“Are you sure you don’t want to ask your mom to watch Noah?” Olivia asked as she placed clothes in her overnight bag. “Then you can come with me.”
“He’s itchy, Liv. And grouchy,” Rafael replied. He was sitting on the bed watching her pack. “Besides, it’s not like I can attend the seminars since I’m not with the DA’s office anymore. I’d be stuck in the hotel room waiting for you to be done.”
“There are things to do in Saratoga Springs and it would be some time away together,” she said, a little disappointed he wouldn’t be convinced to let Lucia babysit. “You don’t think your mother is capable of slathering him in calamine lotion?”
Noah had gone to day camp the previous week and on a hike managed not only to find, but fall into a large patch of the dermatological menace. His small arms and legs were covered with the blisters, and he’d transferred some of the oil to his neck and face before they realized he was contaminated. For several days, they’d been covering him in the soothing pink liquid, having him soak in oatmeal baths and saying, “don’t scratch”.
Olivia moved to stand between his knees and put her hands on his shoulders, combing her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck.
“You could come to the meals with me and be my date for the evening events.”
Rafael snorted. “I used to be the keynote speaker at those dinners. Now I’d just be gossip fodder if I showed up in the audience.”
Moving her hands to either side of his face, she forced his head back to make eye contact.
“It’s not like you’re sitting around watching telenovelas, Barba,” Olivia told him, bending to kiss his lips, enjoying the tickle of his neatly trimmed mustache and beard he had grown after leaving the District Attorney’s office.
Rafael was working with various child advocacy groups in the city helping children and families get representation; whether it was a terminally ill child like Drew Householder or parents trying to leave abusive relationships or highly divisive child custody cases, he sourced and matched them with the best possible attorney. He himself hadn’t been in a courtroom since the last day of his own trial when he was found not guilty. When he wasn’t meeting with families or prospective lawyers, he was enjoying learning how to be a parent to Noah.
He’d almost lost his nerve that bitterly cold February day outside the courthouse and not admitted his love to the woman standing before him. But in the end, when she looked at him with her brown eyes swimming with tears and said, “And?” Rafael had taken the leap he’d been so afraid to for years and said simply, “And I love you, Olivia Benson.”
Almost five months later, he’d all but moved in with her and Noah, spending more time at their apartment than his own place. When school ended, he suggested they give Lucy a month off and he would take the boy to the camps his mother signed him up for, as well as do some things together; just the two of them. Olivia was a little surprised but agreed when Noah was equally enthusiastic about the idea. Now, his case of poison ivy was keeping Rafael home with him. Part of her suspected he didn’t want to go to the conference since it was probably the first one he’d not attended since becoming an ADA. He stood and pulled her close, pressing his lips in the crook of her neck where he knew it would make her shiver.
“I know,” he said softly. “I just don’t know if I’m ready to face some of the people that will be there. Fallen and disgraced and all that.”
Olivia pulled back to look at him. “Well, if you change your mind, it’s only a few hours’ drive,” she said.
He and Noah saw her off with Fin, who as the squad’s newest sergeant, was attending for the first time. Olivia kissed her son’s curly head, giving his shirt-covered shoulders a gentle squeeze to avoid touching the itchy rash.
“Goodbye, sweet boy. Be good for Rafa.”
“I will, Momma,” Noah said.
Olivia looked at Rafael, knowing Fin was waiting in the car behind her at the curb. They hadn’t made a secret of their relationship, but since they no longer worked together people like her sergeant hadn’t seen them being affectionate toward each other.
“You going to kiss me in front of Fin, Lieutenant?” He gave her his trademark half smile, tipping his head to the side.
“I certainly am, counselor.”
She stepped closer and slid a hand up his chest and around the back of his neck. Holding his head in place, she slowly moved her own until her lips touched his. Mindful of her son standing beside them, she didn’t kiss him the way she’d prefer, but simply applied gentle suction on his lower lip. One of his hands came to rest on her hip and held it firm. When their lips parted, he said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too. I’ll see you in a few days.” She trailed her hand back down his chest.
The next morning, after Rafael had applied a fresh layer of lotion on Noah and got him settled with an educational game on Olivia’s iPad, he sat down with a fresh cup of coffee to check his emails. Then his phone vibrated with an incoming message. Thinking it might be from Liv, he grabbed it, only to see:
He took your place at the DA’s office, is he taking your place beside Olivia too?
The text from Rita Calhoun, one of his oldest friends and probably the only person who could get away with a statement like that was accompanied by a photograph of Olivia and Peter Stone at the symposium. They were smiling for the camera, Stone with an arm around her waist. She was wearing a striped shirtdress he knew she’d bought for the trip, telling him she was tired of wearing black pants all the time. As usual, she looked stunning.
Rafael clenched the phone tightly in his hand, a hot flush of jealousy washing over him. Rationally, he knew the photo was for the press. The DA’s office showing off the newest addition to the SVU team. But that didn’t make the fact his replacement was standing next to his -- his what? Girlfriend? Lover? He shook his head. Whatever the term, it should have been him standing there with his arm around her, not Stone; who couldn’t even be bothered to wear a tie, the heathen. He snorted, making Noah look up from the iPad.
“What are you laughing at?” the boy asked as he surreptitiously scratched his leg, which didn’t go unnoticed.
“Don’t scratch, mijo ,” Rafael said. The term of endearment had just slipped out one day shortly after he and Olivia began their relationship. It surprised both adults at first, but it felt natural and they agreed it didn’t put any pressure on them so he continued using it. “I was looking at a picture of your mom.”
“From the sim-po-zee-um?” Noah said the new word phonetically.
“Yes.” Rafael was typing a reply to Rita.
Shut the hell up. You know I can’t go. I thought you’d sent one of your minions this year?
I did. Odafin sent it to me. And you can go. Go show those assholes you haven’t crawled under a rock.
Oh, so it’s Odafin now is it?
At least it didn’t take me six years. You know you can make it there for the dinner tonight. It’s a BBQ or something. They’re trying to make it fun. As if some of those stuffed shirts can relax. But take your tux. Tomorrow night is the black tie.
I’m not going.
Uh-huh. Gotta go. Tell Liv she owes me one for sending you to rescue her from Pretty Boy.
Rafael sighed. Damn Rita. She knew how to push all his buttons. That’s what happened when you were friends with someone for more than 20 years. He swiped his phone screen to his favorite contacts and tapped a name, raising the phone to his ear.
“Hi, Mom,” he said when the call was answered.
After lunch, Rafael dropped Noah off at his mother’s place and headed north to Saratoga Springs where the symposium was being held that year. The town was in upstate New York, situated on Saratoga Lake and was a popular destination for conferences and vacations. It was also home to a well known horse track. It was about a three hour drive from New York City so Rafael had plenty of time to argue with himself about why he was doing this. Olivia wanted him to go with her. She had said as much. It had nothing to do with the photo Rita sent with her taunt, he tried to convince himself with little success. Admit it, Barba. You’re jealous. You’re jealous that Stone is there with her and not you, whispered a little voice in his head. He thought of the photo again. Stone’s arm around her. Both of them smiling; and he clenched his teeth and hands on the steering wheel. When his jaw started to ache, he forced himself to relax so he didn’t end up with a headache. Turning on the satellite radio, he found the Broadway station. Listening to his favorite show tunes helped lighten his mood.
Cocktail hour was underway when he arrived at the resort where the conference was being held, according to the schedule Olivia had left for him. He needed to change clothes before he made an appearance, wanting to look his best in front of many people who still considered him a baby killer and disgrace to his profession. Approaching the front desk, Rafael wondered how he was going to talk himself into Olivia’s room. On the drive up, he’d considered various arguments he could employ, even entertaining the idea of telling them he was her husband. He needn’t have worried.
“Mr. Barba, yes, Ms. Benson said you might be joining her,” said the smiling clerk. She tapped on her computer, swiped a key card and slid it across the counter to him in its little paper sleeve. “Room 512.”
He took the elevator to the fifth floor and found his way to her room, overnight bag on his shoulder and garment bag in hand. The door clicked open and he stepped inside. It was spacious and rather luxurious. A splurge by the county this time, compared to some of the places he’d stayed before for this symposium. He hung the garment bag and tossed the overnight on the bed, crossing to the window to see what kind of view there was to be had. He could see a lake in the distance and down below was a courtyard with a large while tent set up for the evening meal. Outdoor dining? Rita wasn’t wrong when she said they were trying to make it fun. Rafael could see men going in and out of the tent and few of them wore jackets. He would go without as well. Didn’t want to make himself stand out anymore than he already was going to. A quick change put him in gray trousers, white shirt, pink suspenders and a tie patterned in navy. He may have forgone the jacket, but Rafael Barba wasn’t going without a tie. Not like Stone. In the closet he’d noticed Olivia’s striped dress and he wondered what she’d changed into.
As he stepped out into the courtyard the smells of a traditional BBQ met his nose: meat on a charcoal grill, a hint of spicy sauce, corn on the cob. Rafael rarely got nervous, but a handful of butterflies took flight in his stomach as he approached the tent which had a side only where the bar and food tables were set up. The other three sides were open with people milling about and sitting at tables, drinks in hand. His eyes searched for Olivia, not knowing what she was wearing and he paused beside on of the tent poles.
“Rafael Barba?” said a voice and he turned to find the speaker. It was Luke McCaffrey, a district attorney from West Chester County. “I thought I recognized those suspenders.”
He shook hands with the man. “Luke, how are you?”
“Keeping busy. What about you? I didn’t expect to see you here this year.” The man pulled a face. “Sorry. I didn’t mean -- “
Rafael waved a hand. “It’s okay. I’m actually here with Olivia Benson. Have you seen her?”
McCaffrey nodded toward the bar. “I think she’s over there with Peter Stone. Didn’t he -- ”
“Yeah,” the former DA interrupted. “He’s the new me.” That hot wave of jealousy was building in him again, burning the wings off the butterflies. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find her.”
“Sure thing. Nice to see you.”
Rafael took a step in the direction of the bar and as he did, the crowds parted and he saw Olivia standing there. She was wearing a different dress, one he didn’t know she’d bought. It was navy with a floral print. It had short sleeves and a neckline that was not exactly appropriate for a work function, he thought, feeling his forehead crease into a frown. Her legs were bare and she wore bright pink sandals. A perfect summer outfit. For a date with him. Not a working dinner with the man who was handing her a glass of red wine. Stone.
“Jesus,” he muttered.
That man really did not know how to dress, he thought. He was wearing light trousers and a white shirt -- probably the same one he wore all day, Rafael thought -- with the sleeves turned up to his elbows. No tie. Again. And…..he looked closer. Were those boots? Surely he hadn’t tried to dress the part for the BBQ?! No, they were just shoes in a color that made him cringe. Then she laughed, throwing her head back. The musical sound carried across the tent to his ears. That was it. Rafael straightened his shoulders, and made his way between tables. He had just maneuvered around a chair when Olivia looked in his direction and her expression went first to surprise and then a joyful smile spread across her face. When he was a last almost arm’s length away, she held out her free hand.
“Rafael! You came!”
He took her hand in his and his world righted itself once more. It didn’t matter what people thought of him, as long as she was by his side. Releasing her hand, he slipped his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek.
“I changed my mind and decided I’d surprise you after all,” he said. Then he nodded at the younger man. “Stone.”
“Mr. Barba. Nice to see you again.”
I don’t believe you, Rafael thought. But at least he had manners.
“I’m glad you changed your mind,” Olivia told him, returning the kiss on his cheek. “Let’s sit down. Peter and I were just about to find a table.”
She took his arm and led the way to a round table that still had empty chairs. He helped her get seated and then took the chair to her right. Stone sat on her left.
“How’s Noah?” Stone asked. “Liv said he has a bad case of poison ivy. I know how that feels. I got it many times as a child.”
Rafael bit back a retort about not being able to recognize the plant after the first experience and said Noah was doing better and staying with his mother.
“You’ll want to replace his baseball glove if he wore it after he was exposed,” said Stone. “It could have oils in or on it that could start the rash over again.”
That was a good suggestion, Rafael had to admit, and nodded as Olivia thanked him. As they talked she sidled a glance at the man beside her and wondered why he changed his mind and joined her at the conference after all. She didn’t care; she was happy to have him with her. Reaching over to his hand where it rested on the table, she covered it with hers and gave it a squeeze. They were joined at the table by other attendees and conversation focused on the day’s speakers. Rafael had nothing to contribute, but he was content to listen and watch the beautiful brunette beside him.
Later that evening when the meal was over and they were in the elevator, Stone turned to Olivia.
“Do you want to meet for breakfast, Liv? Before the first seminar?”
Liv? Did he just call her Liv? I didn’t call her that for years! He’s less than six months in and she’s Liv? Rafael could feel his blood pressure start to rise. By his side, arm looped through his, Olivia was unaware of the swirl of jealousy he was fighting down.
“Sure, Peter,” she said. “We’ll meet you in the dining room. Is 7:30 too early?”
Peter? Not Stone? Not Counselor? She didn’t call me Rafael until we had worked together nearly four years. He ground his teeth.
“Not too early at all. I’ll be back from my run by 6:30,” Stone replied. The elevator opened on the fourth floor. “This is me. See you tomorrow.”
“Good night,” she said cheerfully.
“‘Night, Stone,” Rafael managed.
Once they were in the privacy of their room, he tugged viciously at his tie and mimicked Stone, ‘I’ll be back from my run by 6:30.’ Then snorted derisively. “And how long has he been calling you Liv? Has he no respect for your rank?”
Olivia kicked off her sandals and curled her painted toes into the soft carpet. Then she padded over to help him with the knotted tie that didn’t appreciate his yanking. Gently untying it, she replied, “We’re not at work, Rafa. He doesn’t have to call me Lieutenant.”
“But he should,” he growled.
“What has you in such a pissy mood all of a sudden?” she asked, grasping both ends of the now undone tie and pulling him in for a kiss.
The touch of her lips on his, and some of his surliness began to fade. He wrapped his arms around her waist and bumped his nose against hers affectionately, them back to being the same height.
“Just tired, I guess,” he fibbed, "and a little stiff from driving up here."
“Let me help you with that,” she said in his ear, turned him around and pushed his suspenders down, then began massaging his back. Soon, both their clothes were in a pile on the floor and Rafael was feeling grateful Rita sent him that text, his jealousy forgotten.