A/N: Here you go! It took me a while to find inspiration but I finally am over my writer's block. Enjoy the chapter!
He was four years old, and completely lost. Running frantically around his new home, he didn't even realize he was going in circles. He passed the same run-down buildings and withering tress, growing ever more panicked, voice raising in pitch as fright consumed him. "Mama? Papa?!"
It felt like days to him, but was in truth only a half hour before he finally gave up and stopped by the courtyard. He'd just wanted to play on the swings! If he couldn't find his home… He looked around and a horrifying realization dawned on him: what if he had to live on the playground?
At that, he threw himself to the ground, bursting into tears. Giant cries racked his small body, and soon another boy found his way to him. "Qué pasa?" the new boy asked.
Rafael sniffled and wiped his nose, trying to get his breathing under control enough to reply. He hiccupped. "Mi mama y papa! Estoy perdido!"
Switching to English, the boy sat next to him and said, "It'll be okay! I'll help you find them. I've lived here forever!"
"Really?" Rafael asked, sniffling again.
"Really!" the new boy promised. "Come on! Where do you live?"
"Here!" Rafael replied, gesturing around.
"I know you live here! First floor or higher?"
"Way high! So high you'd be a speck! Like dust!" Rafael told him.
The other boy brightened. "There's only one new house that high! Come on!" He pulled Rafael's arm and started walking.
Soon they were walking toward a refreshingly familiar part of the building and Rafael felt his spirits soar. "This is it! This is where my new house is! This way!"
Soon he was back with his mama and papa, boasting about how he'd been lost for days but found his way back with a new friend. Before he began to help arrange his new room, he told his new friend goodbye.
"Oh! Mama told me to ask you, what's your name?" he asked hurriedly before his friend started to leave.
"Alex! You?" Alex replied.
"Rafael!" he said.
"See you tomorrow, Rafael!" Alex said and waved.
"Bye!" Rafael said. Smiling, he headed back to his parents.
He was six, and he felt safer than he ever had before even though he was being threatened.
Eddie had stood between him and a gang of older boys from P.S. 109 while they stealing his money, getting them to back off. He'd wrapped one arm around Rafael's shaky shoulders and stayed with him every step of the way to their school, promising that he and Alex would get him lunch and would find a way to stop the bullies.
At lunchtime, when Eddie and Rafael told Alex what had been happening, Alex divided up his and Eddie's lunches, protesting, "Why didn't you tell us, Rafi?" as he did so. Rafael had gone hungry the last week, but had refused to say what was going on until Eddie had witnessed it himself.
He slowly chewed Eddie's rice and said, "They said they'd beat me up if I told anyone."
"Well, I'm gonna beat them up!" Eddie declared.
"Eddie, no, you'll get in trouble," Rafael said softly, shaking his head.
"So?" Eddie asked. "You're my brother! I won't let them pick on you."
Rafael smiled and looked down at his food. "Thanks, guys," he said. Something in him knew that even though the gang probably would never stop trying to take his money, they wouldn't succeed again as long as Eddie was around. He was safe, cared for, and protected.
He was seven and crying to his grandmother. "Abuelita, why doesn't she think I can be mayor? Doesn't she love me?"
His abuela picked him up and rocked him slowly. "I don't know, Rafael. She does love you."
"Then why doesn't she think I can do it? I'm smart, you said so!" Rafael argued.
"You are smart, Rafaelito. Tu mama… she's just…" She sighed softly. "She's tired. She doesn't think any of you will ever make it out of the barrio."
"She said Alex would," Rafael sniffled.
"I know. I know." Exhaling slowly, she stroked his hair. "She loves you, mi tesoro."
"No she doesn't," Rafael said, hiding his face in her neck. "She loves Alex more."
"She does not, Rafael, stop it!" she protested. "But even if she did… you know what? You have me. I will love you always. And I don't love Alex or Eddie more; I love my sweet Rafael who shares his cookies with me."
Giggling, he wrapped his arms around her and murmured, "Te quiero, Abuelita."
"Te quiero, Rafaelito."
He was fifteen and about to give up.
He had his dropout forms in hand. All he had to do was give them to his advisor and then he could leave for good. He'd get a job to support his little brothers and sisters. Ever since his father had been killed in a shootout he wasn't even a part of, his mother had barely been keeping their heads above the water. So as the oldest kid, it was on him to help out now. He'd never leave the barrio; he had finally resigned himself. He, Eddie, and Alex were starting to joke about what part of the Projects they'd raise their own families in. Eddie and Alex wanted the same area they'd grown up in, but on the middle floors, reasoning that those had plenty of bedrooms for the inevitable horde of babies. Rafael wanted the building down the street, which was smaller but had a better playground and was the turf of a far less violent gang than the one that owned their current home.
He walked in to the counselor's office before class started and said, "I'm done."
The woman, Mrs. Ramirez, looked over the papers he handed her. Looking up at him, she said, "You're dropping out?"
He nodded, making her frown. She gazed at him for a long moment, then, shaking her head, pulled out a pair of scissors. "Rafael, I have never said this to any student before; I won't let you do this. If you need help, I'll get it for you- but I will not allow you to drop out. You are the brightest student in your class, and one of the only ones I have hope for. Do you realize that out of your 200 classmates, you are one of only five who reads above your grade level?"
Rafael swallowed and looked down. "Yes," he said softly. "But I have to do this. My family needs the money."
"I'll help you get a job here after school. You can help clean the classrooms, organize the library, help me with things. But I won't let you drop out; I won't let you lose your only ticket out of here. You could make it, Rafael." And with that, she took the scissors to the papers, cutting them into tiny scraps and brushing them into the wastebasket. Then she pulled out a new set of papers.
For the first time in years, Rafael began to think he had a true future. Not just leaving the barrio, but something great. Silently, he vowed to himself and Mrs. Ramirez that he would make her proud someday. He would get out of here and make something of himself.
He was twenty, and he was in love. More in love than he ever had been, even with Lauren Sullivan.
Yelina was, quite simply, a goddess taking to human form. He watched her laugh with her friends on the street corner, smiled nervously when he bumped into her at the library, felt his heart flutter and almost stop entirely when she danced at a mutual friend's birthday party.
It was summer, and he was back in New York for the break. He'd met Yelina his first day back at the bodega he'd gotten a summer job at, and he had been consumed ever since.
"For God's sake, Rafi, if you don't talk to her, I am going to kick your ass," Eddie grumbled.
Rafael swallowed. "I just, if I, if I don't do it right-"
"Rafael, come on. Just ask her!" Alex said.
Compelled somehow, Rafael said, "Alright, alright."
His opportunity came days later in the bodega. An angry, drunken man was berating him, insisting he'd been overcharged.
"Oye! Leave him alone!" Yelina finally barked. "Either get your stuff or don't, but I've got a pregnant sister-in-law who will kill me if she doesn't have this chocolate in two minutes!"
"Hey, princess, I'll tell you what," the man slurred. "I'll leave if you leave wif me."
"No. Out," Yelina said. The fierce look on her face had even Rafael afraid, and he was the one being protected. The man, of course, obeyed.
"Here, this is on me," Rafael said, grabbing the chocolate and starting to enter a code on the register. "When's she due?"
"Next month," Yelina answered. "But I insist on paying for the chocolate."
"Why? It's no problem," Rafael argued.
"Maybe not," Yelina told him, moving closer and leaning over the counter, "But I don't want to use my thank-you on a chocolate bar."
"Oh? What would you like instead?" Rafael asked, matching her movements even though his heart was pounding.
"Dinner," Yelina said. "Tonight when you get off work."
"I'll see what I can do," Rafael said, smiling.
He was twenty-two, and his heart was broken.
Yelina leaving him was bad enough. Yelina leaving him when he had just started planning to propose to her was worse. Yelina leaving him for Alex, when he had told Alex just a few weeks ago how he was sure she was the one? Unbearable.
He fought in vain to slow the tears. Eddie wrapped one arm around him, pulling him close, and whispered, "I'm sorry, Rafi. She's an idiot."
"Alex isn't a bad catch, though," Rafael said tearfully.
"Maybe not, but I'm not happy with him either." Eddie scowled. "He knew better."
"He did!" Rafael fumed. "How could he…"
"I don't know, Rafi," Eddie murmured. "He's changed a lot since he went to Fordham. I don't like it."
Nodding in agreement, Rafael rested his head on Eddie's shoulder, rubbing at his burning eyes.
He was twenty-four, at another wedding, and though he was Best Man, he wanted nothing more than to hide.
Yelina, the woman who had come to his rescue in the bodega and told him he was the most perfect man she'd ever met, marrying his oldest friend. He couldn't do it. Couldn't bear it.
But Eddie, himself a groomsman, encouraged him. Gave him the strength he needed. It still hurt just to look at them but, as Eddie had pointed out, Alex was still their brother. They couldn't abandon him.
He made it through the ceremony and reception, somehow. Made it through Alex and Yelina's dance. Pretended to be full of joy when he read his speech for Alex. The only concession he made to his betrayal, his anger and depression, was plowing through the champagne.
As the night drew to a close, Eddie guided him to his mother's apartment, looking worried. Repeating over and over again that this wasn't worth getting depressed over, that there was someone out there for him. He was out of the barrio now, unlike him and Alex, and had everything going for him. He wouldn't have to raise his future children in the Projects like them.
Rafael didn't want "a wife", a general term that could have meant any woman. He wanted Yelina.
"Eddie?" he finally murmured as Eddie began to lay the pillows and blankets on the sofa. "If I get married…" He couldn't articulate his thoughts, couldn't find words for the pictures in his head. "If I get married, you're the Best Man. Not Alex."
Eddie smiled faintly. "Okay, Rafi. And you're my Best Man too."
"Not Alex?" Rafael asked. It was the first time he'd let his insecurities slip through around Eddie, and he knew it was startling to him.
But for his part, Eddie rushed to reassure him. "Not Alex. You're both my brothers, but… you asked first."
Laughing weakly, Rafael pulled Eddie into a clumsy hug. "I did."
"Eddie," he replied.
"Rafi? Come on, Rafi, wake up. You have to wake up, hermanito, come on…"
"Eddie… Eddie, I don't… that's your pillow, I've got plenty… M'wake, le' me alone…"
Rafael opened his bleary eyes and looked around, disoriented. This wasn't Eddie's living room, it wasn't his apartment, it wasn't even Alex and Yelina's or his parents'.
"Dónde…" His throat felt dry and harsh, which made his voice painfully hoarse. The effort of speaking made him cough weakly, feeling a tickling in his throat. He winced, grasping his stomach as a sharp pain spiked.
"Rafi, look at me," he heard Eddie say, voice low with fear. He looked around and found Eddie on his left.
"H... Hey…" he rasped, slumping against the pillows. "W-why am I in the hospital?"
"Do you remember what happened?" Eddie asked, setting a hand on Rafael's shoulder. Rafael gasped in pain, twisting away. "Fuck, I'm sorry, Rafi, I didn't know-"
"Lewis!" he gasped out. "He, he- no, Olivia!" He struggled to push himself up, only succeeded with the help of the rails, and even when he accomplished that, the pain made blackness erupt in his vision. "No, have to- I have to stop him," he moaned. "Eddie, you have to help me, I gotta stop him, he'll kill her, he-"
"Rafi!" Eddie said, pushing on his chest to ease him back. "Lie down, hermanito, save your strength. She's okay. More okay than you."
Rafael found himself on his back, panting for breath. "Yeah?" he whispered. "They found her?"
"Si, Rafi," Eddie said softly.
"How was she? Did he- oh God, did he ra-"
"No," Eddie interrupted. "He roughed her up. Tortured her. He was about to… about to rape her when they got there- he had her shirt off. She's in a bad way, but alive and not as bad off as you."
"And Lewis?" he asked.
"They arrested the bastard. He's at Riker's," Eddie seethed. "Might just put a word in to the guys when I get back…"
Rafael pressed one hand to the aching, stinging bullet wound on his stomach and nodded once. He tried not to show just how much pain he was in, but his face betrayed him.
"Here," Eddie told him, showing him a button by his IV. "They hooked you up to this. You just gotta press the button and you'll get more morphine. That way they don't gotta come here every time."
"Good," Rafael said faintly. He pressed it and quickly felt the medicine take hold. "I'm tired…"
"Go back to sleep, Rafito," Eddie murmured, stroking his forehead. "I'll be here."
Rafael made himself open his eyes. "Promise?" he asked, unable to hide his fear and vulnerability.
"I promise, mi hermanito," Eddie whispered, running his thumb over Rafael's eyebrows like both his mother and Rafael's had done for him when he was younger, to help him sleep. "You're safe as long as you got me, remember?"
"This is a bit… different… than the bullies…" Rafael said slowly, struggling to find his thoughts in the thick fog clouding his head.
"It don't matter. If someone tries to hurt you, I'll make 'em regret it," Eddie vowed.
Rafael smiled weakly at his brother and then let his eyes drift closed. Before he could say another word, he was sleeping deeply.
He was in and out of consciousness over the next day, rarely long enough to have a full conversation with anyone there. He only ever had time to ask how long he'd been out and sometimes gather small details about Lewis' assault on Olivia.
Lewis was indeed in Riker's. Olivia was in this same hospital as Rafael, with a broken collarbone and countless cigarette burns, but as Eddie had said, faring far better than him. Rafael's own condition was grave due to the stomach wound, which had become infected by the time the squad had arrived. He was in the ICU, being flooded with a dozen different types of intravenous medications, while Olivia was mostly being kept for observation.
He didn't mind. Even if he died, he wouldn't mind. She was safe.
He wasn't sure Eddie saw it that way, though, with the way Eddie urged him to hold on every time he came by. Rafael decided to fight, for Eddie if not for himself. It was a hard battle, bringing endless pain and fear, but he soldiered on.
The next day, he began to stay awake longer and his consciousness cleared slightly. Though it was a small step, most of the doctors and his loved ones seemed to take it as a sign he would survive after all, no matter how difficult his recovery was to be.
Now that he could focus, he realized that someone was missing. Eddie had barely left his side; Alex and Yelina had swung by, though unable to stay long because of their busy days working on his long-time-coming mayoral campaign. His mother came twice a day, kissing his warm forehead every time she arrived and left, as did his brothers and sisters. The squad checked in on the fifth day, courteously giving his family time to visit first… but Olivia, despite having been discharged after one night, wasn't with them.
He asked every time he woke; asked Eddie if he could find her, asked the team to make some calls, asked his family to call the team to call Olivia. He needed to see her. Needed to see that she was alive and as well as possible.
Needed to see that she forgave him.
But she never came. After a week and a half, he finally stopped asking; almost stopped talking at all. He retreated to his own dark thoughts, which flowed freely. Between those thoughts, Olivia's abandonment, and his fitful, nightmare-plagued sleep, he had no shortage of them.
When he finally heard Olivia talking to Nick on the phone, plainly refusing to come, he became sullen and withdrawn. Only Eddie could get him to as much as smile. He retreated deeper and deeper into himself, letting the bitterness consume his existence.
Lewis had turned his world upside-down, and now…
Olivia didn't forgive him. He'd fought Lewis off as hard as he could, endured all this agony when it would have been so easy to slip away, but she still hated him for letting this happen to her.
And he understood, because he hated him for letting this happen to her too.