“Ma’am, may I see some ID?”
Lucia stopped in place, head slowly turning to the side.
The police officer was painfully young, Hispanic. Still in uniform and closer to his school years than she would have preferred if his restless shifting was any indication. Kids could smell principals a mile away, there was a chance she looked like this boy’s mother, and she would have been shocked if this boy was older than twenty-five so she still had the upper hand when she puffed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes and got a better grip on the twin bags of groceries in her arms.
“I’ve done this already,” she told him sternly. “One of your officers cleared me two weeks ago.”
“I didn’t-, I mean I wasn’t there. For that. No one told me about that.” The boy cleared his throat. “Ma’am.”
“My name is Lucia Barba. I’m here to see my son.”
“I understand that, ma’am, but I need to confirm your identity.”
“You have. Multiple times,” she replied. “Usually without requiring me to put my groceries on the godforsaken Manhattan sidewalk.”
Lips pursed, Lucia turned to see an older brunette approaching.
Olivia, badge and gun on her hip where the gunslingers in her mother’s telenovelas used to wear them. She didn’t think Olivia Benson to be the gunslinger type but the look suited her all the same.
“Lieutenant,” she greeted. “I’m being kept from my son.”
“Ma’am, Detective Carisi told us-”
“Who?” Lucia interrupted. “Who told you not to let me see my son?”
“No one,” Olivia said quickly and gave a wide, clearly threatening smile to the boy in front of her. “Right, Officer… Trujillo?”
“Right,” he said slowly and nodded first at Olivia, then at Lucia. “Feel free to go on up, Mrs. Barba. Sorry.”
She huffed a triumphant breath and Olivia smiled.
“All fixed. Have a nice night, Mrs. Barba,” she said and attempted to go around the back of her, toward the dark SUV parked on the curb, but Lucia didn’t give her the chance.
“Do you know who hired that man to kill my baby?” she asked, voice strident and foot tapping. Lieutenant Benson was less susceptible to it than most.
“Not yet,” she admitted with an apologetic smile. “But we’re working on it. And in the meantime, Rafael is in very good hands.”
“Whose?” she asked. “Whose hands? Yours?”
“Mine,” she admitted, “And the rest of the squad. He has people, Mrs. Barba. Good people who want to protect him and who are going to do their best to figure out who’s behind this.”
Lucia nodded and Olivia stepped away again.
“And you’re leaving?” Lucia called just before getting to the car.
Olivia stopped in place but didn’t turn.
“Yes, Mrs. Barba. The detective assigned to Rafael for the night is in place upstairs.”
“Do I know him?”
Lucia had to strain to hear, “Poor Carisi.”
“Have a good night, Mrs. Barba,” Olivia called over her shoulder with a wave as she circled the car. “Tell Rafael I’ll see him in the morning.”
“Mmhmm,” she murmured and spared one last withering look at the officer who stopped her before entering the building, who shrunk away under the weight of her disproval. “No more visitors tonight. We’re cooking.”
“Rafi!” she cried, banging on her son’s door. “Rafael!”
She heard laughter on the other side - not just her son’s.
More laughter, possibly something that sounded like footsteps. She was rearing back to kick the door when it opened, revealing a man distinctly not her son. Someone tall and blond with too much product in his hair and an easy sort of smile that made Lucia wonder what in the hell he was doing in a five block radius of her son.
“Who are you?”
“Mrs. Barba,” the man started but she cut him off.
“No, I’m Mrs. Barba. I want to know who you are.”
“Mami, this is Detective Carisi,” Rafael’s voice told her from behind the blond. Finally the man stepped aside and she could see her son on the couch, drink in hand. “He’s one of the detectives from SVU, helping with my security.”
“I’ve heard your name before,” Lucia admitted and then walked past him and into the kitchen. She could feel eyes on her but ignored them as she set the grocery bags on the counter. “The boy downstairs said you’re in charge of who sees my son and who doesn’t?”
The detective, flushed now, looked down at his hands. “Uh, yeah, I guess. It’s just important that we know-”
“- who his mother is?” Lucia finished for him. “Because that child downstairs tried to detain me in my own son’s home, when I have been here several times in the last two weeks. You’re in charge of that?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, chastised. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Perfect,” she said and turned her attention to the food in front of her. Rafi wouldn’t cook on the best day, much less under stress, and Lucia was determined to stock his refrigerator with two weeks of dinners before she left. “Rafi, come help me please. I could use a hand and you clearly aren’t doing anything useful.”
The man was smart enough to recognize it for the dismissal it was, so he told her son that he’d be outside if he needed anything and to enjoy his visit. Polite, at least, she couldn’t help but notice as Rafael carried a chair outside the door and then closed it behind him - a sight that made her even more suspicious, because Rafael did manual labor for exactly two people and one of those had been dead for over a year. When he returned to the kitchen it was with a stiff glare in her direction, not that it did anything to deter her.
“Liv called me before you came up,” Rafael started. “I think it might have been a warning.”
“A warning for what?”
“A warning that you were on the warpath,” he answered and Lucia scoffed.
“They’ve never seen a warpath. This is mildly irritated,” she told him and her son laughed because no one knew it like he did. She looked him over, finding new parts of him that looked thinner. The circles under his eyes were darker, even if his eyes seemed happy. “What are you doing with your time? Are you okay, are they letting you work?”
“I work all the time.”
“Are you… are these people helping you? Are they working your case, or whatever?” she said, gesturing.
He regarded at her with eyes so direct they looked right through her.
“I’m safe, Mami.”
The shuddering breath that escaped her was probably evidence enough of her worry, her stress, her fear and her relief, but the consolation was for both of them so she accepted it with a tired smile and started pulling groceries out of the twin paper sacks.
“Good,” she said. “Now come help me with this mango, I can never unpeel them without breaking a nail.”
She waited until Rafael was next to her, plucking a knife from the rack to butcher the ripe mango on the cutting board in front of him. He handled it expertly, nimble fingers delicate on the handle and pointedly away from the blade. Her son didn’t cook, it seemed, but at least he still knew how to help her do it. Silence reigned in the kitchen while she finished unpacking all her ingredients, started eyeing the range and wondering how many pots she could get going at once.
Outside she heard whistling.
“When you talked about the detective,” Lucia started and to his credit, Rafael didn’t jump in surprise, “You made him sound much younger.”
Rafael’s voice was neutral when he answered, “Ten years younger than me.”
“But not a child,” Lucia pointed out. “You talk about him like he’s a grade-schooler wanting teacher’s attention. He’s a grown man and I didn’t see any stars in his eyes.”
“You didn’t look hard enough,” he scoffed but Lucia wasn’t falling for it.
“I thought he was Italian.”
“He is Italian.”
“He’s white Italian.”
“So you think your mother doesn’t remember how you feel about blue eyes and blond hair? They make you stupid. My son can’t be bothered with other Cuban boys, he wants something fair and exotic,” she said pointedly while Rafael looked horrified. “What? I know these things. You think I’m headless and can’t see it for myself?”
“We’re not having this conversation.”
“What conversation? I’m just saying I notice things.”
“Notice other things.”
“Because my type , whatever that may be, is not something I want to discuss with my mother. And also because Carisi is… off-limits,” he settled on finally and then gave a small shake of his head like that wasn’t what he wanted to say but couldn’t think of anything better. “He’s Catholic and if he’s not closeted completely I’d be surprised, not that out and still religious would be any better. Beyond that, we work together. He’s a good man.”
“And what are you, a felon?”
“Not if they never catch me.”
“Rafael,” she admonished with a small slap on his arm that made him laugh. “But this good man is here for you? He’s watching you?”
“He’s part of my security detail, yes,” Rafael answered and transferred the mango pieces into a bowl while Lucia took an onion from its net bag and set to work on the cutting board next to him. “Both Olivia and Rollins have young children so he’s been kind enough to volunteer more of his time while Fin coordinates the uniforms.”
“That’s a fairly unimaginative way to say he wants to spend time with you,” Lucia observed and Rafael had already started shaking his head. “No, it is. The least he could have done is wait until someone didn’t want to hurt you.”
This made him laugh and after forty-five years, Lucia had yet to find a better sound in all the world.
If Rafael Barba was still capable of laughing, things would be okay.
It meant Rafael trusted his friends, his colleagues.
It meant he trusted the pretty white boy outside his door, whistling, because he was respectful enough to want Rafael to have an uninterrupted visit with his mother.
“It’s probably killing him, you know,” Rafael told her in a low voice.
“The man outside that door has probably never had a mother dislike him in all his thirty-five years and you just rush in and yell at him and banish him to the hallway,” her son said but there was a sparkle in his eye that told her he found it funny, too. “He’s probably questioning his entire life about now.”
“Well,” she sighed and set down the knife. “Go let him in.”
Rafael looked over at her, trying not to grin. “What was that?”
“Go let the Italian in the apartment,” she clarified. “If he’s going out of his way to keep my son safe then he has a seat at my table.”
“ My table, Mami,” he reminded kindly but pressed a kiss to her temple all the same. She tried to pretend it didn’t warm her up from her polished toes. “And thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she warned, brow drown as Rafael walked to the front door. Looking relaxed, looking happy. Looking distinctly unworried about the man who had threatened to kill him. “He still has to spend a dinner with your mother.”
“He should be so lucky,” Rafael told her smugly, as though dinner with an old woman were a treat, and she was reminded once again at how lucky she was to have such a good boy.
“Flatterer,” she murmured and went back to dicing onion. The blade was heavy and all too familiar in her hand and cut through the vegetable’s flesh with hardly an ounce of pressure on her part. Lucia continued, “If he knows what’s good for him, he will be too.”