This is when Rafael usually starts checking out.
But you weren't how women normally acted at this stage, hell, the two of you hadn't even made it official yet or told the squad.
You needed him, though, in ways he wasn't used to being needed, having been single for so long. You'd call him if you hadn’t seen him over at the precinct, ask him how his day went and talk about yours, and you'd get him out of the office to go to dinner at least once a week.
But you never said this, you never verbalized that you needed him there, you never nagged, never made him feel bad if his work got in the way and he had to reschedule. Maybe it's because you were busy too, or maybe you were just that understanding. Either way, he’s surprised the two of you haven’t gotten into a fight more serious than work-related spats.
Rafael had been right, as this was fun at least for now, and maybe if all you needed him for was weekend dinners and the occasional Broadway show, that’d be fine. Your sense of humor matches his, you drink scotch, you smell lovely... but you had been pulling away recently; in fact, you hadn’t called him since you went out to dinner last weekend. He tries to chalk it up to you being busy with work, but he can’t fight the anxiety that the end is already here. Why the hell did he even give this a half-assed shot? Of course you weren’t genuinely interested. Of course you’d be another tally mark, another notch in his belt- and it’s not like he was truly upset, because he had figured it would end at some point the second he agreed to take you to dinner, and thankfully, the squad didn’t know yet. Still, though, this soon? It’d barely been two months.
Or maybe your withdrawal was due to that time you were making out with him on the couch - and you’d suddenly pushed him off, went to the bathroom, and didn’t kiss him the rest of the night. He broke out an expensive bottle of wine, then, and tried his best to genuinely apologize, because he did feel awful - but you’d told him he’d done nothing wrong, and that you just needed time. But maybe you’d lied to make him feel better; maybe he had pushed you too far, which truly wasn’t his intention. Rafael may be a dick, but working sex crimes gave him a much better respect for the responsibility of a man to make sure his partner was comfortable with what was happening in the bedroom (or on the couch, or wherever). But Jesus, he’d barely touched you, and he made a point to be more careful with you than anyone he’d ever been with, not just because of your age, but because he figured that your irreparable damage had been of a sexual nature, whether it was a bad boyfriend who didn’t take your needs into consideration or something more serious due to your conversation with Olivia months prior.
With that in mind, Rafael decides it’s more probable that it is work that was causing you to distance yourself rather than anything he may have done. The cases with children were always difficult, for anyone, really, but especially you. And this man? He targeted disabled children specifically, and you weren't doing well. He wonders how he could go about asking to take you off it without you finding out and without Olivia interrogating him as to why he cared so much. It's not like you're not putting in the work; in fact, it's the opposite, if anything, you're drowning yourself in it. Every time he stops by the precinct, you barely say a hello to him, and you're buried in a case file or researching something on your laptop, biting your nails down to the quick. You were always invested in your work, but not like this, and Rafael was a workaholic if there ever was one, but even you were stressing him out right now. He has half a mind to search your purse for a new pack of cigarettes, but he doesn't think you'd take too kindly to that.
When he gets to the precinct later this morning, you’re not there, though, and he asks Carisi why reluctantly. He frowns, looking genuinely upset. “She’s not taking this too well, Barba. I know she wants to be here, but it hits home for whatever reason, and Searge made her take the rest of the day off and probably tomorrow. She was crying when she left, but she wouldn’t talk to me. I mean, whatever it is, I don’t think she should be questioning the suspect, but she’s good with the kids, you know?”
Rafael would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little worried, but he figured you’d turn up of your own accord if you needed to talk.
And later on, early in the afternoon, you do.
"Are you busy?" you ask, standing in his office doorway awkwardly.
"Always,” he says, but he takes his feet off the desk and puts down his legal pad. “What brings you out here? Carisi told me Liv sent you home.”
"I...I need to talk. I don’t want to be alone right now,” you say anxiously.
"Okay. Sit down," he says.
You oblige, sitting in the seat across from his desk, but you’re still trembling. "My brother is disabled."
It all makes sense now, why this case, in particular, was hurting you so much. God, if this case turned his stomach, what did it do to you?
“He... he was raped, too. It was my dad’s best friend... basically his brother. We used to call him uncle. He was a teacher, and he’d pick us up after school a lot and bring us back home to watch us. I...I’m older than my brother by two years, and I joined the soccer team in middle school and that man would be alone with him. I just... I... my brother couldn’t voice it, not the way you and I can. Most nine-year-olds can’t anyway, you know, but because of the disability... he had no idea. He didn’t know the words to explain what happened to him, but he would start saying he didn’t want to go home with this man. My parents both worked long hours, and they were on the outs anyway, so they just thought he missed them and didn’t look into it. They trusted that man... and I did too. Until... one day a game was canceled because of rain, and I walked in, and...”
You stop talking, silent tears falling from your eyes. Rafael gets up, coming round to the edge of the desk to stand closer to you.
“Hey. Take your time,” he whispers, leaning over and putting a hand on your shoulder. “I know this is hard.”
You nod, looking up at him. “I barely knew what sex was at that time. I didn’t really know what to call it, but I knew my brother was getting hurt, that the man was taking advantage of him, and maybe I should’ve called my mother or my father or the police, but I didn’t. I froze for a few moments and then I did the only thing that came to me and I tried to pull him off my brother. It worked, I scared him enough to make him stop but he grabbed me and...he did the same to me. I just remember it hurt so bad... like he was tearing me in half.”
Rafael shudders, but even still he’s in awe of your brazenness even at 11 years old. Just going right in and apprehending the perpetrator. You were born a detective, in a way.
You’re sobbing, now, and really, he can’t blame you. Suddenly, you get up, throwing your arms around him, and if you were ever in need of a hug, he supposes after recounting this story would be the prime time.
“Hey, hey, shhh. No one’s gonna hurt you now, (y/n),” he murmurs, running his hand over your hair. “Lo siento. Shhh. Shh.”
He calms you down a little bit, whispering condolences in Spanish and kissing the top of your head. Rafael doesn’t know exactly what to do as he’s never been good at comforting anyone. It’s something his exes would yell at him for time and time again, assuming his awkwardness meant that he didn’t care they were upset. It’s just something he wishes he could avoid, that everyone could sort out their issues alone as he did. But that was a joke, wasn’t it? Like he’d sorted anything out in these four decades of being alive. He repressed them, sure, but healed from them? No. And maybe it wasn’t fair to expect everyone to live that way.
And again, he can’t really blame you for needing someone right now, even though he sort of wished it wasn’t him (and he does feel guilty for thinking that, but it’s still true). What you’d gone through, well, it was unthinkable, and he imagines you relive it through the eyes of your brother every time you talk to one of these victims. What solace could Rafael give you right now besides, “Oh, honey, it gets better”?
Fuck that. Maybe it did get better, or you got better yourself, but none of that was going to come from Rafael trying to manifest it with his meaningless words. Rafael presumes another reason you came here besides your (ongoing?) fling was because he wasn’t an SVU detective and wasn’t going to revictimize you. So, instead, he asks what a lawyer would ask. “Did he get convicted?”
“Yeah. He did get put away,” you continue, as you pull away from him a little, still holding onto his arms. “It took me a while to come to terms with it, but I couldn’t let him continue to do that to my brother. I told my parents within the week.”
“Did your father believe you?” he asks, unsure if that was insensitive to ask.
“My father definitely didn’t want to believe it at first, but he always believed me for everything. We were always close, still are. My mother... I think she felt she failed as a mom for not noticing it, so she was in denial for a while. The detectives that dealt with it... they didn’t even look into the school, they just tried him for our case. And I always hated them for that, when I was old enough to realize.”
“Is this why you became a detective?” he asks quietly.
“Well, sort of. I wouldn’t have if I didn’t know about SVU; that’s why I have all those psychology credits too. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I always wanted to come to New York, though, and you know, I thought I’d be able to help children who went through the same thing my brother and I did. I just didn’t think it’d be this hard,” you say, looking up at him.
“Of course it’s hard. SVU is hard for me, too, and I haven’t experienced anything like that,” he says, swallowing thickly. But that was a lie, in a sense, as he'd been beaten before by the hands of his own father and watched his mother suffer as well. There was a reason he was distant during domestic violence cases. He hopes you don't notice this omission, and he looks at you sympathetically instead.
“I thought I could handle it, though, and not act like a basket case,” you say, turning away from his gaze. “How am I supposed to help anyone if I get sent home?”
“Why did Liv send you home?” he asks, again wondering if he was asking the questions you needed to answer. A good part of his job was figuring out the right questions to ask, but this was overwhelming. “Not that I don’t agree, but I’m just wondering what she said."
You roll your eyes, sniffle a little. “She said it wasn’t good for my mental health to be around the suspect and that I was going to stress out the parents. No one on that squad knows what it’s like to live with and love someone with a disability, Rafael, and I just... I want to be there. I could help, if she’d let me.”
“Now isn’t the time to beat yourself up. I think the time off will be helpful to you," he says, squeezing your shoulder again. Wasn't that the catch-22? You join these professions to help people like yourself, but you hurt yourself in the process and become of no use. He thinks back to the first domestic violence case he was put on, a family not unlike his own, and it nearly broke him down, nearly made him quit and throw away those seven years of education. But he didn't. And you wouldn't walk away either.
“How is your brother doing now?”
“Ben - his name is Ben - he’s doing better. He's very shy, and he can get anxious and have panic attacks. He has fragile X syndrome, and that’s what caused his autism... I used to try and take him out everywhere with me once I got a car, to help him get used to talking to people. It doesn’t help, you know, the way people are when they see someone disabled, and sometimes it’d be hard, but... I just want him to live as normal a life as possible. He still lives with my mom, now. I just think the assault made him so much worse. I mean, I don’t know if he’ll ever get a job, now, or... it’s just hard to think about sometimes.”
“I can only imagine,” he says softly, because he really has no idea.
“Well, I’m just gonna...I’m just gonna go home,” you say. “Thank you for listening. I needed someone to. I know it’s a lot. But I don’t want to take you away from this case either. We’re already one person down since Liv kicked me out, and if I needed you to win the last case... I absolutely need you to win this one, Rafael. I didn’t get to question that man but I was on this case before and I know he raped them, that fucking bastard—“
“Hey, hey, calm down,” he says gently. “Okay. I know. I watched Liv interrogate him earlier. I believe you, and you know I’m going to do everything I can. I'm going to charge him, and we're going to get him.” Jesus, he needs to stop promising you guilty verdicts. But how the hell could he say no when this clearly meant the world to you? This was all too much. What the hell did you need?
“Okay. I know I’m asking for a lot but I need... I need this. And I can help you however you need. Liv can’t stop me from helping you prep witnesses or—“
“Slow down, (y/n). You still need the time off. You know that, right? You’re going to keep getting kicked off cases if you keep trying to push it. I know how Olivia is when it comes to this.”
“No. We’re done talking about the case, now, okay? You need to think about something else and get your mind off it for a while. Did you want to go get coffee?”
Fucking coffee. Why did Rafael think that equaled comfort? Maybe because the harsh acidity of stale coffee was his only friend some days, and he’d learned that a good cup could be a great mood improvement. Fuck, that was sad, wasn’t it?
“No, it’s fine,” you say, your face falling. “You need to work. I’m just going to go back home, then.”
You turn to leave, grabbing your purse with shaky hands, but he stops you.
“Are you sure you should be alone right now?”
“You’re working, Rafael—“
“Yes, I know, but you’re welcome to stay here.”
You force a smile, shaking your head. “No. It’s okay. I appreciate it. Are you free later though? I know we haven’t gone out in a while, and I could use the company.”
So you didn’t want to end things. Rafael is simultaneously relieved that you wanted to stick around and terrified for the very same reason.
“You know what?” he says, feeling a brazenness he’s unsure of the origin of. “Do you want just a night in? I can give you my apartment key. If you want to go there now, you can. I’ll meet you there later. I’ll try to get out around 7.”
“You want me to just hang out in your apartment?
“Yes,” he says, kissing the top of your head and giving you the key. “I have good scotch, and I guarantee I have a better shower head installed than your apartment. Just go. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Yeah, just say my apartment's a piece of shit, Rafael," you scoff.
He smirks. "That's not what I said. It's not bad for a single woman on a detective's salary. I can tell you saved for it. But it's nowhere near the lap of luxury."
"Oh, but your place is?" you counter, hands on your hips. You're still stressed, he can tell, but maybe you needed the banter. He hopes he's not pushing it too far.
"No, I wouldn't go that far. But tell me, where would you rather spend the night?"
You roll your eyes at him, and he knows you've conceded.
"Do you have anything in your fridge?" you ask. "I could at least cook."
“Probably not. But don’t worry about it. I can pick something up on my way home.”
“No, you don’t get it, I like to cook. Sonny gave me new recipes. You have a bigger kitchen than I do..."
“Is that what would make you happy?”
“Yeah. I need to put my mind on something else right now; like you said.”
“Then... have at it. Don’t burn my place down, though.”
You roll your eyes, kiss his cheek, and leave.
He’s not used to having to take care of anyone. It's been so long since he let anyone get this close, that they felt he would take care of them. Maybe that wasn’t what you were looking for. He wasn’t your father; maybe you just wanted support from an equal. Maybe he wanted to give it. It’s foreign, the feeling of walls he’d spent so long trying to build cracking at the foundations. But hell, if anyone could... couldn’t it be you?
It’s not like Rafael was opposed to long-term, except, well, he was. He’d say there was never an opportunity, he’d tell his mother there was just no one out there. But it’s not like he tried, either.
With you, it’s not much like trying. It all just happened effortlessly, on his part, at least. You made the first move, and most of the successive ones after that. And you’d said you didn’t know what you wanted - yet it’s becoming clearer to Rafael that what you were the kind of person who needed a partner, a lover, possibly a husband. That makes him beyond uneasy. He’d grown to care about you more than he would have liked these past couple of months, but that didn’t mean he was ready for that kind of commitment, if he ever would be.
And this, now, this requires more effort on his part; it requires more of himself to be used to try and help you feel better.
When he comes home that night, the kitchen is a complete mess, with flour in every crevice, dirty pans in the sink, and grocery bags left on the table. It damn near gives him a heart attack, and maybe he would’ve yelled at you, but he swallows his anger down bitterly. You need gentleness, kindness, softness right now, and that’s a tall order for Rafael, especially when you destroy his apartment... but he couldn’t forgive himself if he hurt you when you were already down. Kitchens could be cleaned. Trust couldn’t be repaired.
It might all be worth it, though. And, as it turns out, maybe Carisi was good for something, or you were an amazing chef (perhaps both) because it might have been the best pasta he’d ever had in his life.
“So you made this? These little things?” He stabs into a couple more pillows of pasta, enjoying the fresh, springy taste.
You laugh, clear and bright. You’re a little tipsy; you’d taken full advantage of his scotch collection, but you needed to take the edge off. “They’re called gnocchi, Rafael. And yes. I made them from scratch.”
“I just might have to keep you around,” he says, smiling at you, and you giggle, kissing his open mouth.
“You better,” you say, moving to sit on his lap. He wraps his arms around your waist. “Anyone else I’ve tried to get close to... it scares them. Or they don’t comprehend how big of a deal it was. It broke me, Rafael. It broke my whole family. You might be the only man I’ve been with who’s understood the consequences that has on a person and still not look at me like it’s all that I am.”
“I know. It’s not who you are. It’s something that happened to you,” he murmurs in your ear, kissing your cheek chastely. “I would never change my opinion on you based on that.”
If anything, all your story does is cause him to have greater respect for you, not because you survived, because what other option did you have? No, it’s how selfless you are, putting your brother before yourself, choosing this career path over a million others that would have been much easier on you. Judging people based on what they had gone through is ridiculous. That tells you nothing about a person. It’s what they do in the aftermath of the things that happen to them that shows you who they are.
What was Rafael then, in the aftermath of the pain he had been caused?
He doesn’t want to think about that. Ugly things like that were better left unsaid. But eventually, he knows, you’d go there. You’d unravel the real reason why he was single, why he never asked anyone to marry him, why he was so scared to get close... but not yet. Tonight was about you.
“I need to get back out there, Rafael. I need to help those kids,” you say, your voice shaking.
“You will. You’re going to. But you need to know when to step back, (y/n). You’re going to burn out if you don’t,” he says softly.
Rafael still doesn’t feel like he’s doing enough; he feels like you need more than he’ll ever be able to give. And you’ve had to have been hurt in relationships in the past, Rafael knows how teenage boys are having been one himself. God, if he could smack his younger self in the face, he would, one thousand times over.
“I...I do agree that it wouldn’t be good for me to talk with the suspect. I’ll gladly leave that to the rest of the squad. But those kids? The parents? You know that no one is better suited for prepping them for court than me. Let me help you, then.”
“Okay,” he concedes. “But... I have conditions.”
He smirks a little, pecking your lips softly. “You’re right. No contact with the defendant. And you need to talk to Olivia first.”
“Don’t you want to get paid for this?” he says, smiling wryly. “It is work, you know.”
“You just want to make sure I’m cleared so it doesn’t come to bite you in the ass somehow.”
“Well, yes, of course. Olivia would find out that you helped. Also... you need to back away if it gets too much. I’ll send you home, too, if necessary.”
You sigh, nodding. “Fine. Agreed.”
“Okay. Now we’re done talking about it for the rest of the night.”
“Thank you, Rafael,” you say, looping your arms around his neck. “You’re a hard ass most of the time, but you really helped me today. You just see things so clearly.”
He helped you? He hoped so, that something he did got through, but he didn’t really believe anything could. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t emotionally drained, though, as he definitely wasn’t used his emotional support being needed this much.
“Listen...I’m not trying to rush anything either, but I just want you to know I’m glad I have you around,” you say softly.
“Me too,” he says, honestly, and it all feels so strange, letting someone use him to feel better. It felt good, though, to see you in a better mood, even though he doesn’t feel like he’s entirely the cause of that. Scotch certainly helps. Good food does, too. Solitary comforts, which Rafael knows too well. “Thank you for cooking.”
“You’re welcome. I should cook more often, really. Your blood pressure must be through the roof with all the takeout you eat.”
He squeezes your waist tighter, ignoring your comment, ignoring the fact that he might possibly need you too. You run your fingers through his hair, your nails scratching his scalp lightly, and you kiss him gently.
“Well, I got to clean the kitchen I destroyed,” you say.
“I’ll help,” he says, and you kiss him again. It’s gentle, too soft yet too much, and there’s something in your eyes when you pull away, something real, there, something he doesn’t quite recognize or understand at first. It aches, it pulls at heartstrings that maybe have never been touched before. It scares him, a little. What happened to you saying you didn't want to rush things?
For once, words fail him. All he can do is lean up, place his hand on the back of your neck, and kiss you again. He’s careful not to push too far, not to scare you off. You need someone willing to take his time; someone willing to give you his all. Was Rafael really that man? Was he really up for the job?
Maybe, he concedes, that was for you to decide, not himself.
You get off his lap and smile at him before starting to work on the floury mess caking his counter island.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad being needed, even if he hated the aching feeling in his chest he got when he saw you cry, hated how you still seemed like you were too much, too good for him. Part of him still hates you, what with your constantly flickering emotions and your snippy remarks that remind all too much of...himself.
But you needed him there. Who was he to refuse to oblige, even if it scared the shit out of him?
Rafael wins the case again. Maybe he should keep promising you guilty verdicts if every time he does it turns out that way. Or, more likely, promising you causes him to work ten times harder just so he doesn’t disappoint you. You did help him a lot this time, per Olivia’s gracious acceptance of your proposal to work more closely with Rafael on this case. She’d said it would be good for you, and it was. You’re not as elated as he hoped you’d be, but you’re probably sick to your stomach thinking about how those kids were going to live their lives now or if they’d get the support your own brother got. But it's certainly better than the alternative. At least that man won't see the light of day for a long while, if ever.
It’s just all very bittersweet.
The squad goes out for drinks, but they’re not rowdy like they can be. Instead, the atmosphere is sullen. This case hurt everyone differently, and everyone is wearing their pain to the bar in an attempt to drink it away. Everyone is especially generous to you - Nick and Sonny fight over covering your drinks and Olivia buys you dinner. Normally, he thinks, you would protest, but you need this right now, and you don't argue with them.
Eventually, though, being around them seems too much, and you head to sit at the bar by yourself. Amanda looks at Rafael pointedly after fifteen minutes of your absence passes. "Are you going to check on her, Barba?"
"You heard me. Can you, please?"
The atmosphere is too tense to banter, so he just nods and makes his way over to you. "How are you doing?"
"Amanda's still trying to play matchmaker?" you say, smiling, but it doesn't quite meet your eyes.
"Evidently. But, I really do want to know how you're feeling."
You shrug your shoulders, turning to face him better. "I've been better. I'm just glad it's over. I’m actually going home for a bit,” you tell him. “I have a couple of vacation days to use, so I won’t be around.”
“Okay,” he says. “I hope your brother is doing well.”
“Yeah. Me too. And you know... I’ll make it up to you. I’m sorry for the distance I put between us, you know, earlier this week? I didn’t mean to, but this case—“
“You don’t need to apologize, (y/n),” he says, giving you a tight-lipped smile.
“Oh. I mean, I did feel bad, leaving you hanging like that. I just know when I get stressed like that I’m not good company.”
“You’re always good company, cariño,” he says quietly, and you reach under the table to squeeze his hand. Rafael doesn’t quite know what you need, and this may be too much, it may draw the attention of the squad - but they aren’t paying attention. Or, fuck it, if they were. He intertwines his fingers wtih yours, squeezing back gingerly.
“Charmer,” you tease, smiling sweetly, sneaking a glance at your hands. “But... Rafi, we are dating, right?”
“Is that what you need from me?”
“I mean, I’d like that. It’s been a couple of months, and we don’t hate each other... why not? We don’t have to tell the squad yet, but I think I might mention to my parents I’m seeing someone when I go up there. Is that okay?”
“That’s...fine, (y/n),” he says cautiously, feeling slightly guilty he never broached the subject with his mother. And god, he wasn’t ready to. Wasn’t this all too much too soon? What was he going to tell you, though? No?
“You might not think so, and I know you try to hide it by being an asshole sometimes, but you are a good man, Rafael.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Yeah, you say that, but I saw you up there, saw you fight for these kids... there’s a way to be a lawyer and not care about the people you represent. But you do care. And it's admirable."
"I wouldn't be able to do my job as well if I didn't care, (y/n). I'm not a saint. Don't make me out that way. This is how I make a living. I want to succeed at it."
"Oh, honey, won't you let me just give you a compliment?" you say, and you loosen your grip on his hand to rub his shoulder gently. "Nothing good ever comes from trying to deny your humanity. And there are far easier career paths you could've chosen if that's what you wanted to do. But you're not like that."
"How would you know?" Rafael says, harsher than he meant to.
"Okay," you murmur, wincing a little. "Why are you so intent on proving me wrong? You know what? Either...stop talking or leave."
"I'm sorry," he says, and he genuinely is. The last thing he wanted to do this week was kick you when you were already down - and here he is, doing exactly that. You deserve so much better.
You smile humorlessly, shaking your head. "I thought I made myself clear. Be quiet, Rafael."
Rafael nods awkwardly and takes a long sip from his scotch. And you surprise him after a few moments, by leaning against his shoulder. "I thought you were mad--"
"Shh, Rafi. Can you please just hold me?"
"Okay," he murmurs, and he presses a chaste kiss to your temple before putting his arm around your shoulders. Under normal circumstances, he never would have agreed, but he did just snap at you and the rest of the squad was stewing in their own feelings, hopefully too busy to notice what was happening between the two of you. And even if it did draw attention - it was easily explained away as nothing more than a friend leaning on a friend. He knows eventually you'll need to tell the squad, but for now, this was already too much.
But it was what you needed. So even though Rafael is beyond unsure - he's willing to oblige for now and see where this leads.