The first time Rafael Barba kisses Olivia Benson is early in their working relationship before either of them would really call the other a friend.
It’s been a traumatic week for her at the hands of William Lewis. He visits her at Cassidy’s house the day after they find her, needing to see for himself how she is. He feels tremendously guilty. If he’d done his job better, argued harder and more effectively, that monster wouldn’t have been released. And she wouldn’t have been put through hell at his hands.
Upon Rafael’s’ arrival, Cassidy excuses himself to make some phone calls, leaving the two of them alone. She sits on the couch, clutching a steaming mug of coffee in her hands, wrapped in a blanket, Rafael beside her. Their eyes are on the television, but neither of them is taking in the content.
She worries her bottom lip between her teeth and drops one of her hands her lap, to play with the edge of the blanket.
Rafael has abandoned all pretence of watching the television and his troubled, green eyes are fixed on her. He pauses, choosing his word carefully.
“You’ll be okay,” he said. “You’ll get through this.”
She was strong; a fighter. He knew some of her history – had heard through the grapevine about her father – so knew she had to deal with a lot growing up. He’d also seen her fight tirelessly for the victims whose cases she investigated.
“I’ve said that to victims so many times…”
He nods, understandingly. He’s sure the words sound hollow when you’re the one who’s been hurt, violated. But she knows, deep down under all hurt, under all the fear and shame that they’re not.
“And how many of those victims have survived, Liv? How many have faced down their attackers and moved past what happened to them?”
She doesn’t reply. Just closes her eyes in an effort to stop the tears from falling.
His arm moves of its own volition, wrapping around her shoulders and pulling her to his side. “I will get the bastard, Liv,” he vows. And he will, if it’s the last thing he does. He presses his lips to her temple. “I’ll get him, and you’ll get through this.”
He doesn’t even realise he’s kissed her until he’s pulling away. Olivia doesn’t say anything, but her breathing slows and, as she closes her eyes and rests her head on his shoulder, she doesn’t seem so anxious anymore.
The second time he kisses her is a celebratory gesture.
After twelve long months – and a trial that sees his biological father shot and killed – Noah is finally hers. There’s no denying that in Olivia’s heart he was hers from the moment she took him home, but now it’s legal. They are officially a family.
She has a small party to mark the occasion. Lucy, the squad and him. He’s surprised at the invitation and for a fleeting moment considers not attending. But he realises that Olivia wouldn’t have asked him to go if she didn’t want him there. So, he trawls the numerous toy shops in the city for the perfect gift for the toddler – and has the shop assistant wrap it so it doesn’t look like a five-year-old had been let loose with some sticky tape – and dutifully arrives at her apartment at the appointed time.
The afternoon is spent eating and drinking, enjoying each other’s company as friends, rather than colleagues and playing with Noah. Rafael enjoys building – and demolishing – towers of bricks more than he thought he would, smiling and laughing at the little boy’s antics. Later, Fin makes a toast to family and, as his glass clinks with Olivia’s, Rafael finds himself wishing, just for a moment, that the three of them – him, her and Noah – could be a family. He shakes off the thought - that way madness lies – and goes back to talking shop with Carisi.
Eventually, the party begins to die down. Lucy is the first to say her goodbyes – she has a date and Amaro cries off early, citing pain and tiredness form PT – Rollins, of course, goes with him and Carisi has a law class. When Fin also takes his leave – he’s meeting his son for a drink – it leaves just the two of them. She begins clearing away plates and cups and warmth fills Rafael as he watches her. She’s still smiling, despite the drudgery of the task, basking in the joy of the day.
“I can do that,” he offers, taking the small stack of plates out of her hands. “This was your party. You shouldn’t have to clean up after it.”
“It was Noah’s party,” she replies. “Besides, it’s just a few plates, it’s hardly going to spoil the day.” To prove her point, she takes the plates back and heads to the kitchen.
They work well together, with Noah watching and babbling from his place in his high chair, and soon the apartment shows no sign that there has ever been a party. She offers Rafael a drink, but he declines, wanting to allow her some alone time with her son before bedtime.
Lifting Noah from his highchair, she places him on the floor of the living room with some toys before walking Rafael to the door.
“Thanks for coming,” she says, retrieving his coat from the rack and handing it to him. “And for the gift.” She glances back to her son – her son – chewing happily on the trunk of the elephant Rafael had bought him.
“Thanks for inviting me,” he replies.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she admits. “Not after I nearly monkey wrenched your case…”
“You did what you felt you had to.”
He hadn’t agreed with her decision to name Johnny D as Noah’s biological father – and not just because of the effect on his case. The thought of Olivia having to take Noah to visit Johnny D in federal prison had turned his stomach. After everything she’d been through, she did not deserve that. Neither did the sweet little boy who was worming his way into Rafael’s heart.
“But it could have…”
Rafael reaches for her hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze. “But it didn’t. Noah is safe at home, with his mom.” She smiles – practically beams – at her new title. “He’s a very lucky boy.”
Olivia shakes her head. “I’m the lucky one.”
He leans in and places a soft kiss to her cheek. His lips linger for a moment before he pulls away, his breath ghosting her skin as he whispers. “Congratulations, Liv.”
Rafael shrugs on his coat and leaves, before allowing himself more of the thought he’d had earlier in the day.
The third time he kisses her is also at her apartment, and also happens to involve her son.
Needing to prep for a trial but not wanting to miss bed-time again, Olivia manages to convince Rafael to join her and Noah for spaghetti night and then tackle the case once her son is in bed.
Thrilled to have his ‘Unca Raf’ visiting, Noah soon co-opts him to play Lego while Olivia prepares their meal. The boys are engrossed in their game and not paying much attention to the goings-on in the kitchen until a sharp hiss of pain followed by an “Ow! Sh… shoot!” fills the room.
Rafael is on his feet and approaching the kitchen doorway instantly, Noah following behind. “Liv? You okay?”
“Caught myself with the knife,” she calls back and moves to the sink to rinse the cut.
The shock mixed with the sight of the blood flowing from her finger, down the drain makes her lightheaded for a moment and she sways on her feet. Luckily, Rafael is there to catch her. His hands find her waist, holding her steady. She desperately tries to ignore the feeling of his fingers on her skin, were they’ve unintentionally snaked under her shirt.
“First aid kit?” he asks, lips close to her ear and breath sending a shiver down her spine.
She manages to turn in his embrace and, avoiding his gaze, points to the top of the fridge.
“Momma got an ouch?” Noah asks curiously from the doorway, watching as Rafael retrieves the box and sets it on the counter.
“It’s okay, sweet boy,” she assures, holding in her wince as Rafael sweeps an antiseptic wipe over her finger.
He lifts two brightly coloured band-aids from the box and smirks. “Dinosaurs or trains?” he asks. When she shrugs, he turns to Noah. “What do you think, mi amigo?”
“Dinos!” Noah declares firmly.
“Dinosaurs it is then,” agrees Rafael, opening the band-aid and carefully dressing Olivia’s finger.
Olivia holds out her finger towards her son. “See, all better now.”
Noah shakes his head as he enters the kitchen. “Not better yet.” And then he kisses the tip of her finger. “Now better.”
Olivia smiles at her son, marvelling at how compassionate he is, but her smile soon fades as Noah takes her hand and points the injured digit towards Rafael.
“Kiss, Unca Raf!” he demands.
Olivia wills the blush on her cheeks away as she tries to explain that she doesn’t need Rafael to kiss her finger better.
But he surprises her – and himself to a degree – when he takes her hand and says, “Noah’s right, Liv. In order to ensure your injury gets better as quickly as possible, I probably should kiss it better.”
He raises an eyebrow, daring her to challenge him in front of her son, and debunk the theory that a kiss can fix all the hurts in the world.
She doesn’t of course, and she watches, transfixed, as he lowers his lips to where the band-aid is wrapped around her fingertip and places a gentle kiss there.
The tingling she feels afterwards is just the healing process. Or at least, that’s what Olivia tells herself.
The fourth time he kisses her is at Christmas.
He’s unaware of the mistletoe hanging above her office door – strategically placed by Carisi, or maybe Rollins – as he walks into the squad room and meets her at the threshold. Olivia sighs and Rafael frowns. She’s never normally unhappy to see him.
“You okay?” he asks, regarding her carefully with a tilt of his head.
“It appears we’ve had a visit from an elf,” she replies dryly. Rafael’s brow furrows even further so she clarifies, her eyes drifting upwards. “Mistletoe.”
She’s already been caught under there by Carisi and Fin, both of whom smiled as they placed platonic kisses to her cheek.
He looks up, and there it is, a dried sprig wrapped sweetly with a red curled ribbon. Rafael is suddenly conscious of the squad’s eyes on them, standing under the festive plant.
“Ah,” he swallows nervously, feeling his face and neck grow hot. He doesn’t think he’s ever been caught underneath mistletoe before in his life. It’s just typical, he’s managed to avoid the stuff for nearly 47 years but when he does get caught it’s with the one woman he wants to kiss more than anything but can’t.
“It’s okay,” Olivia begins. “We don’t have to-” She wants to though. Ever since she spotted it, she’s been secretly hoping to they would end up stood underneath it together, just with less of an audience.
“You do!” calls Amanda. “It’s tradition.”
“Yeah, come on,” adds Carisi, with a smirk.
Not even Fin is on their side. “Never took you for a coward, counsellor.”
“It’s okay, Liv.” He wants to kiss her. Just once. To find out how her lips feel under his, how she tastes. And the mistletoe has given him the perfect excuse. He knows it’s probably not a good idea, knows that the likelihood is that he’ll want more but– Oh to hell with it. He gives her a small, apprehensive smile. “If you’re sure?”
She cocks her head towards the rest of the squad. “Well, they’ll not do any work until we do.”
He nods and leans in, kissing her softly. Her mouth fits perfectly against his full lower lip, and their eyes flutter closed in wonder. It lasts only a too-brief few seconds, but it’s blissful.
When they pull back, Rafael realises that he was right, once was not enough. He most definitely wants more. He wants to spend every waking minute with her lips pressed against his. He'll retire, live off his investments, and he'll do nothing but kiss her and love her and make her his.
She turns and heads out in the squad room and he laughs at the thought. He can just picture the way her face would contort if he even mentioned either of them giving up their work – because somewhere along the line he became just as invested as her – just to spend their days necking on the couch.
He wonders idly if she might agree to the kissing part anyway, especially if he posed the question as a logical, justified argument. He’d need a bulletproof answer tree. Somehow, he doesn’t think "Hey Liv, wanna make out?" would cut it.
The fifth time he kisses her, she is unconscious.
Her blood slips through his fingers like liquid sand, drenching them both in copper and scarlet and fear. He feels the air go out of her, her chest still. Panic floods him as Rollins reaches to put pressure on the wound and he moves to hunch over her, beginning a whirlwind of chest compressions and manufactured breaths. He’s never been more grateful for the two-day first aid course McCoy sent all his DAs on after Johnny D’s trial.
Instinct takes over and he breathes for her, his own air flowing into her lungs.
One, two, three, four, five, breathe. Over and over and over again. One, two, three, four, five, breathe.
He would give anything to trade places with her because he knows the bullet was meant for him. The threats he’s been receiving have been clear about that. If only he hadn’t pushed for the police shooting grand jury.
He should have refused to take the case, but when McCoy handed him the case he made it clear that it was his last chance to get work his way back into the good graces of City Hall. That if he failed to get an indictment it was on him.
But the more he looked into the case, the more he believed in what he was doing, believed that the police officers were wrong. To shoot an unarmed man 35 times was overkill. So, he’d gone in full throttle, almost destroying his relationship with Olivia in the process by forcing her to testify.
Not only that but he’d opened himself up to threats. He didn’t know who was making them but they had escalated in the past few weeks - whoever it was making it perfectly clear that he was going to meet a sticky end.
He’d been going to talk with her about it that night, get her squad to investigate, maybe get himself some protection, but it was too late. The man had approached and Olivia, upon seeing the flash of metal, had jumped in front of him, to shield him from the bullet.
After the eighth breath, his tears fall. After the eleventh, his arms are tired, and he begs her to fight, to stay alive. After the thirteenth, he feels Finn’s arms coming around him, trying to pull him away, but he doesn’t move because he needs to save her so that he can save himself.
One, two, three, four, five, breathe.
One, two, three, four, five, breathe.
Fifteen breaths and his breaths are more like plaintive kisses as he struggles to hold himself together.
Sixteen and the paramedics arrive and they force him away and resume CPR, ignoring him when he says that she's blood type A-positive, that she's been shot by what looks like a 22 and that she has to live, absolutely has to live, if not for him but for the little boy who is having fun at the park with his nanny, completely oblivious to the bomb that’s just been thrown into his world.
Rafael’s last thought as they load Olivia into the ambulance, still pumping and breathing and refusing to give up hope, is that he never kissed him the way he wanted to and now he might never have the chance.
She finally kisses him on a Wednesday and he tastes like scotch and happiness and home. It’s nothing momentous. No one has died. No one’s in danger. He’s just seeing her home after a nightcap in Forlini’s – something he’s taken to doing ever since she was shot – when the urge overwhelms her.
She wonders how much would actually change if she leaned in and did it. She would still be Benson, he would still be Barba. They would still fight for justice and advocate for the victims. They’d still squabble about warrants and cases, Carisi’s inane questions and comments, and the necessity of fancy coffee. She thinks of all the things they’ve been through together and scoffs at the idea that kissing him could somehow separate them when psychopaths, notorious gang members and near-death experiences had done nothing but strengthen them.
She’s still thinking about when their pace slows, and they arrive at her apartment door. He leans down and, as has become tradition on these nights that he walks her home, kisses her cheek. When he pulls back to bid her goodnight and gives her that little half-smile, she is unable to stop herself.
She steps forward and presses her lips to his. The kiss starts off slow, searching, learning. Their lips are pliable against each other's, moving in a comfortable, easy rhythm. When her lips part and her tongue sweeps across his bottom lip, he opens his mouth in response and meets her tongue with his.
She presses forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him tightly to her as she manoeuvres them, so she was leaning against the door. The kiss speeds up measurably after that, becoming faster, harder and more insistent. Olivia lets out a little noise of appreciation as Rafael nips her lip gently with his teeth and begins exploring her body with his hands.
Rafael groans. Her mouth feels so good beneath his, and he's wanted her this way for so long, it’s hard to keep control. But they are in her hallway, he reminds himself. They can’t continue this here. After several moments, he forces his lips away from hers and creates a few inches of space between them while they catch their breath.
“Maybe we should go inside,” he suggests, his forehead coming to rest on hers. “Don’t want to give the neighbours a show.”
“Yeah. She breathes out a laugh and reaches out a shaky hand to unlock the door, thankful that Noah is staying with Lucy tonight.
Once inside they shrug off their coats and hang them on the rack by the door, before turning to face each other. The mere minutes it takes to them to get inside gave them both pause. The passion of moments ago is gone, replaced by a sense of anticipation and nervousness.
“Liv, I-” Barba begins, wanting to know what it means that she kissed him.
"I don't want to talk about it," Olivia says quickly before Rafael can complicate things. She turns and bunches her hands in his shirt. "I just want you. I… have for a while."
Rafael needs no more explanation than that, before leaning forwards and claiming her mouth under his own. Months, years of skirting around one another have inevitably led to this, and he’s more than content to let it happen. Finally.