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Being Alive

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“I got you something,” Rafael says. You’re in his office for a lunch break, making sure he eats the salad you’d made for him. Sometimes he still hates you. When you try and shove lettuce down his throat, well, that’s one of those times. But he knows it's for his own good, like most things you do with him in mind.

“Ooh, we're doing birthday gifts already?" you ask, kissing his cheek. "I figured I'd see you later... you’re coming to the restaurant, right? I really don’t think Sonny knows what ‘surprise’ means, but hey. It’s nice of him and the squad.”

“Yes. I know all about it. He hasn’t left me alone for the past two weeks.”

“Nice to know someone cares about me,” you tease, and Rafael rolls his eyes.

“Well, anyway, I figured I'd see you at lunch today, so I brought this one thing with me. I wanted you to wear it tonight. Don't worry, cariño, you have plenty of other gifts waiting for you at my place."

"I told you not to go all out. I'm only turning 26. 35 is the next big one."

He raises an eyebrow at you. "35? I thought it was 30?”

"No. I think 30 will be just another one. Everyone makes it a big deal because it ends in a 0, but I don’t think it is. 35 is where the line is crossed. That's when you're officially middle-aged," you say, grinning a little.

"Jesus, so what am I? Ancient?"

"No. You’re still middle-aged," you giggle. "You’re getting there, though.”

“Mm. Right. Remind me why I spent money on you again?”

“Because...” you drawl, pulling him in by his tie to press your lips to his. And oh, it’s a mesmerizing kiss, like most of them are: one of your hands moves to the back of his head, pulling him in ever closer, and you’re slipping your tongue in his mouth, the acidic tinge of the vinaigrette you had been eating just the jolt he needed to get him to grasp for you. His hands slip under your shirt, earning a gasp from you, but Rafael remembers he’s in his office and the shades aren’t drawn and keeps his hands on your waist. You’re not close enough; you’re never close enough. “That’s why. Right?”

“Right. I forgot,” he snickers, pecking your lips. “Do you want your present or not?”

“Of course, honey.”

So he gets up and pulls out a jewelry box from his desk drawer, taking a deep breath, unsure of why he was so nervous. He smiles awkwardly, walking back over to the table and handing it to you.

“Open it, cariño.”

You do, your hands shaking a little as you unlatch the box, revealing a simple, delicate gold chain with an emerald pendant attached to it. You don’t say anything, your eyes watering as you look up at him.

“Do you not like it?” he asks, cursing himself. He should’ve asked you to pick something else out.

“Rafael, I can’t accept this. How much money was this? I can’t...”

“It doesn’t matter. I bought it for you, and I want you to have it. Do you like it, (y/n)?”

“I love it, Rafael, but it’s too much... I told you not to spend too much.”

Who was counting? He wasn't above sharing his wealth that he'd worked to accrue. It was nice to be able to give, sometimes, and that was the expectation, wasn't it? It was your birthday, he was your boyfriend, and he would be damned if he was outdone by anyone on the squad tonight.

"Just let me give this to you. Please," he says. "And don't cry." God, you were always crying. Too much. You were an emotional person, and internalized everything, good or bad. He'd have to talk you out of ways you put yourself down frequently, but lately he's been finding it hard to be bothered by it, because you'd smile after he smoothed out the knots in your mind, and kiss him like you meant it. "Stand up. Let me put it on."

"Okay," you whisper, nodding and getting up. "This is the nicest thing...anyone's ever bought for me. Don't think I don't want it, Rafael, I do, but it's... I was shocked at first. I don’t want to put you out.”

"Shh," he says, taking the necklace out of the box and pushing your hair aside. He kisses the back of your neck, placing the necklace on your skin and clasping the hook.

"I like the pendant," you say, fingering it between your pointer finger and thumb. "It reminds me of your eyes. Thank you so much."

"I'm glad you like it. I'm not in the habit of buying jewelry, really. I never had anyone to buy anything for, so I didn't know..."

"You have good taste," you say, turning around and smiling, but then your face falls a little. "But... Rafael... how long?"

"How long what?"

"How long did you live like that? Alone? I mean, after Yelina, did you ever get that close again?"

He sighs, leaning against the table. He doesn't want to divulge this, but at the same time he feels like he has to share. "There was a man. I was... 35,” he chuckles mirthlessly. “But we didn't work out. Guess I didn’t get the memo that that’s when I was supposed to have my shit together. And I just... I just gave up after that. I had flings, but never got that close again.”

"Honey, you know I didn’t mean it like that. I was only joking about the middle-age thing—“

Rafael waves his hand dismissively. “It’s fine, (y/n).”

“You sure?”

“Mm,” he says, putting an arm around your shoulder.

“Eight years is a long time, though.”

"It is... and if I ever seem distant, I don't mean to be. I'm just used to being alone."

"I don't want you to ever get used to that again, honey," you say, leaning against the table next to him. "You get used to me being here. Soy tuyo y... eres mio."

He kisses you then, urgently. God, you were going to start talking to him in Spanish now? Even if all you knew was elementary level, he was a goner.

He doesn't have much time to dwell on that thought, because Carisi's knocking on the door. "Sorry to interrupt, Counselor, but I need to borrow the birthday girl," he says, smiling brightly in that annoying way he always did. "We need her more than you right now.”

"What happened? I told Olivia an hour," you ask, taking Rafael's hand in your own as he pulls away from your mouth.

"Yeah, well, you know you can ask for an hour... but that doesn't mean you're gonna get it. She told me to come pick you up. We got a lead, and if you wanna get out by dinner...”

You roll your eyes at Sonny, then glance at Rafael. "Looks like I have to cut this short. Bye, honey," you say, kissing him. "Make sure you eat your salad."

"Yeah, Barba. Gotta get those greens in," Carisi chuckles as you both give him a look. "What? It's cute that you worry about his health. My ma, she's always on my father about taking his meds, and she cooks for him, makes sure he goes for walks."

"Well, I can't have Rafael dying on me," you say, putting on your coat. “I’d miss him too much.” You flash Rafael a smile, heading out with Carisi’s arm around your shoulder.

Sometimes he still feels a pang in his chest when he sees you with Carisi. Things seemed so easy between the two of you, so simple, like you’d been friends for decades as opposed to the months Carisi had been on the SVU. And Carisi was still annoying, God, the man never shut up about anything, and his off-color comments were more than eyebrow-raising at times. In some ways, Carisi was your work-husband, and Rafael supposes that’s to be expected. Partners got close, maybe even closer than some legal marriages.

Another reason why it was a sham. Right? Just because you didn’t have a ring on your finger or his last name didn’t mean you weren’t close to him.

But you could always be closer. Too close for comfort. Wake up next to him every day, brush your teeth in the bathroom next to him while he shaves, argue with him about not taking the trash out on time or something equally mundane. Sounds like hell. Sounds like monotony. Sounds like settling, maybe more on your part than his.

Because who would be able to marry you and call that settling?

Aside from the fact that marriage was always a risk for settling - because what are the odds you pick the right stranger off the streets of New York to bind yourself to for the rest of your life? Another hundred people were always getting off trains, getting on buses, leaving crowded streets to catch planes into or out of this city.

Rafael, though, he was always staying in the same place.

And, even though it may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, the fact remains that somewhere on some paper in that precinct, your name is next to Carisi’s, billing you as partners. There was no such record of you and Rafael anywhere, not even a Facebook status. And that? From a legal standpoint, if one wanted to be crude, you two were nothing more than friends who fucked. Even if you did live together (which you didn’t) common law marriage wasn’t legal in New York.

So. Legally, if you went down that convoluted path, maybe you were closer to Carisi.

Rafael isn’t sure what to think about that. He’s over the jealousy; it’s been long enough now that he trusts you not to do anything stupid, and as much as Rafael hates to admit it he believes Carisi’s too set in his morals to even look at you suggestively. But it’s still something to think about, isn’t it?

——

“You look gorgeous,” Rafael whispers in your ear, helping you zip up your dress. You did; clad in a crushed velvet emerald long-sleeve number - yet another thing Rafael shelled out money for - and there's a sense of pride in seeing it match perfectly with the necklace he'd gifted you earlier. “But I already can’t wait to bring you back here.”

“Mm, is that yet another present, honey?” you ask, pressing back against him. “You’ve really been spoiling me.”

“You’ve been a good girl. You deserve it,” he says, chuckling as you shiver.

“We’re gonna be late. Not nice to tease me,” you pout.

“I’ll make it up to you tenfold. Put your shoes on.”

The restaurant is nicer than Rafael thought the squad would pick out when they mentioned this idea to him a few weeks ago, but he has half a mind that they thought Rafael would help cover most of the bill. Which he did, as expected. Give a little, get a lot. Something like that. Like it or not, he’s dating the birthday girl, and he's expected to be more giving than usual. By you, too, of course, even if you would never voice that assumption. He couldn't very well buy himself suits that cost two grand for no reason and justify not spending the same amount or more on you on special occasions.

"Hey, happy birthday! Surprise!" Carisi says as you get to the table.

You roll your eyes at him before hugging him. "You said happy birthday to me, like, what? Twenty times today? It's not a surprise anymore. But thank you."

"Hey. Dream team. Had to do something for the best pardna in the world," he says.

"Well, damn, Barba, you got (y/n) dressing to the nines too, now," Amanda says when she sees you, smiling and squeezing your shoulder gently. "I feel underdressed now."

"Nah, you look beautiful, Amanda," you tell her, grinning back. "Blue's your color."

"Green's definitely yours."

This is the first time the whole squad has gone out with Rafael present since they found out for certain that the two of you were dating, and Rafael isn't quite sure what to make of the atmosphere. He still feels excluded as the only lawyer present at a table full of detectives, and he thought maybe a known tie to you would change that, but it doesn't, not much. Everyone falls into telling stories, and tonight they mostly concern you - but Rafael has none he wants to share even if maybe you expect him to contribute to the conversation.

What could he say that they didn't already know?

Besides, what the hell did they think about him? He can only imagine what went through their heads once it was confirmed that he was dating you.

Isn't he a little bit, well... too much of a smartass? Tacky, in the sense that he's still that same kid from the barrio trying to fit in with the upper-class of New York with expensive suits and a brass ego? Old? Short? Aggressive (maybe more so passively)? Neurotic? Peculiar? Depressing?

God, he's practically old enough to be your father.

Everyone was always trying to set you up with someone before they knew you weren't single, whether it be Sonny with his Fordham buddies or Amanda with her men from god-knows-where or even Olivia one time with a sergeant from a different department. Maybe it's because you’re beautiful, and beautiful people don’t stay single for long (unless, perhaps, if they were surly and standoffish, which you weren’t in the slightest). You’re a charmer, even if you don’t necessarily mean to be. A flirt without quite realizing it, without being too much of a threat. Pleasant to be around. Easy to like. A little shy, a little rough around the edges, a little stoic at first, sure, but that was easily overlooked and if someone put in the time, you were an open book.

It was easy to pity you. Maybe that shouldn't be how he sees you, but sometimes he just can’t help but feel so damn bad given everything that's happened to you. And he knows that's how the squad feels too. Sure, you could handle yourself on your own, but no one wanted to let you. It's in Olivia's eyes when she looks at you sympathetically, it's in Amanda's hand when she squeezes your shoulder, it's in Carisi's insistence on putting himself in harms' way so you wouldn't ever have to take the fall: Poor baby. We're the only tenderness you've ever known.

And maybe that's true, maybe this squad was the only kind of lasting kindness you'd ever been shown. You don't talk much about your past, and that's fair, because Rafael doesn't think there's much that would be pleasant to recount. After the rape, middle school was difficult for you, as was to be expected, and you didn't have many friends that stuck around. He’s never heard you say a word about high school, and sure, college was probably a lot better than the hell you’d been through before, but you had no one you kept in contact with from there, not even the woman you mentioned sleeping with before. Maybe life hasn’t handed you all the wrong cards: you’re gorgeous, you’re intelligent, you’re great at your job.

But in the interpersonal sphere, you’re lacking, maybe as sorely as Rafael, and that’s something he never quite thought about until now. You didn’t wear it like he did though, and you still had hope, somehow, whereas Rafael’s supplies of optimism had been used up over the years. Maybe one day you’d run out, too.

Leave it to Rafael to bring the melancholy to a birthday party.

But you wouldn’t bring the squad home; you couldn't. On the nights you didn’t spend at Rafael’s or the nights he didn’t spend at your apartment, you were as alone as he was. He wonders, did you sit there and stare at the walls, struggle to sleep without him by your side... or did you not care?

“Honey, I was talking about you,” you say, giggling a little, and he feels your hand on his shoulder bring him back to the present. “You've been out of it, tonight, huh? Anyway, I was going to ask if you'd tell them about your theatre productions—“

"Oh, Jesus, (y/n), why the hell are you going to bring that shit up?" he asks, feeling a slight blush creep up his neck. "I told you about that in confidence."

"Oh, come on. It's cute.”

“Yeah, come on, Barba. She’s the birthday girl. You gotta do what she says,” Carisi chimes in.

Rafael glares at him and sighs. "Fine."

"Floor is yours, Counselor," Amanda says, winking. "Maybe you can sing for us, too."

"Fine. I was in theatre in middle and high school. Happy?" he snaps. He knows he shouldn't be so mean, and this was trivial, but he could do without the little jabs from the squad and your puppy-dog eyes.

"Why do you have to be like that, Rafi?" you ask. "Come on. Tell them the production in eighth grade."

“This really means that much to you?"

"Will you just tell the story?" you ask. "No one will make fun of you, honey. I won't let them."

"Mm. Right. Well, my school couldn't get the licensing rights to anything actually good that year for the Christmas musical... so we did A Christmas Peter Pan. It was about as awful as you think it would be."

“What part did you play?” Olivia asks. Of course she’s the only one at the table who’s not tittering with laughter.

“I didn’t try out soon enough, and they didn’t have any parts left... so I played the crocodile.”

Amanda damn near spits out her drink, and Rafael rolls his eyes as Carisi laughs heartedly and Fin and Nick try and fail to not crack teasing smiles.

“I just really can’t picture that, Barba. Damn,” Carisi says after he calms down. “How bad was the costume?”

“What do you think a middle school theatre department could put together?” Rafael asks, narrowing his eyes. “Anyway. I didn’t have any lines, at least.”

“No, but you had three scary entrances,” you tease, grinning brightly and squeezing his shoulder. “Hey. It was your debut. I can’t wait until I get your mother to show me pictures—“

“Send them to me,” Amanda says. “I’m begging you.”

“I’m going to get my mother to burn that scrapbook before you’re ever in its vicinity,” Rafael mutters, chuckling.

“Aw, come on, honey, don’t be like that. You know I’d never let Amanda see them. Sonny, maybe—“

“Hey!” Amanda interjects while Rafael shoots you a withering look.

“No, I wouldn’t let him see them either. Some things are actually meant to be shared in confidence,” you laugh. “But anyway, Rafael went on to bigger and better things. He played Kenickie in Grease sophomore year, right? And you got the lead senior year?”

“Mm. Nathan Detroit. Guys and Dolls.”

“I have no idea what that is,” Carisi says.

“Of course you don’t,” Rafael retorts.

“It was a big part. He says his mother has a tape of that somewhere—“

“Are you trying to kill me, (y/n)?” Amanda asks exasperatedly. “The knowledge that that’s on film and I’ll never see it?”

“Mm. Deal with it. That’s not the one you wanna make fun of though,” you say. “Rafael can sing. He never will in front of you guys now, but he can.”

Right. Little things he’d shared with you, maybe without even meaning to, and now you could list them off as nonchalantly as if you were talking about yourself. Did any of his ex-lovers ever bother to learn all his amateur theatre roles front to back?

Thankfully, the waitress brings the cake over after a few minutes, saving him from more humiliation, and everyone, even Rafael, obliges and sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to you before you blow out the candles.

“Well, our blessings, (y/n),” Olivia says, grinning.

“Don’t tell your wish or it won’t come true,” Fin chuckles.

“Actually... I didn’t wish for anything,” you say, shrugging.

“What do you mean, you didn’t wish for anything?” Carisi asks.

“Tell, but lie,” Nick says.

“Nah. I’ve got everything I want. Thank you for including me in your thoughts, your lives—“

“Aww. Stay exactly as you are, (y/n),” Carisi says, reaching over to squeeze your hand. “What a sweetheart, huh, Barba?”

“Everyone adores you, (y/n),” Amanda laughs. “What an awful thing.”

Yeah. Everyone did adore you - but you weren’t an unshakable tenant in anyone’s life.

And, come to think of it, neither was Rafael. Rafael was always confused as to why the hell you even approached him all those months ago, flirted with him, got him to buy you dinner... but fuck, it was clear now. You were alone, grasping at straws just like he was. A couple months in the city you dreamed of living in since you were a child provided you with nothing more than acquaintances you worked and occasionally got drunk with, and maybe it was human nature to want more than that.

Yet here you were insisting that you didn’t wish for anything. What the hell? Didn't you want more than what Rafael was giving you? Shouldn't you?

Fuck if he knows. He's not even sure what he wants anymore, never mind what you want.

——

Rafael has never been above sharing his body for someone else’s pleasure. It felt good to give in this regard, and fuck it, if anyone deserved to have a good, healthy sex life it was you.

It had been a long road to get you comfortable - yes, the first time you had sex with him you were more than a willing participant - but he’d notice sometimes when he initiated things, you would space out and become unresponsive. That was absolutely not going to work for him. He’s been prosecuting sex crimes long enough for that to turn his stomach in the worst way. The last thing he’d want is to take advantage of someone who was lying underneath him just because they thought it would appease him, not because they genuinely wanted to be there.

You got mad at him the first time he brought it up; said he was reading too much into things - but eventually you came around and admitted what had made you uncomfortable, what had turned you off, what had made you freeze, and what it came down to was years of trauma that no one had bothered to work through, not even yourself. What started with the rape went on to college boys who wouldn’t keep their hands to themselves and tried to pressure you when you weren’t ready - and you’d never quite learned to say no. You said you didn’t want to share this, didn’t want him to think you were some perpetual victim or that you didn’t enjoy sex - because you had had positive sexual experiences aside from Rafael, obviously - but sometimes all it took was a touch in the wrong place and you shut down. You still had issues here and there, but at least you’d actually fucking talk to him now, which was progress. He would’ve thought for an SVU detective with a psychology degree this wouldn’t be an issue, but maybe it’s how it goes - you put all your energy out there for the victims and you never learn how to unlearn your own toxic thought cycles and behaviors.

Also, Rafael learned, through trial and error, that you liked to be praised. Maybe it was after years of being ashamed of your body and sex, after years of feeling like you were inexperienced because you never met anyone worth having experiences with... but it was almost like you got off on it and Rafael wouldn’t really mind if that was the case. You are a good girl - his good girl - especially now, as he’s sitting at his desk chair in his apartment and you’re riding his thigh, your dress ridden up to your waist. Your lips are kiss-bruised and you’re so wet he can feel you seep through your panties to his dress pants.

Fuck it if you ruined them. Fuck it if you ruined him.

“Yes, good girl, you gonna get off on my thigh, (y/n)?” he asks, his voice low in your ear.

“I don’t know if I can,” you laugh. “Might need some assistance.”

“No, I think you can. Want you to try it. You think you’re close, mi buena chica?”

“Mm, don’t know. I didn’t think I was gonna have to work this hard on my birthday,” you say, leaning down to kiss his mouth. “Don’t you think those hands could be of good use somewhere?”

“Maybe. Where do you want them?"

"Mm, fucking everywhere," you drawl.

For Rafael, sex was always just fun. Usually, it was better if he knew the person at least a little, but after Yelina, he didn't care as much and was a little more of a libertine. Sex with you, though; it's different - it's a conversation - maybe like it's supposed to be, sharing what you can't or what you won't say with words.

Maybe he should feel more flattered, because you were sharing a lot, too.

Rafael gives you what you want, though, cupping your breasts as he kisses you, murmuring words of encouragement in your ear in between - "Yes, just like that, you can do it, come for me, such a good girl, come on, cariño" - and when you do finally fall apart, he peppers your face with kisses. "See? I told you."

"Mm. Sometimes you're right," you giggle, kissing the side of his mouth. "But I'm not working that hard for the next orgasm."

"Fair enough," he chuckles.

And you don't; Rafael brings you over the edge with his tongue and fingers, but you've barely come down from your high before he's on his back, at your mercy instead.

"What are you doing? Didn't think you wanted to work for it anymore," he teases as you press kisses on his chest.

"Nah, you're gonna fuck me, hombre, but I want to do something for you first," you purr, trailing down lower, lower, lower...

"It's your birthday--"

"Mm. Yeah. But now I just guaranteed that you have to go down on me on yours," you giggle. "No. We're not counting favors here, right? Just let me."

And you're so good. You always are, but every time just seems to get better as you learn more of what he likes, what gets him off. He wonders vaguely if he you feel that way too, but he doesn't have much time to dwell on that as your lips wrap around his cock. "Fuck, so good, (y/n)," he hisses. If he wasn't almost painfully hard before he definitely is now. "That's it, oh fuck."

One of your hands comes to cup his balls gently as your tongue and lips work his cock and it's hard to remember that you were ever tentative giving him a blowjob before. Maybe that's the thing about sex; everyone thinks they need experience to be a good lover, but maybe they don't. Maybe they just need to listen to their partner. Rafael's slept with people who have slept with countless numbers of people but no one's ever learned his body like you, and your count was much lower. Granted, Rafael never quite allowed himself this type of vulnerability with anyone else in recent history, either, but it was only fair that if some of your walls came down some of his did as well.

Still, he has to make sure you know that by gasping out praise and encouragement, tangling his hands in your hair, being careful not to pull too harshly. "Fuck, so good at that, sucking my cock so good, se buena, mm, fuck."

Eventually, though, Rafael can feel that he's dangering the brink and has to stop you. Switching positions again - you're on your back for him now - and he's lining up his cock with your pussy, making sure you're still good. With your consent, he enters you, groaning softly at finally feeling you wet and warm around his cock.

"God, you're fucking gorgeous, you know that?" he grunts as he starts fucking in and out of you, slowly at first.

"I'd hope you think so," you say.

"Think - no. You are. Fucking gorgeous."

Your cheeks flush a little and he can't believe you still get flustered when he tells you that. But you are a vision - hair splayed on his pillow, your breasts heaving in tandem with your breath, your skin shining with a slight sheen of perspiration. Yeah. Fucking gorgeous.

And, oh fuck, now you're clawing at his back, scratching with your nails. A shiver runs down his spine as he fucks into you harder, "That good?"

"Fuck, yeah, Rafael, fuck me," you whine and he leans down to press a searing kiss to your mouth.

"Mm, so pretty, taking my cock so well, cosita bonita, so good for me," he rasps in your ear.

You're meeting him thrust for thrust; the only sounds Rafael can hear is the slap of skin on skin and his heart pounding in his ears as he kisses up and down your neck. "Mm, Rafael, feels so good," you purr, and yeah, now he can see why you get off on those simple words of encouragement.

It's not long before the two of you reach your highs and come down, a panting, tangled mess twisted up in his bedsheets. "Mm. Feliz cumpleaños, cariño."

"Yeah, happy birthday to me," you laugh, leaning over to snuggle against his chest. "Fuck, I'm exhausted now."

"Thought I was supposed to be the old one."

"Like you could go for another round right now."

"Try me, mujer," he chuckles. "Shower?"

"In a minute," you giggle. "Let my heart rate come down a little."

The two of you lay there in silence, your breathing rates settling while Rafael's mind sets off to the races again. You were right, earlier, eight years was a fucking long time and it didn't get any easier to be alone.

It doesn’t get any easier to be with someone, either, though, like when you wake him up too early in the morning and ruin his precious sleep, or when you make snide remarks that ruin his day and bruise his ego or, worst of all, as always: when you see right through him, like the front he puts up just doesn’t exist.

Maybe, though, maybe he’s a masochist because god forbid you leave. Here he was, carving out hours of his precious time; time he used to tell his mother he never had to spare, and sharing it with you. And you wanted him to.

Rafael doesn't know what the hell to make of that.