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A Nice Young Man

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"And now that I've heard the stupidest sentence I'll hear all week, I'll take my leave."

Barba nodded to Benson, didn't spare Carisi a look, and let himself out. Carisi looked at Benson. "I know he doesn't think much of me, but that seemed especially mean."

Benson breathed out hard as she walked around her desk. "He's had a rough week."

"Huh," Sonny said. He shrugged, straightened his jacket, and left Benson's office. "I'll go run down the witness list again. See if we can find a better source," he called over his shoulder.

Benson watched him go. He'd been with the squad for months now, working hard, learning, and still, she didn't quite have a feel for him. He was good, yes. He was eager. There was an edge he could access for undercover or in interrogations. But she still couldn't connect all that with the way kindness wove around him and insults generally rolled off his back.

She wondered how he'd ended up here of all places.

*

The next morning, Barba walked back to his office after a mid-morning meeting and was surprised to find Carisi in the waiting area. "What have you done now?"

"Nothing, yet," Carisi replied.

Barba narrowed his eyes at him. "What do you want?"

"If we could talk for a minute?" Carisi asked. "Privately."

Barba sighed and led the way into his office, making certain the door latched behind him. "Please tell me you have done nothing that could be considered interfering with a witness."

Carisi looked confused. "No. I just. Here." He held a small box out to Barba, one Barba hadn't realized until now he had in his hands. "For you."

Barba walked a wide circle around Carisi to get to his desk, not getting near the box. "What's in it?"

"It's panna cotta. My grandmother's recipe. Made it last night."

"You made panna cotta?"

"Yeah.

"You can cook?"

Carisi grinned. "I'm a fourth-generation Staten Island boy who loves his grandmother. Of course I can cook." Carisi saw Barba flinch when he said 'grandmother.' "So, that was your name in the paper, huh?"

It took Barba a moment to answer. "My name is often in the paper, Detective. You'll need to be more precise." He stared at Carisi, waiting for him to flounder.

Instead, Carisi walked over the desk and placed the small box on a clear space. "My grandmother cooks and reads obits. Those are her two big pastimes. Have been all my life. She's got a mind like a steel trap, and I've mentioned you at dinner because we work together. She saw your name and called to ask me if it was the same Barba. I told her I didn't know."

"If you didn't know, why are you here?"

"You were a bigger asshole than usual yesterday, and the Sarge mentioned you'd had a rough week. I figured, if you were having a rough week, and your name's listed as surviving family, then yeah, it's probably the same Barba." Carisi tapped the small box. "So, I did what people do. I went home, and I made something so you don't have to think about food for a little bit."

"Why?"

"Because your grandmother died," Carisi said, as if it was as easy as that. As if people dropped by Rafael Barba's office regularly to show sympathy and kindness.

"Okay," Rafael said slowly. "Well. Thanks."

Carisi gave him a small smile. "You're welcome. Let me know if you want to talk about her, but no pressure."

Rafael nodded because he had no idea what to say. Carisi gave a little wave and walked out of his office as if nothing unusual had happened. Rafael sat down in his chair, placed his briefcase on the floor, and reached for the box. He opened it. The panna cotta was in a small, ceramic bowl. There was a note scrawled on the inside of the box lid:

Don't worry about returning it. I broke the other three. -- S

There was a wrapped plastic spoon next to the bowl. Rafael stared at it, trying to understand what he was feeling. Carisi had made him food. He'd made him a rather complicated food like it was no big deal. Rafael knew Carisi brought in snacks for the squad, but never something like this. The baked goods, Rafael knew from dropping by when they were around, usually came from a bakery.

He had a brief thought that he might die of food poisoning.

As in most cases where he didn't understand people, Barba texted Liv.

Rafael: Has anyone ever gotten food poisoning from the food Carisi makes?

Liv: No. It's usually the best meal we get all week. He's pretty talented. Why?

Barba had no idea how to even start explaining. He sent back something about a stray morning thought, and Liv replied with a smiley face, so that meant she wasn't curious.

He unwrapped the plastic spoon and turned it over in his hand a few times before poking it into the panna cotta. He held up the first spoonful. It was perfectly made. Creamy and smooth. He could smell the vanilla. It reminded him of flan, which he'd never had as a child because it took time to make, and they were all so busy just trying to make ends meet. He took a bite.

It was rich and cold, and for a moment, Barba let it melt against his tongue. It reminded him of getting ice cream with his abuelita, a special treat when he stayed with her on summer days and was extra good. They would walk down the six flights of steps, out her front door, and down the block to the bodega. He could have any treat in the ice cream freezer. He always chose a small, round tub of vanilla with its tiny wooden spoon. The Bronx was steaming hot. Abuelita's apartment smelled of food, and dust, and books. The vanilla always tasted like the cleanest thing Rafael would ever have in his mouth.

Rafael took another bite. The texture and flavor of the panna cotta was nothing like those cheap ice creams. It didn't melt into sticky spots on his hands. It was lush and firm. He finished it more quickly than he expected, then stared at the little ceramic bowl.

His eyes misted over, and he blinked hard to clear them. There'd been no panna cotta in his childhood, but everything in the panna cotta reminded him of the good times. He couldn't begin to figure out how Carisi had done it, but he felt like he owed the man more than the confused thanks he'd left on.

*

Three weeks later, Liv and Carisi walked into Barba's office and handed him the Sullivan file. He couldn't help but roll his eyes when he found out there was a family connection via Carisi--why were there so many damn family connections in a squad so small--but he listened, and he agreed to take the case if they could build it up properly. The relief on Carisi's face made him recall the panna cotta. This wasn't a thank you, Barba wanted to tell him. This was his job.

Two days after Marshall pled out, Carisi was back at his office door, this time with a plastic food container and an actual fork. "Wanted to say thank you for all your work on Tommy's case," Carisi said.

"I didn't do it for food," Barba answered. "We had a good case. I only wish she was in prison."

"Me, too, but at least she's on the registry. That's something." Carisi put the container on the desk, the fork on top. "I don't need either of these back," he said.

"Did you break all the other forks?" Barba asked.

Carisi looked confused for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, like the ramekin. Nah. I just cook for a lot of people, so I kinda buy containers in bulk, and I go down to the thrift stores for forks. They've always got a bunch." Carisi grinned at the way Barba looked at the fork. "Don't worry. I run 'em through the dishwasher."

Barba picked up the container and opened it. Noodles in an oil-based sauce with peas and crumbled bacon. "Pesto?"

"A take off, yeah. I'm mean, clearly, it's not green, so it's not classic, but it's the same idea."

Barba speared a noodle and a pea and a bit of bacon. He ate the bite. Even room temperature, it was delicious. He sat in his chair and gestured for Carisi to take one across the desk. "We can split--"

"Nah. No. I had lunch already." Carisi rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and laced his fingers together. "Like I said, I wanted to say thanks."

"Like I said, it's my job."

Carisi worked his head back and forth. "Well, yeah, but that's not really want I'm saying thanks for. It's more...taking it seriously, I guess."

"Why wouldn't I?" Barba was surprised when Carisi looked down at the floor and appeared ashamed. "You didn't?" he guessed.

"Not at first. Tommy--he's a classic screw up type, and it turns out there's some things I still need to learn if I wanna get better at being a detective, especially an SVU detective."

Barba ate another bite of pasta. "We all have a learning curve. Some prejudices you don't know you have until you actually experience them."

Carisi nodded. "That's true. I don't like it, though."

"Then learn from it. Look back a year from now and wince about the fact you did it because you know better and have done better."

"Do you do that?" Carisi shrugged at Barba's quizzical look. "I mean, yeah, you just said you did, but did you have to do it a lot? The kind of guy you are, I figure you've probably had the majority of yourself together since you were in college."

Barba thought back to college. That scrappy, angry scholarship kid in the hallowed halls of Harvard. Working himself into the ground to prove he belonged and also trying to make friends with his supposed social betters because he knew he'd need them later. "Undergrad, no. That was--a lot of work to just get through. Law school, though. It was easier by then."

Carisi laughed. "Maybe I should have done law school first."

"No," Barba said, and he found that he meant it. "You're a good cop, Carisi. You're...different than the others."

"Different?"

Barba finished the pasta and placed the container and fork aside. He wiped the edge of his mouth with his thumb. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-three."

"Could you use some polish? Yes." Barba gestured to Carisi's suit. It was dark blue. He was wearing a white shirt and black tie. "Although, I'm glad to see your wardrobe has started to fit correctly."

"What?"

"The only two things I remember about you in your first few weeks with the squad are that moustache--" Barba couldn't hold back a chuckle when Carisi tipped back his head and groaned. "--and the bad fit on your suits."

"I lost some weight," Carisi said. "Homicide...wasn't a good fit."

"You stressed yourself down a suit size."

"Yeah." Carisi straightened up and looked at Barba, and there was something in his eyes Barba recognized, a heaviness that only came with bad experience. "Just. I tried to eat. I tried to sleep. But, those people, no one could speak for them but me, you know?"

Barba knew. He knew entirely too well. He made an affirmative sound.

"I got out of Homicide. I started with SVU. I made myself go to the gym for at least thirty minutes every day I could. I put the weight back on, just not like it used to sit. My parents, they live three doors down from a tailor. My whole life, we've done block parties and neighborhood garage sales and all that stuff. He saw me one Sunday after I joined SVU and told me to bring everything over so he could fit it properly. Said I looked enough like a scarecrow without sagging shoulder seams."

Barba chuckled. "I have the opposite problem. My tailor keeps trying to talk me out of vests. Says it makes me look heavy."

"You gotta have a vest. It's classic." Sonny looked down at himself. "I've been meaning to get a few, actually. Hold on, let me text my ma."

Barba watched, bemused, as Sonny pulled out his phone and did just that. He thought about the panna cotta again, how Sonny had learned it from his grandmother. He considered Sonny's weight loss and what his abuelita would have said to that.

There were many times in Rafael's childhood that he remembered his abuletia and mami arguing. He remembered asking why they fought.

"Your mami is a very good person," Abuelita had said, and even then, her English had been precise. She'd worked on it every night. If Rafael was visiting, his job was to help with pronunciation. She wanted her words to sound right, and his accent was the least Cuban because he'd been born in America. "But sometimes good people do not take care of themselves," she had continued. "And when they do not take care of themselves, there are two things you must do."

"What are they?" Rafael had asked.

"You must yell at them to make them understand, and you must feed them." Abuelita had smiled at him and kissed the top of his head. "Your mami will come back, and she might still be mad at me, but we understand each other, Rafi. Do not worry."

"All right, that's done," Carisi said as he pocketed his phone. He smiled at the half-empty container in Barba's hands. "And I should probably get out of your hair, counselor. Just wanted to drop off the food."

"And thank you for it," Barba said. "And the panna cotta from a few weeks ago. It was delicious."

"You already thanked me for that one, but you're welcome for both." Carisi stood and smoothed his shirt and tie. "Anything you need before I go?"

Barba wanted him to stay, to keep talking. "I'm curious about something."

"What's that?"

It felt like a stupid question, too personal by half to be asking someone he barely knew. But Carisi had fed him twice, and where Barba came from, that meant a friendship was building. "Your grandmother, how's her English?"

Carisi grinned. "Pretty good until she gets mad. I'm fourth generation--think I mentioned that last time--but Grandma was a teenager when they immigrated, so if she gets mad at you or she's tired, her words slip." He gave Barba a warm look. "What about your grandmother? Did she slip sometimes?"

"Yes, but she hated it. She wanted to be American. But she also wanted her children to know their language."

"My ma's got friends who never learned more than some basic Italian. Their parents didn't want them having a second language. Grandma and Grandpa, that wasn't their way. They figured two languages made their kids twice as smart. It was weird to find out how many kids in the neighborhood didn't even know basic words when me and my sisters were pretty fluent."

"Are you still fluent?"

Carisi beamed. "Of course. It's part of why I love my family, you know? Sometimes, we don't get each other in English, but we speak Italian, and it helps. Of course, with my sisters--except for Bella--sometimes not even Italian helps."

Barba chuckled. "I'm an only child. I wouldn't know."

"Nah. I'm sure you had friends. You probably fought the same."

Barba looked at Carisi for a long moment. He thought of Alex and Eddie and remembered their fights. "I had two best friends, once. Maybe we did."

"I'm sure you did." Carisi checked his watch again. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure if I don't get back to the station, the Sarge is gonna skin me. Thanks for the chat. It was nice."

Nice, Barba thought, a word that didn't cross his mind often, but it fit in this case. "It was. Thank you, Detective."

"Sure. I'll see you soon." Carisi gave one last grin and saw himself out.

Barba looked at half-empty food container in his hand and the fork. He tapped his fingers on his desk, then reached for his phone.

Rafael: What do you do when a nice person wants to be your friend?

Rita: Gain their trust, then steal their clients.

Barba smirked at Rita's response.

Rafael: He's not a lawyer.

Rita: Then I have no advice. You're the nicest person I know.

Rafael: That's the worst thing I've heard this week.

Rita: I know, right?

*

"Counselor!"

Barba turned at Carisi's shout. It had been three days since Carisi had been in his office, and they hadn't seen each other. They hadn't even talked. Barba wondered if he should have emailed or texted or even called. Was he supposed to be making an effort on this friendship? He wasn't sure.

"You okay, counselor?" Carisi asked when he caught up with him. "You look like you're in your head."

"Long afternoon," Barba brushed off. "Nuisance motions to tackle. If you make it through law school and pass the bar, you can look forward to similar."

"Wow, you say it like that, I want to go home and study right away," Carisi replied with a wry grin. "I won't keep you, just wanted to see if you're free Saturday night."

"What for?"

"I finally got all my stuff unpacked, so I'm having a dinner. Just the squad--well, not Nick; he says he's busy--but Rollins and Fin and the Sarge and Noah, and I wanted to make sure you got an invite."

"I'm not part of the squad."

Carisi squinted at Barba in confusion. "What? Of course you are. You're our DA. Look, it's not anything major. I'm gonna be a stereotype and make a vat of pasta sauce and an oven full of garlic bread, and right now I'm planning on making cannoli, but if I don't get time, I'm gonna pick some up. I was thinking an antipasto, too. If you can make it, just text me if you have any allergies or dislikes. I wanna make sure everyone has something they like."

Barba thought for a moment. He did sometimes go to Liv's when she was having a get-together. This sounded like a same thing, just a different place. "What time, and what can I bring?"

"Seven, and a bottle of whatever you wanna drink. I was gonna supply, actually, but everyone on the squad wanted to do something, then Sarge offered to pick up a couple loaves of frozen garlic bread, and I just--not in my kitchen, you know?"

"I don't know. I don't cook much."

"Well, just know if I'm cooking. We don't do frozen bread."

"Your grandmother would disapprove," Barba said with a grin.

"We could hear the screams from Staten Island." Carisi grinned in return. "Look, I'll text you my address if that's okay."

"That's fine."

"Do you have a favorite cannolo?"

Barba considered it. "Well made," he finally responded.

Carisi's grin turned cocky. "Well, that's not a problem. But if you wanna try to challenge me, pick a weird flavor. I wanna try a couple of things. Fin's already asked for pistachio, but Rollins and Liv like classic."

"I'll think about it," Barba replied. "Also, no food allergies."

"Great. Okay." Carisi gave him a wide smile. "I'll get out of your hair. Hope the rest of your week doesn't suck."

"Same," Barba said, and Carisi turned and walked away.

*

He met Rita for dinner on Friday. They were indulging in a steak place neither of them went to much because it was generally full of people they hated. But Barba's motions had carried into a second day, and Rita's client had had the nerve to confess on the stand under a rather punishing cross, and so there they were, both halfway through 12-ounce steaks and each on their second drink.

"How's your friendship with a nice person going?" Rita asked as she reached for her martini.

"It apparently doesn't require much. He's having a squad dinner tomorrow and invited me."

"Squad?" Rita's eyes lit up, and she thumped her glass on the table in glee. "Wait. Is this that delicious drink of water who joined SVU recently?"

"Delicious?"

"Yes. Tall, thin, figured out how to wear a properly cut suit much faster than most men." She gave Rafael an appraising look. "Present company excluded."

"How kind of you," Rafael said around a mouth of mashed potatoes. He swallowed and sipped his own drink. "His name is Carisi, by the way. How do you even know what he looks like?"

"A few of our junior associates have run into him in the halls of the courthouse. Lynn slipped in a puddle coming in after that rain we had a couple of weeks ago, and your detective--"

"Don't phrase it like that."

"Caught her before she could land on her ass and helped her get her files back in order."

Barba gave Rita a look of disbelief. "And that made him memorable?"

"How many cops do you know who would help a defense attorney about to stain their suit before court?"

Barba nodded, conceding the point. "He's also excellent for brainstorming sessions, I'm told," Rita continued. "Bobby says they happened to get talking at the coffee cart, and your detective--"

"Seriously, don't phrase it like that."

"Gave him a whole new angle on his argument."

"Fantastic. I've got a smart detective too dumb not to talk to defense attorneys."

"Actually, from what the gossip mill tells me, he always asks what their cases are. If one of ours is in the courthouse to face off against one of yours, he wishes them luck and disappears."

Barba looked up from cutting his steak. "He's not a fairy godmother."

"No, but I have it confirmed he's queer." Rita grinned when Barba glared. "Just gossip. Bobby and Lynn both gave him their number, and he went out for a drink with both."

"He's from Staten Island. Are you sure he knew it was supposed to be a date with Bobby?"

Rita laughed. "He got a kiss goodnight. On the mouth."

"Well," Barba said without thinking. "It's not my business," he added quickly, waving away the whole conversation with one hand. "And I'm surprised it's yours. I thought you hated gossip."

"I hate gossip when I'm not in on it." Rita ate a few green beans. "And his first name is Sonny."

"It's Dominick," Barba corrected. "He goes by Sonny."

Rita wrinkled her nose. "He's named after his father, isn't he?"

"He's from Staten Island, of course he is."

Rita laughed and took another drink of her martini. "Well, he was raised right, from what I hear. Be careful, Rafael. You might get a crush."

Barba thought about Carisi's story about losing weight working Homicide because his heart couldn't handle it, about his disappointment in himself for not believing Tommy at first because it was a double standard. He thought about the panna cotta dish that now sat on his desk at home, holding stamps and paper clips and a few rubber bands. "I don't think so." He gave Rita his most guileless look. "He's a bit much."

Rita smirked. "And yet, you're going to this little group dinner."

"It's free food."

"Uh-huh," Rita said. She flagged down the server and ordered them another round. "Really, Rafael," she said once they were alone again. "You can't tell me you're not a little attracted to him."

"Are you jealous there's eye candy in my office?"

"Tall and willowy isn't my type," Rita said, and her arch look said the rest.

*

Barba: Too late to make a special cannolo request?

Carisi: Request away! I'm not getting the fillings until tomorrow.

Barba: Salted caramel.

Carisi: This feels like a dare.

Barba: You said you wanted a challenge.

*

Rita: That text conversation you sent me this afternoon is the worst flirting you've ever done.

Barba: I remind you of freshman orientation.

Rita: I thought we agreed to a gag order on that so I could respect you.

Barba: You're the one who puked white wine on my shoes.

*

Sonny's building was midcentury, plain-faced red brick, and ten stories tall. Barba guessed he had a fifty/fifty chance on a working elevator and was pleased to discover it not only worked, it was spotless. He took it to the eighth floor and knocked on the door of 817 at two minutes before seven. Through the door, he could hear people talking.

Sonny opened the door wearing an apron, a black henley, and dark wash jeans. He beamed at Barba. "Hi! Come on in!"

Barba gave him a brief smile in return and stepped inside. He handed Sonny the small, insulated bag he was carrying. "I brought a red and a white, you only indicated it was a vat of sauce."

"Hey, that's great! It's a red sauce, so the red will probably go best, but I'm sure the white will go with dessert." Sonny walked over to the kitchen and unpacked the bottles. He put the white in the fridge. "You want a glass now?"

"Sure," Barba said. He removed his coat and other outerwear as he took in Sonny's apartment. The kitchen was to his left, the dining area in front of it. The other half of the room was the living room, with a couch, an armchair, an entertainment center and most of the wall space covered in bookshelves. Beyond the living room was a hallway that Barba assumed held the bathroom and bedroom.

He hung his scarf next to his coat and walked into the living room to say hello to Liv and the others. "I feel like I'm late," he said.

"We all ended up just coming over right after shift," Oliva explained. "We're very rude, and Lucy brought Noah over to the station for me." She was sitting on the floor, Noah next to her. He was stacking a set of soft blocks that looked brand new. Fin and Rollins were standing next to a record player, working their way through a large stack of albums.

"Here we go," Sonny said, walking over. He had the red wine in one hand, an aerator fixed into the bottle opening. He was balancing three wine glasses in his other hand. Barba took two of them without thinking. "I've got a couple bottles of red ready to go, and the Sarge brought one, too, but she said we should wait until you get here to open anything because you have the good stuff."

Barba glanced at Liv, who grinned and shrugged. "Station house coffee I'm willing to accept, but I'm glad to hear I'm trusted above single woman Merlot."

Sonny barked a laugh that drew Fin and Rollins over. Liv shook her head and chuckled. "It's Pinot Noir," she said.

"That's not better," Barba replied.

Finn and Rollins joined in the laugh this time. "Good to see you, Barba," Rollins said. "I thought Carisi was pulling my leg when he said you were coming over."

"She thinks you only like Liv," Sonny explained as he finished pouring and walked the bottle back to the kitchen.

"I do," Barba said. "But you don't get between a mother and her cubs."

"The man has a point," Fin said, and that earned him a long-suffering look from Liv that he answered with a grin.

"Ouch." Rollins made a show of taking a drink of her beer.

"Hey, this is a nice dinner we're having," Sonny said. "It's traditional Italian. You don't start fighting until the main course."

"Well, I should make everyone a traditional Southern, then," Rollins said, walking over to lean on the short backsplash that separated the kitchen counter from the main room. "We can start fighting as soon as everyone shows up an hour early."

"Nah, you gotta gossip first," Fin said. "Make sure everyone knows you know someone worse off than you."

"That's true," Rollins agreed.

Barba looked at Liv. "I feel like I'm watching the beginning of a great cultural exchange."

"There's a lot of commonality between their families," Liv said. She held out her hand, and Barba grasped it, helping her to her feet. "Do you mind keeping an eye on Noah for a few? I want to check out Carisi's record collection."

"I got an eye on him Sarge," Sonny called over. "He's got nothing to hit his head against. You and Barba just relax."

Barba looked down at Noah again. He was still happily stacking blocks. There were throw pillows stacked haphazardly on three sides of him, and he was sitting on at least two very cozy looking blankets. The coffee table, Barba realized, was pushed against the wall outside of the nest. "That's quite the set-up you managed," he said to Liv.

"Wasn't me. Carisi had it set up when I got here."

"I got twenty-six younger cousins, and not one of 'em ever got a goose egg on my watch," Carisi said.

"How do you not have a wife and seven children?" Rollins asked.

"I'm taking my time. You find who you find when you're meant to find them, Rollins. And besides, maybe I'm waiting for a husband, and he'll already have kids."

Barba froze momentarily, thinking back to the conversation with Rita. He looked at Liv, who was slowly flipping through records. "You don't look surprised." He said it in an undertone.

"He told us before he invited us over. He said he didn't want to have to be careful about whatever stories he told in his own home." Liv sipped her wine and handed Barba her glass so she could pull a record free to look at it more closely. "He didn't tell you?"

"No, but we were standing in the middle of the courthouse." Barba leaned over to look at the record. "Dean Martin. Why am I not surprised."

Liv chuckled. "Carisi, mind if I put on a record?"

"Nah, go ahead. I think my iPod may still be plugged in over there. You'll need to unhook it before the record player works."

"Got it."

"Why do you even have records?" Rollins asked.

"My folks were gonna get rid of them when they went digital, but I like 'em."

"The sound's different," Fin added.

"Exactly," Carisi replied.

Barba and Liv shared an amused look as the three started a two-on-one debate about records versus digital music. Liv got the record started, and she and Barba sat on the couch together. Noah looked up as they did.

"Hi!" he said, waving at Liv.

"Hi, sweetie!" Liv replied, waving back. She looked at Barba, who was not waving. "Kid 101, you wave when a kid waves at you."

"He is clearly waving at you," Barba replied and took her annoyed look with good humor.

The conversation around the kitchen counter got louder, then quieter. Liv laughed as she glanced over. "Should we separate them?"

"I think we're fine until it turns into cursing." Barba leaned back into the couch. It enveloped him in the best ways. "How was shift?"

"Quiet, thankfully." Liv leaned back as well. She smiled at him. "I'm glad to see you here."

"Why?"

"You usually only grudgingly show up at my place for this sort of thing. I'm a little surprised Carisi convinced you."

He made me panna cotta, Rafael thought. He told me about his grandmother. He took a drink of wine rather than say either. "It's a free meal."

"That's what Carisi said to Nick. You'll notice he's not here."

"I heard he was busy."

Liv quirked a brow. "Busy," she said.

Barba glanced over at the kitchen. Rollins and Fin were laughing as Sonny gestured about something with one hand while stirring something in a pot with the other. "I've noticed some tension."

"He rubs Nick the wrong way. I understood early on--"

"The moustache alone."

Liv chuckled. "Partially, yes. And the over-determination to prove himself. But," she glanced at the team again. "He's mellowed. He still gets over-eager, but he's more grounded now. He listens. He learns. He believes in what we do. I can't figure out why Nick is so prickly about him still."

"Because he wants to be. It's easier to be an asshole to the new guy than to make space for him."

"Talking from experience?"

Barba grinned and peeled himself off the couch. "I plead the fifth." He walked over to the kitchen and stepped around Fin to reach for the wine and refill his glass. He topped off Sonny's as well. "Liv?" he asked, holding up the bottle.

"You two finish it," she said, holding up her half-full glass. "I'm fine."

Barba split the rest of the bottle between Carisi and himself and stepped back out of the kitchen to lean against the counter as Fin walked over to visit with Liv. "When do we eat?" he asked.

"I was just about to pull out the antipasto," Carisi replied. He reached into the fridge and pulled out a large platter laid out with cheeses, cured meats, and a variety of sliced vegetables. He peeled off the plastic wrap and placed it on the small lip that topped the back splash. "Take that to the table, will you, Rollins?"

She lifted the platter and carried it to the dining table that was slightly too large for the space and looked so well-used, Barba knew without asking it had been passed down in Carisi's family.

"Hey, Liv, I got a tiny plate for Noah," Carisi said, pulling a salad plate from the fridge. "Cubed cheese and some ham from the deli. I didn't think you'd want him to have a lot of salt from the other meats. I figure you can just grab what vegetables he likes from the big platter."

"Carisi, that's thoughtful." Liv leaned down and held out her hand to Noah. "Do you want a snack, honey?"

"Snack!" Noah yelled and wobbled to his feet.

"Counselor, there's a high chair in the hall closet, if you don't mind. Folds out easy."

Barba put his wine glass down and went down the hall. The chair was propped in front of everything else and made completely of wood. "Where did you find this death trap?"

"Hey, that's mine from when I was a kid. Didn't fall on my head once."

"That came later, huh?" Rollins asked.

"I got three sisters, Rollins. You tell me."

Barba unfolded the chair and was happy to find it really was as easy as that. The wood gleamed dully in the light, and he stepped away so Liv could maneuver Noah into place. "It's well cared for," he said to Carisi.

"Yeah, Ma dragged out all the baby stuff from the storage shed when Bella announced she was pregnant and cleaned it all up. Bells was supposed to get the chair, but she told me she'd rather get something she could wipe down easy, so I brought it here because I figured Noah would be here at some point. I mean, it's not gonna be a daily thing for me to clean it, you know?"

"It's very thoughtful, Carisi," Liv said as she put Noah's personal antipasto in front of him. "Thank you."

"Sure. It's nothing." Sonny walked around the counter and stepped over to the table. He lifted his wine glass slightly. "Thank you all for coming tonight. My ma always says you can't call it home 'til you make dinner for your friends. So, thanks for helping me make this my home."

Barba expected someone to snark something back, but looking from face-to-face, he saw they were all genuinely touched, even if Rollins did look like she was trying to hold back a laugh.

"Thank you for considering us friends," Liv replied.

"And that still includes Nick, even if he's busy," Sonny said.

No one argued, though Barba saw Rollins and Fin share a look. They all toasted their drinks together, and then Sonny urged them to eat up.

"Sit anywhere. I'm not worried about food on the furniture."

"You will be if you leave Noah alone with crackers," Liv said.

"Kevin couldn't be trusted either," Fin told her. "You know how many crackers you can fit behind a couch cushion?"

"How many?" Rollins asked.

"I don't know, but we filled the vacuum halfway when we found out he'd been crumbling them up back there."

The evening continued in that vein. Easy conversation, more wine, more beer, and so much more food. Barba stared in disbelief when Carisi carried a huge stock pot to the table to ladle. sauce for the main course. "I thought you were exaggerating with you said it would be a vat."

Carisi laughed. "Nah. I can cook for two, or I can cook for twenty. I'm not great at in-between. But if any of you want some to take home, I got containers."

They ate pasta and red sauce and garlic bread. Noah covered the entire high chair table in all three, and Carisi waved Liv off when she tried to get up to get a towel. "C'mon. Forget that. That's some quality picture fodder there. The floor's not gonna stain, and that chair's been through worse."

Barba spent the main course of dinner mostly quiet, responding to questions and occasionally joining in on a conversation, but he found himself content to simply sit back and let the meal happen around him. If they'd been at Liv's, she'd have urged him with a look or a question to be more social, but Carisi only glanced his way to check the level of his wine and to make sure he was eating.

"No one gets cannoli yet," Carisi announced as he started stacking plates. "Sarge, you start carrying silverware to the sink, and my grandmother will teleport from Staten Island to yell at me for being a bad host."

Barba chuckled as Liv reluctantly placed the silverware she'd been gathering onto her own plate. "Something else our grandmothers had in common," Barba says without thinking. He stood as Liv looked at him in surprise, no doubt for saying something so personal. "Which means I am immune to being yelled at by grandmothers, so I'll help."

"You don't have to. Sit. Digest. I'm not serving dessert until you're all less full."

"Should have fed us less food," Fin replied, and he and Rollins clinked their beer bottles together.

Carisi grinned and carried all the plates and silverware into the kitchen. Barba followed with the half-empty pot of sauce and then the rest of the leftovers. He placed everything on the cooled stove and started running water while Carisi went to clean up napkins and his and Barba's empty glasses.

"Get me a warm washcloth, would you?" Liv asked. "I can at least scrub Noah clean."

"Sure," Carisi said. He pulled a clean washcloth from a drawer and handed it to Barba. Barba soaked it, wrung it out, and passed it to Liv.

Noah howled the moment Liv started washing his face. Barba winced, and he was surprised to see Carisi do so as well. "I like kids," Carisi said when he caught Barba looking, "doesn't mean they always sound great."

"I think we may have hit the end of the evening here," Liv said over Noah's continued wails. She finished wiping his face and hands and removed his bib. When she lifted him out of the chair, he kept wailing but clung to her tightly. "Yeah, we are in koala mode."

"Aww, bud." Carisi walked over and tried to catch Noah's eye, but Noah's face was buried in Liv's shoulder. "Well, Uncle Sonny liked having you over anyway, all right? You're welcome back any time." He kissed the top of Noah's head and gave Liv an understanding grin. "Let me pack you some cannoli, at least. Don't want you to miss out on dessert."

"I'll take some sauce, too, if it's still up for grabs."

"Absolutely."

Carisi divvied up sauce and cannoli while Liv got Noah into his coat and hat and Rollins and Fin gathered up the diaper bag and toys.

"Oh, the blocks aren't mine," Liv said.

"Leave 'em. I'll clean 'em up later," Carisi told them.

They all said goodbye to Liv and waved goodbye to Noah, who was still wailing when the door closed.

"Lord, that is a sound," Rollins said, shaking her head.

"I sure don't miss it," Fin agreed. "Kevin's was higher pitched than that. Thought he was gonna crack the windows at our first apartment."

"Bella was a weeper," Carisi said as he stepped over to the high chair and started wiping it down. "Wouldn't make a sound, but you'd look over, and she'd be crying."

"Bet you were a howler," Rollins said.

"Oh, yeah, but Ma says I learned it from Gina and Teresa. She says of the three, I was the least annoying."

"Is that praise, though?"

Carisi grinned at Rollins. "Shaddup and have another beer."

"I think I shall. Fin?"

"Sure."

Rollins got them both fresh beers, and they settled on the couch. Carisi stepped back into the kitchen and shook his head as he watched Barba wash dishes. "You coulda just left 'em to soak."

"There's not that many. It's just plates and silverware, mostly."

"Okay, well, thank you. I'll get the leftovers put away."

"Dibs on sauce!" Rollins called over her shoulder.

"Same!" Fin said.

"Got it. You guys feel free to change the record or put on a movie or whatever."

Barba smiled at the way Rollins jumped up and walked to the pile of records. "Requests?" she asked.

"Something faster," Fin said. "Wake us up so we can have dessert."

"Speaking of," Barba said as Carisi started drying dishes, "how'd the salted caramel go?"

"You'll have to wait and see," Carisi replied. His grin gave him away, though. Bright and proud of himself. "You want me to open that white? I don't want us to fall behind the lushes over there."

"Hey!" Rollins yelled.

"It's a microbrew," Fin said. "I'm a connoisseur."

"Right. And if I get drunk off actual French champagne, I'm Louis the sixteenth," Barba replied. The responding chuckles were surprising. At Liv's, Barba's humor was met with knowing looks and nods, the same as they were in the office. He was fairly certain Fin and Rollins had never outwardly laughed at one of his comments before. He was also certain there wasn't an excess amount of alcohol to account for them finding his comments worth laughing at. Liv laughed when they were at parties together, so her absence didn't explain it either.

"Look out," Carisi said, standing hip-to-hip with Barba and pulling him from his thoughts. "The wine glasses are right above you."

Barba stood still while Carisi reached up and pulled down two glasses. Carisi was warm and smelled like sauce. Something bass heavy with hard guitar piped out from the record player, and Carisi hummed along as he removed the cork for the white wine with the understated flourish of a man who had opened more than his share of bottles. Barba appreciated the lines of him and tried not to stare.

"Seriously," Carisi said as he poured them each a glass, "Let those soak. Let's enjoy watching Rollins try to dance."

"Oh, fuck you," she said and and didn't stop swaying her hips. "Fin, help me out."

"I'm helping you out by not joining you." Fin ducked as Rollins picked up one of the pillows that had caged Noah and swung at his head. "Hey!"

"Please do not kill a man in my apartment, Rollins. I just got my shit unpacked."

She laughed and dropped the pillow, then flopped on the couch next to Fin. "Carisi, this couch is dangerous."

"Great, right? Love that thing." Carisi sat on the coffee table and gestured Barba to the armchair.

Barba sat and discovered the armchair was as dangerous as the couch. "How do you get any studying done?"

"I sit at the table. If you hadn't been over tonight, it'd have been covered in my books."

"How's classes going?" Fin asked before Barba could. "You showing off all your street knowledge?"

Carisi grimaced. "Yeah, I tried that. One of my profs does not like the depth to which I know the law from the cop side."

"Do we need to beat him up?" Rollins offered. She lifted her fists in front of her and sloppily punched the air.

"How many you had, Rollins?" Fin asked, though he sounded amused.

"This is my fourth. I'm fine."

"Uh-huh. And how long since you spent a night drinking a six?"

Rollins stared at the beer in her hand for a moment. "Oh, shit. Fin, did I become a lightweight?"

"I'm proud of you," he said. "And I think I should also get you out of here before you turn the corner into being a mess."

Rollins looked like she was ready to argue, but Fin simply gave her a knowing look. "Right. Yes. Good idea. Carisi, I'm sorry my lightweight ass just ended the party."

"I'm sitting right here," Barba said.

"Mostly ended the party," Rollins amended. When she stood, she was a little shaky on her feet. "I still want dessert."

"I'm on it," Carisi said. He stood up and walked to the kitchen as Fin helped Rollins into her coat and hat and scarf and gloves. By the time they were both done up in their outerwear, Carisi had a grocery bag with sauce and cannoli ready to go. "Have a good night. Thanks for coming by."

"Great food," Fin told him. "Thanks for the invite."

"Same," Rollins agreed.

Carisi opened the door and patted them both on the back as he left. He shut the door after them, then walked to the record player. "You mind if I change it?"

"No," Barba said. "I can go if you'd like."

"If you wanna, that's fine, but you don't have to. I mean, this dinner was my plan for the night, so it's not like I wasn't expecting company."

Barba settled further into the armchair. "Okay." He closed his eyes and smiled when the new record started. "Miles Davis."

"Yeah. One of my favorites."

Barba opened his eyes and watched Carisi cross the room and lay back on his couch. It made his shirt ride up, the pale flash of his skin extra noticeable against the darker colors he wore. Barba tried not to stare again. "So, you know the standards, and you know jazz, and you know classic rock. What else?"

"I'm current, too. I like pop music. My ma always played soundtracks, so I'm a Broadway dork. Some hip hop, some rap. I even have a few country songs I like."

"I'll ignore that last part," Barba said, and he felt himself grin when Carisi rolled his eyes. "My mami played Broadway albums, too. And folk music, oddly enough."

Carisi cocked his head. "I can't see you growing up with folk music."

"Thank god. I was afraid it was showing."

Carisi chuckled and raised an arm above his head, dropping it along the back of the couch. "The standards came from Grandma and Grandpa. The jazz, too. The classic rock is Ma and my dad."

"My grandparents had some albums they brought from Cuba, but I don't remember who they were. The sleeves were faded by the time I was old enough to read them, and the labels had worn off. They knew them by heart, though."

"You ever hear them anywhere? Like, you're in a restaurant, and the song changes, and there it is? That song your grandparents listened to?"

Barba shook his head. "No. Not even in the family-owned Cuban places. I remember once I asked abueltia what she remembered about Cuba, and she said she remembered nothing."

"Nothing? Really?"

"Nothing," Barba repeated, and he heard her accent sneak into his voice on the word. "My mother's the same way. They don't want to remember. Cuba was…"

"Military junta to communist revolution," Carisi murmured.

"And who ever wants to remember the communist revolution anywhere?"

Carisi gave Barba a soft, kind look. "I get that. They weren't coming here with hope. They were fleeing with despair."

Barba considered that. "Yes," he agreed. He watched Carisi take a drink of his wine. Carisi watched him in return, lifting his brows in question but not saying a word. Miles Davis continued to play in the background, and they sat comfortably for minutes, not speaking.

"Dessert?" Carisi asked into the silence.

"Sure." Barba stood and followed Carisi to the kitchen.

Carisi took down two plates, then pulled the cannoli from the fridge. He opened the box and pointed it towards Barba. "These are the salted caramels," he said, pointing to four cannoli on one end. "The rest are the other flavors."

"Well, I know where I have to start." Barba placed one of the salted caramels on his plate. He nodded when Carisi held up the wine in a silent offer to refill his glass.

Carisi put two cannoli on his own plate and grabbed them both napkins. He kicked the pillows out of the way and moved the coffee table back in front of the couch.

Barba sat first, careful not to tip his plate into his shirt as he sunk into the couch. He lifted the salted caramel cannollo and looked it over.

"Who are you? Gordon Ramsay?"

"I'm am clearly Aaron," Barba replied.

Carisi beamed. "Yeah? You watch Master Chef?"

"Why not? It's an actual competition, not just people throwing wine at each other."

"Right? I love it. Just, getting to watch people be passionate about something they love. It's great."

Barba didn't know what to say to that, so he bit into his dessert. He went still when the flavor hit him. Salted caramel, as requested, but cut with a touch of vanilla and… "Espresso?" he asked around the bite.

"Yup. Just a little, though. It shouldn't get you wired."

Barba finished his bite and wiped at the corners of his mouth. "This is fantastic." He was surprised to see Carisi blush. "It really is."

"Thanks," Carisi said, quiet like he wasn't used to compliments. But Barba knew that wasn't true. Everyone had complimented him through dinner, and he'd taken it with the easy good grace he seemed to handle most things.

"This is your first try with salted caramel, right?"

"In cannoli, yeah. I've played around with it before. My sister Teresa is sort of obsessed with it, so her last three birthday cakes have all been salted caramel."

"I think that's more than 'playing around with it.'" Barba took another bite and savored it as much as the first. "So, I said salted caramel, and you just...made it happen."

"It took a couple tries to get the mix right. I was gonna just do a straight up salted caramel, but it seemed too sweet for you."

Barba raised his eyebrows. "For me?"

"Yeah. You drink your coffee black. You always order spicy stuff if we're getting dinner in the squad. You tend to avoid the desserts that always end up in the break room, so I figured it was probably because they're always super sugary. That's why I added the espresso."

"Are you keeping a list?"

Carisi looked embarrassed but held Barba's gaze. "No. I just...notice. That's all."

"It's one thing to notice, another to remember."

Carisi shrugged. "I guess? I get what you're saying, but I've just always remembered stuff like that."

Barba put his plate on the coffee table and reached for his wine. "That's not something a lot of people do naturally."

"I've heard that a lot." Carisi's smile was rueful. "And that I'm too soft, too nice, too eager." He rolled his eyes. "I mean, I know why Nick wasn't here tonight. I bug him because I'm me."

"You bug him because he's himself," Barba replied without thinking. "Don't blame yourself for other people being assholes."

"He's not an asshole. He has a good heart."

"And it's ten feet under the cement of his anger."

"You sound like you're speaking from experience."

Barba shrugged and took another drink of wine. "Some, perhaps. We don't all run on kindness, Detective."

"You're in my apartment. It's Sonny."

Barba stared at him for a moment. "What?"

"You're in my apartment," Sonny repeated. "It's Sonny."

"Rollins called you Carisi."

"You're not Rollins. And before you say it, you're not Fin or the Sarge."

Barba couldn't help his grin. "So, what, I'm the special friend?"

Sonny laughed. "No, I mean. Um." He flushed and looked down. "Okay, I just made this awkward."

"I feel fine," Barba said. He watched Sonny flush brighter pink. "What just happened?"

Sonny's face twisted into a grimace. "God, I'm the worst at this part." He shook his head and took a deep breath, his entire body going lax for a moment. When he looked at Barba again, he looked embarrassed but determined. "I want to be friends with you. Like, friend-friends. Not just someone I know from work. Not someone I grab a drink with because it's been a shitty day."

"You want to go to museums together?"

Sonny shrugged with his whole body. He even came off the couch a couple of inches. "Yeah? I mean, I like museums, but if you don't, obviously we wouldn't do that. But, you know, hang out. Watch Master Chef. Just, you know, be friends."

Barba let the idea settle into him. He could picture it, spending time with Sonny just to do it. "Why me?" he asked.

"I like you."

Barba wanted to argue against that, but the way Sonny said it, so breezily sure of himself, he found he couldn't do it. "Do you know who Rita Calhoun is?"

"Yeah. I've never met her, but the squad mentions her, and her name's come up in class a couple of times."

"What do you think of her?"

"I only know her by reputation, and it's all coming from people who kinda understandably don't appreciate her success."

"Even your professors?"

"Former DA," Sonny explained. "Why are you mentioning Rita Calhoun?"

"We're friends. We've been friends a long time. If you can meet her and live to tell about it, then I think you and I could be friends."

Sonny squinted at him, a smirk settling on his face. "Are you putting me through a test of strength?"

Yes. Rafael thought, but also no. He couldn't deny now that he had a bit of a crush on Sonny, not that he had plans to pursue it any time soon. Meeting Rita and letting her take his measure was a way to move things forward without having to decide exactly how far he wanted the relationship to go."If it helps to think of it that way, sure. But it's mostly because I don't have a lot of friends, Sonny, and I want them to like each other."

Sonny leaned back into the couch and stared at the ceiling for a few moments. "Okay," he said. "Name a time and place, and I'll show up for my audition."

*

It took seventeen texts and four different timeslots to find a time when Barba, Rita, and Sonny could all meet. Rita picked the place, a quiet, soft-lit restaurant that wasn't horribly pricey, and they all made it within ten minutes of the reservations. Sonny was the last to arrive, red-cheeked from the cold and beaming when he spotted Barba from across the room.

"Oh, good lord," Rita muttered. "I thought the associates were exaggerating the dimples."

"Play nice."

"Not ever." Rita held out her hand as Sonny approached, but he held his hands away from her.

"Lost my gloves," he said.

"Well, they say I have ice water in my veins," Rita replied. She smiled when Sonny shook her hand. "Rita Calhoun."

"Dominick Carisi, Jr. But you can call me Sonny."

"So I've heard from many underlings." Rita's tone was as arch as her eyebrow.

Sonny's grin widened. "Oh, right. Lindsey and Bobby work at your firm."

"They do."

"They're nice. Smart. Helped me a lot at winter finals." Sonny pulled his scarf from around his neck, then stepped sideways, pulling Rita's chair out a few inches.

"A true gentleman," Rita murmured as she slid into her seat.

"Well, I mean, maybe?" Sonny said before Rafael could do more than give Rita a look. "You never know, really, if someone's going to be okay with you pulling out their chair, but I figured I was right there, so why not."

"How many sisters do you have?"

"Three."

Rita nodded. "And, where do you fall in the birth order?"

"Third of the four of us. Gina. Teresa. Me, and then Bella."

"The one with the felon for a fiancee."

Rafael didn't interject, though he met Sonny's eyes when Sonny glanced at him. This was Rita's way, to jab quickly with a needle and see if you jumped.

"Tommy's a good guy who did some dumb things," Sonny said, his voice still pleasant, but there was a fight in his eyes. "He kept it together through the worst experience of his life, and that included a lot of people doubting him, including me."

Rita's smile softened. "And how is he now?"

"Good. He's looking forward to being a dad." Sonny's face lit up again. "Oh, that reminds me!" He reached for his phone. "They had the ultrasound today, to find out if it's a boy or a girl." He turned his phone so Rita and Rafael could see the sonogram photo Bella had sent him. "She swears the baby has her eyes, but I still think it looks like an inkblot."

Rita laughed, surprised, and Rafael felt himself grin in triumph, though he wasn't sure why. "The baby's healthy?" he asked.

"Yeah. The vitals are great. Bella says that now that the morning sickness is done, she's actually kind of enjoying being pregnant. Tommy's been reading parenting books and blogs and stuff."

"He wants to be an involved father. That's nice." Rita's smile was still soft.

"Yeah. That's what finally won over my dad. He was always doing stuff with us, and Tommy's been asking him questions."

"One less piece of drama at the Carisi family dinner table," Rafael said. "You'll get bored at Sunday dinner."

Sonny laughed. "Nah. Never."

Rita lifted a hand, and a server came straight over. "Shall we order a drink?" she asked Sonny.

Sonny took a quick glance at the wine and beer menu, then shrugged. "I've never been here. What do you like?"

"A round of Gibsons for the table," Rita said.

"Actually--" Rafael started to say.

"Ignore him. I'm buying."

The server nodded and left. Rafael gave Rita an exasperated glare. "You are not buying."

"Yes, I am. Don't argue with me."

"Thank you for buying," Sonny replied, and Rafael rolled his eyes. "That's nice of you."

"I know what police officers make. It's very sad."

Sonny laughed again. "We do all right. I haven't had to live in a hovel for a whole six months."

Rita leaned forward, resting her chin on her palm. "Tell me something."

"Sure."

"How'd a nice guy like you decide you wanted to be friends with an asshole like him?"

"I am right here," Rafael said, though there was no heat in his voice.

"He's smart. He works hard. I'm hoping I can butter him up for help with school." Sonny said the last with a smirk and a glance in Rafael's direction.

"Oh, not ever now," he said.

"Call me instead. Let me entice you over to $700 an hour, an office with a good view, and occasionally amoral standards."

"Tempting," Sonny said with a shrug. "But I'm Catholic."

"Well, damn." Rita leaned back and lounged in her chair. "What a waste."

The server arrived with their drinks, and Rita ordered them dinner, silencing Rafael's protest by raising her hand.

"I am not an underling," he said when the server had left again.

"I know, but you always order the same thing, and it's boring. Sonny should really find out on his own that you're boring."

"Don't ever trust a word she says," Rafael told Sonny. "She carries a shiv in her heel."

"Why would you need one with shoes like that?" Sonny asked.

Rita lifted her martini and took a drink. "I like where this evening is going," she said. "Now tell me your favorite supreme court case."

"State or Federal?"

"Surprise me."

*

They were each three martinis in by the time Rita ordered dessert and coffee. Sonny excused himself to the restroom, and Rita turned to Rafael with a pleased grin on her face. "I like him."

"Obviously. I've barely gotten a word in edgewise."

Rita's grin sharpened. "Oh, don't worry. He definitely noticed you were here."

Rafael met her grin with an amused smirk. "What do you mean by that?"

"He was very interested every time you talked."

Rafael rolled his eyes. "No."

"Yes."

"You are not turning this--"

Rita placed a hand on Rafael's arm. "Ask him out."

"He wants to be friends, Rita. Those were his exact words."

It was Rita's turn to roll her eyes. "Right. Because adults ask each other to be friends all the time."

"He's the poster child for a nice young man. Of course he asks."

"I know you think he's attractive."

I'm not blind, Rafael thought, but he chose to deflect out loud. "Please seek help for your unending efforts to matchmake people. It's horrifying."

"You're an idiot." Rita leaned back and removed her hand as Sonny walked back up to the table.

"What'd I miss?" Sonny asked as he took his seat again.

"Nothing interesting," Rita said. Under the table, she kicked Rafael lightly on the shin.

The server brought dessert and coffee. Sonny beamed at the chocolate lava cake Rita had ordered for him and carefully cut it down the middle. "Anyone want in on this? I love them, but I don't think I should eat the whole thing with the dinner we just had."

"Rafael loves chocolate lava cake."

"I'll pass for now," Rafael said. He tapped his spoon against his creme brulee and kicked Rita back.

"Oh, this is really good," Sonny said after the first bite. He scooped up another and held it out to Rafael. "Seriously. One bite."

Rafael didn't have to look at Rita to know she was hiding a smirk behind the truffle she was eating. He reached over and took the spoon from Sonny's hand, eating the bite and passing the spoon back. "Very nice," he said after he'd swallowed. Sonny's happy grin made him feel warm, and Rafael quickly took a bite of his creme brulee to distract himself.

"Rita?" Sonny asked, holding up another bite.

She leaned in and let Sonny lead the bite into her mouth. Rafael shook his head when she winked at him and pressed her napkin to her lips. "That is sinful," Rita said to Sonny. "Do you know how to make it?"

"Oh, yeah. My grandma used it to teach me patience. I was always wanting to turn up the heat on things or find shortcuts, so she put a recipe in my hands when I was ten and let me scorch . one of her pans until I learned to slow down."

"Knowing when to slow down is useful. Knowing when to speed up can be more important, though." Rita said it with a straight face while looking directly at Rafael. Sonny was taking a bite of his dessert and didn't notice.

Rita finished her last truffle and stood. "If you'll excuse me." She folded her napkin next to her plate and walked towards the restrooms.

"Damnit," Rafael said as he watched her stop at the bar, "she's making sure to get the check before I can drag it out of her hands."

Sonny laughed. "Well, too late for that anyway."

Sonny's answer hit Rafael at the same time Rita turned and glared back at the table. Rafael felt himself smiling. "You did not."

"It was easy. You two were distracted, so I just dropped off my card. I asked the server not to bring it back over until Rita had left."

Rafael laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. When Rita came back to the table, he was still trying to control himself.

"Oh, you think you're so smooth," she said to Sonny, hands on her hips.

Sonny shrugged and ate the last bite of his lava cake. "I wasn't planning on it. I just saw an opening is all."

"Right." She gave him a sharp once over, then looked at Rafael, who had finally managed to calm down. "Walk me out," she said to Rafael.

"Of course," Rafael said. He stood and gestured for Sonny to keep his seat. "Finish your coffee. I'll be back for the rest of mine."

Rita leaned down and pecked Sonny on the cheek. "You ever pay the tab again when I'm buying, I will ruin your credit score."

Sonny beamed. "I look forward to it."

"Impossible," Rita muttered as she let Rafael help her into her coat.

He walked her to the door but did not go outside. He stood next to her in the vestibule as she finalized a Lyft request. "Lovely as always," he said.

"You don't have to take him home tonight, but you should take him home," Rita replied. "He's smart. He's sharp. He's handsome. You could do much worse."

"I might consider it."

She shook her head and accepted his kiss on the cheek. "Get home safe."

"You, too."

She waved as she walked out the door, and Rafael walked back to the table, shivering a bit from the cold wind. Sonny was sitting at the mostly clear table, just the coffee cups and two snifters laid out.

"I wasn't sure if you wanted an after-dinner drink, but the martinis are wearing off, and it's fifteen degrees out there."

"Thank you," Rafael said as he retook his seat. The server had taken away the third chair at the table, and the seating felt much more intimate than it had before. "The wind's picked up, too."

Sonny made a face and sipped his snifter. "I had the server recommend something you might like because you like scotch. I couldn't give him details on the type, though."

Rafael sipped the snifter. It was cognac, spicy on the back. "It's good."

"Good."

They fell into silence, like they had at Sonny's apartment. Rafael settled into it, happy to sip coffee and cognac and let his mind wander.

"I like her a lot," Sonny said after a few minutes.

"She likes you."

"I can see why you're friends."

"Oh?"

"Sure. You've got similar personalities. You know how to have fun poking at each other."

It was an accurate description. "I was worried when she became a defense lawyer that we'd stop speaking to each other. She told me I was an idiot."

Sonny looked concerned. "Has that happened before?"

Rafael thought back to a few people he'd known and liked in law school and in the DA's office. "A couple of times. No one I considered as much of a friend as Rita."

"That's something, at least." Sonny took a sip of his coffee. "I had a couple people who stopped talking to me when I went to the academy. I didn't grow up with a lot of troublemakers, but I knew a couple of guys who were sort of lesser versions of Tommy. They'd gotten into minor trouble and hated the cops for busting them, so I became a traitor."

"Well, then they're not like Tommy at all. He admitted fault and worked to correct his life." Rafael wasn't sure what to do with the way Sonny looked at him. It was soft and kind, like Rafael had given him a surprise gift.

They fell into silence again, finishing their drinks. "Barba," Sonny started after he'd sipped the last of his cognac.

"Rafael," Rafael said. "When we're being friendly."

"Rafael," Sonny said with a smile. "This was good. I had fun. Thank you."

Rafael wanted to say he hadn't done anything, that Rita had unquestionably run the show, but Sonny's genuine kindness kept him from it. "You're welcome," he said instead. "You're good company."

They finished their coffee and cognac at the same time. "Split a car?" Rafael offered.

"You won't be going out of your way?"

A little, but Rafael felt warm just being near Sonny and didn't want to let it go just yet. "No. It's fine."

"Okay, then."

Rafael ordered the car, and they bundled up, waiting in silence in the vestibule until the car pulled up. Sonny held open the car door and let Rafael slide in first. Rafael smiled to himself, thinking about how he and Rita had joked about his manners earlier.

Sonny gave his address to the driver and asked how his day was. The driver mumbled something in return, and Sonny relaxed back against the seat, unbothered at being brushed off.

Rafael looked out the window and watched Sonny's reflection. He looked content as he browsed his phone, humming something under his breath that Rafael didn't recognize. He turned as Sonny lifted his head, and their eyes met.

"You good?" Sonny asked.

Rafael wanted to reach for his hand. "Yeah," he said. He glanced at the clock on the car's dash. "Going to be studying tonight?"

"Nah. I put in some extra time last night since I knew we were gonna have dinner, then the Sarge told me to stay home tomorrow because my overtime's gotten a little crazy."

"Anything I should be worried about?"

"Nah. Just paperwork, mostly."

"That's good." Rafael glanced out the window again and saw they were turning onto Sonny's block. He took a deep breath and licked his lips. "How about a nightcap, then?"

"Sure. Wanna just come up to my place? I've got coffee and tea. Or wine or beer if you want another drink."

"Tea sounds good," Rafael agreed as the car pulled up to the curb. He didn't miss the fact that Sonny slipped the driver a tip even though Rafael could do it on his phone.

Sonny led the way into his building, holding the front door, and then the elevator door. Rafael thought back over the few times he and Sonny had worked together so far, and he couldn't recall Sonny holding a door for him before. Maybe he hadn't been paying attention. It was the sort of detail he wasn't usually interested in.

"I have to warn you," Sonny said as he unlocked his door, "my table is not nearly as neat as it was last time."

"I remember law school," Rafael replied.

Sonny flashed him a grin as he opened the door and gestured for Rafael to lead the way. He flipped on the living room light as soon as Rafael was clear of the door. Rafael chuckled when he saw the dining table. It was stacked with books, print-outs, and legal pads. The laptop in the center of all of it all had stickers for the NYPD, Fordham Law, and The Mets.

"The kettle should only take a few minutes to heat up," Sonny said as he closed the door behind him. "Make yourself comfortable."

Rafael watched Sonny move around his kitchen as he got out of his layers. Sonny filled the electric kettle and clicked it on, then he pulled boxes of tea out of a cupboard. Rafael walked into the kitchen as Sonny was pulling matching striped mugs out a different cupboard.

"You want sugar or anything?" Sonny asked, hand already on a third cabinet door.

"Depends on the tea," Rafael said. He examined the boxes. Mint. Sleepytime. Green. Vanilla Rooibos. He plucked up a sachet of the Rooibos and dropped it into one of the mugs. "I won't need sugar," he said.

Sonny took a sachet of mint and added a teaspoon of sugar on top. "Sit," he said, gesturing to the living room. "It'll just be a minute."

Rafael settled on the couch and kept watching Sonny. He didn't mean to, but Sonny didn't stay still. He moved the mugs closer to the kettle, then put away some dishes. The kettle clicked off as he was folding a couple of towels that had been crumpled on the counter. He poured the water into the mugs, stirred his once, then carried both mugs over to Rafael.

"Thanks," Rafael said as he took his mug. He held it close to his face and let the warm steam wash over him. "My abuelita always made me tea," he said. "It could be 110 in the shade, and the kettle would be on the stove."

"My ma still uses a stove kettle, but I switched to electric when I moved out."

Rafael opened his eyes and looked at Sonny. Sonny was holding his mug close, too. "Sonny." He pressed his lips together before he said more.

"Yeah?" Sonny asked, his face open like it always was.

Rafael tightened his grip on his mug. "You want to be friends."

Sonny cocked his head. "That was the whole point of meeting RIta, right?"

Rafael put his mug aside, pressing his warm palm together for a moment before dropping them to his lap. "Yes, but…"

The silence that fell wasn't comfortable. Rafael didn't know how to break it. He watched Sonny, who watched him, and the silence grew thicker.

"Fuck," Sonny muttered and turned to place his cup on the coffee table. "Fuck."

"What?"

Sonny shook his head and ruffled his hair, knocking it out of place and causing a few strands to fall over his forehead. "I was obvious, wasn't I? I made this weird."

Rafael shook his head, but Sonny was staring at his own lap. "Obvious?" he said with all the confusion he felt. Sonny didn't look up, but he blushed.

"Fuck." Sonny threw his head back and stared at the ceiling. He blew out a hard breath, and finally met Rafael's eyes. "Look, if I made you uncomfortable, that is on me, and I am completely sorry. I am totally fine just being friends. If I gave signs of--"

"Rita thinks we should date," Rafael interrupted. He would have preferred to say something more sophisticated, but Sonny looked fearful, and Rafael didn't like it.

"Oh," Sonny said.

"She said adults don't ask if you want to be friends and made some conclusions from that."

Sonny swallowed and twisted his hands in his lap. "Conclusions?"

"I heard you mention dating men during the squad dinner," Rafael said and wanted to die. He clenched his hands in his lap. "Shit. That's not--"

"Do you want to date me?" Sonny asked. His eyes were wide and bright, his smile growing like he already knew the answer.

Rafael sighed and pulled a face. "I was hoping to approach it with a bit more decorum--"

"Decorum can suck it," Sonny said.

Rafael laughed, one of those deep belly laughs that Sonny so easily pulled out of him. Sonny scooted closer on the couch so that their knees touched. He held up a hand but didn't touch Rafael. Rafael reached out and met him halfway.

"So, clearly, I am for this," Sonny said. "And I want to kiss you if that's all right."

Rafael licked his lips and watched the way Sonny tracked his tongue. "On one condition." Sonny raised his eyebrows in question. "We don't tell Rita this happened tonight so she won't be fucking insufferable the rest of the week."

Sonny's grin went blinding, his dimples deep and perfect. "I'm fine with that, but I feel like she's gonna be insufferable whenever you tell her."

"True, but we're arguing a plea deal in two days."

Sonny laughed and leaned closer. He tilted his head down, and Rafael titled his head back to meet him. Sonny kissed him, his mouth just barely open, his tongue licking quickly at Rafael's bottom lip. "It's too bad you and I took different cars home," he said, his free hand resting on Rafael's knee and sliding up his thigh.

"Missed my chance," Rafael agreed and gladly let Sonny lay him down on the couch.