, all reflect the color back, deepening the room and increasing its warmth.

Rafael realizes, with some surprise, that he’s glad to be home. Despite everything.

The couch really is comfortable, and although he still needs to unpack and shower, he lets himself start to drift off right here. He’ll hang the picture on that gray wall, he thinks sleepily, placing it carefully on the coffee table before leaning back into the cushions. He’ll get it framed tomorrow, and place it just so, where he can see it from his couch and his kitchen table-turned-desk alike, in the morning when he eats breakfast and at night when he stays up late over paperwork. The photo isn't as large as he would like, and doesn't exactly have the best resolution, but it's what he has. And he's happy -- more than happy -- to have it. 

*** 

THE SAME DAY.

It’s been a long, hectic day, and Liv is more than ready to get home to Noah by the end of it. They’ve caught two new cases just in the past twelve hours and already they’re playing catch-up, spread thin across interviews and interrogations and insisting that Baker work more quickly to get the warrants they need. But her shift is over and though she’s eager to get back to work tomorrow once she’s rested and ready, for now she just wants to get home. She’s gathering her things together at her desk when there’s a knock at her door.

“Hey,” Fin says quietly.

Something in his low voice makes Benson look up right away. She puts down the charger she’d had in her hand. “What’s wrong?” 

He steps into the office. “Amira’s parents just called.”

Her heart sinks. She hasn’t checked in with Amira today. Not even a text.

“They got in a few hours ago and they can’t get in touch with her,” Fine tells her. “She’s not picking up her phone.”

Benson closes her eyes, takes a breath, and opens them. “Do we know where Earl is?”

Fin shakes his head. “I know he went to anger management again today like he’s supposed to. But after that, I got nothing. Sorry, Liv.”

“No,” she says, gesturing vaguely, “you did a lot today, I was the one who said it wasn’t as -- okay.” She focuses in. “I need you to find out where he is now. I need Carisi to come with me to the hotel. He can stay with Amira’s parents while I check her room, maybe help me talk to staff, security guests. Let me know the moment you find anything about Earl.”

“You need anything from Rollins?”

“She’s just headed home, right?”

He nods.

“Then no, let her get back to Jesse.” Benson takes off her glasses and rubs at the bridge of her nose. “I’ll call Lucy and let her know I’m going to be late.”

Fin nods again, somehow making the gesture both sympathetic and determined, and heads back into the squad room to carry out the plan.

Benson stuffs her phone and a few other essentials into her bag and heads out, scooping up an exhausted and worried Carisi on her way; they’re almost to the elevators when a frightened-looking couple stops them in their tracks.

Not another case, Benson thinks with an inner groan, but she puts a good face on it. “Hello,” she says with the well-practiced, concerned smile that she knows communicates the sympathy and the professionalism that these situations require. “I’m Lieutenant Benson. How can I --”

“We’re Amira Seif’s parents,” the woman interrupts.

“Amira Williams,” the man amends, but there is no fondness in the way he pronounces Earl’s last name.

“I see,” Benson says, caught off-guard but recovering quickly. “Ah, Carisi -- why don’t you go ahead and check on what we discussed.” He nods and is off with a bound, and she spares a moment of gratitude for the energy he always, no matter how long the shift, manages to drag up from somewhere deep in that lanky body when needed.

“Rami and Muriel, right?” she asks, glancing at the couple as she leads them towards her office.

“Yes,” Muriel says. “Amira talked about us?”

Benson smiles. “A few times,” she replies. “She was very happy you were coming to be with her.”

“Of course we came,” Rami says gruffly. “We should have come sooner. Where is she? 

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out now,” Benson answers gently. “Please, sit down.”

Rami lowers himself into the couch, but Muriel stays standing. Now that she’s had a moment to look, Benson can see their daughter’s features in both of them. Amira has Rami’s sharp nose, which is bold on his face and elegant on hers; she has her mother’s expressive mouth and large brown eyes. Right now, Muriel’s are blank with something that looks almost like anger. Rami is staring at his shoes.

“So, I saw Amira on Wednesday,” Benson explains. “She was doing well. I’m sure there’s a reason she’s not answering her phone -- maybe she went somewhere and left her charger behind and it died, or --”

“No,” Muriel insists, interrupting again. “We haven’t heard from her since last night.” She meets Benson’s eyes with a steely gaze. “We were texting and she said she was tired, she was going to have dinner and go to bed, and in the morning I called to tell her we were at the airport on our way here, and I had to leave a message. But it was still morning in New York time, so I thought maybe she was asleep. She likes to sleep in.” Muriel’s voice is shaking, now, just a little bit. “Then we landed and still there was nothing from her. And we knew something was wrong. She had given us the number to this station, so I called, and then we decided to just come -- where is she?”

Benson nods gravely, wanting Muriel to understand she’s listened intently to every word she spoke. “I don’t know,” she answers honestly. “But I promise you, we’re going to find her.”

“Earl is a violent man,” Rami says quietly. He hasn’t moved, hasn’t even looked up from the floor. “He hurt her.”

“I know,” Benson says. “My detectives were there at the hospital, right after it happened.”

He shakes his head slowly. “No,” he says. “I mean last night. He hurt her. He must have.” He looks up, meeting his wife’s eyes. “That must be it.”

Muriel looks back at him for a long moment, then turns to Benson. “Yes,” she says. “You need to find him.

“I know,” Benson says, and already she’s thinking of warrants, of searching wherever Earl is holed up -- she realizes with a start that as of today, Barba is back in New York. She thinks, almost immediately, of calling him instead of Baker. The other ADA is useless in a pinch, and there’s no time to waste. She feels a stab of regret that their first talk since Barba’s Cuba visit will be about work, about an emergency, but the very nature of an emergency means there’s no time to linger over that feeling, so she doesn’t.

“We’re tracking Earl down now,” Benson adds, ducking her head slightly to meet Muriel’s eyes earnestly. “And we will. We’ll find him, and we’ll get Amira back to you. I can promise you that.

A bitter smile twists across Muriel’s face. “No, you can’t,” she says. “Nothing is promised.”

On the couch, Rami lowers his head into his hands.

***

THE SAME DAY.

Rafael has just finished brushing his teeth when his phone rings. He dries his face quickly and picks up his cell without looking at the caller ID. “Barba,” he answers, stepping into his bedroom.

At first the line is silent. He strides into the living room and checks the device in annoyance, expecting to see there’s a poor connection, but instead the screen is black except to say “Unknown Number.” He reminds himself that he’s not in Cuba, and that there’s never been any problem with cell reception in his apartment before. Dread curls a finger around his throat, but for some reason he slowly brings the phone back up to his ear

“Hello?” he asks quietly.

He can’t immediately place the voice that answers, but the words are as familiar as a lullaby. “You’re looking at a big problem, Mr. Barba.”

There’s a long pause he can’t help but fill. “What problem is that?” Another pause, and he notices a strange smell, like rotting citrus. Is it coming from the kitchen? Did he leave an orange out while he was gone? It would be soft and moldy by now, and the thought makes him feel sick even as he heads towards the kitchen to check.

He jumps when the man responds. “You’re counting on us to put our lives on the line for you.” Something rustles on the other end of the line before the man speaks again. “That’s not gonna happen anymore.”

He recognizes the voice now: Mike Dodds.

Rafael stops still. He shakes his head in his empty living room, grappling for the right thing to say. He can’t mess it up this time. “I didn’t ask -- I didn’t expect you to do anything for me.” He remembers Gary Munson, the brief hostage situation in the house, and can’t help but add pettily: “I wasn’t even the one you died for.” His voice, he realizes with humiliation, is a high whine.

There’s another rustle, like someone putting their hand over the speaker, and he can just barely hear Dodds conferring with someone.

“Who’s that?” he demands.

“Well that’s the thing, Rafael,” Dodds says. “You’ve made so many friends, you have no way of knowing, do you?” Whoever’s next to him -- maybe more than one person -- laughs. Dodds starts to say something else, but grunts in surprise instead, and there’s a horrible wet noise as something slithers across the speaker. It’s loud, and the phone is hot and sweaty against his ear, but Rafael can’t pull it away. He squeezes his eyes shut against the rasping sound of heavy panting, and he’s not sure whether he’s the one making the noise until a tongue curls itself deep into his ear.

It’s slimy, and cold, and Rafael can still feel it even as he wrenches the phone from his ear and hurls it across the room, where it lands with a sick, slow squelch. He’s clawing at his ear, trying to get it out, and he’s on his hands and knees now, choking on his own heaving gasps. He’s scratched the inside of his ear so hard it hurts, but he can still feel the mucus-y slick of that thing , and he digs deeper until he feels the hot, sticky rush of blood under his nails. It flushes out the worst of it, and now he can hear something still coming from his unbroken phone across the room. A sick, putrid stench starts to coil its way around the room. It smells of rotting flesh.

The voice on the phone is different now, and Rafael freezes, because he recognizes this one right away.

“Mijo,” his father says, and it’s with that old softness he used to have sometimes.

Rafael had forgotten he could ever sound like that: sweet, sincere. One kind word from Papi, he thinks bitterly, and he’s already on his knees, struggling not to cry.

“I heard you went back to my house in Havana. How’s the old place look? I’m sorry I wasn’t there to let you in.”

Rafael swallows thickly. He can’t look away from his hands -- the right one is touched with his own blood. They both lie on his thighs, which are aching and trembling with the effort to stay kneeling on the floor. “It looks good, Papi,” he lies, hoping to make him happy. It was always hard to get Papi to smile, but that’s why he always felt so proud when he managed it.

“Is that orange tree still out front?” Papi asks, switching to Spanish. Rafael struggles to focus on his words -- had his mother mentioned a tree in the yard? -- but there’s blood and slime dripping down his neck, an awful pain in his ear, and his throat -- his throat, it’s like there are hands around it. He can barely take a full breath. There was a tree, he remembers suddenly, even as he knows he can’t be remembering right, because he was never there, with bats roosting on its branches, clustered dark and bristling, and nothing could grow there .

His father moves on. “Did you go to their graves? Tu abuelita y tu abuelo?”

Rafael hesitates. “Papi, I couldn’t find them.” He knows this isn’t the right answer, and he wants speak faster, more clearly, but his throat keeps getting tighter and his mind feels slow and stupid, like when he was a little boy, trying to explain himself, never able to find the words. Sweat drips down his cheek and onto his bloody hand, and for a moment he’s so transfixed by the way the two fluids merge and flow together down his finger that he forgets the question. The rattle of his own breath brings him back. “I couldn’t find them,” he repeats hoarsely, digging himself deeper. Please don’t be mad at me, he begs silently. He remembers the cemetery as dark and cold. A mausoleum gates gaping open. “I’m sorry. I tried, I promise, but the tomb was empty.”

There’s deadly quiet on the phone and he already knows he’s failed.

“I guess you just didn’t try hard enough, Rafi,” Papi says. “How come you never try hard enough for your old man? Huh? I send to go you all that way for me and you can’t even lay a flower on my parents’ grave?” His voice is getting louder now, and Rafael cringes like a child.

“Don’t you cower like that,” Papi snarls -- he knows, like always -- “You stand up straight like a man. Or do you forget how? I tried to teach you, Rafi, but you would always hide behind your friends. You still doing that? That why you work with cops, so you never have to fight for yourself?” He’s bellowing accusations like he always used to, his voice filling the room like water, never leaving any space for Rafi to explain or even breathe. “I hear you hide behind a woman now, is that true? She take better care of you than Mami did?” And he’s right, he’s right , all his son wants to do is call Olivia, but Rafael can’t even find his phone.

“I’m sorry, Papi,” he chokes out. Something wet slides down the back of his throat, and he gags on it.

“I know you are,” Papi says. He’s speaking softly again, almost sweetly, but Rafael can’t catch his breath. There’s still something wrong -- a horrible writhing feeling around his throat, like worms turning through his skin -- he gasps, and now it’s hands around his neck, slowly squeezing tighter, and he’s getting dizzy as Papi continues.

“You know I always hated criminals, mijo, just like you did. Little shits who never worked for a living, who only get what they want by stealing it, like El Cabrón did with a whole country.” His voice is strained when he mentions Fidel, and Rafael wants to comfort him somehow, but he can’t speak. The hands at his neck are so tight they’re bruising now, but when he bats helplessly at the air there’s nothing there.

“I always hated them, those Castro brothers,” Papi repeats, and his voice is hard now. “But they taught me something important. You have to stay smart to survive. You learn that from me? Huh? Abogado?” The word drips with contempt. “Do you think you’ll hear the bullet that’s coming for you? Think you’ll see my face coming through the crowd before you fall down those steps? Get your skull cracked open, bleeding to death?" 

Rafael claws at his throat, and the hands are gone.

He heaves in a great mouthful of air -- gasping, he crawls towards his phone on his hands and knees, towards his father’s voice although every instinct screams to get away from it -- if he can just call Olivia, she’ll know what to do -- he’s scrabbling at the phone and Papi is really yelling now, death threats coming tinny through the speaker, and Rafael can’t get the fucking phone to work -- 

He gives up, and smashes it against the floor. Over and over until the screen is shattered and the voices on the other end are silent, and even then he keeps bringing it down hard, shards of glass digging into the palm of his left hand where it braces against the wood, but he hardly notices the pain.

The screen is gone when he’s done. The battery is exposed, and the tiny, intricate workings around it are warped and bent into useless metal. He sits back on his heels and raises his hands to rub his eyes, but they’re so bloody he drops them again. The terror hasn’t faded -- it’s just that he’s so exhausted on top of it.

Somehow, the phone vibrates.

Olivia’s voice comes through the line, cool and calm. Like magic. Like she could read his mind.

All she says is his name. 

He doesn’t care that the phone is sharp and broken, he doesn’t care about the other voices, the tongue, the burning heat from before: he just needs to hear her closer, and he presses the phone, hot and sweaty, to his ear. “Liv,” he croaks, “they’re coming to get me.”

He looks up to make sure the door is locked, and she’s standing right there.

He lowers the phone slowly as he rises up on his knees. In the back of his mind, he’s vaguely aware that he should be embarrassed, shouldn’t want her to see him like this, covered in filth and slime and blood, cowering on the floor. But somehow that doesn’t matter.

Neither does the look on his face. He knows it’s nakedly adoring. How could it not be? How could he feel any other way, looking up at her? His eyes sting with sweat, blood, and tears, but he can’t close them against her face. She’s beautiful .

She bends towards him, and his whole body leans closer, like a flower to the sun. Her hands raise to cup his cheeks, and he nuzzles into them. She smells divine. Like honeysuckle. She’s driven out the stench that had filled the room before -- it’s gone now, and so is any noise but the sound of their breathing. He can breathe . He raises his eyes to meet hers.

It takes him a moment to place the look she’s giving him.

She’s looking at him like she looks at the worst of them.

For a moment he can see the monstrous lineup too: Johnny D, William Lewis, his father -- and himself, among them, one of them. Terror fills his stomach quickly, and this time it sits heavy and unmoving because it’s thickened with shame. He’s done something horrible, and he can’t remember what.

There’s no running from whatever punishment is coming. He’s always been a good student, just like Papi said, and he learned right from wrong a long time ago. She helped teach him, too.

He’d never get away if he tried to escape from her -- but he doesn’t want to run, anyway.

Olivia pulls at him slightly, and he willingly stretches up to meet her, his neck bending reed-like to her will. She leans closer, stroking his jaw softly, and he can feel her warm breath on his cold face. On his lips. He can hear a fly buzzing, low and heavy, around the room. He’s crying again, tears coming silent and fast. He’s just so tired . His body feels weightless, his head dizzy -- he couldn’t fight this if he wanted to, and God , he does not want to fight her . Not when she’s come all this way to make things right, to lay him down in the ground where he belongs.

Her eyes are lidded as she leans in close, and for one last, wild moment he thinks she might kiss him. His lips fall open, just slightly, at the thought.

“You’re going to stink when you start rotting, Rafael,” she whispers, and her voice is suddenly cruel, all that divine benevolence gone. She’s not even going to bury me, he realizes with horror. “That’s how they’ll find you.”

Unbidden, Eduardo’s voice comes to him, speaking Martí’s words: I am good, and like a good thing, I will die with my face to the sun.

But those words aren’t for Rafael. They can’t be, not after the judgment she’s pronounced. If she looks at him like he’s evil, like he’s horror itself, then that’s what he is; if she says he has to die, he will die.

He only wants to beg her to make sure it’s not his mother who finds him, bloated and alone -- but before he gets the chance, Olivia does just what he’s wanted for so long.

Her right hand curls gently into his hair, and she pulls him forward until their mouths are pressed together.

But her teeth are too sharp, and he can feel his lips tearing. He can taste his own blood.  

He doesn’t want to make this hard, doesn’t want to seem ungrateful, but he can’t stop himself from whimpering in pain, and though he hates himself for it, he tries to push her away.

“Shh,” she says quietly, her breath ghosting across his lips. “It won’t be long now, I promise.”

She strokes his face gently, and there’s such terrible tenderness in her eyes he could weep.

“Liv,” he whispers. Live, live live. “I'm sorry. Please.” It hurts so much.

She understands. As always, as always, she understands; as always, she helps him. Her mercy is as holy as ever, and sweet on his lips when she kisses him one more time. 

He can’t stop the howl of pain that tears through him when she bites out his tongue.

 

Rafael wakes immediately, choking -- he gasps once, twice, can’t take anything in -- his throat feels stripped and raw -- did he really scream out loud? He manages to suck in a deep mouthful of air and immediately begins to cough. Deep, wracking coughs, and for a moment he thinks he’s going to throw up, but he manages to catch a breath -- then another -- and as he gasps and gags he becomes aware of his hands, fisted and clutching at his sheets; his bed, solid beneath him; and the room around him not so dark as it seemed at first.

He takes another breath, slower this time, and exhales carefully. It was only a dream. It was only a dream.

The worst nightmare he’s had. The worst since leaving home.

He has to check his hands to make sure they’re not bloody. Only then does he raise them to his face, rubbing his forehead violently. He turns to look at the clock on his nightstand -- 3AM. He’s only been asleep for four hours.

It takes Rafael some time to realize he’s still sitting up, shivering in his own cold sweat. When he does, he kicks off the sheets, throat thick with shame when he panics at the feeling of them tangling around his legs, as if he’s trapped, but he’s not, he’s fine, it’s fine.

He heads to the bathroom. A hot shower will help, and if it wakes him up more, all the better. It’s not like he’s going to get back to sleep tonight anyway.

As he stands under the scalding water, he swallows over and over again. His tongue feels heavy and rotten in his mouth.


***

SATURDAY, JULY 23.

Amira’s father starts to cry around 4AM.

He’s completely silent, still sitting up and staring straight ahead as Muriel dozes fitfully next to him on the couch. Benson hesitates, watching them through the glass for a moment, before she steps back in with the hot tea she’d promised. She hands it to him quietly, then takes her place in the armchair across him. 

They’re in the children’s center at the precinct. At first Benson had felt bad, like she was patronizing the couple by putting them among the bright toys and little cardboard kids’ books, but this room has the best couches in the station and there really is something welcoming, comforting about being in there. Or at least, that’s how Benson hopes it feels for Amira’s parents, who don’t associate the space (like she does) with some of the worst crimes imaginable.

They’ve been sitting here for hours now and the couple haven’t expressed any discomfort, haven’t even asked for anything except, now and then, a cup of tea, each of which Benson has brewed herself and brought back to them.

Now she and Rami sip theirs in silence, at least until she can’t stop herself from speaking.

“We’ll find her,” she tells Rami quietly, not wanting to wake Muriel.

They’ve tracked Amira’s cell by now. And followed it to where it had died: in a trash can on a street corner not far from the hotel where Amira had been staying.

TARU is checking security footage now, CCTV all around the area, but so far they’ve turned up nothing.

Benson knows this is bad. She knows it gets worse with every agonizing minute that passes. But she has to say it anyway, and so she repeats it: “We’re gonna find her.” She really does believe it. But she doesn’t know whether they’ll find Amira, or just her body.

When Rami looks over at Liv, his face is wet and blank with grief. She’s not sure if he even sees her. Still, he nods.

Chapter Text

SATURDAY, JULY 23.

This time when the ER nurse makes the call, she knows to make it directly to Benson’s cell.  

It's late morning. When Rollins had come in for her early shift she'd found Benson dozing off where she sat with Amira’s parents, all of them snapping awake every few minutes, fitful and afraid.

“You've been working for 18 hours,” Rollins had reminded Benson after pulling her aside. “You should go home.”

Liv might have bristled at the other woman’s wary, watchful tone, but she couldn’t deny Rollins was right. 

But it's a weekend, and Noah doesn't have school, and she got home just as he was waking, so instead of sleeping she took him to the park. They're just getting back now, and she's getting ready to give him a bath when her ringtone goes off.  

“Benson,” she answers, holding the phone between her ear and shoulder as she pulls off Noah’s sandy, sweaty shirt.

It’s hard to keep smiling for him as she listens.

  

Half an hour later, Lucy (bless her emergency response time) is at the apartment and Liv is out the door, thanking her profusely as she steps into the hall. The drive to the hospital feels far too long despite very little traffic, despite being on the phone the whole time -- urging Fin and Carisi after Williams (“we’re gonna get him, Liv,” Fin says grimly, and she knows they will) -- hesitating, her thumb hovering over Carisi’s name, then deciding he desperately needs rest and won't be much use without it anyway -- parking, jogging through the hospital doors, where the nurse at the desk -- thank God for him -- is already prepared for her, gives her Amira’s room number before she’s even done asking for it. 

And there’s Amira, lying in a hospital bed again. Benson hadn’t seen her the first time, but she’d seen the pictures and awful as they had been, they were nothing compared to this.  

“We’re going to have to wire her jaw,” the doctor says quietly. “But we got her out of critical condition, and we don’t think there will be any permanent brain damage. She'll live.”

Liv isn’t sure how long he’s been standing there, or how long she’s been standing there. Amira’s face is a ruin.  

Stomach twisting, Liv remembers what Amira had told her last week: how Earl would grab her by the hair on the back of her head and smash her face one or two hard, brutal times into the wall, or his knee, or a table… it looks like he did it over and over again this time. The doctor is still talking, explaining everything they know, and Benson listens intently but she can't look away from the bed. Amira’s eyes are so swollen they look like they wouldn’t be able to open even if she were awake; her lips are split and her cheeks are so mottled with bruises it’s hard to tell where her cheekbones are, or even if they’re unbroken. Whole chunks of hair are missing from her left temple, where bandages cover her torn scalp. 

All this after the doctors have done their best with the worst of it. Benson wonders if Williams’ hands are still flawless, and she imagines viciously what it would be like to crunch his fingers under the heel of her boot. Feel his bones snap. 

She jerks herself back to the present, turns to the doctor. “Is the baby --?”

“Fine,” he answers quickly, and Liv lets out shaky sigh in relief at this miracle.  

When she draws in her next breath, she’s furious again.

“Excuse me,” she says evenly. “Is there a room where I can make a couple calls? Privately.”

It’s more of a supply closet than a room, but it’s away from the waiting area and Liv figures she could all but shout in here without disturbing anyone. She hesitates for a moment, wondering which of them to call first, and settles on Baker. That son of a bitch.

He doesn't answer the first time and she calls back immediately, perversely hoping she's interrupting some happy event he won't want to leave.  

He picks up on the fourth ring this time. “Benson?” he asks warily. “Can I help you?” 

“Amira Williams is in the hospital,” Benson tells him flatly. There's a pause on his end of the line. “She was in critical condition but she's going to make it. By the skin of her teeth.” Okay, so she doesn't know for sure whether that last part is technically true, but she figures it may as well be.  

“I'm very sorry to hear that,” Baker finally says. “What happened?”

She doesn't bother to hold back an angry, incredulous bark of laughter. “Are you kidding? Earl went after her. He nearly killed her.”

“God dammit,” Baker says, and she can hear a voice in the background -- someone asking if everything's okay, she imagines, but then Baker must have stepped away because the voice recedes into silence. “Do you have him in custody?” 

“Not yet.”

“Alright, uh, when did this happen?” 

“We’re not sure,” Benson admits. But judging by her injuries, the doctors say sometime last night.” 

“And she's only at the hospital now?” he asks in disbelief. “What happened?” 

She's sick of him asking that question, and can't deny that part of the reason is she doesn't have the answer.  

“We’re still working on that,” she says, more harshly than she'd meant to (though she doesn't feel too bad about that). “All we know so far is that a waiter found her near this restaurant on 8th Avenue -- he just dumped her there, in an alley. Next to the garbage.” She shakes her head, her mouth a twisted knot of disgust. “I'm going to take the waiter’s statement right after this. He's apparently in some kind of shock right now. That's how bad it was.”

“Okay,” Baker says again. “Okay. So what evidence -- I mean, how do we know it was Earl?” 

She stares at the box of medical gloves that sits on the shelf across from her. It's scuffed on one side, slightly crumpled, the brand name is illegible but it still makes more fucking sense than what she just heard.

“Are you kidding me?” she asks, voice low. “Are you his lawyer now? Or are you just trying to make up some alternative story so you don't have to face the fact that this is your goddamn fault?” 

He starts spluttering, denying her accusations with what sounds like equal parts indignance and guilt, but she's far past caring and she doesn't give a shit about him anymore, so she hangs up and calls Barba.

 

Even after five cups of coffee (with a sixth brewing now), Barba is exhausted from his near-sleepless night. So it takes him a moment to react when his phone starts to ring. Or at least that’s how he excuses the hesitation, the momentary reluctance to pick it up and press it to his ear as he had in his dream. His stomach lurches slightly when he sees Benson’s name on the caller ID, and he’d explain that away too, on too much coffee and not enough food, maybe, except there’s no denying the words he thinks of upon seeing her name. You’re going to stink when you start rotting.  

He picks up the phone.

“Barba,” she says before he even has a chance to speak. “Sorry to bother you, I know you’re not technically back from vacation yet, but we have a situation.” 

She’s speaking quickly and her voice is strained: clearly, something has gone very wrong. But some part of him hasn’t gotten the message, because at the sound of her voice his shoulders drop with relief, and his heart lifts just a bit lighter. His hesitation earlier feels ridiculous, now. It’s just Liv. And she’s calling about a problem, and she’s impatient, and there’s work to do, and life is normal. Not a nightmare. She’s neither saint nor demon, and -- 

“Hello?” she asks impatiently. “Are you there?” 

Right. Situation.  

“Liv,” he replies.. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” He’s already rolling his eyes at her tone, which between any other people might be considered rude, but he can’t help but smile a bit at it too. 

The smile fades as she explains what’s happened.

“I’ll call the DA,” he says grimly when she’s done. “Ask him to put me on the case.” 

“Good,” she bites out, and for the thousandth time in their years together Barba’s heart goes just a bit soft at how hard and fierce she becomes for these victims. “Baker’s worthless,” she tells him. “I want you back.” 

“I’ll see you at the precinct. First thing tomorrow.” He knows it’s strange, in his line of work -- but he’s looking forward to it. 

*** 

SUNDAY, JULY 24.

Despite the blessedly normal way her voice had come through on the phone, Barba is nervous to see Benson. He can’t quite get that image out of his head: her sharp-toothed smile so close to his face, her eyes open when she kissed him, just before -- well. It’s ridiculous, dwelling on dreams, and as he steps into the elevator to the squad room he organizes his thoughts back into the issue at hand, going over the little she’d been able to tell him over the phone. He smooths his tie absently. Like his suit, it’s a charcoal gray, and the shirt underneath is a plain white. It hadn’t felt right, this morning, to choose colors, though if someone had asked him he wouldn’t have been able to say why. 

The elevator doors open with a soft ding, and there she is. Leaning over Fin’s shoulder, head bent to read papers spread across his desk as he points out different points. She’s wearing her glasses, and she looks exhausted, and she’s beautiful, and familiar, and utterly herself. His nerves seem ridiculous now, and far away. It’s simple: this is his best friend, and he’s happy to see her. 

He can’t keep his smile to himself as he walks over, and it only widens when she looks back and automatically smiles back.

“Barba,” she greets him. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” 

She doesn’t smell like honeysuckle, not like in his dream. She just smells like herself.  

“I could say the same of you,” he replies. Rollins is sitting across from Fin, and he gets the feeling they’re exchanging some kind of look about this interaction. His eyes flit quickly over their faces -- Fin looks as impassive as ever, but there’s a smirk tugging at Rollins’ mouth even as she studies something on her computer screen with apparently total intent. 

Barba opens his mouth to ask how Benson’s been, but her eyes narrow at something behind him and he turns to see Scott Baker walking in, loaded down with case files. 

“Lieutenant,” he nods to Benson, and either he doesn’t notice the hostility rolling off of her or he pretends he doesn’t. “ADA Barba,” he says, extending his hand as well as he can with all those folders tucked under his arm. “Back so soon?” 

Barba shakes his hand, but his voice is cool when he responds: “The DA confirmed I’d be taking this case. As of this morning. I wanted to start as soon as possible.” 

“Right,” Baker says hastily, “that’s why I’m here.” He sets the files down on the desk without asking Fin, and stretches his arms. “This is all the information I’ve got on the Williams case,” he explains, gesturing to the pile. 

Benson gives him a look that’s just barely not a glare. “I’m surprised you had so much,” she comments.  

“I’m not sure what you mean by that, Lieutenant,” Baker replies smoothly, “but I’ll just say that I hope this helps.” He hesitates for just a moment, his eyes darting from Benson’s face to Barba’s. “It includes all the paperwork from the deal with Buchanan,” he tells him.  

“Thank you,” Barba says. “I appreciate you bringing it over yourself.” He does mean it, even if he also thinks it’s the very least the man could do. He doesn’t have to look at Liv to know she’s visibly restraining herself from rolling her eyes; Fin seems to feel similarly because he pushes away from his desk and rolls his chair over to confer with Rollins about something. 

“Listen,” Baker adds (Barba already knows this is a bad idea) -- “It wasn’t a bad deal. There was no way to know something like this would happen.” 

Barba raises an eyebrow. “Abusers are at their most dangerous when their victims try to leave them,” he says. “Surely you know that from your time at Homicide.” 

“Of course,” the other ADA says, looking more annoyed than flustered. “That’s why the deal included a restraining order.” 

“Next time, it should include someone to enforce that restraining order,” Barba says, carefully keeping his tone pitched more towards suggestion than insult.  

“I’m well aware of that, Counselor,” Baker snaps. “And I don’t need legal advice, especially not from someone with so little experience with pleas.” 

Barba smiles. “It’s true I don’t like taking pleas,” he admits. “Not when I know I can get a conviction.” 

“...Right,” Baker says tightly. “Of course. Well, best of luck with this one. Call me if you need anything.” With that, he turns on his heel, and leaves without another word.  

Benson watches Barba as he watches Baker leave. There’s that smug look on his face, infuriating when he thinks he’s won an argument with her but so delightful when he’s beaten someone else.  

“It’s good to be back,” he tells her, turning back to her with a smirk. 

“Nice tan,” she comments in response, and his smirk only gets worse. Why does she ever compliment him? 

“I did spend some quality time at the beach,” he replies, gathering his briefcase and Baker’s files as they move together to the bullpen. 

“At the beach?” she repeats teasingly. “I can’t imagine you in a swimsuit.” 

“Well, that’s your loss, isn’t it?” he asks with a cheeky grin. Insufferable.  

(She does like imagining it, though. Just a bit.) 

“It was very nice,” he continues. “White sand, warm water…” 

She rolls her eyes, although she’s still grinning. “Now you’re just trying to make me jealous.” 

“You should really try a vacation sometime,” he says with mock earnestness. “It’s such fun.” 

“I could tell.”  

He shoots her a questioning look as he opens his briefcase on the table.  

“Those pictures?” she prompts, and at last she’s caught him off guard -- but before he can say anything, Fin and Rollins are there, and she comes back to herself, remembers why they’re all here. For Amira.  

To his credit, Barba seems to have recovered more quickly; his blush is gone in a snap and he’s all business as he asks them to walk him through the evidence they’ve gathered so far. They get pretty far -- Benson has just started to explain Earl’s unbruised hands, the way he’d grab Amira by the hair to hurt her -- when Carisi bursts in. 

“Hey,” he says breathlessly. “CSU found Amira’s phone.” 

“Great,” Benson nods. “Once we get Earl’s we can track their locations, prove they were in the same place at the same time.”

“We got better than that,” Carisi tells them all triumphantly, brandishing a thumb drive. “She recorded it.”  

They all stare at him. “What do you mean?” Benson asks. “Recorded what, his attack?” 

“I haven’t listened to it yet,” Carisi says, “but apparently they had dinner together and she was trying to get him to admit to -- to what he did -- and he attacked her right after, before she turned it off -- CSU said she got the whole thing.” 

“Wow,” Benson says quietly, and the rest of them look a bit dazed too, at Amira and at this great fortune in the midst of her misfortune. “Okay.” She stands from her chair by the whiteboard. “Okay, Carisi, I need you and Fin back with the Unis looking for Earl. We need to find him now. Rollins, call TARU and get everything you can from the data on Amira’s phone.” She turns to Barba. “Listen to the tape?”  

He nods grimly, thanking Carisi when the detective hands him the thumb drive.  

 

It starts off… awkward.  

“Um,” Amira says, her quiet voice filling Benson’s office because they’ve got the volume all the way up. Benson’s behind her desk but she’s standing, poised to take action, as if the recording were happening in real time; Barba’s sitting across from her, leaning over the legal pad he’s put on her desk, pen in hand as he already starts taking notes. 

“My name is Amira Williams,” the voice continues, sounding uncertain. “It’s July twenty-first, 2016, and it’s…”  

There’s a rustling on the other end of the phone as something slides across the speaker, and Barba tenses slightly, though Benson can’t imagine why. 

“It’s about seven o’clock,” Amira states. “I’m about to have dinner with Earl and I’m going to try to get him to admit that he abused -- that he pushed me down the stairs.” She  hesitates again. “Okay. I’m in the restaurant bathroom now, so… I’m just going to go out and talk with him.”  

There’s another rustle, and Benson thinks Amira must have put the phone in her breast pocket. They can hear her footsteps, and then the clinking and conversation of a distant crowded restaurant, and, just barely, the beat of Amira’s heart.  

Barba takes notes at a furious pace, filling whole pages every few minutes of tape, but though their conversation circles the issue, neither Amira nor Earl ever mentions the abuse by name. Benson’s frustration rises and she can hear it in Amira’s voice too. 

Apparently, so can Earl. 

“I thought we came to have a nice dinner,” he snaps after Amira asks a particularly pointed question. “Why do you keep talking about this?”

“We need to talk about it,” she insists, sounding truly pained. “Otherwise how are we going to get through it?” 

“You know what,” he says, “this was a total waste of time. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to see you. You’re the one who called the cops on me and you haven’t even apologized. Do you realize that? Not once have you apologized to me.” 

Benson shakes her head at his redirection; changing the subject on her, twisting the situation to meet his own selfish ends -- they’re classic abuse tactics, but she doesn’t have to ask Barba to know that it would be useless to try to explain that to a jury. 

“Well you never apologized to me either,” Amira snaps, and despite knowing what comes next, Benson is proud to hear some fight in her.  

“Yes, I did!” he insists, and there’s a loud clinking sound. Benson imagines he’s just thrown his knife and fork down onto his plate. “I apologized over and over, you’ve got some nerve pretending --” 

“But you never really apologized,” Amira interrupts. “You never said what you were apologizing for, you never said why what you did was wrong, so how am I supposed to trust --” 

“You’re talking to me about trust?” Earl demands. “This is unbelievable. Here’s what happened, Amira: I made a mistake, I apologized, you called the cops --” 

“I didn’t call them, the nurse --” 

He talks right over her, heedless. “ You called the cops , they called a prosecutor, I almost went to prison, I apologized again, I got a fucking restraining order and I have to go to anger management and I have a criminal record now, Amira, do you get what that means? Do you get that you basically destroyed our marriage? And now you want me to apologize to you, again?” He lets out a loud huff of breath. “I can’t deal with this.” There’s a scrape, like he’s pushed back his chair to stand. “I don’t know if it’s the pregnancy hormones or if this is just… what you’ve become? But either way, I’m sick of your BS. Call me when you’re really ready to talk.”

“Earl,” she says. “Earl, wait, please.” Then, to herself, quietly: “Shit. Shit.” 

There’s a few minutes of near-silence. They hear her talking quietly to the waiter, settling the bill for both herself and Earl. They hear her stand and walk out of the restaurant. They hear her footsteps get louder as she steps from tile to asphalt. 

Then they hear Earl’s voice. 

“Hey,” he says quietly. “Amira, wait up.” 

Her footsteps stop. “What,” she says flatly, and Benson remembers what Amira had told her: I love him, but sometimes I really don't like him. 

“Let me walk you to your car,” Earl says placatingly.  

Benson shuts her eyes, shakes her head, but Amira says “okay” all the same.  

“I think you should get the lawyer to drop the restraining order,” Earl tells her, and Benson opens her eyes to exchange an incredulous look with Barba.  

“I don't think that's a good idea,” Amira says quietly.  

“Why not?” Earl demands. “You’ve already broken it anyway, what's the point?” 

There's silence except for their footsteps as Amira hesitates.  

“Here,” Earl says, “wait, let’s talk here.” 

Benson frowns as he talks over her protests, reassuring her and ignoring her wishes at the same time -- are they in an alley, Benson wonders? And if so, where, and will there still be evidence -- ? 

“Listen,” Earl says for what feels like the millionth time. “We both know the restraining order is pointless. It's counter-productive.” 

“I don't think that,” Amira disagrees. “I think it's a good idea. For us. For now, you know?” 

“No!” It comes out almost as a shout and Earl lowers his voice immediately: “no, I don't fucking know, and if you really thought that then we wouldn't be here, would we?” 

“Earl, can you just -- “ 

“Just what? Huh, just what?” He's goading her and his voice sounds louder, though he hasn't raised it; Benson realizes he must be standing very close to Amira. She turns the volume down a few ticks. 

“Earl, can you please just give me some space?” Amira asks, confirming Benson’s suspicions.  

“What, now you want me five hundred feet from you? Didn't you just ask me to have dinner with you? Didn't you ask to see me? Well, here I am.” 

“Don't touch me,” Amira says, voice wavering.

“Hey,” he says, voice gone soft and mocking, “don't worry. I’d never hurt you, you know that. Come on.” 

“You are have hurt me!” she cries. “You -- “  

“Shh,” Earl whispers, “just calm down. Just stop.” There's a muffled noise.  

“He's got his hand over her mouth,” Benson whispers to Barba.  

He scribbles another note, turns to a fresh page on his legal pad, and looks up at her with narrowed eyes. “Or he’s kissing her,” he says, and Benson’s face twists in disgust as she considers this not-unlikely possibility.  

Amira gasps. “Earl, wait,” she whimpers, and Benson’s heart clenches.  

“You want me to get away from you?” he asks hoarsely. “You want me gone? You gonna call the cops again?” 

“No,” she answers, “no, I won't, I promise. Earl, please.” 

“Fine,” he says. “Fine. I'll leave you alone. If you're so sick of your own husband, I'll leave you alone.” 

“That's not --” 

“What? It's not what? Don't pretend you give a shit about me. Or us. You want a divorce? Is that what you want? Who’s going to take care of that baby if you leave me? You ever think about that, Amira?” 

There's a gasp, and Barba’s pen hovers over the page as he listens intently. For a moment the only sounds are heavy breathing, both Earl’s and Amira’s.

“Fine,” Earl says again. “I'll go.” 

Amira doesn't answer, but they can hear her take a shaky breath as Earl’s footsteps recede.  

“Okay,” she whispers to herself, and now they can hear her walking too. Her breathing slows towards calm, but Benson and Barba are both tense, waiting -- 

Amira screams. The sound rattles the speakers and then there's a horrible crunching sound, a sick thud, “Please,” Amira begs, “no, please, I'll do whatever you want --” then a choking sound, a man’s grunts -- “the baby,” Amira gurgles, and then she's gagging, and there's the sound, over and over, of a soft body hitting -- or being hit -- against something hard.  

Benson glances at Barba and is a bit jolted to see he's stopped writing, his hand clenched in a fist around his pen as he stares at the paper before him. He's still listening very closely, though, a look of grim determination set on his face.   

The violent sounds continue, and for a few moments there’s a faint ringing noise underneath them. Benson figures it’s damage to the phone, because the audio cuts out just after that. 

Barba is the first to break the heavy silence between them. He clears his throat but he’s still hoarse when he speaks: "I'll need to listen to it a few more times," he tells her, sounding as if he'd like nothing more than to never hear it again. "To take notes, prepare for the cross-examination," he adds, catching the concerned look on Benson's face and mistaking it for confusion. "We’re not taking a plea on this. So I need to pick out every moment, down to the second, where Earl comes close to incriminating himself." His voice is cold and she can hear the fury lurking just beneath it.  

“I’ll send a copy to your office,” Benson offers, and he gives her a tight nod as thanks. 

“There’s no audible proof that it was him at the end of the recording,” Barba adds. “I’d wager anything the defense will say he left and she was mugged, something like that -- I need you to get me witnesses, security footage, anything.”

“We will,” she promises, coming around from behind her desk. She pauses to study his pained face. “Hell of a welcome back to work, huh?” she jokes quietly, but the humor falls flat, so she tries a different tactic, wanting to cheer him somehow. “Amira’s tough,” she tells him. “She’ll be good on the stand.” 

That gets a smile, but it’s a grim one. 

“You’ll get him put away, Barba,” she says, and she knows she’s right. “We just have to find him first.” 

 

And that’s exactly what they do. It’s only a few hours later that Fin calls Benson to give her the good news. Barba’s long since left for his office, so Benson cradles the phone between her ear and shoulder so she can start the email to him right away even as Fin is telling her how they found Earl: going into anger management, looking well-rested, innocent, cool as a cucumber. 

“He just showed up like nothing happened?” she repeats incredulously. 

“Yeah,” Fin says; Benson can hear Carisi saying something to him but can’t make out the words. “Yeah,” Fin repeats, “and apparently he just asked for his lawyer.” 

Bring it on, Benson thinks, and she fires off the email to Barba.

Chapter Text

MONDAY, JULY 25.

Buchanan got his client out of the tombs early enough, Barba notes, that the man looks well-rested and clean. Which is only to be expected. Earl’s a professional, put-together man with enough resources that a high-profile defense attorney barely stretches his budget. So what if he looks it? That mask will drop sooner or later.

Actually, Barba has his strategy all worked out, and later is the preference. So, standing before the arraignment judge, he studies notes he’s already memorized and does his best to look disorganized. 

“Mr. Williams,” the judge sighs, sounding wearier than Barba would like. “How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, Your Honor,” Earl pipes back, and Buchanan gives an approving nod.

“People on bail?” 

Barba shuffles his papers. “Ah, the people request remand, Your Honor. The defendant has violated his restraining order and attacked --”  

“There’s been no ruling on that,” Buchanan interrupts. “Mr. Williams can’t be remanded based on a crime he hasn’t yet been tried for. If Mr. Barba wants to claim he violated a restraining order, he can do so during the trial, but remand is ridiculous. My client should be released on his own recognizance.” 

“The client faces charges for violation of a restraining order,” Barba rephrases, refusing to dignify Buchanan with a glance or a direct response. “He may also be a flight risk, as he…” Barba frowns at the legal pad in front of him. “Mr. Williams has family out-of-state and significant financial resources,” he finishes. 

Buchanan spreads his hands wide with incredulity that might seem sincere to anyone who had never met him before. “My client is an upstanding man,” he insists. “He is a respected software engineer with strong personal and professional ties to the community. And if it makes the people feel better, he’s already volunteered to give up his passport.” 

Barba forces himself to suppress an eyeroll. There’s nothing else he can say now, anyway, so he turns expectantly towards the judge, who looks almost bored. 

“The defendant will surrender his passport. Bail is set at $200,000, and if there is any violation of the restraining order the defendant will be remanded to Rikers.” The judge gives a cursory slam of the gavel, and Barba gathers up his notes as the next lawyer takes his place. 

Earl, he notices, hardly batted an eye at the prospect of putting $200,000 on the line. Buchanan probably prepped him for much worse. He’s got the look of a man who’s won a battle and genuinely believes doing so means he’ll win the war. Buchanan, too, looks smug. 

Barba turns his back on the both of them and pulls out his phone to text Liv. 

<Williams is about to be out on bail,> he types out with one thumb, notes still gathered under his left arm. <Keep a close eye on Amira.

His phone buzzes in his hand before he even gets it back in his pocket -- Liv has texted back almost immediately. < She won’t be leaving hospital for another day. Parents with her. Will make sure she’s not alone anytime before or during trial. >

Having no time to one’s self while preparing to face down your abuser sounds like an awfully familiar kind of hell to Barba, but he brushes that thought away the same and heads for his office. He has a lot of work to do.

 

Rita Calhoun is simply minding her own business, walking past the bank of elevators, when she notices ADA Rafael Barba waiting for one of them to take him up. He’s rocking back on his heels to watch the floor numbers change with no little impatience. She can’t resist walking over.   

“Barba,” she greets with a smile, expecting him to turn bright red the moment he sees her. 

But he’s unfazed, aside from a wary look complete with raised eyebrow. “Rita,” he nods smoothly. “Are you here visiting any criminal in particular, or do you just smell blood in the water?” 

She tilts her head, trying to read him. Does he not know? “That’s none of your concern,” she replies. “How was Cuba?” 

He rolls his eyes. “Enlightening.” An honest answer. She’s always liked that about them: even when they’re at odds with each other, they’re always no-bullshit. 

“I got your pictures,” she tells him, watching his reaction carefully.  

It’s utterly delicious to see the expressions chase their way across his face: at first he’s all blank confusion, then she can practically see him putting some pieces together… and there’s that mortified blush she was hoping for. All the way up to his hairline, too.  

“My cousin sent them,” he insists. “I didn’t -- ”  

“I haven’t seen you that drunk since Harvard,” she interrupts sweetly. He gives her a glare that would level most people, but she just smiles wider. She has to stop herself from pinching his cheek as she says: “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.” 

His shoulder slump as his look turns to one of resignation. “Your discretion is appreciated, as always,” he says dryly.  

“Well,” Rita sighs as she checks her watch, “I’m off to meet my client.” She gives him another look as she turns. “Good luck cleaning up that mess Baker left for you.” 

He groans dramatically, and she laughs as she walks away.

***

TUESDAY, JULY 26. 

Lucía is relieved when Rafael calls to cancel their dinner plans -- “I’m sorry, Mami, something came up at work,” he says, and while she knows it’s true she thinks he’s probably grateful for the excuse, too. They both need the space. While she has him on the phone she considers asking him to change their reservation to a party of one, so she can still go, but decides against it. She’s been sick of Manhattan the past few days anyway.

Instead, she goes exactly where she’s been wanting to go since returning from Cuba: back to Jerome Avenue.  

It’s not the same, of course. The Bronx is changing like anywhere else. Walking down the street, Lucía hears almost as much Cantonese as Spanish, and more English than she remembers from living there, too. The public housing is worse, but at least it’s still there. Like everyone else with remaining ties to el barrio, she’s heard the rumors of gentrification, of city re-zoning and low-income families to be shuffled out to who knows where, just not here , not anywhere the rich white people decide they want… Lucía pauses at a corner store, and looks between the once-familiar bars through the once-familiar window.

She’s angry , she realizes. The fact of it doesn’t surprise her so much as the realization that she’s been angry, and looking back she doesn’t know for how long.

She remembers what one of her students had said once, some hot August at the start of the school year, back when she was a public school teacher and not the head of a charter school.

“I hate coming back from vacation,” he’d groaned. “Being away is so awesome and then you have to come back and you remember how much everything sucks and it’s all worse than before.”

She’d written it off as whining at the time, although she’d conceded even then that it wasn’t necessarily untrue, just a great exaggeration of the truth. 

Now Lucía’s not so sure.

Her sister, her nephews, her son, her family: she’d been happy, in Santiago, with them. She has the sense to know it would have been different if she’d stayed. A visit is easy. Staying, getting to know and hate the flaws of a place -- and oh, does Cuba have its flaws -- that would be hard. But it’s hard coming back here too. 

She starts walking again, thinking maybe she’ll head towards the building where they all used to live. They’d been so excited to move in, the three of them. The place had been brand new back then. Not great, really, but great compared to the other projects, and they’d been lucky to win an apartment in it. Rafael had been six, maybe seven. Her husband took him out to get some furniture for the place, and they’d come back not only with a used couch but a new kitchen table that Rafi had helped pick out, and a huge Star Wars poster for his room.

His own bedroom, his own space; Rafi was giddy from it. Fastidious about keeping it clean, overjoyed at decorating and re-decorating it, and, years later, dead silent when his father took the door off its hinges because he’d found it locked, and pounded on it, and when Rafael emerged, flushed and frightened, it was Alex Muñoz who’d been with him, and they hadn’t been talking, or so her husband had suspected.

Alex wasn’t allowed in the house after that. Not for years. In the meantime, Rafael started bringing girls over. Around the third or fourth time that girl was Yelina Olivo, his father put the door back on its hinges.   

Anyway. It had been a nice enough building when they moved in. It’s not anymore.

The Dominican restaurant Lucía’d had in mind is closed, which is no surprise. She’d only been vaguely hoping it might still be there, and she’s not too upset about eating at the Chinese place that’s replaced it, even when the waitress looks down her nose at Lucía when she asks for a fork instead of chopsticks.  

The chicken arrives at her table spicy and hot; even just from smelling it Lucía’s eyes water slightly, which is just the way she likes her food to be. She’s here before the dinner rush, sat at a small two-person table by the window. Some natural light filters through it into the otherwise dimly lit restaurant. The clink of her fork against her plate would sound loud above the low zither music and quiet talk from the kitchen, except the thick carpet and wall hangings swallow up the noise. The sounds of the street and the playground across it are muffled, too, and Lucía feels like she’s in a bubble of her own making. She’s still angry, but she’s not sure she wants to pop it.

So instead she turns her gaze inwards, and looks back, to try to find a time, before Cuba and Clarita, when she wasn’t angry.  

It’s harder than she’d want to admit, even to herself. 

There were plenty of happy days. There must have been. But mostly she remembers the long hours of teaching and the pittance of a paycheck. Coming home late and not knowing what kind of home she’d be walking into. Sometimes Rafi would be peacefully doing his homework on that once-new dining table while her husband cooked and hummed to himself. Sometimes her husband would be watching TV, her son holed away in his room, and tension still palpable throughout the apartment. She would never ask why, just trudge through until it dissipated or they all went to bed, whichever came first. She’d been so tired back then that she hadn’t had the time to know she was angry. 

Sometimes she would get home and Rafi would be crying. 

And, as he got older, sometimes she would get home and he wouldn’t be there at all. 

For all his flaws, her husband never stepped out on her. But Rafi would disappear for days at a time with hardly any explanation. I was staying at Eddie’s, he’d say, giving Lucía a cursory kiss on the cheek as he came through the door. We have exams coming up and he’s not ready, so I helped tutor him. Or I was staying with Abuela, and Lucía would check, and sometimes it was true, sometimes not. Or, not meeting her eyes and trying not to smile: I had to help Yelina’s dad repaint their shop and they asked me to stay for dinner, and sure enough she’d see paint on his clothes when she did the laundry, but she’d catch him washing some of his clothes himself, and she’d know.  

Sometimes he didn’t bother explaining himself at all, and she would have worried about drugs if he weren’t so studious, so clear-eyed and sharp. Teachers always liked him. Straight As, glowing feedback; it made her so proud to see his unwavering academic success.  

And relieved.  

Because Lucía knew from experience: good teachers pay attention when good students start to slip. They start to ask questions about “home life” and “family troubles” and if they don’t like the answers they make some phone calls and then any home life a family has cobbled together falls viciously apart. Lucía had seen that before -- still sees it -- and though sometimes it’s best for already-broken families, she still believes it would have been wrong for hers.  

She’d been worried about those kinds of questions, back then, because Rafi always had very good teachers. Lucía had made sure of it. Still, they weren’t so good that they noticed the way he flinched, sometimes, at a too-close hand or a too-loud noise. They saw his clever words and his bright mind, and didn’t look further to see that this was a boy who worked hard because his mother had told him if he didn’t, teachers would notice, and ask. A boy who stayed as far from his home as possible because he was scared of his father. 

And then he left for Harvard, and it was almost like he’d never existed at all.  

Barely called, never wrote, and yes, Lucía remembers realizing how furious he must have been all those years when she asked him to come back for Thanksgiving his freshman year. I’m not coming back if he’s still there, Rafi had said. His voice was cold and hard even through the phone. Not ever.  

So she asked him to leave. And, after a while, he did.  

And still Rafi hardly ever visited. And still she didn’t know how angry she was. 

She’d been so happy when he came back to work at that fancy law firm, and even happier when he left that Brooklyn job for this Manhattan one, because she lived in Manhattan by then, and even though he was moving for the job she liked to think it was to be closer to her, too. 

They did start seeing each other more then, but Lucía knows the anger was still there, within them and between them, and sitting in her little bubble in the little restaurant she’s amazed that she ever thought going to Cuba together was a good idea, and even more amazed that it was.  

Except he’s disappeared on her again. 

Lucía doesn’t have to look at her reflection in the darkening window to know she’s frowning. She thinks of her son’s face and the lines running through it. Is he this angry too? , she wonders -- and she’s not sure. She knows he carries it, of course, but how much? It’s worry she sees laid on his brow most often, and sorrow.

He looks different on the television. She always makes sure she’s home to watch when she knows he’ll be on. There, yes, often he’ll look angry, but in a righteous way, passionate yet somewhat impersonal. Or he has that smug aura that makes her smile and shake her head, makes her proud of him and the good he does, though she knows it weighs heavy on him sometimes. For all Rafael’s eloquence, he’s not as good at lying and redirection as he thinks he is, or at least not with his mother: she knows he keeps a lot from her. Not that she wants to know all the nightmarish details of his work, all those battered broken women. 

(Sometimes she wonders if he sees her in any of them, and the thought is so shameful she shoves it away, so far that she never wondered it in the first place, never).  

She does wonder where he is tonight. Working, of course, but in his office, or at home? Alone? She hopes that Benson woman is with him, if only to help bear the load, though for his sake she hopes it’s more than that. She’s seen the way he looks at her, his soft eyes when he talks about her, and that’s another thing he likes to think he’s keeping from his mother even though, unlike his work, it’s just the type of thing she loves to know.  

She glances out the window. In the playground across the street, she sees a tall, broad-shouldered bald man pushing a young boy on the swings.  

That’s Eddie Ramirez, she thinks. Rafi’s old friend, the boy who stopped the school bullies from beating up her son and taking what little lunch money she’d been able to give him. Eddie used to come over, sometimes, with Alex. She’d make them dinner. Her husband had liked them, too, before the locked door. Good boys. She remembers clearly now, how Rafael had adored both of them -- Alex most of all -- and how they’d adored him too. “Los tres mosqueteros de Jerome Avenue”: that’s what she’d called them, and the name stuck.  

But they’re broken apart now, and a wave of sorrow washes over Lucía as she sees her family, and her son’s family, all scattered and gone, exiled, separated, dead too soon, or silent to one another. Homes torn down to make way for someone else’s, or so far apart that one can hardly see the other. No teacher ever asked her son about it; no one ever made that call, but they’d fallen apart all the same. So what had been the point, in the end? 

She know’s she’s being dramatic, that’s all, and she shakes her head. Focuses back on the world around her instead of some imagined wasteland.  

The man and the boy, she sees, are still at the playground. They’re laughing. 

So Eddie has a son now. Rafael never mentioned that, she thinks, and she would shake her head at him for not staying in touch with his old friends, except she doesn’t get up to say hello either. She just sits at her chair, picking at her food until it’s dark outside, and then she calls a taxi to take her home.

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 29.

The past few days have been a whirlwind of work, but they’re the kinds of days that Barba lives for. He’s carefully questioned and coached each witness, and examined each piece of evidence on its own, turned it over in his mind like a jeweler examining a stone for flaws.  

And there are, of course, many flaws. He has a whole list of the strengths and weaknesses of his case, the parts that seem undeniable and the parts that can’t stand on their own but, taken all together, paint a compelling picture.

Now he’s finishing up another list: every piece of that appears rock-solid, alongside every argument the defense might use to make it crumble. This part he doesn’t enjoy as much, not least because it involves the unpleasant task of getting into John Buchanan’s head to predict the words he’ll use: 

  1. Amira’s medical records, all those old injuries that, paired with the timeline of her life, match with times of tension between herself and her husband. Accidental injuries, circumstantial evidence.

  2. Molly Klein’s diary, chronicling Amira’s bruises and subduedness, and apparent fear of her husband. Anything Amira said that Earl did or said -- hearsay. Any concrete observations Molly made -- circumstantial. Any insight into Amira’s moods or thoughts -- speculation. Molly herself -- biased towards her friend. Who she might also be in love with.

  3. Earl’s admission he’d lied in his original statement; that he’d been there when Amira fell down the stairs. He was scared of being misunderstood, and he was right to be, because now he’s a victim of a false accusation. She pushed him, he stumbled and bumped into her; she fell. A tragic accident.

  4. Amira’s neighbors. Minimal interaction, so minimal credibility. Could be unfairly biased against the marriage as Earl isn’t Muslim.

  5. The ER nurse -- the outcry witness -- her testimony that Amira named her husband as her attacker, when she first came to the hospital. More potential for hearsay. Amira was injured, sleep-deprived; anything she said at the ER isn’t credible.

  6. The recording. Earl was trying to make amends; Amira was hostile. He respected her wishes and left. She was mugged -- no cash found in her wallet the next morning -- and left for dead by a stranger, not by the loving father of her child.

  7. The waiter who discovered Amira, beaten and unconscious, in the alley near the restaurant. Irrelevant; had no way of knowing who attacked Amira.

  8. Amira’s parents. Hearsay, bias, distance. Muslims.

  9. Amira herself. Inconsistent. Hysterical. A Muslim, a shrill wife, a woman. Not to be trusted.

And so on. 

It’s a nasty list, almost as nasty as the men it’s meant to defeat, and Barba really wishes he had more physical evidence to work with. But Earl’s hands are literally -- if not figuratively -- clean, and there’s no trace of him on Amira that can’t be explained by the fact that they’re married, and lived together, and went out to dinner just before the attack. 

There are those pictures Benson took of that dent in the wall at the top of the stairs in the Williams apartment. Unconsciously, Barba’s hand curls into a fist as he thinks of it -- the force Earl must have used to dent a wall with his wife’s face -- and it’s useless. Benson had known it; he knows it. Inadmissible. They only have Amira’s word for it. In another world, that would be enough. But that’s not where they are. 

Barba relaxes his hand enough to pick up a pen, and starts in on the third list. This is the most important one, and his favorite part of the process outside the trial. Here, he’ll craft the counter-arguments that tear Buchanan’s vile defense to pieces. 

He’s just starting to really get into it when there’s a knock at his door. He looks up to see Carmen peering in. 

“Is it four already?” he asks in surprise, even as he makes a note that he still needs to look at Benson’s expert testimony with a more critical eye, just like Buchanan will. 

“They’re here for you,” she nods. 

He swings his feet off the table and stands to gather his files and bring them to the office table, where they’ll all be able to sit together, and prepare. 

In the front office, Benson tries to engage Amira. The younger woman has her left arm in a sling, her hair (and the spots where it’s been torn out) covered with a headscarf, and a distant look in her eyes. It’s been less than a day since they released her from the hospital. 

“Hey,” Benson says quietly. “Let’s head on in.” 

Amira follows her silently, and Benson watches her with concern as she mechanically returns Barba’s greeting.  

He starts off as he often does: with a warning. But he speaks it with a tenderness she rarely hears him use. 

“I need you to be completely honest with me,” he says. “Because the one thing you don’t tell me will be the one thing the defense uses to blow up the case, okay?”  

Her gaze doesn’t lift from the floor. “Okay.” Already she’s picking at the cuff of her sleeve. 

They’ve barely begun walking through her testimony when Barba shakes his head. “Amira, I need you to look at me.” His voice is kind, but firm. “You need to meet my eyes, and you need to keep your hands still. I know you’re nervous, but a jury is going to see that body language and think you’re lying.” He leans forward, searching her face, which is beginning to crumple. “I know you’re telling the truth. But we need to make sure everyone else knows it too.”  

Amira looks towards Benson with wet eyes. “He’s right,” the Lieutenant tells her gently.  

The younger woman swallows, nods, and sits up straighter in her chair. With tremendous effort, she meets Barba’s eyes, which look back at her with soft concern. She folds her hands in her lap, and though her knuckles go white with the work of keeping them there, that won’t be visible behind the witness stand. By the time they get to trial, Benson thinks, she may even appear poised. For now, she’s just barely hanging on -- but still. She’s hanging on. 

“Okay,” Amira says. “I’m ready to try again.” 

Barba nods, and lifts his pen again. “Let’s start from the top. Tell me about when you first met Earl.” 

It takes hours: they go through Amira and Earl’s early dating, the beginning of the more serious stages of their relationship; the first time he hurt her, the second, the third, and more; the move to New York; their decision to have a child together. 

“I actually didn’t…” Amira hesitates, and Benson gives her good arm an encouraging squeeze. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to have a baby with -- with him,” Amira says slowly. She’s staring at the floor, but remembers the counsel Barba gave her, and forces herself to meet his eyes. “He had been getting worse by then, and there were some nights when it was easier just to sleep with him than to fight about it, so that’s -- I mean, it was my choice, but when he said I should stop taking birth control I wasn’t so sure. And that made him angry because he always wanted a big family, like three or four kids, and I’d rather have one or two but that’s -- sorry that’s not the point.”  

Barba shakes his head, encouraging her to continue.  

“So we talked about it for a while. We stayed up really late, I remember I was so tired at work the next day, but he said it was better to talk about it than go to bed angry, which is probably true, honestly. And by the end I figured, well, this is my husband, and I know I do want children, so maybe we should just go for it.” She lets out a shaky breath. “The thing is, I still wasn’t totally sure. But he threw out all my birth control right away, so I didn’t really have time to think about it more, and there were a few times I didn’t really want to…” Horror dawning across her face, she turns to Benson. “Wait, wait.” Her voice is trembling now. “I didn’t -- I didn’t -- that doesn’t count as rape, right? That’s not what that was, right, it wasn’t -- I don’t -- I mean, I love my baby, I want him, I’m so glad I’m having him! So how could that…?”  

Amira is on the verge of tears now, and Benson chooses her words very carefully. 

“I know this is hard,” she says quietly. “But Amira, in a relationship like that… when there’s so much emotional and psychological abuse happening, not to mention the physical abuse, it’s not really possible to consent.” She notices Barba frown, but her focus is on Amira.  

“So every time you were reluctant to have sex, or to try for a baby, but it felt easier to have sex that to have to fight with him? He was creating that situation on purpose, to intimidate you and coerce you. And that’s rape, Amira. I know you love that baby, but having a child you love with someone who’s abusing you doesn’t mean that you weren’t abused, or that the sex that led to that child was consensual.” 

Barba gets up and walks to the coffee machine. Benson glances at her phone -- it’s nearly 8pm -- and back at him. His shoulders are so tense they’re almost up to his ears, and too late she realizes what she’s just told him. 

But there’s no way to discuss this with him now. So instead she lets him stand silent at the gurgling coffee machine, his back to both of them, and she comforts Amira instead. 

By the time Barba’s done brewing his coffee and adding cream and sugar, all three of them seem to feel -- or at least look -- a bit more composed. 

“I don’t want to add rape charges,” Amira tells Barba. Her voice is quiet but certain. “I don’t want to have to talk about that in court. I just want to do this,” she says, gesturing to the evidence before them with her good arm, “and have him gone, and go home.” 

“Okay,” Barba nods tightly. “That’s okay.” He takes a long drink of his coffee, sets the mug down, and picks up his notes again. “Let’s go back to the night of Thursday the 7th, when he pushed you down the stairs. We need to walk through that chain of events again and make sure you’re ready for cross, because Earl’s lawyer is going to try to sell his version of the story and discredit yours.” 

So that’s what they do. 

Another hour later, it’s time to wrap up. They’ve covered everything, from Amira’s college years to the night Earl attacked her, and if Benson feels tired she knows Amira must feel a thousand times more exhausted -- she certainly looks it. 

“Do you need a ride back to the hotel?” Benson asks her as Amira gathers up her bag. 

The other woman shakes her head. “My parents are coming to get me. I texted them; I think they’re just a few minutes away.” She turns to Barba. “Is there a restroom I could use?” she asks politely, and he tells her the way. 

After Amira steps out, Benson sits down again, this time on the couch next to Barba. 

“Hey,” she says quietly. “What I said before…” 

“You were right,” he interrupts, his voice clipped and tense. “It’s common sense.” 

She studies his profile as he stares straight ahead, his eyes almost as blank as Amira’s were earlier. His hand lays on his thigh: a fist. 

“But you hadn’t thought of it that way before.” Her voice is as soft as it’s ever been. She’s not asking. 

He shakes his head. A single, sharp movement. “I should have.”  

Liv reaches out and touches his wrist, lightly. “You were a little kid. There was no way you could have understood.” 

He turns to face her, eyes bright and angry. “She was with him until I was twenty,” he says. “It was happening all that time -- I didn’t do a thing to stop it. To save her.” 

She wraps her fingers around his wrist and squeezes gently. She can feel his hand relax, just a bit. “You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved,” she reminds him, and interrupts his bitter laugh to continue: “But you saved yourself. That’s not an easy thing to do, Rafael.” 

He has that look in his eyes now, somewhere between pleading and determination and single-minded, intent listening; his pupils turned to tunnels going all the way down into him. That look like in this moment she’s the most important thing in the world, and with everything in him, he needs her to understand something. “You would know, wouldn’t you?” he asks, and his voice is almost a whisper. 

She manages a smile, or something close. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “I know.” 

Amira knocks lightly at the door, and Benson gives Barba’s wrist one last light squeeze before standing to help her get her bag. She doesn’t miss that Amira’s eyes are darting between her and Barba, but none of them say anything about it. 

“My parents are here. But, um, thank you,” Amira tells both of them. “I think I feel probably as close to ready as I ever will.” 

“That’s good,” Benson says encouragingly. “That’s really good, Amira. Just get as much rest as you can over the next few days, and you’re going to do great.” 

Rami and Muriel are just outside Barba’s office, and the five of them exchange similar words of encouragement and thanks before Amira’s parents walk their daughter down the hall and towards the elevators. Barba leans against the doorframe, Benson at his side, as they both watch them go. Rami’s hand is on her back protectively, while Muriel has linked her arm with Amira’s, head bent close as she listens to something her daughter is saying. Benson’s watching Barba out of the corner of her eye: after the family disappears around the corner, his eyes linger on where they’d been. 

He needs a change of mood, she decides, so she breaks their silence. “You’ve come a long way, you know,” she remarks and she’s delighted when he gives a lively raise of his eyebrow in question. 

She smiles, shaking her head. “I was just thinking of Jocelyn Paley,” she explains.  

Barba narrows his eyes, trying to read her. “Our first case together.” 

“You weren’t very nice to her,” she reminds him.

He huffs out a tired laugh, turning back into his office. “I remember,” he says. “She told me so herself, said she didn’t like me.” He glances at Benson as he starts gathering up his paperwork again. “Not that I gave her any reason to like me.” 

“Yes, but you didn’t really care about that at the time, did you?” Benson follows him to his desk, leaning her hip against it as he separates the papers into neat stacks, organizing them by some system only he understands. “You weren’t trying to be nice.” 

“So?” He’s frowning down at a sheet of notes, but she knows he’s listening. 

“So you try, now. Not just with Amira, I mean. For a long time, you’ve been much kinder to the victims.” 

He puts the paper down to give her a smirk. “Are you saying I’ve gotten soft?” 

“I’m saying you’ve gotten better at this.” 

The eyebrow goes back up. “So I wasn’t good at my job when I put away a two-million-dollar-a-year talk-show host?” 

Benson rolls her eyes, still smiling, because it’s so good to see him smiling. “I’m trying to give you a compliment, Barba. Being more sympathetic with them -- it makes them more comfortable with you, more confident on the stand -- oh!” She snaps her fingers. “Going back to the Jocelyn Paley case, I’ve been meaning to ask. You planned that belt-around-the-neck thing in advance, didn’t you?” 

Barba grins at her. “Maybe I did. Why?” 

He’d shucked off his jacket hours ago, and his marigold-orange suspenders are bright against his white shirt. She leans forward, and taps the strap running up the left side of his chest. “You weren’t wearing these.” 

“Well, this pair is new,” he deadpans. 

“I’m just saying, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear a belt except on that day. Did you have to go out and buy it special for that cross?” 

“No, I dug it out of the back of my closet, which is where it probably is now.” He cocks his head at her, putting on a mock-wounded tone: “You don’t like my suspenders, and all these years you never said anything?”  

Benson reaches forward again, and tugs the strap just far enough that it stings when she lets it snap back against him. “No,” she says. “I like them.” 

He glares at her, rubbing his chest. “You’re a menace. I should file charges.” 

“What if I offer a bribe instead -- buy you a drink?” 

He opens his mouth to accept, then shuts it with a frown. “Raincheck. I have to finish prep.” 

“Well, I’ll buy after we win the case, then,” she says with more confidence than she feels. Amira is ready, God knows Barba is ready and hungry for blood, but Earl and Buchanan… well, they won’t be easy to take down.  

She watches the same worry cross his face, and smiles when determination chases it away. “Bribe accepted,” he says, closing his briefcase with a decisive snap. “Heading back home to Noah?” he asks as they head out. 

“Yep,” she replies, smiling at his question. “I have the day off tomorrow, so it’ll just be me and him. We’re going to the aquarium.” 

“Well, tell my fellow sharks I say hello,” Barba grins, handing her his briefcase so he can lock the door behind them. 

“Hmm,” she hums, tilting her head. “I’d say pufferfish more than shark.” 

“I didn’t hear that,” he snips, taking his briefcase back and resting his hand on her back, as if guiding her down the hallway. “Anyway, that sounds like a lovely day you’ll be having. I’ll think of you with envy during my coffee breaks.” 

“Well, you’re welcome to come along with us next time,” Liv says.  

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” he sighs. He drops his arm to press the button to call the elevator, and she misses its warmth more than she would have predicted. The smile he shoots sideways at her makes up for it. “Maybe for my next vacation I can stay in New York and you can demonstrate to me how it’s possible to have any kind of work-life balance.” 

She laughs as the elevator dings open. “So that’ll be in, what, about two years?” 

“If I’m lucky.” He really does look exhausted, despite his smile and all that coffee.  

“Well, maybe you can actually relax over the weekend a few times between now and then,” she suggests.  

“I relax!” he protests.  

Really. When was the last time you saw a movie?” 

“I saw ‘The Martian’ a little while ago.” 

She wants to ask who he saw it with, but thinks better of it. “Barba, that came out last year. 

“Well, I relax in other ways too.” They’re heading out of One Hogan Place now, and the night air is warm and still, but not oppressively so. “I read, I jog, I get drinks with you,” he lists, face lit up soft pink as he bends it over the Lyft app on his phone. “I even nap, sometimes.” 

“You really do need lessons on having a work-life balance,” she sighs.  

“Well, I look forward to absorbing your wisdom,” he says, managing to sound sweet and sarcastic at the same time. “For now, I’m heading home. To work.” He waves his phone at her. “My car is one minute away. Have fun tomorrow, Liv.” 

“Well, you try to take a nap,” she tells him, then hesitates. “Listen,” she says, “you’re doing good work, Barba. We’re gonna get this son of a bitch.” 

He gives her a half-smile as his car pulls up beside them. “You’re damn right we are.” He gives her a quick goodbye kiss on the cheek, and gets in the car, and then he’s gone.  

Standing alone in the dark, the specters of their fathers rise before her. She pushes right through them and, gun at her hip, starts the walk back to her car.

Chapter Text

MONDAY, AUGUST 8.

“All rise. This court is now in session, the honorable Judge Constance Copeland presiding.”

Earl Williams stands straight-backed next to John Buchanan, and already a few jurors are eyeing him with poorly concealed curiosity. None of them are peering at Amira -- who sits in the gallery, her parents beside her -- but that’s only because they don’t know who to look for.

Barba is determined that by the time they meet her on the stand, they’ll be sympathetic to her story. To the truth. He doesn’t just want a guilty conviction here. He wants a felony charge that will put Earl in jail for a long time, and make it as certain as possible that he can never, ever petition the custody of his child.

He’d said as much to Benson yesterday evening at Forlini’s.

 

“I want us to bury that son of a bitch,” he told her, speaking low across the lip of his glass. “I don’t want him to have a chance at so much as visitation rights.”

There must have been something too much about his voice, because the sound of it put unbearably soft concern into Liv’s eyes. He turned away to knock back the rest of his drink.

“Barba…” she started slowly, and he immediately, inexplicably, felt a flash of anger that she wouldn’t use his first name. But it disappeared as quickly as it had come.

“Is this case hitting close to home for you?” she asked.

Rafael kept his eyes lowered, focused on the ice slowly melting at the bottom of his glass.

He thought of the generations before him in Cuba, and before Amira in Iran. The disarming pain of not-quite exile, and the way it makes you vulnerable to those who would hurt you, and especially vulnerable to those who love you, or say they do. Parents who can’t protect you, mothers who choose to stay and mothers choose to leave, and what does all of it mean for their solitary children?

His throat hurt when he swallowed, and he wished for water but didn’t ask the bartender for it. Didn’t even look up, because he had realized far too late just how bare Cuba had stripped him, and here he was, in public, in front of Liv, with just a little too much water in his eyes.

It’s because of Amira , Rafael told himself. But even that led him right back to the truth, and he’d never been good at arguing against the truth -- only for it.

The truth was, a few months ago he would have looked at Amira and seen another victim. He would have been sympathetic, and kind, and he would have felt for her the way Liv has slowly taught him to feel for all of them, as individuals who deserve care and justice and support. He would have wanted to win, because that would have been justice.

But a few weeks in Cuba and he’s come back to see himself in the first victim to cross his path, sees some shade of his mother in her too, and what does that say about him?

He wasn’t sure, but he did know he’d been silent too long. Olivia spoke before he could weigh his options for a response.

“Are you okay?” Her voice was gentle.

No.

“I loved my father,” he said quietly, avoiding Liv’s warm, serious eyes to answer a different question she hadn’t quite asked. “And it would have been better if I had never known him.”

Even that he wasn’t sure of, but he didn’t want to talk about it. About any of it, Cuba included -- the way the good memories had spoiled so quickly after coming back to New York, to work, to the reality that he and his mother still aren’t that close because no matter where they go, not matter how much their family may grow through happy discovery, his father still stands between them.

Rafael didn’t want to talk about it here. He didn’t want to talk about it at all. He’d meant to call Eddie, but hadn’t, couldn’t bring himself to tell his oldest remaining friend anything, and now doubted that he ever would.

He knew that, as always, Liv could tell he was hiding something. So he decided to go with a safe topic. He actually laughed when he opened his mouth to begin, because the fact that this was a welcome excuse…

“Sorry I’m not good company,” he said, shaking the bitter smile from his face as he finally met her eyes. “I suppose the threats are having their desired effect.”

And maybe that wasn’t an easy way out, because her face creased deeper with concern. “Are you sure you don’t want a security detail?” she pressed.

He had to smile -- she was trying so hard to be diplomatic, to not pressure him into something he’d already rejected, but it was obvious she wanted nothing more than to shake some sense into him and force him to accept. Still. He appreciated the effort.

“I’m sure,” he said.

She didn’t push further -- he knew she wouldn’t -- but the disappointment on her face was nearly enough to make him reconsider.

“I’ll be fine,” he added. “You can be my security detail for the evening, if it makes you feel better.”

He’d meant it as a joke, but she still had that serious look --

“You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you,” she told him quietly. “Not while I’m around. I always keep an eye out.”

He smiled weakly as his heart stuttered in his chest at the realization that she wasn’t able to relax around him anymore. That being with him put her in danger too, although of course she wouldn’t see it that way. How hadn’t that occurred to him before?

“Well,” he said gesturing at the bartender for their bill, “I should head home. Need to get some rest before the trial tomorrow.” Another lie: he fully intended to stay up at least a few more hours doing prep work.

She eyed him like she knew that, which she probably did. “Okay,” she said, and she looked like she was going to say something else too, but instead she just reached out to pat his hand, and withdraw her own too soon.

Part of him wanted to ask her what she was about to say, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Standing up now to give his opening statement, he’s still not sure. But he’s goddamn sure he needs to win this case, so he drags his mind away from the bar and the thought of Cuba and the look in her eyes.

He focuses his mind and he’s here .

Back in the courtroom; back on familiar ground where he knows exactly what to do.

He clears his throat, faces the jury, and introduces himself. Then he starts with the choosing of a better name -- one that Amira chose for herself, like Barba once did.

“At this time,” he pronounces clearly, “the prosecution would like to note that the victim has requested that she be referred to as Amira Seif, or Ms. Seif. She has filed for divorce, and no longer used the surname Williams.”

It's a solid strategy, starting with the name, Buchanan thinks; it asserts Amira’s independent personhood and family ties, distances her from Earl… but it has its weaknesses too, and he plans to exploit them. For one: “Seif” isn't a familiar surname to everyone on the jury, and may not be a welcome one for all of them either.

For another, any acts of bravery or independence on Amira’s part could -- and will -- be re-framed as the actions of a cold, unfeeling woman who has no regard for the man who loves her and wants to keep their family together.

Jealous husband pushes wife down stairs, possessive husband beats wife in alley… none of that jibes with a cold, calculating, and distant “victim” up against a heartbroken, falsely accused man. At least not if Buchanan does his job.

But Barba's only just started, and Buchanan knows he needs to pay attention.

“Ms. Seif has filed for divorce,” Barba repeats, “for the same reason we are in this courtroom today: because Earl Williams abused her. This abuse has gone on for a long time. As we go through the timeline and the evidence, some of you may ask yourselves why Ms. Seif waited so long to press charges. You may wonder: why now? Why stay with him for so long in the first place? You will hear expert testimony explaining how common it is for victims to stay with their abusers for a long time, and explaining how hard and dangerous it is for them to leave.”

Barba is pacing slowly in front of the jury box, his hand gestures small but expressive. His voice is rich with gravitas, and Buchanan notes that every single juror is tracking his face with their eyes.

“These experts will answer your questions,” Barba goes on, “but for now, I ask you to remember one thing. Ms. Seif’s actions don’t matter.” He pauses for emphasis, and meets the eyes of a few jurors, who look some combination of intimidated and awestruck.

“The only things that matter are Mr. Williams’ actions,” Barba tells them. “The defense will try to distract you. They will try to make you doubt Ms. Seif, or even dislike her. They will try to convince you that Mr. Williams loves her, and that he is a good man. You can believe whatever you choose to believe, but remember his actions. Mr. Williams physically assaulted Ms. Seif multiple times over the course of their marriage, culminating in the two brutal attacks that have brought us all to this courtroom today. He injured Ms. Seif severely, and put the life of their unborn child at risk.”

Barba stops his pacing and steps to the side, guiding the jury’s eyes towards Earl, who is staring straight ahead, jaw tense. “When Ms. Seif went to the police for help, he walked right through that restraining order, and put her in intensive care. This man is an abuser. That is what we will prove over the course of this trial, and that is what you must not forget.”

With that, Barba returns to his seat. As Buchanan stands, he catches his eye -- he expects a challenging look from Barba, or maybe something smug, but the man looks genuinely angry. It’s unnerving, or it would be if Buchanan allowed himself to get nervous.

Which he doesn’t. Not even when he has to revise his opening statement on the fly because he’d prepped for a she did the right thing; side with her argument, not it doesn’t matter what she did; side against him .

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Buchanan inclines his head to them. “I don’t know how many of you have served on a jury before. Just in case you’ve never set foot in a courtroom, let me tell you it’s very unusual to be told that the actions of a plaintiff don’t matter. In fact,” Buchanan chuckles, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve been going toe-to-toe with Mr. Barba for years.”

He glances over, pleased to see that Barba is obviously suppressing an eyeroll.

“I’ll admit it,” Buchanan shrugs, palms up. “I’m confused. Maybe you are too, so let’s figure this out together… two people are in a relationship. They’re both in their right minds, they’re both adults. Doesn’t that mean they’re equal?” Buchanan furrows his brow. “Doesn’t that mean both of them must be held responsible for their actions? Unless one of them is asking for special treatment -- but that would be unfair, that wouldn’t make sense.” He shakes his head.

“Mr. Barba told you that Ms. Seif’s actions don’t matter. But Ms. Seif accusing Mr. Williams of a crime is exactly why we’re all here today, isn’t it? So that action must matter. Why don’t the rest of them?” He searches the jurors’ faces as if looking for an answer, and he’s pleased to see doubt in their eyes.

“With all due respect to the prosecution,” Buchanan says, “there’s no cherry-picking. Either Ms. Seif and Mr. Williams are both adults who both deserve fair treatment, or Ms. Seif is denying all responsibility and agency, and we’re meant to overlook anything she’s ever said or done that might be contrary to what Mr. Barba is saying now. Does that sound fair to you?” One more time he pauses, drawing the moment out. “I didn’t think so. And I think that when I present you with all the facts, fair and balanced, you’ll agree that Mr. Williams is an innocent man.”

Returning to his seat, Buchanan is frustrated he couldn’t work in everything he’d planned -- Amira’s inconsistencies, her dinner invitation, her hesitance about going to the police in the first place -- but he has plenty of other ways to present that information. For now, he’s satisfied that he was able to nip Barba’s argument in the bud, at least for the most part.

As the judge prepares the jury for witness testimony, Buchanan looks over to gauge the other man’s confidence. Barba’s just twisted around in his chair to say something to Benson, who’s sat on the front bench and as close to him as possible. His brow is creased, and she looks serious too as she whispers something back. Barba gives a quick nod and turns around in his chair again, straightening his lapels.

Buchanan wonders whether they’re sleeping together yet. Eyeing Barba’s posture, tense and tightly-wound as ever, he thinks probably not.

 

Carisi leans forward in his seat when Barba calls his first witness to the stand.

After he and Rollins had taken Molly Klein’s statement, he’d been the one to search her diary for any information about Amira. He’d done his best to skim past the really private stuff, but mostly failed because his job was to examine it all closely. It’s a strange feeling, looking at a near stranger and remembering all their secrets. Molly has a tense relationship with her sisters but a good one with her parents. She’s sick of the summer heat, and of the whole city. She knows that her boss is paying the male employees more than the women but she’s not going to try for a lawsuit because the idea of it exhausts her and she doesn’t think she’d win. Her cat Snowflake got sick a few months ago but he’s better now.

And she’s really, really into Amira.

There’s no hiding that part. Carisi is the only one who’s read the whole diary, and he only turned over the relevant parts to Barba, who in turn had to turn them over to the judge and Buchanan. So it’s gonna come out -- soon, too, because Barba needs to get ahead of it. Carisi had only briefly sat in on the ADA prepping Molly, towards the beginning and before they could get far into the questions Barba and Buchanan would be asking. He’d had to leave the two of them to take care of another case, and he’s kinda on tenterhooks now.

It helps (or he hopes it will help) that there’d been no indication in her diary that Molly’s closeted. She’d written about dating, past girlfriends. But nothing that might suggest she was out at work, or that Amira might know.

And even if everyone knew, writing about your sexuality and your crush in a diary is worlds away from talking about them on the witness stand. Barba has already gone over everything with Amira, and for all Carisi knows maybe Molly has done some explaining to her too, but this part of the trial… well, he has the feeling it’s going to be particularly hard on both of them. That’s why he’s here. He knows Molly won’t see him as any kind of moral support, if she sees him in the gallery at all, but he wants to bear witness to her testimony. He’ll have to leave right after; he’s not testifying and he has interviews to do for the Halsteader case. But he’s here now.

It starts off well.

“Thank you for testifying today, Ms. Klein,” Barba says graciously, and she nods. “I apologize, but before we go through the evidence recorded in your journal, we just need to get something out of the way first.” He squares his shoulders. “Ms. Klein, is it true you had romantic feelings for Ms. Seif?”

“Yes,” Molly affirms.

Carisi is impressed with the confidence in her voice, but he hopes the jury doesn’t think it makes her less credible.

“Thank you,” Barba says. “Now, did your feelings for Ms. Seif impact your work? For example, did you assign projects to her that should have gone to someone else, or did you make excuses to work closely with her even if the task wasn’t something you were good at?”

“No, never.”

“Alright. Did you ever behave recklessly due to your feelings for Ms. Seif? For example, did you make romantic advances towards her? Hit on her?”

“No.”

“Did you ever interfere is Ms. Seif’s private life in any way?”

“No, I did not.”

“I see.” Barba turns towards the jury even as he speaks, ostensibly, to Molly. “So your feelings for Ms. Seif never impacted your work, your outward actions, or Ms. Seif’s private life. Would you say that this goes to show your feelings never impacted your judgment?”

“Yes, I believe that’s true,” Molly says clearly, and Carisi can tell she’s repeating words carefully rehearsed with Barba. “My feelings did not influence my judgment.”

“So this means your judgment is trustworthy.” Barba doesn’t even pretend that this is a question; he says it like there’s no doubt in the world it’s true.

“Yes,” Molly says.

“Thank you,” Barba replies. “Now, let’s look at some of the observations and judgments you recorded in your journal. We’ll start in December of 2014, when Ms. Seif started working with you.”

It’s a long process, working through each relevant entry to painstakingly pin down every hint of abuse, every time Amira came in with a bruised wrist, or flinched when someone raised their hand too quickly and too close, or expressed apprehension about her husband… it takes over an hour. But every time Carisi starts shifting in his seat, something Barba does or says pulls his attention right back in.

Glancing now and then at the jury, he can tell it’s true with them too. Testimony that could be tedious in the hands of a different prosecutor is gripping in his, alternately dramatic, fascinating, tragic, and triumphant. And every little point he makes is an arrow leading to the only right verdict: Earl did this, Earl is guilty, Earl must be convicted of these crimes.

By the time Barba’s done, Carisi’s almost on a high: that’s what he wants to be like, if he ever becomes a lawyer. Bring it on, Buchanan, he thinks. Just try to top that.

“Ms. Klein.” Buchanan leans back in his chair to survey Molly, as if to see her better from a distance. He lets the silence drag out, but though Molly looks uncomfortable she doesn’t break it first, and Carisi feels proud of her.

“Ms. Klein,” Buchanan repeats, rising now from his chair, “let me get this straight . You were a close friend of Ms. Seif, is that correct?”

“Yes, I am,” Molly says. Her voice is clear and strong, but Carisi doesn’t miss the fact that although she uses the present tense she doesn’t look at Amira.

“And you had romantic feelings for her?”

Barba leans forward in his seat. “Objection. Your Honor, we’ve been over this.”

Judge Copeland nods. “Sustained.”

Unbothered, Buchanan smiles. “Ms. Klein, I’m going to read an excerpt from your journal, written by you.” He clears his throat, and Carisi would laugh at the theatrics of it if Molly’s face didn’t look so pinched and pale.

“And I quote. It’s so ridiculous, even just thinking of her makes me smile, even when I’m frustrated with her. I hate it but I kinda love it. Kinda love her. Which sucks, obviously. Sometimes I wish she’d get a divorce and we would quit our jobs and run away together to Seattle, or Venice, or even Texas where her parents are, I don’t care -- I’m just sick of this city and I’m sick of seeing her every day and not being able to do anything about it. She needs to divorce him anyway.

Buchanan looks up expectantly. “When you say ‘him,’ Ms. Klein, who are you referring to?”

Carisi is looking intently at the back of the bench in front of him, as if he’s in here to examine the grain of the wood and not to bear witness to key testimony. He’s been staring at it since even just thinking of her makes me smile , and he can’t look up now, especially when he hears the tremor in Molly’s voice. He sends up a silent prayer: please don’t let her be crying .

“I was talking about Earl,” Molly says.

“Earl Williams, the defendant?”

“Yes.”

“And when you say ‘her,’ as in ‘kinda love her,’ who are you referring to?”

“Amira. Ms. Seif.”

“So,” Buchanan says, turning to look at the jury. “You were in love with the defendant’s wife, and hated the defendant. You wanted him gone. Is that correct?”

“No,” Molly states, and her voice is steadier now. “No, I wanted to leave.”

“And you wanted Ms. Seif to come with you, and leave her husband behind?”

“It was just a fantasy.”

Buchanan scoffs. “Maybe. But it still affected reality. Ms. Klein, how can you expect us to believe anything you say, when you obviously had such an agenda against the defendant?”

Carisi chances a look up at Molly, and though he thinks her face looks a bit wet she has her chin held high and her expression cold and distant. “Because it’s the truth,” she tells him. “Earl was hurting her .”

Buchanan shakes his head as if he’s deeply disappointed in her. “The truth,” he repeats with fake regret. “It sounds more like part of your fantasy.” He looks at Barba, whose face Carisi can’t see, and then towards the judge. “Nothing further.”

Molly’s face crumples, just for a moment, as she steps down from the stand. Then it goes smooth again. She looks almost aloof as she walks past the jury, and Carisi hopes they’re sympathetic to her.

He can’t tell.

When he leaves the courtroom, it’s with his heart sunk somewhere in the pit of his stomach. He’s almost to the doors when he notices a woman leaning against the opposite wall. He had been hoping he’d see Molly out here and get a chance to say… something, he’s not sure what, before leaving, but to his bewilderment it’s Amira, staring into space.

“Hey,” Carisi says, approaching her warily. “Are you okay?”

Her eyes focus on him. “Yeah,” she responds. “Yeah, I was just getting some water.” She gestures vaguely with her right hand, which is holding a plastic water bottle from the vending machine down the hall.

“Kinda rough in there, huh?” Carisi ventures.

There’s a bitter look about her when she answers. “I thought Molly was my friend. I didn’t know she was…   Mr. Barba didn’t tell me it was going to be that bad.”

Carisi can’t tell if by bad she means Molly’s feelings, or the experience of them being laid bare in court, or both.

“She was your friend,” he says gently. “And you were hers.”

“I wouldn’t have been if I had known she was like that ,” Amira says. She shakes her head gently, and something gives Carisi the impression it would be a much sharper movement if she weren’t so bruised and hurt.

There’s real disgust in her voice.

He’s still grappling for a response when she slips back into the courtroom, and then Carisi is alone in the hall with a feeling he doesn’t enjoy at all. For a second he thinks it’s shame -- and he’s surprised, because he’d thought he’d gotten past that years ago -- and then he realizes it’s not that at all.

It’s anger, and dislike. He doesn’t like Amira.

The fact of that sits strange in his chest, until he reminds himself it’s irrelevant to the case. Amira is a victim, and Earl needs to be locked up, and Carisi is pretty sure that Barba will pull it off.

That’s the idea he tries to hold on to as he leaves the building and steps out into the hot summer air.

Inside the courtroom, Amira’s neighbor Aisha has just finished a quick stint on the stand -- for Barba, a character witness to attest to Amira’s kindness and honesty, and to Earl’s volatility; for Buchanan, a barrier to topple with thinly veiled suggestions of sinister solidarity between Muslims and against white men. Aisha, well-coached by Barba, did well, and goes with her head held high into the gallery, where she takes a place beside her husband Imran on Amira’s side of the aisle.

The next witness will also be brief, here only to establish a timeline and drive home to the jury the gory consequences of Earl’s attack

“Charles Fukunaga, can you please identify yourself to the jury?” Barba requests briskly.

The young man on the stand leans forward to speak into the microphone. “Uh, I’m Charlie Fukunaga, I’m a waiter at The Blue Door on 8th Avenue.”

“Mr. Fukunaga, can you tell us about the events on the morning of July 23rd?”

Charlie, who had sat back in the chair, scoots forward again. “Yes, I was working the morning shift but we don’t open until later on Saturdays so it was like 9:30 in the morning, not super early, and I was going to take some of the trash out ‘cause some of the guys last night never did it and…”

Barba gives him a look, and Carlie pauses his too-fast talking to take a breath and smooth down painstakingly gelled and combed hair that does not need smoothing. When he resumes, his voice slower and more clear.

“So I walked down into the alleyway,” he says, “and I saw something.” His eyes flicker towards Amira and then quickly away again, like it hurts to see her bruised and wounded face. “Someone,” he amends. “Except at first I didn’t realize it -- realize she -- was a person, because she was lying so still. But I could tell something was wrong, I got a weird feeling, so I walked over, and uh. Well, it was a person. And she was really, really hurt, she was bleeding.”

The jury is rapt.

“She was down at the other end of the alley so it was cleaner but there was still dirt in her hair,” Charlie goes on. His voice has gone quiet, only audible because his lips are less than an inch from the microphone. “And her hair was all matted because of the dirt and the blood, and she looked someone had beat her up really really bad, so I sat down next to her -- I mean, I put the trash away already, so I wasn’t putting trash by her -- I sat down next to her and I called 911 and I kind of just. I guess I should have tried to do CPR but I don’t know how, so I just held her hand and I watched her breathe. Until the ambulance came. I was really scared she was going to stop breathing.”

He looks scared now, too, and his eyes dart between Barba, the jury, and Amira, unable to settle on any one point or person for long.

“Thank you, Mr. Fukunaga,” Barba says kindly, stepping back to his desk as Buchanan stands from his.

He’ll leave the specific descriptions of Amira’s wound to the ER nurse, and the attack itself to Amira and her recording. Charlie has done just what Barba needed him to: build sympathy for Amira, and maybe even some protectiveness, among the jurors.

Of course, Buchanan isn’t stupid, and he won’t argue with Charlie about how he’d found Amira. He’ll only remind everyone that Charlie had, and has, no way of knowing who attacked Amira; it could have been anyone, it could have been a mugger, there’s no evidence either way, and Charles is a good man for sitting there in the alley but he can’t really tell us who’s responsible for this crime now can he, ladies and gentlemen of the jury?

Barba can practically mouth along as Buchanan lays out this exact argument. There are no objections to be made. But that’s fine. That doesn’t contradict the plan.

The next witness, though, is key, and Barba is relieved when the judge calls a recess -- it’s been hours , and he could use a breather before questioning the ER nurse.

As he walks out with Benson, though, she can see that his gaze is turned inward as his mind works at a speed Buchanan would envy.

She smiles. “You’re doing good in there,” she says quietly, and leaves it at that so she doesn’t derail whatever train of thought he’s on. But he’s so caught up in it he’s standing still in the middle of the hallway, so she takes his arm and guides him to the side, His eyes clear and he’s back in the present.

“Do you think Amira’s ready?” he asks her, keeping his voice low.

Benson glances down the hall, over where Amira sits on a bench with her parents. Her back is straight and, although she’s shaking her head “no” as her mother tries to offer her some food, she doesn’t look too nervous.

“I think so,” Benson answers slowly. She realizes suddenly how hungry she is, and turns back to Barba. “Grab a hot dog with me?”

Barba nods, still frowning, but when they get to the stand he just orders a coffee. He winces when he takes it, and quickly slides a sleeve around the cup.

She shakes her head. “How are you drinking that in this weather?” she asks, pushing her hair back from her already-damp forehead with her free hand. Its 80, 85 degrees, she’d guess, and she can’t wait to get back into the air conditioning.

He gives her a blank look. “They don’t serve iced coffee there.”

She laughs, shaking her head again. “You should really get something to eat,” she urges him.

“Not hungry,” he replies, already sipping from the too-hot cup.

Knowing better than to bicker with him while he’s in this mood, she drops the issue -- though she does wish that he, and Amira, would have at least a bite before resuming in court. She has the feeling that Buchanan’s cross-examination is gonna be brutal.

Judging by the frown that’s returned to Barba’s face, he does too.

They sweat their way up the courthouse steps in silence, stand in the shade for a moment as she finishes her hot dog and he his coffee, then head back in after she wipes her fingers and throws away the napkin.

They’re back just two minutes before the recess ends, and Benson studies Barba’s profile as he mentally prepares. She glances over at Amira again, and, not for the first time, wonders at the fact that Barba seems to be taking this case so personally. She’s pretty sure this passion will serve as an asset, a motivator, but at the same time she knows it has the possibility of blinding him too. She’d been worried about that last night, after their conversation at Forlini’s. Today his confidence seems to have returned nearly to its full strength and swagger, but still. He’ll have to be careful.

As he turns to head into court, she sees that his tie has somehow gotten rumpled. “Rafael,” she says, “hang on.” He turns to her with a look of mild surprise, and only then does she realize she’s used his first name.

“Your tie is messed up,” she tells him, and she straightens it herself, tucking the bit that had flopped out back into his waistcoat, and feeling the heat of his chest on her knuckles as she does so. She hesitates, then raises her eyes and gives him a quick, businesslike smile along with what could pass as a merely friendly pat on his chest, just over his pocket square. Over his heart.

He smiles back -- a pleased, lopsided smile, small but still larger than the one she’d given him, and there’s a look in his eyes she can’t quite identify. Soft, sweet, and something else.

The courtroom doors open before either of them manages to say anything, and they walk in.

Later, after court, after she’s gotten home, after she’s put Noah to bed, she’ll figure out the word for that look: smitten .

But for now, she just takes her place on the front bench -- behind Rafael and slightly to his right -- and waits.