Despite Olivia’s words, Rafael is sure he’s got this in the bag.
It’s Emilio’s testimony that cinches it. No jury could look at his little face and not convict the man who put bruises on it. In the gallery next to Olivia, Elena looks shaken, but that’s to be expected after she had to watch her son testify to having been beaten by his father. The jury is shaken too, and that’s good. Rafael helps Emilio down off the stand after opposing counsel mercifully declines to cross-examine.
"Bien hecho, papito," he tells the boy quietly. Emilio smiles proudly, and Rafael feels his heart swell. There was no one around to tell him that when he was this age and stood up to his father, but he can tell Emilio. He can make sure he knows. And he can make sure that the person who hurt him — the person who should have protected him from all hurt and harm, but betrayed him instead — will go to prison. He can get justice.
“Rafael.” He turns to see Olivia coming down the courthouse hallway. He cocks his head at her worried expression and follows apprehensively as she leads him into an empty conference room. “I don’t like this jury,” she tells him as soon as he shuts the door.
Rafael raises a skeptical eyebrow. “They sure don’t seem to like Donnie.”
She purses her lips. “They don’t like Elena either.”
He blinks. “What? Of course they do. Her testimony is perfect.”
“It sounds practiced.”
“It is practiced. We practiced it. That’s what victims have to do, they have to practice so they can verbalize their trauma in front of strangers.”
Olivia shuts her eyes. He can practically see her praying for patience.
“Sorry,” he sighs. “You know this. I know you know this.”
She gives him a sardonic look. “I also know that I watched the jurors’ faces for her whole testimony and they did not look sympathetic. Or even necessarily convinced. Anyone can see that Donnie is a piece of shit, but they might buy that in this case he’s an innocent piece of shit and she’s falsely accusing him.”
“They’re not idiots, Liv,” Rafael scoffs. “They’re not gonna buy that crap. Especially not after Emilio gives his testimony tomorrow.”
She throws up her hands. “Fine. Just don’t get your hopes up too high.”
He laughs. “I never do.”
Olivia gives him a careful look, like she’s sizing him up and she doesn’t like what she sees. His sense of dread from last week’s nightmare comes rushing back for a terrible moment — she thinks I’ve fucked up, maybe I have fucked up, maybe she doesn’t love me as much as I thought she did — he blinks again, shocked at how quickly he just spiraled, hoping against hope that his face hadn’t shown his panic.
But no, it definitely showed. That’s clear when Olivia closes the blinds that cover the door’s glass panel, comes to him, and rests her hands on his arms.
“I think you’re not seeing clearly.” Her voice is low and kind. Rafael doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t need this.
“I’m fine,” he says tightly. He forces himself to unclench his jaw to show how fine he is.
“Maybe this case is too close to home for —”
“Well it’s too late for that,” he snaps. “I’m in the middle of the trial, Olivia. And I appreciate your observations about the jury but I know what I’m doing.”
“Okay,” she says, patting his shoulders in a way that makes it very clear she doesn’t believe him.
At least she’s not going to push it, and he’s grateful enough for that to pull her into a brief hug and give her a kiss on her temple.
“That door doesn’t lock,” she warns him. Her voice is muffled against his hair.
Rafael lets go and they step away from each other. They disclosed their relationship months ago, but it would still be bad for a juror or a perp to walk in on them embracing. Or his boss.
“Alright,” he sighs. “Recess is almost over.”
“Time for coffee?” she smiles, anticipating his next words.
He grins. “Yeah. Let me grab my coat.”
They allow themselves to brush shoulders as they head down the courthouse steps to the coffee cart. The December air is brisk but not too cold. Rafael can feel her body heat radiating just far enough to touch him. He’ll get the jury on board, if they really do have doubts. He’s sure of it.
Rafael can feel doubts creep closer with every word of his closing argument. Maybe it’s just Olivia’s warning skewing his judgment, but the jury looks skeptical when he points to Donnie and pronounces him a dangerous abuser. Sympathy crosses their faces when he speaks about Emilio, and disappears when he highlights Elena’s suffering, her strength, her clear-eyed love for her son.
How can they not believe her? he demands silently. How stupid are they not to see how brave she is? But being angry at the jury is no way to win them over, and he forces himself to dismiss the feeling.
He does allow himself a quick glance back at Olivia where she sits in the gallery. She’s already looking at him and their eyes meet right away. She gives him a tiny nod. You’ve got this, Rafa.
Donnie hadn’t done well on the stand either. And Rafael’s closing argument was solid. He’s explained why what the man did should be categorized as a felony. He’s explained that they need to put him away for the maximum amount of time, which is only five years but better than the one he’d get with a misdemeanor. He’s explained why it’s important. Why Elena and Emilio are important, and deserve to be protected by the justice system they’ve turned to. He’s pretty sure the jury get it.
Yes, he thinks, sitting down as they file out to discuss the evidence and come to a decision. They’ll convict.
It’s the last day of witness prep before the trial, and Rafael is starting to feel better about Elena and Emilio’s testimony. He can tell that they are too; both their answers are more confident, more certain, than when they started. Emilio has gotten used to the booster seat they have him using so he can see over the witness stand walls.
Rafael hates it when they have to get out that booster. But Emilio doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. He doesn’t seem to realize the significance of any of this, and how could he? Elena, though — she’s ready, but she’s scared.
Rafael pulls her aside after their final practice session. Carisi is distracting Emilio with some word game involving animal names.
He sits next to her on one of the benches in the gallery. "¿Cómo te sientes?" he asks her gently.
Elena twists her hands in her lap. "Más o menos. Nerviosa. Pero se tiene que hacer. Por mí y por Emilio."
She looks like she’s going to say something else, so Rafael just nods and waits.
"Nunca se llevaron bien," she whispers. "Me culpé a mí misma. Por mimarlo. Donnie decía que era blando y que necesitaba endurecer. Así lo criaron sus padres. Mis padres no fueron así. Yo pensé, Emilio es un pequeñito todavía, hay que dejar que sea blando mientras lo pueda ser." She lifts her chin defiantly. "Aún lo creo. Y no me importa, aunque estuviera en lo correcto Donnie, en golpearlo —"
Her breath catches in her throat. "¿Cómo golpea uno a un niño?" She’s watching her son laugh uproariously at something Carisi has just said. The mark of a bruise is faint but still visible around his left eye. "Golpearme a mí es otra cosa. Hasta lo comprendo. Hay veces que lo hago enojar demasiado. A veces que lo hago apropósito, de lo tanto que me hace enojar a mí." She says this last part quickly, a confession she’s ashamed to make.
Elena gives him a long look. “Si,” she says. “Se nota.” She drops her gaze to where her hands are still twisting in her lap. “Cómo le digo. Cuando me pega a mí, se la paso. Pero Emilio es un niño.”
There are tears in her eyes now. “La primera vez que lo tocó, supe que Donnie er un malvodo. Si es capaz de hacerle daño así, no le queda nada bueno dentro, Mr. Barba. Tiene que ir a la cárcel.” She wipes at her eyes furiously. “Emilio no tendrá padre pero prefiero eso a que tenga uno que lo lastime.”
It only takes the jury two hours. Usually such quick turnaround is a good sign that they’ll convict, and Rafael has hopes for a five-year sentence until the twelve of them file in and can’t meet his eye or look in Elena and Emilio’s direction.
He barely has time to pray for a misdemeanor charge before the jury pronounces Donnie not guilty. Rafael sits down too heavily and his chair scrapes back a few inches; the sound seems to echo loudly despite the bustle of people behind him gathering their things to leave.
Elena, Emilio, and Olivia are waiting for him, he knows. How am I gonna face them?
Emilio doesn’t understand why everyone is upset.
“Que pasa, Mamá?” he asks. Elena has him on her hip, and she’s holding him close. He prods her cheek with a graceless, chubby hand. “Mamá?”
“No pasa nada, papi,” she says, staring straight ahead. Her lips seal into a tight line when she stops speaking. Olivia is giving her some distance. It’s clear that’s what she wants.
Rafael approaches cautiously. He feels more guilty than Donnie but it doesn’t even occur to him to avoid this interaction.
“Elena,” he says. “Lo siento.”
Her eyes fix on him. “You said that if I got up there and told my story they would believe me.”
He’s startled by her switch to English, then hurt when he realizes it’s because she’s reverting to formality. I’ve lost her trust, he thinks. And: she’s right not to trust me.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “But you still have options. We can appeal this decision, we —”
“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Barba.” She hikes up Emilio higher on her hip and pets his hair with one hand. He leans his head against her shoulder and regards Rafael with curious eyes. “We’ll figure it out.”
“You’ve helped enough,” she tells him, and he’s surprised to hear real sincerity in her words, not sarcasm. “En serio. No puedo apelar esto. No tengo tiempo. Necesito cuidar a Emilio. No se puede hacer nada más.”
“Si establecemos otra cita con la corte, facilitamos una orden de restricción,” he tells her, trying not to plead. “Si no estás dispuesta a apelar, por el momento la orden los mantendría a salvo, a ti y a Emilio.”
Elena looks at Rafael, and for a moment he’s sure she’s going to say something else — to blame him or forgive him, he’s not sure — but she only turns and leaves.
The deal fell through. Donnie is a fucking idiot and his lawyer is worse and the deal fell through and Rafael is gonna have to put Elena and Emilio through a trial. He was so close to having Donnie plead guilty to felony battery and agree to three years in prison — a compromise from the five a good jury might give — and now there’s a risk a judge will categorize it as a misdemeanor and sentence him to one. He could be out in six months on good behavior.
And to top it all off, Elena doesn’t want her or her son to have to testify. Not that he can blame her. Fuck.
“A jury will take one look at those pictures of Emilio’s face,” Olivia tells him, “and put Donnie away for the maximum time.” She sounds utterly confident, standing here in his office, and it infuriates him.
“You don’t know that,” he snaps. “ I don’t know that. I need them both on the stand to make sure.” He taps his pen against his legal pad, crosses his legs, then uncrosses them and stands. “I don’t like it. I can’t promise her they’ll be safe. If she goes up against him and he gets out in six months, he might come after her. But if the jury doesn’t hear their testimony he might not get put away at all. Cases like this, they need to really see the victims.”
“I know,” Olivia says a bit dryly. She’s been doing this longer than him, after all. “Just tell her that, Rafa. That it’s a risk, but it’s the only way to make sure he gets put away.”
“It doesn’t make it sure, ” he says, but he’s only correcting her because it’s technically true and he can’t pretend it isn’t. Even though he believes there isn’t a jury in the world that will let Donnie walk after hearing what Emilio has to say.
In the end, Rafael follows Olivia’s advice and says to Elena what he’d said to her. “They need to see you and Emilio,” he tells her gently. “They need to hear it from you. That’s what makes it real to a jury. It’ll make it more likely that they’ll put Donnie away for longer.”
Elena hesitates, so he adds what he thinks Olivia would say: “Telling your story can be really good, too, Ms. Trías. It can help you to heal.”
“But I already told my story,” Elena protests. “I told the detectives, I told Lieutenant Benson. I told you. Isn’t it your job to tell it to the jury for me, with all the evidence and everything? Didn’t you say you wanted to make a deal because you wanted for me and Emilio to not have to testify?”
“Yes, but the deal fell through, and I can only repeat your story. I can’t tell it for you.” He hates this, pressuring her, but he knows it’s for the best. It feels almost manipulative, but he switches to Spanish. “El jurado necesita oírte a ti,” he tells her again. “A ti y a tu hijo. De otra manera no te aseguro que será condenado por delito de categoría grave. Puede que lo categorizen como delito menor. Por favor, Elena.” They might do that even if you do testify, he thinks, but that won’t help to say out loud.
Elena rests her elbows on his office table and puts her head in her hands for a long moment. After a moment of hesitation, he gingerly pats her back.
“Okay.” She sniffs and lowers her hands. Her eyes are only a little bit wet. “We’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” he breathes. “I’ll make it as easy for you as possible, okay? And for Emilio.”
She nods. He watches as she chews on her lower lip while gathering up her things.
“Elena.” She looks up. “Es valiente lo que estás haciendo.” Rafael hesitates, clears his throat, then continues. “Se que Emilio no tiene la edad para comprenderlo ahora, pero recordara siempre que lo protegiste. Es — tiene suerte en tenerte a ti.” He grimaces at his own choice of words; Emilio can hardly be called a lucky kid.
“Lo único que me interesa es que desaparezca Donnie de nuestras vidas,” Elena says, just in time to prevent Rafael from asking himself whether he’s jealous of her son. “Haré lo que tenga que hacer. No quiero tener que volver a verlo. Ni yo ni Emilio.
You won’t have to is on the tip of Rafael’s tongue. But he won’t make a promise he can’t keep.
It’s only four by the time they’re done at the courthouse, but after that verdict Rafael and Olivia decide to head home. Back to her place, really, which he’s come to think of as home. Noah is excited to see them both and it lifts Rafael’s spirits to play dinosaurs with him on the living room couch. He tries not to think about Emilio. He’s pretty sure that while he was in the bathroom Olivia whispered something to Noah about being extra nice because he had a hard day at work, because the boy’s brontosaurus is being very generous with Rafael’s triceratops instead of battling it for resources like normal. Rafael decides to enjoy it.
Olivia puts down her book after about an hour. “Alright, sweetie,” she says to Noah. “Time for homework, okay?”
Noah flops onto his back, kicking out his legs. One little socked foot gets Rafael right in the knee. “Can I do it after dinner, Mama?” he pleads.
“No, sweet boy, get it done now and you can play more games after dinner, okay?”
“Is Rafa staying for dinner?” Noah asks, sitting up.
“I’m going to cook for you,” Rafael answers with a smile.
“It’s spaghetti night,” Noah informs him.
“Oh, I know,” Rafael says seriously. “I’ll make spaghetti, papito, don’t worry. Do you want to help?”
“Homework,” Olivia reminds them both.
“Tell you what,” Rafael says. “Your mami and I need to talk about work stuff, so why don’t you go to your room and do as much homework as you can figure out on your own, okay? I’ll come and get you when it’s time to cook, and you can help me make the food then. And if any of your homework is too hard, your mami and I can help after dinner.”
“After dessert too?” Noah asks innocently.
“Nice try,” Rafael grins. “Before dessert.”
Noah considers this for a moment, then nods. “Okay, deal.” He scampers off to his room.
Rafael settles back and pats the spot on the couch next to him.
“You want to talk about work?” Olivia ask. She leaves her chair to nestle into the spot beside him.
He pulls her a little closer, and she leans her head against him. “No.” He kisses her hair. “I don’t really want to talk at all.”
“That’s a first,” she teases, but there’s no bite in it. She watches the lines in his face soften as he closes his eyes and leans back into the couch. She takes his hand, kisses his knuckles, and feels warmth blossom in her chest when this brings a small smile to his tired face.
His phone rings.
Rafael digs it out of his pocket with a sigh, and sighs again and stands when he sees it’s a call from the office. “Carmen,” he greets, shooting Olivia an apologetic look. Then he falls silent.
Carmen’s voice is steady and calm, but he has to ask her to repeat herself because there’s this roaring in his ears and he must have heard her wrong.
Donnie found them while they were walking up to Elena’s friend's house. He shot them both, then himself just a few hours ago.
Donnie is dead.
Elena just got grazed, she’s okay.
Emilio is in a coma.
“Okay,” he says after she gives him the details. His voice is steady too, or at least he thought it was, but Olivia is looking at him funny. “Okay, thank you Carmen.”
He lets the phone fall through his numb fingers onto the couch. It bounces once, then slides down to where the cushions meet and rests there on its side. It’s still unlocked, and he can see the background image he set back in October: him, Olivia, and Noah surrounded by fall foliage. Taken for him by a friendly stranger during their trip upstate. Their first vacation together. A family vacation, he’d dared to call it in his head. Just a long weekend, but it had felt weighty. Significant. They’d been really happy.
Noah has a huge grin in the picture. He doesn’t look anything like Emilio, but it’s Emilio’s shy smile Rafael sees now. The shadow of the beaming look the boy must have used to wear. Not anymore. Because of Donnie. Because of Rafael. He doesn’t know who he hates more.
“Rafa.” Olivia is standing in front of him. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“He shot them.” The words feel like heavy sludge on his tongue, like bitter poison. “Elena’s alright but Emilio’s in a coma. At a hospital in the Bronx.”
Olivia’s face falls into grief. She feels so much for these victims, he knows. She wraps her arms around him. She’s sad. Why am I not sad?
Rafael stares blankly at the wall behind her. He can feel the vibration of her voice against his shoulder, his neck, but he can’t understand what she’s saying. He can’t understand why he only feels a kind of distant disgust. He can’t get Emilio’s face out of his head but he can’t get a clear picture of him either. What did he look like? What does he look like now? Where was he shot? Why didn’t I ask Carmen what condition he’s in?
He steps back from Olivia, loses his balance for a moment, and catches himself with a hand on the back of the couch. “I need to go,” he says without thinking, and then wishes he hadn’t because somehow speaking makes him angry.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Olivia is saying. He pulls on his scarf. “Rafa. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
He tries to put on his coat but he’s put his right arm in the left sleeve and when he yanks it out the sleeve turns inside-out, and his hands are shaking, and he drops the coat trying to right it and when he bends to pick it up his vision goes black and he has to stumble back again and then he’s got his back to the wall and he’s standing, he didn’t fall, but he can’t breathe.
“It’s my fault.” More livid with every word. “It’s my fault.”
“No,” Olivia says fiercely. “It’s Donnie’s fault.”
“I told her.” Rafael drops his head back against the wall and forces in a painful breath. Closes his eyes and wills himself to be calm. It doesn’t work. The words bubble up anyway. “I told her to testify. She didn’t want to and I made her do it. I made Emilio do it.” And then I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. I failed them. He opens his eyes but they can’t focus on anything. “I should have — should have known — the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they try to leave, that’s when they get killed, I didn’t even warn her.”
Thanks for risking your life and your son’s, sorry it was for nothing, you’re on your own. That’s all he gave her, that and some worthless apology. His face is hot and he feels like his throat is going to close up, “Fuck,” he whispers, and all that bubbling fury comes screaming in: “Fuck!” he cries, “God damn it, god damn it —”
“Rafael!” Olivia’s voice is sharp, enough to startle him into looking at her. And just beyond her. Where Noah stands in the entry to the hallway, staring at Rafael with alarm and shock.
No. No no no, he’s not supposed to see this — “I thought I told you to stay in your room,” Rafael bites out, and Noah’s face fills with fear because there’s real rage in his voice but it’s true, Rafael had told him to stay and he didn’t listen, if he had just listened —
Noah starts to cry and for a terrible moment Rafael is furious with him for it. You’re too old to cry. I only yelled, I didn’t even raise my hand at you. It’s your fault for not doing what I said. Stop crying. Learn to keep your mouth shut. This is your fault.
These thoughts come to Rafael in his father’s voice.
He can taste bile in the back of his throat. He swallows it down. “Noah,” he croaks. “I’m sorry.”
The boy hiccups, still crying. Rafael wants to cover his face, or hide, or walk out the door and let Noah feel safe again, but he can’t move. He can only watch uselessly as Olivia goes and scoops up her son. She carries him down the hall to his room. She’s rubbing his back and saying something to him too quietly for Rafael to be able to hear, even if there wasn’t still that roaring noise in his ears.
He manages to make it to the couch. He doesn’t know long he’s been sitting there by the time Olivia comes back. She stands over him for a moment, then sits down almost close enough to touch.
“Noah is going to be okay,” she tells him. “You scared him a little, but that’s all. I told him that you just found out something really bad happened to your friends.” Rafael becomes aware that her hand is resting lightly on his shoulder. “I told him sometimes grown-ups shout and use bad words when they’re upset, but it doesn’t mean they’re bad people.”
A broken little laugh escapes Rafael’s throat without his permission.
“I also told him you would apologize.” She squeezes his shoulder. “In a little while. After you both calm down.” She drops her hand to cover his. “Rafael.”
He forces himself to meet her eyes.
Olivia’s voice is quiet and steady. “You can’t talk to him that way.”
“I know,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry, Liv.” Noah. Elena. Emilio. It’s so much, and Rafael can’t keep a thought in his aching head except I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
She pulls him into her arms. “I know, baby.” She strokes his hair and kisses his forehead.
“Carmen said it happened a few hours ago.” His voice is hoarse. “When they getting back to her friend’s house after the trial. Donnie must have done it less than an hour after we last saw them.” And we weren’t there to help them. I did nothing to help them. Emilio might die and I can’t even put Donnie in prison for it. He got to choose.
“You fought hard for them, Rafa,” Olivia says. She presses her lips to his temple. “You did everything you could.”
He tries to pull away but she doesn’t let him, so he turns his face to her neck and closes his eyes. “Did I?” he asks bitterly. His hands are in fists on his knees. “I failed to make a deal. I forced her and Emilio to testify. I didn’t believe you when you warned me about the jury. I didn’t help them after I lost the trial.”
Olivia unfolds one of his hands and holds it in her own. “You did everything you could,” she repeats. Steadfast and sure.
Rafael wonders if even part of her knows it’s a lie. He thinks probably not. He lets her hold him.
The victim from yesterday, the young mother who had come into the precinct on her own: her name is Elena Trías. She’s twenty-two. Her boyfriend Donnie, also the boy’s father, is thirty and he beats her. Yesterday morning he hit their son Emilio for the first time. She left him with a friend and came to the precinct right away despite a broken nose and a bruised tailbone.
Rafael gets all of this from her statement to Olivia and Carisi, which Carisi had typed up and gotten to him first thing. He doesn’t have any appointments this afternoon, so when Olivia calls to let him know that Elena is ready to press charges — and that SVU will be making an arrest today — he tells them to come over. He wonders what she’s like, this woman with the steely resolve to turn in her husband the moment he beat her son.
Boyfriend, Rafael reminds himself. Donnie is her boyfriend, not her husband. Was her boyfriend. It must be easier, he tells himself, to leave a man you’re not married to. It has to be.
They’re late, and he’s surprised when they arrive with Emilio in tow.
“I texted you,” Olivia says in response to his flustered look. “Elena decided he could come and I thought it was a good idea, so we went by her friend’s place to pick him up.”
He hadn’t checked his phone. But that’s fine, he can do this, even though looking at Emilio’s black eye is like looking into a mirror back in time at a reflection of his own young self. The kid is only five.
Elena would have been seventeen when she had him, Rafael thinks, and her boyfriend was twenty-five at the time. That’s statutory rape right there if she was sixteen when he got her pregnant. But five years have passed, so the statute of limitations is up. God, he wishes he could change that law. For now he focuses on what he can do.
“Ms. Trías,” he says warmly, shaking her hand. She looks even younger up close. She’s wearing a dress suit made of shiny blue fabric. He gets the impression it’s one of a few nice outfits she owns. “I’m ADA Rafael Barba, I’ll be taking your case.” He looks down at her son, who’s hugging her leg and peering up at him with open curiosity. “Hey, Emilio.” It’s hard to smile while looking straight at the little boy’s injuries, but for the kid’s sake he manages it. “I’m here to help you and your mami out, okay?”
Emilio hides his face against his mother’s skirt.
“Sorry.” Elena is clearly embarrassed. “Emilio, say hello to Mr. Barba.”
“Himisterbaba,” Emilio says into her skirt.
“It’s okay,” Rafael tells them both. “You’ve had a rough few days. Here, let’s sit down.” He gestures them to the round table on the other side of the office. Olivia sits on one side of Elena, Emilio on the other with what looks like a homemade coloring book; Rafael takes a spot a seat away from Olivia but not all the way across the table from Elena. He brings just a legal pad and a pen. He wants to put her and her son at ease, not make them feel like they’re facing a one-man tribunal.
“Okay, Elena,” he says. “I’ve gone over your statement, so I know the basics of what happened, but I’m going to need to ask you some similar questions just to make sure, and then we’ll go into the details. This is all just to be safe in case we need to go to trial, but I think we can probably avoid putting you through that.”
“By making a deal?” Elena asks doubtfully. Emilio looks between the two adults.
“ADA Barba won’t take a deal that you’re not comfortable with,” Olivia reassures her. “But he may be able to work something out where Donnie goes to prison and you get a restraining order automatically when he’s eventually paroled.”
Rafael nods, and Elena relaxes slightly. “I love him,” she tells him, “but I do want him to go to prison.” He can hear the guilt in her voice.
“I understand,” he says, because he does. She looks like she believes him, and she answers his questions consistently and clearly. She’ll do well on the stand, Rafael thinks, if it comes to that.
After about half an hour of this, Emilio grows restless and begins kicking his heels against his chair.
He looks at her apologetically but doesn’t say anything.
“Emilio, could I ask you a few questions?” Rafael asks. He needs to anyway, and if it distracts the kid from his boredom at the same time then that’s even better.
Emilio looks at his mother for permission, and she nods.
“Okay,” he says.
Rafael hesitates, then decides to switch to Spanish. Anything to make Emilio more comfortable will only help, both in terms of building a case and making the boy feel safe.
“Gracias, Emilio,” he says warmly. He catches Olivia smiling in the corner of his eye. “Platícame un poquito sobra lo que pasó ayer con to papá.” Emilio hesitates. “No pasa nada papito, no te preocupes. Necesito tu ayuda para asegurarme que nadie les haga daño ni a ti ni a tu mamá. Pieso que serías de grande ayuda. Está bien?”
Emilio gives him a shy smile, and Rafael can see, past the bruises, a glimpse of the boy as he must normally be: sweet, vibrant, happy. His grip on his pen tightens. Donnie is gonna go to prison for this. He’ll make sure of it.
After Elena and Emilio leave, Olivia comes around the table to where Rafael is scribbling down a few final notes. She massages his shoulders lightly. He puts down his pen and leans his head back against her stomach, looking up at her face.
“This one hitting a little close to home?” she asks.
Rafael sighs and shuts his eyes. “Probably. I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Okay.” She gives his shoulders a squeeze and drops her hands. “Come to mine. We’ll have dinner.”
He catches her hand and kisses her wrist in assent. She smiles.
Emilio wasn’t — isn’t, Rafael corrects himself fiercely — small for his age, but he looks tiny lying here, bandaged and intubated with metal machines looming around him. The steady beep of his heart monitor has already wormed its way deep into Rafael’s head and he feels it like some slow, malevolent echo of his own pulse.
Donnie had shot at him twice. Hit him in the shoulder with the first, and missed him with the second. The police had found the bullet in the spilled dirt of a flowerpot that broke on impact. The flowerpot had been on the ground, lining Elena’s friend’s driveway. Low to the ground, and the bullet hit it because Donnie had his gun pointed downward to murder his five-year-old son.
Rafael wonders if Emilio was crying when it happened. If he even understood what was going on. Did Donnie tell him it was his fault? He knows, he knows that what he said to Noah isn’t the same as — isn’t even comparable to — what Donnie did. But the look on Noah’s face…
The coma is medically induced, Elena had told Rafael. So his brain can recover from the whiplash and his body can heal. The doctors expect him to make a full recovery. They’re allowing family to visit, but Emilio has no family here except Elena, so they’re letting her decide who gets to see him.
Rafael can’t comprehend why she’s letting him in. Why she greeted him with one arm open and the other in a neat sling from where Donnie’s bullet — one bullet of many Rafael failed to stop — grazed her bicep. He knows her parents are in Cuba and can’t come, and that Donnie’s are long gone, but it’s not as if she doesn’t have friends. It’s not as if he’s the only support she has. As if he’s any support at all.
But she let him in. So here he is.
He takes a seat next to Emilio, in the hard metal hospital chair left there for that purpose. Someone has placed a cushion on it. Elena, he guesses, because it looks like a decorative pillow from a home. It’s too small and overstuffed to be comfortable, but Rafael doesn’t move it.
Instead he sits, and watches Emilio. His eyelids twitch now and then like he’s dreaming, but his face is smooth and there’s no sign he’s in pain or distress. Rafael wonders how much he’ll remember when he wakes up. Will he even know that his father is dead? That his father tried to kill him?
Emilio’s finger twitches. Rafael wants to reach out and touch his hand, stroke his arm, whisper some words of comfort. But he has no right. And he wouldn’t know what to say anyway.
The prayer his mother spoke daily over his dying father is bitter and bright in his memory: Almighty and Eternal God, You are the everlasting health of those who believe in You. Hear us for Your sick servant, for whom we implore the aid of Your tender mercy, that being restored to bodily health he may give thanks to You in Your Church through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Rafael doesn’t want to repeat that. The ghost of his father has no place in this room. Emilio has had too much of that kind of man.
So instead Rafael stands, and with a trembling hand and tears in his eyes he makes the sign of the cross over Emilio’s too-still body. Mereces algo mejor, he tells the boy silently.
And then he leaves.
It’s late afternoon, and Rafael still has a lingering sense of unease from the night before. He shoves it to the back of his mind as he heads to the precinct with decaf for Olivia, regular coffee for himself, and trial prep for both of them. He gives the detectives a cursory greeting as he sails into her office, but he’s only just settled into his chair across from her desk when there’s a knock at her door. It’s Carisi.
Olivia takes off her glasses and gestures for him to come in.
“Sorry to interrupt,” the detective says, “but we got a vic and she’s hurt pretty bad.”
“Has she given any kind of statement?” Olivia asks, standing.
“She just said that her boyfriend did it and that she didn’t want to call the regular cops but she thought maybe we could help. And she has a kid.”
“She said this to you, or —?”
Carisi nods. “Yeah. She’s waiting at my desk now but Rollins is talking with her.”
“Okay.” Olivia shoots Rafael an apologetic look; he shakes his head to let her know he understands why this takes priority. “You and I are gonna take her to the hospital and get her full statement on the way.”
“Get the doctors to take pictures of her injuries,” Rafael interjects as Olivia goes to grab her coat. “We’ll need them if this goes to trial.”
“Will do,” she says.
Rafael trails after her and Carisi as they head over to the victim, but hangs back. He doesn’t want to overwhelm her. She’s awfully young, he notices. He can see her face is bruised, and when she stands to follow Carisi and Olivia to the elevators she walks with a limp.
He exchanges a grim look with Rollins before returning to Olivia’s office to gather his papers and go. He wonders how old the woman’s child is, and where, and whether the kid is safe.
Olivia is waiting for him when he gets back from the hospital. Noah, blessedly, is with Lucy all afternoon.
“How are they?” Olivia asks as soon as he takes off his coat and shoes.
Rafael sniffs despite himself. “Elena’s going to have a scar on her arm.” His hands clench and unclench reflexively as he goes to pour himself a drink. “She’s angry. And scared. The doctors say Emilio’s coma is medically induced and he should be alright, but she’s scared. Of course she is.”
He pulls down the scotch from the shelf where Olivia stores it for him. He thinks of Noah’s frightened face, and how his little hands were damp and sweaty when he hugged Rafael last night, after Rafael apologized to him for yelling. He thinks of the smell of liquor on his father’s breath, and of Emilio’s face. He puts the scotch back unopened.
“They don’t have enough money,” Rafael continues, bracing his arms against the counter and staring down at his hands. “For Emilio’s medical bills. Elena didn’t tell me that, but I know — we went through her bank statements before the trial. To show that Donnie kept her financially dependent on him. And it’s not like he saved anything for them to inherit.”
Gracias por venir, Mr. Barba, she’d said when he got to the hospital. Alone, because he felt he had to do this alone. He couldn’t ask Olivia to hold his hand through it. Vamos a estar bien, Elena told him. Tears in her eyes. Emilio pronto se mejora. Es un niño fuerte. Nos las arreglaremos.
“She’s twenty-two. She makes minimum wage and has no health insurance.” Rafael pushes off the counter but he can’t quite meet Olivia’s gaze. He keeps his eyes down as he walks to the bedroom to get out of his suit and into sweatpants and a t-shirt. He has no intention of going out again today. “She’ll probably lose her job. It’s either that or hire a nurse she can’t afford to help Emilio while she’s at work.”
Rafael goes to unbutton his shirt but his fingers are still numb. He grimaces and rubs his eyes in frustration. Olivia comes over and begins to undo the buttons for them.
“Thanks,” Rafael whispers. He feels so utterly, utterly useless. Like a child.
She pushes the shirt off his shoulders and dips her head to kiss his neck. His collarbone. His chest. “Are you going to give them money?” Her lips are warm against his bare skin. “Like Ashtonja Abreu?” There’s no judgement in her voice.
He shuts his eyes. “Yeah.” He hadn’t realized that he’d already decided that until she asked. “But it won’t be enough. Even if it covers everything… ” Which it probably won’t, not all those medical bills without insurance, I don’t have enough. Rafael forces himself to unclench his jaw. “Even if it covers the bills, I can’t — can’t make up for what I did. What I failed to do, really.”
Olivia shakes her head. “You need to stop blaming yourself. It’s not healthy.”
“It’s not wrong,” he retorts, but without any bite in his words.
She slides her hands beneath his undershirt. “It’s not your fault, Rafael.”
They tug his shirt off together; she pulls hers off too and drops it to the floor. She leads him to the bed, and he sits with his back against the headboard while she rests her weight on this lap. She takes his face in her hands. He thinks he won’t be able to stand it if she tells him again he’s not to blame, and to his relief she kisses him instead. They make love without talking, and afterwards, when he’s spent and exhausted, Rafael finally cries.
I can’t do this anymore, he thinks. I can’t keep going like this.
Olivia holds him and doesn’t let go.
Rafael is waiting for his father to hit him.
He’s standing in a dark room — his bedroom? the kitchen? — and his father is just down the hall, looking for his belt. He’s not allowed to move. It’ll be worse if he tries to run away, that’s what his mother always tells him. And it’s no use anyway because he’s paralyzed. He can barely even breathe. He can hear his father rummaging around in a drawer. It’ll only be a minute now.
In the corner of his eye he sees a curtain billowing out into the room as a breeze comes through the open window.
He’s in the living room. He’s in an home that has a living room.
I’m at Liv’s apartment, Rafael realizes. He doesn’t know why he didn’t recognize it before: there’s her couch, and the blanket thrown over it that they cuddle under when they watch TV or a movie with Noah. There are her pictures on the wall, including one of her and him from their trip upstate. There’s her cardigan hanging from the back of the tall chair at her breakfast bar. He wants to go over and touch it, but his father is still just down the hall and he’s not allowed to move.
I’m at Liv’s apartment and he’s going to beat me. Humiliation closes his already thick throat and Rafael starts to gasp, shallow useless little breaths that don’t even reach his lungs because his father is going to come in here any second, make him take off his suit jacket and his suspenders and his shirt and his undershirt, and hit his back with a belt until he bleeds, and his mother can’t stop him. And Liv or Noah could come in at any moment and see it happen and he’ll never be able to look them in the eye again, God, why can’t I move, I should leave — I should make him leave — I can’t breathe —
Something’s grabbing at his shoulder and suddenly he’s not frozen anymore; he twists and scrambles away, shoving the disembodied hand — his father’s hand? his mother’s? — off of him.
“Rafael,” Olivia’s voice calls. No, don’t come in here, don’t come back until he’s gone. “Rafa!”
He realizes his eyes are closed, and in the same moment he opens them.
He’s tangled in the blankets on her bed. She’s sitting up next to him in the dark, her hands up like he has a gun. It takes him a few tries before he can speak, and when he does his voice is hoarse: “Did I hit you?”
“No, honey,” Olivia says softly. She reaches out her hands for him and he allows himself to be held. “You just pushed my arm a little. You were having a nightmare.”
“Yeah,” he admits. She’s stroking his hair and it feels nice. He rests his head against her shoulder but doesn’t close his eyes. He’s awake enough now to notice things: the glow of the streetlamps coming through the window from below, the smell of her hair. He begins to feel more present. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“It’s okay.” She takes his hand with her free one and squeezes it. When she starts rubbing her thumb up and down his wrist he knows she’s getting ready to say something else. “You’ve been having a lot of nightmares lately.”
He shifts away and sits up properly. “I’m fine.”
Olivia gives him a skeptical look. “I didn’t say you weren’t.”
“You were implying it,” he accuses. He sucks in a breath. “Sorry.” Another breath. “Maybe you’re right.”
“About what?” She does Rafael the kindness of not looking amused by his one-eighty.
He grimaces. “I’ve been… I have been having a lot of nightmares, I suppose. I’m certainly more tired than usual lately.” Olivia waits patiently. “It’s December.”
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“My dad died in December. So did my abuela, you knew that already, but my dad did too.” Rafael scrubs a hand over his face. “It’s a… weird time of year. I usually start having dreams about this time but this year I forgot. I don’t know why.”
He does know: it’s because he’s with her now, and so close to contented that the annual resurgence of nightmares slipped his mind and he didn’t prepare either of them. But he doesn’t want her to blame herself, so he keeps his mouth shut.
“Well now you remember,” she praises him. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
He shakes his head and moves close to her again. “You’re already doing it.” He presses a sweet kiss to the corner of her mouth. He can feel her smile under his lips. Everything is better with you. I’d be so happy, I am so happy, except… It’s easier to say with someone else’s words, and she always laughs when he gets pretentious, so he quotes wryly: “I could be bound within a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Olivia doesn’t laugh. “C’mere,” she says instead, and lays them down, keeping him cradled against her chest.
She kisses the top of his head. He kisses her collarbone, the underside of her chin. Over her shoulder he can read the clock on her bedside table: 1:48AM. Plenty of time to fall back asleep. Rafael knows he won’t have another nightmare, not tonight, but a dull sense of unease persists. Somehow he feels like he’s not doing well. Like he’s going to do something wrong. He tries to dismiss it as the punishing ghost of his father. He fails.
But Olivia’s breathing is slow and steady, and under the blankets with her he’s warm. And so he falls asleep easily, and doesn’t dream.
Emilio wakes up like the doctors said he would. They expect him to make a full recovery. Rafael is packing up his office when Elena calls to let him know. She still sounds worried. When he tells her he’s going to pay the medical bills, she refuses.
“Es demasiado,” she keeps saying.
“Elena, no es suficiente.” It doesn’t cover therapy or lost wages or the cost of finding a new apartment that doesn’t have Donnie as the sole leaseholder. It doesn’t cover PT or future medical complications either of you might have. It doesn’t begin to cover what happened; it couldn’t. It’s not enough. “Permíteme hacer esto por ti, para Emilio, por favor.”
It doesn’t take as long to convince her as he’d though it would. She’s more scared than I realized.
A week later she mails him a card she and Emilio made, featuring a lovely drawing of a bouquet clumsily colored in with green, purple, and yellow marker. Gracias, Mr. Barba it reads in Elena’s neat cursive.
She’d wanted to be an artist, he remembers as he holds the open card. Elena. She’d mentioned it during one of their trial prep sessions. Emilio had been bent over his coloring book, and Elena saw Rafael noticing that it was just made of inked line drawings on printer paper stapled together.
“Lo hice yo,” she’d told Rafael, a little embarrassed and a little proud. “Todos los dibujitos de sus animales favoritos para que los coloree.”
“Lindos dibujos,” Rafael had told her sincerely. They were neat but expressive, dynamic. It must have taken her hours to do so many pages. She’d been thoughtful about it too, doing drawings on just one side of a page, with a blank paper between each one so Emilio could color without worrying about the marker bleeding onto the next animal.
“Gracias,” she’d said. “Tiempo atrás quise ser artista.”
“A mí me parece que ya lo eres,” he’d smiled. He said it offhand, meaning it but hardly thinking anything of it, and then they went back to work. He’d been looking down at his own papers when he said it, and not at her face. Rafael wonders now if his comment had made her happy or sad.
Either way, he keeps the card tucked safely in a drawer of his home office desk. He double- and triple-checks that it’s still there after moving the desk from his apartment to the new one he and Olivia buy a few months later. They can afford it with his new salary from his new job. He must have done a few things right at least, because Columbia has put him straight onto tenure track and pays him better than the DA’s office did. Enough for the apartment. Enough to send something to Ashtonja and Elena every month. Less than what they deserve.
But Rafael can sleep at night. Most nights. With Olivia by his side and Noah down the hall. He still consults on SVU cases, and he finds that he loves teaching — far more than he thought he would have the patience to. It makes sense, though, he supposes. He’s not cleaning up blood anymore, fighting with a knife in his mouth to get justice for whoever survived. Instead he’s an educator, to his school principal mother’s surprise and delight. He’s teaching future lawyers and politicians and advocates to understand why the fight is important. Why the survivors matter.
Rafael always thought of justice as something you had to win by making things right after a wrong is done. Now he thinks maybe it’s something you can create. He thinks maybe there’s a way to make a world where the wrong thing doesn’t happen in the first place.
He hopes so.
Rafael sits on the edge of the bathtub, nursing a bloody nose. Through the thin walls he can hear the jingle of his father’s keys, his mother’s low voice whispering apologies, then the open and shut of the front door. Papá’s gone out for a drink, or maybe just a walk around the block. He could be back in four hours or in ten minutes. No way of knowing.
Mami taps gently on the bathroom door. He can see her in his mind’s eye: leaning against the wall, face downcast, listening as hard as he is. Maybe still holding the washcloth she’s undoubtedly used to wipe up the few drops of blood he’d let fall to the floor before being banished from the kitchen. He can’t smell the burnt chicken anymore, not past the bitter, salty taste of blood and snot dripping from his sinuses to the back of his throat.
She’s kind enough not to add: en lugar de distraerte con libros y estar gastando comida costosa.
Rafael wishes she were mad at him. He wishes he knew when to keep his mouth shut.
“Rafi.” She taps again. “¿Todo bien? ¿Te ayudo?”
He opens the door.
“Oh, papito.” Mami sighs and presses a hand to his cheek, then lifts his chin so she can inspect his face. He scans hers quickly too with half-shut eyes. It doesn’t look like Papá hit her this time.
“No se ha roto la nariz.” she tells him after a moment. “Solo sangra un poco.” He was right about her holding the washcloth, and she hands it to him now. “¿Te limpias solo? ¿O te ayudo?” She strokes his hair, trying to get him to look up at her.
“Yo puedo,” he tells her thickly.
Mami smiles that sad smile she wears a lot these days. “Ese es mi niño valiente.”
She hovers in the doorway while Rafael dampens the cloth and, with ginger touches, uses it to dab the blood from his face. He knows he’ll have a black eye, maybe two, at school on Monday, and that it’ll take some real work to convince his favorite teacher not to tell on him to the police or CPS like she always wants to.
One of Rafael’s most silent secrets is that sometimes he wants that too. Sometimes he wishes someone would swoop in and arrest his father and take him far away. People who break the law are supposed to go to prison. He’s breaking the law when he hurts us. They should put him away.
Rafael knows it’s wrong to want that. He knows his mother could get in trouble too. He knows the better way is to learn to keep his head down and his mouth shut.
He finishes getting the blood off his face. His nose doesn’t look so bad now.
“Bien hecho, papito,” Mami says, and she takes the cloth back from him to wash clean later. “Okay. Homework time.”
Rafael follows her to the kitchen table, where she’s already righted the chair Papa had knocked over. His books are where he left them, untouched by either parent. Both of them want him to do well in school. They don’t praise him like his teachers do, but he knows his high grades please them. He got first place in the fourth grade spelling bee last year and the little plastic trophy is still in a place of honor on the hallway shelf.
He’s going to go to college. Rafael decided that a long time ago, even though no one his age has even started to think about that kind of thing yet. He knows he’s smart enough to get into a good school, maybe even get a scholarship. He wants to choose a school far away. When he was little he’d imagined that Mami would come with him to take care of him there, and Papá would stay here, but he’s not some little kid anymore and he knows it doesn’t work that way. He might get to leave, but Mami won’t. It’s not fair, Rafael thinks, but there’s no use lingering on that.
He sits down at the table and she smooths his hair, kisses the top of his head. He looks up with a surprised smile — she almost never comforts him like that anymore, and never when Papá’s around. Rafael knows it’s for his own good. He knows he’s probably a sissy for even wanting it. But that doesn’t stop him from beaming at her, and when she smiles back he feels so proud.
“Okay, Mami,” Rafael says, and opens his book of English grammar.
He does have a lot of work to do. It doesn’t occur to him to wish he didn’t have to do it all on his own. Not now; not for a long, long while. One day — years in the future — he’ll look up from his books and his arguments to realize he’s lonely. And tired. And has been all this time.
He’ll realize, and he’ll look up, and Olivia will be right there.