This Is Their Story, Part 3

Olivia glanced at herself in the mirror of her office and decided she looked presentable. She couldn't go out and face Rollins with smudged lipstick and messy hair. Packing up her things, she headed out and sat in the chair next to Rollins's desk.

"Amanda, I need to ask you a favor," she said.

"Sure Liv, what's up?" Amanda paused the video on her screen and swiveled toward her.

"Please don't feel any obligation, but if you don't have plans on Friday would you be able to watch Noah? I figured he and Jessie might enjoy a play date?"

"Sure! Hot date?" said Amanda, smiling.

"Actually, you could say that," said Olivia, her cheeks reddening slightly.

"Wow, good for you!" said Amanda, tapping her lightly on the arm. "Do you want me to keep him for the night? You could pick him up in the morning."

"That would be wonderful, if you don't mind. But as I said, there is no pressure. I know it's a Friday night so if you have other plans I would completely understand."

"No, Liv, it's fine. Jessie and I will have a blast with Noah. I'm happy for you. I know things have been tough these past few months. Can you tell me about the lucky guy?"

Olivia hesitated. Should she tell Amanda? No, she decided. Too soon. "He's handsome, he's very smart, and he seems… exciting."

Amanda clapped her hands. "Well, I'll come by and pick Noah up after work on Friday. Maybe I can help you get ready! Or is that too girly? Sorry, I get excited."

"You know, that might not be the worst idea. It has been awhile since I've gone out with a guy. I could use another set of eyes."

The week crawled by, with Olivia and Rafael only talking about work-related issues, and only when necessary. It felt strange, and extremely conspicuous. But if anyone at the precinct suspected anything was amiss, they didn't show it. On Friday after work, Olivia hurried home and tossed various articles of clothing onto her bed, so she and Rollins would have some things to look through. Then she sat with Noah for a bit, reading to him and spending as much time as possible with him before Amanda arrived. When the doorbell rang Olivia rushed to answer it. Amanda and Jessie came in, smiling. "Hey Liv! Jessie is so excited for her playdate with Noah!"

"Noah hasn't been able to talk about anything else," said Olivia. "Why don't you get them settled in the play area and you and I can dig through my closet. Most of my clothes are more business-like than night-on-the-town type ensembles."

"We'll figure something out," said Amanda, sitting on Olivia's bed and glancing through some of dresses that had been tossed there. "So where are you going tonight?"

"Dinner and then something else. He didn't say what. It's a surprise."

"No fair! Then you don't know the right thing to wear. Why do guys do things like that?"

"I don't know, but he flat out refused to tell me."

From elsewhere on the bed, Olivia's phone started to vibrate. Amanda whirled around. "Well maybe that's him and you can wrangle a clue out of him." She glanced at the phone. "Oh, it's just Barba. Want me to get rid of him so you can keep looking?"

"No!" exclaimed Olivia, so loudly that Amanda jumped. "Sorry, that came out louder than I intended. I'll deal with him." Taking the phone from Amanda's hand she clicked it on. "Hi, Barba," she said, sounding curt and business-like.

"Um, hi Liv. Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine. Amanda's here. Noah and Jessie are having a playdate tonight."

"Oh, I see. Well I was just calling to let you know that I will stop by and get you at 7:30 if that still works for you."

"Yes, yes, that's fine. Is that all?"

Rafael was quiet. "Are you sure everything is okay?"

"Well, since you asked, Amanda is here because I have a date tonight and the guy won't tell me where we're going so I don't know what to wear. It's a little annoying, truthfully."

Rafael laughed. "I'm sure whatever you wear will be fine."

"Well thank you for that, but I really have to go. We'll talk about this on Monday." She clicked the phone off and set it on her nightstand. "Sorry about that."

"What did he want?"

"Oh, you know, he had some question that could have easily waited until Monday. No big deal. So, should I go with the black dress?" Olivia asked, holding up one of her favorites.

Amanda tilted her head, considering. "It's beautiful, but I think you should go with red. A nice, bright red like this. Plus, it's silky. He'll want to rub his hands all over it."

Olivia smiled, thinking of Rafael's hands all over her in her office. "I'm sold," she said, taking it and holding it in front of her in the mirror. "Let me try it on with these ruby earrings. And then I'm sure you'll want to be on your way. What are your plans for the kiddos?" she asked as she stepped into the bathroom to change.

"Jessie and I are going to be watching Mulan. That's the only Disney princess I'm currently letting her get into, because she's a badass. And we'll probably be having spaghetti or something simple, if that's okay."

"Sure, sure, whatever you want. I can't thank you enough for taking care of him tonight."

"It's the least I can do. You did it for me."

"How are things going with that, anyway? You had me watch Jessie and then I never heard anything else. Did the date go well?"

Amanda hesitated. "Yes, things are going great. We don't need the baby sitter too often. He's really good with Jessie. I was really worried when I decided to go it alone as a mom that it would be hard to find someone who could handle taking on a whole family, but it turns out for the right guy… it's not an obstacle."

Olivia thought of Rafael kneeling on the floor with Noah, playing the Spanish games on the little toy tablet. She thought of Noah's drawing. Strange as the concept of the drawing was, he must really like Rafael to think of drawing a picture for him at school. As she slipped into her heels, she felt some of her nervousness start to dissipate.

"What do you think?" she asked, coming out and spreading her arms. "Too young looking?"

Amanda smiled. "No, Liv. It's perfect. It is elegant and sexy. This is going to be one lucky guy!"

"What you said about a family not being an obstacle for the right guy… I really think you're right. Tucker and I had a decent thing going, but I can't help but wonder if it all got to be too much for him. I just feel like with this guy, things could be different."

"Well, you have great instincts." Amanda squeezed her hand encouragingly.

"You know, Amanda…" Olivia began. "I don't know if I ever said this, but I'm sorry I wasn't nicer to you when you started. I had gone through so much, with Elliot leaving. And then you and Nick came, and I felt like…"

"Stop," said Amanda firmly. "We're cops. That's not how we roll. You didn't want some overeager girl from Georgia waltzing in and thinking she was going to replace Stabler. I get it. I never resented you for any of that. So don't even think about it. Especially not tonight." Amanda stood up. "I'm going to round up the kids. You look gorgeous. This guy won't know what hit him. What does he do, by the way?"

"Hmmm. Oh, he's a… he's a lawyer," said Olivia, vaguely, brushing her face with some pale blush.

"You don't get your fill of that at work?" said Amanda, rolling her eyes.

"Apparently not," said Olivia, closing her compact and smiling.

"All right, we'll get out of your hair. Have fun. And don't do anything I wouldn't do. Which, y'know, doesn't rule out much!"

Olivia laughed, hugged Noah and Jessie goodbye and then stood in her empty apartment in an echoing silence. She had over an hour to kill and no idea what to do with that time. She decided she would allow herself one pre-date drink to ease her nerves and watched some old Seinfeld reruns while she sipped it. Time was going so slowly she felt as though it were truly moving backwards. But there was nothing to do but wait.

Amanda Rollins parked Jessie and Noah in front of the television, hit play on Mulan, and poured two big glasses of Chianti. She had no sooner taken a sip when she heard a key in the lock. She grabbed the other glass and headed for the door.

"I come bearing groceries," said Sonny, holding two bags from Whole Foods. "Spaghetti and Meatballs sound okay?"

"Sounds perfect," she said, taking one of the bags and exchanging it for a glass of Chianti. "Cheers," she said as they clinked glasses.

They went into the kitchen while the kids watched the movie. Sonny started the process of putting together his famous marinara sauce. Amanda wrapped her arms around his waist as he minced up a clove of garlic.

"You never look as handsome as you do when you're chopping veggies in my kitchen," said Amanda, kissing his shoulder softly.

"Yeah, yeah. You know you don't need to butter me up. I'll cook for you anyway."

"I know. That's how you can tell I mean it."

He set down the knife, turned to face her and kissed her gently on the forehead. "I know you do."

"Before I left with Noah, I helped Liv pick out her dress for tonight. She's really excited. I just hope this guy is good enough for her. She's been through so much with Sheila and Noah, and with Dodds on her case and the Tucker thing falling through… she needs some happiness. Some peace."

"I'm sure she'll be fine," said Sonny, turning back to the garlic and tomatoes. "She's not gonna go out with some loser."

"I don't know, I just feel like she seemed really nervous for a first date. This guy must mean a lot to her."

Sonny smiled. "That's good to know."

Rollins raised her eyebrows and tried to turn him around again. "Why? Why is that good to know?"

"No reason."

"Well, that was a really weird thing to say."

"What can I tell you? I'm a weird guy. Anyway, don't read into it. I don't even know what I'm talking about."

"Shocker. Anyway, I hope it works out for her because eventually we are going to have to tell her about this," said Rollins, pulling the chain around her neck out from behind her shirt. The shiny diamond on the simple white-gold band caught the light from the kitchen lamp. "I'm getting a little tired of wearing this around my neck. I want to rock it on my finger where other girls can see it and be jealous."

"Like you hang out with any girls," said Sonny, tossing the garlic and tomatoes into a pot. "Anyway, we'll tell her. We just have to find the right time."

"She'll probably be pissed off at us."

Sonny turned around again, his arms folded. "I don't know. I think she'll forgive us."

"She's not big on intra-office romance. She made a big deal over the fact that she and Tucker never technically worked together."

"Yeah, I know. But I just have a feeling she'll be okay with it."

Amanda sighed, wrapped her arms around Sonny's neck and gave him a soft kiss on the mouth. "I hope you're right. Either way, I am so lucky to have you."

Sonny smiled and nodded toward the living room. "You know, I kind of like the way this apartment looks with two kids in it."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," said Rollins with a smile. "Get back to the food!"

"Fine, fine," said Sonny, shaking his head and returning to the meal. Amanda took her wine and sat in a chair in the living room while the kids watched the movie. She gave a small sigh of contentment and hoped that whatever Olivia was doing and whoever she was with, she was feeling even half as happy as Amanda was right now.

At 7:30 on the dot, Rafael knocked at Olivia's door. She opened it up and let him in. He glanced at her up and down and Olivia felt herself blush self-consciously.

"Wow. You look incredible. I mean, you always look beautiful. But tonight, you look…" he didn't finish the sentence, but he smiled and took her hand.

"You don't look so bad yourself. Although you always manage to look very dashing." Olivia picked up her purse. "Now that you're here, can you tell me the plan for tonight? Or at least tell me if I'm appropriately dressed?"

"I figured we would start with dinner at my favorite restaurant in the city," said Rafael as Olivia locked the door behind them. "And then, there's this little place in the village that I've been once or twice that I thought you might like."

"What kind of place?" asked Olivia, suspiciously.

"It's a Mexican restaurant, but on Friday nights it becomes a salsa dance club."

"Rafael, no!" said Olivia, smiling. "I'm a terrible dancer and that is not the first impression I want to make."

"First of all, my first impression of you was formed long ago. Second, we'll get a few drinks in you and you'll be fine. Salsa is easy."

"For you!" she said, smacking him lightly with her purse. "You've been doing it your whole life."

"Relax, you'll be fine. Don't think about it. We have a great dinner ahead of us first."

As they waited for appetizers, Olivia and Rafael awkwardly fiddled with their napkins and looked around. Olivia felt the silence like a dead weight. The two of them normally couldn't shut up around each other and now they were sitting like two awkward strangers on a blind date.

"So, Rafa," she said, and he jerked his head up as though she had startled him. "We can skip the usual first date chatter. Jobs, hobbies, where we're from, we know all that. What I don't know, however, is about your most recent relationships. You've always been pretty close to the vest about your personal life, at least in that regard."

"I guess that's true," he said, taking a sip of wine. "What is it you want to know?"

"When was your last real relationship?" she asked.

Rafael sighed. "Real relationship…. I don't know, I guess about three years ago. But it was only about nine months long. I haven't really had a lot of time for serious dating. My longest adult relationship was at Harvard Law. I went out with a girl therefor almost the full three years."

"Why did you break up?" asked Olivia.

"She wanted to get married. I didn't. It became a problem."

"I guess that would be a problem," Olivia said with a laugh. "Why didn't you want to get married?"

"I might not have been opposed to marriage in particular, but I knew she really wanted children and I didn't."

"Oh," said Olivia. She thought uneasily of Noah, and what Rollins had said about a child not being an obstacle for the right man. She glanced up at Rafael and he was looking at her with a knowing smile.

"I never thought I would be a good father. I didn't have a good example of one at home. Plus, I was goal-oriented. Ambitious. I didn't want to do something so important half-heartedly. But spending time with Noah… I know it's not the same as being a father. But it made me think, maybe I sold myself a little short. Maybe I could have done it."

"Still, it's a lot to ask of a man. To take on responsibility for someone else's child."

Rafael took a deep breath. "We don't have to have this conversation now. This is a first date. But if you're wondering if Noah is an obstacle to us having a successful relationship, the answer is a definite no. You are a phenomenal mother, and if you were to raise Noah by yourself for the long haul he would still be a very lucky kid. But whatever role you want me to have in his life, I would gladly fill."

Olivia felt that same, warm feeling that she had felt on the couch on Christmas Eve. "I've gone out with lots of guys, Rafa. But that might be the most romantic thing anyone ever said to me."

Rafael smiled and reached over to squeeze her hand. "It's the truth."

Their appetizers arrived shortly. "So, what about you?" asked Rafael. "You wanted to know about my relationships. Tell me about yours."

"You knew a lot of the big ones. Cassidy, Tucker."

Rafael made a face. "Yeah. Tucker."

"Oh come on, he's not that bad."

"I strongly dislike him. But that's neither here nor there. Have you ever been in love? Really in love?"

Olivia hesitated. "Yes, once," she said, twirling salad greens around on her plate.

"Not Tucker, please," said Rafael.

"No, not Tucker," said Olivia, smiling and rolling her eyes. "He's not as bad as you think, and I cared for him a great deal, but I can't say I was in love with him."

"Then who?"

"Elliot," she said with a sigh. "I was in love with Elliot. It's strange to say it out loud. I was never willing to admit it, even to myself."

"But he was married right?"

"Yeah, he was. With five children. Trust me, I would never have acted on it. He had a family, and family is…. sacred. Even when he was separated from his wife I couldn't make that move and be the person who kept his family split apart. I lived with those feelings, and the knowledge that they were a dead end, for years. And I could have dealt with that. What really threw me was not that he didn't reciprocate my romantic feelings. It was that he apparently did not even reciprocate my friendship. I couldn't believe that after all those years, after everything we had been through together, he wouldn't even return my phone calls. He just wrote me out of his life completely, as if I had never existed. I could never have done that to him."

"You felt abandoned," said Rafael.

"Absolutely. I felt that if he could abandon me, could cut me off like that, anyone could. It took me years to be able to trust almost anyone again. In fact, I don't think I did trust anyone fully again until…" Olivia trailed off.

"Until what?" asked Rafael.

"Honestly? Until you. Not right away, of course. And it's a different dynamic, so it's not a perfect parallel. But that level of openness and trust, I have only felt with two people. Elliot, and you."

Rafael held her gaze as the waiter cleared the appetizer plates. "If you're trying to get me to skip the dancing and go straight home for the nightcap, you are making a strong case."

"Oh I don't know, Raf. Maybe we should take things at least a little slow," said Olivia, teasingly.

Rafael nodded. "We can take things as slow as you want. But if you were trying to cool things off, I don't think that was the right choice of dresses."

Olivia raised an eyebrow. "Oh, are you a fan of the dress?"

"I've been watching you sit there sipping your wine and all I want to do is run my hands over it. And under it."

"Well, thank you Amanda!"

"Amanda…?"

"She is the one who picked it out. I was going to go in another direction."

"Oh, that's right. She was there when I called. Did you tell her about… this?"

Olivia shook her head. "Not exactly. I told her I had a date. She asked what my date did for a living and I said he was a lawyer. I couldn't think of a good lie in time. But she didn't seem suspicious or anything. I won't say a word about any of this until we know for ourselves what is going on."

Toward the end of dinner, as Rafael reached into his wallet for a credit card to pay the bill, Olivia leaned forward.

"Before we leave, can I just say one thing?"

"Of course," said Rafael, although he looked nervous.

"This has been wonderful so far. I love talking to you, I love spending time with you, and I love, love, kissing you. But as I said before, after Elliot disappeared on me, it took me a long time to be able to be open with someone again. If this thing between us doesn't really go anywhere, or if it doesn't get off the ground… I can't lose this friendship. I can't lose you. So, I need you to make me a promise."

"Okay," said Rafael, slowly.

"I need you to promise me that no matter what happens, our friendship will survive intact. That we won't cut each other off. If we can't make that promise, then I don't think we can do this."

Rafael stood up and helped her into her coat. Then he put his hands on her shoulders. "If things don't work out for any reason, it doesn't matter. You are stuck with me. I'm not going anywhere."

Olivia felt her whole being relax. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his. The smell of his cologne and the feeling of his hand on her back was familiar and reassuring. Then she pulled back and looked him in the eye. "For you, Rafael Barba, I will even try dancing."

His eyes lit up. "Let's go."

The Mexican restaurant was dark, crowded and loud, but Olivia liked it that way. It made her feel less conspicuous. Rafael grabbed two tequila shots from the bar. "We don't have to dive in right away," he said. "Have another drink, loosen up."

Olivia downed the shot and thumped the glass down on the high-top table. "No, I think this needs to be like ripping off a Band-Aid. If I'm going to do this I need to start now. Not after I have watched a hundred people swing by my who are far superior dancers to me."

"I wasn't the best dancer in my family either. It's all about letting go and enjoying yourself. Now come on, it's just me. Let's go!" He held out his hand to her and she took it warily. He led her onto the dance floor, wrapped one hand around her waist and held the other tightly.

No matter what he said, he was a good dancer. Olivia could barely keep up at first, but as time wore on she realized she didn't care. No one was really looking at her. Or if they were, it wasn't with contempt or ridicule. The music kept going and Olivia felt almost giddy with the feeling of tequila going through her, the energy from the dance floor, and Rafael's hands on her body.

She squeezed his shoulder as they danced. It was funny to see him so uninhibited. They would dance a few songs, then grab a drink for a break, and then return to the dance floor. Olivia couldn't remember a time when she had felt so relaxed and comfortable with anyone. When they paused for a drink, an older Latina woman stopped next to Olivia and tapped her on the arm.

"Excuse me, but would you mind if I took your young man out for a little dance. My husband is too old for this. He took me here, but two dances and he's done for."

Olivia looked in the direction the woman gestured and saw an older man sitting at a table drinking a beer and looking exhausted. She laughed and nodded. "If he's up for it, he's all yours."

Rafael smiled. "It would be my pleasure," he said, as the lady linked his arm. Olivia took her glass over to where the man was sitting and introduced herself to him. He introduced himself as Mr. Rodriguez.

"My wife loves to dance," said Mr. Rodriguez. "I'll be honest, I don't know how she still has the energy."

"Do you like dancing?" asked Olivia.

"It's okay. But I do it for her. Someday I won't be able to. Some day she won't be able to. That's life. I may not love it, but while I can do it for her I'll take her."

Olivia smiled and looked out at Rafael and Mrs. Rodriguez on the dance floor. Her heart melted. A million potential futures flashed before her eyes. When the song was over, Rafael and the older woman returned.

"Thank you, Miss. You have yourself a wonderful young man here."

"He's okay," said Olivia, smiling at Rafael. They said goodbye to the couple and Olivia took Rafael's hand. "We need to get out of here."

"You tired of dancing? Don't worry, you were doing very well."

"That's not it," said Olivia, pulling him close to her and leaning her face against his.

"Is everything okay?" Rafael looked slightly concerned.

"Everything is great," said Olivia. "I want you to take me home."

For a moment Rafael looked confused. Then he swallowed slowly, his arms still wrapped around her waist. "Are you sure?"

"I've never been more sure," she whispered in his ear. "Take me home."

Rafael leaned over and kissed her on the lips. Once, twice, and then one long, slow kiss that seemed to last forever. Finally, he grabbed her hand and dragged her laughing onto the sidewalk outside the bar. He waved for a cab and Olivia quickly checked her phone to make sure there were no texts from Rollins about Noah. Everything was fine. A cab pulled up and Rafael held the door for her and gave her address to the cab driver. Then he put his arm around her and held her close. Olivia leaned her head on his chest, soaking up the warmth of his embrace and the feeling of his heart beating against her. She couldn't wait to get home.