The crunch and crackle of gravel beneath the tires of the rented Escalade signaled the crossing of the line between the well known cityscape of New York City and Upstate's quiet countryside. A heavy snow swirled about the windshield as the large SUV crawled up the driveway towards the pale blue beach house on the water's edge, and from behind the wheel, Olivia squinted through the dancing flakes at the house number affixed to the mailbox.
She almost wished she'd found herself at the wrong location. Perhaps, it would be easier to send a text with an apology of being lost. Even in this massive vehicle that had been well above her budget for this trip she felt unnervingly small and cowardly. Her typical nerves of steel were worn thin after the rushed plans over the weekend. She'd always known she'd drop everything for him, but it was unsettling just how quickly this whole, insane mission to Montauk had become a reality.
Creeping up the neatly plowed driveway, she couldn't ignore the sweat lining her palms. She wasn't ready. After five damn years of waiting for this phone call, she wasn't ready.
Would it be like they had never parted? Would their conversations come as easily as they once had? Would something finally give way? She was both terrified and desperate for something to change.
As the Escalade reached the end of the driveway, she shifted into park, and sat back in the leather seat. Breathing out, she ran her hands over her face, cupping her mouth as she stared up at the three story beach house. The structure sat on struts against the stoney shoreline, rising against the incline with beautiful grace, but she could hardly admire the architecture. Her heart was racing shallowly in her chest, and the strong instinct to turn right back around currently fought to overtake her.
She blinked quickly when she noticed the back door on the second level opening. He emerged, layered in a long, dark coat and scarf which bunched around his neck and ears. She watched him descend the stairs before she could force herself into action. Shutting the engine off, she fumbled for the seatbelt with trembling hands. By the time she pushed the car door open and began to climb down, he was braving his way down the driveway, his face squinted against the cold and snow.
She slid down from the Escalade, and shut the door behind her, though a rush of emotion had taken over her faculties. She wanted to blame the freezing temperatures as her eyes stung with tears, but the knot in her throat didn't lie.
He reached her, his green-grey eyes cutting through the flakes and the fog of their breath in the air.
"Liv." He said, her name uttered in a single, rough syllable, and a hint of a hopeful smile tugging at his lips.
She stared back at him, her chest expanding sharply, and for a moment she couldn't move, unable to decide whether she should fling herself into his arms or whether she should scream and slap at him. No reply seemed sufficient. How does one greet their best friend after five, long, silent years?
"Rafa." She managed to say at last, her tone halting.
She couldn't even bend her tongue to the use of his full name rather than what must be a long forgotten nickname to him.
"Let's get in out of the cold." He answered after a moment, extending his arm to her.
His gaze was warm, but she hesitated for a moment, unsure of what would happen once she touched him. Would this whole illusion shatter, revealing itself as some strange, twisted dreamscape? She didn't want to reach out for him again only to pushed away and crushed once more, but his expression belied no animosity or duplicitous intentions. She clung to the familiar, hidden softness of his eyes, just inside the rough edges that had taken her years to peel back. Relieved that at least something remained of their former selves, she reached for his arm.
When her wind bitten fingers wrapped around the wool texture of his coat, then to his arm beneath, it seemed surreal to be touching him, to feel the solid, tangible evidence of him next to her. She stared down at their point of contact for a moment, swallowing hard against emotion that raged as spitefully as the storm around them.
"Come on." He murmured once more, reaching up to touch the back of her hand, as if he could sense the debilitating feelings which nearly paralyzed her.
He directed them towards the beach house, and she stepped forward slowly, following him in a daze up the snowy slope. When they reached the stairway, they climbed upwards in silence save for his quiet warning not to slip. She clutched his arm tighter, fighting against every desire to collapse to the cold, icy stairs and sob.
Despite what she wanted to believe, she'd barely arrived, and it was yet to be seen which turn this trip would take. She'd always believed in his ability to right the wrongs of the world, no matter what, but after his own decision to escape into this reclusive existence as well as the events that had preceded his disappearance, she wondered if she really even knew him anymore. His greeting her with open arms meant nothing if this conversation was only a closure of the past, the final closing of the door to what could have been, and the overwhelming feelings of seeing him again, coupled with the fear of a second abandonment nearly sapped even her strength to walk.
She clung to his arm for the entirety of their trek up the stairs, loathe to willingly surrender their embrace when they reached the top. He opened the door for her, and gestured for her to step inside. She hesitated for a moment, her heart palpitating as he willingly offered her his home. It seemed strange now to invade his privacy after five long years, but she reminded herself that he had asked her here.
As she entered, her eyes immediately roved across his intimate space, and she realized that even before he'd left she'd never really seen the inside of his home. He'd been to her apartment plenty of times, showing up at odd hours and unexpectedly. He'd never asked if she minded, but she'd never thought to mind in the first place. She'd always been somewhat relieved when he'd arrive again, tossing his briefcase to the floor and tugging off his tie and jacket. She'd pour him a drink, and listen to him talk. It didn't matter what he said; she'd taken it all in, simply watching his expressions and gestures as he spilled upon her the frustrations of the day. They'd never acknowledged why. They'd simply been friends; very good friends and nothing more.
Stepping inside his home now she knew this conversation would be nothing like the ones they used to have.
She wandered forward as the entryway opened into the dimly lit living room. Despite the room being immaculate, it was still cozy. A fireplace presided at the front wall, the massive stoneface rising up to the dark, wood paneled ceiling. The floors shone from beneath the thick rug, and the leather of the plush couch glinted in the fire's light. She noticed the bookcases against the wall, lined with literature and law books. Another small breath of relief exited her lips at the sign that a part of the man she'd cared for so much still lived inside this unfamiliar setting.
"How was your drive?" Rafael asked as he shrugged his coat off.
"Fine, thank you." She whispered, not paying much mind to the truth of her answer as she began unbuttoning her own coat.
He quickly moved to assist her, sliding the coat from her arms and hanging it next to his.
"Not too slippery I hope." He continued. "Would like some cocoa? Tea?"
"Rafael…" Olivia murmured, turning towards him. "I…"
"Let me get you something." He stopped her.
She stuttered as he quickly left her side, heading into the kitchen through the tall archway to their right. She watched him retrieve the kettle and begin to heat the water, his head bent.
She couldn't escape the sense that his hospitality was born out of guilt rather than politeness. She had often wondered whether he felt any remorse at all for walking away as he had, and now she realized that she'd been foolish for thinking otherwise in the midst of her own grief. Watching him now, she noticed that the silver that had once only touched his temples had spread across thick portions of his hair, and the lines in his face were somehow deeper.
"You can have a seat." Rafael called back towards her. "This won't take long."
She released a low sigh and turned her eyes away from his back. Wandering towards the couch, she sank to the cushions. A soft afghan was thrown across the seat as if he had been sitting here when she arrived. She picked it up and brought it closer, noticing that she could still feel the warmth from his body in the material. Lifting it to her face, she pressed her nose and mouth into the blanket, hesitantly taking in the scent. Her eyes watered sharply as the familiar aroma filled her nostrils, rushing back to her as if it had only been yesterday that he'd pulled her to him and kissed her on the forehead. It was as close as they had ever been, and she'd held onto that moment in her mind for as long as her memory had allowed.
"Here we go." Rafael's voice interrupted her recollections, and she gasped softly, yanking the afghan from her face.
She forced a smile as he rounded the couch, the tea cup in hand. She tucked the afghan to the side with a trembling hand though she was remiss to let it go.
"Thank you." She said, reaching out to take the steaming cup.
"So, tell me," He said, taking a seat next to her. "How's Noah?"
"Good." She replied, smiling at the thought of her son. "He's with Amanda for the weekend."
"How old is he now? Ten?"
"Eleven next month." She replied with a short laugh, staring down at the cup. "Hard to believe…"
Hard to believe you've missed half his childhood. She thought, though she squashed the words before they could form.
"And everyone else? He asked, his tone relaxed though she could sense his eagerness behind the leisurely facade.
"Good. Everyone's good." She answered, nodding quickly.
She could hear the tightness in her own throat, the way the tears rose to engulf her being. It was small talk, but maybe it was the worst kind. She could hardly stand the pleasantries when there were so many other things that they could say, so many more important things that had gone unnoticed for almost ten years as a whole now.
"Rafael…" She began, just as he spoke.
She glanced up quickly, their eyes clashing for the first time since the driveway. Emotions bubbled in her chest, accusations and demands rushing up to her tongue so quickly that she could hardly stop them.
Why ask about everyone else? What about me? What about what you did to me? Don't you care at all? Why now? After all these years why even bother?
She pressed her lips together tightly, tearing her eyes away as she turned her face sharply towards the opposite wall. A sob lurched in the back of her throat, and she quickly squeezed her hand over mouth, her eyes clenched shut. The tea cup wobbled in her other hand, dangerously close to spilling burning hot liquid onto her legs.
"Liv…" Rafael moved quickly closer, taking the cup from her hand as her shoulders began to shudder first, then her entire body.
"Jesus, I'm sorry…" He whispered, his tone wrought with regret and the strain of his own tears.
He discarded the cup to the side table before she felt his arms close around her, enveloping her head against his chest. The force of her anguish broke through the barrier of her trembling lips and fingers, and she sagged against him, releasing pent up cries which had lain dormant in her chest for hundreds upon hundreds of days. She grabbed fistfuls of his sweater as he cradled her head through the unending tremors wracking her body. She felt his lips touch the top of her head, gentle and hesitant, and she groaned at the gesture, for the last time he had touched her that way it had been a goodbye.
He didn't say anything more than the regretful apology, and for several long moments, the silence of the beach house was punctured only by the rise and fall of Olivia's whimpered cries.
At last, the peak of the painful outburst reached it's slowly dwindling end, but he had yet to release her. His fingers which had stroked through the hair at the base of her neck were frozen still now as she quivered in the aftermath, and the tears had dried on her face when she could no longer stand to wonder at what he was thinking.
She pulled back, slowly at first, and she felt the resistance in his arms, but it lasted barely long enough to be noticeable. She ducked away from him, rubbing her fingers under her eyes to wipe away the tears that lingered on her cheeks.
"Surely, you didn't think I came all the way out here to talk about everyone else." She said with a rough, mirthless laugh.
"Of course not." He replied, quickly, his head lowered. "I just wasn't sure what-... what you'd think of me."
"What I'd think of you?" She repeated, turning her gaze towards him. "I told you then and I'd tell you now, Rafael, you're one of the best men that I've ever known or worked with."
"Forget all that." He cut in, sharply, snapping his eyes back to hers. "That man didn't exist anymore after what I did."
"You were aquitted." Olivia whispered.
"Then good for those twelve people in the jury box." Rafael replied, his mouth tight in a grimace. "I'm certain that they never had to live with that baby's lifeless corpse in their mind for the rest of their miserable lives."
"Rafa," Olivia stopped him, reaching out to touch him arm. "It's been a long time since that case, and I think we both know that whether you had relieved his suffering or not that day, he wouldn't be alive right now."
Rafael released a low sigh, turning his eyes off towards the fireplace.
"That may be so," He murmured, quietly, "but I held him in my arms, Olivia. I felt the final breath go out of him, and no matter how merciful it was, that moment…."
A cringe crossed his features, and he lowered his head with a sharp inhale.
"I understand." Olivia whispered, turning her body to face him as she clasped his hand with both of hers. "But you didn't have to leave. I was going to stand by your side. I was going to-"
"To what, Liv?" He asked, casting her a sad, hopeless gaze. "Let me drag your squad and your name through the dirt? Bring every case you've ever brought me or would've brought me under intense scrutiny? Trust me, you didn't want me to stay."
"Maybe you didn't have to keep the job, but you could've at least…" Her voice trailed away, and she began to pull back, her chest twinging painfully once more.
"I couldn't keep you either, Liv." Rafael echoed, solemnly, though his fingers tightened around hers. "Whether you supported me or not I knew that I had damaged our relationship."
"But we could've worked through it." She insisted, fighting against a second wave of tears.
"Murder is a pretty high hurdle to jump." He scoffed softly, a sheen of emotion shining in his own gaze.
"Justifiable homicide." She whispered.
"Whatever you'd like to call it, Liv, I did it…" He murmured, glancing down with a heavy, wavering sigh. "And when I looked into your eyes I didn't think you'd ever forgive me."
"It wasn't mine to give." She insisted, grasping his hand harder.
"I will be paying dues to the family for the rest of my life, and I can live with that. But you…" He whispered, his expression tainted with a grief she had long thought was one sided.
He lifted his free hand, his touch hesitant as his fingertips brushed her jaw in a reverent caress, and she fought not to crumble once more beneath the intimacy she had craved and mourned for so long. Dipping her cheek towards his hand, she clung to what she knew would be a fleeting moment of blissful contact.
"You…" He murmured, huskily, once more, and he drew his hand beneath her chin, lifting her face to his once more. "You were my Lady Justice, and the weight of that sin was far too much for even you to balance."
Her heart ached and fluttered in her chest, torn between the sharp edges of grief and the ragged blades of desire. She trembled, tears slipping from the corners of her eyes, and his thumb rose to catch the cascading emotion.
"I did what a could to spare you." He admitted, softly, "but I suppose neither of escaped unscathed."
She nodded slowly, swallowing against the knot in her throat. She'd thought of so many things to say in the past five years, and a dozen more while driving here, but now she could hardly speak. Instead, she sank into him, resting her head on his shoulder as she let the tears flee from beneath her lids, unchecked. His arm squeezed tight around her, and she felt his chest quiver against her cheek. She'd rarely seen him cry, and though she didn't lift her head, she reached down to clutch his hand.
He was safe with her, his sins, his sadness, his suffering, and she only wished he had realized he always had been.