Rafael Barba was a creature of habit. The evenings that weren’t spent propping up the bar in Forlini’s, would often find the ADA, at home on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table and his laptop on his knee. The soundtrack to the latest Broadway smash-hit filling the spacious, open plan living area of his Park Avenue condo as he whiled away the evening, nursing a glass of Macallan and browsing the internet.
Tonight was no different. Following the ‘guilty’ verdict in the Jason Karr case, he and Olivia had shared a celebratory drink after work before going their separate ways – her to spend some time with Noah and tuck him in, and him to the lonely 6th-floor apartment he called home. He’d showered, washing away the stress of the day and changed into a pair of lounge pants and an old Harvard t-shirt before taking up his place on the sofa. He was exploring the children’s section of Amazon, baffled by the sheer variety of toys on sale these days and wondering if it was too early to begin ordering Christmas gifts for Noah. He flicked back to the tab showing the ‘Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit’ and his cursor hovered over the ‘Add to Cart’ button. It was pricey, but he knew Noah would love it, and besides, he didn’t have many people to buy for. He was about to click it when a sudden knock at his door shattered the tranquillity of his evening.
He glanced at the clock in the corner of the screen – 20:35 – and frowned. It was too late for any deliveries and his mother would still be at work; she’d told him yesterday at brunch that she had a school board meeting. He shifted the laptop to the sofa and stood - his knees clicking in protest – before padding in his socked feet to the door.
He peered through the peep-hole, eyes widening as he took in the site of Olivia stood on the other side, hair damp from the rain, a sleeping Noah on her hip. She’d been here a grand total of twice before – once after his grandmother’s death and then again when he’d been suspended after telling Jack McCoy the truth about Astonja Abreu and his involvement with her mother. But she’d never brought Noah before.
He scrambled to with the deadbolt and flung the door open. “Liv?” On opening the door fully, Rafael could see that Noah wore his pyjamas under his winter coat and Olivia was carrying an overnight bag. Worry cursed through him, his mind filled with all the possible scenarios that could result in her pulling Noah from his bed and driving across town in the pouring rain because she needed a place to stay.
“Hey,” she said wearily. “Sorry to just drop by but…” She trailed off, swallowing to try and get her emotions in check. She didn’t want Noah to wake and begin worrying about her.
Rafael could sense his friend was close to the edge so stepped to the side to let her in. “It’s okay. You’re welcome here anytime. You know that.”
She nodded, her lips pressed together in a thin line.
He tilted his head, watching her for a moment before making a decision. He stepped forward and reached for Noah. “How about I take mi amigo here and put him down in my bed and then we can talk?”
She pressed a kiss to Noah’s forehead and handed him off to her best friend, stroking his curls once he was settled in Rafael’s arms.
“You look like you could use a drink,” he observed. “Scotch is in the cupboard next to the fridge.” He nodded in the direction of the kitchen before turning down the hall towards his bedroom.
Olivia poured herself a scotch and refilled Rafael’s glass that lay discarded on the coffee table. Moving his laptop from the sofa to the table, she sat down and toed off her shoes, before curling her legs underneath her. Her head was spinning with the events of the past week that had culminated with the appearance of Sheila Porter at her front door and sent her running to Rafael.
She could have gone to Amanda or Fin. Hell, she was sure even Carisi would have taken them in once she’d explained the situation, but she didn’t. For the simple reason that Rafael’s name was the first to mind when she decided she needed to take Noah somewhere safe. Somewhere where Sheila Porter couldn’t find them. She could tell herself he was her first choice because his building had better security and a doorman, or that there was less chance that Sheila’s PI knew where Rafael lived, but the simple truth was that she wanted to be with him.
He was her best friend and she felt safe with him. When they were together it was like the world outside ceased to exist, the worries and fears she fought with daily became distant and faded to nothing. He made them vanish into thin air. She knew they would return eventually, but he gave her courage and strength to face them again.
Olivia looked up as the man in question re-entered his living room. He handed her a towel for her hair and she gestured to the glass she had refilled. He rounded the coffee table and picked it up, taking a sip as he sat down next to her.
“So, is there any particular reason why Noah thinks I invited you both for a sleepover?” he asked, a small smirk on his face. The little boy had stirred when Rafael had laid him on the bed and as he’d been soothing him back to sleep, Noah had whispered his thanks for being invited.
“Oh God,” groaned Olivia, closing her eyes. “Sorry about that. I told him you’d invited us because there was no way I could tell him the real reason.”
“Which is?” Rafael’s tone was soft, allaying any fears she had that what she’d told Noah had embarrassed him.
Not wanting her emotions to get the better of her while she told Rafael what had happened, Olivia took a steadying breath. “Ellie Porter’s mother showed up at my doorstep. Turns out Noah has a grandmother.”
Rafael’s eyes went wide. “E-excuse me?” There was no way Olivia could have said what he thought she said. Ellie Porter’s parents were dead. Or at least they were supposed to be. That’s what the girl had told Olivia and the squad when they questioned her. “Does Langan know?”
“Oh yeah,” she breathed, still not quite able to believe it herself. “He informed me of her existence the other day – and had the audacity to blame me for not investigating Ellie’s story – but he said she was in New Hampshire. I never dreamed she’d turn up at my door.”
“Jesus!” Rafael ran his hand through his hair, making a mental note to speak to Langan’s boss – they’d gone to Harvard together – and to make discrete enquiries into other family law attorneys. “So, she showed up tonight?”
“What did she want?”
“She said she was just making me aware, you know, not in a threatening way, although I have to say, I felt a little threatened. I didn't let her see Noah. In fact, I closed the door in her face but…”
“She’s… she’s filed a petition to…. vacate Noah’s adoption.” As she spoke the words for the first time, Olivia lost her fight against the torrent of emotions that had been building up inside her since she fled her apartment. Tears spilled from her eyes and she choked out a cry. The damn opened then and she bent forward, sob after sob wracking her body.
The sight of her tears was like a dagger to his heart, so he did the only thing he could think of; he put his glass down, gathered her in his arms and held her as she cried. Despite their close friendship, they weren’t used to physical contact. In fact, Rafael could count on one hand the number of times he had hugged her. But Olivia was hurting, and he was damned if he was going to sit there and not comfort her. She turned in his embrace and tucked herself into his side. Her head settled in the crook of his neck, clutching at his cotton shirt.
It was several minutes before she spoke again, her voice raw and rasping. “I can’t… I can’t lose him, Rafa. Not after everything.” Her eyes ached; they felt dry and gritty. There was a throbbing behind them; the kind that came from such tremendous shock and stress.
She was leaning against him, his arms wrapped around her. “I know.” His lips instinctively brushed the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, Liv.” She sniffed again, and his heart constricted. Placations weren’t what she needed right now. If she’d wanted them, she’d have gone to Rollins. What she needed were facts. She, like him, worked better with those. “It will,” he assured. “I can tell you that there’s no legal basis to vacate and adoption. Not after three years.”
“I know that, I know the law is on my side, but what if the judge lets her file for visitation?” New York was one of a minority of states that allowed, even advocated for, biological grandparents to have access to children given up for adoption. She rubbed a hand across her forehead and then swept her hair back from her face. It was only damp now but curling wildly after being caught in the rain. “I haven’t even told Noah he’s adopted…”
“I know.” They’d discussed it. At length, at the start of the school year. Noah had come home with homework in his first week – to make a family tree. Fortunately, he hadn’t asked any awkward questions, just added photos of all his honorary aunts and uncles to his tree. Including Rafael. Not having a photograph of his favourite uncle that he deemed satisfactory for his project, Noah had his mom call Rafael to come over, so they could take some. Once his homework was complete and he was in bed, Olivia and Rafael shared a bottle of wine, over which she confessed she was worried about the questions Noah would have as he got older.
“If this woman… Sheila… if she pushes this, I’m going to have to tell him, Rafa. How do I explain it to him? He’s five!” The tears were gone now, replaced by righteous anger.
“We’ll cross that bridge if and when we have to, let’s not borrow trouble just yet, okay?”
She lifted her head from his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “We?”
The collective noun had come out without thought, but now it had been uttered he saw no reason to backtrack. Maybe it was time to address how they really felt about each other. His fingers stroked her upper arm and he looked down at her. “Yeah, we. That okay?” His gaze was soft and full of care, tenderness and something else, something that had been bubbling underneath the surface of their friendship for a while now.
Olivia closed her eyes. She cared about him, and she too felt the deepening connection between them. But to go down this road they had to be sure. Neither was willing to lose their friendship for just a fling or the chance to scratch an itch. It was the reason they hadn’t acted on it before now. She’d always known there would be a moment when it would come to a head, she just hadn’t expected it to be tonight.
“It’s okay, Liv. I’m not expecting anything,” Rafael whispered against her hair as if reading her thoughts. “I just want you to know that I’ve got your back.” He paused for a moment, winding a curling lock of her hair around his finger and watching the light play off it. It shone in hues of brown and gold. “Yours and Noah’s. For as long as you want me, in whatever way you want me.”
Hearing him commit to not only her but her son too caused her eyes to dampen once more. But this time her tears weren’t a result of fear or anger but stemmed from the love and devotion this man clearly felt for them. She wasn’t sure she deserved it, but she was grateful for it and would hold onto it.
She reached up to cup his cheek, the stubble of his five o’clock shadow rough against her palm. “Rafa…” His name was a whisper on her lips as her thumb traced the curve of his jaw. “I want you. Always and in all ways.”
“Then you’ve got me,” He leaned down and let his lips touch hers, the kiss soft and lingering only for a moment. "Close your eyes," he told her. "We'll just sit here for a little while. There’s nothing we can do tonight anyway.” Tomorrow they could see about getting an order of protection, and speak to Langan about their next steps, but for tonight Olivia needed to rest. It wasn’t particularly late, but he could tell the stress of the past week had drained her.
“Hmmm,” she murmured. “While that sounds delightful, I don’t think your couch is the best place for it.” Although she was loath to move when he was so comfortable, Olivia sat up. She moved out of his arms and held out a hand to pull him up. “I don’t want to have to spend all of tomorrow listening to you moan about your back.”
Rafael looked at her outstretched hand. “Well, given that your son is currently sleeping like a starfish in the middle of my bed, I don’t see that we have much of an option.”
“I guess I didn’t really think it through when I turned up unannounced, did I?” Olivia asked, flopping down on the sofa. “I just knew I couldn’t stay there tonight. I felt… violated.” She shrugged. “So, I threw some things in a bag, called an Uber and snuck out the fire exit.”
Rafael smirked. “Olivia Benson called an Uber? Ow!” His remark earned him a playful slap to the chest.
“Oh, shut up!” she chided with a small smile.
Rafael laughed to himself. He’d take the slight physical attack to see a smile on her face. He stretched out on the large sofa. “The couch is actually quite comfortable,” he said, pushing himself as far back as he could to make room for her. “You can go and join Noah if you want, but you’re equally as welcome to stay here.” She would have a busy day tomorrow, but tonight he could give her some quiet, even if he couldn't exactly offer peace.
Olivia lay down, her back pressed against Rafael’s bulk and her head on his arm. He switched the TV on, the volume low, to provide some white noise, and pulled a blanket from over the back of the sofa draping it over them. He curled his body around her, his arm sprawling across her stomach.
Sleep wasn't soon in coming, but Olivia did eventually drift off. It wasn’t the most peaceful slumber; it was fitful and fraught with dreams, but she slept through until the light of the dawn crept in through the blinds that hung at the large floor to ceiling windows of Rafael’s condo.
She slipped from his embrace and padded down the hall to check on Noah. He was still sleeping – still sprawled out in the middle of Rafael’s bed. She spied one of Rafael’s hoodies on the back of a chair and slipped it on before returning to the living area. She headed to the kitchen, delighted to find the timer on his Keurig had been set and the water nice and hot. She popped a pod into the machine and while it was brewing, retrieved her phone from her bag. She sent a quick text to Lucy, informing her that she would drop Noah off at school this morning and to ask if she could pop into the precinct around lunchtime for a chat. She wanted to be sure that both Noah’s teachers and his nanny were aware of the potential dangers of Sheila Porter.
Her texts sent, she picked up her coffee and quietly opened the sliding door that led onto the balcony and stepped outside. She stood, leaning on the railing, staring at the sky as she sipped her coffee. It looked like it was going to be a clear day. The rainstorms of the previous day had given way to a beautiful fall morning.
Olivia hummed when arms wrapped around her from behind. She settled back against him with a sigh. “Noah will be awake soon,” she said softly.
“I know.” His chin settled against her shoulder. His hands stroked gently up and down her arms. “Don’t worry. I remember the cover story; I invited the two of you to sleep over.”
She turned in his arms and brushed her lips against his cheek. “Good morning.”
“Mmm. Good morning.” He placed a soft kiss to her lips. “Do you want me to come with you to see Langan later?”
She shook her head. She knew Rafael was angry at Langan’s conduct throughout the adoption process. “No, but I appreciate the offer. Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me, Liv. I told you last night, I want to be there for you.”
Olivia smiled. “Always and in all ways?”
“Exactly,” Rafael replied, punctuating his answer with another soft kiss. “So that’s a no to Langan? Will you at least let me make you and Noah some breakfast before you rush off? Pancakes?”
"That sounds nice." She agreed because she knew Noah would love to have breakfast with his ‘Uncle Rafa’, and because being in a relationship with someone, loving them was letting them take care of you, even when you could take care of yourself.
Olivia sought Rafael out when she was hurting, and when she was happy. She looked for him when she was excited, and when she was amused. She wanted him when she was sad or scared, and she wanted to share with him when she felt joy. He was her friend, but he had become something more. Knowing that she had him to lean against was going to carry her through whatever difficulties came her way.