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Absolution

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Carisi knelt in the empty, silent church, his fingers clutching his rosary beads so tightly that he could practically feel the beads leaving an imprint. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” he murmured, but he couldn’t bring himself to go on.

Instead, he stared up at the crucifix hanging at the front of the church, lit softly by the flickering candles throughout the church. The priests had always said that Jesus died for their sins — had He died for the sins committed by the bishop? The monsignor? Had Christ really died so that men of the church could rape and traffic girls?

He was brooding. And Sonny Carisi never brooded. But this case… Carisi wasn’t sure his faith had ever been this shaken.

Sighing, Carisi looked back down at his rosary and tried again. “Hail Mary, full of grace—” He broke off again, the words seeming to stick in his throat. "Goddamnit."

“Carisi.”

Carisi turned around, surprised less by the interruption and more by who was interrupting him. “Barba?” he asked, slowly standing. “What are you doing here?”

Barba shrugged, his hands in his coat pockets. “Wanted to see if I’d catch fire by setting foot in a church,” he said with a touch of his usual snark, but Carisi could tell that he was tired, his undereye circles darker than usual. “Shockingly, I appear to still be in one piece, so the nuns' threats from Catholic school were apparently empty.”

Though Carisi laughed lightly, it was short-lived. “I’m serious. Were you following me?”

“The vanity of your assumptions aside,” Barba started, but Carisi shook his head and cut him off.

“Look, I’m not in the mood. So if you’re here to battle wits—”

“I’d never fight an enemy who comes to a battle so empty-handed,” Barba interjected smoothly.

Carisi ignored him. “Or if you’re here to just be a pain in the ass, please go. I’ve got a lot on my mind and I don’t need this right now.”

Barba nodded slowly as he sat down in a pew, crossing his legs and gazing up at the crucifix. “ Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani,” he said softly. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“I don’t think it’s God who’s forsaken me,” Carisi said with a sigh. “Maybe just the church.” He shot Barba a questioning look as he casually crossed towards him. “Not that it’s any of your business, anyway, and you still haven’t answered my question, Counsellor.”

“Objection,” Barba said with a small smile. “Badgering the witness.”

Carisi gave him a look. “Overruled. Answer the question.”

Barba sighed and leaned forward against the pew in front of him. “You’re not the only Catholic affected by this case, though perhaps the only one still practising.”

“You’re Catholic?” Carisi asked.

It was Barba’s turn to give him a look. “I’m Cuban,” he said, as if the word explained everything, and in many ways, it did. “But the church and I parted ways many years ago, to the chagrin of my mother and especially my abuelita. I don’t think my priest missed me, though.”

“Which doesn’t help explain what you’re doing here,” Carisi pointed out. “What, you just decided that now was a good time to come back?”

“Not exactly,” Barba said. “I figured you might be here. I thought you could perhaps use someone who might understand how you’re feeling.”

Carisi gaped at him, and it took him several moments before he recovered the power of speech. “Are you actually claiming you wanted to do something nice? For me?”

Barba smoothed the front of his coat, avoiding Carisi’s gaze. “I owe Liv a favor, and she cashed in,” he said carefully

A slow smile curved across Carisi’s face. “Bullshit.”

“That’s three swears you’ve now uttered in church,” Barba said, smirking. “At this rate you’re going to need to go to confession. Or wash your mouth out with soap.”

Carisi’s smile faded slightly. “You sound like my mother.”

Barba looked affronted. “I take offense to that,” he said, though he added in an undertone, “Though better your mother than mine, I suppose.”

“Believe it or not, I meant it as a compliment,” Carisi told him. He looked at Barba closely, trying to find some hint in his expression as to why he was really there. But he had never been able to get a good read on Barba, who wrapped himself in scorn and snark and exquisite three-piece suits. Even after the time he had spent shadowing Barba and working with him, he still couldn’t figure him out.

But then again, he’d cracked tougher nuts during his time at SVU. And there was no time like the present to take another stab at figuring the ADA out. “So is this really your first time in a church since you stopped practicing?”

Barba looked surprised by the question. “No,” he said after a moment. “Though I haven’t been to Mass or confession in...longer than I care to admit.”

“Because you think I’ll judge you?” Carisi asked.

“No, because it’ll make me sound old,” Barba said.

Carisi laughed, and Barba smiled slightly. “So when was the last time you were in church?” Carisi asked.

“November 24th.”

Carisi’s brow furrowed as he frowned, trying to recall what happened on November 24th. Then a look of recognition crossed his face. “Hector Rodriguez. I thought you lit a candle at his memorial?”

Barba nodded. “I did. But on my way to the memorial, I stopped by a church and lit a candle there.”

“Why?”

Barba shrugged as he leaned back in the pew. “Sra. Rodriguez,” he muttered, running a hand across his face. “She trusted me — believed in me.”

Carisi frowned. “What happened with that wasn’t your fault. She didn’t blame you.”

“She didn’t have to,” Barba said tiredly. “I blamed myself enough for the both of us.”

“So is that why you’re here?” Carisi asked. “You think I’m somehow blaming myself?”

Barba frowned. “Not at all. You have nothing to blame yourself for. In fact, I understand that you’re the one who got Father Eugene to confess. If anything, we have you to thank for getting a conviction.” He paused, examining Carisi closely. “You know that, right?”

Shrugging, Carisi sank down into a pew a few rows in front of Barba. “Objectively, sure. I did my part. But this was a conspiracy that went all the way up the ranks at the church. And I don’t know how I’m supposed to reconcile that with my local parish, my priest — he’s one of the good ones, doing good work in the community.”

“If you’re looking for advice on how to reconcile the sins of the church with its better angels, I’m afraid I’m not going to be much use,” Barba said, a dark look on his face. “There’s little love lost between me and the church, and there are some sins that are unforgivable.”

Carisi hesitated for a moment before asking, “Did you know anyone who was abused?”

Again, Barba looked surprised by the question. “I didn’t have to,” he said. “The decades of sexual abuse, cover-up, complete abuse of power — it’s sickening on its own. And when I think of what my priest said to me when I told him—”

He broke off, a muscle working in his jaw, and Carisi gave him a moment before asking, “When you told him you were gay?”

Barba looked up, a small smile on his face. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “It must be one of the worst-kept secrets in the Manhattan DA’s office.”

Carisi shrugged. “I’m also pretty perceptive. You can feel free to give me credit where credit’s due, Counsellor.”

“And I so appreciate your permission,” Barba shot back. Then he sighed. “But yes. I told my priest I was gay, and that was the end of my life in the church. He made it very clear that I was unwelcome, that I was a deviant— ” He practically spat the word. “—and all the while, the clergy was sheltering the worst monsters among them.”

"I’m sorry,” Carisi said with genuine sincerity.

Barba shrugged. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “I’ve learned that I don’t need to be absolved for just being who I am.” His eyes met Carisi’s. “What did your priest say when you told him?”

Carisi stared blankly at him for a long minute, his mouth suddenly dry. Then he asked hoarsely, “How did you know?”

“You can feel free to giving me credit where credit’s due as well,” Barba said, though his expression was guarded. “You’re not the only perceptive one in our line of work.”

Carisi nodded slowly. “The first priest I told...I was in high school. He said if I didn’t act on it, no sin had occurred, and that I should pray for God to take my weakness away.” His voice was quiet, thoughtful, and Barba nodded as if the words were familiar to him as well. “So I tried. But it didn’t change anything. And then, in college, I went to confession, to a different priest. I told him I couldn’t...couldn’t keep it under control any longer. And do you know what he told me?”

Barba snorted and shook his head. “I imagine he welcomed you with open arms,” he said sarcastically.

“Actually, yeah. He did.” Barba looked up, surprised. “Well, maybe not in so many words. But he said that God could see what was in my heart, that He knew that I was a righteous man, and that as long as I stayed faithful to God, He would always forgive me.”

“How remarkably un-Catholic of him,” Barba said.

Carisi laughed. “Yeah. I know.” His smile faded. “And ever since, that’s what I’ve told myself. But now…” He trailed off, shaking his head, and he turned to look back at the crucifix at the front of the church. “Now I wonder if that’s what the bishop and the monsignor told themselves as well.”

“You can’t possibly be equating yourself to those bastards,” Barba said sharply, and when Carisi just shrugged, Barba stood, his expression almost murderous. “Sonny—”

Carisi held up his hands in defeat. “You don’t have to explain the difference to me, Counsellor,” he said, sounding as tired as he felt.

“Good,” Barba said, his expression still dark. “Because there isn’t a word in English or Spanish that does justice for what those men are. And no God would absolve them of their sins.”

“And yet nowhere in the Bible does it say that trafficking or raping young girls is against God’s law, but it does say homosexuality is an abomination.”

Barba shook his head. “If you truly believe that, then you’re not as smart as I think you are.”

“Here I thought you didn’t think I was smart at all,” Carisi said mildly.

Barba gave him a look. “And I thought you were supposed to be perceptive.” Carisi half-smiled, and Barba relaxed just slightly. “You are smarter than that. And whatever guilt you’re holding onto, I think taking down this sex trafficking ring more than absolves you, if you even have anything to be absolved for.”

“I know that,” Carisi said quietly.

“Do you?” Barba asked.

Carisi met his gaze. “Is that why you’re here?” he asked. “To make sure I know that?”

“I’m here because I know what it’s like when it feels as though the church and God Himself has turned their backs on you,” Barba said, his voice low and urgent, all traces of his usual snark gone. “I know how lonely it can feel, how it can make you question everything you thought you were sure of. And I didn’t want you to go through that alone.”

For a moment, Carisi looked almost triumphant. “I knew you were here of your own volition, that you actually wanted to be nice to me.”

Barba rolled his eyes. “You’re really choosing this moment to gloat?” he asked.

"No time like the present,” Carisi said, grinning.

Though Barba smiled as well, there was something almost reluctant in his voice when he told Carisi, “So you got the truth out of me. Congratulations. But more importantly — do you feel any better?”

“You know what? I actually do,” Carisi said. “And what can I say — I’m a detective. I’m good at getting confessions out of people.”

Barba met his gaze evenly. “So am I.”

With that, he turned to leave, but Carisi stopped him. “Rafael—” Barba half-turned. “Would you stay? With me? Just for a bit?”

“Do you still feel like you have something to atone for?” Barba asked.

“No,” Carisi said honestly. “But I want to pray as an intercession.”

“On whose behalf?”

Carisi shrugged. “The whole church.”

Barba nodded slowly, though he also hesitated for a moment. “Do I have to say a Hail Mary?” he finally asked.

“No, I think you actually would burst into flames if you did,” Carisi shot back, and Barba grinned, slowly making his way down the aisle to sit in the pew next to Carisi, who smiled almost hesitantly at him before kneeling once more. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” he murmured, losing himself in the rhythm of the words and surprisingly soothed by Barba’s presence.

And at one point, he thought he even heard Barba whispering the words along with him.