Merry Christmas, Mr. Barba
Disclaimer: The characters belong to Dick Wolf and NBC. The story belongs to me.
Author's note: Spanish lyrics are from Marty Robbin's lovely song, Spanish Lullaby.
There's a lose translation of a couple lines right after the Spanish lyrics. This story is slightly AU in spots but I can't tell you exactly where or it'll spoil the story. You'll know it when you see it.
My baby's gone
I have no friends
To wish me greetings
Once again. Please Come Home for Christmas- Charles Brown,
Rafael Barba had had a lousy day. Nothing had been going well at work. He'd lost a case that had seemed to be a slam-dunk. Grumbling under his breath, he gathered up his papers in his office and shoved them in a briefcase. Striding over to the nice oak cabinet in his office, he took out his favorite bottle of scotch. What the hell, he thought, everyone was gone early because of the holidays. No one's going to catch him drinking at work.
He slammed the door shut behind him, grabbed a glass, and poured the scotch into. He sank into his comfortable chair and starred morosely out the window. It was grey out and cold and snow was on the ground. Very little of it was actually fluffy snow, it had all been trampled into the grime of New York City streets. Everything was just dismal shades of grey.
He took a large swallow of his very pricey Macallan. Closing his eyes, the tension in his body fled as the liquid trickled down his throat. Taking a deep breath, he put the glass down and stared at his desk. How was he going to explain that debacle in the courtroom to the district attorney? The case had seemed to be a sure thing, even with the tricks of a very smart pro-bono attorney, but then people had fucked up at the lab.
Bringing back very bad memories of a similar case from a long time ago… Barba shook his head, trying to rid his head of unpleasant memories. No use going down that road again. Benson seemed to be doing fairly well, Lewis was dead, and those ghosts were long gone. And she was smiling again.
The new man in her life had brought a light to her face that he had never seen. In the time he had worked with her, even before Lewis, he had never seen her this happy, this content. And, for whatever reason, despite his terrible, horrible day, that made him smile.
Noah Benson was the best thing to happen to Olivia. And he was happy for her. Despite reservations on the parts of certain ACS workers, Rafael knew that Liv was the best woman for Noah. Even more than any romantic interest, Noah was the piece that completed Olivia Benson. No longer could people say, "You don't know what it's like to be a mother." Things that he knew had hurt Liv deeply. But she had gone on, as she normally had, smiling and pretending each word wasn't like a dagger to her heart.
But now, she was truly happy. In a way she never had been in the time he had known her. While happy for her, it only hammered in the fact that he was still alone. The remaining links to his childhood were gone, his mother had passed on some time ago, from cancer. A rare form that took his beloved mama from the tough, vibrant, person that he had known all his life to a mere shadow of who she used to be. After surviving life as a single mother in el barrio, she hadn't been taken down by a bullet but by a disease. A disease that took away every shred of her dignity until she was begging to be put out of her misery
The endless chemo sessions that only made her sicker and did little to halt the intruder in her body.
He fucking hated the holidays.
Barba gripped his glass tightly. The holidays were just a reminder of all the things that had been taken from him: his friendships, his romantic relationships, and the one woman he had loved his whole life and who had loved him unconditionally in return with no judgment. So he picked up the phone and made his usual reservation at his usual upscale restaurant. They knew him there, had seen him come in holiday after holiday, always alone, with some case work. He didn't mind the looks of pity he knew they were throwing him; he was used to it and after a while they just faded into the wall just like the holiday decorations and the panhandlers on the streets.
A sharp rap stirred him from his thoughts.
"Come in," he says, not bothering to hide his scotch. It's not like he has anything to lose anyway. Not after this day. Not after his entire life.
"Rafael." Olivia Benson smiles, stepping into his office. "I was hoping to catch you here."
"Liv." He walks over to her and grips her arms in his version of a hug. He's still not really comfortable with much physical affection. That's not who he is. But the smile on his face is genuine. Seeing her is a delightful and unexpected surprise. "How are you?"
"I'm doing well." She smiles at him and he sees that she really IS. There are no lies in her face, just simple contentment.
"I can see that." He pulls out a chair. "Care to sit?"
"Only for a few minutes." Benson responds. "Lucy's with Noah, I really need to get home to him." The look on her face when she talks about Noah fascinates Barba. Years are erased from her face by the obvious delight she has in her foster son. He's never seen her so beautiful.
"Motherhood suits you, Liv." He looks at her keenly. "You wear it well."
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say I'm his mother….this may all be temporary, as well you know." A shadow falls across her face and some resignation too - as if she's prepared for yet another person in her life to get taken from her. Life has not been easy for Olivia Benson and she's learned quickly not to count on anything. And, really, with the challenges she's had from the ACS in regards to Noah, Rafael's not surprised that she's so cynical.
"He's as much your son as if you gave birth to him yourself." Rafael says fiercely, in a low tone of voice. Anything to erase the shadows of old ghosts and past miseries from her face. "You're the only mother he's really known. The only one that counts."
Benson is touched by the passion in her friend.
"You're sweet, Rafael Barba."
"Yes, well," he says uncomfortably with a slight grin, "don't let other people know that. My reputation would be in ruins."
"Your secret's safe with me." Olivia held up her hand in a "scouts honor" gesture. "How are you, Rafael? I haven't seen you much lately."
"Just work." He shrugs dismissively. "The usual. Nothing really changes. You know that."
She gives him an odd look. Olivia Benson's no fool and she can see that he's hurting, far beyond mere stress over a terrible work day. Oh, she's had those in spades but she also knows when someone is hiding very deep pain. She's been in that place too. Far too many times - and, oh god, how many times did she have to walk around and pretend everything was fine when it wasn't.
"Rafael," she asks slowly, "are you doing anything for Christmas?"
"I have reservations at this restaurant." He says, a little unsure where she's going with this.
"Are you going with anybody?" Liv decides to just be direct. Rafael respects that.
For a moment, Barba considered lying just to avoid admitting that he had no one to be with at the holidays but instead he hears, "No" coming out of his mouth.
"Cancel your 'plans'." Benson says. "You're going to have dinner with my son and me."
Barba opens his mouth to protest and shuts it when Benson stares him down.
There are times when it does absolutely no good to argue with Olivia Benson. This is one of those times.
"What time?" He asks resignedly.
BENSON'S APARTMENT - December 25 - 6:00PM
Barba stands at Benson's door, hesitant. He wasn't sure what to get her but he does know she likes red wine so he's brought a beautiful Italian valipocella. And there's another gift, a smaller one, that he'll bring out later. This is a little awkward and uncomfortable for him; he's definitely not used to spending the holidays with somebody, much less one of his co-workers - albeit one he respects and admires tremendously. And gift-giving? Not his strength.
And what on earth do you get a baby? Rafael had found himself completely out of his element but after much discussion with some very curious female colleagues in the DA's office, he'd managed to find something appropriate.
He hoped. Do babies really like to play with stuffed sharks?
Dammit. He's really not good at this.
But it seemed like a good idea at the time...
He shifts all the packages to under one arm, putting some down on the floor. Takes a deep breath and knocks on the door.
"Be right there." a voice calls from inside the apartment. "Noah. Noah. NO, you can't have that! That's my red juice, not yours. MINE."
Barba can't help himself and he laughs.
The door's thrown wide open and a somewhat-frazzled Benson's standing there, burping cloth over one shoulder, a lock of her brown hair falling into her face.
"Sorry about that." She apologizes as she lets him in. "Noah's getting into everything. I never knew a child could be so, so, so…grabby. Could I take any of that from you?"
"It's okay, Liv, I got it. Sounds like you have enough on your hands."
He looks around the apartment. She's obviously attempted to clean but some areas look like a tornado of Baby's R Us have hit them. Seeing her worried look out of the corner of one eye, he suppresses the urge to chuckle.
The tree is beautiful. Not too big, not too small - and there's an ornament on it with a photo of Liv and Noah in it. White lights and multicolored balls hang in the small pine and there's an assortment of gifts under the tree. Placing some of his bags on the counter, he reaches in and gets his gifts.
"Oh, Rafael, you didn't have to get me anything." Olivia said, touched.
"Let me explain to you how Christmas works." Barba quipped. "In many cultures, it is tradition to give gifts. As of matter of fact…"
She rolls her eyes good-naturedly.
"The turkey's in the oven, it should be done shortly. I have some stuffing, potatoes, and cranberry sauce all prepared. I just need to get ready. I am such a mess…"
All of a sudden a little wail cuts through the air.
"Oh, Noah…" Olivia frets, heading towards where Noah is seated in his play chair. "Rafael, you can leave the gifts under the tree."
It's such a small thing he knows but somehow that simple directive starts to thaw the ice around the sarcastic ADA's heart.
Noah can't stop crying and poor Liv looks like she's at her wit's end. Cradling the little boy close to her, she's whispering to him, trying to calm him down. She needs to take a shower, she's a mess, and Barba's here and witnessing the fact that she can't calm down her child.
"Let me take him, Liv." Rafael's surprised to hear the words coming out of his mouth.
He's doing a lot of unexpected things this holiday season.
"Are you sure, Rafael?" Olivia said, "I don't want to leave you with him if he's like this."
"Olivia," he looks at her with fond exasperation, "I've handled criminals and lawyers that are far more difficult than one crying baby."
Benson's still not sure, torn between her need to get cleaned up and reluctance to leave her sobbing child with a relative stranger. Friends though they might be.
"Liv. Go. We'll be fine."
Benson gives him a very skeptical look. Barba and a baby?
He's ruthless in the courtroom; he will tear people to shreds with his tongue and wit. Brutal honesty is his conversation of choice and please doesn't seem to be a word in his vocabulary.
Then she remembers the moments when he's spoken with victims that she can see the empathy and kindness behind the prosecutorial mask he wears. Those moments were brief but he got through to them. Like Jenny…when she had gone to confront Bruce Corbett, he had sat with her, patted her hand, supported her. Shown more compassion than she had expected.
He had been her rock during the trial with Lewis. She'd trusted him then to do right by her, she could trust him now.
"Okay," she says, putting down her dish towel, "I'm taking a shower. You can take care of him."
Noah's still crying so she goes over and picks him up. Hands him to Barba.
"You sure about this?"
Rafael rolls his eyes. "Olivia, this is a baby, not a mass murderer. Go."
Noah eyes Barba, obviously unsure what to make of this rather slick looking relative stranger. He starts to wail again. Barba starts to bounce him a little, feeling a little awkward and more than a little ridiculous. Noah's having none of it, now decidedly crabby and where was his mommy?
But Barba's not going to be defeated by a child. He's faced down some of the world's worst criminals and won. He's going to win this child over, dignity be damned.
Benson, on her way to her shower, winces, halts at the sound of the continued crying, almost turns around…but decides to go out on a limb and let Barba handle it. She's fairly sure Noah's simply tired, Lucy had told her he'd not napped at all.
She can get ready in 15 minutes - what can happen between now and then?
It actually takes her about 30 minutes. But after about five minutes in the bathroom, the wails lessened and Noah had silence was almost as unnerving as the noise and while she's pretty sure Barba hasn't given Noah a sedative, she's curious how they're getting along and, more importantly, how did he get him to stop?
She's managed to throw on a black sweater with sparkles, her favorite, and one of her few concessions to "girliness." It's form fitting, not boxy like some of her work outfits. Not being very high maintenance, Olivia spends little time on makeup, quickly applying eyeliner, mascara, some shimmer on her eyes, blush and lipstick. Spritzing on some of her favorite Jo Malone perfume and towel drying her hair, she quickly returns to the living room.
What she sees there almost makes her jaw drop.
Rafael Barba was standing over by the window and the tree, holding a sleepy Noah, whose head is now resting on his shoulder.
And he's singing.
He's got his back to her, swaying gently with Noah, so he doesn't hear or see her approach.
As she gets closer, Benson can just barely make out the words.
Cierras ya tus ojitos.
Duermete sin temor.
Sueña con angelitos
Parecidos a ti.
Y te agarrare tu mano.
Duermete sin temor.
Cuando tu despiertes,
Yo estare aqui.
There's moisture behind Liv's eyes - she blames it on the dust. Rafael continues to croon to Noah, his voice low, soft and sweet. And Benson remembers everything that was good and pure and innocent about her childhood. Things that she wishes sometimes she could have again.
But she's seen too much, been through too much. She's not the same person she was at eight years of age or at fifteen, or even several years ago.
Life's changed her, has changed all of them. But the road she's traveled down has brought her to this place. And this place is joy.
Sleep without fear
When you awaken
I will be here.
He looks up and sees her.
Their eyes meet and without a word, he comes over to her and hands her Noah, now docile and quiet, eyes closed. She's careful when she takes him - she doesn't want him to wake. "I'm just going to put him down" she mouths at Rafael silently. And she slips into the bedroom and lays Noah in his crib. He's out.
"Goodnight, little man." She looks down at him. "I love you so much." And a single tear runs down her face.
She never imagined that she ever would be in this place. That she would love one person as much as she loves Noah.
Once, long ago, she had told Lindstrom that while she was waiting to see whether her pregnancy test was positive or not, she'd imagined a whole other life. One she thought had been closed to her when she had seen the results.
But then Linden had given her Noah. For all intents and purposes, he was hers and she loved him fiercely, more than she had loved anyone in this life.
Oh, how much I love you. She whispers. And I hope that you always know that.
She goes out of the bedroom and Rafael's sitting on the couch. Liv's not worried about the food, the turkey's done and things just need to be heated up.
Opening the bottle of wine Rafael brought, she pours them both a glass of wine.
"Thank you for coming, Rafael." She says softly. "It means a lot."
"I wasn't sure if I was going to come." He admitted. "The holidays are not my friend. I've always spent them alone."
"You're not alone anymore." Olivia smiles at him. "You've got us, Noah and I. You are always welcome here."
And the ice continues to thaw.
He smiles but doesn't say anything in response. He's not sure how to respond. Making friendships and, more importantly, keeping them, is not a talent of his. He's never let anyone get that close.
"Can I ask you something?" She says hesitantly.
"What I've learned is that no one can stop Olivia Benson if she wants to find out something." He says cryptically.
"That's not a yes, Rafael." Benson gives him a gentle swat on the shoulder. Don't be an asshole, Barba.
"Shoot." He acknowledges her unspoken comment with a wry smile.
"That song…" she said, "what is it?"
"My mother sang it to me as a child. Whenever I had nightmares, she would say, 'Rafi, you have nothing to fear. I'll be here when you wake.' Then she would sing it to me. Never failed to comfort me."
I'll be here when you wake. But now she's not.
Olivia sees the sheen of tears in his eyes. It throws her because she's never seen him like this. There have been times when she's seen his vulnerability, has spotted emotions. But he keeps them well hidden. His walls are more impenetrable than hers.
Except for now.
"You must miss her very much." She says simply. Because she understands the loss of a mother.
A mother who, despite her faults, had loved Olivia very much.
But the demons had been stronger than the love in the end. As they often were.
"I do." He says softly. "I always will."
She decides to be direct. "Is that why you're alone during the holidays?"
"There are many reasons," Rafael tries to deflect, "but that is one of them, yes."
"Rafael." She lays her hand on his. "I don't want to be presumptuous but I don't think she'd want that for you."
"Well," he sips his wine and looks bitterly into the night, "she's not around now, is she?"
"Rafael Barba, listen to me." Olivia says in exasperation. "Do you mean to tell me that your mother would have supported this great plan of yours? Deliberately cutting yourself off from people? Is that really what she would have wanted? Is that something that really makes you happy? You might be able to lie to others if it makes you feel better but for how long can you lie to yourself?"
He knows she's right but he hates it. "Dammit, Liv. If you're like this with the men in your life, no wonder they've left." He lashes out because he's hurting and, fuck, if he can't be mean when he's hurting.
Her face is covered with hurt. "That was cruel, even for you, Barba." She says lowly.
"I'm sorry." He says with genuine regret. She's opened her home to him and he's hurt her. Damn, he is a fool.
He sighs heavily. "I'm…I'm not good at this, Liv. I'm sorry." Apologizing is awkward for him, he doesn't do it much and he just feels like he's handling all of this so terribly badly.
"You're just out of practice, Rafael. I think, in our work, we're so busy building up our walls to protect ourselves from all the evil that we see, that we forget how to live. We forget how to be friends…." she looks down at her hands, "…we forget how to have healthy relationships. We focus so much on helping others we forget to help ourselves, we forget how to take care of the people in our lives.. I've really only realized this since Noah and since Brian left." Her eyes were filled with pain and bitter regret.
Barba had never talked to her about Cassidy. Hadn't realized how much Brian had meant to her and how devastating that loss had been.
"For what it's worth," he tells her, "You're doing a great job with Noah and a good job with the squad. I know it's not easy - that being in a position of command has its own unique challenges. But you've come so far, this is a piece of cake for you. Fuck Dodds and the morons at 1PP."
A faint blush crosses her face and she smiles a little.
"See?" She winks at him. "You're not so bad at this friendship thing."
He shrugs. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, fake it pretty well."
And they both laugh.
At the end of the meal, which was delicious, Olivia hands Rafael a package.
"Olivia Benson." He gives her a mock look of exasperation. "You didn't have to get me anything. Your cooking was quite enough."
Cocking her head to the side, she laughs. "Rafael, the exchange of gifts is traditional at holidays. Do I have to keep reminding you of this?"
He grins at her. "I've got a thick skull. Takes me a while to get the point."
She rolls her eyes. "You're so full of shit, Barba."
The package is relatively small so it doesn't take him long to open it. It's a picture of both of them, in a rare moment where they're both smiling and looking completely content. They're walking together down the sidewalks and he must have told her one of his terrible jokes because she's laughing way too hard.
Barba's still not sure why she finds those jokes funny - they're downright terrible. But she does and he finds it amusing that she enjoys stupid puns so he keeps on telling them.
The light in the picture is perfect, it's the light of a dying autumn day and the sun gives them both halos. The photographer has managed to catch them both in a completely candid and revealing moment, in the brief time where both of them had let their guard down.
It's the most beautiful picture he's ever seen. And she's breathtaking. Something shifts inside of him; he can't quite put his finger on it. All he knows that his world has just shifted in a way he never could have imagined.
It's terrifying. And wonderful. All at once.
"Thank you." Is all he can manage. His throat is tight and he still can't breathe. It's a rare thing to catch Barba speechless, but she's done it.
"I have something for you." He says, managing to get the words out relatively smoothly. "And, can I just tell you now, Olivia Benson, if you even try to tell me that I didn't have to get anything for you, I'm going to be a little annoyed."
He gives her an impish grin.
Why doesn't he smile like that more often? And how hasn't she noticed his eyes before?
Perhaps because she hadn't been looking so closely before.
Eagerly, she opens the small gift, wrapped in silver and blue. (Liv's always loved opening presents - because getting them has been such a rare treat for her and she always turns into such a child.)
The look in her eyes was worth every cent Barba had spent on this gift. Just looking at her face was enough of a thanks for him.
"Oh, Rafael." Her eyes tear up, she can't speak.
It's a replacement for the necklace she loved. The one she left behind for the squad to find when Lewis had abducted her.
It lies bright and shining in the box, untarnished by blood, sweat, and tears. Free from the ghosts of those hellish four days.
"I knew your necklace was being held in evidence." Barba said quietly. "You've worn that necklace as long as I've known you. It's everything you are in one word. And I didn't want Lewis to rob you of that too."
When she finally looks up at him, there are tears in her eyes and something else. A reflection of something that he's been feeling since he saw that picture of them standing together.
"Thank you, Rafael. Thank you."
She leans over and touches her mouth to his. And that's not just gratitude he feels warm against his mouth. He's got a feeling that he's standing at the edge of a precipice but one that won't be the death of him if he falls over. The choice is complicated and simple all at once.
He kisses her back.
When they draw apart, she simply smiles. "Merry Christmas, Rafael."
The haunting notes of Christmas carols come from somewhere near, probably one of the apartments not too far over from hers. And the stars shine bright in the New York city night, beyond the glare of the street lights.
So bring on the snow and the mistletoe
It's Christmas and I'm going home
I'm going home. - Celtic Thunder, Going Home For Christmas