A small kindness
When he started out with SVU, Barba could've given a rat's ass about his repertoire with Cragen's squad. He was too diplomatic to outright say how exaggerated the general notion that detectives are consistently good at detecting, but he wasn't ever overly subtle about his contempt any time they happened to drop the ball.
Given how often Barba found himself devoting hours to coaching witnesses with shaky credibility, fighting for unlikely convictions, shooting patronized zingers at Amaro or Rollins or more recently, having heated arguments with a newly promoted Sergeant Benson – they dropped the ball more often than he would've enjoyed.
It wasn't that he didn't like a healthy challenge, in fact, he revelled in challenges, but his humanity prevented him from revelling in anything that had to do with shaky rape cases. Rather it was that as time went on the detectives in their ever-zealous attempts to bring rapists and murderers to justice, their emotions all ablaze at all the wrong times despite endless declarations of their objectivity, began to chip away at his own resolve.
This was not a trivial matter for him. Rafael had fought tooth and nail to develop an objectivity that went beyond having a good poker face during defense cross-examination. He hadn't always been so good at keeping his emotions under lock and key.
Having raised four children of which Rafael was the second-youngest in a neighbourhood that left much to be desired, particularly safety from violent crime, his parents were constantly vigilant in the upbringing of their children. Too many times they had seen young boys on the street, smoking, drinking, hassling women, and in those young eyes they saw fear and rage and boredom and couldn't bear to see their own turn out like that. Mr. and Mrs. Barba would have none of it in their household. They raised Rafael and his siblings to come home before dark, have dinner with the family, and kiss each other goodnight. Eighteen-year-old Rafael Barba, top of his class, accepted into five colleges, was mouthy and arrogant at worse, but above all, passionate, earnest, curious and kind.
At twenty-four, on an Ivy-League scholarship, he quickly learned he would have to swallow all that kindness if he was to survive, not just succeed. Like everything else he'd ever attempted, he worked hard at it, until that bright-eyed, fun loving, golden son, was kept at bay almost all of the time. He was careful not to abandon that version of himself entirely, it was still useful during opening and closing statements when he needed to look the jury panel in their eyes, one at a time, slowly, imploring them to accept his prosecution as the God's honest truth.
He wasn't without respect for the detectives. Though he typically tried to limit the amount of time he spent around them when they weren't working on cases together, in the hope of salvaging that hard-won hardness of heart, he wasn't a recluse. It was easy enough to turn down their invitations to dinner or drinks after court on the pretense of having a heavy caseload, but then there was the issue of his pride.
On the one hand, he liked that he was known for his focus and determination when it came to his work, but it wasn't just hard work that made him an excellent prosecutor. To a certain extent Rafael believed, and liked others to believe, that he had talent. It was a delicate balance to maintain. Like an actress, he had to make his work look elegant, beautiful even, every last loose end tied sharply by the close of every case, but he also had to allude to the hours and hours of messy, nitty gritty work he had to do for each guilty verdict.
For his parents, his siblings, his friends, the court and himself a little, Rafael achieved at least some of this with impeccable styling. Certainly most lawyers prided themselves on their wardrobe (defense attorneys in particular could afford to, several times over) but for Rafael it was a never-ending act. He kept a suit pressed with a loose tie around a starched dress shirt hanging against his bedroom door (in plastic) in case he ever had to answer the door in the middle of the night. He hoped that people thought he slept and showered in Gucci and he liked it that way.
He couldn't fool the detectives however.
More than once Amaro had enquired into what his sleep schedule looked like during the Lewis trial. Fin had joked around about the counselor needing to touch up his under-eye concealer. And although he was certain she didn't actually care about his health, Rafael had gleaned a note of concern in Rollins' voice when she'd asked him to lay off the caffeine. As if that was a pleasure he could afford his heart muscle.
He couldn't quite make up his mind about how he felt about the detectives burrowing their way into his consciousness as he got dressed in the morning. He had to wonder whether or not he should tighten his tie a little extra to make himself appear even less likely to engage in lighthearted chit chat with Rollins about her dog. In actuality, it brightened his morning a little the first time she'd shown him a picture of the mutt, "She's my baby," Amanda had gushed, one hand on her hip as she held her phone up so that he could see.
At the time he'd been taken aback by her eagerness. But Frannie was adorable, all copper-eyed and flopped-eared. With his work ensuring that he spent the majority of his time in his office rather than in his apartment, Rafael had sort of just assumed that he must've been a cat person. He'd considered getting a pet briefly while he was in school, but then when he started investing in his clothing the prospect fell entirely out of the question. Imagine showing up to court covered in fur!
So Rafael Barba remained catless and his clothing without a hair to be seen. When he snapped at Rollins later that same week, he reasoned it was because she let her emotions again become entangled with a case. Later when he realized he was a little jealous of her and her stupid dog and their stupid domestic life together he regretted having been so rash, but couldn't for the life of him make himself apologize. He could not bear the indignity of apologizing for being jealous of a woman and her dog.
Instead he bought her a beer and began to accept that he was a little lonely.
His first interaction with Detective Amaro in the squad room following Alex Muñoz's arraignment hearing was tense, but not quite as tense as Rafael would have liked.
He attempted to keep a neutral face as Amaro briefed him on the case at hand, but his act fell flat, "Counselor, are you alright?" asked the detective.
"Fine," he gritted his teeth, "I'm fine. Where is Olivia?"
"Left about an hour ago with Fin for an interview."
"Why didn't Rollins go with Fin? Aren't they partners? Come to think of it, why are you here? Should you have gone with Olivia? Partners. Does that even mean anything around here?"
Amaro gave him a blank stare. Rafael wanted to say something along the lines of don't look at me like that but Amaro looked more bewildered than anything else so saying something like that would probably alert him to what lay beneath Rafael's crisp, pinstripe dress shirt.
What lay beneath was this: Rafael hadn't enjoyed a full night's sleep since the whole Muñoz debacle had begun to unravel. He was aggravated all the time, with himself mostly, having done right by the law the entire time, but horrifically wrong by pretty much everybody he'd ever loved outside of his family.
Nick Amaro wasn't privy to all the details, but he was able glean that Rafael needed a moment, and smart enough not to suggest so verbally or through is body language. The detective pretended to stare off at a wall while he waited in silence for Rafael to compose himself.
If Rafael appreciated this, he predictably didn't show it. He blinked his eyes, moistening their surface, then cleared his throat and said, "About the suspect. You were saying?"
Immediately Nick picked up, all the while staring through the two-way mirror at a hand cuffed child molester. Rafael – unable to face the way his bloodshot eyes, shortness of breath, slumped shoulders, too-tight tie were all courteously ignored by the detective – did the same.
This went on for some time and ever so often Rafael would feel his brain sort of start to drift off, Nick's voice sounding faint and ethereal like he was speaking to him in a dream. It was so unlike the way he'd sounded in the elevator only four days before. Of course, he might've been yelling at the top of his lungs and Rafael wouldn't have noticed. It was as though he was caught beneath a thin sheet of water. He could make out voices and recognized to whom they belonged, but no matter how much he fought he couldn't focus on what they were saying or derive any meaning from it.
As much as he resented Amaro for having the antithesis of the calm, cool and collected demeanor that this sort of job required, Rafael had to admire the detective's penchant for clarity. Where Rafael didn't care how many winding avenues he had to detour through to eventually drive his point home, Amaro called everything exactly the way it was in the most direct manner. If the emperor wore no clothes, Detective Nick Amaro would cuff him in the streets and yell his Miranda rights loud enough that the whole country could hear.
This was why ignoring Rafael's obvious distress was tough for Nick. He held out for as long as their brief, professional meeting lasted but followed Rafael out of the squad room.
Weary and in no mood for another elevator exchange (albeit in a different elevator), Rafael stopped and turned to face Nick as soon as he noticed he was being followed, "What can I do for you detective?"
"How are you?"
"Alright…" Nick sighed having just about exhausted his conversational resources.
"Is there anything else?"
Nick sighed again, a long exasperated sigh that shook Rafael somewhat because it was the very same sigh of resignation that he'd heard directed at him countless times from several ex-lovers.
"I'm alright," said Rafael softly to Nick's three-quarter-turned figure two feet away, "I'm okay."
"Listen… I… you know what? I'll have Olivia call you when she gets back."
"Thank you, Detective Amaro."
Detective Amaro feels a, call me Nick, start to roll off his tongue but the ADA is gone presumably before he hears it.
Opting to walk back to the DA's office, or at least part of the way, Rafael made it a half a block before he began to feel physically ill. Being outdoors had had this effect on him recently. Alex Muñoz had been the voice in his head since he was ten years old, pushing him, reminding him not to forget where he came from. Now that voice took on a very different tone, still pushing but pushing downwards, suffocating him.
He stuck two fingertips between his neck and his shirt collar, digging downwards and gently massaging where his tie was pressing into the skin. When he yanked his fingers out, they shone with a thin layer of sweat. By pure willpower (or denial), he hardly ever sweat. It was unbecoming. His heart was pounding, but he hadn't been out for his usual afternoon walk in a few days. Not because he was afraid of running into one of Muñoz' supporters or worse, Yelina, who he'd spotted a few times with the Reverend outside the courthouse. No. It wasn't that at all.
He was looked over his shoulder for no particular reason and then turned his head back around just in time to stop himself from slamming into Fin and Olivia, returning from their interview.
Olivia opened her mouth to say hello, but her phone rang so she offered him a quick smile before taking the call and turning away. Rafael opened his mouth as well, but no sound came out. He would've liked a phone call as well to keep himself from having to explain why he was all sweaty and nervous to Fin, but that was not to be.
"Afternoon, Counselor," said Fin with a cautious smile, "In a hurry?"
"N-no. Not quite. Just headed back to the office."
Fin regarded him. If Rafael had felt uncomfortable before, he now felt as though he was just about ready to take off running.
Rafael gritted his teeth, "Fine."
"Am I? It's hot out here."
Fin arched an eyebrow… which all but cued a brisk gust of wind. It startled Rafael somewhat. He blinked hard.
"You wouldn't happen to be having an anxiety attack over the Muñoz incident, would you now?"
Rafael glanced at Olivia, who was talking animatedly on her phone. He tried to gauge whether or not she was out of earshot, but ended up trying to gauge whether or not she was on the phone with Cassidy. This happened more often than he really wanted to think about, maybe every time she took a phone call in his presence.
In order to distract himself from her, Rafael decided he would do the unbearable and talk about his problems with Detective Tutuola, "I am experiencing some anxiety. I'm sure it will pass."
"You need a vacation," Fin muttered.
"I don't do vacations."
"I am not even the slightest bit surprised," for a horrifying moment Rafael thought Fin was going to ex-lover-sigh at him, but he simply shrugged, "My advice? Go home. Order a pizza, forget about Muñoz. Guy's a sleaze, doesn't deserve you losing your mind over it."
"If it were only that simple," Rafael glanced at Olivia again, but it didn't seem like her conversation was going to end any time soon, "If you'll excuse me."
"Hey, Barba!" Fin called out after him, "We're going out for drinks tonight. Come with. And loosen your goddamned tie, humans need air to breathe."
Rafael returned to his office. He knew himself too well to go all the way home, only to sit aimlessly in his apartment fully dressed for fifteen minutes before getting back to work. He opened the case file containing Amaro's suspect's employment history, but before settling down in his chair to scrutinize it, he wrenched the tie from his neck and tossed it across his desk.
Rafael had teeter-tottered about whether or not to go. The bar was in the upper east side, not exactly close to where he lived but also not terribly far to go for a well-earned scotch. And some company.
Fin, Olivia, Amanda and Nick were all slumped around a small table. Rafael approached feeling a little apprehensive and not sure as to why. On the taxi ride over he'd realized, damningly, that he'd forgotten his tie and therefore felt hardly presentable, despite easily being the best-dressed person in the bar. Of course, off-duty, 'best dressed' became a subjective descriptor. In lieu of a tie, Rafael had buttoned every last button on his dress shirt and closed his jacket as well – he was the stuffiest, most uncomfortable-looking person in the bar.
Fin took notice immediately, "You look like you're gonna snap in half if I exhale in your direction, Counselor."
Nick ran his tongue over his teeth in his closed mouth. But Rafael could tell he'd wanted to laugh at the quip.
Amanda's eyebrows disappeared beneath her blonde fringe as she twisted around in her seat, "Wow. You actually showed."
They were all surprised that he was there, Rafael perhaps moreso than anyone.
Sensing his discomfort in a way that Rafael realized he should have given her more credit for, Amanda smiled warmly and dismounted her stool, "Sit here. I'll go grab another one for myself."
He wanted to object but she was gone before he could open his mouth. Fin knocked gently at the stool with the tip of his shoe and Rafael sat down.
The conversation was brisk but hearty, flitting from one subject to another. Rafael kept up but kept quiet for most of the time, chalking it up to not understanding their inside jokes or being tired from the long day. But actually he was flitting from one subject to another himself, from Fin to Nick to Amanda wondering how on earth he'd ended up spending his evening this way also why it didn't seem like a complete waste of time.
He noticed that though he'd seen Nick a few times every week since he'd started with SVU, he'd never seen the man smile. He knew from what he'd overheard and the worried glances that Nick's family situation had seen better days, saw how frustrated he was at having been pulled away from Zara the day they'd first apprehended William Lewis.
He found himself stumbling upon new knowledge, there in the bar. Amanda was a passionate baseball fan, Fin pretended he was into baseball to avoid being ostracized by everyone for actually finding it mind-numbingly boring, Nick didn't hesitate to roll a flawless Rafael when he asked the counselor if he wanted another drink.
"No thank you," said Rafael, trying to at least look grateful for the offer.
And then there was Olivia, whose knowing gaze Rafael had been avoiding since he walked into the bar, since the arraignment hearing, since their little chat over coffee when they'd first brought Eddie Garcia in. He wondered if he'd said too much to her over the past few weeks, if he'd compromised his situation, his professionalism, his objectivity.
Paranoid much? The words rang out in his head. Rafael shifted uncomfortably in his barstool, his back straightening up from the gentle slouch that had gradually overtaken his stature.
"It's late," he said, clearing his throat and standing up from the stool, "Thank you detectives."
He nodded in their general direction, not really looking at any of them before turning away. He heard a few goodbyes, but Olivia's gaze boring into the back of his head as he strode towards the exit was the loudest sentiment.
Outside the bar, Rafael exhaled. He thought about getting into any of the ten taxis lined up against the curb, their drivers eyeing him. But he couldn't. He needed a moment.
Olivia Benson – empathic if opportunistic – caught sight of him as she exited the bar, shutting the door behind her, containing the noise inside. Not noticing her approach, Rafael jumped a little when she said his name.
"On edge, Rafael?"
Accepting defeat, he looked her in the eyes, "You know I am, detective."
"It's Olivia, please."
"Sure," he looked away again and put his hands in his pockets.
"Hey, I'm here if-"
"I know this is hard-"
Olivia laughed a little to herself, "You can relax. I'm not trying to challenge how well adjusted you are to… curveballs."
"This isn't a curveball. This is twenty curveballs all at once from all different directions," snapped Rafael, surprising himself and feeling his pulse start to pound.
"I imagine Muñoz feels the same way. But you didn't solicit nudes from a fifteen year old, you didn't take advantage of your best friend, you didn't cheat on your wife so many times over," she approached him, tilted her head a little so she could look straight at him, "You did everything right."
Olivia reached out and gripped his shoulder with her left hand, giving it a squeeze. As with everything else, she did this carefully, but with purpose and compassion. Rafael drew a long breath and allowed his shoulders to slump, surrendering something that he was unsure he was ready to part with, but let go of anyway. He nodded at her and she dropped her hand.
With a slight smile she walked away from him and began to head back into the bar. Rafael felt an itch under his collar, so he reached up and undid the first two buttons on his shirt before turning to watch her retreat.
Almost immediately, Olivia paused and looked back at him and despite having avoided her gaze for so many days now, Rafael suddenly couldn't bring himself to tear his eyes from her, "Thank you, Liv."
She tilted her head and observed him. There was something different and yet everything was the same, but before she could investigate he spoke again and the spell was broken.
"Goodnight," said Rafael, more quietly than he'd intended. He wasn't even sure she could hear him.
As if agreeing to disagree, where both parties were unsure of the topic of discussion, Olivia opened the door to the bar as Rafael opened the door to a taxi, questions and answers disappearing into the darkness.
"Rollins," Olivia raised her eyebrows, "This isn't a petting zoo."
"I'm sorry Sarge," Amanda tried to keep a straight face as Frannie rolled over, tail wagging so hard that she could barely stay balanced on her back, "It's just for today I swear. She got real frightened because of that thunderstorm last night, I just couldn't bear to leave her at home. She gave me these eyes… and anyways I'm just catching up on paperwork today. I'll watch her, honest."
Any protests however were futile, as a swarm of excited activity surrounded the detective and her dog, stealing all attention and perhaps, arguments against, away from Olivia.
"Nice mutt," said Nick, already on his knees rubbing Frannie's belly.
Olivia looked at Fin pleadingly who responded with, "Please mom? Can we keep her?"
Sensing that a full-scale mutiny would occur if Olivia deprived her staff of one afternoon in the company Detective Rollins' dog, the sergeant conceded.
Sighing heavily she turned, coming face-to-face with ADA Barba.
"Good afternoon," he smiled.
Rafael looked passed her at the gaggle of officers smiling and laughing in a circle, some of them reluctantly dragging themselves away from the commotion.
"Someone bring in doughtnuts?" he quipped to Olivia, who rolled her eyes but smiled.
Frannie's ears perked up at the sound of a new voice. She wiggled around trying to get up off the floor and then, seeing Rafael, bolted across the room towards him.
"Frannie!" Amanda stood up, face flushing, "Come back here!" she jogged towards them, tugging her dog away from where she'd been happily licking Rafael's shoes.
Olivia crossed her arms and tried not to show her amusement, she gently nudged Rafael with her elbow and gave him a wry smile, "She likes you."
"Does she?" Rafael said and to her surprise, smiled right back.
Amanda's sheepish expression turned to shock as the counselor bent down on one knee. Sensing the invitation, Frannie all but tore away from her owner's hold and bounded into Rafael's arms.
He heard Olivia's laughter, clear and present and so close to him, the film of water that had previously enveloped his world having receded some time after the first night at the bar. The first of many.
Dog fur all over his suit and a new voice in his head, Rafael allowed himself kindness.