Sonny had always been told that domestic violence cases were the most dangerous to work. There was no telling what an abusive partner would do if they were provoked, or just to keep control. On top of his training from the academy and the endless reminders from other cops, everyone in SVU had been extra careful on domestic dispute cases since Dodds’ death. It might have been four years ago, but that didn’t mean anyone forgot what happened.
Olivia still hadn’t forgiven herself.
The ride to the location of the disturbance was stressful—and not just because of Rollins’ driving—but because everyone knew the danger of domestics. They had no clue what they could be walking into; it could be anything from a fight that someone misheard and took too seriously to a gun waving in the air. Sonny felt a knot in his chest as he exited the vehicle, his hand already reaching to the gun at his waist.
Before Rollins could finish her question, the sound of gunshots rung through the air like thunder crashing in the night. In unison, they run for the door of the apartment building. The knot in Sonny’s chest hadn’t gone away yet, and he wasn’t expecting it to until he knew for a fact that the danger had been resolved. In cases like this, he always found himself hoping the gun went off by mistake.
That was never the case.
They ran to the apartment the complaint had been made against. Neighbors were poking their heads out the doors, clearly confused as to what was taking place. As they ran through the hallway, Sonny heard Liv yelling for them to go back inside. To Sonny’s surprise, the door was unlocked. They barged through the door, only to see a man standing over a woman’s body. The second he saw them, he took off in the direction of the fire escape. Rollins, Fin, and Benson took pursuit of the suspect, Liv yelling back at Sonny to check the girl.
Sonny bent down by the woman and took her pulse. The wound was to her chest, still bleeding profusely. The room smelled of gunpowder and smoke, a smell Sonny hated that he was so used to. The sight of dead bodies was never pleasant, but it was just a part of his job. He’d lost track of how many terrible things he’d seen on the job; this woman’s death—while tragic—was nothing he hadn’t seen before.
He stood up and looked around the room. It was a wreck, looking like it hadn’t been cleaned in months. There were dishes piled up in the sink, clothes and trash thrown about the living room, a few children’s toys broken and scattered throughout the room, needles and bottles laying on the couch…
Sonny started to check the rooms he couldn’t see from where he entered the apartment. The living room and kitchen were clear, a bedroom clear, and the bathroom clear. Sonny opened the door to the last room, only to find it nearly empty. Calling it a room might have been an overstatement, though. It was the tiniest room he’d ever been in in his life, and that was counting the remarkably small dorms he stayed in during college. There was a small mattress in the corner, a pile of clothes next to the frameless bed, and a barbie doll laying discarded at the edge of the room. It barely looked livable, especially for a child.
There was a closet in the room, just like there’d been in the master bedroom. Sonny wasn’t sure what would be worse, him opening the door to find a child or if there was nothing inside the closet at all. Maybe he could convince himself that ACS took the child months ago, and no one had bothered to clean up the room. Maybe a family member adopted the child. There were a hundred maybes that Sonny hoped was the case.
Hoping never got him too far, though. Not with this job.
Upon opening the door, Sonny saw the smallest toddler he’d ever seen, huddled up in the corner with tears streaming down her face. She was holding a ratty stuffed bunny, trying her best to push herself further back into the closet. Sonny felt his heart drop at the sight of the little girl. She looked like she’d gone through hell and back. Her long red hair was matted and dirty, her clothes were ripped and a mix of too small and too big, and her arm was bruised. Seeing kids like this always made Sonny the angriest; he didn’t understand how anyone could do this to a child. If anything made him want vengeance more so than justice, it was sights like this.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he started, giving the girl a smile. She was sobbing and still trying to push herself further into the closet, despite being already pushed into the corner. “It’s okay, sweetie. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She shook her head, a sob wracking her little body. Sonny was heartbroken at the mere thought of what this little girl must’ve gone through to make her so terrified. He hoped to God that the rest of his squad had caught the son of a bitch who did this to her.
“My name is Sonny, I’m here to help,” he tried, slowly reaching his hand into the closet and offered it to her. “Everything’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna get you somewhere safe.” She kept shaking her head and crying. Sonny really didn’t want to traumatize the girl even more by pulling her out of the closet.
“Is that bunny you have there yours?”
Through her sobs, she nodded.
“How about you take him with you? He can keep you company, keep you safe. Whaddya say?”
The little girl appeared to think it over. Slowly, she started to scoot towards Sonny, eventually taking his hand. He helped her out of the closet and kept held of her hand. He stayed at her eye level before gently putting his hand on her shoulder. She flinched, but she didn’t run back to the closet like he feared. “I’m gonna pick you up now, and we’re gonna run out of here. Is that okay with you?”
She nodded, holding her bunny closer to her chest.
Sonny picked the girl up and made sure her face was buried in his neck as he bolted from the room. The girl was clearly traumatized, the last thing he wanted her seeing was her mother’s dead body on the floor of her home.
He called for a bus as he got downstairs, still holding onto the little girl. Outside, Amanda, Fin, and Olivia stood around their cars. They looked out of breath and frustrated, looks that soon turned to horror upon seeing Sonny walk out the door with a little girl.
“The mom?” Olivia asked, her voice low.
Sonny just shook his head. “You lose him?”
Amanda sighed and nodded in response. “He was a fast son of a bitch.”
“We need to get her to a hospital,” Sonny said, his eyes darting to the little girl in his arms.
“I’ll ride with her,” Olivia offered, holding her arms out to take the girl. Instead of letting Olivia take her, the little girl started to sob and shake again, her grip tightening on Sonny.
“I’ll go, Lieu. I don’t wanna upset her anymore.”
Olivia nodded and then turned to Fin and Rollins. “We need to get up there and check everything. We need to find the gun, too. Let’s go.”
The three made their way to the apartment, leaving Sonny to his own with the little girl. She was still crying, but not sobbing as profusely as before. He got into the ambulance with her and let the EMTs take it from there. Besides the bruise on her arm, she didn’t appear to have any major, visible, trauma for them to handle on their way to Bellevue.
The emotional trauma, though? Sonny could only begin to imagine.
The station was somber as Sonny arrived with the little girl in tow. Everyone had heard about the little girl, terrified and clearly abused, hiding in a closet. It might’ve been just another day at SVU, but that didn’t change the fact that it was terrible. Despite their jobs, no one liked to acknowledge that there were countless numbers of children just outside their door being abused until they had to face it.
Sonny hated how much he was faced with situations like this.
The little girl—she hadn’t told anyone her name yet, or even talked for that matter—had her arms wrapped around him, her head resting on his shoulder. He wasn’t quite sure why she trusted him so much, but the doctor had supposed it had something to do with him getting her out of that apartment and to safety. The fact that she trusted him made Sonny feel better, but it didn’t change the fact that this case was weighing heavy on his heart and mind. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep himself from pummeling the bastard that did this to her into the ground when he found him.
Maybe he’d let Rollins or Olivia handle the arrest.
He carried the little girl into the room they talked to victims in. Liv was already sitting on the couch inside, awaiting Sonny’s return. She stood up as she saw them enter, looking at Sonny and then the little girl. “What did you find out?”
“She’s malnourished, and there’s signs of physical abuse, but no sexual abuse. She has a broken rib that’s been healed for a while and some bruising on her stomach,” he informed her. It felt wrong to talk about it with the girl still in his arms, but it wasn’t like he could put her down. Besides, he doubted she even knew what half the words that came out of his mouth meant.
Olivia had the same face he assumed he made when the doctor told him about the girl’s abuse and malnourishment. She’d been doing this a lot longer than he had, she’d seen more of the depravity that seemed to plague humanity than he’d seen, and she still looked heartbroken whenever these cases came up. Sonny didn’t blame her; he didn’t think any sane person would be able to be completely used to and unaffected by cases as heartbreaking as this one.
“I’m gonna talk with her,” he said, giving the little girl’s back a gentle rub. “I’m guessing you already called ACS?”
Olivia nodded. “And Barba.”
“Yeah, I assumed,” he said. Olivia gave him a sympathetic look before leaving the room. He assumed she’d be watching from the other side of the window, maybe along with Barba and some poor, overworked, ACS agent when they showed up.
Sonny brought the girl over to the toys in the room. “Is it okay if I put you down here with the toys?”
The girl nodded in his arms. There was a tiny desk with chairs far too small for Sonny, but that didn’t stop him from sitting in the one across from the girl. “I know today’s been real long for you,” he started, suddenly feeling completely and totally out of depth. “Did you like the food Doctor Snow gave you at the hospital?”
The little girl nodded.
“Can I ask you some questions?” he asked, keeping his tone gentle, using the same voice he used with his niece or Jesse when they were upset. “You can play while I ask.”
The girl held onto her bunny before pulling it from her chest and looking at it. She hadn’t made eye contact with Sonny the entire time she’d been with him, besides when she was cowering in the closet.
“What’s your name?”
“My name’s Sonny,” he said, repeating what he was sure she’d forgotten from earlier. “Does your bunny have a name?”
“Can you tell me?”
She looked up at Sonny after a few moments of staring at her bunny, playing with the one tattered ear it had left. “Bee.”
“Bee the bunny, I like that,” Sonny said, a smile on his face. “Do you have a name, too?”
She nodded, pulling Bee up to her chest again. She turned her head to look at the toys next to her and then back to Sonny. “You can play with whatever you want.”
Tentatively, she reached over and picked up a barbie doll. It was in significantly better shape than the one she had in her broom closet of a room. It’s hair blonde and smooth, a long pink dress on its tiny, plastic, frame while the one back at the apartment had been covered in dirt and was missing an arm. She stared at the doll for a few seconds before running her finger over the doll’s hair.
“Annabelle,” Sonny repeated. “That’s a pretty name.”
No response. Sonny had known this wasn’t going to be easy from the get go, but he still felt like he was sinking. This little girl had clearly seen things and had things done to her that no one should have done to anyone, much less someone so young.
“Do you know how old you are, Annabelle?”
She nodded, putting three fingers up and showing Sonny. “This many.”
“Wow, three!” his voice was excited and gentle for her benefit, but underneath the surface he felt a wave of nausea hit him like a wave upon a shore. She was too tiny to be three. He’d assumed she was barely two. “So, Annabelle, can you tell me about your home? What are your mommy and daddy like?”
She’s quiet for a few seconds again, all the while running her finger through the barbie’s hair. She seemed deep in concentration about the hair atop the plastic head. It was smooth and clean opposed to the matted and dirty mop that sat on her head.
“Mommy gets mad when I cry,” she said. “She doesn’t like it.”
“Yeah? What happens when you cry?” he asked, afraid because he already knew the answer.
“She gets mad,” she repeated. “I don’t like to cry. She hurts me when I cry.”
Sonny didn’t feel so sorry for the dead woman in the apartment anymore. He’d been seeing her as the victim in all this, but if she’d been the one who was responsible for her daughter’s malnourishment and abuse, then he supposed she got what she deserved.
“Was that your mommy’s house we found you at?”
“Where’s your daddy?”
“That’s okay, that’s okay.” He leaned back in the child’s chair he sat at. He could tell he was going to cramp up if he sat there like that for much longer, but he was willing to suffer through it if it meant that Annabelle told him what had happened to her.
“What happened today? Before I came and found you in your room?”
“Mommy was mad I spilled apple juice. She hit me and put me in my room and told me not to leave.”
“Yeah?” Sonny asked, fighting to keep a cheerful demeanor. “Did anything else happen?”
She was silent for a few seconds, looking down at Bee in her arms. “Will you tell?”
He shook his head. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“I heard yelling and left my room. There was a man outside and he looked at me funny. Then mommy yelled at me to go back to my room.” She played with Bee’s ratty arms as she spoke, bouncing him up and down on her lap. “I got scared so I hid in the closet with Bee.”
“Then what happened?”
“Loud bang, then more screaming. Bee was scared.”
Sonny felt his heart break a little. She’d heard her mother get shot and she had no clue what had even happened. “Well, you did a really good job at protecting Bee. He’s all safe, right?”
She inspected her bunny and then looked up at Sonny. She nodded and pulled Bee to her face, giving him a kiss. It would’ve been cuter if not for the fact she’d just told him her mother beat her for spilling apple juice before hearing her get shot.
“What did this man look like?” Sonny asked, though he wasn’t sure how much help she’d be. He could already imagine a defense attorney tearing into the fact they got their eyewitness statement from a three-year-old.
“Mean,” she answered. “His hair was brown.”
“Very good, thank you,” Sonny said. He knew mean with brown hair wasn’t a very good description, but it was all they had at the moment. “Annabelle, do you have anywhere else you go? Maybe not with your mommy?”
“No,” she said, not taking as long to respond this time. “Mommy leaves a lot.”
“Does she leave you alone?”
“Uh-huh. I get hungry but no food. Sometimes she brings me grapes or candy.”
Sonny hated to think it, but he was glad the woman was dead. He remembered his surroundings as he’d entered the apartment; vodka bottles and needles littered the room. He could only imagine what life was like for Annabelle, her mom beating her and leaving her home alone, only bringing her back grapes and candy to eat. He wondered if she ever bothered to actually feed her child when she was home, or if she just fed her daughter scraps. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to know what else CSU uncovered, but he was sure it wasn’t pretty.
He took a deep breath to calm himself down. He couldn’t blow his lid in front of the already terrified child, not when he was getting her to a place where she was actually talking. “Thank you for telling me, Annabelle. You’re very brave, you know?” He was quiet for a second, watching her as she looked over to him with a strange look he couldn’t identify. “Do you want something to eat? Some water?”
Her green eyes met his again, twinkling with a hint of joy for the first time since he’d met her. The doctor hadn’t given her much at the hospital, just enough to put something in her stomach. She’d advised Sonny to get her something to eat and drink once they were back at the precinct.
“Can I have chips?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” he said, standing up and offering a hand to her. She stared at it for a second before standing up and taking it. Sonny was still blown away at how small she was. When his niece was that age she was nearly a head taller, the same with Jesse. He found himself wondering if maybe she was premature, or if it was just the malnourishment that made her so small, or maybe her mother’s apparent alcohol and drug addiction had anything to do with how small she was.
He walked Annabelle into the break room, shooing out the unis drinking coffee at the table. They seemed a little pissed until the noticed the little girl holding Sonny’s hand. They seemed to put two and two together and made themselves scarce. Sonny walked Annabelle to the vending machine and watched as she stood on her tip toes to see what was inside. She seemed fascinated with the contents of the machine, eyeing each and every bag like it was brand new.
“What kind do you want?” he asked, bending down so he was eye level with her again.
With the hand that wasn’t holding Bee, she pointed to a bag of Cheetos. “Orange one.”
“Good choice.” Sonny punched in the code to the Cheetos before reaching into the machine, opening the bag for her, and giving them to her. She reached into the bag and took out a Cheeto, staring at it for a second before plopping it in her mouth. For the first time since he’d seen her, she smiled.
“Are they good?”
She nodded. “Yummy.”
Sonny laughed a little and reached out to take her hand again. She tucked Bee under her arm and took his hand in her own, her Cheetos clutched tightly in her other. He led her back to the interview room and helped her up on the couch. “I have to go talk to my friend real quick, is that okay?”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll only be a few minutes. You wanna watch TV?” he asked, reaching over to the remote that sat on the desk.
She appeared deep in thought before leaning in close, like she had some grave secret to disclose to him. It couldn’t be worse than anything else she’d told him in the previous thirty minutes. “Mommy doesn’t like TV.”
Sonny took a deep breath to calm himself down once again. Her mother had no problem beating her and only feeding her grapes and candy, but apparently her screen time was where she decided to parent.
“Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.” He turned the TV on to a kid’s channel, playing some Disney movie he didn’t know the name of. “I’ll be right back, okay? If you need anything just call for me, and I’ll be right back.”
“Wait,” she called, pulling on Sonny’s sleeve before he could walk away. “Do I have to go home?”
He didn’t know how to respond to that. He didn’t have it in him to explain death to a three-year-old; he couldn’t tell her that she couldn’t go back to her sorry excuse of a home because her mother was dead. She didn’t seem like she wanted to go back home, either way, if the look on her face was any indication, but it was still a conversation someone would have to have with her at some point. Honestly, he didn’t know what would happen to her. Whatever it was, though, he had to believe that it would be better than what she’d endured so far.
“Nah, not anytime soon,” he answered. “You can stay here for a bit, okay? Watch some TV and eat some Cheetos with Bee. That sound good?”
She nodded and went back to her Cheetos and looking intently at the TV. Sonny took one last look at her before he left the room. She was wearing shoes that were clearly too small, a shirt two sizes too big, and a pair of pants that had more holes in them than a slice of swiss cheese, each article of clothing dirtier than the next. The bruising on her left arm was turning yellow, spots of purple still marking her otherwise pale skin.
Sonny walked into the adjoining room, his shoulders feeling like a weight was resting on them. He wanted nothing more to run back into that room, scoop Annabelle up, and take her somewhere no one would ever hurt her again. He could never understand how someone could be so evil that they could hurt an innocent child, especially if that child was their own.
Inside the room already was Olivia, Amanda, and Rafael. Sonny had never been so pleased to see his husband in his life. Normally, they tried to remain professional at work, but today was different. Sonny felt like he’d been socked in the stomach and he just wanted to remind himself there was something good left in the world.
Rafael obviously recognized this the second Sonny walked into the room. As Sonny approached them, Rafael reached over and twined their fingers together, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. For a second, they pretended Olivia and Amanda weren’t in the room, pretended it was just them and they weren’t in the middle of a case that was already clawing at Sonny’s heart.
“You okay?” Rafael asked, his voice gentle in the way that was reserved for people he really cared for.
“Been better,” Sonny muttered. If not for the fact Olivia and Amanda were four feet away from them, Sonny might’ve collapsed into his husband’s arms and let him hold him until he felt some semblance of better.
Rafael leaned over and pressed a kiss to his cheek, quick and gentle before turning back to Olivia and Amanda. “What do you know about the mother?”
“If you can even call her that,” Sonny interjected, venom in his voice.
“Rachel Baker, 24 years old,” Amanda started, picking up a case file laying on Olivia’s desk. “She’s been arrested a couple of times for solicitation, drug possession, and assault. She did a year bid in Attica when she was nineteen for stabbing a guy.”
Sonny furrowed his brow. “Only a year?”
“Yeah, apparently, she barely stabbed him, just enough he needed a couple of stitches. It wasn’t serious, so it was pled down. The guy she stabbed didn’t seem to be too concerned about putting her in jail, but he still pressed charges.” Amanda flipped the page and skimmed through the paper for a moment before looking back to Sonny and Rafael, fingers still locked together. “ACS has been called on her before, but I guess they dropped the ball.”
“Tell me about it,” Sonny grumbled. He looked over to Annabelle, now licking Cheeto dust of her fingers. She pulled out another Cheeto and offered it to Bee. That, and the gentle squeeze to his hand, made Sonny feel a bit better.
“They checked in a few times, and apparently everything was fine. She was working on treatment, was sober for a while, but…” Amanda trailed off and looked over at Annabelle. “Well.”
“Did ACS never notice Annabelle’s bruises? She had a broken rib at one point! I saw the bruises on her stomach and arm, that woman beat her kid for anything. For spilling fucking apple juice, I—”
“Babe,” Rafael got Sonny’s attention. Sonny didn’t realize how hard his grip on his husband’s hand had gotten, but Rafael didn’t seem to mind. Sonny was getting worked up, though, and he knew that wouldn’t help them.
Sonny lessened his grip on Rafael’s hand and let out a breath. He’d seen a lot of abused children cases, but this one was different. He’d never had an abused child clutch onto him and cry because she was afraid of him letting her go. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Olivia said, giving him a sympathetic smile. “Do we know anything about the father?”
“We need a DNA sample from Annabelle, so we can run it through CODIS. I mean, a mother like that, I bet the father’s in the system,” Amanda said, sighing and flopping the file back on the desk.
“I’ll get one when I go back in,” Sonny said, eyes still intently watching Annabelle. “Anything on the shooter?”
“Not much,” Olivia admitted, frustration adamant in her voice.
“How’d he get away, anyways?” Rafael asked. The hand that wasn’t holding his own reached out to look at the file Amanda had put down. Sometimes Sonny was surprised at how Rafael could be seemingly two different people at once. Their coworkers always noted how strange it was to see him be affectionate with his husband while maintaining his professional composure.
“He was fast, like, really fast.” Amanda leaned against Olivia’s desk, frustration clear in her face. Amanda was probably the fastest runner out of the squad, and she hadn’t been able to catch the guy. That said a lot. “And I mean, we couldn’t shoot. There were civilians everywhere, and then he ran into traffic and we lost sight of him.”
“Did you get a good description?”
“White, early to mid-thirties, wearing a beanie, dark grey jacket and black jeans—”
“Great, so every other thirty-year-old in Manhattan,” Rafael quipped, cutting Olivia off in the process. He looked over to Annabelle for a moment before looking back at Olivia. “What about her? Any known relatives? Grandparents, siblings, aunts…”
“Nothing. Rachel was put into foster-care when she was five, bounced around until she was sixteen and she ran away. She got picked up for solicitation for the first time at seventeen,” Amanda informed. “We called ACS, they should be here soon.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they did such a great job the first time,” Sonny snapped.
Olivia sighed, Amanda turned her head away from the window, and Rafael put the file down and leaned into his husband’s side.
No one had an argument for that.