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Perception

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“Have you COMPLETELY lost your goddamn mind, or were you always this stupid and I just never noticed?”  Eli Gold was never one to mince words, especially when dealing with political campaign managers.  Right now, the campaign manager on the receiving end of Eli’s verbal assault was Johnny Elfman, the co-manager of Alicia Florrick’s campaign for Illinois State’s Attorney in 2014.  He was now running former Governor Peter Florrick’s U.S. Senate campaign, and Eli had just watched a taped practice run of Peter’s first debate against his opponent.  He was aghast and had called Johnny in a rage.

Running his hand through his increasingly gray hair, which fell immediately back over his forehead, he paced the hallway from the master bedroom to the living room and back.  “Goddamnit, Johnny, didn’t you learn anything from Alicia’s campaign?  If you try to play the nice guy, Sherman is gonna walk all over you.  And Peter is at his best when he's a dick.  Let him get angry!”

“Peter will look like a bully if he goes after Tommy Sherman.  He’s an Iraq war veteran and a single amputee, even if Sherman is getting a bit personal in his campaigning.  How’s that going to look, especially in a debate, where Sherman can play the victim even more convincingly?”

But Eli was insistent.  It wasn’t that Johnny wasn’t smart - in fact, that was why Eli was getting so frustrated.  Johnny knew better than this but was playing it safe.  

“Look, do you remember when Peter ran against Maddie Hayward in the Democratic primary his first Gubernatorial bid?  Well, when I was temporarily…”  He paused and gritted his teeth.  “…indisposed, the schmuck who replaced me told him to go soft on her to avoid looking like a meanie who pushed around girls.  You know what almost happened?  He almost LOST!  The minute he took my advice and went after her hard - not even personally, just on her bullshit policies - the polls turned and we won.”

In short, Eli thought, you’re good, but I’m the fucking best.

“The fact is that when you go soft on candidates like this, the public only sees them as sympathetic.  His proposed policies on taxes and gay rights are bullshit.  You know it, I know it, Peter knows it, and the public knows it, but they need to be assured by people they think are smarter than they are.  Peter can’t back off the liberal vote, not after hitting so hard on those issues as Governor.”  He leaned his head back against the wall, resisting the urge to bang it.

“Okay, but should we push the personal?”

Eli spat daggers through the phone.

“Of course we should push the personal, you idiot!  We pushed it with Frank Prady in Alicia’s campaign.  If this guy is bringing it back to Peter’s indiscretions ten fucking years ago, we push back.  It doesn’t matter if the guy’s a quadruple amputee with a lisp who adopts puppies in his spare time.  There is shit somewhere, Johnny.  GO FIND IT.  And don’t call me back until you do.”

Eli hung up the phone in a huff.  He missed the days of landlines; a slam of the receiver would have been so much more cathartic.  Tossing his phone on the sofa, he wandered toward the large windows of his living room and stared out at the skyline.  The midday sun bounced between the rooftops, and he could see it reflecting off of the East River in the distance.  It was beautiful, but to him, cities always seemed like one another, their buildings rising and falling in the same patterns, some classic marble, some modern steel.  Even the people - you could have plucked them from the streets of New York City and deposited them on the L in Chicago and they would look, act, and talk the same way.  Then again, the only way Eli had regarded people in recent years was demographical.

He walked into the kitchen where his laptop sat open on the counter and refreshed his inbox.  Endless emails were still marked unopened, and yet he had no urge to read any of them.  They were all inquiries from various politicians and their staffers, all asking for his services as a campaign consultant.  He didn’t even have to look at the emails to know what each of the requests would be, but he opened one anyway.

 

Dear Mr. Gold,

I am writing to request your advice about the recent events surrounding my son’s arrest for cocaine possession while in Las Vegas.  You must be aware that my stance on drug possession and distribution has been quite clear and conservative during my career.  As you can imagine, this turn of events presents a significant problem for the perception my constituents may have of me in the upcoming re-election campaign…

Eli rolled his eyes.  Delete.  He hesitated, but opened another.

 

Good Afternoon, Mr. Gold:

As you may have read in or heard on the news, I have recently been accused of possession of child pornography....

Are you fucking kidding me?  Even he had standards.

At the end of the day, it didn’t matter.  Different specifics, same endgame: getting elected or re-elected.

His phone rang again, muffled by the cushions of the sofa between which it had fallen.  He assumed it was Johnny again, so didn’t rush to answer it.  He’d left Chicago six months earlier, and even now felt like he couldn’t escape.  The only difference was now he didn’t have an office, instead working out of his Upper East Side apartment.  After spending four years as Peter’s Chief of Staff, he now wanted to rebuild his client base in crisis management.  He had only agreed to aid Johnny in Peter’s senatorial campaign because Peter had requested he do so, but it was taking up the majority of his days.  

The phone stopped ringing.  He let out a relieved breath, thinking it had gone to voicemail, but almost immediately, it started again.  Can a phone sound angry? he wondered.  Sighing, he walked to the sofa and fished out the phone.

“Did I stutter when I said don’t call me back until you had something?”  There was a pause, then a familiar snort.

“No, but if you’ve recently picked up a stuttering habit, I would love to hear it firsthand.”

His daughter, Marissa, was the reason he had moved to New York City to begin with.  Marissa had been Alicia’s handler (though Marissa preferred the word “assistant”) during Alicia’s campaign.  At first, he had given her the job to get her away from him while he was working.  He loved her, of course, but thought she was wasting her time, and his, hanging around the Governor’ Office.  But during the campaign, he realized two things: she was actually really good at her job, and how much time he'd missed with her as a result of his own.  Then, when she moved to New York City to pursue what she called “a fresh start,” he realized he missed having her around.  So he followed suit.  Besides, he figured, he’d been in Chicago all his life.  Call it a midlife crisis; it was time for a change.

“Oh.  It’s you.”  

“Well, don’t sound so thrilled,” Marissa said.  “I’m just calling to make sure you’re still planning on coming down here for dinner.  I realize you’ve got to tear yourself away from your… what is it you do again?”

Eli stiffened.  His daughter had inherited her mother’s dark features and small stature, but his big mouth and dry humor.  Sometimes he appreciated it.  Others, it only reminded him of why most people hated him.

“Yes, I will be there at…” He checked his watch.  “It’s 4:30 now.  I’ll be there in half an hour.  Your boss going to care that you’re leaving early on a Friday?”  As he talked, he wandered through his living room, searching for his wallet and keys among the boxes stacked on the kitchen counter.  A self-described neat freak, the disorganization of his apartment was the stuff of his nightmares, but he just hadn’t had the time or inclination to unpack completely.  Admittedly, the problem was more inclination than time.  Once he got a few clients and really put down roots, he would make the place more like a home.

“Nah,” Marissa replied.  “He won’t care.  Court’s in recess until tomorrow, so he’s probably going to bury his head in closing argument preparation until the end of time.”

“All right,” he said, finally finding his keys and wallet tossed in an open box on top of the still unused stove.  He momentarily considered how they got there, and then shook his head.  “I’m walking out the door now.  Be there soon.”  His front door slamming behind him, he barely caught the elevator as it was closing.  

“Don’t bring your gun, there are metal detectors here,” she said breezily, hanging up before Eli could respond.  No matter how many times he had warned her that the government monitored everyone’s phones - and he had learned that several times personally - she never seemed to think about that probability.  It was a wonder she’d passed the background check for her job.  Secretly, and with no small amount of shame, he had wondered what qualified her for the position at all.  Then again, of the two of them, she was the one with a job.

“Jesus Christ, you people live in soup,” he said to no one in particular as he exited the air-conditioned lobby into the humid summer air.  One would think being an island would result in a fresh breeze flowing into to the city, but one would be wrong.  What little wind there was just caused the smell of sweat and garbage to blow through the streets just a little bit faster.  

Standing outside of his apartment complex, waiting for his private car to arrive, Eli turned to stare up at his building.  It looked the same as all the buildings in which he'd lived in Chicago - impossibly tall, gleaming glass and shining iron, sleek and new.  In other words, nothing that should have been intimidating at all.  But as the black sedan pulled up to the curb and he turned his gaze back to the street, the feeling of being extraordinarily small washed over him in a wave.


 

“Rafael Barba’s office, how can I help you?”  Marissa spun around in her chair as a very grouchy woman immediately began complaining about a plea deal that apparently hadn’t been negotiated to her liking.  Zoning out for a minute, Marissa stared out the window at the park next to their office.  The grass was green, but not nearly so green as Israel’s many gardens, where she had spent many days while living in the kibbutz.

Her father hadn’t wanted her to go at first, despite having been the reason she was such a devoted Jew in the first place.  She never quite understood why, other than his excuse that she needed to go to college.  When she shot back that he went to college and hadn’t used the degree he’d earned in twenty years, he relented.  She stayed in Israel on the kibbutz for two years, living in the Judean Hills; she had learned how to farm, harvesting cherries, grapes, and apples from the fields.  She helped care for the elderly residents in the nursing facility as one of her mitzvahs, and came to view many of them as surrogate grandparents.  What she’d loved most was working on the animal farm, which was built in memory of an Israel Defense Force soldier killed in Gaza who had been dedicated to the environment and animal protection in particular.  Like Marissa, he had been an American Jew who had felt the calling to his religious homeland.  

When she came back, she had started hanging around the Governor’s Office in Springfield while trying to figure out her next move.  While she had never paid much attention to her father’s career in crisis management, she found his role as Chief of Staff surprisingly interesting and almost easy to understand.  She had been in the Education Division of the IDF, and found that her dad’s job wasn’t that different from hers.  She was in charge of educating the new recruits on the IDF’s goals, making sure they always knew the endgame: promoting and protecting Israel as a sovereign nation.  Likewise, her father was in charge of making sure everyone in any campaign he was running kept their mind on the endgame: getting the candidate elected and making sure no one undermined that goal.  And, as Chief of Staff, he had an even bigger job: making sure no one undermined the goals of the Governor’s Office… including the Governor himself.

Apparently her father had some kind of confidence in her, because he assigned her to Alicia Florrick’s campaign staff when she decided to run for State’s Attorney.  Marissa didn’t think that had worked out entirely the way Eli had hoped; he wanted a fluffer, and she was outspoken and didn’t toe the campaign line the way he might have liked.  She tried to tell Alicia what she needed to hear, when she needed to hear it, the same way Eli did, which Alicia seemed to respect.

The experience she’d gained while working with him on Alicia’s campaign had been invaluable, but after that election, she’d become burned out on politics and wanted a change of scenery.  Through a connection Alicia had from Georgetown, had gotten the job in the D.A.’s office in New York City.  So she moved to New York a year and a half ago, her father following suit six months ago, partially to her chagrin.  It wasn’t that she didn’t love her father; it was more that she wanted a clean break from politics, and that was what he represented now.  

She was learning a lot, and it was nice to have a normal nine-to-five job, but the people she left behind at the kibbutz would never believe her life now.  She had gone from farmland to filing cabinets.  

A fleeting thought of asking for a field trip crossed her mind.  

She realized the voice on the other end of the line had gone silent.  “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but he’s actually walking out the door to court right now, so I’ll have to put you into his voicemail, I’m sure you’re at the top of his list, bye now!”  She said it all in one breath and clicked the voicemail transfer button before the attorney could get another word out.  Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba was not walking out the door to Court at that moment, however.  In fact, he likely wasn’t planning to leave his office for the remainder of the evening.  His door, just a few feet away from her desk, was open just barely a crack.   The only sound emerging was the errant sound of keyboard taps - furious for a minute, and then nothing for two or three more.  Usually she would have Spotify going on her computer, piano rock popping in the background to pass the time, but usually, her boss wasn’t in the office on a Friday afternoon working on a well-publicized and challenging case.

So, the office was silent… until she heard an approaching voice, having a one-sided conversation on its way.

“No, no, no, no, NO!  Do NOT cancel the speech at the Illinois EPA!”  Her father marched into the small office, stopping halfway in the door to spin nearly in a complete circle in frustration.  “The tree huggers are fucking nuts, you know that.  Besides, the Republicans don’t get to play the environmentalist card - that’s our game.  Do not cancel that speech!”  

Marissa shot up from her chair, intending to shut Barba’s door, momentarily debating just throwing her stapler at her father for his complete obliviousness.  As she rose, however, Eli hung up his phone and plastered a smile on his face as if this were an episode of Leave it to Beaver.  “Hi, honey.”

She raised her eyebrows and looked around the room as if to say, “Uh, HELLO?”  Eli looked around with her.  “What?  What am I missing?”

“Dad!”  Marissa jerked her head toward the door to Eli’s left, hissing between clenched teeth.  “Shut up and let’s--”

Suddenly, a cool, confident voice from behind the door cut Marissa’s sentence in half.

“You’re kidding.  No, really, this must be the punchline to a joke you forgot to tell.”  A hint of sarcasm hung from the end of the sentence.

There was a pause, and then:  “I have no intention of granting you a continuance this late in the game.  This is an attempt to buy time to convince your client to take the plea that I am no longer offering, so you might as well put your well-known bluster into your closing arguments rather than wasting it on the phone with me.  Your client will be better served.”

Eli raised an eyebrow at Marissa.  “Your boss?”

Marissa nodded, her mouth slightly agape as she stared in the direction of the third voice.  “He’s pissed.”

“THAT’S pissed?”  He had never heard someone sound so measured while pissed off.

“Not everyone chooses to throw books, kick chairs, and yell at their Noras when they’re pissed off, Dad.”  Eli sucked in his cheeks.

“...No, Mr. Buchanan.  We’re prepared to proceed, and given that this case has gone on for a year and a half and we’re at closing arguments, I see no reason to agree to this sham you’ve proposed.  No plea.  Enjoy your weekend.”  A click of the receiver and Eli could have sworn he heard a Spanish curse word shortly after that.  Marissa also swore under her breath, but in very clear English.

“I guess I should go tell him I’m going.  Should probably also ask if he wants anything ordered in before I go.  The man can eat, especially under stress.”  Eli gave a curt nod and started reading emails on his phone while Marissa crossed the room and was about to knock on the door just as it opened.  She jumped backward, startled, and Eli’s head snapped up.

Standing in the doorway of his office was a short-statured yet obviously high-powered, vaguely Latino man.  He was wearing a sky blue collared shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his arms, a pink silk tie with small black polka dots, and, though Eli couldn’t believe he was seeing this in the 21st century, navy blue suspenders.  His dark hair was neatly combed to the side, and his clean-shaven face made him look like he couldn’t be older than thirty-five, though Eli knew from Marissa that he was nearly ten years older.  Eli thought he looked like what you might get if you threw a Boy Scout and Frank Sinatra into a blender.  His watery, red-rimmed green eyes darted from Marissa to Eli and back, and he cleared his throat.

“Are you leaving?”  His voice was sharp, almost accusatory.  Marissa hesitated before answering, a rare thing.  Her boss’s expression softened slightly.  “It was rhetorical.  I assume you’re leaving for the day.  I didn’t mean to sound… like a prosecutor.”  He rubbed his forehead.  Eli thought he looked like he had been working for three days straight without a nap.  Not unlike what he looked like after a campaign.

Marissa visibly relaxed.  Then, there was an awkward silence, as Eli and Suspender Man regarded each other like two businessmen sizing each other up.  Suddenly, Marissa snapped to attention.  “Oh, crap, sorry!  Dad, this is my boss, ADA Rafael Barba.  Mr. Barba, this is my Dad, Eli Gold.”

“Actually,” Eli said, stepping forward, “that’s ‘Eli Gold, Former Chief of Staff to Governor Peter Florrick.’  I have a title too.”  He put on his most engaging smile, and Marissa rolled her eyes just enough so that Eli could see but Rafael couldn’t.

“It’s not the title, it’s how you use it, right?” Rafael said.  Eli laughed, extending his hand for Rafael’s.  As Rafael returned the gesture, Eli couldn’t stop himself noticing that his grip was firm, strong, and reassuring.  

It occurred to him, despite his better judgment, that Rafael Barba, Boy Scout Frank Sinatra, had the perfect politician’s handshake.

Chapter Text

“Sorry I’m late,” Rafael said, dropping his briefcase inside the doorway as a huge, floppy Maine Coon meowed at him from exactly the spot where she’d been that morning.  He crouched down and, on cue, the cat sauntered toward him for a quick ear rub.  Marbury was the only affectionate cat Rafael had ever met, so much so that he didn’t even mind the inordinate amount of cat fur she managed to rub on his pants.

He stood up and walked to the kitchen, checking Marbury’s food and water bowls on the way.  The food bowl was empty.  He looked over his shoulder at the cat, who was looking back at him expectantly.  “You and I were destined to live together,” he said, scooping some dry food out of its container and pouring it into the bowl on the floor.  “We have the same appetite.”

While Marbury ate as though no one had ever fed her in her life, Rafael pulled the tie from around his neck.  He stretched his neck, then rolled the tie up and put it in his coat pocket.  He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer, then glanced at the microwave’s clock.  He knew he still had hours of work ahead of him.  He had been prosecuting the Martin Pollack rape case for nearly a year and a half, and closing arguments were scheduled to start on Monday.

He had spent from nine o’clock in the morning until just an hour ago in his office downtown.  It wasn’t until his assistant, Marissa, had knocked on his door to let him know she was leaving for the day that he even realized how long he had been at it.  After spending the evening reviewing and making notes on exhibits, transcripts, and witness statements, he decided it was probably better to head back to his apartment in East Harlem than continue working in his office.   It would have been too easy to get distracted by late-night phone calls from colleagues, among other things.  The SVU detectives always invited him out on Friday nights for drinks, but he almost always said no.  Sometimes because he had to.  Other times… well, scotch was more a “solo” type of drink anyway.

Once his Chinese came and he’d plowed through a box of white rice and some cashew chicken, he retrieved his briefcase from the hallway.  He carried it and his beer to the second bedroom of his apartment, which he’d set up as a home office.  Holding the beer in one hand, he opened his laptop, the wallpaper glowing bright with the image of an early evening sky over Boston Harbor.  Despite living in what many considered the greatest city in the world, Rafael always thought Boston was much lovelier than New York.  It was cleaner, for one thing.  For another, Harvard, his alma mater, was where he had been able to reinvent himself.  There, he had gone from a shy, small boy to a confident, fast-talking lawyer.  Any time he felt drained from a trial or felt his confidence slipping, he would tell his colleagues that he was shutting himself up in his apartment to work.  Then, he would hop a train and spend time alone, walking through the Yard, jogging along the Harbor, or just wandering the city streets.  He would return to New York after a few days, renewed from the isolation and reflection.

This case wasn’t nearly as terrible as some, but it had dragged on for too long, a result of the many continuances from both sides.  He sank into the soft leather desk chair, pulled up his case files, and grabbed a blank yellow legal pad.  Despite the increasing digitalization of everything in his life, the one thing he refused to let go of was drafting in longhand.  Typing was more efficient, certainly, but depersonalized the process, made it too mechanical.

Most people believed that closing arguments in a case were merely a summary of everything that had already been discussed; almost an afterthought.  But Rafael knew from experience that the jury remembered two parts of a trial: what they heard first, and what they heard last.  But of the two, the latter was the more important.   Certainly, it helped to deliver a strong opening argument.  But at that point, the jury hadn’t heard any evidence.  Theoretically, they were blank slates and didn’t care about either party personally.  So a weak opening argument could be successfully negated with a strong case and closing.

But a weak closing?  That was trial suicide.  By the end of the trial, the jury is exhausted and dreading the deliberation process.  They’re also likely irritated because they’ve lost out on steady work for the pittance paid for jury duty.  Even if you presented the strongest evidence, it wouldn’t matter if the jury is left with a bad taste from your final argument.  

So the closing was the most important part of the trial.  It could make or break your case.  The jury would hear your final words echoing in their ears right along with opposing counsel’s when they went into deliberations.  You wanted your voice to be louder.

It just so happened that Rafael was usually louder than anyone in the room.  

He crafted each of his closings in the same general manner.  Every case had a story, and he would lead the jury through it until he got to the moral of that story: the defendant is guilty, and you need to convict him to give this story a happy ending.  This particular case was fairly straightforward, and yet very high-profile.  A college student had accused the deputy mayor’s son, Martin Pollack, of date rape.  The problem was that the girl had initially accepted a payoff from the boy’s family in exchange for her silence.  The only reason anyone discovered the rape was because she had tried to commit suicide soon after.  The victim refused to cooperate at first, because of the bribe.  But after the SVU detectives found a witness to the crime, the girl relented, gave back the money, and continued with the prosecution.

Of course, opposing counsel had relentlessly tried to tear her apart.  John Buchanan was an enormous man, both in physical size and courtroom presence.  Frankly, Rafael had realized long ago that Buchanan was an inverted version of himself.  While both men were not afraid to go hard on witnesses, Buchanan was also unafraid to hit below the belt.  He had come dangerously close to calling the victim in this particular case a gold-digging slut in open court.  Thankfully, on redirect, Rafael had hammered home that she had never cashed the check.  Buchanan’s phone call that afternoon had been unexpected.  He generally did not try to bargain with the prosecution.  Rafael took this to mean that he felt his case was weakening, which made it all the more important to get the closing right.  The problem was, he felt restless and distracted.  Maybe the six cups of coffee he’d had at the office that day hadn’t been a great idea.  Olivia always told him to lay off the stuff.  He didn’t listen, as usual.

He tapped his pen against his forehead and checked his watch.  Nine o’clock.  He had been home for over an hour now and hadn’t written a goddamn word.  This was always the hardest part: figuring out the first line.  A linear writer, he was unable to write bursts of inspiration to work into the picture later.  He had to write everything in order, each piece dependant on another.  Even in high school, he had to write his notes in outline form as he was taking them.  And if he missed something and had to write it on the side?  It would bother him until he recopied the notes and incorporated it into the correct place.  He liked to think this helped him do so well in law school.  Linear thinking was exactly how you passed the bar exam.  Unfortunately, it was so restrictive that it tended to kill creativity and spontaneity.  At its worst, it also made for terrible cases of writer’s block.

His eyes burned, screaming at him for keeping them awake for the last sixteen hours.  Letting out a half-sigh-half-groan, he rubbed them and leaned his head back against the top of the chair.  Marbury padded into the room to investigate the odd noise, and Rafael tilted his head back up.  

“When are you going to start pulling your weight?  I think you should write some of these damn things for me.”  Marbury responded by jumping onto his desk and sitting squarely on the notepad and pen.  Rafael gave a lazy smile.  “This your way of saying I should go to bed?”

Maybe she has a point, he thought.  Hell, some people sleepwalk.  Maybe I’ll sleep-write.

He hoisted himself from the chair and scooped up Marbury on his way out.  Depositing her into her favorite cat tree by the hallway window, he stroked her ears for a moment.  She purred appreciatively, rolling onto her side and looking up at him.  If only I could get the jury to roll over like that.

Suddenly, the block shattered.  More than shattered - it exploded.  He grinned at Marbury.  “Consider your weight pulled,” he said.  With that, he headed back down the hall, drawing lines between the dots in his head the whole way.


 

“You just can’t stay away, can you?”  Marissa smirked at her father from across the table.  Eli had just finished sending a text under the table, failing miserably at being discreet.  His head snapped up, eyes wide for just a second.

“I-- what?”

She raised the same eyebrow he would have.  “Well, that was either Natalie or Johnny.  Either way, you can’t stay away.”

Eli closed his eyes and drew in a sharp breath.  “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“Come on, Dad.  You have two weaknesses: Natalie and politics.”

Eli hated to admit it, but she wasn’t entirely wrong.  He had been texting Johnny and Alicia, in separate messages.  He sighed, and put his phone in his inner suit coat pocket.  

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I know we’re supposed to be having… you know, father-daughter time.”

Marissa rolled her eyes.  “Dad, it’s okay.  I only insist on these weekly dinners so that I can make sure that YOU eat.”  Eli snorted.  

“When did you get all Mother Teresa?”  

“What can I say?  I got used to taking care of old people at the kibbutz,” Melissa replied, opening her menu and avoiding her father’s glare.  “So, what are we getting?”

“Well, the Hawaiian is obviously out.  No sausage or pepperoni, either.  What about plain cheese?”  He took a sip of his water.

Marissa wrinkled her nose.  “You ARE old.  We’re doing garlic and onion.”

Eli nearly did a spit-take.  “Are you trying to kill me?”

“Tempting,” she said, as the waiter approached the table.  “But I would miss these little moments.”

They ordered their pizza, and Marissa ordered a beer.  Eli was sticking with water.  He planned to get up early the next day and go for a run.  He had taken to jogging since he moved.  Another one of those mid-life crisis things, but at least it was healthier than getting a motorcycle, and less painful than a tattoo.  Hopefully, the Pizza of Death wouldn’t put a gastrointestinal roadblock in his way.

“So,” Marissa said, taking a sip of her Sam Adams.  “How IS Natalie?”  The question caught Eli off guard.

“Why do you ask?”  He looked down at his napkin.  

“Well, you just haven’t talked about her much.  You’d been going to see her every couple weeks when we were in Chicago.  Is she still in Washington?”

Eli nodded.  “Yeah, she’s still there.  As far as I know.”  

Marissa cocked her head to the side, suddenly concerned.  “What aren’t you telling me?”  

Eli needed to change the subject, and frankly, there was something else on his mind.

“Hey, so, how’s that trial going?  I read about it in the paper on the car ride over.”  He silently begged for her to take the bait.

“I think pretty good,” she said.  Excellent.  “Not to say the defense hasn’t tried hard to make his client look good, but it was kind of open and shut once they found that witness.”

“Yeah, I’d suspect that would help,” Eli said.  His phone buzzed in his pocket.  He ignored it.

“Plus,” Marissa added, “it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Barba has the best conviction rate in the city.”  Eli nodded slowly.  

“So that’s, what, like… seventy percent?”  He knew it was better than that, but he didn’t want to appear overly interested.

“Try eighty-five.  It’s almost unheard of for a prosecutor.  He’s just really damn good.  Juries like him.  Victims do, eventually.  The only people who don’t are criminals and their attorneys.  And even some of those attorneys do, they just won’t admit it.”

Okay, so he’s good at his job.  Tough on crime, but plays well with others.  Which means he’s willing to work with the opposition.

“What do you think of him?  Personally?” 

“Does it matter?  He’s a good boss, if that’s what you’re asking.”  Eli shook his head.  He had to play this better.

“No, I mean, I’m glad he’s a good boss.  But, you know, you’re my kid.  I care about whether he’s a good person to work for.  I wouldn’t want you working for a total dick.”

Marissa smacked her lips.  “Why not?  I worked for you.”

Eli groaned.  He wasn’t getting what he wanted.

The waiter came back to check on them, and at this point, he needed a drink.  After ordering a scotch, neat, he turned back to Marissa.  Obviously, he needed to try a different tack.

“Was I really that bad to work for?”  He put on his best “emotionally wounded” face.  Marissa’s expression softened.  

“Dad, you weren’t, not really,” she said.  “I mean, you weren’t always EASY to work for.  But that’s actually been a good thing, because Mr. Barba isn’t always easy, either.”

She shifted in her chair and looked at him through her eyelashes, like she had when she was a child and was trying to make up for doing something wrong.  Eli was momentarily taken aback, even though he had been expecting it.  Sometimes she looked so much like a teenager that moments like this reminded him how adult she had become.

“What do you mean?  IS he a dick?”  Finally, he was getting somewhere.

“No, no, nothing like THAT,” Marissa said quickly.  “He’s just tough.  He expects a lot, demands near perfection.  He hates surprises, and he hates stupid mistakes.  He’s a perfectionist, and he demands it of other people, too.  But working for you made Mr. Barba easier for me to handle, because you are basically the same guy.”

“I don’t demand PERFECTION…” It sounded as half-hearted as he felt saying it.  Marissa let out a high-pitched laugh.

“Dad, you’re obsessed with details, you say yourself that you hate amateurs, and you think of every possible way something might go wrong even if there’s ZERO chance in hell of it happening.  You’re also the most honest person I have ever met, for better or worse, and you have zero social life.  You are EXACTLY like him.”

“HEY!” Eli snapped.  “I don’t have NO social life.  I go out!”

Marissa shook her head.  “Going on a date with a glass of scotch every night doesn’t count.  Trust me.  You are exactly like my boss.”

Eli sighed.  He had to consider all of this, quickly adding each bullet point to the lists of pros and cons in his head: Demanding and straightforward, might come across as an asshole in the press.  Scratch that.  WILL come across like an asshole in the press.  On the other hand, probably knows better than to say anything truly stupid for me to have to fix.

The waiter came back with a second beer for Marissa, and asked Eli if he wanted another scotch.  His daughter’s words still reverberating in his head, he declined.

“So you think you’re doing well, then, at your job?”  He was on a roll.  Why not press his luck?  She nodded as she drank.

“Yep.  Been there a year and a half now, I must be doing something right.  The nice thing about him is, if you’re fucking up--”

“When did you get so vulgar, Mother Teresa?”

“--shut up.  If you’re fucking up, he’ll tell you right then.  It’s not like some bosses where they save it all up for a performance review and hit you with it then.  You will KNOW when you’re fucked.”

“Huh.  Maybe he’s more like me than I thought,” Eli replied.  Could be problematic from a PR standpoint after all, but wouldn’t let himself be Petered in a debate.

Their pizza arrived, and as soon as the waiter set it down, Marissa wasted no time in folding it in half and taking a bite.  Eli, on the other hand, placed it onto his plate and dabbed it with his napkin to remove the grease.  Then, he picked up his knife and fork and was about to cut into it when--

“DAD!  Seriously?”  The knife clattered angrily as he dropped it onto the plate, startled by Marissa’s sudden outburst.  

“What?”  He snapped, mostly unintentionally.  “What now?”

“A knife and fork?  You of all people are going to DiBlasio this?”  He rolled his eyes so hard they might have momentarily been inside his brain.  Refusing to give her the satisfaction of eye contact, he set his utensils down, folded the slice in half, and took a bite.

“Anyway, if we can stop critiquing my eating habits and get back to YOU…”

“When was this about me?  You seem more into my boss than anything else.  You know…”  She tipped her head, and suddenly, a knowing look crossed her face.  

“What?”  

“Dad, it’s okay.  You don’t need to lie to me.”

Eli was genuinely confused now.  “Lie?  About what?”

“It’s kind of obvious,” she said, lowering her voice slightly.  “Being squirrely about the texting, not seeing Natalie in a while, asking all these questions about my boss who you JUST met today…”  

It took him a minute, but he quickly realized what the implication was.  The bite of pizza he’d just taken lodged in his throat.  He  guzzling the rest of his scotch and his glass of water to force it down.  Marissa stared at him, open mouthed.

When he could finally speak again, he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Marissa.  I’m not gay.  NOT.  Gay.  Not that there’s anything WRONG with being gay, but I am most assuredly sexually attracted to women--”

“OH-KAY, dad, that’s all I need to hear.  Not gay.  Got it,” she said, wishing she could go about five minutes back in time.  “But, so, wait… if this isn’t a date thing, then what is it?”

The slightest hint of a smile passed across Eli’s face.

“Remember when you said that I have two weaknesses?  Natalie, and politics?”

Marissa nodded.

“Well,” Eli said, taking his phone out of his coat pocket, “it wasn’t Natalie.”

Chapter Text

"I called in a favor," Peter Florrick said. "It's not like I think you can't get clients on your own. But I thought this might make it a little easier for you to at least get started out there."

Eli rubbed his forehead, clutching his cell to his ear. "You know you shouldn't have done that, Peter. It could look bad - if not now, then definitely later. Favors always come back to bite you."

"It was nothing, Eli. After everything you've done for me these last five years, it's the least I could do. This isn't Senate Candidate Peter Florrick giving his former Chief of Staff a quid pro quo. This is Peter Florrick giving his friend an employment lead." Eli could almost see Peter's grin through the phone. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"Well, then… thanks, Peter."

"No problem. Hey, by the way, how's Marissa's job working out?"

"She seems to be happy," Eli said. "Her boss is… well, he's good at his job."

Peter chuckled. "Alicia's heard from Marissa that he's a real hardass. Sounds like someone I know."

Eli rolled his eyes. "Was I that hard for EVERYONE to work with?!"

"Yes," Peter replied. "But that's what made YOU good at YOUR job. Listen, I've gotta go, Johnny has me scheduled for back-to-back meetings with constituents all morning and then a speech at the Rotary tonight. Lemme know how things work out. And tell Marissa I said hi."

"Will do, Peter. Thanks again." He sat on the end of the bed, staring at the phone. Peter had just given him a lead on a firm in New York that was looking for reputation management - kind of like pre-emptive crisis management. It wasn't much, but it was more than he had at the moment. It wasn't even that he needed the money - it was that he was bored. He thought back to his conversation with Marissa two days prior. She was right. I don't have a life.

Of course, at that same dinner, he had been flirting with the idea that her boss would be a good candidate to run for the upcoming District Attorney election in just over a year's time. But Eli had a hunch that the guy was a natural for political office. From everything Marissa had told him, Rafael Barba was a thorn in the side of defense attorneys across the city, didn't tolerate bullshit, and had opinions on everything. Plus, in the five minutes Eli had spent with the man, he noticed a definite swagger that carries a politician through an election with optimism. It was hard to resist the lure of politics when confronted with that feeling of possibly discovering the next Barack Obama.

Ultimately, however, a hunch was not enough. It was stupid to fall back into politics when he didn't even have concrete evidence that it would be worth it. He looked up and caught his reflection in the mirror hanging across from him. He looked older than his fifty-two years. His once jet-black hair was starkly grey now. There were lines on his face that he didn't remember being there even yesterday. He had been doing what he could to reverse the aging process - running two miles every morning near the river, eating as healthy as possible (not an easy task since he barely knew how to make an omelet). He even sucked it up and bought a moisturizer in a vain attempt to curb the wrinkles around his eyes. But as exhilarating as the game could be, he was exhausted by it. Crisis management could be exhausting as well, but it was mostly routine with the occasional stressful hiccup. Politics was mostly stressful hiccups with the occasional routine.

He checked his watch. It was 9:00am now. He had to make it to this meeting by 10:00. He'd also promised Marissa he would come down to the courthouse for lunch before Barba's closing argument that afternoon. Sighing, he hoisted himself from the bed, in search of his marketing materials that were probably still buried in an unopened box.


"Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it doesn't look good for my client. There's no doubt he had sex with his accuser. He admits that much. Yes, the two of them were intoxicated. Yes, money changed hands. And yes, there's a witness to this sexual encounter."

John Buchanan rose in his chair and buttoned his rumpled suit jacket. The red-faced, sweaty man walked slowly around the defense table and headed toward the jury box. He took a quick glance at his client, Martin Pollack, who was sitting confidently at the table, watching his attorney's every move. Rafael could already feel the bile in his throat. He knew what was coming, having been in a courtroom with Buchanan before.

"But ask yourselves this: have you ever had a sexual encounter that you later regretted, even if only a little bit?" Buchanan leaned on the jury box, making eye contact with several of the jurors. "Most of us probably have. Maybe you weren't as attracted to that person in the sober light of day as you were in the drunken haze of the bar. Maybe you were lonely. Maybe both of you knew it was a mistake. But just because you regretted it, well... you know the difference between regret and rape."

Rafael took notes as Buchanan spoke, writing down all the stereotypical bullshit the man usually spewed. It was almost rote at this point, but Rafael wanted to be prepared to respond to any particularly nasty remarks.

"Let me bring your attention now to the recent witness the prosecution 'discovered' toward the end of this trial. Now, she claims that Mr. Pollack raped Ms. Robertson at Tau Omega's frat house, and that she walked in on it while it was happening. But if that's the case, why didn't she try and stop it? Why not say something before now? Or is it possible that what she witnessed was merely consensual, drunken sex between two college students? She was, after all, subpoenaed by the prosecution - perhaps she was feeling pressure from the D.A.'s office to testify a certain way."

A half second later, Rafael was on his feet. "Objection!"

"Sustained," the judge replied. "You know better than that, Mr. Buchanan."

Buchanan smiled and turned back to the jury. "I'm sure you want to know why, if there was no rape, Mr. Pollack's family would have given Ms. Robertson money. The answer is simple: because she demanded it. She knew Mr. Pollack was from a wealthy family. So she decided to make a profit. And rather than risk this precise situation, Mr. Pollack opted to pay the ransom she placed on his reputation."

Buchanan walked back to stand in front of the prosecutor's table, and pointed toward the victim, Stephanie Robertson, who was sitting just behind the bar. Rafael got a faint whiff of cheap whiskey, and held his breath.

"This woman claims that she was raped. Despite the fact that the hospital reports a rape kit being taken, it wasn't introduced into evidence. The only physical evidence introduced were photographs taken at the hospital of her "injuries," which were merely unfortunate consequences of the rough sex to which she consented and enjoyed! She didn't tell anyone else about this alleged rape until six months later when, playing the victim yet again, she made a, quote, suicide attempt. Does that sound like a rape victim or an attention-starved young woman?"

Once again, Rafael leapt from his chair. "Ob-JECTION!"

The judge barely contained her own contempt when she sustained the objection. Rafael knew what was coming next, so well that he unconsciously mouthed the words right along with Buchanan, who had walked back to his client's side.

"There is a victim here, ladies and gentlemen. But it is not Ms. Robertson. My client is the victim. Don't re-victimize him by putting him in prison for a crime he did not commit."

Even from the back row of the gallery, Marissa could sense her boss's desire to roll his eyes. So she did it for him. John Buchanan was the most disgusting man Marissa had ever met, and that was saying something considering she had worked in Chicago politics. From the cheap suits covering his flabby body to his abhorrent courtroom practices, Buchanan was the perfect embodiment of the stereotypical defense attorney. That would have been comical if, in so many cases, it weren't so effective. From what Mr. Barba had told her, Buchanan was his least favorite defense attorney to deal with, primarily because he presented the biggest challenge. Jurors tended to buy the bullshit Buchanan presented, because he did it so theatrically.

Still, Marissa knew, Buchanan was sweating this one. Otherwise, he wouldn't have called Mr. Barba the past Friday trying for a last-minute deal. Most attorneys would be intimidated by the high-profile nature of the case and might have taken the deal. But not Rafael Barba. He was a stubborn son of a bitch and when he knew he had the upper hand, he dug his heels in even more. Sometimes Marissa didn't know whether it was because of his ego or his desire to help victims - maybe a little bit of both.

The judge adjourned court for an hour, and Marissa headed toward the prosecutor's table to see if her boss wanted anything to eat. Psh, she scoffed. If the man ever turns down lunch, I'll have to have him admitted to the hospital. She pushed past the horde of reporters, spectators, and paralegals until she reached the bar between the gallery and the attorneys.

"Mr. Barba, did you want anything for lunch? My Dad's on his way here to meet me, and we're just going to the little Thai place on Bayard, so I could bring you back something if you want."

Rafael smiled. Marissa could always be counted on to try and feed him. She sometimes referred to it as her "inner Jewish mother, trying to escape."

"Yeah, thanks," he replied, shoving papers into his briefcase. "Ah… Red Curry. Let me know what I owe you and I'll expense it out." He gave her a curt nod and took off for the side exit, likely to revise his closing with whatever he found noteworthy from Buchanan's remarks. Marissa whipped back around and quite nearly knocked over her father.

"JESUS!" She stumbled backward and caught herself on the bar. "Are you trying to kill me?"

"Tempting," Eli said, echoing her words from the past weekend as he helped upright her. "But I'd miss these little moments."

"Ha ha," she said, brushing past him. "We need to get it to go, by the way. Boss needs food."

Eli raised an eyebrow, following her out the courtroom door as she dialed a number on her phone. "And you have to get it for him why?"

"Because he doesn't like milk, and I'm a good bodywoman." She stopped at the front door of the courthouse, pulling Eli to the side with her. "Yes, hello. Two red curries and a pad thai, to go, please? Yes. Yes, when I get there. About ten minutes? Thanks."

"I'm assuming you just ordered our lunch," Eli said.

"And got you the most boring thing on the menu, as usual," she replied. "Let's go. We can eat once I deliver his."

"When did you get so bossy?" They headed out of the courtroom, hustling past reporters and attorneys. Eli had to take two steps to each of Marissa's just to keep up.

"Probably an inherited trait," she said. A light rain had just started when Eli had arrived at court, cooling the sticky summer air just enough to make the walk bearable. The two were silent for most of the five-minute walk.

"You seem focused," Eli said, glancing over at her as they came up on their destination. "Is he going to die if he doesn't get food right away?"

"Quite possibly," she replied. "You know those Snickers commercials where someone's so hungry they turn into Betty White?"

"Got it," he said. "Feed the Golden Girl."

Marissa was quickly in and out of the restaurant, and handed Eli the warm bag of food.

"Seriously?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Seriously," she said. "Did you think I invited you for company?" He rolled his eyes but carried the bag anyway. As they headed back, it felt like she was walking double-time. It was even worse when she all but ran up the courthouse steps.

"Jesus, Marissa, do you want me to have a heart attack?" He struggled to catch his breath as he caught up with her.

"Not quite yet. Give me the bag, I need to run this in. Meet me at 2B. We've got about half an hour to eat before I have to get back in there."

As Marissa disappeared into the crowded hallway, Eli headed back to the courtroom and stepped inside. He hadn't been in a courthouse since Peter's first gubernatorial election, when the feds were investigating him for voter fraud. Walking past the bar and over to the defense table, he became irrationally nervous. Always the picture of confidence, he hadn't admitted to anyone that he had been genuinely scared. Although he hadn't engaged in anything illegal, he also knew innocence wasn't always enough to keep a person out of prison. He began to wonder just how many innocent people were persecuted every day. It was so easy to twist facts into fictions. He knew, because he did it for a living.

"Okay, Dad, you hungry?" He spun around with a start as Marissa came barrelling into the room with the bag of food.

"Again, old man. Weak heart," he said. "And yes." They headed back out of the courtroom and sat on a nearby bench.

He dug into his mediocre pad thai. "Oh, by the way, how'd what's-his-name do this morning?"

Marissa shrugged. "It was exactly what we expected. Same old bullshit excuses: she wanted it, the witness is lying, my client's a choir boy. This dude is so predictable. I'm surprised Mr. Barba actually has to revise his closing at all."

Eli cocked his head. "So why is he? Revising it, I mean."

"Because he's thorough and an overthinker. But that's part of his job. He's said before that the one thing you fail to mention is the one thing the jurors will want to hear about."

Eli considered this. A careful guy. Likes to be prepared.

Then he told himself to shut up.

"How'd your meeting with that client go?" Marissa had already plowed through half of her curry. He made a "so-so" motion with his free hand. "That's optimistic of you."

"It wasn't that it was bad," he said. "It was that they just don't need any actual crisis managing right now, so I'd basically just be on an as-needed basis. Which is fine, but… boring."

"Isn't the point supposed to be that you amass tons of clients so that you've always got something to do?"

"Yeah, why?"

"If you're trying to build a client base, you should probably, I don't know, take some clients."

"I am taking clients!" Eli snapped. "I just want to take clients who actually need me."

"Just because someone doesn't need you right this second doesn't mean you don't need them."

He stared at her open-mouthed. "That was… kind of astute."

"Thanks for the tone of surprise," she replied. Her phone buzzed. She took it out of her purse and silenced it. "Okay, court's back in ten minutes." With that, she grabbed Eli's half-full bowl of food and tossed it, along with her own, into the trash.

"HEY! Did it look like I was done with that?"

"Don't know, don't care. You're about to see a good show. See you in a few minutes. Go get a good seat." Marissa waved him off and headed down the hall. Eli turned and saw the media filing back toward the courtroom, so he took Marissa's advice and headed in.


When he was a child, Rafael used to imagine he would be an actor someday. He had a flair for the dramatic, and, although he was a nervous public speaker, he learned how to act as though he were the most confident person in the room. The more he did it, the more natural it became. At this point, he could deliver a strong closing argument without much effort at all. Over lunch, he had reviewed his notes on Buchanan's closing. Thankfully there was nothing surprising to necessitate any last-minute revisions. He was entirely too predictable sometimes. Rafael also knew he had the upper hand based on Buchanan's last-ditch effort to plead out on Friday. All of that being said, even the best actors got stage fright before a performance.

After bringing the jury back and calling court to order, the judge nodded toward Rafael. "Mr. Barba, proceed."

Rising from his seat and buttoning his jacket, he stepped from behind the table and took a deep breath. Here we go. Don't fuck it up.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "like any sexual assault case, we are asking you to decide one overarching question: whether the sex was consensual. It's my job to prove to you that it was not, beyond a reasonable doubt. But the key is just that: REASONABLE doubt. You are all reasonable people. So, given that Mr. Pollack has offered you his version of events, I want you to consider each part of that version of events. I want you to think about them carefully. And then ask yourselves, are they reasonable?

"Mr. Pollack claims that the sex was consensual. The day after the incident, Ms. Robertson went to the hospital. She had a rape kit done. This has been documented. Whether or not we have the results of the rape kit is irrelevant. The question you need to answer is, is it reasonable to believe that someone who had not been assaulted would subject herself to an invasive procedure such as that? No.

"Ms. Robertson had massive internal injuries, including tears to her cervix. She had a concussion from banging her head on the headboard. She had bruising on her neck from where he choked her. You saw evidence of these injuries in photographs and X-rays. Is it reasonable to believe that these injuries were sustained during the course of consensual sex, no matter how rough? No. Is it reasonable to believe that Ms. Robertson would have elected to have sex in the middle of a frat party, with a door that was wide open? Absolutely not."

Rafael was on a roll. His stage fright fell away, revealing the strong, fast-talking attorney underneath. He approached the jury box, leaning on it casually. Confidently.

"Now, defense counsel asked a question about our witness. Why did Joanna Briggs only recently come forward to testify? Well, she has already answered that for you. As she testified, she knew that Mr. Pollack came from a politically and socially powerful family. I'm sure you can imagine how intimidating it would be for anyone to accuse a prominent politician's son of rape, much less a nineteen year old who still has to go to school with him. Furthermore, Ms. Briggs did not know Ms. Robertson at the time of the rape. She has no connection to her, not even any mutual friends. She just happened to be at the same party. So is it reasonable to believe that she has any reason to lie about this crime? No.

"That's also why she didn't intervene. As a nineteen year old girl, intimidated by the potential backlash against her, she made a judgment call. Whether or not we agree with it does not change what she witnessed. Is it reasonable to believe that just because a witness did not attempt to stop a rape in progress, the rape did not occur? No. Mr. Buchanan also suggested that Ms. Briggs is lying under oath because of a subpoena. By that logic, every witness who testifies under subpoena - for the prosecution OR for the defense - is lying simply by virtue of having been subpoenaed. Is that reasonable? Of course not."

He realized he might have gone a bit far with his contempt for John Buchanan's implication that his office intimidated a witness. But he felt that if he didn't display at least some anger, the jury wouldn't realize how ludicrous it was. He knew it could also alienate the jury, but he was willing to run that risk. He slowly paced in front of the jury box, reminding himself to slow his words.

"Ms. Robertson has also testified under oath. She has stated that Mr. Pollack raped her on the night of November 1, 2014. That he drugged her, took her to a bedroom in the Tao Omega frat house, and proceeded to violently assault her. Ms. Briggs saw it, but, as with so many witnesses, didn't want to come forward. Ms. Robertson didn't tell anyone about the rape, other than the hospital, but did not call the police. Again, this is common. Mr. Pollack's family, fearing the consequences to their political and social standing, paid Ms. Robertson to keep quiet. And eventually, Ms. Robertson was so consumed with what had happened to her, she attempted suicide. Does Mr. Buchanan's version sound more reasonable than this?"

Eli sat up a little straighter in his seat. He had seen dozens of politicians flub speeches, self-destruct in televised interviews, and go off track in debates. But he had never seen someone under this much pressure totally obliterate his opponent's arguments in such a calm, logical, eloquent manner.

Rafael half-turned toward the defendant, pointing a finger in his direction. This was the final point he had to make, the last thing the jury would hear before they went into deliberations. Make it count, Rafael.

"Mr. Buchanan wants you to believe that the victim rolled over and asked for sex with the defendant. He wants you to believe that the witness in this case rolled over and lied under oath because of a subpoena. He wants you to believe that his client rolled over and succumbed to alleged threats of extortion - threats of which he has no proof, by the way. And now, he is asking you to roll over and ignore the reasonable answer to the only question left to be answered: was this a rape? The answer to THAT question, ladies and gentlemen, is a resounding YES."

Eli's eyes narrowed. His brain was rapid-firing. He noticed the way Rafael stood, chest out, shoulders back. It could only be described as a power stance. He talked fast, but made sense. He was logical, he was forceful, and he was clearly passionate about the whole justice thing.

"Marissa, I think-" Eli whispered. Marissa elbowed him in the ribcage. "OW!"

"Shhhh! Not now!"

Rafael walked back to his table, unbuttoned his jacket, and sat back down. Almost immediately, he started analyzing his own performance. It was a holdover habit from law school. People always said not to think about your exams after they were done, but he would sit there thinking about all the points he'd forgotten to make. Meanwhile, the judge adjourned court for the remainder of the day. The jury would be instructed and begin deliberations in the morning.

The gallery began to file out of the room, but Eli sprang from his seat and pushed through the crowd, heading directly toward Rafael. He had to find a good opening to broach this topic, starting with sucking up.

"Dad, what the hell-Dad!" Marissa called after him, but he barely heard her. "Great…"

Rafael was packing his suitcase when Eli came striding toward him.

"Well," Eli said. "That was… something." Rafael shrugged.

"Just doing my job," he said. "What are you doing here anyway?"

"Oh, Marissa and I went to lunch. She wanted me to come see your argument. Said it would be a sure winner." Marissa caught up to Eli just in time to overhear him.

"DAD!" She hissed. A small smile crept onto Rafael's lips.

"My assistant thinks far too highly of me," he said, snapping his briefcase shut. "Hopefully she's not wrong. Anyway, I hate to cut this short, but I have a pile of paperwork on my desk, and I'd like to be knee-deep in scotch by 8, so if you'll forgive me…"

"I'll walk with you," Eli said, turning to Marissa. "Gotta catch a cab anyway. I'll call you later." Marissa stared at her father, open-mouthed.

They left the now-empty courtroom, and Rafael was about to head toward the front doors, but stopped when he realized there was a group of reporters still huddled in the hallway. He turned in the opposite direction, and Eli had to jump to the side to avoid a collision. Rafeal didn't seem to notice. "I hate dealing with them," Rafael said, rolling his eyes. "It's the worst part of the job."

"Don't blame you," Eli said. "The press has a unique way of getting the story they want instead of the story that's true. You know how there's a gaggle of geese? That down there is a migraine of reporters."

Rafael laughed as they rounded a corner and headed out the side exit of the courtroom. The rain had cleared, so now the humidity was picking back up. "You were in politics, after all."

Eli found the opening he was looking for. "Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you if you've ever considered running."

Rafael let out something between a laugh and a snort. When Eli didn't respond, he spun around to face him. "I'm sorry, were you serious?"

"I'm very serious," Eli said, using a corresponding "serious face."

"I cannot begin to tell you how uninterested I am in holding political office," Rafael said, looking at his watch. "I'm good at my job. I'd like to keep doing it. Which is where I'm going to leave this, because I really do have a pile of paperwork. It was nice seeing you again, Eli."

Eli had seen this before, potential candidates who had no interest in office. Alicia had been one of them, until the State's Attorney had exploited Will Gardner's death. He just had to find whatever Rafael's weakness was, the thing that would piss him off enough to want to get involved.

Eli squinted thoughtfully as he watched Rafael march down the street. "Okay, Mr. Barba," he said. "Challenge accepted."

Chapter Text

His hands curled into fists, but he couldn't move. Somehow he'd been restrained in the corner of the room, ankles and wrists tied together in front of him. He tried to scream, but it was muffled by the tape covering his mouth. The only thing that wasn't restricted was his vision. His suit was ripped to shreds, and part of his tie had been burned off. He could feel something wet and warm running down the side of his face. It had to have been blood. And then, he looked up. Olivia was tied to the bed, stripped of all her clothing save for her underwear. She wasn't crying, but she was obviously in pain and afraid. There were burn marks on her thighs, on her breasts. He could see the imprint of a twisted piece of metal along her torso.

Then, he saw William Lewis standing in the corner opposite him, holding a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"Counselor," Lewis said, a terrifying smile on his face. "Glad you could join our little party."

Rafael struggled against the zip-ties. He needed to get up, to fight, to keep Lewis from hurting Liv even more. But it was useless. He felt heavy, like he was moving underwater. Lewis came over to him and crouched down. Rafael could smell burned flesh and nicotine. It made him want to throw up. He looked away, then felt a punch in his gut. Suddenly winded, he gasped against the tape.

"Now come on, Mr. Barba," Lewis said. "You don't want to miss this. After all, it's because of you that we're here." He slapped Rafael's cheek lightly, appreciatively, and then stood up and slowly walked back to Liv.

Rafael locked eyes with her for a split second. Her panicked expression betrayed her strong facade. I'm sorry, Liv, I'm so sorry.


All of a sudden, he was in his bedroom, sitting straight up in bed. His sheets were soaked with sweat, and the comforter had twisted around his legs. Marbury headbutted his arm, trying to comfort him. He petted her between the ears and tried in vain to smile. It had been a few months since he'd had this particular nightmare, but this time was even worse. He could FEEL the blood on his head. It was disturbing.

As his breathing slowly returned to normal, he checked his phone. 5:15. Might as well get up anyway. Marbury was already halfway out the door when he tossed the covers off and stood up. He pushed his hair off of his face and walked sleepily toward the kitchen. She meowed at him, demanding breakfast.

"Yeah, I get it, but you're gonna have to wait." He flipped on the coffee machine and then the light. Priorities, he thought. Then he went back down the hallway into the bathroom. His shirt was still damp, so he took it off and tossed it in the hamper. He turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water on his face. As it ran down his neck, he leaned on the vanity. He couldn't bring himself to look in the mirror. Outside, Marbury scratched at the door.

"Okay, okay," he sighed. "I'm coming."

Thankfully, the coffee had finished brewing. He grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured the first of many cups he would have that day. He tried to focus on pragmatic things. In particular, he was hoping the Pollack jury would come back today. They had been given the case the previous Tuesday afternoon, after instructions. It was now Monday, and they still hadn't come back. Three days isn't that bad, he reminded himself.

But when a jury didn't come back within a day, he still worried he fucked it up. Maybe he had pushed too hard, protested too much. Maybe he alienated the jury. Dozens of ways he could have failed flooded his mind. He hadn't been the same since William Lewis. Although he still presented the same bravado and confidence in public, his faith in his own abilities as a prosecutor was broken.

By now, Marbury was rubbing impatiently against his calf. He scooped some food into her bowl, and suddenly he was the least important thing in her life.

"Sure, use me and lose me." I'm talking to my cat. Where did my life go wrong?

The nightmare still had him shaken. He finished his coffee and headed for the shower, thinking maybe he could wash it away if he scrubbed hard enough.


"Good God," Eli said, reviewing the files Ronson & Associates had given him. "There's literally nothing here. Why did you hire me?"

"As I told you, Mr. Gold, this is a pre-emptive decision. We just want to have someone on staff in case one of our clients… well, in case we have a dispute," replied the managing partner, Stan Ronson. It had been a week since their initial meeting, during which Eli had given Stan a quick sales pitch before heading to court to meet Marissa. Apparently it was a passable effort, because they were now meeting to discuss the firm's specific needs.

"And what would this imaginary client have against you that they might settle your dispute publicly?"

"Well," Stan began, rather cautiously, "we do have several partners who privately support political candidates with views that… may conflict with our clients' interests."

And there it is, Eli thought. "And you think that somehow, this imaginary client may go after your firm for deliberately throwing cases based on that… private support."

"It's a possibility," Stan replied. "We are just being cautious. And you came highly recommended."

"By Peter Florrick. A Democrat. In Chicago. You have a Chicago office, yes?"

Stan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Mr. Gold, it's not that we discourage our employees from engaging in the political process."

"Of course not," Eli said. "It's just that you don't want anyone to know about it."

"That… sums it up," Stan said. "So, what would you suggest we do, proactively?"

Eli sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, first of all, stop getting recommendations from political candidates."

"I'm sorry?" Stan's brow furrowed.

"You don't want clients thinking that you're politically motivated? Why would you think hiring the former Chief of Staff for one of the most liberal governors in recent history would help that cause?"

"I- Mr. Gold, this has nothing to do with your political history."

Eli rolled his eyes and stood up, pacing the floor. "No, no. This is too stupid. You have a brain, I assume. You know damn well this is a terrible idea. So, that leaves me with one question: what are you REALLY after here? Why would you call Peter Florrick for a recommendation…"

Eli trailed off, the realization suddenly hitting him. He stared down the old man with his most piercing glare. "Your clients don't care who your employees support politically. You don't want reputation management. You want PETER, and you think hiring me is a way to kiss his ass."

Stan was back to doing the shifty-chair thing, not making eye contact. Good idea, Eli thought. He probably could have turned the man to stone with the anger in his eyes.

"Even if that's partially the case, Mr. Gold," Stan said, stressing the first two words, "we still do respect and value what you could offer our firm, and-"

Eli cut him off. "I appreciate your time, Mr. Ronson. But I can't be bought, and neither can Peter. I'll give him your regards when I speak to him tomorrow."

"Mr. Gold-" Stan called after him, but Eli ignored him, picking up his briefcase and striding out of the office in a huff. He was halfway to the elevator when his phone rang.

"What?!" He barked, pressing the first floor button repeatedly.

"Jeez, you sound like me when I'm having cramps," Marissa replied, unfazed. "Bad day?"

"Ugh, okay, first of all, too much information. Second, yes, I am having a bad day," Eli said. Mercifully, the elevator finally reached the ground floor. As if by magic, a cab appeared in front of the building. He all but threw himself into it, falling back against the cool leather. "Fifty-two, East 4th Street," he told the driver.

"I just wanted to check in and see how the follow up went," Marissa said. Eli's head hurt. He knew he was going to hear shit for this.

"Oh, uh, I had to fire them." He braced himself.

"Oh my God, seriously, Dad?" She wished she could reach through the phone and slap him. "Didn't we just have this discussion on Monday?"

"Look, I have a good reason this time! It turns out-" He didn't have time to finish his sentence before Marissa cut him off.

"Shit, sorry, I have to go. Mr. Barba just got a call. Jury's back." He heard a click and looked at his phone. He ran through the timeline in his head. If they were given the case on Tuesday, they had deliberated for three days. He didn't know trials well enough to know what that meant for Rafael's case. But if it ended up being a good thing, maybe the high of winning would be enough to convince him to run.

"Change of plans," Eli said to the driver. "I need to get to the Supreme Court."


Marissa wrote furiously on the yellow legal pad on one knee, balancing a notepad full of red and black ink on the other. She was trying to finalize the draft remarks to the press that her boss had handed her earlier in the day. She had managed to finalize the first of the two, prepared in anticipation of a not guilty. In hindsight, she should have started with the second one, because she had a feeling this was about to turn out very badly for Martin Pollack.

Rafael turned to look at her from the prosecution table. "Marissa, are you-"

"Going as fast as I can," she replied. "You're wordy."

He chuckled. "My specialty. Which way do you think?"

She barely glanced up. "You nailed it. He's screwed."

"I'm wordy, and you're succinct. Quite a pair we make," he replied. Just then, the door to the judge's chambers opened and the bailiff called for everyone to rise.

"Be seated," Judge Atkinson said. "Bailiff, you can bring the jury in now." The bailiff walked to the side door and led all the jury members into the box.

As the jury was seated and the judge gave her standard preliminary remarks, Eli opened the courtroom door just enough to wedge himself inside the packed space. Cameras had been banned from the room, but that didn't stop the press and spectators from cramming themselves in every crevice available to get a bite at the first report. He managed to squeeze between the last bench and the back wall, suddenly very glad he did not suffer from claustrophobia.

The bailiff handed Judge Atkinson the jury's verdict, and her face remained expressionless as she reviewed it. Nodding, she passed it back to the jury.

"Ms. Foreman, do you have a verdict?"

"We have, Your Honor."

"What say you?"

Rafael said a silent prayer. Not that it would change the verdict, of course, but sometimes he just felt the inclination. He didn't know who he was praying to, as he hadn't been a practicing Catholic in years, and his father's faith, well… regardless, it made him feel better. He held his breath and put on a stony face.

"On the charge of rape in the first degree, we find the Defendant…"

He needed to make this case. Not because it was high profile. Not because of his ego. Not because of a conviction rate that the D.A. wanted. He needed to win this because he didn't want to let another victim down, and he didn't want another potential victim to suffer. He hadn't lost many cases in the last three years, but every time he did, especially a rape case, he felt like he'd betrayed the victim's trust.

"...guilty."

The courtroom rang out with whoops of joy from Stephanie Robertson's side that competed with anguished cries from Martin Pollack's supporters. Through the chaos, Eli's eyes darted to the front of the court, taking note of Rafael's body language. Despite the fact that he knew this was a stressful case for the ADA, the man didn't even flinch. He stood rail-straight, hands at his sides. Completely stoic, a great poker face.

The judge continued. "Mr. Pollack, you are remanded to Rikers pending sentencing, which will be set for September 11. The court thanks the jury for their service. We are adjourned."

With a bang of the gavel, it was over. Rafael let out a deep exhale. The late nights, thousands of cups of coffee, newly-sprung grey hair, and five pounds he'd gained as a result of too much takeout had all been worth it. He turned around to look at Stephanie, who had already reached the bar.

"Thank you," she said, tears running down her pale cheeks and a smile spread wide across her face. Rafael thought this was the first time he had seen her smile since they met. He returned the gesture.

"You don't need to thank me. He was guilty. The jury saw that. They heard you. You did this, not me." He held out his hand to her, but instead, she threw her arms around him. He stiffened momentarily. He couldn't remember a single case where the victim had hugged him after a conviction. Maybe it was because he usually had to treat the victims harshly to prepare them for trial, so they didn't like him very much by the end. He glanced at Marissa, and she nodded at him as if to say, return the hug, dumbass.

He put one hand gingerly on Stephanie's back and patted it, and she pulled back. He lifted his briefcase. "We'll need you back in a week for sentencing, if you'd like to make an impact statement."

"Okay," Stephanie said, wiping her eyes. Marissa handed her a Kleenex which she'd pulled from her seemingly-bottomless bag. "I'll be here. And thank you, again. You don't know how much this means to me."

If only I didn't, he thought. As she walked out of the courtroom, he turned back to Marissa.

"Did you finish the remarks?"

"Have I ever let you down?" She handed him a piece of paper with the guilty verdict remarks neatly copied in her neat script.

"Not as of yet," he replied, scanning it briefly, trying to memorize as much of it as possible in the five minutes he had before he had to go deal with the vultures. The more he gave them up front, the fewer questions he had to answer. "Of course you know now we need to prepare sentencing remarks, and- oh, hello, Eli."

Marissa whipped around. The last time her father had come to court, he had completely embarrassed her. She feigned pleasantness.

"Dad… what are you doing here?"

"Well, when you told me the verdict was in, I wanted to come catch the action," Eli replied. "Congratulations, Counselor."

Rafael nodded. "He'll appeal of course."

Eli shrugged. "And I'm sure he'll be shot down."

Marissa frantically tried to think of a way to get Rafael out of there. Then she remembered the piece of paper he was holding. "Mr. Barba, you'd better get out to the steps before Buchanan makes his appeal to the court of public opinion."

"Right," Rafael said, straightening his tie. "Marissa, I'll see you at the office tomorrow. Take the rest of the day. Eli, glad I could give you a good show." He clapped Eli on the shoulder and strode out of the courtroom, sighing as he headed toward the mass of reporters parked on the steps of the courthouse.

Eli glared at Marissa, and she glared right back. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Like I said, when you said the verdict was in-"

"Dad, be real. I know you well enough to know you couldn't care less about my job," she said. "Come on. What are you doing?"

"I'm simply interested in the legal process," he said, his gaze drifting to the door. "Come on, let's walk out together. I'll take you to a late lunch."

Marissa rolled her eyes, acquiescing. "Fine, but it's gonna be a liquid lunch."

"Don't even think of ordering top shelf," he said. They headed toward the front of the courthouse, but as Marissa made her way to the side exit, Eli made a beeline right for the main doors. It wasn't until she turned to ask him which bar they were going to that she realized he wasn't with her. Shit, Marissa thought, a slow realization hitting her. Not this, not now. She ran back down the hall and burst through the main doors.

Eli was standing just a few steps above the circus surrounding her boss, off to the side. Listening, eyes flickering. She knew that once her father got this kind of insane idea in his head, nothing she could say would stop him. The most she could do is try to wrangle his crazy.

"Mr. Barba," one reporter shouted, "was this case brought because Martin Pollack is the deputy mayor's son? Were you just trying to make an example of a high-profile defendant?"

Eli stepped just a few inches closer. Rafael had read his prepared remarks, and then taken questions. Up until now, they had largely been pro-prosecution softballs: how do you feel about the guilty verdict? What will you ask for a sentence, given the attempt to bribe the victim? This wasn't just a curveball. It was a landmine.

But Rafael wasn't fazed at all. "Listen, this case was brought for the same reason that every other rape case is brought: rape is illegal. Every citizen - whether it's a celebrity, a politician, or a janitor - is given the same trial. The D.A.'s office didn't convict Ms. Pollack. A jury of his peers did."

Eli tilted his head, a slow smirk spreading across his face. This guy just didn't falter. He prepared, but he was also able to deviate from the script.

The reporters kept shouting, but Rafael put his hand up. "Sorry, kids, that's all I've got for today. I'm sure you can find a juror to interview if you look hard enough." With that, he pushed through the crowd and headed back toward his office.

Eli saw Marissa heading down the stairs toward him and held up his index finger. "I'll be right back!" Then he took off down the stairs to catch up to the prosecutor, leaving Marissa pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head.

"Nice encore," Eli called. Rafael turned around to see Eli jogging up to him. He appeared similarly overcaffeinated.

"You're awfully interested in me," he said. "I'll just get this out of the way now. Despite what people think about my fancy ties, I'm not gay."

Eli actually let out a genuine laugh. "Did you think I was?"

"Why else would you be following me around making small talk like an awkward teenager? I already have a pain-in-the-ass SVU detective who does that."

"Look," Eli said, "I know I sound like a crazy person right now, but I am not often wrong about things like this. You need to run."

Rafael leaned his head back and smirked. "Run away, you mean? Not a bad suggestion indeed."

Eli rolled his eyes. "You know what I meant. Run. For District Attorney. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."

"Like I told you, Eli, I'm not interested. For several reasons, not least of which is that my boss, the current D.A., hasn't said he's retiring. Do you often go after your boss's job?"

"Counselor, I make my living thinking one step ahead of everyone else. Before you even thought about it, I looked into it."

"What are you talking about?" Rafael's brow furrowed. He needed to get back to the office, but now he was interested.

"On Friday, the D.A. will be announcing his retirement. I've got it on good authority."

"'Good authority.' Forgive me if I'm not convinced," Rafael said, growing weary. "Tell you what. If he announces, I'll think about it. But I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. I can't imagine how you'd find that out and people who actually work for the man wouldn't."

Eli shrugged. "Simple. We may hate the press, but they leak like a broken faucet. Besides, you're not the only persuasive one. Just think about it." With that, Eli turned back toward the courthouse to face the music with Marissa, a self-satisfied grin on his face. If Rafael Barba is the star of the Manhattan D.A.'s office, Eli thought, then consider me the Rafael Barba of New York City politics.

Chapter Text

"Alicia?"

"I would hope so since you called my cell, Eli. What can I do for you?" Alicia Florrick was never one for pleasantries, which was one of the many reasons Eli liked her.

"Believe it or not, I need your advice," he replied, a little sheepishly.

"Excuse me, I think I just saw a pig fly outside." He could practically see her amused smile through the phone. Suddenly, in the background, he heard bickering.

-Good God, Cary. Who's the divorce attorney and who-

-David, do you see your name on the letterhead-

"Excuse me, can we keep it to a dull roar?" Alicia hissed away from the receiver.

Eli smiled, a little sadly, and leaned forward onto his knees. "I see nothing's changed there."

"Did you expect it to? Anyway, what do you need? And where are you? I hear birds."

"Um, somewhere in Central Park?"

"You're wandering the park in the middle of the day? Boy, this is serious."

He rolled his eyes. After spending his morning crawling the walls of his apartment, he had decided a change in scenery - literally - might help him figure out what his next play should be. So he threw on some (Marissa-purchased, totally-not-his-style) jeans, grabbed a latte, and headed to Central Park for a short walk. But he accidentally walked a bit too far, a bit too aimlessly. He had crossed Bow Bridge not long ago but had no idea where he was at the moment.

"You know Marissa's boss, right?"

"Know him as in know of him from Marissa? Yes, of course - Diane, would you please get those two away from each other, I'm trying to have a conversation - why do you ask?"

"Do you ever wish you hadn't resigned?" Eli asked.

"Every time David Lee is within earshot," Alicia said. "Anyway, you were saying?"

"Yeah, um, listen… I know you're going to think I'm either insane or a masochist, but if you met this guy, you'd understand."

Alicia sighed. "Oh, Eli, really?"

"What? I haven't even said it yet!" He collapsed onto a nearby bench and took a sip of his cold coffee.

"You don't have to. I know that tone," she said. "What is it? Does he have a strong jaw? A rags-to-riches back story?"

"You're so cynical," he replied. "And, well, yes, he does have sort of a rags-to-riches backstory, and his jaw is just fine, but that's not it."

"I assume you did some research on him and this isn't just a gut feeling you're going on," Alicia said.

"Of course," he lied, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Eli, I can tell when you're lying, even over the phone." She sighed thoughtfully. "Okay, first, do you remember how you got me to run?"

"By… annoying you until you gave in?"

She laughed brightly, a sound he didn't realize how much he missed until he heard it. "Well, as persuasive as that WASN'T, there was something else. You brought me all the polling of course, but you also had other people talk to me. For instance, your little stunt with Gloria Steinem?"

Eli grinned. He had done a good job of keeping his involvement a secret until just a month ago, when Gloria and Alicia had been at a charity event. Gloria finally spilled the beans. Thankfully, Alicia had not boarded a plane to murder him.

"If he's as tough to convince as I was, you'll need to attack this in the same way. You are just some ambitious lunatic to him-"

"HEY!"

"So, you need someone he respects to mention it to him."

Eli pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay. Fine. What else?"

"Eli, you're not an idiot. You know what you're doing here." Alicia suddenly sounded concerned. "This isn't you. What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"You're lying again."

"It's a gift, you know."

"Or a curse," she replied.

He sighed heavily. "I'm not as young as I used to be. I haven't run a campaign in years. What if-"

He could hear David Lee (or, as Eli referred to him, Satan Himself) complaining to Alicia about something having to do with Cary.

"What if you suddenly remembered that you're the reason Peter didn't lose his Gubernatorial election, or his State's Attorney election? Or that you were an extremely valuable member of his cabinet for years? Yes, David, I hear you, but I am not going to tell Cary that he can't take a divorce case-"

"Yes, but that was-"

Alicia cut him off. "Yes, it was just a couple years ago -go away, David - so, you might still remember that the other half of this equation is finding the thing that personalizes the matter for the candidate and running with it."

Eli raised his eyebrows. "You mean…"

"You knew how much I hated Castro for how he handled Will's murder, and for Cary's prosecution. But you were willing to endorse him anyway, to pressure me into running. I hated it at the time, Eli. And truth be told, I hated you for it. But it was smart politicking. Yes, Diane, I'll be there in a second."

He lowered his eyes and smiled into his lap. "Duty calls?"

"Heavy lies the crown," she replied. "Would you tell Marissa that I said hello, and that I could use her advice on something if she has a few moments? It's nothing urgent, I just figured you would talk to her before I have a chance to call."

"Sure, absolutely," he replied.

"It's just something with Grace, and, well… Grace likes her. Respects her. That's all."

"Got it. Alicia… I really, um… appreciate it." He was never good at thank-yous or apologies. At least this time he didn't have to give both at once.

"You're welcome, Eli. Call more often than when you need something." With that, he heard her hang up the phone just as she started to yell after Cary.

His phone immediately buzzed, with a text message from Marissa: Are you done playing politician now?

She had abandoned him at the courthouse the day before and hadn't returned his phone calls that night. He assumed she was angry with him for embarrassing her in front of her boss… again. He was half a second away from pressing send on a snarky reply when he hesitated, his thumb hovering over the button. Instead, he pressed the call button on her speed dial and started walking back toward the Bow Bridge. This time, she answered.

"I assume that's a yes," she said. She tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder and carried a stack of files to her boss's desk. He was, thankfully, at lunch.

"Hello to you too," he replied, with the tiniest bit of sarcasm until he remembered his goal. "Look. I know you've been avoiding me. I don't blame you."

"I don't blame me either," she said, falling back into her desk chair. "You've completely embarrassed me twice in front of my boss. The boss I have had to work for a year to impress. Remember when I asked the intern if she was wearing panties and you were basically hiding under your desk for a week? That's how I felt, except I had an excuse when I did it: you WANTED someone to ask."

As soon as she paused for a breath, Eli took the opportunity.

"I know. And I'm sorry. I am. It was wrong to ignore your feelings in the situation. I shouldn't have just invaded your life. That was... wrong." He was doing his best to sound sincere.

She didn't say anything.

"Come on, Marissa, I'm serious. I'm an asshole, you know that."

"Yep, I do," she finally sighed. "But, you're my asshole, so I guess I'm stuck. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that he doesn't seem pissed or anything. Actually, he was more amused than anything else. So you're off the hook. Just do me a favor and stop showing up here and at court unannounced."

"I promise, I won't show up there unannounced anymore. And I'll take your feelings into consideration from now on. So," he said, "how would you feel about talking to your boss about running?"

He heard a sound that resembled a book being thrown at a wall. "Oh my GOD, are you even hearing yourself right now?"

"What?!" He said. "I ASKED this time!"

"You don't get it, do you? You really don't understand the position you're putting me in. I am this guy's employee, not yours!" She put her hand on her forehead. "I am not your minion. I'm not someone you can manipulate. I LEARNED manipulation from you."

"Exactly," he said. "He doesn't know me. He has no reason to trust me. You, he trusts. I saw that last time I was at court."

"And why would I want to abuse this alleged 'trust' by manipulating him into doing what you think he should do? What if I don't think it's a good idea?"

Eli wandered past a rather large rock that he thought looked familiar. "Do you know if you can Google Map your way out of Central Park?"

"What?"

"Nevermind," he said. "Anyway, I promise you, it's a good idea. But if you want to decide for yourself, I'll tell you what. I'll do some polling. Would that convince you?"

"That'd be a start," she replied. "At least that way I'd know it wasn't just you on some crazy attempt to avoid doing something else because it's hard."

Despite himself, Eli smiled. "Fine. I'll get the numbers. In the meantime, is there anything I really need to know about the guy?"

"Yes."

There was silence. Eli looked at his phone to make sure he hadn't lost reception in the annals of the park.

"Uh, well?"

"You'll figure it out on your own, if you're that invested." And then, for the second time in an hour, he was hung up on, left to find his own way home.


Marissa slammed her phone down on the desk just as Rafael walked back into the office, carrying a drink carrier with two soda to-go cups and a white Chipotle bag. He made a face that was a cross between concerned and amused, and raised a thick eyebrow. "Telemarketers just don't get the hint, do they?"

She looked up and smiled helplessly. He had to have known it wasn't a telemarketer, but she appreciated his willingness to pretend otherwise. "Yeah, I keep putting that number on the do-not-call list, but somehow it keeps getting through."

He dropped the drink carrier and the bag down on her desk and pulled out a burrito bowl. "Let's see if I got it right. Black beans, rice, extra guac, sour cream, cheese, corn salsa?" He placed it, along with one of the drinks, in front of her. She eyed it suspiciously.

"You're doing my job again," she called after him as he walked into his office with the rest of the food.

"You can go back to waiting on me hand and foot tomorrow," he replied.

She took a sip of the drink and was surprised that he remembered she liked iced tea better than diet soda. While plowing through the calorie-laden bowl, she fired off a half-dozen emails she had been drafting to him over the course of the morning, the final one containing notes for the sentencing hearing.

"Marissa," he called out, just as she hit send on the last one. "Did you get me the-"

"Just sent them," she said over her shoulder. "It's my job to be one step ahead of you. You should get that by now."

Suddenly, her boss was standing in front of her. His head was cocked to one side, arms crossed. He didn't look mad, but he also didn't usually reappear from his office once he'd barricaded himself inside it. There was a bit of sour cream on his lip. She wondered if she should point it out.

"Okay, I meant that figuratively, not literally. If you need something, you can just yell."

"Could you repeat what you just said?"

"About being one step ahead of you?"

"Yeah, that," he replied. "Come in here for a second, would you?"

Great, she thought, following him into his office. This guy goes more hot and cold than April in Chicago. He let her in first and shut the door behind her.

"Listen, Mr. Barba," she said, "I didn't mean to imply that you're not competent at your job or something like that. Sometimes my big mouth just shoots off before I have a chance to think about-"

"Marissa," Rafael said, sitting on the edge of his desk, "did I give you the impression I'm angry with you? I'm not." When he saw that she visibly relaxed, he motioned for her to sit down. He took a seat across from her - not at his desk, but in one of the seats reserved for visitors. He leaned on one of the arms.

"It occurs to me that in the year you've worked for me, I've learned very little about you other than your Chipotle order and that you like piano rock."

Marissa's mouth opened just a bit, and Rafael smirked. "What, you think I'm not aware that you scramble to turn it off when you think you hear me coming in the morning? By the way, it's really okay if you keep it on low. As long as I'm not hearing vulgarities coming from your speakers, it doesn't bother me. This is a law office, not a morgue."

"Okay then," she replied, absently playing with an errant string on the arm of her sweater. "My love of Ben Folds and MIKA can be unleashed upon the office. But, and please, don't take this the wrong way, why do you care all of a sudden? Like you said, I've been here a year now. It's not like it impacts my job, does it?"

"Can I speak freely?"

"Have you not met the person who fathered me? Like I'm going to get offended."

He laughed. "This is exactly why I hired you. I appreciate that you're professional, but you still speak your mind and don't deal in bullshit like most of the people I come into contact with during my day."

Marissa shrugged. "I got used to dealing with bullshit in my last job. I just tend to ignore it."

"You were Alicia Florrick's assistant, right?"

"EXECUTIVE assistant," she corrected. "I basically ran her life until she resigned from office."

"What'd you do before that?"

"I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, took care of animals, and served in the IDF. And I worked at Starbucks. You know, typical college student stuff," she said. "I know Alicia made a call for me, but did you even read my resume?"

"To be honest, I didn't. HR usually just assigns assistants to attorneys. But apparently I've got a bit of a reputation as being... difficult. So they gave me someone who could... handle me, I suppose."

"Funny you put it that way," she replied, uncrossing and recrossing her legs. "My Dad gave me the job as Alicia's 'handler' thinking I would be a good girl and do what I was told. Too bad for him that he had a hand in raising me."

"I get the impression that your father is a pretty... ambitious guy?" Rafael tried to choose his words carefully. Marissa, however, was the one smirking now.

"What was that about not bullshitting?"

He grinned sheepishly and put his hands up. "You caught me. Okay, fine. What's the deal with your Dad?"

She sighed. "I kinda figured this was coming. He's been a freak when it comes to you, and I was just hoping you would pretend not to notice."

"Please don't misunderstand. I'm not blaming you. Lord knows I spend enough time apologizing to judges on behalf of rogue detectives. I just want to know why he's pestering me about running for District Attorney. He barely knows anything about me."

Marissa looked toward the ceiling helplessly. Damn her father for dragging her into this. But even she couldn't deny it - he was right. "Look, I know you think my Dad's insane-"

"I didn't say-"

"You don't have to apologize. My Dad is a pain in the ass. He's nosy and has no filter and I can promise you he won't leave you alone until you agree to run. But," she sighed, not wanting to admit the second half of her thought, "he's got good instincts. And coming from someone who DOES know a little bit about you, he's right about this."

When he didn't say anything, she continued.

"The only nasty things I've ever heard people say about you are because you're so good at your job. What they had JUST on Alicia's personal life could have filled one of my filing drawers. Don't get me wrong, she's a great person. But she was a terrible candidate logistically. My Dad had a headache basically every day."

"There are skeletons in everyone's closet, Marissa. I once told a victim that the thing she didn't tell me was the thing the defense would use against her. Everyone tries to hide things from their past, because everybody has one." He stared at her intently, wondering if she understood what he was saying.

She shrugged. "You asked my opinion. I'm not saying you're perfect or anything. I'm sure somewhere along the way, you screwed SOMETHING up. But what I've figured out in this job is that even though people respect you, they don't like you very much. So if there were something major to come out about you personally, I feel like it probably already would have."

He took a deep breath and considered this. The current D.A., Michael Long, hadn't made any announcement yet regarding his plans for the next election, although Eli had said that wouldn't happen until the coming Friday. He didn't doubt that Marissa was being honest with him. Yet he remembered how badly things had gone for Alex during his mayoral campaign, how the seemingly "perfect candidate," his best friend, had fallen so far and was now imprisoned for multiple felonies. Besides, he didn't do well with unknowns. He needed a plan for all situations, and there were too many unknowns to plan for ANY situation in a campaign. He was a lawyer, not a politician.

"Thank you, Marissa. I appreciate your honesty, and I value your opinion," he said, rising in his seat and walking back behind his desk. Marissa rose at the same time and turned to leave his office, but stopped at his doorway.

"By the way, I appreciate that you only went to Chipotle to get me something for lunch," she said, "but you didn't have to do that."

He looked up from the file he'd just opened, a genuine look of surprise on his face. Marissa smiled, satisfied with herself. She didn't often get to see that kind of expression from him. "I'm sorry?"

She cocked her head. "You hate Chipotle. You totally hid takeout from Pulqueria in that bag."

"How did you-"

"I told you. I spent almost two years running Alicia's life. I notice things. But trust me, you don't have to bribe me. I'll give you my opinion on anything you want, anytime you ask. Sometimes even when you don't. Like I said, Dad helped raise me." She left him to his contraband lunch, telling herself that she hadn't just contributed to that which she had, half an hour earlier, so vehemently opposed.


Monday morning sentencing hearings were the WORST. They always seemed to be held first thing in the morning and the line at the courthouse coffee shop was always too long for Rafael to be able to grab a second cup before they began. This Monday was particularly awful. Marbury, annoyed at not being fed in a timely fashion, knocked the entire bag of coffee off of the counter, so he hadn't even gotten his FIRST cup of the day; he had unknowingly spilled orange juice on his tie before he left his house and his emergency tie at the office didn't quite match his suspenders; and to top it off, the fucking media vultures were already hovering outside the courtroom. He refused to comment on his way into the room, promising remarks after sentencing when he would have something of substance to say. Right now, the only thing he wanted was for Judge Atkinson to appear on the bench so that he could finally put this trial behind him.

"All rise!" The bailiff called, as if he had read Rafael's mind. Judge Atkinson swept onto the bench and called court to order. Rafael stood a little straighter, put on his Courtroom Face and reminded himself that no one could see his suspenders.

"Be seated," she said. "Mr. Buchanan, does your client have anything he would like to say to the court before I hear from the People?"

"He does, Your Honor." Buchanan nodded to his client, who visibly shook as he stood. During the trial, Martin Pollack had looked very much the star athlete he had been in high school, muscular with dark features and a charming smile. A week in Rikers had not been kind to him, however. Though he was dressed in a pressed suit, it hung from his shoulders in an odd way because his shoulders were now hunched. He was paler than he had once been, and his eyes looked bloodshot.

"Your Honor," Pollack began, clearing his throat. He sounded like he hadn't spoken to anyone the entire week. Perhaps he hadn't. Rafael felt little sympathy. "I just want to say that I'm sorry that this happened. I'm sorry that I've embarrassed my parents and my friends and my school. I'm sorry that Stephanie got hurt." He turned to face Stephanie Robertson, who was sitting directly behind Rafael, next to Marissa. "Steph, you know I never meant to hurt you."

"Please address the Court only, Mr. Pollack," the judge admonished.

"I'm sorry, Your Honor," he replied. "I don't know how else to say it. I'm just so sorry that we're here, and I'll be sorry for the rest of my life."

After Pollack all but flopped back into his chair, Rafael took his place in front of the court.

"Mr. Barba, I presume the People have a statement on sentencing?"

"Your Honor, the State has no remarks, but the victim would like to make an Impact Statement," he replied. Murmurs of shock reverberated through the courtroom. If cameras had been allowed in the courtroom, they would have been snapping. Rafael was glad Judge Atkinson had no tolerance for the media either. From just behind him, Stephanie Robertson stepped through the gate separating the gallery from the floor. Rafael led her to the prosecutor's table so that she wouldn't feel as awkward standing in the middle of the floor. He noticed that, although she had spent most of the trial with her strawberry hair shielding her face, today, it was pulled into a sleek ponytail. He nodded at her.

"You can do this," he said quietly. "You're the stronger of us." Once upon a time, he had believed that he had to be strong for the victims. Until recently, he hadn't realized that they were usually stronger than he could ever be, even if they didn't quite know it yet. He took his seat, and Stephanie's voice, quivering but loud, rang out through the courtroom.

"Over the course of my life, I've had a lot of labels assigned to me. Daughter, sister, friend - the normal ones first. Student, theater geek, bando - those came a bit later. I've been a girlfriend. I've been an ex-girlfriend. And when I started at Hudson University, I wanted my next label to be college graduate. I wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, on November 1, 2014, Martin Pollack raped me and ever since then, he's been giving me all sorts of new labels that have seemed to replace all the others: slut and gold digger are the two that have been repeated the most. And today, he's stood in front of you asking for mercy, asking for you to see him with the label he'd like to assign himself: victim. But Martin, what you won't see is that you're not the victim here. I am. You raped me. You battered me. You ruined me for a very, very long time. And during this trial, you tried to do it all over again. But I want you to look at me, Martin."

Martin Pollack did not look at her. Rafael did, though, and she was looking directly at her assailant, not with anger or sadness... but pity.

"I didn't think you would. But even if, after everything you've done, you won't give me that small favor, I want you to know something. I forgive you, Martin. I forgive you because otherwise, I'll be your victim forever. And I forgive you because I'm sure that somewhere, deep down, you know what you did, you know it was wrong, and you're going to spend the rest of your life - in prison or otherwise - playing that out. And what a sad, wasted life that's going to make."

Stephanie folded the piece of paper she held and tucked it back inside the front of her trousers. Then, as she walked back to the gallery, Rafael glanced at Marissa. She gave him a small smile, as if to say, it's okay to care. Judge Atkinson, whose face betrayed no emotion, looked toward the defense.

"Mr. Pollack, please rise."

Martin Pollack looked like he was about to pass out. He would never admit it aloud, but Rafael secretly relished when he was able to convict people like Pollack - those who believed they were above the law, above reproach. But convicting them was only half the battle. In Rafael's experience, sentencing mattered just as much - sometimes, even more - to the victim. It was an indication not just that they were heard, but that the crime was taken seriously.

"Mr. Pollack, I have taken into account your relatively young age at the time of the commission of the crime. I have also reviewed the pre-sentence report, which speaks generally in your favor."

Rafael heard Marissa whispering to Stephanie: breathe, remember to breathe. He took the advice, though it was not intended for him.

"However," Judge Atkinson continued, "despite your best attempt to convince this court otherwise, I do not believe that you are genuine in your expression of remorse for your crime. You still do not admit that you committed a crime at all. You apologized to your friends and family and even your school, but the most you could offer your victim was that you were sorry she got hurt."

Someone was crying behind him, and he was sure it was Stephanie. He was also sure Marissa was digging in her bag for tissues again.

"Martin Pollack, this court sentences you to fifteen years in prison, to be served at Gowanda Correctional Facility. We are adjourned."

The gavel came down as everyone stood up, and Rafael was suddenly surrounded by the press. He was momentarily caught off guard, not used to a swarm in the courtroom instead of on the steps. But he did his best to appease them, giving the statements he had prepared before the hearing, praising the judge for her fairness and thanking the jury again for their service.

When the last reporter had left the room, he started to pack up his briefcase when he noticed Stephanie sitting on the back bench of the gallery. She looked exhausted, shell-shocked. He stared at her, not knowing if he should say something or if she wanted to be left to her thoughts. He picked his briefcase up and started to walk toward her. Suddenly, a little Marissa-sounding voice in his head said, it's okay to care. He told it to shut up, turned around and left the room by the side exit, remembering the image of Olivia's burned and bruised body, and knowing that his emotions had given her those scars.


The door to Rafael's office burst open, and in marched a self-satisfied Eli Gold, who tossed a manilla folder onto the desk.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Rafael jumped from his chair. "You can't just barge in here and-"

"Look at it," Eli said, pointing at the folder and totally ignoring Rafael's glare.

"Marissa!" Rafael called. "Marissa, what the hell-"

"She's not here," Eli interrupted. "I deliberately came while she was at lunch."

"Oh, for God's sake," Rafael replied. "Well, I'm really too busy to talk to you now, Eli. I have a meeting with SVU in ten minutes to discuss a new case."

"Just look at what's in the folder and I'll let you go," Eli said. Rafael sighed, ignoring the idea of Eli "letting" him go anywhere. He opened the folder as it lay on his desk. Inside was a print out of what looked to be the results of a poll.

"What the hell is this?" Rafael said, paging through the document and then staring back up at Eli.

"A friend at the DNC did some research for me," Eli said, "and you're a winner."

"What- oh, God, Eli, not again," Rafael said, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his finger. Where the fuck is my bottle of Advil? "I've already told you half a dozen times, I'm not interested."

He bent down next to his desk and pulled out a stack of files. "Do you see these? These are all pending cases I'm dealing with. I barely sleep as it is. When would I have time to run a campaign?"

"Alicia Florrick did it," Eli said. Even though he got frustrated with Alicia's devotion to her law practice during her run for State's Attorney, the truth was that Eli was in awe of her for it. "If she can do it, so can you."

"If I'm not mistaken, Alicia Florrick also ran her own practice. She could dictate how many cases she had," Rafael said. "I don't have that luxury."

"Well, then you take a leave of absence from this place and focus on the campaign!" Eli had heard every excuse in the book from every candidate he'd ever assisted. He was fully prepared for anything Rafael could throw at him. "How much vacation time do you have built up? I'm guessing quite a bit, given your lack of a social life. What better reason to use it?" Rafael gave Eli the same look he used in court: unwavering, unyielding, and unemotional.

Suddenly, Marissa walked into the room, holding a box of donuts. "You should have one of these, someone brought them in from Doughnut Plant and I'm about to eat my way through the box."

When she saw her father and Rafael standing across the desk from one another, both staring at her now, she nearly dropped them.

"Dad, what are you doing here? I thought you said no more drop-ins!" She set the box down on the corner of Rafael's desk, resisting the urge to throw it at Eli.

"Your father was just leaving," Rafael said through gritted teeth, beginning to gather his materials for the meeting. "Weren't you, Eli?"

"I got the poll results back," he said to Marissa, knowing that her innate nosiness, for lack of a better word, would get the best of her. Sure enough, she crossed her arms.

"And?"

"They're on the desk," he said. "Look at them."

Marissa picked up the folder and started to scan the papers in it. Rafael rolled his eyes and rolled down his sleeves, buttoning each of the cuffs. Maybe if I just let Eli talk to Marissa, I can sneak out of here. Then he realized he was sneaking OUT OF HIS OWN OFFICE and got even more annoyed.

He had gotten his coat on and was about to leave the room, when Marissa said, "Mr. Barba, you really should look at this."

She walked toward him and stood in front of the door, holding out the folder. He remembered what she'd said about how her father was a pain in the ass, but that he was usually right about things. Sighing heavily, he looked at the documents again, a little more closely this time. The polls were for different age groups, different genders, different ethnicities. In almost every category, he'd polled high. Almost as high as the current D.A., in fact.

Eli watched Rafael's face intently, looking for a particular reaction, one he had seen many times before. As Rafael thumbed through the pages, Eli saw it: surprise, followed by smugness. Ah, yes, he thought. This is where the tide turns. He glanced at Marissa, who appeared to be thinking along the same lines, as she too was watching Rafael's reaction.

"The only category you're behind in is with the working class, people living at or below the poverty line. But," Eli was quick to point out, "people thought Obama was an Ivy League snob too, and he got elected."

Marissa snorted. "You're comparing him to Obama? Seriously? Just be honest, Dad." She turned to Rafael. "Look, you fit pretty much every box here. You've got a great conviction record, so people know you care about your job. You don't have any major scandals surrounding you, so people know you're trustworthy. And God knows I don't want to be accused of sexual harassment, but you're visually appealing, and voters like pretty people. You could win it, AND you could DO it."

Before Rafael could respond, Eli continued, "And, you're a minority."

"Oh, COME ON," Rafael said, "this is insane. Look, Michael Long hasn't even announced retirement yet, which, by the way, you said he would be doing LAST FRIDAY. It is now Tuesday. So forgive me, but I'm not going to try to compete against my own boss for his job. THAT doesn't sound like good politics to me."

Rafael thrust the folder back into Eli's hands, whipped around, and strode out of the room. He suddenly craved the familiarity and, on some level, comfort of the Special Victims Unit squadroom. Meanwhile, Eli and Marissa stood motionless for a minute, until something dawned on Eli.

"Did you just-"

Marissa rolled her eyes. "I'm not doing this for you. I think you're a nutjob to get back into this mess. I'm doing this because I don't want some unknown schmuck to move in upstairs and start rearranging the furniture."

"Good enough for me," Eli said. Suddenly, his phone started buzzing like crazy. He looked at it, and his lips curled into a cunning smile.

"What's up?" Marissa asked.

Eli tucked his phone back into his coat pocket and headed for the door, calling back to Marissa, "Turn on the news at 3:30. He's out of excuses."


"So, let me make sure I've got this. She went willingly to an empty classroom two weeks ago, with a boy she admits to being in a relationship with at the time, and he rapes her there. But no one heard or saw anything and the rape kit has been LOST?"

"That about covers it," Sergeant Olivia Benson replied, staring at the whiteboard covered with photos of the parties involved and what little evidence they had.

"So, typical case, then," Rafael replied, crossing his arms.

"They always said you're the one who wins cases no one else will touch," she said, reflecting on the first time they had been introduced.

"Sometimes," he answered, the same as he had four years earlier. It seemed like so long ago, but then, their lives had changed so drastically in that time that it could have been an entirely different lifetime. "And you're sure there are no witnesses?"

Right on cue, Sonny Carisi piped in. "Even if there were, you'd probably have to subpoena them, and we saw how the defense played that in the Pollack case." Rafael's head hurt. It was bad enough when the fourth-year night student tried to tell him how to practice law. Now he was criticizing the cases Rafael WON.

"Take a cold shower," he replied coolly. Carisi sunk back into his chair, deflated. Just then, Detectives Amanda Rollins and Fin Tutuola walked into the squadroom, back from interviewing the accused.

"Anything?" Olivia asked. Fin shrugged.

"Like that kid was gonna tell us anything," he said. "His parents barely let us talk to him before they decided to lawyer up."

"Which was great, considering he's not even in custody!" Rollins said. Immediately, the proverbial light flipped on in Rafael's head.

"Actually, that's useful," he said.

"How do you figure that?" Fin asked.

"I know we're supposed to have a presumption of innocence in this country, and that we shouldn't infer anything based on his retention of counsel, et cetera. But as the A.D.A., I presume guilt."

"You wanna make yourself a little clearer, Counselor?" Rollins' accent became more pronounced when she got agitated. It almost made him laugh. He turned to face the squad, eyes sparkling with the prospect of finding a way to turn this into a winner.

"Constitutional rights be damned. He lawyers up this quick, he's hiding something. Find out what it is. Meantime," he said, turning to Olivia, "call me if you find that rape kit."

"Hey guys," said Nick Amaro, the handsome but hot-tempered detective and Olivia's former partner. He and Rafael had a cold relationship when they first met. Over the years, they gradually achieved something resembling friendship after discovering that they had similar childhoods. It wasn't anything close to the friendship Rafael shared with, say, Olivia… but at least he didn't feel like Nick resented him anymore.

"Got something?" Rafael asked.

"No, come take a look at this." The group walked to Nick's desk, where he had a video of the local news running. Rafael peered at the screen, squinting to read the crawl at the bottom:

MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY WILL NOT SEEK RE-ELECTION.

"Did you know this was coming?" Olivia asked. Rafael didn't reply, instead watching in stunned silence. The video cut to a clip of an earlier press conference.

"I have served this city for nearly a decade," District Attorney Michael Long said, "and it has been the pleasure of my life. But the time has come for me to spend more time with my family and my grandchildren. Therefore, I will decline to seek re-election in November 2018, and I look forward to passing the torch to my successor, whoever he or she may be."

The video cut back to the anchors, and Nick clicked it off.

"Barba," Olivia repeated, "did you know this was coming?"

"I, uh… had an inkling," he said, stuttering a bit. "I just didn't want to say anything, you know, in case I was wrong." Olivia raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

"Has anyone in your office mentioned running?" Carisi asked.

"Actually, someone's been pestering me to run." Shit. As soon as the words left his lips, he regretted it. Sometimes having a shotgun mouth caused him to shoot himself in the foot.

"Really?" Olivia said, surprised. "Who?"

Rafael sighed. No taking it back now, I suppose. "My assistant's father. Apparently he's some kind of political genius, Chief of Staff for the former Illinois Governor…"

"So, what, are you thinking of doing it?" Rollins sounded just as surprised as Olivia.

"I haven't thought much of it," Rafael said, staring back at the whiteboard, wishing he could steal a time machine from someone.

"Good," Nick said, standing up from his desk and heading to the coffee machine. "Cause you'd be terrible at it."

At this, Rafael spun around. "Excuse me?"

Nick barely glanced up. "No offense, Barba, but you're not the political type."

"What does that mean?"

"Guys, come on," Olivia said. She turned to Rafael. "I'm sure Nick didn't mean that you wouldn't be good at the job. Did you, Nick?" She looked at him imploringly.

Nick, however, was unfazed. "No, that's exactly what I meant."

"Please," Rafael said, his patience wearing thin, "do tell me why I wouldn't make a good District Attorney."

"C'mon, Nick, don't get into this here." Rollins tried to talk him down.

"No, that's okay, Rollins," Rafael shot back, staring at Nick. "I want to hear this."

Nick walked up to Rafael and looked him straight in the eyes. It would have been intimidating to a suspect, but it just served to piss Rafael off even more. He puffed out his chest and stood up a little taller, tilting his head back.

"Barba, you're a good prosecutor. But that job, it's a political thing. You wouldn't be doing what you're doing now. You'd be a figurehead. And you might look good in your suits, but you're not gonna make a damn bit of difference up in that office. Not like you do now. Besides," Nick added, "do you really want to try to be what Alex Munoz should have been?"

The silence in the room was ringing in Rafael's ears. No one looked like they knew what to say or do. Olivia was glaring at Nick. Fin and Rollins were looking at each other with unease. Carisi looked like he was ready to jump into the middle of a fistfight at any second, which made Rafael glad he was in a police station surrounded by these four other officers with guns. Otherwise, he might have punched Nick in the face. Instead, he took a deep breath, grabbed his briefcase and his coat, and wordlessly left the station.

This is the second time today I've been driven out of a room, he thought as he walked toward the subway. Suddenly, that Marissa-sounding voice was back in his head, only this time it was louder and he couldn't seem to tell it to go away: you could win it, AND you could DO it.

Chapter Text

"Figures," Marissa said, pulling the tub of ice cream out of Eli's freezer. "Mint chocolate chip and nothing else. You're so predictable."

"You could always bring your own, you know," Eli replied, barely glancing up from his laptop. "Or you could go back to your apartment and let me work."

Marissa ignored him, opening and closing cupboards above the countertops until she found one with the bowls. "Hey! You actually unpacked something yourself!"

"Yeah, well, I needed to eat at some point."

"Really?" She scooped out two bowlfuls and then went back to the fridge, hoping for whipped cream, but coming up empty. "Because you don't seem to have any other food in this house."

"There's cereal. And soup. Are you sensing a theme?" He swiveled in his chair and narrowed his eyes at her. "And don't you have to be somewhere? It's Tuesday, you should be at work."

"I took the day off for a doctor's appointment," she said. "So nope, nowhere to go."

"This is New York! You're young! Go do something fun, something that doesn't involve annoying me."

"Oh, but annoying you IS fun for me," she replied, crossing the room and setting a bowl in front of him. "Eat. It'll make you feel better."

He stared at the ice cream, which had already begun to pool at the bottom of the bowl. "What makes you think I need cheering up?"

"Maybe because you've been staring at your computer for the last hour and a half, and snapping at me while I've been trying to get your house organized for you, which, by the way, I didn't HAVE to do."

He sighed and picked up the spoon. "I realize that. But in case you haven't noticed," he said, taking a bite, "it is not easy to convince someone to run for office when they're just as stubborn as-"

"As you?"

"Oh, that's lovely, thanks," he said. "But… yes. I'm trying to put the results of this polling data together in a persuasive enough way to convince him that he needs to do this, but I don't know if that's going to work."

"You're thinking about this all wrong," she said, hopping up to sit on the kitchen island.

"Yeah, thanks for that," he spat. "Can you just leave this to me? I think I've got a better handle on how to manage a campaign than you."

"Oh, because I didn't learn anything from watching you the last five years?" Eli's head jerked up at the tone of her voice, almost as sarcastic as his. She was still sitting on the counter, clutching the bowl of ice cream, and kicking her feet back and forth gently. Despite the glare she was giving him, for a second she looked like a little girl again to him. He took another bite of ice cream.

"Fine," he said, relenting, "what's your idea?"

"Well, part of the problem," she said, finishing off her bowl, "is that you don't seem sure of anything. And if you aren't sure, how do you expect him to be?"

Eli leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm sure. Why would I be doing this if I weren't sure?"

"Oh, you're sure you want him to run. But I've never seen you unsure of how to convince someone." She hopped down from the counter and leaned against it instead. She crossed her arms. "Dad, this isn't like you. What's going on?"

He sighed. "Do you know why I only keep mint chocolate chip in the house?"

She cocked her head to the side. "No, but I'll bite."

"Because," he said, standing up and walking past her into the kitchen, "it's what works, and once I find something that works, I see no reason to keep trying other things."

"I'm not really understanding the connection between my question and ice cream," she said.

"The problem here is that nothing is working," he said. He paced back and forth along the island and ran a hand through his hair. "I've got to find the thing that works, but it's obviously not going to be something that I'm used to doing."

When she didn't reply, he stopped pacing and looked up. Marissa was on her knees, digging through a box marked "books" that had, until that point, gone unopened.

"What the hell are you looking for?"

"Give - me - a -" she mumbled, and then suddenly popped up holding a large, thick book.

"What is that?" He was frustrated and becoming impatient.

She didn't answer, but instead walked to the couch and sat down, motioning for him to come over. When he sat down, she handed the book to him. He realized it was a scrapbook. The cover was the same maroon as the tie he had worn the night of Peter's election.

He pulled the ribbon that was tied around it to keep the pages together, and leafed through it. There were photos of him with various politicians: Michael Bloomberg, Rahm Emanuel, and of course, Peter. There were pages of news clippings where his name was mentioned. She had even included an original button from Peter's State's Attorney campaign. There were dozens of little mementos in this book, and yet, he had no idea why it even existed.

He stared at it, and then at her, repeating his earlier question. "What is this?"

She shrugged. "Look, I'm not usually the sentimental type. You know that. But I made this for you as kind of a 'mazel tov' when Peter's run as governor ended. I thought that was the end of your political career. I snuck it into this box when I was helping you pack. I just didn't think it would still be in a box six months later."

He set it on the coffee table in front of them, and rubbed his hands back and forth on his pants. He wasn't good at sentiment, even when it was his daughter. It was one of the reasons he and her mother had divorced. She accused him of being incapable of expressing his feelings, and he accused her of sleeping with a coworker. Turns out, both were true.

"So… why are you showing this to me now?"

"You looked like you needed a reminder of how good you are at this, when your heart is in it. But it doesn't seem like your heart is in it. Is this really what you want to do, Dad?"

"Marissa," he began, "I don't know. I honestly don't. But I know that your boss needs to do something more than what HE'S doing."

She didn't respond, so he continued.

"I've looked at his background, his court appearances, his record. And do you know what I've noticed?"

"That he has a great conviction record, and hardly ever breaks a sweat?"

Eli stood up and started pacing again. "Yes, he has a good conviction record. But do you know why?"

"Oh, enlighten me," she said.

"Because," he said, "he pleads out lewd conduct and public peeing cases. That's not to say he's not good at his job, but he only occasionally puts away a big bad criminal."

"That's part of the job, Dad," Marissa said. She felt like she was defending not just her boss, but her own job as well. "The D.A. will only allow him to actually prosecute certain cases."

"EXACTLY," Eli said, talking and walking faster. "Michael Long cares more about looking good than actually putting away criminals for the time they deserve. Crime in the city has gone up over the past ten years, and he is the only A.D.A. with a more than passable record. Prisons are overpopulated with people who shouldn't be there, and instead, we slap people on the wrist who should. That's why he needs to run. I just can't figure out how to personalize this for him in a way that will make HIM see that."

Suddenly, Eli stopped pacing and looked at Marissa, who was, by now, smiling helplessly and shaking her head. "What?"

"I hate to say this, but I'm convinced," she replied. "I haven't seen you this excited about a candidate since Peter. But what I don't get is why you seem at a loss for how to get him to run."

"This isn't like Peter," Eli said. "Peter WANTED to run. Even Alicia wanted to, she just didn't realize it. And let's face it, I can't call Gloria Steinem again. Maybe Bob Menendez-"

Suddenly, Marissa leaped from her seat and sat down at his desk, typing furiously. Eli crossed the room to look at what she was researching, and saw that she had pulled up a Google news page with Rafael's name in the search bar.

"Look!" She said it in a way that indicated she thought she had solved the problem and that, moreover, it was an obvious answer.

"What am I supposed to be seeing?"

"When you tried to convince Alicia, why did you call in Gloria Steinem?"

Eli thought for a minute. "Because… Alicia would listen to her?"

"And," Marissa continued, "why did you think Alicia would listen to her?"

"Because Alicia would feel flattered that someone like Gloria Steinem asked her to run?"

"So in reality, what were you doing?"

"Marissa!" He was getting exasperated with this guessing game. "Just spit it out!"

"EGO, Dad. You played to her ego."

"I've already tried that!" Eli was all but flailing by that point. "I've told him how he's done in the preliminary polling. I've told him that he's got everything a candidate should have. I've kissed his ass in every way I possibly can. What else can I do?"

"Don't you get it?" She pointed at the screen. "He already HAS a huge ego. He's known for it. He knows he's popular. He's constantly invited to cocktail parties, out on people's yachts, to ski retreats. He's got no problem with his ego, so nothing you're going to say to play to that will make a damn bit of difference, because it's stuff he already knows."

Eli considered this. So, when your candidate is already sure of himself, how do you convince him to move out of his comfort zone?

"Of course, you could always just get him drunk," she joked.

Suddenly, it dawned on him. He knew exactly how to personalize this, exactly how to play it.

"Marissa," he said, "find out who does the political reporting for the Times and get me their number."

"Okay," Marissa said. "Why?"

"Because you're right," Eli replied, shooing her away from the computer and taking her place. "I can't play TO his ego. I have to play AGAINST it."


 

Not many people knew it, but when no one was around, Rafael had a habit of reviewing pleadings while lying on his office couch. While others might fall asleep that way, he found it relaxing enough to help him concentrate. Olivia had walked in once while he was sprawled there, and joked about how she didn't think robots needed sleep. He had since taken to locking his door.

Unfortunately, on this particular Friday, he couldn't concentrate no matter where he tried to work. He was supposed to be ripping apart a motion to dismiss a DUI that he'd agreed to take from a fellow prosecutor, but his mind kept going back to Nick's words from earlier in the week. He wasn't sure why. It wasn't like he had never been told he would fail at something. His father made sure that he heard those words almost every day of his adolescence. He had professors in law school who had told him he would never measure up to his (white, rich) classmates. But he had proven them all wrong. So he couldn't understand why the words of one detective bothered him so much.

He glanced over at his desk. Though he couldn't see the folder they were in, he knew the polling results still sat on top of the piles of dockets. I should just toss those out, he thought. He got up off the couch and snatched the folder up. Then, he hesitated. What's one more glance going to hurt?

He paged through the results again. Doing some quick math, he figured he averaged an 85% approval rating among women in various race, age, and socioeconomic groups. He had a 75% approval rating with men in the middle-to-upper income range. Apparently, both Catholics and Jews also loved him, which seemed bizarre given his general ambivalence toward religion. What struck him, however, was where he didn't poll well: the very socioeconomic class in which he was raised. Among minorities living below and just above the poverty line, he only had a 50% approval rating. This seems so backwards, he thought. I will never understand politics.

He tossed the polling data back onto the desk, cracked his neck, and was just about to lay back down on the couch when there was a knock at his door. No sooner had he unlocked it than Eli Gold, dressed in an unusually informal outfit of jeans and a collared shirt, started talking.

"Look," Eli said, "before you say anything, I'm not here on business. I happened to be down at the courthouse paying a parking ticket and decided to drop by." He set his messenger bag (another Marissa gift that didn't get much use) down on the floor next to him.

"Well, that would be because you have no business here, wouldn't it?" Rafael was in no mood to be polite. Eli was not fazed. In fact, he expected no less.

"I think it's a mistake for you not to at least consider throwing your hat in," Eli said, "but if you're dead set against it, I can't force you. I would, however, like to make amends for annoying you these last few weeks."

Rafael crossed his arms. "And how do you propose to do that?"

"Well," Eli said, "I never officially congratulated you on your big win in the Pollack case. Marissa told me how long it had dragged on and how much time you put into it. I also read that the kid got a pretty harsh sentence. I think that merits a drink."

Rafael stared at the grey-haired man, searching for any trace of dishonesty or ulterior motive. All the years he'd spent as an A.D.A. gave him a pretty decent bullshit meter. He hesitated to say yes, but checked his watch. It was nearly five o'clock anyway, and he wasn't getting much accomplished.

"Where's Marissa? Should she join us?" Rafael looked out past Eli to his assistant's desk, but he saw it was empty.

"I think a twenty-something woman has better things to do on a Friday night than hang out with her boss and her father," Eli replied. Rafael sighed, defeated.

"All right, fine," he said. "Let me just leave her a note to let her know where we're going in case something comes up. Do you have someplace in mind?"

"Well, that depends. Do you like scotch?"


 

"Two of the 18 year Highland Park, up, please," Eli said to the bartender as they found two empty seats at the bar. They had taken a car to one of Eli's favorite spots that had two of his favorite things: live piano music and good scotch.

"Wait a minute, that's a $100 bottle," he said. Eli shrugged.

"As much as I annoyed you, I'm surprised you didn't drink at least the equivalent of that." Eli draped his bag over the back of his chair as the bartender brought two caramel-colored tumblers to them. Eli picked his glass up and inhaled deeply. It smelled like dried fruit and marzipan, honey-sweet.

"There are few things in life I love more than good scotch," he said. "I might even sell my daughter for a bottle of Macmillan 'M' to be honest."

"Ordinarily the sex crimes A.D.A. should not endorse human trafficking, but for that scotch, I wouldn't blame you."

"This one isn't that bad, all things considered. At least it's not Johnnie Walker," Eli said.

"I'm a government employee. My apartment is barren," he said, "but I just can't abide bad scotch and cheap suits."

"Nice tie, by the way," Eli said, admiring Rafael's navy blue and white diamond print tie. "You always dress so…"

"Let's just say I know why people think I'm gay," he said. "I singlehandedly keep the suspender industry afloat."

Eli laughed. "That's all right, for a while there, I did the same thing for hair gel." He pointed to the poofy grey tufts on his head. "My daughter finally told me I was starting to look like a drag queen Dracula."

Rafael almost inhaled his drink. "That's frightening," he said.

"She was convinced I was having a midlife crisis," Eli said, shrugging. "She might have been right. Speaking of which, how's she doing?"

"She's a lifesaver," he said. "As I told her, I have something of a reputation for being difficult."

"I've gathered that," Eli said.

"What else have you gathered in your exhaustive research into my life?"

Eli set his scotch down and looked at Rafael. "Don't think I didn't go digging," he said. "You're not very well liked in defense firms, or in your own office, for that matter."

"Well, there's a shock," Rafael said ruefully.

"But that doesn't mean people don't respect you," Eli continued. "I learned a long time ago that when you're good at what you do, you're not often well liked."

"Anything else?"

"You want your own life history?" Eli shrugged. "Fine. Your father was a steelworker in the South Bronx, and your mother was a teacher and later a principal of a small private elementary school. You went to Catholic school, but you haven't been to Church in two decades. You pledged Alpha Epsilon Pi. Your best friends are now in prison because of an election scandal, which is probably part of the reason you hate politics."

Rafael gave him a contemplative look.

"What?" Eli said.

"I'm trying to decide whether I should bring charges for stalking."

"I don't know what you expected," Eli said. "This is my job."

"It's only your job if I hire you," Rafael said, the alcohol going down slightly easier now. "You know, it occurs to me that you seem to know all about my background, but I know very little about yours."

"You mean Marissa hasn't spilled all my dirty little secrets?" Eli replied.

"As much as it might surprise you, she never seemed particularly interested in involving you in her work life," Rafael said. "You seem to have taken that upon yourself."

"Wait, did you just say 'if' you hire me?"

Rafael debated going down this path. On one hand, he knew if he gave an inch, Eli would take a mile. On the other, he so rarely got to mess with minds that were not Carisi's. "Let's say I did. I would need to know about you before I agreed to work with you, wouldn't I?"

"Fair enough," Eli admitted. "Jewish, fifty-six years old, divorced, one kid. I grew up in Chicago and lived there until seven months ago. My mother is a retired director of a Jewish day school, and my father is a music teacher. They wanted me to be a concert pianist. I got an economics degree instead. I have a sister and a nephew. I eat one flavor of ice cream, I never use my kitchen, and I have no personal life."

The place was starting to fill up; couples sneaking into leather booths along the walls for pre-theatre meals, singles filling in empty seats at the bar around them.

"So what got you into politics, then?"

"I wouldn't say I'm in politics," Eli said. "At least not currently. But when I got my first job, I realized I hated economics. It's funny how you can study something in school and then in practice end up hating it."

"I thought I was going to end up a psychologist," Rafael said, smirking. "I'm not exactly the warm and understanding type, though."

"Exactly," Eli replied. "Anyway, even though I hated my job, I got something out of it. I got to see what happens when crises arise and no one knows what to do. People flailing around, trying to figure out what to do when they're too emotionally invested in it to be effective. Eventually, I realized I was pretty good at managing those situations. Fortunately for me, other people started to realize it, too."

"So you started in crisis management?"

"Mmm. I did that for something like twenty years, actually. Built my own consulting firm from the ground up. The first client I ever had was a law firm that had a partner with a penis problem. Try saying that three times fast."

"As you can imagine, I see that a lot in my line of work," Rafael said.

"Ah, but this guy's idea of a good time was dressing up as Jackie O and schtupping one of his clients," Eli replied. This time, Rafael actually did inhale the scotch.

"Just when I think I've heard everything," he said.

"I got them out of it by sending him to rehab. This was before it was trendy. That's the kind of thing I ended up dealing with a lot, actually."

"I assume you're talking about Peter Florrick," Rafael said. It was hard not to immediately think of Florrick when Eli brought up sexual indiscretions. The former governor had been in the national news years before, when he had the Illinois equivalent of Rafael's job. And, of course, Marissa had worked for his wife, "Saint" Alicia.

"Well, I've probably already said too much about confidential client matters," Eli began, "but Peter was a very unique case. I hadn't yet managed someone who had been to prison. I took it as a challenge to rehab someone for political office who was, at the time, a convicted felon."

"Were you as rabid with him as you are with me?"

"I didn't need to be," Eli replied. "He wanted his career back. He wanted to be back in the public eye for a positive reason. I knew he could make a difference to people, and more importantly, he knew it."

Rafael glanced over and saw Eli giving him a penetrating look. He was about to ask why Eli had such faith in him, when Eli leaned back over his chair and flipped up the top of his bag, pulling out another manilla folder. Rafael rolled his eyes and unintentionally slammed his glass on the counter.

"I KNEW it," Rafael said. "I knew there was something going on. You don't do anything without an ulterior motive, do you?"

"Look," Eli said, "that's true. But this ulterior motive isn't selfish. At least, not entirely. You need to run. And do you want to know why?"

"You've already told me," Rafael said, finishing what was left in his tumbler and standing up, ready to walk out the door. He pulled out his phone and started to call an Uber car. "Because I'd be good at it. Because I'm a minority. Because I'm handsome. I don't care. I'm not a politician, and I have no reason to become one."

"Okay, but you do realize that whoever DOES win is ultimately your boss, right?"

Rafael stopped. Of course he realized that Michael Long was his boss, but he hadn't really considered the thought of his replacement, an unknown. Eli realized he had finally found an in. He tossed the folder onto the bar.

"I didn't just do polling on you," he said. "Someone else is planning to announce."

Rafael hesitated.

"Go on," Eli said, urging him to open it. "I have a feeling you'll want to do something about this before it becomes reality."

Sighing, Rafael opened the folder. Inside were polling results similar to his own - not just in data collected but in results. Somehow, however, in his haste to appease Eli, he missed the name of the candidate for whom the polling data was collected. He flipped back to the first page and glanced at the top.

Eli watched as a horrified look darkened Rafael's face.

"No," he said.

"Unfortunately, yes. He's announcing on Monday."

"How do I know this isn't bullshit?"

"You want the name of the reporter I got this from? Here," Eli said, pulling out a business card from the Times for someone named Glenn Danbury. He tossed it on the bar next to the folder.

No way can this be real, Rafael thought, aghast. Yet, the numbers were there in black and white.

Eli casually sipped his scotch. "It's up to you," he said. "But I know if I were you, I wouldn't want to work for John Buchanan."

Rafael sunk back down onto the bar stool. His head was spinning. The idea of working for that insufferable prick was incomprehensible. He'd be terminated in a week. He rubbed his forehead, a headache building.

"Do you think," Rafael said, choosing his words carefully, "he has a chance of winning? Or is this just what it looks like right now?"

"Oh, he's got more than a chance. Old white guys like him, so you're evenly matched there. But so do young white guys, since that's who he spends his time defending. And you've got a problem with the poor Hispanic and Latino vote, as you well know. And do you want to know where the biggest turnout comes from?" Eli turned to face Rafael, who looked very pale.

"Let me guess."

"Rafael," Eli said, looking quite serious, "I know that you think I don't care about the process or the result, outside of my candidate winning. But the fact is that I work in this business because I care more than most people about who runs our government. John Buchanan's campaign could pay me. But I don't work for candidates I don't believe in."

"And you believe in me because…?"

"Because," Eli continued, "I saw you in court. I saw how you fought for that girl. I saw how you threw yourself into it. You think I don't know what they pay you? I know you don't do this job because of the money. Look, you've pushed back at me every time I've suggested you run. Why?"

In the background, the band had begun playing the evening's entertainment, a collection of standards and soft rock that would neither offend nor excite. Eli was momentarily distracted. Please God, don't let them start with Piano Man again…

"Because I like doing my job," Rafael said. "I like fighting. And as much as I would never admit this to anyone, I like helping people. You can't do that as a politician."

"But you can when you don't care about BEING a politician. John Buchanan doesn't care about victims. He cares about the power. You don't. THAT'S why I believe in you, and that's why you need to do this. He doesn't deserve that office. You do."

Rafael looked at Eli for a long time, then back down at his empty scotch glass. "Alex Munoz told me," he began, "that I would never see the D.A.'s office after what I did to him."

"Didn't you hear me?" Eli smirked, knowing Rafael's resolve was breaking. "I spent twenty years as a crisis manager. I helped a convicted felon become governor. You don't think I can handle another felon's empty threats?"

"If I do this," Rafael said cautiously, "I have conditions."

"I'm sure you do," Eli replied. "But the first step is saying yes."

Rafael sighed. He had spent the last decade fighting for other people, but he knew enough about politics to know that half the battle was going to be for himself. He needed to know he could be successful without compromising his integrity. He wondered what Olivia would say.

And then his mind drifted back to what Nick had said. That he couldn't do it, and wouldn't be good at it.

Would John Buchanan be that much better?

"Okay," he said, after a deep breath. "I'll run."

"Well, it's about time!" Eli smiled, a wide, toothy grin that Rafael had never seen from him. This must be his "genuine" smile, he thought. In his elation, Eli, in an uncharacteristically impulsive move, stood up from his chair and called out, "Attention everyone, meet your new District Attorney, Rafael Barba!"

After the Martin Pollack case, Rafael Barba was now a household name in Manhattan. So, Rafael was embarrassed but not entirely surprised when the bar, which was now full of happily tipsy patrons, erupted into claps and cheers. He wanted to leave before he changed his mind about this entire thing. Suddenly, another glass of scotch was in front of him, but he knew Eli hadn't ordered it. Oh well, he thought. Might as well have one for the road…


 

"It's 8:30 on a Friday night, why's his light still on?"

"You know Barba," Fin said as he and Carisi approached the A.D.A.'s office. "He's probably got some new case already. The guy really needs to get a girl."

"You think bringing me along was such a hot idea?" Carisi rubbed the back of his neck. "He's not my biggest fan."

"That's part of why I'm doing this," Fin replied. "It's been almost three years, you two have got to stop acting like an old married couple."

They opened the door to the office to be greeted by the sound of Marissa's surprised yelp. With her bare feet on her desk and her keyboard in her lap, she was obviously not expecting late-night visitors.

"JESUS CHRIST, Fin, what the hell?" Although she didn't appreciate him in this particular moment, she genuinely liked Fin. They shared the same sarcastic sense of humor, and didn't tolerate bullshit. Catching her breath and rising from her chair, the two gave each other a quick fist-bump.

"Sorry, M. What're you doing here so late on a Friday?"

"Eh, I'm a frustrated novelist. I work better when I change the scenery," she said. "Besides, if I go home, the temptation to marathon Disney movies will be too strong. What's up, Sonny?"

Carisi gave a quick, awkward wave.

"Where's your boss?" Fin asked.

"He left me a note a couple hours ago. Apparently he went down to Foster's with my Dad, which concerns me, but I'm in no mood to go play designated daughter."

At this, Sonny perked up. "Your Dad, he's the one who's been telling him he'd be a good D.A., right?"

"One and the same," she said. "But Mr. Barba's completely against it."

"So why's he out with your Dad, then?" Fin cocked his head the way he did when he wasn't one hundred percent convinced of something.

"I don't know. All I know is they're at Foster's. Why are YOU looking for him?"

"We wanted to take him out for a drink. Y'know, celebrate the Pollack case. Plus, Carisi here," Fin gestured to the young detective who was staring at his shoes, "needs to bond."

"Well, I'm sure if you go down there, you'll find them knee deep in scotch," she said. "Now get out of here, I need to finish this chapter before Monday and I really don't want to stay here all weekend."

"You sure you don't wanna come?" Carisi asked, a slight tremor in his voice.

"Yeah, I'm sure," she replied. "That bar's not really my scene anyway."

Fin shrugged. "Don't work too hard," he said, giving her a wave goodnight. Carisi opened his mouth to say something, but quickly closed it and rushed out the door. Fin and Marissa exchanged a quizzical look, and with a roll of his eyes, Fin followed him.


 

"So, I told him, you're setting the clock back on rape law fifty years," Rafael said, slurring a bit. Having long since discarded his suit coat and loosened his tie, he looked less like a political candidate and more like an average attorney at the end of a long week. "He looked at me like he was going to jump over the bench and slap me."

"Sounds like you lost it for a minute there," Eli said, taking the glass that was just placed in front of Rafael by another well-intentioned bar patron. He was only allowing Rafael to have one of every three drinks that were sent his way, either drinking the others or passing them discreetly to a bartender or other patrons to enjoy.

"Well, I was mad!" Rafael said. "Judges don't get to do that. I fought hard enough to get that damn case in front of the jury anyway. The D.A. didn't want me to take it, a pornstar rape." He shrugged and took another sip.

"So how'd you manage to convince him?"

"A little charisma... and a lot of ass kissing," he said, rolling up his sleeves. "Is it hot in here?"

"A bit," Eli said. "So, tomorrow, I'll be talking to my contacts at the DNC and we'll start putting together a campaign strategy. I'll manage it, but I'm going to need to find a few consultants-"

"Oh, great. So I can have even more people digging into my past."

Eli sighed. "If something is going to come out, it's better that we know about it in advance. The best defense is a good offense. Buchanan knows that; he's a defense attorney, after all. Besides," he continued, "it's not like there won't be plenty of dirt on him."

"I'm no saint."

"Neither was Peter Florrick."

"There are gay rumors." Rafael didn't often verbalize that particular rumor.

"So?"

"Well, it's not that I think being gay is a problem," Rafael said, rubbing his forehead. "I'm just… not. And, you know, people will accuse me of being in the closet. They do it, I know they do."

Eli took Rafael's half-empty glass away from him. Seeing even this little bit of raw emotion from someone normally so buttoned-up was a bad sign where alcohol was concerned.

"If you're that concerned, we can find you a girl to be seen with. Are you reconsidering? Because if you're reconsidering-"

"I'm not reconsidering," Rafael snapped. Then, his face softened and he rubbed his hands on his knees. "In fact, the more I think about it the more it makes sense."

"Not that I'm complaining, of course, but have you switched to Kool-Aid suddenly?"

"No," Rafael replied, "but the more I think about Buchanan being my boss, the more I need to drink, the more this idea makes sense and the more comfortable I feel with it."

"I hope you don't need to be loaded to be comfortable with the idea," Eli said, "because this is most definitely the last time I'm letting you get even slightly inebriated-"

Just then, the house lights dimmed, and the band's piano player spoke into a microphone. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As it's now 9:00, we'd like to begin the group participation portion of the evening."

"Oh, great," Eli muttered. He'd forgotten about this. It always happened on Friday nights. The band would allow requests, and occasionally invite bar patrons onstage to sing with them.

"You know, it's getting late, and awfully crowded," Eli said. "Maybe we should-"

"Are there any requests?" The piano player looked out over the crowd.

"'New York New York!'" Rafael called out, immediately looking as if he did not recognize the sound of his own voice. Eli glared at him, eyes narrowing.

"What the hell was that?" He growled. "Don't you realize that this entire bar knows that you're running for-"

"Okay, 'New York New York' for the man in suspenders!" The piano player nodded toward the rest of the band, who started the opening notes. The trumpet blared louder than the rest, with the trombone following behind. Rafael shrugged at Eli, and took the scotch glass back, throwing the last of it back.

Suddenly, a group of twenty-something men in tie-less suits surrounded them. One of them, who had a build like Captain America, took Rafael by the shoulder. "Come on, guy!"

"Huh?" Rafael looked panicked. "What are you-don't touch the suspenders!"

"C'mon, it's Friday night, man," said one of them, a short Indian guy with his tie draped around his neck.

"And you just announced this big campaign! You gotta celebrate!" Eli glared at Captain America.

The third one, who looked not unlike a younger version of David Lee, popped up from behind Eli. Based on appearance alone, Eli hated him most of all. He said that since Rafael picked the song, he ought to sing it. But before Eli could react beyond the utterance of a curse word, Rafael was being ushered away from him by the Three Stooges and pushed onstage. The piano player grinned and announced, "Looks like I've been replaced temporarily. Go on, guys, have at it!"

"Start spreadin' the news, I'm leavin' today..." The piano player led them into the opening lines of the song. The three men with whom he was on stage sang along happily, if a bit drunkenly, while Rafael stood between two of them, looking at Eli helplessly. Eli's eyes darted from side to side, trying to think of a way to get them both out of this situation while simultaneously trying to make sure there were no recognizable media members watching.

"I want to be a part of it. New York, New York..." Rafael looked to his left, then to his right. The drunken trio seemed lost in the music, so he tried to move, but the tall blonde one managed to sling an arm around his shoulder. Realizing he was stuck and too inebriated to argue, he decided to try to blend in. He started mouthing along with the words.

"These vagabond shoes are longing to stray right through the very heart of it... New York, New York..."

Eli's brain was rapid firing. For a minute, he thought about jumping on stage and dragging his candidate away before something truly embarrassing happened. But then he remembered what he'd told Alicia during the first days of her short stint as State's Attorney: that making an issue where an issue hasn't been made yet is a stupid idea. If he panicked, he would make it an issue. Maybe, Eli thought in desperation, everyone who's here now wasn't here when we gave our little pre-announcement. Maybe this won't be an issue. He left his seat, making his way through the growing crowd. His head was like an owl's, swiveling from side to side, looking for rogue cameras. Despite the growing popularity of the motley crew on stage, it didn't appear as though anyone was interested enough to film the scene.

"These little town blues are melting away... I'll make a brand new start of it in old New York..." Someone passed drinks up to the stage, and soon, Rafael found himself holding a final glass of scotch, unintentionally singing along now to the old standard, along with the rest of the room. Somewhere in the only remaining sober part of his brain he knew this was a bad idea, but at the same time, it was kind of fun to turn off his straight-laced personality just a little bit. Besides, it wasn't as though he was LEADING this singalong. He was just along for the ride.

Meanwhile, Eli wandered through the mass of people near the middle of the room, where he suspected surreptitious filming might be going on. "...if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere! It's up to you, New York, New York..." He finally zeroed in on two frat-boy looking kids, laughing while one of them held up a cameraphone.

"Dude, this is hilarious," one of them said, watching the scene unfold through the screen. All of a sudden, the scene changed from four drunken men, including a district attorney candidate, singing a Frank Sinatra song, to a pair of very angry eyebrows attached to a pinched, volatile face.

"Delete that video, DUDE," Eli snarled, "or I swear to God, I will find your girlfriends and tell them that you were over there flirting with that good-looking bartender." He pointed to an extremely pretty, red-haired woman who, at that moment, was flipping a vodka bottle over in her hand.

"Yeah right," the other guy said, standing a little taller in an attempt to be intimidating. "Like you can prove that."

"That bartender is a friend of mine," Eli said, crossing his arms. "Do you really want to test your little theory?"

The two men hesitated. Eli raised a menacing eyebrow. A standoff ensued for about fifteen seconds before the man holding the camera sighed and, with Eli watching, deleted the video.

"And just to make sure," Eli said, "I'm going to stand here for the rest of the show."

Meanwhile, Carisi and Fin entered the packed restaurant, pushing their way through the crowd. Carisi was a head taller than Fin, so he scanned the bar area for any sign of flashy suspenders or a brightly-colored tie. "I don't see him," he called out behind him.

"Maybe they moved to a quieter place," Fin said. "This doesn't seem like Barba's kind of-"

Just then, Carisi stopped dead in his tracks, causing Fin to run into him. Fin came around to Carisi's side and was about to curse, but stopped when he saw the look on Carisi's normally stoic face. It was an odd mixture of shock, horror, and amusement. He didn't say anything, but merely pointed ahead of them, toward the stage at the back of the bar. Fin followed Carisi's gaze and could not believe what he saw. He grabbed Carisi by the arm and pushed through the crowd. He HAD to make sure he wasn't having delusions.

"I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps..."

There, on the stage, in front of a sea of people holding bottles and glasses in the air, was a group of four men, drinks in hand, singing a Frank Sinatra song backed by a full big band. One of those men was Rafael Barba.

"To find I'm a number one, top of the list, king of the hill, a number one..."

"Holy shit," Fin said. Rafael's tie had been removed and his sleeves rolled up, and his normally perfectly-gelled hair was a mess.

Carisi stared down at Fin, still open-mouthed, clearly not knowing how to handle this. He idolized Rafael, secretly wished to work with him someday after law school. But he'd never actually thought of him as... well, a person. Carisi thought of him more as some kind of machine with human qualities.

Obviously the man isn't just a star performer in the courtroom, Carisi thought. He nudged Fin, who looked over to see Carisi with his phone raised up over the crowd, filming the performance.

"What the hell are you doing?" Fin said.

"Oh, come on," Carisi said. "All the crap this guy gives me, you think I'm not gonna save this for a rainy day? Besides, it's not like he's running for office." Fin shook his head, but even he had to admit, this was too funny not to record.

The song was about to hit its apex, and Eli stood ready to fling himself at the stage and grab Rafael as soon as it ended. The men were singing to one another, to the band, then back toward the audience, really hamming it up. Rafael had clearly loosened up since he was first dragged onstage. Looking at him now, you wouldn't even know he was there against his will. Eli shook his head, defeated, a small part of him hoping he hadn't made the worst decision of his life.

For his part, Rafael knew he would never do something like this again, but also thought that maybe it would be good to get some recklessness out of his system. Every decision, every word, every action would be judged for the remainder of the campaign. He would have to keep control of his temper and his tongue for the foreseeable future. So he chalked this up as a preemptive balm, a salve to get him through the strictly monitored and scrutinized days ahead.

"Aaaaaaand if I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere..." He bent at the waist a bit, pushing the notes out from deep inside himself. The crowd went wild, cheering and whooping support. The four wannabe Rat Pack members capped off the song with a raise of their glasses, a gesture which the audience returned.

"It's up to you, New York, New York... New York!"

Eli watched Indian Tie Guy, Captain America, and Son of Satan take bows, while Rafael tried to catch his breath. He started to make his way to the stage while simultaneously trying to pull up Uber to request a car. Rafael felt suddenly exhausted, the liquor finally catching up to him. Just then, he caught sight of a pair of familiar faces as they were turning away from the stage. Oh, no. No, fuck, fuck, fuck.

He shoved his way toward the front door, one of his suspenders falling off his shoulder in the process. Eli chased after him, having little luck keeping the smaller man in view. Finally, he found Rafael standing at the door of the restaurant, talking animatedly to a very odd-looking couple: one, an amused-looking black man in a sweater and jeans and the other, a tall, blonde man with the largest forehead he'd ever seen, who was looking very pleased with himself.

"Carisi, I swear to all that is holy, if you tell anyone about this-" Rafael looked to have immediately sobered up at the sight of these two men.

"Do you really think it's smart to threaten me right now, counselor?" Eli could immediately sense an animosity between the two men, but he could also tell that this "Carisi" person was both immature and probably very stupid. He straightened his shirt out, ran a hand through his disastrously unkempt hair, and approached the group.

"Is there a problem here?" He glared at Carisi but did his best to sound nonthreatening. A quick judgment told him it was better to tread lightly with these two.

"Lemme guess," Fin said, "M's dad?"

"Excuse me, 'M'?" Eli gave Fin a look that read, C'mon, really? Fin gave him the same look back, except his had an unspoken expletive attached to the end. "I'm Eli Gold. And you are?"

"DETECTIVES Fin Tutuola," Carisi cut in, pointing first to Fin and then to himself, "and Sonny Carisi." It was his tone that made Eli snap. Politeness went out the window.

"I'm sure I'm supposed to be impressed," Eli said. "Listen, I don't know what the relationship is here, and I realize the NYPD has more leaks than a New Orleans levee, but I'm going to need you to forget what you've seen here tonight."

Fin studied Eli's pointed, stern face, and then Rafael's. His years of detective work allowed him to realize that something was going on that neither of them was saying. And he already did not like Marissa's father. But he respected Rafael Barba, and didn't think it wise to make an enemy of the best A.D.A. they'd had since Alex Cabot.

"Come on, Carisi," Fin said, turning to leave. "Barba's gonna have one hell of a hangover without us rubbing it in."

Carisi and Rafael stared at one another for a moment longer. Rafael was about to make a smartass remark, but Eli, sensing this, grabbed his arm. Carisi pursed his lips, and then turned to follow Fin out of the bar.

"Friends of yours?" Eli said, keeping his eyes on the door until he was sure the two detectives had left.

"One of them, anyway," Rafael replied, finally unclenching his fists.

"That Carisi guy's gonna give me migraines, isn't he?" Sensing Rafael's tension, he tried to crack a joke. It seemed to work, because Rafael half-grinned.

"He's been giving me one for the last three years."

Eli sighed and checked his watch. "They were right about one thing."

Rafael started to walk back to the bar to grab his jacket. "What's that?"

"You'd better prepare yourself," Eli said. "Campaigning basically feels like one big hangover. Everyone talks too loudly, and you're sick to your stomach most of the time."

Chapter Text

"Hi, Mami," Rafael said, kissing his mother on her cheek as she stepped aside to let him into her apartment. He handed her a bag of groceries he had picked up on his way over. Most sons would buy flowers, but Lucia Barba, an eternal pragmatist, preferred eggs and milk. But Rafael couldn't resist throwing in a few luxuries his mother would never buy for herself.

"Hola, niño," Lucia replied, kissing him in return and heading toward the kitchen with the bag, Rafael following closely behind. "Thank you, but you know you don't have to buy me food. I do make a living, you know."

"I know, Mom," he said, "but it's not like I buy much for myself these days. I spend most of my time at the office." He started to help her unpack the bag, but she swatted his hand away. He took the hint and instead went to the cupboard to get two mugs down to make coffee. He knew she wouldn't be able to resist the fancy hazelnut coffee creamer once she found it.

"Have they got you working even harder than usual?"

"Actually, Mami, that's why I'm here," he said. "I need to talk to you about something that is going to be changing in my career."

"Why would that be something you need to talk to - RAFAEL!"

His head snapped up, and he saw that she was holding the bottle of creamer. He couldn't help it - he smiled, and despite herself, she smiled back. Just occasionally, looking up at her through his eyelashes, she still saw her little boy, before he gained the confidence and swagger of a high powered attorney.

"Don't think I don't notice that half my bottle is gone whenever you leave my apartment," he joked. "Besides, I can't stand the powdered stuff you use."

She gave him a look that was halfway between disapproving and appreciative, and continued putting the groceries away. "So what is this thing that's changing in your job that you need to tell me about?"

Rafael started the coffee and poured some of the creamer into the two mugs. As he put it away, he said, "I'm going to be running for District Attorney."

"What was that, mijo? I couldn't hear you with your head in the fridge."

He straightened up and cleared his throat. "I said I'm going to be running for District Attorney."

At that, Lucia dropped the loaf of bread she was holding onto the counter.

"What made you decide this?" Pouring two mugs of coffee, she deliberately avoided eye contact. Rafael internally groaned. He knew she would react like this.

"I don't know," he said, as she handed him one of the mugs. "For one thing, someone I hate is running, and I can't imagine working for him. For another... Mami, I'm tired."

"Tired of what?"

"Tired of seeing guilty people go free or get bare minimum sentences because someone wants to keep their conviction record up. Tired of victims being hurt because someone didn't want to fight for them. Tired of politics winning out over law." He rubbed his eyes with his free hand.

"And what happens," Lucia said, finally looking up at him, "when they come after you? When they dig into your past? You might not want to play their game, mijo, but that doesn't mean they will have your ethics."

"And this is why I debated whether or not to tell you," he snapped, mostly unintentionally. "Because I knew you'd react this way. I knew you would try and talk me out of it."

"I'm not trying to talk you out of it," she said, leaning against the counter with one hand and putting the other on her hip. "But have you thought this through, Rafael?"

"You don't think I've thought about what they'll find? I know what there is. That's why I decided I had to tell you. Because they might drag you into it."

"I don't care about me, Rafael. After what I've been through, it won't hurt me. I'm worried about you."

Rafael hesitated. "Me? Why?"

Lucia looked at him for a moment, considering something. Then, she took her coffee and left the kitchen, retreating to the living room couch. His mother had lived here all his life, and she still had the same couch from when he was a child. It was tattered, its floral pattern faded and yellowed, and had been patched more times than he could count.

"I wish you'd let me replace that thing," he said, wanting to break the silence so badly he said the first thing that came to mind.

"You always did want better things in life. And you got them, didn't you?" She sighed. "Look at you."

He looked down at his Levi's and pullover, and the Converse he only wore on weekends where he knew he wouldn't see anyone from the office. He was so confused and was getting a headache. "Mom, what's wrong?"

"Rafael," she sighed, patting the seat next to her on the couch, "come here, niño. I need to tell you something."

He sat down and she took his hand. She hadn't done that since her mother - his abuelita - had died. She cried when she found her mother dead in her apartment, but that had been it. Through the entire wake, the Church service, she had seemed disconnected from the rest of the family. But at the very end, as they walked away from the grave, she had reached for his hand. And it had been his job to hold her up. It had ALWAYS been his job to hold her up. He knew that a long time ago.

"Rafael," she said, her eyes a reflection of his own, "I should have said this a long time ago, but... well, you know your mama. Stubborn as you."

He smiled. "That's a compliment, I think."

She nodded sadly. "Mijo, do you remember when you were a little boy and I told you to stick with Alex because he would be mayor?" He swallowed hard, not wanting to admit that he remembered it far more often than he would have liked. He didn't have to respond. Lucia took his silence for the admission that it was.

"I want you to know why I said that," she said. "I know you think it's because I didn't think you were good enough to be mayor yourself."

"Mami, I-"

She held up a hand. "No, Rafael, I know that's what you've thought. And I don't blame you. I know why you think that. But you need to understand this."

He sat in silence, and felt her grip his hand harder. He stared at a rip in the fabric on the couch. At this particular moment, it was easier to look at ugly fabric than his mother's eyes. Neither of them handled emotion very well, as it turned out.

"You were always such a good boy. You did what you were told. You never gave me any trouble. And I knew you were smart. So did your father, that's why he... well, anyway. I knew that you could do such great things, get out of this neighborhood. I also knew that Alex could do great things. He was ambitious and charismatic, and you were smart with an attitude. Also like me." She smiled a bit.

"Mom, you don't need to-"

"I told you, hush," she said, sharper this time. Even at forty-two years old, his mother could still scare him into silence. "Alex may have had the ambition and the charisma to be mayor, but he needed you to help him make smart decisions once he got there."

"Alex never wanted my help," Rafael said sadly. "He never asked for my help on his campaign."

"And do you ever think that if he had, maybe he wouldn't be where he is now, with another five years to go before he sees this city again?"

Rafael blinked back tears. Thinking of his childhood best friend upstate in a federal prison, gone the way so many of the kids they'd grown up with, hurt almost too much to bear.

"What are you trying to say, Mom?"

Lucia reached up with her free hand and tilted his chin just slightly upward. "That's why I told you to stick with him. Because he needed you, Rafael, not the other way around."

Rafael's chest felt tight and a rock was sitting in his throat. Emotion had his vocal cords in a choke hold. He wasn't used to this, not from Lucia Barba. When he finally regained the ability to speak, he said the first thing that was on his mind, which happened to be the biggest fear he had going into this campaign.

"The truth is, I AM afraid, Mom. Before he was arrested, Alex told me that I would never hold political office if I took him down... and if I do this, all of the scrutiny will be on me this time."

"Niño,," she said, "you were mouthing off to bullies on the playground when you were five. You've put drug dealers in prison, gang members, mafia hit men. You're not afraid of them. And I've NEVER seen you afraid of a camera or a reporter."

"You... watch my press conferences?" He was actually a bit surprised. His mother had never seemed to take much of an interest in his career. That was always his abuelita's department.

"What, you think I'm going to let all the other ladies at the fundraisers have the bragging rights to their kids' accomplishments?" She patted his cheek. "Your abuelita always thought you were going to be a judge. You're going to be something even better."


"Hi there," said a suit-clad Eli Gold, standing in Rafael's doorway at 9:00am on a Sunday morning, holding a banker's box. Rafael ran his hand through his hair, trying to tamp down his bedhead. Eli had called him ten minutes earlier to say he was on his way over, and Rafael had just barely gotten out of bed. He allowed himself one day a week to sleep in, but Eli, apparently, had other plans. He had managed to throw on a t-shirt and jeans and start the coffee, but that was about it.

"Hi," Rafael said, confused and sleepy.

"Are you going to invite us in?"

"Us?" Rafael repeated. Just then, Marissa appeared from behind her father, looking typically annoyed and frustrated.

"Just so you know, this was NOT my idea," she said. "I have better things to do with my Sunday mornings than hang around with my Dad and my boss."

"Yes, Marissa, you made that perfectly clear all the way over here," Eli said over his shoulder. He pushed past Rafael, no longer interested in waiting for an invitation inside. Seeing no table and chairs, he headed immediately for the kitchen counter, hoisting the box on top of it. Marissa typed furiously on her phone, while Rafael made for the coffee pot, defeated.

"Coffee, anyone?"

Marissa snorted. "Like you're not going to drink that entire pot by yourself? Hey! You have a cat!"

Marbury had crept out of her hiding place under his bed, which is where she usually stayed when he had visitors. Eli eyed the furry creature suspiciously, while Marissa crouched down to coax her over. Marbury approached Marissa with caution but curiosity, glancing at Rafael every few seconds as if for reassurance.

"Yeah, I found her roaming around outside. It took a few weeks, but she finally let me bring her in. I like rescuing strays," he said, looking directly at Eli. Marissa stifled a laugh as she put her hand down to let Marbury sniff her. "Funny, she doesn't usually like people."

"So we have something in common," Marissa replied, to Rafael's great amusement.

"Can we please," Eli said in exasperation, "focus on the important things now?" Rafael handed Marissa a cup of coffee. She looked at him in surprise.

"Isn't this supposed to be my job?"

"You're not on my clock," he replied. "Creamer's in the fridge. Sugar's over there. Eli?"

"No, thanks. I can't mainline coffee the way you two junkies can. Anyway," he said, spreading out stacks of paper across the breakfast counter and pulling up one of the bar stools, "this is the oppo research my little team has pulled together on you over the last two weeks."

"Oppo-what team?" It had only been two weeks since Rafael had agreed to run, and all of a sudden there was a whole TEAM set up. I have definitely not had enough coffee for this, Rafael thought.

"Hazelnut? Really?" Marissa popped up from behind the refrigerator door and held up the bottle of creamer.

"Are you really surprised?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Not really. But I'm going to make fun of you anyway," she said, pouring a decent amount into both of their cups and heading for the living room.

"Marissa! Don't think I won't need you over here!" Eli turned back to Rafael, who was now sitting on the counter next to the coffee pot. "I keep forgetting you're not familiar with this process. Okay, look. Before you agreed to run, I called the Democratic Committee. Yes, I know, you can't believe I did that, what was I thinking, et cetera. Anyway, they're on board with you. Mostly because they hate Buchanan, but you've also got the potential to be a Democratic dream candidate later on for them, so they want to see how you do in a smaller election like this."

"Wait just a second," Rafael said. "We haven't even started THIS race yet, and they're already talking about-"

Eli shook his head. "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Alicia: the absence of yes, times time, equals no. That's how it works. If anyone asks, you just tell them you haven't considered the options yet and that you would like to get through this race first. They look at this as a test case. If you decide you don't want to go any further, that's entirely up to you. But this is how we get their money and support, so you play into their idea that you might consider it."

"That seems a bit dishonest, doesn't it?"

"It's only dishonest if you're absolutely certain that you'll never run for anything again, and nothing is absolutely certain except uncertainty."

Rafael didn't have time to consider this before Eli had moved onto the next thing.

"Now, do you know what all this is?"

"You said oppo research. It's the dirty laundry, and we're trying to get in front of it."

"Spin, spin, spin," Marissa muttered as she perused the contents of the mocha-colored trestle bookcase leaning against the far wall of Rafael's living room. There were a dozen law books, of course. A few novels, including one called Anonymous Lawyer, which, upon reading the back, Marissa decided to pilfer, figuring he wouldn't have time to read now anyway. She recognized Brave New World and 1984. To her surprise, there was a collector's edition of the Harry Potter series and books of poetry by Pablo Neruda and García Lorca. She hadn't taken him for the whimsical, much less romantic, type.

Then, she noticed an odd book tucked away on the corner of the lowest shelf. When Someone You Love Suffers from Posttraumatic Stress: What to Expect and What You Can Do. She wondered what that was about, but her father interrupted her train of thought.

"Marissa! I need you." He snapped his fingers at her, which he knew she hated. She gritted her teeth and approached the counter, where Rafael was staring blankly at the stacks of paper.

"Eli, can we do this another time? I'm really not awake yet, and I don't-"

"Oh, I'm sorry, do you want me to go and ask John Buchanan's camp if they can wait to start their attack ads until you're feeling more up to it?"

"Hey!" Marissa jumped in. "Play nice, or this is going to be a really long campaign. Look, Mr. Barba, it's better to deal with this stuff early. Believe me, having seen what Alicia went through, they're not going to waste any time, and the sooner we deal with it, the easier it'll be. But," she said, "I think you can go take a freaking shower first if you want to. Right, Dad?" She gave her father a warning look.

Eli rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said. "But hurry up. This is going to take most of the day to work through."

Rafael padded off to the shower, and Eli and Marissa stood on opposite sides of the breakfast counter, organizing their notes. Each pile contained a different potential problem that would need to be explained, spun, or temporarily ignored until they had to deal with it.

"So what do you think we need to worry about the most?" Marissa asked after about ten minutes of rifling through papers.

"I think the Munoz thing is going to be the hardest to explain," Eli said, reviewing the stack dealing with the former mayoral candidate. "Rafael was his confidant for so long, there are going to be implications that he tried to cover up for him."

"No way did that happen," Marissa said. "I wasn't even around for it and I know he's still broken up about having to turn that guy in."

"How do you know that?"

"The same way Nora could always tell when you were up to no good," Marissa said.

Eli dropped the pile of paper he was holding but tried to sound nonchalant. "Meaning?"

"I mean that eventually, assistants start sharing a brain with their bosses. We start thinking like you. Not acting like you, thank God, but we get inside your head. If you're nice to us, we don't mess with anything while we're in there. And speaking of Nora," Marissa said, "it's a shame you weren't nicer to her, because I need her to come out here."

Eli almost fell off his stool. "What? Why in God's name would you want that?"

"Wow, Dad, you make it sound like I just asked you to get Charlie Manson out here."

Eli pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, I just mean there's no reason she needs to drop her entire life and come out to help with this campaign."

"Are you kidding me?" Marissa crossed her arms. "Peter can live without her. We can't. You don't even have half your apartment unpacked because you have no idea how to deal with your life."

"That is B.S.," he said, also crossing his arms. "I don't need Nora to-"

"Ever wonder why people have assistants? To deal with the bullshit so that they can take care of business. That's why Mr. Barba has me, and that's why you need Nora."

"I am perfectly fine on my own," he said.

"Fine, then I'm not helping you either," she replied with a shrug. "I can think of thousands of better things to do with my weekends anyway."

"WHAT?!" Now he was confused AND pissed. "Marissa, you already work for him. How hard will it be for you to be his bodywoman the way you were for Alicia?"

"First of all, Dad," she said, "If you really wanted me to help, you'd accept that I've earned a better title than that. And second, in case you didn't remember, I have a job. It's not like he's going to stop doing the job he has just to run for the job he wants. I have to put my job as his legal assistant before my job as his campaign assistant."

"Why can't we hire someone from the DNC to help you, then? Why does it have to be Nora?"

"Because," Marissa said, "she's the only one who is going to be able to tell you where to go when you get bitchy. The DNC will send you a yes man. I don't need that. I need someone who will tell you to calm the hell down."

"You're being ridiculous," he said, eyebrows furrowing angrily. "There is no reason I can't hire someone right here in the city to work for me."

"You really think anyone's going to work for you for more than a couple weeks? The first time you scream at them the way you did at Nora, they'll run straight to Buchanan's campaign and tell them everything."

Eli stared blankly at her, his mouth hanging open. He hated to admit it, but she had a point. He didn't have time to build trust with someone else, even someone from the DNC. He knew his own temper, and he knew he had a knack for alienating people. Nora was accustomed to his rages. Sometimes he wondered if that was the reason she hadn't asked to come with him to New York.

"I really don't care about your reaction to this," Marissa continued, "because if you don't get Nora out here, I'm not doing this. Period."

Just then, Rafael came back into the room, looking slightly more like himself. Though his hair and skin were still slightly damp, he had managed to pull himself together into a button down and jeans. "What's going on? Marissa?"

Marissa didn't answer, but gave her Dad a withering stare that told him she wasn't going to budge. Glaring at her, Eli said, "Will you excuse me for a moment? I have to make a phone call." With that, he left the apartment for the hallway, preparing himself for the taste of crow. Rafael looked from Marissa to the door and back again.

"What was that about?" Barba gestured toward the living room. "Please, have a seat." Armed with fresh coffee, she sat on the couch while he took the matching overstuffed armchair.

"I'm making him call his old assistant. I need reinforcements. I realize I'm amazing, but I can't do both jobs."

"What's the problem with that? Does she have some reason to hate him? Besides, you know, being him."

Marissa smiled ruefully, while Marbury jumped into her lap and purred.  “You have to understand, she’d worked for him since I was eleven.  My parents got divorced three years later.  That’s twelve years of her life she’s spent working for him, and almost a decade of that time was spent running his after the divorce.”

"So why didn't she come out here with him?"

"That's why she's mad at him. He didn't even offer. Thought he could do it all on his own, didn't want to pay her moving expenses, figured he'd just find someone new if he needed to. Whatever." She rolled her eyes. "The truth is, Nora's the only one who has ever been able to tolerate my Dad's bullshit, except for maybe Alicia, and she hasn't been doing it nearly as long as Nora has."

She looked up from petting Marbury to see that Rafael was half-smiling at her. "What?"

"Do you think that in twelve years, you'll still be able to tolerate MY bullshit?"

"I think that if I'm still working for you in twelve years, I will have to reevaluate my life choices." There was an implied wink in her words, and Rafael suddenly felt that he had not only an assistant but a confidant.


It took him a moment before he could bring himself to hit "call" on Nora's number. This conversation wasn't just going to be uncomfortable, it was going to be downright wrenching. He didn't know why he hadn't deleted her number from his phone before. It wasn't like he ever made social calls, least of all to her. Pacing back and forth in the hallway, he wondered if he could make up a conversation that would sound plausible enough to convince Marissa he'd called. I could tell her that Nora said no, that she hung up on me, he thought. Oh, hell, but Marissa would call her. That won't work. He realized he had no choice. He swallowed hard and hit call.

Ring. Ring. Ri-

"Hello, this is Nora." Honey-sweet and sharp, he'd almost forgotten the sound of her voice.

"Hello."

Silence followed, and Eli supposed she had just woken up, since she had sounded sleepy when she answered and since she obviously hadn't realized he was on the line. He looked at the phone to make sure the line hadn't gone dead. When he saw that it was still connected, he cleared his throat.

"Nora, it's Eli."

"Oh," she said. "What do you want, Eli?"

"Is that any way to talk to your boss?"

"FORMER boss, Eli, or did you forget that you left me in Chicago when you ran away to New York?" He could almost see the disdain in her dark eyes.

"Oh, come on, Nora, it's been eight months. Isn't it time we move on?"

"I have moved on, Eli. I'm working for Peter. You know that. And believe it or not, he treats me like a human."

He rubbed his forehead. Just then, Rafael's apartment door opened.

"Dad, are you-"

"Oh, go away!" Eli snapped.

"Eli, what the hell-" Nora said.

"Not you, Nora. Marissa," he said, redirecting to his daughter, who was still hanging out of the doorway, "I'll be in when I'm done. Just start going over the gay thing."

"Oh, come on, Dad, I can't talk to my boss about-"

"MARISSA!"

"I swear to God you're paying me double what you paid me last time." She slammed the door behind her, and Eli put the phone back to his ear.

"Marissa doing well?" Nora's voice was softer now, less agitated.

"She is," Eli said. "She's working for a prosecutor right now..."

"I know," Nora said. "She emailed me."

"She-what?" His eye started to twitch.

"She and I still talk, you know. We HAVE known each other for over a decade," she replied coolly. "So what do you want, Eli?"

"You spent too long working for me," he said. "You've lost your knack for pleasantries."

"No, just the inclination to extend them to you. I'm gonna ask you again and this time I want an answer or I'm hanging up, what do you want?"

There was no more stalling. He took a deep breath and in one exhale said, "Nora-I-need-you-out-here-could-you-please-come-and-help-me?"

There was a pause long enough to make him check the line again, and then, "This isn't funny, Eli."

"Who's laughing?" He forced himself to relax his crunched-up shoulders. "Nora, look, I-"

"I'm not coming out there, Eli," she said. "I have a job. A job I love."

"I know. Peter is a good man to work for. I did it for years, remember?"

"So, what, do you not think he needs me in this campaign? Just because you thought I was disposable doesn't mean he thinks so. Do you really think he'd just let me go work for you again because you suddenly decided you're not capable of running your own life after all?"

"If I asked him to, he would, not because you're disposable," Eli replied quickly, "but because he knows you're indispensable."

"What the hell are you talking about? You're the one who said you didn't need me, that there wasn't enough work for me, and that you didn't need an assistant anymore. What's changed?"

"Well," he began, "you said you knew Marissa was working for a prosecutor."

"Yes, but what does that have to do with-oh, Lord," she said, suddenly realizing what was coming. "Oh, no, Eli, absolutely not. Not again." Her voice was firm, steady, and indicated that she was not up for his usual bullshit. So he tried a different tack.

"Nora! I promise - I PROMISE - this one is worth it. It's Peter all over again. He's a good candidate. He wants to do good things. He deserves to win. And the thing is, Peter can get a thousand people to help him. He's a good man to work for. I'm-"

"Not," she finished. "I'm about to be really honest with you, Eli. You SUCK as a boss."

"Well, I don't think THAT'S entirely-" he started, but she cut him off.

"No, you SUCK. I worked for you for twelve years. You have a terrible temper, you don't care who you embarrass, you have no people skills, you're barely a human most of the time. And you're even worse when you're on a campaign. It makes you good at your job, but it also makes you a terrible boss."

He stood there in stunned silence. It wasn't as though no one had ever said those things to him, but it was the first time Nora had ever said them. Maybe it was because this was the first conversation they'd ever had outside of her employment with him. But for some reason, the words stung more coming from her.

"Nora, what do I have to do? We need you here. I can't run a campaign without some serious help, and Marissa won't be able to do it all."

Nora let out a silky, light laugh. He knew that laugh, had heard it for over a decade, but felt like he was hearing it for the first time. "Marissa asked you to ask me, didn't she?"

"What? Of course not!" He tried, and failed, to play it off.

"Oh, please, Eli. You're a good liar, but you just gave yourself away," she said. His cheeks burned and he was glad this wasn't a video call. Nora sighed, almost wistfully. "I do miss that girl."

"So will you do it?" He was anxious for this to be over before Marissa could pop back out of the apartment like a Jew-in-the-Box. He held his breath, hoping Nora would let him off the hook.

"I want a salary of a hundred thousand dollars and you're going to pay my moving expenses," she said with finality. "Those are my terms."

"A hundred thousand-are you kidding?" He sputtered. "This is extortion!"

"This is fair. You want me to pack up, leave my home, my family, my job, and come work in New York City? Seventy-five thousand is a reasonable salary for an executive assistant out there. The other twenty-five is because I have to work for YOU. This is not a negotiation, Eli. Those are my terms."

"I have been nothing but bullied all day, and it's only ten thirty," he muttered. "Fine. You can have your salary and your moving expenses. I'll expect you in two weeks."

"Two weeks? I need to give Peter more notice than that," she said.

"I'll talk to Peter," he replied. "Just... come. As soon as you can."

"Fine," she replied. "And I need a place to stay. You need to arrange that."

"Fine," he echoed. "I'll work it out. I'll see you soon."

"I'll look for a draft contract soon," she said. "And let me know where I'm staying."

He hung up the phone and held it against his forehead. Why was it so difficult to talk to her? Why did he agree to that salary? And why the hell was his heart trying to escape his ribcage? Shaking it off, he pushed his hair off his forehead and headed back into the apartment, where he found Marissa and Rafael sitting in the living room chatting about his DVD collection.

"Are we ready?" Eli said, clearing his throat. They all gathered back around the breakfast counter, Marissa sitting on one of the high-top chairs and Eli and Rafael on opposite sides.

"So," Rafael said, "what sordid event from my past do we get to start with?"

"Depends whether you want to start easy or hard," Eli said. "And not all of this is from your past."

"Well, let's start with my present," Rafael replied. Eli pushed one of the smaller stacks toward Rafael. "What could possibly be-" He trailed off as he flipped through the pages, realizing what Eli was talking about.

"You warned me about this," Eli said, watching Rafael's face intently. He had to see how his candidate would handle personal attacks, and this was one of the most personal. Rafael's expression alternated between annoyance and amusement.

"Well, I can't say it surprises me," Rafael said. "Like you said, I did warn you that they'd say I'm gay."

Marissa paged through the papers that Rafael had set aside from the stack. "Some of this stuff is just dumb. Besides, who cares if he IS gay?"

"I'm in the room," Rafael said, continuing to look through the documents. Most of what they contained was not shocking - photos of him in his flamboyant courtroom attire, polling data regarding public opinion of both his sexuality and homosexuality in general. But there was also information about his hobbies and leisure activities - seeing Broadway musicals, for instance, or information on the gym he went to. And some of it truly astounded him. "They got information on the charities I give to?"

"THEY didn't - yet," Eli said, taking the paperwork from Marissa as Rafael set it down. "WE did. Look, I need you to keep something in mind while we do this. To do my job, I've had to do a pretty thorough investigation into every aspect of your life. You probably won't like me very much when we're done here."

Rafael nodded, struck by the fact that he told victims the same thing before every trial. He couldn't blame Eli - it was only going to get more personal when Buchanan got involved. But that didn't mean he had to like it.

"So what are they going to say? Because I donate to AIDS research, I'm a closet gay man living with AIDS?"

"From what I know about John Buchanan, I wouldn't put it past him," Marissa said. "Dad, have you started looking at HIM yet?"

"Next week," Eli said. "Why? Something I need to know beforehand?"

"I think you need to understand something about John Buchanan," Rafael said.

"I know he's a walking cliche in a shitty suit."
"It's worse than that," Rafael said, shaking his head. "The guy hates me on a very personal level."
"Why?"

"Because I kick his ass almost every time we're in court. Most defense attorneys are fierce, but after a trial we shake hands and go for a drink. This guy holds a grudge. He takes it personally when I rip his clients apart. So he WILL use anything he can get on me. He won't run anything resembling a clean campaign."

Eli thought about this. "Then we have two options: either we run a dirty campaign too, or-"

"No," Rafael said, shaking his head. "I'm not playing on his level. I don't care what he says about me. We're not doing that."

"Everyone always says that," Eli said. "But just wait until he starts-"

"Absolutely not. This is my campaign, Eli. I can't lower myself to his level."

Eli sighed. Running a clean campaign was almost impossible in politics, even more so in New York politics. But the look on Rafael's face told him it was better to agree for the moment and hope that the first personal attack would change Rafael's mind. However, he made sure to acquiesce without speaking in absolutes.

"Fine," Eli said. "We'll run as clean a campaign as is possible."

Rafael seemed satisfied. "So maybe we should look at what we think he'll use first and figure out how to get in front of that."

"This is it," Marissa chimed in.

Eli and Rafael both stared at her. "How do you know that?" Rafael asked.

"I've been watching you deal with this guy for a year now," she said. "The good thing about him is that it's so easy to anticipate his moves, and I can almost guarantee you that his campaign will be the same way. Dad, do you know who's running it yet?"

"Not yet. Like I said, next week."

"He's going to hire someone he can bully," she continued. "And then he'll do every predictable thing in the book. He can't take anyone telling him no. Look what happens when you do it. If I'm right, he'll throw softballs to try and lull you into a false sense of security. I bet you two paychecks he goes for the gay thing first."

"That's a softball?" Rafael tried to think of other, worse things that could be used against him. It was hard to take an inventory of all one's transgressions in only a few moments. Then he realized what one of The Big Things would be. "Of course..."

"What?" Eli sounded wary, as if he was worried he'd missed something major.

"The Alex Muñoz thing," Rafael said, realizing that this was one of the biggest problems they would have.

Eli breathed a sigh of relief. "That's definitely not a small thing," he said. "But let's deal with the big things later. Marissa is surprisingly correct; they'll throw the gay thing out first."

"Well, since no one will believe me if I just come out-"

"Maybe not the best choice of words," Marissa said.

"I can still fire you, you know," Rafael said, glaring at her.

"You could, but you won't," she replied casually, typing on her phone again.

"Anyway, how do we deal with this in advance?"

Eli tapped his finger against his lips. "I don't suppose you'd consider wearing fewer suspenders?"

"Oh, come on!" Rafael snapped. "I will not change everything about myself to appeal to homophobes."

"I was kidding!" Eli held up his hands in front of him. "Changing your wardrobe would actually work against us. It will make it look like you're just trying not to LOOK gay."

"Why," Marissa suggested, "can't we just throw the grenade back over the fence when the idiot lobs it?"

"You mean accuse HIM of being gay?" Eli asked.

"No," Rafael said, understanding. "She means accuse him of being a bigot."

"Interesting," Eli said. Then he flipped to the page in the research with the poll results. He studied them for a minute. "You know, this could work. Our polling says voters are more or less okay with you being gay. They're just not okay if you're hiding it, which you aren't, and besides, we can always dispute that with a well-orchestrated photo op or two. But I'm willing to bet they'd be far less pleased with an accusation being made as if it were necessarily a bad thing."

"So maybe we don't address the accusation at all," Marissa said. "We don't want to make it seem like being gay IS a bad thing, right?"

"But if we frame it as though it's an insult to the gay community that that suggestion is being made as a negative..." Rafael began.

"Then he blows himself up with his own bomb," Eli finished.

"Okay, good, done," Rafael said. "What's next?"

Eli jotted down a few notes on the top page of the pile and set it aside. "Do you want to deal with past or continue with the relative present?"

"Am I going to need to switch from coffee to scotch?" He got up and started a fresh pot.

"Maybe," Eli said. "I'll take some of that this time. I have a feeling this is going to take a while."

While Rafael grabbed another mug, Marissa took the opportunity. "So, who has PTSD?" Rafael almost dropped the full pot of coffee onto his chest.

"Marissa!" Eli yelled. "Good God, who raised you?"

"You know exactly who raised me," Marissa replied. "I didn't mean anything by it. I just saw a book over there and wondered if it's something we need to know about."

Rafael crossed his arms and looked away. This really wasn't his business to tell. But Eli obviously sensed from his silence that he was hiding something.

"The only way this works is if you're honest with me," Eli said, coming around to Rafael's side of the counter.

"This isn't yours to know," Rafael replied.

"Everything is mine to know," Eli said. He put a hand on Rafael's shoulder. "If it affects the campaign, it's only going to hurt worse when it's used against you. It's better if I know so that we can deal with facts, because I assure you, the facts will be less painful than whatever Buchanan decides to twist them into."

"Mr. Barba?" Rafael looked at Marissa, who had an apologetic look on her face. "I really didn't mean to be rude. But you know the thing you said you always say to victims before you take the case to trial? The one thing you hide is going to be the one thing the defense will use."

Rafael's throat began to close. How could he be expected to talk about the constant guilt, anxiety, and nightmares he still felt over William Lewis? Moreover, how could they expect him to talk about the way it had affected Olivia? But he knew they were right. Buchanan would use it. And Eli needed to deal with it before he could make it worse than it already was.

"I bought that book," Rafael said, "as a way to help my friend cope with a personal tragedy. She was brutalized by someone, and I didn't know how else to help."

"That friend wouldn't happen to be Olivia Benson, would it?" Eli asked. Rafael's eyes flickered with anger.

"How- why- if you already knew then why are you asking me to go through it?"

"To keep you honest," Eli said. "I have an entire history of the SVU cases you've prosecuted, since those will be the ones Buchanan focuses on the most. Lewis got a lot of press." Rafael sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose. His one major failure had been hard enough to deal with at the time, but now he knew he would have to relive it over and over. "It's in the oppo research anyway, so we should deal with it now. What happened?"

"He was a psychopath and I totally fucked up," Rafael said. "What more do you need to know?"
"Well, for starters," Eli said, "what made that case so different?"

Rafael honestly didn't know how to respond, though not for lack of trying. He had just never come up with a satisfying answer. "It doesn't matter," he said. "My fuck-up cost my friend more pain than she ever should have had to deal with. So I bought that book to try and help. I couldn't help her in court, so it seemed like the only other thing to do."

"Okay, for starters, don't ever say you couldn't help someone in court," Eli said. "It will sound bad, no matter how true it might or might not be."

"For what it's worth," Marissa said, "I don't think you fucked up that badly. From what I read, that guy slipped through a lot of fingers."

"Your opinion isn't the voting public's," Eli said dismissively. "We're going to have to answer questions about how you let him walk, after which he assaulted a police officer."

"You think I don't know what he did?" Rafael spat. "You think I don't realize that I was the reason Olivia had to go through all of that?"

Looking at Rafael's face, Eli felt a twinge of pity and guilt. "I know you do," he said softly. "But we have to address it with the public." Rafael knew he must have looked close to murder because Eli suddenly changed subjects. "What about tabling that one for a while?"

"Good idea," Rafael replied, through gritted teeth. "What other bullshit do you have for me?"

Eli stepped back to the other side of the counter. "I told you that you wouldn't like me very much when we were done," Eli said. "Do we feel like dealing with Muñoz?"

"Do we have a choice?"

"Oh, God," Marissa muttered.

"There really isn't that much to tell," Rafael said.

"There's always something to tell," Eli replied, pulling yet another, thicker stack of paper from the piles. "What happened there?"

Rafael shrugged, sipping his lukewarm coffee. "Like I said, there isn't much to tell that wasn't already written about. He was my best friend. He decided to run for mayor, and then pulled an Anthony Weiner. I had nothing to do with it. The feds got him for sending child pornography and committing a crime across state lines. He's upstate now."

"But you were associated," Eli replied. "How closely?"

"I didn't want to believe it," Rafael said. "He was, as I said, my oldest friend. But when I realized what he was doing, I had to turn him in, and it killed me to do it."

"He tried to claim you were corrupt, just trying to take him down so that you could further your own career."

"Bullshit," Marissa said. "How many times did you have to ask him to run before he said yes?"

"Well, the three of us in this room know it's bullshit," Eli said. "But the public seems to think you still had some nefarious motive." He pulled another poll result from the stack. "I think we can overcome it. But we'll need to do some major PR, and we may need to go upstate and try to get Muñoz to cooperate, issue some kind of statement from prison."

"He won't do it," Rafael said flatly.

"What about the wife?" Eli flipped through the pages. "Yelina?"

"Forget it," Rafael said. "There's no way. But Eddie... Eddie might."

"Eddie? Who's Eddie?"

"He's another friend. Alex had him delivering money to the girls to keep them quiet. He almost went down with Alex, but the feds offered him a deal in exchange for turning on Alex. He might be willing to back me up."

"Not great, but something to keep in our back pocket. I might need to strategize with the team on this one, though. It's a bit hairy."

"By the way, what kind of team do we have working on this?"

"I've got two researchers, a strategist, a finance expert, a couple interns to do grunt work, a graphic designer for your campaign materials - by the way, we're going to be coming up with a slogan next time we meet - Marissa, me, and my assistant Nora who will be coming out in the next two weeks and staying with Marissa."

"Excuse me?" Marissa said. "Not that I mind, because I love Nora, but were you planning to ask me?"

"You said I had to get her out here and you didn't care what I had to do to make it happen." Marissa opened her mouth, then closed it again.

"You'd better be glad I got a two-bedroom that I AirBnB out," she replied, defeated.

"So," Rafael said, "what's next?" This is getting a little easier, at least, he thought.

Eli knew this next one might earn him a punch in the face. "Your father."

Rafael's face froze and Marissa's softened a bit. "Do you want me to leave, Mr. Barba?"

"I... what about him?" Rafael asked, totally ignoring Marissa.

Eli cleared his throat nervously. Even he hated to bring this kind of thing up. "The researchers found this. From 1996. No charges filed, but this police report..." Rafael knew exactly what Eli was talking about. He had seen it coming, which is why he'd talked to his mother before fully committing. Still, he hated to think about it. He remembered the day exactly, as if it were last week. His breath came quicker and he struggled to maintain control of it.

Eli looked at Rafael, who appeared to be holding back his emotions. Then he looked at Marissa. She shook her head. While Eli's first instinct was to push his candidate harder during times like this - God knows it wasn't going to get easier - he also knew when someone was ready to shut down. Alicia taught him that sometimes it was better not to push, especially at first. Otherwise you ran the risk of your candidate getting burned out before the campaign even started. So he gathered up the remaining stacks of paper and started putting them back into the box.

"We can pick this back up in a couple days," he said. Rafael's head snapped up, and he realized just then that he had been clenching his fists tightly against his sides. Marissa lifted the box off of the counter, and gave Rafael a small smile.

"See you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Rafael said absently. Eli and Marissa looked at each other uneasily, and were on their way out when Rafael said, "Eli?"

Eli turned and came back to the kitchen while Marissa headed for the elevator. "Yes?"

"That police report... you've read it?" Eli nodded. "How likely do you think it is to come out?"

Eli's brow furrowed. "If my researchers found it, Buchanan's will, too." Rafael hung his head and rubbed the back of his neck.

"We need to get in front of it. It might be the biggest issue."

At this, Eli gave an encouraging smile. "Let me worry about that. Keep your conviction rate up. That's what you can do for me."

"So no pressure or anything," Rafael said, brightening a bit.

"You haven't seen pressure until you've done debate prep," Eli said. "I'll call you tomorrow."

As Rafael shut the apartment door, his phone vibrated in his pocket. He didn't feel like answering calls, but when he saw the caller ID, he realized he had to take it. "Hello?"

"Hey, Barba, it's Joe." Rafael genuinely liked Joe Thomas, a young prosecutor who handled mostly misdemeanors. Joe worked almost as hard as Rafael did, often coming in hours before almost anyone else in the office, and they would occasionally go for coffee runs together when their assistants hadn't come in yet.

"Hey, Joe. What can I do for you on a Sunday afternoon?"

"Yeah, listen, I'm sorry to bother you on a weekend, but my wife went into labor this morning-"

"Well, I think your first call should have been the hospital," Rafael joked.

"Funny," Joe replied.

"I usually am. Seriously, though, congratulations. Has the baby come yet?"

"Not yet, we're taking a short rece-I mean break. Man, I think my wife has a point when she tells me to stop bringing work home."

"So what do you need from me?"

"Listen, I was supposed to have an arraignment tomorrow morning... it's a DUI, no injuries, easily pleaded out, but someone has to be there to do it, and I-"

"Say no more. What time?"

"Nine. Thanks, Barba. I really appreciate this."

"No problem," Rafael said. "Give Annie a stiff handshake from me."

Joe laughed. "I will."

As they hung up, Rafael smiled. Ordinarily, arraignment court was drudgery. But today, he was happy for the change of pace. There were no victims, no horrors, and opposing counsel was usually an easily-intimidated first-year lawyer. He would be in and out in fifteen minutes, tops.

Chapter Text

Arraignment court was running behind, and Rafael was totally fine with that. After spending the previous morning knee-deep in ghosts from his past and skeletons from his present, he needed an easy Monday morning. The case was due to be called a half-hour after he'd arrived, so he had passed the time by going over the case file one more time. The driver was a twenty-two year old woman who had been driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction when she was pulled over by a cop on his break. Thankfully, no one had been injured, and the driver was a first-time offender, so he planned to plead this one out. Usually, he would try to talk to opposing counsel before arraignment to speed things up, but despite the fact that the courtroom was full of defendants and their attorneys, he had no idea who Franklin Ellis had sent.

"Docket ending 6123, People v. Harris." That was his case number, so he approached the podium reserved for the prosecution. Although Leah Harris was present, her attorney was noticeably absent.

"Rafael Barba for the People, Your Honor," he said to Judge Grasso, the arraignment court supervising judge.

"Ms. Harris, have you been assigned an attorney?"

"Yes, your Honor, but I don't know where-"

Just then, the courtroom door burst open and a young woman hustled in, clutching a stack of files in one hand and her purse in the other. Her maple-brown hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail and her heels clacked on the floor as she ran toward the defense table. Rafael found himself staring at her. She seemed familiar, though he had never come up against her in court before.

"I'm so sorry I'm late, Your Honor, but I was just assigned this case this morning," the woman said, catching her breath. "Lauren Sullivan for the defense."

At the sound of her name, Rafael almost dropped the file he was holding. No wonder she looked familiar, he thought. He had a crush on Lauren in high school, when he was a senior and she was just a freshman. They'd shared choir together, where he had become friendly with her. He found her incredibly easy to talk to, probably because she was so smart and independent, qualities he always found attractive in people. Although she was more mature than most of the girls his own age, he never pursued anything more than friendship because of the age gap. When he went off to college, he tried to come home as little as possible, so he hadn't seen her since then. Now, though, he couldn't take his eyes away from her, until Judge Grasso started calling his name.

"Mr. Barba? Would you like to begin, or should we assume you don't want to arraign this defendant?"

"Uh, I… no, Your Honor. The People are prepared to offer two years' probation, contingent upon the defendant enrolling in an alcohol education class and performing 100 hours of community service."

"Ms. Sullivan, any disagreement?"

Rafael caught Lauren looking back at him out of the corner of his eye. Obviously she'd heard his name as well. After she conferred with her client, she nodded. "That's acceptable to the defense, Your Honor."

"So ordered," Judge Grasso said, banging his gavel. "Next case."

As the defendant was released, Lauren started gathering her things. His briefcase already packed, Rafael turned to leave the courtroom without saying a word. Of course, he had quickly debated it in his head, but what were the chances she really remembered anything about him? He'd almost made it to the doors when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Rafael Barba." When he turned around, Lauren was standing just a few inches from him. She was even prettier as a mature woman than as a young girl, the lines in her face barely betraying her age, her hazel eyes bright behind tortoise-shell glasses.

"Yes. I mean, hi," he said, extending his hand. Her grip was firm and confident, and she smiled warmly.

"Hi," she said. "Wow, I can't believe it's really you."

He laughed a little. ""I find it hard to believe that anyone from high school is surprised I'm an attorney," he said.

"That's true," she replied. "Do you remember when Sister Margaret tried to have you suspended when you wrote that essay about the systemic abuse of altar boys in the 1970s?"

"Yeah, but it wasn't because of the essay so much as that I mouthed off and refused to rewrite it," he said. There was a pause, and then, "So you're an attorney too?" Smooth, Rafael.

"Obviously," she said, and he felt his cheeks turning red. "I've only been licensed for a few years, though. I went to law school kind of late." She checked her watch. "Oh, crap, speaking of being late, I'm about to be late for another hearing."

"Oh, um, well, yeah, don't do that," he said.

She turned to the bench behind them and grabbed her purse and stack of files. As she reached down, her ponytail fell over her shoulder and Rafael could see a small tattoo on the back of her neck. He couldn't quite make out what it was. She turned back to face him and said, "It was really great seeing you again, Rafael. Maybe we'll run into each other again."

Giving him one last smile, she pushed the doors open with her shoulder, heading down the hallway to a different courtroom. Rafael stood still, trying to process what had just happened. How many arraignments happened every day, anyway? Hundreds, he supposed. He wasn't even supposed to be on this one, and neither was she, apparently. How many coincidences have to happen for you to get the hint, you idiot? Suddenly, he found himself rushing out the doors, looking left to right, trying to spot a glimpse of her. Thankfully, the corridors were long so she hadn't made it that far. He broke into a jog, hoping she didn't turn around and see him scurrying down the hall after her. Once he caught up, he called, "Lauren!"

She turned around. "Hey, what's up?"

"Well, I just… I mean, it's such a funny coincidence that we ran into each other, and I'd really like to catch up," he said, and then quickly added, "but, of course, if you'd rather not, I understand-"

"I'd love to," she said brightly. "What's your number? I'll text you."

"Oh, it's, uh…" He struggled to remember it. She laughed, and it sounded exactly the same as he'd remembered it.

"I do that same thing. Speed dial kills your retention for phone numbers," she said. "I'm a little tied up for the next two weeks with a trial I'm working…"

"Oh," Rafael said, "please, I don't want to cause unnecessary stress. I know how trials go, even if it is from the other side."

"No, no," she said, taking out her cell to check her calendar. "What about drinks at Don't Tell Mama after my trial is over? Say Friday the twentieth?"

"A Broadway bar," he said. "In case this is a ploy to get me to perform my rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream,' I should tell you I've given up my stage days." Jesus, could you be any more obvious? If she noticed, Lauren didn't let on.

"That's unfortunate. You were always so good in the spring musicals," she said. He stared at her in disbelief; why did she remember that? "So, I'll see you soon then?"

"Absolutely," he said. Then he finally remembered his phone number. "Oh, and my number is 212-555-9832." Lauren typed something quickly, after which his phone pinged.

"Now you have mine," she said. "Text me if something comes up between now and then." He tried his best to smile confidently and said goodbye. As they headed off in opposite directions, though neither of them realized it, they were both wondering the same thing: why had she said yes?


"Marissa, is the Norman file ready for me to take a look at?" Rafael called from his office. A minute later, Marissa was standing across from him. She dropped two thick files on his desk.

"I'll see you the Norman file and raise you a new one."

Rafael groaned and opened the new file, giving it a quick once over. "ANOTHER one?"

"Sadly, yes," she said. "Are they ever going to fix the air conditioning? It's been out all day." She had pulled her unruly curls into a clip on the back of her head in an effort to keep cool.

"Unfortunately, government money only gets you so many luxuries," he scoffed, setting the file aside and grabbing the Norman file. "Hopefully tomorrow."

"You'd think as a desert person, I'd be more okay with this heat," she said. "Hey, by the way, did my Dad tell you that Buchanan is putting off his announcement?"

"Yeah, I kind of figured that when he didn't announce when Eli thought he would," Rafael replied without looking up. "But he told me that he has a source at the RNC who told him the announcement would come in November or so. Eli says they're probably still gathering research on me."

"How do they know you're running?"

"Probably because your Dad made the announcement in a bar the night I agreed to it," he replied.

"Are you freaking kidding me?" She stared at him wide-eyed.

"You didn't know that?" He looked up from the file, eyebrows raised in surprise.

"Dad only tells me what he thinks I need to know," she said, "which doesn't help me as your campaign assistant."

"Did he do that when you were with Alicia Florrick?" He motioned for her to sit down. He wanted to talk to her about this, anyway.

"Yep," she said, sitting in one of the chairs across from him. "Thankfully, Alicia was good at filling me in on things he neglected to mention. Like when he didn't bother to tell me about the affair between her and Will Gardner. I found out because she asked me to look through her emails to figure out which ones would be the most damaging."

"She must have really trusted you," he said thoughtfully. "Marissa, look…"

"You don't have illicit emails I'm going to have to go through, do you?" She grinned.

"No," he said, "but I did want to talk to you about this whole thing."

"You know you don't have to tell me that I need to be discreet, right?" She looked almost offended.

"No, no," he replied quickly, shaking his head. "It's not that at all. You're smart enough to know that on your own. What I'm worried about is… you mentioned last week that you needed - what was her name?"

"Nora?"

"Yes, Nora. You mentioned you needed her to come out because you couldn't do both jobs on your own. I just want to make sure you really WANT to do both jobs."

"I do," Marissa said, "but I also know enough to know that this campaign will be a full-time job, and I already have one of those. I want to make sure that when I'm not able to do something, someone else can step up to the plate."

"Are you sure?" Rafael stared at her with his most penetrating stare, the one he gave to uncooperative witnesses. He didn't want to upset her, but he wanted her to know he was serious. "You don't have to do this just because your Dad says so. Like you said, you already have a full time job, and I'm going to need you to give just as much effort here. And I can't pay you for both. I don't even know how we're going to fund the campaign, quite honestly."

"Mr. Barba, first off, don't worry about the campaign. Dad will have you doing fundraisers before you know it. And as for me, if I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't. I just want to have backup. Besides," she said, "half the stress I'll be under will be from my Dad, and Nora will be here to wrangle him. That alone will help."

Rafael held his gaze a moment longer, making sure he didn't see any sign of repressed hesitation. But either Marissa was a stellar poker player or she was being completely honest, because she returned a hard look directly into his eyes.

"Fine," he said. "Then can you please make sure that this new file is scanned to the directory and then start putting together the summary sheet? It doesn't look like much, just a basic indecent exposure." She grabbed the file from the desk and started toward the door. "Marissa?"

"Yep?"

"I'll make you a deal. I'll make sure you're kept in the loop on everything if you're honest with me at all times."

"That's kind of a silly request. When have you ever known me not to be honest?"

"Do you think I have a shot at this?"

She cocked her head and leaned against the door frame. It was unlike him to be insecure. But he'd asked for honesty, and that was what she was going to give him. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy," she said. "There's a decent amount of dirt on you, still not quite as much as Alicia Florrick, but more than I originally thought. It's going to be out there for the world to know. You're probably going to have a few sleepless nights, at least one ulcer, and your hair is going to get a lot grayer than it is now."

"Hey!" He instinctively put his hand to his scalp.

"You asked for honesty," she said, raising an eyebrow, reminding him very much of Eli. "So it's not a no, it's just reality." Marissa shrugged and left the room, seeing his face drop slightly, and silently wondering if honesty was always the best policy.


Later that night, Marissa had just gotten out of the shower when there was a knock at her door. She tossed on her bathrobe and grabbed her cell out of its pocket. Who the hell is knocking at 8:30 at night? I swear to God if it's the kids down the hall playing ding dong ditch again… She walked down the hallway to the front door and glanced out the peephole rather than answering. No way was she going to give those teenage boys anything to fantasize about. When she saw who it was, she groaned, knowing what was about to happen as she opened the door.

"What the HELL do you think you're doing?" Eli yelled, pushing his way inside the apartment.

"Is it possible for you to wait to be invited into an apartment before coming in?"

"Don't change the subject. Explain to me why I just got a phone call from my candidate expressing second thoughts about the campaign?" He crossed his arms and blocked her way back to the bathroom, which annoyed her because her hair was dripping wet and she was freezing. She opted to play dumb. If he was going to burst into her apartment and start yelling at her, she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was justified.

"I don't know," she said. "Did you go shoving your way into his apartment to ask him?" She pushed past him and headed back to the bathroom while he followed.

"Excuse me, but last weekend, I had a perfectly happy candidate who was gung-ho about this campaign, and now all of a sudden, I have someone who doesn't think he can win," he snapped. "And he mentioned something about you two having a conversation today."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, please, Dad. Nothing I said to him was going to change his mind or give him second thoughts. He was already HAVING second thoughts."

"What are you talking about? He was not!"

"Yes, Dad, he was," she said, rubbing her hair vigorously in the steamy bathroom while he fumed outside. "He asked me if I thought he had a shot. I didn't say no. But he was obviously feeling insecure already. So what did YOU say to him?"

He sputtered. "I didn't say anything to him. I keep telling him he's got better than average odds-"

"Oh, THAT'S reassuring," she said. "And again, I didn't say he wouldn't win. But I was honest with him about what he was up against."

Eli's eyebrows couldn't have gotten any closer together, but he tried to remain calm. He rubbed his temples and asked, "What did you say, Marissa?"

"Mr. Barba would be able to tell if I lied to him. What was I supposed to say? That this was going to be a slam dunk, no problem at all?"

"Well, of course not, but you didn't have to-"

"He's up against some major dirt, Dad. Between the mayoral race scandal, his Dad, everything else - I told him what I thought: that this was going to be hard."

"Marissa, you can't just be honest with a candidate! Not about things like that. You have to hand hold them. You know that."

"Dad, you hired me as his assistant, and he asked me, as his assistant, to be honest with him. I didn't lie to Alicia, and I'm not going to lie to him. It's your job to keep him in this race, not mine. I'm here to do what he needs from me, and what he needs from me is total, brutal honesty. And frankly, so do you. Which is why I asked for Nora. When is she coming?"

Eli bristled at the sound of her name. "She hasn't told me yet. Why, do you need more time to get things ready?"

"I told you," she said, "I usually rent out that room. There's nothing to get ready. And why does SHE have to call YOU? Shouldn't it be the other way around? You're the one who's asking her to come out!"

"Like that was my idea," he replied. "Marissa, look, it was hard enough to get him to agree to run. I need him to be confident. Buchanan will be coming at him hard, from all angles, and the last thing I need is for him to doubt himself."

"I told you, I'm not you. I can't lie to him."

"Don't lie! But don't be honest, either."

"How the hell does that work?"

"It sounds something like..." He trailed off thoughtfully for a moment. "Something like, 'Mr. Barba, you're the best man for the job, and that's all that matters.'"

She looked at him with incredulity. "That doesn't sound like me at all. He's going to know I'm full of shit."

"No, he won't. All he'll hear is support."

She finished toweling her hair and shook her head. "Fine. Now call Nora and let her know she can come any time."

"Fine," he echoed, but he didn't move. Marissa pushed past him again, heading toward her bedroom.

"I meant now," she said. "I'll be back in a minute, and by that time, I expect you to tell me a date."

"When did it get to be that YOU order ME around?" He gave her a look that expressed both annoyance and amusement.

"When you volunteered my boss to run for office and my apartment for staff housing." With a final eyebrow raise, she shut her bedroom door and left Eli to make what he considered another unpleasant phone call. Anxiously, he dialed Nora's number and prayed for voicemail. Unfortunately, she picked up on the first ring. Damn, he thought.

"Hello, Eli."

"Hi," he replied. "Listen, I've got your housing figured out. Do you mind having a roommate?" Not wanting Marissa to overhear the conversation through the door, he strolled back down the hallway to the living room. His daughter's decorating taste had always eluded him. It was somewhere between pre-teen girl and nineties punk rocker. On a bookshelf - a loose term, since Marissa eschewed books for her e-reader, sat a pink ceramic cupcake coin bank, while on the adjacent wall hung a framed poster of the Pixies.

"I kind of assumed I would have a roommate - it IS New York City, after all. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little afraid of who you think I should live with. Please tell me it's not a random Craigslist weirdo."

"Of course not. I wouldn't trust just anyone, you know. You're no good to me if you turn up dead." From the silence on the other end of the line, he assumed his attempt at humor had been met with an eyeroll.

"So, who is it?"

"When did you get to be all business?"

"Eli!" She snapped. "I'm trying to cook dinner. Can you just tell me what I need to know to contact my roommate? I'll deal with the rest of it, if it means avoiding calls like this."

"Glad to know it's as unpleasant for you as it is for me." The minute he said it, he wished he could stuff the words back down his throat. He stared at the stack of magazines on the coffee table and wondered why Marissa had copies of the ABA Journal laying around.

"What's THAT supposed to mean?"

"Nevermind," he said. "That came out wrong. Anyway, how would you feel about sharing a place with Marissa?"

"Wow," she said. Then there was a short pause, followed by, "Well, you know I love that girl..."

"Is that a yes?"

"Sure," she said. He heard a lid drop. "Shit! Damnit!"

"What's for dinner?" He didn't even know Nora could cook. Then again, he'd never really had reason to ask.

"Just spaghetti," she said distractedly. "Anyway, when should I come? A week? Two?"

"When can you be here? I assume you'll need time to move everything."

She sighed. "Give me two weeks, then, and that's from the time I get the check for my moving expenses. And you'll need to give me Marissa's address- oh, Lord, Eli, she DOES know I'm moving in, right?" Evidently, Nora hadn't forgotten how devious he could be. He'd moved into the kitchen by that point, and grabbed a soda from the fridge. He wasn't a huge fan of Fresca, but it would have to do.

"Of course she knows," he said testily.

"Don't get snippy with me, Eli Gold. I can always change my mind," she snapped back.

"No, you can't. I've already spoken to Peter and as far as he's concerned, you've been reassigned." He raised his brow in satisfaction and wished she could see the look on his face, though he suspected she already knew exactly which look it was. There was a very pregnant pause, and then, where he expected an explosion, he heard a quiet laugh.

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Probably because you spent longer with me than my wife did," he said, the tension leaving his neck just a bit.

"And what does that say about me?" She said, almost a little ruefully. It was at that moment that Marissa came padding back into the room with a quizzical look on her face.

"Dad, did you-"

"Anyway, NORA," Eli said through gritted teeth in Marissa's direction, "I'll text you her address, and I'll have her call you to make arrangements. Are you still at the same address?"

"Yes, why?" She sounded odd. Almost... hopeful?

"So I know where to send your moving expense check," he said quickly.

"Oh. Right. I'll look for it. Look, I need to go. Dinner's done, and I have a guest coming."

"A guest?"

"Yes, Eli, a guest. You know, like friends who visit?" Suddenly, he felt very foolish and a bit rude.

"Oh, okay," he said. "Well, then, I'll see you in a couple weeks."

"Yep. Goodnight, Eli."

As he hung up, he turned back to Marissa. "Happy now?" She was lounging on the sofa, remote in hand.

"Very," she said. "At least for now."

"All right, then," he sighed, heading for the door. "I'm going to get some food now. And since I did what you asked, you do what I ask. Don't go being honest with Rafael anymore, okay?"

"I heard you the first time," she said, and then, "hey, I'm going to order Chinese. You want to stay?"

He leaned against the door, considering her offer. "Are you going to make me watch a Real Housewives marathon?"

"It's either that or you end up looking like a sad little old man sitting at a table all alone."

"Fine," he said, shrugging casually as he tossed his jacket onto her counter. "But if we're going to watch trashy women from Jersey flipping tables, we should at least order pizza."

Chapter Text

"Girl, I have MISSED YOU!" Nora flung herself at Marissa, wrapping her in a tight hug.

"Let's see if you still feel that way after a couple weeks of sharing a bathroom," Marissa replied, returning Nora's hug. She couldn't believe she hadn't seen Nora in over a year, their frequent texts and emails notwithstanding. The only thing that had changed about her since the last time they'd seen each other was her hair - instead of the afro she'd had for over a decade, Nora had chopped her light brown hair into a close-cropped pixie cut, slicked against her head.

"You've never lived in an all-girls dorm," Nora said. "One other girl is nothing." Marissa laughed and stepped aside to let Nora enter the apartment, towing her two suitcases behind her.

"I'm sorry it's so small," she said, a little embarrassed. "It's New York, though."

Nora said, smiling as she looked around. "It's very you." She set her suitcases down and took her wallet out of her purse. "By the way, how much do I owe you for first month?"

"The total rent for the month is $2500, which I subsidize by renting out the other room to people. I got lucky and got heat and water included in the cost. So really, all we're paying for is electric and internet. I don't have cable, but I have Apple TV." Nora ripped a check out of her checkbook, scribbled on it, and handed it to Marissa.

"Compliments of your father," she said.

"I heard you really played hardball with him," Marissa replied, tucking the check in her pocket. She grabbed two Frescas out of the fridge and handed one to Nora. "Good for you."

"So," Nora said, "the rest of my things will be coming in the next week. I don't have much in the way of furniture, obviously, but there are a LOT of shoes."

"Good thing we wear the same size," Marissa said. "How's your mom?"

"She's good, mostly. She just went to the doctor and her thyroid is giving her some problems, but that's what happens when you age, I guess."

"Which is why I never intend to," Marissa replied. "How's Mariah?" Nora bristled a bit. "Oh, hey, I'm sorry. If it's too-"

"No," Nora said suddenly. "It's not that. But you know how it goes with her. She gets clean for a few months and then something happens - her boyfriend leaves her, she loses her job - and it's right back to the pills." She sighed sadly. Her younger sister had been in and out of rehab for five years, fighting an addiction to painkillers. Mariah had been especially close to their father, and sunk into a deep depression after he died. She started self-medicating with painkillers.

"I'm sorry," Marissa said. "Is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing enough by asking. It's good to know that someone cares about her besides Mom and me."

"Well, I've known Mariah as long as I've known you," Marissa said. "She might as well be my little sister too. Come on, let me show you to your room." With each of them carrying a suitcase, Nora followed Marissa down the hallway, lugging the other bag behind her. Marissa opened one of the two doors at the end of the hall and stepped aside to let Nora in.

"It's perfect," Nora said, looking around. A mirrored closet was built into one side of the room, with a window on the other. Nora put her purse on the vanity and sat down on the queen sized bed, its white, shabby-chic frame rattling just a little.

"It's small," Marissa sighed. "Is the bed okay? If you want to get your own, I can always sell this one."

"No, really, Ris," Nora said, using the nickname she'd called Marissa since she'd known her, "this is great. Besides, it's not like we'll be here much. You know your father is going to have us working at all hours at campaign headquarters."

"That's probably true," Marissa said, then brightened a bit. "So I guess we should take advantage of the fact that he doesn't know you're here yet and go for drinks." Nora tossed her purse onto the bed.

"Give me ten minutes to put on something cute," she said with a grin. "Any chance I can borrow some shoes?"


"I have no idea how," Rafael said to the detectives standing in his office, "but you're going to have to get me something more to get a warrant. No judge will sign one on evidence this flimsy."

"Come on, Barba," Olivia said. "We've made cases on less than this before." Rafael shook his head and handed the paperwork back to her, Eli's advice about keeping his conviction rate up ringing in his ears.

"Liv, this is evidence that he was in the house, but he was a delivery man and there's a record of a delivery scheduled for that day. So unless you're going to tell me that his managers at Home Depot conspired to commit rape and murder and falsified that order, you're going to have to bring me something more."

"Counselor, we could argue that he was the last person seen at her apartment, so the warrant should-"

He looked at Carisi with disdain. "When did you pass the bar?" Carisi rolled his eyes.

"You know, soon, I will have my license, and you won't be able to make those kind of comments anymore," he shot back.

"Because every lawyer that passes the bar is qualified to be an attorney," Rafael replied under his breath. Then he looked at Olivia. "Being in the house doesn't mean there's probable cause for a search, especially since he doesn't have a record. If he did this, which is likely, he's going to do it again. Trail him if you have to. But I need something else, even if it's another victim."

Olivia winced. "Barba, this guy raped her and slit her throat in her own bed. We can't wait for him to do it to someone else. That's exactly what happened with-" She stopped herself from completing the sentence, but he knew exactly what she was about to say. That's exactly what happened with Lewis, and look how it turned out. Whenever someone brought up William Lewis, guilt churned like acid in his stomach.

Just then, Marissa knocked on the door and poked her head inside. "Mr. Barba, I'm going to lunch if that's okay with you." Rafael was happy for the interruption.

"We were just on our way out," Carisi said, with a slight hesitation. "You wanna get a slice?" Rafael exchanged an odd look with Olivia, who just shook her head.

"Sure," Marissa smiled. "Ray's is just down the street. Let me get my purse." She ducked back out of the room and Carisi hurried after her.

"Well, that was something…" Olivia said.

"Marissa's smarter than that," Rafael replied.

"He's really not so bad," she said. "He just wants to be you when he grows up."

"I can't really blame him," he said with a smirk. His phone buzzed on his desk. He had a meeting with Eli scheduled in an hour, and he assumed that was the reminder. "Sorry, I have a meeting. Anything else you need?"

"Some DNA evidence would be nice," she replied, wondering why he was being so secretive. "But from you, no."

"Let me know when you get something." He watched her leave the office and sighed. He hated to turn her down, but he couldn't afford to have a case thrown out on a bad warrant or lack of evidence. He briefly wondered if it was possible that he'd turned down the detectives' request because of the campaign, but quickly shut the thought out. He would have done it anyway.

"Hello?" His head snapped up. He didn't recognize the voice.

"Hello?" He repeated, and stepped into Marissa's office to find a young black woman standing before him. "What can I do for you?"

"I hope I'm in the right place," she said. "I'm looking for Marissa Gold."

"She works here, but she stepped out to lunch," he said. "Can I help you with something?"

"Damn," she said, sounding disappointed. "I was hoping to catch her for just that reason. Can you tell her I stopped by, please?"

"Sure. What's your name?"

"Nora. She'll know." At this, Rafael smiled in surprise.

"Oh! You're Nora! I'm Rafael Barba," he said. "I'm-"

"I should have realized!" She slapped her forehead, then extended her long-fingered hand to shake his. "I'm so sorry. I work for-"

"Eli," he finished. "I know. Marissa talks about you a lot. All good things, of course."

"I could say the same about you. I'm happy to finally meet you. Eli also speaks highly of you, of course."

"I'd hope so. I'd be afraid if my own campaign manager had negative things to say about me. So, you're going to be helping him out?"

"I'd like to think I'm helping Marissa more than Eli," she said. Rafael thought he saw a barely perceptible eyeroll. "But yes, that's the general idea. Anyway, I should let you get back to work." Rafael thought back to his conversation with Marissa in his apartment and suddenly had an idea.

"I was about to order something," he said quickly. "I could get you something too." Nora hesitated, but agreed. She would be working on his campaign for the foreseeable future; she may as well get to know him.

"Sure," she said, and followed him into his well-appointed office, immediately noting the ornate fireplace that took up almost the whole left wall. Rafael gestured toward the couch, inviting her to sit. He stepped behind his file-covered desk and picked up the receiver. "Do you like Italian?"

"I'd better, I was born there," she replied. Rafael raised his brow a bit. "Don't worry, I'm a citizen. My parents were both citizens. My dad was in the Navy. And I like anything with crazy amounts of red sauce."

"We have things in common already," he said. He ordered the spaghetti alla vodka for two, handed her a bottle of water from his mini fridge and sat down at the round table across from her. "It'll be here in about ten minutes. They're pretty quick. So how long have you been in the city?"

"Just a couple days now," she said. "Marissa's been showing me around after work. I'm still trying to get my bearings. Plus, most of my things aren't here yet."

"I remember when I moved to Boston for college, I got lost just trying to get to the grocery store. At least my roommate was new to the city too, so we got lost together. Did you grow up in Chicago?"

"Yeah. After my Dad got out of the military, we moved back, and I grew up in West Garfield Park," she replied. "I don't know if you know anything about it, but it's one of the worst parts of Chicago."

"Sounds similar to where I lived. I came from the South Bronx. It's not quite as bad now, but back then..."

"Eli always asked me to go with them when we had to campaign near those neighborhoods. I used to call myself his black shield."

"I'm sure he appreciated that," Rafael said, laughing.

"He's not racist," she quickly clarified. "He's just a pragmatist. He knows it counts for something for people to see a black woman working closely with the Governor and Chief of Staff. I didn't mind. He paid me well."

"Was the Governor okay with you leaving?"

"I expect so," she said. "I was less okay with it than he was."

Rafael cocked his head. "Nora, if you're not comfortable working on the campaign, I certainly don't expect you to-"

"Please don't misunderstand me," she said. Her turquoise earrings swayed back and forth as she shook her head. "I have no problem being here and working with you. I'd do anything to help Marissa, too. She's like a sister to me. I've known her since she was a kid."

"So what was your hesitation?"

"It's complicated," she said, and then changed the subject. "So how did Eli talk you into this, anyway?"

"He's very persuasive," Rafael said. "He also got me a little drunk and told me that the person who would otherwise be running unopposed is someone I despise and who should never be in a position of power."

This time, it was Nora's turn to laugh. "That sounds exactly like something Eli would do," she said. "Governor Florrick didn't particularly want to run at first, but Eli convinced him that winning the State's Attorney position again was just a springboard. And now he's running for Senate. It amazes me how winning an election can turn someone who never wanted to be a career politician into someone who can't imagine doing anything else. But why do YOU want to run?"

"I told you, the person who would otherwise be-"

"No, that's how Eli convinced you to run," she said, cutting him off. "I want to know why you want this job. Politics isn't for everyone, so you have to have a really good reason for getting involved in it. What's yours?"

"That's just it. It has a lot to do with the person who will be opposing me. He's emblematic of the problems with the criminal justice system, and he's exactly what we do not need in the District Attorney's office."

"How so?"

"There was this one case," he said, "where a porn actress was raped by two men in her dorm room. And this man represented one of the boys, who claimed that she enjoyed it because it was the same thing she did in the movies she made. He attacked her on the stand, all but called her a whore, and said that he gets paid to prove women like her are just out to destroy the lives of innocent men like his client. The jury convicted the pair of them, but the judge granted the motion to set aside the verdict."

Nora shook her head. "What happened to her?"

"She went back to porn, even more hardcore stuff than before. This girl, she was a quiet, private person outside of her work. She was in school, porn was just a way to pay for it. She could have recovered from the rape, but John Buchanan destroyed her emotionally during the trial. It was such a waste. And now he's going to claim he wants to work for the victims? What a joke." He made a face as if he'd just thrown up.

"But what's your plan once you beat him?" She asked. "What do you want to DO with the office?"

He thought for a moment. It was a question no one had yet asked him, but one for which he thought he should probably have an answer. There was one thing that he knew for certain, having dealt with hundreds of rape cases by this point in his career. "First and foremost, I'd like to push through the backlog of rape kits. I don't know how much I can do as District Attorney, but I have to imagine I'd have some sway over that. I could at least bring more attention to it. As a prosecutor, a rape kit is the best piece of evidence I can get. Do you know how many untested rape kits there are?"

"I've read articles about it," Nora said. "I think that's a really good place to start. But keep in mind, you're going to have to have more than that. You'll need to have a good grasp on the issues presented in being a D.A., and have answers for how you'd handle them."

"It's funny, Eli hasn't gotten into it so much with me. He seems more focused on the announcement and fundraising than my positions."

"That's normal," she said. "He'll focus on getting you out there for the public to see first, then he'll get a read on what people think of you as you are, and that will allow him to shape the candidate you need to be to win them all over."

Rafael found it very easy to talk to Nora. She was extremely open, and seemed to have an insight into the political world that was both honest and thoughtful. He decided to ask her something that had been on his mind for quite some time. "Why hasn't Eli ever run for anything?"

"Oh," she said, sighing. "I think he knows that he has too many enemies. Eli walks the ethical line, and sometimes falls over it for his candidate so that they don't have to. They stay clean, he gets dirty. But if he ran for something, he couldn't do that. Plus," she added, "he's too much of a control freak to let someone else run a campaign."

"I could see that," Rafael replied. "How long have you worked for him again?"

"I've been with him since I was twenty-three. I had just gotten out of college with a journalism degree, and I applied for a secretarial position at his firm just to pay the bills while I looked for a 'real' job. I guess I just got comfortable, though, because I ended up staying with him until he left Chicago. By that time, I wanted a change." Rafael recognized a faint lie pass her lips, but decided it was too much for a first conversation to press it.

Soon, the food arrived and Rafael spread it across the table. The smell of garlic and tomatoes permeated the room as they made small talk; Nora asked him about law school, and they discovered they had a mutual love of Jeopardy, though Rafael admitted to being lousy at it.

"Have you seen Eli?" Rafael asked suddenly, taking a rather large bite of his garlic bread.

"Actually, now that you mention it, not yet," she said. "Marissa and I wanted to spend a little time acclimating to being roommates before throwing his brand of crazy into the-"

"Nora?"

Her head jerked upward, and there was Eli, briefcase in one hand, styrofoam cup of soda in the other, staring at her as if he had never seen her before. Her heart was in her throat, but she managed to take a deep breath. "Hello, Eli," she said.

"Hello." Neither of them moved, aside from Nora setting her fork down on her plate.

"How long have you been here?"

"Well, our food got here twenty minutes ago."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know. I'm being difficult."

Rafael's eyes flitted between them, not knowing where to place his attention. He suddenly felt like a third wheel in his own office. He cleared his throat. "I think I'm going to go get a cup of coffee," he said. Then, he looked at Eli. "Text me when you're ready. And try not to break anything." He tossed his plate in the trash, grabbed his phone, and left the room, shutting the door behind him.


"Why are you here?" He said, avoiding eye contact. His briefcase and soda found their way to the end table next to the couch.

"I was looking for Marissa," she said, casually going back to her lunch. "And then your candidate invited me in for lunch."

"What did you talk about?"

"What is this, Eli? Why do you care what we talked about?"

"It's my job to care, and it's your job to answer." He pursed his lips. She hated when he did that, but after all these years, it didn't affect her the way it once did. She rolled her eyes.

"We talked about his cat and Jeopardy."

"Is that all?" He sounded accusatory. She felt heat rising under her collar, and couldn't help throwing verbal daggers at him. Her fork hit the plate with a thwap as she swung herself around in the chair to face him.

"No, then I told him that he should run as far from you as possible because you're a nutcase. Jesus, Eli, after all these years, don't you trust me to know what to say and not say in front of a candidate?"

"You know that's not what I meant," he said. "I just want to make sure - we had an incident-"

"Marissa told me. Still paranoid, I see."

"You didn't answer my question," he said, changing the subject. "How long have you been in town?"

"A couple days," she admitted. "Marissa and I thought it would be for the best if-"

"If you acted like you were on vacation rather than a paid employee?" He glared at her.

She jumped out of her chair and walked right up to him, seething. He instinctively took a step backward. "Oh, go to Hell, Eli. I'm still waiting for the rest of my stuff to get here, I've barely had time to unpack what little I do have, and I'm trying to acclimate to a move halfway across the country. So forgive me if you weren't exactly first on my priority list. I would think you of all people would understand needing time to adjust to a major life change before jumping right back into work."

She was, of course, referring to the time he'd taken off of work nine years ago, just three years after she'd started working for him. His divorce had taken a toll on him, and although he would usually have buried himself in work to avoid thinking about it, he found that he wasn't performing up to his usual capability. So, he had taken two months off and gone to Europe, during which time Nora had handled what was left of his life. When he came back, his house was cleaner than he'd left it, his messages were prioritized by urgency (and not how urgent the caller thought it was but how urgent the matter ACTUALLY was), and she'd managed to locate a bottle of his favorite, hard-to-find whiskey to welcome him back. In short, she had made it possible for him to adjust to his new reality. That said, she'd never spoken to him this way before. He wasn't used to it. Was this yet another new reality?

"Nora," he said, softer this time, "of course I understand that you need time to finish moving. But I also expected that you'd tell me when you got here. After all the time we were together-" He stopped mid-sentence. It sounded funny, that phrasing. It felt odd.

"I didn't think you'd really care that I was in town or not," she said, tight-lipped.

"And what's THAT supposed to mean?"

"Nevermind," she sighed. This argument was going nowhere fast. It was better to just pretend everything was fine and back to normal. After all, they had to work together again, and that wouldn't be easy if they were angry with one another. "Can we just forget it, Eli?"

He cocked his head slightly and squinted at her. He could press the issue as was his habit, but something told him he didn't want to push this button right now. "Is this how it's going to be, then?"

"What do you mean?"

"You giving me attitude and me giving you angry eyebrows?"

Finally, she broke into a smile. "It's worked for us so far, hasn't it?"

He smiled back, wide and toothy. She always thought his smile looked a bit mad, probably because she so rarely saw it. Once, she'd told him that he should smile more - she meant it as a compliment, not a critique - and she swore from that point on, he'd gone out of his way to smile even less.

"I know I'm not always easy to deal with," he said, looking down. "I'm sorry. I know you aren't a slacker. I was just… upset that you didn't tell me you'd gotten here safely."

"It's all right… this time," she replied. "But, Eli, all joking aside, you need to start treating people like they have brains. Starting with me."

"I thought you just said our relationship worked the way it is."

"It does, mostly. But I'm setting some limits. I spent the last six months working for someone who doesn't constantly scream at me to get out of the way or order me around like his maid. I'm going to demand the same thing of you." She set her eyes on his. He got a weird feeling in his stomach, and felt himself blush. Somehow, Nora had a way of making him feel ridiculous with a simple look.

"I… okay. That's fair," he said.

"Good," she said. "In that case, I'm going to head home. My stuff is supposed to be delivered this afternoon. Where's headquarters?"

"I actually came by to tell Rafael that I just found office space down in TriBeCa," he said, typing furiously on his phone. "There's a PAC that's formed already-"

"Classic Eli, leaking the announcement-"

"-that will give us some of the funding until we get our own fundraising off the ground. Speaking of that, I need you to start researching interest groups we can give speeches to, and potentially some groups giving out awards that we might be able to have him nominated for."

"I can do that," she replied, bringing out a small, hardcover notebook from her oversized purse. He couldn't help but smile at the familiarity; Nora had carried one of those books since the month after he'd hired her. She told him it was the only way she could keep track of his ridiculous requests. He'd offered her a Blackberry more times than he could count, but she always refused, saying she preferred paper. "Anything else?"

"No," he said, "that's it for now. Thank you, Nora."

"That's what I'm here for," she replied, tossing the remains of her lunch in the trash can. Then, as she was on her way out the door, she hesitated. "By the way, Eli, you were right."

"I think I might keel over and die," he said. "You've never said those words to me."

"Don't get used to it," she said.

"So what is the monumental thing I'm right about?"

"He IS a good candidate. Don't ruin him."


As soon as he was safely out of the front office, he headed toward the lobby. He wanted to get as far away as he could to avoid the awkward argument that was quite likely taking place right now. He wondered why Nora had felt the need to keep her arrival secret from Eli. Although she'd said it was because she wanted a few days to herself in her new surroundings, instinct told him that she wasn't being entirely truthful. But it wasn't really his concern. He preferred to keep business and personal separate.

He took his phone out of his pocket to check his email and noticed he had a text message. He wondered for a moment when he'd missed that, but then realized it must have been when Olivia was still in his office and he'd mistaken it for a reminder notification. He clicked the button and nearly dropped the phone.

Hey, Rafael, it's Lauren. Just texting to firm up dinner plans for tonight. Let me know what time to meet you.

He had completely forgotten that his dinner with Lauren was that evening. Thank God she'd texted him or he might not have shown up at all. He typed as he walked:

Hi. Good to hear from you. Did that sound too sterile? He deleted it.

Hi there! Too excited.

Hey, it's great to hear from you. Would 7:30 work? Then, he thought about it for a second, and added, Really looking forward to seeing you.

He stared at the message, then quickly hit send before the lawyer in him would start analyzing it to death. He stuffed his phone back into his pocket as he reached the coffee shop at the front of the building. The barista didn't even have to ask for his order. He had already started working on it when he saw Rafael coming. He had just finished paying for the drink when his phone buzzed again. He jumped, and the barista gave him a weird look.

7:30 it is! I'm looking forward to seeing you too. It's been far too long. :)

He stared at the smiley face at the end of that message for a few minutes. He wondered if there was any subtext. Was this a date? On one hand, it was just drinks between attorneys, colleagues, old friends. On the other, he'd never made plans with Olivia two weeks out. Did he even have a tie that said "date night?" Most of them were either too formal or too flamboyant. Would he have time to head back uptown before coming back down? Maybe he could get a shower in. And then, he wondered why he was so flustered about any of this. Maybe this fourth cup of coffee hadn't been such a good idea.

His text dinged again, this time from Eli:

Meet in five.

If nothing else, Rafael was grateful for the distraction, even if it meant having a less-than-comfortable meeting with Eli. He took a final swig of his coffee and headed back upstairs, hoping nothing in his office was destroyed.


"It's awful," Rafael said, handing the papers back to Eli in disgust. "I mean, really, did you even read it before you gave it to me?" Eli had been on his way to meet with Rafael about the campaign headquarters when the DNC had called and said their speechwriter had finished the announcement draft. So he picked it up on his way over. Unfortunately, he hadn't had time to review it first.

"I skimmed it," Eli replied. "What's so awful about it?"

"It doesn't even sound like me, for one. And that's to say nothing about the atrocious grammar. A fourth grader could have done better. Who wrote this?"

"A new speechwriter at the DNC-"

"They ought to be fired," Rafael spat back. "I'm not reading this."

"Oh, come on," Eli said. "It can't be…" His eyes scanned the speech and he hesitated. "I'm running for District Attorney because there are a lot of problems in this system that need fixing… my aim is to take more criminals down than my predecessor… okay, I see your point."

"Thank you," Rafael said flatly. "I'll do it myself."

"What?" Eli flinched. "No, absolutely not."

"Why not?"

"Because," Eli said, "you don't know what needs to go into the wording. You don't know what needs to be said."

"Do you have any idea how many opening and closing remarks I've written?"

"I know exactly how many: four hundred fifty-two. But writing legal arguments doesn't qualify you to write the announcement of a political campaign."

"And yet you thought the person who wrote this garbage was qualified."

Eli sighed heavily. He could see there was no arguing this point. So, he tried a compromise. "Okay, I'll tell you what. You can give it a shot. But when you inevitably produce substandard work-"

"Oh, please-"

"-then I get to go find a better speechwriter and fix it."

There was a staredown between the two men. Neither blinked. Then, Rafael gave in. "Fine. But I guarantee you won't need to find a speechwriter. I can do this myself."

Eli shook his head in disbelief, but wasn't in the mood to argue after his conversation with Nora. "There are a few other things we need to discuss."

"Such as?"

"Well, first, I found a place for headquarters. It's down in TriBeCa, and it's going to cost a pretty penny, but your PAC will-"

"Wait, I have a PAC already?"

"Yes, I sort of leaked your candidacy to the papers last week, and it turns out that enough people hate Buchanan to support you even before you lay out any of your plans. The PAC will be the primary source of funds until we get your fundraising off the ground. That money will cover the first few months of rent and expenditures at HQ."

"Okay," Rafael said, somewhat cautiously, "but what do they want in return?"

"They're quite likely assuming you'll give them favorable treatment should any criminal cases arise against any of their members. Of course, you aren't going to, but they don't need to know that."

"Eli, you know that's going to look bad, right?"

"No, it won't. You haven't agreed to anything, nor have I. If you don't agree to anything, they can't prove you did."

Rafael sighed. He already hated the business of campaigning. It seemed dirty, and they hadn't even announced yet. "Okay, what else?"

"Well, there's something I need to discuss with you before we announce, so that I know how we're going to play it."

"I don't like the sound of that," Rafael said. "Is this more dirty laundry?"

"Not really," Eli replied. "It's just… there are a couple of issues with your father."

Rafael's eyebrows shot up. "I have nothing to say about that man."

"Well, too bad, because you don't have a choice. Voters are going to find out about everything in your past, and they're going to want to know about your background. It's better that we know how to handle it before it becomes an issue."

"To what are you referring, specifically?" He clicked his pen rapidly.

"Well, first, there's the issue of religion."

"What about it?"

"Your mother's Catholic, yes?"

"Yes," Rafael said, "and I went to Catholic school. I'm not exactly practicing a religion, but I don't know what the problem is. Plenty of people don't practice."

"It's not that," Eli replied, holding up his hand. "Did you know your father was Jewish?"

Rafael let out a relieved sigh. That wasn't as bad as he'd imaged. His father hadn't been a practicing Jew, and he wasn't registered as a member of any temple. He and his mother had sent Rafael to Catholic school. "Yes," he said, "I knew, not that it means anything. My father didn't practice. How in the world did you find out, anyway?"

"I've told you a hundred times, it's my job to know," Eli said with an edge. "So would you consider yourself Catholic or Jewish, then?"

"I'd consider myself nothing," Rafael said dismissively. "I've seen too much violence and depravity in this world to believe God exists."

"Now you know as well as I do that that won't work in this campaign. You can be almost anything other than an atheist in politics. I don't care if you profess to worship Monty Python, but you have to have SOMETHING."

Rafael sighed. Religion had always been a touchy subject for him. Despite his Catholic education, he never felt like he truly believed the things the priests taught him. There was so much hypocrisy in the Catholic faith, and too little logic for Rafael's taste. But he had also avoided Judaism. Not that his father practiced the faith he'd been born into, of course, but it was still too closely tied to the idea of him for Rafael's comfort.

"Eli, is this something that Buchanan will use against me?"

"No, not really," Eli said, "but it is something that we can use to help ourselves."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, if you profess a faith, we can turn to the people of that faith for support. 'See, look, this candidate is one of you! He shares your values!' That kind of thing."

"That's disingenuous," Rafael said, disgusted.

"That's politics," Eli shrugged.

"And, if I were to agree to this, what happens when my declaring one faith alienates people of other faiths?"

"It won't," Eli said. "Jews don't care if a candidate is Christian. Christians don't care if a candidate is Jewish. Hell, I honestly don't think anyone would care if you were Buddhist. The only thing that alienates people of faith is when a candidate says they're an atheist. It's like they're rejecting religion out of hand."

"But I HAVE rejected religion out of hand," Rafael said. "I told you, I've seen too much to believe in God."

"And as I'VE told YOU, that won't work. I know how these things work, Rafael. That's why I'm your campaign manager. And I'm telling you, you need to pick a faith. I don't care which one it is. But you need to figure it out."

"I'll think about it."

Realizing this was the best he would get out of Rafael on this issue at the moment, Eli decided it was time to discuss the other issue hanging over the campaign, one that he hadn't wanted to touch until he'd figured out the best way to approach it.

"Okay," he said, "now there's the other issue, which is slightly more problematic."

"What now?"

"The police report that we discussed at your apartment. I need to know exactly what happened before Buchanan's campaign finds out about it, if they haven't already."

Rafael stood up from the desk and walked to the window. He watched the kids playing in the park next to the office, ants on the grass. They ran with their mothers, played catch with their fathers. He had often wished he'd had that kind of childhood, one where his mother took him to feed the ducks at Central Park, where his father took him to baseball games at Yankee Stadium. Instead, he had to deal with police reports and bruises, screaming matches and punches - these were all that remained of his memories of adolescence.

"Rafael?" Eli's voice sounded far away, almost an echo.

"It was when I was sixteen," he said. "I came home one night to my father beating the hell out of my mother. I don't know what started it. It could have been that dinner was late. She could have come home from the grocery store without his favorite cigarettes. It didn't take much to set him off. Anyway, I walked in, and he had her against a wall. She was kind of… slumped over, half-conscious. I'd never seen him get that violent before. I don't remember exactly what happened, or in what order, but I do remember throwing one good right hook to his nose. I think I might have broken it. I remember him being bloody, and my fists hurting like a bitch. My mother was crying. I was shaking."

"And is that when the police were called? Your dad called them?"

"No," Rafael said, a rueful smile across his face. "He never would have wanted to admit that his teenage son beat him up. He went after me, threw me over the coffee table. I crashed into it, broke it. That pissed him off more. I don't know how long we went at it before the neighbors called the police."

He stared out the window, his eyes not really focused on anything. He felt like he was telling this story in a dream. "Anyway, my father, as I said, refused to admit I'd hit him. I wasn't in a position to argue - at the time, the cops weren't going to waste a lot of time on a domestic dispute in the Bronx anyway."

"But it would have been defense of others," Eli said. Rafael shrugged.

"I didn't know that at the time," he said. "Besides, my mother would never have pressed charges. All it would have done is piss him off and make him go after her again. Plus, she's Catholic. Divorce wasn't an option."

"So the cops just took the report and left? Even though your mom was bruised up and you were bleeding?" Eli's voice was unnaturally shrill. Rafael turned to face him. His eyes were wet, and Eli pretended not to notice.

"Unfortunately, it's still common. My own colleagues end up pleading out D.V. cases half the time."

Eli's eyes lit up with a sudden realization. "We can use this," he said. "If we release it, it's better than if Buchanan does, and then we can use it to illustrate that you know how it feels to be a victim."

Rafael felt rage bubble up in his throat like vomit. He gave Eli a hard look, setting his jaw. "Absolutely not."

"Why not?" Eli said. "It's perfect. We can add this to your platform - you're willing to fight for battered women, not just plead out their cases-"

"Did it ever occur to you that this doesn't just affect me?" Rafael was seething. "My mother-"

"-will just have to understand. Politics isn't like it was in the 1950s, Rafael. Family members are fair game. That's why we need to put this out there first. If we do it, there's less for the press to investigate, and we can spin it in our favor. If Buchanan does it, he'll paint you as a hot-tempered Latino with no self-control and a police record, whether or not that's true." When Rafael didn't respond, Eli continued. "I'm not trying to dismiss what happened. But you have to be realistic. You know I'm right."

The worst part was, he DID know. He had seen enough campaigns and enough of Buchanan to know it was better to put it out there. He thought about all the times he had introduced damaging character evidence about a victim to minimize the effect it had on the jury. And it was then that he truly understood why victims sometimes hated him. He let out a shaky breath.

"Before we do this, I need to prepare my mother. And we don't compare my experience with that of D.V. victims. We can say I know what it's like to be a victim of crime, but we're not mentioning domestic violence specifically."

"But you ARE-"

"No. I don't care. Those are my terms."

Eli grimaced. "You're not going to make anything in this campaign easy, are you? Fine. I can live with that. Just talk to your mother soon. Tell her that this is going to come out anyway, and that if we do it our way, we can control the havoc."

Just then, they heard Carisi and Marissa's voices in the front office. "Sonny, I swear, you have the best stories."

"That's what happens when you grow up with three sisters," he said in his thick Staten Island accent. "You end up with a weird haircut and nail polish on your toes." Then, there was a knock on the door, followed by Carisi barging into the room.

"Counselor, I was just thinking- oh, hey, how are ya?"

Eli remembered this clown. He was at the bar when Rafael was onstage singing. "Hello," he said, barely acknowledging Carisi's presence. "Rafael, I need to go meet with the interns now. I'll call you to check on the draft. Let me know when you talk to your-" He hesitated. "-the victim."

Rafael breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't prepared to announce yet, and he knew if Carisi found out, the entire world would know. The guy couldn't keep confidences to save his life. Rafael often wondered how he would ever be able to be a lawyer. Carisi watched Eli turn on his heel and leave, saying a quick goodbye to Marissa on his way out. Then, he turned back to Rafael.

"I remember that guy," he said. "Kind of a prick."

"Still less annoying than some people I know," he said, giving Carisi a fleeting glance. "Something else you need?"

The young detective cleared his throat, obviously trying to find the right words. "I was just thinking about what you said about the perp's being in the house doesn't mean he's the murderer."

"What about it?"

"Well, you don't have to worry about the defense making that argument to get an indictment, do you? I mean, the defense doesn't have any sway over a grand jury."

"That's true, but-"

"-so why do you care if we have the evidence now? Come on, I've heard stories about your first case with SVU. That belt trick?"

"That was different. I had evidence. I had DNA. I had a videotape of a rape on an elevator."

"And you also had a lot of he-said, she-said. The only difference here is we don't have the she-said. I don't get it. Where's the A.D.A. who won that case? I thought you cared more about victims than conviction rates."

Rafael threw down the file he was holding. It landed on the desk with a thud. "If you honestly think I care more about my reputation than a rape and murder victim-"

"That's the problem. I don't think you really do. But something's got you nervous about it."

"How the hell do you know anything about what I'm feeling?"

"You may not think much of me as a lawyer, Barba," Carisi said, "but I'm a damn good detective."

Rafael glared at him. Carisi constantly tried to tell him how to do his job, and he often debated whether the time served would be worth throwing him out the window. "I care about this victim. Enough that I don't want to see her killer walk because I couldn't get a conviction."

"If you want the conviction, I need the warrant. Just get me the warrant, Barba, and I'll get you evidence so that you CAN convict him. It's JUST a warrant right now." Carisi was pleading with him now. "Too many of them get away with it more than once because an A.D.A. wasn't willing to throw himself in front of the train. You're not that guy."

Despite his best effort, Rafael couldn't argue. "Fine," he said, choking on the words. "You can swear it out now, and I'll take it to Judge Barberton. He's usually a safe bet."

Carisi looked satisfied. "You're one of the good ones, counselor."

"Just don't make me regret it," Rafael replied, sending Marissa an email with the request for a draft. Carisi went back to the front office to swear out the warrant. Rafael leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk. His debate with Carisi swirled in his head, words crashing up against each other until they were pared down to simple phrases:

You care more about the victim than conviction rates.

Too many of them get away with it.

Willing to throw himself in front of a train.

I'm not that guy.

He was suddenly hit with two realizations: the good news was that he now knew exactly how to start his announcement speech. The bad news was that he would have to thank Carisi for it later.

Chapter Text

"Do you think the tie is too much?" Rafael held up a green and pink striped tie, comparing it to the surprisingly nondescript white dress shirt on the hanger. In response, Marbury took a deep stretch and yawned, then hopped off the bed. "Big help you are," he said.

He tossed the tie down onto the bed and rifled through the pressed shirts in the closet. He thought organizing it by color would have helped, but he just stared at them, unable to make a decision. Sighing, he shrugged his original choice, the white button down, over his shoulders and fastened the cuffs. The clock on the nightstand read 5:30pm, so he still had plenty of time. Still, he wished the minutes would pass slower; each one just made him more nervous. There is no real reason to feel this way, he thought. It was just dinner between two old friends. Yet the way his heart raced when he thought about how she looked in her courtroom clothes, the way his palms sweat when he thought of the tattoo he couldn't quite make out, said otherwise.

Such anxiety was unlike him. But he hadn't been so unsure of anything in a long time, either. In a perfect world, she would have asked him out the way a teenager might: those old "check yes or no" notes from middle school came to mind. Why couldn't adults be that direct? At least something like that would have told him exactly what the next logical step would be.

Meanwhile, Marbury danced around his still-pantsless legs. He had learned a long time ago to put on his pants only when he was ready to leave the house. Otherwise, his Armani suits ended up looking like they were made of shag carpeting.

"Is this your way of trying to calm me down?" The cat purred, apparently responding to the question with a resounding yes. He looked at the clock again, then put the tie on, leaving it a little loose at the knot. He was strategic in all of his clothing choices - he may as well have trademarked his wardrobe - and in this case, he wanted to portray a casual ease.

Lauren had texted him just before he left the office to ask if they could try out Mayflower, a new restaurant that had just opened on the Upper East Side. He'd had to have Marissa pull strings to get the last table, which, she had informed him, was situated in the very back of the restaurant. He took what he could get. He knew he would need at least half an hour to get there. So he still had almost an hour to kill. He was about to check his hair for the tenth time, when his cell started to ring with a deafening blare. He jumped, and when his heart had returned to his chest, he picked up the call without checking the caller ID.

"This is Barba," he said, using the name the squad and most of his colleagues used. Sometimes he wished more people would address him by his first name, but his last name seemed to command more respect.

"Rafael," Eli said, "turn on channel five."

"Hello to you too, Eli," he said, heading for the living room and rummaging through the coffee table drawer for the remote. He felt it under a stack of magazines and old mail, and clicked on the television. When he found the channel, his mouth opened and closed so fast he almost bit his tongue in two.

"-this city deserves better than the substandard plea deals and wrongful prosecutions it has had to endure until now," John Buchanan said, his jowls jiggling with every word. "And victims deserve better than to suffer through trials only to watch the truly guilty go free."

"Are you watching?" Eli asked. Rafael had forgotten he was even holding the phone to his ear.

"He's announcing," he said to no one in particular. "Unbelievable."

"Thank you, I hadn't noticed. But I admit, I wasn't expecting it quite so soon," Eli said.

"-and given his ineffective tenure as D.A., the entire staff of his office should be overhauled, from the bottom up."

Rafael was infuriated and incredulous at once. "Did he just threaten my job?" Was Buchanan so delusional as to think he could waltz into the office, unopposed, and unceremoniously kick all the current A.D.A.s to the curb?

"No," Eli said, "he threatened YOU. He knows you're coming after him. This is a warning shot."

Then Rafael heard Buchanan say something that made him want to reach through the television and throttle him like one of those old cartoon hands through a phone receiver.

"While I have been a practicing defense attorney, the D.A. has rushed to convict innocent people, forever tarnishing their reputations, while putting the victims through the torture of a trial without hope of seeing justice served. And when they aren't trying to convict innocent people, they are building reputations on the backs of victims. These men and women deserve justice, not needless revictimization by politically motivated attorneys."

"Calm down," Eli said, as if he instinctively knew Rafael would be ready to explode. "We knew this was coming."

"But he's so full of shit that I don't even know how to respond," Rafael said, words coming out as fast as his brain could form them. He stared, slackjawed, at the television.

"-and that is why," Buchanan said, "I am announcing my candidacy for District Attorney of Manhattan." The crowd of reporters gathered beneath him on the courthouse steps immediately launched into a thousand questions, none of which Buchanan seemed inclined to answer.

"Typical," Eli said, and Rafael could almost see his eyeroll. "At least his speechwriter is as bad as ours."

"And yet a dozen reporters want to know more," Rafael replied.

"You can't judge his popularity by that," Eli said. "He's the only candidate who's announced. I've already been getting calls from newspapers asking for comment-"

"I saw the blurb in the Times." There had been a pretty substantial column the previous day discussing potential candidates for the upcoming election cycle, and his name had been mentioned alongside Marvin Exley (that one had been laughable - he was even worse than Buchanan) and Derek Strauss, a lesser known A.D.A. Rafael happened to know that Derek had no interest in the position; he was much happier having some semblance of a life. But that article must have been why Buchanan announced early. He must have assumed Rafael would, and wanted to beat him to it.

"I don't want you to worry about this," Eli said. "We knew he would announce, and as soon as your speech is ready, we'll throw our hat in. Speaking of which, I wish you would reconsider-"

"Oops, sorry, Eli," Rafael said quickly, not letting him get a word in. "I'm late for an appointment.

"All right, but let me have your draft-" Rafael hung up the phone without Eli completing his sentence. He went back to the bedroom and sat down on the bed, where Marbury lay sleeping. He didn't really know how to feel. One part of him quaked with excitement at the idea that he would soon officially be in the race. But the other, louder part of him screamed in terror at the prospect of running against Buchanan, because there was always a chance he would lose. He didn't know how he could bear that kind of blow, and the idea was even more real now that Buchanan had announced. Then again, he had something Buchanan didn't. He had Eli. Though he didn't know who was running Buchanan's campaign, he knew they couldn't be nearly as good as a man who turned a felon into a Governor.

He checked the clock again: only 6:00. But at this point, he needed a drink to calm his frayed nerves. He started to debate canceling; maybe he should stay in and work on the speech. But when he imagined Lauren's disappointed face, he thought better of it. You're being ridiculous, he thought. Now put your damn pants on.


 

"Nora? You home?" Marissa called into the apartment as she tossed her keys onto the counter.

"Hang on a second," Nora replied from somewhere in the back of the apartment. "Just got out of the shower."

"No problem," Marissa said. She leafed through the stack of mail next to her keys, sorting into piles for each of them. Most of the envelopes for her were bills, but since she now split the cost of the apartment, she didn't dread them quite as much as she normally would have.

"My furniture came today," Nora said, stepping out from the hallway wearing her bathrobe. "Not that I had much of it, but it's nice to have some of my own things here."

"Did they say when the rest of your stuff would get here?"

"Probably in the next couple days," Nora replied. "Honestly, I just want my shoes and jewelry."

"Do you want me to ask Mr. Barba for a couple days off to help you unpack?"

"Oh, no need," Nora said. She grabbed a Coke out of the fridge - apparently, Marissa realized, Nora had gone grocery shopping. "It won't take long. Most of what I had, I gave to Mariah for her new place."

"That was nice of you," Marissa said, grabbing a soda of her own. She leaned on the counter.

"I guess I'm kind of hoping that if she starts out on the right foot, this time will be different."

"How long has she been out of rehab this time?"

"About a year," Nora sighed. "Right around now is the time where she starts making bad decisions again, so when she decided to get her own place, I guess I kind of thought that by giving her a good foundation, she might actually stick to her program."

"I sometimes wonder how I would react if one of my parents died," Marissa said. "Especially at the age Mariah was when your dad did."

"I wish I could say I understood her." Nora chugged the rest of her soda. "I understood her depression. But I will never understand how she dealt with it. She's an adult. I wish she'd start acting like it."

"Maybe this time, she will," Marissa said, giving Nora an encouraging smile. "She's been sober for a year now, after all."

"Yeah, but like I said, this is the time where something happens," Nora replied. "That said, she does have a steady job now, at a grocery store, and she actually goes to the NA meetings. So that's progress."

"I'm sure she appreciates having your support too, you know."

Nora smiled sadly. "If only that were enough to fix it." There was a silence that echoed loudly through the room, until Nora changed the subject. "How was your day at work?"

"Oh, it was fine," Marissa said. "My Dad came by to talk to Mr. Barba about the campaign announcement, and of course, Mr. Barba hated the draft of the speech."

"He's an attorney," Nora said, pushing back from the counter and heading toward her bedroom. "I'm sure he's going to want to write it himself."

"Probably," Marissa replied, following behind her. She flopped down on Nora's bed while Nora sat at her vanity and smoothed oil into her hair. "Actually, there was something a bit weird that happened today."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Mr. Barba asked me to make him a reservation at this new place on the Upper East Side."

"Does he not often ask you to make him reservations? Eli made me do that constantly. It was hell coming up with new and interesting places for him to take clients."

"That's the thing. He never asks me to make personal reservations for him, and I think that's what this was. Not that I would mind if he did, but he refuses to let me. He says he's perfectly capable of running his own non-existent personal life."

Nora snorted and dabbed some eye cream under her eyes. "Really? A boss who actually respects the boundaries of your assigned job? What's that like?"

"I'm serious, Nora, something is very weird here," Marissa said. Nora spun around on the stool quite suddenly, a serious look on her face.

"Okay, Ris, let's think this through. You say he never has you make personal reservations, but you suspect that's exactly what this reservation was. Why do you suspect that?"

"Because it's a Friday night, and he was very secretive about who he was meeting. He also seemed kind of… I don't know, nervous? Like, jumpy. Plus, this place is supposed to be pretty romantic - it overlooks Central Park."

"And why is it concerning to you that he would have suddenly involved you in his personal life?"

Marissa shrugged. "Because he's hiding something. He wasn't straight up with me, and he's always straight up with me. And because he's going to be announcing his campaign soon, and whatever he's hiding will eventually come out."

"And?" Nora raised an eyebrow.

"And," Marissa continued, a bit sheepishly, "I'm nosy."

"As long as we've established that," Nora grinned. "Okay, so, you're concerned about the campaign. That's valid. And you think something weird is going on because he wasn't acting like himself. Also valid. So…"

"So…"

"So, the question is, what do we do about it? And the sad part is, I know how to figure out the answer." Marissa cocked her head, questioning, and Nora sighed. "We have to ask ourselves: what would Eli do?"

"Oh, God," Marissa groaned. "I hate that THAT'S how we have to go about this."

"I'm not thrilled about it either, Ris, but let's face it. Your Dad is a sneaky bastard, but he's almost never caught off guard. So. What would he do in this situation?"

Marissa thought for a second. Her father was suspicious of everyone and everything. He never trusted anyone to tell the truth, a sign that he had been in politics too long. For a second, she wondered if she was becoming too much like him.

That being said, as she had admitted to Nora, she was nosy. Separate from the potential political backlash, she wanted to know why he was being so secretive. He had promised her he wouldn't lie to her if she didn't lie to him. If he was breaking that promise, she wanted to know why. Somehow, this didn't seem quite as unethical as being strategically sneaky for political reasons. A grin spread across her face. She looked up at Nora through her eyelashes and said, "Up for a drink?"


She wasn't coming.

That's what Rafael told himself at 7:40. Lauren still wasn't there and hadn't texted him. He even told himself that it was better that way - getting into a relationship now would be disastrous. Then he kicked himself - why was he so convinced this was a date at all? At any rate, he was dead set on enjoying at least a good, stiff scotch before slinking home.

Suddenly, the front door opened and, ahead of a rush of cool air, Lauren stumbled into the restaurant looking harried. She was clutching her thick, woolen scarf around her neck and smoothing her wavy hair out of her face. She made her way through the tables looking for him, and he rose from the table to help her find him. Suddenly, he felt astonishingly calm once he saw her. It was as if the anticipation was more nerve-wracking than actually seeing her. When she finally saw him, her face broke into an easy smile. As she approached, he admired her chocolate-colored boots. He felt that if he were a woman, he would likely own a pair in at least two colors.

"Hi, Rafael," she said, and he smiled at the way his name sounded in her slightly Midwestern accent. He remembered that she had moved with her mother to New York when she was thirteen, but she'd never really lost the hard Indiana accent. "I'm so sorry I'm late - some jackass on the subway decided to play grabass with a teenager and the train was delayed at the station til the cops showed up."

"Oh, good, another case for my office," he said, a little too sarcastically. If she noticed, she brushed it off.

"Keeps you in business, though, right?" If only you knew, he thought. She took a seat across from him, unwrapping herself from her heavy trench and scarf. Once she sat down, he followed suit. "So, have you ordered-" Just then, the waiter came back with Rafael's scotch. He took it gingerly and motioned toward Lauren.

"I am apparently late to the party," she said to the waiter. "Glass of riesling, please." Then she picked her menu up. "I appreciate you being willing to move dinner to this place. I've wanted to come here since it opened. A shame we don't have the Central Park view, though."

"No problem at all," he said. "As long as I can get a decent scotch, I'm happy."

After they placed their orders, Lauren leaned back in her chair, fingering the edge of her wine glass. "All right, tell me everything."

"That's a lot to cover," he said. "What do you want to know about? My stellar conviction record? My reputation as the shark of the D.A.'s office? My impeccable taste in scotch?"

She laughed. "Why don't we start with what got you into sex crimes prosecution?"

"I started off in Brooklyn, actually, just doing standard cases - burglary, armed robbery, the occasional assault. But I guess I got a bit of a reputation as a hardass when I prosecuted two Johns for the rape of a prostitute."

Lauren flinched. "Kind of a difficult one," she said. "Most prosecutors wouldn't touch an NHI case."

"NHI?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Oh," she said, softer now. "That's what the lawyers at my firm call those kind of cases. NHI. No humans involved."

This time, Rafael flinched. "Kind of gives you a great insight into how defense attorneys think. Speaking of, how are you stomaching that type of work?"

"Oh, I don't usually handle criminal cases. Not really my wheelhouse. I was covering for a colleague whose kid got the flu."

"Funny," he said, as the calamari arrived. "I was doing the same thing for a colleague whose wife went into labor."

"I guess no one wants to go to arraignment court," she said. "Slackers."

Rafael smiled. Her sense of humor was still sarcastic, but also light, just as he remembered it.

"Anyway," he said, "that case led me to request a transfer to Manhattan. I knew they needed a good A.D.A. after Delia Wilson. And I was tired of the commute anyway."

"I remember the Adam Cain trial," she said. "Made quite a splash with that one."

"That was mostly me showboating," he admitted. "Back then, I was just starting to get some measure of notoriety. I was interested because convicting him would be a big gain for the office, and for me."

"And now?"

"Now… well, let's just say I've evolved as a prosecutor AND as a human," he said.

"Well," she said, swallowing, "you seem to be one of the good ones. I've met too many prosecutors who are more interested in their conviction rates and looking good to their bosses than actually doing their jobs."

"Thanks," he said, blushing slightly. "So now you know about my evolution into a powerful, terrifying A.D.A. I want to know how you got sucked into private practice."

"Well, I was working for a solo practitioner in SoHo while I was in law school. The pay wasn't great, but I learned a lot and I really liked him personally. Around my second year - I was in night school - he decided he wanted to join a bigger firm, but he would only go where they would take me, too."

Rafael's eyebrows shot up. "Wow, you must have been some assistant."

"You should see me collate," she said with a wink. "Anyway, a lot of firms balked because, you know, they have their own staff, et cetera, but he insisted. Eventually, he found us a home. When I passed the bar, they promoted me to associate, and I've been there ever since."

"You said you don't do much criminal work?" He wiped his hands on his napkin. She took a sip of wine and shook her head.

"Usually, I'm on landlord/tenant negotiations, some business transactions, things like that. I much prefer operating in contracts and settlements. I like that corporations don't really want to exert much influence into my job. They just want you to handle their business. People, on the other hand, cause too many complications. They're too unpredictable and unreliable."

"Believe me," he said, nodding, "you're preaching to the choir."

She finished off the last couple pieces of calamari. He liked that she wasn't afraid to eat in front of him. "What's the worst courtroom experience you've had?"

He shuddered involuntarily. He knew the answer to the question, but didn't want to talk about it. "I…"

"If you don't want to answer, you don't have to," she said, sensing his anxiety. He breathed a sigh of relief as their entrees arrived. What he really needed was a change of subject.

"How's your mom?" He asked.

She cast her eyes downward and absently cut into her asparagus. "Mom died."

Oh, this is going great, he thought. Last time he'd seen Mrs. Sullivan had been at the last choir concert he and Lauren had shared before his graduation.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, feeling horrible for bringing up the subject.

"It's okay," she replied. "To be honest, I didn't go home much after graduation."

"We have more in common than you think," he said. "Once I got out of el Barrio, I never wanted to look back."

"Is your Dad still a mean drunk?" The question was both blunt and surprising - how had she known? When he didn't answer, she touched his forearm, which was resting on the table. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be so… sometimes my mouth gets ahead of my brain. I shouldn't have asked."

"How did you know, though?" He glanced down; her hand still lay on his arm, and he wondered if she realized it. Her nails were manicured and painted a dark shade of purple, but he could see she still had the same nervous habit of picking her cuticles.

"Rafael, it wasn't rocket science. When the rest of the boys were allowed to wear polos in the spring, you kept wearing sleeves. When you weren't looking, I could see you roll one of them up one day to check a bruise. Your Dad never came to any of our concerts, and I knew he wasn't just working late. Plus, it's a little hard to explain a broken nose when you don't play sports."

He was speechless. He'd never intended for anyone to know back then about his father's abuse. He didn't realize anyone HAD known. He took his arm from her gentle grip and lifted his glass to his lips, draining it.

"Are you upset with me?" She asked. Her facial expression was a cross between worried and embarrassed. A piece of hair floated over her eye. For a second, she looked exactly like her fifteen-year-old self. He had to resist the urge to move it so that he could see her eyes completely.

"No, of course not," he said, smiling. "Ancient history." Her face brightened.

"Thank you for not making it awkward," she said.

"Far be it from me to ruin a perfectly good meal. Speaking of which, how's the chicken?"

The remainder of the meal was spent reminiscing about high school, discussing the finer points of the hearsay rules, and debating what show was slated to win a Tony for Best Musical.

"Oh, please," Lauren said, sipping her last glass of wine languidly, "there is no way that dreck by David Hyde Pierce is going to win against Neil Patrick Harris."

"Harris is so ten years ago," he replied. Having finished his scotch ages ago, he was merely thumbing the glass at this point. The remnants of their tiramisu sat between them, long since vanquished. The waiter had dropped off the tab with their dessert, but they hadn't cashed out quite yet.

"Whatever, Doogie Howser is a god," she said. "Besides, your opinion can't be trusted. You listen to opera."

"That's not ALL I listen to!"

She sat back and crossed her arms. "Oh, really? Are you going to tell me you're a fan of Nine Inch Nails too? Should I call Paul Ryan and tell him he has a new best friend?"

He laughed, a little too loudly. It was clear they were both a little inebriated. Suddenly, he had the presence of mind to check his watch. "Oh God, it's 9:30. The waiter probably wants to kill us," he said.

"Then I guess we'd better tip him well," she replied, taking out her wallet.

"Oh, no, I've got this," he said, shaking his head. "I drink expensive scotch."

"Implying I can't afford you?"

"I'm not a cheap date." He smirked, the liquor making him feel more confident.

"Judging by the Armani tie, I'd assume not," she said with a wink. He smiled. They sat in silence for a moment, and then he realized he hadn't finished their earlier conversation.

"Michael Bublé," he said. "And Weezer."

"What?" The waiter came by and grabbed the book, a little haughtily.

"You apparently thought all I listened to was opera. So I'm telling you what else I like. I also like foreign films, McDonald's french fries, the Yankees, and you." He said it before he could stop himself. The scotch had loosened his tongue. He immediately wished he could take it back. But Lauren looked both pleased and surprised. Then, a smug, playful smile crossed her face.

"Oh, really? And why's that?"

Oh, to hell with it, he thought. Mustering all his courage, he said, "because I always liked you. Even when we were in high school."

At that, Lauren REALLY looked surprised. "Then why didn't you ever say anything?"

"Well, first off, because I was a teenage boy who didn't want to be rejected. Second, you were younger than me, by what seemed like a lot back then."

"Three years isn't so much," she said.

"Not NOW," he said, "but fourteen and seventeen… that's a big difference. Believe me, I know. My line of work."

"I suppose so," she said, quieter now. "It wasn't like it was illegal, though. And I would have said yes."

His heart leapt into his throat. "Really?"

"Of course," she said. "I waited for you to ask me out that whole year. I was kind of hoping for a Prom invitation, honestly."

"I didn't even go to Prom," he said. "I couldn't afford it."

"And now you're wearing Armani." She smiled, leaned across the table, and put her hand back on his arm. He stared down, surprised any of this was happening. Logically, he knew it was probably a stupid idea. He knew Eli would throw a fit. He knew campaigning meant scrutiny, and the slightest hint of a relationship would be subject to it. But for the moment, liquor and the soft lines in her face won over. He took her hand anyway. Her skin was cool and soft.

"I don't want to make the same mistake twice."

"I think," Lauren said, nodding toward their intertwined fingers, "you've already avoided that."

In the time it had taken for Lauren and Rafael to work their way through dessert, Nora and Marissa had arrived at the restaurant.

"Good God, people are going to think we're together," Marissa said. The place was dimly lit, with tea lights on the center of each table, and a three-piece band situated in the corner playing old standards. Two walls consisted of floor-to-ceiling windows that afforded a beautiful view of the Park. The bar area was right in the middle of the space, its counter lit from underneath with soft colored lights. It was, indeed, very romantic. And very busy.

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Nora replied. "How the hell are we going to find him in this mess?"

"Very carefully," Marissa said. "We have to make sure he doesn't see us. I don't want him thinking I'm suddenly stalking him - or worse, that my Dad has me stalking him." She started for the bar and Nora followed closely behind her. For once, she was glad she'd chosen to wear flats. She was tall enough to be noticed as it was. Luckily, just as they reached the bar, a couple got up to be led to their table, so Nora quickly grabbed the seats. They ordered two glasses of wine, and tried to look inconspicuous while also scanning the room.

"I should have asked this before," Nora said, taking a sip of her Merlot, "but what's your plan if we do find him?"

"For right now, I just plan to observe. I could be totally wrong about all of this. It could be a work thing. But if it IS something, it'd be better for me to know ahead of my Dad."

"This is true. You could prevent a heart attack."

"Wait." Marissa held a hand up. "I forgot, I got him a table in the back. It was the last one available. So he should be somewhere back there." She nodded in the direction of the solid walls, which did not have the spectacular view of the Park. Nora craned her neck, trying to see between the diners. Suddenly, her face brightened.

"I think I see him. I think he's coming back from the - yep, that's him. If he wants to be covert, next time he should consider a more conservative tie."

"Who's he with?" Marissa asked.

"Well, I think you'd be better equipped to answer that question," Nora said. "You know his coworkers better than I do. All I can say is that it's definitely a woman."

Marissa sighed. "Time to take a risk, I guess. Save my seat."

"Wait, where are you going?" Nora asked.

"Bathroom," Marissa replied casually. His table was technically closer to the restroom, but she chose to walk on the opposite side of the room. Because of where they were seated, his back would be toward her, so she would be able to see his companion without him knowing she was there. The closer she got to the hallway leading to the bathroom, the slower she walked, trying to see if she recognized the pretty brunette sitting across from him. She didn't look familiar, though. And just as she reached the hallway, she spotted something that turned her stomach in dread. She spun around and headed back the way she came.

"Oh man, this is not good," Marissa said to Nora, who was waiting for her return on pins and needles.

"What's wrong?"

"I went over there and saw her. I don't know her, but whoever she is, this is definitely a date."

"How do you know that?"

"Well," Marissa said, "I don't often hold hands with colleagues over candlelight, do you?"

Chapter Text

"So you don't have it yet?" The following Sunday, Nora, Eli, and Rafael were gathered in Rafael's apartment, discussing campaign logistics. The meeting had already lasted two hours and Eli hadn't stopped pacing from the kitchen to the living room for more than a minute.

"I have a draft of it," Rafael said, "and please sit down before you make yourself - or me - sick."

Eli spun around and crossed his arms. "Why is this taking so long? I could have had four speeches written by my people in this time," he said. "It's been a week."

"It's easy to write four fifth-grade level speeches," Rafael shot back.

"Okay, I think you both need to calm down," Nora said.

"And speaking of other countries heard from, where is my daughter?"

"She has strep, I told you that." Nora rolled her eyes. "You don't have a monopoly on her time." The truth was that Marissa wasn't actually sick, but she and Nora had worked out a plan and it involved her being absent from the strategy meeting. Marissa was pissed at Rafael for withholding the truth from her - especially knowing it had something to do with the campaign - and she didn't want to say something she knew she would regret later. Besides, Nora suspected Marissa was glad for the day off anyway.

"Well, why couldn't she just-"

"Eli, how am I supposed to announce if I catch it and can't talk?" Rafael asked.

"Fine," he said. "Nora! Make sure you fill her in on anything we've talked about today."

"And I'll send her your best wishes for a speedy recovery while I'm at it," she replied.

"What? You don't see me demanding she get out of bed and get down here, do you?" She raised an eyebrow, almost a dare.

"I wouldn't put it past you."

"Speaking of calming down," Rafael interjected, though he was amused by the scene playing out in front of him, "Eli, I swear to you, I've got a draft. Sort of."

"A draft SORT OF?" He sighed heavily and sunk down onto one of the bar stools. "Let me see what you've got so far."

"I never let anyone see the drafts. You'll have the final in three days."

"Three days?!" Eli rubbed his forehead. "I need more time than that. We're supposed to announce next week! I need to review it to make sure you've hit all the relevant points."

"I'm pretty sure I know what the relevant points are supposed to be. It is MY campaign, after all," Rafael said. Nora snorted.

"You hit on the importance of maintaining consistency in the office?"

"Yes."

"And your own conviction record?"

"Yes."

"And you responded to Buchanan's accusation of the D.A.'s office only wanting to build reputations on the backs of victims by convicting innocent people?"

"Of course."

"And If I don't see a draft in three days, you'll let me contact the speechwriters again?" Eli looked hopeful for the first time all morning.

"Yes," Rafael said, exasperated. "But that won't be a concern. I'll have the draft to you. I'll have Marissa send it over on Wednesday. She should be back by then, yes?"

"I would think so," Nora said.

"Okay, deal," Eli said. "Next thing: have you spoken to your mother yet?"

Rafael bristled. "Not yet," he said. "I'll get to it."

"Rafael, you need to take this seriously," Eli said, with the full knowledge that this would piss off his candidate. He was right.

"Eli, do you think I don't?" Rafael felt the words pouring from his lips with increasing irritation. "Do you think I don't understand the implications of this campaign for what little family I have?"

"I know that, but-"

"No, let me finish. I will talk to my mother, before we announce. But you have to have some patience for the fact that not everyone can be or even wants to be as blunt as you are, and I need to figure out a way to bring up the fact that what my father did to us is going to go public that doesn't make it sound utterly terrifying." His nostrils flared, and he held eye contact with Eli until Eli finally blinked.

"I'm only reminding you because once the campaign starts, they won't hold back. They probably already know about the police report. If I found it, so did they." He placed his arms behind his back in an attempt to look contrite. "I want the people you care about to be prepared for what's ahead." At that, Nora's head snapped up and Rafael saw her glance at Eli. She appeared to study his face quickly, before going back to jotting down notes.

"Understood. I'll take care of it. Just hold off the vultures until I do."

"I already am. So do it quickly." Before Rafael could start arguing again, he continued, "now, before we go, there's one other thing we need to discuss."

"And that would be?"

Eli hesitated and glanced down. "Your tie choice. For the announcement."

Rafael couldn't help but laugh. "Are you kidding me? Eli, if you haven't noticed, I'm perfectly capable of picking my own clothing. I've been doing it for quite some time, and I have a pretty extensive collection of-"

"I think this is something I can help with," said Nora. She stood up and turned to face Eli, a calm look on her face. "Eli, why don't you go down to headquarters and see how the cubicle installation is going? I'll help Rafael pick out a tie and meet you there afterward." He looked at her suspiciously, but nodded.

"You do have a certain… err… flair," he said, looking at her sapphire-blue heels, which had arrived with the rest of her belongings the day before. She was surprised; she didn't think Eli ever noticed anything about her appearance.

"Okay, then I'll see you in about an hour or so," she said. "Text me if you need anything in the meantime."

"All right. And Rafael," he said, as he headed for the door, "please make sure you touch on the increase in sexual assault convictions since you-"

"Goodbye, Eli," Nora interrupted. He stiffened, then shut the door behind him. She turned back to Rafael. "Thank God, I thought he'd never shut up."

"He's not exactly shy about expressing his feelings, is he?"

"He's just upset that he isn't in total control of this campaign," she said. "He's not used to candidates who don't do exactly as he tells them. Even Governor Florrick wasn't as stubborn as you, and he certainly never insisted on writing his own speeches."

Rafael flinched. "Yeah, about that…"

"You don't really have a draft done, do you?" Nora, he realized, was more perceptive than she appeared. But then, he was a perceptive person as well.

"You don't really think I need help picking out a tie, do you?" He smirked. "What is it that you need to talk to me about, and why is Eli not allowed to hear it?"

"How do you know it's something that Eli isn't allowed to hear?"

"Because you got rid of him by saying the cubicle installation was today. No office design company does installations on Sunday."

She sighed, relenting. Here goes, she thought.

"Rafael, I really don't mean to overstep my boundaries here. And I know Marissa won't want to talk to you about it, because you're still her boss and there are some boundaries SHE doesn't want to cross. But she told me about your date last night."

He attempted not to react, but internally, he flailed. He had so many questions that he struggled to make sense of any of them. How had Marissa known it was a date when HE hadn't even known it was a date? Why did she feel the need to tell Nora about it? Why couldn't Eli know?

"How did she know it was a date? I only asked her to make the reservation."

"She's not stupid," Nora replied, a little defensively. "She figured it out. Based on what she told me about the circumstances, it was pretty clear."

Was I really that obvious? It didn't matter, though. He was not going to engage in a debate about his personal life, even when, deep down, he knew it was relevant. "Nora, I really don't see how this is anyone's-"

"Don't pretend you don't understand this," she said. "It's relevant because politics doesn't care whether your decisions are personal or professional. Because we need to know everything about your personal life in order to protect you. Because whoever this woman is also deserves to decide whether or not she wants to continue seeing you given the scrutiny you're going to be under."

"Protect me from what?"

"From character assassination. Sit down, please." He wasn't really in the mood to sit down, but he did as she asked. They took a seat on the couch and Nora looked at him very seriously. "I watched John Buchanan's announcement just like the rest of you. I've been doing this a long time, and do you know what struck me? This guy doesn't even know who his opponent is - though I'm sure he has a pretty good idea - and he's already on the attack. That means he won't hesitate to go after you in every way he can think of once you've announced. We've got to be prepared to defend or get in front of anything that could possibly be construed as problematic."

"Okay, even if it might come up that I'm seeing someone - and please note that we have had exactly ONE date, so it's not like it's serious - why would that fact alone possibly be construed as negative? I'm not married. I'm not cheating on someone. There's no moral question here."

"How long have you known her?"

"Her name is Lauren. And I've known her since high school."

"Consistently?"

"Well… no," he confessed. "But I know her. She's a good person. She's a lawyer."

"But you don't know what skeletons might be in her closet. You can't know. Like you said, you've had one date after how many years of being out of touch? The only way for us to know if there's going to be a problem is if we know exactly who we're dealing with." She leaned forward. "You know I'm right, Rafael."

He glared at her, and then immediately felt bad about it. Pragmatic, logical Rafael knew that Nora was right - he had made judgments based on candidates' personal lives before as well. He could tell she was trying to be as kind as possible while still getting the message across, but that didn't make it any easier to swallow.

"So why are you coming to me with this instead of going to Eli? He would seem to be the most logical person to talk to," he said.

"Because," she said, "it's not my place to tell him details of your personal life." Her eyes were warm, but her expression remained stern. "But you need to tell him before he gets blindsided with it. In Eli's world, nothing happens without a four-page press release. Otherwise, he goes off the deep end, and I am not in the mood to deal with a heart attack anytime soon."

He laughed softly.

"Look," she said, "I personally believe that everyone, including politicians, is entitled to a personal life as long as two consenting adults are involved. Your partner, your family, they shouldn't make a damn bit of difference to how people perceive you. But the fact of the matter is, they do. You're not afforded the luxury of a personal life when you're in public service."

"I suppose this means I should tell Lauren, too."

"If you're planning to see her again, you probably should," she said.

"So, you think it's okay if I see her again?" Nora thought for a second. The truth was, she DIDN'T think it was a good idea. It would certainly complicate the entire campaign, and no matter whether she or Rafael was the one to deliver the news, Eli was still going to go berserk. But she also didn't want to be another person telling him what to do.

"I think that you should do what you feel is best for you," she said, "and we'll handle it. But you HAVE to tell Eli, sooner rather than later."

He really didn't want to think about having that conversation. Eli asked a thousand questions about a two-minute speech, so Rafael couldn't conceive of how many questions he would have about Lauren - questions for which Rafael had no answers.

"All right," he said. "If Lauren and I decide to go out again, then I'll tell him. There's no need to mention it otherwise, would you agree?"

"I suppose not," Nora said cautiously.

"Okay, then. Deal," he replied, and then checked his watch. "You'd better get down to the headquarters before Eli gets there."

"Oh, no need. Watch this," she said, and took out her phone. "Hey, Eli. No, we found a tie. It's…" She looked at Rafael.

"Blue," he mouthed. He had plenty of blue ties to choose from.

"It's blue. Anyway, listen, I just got a call from the installation company. They can't get there til tomorrow. I know, I'm sorry. No, I can't - no. Yes. Okay, I will. Bye." She hung up, and grinned.

"You're way too good at coming up with bullshit stories on the fly," he said. "You should have gone to law school."

"It wasn't really that much of a stretch," she said. "They're coming tomorrow anyway. You need anything before I go?"

"I think I'm all right," he said. "I'm gonna order some takeout and get to work on this speech. Any advice?"

"You don't need my advice," she said. "It's no different than a closing argument. And I hear you're pretty good at those."

"Biggest closing argument I've ever done," he said.

"No, that's your victory speech." She flashed him an encouraging smile. "Call if you need anything."

"Tell Marissa to feel better soon, or I'll destroy the filing system in her absence."

Once Nora had gone, Marbury reappeared from her hiding place under his bed. Eli had accidentally stepped on her tail when he'd arrived, and she'd wanted nothing to do with any of them. He refilled her bowl, went to his office, and sat down with a notepad. There was no more stalling; he had less than forty-eight hours to come up with the speech of a lifetime. He thought about what Nora said: it's no different than a closing argument.

Per usual, he began with the first line, and, per usual, it was the hardest part. Eli had told him that the PAC had already earned a quarter of the contribution limit, which he supposed was largely a function the combination of the New York Times article and Eli's big mouth. He had to make this count. People already had faith in him. He sat, staring at the page, for twenty minutes, drawing a blank.

Then it dawned on him. He'd written down notes from his conversation with Carisi the previous week. He rummaged around in his briefcase, praying he hadn't just tossed them. Finally, he found the notepad they were written on.

You care more about the victim than conviction rates.

Too many of them get away with it.

Willing to throw himself in front of a train.

I'm not that guy.

Reviewing those thoughts was like a jolt of lightning to his brain. The words came to him quickly, and before he knew it, he had an opening line that would blow Buchanan's entire speech out of the water. Once that was out of the way, the rest of it just flowed. What's more, he found that the more he wrote and edited his thoughts, the more he believed in the power of his own campaign.


"Marissa!" Rafael walked into the office on Wednesday morning to find his assistant bent down at the copy machine, apparently trying to fix a jam. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yep," she said, without looking up. "I'd be a LOT better if this copier didn't eat every print job I try to send through."

He eyed her suspiciously. "You're not… contagious, are you?"

"I could cough on you and we could find out," she said, slamming the front door of the copier. "There, I think that should…" The copier started to whirr, and then spit out multiple print jobs.

"Funny. Anyway, I'm glad you're back because I have a few things I need to get done today, and I'm sorry to say that most of them involve you running back and forth from the clerk's office."

She sat back down at her desk. "Okay," she said, and then started typing away without ever looking at him.

"You sure you're feeling better?" He asked. She looked out of sorts, not her usual conversational self.

"Perfectly fine," she replied. She still didn't look up. He couldn't really say anything; she wasn't being rude. She just wasn't being talkative, and he couldn't penalize her for that. And it wasn't as though he didn't have days where he wasn't feeling particularly outgoing. Maybe she just has a lot of emails to catch up on, he thought. So, he went into his office and closed the door behind him. Two minutes later, he nearly jumped of his chair when the door burst open and Marissa stormed in. The look on her face was slightly frightening; he'd never actually seen her angry before, at least not with him. The copy machine, maybe, but not with him.

"Do you remember at the beginning of this campaign when you told me that you would keep me in the loop on everything if I promised never to lie to you?" She folded her arms.

Uh oh. "Yes, I do," he said, trying to play dumb.

"Have I lied to you?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"Then I would really like to know why you didn't tell me you had a date on Friday," she said. "And don't tell me you didn't think it was relevant, because I know you're not that stupid."

He wasn't particularly happy about being spoken to this way by a subordinate. His sense of superiority momentarily kicked in. "Marissa, I'm still your boss, you know."

"Fine, then I quit right now," she said, waving her hand. "But I still deserve an answer, given that I held up my end of this bargain, and I thought you were a man of your word."

He winced. She was right; she had held up her end, and he knew exactly what he was doing on Friday when he withheld the date with Lauren from her. He knew it was relevant to the campaign - even if it hadn't been a date, it gave the appearance of one. He'd failed to keep his promise. She had a right to be upset.

"Marissa, I-"

"You know what?" She continued, "If you can't keep your promises to me, you'd better just drop out of this race right now. Because you're going to be making a lot more of them to the public, and they won't be inclined to forget them."

"You're right," he said. He tossed his pen down and stood up from his chair. "I know I should have told you. But I didn't want anyone to talk me out of doing it."

He gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk. She sank into it. The same thought she'd had the other night floated back across her mind: her father was so cynical and suspicious. He only thought in terms of politics and reputation, insinuations and image.

"Do you think I'm like my father?" She asked, a bit sadly. He was surprised by the question and raised an eyebrow at her as he sat back down.

"Would it be a bad thing if I did?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "I wondered the other day if I'm becoming too much like him. I felt guilty for being so suspicious of you."

"You were right to be," he said. "But I know you only did what you did because you care about the campaign. Whose idea was it to stalk me, anyway?"

She let out a small laugh. "Nora's, actually. She's spent too much time hanging around my Dad, too. Deep down, though, I knew the answer before she suggested it. I just didn't want to be like… look, like I've said, my father is a good man-"

"He is," Rafael said, squinting, "but you don't want to be like him?"

"I want to be a human being. I don't want to be a person who doesn't trust what other people tell her. And," she continued, "I want to be able to trust you."

With the way her curly hair fell in front of her eyes, Rafael remembered how young Marissa really was. He was almost impressed at how she'd managed to retain a sense of innocence, despite all she'd seen in her father's line of work.

"I know what it's like not to want to be like your parents," he said, trying to provide some measure of camaraderie. "I don't want to put you in that position. I won't lie to you again."

"You better not," she said, rising from her chair, "or I'll come to your apartment and let Marbury make a nest out of your ties."

He laughed. "Don't think she hasn't tried. By the way, the draft of the speech is in your inbox. Can you please send it over to Eli?"

"Yep," she said, "as long as I'm allowed to read it first."

"You would, even if I told you not to," he replied with a smirk. She rolled her eyes and turned to leave the office, but Rafael called after her.

"Would you have told me not to go?"

"What?" She turned back around.

"On the date. Would you have tried to talk me out of it?" Marissa was silent for a long while, appraising him. He was absently paging through a file, clicking his pen (a nervous habit that drove her crazy). It was as if he hadn't just asked her to weigh in on his dating life. She could barely see his face, but it betrayed nothing.

"I would have told you that you have to make decisions wisely," she said. "I wouldn't have told you not to go, but I would have told you exactly what Nora did."

"Nora…" He thought for a second. Then, it dawned on him. He looked directly at her, eyes flickering. "Were you really sick the last few days?"

"No," she confessed. "So I guess I sort of lied to you too. I just didn't want to say something to you that I'd regret."

"You mean like I'm stupid?" He tried to withhold a smile.

"I actually said I know you're NOT that stupid," she replied. "Look, you can't stop being a person just because you're a politician. But you need to be smart about it. If there are things in your personal life that are going to be problematic, you need to be honest with us. That way, no one is caught in any crossfire, including third parties. You get my meaning?"

He sighed. "I do. Thank you, Marissa. Could you close the door behind you, please?"

"You're welcome, boss," she replied. After she'd closed the door behind her, he whipped out his cell phone. Though he knew Marissa had been talking about Lauren when she'd mentioned the crossfire, he was reminded of a very difficult conversation that he needed to have. The campaign announcement was in just a few days; he needed to deal with this before the first shot was fired.


"Mami," Rafael said as he opened his front door. "Come in, come in." He hung her coat on the rack next to the door and led her into the kitchen, where had already prepared a cup of coffee for her.

"Are you okay, mijo?" She didn't waste any time, as usual. "You never ask me to come over here. I was worried."

"I'm fine, Mom," he said. "Well… not exactly."

"I knew it. A mother always knows."

"I'm not sick, if that's what you're thinking," he said, handing her the steaming mug. "There's already creamer in it, your favorite." She immediately set the cup down next to her.

"So if you're not sick, why in the world-"

"There's no easy way to say this," he said, "so I'm just going to have to come out with it."

"This has to do with the campaign, doesn't it?" He suddenly realized he knew where his ability to see through bullshit came from. "What have they found?"

"Let's go sit down," he suggested, leading her to the living room. He set her coffee cup on the end table next to her, then sat down. He put his hands between his knees and looked down at the floor, gathering his thoughts.

"Rafael, just say it," Lucia said, leaning forward a bit, trying to see his eyes. "Stalling won't make it any easier."

"Mom, they know about that night," he said. "They have the police report."

Lucia's eyes got wide for a moment, and then she sighed heavily.

"I'm sorry, Mami, I didn't realize they were going to dig that deeply. I should have, but I didn't think what I did as a juvenile would hurt me - or you." His eyes were still turned to the floor, studying a small knot in the wood. She didn't say anything for what seemed like an eternity, and then turned to face her son.

"Look at me," she said, and when he didn't, she repeated it as she might have when he was a boy. He looked up with watery eyes. "Neither one of us should be ashamed of what happened that night, or any other night. We didn't cause it. Your father did."

"But I acted unreasonably. They're going to hone in on the one time in my life I got violent and make it seem like you let it happen, or that I wasn't provoked, or that I'm a violent person by nature."

"So what if they do?" She sat up a little straighter and took one of his hands. "You were defending yourself, and me. The police never charged you. So there was a report. So what?"

"I can handle it, Mom," he said, "but I don't want you to have to deal with it. It's going to get very bad for a while. I can't say how long. I can try to bury it, but I don't know how long I can."

"Rafael, don't you think that if I could survive what your father put us through, I can survive a few reporters lurking around the apartment?" she said. Rafael shook his head.

"The other thing is… I need you to be really careful not to talk to those reporters. Eli needs to be able to handle this very strategically, and we don't want you to say something that could be misconstrued." He felt badly for making this subject about the campaign, but he had to be pragmatic for the moment.

"I have no desire to talk to reporters about anything involving my son," she said. "The most they'll get out of me is a shot in the face with pepper spray." He laughed.

"I'm sure Eli would be equally as unhappy about that," he said. Since they were already on the subject, he decided to ask a question he'd wanted to ask for years. "Mom, why didn't you ever leave him?"

Lucia inhaled a shaky breath. "I'm surprised it took you this long to ask," she said. "I expected it right after he died."

"It didn't seem like the right time at the funeral," he replied. "And then, it never seemed like the right time at all."

Lucia rose from her seat and walked to the front window. Rafael had been lucky enough to find an apartment with some semblance of a view - he at least had a small park to look at, whereas some of his attorney friends stared at brick walls. She leaned against the wall and looked out over the city. "Rafael, when I met your father, he was not the same man as when he died," she said.

"I can't imagine he was," he replied. "Otherwise, you wouldn't have been with him at all."

"He was quite charming, and very handsome. You get your looks from him, you know." He shuddered slightly. He would have preferred not to be reminded of the fact that he and his father shared the same eyes and light skin.

"Anyway," she said, "by the time I realized he drank too much, you were five years old. Your grandfather died when I was young. So in my mind, growing up with an alcoholic was better than growing up with no father at all."

He nodded, trying to make sense of it. She didn't wait for his response before continuing. "He didn't start hitting me until a few years later, when you were maybe eight years old or so. It started with just the occasional slap. Afterwards, he would apologize, bring me flowers, say he wouldn't touch me again. And he never touched you - at least, not until the night of that fight. So I stayed. Then, it became a regular part of life, and I stopped getting apologies. I wanted to leave him every day by then, but he made the money, he made the decisions. He never would have let me leave, and I knew what happened to women who did."

"Did you ever come close?"

"Yes," she whispered. "The night you hit him back. That was the first time he ever hit you, that I'm aware of, at least."

He nodded again. "It was."

She turned back around to face him. "That night, I made a plan. I was going to wake you up in the middle of the night, and we were going to go to your abuelita's. But…"

"But what?" He stood up and approached her slowly. He didn't want to upset her, but he also wanted to be close to her.

"I was a coward at the last minute," she said sadly. "I couldn't bring myself to do it. I was afraid of what he would do, to me, to you, to your abuelita."

"I wouldn't have let him," Rafael said. His fists clenched at the thought of his father hurting any of them. His breath was quick, and he felt sweat breaking out on his forehead.

"That was one of the reasons I didn't leave that night, mijo. You were so close to getting out anyway, going to college. I didn't want to make you think you needed to stay for me."

He was suddenly taken back to the A.J. Martin case: his wife had stayed, claiming she had been at fault and that her husband was a good man. That trial had shaken him. Even during his cross-examination, he had fluctuated between losing his temper and being on the verge of tears. He had tried not to blame Paula Martin. He knew she was a victim. He knew all the statistics and all the studies about codependence and the cycle of abuse. But the fact that she stood behind her abuser had always unnerved him, and until now, he didn't know why. Not only had she put herself in danger, she'd put her son in the position of watching his father beat his mother, probably routinely. At the very least, he would grow up thinking that was how you treated women; at worst, he would be a victim of his father's abuse himself. Then, he flashed to what Lauren had said about it being easy to tell what was happening, and completely lost it.

"So you just let him keep abusing us? Why didn't you leave when I was a kid? Then we both could have avoided this mess. He beat you, he beat me from the day of that fight - he broke my nose that night, Mom. I was sixteen years old, for God's sake! I hid bruises, I had to make excuses for wearing sleeves in the summer. Didn't you care? Didn't you want to protect me?"

"It wasn't as simple as that, Rafael," Lucia replied. She sounded somewhere between exhausted and annoyed. "Of course I loved you, of course I wanted to protect you. But I couldn't figure out a way to leave him with no money, no job, and no safe place to go. I was wrong. I was wrong to keep you there as long as I did. My only solace is that you turned out as good as you have, despite your father's best efforts."

Rafael stood still for a moment, trying to relax his cramping hands. His breathing had returned to normal, and his heart rate had gone down. He sank back onto the couch and put his hands between his knees. "I hated you for staying," he said, so quietly it was almost imperceptible. "I hated you every time he hit me."

"I know," she said, coming back to sit next to him. "And I deserved it."

Lucia Barba had never been one for affection, but something about seeing her son looking so deflated made her remember that once upon a time, she had nursed him, taken care of his scrapes, and dropped him off at kindergarten. She put her hand on the back of his head, trying to comfort him. At this gesture, he felt terrible. It occurred to him that his mother had settled for a life of pain in an attempt to do what she thought was right for him, and had likely been punishing herself for it ever since.

"I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean to- you know, accuse you. I should know better. I know you didn't have any options. I know you did your best with what you had. God, how am I going to handle a campaign full of accusations if I can't even talk to you like a rational person?"

She sighed and took his hand. "There is nothing rational about this situation, Rafael. You can't look at our lives objectively, because you are emotionally invested. But I know that you are a brave man. I knew it when you jumped between your father and me that night. You'll be brave now. And so will I."

He looked at her, softening his gaze. She was still holding his hands. He was sure she had been more maternal toward him in the last six months than she had all his childhood. Sometimes he wondered why she had been so distant back then. Maybe it was her way of making him independent so that he had the strength to get out when the chance arose.

"Okay," he said. "Okay."

"You need to do what's right. Don't lie to protect me, and don't lie because you think you've done something wrong. I told you, we don't need to be ashamed of ourselves. We don't need to hide what we are."

"And what are we?"

His mother smiled in a way that he hadn't seen before: it was the sort of smile you might give someone when you share a secret with them; an understanding that hadn't been there before.

"We're survivors, mijo."

Chapter Text

Though he had seen and been part of hundreds of press conferences, nothing could prepare Rafael for the scene unfolding before him in his office. Staffers and interns were rushing back and forth, a makeup artist was dusting powder on his forehead, and Eli was barking orders at the lot of them.

"You! Intern with the red hair! Go out there and make sure the sign on the front of the podium is still up. And get a headcount of reporters and where they're from while you're at it!"

"Yes, Mr. Gold," the redheaded intern said, before running out of the room with a notepad in hand.

"And you three," he snapped at a group of aides standing in the corner of the room chatting amongst themselves, "get your laptops out and get the live feeds from the local stations. Take notes on any of the commentary." Startled, they retrieved their laptops and set up at the table, muttering curse words under their breath. The makeup artist finished smoothing Rafael's hair back into place, and he touched his forehead lightly. He was once used to makeup from his days in drama club, but hadn't worn it in such a long time that it felt unnatural. He couldn't imagine how women dealt with it every day. His phone buzzed, an incoming text message on the screen.

Free Saturday?

He almost dropped the phone. Despite the fact that their first date had gone well, Rafael hadn't expected a second one. He was confident in many areas of his life; dealings with the opposite sex was not one of them. His hands shook as he replied. I'll make sure of it. Details?

Not more than thirty seconds passed before she wrote back. Want to meet at the Wollman Rink around 8:00?

He couldn't help himself. He laughed. Somehow I don't think me ice skating will do much for my fearsome reputation.

I promise, I won't make you skate, she replied. We can pretend to be Olympic judges and give everyone terrible, undeserved scores.

"Where's-MARISSA!" Eli's disgruntled yell jolted him back to reality. She sauntered into the room carelessly, and Rafael couldn't help but laugh. She seemed immune to her father's constant yelling.

"What do you need?"

"Where the hell have you been?"

"Out there, doing my actual job," she said. "Someone has to field the phone calls while you're in here screaming at interns."

"I need your opinion on that tie," he said, pointing to the silk periwinkle neckwear Rafael had chosen. "Is it too feminine?"

"Eli," Rafael chimed in, "I'm not changing my tie."

"Well, I really think the dark blue might be-"

"Dad, his tie is fine," she said. "Where's Nora?"

The mention of Nora's name reminded Rafael of the promise he'd made to her: if a second date was going to happen, he had to tell Eli. He wished he'd remembered that AFTER the announcement. He didn't want to be any more nervous than he already was.

"She's on her way. She was staffing the phones at headquarters to field questions. Something about not wanting me to scare off our entire staff before the campaign even begins." He rolled his eyes.

"I can't imagine why she'd think you'd do that," Marissa replied. "Hey, Mr. Barba, did you invite the squad?"

"I mentioned it," he said. "No idea whether they're going to show up, but I figured they should know before everyone else."

Eli whipped around. "You announced it to them before we announced it to the press?"

"Well, it's not exactly a state secret, you know," Marissa said, "given the giant 'Rafael Barba for District Attorney' sign out there." Rafael chuckled.

"Well of course it's not a secret NOW," Eli said, "but Rafael, you've got to stop talking to other people before you talk to me. I need to know anything you're telling anyone when it comes to this campaign."

Rafael shuddered, anticipating the conversation he would later have to have. Meanwhile, Marissa was giving him an odd look out of the corner of her eye.

"Duly noted," he said, and removed the makeup guard from around his neck. "How much longer?"

"Just about five minutes now," Eli said, checking his watch. "I told them noon, so we'll head down about 11:45 or so. But you want to make them wait a few minutes longer. Coming down at the exact scheduled time will make you look too eager. And where the hell is-" Just then, Nora burst into the room with the redheaded intern trailing behind her.

"Eli Jonah Gold, have you lost your mind?" His head snapped up at the sound of his full name. Nora burst through the door, the redheaded intern trailing behind her. She marched up to him, speaking with the tone a parent might use on a delinquent child.

"I might be," he said, "but then again, I'm not the person who's screeching like an eagle, so-" She cut him off mid-sentence with a wave of her hand.

"You sent this eighteen year old kid down to deal with the press?" She gestured to the young man standing near the door, poised to flee the scene at any moment.

"I didn't tell him to deal with the press, I just told him to ask who was from what paper or news station. I wanted to know who was down there."

"Then you send Marissa or you wait til I show up," she said, thrusting a list at him. "He had no idea how to answer anything they were asking, and you know better than that."

"Well, excuse me for trying to give someone responsibility in this campaign," he said. "DID he answer any questions?" He glared at the intern, who looked very frightened.

"No, Mr. Gold," the kid replied. "But I did hear a couple of them saying something about William Lewis, I think."

The room fell into silence. Everyone there had been briefed on the oppo research, and they all knew about the Lewis trial because of it. Nora's anger even dissipated at the mention of Lewis's name. They looked at Rafael, who looked slightly uncomfortable before clearing his throat.

"I'm prepared for that," he said. "I'll get into it if they really want to ask."

"No, you won't," Eli said. "We're not taking questions today. We need to focus on narrowing down your positions on the issues before we answer anything. There will be time to deal with all of this later. Now, let's go."

Eli and Rafael led the way as Marissa and Nora followed closely behind. A few interns came down with them, responsible for writing down questions by the press - Eli wanted to get some preliminary research on what might be asked during the debates. If the press wanted to know, surely the public would. As they walked, Rafael held his head high and tried not to notice the other prosecutors staring at him as his entourage passed. They knew he was announcing; as had been noted, it wasn't a secret. But as of today, he wouldn't just be one of them anymore. Instead, he would be campaigning to manage them. Suddenly, he felt the familiar anxiety of a courtroom performance sneaking up on him. The closer they got to the front entrance, the shakier his hands felt and the hotter he was under his collar. He thought no one realized it except for him, but before he started out the door toward the horde of cameras and microphones, Eli held him back for a moment and turned to face him.

"You ready?"

Rafael straightened his tie and took a deep breath. "I can't say no, can I?"

"Not at this point," Eli said. "Speak slowly - the reporters will want quotes and we want them to be accurate. Try not to clear your throat too much. Don't break eye contact for more than ten seconds at a time. Don't use Buchanan's name. It's free press for him. Stick to "my opponent" or just "he." And remember, this is no different than any closing argument you've ever given."

"It's a little different," Rafael countered. "Did you even read my draft?"

"Do you think I'd let you go out here if I hadn't?" Eli asked.

"Well, you didn't say anything about it."

"That's because there was nothing I needed to add. It may not have been the speech I envisioned, but I shouldn't have doubted your ability to write it." He stepped back, gave Rafael one last look over, and nodded, all business. "You're ready. Let's go."

Buchanan had announced on the courthouse steps as well, but it was Rafael who always owned them. On many occasions, after a particularly hard-fought win, he had swaggered down them, eager to face the press. He was in his element. This time was no different. His stage fright fell away as he descended the stairs, as it always did, and he was the strong, self-assured man everyone believed him to be. The dull roar of the reporters died down as he held up a silencing hand. He glanced over at Eli, Marissa, and Nora, who were standing in a row next to him. Marissa and Nora gave him encouraging smiles. Eli looked serious and confident, arms crossed with his head tilted back, just a bit menacing. He gripped the edges of the podium, cleared his throat, and began his speech.

"Good morning. As I am not known for calling press conferences, and as it is election season, allow me to confirm what you may have already suspected: I am here to announce my candidacy for District Attorney of Manhattan. I had intended for this to be a simple announcement; after all, there will certainly be enough campaign ads and rhetoric to fill newspapers for months to come. However, given recent comments made by my opponent, I feel it necessary to elaborate on my reasons for seeking this office."

He looked up from the podium often, making eye contact with each reporter in front of him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar, annoying face: Sonny Carisi, standing with the rest of the squad, lower down the steps, off to the side. He didn't have time to figure out whether he felt anxious or happy to see them. He took another breath and reminded himself to speak slowly.

"My opponent has had quite a bit to say about the current state of the District Attorney's office. He has determined that the office has been ineffective, in part because we spend time and resources convicting the wrong people. Unfortunately, he is laboring under false impressions and, perhaps, delusions. In the Supreme Court alone, my office has successfully prosecuted over nine thousand defendants. These defendants either pled guilty or were convicted by juries of their peers. My opponent, therefore, implies that those juries are not competent to hear the evidence, weigh it, and make a sound decision. On the other hand, my belief is that each jury is capable of deciding whether or not the evidence points to guilt, and in eighty-five percent of the cases I try, they have decided it does. When a jury convicts, that is not evidence of false charges or the persecution of the innocent. That is evidence of the criminal justice system at work. And, I should add, a 'not guilty' verdict does not equal 'innocent.'"

Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at Eli, who nodded just slightly. Thus far, Rafael had hit every point brilliantly. He sounded strong and determined, not at all fazed by Buchanan's accusations.

"My opponent claims that, in our rush to bring charges, we tarnish the reputations of innocent people. Neither the District Attorney nor I have the desire, or, for that matter, the time, to ruin the lives of innocent citizens. We have more important things to do. We understand that the criminal justice system is not perfect. It will never be perfect. My office has endeavored to make sure those imperfections do not affect our prosecutions. In the past five years, one half of one percent of those we have convicted were later found innocent. We have made every effort possible to make restitution to the individuals involved. But for my opponent to imply that this is a routine occurrence shows his fundamental misunderstanding of the criminal justice system AND my office. To believe otherwise is to ignore the statistical facts; wrongful convictions are the exception, not the rule."

Cameras clicked and flashes went off in his face, but Rafael was on a roll.

"He may be right about one thing: it is a travesty when guilty parties walk free. But that doesn't happen because my office prosecutes the wrong people. That happens because of defense attorneys like John Buchanan who manipulate the system in defense of the guilty."

Yes, he had committed the sin of giving John Buchanan free Press. But it needed to be said. Beneath him, Olivia leaned over and whispered something to Nick, who looked, unsurprisingly, annoyed. Fin and Rollins stood shoulder to shoulder, impassive but attentive. Carisi, on the other hand, looked enthralled. Leave it to him to be the most interested, lapdog that he was.

"I am not a professional politician. I've never run for any office in my life. I didn't even care enough to be on student council," he said. The reporters laughed a bit, and he continued. "I cannot tell you that I will ever achieve a one-hundred percent conviction rate, and anyone who does promise you that is lying. But what I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is this: I care more about victims than conviction rates. I'm more concerned with justice than with my reputation. I am willing to throw myself in front of the proverbial train if it means one less criminal on the street. And I know more about how to be an effective prosecutor than my opponent will ever care to learn."

He was coming up on his grand finale, and he knew he needed to make it explosive. This was his first opportunity to be louder than Buchanan, and, in a way, bigger. He wanted to give the public something more than a soundbyte. He wanted to give them a promise. He stood up a little straighter, cleared his throat - just once, per Eli's instructions - and gave the press a hard, determined stare.

"The Office of the District Attorney needs a serious candidate, one who is above grandstanding and egotism; someone who is unafraid to make the tough calls necessary to get justice for victims and who will not back down in the face of complicated cases, criminal threats, or political repercussions. The People of New York deserve nothing less, and I intend to be the person to fulfill those responsibilities. Thank you."

He stepped away from the podium, gave a small wave, and turned to Eli, who jerked his head back toward the courthouse. The gaggle of reporters shouted question after question at him, but Eli had stepped in front of the podium, directing them to send their questions via email and he would try to get quotes for them in the next few days. Rafael followed Eli's direction and headed back into the courthouse, with Marissa and Nora trailing behind him.

"That," Marissa said breathlessly, "was fantastic."

"You hit every single point Eli wanted you to hit, AND you hit Buchanan where he lives," Nora said. "I don't think you could have done it better."

"Couldn't have said it better myself," said a familiar voice behind them. He turned around and the squad was approaching him, Olivia at the front of the pack. "Nice job, Barba."

"I feel like I heard parts of that speech before," Carisi said, smirking.

"On the ball as usual, Carisi," Rafael sighed. "I suppose I should at least thank you, much as it pains me."

"Hey, no problem, Counselor," he replied. "If you need help speechwriting in the future-"

"Don't push it," Rafael shot back. "Anyway, I appreciate you all showing your support-"

"Not all of us support this," Nick muttered. Rafael rounded on him.

"Do we have a problem, Nick?"

"It's like I said," Nick replied, "you're not cut out for politics. You're not slimy enough."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Rafael said.

"Hi," Nora chimed in, attempting to defuse the situation. She extended her hand to Nick. "I'm Nora. I just moved here from Chicago. I work with the campaign."

"Hey, nice to meet you," Nick said. "New to the city, huh?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'm a friend of Marissa's from way back."

"Any friend of M's is a friend of ours," Fin said, looking Nora up and down appraisingly. Nora folded her arms, raised a questioning eyebrow, and glanced at Marissa.

"Is this guy for real?"

"The realest," Marissa laughed, elbowing Fin playfully. "He's harmless."

As Nora, Marissa, Nick, and Fin got into a debate about New York versus Chicago pizza, Eli came bounding through the doors. He looked as though he were about to say something important, but stopped as soon as he heard Nora laugh. He turned and saw her talking to the other detective who had seen him and Rafael at the bar. He couldn't tell, but she appeared to him to be flirting.

"Nora!" He called. The entire group fell silent, startled at Eli's sudden outburst. She rolled her eyes slightly but pushed through the group toward him.

"What do you need, Eli?"

Suddenly, he realized he had absolutely no idea why he'd called for her. She stared at him expectantly, as did the rest of the group, before he cleared his throat and said, "I, ah, need you to help go through the footage and the media reports from the press conference, and have some summaries done before I get down there later."

Somewhere in the background, he heard Marissa snort.

"Are we doing this here or at HQ?" Nora asked.

"Let's go to HQ," Eli said, eyeing Fin out of the corner of his eye. "We need to get the interns here to help man the phones anyway."

Nora gave him a skeptical look, but nodded. "Ris, you in?"

"Sure, why not?" She replied. Rafael turned around.

"Apparently you weren't planning to clear that with me?"

"I think you can afford to lose me for a day," she said, and then, in a whisper, "besides, you and my Dad have something to talk about, right?"

Rafael stiffened. He knew what Marissa was referring to. He nodded curtly. Nora turned toward the detectives.

"It was really nice meeting you all. Fin," she said, "I'm looking forward to Monday." She started off toward Rafael's office to grab her purse before going back to campaign headquarters.

"What's Monday?" Eli mumbled to Marissa. She raised her eyebrow.

"Fin is taking Nora out for what New Yorkers think is legitimate pizza," she said. Then, her tone changed just slightly to faux innocence. "Why, Dad?"

"For once, pretend I'm your father. Do what I say and get going," he snapped, and she raised her hands.

"All right, all right. If you think you're pissed at ME…" She mumbled.

"What was that?"

"I said I'm going!" She ran to catch up with Nora, whose long legs made doing so almost impossible. Once the two of them had disappeared down the hallway, Rafael gestured toward Eli.

"Everyone," he said, "this is Eli Gold, my campaign manager. Eli, this is Olivia Benson, Nick Amaro, Amanda Rollins, and of course, you know Fin and Carisi."

"Indeed," he said, saving his last, strongest handshake for Fin.

"Oh, yeah, M’s father, right?" Fin asked.

"I am," Eli replied.

"Your daughter's a good kid," Fin said. "Ain't that right, Carisi?" Carisi went pink.

"Oh, don't let her fool you. She can be a royal pain in the ass. And," he said, throwing a reproachful look at Carisi, "she's got terrible morning breath."

"And on that note," Olivia said, ushering the detectives toward the door, "we need to be getting back. Mr. Gold-"

"Eli," he said.

"It was nice to meet you. Hey, Barba," she said, turning back toward Rafael, "good luck. We're behind you. You know that, right?"

"I know, Liv," Rafael said. "I appreciate that. Just do me a favor and vote for me, will you?"

"You think I'd want to sit around my office squabbling with Buchanan?" She gave him one of her trademark smiles, bright and sincere, the kind that he'd missed for a long time after… well, after.

The detectives left the courthouse, and Eli stared after them.

"That Carisi guy," Eli said. "Please tell me he's as stupid as he seems and bought the morning breath thing."

Rafael glanced at him and let out something like a laugh. He seemed to be in a decent mood. This was as good a time as any.


Eli was so busy gaping at Rafael that he hadn't even been able to speak, much less yell. In an empty jury room, Rafael had just finished telling him about Lauren, and he was clearly stupefied and frustrated. Finally, he sank down into a chair, and gestured for Rafael to do the same.

"Could your timing possibly be any worse?" He was making an obvious attempt to remain calm.

"It's not like I planned this," Rafael said. "It was just supposed to be a dinner to catch up."

Eli squeezed the bridge of his nose. "A dinner. To catch up. Right. When did this dinner take place?"

"Two weeks ago Friday," Rafael replied. "I wasn't even going to tell you, but then we decided-"

"Wait, wait, wait. You weren't going to tell me? And who decided that?"

"If you'd let me finish," Rafael said, annoyed, "I was going to say that I wasn't going to tell you. I didn't think it would matter if it was just one evening. And it was before we announced, so I really don't know how many people were paying attention."

"Everyone started paying attention from the day I leaked information to the press!" Eli put his hand to his shoulder. "I think I'm having a heart attack."

"That'd be your upper arm, not your shoulder, but nice try. Anyway, you'll be happy to know that both Nora and Marissa talked me out of it. They told me I needed to tell you."

Eli stopped examining his upper arm and looked up. "Nora and Marissa-they knew about this? And THEY didn't tell me? What were they thinking?"

"Probably that you'd have a conniption. I can't imagine why they would think that."

Eli sighed and put his head in his hand. He rubbed the wrinkles in his forehead; surely, he'd have developed some new ones by the end of this day. "Okay," he said. He took a deep breath. "Okay. I've worked with candidates who were dating before. I can work with this. As long as we're up front about it, there shouldn't be a problem. So we just need to investigate." He seemed to be having a conversation with himself.

"Investi-what?"

"Investigate," Eli said. "As in, look into her. Check her background. Make sure she's not-"

"You don't need to investigate her. Like I told Nora, I knew her in high school. She's an attorney. You have to go through a very thorough background check and screening process to be an attorney. She's clean."

"Oh, please!" Eli shouted. "People lie. People believe lies. It happens all the time. You know that as well as anyone. Do you know everything about her history? Everything she's done since she passed that background check?"

"You know the answer to that," Rafael said, sighing heavily. "Look, there's nothing to worry about. BUT, if it will make you feel better to do a very simple background check on her, go ahead. Just don't go digging around in all aspects of her personal life."

Eli tilted his head. "Define 'all aspects.'"

"You know very well what I mean, Eli. She and I are not in a relationship, so there is no need for you to violate her privacy any more than absolutely necessary."

"I don't know what would be worse: you in a relationship, or you dating someone casually," Eli replied. He could practically feel the grey in his hair increasing.

"It's nothing to worry about, I'm telling you," Rafael said. "It probably won't go much further than this second date." Just then, his phone buzzed. He took it out and saw a text message from Lauren.

So, that was surprising.

He knew she meant the campaign. While Eli craned his neck to try and read the conversation, he typed back: Surprised the hell out of me. He wanted to try to inject some levity into the serious conversation that he knew was coming. It seemed his entire life was becoming one serious conversation after another.

Still on for Saturday?

He wrote back immediately, totally ignoring Eli's annoyed stare. Wouldn't miss it. Text me if you can't find me.

"Nothing serious, huh?" Eli was staring down at the phone, and Rafael quickly tucked it back into his pocket.

"Like I said, Eli, you can look into her. But you don't go any further than a standard employment background check." Rafael looked at him gravely.

"Fine," Eli said. "And if I find something concerning?"

"Then I'll hear you out, and we'll have whatever conversations we need to have, be it with her or the staff. But NOT until you discuss it with me first." He stared at Eli, impassive, until Eli nodded curtly. He stood up from the table. "I need to get back upstairs. I still have cases to work on."

"WINNING cases?" Eli asked.

"If I have anything to say about it," Rafael said. "What's next on the campaign agenda?"

"I'll be setting up a few events for you to attend. Mostly dinners, really. Oh, and you've been given an award by the Young Prosecutors of Fordham Law. 'Exemplary Service to the Community.' Specifically for prosecuting the Deputy Mayor's kid a few months ago. The acceptance dinner is in a week, so you'll need to prepare a little something for that."

Rafael raised his eyebrows. "Do I even want to know how I even got nominated for this award so quickly?"

"Probably not," Eli replied as he followed Rafael's lead, rising from the table as well. "Well, since you're going back upstairs, I've got to get down to headquarters. Nora's probably lost complete control of the place. She's probably letting the interns, I don't know, eat or something."

"I wouldn't be too sure. She's learned more from you than you might think." Eli raised an eyebrow and was about to say something when Rafael interrupted him. He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Hey, Eli…"

"Yeah?" Eli looked up from his iPhone.

"If I haven't said it before…"

Eli held up his hand and gave a small smile. "Just go win some cases. Keep that conviction rate up."

He waited a few minutes, then stuck his head out of the jury room door. He looked around; no sign of any reporters or Rafael. He left the room and headed toward the exit, dialing Nora's cell as he walked. She answered on the first ring.

"It's about damn time! Where are you?"

"I'm just leaving the courthouse now," he said. "I had to talk to Rafael about-"

"Well, I'm glad you finally decided to join us," she snapped. In the background, he heard Marissa laugh.

"I'll be there in twenty minutes," he said, jogging down the steps, passing by a cluster of reporters who had been at the press conference but who clearly hadn't noticed his presence there.

"I hope so, Eli, because no one here has any idea what we're supposed to be doing with the garbage we pulled from the news reports. You didn't leave any clear instructions, as usual, and-"

"Nora, damnit, listen to me!" She stopped talking long enough for him to continue. "I know about the girl."


Half an hour later, Eli burst through the doors at campaign headquarters. The cubicles had, as Nora promised, been installed on Monday and there were workers at each of them. The sounds of furious typing and hurried phone conversations created a dull buzz through which he yelled, "NORA!"

She popped her head up over one of the cubicle walls. "Can you hold on a second, Eli? I'm trying to get this video to play, and-"

"NOW," he barked. "And get my daughter out here, too."

Nora sighed, but before she made a move, Marissa came walking down the hallway behind Eli. "Looking for me?" He jumped, then swung around on his heel.

"You two! My office!" Then, he paused. "Where IS my office?"

Nora grinned. "That's what you get for not coming down here before today," she said, but gestured for him to follow her. They went to the back of the large office space, where he saw a setup much like his office at Peter Florrick's original campaign headquarters. It had a large window that allowed him a view of the floor, a set of bookshelves, and a television mounted to one wall. On the other side of the room was a large oak desk and leather office chair. The familiarity was almost comforting. When both women were inside the room, he shut (more like slammed) the door behind them.

"Okay, I am going to do my best not to lose my temper, but… what the HELL were you two thinking?" His eyebrows furrowed together and he put his hands on his hips.

"Eli, calm down," Nora said.

"Don't tell me to calm down, Nora," he snapped. "You two take it upon yourselves to do investigative work instead of coming to me so that I can have a professional do it. And ON TOP OF THAT, you don't bother to tell me when you find something out that could, oh, I don't know, TANK THE CAMPAIGN?"

"This is you not losing your temper?" Marissa asked dryly. "Seriously, Dad, he told you, right? Isn't that what matters?"

"What matters is that the two people who should know better than to keep this kind of secret from me are the two people who DID keep this kind of secret from me."

"We told him he had to tell you," Nora continued. "In fact, I specifically told him that you needed to be able to investigate her and protect him on all fronts. I just felt it would be better coming directly from him."

He crossed his arms. He hated when these two teamed up, mostly because they had both learned to argue from him.

"We weren't trying to keep anything from you," Marissa replied. "At least not permanently. Besides, one date prior to the campaign is NOT that big a deal, and you know that."

"It IS a big deal. He's a politician now," he said. "He needs to be cognizant of perception. He needs to make sure I'm aware of EVERYTHING in his personal life. I don't know how much clearer I need to make this for ANY of you. And Nora, YOU of all people should know it."

"Did Peter ever tell you about any of HIS affairs?" She shot back.

He stopped cold. "Excuse me?"

"You know damn well he had affairs in the office," she said, taking a seat in one of the guest chairs. "Did he ever actually confess any of them to you?"

"Of course not," Eli replied.

"Well, then be glad you have a candidate who is willing to tell you about his relationships. At least this way you know who the woman is - would you rather be monitoring interns?"

He sighed and put his fingers to his temples. There had been entirely too many surprises today.

"All right," he said, "but I swear to all that is holy, if either of you pull a stunt like this again, I will…" He hesitated. "Do you remember Becca?"

"Well, if you want us to tell you things, maybe try not Hulking out the minute someone gives you a piece of news that might upset you," Marissa said. She narrowed her eyes. "This is exactly why we didn't tell you. We wanted HIM to find a way to tell you that wouldn't immediately cause you to turn into a full-on rage monster."

He gave her a piercing stare, and then looked at Nora, who was still sitting impassively at the desk. "Since you're so good at it, I need you to go play detective again," he said. "I need oppo research on her. Whatever you can find. I swear, at times like this, I miss Kalinda."

"Thanks for the confidence," Nora replied sharply. "Do you have a last name? That would help."

"Sullivan," he replied. "At least it's a strong Catholic name. I can work with that. Of course, it may piss off the racists who don't approve of interracial dating, but I guess the racists wouldn't be voting for him anyway…"

"Eli, focus," Nora said. "What kind of research am I doing?"

"Background. Credit check. Marriages, divorces, parents, whatever you can find, like I said. I need to know everything. I cannot handle any more surprises."

"Does Mr. Barba know you're doing this?" Marissa asked suddenly. "It doesn't seem like him to approve of this kind of-"

"Of course he knows," Eli replied, leaving out the part where Rafael had told him not to dig deeper than absolutely necessary. "It comes with the territory. Now, go make yourself useful. Fix the copier or something." He waved his hand dismissively.

She rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips, mimicking him from earlier. "Fine," she said, "but just don't piss him off. He's insufferable when he's mad, even worse than you." Her riding boots made a stomping noise as she headed to the back workroom. Eli turned back to Nora, who rose from her chair with a barely-concealed look of disgust on her face. She walked toward the door, but stopped just before she left.

"You know, Eli, you may not like that we did our own little investigation into this, but you should at least realize where we got the idea."

"Oh, please, you can't-"

"Everyone who works around you pays attention, Eli. And believe it or not, sometimes we're good for more than fixing the copier." She raised an eyebrow, and he pursed his lips, the way he always did when he knew he was losing an argument. With that, she left the room and strode back out to the floor.

Suddenly exhausted, Eli sank into the soft leather chair behind the desk. He absently ran his hand on the desktop, which was when he felt something familiar on its otherwise smooth surface. He looked down curiously. Under his thumb, a small chunk of the wood was chipped away. Many years ago, during Peter's first campaign for State's Attorney, he had slammed his office phone down after a heated conversation with an opposing campaign manager. He'd missed the receiver and hit the desk instead. This desk had been in storage since he had been Chief of Staff.

He looked out the glass wall. Nora was back at that intern's cube, still trying to get the video player to function. She laughed at something he said. He couldn't see her eyes clearly - but he noticed that her hair was very shiny under the fluorescent lights. Suddenly, she looked toward him, returning his gaze. Her face remained mostly expressionless, but the slightest hint of a smile passed her lips. She nodded at him, but he quickly looked away, back at the desk. He pressed his lips together. Why did she pull this desk instead of ordering a new one? Is this some kind of set up? What does she want? Just then, a staffer knocked on his door. "Mr. Gold, we've got a pretty thorough collection of news reports on the announcement," she said. "There are a few common themes, but we need to know what you want us to do with the information."

He didn't have time for this. It's just a desk, he thought. He stood up and marched past the intern. "Amateurs," he muttered. "NORA! Staff meeting, NOW!"


He had never spent much time in Central Park. It always seemed to be where the tourists flocked. Occasionally he would cut through on his way from one side of town to the other, but only out of convenience. All the selfie sticks made him feel that the end of the world was closer than ever. But somehow, he had never made it down to the Wollman Rink at night; at least, not that he could remember. His parents certainly never took him as a child, and, as he had no idea how to ice skate, he really would have had no reason to be there as an adult. Yet there he was, leaning on the railing of the bridge that overlooked the rink, trying to appear nonchalant while his heart leapt every time he caught sight of a woman with dark, wavy hair set against bright hazel eyes. He realized he should have asked what she would be wearing.

The sun had already completely set in the city, throwing the entire park into pitch-blackness, but for the lamps that dotted the walking paths and the twinkle-lights lining the rink. It was colder than he had expected; even in November, New Yorkers were reluctant to give up the ghost of autumn to the frigidity of winter. As such, for once, he was severely underdressed. He clutched his red cotton scarf closer to his neck and turned up the collar on his leather coat. He squinted down the bridge, his breath visible in the cold air. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. When he turned around, he was presented with a familiar pair of eyes, which, although he couldn't be sure in the dim lamplight, seemed to have shifted to a pale shade of grey.

"So, can I still call you Rafael, or should I call you Mr. District Attorney?" He smiled sheepishly as Lauren reached out to hug him. Her hair fell over the faux-fur collar of her thick woolen coat. It smelled good, a little like apples, maybe? Some kind of fruit, anyway.

"Please, keep calling me Rafael. I can barely handle people calling me Barba on a routine basis," he said, taking his chances with a quick kiss on the cheek. "How are you?"

"It's Saturday night, I finished a major landlord-tenant contract for the city, and it's almost winter in New York. I'm a happy girl." She turned, and he fell into step next to her, sticking his hands in his pockets. He'd forgotten his gloves.

"You like winter in the city? You're even stranger than I remember," he said. She wrapped her arm through his and shrugged.

"The alternative is hot, humid, touristy summer," she said. "What's not to love about winter?"

"How about New Year's Eve in Times Square?"

She laughed. "Point taken, but I still think winter here is beautiful. Things seem like they slow down just a little bit."

"That's just people on the sidewalk," he replied.

"Have you always been this cynical and I've just never noticed it?" They walked down the stairs that led to the rink itself. Onlookers stood at the railing, holding steaming paper cups of cocoa while skaters danced across the ice - some more gracefully than others. Rafael looked around, and then gestured to the beverage hut situated just underneath the bridge.

"Do you want to get something warm to drink?" He asked.

"Well, I certainly don't want an iced coffee," she replied. He smiled. He liked that she teased him. After they got their cocoa, Lauren led them back to the edge of the rink. He kept one hand in his pocket and took a sip of his drink. "Isn't it too hot?" She asked.

"After all the years I've spent downing fresh lattes in thirty seconds before court, I'm pretty sure I could swallow lava by the gallon at this point." Every time she laughed, Rafael felt like he was hearing it for the first time. He wasn't used to making someone laugh like that.

"So the best part of being here is people watching. Like, check those two out," she said, pointing out across the ice at a teenage couple. The boy was hanging onto the edge of the rink, and the girl was holding onto one of his hands, trying to coax him away. "First date. Guaranteed. They were supposed to have dinner, but she wanted to change plans at the last minute. And he wants to get laid, so… plans changed."

"What? How do you know that?"

"I don't," she said. "I'm making it up. I like making up stories about people I don't know."

He was puzzled. "Why?"

"Because my life is decidedly boring, and I like to live vicariously," she replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He laughed in disbelief, but then thought about it for a second. As a prosecutor, he followed the evidence to a logical conclusion. He had to use the facts to present a case. The defense attorneys were always the ones who made up the stories. He never got to. At least here, it was harmless. Victimless. He looked around.

"What about her?" He gestured to an older woman, sitting on a park bench just behind them. She was wrapped in a cashmere scarf, reading a book. Every so often, she glanced around her, and then back down.

"Well?" Lauren asked, sipping her drink. "What about her?"

He furrowed his brow. "She… isn't here with anyone?"

Lauren smiled, encouraging him. "Go on."

He didn't know where to go from there. This was harder than he thought it would be. "I could never do defense work," he said.

"Come on," she said, and nudged him with her elbow. "You can think of something. Use that wit I like so much."

This was frustrating. He felt unprepared.

"Use the facts," she continued. "And then just make inferences."

"Okay," he said, trying to look at the woman without making it seem like he was looking at her. "Um… she brings a book so that no one will talk to her."

"Why doesn't she want anyone to talk to her?" Lauren squinted a little at him, as if she were trying to read his thoughts. The woman lifted her eyes to meet his. She looked younger than she really was.

"She's waiting for her lover," he said, finally. He noticed a wedding band on her hand. "But she's married, so she's trying to be discreet. I bet he's younger, too."

He turned to Lauren. She had an impressed expression on her face. "Well, that was unexpected," she said. "But good, for your first time."

"There's a joke there somewhere," he said. The lights reflected off of the ice, glinting against the metal blades of the skates. The wind had died down just a bit, and the crowd of people generated enough heat to at least make the temperature bearable.

"So, are we going to talk about The Thing?" She asked.

"The Thing?"

"Your little announcement this week," she replied. "I mean, it's going to change your life a little, isn't it?"

"I would be surprised if it didn't," he said. "Then again, I'm really only campaigning for a job I already have, just at a higher level."

"Yeah, but come on. The District Attorney hardly ever actually prosecutes anything."

"So?"

"Won't you miss it? The trials, the cross-examining, being in the middle of it?"

"Maybe," he said. "But I need to do this for now."

"Why?" She asked. "I'm not saying you shouldn't, mind you, but why do you want to?"

"Have you ever met John Buchanan?"

She shook her head. "No, but I saw his announcement the other day. Seems like kind of an ass."

"He IS kind of an ass," Rafael replied. "And more than that, he's dangerous."

"Dangerous how?"

He sighed and leaned on the rail, folding his hands. "Let me give you an idea of the kind of lawyer John Buchanan is. A few years ago, I prosecuted three Coast Guard officers who gang-raped a female officer. She was beaten, choked, and violently assaulted. She said she didn't resist, because it was military protocol not to. John Buchanan turned that around and said she wasn't following protocol when she got drunk and made out with these three upstanding young men at the bar, and all but called her a slut on the stand."

Lauren looked stricken. "He's like every defense attorney cliche, and that's coming from someone who works with defense attorneys on a daily basis."

"You can see why I don't want this guy working in my office," he said.

"And I can see why you don't want to work under him. If it were me, I'd probably end up a murder defendant. But…" She hesitated.

"But?"

"But aren't you worried about, you know, your personal life? These campaigns aren't just about politics anymore."

He shrugged. "Thankfully, I don't have much of a personal life, so it really doesn't matter much."

"Hm," she said, staring at the ice a little distantly. They stood in silence for a little while. Then, her face brightened. "Oh, wow, look at her!" She pointed to a young girl, maybe nine or ten, twirling in circles. Her long, blonde hair spun with her, giving her the appearance of a young lioness.

"She's very good," Rafael said. The girl launched into a double loop, and landed in perfect form on the ice. He raised his eyebrows. "Okay, I take that back, she's great."

"I can keep my balance on the ice, but I could never do that," she said. "I wish I were that talented."

"Well, then you're already a step ahead of me," he said. "I would make a total ass of myself."

"Do you ever think about having kids?" She asked the question as nonchalantly as she might ask what he wanted for dinner, but when he looked at her, she was still watching the girl on the ice. For a second, he thought he saw something resembling sadness on her face.

"I guess I haven't thought about it," he said. "I'm forty-two years old now. It seems like it's a little late."

"Biological clock ticking, is it?" She half-smiled at him. "You're a man. Men always have time. Hugh Hefner had kids when he was in his late sixties."

"Oh, there's someone to model my life after," he replied. "I don't know. I didn't exactly have a great role model as a father… as you're aware."

"People can be different than their parents," she said.

"I know," he said. "Besides, there's never been someone I'd consider it with."

At that, she turned toward him and leaned on the rail. "When's the last time you were in a relationship?"

"What qualifies as a relationship?"

She thought for a second. "Let's say… the last time someone had a key to your apartment."

"My mother has a key to my apartment," he said.

"You're deflecting," she replied. "Come on, what're you hiding?"

"There's nothing to hide." She stared at him, impassive. "No, literally, there's nothing to hide. I've never actually given anyone a key to my apartment." He tossed his now-empty cup into the nearest trash can.

"This isn't like a 40-year-old-virgin thing, is it?" As soon as she said it, her hand flew to her mouth. "Jesus, I really have no filter, I'm sorry-"

He started laughing and took her hand from her lips. "You know, I have to wonder what people would be saying about us if they're playing the same game we were," he said.

She looked upward, thinking. "Hmmm. Probably that we're both really stupid for not wearing gloves." She put their joined hands in one of his coat pockets.

"They'd probably say that I'm trying way too hard not to be a nervous wreck around you," he said, leaning in just a little closer.

"Yeah, I could see that," she said, leaning in just a little bit. "They might think I'm a teacher. I get that a lot."

"Oooh, now THAT gives me ideas," he said with a wink. "Maybe they think I'm the principal, and we're having an illicit affair."

"What is with you and the illicit affairs tonight?"

"I blame you," he said. He pulled her closer to him. "I can tell you what else they're thinking."

"What's that?" She asked, knowing perfectly well what was happening as he leaned forward, his breath warm on her face.

"They're probably thinking I'm about to kiss you," he said.

"They'd probably be right," she said, getting the words out of her mouth just before he placed his lips to hers. They were deliciously warm, cutting through the bitterly cold air like a razor blade. She was taken back to a place in high school, where she'd imagined this moment over and over again in her diary, when she'd been trying to escape the reality of her life. It never occurred to her back then that it would happen over two decades later.

It had been years since Rafael had kissed anyone, much less in a public place. He wasn't accustomed to this at all. But the minute he pulled Lauren to him, he felt the way he did halfway through a closing argument; all the nerves fell away and he lived in the moment. The buzz of the crowd barely registered. He forgot for a second that they were in the most crowded park in the country. There would be time for him to worry about the campaign, about what to tell Eli, about the logic of all of this - tomorrow. All that mattered to him that minute was that Lauren's free hand was around his neck, playing with the hair on the nape of it, that he was kissing her, and, most of all, that she was kissing him back.

Chapter Text

"You are in way too good a mood for a politician," Marissa said as Rafael strolled past her on Monday morning, smiling a ridiculous smile as he said hello. "You need to be way more pissed off." She stood up and followed him into his office, carrying the latest stack of intake files with her.

"Bill De Blasio doesn't seem angry," he said, taking the files from her. "What do we have?"

"Bill De Blasio eats his pizza with a fork," she replied. "Nothing special. Flasher in the park, a couple muggings, stalking."

"Eli should be happy. I can plead these out," he said.

"Speaking of which, he should be coming by later today," she said, checking her watch. "Around noon, I think."

"Oh, Marissa, can you stall him? I really don't have time til tomorrow, and-"

"No, you can't stall him," Eli said as he plowed into the room. Marissa spun around.

"Excuse me, you said noon," she said.

"Well, I lied," he replied. "Rafael, we need to discuss the gay thing."

"The gay thing?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," Eli said, handing Rafael a newspaper. It was the Post, a tabloid known more for its attention-grabbing headlines than for fact-checking. The article was splashed across the third page. It was entitled "Closet Case."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Rafael said dismissively. "This is the Post. No one takes them seriously."

"Unfortunately, it has a large readership," Eli said, "and despite its reputation, interesting gossip is more memorable to people than boring truths."

Rafael glanced through the article. It was much of the same stuff he'd heard for years. There were insinuations based on his wardrobe, of course, but now they were questioning the charities he gave to (as Eli said they would), along with the number of cases that had LGBT victims. That, particularly, pissed him off. It was one thing to attack him; there was no need to go after the victims.

"I'm the A.D.A. for the Special Victims Unit. Do they not understand the definition of SPECIAL VICTIMS?" Over by the coffee maker, Marissa snorted.

"It gets worse," Eli said, "but I don't want you to panic over this, okay?" He whipped out his phone and typed something. Then, he handed it to Rafael. John Buchanan appeared on the screen, talking to a group of reporters.

"I have no problem with my opponent's sexual orientation. If he's gay, he's gay, and that's all there is to it," he said. "But if he is ashamed of it, if he is hiding it, then what else may he be hiding?"

Rafael rolled his eyes. It wasn't surprising. Eli didn't even have to tell him that Buchanan's campaign had been behind the Post article.

"He was asked at a police union luncheon if he had any comment on the article," Eli said. "It's transparent, really."

"As you said, we saw this coming. So just say I'm not," Rafael replied. This seemed like a relatively easy fix. He sat back down at the desk and started to work.

"No, Mr. Barba, you don't get it. You can't just say you're not gay." Both Rafael and Eli looked at Marissa, each for their own reasons. "What? This happened with Frank Prady - remember, Dad?"

"Who's Frank Prady?" Rafael asked.

"He ran against Alicia in her campaign for State's Attorney," Eli said, still staring at Marissa. "And yes, I remember, which is why I know we can't just say he isn't gay."

"Well, what's your plan, then?" Marissa asked. "Prady didn't respond, and he lost. But you know if we say he's not gay, we'll lose the gay vote."

"You two DO realize I am actually in the room, right?" Rafael's eyes darted between his campaign manager and his assistant. It was like watching a tennis match.

"First, I'm going to have some 'plants' tweet insinuations about your heterosexual dating life," Eli said, typing away at his phone. "Are there any women we can link you with in the past? Preferably someone who does charity work."

"There's a woman NOW who you could link me with," Rafael said. Eli's head snapped up.

"We need to discuss that, too," he said. "How serious is it? It's been a week and I haven't gotten my background check back, MARISSA…"

"Hey, you asked Nora to do that," she said, holding up her hands. "I just fix the copier, remember?"

"Look, we've been dating for a couple weeks now," Rafael interrupted, "and no one's noticed. We've been discreet. Mostly movie nights and takeout at my place or hers," Rafael said. "So just use her. It's going to come out sooner or later. I'll talk to her about it when I see her on Friday."

"Uh, not until I get my background check back," Eli said. "And even then, they could just say she's a cover. I need past girlfriends to corroborate any current hint of your heterosexuality."

"Oh, come on, Dad," Marissa said. "What do you think you're going to find in her background? She's a LAWYER."

"I'll consider it, but ONLY once we get all the pertinent information. And please," Eli said, "continue to keep this relationship discreet until we can decide how and if we want to reveal it to the public."

"Excuse me, 'if' we want to reveal it?"

"Well, I'm just saying, maybe you two will end up deciding that you're going in different directions, and then this is a non-issue-"

Marissa rolled her eyes. "Way to be subtle, Dad."

"Look, all I'm saying is that we need a way to say you aren't gay without offending your gay base."

"Let me ask you something," Rafael said. "Why CAN'T we just not respond and let people think what they want?" he looked at the files on his desk. He had to get the stalker arraigned in three days and this meeting was about the state of his sexuality. Ridiculous, he thought.

"The problem is, Buchanan isn't saying that being gay is the problem. He's saying that YOU think being gay is the problem. He's saying that you're lying about your sexuality - and, by implication, that you would lie about your politics - and he's saying you're ashamed of your homosexuality, which will alienate the gay community, and we need their votes. So, you have to address it without making it seem like being called gay is an insult."

Rafael squeezed the bridge of his nose. "So, besides the tweets, what do you suggest?"

"Well, first off, you are going to the PFLAG Straight for Equality Gala on the 18th," he said. "I've pulled some strings and you'll be introducing Caitlyn Jenner."

"Oh, cool, I want to go!" Marissa said. Eli ignored her.

"The Mayor will also be there, as will several LGBT celebrities, as you might expect. But it is explicitly billed as a PFLAG event, so the idea is that you're a FRIEND of the gay community without actually being PART of the gay community."

"And am I bringing a date to this event?"

"I said I want to go!" Marissa repeated.

"Oh, that's what we need. 'District Attorney candidate Rafael Barba takes 25-year-old assistant to gala.' I want to prove he's not gay, not that he's having an affair with a child."

"Hey!" She glared at him.

"We'll get you an appropriate date. One who's been vetted properly," Eli said.

"That'll go over well with Lauren," Rafael replied.

"She's just going to have to understand. This is how this goes," Eli snapped. "You don't always get to do the easy thing anymore, okay?"

"What about Nora?" Marissa asked.

"What?" Eli spun around. "What about Nora?"

"She could be his date. She's pre-vetted. She's harmless. She's closer to his age than I am, so there's no chance of a scandal there. And," Marissa added, "you can just tell Lauren that she's Dad's assistant and she's helping you at the event."

"No, that won't work," Eli said quickly.

"Why not? Sounds perfect to me," Rafael said.

"Because…" Eli racked his brain for a reason. He didn't want Nora exposed to the press, but he couldn't just say THAT. Meanwhile, Rafael and Marissa looked at him expectantly.

"Well, Dad?" Marissa seemed to be withholding a smirk. Suddenly, it came to him.

"Because I'll need her to assist ME at the event," he said triumphantly.

"Oh, don't be silly, Dad," Marissa said. "I'll play your assistant for that night."

"That's ridiculous," he replied. "What if Rafael needs something?"

"Does that mean I'm going?"

"Fine," Eli said, "you can go, but you'll be on your best behavior and you won't chase down Matt Bomer. And you're not going as anyone's date. I need Nora with me, and Rafael will need someone they can write about without digging too much into."

"Come on, I've been doing this for other people long enough. I think I can do it for my own father for one night. It'll give us some nice bonding time!" She raised an eyebrow. "Unless, of course, there's some OTHER reason you don't want Nora to do it?" This time, she was DEFINITELY smirking.

"Okay, it's settled then," Rafael said. "I'll take Nora, you bring Marissa. Now, if you don't mind, Eli, I have work to do."

"Fine," Eli said, defeated, "but please, make sure you clear some time to go over the prepared introduction - which should be in your inbox this afternoon - and also, be at least three hours early for the event for press time and photos-"

"Marissa, can you please take this file down to Charlie on twelve, and take your father with you while you're at it?" Eli sucked in his cheeks and followed his daughter out of Rafael's office.

Once the door was closed, Rafael took the flasher file to his couch and sank down onto it. The guy was your typical Central Park weirdo - opening his fly and taking out his penis in front of several women, a few teenagers, and, unfortunately for him, Amanda Rollins, who happened to be walking her dog at the time. While he was reviewing the evidence, it occurred to Rafael that Rollins had been the one to initially arrest William Lewis for, of all things, flashing in Central Park. Even weirder to him now was that it hadn't been far from Wollman Rink.


She was crying. She never cried. But after twenty-four hours of vodka, beatings, burns, and sleeping pills combined with sleep deprivation, she had finally, finally broken. William Lewis paced between where Rafael sat and Olivia lay. The gun was still in his hand.

"So, the question is, what to do with the two of you?" That calm, maniacal grin was plastered on his face. Rafael's head hurt from where Lewis had hit him with the gun, and his wrists burned from the cuffs around them. Lewis had removed the tape from his mouth, but all the usually-mouthy counselor could do was look helplessly at Olivia.

"What do you think, Olivia?" Lewis looked back and forth between them. "How can we make this more interesting?" He paused, considering his options. Then, he pulled the handcuff key from his pocket and put the gun on the table next to the window. He crouched down and stared Rafael directly in the eyes. Rafael did his best not to show any fear, but he was sure Lewis could see right through him.

"You don't have to-"

"Stop talking. You listen to me now, Mr. Barba," Lewis said, so quietly it was menacing. He put the key into the cuffs, but before he turned it, he leaned into Rafael's ear and whispered, "If you move? She dies."

Rafael glanced up at the gun on the table. Could he make it there before Lewis?

"I'm not joking, Mr. Barba," Lewis said, apparently sensing Rafael's thoughts. "You're going to sit here quietly, like a good little boy, or Olivia over there is going to eat her gun."

Rafael looked past him toward Olivia. She was giving him that same, pleading look, tears running down her cheeks. He could see what she wanted to say: please. Lewis clicked open the cuffs and, instinctively, Rafael brought his hands forward, rubbing the sore spots on his wrists, and then immediately felt guilty: Olivia was still cuffed to the headboard. Lewis smiled again. He stood back up, grabbed the gun, and walked back toward Olivia. Then, he climbed on top of her. He had disposed of all but her underwear hours ago. With his free hand, he unzipped his own pants, and yanked her last remaining piece of clothing away, along with her dignity… all while Rafael watched helplessly.


"Mr. Barba, are you okay?" Marissa was standing over him, shaking him by the shoulder. Her brow was furrowed and her eyes narrowed on his face.

"Damn," he said, sitting up and blinking a few times. "That's how boring that file was." Though he tried to play it off with humor, Marissa had spent too much time in the company of men who lied for a living to be fooled.

"Then why were you saying you were sorry you didn't get him the first time?" She sat down next to him. "Come on, Mr. Barba. I've worked for you for over a year, and by the time this campaign is done, I'm going to learn all your dirty secrets. You might as well tell me."

He wasn't really accustomed to talking about things like this. The only people he ever shared them with were his mother and Olivia, and he couldn't bring himself to talk about this particular thing even with them. He felt that no one should have to bear this burden with him. He sighed and rubbed his face.

"No, it's all right," he said. "It was just a bad dream. You have bad dreams, right?"

"Yeah, but mine usually involve Hannibal Lecter or something," she said, standing up to leave. "I can take a hint, but at least let me get you some milk."

He smiled. "Do you remember the first time you offered me milk?"

"Yeah, you were yelling at Sonny and I thought you were going to have an aneurysm."

"Marissa?"

"Yeah?" She hung onto the doorframe, lingering.

"Remember when you said you were afraid you were becoming too much like your Dad?"

"Yeah," she said again, avoiding eye contact.

"I wouldn't worry about that," he said, half-grinning. "I can't imagine Eli ever takes hints."

She smiled at him, a genuinely happy smile that she rarely showed. "He doesn't get people milk either."

Once she left the room, he sat back against the sofa. He really thought sometimes that he should see someone about these dreams, but right now was not the time to do it. He could see the newspaper headlines already. So, he got up and sat back at his desk, trying to focus instead on the stalking case. After a few minutes, he noticed the light on his Blackberry was flashing. He picked it up and saw a new text from Lauren.

How are you?
He furrowed his brow. It wasn't like her to be so generic, at least not in the last two weeks. Most of their texts had been at the very least flirtatious, if not bordering on obscene.

Long day, and it's only 11:00. So, not a total loss yet. How are you?

The dreaded three words came a few minutes later, words that even he, with precious little dating experience, knew to be the sign of a sinking ship: Can we talk?


"Oh, this is good," Eli said, reviewing the contents of the folder the redheaded intern had handed him a few moments earlier. "This is too good. We're sure this is reliable?"

"Completely, sir," the intern said. "We have a contact in the NYPD who fed it to us."

"Who's the contact?"

"Anonymous, of course," he replied. "He - I mean, THEY - insisted on it."

"You really need to get a better handle on what 'anonymous' means," Eli said. "Still, this is good. What's your name?"

"Shawn," he said. "Shawn Seagram."

"Sounds like a West Wing character," Eli said. "Okay, keep this up. You might be the one useful intern we have." Shawn scurried out of the room, just as Nora walked in.

"You rang?"

"I did," Eli said, standing up. "Where is the background research on Rafael's girlfriend?"

"Still out," Nora said. "You wanted it to be thorough, didn't you?"

"This isn't helping calm my nerves about that situation, Nora." He was barking. She hated when he barked.

"Do you want it done fast or do you want it done right, Eli?" She leaned on one hip, crossed her arms, and raised an eyebrow. He barely noticed.

"I want my candidate to be safe," he said. "So call and find out what the investigators are doing."

"And the magic word is…"

"Excuse me?"

"Nope, that's not it," she said. "Try again."

"Damnit, Nora! I'm not kidding!"

"Neither am I," she replied. "I told you when I came out here that you weren't going to treat me the way you used to, Eli." Her dark eyes flashed with cool defiance.

"Is this about me volunteering you for the PFLAG gala? Because, really, that was Marissa's idea, and-"

"Oh, yeah, I'm really upset about getting to wear a new dress and meet Billy Porter," she said. "No, Eli, this is about the fact that when you want me to do something - when you want ANYONE to do something - you need to use the words 'please' and 'thank you.' You can use other words, so use those, too."

Eli stared at her as if she had grown a second head. He stiffened and raised his chin up a bit. "I'm still your boss. I still give you a paycheck."

"No, Eli, I EARN a paycheck, and I'm still a human," she said. "Honestly, what is so hard about those words for you?"

"Nothing," he said. Then, grimacing, he continued, "PLEASE find out what the hell is taking those investigators so long."

She smiled, satisfied. "Of course. I'm happy to, Eli."

He gritted his teeth and nodded. "So, next order of business. I need you to somehow let this-" He handed her the file of paperwork from the intern - "information leak to the PAC without it getting back to us, but only when I give you the go-ahead." She held the file as though he had just coughed on it.

"Do I even want to know what's in here?"

"Probably not," he said. "But that's why I'm telling you to hold it until I tell you otherwise."

She eyed him suspiciously, but started out of the room. "Okay. I'll handle it."

"Not until I say so!" He called after her. "NORA!"

"I said I'll handle it, Eli," she called back. Then, as she walked down the hallway, she mumbled under her breath. "You taught me well."


"I refuse to believe you don't cook every night." Lauren leaned on her kitchen counter looking into the kitchen and sipped her glass of Chianti. "It smells too amazing in here for that to be true."

"I assure you, my trash is full of takeout containers," Rafael replied, tossing the sliced plantains into the simmering oil. "This is basically one of the only things I know how to cook. Thankfully I'm pretty good at it."

"Are you sure I can't do anything to help?" She walked around the counter, wrapped her arms around his waist, and rested her chin on his shoulder. He didn't even flinch. The plantains were beginning to brown and there was only a short time left on the pork.

"You can stop trying to distract me," he said with a smile. "I'm just glad one of us has a kitchen conducive to cooking."

"I have very few requirements in housing, but a decent sized kitchen is non-negotiable," she said, unwrapping him from her embrace. She refilled her glass and said, "I was really lucky to get this place, too. The last tenant left on no notice, and they gave me - or should I say, I negotiated - a great deal on it."

"I would love to have a place like this, but as you may have noticed, most of my government salary is spent on suits."

"And suspenders. And ties."

"Don't forget the socks," he said, tossing the pan a few times. "I should really have an entire closet for accessories."

She laughed. "I know women with shoe closets. So why not?"

The timer on the oven started beeping, so Rafael turned the oil on the plantains off and grabbed the potholders. He pulled the roast from the oven and carefully lifted a corner of the foil to check the temperature. Lauren watched him intently from the corner of the kitchen. He was concentrating as hard as he might when reviewing a new case. Once he was satisfied that the roast was done, he re-covered it and put it back in the oven, just to keep it warm. Then, he checked the rice and beans which were simmering on the back burner. When he lifted the lid, the scent of garlic and onions wafted out, and she realized just how hungry she was.

It was a lovely and strange sight to see - this handsome man in her kitchen, sleeves on his (probably expensive) dress shirt rolled up to the elbows, tending to dinner as if he might never cook another meal in his life. She wasn't at all accustomed to relinquishing control of her domain. She hadn't even had a man in her apartment, much less cook an intimate dinner there. But somehow, with Rafael, it felt okay. More than okay, really - it felt right. That's what made it hurt so much.

Suddenly, Rafael interrupted her train of thought. "Would you mind setting the table? If I walk away from this rice right now, it WILL burn. I've learned the hard way." She smiled and began pulling dishes and silverware out, carefully arranging them on the table and hoping she remembered the correct placements. Usually, she used the dining table as a desk; she was more an "eat on the sofa while watching Say Yes to the Dress" type of person. And it wasn't as though she had very many family dinners as a kid.

"Okay, I've managed to complete a dinner without setting the building on fire." He walked each serving platter to the counter, setting up a little buffet. The pork smelled amazing on its own, but the addition of the rice-and-bean mixture and the sweet plantains covered in brown sugar was irresistible. He refilled his own wine glass and, while she served herself, lowered the track lighting just a bit.

"Mood lighting," he explained. When she'd set her plate down, she half-jogged to the living room, flipping the television on. She scrolled through a few settings and found what she was looking for. Suddenly, the soft sounds of Frank Sinatra floated through the apartment. Just a few more minutes of perfection, she thought.

"Mood music," she replied, and he grinned. He grinned a lot these days. It was unlike him, and his coworkers were beginning to notice, though he tried to hide it. They sat down at the table. Rafael picked his wine glass up.

"What should we toast?" He asked. She thought for a moment, and then got a devilish look in her eye.

"To not burning down my apartment," she said. He shook his head in amusement, but clinked his glass against hers.

"So, how was your day?" The pork fell into shreds as she cut into it, so she scooped some up onto her fork. "Oh my God, this is orgasmic," she said, before he could answer her question. He merely shrugged.

"This is basically the one thing I can cook, like I said. My Mom taught me years ago. It's mostly garlic and onions, really. The trick is marinating it overnight."

"You'll have to teach me your ways, Obi-Wan," she said.

"Ah, but if I showed you how to make this, what use would you have for me?"

She didn't reply, but smiled softly. They ate in silence for a few minutes. It had been almost a week since they'd gone to Central Park, and since she'd sent that text on Monday, he'd worried about seeing her again. But when she opened the door to her apartment and he'd kissed her, all the worry fell away. He felt like a teenager again; nervous, but hopeful.

"Oh, since you asked about my day," he said, "Eli - my campaign manager - told me I need a date for an event coming up next weekend. He thinks I'm going to take his assistant, but I'd rather take, well, someone I know."

Lauren shifted in her seat. The moment had presented itself, and there was no turning away from it now. "Oh," she said, not looking up, "I'd have to look at my schedule. I've got a couple big contracts in negotiation, and I don't know when they might be closing."

Rafael's smile faltered just slightly. "I understand," he said. "I know it's sort of short notice. For what it's worth, it could be fun. It's the PFLAG Gala."

"So, it begins," she said.

"What begins?"

"Your campaign, I guess. The first official photo op."

"Well, actually, that was that law school awards ceremony last week," he said, "but I see your point." He kept his head down but his eyes drew upward toward her face. Her brow was furrowed. "Something wrong?"

"Raf," she began, "this is what I wanted to talk to you about." He shifted in his chair uncomfortably. He'd hoped she'd forgotten that she wanted to talk between Monday and today. But she continued, "Why didn't you tell me about the election after we went on that first date?"

He took a sip of wine. "I figured this was coming," he said. "You haven't asked much about the campaign."

"I figured if you wanted me to know anything, you'd have shared it," she replied, a slight twinge in her voice.

"I'm sharing it now," he said. "Eli's handling most of it at this point. My job is just to do what he says. Which, of course, is… new for me. But honestly, there hasn't been much to share." He finally made eye contact. She was giving him a totally blank stare. Then, he set his fork down. "I didn't tell you because I honestly didn't think we would go past that first date."

"Why not?"

"Because," he said, "it seemed too good to be true. No one gets to date the girl they had a crush on in high school."

Suddenly, her face changed from annoyed to pained. She spoke very quietly then. "I'm not the same girl you had a crush on in high school, Raf. I'm not."

"Well, I don't expect you would be, but all the same, I just wasn't expecting… you. Us. This." He gestured to the meal in front of them.

"It's not like I was expecting this either, you know," she said, suddenly rising from her chair. She walked into the living room, where Frank was still serenading them. "I don't know how to do relationships, Raf. I never have."

"Well, I'm no expert, either," he said, and then turned toward her. She had her back to him. He could see that she'd wrapped her arms around herself. He rose from his chair and approached her slowly.

"I know you say you don't think I'm the same girl you used to know," she said, "but I don't believe it. I'm worried that you're going to imagine me into the girlfriend you thought I would be. And I promise you, I can't live up to that image."

He squinted at her slightly and tilted his head. "What does this have to do with the campaign?"

She turned to face him then, but kept her head lowered. "This is a bad idea," she whispered. Her hair fell in her face, and she didn't bother to push it back. She didn't want to look at him.

"How could this be a bad idea?" He asked. "What are you talking about?"

"A campaign means scrutiny, and you know that," she said. "And not just for you. For everyone in your life. Your mom. Your friends. Me."

"Lauren, look at me. Please." He stepped closer, and she looked at him, into the foamy green of his eyes. They were soft and kind, reassuring. Sometimes she couldn't believe that these were the same eyes that could pierce a lying witness through their core. "I won't let this campaign affect you. It doesn't affect you."

She shook her head. "It's not just about me."

"Then you're going to have to help me out, Lauren," he said. Now he was getting frustrated. He crossed his arms and stared at her the way he would a witness who was holding something back from him. "Because I don't know how we went from having a wonderful dinner, which, by the way, is getting cold, to… this."

That pissed her off. "Well, I'm sorry your dinner is getting cold," she snapped. "Go eat, then, since that's clearly what's important to you."

"You know that's not what I meant," he said. The temperature in the room was becoming icy. "I just don't know what's caused this sudden turnaround in your feelings for me."

"I didn't say I didn't have feelings for you!" She ran a hand through her hair, which was falling in her face. "This is a bad idea for everyone, like I said. And I'm sure your campaign manager isn't thrilled about it, either."

"Do you really think I care what Eli thinks about all this?" Rafael asked. "He gets to run the campaign, not my entire life."

"Now you're just being ridiculous," she said sarcastically.

"Oh, I'm ridiculous now!" He smiled in faux-amusement.

"You aren't telling me that you don't realize that the campaign IS your life, are you? And by extension, it'll be my life too." She turned away again. "YOU might not be afraid of revealing your entire life to the world, but-"

"You think that doesn't scare me?" He was agitated enough now that he was talking with his hands. "You know damn well that my past is not something I'm especially comfortable with. And I know that eventually, there are going to be rumors and stories and drama. I know it's going to involve you. It's going to involve everyone in my life! But I won't let it affect US."

"What if I don't want there to BE an us, Rafael?"

"What the hell?"

"You're acting like I don't get a say in this," she said, rounding on him. "Your opinion, despite what you may think, is not the only one that matters. I need time to think. I need to figure out if I can handle a political campaign on top of my own job and our relationship."

"This is insane. We've been fine, more than fine, since we started dating, and now all of a sudden, you don't know how you feel?" He threw up his hands. "You know, maybe this is why you're almost forty years old and still single," he spat. As soon as he said it, he winced. If ever he wished for an undo function for actual conversations, this was it.

He expected her to explode; if it were him, he probably would have. But instead, she calmly walked toward the door. "I think you should go."

"Lauren, I-"

"No, it's fine. But you'd better go."

"I really didn't mean-"

"I heard what you said, and I know what you meant. I need to think about this, about all of this. Please leave," she said, refusing to make eye contact.

He made it as far as the elevator before sending a text. I'm sorry.

He didn't get a reply.


It was 5:30 when she finally knocked. Eli threw open the door so hard it shuddered on its hinges.

"Damnit, Marissa, I told you 5:00," he said. "Where were you?" It was then that he realized it was not Marissa standing at the entrance to his apartment.

"She's on her way," Nora replied as he stared at her in surprise. "She went into the office today and time got away from her."

For a minute, he didn't say anything. Instead, he stared at her, mouth slightly agape. Her dress was short, a deep burgundy with long sleeves. It looked comfortable and would certainly keep her warm in the frigid November evening, but it also made her lanky body look even longer. She had capped it off with dark brown riding boots.

"Nice boots," he finally said. She looked him over.

"Nice tie." It was a muted orange that almost looked bronze in the right light. Seasonal. Appropriate. They stared at each other for a second until Eli raised his eyebrows expectantly. "Anyway, Marissa should be here soon. Do you want me to call the car?"

"It can wait a few. Do you want something to drink?"

"Isn't it usually my job to ask you that?"

"Technically, right now, you're a guest in my house, so it'd be my job."

"Well, then, fine, I'll have a glass of wine."

Eli walked to the liquor cabinet, which Marissa had finished setting up just a few weeks prior (apparently she'd found a bottle of vodka in a box of spare towels and had gotten fed up), and poured two glasses of Shiraz.

"Cheers," he said.

"What are we toasting?" She caught him off guard. Even though he'd raised his glass, it was just something he did out of habit. He didn't actually toast anything.

"Uh…" He tried to look deep in thought while he attempted to come up with something that didn't sound ridiculous. Before he could, though, Nora smiled.

"To looking good," she said. He returned her smile, and clinked his glass against hers. They sipped in silence, but Eli's brain was working overtime. He knew he needed to focus on the event, but his mind kept going back to one question: what was different about Nora tonight? Suddenly, she interrupted his train of thought. "How're your parents?"

"What?" His head snapped up.

"I asked how your parents are," she said. "Is your Dad still teaching?"

"I think he'll probably be at that piano til the day he keels over," he replied. "How's your sister?"

Nora stiffened. Mariah was not a subject she often discussed, save for a few close friends (including Marissa). Eli knew about the situation, but had never actually inquired about her.

"She's okay. Still at her job, surprisingly. Usually, she's back in rehab by this point in her sobriety. So I'm cautiously optimistic."

Eli nodded, but didn't know what else to say. He had never met Nora's sister, and knew only the details he'd heard Nora discuss on the phone with her mother. It wasn't exactly a proper topic of conversation between boss and employee. It occurred to him that he was starting to blur a line. So, he switched back to being all business.

"So… are you prepared to feed Rafael names all evening?" He tried to rein it back in.

"Do you think I learned nothing during my time in the Governor's office?" She asked. "Are we trying to impress anyone in particular tonight?"

"Well, it wouldn't hurt to talk to the director of the New York branch. And the mayor, of course, but since Rafael already has a relationship with him, that probably won't matter as much. A photo op wouldn't hurt, though."

"What about the organizers of Pride? I thought I saw they'd be there."

Eli checked the guest list. "Right," he said. "If you see them, pull Rafael over there."

"Got it," she said. "Hey, listen… thanks for bringing me to this."

"I'm not bringing you," he said, a little too harshly. "I mean, you're Rafael's 'date' tonight. Thanks for agreeing to help him."

She let out a soft laugh. "Did you just thank me for something, unprompted?"

"It's not that I MEAN to be rude," he said. "I just forget to be human sometimes."

Nora looked at him curiously, as though she hadn't seen him before. Her eyes looked darker against the gold eyeshadow that lined them. The air suddenly got thicker.

Just then, Marissa burst through the door, out of breath and pink-cheeked. Her hair, usually flying wildly in her face, was pulled up into a loose bun on top of her head.

"Sorry I'm late, the damn Uber took forever to get here," she said, throwing her coat on the counter. Eli turned around and for a second time that evening, he couldn't breathe, but for an entirely different reason. Just for a moment, he recalled the memory of Marissa dressed up for her senior prom. Then, he remembered he'd only seen her in a photo; he had been tied up with Peter's campaign for State's Attorney and his ex-wife had texted him one. He cleared his throat.

"Well, you look… presentable."

"Girl, don't listen to him, you look fantastic," Nora exclaimed, admiring the asymmetrical side draping on Marissa's black and white, knee-length dress. "Where'd you get it?"

"Rent the Runway," Marissa replied. "Netflix for clothes. Can I get some wine?"

"Absolutely not," Eli said, taking Nora's glass and draining it into the sink along with his own.

"Hey!" Nora said.

"We need to go," he continued, ignoring her. "Rafael will be meeting us at the venue. I tried to make him meet us here so we could go through the guest list, but he insisted he had to get some work done at the office. So Nora's going to-"

"Uh, no he didn't," Marissa said, a confused look on her face.

Eli swung back around. "What? What didn't he do?"

"He didn't come in today," she said.

"How do you know that? Were you there all day?"

"From nine to five," she replied. "He wasn't there. I went in to catch up on some filing that I've been ignoring. I had a hair appointment down there anyway."

"Great," Eli said, throwing up his hands. "Where the hell is he!?"


It felt odd taking a walk in a tuxedo.

Rafael meandered through the groups of tourists packed into Times Square. Although most native New Yorkers hated going near the place, tonight, it was just what he needed. He knew that eventually, he wouldn't be able to take a walk without a reporter following him. But right now, he was grateful for the anonymity the crowds provided.

He checked his watch. He knew he should have been on the carpet already. The hotel was only a few blocks away. He knew Eli was going to be pissed. He'd already lied about his whereabouts for the day, the only way to avoid going through the guest list and discussing strategy. He couldn't very well lie again about why he was late. It wasn't even that he didn't want to deal with Eli specifically. He didn't want to deal with ANYONE.

Winter had come early. The lights from the jumbotrons and hotels bounced off the thin layer of snow on the sidewalks. People were bundled in layers, only taking their gloves off to snap photos on their phones. He liked the cold, the early darkness. It drained some people. But he liked the feeling of everything slowing down. He checked his watch; he should have been at the venue five minutes ago. He was about to be surprised that Eli wasn't calling, when suddenly, his phone rang.

"Yeah, Eli, I'm on my way," he said, without even bothering to check the caller ID.

"You should have been here half an hour ago! Where are you?" There was a dull roar in the background, probably from backstage on the carpet.

"I told you, I had to work-"

"No, you didn't. Marissa ratted you out-"

"I didn't mean to!" She called from the background.

"I'm two blocks away," Rafael replied. "I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Good," Eli said. "We don't have time to prep on the guest list, but Nora will be able to feed you names."

"Alright, where should I find you?"

"Come around to the kitchen entrance on 46th. I'll come get you."

Eli hung up without so much as a goodbye. If nothing else, Rafael appreciated his relative brevity in phone conversations.

For a split second, he had expected it to be Lauren and had gotten shaky with hope. But he'd texted her several times and hadn't heard back; there was no reason she would suddenly call him. He sighed. There was really no reason for him to be so upset, especially not a week later. They had only been dating for a little over two weeks. It wasn't as if they were in a serious relationship. But he had gotten used to their daily texts, the banter. He missed it. Compounding the hurt was the confusion. He'd announced his campaign before their date at the skating rink. She'd kissed him then. Then, a week later, she threw him out of her apartment. This was exactly why he hated interpersonal relationships. He could figure his way out of almost any legal conundrum. The law provided clear answers. But there were no statutes that governed emotions.

Sighing again, he turned up the collar on his overcoat and headed toward the hotel. As he approached the hotel, he realized he had to turn on the same act he put on in front of juries - confident, focused, and up to the job. The difference was, this time he had to convince himself, too.

Chapter Text

"The polls this morning are saying you made gains in the LGBT community, which is huge. The number of voters who care if you're gay are far outweighed by the number of LGBT persons in this city." Eli sounded happier than he had in months.

Rafael held the phone against his ear while he tried to respond to emails. He had a speakerphone, but hated using it. Too many times, people just barged into his office - though that hadn't happened much since Marissa started. "Well, rumors about my sexuality have flown around the office for years," he said. "Single, wears pink suspenders, hasn't hit on his assistant. It doesn't bother me. But the gala rectified the situation?"

"I haven't seen any new articles questioning your sexuality or your candor," Eli said. "By the way, we're firing our own warning shot next week." He said it so casually, Rafael almost didn't catch it.

"What warning shot?" Rafael asked.

"You probably don't want to know," Eli replied. Rafael stopped typing and sat up straight.

"I told you, I don't want to go negative. If we go negative, they'll go negative."

"You don't see that article as negative?"

"I saw that article as buffoonery, which is par for the course with Buchanan," Rafael said. "And you said it yourself - the number of people who will care is outweighed by the number of people who won't. If I'm a voter, I see that article as attacking homosexuality as a whole. Buchanan's comments about me are obviously without merit, as evidenced by my attendance at the STRAIGHT for Equality gala."

"But you're not a voter," Eli said. "You're the candidate. And I'm the campaign manager, and I can tell you that we need to fire back with something that says we won't go soft on future attacks."

"Eli, no." Rafael said, his voice firm. "Find another way. Put out something positive. Appeal to the gay voters. But don't attack him. That's not how I want to win."

There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then, "All right, I've got to get back to work. I'll give you a status update by email on Sunday night."

"Okay," Rafael said. He was about to hang up when he suddenly remembered something he wanted to ask. "Oh, hey, before you go, did you have Thanksgiving dinner plans?"

"Why do you ask?" Eli said, a nervousness to it. "Is there something you're planning on attending-"

"Eli, does it sound like me to volunteer for a press event on Thanksgiving?"

"I- okay, yeah, you're right. What was it you needed?"

"Well, uh," Rafael said, "I just wondered if you wanted to have dinner with me and my Mom. A couple friends, too."

On his end of the line, Eli's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he fumbled for words. "Oh, that. Well. I appreciate the offer, but Marissa and I are-"

"Of course," Rafael replied, sparing Eli the need to explain. "I should have realized. I just thought I'd ask."

"I appreciate it," Eli said. "And, uh, by the way, I'm sorry about… you know, Lauren."

"No you're not."

"Well, kind of, anyway." There was an awkward pause. "Listen, I'm gonna get back to work here. If I don't talk to you before Thursday… Happy Thanksgiving."

"You too." Rafael hung up the phone and stared at it for a minute. He wondered if Eli really had plans, and then if anyone was still capable of telling him the truth.


"Hey, M, over here," Fin called, rising from the table where he and Carisi sat nursing beers. Marissa waved and glanced behind her, motioning for Nora to follow. They pushed through the crowd lining the bar and, when they reached the table, Carisi pulled out a chair next to him.

"How's it going, Sonny?" Marissa smiled at him as the waiter took their drink orders.

"You know you're basically the only person to call him Sonny, right?" Fin said.

"Well, that's his name, isn't it?" Nora asked.

"Actually, it's Dominick," Carisi replied, "but Sonny's what my grandpa called me as a kid. It kinda stuck."

"I like it," Marissa said. "It's cheery." Sonny blushed.

"So, plans for the holiday?" Nora asked Fin.

"Yeah, I'm seeing my son and his mother. Might bring Rollins, too. Her sister's…"

"A mess?" Carisi offered.

"I know all about that," Nora replied absently. Marissa raised her eyebrows. It wasn't like Nora to bring up Mariah unprompted.

"Younger or older?" Fin asked.

"Younger," she replied. "Mariah." She suddenly looked uncomfortable, as if she had just realized what she was talking about.

The waiter brought their drinks and, giving Nora a reprieve, Marissa held hers up. "Happy Thanksgiving, fellow public servants."

They clinked glasses. "So Marissa," Carisi said, "how long's your dad been here?"

"About a year now, actually," she said. "It's just that up til now, our relationship has consisted mostly of me unpacking his apartment and him complaining about it."

"If it weren't for you, his apartment still wouldn't be unpacked," Nora laughed. "I had to unpack every office he's ever worked in, and that's just a room's worth of stuff."

"Not that it's any of my business," Fin said, "but how's he getting along with your boss?"

"Yeah, it can't be easy managing Barba in a campaign," Carisi said. "He's a stubborn son-of-a-"

"You don't know my dad," Marissa said. "He's just as stubborn."

"And twice as irritating," Nora continued. "But he does it because he's an idealist."

"Yeah? I don't get that vibe," Fin said.

"He is," Nora said sadly. "Otherwise, he'd have thrown himself off a bridge years ago. Politics does that to you."

"Well, at least with Barba, he's got someone who's way too uptight to cause him problems," Fin said. "Worst you could say about him is that he spends too much money on suspenders."

"Ah, I don't know, Fin," Carisi said, "I don't think Barba's as uptight as we think he is."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Marissa and Nora both looked straight at him. Fin gave Carisi a sharp glance.

"We saw the pictures from that party you guys went to last week," he replied quickly. "Looked like he finally let loose."

"That's just because we spent most of the night judging what people were wearing," Nora said. "Marissa did all the hard work."

"I didn't see you in the paper," Carisi said to Marissa.

"That's because my dad insisted I blend in," she replied. "I took pictures though!" She pulled out her phone and handed it to Carisi. He glanced through them with a wide smile growing on his face.

"Wow, Marissa, you look really-"

"I may not wear a three piece suit every day," she said, grasping his sleeve lightly, "but I do know how to look appropriately fancy when I need to."

"Nora," Fin interrupted, eyeballing Carisi in amusement, "you heading back to Chicago for the weekend?"

"Probably not," she replied. "I'm not really in the mood to deal with family drama right now, and you know that's all Thanksgiving is."

"And pie," Carisi said. "Don't forget pie."

"Hey, Sonny," Marissa said, standing up. "Speaking of food, let's go order some." Carisi all but jumped out of his chair and followed her toward the packed bar. Nora watched them, sipping her drink.

"Kinda obvious, isn't he?" Fin said absently.

"Oh, just a bit," she replied.

"You got somewhere to go?" Fin asked.

"Sorry?" She looked at him.

"For the holiday. I know you said you're not going back home, but you got somewhere to go?"

"Oh," she said, "not really. I think Marissa is spending the holiday with her father." She was, truthfully, surprised that Marissa hadn't invited her along. Then again, maybe Eli didn't want her there.

"Well, now you do," he said. "No way you're spending Thanksgiving alone in New York."

Nora smiled at him. Fin was grizzled, war-weary, but he was also kind and easy to talk to. Although she missed her mother, spending Thanksgiving with strangers was preferable to spending it talking about Mariah's issues. Holidays were always particularly hard on her sister; their father's ghost lingered in every glass, every gift, every card.

Meanwhile, Carisi and Marissa both leaned against the bar, watching the conversation at their table while waiting for their nachos. "Think they're thinking what I think they're thinking?"

"Nah," she replied. "Nora's taken."

"Boyfriend back in Chicago?"

"Not exactly," she said. "Let's just say Chicago brought her here." Carisi shuffled his feet nervously.

"So… what about you?"

She squinted at him. "What about me?"

"I've known you almost two years now," he said, "and I still don't know why you left a good job in Chicago politics to work as an assistant to some lawyer you don't even know."

"Why'd you go to law school if you've got a good job in law enforcement?" She raised an eyebrow.

"It's hard, you know," he said, "when you catch 'em and you know they're guilty but you see the lawyers negotiate what they did into a little box that fits into a plea deal. I wanted to change that."

"So why didn't you?"

He shrugged. "I think I'm better at catching them. Besides, we got a good one in your boss."

"I'd like to keep him around a while," she said. "Hey, maybe you can take his place when he wins this thing."

They stood in silence for a minute, and then Carisi said, "Hey, you never answered my question."

"What question?"

"Why'd you come here?"

"Change of scenery," she said. "Funny part is, I got exactly what I came to get away from. Politics."

Carisi swallowed hard. "Well, if it means anything, I'm glad you changed the scenery." He brushed his hand along hers.

She looked down and smiled. Their fingers were now barely touching, an innocent implication in the space between.


"We should have brought more than just this," Lucia said. "We all know the scotch is for you."

"Mami, Olivia said her boyfriend likes it too," he replied. "It'll be fine."

"I'm just saying, I could have made a pie." They arrived at Olivia's door, and before Rafael could even knock, she opened it with a smile. Despite having known each other for five years, he still felt awkward in social situations with her - or any of the squad, really. The line between colleagues and friends had blurred years ago, but he was still admittedly uptight about it. Nevertheless, when Olivia had extended the invitation for him and his mother to join her and her boyfriend for the holiday, he was happy to accept.

"Happy Thanksgiving," Olivia said warmly. He leaned in, giving her a slightly stiff hug. Lucia, on the other hand, eagerly kissed Olivia's cheek as if they were family.

"Thank you for having us, Olivia," she said as Olivia stepped to the side. "I told Rafael we should have brought dessert, but-"

"Mom!" Rafael exclaimed. He handed Olivia the bottle of scotch. "I mean, I hope this-"

"This is perfect," Olivia said, holding up her hand in protest. "Ed will be thrilled."

They followed her through the hallway into the living area, where Noah sat on the floor, entranced by a set of Legos until he saw Rafael in the hallway. "Rafi!" The boy clambered to his feet, ran across the floor, and wrapped his arms around Rafael's knees.

"Hi, Noah," Rafael said, patting Noah on the head. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"What do you say, Noah?" Olivia prompted.

"Happy Thanksgiving," he said with a little effort. "Rafi, I helped Mommy decorate cupcakes!"

"You know I love dessert," Rafael said, smiling.

"Come play, Rafi!" Noah always asked him to play. While Rafael always obliged, he just didn't quite know how to interact with children. He sometimes envied Olivia and her easy way with children. He was glad he didn't have many cases involving kids.

"He'll come play in a minute, sweetie," Olivia said. "Hey, Ed! Barba and Lucia are here." From underneath the kitchen counter rose Ed Tucker, Olivia's boyfriend of six months and the former chief of Internal Affairs. He'd retired around the time he and Olivia had begun their relationship. Rafael had never particularly liked him prior to his relationship with Olivia, but she seemed to have softened him. They were a good match.

And, Rafael realized, Ed was good with Noah.

"Rafael, Lucia. Happy Thanksgiving." Ed took their coats to Noah's bedroom and returned a few seconds later. "Can we get you something to drink?"

"I'm sure the counselor would be thrilled to share this with you," Olivia said, handing the bottle to Ed. "Lucia, wine?"

"What the hell, it's a holiday," Lucia replied. Ed poured two glasses of wine for Olivia and Lucia, and then opened the scotch for himself and Rafael.

"Dinner will be done in about half an hour," Olivia said.

"Please, let me help finish it," Lucia said, setting her wine down and walking around to the kitchen.

"Oh, that's not necessary, Lucia," Ed replied. "You're our guest."

"Please," she said, waving him off. "Olivia works hard all day, raising that boy. I know what it's like to be a mostly single mother."

Rafael turned and looked at Ed. "Don't argue with her. Why do you think I get migraines?"

"I heard that," Lucia said, eyeing her son. "Go! Out of the kitchen. Except you, Ed, you can help me." Olivia and Ed exchanged a look, and then she led the way to the living room with Rafael trailing behind. As soon as he set his drink down, Noah grabbed his hand.

"Wanna help me build a castle?" He asked in the barely-intelligible English of a four-year-old. Rafael glanced at Olivia. She smiled encouragingly, as she always did, and he lowered himself to the carpet.

"Legos were one of the few toys I had growing up. Did you know that?" He reached for one of the big grey baseplates and a handful of bricks.

"I didn't," Olivia said.

"Hey, Noah, can you put bricks all around the outside edges?" He showed Noah where he meant, and handed him a couple bricks to start with. "That was before they had these ridiculous pre-configured sets, though. Where's the fun in that?"

"Maybe those are more for adults than kids," Olivia said. "Maybe adults lose their imaginations somewhere along the way."

"I'd like to think I didn't," he said, adding another layer on top of the border that Noah was creating.

"You're good at building something out of nothing," she replied. "Look at half the cases I bring you."

Suddenly, Noah got a look in his eye as if he'd forgotten something terribly important. He stood up and ran off toward his bedroom without a word. Olivia raised her eyebrow.

"Must be important," she said.

"Apparently," he replied, looking over his shoulder. He sat back on the couch and took a sip of scotch. It burned his throat beautifully.

"So, Barba," she said, and then hesitated. "You know, I've never asked. Do you prefer that, or Rafael?"

"I prefer Your Majesty," he said with a grin. "But I've gotten used to you calling me Barba. Most people do."

"What about Lauren?"

He was glad he didn't have his drink in his hand at that moment, because he would have dropped it all over Olivia's sofa. His eyes narrowed.

"How did you-"

"Marissa let it slip a couple weeks ago," she said. "I was looking for you, and she said you were having lunch with your girlfriend. I think she thought I knew. So, what does she call you?"

"Actually, she doesn't call me anything anymore."

Olivia tilted her head. "I'm sorry to hear that. Want to talk about it?"

"Do I ever want to talk about it?" He sighed. "She decided she didn't want to be part of the campaign."

"Ah," Olivia said. "Well, can you really blame her?"

"I told her that it wouldn't affect us," he said.

"Come on, Barba. You're not that stupid."

"That's what she told me," he replied.

"So when she told you she was worried about the campaign, what did you say?"

He looked anywhere but at her. "I said something that, taken out of context, might not sound very good."

"That's lawyer talk for 'I screwed up.' What EXACTLY did you say?"

"Something along the lines of maybe she's single at almost forty years old because she's insane?" He winced saying the words aloud. She slowly nodded.

"I can see how she might be offended by that, yeah," she said. "Did she say what she was worried about?"

"She just kept saying she didn't want the pressure of the campaign," he said.

"Did you ASK why?" It occurred to him that he'd been so accusatory with his questions that maybe Lauren hadn't WANTED to answer. When he didn't respond, Olivia switched topics. "How's the campaign going?"

"Oh, you know," he said, grateful for the change of subject. "Fighting with my campaign manager, trying to field even more calls from reporters than I usually get. At least people have finally stopped questioning my wardrobe choices."

"Well, little victories. Sometimes those matter more than the big ones," she said, raising her eyebrow. Suddenly, Noah came running back into the room. He held out his hand, grasping a piece of paper clumsily between his fingers.

"Rafi, I made you something." Rafael smiled and took the paper from Noah. He opened it to find a crayon drawing of a little boy and what looked like his parents - a man and a woman, holding each of his hands. Next to the mother, though, was another man, dressed in a grey suit, a bright pink tie, and matching suspenders, although the suspenders were colored on the outside of the suit.

"Who is that, Noah?" Olivia asked, although she knew the answer.

"That's Mommy and Ed," he said, pointing to their respective figures. "And that's you, Rafi."

He may not have known what to do with kids, but he knew a compliment when he saw it. He smiled at Noah and ruffled his hair. "Well, now I have something to put on my desk that isn't paperwork," he said. Then he realized his joke was lost on Noah. Olivia smiled.

"Do you remember when you asked me what I'd be doing when I'm eighty-five years old?" Before he could answer, she stood and took Noah's hand. "Come on, little man, let's get you cleaned up before dinner. Barba, you want to help me?"

"Oh, I, uh…" He cleared his throat nervously.

"Actually, Liv, I'll help you," Ed piped up from the kitchen. "Dinner's going to be done in just a few minutes. Rafael, you mind setting the table?" Rafael had never been so grateful for Ed Tucker's existence.

"Sure," she said. Ed followed Olivia to Noah's room while Rafael started spreading plates from their stack in the center of the table.

"Ed seems nice." Lucia came out from the kitchen and started helping him.

"I didn't care much for him when he was with the force, but he's at least tolerable now," Rafael replied.

"She's a good mom."

"Yeah, she is."

"And she did it on her own until a couple months ago?"

"Yeah. She and Ed don't live together, so she's still mostly on her own."

"I don't know if I could have done that," she said.

He stopped setting out the silverware and looked up at her, hands on the back of one of the chairs. "You basically did."

"I did the best I could for you, mijo," she said. She came toward him and put her hand on his cheek. "You know, you could do it too."

"Do what?"

"Be a father."

"Oh, Mom," he said, sighing, "I know you want grandkids. But my schedule, the campaign… you know I couldn't do it, at least not alone."

"You've done everything you ever set your mind to doing, Rafi. And it's not just about me. What are you going to do when I'm gone?"

"That won't be for a long time, Mami," he said.

"Even so. Your abuelita had me. I have you. Who will you have when you're my age?" The words stung. Lauren's face flashed across the back of his eyes.

"Can we just drop it, Mom?" He snapped. "It's Thanksgiving. If we're going to argue over the turkey, I'd rather it be about politics, like normal families."

Lucia didn't flinch. She just smiled sadly at her son, knowing from his reaction that this was a sore spot. "I'm just worried about you, mijo. I want you to be happy."

Olivia and Ed came back into the room, a freshly-cleaned Noah following closely behind. Ed went to the kitchen to pull the turkey out of the oven, while Olivia situated Noah in a chair. She kissed him on the head and went into the kitchen to help Ed.

Rafael kissed his mother on her cheek and took her hand.

"I know, Mami. But I'm happy with the family I have."


To: Rafael Barba (BARBAR .GOV)

From: Eli Gold ( )

Date: Sunday, November 26, 2017, 9:58pm

Subject: Status Update

Rafael,

First, please don't respond to this email. I wouldn't ordinarily write from my personal email, but we're having some problems with the server at the committee office. That said, I don't want you to send me anything that might not be secure.

As promised, here is the status update. Right now, between your personal contributions and the committee, we have over $400,000. Given that we only announced at the beginning of the month, that's not half bad, but Buchanan has the advantage since he announced earlier. He's running somewhere around the million dollar mark, especially because of his big-law ties. Some of the firms are supporting you. Schuman & Schuman gave the campaign maximum because they represent several members of the State legislature. Their clients want to look tough on crime, so of course they have to look tough on crime as well. You're also getting donations from people who've been crime victims and their family members, which is not surprising. They're small donations, but they add up quickly.

Now, obviously the outgoing District Attorney's supporters will be more likely to support someone who's already in-house, but they may need some encouragement. So, I've got you down for speeches with the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club (December 4), the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (December 11), and the Sonia Sotomayor Democratic Club (December 13). And don't forget the Women's Society speech tomorrow. Obviously we're going for the minority vote. We'll also have a few holiday parties to attend, but I'll try to keep those to a minimum. I know you hate those type of functions.

Lastly, please be prepared to receive phone calls from the press this week. Do not answer them; I will let you know when we want to comment. Of course, if you have any questions, let me know. I'll be in touch.

Best,

Eli


 

It started with a tiny article the day before Thanksgiving, one that no one but Eli and his team noticed. By Monday, Rafael's phone started ringing. He had turned his cell off for the holiday, so he was still wading through the five dozen emails he'd come back to.

"Barba," he said, his customary greeting when he answered his office line.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Barba, this is Glenn Danbury from the Times."

"Yeah, I have no comment on the Lester trial," he said. "That's not my case." He typed a quick response to an email from Olivia thanking him and his mother for coming to dinner.

"No, it's not about that," the reporter said. "It's about the DUIs."

Rafael stopped typing. "The-I'm sorry, what?"

"John Buchanan's DUIs. I've been trying to get in touch with you, but-"

Rafael slammed the phone down, then pulled out his cell. He dialed Eli's number, but it went to voicemail. So, he yelled toward the door. "MARISSA!"

Marissa came running into the room, breathless. "I just got a call from a reporter looking for you."

"Color me surprised," he said. "I can't get in touch with your dad. Do you know where he is?"

"I haven't seen him since Thanksgiving night," she said. "He said he had to work, and- oh, hell. Don't tell me he didn't tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"Maybe you should talk to him," she said cautiously. "I can try to get him on the phone."

"Marissa," he said, "you said you would tell me the truth. So what do you know?"

She sighed heavily. "Somehow it got out over the holiday that John Buchanan had three DUIs in the last four years."

Rafael's eyes narrowed. "And I know the leak, don't I?" When Marissa didn't answer, he said, "Find him."

She hurried out of the room and went back to her desk. She dialed her father's number on the office line; no answer. So then she tried on her cell. Groaning, she resorted to a text message: He knows. And he's pissed.

"I'm trying to reach him," she yelled out to Rafael as another phone call came in. "Rafael Barba's office."

"Yes, my name is Heath Angers, calling from the Ledger, and-"

"No comment," she said and hung up the phone. Suddenly, a text buzzed her phone. She opened it, simultaneously hoping it was her father and dreading it. Instead, it was from Sonny.

Hey, so, about Wednesday night…

She smiled. He was cute when he was playing dumb.

Want to get a drink this Friday? Around 9, same place? She sent the message off, knowing the answer already. Two seconds later, her phone buzzed again. This time, she expected it to be Sonny, but instead, it was her father.

I suspected he would be. That's why I warned him about the phone calls last night.

She raised an eyebrow. What warning? It's been insane here. The phones are ringing off the hook.

He didn't respond, but Rafael's office phone started to ring instead.

"I've told everyone else, no comm-" There was a pause. "What the HELL is going on, Eli?" At the sound of her father's name, Marissa walked to the half-closed door and listened quietly.

"I sent you an email last night," Eli said. "You said you told everyone no comment?"

"Well, I didn't get any email. And of course I said no comment, since I don't know the details of what I'm commenting on," he snapped. "What did you do?"

"You didn't watch the news at all this weekend?"

"Didn't have time," he said. "After the holiday, I had to catch up on some work, and I didn't check my email. I figured if anything were that important, someone would pick up the phone. Apparently, I was wrong."

On her desk, Marissa's phone buzzed again. She knew it was Sonny this time, but elected to ignore it for the time being.

"Buchanan's criminal records were released over the holiday," Eli said. "And, of course, reporters are calling you to ask for your comment on them."

"I'm aware of this," Rafael said. His breath came a little quicker. "And this just happens to get leaked two days after I specifically told you NOT to play dirty?"

"Let's not have this conversation on the phone," Eli said.

"What, you think they have my office bugged?"

"I'm speaking from experience when I say you have no idea what 'they' are monitoring at any given time. I can be over in half an hour."

"Do that," Rafael said. He threw the phone down and put his head in his hands. Marissa knocked and crept into the room.

"Everything okay?"

"Since I assume you were listening the whole time, I don't think you need to ask," he said, without looking up.

"Guilty as charged," she said. "So he didn't tell you he was going to do this?"

"Oh, he told me," Rafael said. "It's just that I told him NOT to, and he ignored me completely."

"Sounds exactly like him," she said, flopping down into a chair. "So what're you going to do?"

"Well, for starters, I'm going to fire your father," he said. When Marissa looked horrified, he smirked. "I'm kidding, Marissa. I'm not going to fire him. But he needs to be clear that I'm the candidate and he's the campaign manager and I call the shots here."

She didn't say anything, but the look on her face told him she wanted to. Before he could push for an answer, they heard the main door open. "Barba, you here?"

"In here," Rafael replied. Amaro and Olivia walked through the door. "Not even noon on a Monday and I'm getting a migraine already."

"Nice to see you too, Barba," Olivia said. "How are you, Marissa?"

"I'm fine," Marissa replied, rising from her chair. "Coffee, guys? It's fresh."

"Nah, we're good," Amaro said. "Thanks, though. Oh, by the way, Carisi said to tell you Friday's fine." Rafael raised an eyebrow, and Marissa's face flushed.

"Thanks," she said, and then abruptly showed herself out without another word. Once she was gone, Rafael sat back in his chair and put his feet on his desk.

"Everything okay?" Olivia asked.

"Oh, just wonderful," he said. The phone rang again; he ignored it.

"You need to get that?" Amaro asked.

"No. But I do need to get through a stack of files, plus I have a speech at the Democratic Women's Society at two, so if we could move this along?"

"Look, we just need a warrant," Olivia said. "We've got another frat party gone wrong at Tau Omega."

Rafael groaned. "You've got to be kidding me. Haven't they shut that fraternity down yet?"

"Maybe you can put that on your platform," Amaro muttered, shooting Rafael a look. Rafael shot one right back.

"Anyway, we need to search the house," Olivia said.

"You know the drill," Rafael said. "Give Marissa what you need. I'll have it couriered over by the end of the day." Olivia looked at Amaro, who nodded and went to talk to Marissa. "Always a ray of sunshine, that one."

"He's just worried about you."

"I'm sure," he replied, a salty note in his voice. "Anything else, before I bury myself in plea bargains all day?"

"Yeah, one other thing," Olivia said, suddenly uncomfortable. "Those DUI records on Buchanan…"

"I know it wasn't your squad," he said. "It's not even in your purview."

"No, it's not that," she replied. "Did your campaign leak them?"

One of the unfortunate side effects of his job was that he learned the most effective ways to lie. He didn't even blink. "No."

Olivia squinted at him, searching for any hint of deception. Apparently satisfied, she nodded. "I'm sorry. I had to ask."

"I assume IAB is pissed."

"When ISN'T IAB pissed?" She sighed. "Dodds is just on my ass about it. He knows I didn't leak anything, that no one in my squad did. But he also knows about our-"

"Friendship," he finished.

"Yes, our friendship. NYPD just can't be seen as biased. They're just worried about-"

"Perception. I know." He stood and crossed the room. "I get it, Liv. I'll make sure Eli knows, too."

"Thanks," she said. "Anyway, I'd better go. I'll expect that warrant later today."

"Of course," he replied, showing her out. Once she and Amaro had gone, he sat back down at his desk, determined to get through his emails in the next hour. As he was deleting a bunch of spam, an email popped up from Eli. The subject was "Status Update." When he opened it, he noticed the send date was Sunday, but it seemed to have gotten stuck in the pipeline somewhere. He laughed ruefully as he read the last paragraph: Be prepared to receive phone calls from the press this week. Winning in politics seemed to be like winning a case: it was all a matter of timing.


As the campaign kicked into high gear, Rafael had realized he needed someone to take some of his cases. Eli agreed, but insisted that none of the cases he unloaded would be high-profile, and certainly not so many that Buchanan could accuse him of not being capable of handling the office. So, Rafael called Joe Thomas, the young prosecutor who Rafael had covered for at arraignment court. Joe had readily agreed to take a few of Rafael's cases; he seemed happy to move from misdemeanors to felonies.

One of the cases Rafael had given him was a rape of a prostitute by her pimp, Manny Garcia. Unsurprisingly, Garcia wouldn't admit to the rape, or even to being a pimp, but they had ample evidence of the latter. His general plan involved attracting young girls from broken homes with promises of a secure and loving relationship with him. Then, he would use drugs with them, get them addicted, and turn them out to other men. The case was a little complicated, of course. Rafael had tried and won a case just like it years ago, with more than a little grey hair for his effort. But he had faith in Joe. He was green, but dedicated, and hated men who abused and exploited women - even more so after the birth of his daughter. Besides, when Rafael had handed him the case, Garcia hadn't even retained counsel. He assumed it would just be legal aid.

Unfortunately, the problem with handing off cases was that the cases he had retained all pleaded out by the end of the first week of December. Even the Tau Omega case Olivia had just brought him after Thanksgiving had resulted in a deal. Rafael suspected the defense attorneys all wanted to close cases quickly before the holidays, though they would never admit to it. Eli was happy, of course - it meant Rafael's win/loss record improved, plus it freed him up for press events and holiday galas. Marissa was happy to have fewer files on her desk and less paperwork to push. Marbury was happy that Rafael had made it home before midnight every night that week. The only person who wasn't happy was Rafael.

He was restless. The midday sun cast a rosy glow off the windows that early December afternoon. It bounced off his laptop screen, causing him to shut the blinds behind his desk. The world looked brighter in the winter sometimes.

He paced the room trying to decide whether he should call Joe and tell him he could take some of his cases back. Then, he remembered that Joe was in court on the pimp/prostitute case. Suddenly, he had an idea. What better way to look like you have authority than to look like you were supervising the handling of a case you delegated to a junior ADA? He walked out to Marissa's desk, suddenly full of purpose. She was poring over a tabloid and eating a sandwich.

"What courtroom is Joe Thomas in?"

"Don't you eat lunch anymore?" She asked, typing in a few keys on her computer. "He's in 20B, Judge Armand."

"Excellent," he said, throwing on his suit jacket and tightening his tie.

"Tubular," Marissa replied, a deadpan, as he walked out the door without responding.

He entered the courtroom quietly, ten minutes into Joe's direct examination of the prostitute, whose real name was Jamie King. Her bruises had just barely begun to heal, yellowing at the edges as they faded. She looked put-together, a little bookish, which is exactly how Rafael would have asked her to dress. She also looked totally scared.

"Ms. King, can you tell the jury what happened the night of the assault?"

Jamie shifted slightly. "I was coming back from a…" She seemed to be choosing her words carefully. "…a date. And I got out of his car - my date's, I mean - and when he left…"

She stopped as she caught Garcia's eye, a flash of hesitation crossing her face. Come on, Joe, Rafael thought. Redirect her attention. Then, as if he had read Rafael's thoughts, Joe moved into the line of sight between Jamie and Garcia.

"Ms. King," he gently prompted, "what happened when you got out of the car?"

"I looked for Manny," she said, looking a little less stricken, "but he wasn't there. It was cold and I didn't have a coat, so I was just going to catch the subway home and find him the next day. But when I got halfway down the block, he just came out of nowhere. Knocked me down."

"He? You mean the defendant?"

"Yes," she said. "He dragged me behind one of the buildings, next to a dumpster."

"Did he say anything?"

"He said I was a dumb whore, and accused me of stealing from him. Said I should have known I wouldn't get away with it."

Suddenly, a familiar voice came from the defense table, calling out an objection. Rafael's heart dropped to his stomach. Oh, no.

"Hearsay," John Buchanan said.

"Overruled," replied the judge. "Continue."

"So, Jamie," Joe went on. "What happened next?"

"He slapped me a few times, kept asking me for the money. It was in my bra, but he was hitting me so hard I couldn't get to it. Then, he-"

She stopped for a minute, tears welling in her eyes. It would have been the moment Rafael approached her and offered a break, but Joe took another path. He reached into his inner coat pocket and handed her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and continued.

"He raped me," she said, simply and quietly. John Buchanan had no viable objection to make, so Joe let the words silently fill the room for a minute. Then, he looked at the jury but spoke to Jamie.

"Jamie, did you say no?"

"No," she admitted. "But I tried to push him away. I tried to run, but he caught me. And he was hitting me. I thought the no was implied."

"No further questions." As Joe walked back to the prosecution table, he noticed Rafael sitting in the back of the room. He gave him a questioning look, but Rafael nodded, a sign of a job well done. As he sat back down, Buchanan stood and buttoned his jacket. Rafael was already dreading this cross; he couldn't imagine how Jamie felt.

"Good afternoon, Ms. King."

"Good afternoon."

"I won't ask you to go back over the events as you described them," he said, "but I will ask you to think back farther than that. You are an admitted prostitute, yes?"

"I was," she said. "I'm not anymore."

"But until six months ago, you had sex with men for money."

"Y-yes," she stammered.

"You've had a conviction, in fact, for prostitution." He didn't wait for her to answer. "How many men have you had sex with over the years?"

"Objection, relevance?" Joe said.

"Goes to prove the victim's conviction for prostitution," Buchanan replied.

"She's already admitted to it," Joe said.

"Sustained. Move on, Mr. Buchanan."

Buchanan gave a helpless shrug toward the jury, then walked toward them, hands in his pockets. "Have you and Mr. Garcia ever had sexual relations in the past?"

"Yes, when we first met," she said, looking Buchanan directly in the eye. Obviously, Joe had prepared her for this line of questioning. "But that was before-"

"And were those sexual relations gentle or rough?"

"Objection," Joe said, "the victim's sexual history is not relevant."

"She admitted to having sexual relations with my client," Buchanan said to the judge. "I'm simply asking the nature of those relations."

"Overruled," the judge said, though he was clearly not thrilled to do so. "Please answer the question."

Jamie's eyes steeled. "I guess you would say they were more on the rough side of things," she said.

"So, you had rough sex with my client on previous occasions, and you expected him to know that you didn't want to have rough sex this time?"

"It wasn't the same thing," she said. "He beat me."

"You testified that he hit you, but in your previous sexual encounters with him, he'd slapped you, spanked you, even choked you. Isn't that true?"

"This was different," she said. "He beat me."

"But you didn't say no, and he'd been violent sexually with you in the past, with your consent! How should he have known you didn't want it this time?"

"Objection!" Joe leapt to his feet.

"No further questions," Buchanan said, and with a wave of his hand, he concluded the assault on a woman who'd been beaten enough.

Joe tried to redirect as best he could, but Rafael feared the worst. Buchanan had flustered Jamie King, reducing her to tears but casting doubt on her story just the same. Besides, it was a rare jury that believed a prostitute could be raped. The State rested its case, and the judge announced that closing arguments would begin the next day before adjourning court. Rafael walked directly toward the prosecution table and tapped Joe on the shoulder.

"You okay?" Rafael asked.

"Would you be?"

"We've all had moments like this. You can win them back on closing."

"There's not much to say after that, though, is there?" Joe cast a dark glance toward Buchanan.

"Juries don't like him."

"But they believe him."

"The thing about prosecution," Rafael said, "is that even when you know you're going to lose, you don't let anyone see it. Because if nothing else, the victims need to know that you fought all the way to the end."

"What's your secret?" Joe asked.

At the defense table, Buchanan was laughing with his client, who seemed like a businessman in his muted suit and tie. Rafael supposed that's how Manny Garcia envisioned himself anyway. He looked directly at Joe, lips curling into a cheshire cat grin.

"Conventional wisdom says to try not to alienate the jury by coming across as a dick with an agenda. But if you already know you're going to lose," he said, "then you've got nothing TO lose, do you?"


Joe had taken Rafael's advice to heart during closing arguments. He replaced the gloves with brass knuckles and swung hard at the defense's case. He blew up photos of Jamie's injuries, quoted testimony by the treating physician in the emergency room, and pointed out the fact that Jamie had gone right to the police after the beating - exposing herself to criminal charges for prostitution in the process. But despite two days of closing arguments, the jury came back after only three hours of deliberation: not guilty on all charges.

He'd seen it coming. That's why he'd given Joe the advice he had. If you're going down, go down in a spectacular blaze of glory. At least that way, people don't think you cowered in the face of defeat. And, as he'd said, at least the victim knows they were heard by someone.

Joe was speaking softly with Jamie King, who looked as though a bomb had gone off in her head. This was one of the worst things a prosecutor had to do, Rafael knew: consoling a victim who had put their faith in you. He understood all too well what it was like to feel like you weren't up to your job, that you'd let someone down. Joe put his hand on Jamie's shoulder, and she nodded slowly at what he was saying. When she'd left the courtroom, Rafael approached Joe as he'd done a few days earlier.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I know you did everything you could."

"It still wasn't enough," he said.

"You did exactly what you were supposed to do," Rafael replied. "You fought, and you fought hard. No one could have tried this case better."

"You could have." Rafael shook his head.

"There's a reason I gave you this case," he said. "If anyone had a shot at winning it, you did. But, at the end of the day, the decisions are made by twelve people who you can't control. The outcome isn't always what we'd like, but that doesn't reflect on the job you did."

He saw a hint of understanding flash across Joe's face. Suddenly, he realized that being a supervisor was about more than just delegating work and pushing papers. Maybe he could do this job after all.

Just then, John Buchanan approached the pair of them from across the aisle. "Tough luck, Mr. Thomas," he said. "It's not your fault, though. Mr. Barba here threw you a dog of a case."

"Oh, I don't know, John," Rafael said, deliberately using Buchanan's first name. "Your client seems like the animal to me."

Buchanan simply smirked. "Careful," he said. "Wouldn't want to besmirch an innocent man near the microphones."

"Better to do it to an innocent victim in open court?"

At that, Buchanan's nostrils flared, but he remained cordial. "Time to go meet the press," he said. "Until next time."

Rafael turned back to Joe. "Sorry about that," he said. "I didn't mean to undermine you."

"Are you kidding?" Joe said. "That was the first time I've seen someone shut that man up."

"It won't last," Rafael replied, checking his watch. "Anyway, you should get out there. Someone needs to stop him from gloating. I'll walk you out; I've got to be somewhere uptown in a couple hours." They grabbed their briefcases and headed for the front steps. Rafael hoped he could sneak down the side steps while Joe was giving his statement.

"Is the campaign going well?"

"I'm not sure yet," he said. "We're behind in fundraising, since we announced late, and Buchanan seems to have most of the big firms locked up. But from what I'm told, the more I'm in front of a camera, the better my polls look. Let's face it - I AM the more camera-ready face."

Joe laughed just before they pushed through the courthouse doors. Then, he put on his best serious face and walked down the steps toward the throngs of reporters. Buchanan was in the middle of all of them.

"-alleged victim, a sex worker, was simply not credible. I am hopeful that, on Election Day, the voters will see that I have no greater goal than protecting innocent people from wrongful prosecutions like these."

As the reporters saw Joe approach, they parted and directed their microphones toward him. "Mr. Buchanan seems to forget that a not guilty verdict does not indicate innocence," Joe said. Then, he turned toward Rafael, watching dutifully from a few steps above. "I'm sure Mr. Barba would agree that this is not a victory for the wrongfully accused as much as a loss for victims of sexual assault."

Rafael raised an eyebrow. He hadn't expected Joe to pull him into the fray. But as his colleague motioned for him to join the group, he realized there was no escape. He stepped forward and stood next to Joe, eyeing Buchanan. Before he could say anything, reporters started shouting questions at him.

"Mr. Barba, do you think the victim in this case just wasn't believable?"

"Why do you think your office lost the case, Mr. Barba?"

"Will this affect your candidacy?"

At the last question, Rafael's eyes flared with anger, but he did the same thing he would have done in a courtroom setting: set his jaw and responded fiercely.

"It astounds me that anyone is talking about the outcome of this case in the context of a political campaign," he said. "The fact is, approximately 50% of sex workers in this country will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. There are far more Jamie Kings than we are aware of, many of whom also never see justice. That is what we need to be talking about."

Seizing the chance to engage Rafael directly, Buchanan leaned toward a waiting microphone. "If you care so much about sex workers, Mr. Barba, then why didn't you prosecute this case yourself? If this has nothing to do with your campaign, why did you pass off the case to a junior district attorney?"

Joe started to respond, but Rafael cut him off. "Joe Thomas tried this case with every bit as much skill as I would have put into it. I gave him this case because I knew I could trust him with it. That the jury chose not to convict is not his responsibility." Buchanan started to speak, but Rafael cut him off. "But make no mistake, my office will continue to prosecute those responsible for sexual violence, regardless of the victim's profession, sexual history, or criminal record. It doesn't matter if you are a sex worker - you are still entitled to human decency, respect, and justice. And you are still allowed to say no."

Rafael nodded toward Joe and gave him a pat on the back. Joe leaned in and whispered quietly, "For what it's worth, you've got my vote." With that, Rafael turned and headed back up the stairs, leaving his words on the steps but taking the message with him.


She really needed to get a desk. Trying to work at her laptop on the coffee table with files spread all around her on the couch was just not productive, nor was it particularly comfortable. She glanced at the clock; it was nearly eleven at night and she'd made little headway on the contract negotiation she was finalizing. Opposing counsel's handwritten notes were illegible, even by attorney standards, and she couldn't very well call him at this hour to ask about them. It wasn't until she realized she'd spent ten minutes staring at the blinking cursor on the screen that she decided enough was enough. She closed the laptop and moved the files down to the floor, leaving them open so she could pick up where she left off the next day.

Ever since Rafael had walked out of her apartment all those weeks ago, she'd done her best to bury herself in work. It was the best way to distract herself from anything that might be going on in her personal life, not that she had one. Aside from a baby shower for a coworker and a few obligatory happy hours after work, she had been hibernating in her apartment, working from home most days. She loved telecommuting: it was so much easier to deal with people when you didn't have to actually talk to them.

She stretched and released her hair from its low ponytail, shaking the waves loose. Then, she grabbed the remote and flipped on the television. The Tonight Show would be on soon, but for the moment, she let the local news play in the background as she went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. When she opened the cupboard, an avalanche of spices and tea bags tumbled out at her. She had so hurriedly cleaned up the remnants of the aborted dinner with Rafael that she hadn't bothered arranging the contents of the cupboard - she'd just thrown everything in and shut the doors, figuring she would fix it all later. Letting out an exhausted sigh, she began to clean up the mess she made, when the anchorwoman said, "And now, we turn to the District Attorney's race."

She popped up like a cork. The newswoman continued. "Despite Election Day being a year away, contention between the candidates is already brewing."

The screen then flashed to a video of John Buchanan giving a statement to the press, silently at first while the voiceover said, "Defense attorney and candidate John Buchanan won a victory today, defending an alleged pimp accused of raping a prostitute earlier this year."

The video's sound then came on, and Lauren watched as Buchanan addressed the crowd of reporters. "Today was a victory for an innocent man, but more importantly, a victory for the criminal justice system. The jury decided, correctly, that the alleged victim, a sex worker, was simply not credible. I am hopeful that, on Election Day, the voters will see that I have no greater goal than protecting innocent people from wrongful prosecutions like these."

She felt like throwing up from that one quote alone. This guy actually wanted to be in charge of prosecuting criminals. She went back into the living room and stood in front of the television. The video cut back to the anchorwoman. "The prosecutor on the case, Joe Thomas, deferred to Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba, who assigned him the case and who was present in the courtroom for part of the trial."

Lauren's heart fell as hard as the box of tea. Her hands shook as Rafael's face graced the screen. He looked confident, and a little bit angry. She expected a quote about his own campaign, but he spoke only of the victim in the case, and sex trafficking in general. He wasn't interested in turning the not-guilty verdict around for his own political agenda. He responded to Buchanan with conviction and thinly-veiled disgust, but made a point to bring his statement back to the thrust of the State's case: no means no, regardless of who you are.

The video cut back to the anchorwoman again. "We reached out for comments from both campaigns. While we didn't hear back from Mr. Buchanan's staff, Mr. Barba's campaign manager Eli Gold said, 'Mr. Barba's statement regarding the Garcia verdict is consistent with his commitment to seeking justice for ALL of New York City's citizens.'"

As the anchorwoman passed off to the meteorologist, Lauren sank back onto the couch. She switched the television off, and sat in silence, Rafael's words hanging in the air: It doesn't matter if you are a sex worker - you are still entitled to human decency, respect, and justice. And you are still allowed to say no. He'd looked right into the camera as he'd said it, as if he knew. But he couldn't. There was no way.

He was willing to stand up for a woman he had never met before the trial, a woman with a past. A woman with a record. A woman who knew darkness intimately and needed someone to see the light within.

A woman like her.

She shook her head. She knew the consequences too well to consider it. No matter what Rafael said, he couldn't understand her. Besides, he was probably just reciting a prepared speech. Suddenly, she realized the kettle was screaming at her. She hurried back to the kitchen, where she turned off the burner and returned to the disaster on the floor, intent on cleaning up the mess and the memories.

That night, however, she lay awake in bed, focused on words she couldn't unhear. She had left him weeks ago, told him two truths and a lie. She said she didn't want to be in a relationship with him, that it would be better for him if she were gone, that the campaign would be too much for her. Her life was, at last, uncomplicated. She made a good living, had a decent apartment, the life she had struggled for. She felt like a whole person for the first time in her life, though it had taken years of therapy to get there.

Still, when the night set in and the shadows spoke to her, they whispered that something was missing. Not a piece of herself exactly, but a piece of life in general.

The clock on the nightstand read midnight - she needed to be up early for court.

Court. Where she'd seen him for the first time since high school, rediscovered him. Where she wasn't afraid of anything about him. Where it had just been casual drinks to catch up.

She rolled over and checked her phone, hoping for a text that she knew would not be there. The screen glowed blue on her face. She knew it wasn't going to help her sleep. She scrolled through her texted, lingering over the one that bore only a phone number, its contact having been deleted weeks ago.

I'm sorry, it read.

She considered responding to it now, but worried she might get the reply everyone dreads: Who's this?

She put the phone down and flipped over, practicing the breathing techniques her therapist had taught her for panic attacks but which she also used to fall asleep. Slowly, she fell into the half-asleep stupor that allowed for waking dreams and imagined conversations.

It doesn't matter, he had said. You are still entitled to human decency. Respect. Justice. It was as if he were standing over her, saying it in her ear. And she was sure she could feel his breath on her neck.

Respect. Justice.

Maybe even, she thought, as she finally quieted her mind, love.


Summer turned to autumn so slowly that you barely noticed, but winter didn't creep up on you that way. It just slapped you in the face. That October night without his gloves seemed positively tropical now. The snow had just fallen anew, crunching under his shoes. He'd realized too late that he should have worn boots. He turned up the faux fur collar on his overcoat and pulled his scarf tighter around his neck.

As soon as Eli had seen his comments on the steps of the courthouse the day before, he had called in a tizzy. Apparently it was a generally bad idea to make comments directed at your opponent without having said comments pre-approved by your campaign manager. But when the new polling data came in that morning, Eli had considerably relaxed - although he had all but threatened to personally murder Rafael if he pulled a similar stunt. But it seemed that Rafael's statements about rape victims had caused at least a temporary spike in his polling data, particularly among women and minority voters, and a few thousand dollars in donations had even poured in. People weren't happy hearing Buchanan politicize the outcome of a rape case, even if it wasn't a winning case for Rafael's office, and even if it was the rape of a prostitute.

But even though he should have been ecstatic about his poll numbers, he had instead been going over what Olivia had said on Thanksgiving night: Little victories count just as much as big ones - sometimes even more. The last little victory he could remember was the night he'd kissed Lauren for the first time, so that's where he'd retraced his steps.

Passing Umpire Rock and through a small red tunnel that temporarily shielded him from the wind, he realized it could have been midnight for the darkness. Where a few months ago there would still be joggers and bicyclists flying past him, this part of the park was deserted now; those who chose to brave the frigid weather congregated at Pilgrim Hill, with its steep sledding hills, or at his destination - the skating rink, now within his sight.

He walked on top of the pavilion overlooking the rink. The holiday season brought the tourists and the kids on field trips and with play groups. It was loud and busy and crowded. The multicolored lights twinkled off the bare tree branches, winking at him off of the snow and ice. He didn't know why he expected to be able to think here. Maybe that was the point, though. Maybe he didn't want to think. Maybe he just wanted to miss her.

And he did miss her.

That night when he'd left her apartment, he'd tried to apologize. Maybe text message wasn't the best way to do it. But he wasn't good at vocalizing his emotions. His father had spent the better part of eighteen years literally beating that idea out of him. Olivia had been right: he hadn't had much patience with Lauren, and he hadn't tried to listen to her. In fact, he'd realized in the last twenty-four hours that he was better at listening to victims than he'd been at listening to his own girlfriend. The worst part was, he didn't even know why.

"I'm sorry," he whispered into the air, wishing it meant something.

"Hearing voices?"

He whipped around so fast he almost fell over. Her red knit cap was pulled so far down and her collar turned so far up that he could barely see her face, but he would know her voice anywhere. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out at first.

"That won't go over so well with the general public," she said.

"I - how did you know where I was?"

"I'm brilliant," she said with a shrug. "Plus, Marissa said you'd gone for a walk. I had a hunch."

Suddenly, there didn't seem to be any noise around them. He felt like he was underwater.

"What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing," she said.

"I asked you first."

She sighed. "I saw your press conference."

He stiffened. "You and half of New York, apparently."

"Kind of hard to miss it when it's on the eleven o'clock news."

"So that's why you're here?"

"You stood up for that girl."

He shrugged. "She's like any other victim. She deserves the same justice and respect that anyone else deserves."

"If that's the case," Lauren said, carefully choosing her words, "then why did you tell me that I'm alone because I'm scared of publicity and the press on top of the normal stress of a relationship? Don't I deserve the same respect that she deserves?"

He stood silent for a moment, but remembered Olivia's question: did you ask her why she was worried?
He took a cautious step forward. "Lauren, why are you worried about the press? Are you concerned about something in particular, or-"

She looked momentarily taken aback, but then shook her head. "It's nothing specific, it's just… it's just that I'm a private person, Rafael, and this is all very…"

"Lauren," he said, taking another step toward her, realizing he was pushing his luck. "Don't you know that I would protect you from all of that? Besides, there's nothing to invade. You're a good person. What could they possibly have to say?"

She didn't respond, but looked away, blinking back tears. "What you said on television," she said, "was that true? Or was it just for the cameras?"

"I wasn't even supposed to be there," he said, half-smiling. "Eli was less than thrilled with me."

She squeezed her eyes, which had taken on an icy tint, pushing wind-bidden tears down her cheek. Then, she looked back up at him. She seemed to be searching for something, but he couldn't tell what. He stood, frozen in place by what could either be the wind chill or fear. He couldn't tell. All of a sudden, she closed the remaining distance between them and threw her arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder.

He was able to summon the presence of mind to wrap one arm around her waist, not really pulling her closer but still wanting to make sure he was really feeling her there and that this was not some trick of his mind. It was difficult for him to comprehend the reality of what was happening; an hour ago, he had committed her to just a memory. Now, he could feel her hair against his cheek, smell the fabric softener she used. It was sensory overload on all levels.

They stood in silence among the shuffling would-be skaters for a long while, until finally, Lauren said, "I'm sorry."

Rafael pulled back and shook his head. "What I said, there was no excuse." The wind blew her hair into her face, and he pushed it back. His fingers were warm on her skin.

"I just don't want to hurt you," she said. "And I don't want to be hurt." Her eyes watered, partially from the wind and partially because of how hard she was staring at him.

"Then I think the thing to do is not hurt each other," he said, looking her up and down, eyes darting everywhere all at once. "Whatever this is, it's just you and me. Everyone else is just… noise."

"Just you and me," she repeated, almost as if it were a question. He dipped his head down and pulled her scarf aside, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She breathed him in. He smelled like pine trees and soap. She wished the weather were warmer; there were too many layers between them.

"So did the camera add ten pounds?" He asked, smiling against her skin.

"I missed your dumb jokes," she said.

"I missed your laugh."

"I missed your suspenders. And that look in your eye when you know you've come up with some brilliant argument."

"I missed this." Before she could answer, he tilted her head up and put his mouth on hers, kissing her like he'd never get the chance again.

Chapter Text

"So you're back together now?" Marissa sat in the chair across the desk from Rafael, the one that she sat in so often that she was sure the cushion was beginning to show the imprint of her rear.

"It would appear that way," he replied. "It came as quite a shock to me too."

"It's going to come as a bigger shock to my dad. Speaking of which…" She pulled a stack of brightly colored envelopes from her bag.

"What are those?" He eyed the pile suspiciously.

"These," she said, "are holiday party invitations. My dad wanted me to get you to agree to go to two of them. Of course, he asked me to do this weeks ago, but I put it off til the last minute."

"Dare I ask which ones?"

She smirked. "Well, I could tell you, but you really don't want to say yes to either of them anyway, so why don't you just agree to come to the party that Nora and I are throwing instead?"

This time, it was his turn to smirk. "Will there be press?"

"Of course not."

"Then count me in," he said. "Can I bring Lauren?"

"Oh, please do. It'll be a perfect time to tell Dad you're back together, after he's had a few." She glanced at the envelopes. "On second thought, maybe you want to say yes to one of these."

"Mmm," he mused absently as he reviewed his emails, "and why do you say that?"

"Well, first off, he may not have as big a fit when you show up with the girlfriend you told him you'd broken up with if he's distracted by the fact that you've made a big splash at a political event," she said, tearing into one of the invitations.

"And second?"

She looked at him a bit sheepishly. "Because I'm throwing the party at his apartment and he doesn't exactly know it yet?"

He had to smile. In a system plagued by selfishness and game-playing, Marissa's attempt at self-interest was almost adorable.

"Well," he said, dropping a file onto the discards next to his desk, "which party shall we placate him with?"

"I have my ideas on that, but he already-"

"Marissa?" He looked up at her through his eyebrows.

She sighed. "Well, he thinks you should go to these two-" She held up two envelopes, one gold and one red. "This one is from the Manhattan Bar Association, and this one is, obviously, the DNC Holiday Gala. It's all about fundraising and trying to convince the Buchanan firms to come over to the dark side. Or from the dark side, depending how you look at it."

"But…?"

"But if you ask me," she continued, tossing the foil-lined wrappers onto the desk, "you should go to our office's holiday party on Friday."

"Really?" His eyebrows shot up. He'd never actually been to the office holiday party, and he wasn't sure how he could convince Eli that this was a better idea than the two parties with press and potential financial backers. "And what makes you say that?"

"Well, think about it," she said, leaning back in the chair. "The people you work with now are the people you'd be managing if you win. So, who would be better to talk you up to other voters - and for that matter, who would be better to BE voters - than those people?"

She was giving him the look Eli gave him when he expected Rafael to make a particular decision. He had learned to ignore it from Eli, but it wasn't so easy when it came from Marissa.

"Well, I see one major flaw," he said. "Your father wants the press, remember?"

"I'm not as dumb as you both seem to think," she said flatly. "I'm going to send all your RSVPs today. By the time I tell him tonight, he won't be able to do a damn thing about it. But we CAN leak it to one lucky reporter - whoever hasn't pissed him off this week. I'll let him pick - it'll make him feel important." When Rafael didn't say anything, she continued. "So, anyway, the reporter will do a cute little puff piece about you socializing with your coworkers. Meanwhile, I have it on good authority that Buchanan is going to a party at Goodman Fromme, so who's going to look more man-of-the-people? You, with a loose tie and Christmas cookies, or him in an ill-fitting tux with champagne?"

As she continued to argue her point, going on about donors and office politics, her hands moved excitedly from side to side, dark eyebrows emphasizing certain points as they creased and jumped. But it wasn't until she finished speaking, folded her arms, and cocked her head expectantly that he saw it: she was really Eli's daughter, in more ways than she probably even realized.

"So, what do you think?"

He nodded despite himself. "I'm sure Eli will have thoughts-"

"The day my father doesn't have thoughts is the day he dies."

"Still," he said, "this is a pretty big thing to spring on him. You sure you're willing to take this hit?"

“Have I ever told you about when I informed him I was going to live on the kibbutz?”

“Marissa, I’m serious,” he said.  “He’s not going to be happy.  And he’s going to be even more pissed when I show up at your party with Lauren.”

Her face set into something halfway between annoyance and amusement.  “Do you WANT to go to any of these other parties?”

“No…”

“Do you promise you’ll come to MY party?”

“Of course.”

"Then let me handle him. He's been my dad longer than he's been your campaign manager." Before Rafael could respond, she left the office with the stack of invitations in hand. He stared after her even once she'd gone, wondering whether she and Eli had always had this relationship, or if it was just that he hadn't noticed until now. He remembered asking her if she wanted to be involved with all of this, and she'd said yes. But maybe she'd felt pressured. After all, how do you say no to your boss AND your father all at once? Marissa had once told him that she'd left Chicago to get away from politics. Was that all she'd left to get away from?


"You did WHAT?" Eli's eyebrows drew so close together that they formed one long, silver caterpillar.

"Come on, Dad, it's a good idea!" Marissa turned the chicken in its pan, searing it in the slightly charred butter and garlic mixture before placing the entire thing in the oven to finish cooking.

"Like hell it is!" He slapped his palm on the table. "This is not going to look good. This is going to look contrived."

"It's not going to look contrived. He works there. It would look contrived if he went to the DNC party, or some party thrown by a defense firm like Goodman. This is a party he's SUPPOSED to be at!"

"And you've already leaked this to a reporter, I suppose."

"No, of course not. I can't keep up with which reporters you're currently letting into the inner circle." There was a beat. "I left that up to Nora."

Eli threw up his hands. "Of course you did," he snapped. "Great. Buchanan is going to be at the Goodman party soaking up donor funds and getting photo ops, while Rafael, what, shares a cheese plate by the water cooler with one reporter there to cover it on a steno pad?"

"And that," she said, "is why it's perfect. Think of the side-by-side on the news. Buchanan there in a tux, drinking champagne, and Mr. Barba looking all Obama-with-his-sleeves-rolled-up, just hanging out with the rest of the public servants. Besides, it's not like the one percent helped Romney that much, did it?"

Eli considered this. He knew that the rich, white male contingent would almost always be locked up by the rich, white male candidate - or, at least, the candidate who could best imitate a rich, white male. He also knew there was something to what Marissa was saying about Rafael appealing to the common voter - especially without making it appear too planned-in-advance, since Marissa had done him the "favor" of RSVPing late to all the invitations. Rafael had every reason to be there, no reason NOT to be, and it would engender goodwill among his colleagues - all the things she had expressed when she had first told Eli about this scheme.

Meanwhile, Marissa was trying in vain to reach the wine glasses on a high shelf. Gently nudging her out of the way, Eli easily scooped them up and placed them on the counter where she filled them with chardonnay. They drank in silence for a few minutes until the oven timer began to beep. While Marissa began to put the finishing touches on dinner, Eli looked around somewhat helplessly. It had been years since he and his daughter had shared a meal that hadn't been either out of takeout containers or at a table set by someone else: dinners at friends' homes, restaurants - even Thanksgiving had been a meal out. But, he supposed, any other parent wouldn't feel awkward about the prospect of sharing a meal in his daughter's home. So he pulled down some plates, grabbed some silverware, and started setting the table for two.

"This looks good," he said, when they were finally seated with their meal steaming in front of them. It wasn't exactly true; the chicken looked slightly burned and the carrots a little soggy. But the wine had softened him, made him slightly groggy. "Why did you want me to come over, anyway?"

"Because I've never made this before and I didn't want to accidentally poison Nora," she said, although it came out as more of a question.

"Speaking of Nora," he said, "where is she?" He cut into the chicken, which looked a little dry. He did not feel the immediate need to mention it.

"She's hanging out with Fin tonight," she replied. Eli tried not to react, though he could not stop his lips from pursing just slightly.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. They have plans again Wednesday and Friday I think." Marissa glanced upward and noticed the tips of her father's ears go just slightly pink. She elected not to mention that, just as Eli had not mentioned the dry chicken.

"Well, it's good she's making friends," he said flatly. They ate in the same silence as earlier, until he said, "Why didn't you at least tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"Tell me what your plan was before you went through with it?" He didn't make eye contact, but switched to eating the overcooked carrots that lay beside the thoroughly dead poultry.

Her response was so matter-of-fact that he may as well have just asked what she wanted from Starbucks. "Because," she said, "I knew you'd say it was a stupid idea and never go for it."

"That's ridiculous," he said. "When have I ever called one of your ideas stupid?"

"Used the word? Never. But you don't have to say the word to imply the meaning."

She looked away, and he wondered how many times she had silently wished for his approval and gotten the exact opposite… and how many times he hadn't even noticed the difference.

"It's not a stupid idea," he said quietly. "The more I think about it, the more I think it's a very good idea for Rafael to lay low during the holidays. Too much potential for drunken embarrassment."

"Well, thank you," she said, after a moment. "I appreciate that. I do want what's best for him too, you know."

"I know," he said.

"So obviously, I won't be making any meals for him." She picked up her plate and threw its contents into the garbage. The mood lightened considerably.

"It wasn't… horrible."

"Dad," she said, rolling her eyes as she grabbed his plate too, "you can lie better than that. I'm just going to either have Nora cook all the food or hire a caterer for the party next week."

Eli smiled as he stood up, intending to help her with the dishes. The fact that she called him out on his inability to lie about personal matters reminded him very much of her mother. But the WAY in which she did it was all him. He suddenly felt extremely stupid for not recognizing these things sooner, and for perhaps not seeing their importance at all.

"It really wasn't a stupid idea," he said, rolling up his sleeves. "I was just upset that you didn't talk to me first. But I don't think any of your ideas are stupid, Marissa. You're half me, after all."

She smiled. "I didn't tell Nora to call the reporter. I told her to ask you tomorrow which one to leak it to. I was just mad at you."

The smell of burnt garlic lingered in the air, but this time, the silence was much more comfortable and slightly warmer - until Eli broke it like a plate.

"Wait - what party?!"


Meanwhile, Rafael stood in the Kate Spade flagship store on Madison Avenue, overwhelmed in every sense of the word. The light from gold starburst chandeliers reflected off of mirror-tiled stairs as he stared blankly at a dizzying array of handbags that spanned a full wall.

It wasn't like he had trouble accessorizing; he certainly had no shortage of options in ties, socks, and suspenders. But he was consistently amazed at the combinations of shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns of handbags from which women could choose. And they all had different uses! Complicating matters was the fact that this was a gift, and he had no idea which handbag would function best in the recipient's daily life.

"Can I help you find anything, sir?" The voice was soft but unexpected, and he nearly knocked over a rack of sweaters as he turned around.

"Oh, I… maybe. I'm sorry." He steadied himself and turned to find a petite sales associate smiling at him. Her blonde hair was tied neatly into a ponytail and was secured with a metal hair clip in the shape of the store's trademark bow. Her nametag read "Alys."

"I'm so sorry," she said, catching a falling hanger. "I didn't mean to scare you. You just seemed a little…" She appeared to be searching for the right phrase.

"I believe the word you're looking for is 'screwed.'" Alys laughed.

"Quite honestly, I'm surprised a man who is so impeccably accessorized would have any trouble with this particular area of the store," she said, eyeing his designer suspenders and tie.

"Suspenders have one purpose - to keep your pants up. Women's handbags, on the other hand…"

"Aren't just for holding your stuff." Alys finished his sentence.

"Then I suppose it's not a matter of taste I have a problem with," he said, "as much as a matter of recipient."

"Ah, yes. Let me guess." She leaned back a bit, hand on her hip. "Assistant?"

He gaped, amazed. "How could you possibly-"

"I've worked retail for a long time," she said. "For some reason, it seems like the ones who put the most effort into picking the perfect gift are the bosses."

"That's funny. You'd think it'd be the husbands."

"Retail opens up a whole new perspective into human behavior. Then again, don't they say people spend more time with their assistants than their actual spouses? 'Work wives' and all that?"

"She would probably throw something at me if I ever called her that." He laughed imagining that little scene playing out. "Well, I'll take suggestions."

She pursed her lips in thought. "Give me two words to describe her general attitude."

He paused. "Sarcastically optimistic?"

Alys looked pleased. "Favorite color?"

"I'm not a hundred percent - maybe -" Would gold be too on-the-nose? "Blue?"

"That helps," she said. "What's her favorite hobby?"

He tried to think back to the seemingly insignificant interactions he'd had with his assistant over the last two and a half years. Surely in that time, she would have mentioned some kind of hobby, passion, interest outside of work. He was coming up empty, but then, had he ever really bothered to get to know Marissa before Eli had brought this new dimension to their relationship?

He was beginning to feel very selfish. He hated that, which served only to make him feel even MORE selfish.

"It's really not unusual," Alys said, sensing his frustration. "Most bosses don't know the answer to that question. I'm guessing most assistants prefer it that way." She smiled kindly but he still felt a twinge of guilt.

"Maybe a purse is the wrong way to go," he said.

"We do have other options," she said. "There are always wallets, scarves - and, of course, we make beautiful stationery. In fact, we have a few of the leatherette journals on sale for the holidays-"

That made something click. A memory, out of nowhere, something he didn't even consciously realize he'd witnessed.

They had been walking the carpet, doing the step-and-repeat. Nora had been at his side for effect. He remembered having a good time with her. She was bright and funny and, like Marissa, incredibly sarcastic. They were passing the time between photographs judging other people's clothes.

What you don't often see on television, or even hear about, is how many assistants and entourage members follow each celebrity down the carpet. You can sometimes see them off to the side in photos or milling around behind Ryan Seacrest, but it's taken for granted that the only people on the carpet are celebrities. With all those people and egos fighting for the same space, it would be easy enough for little tiffs to break out, but most were kept to side-eye glances and snarky texts. But not Eli and Marissa, much to Eli's chagrin.

"Marissa!" Rafael heard Eli hiss from somewhere behind. "Stop it!"

"What? I'm just observing."

"Observe without taking notes!"

Rafael turned just enough to make it look like a pose. Flashes blinded him temporarily, but he had just enough time to see Eli give Marissa his usual pinched glare, while Marissa looked as unimpressed as she ever did.

"I'm not doing anything every reporter here isn't doing, except mine will be used for art and theirs will be for crappy blogs."

"Those crappy blogs can make or break us," Eli replied. "You begged me to come, so be useful and move him along."

The photographers had finally lost interest, and Rafael noticed the small, wire-bound notebook in Marissa's hand, no bigger than a wallet. She had tucked a pen behind her ear and hidden it partially in her curls, just as she did in the office.

"Fine," she finally said, putting the journal neatly into her handbag. "But don't complain when the character I base on you is a total schmuck."

Alys slapped him back to reality with a touch on his shoulder. He turned to find her holding a stack of colorful, thick notebooks.

"Alys," he said, a confident smile on his face, "I think I know what I've been doing wrong."

"Oh?" She quirked an eyebrow.

"It's not about the purse," he said. "It's about what you put into it."


 "So this is… everything and nothing like I expected," Rafael said as he entered the darkened, slightly aging Italian restaurant. The party was already in full swing, but not quite in a way he had expected. There were hors d'oeuvres and a small bar - very limited with well drinks, since the party was privately funded by those attending - and the decorations were definitely Target-bought. While no one was quite dressed casually, there was a definite informal tone to the event. Even where people were discussing work, it was less strategy and more courthouse gossip. Secretaries were arguing cases against the attorneys for whom they worked. And, most hilariously, Michael Long was there, in full Santa regalia, to preside over the evening. Everyone seemed to be having a genuinely good, if slightly inebriated, time.

He and Marissa headed to the bar, but before he could so much as open his mouth to order a very watered-down scotch, Marissa leaned past him. "Two ciders, please. Cold."

"Excuse me, I clearly recall being forced into donating to this party. I was under the impression that that little tariff included alcohol." He hadn't gotten through a social function without a glass of something alcoholic since he became a lawyer. He blamed it on law school; it was no wonder so many attorneys became alcoholics with all the hosted events during those three years alone. But it wasn't that he needed to drink the scotch so much as he just needed… it. In hand. A security blanket of sorts.

"You labored under a false impression," she replied. "Remember, the only way I could get you out of every other event was by offering to make you look like a choir-boy-man-of-the-people at this one."

"Don't men-of-the-people drink?"

"You can look like you're drinking without actually drinking," she said as she handed him the glass. "Do you know the statistics on stupid, drunken things people do at company parties?"

"You mean like firing their assistants?"

"Just pretend you're Dean Martin." She totally ignored his empty threat.

"So where's this reporter?" He asked, changing the subject in an effort to forget his scotchless evening.

"He'll be here soon," she said. "We have just enough time to circulate."

"And where's Eli?"

"He's the one bringing the reporter. You know he wouldn't let anyone show up without raking him over the coals first."

Rafael was only half-listening by then. He was too focused on the scene in front of him. Joe Thomas was engaged in a heated exchange with retired judge Elizabeth Donnelly - an invitee as a former assistant district attorney herself. They were arguing the finer points of the Brady bill, and Thomas seemed to be holding his own, never breaking eye contact or letting his voice waver.

"Isn't a party til someone argues politics," Eli said, suddenly stepping into place between Rafael and Marissa.

"Good lord, you're like Voldemort," Rafael said. Marissa snorted.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing."

Eli raised an eyebrow, and turned sideways. From behind him stepped a short, blonde-haired man, no older than Marissa, camera around his neck and iPhone in hand.

"Rafael Barba, I'd like you to meet Glenn Danbury," Eli said. "I believe you'll recall I mentioned he was the first to report Buchanan's candidacy."

"Well, first to leak it, anyway," Glenn said. "Eli's a very persuasive man. I've since become a very dedicated follower of yours, Mr. Barba."

Rafael shook Glenn's hand and was largely unimpressed. The only people he trusted less than reporters were reporters with weak handshakes.

"Pleasure," he lied. "This is my assistant, Marissa Gold."

"Ah, yes, Eli's daughter," Glenn said with a knowing wink. "I'm sure you have stories you could tell about both of these gentlemen."

"I'm sure I do," Marissa replied with the most insincere smile Rafael had ever seen plastered across her face. As Glenn turned back to Rafael, she took out her phone and began typing a text.

Of all the reporters?

Eli's phone buzzed. He knew exactly who had sent the message. So, of course, he ignored it.

"So, Glenn, did you want to do the sit down first, or did you want to do photo ops?"

"Oh, whatever Rafael - can I call you Rafael?"

"Sure-"

"-is comfortable with."

"Well," Rafael said, "since the photo ops depend on people actually being here, why don't we do that first?"

"Okay," Glenn said,tucking his iPhone into his pocket and fiddling with the camera while giving instructions. "Basically what I want you to do is just mingle. Be as natural as you can. I'll walk around just snapping photos as you do. Whenever you're ready, we can do the sit down. Just try to get in as many photos with as many people as possible. I don't want this to look at all staged."

"All right," Rafael said, wishing now more than ever for a drink. Before he could walk away, Eli pulled him aside. He motioned for Marissa to follow.

"Look," Eli said, "I have to leave. But remember, this is a puff piece. This isn't rocket science. I've already been through the ground rules with him, so he shouldn't try anything stupid if he wants continued access, but if he does, remember, questions are for dummies."

"Wait, where are you going?" Rafael asked. "I would think you'd want to monitor this situation as carefully as possible."

"I have a… prior engagement. Meeting with some potential donors. Trying to work them into a giving mood." Marissa started to say something but then he fixed his stare on her. "And YOU. You stay glued to him. Do not let anyone get him into a position where that reporter can misinterpret anything. Do you know the statistics on-"

"Oh my God, can we all please remember that I am, in fact, an adult?" Rafael's nostrils flared. "I think I can handle one Christmas party with my coworkers without falling on my face, throwing a punch, or mooning someone."

"Holiday, Rafael!" Eli called as his candidate stormed off, Marissa and Glenn trailing behind. "Not Christmas! Holiday!"

Marissa glanced back to see her father finally pull out his phone and read her text. For the briefest second, she was sure she saw something like amused pride in his expression, but as quickly as it had appeared, it evaporated, as though it were never there at all.

Thirty minutes, some small talk, and a few not-so-candid photos of some well-placed handshakes later, Rafael had to admit one thing: he didn't altogether hate his coworkers. This was at least better than another rubber chicken dinner with bad champagne and idle political chatter. He wondered if candidates for other offices could say the same, about either their colleagues or their evenings.

He scanned the room, looking for Marissa. She was involved in a conversation with one of the new law clerks, recently hired on from - of course - Fordham Law School. Why they couldn't ever get an NYU student to do public service was once lost on him, until he realized he didn't have student loans to pay. He started to head toward her, but Joe Thomas cut him off.

"Hey, Joe," he said. Joe stepped off to his side, and Rafael could see that Marissa now looked slightly annoyed at the law clerk.

"How's it going, Barba?" Joe seemed, like everyone else, slightly tipsy, but still had most of his communication skills about him. "I see you have a shadow tonight." He motioned toward Glenn, who was typing furiously on his phone. Rafael shrugged.

"One of them is better than a group," he said. "Where's Annie?"

"Oh, she's still on leave with the baby," he said. "No way was I getting her out of the house for a work party."

"Doesn't want to leave the baby?"

"More like she doesn't trust the baby with someone else yet," Joe said. When Rafael raised his eyebrow, Joe continued, "I think it's one of those you-have-to-be-a-parent things."

"Ah," Rafael said. They stood in silence for a minute. Then, he suddenly remembered something from earlier. "Oh, hey! I saw you were taking on Judge Donnelly earlier about something."

"Yeah, gun control. Can you believe it?" Joe asked, taking a sip of his drink. The faint scent of bourbon wafted by; Rafael was momentarily tempted to snatch the drink right from Joe's hand. "Turns out we mostly agree on the Brady bill, but I can't agree that gun manufacturers should be held liable for mass shootings. You're getting too far into six-degrees-of-separation."

Rafael nodded, thinking it prudent not to give any politically-biased comment on this issue within earshot of a reporter. "I'm surprised she didn't threaten to sanction you."

"I'm pretty sure she wanted to," Joe said, "and I know I wasn't going to change her mind. But when you know you're going to lose, you've got nothing TO lose."

Although he continued to look straight ahead, the sentiment was not lost on him. Joe had obviously taken his words to heart, not just as far as the courtroom doors but well past them. And for the first time, he realized what it was to be in a position not only to delegate, but also educate and, though he would never say it aloud, even inspire. He could do that. HE could do that. Would John Buchanan be able to say the same? And even if he could, what kind of lessons would the people around him learn? That victims were to be selectively believed. That guilty parties were actually innocent. That all of them - all of these good and decent people who worked hard every day for justice - were part of a corrupt system.

Suddenly, he didn't feel like doing a cute Christmas puff piece anymore.

"Hey, Joe," he said, "you want to repay the favor?"

"What'd you have in mind?" Joe asked. "I'm not sneaking you scotch. Marissa already threatened me."

"Of course she did," Rafael said without missing a beat. "No, I was just thinking, I have to do this interview with my shadow over there and maybe you can help me out with it."

Joe didn't hesitate. "What do you need me to say?"

"Nothing that isn't true," Rafael replied quickly. "Mostly that you enjoy your job, the camaraderie, events like this, and that you resent the implication that this office is corrupt. Or, you know, that Buchanan is a waste of a law degree in an ill-fitting suit. Whatever feels appropriate."

The young prosecutor grinned, his blue eyes glinting mischievously. "For whatever it's worth, that waste of a law degree may have kicked my ass in court, but he's got nothing on you in press conferences. You don't need me to help with this interview."

"Well, the camera adds ten pounds of hot air," Rafael said. Joe laughed.

"What paper is this for, anyway?"

"The Times."

"No pressure, then."

"None at all."

"Ready when you are, boss." There was a little emphasis on the last word as Joe threw back the last of his drink.

"Don't jinx me," Rafael replied as they wound their way toward the reporter, who was still typing furiously on his phone as though it were an actual keyboard. He looked up as soon as he saw Rafael approach, and an inquisitive expression passed over his face at the sight of another young, handsome attorney following.

Meanwhile, Marissa, having long since tired of the disappointingly obnoxious law clerk, saw an out when she saw her boss, Glenn, and - Joe Thomas? - standing together in the corner of the room. She excused herself as politely as she could and all but ran over to the group, almost knocking over Michael Long on her way. If her boss had said anything even potentially damaging, her father would murder her.

"So, how're we doing over here?" She asked, out of breath and glancing furtively from party to party.

"Fine," Rafael said, slightly annoyed at the babysitting. "I was just introducing Glenn to Joe and vice versa."

"I can see that," she replied nervously. "Why?"

"Well, Mr. Barba thought it might add an interesting angle to the piece to have a colleague and potential subordinate interviewed with him," Glenn said, taking out a notepad and pen while setting his phone down, the voice record screen ready to go at the touch of a finger.

"Mr. Barba-" Marissa began.

"Don't worry, Marissa," he said quietly toward her ear. "This will be better than we originally planned. I promise I know what I'm doing - at least where it comes to the press."

She glanced from him to Joe and back again, but knew her boss well enough to know that once he had made up his mind, there was no use arguing anyway. So, she grabbed Joe by the shoulder and pulled him aside instead.

"Look," she said, staring up at him. "I know you want to do the right thing here. So let's make it clear and easy: you give as little narrative as possible and you do NOT under ANY circumstances suggest that Mr. Barba might be favoring you by giving you this interview spot. We have already had to deal with the gay rumors and I REALLY don't want to have to go back there."

"Marissa-"

"I am only telling you this because my father is already going to blow a gasket when he realizes that you were involved at all, but I know that Mr. Barba is not going to have it any other way. So I'm doing pre-emptive damage control. Just those two things. Short answers, no favoritism. Got me?"

She only reached his broad shoulders, but didn't feel intimidated by him in the slightest. He stared at her, but nodded acquiescence. He now understood why people joked that the only person who scared Barba was his assistant. He also wondered how Barba dealt with Marissa's father on the campaign trail if Marissa were anything like him. With that, he followed the candidate and the reporter to a quiet corner of the room, Marissa trailing behind.

Glenn began the interview with the expected questions: did Rafael have Christmas plans? What was the best part of the holiday season for him? Did he enjoy spending the holidays with his co-workers? But then, Rafael started spinning the interview in a different direction.

"I have to say, Glenn, that this evening has given me the opportunity to reflect on yet another reason why I consider myself lucky to have this job," he said.

"Oh?" Glenn replied.

"Look, I realize that this might not be the most glamorous party in New York," Rafael continued, "but it's definitely more intimate, and more personal. It reflects who we are as a department. We have character in spades."

Glenn turned his attention to Joe, who, until that point, had sat quietly listening to the exchange. "Joe, do you agree with Mr. Barba?"

Joe recognized the signal. "Of course," he said. "Look, my first year out of school, I worked for a big ten firm. I made an incredible salary and made a ton of connections. I was on a partner track from day one."

"Sounds pretty great," Glenn said. "So why the switch?"

"Same reason as Rafael gave," Joe replied. "It might not be the fanciest place to work, and I may not bring home the biggest paycheck, but at least when I go home at night, I can look my daughter in the eye and know I'm making the world a safer place for her."

Rafael grinned. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce my Chief Assistant District Attorney, Joe Thomas."

Marissa winced. She hoped Glenn picked up on the fact that Mr. Barba was kidding. Then she wondered if Mr. Barba actually WAS kidding. It was time to step in.

"Okay, I think it's getting a bit late, don't you?" Marissa said, more a statement than a question.

"I suppose it is," Rafael replied. All of them rose from their chairs.

"Mr. Barba, Mr. Thomas," Glenn said, extending his hand. "Thanks so much for your time tonight. I know talking to a reporter is probably no one's idea of a merry Christmas."

"No problem. Just write a flattering piece and I'll consider my Christmas merry," Rafael said. Then, he and Joe stepped away to exchange goodbyes as the party was coming to an end. Meanwhile, Marissa turned to Glenn.

"All right, what are you going to write?"

"Come on, Marissa, you know I can't give you that kind of information. Especially since they basically changed up the entire tone of the interview."

"No, YOU come on, Glenn," she said, and crossed her arms. "We gave you exclusive access. You don't want to piss off my dad, do you?"

He looked up and her and set his jaw. "All I'm going to tell you is that it's going to be more than just the fluff piece you originally wanted." Then, he went back to packing his gear.

"Fine," she said. "But remember, my dad is not nearly as forgiving as I am." Then, she walked toward where Rafael was standing, now alone, near the bar. He was engrossed in his phone. "Well, that didn't go as planned at all."

"No," he said. "But I'm not sure that's a bad thing."

"Oh, yeah, of course YOU don't," she said in exasperation. She paced the floor, throwing him a withering glance. "YOU don't see the problem because YOU don't have to deal with my dad having a cow over the impromptu interview you just gave with ANOTHER A.D.A. who may have hurt us with God knows what- why are you laughing?"

He hadn't actually realized he was, but it had again occurred to him how alike the elder and younger Golds were. And, of course, there was the irony that Marissa was panicking about Eli panicking. An amused smile still spread across his face, he walked behind the bar and knelt down. A second later, he reappeared with a green and blue shopping bag, a familiar spade-shaped logo across the front. She looked from the bag to him and back.

"What the hell is THAT?"

"Your Christmas present."

"I don't celebrate Christmas."

"Your Hanukkah present, then."

She continued to eye the bag suspiciously. "What is it?"

He tilted his head and pursed his lips. "A bomb, Marissa. What do you think it is?"

"Oh, be quiet," she said. Then, almost a little too quietly: "Why?"

"I told you," he said with a shrug, "Christmas. Hanukkah. Et cetera. You're a good employee. You've probably tolerated more this year than I ever should have asked you to."

She considered this for a moment. "So… should I-"

"Open it when I leave," he said, knowing what she meant. "You know. Emotions. Not my thing."

"Clearly," she said. He stepped out from behind the bar and handed her the bag. As he started to leave, she called out to him. He turned.

"Hey, how'd you get this here without me knowing?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You should know."

"Huh?"

"Nora is good for covert operations."

Marissa gaped at him for a minute, obviously shocked that he thought to pull her roommate into his little scheme - but then, she'd pulled Nora into the bigger scheme, so she really couldn't complain. She would have to remember to yell at Nora when she got home, though.

"Mr. Barba?"

He turned again.

"Thank you."

He nodded, then headed for a third time toward the coat check, determined for whatever reason not to let her see the smile on his face.

Marissa set her belongings down and put the bag on a vacant stool. The tissue paper was perfectly fluffed over the edges and although she strongly suspected what was inside, she had zero indication of the real motives for the gift. Her boss had never given her anything before, not even a card.

For a brief second, she wondered if this was a bribe to buy her silence about his reunion with Lauren. Then, she chastised herself. She was becoming as cynical as any of the politicians her dad campaigned for.

But…

Screw it.

She reached inside and immediately felt the smooth, cool texture of leather straps. The stitching was impeccable and she hadn't even seen it yet. She took a guess: white with blue lining and accents. Something totally impractical but nonetheless stunning. And she could already tell it was a tote bag.

At last, she pulled the purse from its packaging. She was wrong about the color - surprisingly, he'd chosen a very practical, solid grass green - but it was leather, and it was perfect. She couldn't wait to use it, even though it was the middle of December and the color matched neither the season nor her bright red sequined top. So she began unloading the contents of her handbag onto the bar. But when she opened the tote, she nearly dropped the it on the floor.

Inside the main pouch, contained in a cellophane wrapper, was a bright pink Kate Spade journal - one-hundred eighty pages of designer-bound composition in her hand. And taped to the front was a small envelope with her name on it. She recognized the messy, shaky print.

Marissa, the note inside read, I know you don't need a designer notebook to write something inspired. And yet, I find sometimes the finer things create finer things. If you want to thank me, dedicate your first novel to me. Or at least the first chapter. Merry Christmas. - Barba.

It was a purely reactionary thing, a half-minute response to a thoughtful gesture by her supervisor. But as Rafael hadn't realized he was laughing at her earlier fit of panic, neither did Marissa realize that she had raised her hand to cover her heart.

Unfortunately, the half-minutes intended only for ourselves - the secret smiles we don't let others see, the touch of a hand to our chest, the tears a well-worded note can bring to our eyes - are always the minutes that are stolen from us the fastest by eyes not meant to see.

Chapter Text

Between the campaign and putting the final touches on the plans for their "Christmakkuah" party, Nora hadn't had time to catch up with Marissa to find out how the departmental-holiday-party-slash-press-event had gone. Sadly, she had spent most of the last week on her phone - with Eli, with the caterer, with her mother. Everyone was worried that Mariah was going to off the rails again, since it was almost a family tradition that she cause some drama at Christmas. Nora wanted to be the positive one, while her mother was more "pragmatic," as she called it. Nora would call it pessimistic. In any case, standing in Eli's kitchen over a tray of salmon rolls, it occurred to her that she hadn't even gotten to ask about the gift.

"If I ever decide to have another party, just remind me of this hellfest," Marissa said, taking a harried swig of her merlot. "I swear, not even all the guests are here and already there's drama."

"What's going on? Is Carisi about to start lecturing Nick about legal interrogation methods?"

"Worse," Marissa replied. "My father is interrogating all of them about their personal - and political - lives."

"Oh God, he's doing oppo research at a social function?"

"I don't know why I'm surprised," she said. "Speaking of which, did you ever get the research on Lauren?"

"No," Nora replied, popping a salmon roll into her mouth. "I pulled it when they broke up. Why?"

Marissa didn't answer at first, and stared at the floor uncomfortably. Then, slowly, she said, "Yeah, about that…"

Nora's mouth dropped open. Thankfully, she had swallowed the salmon roll. "Ris, you have got to be kidding me."

"I wish I was."

"Does-" She looked around nervously, as though Eli's walls had actual ears - "does anyone know?"

"If by anyone you mean my father, then no. Because if he did, you'd have heard the screams from across the river. And because you're going to get to watch him find out tonight."

"Oh, Marissa, please tell me you didn't-"

"Look, I didn't suggest it. But he thought maybe doing some favorable pre-holiday press combined with the party tonight would lessen the blow."

Nora glanced back into the living room. Eli was now standing off to the side of the room, obviously selecting his next victim. She grabbed the nearest bottle of wine and headed back toward them, saying over her shoulder, "Guess we'd better start early."

She followed Eli as he circled the room, trying to be casual while stalking the guests like prey on a savannah. He gave them each an appraising look, the patented Eli gaze. Penetrating. Hard. Cold.

"What do you think you're going to learn by squinting at people from ten feet away?" She refilled his wine glass, hoping he wouldn't noticed just how full she made it.

"It's not about learning about them," he replied coolly. "It's about trying to decide who the biggest threat is."

"And how exactly do you do that?"

He sighed, annoyed, and motioned toward Rollins. "Look," he said. "She isn't going to give me any trouble."

"Amanda? Well of course not, but what drew you to that conclusion?"

"Because Buchanan is only going to be able to pull the quote-unquote affair card once - and if it's going to be with anyone, I already know the intended target."

Nora almost dropped the bottle of merlot. He couldn't possibly know - no way would he be so calm - but who else if not - where's Marissa when I need her, for God's sake?

"Obviously, Olivia Benson is going to be my problem child," he finished. Nora hoped he did not notice the sigh of relief she breathed, shaky as it was. She tried in vain to steady her voice.

"H-how do you know that?"

"Oh, come on, Nora," he said. "It's fairly obvious that those two are closer than coworkers."

"But isn't she dating that Tucker guy?"

"So they say, but he isn't here tonight, is he?" Eli scoffed. "Besides, when did the political world care about truth? Politics is perception, and public perception is that Benson and Rafael are suspiciously close."

"People said the same thing about you and Peter," she muttered.

"I heard that."

"I meant you to," she said. "So, what's your play then?"

"That much, I haven't exactly figured out. I'm going to have to wait and see how Buchanan plays it before I put any specific plan into action."

Good thing all your plans are about to be shot to shit, she thought.

"All right, so who else-" Then, she looked up at him and saw his jaw set - the muscles in his neck tensed and flexed as his teeth clenched. She followed his gaze across the room to where Marissa stood, taller by a few inches in her black over-the-knee boots. And next to her, taller still, and with his arm draped loosely around her shoulder, was Sonny Carisi.

"I'm gonna go ahead and guess that Carisi isn't so much a problem for Rafael as he is for you, huh?" Nora's lips curled into a half-smile. He didn't reply, but he also didn't take his eyes off of where Carisi's arm touched Marissa's bare skin, where her sweater fell away from her shoulder. Suddenly, a measured, dark voice broke the silence on her other side.

"Good party," Nick said. She glanced left. Eli had wandered further toward the windows, making a not-so-subtle attempt to stare down Carisi.

"Thanks," she replied. "At least no one's flipped a table or something, anyway."

"You know, it's early yet," he said. "What are you doing all the way over here?"

"Surveying the potential for table flipping?"

"Nice try."

"You're too much a cop," she replied, trying to change the subject. "Everyone else having a good time, too?"

"I think so."

"No shop talk, at least?"

"Well, you know cops," he said dryly. "There's always shop talk. Probably be better once Barba shows up."

"What's THAT supposed to mean?" Eli's voice from behind her made Nora jump, and she almost dropped the wine bottle a SECOND time.

"Oh, you know Barba, life of the party," she said, trying to defuse the situation with a nervous, disingenuous laugh. "Like you have room to talk, Nick." She gestured toward his still-buttoned sleeves and tightly-knotted tie and gave him a playful shoulder-shove. Unfortunately, and though neither would ever admit it, Eli and Nick were far too alike to be in the same room. Both were quick to anger with easily bruised egos and the ability and willingness - almost eagerness - to hold an eternal grudge.

"It means," Nick replied, totally ignoring Nora even as he stepped past her, "that ever since he started running for this political office, Barba doesn't seem to care about his job." He approached Eli like a detective rather than a party guest, puffing out his chest and tilting his chin slightly upward. Though he wasn't much taller than Eli, to Nora, he looked much bigger. Eli reacted predictably. He mirrored Nick.

Nora rolled her eyes, determined to de-escalate the situation before anyone else noticed - Olivia was already starting to glance toward them. "Okay, we've all proven our manhood. Let's just-"

"Nora, stay out of this!" Eli barked.

"Hey, you don't need to talk to her like that," Nick said.

"Oh, Nick, it's okay, he-"

"What does that mean, 'he doesn't care about his job anymore?' You know something I don't?"

"Yeah, I do," Nick said, slowly inching closer to Eli's face. "I know he passed the Manny Garcia case off on Joe Thomas. Why? And why's he handing off other cases to him?"

"You know why," Eli countered, rolling not just his eyes but his entire head back in disgust. "If he wants to do any good, if you don't want John Buchanan's fat ass in that office-"

Nick's face crinkled into a bemused smirk. "So he passes off cases that might not be winners and pleads out others. Yeah, real tough on crime."

By then, Nora had changed her mind. She was silently screaming for someone to intervene before this got violent, because she was damn sure not going to be able to hold off a guy with a gun. Did he have his gun? He probably always had his gun. Did Eli think about the fact that Nick had his gun? Or did he think he was literally bulletproof? Fortunately, Olivia seemed to have sensed Nora's panic, because she started toward the three of them. She separated the two men by stepping into Nora's place. Oh, thank God, Nora thought, an armed person who's on MY side.

"Okay, so, I think we all ought to just take a breath," Olivia said. "Isn't this why you don't discuss money, religion, or politics at parties?"

Nick and Eli glared at each other, and Olivia and Nora looked back and forth at them like a tennis match. Finally, Eli broke. He took the tiniest of steps backward and, though his expression remained unfailingly cold, he simply said, "Well, we wouldn't want to ruin a good party, would we?"

Suddenly, Marissa appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. "Dad, I-what's going on?"

"Nothing," Olivia said, not wanting to give either of them a chance to start up again.

"Okay, I don't believe you, but whatever. Anyway, we're having a discussion about how you handle political scandal. Sonny said - why are you looking at me that way - Sonny said that Bill Clinton is the best example of how to handle a sex scandal, but I'm going with Alexander Hamilton. I need you to settle the debate." With that, Eli allowed Marissa to drag him away by the elbow while Olivia turned back to Nick.

"Honestly, Nick, was that necessary?"

"Liv, I-"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "No, you need to hear this. Stop pushing it. He's running, whether you like it or not." He set his jaw and looked away. He would never admit she was right, even if he took her advice.

"Don't worry about it too much, Nick," Nora interjected, checking her watch. "He'll have better things to be pissed at soon enough."

Thankfully, Rafael and Lauren were fashionably late, so Nora and Marissa had time to refill Eli's wine glass on a fairly consistent basis. He did manage to question Fin about his gay son and his imprisoned stepson, and he almost tripped over himself when he asked about Olivia's experiences with William Lewis - Carisi managed to steer him away from that topic by distracting him with a well-placed question about the differences between Illinois and New York political campaign rules. But both women knew that the inevitable was coming, and eventually it did - at 8:30 p.m., a faint knock at the door, quite likely Lauren's hand.

"I've got it," Eli said, excusing himself from his conversation with Carisi. Nora, however, all but leaped in front of him before Marissa could even think to move.

"No, I've got it," she said. "It's- it's probably the caterer coming to start cleanup."

"Cleanup?" Carisi looked at his watch. "It's only-"

"I've GOT it," she said, shooting him a warning look. Eli shrugged, the wine temporarily cutting off his need to question her motives, and went back to his conversation. Nora slipped out the door and met the couple in the hallway.

Lauren was much prettier than she had expected. In her heels, she was just a shade taller than Rafael, with shoulder-length brown hair that fell in loose waves around her face. She wasn't wearing much makeup at all, save for an extraordinarily bright red lipstick which had somehow made its way to the very edge of Rafael's collar. What stood out most to Nora, though, was that Lauren looked completely unfazed by the fact that instead of Marissa inviting them inside - presumably what she had expected - she had been greeted by a strange black lady joining them in the hallway. She didn't hesitate: she extended her hand.

"Hi," she said, softly, as though she understood that there were a covert mission going on. "I'm Lauren."

"I suspected," Nora replied, glancing with a smile at the way Rafael's hand lay across the flat of her back. "It's nice to finally meet you. But in the interest of honesty and, well, safety, it's best I warn you that Eli thinks I'm talking to the caterer right now, because he does not yet know that you two are back together."

"It was kind of a giveaway when you met us in the hallway," Rafael said. "How mad is he going to be?"

"Well," Nora said, glancing behind her as if she thought the door might fly open at any moment, "we've been trying to get him liquored up. But I've seen Eli down scotch like a sailor and fly off the handle at an intern a second later, so…"

Rafael looked from Lauren to Nora and back again. As usual, his mind was racing through each scenario and its consequences, having only a minute to pick one on which to act. Lauren, on the other hand, looked at him as though this were any other meeting. He looked down at his tie.

"I liked the red one better,"

"Yeah, well, Marbury had other intentions."

"That stain is never going to come out."

She hesitated, then reached up to adjust the knot. The festive, emerald green brightened his already striking eyes. "It will. It might not be easy, but if you love it that much, it's worth a shot, right?"

Nora shifted a bit. She felt as though she were witnessing a moment unintended for anyone else.

"Is everyone else already here?" He stared at the door.

"Yes," Nora said, placing a hand on the knob. She saw him flinch just slightly. "Marissa has been trying to get him boozy, like I said, and he seems more interested in interrogating Nick right now, but-"

"Yeah, nice try," he said. Then, he turned back to Lauren. "You're absolutely sure you want to do this? Because once we've told Eli and introduced you - I mean - we don't have to do this yet." He felt stupid, like he was just rambling on. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, so he was just saying everything.

She smoothed a fallen wisp of hair off of his forehead, letting her hand linger on his hairline just a second longer than usual. She caught his eye, a flash of insecurity. "Rafael."

Sometimes when she said his name, it made his heart race. But something in the way she said it this time made his pulse slow along with his breathing and his mind. He looked at her through his eyelashes and nodded slightly.

Nora, meanwhile, watched this interaction with a subtly scrutinizing eye. She had seen enough political groupies to know one when she saw one, usually within the first five minutes. God knows Peter Florrick had more than his share. But that little gesture - as if to steady his nerves despite her own - that wasn't duplicity or scheming or manipulation. That was truth; something Rafael would desperately need in the coming year.

Lauren turned back to face Nora. "All right, I think it's safe to say they know we aren't the caterer by now."

"Rafael?" Nora figured she ought to have the go-ahead from the person who was about to be spanked. He gave a curt nod. So, without further hesitation, Nora opened the door and went in first.

"Hey, everyone, it wasn't the caterer after all," she said. Rafael gently nudged past her, followed closely by Lauren, on whose hand he had a death grip. Never one to allow his nerves to show publicly, however, he pulled her closer to his side, as if daring someone to comment.

"Everyone behaving? I don't want to get any calls from One PP on Monday."

The entire group stared at the couple in the kitchen with stunned expressions. Even Olivia, who know about Lauren's existence, seemed surprised to see him standing with her on his arm. Rafael searched the group for Eli, but couldn't find him - and actually, Marissa was missing in action, too. Lauren, on the other hand, observed the silence in the room. Coupled with Eli's sudden absence, she decided the best thing to do at that point was to address the awkwardness head-on.

"Well, now you all know my party trick. I make social gatherings both more interesting and more uncomfortable." More than a few people laughed, and she felt Rafael's hand slacken just slightly. Nora handed her a glass of wine.

"Red or white?"

The party was in full swing, and although Rafael was still extraordinarily nervous by Eli's absence, it wasn't altogether unwelcome. Lauren was actually able to socialize with the people he spent the majority of his life with - he still felt weird calling any of them but Olivia his "friends" - and he was, for once, able to spend an evening with his girlfriend outside the confines of either of their apartments. It finally felt like they had a real, normal relationship.

"So, Lauren, how different is Barba out of his suspenders?" Rollins asked.

Lauren almost choked on her chardonnay. "I- what?"

Rollins turned hot pink. "Oh, good lord, I didn't mean - I just meant -"

"She meant am I as big a tightass in real life as I am in my work." Rafael completed Rollins' sentence for her, rolling his eyes. "Because obviously, I'm never any fun."

"Ah, I wouldn't say that," Carisi chuckled, slapping Rafael on the shoulder. Lauren saw Rafael shoot the young cop daggers, but brushed it off as his general dislike of basically anything that left Carisi's mouth.

"Rafael is more fun than he will ever let on," Lauren finally answered. "He's just got an image to maintain." She gave him a playful glance, which he returned with a smirk.

"Yeah, no one can ever know I like long walks on the beach and horseback riding."

"Speaking of big and bad, where's Eli?" Lauren asked. "From everything I've heard and read, I feel like he would have been the first person to start grilling me."

"Actually, I've been wondering the same thing," Rafael said, looking around the room curiously. "I haven't seen Marissa either, come to think of it." Nora glanced over from her conversation with Fin, in which she had only been half-engaged, ready to jump at the first hint of Eli's appearance.

"He went to take a call just before you two came in," Olivia said. "And a few minutes later, he called Marissa back with him."

"Back?"

"Into his office, I'd guess," Nora said, sensing danger as she crossed the room. "I'll go-"

Suddenly, the entire apartment seemed to shake with a bellow unlike anything even Nora had ever heard.

"WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO? WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO, MARISSA?"

The whole party seemed to stop as if paused on a screen. There may as well have been a record scratch. Rafael glanced at Lauren, whose face was somewhere between fear and amusement.

"I don't know why he wrote that, Dad!" Marissa sounded irritated and even a little afraid. "It's not like it's any fun for me either, you know!"

"I warned you! I TOLD you that reporters would try anything to make him look bad - ANYTHING for a story!"

"Well I didn't think that included a half minute private moment AFTER the event was over!"

"You KNOW better than this!"

Meanwhile, Rafael cleared his throat. "Lauren, maybe this isn't the evening for us to-"

"No," Lauren replied. "It's only going to be harder the longer we wait. Besides, if we can't handle him, how are we ever going to handle the press-"

But before either of them knew what was happening, a door slammed. A pair of heels clacked angrily down the hallway, followed by the same door opening and more angry footsteps. Marissa flew into the room in a rage, angrier than Rafael had ever seen her.

"Marissa, get back here!" Eli marched into the room just as fiercely, almost knocking his daughter over as she stopped suddenly and rounded on him.

"Why would I want to go back in there and listen to you tell me I screwed up? Do you think I wanted this to happen? Do you think I don't know how this looks?" As furious as she was, her voice sounded shaky, as though she might cry. Lauren knew how that felt. When she was a first year attorney, she'd once gotten so angry at opposing counsel in a contract negotiation that she had to fake a phone call so that she didn't burst into tears in front of him.

"That is NOT the point, Marissa," Eli shot back. "You were supposed to keep control of the situation!"

"Excuse me," Carisi said, quite bravely (or, in Rafael's opinion, stupidly), "but you wanna tell the rest of us what's going on?" He stepped to Marissa's side.

Eli was so angry with Marissa that he forgot for a moment how much he disliked Carisi. "You can read all about it in the Times next week," he spat, still glaring at Marissa. He still hadn't noticed that Rafael or Lauren were there. Nora and Fin had managed to jump in front of them, shielding them from view until cooler heads prevailed.

But then it dawned on Rafael. The Times. The article. Something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. Marissa had mentioned a gift. Oh, hell. And now Eli was blaming her when Rafael had orchestrated the whole thing. He couldn't see Nora's face, but he saw her hands. They were clenched, white-knuckled, at her sides. For her to react this way, having worked with Eli for over a decade, concerned him deeply. He gave Lauren's hand a gentle squeeze and swallowed hard.

"Eli," he said, pushing between Nora and Fin, "stop."

Eli's head snapped back over his shoulder so hard that Rafael thought he might break his neck. "Raf- where did you come from?"

"The Bronx," Rafael replied without so much as a blink. "You need to calm down."

"I will NOT calm down. You don't know what's going on. That reporter - Glenn Danbury -"

"It's not hard to figure out," Rafael said.

"Then would you like to enlighten the rest of us?" Carisi repeated.

"Seems that my attempt at Christmas cheer backfired," Rafael replied without so much as a glance in Carisi's direction. "My heart should have stayed two sizes too small."

Nora understood contextually what had happened.  "Basically, there was supposed to be a story about Rafael attending the office holiday party and a reporter decided to go rogue and imply that he's sleeping with Marissa because he saw Rafael give her a present." Noting Carisi's horrified expression, she shook her head and softened her eyes. "It's completely bogus, and no one is going to buy it."

"'Do a human interest piece,' you said," Eli continued, talking over Carisi, words soaked in sarcasm. "'I'll take care of it, Dad. Nothing will go wrong, I promise.'" He paced the small amount of floor available to him. "Well great job, Marissa. Now I'm going to have to spend a week cleaning up mess and dealing with allegations that the candidate we just convinced the city is not GAY is also not having sex with his ASSISTANT-"

"You mean YOUR DAUGHTER! Or did you forget about the fact that I'm not just your candidate's bodywoman, Dad? I'm also a fucking person, a person that YOU created, actually, and you'd think that you'd be even the slightest bit concerned that some asshole reporter was calling your daughter a slut, but no, of course, it's all about YOU!"

Setting aside the sheer volume of her voice, hearing Marissa yell like that was jarring. Rafael had seen her frustrated, of course - more than ever these last few months. Usually, that merely led to sardonic commentary, or maybe the errant snappish tone of voice (about which he had once warned her and which had never shown itself again). But he didn't know how angry Marissa could get until the moment when Eli had seemingly forgotten she was his child, and that she had been hurt too.

The room went silent. Eli looked momentarily thrown - but only just - and then shook his head. "This… this is ridiculous. We can't argue about who's to blame now. We have to worry about damage control."

"Oh, here we go," Rafael said. "Why can't we just let it run its course? It'll die down."

"Like hell it will."

"Nah, I think the counselor's right," Carisi said. "I think the more you comment, the bigger it gets. Plus, then Marissa gets thrown under the bus, like she's trying to seduce him or something." Marissa pinched him. "Ow!"

"Well, thank you, David Axelrod, for that brilliant strategic analysis. When you've been in crisis management for half your life, pulled a governor out of a prison jumpsuit, and run a national political campaign, THEN your opinion will be relevant to me."

Rafael ordinarily would have relished Eli's takedown of Carisi, but he was only thinking of one thing: now that Nora had pushed toward Marissa's side, he and Fin were all that stood between Lauren and Eli's guaranteed fury.

"Eli, really, we can handle this," Nora said soothingly. "We've handled tons of infidelity scandals, and at least with this, there's no merit to it."

"Yeah, who's gonna believe M is gonna go for an old guy like Barba anyway?" Fin smirked.

"My problem is," Eli said, totally ignoring him, "I can't dip into the photo-op-with-random-woman well again, because then he gets a reputation as, well-"

"Peter Florrick?" Nick said, suppressing a smile. Eli's face pinched.

"Anyway, we also can't use Nora again, so we need to figure out another way to prove that this little gift - and by the way, you-" he looked at Marissa, who had calmed slightly but still clenched her jaw as he talked to her - "will be returning whatever it was - meant nothing."

Throughout the entire conversation, Lauren had stood quietly behind Nora, Fin, and Rafael, waiting for her boyfriend to find a good - or at least a not-horrible - moment to bring her (them) up to Eli. Understandably, Rafael was waiting for an opening in the conversation so that he could at least try to brace his campaign manager for news that would further complicate the situation at hand. And also understandably, the evening hadn't gone the way they'd intended. But this seemed like the perfect opening. Rafael needed the public to know he wasn't sleeping with his assistant, so why wouldn't they just announce that he had a steady girlfriend?

But still, he said nothing.

So she decided to take matters into her own hands. She inhaled deeply and handed her wine glass to Fin, who placed his other hand on her forearm. She gave him a curt nod, and he seemed to understand. She shook out her hair so that it fell back over her shoulders, straightened her back, and stepped forward.

"Actually, Eli," she said, her voice louder than she'd expected it to be, "you have the perfect explanation right here."

Eli whipped around on his heel and squinted at her for a second, going over the Rolodex in his head to remember who she was. But he knew instinctively that he had never met this woman in his life.

"Who the hell are you?" He looked her up and down appraisingly. She was too old to be a friend of Marissa's, but also didn't look like a cop.

"Maybe you'd better explain, Rafael," Nora said, inching toward Eli. The way this night had gone, she wanted to make sure she could keep him away from any dangerous objects - not that he would actually ever hurt Lauren, of course, but she didn't trust him not to try to stab himself with a broken wine glass.

"Tell me what?" Nora and Marissa glanced at each other. Maybe the constant flow of booze had backfired.

To Rafael, the room felt impossibly small. He hadn't worked out this plan, and he hated having to improvise. He felt like he did when a witness changed their testimony mid-direct. Carisi was preoccupied with Marissa and being generally useless. Nora looked more concerned with Eli than anything. Nick obviously wasn't about to jump in to help him, and Rollins and Fin weren't about to get in the middle of this either. Then, he caught Olivia's eye, and she motioned with her head just slightly toward Lauren. Her words echoed in his head: little victories.

"Eli," he said, crossing him to stand next to Lauren and putting his hand on her back, "this may be either the worst or the best time to introduce you. This is Lauren Sullivan. Lauren, this is Eli Gold."

Lauren held out her hand as if this were a perfectly ordinary meeting. "The pleasure is all mine." She wanted to abate any negative reaction before it happened. Eli stared at her hand. Nora saw the vein in his neck throbbing. Things were about to go horribly wrong.

"Lauren…" He stared through her, as though she existed in a fog. Then, suddenly, he leaned back. The clouds parted.

Without thinking, Rafael capped off the introduction. ". . . my girlfriend should explain away the Marissa situation, then, yes?"

Eli watched Rafael's arm slide around the waist of his newest problem, and he finally snapped, but in a way no one expected. He smiled at Lauren and shook her hand. Then, he tilted his head at Rafael.

"Okay. Okay," he said, almost starting to laugh. "All right, this has gone on long enough."

Rafael's brow furrowed and he glanced nervously at Marissa, who was apparently unmoved by what appeared to be her father's nervous breakdown. She threw up her hands in resignation. He couldn't really blame her.

"What are you talking about, Eli?" Nora, at least, seemed worried. "This isn't-"

"It's OBVIOUSLY a joke, Nora, come on!" He smiled again, and it got more maniacal by the minute - far too wide, toothy, forced. "It HAS to be a joke, because Rafael wouldn't really have gotten back together with the woman he JUST told me he'd broken up with, the woman on whom I have NO background information, the woman who I was told was GONE. And of course he wouldn't have gotten back together with her now, just after this holiday party-"

"Okay, Eli, I think we all better go on home and let you guys talk," Rollins said, putting a leading arm on Nick and Fin's shoulders. But Eli rambled on.

"No, no! It's a party! Stay! I mean, obviously this is all just in good fun, because if - and this is a big if - if Rafael HAD gotten back together with this woman-" he gestured madly toward Lauren, who stepped backward as though he had pointed a gun at her - "I obviously would have been the FIRST TO KNOW!"

He ran a hand through his hair, which then stuck up in weird places, totally unkempt from alcohol-influenced anger. He loosened his tie and somehow, instead of looking more relaxed, he just looked more unhinged. Lauren rolled her eyes.

"Look, Eli, we didn't do this to hurt you. Believe it or not, this isn't about you, it's about-"

"Oh, that makes me feel so much better about this situation. And YOU TWO." He spun around and looked at Marissa and Nora. "This is the - God, I've lost count how many times you've gone behind my back in this campaign. I am the campaign manager. I need to know these things! I NEED TO KNOW THESE THINGS!"

It was difficult to see straight through the red drape of anger in front of his eyes. He pushed through a gap between Nick and Rollins.

"Eli-" Nora went after him and grabbed his arm, desperate to stop him from leaving and doing something stupid. He shook her off, wide-eyed, as if she were dirtying his suit. He didn't even look back as he slammed the door behind him, its force causing a wine glass to fall off the edge of the counter.

Tears stung the back of her eyes, but Nora blinked them back. She turned back to the group of people who were staring at her helplessly and tried to collect herself. "Sorry about that," she said, hoping her voice wasn't as shaky as it sounded. "He's… stressed and probably a little drunk. I'll make him apologize and, I don't know, write checks or something."

"Stop making excuses for him," Marissa said. "He was an ass, and that's that." She turned to Lauren. "I'm sorry that that's how you had to meet him."

"I work for one of the biggest law firms in the city," Lauren replied with a wry smile. "I'm used to cranky old men throwing temper tantrums."

"Any idea where he went?" Carisi asked.

"If it were me, I'd be headed to that reporter's office right now." Rafael glanced at Marissa, who looked stricken. "Especially if it were my daughter."


The wind bit his face as he hurtled out the glass doors of his building. He'd barely remembered to grab his coat on the way out, and now, as he felt the searing cold on his bare hands, he regretted his haste. Then again, given how suddenly white-hot he'd felt mere moments ago, he almost welcomed the arctic air and the numbness that went with it.

Ordinarily, he would have hailed a cab, but he honestly had no earthly idea where he was going. He hadn't thought that far ahead when he left the party. He obviously couldn't go home - the party WAS home. The idea of going to campaign headquarters made him feel physically sick. And he'd had far too much wine to want to drink any more. Instead, he started toward the destination every lost soul in New York finds themselves headed. Sure, walking through Central Park at half past ten at night might not have been the most prudent plan, but the way he was feeling, he almost hoped some unfortunate mugger decided to attack him. It would at least give him a legal defense.

Despite the cold and the late hour, the city hadn't stilled. Theatre-goers were enjoying post-show dinners and bar patrons were just kicking off the evening. The holiday season gave everyone a particularly cheerful demeanor, which only served to piss him off more. All he really wanted was for the world to stop for a minute so that maybe he could get his bearings and figure out exactly how to deal with either of these two problems.

He could see treetops in the distance, the elaborately planned Eden in this concrete hell, and he had never been so grateful for the idea of organized tranquility. He spent the better part of his life - or the worse part, depending on how he looked at it - playing to crowds, forcing energy around them. It came with the job, and he knew that every time he took on a campaign. But sometimes, he found himself understanding why people suddenly picked up and moved to isolated cabins in Montana. Sometimes, it sounded preferable to another campaign event. The only thing that kept him sane all through Peter's campaigns and associated scandals was the evening jogs through Lincoln Park. He'd begun them begrudgingly on his doctor's orders just after Peter's State's Attorney campaign, but he had grown dependent on them to keep from killing interns. After he moved, he'd given them up, as he hadn't anticipated being involved with politics again. Clearly, that had been a mistake on several levels, not least of which being that the faster he walked, the more breathless he became.

He had to deal with this story about Marissa and Rafael sooner rather than later. He had twenty-four, maybe forty-eight hours to convince this reporter not to print it, or at least remove the "juicier" aspects of the piece, and he had no idea how he was going to accomplish that. Maybe he could blackmail the kid? But first he'd have to get some dirt on him, and that could take longer than he had. And on top of that, the image of Rafael with his hand on Lauren's back kept nagging at him, like a photograph on the front page. He had no idea what was in this woman's background and the fact that Rafael was being so wishy-washy about dating her… it didn't bode well. What was more, if any of the idiots at the party - and he was specifically thinking of Nick and Carisi - said anything about "Barba's girlfriend" within earshot of anyone with a microphone, he would have a THIRD problem. And then he thought about Carisi, and his hand on Marissa's shoulder, and he was angry all over again.

Before he knew it, he was at the northeastern entrance to the park and still had no idea what to do about any of this mess. But as he started to head in, looking forward to the canopy of dark isolation, he was temporarily distracted by a voice coming from a bench near the entrance.

"Dad, no. I - I didn't mean to - will you just listen -"

He squinted. He could tell she was blonde, maybe a little older than Nora. He didn't want to get too close because at this time of night in Central Park, he was liable to be arrested, and with his luck, it'd be Nick. But still, something seemed off about this.

"Dad, I was just walking home from Monica's and I lost my wallet and-" Something told Eli that wasn't true, but he couldn't exactly comment on that fact. "I just need you to come get-" She suddenly looked at the phone's screen. Eli guessed he had hung up on her. He expected her to get up and start walking somewhere, but she just sat on the bench, phone in her lap, looking exhausted.

Something still seemed a little off about her, even outside the fact that she was sitting outside the park at half past nine. She was holding a designer bag, but wore no coat. Her hair looked like it had fallen from a once-polished updo, but her clothes were slightly rumpled, like she had just fallen out of bed.

He was about to walk away, into the park, staying a clear distance from her. But then out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. He turned to look and saw her reach up and wipe her cheek with her palm. Then, she looked back down at her phone, as if willing it to ring. It didn't, and she probably knew it wouldn't. After a moment, she stood up, a little shaky on her feet at first, and started in his direction. She held her bag closer to her chest when she noticed him, and the nearer she got, the more he realized she wasn't Nora's age at all - she couldn't have been more than seventeen. Her makeup looked ghostly under the streetlights. It was streaked in placed, caked in others. She also seemed to be talking to herself; he could hear quiet mutterings under her breath as she walked toward him.

She finally got close enough for it to be weird that he was still watching her, but she seemed in some kind of daze and didn't even seem to notice him. Her dark eyes betrayed no emotion: not sadness, not anger, not fear. It was as if she had some version of that conversation with her father so many times that she had become all but numb to the way he spoke to her.

She accidentally bumped his arm as she passed him. "I'm sorry," she said. Her voice was a cracked whisper, and it occurred to him that it may not have been an apology to him as much as it was a request for absolution from someone else.

"It's okay," is all he said as he watched her shrink in the distance. He knew he should have said more. He could have at least offered her her cab fare - he had plenty to spare. But he shouldn't have even had to make that call. Where the hell was her father? He may not have been the most perfect dad, but if Marissa had ever called and said something was wrong, can you come get me, he would have. No matter what else, a parent's job, like it or not, was to protect and defend your kid, not to leave her to find her own way home when she's truly lost.

Suddenly, something NEW snapped in his head. He turned to see if the girl was still nearby, but she had vanished into the night. He checked his watch, then plucked his phone from his pocket.

"Hi Glenn? Eli," he said, trying to maintain composure. "Listen, thanks for the heads-up on the article. Any chance you have a half hour I could steal to fine-tune it? Make sure we're all in sync?"

He and Glenn made plans to meet at a nearby restaurant in half an hour, after Glenn finished another article he was working on. Eli didn't even bother to say goodbye before hanging up. He only cared about Glenn Danbury for one reason: his next move.


When Eli walked into the bar, he immediately lasered in on the young, blond reporter who was clearly attempting to hit on an equally young, equally blonde woman next to him. He felt heat rising under his collar as he strode over to the bar and tapped Glenn on his shoulder.

"Boy, this is so NOT going to be your lucky night," he said. Glenn turned around and for just a moment, fear flashed across his face. He knew why Eli was there, but was hoping it wouldn't be contentious. He clearly had hoped in vain.

"Oh! Eli! Finally. I was starting to worry."

"Well, you should definitely be worried," Eli replied. Then he looked at the leggy blonde who was giving him a disapproving stare. "You can go." She looked like she might argue until he raised a threatening eyebrow, at which point she slipped wordlessly from her stool. Glenn watched her go, then turned back to Eli.

"Well, thanks for that," he said. "Now that you've scared away the only chance I had at getting laid, what can I do for you?"

"First off, you had absolutely NO chance of getting laid. And second, it's not about what you CAN do, it's what you're GOING to do." Eli took the seat that the blonde had vacated. Glenn continued to drink his martini, not making eye contact.

"Oh?" That was all he said.

"Yes," Eli continued. "See, as I said, I reviewed the draft you sent me, and it just isn't going to work for us." He signaled to the bartender, who brought over a second martini.

"Hm."

"Do you have any responses that are not monosyllabic?" When Glenn didn't respond, Eli continued, "Anyway, you don't seem to understand me. This article is NOT going to work."

Glenn smirked. "I don't know that you have much say in it, Eli. I've only got a couple hours before I send it to press, and I think I did a pretty accurate representation of the candidate. The readers deserve to know who they're voting for, after all."

Eli's mouth scrunched into a tight ball. Clearly, this punk was not going to understand subtlety. "You don't seem to get it, Glenn. You won't be running that story. My daughter is not a part of this campaign. She isn't a candidate. She has nothing to do with any of this, and she's not going to be made part of it. Do you understand me?"

Despite Eli's growl and piercing glare, Glenn was unfazed. He set his now-empty glass aside and turned to the angry face next to him. "Eli, I don't see how you're going to force me to do anything."

"I will make sure your journalism career leads to the storage closet at LMZ," Eli replied. Glenn shrugged.

"If you had any dirt on me, you would have already threatened me with it," he said. "You can't force me to do anything. My editor is going to salivate when I show him this article, so it's not as if you're going to cost me my job."

Eli sighed. There had to be a way to get around this. He would not be defeated by some snot-nosed reporter with a Napoleon complex.

"Glenn, let's cut the crap. What's your endgame? What is it you want?"

"Funny, isn't it, that just a few minutes ago you were making demands and now you're asking for mine? It's like a hostage negotiation."

"Glenn, I swear to God…"

"Give me a job." It was so matter-of-fact that Eli was sure he had misheard.

"Excuse me? Did you just ask what I think you asked?"

"I did." Glenn sat back, folding his hands on the table. Eli stared at him expectantly, but when Glenn didn't respond, he shook his head.

"No. Absolutely not. No." He knew he had to be firm about this - he couldn't have a reporter on his staff.

"Come on, Eli," Glenn said. "You need me, and not just because I'm holding this article over your head." The only aspect of the situation Eli was considering was the article. Oddly, though, he got the sense that Glenn really didn't have the inclination to print it as it was written. He changed tactics.

"If - and this is a VERY big if - if I were to consider this, how would I know you weren't just infiltrating the campaign for a story?"

Glenn shrugged. "You wouldn't. But why would I be willing to scrap an article like this for a job on the campaign if I weren't serious?"

"You could easily leak it to a blogger and then claim your email got hacked," Eli shot back. "I've been down that road before."

"And then you could just as easily fire me," Glenn countered. "So again, what reason would I have to screw you over here?"

Eli searched for any retort to this, but came up frustratingly empty. So he just asked the next logical question. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do you want to leave your cushy job at the newspaper and work for a campaign where you'd make barely a third of what you make now?"

"Honestly?" Glenn pushed a piece of his shaggy hair out of his eyes and crossed his arms.

"No, lie to me," Eli replied, dripping sarcasm from every word.

"I hate John Buchanan."

Eli had to laugh. How was that guy getting any votes? He was like Ted Cruz - apparently he was popular, people voted for him - but no one would actually admit to it. "Welcome to the club," he said. Then, he pinched the bridge of his nose. "And if I agree to hire you, then what WILL you be printing?"

Glenn pulled an envelope from his inside jacket pocket. "Consider this my employment application." Eli ripped the contents from the envelope and scanned the pages briefly. Though always quick-witted, Rafael Barba is not always buttoned-up. He has no problem matching wits with his colleagues while maintaining the spirit of the season: his festive red silk tie is exactly what you'd imagine the young ADA to wear to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office holiday party. While this event might not be the most glitzy of all the parties in New York, it's certainly the most representative of Mr. Barba: by the people, of the people, for the people.

The article continued into exactly what Eli had originally hoped it would: a piece describing Rafael as a man hoping to change the world for the better, one case at a time. Glenn talked about Rafael's successes in the courtroom next to his interpersonal relationships with his colleagues - and he did include the interaction he'd witnessed with Marissa, but only to show Rafael's respect and concern for his subordinates. It was as if the original article had never existed. Yes, he had to consider that Glenn might have published that article if not for Eli calling about this meeting. But maybe Glenn had known all along that Eli would do just that. It was sneaky and underhanded - but exactly the kind of attitude the campaign could use in a reporter.

"So," Glenn said, "do I get the job?"

Eli placed the article face-down on the table, and folded his hands on top of it. This time, it was his face that betrayed nothing.


Christmas came uneventfully, which was music to Rafael's ears. After the disaster that was Marissa and Nora's party, he couldn't take any more holiday drama. The best part for him was introducing Lauren to his mother. He had been nervous about it, because Lucia Barba was never a fan of any of the few girls he had dared to bring home, but she had instantly taken a liking to Lauren. It may have had something to do with the fact that Lauren was so naturally confident that Lucia didn't intimidate her. They had shared a lovely dinner together, after which Lucia decided to completely embarrass him by bringing out the photo album. He didn't have many happy childhood memories, but Lucia and his abuelita had tried to assemble them into one place where they could pretend they all happened at once.

"And this," Lucia said, "was Rafael's college graduation. Doesn't he look handsome in his little hat?"

"Cap, mother. Cap," Rafael said. "Like you don't know this. You work at a charter school."

She smiled the same devilish smile he shared with her, and Lauren returned it. "He looks very handsome," she agreed.

"I look goofy," he said. The hat looked too big for his head. He was skinnier then, several thousand lattes earlier.

"Where did you go to college, Lauren?" Lucia asked.

Suddenly, for the first time since they'd gotten back together, Lauren looked visibly uncomfortable. "Well, um, for the first couple years, I went to Bronx Community College, you know, to save money. Then, I transferred to QC."

"I didn't know you were at QC," Rafael said. "I have a cousin who went there, right, Mom? Probably right around the time you did."

"Probably so," Lucia said. "What's your degree in? Maybe you two know each other."

"Oh, well, it's such a big school," Lauren said. "I'm a complete stereotype. I have a Bachelor's in political science."

"Oh, I think Raul was in drama or something," Lucia said.

"It's funny you were in polisci and yet have no interest in my campaign," Rafael said as he poured himself another glass of wine.

"I only got the degree because I had to major in SOMETHING," she replied. "I was good at it, and it wasn't completely boring. What was your major, Raf? You've never told me."

"And you never read my resume?"

"You came highly recommended. I didn't need a resume," she laughed. "Seriously, what was it?"

"What do you think it was?"

Lucia knew, of course, but kept it to herself. Lauren thought about this logically, in typical lawyer fashion. Most lawyers graduated with degrees in some sort of social science, English, or history. If it were something expected, Rafael wouldn't be making her guess. He wasn't particularly adept at math; he needed his phone's calculator to figure out the tip at dinner. She narrowed it down to business or economics.

"Nope," he said when she guessed. "Not even close."

"Well, then I'm at a loss," Lauren said. "Come on."

"Women's studies."

Lauren almost inhaled her tea. "Seriously?"

"I was so proud of him," Lucia said.

"No, really. I have an A.B. in Women's Studies."

"What in the world made you want to do women's studies?"

"Well, obviously, it started out as a way to meet women. If you can imagine, I wasn't exactly as suave as I am now," he said.

"I'm shocked," she grinned.

"Anyway, I ended up really enjoying the intro class, so I took another… and another… and before you knew it, that was my concentration. I did my senior thesis on the growing epidemic of sexual assault in high school and the reasons it's overlooked or covered up."

"My Rafael was a pioneer," Lucia said. This was news to him - Lucia had barely paid his scholastic achievements any mind before the campaign. That had always fallen to his abuelita.

"That's kind of how I got into this whole area of law, to be honest. I went into law school with that kind of background, knowing what I did about the challenges women face, and I knew I wanted to use that to help somehow. It's why I could never do what Buchanan does, and why he can never come within five feet of the D.A.'s office."

Lauren obviously liked Rafael. But at that moment, it occurred to her how much she RESPECTED him.

Meanwhile, Lucia glanced at the clock behind where Rafael stood. "Lauren," she said, "would you be a dear and go pour us another cup of tea? The kettle should still be warm."

"I'll get it, mami," Rafael said, but Lauren was already on her feet.

"Of course, Lucia," she said, starting toward the kitchen. "Be back in a minute." As she left, she put a loving hand on Rafael's stomach, and he noticed that he wasn't at all self-conscious for the first time in his life. Lucia motioned for him to come sit next to her, patting the seat.

"So," he said, swirling his wine, "do you-"

"She's lovely," Lucia said. "Not at all what I expected."

"What did you expect?"

"A little arrogant, maybe uptight," she admitted, a sheepish smile on her face.

"Kind of like your son?" He returned the smile.

"You knew her in high school, you said?"

"I did."

"Well, your father and I were high school sweethearts," she mused, "but of course, we were kids when we got married, and I was pregnant with you."

He shuddered. He really didn't want to hear his relationship with Lauren compared in any way to his parents' marriage.

"Anyway," Lucia continued, "she seems wonderful. You just be a good boy."

Lauren could overhear their conversation from the kitchen, even though she tried not to eavesdrop. It meant a great deal to her that his mother approved of her, despite being a grown woman. Something about it was affirming. She was sure her therapist would have words about it. But she also knew Rafael wanted his mother's approval, too, so it was doubly important to her.

"Lucia," she called, "I think something is wrong with the kettle." In response to the prearranged signal, Lucia yelled at Rafael to sit down, and hurried into the kitchen.

"Thank God," she said, looking at the arrangement of candles on the cake, "I thought he'd go into the fridge and find it before we could get to this. Usually after dessert he goes right after the coffee and creamer."

"I'm good at hiding things from him," Lauren replied, not even conscious of the subtext behind the sentence.


"Hey, Fin, Carisi, you want to go grab some dinner?" Nick stretched in his chair, flexing his spine over its back.

"Sure, I could go for some pizza," Carisi said.

"Yeah, just give me a minute to finish up this arrest report," Fin muttered. Nick knew this meant it would be at least another twenty minutes before they'd be leaving, so he went to the vending machine to grab a bag of chips to tide him over until then. Rollins was already there, hitting the side of the machine.

"Goddamn thing is always broken," she sighed. Nick gave it a good, hard elbow and out fell her Reese's cups. "Thanks."

"No problem," he said. "Hey, you heard from Barba since the party?"

"Yeah, I think he's in with Liv now, actually," she said, leaning on the door frame. "No idea if it's about a case or what, but he was real quiet when he came in."

"That's a first," Nick said. "What about Marissa?"

"Carisi said she's taken some time off work."

"Yeah, well, can you really blame her?" Nick said. "If it were my daughter, I'd have beaten the crap out of that reporter, not blamed her for the whole thing."

"Yeah, talk about victim blaming," Rollins replied.

Meanwhile, in Olivia's office, Barba sat on her sofa with his feet up on the coffee table. "I don't know, Liv," he said. "I haven't heard from Eli since the party, and that was before Christmas. I mean, I know he probably took some time off for the holidays, and God knows we both needed it, but…" He trailed off.

"Well, the good thing is that whatever he's doing, the article that came out was not nearly what you thought it would be," she said, handing him a cup of coffee and sitting down next to him. "It was actually pretty favorable. But then again, it scares me to think what he had to do to make that happen. What'd he promise on your behalf, you know?"

"Well, it's not as if he's working against me. He's been doing this a long time."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean it's in your best interest. Sometimes I think he's doing what's in HIS best interest."

"Aren't they the same thing?"

"Depends how you look at it," she said thoughtfully. "Anyway, we should probably go out there, talk about the case."

"Probably." He started toward her door. Before he could open it, she gently grabbed his shoulder.

"Barba, just… be careful. Don't compromise your own principles for his." Her eyes were full of concern. He knew she was just looking out for him, but at the same time, he resented the idea that he was naive.

Suddenly, a roar from behind the closed door disturbed the quiet buzz of the squad room. "WHERE IS HE?" Rollins came running out of the break room, about to draw her gun until she saw who it was.

Barba flung open the door to see Eli storming towards him, face contorted with rage. "Eli, what the hell-"

"Where the hell is he? I swear to God, I don't care if he's two feet taller than me, I'm going to KILL him…"

"Okay, what do you need with Carisi?" Olivia followed behind Rafael, speaking in the tone she reserved for hostage negotiation.

"Oh, you haven't seen it? It's only all over the local news and YouTube," he said, waving his arms madly. "And it's thanks to HIM."

"What are you talking about?" Rafael asked, still not understanding. "What is going on, Eli? You need to use your words."

Eli pulled his phone out of his pocket and typed frantically, then practically threw it at Rafael. "Here. HERE." Rafael watched the screen as a YouTube video popped up on the screen. The bile rose in his throat before anything even happened on the screen; the title of the video was, "New York D.A. Candidate Sings Karaoke - MUST SEE."

"I don't understand," he said. His hands were shaking as the screen cut to a scene from months ago, before he'd ever announced his candidacy. He was on stage with three distantly familiar faces, belting Sinatra, slightly tipsy.

"Oh, but you WILL, once I get my hands on that moron-"

Rollins approached him slowly, like she would an angry rhinoceros. "Come on, Eli, calm down. I'm sure once they explain-" Just then, as if on cue, Carisi, Nick, and Fin walked back in.

"How do you forget your wallet in your desk?" Nick shook his head. But But Carisi didn't get more than five steps into the room before Eli ran in front of him, looking very much like he was about to throw a punch. Rafael stood ready to jump between them, though he wasn't sure what good he would be. He was never one for fistfights - that had always been Eddie's job in school.

"What's up, Eli?"

Before he could answer, Rafael cleared his throat. "Eli…" Eli spun around to see Rafael shooting him a warning look, silently imploring him to think this through. Furthermore, after his confrontation with Nick, Nora had reminded him that these people carried guns. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and counted silently to ten before looking back at the lanky cop in front of him.

"I am going to try to remain calm here and give you the benefit of the doubt," he said. Then, through gritted teeth: "Did you post a video of Rafael online in the last few days?"

Carisi furrowed his brow. Behind him, Nick and Fin stared as if they were watching a movie. "I- what?"

"Did. You. Post. A. Video?" He punctuated each word as if the detective were a fourth grader rather than a licensed attorney.

"No, of course not," he replied. "I'm not a moron."

"That remains to be seen," Rafael mumbled.

"Come on, counselor," Rollins said. "There's no reason to think Carisi would be stupid enough to post something like - wait, what are we talking about?"

"Have NONE of you turned on the news lately? My God, you all live under rocks." Eli grabbed the nearby remote and clicked on the television. As had been the case at five o'clock, the tape was being played yet again at six. The sight of himself drunkenly singing on a bigger screen was even more humiliating. Even outside of the campaign, this was awful. His face burned. Then, a new horror entered his mind: what if Lauren were watching this? How would he explain it to her?

"What makes you think this was Carisi in the first place?" Fin finally stepped forward to defend his partner.

"Because," Eli said, "it came from his IP address."

The room fell silent, and the color drained from Carisi's face. He glanced at Rollins, then Olivia, who was standing with her arms folded behind Rafael. That was all Eli needed to see to confirm his suspicion.

"You idiot," he said quietly. Too quietly. Then, without warning, he got right up in Carisi's face and let loose. "You absolute IDIOT! What the fuck were you THINKING?" Ah, there's Eli, Rafael thought. By that point, he was so used to it that it didn't even faze him. On the other hand, Carisi, a seasoned cop, a licensed attorney, looked nervous.

"I didn't - I mean, I only showed -" He couldn't get the words out. That was when Rafael had to step forward and say something. Now HE was getting angry.

"You showed someone?"

"I only showed my roommate," he stammered. "I had it on my computer, I showed him, and then that was it."

"Mmmhmm, and do you guys have a home network?" Rafael stared at him, arms folded. How many cases had they been involved in where suspects had been caught because of home networks, hacking, and videos in the cloud? It wasn't possible he could be this stupid, was it? Carisi stared at the two men, standing side by side, giving him equally withering glares.

"I… I didn't think-"

"There's a surprise!" Rafael said.

"You didn't think what?" Eli snapped. "You didn't think your roommate would think the future Manhattan D.A. singing karaoke would be worth posting on YouTube? You didn't think he would figure out how to do it? You didn't think anyone would see it? And you didn't think maybe, just maybe, your roommate might be a Buchanan insider trying to get dirt? Stranger things have happened, you know." His voice was getting higher pitched, shaky with anger. His hands clenched into tight fists.

Olivia pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Okay," she said, ever the peacemaker. "Okay, we all need to take a breath here."

Rafael was in disbelief. Carisi really WAS that stupid. "After all the cases we've prosecuted based on evidence we found floating in suspects' clouds, you didn't have the foresight to think about this possibility?"

"And someone gave you a law degree?"

"Okay, that's enough," Nick said, stepping forward. "I think you've made your point."

"You don't need to be involved in this," Eli spat. "I think I made that clear the other night."

"And I think I made clear that you're in no position to make threats," Nick replied. He did the chest-puffing-out thing that annoyed Eli to death.

"Look, guys, this doesn't solve the problem," Rollins offered, attempting to defuse the bomb about to go off in front of them all. "And really, this isn't something that's up to us to solve. This is between Barba and Eli."

"Oh, no. It involves you all now, too. Because of this idiot-" Eli pointed to Carisi - "you are all on the hook for this mess. You can bet Buchanan will be salivating over this - he'll be jumping at the mic to claim that you guys did this on purpose because you really want HIM in charge, that you've turned against Rafael."

"You gotta be kidding," Fin scoffed. "Who's gonna believe that?"

"Does it look like I'm kidding? This is the kind of bullshit candidates spew all the time. Let me put it in terms you'll understand: REASONABLE. DOUBT."

He turned back to Rafael, who maintained his wide-eyed seething at Carisi. "Look, we don't have much time to fix this. We have to be deliberate and quick."

"What do you suggest?"

"That's the problem. I have to figure it out. Whatever it is, you probably won't like it. It'll probably be something you wouldn't ordinarily do. But it'll be necessary. We can't let him gain the upper hand here. We can't let him win."

With that, Eli scurried out of the room, shooting one last scathing glance at Carisi. While the detectives surrounded him, serving up platitudes of encouragement - or, in Carisi's case, empty apologies - all he could think of was Olivia's warning. Another day, another scandal. What was Eli going to promise on his behalf to make THIS one go away?

Chapter Text

“You have no choice,” Eli said.  His arms were crossed as tightly as his brows were furrowed.  “It’s the only way to redeem yourself.”

“Redeem myself?  Don’t you think you’re being melodramatic?”  Rafael didn’t even look up from the file on his latest case.  “It doesn’t look GREAT, but really, it’s not as if I hurt anyone.  And anyway, I thought you were watching for cameras.”

“I know I’m partly to blame.  I never should have let you get up on that stage.  I didn’t think your own friends would screw you over like this.  But it’s been two weeks. The bed is made, and you’re the only one who can unmake it.”

Rafael pinched the bridge of his nose.  He knew Eli wasn’t going to let this go.  “What do you want me to do?”

Suddenly, Eli’s voice became softer, a little cautious.  “Well, in the oppo research, we talked about religion.”

Rafael shook his head.  He knew where Eli was going with this, and it wasn’t going to happen.  “No.  Absolutely not.  No.”

“I’m not saying you have to BELIEVE in any of it.  I’m just saying we need a photo op,” Eli said.  

“My life is one big photo op these days,” he sighed.  “Why can’t we just let it pass?”

“Because we can’t have THAT be the image that plays over and over on television.  If we can get you on camera with, I don’t know, the police rabbi, for instance, that would be the thing that makes the most sense…”

“Are you kidding?”

“Okay, okay.  We can do a Catholic bishop if you want.”

“Come on, Eli, that’s a little transparent, even for you.  People aren’t stupid.  If they’ve never seen me going to services before…”

“They’ve never had a reason to,” Eli reminded him.  “They don’t know that you don’t, they’ve just never seen it.  It might be a little well-timed, but people overlook that if the story is good, and remember, we have someone who can feed stories to the media now.”

“Right, the same reporter who was going to throw me under a bus for a job.  Trustworthy.”

“You don’t have to trust him.  Just trust ME.”  Eli sighed.  “Have I steered you wrong yet?”

Rafael considered this. It wasn't that he was against religion, per se. He just didn't like the idea of faking his way through it. It seemed… well, sacrilegious. Then again, he could just look at it as a sociological experiment. That wasn't his only concern.

"Eli? What are you not telling me?"

"Do you remember," Eli began, inhaling deeply, "when we first did the oppo research, and I tried to bring up your father?"

Rafael stiffened. Of course he remembered it. He remembered every time he had to think about Enrique Barba.

Eli continued. "Part of that had to do with this exact scenario." He was trying to couch it in delicate terms so that Rafael wouldn't completely reject the idea out of hand.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm sure you know there's a large Jewish contingent in Cuba…"

It took a minute, but he saw recognition in Rafael's eyes. "My father was a Jew, and you want me to use it."

"Well, a Jew as such. As you said, he wasn't exactly devout. Anyway, we can pass this off as you exploring your faith as a way to understand the errors of your past."

"Really? The 'errors of my past'?" Rafael said incredulously. "Again, isn't that a little bit transparent? The voters are smart enough to see through that."

"The voters see what they want to see, and all they've seen up until now is Buchanan bloviating on television every five minutes… and you, drunk, on a stage." Eli crossed his arms. "Fifty percent of voters are most comfortable with a candidate who has strong morals and ethics. That's code for religion."

When Rafael once again hesitated, Eli sighed. "Just think about it, all right?"

"Fine," Rafael replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have actual work to do. You know, the stuff that matters but for some reason never warrants a photo op."

"I should go anyway," Eli said, completely ignoring Rafael's obvious sarcasm. "Before Marissa's back from lunch."

 

“She still pissed at you?”

“Yeah, but she’ll get over it.  She always does.”  He swallowed the lie as he left the office.  The truth was that Marissa had never been this angry with him.  She had been irritated, of course, maybe even mad.  The worst he had ever seen was when he had refused to sign the forms to allow her to go to the kibbutz, and when he’d eventually relented, she had forgiven him.  This time, she wouldn’t even return his phone calls - even when he left a voicemail saying he didn’t mind if she kept the offending gift from Rafael.  

On one hand, he understood.  He hadn’t exactly been sensitive about the article had had partially defamed her.  On the other hand, he had kept the article from being published, and he had tried to apologize - at least as much as he ever did.  But it was mid-January now, and still, the only reason he even knew his daughter was still alive was because she hadn’t deleted him from her Facebook.  He suspected she’d forgotten.

What pained him was something he’d never expected.  He had never been the most emotional father, but he and Marissa had almost developed a friendship over the years.  Next to Alicia, she knew him best.  So it was a blow to have her so angry at him, because in any other situation, these days, she would have been the person he asked to help fix it.  

Back in the present, he stepped into the sunlight of the freezing winter’s day.  He tried to focus on the task at hand.  With or without Marissa, he had to focus on the most important thing - the campaign.

 


“It makes no sense,” Nora said.  “Absolutely no sense at all.”

“I’ve run the numbers ten different times, in ten different ways,” Tom, the pollster, said.  “This is the result.”

“But how?  Are you sure you gave it enough time?  Got a diverse enough sample?”

“It’s been two weeks, and I polled a thousand people from every background you could think of.  Democrats, Republicans, black, white, young, old, male, female.  What do you want from me?”

“I just don’t see how this could have helped him!”

“I do,” Marisa said, hopping off the corner of Tom’s desk.

“What?  How?”

“Simple,” she said.  “He’s a hardass.  This humanized him.  It wasn’t obscene.  We all could have been up there.”

“No, we definitely all couldn’t have,” Tom said under his breath.

“Hey!  Crunch the numbers,” Marissa said, in a remarkable impression of her father’s intonation.  “Okay, I’m talking BESIDES you, since apparently you’re the only person who’s never succumbed to peer pressure.”

“Or scotch,” Nora said.

“Anyway,” Marissa continued, “I think this is entirely understandable, and at least now Eli can stop panicking.”

Tom raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Nora winced.  As far as she could remember, Marissa had only taken to calling Eli by his first name three times before - when he had missed her high school graduation in favor of some crisis which was so comparatively insignificant that Nora didn’t even remember the details, when Eli had refused to sign off on the trip to Israel, and when he and her mother had told her they were divorcing.  She had refused to speak to him for an entire month each time, and when she had deigned to refer to him, it was with a sharp edge to his first name.  Eventually, she gave up her campaign of silence, but only after Nora had convinced her to forgive him.  After all, she had reminded Marissa, her father was always unavailable ANYTHING that wasn’t work related, and any relationship he had outside of work was bound to suffer.

This time, though, Nora hadn’t even tried to talk her out of it.  As far as she was concerned, Eli had to fix this one on his own.  Nora didn’t have a script for the situation when your father cared more about a campaign than he did about how his only daughter was affected by it.  And besides, he didn’t deserve the help as far as she was concerned.  He didn’t need excuses made for him.  He needed to be sorry.

“Look, Tom,” Marissa continued, “run them one more time, and this time, single out women.  You can assume men will think this is all hilarious bro behavior - yes, I know, I’m a sexist pig - but I know Eli will want to know what women think.  You know, as long as the women aren’t me.”

“Fine,” Tom said, totally oblivious to the remark Marissa had tacked onto the end of her statement.  “But I’m telling you, it won’t change the result.  Sorry, ladies.  Your candidate’s allowed to be a drunk.”  With that, he left the cubicle to grab an intern to help him, and the two women headed back to the office - Nora to finish payroll, Marissa to grab her coat.  Nora took a seat at the desk and logged back into the system.

“Okay,” she said, typing furiously as she talked, “I’ll call you with those numbers when they’re finalized, and I’ll give them to Eli when he comes in.”

“Speaking of that,” Marissa said, picking a stray piece of lint from her wool coat, “when do I get the speech?”

Nora didn’t look up, pretending not to know what Marissa was talking about.  “Speech?”

“You know, where you try to convince me not to be pissed at my dad anymore.”

“Well, at least you didn’t call him Eli again,” Nora said.  Then, she did look up.  “I’m not going to try to defend him, Ris.  This one was entirely on him.”

“Has he even asked whether I’m okay?”

The question caught Nora off guard, like when you see someone you work with at the grocery store when you’ve never seen them out of their uniform before.  They were close, but Marissa almost never allowed herself to show her emotions as obviously as she was at the moment.  That was why it broke Nora into pieces to tell Marissa the truth.

“No,” Nora said, but when she saw Marissa’s face fall, she added, “but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about you.”

“Yeah, right, he’s really thoughtful.”

“No, really, Ris.  I went into his office the other day and he was sitting there looking at Kate Spade bags online.”

“He was probably just trying to figure out which bag Mr. Barba got me so he can decide whether or not it has to be reported.”

“Or maybe he was trying to find a peace offering,” Nora suggested.  Marissa sighed sadly, and flicked the lint away from her fingers.

“I love my father,” she said, “but sometimes I wish I had one like yours.”

The words stung Nora in a way Marissa hadn’t intended.  Her father had been the consummate family man.  He had a job, of course, and he worked hard, but he was always home for dinner and never missed a dance recital, much less her graduation.  She hadn’t grown up with the money or privilege Marissa had, but in many ways she considered herself more blessed.  Then, she suddenly thought of Mariah and wondered if it really made a difference whether your father was like Eli or like her own.  Maybe sometimes, a parent did all the best they could with the knowledge they had, and even when they made all the right choices, it still wasn’t enough.

Nora knew she was supposed to say something encouraging and wise, but she couldn’t imagine anything she could say that would make up for either the fact that Eli sucked as a dad or that she didn’t really understand how that felt.

“Anyway, I’m gonna get of of here before he gets here,” Marissa said, hearing the uncomfortable silence between them.  “Hopefully, he’s happy with the poll results.”

“I’m sure he will be.”

Marissa started for the door, and then hesitated.  “Hey, will you tell him that Mr. Barba’s schedule is going to free up around five o’clock on Friday?  I know he was trying to convince him do some photo op at temple to solve the video problem, but the press already knows, so…Mr. Barba isn't going to have much choice.”

“I’ll tell him,” Nora said, hiding a small smile.  This was an olive branch, however small.  Marissa nodded and swept out the door.  

Nora checked her watch.  She still had probably fifteen minutes before Eli would be barking orders at her, so she decided to try and empty out her inbox.  Scrolling through endless emails from contributors wanting time with the candidate, reporters wanting interviews, and various requests-slash-demands from Eli, she found herself rolling her eyes.  Everyone wanted something.  How far could one person be stretched before they ripped into pieces?  Suddenly, her cursor landed on a message with the subject line: REPORT AND RESEARCH - CASE NO. 465860 - CONFIDENTIAL.  She sucked in her breath.  She had both anticipated and dreaded this email.  Hesitantly, she opened it and began to read.

 

Dear Ms. Tyson:

Attached please find our report and research results with respect to the above-referenced case.  Please note that this report is inclusive of the research conducted in your initial request in November.  We appreciate the opportunity to be of assistance in this matter.  Should you have any questions, please let us know.

Best Regards,

John Sloan, J.J.S. Investigative Services, Ltd.

 

The bottom of the email included an attachment, a PDF file that almost certainly contained things Nora would rather not know.  She stared at the screen, hesitant to open the file.  She could stall, of course, pretend she had never seen it - playing “stupid secretary” was a game she’d learned long ago.  When she had first started working for Eli, it was the only way to manage him.  She’d started with his old crisis management firm when she was barely out of college, intending it only as a temporary income fix until she could persuade CNN to hire her.  She told herself as she looked at her framed journalism degree that it would only be a year.  Then, a year turned into two, then three, and eventually she was making more money than her journalism degree was worth.  And even more surprisingly, she enjoyed it.  Sure, Eli was a pain in the ass, but she knew that on the first day.  The first words he ever uttered to her were, “Tall girl!  Coffee!”  Eventually, she got used to his attitude, including his well-known tendency to overreact.

Those moments of panic were when she learned how to strategically play stupid.  It went something like this: Eli would be panicking or screaming about some very minor situation, Nora would “ask his opinion” on the usually obvious solution, and he would invariably calm down, thinking he’d figured it out all on his own.  The irony was, Eli never panicked about his actual work in those days.  Usually, it was something stupid like a scheduling conflict or his damn dry cleaning.  Otherwise, he was calm, precise, and sometimes even fun to be around.  But that was then.  Strangely, she couldn’t even remember what it was like to see Eli smile, let alone laugh.  And even stranger, she found herself missing it.

Suddenly, Tom came back into the room.  “Hey, Nora, we have a reporter here.  Can you come run interference?  I have no idea how to get rid of him without pissing him off.”

“Sure,” she said.  “Give me a second.”  She turned back to the email.  She’d come back to it later, she told herself, and give it a full read and report; for now, she just passed it along the way she would any other message.


“So, are you going to go?”  Lauren asked Rafael as they walked down the block from the subway toward the theater.  He’d wanted to take a cab, but Lauren said that he would seem much more “man of the people” if he took the subway - as if reporters were lurking in random subways waiting for him to appear.

“I guess I have to,” he said.

“I thought you said Eli said the polls were good news?”

“They were,” he said, grasping his scarf close to his throat, “but we already made the arrangements.  If we cancel now, it’ll look like we were being opportunistic.”

Lauren shot him a look.  “You WERE being opportunistic.”

He laughed softly.  “Touche,” he said.  “Either way, I don’t see how I could get out of it now.  The press has already been arranged, and--”

Lauren didn’t respond.  The truth was, she had no objection to Rafael’s opportunism.  This was politics, after all, and besides, it wasn’t as if she was a religious person herself.  But she couldn’t really figure out what WAS upsetting her.

“Lauren?”  She heard his voice through her inner monologue and realized they had stopped walking.  “You all right?”

She forced a smile.  “I’m fine.”

“You sure?”  His eyebrows pinched the way they always did when he found a hole in someone’s story.

She nodded, determined to hide from him.  “Just thinking about a case,” she said, disgusted at how easily lies rolled from her lips these days.  His face relaxed a bit, and he gave her a smile that made her feel better, then immediately worse.

“I could never do what you do.”

Then, as he took her hand and led her into the theater, she thought, you probably couldn’t.

After the movie, they took a cab - Rafael insisted this time - to an all-night Latin-American diner in Chelsea, where Rafael knew the owner and the sangria was strong.

“Well,” he said as they slid onto two stools at the counter, “that wasn’t an entire waste of money.”

“I think you and I have very different ideas about what constitutes a waste of money,” she replied.  “I remember now why I only watch movies made before 1990.”

“How many times can a person watch The Breakfast Club?”

“Oh, shut up.  I don’t judge you for your absolutely atrocious taste in music.”

“What’s wrong with my taste in music?”  The bartender brought over a pitcher of sangria, as if on cue.

“Come here often?”  Lauren looked at the pitcher, then at him.

“Nevermind that.”  He leaned forward on the counter.  “What’s wrong with my taste in music?”

“Nothing, dear,” she said.

“Because I happen to know lots of Latino men who like EBM.”

“Name one,” she said.

“Um…”  He thought for a second.  “Pitbull?”

“This isn’t your strongest argument, counselor.”  She was being deliberately combative.  She just had to put her frustration somewhere.  The waiter took their order and they sat in momentary silence.  Something awkward existed between them, had existed since the party, and neither of them really wanted to address it.  Then, a thought occurred to Lauren.  “When are the debates?”

“What?”

“The debates, between you and Buchanan.  When are they?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Probably not for quite a while.  Why?”

“I was just wondering, because you’re going to need some help prepping for them, and as I’ve told you, I was the winner of my trial advocacy competition.  I might be useful to you.”

He nodded slowly.  “Maybe,” he said, though his tone implied otherwise.  “I’ll ask Eli.”

“Oh, of course, by all means, ask Eli,” she said under a breath.  

He, of course, heard every word.  If she had intended to irritate him, she had succeeded.  In clipped words, he asked, “Is there a problem?”

“Why would there be?  Just because we have to clear our entire relationship through your staff--”

“Whoa, who said anything about our entire relationship?  You asked about something campaign-related, he’s my campaign manager, ergo--”

“I realize that, but what ISN’T about your campaign these days?  Can’t you make an executive decision?  Or is there some OTHER reason you don’t want my help?”

His bright eyes surged with color and fire.  “Lauren, what in the hell happened between the movie and now?  What did I do to piss you off?”

Just as it was before the movie, she had no idea.  She had no reason to think he didn’t want her help, and she certainly didn’t want to fight with him over it when she didn’t have a real point.  What she DID know was that she didn’t want Eli in their relationship, and especially in her life.  She sighed and downed what was left in her glass.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she almost completely meant it.  “I’m just really tired.  Like I said, that case - and plus, there’s this guy who’s taking up all my free time and keeping me up late at night.”  She gave him a soft smile, and he could see the lines around the corners of her eyes.  He wondered how many of them were from laughter, and how many were, like his own, from nights of worry and fear.

He leaned over to her, sliding the hair from her neck and over her shoulder.  “Would you prefer I leave you alone, then?”

When he touched her like that - tenderly, rather than sensually - she found it almost impossible to be angry with him.  She took his hand.

“Not on your life,” she said, and pressed her palm against his, so that she could feel his heart in her hand.


“Well, it’s too late to back out now,” Marissa said, not looking up from her screen.  She was desperately trying to finish the edits on a closing argument for one of the other ADAs - her secretary had gone on maternity leave - and frankly, she didn’t have time for her boss’s religious crisis.

“I know that,” he replied, “but maybe I can do it without all the press around, now that we know this city likes me all boozy.”

“What would be the point, then?”

“You don’t think it’s possible that I may actually WANT to explore my religious options?”

“DO you want to explore your religious options?” Delete, delete, delete - damn, this attorney can’t spell…

“Can it hurt?”

“Only if you go to an Orthodox temple,” she said.  “I say this as a Jew, some of my people are weird.”

‘People in general are weird,” he replied.  “Anyway, if we could call off the press, then I could at least feel better about asking Lauren to go.”

At this, Marissa stopped typing and raised her eyes to meet his.  “What does the press have to do with whether or not you bring her?  It’s not like you never go out in public together.”

“Never anywhere cameras are likely to be,” he corrected.  “And besides, religious services are a serious thing.”

“And your relationship isn’t?”  She rolled her eyes and went back to typing.

“It isn’t that simple,” he sighed.  “Why doesn’t anyone understand that?”

“You seemed pretty sure it was simple until today.”   God, how did this woman get through law school?  “Weight” and “wait” are two different words…

“I did, and then…” he trailed off, thinking about how to speak the truth in a way that wouldn’t offend Marissa.  “Then I saw what happened when you and I were almost a scandal.”

Marissa groaned.  “What does that matter?  Nothing happened.  Key word there is ‘almost.’”

“It did, though,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.  “Maybe not to me, but you and your father aren’t speaking - and that’s over an article that never got printed.  And if it had, we would add the consequence of personal embarrassment and unwanted publicity.”

“Hey now,” she said, allowing a small smile, “there are worse people you could be linked with.  I’m sure Fin--”

“Okay, first, no.  Just no.  And second, it isn’t me I’m concerned with.”

She hesitated for a minute.  “Wait--”

He looked suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin, something that didn’t happen often.  “Look, Marissa, I don’t want the same issues for Lauren that you almost had because of me.”

Marissa wanted to say something, but then remembered that once this campaign ended, he would still be her boss.  Even though she had promised him honesty, she didn’t think that should extend to his dating life.  So, she hedged.

“Well, all I can say is that you can’t keep her a secret forever.  I mean, eventually… cameras aren’t always convenient, let’s put it that way.”

He knew she was right, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

“Maybe you’re right.  I’m probably overthinking it.”

“I’m always right.  And you always overthink it.”

He smirked.  “You’ve been hanging around me too long.”

“So, are you actually looking forward to it?”  She had gone back to typing, but glanced up.

“To temple?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Did you ever go to any sort of religious stuff when you were young?  I mean, besides school.”

“Other than that, no.  My Mom figured that was the school’s job.”

“And you never knew your Dad was Jewish?”

“He wasn’t any kind of religious.”

“Most of us aren’t,” she said.  When he raised an eyebrow, she clarified.  “Jews, I mean.  I may have lived on a kibbutz in Israel, but you see how often I’m in temple.”

Rafael wanted to tell her that that wasn’t what he meant, but the story was too long.  “I guess I should go ask Lauren if she wants to go,” he said, now feeling strangely awkward.  “Anything I should know before I go to services?  I don’t want to make an ass of myself.”

She gave him a quick glance and could see he looked just slightly nervous.  The only people who would have been able to tell were the people close enough to see him.

“There’s almost no chance of that,” she said.  “It’s the same as church.  Find a little old lady in the front and follow her lead.  And fake the Hebrew - a good supply of phlegm is all you need.”

Before he went back into his office, Rafael looked over his shoulder.  “Marissa?”

“Yup,” she replied.   Would she even notice if I fixed the grammar in this sentence?

“Believe me when I say that I know what it’s like to hate your father.  I know Eli’s a pain in the ass… but that’s all he is.  Don’t stay mad at him forever, okay?”

She didn’t reply this time, but he suspected she’d listened, because a moment later, he heard the satisfying click of her phone’s keyboard as she typed out an olive branch.


They descended upon him the moment he got out of the cab in front of the synagogue, and although he had known they would be there, he could never quite prepare for it.  He wasn’t camera shy - he had done more of his share of press conferences and interviews in his years as an ADA - but those were always about a case.  This wasn’t even about the campaign.  This was personal, and in this case, a deeply personal moment.  He knew he had agreed to this but as he pushed past the throng of bodies and microphones, he felt bile rise in his throat.

Lauren was supposed to have been there, but at the last minute, she had gotten terribly ill.  He had been standing in her apartment when, from the bathroom, he heard a violent retching and walked in to find her laying with her head on the toilet seat.  After he helped get the vomit out of her hair, he had very nearly been late.  So, not only was he alone for this already distressing moment, he now had a huge group of reporters to navigate through.  He often wondered whether, if a group of geese was a gaggle, he could call a group of reporters a migraine.

“Mr. Barba!  Just one photo?”

“Are you going to be a regular member here?”

“Why haven’t you been attending all this time?  Why now?”

That last question made him stop and turn around.  He was already late, but he couldn’t let that one go.

“Why does anyone need an explanation for trying to have a little faith?”  He knew his tone was sharp, but he resented the accusation that he was a spiritual opportunist - probably because he WAS.  The reporter, a small, red-haired wisp of a woman, didn’t even flinch.  

“Isn’t it a little strange that all of a sudden you start attending services just after the launch of your campaign?”  

“Actually,” he replied, “I can’t think of a better reason to ask God for a little guidance.”  He turned back toward the door and marched through it, determined to prove the voice in his head wrong.

The sanctuary was brighter than he expected, with a high ceiling and a beautiful stained glass window at the front of the room.  For some reason, he had assumed stained glass was strictly a Catholic thing.  He took a prayer book from a table at the doorway and found a seat toward the back.  This may have been a photo op for him, but it was a regular Friday service for the members who, he assumed, were already irritated by a late arrival.  Besides, as Marissa had advised, he wanted to be able to follow, not lead.

The congregation was as large as the typical Catholic Easter/Christmas crowd, even though, to his knowledge, it wasn’t any sort of Jewish holiday.  They were all seated, being led in song by the rabbi and cantor, who stood on the bimah - he had done a LITTLE research - dressed in their prayer shawls.  Most of the men wore yarmulkes.   He wondered if he should have brought one.  Where did one even get one?  Amazon?

“Shabbat shalom,” the rabbi said as the song ended.  “We wish to welcome you as we also welcome Shabbat.  We are so glad you have come to join us, to take just a little time from your busy lives to reflect, pray, and be.  We rise together as we light the candles.  Page four.”

The congregation rose on cue, and the rabbi closed his eyes.  Rafael scrambled to find the page, but forgot that the books were backward - the pages started at what you would consider the back of the book.

“Follow mine,” said a quiet voice on his left.  The man, maybe his mother’s age, extended his book toward Rafael, smiling.  He glanced at the page - and then actually thanked God that the prayers were in Hebrew AND English.

“Thank you,” he whispered, returning his smile.  He read the words that the rabbi was chanting, a rhythm obviously familiar to everyone but him.  He felt out of place.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kidishanu b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu, l'had'lik neir shel Shabbat.

When the long taper candles were lit, they sat again and the service began in earnest.  Already he was sure he was never going to connect with this piece of himself.  He couldn’t even recite the prayers, for Chrissake.

The one thing he was surprised about as the service went on was how similar the Jewish and Catholic practices were - most annoyingly, the sitting and standing.  There were a series of prayers, to Israel, to God, for the sick.  Rabbi Kass gave a beautiful sermon about the ongoing violence in Israel and related it back to the week’s Torah portion.  And the temple announcements and sales pitches came, just as the basket at Church did.  But just as he was getting comfortable in these assumptions, Rabbi Kass announced the Mourner’s Kaddish - the prayer for the dead.

Rafael turned to the page in his book that the man next to him was on, again thankful that he had a transliteration.  But instead of launching directly into the prayer, the cantor stood at the lectern.

“We remember,” he said, “those who have died in the last week, the period of shiva, Anna Goldfarb, and in the period of yahtrzeit, during this season in years past.”

And then, the cantor began to read from a list - all the members of the synagogue who had died that week, years and even decades ago.

Abraham Asch.  Martin Bergdorf.  Sarah Drucker.  

He glanced at the man next to him.  He was very still, almost painfully so, and Rafael wondered which of his memories belonged to which name.

Adam Holtz.  Stanley Kaufman.  Lindsey Klausner.

So many names sounded Jewish, but a number of them didn’t.  Benton.  Landers.  Naismith.  He wondered if they had converted or if they had simply changed their names as immigrants.

Hannah Reich.  Leah Schwartz.

And then he found himself wondering whether anyone ever thought to remember his father.  It wasn’t as if he was an active member of this or any other temple.  Enrique Barba hadn’t done many things to make him worth remembering in Rafael’s estimation.  But for some reason, maybe because he was in a place of worship or maybe because it was the one thing he shared with his father, but he wondered if anyone had ever even prayed for Enrique.  He thought back to Thanksgiving, when his mother told him she didn’t want him to end up alone.  Now he was surrounded by people all the time… and yet, he wondered whether, when all these people had gone, anyone would pray for him.  He knew he had friends, his mother, Lauren.  But what would he leave behind?  What would his legacy be?

He hadn’t heard the page number for the transliteration, but as Rabbi Kass began to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, he understood the name.  The chant was sorrowful, almost eerie.  The congregation echoed the words throughout the chamber.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei / v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon uvyomeichon / uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael / ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: “amen…”

He suddenly heard soft, nearly silent sniffling beside him.  He glanced over and saw the man on his left clutching a half-torn tissue in his shaking hand.  He wondered again which of the names belonged to his heart.  Then, without really realizing what he was doing, he reached out and silently offered his hand to the man.  He stared straight ahead just in case his offer was rejected, literally saving face, but after a second, he felt the touch of crepey skin in his palm.  And though Eli would have given his right arm for this photo op, Rafael had never been happier to be away from it all.


Eli had originally planned to attend services with Rafael, but at the last minute decided that it would look odd.  He had only personally involved himself with a candidate’s religious practices once, and that was to save Peter from a ridiculous charge of anti-Semitism.  Besides that, it was his fault that Rafael was even in this position.  So, he thought, a little superstitiously, that it may have been better for Rafael to go it alone.  So there he sat, in his office, at ten o’clock on a Friday night, catching up on paperwork, going over the next two weeks’ schedule, promising herself he would eventually get to all his emails.  

Everyone, including Nora, had gone home.  The office was eerie in its stillness, the silence almost physically surrounding him.  He needed music, he decided, and woke up his phone.  To his surprise, he had a number of unread messages.  At first, he wondered whey he hadn’t heard them come in, but then he realized he had left his phone on do-not-disturb after a meeting with a donor.  Once his eyes adjusted to the brightness of the screen, he almost couldn’t believe them.

There were two messages from Rafael about the meeting with Rabbi Klass after services.  Ordinarily, he would have jumped right into those.  But he was more focused on the third message.  He opened it cautiously, as though it might cause his phone to explode.

Do you like key lime pie?

Eli knew what she was doing, and he would have done the same thing: avoidance.

Yes , he typed, and then, after a moment, backed up .  Yes… why?

He didn’t expect an answer right away since the original message was hours earlier.  So he was surprised when, in the middle of selecting background noise, he got a reply.

I made one.  It was for Sonny.  He doesn’t like key lime.   Before he could respond, she sent another message.   Do you want it?

He knew this game.  He referred to it as beating someone with an olive branch, an insult draped in a nice gesture.  He decided it was better to let that one go.

Sure.  He debated asking her not to poison it, but again, decided to quit while he was ahead.  Apparently, though, Marissa read his mind.

I promise I won’t poison it.  I’ll bring it by tomorrow night.

Okay, he replied, then he set the phone down, trying to process.  For the last few weeks, Eli’s days had been substantially quieter.  He hadn’t had anyone telling him inane details of things he didn’t want to know about.  No one was constantly contradicting him, or pointing out flaws in his plans.  It was peaceful, productive, and yet, he was happy to have her speaking to him again.  He didn’t like loose ends, and he didn’t like mess - which, of course was all around him in his line of work.  

He suddenly had the briefest flash of a memory, something completely innocuous from years - decades - ago.  Marissa was maybe eight years old, and Eli had brought her to his office with him one day when she’d stayed home sick from school.  This was before the days of working at home, and with his wife on a business trip, he either had to miss a day’s work or bring his kid.  She didn’t have a fever and wasn’t throwing up, he told himself, so into the office they went.  He remembered thinking she would be whiny or bored, but instead, she just wanted to sit at his desk with him while he worked, just observing and asking him questions he really couldn’t answer.  

He was loathe to admit it, but up until that day, he had never really understood how to relate to his child.  Sure, he loved her, but he was never really paternal in the traditional sense.  But, just as an eight-year-old asking why he chose to go with one television network over another for a client interview was odd, so too was the fact that he actually enjoyed it.  He enjoyed HER.  As he realized this, he felt selfish.  Why did he only begin enjoying his child’s company when she took an interest in his work - and then, a new and even more painful realization dawned on him.  Fifteen years later, his daughter was interested, involved, but he found himself annoyed by it.

He shook his head, and picked up his phone again.  Ten-thirty.  Already too late to call Rafael.  He made a mental note to call him first thing in the morning.  At last, he managed to turn on some Bach - music to email by, he thought - and, although it was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do, he opened his inbox for the first time in two days.  He had been flagging emails to follow up on his iPhone until he could get to a computer, so he already had a sense of how many there were, but seeing them all in front of him at once was demoralizing.  

He didn’t remember anything pressing, at least.  Usually if people had urgent matters, they would just call him.  Most of it was inane nonsense, along with whatever spam the filter didn’t catch.  He really needed to get Nora to start going through these for him, but was too cautious to allow it.  Not that he didn’t trust her, but politics sometimes required blurring ethical lines, and he didn’t want her caught up in it.  He had made that mistake when he inadvertently got Marissa involved in an investigation into Peter when he was Governor.  They had essentially tried to get her to flip on Peter in exchange for leaving Eli out of it.  It had all worked out in the end, but he had decided that the less others knew, the safer he and everyone around him was.

He waded through the emails slowly: a few reporters wanting interviews (“Call Nora Tyson to set up a time”), a couple pollsters requesting clarification on parameters (“Single AND married Jewish women over 35”), and more than a few assholes registering complaints about the candidate (“Thank you for your comments.  We value your input”).  He started to relax a little as he made progress, tackling a good majority of the backlog in an hour or so.  He had switched from Bach to his secret shame, Billy Joel.  He hadn’t been a fan until he met Vanessa, and, when he learned her favorite song (“She’s Got a Way”), he taught himself to play it.  By the time they were married, he had heard Joel’s entire catalogue, and secretly became a fan, despite making fun of Vanessa every chance he got for “having a thing for Jewish pianists.”  He wondered if he could still play that song, or if things you once knew by heart eventually left it.

He saved everything from Nora for last, because most of it didn’t require any reply or action on his part.  She sent status reports every morning and night, updated donor information, schedules based on what he had given her for the week and what she had organized on his orders.  He was sorting them into the appropriate subfolders, when he came across one that he had somehow overlooked in his quick review on his phone.  It was a forwarded message, dated January 15 - the previous Monday.  He clicked it open and noticed that Nora hadn’t included a message with it.  She had just forwarded it on, like she did many emails that didn’t require any response.

 

Dear Ms. Tyson:

Attached please find our report and research results with respect to the above-referenced case.  Please note that this report is inclusive of the research conducted in your initial request in November. …

 

Eli wasted no time.  He clicked open the PDF and sucked in his breath.  It was over a hundred pages.   So much for an early night, he thought, and dove into the investigative report for case no. 465860: Lauren Rose Sullivan.

Chapter Text

Nora flung open the door and glared at Eli as he pushed past her, uninvited, into the apartment. He was wearing the same suit he'd worn the day before, sans tie, and judging by his bloodshot eyes, he hadn't slept.

"For the love of God, Eli, it is 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday. What the hell could you possibly-"

"THIS!" He slapped a large manila envelope onto the counter. "THIS is why you're awake right now. THIS is what I stayed up all night reading. THIS is what we have to deal with now!" She stared at the envelope, nothing immediately registering.

"I'm not in the mood for guessing games, Eli, so why don't you just tell me what THIS is?" She flipped on the switch on the coffee maker, silently thanking God that she'd prepared it the night before.

"THIS is the email you sent me from the investigator last Monday! You know, the one you didn't comment on, mark as urgent, OR tell me about!" At that, Nora stopped what she was doing.

Shit, she thought. I forgot all about that. She had gotten distracted before she could review the email's contents in detail, and had only barely managed to forward it to him in the meantime. It was her screw-up, and she knew it. But she knew that the best way to get Eli past his anger was to get him to focus on the solution. "I'm sorry, Eli. I dropped the ball. So what do you need me to do?"

He gestured toward the stack. "Sit. Read. Respond." The coffee already filled the air, and she desperately wanted a cup before she dove into this, but she wasn't in a bargaining position. So, she sat down, rubbed her still-sleepy eyes, and began to read.

It took her a good forty-five minutes to wade through all the details in the report - and there were MANY. Some were mundane, like college transcripts, parking tickets, various versions of her resume. But when she'd finished, she was absolutely dumbfounded. For once, she felt Eli's panic was justified.

"Now do you get it? Do you understand?" She noticed the vein in his forehead that always pulsed when he got worried. It troubled her every time, because she was sure one day it might actually burst.

"So," she said, "what do we do?" She tentatively stood up and ventured toward the coffee maker.

"We have several things we are going to do," he replied, still visibly angry but a little less terrifying.

"Such as?"

"For starters, we're going to wake Marissa up."

"Eli, she-"

"MARISSA!" He bellowed. "Get out here!" He started down the hallway, but Nora placed a hand on his arm.

"Eli! She's not here."

He looked down at her hand and then at her, eyes burning. "What do you mean she's not here?"

"I mean what I said. She isn't here." She looked both smug AND uncomfortable somehow, and Eli wanted to shake her off.

"It's seven in the morning on a Saturday," he said, growing more confused and irritated by the minute. "Where is she?"

"She's… at Sonny's."

The fire died from his eyes and he stared at her blankly, as though she wasn't even there. He blinked a number of times. She wasn't quite certain what to say, but she was trying very hard not to smile.

"I… what?" He finally sputtered.

She allowed the smile this time, but tried to couch it in empathy.

"She went to stay at Sonny's place last night," she said. When he didn't reply, she continued. "Eli, it's completely normal."

"Like hell it is! She's a child, and he's-"

"Okay, first, she's not a child. She's a grown-ass woman, and he's a perfectly nice lawyer."

"Oh, stop that, just because he's a lawyer and we're Jewish-"

She snapped at him this time, something she very rarely did. "YOU stop it. You know that's not what I meant. And you know I'm right." The silence between them was hot, stifling. He looked at his arm. Her hand was still there. She seemed to realize it at the same time, and pulled back. Then, she softened her voice. "Eli, she just started speaking to you again. Do you really want to die on this hill?"

He sighed, defeated. "I just don't trust him. He's the idiot who posted that video, and I think if she's going to insist on dating someone-" He watched her shake her head and chuckle. "What's so funny?"

"Oh, I just can't believe this," she replied. "We have this absolutely enormous crisis in the campaign, and you've been sidetracked by your daughter's boyfriend."

That seemed to snap something in his brain. "Right," he said. "Yes. So. What we need is either for Marissa to talk to Rafael or for Lauren to talk to me."

"And how would either of those things ever happen? Lauren doesn't even know you - and what little she knows makes you look like the lunatic you are - and Marissa isn't going to talk to her boss about his girlfriend."

"He won't listen to me," he said. "He'll just get pissed and dig his heels in."

"So you'd rather put Marissa in that situation?" She realized the coffee had finished brewing and poured two cups, shoving one toward him. To her surprise, he actually picked it up, though he didn't stop pacing and flailing his other arm. Maybe the coffee wasn't such a good idea after all, she thought.

"No," he said, "that's just it. She won't be in that situation. For whatever reason, she can say the same thing I would and he'll listen to her."

"Eli, she isn't going to do it. She's already involved enough, and I can tell you, from experience, it is uncomfortable having to bring up anything related to your boss's dating life."

"Personal experience?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Need I remind you of Courtney Paige?" She mirrored his face. He looked somewhere between offended and shocked.

"When did you ever-"

"You think I didn't have to make excuses for the noise coming out of your office?" She drank her coffee casually, but didn't quite make eye contact.

He remembered that day and how embarrassed he had been by Nora's stare when he and Courtney had emerged from his office, damp and dizzy. But it hadn't occurred to him at the time that Nora might also have been embarrassed.

"Well," he said, wanting to move away from the topic, "what do you think we should do then?"

She was almost unprepared for the question. It wasn't like him to ask the opinion of others in a damage control situation. She proceeded with caution. "I think… I think your second suggestion is the more reasonable. Someone ought to go directly to Lauren."

He walked into the living room, mug in hand, mulling over the idea. "Interesting. Do you think she might talk to you?"

"Me? Why me?" That hadn't been her intention.

"Don't you think this would be better coming from you?"

"Oh? You mean like when you wanted me to ask the intern if she was wearing panties?" She shook her head. "Not happening, Eli."

"Well, SOMEONE has to do it. And as you said, she already hates me. She won't take it well."

"She's not going to take it well either way," she sighed. "What's your ultimate goal here?"

He groaned and sat down on the couch. "What I'd LIKE and what I can GET are two different things."

"Usually," she replied, and sat down next to him.

"So what I'd LIKE doesn't matter," he said.

"Plan B, then," she offered.

"Plan B is to get her to come clean and let me manage this as best we can."

"So just reason with her. She obviously cares about Rafael. She won't want to hurt him." Her face didn't quite match her words.

"What are you REALLY thinking?"

"I'm thinking that your coffee is cold and I need a shower," she said. "When you figure out what you want to do, let me know."

As she left the room, the realization that he had no idea how to handle this hit him. He thought he had seen it all. He'd dealt with lovers, call girls, all manner of sexual and romantic secrets. But not once in all his years of professional politics and crisis management had he seen anything this outrageous, complicated, and potentially campaign-ending.


 

"Good morning," Sonny said, lifting his head slightly. Marissa was curled against him, almost halfway off the couch, but for Sonny's arm around her waist holding her in place.

"Morning," she replied, not even opening her eyes. "What time is it?"

"Almost ten," he said, although he was barely able to see his watch through the sleep in his eyes. "Shoulda been at work half an hour ago."

"Well, then you should probably-" He squeezed her, making no motion to get up.

"Already texted Liv. Called in sick." He let out a very fake cough.

"Well, then, maybe I should be the one to go," she said with a smile. "I wouldn't want to catch it."

"Too bad. Gonna guess you already caught it." He grinned as she clumsily turned to face him.

"Damn." He leaned forward, awkwardly craning his neck, and gave her a whisper of a kiss. Just as it had the night before, his touch left her skin tingling. "I need breakfast."

"Yeah," he agreed. "If you're gonna be sick, better keep up your strength. And as it turns out, breakfast is the one meal I can make." He stretched and lifted himself off the couch - not an easy endeavor - and eased himself slowly upright. She sat up, rubbing her shoulder where she felt the telltale crick of a night on the couch, and tried in vain to smooth her unruly curls.

"You okay?" He clanged pots in the cupboard and finally retrieved the one frying pan he owned.

"Yeah, just a little stiff. I'm getting old."

"If you're old, I'm dead." She heard eggs crack.

"What's for breakfast?"

"Scrambled eggs?"

"Sounds more like a question," she said, making her way to his tiny kitchen - even smaller than hers - and watched him whisking the eggs in a bowl.

"Less a question, more a hope. I can make scrambled eggs because it's what happens when I try to make anything else. But hey, when I said I can make breakfast, I wasn't lying."

Sonny may have been cocky about his abilities as a cop, and even as a lawyer, but with Marissa, he was always just slightly awkward and unsure. It was what endeared him to her. She even suspected that if she hadn't made the first move, they never would have gotten here. He was a gentleman, sometimes to a fault.

"Scrambled eggs sound great," she said. She leaned across the counter to watch him. "It's more than my dad can make, and he's been a bachelor way longer than you. Can there be coffee with the eggs?"

He motioned to his left, where Marissa saw a Keurig and a spinner with all kinds of pods.

"I get bored," he said, noticing her raised eyebrow. "And it's just me - well, usually."

"You're a cop AND a lawyer. I would think you'd drink it by the gallon. I've considered investing in an IV drip for Mr. Barba." She perused the spinner and decided on a plain dark roast, which she had grown accustomed to from the office. Once upon a time, she had liked sweet, flavored roasts. These days, bitterness tasted better.

"You know you're the only person who calls him that," Sonny said, flipping the eggs over in the pan. "Everyone else just calls him Barba."

"Yeah, but everyone else doesn't work for him."

"Hey, speaking of Barba," he said, emphasizing the lack of title on the name, "how's the campaign?"

"It's… weird. I haven't really been working on it much."

"You're talking to your dad again, though, right?" He scraped the eggs onto two plates, grabbed the orange juice from the fridge, and set everything on the breakfast bar.

"Yeah," she said. "I mean, he never really apologized, but that's par for the course. I just don't have the energy to be angry at people these days."

They sat down across from each other, and Marissa could smell some sort of spice radiating from her plate. "What'd you put in these?"

"Secret," he said. "Can't just eat plain eggs every day. Like I said, I get bored. And you're trying to change the subject."

"So let me," she said. "The eggs are good."

"Thanks. So he didn't apologize?"

Marissa knew Sonny well enough to know he didn't let things go. Part of the detective in him, she suspected. So, she hedged.

"I offered him pie."

At this, Sonny looked up from his already-half-empty plate. "You made him a pie?"

"No," she corrected. "I made a pie, then offered to share."

"Marissa…"

"Sonny, please," she pleaded. "Just let it go."

The night Eli had stormed out of the Hanukkah party was rough, and Sonny had borne the brunt of it. Marissa had disappeared into her bedroom after he'd left, and wouldn't even let Nora in to talk to her. Sonny traded on his negotiating skills and managed to get her to go for a walk with him. She didn't say much, but she held his hand and let him ramble about his law school days, the latest case at the department, his nieces. She liked the sound of his voice on any given day, but especially that night because it drowned out the sound of her father's voice in her head. She had kissed him for the first time that night, slowly and carefully, almost so he knew she was considering her actions and not just acting on emotion.

"So, are you thinking we should finish the movie we slept through last night?" This was among the myriad reasons she liked him so much. He didn't just listen; he actually heard her. She shrugged.

"We could," she said, "but that's going to require me to brush my teeth and shower. I refuse to be disgusting, even if we are just lying on the couch."

"You wanna shower here? I got Aveda - I can't use Old Spice or Axe or whatever crap they try to sell guys my age-" He started to get up, but she shook her head and he stayed in his seat.

"I need creature comforts. Give me a couple hours. I'll run home, grab a quick shower and a change of clothes, and be back. Besides, I don't have a toothbrush here… yet." She smirked and gulped down the last of her coffee, brushing past him to grab her purse and coat from the rack near the door. He stopped her, extending his arm to catch her at the waist. "I said just give me a couple hours. Then, I'm all yours."

He smiled up at her, only just noticing the way her grin made her cheeks even rounder and softer and her nose crinkle slightly.

Ditto, he thought.


Of all the sights Marissa never would have expected coming home to on a Saturday morning, first among them would have to be Eli and Nora sitting together on the couch so close together that if one of them turned their head, they might collide. At the sound of the door, it almost happened, as Eli's head snapped up. Nora started to say something, but he was already charging toward Marissa.

"Where have you been?" He demanded.

"Why, good morning, father, it's good to see you, too. Would you like me to get you that pie now?" Her voice was syrupy. Nora raised an eyebrow.

"Wasn't that Sonny's-"

"He doesn't like key lime," Marissa shot back, slightly defensively.

"Not now," Eli said. "Anyway, we need your help."

She tossed her coat and scarf on the bench near the door and breezed past him. "Sorry, I have plans today."

"They're canceled."

"Hm, let me think about that." She paused. "No."

"That wasn't a request," he said, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nora give him a warning look. He bristled momentarily, and then softened his voice. "Look, if you don't want to do it for me, then at least listen for a second if you care at all about Rafael."

He used to use a similar tactic on Kalinda, the investigator who worked for Alicia's first firm. Whenever he needed her to do anything for Peter, he would mention Alicia. Kalinda would inevitably break her "no-Peter" rule. He only hoped it would work on Marissa, too. She was studying him, probably for signs of deception. She tended to be a human lie detector. He had raised her to well in some respects.

"Talk," she finally said, once again pushing past him. "You have ten minutes." She sank into a rocking chair across from the couch.

"This may take a little longer than that," he said, but from seemingly nowhere, Nora stepped in front of him.

"Long story short," she said, "it involves Lauren."

"What about her?" It was only then that she noticed the stacks of paper spread on the coffee table around the laptop.

"Well, it seems she isn't exactly what - who - she said she is," Nora said. "Or, at the very least, she left out a few key details."

"What kind of details?"

Eli and Nora glanced at each other uncomfortably. "Well, from what we can tell, it seems that for a number of years, about 1998 until somewhere around 2003, she was…"

"A prostitute and a drug addict," Eli finished, ripping the bandaid off the sentence. He was surprised at how flatly the words came out, actually. Maybe he'd spent so long panicking that he was all out of emotion. Meanwhile, Marissa simply shook her head.

"That's not possible. She's a lawyer. They don't let hookers become lawyers. There are, like, thirty background checks you have to go through!"

"I'm guessing she told the admissions committee when she applied, but those proceedings would be sealed. No one would know about any sort of arrests unless she was fingerprinted for something. She also didn't use her real name back then."

"Well, if that's the case, how did WE find out?" As if she didn't already know.

"We hired a private investigator," Eli replied.

"We had to," Nora said, seeing the look of partial disgust on Marissa's face. "You know we had to."

"Anyway," Eli continued, "we found out she had a couple of arrests when she was eighteen and twenty, all of which were plead out, she eventually got into rehab for a pretty nasty heroin-slash-cocaine addiction, and got cleaned up around 2005 or so. She managed to keep all this under wraps until now."

Marissa was still having a hard time accepting all this. Lauren was poised, beautiful, professional, and accomplished. There was no way this could possibly be true. "She has a really common name," she said shakily. "How do we know-"

Eli, sensing her next question, rifled through the stack of papers and handed her one. It was glossy between her fingers as she turned it over to study it. A black-and-white image of a woman stared back at her. She looked a lot like Lauren, only this woman was younger - although in some ways, she looked older - and she wore much more makeup than Lauren ever did. She also looked tired, strung out; her hair fell in thin, limp pieces around her sallow face, and her eyes were half-closed, as though she might fall asleep as the photo was taken.

She looked exactly like what Eli and Nora were saying Lauren was.

There was no real way to absorb any of this, other than to keep staring at the photo, trying to convince her brain to believe what her eyes were seeing. And then, an entirely new thought came to her, one that made her sick to her stomach: why would Mr. Barba have kept this all from them? They were spending all their time, energy, money on this campaign, and he held this back from them? What the hell was he thinking? What kind of stupid, amaetur move was this? And why wasn't Eli more angry about it?

"Marissa, we don't think he knew," Nora said, and it took a second before Marissa realized she had gotten out of her chair and said all those things aloud. She stared at the two of them; she didn't think she could contemplate for disbelief.

"What?"

"There's no way he knew. He wouldn't hold this back. You know he's not that stupid."

"Excuse me, you're saying a candidate wouldn't lie to you?" She shot him an incredulous look. "Need I remind you that Peter never told you he was banging his ethics attorney? You had to figure that one out for yourself."

"Okay, point taken, but-"

"Rafael isn't Peter," Nora said. "He isn't stupid. He's too pragmatic to have done this, and frankly… we have less reason to trust her than we do him." Marissa couldn't believe what she was hearing: Nora was trying to justify this.

"I'm going to call her office and get a meeting scheduled with her next week," Eli said. "I'm going to talk to her, and if I'm wrong, of course I'll admit it, but-"

"Yeah, okay," Marissa snorted. She started down the hallway toward her bedroom.

"-but I don't think she's told him, and I'm going to give her the chance to do it." At that, she whirled around.

"You're what?" Even Nora looked surprised. Last she knew, Eli's plan had been to send her, or even to try and get Marissa to do it. Eli glanced away for a second, then nodded curtly.

"Look. If I go right to Rafael, even with all of this evidence, he isn't going to listen to me. He'll just dig his heels in and do what all candidates do. He'll shoot the messenger. So if I give her the chance to tell him herself, either she will, and he'll end things out of anger or pragmatism, or she won't, and she'll just choose to disappear instead."

Marissa rolled her eyes and continued into her bedroom, where she grabbed her duffel bag and started stuffing clothes into it. Nora followed after her, standing just outside Marissa's bedroom.

"You forgot an option. What if she already HAS told him?"

"Oh, come on, Marissa, I know I said if I was wrong, I'd admit it, but we all know I'm not wrong!" He slapped a hand to the wall in frustration. "You know she hasn't told him! Why are you still insisting otherwise?"

"Because I know you, and I know you're just looking for any reason to go down there and scare her into going away!" The words came out of her mouth with a venom that surprised them all. Eli didn't react, but Nora knew what damage the words had wreaked in his mind. He would never admit it, but he didn't want his daughter to think what everyone else thought of him: the worst.

He sighed. "I won't deny that I'd be thrilled if she just disappeared into the ether," he said. "But I have a distinct feeling that she is a permanent problem, so I may as well cushion the inevitable blow as best as I can."

"And," Nora said, "he'll handle it best if it comes directly from her." She watched as Marissa moved between the bathroom, linen closet, and bedroom, shoving toiletries and clothes into her bag. She could tell Marissa was listening, even though she wasn't making eye contact. Sometimes, her silences spoke volumes.

"So how exactly do you plan to go about this? Just show up in her office and go, 'Hi Lauren, remember me? I'm the psycho from the Hanukkah party who manages your boyfriend's campaign, and oh, by the way, did you used to bang people for money and/or drugs?'" She glanced down at the bag. Shampoo. Conditioner. Extra socks. Do I want to pack the condoms now, or wait til Dad leaves?

"Well, I'd probably leave out the psycho part, and I'd have an appointment, but the rest sounds about right."

"I'll help him figure out something to say that doesn't make him SOUND like a complete psycho," Nora offered. Her dark eyes implored Marissa to trust her, even if she didn't quite trust her father. The two exchanged a long look, and Marissa finally nodded.

"How am I going to know if you're lying to me?"

Nora looked to Eli. "I'm pretty sure that's to you."

He sighed. "Do you really have so little faith in me?"

"It's not about faith. It's about odds." Another remark that Nora knew cut him, but he shrugged it off.

"Well, how would you like me to prove to you that she hasn't told him? I can't prove a negative!"

"You're right," she said, slinging the duffel over her shoulder. "I guess you can't." Nora's eyebrows shot up as Marissa walked between the two of them, paying no attention to Eli's demands for her to return. On any other day, with any other set of circumstances, she might. But she needed time to process everything. Eli and Nora had had all night and morning with all this information. How could they expect her to know what to do with it after just a few minutes?

She couldn't remember if she'd packed body wash, but she'd be willing to use Sonny's if it meant she could wash off the entire afternoon, as far away from the campaign as she could get.


In his decade-plus as a political operative, Eli had had all manner of uncomfortable, unnerving, and personal come-to-Jesus moments with candidates, their family members, and, yes, even their mistresses. But in all those years, he couldn't remember ever having to discuss a candidate's girlfriend's history as a sex worker - let alone with the girlfriend herself. Not that he hadn't dealt with his fair share of prostitute problems - Peter had been his most famous hooker rehab project - but he hadn't ever had a candidate actually in a relationship with one. He wondered how he had managed to end up as the less gross and more attractive version of the Jason Alexander character in a real-life version of Pretty Woman.

The dull buzz of the law office where Lauren worked left an ache in his ears, although he wasn't entirely sure whether it was that or the migraine he'd woken up with from the anxiety of the impending confrontation. He was well aware of all the ways in which this conversation could go wrong. It wasn't as if he had made a spectacular first impression on Lauren when they had first met. She had absolutely no reason to even take this meeting with him. And, even assuming he got past that point, once he got the reason for the meeting across, she would likely either throw him out or throw something at him. Either way, he couldn't imagine a scenario where this conversation ended in anything other than him being escorted out by security.

"Mr. Gold?" A slight, blonde woman appeared in the lobby carrying a tablet and only half-looking at him. He stood up from the overpriced, uncomfortable sofa. Why did law offices spend all their decorating money on floral decorations no one looked at and none of it on reasonably comfortable places for people to sit?

"Yes," he said, clearing his throat.

"I'll take you into Ms. Sullivan's office now," she replied, still looking between him and the tablet. "She's late from a deposition so she asked me to have you wait for her there."

"No problem." He suddenly felt like everyone knew the reason he was here, even though that was both impossible and ridiculous. The blonde led him down a long hallway lined with brightly lit offices with glass-paneled doors - sexual harassment prophylaxis, Eli called those kind of offices - until they came to one that looked not unlike Alicia's when she had worked as his liaison. It wasn't quite as plush as a partner office, and was sparsely furnished with only a desk, two chairs, and a small bookcase. But it was still filled with plenty of natural sunlight from a large, western-facing window, and hints of personal touches Lauren had added to warm the space.

"You can have a seat here. Lauren will be back in a few minutes. Can I get you some coffee or tea while you wait?" He noticed that the woman was finally actually looking at him, so he simply shook his head and held up his hand. She nodded and closed the door behind her, leaving him to his own thoughts and Lauren's things. He didn't really feel like sitting in the silence, though, so he wandered over to the bookcase where he took the opportunity to learn what Lauren chose to display to the world about her life.

There were photos of her and some female friends, her and some children - he assumed friends' children since she didn't have any nieces or nephews - and some awards and plaques given by various bar associations, organizations, her employer, and her law school. Nothing really stood out to him until he took stock of what WASN'T there. There were no family photos, no indication that anyone outside her social and professional circle even existed. In fact, Eli's background check had indicated that Lauren's mother had died not long after Lauren graduated high school, but she had nothing to indicate the slightest connection to her mother anywhere. In an office containing photos of her friends' children, he'd have thought a remembrance of her mother would have been an imperative.

Before he could dwell any more on why she wouldn't want her mother's memory hanging around, the door swung open and in strode Lauren, purposefully and as though Eli wasn't even there.

"God, you would think that the only reason I even had to go to that deposition was to give them a warm body in a chair," she snapped, tossing her briefcase on the desk in frustration. "Didn't ask one damn question the entire time, but you damn well KNOW they're going to bill for me. Ridiculous. I could have actually been accomplishing something for the last two hours…"

Eli didn't quite know how to react, other than to be slightly concerned; this didn't bode well for how she handled stress. Suddenly, she seemed to realize that there was another person in the room. Her expression changed completely, from anger to embarrassment. "Oh, Eli, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have- it's just been one hell of a day," she said.

"I can see that," he replied. "I don't miss the law."

"You were a lawyer?" She gestured for him to have a seat across the desk from her. "Rafael never mentioned-"

"Come to think of it, I probably never actually told him," he said, scrolling through his Rolodex of memories. "It was a short-lived period in my life. Joint MBA/JD type of thing. I didn't really do well with… well, negotiating, believe it or not."

"Really? I'd have thought you'd be great at that."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I was great at getting my way with cases. It was just that my approach didn't really work well with partners." She laughed, and he cringed. He needed to cut off the friendly banter or he would never accomplish his objective.

"So, what can I do for you, Eli? Surely you don't need a lawyer, so I assume this has something to do with Rafael."

He nodded. "Yes, in a way. But actually, it has more to do with you."

She saw that he was momentarily fiddling with his phone, so she turned toward her computer and started typing. "I hope you don't mind if I work at the same time as we talk. I'm behind from that deposition today. But I promise, I can multitask with the best of them."

"Not at all," he said, tucking his phone back into his coat pocket. "But anyway, I just wanted to talk to you about something that may come up in the next few months. Well, actually, it WILL come up."

"Well, to be honest, we - Rafael and I - thought this would come up eventually."

He sat straight up in his chair and was thankful he didn't get that coffee, because he probably would have spluttered it all over her. Was it possible that Rafael DID know about everything and simply hadn't told him? No, he thought. He couldn't possibly be that stupid. He swallowed hard and squinted at her.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we figured with the gay rumors still floating around - which I honestly don't understand - instead of forcing Nora to be his date, or risking another scandal with his assistant-"

"-you mean my twenty-four year old daughter-"

"-that you'd probably just want me to step in for a photo op at some point or another."

Eli would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so utterly dismal. She was being so casual, he realized that she actually couldn't conceive of someone finding out about her history. He watched her for a minute as she pulled some manila files from her briefcase, type a little bit, and then check another stack of files. She said something to him that he didn't quite clearly hear - something about attending a few functions, but only with advance notice - and then he heard himself blurt it out.

"Have you told anyone else that you were a prostitute and a drug addict?"

The click of the keyboard stopped and she knocked the briefcase to the floor with the motion she made to snap to attention. She stared at him wordlessly, her mouth just slightly open. Her left eyebrow twitched, and her eyes narrowed.

"What did you-"

"You heard me." He suspected she was an expert at settlement negotiations; her face betrayed nothing. She swiveled her chair to face him and folded her hands on her desk.

"Okay, Eli. I don't know what fiction you've invented to get rid of me, but I can assure you, I am not-" At this, he shot up out of his seat and reached into his coat. He threw down a thick envelope of his own, letting it rest between them, a manila elephant in the room. She didn't bother to pick it up.

"I'm sorry. All I have is a biography," he shot back. She started to respond, but he cut her off. "Where do we start? The pimp you hooked for after you graduated high school? The drug addictions? Because there were several of those. And speaking of several, what about your multiple names? And the arrests under those names! There's a great photo section, too, for that matter. Should we talk about rehab?"

Lauren felt like she might actually be sick all over her desk. She was overheated and blood pulsed in her ears. She somehow managed to pull herself out of her chair and to the door to close it. The last thing she needed was for any of the partners - or worse, the other associates - to overhear any of this. She really didn't know how to respond, other than to simply deny it. But if that envelope contained photos… oh God, mugshots…

"Eli, please. Keep your voice down," she begged. "It's-"

"It's what, a secret? Not for long!"

She turned back toward the shelves near the opposite wall and focused her eyes on the awards. Most of them didn't mean all that much, really, in the grand scheme of life. They were recognitions of small achievements - law review, associate of the quarter at the firm, a thank-you from the animal shelter she sometimes volunteered at, some legal education certificate for a course she couldn't even remember. These were things no other associate in any law office would care enough to keep at all, much less display. What good was it to work toward achievements, though, if you hid them all away?

"That isn't me," she said in a voice almost as quiet as the silence itself.

"Excuse me, but I can promise you-"

She whirled back around. "I mean, it's not me anymore." He couldn't tell if she was going to cry or scream. Maybe both.

"Well, I realize that," he said, with a roll of his eyes. "Obviously, you've managed to collect yourself since then. But it doesn't matter, Lauren. If we found it-"

"How? How did you find it?" She sank back down into her chair, more defeated by the moment.

"We hired a private investigator," he replied, as though this were an everyday occurrence. To his surprise, she didn't freak out. She didn't really react at all. She just nodded.

"And now what? What do you want me to do?" She asked the question, but she suspected she already knew the answer.

"Well, in an ideal world, you would go quietly into the good night," he said, "but I'm guessing that Rafael won't have that. So, speaking of him, does he know?"

She knew this was coming, but that didn't mean she was going to go along with it. "No, he doesn't. And he isn't going to."

"Oh, yes he is, and you're going to tell him." She stood up again, attempting to challenge him.

"And exactly why would I do that?"

"Because, as I have been trying to tell you," he replied coolly, "if we found it, they will too. You aren't going to be able to just disappear if you want to stay with him, so you have two options. Tell him, or break up with him."

A lock of her unruly hair fell in front of her eyes and she barely made a motion to move it. It was almost unnerving to him how much she resembled Alicia in this moment. The same expressionless, emotionless face, the same chilly affect in what few words she spoke, all reminded him of the day Alicia threw a set of dishes at him because of something he'd confessed he'd done years before. The same blank stare that preceded that moment was now falling across Lauren's face. Only this time, there were no plates and nothing to run from. He stood his ground and gave her his best death-squint back.

"And if I refuse?"

He swore he heard a hint of panic in her voice, and he knew he had her cornered. He buttoned his coat, preparing to leave. "If you won't tell him, then I'll find someone who will, and I promise I won't soften anything. I'm giving you a chance to get in front of this with him, not because I particularly care about you, but I do care about Rafael. I don't want him to be hurt by this, personally or professionally."

"Eli, please-" she begged again. "I'm asking you to please… try not to… can't you just keep this from…" She was grasping at straws, and she knew it. She knew Eli couldn't keep it under wraps. She knew that this could all come out any day. Truthfully, she had ALWAYS known. But somehow, she had managed to convince herself otherwise. She had wanted to be with Rafael so badly that she told herself she didn't need to be afraid of her past anymore, that he would protect her from it. She had been selfish, and now she would have to pay for it.

Eli snapped her back to the nightmarish reality that was now her life thanks to this stupid campaign, with the sound of her office door opening. "I'm serious, Lauren. You tell him, or I will."

With that short, final warning, he walked out, not even bothering to close the door to let her hide. He had left the manila envelope on the desk, the supporting documentation to his threats. How long did she have before Eli made good on them? How long before she had to tell the man she'd grown to love that she had hidden this terrible, dark thing? One way or another, her world was about to explode. She just had to decide whether she could be the one to detonate the bomb.


For once, it was Nora pacing the floor in Eli's office. "You're sure?"

"I didn't misunderstand. I asked her twice."

"And she said no?"

"She didn't say yes."

"Have you told Marissa?"

"I called her. She's on her way. I'm actually surprised she didn't demand proof first."

"Oh, well, I'm sure that's the first thing she'll ask for. I hope you conjured some up." He didn't respond, but it was a pointed silence, one with which she was intimately familiar. "Eli, what are you not telling me?"

He looked at his watch. "This is ridiculous, it doesn't take an hour to get downtown from-"

As if he had conjured her, Marissa blew through the door like an incoming storm. It hadn't been snowing out when Eli and Nora had gone into the office an hour earlier, but it must have been coming down pretty hard; there was a subway stop half a block from the building, and Marissa's dark curls were still speckled with flakes. As usual, she got right to the point.

"Whatever you dragged me down here for better be good. I was just getting into a good rhythm with this chapter I was writing, and-"

"Sit down," Eli said, in a voice that was clipped even for him. "We need to talk."

She eyed him suspiciously, and then looked at Nora, who was leaning against the front of Eli's desk with her arms crossed in front of her. She didn't say anything, but the look on her face was darker than usual. Marissa flopped onto the couch on the side of the room, but she left her coat on; evidently, she wasn't planning on staying long.

"Fine, happy? Now what's this all about?"

Eli stood up from behind the desk, iPhone in hand. Behind him, through the thick glass windows that lined his office, she could see the IT nerds still wandering around, the pollsters still hunched over their desks. She noticed he wasn't wearing a tie, which was odd, because for as long as she could remember, he insisted on wearing a tie when he was working. Somehow, it made him feel like he had more of a commanding presence in front of the underlings. He handed her the phone, which was opened to the voice memo app.

"The first one," he said, with absolutely no context. She looked at the recordings. There were only two; one of them was labeled "Conference Call with Glenn," which she made a mental note to ask Eli about later. The other one, at the top of the list and dated that day, didn't have a real title. It was simply labeled "X." She frowned.

"What is this?"

"Just listen to it, Marissa," he replied, giving her a look that was half-pleading, half-exhausted. Grudgingly, she pressed play. She heard some rustling at the start, and then Lauren, clear as glass, asking if Eli minded if she multitasked. Eli said he wanted to talk to her about something, and Lauren said something about photo ops.

"What the hell, Dad?"

"Just shut up and listen!" He snapped. Something in his tone startled her into submission. And just as she closed her mouth, she heard it:

"Have you told anyone else that you were a prostitute and a drug addict?"

She didn't quite register anything that was said immediately after that. Had he really just asked her that question in THAT way? Then again, she realized, there really isn't a proper way to ask someone if they've ever sold themselves for money or had a drug addiction. She heard Lauren deny it at first - not entirely surprising - and then she heard the sound of what sounded like a book hitting the floor.

"I'm sorry. All I have is a biography. Where do we start? The pimp you hooked for after you graduated high school? The drug addictions? Because there were several of those. And speaking of several, what about your multiple names? And the arrests under those names! There's a great photo section, too, for that matter. Should we talk about rehab?"

She closed her eyes while she listened to the continued exchange between Lauren and Eli. She tried to imagine herself in Lauren's stilettos. Having someone she barely knew accuse her of these things, and not being able to deny them, must have been humiliating. But that was just with Eli. Of course she would deny it to him - she would want to talk to Rafael first, to see how he wanted to handle it.

Then, things got infinitely worse.

"And now what? What do you want me to do?" Now, Lauren didn't sound at all like herself. Her voice was brittle and betrayed fear.

"Well, in an ideal world, you would go quietly into the good night, but I'm guessing that Rafael won't have that. So, speaking of him, does he know?"

"No, he doesn't. And he isn't going to."

"Oh, yes he is, and you're going to tell him."

"And exactly why would I do that?"

"Because, as I have been trying to tell you, if we found it, they will too. You aren't going to be able to just disappear if you want to stay with him, so you have two options. Tell him, or break up with him."

Marissa had heard enough. She closed the app and looked away, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Thoughts swirled and intersected; confusion was becoming her natural state of being these days. She had been sure Lauren had told Rafael. She had been so sure, in fact, that when Eli had first presented her this information, she had accused him of sabotaging his own campaign by withholding the information from them. She didn't know Lauren well, but she had wanted to believe she was an honest person. Maybe, she thought, she just wanted to believe that people in general were still honest. Now, she didn't know what was worse: that she had been wrong, or that she'd had such faith in someone in the first place.

"Ris," Nora said gently, sitting down next to her, "I know this is a shock to you, but-" The implication in her words was clear: it was a shock to MARISSA. No one else was shocked at all.

"I was wrong," Marissa said. "I'm sorry."

In most other situations, Eli would have rubbed it in, even taken a small amount of pleasure in it. But the situation was bad enough; there was no need to make his daughter feel worse about herself or her instincts, which were usually good.

"This is a weird situation," he said, trying to be helpful. "But there's no time to feel bad about it. We need to figure out what to DO about it."

Marissa shook her head. "What else can we do? We have to tell him."

"We need to give her time to do it herself," Nora said. "Eli only went to her today."

"Are you joking?" Marissa said, incredulous. "She's HAD time to tell him. She's had MONTHS. There shouldn't be anything to tell by now!"

Eli was taken aback. She sounded like him. "Marissa, we can't be rash about this. We have to have a PLAN."

She fixed her eyes on him, but wasn't really focused on him. She felt herself looking through him, unable to hear anything he was saying because her ears were already too full of lies.

"Okay," she said suddenly, wrapping her coat around her shoulders and heading toward the door. "You plan. I'm leaving."

And then, like a crack of lightning, she was gone.

"Marissa!" He called after her. "Get back here!" But it was too late. Either she was already gone or she wasn't listening to him.

He turned to Nora. "What the hell was THAT, Nora? You just let her walk out?"

"What was I supposed to do, Eli? Barricade the door with my body?"

"It would have been helpful!" He sunk down into the chair behind his desk.

"Where do you think she's going?" Nora asked. He didn't reply. Right now, he only knew two things: first, he needed antacid. And second, in the middle of a huge storm, thunder inevitably followed lightning. It was only a matter of time.


His head was throbbing. He could feel the spot where he'd been hit with the gun, right above his temple. But when he went to put his hand to it, to soothe it in some small way, he couldn't move his hands. Or his arms. Or his legs, for that matter. He looked around. It looked like his bedroom, but turned inside out in a way. The colors weren't quite right. There was no sign of Marbury, who would usually be laying right in the middle of the bed so that he couldn't get any space. There were no paintings on the walls. His closet was left open, but his clothes all seemed to be missing.

Suddenly, William Lewis slipped out of the darkness and stood at the foot of the bed, staring at him with the same cruel look he'd given Olivia throughout the child. It was manic, almost as though he were high. His eyes darted over Rafael's body - it wasn't a sexual look, but it was just as perverse.

"Hello, Counselor." Rafael had almost forgotten his voice. Soft, menacing, tortuous. "Oh, come on, now, Mr. Barba. We don't want to be rude, do we? After all, you can see what happens when people are rude."

Even though he was restrained, he could somehow lift himself far enough to see over the side of the bed, to where Lewis's gaze fell. When he saw what Lewis was staring at, he felt the bile come up in his throat.
"Olivia-" He croaked out.

And then everything started to burn.

The knock on his door woke him up so suddenly that he nearly fell off the couch out of shock. Quickly, he checked the room. Everything looked normal. Marbury meowed from the comfort of her cat tree in the corner, almost questioning him. He was uncomfortably warm, the sleep-induced sweat glistening on his forehead and the back of his neck, and the light felt just a little too bright. Maybe he had a migraine coming on. He glanced at the door, a little hesitant, which he knew was ridiculous - William Lewis had been dead for years - but, like the dreams themselves, fear didn't always make sense.

Then there was a second knock, accompanied by a voice. "Mr. Barba?"

"Marissa?" He grabbed a tissue and wiped his brow and neck, then headed for the door. "What are you doing here?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry it's so late." He invited her in and led her to the couch. Her hair was windblown and her cheeks were bright pink. "You look like you were sleeping."

"Oh, it's all right. If I sleep all night on that couch, I'll be walking like a zombie tomorrow. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee?"

"Only you would offer me coffee at 8:30 at night," she replied. "Anyway, I can't stay long. I just- there's something I need to talk to you about, and I didn't want to do it in the office. It's kind of personal."

She looked incredibly uncomfortable, but also deadly serious. This was concerning. Marissa had only been to his apartment a handful of times, and those were work-related. Whatever this was, it couldn't be good. He sat down on the ottoman across from her and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

"Okay," he said. "Are you alright? Did something happen?"

"I- what?" For some reason, the way he asked the question caught her off-guard. She'd heard him use that voice before - when he was talking to Olivia, usually.

"Well, I know things haven't been great between you and your Dad since the holidays, and I just want you to know that if the campaign is too much - personally or professionally - I will understand if you need to take a step back." His eyes were soft, kind, understanding. Suddenly faced with her boss's sincere concern for her wellbeing, she almost changed her mind about what she was about to tell him. How do you justify breaking someone's world apart when their first concern was that yours was still in one piece?

"No - no, Mr. Barba, it's nothing like that." Her throat was dry. "Actually, maybe I could get a glass of-"

Before she could finish her sentence, he was basically in the kitchen, pouring a tall glass of water from a pitcher in the fridge. He brought it to her and watched her down the entire thing before he continued.

"So if it's nothing like that, then what is it?"

"When I said it was personal, I meant it was personal for YOU." It suddenly occurred to her that she had come all the way across town intent on telling him this secret, but had neglected to actually come up a plan for how to do that. Her eyes were locked on him, as though she could psychically communicate the message if she just thought hard enough: Your girlfriend was a prostitute. Your girlfriend was a prostitute.

"Okay, I'm sufficiently intrigued AND worried now," he replied, growing frustrated.

She took a deep breath. "The first promise I made to you at the start of this campaign was that I wouldn't lie to you."

"I remember," he said.

"And I want you to know that I'm not here under duress. My Dad probably would actually rather I NOT be here, and I'm frankly surprised he hasn't come bursting through the door already, trying to stop me. Especially since I stole his phone."

"You stole his- what? Why?"

She gave a sheepish smile. "I couldn't very well ask him for it, could I?"

"What I MEAN is, why do you have it?"

She took a deep breath and turned the phone over and over in her hand. "I'm going to play something for you. And you need to listen to it very carefully. And please don't shoot the messenger." She typed in her father's password - her birthday, of all things - and opened the same recording that she'd heard earlier that evening. Then she watched as his expression changed, from curiosity to confusion to disbelief. Then, as the last of the recording played - Tell him, or break up with him - Marissa saw something she hoped she would never see again: heartbreak, carved in the lines in his face.

He was silent, just staring at the phone's screen long after it had turned black. His eyes were overcast, cloudy with doubt and anger. She was hesitant to say anything either, unsure of how he would react. Instead, she slipped the phone back into her pocket, then reached over and touched his forearm.

"Mr. Barba…"

Before he could say anything, there was another knock at the door. That seemed to snap him out of his haze. He stiffly stood up, marched to the door, and flung it open without even looking through the peephole. Marissa instinctively looked to see who the other late-night visitor was, half-expecting Eli.

"Rafael," said Lauren. "Can I come in?"

Chapter Text

“Lauren,” he said, trying to contain the anger rising in his throat, “I - I have company.”

Marissa picked up the phone and stood up.  “Actually, I was just leaving.”  As she walked to the door, she carefully avoided eye contact.  She wasn’t sure if Lauren could tell that he already knew, but if she couldn’t, she would soon find out.  Either way, Marissa didn’t want to witness the almost certainly ugly fight that was about to happen.  And that was when she realized why Lauren was there - to tell Rafael herself.  It made sense, given Eli’s visit was only that afternoon, and apparently, it had worked.  Marissa almost felt bad about telling Rafael before Lauren had the chance, except Lauren HAD had the chance - several months of chances.  The only reason she’d decided to do it now was that she had no other choice.  Then again, Marissa couldn’t help but notice that, when she finally looked up, Lauren looked tortured.

“No, Marissa, you don’t have to--” Rafael began, but Marissa shook her head.

“Yes, I do.”  She gave him a small smile, and he returned it with a look that was almost pleading.  But deep down, he knew there was no avoiding this confrontation.  She gave him a comforting touch on his forearm, forgetting for a second that this was her boss, and squeezed past Lauren, leaving the two with only silence between them.

“So…” Lauren began, gesturing toward the inside of his apartment expectantly.  It took him a minute to respond; he had the urge to shut the door in her face without another word.  He looked at her, searching for some sign to explain how he could have missed all these secrets for the last five months.  Finally, he relented, stepping aside, letting her in.

She had been in this apartment dozens of times, but somehow, everything seemed distorted.  It was like she was looking at it through a funhouse mirror.  She leaned against the kitchen counter until she heard him shut - slam - the door.  When he came back inside, she realized he wasn’t looking at her anymore.  Instead, he went and stood by the front window, watching the lights over his little portion of the city.  Cars dotted the street below, honking at absolutely nothing (Did they really think mindless noise would get them anywhere?) and he watched the people on the sidewalk, moving faster than the traffic.

“Rafael,” she said softly, so that she didn’t startle him, “I came here because… because there’s something… I’ve been meaning to--”  She didn’t even know where to begin.  Her fear of his reaction only made things worse.

He didn’t even know how he felt.  How were you supposed to feel when you find out that the first woman you’d had any real romantic feelings for in years was withholding her entire life from you?

“I’ve been meaning to tell you something.  About me, about my past.”  

“Have you?” He muttered.  That was all he could muster.  He didn’t dare say anything else, because he knew once he started talking, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  And that was when she realized, truly accepted, what she had feared from the moment he opened the door.  He already knew, and she knew he already knew.  Maybe in some way, she thought if she didn’t say it, she could somehow reverse time and keep him from finding out before she could tell him.  Of course, if she could reverse time, there wouldn’t be anything to tell.

“Well, I did,” she said, her voice sounding more broken with every word, “but judging by your attitude, you already know.”  Her dark eyes lowered, a futile hope that she was wrong.

“You assume correctly,” he replied.  His voice was stoic and clipped.  It was hard for her to stand there and hear it, but she deserved this, and even if she had been too late to break the news to him herself, he deserved an explanation.  Surely, once she explained, he would understand.  She wanted him to look at her, but she knew he wouldn’t.  Instead, for no particular reason, she slipped out of her stilettos and removed the clip holding her hair on top of her head.  She imagined her makeup was sliding off of her skin, revealing the deepening lines under her eyes that she tried to hide from him.  She had spent all day and evening with her office door closed, staring out the window, contemplating the future.  She had thought about her conversation with Eli, about his ultimatum, about all the lies she’d told about her life in order to HAVE a life.  But at this point, she couldn’t deny it anymore, because obviously Eli had made good on his threat.  He had proof, unmistakable, photographic, painful proof.  Why hadn’t he given her more time?

“Rafael, I wanted to tell you.  I wanted to tell you every single day.”

“And yet, you didn’t,” he said, whirling around to finally look her in the face.  His eyes were brighter, flaring with anger.  “Five months.  Five months we’ve been together, five months I’ve told you about my life, my past, my FATHER.  And five months, you never thought to mention all this?”

“I-- I know you’re angry,” she said.  She was trying her damndest to stay calm.  He had a right to this reaction, but losing control of her own emotions - the one thing she could control - wouldn’t do anyone any good.

“So why now?  Why all of a sudden did you decide I had a right to know?”

“You know the answer already,” she said.  “Did he show you?”

“Show me?  Show me what?  The evidence Eli has on you?  No.  No, no one’s showed me that… YET.”

“So Eli just told you about it?”

“Not Eli,” he snapped.  “And no.  In the most ridiculous, unintentional way, I guess you DID tell me.”

And that was when Lauren realized exactly why Marissa had been there.

“So Marissa told you.”

“At least someone had the courtesy.”  His voice was stoic and hard.

“I know you’re angry,” she said, “and you have every right to be.  This is hard enough for me to process, and it’s my life.  But can I explain why I didn’t tell you?”

“I don’t care why you didn’t tell me!”  He threw up his hands.  “I only care that you didn’t!”

She ignored him and went on.  “It was a long time ago.  I don’t even remember parts of it.  Whole chunks of my life are missing.  I left home right after graduation and never looked back.  Except I guess I wasn’t really looking forward either.”

He didn’t say anything.  So she walked a little toward him.  She wanted him to look her in the eyes, see that she was the same woman as he’d always seen.

“So, during my senior year, I wasn’t doing well at home.  Mom got remarried to this… man… and… well, anyway, I had to get out.  And I started seeing this guy.  He was older, good looking, charming.”  She swallowed hard, remembering her first therapy session, when she felt like a complete idiot saying all of this aloud.  She wondered then how she could have been so stupid.  After ten years, she knew objectively that she didn’t have anything to feel stupid about, but just because you knew something didn’t mean you believed it all the time.

“And the long story short is that he wasn’t anything like he seemed.”  Tears welled in her eyes, and despite trying to stop them, fell down her cheeks.  The memories stung her insides like a thousand wasps.  “It didn’t take long.”

“And the drugs?”  He wasn’t going to respond to anything until he had the full picture.

She winced.  “That was… survival.”

“You numbed yourself,” he replied, more a statement than a question.  After all these years prosecuting cases for SVU, he knew enough about prostitution to know about all its trappings.  She looked away, wondering if she could levitate the box of tissues to her.  

He rubbed the back of his neck.  “You know, I never thought you would hide anything like this from me.  I mean, we all have pasts, but this is kind of a big thing to keep secret.”  

“I wasn’t thinking--”

“Clearly!” He finished.  “What WERE you thinking, Lauren?  I asked you if there was something I needed to know.  When we got back together, I asked you, specifically, if I needed to know anything.  And you could have told me any of those times!  Did you even think about the campaign implications--”

Up to that point, she had felt sick about all of this.  She was guilty, and she knew it, and she was angry at herself.  But the last thing he’d said made something snap in her brain.  Maybe it was how he said it, with that tone of judgment in his voice.  But, more likely, it was the fact that apparently his first thought was not of her, what she’d been through, what it had done to her, or how she’d managed to get out of it.  His first thought was of the campaign.

“Well, Rafael, when would have been a good time to tell you that I was a drug-addicted prostitute?  Over dinner with your mother?  At work having lunch in your office?  When we’ve got our hands all over each other on my couch?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Lauren, maybe when you found out I was running for office?”  He realized immediately after he said it that he shouldn’t have.

She was aghast.  Of all the people in her life, all the people she could have told about this, she thought he would be the most sympathetic.  Now, he was only doing what everyone else would do - judging her, unwilling to understand the decisions she’d had to make, or even attempt to.  Her eyes got wider, and her lips parted with a sharp exhale.

“You’re a real bastard, you know that?”  She was quiet, which he knew was worse than if she had exploded at him.

“Lauren,” he said, just as quietly, “I didn’t mean--”

“Oh, yes, you did.”  She didn’t like crying in front of him, but crying in anger was better than sadness.  No matter how much she’d hurt him, she hadn’t meant to.  He was just being deliberately cruel.  “You said exactly what you and Eli have been concerned about all along.”

“Eli has nothing to do with this” he said.

“Oh, no?  Well then, tell me, why did he try to blackmail me?”  He stopped to consider this, but before he had a chance to respond, she answered her own question.  “Did it ever even occur to you that I had reasons for not telling you?  Do you think I liked hiding it?  Do you think it’s fun for me to--”

She was shaking now, and knew she must have looked ridiculous but she couldn’t help it.  Remembering the box of tissues, she crossed the room to grab a handful.  He, in turn, walked past her to stand on the opposite side of the room.  It was as if they were doing some kind of strange dance around one another, circling like two boxers in a ring.  As angry as she was, she couldn’t look at him, afraid of the judgment she deserved, of losing him, of knowing how he was going to see her from now on.  This was why she had buried it, deep in a box in the back of her mind.  She didn’t need any help hating herself.

“Did you ever bother to consider” she continued, “that I didn’t do this to hurt you?  That I just… I just couldn’t allow myself to go back there!”

“Lauren, I am not asking for details!”  

She spun around, finally looking him in the eye.  

“And THAT is exactly the problem right now!”

“I don’t--”

“You aren’t asking a goddamn thing about my life, my story, the reasons I never told you.  All you’ve brought up is you and your campaign!”

“I don’t understand,” he said.  His lisp, slight as it was, came out when he spoke as quickly as he was.  “You didn’t want to tell me because you didn’t want to go back there, but you want me to ask you about it?”

“What I want,” she shot back, “is to feel like, now that you know, that you care about ME, not just how this will make you look!”

Something in the way she said that made him realize what he’d been wondering since November.  “This… is this why you ended things?”

She said it simply and softly, almost a whisper.  “Yes.”

“I know that this is probably the worst time to ask, but… why in God’s name did you come back?”

She remembered his press conference, what he’d said to change her mind - her heart.  She repeated the words he had spoken on the courthouse steps.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a sex worker.  You’re -- you’re still entitled to human decency, respect, and justice.”  The words tasted bitter in her mouth now.

“I remember,” he said.  “Do YOU remember when I asked you if you were scared of something specific and you said no?”

“Yes, I do.  And I know I lied.  But look at how you’re reacting now.  You said you would protect me from anything anyone tried to sling my way, but you’re the one doing the slinging.”

He could never forget anything about that night; the light off the skating rink had sparkled in her eyes, and the cold hadn’t bitten as hard after she’d kissed him.  He realized then that she was right.  Yes, she should have told him, but could he really guarantee that he’d have reacted any differently?  And right now, he was only justifying that fear - that all he cared about was his image, that he would never look at her the same way.  He also hadn’t been exactly forthright about the things in his past that he wasn’t proud of.  He didn’t actually tell her about his childhood abuse, and still hadn’t told her about the night he fought back.  She only knew about the former because she’d guessed.  He knew, as a sex crimes prosecutor, the stigma surrounding sex workers, and here he was, contributing to it.

He was, he realized with a sickening thud in his stomach, acting like John Buchanan.

“Lauren,” he began, and when she didn’t immediately answer, he thought she hadn’t heard him.  Suddenly, she started to cry again, but this time, she sounded wounded.  And she was.  The way he said her name made her afraid.  What if he had changed HIS mind now?  She felt all the lies she’d told him rising up from her belly into her throat.

“Why do you think it’s been four months and I still won’t spend the night with you?” She finally asked.  And before he could answer, she went on.  “I’m sorry, Rafael.  I never meant to hurt you.  I only wanted to protect you, and us.  I should have trusted you more.”

Despite everything, she was still as beautiful as the day he had met her in choir practice.  She was still kind, thoughtful, gentle.  She was still the smartest woman he knew, and he still wanted to reach out, put his arms around her, and kiss her until she realized that nothing about her -- or how he saw her -- had changed.

And then something strange happened.

He suddenly found himself not just wanting to put his arms around her; he wanted more than that.  He wanted to put his hands on her.  He felt weird about that, because this was neither the time nor the place.  But the feeling was there, and he had to make a concerted effort not to do anything about it.

“I wish I could make this up to you,” she said.  “If you want me to go, I’ll go.”

He didn’t speak for a long while.  She watched his hands twitch slightly, and the muscles in his forearms jump.  She wanted him to say something, even start yelling again, just to break the silence.  Maybe they were about to be okay, or maybe he was about to end it.  She couldn’t be sure.

Then, so softly it was barely audible:  “Come here.”

She was emotionally exhausted.  Her head throbbed from crying.  It would be easy to walk out now, after the things they had just said to one another.  She could escape back into the anonymity of private practice.  Staying would mean having to deal with scrutiny from his campaign, risk people finding out, having to explain and justify her past over and over again.  She had tried to avoid this months ago, and against her better judgment, she’d come back.  This man was complicating her life in ways she had deliberately tried to avoid.  If she could just will her legs to move…

He stepped out from behind the counter and walked a few paces toward her.  His sea-green eyes were bright against the lamplight.  His lips barely parted as he spoke.

“Lauren.   Ven aquí.   Por favor.

Maybe it was the breathiness of his words or the way her name sounded from his throat.  Maybe it was the whole foreign language thing.  Or maybe it was the way he looked with his hands clenched, standing the same way he did when he was cross-examining someone.  Something clicked.  Her legs finally moved, and before she knew where she was headed, she was pressed against his chest, her mouth on his.  He bit her bottom lip, drawing a soft moan from deep in her throat.  She felt his hands move to the buttons of her blouse, very nearly tearing it open in his haste.  Her fingers moved through his thick hair, down his neck, across his stomach, trying to touch all of him at once.  He pushed her back against the couch with his hips, standing between her legs.

Suddenly, she felt a gentle tug on her hair, pulling her head back so her neck was exposed.  Lauren looked toward him, only to be met with that same intense green gaze.  His nostrils flared, brow furrowed just slightly.  He inhaled deeply, his eyes drifting downward, drinking her in.  He looked… hungry .  Like a panther about to feast on its prey.  She felt the grip in her hair loosen the tiniest bit, so she took the opportunity.  She grabbed his suspenders and flipped their positions.  One of his hands squeezed the back of her neck, while the other slid down to the hem of her skirt, attempting to pull it up.  She kissed him, hard, bumping their noses along the way.  Then she grabbed the hand that was at her thigh and laced their fingers together.  

“Don’t you ever talk to me like that again, do you hear me?”  She moved her mouth to his jawline, removing his tie and tossing it on the floor.  

“Like what?”  He barely got the words out as she released his hand and moved her own down, along the front of his pants.  She sucked gently on the side of his neck, giving him a playful nip on the earlobe.  His hands shook, making their way to the underside of her ass, feeling her soft cotton panties between his fingers.  His eyes drifted shut, and he felt his suspenders slide down his shoulders one by one.

“Like I’m opposing counsel,” she replied, drawing his zipper down.  She pushed his trousers and underwear past his hips.  Her fingers wrapped through his hair, pulling on it just a little at the nape of his neck.  Meanwhile, her other hand moved swiftly down his stomach, but stopped just above his cock.  She stroked her thumb just barely over the tip, in small circles.  His head spun.  He was sure he was going to pass out.  

“Do you want this, Rafael?”  She purred in his ear.  “Or do you want more than this?”

Words failed him.  Words never failed him.  But all he could manage was a shaky breath and a small nod.

Suddenly, he felt her move.  And before he could open his eyes, he felt her mouth close around him.  He had to stagger backward to half-sit on the back of the couch, or he would have lost his balance.  It wasn’t like he had never had sex before.  He’d had his share of partners since college.  But he could not honestly recall ever being touched in quite this way, with this intensity and… lust .  

She swirled her tongue around him, worked him with her hands.  He grabbed her hair and pushed his cock even further into her mouth.  The words that had failed him earlier were coming in broken strings, a mixture of Spanish and English curse words he didn’t even realize he knew.  The only response he got was a moan against his dick, which reverberated and drove him even closer to the edge.

Fuck, he thought.   Not yet.  Dios mio, todavía no...

He pulled her to her feet, adjusted his pants, and shoved her against the nearest wall.  She hastily unbuttoned his shirt, leaving it hanging open so that she could feel the warmth of his skin on hers.  He put his lips back on hers, kissing her deeply, pinning her hands to her sides.  He moved from her mouth, down her chin, to her collarbone.  His tongue darted along her clavicle.  All the while, he held her wrists to her sides, mostly because if she touched him again, he thought he might lose what little control he had left.  All his senses were heightened.  Lauren’s heart was beating so hard against his chest that it could have been his own heartbeat.  He was keenly aware of her breathing, rapid and shallow.  Her skin was turning a new shade of pink and was hot under his hands.  He stopped for just a moment, and swallowed hard.  Her waves were frizzing from the heat between them.  There was an indent on her bottom lip where he’d bitten her.  Mascara and eyeshadow had smudged beneath her eyes, and she looked close to either tears or murder.  She was a mess.  

A perfect mess.

“Jesus Christ,” she cried as his hands roamed across her breasts.  “Just fuck me already.”

A wicked smile spread across his face.  

“You know I don’t often accept plea deals,” he said.  “But I will make a counteroffer.”

And he dropped to his knees, taking her skirt with him.

He wasted no time.  Before she had time to process what was happening, she felt her panties come down and Rafael’s tongue curl around her clit.  She almost collapsed, but he put one of her legs over his shoulder, holding onto her thigh.  He lapped at her with a ferocity that rivaled his courtroom performances.  She stole a glance down, and saw that he was looking back up at her.  

“Raf… Rafael…”  She didn’t even know what she wanted to say.  Her brain couldn’t connect the words with her mouth.  She wanted him to stop before she came too quickly, but she wanted him to drive her over the edge this way too.  Nothing made sense.  Everything made sense.

She kept pushing her hips toward him, and he had to keep pushing her back so that he could keep his attention on the spots he hit that made her shudder most.  He looked up again, and she had her head back against the wall, one hand gripping the corner of it to steady herself.  

When he sucked directly on her clit, she let out the loudest cry of all, and he knew he had to make a quick decision.   Make her come, or make her wait.  She made the choice for him - this time, it was her turn to pull him upward.  He leaned against her, and she could feel all eight inches of him hard against her stomach.  He pinned her hands over her head with one hand, and kissed her.

“Do you need something?”  He put his free hand where his mouth had just been, sliding her clit between two of his fingers, but not touching it directly.  Kissing behind her ear, he moved his fingers slowly.  “I said, do you need something, cariño ?”

“I… please…”  She whimpered.  Her head swam.  She had worked so hard since she turned her life around to control everything.  She had started this little interlude trying to keep control.  But right now, she didn’t want to have to ask.  She didn’t want to have to demand.  She just wanted him to take her.

“Please WHAT?”  He growled the words against her ear.  Suddenly, those same two fingers curled and pushed inside her.  He kept his thumb pressed against her clit but didn’t move it.  He considered this payback for her teasing earlier.

Lauren didn’t know if it was possible to spontaneously combust, but she didn’t want to find out.  It suddenly occurred to her that she knew exactly how to get what she wanted.

“¡Quiero que me cojas!”

That was his limit.  He spun her around and bent her over the back of the couch.  All it took was one fluid movement to again release his cock.  He stared at her pale flesh, fingers white-knuckling the back of the couch.  For one brief moment, he debated whether this was a good idea, but when she looked over her shoulder at him, he was a goner.

The second he entered her, he never wanted to leave.  Admittedly, it had been a while, but he hadn’t remembered it feeling like this.  Maybe he was harder than he’d ever been, or maybe she was wetter than any other woman he’d been with.  But this was different.  Deeper.  More.

“Harder,” she gasped, and Rafael pushed into her even further.  He didn’t know if he could last much longer, but he was damn sure going to try.  Suddenly, seeing straight for one amazing moment, he realized what was in front of him: this gorgeous woman, bent down against him, her skin on his.  She was making animalistic noises every time he pulled out, only to moan even louder when he slammed back in.  It was almost pornographic.

“FUCK.   Que rico se siente tu apretada chochita, mami... ”  He was shaking inside her.  He had lost himself, all sense of restraint evaporating with each thrust of his hips.  He struggled to even breathe.

Rafael was making sounds even she, with all she had experienced, had never heard a man make.  He grabbed her shoulder, and she lifted her hand to wrap it around his wrist.  She could feel every beautiful vein, every pulse, every inch of him.  It was almost painful, but so, so delicious at the same time.

He was pushing into her faster now, to the hilt, but still with the same deliberate movements.  Sweat ran down his neck and back.  The heat in the apartment was almost unbearable, but he didn’t care.  He didn’t care about anything at that moment, actually.  They were so loud, he half expected the entire squad to burst through the door.  Not that it would have mattered; he would have kept right on fucking her in front of all of them.

“Is this how you like it?  Tell me.   Tell me. ”  He grabbed her ass with his free hand and gave it a hard squeeze.

"Oh my God, please, please don't stop. Oh, fuuuuuck!"

She felt the fabric of his pants against her legs, and then his fingers again, this time directly rubbing her clit.  Her back involuntarily arched.

“Rafael… I c-can’t… I’m going t-to…”  She didn’t even have to finish her sentence.

“Come.   Now .”  It was the power in his voice that drove her over the edge.  

She screamed his name and pressed her ass back against him as much as she could.  Her insides tightened.  The old cliche was true: she saw stars.  She was barely aware of her surroundings, but felt his grip tighten on her shoulder, his thrusts becoming more uneven as he found his own release.  

He gripped her hips with every bit of strength he had left, trying to hold her in place as long as he could.  He wanted to remember this feeling, in case he never felt it again.  His body felt numb and tingled at once.  The blood rushed from his head to his groin and back again.  Then, he collapsed onto her back, leaving small kisses along her spine, trying desperately not to have a heart attack.

They stayed that way for a minute or so, slowly coming back to reality.  Rafael moved first, tentatively lifting himself upright.  He brought his pants back up around his hips.  He saw Lauren’s panties across the room where he’d thrown them and the remnants of his orgasm between her thighs.   This isn’t how it should have been, he thought.   Jesus Christ.  What the fuck was I thinking?

At the same time, Lauren stood up, steadying herself on the couch.  She turned to face him.  He was avoiding eye contact, staring at the floor, running his hand through his disheveled hair.  

Lo siento ,” he said.  “We should have done it better…more… well, not…”

“Rafael,” Lauren said, beckoning him to come toward her.  He stepped between her legs again, and she wrapped her arms around him.  When he tried to speak, she put a finger over his lips and kissed him on the end of his nose.  Wiping away the sweat from his forehead, she offered him the only thing she had the energy left to give: her smile.

“You spoke Spanish,” he said.

“I did.”

“I didn’t know you knew Spanish.”

“I picked up a few choice phrases… when I was younger.”  She shrugged.

Suddenly, a new wave of shame washed over him.  “Lauren, I don’t want you to think I’m like… like the men who…given what we were just fighting about…”

“Shut up,” she said.  “Do you see me complaining?  The only complaint you’re going to hear from me about any of this is tomorrow morning, when I can’t walk.”