“Ms O’Shea, in your own words, can you describe the events of July 3rd?”
The tangle of ginger curls bounced as the young woman bobbed her head. She was pale beneath her freckles, but met his eyes steadily. “I received a text from Frankie—”
“No nicknames,” Barba cut in softly, “Either refer to him as Francis, Mr. Kuliopulos, or ‘my ex-boyfriend.’”
Hannah frowned, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, you’re doing fine.” The empty courtroom was silent for a beat as she started again.
“I got a text from my ex-boyfriend, Francis Kuliopulos, asking if I was alone and missing him. I told him I was alone and definitely not missing him.”
“At this point I’ll put the screenshot of this conversation on the monitor and ask you to verify it. Go on.”
“About fifteen minutes later,” Before he could correct her, she rephrased, “A few minutes after 10pm, there was a knock on my apartment door. I looked through the peephole and saw Francis, so I opened the door a crack to tell him off.” Without stopping her, Barba made a note on his scratchpad. “As soon as I did, he pushed the door open. It hit me in the shoulder and knocked me into the wall. I heard the door close behind him and lock and then Francis was grabbing my arms.” She faltered, looking at him with wide uncertain eyes. “Is it okay that I’m saying all this stuff about my injuries? Are they gonna make me prove that?”
“Your ER doctor is testifying before you. I’ll walk through the timeline and cause of each of the injuries with her, the defense has no grounds to object to your describing them.”
“Cool, I mean, good. So, he grabbed my arms and led me to the living room.”
“Rephrase ‘led’ to something that makes the manhandling more clear.”
“Then can I just say he manhandled me there?” He nodded. “Okay, he manhandled me to the living room and threw me on the couch. I asked what he thought he was doing, I shouted at him to stop, but he didn’t listen. He…” Her composure shook, and Barba leapt up from the desk to the witness box.
“Take a deep breath,” He instructed, observing as she did so, holding his gaze, “I understand this part is difficult, but the detail is crucial. Both myself and the defense will need to go over it extensively.” Hannah said nothing, breathing softly, cheeks pink, as he tried to express compassion and strength through their shared gaze. “Tell me about the belt.”
Hannah inhaled, and began, “Francis unbuckled his belt and started… pulling it from his pants. H-he had it in his hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hit you.’”
Quietly he pressed, “Why would he say that?”
“When we were dating, I told him… I told him my step-father used to hit me with his belt when I was bad.”
“Hey, hey,” Barba stopped her. Hannah blinked, letting loose two tear tracks, refocusing on his face. “You know that’s not…” He stumbled to a halt, several possible responses coming to mind. He could be brutally practical and tell her to stick to the relevant facts. He could remind her of the counseling she’d received, from the psychologist who would take the stand to attest to her trauma. Or he could meet her halfway in this vulnerable position.
“My father used a belt too.” As he expected, she jolted to attention with a little gasp. “It started as punishment, I suppose, but the things I was punished for got more and more flimsy. One day I was late getting home, another day it was for hanging around the house. Once he caught me smiling at a girl and he said I’d get her in trouble, another day he called me a fag. Eventually he didn’t bother coming up with excuses.” Holding Hannah’s gaze, Barba asked, “Was I bad?” Slowly, Hannah shook her head. “Neither were you.”
Barba pushed off the witness box to give her a moment’s space. Her hiccuping breaths evened out, and he continued in his normal tone, “You told Francis Kuliopulos that your step-father used a belt to abuse you.”
“I did. It was why I never wanted kinky sex, it’s part of why we broke up.”
“Leave off that last bit, it opens the door to too many complications. You made it clear while you were together that you were not interested in rough sex, or sex with bondage, stick with that. So, what did the defendant do with his belt on the night of July 3rd?”
“He held my arms behind my back and used the belt to… what should I say?” Barba blinked, looking back at the witness box. Hannah was leaning over the edge towards him, eyes still wet.
He hesitated to put words in her mouth, but offered, “Something like bind or restrain.”
“He used the belt to bind my arms together. Then he raped me.”
The night before opening arguments, Barba poured over his voir dire notes extensively, a glass of scotch and a fresh cup of coffee both within reach. He had reservations about juror number 10, a clean-cut young man, first-generation college graduate. Barba had a bad feeling number 10 might find some kinship with Mr. Kuliopulos, the doctorate-wielding son of immigrants. Intelligence would be an unfortunate undercurrent between the complainant and defendant, as Ms. O’Shea had changed her college major three times, but hopefully he could forestall that line of character assassination.
His phone buzzed to life on the desk corner, rattling the ice in his scotch. Absently noting the late hour, Barba read the text.
mr. barba? it’s hannah. are you there?
How had she gotten his number? Granted, it was the cell phone issued by the DA’s office, not his personal number. He supposed his contact info must be public for those who sought it out.
Deciding not to call back given the time, he tapped out a quick reply.
Hello Hannah, this is Barba. How are you doing?
Only a few minutes of working went by before another text came in.
honestly not great. i’m getting nervous. do you think you could come over?
Vaguely alarmed, he replied, are you in danger?
A few seconds later: no! sorry! i just really want company. please?
Glancing at the stack of papers still to review, and the barebones of his opening argument, Barba did what he tended to do in a crisis.
“Benson,” The Lieutenant answered crisply.
“Hey, it’s me. Sorry to bother you, I know it’s your night off.” He’d heard her mentioning the playdate with one of Noah’s school friends with equal parts elation and panic. She must’ve run the poor parents’ background checks three times, at least.
“Barba, hi.” He basked in the guilty pleasure that even at 11pm she still sounded glad to hear from him.
“That’s okay. I’ve been vegging out on totally violent and child inappropriate tv. It’s nothing that can’t wait. What’s up?”
“I just got a text from Hannah O’Shea. She says she’s not in danger,” He forestalled her indrawn breath, “But she needs someone to talk to. I’m still working on my opening, do you think—“
“Of course, I’ll go right now.” True to her word, he could hear telltale sounds of her moving through the apartment. Barba wondered if she’d been itching for a call like this, if she’d been pacing like a caged tiger without her cub, and channeling that instinct towards a victim might be exactly what she needed.
“Thanks Liv, let me know how she is.” They signed off, and Barba threw himself into the opening.
Close to an hour later he had a strong draft, and his phone rang. Olivia Benson appeared on the screen, along with a photo of her hugging Noah, the pair smiling widely at amateur photographer Carisi. Barba answered immediately, “Hey, how’s everything?”
Benson’s tone was clipped, aggravated, and tired, and that along with her words sent a shock of worry through him. “We have a slight situation.”
“What’s happened? Is Hannah alright?”
“Ms. O’Shea,” her return to the formal address threw him, “Got into a physical altercation with me.”
“She what?” The thought of that 5’4”, 118 lb, 26 year old liberal arts major attacking Lieutenant Olivia Benson did not compute.
“Barba, you are incredibly lucky you called me. She was dressed provocatively, she was playing soft jazz, she had scotch.”
“What are you getting at, Lieutenant?”
“Our victim was attempting to seduce you.” The pronouncement rang out, and Barba slumped in his chair, the phone hitting the desk as his arm went limp. In the quiet office, Olivia’s voice was crackly, but audible. “When I showed up in your place she pitched a hissy fit. It was all I could do to keep her from clawing my eyes out.”
“Fuck,” He grunted.
“Yeah, that’s what she—“
Barba snatched up the phone and hissed, “Don’t finish that sentence. We need to contain this immediately. You haven’t charged her for assault?”
“I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to jeopardize your case over a tantrum. I brought her into the precinct to calm her down—”
“I’m sorry, you brought her in? So people have seen her?”
“She’s got to realize the repercussions of her actions, and I thought my office was the best place for that. The skeleton crew saw us, but they’re my officers, you can trust them.”
“Shit, Liv, this cannot look like a cover-up.” He raked a hand through his hair as his thoughts spiraled. “You and I have done nothing wrong.”
Except that as he said so, Barba was reminded of vulnerable Hannah O’Shea in the witness box during prep, and himself, stupidly, leaning over the barrier and divulging a deeply personal secret.
“Barba?” Liv asked after a long moment. “Anything else?”
He dug his fingers into his temples, instructions falling out by rote. “Keep Hannah away from any male detectives until I get a psych eval set up. You and Rollins watch her. And… I’ve got to go.”
He ended the call and dropped his head in his hands.
Between the hours spent in 1 Hogan Place and his Park Ave apartment, Barba nearly forgot the city was undergoing a brutal heat wave. Not until stepping out of the black cab at the courthouse steps did the brutal block of heat hit him. Days like this he longed for a job he could work in a t-shirt. The press was already waiting, cameras popping off, and appearance dictated he didn’t so much as remove his jacket. He hoisted the briefcase, shook out his shoulders, and charged into the fray.
“Mr. Barba! Mr. Barba, why is NYPD policing relationships between consenting adults?”
“What message does this send about the validity of break-up sex?”
“This charge is just a product of PC culture gone awry, isn’t it, Mr. Barba!”
Calmly he rejoined, “The DA’s office is not making statements at this time.”
“Isn’t it true the boyfriend is ten years older than your alleged victim?” To that he briefly considered correcting them, there was an eleven year age gap between the former couple, but that was precisely what the journalist wanted.
Once the vultures found him an unsuitable meal they backed off, and Barba climbed the summit in peace. Olivia was waiting, leaning on a pillar with an iced coffee in one hand and a steaming bodega cup in the other. She could forgo a blazer, her maroon silk blouse tasteful enough for court but obviously breezy, and she’d clipped her hair up in a rush, loose wisps falling over her ear.
“Gracias,” He said absently as he accepted his coffee.
“De nada.” She slurped the straw, watching him intently, then joked, “You’re insane, by the way.”
“Melted ice ruins the coffee.” They’d had this argument a dozen times, it slipped comfortably around them like a cool breeze. He gladly scalded his tongue as the placebo effect instantly invigorated him. Humming, he nodded at the grand doors. “Coming inside?”
Olivia said, with a sardonic little smile, “Actually I’m waiting for Hannah. She insisted on appearing today, against my advice.” The nightmare headache threatened to return. Barba sent a surreptitious glance around them, but spotted no prying ears or microphones. It helped that wording questions to avoid incriminating answers was a part of his job.
“How did she seem to you when you spoke last?”
“Calmer, contrite,” Olivia answered equally vague, “She seemed focused on what was important, making sure Frankie gets put away. I told her to watch her behavior, not to do anything to ruin that.”
The sounds of a commotion brewing reached them, and Lieutenant and counselor sought the source below them. Amidst the strobing lights of camera flashes and the mob of people, Barba made out Rita Calhoun struggling to get between her client and the lunging figure of Hannah O’Shea.
Olivia raced down the steps as Barba muttered, “Looks like she ignored that too.”
“Hannah!” Olivia called as she pushed through the crowd. “Hannah, stop!”
“You think you can get away with this, Frankie!” Their victim spat on the edge of hysteria just as Liv finally got her hands on her. “They’re all gonna see what you did! Barba’s gonna make you pay, you’ll see!”
Calhoun snapped, “Benson, control her!” Shielded behind his attorney, Mr. Kuliopulos merely smirked. It turned Barba’s stomach, the man’s smug expression, as if he were gratified to witness her pain. He was smart, he knew better than to reply, knew he was painting her as unhinged, that the papers would show a one-sided attack against an innocent man.
Olivia had one vice-like grip on Hannah’s elbow as she pulled her up the stairs. When Hannah caught sight of Barba, observing and unmoving, she stopped struggling to turn around and instead raced ahead. The change in direction surprised Liv, and Hannah broke free, launching herself up the steps. His coffee splattered on the white stone.
“Oh Barba!” Hannah cried, and before he could react her fists were clenching his lapels, her forehead dropped to his chest.
He met Liv’s shocked eyes as he hissed, “Hannah, please.” The girl didn’t budge, not until Liv appeared behind her, gently yet firmly pulling her away. The girl’s tearful visage stayed locked on him, like a flower turning with the sun. Without deliberation, the Lieutenant guided her inside the courthouse, hopefully to gain some composure. Inhaling sharply, Barba tugged his jacket straight and cast his gaze around the area. Initially it seemed like Hannah’s later outburst was missed, until he met the wide disbelieving gaze of Rita Calhoun. She stood with her back to her client, who was milking his fifteen minutes. The way she stared silently at Barba, it was as though she was seeing him for the first time.
Minutely Barba shook his head, his meaning clear: not here.
The counselors were due to deliver opening statements in five minutes when they wordlessly agreed to step into an empty antechamber. Barba was prepared for Calhoun to leap to the offensive, but she remained as withdrawn as she had outside.
Clearing his throat, he said, “I’m content to proceed with the current jury, but if you would rather a new pool, I’m listening. I don’t believe any of the jurors were present for the…” He hesitated to name the altercation as such. What he’d witnessed was neither exculpatory nor incriminating to either party, so he doubted it would be considered relevant at trial.
“Ms. O’Shea is clearly in a highly emotional state,” Calhoun said plainly, revealing nothing. “I wouldn’t think the DA’s office would want to put her through a trial unless the case was airtight.”
“It’s a little late to deal, counselor,” He checked his watch for effect, “And I’m surprised you wouldn’t bring your client in with you.”
Sighing loudly, looking almost like she were deflating, Calhoun set her briefcase down and crossed her arms. She avoided his eyes as she remarked, “Ms. O’Shea’s romantic history involves several significantly older men. She has a type: mid 30s to 40s, sophisticated, intelligent.”
His teeth clenched involuntarily. “I don’t see how that’s relevant, and neither will the judge. Are you going somewhere with this or simply wasting the court’s time?”
“Was that the first time you’ve comforted Ms. O’Shea,” Calhoun pressed suddenly, “Or have you been her shoulder to cry on for weeks?”
The accusation dropped like a bomb in his gut. Barba turned away. There were extra chairs in the small room, and he lowered himself into one, hands braced on the armrests.
“Rita, you cannot mean to imply that a sitting ADA with the Sex Crimes Bureau, let alone someone you’ve known since Harvard, would take advantage of a traumatized rape victim.” He couldn’t help the fervor in his voice as he spat the last two words. Yet Rita didn’t match his volume, if anything her eyes seemed to bore deeper into him, her voice cool and steady as a rock.
“That is only based on the supposition a rape occurred. Her kit found lubrication from a condom, no DNA… Barba, you know the avenue I have to pursue.”
A dull ringing, like tinnitus after a gunshot, filled his ears. He wet his dry lips and said, “I didn’t meet her until charges were brought against Mr. Kuliopulos.”
“I have an obligation to my client to cast doubt on that. I’m bound, by the bar and by my ethics, to follow every line of defense I can. I don’t want to put that troubled girl on the stand and make her divulge her fantasies about you, but I won’t have a choice at cross.”
Yes, he could see it now, Hannah a mess behind her red ringlets as Rita effortlessly riled her, looking to Barba for assurance, for approval, and damning both of them in the perceptive eyes of the jury. What would she say if asked, when you were lonely and distraught you called ADA Barba to come over to your apartment, didn’t you? What were your plans for the evening, you and Mr. Barba, alone? Weren’t you disappointed when Lt. Benson arrived instead? Do you find him attractive, Ms. O’Shea?
His own mantra to witnesses never failed: The one thing you decide to leave out is the one thing the defense is going to use to destroy you.
Barba blinked away the vision, raised his chin. “What do you propose?”
“He pleads to the stalking, and sexual misconduct.”
“An A Misdemeanor, are you joking, the charge is Rape in the first.”
“He would go on the registry, and more importantly, the encounter outside the court, her communications with you, her testimony, it never goes on record.”
“Watch yourself, counselor, that’s perilously close to blackmail.”
“Come on, Rafael, I’m trying to help you here.” The defense attorney— Rita, sank into a crouch in front of his chair, pencil skirt riding up her knees. She covered one of his clenched fists and pried his fingers loose. “Do you honestly believe you can get Rape-1 after I put the both of you on trial?” Her demeanor was too kind, it stung, and he shut his eyes tight.
“I can’t let him go for less than a felony, not after what he did to this girl. It was forcible, the belt—“
She cut him off ruthlessly, “I will tear that belt apart. DNA from a pubic hair, on a generic accessory, found in a gym bag in a public area. You’re smarter than this.”
He’d said as much to the squad when he learned the pivotal physical evidence, the belt which had been used to bind Hannah, had been recovered from the suspect’s gym. The dominoes were crashing and he suddenly felt helpless but to watch everything come down.
“At least take it back to Olivia,” Rafael shot her a look, “And explain. Maybe she can convince you.”
“To roll over on a victim to preserve my reputation? Are you sure you know Liv?”
“This deal is good for one day. Think about it. After that, I file a motion with the judge to examine phone and text communications between Hannah and yourself.” With one final squeeze of his hand, the attorney stood, took her briefcase, and left the room.
Opening statements went as expected, and although every muscle in Barba’s body was tensed, Calhoun kept her remarks to the procedural facts and didn’t veer into supposition. There was a recess before the first, and only witness, of the day, the ER nurse that Calhoun was unlikely to cross. As the gallery filtered out, he caught Benson’s eye, impressing on her the need to talk.
As he guessed, she did not like what he had to say.
“A misdemeanor? For forced entry and rape? That’s absurd!”
“It is and Rita knows it. She would never offer such a bad deal if she didn’t have leverage.”
Olivia stopped her pacing and focused on him for the first time since they’d entered his office. Barba leaned on his fists over his desk, head hanging low as he watched her through his eyelashes. The righteous anger left her as understanding dawned.
“Calhoun found out about… about Hannah’s crush.”
“She may not have proof, but Rita’s an exceptional judge of character.” He ignored the fleeting expression on Liv’s face, too quick to say how she felt about his compliment to the defense attorney. “She warned me that part of her defense would be to insinuate a romantic relationship between me and Ha—Ms. O’Shea. Unless I accept the deal, Rita’s filing a motion to go through my phone.” At her outraged expression, he raised a hand. “The judge would have to accept it, it’s a serious allegation and grounds for appeal. Rita will discover the initial texts and,” He swallowed thickly, “The subsequent texts.”
“Barba,” She crossed the room to meet him over the desk, “You didn’t tell me there were more.”
“I’ve ignored all of them. If I read them, I suspect I’d have to recuse myself, and if I deleted them and TARU recovered it I’d appear guilty.”
“But you’re not!” Olivia slapped her palm down. “I’ve seen this dozens of times. Victims of sexual abuse, particularly sustained abuse or manipulation, are susceptible to transference. They’ll imprint like ducklings on the responding officers, on SVU detectives, their psychiatrists…”
“And the prosecutor?” He waited, but Liv’s mouth only thinned. “Yes, you and I know this happens, it’s completely understandable. It doesn’t mean it won’t be incredibly damaging to our case. At this point, even if I recuse myself, our victim seems unreliable, Rita can say she’d make up any sob story to get into my—“ Barba cursed and cut himself off, glancing at the door. It was still closed, Carmen in place at reception, reading a novel and looking bored. In an undertone he continued, “All she needs is to imply that Hannah and I were involved before she cried rape, that we had consensual sex with a condom, and this entire case was fabricated because of a grudge against her ex-boyfriend. It doesn’t matter that the defense can’t prove it, by definition I can’t disprove an illicit relationship and conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Calhoun can’t think that, nobody in their right minds would believe you’d do that!”
“Nobody really thought you went on a four day bender with William Lewis, but in the eyes of the law, it wasn’t impossible.” A year prior, maybe less, mentioning Lewis would’ve made Liv shut down or lash out.
Instead, Liv shifted closer, and murmured, “You’ve done nothing wrong, Barba. This isn’t your fault.” Her assurance came out with such ease, like a gashapon full of platitudes. How often had she pulled out that line for victims? She may as well record it and save her voice.
“What if it is my fault?” He muttered, and catching the flash of shock on her face, he hurried on. “I never led her on, I know that. But I might’ve made a mistake, during prep.”
Olivia nodded to herself, and he saw the demeanor of interrogator appear at the edges of her expression. “So tell me.”
“We were going over the detail with the belt, that was the hardest for her, and I told her about my father.” She inhaled and sighed through her nose. “She was upset, and instead of keeping a proper distance, I made myself vulnerable to make her feel better. It wasn’t worth it, not if it set off this whole fucking chain reaction.”
“You didn’t know. You were empathizing with your witness. That’s a good thing, Barba.”
“Not in this case. I may have just gotten her rapist off with a slap on the wrist.”
It was hours after court was dismissed for the day that Barba wandered into the SVU bullpen like a man seeking an oasis. The Lieutenant spotted him immediately and strode out to meet him.
“Hey,” She guided him with a hand on his shoulder to her office, seating him on the couch, which may as well have his imprint on it, “You look like hell.” Her touch didn’t leave as she settled beside him, rubbing his shoulder, squeezing a knot in his neck. He dropped his chin to his silk tie and let the tension seep away.
“We went back and forth for, god it felt like forever, it was excruciating. Finally we settled on one count Assault in the third, one count Sexual Misconduct, and Stalking in the first. Two misdemeanors but we get a D felony for the constant cyber-stalking in the aid of a crime, and he becomes a registered sex offender.”
“How much jail time?”
“60 days, three years probation.”
“Two months?” Even though she clearly was trying to spare his feelings, he still sensed her disappointment.
“It’s not a bad deal, Liv. Rita was convinced the Assault charge was overreaching. The door splitting her lip and the fractured clavicle, that’s tough to define as straight up assault, mens rea is somewhat lacking. Honestly, I suspect she’s going easy on me, though you can never repeat that.” Raising his head, he met her concerned gaze, a little surprised by her close proximity. He swallowed. “Is Hannah here?”
“Yeah, she’s working on her laptop in one of the interview rooms. I told her we had to talk to her together.” At his wince, Liv said, “Come on, counselor, she needs to hear it from you. I’ll be there to preserve your virtue.”
He heaved himself up, grousing, “I knew you were enjoying this on some level.” He turned away, but Liv caught him with another gentle touch. With a quiet murmur to wait, she set about fixing his tie from where he’d loosened and set it off kilter. Again she invaded his space with casual assurance that she was welcome. Because she was, always, he would always want whatever she could give. Even as he bit his lip to keep from kissing her.
They took their time walking through to the interview room, and Hannah looked up from her laptop as they entered shoulder to shoulder. “Hi Mr. Barba,” She greeted with a touch of shyness as she closed the computer, “Benson said you have something to talk to me about.”
As delicately as he could, he explained the situation to her. However it became obvious there was no way to make it sound good.
“Oh my god, this is all my fault,” cried Hannah into the tissues Liv provided. “If I wasn’t such a girl all the time—“
“Hannah, sweetie, you remember what the psychologist said?” Olivia leaned over the table, stopping shy of actually touching the young woman. “Transference is a natural reaction to trauma like this. It’s not your fault, you couldn’t control it.” Shooting him a sidelong glance, she added, “Mr. Barba understands, and he’s sorry for putting you in this position, isn’t that right?”
Biting back exactly what he wanted to say, Barba replied, “I am sorry it worked out like this. If I could change it, I would.”
Hannah kept her wide watery eyes on him as she began, “I knew it was bad. But we were getting along, and what you said when we were practicing, I just… I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” Barba was sure his ears were glowing red, and sure that Olivia could tell. “I googled you, and the more I read, the more I liked you. I felt like I was gonna go crazy! I had to see you, but I know, I knew, I shouldn’t have. Ugh, and the texts, they’re so embarrassing! I can’t imagine what you must think of me.”
He turned his head to catch Olivia giving him a similarly hesitant look. The last thing he wanted was to repeat past mistakes, but it seemed wrong to let this woman walk away dejected and revictimized. Difficult as it was to wrench his focus off Liv, he gave Hannah the full weight of his sympathy.
“I think you’re a strong young woman who’s been through a lot. And I know there’s a really lucky person out there who will get the incredible gift of your love and be able to appreciate it.”
Bowing her head, Hannah visibly struggled to maintain composure, then said, “Thank you. And thank you for trying so hard on my case. I’m going to… I’m going to get out of your hair.”
Olivia asked softly, “You’ll see the therapist again?” She nodded with pursed lips. “Okay, sweetie, let me walk you out. I’m gonna call you a cab, okay?” Again Hannah nodded, and the three stood, and Barba awkwardly floundered holding out his hand. Hannah looked at it for a moment before slowly returning the handshake.
Hoarsely he said, “Goodnight, Ms. O’Shea.” She smiled, releasing his grip.
“Goodbye Mr. Barba.”
Barba lingered a few quiet minutes in the security of the Lieutenant’s office. There was comfort in the clear fragments of Benson, from her framed photos to the coffee rings on her blotter. A dark blazer was hung up although he doubted it’d been worn in weeks, not in this heat. When he stopped short of smelling for her perfume, he knew it was time to leave.
He exited the main precinct doors, automatically scanning the perimeter, and caught sight of Olivia hurrying back towards him.
“Forget something?” Barba asked as she drew near.
“Yeah, you,” answered Liv with a self-amused smile, “Come on, counselor, you look beat. Let me take you home.”
“You don’t have to call me a cab too, I can pay my own way, thanks.”
“No, I mean,” Her hand wrapped around his wrist, over the briefcase, and squeezed lightly, “Come home with me.” Barba glanced down, heartbeat picking up rapidly at her skin on his, and then back up to assess her face. “After a rough case, there’s nothing better than reading a bedtime story to that kooky little kid, and having a nightcap. You could use both tonight.” From her expression, innocent, unaware, she had no idea how much he’d longed to hear those words in a different context.
Licking his lips, Barba said, “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right, I’d love to see Noah.”
Her grin was worth all the dashed hopes in the world. “Good, he could use the Uncle Rafa time. I swear you’re gonna have him trilingual by first grade: english, spanish, and latin.” Apparently the physical contact was continuing, because Liv looped her elbow through his and they set off shoulder to shoulder to the garage. They chatted about Noah, a boundless source of entertainment, and she got him laughing at some of his cuter questions.
On the drive to Liv’s, she told him, “The other day it was, ‘where do buses sleep when they’re not driving?’ I think we’re gonna have a field trip to the bus depot, see if my badge gets us any special tours. Vehicles, that’s the latest obsession, now that we’ve grown out of Paw Patrol, thank fucking god.”
“Careful, encourage him too much, he’ll grow up to be a cross-country trucker and you’ll never see him.”
“No way, with all the questions, he’s definitely gonna be a lawyer.” Barba turned his face into the window to conceal how pleased that made him.
When they got to Liv’s apartment, she went off to thank Lucy while he got a running hug around the knees. “Ay, amigo,” He groaned exaggeratedly, “You’re getting so strong, muy fuerte.” The five year old rambled eagerly about his day, with Barba responding with a minimum of sarcasm. Noah was at the age when he couldn’t quite tell why something was funny, but knew that it was, so he’d reply to all of Barba’s unrestrained quips with, “Rafa, you’re so silly!”
Eventually Liv had to put a stop to their conversation and guide Noah into his nightly routine. The three brushed their teeth together, even though he and Liv would be ruining the job soon, and Noah got one bedtime story out of Uncle Rafa. Then it was lights out, Liv haloed in the doorway. He couldn’t help dropping a kiss on the boy’s head of curly hair and whispering, “Buenas noches, mijo.” He left mother and son to say goodnight, moving to the kitchen to aerate a bottle of Cabernet. Liv returned shortly and accepted a glass. Although this wasn’t exactly routine, they moved as one to the couch. Rafael hiked his trousers up at the knee and Olivia tucked her bare feet under her legs and they could have been doing this for years.
Gesturing vaguely towards her son’s bedroom, she said, “Thanks for that, you’re so good with him.”
“Shocking, I know. Remember when you told me off for handling him like a loaded weapon?”
“That was a long time ago, you’ve gotten a lot of practice since then.” She sipped her wine, smacking her stained dark lips. “Mm, I am sorry about this case. I know it’s not the outcome you wanted.”
Barba grimaced into his own glass. “Truth be told, Hannah was never going to be a star witness. The jury was going to sense her emotional issues even without Rita deliberately exacerbating them. If it wasn’t a fixation on me, it would’ve been some other embarrassing outburst.”
Liv tilted her head a little curiously. “Are you embarrassed?” Once again that night he felt his ears heating up, and he shrugged tightly. That was answer enough. “You have no reason to be. If anything, I’d think you’d be flattered.”
He took a gulp of wine before forcing a chuckle. “You said it yourself, transference, it’s, it’s, a reaction to trauma, it’s not, it wasn’t ever, you know, about me.” He wasn't one to be noticeably flustered, but those few instances occurred more and more around her.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” She smiled slyly, rotating the glass in her palm like a hypnotist. “Hannah had a thing for smart, good-looking, older men. I can’t fault her there, not when the perfect specimen just waltzed into her life at the worst possible time.”
The atmosphere was sliding in a thoroughly uncomfortable direction. Hoping to quell the sour note in his stomach, Barba emptied his glass and refilled it. “I don’t particularly like the comparison to Mr. Kuliopulos, nor the implication that I’d ever actually encourage her—“
“No,” Liv cut him off, sharply and with some surprise, “No, that wasn’t what I meant.”
“Then what are you saying?” He demanded, some prior frustration spilling into his tone.
“Just— you’re an attractive guy, that’s all, it’s understandable, more than understandable—“
“Okay,” Barba stood up, downing the wine again, then setting it slightly too hard on the table. “This was a bad idea, clearly I’m not ready to laugh about it yet. I should get going, and tomorrow we’ll pretend like I accepted your ribbing with grace.” Alarmed, Liv jumped up too, sloshing some wine onto the carpet. It would stain, but she didn’t seem to notice or care.
“I’m not laughing, I’m, I’m trying…” She threw her head back, eyes shut in frustration, and let out a rough groan. “I’m not as good with words as you, Rafa, so please, bear with me.” It was rare to see the Lieutenant looking unsure, one might have even called her manner insecure if they didn’t know her. Rafael certainly couldn’t fathom Liv looking so ill at ease, not over him. So he stayed silent, allowed her to collect her thoughts, and watched as she stated, emphatically and without doubt, “You are attractive. Not just to Hannah. To me.”
Rafael swallowed his wildly overreaching hopes. “Don’t…” Liv drew in a startled breath, her chest heaving, doe-eyed and delicate in a way he’d only dreamed of. He licked his lips and everything flowed out of him in a low ramble. “You know what you mean to me, I know you do, I’ve accepted that, I’ve accepted a lot of things. You’ve been kind enough not to bring it up and not to leverage our friendship in our professional lives. So please, Liv, don’t open this door, not if you’re not prepared to go through it.”
In the space of a breath, Liv stepped forward and cradled his face in her hands. Her palms, once calloused by constantly gripping her service piece, had softened with desk work and motherhood. The way she looked at him was more heart-stoppingly beautiful than any of his dreams.
It was a testament to her character that she spoke evenly, bravely, despite the shimmer in her eyes. “I’ve had plenty of complicated friendships with men. They go home to their wives or find a better job or…” She bit her lip, hard, glancing up at the ceiling. Though he wished he didn’t, he knew she was thinking of Cassidy. Endearments sat on the tip of his tongue, No llores, querida mía, no llores... Liv exhaled shakily and continued, “And I end up alone. I wanted to keep you, us, and I thought… If neither of us talked about it, I don’t know, we could just go on forever.”
“Is that what you want? To go on like we have been?” His fingers gently circled her wrists, keeping her touch close. “Because I will keep biting back the words and holding myself back, but I can’t pretend that seeing you isn’t the best part of my day. You’re my favorite person in the world, cariño, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”
“I know, I know, Rafa.” With her feet bare they were of a height, and Liv let her forehead come to rest against his. Her breath was sweet with wine and warm. In a rough whisper, she declared. “Saying it is difficult for me, but feeling it isn’t.”
His hands slid down her bare arms and up her shoulders. “Then let me.” He embraced her, buried his face in her hair, and let loose the sentiments he’d held locked up for years. “Eres encantadora, Olivia. Estoy enamorado de ti.”
Liv laughed breathlessly against his cheek. “Anch'io ti amo.”