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Gentling

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Squad car lights strobed through the piecemeal darkness. Olivia pelted between parked vehicles, flashing her badge like bared teeth. Her pulse banged in time with her boots on the pavement. Uniformed officers and CSU swarmed around and into the nearest house—an ordinary house, two stories, no more or less shabby than its neighbors on the Woodside residential street. Olivia searched among the officers, heart still in her throat: she'd seen an ambulance pull away from the scene. But Eames would've told her—if he were hurt, Eames would've said—

Then she saw him, propped upright against the hood of an unmarked car under the streetlight, swaddled in a woolen blanket. No coat, no jacket, no gloves. The lines around his mouth had deepened, grizzled with three days' worth of stubble. Exhaustion hollowed his eyes. One of Eames's senior detectives, Serena Stevens, stood by him, notepad in hand.

When Rafael sighted Olivia his chin lifted, and his expression changed. The easing of tautness only threw its tired shadows into starker relief.

Olivia slowed to a jog. Detective Stevens was still interviewing. "And the alpha, Daniel Cantor, he made some...ideological statements?"

Rafael spoke in clipped tones. "He told me repeatedly that God has a plan for omegas, that I had deviated from it, and he was going to 'lead me back to the path.'"

Stevens made a note. Glancing up at Olivia, she murmured "Lieutenant." Then, to Rafael: "Mr. Barba, let me just check in with my captain before we let you go."

As Stevens retreated, Rafael turned to Olivia. Harrowed as he was, the corners of his eyes crinkled faintly.

"So many cops and so few of my favorites."

He was trying for levity; there was no sharpness in it. Olivia felt pierced through the chest. Without a word she stepped forward and folded him into her arms. Rafael stilled, as if surprised to be embraced, then sagged a little. When she drew back, his eyes searched her face.

"Dodds took you off the case?"

She nodded tightly.

"When you weren't first to kick through the door, that was my clue."

"We were all too close, he said. Major Case Squad was on it." In her ugliest moments Olivia had been sure that was pure pretext. That whatever lip service he paid to protocols, Dodds had wanted her to know the impotence he'd felt in that hospital room when his son lay on the bed. "And you weren't a 'special victim'—"

"Excuse me? I'm the specialest."

She couldn't laugh. "He said he'd take our shields if we didn't stand down. Not just mine. The squad's." Excuses. They caught like claws in her throat. "I should've thrown mine in his fucking—"

"No, no, no. Liv. If you'd lost your job, that would've been the worst of this. I'm still in one piece."

And now he was comforting her, after being snatched off the street and enduring days of uncertain terror in the clutches of alpha supremacists. Maybe Dodds had been right to force her off the case. She was a swiveling cannon, looking for something to blast. She couldn't vouch for what she would've done if she'd been first to get her hands on Rafael's abductors. Beating with an iron bar might've been the least of it.

She put her hands on his shoulders, trying to convince herself of his wholeness. "You're okay?"

"My worst injury is slight chafing." He extended his arms, exposing his wrists and their faint ligature marks, almost undetectable in the dark. Olivia gave a silent hiss.

A uniformed officer approached them, clearing his throat. To Olivia's eye he looked too green to be out of high school, let alone the academy. A paper to-go cup wavered in his hand.

"Mr. Barba? That coffee you wanted."

"You're very kind," said Rafael.

Officer Jailbait's chest puffed. He hovered for a minute, then reluctantly dragged himself away. Olivia cocked an eyebrow.

"You're making friends."

Rafael sipped the coffee without relish. "At the moment I have an unfair advantage." He sounded less acerbic than resigned. Before Olivia could speak again, Captain Eames appeared with Detective Stevens in tow.

"Mr. Barba, we can fill in the details of your statement tomorrow. I'm sure you're ready to be home. I can have an officer drive you, or—" Eames glanced at Olivia.

"I've got it," Olivia said.

"Thanks, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, Captain." She tried to say the rest with her eyes: thank you for finding him, for getting him out not just alive, but unscathed. As unscathed as anyone could be under the circumstances. Eames nodded, pressed a hand to Olivia's shoulder, and stepped away.

Olivia shepherded Rafael with a hand at his back. In her car he sank into the passenger seat, seeming to collapse inwardly, as if only the need to preserve some shred of public dignity had kept him animated. Once he was settled, cradling his coffee like a talisman of warmth, Olivia climbed into the driver's side. She dialed Rollins and put the phone on speaker.

It was Carisi who answered. "Hey, Lieutenant. Rollins is driving."

With good news on the tip of her tongue, Olivia mustered a smile for what felt like the first time in days. "I am sitting here with one Rafael Barba, alive and well—" She had to pause for tandem whooping.

"He's okay?" That was Carisi, still anxious. "He's there with you?"

Olivia nodded to Rafael, who cleared his throat. "'Well' would be an overstatement," he said.

"Counselah!"

"Oh, thank God," said Rollins. "Barba, you gave us a hell of a scare. They got the perps?"

"All in custody," Olivia said. "Listen, guys, you'll get the 411 later. He's not hurt but he's been through the wringer, so I'm gonna get him home. Pass the good word on to Fin?"

"Copy that. Take it easy, Counselor."

"Get some rest!"

Rafael leaned back again and closed his eyes, wearing the look of a weary man who'd just been mobbed by eight-week-old golden retrievers. Olivia started the car. Reluctant as she was to tax him further, she had to ask.

"Has anyone called your mom?"

His eyes flew open. He dragged a hand over his face, then shook his head. "My phone's gone."

"The perps tossed it. Eames's squad recovered it on day one." She unlocked hers and offered it to him, then pulled the car into the street. He dialed. It rang only once. In the closeness of the car's interior Olivia heard Lucía Barba's hoarse, frightened hello?

"Mami," murmured Rafael, "it's me." Cries on the other end of the line. "It's okay, I'm okay, I'm safe. The police found me. They caught the—yes, I'm fine, I'm not hurt. They caught the men who did it." A pause. "In Queens. Lieutenant Benson's driving me home. I don't know, thirty minutes? Forty? Mami, you don't have to...okay, okay. I'll see you there. I love you. See you soon." He lowered the phone.

"If you need to make any other calls..." Olivia said.

He shook his head.

"You didn't seriously expect her not to show."

"Expect? No." He heaved a sigh that seemed to drain any remaining stamina from his body. Olivia laid her hand on his arm, over the gray shock blanket he was still wearing like a miserable poncho. He turned a little toward the touch and closed his eyes again.

She needed both hands on the wheel when they merged onto the Long Island Expressway. Rafael was quiet for so long she thought he'd fallen asleep. Then he said, in a muted voice, "I may not be able to finish my statement tomorrow."

"Why? What's wrong?"

"I missed three days of pills, Liv. Even if I take one tonight..."

His hand twitched open on his thigh: a futile, abortive motion. Olivia's gut tumbled into free fall. The tail-wagging and coffee-fetching by Officer Friendly made new radical sense.

So did other aspects of the case, as far as she knew them. "That wasn't...incidental."

"Not even close. My captors belong to a quasi-religious group called the Church of Aleph. When I was in Brooklyn I prosecuted one of its former leaders for false imprisonment." His eyes burned in the dark of the car. "You remember Gary Langham? Reverend 'curative intercourse'?"

Mouth gone leaden, Olivia said, "I remember."

"Members of the Church of Aleph believe in curative heat. To bring wayward omegas who've suppressed their natural instincts back to a healthy relationship with God and alpha." A muscle in his jaw twitched as it tightened. "So you can tell Dodds it would've been an SVU case. In another day. Give or take."

She kept her grip on the wheel. The lights of oncoming traffic blurred, then sharpened to a glitter. She tightened her hands to stop their shaking.

"What do you need?" she asked. "What can I do?"

"You're doing it," Rafael said.

*

It was close to ten o'clock by the time she delivered him into his mother's arms, in the polished lobby of his apartment building. Lucía Barba's impression that Olivia had singlehandedly rescued her son twisted the knives that much deeper—but Rafael was home, he was safe, with a security detail still in place outside the building, just in case any co-conspirators remained at large. Olivia wished the reunited Barba clan goodnight, and drove home to try to sleep, with mixed success.

The next morning she called Rafael's landline. "Hey. How goes it?"

At first he sounded detached, almost distant. "I shouldn't go out, but if Eames can send someone here, I can talk."

"I'll call her ASAP. Your mom still there?"

"I sent her to work. Said I just wanted to sleep for a few days. She didn't buy it, but she left." There was a pause, then: "Make sure Eames sends a beta. And tell them I want my phone."

That last was spoken peevishly enough to reassure her. "I'll make it happen," Olivia said. "Check in with you later."

Between meetings with Eames's squad and her own, a press conference, and the kidnappers' arraignment, later turned out to be past five. Olivia packed up hastily, left Fin in charge, and texted Rafael. There was no instant response, despite assurances from Detective Stevens about the phone, but Rafael was probably in the thick of it. However inflicted and unwanted, if nothing else the timing of his heat might spare him from reliving the past few days. For most omegas, it was a period of sheer immediacy.

Olivia stopped en route for takeout and supplies: a six-pack of bottled water, a couple of juice smoothies, ibuprofen in case he was prone to heat hangover—though he probably had stronger stuff on hand for migraines, and would only scoff. She bypassed the coffee shops, despite vocal complaints from him in her head; current medical advice claimed heat and caffeine didn't mix.

When she knocked at the door to his apartment, he was slow to answer. She checked her phone again. He'd responded to her last text with something noncommittal: doing okay, no need to put herself out. Too late, pal. Your doorman let me up, she texted back.

At last the deadbolt clicked, and the door opened. She nearly dropped the sack of takeout Thai.

His bedhead was spectacular. He'd shaved off his abduction stubble, but his eyes were red-rimmed and woeful, his face and neck blotchily flushed. Sweat stains bloomed hugely in the armpits of his t-shirt (loud orange, with bold block lettering: SPEAK OUT STAND UP STOP DV). Below the gray sweatpants his feet looked small and bare on the hardwood floor.

His nostrils flared. He cleared his throat.

"Liv," he rasped—and that was as far as he got.

So much for thinking he'd been bedraggled last night. "Wow," said Olivia, not ungently. He grimaced, but stepped aside and let her in. Once the initial shock lessened, his dishabille was both pathetic and somehow charming. Since Olivia preferred not to be murdered, she declined to mention that. "Rough ride, huh?"

He scraped a hand through his disheveled hair. "I forgot what it's like."

"Been a while?"

"More than two decades."

"Jesus, Rafael." She hauled her burdens to the kitchen island and took off her coat, draping it over a bar stool. "Have you eaten? Anything?"

He trailed after her, eyeing the bag of takeout with ill-concealed distaste. "Mami made arroz con pollo. I wasn't hungry."

"Okay. How about we see if you can eat a little, and then I promise I'll leave you alone."

He looked unenthusiastic, but didn't protest, pausing to take stock of himself. He gestured at the state of his person, then waved down the hall. "Let me just—"

"Sure."

She busied herself finding plates and dishing up a little bit of everything, Lucía Barba's chicken rice included. When Rafael reemerged, it was in a clean t-shirt—Harvard Law in maroon and grey—and his hair was in better order, though the bleary expression remained.

He sat down at the kitchen island next to her, squinting at the food. "You went to the arraignment?"

"All three pled guilty. First-degree kidnapping. I understand they were persuaded to take a plea to avoid federal charges." And the charge of attempted rape.

She'd worried he might quibble about the deal--any deal--being given to his abductors, but he only nodded. The maximum sentence would be life. "Judge Taten'll throw the book at them."

"She'd better. Rollins and Carisi are working with Eames's squad to follow up on the church connections, find out if there were other accessories. Now that we've been given the go-ahead to help."

He grunted. In the end he ate a few bites of pad thai and his mother's chicken, then chugged a Mighty Mango smoothie before calling it quits. He spun the empty bottle at her accusingly.

"Naked Juice. Really?"

Still making inroads on the curry, Olivia blinked. She covered her mouth. "I didn't think."

"Sure you didn't."

"I wouldn't tease you in your condition. I'm not that cruel."

"No," he sighed. "You wouldn't." He quieted, then eyed her sidelong, gaze gliding down and up with such unsubtlety that she grew conscious of herself, of her body, in a way she rarely felt in his presence. She was still in her work clothes: black pants, black v-neck, grey blazer. Nothing he hadn't seen before. She raised her eyebrows.

Rafael seemed to jolt back to himself, and jerked his gaze away. His flush redoubled. Olivia tactfully didn't look at him below the waist. But maybe she was cruel, after all, because she set down her fork, dabbed her mouth with a napkin, and said, "Getting your second wind?"

He scrambled off the bar stool as if stung by the seat. "Um, excuse me. For a minute," he managed, and staggered down the hall.

Chagrined, Olivia set about cleaning up. Omegas not on suppressants tended to have a good sense of their own heats—duration, severity, how others' scent or presence would affect them—but after twenty years on the pill, he must be totally at sea. He'd practically confessed as much. This from a man who hated being blindsided at the best of times. Who'd spent the past few days in the custody of a would-be rapist alpha, bereft of all control.

When her scullery penance was done, she left the water bottles on the counter, in plain sight, and wandered to the living room. She considered a quiet exit, but it seemed like insult on top of injury to abandon him without another word. Imposing on the closed door to his bedroom seemed impossible. After a time she heard the dim hush of a running shower, so she settled on the couch with her phone to wait.

She checked her texts and email, scrolled through the Ledger online. She didn't mean to nod off, but days of compiled exhaustion overcame her. Her chin jerked as she startled awake.

He was there, curled on the floor, in the narrow space between couch and coffee table. His head leaned against the cushion, damp from the shower, just touching her knee. His face was turned away from her.

"Sorry, Liv," he said, muffled, in a very small voice.

Her heart went out to him. She reached blindly, grasping his shoulders and drawing him up. "Hey, it's okay. Come up here, now. You're okay."

"I'm not," he mumbled. He let himself be coaxed to hunch beside her on the couch. He'd put on fresh clothes again, sweats and t-shirt, grey and plain white. At this rate she ought to volunteer for laundry duty.

"I know, but you will be. I know it's tough right now." She rubbed soothing circles on his upper back. "Would it help, would it make you feel better if I did some gentling? I won't if you don't want me to." She saw his brow crease. "If you'd rather I just leave you in peace—"

"What peace?" he huffed, with more resignation than ire, but he sounded a little more like himself. For the first time since he'd fled the kitchen, he turned to look at her properly. Not quite piteously. "It might help. If you really don't mind."

"Course I don't." Every SVU detective knew the technique. She'd used it on dozens of distraught omegas: to soothe panic, to calm them enough to give a statement, to lend the courage to blurt that's him when they recoiled from a lineup behind the glass. She'd never thought to use it on Rafael. Until the past few days, if she were honest, he'd barely registered as his type. Dramatic flair aside, he hardly fit the profile, and between professionals, what did it matter?

It mattered now. Olivia put her right hand on his nearer shoulder, then smoothed it up to the back of his neck. He twitched once, flinching upright, as her palm first slid from the cover of his t-shirt onto skin. Even with his visible flush, the heat of him startled her. She paused, waiting, until he exhaled, letting tension out and arching back.

"Shh, there you go."

She massaged his nape in steady rhythm, keeping close watch on his face. His eyelids fluttered. His shoulders continued to sink. She moved her other hand to brace them, and felt minute, startling shivers chase down his back. He wasn't a large man—omegas never were—but he was compact, dense with muscle. She'd known that from the way he filled out dress shirts and suit jackets, the way his suspenders pulled as he leaned intently over podium or desk. To feel it under her hands was another thing. The scent of his damp hair reached her, laced with shampoo or shower gel, herbaceous and masculine and clean.

Olivia bit her lip. Disquieted, she drew back. "Better?"

His eyes had drooped shut. He made a low noise of assent.

"Okay. Let's get you some water and get you back to bed."

She stood him up and steered him past the kitchen, snagging a bottle of Ice Mountain on the way. Rafael moved languidly, suggestibly, without resistance. In the hall outside the bedroom he peeked over his shoulder. His pupils were blown wide.

"Are you coming with?"

He sounded breathless, if more like a lost little boy than a man attempting seduction. In her case, the former was more likely to do the job. Faced with an omega in this state, plenty of people in the world—not only alphas—would find it the easiest thing, the most natural, to draw him close and console him. Whatever form the consolation took. Whatever the consequences later.

Together the two of them had sent some of those people to Rikers. Olivia squeezed his arm. "We both know that's not a good idea, even if it seems like one right now."

"Of course you'd say that. But have you considered? The blanket assumption that all omegas are incapable of giving meaningful consent under the influence of heat is unduly indiscriminate. We're not a monolith. Individuals are affected to differing degrees. There are studies—"

"I've heard the arguments," she said, amused. You could take the heat out of the lawyer, it seemed, but not the reverse.

"Most partnered omegas refuse suitors other than their partners, even in extremis."

"It's different for everyone, I get that. The law still has to protect everyone equally."

"And so do you." He didn't bat an eyelash, but the sad puppy eyes were back. Not for the first time, Olivia thanked her stars that she had a beta's nose. Whatever take-me-now pheromones he was blaring, she was mostly immune. Mostly. Rafael swayed on his feet, as if on the verge of a swoon. "Can't blame me for trying."

"I won't." She pressed the Ice Mountain into his hands. "Text me when you feel up to it, okay? Drink water."

With a gentle pat she propelled him into the bedroom, and shut the door behind.