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Being Alive

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Rafael hated this case. He wanted it to go the hell away.

First, the political tinge, as the man had connections what with a better-off sister. Then, it turned out he had a history with young girls in the middle school classes he taught. It shouldn't be too difficult to get a conviction, but it was going to take a toll on him.

He needed to talk to Liv about something, but you were in her office, the door open a crack. She had picked you up, a fresh face from Boston’s homicide department. You were barely 25, still optimistic, but you were stoic, reserved, quiet, beautiful (although he'd try to ignore that and ultimately failed). You’d been here a couple of months, hadn’t talked to him too much, save for the snarky comments you’d exchange when he was being a dick. There was one time, however, when he saw you talking to a victim, trying to help her be able to go on the stand, and you were able to talk her down from hysterics when no one else could. That was as close to a rapport as you’d gotten since he asked you why you didn’t choose to be a psychiatrist instead. You'd laughed, said you double-majored in college - criminal justice and psychology - but you never quite knew what to do with the psychology major.

“You thought I was good with her, Counselor?” you’d asked.

“Good? That was great. You saved my whole case. If she didn’t testify, her rapist would walk.”

You had shrugged, given him a tight-lipped smile. “I don’t know. I just thought this would be a better way for me to help.”

Since then, things had been smoother between you two, and you’d talk to him, exchange niceties when he came in the office, talk about Boston, but you weren't friendly, per se.

He didn’t mean to stay and listen to your conversation with Olivia, now, but you kept talking, not knowing he was there what with your back turned. "You don't need to take me off the case!" He'd never heard you so riled up, so upset.

"Detective (L/N)... If you don't think this is good for your mental health, I want you to step back. You haven't been doing well since we got her confession."

"This is why I wanted to join this squad, Sergeant. To help people. I can't do that if you sideline me every time there's a case that might be similar to my own. What you don't get... they're all similar to what happened to me. Are you going to take me off all of them? It's always about control."

He hears Liv sigh, and she says, "I know. I do get it." She makes eye contact with him then, and he coughs, knocking on the door.

"Do you have a second?"

"Yeah. She's all yours," you say, standing up abruptly, quickly walking past him. "I was just leaving."

Rafael looks at Olivia knowingly. "How much of that did you hear?" she asks once you're out of earshot.

"Enough," he says. "I wouldn't let her question the suspect."

Olivia leans back in the chair. "I can't do that. She's the newest addition to the team. If I keep the training wheels on too long, she's going to resent me."

"She can't be leading him to confess, or..."

"I don't see that in her. You know her style." He did, when he was witness to it. It was interesting. You were better at getting the full stories from victims and witnesses, as you really played on the empathy and fear card. He realized now you empathized with it more than he thought, and that you weren't just playing it up to get facts. When you tried to get perpetrator confessions, though, you empathized with them, too, but you never did lead them on. You got them to give you the truth, inch by inch.

“Well, don’t let her go rogue. I can’t have anything she does possibly come up in court.”

That was all he was ever worried about, wasn’t it?

-------

Rafael is startled to see you pacing outside the precinct, a cigarette in your hand. You smoked? Of all people? He has half the sense to knock it out of your hand. He comes up to you instead, looking at you cautiously. "Detective (L/N)? Are you doing okay?"

You laugh sarcastically, bringing the cigarette up to your lips and taking a drag, blowing the smoke out of the corner of your mouth, directing it away from him. "What do you think? You heard my conversation with Searge."

"I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"You want me off the case, too? Am I going to mess up your confession?”

"No. I just want you to be careful," he says, stepping a little closer. He takes the cigarette out of your hand and throws it in the ashtray you were standing near. "Awful habit. You should stop."

"I only smoke when I'm stressed. I should've thrown these out. They're bad. They're from... God, these are Massachusetts cigarettes," you say, laughing despite feeling miserable.

He chuckles, too. “Well, make me a promise. You don’t buy any cigarettes in New York.”

“I don’t know if I can keep my end of the bargain up on that one, Counselor. Searge was right. It is getting to me,” you say, sighing, then look up quickly. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

“No one is going to judge you if you need to step off the case,” he says.

“You ever have to?”

“Yes,” he says but doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t need to. This isn’t about him. “And I will again. We all have breaking points.”

“Well. I’ve met mine enough to know this isn’t it. I just want him in jail,” you say, anger setting in your tone.

“What do you need?” Rafael asks you, quietly, after letting you settle with your thoughts for a few minutes. “I can tell Olivia you need—“

“I need you to put him away. I’m counting on you,” you cut him off, staring at him with a fire in your eyes he didn’t know you had in you.

Rafael nods gravely. “You know I’m going to do everything in my power.”

You’re looping your arms around him, and he realizes you’re...hugging him. Holding him too close. He doesn’t hate this, he doesn’t hate you, but he hates what it means. When’s the last time a woman hugged him aside from his mom, or maybe Olivia? Of course you're a hugger, though, it made sense. You're a bleeding heart if there ever was one.

“You always do,” you tell him, and he feels a sense of warmth at the recognition. “You’re an excellent A.D.A.”

“Thank you,” he says. “I knew that already, but it’s nice hearing it.”

You laugh, and he can tell you need it. “Yeah. I was thinking I didn’t have to tell you. But you win this one for me, okay?”

“Of course,” he says, hoping he has a good jury, looking at you cautiously. "You okay to go back in there?"

"Yeah. I will in a few minutes."

"No...Since I took your cigarette, let me buy you a coffee," he offers.

You smile. "I don't think either of us need any more caffeine today, Counselor. I'll let you buy me a tea, though."

Rafael did feel bad for you; he'd seen it before, young detectives getting in over their head. You weren't like the others, headed for a burnout, although you could be, if you weren't careful. You did your due diligence, worked hard, asked the right questions. For whatever reason, you had wanted this job and fought like hell to get it, and that, well that, he could respect. He just hoped you didn't drive yourself to the ground.

----

Rafael lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Guilty. On all counts. Usually, juries would throw out one of the random ones he'd try and slip in there to extend jail time, but not today. He'd truly won. And thank God, too. He didn't think he could bear walking up to you with his tail between his legs after promising you he'd win.

"Thanks for keeping your promise, Counselor," you say, hugging him lightly as he meets the squad outside the courthouse. Evidently, it was still too close, since Rollins mutters, "Down girl. Give the man some space."

You're blushing as you pull away. "Sorry. This one just meant a lot to me."

"I know," he says, maintaining eye contact with you a beat too long, your blush deepening. "Jury was good."

"Yeah. So were you," you say, grinning. "Closing statement? Jury would have to be a bunch of sociopaths to not convict."

"Don't feed his ego," Olivia laughs. "He doesn't need it."

"Nice to hear praise from my adoring fanclub, sometimes," he says, smirking, turning his gaze from Olivia to you again.

"Pretty sure that's just (y/n)," Rollins snickers. “She talks about you all the time.”

Wait... it couldn’t be. No. Amanda was just a snarker, liked to make people uncomfortable to take the edge off herself.

"Shut up, Amanda," you chide, glaring at her before turning back to him. "Thank you, Barba."

"Just doing my job, Detective," he says, but it didn't quite feel like that was all he was doing anymore. You’d said to win...for you. And what with Amanda’s comments, he couldn’t help but wonder if there was something more to that.

But no.

You were too young for him, too pretty, too kind. You wouldn’t want an old man like himself, and that ship had sailed long ago, anyway, because Rafael had ultimately given up on that part of his life. Dating was just something that never worked out for him, as evidenced by his long list of ex-lovers and the even longer list of reasons why they didn’t stay together.

It didn’t matter, anyway. You didn’t see anything in him. he’d seen you hug Amanda, rub her shoulders, even braid her hair. Evidently you’d gotten comfortable enough with him to do the same, to hold him what could be perceived as too close because he was a man and the A.D.A. and not a woman or your partner. That was all it was, that was all it could be.

But that glint in your eye? The way you were still blushing?

He’s a damn fool for even thinking about it and he's an even stupider man for asking you if you wanted to get a coffee as the rest of the squad trickles forward down the courthouse steps, leaving the two of you behind. But you agree, again, as a surprise to him. God, it's been so long since he's done this, it's so hard to read any signals. And even if there were any, what could he do with them? He couldn't just sleep with you - that's the way messes within a workplace started - and anyway, Rafael didn't do hookups anymore. He was far too old for that, but he was also far too old to be thinking about starting anything serious with a 25-year-old. No, you would just be friends. Friends went out for coffee, even if he thought you were the most beautiful woman he'd met in quite a long time.

You're exchanging a look with Amanda, who laughs and rolls her eyes, and again, he wonders again if there's something more to the banter both of you engage in or if you're making fun of him the way the girls used to in high school because he thought he had a chance with one who was far out of his league.

You order a coffee this time - iced, with far too much cream and sugar. "Why don't you just order milk next time?" he teases, covering the bill despite your protest that you could pay for your own drink.

"I don't know how you can drink it black. You ever have coffee milk?"

"No," he says. "Is that it?"

"You went to school in Massachusetts for three years and never had coffee milk?" you ask, sipping at your coffee, chewing a little on the straw before your lips purse around it again. Well, that wasn't distracting...at all.

"No. Enlighten me in how it's different from what you just ordered."

You roll your eyes, but you tell him, and the conversation flows easily as you talk about Massachusetts again. Again, you don't tell him much in the way of personal details, you mostly talk about places and ask him if he's been there (most of the time he has no idea what you're talking about, and he'll tell you he went there to study, not sightsee).

"Thanks for the coffee, Barba," you tell him, smiling. "But I should probably head back to the precinct and make sure Amanda took care of the paperwork."

"No problem, Detective," he says, smiling back.

As you head out the door, you reach for his hand, squeezing it gently before letting go. He could probably never get used to you being this close, the scent of your lilac perfume enveloping him. "I just wanna thank you again."

"You don't have to, Detective."

"No, you don't get it. Cases like this, cases that affect children... this is why I chose SVU. I need to see cases like that through and I need to know I did my job so you can do yours. All the cases matter, but these... I'll tell you why someday. But not today," you say, your lips turned down in a slight frown.

"You did an excellent job," he assures you, smiling in a way he hopes is reassuring.

You smile back, and that strawberry lipstick-stained mouth is guaranteed to haunt his dreams tonight. You hug him again, more awkwardly this time, and say, "Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow. Have a good one, Barba."

And you're gone, heading for your car, leaving the faint notes of your perfume in the air and on his suit jacket. He wants to wash it off, but he also wants it to bleed into the fabric so it never leaves. This was the opposite of a sure thing, the opposite of a thing to bet on.

So he swallows down his resignation to his solitude with a swig of coffee, needing the bitterness to assuage him that that was all his life would ever be. Because that's how it always was, wasn't it?

Chapter Text

Rafael doesn’t like arguing with detectives, contrary to popular belief of the NYPD. Sure, he'd push detectives' buttons, come up with sarcastic remarks to everyone at some point, but he didn't like being malicious.

Sometimes, though, he had to lay down the law, even if he had headaches for hours afterward - especially with the new detective, Carisi, who never shut up about anything and thought Rafael was getting paid not only to be the ADA but also to be his personal law school tutor.

But you weren’t annoying like Carisi, at least not entirely. No, instead of talking his ear off and giving him awful legal insights, you would try and pull on heartstrings and plead with him. Didn’t you know that didn’t work on him? He has a job to do and your puppy dog eyes aren’t getting in the way of that. You were usually smarter than the way you’re acting right now, though, because usually you’d at least try and play up what evidence you did have and slip in some other information he hadn’t been privy to prior. But it’s clear you don’t have anything right now, and he holds all the cards.

He misses Olivia, not for the first time during this conversation. She would have the sense to stop arguing with him by now. Why did she have to constantly send her lackeys down here? Usually, it was Amanda, and Amanda, he could handle, although recently she’d ask about you in a way that makes him think again, there’s something more going on that he’s not being told.

But oh. You’re still standing in front of his desk talking about the godforsaken case. Forget the ibuprofen. He needs morphine today.

"I can't charge him,” he says again, tiredly. “Go do your job.”

"Why don’t you do yours? You’re telling me you can't charge him?" you ask, defiant, your hands on your hips. "Or is it that you won't charge him, Barba?”

"Get me more evidence and I'll think about it."

"Evidence? The victim--"

"Yes, the victim is going to give his testimony, lovely. We get that in most rape accusations, and I need something more and you know that. Don't play stupid with me, Detective."

"Don't be such a dick, Barba," you seethe. "There were witnesses. They saw him leave."

"Get out."

"Excuse me?"

"You're going to come in my office insulting me? I'm not going to treat you with kid gloves just because the last case was hard on you. You know the rules. You get evidence, I charge if you get enough. If. Not just because you question a few people. You have no DNA. Nothing. Get out and go do your job."

You walk up until his desk is touching the top of your thighs, leaning over. "You want insults? You're goddamn insufferable and arrogant and it's no wonder why you're in your 40s and unmarried. No woman wants anything to do with that," you hiss.

Something possesses him to pull his chair in, his breath fanning your face. Maybe it was to show you he had the upper hand because you clearly don't get that he doesn't work for you. If anything, you work for him. "Get the hell out of my office, Detective. Now," he says sternly.

Your eyes narrow at him, but mercifully, you do turn around and leave, not bothering to say anything else, at least having the decency to not slam the door behind you.

Rafael sighs, leaning back in his chair. But what if you were right, and that was why he was alone? He doesn't know why he cares this much about what you thought of him, but he does, and what you'd said cut. You just had to go right for the jugular, didn't you? So much for even being friends with you.

Jesus, he was a fucking idiot. You'd thought he was an asshole like every other detective on the SVU, except maybe Liv. And maybe you had good reasons.

------

The next few times he's at the precinct, it's awkward between the two of you. He knows one of you will have to say something, but he'll be damned if it's him. His pride is still wounded.

But... one time, a week and a half later, you're outside smoking again. And he can't help himself.

"I thought you weren't going to buy cigarettes in New York," he says, a smirk playing on his lips.

You roll your eyes. "These are still the bad ones."

"Give me the pack," he says.

"What? No."

"You can't smoke them if you don't have them. Give it to me."

You sigh, shoving an opened and tattered box of orange American Spirits into his hand. "Happy?"

"Sure.”

You look at him, throwing the cigarette into the ashtray and pressing it out before saying, "You know... I'm sorry, okay? I was out of line."

"Yeah... just don't come in my office like a bat out of hell and berate me again?"

"I won't. I... the last case was getting to me. I know you won, and I'm not trying to make excuses, but that's where my head was still at. I'm back in the game now. I knew the first case like that... I knew it was going to be rough."

Rafael squeezes your shoulder gently. "You did well on that case though."

"I know. I just never feel like I do enough."

"You do. Although maybe not on this case,” he teases, needing to get his edge in where he could.

You roll your eyes. “You want me to apologize again? Did I really wound you that deeply? I would think you’ve heard worse.”

"Well... maybe I have, Detective. But... Do you think that?"

"Do I think what, counselor?” you ask coyly.

"That I'm insufferable and arrogant."

“Wow, I really did strike a nerve, huh?” you taunt, smiling a little too brightly. "Sorry, Barba. I just--"

“Just answer me,” he says, trying not to let his exasperation bleed through his tone too much. God, you wound him up in the worst way.

"Well... that was a two truths and a lie game, Counselor. Because... well, as the evidence clearly suggests, you are insufferable and arrogant... but the jury's still out on why you remain single." There's a lilt in your voice as you speak, but he can tell you're nervous now from the way you fidget with your watch.

"I thought it was because of my lack of redeemable qualities and abundance of irredeemable ones."

"Well..." you drawl again, blushing slightly. "It is true, you possess a great deal of negative character traits... and it’d take a hell of a woman to sort through them all to find a positive one... but I might’ve been able to do it.”

He laughs, the smile meeting his eyes. You laugh, too, unable to keep a straight face. “So what you’d find?”

“You’re passionate about your work. You’re well-dressed. And...you’re so generous to take me out to dinner tonight. Or the next night you’re free.”

“Did you just...ask me out, detective?”

“Yeah. Take it or leave it, counselor. Deal’s going off the table in five, four, three—“

“But why?”

“I just laid out some damning evidence. I think you can make your case this time, Barba."

“Fine. 8:30. Tonight. I’ll pick you up here.” He thinks about what just happened in the past five minutes and he thinks he has whiplash. He’d gone from his blood boiling at the sight of you to...having a date?

“Here?”

“Do you have any better suggestions?”

“Down the street,” you laugh. “I don’t want SVU to see. You know, in case...”

“Agreed,” he says. He didn’t want a lecture from Olivia yet on how you were too young or damaged. He knows. But you still played him like a fiddle.

He hates you for it. He really does. He resents you.

But you’re weaseling your way in nonetheless.

“Really, though, all that you could come up with for something nice to say is that I like my job and I wear nice clothes?” he asks.

“And that you’re generous! Maybe if you play your cards right at dinner you can prove that you have some more redeeming traits,” you say, then lean in to whisper in his ear. “Besides, have you seen your ass in those dress pants? You have a good tailor, Rafael.”

“I think you’ve got it wrong. I believe you’re the insufferable one, Detective,” he says, clearing his throat, and you smile brightly as you walk back to your building.

He should hate you. Part of him does. Part of him wants to complain to Olivia that you’re being inappropriate and, well, insufferable. He could get you in a lot of trouble. End this, right here, right now, and he’d hurt you more than you had ever hurt him. You'd never speak to him again. Maybe you'd get moved to a different SVU, even.

But where’s the fun in that?

He’s met plenty detectives and none of them have gotten under his skin quite as you have. None of their insults have hurt so deep - and he’d been called arrogant, smarmy, dickhead, bastard, the list goes on. But coming from you, from your pretty strawberry-lipstick-stained mouth — it cut. He never really believed he was any of those things, (except maybe arrogant, although that was mostly a front).

And now you're making him pay for dinner? Who the hell do you think you are? Do you think he's just going to forget everything you'd said because you flirt with him?

He hates you.

Chapter Text

But he doesn’t hate you enough to take you to a shitty, cheap restaurant, no, he takes you to one of his favorite Cuban joints a few blocks away. He doesn’t hate you enough to tell you to move out of the seat he wanted to sit in (he always sat facing away from the crowd, but you’d made a beeline for that seat when you first got there). He doesn’t even hate you enough to make you pay for dinner, or even split the bill with him, despite your protests and insistence that you were only joking before.

Dinner isn’t awkward, per se, and as far as first dates go this one is going alright, he thinks. First dates were usually easy, though, as they didn’t reek of forced commitment and the staleness of knowing a person too well. You flirt with him a lot, and maybe he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was, considering what you had the boldness to say outside the precinct hours earlier. Still, what the hell did you see in him, a man much older than yourself? Maybe you had issues too.

He can’t deny it, though, you’re absolutely beautiful, especially now, your cheeks flushed from the wine and conversation, and a seemingly permanent smile on your lips as you talk. Vaguely, he wonders if he ever gave you signs that he was interested, because lord knows he tried not to. Something had to have given you the nerve to shoot your shot, though, especially after what you’d said to him. You probably knew you were gorgeous, knew if you turned up the charm you could at the very least get a free dinner out of him.

But is that all you wanted? What did you want from him? What the hell else could he even offer?

“You know, I really do want to apologize for what I said, again,” you say after your plates are cleared. “I really don’t know why I went there. I mean, that’s not like me. I do like you, you know? You can be a hardass sometimes, though.”

“So I’ve been told,” he says, and he can’t help but grin.

“Well. I’m sorry for taking it so personally. I know you’re just doing your job.”

“Mm. Well, I suppose I can forgive you again.”

“Wow, thanks, Rafael,” you tease, smiling that beauty pageant smile again as you hold up your wine glass. “To starting over?”

He’s tempted to roll his eyes but he plays along instead, lifting his own glass to clink against yours. “To starting over,” he repeats, even though, semantically, you had never started anything until now. If you were even starting something.

“Did you enjoy yourself, Detective?” he asks, his hand on your waist as he leads you out of the restaurant.

“I did. The food was delicious. You know, I have a name, right? Or are we still not on first-name basis yet?”

He gives in to temptation this time and rolls his eyes, stopping short outside the restaurant. “Do you want to come back to my place for a few drinks, Detective, or do you want me to take you home?”

You laugh, “I don’t put out on the first date, Counselor.”

“I wasn’t—“

“But if you’d really like to just have drinks, you don’t have to force my hand.”

“You really take me for that kind of man?” he asks. He hates you, he hates you so much, his blood is boiling again.

“Why don’t you relax? I know you didn’t mean it like that.” Your eyes meet his, and you smile, kissing his cheek. “I’d be absolutely enchanted if you would take me to your apartment for drinks, Señor Barba.”

He rolls his eyes again, his lips pursed into a thin line. He still hates you. Maybe more so now. He misses when you used to shut that snippy mouth of yours.

——-

He’s livid when you sit in his chair, the one he always sits in, the recliner closer to the TV. Why couldn’t you have taken the couch? That’s what it’s for, guests, although maybe it’s been so long since he’s had any that you can tell it doesn’t look as lived in as the rest of the place.

Not that he's really ever home. He either spends his nights in the office with a pounding headache, or he’ll have dinner with his mother and abuelita. On rare occasions, he’ll join the squad for drinks, but he always feels disconnected, like he doesn’t quite belong. Amanda and Nick were closer than friends but not quite lovers, Fin and Olivia had known each other for over a decade, and you and Carisi are already thick as thieves despite his recent arrival. Rafael was always the odd one out, the one to make a composite number prime. Whatever conversation he entered, he was always the third wheel.

But now, an even rarer occasion, it’s just you and him, and your heels are digging into the leather of his chair as you curl your legs under you.

He asks you to get out of the chair gruffly, and you laugh, saying, “You know, Counselor, I’m getting the feeling that you don’t like me.”

“Oh, now you’re catching on?” he quips. “What do you want to drink?”

“I’ll have what you’re having,” you say, getting up from his chair to move to the couch, your heels clicking on his hardwood.

“You drink scotch?”

“I will,” you say.

He mutters in Spanish to himself, setting up two glasses with ice and pouring the amber liquid over it.

You’re sitting on the sofa, staring at your phone when he walks in. “Do you want me to take your jacket?”

“Sure,” you say, standing up and loosening the sleeves. He takes it from you, bringing it into the kitchen, where he puts his own coat and suit jacket down.

“You're still the only person I've ever seen wear suspenders.” You tease, bringing your drink to your lips as he walks back into the room.

“Thought I was well-dressed.”

“Yeah. I don’t retract that statement.”

“You’re beautiful,” he tells you suddenly, making eye contact with you, feeling slightly uncomfortable at how the compliment rolls of his tongue, but it’s worth it because you blush a little. Maybe you actually didn’t know you were stunning. Rafael sits down next to you on the couch, close enough that his knee almost touches yours.

“You think so?” you ask, tucking a strand of hair behind your ear. “I honestly didn’t think you noticed me.”

“It’s hard not to.”

“Mm. Charmer,” you say, your grin widening. You press your knee to his, lean over a little. “I think, counselor, that you should kiss me, then.”

“Is that what you think, (y/n)?” he asks quietly, trying out your first name for the first time.

“Mm. Unless you don’t want to?”

God, did he want to, but it would mean there was no going back. Although, maybe at this point, it wouldn’t matter. Your mutual attraction had been laid out on the table and you were no longer merely coworkers. And he can’t lie, he loves the anticipation, but he’s worried about what will happen after all that fades. When you inevitably ended this, how could you work together?

“What do you want from me?” he asks.

“I think I made myself clear. I want you to kiss me, Rafael,” you tease.

“That’s not what I meant, (y/n). You know what I’m asking you,” he says, cursing himself for stuttering over your name. He leans closer, too, leaving his drink on the end table, moving his hand tentatively to your knee.

“Why don’t you kiss me first?” Your voice lowers an octave, and he’s never seen a woman more sultry or more antagonizing. “Are you really going to make me beg?”

Fuck.

His hand comes to touch your cheek, and it burns the palm of his hand. He uses his thumb to brush your lips gently. “You can’t just give a straight answer, can you?”

“No,” you smile against his thumb.

“Except for that,” he says, and he’s smiling too, even though he can’t stand you, and he closes the distance between the two of you, kissing you gently.

He hates you more now, hates the way the scotch tastes on your lips, hates the feel of your mouth on his.

But he needs more.

You, being you, your hands come to grasp his suspenders and he’s leaning in closer, aiming to take all the breath you had in you.

“So what do you want?” He asks as he makes himself pull away, breathless.

“More of that. But... Let’s just see where it leads us, okay?”

“Not an answer.”

“I don’t know the answer yet. Do you?”

“Well...no,” he admits. He can’t commit to you and he was bound to tell you that if you asked to be his girlfriend. But you didn’t. Maybe you weren’t ready yet, either.

“It’s just, we work together. Better if we take things slow,” you say.

“Agreed.”

“So we’re on the same page? That’s a first,” you giggle, but he doesn’t get a chance to respond sarcastically because your mouth is on his again.

The drinks flow a little too quickly for his liking, but he’s opening up a little, loosening his tie and his lips. He tells you about his Mami and his abuelita, only good things, and he makes you laugh at stories he has from the theater company he was part of in undergrad.

Even with the alcohol in your system, you’re tighter than him. You don’t give away much of any information. You have a younger brother, he learns, and your parents are divorced. Vaguely he wonders if your father walked out - maybe that’s why you came onto him like that. Rafael prays that’s not the case, because he can’t even sort out his own daddy issues, never mind your own. He might be older, wiser, over the games men your age played, but he’s no father figure, that’s clear.

Thankfully, you mention that your father helped you set up your apartment when you moved to New York and Rafael relaxes. So it wasn’t your father who hurt you, but someone did.

Oh, look at him, trying to psychoanalyze a detective, no less one with a psychology degree. Stupid. Whatever damage you had was cloaked in coping mechanisms and flirting, because you knew how to hide it having studied it yourself. And maybe he shouldn’t be so focused on trying to figure you out. That’d be getting too close too damn fast. He didn’t owe you that.

You kiss a couple more times throughout the night, but it’s nothing too wild. You made clear that you weren’t putting out and he didn’t expect you to. Even still, he’s not ready for even that. Sex doesn’t have to be intimate, as he knows from past experience, but with you, it’d be crossing a bridge into uncharted territory. And Amanda was a goddamn hound. She’d smell it on both of you before he had a chance to talk to Olivia or McCoy about it.

It isn’t until midnight that he checks the time. “Mierda. I have to be back in the office for 8 tomorrow,” he says, shaking his head. He hates you.

You kiss his cheek. “I should’ve kept track of the time. I can get a cab home. You don’t have to bring me back.”

“What time do you have to be in?”

“9...”

“Go in early and take the OT. Stay here. I’m not going to have you try and hail down a cab this late...and this inebriated.”

“I can take the couch—“

“No. You already ruined my sleep. Come to bed,” he says, and you don't argue.

It's been so long since he's slept next to someone else, and he can't seem to make it there anyway. So he watches you through half-lidded green eyes, your chest rising and falling. Jesus, Olivia’s pissed-off face runs through his mind and he can only imagine the reaming out he’d get if she had any idea that you were in his bed right now. Sure, they were friends, but there is no way in hell she would approve of him dating one of her detectives, especially not you. Sometimes Rafael thinks Olivia sees too much of her younger self in you. Some of it was valid, sure, but she’d really taken you under her wing in a way she hadn’t with, say, Amanda. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that she was your boss from the start of your hire, but either way, she’s protective and almost maternal toward you. He’s seen her going to bat for you, intimidating a suspect who made a sexual comment about you in front of her. Christ, Rafael would not want to be on the receiving end of that vitriol, that piercing look in her normally soft brown eyes as she said something about wanting the suspect's balls in a blender.

So that keeps him up for a while, but he's not really dating you, is he? You're just keeping him company and keeping him up at night. Olivia didn't need to know a damn thing.

Of course, you're an early riser, and he has half a mind to wonder if you were trying to get out of the apartment before he woke up, but you're also very loud as you stumble around his room and wake him out of his fitful sleep. "Sorry, Rafael," you say, blushing. "I can't really sleep past 5:30."

"Whatever, I'm already awake," he grumbles, sitting up.

"Mm. No wonder why you need that much coffee," you tease cheerfully, leaning over to kiss him. "Grumpy, much? Guess you wake up on the wrong side of the bed every day."

"You are...beyond irritating, (y/n)," he murmurs. "You're lucky you're beautiful."

You laugh heartily at that, too grating and high-pitched for this early in the morning. "Mm. You're lucky you're attractive, too, Rafael. I don't think anyone could tolerate you otherwise."

So was this how it was going to be? Maybe this could be fun; until it wasn't. Rafael tries not to think about it ending, because hell, it'd barely started, but he's learned that the long-term doesn't work for him. And he had nothing to show for trying, either. You would flit into his life, stay your time, and then leave just as quickly as you came; like you were never there at all. That's all he ever was, a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Hell, Yelina almost married the Mayor of New York.

Fuck it. He wasn't jumping in headfirst, Lord knows he's far too hurt and afraid to do that. But he could see this through for a little while. It's not like he had any better propositions, right?

Chapter Text

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.”

“But, Rafael—“

“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.”

“Naturally.”

He smirks a little, pecking your lips softly. “You’re right. No contact with the defendant. And you need to talk to Olivia first.”

“Rafael—“

“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?"

"What?"

"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.

Chapter Text

It’s easy again between the two of you when you come back from Massachusetts, but it isn’t the same. You’re in a much better mood, and Rafael’s glad you went, especially because you come back with good news about your brother - he should be finishing his GED in the fall.

But just because things are good - it doesn't mean Rafael is calm. On the contrary, that makes him even more nervous. Good things don't have the habit of sticking around.

But for whatever reason, you are.

Spring turns into summer - where did the time go? - and you’re always dragging him to the beach when your schedules permit. You seem to be more in your element there than anywhere else he’s ever seen you, what with the sun causing your skin to glisten with sweat and saltwater, the hot wind blowing your hair, the permanent smile on your face. He learns that your father used to have a summer house in the Cape where you spent your summers until he sold it after the divorce, but your love for the water never faded. And apparently your father’s never did, either, as his new house with his new wife resides on a lake. But the ocean is much more turmoiled than a lake is, and if Rafael were more of a poet, maybe he’d draw some resemblances between you and the ocean, but that’s overwrought. The world didn’t need another hackneyed poem about why his troubled object of affection reminded him of the waves. Clichéd comparisons aside, he can see why you love it so much.

Rafael isn’t as opposed to these dates as one might assume. Maybe it’s his Cuban heritage; in his blood after his ancestors spent so long working and living by the sea on that godforsaken island that betrayed them, but he feels a sort of kinship with the ocean, too. You tease him the first time you see him in shorts and sandals, saying you half-expected him to show up in his three-piece. He didn’t tell you, but he comes to the beach alone quite often, or there’s always yacht parties where he can nurse a glass of scotch, just keeping score between all the married couples there; who cheated on who, what wife wanted nothing more than to divorce her husband, what husband was calling their wife a bitch... Most days, he prefers the precinct for company over the stuffy culture law school brought him into...he swears marriage makes people crazy. It made his mother miserable, his father wrathful.

And maybe one could argue that his mother had an inclination for melancholy or that his father was just a mean-spirited man regardless. But the marriage vows certainly brought out the worst in both of them. An ill-fit, sure, but they’d thought it would work out when they met each other, didn’t they?

Another reason he’s anxious is that the squad is getting closer to figuring it out by the day. Rafael is good at concealing his emotions, he thinks, but it’s difficult to hide anything in a room full of some of the best detectives in New York City. Sometimes he even catches Olivia looking at him differently when he glances discreetly at you - and he’s dreading the day he gets the chewing out he deserves.

And third - you start remembering things he says. It’s almost frightening. Of course.... you had to have a good memory for the spoken word - you couldn’t take notes on everything a witness said. But still.

You remember dishes he orders in restaurants and attempt to recreate them in his kitchen. You bring him coffee, just the way he likes it, on your days off that he’s on, or sometimes you manage to sneak away to bring it to him during your breaks. You know he likes you in red and green and blue, bright, vivid colors that bring out the colors of your eyes and hair, and you make sure to wear them. Sometimes he thinks you’re psychic, or you have some kind of womanly sixth sense; because oftentimes you’ll wear the same color of his tie. One time Carisi even made a comment that the two of you were going to prom together, and you’d swatted him on the arm but smirked at Rafael the way you did; when you knew you had him down cold.

And maybe you did.

But you didn’t know everything about him, yet, how could you? It’d only been four months.

Rafael's hands tremble at the thought of telling you what was on his mind. He needs some liquid courage if he's going to tell you anything. He's had awful conversations with women concerning this topic, and he's prepared for tonight to go wrong, too, you screaming at him with tears running down your cheeks, and then work, oh, work would be a living hell. Maybe he'd transfer to another district. Jesus Christ, he couldn't handle that again, so soon. Maybe it was best to keep quiet. Maybe this is why he shouldn't have been so stupid to date a detective in his district, in a unit he worked closely with. What if this did go wrong? It was hard, being able to see each other outside of work sometimes, and it was hell trying to hide it from the SVU, but god, he'd miss you if you left even if he wasn't entirely ready to commit to you.

But you deserved to know, didn't you?

"Hey, Rafi? You doing alright there?" Your voice cuts in, clear as a bell, the way it always did when he lost himself in thought.

"Yeah, uh, I'm fine," he says, loosening his tie and taking it off. You were cooking again, fish, and it smelled heavenly, and god, he didn't want to lose this but he didn't want to tell you either and by not telling you, he could lose you. Weren't you supposed to know your partner? Did you really know him if you didn't know these things?

"You sure? You look like you're nervous," you say, an edge in your voice. God, did you think... maybe you thought he was going to break up with you. Fuck.

"Yeah. I'm nervous. Okay?" he snaps, but he doesn't mean to. He takes another sip of his scotch.

"Why the hell are you nervous? Afraid of some broccoli?" you joke, but your smile doesn't meet your eyes. He'd scared you. Fuck, he was such an idiot.

"I need to talk to you. Okay?" God, why couldn't he be normal like you and just spit it out?

"Okay. Then talk. But if you want me to leave I'll just get out. I don't need to hear the reasons why," you say, turning back to the food.

"No!" Rafael gets up quickly, hugging you from behind. "No. I don't... that's not what I want to talk about. No. This is going good, better than I thought it would."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Fuck me. I keep talking myself in circles," he mutters under his breath.

You turn around, but he keeps his hands around your waist. You're close, and he pecks your lips. You chuckle. "You're a dork. Just spit it out, Rafi."

"I don't want... I don't want this to turn into a fight."

"I don't either, whatever it is. But I need to turn the fish over or your smoke alarm's gonna go off," you say. “Hang on a minute.”

He grips the counter for support and he hates you so much, it’s rage he’s feeling now, and he has to swallow it down, tell himself this was good for him, this was happening for a reason, and that you were different the men and women that had walked out on him before. Or what about those he’d never felt close enough to tell? That was a longer list.

You finish the fish in a few minutes, tell him the potatoes are going to be a few more in the oven, and you start the broccoli on the stove.

“Okay. Talk to me. I’m listening,” you say, smiling at him, but he can tell you’re still scared, still wondering what he’s going to say.

“I’m bisexual,” he blurts out, and he doesn’t know if it would’ve been better if he beat around the bush.

You’re silent for a few seconds, then you smile at him. “Oh, honey, that was it? I thought it was something bad. Jesus, you scared the hell out of me, Rafi,” you say and hug him tight. He hugs you back, somewhat in awe of your reaction.

“You... you... don't care?"

“Rafael, I'm honestly offended that you think I'd be that prejudiced. Of course it doesn't bother me.” You pull away, still holding onto his arms, looking at him that way you did now, that look that doesn’t feel too different from a punch in the gut. "Why did you think I would be upset?"

Rafael shrugs, still at a loss for words.

“Well... for the record, I’ve hooked up with a woman, you know,” you say, turning back to the broccoli.

“Y-you have?” Well, that was a surprise.

“Yeah. I don’t know if I’d ever date a woman, but... I gave it the college try, had experiences. It was fun. It was a coping mechanism if you think about it too much, but it helped me, I think,” you say, and shrug, turning to your side to better face him as you sauté the broccoli. “I mean...we were friends in college. And she took her time with me, you know...in ways college boys wouldn’t.”

“Mm,” Rafael says, raising his eyebrows suggestively. “Bet she did.”

You blush beet red, laughing nervously. “That’s not what I meant... although, yes... she was thorough. But no. I meant she respected me and didn’t get upset when I wasn't ready to put out, you know? She let me set the pace and she was the first person I’d been with that gave me that. But... anyway... enough about that. I really appreciate that you trust me enough to tell me. Do you feel better?” you ask, looking up at him.

He nods. “Believe it or not, you’re the only woman that hasn’t flipped out on me when I said this.”

“Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. No one should feel that way about that.” You lean up, kissing his cheek.

Yelina was the first woman he told, and she didn’t take it well. Immediately, she flew off the handle, accusing him of wanting to leave her for a man - but there was no man. It was just something he'd come to terms with after fighting with himself for so long, and he wanted her to know because he thought he loved her. But he backtracked for her, he pled with her, they both cried, and their hour-long phone conversation ended with Rafael saying that he was just confused, and wasn't really bisexual. He’d never felt more lost in his entire life than when he hung up the phone that night, and it took him a long time to be assured of his sexuality in the same way as he was before he called her.

Some of the women were better than others, but he hadn’t told all of them and he’d never been met with outright acceptance...until you. And maybe it’s a byproduct of the politics of your generation or your own dalliances in same-sex affairs... but whatever it is... you’re still taking him in with open arms, and he feels like he doesn't deserve that.

“You hungry? It’s all set.”

“Yeah. It smells great, (y/n),” he says, his mouth watering at the potatoes you pull out of his oven. God, who knew how good an apartment could smell when you used it to cook?

He has memories of his abuelita cooking, of his mother, but he never stayed in the room and watched them work. His father always said it was a woman’s job, and it went on the long list of things he could never forgive him for. Watching you cook, he realizes it’s an expression of caring and that his father had ignored the league of male chefs there were in the world in support of a chauvinist ideology. Rafael wishes he could cook more than his embarrassing repertoire of eggs, grilled cheese, and boxed macaroni; he wishes he could do something for you.

He swallows it down. This was too much too soon, wasn’t it? What was he doing?

He doesn't have any idea. A relationship should tie you down to the earth, make you remember you inhabit it, but he's been in his head far too much lately. So dinner is quiet, almost painfully so, because he can't stop the thoughts racing through his head and manage to make conversation with you.

Evidently, you realize that too, kissing him deeply after you both cleaned up the kitchen. "Are you okay, honey? You still seem stressed."

"I'm fine." God, you calling him “honey” went right through him. No one really ever used pet names on him before, probably because he was too stiff. How did you know the simple use of that melted him to the core, made him momentarily forget his reservations?

"You certainly don't seem fine. Did something happen at work?"

"Just stop," he murmurs, avoiding your gaze. Why did you care? Why should you care? You were starting to get too close for comfort - but god forbid you start pulling away.

But you do, physically, at least. You let go of his hand, and hurt flashes through your eyes. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No. But I don't want to talk, either."

"Rafael--"

"Don't."

"Okay," you nod, pursing your lips, and you take his hand back in yours. "Do you want me to just sit with you?"

He nods wordlessly, topping off your scotch glasses and meeting you on the couch. You don't touch him at first, but then you take his right hand back in both of yours, massaging through the cramps in his palm from writing scrawled notes on his legal pad. "You don't have to," he says quietly.

"I want to," you respond, pressing your lips to his cheek. "Let me take care of you. Turn around so I can massage your shoulders."

"(Y/n)..." he protests, but he has a feeling you know what he needs better than he does, so he doesn't argue with your firm glance.

You're tentative at first, but you find a rhythm, and he feels the tension dissipate as you work your hands across his shoulders and upper back, and all he can think is that he never did one thing in his life that would warrant this tenderness.

And then.... you run your hand across his side, featherlight, until he's chuckling in spite of himself. "Jesus, (y/n), stop it," he says through laughter as you tickle him with more intensity, your fingers skittering across his stomach.

"I think you should make me," you challenge.

And he's breathless, trying to catch your hands in his own, but he can't stop laughing, either, as he tries and fails to gain leverage against you. You dodge him every chance you get, but at this point, you can't tickle him as much you jab at his sides and stomach. Eventually, his fingers dig deep into the flesh of your waist, and you let out a shriek - and it's then that he enacts his revenge, his long fingers dancing across your thighs and up your stomach until he looks up at you. You're giggling and blushing, your hair splayed out across his couch... and you look back, your laughter slowing as he leans down to kiss you. All he intended was to brush his lips against yours, but your hand comes to the nape of his neck, and your tongue slips past his lips, and you're seemingly still intent on leaving him gasping for air. "Trying to kill me?" he pants, smirking against your lips as he pulls away.

"No. I just know you needed the laugh," you say. "I know you said you don't want to talk, Rafi, but I... I think you should. I want to listen."

Rafael sighs heavily, gently moving off you and helping you sit back up. "I lied to you,” he says softly, not meeting your eyes. “I lied. SVU is difficult at times... for more personal reasons. I didn't go through anything like what you had gone through and believe me... I'm not trying to draw comparisons. But..."

“It was your father, wasn’t it?” you ask softly.

Ah. You know. You read him like a book. He nods. “Yes. He wasn’t a good man.”

“I didn’t... I just, you rarely talk about him, and I just assumed there was a reason why.”

“There was.”

“Do you want to talk about it?"

Rafael nods, finding the strength to meet your eyes again. “He... he would hurt my mother. I didn’t face the brunt of the abuse, she did, for me. But he... if I... he’d hurt me, sometimes, too, hit me if I talked back. He’d never hurt me the way he hurt Mami, but he was abusive toward me as well. I spent a lot of time at my abuelita’s apartment because of this, and she is...she’s the best woman I know. She did all she could to keep me safe. Ultimately, though, in high school... I came out to my mother and her. They didn’t understand it, really, and gave me some good old Catholic shaming. I still loved them, even if it was hard at the time. They didn’t dare out me to my father. They didn’t know what he would do. Well... I had a boyfriend that last year of high school, and my father saw us... and... you can guess what happened.”

“I’m so sorry, Rafi,” you whisper, scooting closer to him.

“I had to go to the hospital,” he whispers, unable to fight the tears. It feels like something’s closing in on his throat. He takes your hand for support, running his thumb over your fingers. “He somehow managed to break one of my ribs. I... he kept saying, ‘I pay for Catholic school for you to end up being a faggot?’ And I... kept thinking, kept saying, ‘no, Padre, you don’t understand,’ kept begging him to stop. He didn’t until he heard my rib crack and... I think he understood, then, that he’d crossed a boundary. It was one thing to him to hurt his wife, he hated women, but his child, his only son? I never told my mother what happened, because it would’ve just worried her and I was terrified. I just... I just said someone at school beat me up. My father... he was never good to me or my mother, let that be clear, but after that, it was almost like he was ashamed, I guess, because I had something over his head that he knew my mother would leave him for. Anyway... he died about 15 years ago.”

You tuck your legs underneath you, wrapping your arms around his shoulders. “I’m sorry,” you say softly, kissing his cheek. “No one should have to go through that. Your mother is a strong woman, you know that right? Didn’t you tell me she runs a charter school now?”

“Yes. She does. Single-handedly, really. I owed it to her to make something of myself.”

“You did, Rafi, you did. I know she’s proud.”

“I hope so,” he mutters.

“You’re a better man than your father,” you murmur, rubbing his back. How did you know that was what he needed to hear? Even still, it didn’t feel real. What basis did you have for that?

“The jury is out on that one,” he mutters. “I haven’t had a child to destroy.”

You pull away from him, sit back on your side of the couch. “Rafael. Look at me.”

He exhales slowly, and does, meeting your concerned eyes, the ones all the victims that have come through your precinct have seen, and he hates that.

“Did it hold you back? Is that why you haven’t had children?”

Your voice is small like you almost don’t want to say it, don’t want to put a voice to it, and he wishes you didn’t, he wishes you stayed quiet. He leans back against the couch, a few silent tears leaving his eyes of their own volition.

But you knew him. You knew why. You’d hit the nail on the head once again.

“I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry, Rafael. Please,” you say, and he looks over at you to see your eyes welling up too. “It’s not my business. I’m sorry. D-don’t be mad at me.”

He doesn’t say anything, just leans over and grasps you in a hug. You start crying, murmuring your apology over and over again. Your whimpers in his ear could kill him if he let them. You pull away from him with shaky hands on his shoulders, gripping on his suspenders for support. “I’m so stupid. I shouldn’t have—“

But he kisses you and he can feel your shock as your body tenses up against him. “Don’t you ever fucking say you’re stupid again,” he murmurs against your mouth. “You’re too smart for your own good.”

“Rafael, I overstepped.” You move your hands back to your lap.

“Maybe you did,” he shrugs, wiping his eyes with his shirtsleeves. “But you were right.”

You’re silent. He can tell you feel guilty; you’re wringing your hands and only looking at him when he’s not looking at you.

“I’m not mad at you,” he says, and you visibly relax, leaning over to hug his waist. “I never realized it... until... this woman I dated, her name was Yelina. She wanted a whole white picket fence deal, lawyer husband, three kids, money. And I... I couldn’t give any of that to her at the time. I didn’t want to get married, I was terrified of having a wife. I didn’t want to have children... I was afraid I’d turn into my father and hurt them the way he hurt me. So she left me for my best friend at the time.”

“Oh, honey. You’ve had bad luck,” you say, your voice slightly muffled against the fabric of his shirt. You rub his back comfortingly. “She wasn’t a smart woman. Couldn’t she see you were in pain?”

“I...guess not. Maybe I didn’t even really know I was then. She wanted kids, marriage, all of that, right away, and we were young, then, younger than you. But she didn’t want to wait for me to work out my issues. I can't really blame her. I still haven’t now, so maybe she was right to leave me. Who she left me for... well, that didn’t exactly work out in her favor. I prosecuted him for child pornography about a year ago.”

“Ah. Perhaps she should have learned about delayed gratification before leaving you.”

Rafael chuckles at that. “Why are you saying that?”

“Look who you turned out to be. She knows she made the wrong choice now.”

“I don’t know about that. Maybe neither of us were the right one for her. I’m still my father’s son. I could still turn out...how I feared.”

“I don’t see that in you, Rafael,” you say softly.

“My mother didn’t see it in my father, either,” he says, rubbing his face with his hand. “Part of it is genetic. It has to be.”

“People throw down the deck that they’re dealt and demand a new one all the time,” you tell him. He wraps his arm around you.

“But do they get one?”

“I think so,” you say. “If they fight hard enough and they have the resources. Some of it is luck, no doubt... But you can.”

He feels guilty, because he knows you’re thinking of your brother, who can never outplay the cards he was dealt.

“Well, I guess I never wanted to play the game and risk it," he says bitterly.

“Well, what about now?”

“Who’s going to marry me now, have kids with me? I’m an old man. That ship has sailed,” he says, hating himself and you, a little. Maybe you’d leave now like Yelina did. You were young and pretty, and you could find a man closer to your age that would father your children if that’s what you wanted.

“Do you really believe that?” Your voice is small again, treading lightly. Maybe you were scared for your own future if you stayed with him. Maybe you should be.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he murmurs. He knows what he can’t believe: the fact that you’re still here, still holding onto him like your life depended on it. And you knew him, now, you knew what kept him up at night... and you were still here, acting like he was all you wanted.

“I just want you to know that I’ve been held back, too, Rafael. Abuse does that. I couldn’t have meaningful relationships with anyone for a while, and sex scared me. It still does, sometimes. You’re...you’re one of the few who’s waited this long for me to be ready and not gotten upset. I just want to thank you for that. And that’s how I know you’re not your father because from what you’ve told me, I don’t think he would’ve been as forgiving toward me. You can break the cycle, Rafi. You can if you want to.”

“You shouldn’t be thanking me for that. I’m not going to force you into doing something you’re not ready for.”

“Proving my point, Rafael,” you say, squeezing his arm. “Would your father have that same mindset?”

“Well...no. Probably not.”

“Would your father go to law school with the intent of helping the helpless?”

He shakes his head. His father didn’t do anything to help anyone. "That's not why I went to law school, either. I went to get the hell out of that barrio."

"Why'd you choose SVU then? There are much more lucrative paths you could've taken with a law degree. Why is it every time I try to show you that you're a good man you insist on fighting with me?"

"Because I don't deserve to be put up on a pedestal, (y/n). I'm just trying to survive," Rafael says, shrugging. "I'm not some martyr for a cause, or a Christ figure or--"

"I didn't say that you were. But you’re also not your father, Rafael, and I don’t see any danger of you turning into him, either,” you say and he hopes you’re right, he hopes you know him better than he knows himself, and that you see something in him he’s never seen, something all the men and women before you never saw either. “Yo still have time.”

“Not as much as I used to,” he says, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? Rafael sighs, pressing a kiss to the top of your head. Look at the two of you, both damaged, both broken by what the world threw at you, but here you were, together. Were you healing each other or hurting each other? He can’t tell, at the end of the day.

You sit up a little, and he loosens his grip around your shoulders. You kiss him softly, comfortingly.

All his anxiety about this night is gone, but it isn’t replaced with relief like he’d hoped. Instead, there’s this gnawing ache, this need to tell you to leave, that he was bad news and was going to break your heart, that he was over 40 and didn’t know how to love anyone that wasn’t his family. Why couldn’t anything scare you away?

Part of him knows he doesn’t want you to leave despite all this, even if he’s terrified. You must know, too, because you stayed.

Chapter Text

Where the hell had you been hiding that dress? It was a simple green number that clung tantalizingly close to the curve of your breasts and waist, and then flared slightly to rest at a slightly inappropriate length, halfway down your thigh, about three or four inches of fabric past your ass. Rafael would definitely question taking you home to his mother in a skirt that short. It was strange, seeing you wear this because you often dressed conservatively. Hell, Liv showed more cleavage than you did on a day to day to basis.

But your legs in that dress, lengthened by a simple pair of black heeled sandals... his breath caught in his throat as you walked into the bar with Carisi and he never was able to fully exhale because you kept flitting around, barely paying attention to him. And it was hell, watching you play pool with Carisi against Nick and Amanda, Carisi’s body flush against yours as he helped you set up your shot.

“You okay, there, Rafael?” Liv asks.

“Mm,” he responds, barely looking at her, eyeing you across the bar. You were taunting Amanda; he could tell by your facial expression as she was setting up her cue stick. He’s pulled up short by how young you look; god, you really were a kid compared to him, weren’t you?

“I know the verdict didn’t go the way any of us wanted it to,” she says, but his mind is so far removed from anything that might have happened at the courthouse today. “But try to relax.”

“I’m relaxed,” he murmurs. Figures she would think he was tense because of work. A few months ago, that would’ve been what was running through his mind while he nursed his drink. But now, work stayed at the courthouse and his office because he had you to put him through hell when he was outside of it.

“Sure,” Olivia says sarcastically, but she follows his gaze, and his pulse quickens once she sees that you’re right in the line of it. “You squeeze that glass any tighter and it’s going to break.”

Rafael sighs, looking down at the glass of scotch in his hand. He downs the rest of it, rolling his eyes.

“(Y/n) looks nice tonight, hmm?” Olivia asks, a glint in her brown eyes that makes him wonder if feigning innocence is even worth it.

“She always looks nice,” he says, deciding to play into it since he had no other cards left. But you don’t look “nice”, you look fucking delicious, and “nice” is an understatement if there ever was one. Anyone in this bar would think going home with you was akin to winning the lottery.

But you’d go home with him, at the end of the night, or at least... he thinks.

You’re still leaning against Carisi even though there’s no real reason to now, and he tries not to think of how much sense you two would make as a couple but ultimately fails. Sure, Carisi had never been married either, but he was also almost ten years younger than Rafael. He was taller, fitter, maybe more attractive, and he was a detective and there was no sticky situation with the DA that would have to be sorted out if you two got serious. The two of you were always attached at the hip whenever he stops by the precinct, but now you’re attached by more than even that, what with hands on shoulders and backs pressed against chests.

As a complete shock to absolutely no one, you and Carisi end up losing the game of pool and have to buy the next round. You were tipsier than he’d ever seen you, your face flushed from the copious amounts of alcohol in your system. Amanda, the awful influence she is, evidently talked you into doing shots with her earlier in the evening, and you kept sucking down cocktails afterward.

Rafael himself is feeling the effects of the scotch more tonight. He’s honestly lost count of how many he’s had, and seeing you in that dress had him inebriated already, but he’s feeling particularly woozy and melancholy as you come back over with another old fashioned, the amber liquid sloshing around in the glass. You slide in the booth next to him, maybe a little too close for appearances’ sake. Carisi sidles in after you, saying something in your ear that you laugh loudly at.

“I don’t think he’d appreciate it,” you say. Were you two talking about him? Son of a bitch.

“I think we should order an appetizer,” Olivia says, her tone concerned. “You need to sober up a little, (y/n).”

“I’m fine,” you protest.

“You could barely walk over here,” Rafael says, and you raise an eyebrow. “You either have to eat something or slow down.”

“Okay, Padre,” you snicker. “What do you suggest we get, then?”

“I’ve been dying for a quesadilla,” Rollins says before Rafael can answer. “I’ll split one with you.”

“Deal.”

Rafael is startled when he feels your foot against his. Then he thinks his heart might stop as you slide upward, past his ankle, your toes getting caught in the hem of his dress pants to touch the bare skin of his calf. Were you really going to do this here? He catches your eyes and he knows by the glint in them that yes, yes you were. If this night wasn’t hell already...

Your hand comes to his knee, and you’re nodding at something Nick just said, biting into your quesadilla. And your hand slides higher up his left thigh, halfway, before sliding back down to his knee. You do this a couple more times, tantalizing slow, your hand coming up a little higher each time before it makes its descent.

Just as your hand reaches the apex of his thigh, he grabs it and pulls it away. The last thing he needs is a hard-on in front of all of SVU, and while he’d need a little more attention to get there it was best to stop you while you were ahead. Your lips form a devilish smirk as you sip from your glass, but you take the hint and keep your hands to yourself.

Rafael will be damned if you think you’re the only one allowed to play, and if it weren’t for the few drinks loosening him up he would’ve never even thought about it, but your legs in that dress... tentatively, he takes his left hand and places it on your right knee, squeezing tight enough to leave the imprint of his fingers and he edges up against the soft skin of your thigh until he reaches the hem of your skirt, and then travels back down, copying your ministrations from earlier. You don’t stop him as he rides the fabric up a little the next time his hand meets your inner thigh, his fingertips touching the hemline of your panties, and his breath catches in his throat not for the first time that night. You were wet. You couldn’t seriously want him to do this? Not here? Rafael had never been an exhibitionist but he’d be a goddamn liar if he said this wasn’t turning him on. Ultimately, he errs on the side of caution. He wasn’t going to take advantage of you when you were this drunk and he isn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of giving Carisi a free show, either. Rafael cannot wait to get the fuck out of this bar.

The conversation splits into fragments, Olivia and Rollins chatting about some new store that opened up while Fin and Amaro rehash the case again. Neither discussion sounds particularly interesting to Rafael, and he turns to you, but you’re deep in a tête-à-tête with Carisi.

“You’re the best partner I’ve had, (y/n),” Carisi says.

“Mm. You too.”

“You just saying that, doll?”

You giggle. “No.”

“I mean it, though. I’ve had bad luck with partners... and squads.”

“Poor baby.”

He chuckles, rubbing your arm and pulling you closer to him. “Not anymore. Manhattan’s a good fit. We've got a good squad here, a good ADA, and you. Best pardna in the world."

"Aww, you're too sweet," you slur.

“No one’s as sweet as you, doll.”

You crinkle your nose and laugh. “Does that ever work, Sonny?”

“Sometimes,” he chuckles. “It doesn’t work on you?”

“You wish,” you tease. “But no.”

“Anyway...Nah, I mean, you saw it. No one liked me when I first got here except you.”

"It was because of the mustache.”

"Now you're being mean."

"Sorry, baby, but you know that mustache was awful.”

“Okay. Maybe. But... all my other partners, I mean, not that it lasted long, but none of them ever wanted to talk to me and got aggravated with me. You and I, though? We’re the dream team. And I just want you to know I really appreciate you.”

“I appreciate you, too, honey. So much," you say and you press your lips against the side of Carisi's mouth. You would’ve kissed him on the lips if you weren’t so drunk that you missed.

The hell you have condemned him to now is ultimately ten times worse than the hell he'd put himself through earlier. Before it was only speculation, but now? That was it. You were going to leave him. Of course you would. That’s how the story always went from the start, and that’s how you would go, too. Instead of Alex, you’d leave him for Carisi, and he’d have to spend every day a living hell, watching the two of you at the precinct the same way he had to watch Alex and Yelina together. Who was he to think you would be any different?

Carisi's face reddens in the dim light of the bar and he laughs. "Jesus, someone needs to tap you out, huh?"

“Probably,” you slur, nestling yourself against his shoulder. “I can’t remember the last time I drank this much.”

“No more then.”

“Whatever you say, honey,” you murmur, and you kiss his cheek again, the print of your lipstick visible on Carisi’s face.

Rafael can’t stand it anymore, can’t stand the way the two of you are already all over each other. Couldn’t you have talked to him first before you decided you wanted to drape yourself on another man? Even Yelina had that decency!

If he thought he disliked Carisi before, he hates the man now as he kisses the top of your head, smiling down at you.

“I’m calling it a night,” Rafael announces abruptly, standing up just as quickly, grabbing his suit jacket and his briefcase. “Goodnight, all of you.”

Just as he reaches the door, Rollins catches him by the shoulder. “Aren’t you going to make sure your girlfriend gets home safe, Barba?”

What, were you going to send Amanda over to add insult to injury now? Fuck this. He’s far too old to be playing these games, and he should’ve fucking known better to get involved with you.

“Fuck off,” he snaps. “You know she’s not my girlfriend.”

“Hostile, much? Bet you wish she was,” she teases.

He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. “What do you want?”

“Listen, it’s just... you live the closest to (y/n), right?” Amanda asks, knowing damn well that’s not the case. “Well... you know she’s had a few more than she should have. So could you please take her home?”

Fighting the urge to roll his eyes, he sighs and nods. He can’t be that much of an asshole even if he’s hurt right now. “Alright. I’ll get us a cab.”

“Thank you, Barba. Been a real pleasure,” she says, smiling brightly. “Keep your hands to yourself, though. She probably won’t remember it tomorrow.”

He steps out into the humid August night, a slight breeze in the air indicating fall was on the way. Irritation seeps through his veins as multiple cabs drive by that he could’ve caught, but you must have been too busy giving your goodbyes to your new lover. Jesus Christ, could Rafael be any more self-pitying? It was time to start getting over you and start getting used to the sentence of being single again.

You head out a few minutes later, stumbling in your heels. He catches you but maintains a distance. His only goal was to get you home because even though he hates you right now, he hates the thought of what could happen to you inebriated in this city at this hour more. You were already a file on someone’s desk. He didn’t want you to be one on his.

You smile widely up at him, your eyes glassy as marbles, and you kiss him full on the lips. He doesn’t kiss back, only shrugs you off him, heading toward the street and hailing a cab.

“Rafi, baby, why don’t you wanna kiss me?” you whine. “Wanted to kiss you all night. Want your hands all over me. Remember earlier? Please, baby.”

“You were kissing someone else,” he snaps harshly.

“What? No, I wasn’t,” you say, furrowing your brow, swaying a little.

“I refuse to believe you’re that drunk that you don’t remember what happened minutes ago,” he says as a cab pulls over. Rafael opens the door. “Get in.”

“No, honey, what are you talking about? I didn’t kiss anyone. Don’t wanna kiss anyone but you,” you say, crossing your arms over your chest. The cab driver tsks, rolling his eyes.

“Get in the goddamn cab, (y/n),” Rafael says sternly. “You need to go home. We’re done.”

You don’t say anything, but he sees your face fall as you nod and oblige, staggering into the backseat of the cab. Rafael follows, closing the door behind him, telling the driver your address. It’s silent for a few moments until you turn to him. He can’t make out much in the muted lighting of the cab but he knows you’re on the brink of tears; your lower lip trembles and your eyes are glassier than they were outside the bar. “Rafi, baby, ‘m sorry. I don’ know what I did but I'm sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“Like you don’t know what you did! You were all over Carisi all night!” he barks, and he’s startled by how guilty he feels when you finally do break out into hysterical tears. He’d known you were drunk, sure, but maybe you really were that intoxicated that you didn’t know why he was upset until now.

“Sonny and I are friends, Rafi. I don’t want to be with him. I only want to be with you,” you stutter in between sobs, grabbing his collar. “I’m sorry for...whatever you thought, but it’s not like that.”

There you are again, tugging on heartstrings he didn’t know he had as you tug on the fabric of his shirt. The pang in his chest now tells him no, that you weren’t done even if he wanted nothing more than to escape this hell you were putting him through. “Can you stop?” he says gently. “Stop crying. Shh.”

“But you’re mad at me,” you whine. “I don’t want you to be mad.”

“Then why would you do that?”

“I don’t know! I didn’t wanna pay too much attention to you because you don’t want them to know about us.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to make out with Carisi!”

“I didn’t. I know I would never do that. I love... I love being with you, Rafi, honey, and I don’t wanna hurt you.”

You sniffle and try to stop crying, snuggling against him the way he ached for you to at the bar. Ultimately he’s struck by how much you care and how much he cares in return. For all his talk of not wanting to get too close he sure as hell didn’t like the idea of you getting close to anyone else, either. And living like that wasn’t fair to either of you, was it? He’s reached an impasse. Either he has to stop keeping you at a distance or stop keeping you at all.

“Do you really wanna end it? Please don’t. I’m sorry. Please, Rafi,” you beg.

“You kissed him,” Rafael says irritably.

“Oh really? You’re acting like I fucked him in front of the whole bar. I kissed his cheek!”

“So you do remember.”

“But I don’t understand why you’re that mad! It doesn’t mean anything! We’re just friends!”

“Like I’ve never heard that one before,” he scoffs. “What were you trying to do? Hm? Make me jealous? Well, you can fuck right off with that, (y/n).”

“I wouldn’t do that! Why are you being such a jerk, Rafael?”

“Why are you acting like a goddamn child?” he asks and immediately regrets it as you start crying again. You’re not uncontrollable anymore, but you’re clearly hurt and you shrug away from him.

“I’m drunk and so are you,” you hiss. “So maybe we shouldn’t talk until the morning before we say more things we can’t take back.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” he sighs tiredly.

Despite arguing professionally, Rafael could never win interpersonal spats, so he stopped trying. And some of his partners took it as if he didn’t bother to argue, then he didn’t truly care. One time his mother told him, “Buena suerte, mi hijo, if you think you can find somebody that doesn’t put you through hell,” after he’d ended yet another fling because they’d gotten into a fight Rafael didn’t see the point in resolving. Why should he make himself miserable because she felt slighted? Why should he have to apologize for saying words in anger that he obviously didn’t mean? Why should he have to give up any of his comforts for the other person? Why should you have to fight at all? Little disagreements were fine, he’d had those with you about cases and such, but there was no harm done in those. You both got over them and kissed and made up. But here and now, you were both hurt by each other’s words and actions, and there were tally marks etched on the chalkboard for a score to be kept between the two of you. Who would come out the victor? One of you would win, and the other would have to lick their wounds.

He’d seen it so many times before, his mother cowering down in front of his father, admitting fault and crying to herself as she did laundry or cooked. She always took the blame, even though he clearly was at fault in being the aggressor.

Suddenly, he realizes with horror that he is taking the role of his father in this situation. How many times had his father come home drunk, reeking of beer and cigarettes, hurling baseless accusations at his mother that she had been sleeping around? One time he had even asked if Rafael was his own son, which, nice try—Rafael was the spitting image of the elder Barba—but how different was Rafael right now? What was Rafael doing now other than fabricating stories in his head and reading more into looks and touches than he should have?

Jesus, he was far too drunk himself to be thinking about this now. All he wants is to go home.

But you don’t let him.

He walks you up to your apartment, and you leave the door open. “Please come in,” you say. “I don’t wanna talk tonight. Please just come to bed.”

“But—“

“Don’t argue with me anymore tonight. Save it for tomorrow,” you whine, slipping out of your heels, damn near falling until he catches you. “I don’t care what you say to me, Rafael, but I’m telling you neither of us is leaving. What we have is too good and you know it. No one’s going anywhere, honey. So come to bed. We'll figure it out tomorrow."

What a series of bold statements coming from the mouth that drank half her weight in liquor. He’s dumbfounded by how confident you are in them, but he supposes maybe it’s the alcohol itself that's giving you this unshakeable nerve.

Rafael can't help it, and he tightens his grip on your waist and kisses you harshly, tasting the sweetness of the orange and bitterness of the whiskey and the hints of salsa on your tongue as one of his hands threads in your hair. "You're mine," he growls.

"When did I ever say I wanted to be anyone else's?"

That's right, you hadn't. He’d only assumed, like the complete asshole he is.

-----

The light from your bedroom window bleeds in, waking Rafael up hours before he wanted to. It wasn’t often he had a Saturday he could sleep in and usually he took advantage of it, but your apartment is far too warm and he can't stay asleep. Memories of last night come back in fragments, and if the aching of his head is any indication, he had a few more than he should have last night. By the time you wake up, he's worried himself into oblivion. Were you going to smarten up and leave him?

“Mm. Good morning,” you say, looking up at him. “I’m never drinking again.”

Rafael chuckles. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“Don’t talk so loud,” you whine.

“Do you...remember last night?” he asks quietly.

“Yeah. Are you still mad at me?”

“A little. But I’d understand if you were mad at me too. And I—“

“Okay. No. I need coffee first.”

“Mm. Woman after my own heart,” he says, and you smile, but it doesn’t quite meet your eyes. Had he already lost you?

You’re still clad in that goddamn dress as you get up, but it’s lost the glitter and glamor from last night, as now it’s wrinkled and askew, the fabric clinging to your right hip and giving him a peek of your ass before you pull it down on your way to open your bedroom door. You might be the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, even though you’re hungover, even though you have mascara tear-stained under your eyes, even though you’re both upset with each other. And isn’t that worth holding onto, even if you had your own circle of hell reserved just for him?

After both of you clean yourselves up a little, you’re brewing coffee and swallowing pills to relieve the aching in your heads. You lean against your counter, and Rafael stands awkwardly in the middle of your kitchen, stealing glances at you when he thinks you’re not looking.

“Okay. So talk,” you say, handing him a mug when the coffee is done.

“I suppose I should apologize,” he says, sipping his coffee, wincing at the acidity. "My accusations were out of line. But you can’t be hanging off Carisi if we're going to do this. I'm not watching that.”

“Hanging off Sonny? Really?”

Rafael rolls his eyes. “What do you call it, then?”

“I was...maybe a tad more affectionate than was appropriate, Rafael, I’ll give you that. But Sonny’s my partner, honey. And I’m not going to stop being friends with him because it makes you uncomfortable that we’re that close.”

“I didn’t say that, did I? I’m not going to control that. But cool it with the kissing, okay? And you leaning up against him all the time, the flirting, all that bullshit? You’re not single just because they don’t know about us.”

You look at him, stunned. “I didn’t know you cared that much.”

“What?”

“You always seem so distant. I really didn’t think you got jealous like that,” you say, shrugging.

“I’m not jealous,” he scoffs. “I just don’t think that’s appropriate.”

“Mm.”

“You’re leading him on whether you realize it or not,” Rafael says. “So cut it out.”

“I am not leading him on, Rafael! Jesus Christ. You’re friends with Olivia. I don’t say shit.”

“Last time I checked I didn’t kiss her and drape myself all over her last night, did I?”

“Well, whatever. To be fair, I think we both know I wouldn't have been so affectionate if I was sober. I get like that when I'm drunk," you say, your face flushing. "I'd have kissed Amanda too if I was sitting near her.”

"Maybe you shouldn't drink so much, then."

"Maybe not. Trust me, I'm feeling it right now."

"I bet you are."

You grimace, rolling your eyes as you gulp your coffee. “Why did you have to go there, though? Threaten to end it? Jesus, I know you were drunk, too, but... that was completely unfair.”

"I know,” Rafael says, sighing. “I just...”

"Why can't you just admit that you hurt, Rafi?" you ask suddenly.

"W-what?" he stutters. "What does that even mean?"

"I know I don't know all your ex-lovers' names or even how many there are. And I don't need to know. But I know it wasn't just Yelina that hurt you and you need to stop letting that get in the way of us. I haven’t left yet. I’m still here. Rafael, I'm begging you: can you stop thinking of all the ways this can go wrong and just let it be? Jesus, I can feel the pounding in your head sometimes. You need to relax. Entiendes?”

“(Y/n)... I...” he trails off, at a loss for words.

“You don’t have to say anything. Come here,” you say, and you put your coffee down, hugging him tightly. “I know where all of that came from last night, and I get it. You’re in pain; anyone can see that, Rafi. But I’m not going to be punished for crimes I didn’t commit.”

“Of course not,” he murmurs as you pull away. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. You’re forgiven. Just relax, honey.”

Rafael reaches back for you, hugging you close, not so much because he needs the support but so you don’t see how close he is to tears. It’s something his abuelo used to say, something Rafael never quite understood when he was little: “Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face.”

Sure, he was mostly joking when he said it, because one of Rafael’s younger cousins, Néstor, was infamous for stealing jewelry from his abuelita, and he’d always hug his accuser so they didn’t see his guilty smirk. But in hindsight, he thinks maybe his grandfather was also warning him about his mother’s favorite defense mechanism - whenever Rafael asked about the screaming between her and his father, she’d give him the tightest hugs, and he’d hear her sniffling in his ear, but he never did see her cry.

Well. He understands it perfectly well now, because god forbid you see him this emotional over this. Rafael still isn’t used to this tenderness - is this what being loved feels like? It’s been so long, he doesn’t remember. Or maybe this was this just a conniving way for you to put him through hell? Get him to trust you, maybe even love you, only to pull the rug out from under his feet?

Could you really be that cruel?

“Rafi, you okay?” your voice cuts through; like it always does.

“I’m fine,” he murmurs, but he doesn’t let you go until the heat behind his eyes fades, until he can make himself force a smile.

——

You are a fucking tease. He wonders how any man ever put up with it, although he thinks he may be the first man you reserved this torture for, and maybe he should be more flattered, that you feel this comfortable with him. But this? This was the very definition of cruelty. Apparently what you had done at the bar had only been a prequel to the hell you had in store for him.

He wants to quit his job if only to get away from you. He doesn't think he can handle it anymore.

You’d said that when you were ready to have sex, he’d know. Never in a million years did he think this was what you meant.

"You have sauce on your tie," you tell him as you're walking up to the courthouse. "I have that stain remover stuff in my purse. Let me take care of it."

"Oh, no, I know better than that," he laughs, but it's really not funny at all. "I have to present my case in fifteen minutes."

"That's enough time," you protest. "Come on, you really want to go up there with tomato sauce on your tie?"

He rolls his eyes, stopping you short by gripping your upper arm. "Given the choice between a stain and a raging hard-on, I'll take the stain," he growls in your ear. "I'm not playing your game today."

"Rafi..." you whine, and he hates you. He thought whining would be a turnoff, would be too juvenile but fuck, it goes right through him and shoves him right through the gates of hell, where he belongs. “Who said anything about that? I was just going to help you. Didn’t know you got excited from stain removal. I’ll bring you my laundry if you ever want to do it.”

"Shut up," he chastises, then looks down at his...spotless tie. He doesn't know what he expected. "Nice fabrication."

"I wasn't under oath," you say, blushing a little. He remembers the last time you'd told a little white lie a week ago, told him his suspenders weren't fastened correctly, and under the guise of helping him you'd gotten him completely riled, like he was twenty years younger, kissing him and feeling him up until he damn near took you on the couch in his office.

And then you left.

What the hell kind of game were you playing?

“I’m still charging you with perjury,” he snaps back, still holding your arm. “What was your plan, hm?”

“I plead the fifth,” you say, a brilliant grin playing on your strawberry lips. He wants to kiss you so bad, it takes all his strength not to.

“Of course you do, niñita.”

“I’m no little girl,” you say, stepping closer. He’s all too aware the two of you are outside the courthouse and the last thing he needs is for press or defense to see the two of you. He’s thankful he’s not on a high profile case.

“No, maybe not. But you’re definitely a bad one,” he says, letting go of your arm.

“Well, maybe you’ll have to punish me, papi,” you whisper, and then you’re leaning up to kiss him. A shiver runs down his spine - who had ever been able to get a reaction out of him like that? - and he damn near ravishes you right there.

But he can’t. He has five minutes now.

He pulls away, reluctantly, taking your hands from his shoulders and squeezing them in his own. “You’re awful,” he mutters, looking into your eyes. “Straight from the womb of Lilith.”

“Ooh. You wound me,” you say sarcastically as he lets you go and starts walking up the courthouse steps. You follow, and once you get to the courtroom you say, “Go get em, tigre.” And then you wink, straightening his tie.

“Do you ever stop, mujer?” he asks, exasperated.

“No rest for the wicked,” you snicker, pecking him on the lips.

He hates you so goddamn much.

---

“I’m working, (y/n),” Rafael mutters.

“You’re always working. You shouldn’t have taken on that other A.D.A.’s cases too. You deserve a break, honey. Let me give you one,” you say, moving closer to press your lips to his jaw. “We don’t have to go out tonight. I can cook something later.”

“What did I buy that dress for then, hmm?” Rafael wasn’t exactly in the habit of gifting things, but after seeing you in that green dress he decided you needed one like that in every color, and he started with a deep red number that he left by the door for you when you walked in his apartment. And, just like the green one, it caught his eye and pulled him from his work whenever you so much as moved.

“I think it’d look better on the floor,” you murmur. “Don’t you?”

“You’re killing me, (y/n),” he groans as he meets your eyes. “Are you sure?”

“I told you not to question me, Rafael—“

“Yes. I know. But I still want your consent.”

“So you are going to stop working?” you purr.

He chuckles. “You let me finish this paragraph and I’ll give you the attention you so clearly crave.”

“How long is that going to take, hm?”

“A lot longer if you keep talking,” Rafael snarks.

“Fine,” you say, and he foolishly thinks that is that, but you have other ideas, as always. Your lips attach to his jaw again, and normally he’d be able to work through that, but one of your hands slips down to stroke his thigh and he can’t even remember who this fucking email was for, never mind what it was about.

“You know it isn’t funny, right?” he asks, glaring at you.

“What, Rafi?” you ask, feigning innocence.

“Teasing me like that,” he says, finally closing the computer and placing it on the end table. He grabs you by the waist and pulls you on top of him, relishing in your squeal of surprise.

You laugh, squirming against his grip on you. He doesn’t let you get away, and pulls you down to kiss you roughly, his tongue dragging against yours as his hands tangle in your hair.

“You’re an awful woman.”

“Mm...so you’ve said,” you say, looking up at him, lust-blown pupils so wide that only a thin ring of iris can be seen. “What are you going to do about it?”

He doesn’t say anything, just kisses you deeply, again and again, moaning softly as he thrusts his clothed cock against you. “Mm, feel me? That’s what you’ve done to me all week.”

“What about what you do to me, papi?” You whimper. “How am I supposed to control myself, mm?”

“Talk about it,” he says, running his hands over your breasts. “Tell me, niñita, and maybe I’ll go easy on you. Make me a deal, cariño.”

“Mm. Love when you talk to me in Spanish,” you say huskily, leaning down to kiss him, trailing down his neck. “Mm, and then when you’re concentrating, you’ll cross your arms across your chest, and your sleeves are rolled up, and mm, all the muscles in your forearms flex, and I can see the veins in your hands bulge as you click your pen open and closed. Amanda makes fun of me for staring, but how can I help it, papi? And don’t even get me started on the suspenders, mm, love to pull on them when we’re alone in your office. Love when you kiss me like I’m your last meal on death row.”

He meets your eyes as you lift your head back up, groaning softly. God, hearing you put a voice to it... and then he kisses you just like that, letting go of any reservations he once had, his hands pulling up your dress as he rolls his hips against yours. “Mm, you’ve been a bad girl, though,” he whispers against your lips. “Letting them know you stare when we’re supposed to be working...”

“I can’t help it, papi,” you say pitifully, trying to grind against him and ultimately failing due to his grip on you.

He chuckles, pecking your lips. “So what do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want if you plead guilty.”

“Guilty to what?”

“Oh, you know what,” he says, running his hands over your now-bare thighs, squeezing your ass lightly, earning a moan from you. “Being a tease. Pulling me up short when I’m trying to work and putting me through hell with teasing me all week. What's your plea, niñita? We both know you're guilty, but I need you to admit it."

"Mm, and if I don't?" you ask, starting to unbutton his suit jacket before he takes your hands in one of his to stop you.

"Then I bring you back to your place."

“You drive a hard bargain, counselor,” you say, drawing your bottom lip in between your teeth. “Mm. I plead guilty to being so attractive that my boyfriend can’t keep his dirty hands off me when we’re supposed to be working,” you tease, smiling cheekily. You were like him, in some ways, sometimes, that brass ego shining through. Rafael knows more than anyone, though, that brass egos always serve to cover up deeper insecurities.

He laughs, drawing himself back to the present, kissing up your jawline to your ear, only to whisper, “Not what I said. Now, do you want me to fuck you or not?”

Your whole body shudders against him, and you suck in a breath as he sucks at your pulse point, your heartbeat racing wildly against his tongue. “Fine. I plead guilty to being a tease. Now for god’s sake, do something else, Rafi,” you whine. “Wanna feel you. Want you to make me feel good.”

“I think we need a change in location,” he says, more to himself than you, and carries you off to the bedroom, flicking on the light before laying you on the bed gently. You were a vision, that tight scarlet dress bundled up at your hips, giving him a peek of the black panties you wore underneath. He takes his suit jacket off, kicks off his shoes, staring at you the whole time. You stare back, blushing at the intensity of his gaze.

"Rafi," you whine. "Come over here."

He laughs. "Miss me already?"

"Need you."

"Well..you can't have these heels on my bed," he says, helping you take them off and then massaging up your legs until his hands are at the precipice of your thighs, your breathing rate audibly increasing as he reaches higher.

"Rafi. Please," you groan as he makes eye contact with you, starting to kiss back down all the skin he just touched. "Who's the tease now?"

"Oh, absolutely still you."

"Objection."

He chuckles against your thigh. "Yeah. See, the difference is I'm going to come back up here and give you what you want. You just leave after you rile me up."

"I had to go back to work,” you protest.

“Mm.”

“Are you actually mad at me? I can stop—“

“Oh, don’t you dare stop,” he says, kissing back up your other leg. “I get splitting headaches, and the interruptions help some.”

“Yeah, the aching goes somewhere else, huh?”

He chuckles. “Guess you could say that.”

“I didn’t want... I didn’t want the first time we had sex to be in the office,” you say. “I’m sorry if that’s what you thought—“

“No, I understand,” he nods, coming back up to kiss you on the lips gently. “I get it. I don’t want to pressure you. I don’t feel like I’m owed anything. Okay?”

“Okay,” you say, kissing him again. “I want to, now, though.”

“Ask and ye shall receive, princesa,” he says, riding up your dress even more to reveal a few inches of your stomach, kissing down to the hemline of your panties before taking them off. “Hermosa,” he breathes, staring at your pussy, already visibly slick from arousal. “Is it okay if I go down on you?”

“By all means,” you say. “If you want to.”

“Of course I want to,” he murmurs.

His tongue delves in, tasting you for the first time. You’re quiet at first, tentative, but as he starts to eat you out the way he kisses you: like a man on death row, as you had quipped, your moans become a chorus to edge him on. He teases you too, purposefully moving away from spots you’re more vocal at, only to be met by your fingers running through his hair and pulling at him, in any attempt to get him back over there. He can’t help but let out soft moans every time you pull hard. His hands reach up to squeeze your hips, and every so often he’ll look up to see your chest heaving, your face flushed. Sometimes your eyes would flutter close as you’d let out a moan, tugging at his hair. He can feel strands against his forehead - you’d broken through the gel he’d put in this morning. “(Y/n),” he grunts, slipping two fingers into you as his tongue swirls around your clit. “Mm, tan dulce...such a pretty cunt. Who are you so wet for? Hm?”

“Ohhhhh, fuck,” you moan, rolling your hips in a vain attempt to ride his fingers. “I think you can make a pretty good guess.”

“No,” he growls. “Tell me. Or I’ll stop.”

And to prove his point, he does - and he knows he’s being mean, verging on cruel, but there’s something about the way you’ve teased him all week that makes him think you’ll respond in kind to his edging. Besides, seeing you beg for him? His cock swells at the mere thought, never mind you actually doing it.

“Rafi, I was so close,” you whine.

“Then be a good girl and tell me who brought you there,” he whispers, his lips searing hot against your hipbone as he pulls his fingers out of you slowly.

“Fuck, fuck, it’s you, Rafael. Only you,” you say desperately, evidently realizing he’s serious. “Please. Please don’t stop.”

“Mm. Buena niña,” he murmurs, and with that he plunges his fingers back into your heat, pressing the pad of his thumb to your clit. “Didn’t take long for you to beg. Such a good girl, (y/n), just for me.”

You whimper, rolling your hips. “Need your tongue. Please.”

Rafael chuckles, but he obliges, swirling his tongue around your clit again and again as he scissors his fingers in and out of you.

“Rafi—I— I’m close,” you choke out as his tongue flicks over your clit a few times in quick succession.

“Good girl. Come for me,” he says, and he knows you’ve let go once your legs start shaking and your hand clenches into a fist in his hair. He laps up whatever you give him, his tongue licking broad strokes, and he has half a mind to think he brought you over the edge again.

Once he’s done, he comes back to kiss you, his tongue against yours, and you moan at the taste of yourself from his lips. “Rafi. Want you.”

“Fucking insatiable,” he chuckles. “Mm. Then why don’t you undress me?”

You reach up and make quick work of his tie, but the buttons on his waistcoat prove to be more difficult. “Oh my god, Rafi, I’m going to rip this fucking thing. You had to wear a three-piece today?”

“If you rip this, I’ll never speak to you again,” he says, half-kidding. “Maybe if you calmed down... what do you need?”

“I want to be good for you,” you murmur. “I don’t have the kind of experience you have and I—“

“Are you fucking serious right now?” he cuts you off and grabs your hand, placing it on his clothed, swollen cock. “You feel what you do to me even when you’re fumbling with my clothes?”

Your tongue darts out to lick your lips, as you keep eye contact with him and palm him through his pants, and he groans, pulling you on his lap and kissing you, harder than he thinks he’s kissed anyone in his life, or at least anyone recently. He finishes the buttons on his vest and unclips his suspenders, kissing you the whole time, and he helps you lift your dress over your head, unclasping your bra and cupping your breasts in his palms, running his thumbs over your nipples, relishing in how you shuddered at his touch. You help him shrug his dress shirt off his shoulders, and he lifts your hips to push two of his fingers in you. You whimper in his ear, probably still sensitive from coming so soon before.

“You still have too many clothes on, Rafi,” you protest, running your hands up his undershirt. God, your hands were smoldering against his chest. He doesn’t say anything as you pull the fabric of the shirt up. He knows he’s under your mercy now, and if he’s being honest, he likes the constant relinquishing and then gaining of control more than he thought he would.

Your hands run over his nipples a little too long, causing his breath to catch, and he tries not to let out a moan but he ultimately fails. You noticed everything, anyway. He would’ve been found out at some point.

“Mm? You like that?”

He nods wordlessly, and you lift the shirt over his head.

“Help me get those pants off you and I’ll give you what you want, papi,” you purr in his ear.

"What I want is to be in you,” he murmurs, as you pull down the zipper and unbutton them. Rafael places you on the bed gently, deciding to take them off himself and his boxers follow suit.

"What the hell, Rafael?" you ask, blushing.

"What?" he asks, suddenly self-concious.

"L-like no one ever told you that you’re packing," you stammer. "Now I know where that ego comes from."

"Shut up, (y/n)," he laughs, relaxing a little, and comes to lie down next to you again, kissing you gently, his cock throbbing painfully with anticipation. Then, you run your hands over his chest again, and pinch his nipples lightly, and he's a mess, moaning your name, running his hands up and down your waist as he comes to lie on his back.

"Mm, now I know what to do to get what I want," you giggle, your hair falling in your face and -- oh, your tongue swirls over his left one and every nerve ending in his body is on fire. This, the culmination to the hell week, it might be too much. He might actually die right here.

"(Y/n), please," he begs.

"What?" you ask, moving your mouth to the other nipple and your hand moves down to his cock, stroking him gently.

"You need--oh fuck, (y/n), fuck,” he pants. Not many coherent thoughts run through his head at this point.

"Words, Rafael," you say, your voice lowering an octave.

"I-- you need to stop, (y/n). Too good. Need to be in you now or I won't last," he chokes out.

You oblige. "We'll save that for another day," you chuckle, lying down next to him. "How do you want me?"

"Too many ways to count. But... do you want to ride me?”

“Sure, but you need to help me out first. It’s been a while,” you say, blushing.

"Anything you need," he says gently, motioning for you to lie on your back, his tip teasing at your clit before he pushes himself into you, a few inches and you're already whimpering. "You good?"

"Yeah. You can keep going."

Your hair is splayed across his pillow, your breasts tantalize him with each breath...god, he was never going to be able to get this sight out of his head. He's stopped short for a moment, looking at you. You look up at him and smile, and he smiles back, an intimacy there that’s maybe unprecedented.

It takes a few minutes before he bottoms out fully, your walls quivering against him.

“Mm, fuck, Rafi,” you moan, running your fingers over his nipples again, bucking your hips against his. His lips attach to your neck, sucking gently on your left side, careful not to leave a mark. “Help me get on top.”

He does as you say, and you’re tentative at first, needing some encouragement from him, but your body knows what it’s doing. He’s so horny and strung out from the week that anything could bring him over the edge.

It’s his fucking nipples that threaten to do it again, though, and he knows they’re going to be sore tomorrow from all your rough ministrations. He never had a woman be so enthusiastic about playing with them before, and it’s just another way you drive him absolutely insane.

“(Y/n), fuck!” he groans. “You have to stop.”

You pout, drawing your hands away from him, quickening your pace. He leans forward to press his thumb against your clit, eliciting his name from your lips over and over again.

“Mm. Take my cock so well, bebita, mm, buena niña,” he says under his breath. “Such a good girl for me. Mm. Come on. Get off on my cock.”

He meets you thrust for thrust now, and he can feel it before you can, your walls tighten against him, and in seconds he has you flipped over, driving into you brutally from that angle as you fall apart, high-pitched moans and heavy breaths falling from your kiss-bruised lips.

The clenching of your walls is enough to drive him over the edge, and he bites at your shoulder without thinking, the feeling too much as he spills himself into you. “Such a good girl,” he whispers, kissing and licking at the bite mark. “Mm... fuck.”

"Mm, try not to think about that when we're at work," you laugh and he groans, flopping down on the mattress, his face pressing into the pillow.

"You are going to be the death of me, cariño," Rafael says, laughing too.

But oh, what a way to go to hell.

Chapter Text

Rafael walks up the stairs to the precinct, his pulse racing and his heart pounding in his ears. Even his stomach feels queasy, and he can’t remember the last time he was ever this anxious. Olivia called him at one in the morning, saying she needed him there to talk about where they could get with this case. She never mentioned you - and he knew you were set up to be the thirst trap. Why wouldn’t she say anything about how you were? All he can think is the worst, and of course, she wouldn’t say anything to him. She may have suspected something was going on between the two of you, but she was never going to push his buttons and call him out on it over the phone. But that also meant that if you were hurt... he’d be the last to know. You hadn’t called him on your own, either, so something must have happened.

And sure enough, when he gets to the bullpen you’re at your desk, alone, huddled in a shock blanket, staring listlessly at the walls. Your makeup is done up like a working girl’s, all heavy dark eyeshadow and red lipstick, and he can see peeks of a tight sequined black dress underneath the blanket and torn fishnets on your legs. Eventually, your gaze meets his and you furrow your brow in confusion as he walks quicker toward you.

“What’s the matter with you?” you ask.

“What's the matter with me? (Y/n), what the hell? Why didn’t you call me?” he asks frantically. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Rafael,” you say as he kneels down in front of you. “Be quiet. They’re going to hear you and Sonny’s gonna be back any minute.“

“You think I care about that? What the hell happened?”

“Nothing! I’m fine. Olivia just didn’t want me in the room with him. It’s okay,” you mutter, shrugging. “I’m only wearing the blanket because I’m cold. Nothing happened to me.”

Rafael walks over to you and kneels down in front of you, peeling the blanket off to reveal fresh bruises and scratches, the imprints of another man’s fingertips and nails brandishing the skin of your shoulders. “Nothing happened to you? Bullshit. What’s all over your arms, cariño?”

“He got handsy. What did you think was going to happen? But do you honestly think Olivia would let anything worse than that happen to me? I’m okay,” you say defensively as tears build up in your eyes.

“You don't look okay! Why are you crying, then? (Y/n)--"

“Why are you yelling at me?” you cut him off, your voice straining as you wipe under your eyes with the back of your hands, black streaks of eyeliner smudging onto them. “Jesus Christ. You’re making me feel like I'm the one you're prosecuting. Go do your job. Don’t worry about me.”

But he did worry, now, because you had somehow figured out how to weasel into his life even though the No Vacancy sign was flashing. And it doesn’t even feel like a choice, it feels more like he owes it to you, and he’s honestly not sure how much he likes that. Still, though, he presses his lips to yours and takes off his suit jacket, draping it around your shoulders, giving you something of him to comfort you and put over the wounds someone else caused you. And isn’t that all love is? A healing balm for the pain we’ve been caused?

Rafael swallows thickly. He can’t be bothered to think of that now. He cares about you, but he doesn’t love you. Right?

Okay then.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. Stop crying,” he says, trying to level his voice.

You laugh a little, a few tears still rolling down your cheeks. “Wow. You could teach a class on comfort. Stop crying? Who knew that was all anyone had to say?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do,” he whispers, reaching down and squeezing your hands.

“Hey. You got me to laugh. And anyway... It’s okay. I told you I’m fine.”

You don’t say anything else, and Rafael really doesn’t know what else to do, so he just kisses you, one of his hands leaving yours to smooth down your hair.

“I’m okay,” you whisper against his lips as you pull away. “You weren’t called here because of me. Go do your job.”

“(Y/n)—“

But he’s cut off from continuing because he hears the bullpen office door open and he glances up at you. “I told you Sonny was gonna be back,” you whisper, and your eyes are urging him to go but it’s too late. You’re still wearing his suit jacket and Rafael has your lipstick on his mouth. The unspoken “secret” is going to be spoken now, and fuck it, maybe it’s about time.

“Hey, (y/n), they didn’t have that tea you wanted so I got you a hot chocolate and... oh. I’m sorry. Am I interrupting something?” he says as he walks in, standing in front of your desk with a tray of hot drinks and a bag of pastries.

“No,” you say. “Rafael was just gonna go see what Liv needed.”

“I know that, but I mean...” His blue eyes dart between you and Rafael knowingly and he grins. “Guess you weren’t lying about the boyfriend just so I’d stop trying to set you up with my Fordham buddies.”

“No,” you say, winking at Rafael. “I deserve better than that, anyway. I like ‘em Harvard Law educated.”

Even Rafael has to laugh at that, especially when Carisi rolls his eyes as he puts the food down on his desk. “You got her dogging Fordham now, Barba? She used to be such a nice girl, too.”

“Mm. Rafael made me mean just like him,” you giggle, clearly having too much fun with this. “He’s an awful influence.”

“Well, damn. I guess Amanda was right. I mean, we all kinda figured, but... Amanda would’ve bet her whole life savings that something was going on. Well, good for you guys. You want me to keep my mouth shut, too, or...?”

“Can we trust you to?” you ask.

“Won’t even tell Sarge. Promise.”

“Mm. No. It’s okay, (y/n),” Rafael interjects was he glances at you. “I think it’s time we give up the charade, don’t you?”

“I’ve only been saying that for a good two months,” you tease, but you lean over and press your lips to the side of his mouth. Was this how you were going to be, now that you could show affection in front of them? Maybe this is part of why he wanted it under wraps; he didn’t want the squad to see just how much he had let you into his life. He has a reputation to uphold, and a lot of it was built on the fact that he came off as stoic, stern, and standoffish. And yet, with a simple touch, you destroyed that illusion and made it seem like the front that it was.

“Olivia’s going to be wondering where you are. I’m fine. Go,” you tell him, and he nods, squeezing your hand again before getting up and heading down the hallway to meet her.

The case seemed simple enough, although he needs a positive ID from the rape victims and the suspect wasn’t budging. He kept telling Amanda that you wanted it, and it’s all Rafael can do to not break through the glass and choke him out. And it’s not that Rafael was jealous, because he wasn’t. As long as you wanted him more than others, that was all that mattered, and he knows you’d never want this son of a bitch in a million years. But he’d never quite had the sympathy for upset significant others in these situations until now. Listening to this asshole talk in hypotheticals about what he’d do to you? Thank god you weren’t subjected to listen to this.

“Sorry for waking you up,” Olivia says. “But thank you for coming. I wanted to know what you thought when we brought him in.”

“It’s fine, Liv,” he says. “I don’t sleep anyway. Besides, it’s always good to get ahead. Is (y/n) set to testify? She’s going to need to, considering she was bait and...I know that can be difficult for her. I just want this airtight.”

“She’s just a little shaken right now. Did you talk to her when you came in?”

“Yes. You know what happened to her, though, when she was younger, don’t you? I just don’t think it’s fair to have her be the one who draws the suspects out like that, considering..."

Olivia’s eyes widen and she touches his shoulder, forcing him to look at her worried facial expression. “Did she say something to you? I know she can push herself too far sometimes, but I wouldn’t have allowed this if I thought she wasn’t able to handle it.”

“No. I think she can handle it. I just don’t think she should have to.”

Her hand squeezes his shoulder gently before letting go, and she gives him a tight smile. "I know. It's really sweet that you care so much, though, Rafael. I guess you really do have a soft spot for her, hm?"

"Oh Jesus Christ, Olivia. Just say that you know I've been seeing her outside of work,” he sighs exasperatedly.

Olivia laughs, her brown eyes gleaming. "I was wondering if you were ever going to tell me. Carisi catch you?"

"Maybe."

"So how long? Amanda thinks six months, but I wasn't sure."

Rafael snickers. "You need to keep her on a leash. But no. She's right. It's been about six months."

"Well, good for you, Rafael."

“So what happens now?”

“You take her home.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah. That’s it.”

“You’re not upset?”

“Upset? Why would I be upset? I think you two are good for each other. You keep her grounded, she keeps you young.”

Rafael scoffs. “Nice armchair psychoanalysis.”

“Is that why you tried to keep it hidden, though? You thought I was going to be upset?”

“I don’t know. I’m a lot older—“

“Not my concern. If she's okay with it, who am I to intervene? She’s not someone I ever pictured you with, but... like I said. You’re good for each other, and I trust you to keep things in line. You have so far.”

“Maybe not, if everyone figured it out."

"Well, you may be careful to a fault, Rafael, but subtlety is not your strong suit."

"Do I want to know what that refers to?"

"Probably not," she says, her brown eyes teasing. "But I was sitting next to you at the bar a few weeks ago and that's when I knew without a shadow of a doubt."

It takes Rafael a minute to think back to what she might be thinking of - so what, he left abruptly? Amanda was the one who got you two in a cab together... and then he remembers his hands between your thighs and your hands between his, and he feels his face flush of its own accord. "I'm sorry--"

"Keep in mind that I have eyes, and this is fine with me, okay?" Olivia laughs. "You might have a tougher time with the D.A., though."

Rafael shrugs, willing his blush to cool down. "I'll deal with it when the time comes.”

Just then, Amanda and Nick come out from the interrogation room, and immediately Amanda’s saying, “Hey, what’s got Barba all flustered? (Y/n) in that dress too much for him?”

Rafael shoots Olivia a glare. “That leash? It needs to be about ten inches shorter.”

Olivia chuckles and looks at Amanda. “Cat’s out of the bag, Amanda. You were right. He just admitted it.”

“Son of a bitch,” Nick sighs. “I can’t believe I’m going to be out $100 for this shit.”

“You actually bet on us?” Rafael asks incredulously. “You two are unbelievable. I thought you weren’t supposed to gamble, Rollins?”

“It’s not gambling when you know you’ll win, is it?” Amanda grins. “Thanks for the $100, Barba.”

“Yeah, no problem,” he snarks.

“You charging him so we can get out of here?” Nick asks.

“Yeah. Attempted assault for now so we can book him,” Rafael says, nodding.

Rafael talks to the suspect’s lawyer and has a conversation that will give him a headache into tomorrow, but there isn’t much to be said when there’s footage of him grabbing you thanks to cameras set up outside the club. And for the first time, he gets to leave the precinct with you without staggering your departure times so the squad didn’t see you leave together. He's surprised at how nice it is, even if he could do without Amanda and Carisi's comments.

“I told you it wouldn’t be so bad if they knew. I honestly don’t think they care as much as you thought they were going to,” you say as you walk with him down the stairs, your hand in his. You’re still clad in his suit jacket, wearing it like it was yours now, even buttoning one of the buttons toward the top.

“Still. It’s not exactly appropriate that we’re seeing each other.”

“Yeah, I know. But thank you for coming around.”

Rafael doesn’t say anything, just hails a cab. You lean your head against his shoulder as you wait, your tousled hair brushing against his lips. “Are you sure you’re alright? I watched the footage and—“

“I’m fine, Rafael. Really. Bruises will heal.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

You’re about to answer but a cab pulls over and you get in wordlessly, Rafael following. He thinks you’re about to continue, but you don’t, you stay silent.

“(Y/n)? Talk to me,” he says gently after a few moments.

You draw in a breath, nodding slowly. “Yeah. I’ll be alright, honey. I mean, I had to expect that would happen. This is what happens when you’re the youngest female detective on the squad... and... let’s just say I look forward to getting older.”

“They can’t force you to go undercover like that. I can talk to—“

“No. You’re not talking to anyone for me, tough guy,” you say, smiling softly. “It’s not like that. I offered. I hate doing it, but...whenever I do, I just think about how I’m going to get away practically unscathed because I have a whole team of detectives watching out for me. What about all those girls who don’t have that? I’m doing it for them, so we get these pieces of shit off the street. It’s just... what gets to you is them looking at you like another piece of meat. That’s what haunts me, that’s what’s going to keep me up at night... but I’m okay.”

“It doesn’t sound like it! Jesus Christ.”

“It was worse doing it for homicide in Boston, looking into eyes that envisioned you dead,” you say, and Rafael feels a shiver run up his spine. “Believe me. I’ve had worse nights.”

“I just don’t think you should be doing it at all, though, given what happened to you—“

“It’s part of the job. It’s not the same. I expected this,” you murmur, and you’re silent for the rest of the ride, and you’re silent as you walk up to the apartment with him, and you’re silent as you take your makeup off in his bathroom, sullen tears slipping from your eyes down your cheeks. Rafael stands in the doorway, feeling that pit in his stomach grow stronger.

“Cariño? Why are you crying? Did I push you too far? I’m sorry.” He walks in, coming to stand next to you.

“It’s... the rape. Sometimes I still feel like I’ll never get over it.”

“Oh, bebita,” he exhales, his heart breaking a little, you seeping in through the cracks. In his career, he dealt with many victims of horrible things, men and women of similar circumstances to yours. He never quite thought about what happened to them after he prosecuted their rapists, never thought of the havoc it could wreak even decades later, and now he feels terrible for it. Who was he to think his prosecution of their rapists did anything more than placate them momentarily? “Did I do something wrong? I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry.”

“No. It’s not you. You’ve been so good,” you say, wiping your eyes with the tissue, a few leftover streaks of mascara bleeding onto it. “I don’t know. I was always told I’d never be a detective by my superiors in the academy, that I’d be stuck doing desk work because I was ‘too emotional’ or ‘too damaged’. I lasted a week in the Crimes Against Children Unit in Boston. A fucking week! The only reason I ever made it out onto the field was because the homicide lieutenant was desperate for staff. He would alternate between keeping the training wheels on and then taking them off, and it was just sickening. I never felt like a real detective. And here, I mean... Olivia’s like that too, kind of, but at least she only makes me step back when it is absolutely necessary. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a detective. It would’ve been nice to have one part of my life this didn’t touch.”

“Come here,” Rafael says quietly, because he doesn’t know what else to say, and he lets you into his embrace, hugging you tightly into his chest. “You’re a great detective, and I’m not just saying that, (y/n). But you don’t have to do this to do your job. I don’t see Carisi wearing skintight dresses and I don’t see him with bruises up and down his arms, and he still gets paid the same as you.”

“Mm, Sonny in a skintight dress? That’d be something to see,” you giggle. “But I told you why I do this. It’s not just because I want to prove myself to the NYPD, it’s to protect those girls—“

“Okay. That’s admirable. But you’re paying for it now. And who’s protecting you?” You lift your head from his chest to look at him incredulously; as if he just figured out the world’s most complex math problem, and maybe he did just figure out one of your enigmas. “Let’s get you out of this dress, hmm?”

“I don’t want to have sex tonight,” you murmur. “Sorry—“

“That isn’t what I meant,” he says quietly. “Don’t apologize to me.”

“Oh?” you ask, your brow furrowing even more. “I thought—“

"No. Come on."

And it's quiet as he unzips your dress, as you slip one of his shirts over his head, as both of you brush your teeth before heading to bed. Rafael thinks you fell asleep as you're still silent for a few moments, staying stiff on your side of the bed, but you turn over and say, "Thank you, Rafi."

"For what?"

"For being so understanding. For being here, you know?" you say, pressing your lips to his. "I don't like to bring up my exes, but a lot of them just didn't get it and they just made me feel like I was never gonna be normal."

Rafael pulls you into his chest, kissing the top of your head. "You deserve so much better than that," he says, all too aware of how hollow that statement is. Of course you did. But was he really that much better? And did you love those exes? Was that all you were destined for, loving men who would never let you into their lives? You'd probably picked the most emotionally unavailable man on the block this time. But he wants to let you in, needs to, even if it terrifies him. He does care about you that much, and you had weaseled your way into most aspects of his life.

Still, though, there was a huge part of his life you hadn’t been introduced to: his Mami.

He has to let you meet her. You’ve been asking, maybe even practically begging, and he has to now. There’s a list of men and women he slept with that his mother never met, and maybe that’s a sin, maybe that’s what will send him to hell, because yes, maybe those rules about abstaining from sex before marriage are antiquated, but at least your mother should meet her, preferably before you bang her. He was too late for before, now, but you have to at some point.

The problem was that he hadn't mentioned you to his mother at all.

"Six months, Rafael Eduardo Barba, six months, you been taking this girl out on dates, you been buying her dinners, having her over your apartment, sleeping with her, and you don't have the decency to tell your mother? Ay, what is she like? Is she bonita? Is she inteligente? Oh, Rafa, is she Catholic?" His mother's phone tangent almost never ended. She wanted to know everything about you down to your social security number. Part of it was probably due to the fact that he hadn't introduced anyone to his mother in at least three years, maybe five, and she hated the last woman with a passion. God, Rafael barely remembered her name now, and he thinks Alex set him up with her.

He almost thought his mother passed out when he told her how old you were. But then, of course, she said it was a sign from God and that you were going to give her at least three grandchildren, preferably five. It was always one of Lucia Barba’s biggest regrets that she only had one child, having grown up with seven siblings, but Rafael always saw it as a blessing in disguise. His father didn’t need any more targets.

God, that phone call was hell. But he has to let you into his family life, so... it was going out to dinner with his mother on a Wednesday night.

“When am I going to meet your parents?” He asks you at dinner while you’re waiting for his mother to show up.

You smile. “We’ll see.”

“Not really fair.”

“My parents are miles away. Your mother is a cab ride away. It’s really not fair that I haven’t met her yet.”

“You use up all your vacation days to go see your brother. You could’ve taken me to meet them any of those times. You’ve gone at least three times since we’ve started dating.”

“Well. You’re always busy when I go.”

“I can ask for time off, (y/n),” he says, but that thought is left on hold as his mother walks in the restaurant, heading straight for their table. He smiles when he sees her, getting up and hugging her and kissing her cheek.

You get up too, scooting out of the booth behind Rafael. You shake her hand. “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Barba. I’m (Y/n).”

“Si, it’s nice to meet you too, sweetheart. You can call me Lucia. So. How did you meet my boy?"

“Work,” you say, sliding back into the booth before Rafael. “He works with the squad I’m on.”

“Yes. Special victims unit. Tough job. You must be a tough woman,” she says, sympathetically. “Now...You’re a lot younger than my boy,” she says after a few minutes and Rafael almost slams the table and walks out. God, he loves his mother but this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about.

“What is it, 15 years, give or take?” you ask, turning to Rafael.

“Seventeen,” he murmurs, feeling sick. He’s never felt so old. There was his mother, who had him at seventeen years old. What the hell did she actually think about him being with you?

“Do your parents know how old he is?” Mami asks.

You nod, which surprises him. He didn’t know you’d had that conversation. “He hasn’t met them yet, though.”

“Ay, at least you have a good excuse. They live away. You know, I haven’t met anyone in a few years. Rafa’s been a priest. Or didn’t like them enough to bring them to me. You must be special.”

Thankfully, the waiter comes over, takes everyone’s order, and Rafael is able to rein the conversation in a little, talk about work, the weather, anything other than the topics his Mami was particularly drawn to. You ask about his abuelita, and his mother frowns.

“She doesn’t get out much these days. We’re worried about her health.”

“She should be in a nursing home,” Rafael says, pursing his lips. “She’s stubborn, though.”

“Let her have one more Thanksgiving and Christmas at home, Rafa,” Mami says. “We can talk about that next year.”

“I’d love to meet her,” you say. “Rafael talks highly of her.”

“Ay, she raised him the days I couldn’t. We both owe her so much,” she says, her eyes welling up. “When’s the next time you’re free during the day? Come with Rafa and me and being her groceries. She really never gets to meet Rafa’s girlfriends.”

“I’d love to,” you say, smiling brightly.

"You know, Rafa tells me you cook. You want some recipes?" She asks you. "I've always wanted to pass down abuelita's recipes, but Rafael can barely make rice, and he's never had a girlfriend who could cook either, far as I know."

"I'd love them, thank you! Rafael's always asking if I know how to make Cuban recipes, but I don't."

"Rafael eats too much takeout. I worry about his blood pressure," his mother says.

"That's what I tell him!" you say and Rafael rolls his eyes. Of course his mother would find something to gang up with you on against him. Traitor.

His mother gets a cab, and leaves you and Rafael alone on the street. “Do you think she likes me?”

Rafael laughs, hugging you. “Yes. She wouldn’t give recipes to just anyone, believe me. It’d be hard to dislike you, cariño.” He lets you go, taking your hand in his as you walk down the street toward your apartment a few blocks away.

“Really? Because you hated me when we first met.”

“No, I didn’t. Why are you saying that?”

“You sure didn’t seem like you liked me.”

“I did. I always did.”

“Even when I told you off?”

“Mm. What did you say to me? No woman wants anything to do with me?”

“I guess I might’ve been wrong?”

“You think? I got you to stick around.”

“Hey. It’s been six months. Don’t get cocky. Anyone can do six months.”

He doesn’t say anything, just squeezes your hand. He hadn’t put in over six months with anyone in well, about six years. So maybe not anyone could, but he'd let you in, and you were staying, weren’t you?

“I like her. I see where you got a lot of things from.”

“Really? Everyone used to say I look like my father.”

“I don’t mean you look like her, I mean you act like her.”

“Oh,” Rafael says, pondering on that for a moment. Maybe he could handle looking into his father’s face in the mirror if his mother’s values were truly behind it. “When do I meet your parents?”

“Christmas?”

“Why not Thanksgiving?”

“Too soon.”

“How is that fair? And it’s two months away.”

“Fine,” you grumble. “Thanksgiving. All they do when they’re in the same room is fight. I’m not really looking forward to you seeing that.”

Rafael laughs. “Looks like I won’t get in a word in edgewise. Perfect first impression: they won’t even notice me.”

You chuckle. “They care. They’re good parents. But they shouldn’t have had children together, that’s a certainty."

——

His mother calls him that night, a few moments after he gets back to his apartment. “Mami, what are you still doing up?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about that girl?” she asks.

“What?”

“You heard me, Rafael. Don’t play stupid with me, not anymore.”

Rafael sighs. “I just didn’t. I’ve been meaning to.”

“You’re my son. I know when you lie to me. There’s a reason you kept her from me.”

“Mami, I’m 43,” he says heavily.

“I know how old you are, I was there the day you were born. You give me a good reason now, Rafael. Because I don’t understand it. She’s smart, she’s beautiful. She has a good job. I can tell she cares about you. Why did you think I wouldn’t like her?”

Rafael laughs, smiling against his phone. “I knew you’d like her. That’s why I haven’t mentioned her.”

“Ay, Rafael, you make no sense.”

“Yes. I’m aware.”

“So explain to your poor madre!”

“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” he says softly.

“What? My hopes up for what?”

“Don’t make me say it,” he whispers.

“No. You say it, Rafael. Tell me so I don’t make any mistake.”

“I didn’t want you to get your hopes up in case I don’t end up marrying her!” The words hurt as they leave his mouth, turning around and stabbing him in the chest.

“But you did introduce me to her.”

And that’s where Rafael realizes his mistake.

“Do you want to marry this girl, Rafael?”

“I... I don’t know. You know how I feel about that—“

“Hmm. So you give me false hope anyway.”

“I care about her a lot, Mami.”

“But do you care about her enough?”

Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? He doesn’t know the answer. You two could never be perfect; could never be the ideal he had in his head because ideals weren’t real. Fairy tale romances didn't exist. So why try? Why get married, get tied down? Why not just keep a distance? You didn’t need to live with him, you didn’t need to take his last name, you didn’t need to have his children. You could just keep him company when he was lonely, and you could leave when he wasn't. And even now - you went back to sleep at your apartment because you had to wake up early the next morning to run with Amanda before work, and he had work to do tonight, and this way you didn't disturb him. It was just easier this way.

Right?

Maybe you didn’t want to get married at all, much less to an old man like him. You were still young, and you had years to settle down and figure things out.

Why was he hesitating? Men like him didn’t get women like you every day, and maybe that’s why men buy rings and ask for signatures on binding documents, he realizes with disgust. It’s why his father did it - his father was a decade older than his mother and he knocked her up and trapped her to a lifetime of suffering before she was legally able to vote or drink. Rafael didn’t want to be like that- you should feel free to leave him without worrying about divorce papers or the wrath of God.

Okay then.

If he could only have the good parts, it'd be fine. Waking up with you in the morning, your homecooked dinners that pull him away from his work just when he's getting fed up, the teasing that drives him up the wall but eases the tension in his shoulders... it's just, when you get upset and cry too much, when he's genuinely trying to work and you want to make out... and, oh, god, when you see him, when you just look at him and act like you know everything he's been through for the past four decades... It's too much. He doesn't want all of that.

Right?

Okay then.

Chapter Text

The defense had gotten word. And it was your fault. Maybe it’s just how it goes, a domino effect: one person finds out and then another person finds out and then another... It wasn’t all the defense attorneys in Manhattan at once, thank God, but it was the one and only Rita Calhoun, and you were set to testify tomorrow. You’re in his office like a bat out of hell the second you get her message, complete with a picture of the two of you closer than what was appropriate outside the courthouse, most likely taken at an inopportune moment from Rita’s cellphone when you kissed him despite his half-hearted protests. Rafael wonders how much ibuprofen he can take before his liver starts sending him death threats as he stares at it, takes a deep breath, and then looks up at you.

“Well. This isn’t great.”

“Not great? This is terrible, Rafael. And it’s my fault. Now what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” he sighs, leaning back in his chair.

You narrow your eyes at him. “Why don’t you seem as concerned about this as I am?”

“I’m concerned. Believe me, I’m concerned. But this was bound to happen, (y/n). Both of us knew that.”

“But I mean... if it comes between our careers and our relationship...” you say, anxiety bleeding into your tone as you fiddle with your watch. “What are we going to do? There’s no outcome where it’s fair if it comes to that.”

See why it’s easier to be alone? This would’ve never happened if you just let him be. But he swallows that down with two pills and a swig of coffee and doesn’t verbalize it.

“It’s not going to come to that,” Rafael says, even though he doesn’t quite believe it himself. Your worries weren’t completely unfounded, especially since he had no idea how Rita was going to play it in court. It could very well come to that. But you didn’t need to hear it from his mouth.

“What are you going to do, then?” you ask; your hands on your hips.

“I believe it’s what ‘we’ are going to do, cariño, since we’re both in this mess, together. Right?”

You shoot him a withering look before you start pacing the room. “You’re unbelievable. Why are you not stressed about this? You’ll get strung out about a bad headline from some no-name journalist or a slight glitch in a case but this? You’re making jokes? Do you not care if we have to end it? Is that it?”

“No, (y/n). Sit down. Of course I care, but I’m not a miracle worker or a mind reader.”

“So then call Rita! See if you can work something out with her.”

“Can you trust me?”

“I don’t know. Can I?"

“Jesus. Have a little faith in me, will you, mujer?”

You roll your eyes but you finally stop pacing and sit across from him. “What’s your plan, then?”

“I’m not calling Rita. No, hear me out,” he says, glaring at your exasperated facial expression. “If I go running to her with my tail between my legs, then that just proves there’s something going on, and while that picture is incriminating... it’s not exactly proof.”

“So what? You want me to commit perjury? Have every case I ever testified in be thrown out because I’m not only in a relationship with the attorney who prosecuted them, but because I’m a liar to boot?”

“Can you calm down and just listen to me? Hmm? Do you think you can do that?” Rafael says, trying not to let his irritation show. You are pissing him off a little, though. Hysterics aren’t going to solve anything, and surely you know that.

“Fine. But you’re not saying anything I like so far.”

Rafael sighs and rubs his face with hands. “Maybe because you haven’t exactly let me speak, cariño. Now, I’ve seen this situation happen before, albeit not exactly like this. One of the other district attorneys in Brooklyn was married to a doctor who testified in a lot of her cases. Not exactly the most ethical arrangement in the world, either, but it slid. Some defense attorneys tried to bring it up and discredit him, but both of them had a good reputation and nothing much ever came from that.”

"This is a lot different, though, Rafael."

He shrugs. "In a way. It'd be worse if you were a higher rank, but you've only been on the squad for a year and you're not looking for promotions, right?"

"Even if I was, I wouldn't get one any time soon. But if this gets out, though, your political career—“

Rafael chuckles. "What political career? That's been a lost cause ever since I charged Alex. He made sure of that."

"I just feel so bad, though, honey. You're always telling me to stop in case someone sees—“

"Don't. We're going to figure this out, okay?" he says, looking at you intently. "Okay?"

"Okay," you say, exhaling maybe for the first time since you stepped into his office. "I really am sorry, though. God, I feel so stupid."

"Well, don't. You're not. Like I said, this was bound to happen. Maybe it's better if we just get it over with," Rafael shrugs, then reaches for your hand across his desk. "We'll figure it out.”

But wouldn't it be so much easier if you didn't?

——--

Carisi is outside the courthouse with you, a comforting arm around your shoulder. Rafael bites back a comment. You don’t need any grief today.

“Hey, Barba,” Carisi says. “You doing okay?”

“I’m not the one going up on the stand,” he says, feeling a sense of pride when you leave Carisi’s arms for his own, even if that's not the most appropriate place for you to be right now.

“This is insane,” Carisi says, shaking his head. “I can't believe Calhoun's going to bring this up. I mean, it's not like you give us any breaks because you're with her; if anything you're harder on us—“

"Shush," Rafael snaps, shooting him a dirty look. "We don't know if that's what she's aiming for, although I do suppose we have a good idea. She wants to confuse the jury, muddy the waters. You want to be a lawyer? Get used to playing dirty. You'll do it, too. Are you doing okay?” he asks, turning to you.

“Been better. We have backup plans for our backup plans, depending on the route she goes with. Just gotta get through it and not fuck up."

"Hey, that's the spirit," Carisi says, grinning as he squeezes your shoulder. The three of you walk up the steps and try to settle into your respective seats in the courtroom. But you never make it on the witness stand, because Rita calls to approach before you can be sworn in. Rafael is thankful for little blessings. Much better that this came up in the judge's chambers than in open court.

"Your Honor, I don't think that the next witness should be called given her personal relationship with the prosecutor of this case,” Rita says. "I have photos--"

"No need. She's not lying," Rafael interjects, glaring at her.

"You're welcome for the heads-up, by the way," she says, smirking at him. "But again, given the fact that Mr. Barba is dating the witness... how can he be expected to be impartial, especially since she is going to accuse my client of attempting to assault her while she was undercover?"

"Don't you think this should have come up earlier, Mr. Barba?" the judge asks, crossing her arms. "Now, I'll allow this because I know she worked on this case - but tread lightly. I don't want to have to call a mistrial."

"Won't be necessary, Your Honor," he replies, leaving the bench and heading back to his seat. You're sworn in, and he runs through the questions he'd already asked you a million times - where were you, how did you meet the defendant, what the defendant did to you, how you and the squad tied him to the rest of the victims. You do a phenomenal job, and Rita can only object once successfully.

But when Rita's allowed to cross... she doesn't hold back.

"So, Detective... would you like to elaborate on your relationship with the prosecutor of this case?"

"Objection? Relevance?" Rafael asks.

"I'll make my point clear."

"I'll allow it, but let's not make this a showcase, Ms. Calhoun?" the judge says, nodding to you.

"We're dating," you say, keeping your voice level.

"Right... and let's say something happened to you. Like any significant other, he'd be upset, correct? Was he there the night in question? Did he see this happen to you?"

"He wasn't at the club, no, but he did come into the precinct later on in the night."

"Right. So he saw you after the incident. Don't you think, maybe, tensions were high, you had just gone undercover... and the two of you read into this more than you should have?"

"Did the whole precinct? Because it was my sergeant who decided to bring him in for questioning before Mr. Barba even looked at this case," you say matter-of-factly.

"Let me rephrase. Did he talk to you or my client first?"

"He spoke with me first."

"So, before he even meets my client, he talks to you, and he has that in the back of his mind the entire time. Now, anyone would want to take the side of their significant other, and you thought that you were luring out a potential rapist. Of course, he's going to take your word for it: he loves you, doesn't he? So, from the beginning of the case, his emotions already ruled over his decisions."

"Objection. Speculation," Rafael states as he stands up. Fucking Rita, using the 'L' word before he'd even thought about telling you that.

"Why don't you tell us, then, Mr. Barba?" Rita says coolly.

"Enough, you two," the judge sighs heavily. "Continue, Ms. Calhoun, but get to the point."

"I think I'm all set. No further questions."

"I'm calling for a short recess after that lovely display," the judge declares, rolling her eyes. "Court will return in 30 minutes."

You're staring at Rafael as you step down from the stand, and you make your way over to him. "How do you think that went?"

"It went. We'll see," he murmurs, shrugging. "You did a great job, cariño.”

"So did she. I mean, there’s reasonable doubt—“

But you’re cut off from that thought because Rita’s walking over, a smirk playing on her lips. “This is cute, hm?”

“What do you want, Rita?” Rafael asks, sighing exasperatedly. “It didn’t work out so well for you. She still got to testify.”

“We’ll see how long that lasts. How long has it been for you two, though?"

“It’s been a while.”

“It’s not a good look. You work far too closely with SVU to be sleeping with one of their detectives. Surely you should know that?”

“I’m standing right here, Rita,” you mutter through gritted teeth.

“Well, the adults are talking.”

About a million emotions flash through your eyes, and Rafael just hopes to God you don’t start crying because that will only make it worse, and he knows Rita didn’t mean it to be bitchy. Her tone was light enough to be joking, and she probably meant it more along the lines of ‘the lawyers are speaking’, but he knows you wouldn’t take it that way. Thankfully, though, you manage to bite back your tears and nod.

“Well, then, I’ll let them talk,” you snap and brush past Rita out of the courtroom.

“(Y/n), don’t—“ Rafael starts but you don’t look back, and he sighs, glaring at Rita. “Was that necessary?”

“She’s emotional, hm?” Rita says as he starts to put his things into his briefcase. “Though I find most SVU detectives to be. At least she's pretty.”

Rafael snickers. “Thanks for your approval, but I didn't need it."

"Apparently you don't think you need anyone's approval. Don't you think this is an iffy situation at best? How long were you going to try and get away with it? Really, I think you should be thanking me for forcing it to come to light. McCoy must not be happy."

"Mm, yes. Thank you for harassing my girlfriend on the stand, Rita," he says with a grimace as he closes his briefcase. "I don't bring up your personal life in this courtroom and believe me, if I wanted to, I could find something. I expect you to show me the same courtesy from now on."

"Fine. We can play nice,” she says, following him out of the room. “But this is the last time her testimony is going to be admissible when I'm in this courtroom. I don’t trust either of you to be objective, and neither should any judge. You got lucky today.”

"I rarely ever call her for this reason, Rita.”

“Good. Glad we’re on the same page. Just know, if I ever find any evidence that you were anything less than impartial—“

“You’ll make sure the jury hears about it. I get it.”

“Good. What are you going to do when you get married? I mean, you can’t expect for both of you to keep your jobs.”

“Who the hell said anything about marriage?” Rafael asks, trying not to let his tone become too defensive.

“I don’t know. Isn’t that the logical progression of things? You two seem pretty close."

In open court, she’d want to do everything to make it seem like he had the tightest bond imaginable with you. But now, there was no reason to keep harping on this point, and it makes him wonder and worry about how deep that soft spot for you actually went. "I know you'd love to see me transfer out of this district, but it's not happening," he snickers. "I'll see you in 20."

"Oh, hey, Barba. Warning: she's pissed," Carisi informs him as he walks up to the two of you.

"I'm not pissed. Asshole," you protest, jabbing Carisi playfully in the side, to which he holds his stomach like you really injured him. "Although that was uncalled for on her part. And it would've been nice if you defended me..."

"You walked away before I even had a chance to - which I did after you left, by the way."

"Right. So what happens now?"

"Come with me,” he says, ushering you out of the hallway with an arm around your shoulder. He finds an alcove in the stairs, somewhere he’d hide and do his deliberation on closing statements right before it was showtime.

“Not a good look for you, being alone with me like this, you know?"

“Don’t you know I don’t care? They can say what they want to say, but there’s nothing anywhere that says I can’t date you."

“But they’re going to question every warrant you give—“

He silences you with a kiss, pitting an arm around your shoulder. “You’re a detective. Not a sergeant. Olivia’s the one who asks me for warrants.”

“They could still say—“

“Let them talk."

“Okay,” you say, leaning against his chest. “I'm sorry I accused you of not caring. I know you do. You're meeting with McCoy later, right?"

"Yeah. Hopefully, it goes well."

"Hopefully," you grin. You lean up, kissing the side of his jaw. He chuckles as your hair tickles the skin of his neck.

“You did a good job, bebita. I’m proud of you.” He squeezes your knee and you turn to kiss him. It’s a languid kiss, long and soft, filled with yearning. He almost forgets where he is, all he can feel is you, his hands threading in your hair. He wants to take you right here, but it’s not a primal urge, it’s a soft one, where he needs to be in you to feel you.

"You want to be the one that gets us into a mess this time?" you tease. "Regardless of what happens, it is probably best if we keep our distance from now on, at least in the courthouse."

"Not the easiest task, mujer," he whispers, running his thumb over your lower lip before kissing you again.

——

What in the hell kind of music were you listening to? Some woman was singing about how she didn't know her last name, and you were belting along, just off-key enough for it to be grating. But he doesn't say anything, because you were in such a good mood, chopping vegetables in his kitchen, and he'd hate to burst your bubble after that week the two of you had.

You reach up for him, kissing him gently on the mouth before he puts his briefcase down, and then you're back to your work at the cutting board, swiveling your hips a little to the music. The song switches over to another country song, and you're saying, "This is what a woman wants," slightly out-of-time with the recording. If it was anyone else, again, Rafael would be the first to point out how irritating that is... but it's you, and he'll spare you the smartass-remarks.

The song isn't what he'd prefer to listen to, either, but you're cooking his freaking dinner, so he's let you be the DJ more often. It's obviously meant for comedic effect - the singer's elaborating on all the things her man should do for her, and how it's okay if she doesn't reciprocate. And you're coming over to him, wiggling your eyebrows and squeezing his upper arms as she sings "better show me a teasin'-squeezin'-pleasin' kinda time".

All Rafael can do is chuckle and kiss you. It was rare that you got this enthused, not to say you were melancholy most of the time, but you were like him in that it took a lot to get you excited or cheerful. Maybe you had reason to, today, as McCoy cleared the two of you and said it was fine to continue your relationship, but Olivia had to keep tabs on you and Rafael would be watched with a closer eye.

Just another headache. Maybe it was worth it, though, to have you dancing in his kitchen at 9 pm while you make enchiladas and make his apartment feel like a home.

"And when I cook his dinner and burn it black, he better say, mm, I like it like that," you sing, cackling with laughter as he raises an eyebrow.

"You better not start burning my food now, (y/n). Your reputation precedes you. I know you can cook."

But maybe that's all anyone wants - and leave it to Rafael to try and analyze a song meant for comedic value - but everyone just wants someone to spare their feelings, someone they can come home to after a long day and who won't add to the weight of the burden the world put on them, at least not when the going's already tough. And couldn't he have that with you?

"Come on, Rafi, this is where you come in," you giggle. "Let me hear you say 'yeah'..."

And even though he feels beyond stupid, he plays along, attempting to harmonize with the male vocalists that come in despite not knowing the song. Then, you're dancing to the rest of it, "shimmy, shake, make the earth quake" - and yes, you're the sexiest woman he can remember ever being in the presence of - but you're also beautiful, happy, and so fucking alive.

His breath catches in his throat and he realizes what that is - it's been so fucking long since it's happened - but he knows now, he loves you. Should he tell you? This moment won't stay perfect forever, and it's fading as quickly as the song fades out, but what if he doesn't actually love you? Shouldn't he spare you that heartache, if he should ever wake up from this spell you had him under? God, this was why he always hesitated: how do you know, and how do you know if it will last? Besides, what if you didn't love him back?

But he'd never had anyone fight to be with him like you did, and you'd told him multiple times you'd look into transferring to a different SVU if it came to that. And, come to think of it, he'd never fought to be with someone, either. Granted, this was a unique situation not posed by his ex-lovers, but either Rafael or them proved they wouldn't be willing to go through a struggle to stay together by ending the relationship for whatever reason.

Still, Rafael can't get himself to say the words, simple as they are, and the moment slips through his fingers like maybe you will one day as the song bleeds into another one. He's tuning it out, though, kissing you and trying to stop his mind from running away with all his fears and doubts.

How long would you wait for him to be ready, though?

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

Being in Massachusetts again awakens things in Rafael he forgot. He remembers being here around this time of year, the cheesy Thanksgiving decorations crowding the hallways of Harvard Law, wrapping up loose ends and taking tests and scrambling through the endings of papers before he went back home to New York. This wasn’t this part of Massachusetts, however, but there was some sort of change in the atmosphere regardless. Things were slower in Massachusetts than NYC, even Boston. You’d lived in a suburb outside the city, and Rafael barely left Boston when he lived here. Towns were weird, too quiet for Rafael.

“Ah, suburbia,” he says sarcastically as the townhouses flash by.

“It’s not so bad. I like the city more, but sometimes I miss this. Gives you space to think.”

“Like I need more of that,” Rafael scoffs. “We’re almost there?”

“Yeah. Like ten minutes out. You could look happier.”

“What?”

“You look miserable.”

“Well... I’m not,” he murmurs. “Just... How old are your parents?”

You chuckle. “I never told you? My mom is 52, my dad is 62.”

“Oh. Lovely. I’m almost your mother’s age,” he winces. “They going to have an issue with that?”

You roll your eyes, taking a right turn. “I already told them, Rafael, and my mother likes to act like it’s a big deal, but my father was a decade older than her too. And my dad’s wife? Fifteen years younger than him. So he can’t say anything either. It’s not as much of an issue as you make it out to be.”

Rafael calms down a little at that. “I just don’t want them to think I sought you out on purpose.”

“Rafael... why do you always tell the story wrong? I sought you out.”

“Who’s going to believe that? That a beautiful young woman like you is going to go out of her way to date a decrepit lawyer?”

“Me. I believe it,” you say, smiling at him and turning your eyes back to the road. “And you’re not decrepit, Jesus, Rafi, give yourself some credit. You look good for 43.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Yes.”

“Why isn’t it then?”

You laugh. “Is that what this is about? Are you nervous to meet my parents, Rafael? Like I said, they do this every year, have this big thing on every holiday. Neither of my parents ever had children again, and they always used to argue about who gets to have my brother on holidays, so they just figured it’s easier to have dinners together. It makes my brother happy, too, and they try not to fight around him. There’s nothing to be nervous about. Everyone’s focused on making sure my brother has a good time and that my Aunt Virginia stays away from the vodka. You’ll be fine. They’re just annoying, sometimes.”

“I’m not nervous,” he mutters, lying. “When’s the last time you introduced someone to your parents?”

“Haven’t in a while. Never liked anyone enough. Why?”

“Just asking,” he says, his brow furrowing as you parked in the driveway of a... monstrosity of a house. “You weren’t kidding, were you?"

“Wait ‘til you see the backyard. The things my father did for love,” you laugh. “My mom was so pissed, because he never spent money like that with her because he didn’t have it... and well. He’s stubborn, though. He worked his ass off to keep it.”

“It’s beautiful,” he says, getting out of the car, his legs wobbly from being cramped up for so long.

“Yeah. I used to love his weekends. I mean, it was a great popularity boost in high school, which I needed after the years in therapy, you know? He let me have parties over here. Helped a little.”

Rafael helps you get the few overnight bags you’d brought from the trunk, and you kiss him as he walks by. His heart swells.

You knock at the door, and you’re both greeted by a tall man with gray hair. Rafael sees so much of him in you, your eyes, your mouth, even the way you carry yourself. You’re definitely your father’s daughter.

“Dad! This is Rafael,” you say, hugging your father’s side. “Let us put this stuff down.”

Rafael smiles at him. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Mr. (L/N).”

“Call me Harry,” he says, shaking his hand. It’s a strong grip, the kind that men use to scare off their daughter’s boyfriends... Or maybe Rafael is reading too much into it.

“Where’s Mom? And Ben?” you ask from the kitchen.

“You got here early. They’re not here yet. No one’s here except Cynthia. She’s outside. You made those pies, right?”

“Yes, Dad,” you say, coming back out into the living room. “I know you can’t bake for shit. I just put them in the fridge. I’m gonna go put my stuff upstairs. Rafi, you coming?”

“Nah, Rafael can get the good old fatherly interrogation,” your father says, smiling at him.

Rafael laughs awkwardly.

“Come on, Dad. Don’t be like that,” you say. “I need help bringing this stuff upstairs.”

Your father concedes, and Rafael walks up carpeted stairs, insisting on taking both your bags. So you carried nothing, pointing out pictures on the walls of your father’s siblings, your grandparents.

“Are your mother’s siblings coming?”

“I think her sister. Her brother, probably not,” you say. “He doesn’t get along with my dad at all. My dad’s twin sisters are definitely coming with their kids, though. My cousin just had a baby a few months ago, I can’t wait to meet her!”

“Why did you leave?” he asks you. “You seem like you miss being here.”

“I do miss it. I miss it now that I’m away. But I needed to get out, Rafael. I love my parents, but god, if they don’t get on my nerves sometimes. Besides, SVU was a perfect fit, and I always wanted to move to New York. And then I met you, and... now I’d miss New York just as much if I left.” You hug him tight. “Ahora... tu eres mi casa.”

It’s barely audible, but he caught it, and his heart strains against his chest again. “Oh, cariño... I...”

But he doesn’t have words. He can’t love the way you can. All he can do is kiss you.

——

It’s heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, seeing your brother. Rafael doesn’t have to look at him long to know that there’s something not right with him, what with his short stature, his large ears, his long face. It doesn’t feel right to notice these things, to point them out in his head, but he does anyway and he feels beyond guilty for it. You run up to hug him the second you know he’s there, and he smiles, big and bright, just like you do sometimes. “Ben!” He hears you say. “There’s someone you’ve got to meet. He’s a great man. He helps people, he makes sure people who break the law are put in jail.”

“Like you?”

“Kind of, but he’s a lawyer, not a cop,” you say, walking over to Rafael with Ben. He’s shy, won’t make eye contact with him. “Here he is. Say hi, Ben.”

“Hi,” he says, still avoiding Rafael’s eyes. “Have you shown him my pictures?”

“Yeah, she has,” Rafael says, trying to make him look at him, and feeling a little anxious when he still doesn’t. “They’re very good. You’re very talented.”

“Is Rafael your boyfriend?” Ben asks.

“Yes,” you say, laughing. “Guess Mom did fill you in. Do you want to shake his hand?”

Ben looks like he’d rather do anything else but shake Rafael’s hand, and he still won’t look at him, but he holds out his hand for Rafael to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Your sister loves you very much,” Rafael says, shaking his hand gently.

Ben doesn’t say anything, and lets go of Rafael’s hand. He comes over to hug you.

“Where’s Mom?” you ask Ben.

“Talking to Dad,” Ben replies.

“Oh no,” you mutter, eyeing Rafael. “I have to go talk to her. Let’s go bring you over to Aunt Julie, huh?”

“Okay. Is she the one with the baby?”

You giggle. “No, silly, she’s too old to have a baby. That’s Elizabeth, your cousin, had the baby.”

“Oh. Are you going to have a baby?”

You must think Rafael is out of earshot, because you say, “Someday, honey.” Or maybe you didn’t, and you wanted him to know? Rafael’s sweater suddenly feels ten degrees warmer and he sips on his beer, hoping it will help cool him down. It’s cold out, anyway, but the house was on a lake and he supposed your father wanted to make the most of it and have guests congregate outside. It is beautiful, though, and Rafael wonders vaguely what it would be like to live in a home and not an apartment. Even the view was so much better, so much cleaner: instead of skyscrapers and smog, there was water and trees. The street is busy, but only because of the holiday and the fact that your neighbors all seemed to host their own get-togethers. He gets the feeling that maybe two cars pass by within an hour on a normal day, and once again he questions how the hell anyone can live like this. Wasn't it empty, in a way, with nowhere to be but home?

After making sure Ben was preoccupied, you come back, smiling at Rafael. “Let’s go meet my mom, eh?” and then you’re muttering under your breath, “My mom gives him higher doses of his ADHD meds for things like this, because he does get anxious and rowdy, but that’s why he was so distant. I mean, he can be like that anyway... but... he doesn’t mean it. He just takes a while to warm up to people.”

“I understand. Please don’t feel like you have to make excuses for him to me.”

You look taken aback by that, and he sees you blink back tears before you swallow thickly.

“Hey,” he says softly. “What’s the matter? Did I do something—“

“You were good with him. Don’t worry about it, okay, Rafi?” you say, shaking your head before you force yourself to smile again and lead him to the kitchen.

He hears your mother before he sees her; she’s yelling at your father, presumably.

You take a deep breath, entering through the alcove. “Hey, Mom. Did you want to meet Rafael or did you want to scream at Dad for the whole afternoon?”

“Don’t give me that mouth, Missy,” your mother says, but she softens a little when she sees you. “So Rafael Barba, the hotshot lawyer from New York City. How’d you end up with my daughter, and what makes you think you’re good enough?”

“Mom, can you please not do that?” you ask, turning red. “I’m begging you.”

“I’m only joking, honey, Rafael, you know, right?” She smiles at him, walking over. “I’m Joanne. Wonderful to finally meet you.”

Rafael smiles back, shaking her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

——

Your father was the cook, apparently, and that’s where you got it from. Dinner was delicious; he’d never really had the all-American turkey dinner as his grandmother would usually make ropa vieja instead. Your brother sits next to you, Rafael in between you and your father, and Rafael feels simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Your family was large and seemingly tightknit and everyone had their inside jokes that he wasn't privy to, but he gets the feeling he might be let in on them someday.

That is if he stuck around long enough.

Your father was a mathematics professor at a local college who then got a position at Harvard (so that’s how he afforded the house), and your mother is an OR nurse. They both had stories to tell, jabs to throw at each other, but they weren’t embarrassing or annoying like you had feared. Clearly, they taught you how to love, even if they didn’t love each other. They were both passionate people, albeit in different ways, and Rafael could pinpoint exactly where all of your character traits came from. Reserved from your mother. You were a hugger because of your father. Sarcastic, snippy remarks? Your mother. But a bleeding, sappy, wounded yet still beating heart? That was from both of them.

“I wanna go back outside,” your brother says after dinner. “It’s too hot in here.”

“Honey, it’ll be too cold outside now,” your mother tells him.

“I have a coat.”

“See, he’s getting an attitude now,” she chuckles, looking at you. “Someone always has to give me lip, right? Now that you’re not around, he does.”

“Aww. I taught him well,” you say, smirking.

“Right. No one will ever take your place though, young lady. Ben could never be as fresh as you.”

“Of course not. He’s a good boy. Anyway... I’ll go outside with him for a little while,” you say. “Rafi?”

“No, I actually do want to talk to him. Man to man,” your father says. “You go on with Ben.”

Rafael feels his pulse quicken as you leave, flashing a smile and helping Ben zip up his coat. Rafael has a vision, one he can’t shake, of you helping a child into a coat - a child - your child, his child. You take Ben’s hand in your own and Rafael feels smothered, congested, crowded imagining his own, nonexistent child.

The rest of your family had dispersed into the living room, or outside, leaving him and your father uncomfortably alone.

“Why are you with my daughter?”

“I care about her a lot, Harry,” Rafael says, trying to make the correct amount of eye contact.

“Well, Rafael. That’s a perfect by-the-book, I’m-terrified-of-my-girlfriend’s-dad-answer, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he says, smiling awkwardly. “It’s not a lie, though.”

“I know. I can tell you care about her. But... Quite frankly, I don't know why my daughter is with you."

Rafael guffaws, nearly choking on his drink. "Thanks. Me neither."

"I didn't mean it like that. I don’t think you’re a bad guy. But the thing about (y/n)... we really thought she’d never date. She was in and out of therapy for years. She had a rough time. The boys she picked out... they were always troubled. They could’ve gotten her in trouble if she let them, but she was always by the book. She wanted to fix them, but, well, they were young boys. You can figure out what they wanted and imagine how pissed they were that they didn’t get it. She just... She always just wanted to be a good girl."

Rafael can tell your father is pained as he talks about this, from the way he doesn't make eye contact with Rafael, how he fidgets with his watch, how his bottom lip quivers. "I'm sorry," Rafael says.

"Yeah, that doesn't fix it, does it?"

"No," he concedes, hanging his head. "But I am still sorry."

"So am I," he mutters. "I let that man in the house, let him take care of my children, called him a friend? Sometimes I would visit him in his jail cell just to spit on his shoes. But that doesn't fix it either."

"She's lucky, though. You know. To have a father that cares so much," Rafael says, knocking back the rest of his scotch. "I wish I knew what that was like."

"Yeah? Hm. Now I realize why she's with you. You're broken, too."

Rafael doesn’t say anything, just fingers the rim of his glass.

“You talk to her about it?”

“Yes.”

“Hm. That’s a start.”

“It feels better to say it, get it off your chest. And she’s good at getting it out of people, I mean, it’s her job.”

A beat of silence and Rafael can’t stop replaying everything he said, hoping he didn’t fuck up and say something your father would bring up to you later.

“Last test, Rafael. You ready?”

“Okay,” Rafael says, his heart racing.

“Tell me something about my daughter that I don’t know.”

Rafael wracks his brain. What kind of question was that? What the hell was wrong with your father? What could he say?

But then he settles on it, and his chest wells up with complete and utter devotion to you. “She internalizes everything. I’m sure you know that part. But when she gets really worked up, she... she has this picture Ben drew her, of herself, as superwoman for her birthday, the one he sent in the card, you know?” Rafael smiles, his heart thudding in his chest. “And if I get it out, and I show her... and I show her and tell her that’s how Ben sees her, that’s how I see her... she still cries. I don’t think she’ll ever stop crying when she gets like that. But she smiles, and she laughs, and she’ll kiss me... and I’ll talk her through it. I’ve done it twice now, and it’s been the only thing that gets her off the ledge at first."

Your father nods, his eyes watering. “You know what? I didn’t really know what I was going to get when I asked that question. But you... you fucking aced it, Rafael. You stick around, keep treating my daughter right, I’ll take you to a few baseball games like your father should’ve, alright?”

Rafael tries not to beam at him, tries to ignore the swelling in. “Only if we root for the Yankees.”

“Didn’t you go to school in Boston? You root for the Sox here unless you want to get stabbed.”

Rafael laughs.

“Go bring my crazy kids in before they catch a cold,” your father says, smiling too, this time it meets his eyes.

——

Your mother corners him alone too, and he thinks he dreads it more than talking to your father. You had grown up living with your mother for the majority of your life, but you were closer to your father, the complete opposite story of Rafael. Knowing this, he’s a little frightened of what your mother might say to him.

“You’re very good-looking, you know,” she tells him.

“Oh, thank you,” he says, feeling the tips of his ears heat up. He makes eye contact with you across the room: you were holding Elizabeth’s baby and you smile, dazzling bright, and there’s that ache again, there’s that desire for something he never thought he wanted. Or maybe it was that he didn’t allow himself to want it.

Until now.

“Mm. You didn’t need me to tell you that, did you? You already knew. Nothing worse than an attractive man with enough arrogance to acknowledge that he’s attractive.”

“I wouldn’t say—“

“I’m not trying to give you a hard time, kiddo, but... well, I am. I can’t really call you kiddo, can I?”

He grimaces and doesn’t say anything.

“You’re the kind of man woman want... but never seem to get. Lucky girl, my daughter, I suppose. She deserved at least one break. Although, maybe you did, too.”

“What?”

“I don’t know a single man who has never been married in his forties who isn’t in pain or gay or both.”

Ah. So you’d gotten that ability to render him speechless from your mother. He has no idea what to say to this, at all, so he just laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

“Is it both? Because let my daughter know now.”

He laughs again, shaking his head. “No.”

“So why are you in this? You going to bury your hatchets and marry my daughter or what?”

“I... I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Well, I’m going to tell you what I do know. I know my daughter, and I know she loves you. And I think we both know the odds of you getting a 26-year-old to fall in love with you again are slim to none, even with your good looks and charisma. You’re not going to get any younger.”

“I... I know.”

“If you’re as smart as she says, you’ll think about what I said.”

Jesus Christ, your parents were a trip. Now he clearly understands where you came from.

——

“Everyone loved you, Rafael,” you say, hugging him as you got into bed that night, well, your old bed in your father’s house. It's still done up like a teenager's room: you've got photos of Han Solo and bands he's never heard of on the Pepto-Bismol colored walls, and it's hideous in a way but mostly it’s endearing, a little glimpse of who you used to be before you stepped in the police academy, before you moved to New York, before you met him. “Especially my father; he wouldn't shut up about you. I don’t know what you said to him, but you made a great impression. He’s never liked anyone I brought home before.”

Rafael yawns. He’s beat from all the conversations he’d had with people he didn’t know, different people he had to tell the same stories to, how he met you, what he did for a living, but he's too keyed up to sleep just yet.

“We had a good conversation,” Rafael tells you. He was so used to being unloved by his father that the thought of a girlfriend’s father liking him never even crossed his mind, but he supposedly did something right. You lean over to brush your lips against his, and settle against him, trying to maneuver your limbs in a way that would be comfortable for the two of you in the bed made for one. Eventually, both of you manage it; you're lying more on Rafael than the mattress by the end of it and you're so warm against his chest, damn near smothering him with your hair. Yeah. He wasn't getting any sleep tonight.

He probably wouldn't anyway, what with the lack of noise and light outside your bedroom window. All he can hear now that the two of you have stopped fighting with the sheets is the lull of your breathing and the friction of your hair as it brushes against his skin. Also - his mind - Jesus Christ, he wants an off-switch, but there it goes, off to the races again.

And he can’t help it, not at this point - he needs to get at least some of it off his chest.

“Are you still awake?” Rafael whispers, running his hand gently across the small of your back.

“Mm.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Anything, honey.”

“Do you want to have children someday? I kept watching you with Elizabeth’s baby, and you were so good with her. And with Ben, there’s something maternal there, isn’t there?”

You’re quiet for a moment, and Rafael wonders if he overstepped. The two of you never really had this conversation, save for the night he told you about his own father, but maybe it's only natural to think about these things after spending all this time with your relatives. Isn't it a logical progression of that line of thought to think about making that family a little bigger?

"I don't know if I'd say it's maternal with Ben... I mean he's still only two years younger than me, even if it doesn't seem like it, Rafael."

"I didn't mean--"

"It's okay. I get what you're saying. You don't have to walk on eggshells. I'm just telling you that's not how I see him."

"I just don't want to make any of this worse," he whispers, brushing his lips against the top of your head.

"You couldn't make it any worse if you tried, honey. It's okay."

"Right. I'm sorry."

"Do you want kids, Rafael?" you ask, always changing the subject, always pointing the finger back at him.

“I don’t know. I didn’t, and then I was ambivalent. I still am. I still don’t think I’d be a good father.”

“I really don’t agree with that. You don't give yourself enough credit."

“But you saw me with the baby,” he chokes out, his voice wavering. “I don’t know how... I didn’t even know how to hold her. I thought Elizabeth was going to have a stroke.”

Suddenly, you turn around to face him, looking at him the way you did, that look that even in the dark pierces through him and makes him feel like you two are the only people in the world and you might as well be. “Rafi, honey, shh,” you say, kissing the side of his mouth. “Those things can be learned if you want to. You have to want to, Rafael."

“Right," Rafael says, kissing you back on the lips. "You never answered me, though, cariño. Do you want children?"

"Someday, honey," you say, echoing the response you gave your brother earlier. "You never really gave a definitive answer, either."

"Because I don't know. I'm sorry. I wish I did know, but I can't give you an answer right now."

"But you're thinking about it."

"A lot more than I used to," he admits.

Rafael leans up and kisses you, trying not to cry because he knows he’ll never stop once he starts. But you move his hand to your stomach and that’s it, the dam’s broken, he’s a goner.

“Can you imagine it, Rafi?”

His breath catches in his throat, and he doesn’t say anything because he can’t find the words. A few stray tears slip from his eyes, because for once, he can, he can see it. He doesn’t deserve this, it’s too much, but he can imagine it, vividly, your stomach swelling, both of you happy and painting a nursery, setting up a crib.

“It makes me happy, Rafael. We don’t have to keep talking about this, right now... but it makes me happy that you’re even considering it,” you say, your voice muffled by his shirt as you hug him. “I know you’re hesitant. Hell, it scares me too. But I know we can make it work if that’s what we want.”

“But... how?”

He doesn’t need you to answer him. He knows it’s because you love him and he feels the walls close in. God, he hates this, hates that you love him this much, that you’re willing to take a chance like this on him. But he knows he loves you, too, deep down, somewhere in the recesses of his heart he tried to close off. He’d realized it months ago; tried to bury it down but it always kept bubbling up, always threatened to spill out and off his tongue, to just tell you those three simple words. It was easy to fall in love though; staying in love is the hard part. Would he love you a month from now? Two years? Three decades? Would you still love him? How do you go from falling in love with someone to loving them unconditionally?

“Because I believe you’ll be a great father and spoil any kids we have rotten,” you say, and smile. He can’t help but smile, too, because he can picture that as well. Overflowing Christmas trees, bundles of presents on their birthdays, tickets to concerts and baseball games, all the things Rafael never got to have as a child because his father never cared and his mother couldn’t afford them on her own.

"When would you want to have them?" he asks quietly, taking your hand and threading his fingers between yours. He wonders if you know what he's doing by asking that question: he's wondering how long he'll have before you get up and start searching elsewhere.

"I... don't know. I never really put an age on it, I just knew I wanted children someday. I suppose, preferably I'd have the first before I turned thirty. But if I don't, that's okay."

You wanted more than one child? With him? He lies there, staring up at the ceiling, willing the tears to stall. How could you love him this much?

"Oh, honey. Don't cry," you say, leaning over to kiss his mouth gently. “You’re gonna make me cry.”

"I just... I still don't know.“

“That’s okay.”

"But if that's what you want, if you want children, I can't live with myself if I don't...and if I keep you. You deserve... you deserve better than that.”

"Rafi, honey, shh," you whisper, letting his hand go and peppering his face with kisses. "I love you, okay? I don't want to be anywhere else.”

"Oh, bebita, I love you, too" he murmurs, hugging you closer to him, pressing a kiss to the top of your head. He's only said he loved three or four of his past lovers - Yelina being the first - and every time it made him feel more alive, made his pulse race and cold sweat break out on his back. That’s what first confessions of love did, whether he was in a college dorm room or outside a bar on a hot summer’s night or now, in his girlfriend’s room from when she was a teenager, holding onto her for dear life. He feels congested and, well, crowded. How could you be willing to put aside having your own children for him? That wasn’t fair and that’s what leads to resentment in marriages - he knows this, he’s prosecuted many a case where one parent wanted children and the other didn’t and it led to so many things going wrong, whether it be domestic violence or child abuse, and he’s sure you’ve seen your fair share, too.

He knows what his mother would say, something like “How can you know so much about it when you’ve never been there?” Well, he lived with his father, didn’t he? He knew what that was like. But he also knows deep down the two of you would never be like his own parents, but maybe the two of you would figure out different ways to destroy a child.

Look at you, for example: your mother arguably did her best, but your relationship with her was forever damaged due to whatever the hell happened during your adolescence. Too many fights, too many misunderstandings, too many words said in anger that could never be taken back. And you weren’t destroyed, but you were hurt, he can tell. Some wounds are slow to heal and the ones inflicted by a parent mend like glaciers, that is if they improve at all. Rafael knows that better than anyone. Sometimes his rib cage still aches when he thinks about his father too long.

Evidently, you didn't have to fuck up that badly to still fuck a kid up, though. Even his own mami wasn't perfect.

“You love me?” you ask quietly after a few moments.

“I said it, didn’t I?”

“Wow, Jesus, Rafi. You don’t have to sound so defensive.”

“Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?”

“People say things they don’t mean all the time. You know that.” Your voice is so small; like you’re falling in on yourself and Rafael can’t help but feel dumbfounded by the chasm that seemed to be between the two of you now. Here he was, overwhelmed by the love you were giving him, and there you are, barely believing in the love he swore he had for you.

"So you think I don't mean it," Rafael accuses.

"I didn't say that--"

"You implied it."

"I don't know, Rafael. Sometimes I think you're definitely here with me, but other times... I don't know what you're thinking."

"I just told you."

"Yeah. Right," you say and you force a smile, kissing him gently.

"I don't know what else you want--"

"Never mind. Let's get some sleep, okay?"

Right. You'd just guaranteed that sleep for him was a sure uncertainty. But what the hell was it going to take for you to believe him? What did he have to do?

"Goodnight, honey. I love you."

"I love you, too," he whispers, but the words taste bitter on his tongue now that he knows they don't mean anything to you.

Would they ever? Or was he just destined to keep coming up empty-handed as far as you were concerned?