Disclaimer: Characters are not mine. They belong to Dick Wolf and NBC.
Author's note: Dialogue from the show in bold italics.
I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.~ Og Mandino
They say that time makes all things better, that it heals all wounds. But some wounds go so deep that it takes years for the scars to form. And sometimes even then, the scabs break and you start bleeding all over again. And what they don't tell you is sometimes those scars hurt far longer than the actual making of them. And they never tell you the cost.
The cost is in the fine print. Which you never learned to read really carefully until you got older and you went to law school and discovered that fine print is pretty much all things are. Things are always hidden, they are never as they seem, and people will hurt you.
Rafael learned that lesson early.
It started with the shouting.
The beatings came later.
His father was not a pleasant man. Hot tempered and intelligent, he had a sharp tongue which he used to devastating effect on him and mamá. While mamá had a temper of her own and was more than a match for his father, he couldn't bear to see him yell at her. Even as a young boy, he knew that yelling and screaming just wasn't done. It wasn't right.
Years later Rafael still feels the echoes of the shouting reverberate in his soul.
Sipping his scotch, he stares at the television in the bar, not really seeing anything at all. He's been there awhile after his heart to heart with Amaro, well, as much as a heart to heart as two men actually do, and all the memories… so many memories have come rushing to the surface with all their attending knives as cold and sharp as steel.
Because he knows steel is sharp. He remembers cutting himself on it… or was it Papá that cut him? Somehow the nightmares and reality became blended when he was young so that sometimes he couldn't distinguish what was real and what was terror and fear changing his reality into something worse. Something he always feared would happen but never actually would.
Dammit, Rafael, I told you to stay in your room. Goddammit, hijo, do I have to get out the belt again?
No, Papá , please. I promise I will be good.
Ha, Papá laughs, you are good for nothing. What? Do you think I am proud to have a son who does nothing but read? What good to me are you? Why can't you be more like your sister? She does what she is told
Does what she is told. That was Papá's way of saying Araceli always never contradicted him. She was the good Barba. The one who never set one foot out of line. Always did what was expected. Even if it killed her.
Rafael never hears much from her anymore.
Oh, Rafí, why do you upset your father? You know he doesn't like it.
Mamá could never stand up to him, not even for her own son.
You are good for nothing. Un perdedor, a loser, that is all you are. All you ever will be. No real son of mine.
He grips the glass tightly in his hand and reminds himself that his father is dead. Has been dead a long time - and whatever power he had was buried with him in his grave.
Or so he had thought.
"Rafael." She says his name lightly as she steps into the bar.
Of course, she found him. She always does.
I'm a trained detective. Oh yeah, I followed the scotch too.
"Are you all-right?" Her eyes are keen as they scan his face. Don't look…don't look….stop looking at me.
"Fine." He snaps. Don't pry, Olivia. You don't want to go there.
"It is not your fault, the verdict." She says softly. How does she know you so well? But she's always known.
"I know that." He takes a large gulp of the scotch, so smooth and perfect, it dulls the sharp jagged edges of the pain. The pain is so harsh but after so many years he'd almost forgotten how deeply it cut. He's been so busy burying it for all these years.
With the remembering comes all that familiar hurt. The hurt that still has the ability to undo him, no matter how hard he tries to forget.
"You always say that." Liv gives him a half-smile. "And, yet, here we are."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I think you know."
"Goddammit, Olivia, I'm not in the mood for cryptic." He snaps because it's been a long day, this is another verdict that has gone against him, and once again he could not put him away. Once again, someone who should be in jail has walked free. Once again, he's good for nothing. Just one more failure in a whole line of failures that has been his life.
He can still hear the shouting.
"Look at yourself, Rafael, you're sitting in a bar, drinking yourself into oblivion. What number is that?" She eyes the glass sharply.
"I haven't drunk that much." He sounds almost sulky. Like a little wounded little boy that used to cry himself to sleep, hurt by the words of his classmates, hurt by the words of his own father. Wounds that landed on him like the lash from a whip. "And you are not my mother."
You good for nothing.
She's a little wounded but knows he's lashing from a place of pain. The signs are all too familiar.
"I'm worried about you, Rafael." She puts her hand on his shoulder.
"Worry about your squad.." He shrugs. "Seems like you have bigger issues than me to worry about." Like the younger Nicolas Amaro.
Physical violence against another human being is a CRIME….
"I'm not stupid, Rafael." She retorts. "I saw you in there. It was personal for you too."
More than you know, Olivia.
Rafael, he chides himself, you must be losing your edge. Did anyone else see it too?
"We're not talking about this." He refuses to let her see that scared little boy, who huddled in the corner near his bed, clutching his precious books to him like they were his lifeline. As they indeed were, despite his father's sneers.
He refuses to let her hear the screams and soft sobs of his mama, the ones that she kept tight to herself and only shed when Papa wasn't around to yell at her for them.
"Don't you think…?" Liv starts to say and then stops.
This isn't about your father. This is about you…
No, Benson decides. She's not going to go down that path again. What she had said to Nick - that hadn't been her place. Who was she to play therapist when she was still piecing herself back together?
She might be able to fool other people but she can't lie to herself. She will never be able to forget and forgiveness? She's not there yet.
Will she ever be? Now isn't that the question of the year.
Physician, heal thyself.
Rafael glances over at her but she doesn't see, buried in her own thoughts and shadows.
"I'm sorry, Liv," he says, "I had no right to snap at you like that."
She smiles. "You had every right. It's none of my business. I'm not your priest. Not your therapist."
And her eyes are tight and tired. He looks at her, really looks at her for the first time, and wonder how okay she really is. Lewis has been dead a long time but Barba surmises that he'll never be truly gone. Not really.
As try as they might to bury the past, it never stays dead. Just dormant, like a sleeping tiger in the hot jungle. Just waiting for the right moment to pounce, teeth bright and white in the coming darkness.
"My father," Barba says slowly, "was a difficult man."
I know what it's like to face down your old man.
Benson says nothing, simply listens. There's no judgment on her face. Just understanding . She knows, far too well, just how complicated family can be. And you can't simply turn your back on your blood. It always is a part of you. No matter how hard you try to bleed it out.
"I was always a disappointment to him." Rafael stares at his hands. "No matter what I did, it was never good enough." His look at Benson is haunted. Rollins, Amaro, Liv, they're not the only ones who have not been able to outrun their pasts, their blood.
"He wanted me to be a mechanic, like him. The shop was his life. He never could understand why a son of his preferred books and studying to the grime and muck of cars and motorcycles. He never could understand that I didn't want that life. I didn't want to be him, stuck in el barrio for the rest of my life." Rafael stares at his hands. "I didn't want dirt underneath my fingernails, slime all over my palms. Have you ever felt that, Olivia? You can never get it out. Never get it out."
Why can't you be more like your Papá, Rafael? Why do you have to fight him so much?
And she knows he's talking about more than simple mechanical grease and dirt.
The wound has been festering for years and it's long past time for it to be lanced.
Barba looks over at Liv, now nursing a glass of red wine and looking at him thoughtfully.
"I just could never please him. No matter what I did. And I tried. God, how I tried." His voice breaks and he hates it because she can see him. And he hates being seen. God, it only gets you hurt because people they see you and they take advantage. And then they break you.
Like his father.
He wants to throw his glass against the bar - all the walls he's carefully constructed are falling to pieces - goddammit Amaro - but he doesn't. Not five minutes later, he feels her hand on his.
"Rafael," she looks at him, her eyes soft with empathy, "you know that is not your fault."
He looks at her challengingly. "Tell that to a little boy who spends his life hiding in his room because he can't stand the shouting. Who would stay as late as possible at school because he didn't want to go home only to be told he was useless."
You are nothing but a loser…pretending you are one of the gringitos. You will never be one of them, Rafael Eduardo, quit pretending that you will be. And stick to your own kind. Remember where you came from, hijo. You'll never be more than that and you shouldn't even try.
Sometimes the voices blend together and it's both his Mamá and Papá. That's the worst of all - hearing it from both of them.
"If I could talk to that boy," Olivia says, looking at Barba intently. "I would tell him that sometimes adults can be very mean and cruel. And that they lie. And I will tell the man the same thing. Don't listen to those voices of your past. They're liars. Trust me." And she looks sad for a moment. "I know."
"Rafael, look at me."
He's hesitant when he turns to her and that's so unlike him but beneath the snark and sass, she sees the ghost of the little boy that hid from the tears and the shouting. The little boy that wrapped his arms around himself in the shadows of the room and counted the days until he could get away from there. And her heart breaks for the little boy who never was able to enjoy his childhood because he was too busy being the only adult in that house.
She locks eyes with his. "Because of you, Lewis was put away. You did your job. You fought for me and you won. Like you've done for so many others. You are not your father's lies."
Liv's uncertain that he believes her but she sees that he's listening. He's finally stopped gripping his scotch glass like he wants to strangle it. Good, she really doesn't want to clean up another shattered glass. There's been far too many of those of late.
When he speaks again, it's almost in a whisper so she has to lean close to hear him.
"Fifteen years, Liv, it's been fifteen years since he's been gone. And I still want to feel his face underneath my fist. The nights I heard my mother cry, the smack of flesh when his hand met her face. Sometimes at night, I can still hear her tears. And I couldn't protect her. Or my sister. No matter how hard I tried."
He stares into his scotch and she sees a single tear glisten on his face. His pain is palpable and she's at a complete loss. But she suddenly understands why he took her abduction so badly. In his eyes, she was just one more person that he had failed to protect.
The words she's spoken to victims over the years don't seem to be quite enough and he deserves more than that.
"Rafael," she starts slowly, taking a large sip of her wine, "I don't think I've ever told you about my father…"
And she starts talking, words spilling from her mouth. She tells him about her life with Serena, what it was like coming home to see her mother passed out in yet another stupor. To constantly be finding bottles under the sink, tucked in cabinets and dresser drawers. Of the sporadic outbursts of anger that Serena would unleash on her.
Nights when she'd sit in bed and pretend she couldn't hear Serena crying.
Do you remember when you asked me about my father and I said it was a long story?… It's actually not that long.
Her lips tighten with the telling.
I never wanted you, Olivia. Abortion just wasn't legal then. And adoption was too much of a hassle. But this was never my choice. You were never my choice.
Then, later, I'm sorry… I didn't mean it, I just wasn't myself. And the tears and the promises to never do it again. And Liv's subsequent reluctant promises to not hold Serena's words against her.
Things said in anger cut so deeply the wounds never heal. Oh, you can pretend and smile and laugh and ignore that your heart is shattering, even make fancy masks and robes to wear in public. But eventually the charade gets old and the mask and robes fray at the edges.
My father raped my mother.
"I have lived with this for a large part of my life, Rafael. Those words have been stained in my soul. You're not the only one who has been weighed and found wanting."
When she's done, there's nothing but silence. Liv stares at her wine glass, really not wanting to look at him. He hasn't said one single word while she's been talking. It's one of the reasons he's so good, he will just sit there and listen. Let you say more than you intended by the unassuming manner he adopts to get people to open up. It doesn't last long, usually, because he has a tendency to pounce like a shark.
Did I do the right thing?
She fumbles with her glass of wine, fearing to meet his eyes. Not wanting to see the pity that she's sure is there.
It is what it is. I've come to terms with it a long time ago.
The cabernet is oaky and rich, just the way she likes it. Swirling it on her tongue, she tastes berries and oak and she remembers Serena holding her hand as a little girl and laughing with her. Sometimes they'd even play in the snow and Serena would show her how to make snow angels. And they'd laugh over Serena's helpless attempts to bake Christmas cookies. Because they didn't have much, between the money spent on Serena's drinking, and the business of living so even baking cookies was a luxury.
They may have been burnt but they were still the best Liv ever tasted.
How you can hate and love someone so much at the same time….
Family. So complicated.
She clears her throat. Oh, so this is awkward.
His hand slips over hers.
"Walk with me, Liv." He says. But it's not harsh. It's so very gentle.
"My drink…" she stumbles a little, not quite together.
"It's on me. Come."
Now there's the Barba she's more accustomed to - firm, in control. But still gentle.
He leads her by the hand out of the bar. The night air is fresh and warm and the sky is clear. Rafael tucks her arm in his and she doesn't mind. It's a sweet gesture and comforting. She leans into him and, under cover of night, he smiles. And some of the shadows are dispelled.
For several moments, they don't talk, simply stroll in the night, inhaling the various scents of the city. And finally he finds a small park, lit only by the lights of a few very dim street lamps. "Sit," he says. Sit. Drink. Smile.
So she does and for a moment things are awkward while both of them try to adjust with what they've told one another. It's unnerving, taking off the masks, and it's a change that neither of them are used to.
"When I was a boy, hiding in my room at night, " Barba's voice is free of tension now, it's relaxed and almost…free, "I used to sit on my bed and look out at the night. And I would count the stars. I used to dream of being an astronaut, of shedding the bonds of earth and touching the sky. Anything to escape the life I had. Those stars kept me going; every time i looked up at them I knew there was another world out there. Beyond the borders of my neighborhood, the prison bars of my family life." He says this last with a tinge of bitterness.
"Look at them," he puts his arm around Liv, "look at how they shine." She can't help but smile at the childlike wonder in his voice. The boy who found joy counting the stars from his bedroom window is still there underneath all the sarcasm and the snark.
Hold on to that, Rafael. Never lose that.
Olivia looks up and really sees them. They shimmer and sparkle and dance, far above the dingy light of the street lamps.
"It was easier," he says, his voice catching a little, "counting stars than it was the bruises."
She wants to say something but all the words catch in her throat.
"You were right, Liv." He looks at her. "I'm not my father. I never will be my father. But part of me forever is that boy hiding in his room. The one who failed so many times." His voice fades to a whisper. "Every case I lose, especially with Amaro's father, is one more jab from my father. Beyond the grave."
Liv slips her hand in Rafael's. They're soft but strong hands and she likes how they feel in her own.
"You and I," she says softly, "are so alike. Our scars have become so engrained in us that they form who we are. We have to fight every day not to let them define us."
Fuck you, William Lewis.
"It's not an easy battle." She continues. "But we do it because we have to - because we're more than the sum of our battle scars. And if I didn't remind myself of that, the darkness would win. Neither of us deserve to stay victims of our past."
Liv finally sees a small smile on his face.
"Been practicing that speech much, Liv?" He says flippantly, partly to hide his very real emotions. "You sound like me."
"Actually, I sound much better." She can read him like a book and knows exactly what he's doing. But Liv simply grins. I see you. I know your game.
"Ouch. I'm wounded." Barba mockingly touches his chest.
"You'll get over it." She laughs. "You always do." And then adds more seriously. "You're a strong man, Rafael. One of the strongest I know."
"Coming from you that's high praise." A small smirk plays around his mouth and the smile lines are touching his eyes at last.
"Perhaps so but I also need to learn to take my own advice." She laughs ruefully. "I've always been terrible at that."
"I have a proposition for you." Rafael slings his arm over the chair, gently touching her shoulder. Liv raises one eyebrow. "Liv, for the love of God, that's not what I meant."
She chuckles briefly, but then turns serious.
He looks at her. "Let's help one another."
Benson looks unsure for a moment - she's always been reluctant to accept help, she's a big girl - she can do it herself. But, looking in Barba's eyes, she realizes what he's really asking.
Would you count stars with me?
"It's a deal." She says firmly. And his arm reaches around her and he pulls her tight into him. Leaning her head against his chest, Liv breathes in his scent. Rafael smells of summer and new beginnings, the ocean air and the laughter of childhood. And in her mind's eye, she sees the smaller version of herself, smiling again. Happy. Joyful. Untainted by the wounds and scars of her later years.
The piece of her that she had thought was lost forever.
One, two, three, four, five, six. Together, they both start counting, underneath their breaths.
Rafael leans his head on hers and whispers into her hair, "Thank you, Liv."
Thank you for counting stars with me.