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February 6th, 2018

Barba had programmed Olivia's home phone into his cell not because he ever used it, but because he knew that his number was listed for emergencies on her fridge for babysitters or for Noah himself and he didn't want to miss an important call because of an "unknown caller". So when "Benson - home" showed up on his call display, he couldn't NOT answer.

"Uncle Rafa? Something's wrong with my mom and I'm scared. Can you come over?"

Biting down his initial reaction, Barba did his best to keep his voice calm. "Is she hurt? Is she bleeding or anything?"

"No. No, I don't think so."

"Good. That's good, Noah. Where is she now?"

"She's in the bathroom. She said she was going to take a shower, but I could hear her crying and I think she got sick. She says she's okay but she won't let me come in."

Barba closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. "Alright, buddy. I'm already in a taxi, so I'm just going to come right to your place, okay? You hang on for one second." He covered the phone just long enough to give the driver the new address. "You don't have anything to worry about, okay? I'm on my way, and I'm going to stay on the phone with you until I get there. Why don't you tell me about school today, huh?

And while he coaxed details and stories from the boy, part of his mind was occupied with trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation. He knew he was the reason for Olivia's sadness and he felt horrible about it, but he couldn't steer clear just for his own comfort when Noah was reaching out to him.

"Noah Porter Benson! What did I say about using the phone without permission?!" Her stress made Olivia snap more harshly then she meant to and caused Noah to finally lose it, bursting into tears just as Barba used his key to open the door.

Instead of going to Olivia for comfort as he normally would, Noah ran to Barba and was lifted into his arms, his little body shaking with near-silent sobs.

For her part, Olivia felt intruded on, exposed. Her eyes and nose were red, standing out starkly against her paler than usual skin. Her wet hair was uncombed. And perhaps the worst and most revealing part was that as soon as Barba looked at her she was crying again, despite having been sure she'd gotten herself under control.

"Okay, team Benson. Let's all just take a breath here." Still holding Noah, he managed to close the door behind him and toe off his shoes. "Little man, you give your mami a hug. She didn't mean to scare you, did you, Liv?"

"Of course not. Come here, baby. I'm sorry."

Barba divested himself of his coat and scarf and led them to the couch with a guiding hand low on Olivia's back. He grabbed a box of tissues from the counter on the way by, offering them to Olivia as they sat down, taking one himself and helping Noah blow his nose after the boy crawled over and curled up in Barba's lap.

"Rafa..." Olivia began.

He took her hand and squeezed it. "I know."

Carmen had kept her ear to the ground and had texted him as soon as she'd heard rumblings that the jury already had a verdict and he'd likely be receiving a call to appear the next day.

Smart, efficient, fiercely loyal and protective Carmen. Always looking out for him. He would miss her.

The news had also made it to Olivia, which had prompted her unexpected and unwelcome panic attack that had found her hiding in the bathroom, retching and hyperventilating.

He'd just come from his mother's apartment, where he'd been fed and reassured in equal measure. She hadn't been in court for most of the day, though not of her own choice. He'd reasoned with her not to take the time off of work, saying that it would be better for her if she had something to distract her. He'd pleaded with her to stay away during his testimony, saying that he needed to focus and having her there would make it difficult. And he'd insisted that she be absent when the verdict came down, saying it was to protect her from any press response that would immediately follow no matter the results.

But she'd arrived after school just in time for the closing statements, sitting beside Olivia, stoic but supportive. And she'd demanded that he come home with her and let her make him all his favourite foods. Needing to help in a tangible way, beyond just the hope she spoke over him like unceasing prayer.

He couldn't tell if the hope was genuine or put on for his benefit. He didn't care. He loved her for trying.

But when the message had come from Carmen just before 7 p.m., any hope that managed to work its way into his own mind and heart was immediately replaced by dread, and he was compelled to seek the solitude of his own home. His mother had relented, but only because he had assured her that no matter what happened the next day, they would still have the time they needed to say what needed to be said.

That assurance was thanks to Jack McCoy, who just after the indictment had called him into his office to reveal that he'd spoken with the judge on his behalf, and that as a professional courtesy and because he was obviously not a danger to himself or others, should he be found guilty Barba would not be remanded until his sentencing hearing, instead placed under electronic monitoring so he would have some time to get his affairs in order.

This extra breathing room was a gift. Things had happened so very quickly, but rather than having to use the last few evenings to plan for an uncertain future, he could allow himself to focus on his defense. And the day before the trial had started he'd picked up Noah from his after school program and they had laughed and played and made messes and had fun. When she'd returned from work he'd taken Olivia out to eat, and had intended on enjoying her company just as long as he could stay awake, determined to make every moment count. Then Dworkin had tracked him down with some new ideas and while they did end up back at Olivia's, his lawyer had come along and they had prepped late into the night.

He'd still managed to find the time (with a lot of help from Carmen, at her insistence) even before the indictment to get some things in the works, wanting to be ready to pull the trigger if it went sour, to make sure he would have time for proper goodbyes. His bank was poised to cash out some of his investments to be put in a trust for Astonja, taking the place of his regular contributions. He'd found a storage company that seemed reputable and had sent out some quote requests to packers and movers to deal with the contents of his apartment. He'd also had Carmen speak with an estate liquidator, in case his sentence was more than a few years and it would make more sense just to sell off all his furniture rather than let it gather dust and become outdated. He was considering renting his place to cover mortgage payments while he was inside, but of course it was covering the mortgage when he was OUT and likely unemployable in any position that would allow him to be able to handle such payments that was an issue. So Carmen was tasked with getting a real estate agent engaged should he decide to sell outright.

In any case, Barba was glad beyond measure that no matter what the jury had to say the next day, this wouldn't be his last opportunity to put Noah to bed. Yet he was still feeling a sense of dread, of doom, lurking over him. So he gave in with no contest to Noah's request that rather than a story Barba lay down with him and hold him until he fell asleep.

But Barba was emotionally and physically exhausted. So it shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did when he woke up several hours later.

Removing himself from the boy's arms, Barba snuck out of the room to find a kitchen chair had been pulled into the hallway where he was sure to see it. On the chair was a towel and face cloth under a pile of his sleep clothes that Olivia had collected over the last year, with a new toothbrush sitting on top like a cherry on a sundae. The message was clear: "Stay". And in that moment he could think of no reason not to.

So after a quick shower Barba was climbing into Olivia's bed. And following a few minutes of silent consideration, he slipped an arm under her head and spooned against her back.

"I'm sorry," he whispered close to her ear when her hand came to rest over his against her stomach, fingers squeezing. Sorry he had woken her. Sorry he had caused her so much worry and pain. Sorry that he was being selfish in seeking comfort. And sorry for the tears that were slipping from his eyes despite his efforts to hold himself together.

Olivia turned over to face him and with a tender hand wiped away his tears even as a few of her own fell anew. Their limbs tangled and they held each other so tightly that at first it was hard to breathe. But it was already hard to breathe, and they both knew it would be that way until they heard what they jury had decided.

Bringing themselves under control, Barba rolled onto his back and Olivia tucked herself into his side, her head on his shoulder. They didn't speak, even though there was so much to be said. Too much. So much that the enormity of where to start and where to end was itself what rendered them silent. And they didn't sleep, not for a long time. Kept awake not by their thoughts or worries, but by not wanting to waste this time together, knowing they may not have much time left. Focusing on the skin and the warmth and the scent of the other. Her hand slipping under his t-shirt to settle over his heart, chaste but intimate.

February 7, 2018

Eventually their weariness overtook them. And they might have slept longer than they should if Noah hadn't bounded in and, delighted to see Barba there, crawled over them and inserted himself in between them before singing "Happy Birthday" to his mother at the top of his lungs. When Liv checked her phone and announced that they didn't need to be in court until 10, Noah declared that this would be the best morning ever because they would BOTH be able to take him to school. Apparently he'd recovered from the trauma of the night before.

After putting on yesterday's clothes, Barba helped Noah dress and made a simple breakfast while Olivia got ready. And when they all sat down to eat he saw that Olivia's eyes were bright with unshed tears and he had to fight to stay in the now, to be present with Noah rather than give in to the mounting emotion.

They walked Noah to school, each holding one of his hands as he skipped and sang and chattered nonstop. And when they arrived Barba knelt to retie one of Noah's shoes and found himself on the receiving end of a tight hug and a sloppy kiss and a "Love you!" and a "See you tonight!" and as he watched the boy run into his classroom it was only Olivia's strong grasp of his arm as he rose to his feet that kept him from completely falling apart.

"Don't catastrophize, Counselor," she said in a low voice. "At least not yet."

"Says the woman who panicked til she puked barely 12 hours ago."

"Be nice.  This is already a really crappy birthday."

Olivia had to go to the precinct to deal with something before court, and Barba needed to run home to shave and put on a fresh suit. But they lingered on the sidewalk, knowing it was likely the last private moment they would have together before the verdict.

"Rafa -" she began just as he said, "Liv, I-"

They smiled, and he motioned toward her to go first.

"I just wanted to say... I just wanted you to know that your friendship has been-" And then she had to stop as her voice caught.

"Didn't you JUST say we shouldn't catastrophize? Because this feels like you're ramping up for the big 'goodbye'."

"You're right. I'm sorry." She swiped at her eyes and took a deep breath. "So what were YOU going to say?"

And when he gave her his usual half-smile, she knew that he had been going to do the same thing.

"Right. Brave faces, then," she said resolutely as she flagged down a cab.

"The bravest."

But the look she gave him through the window of her cab after he shut the door behind her was all fear. And a part of him knew it was the fear that no matter what happened in court that day, things were going to change.