“I’m you now Liv...You’ve opened my heart, and I thank you for it.”
“I…” Rafael swallowed nervously. He knew what she was asking, what she wanted to hear. He just wasn’t sure he could find the words. What good was he to her now; unemployed and publicly disgraced? He’d been dragged through the mill and was now a broken man, a shell of his former self. She deserved more than that. So did Noah.
Yet even in the midst of his turmoil, a small part of him knew that wasn’t really who he was, and that despite the hits he’d taken he could and would come back from this. And maybe that shred of belief was because of her, too. Because he’d seen her time and time again claw her own way back, from tragedy, from trauma.
But at that moment, all he could do was run. Not away from her, but FOR her.
And to avoid a complete emotional breakdown in the middle of the street.
“I have to move on.”
She had seen the answer in his eyes before he’d managed to choke it out in a voice thick with tears and pain, and tried to brace herself for it. But it was no good, the pain of losing not only her best friend, but the man she knew deep in her heart she would always love, in all ways, hit her like a physical blow bringing fresh tears to her eyes.
Hating himself for causing this incredible woman even a second’s more pain, Rafael reached out a hand. Knowing that if he kissed her the way that he was desperate to, felt her respond with even a fraction of the love he could see in her eyes he wouldn’t have the strength to leave, he pressed his lips against her forehead and tried to pour as much as he could into one final kiss.
Olivia reached out a gloved hand and clutched his other one, wishing she could feel his skin against hers. He ended the kiss and moved to pull back, but she wouldn’t relinquish her grip. She knew if she let go he would walk away.
She was right. But after a few self-pitying moments, she took a deep breath and went after him.
When she was close enough, she reached out and grabbed his arm. He stopped walking and turned to face her.
“Rafael, you don’t have to run. I’m here, with you. I’ve always been here.” She slid her hand down his arm to take his hand. “You’re a fighter, for justice, for victims. Please don’t run. Fight for… us. Please?”
“I don’t know if I can do that, Liv. After everything… you and Noah deserve better, so much better,” Raf whispered, finally breaking down.
Liv grabbed his other hand gently squeezing both at the same time.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a news reporter, one that had probably been assigned to keep watch on the courthouse for any appearance Rafael might make, notice them and begin to approach. Fortunately, there was no photographer or cameraman as well. That was the last thing he needed at this moment.
“Reporter at three o’clock,” she said quietly. “Come on, let’s go to my place. Noah’s still at school. And it’s too cold out here to keep standing here, anyway.”
Tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, Olivia led him away from the reporter, the courthouse, and, she hoped, toward his future. A future that still had him in her life.
They remained silent during the journey, lost in their thoughts, thinking about the previous days, how these events turned both of their lives upside down. She had been there for him the whole time. And she would do everything to convince him to stay. To loosen up his insecurities about her. And Noah.
Entering the apartment, Olivia gestured for him to sit on the sofa as she removed her coat. He decided against removing his. He didn't plan on staying long. He hadn't planned on being here in the first place, but knew if he took off his coat, got comfortable then leaving would be even harder. And he would have to leave eventually. The moment would come when she realised he was right, that she would be better off without him. And when it did, he needed to be ready to make a hasty retreat.
Surveying the living room, Rafael noticed that Eddie the Elephant was once again in jail. He was about to ask what abhorrent crime the stuffed animal had committed this time when Olivia spoke.
“Drink?” she asked, passing him and heading to the kitchen.
He stood and followed her; perching on the barstool at her breakfast bar. He glanced at the clock on the wall. “I suppose it's too early for a scotch.”
“Well, it is always 5 o’clock somewhere”, Liv smiled and gently touched his arm.
Nursing his scotch, mind reliving everything that has transpired over the last few days, Rafael turned to look at Olivia who had taken the seat on the bar stool next to him.
“Liv,” Rafael whispered, “I am sorry for putting you and Noah through this hell. I really screwed things up for me, for us - for all of us.”
“Rafa,” Liv reassured him, placing her hand on his knee, “I told you once and I will tell you a million times until you believe me - I have absolute faith in your humanity. Always have and always will.”
“Yeah, well, that’s you, Liv, always seeing the best in people,” he muttered, glancing around so she wouldn’t see the turmoil in his eyes.
Of course, he knew she would stand by him no matter what. Liv wasn’t one to turn her back on a friend. As soon as she’d found out what he’d done, what had she said to him? I have to fix this. That was her nature, to help everyone—but this was different. They were friends, and he knew she would go to the ends of the Earth to help him. It was just one of the many reasons he loved her.
But because he loved her, he wanted to set her free. Free from the burden he’d become, before he pulled her down with him.
“No matter what you think of yourself, Rafael, I know who you are. Who do you trust more, yourself? Or me?”
He looked up, surprised into a laugh, and his face crinkled in amusement when he saw her smile. “Always you,” he said, amazed that he was even able to laugh anymore, and he watched her smile widen.
“So trust my judgement, then,” she told him. “And take your damn coat off.” This made them both laugh again, and he realized it felt good to laugh. Especially with her. It had been awhile since they laughed together. It had been awhile since they had done anything enjoyable together.
He unbuttoned the camel hair overcoat and she moved to help slide it off of his arms. She tossed it over the back of the couch and then stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders. They felt tight with tension. He unconsciously leaned into her touch, the way he wanted to in the courtroom after the verdict when she took him into her arms and for a brief moment there was no one there but them. No Dworkin, no Stone. Just the warmth of her cheek against his, and the scent of her hair in his nose. He closed his eyes and could smell it again as he leaned a little closer.
She kneaded her fingers into the tense muscles of his shoulders, working at the knots, and he let out a breath. He was afraid to relax, afraid to let down his guard, but this was Olivia. There was no one he trusted more, and he could feel some of his stress sliding away. He didn’t have to pretend with her; she knew him too well to be fooled, anyway. She knew what he was thinking, what he was feeling. She knew why he’d been ready to leave, but she was unwilling to accept his retreat.
As though reading his thoughts, she said, quietly, “Don’t leave me, Rafa.”
His eyes burned behind his lids, and he opened them to a shimmery view of her apartment. He reached up a hand and covered hers on his shoulder. He gathered his courage and, holding her hand, turned to face her. She shifted, and then she was standing between his knees, looking at him. Waiting. Hoping. Believing.
“Liv,” he said. He stopped and took a deep breath.
“I know,” she whispered. He searched her face, and she gave a little nod. “I know,” she repeated. “You don’t have to say it. It’s alright. Just don’t shut me out.”
You don’t have to say it, he thought. That was her nature, too, to sacrifice her own wants and needs for him. She deserved so much more. And that was something he could give her.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” Olivia said.
“Should be on his way home with Lucy,” Olivia said.
About that time they heard a key in the door, and an excited
“Momma, I’m home!”
Noah stopped when he saw his Uncle Rafa. His eyes lit up at the surprise guest and he rushed over to him first, bypassing his mother.
Raf smiled and stood. Noah gave him a big hug.
As Noah’s arms curled around him and the boy’s head burrowed into his stomach, Rafael felt some of the weight from the past few days lift. He ruffled Noah’s curl’s as tears pooled in his eyes. Noah was the one person from whom he faced no judgement. To him, he was just plain old Uncle Rafa who told daft stories, did silly voices when he read to him and who had to be schooled in the art of building Lego robots. It reminded him that there was more to him than the law, the expensive suits, the big, brass ego. It gave him hope.
Hearing a small sniff behind him, he turned to see Olivia smiling at them, tears reflected in her own eyes. He pulled back from Noah and looked down into his innocent, smiling face. “It’s been a tough day, amigo. I think Momma could use a hug too. What d’ya think?”
Noah nodded but was reluctant to let go of Rafael. It had been ages since he’d seen him, and he’d heard his momma talking on the phone to someone the other night, saying that Rafa might have to go away. He didn’t want that. He wanted him to keep coming around, to keep reading him stories and playing with him.
Sensing the boy’s unwillingness to let him go, Rafael opened his arm, inviting Olivia to join them. She stepped into the embrace and felt Rafael’s arm slip around her waist, anchoring her to him. Noah’s hand reached for her too and she returned the gesture, hugging them both tightly.
This was what she wanted. What she’d always wanted -- despite the periods of denial she had tried to put herself through. She wanted the three of them to be a family. She wanted him to stay. She was about to voice the question when he son beat her to it.
“Are you leaving, Uncle Rafa?”
Rafael didn’t know how Noah even knew that was a possibility, but it didn’t surprise him. He was a clever lad and probably saw and understood more than the adults in his life gave him credit for. He hesitated with his answer - still not convinced he was what they needed.
“I don’t want you to go,” Noah whispered.
“Me neither,” added Liv. “Stay? Please?”
Placing one hand on Noah’s head, the other drifting up to cup the back of Olivia's neck, Rafael made his decision.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he declared, holding Olivia’s gaze. Then he did something he’d been wanting to do for the past six years. He closed the gap between them and touched his lips to hers. It was chaste but full of love and promise.
Rafael didn’t know where his path would take him from her, but wherever it was, he knew he would make the journey surrounded by love.