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It was a brisk Thursday night in New York City and Forlini's was quiet.

 

Some suited professionals were watching the evening news at the bar. They sat across from each other in a booth in the back corner, drinks precariously close to the edge of the table. They both had an extensive amount of paperwork to sort through and more than a few files stacked on the seat next to them. His was casework. Hers was emails, forms, memos, and related bureaucratic pains. 

 

"Oomph. I don't even have that much homework." Rafael looked up and grinned.

 

"Gail! Long time no see." He cleared a spot on his booth seat for a young woman in a smart plaid blazer to sit next to him.

 

"You look like hell, Rafa." He snorted as she reached across the table to fondly press Olivia's hand. "Lieutenant Benson, stunning as usual. Am I interrupting?"

 

"Not at all." Olivia grinned, squeezing the young woman's hand. The bartender brought Gail a jack and coke.

 

"Thank you sir. Another round for them and an antipasto for the table. My tab please." She said.

 

"What are we celebrating?" Rafael put his pen down and loosened his tie. 

 

"I gave a presentation on my research practicum today to the entire psych department and I didn't even cry." They laughed along with her. There was a small group of young looking professionals at the bar now that Gail must have come in with, a few of them were familiar.

 

"Did you all work with Lucia this year?" Olivia asked as fresh drinks and food came to the table. She closed her laptop. 

 

"Oh yah. Theo, Devante, and I were the full-timers. The rest of them collected data as part of a bigger project or conducted observations for ethnographies."

 

"Since when do you hang out with sociologists?" Rafael teased.

 

"Since your mother started hiring them to authenticate the long standing assumption that is in fact, better than everyone else in the borough."

 

"It's a disease." He admitted.   

 

"What did you end up narrowing in on?" Olivia asked. 

 

"Applications of problem solving therapy and relaxation training in after school detention programs." She squinted and quoted, brain very obviously overworked for the day. She shook her dark hair down from it's ponytail and knocked back half of her drink.   

 

"Mami is endlessly proud of your work, Gail. You should be too." She smiled at her friends and mentors. The two had also become regular volunteers at Lucia Barba's afterschool and weekend community programs, and consequently had become regular sounding boards for Gail's research. She was a passionate person. She and Lucia got on like a house on fire. Every Saturday Mama Barba put together brunch for various students, teachers, and community organizers to sit down and exchange ideas. Gail was a regular attendee, along with Rafael and Olivia.    

 

"It wouldn't have happened without your help. Or Lucia's. Cheers to not getting kicked out of NYU." Their glasses met over the middle of the table. "Anything interesting going on here?" She looked down at the papers still covering a majority of the table, saving a few from getting crinkled under Rafael's elbow. 

 

"Absolutely not." Olivia sighed, sinking down into the booth. "Every time I wrap a loose end three more unravel. I'm considering driving north and joining the first off-grid commune I find."

 

"Excellent."

 

"Are you interested in a five year old boy or a waffle maker by chance?" Gail pretended to consider it.      

 

"Hot off the press." Rafael said, handing her a release that would be in the New York Times tomorrow. "I'm trying to get Ronald O'Hara's parental rights terminated."

 

"The breakout Broadway actor?"

 

"None other."

 

"Holy shit, man." She dropped to a whisper. "You just carry this around? You shouldn't. I shouldn't be looking at this, should I? How is your face not in the paper yet?" They bit their lips to keep from laughing too loudly. "You're about to be the most hated man in New York."

 

"They're giving him the weekend to arrange his funeral." Olivia teased. 

 

"What's your professional opinion on repeat episodes of substance induced psychosis and parental competency?" He mused.

 

"Ah yes, my professional 3rd year undergraduate opinion…" She giggled. "That would be a hell no. But I could point you to various journals, research, APA recommendations, and experts that would give you a hell fucking no. Is he actively seeking treatment?"

 

"When asked, he told caseworkers quote…" He searched for a CPS report. "Are you trying to kill God? And then proceeded to take off his clothes and meditate naked on the kitchen floor."

 

"Shit." She almost choked on a bite of cheese and tomato. Olivia sputtered on her drink. "Is the mother in the picture?"

 

"No. He adopted all three of the children. But he has a sister he's been trying to estrange himself from who is more than willing to take them in."

 

"Goddamn tragedy." Gail sighed. "Explains why he snagged the Tony for Rocky Horror anniversary show though. He made Tim Curry look like a soft romantic lead." Rafael gave her a bemused look.

 

"Are you a fan?"

 

"I'm a gay college student from out of state in New York City. All we do is waste money on shows, coffee, and bar food." They laughed at her resigned expression. She stayed till the plates were clean. The conversation flitted from work to Lucia Barba's latest programming venture and back again.

 

"Did she tell you about the speaker series?" She asked. 

 

"No."

 

"Oh good." She giggled. "Witness Wednesdays. You two will be asked to participate soon, no doubt. Every Wednesday the whole school will start their morning together in the gym. Someone from the community will talk about where they came from and where they're going. Anybody who is really succeeding and helping others, whether they left their neighborhood or not."

 

"Right up your ally." Olivia looked at Rafael. He pulled a face. 

 

"I doubt there are many junior high pre-teens thinking about law school." Gail elbowed him. 

 

"I can name three actually. But cops are slightly more popular."

 

"Witness Wednesdays." Rafael mused. "I'll have to have a word with her about the name."

 

"It's churchy, isn't it? Gives me war flashbacks to off key gospel music and testifying in public."

 

"Testifying?" Olivia snorted.

 

"Share your journey and your burden but especially your sins, brothers and sisters. Lest the devil tear us asunder with deadly ammunitions. We keep no secrets in the house of God. Step up and be cleansed." She put on a preacher's voice in make them laugh. "During confirmation I told the whole congregation that I kissed Karen Matthews behind the bleachers and those demons still have me at the top of their prayer list." She tisked. She settled her tab after her second cocktail and a few more hilarious stories. 

 

"Can I call you a car?" He asked as she stood and shouldered her bag, leaning over to kiss Olivia on the cheek.

 

"Some of us plebeians still take the subway." She reminded him, pressing his hand. "See you 'round."

 

"Absolutely." Olivia said. Gail left them with a sleepy smile. "Hmmm I think I'm tapped out." She said, looking at her phone. It was half past eight. 

 

"Agreed." He pinched the bridge of his nose, pleasantly buzzed and not at all motivated to prep any further.

 

"What time is your hearing tomorrow morning?" Somewhere under the table she crossed her ankles behind one of his. He smiled at her softly.

 

"Noon."

 

"Lucky." She pulled a face. "I have to be in Dodd's office at 9."

 

"Lucy stays over Thursdays, right? My place is closer than yours." He offered. She smiled back.

 

"There's an idea." They packed up. They settled their own tabs. Shouldered their bags. His place wasn't all the far away. It was a little cold and very breezy, but it was comfortable after the heat of the bar and a day spent running around town. He unknotted his tie all the way, tossed his coat casually over one shoulder. She felt a deep rush of affection when he smiled at her again. In the last five and a half days she had seen him exactly twice, once for a quick lunch and once for a nightcap thanks to three open SVU investigations and four family court cases keeping them on opposite sides of Manhattan. This morning she had to cancel breakfast to track down a witness and she almost cried with frustration. Today he swept through the office around 6 pm and they practically ran for it, along with Rollins and Carisi who were coming up on their 5th hour of talking shit about Finn for being on vacation.

 

She slipped her hand into his. "I can't remember the last time I had a week this crazy. Or stupid." He squeezed her hand and nodded in agreement.

 

"The poor lady at the coffee shop this morning asked how many shots of espresso I wanted and I just said yes." She laughed and knocked her shoulder into his. "And you missed me snapping at poor Nancy for printing too loudly."

 

"Stone started to feel bad for us. He tried to take us all out to lunch yesterday and I actually told him to shove it in front of the whole squad room." She groaned.

 

"Olivia Benson!" He chastised in an attempt to get her to laugh again. "You know how impressionable Carisi and Rollins are." 

 

"Oh they don't need my help. Did you hear about the 6 car pile up in Brooklyn last night?"

 

"You're kidding."

 

~

 

By the time they got to his building they were caught up on the big disasters in each other's week. She was ranting about something regarding a heinously annoying crime scene tech. He caught something about libertarian politics and Finn's leftist sensibilities before his hands were framing her face and he was kissing her quiet.

 

"Fair point." She joked a little breathlessly as he kissed both her cheeks and moved towards the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. She followed, smiling and fighting a yawn. "Will you hate me if I say all I really want to do is go to bed?"

 

"Yes. You may sleep on the couch." He teased- smiling, wrapping an arm around her waist, and pulling her against him as he said it. The coffee began to drip as she slipped her arms around his neck and nuzzled against his cheek. He sighed happily and dropped a kiss on her shoulder. Having her here in person was healing. She was warm. And solid and real. She could convey a lot of that through the phone but this was infinitely better.  

 

"Don't laugh at me."

 

"Never." He said.   

 

"Sometimes I just really need to lay around in the dark and listen to you talk for awhile."                  

 

"To put you to sleep? Well, it was nice while it lasted." She thumped his shoulder with the back of her hand but he felt her smile against his neck. She inhaled deeply, blindly opening the top two buttons of his shirt as she sank further into the embrace. His fingers pushed up the back of her blouse, drawing light circles on her spine. When the pot finished brewing he gave her a gentle push to the side and a swat to the rear, signaling that she should go get comfortable. By the time she was done stealing clothes to wear, taking off her make up, calling Noah to say goodnight, and washing her face he was already in bed giving his emails one last look for the night. All the lights were off. The curtains were thrown open to catch the night lights.

 

He watched her navigate with considerable amusement, stumbling into bed and flopping dramatically against the pillows. She gratefully accepted the cup of coffee he handed her. She propped herself up sideways, drew one leg to her chest, balanced her mug on her knee, and stretched the other across his lap.

 

"This needs to stop." He twisted his fingers into the fabric of the sweatpants she had pilfered. They were roughly the same height and size, a perk for her and a loss for him.

 

"I'll buy you your own."

 

"These are my own."

 

"Not anymore. Besides, it's customary."

 

"Oh?"

 

"And it's supposed to be sexy, isn't it?" She pointed out. "I'm supposed to have a drawer full of your stuff by now." 

 

"You're the sexiest nun in Manhattan, mi Vida." My life.  One corner of his mouth quirked upwards, ruining the serious expression he was trying to project.

 

"Shut up." She laughed into her mug. He was always warm enough, she was always freezing. Tonight she was wearing socks, his grey joggers, and an old Harvard sweatshirt zipped up to the neck with the hood hanging loosely off the back of her head. Her hands were perpetually folded into the sleeves. She knocked the hood all the way off and pulled the zip down to an alluring place to prove a point.

 

"I never said I wasn't into it, Sister Olivia."

 

"You were right. This was nice while it lasted." She threw his joke back at him and watched him throw his head back and really laugh. When she reached for his hand he gave it to her. She pressed his palm against her thigh and stroked the backs of his fingers. They finished their coffees while continuing to harass each other in between questions about the other's week.

 

"Tell me about Noah." He said after lazily disposing of their mugs on the bedside table. 

 

"Missing you terribly." She said softly, chin in hand. "You're invited to t-ball by the way."

 

"I'll be there." He said, hardly missing a beat. She raised an eyebrow.

 

"At 8 am on a Saturday?"

 

"Of course." He gave her a look, as if she should know better. She softened. She loved the way he loved her son. "I'll tell Mami. She'll build a cheer squad. All the other parents will spend the game wondering who the hell invited the south half of Bronx." She snorted.

 

"He made Uncle Finn, Aunt Amanda, and Uncle Sonny all pinkie swear to be there too."

 

"He's going to be the most famous player in New York." She leaned in abruptly, taking his chin in her hand a kissing him firmly.

 

"Thank you." She got up to brush her teeth. She resettled herself after plugging her phone in to charge. He pulled the curtains and plunged them into complete darkness. A full eight hours of sleep sounded like heaven right about now. Domesticity these days was...everything. He curled an arm around her waist and pressed a series of soft kisses to her shoulder. 

 

"I got a job offer this morning." He said. 

 

"That's not unusual, is it?" They came pouring in from several states after the trial, it was how he landed his current spot in child advocacy.  

 

"A teaching position. Adjunct."

 

"Oh."

 

"Very unusual."

 

"Yah." She agreed with a laugh. "Where? One of the community colleges?"

 

"Columbia."

 

"OH." She turned over abruptly, facing him in the dark. "And?"

 

"I don't know." He admitted. "I think I'm still stunned." She felt for his cheek and molded her palm to the curve of his jaw.

 

"I think you'd be a fantastic teacher." She said softly, tracing the curve of his ear with her thumb. "I mean…you got Carisi to pass the bar and I've never seen him write a complete sentence on a DD5-"

 

"A shining academic achievement." He snorted before breathing deeply, obviously conflicted. She felt a pang somewhere deep in her gut. A year or so ago he would have never doubted himself. The acquittal was more like the start of an intensely unforgiving journey than the end of one. "I know it's not a joke…but it feels like one." She used her hand to guide her aim. Kissed him till he was breathlessly dragging his lips down her neck and pressing his nose to her collar bone. She held him to her chest, continued to stroke his hair. Him. Ivy League. Teaching. t made sense. 

 

"All it means is that they see you, Rafael. They see a good man. A complex man with wins and losses, but still a good man. Just like I do." He hummed appreciatively, shoulders relaxing.

 

"Should I consider it?" He asked hesitantly, pushing up on an elbow above her. 

 

"You told me you wanted to move on and three weeks later you were back in the courtroom. A different one. But it looks an awful lot like penance from here." She pointed out gently. He laughed self consciously, sliding an arm under her neck and touching his forehead to hers briefly. She felt him swallowing down some hard emotions as he tried to speak several times and stopped before any words fell out.  

 

"I hate it when you're this right." She smiled. Kissed the corner of his mouth. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hoped he felt anchored to something…hoped she could help clear this devastating confusion from his mind.

 

"And I know it's against every fiber of your being, but you can in fact take a few days to mull things over. Weigh the pros and cons. Research." She reminded him. He wrapped a hand around her knee and pulled it gently to the side so he could fit between her thighs. She pushed her fingers through his hair as he kissed her over and over, pushing her down and absorbing every bit of safety and sanity she was offering him. She shivered as he suckled her throat.

 

"Liv." She might have gone weak in the knees if she were standing. She hitched a leg around the back of one of his to keep him in place.  

 

"Rafael." She sighed as he inched the zipper of her hoodie down further and pressed hard, wet kisses between her breasts. She couldn't help but arch into him. "I wish I could read your mind sometimes." She mumbled. She felt his lopsided smile.

 

"What do you want to know?" He inched the zipper down further so he could rest his cheek against her stomach. She pushed her fingers through his hair.

 

"Are you happy?"    

 

"With you?" He asked against her sternum. "Deliriously." He thought over her question while pushing himself up on an elbow above her, taking her hand out of her hair and linking their fingers. He pressed his lips to the back of her wrist. "But I think you're right. I think I'm still tired. And I don't think this work is…permanent. Or sustainable."

 

"Hmmm." She hummed thoughtfully. Squeezing his hand. "The edges might fray but your center will hold." She corrected him. "But at the same time you can make things a lot easier on yourself." She could practically hear his gears turning as he moved to lie next to her. She turned towards him, staying close. He kissed her warmly, pushing a hand up the back of her shirt and pulling her closer.

 

"What did you want to be when you were a kid?" He asked abruptly, nose to nose with her now. She laughed.

 

"I think at one point a firefighter ballerina."

 

"Oh?" He said, clearly not expecting that. "What a coincidence." His chest rumbled with suppressed giggles against her own. "I never wanted to be anything until my third year of high school. Till I wanted to be a lawyer." He mused. "And not wanting it anymore feels strange."

 

"It's not a loss, necessarily. It could be growth."

 

"You could be right." 

 

"I think I am." She decided. He was hard to kiss when he was laughing at her. "But whatever you decide…you know I'm not going anywhere." They laid their in the dark listening to each other breathe for a bit. She was almost dozing under his chin when she felt his pulse jump. "What is it?" She asked sleepily. 

 

"Nothing." She tapped her fingers against his chin. He couldn't get away with that anymore. He gathered her up in his arms and held her tight to his chest. 

 

"You always make everything better. Always." She smiled at the warmth and contentment absolutely bleeding through his voice. "I love you."

 

"Oh is that all?" She teased, smothering his huff as she resettled her head under his chin, arms clasping him back now. "You are the best thing that's ever been mine." 

 

~

 

Where her alarm went off at six she was still panting from a rather rambunctious wake up call that had started 30 minutes earlier. He was still dragging open mouthed kisses down her naked spine when his phone rang five minutes later. He groaned, rolling over to answer it. She sighed and cuddled up against his shoulder, lazily playing with his Lady of Charity pendant while kissing his neck.  He stroked her hair back from her forehead and smiled serenely.

 

"Barba." He answered hoarsely. Whoever it was on the line made him frown. "Gail? Are you okay?" She tried to shake the fog out of her head and listen. Something about Mercy General? "Okay. Sit tight. I'm on my way." He hung up.

 

"Gail's at Mercy with one of Mom's students."

 

"Is she okay?"

 

"She didn't sound it."

 

"I'm coming with you." She sat up. "My badge will get you through faster." He put a hard kiss on her mouth before getting out of bed.