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What Happened Next

Chapter Text

“You have to come, Rafael. Carisi’s cooking.”

Sonny overheard the Lieutenant’s phone call from across the aisle. They were on their way to Amanda’s, and they had stopped to pick up groceries for their little impromptu family dinner. Sonny had been feeling pretty excited about it, about cooking for everybody, until that very moment.

“You’re just saying this ‘cause you haven’t had his cooking, Barba. Come on.”

Sonny could only imagine what Barba had said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Sonny was only supposed to cook for Amanda, and the Lieutenant, and Fin. People who were positively predisposed toward him. People who would enjoy his cooking, who had enjoyed his cooking on multiple occasions. People who were nice to him. People who wouldn’t judge him for using too much parmesan.

Barba wasn’t supposed to be there. That changed everything. Sonny was going to make something simple. Something a heavily pregnant woman wouldn’t have any issues with. A crowd pleaser. Something quick, because he didn’t want to overstep, he didn’t want to take over Amanda’s kitchen for too long.

But if Barba was coming? Sonny would have to reconsider. The Lieutenant had just built up his cooking, too. Sonny didn’t want to disappoint the counselor. Maybe he should make something more elaborate, more impressive.

Sonny was always trying to impress Barba. Even with his cooking skills, apparently.

“OK, Barba’s coming too, Carisi. It took a lot of convincing, though. You better wow him, otherwise he’ll never come to our little family dinners again.”

No pressure.

They got to Amanda’s apartment, where Sonny was distracted by the sheer size of Amanda’s belly, though he refrained from commenting on that out loud. Fin didn’t even have to stop him, this time.

Sonny was also distracted by setting everything up, by prepping the ingredients, by having Fin next to him, having a beer and shooting the breeze as he cooked. By overhearing bits and pieces of Amanda and Liv’s conversation, from the next room.

Until the doorbell rang.

Fin gave Sonny a look that clearly said, “I’m not getting that.”

And then Fin actually said, “I’m not getting that.”

Sonny, still in an apron, and he couldn’t believe Amanda even owned an apron, by the way, went to get the door.

Barba had arrived. And he was in jeans, and in a casual jacket, and in what looked like an expensive shirt, and he looked so good, and Sonny was wearing a friggin’ apron. Of course.

“Counselor, hi. Um. Dinner should be ready in, like, 10 minutes. Make yourself at home.”

Barba raised an eyebrow, probably at Sonny’s attire, and he followed Sonny into the kitchen. Sonny figured the counselor wanted to inspect the area, to assess his culinary skills. Indeed, Barba checked on Sonny’s pasta sauce. Sonny felt stupid for being nervous.

Never once losing his sneer, Barba said, “This smells great.”

Sonny considered that a win.

~ ~ ~

Dinner was fun. Amanda was still on bed rest, and Sonny tried to bring her dinner in bed, basically, but she said, “I can walk 10 feet to my kitchen table, Carisi. I won’t break.”

She got up on her own, and Sonny knew she didn’t need much help walking to the kitchen, but he still extended an elbow, and Amanda still took it. It wasn’t always about needing help. Sometimes it was about knowing you have people who want to help you.

They all sat in Amanda’s kitchen, Fin pitching in by setting the table, since he knew where everything was, and they all dug in.

Sonny would be lying if he said he wasn’t watching Barba like a hawk, waiting for Barba to take that first bite, waiting to see if the counselor found his cooking passable, at least.

Sonny would also be lying if he said he didn’t internally flip out when Barba practically moaned after tasting his dish.

“Mm. You weren’t lying, Liv. Carisi can cook. My compliments, detective.”

Whoa. Barba hadn’t only enjoyed Sonny’s cooking. He had verbally expressed his approval.

Huh.

“You never should’ve doubted me, counselor.”

“Or me,” said Olivia pointedly, and Barba smiled.

Barba rarely smiled. Sonny considered that a win too.

~ ~ ~

When it came time for everyone to leave, to let Amanda rest, it became obvious that Benson, Fin and Carisi taking one car up to her place hadn’t been the best idea. As they all stood around on the sidewalk, Barba watching them with a smirk, like he always did, Sonny figured he’d take himself out of the equation.

“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant, I’ll just take the subway.”

“No, come on, Carisi. Rafael, why don’t you drive him home?”

As grateful as Sonny was that Benson was unwittingly doing him a solid, he almost didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to see Barba’s reaction.

“I suppose that’s the least I can do after that dinner. Come on, Carisi. I’ll drive you.”

Sonny tried not to visibly react as they all said their goodbyes, as he followed Barba to his car.

And then, after they had both gotten in the car, Sonny tried not to say something dumb.

Which basically meant that Sonny stayed quiet for, like, 5 full minutes. Staring straight ahead, too. Not daring to even glance at Barba. Not wanting to give himself away.

“Where did you learn to cook like that?”

Sonny narrowed his eyes. Was that a line? Or was Barba just making awkward conversation, because Sonny himself was incapable of making small talk, apparently? Yeah, it was probably the latter.

“My mom. She’s a pretty amazing cook. And none of my sisters ever showed any interest in cooking, so I just absorbed all her wisdom, I guess. Plus, I also get dibs on all her recipes.”

Barba smiled again.

“I wish I had time to cook. This was nice of you, by the way. Tonight. Cooking for Rollins. I hear you do that a lot. Cooking for the squad. That’s… nice.”

Another compliment? Was Sonny dreaming?

“I’m always trying to feed people, I guess. I don’t know why. Thanks, though. It was my pleasure.”

“I’m pretty sure the pleasure was all mine, Carisi. That sauce was delicious.”

This time it was Sonny who smiled.

“Good to hear it, counselor. Um. That’s me. That building over there.”

Sonny could have sworn that Barba looked disappointed as he parked the car. Sonny was disappointed too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spend so much time with Barba without even a hint of an insult.

“So, the Lieutenant said that, if you didn’t like my cooking, you’d never show up again for our family dinners. I hope I didn’t disappoint. You’ll come again, right? We’ll miss you if you don’t. What do you like? I’ll make something specially for you next time.”

Not desperate at all. Good job, Sonny.

Barba gave him a long look.

Sonny waited, but Barba didn’t speak.

The more Barba stayed silent, the more uncomfortable Sonny got, so he figured he’d break the tension the easy way. By leaving.

“Alright, thanks for the ride, couns–”

“Carisi, do you know that Liv invited me tonight because I asked her to?”

“What?”

“I asked her to call me, next time you made one of your dinners.”

“Oh. Cause you heard about my cooking? You should’ve asked, I’d have mad–”

“And do you know that she asked me to drive you home on purpose?”

Sonny gaped. And he was pretty sure he blushed, too.

“Uh. Why?” he asked, not making eye contact.

“Because, and I quote, ‘this kid has a massive crush on you, Rafael. It’s sad.’”

Sonny seriously considered running out of Barba’s car. This wasn’t happening.

He wasn’t about to get mocked by Barba for his feelings. He wasn’t. He wasn’t going to let that happen. Sonny would just apologize, curtly, and then he’d run up to his apartment and break out the scotch. He just hoped Barba would agree to forget about the whole thing.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t know I was that obvious. I’m sorry. I hope we can put this behind us. I hope I haven’t made y–”

“It’s sad that he has no clue that the feeling is mutual. Is what Olivia said. You should tell him, she said. It’d make all our lives easier if you stopped pulling Carisi’s pigtails and admitted you’re attracted to him too. Those were Olivia’s exact words, I believe.”

Sonny’s head snapped up.

Barba was smiling.

“What?”

“Come on, Carisi. Why do you think I’m always being so hard on you?”

“I don’t know, because you’re an asshole?”

Barba grinned. He actually grinned.

“Well, there’s that, too.”

Sonny grinned right back, as Barba leaned in. Closer.

This was happening.

Barba kissed Sonny, and he wasted no time in deepening the kiss, and Sonny tried, very hard, to keep up. Sonny tried to impress Barba with his kissing skills, too. Everything seemed like a test, whenever Sonny was with Barba. Sonny knew that was kind of messed up, he knew it shouldn’t feel good, except it kind of did. Sonny always did like getting praise for being a good boy.

Sonny thought he was doing a pretty good job, going by Barba’s reactions, by Barba’s gentle hums, so he put his arms around Barba’s neck and he started getting even more creative with his tongue.

Barba clearly appreciated that, so Sonny kept going, until Barba chose to put one of his impossibly large hands on Sonny’s inner thigh, at which point Sonny just gave up. He just sat there, and he let Barba kiss him, fondle him. Sonny just hoped he wasn’t moaning too loudly, because that would be embarrassing.

Several minutes later, Barba pulled away. Sonny barely managed not to pinch himself.

Barba was smiling again. There was fondness in his eyes, a fondness Sonny had noticed before, but which he had attributed to wishful thinking.

Barba liked him. ‘The feeling was mutual’. The ‘massive crush’ was mutual.

All this anxiety, for nothing. All of Sonny’s insecurities, unfounded.

Huh.

“If I’d known that all it was gonna take was a home cooked meal, I’d have made you dinner a year ago, counselor.”

Sonny tried to smirk at his own joke, but Barba moved his hand higher, where Sonny was visibly hard, and he squeezed, and Sonny gave up again. And this time he did moan very loudly.

Unlike Sonny, Barba successfully managed to smirk.

“Well, you can make up for that inexcusable delay by making me breakfast tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“When she touched you, you got upset.”

Rafael looks up from his desk. Carisi is frowning.

Carisi, who followed him like a puppy, throughout the trial, is looking at him with concern. Carisi, who followed him to his office afterwards, for some reason, is seeing right through him. Carisi, who was a surprisingly pleasant companion these past few days, is looking at Rafael like he cares. Like he’s not sure if Rafael is OK, after everything.

Rafael is not OK.

“What are you talking about, Carisi?”

“Hector’s mother. When she touched you, when she thanked you. You weren’t expecting it.”

Rafael exhales. He wishes he could go back in time, when he thought Carisi was just a dumb kid. Before he realised Carisi is insightful. Before he realised he’d have to be careful around Carisi, careful about giving himself away.

“Of course I wasn’t expecting it, Carisi. That generosity. That magnanimity. I don’t know if I would have done the same if I were in her shoes.”

Carisi is frowning even harder.

“It wasn’t just generosity, counselor. It was the truth. You did try. Very hard. I saw it firsthand. And I know what I’m talking about.”

Carisi is grinning, now. Setting up a joke for Rafael, giving Rafael the all-clear to tease him.

Carisi really is good with the handholding, it seems. Carisi does always know what to say.

Rafael actually smiles.

For a second.

Rafael realizes that he has spent these past few days smiling at the strange things Carisi says. Smiling at Carisi’s compliments, at Carisi’s little scoffs in response to Rafael’s teasing. Smiling, at the way Carisi frowns when he’s concentrating, when he’s studiously taking notes. Smiling, at the way Carisi’s eyes get crinkly every time Rafael laughs at one of his silly jokes. Smiling at Carisi’s own proud little smile, every time Rafael gives his approval.

Smiling.

Rafael doesn’t remember smiling so much in years.

But Rafael doesn’t smile when he’s alone. When Rafael is alone, he thinks about his mistakes. About the fact he does try, very hard, always, but it’s not always enough.

Rafael doesn’t want to be alone.

Rafael wants to keep smiling.

“Come here, Carisi.”

Carisi’s grin freezes. Carisi is sitting right across from Rafael, a large desk separating them, and he looks confused. He knows Rafael can only mean one thing. He has to know.

“Uh, I am here.”

Rafael is the one grinning now. Because Carisi is blushing. He does know.

And Rafael refuses to get up, kiss Carisi like he wants to. He wants to tease Carisi a little more. It’s amusing.

It’s fun. Rafael needs fun.

“Come here. To me.”

Carisi’s jaw drops.

“Wh…”

“Here. Around the desk. Come. Here.”

Rafael is using his most quiet, most come-hither voice, and Carisi is clearly flustered.

Fun.

Carisi gets up, and his sleeves are rolled up, and he’s not wearing a vest this time, which is good, because there’ll be less fabric separating them, and he looks so hesitant as he steps around the desk and stands next to Rafael.

Rafael turns his chair to the side, his thighs suggestively apart, and faces Sonny. Rafael looks up, right as Sonny is looking down, between Rafael’s legs. It’s only a fleeting look, only lasts for a second, but Rafael notices.

“Come here,” Rafael says.

Carisi doesn’t look hesitant anymore. He’s standing upright. He’s not leaning down.

Rafael raises an eyebrow.

Carisi licks his lips.

Carisi licks his lips, and Rafael feels it in his entire body.

“You come here,” Carisi says, and he looks so cocky, and so Carisi, and Rafael laughs.

He laughs, after the day he’s had.

It feels good.

Rafael feels good.

So he listens to Carisi. After all, Carisi is right pretty often.

Rafael stands up, and he feels Carisi drawing in a breath.

Rafael sees Carisi’s lips, up close, so pink and so full and so enticing.

Carisi is smiling too.

Carisi pulls Rafael in by his suspenders, pulls gently, and it feels so different than what Rafael was expecting. Rafael was expecting youthful passion, eagerness, scrambling for zippers.

There is no scrambling.

Carisi kisses Rafael, softly, and he puts his arms around Rafael, and he’s…

Carisi is holding him. Holding him, kissing him, sweetly.

Rafael can’t help the sound he makes.

Carisi’s right hand goes to the small of his back, fingers spread, warm.

Comforting.

Not what Rafael was expecting at all.

Carisi pulls away, and he’s still smiling.

Carisi’s hand is still on Rafael’s back.

Rafael thinks he should maybe readjust his expectations.

“Thank you,” he says. He feels like he has to say it, again. He wants to thank Carisi. Rafael needed this. A warm touch.

“Don’t thank me yet, counselor,” Carisi replies, and he’s grinning, and he’s getting on his knees, and he is scrambling for Rafael’s zipper after all.

Rafael keeps smiling.

Chapter Text

Carisi is really great with kids.

Amanda knew it. She had seen him with Noah, and she always thought it was sweet, but for some reason it’s different when she’s watching Carisi with her own kid. Or maybe it’s because she’s become a mother, so things like that hit her harder.

She doesn’t know why, but it’s different now.

Carisi is visiting. He’s been visiting a lot. He’s been a good friend, these past 6 weeks. Amanda is going shacky wacky, to put it in his words, and Carisi is always up for breakfast, for lunch, for a walk in the park, every time she calls him.

And Amanda calls him.

A lot.

It’s Amanda’s only excuse to leave the house. Sure, there’s Fin, too, but there’s only so many places you can bring a baby to, and Fin is not really big on those. Carisi doesn’t seem to mind going to all these baby-friendly spots. Amanda thinks he might even enjoy it.

This time, it’s not breakfast or lunch.

This time it’s dinner.

This time Carisi is cooking.

Carisi is cooking, and Amanda is watching from the living room, ready to intervene if he needs any help. He’s cooked in her kitchen before, for the whole squad, so he knows where everything is already, but still, Amanda is watching.

Amanda is watching as Carisi opens her cabinets, uses her knives, stocks up her fridge because “I went grocery shopping anyway, for the ingredients, and I thought I’d get you some stuff to help out”.

Amanda is watching as Carisi cooks like he’s in his own kitchen, and this little friendly gesture feels different too, now. Maybe because it’s just the two of them, for the first time.

Except it’s not just the two of them.

Amanda’s daughter is there too.

Amanda’s daughter is in her arms.

Alive. Healthy. Safe.

Amanda smiles. She has a whole new person there, now.

Jesse.

Her baby. Her child. Amanda is not alone anymore. Her daughter is not alone. Her daughter will never be alone.

“What are you smilin’ at?”

Carisi is grinning at Amanda as he sets down a plate.

Like he doesn’t know.

Amanda has been smiling for 6 weeks now. She’s never felt happier.

She never used to believe in that stuff. She never used to believe that a baby can change you. Maybe because her own family was always messed up. Babies never changed her mother.

Amanda feels changed.

Different.

Everything feels different now.

Brighter.

Speaking of bright, Carisi is still grinning. Amanda wonders if he always had those dimples. She never really noticed before.

Amanda walks over to the kitchen, still holding little Jesse.

Amanda has some trouble with separation. She wants to keep holding her baby all the time, which might be weird, but it’s still early days. Amanda is sure she’ll eventually reach a point where she can set her baby down without getting nervous.

“Thanks for cooking, Carisi. You didn’t have to. We could’ve ordered something.”

Amanda feels guilty, sometimes, because she’s taking Carisi away from his books, away from studying, but she also feels grateful for a home cooked meal that she doesn’t have to make herself, so she’s conflicted.

“No, come on. That’s the whole point. That’s why I came over. To make you a real meal. Something healthy. Nutritious. You need energy. You can’t live on take-out, not when you got this little one right here, wearing you out every day!”

Amanda smiles as Carisi takes Jesse from her hands. Jesse goes willingly. Amanda would feel a little betrayed, but Carisi taught her that ‘bouncing from your knees’ thing and it’s been a lifesaver, so Amanda just smiles.

Carisi coos at the baby, and then he coos some more, and Jesse stays perfectly quiet. A little angel. Amanda would feel a little betrayed by that too, but she’s finally managed to perfect the way she holds Jesse in order to stop the fussing, so Amanda just smiles.

Carisi walks to the living room and sets Jesse down in her little bassinet. Amanda got a portable one, so she can have it in the room with her, wherever she is. That’s normal. Right? She’ll get over it.

Right?

Amanda notices it’s gotten a little chilly, and she’s about to get up again and get a blanket, when she sees Carisi is already on it.

“Hey, are you cold, Jesse? Here. Let me warm you right up.”

Carisi takes one of Jesse’s little baby blankets and carefully drapes it over her, arranging it neatly, until she looks nice and warm. Carisi tickles Jesse’s tummy until she lets out a little happy gurgle.

Amanda keeps smiling.

Carisi is smiling too, as he returns to the table.

They start eating, and it’s delicious. Carisi isn’t just great with kids, he’s a great cook, too. He’ll make someone a great husband, Amanda thinks, and then she can’t help a snort. Where did that come from?

“It’s good to see you smiling so much.”

Amanda smiles yet again at Carisi’s comment. He’s not wrong. She doesn’t think she’s smiled this much in years.

If ever.

“I got Jesse to thank.”

Carisi smiles too, but then he starts looking hesitant.

“So, hey, Amanda, you’re coming back, right? Because Dodds was saying some stuff, about… And I know that’s bullsh… I mean it’s crap, uh, it’s nonsense…”

Amanda laughs as Carisi stammers.

“She’s 6 weeks old, Carisi. It’s not like she’s gonna hear you and then her first word is gonna be ‘bullshit’. But what about Dodds? What did he say?”

Amanda is not surprised. She was expecting this. Someone questioning her ability to be a cop now that she’s a mom.

“No, I mean, he was asking if you were even gonna come back, now that you have Jesse. I told him he doesn’t know you, not like we do. I told him there’s no way you’re not coming back. You were born for this. To be a cop. But I just… I wanted to make sure.”

Amanda nods.

Carisi is sweet. He’s always been sweet to her. To everybody. But to her, in particular. She’s not a sentimental person, but she’s never going to forget his little speech when she was in the hospital. When she broke down in front of him. Hormonal. Scared.

‘There is nothing that you can’t handle’.

She thinks about that, sometimes, when she’s feeling stressed. There’s nothing she can’t handle. One day at a time, and it’ll all be fine.

“Hell yeah I’m coming back, Carisi. Or, wait, heck yeah.”

Carisi’s face is all dimples.

“Good. I think you’ll be an even better cop now. Being a mom, it’ll be good for you. More empathy, you know? I mean, look at Liv.”

Amanda exhales.

She likes that Carisi looks up to her. To Liv, too. He had his issues in the beginning, but that’s one thing he never got wrong. Respect. Amanda is glad she never had to prove herself to him, just because she happens to be a woman. She’s glad she won’t have to prove herself again, just because she happens to have a kid now. Not to Carisi. Not to Fin. She’s glad not everyone is like Dodds.

“Why don’t you have a kid, Carisi? Maybe you’ll become a better cop, too.”

Carisi laughs, but his eyes yet a little wistful.

“I wanna. Someday. When the time is right. When the person’s right. I mean, I look at my niece, I look at your daughter. They’re… Kids, they’re something else.”

Amanda agrees. Amanda never knew how true that was bef-

“Hey, wait, what do you mean? Like fatherhood is my only shot at becoming a better cop? And here I thought I was improving, Rollins.”

Delayed reaction. Carisi is funny when he wants to, but he’s even funnier when he doesn’t mean to be.

“You are. You’re a good cop, Carisi. A good partner.”

Carisi smiles. That’s not all he is, though.

“A good friend, too. You’ve been great, these 6 weeks. Thank you.”

Carisi nods. His smile looks sweeter than usual.

“It’s been a pleas-”

Jesse starts crying.

Amanda doesn’t even get a chance to stand up.

“Wait, I got this.”

Amanda knows he does.

Carisi walks over to the bassinet. Jesse’s blanket is gone. Frannie pulled it off, and is happily chewing on it in the corner. That’s one thing Carisi doesn’t know about Amanda’s place. To keep all fabric at a safe distance from the floor, because Frannie will pull at anything that’s hanging loose.

“Hey, Jesse, hey. Did Frannie take your blanket? It’s okay. I’ll get you another one.”

Carisi picks up another blanket from the couch and covers the baby again.

“Here you go! What, Frannie wanted the blanket all to herself? She won’t share? Frannie doesn’t know that sharing is caring, okay? Here. I’ll share the blankets with you.”

Amanda watches.

Carisi is really great with kids.

She doesn’t know why, but it’s different now.

Chapter Text

“Can I kiss you?”

Sonny almost spills his beer.

They’re sitting in a corner booth at the bar, and Barba is right next to him, a little too close now that Sonny thinks about it, and they have been drinking for a while, long enough for all the others to have left over an hour ago, and Sonny laments the fact Rollins has a baby now, because she always used to hang back and drink with him whenever they dealt with a particularly difficult case, and now she’s on maternity leave and Sonny is on his own, except he’s not, because Barba is there drinking with him, and wait, what?

“Excuse me, counselor?”

“Can I kiss you?”

Sonny is too drunk for this.

Barba, too. Clearly. Barba is staring at Sonny’s lips. He’s talking to Sonny and he won’t even make eye contact. He’s just staring at Sonny’s lips. Sonny licks them instinctively, uneasy from all the attention, and Barba visibly reacts when he sees Sonny’s tongue.

Barba sighs, probably louder than he intended, and he inches even closer.

Sonny can feel Barba’s thigh right up against his.

Pressing.

Warm.

“No?”

Sonny wishes he sounded more convincing.

Barba finally looks up, into Sonny’s eyes.

“Why not?”

Sonny doesn’t really have an answer. Not one that he can articulate after the amount of beer he’s had.

“Why not? How about why?”

“We had a long day. A tough case. You have nice lips. I’m drunk.”

Sonny waits for Barba to somehow bring all those random, individual points together, to shape them into a coherent argument as to why they should kiss.

That doesn’t happen.

That’s it.

That’s Barba’s argument.

It’s not a bad one, if Sonny is honest.

Sonny is trying very hard not to be honest.

If Sonny was really being honest, he’d have his hand down Barba’s pants already.

Still. Sonny is considering it, especially after what happened. After Liv was almost hurt, a bullet whizzing way too close to her head for comfort, and Sonny knows, Sonny knows the snipers are pros and he knows Liv positioned herself in a way that gave them a clean shot, Sonny knows all this but he still got worried and he’s still rattled and he could use a good make-out session to end this day on a high.

Maybe it won’t be just making out. If only Sonny can convince Barba. If he can prove he’d be worth Barba’s while. Sonny licks his lips again, to make sure they’re nice and soft. Barba did ask for a kiss. Maybe he’ll ask for more, if Sonny plays his cards right. Maybe Barba will want to feel Sonny’s lips on other parts of his body, too.

Barba reacts again, his eyes fixated on Sonny’s mouth.

Barba exhales as he puts his arm around Sonny. It’s still resting on the seat, but Sonny can feel it almost touching his back.

Sonny knows it’s not the best idea to do this with Barba. With someone he cares about. He knows he’d be better off picking up a stranger, someone he’s never met before.

Sonny knows that.

But Barba asked and Sonny can’t say no.

Not convincingly.

“Okay, counselor.”

Barba smiles.

It’s a drunk, sloppy, happy, smile.

“Good.”

Barba slides close, even closer, his body moving in a way Sonny has never seen before.

Barba moves assertively, suggestively, seductively, as he invades Sonny’s space.

Barba puts his hand directly on Sonny’s back now, and it’s almost like an embrace, it’s almost like Sonny is engulfed by Barba’s arms, like Sonny could just burrow his head into Barba’s chest and stay there for a few minutes, until he shakes that horrible feeling from before.

Sonny knows this is a bad idea.

Sonny doesn’t care.

Barba licks his own lips, as he keeps staring at Sonny’s.

Sonny suddenly begins to wonder if they should be doing this at a bar they frequent. At a cop bar, no less. Barba doesn’t exactly have the best reputation among cops. He can’t afford to be giving them reasons to gossip even more about him. Maybe Barba is too drunk to worry about that, but Sonny isn’t.

“You really think we should be doing this here?”

Barba finally looks away, finally takes his eyes off Sonny’s lips and looks around.

“Oh. Right. We can go someplace else, somewhere nearby, but you have to make it quick. Before I change my mind.”

Sonny thinks Barba has some nerve.

“Really, Barba? You asked me. If anything, you should be worrying about me changing my mind.”

Barba smirks. He does not look worried in the least.

He just looks far sexier than he has any right to be, especially in his state of inebriation.

“Get up, Carisi.”

Sonny hates how quickly he gets up.

They put on their coats, and Sonny tries not to react as Barba puts a hand on the small of his back, to usher him along.

They leave the bar, and Sonny tries not to think about what they’re doing. He tries not to think about the fact they’re basically looking for a make-out spot.

Barba keeps glancing at Sonny as they walk. Barba is still smiling, but there’s an edge to it. Sonny hopes Barba doesn’t make fun of him and ruin the moment. Sonny hopes he can have this one good thing. He needs it, after the day he’s had.

Sonny winces. Sonny feels guilty. He keeps thinking that. Sonny keeps thinking he had a bad day. But he didn’t. Sonny wasn’t the one having the bad day. Sonny wasn’t the one with a gun to his head.

Liv was. Liv almost died, Liv had to listen as a young girl was being raped, Liv had to save herself, save the day, as Sonny was watching from the sidelines and panicking, as Sonny was helples-

“Okay, you’re the cop, Carisi. Where can we go and not get caught? I assume my car is a bad idea.”

Sonny misses making out in cars. That’s the one thing he misses about Staten Island. The one thing he doesn’t like about Manhattan. He walks everywhere now, and so does everybody else, and it’s just not the same.

Then again, Barba does have a car. Ideally, Sonny would suggest taking a drive somewhere, but he doesn’t think Barba would be up for that. Barba is clearly looking for something quick and dirty.

Sonny doesn’t mind. He doesn’t even want to imagine what that car ride would be like.

Awkwardly silent, probably. Silently awkward.

“A couple of blocks away, there’s a Vietnamese restaurant. This time of night, the back exit should be empty. It’s pretty dark. No foot traffic.”

Barba nods as he follows Sonny.

Eagerly.

Sonny is still trying to reconcile “Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba”, the stern prosecutor who is basically his role model, with “blowsy drunk Rafael Barba” who is smiley and sexy and into making out in dark street corners.

Barba takes Sonny by the hand as soon as he sees the dark corner in question. Barba is practically dragging Sonny, eager, still, so eager, and Sonny holds on to Barba’s hand for a few seconds too long, because he always has to make things weird, apparently. Barba chuckles but he doesn’t actually say anything.

Sonny is grateful.

Barba pushes Sonny against the wall, and he snakes his arms around Sonny’s waist, underneath Sonny’s coat, under Sonny’s jacket, and Sonny is happy not to be wearing a vest because there’s nothing but a flimsy shirt separating Barba’s hands from his skin.

Barba’s hands feel so large on Sonny’s sides.

Sonny watches as Barba looks up at him. Barba looks up, at Sonny’s eyes, strangely, not at Sonny’s lips, and Sonny wants to touch but he doesn’t want to make things even weirder by, like, caressing Barba’s jaw, so he just puts his hands on Barba’s shoulders.

“We’re not at your junior prom, Carisi.”

Sonny snorts.

This is better.

This is helping.

“You actually remind me a little of my English teacher. He used to give me detention all the time. I always had a crush on him.”

Barba smiles as he pulls Sonny closer.

They’re chest to chest, now. Sonny can feel Barba breathing.

Sonny puts his arms around Barba’s neck, instead.

Sonny wants to pet Barba’s hair, but he doesn’t.

Sonny needs to play it cool. He can’t come off as too affectionate. He shouldn’t. This is nothing. A dirty kiss with a colleague in the early hours of the morning, after a bad day. This is stress relief. Sonny can’t show how much he cares about Barba. About Liv. About all his colleagues.

Sonny knows the others don’t care half as much about him as he does about them. Sonny knows that. Sonny knows that, if anything happened to him, no one would be panicking as they frantically tried to rescue him. Barba sure as hell wouldn’t worry. Barba would probably think SVU would be better off without Sonny. Maybe they would be.

Sure, they’d all want Sonny to be safe, just like they want everybody to be safe. Every random stranger. But they wouldn’t worry. They wouldn’t worry about Sonny, about what happened to him. They wouldn’t care if Sonny lived or died.

Sonny knows that.

It still doesn’t stop him from caring.

“I don’t have all night, Carisi.”

Oh.

That’s right.

Quick and dirty.

Sonny licks his lips again, on purpose, and Barba presses even closer.

“Alright, alright, counselor. You just gotta promise me one thing. That you still won’t respect me in the morning.”

Barba chuckles.

“I respect you, Carisi.”

Sonny winces.

“No need to sweet talk me, counselor. I already said yes.”

Barba tears his eyes away from Sonny’s lips again.

“No. I do. You really… Look, I saw you today, with Liv. After it all ended. You were… you were very supportive. I mean, I knew that. That’s why I sent you to… To Dolores, remember? You’re a supportive guy. But with Liv, you were… You were sweet.

“And you were worried. That surprised me. The concern you showed, I wasn’t expecting it. You don’t see that a lot. Not from cops. Not to other cops. Normally it’s all bluster and macho bullshit. You’re kind, Carisi. You’re not like them. I respect that. I respect you.”

Sonny nods.

Sonny has moved on from wanting to stick his hand down Barba’s pants to wanting to get on his knees, to better thank the counselor for such praise.

Praise, as long as Sonny doesn’t think about Barba’s words too closely. ‘You’re not like them’. Like the other cops. Sonny knows that too. Sonny knows he’s not cop material, he knows he’s n-

“Now, are we making out or what?”

Sonny nods again.

Before Barba changes his mind.

Sonny leans in and takes Barba’s bottom lip between his own, sucks on it, just for a second. One small kiss, to start with, and then Sonny pulls back, ever so slightly. That’s Sonny’s signature move. A tease.

Barba digs his fingers into Sonny’s ribcage and moves in for a second kiss, mouth open, tongue licking at Sonny’s lips.

Barba is impatient.

Or maybe Sonny’s slow and teasing style is best suited for romantic dates, not random make-out sessions out on the street.

Sonny adjusts his technique accordingly. Sonny opens his mouth too, feels Barba’s tongue brushing against his, and the kiss gets deep, and Barba starts moaning, and Sonny is valiantly trying not to rub his crotch against Barba’s, because he doesn’t know if that’s part of the deal.

It is.

Barba’s hands slide down to Sonny’s ass. Barba tugs, roughly, until they make contact, until Sonny starts grinding, until they’re both grinding, and kissing, fast, deep, all tongues, breathing heavily, humming and moaning and hard.

Sonny’s hands are on Barba’s head. On Barba’s hair. This is Sonny’s one chance to feel Barba’s ass, Barba’s body, and Sonny is playing with the hairs on the nape of Barba’s neck.

Sonny tries not to dwell on that.

Sonny just kisses Barba. More.

More.

Minutes go by.

The kiss should be winding down, but it’s not.

More.

Barba’s hands are still on Sonny’s ass, kneading. Barba is hard where he’s pressed against Sonny’s hip.

It’s dirty, but it’s not quick.

More.

They keep kissing, and Sonny is ashamed to admit that, if this were to last a few more minutes, he could probably come. He hopes that doesn’t happen, because he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he came in his pants as Barba was kissing him, but he r-

“Can you come like this?”

Sonny’s hips jerk at the sound of Barba’s voice.

At Barba’s words.

Barba keeps kissing Sonny as he reaches for Sonny’s belt, as he lowers Sonny’s zipper.

Sonny focuses on kissing back.

Sonny focuses on not answering.

Barba wraps his hand around Sonny, starts stroking, tugging, moves a little to the side.

“Just don’t get anything on my suit.”

Sonny nods.

Sonny nods as he keeps kissing Barba, his hands now on Barba’s face.

Sonny can’t help it. He needs the contact. He needs some affection. Even if he’s the one showing it. He needs something sweet. Something nice.

Sonny does caress Barba’s jaw, after all. Barba’s cheeks. Barba’s stubble. He hates how shaky his hands are, how gentle. This isn’t about that. He should be groping Barba. He should be pushing and pulling. Sonny always has to make things weird by caring. Sonny is too nice. He’s not tough enough, he’s n-

Barba pulls away.

Of course.

Sonny tries to zip himself up. He hopes he’ll still be able to face Barba the next morn-

“What are you doing, Carisi?”

Barba bats Sonny’s hands away, pulls Sonny out again.

Barba kneels on the grimy sidewalk, and Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

“You’re paying for my dry cleaning.”

Sonny nods. It’s all he seems to be doing. He thinks it best not to talk.

Barba puts his hands on Sonny’s hips and he pulls Sonny closer, again.

Barba leans in and takes Sonny in his mouth.

Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

Sonny is gonna come.

Barba takes him in, deep, and it feels amazing, and Sonny knows, Sonny knows it means nothing and Sonny knows he should be grabbing Barba’s head and holding him there, holding him down, pushing inside, shoving, quick and dirty, but he can’t do that.

Sonny just places his hands on the top of Barba’s head, fingers teasing Barba’s hair. Sonny’s hips are moving so leisurly they might as well be still.

Barba looks up.

Sonny can barely look down, Sonny can barely look at Barba’s lips stretched around him without coming.

Barba is gentle, too.

Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

Barba moves his head back and forth, licking at Sonny, slowly, his tongue soft and warm, licking, slowly, sucking, almost tenderly, and Sonny can’t handle it.

Sonny tries to pull Barba off.

Barba won’t budge. He just strokes Sonny a little with his hand.

“Come on, Carisi. I can take it.”

Maybe Barba can, but Sonny can’t.

Barba strokes Sonny with his hand before diving in again, sucking Sonny, still so softly, and on any other night that wouldn’t be enough, but on this night it’s just what Sonny needs.

Sonny thrusts slowly, once, twice.

Sonny moans.

Barba moans louder, as his thumb rubs small circles on Sonny’s right hip.

Sonny comes, down Barba’s throat.

Sonny is panting.

Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

Barba swallows, Barba licks him clean, so gently, Barba tucks him in, zips him up.

Barba leans on Sonny for support as he gets up.

They’re face to face now.

Sonny knows he must look totally confused.

Sonny can feel himself frowning.

Sonny needs to repay the favor. That’s how this works. That’s why Barba did it in the first place.

Sonny reaches for Barba’s zipper, reaches down, squeezes, and realizes Barba is half-hard at best.

Of course.

Barba couldn’t stay hard, he probably had to force himself to go down on Sonny, hoping to get head in return, and Sonny needs to repay the favor, soon, Sonny needs to make this worth whil-

“It’s okay. I already took care of it.”

Sonny frowns even deeper.

“What?”

Barba raises an eyebrow, like Sonny is a complete dumbass for even asking.

Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

Barba jerked off? With Sonny in his mouth? Was Sonny so far gone that he didn’t even notice what was most definitely the sexiest thing to ever happen in his presence?

Actually, that sounds about right.

Barba frowns too.

“Why the long face, Carisi? The whole point of this was to cheer you up.”

Sonny doesn’t know what’s happening.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were upset. I thought I’d cheer you up.”

Sonny doesn’t understand.

“All day, Carisi. You’ve been sad. Over what happened. I know you’re attached to Liv. You admire her. You care about her. I know you got scared. I don’t blame you. I got scared too. Why do you think I spent the night drinking with you? Why do you think I stayed, after everyone left?”

Sonny stares.

Barba stares back.

“What? I just thought this would cheer you up. Make your day. Your week. Hell, your year. Evidently I was wrong. Maybe I overestimated my skills.”

Barba is fishing for compliments.

Sonny does not comment on Barba’s skills.

Sonny is still too confused.

“I’m just trying to understand, counselor. You wanted to cheer me up, so you did this? What made you think I would…”

Sonny stops talking.

Barba is smirking.

Sonny never should have started talking in the first place.

This, Sonny’s unfinished sentence, Barba’s smirk, this is the closest either of them has ever gotten to openly acknowledging Sonny’s blatantly, pathetically obvious crush.

This is not good.

Sonny needs to joke his way out of this.

Sonny needs to leave.

“Alright, counselor. Consider this a success. You made my week. Thank you.”

Barba narrows his eyes, as soon as Sonny says 'week’.

As if Sonny would stroke Barba’s ego. As if Sonny would say that Barba made his year.

As if Sonny would tell the truth.

Barba is clearly trying to suss Sonny out.

Sonny tries not to smirk.

Sonny smirks.

“Okay, fine, maybe you made my month.”

Barba chuckles.

That I believe.”

He doesn’t. Clearly. Barba can clearly see through Sonny’s joke, but he doesn’t call Sonny out on the lie.

Sonny is grateful.

“Okay. I gotta g-”

“You made my, uh, let’s say my week, too, detective.”

Sonny didn’t even do anything.

“I did?”

Barba stops smirking.

“You’re not the only one who needed this tonight. The only one who could use… Who could use a kiss.”

Oh.

Suddenly it all makes sense. Why it wasn’t quick and dirty. Why Barba took his sweet time. This wasn’t just about Sonny. Maybe it wasn’t about Sonny at all. Maybe Sonny was just there.

Sonny hates to admit it, but that explains everything.

This, this was about comfort.

For Barba.

For Sonny, too, but that was more like collateral comfort.

Sonny doesn’t even mind. It’s more than Sonny ever expected.

“Okay. I’m happy to hear that. That I could help. Thank y… Uh.”

“You already thanked me, Carisi.”

“Yeah. You’re right. Goodnight, counselor.”

Barba tugs at Sonny’s elbow, stopping him. Barba looks at Sonny intently.

Barba is still trying to suss him out.

“Are you going to be okay?”

Sonny would smile if could muster up the energy. Barba does care, a little bit. Barba cares about Sonny getting home safely. That’s something.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get home just fine. I’m not that drunk. Well, I am that drunk, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the balls to do this, but yeah, I’m f-”

Barba scoffs.

“That’s not what I mean, Carisi. Are you going to be okay after what happened? Today? To Liv? You haven’t been with SVU that long. You haven’t… You’re not used to this. Obviously. That’s fine. I wasn’t used to it either, before… before certain things happened. Things I’m glad you didn’t have to live through.

"I know this can take a toll. And you, you’re always so upbeat and you smile all the time, and you haven’t smiled all day. All night. Not a real smile. Not even after what was probably the best blowjob of your life.”

Sonny has to smile at that.

He does.

Sonny smiles for the first time that day. He’s shocked Barba would even notice something like that. He’s shocked Barba would actively try to make him smile.

For Sonny, this, this joke, this is more intimate than the blowjob itself.

Barba smiles back, but there’s something somber in his expression.

“Are you okay, Carisi?”

Sonny stops smiling.

Sonny feels like crying.

He won’t.

Not in front of Barba, anyway.

Sonny is not okay.

Sonny hates how much these incidents affect him. He hates seeing people he cares about going through so much. Liv. Amanda. Sonny is trying to look the part, he’s trying to appear calm and collected, and he does, he manages to get the job done, he manages to be a good cop, but he still breaks and he still shows too much emotion and sometimes he thinks this isn’t the right job for him.

Sometimes Sonny thinks he’s still too young and too inexperienced and it’ll get better, but he doesn’t know if he even wants the experience. It’s too much, sometimes. Sometimes Sonny th-

“I’ll take that as a no. Come on. You’re coming home with me.”

Sonny probably looks really surprised.

Or really excited.

He’s not sure.

Either way, his expression amuses Barba.

“Not like that, Carisi. You’re sleeping on the couch. I… I don’t want to go back to an empty apartment either. Like I said, you’re not the only one who was affected. The only one who could use… whatever this is. Companionship.”

Sonny nods.

Sonny starts walking, follows Barba to his car. They walk side by side, their shoulders brushing every few feet.

Companionship.

Barba keeps glancing at Sonny as they walk. He’s smiling again. This time, there’s no edge to it. This time there’s softness in his eyes.

Maybe Sonny isn’t the only one who cares.

Barba cared enough to ask.

Barba cares enough to be there.

Barba is worried about him.

That’s something.

It’s more than Sonny ever expected.

Sonny takes Barba’s hand in his.

Sonny doesn’t speak. He just keeps walking as he holds Barba’s hand. Sonny hopes Barba won’t pull it away. Sonny knows it’s stupid, he knows he’s not a kid, he knows he’s way too old to be needing reassurance the way that he does. Sonny is a cop, he knows he shouldn’t need anybody to make him feel safe.

Sonny knows that.

Normally, he doesn’t need anybody.

Tonight he does.

Tonight, Sonny just needs something nice.

Barba does not pull his hand away.

Barba does stop glancing at Sonny. Barba keeps walking, head facing forward.

Sonny is grateful.

He doesn’t want to make eye contact with Barba right now. He just wants to feel Barba next to him.

He does.

Closer.

Barba is walking closer to Sonny, now. Their shoulders are touching with each step they take.

Barba squeezes Sonny’s hand with his fingers.

Chapter Text

“You did good, Carisi.”

Sonny smirks.

Sonny knows that Barba only ever praises him when he’s done especially well. And Sonny did, he played off of Barba perfectly, just like they practiced, he was quick to answer, he used his answers to set up Barba’s next questions, and he even managed to use Barba’s assist to help their case after it briefly seemed like Buchanan had gotten the upper hand.

“Thanks, counselor. We make a pretty good team.”

Barba stops walking.

Barba stops walking and looks at Sonny, condescension in his eyes.

“Sure. We’re a team. I tell you what to say, and you say it. Your input is invaluable.”

Sonny smirks as Barba starts moving again.

Sonny knows Barba is only teasing him. Sonny doesn’t know why Barba bothers. He doesn’t know why someone as serious, as focused as Barba would go out of his way to always tease someone unimportant like Sonny.

Sonny doesn’t know why Barba doesn’t just ignore him, why Barba makes it a point to bust his chops every time they see each other. Sonny doesn’t get the point of Barba’s jokes, but he does enjoy them, so he refuses to overthink it.

They arrive at Barba’s office. Barba is walking ahead, but Sonny takes advantage of his long legs and leaps ahead to hold the door open.

Barba scoffs but doesn’t say anything.

There’s a piece of what appears to be coffee cake on Barba’s desk, neatly set out on a small plate.

Maybe Carmen put it there. Maybe Barba asked for it, Sonny thinks, maybe as a treat after a good day in court. Sure, the day isn’t over yet, court’s only in recess, but you gotta celebrate while you can. You gotta take the wins wherever you can.

Sonny knows that very well.

Sonny likes the idea that somebody as bitter as Barba wants to have something sweet waiting for him after a long day. Sonny finds that endearing.

“You needed something sweet, counselor?”

Barba looks up as he’s pouring himself a cup of coffee. He didn’t even offer any to Sonny. Probably a hint that Sonny should leave.

“Why are you still here, Carisi? You already got your compliment. And we already played our little game. ‘Am I right, counselor?’, 'You’re a dumbass, detective.’ What more could you possibly need from me?”

Sonny snorts.

Barba is right. Sonny has no business being in Barba’s office. None that Barba is aware of, at least.

Sonny does have a reason for being there, of course. Sonny wants to talk. And Barba is clearly impatient, so Sonny skips the intro he had prepared and just cuts to the chase.

“Counselor, can I ask you something?”

Barba stares.

“It won’t take long. I promise. I just need some advice. Please. Hey, how about I make you a coffee cake. To thank you. Mine’s way better than store-bought.”

Barba actually perks up at that, his eyes lighting up, before he catches himself and goes back to his usual frown.

Sonny grins again. So, the counselor has a sweet tooth. Sonny is already going through recipes in his mind. Maybe he can finagle another shot at shadowing Barba.

Barba nods, clearly despite himself.

“What do you want, detective?”

“Well, you saw Calhoun, now that she’s helping the victim, for once. You saw how different she’s acting. Because this isn’t just about money. She believes in what she’s doing. That, that’s meaningful. I’d like to do that. I’ve been looking into victim advocacy. I think that would allow me to use what I’ve learned at SVU. And… And it might be a better fit for me. For my personality. Being there for the victims. Speaking for them. Supporting them. Standing up for them. I think I can do that.

"But then, I see you, and you’re a prosecutor, and you help put these monsters away, and I wanna do that too. I mean, I’m already doing it, but as a cop. I just arrest them but then it’s out of my hands. You go up there, and you do your magic, and you make it stick. You put them away for good.

"I don’t know. Becoming a defense attorney, that’s out. I could never do that. Not that there aren’t good ones out there, or people who need them. And everyone  does have the right to a defense, I know that, but it’s not for me. I think.

"I guess what I’m saying is that I’m confused? You know me, counselor. A little, at least. What do you think I should do? What do you think I’d be good at? And don’t say 'nothing’. Spare me the jokes, this once, okay?”

Barba looks genuinely taken aback.

“You… You don’t want to be a detective anymore?”

Sonny shakes his head noncommittally. He hasn’t officially made the decision, not yet, but he’s considering it very seriously. That’s why he’s asking for Barba’s input. He’s about to start explaining when he sees Barba pouring him a cup of coffee before sitting down.

They’ll have a conversation, then.

Sonny smiles and takes a seat across from Barba.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, ever since I graduated. I’m about to take the bar exam, I’ve been studying for months. If I get my license, I’ll have to consider my options, you know? Don’t get me wrong, I love working at SVU. I love you guys. Um.”

Barba raises an eyebrow.

Sonny powers through his embarrassment.

“Not you, obviously. But the guys. At the precinct. I love it there. I’m just not sure if this, being a cop, I’m not sure if this the best thing for me. Maybe I could be better at something else.”

Barba doesn’t speak for a few moments.

Barba is frowning.

Sonny reaches over the desk and steals a small piece of Barba’s cake.

Barba doesn’t even notice.

That’s no fun. Sonny only did it because he thought Barba might slap his hand away.

“You are good at this, though. You’re a good cop. You know that, right?”

Sonny widens his eyes.

“Uh, I do know that. I just didn’t know you did.”

Barba smiles for a second, before he starts frowning again.

“I do. I just never tell you, because complimenting people is not my style. But you are a good detective. And I don’t put the criminals away by myself. You help. All of you. All the police officers. Not just with the busts. With your testimony.

"You, especially, Carisi. You’re the easiest to work with. You understand the law. The technicalities most other cops ignore. I don’t have to explain myself, when I prep you. I don’t have to convince you to say something, I don’t have to warn you off saying something potentially damaging. Even on the spot, where you’re on the stand, you’re able to pick up on my cues. Like you did today. You get it.”

Sonny doesn’t get it, actually. Doesn’t get Barba’s point. This has to be a backhanded compliment. There has to be a hidden insult somewhere. Right?

“Wait a minute, counselor. Are you just saying that to stop me from becoming a lawyer? 'Cause I’ll sully the profession just by getting my license?”

Barba smiles, his smile lasting a little longer this time.

“I’m just saying that you’ve finally stopped being a naive know-it-all, for the most part, and you’ve somehow managed to fit in, and Liv is always telling me how much you’ve improved, how much she trusts you now, and it’d be a shame to see you waste all this progress. That’s all.”

Sonny appreciates hearing that, he really does, but he still doesn’t get it, so he tries another joke.

“Wait. So you’re saying this 'cause you don’t want me to leave? 'Cause you’re gonna miss me? I mean, I always knew I was your favorite, I just didn’t know you liked me that much. I’ll miss you too, Barba.”

Sonny has already started laughing, expecting a nice, juicy jab from Barba, because Sonny is a masochist and he loves setting himself up for abuse.

Barba doesn’t oblige him.  

Barba isn’t laughing. Barba isn’t smiling.

Sonny’s joke hit a little too close to home, he supposes.

Barba will miss him.

Sonny stops laughing too.

“You really are gonna miss me, aren’t you? Wow. Listen, I’ll bake you a whole cake before I leave. A legit cake. Like, 4 tiers. Not the skimpy crap that passes for cake at bakeries.”

Barba still doesn’t smile. Sonny is surprised. He really thought the cake thing would at least get a smil-

“Don’t leave.”

Barba actually looks concerned.

“What?”

“Don’t leave, Carisi. Stay.”

Sonny gapes.

“Uh.”

“If you’re gone, who am I going to insult when I need a pick-me-up?”

Sonny isn’t sure what’s happening, but he knows a joke when he hears one, so he smiles.

“No one? Like most professionals at the work place, who don’t go around dissing their colleagues? I mean, personally I don’t mind. Hell, maybe I even like it a little, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. I can shrug it off, but a less confident individual might actually be offended.”

Barba slides his plate closer to Sonny. He did notice.

Sonny reaches for more cake.

Sonny is confused.

Barba is still frowning.

“If you’re gone, who, uh… Who’s going to make sure the SVU detectives have a warrant before performing their searches? You and I both know Liv and Fin play it fast and loose with the legalities. You’re the one always pushing for a warrant. Thinking ahead. Thinking about me. Making sure the evidence is admissible. Making sure the cases stick. Making my job easier.”

Sonny is very confused.

“So I should stay at SVU because I make your job easier? And because you like calling me names? That’s your advice? Duly noted, counselor. For future reference, when somebody asks you for advice, maybe think about them for a second and not yourself.”

Barba’s frown gets deeper.

“No. Of course. You, uh, you’d make a great victims advocate, Carisi. You care about people. That’s obvious. People open up to you. You know how to endear yourself to them. To put them at ease. You’re kind. You’re protective. That will help, with skittish victims.

"With children, too. You might want to consider that skill of yours in particular. And you have law enforcement experience. And your law degree, now. All that, you could really put it to good use in victim advocacy.”

Oh.

Sonny nods.

Sonny knows his strengths. His weaknesses, too. He’s been making pros and cons lists for months now, and he’s considered all of this. Still, it’s different hearing it from somebody like Barba, who is definitely more objective when it comes t-

“I don’t know if you’d make a good prosecutor, to be honest. I don’t think you’re cutthroat enough. And, like I said, you care about people. That’s not really an asset in our line of work.”

Sonny smirks.

“Must be why you’re so great at it.”

Barba smiles.

Barba’s smiles don’t seem to last for more than a few seconds.

“When… When are you thinking of leaving us?”

No snappy comeback? Sonny is disappointed. Where’s Barba’s sass? And leaving 'us’? What’s Barba’s angle?

“The bar exam is in a month. I’ll wait for the results and, you know. I’ll make my decision.”

Barba takes a sip of his coffee.  

Sonny figures that’s his cue, so he tries to get up, but not before thanking B-

“I will miss you.”

Sonny isn’t sure if that’s a joke.

“Are you messing with me, counselor? Or are you serious? I can’t tell. If you’re messing with me, ha ha. If you’re actually gonna miss me though, 'cause somehow you don’t totally hate me, 'cause I amuse you or something, in that case, thanks. I’ll miss you too. Really. I always liked you, despite… despite everything. I admire you. It’s been an honor working with you. I learned a lot.”

Sonny thinks he laid it on a little too thick, but oh well. The sentiment is genuine. Barba probably was joking, but Sonny saw an opportunity and he took it. He’s wanted to say this for a long time. This, the possibility of him leaving, this gives him an excuse.

Barba is frowning yet again.

“Are we saying our goodbyes, already?”

Sonny feels a knot in his stomach, for some reason. Just at the thought of that. He was never good with goodbyes. And he’s had to say a lot of them.

“Nah. I told you, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Not a hundred percent. And, come on, I said I’ll bake you a cake for the official goodbye. What do you like? How 'bout red velvet? That’s my specialty.”

“Don’t leave, Carisi.”

That’s definitely not a joke.

Sonny is out of jokes too.

“Why not?”

Barba stares.

Barba has crumbled up what’s left of his cake into tiny pieces, and now he’s working on shredding his napkin. Sonny doesn’t think Barba is even aware of what he’s doing.

Barba exhales.

“Because Manhattan SVU would be boring without you. Because teasing you is one of the few things that I enjoy. Because you make my workdays fun.”

Sonny smiles.

Barba will miss their back-and-forth. Barba likes it. Finds it enjoyable.

Sonny always suspected as much. He always thought Barba derived some enjoyment out of their interactions. It’s the only thing that explains why Barba keeps playing along, why he keeps up with their 'little games’, more than a year in.

“Thinking about yourself again? You want me to stay 'cause mocking me is your favorite hobby? 'Cause you’re gonna miss making fun of me? That’s real nice of you, counselor.”

Sonny isn’t even being sarcastic.

Much.

That is nice. Sonny never thought he’d make any type of connection with Barba, not after the way things started off between them. It means a lot to hear Barba admitting that maybe, somewhere deep, deep down, he’s a little fond of Sonny.

Sonny is going to miss Barba too.

A lot.

Sonny is going to miss all of them. More than they’ll miss him. But he has to do what’s best for his future. He has to figure out the best way for him to help people. That’s all he ever wanted to do.

Losing Barba in the process, that’s kind of a big sacrifice, especially now that Sonny knows their banter is mutually gratifying, and it’s not all in his head, but st-

“I am going to miss making fun of you. I’m also going to miss seeing you.”

Sonny blinks.

“I don’t meet a lot of people like you, Carisi. Most of the people I meet are either self-important blowhards or good people, who used to be like you, who’ve become jaded and bitter. You’re still… You’re still optimistic. Happy. Kind. You remind me… I used to be like that. Years ago. Not like you, not exactly.”

Sonny grins.

“Heaven forbid, counselor.”

Barba gives Sonny another fleeting smile.

“I used to have hope. Before office politics came in the picture, before I witnessed the system fail countless times. I see you, and your eagerness, and your sweetness, and you remind me of that. Of how I used to be. I’m glad people like you exist. People who want to help others. I may not always show it, but I do like working with you. I’m going to miss you, if you leave.”

'If’. Not 'when’.

Barba is looking right at Sonny.

Sonny is already thinking twice about leaving. And it only took a few encouraging words from Barba. A few words, and a long look.

Sonny refuses to dwell on that.

“Oh. Okay. Uh. Thank you.”

“Have you talked to Liv about this?”

“No.”

Barba exhales and finally loses the frown. Sonny swears he can see relief on Barba’s face.

“Alright. If I couldn’t get you to stay, she will.”

What?

“Are you trying to get me to stay?”

Barba gives Sonny a truly hilarious deadpan stare.

“What gave me away, Carisi? Was it the eight times I said 'don’t leave’?”

Sonny abruptly realizes he’s in denial. Barba did ask him to stay. Multiple times. Sonny just refused to let that sink in. Refused to ask himself what it means.

So he asks Barba.

“Why do you want me to stay?”

Barba takes another sip of his coffee.

“Why do you want to leave?”

That’s not an answer. Sonny is about to say as much when Carmen knocks on the door.

“You should get going, Mr. Barba.”

Of course.

Sonny gets up, more confused than he was before.

Barba puts on his coat and walks around the desk.

Sonny knows he missed his moment. He’ll never know what Barba meant. He can’t ask. Not now. It’s too late. After they leave that room, Barba will probably deny this conversation ever happened.

Sonny reaches for the door handle, when he feels Barba’s hand on his arm.

Barba is tugging at his elbow.

Sonny turns around, thinking he forgot something. He can’t imagine what, he didn’t bring anything with h-

Barba kisses him.

Barba kisses Sonny.

Barba’s lips actually make contact with Sonny’s lips.

Not in a dream. Not in a fantasy. Not while Sonny is in the shower. Not while Sonny is in bed, trying to fall asleep. Not when Sonny is in the courtroom, watching Barba and daydreaming.

In reality.

Barba is standing on his tiptoes, kissing Sonny, holding Sonny by the shoulders, and Sonny is shocked still.

For a few seconds.

Because, after those first few seconds, Sonny realizes that this is his moment, and he’s not missing it.

Sonny kisses back, Sonny leans down to compensate for their height difference, Sonny grabs the lapels of Barba’s fancy coat and licks at Barba’s mouth.

This isn’t how Sonny imagined it.

Sonny never imagined Barba would initiate their first kiss. Sonny always figured that he’d be the one to slip up one night at some bar. That he’d get drunk and he’d confess his love to a mildly horrified Barba who would laugh in his face right after a sloppy lip lock.

Sonny never imagined this.

Barba’s hands on him. Barba’s hands, moving from his shoulders to his neck to his face.

Barba’s hands on Sonny’s face. Thumbs caressing Sonny’s cheekbones.

Sonny never imagined this.

Barba pulls away first.

Sonny hesitantly lets go of Barba’s lapels, smoothing them down with short, jerky movements.

Barba looks totally composed. Like nothing ever happened.

“We need to head back, Carisi. We’re going to be late.”

The hell?

“What was that for, counselor?”

Barba smirks.

“I needed something sweet.”

Barba walks out the door. Just like that. Barba practically swaggers outside, leaving Sonny behind, gaping like a fish. Thinking.

Barba wants Sonny to stay.

Maybe he will.

Chapter Text

Rafael feels good for once.

They got a solid, clean victory. Great police work, not that Rafael would admit that, plus a stellar performance by Rafael himself, not that he would say that out loud, and Rafael will be enjoying his bourbon free of guilt later that evening. He won’t be drowning his sorrows, or trying to mute his anxiety. He’ll just sit back, maybe listen to some music, and enjoy his liquor in peace.

For once.

Rafael heads for the exit. He braces himself for an ambush by Carisi. It’s become a tradition now. Carisi, hounding him excitedly and complimenting him after a particularly clever move.

Much as Rafael pretends to be annoyed by Carisi’s flattery, he secretly enjoys it. Rafael doesn’t get a lot of praise. Not from his own superiors. He’s been in the doghouse with the DA for months now. It’s nice to have someone appreciate his work. Even if that someone is Carisi.

“Good job.”

Rafael feels a had on his back.

Liv.

Liv compliments Rafael too, just as he’s walking out of the courtroom.

He plays it off, but that feels even better. At least Liv knows what she’s talking about. Her praise feels earned. Well deserved. Sometimes Rafael thinks that Carisi would congratulate him for, like, getting an objection sustained.

Rafael doesn’t know if Carisi’s praise is genuine, or plain ol’ ass-kissing. At first he thought it was the latter, but now he is almost certain it’s the former. That doesn’t stop him from snarking on Carisi, of course; from hitting Carisi with jab after jab, relentlessly, but still. It’s a nice thought. That Rafael has a fan.

Even if that fan is Carisi.

Except, Rafael has already taken about four steps, and Carisi is nowhere in sight. Which is strange. Carisi usually jumps on him immediately.

Rafael subtly scans the hallway, until he spots Carisi talking to their main witness. Rafael pretends to rearrange the papers in his briefcase, when in reality he’s just stalling, waiting for Carisi to amble over, to talk to him.

He knows it’s silly, but he’s had a good day and he wouldn’t mind making it even better.

Not that Carisi’s sycophantic comments make Rafael’s days better. No. Rafael just likes Carisi’s amusing reactions to the mockery to which Rafael routinely subjects him.

Predictably, Carisi walks up to Rafael as soon as the witness leaves.

Carisi is smiling.

“At least you didn’t have to vamp, huh, counselor?”

Rafael smirks almost despite himself. Carisi has that effect on him.

“You only say that because you haven’t seen me vamp, detective.”

Carisi grins.

Carisi is getting way too comfortable around Rafael. Carisi keeps touching him with those hands that are constantly flying around. Carisi keeps poking him, Carisi keeps leaning in to talk to him, way closer than necessary.

Carisi is no longer intimidated by him.

Carisi fires back after every jab.

Rafael hates to admit it, but he likes that.

Carisi stands up to him now. It’s about time.

“That was awesome. It was when he said he was eidetic, right? It didn’t register for me when I heard it, I was too freaked out ‘cause he showed up drunk, but you caught it. I was trying to figure out a way to sober him up, and you were coming up with strategy. Great job, counselor.”

Rafael did nothing of the sort. Rafael did catch 'eidetic’, but he only came up with the party trick Carisi called a 'strategy’ at the very last minute, when it seemed their case was toast. Rafael has always performed well under pressure.

He doesn’t confess that to Carisi, of course.

“I wish I could say the same for you, detective. If it weren’t for me, your drunken mess of a witness would have sunk our case even lower.”

Carisi shakes his head.

“Seriously, Barba? If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have a reliable witness to begin with.”

“He only became reliable after my redirect. You presented me with a dud.”

“I got you video of the perps with the victim.”

“A video which did not prove the crime.”

“A video through which we made the ID.”

“The nanny made the ID, Carisi.”

Carisi rolls his eyes.

Rafael smirks again. He loves it when Carisi gives up.

Rafael thinks it’s adorable how Carisi always tries to go toe-to-toe with him, to engage him in these verbal sparring sessions. Like Carisi would ever stand a chance.

“Fine. I made no contribution whatsoever. It was all thanks to you, counselor. We’re lucky to have you. SVU would be lost without you.”

“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said all day.”

Carisi snorts and turns around, ready to walk away.

Rafael is disappointed. He was hoping for a few more minutes of banter. This back-and-forth, it’s kind of fun. Carisi is getting harder and harder to rile up, because the more time he spends at SVU the more confident he becomes, and Rafael sees that as a challenge. He keeps trying to get on Carisi’s nerves. He hasn’t failed yet.

Just as Rafael is about to throw out another put-down, something juicy, something that will definitely get Carisi to turn around, the victim approaches.

Carisi’s demeanor changes instantly. One second he looks like a cocky college student and the next he looks like an attentive police officer. Like someone the victim can rely on.

Rafael narrows his eyes. He’s curious. He doesn’t get to see this side of Carisi often.

“Detective Carisi, I just wanted to thank you for waiting with me until the verdict. For talking to me. A lot of people, they judge me. I’m used to it. Your… your partner did, too. I don’t blame her. But you didn’t. You looked me in the eye. You were kind to me. Even when my own friends, my ex-husband, even when they weren’t. I don’t… I don’t have anybody. So, thank you for being there for me.”

She reaches for Carisi, she goes for an awkward hug, and Carisi doesn’t miss a beat. He leans down and there’s nothing awkward about it; Carisi gives her a big, warm hug, totally enveloping her small body with his long arms.

Rafael can’t remember the last time he was hugged like that. Probably when he was a child.

“Don’t say that, Libby. You’ve got Doug. I know he should’ve… He should have done a lot of things. He should’ve helped you. I know. He knows, too. But he got scared. And then he got drunk. Which, you know a thing or two about bad decisions, huh? I do too.

"I’m not saying you have to forgive him, but you should know that you do have him. He is your friend. Let him try to help you. Let him try to make this right, okay? Not right now. When you’re ready. He drank, because of this. Because of what happened to you. Because of what he did. He’d been sober for 5 years before this. You told me that. He’s got problems too. Maybe you can help each other. Someday.”

She nods.

Rafael feels like an ass. He forgets, sometimes, that Carisi isn’t just his own personal plaything. An entertaining little fanboy who gets hilariously wound up whenever his role model disses him.

Carisi is a good person. A good cop, too. He did effectively crack the case. Maybe Rafael could give Carisi a vague compliment for his trouble.

He’s about to, as soon as Libby leaves. He’s about to call Carisi’s name before the detective walks away for good, when Liv beats him to it, walking up to them both.

“Carisi, hold up.”

Carisi turns around immediately. Eyes wide. So eager. Ready to follow Liv’s orders.

Sometimes Rafael wonders who Carisi’s role model really is; Rafael himself or Liv. Carisi clearly idolizes them both.

Rafael still likes to think it’s him.

“You need something, Lieutenant?”

“No. I just wanted to tell you that you did a great job with this case. I know I told you twice already, but you deserve to hear it. You really came through for Libby. And for the team. You’ve come a long way.”

Carisi beams.

Rafael has never seen this look before.

Carisi doesn’t look like that when Rafael compliments him.

Which, granted, is almost never. Definitely not three times over the same case. And, well, Rafael is not nearly as effusive.

Rafael wonders if it’s weird for him to be jealous about this. About the fact Carisi seems to bask in Liv’s approval more than he does in Rafael’s.

Rafael wonders if it’s weird for him to be rationalizing this. He has only ever muttered a strained 'you’re right’ to Carisi, three or four times. Of course Carisi isn’t jumping for joy every time that happens. Not when Liv lavishes him with genuine praise.

Liv knows what she’s talking about. Liv’s praise feels earned. Rafael understands Carisi’s joy, because he feels it too when Liv commends him on a job well done.

The implication is not lost on Rafael. Carisi has earned Liv’s compliments, too. He deserves them. Carisi has come a long way. Sometimes Rafael gets too caught up in their little games to pay attention.

“Thanks, Lieutenant. I’m just glad justice was served. And I’m sorry I got out of line. It just gets to me. Knowing that there’s-”

Liv shuts Carisi down with a wave of her hand.

Rafael thought he was the only one who could do that.

“Don’t worry about it, Carisi. We’ve all been there. You’ve got nothing to apologize about. I’m proud of you.”

Carisi nods as Liv takes off.

He’s face to face with Rafael now.

Carisi is oblivious to that. He’s oblivious to Rafael’s stare, too busy watching Liv as she walks away, the look on his face the picture of awe.

Rafael has never seen this look before either.

Rafael has a few questions.

“You got out of line, Carisi? What did you do? Forget to say please?”

Carisi rolls his eyes again, looking totally dismissive. Rafael supposes Liv’s words have boosted Carisi’s confidence even more. Maybe that will buy Rafael a few more minutes of sass.

“Ha ha. Sorry some of us are polite, counselor. We can’t all be rude misanthropes.”

Rafael smirks yet again. Carisi always does this, always uses big words around him. It’s cute.

“Ooh. They teach you that word at Fordham Law?”

Carisi scoffs in amusement.

“Nope. Learned it all by myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Barba. Have a good one, okay?”

Carisi is polite.

Carisi is also eager to head home. Rafael shares the sentiment. It’s still early and, now that the verdict has been read, they all have the rest of the day off. Even Rafael, after the successful stunt he pulled, he figures he deserves to take an afternoon for himself. He won’t go home, not yet. But that bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer, it’s practically calling his name.

Rafael nods as Carisi turns to leave. He’s trying to come up with a semi-polite, semi-cutting parting comment.

In the end, he says something different.

“What do you know about bad decisions, Carisi?”

Carisi stops walking. He turns back around, looking almost startled.

“Huh?”

Rafael barely restrains himself before teaching Carisi the appropriate way to phrase a question.

“You told Libby that you know a thing or two about bad decisions. I can’t imagine what you meant by that. A nice Staten Island boy like you.”

Carisi exhales. Suddenly he looks serious. Older. Weighed down by something. 

“Everybody screws up, Barba. I’m no exception.”

Rafael frowns momentarily. Mirrors Carisi’s frown, actually.

“I already know you’re a screw-up, detective. I’m asking about your bad decisions.”

Carisi smiles, but the smile is muted.

“You wanna know about my bad decisions? How much time you got?”

Carisi is trying to be self-deprecating, but Rafael can tell he’s thinking about something specific. It’s clear in the way his eyebrows are knitted together, in the way his eyes are dark, in the way his shoulders are tight, in the way his hands are in his pockets instead of invading Rafael’s personal space.

Normally, Rafael wouldn’t notice any of this. He blames Liv. Liv, and her kind words, for making him take a closer look at Carisi.

Rafael decides to make a bad decision of his own.

“I have a couple of hours. And a nice bottle of bourbon in my office.”

Carisi frowns and pouts at the same time.

That’s his confused face.

Rafael has seen this look many times.

“And you wanna spend a couple of hours hearing about my bad decisions?”

Rafael does.

Rafael wants to know.

Rafael wants to know what happened.

What Carisi did.

Carisi is so kind and so jovial. So free of guilt and pain. Sometimes Rafael thinks that’s the reason he likes to pick on Carisi so much. Rafael is envious. He wishes he could be free of guilt.

Rafael suddenly feels a kinship with Carisi, now that he can see there’s some pain there, well-hidden under those unassuming smiles.

Rafael should have known. No one is free of pain.

Still, Rafael can’t imagine how someone who’s been through any type of hardship could ever come out the other side as well-adjusted as Carisi is. As happy.

Rafael sure couldn’t manage it.

Rafael wants to know Carisi’s secret.

Rafael wants to pay more attention.

Rafael doesn’t say that.

“Consider this your reward, detective. You did help. With this case. You did solid work.”

Carisi’s eyes get bright again. He grins for a split second, but then he attempts to look serious. Only his dimples betray the fact he’s trying not to laugh.

“My reward? My reward for doing a good job is spending a couple of hours with you? What do I get if I mess up? The firing squad?”

Rafael chuckles.

“I didn’t say 'good’. I said 'solid’.”

Carisi snorts.

“Of course. What was I thinking? 'Good?’ God forbid you’d ever use such excessive language.”

“I’m joking, Carisi. You did great work. Not just with the evidence. With the victim, too. That’s important. You can’t learn that. You can learn how to be a good cop, but you can’t learn how to be a decent person. I’ve been trying to learn it my whole life.”

Carisi beams. At Rafael, this time.

It feels nice and sweet and absurdly heartwarming.

Rafael can’t remember the last time anyone looked at him like that.

Maybe that’s why Liv keeps praising Carisi. She likes how it feels to be revered.

“Did you just-”

“Are you coming or what, Carisi?”

Carisi stares, his eyes narrowing. As if he’s considering it.

As if.

Rafael starts walking.

“When you’re done pretending like you have something better to do, you know where to find me.”

Predictably, Carisi starts walking too, not even a second after Rafael has finished his sentence.

“For your information, counselor, I was gonna study for the bar exam. Which is probably the one thing that’s even worse than having to endure your company, so you win.”

Rafael slows down, letting Carisi catch up to him.

“There are no winners here, detective.”

Carisi laughs. Rafael laughs, too.

They walk together.

Chapter Text

“I heard you stepped in front of a loaded weapon.”

It was several loaded weapons, actually, but Sonny is not stupid enough to point that out. Not when Barba looks so calm. Which, as Sonny has come to learn, means that he’s trying to conceal his anger.

Sonny keeps his eyes on the road.

It’s raining.

They’re driving back to Manhattan, after Barba asked him for a ride. Liv and Rollins had already left, in a hurry to relieve their sitters, Dodds was in the hospital, and Sonny figures he was more appealing than a state trooper or, like, an Uber.

Still, Sonny is surprised that Barba actually asked him.

They try to keep their public interactions to a minimum. Barba tries, anyway. Sonny doesn’t really care. It’s not his reputation on the line. Sonny is the liability. Barba is the one with a reputation to uphold, the one who doesn’t want to be seen alone with Sonny. Sonny has a way of always doing something embarrassing, or so Barba keeps telling him.

That’s probably why Barba is quietly seething in his seat, next to Sonny. Because Sonny’s stunt got people talking. Because Barba is embarrassed that the cop he’s banging went all rogue trying to save somebody like Rudnick.

Sonny himself caught whispers about it, from the state troopers. Sonny heard more than one person wondering why a fancy Manhattan detective would try so hard to save the life of a murderer.

Sonny didn’t bother telling them he was from Staten Island, though he doesn’t understand how they missed it. Sonny didn’t bother explaining that Rudnick was their only link to Yates, their best shot at finding him. Sonny didn’t feel like explaining himself to a bunch of people he’ll probably never see again.

Sonny hopes he won’t have to explain himself to Barba, either.

“It’s not like they were gonna shoot me, Barba. And it’s not like I wrestled the guns out of their hands or something. I just told them to stop. I intervened way before things escalated.”

Barba makes a dismissive sound. Probably because ‘I told them to stop’ doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of the incident. Which Barba probably knows already, since Sonny’s behavior was witnessed by dozens of people.

“And you were absolutely sure of that. You were sure that no one was going to shoot. You were sure that there weren’t any trigger-happy state troopers, eager to avenge their fallen comrade. You were so sure that you were willing to risk getting shot.”

Barba sounds really mad. His voice rings awfully loud inside the car, even with the rain tapping on the roof. Barba probably looks really mad, too, but Sonny doesn’t feel like looking at him.

Sonny exhales.

“Look, counselor, you never know for sure, but you gotta trust the other cops to do their jobs. I gotta trust them. That’s the only way I can do my job.”

Sonny knows that Barba doesn’t much trust cops. Not unless they’re called ‘Olivia Benson’. Sonny doesn’t either, sometimes. Sometimes Sonny doesn’t feel like one of them. Not when they want to shoot first and ask questions later.

Sometimes Sonny thinks Barba knows that. Likes that, even. Barba would probably never get involved with a cop, not even casually, not under normal circumstances. Sonny thinks the fact Barba has spent the last few months sleeping with him means something. Means Barba trusts him too. On some level, at leas-

“Right. So you were never in danger. It was totally safe. It made perfect sense for you to possibly catch a bullet to save Rudnick.”

Barba seems really hung up on this. He keeps repeating himself, going around in circles, and Sonny doesn’t know why. What’s done is done. What does Barba want?

Does Barba expect Sonny to apologize for acting recklessly? For embarrassing him? No one knows about them, not even Liv. It’s not like Sonny made Barba look bad to anybody else. Barba’s embarrassment is purely private. Sonny doesn’t feel like he owes Barba an apology for that.

Sonny doesn’t feel like he owes Barba an explanation, either.

Not that he has one to offer. Sonny doesn’t know why he acted that way either. Why he tried to comfort Rudnick. Why he felt sick to his stomach when he saw the extent of Rudnick’s injuries. Why he yelled out ‘I know this man’ instead of ‘he’s our only lead’.

Sonny decides to deflect.

“Exactly. It was totally safe. Hey, speaking of totally safe, I heard you freaked out when an inmate banged his hands on a window that was both bulletproof and had a security fence.”

Sonny glances at Barba, trying to gauge his reaction. Barba is clearly caught by surprise. Sonny thinks the deflection just might work.

“And where did you hear that?”

Bingo.

Sonny has no qualms throwing Dodds under the bus. Sure, Dodds is a nice guy, and he did just get shot. Still, he’ll be fine and, well, if it helps smooth things over with Barba, Sonny will just have to snitch.

“The Sergeant told me.”

Barba purses his lips.

“I see. And why would he tell you that?”

Sonny narrows his eyes. He’s not sure where Barba is going with this. Which is nothing new, but it remains annoying.

Sonny is used to reading people. He’s used to steering conversations right where he wants them, with a well-placed compliment or an unassuming smile. He relies on the fact everyone always underestimates him. That’s how Sonny avoids sore subjects. Tough truths.

Sometimes that works on Barba, too. Except when it doesn’t.

Barba is smart. Very smart. Sonny often finds himself scrambling, trying to keep up, trying to answer questions as vaguely as possible because he’s not sure how Barba might use any information Sonny reveals.

It’s not lost on Sonny that he treats his affair with Barba less like a fling and more like a cross-examination.

Like Sonny is the hostile witness and Barba is trying to get him to slip up. Sonny keeps trying to manipulate his answers in order to divulge as little as possible. Sonny keeps trying to stay on his feet.

It’s practice.

For what, Sonny doesn’t know.

Another thing Sonny doesn’t know is why Barba is asking about Dodds. Does Barba feel embarrassed because Dodds talked about his little scare to a lowly detective like Sonny? Or is it because Dodds gave Sonny some ammo, stuff he can use to tease Barba? Maybe Sonny wasn’t supposed to know that Barba gets freaked out too, sometimes.

Sonny tries to stay noncommittal.

“You tell me, Barba. He’s never really mentioned you before. But after the lockdown, he seemed kinda annoyed by you. As soon as your name came up, he chimed in with that anecdote. What’s up with that? What’d you do to him?”

Barba looks like he knows exactly what he did to Dodds, and also like he’s not about to share that information with Sonny.

What else is new.

Sonny sometimes thinks his relationship with Barba, if he can call it that, it’s as based on sex as it is on subterfuge.

“None of your business, Carisi. So, did you and your friend Dodds have a nice laugh at my expense?”

Sonny remains clueless as to Barba’s motivation. Could Barba be a little jealous? Of him and Dodds? Dodds seems straight as an arrow, not that Sonny ever asked. Maybe Barba has some gossip about one of New York’s most important cop families. High roller stuff. Stuff that’s above Sonny’s pay grade. Much like Dodds would be.

Much like Barba is.

Sonny stays vague.

“I guess. I basically had to laugh. I didn’t wanna give him any ideas. You know. About us.”

Sonny regrets saying “us” a split second after the word flies out of his mouth.

Sonny keeps his eyes on the road.

He hopes Barba will let it slide.

“Of course. You had to laugh at me. You had no choice. You couldn’t say something useful. Something like, ‘Berating a colleague constitutes inappropriate workplace behavior, Sergeant. And, for the record, ADA Barba did not freak out. He was perfectly relaxed.’”

Sonny snorts. He neglects to point out that Barba’s behavior towards him has never been appropriate.  

Sonny steals another glance at Barba, instead, and he sees that Barba is smiling.

Barba is joking.

Dodds told Sonny that Barba used that little line about being ‘perfectly relaxed’ earlier. Unconvincingly.

Sonny is happy to see Barba moving on from the topic of Rudnick, he’s happy his deflection work-

“By the way, my office said you called.”

Sonny is a little taken aback by the non-sequitur.

“Yeah, when we didn’t hear from you or Liv for hours, I tried to get a hold of y-”

“Eleven times.”

Oh.

Sonny gets it now. Barba is trying to turn the tables. To tease Sonny back. Sonny figures he deserves it.

“Yeah, so?”

Barba smirks.

“Were you worried about me, Carisi?”

Sonny rolls his eyes.

The thing is, Sonny did get a little too panicky when Barba wouldn’t respond to his calls. At first he just chalked it up to Barba ignoring him, but when he found out Carmen hadn’t heard from Barba either, Sonny got agitated.

Information which Sonny intends to keep to himself.

“No. Why would I be?”

Barba doesn’t buy it. Barba never seems to believe Sonny, he never seems t-

“Of course. Well, it just so happens that I was worried about you. See, I was with Liv when you decided to play the hero. That state trooper, the one who was in charge of the operation, he was keeping her apprised over the radio. At one point, he said, and I quote, ‘that skinny detective of yours almost got his ass shot trying to save that piece of shit Rudnick.’”

Dammit.

Barba has more information than Sonny thought. That’s never a good th-

“He said that he had already given an order to fire when you jumped in front of the troopers. He asked if you were crazy. He asked Liv if that was the kind of circus she’s running over in Manhattan.”

Oh.

It seems that Sonny did embarrass Barba. Liv, too, which hurts Sonny in ways that he doesn’t need to dwell on right now. Sonny embarrassed Manhattan SVU in general. No wonder Barba keeps harping on this.

Sonny still thinks he did the right thing, and he’d do it all over again, but he regrets the way he did it. Yelling, stepping on the troopers’ toes. He should have known better. He does know better, Sonny knows that he should have respected their jurisdiction, but he had no choice. This was the only way.

Sonny just hates the idea that he gave Manhattan SVU a bad name, that he made Liv look like a bad lead-

"Who told you it’s okay to risk your life to save a murdering rapist, Carisi?”

Sonny keeps his eyes on the road.

Barba wouldn’t understand. Everything is so black and white for him. Emotion, sympathy, it doesn’t come into play, not for the lowlifes he prosecutes. Sonny gets it. Sonny knows that Barba has been doing this for a long time.

Sonny has seen Barba in the quieter moments, he’s seen that Barba feels pain, sometimes, empathy for the victims, for the families. Feeling empathy for the criminals too, that would be too much to bear.

Sonny gets it.

Sonny knows that Barba has learned to steel himself because that’s the only way to last. Sonny knows he should learn to do the same, to look at the criminals like they’re monsters. Like they’re not human.

Sonny knows that being compassionate is not a viable option in the long-term, but he’s determined to stay a decent human being until he’s not. Until the job messes him up, like it does to everybody.

“It’s not like that, Barba. I didn’t risk my life. The troopers weren’t even in position. That’s why I stepped in. And I’m glad I did. Rudnick was our only lead. I had to keep him alive to get to Yates.”

Again, Rafael does not seem convinced.

He never does.

“Right. That was the only reason you tried to save Rudnick.”

Sonny is getting antsy. His hands are clenching the steering wheel, his knees start bouncing.

He knew that being alone in a car with Barba for an extended period of time was a bad idea. Sonny doesn’t think they’ve ever spent longer than twenty minutes together, not when they’re not working or having sex.

This, talking, this won’t end well.

Sonny feels the urge to lie. He doesn’t want to admit that, maybe, for a split second, he genuinely felt that he didn’t want Rudnick to die. Sonny doesn’t want to admit that maybe he finds Rudnick’s quirkiness endearing. That’s the sort of thing he’d tell Amanda, but not Barba. Never Barba.

Rudnick has his own world view, and so does Sonny, and Sonny hates to identify with a murderer but he can’t help it. Rudnick is still a human being, and so is Sonny, and human beings should be treated with respect. Even if Rudnick didn’t afford that same respect to his victims. Sonny is better than that.

Besides, Sonny stayed in control. Sonny did his job, Sonny got what he wanted, and then he left without looking back.

That’s what matters.

And, for all their cordial little chats, Sonny feels no guilt for ditching Rudnick like that. Showing a modicum of respect is one thing. Sonny was careful. Sonny didn’t get attached.

Much.

Sonny doesn’t know how to put all this into words. He doesn’t even want to. He doesn’t know why Barba is even bothering to talk about it.

They’ve been doing this for a few months now. Sleeping together.

Ever since Sonny shadowed Barba.

Ever since Barba accepted Sonny’s optimistic, if not delusional, invitation for a celebratory drink, even though they didn’t really have much to celebrate.

Ever since Barba said, ‘Are you going to make a move or what, Carisi? You’ve been drooling over me all week. This is getting embarrassing.’

This entire time, they’ve never had an honest conversation. Nothing beyond playful banter and silly innuendos and pithy texts to arrange their meetings.

Sonny doesn’t know what got into Barba tonight, why Barba is suddenly asking all these questions. Curiosity, maybe? Surprise, that Sonny would do something so irresponsible?

Whatever the reason, Sonny will not indulge Barba. Sonny is determined to stay noncommittal. That always seems to work. Probably because Barba doesn’t care enough to press for more details.

Sonny will say something vague, something true but vague, and he’ll drop Barba off, and that’ll be it. They’re almost there, anyway. Just a few more minutes.

“I know who Rudnick is, Barba. What he’s done. Doesn’t mean I could just stand there and let them shoot him. Not when he didn’t pose a threat. Ask Rollins. It was clear from the infrared, he was barely breathing. When I got to him, he was half-dead. I’m a cop and I had to do the right thing. No matter what he did. You know that. I couldn’t let him die.”

Sonny stops before he says more.

He’s hesitant to look at Barba. He’s sure this must sound like hippy bullshit to h-

“I can’t let you die, Carisi. Do you know that?”

Sonny’s fingers squeeze the steering wheel. His knuckles turn white.

He has a feeling he should pull over for this, but that won’t be easy in the rain, in the middle of the night.

Sonny keeps his eyes on the road.

“I wasn’t gonna d-”

“I don’t think you do. If you did, you’d be careful. You’d try to stay safe. I don’t think you know that I need you to be okay.”

Sonny doesn’t know that. Didn’t know that.

Sonny didn’t think Barba gave a shit about him.

Not really.

Sonny slows down.

Sonny turns his head, he faces Barba.

Or he tries to, because Barba won’t make eye contact.

Barba is frowning, pursing his lips. Barba’s breathing is slow, steady. Too steady. Barba is trying to stay calm.

Barba was worried about him.

Not out of selfishness, because Sonny’s reckless actions reflected poorly on Barba. Not out of embarrassment, because Sonny had the audacity to want to help a convict.

No.

Barba was worried about his… his whatever, his hook-up, his fuck buddy, Barba was worried about Sonny getting hurt.

Out of…

Out of what?

Sonny doesn’t know.

“I am okay, Barba. I was never in any danger. You’re overreacting.”

Barba doesn’t respond. Barba stops arguing. Stops asking.

Sonny begins to suspect that he was wrong to get defensive.

Maybe Barba is trying to understand.

Sonny speeds up again.

They stay quiet for the rest of the ride, until they get to Barba’s apartment.

Barba makes no move to get out, and Sonny knows better than to rush him. They don’t speak. They’re not even looking at each other. They’re just sitting in the car, facing forward.

Silen-

“Come inside.”

Sonny clenches his fists.

Sonny can’t.

He has to study. The bar exam is in a few weeks. He has to get some sleep. He’s working tomorrow. He’s exhausted. He can’t. He’s too wound up. He wouldn’t be good company. He wouldn’t know what to say.

Sonny can’t.

Sonny can’t spend the night with Barba. He never has before.

That’s the only reason Sonny has been able to keep up the charade so far. It’s easy to stay noncommittal for a few minutes, it’s easy to pretend for a few hours, but Sonny can’t pretend through the night. Not if Barba is going to be lying next to him.

They’ve never done that. Never slept in the same bed.

Sonny knows he will want to touch. Different. A different touch. Softer. Sonny knows his hands will stray. Barba’s hair, Barba’s neck, Barba’s face. It’s surprising how many parts of Barba Sonny still hasn’t touched, even though they’ve been having sex for months now.

Sonny can’t.

“I don’t th-”

“Come inside with me, Carisi.”

Sonny has to look at Barba. He has no excuse now. The car is parked. He can’t pretend he’s watching the road anymore.

He watches Barba instead.

It’s a bad idea.

Barba is looking right at him. The look on Barba’s face, it’s almost imploring. Desperate. Sonny hates it. Barba should never look desperat-

“Please.”

Sonny blinks.

Sonny thinks that Barba’s quiet anger, it wasn’t anger at all. It was fear.

Barba was worried about him.

“Okay.”

They get out of the car.

The rain has stopped.

Chapter Text

“I did it.”

Liv sounds happy. Way too happy for a Monday morning. Rafael wonders exactly what she did, what is making her cheerful enough to be calling him at 9 a.m. sounding like she won the lottery.

“What did you do, Liv?”

Liv pauses briefly.

“Tucker.”

Of course.

Rafael rolls his eyes.

“I didn’t ask who you did, Liv. I asked what you did.”

Liv chuckles.

“What I did was, I let it happen. Tucker’s been circling me for years, and I was always resisting it. This time, when he asked if I wanted to go for a nightcap, I said yes. Actually, I said why the hell not. Which I think he liked. I took a chance.”

Rafael hums. He can see the appeal.

The appeal of taking a chance, of course. Not Tucker’s appeal. But who is Rafael to judge? Especially considering his own taste.

“Well, clearly it paid off. I’m happy for you. As long as you don’t share any details.”

“Wh-”

“Ever.”

Liv laughs some more.

“I wasn’t going to, Barba. Not until the next time you piss me off.”

Rafael makes a mental note not to piss Olivia off in the next several years. The last thing he needs is t-

“What about you?”

This again.

“What about me?”

“Are you going to take a chance?”

Rafael knew this was coming.

He decides to play dumb, even though he knows it won’t work. It never does, but it always buys him a couple of minutes to come up with a better answer.

“Take a chance on what? Love? How quaint.”

He can practically hear Liv’s eye-roll.

“Not love. Carisi. Are you ever going to do anything about that?”

Rafael sighs.

“What would I possibly do with Carisi?”

“I don’t know. I could think of a few things.”

Wow.

Just-got-laid Olivia is a hoot. Her tone is as raunchy as it is disturbing.

“Just because you have tragic taste, Liv, it doesn’t mean you get to project it on me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my taste, Rafael. Or yours. Come on. Carisi is right up your alley.”

Rafael is offended by the mere suggestion.

On what planet is someone like Carisi right up his alley? Carisi is too young, too annoying, too goofy, Carisi is too naive, too eager, too nice, Carisi is-

“Detective Carisi is here to see you, Mr. Barba.”

Carisi is there.

Carisi is at Rafael’s office, as Carmen has just announced.

Rafael can hear Liv’s low chuckle.

“I take it Carisi has arrived?”

Rafael exhales as he gestures at Carmen, letting her know he’ll need a couple of minutes to prepare himself before he can accept a menace like Carisi into his office.

“Seriously? You sent me Carisi? First thing on Monday morning? Why are you punishing me?”

“I see you’re still in denial. Why do you bother? Why don’t you just admit it?”

Rafael doesn’t know. Maybe because, as long as he doesn’t say it loud, it won’t be true?

“You’re seeing things, Liv.”

Liv exhales. Her displeasure comes through the earpiece, loud and clear.

“Right. Look, for what it’s worth, if I were you, I’d let Carisi woo me.”

‘Woo’?

Rafael thinks Tucker must be great in bed. He has to be, if he’s got Liv using words like ‘woo’ after one night.

“Is that what you did? Let Tucker woo you?”

“I’m just saying, Barba. Consider it.”

'Consider it.’

Consider Carisi.

As if.

Rafael mutters a half-assed goodbye and hangs up. He doesn’t have much time before Carisi barges in.

Right on cue, there’s a knock on his door.

“Hey, counselor. Good morning. Liv sent me to pick up those affidavits?”

Carisi is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as always.

All dimples, as always.

“How do you do it, Carisi? Aren’t you studying for the bar? How do you get enough sleep? It’s 9 in the morning. How can you be you smiling like that?”

Carisi chuckles.

“Cause I’m happy? You should try it, sometime, Barba.”

Rafael frowns.

“Happy? Doesn’t ring a bell.”

Carisi grins.

“Wow, you’re in a good mood.”

Rafael is in a good mood, actually. Maybe Liv knew what she was doing. Maybe seeing a warm smile first thing in the morning wasn’t such a bad idea.

Rafael’s mind wanders for a second. Imagines what it’d be like to see that warm smile, Carisi’s smile, first thing in the morning, every day. He’s surprised by his own reaction. By how appealing he finds that.

Rafael stops himself before his thoughts get too mushy. Liv’s little chat, it’s obviously affected him. That’s it. That’s why he’s having a moment.

That’s the reason. Not Carisi’s annoyingly adorable face. Not the sweet way Carisi said 'good morning,’ even though he had to have known that Rafael was about to welcome him with a hostile frown, as always.

“The affidavits are on the coffee table. If that’ll be all.”

Carisi smiles, shakes his head as he picks up the documents.

“So hospitable. Anyway. See you later.”

Rafael hates how disappointed he gets every time Carisi leaves. Even though all Rafael seems to do when Carisi is there, is try to send him away.

“Why are you happy, Carisi?”

Carisi turns around, right as he was about to walk out the door.

“I need a reason to be happy?”

Rafael stares.

“Yes? Don’t most people?”

Carisi shrugs.

“I guess. I don’t know. My niece just said her first word? It finally stopped raining? I’m having a good hair day? I get to annoy you for a few minutes, which is my favorite way to start off the week?”

Rafael has to smile at that.

That’s his favorite way to start off the week, too. He knows it, and Liv knows it.

He doesn’t know why he doesn’t just admit it.

“What was your niece’s first word?”

Carisi looks surprised.

“Uh. Mama. Which was very possibly her just muttering mah-mah, making random sounds, you know, but Bella is convinced she said Mama and who am I to argue? Uh. Why? Why do you ask?”

Rafael doesn’t know why he asked.

That’s not true.

Rafael enjoys Carisi’s little anecdotes. It’s always something about his sisters. Always something sweet. Something funny. Carisi’s stories always come with a smile.

Carisi is such a positive person, it’s practically nauseating. It’s ridiculous, for someone who’s seen what they’ve seen. It’s stupid. It’s…

It’s nice.

Carisi’s smile, it’s different.

They all smile, of course. They still smile. Liv, Rollins, Fin, too. Rafael himself. They smile, but not like they used to. It’s not just what they’ve seen. It’s what they’ve lived.

Carisi’s smile, it’s different. It’s happy. It never leaves his lips, not unless Carisi is faced with tragedy. With violence. With ugliness.

Rafael thinks that’s the difference. The rest of them, they need a reason to smile. A reason to be happy. Carisi, he’s always happy. Working at SVU just gives him reasons to be sad.

Speaking of.

“I’m going to be taking over some of the cases ADA Cox was working on, while she’s suspended. If you’d like, you can shadow me again. On one case.”

Carisi looks even happier.

“Are you kidding? You’re gonna let me shadow you again? That’s awesome! Thank you!”

Rafael notices Carisi’s phrasing. 'Let me’. Like Carisi knows he’ll be an imposition. Like he knows Rafael is only grudgingly allowing this.

That’s not true either.

Rafael keeps that to himself.

“I’m only doing it because I know you’re good with kids, and I’m terrible with them. They’re always afraid of me, for some reason.”

Carisi cracks up, the sound of his laughter echoing in the quiet office.

“Can’t imagine why.”

Rafael scoffs so he doesn’t laugh too.

“Anyway, Carisi, you’ll basically be a glorified babysitter, while I do all the work.”

Rafael mentally berates himself as soon as he’s done speaking. He wishes he could stop being a dick to Carisi, but it’s not easy.

Being a dick comes so naturally to him.

“Yeah, yeah. So what you’re saying is, you’re too afraid to deal with children, so you need my help. You got it, counselor. I love kids. I’ll take care of 'em for you. While I assist you on the case, of course. Whatever you need. I’d be happy to.”

Happy.

Carisi is such a happy person.

'Consider it.’

Rafael has been considering it for a while, now.

He’s been considering how weird it would be, if he suddenly expressed an interest in Carisi. If he asked Carisi out. How would Carisi react? Would he laugh and think of it as a joke? Would he blush and say yes? Would he say no? Would Carisi ask for a reason? Would Rafael have to explain why he’s been so rude this whole time?

Would Rafael have to come clean?

Would he have to say, 'I am old and bitter and I can’t stand happiness because I don’t have it’?

Would he have to say, 'I always sabotage myself because I don’t know what’s good for me’?

Would he have to say, 'You’re beneath me, but that’s a good thing because I hate it when people are better than me’?

Would he have to say, 'It embarrasses me that I find you attractive, but thinking about you makes me smile like I haven’t since high school’?

Would he have to say, 'You’re a good person and I’m not, and sometimes I wish I could be more like you and less like myself?’

Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Rafael is not willing to say any of those things. Not to anyone. Certainly not to Carisi.

Carisi is beneath him. Rafael would never.

Rafael…

Rafael would.

Rafael does.

Rafael has been considering it for a while, now.

Liv, she’s always nagging him. She knows. Rafael pretends he’s annoyed, but he loves it. He loves it when Liv teases him about Carisi’s crush. Rafael loves it when she tells him how Carisi can’t stop praising him, admiring his legal prowess, going on and on about his latest stunt in court, how Carisi is always acting like his number one fan.

Rafael loves it.

What he doesn’t love is when Liv teases him about his own crush, which he vehemently denies. Even though it’s very much real. Rafael doesn’t know when he went from courting high-powered executives to daydreaming about waking up next to a Staten Island cop, just that it happened.

Rafael doesn’t know why, either.

Maybe it’s because Carisi is always so happy.

Maybe it’s because Rafael is never happy.

Maybe Rafael hopes he can steal some of Carisi’s happiness for himself.

“Counselor? Are you having a stroke, or something?”

That would explain it, Rafael thinks.

“Are you trying to diagnose me, Dr. Carisi?”

Carisi smiles at the reference.

It’s so easy to make Carisi smile.

Maybe that’s why.

“No, I’m just trying to figure out why you’ve been staring at me for, like, 5 minutes without saying a word.”

Rafael stares some more.

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Tonight? Studying, what else? Why? Wait, do you need some help with a case? Studying can wait. I’m totally available.”

So eager.

Rafael thinks maybe Carisi won’t be as available when he finds out what Rafael really meant.

“I was actually thinking we could grab some dinner.”

Carisi nods.

“Oh. Sure. To talk it over? To pick the right case? Of course, counselor. Thanks again. This is gonna be a huge learning opportunity for me.”

Rafael seriously considers giving up and pretending that’s what he meant.

But then Liv’s voice rings in his ear. She took a chance.

“I’m only going to say this once, Carisi. When I say dinner, I mean a date. A date date.”

Carisi’s jaw drops.

Rafael doesn’t blame him. A date date? Is Rafael twelve? He wishes he could turn back time and ask again, this time using big words, like an adult.

He wishes Carisi will say yes, anyway.

Carisi does not say yes.

Carisi doesn’t say anything. Not immediately.

Rafael is debating whether or not to say 'just kidding!’ but he decides to wait a few more seconds, to give Carisi a little more time to process his poorly phrased invitation. After all, this must come as a big surpris-

“I’d love to.”

Oh.

Good.

“Good.”

Rafael waits for a follow-up. For a question.

Rafael waits for Carisi to ask him where all this is coming from. To ask why Rafael has been such an asshole from the start, if all he wanted was a date. Rafael has several answers prepared, none of which are true. Mostly because he can’t say 'I don’t know how to be happy’ out loud.

At the very least, Rafael waits for Carisi to ask him why the date, why now. To ask about Rafael’s feelings. That sounds like something a sap like Carisi would do. Rafael doesn’t have an answer for that. Mostly because he’s already said ’date date’ and he refuses to follow that up with the equally juvenile 'I like you’.

Rafael waits.

Nothing happens.

Carisi doesn’t ask for an explanation.

Maybe he doesn’t need to understand.

Maybe he understands, anyway.

Carisi doesn’t speak at all.

Carisi just smiles.

Carisi’s smile, it’s even brighter, now.

Rafael feels that smile permeating him, somehow. Spreading through his chest. Warm.

Rafael thinks maybe he won’t have to steal happiness from Carisi.

Maybe Carisi will give it to him, if he asks.

Chapter Text

Sonny spots Barba outside the courtroom, minutes after the jury has retired to begin deliberating.

Sonny knows this probably isn’t the best time, he can see that Barba is preoccupied, with good reason, he can see Barba is probably not in the mood for chitchat, but Sonny refuses to let that stop him.

Sonny has something to say.

Sure, he thinks his words might be better received during a less stressful moment, because Barba is likely to snap at him at the best of times, let alone when a huge, well-publicized case is falling apart, but Sonny can’t keep stalling.

He’s been wanting to say this for a while. He’s written and rewritten the little speech in his head a dozen times.

Sonny doesn’t know why, but it’s hard to talk to Barba.

Even in his own head.

Even when Sonny is the one coming up with Barba’s reactions. It’s hard. Imaginary Barba, he has no time for Sonny. Imaginary Barba cuts Sonny off about 5 seconds into the speech.

The real Barba?

The real Barba probably won’t even let him speak a single word.

Still.

Sonny has something to say.

That’s why he’s braving an approach. That’s why he’s walking toward Barba, even though Barba looks like he’s about to vomit.

Sonny almost turns around, almost leaves, Sonny almost aborts his attempt to have a heart-to-heart with a clearly agitated Barba, but he pushes through it. He doesn’t think he’ll get a chance to talk to Barba later, not alone, not after the jury comes back, so it’s now or never.

“Hey, counselor, you got a second?”

Barba won’t even look at him. Barba won’t make eye contact. Barba looks lost. Unfocused. It’s scary. It looks wrong. Barba always looks focused. Barba always looks sharp-eyed and alert and this looks wrong.

“Not really. I’ve got fifteen minutes before I have to face the firing squad.”

Sonny almost turns around again, almost leaves again, but Barba sits down and Sonny chooses to take that as an invitation. Sonny figures Barba would walk away, if he really didn’t want to talk to him.

And yes, Sonny knows it’s sad how he constantly tries to read kindness or friendliness into Barba’s behavior, which is prickly on the face of it and that’s an understatement, but that’s all Sonny has.

Sonny refuses to believe Barba really is that unkind. That uncaring. Maybe Barba has the others fooled, but Sonny can tell. Sonny can tell there’s more to Barba’s brusque dismissals, to Barba’s rude comebacks.

Barba is not as scary as he seems.

Barba is scared.

Sonny takes a seat, sits as close to Barba as he possibly can without it getting weird.

“The honchos coming down on you, huh?”

Barba still won’t make eye contact. His eyes still won’t focus on anything, on anyone.

“Oh, they’re past that.”

Barba is breathing heavily. He has that look on his face again, the one he had after the Hodda case, the one he always has when something goes terribly wrong, when a victim doesn’t get justice.

When Barba fails.

Sonny hates that look.

Sonny decides to hold off on his speech for a little while. To offer a few words of support.

It’s worked pretty well in the past. Surprisingly well. Barba always shuts him down, except when Sonny is being sympathetic. For whatever reason, Barba always lets Sonny talk when he’s having a hard time, when he needs to hear something comforting.

Sonny is used to giving comfort.

“Look, Christie is… she’s a horrible victim.”

Barba finally makes eye contact, for a split second. He even snorts.

Sonny takes that as a good sign. As a sign Barba may not totally blame himself.

“But she’s not lying. You saw what those guys tried to do to Rollins.”

Barba looks away again.

“They’re gonna get away with that too.”

So much for Barba not blaming himself.

“Yeah, well, it’s worth the fight.”

That’s all Sonny can say.

All the comfort he can offer.

It’s true, too. It was worth the fight, and Barba tried, and things can’t always work out, victims can’t always find peace, criminals can’t always be put behind bars, and Sonny hates it, Sonny hates it as much as Barba does, but he knows there’s no use in second-guessing. All they can do, all any of them can do, is try again, fight again, fight harder next time.

Barba does not appear particularly heartened by Sonny’s comment. He nods dismissively, he picks up his briefcase, he’s ready to leave, and Sonny wanted to say a few more soothing words but he just ran out of time.

Sonny taps Barba on the forearm. Like he always does.

Casually. 

Except not. Nothing’s casual about those touches.

Nothing.

“Listen, I, uh… I took the bar last weekend. I think I did okay.”

Barba looks at him.

For the first time, Barba’s eyes stop darting around and they lock onto Sonny’s. Barba is focused on him. Barba keeps looking at him, for several seconds. Barba doesn’t look away.

Sonny almost preferred it when Barba wouldn’t look at him.

It’s hard to talk to Barba.

Barba looks surprised, and then he looks thoughtful, and then he nods.

“Good for you.”

Huh.

Sonny isn’t sure if Barba is being sarcastic or not, but he’ll take it. He’ll take it as an encouragement to keep talking. At least Barba is still sitting next to him. At least Barba hasn’t gotten up yet.

“You’ve been pretty hard on me.”

Barba gets up.

Dammit.

Barba gets up, mutters a flippant “uh-huh”, Barba is leaving, and, while this little chat lasted way longer than Sonny ever hoped for, he still hasn’t said what he wanted to say.

Sonny gets up too, tries to steal a few more seconds, tries to get everything out before Barba walks away and he misses his chance.

“But… I want you to know, that if I did pass, a lot of that’s because of the time I spent working with you.”

Sonny is proud of himself for saying all that without stumbling. Without losing his nerve. His composure.

Sonny is proud of himself for keeping things professional, for thanking Barba for being his reluctant, if not unwilling, mentor without sounding like a schoolboy with a crush.

Even though that’s what he is.

Sonny is proud of himself for coming clean, for being as heartfelt as he could without being too obvious.

Barba is staring at him.

Barba’s eyes are wide. Wider than Sonny has ever seen.

Barba is looking at Sonny like he’s surprised.

Barba is looking at Sonny like he knows.

That can’t be.

Sonny was careful.

Sonny wasn’t obvious.

Sonny didn’t say anything that could give him away. He thanked Barba for being a harsh but fair teacher, he told Barba he owes a lot to their partnership. Sonny kept it professional. Sonny didn’t say anything compromising.

Barba keeps staring.

Sonny gets the sinking feeling it wasn’t anything he said.

Sonny thinks it was the way he was looking at Barba. That’s what gave him away. The way he’s looking at Barba, even now. Sonny’s heart is in his eyes. It always has been.

Sonny has always had a hard time hiding.

Sonny figures he might as well keep going. What’s done is done. He still has Barba’s undivided attention, for once, and he intends to make good use of it.

He just needs to be a little more careful.

“I admire your, uh…”

“Suicidal streak?”

Barba is smirking.

Barba looks like his sarcastic self again.

Except fonder.

A lot fonder.

Sonny smiles.

Sonny is happy Barba cut him off. Sonny never got this far with the speech in his head. Sonny doesn’t know what he would have said, if Barba hadn’t stopped him.

It’s hard to talk to Barba, but it’s harder not to talk to him.

Not to tell him.

Maybe Sonny will tell him.

Maybe Barba will like that.

They’re both smiling, together, standing together, and Sonny doesn’t know if it’s because he probably passed the bar and he’s a lawyer now, or because Barba finally treated him as an equal, but he feels more confident than he ever has.

Sonny feels hopeful.

“Hey, guys? The jury’s back?”

Liv interrupts their moment.

The feeling of hope, it didn’t last long. Sonny knows Barba is about to lose, they are about to lose. Sonny knows Barba will blame himself. Blames himself already. Sonny knows Barba will need some comfort later.

Maybe Sonny will offer.

Maybe Barba will accept.

Chapter Text

“I passed!”

Rafael looks up. Carisi is in his office, has entered without even knocking, and he looks as happy as ever, and Rafael is not in the mood for this level of cheer.

Not after a week of tense phone calls and meetings with Church officials and a ‘friendly’ visit from Dodds Sr. who 'casually’ inquired as to Rafael’s 'working relationship’ with his son, the new acting commander of SVU.

Rafael still can’t believe Liv got transferred. Rafael still doesn’t know who gave her up. Who told 1PP about her and Tucker.

Maybe Carisi has some information. He’s been reeling about Liv’s transfer all week, too.

Rafael decides to play nice. Or, more realistically, he decides not to be a total asshole.

Rafael tells himself that’s the reason he’s smiling back. Because he wants information. Not because Carisi’s annoyingly adorable smile is contagious.

“What did you pass, detective? My secretary’s desk, without letting her announce you? The threshold of my office, without knocking?”

Carisi is still smiling as he takes a seat.

“I passed the bar! I got my license. Forget 'detective’. You should start calling me counselor too, counselor!”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

Figures. Carisi is the only person who actually takes the time to keep Rafael in the loop these days. Incidentally, Carisi is also the only person who believes Rafael, the only person who thinks he didn’t rat Olivia out.

Olivia herself, she doesn’t believe him. Which hurts in ways Rafael doesn’t care to dwell on.

And that’s not the only thing that hurts. Rafael is still smarting from their conversation. From finding out about her and Tucker.

Liv never even told Rafael she was seeing anyone, let alone Tucker, and they were supposed to be friends. If not more, though that last part, that’s always been in Rafael’s head more than anything. It’s always been a distant hope. A dream, maybe. Not a desire, not really. Nothing quite as fervent. More like a nice, warm, 'maybe someday’. A comforting 'what if’.

Rafael thinks that’s why it stung so much. In those few seconds, out of the blue, Rafael lost his 'what if’.

Rafael lost his hope.

He’ll end up alone. He knows that. Rafael has always known that, but it felt good to have a little hope. To see potential in someone. In a relationship. It felt good to have something to look forward to. Every time Liv smiled at him or every time they shared a drink, it felt good to think that maybe there was more to it.

Rafael hates being petty, but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t easier before Tucker. When Liv was alone too. Rafael often contemplated making a deal with her. An “if we’re both single by the time we’re X years old…” type of deal.

Except that “X”, that was always the problem.

What’s an acceptable “X”? Thirty? Forty? Whatever the number, Rafael and Liv are both way past X. And “if we’re both single by the time we’re sixty,” well, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Still.

Friends or more, Liv should have told him.

Liv is serious about Tucker. It’s clear. She trusts Tucker, she is standing by him, she’s taking her transfer on the chin and working to clear his name. This isn’t some fling. It means something to Liv.

Liv, she has a whole new life now, and she chose to keep Rafael out of it. That stung on a whole different level.

Liv… Rafael expected more from Liv.

And then there’s Carisi.

Carisi, who keeps coming to Rafael with little updates on his life, all “My sister’s pregnant!” and “I’m an uncle now!” and “Did you know babies drooled so much?” and “My sister got married!”

Carisi, who is always oversharing, all “Did you know I’m in law school?” and “Oh, I just wrote a paper on this,” and “I did great on my finals, we got a question that was just like the Hodda case, I felt like I was cheating,” and “Could I shadow you, please?” and “I graduated, counselor! Isn’t that crazy?” and “Studying for the bar, it sure is tough, huh?” and “Got any tips for me? I’ll take anything, I’m desperate,” and “I took the bar last weekend. I think I did okay,” and “I passed!”

Rafael never asked.

It still feels nice, though. Being kept in the loop.

Rafael feels like rewarding Carisi. Both for passing the bar and for caring enough to let Rafael know.

“Congratulations, counselor.”

Carisi’s responding grin is genuinely blinding.

Rafael smiles too, despite himself. It’s hard not to smile at the face of such joy.

“So, what are your plans now?”

Carisi turns serious.

“I don’t know. Not gonna lie, counselor, without Liv, I’m not even sure I wanna stay at SVU.”

Rafael isn’t surprised. He knows how Carisi feels about Liv. He remembers how frantic, how emotional, how panicked Carisi had looked when Liv was taken hostage.

He remembers how Tucker had looked, too.

Rafael shakes his head. That’s over. It’s done. Rafael had his freak-out, and now it’s done.

“I don’t blame you, detective. Your current boss knows even less about Special Victims than you do. I didn’t even think that was possible.”

Carisi snorts.

Rafael doesn’t get it. Doesn’t get how Carisi can let everything drop. How everything slides off Carisi’s back. How Carisi can still be so nice to him, so cordial, after all the mocking and the teasing.

“You said it, Barba. My current boss. This, Sergeant Dodds, it’s temporary. I know it is. Liv’ll be back. She will, if I have anything to say about it. I still think Deputy Chief Dodds is behind this somehow. We’ll figure it out. Right?”

Rafael nods. It’s almost heartwarming, the way Carisi has faith in him. The way Carisi includes him in everything.

“We’ll figure it out, and she’ll be back. And when she’s back, you better believe that I’ll be waiting for her. So I’ll be sticking around for now. I can always go into law later.”

Rafael smirks.

“Oh, that’s fine. Take your time, Carisi. The law can wait.”

Carisi chuckles.

“Anyway, I, uh, I wanted to thank you again. Officially, now that I know I passed th-”

“You already thanked me, detective. We’re good. No need to say anything else.”

Rafael barely manages to stop Carisi this time. Last time, Liv’s interruption saved him from having to listen to Carisi’s heartfelt thanks. This time, Rafael can only rely on himself. He’ll have to be careful.

“But I didn’t s-”

“That’ll do, Carisi. Go tell the others you passed. Maybe they’ll take you out for a drink. For a celebration. Tell Liv, too. She’ll be happy to hear it.”

Carisi frowns.

“What others? What celebration? Come on, Barba. Nobody’s in the mood to celebrate. And Liv’s got other things on her mind right now. I don’t wanna bother her.”

Rafael can understand that. Carisi, he’s not wrong.

“Besides, I never even told anybody else I was taking the bar. They know I’d been studying, but not that I took the exam. You’re the only one I told.”

Oh.

That’s… strange.

“Why didn’t you tell them?”

Carisi exhales.

“I don’t know. What if I didn’t pass? They’d be all excited, and then I’d tell them I failed, and then they’d feel bad for me, or they’d feel sorry for me, and they’d break out the kiddie gloves and, just, I don’t like being pitied, you know?”

That actually makes sense.

Except for one thing.

“So why did you tell me?”

Carisi smiles again.

“Cause I didn’t have to worry about you feeling bad for me, or acting extra nice to make me feel better? Cause if I’d failed you probably would’ve said 'I told you so’?”

Rafael laughs quietly. Again, Carisi isn’t wrong. Rafael doesn’t treat anyone with kiddie gloves. Not even actual kids.

“But seriously, Barba. I told you because I wanted to thank you for helping me. Before I got the results, just in case I failed, cause then I’d have to be all, 'you’re an amazing mentor, but I’m an idiot and I still couldn’t pass even though I worked with you for over a year’. That’d be less h-”

“I wish you wouldn’t do that, Carisi. You and I both know I never helped you.”

That was cutting it close. Carisi keeps trying to thank him, and Rafael just can’t have that. He doesn’t know why.

Maybe it’s the fact Carisi called him a 'mentor’, which is an extremely generous term that in no way describes their relationship. Maybe it’s the way Carisi is quick to give Rafael credit for something he never did. Maybe it’s Carisi’s kindness, radiating from his stupidly blue eyes. Kindness that Rafael doesn’t deserve.

Gratitude that Rafael doesn’t deserve.

Carisi smiles.

It’s such a kind smile.

Rafael never gets those smiles. From anyone.

Rafael never does anything to earn those smiles. That much kindness, it has to be earned. Right? You reap what you sow. Rafael is an asshole, and people treat him as such. Everyone does.

Everyone, except Carisi.

“I wouldn’t say that, counselor. I learned more in the time I’ve worked with you than I did in all my years of law school. This has been a true l-”

“That’s not what 'helping’ means, Carisi. That’s not what being a mentor is. You did learn a lot. It’s obvious. It’s night and day, compared to when you first got here. But you didn’t learn it from me. Not directly.”

Carisi is still smiling. It’s irritating.

It’s making Rafael feel unworthy.

“Semantics, counselor. You t-”

“I nothing, Carisi. You worked hard for this, and all I did was try to discourage you. I’m glad I failed, for what it’s worth.”

Carisi narrows his eyes.

“That’s not what I mean, Barba. You did help m-”

“Did I? How do you figure? Has it ever occurred to you that you only interpreted my taunts as some kind of reverse psychology experiment because you’re naïve?”

Carisi scoffs.

“Why do you always interrupt me when I’m trying to tell you something nice, counselor?”

Rafael stares. Wide-eyed, just like the last time Carisi tried to tell him something nice.

Rafael doesn’t do 'nice’.

'Nice’ makes him uncomfortable.

When Carisi acts like his number one fan, that’s fine. Rafael relishes in the praise. Carisi going on and on about all the ways in which Rafael is awesome in the courtroom, that’s more than fine, actually. Feeds his ego.

But this, Carisi trying to say something sincere, about Rafael as a person? As a 'mentor’? This is not okay.

Rafael doesn’t do 'sincere’.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Carisi.”

Carisi smirks.

“Alright. Let me talk then. Let me finish what I started. I admire your d-”

“Is this why you came here, detective? I already told you. No need to thank me ag…”

Rafael belatedly realizes he just proved Carisi right, and he stops talking.

Carisi is looking at him, one cocky eyebrow raised, and Rafael feels trapped.

“What is it, counselor? Just let me thank you. Let me say this, okay? Why don’t y-”

“You want to know why?”

Carisi wants the truth? That’s what Rafael will give him. Maybe then Carisi will leave and Rafael won’t have to be heaped with undeserved praise.

“I have treated you poorly, Carisi. I treat everyone poorly, to a certain degree, but you more than most. Except, unlike most people, you don’t hold it against me. You’re still nice to me. Nicer than you have any right to be. There has to be a reason for that. And I don’t want to hear it.”

How’s that for honesty?

Carisi stares.

Rafael is expecting Carisi to bolt, any minute now. Rafael just brought it all out in the open. There’s a reason Carisi sees him through rose-colored glasses. There’s a reason Carisi sees him as a jerk with a heart of gold. There’s a reason Carisi has failed to realize, in almost two years, that Rafael is just a jerk.

There’s a reason Carisi is blind to all of Rafael’s faults.

Carisi is not naïve. It’s more than that.

Carisi likes him. It’s obvious, and Rafael doesn’t want to hear it, becaus-

“Why don’t you wanna hear it?”

Rafael doesn’t understand how Carisi does that. How he always knows what Rafael is thinking. How he always knows what to say.

Carisi is looking at Rafael expectantly.

He doesn’t look like he’s about to bolt.

Carisi looks like he’s staying.

“What’s the point, Carisi? Can’t we just pretend you already told me?”

There really is no point in this. No point in youthful, innocent crushes. No point in less than youthful crushes, either.

Rafael doesn’t want to hear it, because it’ll never amount to anything, and it’ll be better if no one’s heart is broken in the process. It’s better to leave things unsaid. It’s better not knowing. Knowing is overrated.

Rafael has lost his hope, his 'what if’, but Carisi hasn’t, not yet. Rafael would like to keep it that way.

For some reason.

Carisi takes a deep breath. He looks less upset than Rafael imagined. He doesn’t look upset at all, in fact. Then again, Carisi never seems to take anything personally.

“What if we don’t pretend?”

“Carisi, I don’t-”

“No, look. Just hear me out.”

No.

Rafael will not let that happen.

“I told you, Carisi. There’s no point. Let’s end this conversation here, and we c-”

“Who said I thought your shitty attitude was reverse psychology?”

Rafael blinks.

“Look, Barba, when I say you helped me, I’m not saying you did it on purpose. I tried to tell you the other day, but you wouldn’t let me. Yeah, you were always pretty hard on me, but that’s what kept me going. Proving people wrong, it’s kinda what I do best. Gives me motivation. I’ve had to prove people wrong my whole life. Every time you made fun of me, every time you questioned me, it lit a fire under my ass, you know? That’s why I wanted to thank you.

"And, yeah, maybe calling you my 'mentor’ is kind of a stretch but this, having access to all these cases, watching you in court, getting to sit next to you, to discuss strategy with you. You didn’t have to do anything else. It was enough being around you. I learned so much. And I got to see how you work, up close. That was a privilege. So thank you. You’re still an asshole, and you probably didn’t mean to do it, but you did help me.”

Oh.

Maybe Carisi isn’t blind to Rafael’s faults after all.

Rafael never considered the possibility his hostile behavior could actually be helpful. Leave it to Carisi to find the silver lining in Rafael being a dick.

Still.

It appears that Carisi’s gratitude isn’t misplaced, and that alleviates some of Rafael’s guilt.

It also appears that Carisi has the good sense to play off Rafael’s comments. To just talk about work. To keep it professional. It’s for the best.

It’s better to leave things unsaid.

“Okay, Carisi. You’re welcome.”

Carisi smiles again.

“And I admire the w-”

“Carisi…”

“I admire the way you stand up for the victims, okay? That’s what I wanted to say. It inspires me, cause you put your career on the line to help these people. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s worth the fight, like I told you. It’s good to see you standing up for what’s right, especially when you’re under so much pressure. Okay? There. I said it. You heard it. Was that so hard?”

It was, actually.

Rafael doesn’t do 'sincere’.

Rafael doesn’t deserve 'sincere’.

Rafael is feeling a little emotional. He can’t believe that Carisi, of all people, is eliciting this reaction out of him. It’s the whole Liv thing. It has to be. It’s got Rafael feeling off-kilter. His support system, his friend, she’s gone. They’re not talking. They haven’t talked all week, except that one time Liv accused Rafael of betraying her.

Carisi is still there, though. Carisi is there for him, when the rest of the precinct is convinced Rafael was the one who gave Liv up.

Carisi is always there for him.

Carisi admires him.

Carisi finds him inspiring.

Carisi is smiling at him.

Kindly.

Carisi’s gratitude may not be misplaced, but his kindness is.

Rafael knows that.

“Why are you always so nice to me, Carisi?”

Carisi looks confused.

“I’m nice to everybody.”

That’s true.

“Yes. But why are you nice to me?”

Carisi looks slightly uneasy.

“Cause no one else is.”

That’s true too. Painfully true.

But it’s not the answer Rafael is looking for.

“Yes. But why are you nice to me?”

Carisi bites his bottom lip. Rafael’s eyes, they’re drawn to it.

Rafael’s eyes are drawn to Carisi’s lips.

Always have been.

“I thought you didn’t wanna hear it, counselor.”

There it is.

Acknowledgment.

Carisi still looks a little nervous, but he’s smiling again.

Maybe Rafael does want to hear it.

Maybe Rafael wonders what 'it’ is.

What Carisi will say, exactly.

How he’ll say it.

Maybe Rafael wants to look at Carisi’s face, as he speaks.

Carisi’s face, it’s always been a source of comfort for Rafael.

Comfort and annoyance.

Mostly comfort, these days.

Rafael sighs.

This is a bad idea. He’s already lost one friend this week.

Not that he lost Olivia. Not for good. And not that Carisi is his friend. Carisi is just…

Nice.

Rafael doesn’t want to lose 'nice’. He doesn’t have a lot of 'nice’ in his life.

Rafael doesn’t do 'nice’ because he can’t.

He’s always admired the people who can.

This is a bad idea.

“You’re right, Carisi. I don’t wanna hear it.”

Carisi nods.

“Good. 'Cause I don’t wanna say it.”

Rafael isn’t sure what’s going on.

“What?”

Carisi smirks.

“I don’t wanna say it. Not yet. It’s bad enough that I feel it.”

Rafael gapes.

'Feel’?

'Not yet’?

“You…”

Carisi laughs. He actually laughs.

“I’m gonna go now. Okay? We’ll keep in touch, in case there’s any new information. You and Liv, you guys need to patch things up. I told you, I know it was Deputy Chief Dodds. I just know it. I’ve been trying to convince her too. I think she’s coming around, she just won’t admit it to me.

“Maybe you call her, okay? I think she’ll believe you now. And don’t take that personally, by the way. Liv was really upset for the first few days. I mean, d'oh. She even accused the Sergeant at first, and he clearly had nothing to do with it. She knows that. I’m pretty sure she knows about you too. Alright, Barba?”

Rafael is still gaping.

Carisi has been talking to Liv on his behalf? This entire week?

That's…

Nice.

Rafael doesn’t deserve 'nice’.

Carisi keeps smiling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe when someone is nice like Carisi, maybe that’s it.

Maybe Rafael doesn’t have to deserve it.

“Alright, counselor.”

Carisi grins again. His eyes get squinty, his dimples show. He loves that. He loves it when Rafael calls him 'counselor’.

Rafael decides to start doing that more often.

To start returning Carisi’s kindness.

Just because Rafael doesn’t have to deserve it, it doesn’t mean that he can’t try.

“Alright. Good. See you later, Barba.”

Rafael nods, watches as Carisi gets up.

Watches as Carisi leaves, still grinning.

Later.

Not yet.

Rafael watches as the door swings closed.

He thinks he just found a new 'what if’.

Chapter Text

Rafael is struggling not to stare.

This is the fourth trip Carisi has made to his office, carrying box after box full of folders, full of evidence, full of disturbing pictures of disturbing people, and Carisi looks to be on autopilot.

They’re standing next to each other over Rafael’s coffee table, arranging everything by year, and there have been no smiles, no attempts at small talk, no snarky comebacks, no casual touches, no fleeting looks, always longer than necessary, no ‘accidental’ near-misses, their shoulders only a hair’s breadth apart, no gratuitous exchanges of documents, their fingers all but grazing each other, there have been no words muttered quietly enough to require a step closer to be heard.

This isn’t Carisi.

Rafael briefly wonders if this is temporary. If this case shook Carisi’s faith momentarily, or if it changed Carisi forever.

That will happen someday.

Rafael knows that.

They all change, sooner or later. There’s always that one case that hits harder. Rafael prefers not to think about the case that changed him. It’s been years. Maybe this is the case that changes Carisi.

Rafael hopes it isn’t.

He doesn’t know why.

Rafael hopes Carisi can stay just the way he is, for a little while longer.

Carisi is about to leave again. Not to head home, even though it’s almost eleven o’clock. Carisi is heading back to the precinct, to bring over more boxes.

‘Last one for the night,’ he said.

Carisi will have to make a lot more of those trips until he can bring everything in for sorting and cataloging. They found so much in that churchyard.

Dirt buried in dirt.

Carisi seems to have taken on the task of going through those folders alone. The others, they’ve moved on to the next case, but Liv needed a detective to go through the evidence before sending them to the D.A.’s office, and Carisi volunteered.

Rafael is not surprised.

Looking at those pictures, reading those records, it’s a punishment, and Carisi has been beating himself up throughout this entire case.

Carisi is doubting himself, even now, even though all he did was fall for an expertly told lie which had everyone fooled. It’s clear in the way he stands, the way he moves. Hunched over, and not because of his usual bad posture. And his hands, Carisi talks and his hands, they’re barely moving.

This isn’t Carisi.

Rafael did try to offer some comfort earlier, and he still doesn’t know what possessed him to do so, but Rafael did try. He admitted that the Monsignor’s act was so good that even he had questioned his instincts. He didn’t fall for it, not like Carisi did, but that was understandable because Carisi had the added disadvantage of faith.

That’s what faith is.

A disadvantage.

That’s why Rafael no longer believes.

It only makes things complicated.

Rafael did try to offer some comfort, but he doesn’t think it worked.

“Alright, see you on Monday, counselor.”

Rafael finally finds an excuse to look up at Carisi.

Carisi’s face, it’s even more revealing than his muted body language.

Carisi looks haunted.

Rafael feels his stomach tighten at the sight.

He doesn’t know why.

At least it sounds like Carisi reconsidered that last trip back-and-forth. That last bit of punishment. Maybe he feels that he suffered enough.

“See you on Monday, Carisi. Get some rest.”

Carisi tries to smile and almost succeeds. It’s clear that he appreciates the courtesy.

Rafael is glad. He’s made a conscious choice to be nicer, in an effort to make up for the way he treated Carisi early on, and he’s glad Carisi seems open to it, no questions asked.

Carisi doesn’t know how to hold a grudge, apparently. He accepted their new dynamic readily. He accepted the shift in Rafael’s behavior. Granted, there’s still the occasional insult met with the occasional scoff, but for the most part Carisi just smiles now.

Carisi smiles at Rafael, all the time.

No.

Not all the time.

Right now, Carisi isn’t smiling.

“Yeah, I’ll get some rest. I got one more trip and then I’m done.”

Oh.

Carisi didn’t reconsider. He just thought Rafael was calling it a night.

Carisi still doesn’t think he suffered enough.

Rafael does.

Rafael decides to put an end to this.

One more trip won’t make a difference. Not tonight. Not when there’s still so much to be done.

“Uh, before you leave, Carisi, can I just say, your idea to blackmail Judge Wheeler into getting us that warrant, that was smart. It reminded me of something I would do.”

Carisi smirks.

It looks good on him.

Makes him look more like himself.

“Right. Well, that makes sense. Whenever I’m in a bind, I always ask myself, ‘What would Barba do?’”

Rafael would laugh, except he’s pretty sure that’s not a joke. He’s pretty sure that’s exactly what Carisi does, and that thought pleases Rafael more than he cares to admit.

Which brings Rafael to his next question.

His next attempt at distraction.

“By the way, whatever happened with the bar exam? You never told me.”

Carisi actually smiles this time. It’s a proud smile.

“That’s right, I never… I was gonna tell you, but… but I got caught up. I passed! Sonny Carisi, Esquire, at your service.”

Carisi’s hands, they finally move.

Carisi adds a little flourish at the end of his sentence.

It’s impossible not to smile back.

Rafael’s smile, it’s proud, too.

He doesn’t know why.

Rafael never doubted Carisi.

“Color me shocked, detective.”

Carisi’s smile gets wider.

“Shocked that I passed or shocked that I didn’t tell you about it as soon as I found out?”

The latter, actually. Rafael can’t believe Carisi didn’t break down his door to make the announcement two seconds after getting the news.

“Both. Ever since you told me you took the exam, I’ve had Carmen on Carisi Watch. She was under explicit orders to tackle you if you tried to barge in without knocking.”

Carisi keeps smiling.

It looks right.

Carisi should never look haunted. Pain looks wrong on his face. Carisi’s face is made for smiling.

Rafael tries to keep the conversation light.

Tries to keep that smile on Carisi’s face.

“Any plans to celebrate?  It is Friday night.”

Carisi’s smile evaporates.

“Uh, I was gonna… I was gonna bring over one last evidence box and then I thought… I don’t know. I thought I might wanna go to church.”

Oh.

Even after this case, Carisi still wants to go to church. Still thinks he might find God there, instead of several of His corrupt creations.

Before this case, Rafael hadn’t set foot in a church in years. And even now, the only reason he did was to take pleasure in watching the Monsignor being taken away in handcuffs.

Shamed.

Just like he deserved.

Rafael can’t believe that deeply immoral, evil man dared to lay blame on Carisi. The hypocrisy was astounding. The Monsignor had the gall to accuse a good man like Carisi, when he had spent the past few decades of his life trafficking teenage girls.

Rafael still regrets not saying anything.

Right after the Monsignor stormed out, Carisi turned to face Rafael. He looked nauseous. A man of the cloth, one Carisi had actually tried to defend, had just blatantly lied to save his own ass, to deflect suspicion. He hadn’t even balked at Carisi’s impassionate plea for justice.

Rafael wishes he had said something.

He didn’t.

He couldn’t find the words. Rafael isn’t good with pep talks, isn’t good with offering words of comfort. To his embarrassment, he even thought, ‘What would Carisi do?’

Carisi is great at comforting others.

At comforting Rafael.

Always.

Carisi left, moments later, and all Rafael could do was stare.

Rafael is still staring.

Carisi wants to go to church.

The Monsignor’s behavior, this entire case, the acts themselves but also the cover-up, the extent of it, the fact it went up to the highest ranks of the Catholic Church, every single thing about this sick case, it has been gut-wrenching.

And it was barely the first instance of such inhumanity in those circles.

Rafael can’t imagine going to a church to pray.

Rafael doesn’t pray now.

Not anymore.

It must show on his face, because Carisi starts rambling, starts making excuses.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s weird. I know, counselor. But… Last time I was inside a church, I had to, uh… I lied. To Father Eugene. I tricked him. I played him. I had to. For those girls.

“And, don’t get me wrong, it was worth it and I’d do it again, but I still feel… It wasn’t right. I wanna go back. I wanna… I want to be honest. Before I go to mass again, I want to, uh…”

Rafael nods.

“To atone for what you did.”

Carisi nods as well.

Rafael read Father Eugene’s testimony. Carisi convinced him to come clean about everything. The trafficking ring. The clients. Decades of depravity. And Carisi did that in a church, somehow. Rafael found that particularly impressive. Brazen, even. He hadn’t realized that it involved lying.

Rafael wants to know more.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Carisi. How did you get him to talk?”

Carisi looks away, busies himself with some folders Rafael knows for a fact he’s already been trough.

“Father Eugene, how did you get him to talk? Everyone else had given up.”

Carisi still isn’t making eye contact.

He looks uncomfortable.

“Yeah, well. I don’t give up on people.”

Rafael actually meant that everyone had given up on the case, not on Father Eugene specifically, but Carisi’s assumption explains a lot.

Carisi doesn’t give up on people. Regardless of who they are. What they are. Rafael knows that. He read about the Rudnick incident. He remembers how Carisi treated their drunken witness from a few months earlier. Carisi has a way of looking at everyone as a human being.

Maybe that’s why Carisi is so surprisingly good at this job. Not just at busting perps, but at getting them to confess. Rafael has lost track of the number of cases SVU has closed on the strength of a Carisi interrogation.

Carisi sees more in people.

Carisi sees more in Rafael, too.

It’s obvious.

Carisi is always kind to him, and supportive, even though Rafael has done nothing to merit such support.

Carisi worries about him.

No one ever worries about Rafael. Everyone sees him as strong and unflappable. Everyone always thinks he can ‘handle it’. Whatever ‘it’ is.

Carisi doesn’t see him that way. Carisi knows that’s not true all the time. Carisi can tell that certain things, certain cases, they affect Rafael.

Rafael knows that.

He knows, because Carisi tends to sit closer to him whenever that happens. Carisi tends to praise him more, whenever a case goes south. Carisi tends to smile at him more. Carisi tends to touch him more.

Carisi worries about him.

What’s really troubling is that Rafael worries about Carisi too. It was easy to deny it before, but this case, it’s made it undeniable. Seeing Carisi so dejected, so forlorn, it’s almost distressing. Rafael keeps wanting to comfort Carisi.

He doesn’t know why.

He just knows that he looks at Carisi differently now.

Maybe it’s because Carisi really has changed. He’s nothing like that bumbling loudmouth he used to be.

Or maybe it’s because Rafael got used to him. Got used to the random quirks and the flying elbows and the irritating accent and the bad jokes and the unsolicited tips and the…

And the kindness.

The compassion.

Rafael couldn’t see it before, but he sees it now.

Rafael sees Carisi now.

Rafael understands Carisi.

Most of the time.

He still doesn’t understand what Carisi could have lied about.

“Alright, Carisi. You didn’t give up on Father Eugene, and clearly that was the right call. So what did you say to him?”

Carisi starts fumbling with those same folders again. He’s frowning, and he still won’t look Rafael in the eye.

It belatedly occurs to Rafael that he’s asking about a private conversation between a Catholic and a priest. One which took place inside a church, no less.

Carisi did admit to playing Father Eugene, he admitted he was at that church on official business if not on official orders.

Still.

Maybe Carisi’s lie was about something else. Something more personal. Maybe Carisi doesn’t want to share. Rafael can respect that. Rafael can tell that his questions are making Carisi even more uncomfortable, and that’s the last thing he wants.

Rafael wants to comfort Carisi.

He doesn’t know why.

Rafael reaches over, puts his hand on Carisi’s shoulder.

It’s the first time he has ever touched Carisi without pretense.

Rafael has been struggling to keep his hands to himself, for some time now.

This isn’t how he imagined it.

Rafael imagined he’d first touch Carisi suggestively, teasingly. He imagined alcohol would be involved. He imagined an intimate touch on Carisi’s thigh, maybe, or Carisi’s waist, or the small of Carisi’s back. Something more exciting than a shoulder, anyway. Rafael imagined a playful touch, meant to fluster Carisi.

This touch, it’s not meant to fluster.

It’s meant to soothe.

To comfort.

Rafael hopes this works, even if words don’t.

Carisi looks at him, finally.

They’re standing so close.

Rafael can’t read the expression on Carisi’s face.

“You don’t have to tell me, Caris-”

“I told him to feel God. Around him. In that church.”

Oh.

Rafael barely stops himself before rolling his eyes.

It’s a reflex. The last thing he wants is to disrespect Carisi’s beliefs.

Coming from anyone else, that line, ‘feel God’, it would be offensively pretentious.

Coming from Carisi, it’s genuine. It comes from the heart.

Rafael can hardly remember what it was like to have one.

Carisi, he’s all heart.

Rafael squeezes Carisi’s shoulder.

“And did he? Feel God?”

Carisi looks increasingly uneasy, but he doesn’t move away.

He keeps looking at Rafael.

“No. He said he was blind to God. He said… Father Eugene said he had prayed, countless times, to be relieved of his weakness. He told me I couldn’t imagine what that was like. To pray for God to… to relieve me.”

Rafael nods again. He knows that f-

“And I lied. I said I knew, to make him think I was on his side, but I didn’t tell him how I knew. I didn’t tell him I know exactly what it feels like to pray for… for that. I didn’t tell him that I’ve done it myself. That I did it for years. That I used to pray for God to change me.”

Oh.

Oh.

That’s…

Rafael is fairly certain Carisi just came out to him, and it’s as awkward as it is touching.

What it is not is surprising.

Rafael had his suspicions.

His hopes.

Not just about Carisi being gay. Rafael had his hopes about Carisi being attracted to him. If only because no one in their right mind would willingly spend so much time with Rafael without an ulterior motive.

Rafael always expected a confession, no pun intended, but not like this.

Rafael was expecting Carisi to make a move, one of those days. To lean closer, maybe, even closer, during one of their hushed conversations, and plant a kiss on Rafael’s lips. Rafael was expecting a flirty smile and a hesitant invitation for casual drinks.

He was not expecting this.

Rafael was not expecting Carisi to tell him about years upon years spent in agony.

In self-loathing.

Rafael always hoped that he and Carisi wouldn’t have that in common.

Rafael always imagined that Carisi had been spared of that anguish, somehow. That he had a happy, accepting family who had embraced him from the start. Carisi always looked so well-adjusted and happy. It’s hard to think of him…

It’s hard to think of him in pain.

Rafael’s fingers tighten around Carisi’s shoulder again.

He’s not sure what to say.

Maybe he should conf-

“I almost became a priest. Did you know that, Barba?”

Oh.

That would explain the anguish.

“Makes more sense than you becoming a lawyer.”

Carisi smiles at Rafael’s joke.

Rafael smiles back, and he wants t-

“I wanted to. I used to take Sunday school more seriously than regular school. I got a couple of cousins who are priests, and they always told me I had what it takes. But I didn’t think… I lied about this too, to Father Eugene. I told him I never had a higher calling.

“That was a lie. I did. I do. I’ve always wanted to help people. And I have faith. I just… I didn’t think I was worthy. Because… you know. Because of my deviance. So I just kept praying, for years. To be different. To be healed.”

Carisi looks weighed down by this, still.

Rafael is slowly but steadily getting worked up.

Carisi is possibly the kindest person he knows.

The most sincere.

It’s ridiculous, it’s offensive, it’s infuriating that someone so pure would ever be made to feel dirty.

Deviance.

The word alone is making Rafael’s fist clench.

It’s making Rafael remember.

It’s mak-

“I never told my cousins about any of this. They still don’t know. Nobody in my extended family does, and that’s a lot of people. I just told them I decided to become a cop, instead. That way I could still help people. I figured it’d be close enough.

“But they still don’t know. My parents do, and my sisters, and thank God for my sisters. Sometimes I think my dad would’ve kicked me out if it weren’t for them. They stuck up for me.

“My mom, she took it kinda hard, but she wasn’t mad. She was just sad, you know? She had that devastated look on her face. Started crying about how I’d never give her grandkids. But Gina and Theresa, they’re my older sisters, they actually started telling her about adoption and surrogacy, right then and there. I mean, I was mortified, ‘cause I was still in high school back then, and we laugh about it now, but it meant a lot. My sisters, they never treated me any different.

“My dad, though? He got mad. He started saying all sorts of stuff. Slurs, you know. Yelling. Threatening me. And you gotta understand, I was a kid. I was seventeen. It was pretty scary. But Bella, you met Bella, she said if he even thought about kicking me out, she’d come with me. She was fourteen. And my dad knew she’d do it, too. Bella was always tough like that. So she shut him up quick.”

Rafael bites his lip. He blinks and looks away, hoping his eyes will dry before Carisi notices.

Rafael’s abuela, she tried to stick up for him too.

And then she muttered that she would pray for him.

To be healed.

She was from a different generation. Rafael knew that, that’s why he never held those words against her. She did try to support him. She’d always put in a good word with his mother. Her heart was in the right place, and she loved Rafael fiercely until her dying day.

Her words, they still made Rafael feel like he was sick.

Rafael is glad Carisi has his sisters. Family who loves him just the way he is.

By the time Rafael looks back at Carisi, Carisi looks ready to bolt. He clearly feels awkward. This speech, it poured out of him, and he’s probably feeling self-conscious.

Rafael’s silence is making it worse.

Rafael wants to speak.

“I’ve been there, Carisi.”

Carisi looks at him, eyes wide in interest.

“Except the part about wanting to become a priest, of course.”

Carisi snorts.

Rafael tries not to think about the fact the still has his hand on Carisi’s shoulder.

“I was raised Catholic. And I used to think like you. I know what it’s like to feel that you’re not worthy. To wish you were different.”

Carisi nods. He doesn’t look surprised. He probably didn’t get it. He didn’t understand.

Rafael must have been too vague. He could leave it there, he could stop, now, before it’s too late, before he comes clean, but he doesn’t want to lie to Carisi.

Carisi may have lied to Father Eugene, but he was honest with Rafael.

Carisi trusted Rafael.

Rafael wants to do the same.

“I know what it’s like to think you’re a deviant. To think you can pray away your ‘sins’. To wish you could change who you are. To want that very badly. More than anything. I know what it’s like to think that you’re wicked.”

Carisi nods again.

He doesn’t look any more surprised.

He just looks more sympathetic.

He’s smiling.

Rafael thinks he underestimated Carisi. He should really know better by now.

Carisi understood Rafael just fine the first time.

And now, now that Rafael spelled it out, if there’s a hint of surprise in Carisi’s face, it’s probably because Rafael found it in him to share.

That’s understandable. Rafael himself is surprised.

Carisi is still smiling, still standing close.

“Is that why you lapsed? No offense, counselor, I’m just assuming, ‘cause you said you were raised Catholic, but you didn’t say anything during this whole case, so I figured you’d, uh…”

Carisi is rambling again, afraid he said something inappropriate.

It’s sweet.

Rafael smirks and pats Carisi on the shoulder, finally tearing his hand away.

“I prefer ‘recovering Catholic’, actually, but lapsed will do. And yes, that’s one of the reasons why.”

That’s an understatement.

Rafael came out to his mother when he was twenty-three. At Harvard, already. He finally felt strong on his feet. Confident. He had stopped praying by then. Praying to change, that is. He still prayed.

Rafael doesn’t pray now.

Not anymore.

Back then, he used to pray, and he used to go to mass, and he used to think his mother would accept him.

She didn’t.

She told him not to set foot in the house of God until he had rid himself of his filthy urges.

So he never went back.

To this day, that’s one of Rafael’s most painful memories.

He didn’t give up, at first. He tried to speak to their priest, to seek guidance on how to approach his mother, how to mend their relationship. Rafael knew the Church’s official position, of course he did, but he was looking for some humanity. For some understanding.

He didn’t get it.

All Rafael got was a subtle look of disgust as Father Francisco toed the company line and asked him if he only had homosexual ‘tendencies’ or if he had actually engaged in acts of ‘depravity’.

Like that made a difference.

Rafael never went back.

His mother, she came around eventually. She accepts him now. Most of the time. She still mutters about the church, on occasion, she still tells him about Father Francisco, about the congregation, she still fills him in on the neighborhood gossip, but she never asks him to accompany her.

Rafael has no place in a church, apparently.

Rafael wouldn’t go even if she asked.

It’s been freeing not having to appear devout.

It’s been freeing not having to hide who he is for fear of being rejected.

Rafael will share his story with Carisi on another night. He’s not ready for that level of intimacy just yet.

It probably makes no difference, anyway. Carisi has probably guessed most of this already, at least going by the way he’s looking at Rafael and nodding in understanding.

It’s not hard to guess. It’s an experience that’s all too common.

But Rafael and Carisi, they had different reactions to it.

“You haven’t lapsed though, have you, Carisi? You still believe. I just hope you don’t feel that way about yourself anymore.”

Rafael really, truly hopes that’s not the case.

Carisi smiles yet again. He no longer looks haunted. He looks relieved. Like he just wanted to unload. Like he wanted someone to lend an ear.

Rafael was happy he could be that someone for Carisi.

He doesn’t know why.

“No, I don’t. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Maybe ten years. This case just brought up a lot of stuff for me, you know?”

Rafael does know. That Catholic upbringing, it’s hard to shake. Even Rafael was affected, and he’s much older than Carisi. He’s been dealing with this for about thirty years, since he was a teenager, and Carisi is barely thirty years old.

Rafael is just glad Carisi is at peace with himself.

“I know that being gay is not wrong. I know that. It’s love. Love can’t be wrong. And sin, that’s just, that’s a whole different concept. What’s a sin? Who’s sinful? Am I sinful? Are you, Barba? You’ve helped so many people. You’ve done so much good. How can you not be righteous? How can you not go to heaven?”

Rafael’s eyebrows shoot up before he can stop them.

“Well, I can think of a few things I’ve done that would land me in hell.”

Carisi starts laughing.

Rafael thinks he even sees a blush on Carisi’s pale face.

Carisi gets his laughter under control, if not the color on his cheeks, and tries to clarify his statement. He’s speaking with his hands again. That’s how Rafael knows he really feels better.

“No, I mean, you’re a good person, counselor. We’re good people. We try to help. That’s enough, in my book. I think that’s enough for God, too. He looks into our hearts, and He knows.”

Humanity.

Understanding.

Leave it to Carisi to almost restore Rafael’s faith in faith.

Speaking of, Rafael catches a glimpse of rosary beads in Carisi’s inside coat pocket, just as Carisi’s hands are flying left and right.

Carisi was serious about going to church.

Rafael hasn’t held a rosary in years.

“What do you pray for now, Carisi?”

Carisi looks confused until Rafael points at his pocket.

Carisi’s hand automatically goes to the beads, takes them out, wraps them around his fingers. As soon as he realizes what he’s doing, he puts the rosary back in his pocket.

“Oh. The normal things, I guess. I pray for my loved ones. I pray for peace, for the victims. Why do you ask?”

Rafael exhales.

“Tonight. You want to go to church. After everything you saw. After you dug up a churchyard with your own hands and discovered all this filth. You still want to go to church. You still see it as the house of God. What will you pray for tonight?”

Carisi blinks.

“Tonight, I want to pray that I’ll still want to pray tomorrow. Does that make sense?”

That makes perfect sense.

To Rafael, at least.

And it explains how Carisi can still believe. Faith and doubt, they’re not mutually exclusive. Or, they are for the Church, but not for the believers. Carisi can both acknowledge his doubt and hope that his faith will be enough to clear it.

Rafael finds that kind of optimism uplifting, somehow.

“What if I drive you?”

Carisi’s eyebrows almost fly off his forehead.

“What? Where? To church?”

Rafael nods.

“Yes. I can wait for you.”

Carisi narrows his eyes. He’s probably trying to understand why Rafael is offering.

Rafael hopes Carisi will share the answer with the rest of the class if he figures it out.

All Rafael has so far is that he doesn’t want Carisi to be alone tonight. And he also doesn’t want Carisi to be with anyone else.

He doesn’t know why.

“I’ll wait outside, of course. In the car. I don’t do churches.”

Carisi slowly starts smiling.

Rafael is expecting the clichéd line about him being unable to enter a church without bursting into flames, that line he’s heard many times from some of his devout acquaintances as they judge him for not attending mass, that casual joke that really isn’t supposed to sting half as much as it does. But then, that’s probably because Rafael has heard those words said in earnest, by his own mother no les-

“You’d do that?”

Oh.

Carisi isn’t in the mood for jokes, it seems.

Carisi just looks earnest, and grateful, and a little curious.

“Yes. And then I’ll take you out for a drink. To celebrate one of the Bar Association’s gravest errors.”

Carisi’s jaw drops.

“You’d do that?”

Okay, so the jaw drop was an exaggeration. Carisi is grinning. He’s is in the mood for jokes after all.

Carisi is funny.

“You’re not funny, Carisi. And yes, I’d… I’d like to do that. I should have offered you a drink half an hour ago. The conversation we just had, you’re not supposed to have it sober. We can drink later to make up for it.”

Rafael watches as Carisi’s smile gets softer.

“Okay.”

~ ~ ~

The drive to the church is short. Rafael notices Carisi’s fingers reaching for the rosary beads a few times. He doesn’t think Carisi is aware of it. It’s probably instinct. A way to touch base.

Touch base with God, probably.

Rafael smiles at that thought as he parks the car.

Carisi looks more somber now, for some reason. The ambience, perhaps.

“I’ll just.. I’ll only be a few minutes, I’ll-”

Rafael scoffs.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Carisi. Take your time. I’ll be here.”

Carisi smiles.

“Promise? You’re not gonna ditch me?”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

“I’ll be here.”

Carisi keeps smiling as he opens the car door.

“Oh and, Carisi, you’re buying.”

Carisi chuckles as he comes out of the car, as he walks up the stairs toward the church doors.

Rafael waits.

Rafael thinks.

Rafael thinks about those girls in the pictures, those girls he had to put on the stand, he thinks about Sister Nina, he thinks about all the good people who don’t deserve the fate they’re suffering.

Rafael thinks about Carisi, too, he thinks about all the good people who fight for justice. Who fight for those who can’t. Carisi called him a good person too, earlier. Rafael didn’t react at the time. Carisi does see more in him. It feels good to know that.

Rafael thinks about his mother, he thinks she’d probably laugh if she saw him waiting outside a church. She’d say he was afraid to walk in. She wouldn’t be wrong. Rafael wouldn’t know what to do in a church, not anymore. He’s sure all the hymns would come back to him, all the movements, all the words, but that’d just be muscle memory.

Rafael thinks he lost the connection. That deeper feeling. That channel of communication, it’s closed now. He used to have a direct line to God. That was what it felt like to him. Like his thoughts were instantly conveyed to the heavens. Like God was listening to him.

Rafael thinks God might still be listening.

Rafael thinks he’s praying.

Minutes go by, several minutes, until Carisi finally returns.

Rafael thinks Carisi’s eyes are red. He hopes he’s just seeing things.

“Alright, Carisi? Are you done? Now can we get drunk?”

Carisi looks at him.

Carisi’s face, it’s so open.

Carisi leans in.

Closer.

Always closer.

Their foreheads are almost touching. That’s nothing new for them, of course. Or, it is new, in that it’s only been happening for a few months, but it’s not entirely new.

Except Carisi keeps leaning closer, and Rafael feels drawn to him, and Rafael moves even closer, Rafael leans all the way in.

This, this is new.

Carisi’s eyes, they really are red. Rafael can see them clearly now.

Carisi’s lips are red too.

Carisi kisses him.

Carisi’s lips are red, and soft, and Carisi’s nose is poking Rafael on the cheek, and Rafael can feel his own nose digging into Carisi’s face, and Rafael never realized their noses were going to play such a prominent role in their first kiss.

Carisi keeps kissing him, small kisses, and Rafael can feel his bottom lip caught between Carisi’s fuller lips, Rafael can feel Carisi’s tongue slowly brushing against his mouth, Rafael can feel his own tongue sliding against Carisi’s lips, licking, Rafael can taste Carisi’s breath, warm and sweet, Rafael can feel himself starting to get hard, even though their kiss isn’t even that deep, Rafael thinks Carisi’s lips alone are enough to make the kiss feel obscene, Rafael…

Rafael knows he’s just focusing on the physical sensations because he doesn’t want to focus on what he’s feeling.

He can worry about that some other night.

He can worry about the way his heart is thudding, about the way his breath is heavy, about the way his face feels hot, Rafael can worry about all that some other night.

Carisi pulls away.

He looks nervous. His hands are clenched on his thighs. He didn’t touch Rafael even once during their kiss.

Rafael remembers Carisi’s slender fingers holding the rosary beads. Rafael imagines those fingers on his face, around his neck maybe. Rafael imagines those fingers around his-

No.

This is why Rafael lapsed.

And also why he’s going to hell.

Carisi will be going to heaven, of course, which means that Rafael will just have to make the most of their time together on this earthly plane.

Together.

That doesn’t sound half bad.

Carisi still looks nervous.

Rafael decides to spare him and be the first to speak.

“What happened in there, Carisi? Did you pray for the balls to finally make a move?”

Carisi lets out a relieved sigh before he smiles.

His eyes, they’re still red, but they’re also squinting in joy.

In happiness, maybe.

Carisi’s face is made for smiling.

“I don’t usually pray about my sex life, counselor.”

Rafael has to raise an eyebrow at the presumptuousness of that statement.

“Oh? Getting ahead of ourselves, are we?”

Carisi smirks and pointedly glances at Rafael’s crotch.

Rafael winces.

He got busted.

He got busted and he doesn’t think an excuse will help.

Carisi knows, now.

Carisi knows just how into this Rafael is.

Then again, that doesn’t sound half bad, either.

Especially since Carisi seems all too happy to let him off the hook.

“I don’t usually pray about it, but I may have said a prayer or two tonight.”

Rafael can’t wait to hear the rest of that thought, mostly because Carisi looks slightly hesitant to share it.

“I may have prayed for you to kiss me back.”

Rafael thinks that’s the sweetest thing he’s ever heard.

“Well, that explains what just happened. Getting me to kiss you back, that definitely required divine intervention.”

Carisi laughs.

“I guess God loves me, huh?”

Rafael wants to kiss him again.

“If there is a God, Carisi, and if He’s capable of love, I’m sure that He would love you.”

Carisi stares.

Rafael thinks that was a little too much, he thinks he should have kept that thought to himself, he thinks that saying ‘God loves you’ to someone he just kissed is probably not the best idea if he wants t-

“I’m sure He loves you too, Barba.”

Rafael is almost winded by that notion.

By the way Carisi is looking at him.

By the fact Carisi knew Rafael needed to hear that.

Rafael hadn’t heard that in years.

Hadn’t felt that in years.

God’s love.

He thinks he can feel it now.

He thinks he can see it in Carisi’s eyes.

Rafael shakes his head.

“This is without question the weirdest first date I’ve ever been on.”

Carisi smirks.

“The date doesn’t begin until we get to the bar, counselor. I’m just getting warmed up.”

Rafael almost suggests that they scrap the drinks and head straight to his place.

He doesn’t.

Enticing as that sounds, and that’s an understatement, Rafael prefers the idea of spending another hour or two with Carisi, sitting at a quiet bar, closer than necessary, elbows touching, thighs resting against each other, drinking and talking.

Talking to Carisi, it always makes Rafael feel cared for.

Rafael cares for Carisi too.

He doesn’t know why.

That’s not true.

Rafael knows why.

One of those days he might even admit it.

For now, Rafael will start with something else. He thinks he will share his story with Carisi, after all. There’s no reason to wait for another night. This night, it’s perfect.

It’s perfect.

Rafael leans over and kisses Carisi again, briefly, puts his hands on Carisi’s face for just a second, for just a few seconds, Rafael feels Carisi’s dimples on the tips of his fingers, and then he starts the car.

Chapter Text

Sonny looks in the mirror.

His hair is almost dry.

He couldn’t sleep so he got up for an early shower.

Too early.

His hair was damp, before. That was better.

It’s almost dry now.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees all the grey.

He wonders when that happened. He could have sworn he only had a grey hair or three when he first joined SVU.

Now the grey is everywhere.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees that disheveled mess, tufts of hair flying in every direction, and he feels sick to his stomach.

This used to be relaxing. Taking off the three piece suit, scrubbing the product off his hair, this used to make Sonny feel like himself again. Sonny would step into the shower, he’d wash off the day’s grime, and the pain, and the memories of what he’d seen, all the dirt, going down the drain, and Sonny would be left clean.

Sonny doesn’t feel clean.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees Smitty.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees that man who gets the ‘secret thrill’, and Sonny still gags at the memory of what he had to say, what he had to describe, in vivid detail, Sonny swallows and shudders and takes a deep breath.

He wants this to stop.

Sonny can’t see himself in that mirror, not anymore. He can’t see Sonny. That image of him looking casual, his hair fluffy and unkempt, wearing loose jeans and a hoodie, that’s ruined now.

Sonny used to feel at home when he looked like that.

Not anymore.

He wonders when he’ll be able to see himself again.

He wonders when he’ll be able to see Sonny in that mirror.

He knows it won’t be soon.

But maybe he can see Detective Carisi.  Maybe that’s easier. Detective Carisi, ‘Call me Sonny’, not Smitty. Detective Carisi, with his hair all slicked back. Not a single fly away, not a hair out of place. Everything neat.

Clean.

Maybe that’s easier.

Sonny picks up his comb, he reaches for the tin of pomade, and he tries to bring back some part of himself, he tries to bring back what he can, Sonny tries to erase that other man from the mirror, because it hurts to look at himself and see him, it hurts t-

“Going somewhere, Carisi?”

Sonny almost jumps at the sound of Barba’s voice.

He didn’t realize Barba was awake.

Sonny stands in front of the full length mirror in Barba’s bedroom, glad he had the foresight to put on a pair of boxers, and he hopes Barba didn’t see too much. Sonny hopes Barba didn’t see him grimace at the sight of his own face.

“Why? You gonna miss me?”

Barba scoffs.

Sonny sees it through the mirror.

Sonny doesn’t want to turn around yet.

Doesn’t want to face Barba.

Sonny is perfectly content to stare at the glass, to watch Barba behind him, lying in bed, still naked from last night. Sonny is perfectly content to stand there and look at the curve of Barba’s back, at Barba’s hairy chest, at Barba’s surprisingly muscular arms, so strong and solid. Sonny just wants to look, look closely as Barba shifts, Sonny wants to wait until he gets a glimpse of Barba’s thighs as the sheet moves, Sonny wants to see more of Barba’s skin.

Sonny thinks that’s a far better use of the mirror.

“Of course I’m not going to miss you. Don’t be ridiculous.”

Sonny smirks as he watches Barba looking away, not making eye contact.

That’s a blatant lie.

Barba would totally miss him.

Barba is always lying to Sonny. They’ve been sleeping together for six months, and Barba has yet to articulate a single truth that goes beyond ‘stay the night’.

Sonny doesn’t mind.

Barba may not speak the truth, but he finds other ways to express it.

Barba’s lips always form a little smile, every time he sees Sonny at work. It still surprises Sonny, the way Barba can’t contain himself, especially since Sonny somehow manages to remain professional. Those goofy smiles, those are Sonny’s thing. Sonny never thought he’d see one on Barba’s face. Never thought he’d be the reason Barba was smiling. Sonny loves seeing those smiles. They only last for a split second, Barba getting his features under control almost immediately, but Sonny always sees. Sonny knows those smiles are real.

Barba’s arms always clutch at Sonny’s waist, way too tight, every time they sleep in the same bed. Which has been happening a lot lately. Almost every night. Sonny doesn’t think he can sleep without Barba’s arms around him anymore. He sure couldn’t sleep at that shelter. Barba never says anything when they’re not in bed, of course, Barba never acknowledges the fact he’s the world’s clingiest big spoon. Barba just squeezes harder, every time, night after night Barba’s hold on Sonny gets stronger, tighter, and Sonny knows that’s real too.

Barba’s voice always gets so low, and so soft, softer than Sonny thought possible, every time Barba leans in and whispers into Sonny’s ear. Sonny can never hear what Barba is saying, because Barba only does this late at night, when they’re both half asleep. When Barba’s large hands are covering Sonny’s torso completely, when Barba’s breath is so hot on Sonny’s neck, when Barba’s heartbeat is steady against Sonny’s back, and it’s all so distracting, and Barba says things, Barba murmurs quietly, and Sonny can’t be sure but he thinks that’s the only time Barba ever tells the truth.

“I’m just curious, Carisi. Where are you going this early? It’s nine in the morning on a Saturday, where could you be g… Wait, is it your niece again? Or is it Rollins? Did you arrange for another play date yesterday? Or, what, is it a birthday party for one of the countless toddlers in your extended family? A party for a kid who won’t even remember it? Let me guess, you promised one of your aunts you’d bake the birthday cake.”

Barba is never this talkative before he’s had his morning coffee. He’s always this grumpy, but not talkative.

Barba is jealous.

Sonny noticed it yesterday, too, when Barba called after the arraignment and Sonny said he was at Amanda’s, making dinner for her and Jesse. Barba lied again, tried to play it off, tried to act like he didn’t mind, but Sonny heard the disappointment in his voice when Barba said, ‘Just come over when you’re done, okay?’

‘Jealous.’

Maybe that’s not the right word.

Barba couldn’t possibly be jealous. Sonny is way too transparent. Always has been. Sonny’s face, it leaves no doubt. Barba has to know, even if Sonny won’t say it.

‘Neglected.’

That’s a better fit. Barba is probably feeling neglected.

Sonny thinks that’s fair, actually.

Sonny knows he’s been pulling away, he knows he’s been letting these past few cases get to him. In the last two weeks alone, Sonny chose to spend a night in church instead of Barba’s bed. Sonny chose to double up on attending mass, spending all his free time with near strangers instead of unwinding with Barba and a bottle of wine. Just yesterday, Sonny chose to spend the afternoon with Amanda and her baby, instead of going over to Barba’s and having a quiet dinner, like they usually do after wrapping up a case.

Sonny knows Barba did miss him, after those four days and nights Sonny spent at the homeless shelter. They didn’t see each other at all while Sonny was undercover. They didn’t even see each other at the arraignment, because Barba was trying another case. Sonny knows Barba had been hoping to see him sooner, as soon as Sonny was free, but Sonny still chose to stay away.

Amanda, she gets it. She asks.

Barba doesn’t ask.

Amanda asks, and she listens. Sonny feels comfortable talking to her. She doesn’t roll her eyes, not much anyway, and she doesn’t judge him. She will chastise Sonny if she has to, but she doesn’t judge. Amanda can be tough sometimes, but it always comes from a good place. Just like Sonny’s sisters, Amanda has her own way of caring. Sonny thinks that’s why he trusts her so much. She feels like family.

Barba doesn’t.

Barba feels like a lot of things, but family isn’t one of them.

Sonny isn’t comfortable around Barba, not exactly. Sonny doesn’t open up. Sonny keeps quiet about what’s important, Sonny keeps his thoughts to himself, because Barba will judge him, if given the chance, and Sonny doesn’t want that. Doesn’t like that.

Sonny feels like he always has to stay on his toes, because he wants Barba to think highly of him, if that’s even possible. Sonny doesn’t want to give Barba more ammo to make fun of him. Sonny doesn’t want to talk about his overly idealistic worldview, about his rose-colored perception of the justice system, about his faith in humanity that even Sonny has to admit borders on naiveté.

It’s better to steer clear of such topics, so Sonny keeps it light.

Sonny keeps quiet.

Sonny lies too, just like Barba does. Their thing, it doesn’t leave much room for the truth.

Except the truth, it has its ways of creeping in.

The truth is, Sonny is comfortable around Barba sometimes.

When they’re sitting on the couch, at Barba’s place or Sonny’s, it makes no difference anymore, and Sonny is reading, and Barba is working, always working, and their shoulders are touching, and Sonny feels the warmth from Barba’s body against his own, and it feels like home, that’s real.

When they’re eating in, and Sonny is cooking in Barba’s kitchen, and Barba comes up behind him, wrapping strong arms around Sonny’s waist, kissing the base of Sonny’s neck, because that’s all Barba’s lips can reach, and Sonny’s whole body relaxes, melting into Barba’s embrace, that’s real too.

When they’re in bed, and Sonny feels anxious, and he has so much to say but doesn’t, and Barba pushes inside him, deep, and Barba holds him, tight, and Barba won’t stop kissing him, holding him still until Sonny stops fidgeting, pushing in again and again until Sonny forgets, that’s real.

Barba brings Sonny comfort in his own way. Not with words but with roaming hands and soft lips and sturdy thighs and tight hugs, because that’s what they are, tight hugs that make Sonny feel safe.

Sonny missed Barba too, these last four days. Sonny missed those hugs.

That’s real.

Sonny left Amanda’s place in a hurry, late yesterday afternoon, guilty he had spent so many hours there, and he rushed over to Barba’s.

As soon as he saw Barba’s face, as soon as he saw one of those goofy smiles, Sonny felt like an idiot for staying away.

Barba kissed him before the front door was even shut, Barba held him, practically crushed him, and that one hug made Sonny feel even better than those three hours he spent playing with Amanda’s baby.  

Barba didn’t say anything, didn’t ask about the time Sonny spent at the shelter, and Sonny was as disappointed as he was grateful.

Barba doesn’t ask.

Sometimes Sonny thinks Barba doesn’t ask because he already knows.

Last night, after they had sex, Barba fell asleep with his face tucked in the nook of Sonny’s neck, his thigh pressed between Sonny’s legs, his hand clutching Sonny’s bicep so hard Sonny was surprised not to find finger-shaped bruises there in the morning.

Sonny felt safe, and warm, for the first time all week. Sleeping in Barba’s bed, after four nights spent at the shelter with all those sex offenders, after having to share a bunk bed with some of them, every rattle of the bedframe making him queasy, after hearing their stories, their boasting about past ‘conquests’, about past atrocities, after being too sickened to sleep, after the hell Sonny went through, sleeping in Barba’s bed felt like heaven.

Except Sonny didn’t sleep.

Couldn’t sleep.

Still, sleep felt closer.

Sonny knows that another night like that will do the trick. Another night wrapped in Barba’s arms.

Sonny needs Barba.

That’s the truth.

It’s hard to admit, but it’s impossible to deny.

And Barba needs him too.

It’s clear in the way Barba watches him through the mirror, nervously waiting for Sonny’s answer.

Barba lied again. Barba isn’t curious about where Sonny might be going.

Barba just doesn’t want Sonny to leave.

Sonny smiles.

Sonny tears his eyes away from Barba’s face and looks at his own.

Sonny looks in the mirror and he can almost see himself again.

Almost.

Under the dark circles, under the eye bags made even worse by five nights’ worth of insomnia, under the wrinkles Sonny isn’t sure existed before this week, Sonny can almost see himself.

It’s the smile.

It’s Sonny’s real smile, his Barba smile. Not the one he smiled for those men at the shelter. Not that fake smile Sonny had to plaster on his face to appear nice and friendly to those perverts.

To those people.

They’re people, too, and Sonny feels guilty for thinking that, Sonny feels guilty for not thinking that, Sonny just feels guilty.

Sonny grimaces again.

Smitty comes back in the mirror, as soon as the smile disappears.

And that damn hair, it’s not helping.

Sonny got distracted by Barba’s voice, by Barba’s question, by Barba’s chest, Sonny got distracted and he forgot what he set out to do.

Sonny starts combing his hair again.

He wants to tame the mess on his head, he wants t-

“What’s it going to be, Carisi? Are you leaving? Do I have to somehow procure a baby to get you to stay in on a Saturday?”

Oh.

That’s right.

Sonny forgot to answer Barba’s question.

“I don’t know about you stealing a baby, Barba, but if you wanna keep me around, you could try calling me Sonny.”

Barba scoffs again.

“Fine. Are you leaving, Sonny? And if so, can you start the coffee machine on your way out? And also make me some pancakes, like you promised last night?”

Sonny chuckles, mostly because his name always sounds like a putdown when Barba says it.

And also because Sonny did promise to make pancakes, in a bout of guilt for spending the entire afternoon away.

Sonny loves making pancakes for Barba. Loves making breakfast too, and dinner, whenever he can. Sonny even packs Barba’s lunch, more often than not, and he knows Barba has it bad for him because Barba never says anything about Sonny’s creative food styling.

Barba never makes fun of Sonny for making hearts with tomato sauce, or pieces of red bell peppers, even though that was the only reason Sonny started doing it in the first place. One morning, a couple of months ago, Sonny took some leftover pasta from his fridge, put it in a container, and made a heart on top with some Arrabbiata sauce. Sonny did it as a joke. He left the container open on his kitchen counter, thinking Barba would see it, say something hilariously rude and then Sonny could stir the sauce in with the pasta and put it in a lunch bag.

Barba didn’t do that.

Barba didn’t say anything.

Barba just smiled a goofy smile and put the lid on the container as it was.

Heart intact.

Now Sonny always makes hearts, even on foods whose surface makes that tricky.

Sonny wishes they were at his place, so he could make Barba some heart-shaped pancakes with the molds he just bought about a month ago for that express purpose.

As a joke.

Obviously.

Normal pancakes will have to do.

Sonny likes that plan. He thinks it’ll be a fun way to spend an hour.

He thinks he’ll make some hearts with syrup.

Cooking, it relaxes Sonny. He’s not sure if it’s the act of cooking itself or the idea behind it, the thought he’s feeding the ones he cares about.

Just yesterday, Sonny made Rollins the tastiest carbonara. Eggs, no cream, of course, because he’s not a heathen. He even whipped up some lentil soup, left it to cook as they ate, so Amanda would have something nutritious for the rest of her week.

It’s probably the feeding part, Sonny realizes. He doesn’t just cook. He doesn’t always have the time. He gets people take-away sometimes, but only from his most trusted Italian eateries. And pastries too, Sonny loves getting people pastries. He gets cannoli for the rest of the squad, he gets brownies for Barba, he gets butter croissants for Liv, because they’re her favorites, he gets zeppole or bear claws or donut holes for…

For the…

For the people, for the people at th-

“Wherever the hell you’re going, Sonny, you’re going to be late if you don’t get a move on.”

Sonny exhales.

Barba sounds irritated, probably because Sonny is being distant.

Sonny doesn’t blame him.

Sonny doesn’t want to meet his eyes.

Sonny keeps looking straight ahead, into his own sunken eyes, and continues combing his hair.

This is going to be a long day.

“I’m not going anywhere, Rafi. I was just doing my hair.”

Barba doesn’t react to Sonny’s use of the nickname, even though he knows full well that Sonny only ever calls him ‘Rafi’ to annoy him.

Barba doesn’t look any more annoyed than he already was.

Barba just looks confused.

“What? Why bother? We’re at home.”

Just like that, Sonny’s mood improves.

‘Home.’

Hearing that word coming from Barba’s lips on a warm Saturday morning, as Barba is naked, in the same bed where they had sex just hours ago, hearing that word as Sonny is doing his hair in Barba’s mirror with the spare comb and the tin of pomade he keeps on Barba’s dresser, that’s enough to bring back the smile on Sonny’s face.

Still, Sonny doesn’t want to give himself away.

He doesn’t want Barba to know just how that word makes him feel.

‘Home.’

Sonny stifles his reaction. Stifles his smile.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees the corners of his lips fighting to curl up, Sonny sees his eyes brighter than they’ve been all morning, all week, Sonny sees his face about to break into a grin and he tries to stop it, Sonny tries to hide his real feelings, Sonny tries to keep his expression neutral.

Just like he did at that shelter.

Sonny’s lips form a straight line now.

No trace of a grin left on his face.

This is going to be a long day.

“So what if we’re at home? Does that mean I have to look like a slob?”

Sonny hates how snippy he’s being.

He can’t help himself.

These undercover assignments, they always take a toll on him.

Sonny always needs time afterwards.

Time to shed his skin.

Sometimes he worries he’s too good at that.

Sonny can see Barba frowning through the mirror.

Barba pulls off the sheets and rolls over until he gets to the near side of the bed, finally sitting up.

Sonny does see more of Barba’s skin after all. Sonny gets a good eyeful of Barba, and his traitorous lips form another quick smile.

Sonny is never too miserable to ogle Barba’s ass, apparently.

“Who said you looked like a slob, Carisi? Except me, for the first few months of our acquaintance?”

Sonny doesn’t answer.

Doesn’t turn around.

Doesn’t acknowledge Barba’s joke either.

Sonny keeps combing his hair, keeps running the comb through the errant strands, untangling the mess little by little.

Barba sits on the bed and watches.

Sonny remembers the first time he did his hair in front of Barba.

It was the morning after the first night they slept in the same bed. After the first night they spent together at Sonny’s place, following a month of hooking up and dashing out in the middle of the night.

They both got up early that morning, too agitated to sleep in. Too agitated to meet each other’s eyes, too. They did at least manage to share the bathroom and the kitchen in a mostly wordless but surprisingly agreeable way, Barba taking over coffee duties and Sonny whipping up an omelet because he figured it’d be rude to let Barba leave with an empty stomach.

Sonny likes feeding the ones he cares about.

They got dressed in silence, and Barba’s movements were so hurried they made Sonny feel like their thing was more about nighttime hookups and less about sharing a cozy breakfast in the sunlight.

Barba paused at the bedroom door, fully dressed and ready to head out, just as Sonny was putting on his shirt. Sonny pretended to focus on his buttons, Sonny kept his head down, Sonny thought it best to avoid what would probably be a painfully awkward nod.  

Barba didn’t nod.

Barba walked up to him, Barba waited until Sonny raised his head, and then Barba kissed him.

Quickly.

Briskly.

Grudgingly, almost, and Sonny had never been kissed grudgingly before.

It was less of a kiss and more of a headbutt.

It was like Barba didn’t want to kiss him.

It was like Barba had to kiss him.

Sonny grinned as Barba turned around and practically ran out of the bedroom, his pivot as abrupt as their kiss.

About a minute later, Barba rushed back into the room. Sonny knew that Barba had probably forgotten something, but that still didn’t stop him from hoping Barba wanted another kiss.

By that time, Sonny had already started working on his coif.

For some reason, that stopped Barba in his tracks.

“I have to see this. Start over.”

Sonny didn’t understand. Not at first.

Sonny kept combing his hair.

“See what?”

Barba sat on the edge of Sonny’s bed.

“Dominick Carisi Jr., styling his hair. I want to see how you get it to look so stiff.”

Sonny started laughing as he slowed down his movements.

“Okay, Barba, you want a play-by-play? Look, I’m about to use the pomade, I take a dime-sized d-”

Barba scoffed and got up, reaching over and ruffling Sonny’s hair, his long fingers messing up Sonny’s damp locks and ruining Sonny’s progress completely.

“I said start over, Carisi. I missed the beginning.”

Sonny froze.

He blushed, too, but he prefers not to remember that.

Barba’s touch, it was playful.

Affectionate.

Different.

Like maybe their thing was about sharing breakfast after all.

Cozy.  

In the sun.

Sonny looked in the mirror just to avoid looking at Barba’s eyes.

That didn’t work.

Sonny had to look.

Sonny had to see Barba relaxed and smiling, for the first time all morning.

Barba sat back down, and this time he didn’t break eye contact.

Barba kept watching as Sonny started over, as Sonny combed his hair again, as Sonny put some pomade on his palm and warmed it up, as Sonny ran his fingers through his hair, and then the comb, Barba kept watching as Sonny tried not to feel totally self-conscious.

Barba kept smiling until Sonny was done.

Sonny turned around with a flourish, but he didn’t get a chance to say anything because Barba got up and kissed him again. Longer, this time, and slower, like Barba had given up pretending.

Sonny deepened the kiss as he felt Barba’s hands on his neck, Sonny tried to reciprocate, his hands coming up to grab at Barba’s shoulders, but Barba slipped out of his grasp.

“You better not get this sticky stuff all over my suit.”

Sonny grinned and this time Barba grinned back.

Barba exhaled and walked over to the nightstand to pick up his watch because, as it turned out, he had forgotten something, and then he winced as he looked at the time.

“You made me late, Carisi.”

Sonny kept grinning.

He meant to say something like, ‘I didn’t make you sit there and watch me style my hair for fifteen minutes, counselor,’ but Barba kissed him again.

Barba was late, but apparently not so late that he didn’t have time for one more kiss.

Sonny kept grinning as Barba finally left.

Sonny looked in the mirror and saw his face, bright.

Happy.

Sonny looks in the mirror again.

Barba’s mirror.

Their mirror, on mornings like this one.

‘Home.’

Sonny doesn’t look happy now.

Sonny keeps combing his hair, Sonny keeps meaning to open that tin of pomade but all the strands of grey are slowing him down, Sonny keeps running his fingers through the mop on his head, looking for more.

“You have more greys than me, Carisi. When did that happen?”

Barba is standing right behind him.

Sonny didn’t even notice.

Barba is standing right behind him, naked, and Sonny didn’t even notice, and that’s a pretty clear sign that Sonny is not okay.

Barba’s voice is soft.

Barba is smiling, and it’s his Sonny smile, the goofy one, the real one, and Sonny manages to scare up a little happiness, just for a moment.

“Yeah, well, don’t let the grey hair fool ya, counselor, you’re still robbing the cradle.”

Barba’s smile gets wider.

More real, if that’s possible.

Sonny sees it through the mirror.

Sonny still has a hard time smiling.

He still sees Smitty’s smile.

Sonny reaches for the pomade.

“I like your hair better without all the product.”

Barba’s voice is even softer now, Barba standing even closer.

Sonny knows Barba prefers his hair au naturel.

Barba can’t get enough of it, always touching Sonny’s hair, ruffling it, playing with it in bed lazily, late at night, when he thinks he can get away with a touch that’s more tender, when he thinks he can blame his sappiness on the haze of sleep.

Sonny remembers the first time Barba saw him with his hair in its natural state. Not full of pomade, not wet or damp after a shower.

It was another Saturday morning, like this one, about four months ago, and Sonny had pulled an all-nighter studying for the bar. He had barely slept an hour or two when the doorbell rang, and it took Sonny a good five minutes to even identify the sound.

It was Barba.

They were supposed to have breakfast together, at Sonny’s, and Sonny had totally forgotten, and his place was a total mess, and he barely had enough time to tidy up his living room before he opened the door.

Sonny was so worried about the fact he hadn’t had enough time to find a pair of pants that he didn’t even think about his hair.

Sonny remembers Barba’s face, he remembers the way Barba’s eyes lit up, the way Barba smirked.

Sonny felt self-conscious, because Barba always had that effect on him, but he still thought the reason for Barba’s smirk was his lack of pants.

It wasn’t until Sonny nervously rubbed the back of his head that he realized.

The sheer magnitude of his bedhead could not be put in words.

Sonny started frantically trying to smooth down what he could, even though he knew it was hopeless.

Barba seemed to know that too, because he pulled Sonny’s hands away by the wrists.

“This is not what I imagined your hair to look like, Carisi.”

Sonny remembers finding it strange that Barba had imagined his hair, and even stranger that Barba reached up and touched it.

Barba looked almost mesmerized as his hands were drawn to Sonny’s head, Barba practically started fondling Sonny’s scalp, Barba let his fingers get tangled in the soft strands.

After about a minute, Sonny had to kiss him to make things less weird.

Barba offered to take Sonny out for breakfast that morning, on the condition that Sonny’s hair stayed free of product.

Sonny gladly accepted. He always preferred not fussing with his hair on weekends, and he was relieved in knowing that Barba didn’t mind, that Barba didn’t think he looked like a sl…

Like a slob.

Sonny exhales.

Sonny hopes he’ll feel Barba’s fingers in his hair again.

He hopes this undercover stint hasn’t ruined that forever.

Sonny hopes he’ll be able to stand looking at his own face someday, without hiding behind a hairstyle.

It won’t be soon, because Sonny is determined to keep the pomade caked on for the foreseeable future, but someday.

Sonny looks in the mirror.

His hair is fully dry now.

He took too long combing it. Too long thinking. It’s not damp enough for the pomade, but that’s not going to stop him from trying.

Sonny’s hair looks messy and curly and wild and Sonny can’t stand the sight of it.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees Smitty.

Sonny reaches for the tin of pomade, but before he can get it Barba grabs it and pulls it away.

Sonny is not in the mood for games.

He turns around to face Barba, finally, and he hopes his discomfort isn’t as obvious as it feels.

“Come on, Barba, give it back. This isn’t funny. I just wanna do my friggin’ hair.”

Barba looks at Sonny for a second too long and then he opens the tin.

“Let me do it.”

Sonny blinks.

“Come on, Carisi. I know how to do it. I’ve watched you enough times.”

That’s true.

Barba always watches him.

Barba likes it.

That’s why Sonny does his hair in Barba’s bedroom now instead of the bathroom.

That’s why Sonny does his hair in the full length mirror, in his underwear, or even naked if he feels like it, because sometimes he’s not sure if Barba is watching his hair or his ass.

Sonny’s fine with either option.

Sonny nods.

Barba takes Sonny’s jaw with warm fingers and turns Sonny’s head fully, until they’re facing each other, the mirror to their side.

Barba’s touch, it’s still playful.

Affectionate.

Barba scoops up some pomade and puts it on his palm.

It’s just the right amount.

Barba starts rubbing his hands together, to warm it up, to get it even, everywhere, just like Sonny does.

Barba has been watching more than Sonny’s ass, apparently.

Barba steps even closer, Barba reaches up almost on his tiptoes, and then he starts massaging the pomade into Sonny’s hair.

Slowly.

Softly.

Sonny feels Barba’s fingers in his hair again, sooner than he expected, and it’s almost overwhelming.

This feels more intimate than anything they’ve ever done, and they’ve done a lot.

Sonny wants to close his eyes, wants to just enjoy the sensation of Barba’s fingers running through his hair, but he doesn’t.

Sonny watches, his eyes flying from Barba’s face to the mirror, Sonny watches as Barba tries to put him back together again.

Barba looks totally focused.

On Sonny.

It’s scary how much Sonny likes that.

Barba takes the comb from Sonny’s hand, his hand grazing Sonny’s just for a second, and then he combs Sonny’s hair quickly, efficiently, even though he’s never done it before.

Barba only shows hesitation when it comes to picking the right spot for the side part. He settles on a spot that’s pretty damn close, and he looks at Sonny for approval.

Sonny nods again.

Sonny is smiling.

Barba parts Sonny’s hair, starts combing it down, slicking it back, and with every pass of the comb Sonny looks more and more like himself.

Barba finishes off the look with his fingers, Barba carefully tames all the stray hairs, Barba does everything right, and when he’s satisfied with the result he takes a step back.

Sonny turns around again, faces the mirror straight ahead.

Barba is standing right behind him.

Sonny’s hair, it doesn’t look perfect, but it doesn’t have to.

Sonny looks in the mirror and sees Detective Carisi again.

Clean.

Sonny breathes.

“Not bad, counselor. You should do my hair every morning.”

Sonny winces as soon as the words leave his mouth.

It’s a good thing he likes what he sees in the mirror, because he sure doesn’t want to look at Barba right now.

He and Barba, they don’t have an ‘every morning’ type of deal. Their thing, it’s more casual. No commitment. No promises. No future plans.

There’s truth there, but there are lies, too. There are things left unsaid. Things Sonny doesn’t tell Barba, things Barba doesn’t know, because Barba doesn’t ask, because that’s not what this is about.

Sure, sometimes Barba touches Sonny and it’s different. Sure, sometimes Barba kisses Sonny on the forehead right before they fall asleep.  Sure, sometimes Barba presses his palm against Sonny’s heart, but that’s not what this is about.

This is ab-

“I want to keep you around.”

What?

“What?”

“I want to keep you around, Sonny.”

This is the first time Barba has ever said Sonny’s name without it sounding like a joke.

Sonny’s heart starts beating faster.

“Your hair.”

Sonny doesn’t even pretend to understand.

“Your hair, when it was messy. It made you think about being undercover. That’s why you wanted to change it.”

Sonny gapes.

Barba does know.

Barba doesn’t have to ask.

What Sonny still doesn’t understand is how Barba knew what Sonny looked like when he was underc-

“Fin texted me a picture. He thought I’d find it amusing. He didn’t know I had already seen you without all this stuff in your hair.”

Barba rubs his fingers together, probably unaccustomed to the texture of the pomade.

A picture.

That explains the how.

But not the why.

That doesn’t explain why Barba is saying this, why Barba even cares, wh-

“You can tell me these things. You don’t have to tell me, but you can.”

Sonny turns around, his back to the mirror now, and faces Barba again.

Barba looks up.

“I don’t know what you had to do, at that shelter. What you had to say. I didn’t want to hear it from Liv. You can tell me that too. If you want.”

Sonny finds himself nodding dumbly.

“You can even tell me how you got this gigantic bruise. If you want.”

That last ‘if,’ it doesn’t sound very optional.

Barba’s eyes are suddenly stuck on that mirror, as he’s observing the bruise on Sonny’s back.

Barba’s fingers start tracing it.

There’s no playfulness in the touch, not anymore, but there is affection.

Concern.

More than that.

“It pains me to say this, Carisi, but I’m…”

Sonny smiles, partly because he remembers the first time Barba used that line, more than a year earlier, and partly because Barba has switched back to using ‘Carisi’ instead of ‘Sonny’.

“You’re what?”

Sonny speaks up, finally, eager to hear the rest of that sentence, and Barba snorts like he can’t believe what he’s about to say. Sonny really wants to hear th-

“I’m here for you.”

Sonny stares.

So does Barba.

Sonny doesn’t know which one of them looks more surprised.

Barba’s hand is still caressing Sonny’s back, a hint of nervousness in the movement.

“Okay? I’m here for you. Not just…”

Barba stumbles for a second, doesn’t know what to say, Barba’s hand clenches nervously, moving up and down, and down, lower, l-

“You know, Barba, this would’ve been a hell of a lot more romantic if you hadn’t grabbed my ass three seconds after you said it.”

Barba laughs and moves his hand to Sonny’s hip, leaves it there, dips a finger underneath Sonny’s waistband.

This touch, it’s possessive.

“Who said I was trying to be romantic?”

Sonny smiles.

Barba’s words, they weren’t romantic.

They were real.

They w-

“You didn’t sleep last night, Carisi. If I had to guess, I’d say you didn’t get much sleep at the shelter, either. And it’s not just this case. There was the Monsignor, too, and the whole thing with Liv and her transfer, and you’ve had… You’ve been having a hard time. And I know you have your sisters to talk to, I know that too well, and you have your mother, and you have Rollins, but you have me too.”

Sonny bites his lip.

He doesn’t know what to say to that.

He ‘has’ Barba.

That’s…

That’s commitment.

That’s not what their thing is ab-

“I can listen. You can tell me. If you want. This doesn’t have to be just…”

It looks like Barba doesn’t know what to say either, so Sonny helps.

“This doesn’t have to be just about you grabbin’ my ass?”

Barba smirks.

“Exactly.”

Sonny smirks back.

“And you wanna keep me around?”

Barba looks up at Sonny.

He’s not smirking anymore.

“Yes.”

Sonny is as impressed as he is touched.

Barba is really laying it on thick, he’s really putting himself out ther-

“For now.”

Sonny starts laughing.

That’s a lie.

They both know it.

“Don’t worry, counselor. I’m staying put. I’m kinda sweet on you, in case you couldn’t tell.”

Barba’s smirk returns, just like that.

“Who said I was worried?”

Sonny shakes his head.

He takes a breath.

“And I’ll tell you. I wanna tell you.”

Barba nods like he understands.

Sonny knows he does.

Barba’s hand squeezes Sonny’s hip tighter.

Sonny will tell Barba.

Sonny will tell Barba everything.

Barba wants to know, and Sonny wants to tell him, and Barba’s hugs are a great source of comfort but talking, that’ll be even better.

Sonny will tell Barba.

Not today, though.

It’s a beautiful Saturday and Sonny has Barba all to himself.

There are better ways to spend a morning.

Barba smiles like he’s thinking the same thing.

Barba leans in, Barba takes Sonny’s face in his hands, and he gives Sonny a kiss.

Sonny can feel Barba’s fingers, still sticky, leaving traces of pomade on his cheeks.

Sonny doesn’t mind.

Sonny likes it.

Loves it.

Loves more than that.

Sonny finally touches Barba, his hands forgotten, hanging by his sides this entire time, Sonny finally puts his hands on Barba’s naked hips, on Barba’s ass, Sonny tugs Barba closer, Sonny kisses Barba for a while, hard, and then he pulls away with a big, loud, happy smooch.

“Let me do your hair too, Barba. Come on. I swear, you’ll never wanna go back to hair gel.”

Barba smirks as he takes a few steps back and sits on the edge of the bed.

“You’re giving us matching hairdos? Why am I not surprised?”

Sonny laughs as he sits as close to Barba as he manage.

Their bare knees are touching.

Barba is looking at him.

Smiling.

Sonny wonders what Barba sees. Which version of Sonny he’s smiling at.

“Come on, Sonny, let’s get this over with. I want pancakes.”

Barba switched back to ‘Sonny’ again.

Like it’s the same thing.

‘Carisi,’ ‘Sonny,’ ‘Detective,’ Barba uses them all interchangeably.

Like it makes no difference.

Sonny thinks Barba can see all of him.

Sonny looks in Barba’s eyes and sees himself again.

Sonny smiles.

Sonny scoops up some pomade and warms it up in his fingers.

Chapter Text

Rafael is in a cab, rushing to the precinct.

There’s no real need to rush, but Rafael does it anyway. He told his mother he had a work emergency, right before leaving their table in a hurry, so the least he can do is get straight to the precinct without any dawdling.

There’s no real emergency. It’s just another case.

Still.

Any excuse to get out of brunch with Lucia Barba on Mother’s Day.

Any excuse to spare Rafael from having to listen to his mother recounting all his failings.

‘You’re still an assistant district attorney, Rafi? After all those years? My mother joked about you becoming a judge, but you know that wasn’t really a joke. That’s what she always wanted for you. You’ve been with the DA’s office for so long. Isn’t it time you moved on? To something better?’

Rafael is getting tired of hearing that speech.

He never knows how to respond.

Rafael never knows how to explain that working with SVU, working these cases day in and day out, it keeps him going. That daily grind, it fuels him. Harrowing as it is. Rafael enjoys the feeling of thoroughly roasting a defendant on the stand. Of obliterating those rich defense attorneys who think they’re better than him.

Rafael likes the fight.

As a judge, Rafael would have to be impartial, and he has never been able to do that. Not truly. Rafael always lets passion guide him.

Sure, he feels the pressure, and it can be almost debilitating at times, but Rafael is not a quitter and he’ll be damned if he lets a job get the better of him.

Rafael doesn’t say that.

He never does.

Lucia wouldn’t understand.

Especially when this whole conversation is always just the preamble.

Lucia’s main complaint has nothing to do with Rafael’s job.

His job, it’s not his greatest failing.

No.

Thankfully. Lucia barely had time to get into her main point before Rafael’s phone rang.

Middle-aged, unmarried and childless.

Grandchildless, more like.

That’s the problem.

That wasn’t how Lucia put it, of course, but that was what she meant.

She didn’t talk about children for Rafael. She talked about grandchildren for herself. About Rafael giving her grandchildren. Like that’s something he can just ‘give’ her. Like Rafael having children is all about Lucia, somehow.  

Maybe it is.

To his shame, sometimes Rafael thinks that all he has to do is wait a few more years, until his mother is gone. Then, he can give up the charade of entertaining the notion of having children. He’s only pretending for Lucia’s sake, anyway.

Rafael is not very fond of children.

And they are not very fond of him.

Rafael doesn’t say that.

He never does.

Lucia wouldn’t understand.

For her, he has to pretend he just hasn’t found the right person yet. Man or woman.

At least she accepts that.

Gamely.

Anything for a grandchild.

‘You have plenty of options, Rafi. You can do whatever you want. Times have changed. Twenty years ago, I’d be telling you to just settle down with a good woman. It would be easier. Now it doesn’t matter. You can find a nice man and have children with him.’

Rafael would scoff at his mother’s eagerness to discuss surrogacy and adoption so openly, but in truth he’s just happy she’s not disappointed in him for being bisexual.

One less thing for her to be disappointed over.

She has so many to choose from.

Rafael sighs as he gets out of the cab. He checks his watch and realizes he’s way too early. He regrets rushing, now.

He was hoping he could run into Liv at the station, but there’s no way she’s back already. She’s probably still at the hospital with the victim. It’s barely been thirty minutes since she called, and Rafael knows Liv likes to take her time, to make the victims feel at ease.

Maybe that’s for the best.

Liv is probably still trying to avoid him.

It’s been weeks.

They have spoken on the phone, business only, and they’ve seen each other briefly at the precinct, and she did just call him to let him know about their new case, when she could have asked Rollins to do it, and she did sound normal, Liv sounds normal now, on the phone, when they talk, but it’s not the same.

Rafael thinks he blew it.

He almost cost Liv her job, even if that was the last thing he’d ever want, and she’s still distant because of it.

She lied to him.

That’s what Rafael tells himself.

Liv lied to him.

That hurts a little less than what really happened.

Liv didn’t think to tell him the truth.

She didn’t think he had any business knowing.

Rafael hates how emotional he got when he found out.

He hates it.

It wasn’t even jealousy.

Maybe a few years ago it would have been. Three or four years ago, maybe Rafael would have been a little jealous to learn Liv was with someone else.

But not anymore.

Not for a while.

Rafael has had his sights set on someone else, and Liv knows that.

Liv knows all about it.

Liv knows all about Rafael’s ridiculous ‘crush’, her words, not his. Well, the ‘crush’ part is her words. The ‘ridiculous’ part, that’s all Rafael.

Liv has known almost from the start.

Liv knows all about Rafael’s little fantasies, all about his ongoing plan, all about the baby steps he’s been taking to slowly, very slowly get closer to the object of his affection.

Liv is always joking about it, she’s always asking for a play-by-play of their latest interaction when she’s not there to observe it in person.

Liv has been Rafael’s confidant for months and months.

Liv knows all about it.

It wasn’t jealousy.

It was just…

It’s not fair.

Liv knows all about it.

All about Rafael.

Liv is one of the few people in Rafael’s professional circle who even know he’s bi. Liv is more than just a professional acquaintance, now. Liv has become Rafael’s friend, Liv has become that one person Rafael opens up to.

That one person who doesn’t judge him.

Not for being bi, of course. Liv would never judge him for something like that.

No.

For having a crush on Carisi.

Rafael judges himself over that, harshly, but Liv has never judged him.

She’s the only one who knows.

Rafael would never share something so embarrassing with just anyone.

Normally, Rafael would just keep it inside.

Bury it.

Rafael was never much for sharing.

Not until he met Liv,

It’s not fair.

Liv never once told Rafael about Tucker.

She and Rafael must have gone out for drinks dozens of times since she started dating Tucker, and she never said anything.

Meanwhile, Rafael kept sharing.

Rafael has shared everything.

Rafael has told Liv everything there is to know about his personal life, past and present.

And yes, Rafael knows it’s sad to call his bickering with Carisi a ‘personal life’, but he works too hard, and he’s lonely, and he has bad taste, and he’s always had a thing for dimples, and that’s the hand he has been dealt and now he has to live with it.

Rafael has told Liv all about his little verbal sparring sessions with Carisi, all about the way Carisi has been getting bolder and bolder, sassing him back. Rafael has told Liv all about his ongoing plan to make his taunts a little milder, a little more like jokes and a lot less like insults.

Rafael has told Liv all about Carisi’s kindness. About Carisi always trying to be supportive, despite all the teasing.

That wasn’t a surprise to her, of course.

Liv knows Carisi better than Rafael does, and deep down Rafael recognizes how important that is. The fact Liv approves. The fact Liv knows Carisi and still won’t discourage Rafael from attempting to date him.

Liv sees something in Carisi. As a detective and as a person. Rafael sees something too, but not the whole picture. Not yet.

Liv sees the whole picture, though.

Rafael trusts Liv.

Just a few months ago, Rafael told Liv about the time Carisi thanked him for being a good mentor, even though Rafael has been everything but.

Rafael told Liv about the way Carisi looked at him.

With affection.

Rafael told Liv about how he almost asked Carisi out to dinner, right then and there, right before she showed up.

Liv smiled.

‘You should have asked! I felt like I was interrupting a moment, I almost apologized.’

This was her contribution to that conversation.

Nothing about herself.

Nothing about her own personal life.

Rafael thought she had nothing to share, what with Noah taking up most of her time.

And then he found out she was in a relationship with Ed Tucker.

A serious relationship.

Worth risking her career over.

A long relationship.

Months.

Liv has been having these heart-to-hearts with Rafael for months, and somehow she failed to mention the fact she was in love.

Rafael has told Liv truly humiliating things, he has told her all about his thoughts on Carisi, ranging from the physical to the truly saccharine, because Carisi is so damn nice and sometimes Rafael’s carnal desires are pushed aside by other, warmer feelings, like pride over Carisi doing well on the bar exam, or happiness, over Carisi thanking him, and that, that’s even worse.

Still.

Liv knows all about it.

Rafael trusts Liv.

That trust, it doesn’t go both ways, apparently.

If he’s honest, Rafael has considered the possibility this isn’t about trust. For about a minute, right after their fight, Rafael wondered if maybe Liv wasn’t too embarrassed to tell him about Tucker.

That excuse, it doesn’t hold up.

If Rafael could find it in him to tell her he has feelings for Carisi, Liv should have damn well told him she was dating Tucker. The Carisi thing, it’s worse, any way you look at it.

Especially because Carisi is probably straight and possibly in love with Rollins.

But one heartbreak at a time.

Rafael focuses on Liv again, as he enters the station.

Part of him hopes she won’t be there. He’s not sure he can handle another minute of awkward small talk and tight expressions and cold stares.  

But another part of Rafael hopes Liv will be there. A small, delusional part of Rafael hopes Liv will see him and greet him with a smile. Like she used to.

Like she hasn’t in weeks.

Rafael knows it was beneath him, reacting the way he did. He knows he should have kept it together. He did, he thinks. Maybe his face showed too much emotion, but at least his words remained mostly civil.

The thing is, Rafael has every right to be mad.

This isn’t just about the heart-to-hearts. This isn’t just about Rafael feeling jilted.

Rafael told Liv he was investigating Tucker, and she still refused to disclose. She even tried to mislead him, she tried to find out more about the accusations, and Rafael had to infer the truth from the way she spoke.

Liv failed to confide in him as a friend, and then she violated his trust as a colleague.

Rafael has every right to be mad.

Except he’s not mad.

He’s tired. He’s done. He wants his friend back.

Rafael has so much he wants to tell her.

Rafael wants to tell Liv all about that corrupt Monsignor, all about working that case with SVU in her absence. Rafael wants to tell Liv that he didn’t make fun of Carisi, not even once. Rafael wants to tell Liv that he tried to be supportive, and understanding, that he tried to return Carisi’s kindness for the very first time, because it was surprisingly unsettling to watch Carisi being so miserable.

Rafael wants to tell Liv that he felt the strangest urge to comfort Carisi, instead of his usual urge to taunt.

Rafael wants to tell her, but he can’t, because that was Tucker’s case.

Rafael wants to tell Liv he knew Tucker was clean.

As soon as he looked into the case a little deeper, Rafael knew. He suspected even before then, because he’s not an idiot, and the Monsignor’s claims were questionable from the start, but Tucker is a cop and Rafael doesn’t trust cops and it wouldn’t be unheard of for a cop to be dirty.

As soon as he realized Liv was involved with Tucker, Rafael knew. Liv would never vouch for a dirty cop.

Rafael doesn’t trust cops, but he trusts Liv.

That trust, it doesn’t go both ways.

Rafael wishes it did.

Rafael wants his friend back.

Rafael wants to tell Liv about the nightmare brunch he just had with Lucia. He wants to laugh over it. With Liv. Rafael wants to laugh with Liv again.

Rafael wants to tell Liv about the DA breathing down his neck, still, over that fiasco with the indictments of those cops who shot that innocent and unarmed black kid.

The pressure, it’s building, and Rafael has a feeling things will not end well for him, and Rafael wants his friend back.

Rafael has so much he wants to tell her.

Soon, he hopes.

Not today, though.

Today, Rafael is ready for business. The case, it is big, but it’s still too early for him to do anything beyond formulating a basic plan. For now, he just wants to get all the details, get all the information down, and then maybe he’ll try tackling the House of Gilbert.

If anyone can do it, it’s him.

Rafael walks into the precinct to find it almost empty.

It is a Sunday, after all.

As Lucia reminded him right before he unceremoniously ditched her.

None of the SVU detectives are at their desks, and Liv’s office looks dark and empty, and Rafael’s suspicions are confirmed. Liv is still at the hospital with Rollins and the victim.

Carisi is at the precinct, though.

Rafael hasn’t spotted him yet, but Carisi is there.

Rafael knows that, because Liv told him earlier, on the phone, matter-of-factly.

On any other day, she would have teased him. ‘You get to spend your Sunday with Carisi, Rafael. You’re welcome.’

Not today.

Today Liv just said, ‘I got Carisi down at the station, he’ll fill you in, I’ll keep him in the loop.’

Triangles.

Rafael hates triangles.

Liv won’t keep him in the loop, not directly.

Rafael needs to fix that.

Soon, he hopes.

Rafael decides to wait at Carisi’s desk, thinking Carisi must have stepped out for a moment.

That’s when he hears a baby crying.

The sound is coming from the break room, and Rafael cautiously approaches to investigate.

“Come on, you change the diaper! I’ll tell you how.”

Carisi.

Talking about diapers.

Rafael gets the sense this is a bad time.

“This a trick, Carisi? You tryin’ to get me to do your job for you?”

Carisi laughs, at Fin’s accusing tone, probably.

“Nah, come on. You’re gonna be a grandpa soon. You gotta know this stuff.”

“I do? Says who?”

“Says everybody! Like they’re not gonna ask you to babysit?”

Carisi laughs again.

Rafael can only imagine it’s at Fin’s expression.

Rafael needs to see this.

He walks into the break room to find Fin reluctantly holding Noah’s hand, and Carisi getting ready to change a baby’s diaper right there on the table.

“People eat on that table, detective.”

Carisi’s head snaps up and he grins, as soon as he spots Rafael.

He’s wearing jeans and a blue patterned shirt and he looks about ten years younger.

Rafael has never seen Carisi out of those tailored suits he always wears.

It’s a refreshing change.

Rafael has to struggle to hold back a grin, but he lets himself smile.

Rafael smiles at Carisi, now.

Sometimes.

All part of his ongoing plan.

“Hey, counselor! You’re early! And come on, this’ll only take a minute. And I got Jesse’s blanket all laid out, see? And Jesse’s a good girl, she’s not gonna make a mess, are you, Jesse? No, you’re not! We’re gonna get you all cleaned up and fresh as a daisy in no time!”

“Who’s ‘we’, Carisi? I ain’t touching that baby.”

Carisi laughs again, and this time Rafael laughs with him.

Fin looks uncomfortable. If Rafael had to guess, that has less to do with diapers and more to do with that ‘grandpa’ business Carisi mentioned earlier. Fin’s son, Rafael assumes. Adopting.

Lucia would be thrilled.

Rafael doesn’t know anything about Fin’s son, of course. Or Fin’s life. Not directly. Fin would never tell him something personal like that. They barely know each other. Rafael was hoping Liv would have told him, though. Liv is the one who tells him all about the lives of the Manhattan SVU detectives, even when Rafael doesn’t ask. Liv is the one who keeps him in the loop.

Who kept him in the loop.

Not anymore.

Carisi, though, Carisi is definitely in the loop. Liv trusts him, Fin trusts him, Rollins trusts him, and Rafael has to actively try not to feel left out again.

Rafael tells himself he doesn’t even care. And it’s true. He doesn’t. Rafael doesn’t care about Fin’s grandchildren or that baby Rollins has seemingly foisted upon Carisi.

Rafael doesn’t care. It’s the principle of the thing.

Rafael is a little nosy. He takes after his mother.

Which is not a good thing.

Rafael tries to remember why he’s there. It’s not so he can feel bad about himself, or so he can ogle Carisi in jeans, though admittedly that is a nice byproduct of his visit.

Rafael is there to discuss the case. He’s about to ask Carisi for details when Noah suddenly notices him and starts tugging at Fin’s hand, itching to be set free.

Fin is all too quick to hand the boy to a bewildered Rafael and bail.

“Hey, where you going, Fin? You’re supposed to help me until the sitters get here!”

Carisi is wasting his breath.

Fin is long gone.

Fin is gone and Rafael is left behind, standing in the middle of the break room with a rowdy Noah pulling at his hand like a tiny maniac.

“I guess you’re helping me now, huh, counselor?”

Rafael makes a face.

He doesn’t mean to.

He only realizes he did because Carisi starts laughing again.

“Uh, the babysitters, are they going to be long?”

Carisi grins.

“Nah, don’t worry. Lucy said she’ll be here in a few minutes. But Amanda’s regular sitter couldn’t make it, so her back-up might be a while. Not long, maybe half an hour? That’s not so bad. Is it, Jesse? Half an hour with Uncle Sonny? That’s not so bad!”

Rafael tries to ignore the pang in his chest.

The sight of Carisi holding Amanda’s baby like it’s his, it’s a little hard to bear.

Carisi is saying ‘Uncle Sonny’ but he means ‘Daddy’.

It’s obvious.

Still.

One heartbreak at a time.

“I suppose I can handle a few minutes, Carisi.”

Carisi keeps grinning as he watches Noah yanking at Rafael’s hand.

“He wants you to lift him up. He likes playin’ airplane.”

Rafael looks down at Noah and sees a pair of pleading, hopeful eyes. That’s what all the tugging is about, then.

“Up! Up!”

Noah starts yelling, and it’s a shrill, extremely irritating sound, and Rafael knows he’d be getting flustered if Carisi weren’t there, laughing quietly next to him.

This is not the first time Rafael has felt this way.

That he’d be panicking without Carisi there.

Carisi has a way of soothing Rafael. With a well-time compliment, or a comforting hand on Rafael’s shoulder, or a friendly pat, or a smile.

Carisi has a way of easing the pressure.

“Come on, counselor. I gotta change Jesse’s diaper. Just play with Noah until I’m finished and then I’ll take him off your hands. I’ll be done in a jiffy. I’m great at this. Bella says I do it better than she does.”

Rafael raises an eyebrow.

“Has it occurred to you that she’s lying? Trying to flatter you into changing her kid’s diapers for her?”

Carisi grins.

“Even if she is, I don’t mind.”

Rafael wonders what it must feel like to be so nice.

Carisi grins even wider as he watches Rafael finally picking up Noah.

Not because Rafael wants to play, of course.

Rafael has no choice. The screeching is bordering on intolerable.

“That’s the spirit, Barba! Fin was givin’ me nothing. I’m lucky you showed up.”

Carisi starts on the diaper, and Bella actually wasn’t lying, because he does this with an ease that makes Rafael’s chest a little tighter, for some reason. It looks so natural.

Carisi is a natural with kids.

Meanwhile, Rafael is swaying Noah awkwardly in the air, trying not to drop him.

For what it’s worth, though, Noah seems excited.

Happy to be in Rafael’s arms.

That’s something.

“At least you still like me.”

Noah giggles. He probably doesn’t understand Rafael’s word-

“Of course I like you, counselor! We all like you. Including the Lieu. You gotta understand, this job, it’s everything to her and she almost lost it. That’s why she’s been giving you the cold shoulder. But take it from me, she’s already feelin’ better. She didn’t make a face when she told me to brief you.

“She just needs a little more time. She’ll forgive you. Not that there’s anything to forgive. I mean, I don’t know exactly what you did, but I’m sure you were only doin’ your job. The Lieu knows that too. You guys will patch things up. But, yeah, in the meantime, you got me. I still like you just fin-”

Carisi stops rambling as soon as he takes his eyes off of Jesse’s very full diaper to look at Rafael’s face.

Rafael’s very surprised face.

“Oh. You, uh. You were talking to Noah. Right.”

Rafael isn’t sure how to react, so he just smirks. It’s his default expression.

“I was, but still. It’s good to know someone likes me around here.”

Carisi looks embarrassed, his cheeks already a little red, but he tries to laugh it off.

“Yeah? Even if it’s me?”

Rafael wishes he could answer that question honestly.

Rafael wishes he could tell Carisi that this unexpected pep talk already has him feeling better.

Carisi, he cares about Rafael.

It’s obvious.

Then again, Carisi cares about everyone.

Carisi pays attention.

Carisi notices things.

Carisi did fail to notice that Rafael was addressing Noah instead of him, but still.

Carisi has noticed the shift in Rafael’s relationship with Liv, and he felt the need to reassure Rafael that all hope is not lost.

Carisi doesn’t know ‘exactly’ what Rafael did, because Liv still hasn’t come clean about Tucker, apparently, but he’s still in Rafael’s corner.

Carisi cares.  

Maybe as a friend.

Maybe as something more.

Rafael wishes he knew the exact nature of Carisi’s feelings.

He can’t tell.

Sometimes he thinks Carisi is trying to hide from him.

Even now, Carisi has turned away, with the pretense of discarding the used diaper, with the pretense of washing his hands.

In truth, Carisi is probably nervous about Rafael’s answer. He probably doesn’t want Rafael to see his reaction. His crushing disappointment at what he expects to be a damning insult.

Carisi cares, but he thinks Rafael doesn’t.

Rafael took the teasing too far, more than once. That’s why he’s been trying to make things right.  

“You wouldn’t be my first choice, Carisi,” and that’s when Rafael has to stop himself before that sentence veers into a real insult.

“But I’m desperate, so yes. Even if it’s you.”

Carisi turns around.

He’s smiling.

Probably because Rafael’s words were playful.

All part of the plan.

Carisi is looking at Rafael with kind eyes.

Carisi always gives him those looks, when there’s any type of crisis. Carisi gives him those looks and then he says something eerily insightful and sympathetic and encouraging.

It makes Rafael uncomfortable, sometimes. That’s why he tries to stop Carisi before the friendly pep talks turn to heartfelt declarations.

Rafael still wonders how Carisi would have finished that sentence, all those months ago.

‘I admire your…’

Carisi knew, in that moment, that Rafael needed to hear something good.

Rafael doesn’t like feeling transparent.

Rafael is trying to hide too, but he doesn’t think it’s working.

Carisi’s pep talks, they help, but Rafael can’t ignore what they really signify.

Carisi sees right through him.

Carisi knows when Rafael is upset. Even worse, he knows why Rafael is upset.

Just moments ago, Rafael made an offhand comment and Carisi zeroed in on the cause of his suffering immediately.

Liv.

Rafael swings Noah a little higher, to avoid Carisi’s eyes.

To hide.

Rafael wants to change the subject.

Rafael wants to talk to Liv.

It’s not fair.

“How did you end up with these kids, anyway, Carisi? Liv told me I’d find you here but she said nothing about having to entertain minors.”

Carisi puts the baby back in the stroller and steps closer, to take Noah off Rafael’s hands.

Noah goes willingly.

Too willingly, probably responding to Carisi’s blinding smile. Rafael’s permanent scowl, it’s not something kids respond to very well.

“Play! Play!”

Carisi starts play-throwing Noah up in the air, and he’s not afraid, not like Rafael was, Carisi is not afraid he might drop Noah, or that Noah might recoil from his touch.

Carisi is a natural with kids.

Rafael knows it’s absurd, and maybe even petty, but it’s a relief to see Carisi treating Liv’s son the exact same way he treated Amanda’s baby.

Like a father.

Rafael thinks this might be less about Liv and Amanda and more about Carisi’s love for kids.

This might not be about Amanda at all.

It’s a relief.

“I don’t know if he means ‘play’ or ‘plane’.”

Carisi is smiling as he whispers this to Rafael, a conspiratorial look on his face.

Rafael can’t imagine why Carisi would tell him that.

Maybe to keep him in the loop.

Carisi always makes an effort.

“And I was with the Lieu and Rollins when we got the call. It was an underage female vic, and I figured she’d be more comfortable talking to them, so I offered to take the kids.”

That’s astute, Rafael thinks.

Two years ago, Carisi would not have displayed such sensitivity.

Carisi has come a long way.

“Wait, why were you with them in the first place? And their kids?”

Rafael feels left out again. Left out and curious.

Carisi smiles some more.

“I was taking pictures! Amanda doesn’t even own a camera, she only has crappy phone pics of Jesse. And the Lieu wanted some nice pictures of Noah too, and it was a nice day, so.”

“So they couldn’t hire an actual photographer?”

Carisi scoffs.

“I’ll have you know I’m a great photographer, Barba. Good enough for the Lieu. She saw some shots I took of my niece and she asked… Well she didn’t ask me, but I offered to take some pictures for her, and she agreed.”

Rafael is chuckling. He can’t help it. Even the most innocuous comment can rile Carisi up. Carisi has come a long way, but that goofy need for approval is still there.

“Right. You’re a photographer too, now. And a chef. And a doctor. And, hopefully, soon you’ll be a lawyer. Is there anything you can’t do, Carisi?”

Carisi looks startled.

Rafael is half-worried he might drop Noah.

That ‘hopefully’, it was too nice.

It surprised Carisi.

All part of the plan.

“Uh, for your information, counselor, I’ve been taking pictures since high school. I’ve been the official photographer for all the Carisi family functions since I was sixteen. And, let me tell ya, we got a big family. I’ve shot, like, twenty baptisms and about thirty weddings. I got lots of cousins. Tons of experience.”

It looks like Carisi is not above changing the subject either.

Rafael plays along.

“Show me.”

Carisi continues to look surprised as he sets Noah down.

Rafael braces for more screeching, but Carisi kneels to get on Noah’s level.

“Hey, Noah, you wanna show Uncle Rafael the pictures we took today? Huh?”

Noah yells excitedly, his little hands flapping.

‘Uncle Rafael’.

That’s…

Fortunately, Noah tugs at his pant leg before Rafael can finish that thought.

Rafael exhales and he watches as Carisi reaches for the camera.

“You wanna sit down, counselor? Noah can sit in your lap and you can look at the pictures together.”

Rafael doesn’t think that’s necessary, and that probably shows on his face, because Carisi gets that conspiratorial look again before leaning in.

“It’ll be a good way to keep him occupied until Lucy gets here.”

Oh.

That’s a good p-

“Lucy!”

“Yeah, little guy, Lucy’s coming. Hey, look, that’s you on the horse. Remember that?”

Noah gets totally distracted as Carisi holds up the camera.

Rafael would get distracted too, because that is a nice picture, but Carisi nods at the chair and Rafael remembers he’s supposed to take a seat.

Carisi hands him the camera, and it looks expensive, and Rafael thinks maybe there is something to Carisi’s claims about being a ‘great’ photographer.

Then, Carisi picks up Noah and sets him down in Rafael’s lap.

It all feels awfully domestic.

Rafael is scared by how much he likes that.

“You just press th-”

“Thank you, Carisi. I know how to scroll.”

Carisi rolls his eyes.

He’s smiling.

They’re both smiling.

Rafael starts going through the pictures, and Noah keeps letting out excited squeals every time he sees himself or his mommy.

Liv looks very happy.

Radiant.

Carisi has a good eye for capturing happiness.

Liv is smiling in every single picture, and Rafael barely has time to think he hasn’t seen her smile like that in weeks, when he gets to the pictures of Rollins and baby Jesse.

“Baby!”

Noah is helpfully explaining that’s not him in those pictures.

“Yes, Noah. I know. That’s the baby.”

“Hey, no need to sass the kid, Barba.”

Rafael smirks as he keeps scrolling.

There are a lot of pictures of Rollins. Some don’t even have Jesse in them. Some are just close-ups of her face, of Amanda’s smiling face, pictures of Amanda’s happy face as she’s holding her baby and smiling at Carisi.

Rafael’s smirk falters.

“These are great, Carisi. They almost look professional.”

Carisi puffs out his chest.

He looks proud. He’s either ignoring that ‘almost’ or he was expecting it.

Probably the latter.

“Thanks. Maybe next time try not to sound so surprised.”

Rafael smiles again.

“Of course. Seriously though, Carisi, you’re wasting your talents at SVU.”

Carisi narrows his eyes.

“Yeah? How so?”

Rafael laughs.

Carisi didn’t fall for it. Rafael was setting up a joke bemoaning Carisi’s shortcomings as a detective. Something about Carisi being good at everything except being a cop.

That’s not true, of course, but it would have made for a fun dig. If only Carisi hadn’t seen it coming.

Carisi, he’s laughing too.

“You’re not even gonna bother with the punch line, Barba? Come on. Don’t leave me hanging.”

Rafael likes this.

He likes it when Carisi is in on the joke.

He likes that Carisi feels confident enough to call him out, now.

Rafael’s plan, it’s working.

“I’m sparing you for Noah’s sake. Just pretend I said something incredibly pointed and offensive.”

Carisi grins.

Rafael keeps scrolling until gets to the last picture. It’s of Liv and Amanda, together, holding their children and smiling.

“You’re not in any of these pictures.”

Carisi looks surprised again.

Like that thought never occurred to him.

“Today wasn’t about me. It was about getting some nice p-”

“Noah, you want to take a picture of your Uncle Sonny?”

“Yes!”

Carisi’s face goes from a happy smile to a tight grimace, in one second flat.

Rafael thinks the smile was because he used Carisi’s first name.

Sonny.

Silly, especially for a grown man, but somehow fitting.

The grimace, though, that’s all about Rafael’s idea to turn the tables.

“Um, I’m the photographer, not the subject.”

And there it is.

“Be quiet, Carisi, and tell me how to take a picture on this thing.”

Carisi doesn’t appear willing to divulge that information, nor does he point out the oxymoron in Rafael’s statement. That’s how Rafael knows he’s truly uncomfortable.

Rafael keeps poking around, trying different buttons. Of course Carisi had to get a camera with a million settings. He couldn’t get a norm-

“Wait, never mind. I got it. Noah, you want to push the button?”

Noah shrieks and Rafael fears he may have lost an eardrum.

“Say cheese, Carisi.”

Rafael gently guides Noah’s finger on the button, muttering that he shouldn’t press too hard, and Noah is concentrating on the monitor so intently, his little tongue poking out, and he even tries to push the camera higher, because Carisi is so damn tall, but he can’t, because Rafael is holding it tight to prevent any accidents, so Rafael helps, Rafael and Noah lift the camera together until Carisi’s entire face is in the frame, and…

And Carisi is smiling so warmly.

Rafael was expecting a frown, another grimace, he was going for an unflattering picture Carisi would want to delete immediately, but Carisi is smiling.

Probably at the sight of Rafael juggling a toddler while attempting not to break his fancy camera.

Carisi looks handsome.

Happy.

Rafael snaps a picture before Carisi can react.

Noah giggles in Rafael’s arms and presses the button a few more times.

Carisi’s expression, it changes in every shot.

At first it’s a warm, fond smile.

Then it’s surprise. Again.

And then it’s something akin to confusion.

Noah’s little fingers have managed to capture it all.

“There. Now you can tell Liv her son is an aspiring photographer too. You and he probably have the same amount of skill.”

Carisi snorts.

“Is this revenge for ‘Uncle Rafael’? I didn’t mean to call you that, counselor. I wasn’t sure what Noah calls you, so I figured, you know.”

Rafael hands the camera back to Carisi, but he keeps Noah in his lap.

Carisi quickly goes through the shots. His expression is hard to read.

Rafael wonders if it would be strange to ask for those pictures.

Rafael would really like to have them.

Thinking he will never see those pictures again, it’s strangely agonizing.

“It’s okay, Carisi. At least I think it’s okay. Maybe Liv won’t agree. Maybe she no longer wants me associating with her son.”

Rafael is joking.

Mostly.

Carisi gives him another one of those looks.

Carisi can tell that’s not entirely a joke.

“Uh, counselor, I hope you don’t think this is weird, but would you ever consider coming to my place for dinner?”

Rafael stares. Is Carisi ask-

“I’m supposed to cook for the whole squad next Sunday. Actually, I was supposed to cook tonight, for Mother’s day, a little something for Amanda and the Lieu, but that’s not gonna happen, not with this case, so we pushed it back. Assuming we’re all free next week, would you like to join us?”

Rafael is as disappointed as he is flattered.

He knows the team has those so-called ‘family dinners’ on occasion, not that anyone’s ever invited him.

Not until now.

Rafael would like to know what changed.

“Why?”

Never let it be said that Rafael makes things easy for himself.

Carisi licks his lips and sits on the chair closest to Rafael. Noah reaches for him and Carisi reaches back, until Noah grabs onto his finger.

“I figured maybe you and Liv could talk?”

Oh.

Carisi is trying to help him mend his relationship with Liv.

That’s…

That’s sweet.

“Will Liv know I’ll be coming, or will this be an ambush? I don’t think she’ll appreciat-”

“I’m not an idiot, Barba. Despite what you might think. Of course I’m gonna tell her.”

“What if she doesn’t want me there?”

Rafael regrets that sentence as soon as he utters it.

He’s showing a little too much vulnerability around Carisi.

That’s not a good idea.

Carisi sees right through him as it is. Rafael doesn’t want to make it even easier f-

“It’s my house, Barba. I get to invite people, not the Lieu. Worst case scenario, she doesn’t show. You still get a nice dinner out of it.”

Assertiveness.

Rafael likes that.

What he does not like is the idea of having dinner with Carisi and Rollins, and watching them flirt over the hors d’oeuvres.

Which will probably be, like, pigs in a blanket.

The exact opposite of appetizing.

“And what will you be doing while Liv and I have our talk?”

Carisi frowns.

“Uh, keep Amanda occupied, I guess? And Fin, if he shows? Dodds won’t come, we’ve given up asking.”

And yet this is the first time they’ve asked Rafael.

Rafael feels left out again.

He blames his falling out with Olivia.

It’s not like him to be so needy.

“Keeping Rollins occupied, I’m sure that won’t be a hardship for you, detective.”

Carisi’s frown deepens.

Rafael doesn’t know what has come over him. Why he said that.

Worst of all, he doesn’t know how much Carisi will be able to deduce from this slip-up.

Everything, maybe.

Carisi stares.

Seconds go by.

Rafael stares back as Noah amuses himself with Rafael’s pocket square.

Carisi finally speaks.

“It’ll be nothing new. Me and Amanda, we’re friends.”

‘Amanda and I’, Rafael wants to say.

He doesn’t, because Carisi overstressed that last word in a way that was unmistakable.

Friends.

Rafael nods.

He wants to say something.

Something that’s not about correcting Carisi’s grammar.

Something like, ‘Good.’

Or, ‘I’m glad to hear that.’

Something like, ‘This dinner, do the others have to be there?’

Rafael is about to speak, when Lucy walks in.

At first, Rafael is too distracted to even notice.

Too busy engaging in a staring contest with Carisi.

Rafael only realizes Lucy is there because Noah starts squirming in his arms.

Carisi breaks eye contact first.

“Hey, Lucy. Sorry for ruining your Mother’s day.”

Lucy smiles as she picks up Noah.

“It’s okay, detective Carisi. My mom lives in Chicago. We skyped earlier. It’s not a problem. Besides, this isn’t the first time Olivia has had an emergency.”

Carisi smiles politely as he gets up and hands Lucy Noah’s coat and backpack.

Noah reaches for Carisi’s finger again, and Carisi offers it readily. It’s like their version of a handshake, Rafael realizes.

“Bye!”

“Bye, Noah. Wave bye-bye to Uncle Rafael, too!”

Rafael resists the urge to look at Carisi. He keeps looking at Noah, and feels a flutter in his chest when the kid actually waves at him.

Maybe Rafael is a little fond of children.

And maybe they return the sentiment, when he puts in the effort.

What do you know.

Lucy leaves, taking Noah with her.

It’s just Rafael and Carisi now.

And that baby.

And that unspoken thought.

Rafael decides to speak another thought instead.

“Speaking of Mother’s day, Carisi. What about your mother? Why aren’t you cooking for her tonight?”

Carisi grins.

“We take turns. Carisi family tradition. This year it’s Gina’s turn. She’s the second oldest. We have family dinners all the time, and we figured a long time ago we needed to step it up. So now, every year, one of us treats our mom to a nice dinner. One on one. So we can have her undivided attention. Makes her feel special. Bella and I like to cook, but Gina and Theresa just take her out to a restaurant. I don’t think it’s the same, but they won’t listen, and mom won’t complain, so what are you gonna do.”

Rafael suddenly feels guilty for ditching Lucia at an outdoor café.

Especially because Carisi is clearly about to return the question, and Rafael will either have to admit he’s a terrible son, or flat-out lie.

He wonders if, ‘My mother is a menace,’ is a good excuse.

Fortunately for him, the baby starts crying before Carisi has a chance to ask.

Carisi doesn’t miss a beat.

He just picks up the baby and starts bouncing his knees.

The baby stops wailing almost immediately.

Rafael is impressed.

“You’re very good with them. With children. Babies.”

Carisi smiles.

First at the baby, and then at Rafael.

“I’m just used to it, from hanging around my niece all the time.”

Rafael smiles back.

“Do you have a picture of her?”

There’s that surprised look again, on Carisi’s face.

“I’m only asking because you bragged about the p-”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, counselor. You’re still doubting me. Of course I got a picture. I got tons of pictures. If the shots from today didn’t convince you of my talents, these will. Grab my phone, will ya? My jacket’s over there.”

Rafael gets up to find a brown leather jacket hanging on the back of another chair.

As he rifles through the pockets, Rafael wonders what it would look like on Carisi.

“That’s a nice jacket, detective.”

Carisi doesn’t look surprised this time.

Rafael thinks Carisi might be catching on.

“Thanks. I like your, uh, your outfit too.”

Rafael smirks.

He’s wearing a light beige suit and a mint green polo shirt. It’s not his best look, but it’s breezy and casual, and it’s certainly different from what he usual-

“Too bad Noah took off with your pocket square.”

Rafael’s head snaps down to his jacket pocket.

Hilariously fast.

Carisi is already snickering by the time Rafael’s head snaps back up.

“At least tell me you only noticed it now, and you didn’t let Noah abscond with my pocket square on purpose.”

Carisi snorts.

“’Abscond.’ But yeah, I only saw it just now. Hey, maybe you can call Liv to ask for it back! I bet she’s gonna think it’s hilarious. Noah wiping his drool with your fancy pocket square.”

Rafael winces, and Carisi laughs even harder.

“No, come on, she’s gonna like hearing that you babysat Noah with me. And I’ll call her about the pictures too, I’ll tell her you helped Noah snap his first pics. She’ll get a kick outta that.”

Carisi, he cares about Rafael.

Carisi is still trying to help him.

Rafael is touched.

“That’s a great idea, Carisi. I will call her. Thank you.”

Carisi is still bouncing the baby.

He’s staring at Rafael again.

He doesn’t look surprised at all by the genuine compliment.

Carisi is beginning to understand that Rafael cares, too.

“Now, where are those pictures of your niece?”

Carisi shifts the baby into a one-armed hold and grabs his phone.

“Here. Get a load of this, counselor.”

Carisi is holding up the phone between them, the baby safely off to the side.

Rafael leans closer.

His shoulder is pressed against Carisi’s chest.

Carisi’s chest, it’s moving, because he’s still bouncing the baby, and Rafael can feel the soothing rhythm of the repeated motion.

He understands why the baby likes this.

It feels nice.

Cozy.

Rafael isn’t even looking at the pictures, not until Carisi urges him.

“See? And I’m not talking about my camera skills, by the way. Look at my niece. Isn’t she beautiful? She just turned one. Isn’t she the cutest baby you ever saw? She’s the light of my life.”

Rafael turns his head, just a little, to look at Carisi’s face. They’re standing so close. Rafael knows that a sudden movement would bring them too close for comfort.

Carisi looks so happ-

“Not that… Hey, hey, don’t be jealous! I love you too!”

Carisi is cooing at baby Jesse. It’s adorable.

Still, Rafael can’t resist the obvious opportunity to mess with Carisi.

“You love me now, Carisi? I thought you just liked me. Oh. You, uh. You were talking to the bab-”

Rafael stops speaking mid-word.

Carisi is staring again, and he’s wide-eyed, and slack-jawed, and he definitely looks surprised now.

Shocked, even.

Mortified.

Like he just got caught red-handed.

Carisi is frozen still.

He’s not even bouncing the baby anymore.

Rafael blinks.

Carisi…

Carisi l-

“Excuse me, which one of you is detective Carisi?”

Both of their heads turn to the door simultaneously.

An unfamiliar woman is hovering.

Rafael has the urge to slam the door on her face.

Carisi seems more agreeable, but not by much.

“Yeah, that’s me. And you are?”

The woman, she’s Amanda’s back-up babysitter. Carisi carefully checks out her credentials, going so far as to request a driver’s license and stopping just short of running her plates.

Rafael watches.

Impatiently.

After what seems like hours, the sitter takes the baby and the stroller and the diaper bag and the blanket and the hat and a million other things and who knew babies had so much stuff?

After what seems like hours, she leaves.

They’re alone again.

They’re standing a few feet apart now, and Rafael already misses the feeling of Carisi’s chest against him.

Carisi still looks embarrassed.

His cheeks, they’re flushed a gorgeous deep red.

He doesn’t try to laugh it off this time.

He doesn’t try to hide.

Rafael exhales.

Rafael keeps waiting for a denial. For an excuse.  

For a lie.

It doesn’t come.

Carisi doesn’t lie.

Doesn’t even try to explain.

Carisi just stares, like he can’t look away.

Like he wants to say something but he can’t.

Rafael wants to say something too.

That unspoken thought, maybe it’s time to share it.

“This dinner, do the others have to be there?”

Carisi relaxes. Finally.

Carisi smiles.

“No.”

It’s such an easy answer.

Carisi sounds so sure. It only took him a split second to reply. Carisi doesn’t need anyone else there. Just Rafael.

Carisi l-

“I, uh, I know it’s short notice, and you’re probably busy, but you could come over tonight. If you want. The Lieu said I can still have the rest of the day off, no point in all of us working the same case on a Sunday. And I already bought all the ingredients and they’re not gonna last until next week, so I’m gonna cook anyway. It’d be a waste to, uh, t-”

“I’ll be there, Carisi.”

Rafael’s answer, it’s easy too.

Carisi keeps smiling.

“Okay. Good.”

Rafael nods.

It’s so easy.

“Don’t think that means you don’t still have to talk to Liv, though. Call her about the pocket square. It’ll be funny, I’m telling you. Alright?”

Rafael feels like he’s talking to Lucia. Carisi seems so invested in his personal affairs, so concerned with his wellbeing, almost to the point of nagging. Carisi is trying to make sure Rafael is happy.

Lucia is trying to make sure Rafael is happy.

Rafael thinks he’ll take her out to dinner, within the week. A treat. To make up for their interrupted brunch.

Carisi is helping Rafael in ways he doesn’t even know about.

“Fine, I’ll talk to her. I’ll call her.”

Carisi’s smile gets even wider as he steps closer.

“Great. Uh. Let’s go over to my desk, I’ll brief you about the c-”

“Before we get started, detective…”

Carisi stops in his tracks. He looks so excited. Rafael thinks he’s even leaning in.

“Yeah?”

Rafael smirks before he knows he’s doing it. He knows what Carisi is thinking. What they’re both thinking. He regrets having to disappoint Carisi, but they’re at the precinct’s break room. Not the most ideal place for a first kiss.

There’ll be time for that later.

For a first kiss.

Later.

Tonight.

Rafael feels a thrill he hasn’t felt in a long time.

“I expect you to send me those pictures I took.”

Carisi doesn’t look disappointed at all.

He looks even more excited, if it’s possible.

“You want my picture, counselor? Why? You gonna frame it and put it ov-”

“They’re my pictures, Carisi. I took them. I own the copyright. Didn’t they teach you Intellectual Property Law at Fordham?”

Carisi grins.

“Actually, Noah took them. Or you took them together. You’re joint copyright owners, if anything. You’re gonna have t-”

Carisi.”

Carisi laughs, and then he quiets down.

“I’ll send you the pictures. I can print them out, if you want. I can have them ready for you tonight.”

That’s very accommodating.

Not to mention crafty. It’s almost like Carisi wants to make sure Rafael will come.

Like he can’t believe Rafael said yes.

Like it’s too good to be true.

Rafael understands the sentiment, now more than ever.

“Okay, Carisi. Tonight.”

Carisi beams.

They’re both beaming.

“Okay. Let’s go. Th-”

Rafael’s phone buzzes.

He quickly checks the screen and his smile fades.

“Let me just take this and then I’ll join you.”

Carisi nods.

“Tell her about the pocket square.”

Carisi sees right through him.

Carisi is smiling as he leaves the break room, to give Rafael some privacy.

Rafael is going to need it.

It’s Liv on the phone.

Rafael has so much he wants to tell her.

Chapter Text

Sonny doesn’t even know what he did. 

All he knows is that Barba is icing him out again, and it sucks.

Just when they were starting to get along, too.

Just when they were starting to make progress.

Barba hadn’t dissed Sonny in months. Barba hadn’t insulted him, not seriously, Barba hadn’t mocked him, Barba hadn’t acted like the old Barba in months.

After more than a year of teasing and taunting, Barba had finally stopped treating Sonny like an annoying intern and he had started showing what could almost be described as respect.

Sonny can’t be blamed for being under the impression Barba was starting to thaw. For the past several weeks, if not months, Barba has been nice to Sonny, helpful even, if not downright supportive.

When Sonny finally mustered up the courage to thank Barba for acting as a reluctant mentor, Barba accepted Sonny’s gratitude with an almost self-deprecating smile.  Barba looked like he appreciated Sonny’s attempt at a compliment, Sonny too nervous to get it all out. Barba even laughed at one of Sonny’s jokes, even though he was stressing out over a case, and Sonny can’t be blamed for taking that as a sign of friendliness.

When Sonny had his crisis of faith, during one of the hardest cases he’s ever tackled, when Sonny felt played, betrayed, when Sonny felt like a fool for falling for the Monsignor’s tricks, Barba was there for him. Barba was understanding and considerate. Instead of making fun of Sonny’s gullibility, Sonny’s almost blind faith in the church, Barba made Sonny feel better. Barba said he almost fell for it too, and Sonny can’t be blamed for taking that as a sign of camaraderie.

Sonny thought things were getting better.

Not anymore.

Now Barba barely reacts to him. Barba is as icy as ever, as distant as ever, barely sparing Sonny a glance, never sparing him a smile, and Sonny doesn’t even know what he did to cause it.

In all honesty, Sonny always suspected this was gonna happen. Sonny always figured he was on borrowed time. Sonny always figured Barba would wake up one day and realize he was accidentally being nice to a goof like Sonny and he’d revert back to his assholish ways.

Sonny just thought there would be a reason.

There’s no reason that Sonny can see. 

Sonny screwed up somehow and he doesn’t even know what he did.

The thing is, Barba isn’t even being an asshole. Not like before. Not like when they first met. Not like when Sonny tried and epically failed to make a decent first impression.

Barba is being polite, if curt. Coldly polite.

Icily.

Sonny would go so far as to describe Barba’s behavior as professional, and frankly he doesn’t know how to respond to it. Barba being professional to Sonny, that’s uncharted territory. It’s unnerving.

It’s weird.

It’s all brief glances and perfunctory exchanges and cold professionalism and zero fervor, and it sucks.

Sometimes Sonny thinks he’d rather go back to the early days of their acquaintance. When Barba was rude but he at least acknowledged Sonny’s presence. Sometimes he thinks he should give Barba a real reason to be rude, just to shake things up, just to jolt Barba into action. Sometimes Sonny misses the insults, the ‘seldom’ and the ‘booyah, Fordham Law’.

Most of the time, though, Sonny misses the grudging smiles and the muttered words of encouragement.

Sonny really misses those.

Especially when Barba is sitting two feet away from him, right there in the bullpen, acting like Sonny doesn’t exist.

Sonny had gotten used to their small talk. On any other day, Barba would be hovering over his desk, talking about the case, maybe asking for an update on Sonny’s bar exam results. That was something they did. They had graduated to small talk, sometime in the past few weeks, and Barba was starting to show interest in Sonny’s life, and now Barba just sits there on his phone and ignores Sonny like it’s his job.

It sucks.

Thankfully, Sonny’s phone rings to distract him.

“Carisi, turn it on, now!”

It’s Amanda.

Sonny can only imagine what she means.

“Fin, turn the TV on. Amanda just called, something’s going on. I’ll go get the Lieu.”

Sonny walks right past a visibly curious Barba, and he thinks he’s seeing things because it almost seems like Barba looks away deliberately, as soon as their eyes meet.

Before Sonny has time to process that, he hears what is clearly the intro of a ‘very special’ episode of Heart’s Desire.

Of course.

Sonny rushes to Liv’s office. He doesn’t bother knocking, this is airing live and Liv needs to see it. Sonny just opens the door and says…

Sonny opens the door and says nothing.

He’s waylaid by the sight of Tucker and Liv, standing way too close, their faces barely an inch apart, whispering and smiling.

Unfortunately, Sonny does a very poor job covering up his surprise. He actually puts his hand up instinctively, almost in surrender, not knowing what to say, and then Tucker jumps back like he’s been burned, and Liv starts muttering sounds that aren’t even words, and Sonny barely manages to blurt out a half-assed apology and something about the case and then he basically runs back out to the bullpen.

He can barely watch the broadcast without face-palming.

This is twice now that he’s put Liv in an awkward position.

The first time being a few days earlier, when he opened his big mouth and said he’d only watched this show because of Amanda, who put it on as he was making dinner. Sonny doesn’t even know why he said that in front of everybody. He knew how it would sound, and Fin wasted no time in making innuendos. Sonny just didn’t want Liv to think he’d ever watch this crap on purpose, but now she thinks he and Rollins have a thing and that’s probably worse, not to mention against the rules.

And just now, Sonny walked in on Liv and her boyfriend, and he acted like a dumbstruck idiot, even though he wasn’t even that surprised. Sonny always suspected there was something going on between her and Tucker, ever since he saw Tucker’s reactions when Liv was held hostage in that townhouse. Sonny was right there, front and center for their little moment afterwards. Sonny even thought they’d make a good couple. And yet, when he walked in on them in a tender tête-à-tête, he acted like he just saw a ghost.

Sonny keeps cringing as Liv pays him no attention, turning her focus on the TV instead. Watching the latest ‘plot twist’ in the Heart’s Desire saga, the latest fabrication courtesy of the Princes, the latest spin on the investigation which makes the producers look good and Manhattan SVU look incompetent.

Liv won’t even look at Sonny.

Which is probably for the best. She’s been shooting him dirty looks for days now, ever since the Rollins thing, and Sonny has been trying to find a moment to explain, but it hasn’t been easy, not with this mess of a case.

Plus, Sonny thinks he should probably wait until this Tucker thing blows over. Until Liv forgets Sonny walked in on her, and now knows her personal business, and even as Sonny tries to rationalize this he realizes how ridiculous it sounds. Liv isn’t going to just ‘forget’ that. Sonny thinks he should probably talk to Liv about that too, maybe promise discretion. Which will make for a painfully awkward conversation Sonny is decidedly not looking forward to.

Anyway, Liv can wait.

Sonny’s main priority right now is Barba.

Barba won’t look at Sonny either, and that stings a little more, because Liv has two reasons to side-eye Sonny but Barba has none, and Sonny wishes he knew what was going on in the counselor’s head.

Sonny doesn’t even know what he did. 

Taking a deep breath, Sonny tries to focus on the TV too, he tries to make a mental list of all the ways in which the Princes have broken the law during one single broadcast. He knows that’s what Barba is doing too. Looking for crimes to charge them with. Sonny wonders which crimes he’ll miss. Sonny wonders how many more violations Barba will come up with, in that creative way of his.

Sonny desperately wants to compare notes, to compare mental notes, and he knows it’s weird but deep down he thinks Barba would enjoy that. Barba acts like he’s annoyed, but he likes playing professor. Sonny almost wants to write his ideas down and pass the piece of paper to Barba, see what happens.

Before Sonny can do that, Liv tells him to turn off the TV, and she and Tucker head back to her office.

She’s right. There’s no need to watch more of this. It’s obvious what the Princes have done, and it’s obvious what Barba and the squad need to do.

Sonny turns off the TV and takes a few steps toward Barba, getting ready to enumerate the felonies he spotted, secretly hoping he didn’t miss any and he will therefore impress the counselor, but Barba doesn’t look willing to hang back for a chat.

Barba picks up his coat, not even bothering to put it on, he picks up his briefcase, and he makes his way to the exit without acknowledging Sonny, or Fin, or Rollins.  

Sonny isn’t proud of it, but he follows Barba to the door. Clearly Barba isn’t interested in talking shop, but maybe Sonny can still say goodnight, maybe he can even say something dumb on purpose and get a Barba jab in return, just for fun, just like they used to.

Except Barba is walking way too fast.

By the time Sonny is out the door, out on the street, there’s no sign of him.

That’s been happening a lot, lately.

Barba, practically running out of the precinct without so much as a nod.

That never used to happen before.

Before, Barba would walk slower, at least by Sonny’s estimation.

Before, Barba would wait, he’d fall behind, he’d fiddle with his briefcase or his documents or his phone, and sometimes Sonny thought Barba was doing it on purpose, giving Sonny a chance to catch up, to say something funny, to earn an eye roll or a quiet snort.

It’s starting to look like that was all in Sonny’s head.

Maybe Barba never waited for Sonny.

Maybe Sonny was projecting.

Sonny takes one last good look, Sonny scans the sidewalk, full of hostile faces but not the hostile face he’s looking for, and then he gets back inside.

~ ~ ~

Things don’t improve much after that.

Not with Barba.

At least Liv doesn’t seem to be holding that little interruption against Sonny, and she starts to act normal around him again.

That’s something.

Sonny can’t handle both of his role models ignoring him.

Especially not when they’re all in the same room.

Sonny is with Liv at Barba’s office, and Amanda’s with them too, as they go over the details of Graham’s guilty plea. That’s one less worry for Barba, not to mention Melanie who won’t have to testify.

Not that Barba looks particularly elated. Sonny doesn’t blame him. A plea means a reduced sentence, and while the victim’s peace of mind is important, Sonny isn’t sure it beats a real trial and a rapist getting hard time.

Then again, a rapist will be put away, and sometimes that’s all they can hope for.

Still, Sonny figures Barba will need some reassurance, like he always does after a case goes less than swimmingly. Barba always wants justice, and even a partial win doesn’t count in his book. That’s one of the things Sonny has learned from him.

All or nothing.

Justice served.

Sonny admires that.

The fearlessness.

Barba, going after hard cases when he could accept a plea, because that’s not good enough.

Sonny thinks that’s what he’s gonna tell Barba, as soon as Liv and Amanda leave. Sure, he’ll be kissing Barba’s ass, but that’s what he always does and Barba hasn’t called him out on it yet. Sonny thinks the counselor enjoys a little ass-kissing when he’s feeling blue.

Plus, it’s not really ass-kissing if it’s genuine.

Sonny just has to linger without making it look weird.

Sonny just has to hope Barba will still be willing to listen to his flattery despite the fact their interactions have gotten noticeably chilly.

Liv’s phone rings, and Sonny thinks it’s his lucky day. Amanda is easy, all Sonny has to do is whisper, ‘I’ll be right there, I just need a minute,’ and she’ll let him talk to Barba to his heart’s content.  She always does. But Liv, she’ll ask for a reason. Sonny can’t just tell his Lieutenant to go wait in the car.

“Hey, Ed. What’s up?”

Yes.

It’s Tucker calling, and Liv walks out of Barba’s office immediately, barely mumbling a goodbye, probably looking for some privacy. Sonny has to assume that call will take a few minutes, so he figures he’ll have more than enough time to be Barba’s little sycophant.

Sonny is about to ask Rollins to walk ahead of him, when Amanda absentmindedly takes his elbow.

“Come on, Carisi, let’s go.”

Amanda is tugging on Sonny’s arm, trying to get him to leave, and Barba is watching with a pinched expression on his face.

“Don’t let me keep you, Carisi.”

Dammit.

Sonny missed his chance.

There’s no way he can stay now. No way he can tell Amanda, ‘Give me a minute,’ not when Barba can hear them. Not when Barba practically told him to leave.

Sonny offers Barba a forced smile and leaves with Amanda. Liv is waiting for them right outside, already done with her phone call, and Sonny thinks maybe this was for the best.

The only thing worse than an awkward pep talk with Barba would be for Liv to bust in and ask him what’s taking so long.

Sonny follows Liv and Amanda to the car. A part of him feels guilty for being unable to provide some comfort to Barba, but the case isn’t even over yet and Sonny gets the feeling Barba will be needing even more comfort, soon enough.

Sonny hopes he’ll get another chance.

~ ~ ~

Just like Sonny predicted, the actual conclusion of the case bears little resemblance to real justice. The Princes have cut a deal, and it involves no time served, and Sonny knows that’s the best Barba could get but he’s sure this whole thing is far from an ideal outcome.

Which is probably what Barba is discussing with Liv, in her office, for the last thirty-five minutes. Sonny is sitting on Amanda’s desk, looking through pictures of Jesse on her phone, but he feels guilty because he has one eye on Liv’s door.

Sonny isn’t missing another chance.

Sonny fully intends to corner Barba, as soon as he exits Liv’s office, and he already has several flattering-slash-supportive comments prepared.

“How ‘bout this one, Carisi?”

Sonny tries to focus on Jesse’s pictures. They’re the ones he took, at the carousel, and Amanda wants his opinion on which ones to frame.

“No way, Rollins. Look at that shadow, it’s ruining the picture. And the composition is off, it’s not properly centered. Try the next one.”

Amanda is rolling her eyes, like she does every time Sonny tries to sound like a real photographer, and Sonny is so busy trying to come up with another line that he almost misses Barba coming out of Liv’s office.

Barba actually spares a glance at Sonny this time, and Sonny’s dumb smile is plastered on his face before he knows he’s doing it. It’s a reflex. As soon as Sonny makes eye contact with anyone, he smiles. Sonny knows he’s a cop, which makes that a bad idea, and he also knows better than to smile at Barba unprovoked, but he can’t help himself.

The smile, it’s a mistake.

Barba’s face sours, and he immediately looks away.

Sonny frowns just as quickly. He wonders if it’s normal to feel legitimately upset because a colleague is giving him the cold shoulder.

Before Sonny can excuse himself and follow Barba outside, because Sonny has a plan and he won’t let a sour face ruin it, he notices Tucker.

Again.

Tucker is coming in, right as Barba is going out. The two meet in an awkward shuffle, and Barba starts walking away even faster.

Sonny refuses to let Barba run from him this time.

He tells Amanda he’ll be right back and he chases after Barba, literally, which is pretty pathetic, but at least he manages to stop Barba this time, right outside the precinct’s entrance.

Sonny takes that as a win.

And then he sees Barba’s expression.

Barba is looking up at Sonny, and he looks extremely irritated, almost like talking to Sonny is a nuisance, like Sonny is inconveniencing him by wanting to talk for twenty measly seconds. Sonny almost turns back around, but he came this far and he doesn’t want all that chasing to have been for nothing.

“Hey, counselor. I know this deal isn’t what you hoped, but it’s better than nothing, right?”

Barba gives Sonny a side-eye and a quick nod, and then he starts walking again, without even a word.

Sonny feels silly for doing it, but he keeps chasing after Barba, making use of his long legs and covering about three of Barba’s strides with one of his own.

It’s getting progressively harder to catch up.

It’s like Barba is actively running to escape him.

Barba is practically power-walking and Sonny would laugh if Barba weren’t power-walking away.

It takes Sonny several long strides, but he finally manages to step around Barba and cut him off.

Barba clearly does not appreciate that.

“Hey, come on, hold up. I, uh, I know you had to cut a deal, the DA’s office always prefers deals over drawn-out trials. This wasn’t on you. You shouldn’t beat yourself up ov-”

“Yes, thank you for explaining how my job works, Carisi. Now, don’t you have anything better to do? I know I do. Goodnight.”

It’s a sign of the sheer deterioration of their interactions that Sonny actually cherishes that goodnight.

Even though it sounds less like a wish and more like a brush-off.

Barba walks away again, slower this time, because he’s sure Sonny won’t follow.

Sonny doesn’t even know what he did.

If he even did anything.

Sonny thinks maybe this isn’t about him.

He thinks he’s starting to see a pattern.

Sonny gets back inside.

~ ~ ~

Sonny has a theory.

It’s taken him a while to fully form it, but in retrospect it all makes sense.

This, Barba’s attitude, the cold shoulder, the renewed dedication to mindless insults, this isn’t about Sonny.

Sonny feels ridiculous for ever thinking it was.

Barba is just mad and letting off some steam. Using Sonny as his personal punching bag.

It’s as obvious as it is unsurprising.

Sonny didn’t do anything.

Liv did.

This isn’t about Sonny.

It’s about Liv.

About Tucker.

About Liv and Tucker.

It all makes sense.

Barba’s little snit fits, they always happen right after he sees Liv with Tucker.

The first time, when they were watching that Heart’s Desire live episode at the precinct thanks to Amanda’s call, Barba didn’t react until Sonny said he’d go get Liv. Barba knew Tucker was in there with her. Barba knew he was about to come face to face with the little lovebirds, and that thought clearly annoyed him. That’s why Barba practically ran away afterwards, disappearing into the crowd. Because he didn’t want to spend another minute in the presence of Liv and her new boyfriend.

The second time, when Sonny was in Barba’s office with Liv and Amanda, Barba didn’t react until Liv’s phone rang and she said, ‘Hey, Ed.’ Barba visibly frowned, because the last thing he wanted was to hear Liv whispering sweet nothings into the phone, imagining Tucker smirking on the other end of the line. That’s why Barba practically kicked Sonny out of his office. Because he was mad, and he didn’t want Sonny or Amanda to see that.

The third time, when Barba was in Liv’s office discussing the Princes and their deal, Barba didn’t react until he saw Tucker approaching. At the time, Sonny thought Barba’s sour expression had been in reaction to Sonny’s own stupid smile. Thinking it over, it’s clear that Barba spotted Tucker coming in. Sonny didn’t have a view of the entrance, not from Amanda’s desk, where he was sitting. Barba saw Tucker, and he frowned, and Sonny had the bad luck of smiling at him at the same time. That’s why Barba practically told Sonny to get lost. Because he was upset to see Tucker paying Liv yet another visit.

Sonny is disappointed in himself for not seeing it sooner. And he’s supposed to be a detective.

Barba has been carrying a torch for Liv.

The worst part is, Sonny always suspected that as well. He just didn’t think it was serious. He didn’t think Barba would react so strongly. He hoped Barba’s feelings…

He didn’t think Barba’s feelings for Liv ran that deep.

It all makes sense.

When Liv and Tucker started dating, that’s when it all started.

Sonny is sure of it. Sonny has reconsidered everything that’s happened in the last few months and he’s reached some interesting conclusions.

Liv getting transferred, almost losing her job. That was about Tucker, too. It had to be. Tucker was the one under investigation, and Liv’s transfer only makes sense if the brass knew about her relationship with him.

Barba knew, too.

It’s clear now.

Barba knew. In fact, Sonny thinks Barba may have even been the one to report it. Sonny thinks that was the whole reason for the rift between Barba and Liv. Barba got her transferred, if unintentionally, and that’s why they spent the next few weeks barely talking.

Jealousy.

It appears that Barba did take this out on Liv, at least initially. When he first found out about her and Tucker. Barba must have said something, and Liv must have reacted, and they had a falling out.

For weeks, Sonny was the go-between, Liv sending him to the DA’s office and Barba using him to convey messages, like they couldn’t pick up the phone.

It all makes sense.

The thing is, at the time, Barba was still nice to Sonny. Very nice. The Catholic Church case, they cracked it when Liv was still out. Barba’s support, it came at a hard time for Sonny, and for SVU as a whole, and Sonny remembers thinking he had almost lost Liv but at least he had Barba to guide him.

That didn’t last long.

The insults, they started shortly afterwards. Right after Barba and Liv patched things up.

Sonny thinks Barba just switched targets.

Barba probably realized that a rift with Liv wouldn’t be sustainable. That, or he figured it wasn’t in his best interests to stay on her bad side in perpetuity, so he picked Sonny as a substitute.

Sonny can’t even blame him.

It’s a smart move. Barba managed to repair his relationship with Liv and he still found a way to unleash his anger with minimal consequences.

It’s silly, when Sonny thinks about it.

Barba is angry, or hurt, or just plain jealous, because the object of his affection is dating another man. That’s all there is to it. A tale as old as time.

If Sonny’s theory is correct, that’s why Barba has been trying extra hard to be cordial to both Liv and Tucker lately. Now that he’s got Sonny to mistreat, there’s no reason to be curt with Liv herself.

That’s all there is to it.

Barba needs to vent, to let off his anger, and Sonny is paying the price.

It’s obvious.

Sonny is the easy target.

Who else would it be? Barba would never take this out on Liv herself, and he’d never bring Tucker into it, because he’s trying to act nonchalant about it all. Barba would never take this out on Fin either, and he’d never mistreat Dodds Jr. because he knows what’s good for him.

That just leaves Sonny and Amanda, and the choice between them is clear.

Amanda is a wildcard, and Sonny admires her for it, even if sometimes he worries. Amanda would never put up with Barba’s disrespect. She’d say something harsh and walk away.

Sonny, he’s the nice one. Especially to Barba, and that’s the sad part. Sonny is and will always be the new guy, the kid, the one who’ll take a licking and keep on ticking.

Besides, Barba has always had a penchant for verbally abusing him. Maybe they had made progress, maybe they were at a better place now, but this Tucker thing has set them back.

Barba is under stress, and he needs to vent, and it’s easier to revert back to old routines.

Easier than starting a feud with someone new.

Barba knows that insulting Sonny will not have any lasting consequences. Sonny always forgives him. Sonny doesn’t take anything to heart.

Or so it appears to bystanders.

To Barba.

It sucks.

Sonny wants to say something, he wants to be mad, but he can’t really hold this against Barba. This isn’t personal.

This isn’t about Sonny.

Barba is hurt.

Sonny actually feels bad for him.

Even worse, Sonny actually feels good for himself. Knowing he hasn’t disappointed Barba in some way, it’s a relief.

Sure, it’s kind of demeaning, the way Barba is willing to basically use Sonny as a stress ball, but Sonny prefers it over the alternative.

Odds are, Barba will get over this soon, anyway. He can’t stay mad forever. He’ll accept it. Liv and Tucker, they look like they’re in for the long haul. Even Sonny can see that. Barba will see it too, and he’ll learn to live with it, and he’ll stop disparaging Sonny.

Things will get better.

It’s just going to take some time.

Jealousy, it’s not easy to live with.

Sonny knows that all too well.

~ ~ ~

It’s taking more time than Sonny anticipated.

It’s been almost two weeks.

Sonny hasn’t had a chance to talk to Barba one on one, but he has seen the counselor at the precinct a few times. Unfortunately, Tucker has also been there, almost every time. It’s like he lives there now.

Which is great for the Lieutenant, but terrible for Sonny. How can he be expected to talk to Barba when Barba’s mood seems to be deteriorating every day?

On the bright side, at least Sonny’s theory is confirmed.

It’s definitely Tucker who’s getting a rise out of Barba.

One time, Barba actually raised his voice as he was leaving the precinct, as soon as he came face to face with a smiley Tucker. Sonny remembers it clearly, because it was late and Amanda’s babysitter had an emergency so she had just dropped Jesse off. Barba’s voice woke up the baby, just when Sonny had gotten her to sleep. Sonny was practically still cradling Jesse, Amanda watching over his shoulder, when Barba yelled something and took off in a huff.

Sonny thinks it’s time he said something.

It’s been about two weeks since Barba started treating him like dirt again, but it’s been way longer since Barba found out about Liv and Tucker. It’s been months. It won’t be an easy conversation, and Sonny sure as hell won’t mention the Tucker thing, but he wants to have a heart to heart with Barba, he wants to ask for a little respect.

Just like before.

Sonny doesn’t think that’s too much to ask.

It’s not even all he wants to ask.

Sonny wants to ask for a smile, too.

A grudging smile.

He misses those.

He won’t ask, though. Of course he won’t, because getting a smile from Barba isn’t worth the demotion and transfer which would inevitably follow.

Sonny has to wait three more days before he can get Barba alone.

Now’s his chance.

Liv has sent Sonny over to the DA’s office to go over the specifics of a warrant request. Liv told him to make sure the warrant covers what they need, without being too obvious, so they don’t tip off their perp. Liv told him to get creative, and Sonny thinks he’s nailing it.

Even Barba had to grunt at one of his suggestions for widening the scope of the warrant. Sonny would have preferred actual verbal praise, but at this point a grunt will do.

It only takes them a few minutes to come up with the perfect phrasing, and Sonny is glad to see that their working relationship isn’t suffering. That’s a good sign, in his book. A sign that it’s not personal. Barba won’t hesitate to insult Sonny, but when they get down to business Barba doesn’t let his anger disrupt their work.

Barba starts putting his papers away, and it’s clear from his body language and his averted eyes that he wants Sonny gone, but as far as hints go that’s pretty subtle, so Sonny feels comfortable ignoring it.

Sonny is about to speak when his phone rings. He starts patting his pockets before he remembers he set his phone on Barba’s desk when he came in.

A happy picture of Amanda and Jesse comes up on the screen, one that Sonny took, and Sonny smiles before he knows he’s doing it. Still, he hits ignore. Amanda can wait a few minutes. Plus, if it’s about the case, she’ll call back. This conversation, it can’t wait. Sonny doesn’t know when he’ll get another chance to talk to Barba. Sonny almost thinks Barba has been avoiding him, but he knows he’s just being paranoid. Barba doesn’t care ab-

“That will be all, Carisi. Now kindly get out of my office.”

So much for subtle hints.

Now that their work is done, Barba is back to being snappy.

And ‘snappy’ is an understatement. Barba has gone from cold and detached to crabby and tightly wound.

Sonny knows he said he’d rather go back to the insults, because indifference was a little too exasperating, but now he regrets it.

After a few months of that new and improved relationship with Barba, they’re back to square one. It’s almost painful to realize that Barba is treating Sonny just like he did when Sonny first showed up, almost 2 years ago.

Sonny needs to make this right.

Sonny needs to say someth-

“Why are you still here, Carisi? Can’t find the way to the door?”

Sonny really needs to say something.

“Hey, come on, counselor. Again with the insults? I thought we were over this. I thought we were making progress.”

Barba blinks.

“You thought wrong.”

Sonny rolls his eyes.

“No way. You were being nice to me, Barba. Or nicer, at least. You know it. You hadn’t insulted me since… I guess since that time I told you about the bar exam. Since I thanked you for helping me, for teaching me. We had a nice moment and everything was fine. For months. I’m not crazy.”

“So you say.”

Barba is still trying to be sarcastic, but it’s not working.

Barba looks uncomfortable.

Not annoyed, not irritated. Not like he usually looks. In fact, this is a brand new expression on his face.

Guilty.

Barba looks guilty.

Sonny is happy to see it.

It means that Barba regrets taking his anger out on Sonny. On an innocent third party. Sonny has done nothing to deserve this kind of treatment, and Barba clearly knows that. He’ll never admit it, of course, but maybe he’ll stop acting like Sonny has personally offended him somehow.

That’s all Sonny wants.

Not an apology and certainly not an explanation. Sonny doesn’t expect Barba to come clean about something that personal. Sonny has figured it all out, anyway.

Sonny wants them to go back to normal. A mostly cordial working relationship with the occasional teasing, good-natured insult.

“Look, counselor, you can deny it all you want, but we were getting along just fine. And then, ever since you f-”

Barba perks up.

Barba leans in, an eyebrow raised, and he stares at Sonny defiantly. Like he’s daring Sonny to finish that sentence.

Sonny cowers.

Which is a good thing, because he almost slipped.

Sonny has no intention of being blunt. It’d make this already awkward conversation even more uncomfortable.

Sonny has no intention of embarrassing Barba.

Or himself, frankly.

Sonny is really hoping both Barba and himself can survive this conversation unscathed.

“And then, you started being rude again. Insult after insult. I deserve better than that, counselor, and you know it. Maybe two years ago you didn’t, and why would you? I was a loud overeager trainwreck back then. But you know it now. You know me now. Right? There’s no need for this.”

Barba is back to looking uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and guilty.

Sonny thinks he hit Barba where it hurts. He hates breaking out the ‘woe is me’ routine, but he does have the puppy eyes to make it work, so why not use them? If anything, Sonny is surprised his guilt trip seems to be working so well. He didn’t take Barba for the compassionate type.

It’s probably because Sonny is collateral damage. None of this is his fault, and Barba knows that.

Barba exhales.

“You’re only marginally less of a trainwreck now, Carisi. But yes, you’re right. I shouldn’t-”

Sonny’s phone rings, just when Barba is getting to the best part.

Barba literally just said, ‘you’re right,’ and that’s a sound sweeter than children’s laughter, and Sonny is dying to know what Barba is going to say next, but his damn phone is ringing and it’s impossible to ignore.

Sonny tries to ignore it anyway.

He smiles at Barba, waiting to hear the next few words, hoping t-

“Do you need to get that, Carisi? Rollins seems eager to get in touch with you.”

Sonny glances at the display. He hadn’t even checked to see who was calling, too busy staring at Barba. It’s only after he sees Amanda’s smiling face that he remembers the earlier missed call.

It’s about the case.

Dammit.

Sonny really hopes he can stay with Barba just a few minutes longer, but he can’t ignore Amanda’s call for a second time.

“Yeah, I do need to get it, but I’ll just be a minute. Then we can continue our convers-”

“No need, detective. We had our talk. I assume this is what you wanted. Why you’ve been trying to corner me these last few days. I’ve been rude to you for no reason. Point taken. I’ll try to be… I’ll try to be a little less rude. If it’s convenient for me. Now go. We’re done here.”

Sonny grins at the joke.

It seems that Barba is already trying to overcompensate.

This, this is what he wanted.

A genuine joke.

Sonny is happy he spoke out.

All that’s left now is a proper goodbye. Sonny doesn’t want this conversation to end abruptly. He thinks he wants to shake hands with Barba, maybe. To put this behind him, behind them, officially.

“Thanks, counselor. Really, thank you, I appreciate it, but we’re not done yet. I’m not done. Just wait one minute, okay? I’ll just take this call and then we can finish up here.”

Barba scoffs.

“I don’t have time to watch you fielding calls, Carisi, I have work to d-”

“Hey, Amanda, what’s up?”

Barba scoffs even harder, but Sonny is content in the knowledge there’s nothing Barba can do to kick him out of his office. Nothing short of calling security.

Which Barba wouldn’t do.

Probably.

“Liv wants you back at the station ASAP, Carisi. The case just got hot. Deputy Chief Dodds himself has graced us with his presence. All hands on deck.”

Sonny nods.

“Alright. I’m still at Barba’s office but I’m almost done. Tell Liv I’m on m-”

“Liv and Tucker, you mean.”

What?

“Tucker’s there too? Again?”

“Did he ever leave?”

Amanda’s voice is teasing, and Sonny can’t hold back a snort. He can practically picture her face. Amanda’s mischievous look as she comments on Liv’s love life, her back probably turned, so her smirk isn’t visible from the Lieutenant’s office where Tucker seems to have made a new home. If Liv was hoping to keep her relationship a secret, this isn’t the way to do it.

“Yeah, yeah. Tell her I’m on my way, Rollins. See you in a few.”

Sonny hangs up, still smiling, and he looks at Barba.

Barba looks annoyed again.

Extremely annoyed.

Sonny didn’t even think.

Sonny blew it.

Sonny had to say Tucker’s name, Sonny had to remind Barba of the sole reason for his misery, Sonny had to let it slip that Tucker is at the precinct with Liv again, Sonny just had to open his big mouth again.

Now Barba is clearly thinking about Tucker and Liv in flagrante, and he clearly hates the very thought of it, he’s clearly mad, and if Sonny was hoping for some cordial parting words he can kiss them goodbye.

“Do you need to go, Carisi? Are your valuable services required elsewhere? What is it this time? A diaper change? Does Rollins need you to walk her dog?”

Case in point.

“I thought you were gonna try to be less rude, counselor.”

Barba sneers.

“I said I’d try to be a little less rude, and only if it’s convenient for me. You say you want to be a lawyer, Carisi. You should know to pay attention to the fine print.”

Back to square one.

At the mere mention of Tucker’s name.

This can’t go on.

Sonny can’t be expected to endure Barba’s angry little comments every time Tucker comes up in conversation.

He tried being respectful. He tried to spare Barba the embarrassment. Sonny tried, and it worked, and Barba practically apologized, or at least admitted his behavior was unreasonable, or, well, Barba said ‘point taken’ and that was more than Sonny ever hoped for.

And then one simple utterance of the name ‘Tucker’ ruined all their progress, just like that.

Turns out, Sonny needs to be blunt.

For Barba’s sake.

Sonny thought he was being pathetic, lamenting his lost connection to Barba, their lost camaraderie, but Barba is taking ‘pathetic’ to a whole new level. Sulking for months, just because he got friendzoned?

Barba needs a wake-up call, and Sonny will be glad to provide it.

On some level, Sonny thinks Barba might even appreciate that. Respect Sonny’s boldness.

On another level, Sonny thinks Barba might actually call security.

Still.

It’ll be worth it.

Sonny takes a deep breath and tries to keep his voice level. 

“You’re jealous.”

Barba looks stunned, his eyes widening just for a moment, but then he exhales, mirroring Sonny’s deep breath. He instantly looks calmer. Barba is good.

“I suppose even an idiot like you would figure it out eventually.”

Oh.

Sonny wasn’t expecting that. The admission, that is. The insult was definitely to be expected. Sonny remains undeterred. Things will get worse before they gets better. He knows that.

Sonny will not cower this time.

“It’s not like you’re hiding it well, Barba.”

Barba swallows.

He’s having a hard time maintaining eye contact.

Sonny almost apologizes, right then and there.

He hates this.

He hates being the reason for Barba’s discomfort, even if Barba never seems to take Sonny’s own wellbeing into account.

He and Barba don’t have this type of relationship, they’re not close, they’ve never discussed their personal lives, and Sonny knows he’s majorly overstepping by even saying this, but still. It needs to be said.

Barba keeps looking uncomfortable.

“Right. Have others… Has anyone else noticed?”

Sonny winces.

This was a bad idea.

All he wanted was to shake some sense into Barba, to give Barba a heads up, to get Barba to act a little more professional, and now he has to watch as Barba starts asking timid questions, all shy and nervous. Barba is all but begging Sonny to tell him if Liv has picked up on this, and it’s so pitiful and so unlike Barba that it’s almost adorable.

“No. Don’t worry. She hasn’t noticed.”

Barba’s jaw drops.

Sonny thinks it was a mistake to reference Liv, even indirectl-

“How do you know? Have you asked her? Did you talk to her about this?”

Crap.

It was definitely a mistake.

Sonny got Barba all worried over nothing.

“No, no, it’s not like that. I didn’t tell her anything. I just… I know. I can tell. Nobody else has noticed.”

Barba exhales again, this time in relief.

“Right. Nobody else. Nobody but you.”

Sonny nods.

“Yeah, well. The others, they just see you being an asshole to me and they think, what else is new. But I know better.”

Barba licks his lips.

“Of course. Uh. You don’t appear surprised by any of this, Carisi.”

Sonny shrugs.

“I kinda always suspected. Not ‘cause… Don’t get me wrong, it’s not ‘cause you were being obvious about it. I just… I was paying attention.”

Barba narrows his eyes.

“To me?”

Sonny does not want to answer that question.

“Yeah. Look, you just gotta be patient. You never know. Maybe it won’t last. You just gotta wait it out.”

Barba’s face suddenly becomes unreadable.

It’s a confused frown mixed with an incredulous smirk mixed with a pained look.

“Are you seriously suggesting that I should wait, Carisi? Hang around, like a pathetic lovelorn idiot, just in case things go south? Do you think that sounds like something I would do?”

Dammit.

Sonny blew it.

Again.

What is he thinking, trying to give Barba romantic advice? Like it’s any of his business? Sonny really needs to stop trying to cheer Barba up.

“No, that’s not… I mean, I don’t know how you feel. I don’t… I’m sorry. I mean, if you think it’s worth waiting for, you can wait. Or… You can just move on. That would be… You know. Even better.”

Sonny grimaces.

He doesn’t even know what he’s saying anymore.

It seems that it’s impossible for him to stop trying to make Barba feel better.

Not that Sonny’s mumbled, stuttering attempt at a pep talk is making Barba feel any better.

Barba’s face is still hard to read.

Barba’s eyes are focused on Sonny’s, like he’s trying to read Sonny’s mind, and Sonny can think of very few things which would scare him more.

Chief among them, Barba actually succeeding in reading his mind.

This was a very bad idea.

Sonny wonders if he can just fake another call from Amanda and take of-

“Now you want me to move on? Make up your mind, Carisi.”

Barba looks half-amused and half-intrigued.

That’s… encouraging?

Sonny can’t believe Barba hasn’t kicked him out yet.

Sonny wonders why that is.

Maybe Barba can see the humor in this situation.

Or, maybe Barba is trying to turn the tables, and embarrass Sonny.

Barba raises an eyebrow, and Sonny blushes.

Yeah.

Barba is definitely trying to regain the upper hand, he’s definitely trying to embarrass Sonny, and it’s definitely working.

“No, I was… Look, counselor. Who am I to tell you what to do? Who am I to tell you anything? You don’t have t-”

“Exactly, Carisi. Who are you to tell me anything? This is my business. Whatever you think you have figured out, it’s my business and mine alone.”

Sonny is surprised by the abrupt change in Barba’s demeanor.

Barba looks mad again, and Sonny can’t understand why.

At any rate, Sonny doesn’t appreciate the implication. He’s not being nosy, he’s not prying. Barba made this Sonny’s business, by failing to control his emotions.

“This was your business, Barba. It stopped being your business when you started taking it out on me.”

Barba frowns again.

“Who else would I be taking it out on?”

Of course.

Who else, but Sonny Carisi, the punching bag.

Sonny Carisi, whose main function in life is to provide an easy target for Barba to attack, whenever he wants to feel better about himself.

Sonny decides to be a little less easy of a target.

“Here’s an idea, counselor. You should be taking this out on the person who’s actually making you jealous. On the person who has what you want. Captain Tuck-”

“Rollins? You really think I should get her involv… What?”

Sonny blinks.

Barba blinks too.

Which is the only way Sonny knows he’s even alive, because other than that blink Barba is frozen still.

Barba isn’t even breathing.

Which makes two of them.

Sonny doesn’t understand what’s going on.

Which, again, makes two of them.

Barba takes a breath, finally, and then he clearly starts to reassess their entire conversation, eyes darting around, mouth falling open and closing again.

Sonny wishes he had the brain capacity or the emotional stability to do that too, but he can’t right now, because the sum of his brain functions is currently dedicated to the singular purpose of moving his facial muscles just so, neurons working overtime, trying to get his jaw to drop.

It’s a long and complicated process, but Sonny eventually manages to complete it.

Did Barba just say he’s jealous of Rollins?

“Did you just say I’m jealous of Tucker?”

Sonny still doesn’t understand what’s going on.

Which is why he refuses to answer.

That, plus he doesn’t think he can speak yet. He really overtaxed his brain with that jaw drop.

“Unless there’s something I don’t know about the way you choose to spend your evenings, Carisi, I don’t see why I would ever be jealous of you and Tucker.”

Sonny stares.

Sonny tries to speak.

It’s not easy.

“Not me and Tucker.”

Barba blinks again.

Barba’s entire expression changes. It appears that he has finally figured out what’s happening.

Sonny is glad at least one of them understands.

“As it turns out, I was, in fact, hiding it well. You can go, detective.”

Go?

That’s not happening.

Mostly because Sonny isn’t sure he can actually get up right now. It’s a struggle to even speak. Motor functions are a no-go.

“Why would you be jealous of Rollins, Barba?”

Barba winces, just for a split second.

“I said you can go.”

Like hell.

After all, Barba has no way of forcing Sonny out. Barba wouldn’t actually call security, Barb-

“Carmen, let my next appointm-”

No, no, no. Barba is on the intercom with Carmen and Sonny cannot leave.

Not when he’s starting to understand.

Sonny needs to say something.

“You’re in love with me.”

Barba sputters.

“Uh, I… Uh, ah, I… Never mind, Carmen. I’m going to need a few more minutes with Detective Carisi.”

That’s an understatement, Sonny thinks.

Barba is trying to regain his composure.

Sonny is trying not to laugh.

This, it’s…

“You’re in love with me.”

Sonny says it again, just because he liked the reaction it got out of Barba.

It’s just as funny the second time.

Barba fakes an exaggerated smile.

“Am I? How nice.”

Sonny smirks.

“You are. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.”

Barba rolls his eyes.

“Believe it. You didn’t see it because there’s nothing to see.”

Sonny shakes his head.

“No. All this time, I thought it was Tucker. I thought it was Liv. Seeing them together. I thought that’s what set you off.”

Barba bites his lip.

“Yes. You got me, Carisi. That’s it. Okay? I’m jealous of Liv and Tucker. And it’s sad. Boo-hoo. Now get the hell out.”

Sonny gives up on trying not to laugh.

Sonny cracks up, and this time it’s Barba who’s shaking his head.

Barba is in love with him.

Sonny is disappointed in himself for not seeing it sooner. And he’s supposed to be a detective.

Barba’s little snit fits, they always happen right after he sees Amanda with Sonny.

Just now, Barba started getting pissy when he saw that Amanda called Sonny twice in a few minutes. When he saw Amanda’s smiley face on the display of Sonny’s phone. Barba’s insults involved him only being good for changing diapers and walking dogs.

The things Barba imagines Sonny does with Rollins.

It’s clear now.

Barba’s loudest fit, it happened a few days ago, when he saw Sonny holding Jesse. Amanda was by Sonny’s side, and they probably looked like a postcard, like a happy family, and Barba was affected by it, and that actually is kind of sad and Sonny’s chest gets a little tighter at the thought.

It all makes sense.

This entire conversation, it has been a gigantic misunderstanding.

It was never Liv.

This is about Sonny.

The first time, when they were watching that Heart’s Desire live episode at the precinct, Barba didn’t react until Sonny mentioned Amanda’s name, saying she called. Sonny thinks Barba had to have known about his little dinner date with Amanda, Jesse and Frannie. Sonny thinks Liv must have told him. Sonny thinks that’s why Liv kept staring daggers at him. Sonny thinks Liv knows about this. About Barba’s feelings. Sonny thinks he should ask Barba about it, but only if he wants Barba to have a stroke.

The second time, when Sonny was in Barba’s office with Liv and Amanda, Barba didn’t react until Amanda took Sonny’s arm. Casually. Like she’d done it before. Like touching Sonny was something she did every day. Sonny thinks that’s why Barba brusquely asked him to leave. Sonny thinks Barba didn’t want to watch as Amanda kept touching him. Sonny thinks Barba couldn’t stand the sight of it. Sonny thinks he should ask Barba about that too, but only if he wants to get a paperweight to the face.

The third time, when Barba was in Liv’s office discussing the Princes and their deal, Barba didn’t react until he saw Sonny perched on Amanda’s desk, giggling over baby pictures. Sonny thinks that’s why Barba looked away as soon as he smiled. Sonny thinks Barba assumed his smile was because of Amanda, because of Jesse. Sonny thinks Barba doesn’t know that smile was just for him. Sonny thinks he should tell Barba about it, but only if he wants Barba to stop being adorably flustered and start being annoyingly smug.

Sonny doesn’t want that. Not just yet.

This is fun.

“I’m not going anywhere, counselor. Also, nice try but I’m not buying it. You’re not jealous of Liv and Tucker having boring old person dinners. You’re jealous of me and Amanda watching trashy reality shows.”

Barba actually snorts before he gets himself under control.

“Hypothetically speaking, it’s not the trashy TV viewing I’m jealous of. I’m sure there’s other things you do with Rollins.”

Sonny takes a good look at Barba.

Barba doesn’t know.

“Yeah? Like what? Making dinner? Walking her dog? Burping her baby? ‘Cause, let me tell ya, that’s all there is to it.”

Barba looks unconvinced.

“Maybe that’s all there is to it now. You work with her all day, and then you go home with her, and make her dinner, and you watch tv with her and sing lullabies to her baby. That’s ‘all’ there is to it now. Until one night she flips her hair and sh-”

“I’m a pretty good cook.”

Barba looks surprised by the non sequitur.

“So I’m told.”

“And I’m great with babies and dogs.”

Barba rolls his eyes.

“That’s because you’re so much like them, Carisi.”

Sonny chuckles.

“And I’m a terrible singer.”

Barba narrows his eyes.

“That’s what I assumed.”

Sonny smiles.

“And I’m gay.”

Barba is silent.

“Not what you assumed, counselor?”

Barba stares.

“No.”

Sonny keeps smiling.

“And, just so you know, me, thinking you were jealous because of Liv? Thinking you loved her? It kinda sucked.”

There it is.

Barba is already starting to look annoyingly smug.

“It did?”

Sonny nods.

“Yeah. Thinking you were so torn up about it, about losing her, that you were willing to throw away all our progress and start being a dick again? Hearing you deny that we ever got along? Hearing you say it was all in my head? That wasn’t fun.”

Barba stops looking smug.

Barba looks…

Barba looks guilty again, and a little moved. And sweet.

Barba looks sweet.

“I didn’t… We were making progress, Carisi. You’re not crazy.”

Barba really means that.

When Barba says ‘progress’, he’s not just talking about their working relationship.

It’s clear now.

Barba thought they were getting somewhere, too. Somewhere romantic. That’s why he reacted the way he did.

All this time, Sonny thought he was slowly gaining Barba’s approval. Sonny didn’t dare hope his feelings were reciprocated. Sonny spent months trying to clamp down on his emotions, because he didn’t think he’d ever have a shot with Barba. Sonny spent months twisting the facts around in his mind, bending over backwards to interpret Barba’s little smiles and Barba’s quiet support and Barba’s casual touches as friendly.  

Meanwhile, Barba was flirting with him.

Poorly.

Sonny smiles, and he hopes his smile is half as sweet as the look on Barba’s face.

“Oh, I know I’m not crazy, Barba. Turns out, you were just mad ‘cause I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with Amanda.”

Barba sneers, except this time it’s a joke.

“I wasn’t mad.”

“Right. Not mad. Jealous.”

Barba exhales.

“Hypothetically speaking, Carisi. Pay attention.”

Sonny grins.

“Well, hypothetically speaking, counselor, all you had to do was ask.”

Barba smirks before he can stop himself.

And then he stops himself, turning his smirk into a scowl.

“Hypothetically speaking, please leave.”

Sonny snorts.

“No but if you had just told me, we could have avoided this entire mess. If you had just said, ‘I’m in love w-”

“Get out.”

“But I d-”

“Get out, Carisi. Forget this ever happened.”

Sonny starts laughing.

“Okay, okay, I’m going. I just want you to know, there’s no need for you to be jealous. I’m y-”

“Out!”

“I’m yours if you want me, counselor.”

“I don’t.”

Sonny keeps laughing.

Barba loses control of his expression again.

This time it’s not a smirk that slips through.

It’s a smile.

A genuine smile.

And Sonny didn’t even have to ask.

Sonny gets up, hoping to leave before Barba’s smile changes back into something hostile.

Something fake.

Barba’s smile, that’s real.

Barba is in love with him.

Barba didn’t deny it.

Not explicitly.

Sonny does know to pay attention to the fine print.

“I’m in love with you too, Barba.”

Barba’s smile does change.

Into an even wider smile.

Sonny keeps this image, this image of a smiling, happy Barba, Sonny saves it into his brain forever, and he turns around hoping to leave before Barba starts pelting him with pens.

“Me too.”

Barba’s voice is quiet.

Low.

Sonny doesn’t turn back around. He thinks that’s what Barba would prefer. He thinks Barba couldn’t say this to his face.

Not yet.

Sonny is surprised Barba said it at all.

Sonny is happy Barba said it.

Progress.

Sonny smiles and walks out the door.

Chapter Text

Rafael is not afraid.

He’s not.

If he’s shaking a little, it’s the adrenaline.

It’s not the fact someone just threatened to kill him in plain view. That was only mildly vexing.

It’s how he reacted to it.

Rafael gave his home address to the man who threatened him. A man who very pointedly said that Rafael had been spared. That it would be the easiest thing for him to give Rafael a shove down those steps, slippery with rain, and kill him, right then and there.

An ‘accident’.

That man, he practically said Rafael was only alive because he and his union friends were allowing it.

That?

That was infuriating.

Rafael owes his life to no one.

Sometimes he thinks he doesn’t even owe his life to his own mother. She supported him, she was there for him, but she never believed in him, not like he wanted her to. Not like she believed in his friend Alex Muñoz. Lucia judges him, still, for trudging along at the DA’s office, for still having a boss, for not being his own man, and Rafael knows that if he returned her calls all he’d get was grief over this latest case which has been getting some unfortunate publicity.

This case he can’t win.

That’s infuriating too.

People doubting the victims’ claims, corrupt COs and union reps and lawyers and enforcers, saying that these women have zero credibility and it would be in Rafael’s best interest to drop the charges because he can’t win.

Rafael can win.

Rafael will win.

Rafael will not drop the charges.

No one tells Rafael what to do.

That’s why he snapped.

That’s why he gave that man his home address.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It seemed like the best way for Rafael to show that he is not afraid.

Rafael is not afraid.

But now that he’s back at his office, now that he’s had time to think about the incident?

Now that he’s pouring himself a drink with still shaking hands?

Rafael thinks there had to be a better way to make that point.

Rafael isn’t sure why he did that.

He practically invited that man to his house.

His home.

Not that it feels like much of a home.

It never has.

Rafael feels more at home in his office.

This is where he comes to unwind.

To relax.

To loosen up his tie and have some bourbon.

To shake, away from prying eyes.

To be alone.

Rafael takes a sip.

It’s nothing fancy.

It just gets the job done.

The rest, Rafael keeps at his house. That’s where the expensive liquor is, reserved for his guests, for the judges he entertains on occasion, for the politicians. Those people, Rafael plies them with the good stuff.

Rafael himself, he likes to pretend he’s a man of taste but all he needs is plain ol’ bourbon.

Lots of it.

His stash is in his office, and that’s where his home is, and Rafael thinks that’s why he was so quick to surrender his address, because his nice apartment, it’s never meant much to him.

Let the killers come.

Rafael is not afraid.

He just needs to get his hands to stop shaking.

He takes another sip.

Ice cubes rattle against glass.

Knuckles rap against wood.

The door.

Someone is knocking on Rafael’s door.

Rafael almost drops the tumbler.

Rafael instantly sits up.

This is fine.

This is nothing.

It’s probably Carmen.

It’s definitely not someone sent to kill him.

And, even if it is, they have protocols for this sort of situation. He remembers the drills. The briefings. He doesn’t remember the details, though. He never thought he’d need to remember them.

Rafael thinks he remembers clearly marked exits, silent alarms.

Shelter in place.

Rafael didn’t lock the door.

Rafael is not afraid.

There are guards, and cops, even now, it’s late in the evening but the DA’s office is always full of people with guns, good people, most of them good people, some of them bad. Some of them have found themselves on the wrong end of an indictment once or twice, some of them Rafael himself has prosecuted. Some of them have Rafael’s back. Some of them would dance over his grave. Some of them wouldn’t bat an eye if he got shot, some of them, most of them wouldn’t lift a finger to protect him.

“Counselor? Am I interrupting?”

Carisi.

Smiling.

Rafael’s body instantly relaxes.

Carisi has his back.

Carisi would protect him.

Carisi keeps siding with Rafael over his fellow officers.

Rafael knows that.

Rafael has heard whispers, from other cops, menacing whispers, disparaging whispers about his ‘skinny lackey’ at Manhattan SVU, the cop who’s a disgrace to the badge, the cop who always defends Rafael when the other cops, the good ol’ boys who are too quick to pull the trigger, when they blame him for ruining their lives as they get drunk at cop bars, drinking bourbon even cheaper than the one Rafael is currently imbibing.

Those people, they’re at the DA’s office too. Walking the corridors. If someone came in with a gun and said he wanted to kill Rafael Barba, those people would clear the way.

Carisi isn’t like that.

Carisi is a hybrid. Half-lawyer, half-cop.

Carisi understands.

Carisi understands Rafael.

Carisi is t-

“Counselor? This a bad time?”

Carisi is there.

Smiling.

Still.

Rafael’s hands, they’ve stopped shaking.

Rafael looks at Carisi’s happy face, cheeks round and soft-looking, lips stretched wide in a grin, Rafael looks at Carisi leaning, his upper body already inside the office but still hesitating to come all the way in, Rafael looks at Carisi who is clearly so very eager to enter but he’s still waiting for an invitation, Rafael looks at Carisi and he feels calmer already.

“No. Not at all. Come in, Carisi.”

If Carisi is surprised by what is a downright cordial invitation, at least by Rafael’s standards, he doesn’t show it.

He just smiles an even wider smile and plops down on the chair across from Rafael’s desk.

“Uh, so, you got a minute?”

Barba sighs. It’s a reflex. Carisi is always asking him that question, and it’s usually followed by an emotional declaration which is both deeply personal to Carisi and deeply irrelevant to Rafael himself.

“For you, Carisi? I got about ten seconds.”

Carisi grins.

Rafael always says yes.

Rafael always wants to listen.

Carisi’s little digressions, they’re fun. They’re distracting.

Rafael really needs to be distracted.

“You remember how I told you I took the bar exam, a few months ago?”

Rafael remembers.

How could he forget?

That little announcement, it was the nicest thing to happen to Rafael all year, and if that doesn’t prove how underwhelming his life has been, then nothing does.

Carisi told Rafael that he did ‘okay’ on the exam, Carisi gave Rafael way too much credit, Carisi overstated the importance of their working relationship, Carisi looked at Rafael with warm, affectionate eyes and Rafael felt appreciated, and respected, and liked, and wanted, and…

Yeah.

Rafael remembers.

“Yes? And?”

Carisi pauses for effect.

“And… I passed! I passed the bar, counselor!”

Rafael smiles.

Some good news, finally.

Rafael needed this.

Hearing something that doesn’t make him want to down a whole bottle, seeing someone happy, Rafael needed this.

Carisi passed.

That’s impressive.

Passing the New York bar on the first try, it’s not very common. Certainly not for someone who graduated night school. Then again, it’s not that common to go through law school while working fulltime as an SVU detective. And, Rafael’s teasing notwithstanding, Fordham Law has a very good evening program. Top three in the country. Carisi did good.

That’s impressive, but not surprising.

Rafael used to tease Carisi, a lot, but in truth he’s always appreciated Carisi’s tenacity. After all, Rafael knows from experience just how hard Carisi works.

Rafael knows how Carisi is a stickler for detail, how he always stays late to go over records with a fine-toothed comb, how he always does his due diligence, how he writes the most thorough and air-tight case reports, how he insists on evaluating every piece of evidence without jumping to conclusions.

Rafael knows how Carisi keeps asking questions, legal questions, how he keeps making statements or guesses or assessments, how he looks to Rafael for confirmation, how ‘am I right, counselor?’ is his mantra, how he wants to learn, from every case, Rafael knows how dedicated Carisi is, how serious he is about the job. About the law.

Carisi worked hard for this, very hard, for years, even before Rafael met him, Carisi was busting his ass trying to get through law school, and he graduated, and he took the bar, and he passed it, and all his hard work paid off.

Rafael is still smiling.

Rafael is happy for Carisi, and strangely proud.

He knows what it’s like to succeed against the odds.

“Are you sure there wasn’t some kind of mistake with the results? A mix-up?”

Carisi rolls his eyes.

Rafael smirks.

Rafael really wants to say something nice, but he thinks ‘nice’ will disappoint Carisi. He thinks Carisi is expecting a joke, an insult even, Rafael thinks that’s half the fun, so before he genuinely congratulates Carisi he has to play their little game. It’s practically obligatory by now.

“What? That’s it?”

Rafael narrows his eyes.

“I was expecting a lot worse. Something like, you’re gonna resign from the New York Bar Association ‘cause you don’t wanna be a member now that I’m in.”

Rafael chuckles.

Just like he thought. Carisi was expecting this.

“Do you spend your time coming up with imaginary put-downs for yourself, Carisi?”

Carisi’s grin fades a little, just for a moment.

“Gotta be prepared for the real ones, counselor.”

Rafael winces.

Carisi is expecting the insults, and he laughs along with Rafael, because he’s too nice not to, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys hearing them.

Rafael knows that.

It’s tricky, finding the right balance between teasing and taunting. The teasing, it always goes over well. Carisi’s laughter is genuine. The taunting, it’s less successful. Early on, Carisi used to get frustrated. Eventually he learned to ignore Rafael’s jabs. And now, the taunting only happens by accident, because Rafael is a bitter asshole and sometimes he goes too far even though his intentions are good.

Rafael likes teasing Carisi.

It’s pretty much the only thing he does for fun, now.

The taunting, it’s in the past. Rafael tries to leave it in the past, except his sarcastic wit gets the better of him on occasion.

Rafael doesn’t want to offend Carisi. Not anymore. He hasn’t for a long time.  

Rafael doesn’t want to make Carisi feel bad. Not when Carisi always makes him feel better.

“Well, Carisi, just for today, there won’t be any insults. Consider it a gift. From me, to you. Congratulations.”

Carisi smiles.

“Just for today, Barba? It’s, like, nine o’clock already. That’s, what, three hours? Not much of a gift. At least throw in tomorrow, too.”

Rafael smiles too. He likes the fact Carisi is trying to negotiate a better deal. It’s amusing. Endearing.

Carisi is.

Endearing.

“You’ve got until noon tomorrow. How’s that?”

Carisi grins.

“Perfect! Thank you!”

Carisi looks genuinely excited about the prospect of spending a little over twelve hours without any insults from Rafael.

Rafael decides that’s not enough.

Carisi deserves more.

Rafael decides this is a good time for him to say something ‘nice’.

Carisi has earned it.

“Joking aside, Carisi, this is a great achievement. You’ve been working fulltime, and you’ve been studying, and your work hasn’t suffered, and you managed to pass the bar exam. And in New York, too. The success rates aren’t the highest here, I’m sure you know that. What you did, it wasn’t easy. What you accomplished. I’m happy for you. Congratulations. Welcome to the club.”

Carisi blinks.

Maybe that was too nice.

Carisi blinks, once, twice, and Rafael thinks he’s starting to look emotional, and that’s n-

“Yeah, I, uh. Thanks. Thank you. I’m just… I’m sorry. Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Night school’s one thing, I mean, I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in years, but then there was the tuition, too, and I managed not to get in too deep with my student loans because of my job, but that meant most of my salary was going towards that debt, for years, and my parents had to pitch in with rent money and…

“And it wasn’t just the money, you know? It was the support. My mom cooked for me, all through law school, ‘cause I never had time to cook. And I love to cook, did you know that, counselor? I love to cook, but I spent years eatin’ my mom’s reheated stuff, and Gina’s, Gina’s one of my sisters, she’d give me her leftovers too, for years. And Theresa and Bella, my other sisters, they were on wakeup call duty. ‘Cause sometimes the alarm wasn’t enough, not when I was barely sleepin’. And…

“And now that I got my license, it’s like, I did it. I didn’t let them down. The squad, too. You should’ve seen Rollins and Fin. How excited they were. For me. That’s… And you, you helped me, counselor. I told you before. Maybe you didn’t enjoy doin’ it, but you always answered all my questions, you taught me so much and… And it’s good to feel it wasn’t all for nothin’, you know?”

Carisi definitely looks emotional, voice thick, dropping g’s left and right, eyes wide and possibly a little teary, and Rafael can’t help being affected.

Rafael does know.

“I know, Carisi. I had… I had people who supported me too, when I was in school. People who helped me. Family, and not necessarily by blood. I know how you feel. When I passed the bar, I was happier for them than I was for myself.”

Carisi stares.

He looks surprised.

“Yeah! That’s it! That’s exactly how I feel. Like I did it for them. So that’s not weird?”

Rafael smiles.

“No.”

Carisi nods.

He’s already regained his composure.

He doesn’t look embarrassed by his confession.

By the soul-baring.

Carisi just smiles.

Again.

Rafael admires that.

The fearlessness.

Rafael is not afraid, not of killers or bruisers or enemies, but he is afraid of showing his emotions.

That’s why he’s still sitting at his desk, watching Carisi from a safe distance, when all he wants is to get up and touch.

Comfortingly.

Comfort, it’s a good pretense. Carisi has been using it on him for months now. Touching him, briefly, whenever Rafael looks discombobulated. Quick but firm touches, brushes of shoulders, knees bumping Rafael’s thighs, Carisi always in his personal space.

Carisi thinks he’s getting away with it, too.

Probably because Rafael hasn’t called him out yet.

Rafael has no intention of ever calling him out.

Rafael likes it.

Rafael looks forward to those touches.

Rafael relishes in them.

This, Carisi’s earnest little speech, it would have been a good opportunity for Rafael to do some touching of his own.

Another opportunity, wasted.

“What now, Carisi? Do you want to repay your family? Are you going to forgo your measly NYPD salary and become a lawyer so you can make the big bucks?”

Carisi shakes his head.

“Nah. The real money’s in becoming a defense attorney, and that’s not gonna happen. I could never do that. Look right into a victim’s eyes and tell them they’re lying? Tell them their word counts for nothing? No way.”

Rafael exhales.

That’s why he likes talking to Carisi.

Carisi reminds Rafael that it’s okay to be idealistic. That it’s okay to want to pursue justice, relentlessly, even to his own detriment.

Carisi reminds Rafael that it’s worth the fight.

“Well, we’re not doing so bad here at the DA’s office. It probably pays better than your current job.”

Carisi grins.

“Yeah. I’ll keep that in mind, counselor.”

“You should. We could use you. Though the NYPD could probably use you more. An officer who actually upholds the law? You’re a rarity, Carisi.”

Carisi looks a little thrown, but he quickly recovers.

“Thanks. I can see why you’d think that, with this case and all. It’s sick, how these COs are covering for each other. They’re law enforcement, and they’re worse than the criminals.”

Rafael swallows.

Rafael doesn’t want to think about the case.

Enough.

There’s not much he can do now, anyway. It’s all d-

“Uh, why don’t I… I’m just gonna get out of your hair, okay, counselor? Leave you to it.”

Rafael imagines it’s his expression that spooked Carisi into wanting to leave.

Rafael’s face, it probably looks tight right now.

Grim.

Rafael doesn’t want to think about the case.

Rafael doesn’t want t-

“What… Uh, actually, it’s pretty late. Why don’t I walk you out?”  

Rafael stares.

Carisi was ready to ‘leave Rafael to it’, just a second ago, and now he’s asking to walk Rafael out?

Why the change?

Does Carisi know? Is that why he’s acting so strange? Did Liv tell him about the threat? Is Carisi humoring him? Staying late, to keep him company?

To keep him safe?

“I mean, you’re probably heading home anyway, right, Barba? Come on. Let’s go.”

Carisi is smiling.

The smile, it’s way too wide for this to be a pity offer.

Not entirely.

Rafael thinks maybe it was his expression again. His face, making Carisi reconsider.

Rafael doesn’t want to be left alone.

Maybe that shows.

Rafael thinks maybe Carisi is trying to spend a few more minutes with him.

Carisi’s always doing that.

Following him down empty corridors, constantly asking to shadow him, making little visits to Rafael’s office for things that could be handled just as easily over the phone.

Carisi doesn’t know about the threat.

He’s acting way too casual.

If Carisi knew, he’d be way more concerned. Way more protective.

Carisi is worried about Barba enough as it is. Carisi is worried about Barba working too hard, about Barba feeling the pressure from his bosses, Carisi is worried enough without knowing about this latest crisis.

That’s probably what this is.

Carisi thinks it’s late.

Carisi thinks Rafael should go home.

‘Home.’

Rafael doesn’t want to go home.

Maybe the killer will be there.

Maybe tonight.

Maybe tomorrow.

Rafael’s apartment, it doesn’t feel like much of a home on a good day, and right now it feels like a trap.

A trap Rafael has set for himself.

Rafael joked about this, to Carisi.

He hadn’t thought about this, not until Carisi mentioned their conversation, just moments ago.

When Carisi first told Rafael about the bar exam, he said he admired Rafael’s ‘something’, Rafael didn’t let him finish.

‘My suicidal streak?’

That’s what Rafael said, back then.

Months ago.

He hadn’t thought about this, not since then.

Was it a joke?

Does Rafael have a suicidal streak?

A literal one, in addition to the professional one, which always has him trying cases no one else would touch with a ten-foot pole?

Is that why he gave his home address to that man?

Rafael is not afraid.

Maybe he should be afraid.

“Counselor? You ready to go? Want me to wait for you? I don’t mind.”

Carisi is still smiling, but he’s clearly starting to pick up on Rafael’s weird behavior.

‘Home.’

Rafael doesn’t want to go home.

“It’s not that late, Carisi. Why don’t we… Have you celebrated yet?”

Carisi gapes.

“Uh, the Lieu was supposed to treat us all to lunch, but we caught this case and we didn’t get t-”

“Say no more. Let’s get out of here. I’m buying.”

Rafael has made up his mind.

Carisi deserves a celebration, and Rafael needs a drink.

It’s settled.

Carisi is still gaping, but he gets up as soon as Rafael does.

He doesn’t even bother saying yes.

It’s implied.

Carisi would never say no to Rafael.

Drinks.

They’ll have drinks.

Rafael knows just the place.

A nice bar, not too far from his office but far enough.

Quiet.

Dark.

Carisi will have to lean closer to look into Rafael’s eyes.

That sounds nice.

It sounds perfect.

Rafael w-

“Before we go, counselor, I’m gonna remind you that you’re not allowed to insult me until noon tomorrow. Don’t think our deal doesn’t count just ‘cause we’re gonna be off the clock, alright?”

Rafael chuckles.

“You’ll make a good lawyer, Carisi.”

Carisi beams.

Carisi waits for Rafael to get his coat and his briefcase.

Carisi holds the door open and they leave together.

Rafael is not afraid.

He’s not.

If he spends the ride to the bar constantly checking the rearview mirror, looking for suspicious cars following them, it’s just good sense.

He did just receive a threat against his life. He can’t totally ignore it. He has to do something.

He’s not sure why his method of dealing with the threat involves a night out with Carisi, instead of a night in with a police detail, but still.

Rafael is with Carisi, and Carisi keeps stealing glances at him, cute little glances, lasting only a few seconds, and Rafael has to struggle not to smirk, and this, this is good.

This is just what Rafael needs.

A night out with Carisi.

It sounds perfect.

They get out of the car, and Rafael is glad Carisi offered to drive because his traitorous hands are still plagued by the occasional jitter.

Carisi is walking ahead, probably because he noticed the bar has no bouncer, no one at the door, and he wants to hold it open for Rafael because he’s such a gentleman.

Rafael smiles and tries to keep up.

He’s only a few steps behind Carisi when he sees a man approaching, closing the distance, walking fast, and the streetlight is broken and Rafael can’t get a good look at the man’s facial features but the physique does bare a passing resemblance to the man who threatened him earlier, same build, same buzz cut, same jacket, and before he knows it Rafael has a hand on the small of Carisi’s back and he’s pushing Carisi inside, he’s trying not to panic but he’s failing, he’s practically shoving Carisi inside, and they’re in, they get inside, the door closes behind them and Rafael waits, he waits for the man to enter right after them, but the door stays closed.

Rafael exhales.

Rafael is not afraid.

Maybe if he says it enough, he’ll believe it.

“You alright, Barba?”

Dammit.

Carisi is looking at him.

The concern is blatantly obvious now.

Carisi saw.

Carisi saw Rafael’s reaction, his jumpiness, his fear, maybe, Carisi saw his fear and that’s the last thing Rafael wants.

To be pitied, for being afraid.

Rafael is not afraid.

Rafael is never afraid, that’s why he gave that man his address, Rafael wanted to show that he will stand tall, Rafael is not afraid, except he doesn’t want to go back to his own home and he d-

“Was it that guy? Did you know him, counselor?”

Great.

Carisi saw the man, too.

Carisi is observant.

Rafael will have to try harder to keep his secret.

To hide.

The perils of fraternizing with a detective.

“No. I thought I did. I thought he was someone else. I was mistaken.”

Carisi frowns, but he doesn’t ask a follow-up question. Probably because he can tell Rafael is done talking about it. Carisi just smiles again.

“Okay. Let’s take a seat, huh? And, remember, no insults plus you’re buyin’!”

Rafael smiles back.

Just like that, the tension is gone.

He didn’t even realize his shoulders were so tight until he let go and took a breath.

This was a good idea.

Carisi is helping already.

They find a table, in the corner, the darker the better. Carisi doesn’t protest when Rafael sits down without even asking. Carisi just sits next to him, and it’s a bench seat, and Rafael counts down the seconds until he can feel Carisi’s bony knee bumping his thigh, three, two, on-

There it is.

Carisi is very predictable.

It’s endearing.

Rafael pushes back, presses his thigh against Carisi’s, and he thinks he can see Carisi blushing before a waitress comes to take their order.

Carisi ops for draft beer.

Predictable.

Rafael goes for more bourbon.

He refuses to acknowledge the fact he’s very predictable as well.

They drink.

Rafael tries to pace himself, tries to make one glass of bourbon last as long as one of Carisi’s beer mugs, and Carisi is a slow drinker, and Rafael thinks that’s the only reason he manages to stay mostly sober, even now, when they’re four drinks and two hours in.

Carisi has taken off his coat and jacket and he’s undone his vest and he’s loosened his tie and Rafael can see his neck, his collarbone, and they’re sitting way closer than they were a few hours ago, and Carisi keeps leaning in when he talks.

Carisi talks a lot.

Carisi talks about his sisters, in detail, Carisi always talks about his sisters, Carisi talks about their reactions when they found out he passed the bar, Carisi talks about his parents, Carisi talks about the mass text that went out to every Carisi in New York, informing them of his success.

Carisi talks about the squad, about Rollins and Fin, Carisi talks about Rollins hugging him, Carisi talks about wanting to hug Fin too but thinking twice and deciding against it, Carisi talks about Liv’s surprise, in a sweetly self-deprecating way, because of course she was surprised, because who’d have thought that he’d pass on his first try, Carisi talks about feeling at home, finally, at Manhattan SVU.

Rafael listens.

Rafael leans in, too.

Rafael’s tie, it’s almost undone.

Rafael keeps fiddling with his suspenders, and Carisi’s eyes are always drawn to the motion.

Rafael lets his elbow rest on the table, right next to Carisi’s.

Rafael asks questions to keep Carisi talking.

Carisi isn’t drunk either, but he’s definitely buzzed.

Carisi keeps touching Rafael.

These touches, they’re longer.

Lingering.

Carisi’s hands find their way to Rafael’s shoulder, to Rafael’s knee, to Rafael’s arm, Carisi talks with his hands, Carisi keeps talking, and the more he talks the more he touches, and Rafael likes it.

The fifth round has just arrived on their table, when Carisi leans in again.

“So, counselor, you ready to talk now? You ready to tell me what that was all about? With that guy at the door?”

Rafael almost chokes on his drink.

Was Carisi working up to this? Was this Carisi’s plan? To get him just inebriated enough to open up?

Rafael snorts.

Others have tried, but they have failed.

Rafael doesn’t open up.

Not to just anyone.

“Like I said, Carisi. I thought he was someone else.”

Carisi isn’t buying it, but Rafael is positive he can change the subject very easily. All he needs is a distraction. Preferably by touching Carisi. That’s guaranteed to make Carisi forget just about anything.

Rafael hasn’t touched Carisi yet.

Rafael has kept his hands to himself.

All night.

Rafael is just inebriated enough, and that’s dangerous.

If he touches Carisi, things might happen.

If he touch-

“Right. Look, Barba, I didn’t wanna say anything before, ‘cause I didn’t want you to change your mind, but I’m gonna say it. You asked me out for a drink. You’ve been sittin’ here, drinkin’ with me for hours. You. With me. Don’t you think that’s weird? Don’t ya think I know that’s weird?”

Oh.

Carisi does have a point.

Rafael wonders if he can d-

“Plus, I saw you checkin’ the rearview mirror, on the way here. The entire way. Like someone was chasin’ you. And that guy, at the door, he spooked you. So, what’s up? Is everything alright? If… if you don’t wanna tell me, that’s fine. If it’s private. I can just sit here and drink with you. I’m happy to do it. You… You know that. I don’t mind. I like this. But… But if you wanna tell me, that’s fine too. Whatever you want. Okay?”

Rafael gulps down his bourbon. The whole thing. Down the hatch.

Carisi did see Rafael’s fear, but there’s no pity to be found in his expression.

There is mild concern, and curiosity, and something else.

Caring, maybe.

Fondness.

Carisi really wants to know, but he’s not pushing.

‘Whatever you want.’

Rafael thinks maybe he wants to talk.

Rafael thinks maybe he shouldn’t have chugged his drink.

Rafael thinks maybe he wants to open up, after all.

Why not?

Carisi talks a lot, but he’s a good listener too.

And then there’s that fondness.

Carisi is perfect for this conversation. He can lend a sympathetic ear. That’s practically what he does best. Better than anyone Rafael knows.

If Rafael is going to open up to anyone, it might as well be to the cop who has a crush on him.

Rafael isn’t blind.

Carisi will listen, Carisi will be sweet and supportive, Carisi won’t call out Rafael for his reckless behavior, because Carisi likes him.

It seems like a good idea.

Five drinks in, it seems like a good idea.

“I may not have been one hundred percent honest, Carisi.”

Carisi leans even closer, his shoulder pressing against Rafael’s, his face totally focused.

“How so?”

“I didn’t just ask you here to celebrate you exam results.”

Carisi snorts.

“No shit. What’s the other reason?”

Rafael has to laugh.

Buzzed Carisi is either more confident or less prim and proper than Normal Carisi.

Or both.

That could be dangerous too.

“I really needed a drink. And I didn’t want to stay and get drunk in my office, alone.”

Carisi looks intrigued.

“Okay. Is that… There a reason for that, counselor? One you care to share?”

Rafael wishes he had something left in his glass.

He grabs Carisi’s beer and downs what’s left of it.

Carisi looks surprised, and that fondness mixed with concern makes another appearance.

“Yes. There’s a very good reason. I, uh. I just received a threat against my life.”

Carisi looks stunned.

Rafael doesn’t know what Carisi was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

“What? When? How? Was it a direct threat? Or was it implied?”

Carisi sobered up quick.

Rafael supposes that’s normal.

Nothing like shock to jolt you into clear-headedness.

“A man approached me outside the courthouse, as I was leaving.”

Carisi nods.

“Okay. Alright. What did he say?”

Rafael licks his lips.

“Some vague threats, at first. About having information on me. I didn’t take that seriously. And then he talked about shoving me down the steps and cracking my skull. Wide open. Right then and there. Until I bled to death.”

Carisi grimaces in sympathy.

In pain, maybe.

In fear.

“That it?”

If only.

“Yes. He left right after he delivered his little message.”

Rafael will not share everything with Carisi. The address thing, that’s better kept to himself.

“Okay. I’m assumin’ you didn’t recognize him. They wouldn’t send somebody you know. What did he look like?”

Rafael sighs. This is why he didn’t want to talk.

“I didn’t notice. He was just a face in the crowd.”

Carisi narrows his eyes.

“No way. This guy threatened you to your face. You saw him. You got eyes. What did he look like?”

“I don’t remember, Carisi.”

Carisi looks irritated.

“Are you serious, Barba? Did you suddenly become one of those witnesses you hate? The ones who conveniently forget everything, because they’re too afraid to testify?”

Rafael is not afraid.

“He was young. Late twenties, early thirties. Latino. Short. Shorter than me. Normal weight. Shaved head. Stubble. Brown eyes. There. Go out and find him, Carisi. Good luck.”

Carisi scoffs.

“That’s not what I mean, counselor. What if this guy shows up at the courthouse again? The trial hasn’t even started yet. Or what if he comes by your office? Don’t ya think the guards should have his description? Or NYPD?”

Oh.

Right.

Carisi’s right.

Rafael didn’t even think of that.

He’s been too busy worrying that this man will go to his house.

Rafael realizes there’s a lot more to be afraid of, more than he originally thought.

He realizes he’s not safe anywhere.

Rafael is not afr-

“Speakin’ of, have you told anyone else about this? If I send in this description, am I gonna have to explain the whole thing to the Lieu? Or does she know?”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

“She knows. Not the details. But she knows to watch out. For me and for herself. And for you. You’re all in danger, Carisi. This isn’t just about me. I’m just a high profile target. That, and no one’s going to care if an ADA is found dead. These people, they’re much less likely to kill a cop. They know the rest of the NYPD will never rest until they’re caught. Me, no one’s going to want to avenge me.”

As Rafael says this, he realizes how true it is. Even if he does give the man’s description to the NYPD, he still can’t rely on them for his protection.

Most of them wouldn’t lift a finger to protect him.

Carisi would.

Carisi would protect him.

Carisi would probably try to avenge him, and that thought is strangely comforting.

Carisi looks upset.

Carisi can’t stop wincing and frowning, as Rafael keeps talking about death. About dying. About bleeding to death. About being found dead.

Carisi doesn’t like hearing that.

Carisi’s face, Rafael has never seen it looking so somber.

Carisi looks shaken, and Rafael’s heart is warmed by the sight.

Sometimes Rafael thinks he’s alone.

Sometimes he thinks his job, his work ethic, his attitude, sometimes Rafael thinks it’s all left him isolated.

Sometimes Rafael thinks he has no friends. No real ones.

Sometimes he thinks he’s alienated everyone. Even Liv. They’re not as close as they used to be. His mother, too. He hasn’t returned her calls in weeks.

Sometimes Rafael thinks no one cares about him.

Sometimes Rafael thinks no one would miss him.

And then there’s Carisi, looking pained.

Carisi, looking like the very thought of Barba dying is hurting him.

Just like that, Rafael feels anchored to the world again.

Carisi tries to smile.

It’s endearing.

“You know, Barba, this guy, he was probably just tryin’ to scare you. It’s probably nothing. I mean, we’ll be careful, we’ll look out for you, but my guess is that it’s an intimidation tactic. And it’s not workin’, huh?”

Carisi keeps trying to smile but it’s only mildly effective.

Rafael doesn’t even bother.

“It might be working. A little.”

Carisi blinks.

Carisi instantly reaches for Rafael.

Carisi is…

Carisi is trying to hug him.

It’s a half-assed hug, Carisi clearly bolstered by the alcohol but still a little hesitant, because even when inebriated he knows that hugging Rafael is a potentially lethal endeavor.

Rafael lets it happen.

Carisi throws an arm around Rafael’s shoulder, and he pulls a little, and Rafael goes along with it, and then Carisi starts rubbing Rafael’s back.

For several seconds.

When he stops, he leaves his hand where it is.

On Rafael’s back.

Fingers splayed.

Warm.

Rafael exhales.

This feels good.

Carisi’s hand on his back, it feels good.

“Is that why… That guy at the door? Did you think it was him?”

Rafael nods.

Carisi pulls him a little closer.

Rafael wants to say this isn’t necessary.

Rafael wants to say he doesn’t need comfort.

Rafael wants to say he’s not afraid, but that’s not what this is about.

Carisi is the one who’s afraid.

Carisi cares about him.

Rafael knows that.

This isn’t just a crush.

Rafael knows that too.

Their flirtation, because that’s what this is, their mutual flirtation has just entered a new stage. They’re moving past the teasing and the friendly support and the casual touching and the excuses to spend some time together.

This is new.

This worry, this fear, this is new.

Carisi is afraid for him.

Rafael doesn’t know why, but that makes him happy.

Carisi’s hands on him, they make him happy.

Carisi’s worried eyes, they make him happy.

Rafael thinks maybe Carisi makes him happy, period.

Nothing else does.

It’s the only thing he looks forward to, these days.

Seeing Carisi’s goofy face. Hearing that annoying accent. Enduring the constant questions. Watching those long legs, striding into his office. Looking at that nice ass, when Carisi leaves. Feeling those soft brushes of Carisi’s fingers on his chest, or his arms, on his shoulders.

It’s the only thing Rafael looks forward to.

Rafael burrows deeper into Carisi’s chest.

Rafael’s hand is itching to touch Carisi’s thigh, but he resists the urge. Rafael keeps his hand clenched, resting on the table.

Carisi’s shoulders, they’re broader than they look.

Carisi looks at Rafael, and Rafael looks right back, and their faces are only inches apart, their eyes are, their lips, and it doesn’t even feel that different than their usual encounters because they’re always standing so very close, they’re always drawn to each other, they always have been, except lately Rafael has stopped fighting it.

And then the lights start flashing.

Last call.

Rafael doesn’t move.

Neither does Carisi.

They sit, huddled together, looking at each other and they don’t move.

Carisi eventually speaks, as the other patrons start getting up, as the place begins to empty.

His arm is still around Rafael’s shoulders.

“Uh. Come on, counselor. I’ll drive ya home. But I’ll feel better knowin’ some unis are posted outside tonight. Let me call the Lieu. Okay? It’ll just take a minute. I can have a couple of cruisers parked out front by the time we get there.”

Rafael doesn’t want to go home.

Rafael exhales.

“There’s no need for that, Carisi. I have you to protect me.”

Carisi gets flustered, either because he felt Rafael’s breath on his face, or because Rafael made sure to whisper that in a low, sexy purr.

“Yeah, you got me now. What about when you’re at your place, though? I won’t be there to watch out for you.”

Carisi’s question sounds innocent, but his eyes tell a different story.

He may look flustered, but he knows what’s happening.

How could he not?

Rafael has been moving closer, steadily, moving closer by the second. Any minute now and he’ll be sitting on Carisi’s lap.

“You can come with me.”

Carisi’s eyes are suddenly very wide.

He knows what’s happening, but maybe he still finds it hard to believe.

“Define ‘with me,’ counselor.”

Rafael smirks.

Carisi is trying to finagle an unequivocal invitation.

Rafael decides to give him one.

“Would you like me to define ‘come’ as well?”

Carisi’s jaw drops.

Rafael wants to kiss him.

Later.

When they’re alone.

“Come on, Carisi. Let’s go. We can continue our celebration elsewhere.”

Carisi blinks rapidly, like he’s trying to get Rafael’s face back into focus, which is very possible because Carisi has been giving Rafael a blank stare for several moments now.

Daydreaming, probably.

Fantasizing.

Rafael knows the feeling.

“The celebration ended when you told me somebody threatened to kill you, counselor.”

Rafael smiles.

He’s touched by the fact Carisi is willing to ignore his shameless innuendo long enough to express genuine concern.

That’s a sweet thought.

“Maybe we can start over. I’d hate to think I ruined your night. Let me make it up to you.”

Carisi doesn’t respond immediately.

He’s too busy staring at Rafael’s lips.

Carisi finally smiles again, and then he smirks, and then he pulls Rafael even closer, his arm fully encircling Rafael’s back, his fingers digging into Rafael’s bicep.

“Yeah? Your place? You want me to come for a sleepover?”

No.

Rafael winces.

Rafael doesn’t want that.

Rafael doesn’t want to go home.

Maybe that shows.

Carisi pulls away, and he looks contrite.

“I didn’t mean… I just assumed… Uh. I’m sorry. I didn’t… I thought you… Um.”

Carisi is babbling, and this would be endearing too if it wasn’t so counterproductive.

“Relax, Carisi. I was just thinking we could go to your place.”

Carisi lets out a relieved breath, a desperately relieved breath, and he puts his arm right back where it was. Carisi leans in, again, and Rafael shakes his head.

“Oh. Okay. Sure. Whatever you want.”

Carisi is so easy.

Carisi would never say no to Rafael.

Rafael knows that.

Rafael knew that a few hours ago, when he asked Carisi out for a drink.

Rafael knew that a few minutes ago, when he basically propositioned Carisi.

Part of him thinks he only did that because he doesn’t want to be alone tonight.

Because he doesn’t want to go home.

That’s a very convenient lie.

The truth is, Rafael just found an excuse to get what he’s wanted for a long time.

An excuse to ask for it.

Carisi’s answer, it was never in question.

That’s what made it so hard to ask.

Rafael knew that as soon as he asked, things would change.

Instantly.

It was all up to him.

So he asked.

The fact he did it, the fact Rafael asked, he can pretend it was about convenience, about needing a place to stay, he can pretend it was about lust, about Carisi’s nice ass and full lips, Rafael can pretend it was about fear, about fun, but the truth is that Carisi isn’t the only one who cares.

Rafael car-

“I gotta warn you, though. My place is a shoebox. And my bed’s a double. It’s kinda small for two people. Full disclosure. We might have to cuddle afterwards.”

Rafael bursts into laughter, and Carisi squeezes his shaking shoulders.

Someone is out there trying to kill him, and Rafael is sitting at an almost empty bar, laughing at Carisi’s cheesy jokes.

Carisi is helping.

“Keep talking, Carisi, and you’ll have your bed all to yourself.”

Carisi chuckles.

“No, no. I just meant we could try your place. I’m betting your bed is nicer. Bigger. And we’re definitely gonna need the space.”

Carisi’s eyebrows are wiggling.

If this doesn’t change Rafael’s mind, nothing will.

Nothing will change Rafael’s mind.

“Your place will be fine, Carisi. Mine is not an option.”

Carisi zeroes in on that immediately.

“Not an option? Why?”

Dammit.

Rafael slipped.

He wonders if he can get away with an excuse, before Carisi sees right through h-

“Wait. Are you worried your apartment isn’t safe, Barba? Have you noticed anything? Any suspicious cars, parked outside? Anyone loitering? Have you been finding your stuff where you know you didn’t leave it? Any doors, randomly unlocked? Do you have reason to suspect anyone’s been in your home?”

Dammit.

Carisi sure knows how to kill the mood.

Out of fear.

Out of concern.

It’s endearing.

“No. Nothing like that, Carisi. Calm down.”

Carisi looks dubious but mostly appeased.

“Okay. Good. Then why can’t we go to your place?”

Rafael sighs.

He kept this from Liv, for fear of a dressing down, and he kept it from Carisi, because the last thing he wants is to have Carisi trying to talk sense into him, because the very notion of that is ridiculous, but Rafael is too damn horny to come up with a good lie and all he wants to get this over with, all he wants is to get Carisi in bed and forget about everything else.

“When that man threaten-”

“Hey, lovebirds, take it outside. We’re closing up.”

Saved by the bell.

Or by the burly bartender.

Rafael acts like he wasn’t about to say anything important. He untangles himself from Carisi’s grasp, and it’s no wonder the bartender called them lovebirds because Carisi had quite the grip on his shoulders, because they were sitting so close, and now Rafael wants to put some distance between them hoping Carisi will let this drop.

They put on their coats and walk outside.

Carisi is stealing glances again, but this time they’re neither cute nor little. They’re serious, if not grave, they’re long glances which signify concern.

Rafael walks to the car, hop-

“Wait, wait. When that man threatened you, what? What happened? Did he say he knows where you live? That’s a very direct threat, Barba. Is that it?”

Oh.

Rafael wishes he had thought of that. It explains everything. Maybe he’ll use the excuse on Liv.

Not on Carisi, though.

Carisi is holding him by the elbow, on the dimly lit sidewalk, and that broken streetlight is now working in Rafael’s favor, because it obscures his expression.

Rafael wants to tell Carisi the truth.

He wants to tell someone the truth.

Crazy as it is.

Rafael wants to see what Carisi thinks about it.

Rafael isn’t sure if he has a suicidal streak and he wants a second opinion.

Rafael drags Carisi closer to the busted light, near the street corner, deeper into the darkness, and Carisi follows.

“That’s not what happened. The man, he threatened me, like I told you. But before he left, I took out one of my business cards and wrote down my home address. I gave it to him. I dared him to pay me a visit. Alright? Satisfied?”

Carisi’s eyes are illuminated by the headlights of a passing car, just for a moment.

They’re wide.

And so blue.

“You… You did what? That was…”

“Save it, Carisi. I know. It was reckless. I don’t need your judgem-”

“Uh, I was gonna say that was awesome, counselor.”

Rafael is stunned into silence.

“Your address, it was nothing the guy couldn’t find with a little effort. It’s not a secret. They probably had the information anyway. Think about it. They’ve probably done their homework on you, right? Maybe lookin’ to see if you can be bought, you know? Your address, that was probably the first thing they dug up. You didn’t tell them anything they didn’t know. What you did, it was symbolic. A statement. You stood your ground. You showed ‘em you’re not afraid.”

Carisi is smiling.

Rafael only manages to see it because another car sheds light on his smile.

Rafael regrets the darkness.

Rafael wants to look at Carisi.

Rafael wants to kiss him.

Rafael was worried about Carisi seeing his fear.

Carisi sees his fearlessness, instead.

Rafael isn’t sure that’s a good thing, but it does provide him with a measure of comfort.

“Right. You’re right. That is… that’s what I thought. It was a statement.”

“It was a hell of a statement, counselor! What did you say, exactly?”

Rafael smirks despite his better judgment.

Carisi wants a play-by-play, and Rafael is not above preening.

“I said, ‘Here’s my home address. You come by any time you want.’”

Carisi actually whistles.

“Wow. That sent a message.”

Rafael enjoys the validation, at least for the three seconds it takes him to realize that the very fact Carisi approves of his little stunt confirms just how insane it was.

Carisi takes Rafael’s elbow again and starts pulling him toward the car.

Rafael is relieved.

For many reasons.

Rafael was beginning to think that Carisi was so worried over the death threat that he was forgetting about other, more pressing, more pleasant matters.

“Okay, Barba, my place it is. I mean, I doubt anybody’s gonna show up at your apartment, but you know. Just to be safe. Plus, I don’t want any interruptions. I finally get you in bed, after two years of dreamin’ about it, and then some idiot tries to stop me, and I gotta arrest him, and run him down to the precinct? Leave you waiting? Please. I don’t need that kinda hassle.”

Rafael waits until they’re both inside the car before he speaks.

He waits until Carisi steals yet another glance, just before starting the car.

“You’ve dreamt about this, Carisi?”

Carisi is suddenly silent, not to mention suspiciously incapable of maintaining eye contact.

In his haste to reassure Rafael the threat was insignificant, in his haste to make a joke, to ease the tension, in his haste to soothe Rafael, Carisi slipped.

Rafael finds that utterly charming.

So much so, that he’s willing to spare Carisi any further embarrassment.

“Come on, are you starting the car or what?”

Carisi grins, visibly grateful for the digress-

“You can’t wait to get in my pants, huh?”

Rafael cracks up.

This is how Carisi repays him? By turning the tables and making fun of h-

“Hey, wait. That is why you wanna come home with me, right, Barba? You’re not just lookin’ for a place to stay, now that you gave your address to a bunch of criminals. Right? ‘Cause, if that’s it, you know you can just have the couch. Or the bed. I’ll take the couch. Huh? How does that sound?”

Rafael thinks that’s half-joke and half-truth. Half-joke, quarter-truth and quarter-insecurity, maybe. With a touch of mother-henning.

It’s not an unreasonable question.

After all, Rafael asked himself the same thing.

Rafael is looking for an excuse to stay away from his apartment.

Rafael is a little lost right now, and Carisi just wants to know that Rafael really wants this.

That Rafael really wants him.

As if it wasn’t obvious.

Rafael decides to leave no doubt.

“Where’s the fun in that, Carisi?”

Carisi’s lips are already starting to form a grin when Rafael leans in for a kiss.

Finally.

Finally, Rafael will get to k-

“Hey, wait, wait.”

Carisi actually leans away.

Recoils, almost.

Rafael is very confused.

“What the hell, C-”

“Our first kiss isn’t gonna be in a car, Barba. We’re not sixteen. Hold your horses. We’ll be at my place in a few minutes.”

Oh.

‘Our first kiss’.

That’s not what y…

Carisi starts the car.

That’s not what you tell a one-night stand.

But then, that’s not what this is.

Carisi cares, and Rafael cares too.

Carisi has been dreaming about this for two years, and Rafael has spent the past six months of his life trying to make this happen, and…

Fine.

The past year, maybe.

And ‘this’, this isn’t just sex.

This is a beginning.

Rafael knows that.

No point in pretending.

Carisi wants their first kiss to be special, and isn’t that romantic?

Rafael wants their first kiss to be the first of many, and isn’t that crazy?

Rafael turns his head and stares outside the window, the better to avoid Carisi’s eyes. The better to keep his corny thoughts private.

Rafael doesn’t check the rearview mirror, not even once.

If Carisi is speeding, they don’t talk about it.

It takes them about ten minutes, and then Carisi parks the car.

Carisi looks nervous, for the first time all night.

Nervous and excited.

Rafael can’t blame him.

They get out of the car, and Carisi doesn’t fumble much for his keys, which is surprising, and Carisi’s apartment is on the third floor, and the elevator is busted, because of course it is, and Rafael hopes he doesn’t embarrass himself by being a wheezing mess by the time they get there.

As if he knows, Carisi sets a slow, almost leisurely pace as they walk up the stairs. Rafael thinks Carisi is taking it easy on him. Slowing down on his account. Rafael thinks that, if Carisi had his druthers, they’d be running right now.

It takes a little longer for Carisi to open his front door, but that’s probably because Rafael is crowding him, a hand placed low on the small of his back.

Carisi gets it open eventually, and Rafael almost wants to grab Carisi right then and there, for a kiss, for more than a kiss, as soon as they step inside, but he doesn’t.

Rafael waits for Carisi to lock the door.

One, two twists of the key.

Rafael waits for the click of the bolt.

Rafael is not afraid.

Still.

Better safe than sorry.

Carisi turns around to face him.

They’re alone now.

Finally.

Rafael pushes Carisi backwards, against the door, and he steps closer, his hands on Carisi’s chest.

Carisi is irritatingly taller, so Rafael has to tilt his head up at an almost uncomfortable angle.

It’s worth it.

Carisi is smiling.

Rafael tugs at Carisi’s coat, and Carisi slips out of it in no time.

Carisi carefully pulls off Rafael’s coat too.

Rafael puts his hands on Carisi’s hips, and then he moves even closer, his hands slowly drifting to Carisi’s ass, Rafael squeezes and smirks as he feels Carisi’s hips jumping, as he presses a knee between Carisi’s thighs, and h-

“Hey, whoa, take it easy, counselor, we haven’t even kissed yet!”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

Carisi’s being flip.

Of course.

“I tried, Carisi. You just didn’t let m-”

Carisi doesn’t let Rafael kiss him this time, either.

Carisi kisses Rafael first.

Carisi puts his hand on Rafael’s jaw and leans in, Carisi sucks on Rafael’s bottom lip, Carisi keeps touching Rafael’s face, fingers gentle, caressing, as he licks his way into Rafael’s mouth.

It’s strangely paralyzing.

Hot.

All Rafael can do is moan and keep squeezing Carisi’s ass.

This feels good.

Carisi’s mouth on his, it feels good.

Carisi keeps one hand on Rafael’s face, caressing, still, and Rafael doesn’t know why that’s so arousing, just that it is. Carisi moves his other hand lower, to Rafael’s waist, Carisi keeps licking at Rafael’s lips as he pulls their bodies closer together, as their hips align, and they’re both hard already, and Carisi starts grinding, and they’re both moving faster and faster, and this is not what Rafael imagined when Carisi said ‘our first kiss’.

Rafael wasn’t expecting passionate, and overwhelming, and intense, not from Carisi.

Rafael was expecting tender, and sweet, and romantic, Rafael was expecting shy, maybe, but there’s nothing shy about the way Carisi is sucking on his tongue.

Rafael thinks he wanted tender.

Fun as this is, and it is fun, Rafael thinks he wanted tender, and while he does love the feeling of Carisi’s thumb gently stroking his cheekbone, the rest feels a little too rushed.

Rafael wonders what the hell is wrong with him, to even think that. Rafael wonders why the hell he wants to stop grinding against Carisi’s erection. Rafael wonders if it’d be weird for him to slow down the kiss.

Rafael does it anyway.

Rafael moves his hands higher, to Carisi’s chest, and he pushes lightly, just until their lips are separated.

Before Carisi has time to react, Rafael goes back in, taking over, setting his own rhythm.

Carisi lets him.

Rafael puts his own hands on Carisi’s face, on Carisi’s soft, pink cheeks, Rafael kisses Carisi, small pecks, one, two, three little pecks, and then he slides his tongue into Carisi’s mouth in a slow, deep kiss.

Carisi melts in his arms.

It’s almost funny.

Carisi stops grinding instantly, Carisi wraps both of his hands around Rafael’s shoulders and he sighs into the kiss.

Rafael thinks Carisi wanted tender, too.

Carisi holds Rafael, and this feels too much like a hug, and Rafael wonders why the hell he’s enjoying it so much, and Carisi keeps kissing him softly, languidly, Carisi’s lips keep falling open to let him in, always, and Rafael is stunned to realize this kiss doesn’t feel any less overwhelming.

Any less passionate.

Which, frankly, is a cause for concern.

As is the fact Rafael doesn’t want this kiss to end.

Not just because it’s a great kiss.

Rafael doesn’t want this kiss to end because he suspects Carisi will have something to say about it. About Rafael, making them take things slow. About Rafael secretly being a softie, maybe. Rafael doesn’t appreciate Carisi’s little jokes.

Mostly because they’re accurate.

Rafael decides to shut Carisi up preemptively, not that Carisi is showing any intention of detaching his lips from Rafael’s in order to actually speak.

Tender is fun, but so are other things.

Rafael reaches down, lower, Rafael grazes Carisi’s lean stomach, Rafael bumps Carisi’s belt buckle and then he puts his hand between Carisi’s legs, squeezing, feeling just how hard Carisi is, Rafael starts rubbing slowly and laughs as Carisi moans into his mouth.

Rafael keeps rubbing, he feels Carisi getting even harder under his palm, he feels Carisi’s hips rolling, pushing forward, Rafael feels Carisi squirming in his grasp, and then Carisi…

Then Carisi pulls away.

“Let’s go to the bedroom.”

Rafael almost doesn’t hear it.

He’s distracted by Carisi’s lips.

Dark. Pink. Red, almost.

Full and fleshy and plump and perfect.

And then Rafael makes the mistake of looking at the rest of Carisi’s face.

Carisi is staring, his eyes wide, and he’s breathing heavily, and he’s so flushed, his cheeks burning red, just as red as his lips, and Rafael gives him another hard squeeze and Carisi lets out a quiet ‘ah’ and Rafael definitely wants to go the bedroom.

Rafael nods.

Carisi leads the way, and he starts taking off his clothes as he goes, which Rafael finds both hilarious and practical.

Rafael follows his example.

By the time they get to the bedroom, Carisi is left wearing an undershirt and a pair of dark blue boxer briefs, and Rafael is still wearing pants but at least he’s managed to get shirtless.

Rafael pulls Carisi in by the hips, and he pulls the undershirt off because he wants to feel skin.

Carisi is very pale.

Pale and smooth and angular. All pointy bones and wiry muscles and faint hairs and fair skin.

Rafael kisses Carisi again, one hand on Carisi’s back and another on Carisi’s ass, slipping underneath the waistband, slipping between Carisi’s ass cheeks, rubbing, a finger pressing inside, just barely.

Carisi laughs, and Rafael uses the interruption of their kiss to start licking Carisi’s neck. His finger keeps teasing.

“Way to be presumptuous, Barba. Aren’t you gonna ask me what I want?”

Rafael would concede the point, except Carisi is pressing eagerly against his finger, ass jutting out until the tip of Rafael’s finger manages to slip in, and Carisi moans, and Rafael has a pretty good idea what it is that Carisi wants.

“You said you’ve dreamt about this, Carisi. I assume this is what you meant.”

Carisi laughs harder.

Rafael attempts to pull down Carisi’s underw-

“I’ve been dreamin’ about something else, too.”

Oh.

Rafael watches as Carisi gets down on his knees.

Rafael watches as Carisi undoes his belt buckle, as Carisi pulls down his pants, his briefs.

Rafael stands there naked and watches as Carisi leans forward and opens his mouth.

That’s when Rafael’s eyes close.

He can feel Carisi’s lips, Carisi’s tongue, Carisi’s warm mouth enveloping him, and if he thought their kisses were overwhelming, this is something else.

This is what Carisi has been dreaming about.

That thought, it almost feels better than Carisi’s mouth.

Rafael puts his hands on the back of Carisi’s head and pushes in, slow but deep, and Carisi takes it, Carisi takes him in with ease, sucking and licking eagerly, moaning, they’re both moaning, and Rafael isn’t sure if it’s the enthusiasm or the technique but he is sure this is one of the best blowjobs he’s ever gotten.

Carisi is very good at this.

Very.

Rafael opens his eyes.

He looks down just in time to see Carisi looking up.

Carisi’s eyes look beautiful from this angle.

Just like Rafael thought.

Carisi isn’t the only one who’s been dreaming about this.

Rafael has had the occasional daydream about Carisi on his knees.

In Rafael’s office, that’s usually where it happens.

In Rafael’s dreams, they’re always in his office, and Carisi is under his desk, all quiet and obedient and hungry, and Carisi takes him in, all the way in, Carisi sucks him down to the base, and Rafael thrusts inside, he thrusts and thrusts until he comes on Carisi’s face.

Rafael wonders if Carisi has dreamt about anything similar.

He probably has.

Judging by the way Carisi is looking up, eyes practically twinkling, hands gripping Rafael’s thighs, the better to take him in deeper, judging by the greedy little sounds Carisi keeps making, Carisi probably has.

Carisi lets Rafael fall out of his mouth, slowly, deliberately, and then he starts rubbing his cheek against Rafael’s erection, his soft face against Rafael’s hard-on, placing small kisses low on Rafael’s belly, biting at Rafael’s skin, and Rafael would love to make his own dreams come true and come all over that gorgeous face, but there’s so much more to be done and it’s still way too early for either of them to come.

Maybe next time.

Rafael pushes Carisi by the shoulders, and it’s a struggle because Carisi won’t budge. Not at first. Carisi clearly wants to stay in place, Carisi keeps licking his lips like all he wants is Rafael back in his mouth.

Rafael groans.

“Get up, Carisi. That’s enough.”

Carisi looks up.

He’s smirking as he starts stroking Rafael with his hand.

“Is it?”

Rafael rolls his eyes and pulls Carisi up by the forearms.

“Yes. One dream down, one to go.”

Carisi laughs and then he flops down on the bed, bouncing as he lands.

Rafael stares.

Carisi just bounced onto the bed.

Like he’s eight.

Rafael momentarily questions this whole evening.

At least he’s putting in some effort, trying to act sexy and desirable.

Meanwhile, Carisi can’t even bother to lie down on the bed like a normal person, maybe after a kiss, maybe lowering himself on the mattress sensually and pulling Rafael down with him, on him.

Carisi just chose to fall on the bed like a sack of potatoes, and that’s after his antics from a few minutes ago, when he hopped his way down the hallway trying to take off his left sock.

Rafael momentarily questions this whole evening, and then Carisi yanks off his boxer briefs, tossing them aside, and Rafael sees how hard he is, and how big, and Rafael shrugs and plops on the bed unceremoniously, landing right on top of Carisi.

It’s fun.

Rafael doesn’t usually do much plopping and bouncing. As Carisi laughs under him, Rafael begins to think that trying to act sexy is overrated.

Carisi spreads his legs as soon as their chests touch, and Rafael settles between his thighs.

After another kiss, Carisi reaches for the nightstand drawer, and he doesn’t have to reach very far, and the edge of the opened drawer almost hits him in the face, and that’s when Rafael first realizes just how small a double bed is, at least compared to a king. It almost reminds Rafael of the bed he had in his dorm room.

“How do you ever get laid with this bed, Carisi?”

Carisi’s chest vibrates.

“I don’t see you complaining, Barba.”

Rafael scoffs.

“I literally just complained.”

Carisi snorts.

“Alright. I don’t see ya leaving.”

Carisi is right, and he clearly knows it, at least going by his cocky smirk, so Rafael kisses him to avoid admitting defeat.

Rafael grabs the lube and reaches between their bodies, Rafael rubs at Carisi again and this time his finger slides all the way in, easily.

Carisi sighs and kisses him again.

Carisi can’t stop kissing him.

It’s impeding his efforts to prep Carisi, but Rafael doesn’t mind.

Carisi can’t stop kissing him, placing kisses on Rafael’s lips, on Rafael’s cheeks, on his jaw, on his neck, high on Rafael’s chest. Carisi can’t stop touching him, Carisi’s hands moving from one second to the next, going from Rafael’s hair to his back to his ass to his thighs.

Rafael likes it.

Loves it.

This is what he was expecting.

The tenderness, the sweetness, the romance.

This, this isn’t just sex.

This is a beginning.

Rafael curls his finger and Carisi jerks like he got electrocuted. Carisi’s mouth falls open, and he gasps as Rafael keeps pressing inside, right there, Carisi is twitching and squirming and moaning, and Rafael thinks this is going to be fun.

Rafael wants to see more of these reactions.

Rafael wonders how Carisi will react when he feels Rafael filling him up.

Rafael will find out soon enough.

Carisi kisses him again.

Rafael adds another finger.

Carisi keeps squirming, wiggling, legs restless and hips wild, and Rafael starts to worry that an errant kick might send him flying off the bed.

“Don’t move around so much. I don’t trust this bed.”

Carisi grins and nods, but then Rafael curls his fingers again and Carisi’s hips jump even higher. It’s cute, and it’s a boost to Rafael’s ego, seeing Carisi come undone just by his hand, but Rafael foresees it becoming annoying fast.

“Are you sure you’ve done this before, Carisi?”

Rafael expects a scoff, but he gets a smirk.

“I have. But not with you.”

Oh.

Rafael blinks.

Maybe Carisi isn’t always this eager. This responsive.

Maybe he’s like this because it’s Rafael touching him.

That thought, it’s alarmingly relatable.

Rafael hasn’t been this hard, this horny, in years.

Overwhelmed.

Rafael feels overwhelmed, and he thinks it’s because of Carisi.

Which is crazy, so Rafael hurries up and adds a third finger because the sooner he’s inside Carisi, the easier it’ll be to turn off his brain.

Hopefully.

Carisi hisses, but he quickly loosens up. Carisi starts caressing Rafael’s face again, hands rubbing at the stubble, as Rafael spreads him open. Carisi spends the next few minutes gasping and licking Rafael’s mouth.

“You good, Carisi?”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

Carisi hands Rafael a condom and then he sits up, kneeling and trying to move, as he is, on all fours. It’s pretty cramped on that bed, and Rafael isn’t sure exactly what Carisi is trying to accomplish.

It all becomes clear when Carisi pushes Rafael down on his back and straddles him.

Alright.

Not what Rafael was planning, but maybe this is how Carisi dreamt it, and who is Rafael to argue with a man’s fantasies?

Carisi waits as Rafael puts on the condom, and he’s heavy as he sits on Rafael’s thighs, heavier than Rafael imagined.

Carisi moves up, bracing himself on Rafael’s chest, and then he slowly sinks down, taking Rafael in, slowly, very slowly, and he’s so open and warm, and Rafael moans so loud he thinks Carisi’s neighbors can probably hear it.

Carisi exhales.

Rafael puts his hands on Carisi’s pale thighs, grip tightening on soft skin as Carisi starts moving.

Carisi’s eyes are closed.

Rafael takes advantage and stares freely.

Rafael stares at Carisi’s face, flushed and beautiful and so expressive, every move of Rafael’s hips causing a wince or a frown or a gasp or a smile.

Rafael stares at Carisi’s chest, lean but strong, Rafael stares at Carisi’s belly, small and soft-looking and covered in peach fuzz, Rafael stares at Carisi’s bony knees, and this is the first time he’s actually seeing them instead of feeling them against his thighs, Rafael stares at Carisi, so hard, so thick, leaking and bobbing inches away from his face.

Rafael stares and he wants to touch.

But before he can reach, Carisi’s hips start rolling in earnest.

Carisi grabs on to the headboard, using both hands, and that gives his thrusts more momentum. Carisi starts bouncing up and down, hard and fast, head thrown back, hips bucking and ass clenching every time Rafael bottoms out, and it feels amazing.

Carisi keeps pushing down, hips grinding, a small rotating motion and then up again, and it’s all so fast and energetic and hasty and Rafael would say something about finesse and subtlety and pacing oneself, but this, this is better.

It’s been so long since anyone rode Rafael like that.

Carisi is riding him so, so good.

Rafael barely has to move.

Rafael just watches as Carisi uses the headboard to fuel his trusts. Expertly so.

Rafael thinks this might be Carisi’s favorite position. That’s why Carisi couldn’t wait to straddle him.

Rafael realizes that’s probably why Carisi is so attached to this bed, because it has a pretty intricate carved headboard that’s perfect for accommodating all sorts of grips.

Rafael feels angry, suddenly he feels jealous as he thinks of the other men who have been inside Carisi, here on this same bed, and he knows that’s absurd, but he still grabs on to Carisi’s hips hard enough to bruise.

Rafael wants to see his handprints, large and covering Carisi’s skin.

Carisi opens his eyes, Carisi looks down, probably because he can feel Rafael’s grip is a little too tight.

Carisi doesn’t seem to mind.

Rafael uses his hands to pull Carisi down even faster, to push up and pull down again, so fast, and Carisi is looking right into his eyes and it should be weird but it isn’t.

“Counselor…”

Wait.

Now it’s weird.

Rafael lets out a laugh, and Carisi apparently doesn’t like that because his hips stutter and he’s thrown off pace.

“My dick is in your ass, Carisi. I think you can stop calling me counselor.”

Carisi rolls his eyes, and then he rolls his hips, and he has the cutest, most stubborn look on his face as he tries to find a rhythm again.

It doesn’t take him long, and Rafael’s laughter is quickly replaced by another moan.

“Whatever. Counselor, Barba, Rafael, whatever. I’m gonna come.”

Rafael’s fingers flex involuntarily, as soon as Carisi says ‘Rafael’.

But that’s a problem for another night.

Carisi takes one hand off the headboard and starts stroking himself as he picks up the pace.

Rafael thinks it’s finally time to touch.

Rafael reaches forward and bats Carisi’s hand away, taking over.

“Hold on to me.”

Carisi frowns for a second, confused, but then he gets it.

Carisi lets go of that damn headboard, he puts both of his hands on Rafael’s chest, fingers spread, and he holds on.

Rafael keeps stroking, and Carisi is moaning so loud and moving so fast he’s almost a blur.

Carisi angles his hips just right and he digs his fingers into Rafael’s pecs and he pushes down, once, twice, three times, and then he comes.

Rafael feels Carisi getting tighter around him, clenching, and then he feels Carisi spurting in his hand, dripping through his fingers, spilling all over his belly.

Carisi doesn’t break eye contact, not even once, Carisi just gasps, his mouth open and inviting, Carisi keeps coming and moaning and all Rafael can do is watch and try not to come too.

Carisi’s hips eventually slow down, and the first thing he does after he gets his bearings is to lean down and kiss Rafael again.

Rafael missed Carisi’s lips, in just a few short minutes.

Also a problem for another night.

Carisi attempts to pull away, maybe to change positions, but Rafael holds him tight, Rafael doesn’t bother pulling out, Rafael keeps Carisi right there and starts giving him a deep, dirty kiss.

Rafael is still hard.

Still inside Carisi.

Carisi tries to kiss back, but if he aims for dirty he lands at gentle and lazy and slow. Carisi is worn out, it’s obvious, Carisi can’t do much more than give Rafael a few small pecks, a few flicks of the tongue, and it would be adorable if it wasn’t so hot.

Rafael doesn’t think Carisi is up for much more, so he reaches for Carisi’s ass, spreading the cheeks and pushing up, thinking he’ll just c-

“Your turn, couns… Barba.”

Carisi gets a second wind, somehow, he’s grinning and he’s moving away, and he manages to maneuver their bodies carefully, until he’s on his back and Rafael is on top of him.

Next time they’re doing this, it’ll be on Rafael’s bed.

Forget about the death threat.

Rafael can’t afford to break his neck, just because Carisi can’t be bothered to by a decent bed.

Rafael has half a mind to buy Carisi a bed, a nice bed, a king, but that’s probably a little too forward, plus he’s not sure if a king-sized bed will even fit in Carisi’s tiny bedr-

“Come on, Barba.”

Oh.

Right.

Carisi is waiting for him, legs spread.

It’s quite a sight.

Rafael tries to get up, to kneel between Carisi’s thighs, but apparently Carisi has other ideas because he pulls Rafael back down, flat against his chest. Rafael tries to move again, but Carisi traps him there with a well-placed leg, wrapped around his waist.

“No. Like this. So I can kiss you.”

Oh.

Rafael chooses to ignore the fact he’s been letting Carisi call the shots the entire night.

It’s worked so far.

Carisi has good ideas, sometimes.

Rafael just lowers his body onto Carisi and slides inside, in one hard thrust, as Carisi gives him another kiss.

Carisi spreads his legs even wider, and he wraps his skinny arms around Rafael’s neck, and he holds Rafael tight as he lifts up his hips to give Rafael a better angle.

Carisi can’t stop kissing him.

Rafael likes this.

It’s intimate.

Rafael doesn’t have to see Carisi’s reactions.

He can feel them.

Carisi’s exhausted little moans every time a thrust hits the spot, Carisi’s encouraging little murmurs, urging him to go harder, deeper, Carisi’s hot breath, Rafael feels them all against his mouth.

Rafael thinks he waited way too long for this.

This is what he needed. Just what he needed. A warm body underneath him, a warm body to push into, a warm b…

Carisi’s warm body, writhing against him. Carisi’s long legs, squeezing the life out of him. Carisi’s soft lips, kissing his face. Carisi’s slender fingers, tangled in his hair.

Carisi is what he needed.

Rafael can pretend Carisi is temporarily filling a void that’s always been there.

The truth is, Rafael has lived with this void for his whole life, and it’s always been tolerable. It’s only after he met Carisi that he felt it gnawing at him.

And now, now that he has Carisi, now that he’s thrusting deep inside Carisi and he’s about to come, now that he’s filling Carisi up, Rafael no longer feels empty.

Rafael starts pushing in faster. He won’t last much longer.

Carisi tightens his arms around Rafael’s neck, as if he knows, and Rafael wouldn’t be surprised if he did, because they’re pressed so close together they can feel each other’s breath.

Carisi kisses Rafael’s cheek and puts his lips to Rafael’s ear.

“You gonna come, Rafael? For me? In me?”

It’s always the quiet ones.

Rafael would feel humiliated by the way his hips snap at Carisi’s low whisper, at Carisi repeating his name, but he’s past the point of no return.

Rafael comes, just like Carisi said, like Carisi wanted, Rafael has let Carisi call the shots all night now, so what’s one more time?

Rafael comes, thighs flexing, ass flexing, Rafael empties himself into Carisi but still, he doesn’t feel empty.

Carisi keeps playing with Rafael’s hair, short as it is, Carisi keeps running his fingers through it in a soothing motion, Carisi keeps kissing Rafael on the cheek, waiting until Rafael is done.

It takes an embarrassingly long time.

Rafael finally pulls out, and he kisses the wince right out of Carisi’s face.

Carisi smiles.

It’s endearing.

Rafael likes Carisi.

Especially right now, as he watches Carisi getting rid of the condom, as he watches Carisi grabbing some wipes from the nightstand and cleaning them both up, as he watches Carisi taking care of him now that he’s too tired to move, Rafael really likes Carisi.

It’s a little awkward, now that they’re done. Rafael doesn’t know what to do.

He opts for fluffing one of the pillows, arbitrarily choosing a side while Carisi is busy with the comforter.

Rafael also opts for turning his back to Carisi, because this little tryst brought out some uncomfortable emotions in him, and it’s probably because of the death threat, and maybe because of Carisi, too, if only a little, and Rafael doesn’t want to dwell on any of this right now.

Rafael just wants to sleep.

Easy.

Rafael feels the comforter lightly draping him.

Carisi, mother-henning him again.

It feels good.

Rafael feels Carisi’s fingers, caressing his back. Soft, gentle, grazing his ribs, tracing his spine.

Carisi is still sitting up.

Rafael isn’t sure where this is going. Maybe if he could see Carisi’s face, he’d get some idea. He doesn’t turn around.

“I’m glad you trusted me with this, counselor. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll keep you safe. I want you to know that. Okay?”

Oh.

More emotions.

Great.

Rafael hasn’t experienced so many feelings since he was in middle school.

He has to struggle not to turn around and kiss Carisi again.

“Go to sleep, Carisi.”

Carisi laughs softly and then he lies down, right behind Rafael, he twists his arms until he has Rafael wrapped in a tight embrace, in a hug, Carisi is spooning Rafael, and he’s the big spoon, and that’s just…

It’s endearing.

“Is this your idea of keeping me safe?”

Carisi doesn’t answer.

He just burrows closer, he just buries his face into Rafael’s neck and leaves a little kiss there.

Rafael doesn’t know if the spooning is for his own benefit, or for Carisi’s peace of mind.

All he knows is that he does feel safe.

“If you keep this up, Carisi, I’ll leave and spend the night in a hotel.”

Carisi laughs, his laughter low and quiet, his breath warm on Rafael’s shoulder.

“Yeah right. You could’ve done that in the first place, Barba. Instead, you came to me. Some lowlife threatened you, and the first thing you did was try to get into my pants. I’m flattered, by the way.”

Rafael tries not to laugh.

“I’m the one who should be flattered. I made one subtle suggestion, and you couldn’t wait to say yes.”

Carisi shifts even closer, his knees bumping the back of Rafael’s thighs. It’s a comfortingly familiar sensation.

“It ain’t subtle when you’re offerin’ to give me the definition of ‘come,’ counselor.”

Rafael laughs this time.

Someone is out there trying to kill him, and Rafael is lying in Carisi’s bed, in Carisi’s arms, laughing at Carisi’s cheesy jokes.

Carisi starts caressing Rafael’s belly, and it’s still shaking because Rafael is still laughing and Carisi’s fingers make him ticklish so he laughs even harder.

Rafael is not afraid.

Chapter Text

“Here again, Carisi?”

Carisi smiles and gently closes the door.

It’s almost eight o’clock.

He doesn’t look tired.

“Yep. I don’t have to study anymore, now that I passed the bar, so I got all this free time.”

Carisi takes off his coat and hangs it up, right next to Rafael’s.

Rafael tries not to get distracted by that image.

Their coats, hanging side by side.

Rafael tries not to notice how right that looks.

How normal.

Carisi takes off his jacket too, and he drapes it over the arm of the couch.

It’s his little ritual.

He does it every time he visits. He says it’s because he doesn’t want his jackets to get wrinkled up.

Rafael suspects it’s because Carisi is sparing with his dry-cleaning, possibly because he doesn’t have that many suits to choose from.  

Rafael doesn’t know why he finds that endearing instead of gross.

Carisi bends over to pick up his briefcase and set it on the couch, like he always does.

Rafael tries not to get distracted by the way Carisi’s shirt is bunched up under his vest.

Over his ass.

Rafael fails.

Carisi’s ass is unquestionably distracting.

Rafael barely has time to look up before Carisi turns around.

Now that he’s good and ready, all settled in, Carisi takes a seat across from Rafael’s desk.

He doesn’t ask if it’s okay.

He doesn’t ask if Rafael is busy.

He doesn’t ask if he’s interrupting, or if he should go and come back later.

Carisi didn’t even ask if he could come in.

He stopped asking weeks ago.

Now, Carisi just knocks and waltzes in confidently.

Now, Carisi lays out his stuff all over Rafael’s office, and he doesn’t even ask.

Carisi knows he’s welcome.

Now.

Carisi used to ask for permission to set a single piece of paper on Rafael’s desk.

Now he takes up half of Rafael’s couch, with his jacket, and his enormous briefcase, and his scarves, and those random containers of food he’s always carrying, for some reason, and he doesn’t even ask.

Things are different now.

Rafael likes that.

Rafael likes not having to act like he can’t stand Carisi. Rafael likes greeting Carisi with a genuine smile, instead of a put-on snarl.

Rafael likes having Carisi there, almost every evening, for hours at a time.

Rafael likes it so much, that he actively tries not to say anything rude, because he really wants Carisi to keep coming.

“You passed the bar over three months ago, Carisi. Feel free to stop patting yourself on the back. Any day now.”

Rafael does try. Sometimes success evades him.

Carisi smiles again.

That’s his only response.

Carisi doesn’t talk much these days. Which is also different. Before, Carisi only dropped by if he had something to say. Something relevant, about a case. Something random, about himself or his studies or one of his sisters. Something unnecessarily thoughtful, about Rafael’s wellbeing and stress levels and eating habits.

Now Carisi just sits there.

Like he’s there to keep Rafael company.

Like he’s there for the company, maybe.

Carisi likes Rafael’s company. 

The feeling is mutual, and Rafael no longer tries to hide it. 

Carisi sits there, and they make small talk while Rafael works, and sometimes Carisi even helps out by going over the case files, so they can both go home a little earlier.

Carisi never leaves early.

Never before Rafael.

Never without Rafael.

Carisi always waits until they can leave together.

Like that’s the sole purpose of his visits.

To be there for Rafael, as long as it takes.

Like that’s all he wants.

Rafael tries to pretend he doesn’t find that touching.

It doesn’t work.

Rafael tries to pretend Carisi is just being a supportive colleague.

It doesn’t work.

Rafael looks at Carisi’s sweet, smiling face, and it doesn’t work.

Rafael knows the truth.

Now.

The first few days, Rafael chalked it up to Carisi’s overprotectiveness. Dodds had just died, and Rafael was getting death threats, and Carisi kept coming over for impromptu meetings. Shorter, at first, and longer as time went by.

The first few days, Carisi made it seem like he was there to keep Rafael informed. Carisi always had an update on the Heredio case, a statement from the COs at Rikers, an off-the-record communication from the defense attorneys working the Terrence Reynolds case. Carisi always had another lead he was pursuing with all his might, however unlikely it was to pan out.

The first few days, Rafael assumed Carisi was just doing his job.

It took a minute, but now Rafael knows the truth.

Carisi isn’t trying to keep him informed.

Carisi is trying to keep him alive.

It’s clear in the way Carisi’s hand is always attached to Rafael’s back, every time they leave for the night.

It’s clear in the way Carisi waits in the car, outside Rafael’s building, until he gets safely inside.

It’s clear in the way Carisi stays on guard when they’re in public, at the courthouse, or outside the precinct, or grabbing a bite to eat.

It’s clear in the way Carisi looks at him, like he’s fleeting. Like Rafael might disappear in an instant, and Carisi wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s all clear in Carisi’s eyes.

Rafael didn’t see it, at first.

Things are different now.

Carisi is always there.

Keeping watch.

Lingering.

It’s not an unexpected response.

Or an uncommon one.

Rafael himself had a similar reaction.

For about two weeks after the funeral, Rafael had Carmen call the precinct, at least once a day, to request progress reports on any case he could think of, old or new, claiming the DA’s office wanted to stay up-to-date. The truth was, Rafael wanted to know what SVU was working on. What they were doing. If they were all alive, and safe, and out on the streets like always. Rafael found that thought comforting.

Rafael kept texting Liv, the entire time she was in Paris, to make sure she was doing okay. Liv kept texting back, and she even called him a couple of times, to ask how he was holding up after the threats. Neither of them commented on how weird that was. She was on a romantic getaway halfway across the world, she was supposed to leave New York behind and enjoy herself, and she still made time to check in with him almost daily.

Rafael even got a voicemail from Rollins, once, asking if he had any trouble with his security detail. Rollins sounded anxious as she said, ‘Let me know as soon as there’s a problem. I mean it, Barba.’

They were all a little shaken, at first.

They all went a little overboard.

They’re better now.

They’re back to normal.

Mostly.

Rafael was expecting Carisi’s overprotectiveness to eventually wear off, too.

It hasn’t.

Carisi lingers now, more than ever.

Rafael has wanted to ask why, ever since the first time Carisi sidled up to him, at that bar after the Dodds funeral.

He didn’t ask back then. He was just happy to have someone to drink with.

Rafael just smiled at Carisi’s obvious concern and raised his glass. He’s still not sure if it was the bourbon that made his chest feel warm, or if it was the look on Carisi’s face.

He still hasn’t asked.

Rafael wants to ask, he wants to say, ‘Don’t you have anywhere else to be?’ but he’s worried Carisi might take that as a sign of annoyance. As a suggestion to leave.

Rafael can’t think of anything worse.

Rafael can’t lose this.

Carisi’s visits are the highlight of his long, drab, miserable days.

‘Here again?’

That’s the only question Rafael has actually asked.

Many times.

Carisi never has a straight answer.

No pun intended.

Carisi just says he has a lot of time on his hands.

Free time.

Rafael supposes that’s his excuse for constantly stopping by.

It doesn’t explain why Carisi lingers, even when he’s working.

Why Carisi keeps sitting next to Rafael during their briefings at the precinct. Why Carisi always stands right in Rafael’s personal space when there’s so much room around them.

Rafael doesn’t ask.

He’s just happy to have Carisi near him.

It’s made the last few weeks downright pleasant.

It hasn’t been easy, getting used to a twenty-four seven security detail.

Strangers, constantly following him everywhere.

Rafael is never alone anymore.

Rafael was always alone.

Having Carisi there, that’s the silver lining.

Carisi is not a stranger.

Carisi is a friend.

Now.

For now.

The first few days, Carisi kept picking up shifts, to watch over Rafael. Carisi kept sending away the unis, he kept relieving the other detectives of their duties.

Like he didn’t trust anybody else.

Carisi kept lingering.

Coming up with excuses to stay.

Making sure to mention he was on the clock.

Like Rafael would send him away, unless he was there on official business.

Rafael didn’t like the thought of that.

Carisi, thinking he’s imposing.

One night, Rafael looked at him and said, ‘Are you actually getting overtime for this, Carisi? You have to get paid to endure my company?’

Carisi’s face lit up.

That was the last time he bothered with an excuse.

Now he just smiles and makes himself at home.

Carisi knows he’s welcome.

Now.

Always.

Carisi is especially welcome tonight.

Rafael missed him.

Carisi hasn’t been by in a couple of days, probably too busy trying to sort out this mess of a case.

Rafael has been waiting, eyes glued to the door.

Every night.

It’s kind of scary, how much Rafael’s mood depends on their little visits.

On seeing Carisi’s face.

Rafael wasn’t sure Carisi would come tonight, either. Not after the abrupt conclusion to their case. Not after Rafael argued with Liv so openly. His shared eye roll with Carisi was promising, but Rafael still wasn’t sure.

“Does your boss know you’re here, Carisi? I don’t think she would approve.”

Carisi grins.

“I’m off the clock, counselor. I’m socializing. I don’t need the Lou’s permission.”

Even when Carisi is being insolent, however feebly, he still calls Olivia, ‘Lou.’

Rafael doesn’t point out the paradox.

Nor does he point out the fact Carisi thinks of their time together as ‘socializing.’

“That’s good. Because she wouldn’t have given you permission. She’d probably think I’m going to corrupt you. Teach you to put politics over justice.”

Carisi smiles in sympathy.

He always does that when Rafael says anything remotely self-deprecating.

“That’s not what you did, Barba. This wasn’t about politics. You didn’t ignore a victim’s disclosure to protect, like, a corrupt government official, or something. You had to make an evaluation. You prioritized one crime over another. Terrorism over rape. I don’t know how you’d even make that comparison. Nobody should have to make that call, but it fell on you. It is what it is.”

Carisi is oversimplifying. Putting himself in Rafael’s shoes. Giving Rafael the benefit of the doubt.

He always does that.

Rafael appreciates it.

Carisi’s approach is in stark contrast to Liv’s.

Her outlook was much less favorable.

Liv has been working with rape victims for decades. It’s rape over everything, for her.

Rafael would find that narrow-minded, but he’s been working with rape victims for a long time, too.

It is rape over everything, when you’ve been raped.

And, even if it’s not, no rape should go unpunished.

Even if the rape doesn’t work as a mitigating factor, or as a defense, even if Calhoun doesn’t get her way, even if Barba is right and Ana had a choice, even if she willingly participated in a terrorist plot, that still doesn’t mean her rapist should get away with it.

Except that’s exactly what happened.

None of this sits well with Barba.

Or Liv.

Rafael wonders how Carisi feels about it.

Rafael has come to appreciate Carisi’s perspective. It’s more flexible than Liv’s, and more steadfast than his own.

Carisi is like Liv with a law degree. Without the experience. Without the years of bitter disappointment at a failing system.

Carisi is like Rafael with a heart.

Carisi’s moral compass always points in the right direction.

That’s why Rafael values their conversations.

The more they disagree, the further Rafael knows he has strayed from what is morally sound.

Rafael wonders.

“What do you think, Carisi? You’re a lawyer now, as you keep reminding me. Do you think I was right?”

Rafael regrets his phrasing immediately.

It sounds like he’s asking for Carisi’s approval.

The irony is not lost on him.

The thing is, Rafael is asking for Carisi’s approval, he just wishes he had done it in a less obvious way.

Carisi’s opinion has come to mean something.

After two years of working together, after a rough start, after many bad jokes, from both sides, after many tough cases, after many, many hours spent side by side, Carisi’s opinion has come to mean something.

When Rafael wants to find his way back, when he’s done straying, he knows to follow Carisi, like a beacon.

Rafael really needs some guidance tonight.

So he waits.

Carisi is taking his sweet time mulling over the answer.

It’s been a minute since Rafael asked, and Carisi still hasn’t said a word.

It’s not an easy question. Was Rafael ‘right’? Was anyone right? Does it matter? Will Carisi’s answer make him feel better? Or will it make h-

“The way I see it, Ana never hurt anybody. She never killed anybody, she never took part in planning of the attacks. How could she? She wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. She was basically a sex slave. The fact her husband even gave her a gun, that goes to show you how far gone she was. How completely they had broken her will.

“The way I see it, if we hadn’t taken out her husband, you’d be coming down on him with everything you got. For terrorism and rape. You’d be fighting with the Feds, to add the rape charges even though it wouldn’t make a difference, cause he’d be going away for life just for his terrorist activities. You’d be doing it for the principle of the thing.”

Rafael nods.

He doesn’t feel any better.

It is reassuring to know Carisi has such faith in him.

The problem is that Carisi is speaking in hypotheticals.

In reality, Rafael did none of those things.

He’s not even fighting the Feds on the brother-in-law. According to the DA, that might compromise his case with Ana. According to the DA, it’s more convenient to pretend her rape never happened.

It did happen.

“I see. So that’s what you think I should have done. I guess that answers my question.”

Carisi winces.

“That’s not what I said, Barba. I didn’t say this is what you should have done. I said that’s what you would have done, if the husband were still alive.”

Carisi apparently thinks that makes a difference.

That’s sweet.

And false.

Rafael would n-

“If you want my opinion, you did the best you could. The brother is in federal custody, God knows for what, and God knows if we’re ever gonna hear what happened to him, but that doesn’t even matter. Does it? What matters to the brass, and to your boss, and to the press, is the shooting. The fact innocent New Yorkers were gunned down in public.

“Problem is, the brother isn’t directly tied to the shooting, so that’s out of our hands. And the husband who did it, he’s dead. There’s nobody left to charge except Ana. And the DA’s office isn’t about to let this slide. Terrorism on our own soil? No. They need a scapegoat. And the fact Ana was raped makes her sympathetic, so that’s out. Obviously. We can’t have the jury feelin’ bad for her.

“That’s why we gotta ignore what Armin did, and prosecute a rape victim who never even fired a gun. For terrorism. I mean… That’s not justice, counselor, but I don’t see what else we could’ve done.”

Somewhere in the middle of that thought, Carisi switched from ‘you’ to ‘we.’

He’s probably trying to make Rafael feel less guilty.

He’s trying to shoulder some of the blame.

He’s trying to pretend Rafael isn’t the only one who was complicit in what is effectively the cover-up of a rape.

It helps.

Carisi helps.

A little.

A lot.

“Liv has taught you well, Carisi.”

Carisi frowns.

The emotion in his eyes dangerously resembles pity.

“You’ve taught me well, too, Barba.”

That does make Rafael feel a little better.

Pity or not.

Compassion, maybe.

Carisi is oversimplifying again, twisting the facts in Rafael’s favor, giving him credit he doesn’t deserve, but it’s still a very generous thing to say.

Rafael knows he hasn’t taught Carisi anything. Not on purpose.

Whatever Carisi has managed to learn in the past couple of years, he’s learned it himself.

Or with Liv’s encouragement.

The words ‘lost cause’ mean nothing to her.

Liv always tries.

Rafael didn’t try hard enough.

He didn’t fight.

Not like Liv did.

Liv always fights for justice.

Always, except when cops are involved, because that’s her blind spot, and Rafael hates himself for even having that fleeting thought.

It’s those damn death threats.

Rafael tends to snap when emotions are running high.

He hates it, but at least he’s learning to keep these thoughts unspoken.

Carisi helps a lot.

Carisi never snaps.

Carisi always stays in control. He always evaluates each case on an individual basis. Even when they apprehend terrorists. Even when they arrest cops. Carisi seems to completely lack bias.

Maybe not completely.

Rafael is Carisi’s blind spot.

Knowing that helps, too.

Carisi always stands up for him. Even when Liv doesn’t. Even when he’s wrong. Carisi alw-

“You agree with me, don’t you, counselor? With Liv, too. Kinda. Right? You just can’t say it. Or you can’t act on it. But you agree. What happened wasn’t justice.”

Carisi looks at Rafael eagerly.

Even when Rafael is wrong, Carisi still gives him the benefit of the doubt.

Always.

Even when he doesn’t deserve it.

Rafael exhales.

This evening is considerably less fun than their usual bouts of ‘socializing.’

Rafael was hoping for some relaxing, mindless conversation.

What he’s getting is probing questions on morality.

That, and Carisi’s earnest, caring face.

It’s not so bad.

“Of course it wasn’t justice, Carisi. And I do agree with you and Liv. ‘Kinda.’ I’m not sure Ana is as blameless as you or Liv claim, and I don’t regret choosing to prosecute her for her actions. Let Calhoon prove otherwise. But failing to prosecute Armin for her rape, that’s on me. And it’s wrong. And I do regret it.”

Carisi nods.

He doesn’t look surprised or relieved.

He looks like that’s exactly what he expected to hear.

Faith.

“Yeah. I got regrets too, Barba. I kinda lost it, when we picked up Armin. I got pretty rough with him. I used his phone without his consent. Without a specific warrant. You know me. I’m always askin’ you to get a warrant, ‘cause I know it’s important, I know… I know we have to uphold the law.

“But this time, I don’t know. There was all this pressure, and we didn’t know if there was another location, more bombs, more guns, and I kinda lost it.”

Rafael narrows his eyes.

He has a hard time imagining that.

Carisi, snapping.

“Define ‘rough,’ Carisi.”

Carisi fidgets in his seat.

He starts rolling up his sleeves mechanically.

He always does that when he’s nervous.

Rafael tries not to get distracted by Carisi’s pale forearms. By Carisi’s long fingers, folding the fabr-

“Not ‘rough’ rough. I didn’t… I guess I yelled at him. Asked him to tell us everything he knew. I didn’t hurt him. Maybe I roughed him up a little, when we cuffed him. I didn’t…”

Carisi sighs. He looks troubled.

Rafael tries not to smirk.

Only Carisi would think yelling constitutes police brutality.

Still, Rafael isn’t about to belittle his anguish. It’s clear this is weighing on Carisi’s conscience, and Rafael knows a thing or two about guilt.

Warranted or otherwise.

It’s a surprise to learn that someone like Carisi can lose control.

It’s almost comforting for Rafael to know he wasn’t the only one who let this case get the better of h-

“What really gets me is that we didn’t know anything. Not when we picked him up. We didn’t know he was involved in the terrorist plot. We didn’t know he was a rapist. All we knew was that he was paying his brother’s rent. And I still went off on him. Just based on that. Outta fear.”

Rafael knows a thing or two about fear, too.

Maybe he can help, this time.

“It’s okay, Carisi. That’s understandable. We’re not used to dealing with mass casualty events. With that kind of pressure. We all made mistakes. When have you ever known me to discredit rape victims? I didn’t know. At first, I thought Ana was lying. I thought Rita was lying. Picking a convenient defense to help her client get away with murder. Talk about regrets. You said it. We didn’t know and we did the best we could. You can’t blame yourself.”

Carisi smiles.

He looks better already. Rafael’s pep talk must have work-

“Why not? You do it all the time.”

Rafael chuckles.

Carisi knows him.

Too well.

“Do as I preach, Carisi. Not as I do.”

Carisi’s soft laughter adds ten years to Rafael’s life.

That’s what it feels like.

Rafael wants to hear more of it.

“Enough about the case. Tell me something else. How is everything at the precinct? How’s Fin? How’s the studying going?”

Carisi laughs.

More.

Rafael leans back into his armchair and gets comfortable.

Relaxing, mindless conversation, coming right up.

“It’s going. It’s kinda hard for him to make time, ‘cause we’re so understaffed. The precinct is pretty much empty now. It’s just me and Rollins, and Fin feels bad leavin’ us hanging. I’ve been helping him, whenever I can. That’s why I don’t come here every night.”

Rafael smirks.

Carisi just admitted that he’d be there every night, if he could.

Rafael already knew that, of cours-

“We go through the practice questions over at Amanda’s place. I make ‘em dinner first, and they say they’re studying while I cook, but they’re just playin’ with Jesse. Amanda hasn’t come out and said it, but she’s looking to take the exam too, someday. I use that to motivate Fin. I tell him Amanda is gonna make Sergeant before he does.”

Rafael can feel the tension in his shoulders disappearing.

It’s the good-old Carisi. Volunteering totally random yet amusing information at the drop of a hat.

That’s Rafael’s favorite thing.

Listening to Carisi drone on and on.

It’s the best way to unwind after a long day.

Rafael wishes he had figured that out sooner.

“What about you? Not interested? You’re good at taking exams. As you won’t let us forget. ‘Sergeant Carisi.’ Stranger things have happened.”

Carisi grins.

All dimples.

“Nah. It’s too early. I need a few more years under my belt. Plus, there’s always the DA’s office. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get an opening here in Manhattan. That’ll be something to think about.”

An understatement, if Rafael ever heard one.

Rafael tries not to get distracted by the idea of seeing Carisi, every single day, first thing in the morning. Having neighboring offices, maybe. Working with Carisi closely, long hours, slow days, tough cases, and having an instant pick-me-up in the shape of his dimples.

Better than coffee.

“I’ll make sure to give you a glowing recommendation, Carisi.”

Rafael tries for sarcasm, but he’s actually being honest.

Carisi laughs like he knows that.

“Yeah. Like I’m gonna put you down as a reference.”

He definitely knows.

“Suit yourself, detective. So, what else? Ever since I’ve been saddled with this security detail, I’ve turned into a bitter recluse. I hardly leave this office. I’ve fallen behind on the gossip.”

Carisi lets this blatant lie pass without comment.

He knows.

“Well, Jesse’s teething. That’s tough. We all try to stay on Amanda’s good side, she’s barely getting’ any sleep. I got her talking to Bella, for tips and tricks. Doesn’t seem to do much good. Um. Oh, and Fin’s son got word, the adoption went through. Fin used it as an excuse to get out of study group, he said we had to celebrate. That was, like, a week ago. We still haven’t rescheduled. And, uh…”

Carisi’s dimples disappear.

“And Liv, she’s been having a tough time.”

Oh.

Rafael already got an update on that particular subject.

First-hand.

He th-

“Not ‘cause of this case. Not ‘cause you had a disagreement. You know that, right? I think it’s ‘cause of Chief Dodds. He’s been breathin’ down our necks. She was fine, before he showed up. Since she came back from Paris, she’s was fine. More than fine. She looked happy. She was smilin’ all the time. I guess two weeks in Paris’ll do that to ya.

“But now she’s struggling again. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not the Chief. Maybe it’s seein’ that empty desk. I think she still blames herself. Hey, you should give her the same pep talk you gave me, Barba.”

Carisi knows a lot, apparently.

Makes sense.

Liv’s guilt is obvious. As is the Chief’s anger.

“I already did, Carisi.”

Another understatement.

Rafael would go into detail, he’d tell Carisi all about that little incident in his office, about the Chief’s outburst, about Liv’s stunned reaction, about his own attempt to provide some support, but it’s too much.

Liv wouldn’t want that. It’s too personal. Too painful.

Not to mention, Carisi would get upset. Mad. Indignant, on Liv’s behalf. Rafael doesn’t want that. Rafael is selfish. Rafael had a long day, and it’s eight o’clock, and all he wants is to relax and look at Carisi’s smile.

As if on cue, Carisi’s smile gets a little sweeter.

“Good. I’m sure she appreciated that, counselor. Like I did. You know, for a bitter recluse, you’re a really good friend.”

Rafael raises an eyebrow.

“Uh. You know. To Liv. You and Liv. You’re good friends.”

Right.

It’s hard to keep a straight face when Carisi is stumbling through this sentence, all with the purpose of making it abundantly clear that he and Rafael should not be considered ‘friends.’

Like he’s trying not to accidentally friendzone himself.

That sounds like something Carisi would do, actually.

It sounds like something Carisi has done.

Lucky for him, Rafael will not let that happ-

“Uh, speakin’ of, counselor, I’m sorry I haven’t been around much, these past couple of days. This case was pretty time consuming. I should be checking up on you more often. I should be doin’ more. I’m sorry.”

More?

Rafael doesn’t know what ‘more’ Carisi could be doing.

Carisi keeps apologizing.

From Rafael’s perspective, Carisi is literally doing the most. He’s making time to follow up on Rafael’s case, even though SVU is one man down and his workload has increased, he’s making time to drop by Rafael’s office almost every night, even though he’s running Fin’s little study group, he drives Rafael home, he makes conversation, he smiles.

Rafael wasn’t aware ‘more’ was an option.

Or maybe he was.

Things are different now.

“It’s alright, Carisi. Terrorism trumps my personal safety.”

Carisi frowns.

“No it doesn’t. Nothing does.”

Rafael blinks.

They look at each other in silence, until it gets awkward.

Still, they don’t speak.

That happens, sometimes.

Now.

Rafael likes it when that happens.

This awkwardness is very promising.

They’re always on the brink.

One of these days, one of them is going to jump.

“So, uh, I told you all about life at the precinct. How’ve you been, counselor? Everything okay? Your security detail giving you any trouble?”

Looks like they won’t be making that jump today.

“Same as always, Carisi. It’s fine. I’m fine. You’d know it if I wasn’t.”

Carisi nods in relief.

“Yeah. Alright. Um, either way, I just wanted you to know, now that we wrapped up this case, I’m gonna be around a little more. To make up for lost time.”

More.

Carisi looks strangely determined.

He’s not asking.

He just assumes Rafael wants him there.

Rafael is glad.

Carisi knows he’s welcome.

Always.

Carisi knows he’s wanted.

That’s why he kept apologizing for being away. Why he basically promised he’ll be around more.

Carisi knows Rafael wants him there. He knows Rafael missed him.

Or maybe Carisi missed Rafael.

Another ten years, added to Rafael’s lifespan.

Just like that.

Just from knowing he has many more of these evenings to look forward to.

Rafael has lost so many years, from seeing so much pain, he’s lost so many years he thinks he should be dead already, but Carisi is doing his damnedest to fix that.

Carisi cares about him.

Carisi helps.

A lot.

“Ever been to Paris, Carisi?”

Carisi’s smile blooms on his face.

It’s fascinating to watch.

How Carisi goes from a focused frown to a full-blown smile, crinkly eyes and dimply cheeks and laugh lines everywhere.

Like a flower bud, Rafael thinks, and then he wants to smack himself for being a infatuated idiot. There’s a line, and Rafael just cross-

“Nope. I’ve only ever been to Italy. Family trip when I was fifteen. We met some of my dad’s family. I’ve never been to France. Which is probably a good thing. My French is pretty crappy.”

Rafael barely suppresses a smirk.

“Your French exists?”

Carisi scoffs, and it’s playful, and Rafael tries to come up with something to say, in perfect French, natch, just to unnerve him.

Something dirty, maybe.

He bets Carisi wouldn’t understand him, anyw-

“Mais oui.”

Rafael laughs out loud.

Carisi looks so proud for uttering what are probably the two most basic French words.

In a Staten Island accent, no less.

It’s adorable.

“You ever been, Barba?”

Carisi is still smiling.

Still in full bloom.

Rafael has been to Paris.

He didn’t like it much.

Maybe because it’s the city of love, and Rafael went there for a criminal law symposium.

Alone.

Rafael thinks he would have liked Paris a lot better if he’d taken someone with him.

Someone with a sweet smile and kind eyes, maybe.

And a terrible accent.

Going by the starry-eyed look on Carisi’s face, he may be thinking the same thing.

Or the opposite, hopefully.

Carisi may be thinking he’d like to visit Paris with someone with a vicious snarl and judging eyes and a flawless French accent.

Hopefully.

Rafael spends a little too much time daydreaming about that.

Next thing he knows, several moments have passed and he and Carisi are still looking at each other in silence.

It’s awkward in the best of ways.

“Well, I can’t take you to Paris on an NYPD salary, but how’s about I take you to Le Parisien? They got the best beef bourguignon you’re ever gonna have.”

More French.

Rafael has to commend Carisi on a more than decent attempt to pronounce ‘bourguignon’.

A very deliberate attempt.

Carisi pronounced it very carefully.

Slowly.

Like he wanted to impress Rafael.

And that wasn’t even the best part.

Carisi just admitted that he’d take Rafael to Paris, if he could.

That wasn’t the best part, either.

Carisi just asked him out.

Carisi jumped.

Rafael sighs.

If only the circumstances were better.

“That sounds great, Carisi. I’ll just have to alert my security detail.”

Carisi looks taken aback.

Like he had forgotten all about that.

All about the cops, stationed outside.

All about the death threats.

Like he got caught up in the excitement of asking Rafael out on a date.

Rafael knows the feeling.

When Carisi is with him, there are no threats. It doesn’t matter who’s outside. Who might be lurking. Who might call. Who might follow them to a cozy French bistro.

Rafael forgets, too, when it’s just the two of them in his office.

Maybe they can hold off on remembering, just for tonight.

“Do you know how to make beef bourguignon, Carisi?”

Another smile blooms.

“Yeah. You bet. But, uh. It takes, like, four hours to make.”

Rafael doesn’t mind that at all.

Spending another four hours with Carisi.

Sounds great.

Sounds perfec-

“I could make you French onion soup. If you want a taste of Paris. That’s way faster.”

Rafael doesn’t want ‘faster.’

Rafael wants his four hours, thank you very much.

Rafael wants t…

Rafael needs to give an answer, fast, because he still hasn’t said yes and Carisi is starting to lose his bravado. That’s the last thing Rafael w-

“It’s not gonna be weird. I cook for the squad all the time. Everybody at the precinct knows about it. The cops in your detail won’t think it’s out of the ordinar-”

“I don’t care what they think, Carisi. You offered to cook for me. It’s a done deal. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it.”

Another smile.

Blooming.

“I was trying to talk you into it, counselor.”

Oh.

That’s better.

“That won’t be necessary. You had me at bourguignon.”

Carisi grins.

Either because Rafael just said yes, or because Rafael’s pronunciation of the dish was markedly different than his own.

“Alright. Great. Perfect. We can pick up the ingredients on our way to your apartment.”

No.

Not Rafael’s apartment.

Carisi won’t be driving him home tonight.

Rafael has come to associate ‘home’ with police cruisers, and guards, and loneliness.

It’s a prison.

“No. We’ll do it at your place. I don’t want you anywhere near my spotless kitchen, Carisi. You can cook in your own kitchen, where you can make a mess freely, and I won’t have to worry about the cleanup. Plus, you’ll have a change of clothes handy. For when you inevitably spill something on your shirt.”

Carisi chuckles, all too happy to be insulted.

Always too happy.

A split second later, he remembers to feign indignation.

“Hey, that’s not nice, Barba. I got an apron, you know.”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

Only Carisi would defend himself by saying ‘I have an apron,’ instead of ‘I don’t spill.’

Rafael tries not to get distracted by the mental image of Carisi in an apron.

Cooking for him.

“Of course you have an apron. Does it say ‘Kiss the Cook’?”

Carisi laughs, hard, like that’s exactly what his apron says.

Rafael is not surprised.

Rafael would really, really like to kiss the cook.

Rafael decides to jump, too.

“You should wear it.”

Carisi’s look of surprise is the sweetest thing Rafael has ever seen.

“Your apron. You should wear it. Tonight.”

Carisi’s surprise quickly turns into realization.

Carisi smiles, soft, like he would really, really like to be kissed.

“Not so fast, Barba. I didn’t tell you what’s on it. Maybe it says ‘Keep Your Hands off My Buns’.”

Rafael chuckles despite himself.

That’s what passes for flirting, as far as Carisi is concerned.

Butt puns.

Oh well.

“In that case, I’d skip the apron.”

Carisi lets out an honest-to-goodness snort.

Rafael can feel his heart pounding.

Nothing’s even happened yet.

They’re just laughing together.

It’s silly.

It’s perfect.

It’s been a while since he’s done this.

Flirted with anyone like this.

Joked like this.

Laughed like this.

Felt like this.

It’s been years.

It’s been a long wait.

Maybe it’s over.

Maybe Rafael’s wait is over.

Maybe it’s his turn now.

Maybe he can finally see what the big deal is about Paris.

Maybe he won’t go alone this time.

Maybe he won’t be alone.

Maybe this is it.

Maybe not.

Rafael is going to kiss the cook, anyway.

Chapter Text

Sonny blew it.

Sonny blew it and he doesn’t even care.

Sonny has been finding it increasingly difficult to give a damn.

Sonny just ruined the one good thing he had going for him.

The only thing that made him feel better in the last three months.

He feels strangely liberated.

He doesn’t owe anybody anything now.

No strings.

Good or bad.

Sonny blew it and he doesn’t even care.

Sonny has been feeling unhinged.

Untethered.

Sonny has been fighting the urge to run.

To uproot his whole life.

That urge is getting harder to fight every day.

Sonny doesn’t even know if he wants to fight it.

Sonny called the Brooklyn DA’s office to ask about that position Barba mentioned.

It’s still open.

Sonny has an interview lined up next week.

Brooklyn isn’t that far, but it might be far enough.

Sonny blew it.

Sonny is not okay.

Right after Dodds died, he was sure he wanted to stay. He was so sure he wanted to be there for the others. A shoulder to cry on. A reliable partner. A good friend.

The more time goes by, the less certain he feels.

Liv flew off to Paris. She left them all behind and flew off to Paris for two weeks, right after it happened. She never even called to check up on them.

Why should Sonny stay?

Liv did come back.

Maybe Sonny should stay gone.

Liv still feels guilty. She’s still weighed down. It’s obvious. It’s understandable. What’s not understandable is how she never talks about it. Not to Sonny. Not to anybody. Chief Dodds looks at her like she personally pulled the trigger and killed his son, and sometimes she looks like she agrees, but she still won’t open up to any one of them.

They don’t talk.

They’re supposed to be a family.

No one opens up.

No one even mentions Dodds by name.

Sonny wanted to. The first few days, Sonny really wanted to talk, but no one was willing to listen. Sonny tried asking the others to go out for a drink, to unwind, to let it out, but Amanda kept leaving early to go see her daughter, and Fin kept leaving early to study for the Sergeant’s exam.

Or so they said.

Sonny stopped asking.

Sonny started keeping to himself.

It’s even worse now.

It’s been three months, and Amanda has shut down completely. She’s irritable, just like Sonny himself, and she snaps all the time, just like Sonny, and sometimes they don’t even talk ‘cause it’s less of a hassle. They chase down leads together, driving around all day, and they barely talk.

They’re always partnered up now.

Not like they have a choice. There’s nobody else left.

Amanda even stopped inviting him over to cook or play with Jesse, whom Sonny misses more than he cares to admit. He thinks it’s because he reminds Amanda of Dodds. Of the job. Of death. Sonny thinks Amanda wants to go home to her daughter and forget Manhattan SVU even exists.

Sonny wishes he could do the same.

And Fin, he’s distant. More than he used to be, which is saying something. He claims studying for the Sergeant’s exam is taking up all his free time, but he’s barely there, even when they’re working. He doesn’t even make small talk anymore, about video games or old cop stories. He doesn’t even talk to Amanda, let alone Sonny. Sonny doesn’t even know what happened with the adoption, if it went through, if Fin is officially a grandfather now.

Sonny doesn’t ask.

It’s obvious that Fin feels weird about succeeding Dodds as Liv’s number two. As the new Manhattan SVU Sergeant. Sonny doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to call him ‘Sarge’ without thinking about Mike. About Chief Dodds, breaking down.

And that’s it.

That’s the squad.

There’s no one else.

Nick’s gone.

Dodds is dead.

That’s it.

Liv, Amanda and Fin.

These are the people Sonny is supposed to stay for.

It’s not enough.

They don’t need him, anyway.

Not that it would make a difference.

Maybe they need him, maybe they don’t.

Sonny doesn’t even care.

Sonny is not himself.

Sonny is supposed to care, he’s supposed to care for everybody, he’s supposed to provide emotional support and bad jokes and genuine smiles and not ask for anything in return.

Sonny can’t find it in him to do that anymore.

Sonny is angry all the time. He yells all the time. He gets rough with suspects. He snaps at Amanda, he snaps at Barba, and he doesn’t even care. One of these days, he might even snap at Liv, and then he’ll really know he’s crossed the line.

Sonny can’t live like this.

Maybe Brooklyn will help.

That’s why he needs to talk to Barba.

Sonny needs a reference, and Barba would be ideal. A Manhattan ADA vouching for him, that’s huge. Barba even suggested the position in the first place. Barba used to work in Brooklyn. It’s perfect. Experience as an SVU detective, plus a recommendation from Barba? That should definitely clinch him the spot.

And then, maybe things will get better.

Problem is, Sonny is an idiot.

Sonny had the bright idea to yell at Barba, to tell him off, just days before the interview with the Brooklyn DA.

Stupid.

Sonny blew it.

Sonny is going to have to grovel, now.

It won’t be fun.

Sonny doesn’t even care.

Sonny has been finding it increasingly difficult to give a damn.

Sonny didn’t even think twice before verbally abusing his mentor-slash-fuck buddy and ruining the one good thing he had going for him. The only thing that made him feel better in the last three months.

He sure as hell won’t think twice before spitting out a fake apology and asking for Barba’s help.

Sonny had to make an appointment with Carmen.

That stung a little.

Knowing he can no longer call Barba directly.

It stings.

That’s the highest level of emotion Sonny can achieve right now. A mild sting. A vague throb. A faint numbness. Nothing more.

Nothing resonates.

Everything is a distant noise.

Sonny is not himself.

Sonny has never felt loss like this.

Not so close.

Sonny still has all four of his grandparents.

He never knew how sobering it was.

How unsettling.

How life-altering.

Sonny looks at his life, and it’s like it cracked, right when Dodds died. Like the timeline snapped. Everything is broken in two, now. The ‘before’ and the ‘after.’

Before that night at the hospital.

After seeing Liv’s face.

Before Dodds died.

After the squad stopped being a family.

Before the funeral.

After Sonny lowered the casket into the ground.

Before Sonny shared a drink or five with Barba, at that bar.

After Barba kissed him.

Before Sonny drove Barba home and stayed there all night.

After everything fell apart.

Sonny doesn’t know how to fix it.

Maybe Brooklyn will help.

Barba used to help, too.

Not much.

Still.

It was something to do.

A distraction.

Barba gave Sonny focus.

A connection.

The loosest of tethers.

That’s gone now.

Sonny blew it.

He hopes Barba will still want to help him.

They haven’t even spoken since their shouting match. Since Sonny shouted. Barba never raised his voice.

Sonny’s best bet is to convince Barba that his leaving for Brooklyn is the best option for everyone involved. He doesn’t think Barba will put up much of a fight. Maybe it’ll be a little awkward, because they’re not in a good place right now, and Sonny is asking for a glowing performance review, but eventually Barba will relent. The bottom line is hard to ignore.

Sonny will be gone.

They won’t have to see each other anymore.

That’s gotta be enough for Barba.

Sonny knows Barba will be glad to be rid of him.

Especially after what happened.

That should sting too, but Sonny doesn’t even care.

Sure, they’ve been sleeping together since the funeral. Sure, Barba is great in bed. Sure, Barba cooks for him because Sonny hasn’t felt like cooking in months. Sure, Barba lets him stay over when it’s clear Sonny is too worked-up to be left alone. Which is most of the time.

Sure, being with Barba is what Sonny always wanted.

But that was all in the ‘before.’

Sonny is not okay.

Sonny doesn’t want now.

That’s too intense an emotion.

Sonny doesn’t want Barba, he doesn’t want to cook, he doesn’t want to spend time with his family, because they always hound him about being ‘so unlike’ the Sonny they ‘know and love,’ because Bella keeps telling him to smile like Sonny can help it, because his father keeps telling him he should stop ‘moping’ and thank God it was Dodds that died instead of him.

God.

Sonny doesn’t want to go to church, either.

Sonny hasn’t been to church in three months.

Not since the funeral.

Sonny is not himself.

Sonny feels like leaving.

That’s as close to wanting as he can get.

A faded wish.

Sonny doesn’t want to leave.

Sonny can’t want.

He’s just out of options.

Leaving would mean losing Barba, but is that so bad?

Sonny thinks he already lost Barba anyway, after that fight.

So what?

It’s fine.

Sonny practically shrugged when he left Barba’s office.

It’s for the best.

Now he gets to leave without any unfinished business.

Sonny can live without Barba.

He did it for years.

He can do it again.

Losing a convenient hookup is always a bummer, but Sonny’s been there before.

Three months is way more than he ever expected, anyway.

Sonny was expecting a one-night stand.

Sonny was expecting Barba to swear him to secrecy and send him away the morning after. Sonny was not expecting Barba to make him breakfast.

Bacon and eggs.

Barba probably made it for himself, to help with the impending hangover, but he didn’t have to ask Sonny to stay and have some.

Sonny supposes Barba found it too cruel to just kick him out on the day after Mike’s funeral.

Sonny assumes that’s what kept Barba from ditching him that morning, and the next one, and the next.

That, and the fact Sonny is pretty great in bed too.

Still.

Three months is long enough.

Sonny feels like leaving.

Sonny is back at Barba’s office, for the first time since the trial ended, and he can’t stop his fists from clenching.

It won’t be that bad.

It’ll be fine.

Sonny will apologize, he’ll listen to Barba’s gloating, he’ll ask about Brooklyn, and he’ll do it quick, and then Barba will grimace before agreeing to put in a good word for him, because that’s the best way to ensure Sonny will get the hell out of Manhattan.

It’ll all be over in a matter of minutes.

Sonny straightens out his tie as he prepares to knock.

He lied to Liv.

Sonny had to lie, otherwise Liv wouldn’t have let him take off in the middle of the day.

He told Liv he felt guilty for yelling at Barba, and he wanted to make things right.

He made no mention of Brooklyn.

Liv believed him.

She smiled, and said, ‘Good. I’m glad you decided to apologize. It means I won’t have to make you do it. That’s no way to talk to Barba, Carisi. You’re supposed to like him. And you’re better than that.’

Sonny was better than that.

Before.

In the ‘before,’ Sonny would have been mortified to even insinuate that Barba doesn’t know how to do his job.

In the ‘before,’ maybe Sonny would have said something harsh in the heat of the moment, but he’d apologize instantly.

Not anymore.

Not in the ‘after.’

Sonny doesn’t even care.

He doesn’t need to apologize.

Sonny was right.

Amanda was right.

They were both there when Charlie made the ID, and they both thought it was by the book, and they’ve been doing this for a long time, so Barba should have no reason to doubt them. Getting the ID was their job, and they did it. Making sure the ID stuck was Barba’s job, and he failed.

Which is not a helpful thought, not ten seconds before Sonny has to go into Barba’s office and blurt out a bogus apology to satisfy his own ulterior motives.

Sonny swallows.

Carmen is watching him from her desk. She announced him almost a full minute ago.

Maybe two.

Sonny is stalling.

Sonny doesn’t want to go in.

Sonny doesn’t want to apologize.

Sonny doesn’t want to ask for Barba’s help.

Sonny doesn’t want to…

Sonny doesn’t want to leave.

Sonny doesn’t want to stop being a cop.

Sonny doesn’t want to move to freakin’ Brooklyn.

Sonny doesn’t want to go to that interview.

Sonny doesn’t want to lose what he has with Barba.

He just doesn’t think it’s worth staying for.

Sonny takes a deep breath.

It’s hard to want anything, but Sonny still gets that jolt, a shock of longing, when he thinks about leaving.

Sonny has been feeling numb, for three months.

When he thinks about leaving, that mild sting turns into a sharp ache.

A convulsion.

It only lasts a split second.

After that jolt, Sonny feels numb again.

In the ‘after,’ Sonny feels numb all the time.

It’s the opposite of wanting.

Maybe Brooklyn will help.

Sonny decides to focus on the matter at hand.

He’s standing right outside Barba’s door, and he needs to go in and apologize.

Simple as that.

The truth is, Sonny does owe Barba an apology.

Not for what he said.

Sonny still thinks he was right.

Sonny owes Barba an apology for yelling.

Liv said it. Yelling is no way to resolve an argument. No way to talk to someone he admires.

It’s no way to talk to someone he’s banging, either, but that train has left the station.

Carmen is still staring.

Sonny takes a deep breath and knocks.

He doesn’t have to knock, not when Carmen’s already announced him, but Sonny feels that he should. Barging in Barba’s office without a second thought, that’s in the past. Sitting on Barba’s desk without asking. Staying with Barba, late, after hours, in a near-empty building, and putting that leather couch in good use, that’s in the past.

Sonny has to knock now.

It stings.

Barba doesn’t answer. Doesn’t ask him in.

Figures.

Sonny goes in anyway.

He’s managed to compose himself. He feels calm, or as calm as he’s felt in the last three months.

Barba used to help with that.

Barba is fussing with some papers, holding a pen even though it’s obvious he’s not actually working on anything.

He won’t look up.

He’s probably waiting for Sonny to speak.

Sonny will not miss these games.

Sonny will miss Barba.

“You got a minute, counselor?”

Their standard greeting.

It’s unnecessary this time.

Sonny knows Barba has a minute. Barba has several minutes. This is a meeting. Sonny had to make an appointment with Carmen. Sonny will have Barba all to himself for the next half hour.

On any other day, that’d be enough to silence that distant noise in the back of his head.

Today, it’s n-

“Of course. How can I help you, Carisi?”

Oh.

That was easy.

Barba is making eye contact, and he doesn’t even look mad.

Sonny doesn’t know if that’s a good thing.

“Uh, I just wanted to say, what you did with Ashley’s mother, it was incredible. You won us the case.”

Barba’s face registers no visible reaction.

Sonny figured he should start off with a compliment, with some ass-kissing, like in the good old days, but apparently that was a bad id-

“Thank you.”

Oh.

Short answers.

Okay.

Maybe that is a good thing.

Barba is either too mad to talk to him in full sentences, or too indifferent to bother. Either way, maybe they can do this the easy way. No more yelling. No more tension. They’ll just have a brief, civil conversation. Sonny will just cut to the chase, because it doesn’t look like Barba is willing to entertain him for very long.

An apology and a request.

Simple as that.

Sonny just hopes Barba gives him a quick answer.

“I’m sorry. Okay? About what happened yesterday. I was out of line. I’m sorry.”

Sonny barely stops himself before getting into the specifics. The vaguer, the better. Otherwise, Barba might zero in on a throwaway comment and decide to go for another round. The last thing Sonny needs is another argument about the same thing.

Barba’s face remains perfectly neutral.

“I appreciate that. Apology accepted.”

Sonny bites his lip.

He’s starting to get uncomfortable.

Barba is being too nice.

Too calm.

Too polite.

Sonny can’t work with this.

Barba has been nice to him for a while now, for a long time, even before they started sleeping together, Barba hasn’t insulted him in over a year, and this downright cordial exchange should feel normal, but Sonny is starting to get uncomfortable.

It’s not real.

Barba isn’t being nice.

Not right now.

Not like before.

They were getting along so well, before.

Sonny blew it.

Right now, Barba is faking.

Barba isn’t indifferent.

He’s mad.

He wants to make this difficult for Sonny.

“That’s all? Apology accepted? I don’t even get an ‘I told you so’? Come on, Barba, you’re slacking. You’re not gonna ask me to atone? To list all the ways in which I was wrong, and you were right?”

Nothing.

Barba’s face doesn’t move. Not even a little. There’s not even a hint of a smile.

Figures.

They haven’t been doing much smiling these last few months.

Sonny wishes things were differ-

“Yes. That’s all. Atonement would only be possible if your apology were genuine.”

Great.

Sonny has barely been there a minute, and Barba is already doubting him again.

Barba is right to doubt him, of course, but that’s irrelevant.

Sonny tries not to react, but his eyes roll almost by their own volition.

In the ‘after,’ Sonny has a very short fuse.

“OK. Alright. You got me. I don’t think I was wrong. Me or Amanda. As cops, we gotta play nice with witnesses sometimes. With perps, even. That’s part of the job. That’s all that happened. Amanda was just doing her job.”

Barba is expressionless, still.

“Unlike me.”

Sonny tries not to wince.

He could try muttering, ‘I never said that,’ or ‘that’s not what I meant,’ but that would be a lie, and Barba would see right through it.

That’s exactly what Sonny said. It’s exactly what he meant.

Sonny blew it.

Sonny figures his best play is to gloss over that. To forget about the fake apology and focus on the real one.

“I shouldn’t have said that, Barba. And I shouldn’t have yelled. I still think I was right about the ID, but I was wrong about yelling. That was unprofessional. And saying you don’t know how to do your job, that was wrong of me. I mean, you just proved me wrong, with the way you handled the mother’s testimony. I never should have said any of that. That’s what I’m apologizing over. Just so we’re clear.”

Barba nods.

“Okay. That I believe. And I do appreciate your apology, however misguided.”

Sonny is starting to get irritated by Barba’s condescending tone.

Sonny blew it the first time, and he’s about to do it again.

Sonny has been losing his temper a lot.

That fuse is getting shorter by the minute.

There’s barely anything left.

Sonny is not himself.

“The ID was good, Barba. You weren’t there. I was. You can’t tell me how to do my job.”

Barba finally bothers to smirk.

An expression, at last.

Condescension, mixed with amusement.

Sonny acknowledges the irony.

Sonny is the one who tried to tell Barba how do to his job.

“That’s true. I wasn’t there. But, as it became apparent in the course of the proceedings, the ID was not good. Even if it was obtained lawfully, it was unusable. Charlie was a dud witness. Not the first one you’ve brought me, by the way. He almost sunk our case.

“Testimony which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny is not good testimony. I’m sure they taught you that in law school, Carisi. When Charlie got on the stand, Buchanan completely debunked the entire identification, including the timeline we worked so hard to establish. Therefore, good or bad, the ID was ultimately useless.”

Useless.

Sonny’s detective work, Amanda’s interrogation tactics, their ID which put Sean on the scene and led to the discovery of that ring, the timeline they worked so hard to build, and then presented to Barba in neat little bullet points, ‘useless.’

“You let Buchanan do that. You let him tear Charlie apart. You let him debunk the ID. That wasn’t on Rollins. It wasn’t on me.”

Barba looks right at Sonny.

There’s some surprise on his face.

Just like when Sonny first said it.

Sonny is not yelling this time, not yet at least, but Barba’s reaction is the same.

Shock, probably, because Sonny dared to stand up for himself and his partner.

“I ‘let’ Buchanan destroy my witness because I was lacking critical information. Again, as a lawyer, Carisi, you should know the most vital aspect of a successful conviction is the cooperation between the investigating officers and the prosecuting attorney.

“Complete transparency is required. The detectives must divulge every single piece of evidence they’ve gathered, along with the methods they used to obtain it. You never know what might make or break a case. It’s the prosecutor’s responsibility to make that assessment.”

Sonny feels like he’s back at Fordham, attending a lecture on criminal law.

Barba is lecturing him.

Speaking slowly.

Patronizingly.

Elaborating on the obvious, like Sonny is an idiot who has to be spoon-fed information.

Barba is as infuriating as he is right.

Sonny knows that.

Sonny doesn’t even care.

“Really? You’re saying we’re supposed to tell you about every time we lie to a perp? Every time we pretend to make friends with some creep, we gotta ask for your permission? I know you’re not trained in interrogation methods, counselor, but even you must know that sometimes we gotta improvise.

“What then? What are you sayin’? If I gotta flirt with a witness to get more intel, I gotta come back and tell you what I said, word for word? If Rollins has to sweet-talk a dumb kid to get a solid ID, we gotta come back and tell you exactly what we did? Everything? Is that what you need to do your job properly? I hate to break it to ya, Barba, but you’re kinda asking for a lot.”

Barba sighs.

“I’m asking you to tell me everything which could potentially have an adverse effect on the case. As I’m sure you know, Carisi. But that’s irrelevant. Whether or not the ID was good is irrelevant. The jury did not believe it, therefore it was useless. That is a simple, verifiable fact. As a cop, I’m sure you find that infuriating. As a lawyer, you should be able to accept it and move on.”

Sonny feels like snapping again.

He has to struggle to keep his voice down.

“I’m not a lawyer. Just ‘cause I passed an exam. Don’t try to manipulate me into siding with you, like we’re the same. I’m a cop. I did my job, as a cop, and I did it well.”

Barba frowns momentarily.

It’s a little more emotion than he’s shown so far.

“Your allegiances notwithstanding, Carisi, you should still know better. As a cop, you were supposed to warn me about any potential holes in the case. Any unreliable witnesses. Any witnesses who need special handholding. Any doubt in their statements. Any element of their testimony I might need to omit, for fear of opening a door for the defense. As a cop, you’re supposed to help me. You failed to do that. Which, again, I imagine is infuriat-”

“I didn’t fail. I did my job. I told you. And Rollins did hers. You’re the one who failed. If you wanted more information, you should’ve prepped your own witness. Not have us do it, just ‘cause you hate people and you try to minimize human contact whenever you can.”

So much for not yelling.

Barba is no longer frowning.

He’s completely devoid of expression.

“Fine. Let’s agree to disagree.”

It’s too late for that.

“What more information did you need, Barba? Charlie was dumb. He saw Sean. The end. Rollins told you all that.”

Barba’s fingers begin to tap the desk.

He’s close to snapping too.

This will be fun.

“I needed a lot more. I needed to know Charlie was not sure about the person he saw, and even less sure about the timeframe. I needed to know that you and Rollins almost got a confession out of him, because he’s just that stupid and he couldn’t remember his own alibi. Liv had to tell me that. You didn’t.

“I needed to know Rollins coaxed the ID out of him by flirting. Which is fine. It’s a valid tactic. I’m not blaming her for employing it. I’m blaming Rollins, and you, for your shortsightedness. I needed to have that information, before I trusted her to handle the witness prep. That made it worse. Charlie got even more attached to her. Had I known, I would have assigned you to do it.  

“Speaking of, I happen to trust SVU detectives to prep the witnesses, and sometimes the victims, too. Not because I hate people, which I do, but because you’re better equipped to handle individuals in distress. I trust you to do that, and I trust you to do it well. Better than I ever could. Especially you, Carisi. In this case, I trusted Rollins to prep Charlie. She saw it fit to warn me about the kid being a total imbecile. She saw it fit to advise me to go easy on him.

“She did not see it fit to warn me about Charlie’s little infatuation. Neither did you. That was information I could have used. I could have warned Charlie not to mention Rollins by name. I could have used his infatuation in our favor. I could have told him, ‘please don’t talk about Amanda, because it could get her in trouble.’ Stupid or not, he would have complied. To help her.

“It would have been so easy to fix this. You would have given me a heads up, Charlie’s little crush would have never come up, Buchanan would have never caught on, and the ID would have stuck. And then I wouldn’t have had to badger a grieving mother on the stand, driving her to the point of tears, just to correct your mistake.”

There it is.

Finally, Barba’s anger is peeking through.

This is better.

If Sonny were himself, he’d feel guilty right now. If he were able to stay objective, he’d admit Barba is right. This was easily avoidable. They didn’t share information. They didn’t let Barba in. They didn’t even let each other in. Sonny still hasn’t talked to Amanda about this, let alone Barba. She got the ID, and it was good enough for her, so it was good enough for him.  

They don’t talk.

They’re supposed to be a family.

They blew it.

Sonny knew the ID was shaky. They only showed that kid one damn picture. Barba still doesn’t know that, or he’d be tearing Sonny a new one over that, too. Sonny was right there when Charlie asked Amanda, ‘If I say yes, would that be helping  Ashley? And you?’ Amanda was speechless for a good few seconds. She knew Charlie would have said anything. Sonny knew too.

Sonny blew it.

He still refuses to admit fault.

Sonny is not himself.

“There was no mistake. Not mine, anyway. You botched Charlie’s testimony, so you had to fix your own mess. Which you did. Brilliantly. You got the mother’s testimony, and you saved the day. Good for you.”

“I ‘got’ the mother’s testimony?”

Barba finally looks alive.

His eyes are narrow.

He’s squeezing that pen so hard his knuckles are white.

“Yeah. You manipulated her emotions perfectly. You got her to say what we needed. You read her. You figured out why she was hesitant to testify, and you hit her where it hurts. It was amazing.”

Barba’s eye twitches.

“The mother’s name is Melanie. I’m surprised you’re not using it, Carisi. This isn’t like you. Then again, perhaps it makes you feel better to think of her as a nameless hostile witness. One I had to manipulate, to ‘prove’ that I do, in fact, know how to do my job. That might make you feel better. Not me.

“I didn’t ‘get’ her testimony. I practically beat it out of her. I had to harass Melanie until she broke down on the stand. Because of me. I don’t do that, Carisi. I get confessions on the stand. I put pressure on defendants. The occasional unruly witness. Not victims. Not grieving mothers. You and Rollins made me do that. It was not amazing. It wasn’t brilliant. It was sickening.”

Oh.

Sonny didn’t realize.

Sonny is an idiot.

Sonny is supposed to be empathetic, and understanding, and insightful, and he totally missed this.

Sonny used to be able to read Barba like an open book.

Sonny used to care enough to try.

Sonny is not okay, and neither is Barba.

Barba is reeling.

Getting that testimony the way he did, it clearly cost him.

Melanie’s testimony.

She has a name.

Sonny used to care.

Barba keeps staring.

Coldly.

It’s hard to want anything, but Sonny would really like it if the ground could just open and swallow him up.

It’s hard to care.

It’s easier to fight.

To be angry.

It’s so much easier.

“You can’t blame me for that, Barba. We all do what we gotta do. It’s not always pretty. That’s what we signed up for.”

Barba’s nostrils are literally flaring.

“You did not do what you had to do. That’s the problem. Or Rollins didn’t. I just explained to you, in great detail, exactly what she did wrong. And you stood by and watched her.  You let her. You defended her, even though you both fell short. You knew. You d-”

“I, what?  What, Barba? I defended Rollins? Why do you keep harping on that? Like I don’t got a mind of my own? I was right there when Charlie made that ID. I’m not making excuses for Rollins. She’d never ask me to do that, and I wouldn’t do it anyway. Maybe you don’t think so, but I can form my own opinions. Rollins didn’t tell me to say the ID was good. I made that assessment all by myself. Forget Rollins. If you wanna tell me I’m wrong, go ahead and say it.”

Angry.

Always angr-

“You’re wrong. That said, I do want to apologize for accusing you of making excuses for Rollins. For assuming you were only covering for your partner. For thinking you actually knew better. It appears I overestimated your intelligence. I’m glad we cleared that up.”

Back to condescension, with a personal insult as a chaser.

It took Barba long enough.

The conversation was strictly business, until this very moment.

Barba made it personal, and Sonny is hoping for more.

More insults.

The nastier Barba gets, the less guilty Sonny will feel for yelling.

Sonny is hoping for a real insult.

If he’s honest, Sonny is hoping Barba will bring up their little affair.

Sonny has been too scared to do it.

Sonny doesn’t want to lose what he has with Barba.

Whatever it is.

Let Barba end it.

Sonny is too scared.

He’s run out of steam.

Let Barba dump him.

Let Barba express regret for ever kissing him after that funeral.

For ever taking him home.

For pretending not to notice his muffled sobs when they tried to sleep, afterwards.

Sonny’s back was turned.

Sonny’s back was shaking.

All night.

On and off.

Sonny didn’t sleep.

His sobs weren’t all muffled.

Barba never said anything.

Barba just made him bacon and eggs the next morning.

Sometimes, when the distant noise quiets down, Sonny thinks about that morning, and wanting feels within reach.

Not today.

Today the noise is very loud.

Today, Sonny is just proud he managed not to fly off the handle.

Not too much.

Today, Sonny just looks at Barba and waits for the next hit.

For the next insult.

Maybe it won’t come.

Barba’s breathing has slowed down.

Every exhale feels deliberate.

He’s trying to get himself under control.

Sonny is glad at least one of them is.

Sonny has lost control again.

It’s getting to be a habit.

He never used t-

“Listen to me, Carisi. We’ve been working together for over two years now. Harmoniously, for the most part. We had a rough start, because I was rude to you early on, but things got better. You rolled with the punches, to your credit, until I realized I was being a jackass and started treating you with the respect you deserve. Things have been good ever since. Would you agree?”

Sonny would agree, but these sudden compliments are throwing him off. He can’t figure out what Barba’s angle is.

“Yeah. Yeah, I agree.”

“Good. Then you’ll also agree that our current predicament is troubling. We’ve been sleeping together for three months, and we just had our first major work-related disagreement, and your way of handling it was to bite my head off in front of our colleagues.”

“I didn’t…”

Sonny stops talking.

He did.

“You did. And you just did it again, a minute ago. On the bright side, this time you had the good sense to wait until we were alone. In fact, you made an appointment with Carmen. You made an appointment to yell at me. That’s original. I commend you. The only other person who’s ever done that is the District Attorney.”

Sonny is confused.

Is Barba joking? Teasing him? Dissing him? It’s hard to tell.

Sonny used to be able to read Barba like an open b-

“That said, your behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it. I refuse to let our personal lives become the subject of office gossip.”

Gossip?

“What gossip? What are you talking about, Barba?”

Barba exhales.

“Liv started asking me questions, right after you left my office. She asked me if I thought you and Rollins were an item. If I knew anything about that. If that was the reason for your outburst. You can imagine my reaction.

“And Liv’s. She saw right through me. She asked me about you. About us. She said, ‘Since when does Carisi talk to you like that, Rafael?’ I didn’t know what to tell her. Then again, I didn’t have to tell her anything, because she’s Liv. She figured it out without my help. All because you couldn’t keep your temper in check.”

Oh.

Gossip.

Liv figured it out.

Liv thought Sonny’s outburst was suspicious.

Out of character.

All because Sonny had to yell in front of her, like a dumbass.

For all he knows, Rollins figured it out too.

Sonny is not himself, and everyone can see that.

Sonny can see it too.

He just can’t change it.

Barba is staring at him.

‘Unacceptable.’

Sonny doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say to that.

All he knows is that he’s getting dumped.

Which is pretty much what he expected.

Whatever this is, this thing between them, it’s not worth holding onto.

It’s not worth staying for.

Sonny knows that.

Even if it helps, sometimes.

Even if it’s the only thing that can make Sonny feel better.

One fight, and they’re done.

Figures.

Sonny is leaving, anyway.

Sonny was leaving.

He hasn’t thought about Brooklyn the entire time he’s been in Barba’s office.

Barba helps.

Even now.

Sonny doesn’t want to move to freakin’ Brooklyn.

Sonny doesn’t want to get dumped.

That mild sting, it’s not so mild anymore.

It’s a lot stronger than it’s been in a while.

It’s pain, almost.

Sonny hasn’t felt pain since the funeral.

It’s not wanting, but it’s something close to it.

Sonny can’t want, but maybe he can try.

Maybe he doesn’t have to get dumped.

Maybe he can hold onto this one thing.

To Barba.

“I’ll do better. I promise. I can try. I’ll try harder.”

Barba looks strangely sad.

“You shouldn’t have to try that hard, Carisi.”

Sonny nods.

He nods in defeat, because Barba just dumped him for real.

He nods in contrition, too, because Barba is right.

Sonny shouldn’t have to try that hard to stay calm. To stay professional. Sonny shouldn’t have to try at all. It should come naturally.

It used to.

Sonny was always professional, always the voice of reason, always the last to snap, if he even snapped at all.

But that was all in the ‘before.’

Sonny is not hims-

“I should have trusted my judgment, but I d-”

Sonny is definitely not himself.

He just got dumped, and Barba is two seconds away from telling him they never should have gotten together in the first place.

That’s exactly what Sonny was hoping for.

A real insult.

He regrets that now.

He doesn’t want to hear it.

“Oh yeah? What did your judgment tell you, Barba? Not to screw me?”

Barba winces.

“Yes. Obviously. Becaus-”

“Oh! Obviously! Why? Because I’m the idiot who can’t t-”

“Because we work together, Carisi. I should have trusted my judgment. I’ve always made it a point to avoid getting involved my colleagues. Before you, at least. It never ends well.”

Right.

It never ends well, but it does end.

It’s ending right now.

Sonny got the message, loud and cl-

“And stop calling yourself an idiot.”

Isn’t that sweet.

Barba just dumped Sonny, but he still wants to act like he gives a shit.

Sonny stops trying.

It’s easier to fight.

“Why? You want the exclusive? You wanna be the only one callin’ me an idiot? Is that it?”

Barba frowns.

“Come on, Barba. You berated me for years, and I never said anything, ‘cause I am an idiot. You just called me stupid five minutes ago, just in fancier words. But that’s not ‘unacceptable,’ is it? That’s a ‘rough start.’ It’s not ‘troubling,’ so long as it’s you doin’ the name-calling. I yelled at you once, and that’s it. You’re cuttin’ me off. You ‘will not tolerate it.’ How ‘bout all the crap I had to tolerate?”

Barba keeps frowning.

“Why are y… That’s not what I’m saying. I’m s-”

“Isn’t it? Am I that stupid? I can’t even understand what you’re tryin’ to tell m-”

“Stop trying to pick a fight, Carisi, and listen. This isn’t about you yelling at me. This isn’t about me being an asshole to you in the past. Or five minutes ago. I regret the way I treated you when we first met. I thought that was obvious. I apologize if it’s not. And I still snap on occasion. We all do. But this is not what I’m trying to say.

“You’re angry. All the time. Not just with me. I’ve seen you being terse with Rollins too. With the defendants. You’re angry. You’re angry right now, for no reason. You’re bringing up the past, just to have something to fight about. What I’m trying to say is that I understand.

“Losing Dodds has affected you. Losing a member of your squad. I can’t pretend I know what that feels like, but I understand your reaction. I understand grief. I realize you need time to get back to your old self, and I also realize that might never happen. I respect that.”

No.

Sonny doesn’t want to hear this.

Sonny can’t hear this.

They don’t talk.

They’re supposed to be a family.

No one opens up.

No one even mentions Dodds by name.

Especially not Barba.

Sonny and Barba, they don’t talk about the real stuff.

Never.

Not in three whole months of sharing the same bed.

Sonny doesn’t talk.

He has forgotten how to do it without yelling.

Without being angry.

All the time.

Sonny is still angry.

“You respect that? How do you figure? You just dumped me.”

Barba’s eyebrows jump.

“Excuse me? When did I do that?”

Sonny is confused, yet again.

“When d… Now! You just… This entire conversation we’re havin’, it’s you dumping me. You said my behavior is unacceptable, and you won’t tolerate it. You called things off. So much for respecting my grief.”

Barba gapes.

“I…”

Barba pinches the bridge of his nose and lets out a deep breath.

“Of course I respect your grief, Carisi. And I didn’t call anything off. All I’m saying is, if you want to fight, if you want to vent, do it in private. Do it when we’re at home. At my place, or yours. Yell at me to your heart’s content. Just not in front of our colleagues.

“That’s what I find unacceptable. What I refuse to tolerate. What needs to change. You, having outbursts in front of the others. I already told you this. Liv is your superior. You can’t lose your temper in front of her. And you can’t broadcast your feelings like that. You can’t make it obvious that we’ve gotten closer. That you feel comfortable enough to yell at me, when you used to follow me around like a puppy until a few months ago.

“Maybe you can’t see it right now, or maybe you find it hard to care, but gossip can and will affect your career. I’ve been there. Perhaps you have, too. You can never be too careful. Next time, maybe it won’t be Liv who figures it out.

“That’s all I’m saying. I know it’s not easy, and I’m the last person who should lecture anyone on anger management, but I think you should nip this in the bud. It’s still early. Try to direct your anger elsewhere. At me, if you must. Don’t bring it into your work. Don’t lash out at your colleagues. That’s a lesson I had to learn, too. That is all I’m saying.”

Oh.

Barba had to learn that lesson, too.

Resisting anger.

Sonny isn’t alone in this.

Barba understands grief.

Sonny has never felt loss like this, but Barba probably has.

A lot of people have.

That’s a comforting thought.

All this shared pain.

The shared burden, getting lighter.

Barba is right.

About all of it.

It’s not too late, and it won’t be easy, and Sonny is not himself, and he needs to try.

Sonny feels like trying again, after a long time.

It doesn’t have to be Brooklyn.

It doesn’t have to be leaving.

Sonny can try, right where he is, and Barba can help.

Sonny and Barba, they don’t talk about the real stuff.

Maybe they could.

Maybe they should.

Maybe Barba’s condescension is everything but.

Maybe it’s caring.

Maybe it’s a little of both, because this is Barba.

Still.

There’s definitely some caring mixed in.

Sonny knows that now.

These three months have meant something to Barba.

Suddenly, giving a damn looks a little easier.

“So… You’re not dumping me?”

Barba smiles.

He looks cute.

Sonny hasn’t thought that in forever.

Sonny used to think that all the time.

In the ‘before.’

How cute Barba’s smiles were.

They haven’t been doing much smiling these last few months.

“No. You can rest assured that I am not ‘dumping’ you, Carisi. You may not be that same happy-go-lucky eternal optimist I fell in love with, but still. You’re not half bad.”

Sonny blinks.

Barba just said ‘in love.’

It was probably an accident.

Barba just said he fell in love with the happy-go-lucky, optimistic version of Sonny.

The one from the ‘before.’

Before they started sleeping together.

Before their kiss.

Before the funeral.

When Sonny was still himself.

Barba was in love with him.

Sonny wasn’t just a warm body, used to relieve tension. To ease anxiety.

Barba didn’t use him to forget about those death threats Sonny pretends to ignore, even though he’s pretty sure they’re slowly giving him an ulcer. Nothing’s happened since Heredio, and Sonny finds it easier to stay in denial.

About a lot of things.

Until now.

Sonny can’t believe he tried to convince himself it was okay to leave while Barba was still in danger, however insignificant.

Sonny can’t believe he tried to convince himself it was okay to leave, period.

The truth is, Barba was a warm body.

For Sonny.

Sometimes.

It wasn’t about sex.

It was about having a literal warm body next to him.

That’s what Sonny didn’t want to lose.

He didn’t know there was more at stake.

He didn’t know love was on the table.

“You were in love with me?”

Barba doesn’t look remotely embarrassed, or taken by surprise.

It wasn’t an accident.

Barba meant to say it, and th-

“I am in love with you.”

Oh.

“Oh.”

Barba smiles again.

Sonny likes that.

“Yeah, but… You were? Before? Not just now?”

Barba doesn’t answer immediately.

He squints, like he’s trying to figure out exactly what Sonny is attempting to ask.

A few seconds later, he gets it.

“Yes, Carisi. Before. Before you went from an overexcited Teletubby to an angry cop stereotype. Long before that. I’ve been in love with you since you told me you admired my… whatever you were gonna say in that hallway, before I interrupted you because I’m emotionally stunted.”

Oh.

Sonny th-

“This is the first time I’ve seen you smiling in three months.”

Sonny is smiling.

He didn’t even know he was doing it.

Sometimes it felt like his face had forgotten how to smile.

Muscle memory.

Sonny used to smile all the time.

“My niece loves the Teletubbies. I think they’re creepy.”

Barba chuckles.

Barba is in love with him.

The feeling is mutual.

It’s hard to want anything, but somehow it’s not hard to love.

“So, uh, I just got one question for ya, Barba. Why did you let me yammer on about the case? Why couldn’t you just say what you had to say? Why did we have this entire fight?”

Barba smirks.

He looks hot.

Sonny used to think that all the time, too.

“Because I was mad. And because you were wrong. And because I can’t resist an ‘I told you so.’”

Sonny laughs.

This is the Barba he fell in love with, almost two years ago.

Not the respectful, caring partner.

The snarky asshole.

But the caring Barba, he’s not half bad either.

“I have a question for you too, Carisi. You’re not going to ask me about Brooklyn?”

Busted.

Sonny smiles again.

Now that he remembered how to do it, he thinks he’ll start smiling more often.

“You knew?”

Barba gives him another smirk.

“Of course I knew. As soon as you set up that interview, the Brooklyn DA called me to get an impartial opinion.”

Sonny keeps smiling.

Barba isn’t impartial.

Barba is in love with him.

“Yeah? And what did you say?”

Barba pretends he’s considering his answer.

It’s cute.

“I said you were very promising, very intelligent and uniquely qualified. And then I told him I was under the impression you were unavailable.”

Sonny is.

Unavailable.

To anyone who isn’t Barba.

To any place that isn’t Manhattan SVU.

Sonny wants to stay.

Sonny looks at Barba, and he wants to stay.

Sonny looks at Barba, and he wants.

Sonny wants now.

Sonny wants.

Chapter Text

‘Sullied.’

Rafael’s ‘sterling reputation’, sullied.

Rafael didn’t even know he had a sterling reputation, not anymore. Not after the Terrence Reynolds case. Not after the Munson case. Not after he has proved, time and time again, that he’s willing to go after the people who are supposed to be on his side.

‘Bright future.’

As far as embarrassing and demeaning put-downs go, this one was almost flattering.

Rafael almost feels good about it.

Almost.

Judge Bertuccio didn’t neglect to praise him, right before telling him how to do his job.

Liv told Rafael how to do his job, too.

He’s not sure he should have listened.

To either of them.

He is sure he would have found a better way to go about this, if only Liv wasn’t so persuasive. If only the defendant wasn’t so disgusting. If only Laura wasn’t so upset.

Rafael has gotten softer with age.

With experience.

The more survivors he meets, the softer he gets.

The opposite of Liv, who gets tougher.

The end result is the same.

They both fight with all they’ve got.

Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

That’s okay.

It’s not just about winning anymore. It’s not about Rafael’s political aspirations, either, Judge Bertuccio’s comments notwithstanding.

It’s about Rafael’s conscience.

It’s about Rafael, sleeping well at night.

Free of guilt.

Free of burden.

Even if it takes a few sleepless nights to get there.

At least he gets there.

A few restless weeks for one good night’s sleep.

It’s worth it.

Most of the time.

Sometimes , when the cases are so damn grey, when the lines are so blurred, when the law doesn’t align with what’s right, Rafael is tempted to give up.

Rafael is tempted to forget about what’s ‘right’ and just go back to his Brooklyn days, when his conviction rate was all that mattered and he wouldn’t touch a case like this with a ten-foot pole.

Not just Brooklyn.

Manhattan SVU, too.

It hasn’t been that long since Rafael grew a heart.

It hasn’t even been five years.

Rafael wonders what Judge Bertuccio would have said about him back then.

Not that it matters.

Rafael doesn’t always like himself, and that’s an understatement, but he likes himself best when he fights.

Win or lose.

Sure, it was belittling to be talked down to like that, to be patronized like that, especially in front of opposing counsel, but prosecuting this case was a risk Rafael chose to take.

Maybe that was a bad choice.

It probably was.

Rafael still feels good for trying.

He has to feel good.

Otherwise, he’d have to admit he made a mistake. He’d have to admit he let Liv drag him into this. He’d have to admit he let his idealism cloud his judgment. Rafael would have to admit he failed to convince Liv to switch strategies and go after Metcalf for something else. For something which was explicitly forbidden by law.

It’s too late now.

So Rafael feels good.

He has to.

He also feels relieved, because Liv volunteered to find Laura and give her the bad news in person.

In a way, that’s fitting. She’s the one who convinced Laura to testify, promising God knows what. Promising Rafael could get a conviction, probably.

Yet another bad choice.

Anyway.

Liv started this, and she will end it.

Rafael feels relieved, and a little guilty, but he doesn’t think he can face Laura right now.

Rafael is done with this case.

Let Liv attempt to give Laura some closure. Let Liv explain the law just wasn’t there. Let Liv try to explain they did the right thing anyway, because Rafael is not so sure he could do that with a straight face.

Let Liv worry about it.

In the meantime, Rafael will just take it easy.

He deserves it.

He fought.

“Hey, counselor!”

Carisi.

Chasing after him in the hallways of the courthouse.

What else is new.

Rafael smiles to himself, too briefly for anyone to notice. He even bends down to look through his briefcase, to make sure no one sees.

He may or may not have a ‘sterling’ professional reputation, depending on who you ask, but he does have a reputation to uphold amongst his peers. Rafael is supposed to be a grouch, one who rarely smiles, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let a lanky cop from Staten Island sully his hard-earned status as the most curmudgeonly man this side of the Hudson.

Rafael waits until his smile has turned into a sneer, and then he turns around.

The fake sneer soon turns real.

It’s not just Carisi.

It’s Fin and Rollins, too.

Rafael finds that somewhat disappointing.

“Yes, Carisi?”

Carisi walks up to him, closer than necessary, close enough that Rafael has to crane his neck to look into those bright blue eyes, and does Carisi’s hair suddenly look better? Or is it just Raf-

“I just wanted to say, sorry to hear you had to settle for a plea. It was a tough case, though. If you couldn’t do it, nobody could.”

Carisi smiles.

His hair does look better.

Probably.

Rafael can’t be sure that’s objectively true. He could be seeing things. Maybe Carisi looks the same as always. Maybe Rafael is letting his little crush influence his opinion.

Maybe Rafael should stop calling it a ‘little crush,’ because he’s not twelve.

“Well, Carisi, apparently nobody could.”

Carisi’s smile gets wider.

Fuller.

His dimples somehow provide Rafael with comfort.

“Yeah, well. We all knew it’d be near impossible to get a conviction. But it was worth the fight.”

Carisi’s mantra.

Rafael’s mantra, too.

It’s not just Liv who’s changed him. It’s Carisi, too. That unrelenting optimism, that wide-eyed thirst for justice, it’s the perfect complement to Liv’s jaded doggedness.

Rafael never stood a chance.

Sometimes , when the cases are so damn grey, when Rafael is tempted to give up, he’s glad he can always rely on Carisi for a reassuring platitude.

For a smile, too.

It means more than Rafael cares to admit.

The problem lies in the other half of Carisi’s remark.

‘We all knew it’d be near impossible to get a conviction.’

Did they? Did they all know?

Carisi probably did, with his fresh knowledge of New York criminal laws.

Fin and Rollins probably did, because they never seemed to have much faith in the case to begin with.

Liv probably did, too, even if she wasn’t willing to acknowledge it.

Did Laura?

Did Laura’s family?

Did they kn-

“Uh, counselor, listen, you wanna come with us for a drink? Nothin’ fancy. We’re just goin’ to the bar. It’s Friday. Happy hour starts in, like, twenty minutes.”

Rafael raises an eyebrow.

He thinks Carisi can tell he’s preoccupied.

Upset.

That means a lot, too.

Carisi balks for about two seconds, because Rafael’s eyebrows have that effect on people, but then he tries again.

The eagerness is written on his sweet face.

“You know, unless you got somethin’ better to do. But we’d like to… We’d like you to come, right, guys? Rollins, weren’t you tellin’ me Barba never comes out with us?”

Amanda’s side-eye suggests this is the first time she’s hearing this.

Fin’s face is even more telling.

Carisi thinks he’s being subtle.

Rafael is charmed, anyway.

“I suppose I could join you for a drink or two. I wouldn’t want to miss happy hour.”

Rollins snorts and urges Carisi ahead.

Fin falls behind and starts walking by Rafael’s side.

Rafael has the strange sense he’s being flanked.

Protected.

Surrounded, as if by bodyguards.

Oh.

Maybe that’s why Carisi was so eager for him to say yes.

Maybe Carisi, Fin and Rollins were trying to trick him into agreeing to a couple more hours or police protection, under the guise of a few drinks at the bar.

Rafael no longer has to put up with a permanent security detail, because the threats have died down now that Heredio is stuck at Rikers, but sometimes he gets the feeling the SVU detectives haven’t gotten that memo.

They still worry about him.

Maybe that’s what’s happening now.

They want to babysit him.

Rafael finds that extremely disappointing.

“On second thought, I’ll have to take a rain check. I need to, uh… I still have to go over the details of the plea deal before it’s finalized. My apologies.”

Carisi stops walking so abruptly that Fin almost walks into him.

“What? No, come on. It’s Friday! You can do that Monday morning! Come with us!”

Rafael looks at Carisi’s eyes, and he thinks the eagerness is sincere.

The source of that eagerness is unclear.

Maybe Carisi is just that eager to share a drink with him.

Maybe that’s a pretense, and Carisi just wants to protect his life.

If only for a few extra hours.

Maybe Carisi wants to make sure he’s safe.

Rafael doesn’t know how he ever found that disappointing.

It’s actually pretty heartwarming.

Carisi wants him to be okay.

Rafael thinks he’ll g-

“Yeah, come on, Barba. Don’t leave me alone with the kids. I can’t play chaperone all night by myself.”

Fin.

He’s not as eager as Carisi, if that’s even medically possible, but he’s just as resolute in his attempt to get Rafael to join them.

Rafael thinks Fin’s invitation is sincere, too.

Maybe it’s a gesture of good will, after the Sean Roberts case. He and Fin shared a moment or two of muted tension. Same with Rollins, actually, only not as muted.

Maybe Carisi wants to make up for that little yelling incident, too, even though he’s already apologized about three times.

Maybe the SVU detectives are reaching out to Rafael.  

Maybe sharing a drink wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Maybe it’ll be fun.

Mayb-

“Yeah, come on, counselor. Besides, you already said yes. No take-backs.”

Carisi again.

Looking so damn eager.

Rafael smiles before he can stop himself.

He feels like everyone can see him. The entire courthouse, the defense attorneys and the other ADAs and the clerks and the reporters, Rafael feels like they can all see his façade crumbling.

“No take-backs? Is that the best your sharp legal mind could come up with? Now I see why you passed the bar.”

Carisi grins.

“Yep! On my first try, too! Come on. Come with us.”

Carisi’s face doesn’t betray his feelings.

His voice does.

There’s an element of pleading, hidden in the softness of it.

Carisi isn’t just eager.

He’s desperate.

For what, Rafael doesn’t know.

“Fine. But only because your ironclad argument left me no choice.”

They all start walking again.

This time, Carisi is the one who falls behind.

The one who’s walking right by Rafael’s side.

The one who’s smiling, next to him.

Rafael thinks it was worth saying yes, just for that.

~ ~ ~

“Everybody’s lying in the club, Carisi. Trust me on that.”

Carisi laughs into his beer, and Rafael can feel his own shoulders vibrating.

They’re sitting together in a cozy corner booth. Carisi had to practically shove Fin out of the way to sit next to him. Rafael is glad Carisi did it, too, or else he would have done it himself. It’s not every day that Rafael gets to do this.

Drinks with Carisi.

Drinks with Carisi, Fin and Rollins, to be precise, but still.

Fin and Rollins are sitting across the table. There’s a lot of room separating them, because they’re sitting like normal people.

Like friends.

There’s barely any room between Rafael and Carisi.

They’re three drinks in, and Rafael doesn’t know which one of them is leaning in more. Which one of them has moved closer with each round. He’s absurdly curious to know the answer. He feels like drawing a line down the middle of the seat, just to check. Carisi’s elbow is definitely over that imaginary lin-

“Yeah, yeah. Everybody lies. I know. But there’s a difference between lyin’ in the club, and stealing stationary and setting up fake Instagram accounts and mocking up fake medical degrees, know what I’m saying?”

Fin shrugs at Carisi, as Amanda nods.

“Agreed. What this guy did was way beyond your run-of-the mill lie. Fake apartments, brunches at fancy places, multiple dates with the same women, to really get ‘em hooked. He was going through a lot of trouble to look legit.

“That’s why they all fell for it. These women genuinely thought Metcalf was the real deal. In the club, that just doesn’t happen. In the club, you expect to be lied to. You don’t believe half the stuff anybody’s tellin’ ya.”

“Wait, when was the last time you were in the club, Amanda?”

Rollins rolls her eyes as Carisi gloats over his little joke.

“Ha ha, Carisi. Just ‘cause you were still on campus until five minutes ago, crashin’ student parties like the world’s dorkiest RA, it don’t mean you and your buddies had an exclusive on the clubs.”

Carisi and Fin both crack up.

Rafael finds himself laughing, too.

This is fun.

Rafael thought he might spend the evening feeling left out, because he’s never been out with the squad without Liv there, to function as a buffer, but the detectives are doing their best to make him feel included.

Especially Carisi.

Carisi keeps nudging him, asking him random questions to keep the conversation flowing, interrupting the natural banter between Fin and Amanda to give Rafael some room to speak.

Just like Liv would.

Rafael appreciates it.

It’s not often that he feels included.

Granted, it’s not often that Rafael wants to feel included, but still.

Rafael appreciates it.

Rafael likes feeling like he’s a part of the squad. That’s why he likes sitting in on the interrogations so often. With Liv or Carisi, usually, because they’re the ones who know him best and can work off of him effortlessly.

Somehow, Carisi has become one of the people who knows Rafael best.

Rafael takes a sip of his bourbon.

It’s strange to be sitting in a cop bar and not feel out of place.

It almost makes Rafael feel like he’s one of them.

Not that he would ever want that.

It’s just fun to pretend.

They’re four drinks in, now, and Rafael wonders what their little group looks like to an outsider. To one of the cops who are drinking a few feet away. Do they think Rafael is one of them? Could they ever think that? Despite the two-thousand-dollar suit and the fifteen-hundred-dollar shoes? Could Rafael ever pass himself off as a cop?

Is it silly to even ponder that question?

It probably is.

Rafael wonders if that’s how Carisi feels, when he ponders a career change. Does Carisi ask himself if he could ever pass himself off as a lawyer? If anyone would ever believe that, despite the three-hundred-dollar suit and the off-brand dress shoes?

The truth is, Rafael looks at Carisi and he sees a cop.

For now.

La Rossa said Carisi’s interview went very well. He said Carisi is the only applicant with hands-on experience with special victims.

Rafael sees a cop who could be more.

A cop who c-

“Barba, back me up here. It was different back in our day.”

For a moment, Rafael considers getting offended, because Fin is acting like they’re the same age. He only becomes aware of Fin’s intentions when he hears matching huffs of irritation, coming from Rollins and Carisi both.

Fin is teasing them.

They hate being reminded of their inexperienc-

“Back then, you couldn’t google anybody. You couldn’t verify anything. It was all about what you could sell. That was half the fun. Like Amanda said, maybe nobody believed you, but the lie wasn’t even the point. If you had game, you were in. I mean, one time, I pretended to be Melle Mel’s cousin. Was it a good lie? No. Did she buy it? Probably not. Did it matter? Hell no.”

Rafael can’t really argue with that.

Mostly because he’s too busy laughing at the image of a young Fin in the club, swearing up and down he’s related to Melle Mel, while a girl looks on unimpressed.

Carisi and Rollins are laughing too, but it’s clear by their slightly confused expressions that they have no idea who Melle Mel is.

Maybe Fin wasn’t too far off, talking about things back in ‘their’ day.

“Things have changed since then, detective.”

Fin shakes his head.

“You sound just like Liv. Come on, Barba. Like you never lied before? Fancy guy like you, I’m sure you got around back in the day.”

Rafael thinks he should definitely get offended this time, and he’s about to say as much, when he sees Carisi’s face.

Eagerness.

Dimples.

Amusement.

Curiosity, too.

Rafael smirks and waits for Carisi to take another swig of his beer.

“I still get around, thank you very much.”

Fin and Rollins start cackling.

Carisi looks like he’d be doing a spit-take, if only his face could move.

Rafael figures it was worth a shot.

It takes a moment, but Carisi starts laughing too. He doesn’t take his eyes off of Barba. Even though he’s blushing a little, even though his laugh is a little forced, Carisi keeps looking.

Rafael smirks some more, and then he leans in, just enough for their shoulders to touch.

For their elbows to bump.

He’s definitely in Carisi’s personal space now, way over that imaginary line, but it’s okay.

It’s worth it.

Their hands are resting on the table, so close, just like they were after the Dodds funeral, and they have shot glasses in front of them, just like that day, except this time they’re not alone. Rafael would lament that fact, but he chooses to focus on the positives.

This time, no one’s dead.

This time, Rafael doesn’t have to look over his shoulder.

This time, Rafael isn’t drinking by himself, relying on Carisi’s mercy to get some company.

This time, Rafael is sitting with three cops, all there willingly, all his friends, and he feels at home.

Welcome.

Protected.

That’s a new feeling, when he’s around cops.

And that’s not all, either.

This time, Carisi isn’t afraid.

This time, Carisi isn’t devastated by the loss of a friend.

Not as much, anyway.

This time, Carisi’s eyes aren’t haunted.

They’re clear.

This time, Carisi is grinning, and laughing, and blushing, and drinking happily, and flirting, maybe, and nudging h-

Carisi is nudging him again.

“So, what are you sayin’, counselor? You’ve never lied to get into somebody’s pants?”

Rafael balks at the juvenile phrasing.

Then again, it’s possible that Carisi doesn’t feel comfortable talking dirty around him.

Which is unfortunate, especially considering the amount of dirty thoughts currently running through Rafael’s head.

Unfortunate, and kind of charming, too.

Rafael pushes those dirty thoughts in the back of his mind, and decides to admire Carisi’s smile, instead.

It looks even sweeter from up-close.

“Some of us don’t need to lie to get laid, Carisi.”

That gets a spit-take.

Rafael downs his shot with a smirk, as Fin and Rollins start hooting.

It wasn’t even that funny.

They’re probably laughing because they’re getting a little drunk.

Or, and maybe that’s more likely, they’re laughing at the sight of a sputtering Carisi.

After a brief coughing fit, Carisi manages to compose himself.

He’s still grinning.

He’s still blushing, too.

“What makes you think I need to lie to get laid, Barba?”

Rafael doesn’t think that, not really.

Rafael suspects Carisi has absolutely no problem getting laid, but for the sake of this conversation he needs to stick to his guns.

“Where do I begin?”

That triggers another round of laughter, and then Fin motions for another round of alcohol.

Amanda sloppily pokes Barba’s wrist, just as the waitress sets down their drinks.

“Don’t be fooled by that loveable face, Barba. Carisi ain’t that innocent. He told Metcalf he pretended he was an exchange student from Italy, for a whole semester, just to hook up with some girl in college.”

Rafael chuckles.

He can only imagine the effort that took.

The subterfuge.

He wonders it would be too forward to ask Carisi for a brief demonstration of what was probably the worst Italian accent ever.

“Hey, don’t sell me out like that, Amanda!”

Rafael keeps chuckling.

“I knew St. John’s students weren’t the brightest, Carisi, but I didn’t know they were that stupid.”

Carisi stops trying to pester Rollins and turns to face Barba.

He looks surprised.

“Wait, how do you know I went to St. John’s?”

Barba smirks and th-

“And, for the record, it’s actually a great school.”

More laughter.

Carisi always has a delayed reaction to insults.

It’s like they bounce off of him.

Like he’s impervious to anger.

Like he only reacts because he thinks that’s what’s expected of him, not because he actually feels offended.

That’s very different than what Rafael is used to.

More often than not, Rafael manages to get offended even when people aren’t actually trying to insult him.

“I took a look at your resume, Carisi. La Rossa and I go way back.  I wasn’t going to recommend you for an interview without making sure you wouldn’t embarrass me.”

Carisi looks happy.

That’s very different, too.

More often than not, Rafael manages to make people miserable, even when he’s not actively trying to hurt them.

“Oh. So you saw I went to St. John’s and then you recommended me. Which means you agree it’s a good school. Thanks, counselor!”

Rafael rolls his eyes.

“I saw Fordham Law and I recommended you. Even though that’s not such a great school eith-”

“Forget about Carisi’s resume, Barba. Tell us about the interview. I wanna know if it was worth the fuss. You know Liv told him off?”

Carisi ducks his head, as Barba looks at Fin in curiosity.

“Why did she do that?”

Fin smiles.

“Your guy Carisi, here, he never told Liv he was goin’ off to a job interview while he was on the clock. But she found out, somehow, and she busted him. She called him out.”

Rafael’s jaw drops very briefly.

He hopes no one notic-

“Wait, you told her?”

Dammit.

Fin noticed. He wasn’t born yesterday.

Carisi’s head snaps up.

He looks betrayed.

“What? She found out from you? Come on, Barba! That was private! Why were you talking to her about me, anyway?”

Barba doesn’t even know where to start.

He just knows where not to start.

Namely, at ‘Liv and I talk about you all the time, Carisi. She indulges my crush by regaling me with your everyday exploits.’

“A job interview with a District Attorney’s office is hardly a private matter, Carisi. Especially not as it relates to your boss. I assumed you had already cleared it with Liv. Why didn’t you? There’s nothing wrong with you exploring your options.”

Carisi sighs.

“I know, I know. I just…”

Rollins frowns as Carisi struggles with an answer.

“Never mind, Carisi. What’s done is done. But, hey, Barba, can you at least tell us how the interview went? Fin and I are dyin’ to know, and Carisi won’t tell us anything.”

Barba resents the interruption.

He really wanted to hear the rest of Carisi’s sentence.

Until just a moment ago, Rafael was assuming Carisi had gotten Liv’s permission to go to that interview. He was also assuming Carisi returned to the precinct triumphant, and told Fin and Rollins all about it.

Neither of those things happened, apparently.

Rafael decides to tread lightly.

“From what I heard, it went well. La Rossa told me Caris-”

Rafael feels a kick on his ankle.

Carisi.

For some reason, even that generic, ‘it went well,’ seems to be more than Carisi is comfortable sharing.

Rafael shoots Carisi a quick glance, and gets an imploring look in return.

Message received.

“La Rossa told me it went well. That’s it. I wish I could give you more embarrassing details, Rollins, believe me, but I haven’t spoken to him yet. He just texted me after the interview. As soon as I get more information, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Rollins narrows her eyes.

She wasn’t born yesterday, either.

Rafael doesn’t care.

He doesn’t care if she saw through his lie.

All he cares about is the way Carisi is looking at him right now.

With eyes full of gratitude.

With the sweetest smile.

They’re five drinks in, and Rafael can feel Carisi’s bony ankle, still brushing up against his own.

Neither of them moves away.

Rafael takes another s-

“Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t a whole semester. I just said that to endear myself to the perp. It was an interrogation tactic. Maybe you’ve heard of those, Rollins.”

Carisi is changing the subject.

Quite masterfully, in Rafael’s opinion. Carisi is going back to that embarrassing college story as a distraction, because he wants to avoid an even more sensitive topic.

It’s kind of brillian-

“Really, Carisi? So how long was it?”

That’s a good question.

Rafael leans in, curious to hear the answer, and Carisi gives him another sweet smile.

Rafael isn’t sure, but he gets the sneaking suspicion he’s the one who’s blushing now.

So he downs another shot. He’s not counting shots as drinks, by the w-

“It was, like, a week and a half. Three dates.”

Rollins snorts.

“And then what happened? She figured you out?”

Carisi looks hilariously humiliated.

“No. Turns out, I wasn’t as slick as I thought. She had me figured out from the start. She went along with it, ‘cause I was ‘cute.’ Her words. She said she wanted to see how far I’d take it. I had to fold when I started runnin’ out of Italian phrases.”

That sounds about right.

As Rollins and Fin start heckling Carisi, Rafael finds himself identifying with that St. John’s co-ed.

Incidentally, a phrase he never thought he’d say.

Sometimes, even when you don’t fall for the lie, you can still fall for the person.

Fin said it.

The lie doesn’t matter.

Not always.

Sometimes, you can even pretend you fell for the lie, because it’s easier, or less embarrassing for the object of your affection.

That’s a lie in itself.

Some lies are more innocent than others.

Rafael has been there before.

Letting a lie slide, it can really help things along. That co-ed knew what she was doing. That’s why Rafael identifies with her.

That’s the only reason.

Not because she thought Carisi was ‘cute.’ Not because she fell for Carisi’s weird, quirky charm, and she let him yammer on anyway, probably listening with an infatuated smile on her face, even though she was fully aware he was full of it.

Rafael wouldn’t know the first thing about that. 

Rafael th-

“Way to play that up, Carisi. For the record, though, both me and Liv knew you were full of it, as soon as you said that.”

Rollins grins, and Carisi groans.

They’re a funny little comedy duo.

It’s fun to watch them bicker, especially when Fin looks on like a stoic father.

There’s an easy camaraderie there.

A lot of touching, poking and shoving, from both sides, but it’s all so easy.

Comfortable.

No tension at all.

No one’s blushing, no one’s stealing glances, no one’s leaning in.

Carisi and Rollins are family.

That’s an unexpected source of relief for Rafael.

Maybe not that unexpected.

Rafael downs the sole remaining shot.

They’re almost out of alcoh-

“Alright. So Carisi is a terrible liar. We knew that. How ‘bout you, Barba? You said you never lied to get laid. That true? Never? You never lied about anything?”

Rafael frowns.

He thought Fin was on his side.

Still.

Carisi is leaning in again, even closer, looking so eager, and Rafael thinks it couldn’t hurt to open up, just a little.

“Never is a strong word. I’ve never lied about who I was.  I have lied to make myself more approachable, I suppose. I’ve downplayed my eclectic taste. I’ve pretended I was unfamiliar with certain recipes, to let my dates stun me with their expertise. I’ve pretended I liked books I hate. Bands. Movies. That sort of thing.

“But it wasn’t to get laid. It was to sustain a relationship. You might find this surprising, Fin, but I hate almost everything. Sometimes, I will pick something arbitrarily and pretend to like it, just to appear more human.”

Fin snorts, but Rollins looks uninterested and Carisi looks flat-out disappointed.

He was clearly hoping for a little more.

An actual reveal, maybe.

A story.

Maybe Rafael can indulge him.

“One of my exes hated the opera. One night, many years ago, we were walking around and we saw a billboard for an upcoming performance of Aida. I was about to tell her I happened to have great tickets, when she went off on a rant. She said the opera was boring, and her parents took her to see Don Giovanni when she was a teenager, and she’s hated the opera ever since, and she couldn’t believe people willingly paid money for the experience, etcetera etcetera.

“I’m not proud of it, but I nodded along. I may have even said I felt the same way. I made plans to see Aida with a friend, of course, but my ex randomly decided she wanted to see Armageddon on that same night. My friend ended up taking his wife to Aida, with my tickets, while I sat through two and a half hours of pure dreck.”

Carisi laughs heartily.

There’s excitement in his eyes.

Probably because he just learned something about the real Rafael.

For once.

The after-hours Rafael, not the one who’s always stuck behind a desk.

Carisi seems to really appreciate that scrap of personal information. That meaningless snapshot of a relationship that lasted all of two months and ended almost twenty years ago.

Learning that tiny detail, it’s enough to make Carisi happy.

It’s adorable.

But it’s not just Carisi.

It’s Fin too. He’s smirk-

“To get laid.”

Fin is smirking.

“You watched Armageddon to get laid. Admit it, Barba. Sustain a relationship, my ass.”

Rafael doesn’t admit it, but he doesn’t deny it, either.  

He wouldn’t disavow the opera for just anyone. That particular ex was gorgeous.

Fin raises his glass, and Rafael takes that as an invitation to down the rest of his bourbon.

Rollins finally perks up, too.

“Speakin’ of dreck, a guy once told me his favorite movie was A League of Their Own. We were at a sports bar, watching the Yankees, and I guess he assumed I’d be into that? Or that was his ice breaker? Who the hell knows.

“I played along, like you said, Barba, ‘cause he was pretty hot. I said I liked the movie too, except after about five minutes it turned out he’d never even seen it. I mentioned Rosie O’Donnell and he looked at me like I grew two heads.”

Barba knows the feelin-

“I love that movie!”

Carisi.

Who else.

Everyone rolls their eyes in unison, with Rollins going even further and sighing audibly.

“Pull the other one, Carisi.”

Carisi laughs, but his smile feels real.

He’s not lying.

Rafael can tell.

“I’m serious, Rollins! It’s Geena’s favorite movie! My sister Geena, that’s my middle sister, counselor. Anyway, she used to make us watch that movie all the time when we were kids. I think it’s ‘cause she loved Geena Davis, ‘cause they shared a name, spelling and all. Bella hated it, but me and Theresa loved it. Theresa’s my oldest sister.  We still watch it when we’re home for Christmas. It’s not dreck. I mean, it’s girls playin’ baseball and bein’ awesome. What’s not to love?”

Going by the grimace on Amanda’s face, a lot.

Rafael barely notices.

He’s currently experiencing something close to happiness, because he just learned something about the real Carisi, too.

Not that Carisi is much of a mystery.

Carisi opens up all the time. He talks about his sisters, and his mother, and all his favorite diners, in order of preference, and the Mets, and what he cooked for dinner last night. Rafael usually finds it tedious.

Usually.

The thing is, usually Carisi doesn’t open up over drinks, with his calf gently resting against Rafael’s.

That certainly enhances the experience.

Fin orders another round, with an explicit warning it’ll be the last one.

Rollins nods enthusiastically. She’s been saying she should get home to her kid, all night, but she looks happy Fin took one for the team and made it official. Rafael thinks she didn’t want to sound like a buzzkill. Or maybe she was enjoying herself too much, and she didn’t have the heart to break this up.

Rafael can relate.

They don’t get to do this a lot.

Rafael certainly doesn’t.

The difference is, Rafael doesn’t have anyone to go home to, so he’s considerably less excited by the fact their outing has almost come to an end.

Their drinks arrive, and Fin takes a sip of his scotch.

For some reason, drunkenness, perhaps, they’re all looking at him in silence.

They’re all waiting for Fin to say something.

To make these last few minutes count.

Usually, it’s Carisi who chips in with a random non-sequitur, but the alcohol seems to have made him a little lethargic. He’s leaning all the way back, and his thigh is pressed completely against Rafael’s, like he can’t be bothered to sit up straight and close his legs. Every time he reaches for a drink, his elbow grazes Rafael’s arm.  

It feels g-

“I got it.”

Fin looks proud of himself.

“Okay, Barba, you say you never lied. And, you know what, I believe you. But tell me this. You ever fall for a lie?”

Rollins oohs.

Carisi doesn’t, which is curious.

Carisi is just smiling sweetly again.

It’s almost like he’s showing sympathy for Rafael’s potential heartbreak, before he’s even heard about it.

Which is perfectly in character.

Perfectly Carisi.

Rafael doesn’t want to leave him hanging.

“One time, a classmate at Harvard told me she used to be a professional ballet dancer. She knew about my hobbies, so she tried to win me over by appealing to one of my great loves.”

Carisi’s smile gets even sweeter, if that’s even possible.

Rollins and Fin are smirking.

They all look happy Rafael is sharing.

Opening up.

Rafael almost hates what he’s about to do next.

“I didn’t fall for it, of course. I suspected she was inflating her experience, so I took her to a performance of The Sleeping Beauty and made a few inaccurate observations to see her reaction. She didn’t even flinch. A real dancer would have corrected me immediately. I’m not easy to fool, Fin. In case that wasn’t clear.”

That sets off a chorus of, “Aw, come on!” initiated by Rollins and amplified by a laughing Carisi.

Fin simply chuckles, because he probably called it, and Rafael thinks they should hang out more often. It’s fun to be around an equal.

“I feel you, Barba. I got a story just like that. Once, a girl told me she was a backup dancer for Beyoncé. Which, I don’t know. Maybe she was. She sure looked the part, if you know what I’m sayin’.”

Carisi snorts as Rollins punches Fin in the arm.

“Real classy, Fin. Whatever. You guys are proving my theory. The lies women tell are always innocent. Men are the worst offenders. You should hear some of the crap guys tried to tell me when I first moved out here from Georgia. The accent and the blonde hair were like a homing beacon for douchebags.

“One time, a fight broke out at a bar I was in, and a guy tried to tell me he could protect me, ‘cause he was a cop. And, let me tell ya, I know cops, and he was not a cop.”

Rafael can only imagine how that went d-

“And what’d ya do?”

Fin looks more excited than he has all night.

Amanda smirks.

“I flashed my badge and told him it’s a felony to impersonate a police officer.”

Fin laughs.

So does Carisi.

Rafael can feel him laughing.

Rafael can feel the warmth from Carisi’s side, permeat-

“I’m serious, though. When it comes to lies, men are on another level. You guys don’t even know.”

Well, that’s not exactly true.

Not for Rafael, at least.

Not for Carisi, either, if Rafael’s suspicions are correct.

Rafael has resisted opening up too much, but they’re about six drinks in, and Carisi’s hip is warm and solid next to his, and Rollins and Fin are smiling, and Rafael feels welcome.

“Actually, Rollins. I do know. One time, a guy told me he was an art dealer working with a big gallery. He kept inviting me to exclusive events and feeding me sound bites about the pieces. I couldn’t be sure, because I’m not particularly well-versed in modern art, but I thought he sounded knowledgeable.

“It was three months before I discovered the guy was actually the brother of the real art dealer. He was just going through his brother’s reject pile, grabbing all the invitations and taking me to the crappiest exhibitions only. I mean, it was modern art, so I’m sure I didn’t miss much, but still. That put a dent in my ego for a good few weeks.”

Rollins is smirking knowingly.

Fin, too.

Like peas in a pod.

Rafael is almost afraid to see Carisi’s reaction.

At best, it’ll be subtle excitement, maybe in the form of flushed cheeks or a soft smile.

Hope, maybe.

In the form of bright eyes.

At best.

At worst, it’ll be a pat on the back and a supportive platitude.

Rafael would not take that well.

Not six drinks in.

Slowly, Rafael turns his head.

Carisi is staring.

He’s not smiling.

He looks kind of surprised.

Pleasantly, or maybe Rafael is projecting.

His mouth is open, and his cheeks are pink, and his eyes look…

Carisi’s eyes do look bright.

They get brighter, the more Rafael looks.

They get more hopeful.

Carisi cracks a smile, too.

A soft smile.

Six drinks in, and Rafael is dangerously close to forgetting they’re not alone.

Thankfully, Rollins interjects just in time.

“Well, my stories aren’t as hoity-toity as yours, Barba, but got an art-related one, too. One time, a girl told me she was a songwriter. Country music, obviously. She said she was visiting from Nashville, and she was tryin’ to convince me she co-wrote Jesus Take the Wheel. She thought I’d like that, ‘cause I’m from Georgia, see? I hate that damn song.”

Oh.

It’s Rafael’s turn to look pleasantly surprised.

Fin and Carisi, on the other hand, they look perfectly nonchalant.

They already knew, and now so does Rafael.

Just like that, he feels included again.

Welcome.

Sometimes it can be good to open up.

Sometimes, people open up to you in return.

Rafael had forgotten how nice that feels.

How fun it can b-

“Hey, Carisi, you haven’t said a word in ten minutes. How ‘bout it? You ever fall for any lies?”

Fin.

He’s either trying to get Carisi to rejoin the conversation, or he’s making fun of Carisi for remaining speechless ever since Rafael’s revelation.

Carisi grins, all dimples, all angles and soft skin and blue eyes, and Rafael can only imagine all the lies people have told to get him in bed.

“Nah. Not that I know of. Probably ‘cause I’m the one who’s usually doin’ the chasing.”

“Well ain’t that cute.”

Rollins is laughing, she’s joking, but for Rafael this isn’t a joke.

That is cute.

Of course Carisi does the chasing.

Like a puppy with a bone.

No pun intended.

That’s ver-

“Don’t listen to her, Carisi. Good for you. You’re old school.”

Fin nods in approval, and Carisi preens.

That’s cute, too.

Carisi licks his lips and Rafael forgets what he was thinking ab-

“Speakin’ of chasing, one time, I told a guy my cousin played second base for the Mets.”

Rafael smiles.

Carisi doesn’t waste time.

Carisi is doing the chasing, right now, with a goofy smile and a few very unsubtle glances.

“I just picked an Italian player randomly. We had different last names, obviously, so I said he was my cousin on my mother’s side. It worked, too. Me and that guy dated for, like, six months.”

Rollins smiles proudly.

Supportively.

Rafael finds that lovely.

Until Rollins suddenly appears to remember she’s supposed to be appalled by these blatant, insensitive lies.

“Seriously, Carisi? Why am I not surprised?”

Carisi cracks up.

“No, wait, wait. In my defense, I was sixteen. I was still in high school. And I don’t even know if the other kid really believed me. He kept askin’ me for Mets tickets, but I always had an excuse, and then he stopped asking but kept datin’ me anyway.”

Rafael is sure Carisi has many stories like that.

People dating him ‘anyway.’

Carisi has a way of getting under people’s skin.

Under Rafael’s skin.

Carisi has burrowed his way in, little by little, he’s burrowed his way under Rafael’s skin, he’s burrowed his way into Rafael’s heart, too, and Rafael is really regretting that seventh drink.

Rafael imagines Carisi at sixteen, tall and skinny and adorable and blabbing on excitedly about the Mets, and he thinks Carisi hasn’t changed that much.

Rafael remembers what he was like at sixteen, still in the closet but looking, yearning, and he thinks he would have fallen for that lie, no questions asked. He wouldn’t have even asked for any baseball tickets.

Fin said it.

The lie doesn’t matter.

Not always.

Rollins doesn’t seem to agree.

“Whatever. It’s like I said. Men. The worst.”

Fin laughs and reaches for his leather jacket.

“That’s my cue. Come on, Amanda. Let’s share a cab.”

It does not escape Rafael that Fin doesn’t extend that invitation to him or Carisi.

Or that Rollins doesn’t even bother asking them if they’re staying a little longer.

It’s understood.

Rafael appreciates it.

Just when he’s about to absentmindedly bid Fin and Rollins goodnight, and maybe try to shuffle a little closer to Carisi in the process, Carisi actually moves away.

“Hey, Fin, take lots of pictures of the baby, okay?”

Rafael is confused.

Wh-

“I’m meeting my son and his husband tomorrow, they’re bringing over their baby for his first visit. My grandson. I gotta be up early, get the place ready.”

Oh.

Rafael appreciates that, too.

The explanation.

The update.

He feels included again, and welcome, like he hasn’t in a while.

“That sounds great, detective. Get some rest, though. Men our age, we need a full night’s sleep.”

Fin grins and gives his patented nod.

Rafael never knew Fin had dimples.

They should definitely hang out more often.

Rollins and Carisi exchange a wordless goodbye, even though they say plenty with their eyes, and all of a sudden the booth is half empty.

It still feels pretty full.

They’re alone now.

Rafael no longer has to restrain himself.

Not much, anyway, because this is still a cop bar.

Carisi takes one last swig of his beer, setting down the bottle with a clank.

He looks a little uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s because they’re alone.

Which is extremely disappointing, especially seven drinks in.

Rafael was really hoping for a drunken kiss goodnight, at the very least, but it appears Carisi may not be ready for th-

“Thanks for not telling them more about my interview.”

Oh.

That explains it.

Carisi looks uncomfortable because of that job interview. Because, for some reason, that’s a sore subject for him.

Rafael can’t imagine why that is.

“Carisi, is there a reason you didn’t want Fin and Rollins to know that your interview went great? La Rossa told me the job is yours if you want it.”

Carisi winces.

“That’s the problem. I don’t know if I want it.”

Of course.

“Is that why you didn’t tell Liv, either?”

Carisi starts fiddling with the label on his beer bottle.

He won’t make eye contact.

“Yeah. She’s my commanding officer. She needs my full support. Especially… ‘Specially right now. Fin’s gonna be the new Sergeant, and me an’ Rollins are all she has. I know I should’ve told her, but I… I couldn’t face her, I guess. And tell her I was maybe considering takin’ another job. That’s not… I figured I’d wait until after the interview, just to have somethin’ solid to tell her.”

Rafael nods.

He gets an urge to rub Carisi’s forearm in support.

For once, Carisi’s sleeves aren’t rolled up.

Rafael misses the sight of Carisi’s skin.

“According to Fin, you got, and I quote, ‘busted.’ Which means you still didn’t tell Liv, not even after the interview.”

Carisi sighs.

He’s still trying to tear off that label, piece by piece. It’s distracting. Carisi’s long fingers are distractin-

“Yeah. I don’t know. Part of me was hopin’ I’d tank the interview, and then I’d have nothin’ to say. And another part of me was hopin’ I’d nail it, ‘cause I worked really hard for this.”

Rafael didn’t realize Carisi was so conflicted.

“You’ve worked very hard to become a detective, too.”

Carisi looks up, stunned.

Like that thought had never occurred to him.

Like that thought might help him.

Rafael reaches for Carisi’s forearm, anyway.

Fabric is much less intimate than skin, but Rafael hopes his touch will still convey some support, even through that barrier.

If Rafael had known this was going to cause Carisi such anguish, he never would have offered to set up that interview. He was only trying to help. He knew Carisi was restless, after Dodds, he knew Carisi was sad, and he felt like helping.

More often than not, Rafael manages to make people miserable, even when he’s not actively trying to hurt them.

He hates to think he did the same to Carisi.

“Just because the Police Academy didn’t involve term papers and tight deadlines and thousands of dollars and debilitating anxiety, it doesn’t mean you didn’t work just as hard to get through it. And then you made detective. You advanced. Again, through your hard work. Don’t discount that.”

Carisi looks mesmerized.

Rafael doesn’t know if it’s his poor attempt at a pep talk, or his roaming fingers, slowly caressing Caris-

“You’re right. Of course. You’re right, counselor. I just… Sometimes I feel all this hard work to graduate law school, and pass the bar exam, it’s gotta mean something. All the trouble I went through. It’s gotta mean I want this, right? It means I wanna be a prosecutor. Right? Or else I wouldn’t have done it. Any of it. I don’t want all my hard work to go to waste.”

Rafael shakes his head.

Carisi is going about this all wrong.

“You’re going about this all wrong, Carisi. First of all, don’t look at it as wasting your hard work. That’s never a waste. You’ve learned a lot, which I loathe to admit, and you earned both a degree and a license to practice law. You didn’t waste anything.

“And don’t try to find some greater meaning. Don’t try to psychoanalyze yourself, tempting as that may be for an armchair psychologist like you. Don’t ask, ‘does this mean I want to be a prosecutor?’ Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be a prosecutor?’

Carisi blinks.

For several seconds.

“I don’t know what I want.”

Rafael keeps rubbing circles on Carisi’s forearm.

“This won’t be your only opportunity to become a prosecutor, Carisi. There’ll be other positions. You’re still infuriatingly young. With a few more years of experience as a detective, you’d be an even more attractive candidate. You don’t have to decide now. You’ve had a rough year. We all have. Give yourself a break.”

Carisi smiles.

Brightly.

Like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.

Rafael truly appreciates the meaning of that clichéd phrase, for the first time.

Rafael smiles too, like it’s contagious.

Either that, or he’s just stupidly happy because he put a smile on Carisi’s formerly forlorn face.

“That’s great advice, Barba. You’re a really good mentor.”

Rafael raises an eyebrow and stops fondling Carisi’s arm.

Reluctantly.

“I’m a shitty mentor.”

Carisi laughs.

Happily.

He turns his body around, leaning in even more.

Closer.

His knee brushes against Rafael’s thigh and stays there.

There’s no more awkwardness.

That’s promising.

They’re alone.

That’s even more promising.

Carisi is no longer miserable.

Carisi is smiling, and staring, and flirting, maybe, flirting definitely, and Rafael thinks it’s th-

“Um, counselor, I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my grandfather on my dad’s side, he still lives in Italy. Rome. He’s a renowned tailor. He makes bespoke suits. Best ones you ever saw. When I was a kid, I used to spend all my summers with him. He taught me everything he knows.”

Chasing.

Carisi is chasing him again.

Rafael smirks.

He’s trying to figure out where the truth ends and the lie begins.

He thinks it’s somewhere around ‘Rome.’

“I sincerely doubt that, Carisi. Not with your fashion sense.”

Carisi grins.

“What, this? This is a cover. I’m a cop. I can’t look too good. It’ll be suspicious. I gotta keep a low profile. But I know tons about fashion. And suits. And… and tailoring.”

Rafael chuckles.

Seven drinks in.

What the hell.

“What are you saying, Carisi? You want to take my measurements?”

Carisi lets out a snort before getting his wide, expressive face under control.

“What if I do?”

Rafael wonders if it’s really a chase when you want to get caught.

“I wouldn’t trust you anywhere near me with a sewing needle. That’s what.”

Carisi is still grinning.

Carisi doesn’t need to lie to get laid.

Especially not tonight.

He’s grinning like he knows that.

“You’re missin’ out, Barba, I’m telling you. I’ve got a real steady hand.”

Rafael does not doubt that for a second.

He just doubts everything else in Carisi’s story.

Still.

The lie doesn’t matter.

Carisi doesn’t need to say it.

Rafael doesn’t need to fall for it.

Not tonight.

He already has.

Even when you don’t fall for the lie, you can still fall for the person.

Rafael fell for Carisi a long time ago.

Carisi is grinning like he knows that too.

Carisi keeps grinning, as he gets up to settle the tab.

Rafael puts on his coat.

He won’t sleep well tonight.

He won’t sleep at all, if Carisi is lucky.

Rafael will be free of burden.

Chapter Text

Sonny tries to start the car.

He can’t.

His hand is shaking.

Still.

It’s still daylight.

He’s still alive.

He’s alone.

Still.

Outside that house.

The others all left.

Liv mumbled something about needing to talk to Tucker, and then she took off. Sonny thinks that’s where this whole ‘next chapter’ business came from. Someone else had to have planted that idea into Liv’s head. Odds are, it was Tucker, and now he’s probably about to get an earful about the job, and how Liv still needs to work, how she needs to be out in the field, saving people, and Tucker can take it or leave it.

Sonny is glad Liv decided not to retire.

He’s glad Liv was out there with him.

Liv saved his life.

If she had retired, maybe a few days ago, or a week, Sonny could have been dead.

He’s still alive.

He can tell, because his arm is smarting from where Amanda clapped him, hard. The harder, the better. That’s how she chose to communicate just how happy she was to see him safe. She didn’t say much. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look happy, but Sonny could see it, anyway.

No one looks happy.

None of them.

Not anymore.

Amanda looked miserable, but she stood by his side. For several minutes. Amanda stood with him, quiet, watching as he kept trying to wipe off some of that blood. When Sonny was mostly done, she nodded, and then she ran to her car.

Sonny knows she was thinking about Dodds, the whole time.

Dodds and Jesse.

Dodds, being gone, and Jesse, still waiting for her at home.

Sonny gets it. He wishes he had a little one waiting at home, too.

Or anyone.

He’s alone.

Fin stayed the longest. Fin stuck around for Sonny’s statement, and then he waited until the body was removed from the scene. Until the crowd had cleared. Until Quinn had left with a police escort. Until everybody was gone.

Except Sonny.

Sonny couldn’t move.

Not at first.

He can barely move now.

Fin waited for him.

Sonny didn’t trust himself to drive, not so soon after the shooting, but he understood when Fin didn’t offer him a ride. Ken is supposed to be bringing over Fin’s little granddaughter later, for a visit, and Fin spent all morning talking about it, and Sonny gets it.

Sonny told Fin to go.

He told Fin he’d handle the paperwork, he’d brief Barba, he’d wrap everything up at the precinct.

Sonny told Fin not to worry.

Sonny told Fin everything was okay.

Fin didn’t buy it, but he did leave.

Sonny has been sitting in his car, ever since then.

Alone.

Alive.

He keeps trying to put the key in the ignition.

Three times, he’s tried.

His hand keeps shaking.

Every time.

It’s been an hour.

An hour since everyone left, and three hours since the shooting.

Sonny is still waiting for the shaking to stop.

For his knee to stop twitching.

Sonny is still waiting.

He has an urge to call his mother, but he won’t do it. This isn’t the sort of thing you say over the phone. He’ll tell her over Sunday dinner, or maybe later, maybe after they’ve done the dishes, and his sisters have left, and his mother is too full and too tired to have a real reaction to the fact he almost died.

Sonny wants to hear his mother’s voice, but he won’t be able to lie to her when she asks if he’s okay, so he won’t call.

His knee won’t stay still.

Sonny’s hand is clenching around his car keys.

They’re digging into his skin.

Sonny tries to breathe.

It’s not easy.

Sonny keeps thinking about Dodds.

How could he not?

It hasn’t even been six months.

Gone.

Just like that.

Just like Sonny.

Almost.

There’s no next chapter for Dodds. No retirement. There’s no other life. No happiness. If Liv had been one second too late, Sonny would have joined him.

Sonny knows it’s weird, but he feels happier for Liv than he does for himself. He feels relief, not because he survived, but for her.

Sonny lived, which means Liv didn’t lose another member of the squad, another member of the family, not on her watch, and she’s staying, and the team is intact, the hobbled, broken team didn’t lose another one of its pieces, because Sonny is alive, because Liv saved him, and Dodds is still gone, and there’s still blood in Sonny’s hair.

And his hand keeps shaking.

Sonny is thinking about Amaro, too. Amaro did get to retire, though not by choice. Not after the long and distinguished career he should have had. Not when he was old and gray, and fulfilled, and ready.

It was sudden.

Violent.

Painful.

Amaro was a great cop.

He deserved better.

But he got hurt, and he was forced to retire, and Sonny hasn’t heard from him in a year, and if that’s how things ended for him, what can Sonny expect?

It wasn’t even the injury that did it. Sonny thinks Amaro’s spirit was broken long before his body.

Pain.

Sonny always associated Amaro with pain. The job gave him more pain, maybe, just like Liv said. It made Amaro more of who he already was.

More pain.

Sonny wonders what that means for him.

Sonny will become more… what?

Sonny already feels less.

He used to be happy, he used to laugh, he used to joke around.

There’s less of that now.

Sonny is becoming less of himself.

Still.

Liv can’t be wrong.

Sonny feels more confident, more experienced, Sonny feels stronger, even though all the filth he sees should be making him weaker by the day.

Liv is right.

There’s a trade-off.

You lose something, but you don’t lose it all.

Some of it you earn back, maybe.

In the end, you’re left with more.

More of yourself.

In the end.

Sonny is nowhere near the end. He’s barely even started. That’s probably why he feels like he’s faltering. Like he’s losing. It’s only temporary.

In the final tally, he’ll have more.

Sonny has decades to go, decades of being a cop, like Liv said, and he trusts Liv, because Liv saved him, and he knows that in twenty years he’ll be standing tall, like she is.

Sonny tries to start the car again.

This time, his hand is steady.

Sonny starts driving.

Slowly.

He can never be too careful. He knows how life works. He doesn’t want to die in a freak car accident, just hours after he escaped certain death. He wouldn’t want to do that to Liv, or his mother. To the others. The squad needs all its pieces.

By the time Sonny arrives at the precinct, the sun has set.

When he gets out of the car, the cold hits him hard, and he gasps.

And gasps again.

The sound of his own breath makes him feel ill.

Sonny shudders, and his knees lock, just for a second, before he gets himself under control.

He makes his way in.

Slowly.

He has no intention of filing the paperwork.

His hand, his right hand, it already feels a little shaky again.

He doesn’t think he can hold a pen.

He doesn’t feel like turning on his computer.

Sonny will deal with all of that tomorrow.

Tonight, he’ll just talk to Barba.

It’s the only thing he feels like doing.

The only thing that might help.

Sonny just hopes Barb…

Barba is already there.

In Liv’s office.

Good.

Sonny can see him from across the station, lounging on the couch, phone in hand.

Like it’s any other day.

Like Sonny didn’t almost die.

Barba doesn’t know that, of course.

He doesn’t need to know.

It’ll be easier that way.

It’s already easier.

The sight of him steadies Sonny’s breathing.

Sonny takes off his coat and tosses it on his desk. It messes up a pile of case files, pens start flying, some pieces of paper land on the floor, but it doesn’t matter.

Sonny will deal with all of that tomorrow.

He knocks, even though the door to Liv’s office is already open.

Barba looks up and immediately puts away his phone, like he wants to give Sonny his undivided attention.

He doesn’t actually stand up, of course. That could be misconstrued as desperate.

Or polite.

Sonny is smiling already.

“Hey, counselor. Here to talk to Tom Cole? Sorry, you just missed him.”

Barba looks confused for a second, until Sonny’s macabre ‘joke’ registers.

Sonny never used to joke about death before.

He’s losing that feeling of reverence.

He’s getting used to it.

Death.

Sonny feels ill again, but then Barba rolls his eyes, and Sonny’s shoulders relax.

“Right. I suppose I’ll find him in the morgue, if I have any questions. Because capturing him alive wasn’t an option, apparently.”

It wasn’t.

“Come on, counselor. We saved you the trouble. Justice delivered. No trial necessary.”

Barba narrows his eyes.

“Who are you, and what have you done with Carisi?”

Sonny swallows.

Barba is the second person to ask him that today.

He doesn’t know what that means.

“Seriously, Carisi. Justice delivered? By way of a bullet to the head? You’re a lawyer. You’re better than that.”

Sonny tries to smile again. He’s pretty sure that’s supposed to be a compliment.

“Oh? Are lawyers better than cops? Is that what you’re sayin’, Barba?”

Barba scoffs.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

This time, Sonny smiles without effort.

“Well, I d-”

“And no one gets justice when the guilty die. That’s not justice.”

Barba is right.

In some ways.

Sonny wants to say, ‘It may not be justice, but at least it’s closure for the victims,’ or, ‘Liv wasn’t trying to get justice, she was trying to save my life,’ but he doesn’t.

Barba doesn’t need to know.

Sonny just nods mutely.

Barba sits up.

Shifts forward.

It’s like he wants to take a closer look at Sonny.

It’s unnerving.

Sonny tries not to flinch. Not to look away. That would b-

“Isn’t that the whole reason you wanted to become a prosecutor? Because shooting criminals isn’t good enough? Because you believe in due process? Because, for some ridiculous reason, you think prison, and therapy, and singing Kumbaya, can actually help these people?”

Sonny can vaguely recall how he used to want to change the world.

He’s surprised Barba remembers his idealistic ramblings.

He shrugs.

“I guess.”

“You guess? Has this job changed you that much, Carisi?”

Sonny wants to say, ‘Yes,’ but he doesn’t.

This isn’t working.

Sonny wanted to see Barba for some comfort. He wanted to make a joke or two, to flirt a little, to relax. He wanted to pretend nothing bad happened today.

This conversation is having the opposite effect.

Sonny is getting more anxious.

He’s tired of talking about change.

He’s tired of changing.

“Kinda comes with the territory.”

Barba hums.

He’s frowning.

The lines on his forehead are very deep.

“Not for you. You could have listened to me and followed up with La Rossa. Now they filled the ADA spot in Brooklyn, and you’re stuck here.”

Stuck.

Sonny does feel stuck.

Which is weird, because he never wanted to leave in the first place. He only went to that interview for Barba’s sake. Because Barba bothered to call in a favor. He was relieved to hear someone else got the job.

Sonny has always wanted to stay.

“You think I’d be better off as a prosecutor? How do you figure? Wouldn’t that change me too? Haven’t you changed, Barba?”

Barba looks startled by the question.

“I… Yes, I have. I’m told I grew a heart. If you think I’m an asshole now, you should have met me ten years ago.”

Sonny grins.

That thought makes him happy.

More heart.

That’s what Barba is, to him.

Heart.

Barba became more of who he already was.

Maybe there’s hope for Sonny, t-

“What’s wrong, Carisi?”

Sonny flinches, after all.

Barba stands up.

All his stuff is scattered on Liv’s couch. His coat is barely folded. His phone is on the edge of the armrest, about to fall. His briefcase is hanging open. There’s a folder, crudely stuffed with documents, with a picture of Tom Cole sticking out.

Cole is in uniform.

Sonny flinches again.

Barba is looking up at him.

Radiating concern.

On any other day, Sonny would be flattered that Barba cares enough to ask.

Today, Sonny takes a breath.

A short, shallow one.

Taking too deep a breath might make him nauseous.

“Nothing’s wron-”

“I don’t have time for this, Carisi. Spit it out. What happened?”

Sonny is tired.

He doesn’t want to talk about it.

This isn’t working.

“Look, it’s been a long day. And, uh. What you said, about the job, changing me. Changin’ all of us. Liv said it too. We… We had a pretty heavy conversation about it, and then she told me she was thinkin’ about retirement. I mean, she said she was gonna stay, b-”

“I could have told you that, Carisi. Liv would never take early retirement. There’s still fight in her. I’ve seen burnout, on this job. Many times. I know what it looks like, when a cop has had enough. I don’t see that in Liv.”

Barba sounds so confident.

Just like Liv did.

It’s reassuring.

“Yeah, well, that’s my point. I was kinda surprised to hear her talk about leaving, you know? I wasn’t expecting it. It was m-”

Barba’s low chuckle distracts Sonny.

He looks oddly relieved.

“That’s it? That’s why you’ve been moping? You’re worried you’re going to lose your role model?”

That’s not it, but Sonny is tired, and it’ll do.

“Nah. I still got you, don’t I?”

Barba’s pleased little smirk is just what the doctor ordered. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s still enough to make Sonny’s day.

“You do. For now.”

Sonny really hopes Barba is attempting some sort of bad joke.

“What do you mean for now?”

Barba hesitates.

Sonny doesn’t like this.

“Listen, Carisi, I hate to tell you this today, of all days, but, I… Actually, maybe this is a good time to tell you. Liv is staying, after all. If you have her, you probably won’t even notice I’m gone.”

Sonny feels his breath hitch.

Again.

He hopes Barba can’t hear him hyperventilating.

“What… You, uh… You goin’ somewhere, counselor?”

Barba shifts his weight, from one foot to the other.

“I’ve been asked to teach a class at Hudson, next semester. Criminal law. Ethics, actually. Something on the professional responsibility of prosecutors.”

Oh.

Hudson.

That doesn’t sound so bad.

Next semester does start in less than a month, but Hudson is practically next door.

Sonny feels like an idiot for overreacting.

It’s been a long day.

“So, what, you’re gonna request a lighter case load? You’re gonna put aside your ego and let another ADA work some of our cases? Wow. Alright. Just so you know, Barba, it won’t be the same without ya.”

There it is again.

Barba’s self-satisfied smirk. He loves it when Sonny flatters him. In those moments, it’s like he forgets to pretend he doesn’t care.

That’s why Sonny tr-

“Actually, I’m thinking about requesting a leave of absence. Unpaid. Indefinite.”

Oh.

Sonny feels like another bullet went off.

There’s no blood this time. No sound.

This time, Sonny feels like the bullet went through him. Like there’s a hole in his chest.

At least there’s no blood.

No cleanup.

Sonny hasn’t felt clean in a long time.

“Indefinite? We really that bad, Barba? You wanna leave us and never look back?”

Barba smiles warmly. Sweetly, almost.

Like he wants to say, ‘Yes,’ and he’s trying to soften the blow.

“It’s not you I want to leave behind.”

Sonny knows that ‘you’ is in plural, but for a moment he enjoys pretending Barba is only talking about him.

“I would like to leave the death threats behind, though. And the security detail. And the neverending, soul-wrenching stress.”

Of course.

This has been a difficult year, for all of them. Barba doesn’t even have the rest of the squad to lean on. The detectives are a team. When one of them is feeling off, which has been happening a lot lately, the others are there to pick up the slack. To lend a shoulder.

Barba doesn’t have that. Barba is alone. That’s why Sonny always tries to be there for him.

It’s probably not enough.

Sonny gets it.

Of course Barba would want to leav-

“Ideally, I would also like to curtail my alcohol consumption, and my migraines, and my chances of getting an ulcer, but we can’t always get what we want.”

Sonny chuckles.

He’s surprised to realize his breathing is back to normal.

That hole in his chest isn’t there anymore.

Sonny will miss Barba, but it’s hard to be upset when he knows this will be for the best.

That’s all Sonny wants, anyway.

What’s best for Barba.

“Wait, counselor, let me get this straight. You wanna stop gettin’ death threats, so you’re gonna teach a college class? What do you think’s gonna happen when you grade their midterms?”

Barba laughs.

Sonny is really going to miss him.

“Seriously though, that’s… That would be a good fit for you. Hudson would be lucky to have you.”

Barba looks taken aback, almost like he wasn’t expecting the compliment. Which would be ridiculous, because he’s talking to Sonny, his own personal sycophant.

Sonny was really looking forward to another little smirk.

All he gets from Barba is a confused frown.  

Sonny decides to try for another joke. Maybe that’ll get him a raised eyebrow, or a sarcastic sneer at the very least.

“Just promise me one thing, okay, Barba? You won’t treat your students like you treated me.”

Barba does raise an eyebrow, and Sonny thinks he’s really going to miss that, too.

“They should be so lucky, Carisi. It worked for you, didn’t it? I seem to recall you thanking me profusely, for my tireless support, after you took the bar exam. You said my guidance was invaluable. You said I taught you everything you know, and you couldn’t have done it without me, your generous mentor. I believe the word ‘admire’ was also used.”

Sonny snorts.

He remembers that conversation very well, and Barba’s recollection doesn’t exactly match up with his own, but he w-

“Also, you were never my student.”

No.

Not technically, but Sonny didn’t let that stop him.

He knows he should probably let this drop, but there’s no point in hiding anymore. Not when Barba is leaving.

Pretty soon, they won’t be colleagues.

They won’t be friends, either. They never were.

Soon they won’t be anything, so Sonny figures he can be a little more honest.

“I felt like I was. I felt like you were grading my performance, on every case. Like I always had to impress you. You know that, right? How I wanted to be the teacher’s pet?”

Barba’s expression is hard to read.

Wanted? Past tense?”

Busted.

That’s what Sonny gets for being honest.

“I mean, I kinda gave up, after a while. Lost cause, and all.”

Barba takes a step closer.

It’s not nearly close enough, but that’s probably for the best.

“Is that why you stopped trying to impress me? I thought it was because you knew you succeeded.”

“Wh-”

“I thought it was obvious, Carisi, but it appears I need to be more explicit. You’ve come a long way. Consider me impressed.”

Sonny always thought this would be great to hear, but it’s not.

It sounds like a goodbye.

Barba is only saying it because he’s leaving.

It’s easier to be honest now.

Soon they won’t be anything.

“Thank you, counselor. I appreciate it. We got off to a rough start, but at least we’re ending on a high note. That’s all that matters, right?”

Barba doesn’t answer for several seconds.

Sonny thinks mayb-

“I thought you’d tell me to stay.”

Sonny blinks.

“What?”

“I thought you’d at least try to change my mind.”

Oh.

Sonny didn’t know that was an option.

“Can I do that?”

Barba licks his lips.

“You can try. If only for my ego, Carisi. Come on. It’s almost like you don’t care.”

Another smirk.

Of course Sonny cares, and of course Barba knows that.

They just never talk about it.

Not like this.

Now Sonny has to know.

“Would you stay? If I asked?”

Barba takes a deep breath.

Sonny thinks that’s a yes.

He doesn’t know what to do with that information.

If he asks, maybe Barba will stay.

If Sonny asks, selfishly, maybe Barba will stay and keep living under threat.

Keep trudging through the filth they see, day in and day out.

The worst of the worst.

How do you come out of that clean?

Barba is still silent.

He looks a little uncomfortable.

Like honesty was a bad idea.

He can’t even meet Sonny’s eyes anymore.

He’s looking away, looking down, in the general direction of Sonny’s neck, and Sonny doesn’t know what to say to get his attent-

“What’s that?”

Sonny looks down too, at himself, but he can’t see anyth-

“Is that blood?”

Oh.

Right.

“Yeah. It’s not mine. It’s Cole.”

Barba takes one more step.

Closer.

He looks curious.

“How did you manage to get blood drops on your shirt collar, Carisi? Were you being sloppy at the crime scene? I thought I taught you better than that.”

Barba is blatantly trying to change the subject.

He thinks he figured it out.

Where the blood came from.

Sonny doesn’t have the energy to correct him.

Sonny’s hair is still crusty with another man’s blood, because Cole was killed right in front of him, on him, literally on Sonny, and Cole’s blood trickled down Sonny’s shirt, and he can still feel it seeping into his skin, and he’s alone, ‘cause the others all bolted, off to see their families, because that’s what happens, isn’t it? Another person’s near-death experience makes you think of your own mortality, and that of your loved ones, and Sonny can’t even blame them, because he did the same thing.

Sonny went to see Barba.

Except Barba is leaving, and Sonny will spend the next twenty years at SVU, alone, without Barba to brighten his day, Sonny has to look forward to twenty more years of filth, alive and alone, wishing he was neither, wishing he was clean, and Barba is leaving, and Sonny doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Yeah, it was my bad. I must have gotten some blood on my gloves, when we moved the body, and I guess it dripped on my sh-”

“There’s blood on your face. Your… Your jaw. And you ear, too. What…”

Barba steps even closer.

Sonny tries to rub at the spot he must have missed, under his jaw. He saw it earlier, he tried to wipe it all off in the car, but the rag he was using got too red, too bloody, and pretty soon Sonny was trying to clean blood with blood, and it wasn’t working, so he gave up.

Sonny tries again, but Barba tugs at his wrist.

Barba stops him.

Barba turns Sonny’s head by the jaw, until all the spots, all the bloody spots Sonny must have missed, until they’re all on display.

Sonny can feel Barba’s eyes on him, Barba’s fingers on him, on his face, fingertips touching Cole’s blood, and he wants to recoil, because Sonny may not be clean but there’s no need to make Barba dirty, too.

Barba doesn’t seem to mind getting his hands dirty. He starts rubbing Sonny’s skin, he starts rubbing at the bloodstains with his thumb, and his touch is less gentle and more persistent.

His touch is almost maternal.

Sonny remembers being seven years old, and scraping his knee at the playground, and coming home all scratched up. He remembers his mother licking her thumb and trying to wipe the blood away.

Trying to get him clean.

Barba takes Sonny’s earlobe between his fingers, and it’s such an unexpected and weirdly intimate gesture, and Sonny wants to laugh.

“How did this happen, Carisi? How did you get this blood all over your face?”

Barba starts playing with Sonny’s earlobe, and Sonny doesn’t trust himself to come up with a good lie, not like this, not when they’re standing so close, so he sticks to a sanitized version of the truth.

“I was standing next to Cole, when the Lieu shot him. So some of his blood… So I got some of his blood on me. It’s not a big deal. It happens.”

Barba’s mildly horrified expression suggests otherwise.

“You… This is blood spatter? From the gunshot?”

Sonny nods.

Barba pulls his hand away, but he doesn’t step back.

He looks skeptical.

Like he knows he’s not getting the whole story.

“Wait, if you were standing that close to Cole, why did Liv shoot him? Why would she endanger your safety like that?”

She wouldn’t.

Liv didn’t endanger Sonny. Liv saved him.

She’s the only reason he’s still alive.

Sonny doesn’t want to talk about it, but maybe he has to.

Liv had to.

“She had to shoot him. He had a gun to my head.”

Barba gasps.

Sonny hears it.

It’s a small gasp, and it’s so quick, Barba’s little gasp lasts half a second, but Sonny still hears it, and it sounds so loud from up close.

Sonny thinks his own gasps, his loud, heaving gasps, they must have sounded so damn loud, Liv must have heard them from across the room, Liv heard and she must have known how scared he was, and Sonny hates that, because he should have been stronger, he should have reached for the victim, like Liv did, he should have tried to comfort Quinn instead of falling to his knees, Sonny should hav-

“So you had a gun to your head, and you watched a man die inches away from your face, and you’re still covered in his blood, and somehow you’re the only one still working? Why aren’t the others here at the precinct? Why didn’t they send you home? Why are you here, talking to me? Haven’t you suffered enough for one day?”

Barba’s rambling is genuinely endearing.

His eyes are wide, and it’s clear he’s a little shaken, but he’s trying to be funny, for Sonny’s sake.

He’s trying to act like nothing bad happened.

Sonny appreciates it.

That’s what he wanted.

That’s why he’s here, talking to Barba.

That’s why he told Fin he’d take care of the paperwork, when all he meant was, ‘I feel like shit and I need Barba to brighten my day.’

Even if Barba is leaving, even if they don’t get t-

“That’s it. I’m not going anywhere. I can’t leave when you’re being mistreated like this, Carisi. The others can’t just boss you around. They can’t order you to do their dirty work. Or their paperwork. Someone needs to put them in their place. If you won’t do it, I will.”

Sonny smiles.

He can feel dried blood on his left cheek, tight, tugging at his skin where it’s settled in his smile lines.

Barba is offering.

To stay.

Just like that.

Maybe he was looking for an excuse all along.

Maybe he wanted Sonny to stop him.

To tell him to stay.

Maybe Barba has always wanted to stay, too.

Maybe they have that in common.

That suicidal streak.

It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s not the point. This isn’t about what Barba wants. The point is, Barba is stressed, and alone, and in danger, and Sonny wants him to be okay.

“You should do it, Barba. You should go. Go and, like, impart your wisdom to unsuspecting college kids, who won’t know what hit ‘em. Just… Get away from all this, alright? It’ll be good for you. You deserve it. You deserve a… A better life. Forget about me. I can take care of myself.”

Barba looks touched.

Perhaps too touched to try and argue that Sonny cannot, in fact, take care of hims-

“I doubt that, Carisi.”

Oh.

Not that touched.

But close enough.

Barba is looking at Sonny with a fondness that’s rare.

Sonny is glad he’ll have something nice to remember, after Barba leav-

“What if I need some help?”

Barba looks lively, all of a sudden, and Sonny doesn’t know why.

“What do you mean, counselor?”

“What if I do accept the position, but I need, say, a teaching assistant? Someone to help me organize the classes, or distribute the materials, or remember my students’ names?

“This was a last-minute offer. The professor who normally teaches this class had to take unexpected leave for health reasons, and I’m friends with the Dean of the Law School, so she approached me for a favor. I only have three weeks to familiarize myself with the syllabus. I’m not sure that will be enough. Not without help.”

Sonny doesn’t see the issue.

“I’m sure Hudson has plenty of graduate students who’d jump at the chance to work with y-”

“You have to admit, Carisi, this class is right up your alley. The ethics of prosecution? You’re a practicing Catholic, an NYPD detective and a licensed attorney. Who better to help me? Who’d have more insight? Not to mention, you were a college student until about thirty minutes ago. The logistics should all be familiar to you.”

Sonny grins.

Barba is offering again.

To take Sonny with him.

It’s a painfully lovely thought.

A considerate joke.

A daydream.

“You do have a point there, Barba. You’ll probably need some help adjusting to life on campus. You know, seeing as you were a college student about thirty years ago.”

Barba rolls his eyes.

“First of all, it was barely twenty years ago.”

Sonny can’t help snickering. Barba always hates it when Sonny brings up his age, and it never fails to c-

“Secondly, if you want the job, calling me old is not the way to get it. Incidentally, part of your duties will be to compliment me, even when I’ve done nothing to deserve it. Except this time you’ll be getting paid for it. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Sonny keeps laughing.

Barba isn’t.

Barba sounds nonchalant, but he looks serious.

Like maybe the offer isn’t a joke.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be a daydream.

Sonny takes a moment to consider it.

Leaving.

He’s thought about leaving many times, but under different circumstances. Working as a prosecutor, that’s always been Sonny’s way out. Only reason he hasn’t done it, is because it’s not really a way out. He’d still be mixed in with the filth, he’d still be prosecuting perverts, and murderers, and maybe he’d lose some of his cases, and then he’d have to live with that for the rest of his life.

Being a prosecutor is too much of a responsibility. Sonny doesn’t know how Barba does it. Being a cop, getting to bust the perps, to slap the cuffs on them, to throw them in a jail cell, that’s easier. It feels better.

Instant gratification.

Instant justice.

Temporary justice.

Let the courts decide their fate. Let Sonny be absolved of responsibility.

Absolved of guilt.

That’s why Sonny wants to stay.

Why he thinks Barba should leave.

There’s only so much guilt a person can carry.

Barba has been carrying a lot of guilt, all by himself. Sometimes he lets Sonny lighten his load, with a conversation, or a shared drink, or a touch, but Sonny doesn’t think that’s enough.

Maybe it is.

Maybe that’s why Barba is offering to take Sonny with him.

Maybe it’s not a joke, and Sonny has a real way out.

An escape.

Working at Hudson. Enrolling, maybe. Sonny has always wanted to get a master’s degree, but it never felt attainable. Not with the tuition, not with the time it would take, not with the job.

Maybe Sonny can do that now. Become Barba’s student for real.

Maybe Sonny can focus on one thing, for once. Maybe he doesn’t always have to feel like he’s split in half.

What Barba said about burnout, maybe there’s something to it. Maybe Sonny has had enough, and he needs t-

“It’s taking you an awful long time to say yes, Carisi. You better hurry up. What if I meet another cute, young and excitable law student, while I’m at Hudson? Someone else who wants to shadow me at every turn? Someone who’ll bring me pastries to brighten my day? Preferably, someone who doesn’t call me old to my face? What if I find a new pet? You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Sonny thinks he should probably find this offensive.

“I’m not your pet, Barba.”

Plus, Sonny only brought pastries to Barba’s office one time, after Mike’s funeral, because he thought Barba had lost some weight and he wanted t-

“No. But you do brighten my day. Pastries or not.”

Oh.

Sonny wants to say, ‘the feeling is mutual.’

He’s going to say it.

Why not?

Barba is leaving.

Soon they won’t be anything.

Barba is leaving, and he’s smirking, too, and Sonn…

Wait.

Did Barba say ‘another’?

“Did you just say I’m cute?”

Barba lets out a laugh.

It’s a loud, happy laugh, like he’s amused it took Sonny this long to catch on to the compliment, and Sonny wants to hug him.

A hug goodbye, maybe.

It won’t be weird.

Barba is leaving.

Maybe Sonny can go for it.

Maybe Sonny can…

Maybe Sonny can go with him.

Maybe Barba is right. Sonny wouldn’t want him to find a new pet. A new friend. A new whatever Sonny is to him.

Sonny thinks about Hudson, he thinks about college, he thinks about all those young students, those poor souls who’ll have to rely on Barba to get a decent grade. Sonny thinks about all those kids, eager and impressionable, Sonny thinks about them idolizing Barba, and fawning over him, and trying to befriend him.

Sonny thinks about all those know-it-alls, all those irritating future defense attorneys, Sonny thinks about them trying to antagonize Barba, trying to show off for an experienced prosecutor, trying to discredit Barba’s opinions and assert their own.

Sonny thinks about all the lengthy philosophical discussions on ethics, and all the incendiary, empty opinions of those cocky twenty-somethings who want to sound aloof but haven’t faced an ethical dilemma in their entire sheltered lives.

Sonny thinks about himself, doing all of those things when he first met Barba.

Sonny thinks about Barba’s reaction, back then, how Barba treated him, and he realizes that Hudson would be a t-

“Have you made up your mind yet, Carisi? Are you coming with me or not?”

Barba looks hopeful.

Sonny has made up his mind.

“I’m not coming.”

Barba’s face falls, goes from hopeful to dejected in one second flat, and that does something to Sonny’s chest.

“And you’re not going, either. Stop lying to yourself, Barba. You’re not going anywhere. You’d hate every minute of it. You’d be back within a week.”

Barba gapes.

“Excuse me?”

Sonny is happy to elaborate.

“You know I’m right. I mean, you, a college professor? Come on. You hate young people, for starters. And then, you hate it when people ask you questions, you hate it when you have to explain things, you hate it when people are slow to understand your instructions, you hate it when people challenge your authority.

“Think about it, Barba. Hudson would be like having three hundred Carisis, annoying you every day. It’d be your worst nightmare.”

Barba started laughing somewhere around ‘you hate young people,’ and he literally snorted at ‘three hundred Carisis,’ and he’s still laughing, as Sonny closes his argument.

“Well, when you put it that way, Carisi, it does sound like a terrible idea.”

Sonny’s chest instantly feels lighter.

“You’re not ready to retire, are you, counselor? I’m not. We’re not burned out yet. We still got some fight in us, right? Forget about a better life. This is our life. Helping people. Forget about the threats, too. I’ll worry about that. Leave it to me, okay? And… And we can tough it out. We’re not gonna let the job change us. I help you, you help me. We’ll be fine. And we can retire together. In about twenty years. How’s that sound?”

Barba is smiling.

Again.

Warmly.

“It sounds like a plan.”

Sonny smiles, too.

He feels more.

He doesn’t know if that’s what Liv meant.

Sonny feels happier.

That’s who he was.

That’s who Sonny always was.

Happy.

Maybe he can be more of that.

Maybe he c-

“I’d kiss you, Carisi, but you need a shower first. With Purell.”

Sonny’s jaw drops.

There’s blood on his jaw.

He forgot all about it.

He forgot he was dirty.

Barba makes him feel clean.

Barba wants to kiss him.

Barba is smiling.

Still.

Sonny is not alone.

He’s alive.

Chapter Text

Sonny braces himself before he enters Barba’s office.

It’s been a while.

He doesn’t know which Barba he’ll encounter. Worse than that, he doesn’t know which Sonny he’ll be.

Sonny swears there only used to be one of him. One Sonny, for all seasons.

Not anymore.

Now it’s spring, one day, and then it’s winter, and Sonny smiles with the sun and he frowns with the snow, and the snow keeps falling and falling, for days, for weeks, and Sonny forgets to smile, and some days he thinks he’ll be covered by a thin, grimy blanket of snow forever.

Today is a snow day.

Sonny was hoping for spring, this morning Sonny was hoping he’d be able to scare up a smile for Barba, but now he knows that won’t be happening.

Not for a lack of trying.

Sonny does forget to smile, some days, but today he remembered.

Today he tried.

He still couldn’t manage it.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Smiling.

Words will have to do.

“Hey, counselor. Nice to see you back.”

Barba doesn’t raise his head, but he does raise an eyebrow.

“Is it?”

Sonny nods, even though Barba can’t see him.

It’s always best to act casual. To pretend he doesn’t know what Barba’s talking about. Sonny is too transparent for his own good, and sometimes Barba will call him out on it, but most of the time Barba lets it slide.

Especially lately.

Barba has been letting a lot of things slide.

That’s not good.

It’s blurring the boundaries.

Sonny needs someone to push back. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to stop on his own.

Barba has stopped pushing back.

Sonny clears his throat.

“Sure it is. It’s… You’re back where you belong, Barba. We all heard about your suspension. It wasn’t… I mean, whatever it was, witness tampering, whatever the D.A. wants to call it, you didn’t deserve a month without pay. You’re a great A.D.A. Everybody knows it. You should be the one workin’ our cases. You’re part of the squad, same as all of us.”

Barba hums.

He’s still facing away from Sonny, head down, as if he’s actually reading whatever’s in front of him.

As if he’s not ignoring Son-

“Right. Lucky for you, Carisi, the D.A. agrees. That’s why he only suspended me for four weeks. Which I spent relaxing on a friend’s yacht in the Caribbean. A most terrible punishment. I’m so happy to be back in New York, with all the perverts and my dear friends at Manhattan SVU.”

Sonny isn’t sure if Barba means that or not. The sarcasm is obvious, but Sonny doesn’t know what’s hiding behind it.

“Lucky for me? How ‘bout you, Barba? Aren’t you happy?”

Barba smiles, but it’s empty.

“No.”

No.

It’s that simple.

Barba narrowly escaped getting fired, and all he can muster is an empty smile and complete apathy and ‘no’.

Sonny tries not to react.

“You don’t care? You could’ve lost your job.”

Barba takes his time before answering.

“I care, Carisi. I wanted to keep my job. I want to be here. Most of the time. When people aren’t trying to kill me. But does it make me ‘happy,’ whatever that means? No. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Yes, I’m grateful I can continue my work with SVU. No, I am not happy.”

Oh.

That’s understandable.

Sonny hasn’t felt happy in a long time.

Difference is, unlike Barba, he’s not sure he loves his job.

Working Special Victims.

Day in, day out.

How do you come out of that clean?

The longer Sonny stays with SVU, the more he realizes all his superior officers were right, all those years ago, when they warned him to stay with Homicide.

Frankly, Sonny doesn’t know if that would have helped.

It’s not SVU.

It’s being a cop.

That’s what Sonny has a hard time loving.

Being a cop, it changes you for the worse.

Sonny has been changing lately.

Ever since that job interview Barba set up for him.

For that job he didn’t get.

‘Well-rounded applicant,’ ‘extensive background in working with victims,’ ‘excellent criminal law credentials,’ ‘lacks the necessary trial experience.’

That’s what the Brooklyn D.A.’s office said, in their rejection email.

‘Consider private practice for a few years, Carisi, and then you can reapply. You’d make a great Assistant District Attorney. Just not now.’

That’s what La Rossa said, when Sonny called him after getting the news.

Sonny thought he aced that interview.

Not so much, apparently.

He d-

“Enough about my happiness, Carisi. What about the new case? Liv said it involves some sort of group therapy for rapists? Who all claim they carry a ‘rape gene’? And then you wonder why I miss St. Barths.”

Barba’s got him there.

Forget missing St. Barths, Sonny misses Staten Island, sometimes.

That’s how bad it’s gotten.

“No. I mean yeah, we’re working the case. Uh, Nick Brown, the guy we picked up for the rape, he says he can give us the identity of the River Rapist. That’s why I’m here. His lawyer wants to know what kind of deal we can offer.”

Barba sighs, almost in boredom.

Like he’d rather be doing anything else but this.

“What does he mean by identity? Name? Address? I need more than a vague hint, Carisi. You know that.”

Sonny does know that, and he does not appreciate the condescension.

“Just gimme a ballpark offer, Barba. A carrot to dangle in front of his attorney. You know how this works.”

Barba smirks, probably because Sonny tried to out-condescend him.

“Of course. I’ll check with the A.D.A. who is handling the River Rapist case, and I’ll get back to you within the hour. Will that be all?”

Sonny doesn’t know if that’s a polite way of kicking him out, or if Barba is just done talking about the case.

About work, maybe.

About the job, in general.

Barba, with his fresh tan, and his fancy suit, Barba, who’d rather be on a yacht, is tired talking about a job he barely feels like doing. Barba won’t even pick up the phone to call the other A.D.A. He’ll probably make Carmen do it. No rush. It’s not like they’re trying to catch a serial rapist.

Sonny exhales.

It doesn’t matter.

“Yeah. That’s all. Call the station when you got an offer, we still have Brown in lockup.”

Barba doesn’t even acknowledge that. He just starts jotting down… whatever.

It doesn’t matter.

Sonny leaves.


Barba didn’t listen.

Barba didn’t use the case Sonny spent hours researching, Barba flat-out refused to do what Sonny said, and it almost cost them the conviction.

All because it was from Delaware, so it didn’t automatically apply. As if that means anything. As if Barba couldn’t have made the exact same arguments presented in that case, and hope for the best. Maybe their judge would have ruled just like her Delaware counterpart. Why not? Sonny’s research was sound. Why wouldn’t the judge agree?

Why waste taxpayers’ money? Why waste all this time? Why should Sonny have to literally pull a guy away from a ledge, hoping he’ll testify five minutes after almost attempting suicide? Why should Sonny have to go through that, just because Barba wouldn’t listen? Their case would have b-

“Carisi. You’re here. Again. Carmen warned me you seemed, and I quote, ‘agitated,’ but watching you seethe in person is much more dramatic. What is it this time? Did you come to finish what you started at the courthouse? Maybe add some four-letter words to your tantrum, now that no one else is listening?”

That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, actually, but Sonny is not that immature.

Or that angry.

Not anymore. He was seething at the courthouse, and he was still pretty ‘agitated’ when he passed Carmen on his way in, but waiting in Barba’s office for thirty-five minutes has calmed him down significantly.

That said, watching Barba taking his sweet-ass time as he pulls off his coat, as he hangs it carefully on that fancy coat hanger, like he’s not bothered at all, it’s kind of testing Sonny’s patience.

Sonny starts yanking on the buttons of his own coat, lying across his lap, just to have something to do while Barba moves in slow motion, probably just to annoy him.

“No, counselor. No four-letter words. We’re all adults here. I just wanna know why you’d take my research and throw it in the trash, when it could have won us the case?”

Barba rolls his eyes as he sits behind his desk.

That’s not good.

Sonny is already starting to pick out cuss words in his head, some of which have way more than four letters.

“I don’t know how to be any clearer, Carisi. I told you at the courthouse, the case you brought me was similar, even relevant, but not directly applicable. The judge would have never let me use it to establish th-”

“You don’t know that, Barba.”

“Of course I know that. I know Judge Morris. I know her record. Her views. She’s presided over dozens of my cases. In fact, one time, about four years ago, I tried to introduce a case from out of state, too. I knew better, unlike you, but I was desperate, because I had no alternative. No other witnesses to fall back on. See, Carisi? That’s when you take a risk. Not when the detectives working a case fail to convince a witness to testify. Consider that a free lesson.

“And my case was identical, by the way. No interpretation needed. Unlike your flimsy connection between rapists and white supremacists, the facts were exactly the same. That’s why I tried to use it. But Judge Morris wouldn’t have it. The facts were the same, but the statutes weren’t. And she let me know. ‘This isn’t Rhode Island, Mr. Barba. This is New York. Do you need a map?’ That’s what she told me.”

Oh.

Sonny didn’t kn…

“Listen, Carisi. You graduated law school five minutes ago. I’ve been at this for a while. Spending fifteen years as an A.D.A. gives you some insider knowledge. It teaches you to pick your battles.

“Being belittled in court before losing a motion helps no one. It only weakens your case. It makes you look desperate, which may very well be true, but you don’t want the judge to know that. You have a reputation to uphold, and a case to protect. There are Hail Marys, and then there are stupid moves.”

Right.

Stupid.

Sonny didn’t know that.

Didn’t know any of that.

Sonny doesn’t have ‘trial experience.’ He doesn’t know the judges, he doesn’t know the defense attorneys, and they don’t know him. Sonny has no reputation to uphold.

Sonny just knows the law. And the victims.

Sonny knows the victims, and that’s the problem.

That’s why h-

“Alright? Does that satisfy your curiosity? Are you convinced I am not, in fact, an idiot who threw his own case for no reason? Or, wait, did you think I had a reason, Carisi? Did you think maybe I didn’t use your ‘research’ because it came from you? Because we’re not buddies anymore, apparently? Did you think I’d let my ego cost us the case?”

The way Barba intones ‘buddies’ makes Sonny wince.

That’s not what he meant.

“That’s not what I meant, Barba.”

Barba starts typing on his laptop.

Like he’s bored.

Done.

Like he’s done with this conversat-

“I don’t care what you meant, detective. Are we done here?”

No.

“No. We’re not done. Sure, maybe you tried before, with the same judge, but that was four years ago. You can’t be sur-”

“Enough, Carisi. And I would appreciate it if you stopped raising your voice every five minutes. If you’re trying to intimidate me, it’s not working.  Also, if you’re trying to intimidate me, you’re dumber than I thought.”

Well.

Barba hadn’t insulted Sonny’s intelligence in over a year.

The streak had to end sometime.

The worst part is, Sonny didn’t even realize he was yelling.

“I’m not tryin’ to intimidate you, Barba. I’m just mad. Okay? Can’t a guy be mad?”

Barba keeps typing.

“Sure. Just go and be mad outside my office, please. I’m busy.”

‘Busy.’

Busy booking another vacation, probably, while Sonny tries to talk to him about a case. About justice. About what’s right.

Barba doesn’t car…

That’s not true.

Barba cares.

Barba gets frustrated, too. He just doesn’t get mad.

Sonny hasn’t mastered that trick yet.

Maybe it comes with experience.

Sonny doesn’t have experience, so he gets mad, and he tries to intimidate people, apparently, which is something he swore he’d never do, and if that’s how he comes across now, then what’s the poin-

“I can clearly see you being mad in my office, Carisi. When I specifically asked you not to.”

Sonny gapes.

Is Barba quoting The Office?

That kinda takes the wind out of Sonny’s sails. It’s hard to stay mad at someone who’s quoting Michael Scott.

“Uh. Well… I gotta… Where else am I gonna go? You’re the one who made me mad, Barba. Now you gotta suffer.”

Barba keeps on typing.

“I’m not the one who made you mad.”

It’s funny how Barba thinks he can psychoanalyze Sonny while compiling an email.

“That so?”

Barba clicks his mouse.

Hits ‘send,’ probably.

“Yes. I don’t know why you’re mad, detective, but it’s not because of me. I’ve been playing nice, if you hadn’t noticed. For a long time, now. I’m sure I’ve done nothing to upset you. No jokes, no insults.

“I’ve just been doing my job. Incidentally, it is my job. Not yours. It’s my job to decide which arguments to use during a trial. It’s not your job to do ‘research,’ or to provide me with strategy tips, when you don’t have all the facts.”

Sonny bites his tongue.

Literally.

Metaphorically, he can’t help opening his big mouth.

“You don’t even want this job.”

Barba picks up his phone.

More distractions.

More reasons to look away.

The light from the screen illuminates his face.

His tan hasn’t even faded yet.

“Don’t I?”

Sonny tries not to lose his temper.

“No, Barba. You don’t. You don’t want this job. You say you do, but you don’t act like it. You almost got fired from bein’ a Manhattan A.D.A., a job others would kill for, and you don’t give a shit. You went on vacation during your suspension. You d-”

“Would you kill for this job, Carisi?”

Dammit.

Barba failed to psychoanalyze Sonny while compiling an email, but he’s definitely succeeding now, while compiling a text.

“I didn’t s-”

“Is that what this is about? Envy? That’s why you’ve been so angry? Why you barely talk to me, ever since I helped you get that job interview in Brooklyn?”

Sonny doesn’t answer.

He doesn’t have to. Barba knows wh-

“I suppose I was wrong. I am the one who made you mad. I apologize for thinking you could handle rejection like an adult.”

‘Rejection.’

Great.

Barba knows what happened.

Of course he does.

He always does.

Sonny didn’t tell him.

Sonny didn’t talk to Barba after the interview at all.

For days.

Not even to say thank you.

At first, Sonny was trying not to jinx it.

Sonny thought he aced that interview.

Then, after the email, Sonny just didn’t feel like seeing Barba’s smug face as he explained he was grateful for the recommendation, but he failed to get the job.

Sonny doesn’t like to admit failure. He’s worked too hard, all his life, and he’s had more hits than misses, but that only makes the misses more painful. That’s why Sonny thanked Barba, way back when, before the results of the bar exam were even posted. Just in case.

That one was a hit. Sonny passed the bar exam, with flying colors.

The job interview was a miss. And it stings. And this is the first time Barba’s mentioned it, since then. Even though he’s clearly known about the rejection, this whole time.

That stings even more, for some reason. Sonny never told anyone he was rejected. Liv, and Fin, and Amanda, they all asked, and he mumbled something about wanting to stay with SVU ‘for now.’ Like staying was his choice. Like he had a choice.

Sonny was hoping Barba would assume the same thing.

That was obviously too much to hope for. La Rossa probably forwarded that rejection email to Barba himself. They’re friends. They probably had a good laugh over it. Barba read all about Sonny’s shortcomings, all about Sonn-

“For my personal safety, Carisi, I feel I should tell you this is not how we do things here at the D.A.’s office. You will not get my job if you murder me in a fit of rage. You know that, right? You’d just be creating a vacancy. There’s a whole process, after that. Applications, deadlines, two rounds of interviews. Killing me would only be the first step.”

Sonny snorts.

Much as he appreciates the joke, he hates this.

Sonny hates that he’s so mad. He swore he’d never become this person again, and now here he is.

Sonny hates that he keeps snapping at Barba for something that isn’t Barba’s fault. Sonny is the one who failed. Barba only tried to help him. Barba didn’t do anything wrong. Barba may be arrogant, and he may be flaunting the fact he’s an A.D.A. while Sonny is not, but that’s just the truth.

Sonny couldn’t get the job. What’s done is done. No need to murder anybody.

“I don’t wanna kill you, counselor.”

Barba chuckles.

“That’s a relief. If only your face didn’t suggest otherwise.”

Barba is in a good mood, all of a sudden. Probably because he thinks he figured out Sonny’s big secret. His jokes are all pointed, they’re all subtle jabs at Sonny’s attitude, but there’s no malice behind them now.

Barba is rarely in a good mood these days.

Sonny’s current mood leaves a lot to be desired, but still, this could be an opportunity to clear the air between them.

Sonny hates that he’s so mad.

Maybe talking about it will help.

Maybe Sonny can understand Barba’s point of view.

“Do you want this job, Barba? Be honest. ‘Cause, let me tell you, I would kill for it. Not you, but… You know what I mean. It’s not envy. It’s resentment. I don’t wanna be, but I am resentful ‘cause you have the job I couldn’t get, and you’re puttin’ it at risk, like it’s not a big deal. I busted my ass to finish night school, to get my law degree, and I studied day and night to pass the bar exam, and I wanted…”

Sonny exhales.

“That job, in Brooklyn, it was a way out. A different way to help. I wanted it. And I couldn’t get it. And now here you are, jeopardizing your position doing God knows what, tampering with witnesses God knows why, and you get busted, and you’re lucky enough to keep your job, and you don’t even care. You come back from your relaxing vacation, with your golden tan and sand still in your shoes, and you won’t even look at me when I wanna discuss a case, ‘cause you’re that bored. ‘Cause you don’t wanna be here. ‘Cause y-”

“I love this job.”

Sonny blinks.

His anger, his resentment, they dissipate instantly.

There’s more emotion in Barba’s eyes than Sonny has ever seen.

Barba is looking right at him now, and Sonny regrets asking.

“I do. Oh, I really do. But sometimes…”

Barba is smiling.

Not at Sonny.

Not because of Sonny.

Barba is smiling a crooked smile that Sonny can’t decipher.

“Sometimes what?”

Barba’s smile gets wider.

Sonny thinks he can see wistfulness, now. And a hint of condescension, probably because Sonny had to ask. Because Sonny doesn’t get it.

How is Sonny supposed to get it? He and Barba are nothing alike. Barba has been an A.D.A. for fifteen years. Sonny graduated law school five minutes ago. Sonny doesn’t have the experienc-

“Sometimes I think it would be better if I left it.”

Oh.

Maybe Sonny and Barba do have something in common.

“That why you came clean? Liv said… She said you talked to the D.A. about your… Whatever it was, whatever Willard had on you, Liv said you confessed. Even though your secret wasn’t exposed. Is that why? Were you hoping you’d lose your job? Deep down?”

Barba smiles.

This time, it’s because of Sonny.

Sonny can tell.

Barba is smiling genuinely, for once.

Not an ounce of condescension.

“I see you remember our conversation. The one about my suicidal streak.”

Sonny can’t help smiling back.

He could never forget that conversation.

Simpler days.

Happier days.

Sonny could never forget the look on Barba’s face, in that corrid-

“Maybe you’re right, Carisi. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was hoping for. I just wanted to roll the dice. Let the chips fall where they may. Wait, am I mixing metaphors?”

Barba smiles again.

He’s in a very good mood.

Maybe he didn’t know what he was hoping for, when he went in for that meeting with the District Attorney, but it’s clear he likes what he got.

He got to keep his job.

Barba loves this job.

Even if he was ready to leave it.

Love isn’t enough, sometimes.

What Sonny saw as indifference, it was fatigue.

They’re all tired.

Barba just took a chance.

Sonny wishes he could take a chance too. Roll the dice. Except he feels like someone else is holding the dice, and he’s just along for the ride, and now Sonny’s the one mixing metaphors, and Barba is still smiling, they’re smiling at each other, and Sonny remembers what it was like to feel good.

“How did you feel, Barba?”

“Hm?”

“When you found out you still had a job to come back to, after the suspension. After you booked your trip to the Caribbean, after you packed your linen suits, how did you feel?”

Barba keeps on smiling.

“I was relieved.”

Sonny thought as much.

“Because, when the chips were down, you knew you wanted to stay?”

Barba shakes his head.

“No. I was relieved because the D.A. thought I deserved to stay.”

Oh.

This never occurred to Sonny. Barba, doubting himself like that.

Sonny gets the urge to defend Barba, which is something he hasn’t felt in a long time.

“Of course you deserve to stay, counselor. Come on. If anybody does, it’s you.”

Barba narrows his eyes.

“Is that so? I thought I was, and I quote, jeopardizing my position doing God knows what, and tampering with witnesses God knows why, and I got busted. End quote.”

Sonny sighs.

“I’m sorry, Barba.”

Barba looks amused.

“For?”

Fair enough.

“I shouldn’t have said that. It wasn’t my place. Whatever you did, it’s in the past. I told you. You’re a great A.D.A., and… And of course you love your job. I know that. It’s been almost three years now. I know you. I see how hard you fight. I see how hard these cases hit you. Every day. And I ain’t helping, either. Not anymore. I’m… I’m making things worse for you, sometimes. I’m sorry.”

Barba opens and closes his mouth in surprise.

“I wasn’t expecting to get that apology tonight, Carisi, but it was long overdue, so I’ll take it.”

Sonny wasn’t expecting to deliver that apology, either.

It was long overdue.

Sonny hates that he’s so mad. Sonny hates that he keeps snapping at Barb-

“I was expecting an apology for suggesting I would ever willingly jeopardize a case. For thinking I would let the River Rapist walk, just because I didn’t want to use your suggestion. For thinking I would let Willard walk, because I had a weak spot, and he found it.”

Wait.

“I never thought that, Barba. Honest to God. The Delaware case, sure, I didn’t know why you wouldn’t use it, and I got mad. I took it personally. I’m sorry. But the blackmail? Never. I knew you wouldn’t drop the charges against Willard, no matter what dirt he had on you. You wouldn’t let him get away with it. I never doubted that.”

Barba looks like he may or may not believe that.

It’s the truth.

Sonny was surprised Barba even had a weak spot, at least one which could be easily discovered. Sonny was shocked to hear Barba would ever tamper with a witness, at least not without making sure he wouldn’t get caught. But Sonny never doubted th-

“No? Well, thank you for the vote of confidence. But, just for the record, there’s no dirt.”

No.

Sonny doesn’t want to hear this.

Barba’s weak spot, whatever it is, whatever reason Barba had to tamper with a witness, Sonny doesn’t want to hear it, because he already resents Barba for it, for risking everything, and he doesn’t want to know what it is that Barba values more than the job.

It’s not anything disgraceful.

Sonny knows that in his gut.

Barba is a good person.

Sonny knows that, and that’s all he needs to know. The details don’t matter. Sonny has no desire to hear wh-

“I don’t know what you think I did, Carisi, but there’s no dirt. No shame. What I did was wrong, but the truth is, I’d do it again.”

Oh.

Sonny may not want to hear this, but it seems that Barba wants to tell him.

‘Just’ for the record.

Maybe Barba doesn’t want Sonny to think the worst.

To think he’s dirty.

Sonny would never think that.

Barba keeps staring.

Clearly waiting for a question.

Sonny may not want to hear this, but he will ask.

It’s what Barba wants.

Barba wants to talk.

Maybe talking about it will help.

“What did you do, Barba?”

Barba’s shoulders relax.

“Willard hacked my bank account. He discovered that, for the past several years, I’ve been making regular payments to an account belonging to a young woman. Willard assumed the money was in exchange for sexual favors.”

Whatever Barba’s secret is, Sonny knows that’s not it.

“So what’s the real reason? Why are you’re sending her money?”

Barba smiles that lopsided smile again.

“She’s the daughter of a witness, from an old case. About ten years ago, I was prosecuting a man who raped and killed two women. The mother, she was a heroin addict, but she was also my only witness. On the day of the trial, she showed up so strung out she could barely talk. The judge wouldn’t give me a recess. I had to put her on that stand, or I had no case.”

Sonny leans in, and wishes that desk weren’t between them. Barba’s never shared anything about his past.

“And?”

“And, she asked for a loan, and I gave it to her. I knew what she was going to do, and I still gave her money. It was the only way. So, she bought what she bought, and she did what she did, and she got on the stand. She buried the guy. She sent a really bad man to prison for the rest of his life, and she died of an overdose, eight hours later, leaving behind her ten-year-old daughter.”

“The girl you’ve been helping.”

Barba nods.

“She lives with her grandmother. They’re broke. I do what I can.”

Sonny smiles.

That’s not dirt.

Barba is clean.

Still.

Fifteen years as an A.D.A. and Barba is still clean.

There’s no need for resentment anymore.

If Barba values anything more than the job, it’s justice.

That’s why Barba risked everything.

Why he ‘tampered’ with a witness. To get a truthful testimony. To get justice.

Sonny is grateful he got to hear this.

“Thank you for tellin’ me, counselor. Witness tampering, my ass. You didn’t obstruct justice. Justice was served. Like I said, you deserve to be here. You did a good thing.”

Barba tilts his head.

“A good thing? Really? Even though a woman’s death is on my hands? Even though I’m the one who made a ten-year-old girl into an orphan?”

Sonny doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes. It’s terrible that a woman had to die, but yes. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

Sonny knows Barba did the right thing. He wishes he had done the sam-

“Don’t say that, Carisi. Don’t say I did a ‘good’ thing, so casually. I may not regret it, but it was still wrong. I may not be ashamed, but I still blame myself for her death. You don’t know what that’s like.”

If only that were true.

“Trust me, Barba. I know. Maybe you think that woman’s death is on your hands, but the truth is, she was sick. You didn’t cause her death, and you couldn’t have prevented it. If it hadn’t been that hit, it would have been the next one.

“You didn’t get her killed. You made her death count. She saved people. You saved people. The women this guy would’ve raped and killed. That’s what counts. This guy, he’s still in prison, right? That’s what counts. You stopped him. Imagine knowin’ he was out there, killing people, because of you. That’s guilt. Knowin’ you could have stopped it.”

Barba stays silent.

For far too long.

That’s never a good thing.

“What is it, Carisi?”

Sonny frowns.

“What? Nothing, I’m just…”

“What is it? What do you think you could have stopped? Someone’s death?”

Sonny can feel his heart rate spiking.

He wants to sink into the chair.

He wants to run out of Barba’s office, and never come back.

He doesn’t talk about this.

To anyone.

Sonny hadn’t said Bobby Bianchi’s name out loud in years, until that interrogation. It took him days to recover, afterwards. To stop feeling guilty. To stop being angry.

It didn’t last, of course. Sonny’s had his bouts of anger since then, but those first few days, they were bad. He doesn’t want an encore. If he dredges that up again, it might take him weeks to calm down.

Sonny is angry enough as it is.

He doesn’t need that.

He needs to get up and walk away.

Like he always does, when someone asks.

Sonny can’t t-

“I showed you mine, Carisi.”

Barba has a point.

Barba isn’t letting this slide.

Barba is asking, and Sonny can’t just walk away. Not during this conversation. Not after what Barba told him.

Not when Barba is looking at him like that.

With curiosity.

With concern.

Sonny takes a deep breath. The faster he gets it out, the better.

“It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, counselor. Scrawny kid gets picked on. Bullied. At school, in the neighborhood, you name it. It’s the same old story.”

Barba smiles knowingly.

Like Sonny’s abrupt opening actually makes sense to him.  

Like maybe he got picked on, too, when he was a k-

“Were you always this scrawny, Carisi? I always pictured you as a tubby kid. All that homemade Italian food. I figured you hit a growth spurt later in life.”

Sonny starts laughing.

He wasn’t expecting that from Barba.

A sweet joke.

Anything sweet.

“I, uh… Well, my mom’s cooking is amazing, so you got that right, but no, I was always pretty scrawny. All that running around, probably. Gettin’ into trouble. You know how that goes. I mean, I did hit a growth spurt when I was, like, seventeen, but it just made me even scrawnier.”

Barba nods.

He doesn’t push for more.

Barba seems content to watch Sonny laugh.

For a moment, Sonny forgets what he’s doing. Sonny forgets he’s supposed to be sharing a deep, dark secret, and he thinks he’s just recounting an old schoolyard tale to a friend.

A fun memory.

Sonny’s heart rate is normal again.

Maybe that’s the trick.

What he’s about to say is not fun, but it is a memory. It’s over. It’s in the past, and maybe Sonny can leave it there. Maybe, like Barba, Sonny can learn not to be ashamed.

“Anyway, uh, everybody used to pick on me, but the worst was this one kid, Bobby Bianchi. One day, when we were at school, he grabbed me by the hair and he shoved my face through a plate glass window. I was bleeding, I was all cut up. It was a mess. One of the teachers called the principal, and he asked me what happened.

“I could have put an end to it, right there. All I had to do was say Bobby’s name. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t want Bobby to get into trouble. So I just kept quiet. I said I tripped. Nobody ever knew what happened. Bobby kept on bein’ a bully, and I kept on bein’ scared, until he changed schools when we were in seventh grade. I was ecstatic. I thought I’d never have to hear his name again.”

Barba looks equal parts captivated and confused.

Sonny doesn’t blame him. Barba is expecting a story about guilt and death, and Sonny is talking about schoolyard bullying. That’s a pretty big leap.

Except when it’s not.

“Bobby Bianchi, he’s in Sing Sing now. He stabbed some poor sap to death during a bar fight. I found out from my mom, a few years back. Our moms are still friends. ‘Cause… ‘Cause my mom doesn’t know it was him. She just knows she has a klutzy son who walks into windows face-first.”

Barba no longer looks confused.

He looks exasperated.

“You can’t possibly blame yourself for that, Carisi. This Bobby, he bullied you when you were, what, ten years old? And you blame yourself for a murder he committed two decades later? You think you could have stopped that? By telling the principal? You think that would have made a difference?”

Sonny does.

“Yeah. I do. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret keeping my mouth shut. I always think, what if I would have said something? Maybe that guy would still be aliv-”

“Oh please. If you had said something, Bobby would have kicked your ass, next time he saw you. And then you would have learned that, sometimes, keeping your mouth shut is a perfectly valid choice. At least if you want to stay in one piece. And I say this from experience.”

Oh.

Barba did get picked on, when h-

“You know better than this, Carisi. You can’t blame the victim. Not even when it’s you.”

Huh.

Sonny hadn’t thought of it that way.

With good reason.

“I’m not the victim, Barba. That guy who got stabbed, he’s the real victim.”

Barba raises both eyebrows.

“Real? All victims are real, Carisi. Just because Bobby Bianchi didn’t kill you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt.”

Sonny’s knee starts bouncing.

Barba is right.

Sonny was hurt.

Sonny was changed.

That’s when he started getting angry.

After he had to have nineteen stitches. After he had to suffer through months of ridicule from all the kids at school, including his own sisters, who were making fun of him both for his busted face and for the dumb way he got hurt.

Sonny never told them the truth, either.

After that, Sonny started shoving around other, smaller kids at the playground, until Theresa grabbed him by the ear and told him to behave.

Sonny kept picking fights, but only when she wasn’t there to see it.

That anger, it never went away.

Throughout high school, throughout college even, that anger was always there.

It’s still there, but it’s kept at bay, when things are going well.

When things are tough, Sonny has to struggle with it.

He doesn’t always win.

When he was a senior in high school, after a bad breakup, Sonny got drunk for the first time. Somehow, someway, he and his best friend Jason came to blows. They used to be inseparable. Sonny broke Jason’s nose. They fell out, after that fight. Sonny still doesn’t remember what started it. He only remembers blind rage, and blood gushing from Jason’s nose. Blood, getting on his shirt.

When he was a junior in college, after a final that didn’t go his way, Sonny picked a fight at a frat party, with some guy he’d never met. The guy accidentally shoulder checked him, and Sonny snapped, and within ten seconds a shoving match turned into an all-out brawl. Sonny had started working out by then, looking to get into the Academy, so he handled himself a little too well. The people at that party, some of them Sonny’s friends, they looked at him differently after that.

Like he used to look at Bobby.

Sonny hated putting that look on people’s faces.

That’s why he tried to stop.

To change.

To be less angry.

Sonny tried, and it wasn’t easy, and it took time, but he succeeded.

After college, Sonny got into the Police Academy, like he always dreamed, and then he graduated at the top of his class, and then he got into law school, and then he made detective, and then he found a home at SVU.

That helped.

Sonny found peace. He managed to simmer down, as the years went by. With age comes wisdom. Sonny left that angry college kid behind.

Sonny found his old self, his carefree self, his innocent self, his goofy self, his happy self, and he remembered what life was like before he knew about the Bobby Bianchis of the world.

Sonny liked being happy.

He swore he’d never get that angry again.

It didn’t work out that way.

Sonny had gone years without an outburst, but streaks are meant to be broken.

Right?

And Sonny broke his streak.

Many times.

So many, it’s hard to keep track.

Sonny remembers that dentist, who molested his own niece. Sonny remembers almost breaking his fingers.

Sonny remembers Tommy, bailing out on Bella. Sonny remembers grabbing him by the throat.

Sonny remembers seeing that little girl in a cage. Sonny remembers wanting to kill whoever was responsible.

Sonny remembers that pastor who raped a thirteen-year-old and got her pregnant. Sonny remembers wanting to punch him in the face.

Working Special Victims isn’t easy.

That’s why Sonny has been cutting himself some slack, in the past few years.

He thinks that’s where he went wrong.

That can be a slippery slope.

Sonny used to be able to shake those incidents, moments after they happened. That anger, it was transient. It came and it went. It didn’t permeate him. It didn’t fester in him.

It’s gotten worse.

He’s gotten worse.

Now, it’s not just heinous crimes, or somebody hurting his family.

Now, Sonny gets mad over nothing.

Over anything.

Sonny is having a tough time, he’s under pressure, and his anger keeps building, and festering, and he keeps snapping at people, he keeps snapping at Barba, too, more often than not, and he hates it, and he wants it to stop, because he can’t afford to lose friends every time life doesn’t go his way.

Sonny has to change, again, becaus-

“Carisi? Are you… Did I overstep? I apologize. It’s none of my business.”

Barba is frowning.

There’s no need.

All victims are real.

Sonny needed to hear that. Sonny needed to think about that.

This talk with Barba, it was therapeutic, even if most of it took place inside Sonny’s head.

“No. You didn’t. You didn’t overstep, counselor. Uh. Listen, you said something, before. About me trying to intimidate you. Or, or about me lookin’ like I wanted to kill you. I d-”

“I was joking, Carisi.”

Sonny is heartened by the fact Barba felt the need to clarify that.

“I know. I know you were joking. Just hear me out. Um. You wouldn’t know it from lookin’ at me, but I always had trouble with my temper. Ever since Bobby Bianchi. You said it. I was hurt. I was a victim, too, and I didn’t even know it. For years. I was always acting out, and getting into trouble, and, uh, there were a couple of incidents that got out of hand, when I was younger, and…”

Sonny sighs.

He doesn’t know how much of his inner monologue he needs to share with Barba. How much of his past. He just knows he has to explain.

“I’m not tryin’ to make excuses here, Barba, but when I’m under a lot of stress, I have a hard time keeping myself under control. Sometimes. I’m not… I don’t get violent. Not anymore. But I… I blow up. Without provocation. And, well, it’s been a rough year, and that’s why I’ve been… you know. The way I’ve been.”

Barba is still frowning.

“No need to explain, detective. This is a stressful line of work. We’ve all been there. It’s fine.”

No.

Sonny needs to explain.

“I had a pretty good run. I was pretty happy. For years. I had dreams, I had big plans. I was working toward my goals. Everything was goin’ right. And then somebody threatened to kill you. Not that… Obviously that’s… You were the one most affected by that. Of course. I’m not comparin’ our situations or anything. I just… It wasn’t easy for me either. I seriously thought about leaving, back then.

“And then Dodds died, and… And I couldn’t leave, after that. I couldn’t leave the squad. I didn’t wanna leave. I told you, remember? And then, when the dust settled, when everybody started moving on, I figured maybe I could try again. And you helped me, you got me that job interview, but I screwed that up, and then I screwed everything up, by bein’ an asshole to you, and then I had a cop hold a gun to my head, and I thought I was gonna die, and all I f-”

“What?”

Barba looks shocked.

He didn’t know.

Sonny forgot.

“Yeah. Tom Cole, remember that case? He held a gun to my head, when we went up to his farmhouse. Liv took him out. That’s not the point.”

Barba is blinking rapidly.

“What do you mean that’s n-”

“That’s not the point, Barba. The point is, I thought I was gonna die, and all I felt was regret. ‘Cause I’ve been slipping. I’ve spent months being this angry asshole, and I can’t stop. I try, and it works for a couple of weeks, and then something happens and I snap again. I don’t want that.

“I don’t even know if I wanna be a cop anymore. I think that’s the problem. It’s hard not to get angry, when you see what we see. It eats at you. I know bein’ an A.D.A. can’t be that much better, but it’s gotta be a little better. It’s gotta be. It can’t be any worse. Bein’ a cop, it’s… it’s changing me. I’m regressing.  I thought I could handle it, at first, but maybe I can’t. Cole, he was a good guy, and look how he turned out. I don’t want that. I want out.”

Barba looks uncomfortable.

Maybe Sonny shared too much.

Yeah, Sonny definitely shared too much. They were having a cordial conversation, after a long time, and Barba was being supportive, like he used to be, before, and Sonny had to go and ruin it by oversharin-

“Okay, one problem at a time, Carisi. First of all, next time somebody holds a gun to your head, find a better way to tell me. Instead of blurting it out in the middle of an existential monologue. Also, please tell me in a timely manner. Not months after the fact. Alright? You almost dying, that’s information I would like to have, as soon as it becomes available. Alright?”

Oh.

Barba sounds irritated.

He looks worried, brows all furrowed and lips drawn tight, but he sounds irritated.

Sonny thinks this might be Barba’s way of showing he cares.

Irritation.

If that’s true, then it must mean Barba cares about Sonny a lot, becaus-

“Secondly, like I said, there’s no need to explain. It’s fine. You’re fine. You’ve been the world’s friendliest colleague for almost three years. You cook for the squad, you babysit their kids, you bring them coffee. You bring me coffee. You’ve brought me pastries, for no real reason, on more than one occasion. So what if you’re an asshole, every once in a while? You’ve earned it. No one’s going to hold it against you. Least of all me. I’ve been an asshole since birth.”

Sonny grins.

Barba has a way of putting things into perspective.

Of making everything sound easy.

“Thirdly, if you want out, you can get out. If you have dreams, go after them. I don’t see why you hung all your hopes on that one position in Brooklyn. There will be other jobs, Carisi. That was your first interview. You know how many people get a job on their first interview?”

Sonny knows one person who did.

“Other than you?”

Barba smirks.

“Well, yes, but I’m a little older. You’re a millennial. There are some drawbacks to being young.”

Barba isn’t wrong.

Still.

“I know there’s gonna be other jobs, Barba. But the reason I didn’t get that job is the same reason I won’t get any other job. I ‘lack the necessary trial experience.’ And if I wanna fix that, I gotta leave the force.”

Barba bites his lip. It’s very distractin-

“Isn’t that what you want?”

Despite what Sonny may blurt out during his existential monologues, there’s no easy answer to that question.

“I don’t know.”

Barba takes a moment before speaking again.

“The job interview, in Brooklyn, was it you rolling the dice? Leave if you get the job, stay if you don’t?”

That sounds about right.

And kinda scary.

Final.

Sonny never put it in those words, but in retrospect that’s exactly what it was. No wonder he feels so resigned. He didn’t get the job, so he has to stay.

“I guess. I guess we have that in common, counselor.”

Barba smiles a tight smile.

“And how did you feel? When the chips were down?”

That’s a question Sonny can answer very easily.

“Trapped.”

That interview, it was a way out, and Sonny screwed it all up, and now he has no choice but to st-

“I see. And you still feel that way?”

Talk about an easy answer.

“Yeah. What, you couldn’t tell? By the way I’ve been angry, ever since? By the way I start yellin’ at you, at the drop of a hat, every other week? By the way I keep tryin’ to antagonize you, when I used to, uh…”

Starting that sentence was a bad idea. Finishing it will only make things worse.

Thankfully, Barba seems to get it.

Barba’s tight smile unwinds, like he’s letting Sonny off the hook, and h-

“When you used to kiss my ass? Which was your idea of flirting? Yes, I have noticed a shift in your behavior.”

Well.

The use of ‘thankfully’ was premature.

Barba definitely gets it, but Sonny is not feeling very thankful right now.

Worse part is, he can’t even deny it.

It’s true.

Sonny has been flirting with Barba, for years, and Barba has known, for years.

The easy smile on Barba’s face proves it.

Sonny doesn’t know if he should be embarrassed, because Barba called him out, or excited, because Barba finally put a name to whatever it is they have been doing.

‘Flirting.’

Simple as that.

Barba makes everything sound easy.

Barba is still smiling.

Easy.

Like maybe Sonny flirting with him isn’t an entirely unpleasant thought.

Then again, Barba did say he has noticed a ‘shift.’

There hasn’t been much flirting between them, lately.

They barely ever interact.

Sonny lost himself in anger, and resentment, and he let that connection fade.

That potential, Sonny wasted it.

All the progress he had made, after carefully managing to earn Barba’s respect, and then Barba’s friendship, Sonny threw it all away.

Barba’s easy smile, it says maybe that was a mistake.

Maybe they could be having this entire conversation, this de facto therapy session, not as colleagues, or even friends, but as something else.

Something more.

In another life.

In another life, Sonny would have gotten that damn job, and he would have taken Barba out to dinner as a thank you, and they’d be equals, they’d be A.D.A. Carisi and A.D.A. Barba, of Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively, and Sonny wouldn’t be so angry, and he’d finally make a move, like he planned, and maybe Barba would s-

“It’s alright, Carisi. No need to explain that, either. I suspected you were over your infatuation with me. It’s obvious. You used to run into my office every time you passed a class in law school. You used to tell me your actual grades. And now you won’t even tell me somebody almost shot you in the head.”

Irritation.

Caring.

Sonny threw it all away.

Barba cared, and Sonny threw it all aw-

“Also, I believe I overheard Fin telling Rollins about a certain Miss 34B? About a month ago? You cops and your locker room talk. Your girlfriend deserves a modicum of respect. Despite her poor taste in men.”

Great.

Fin and his big mouth.

Now Barba thinks Sonny has a girlfriend.

As if this conversation wasn’t embarrassing enough already.

Sonny has spent the last few minutes trying to avoid eye contact, but that won’t cut it anymore.

He needs to be facing Barba for this.

He needs to explain.

Problem is, Sonny doesn’t know where to begin.

He doesn’t even know why Barba would bring that up.

Any of it.

First, Barba admits they used to flirt, or Sonny did, at least. Then, Barba practically admits he misses Sonny’s oversharing. Then, for the big finish, Barba goes and asks Sonny about 34B, about that stupid pop-up, like it’s in any way relevant.

If Sonny didn’t know any better, he’d think Barba has been waiting to ask that question, for ‘about a month,’ and he thought a clumsy mention of their previous ‘flirting’ would be a good segue.

It’s not.

And Sonny doesn’t have a good answer.

“That wasn’t… That’s done. I don’t have a girlfriend. She wasn’t… She was somebody I knew from Fordham. We were friends. We are friends. We… We gave it a shot, tried dating, but it didn’t work out. That’s all.”

Sonny cringes at his own inability to string a sentence togeth-

“Oh? What happened?”

Barba is smiling again.

Nonchalantly.

His blatantly fake smile does nothing to conceal his interest. He’s been saying ‘no need to explain,’ over and over, to spare Sonny from further embarrassment, but that only applies to soul-baring confessions, apparently. When it comes to 34B, Barba seems pretty intent on getting a detailed explanation.

All Sonny can think to say is, ‘I’m too miserable,’ but he doesn’t think that would be enough to satisfy Barba’s curiosity.

“Well, if my existential monologues didn’t clue you in, Barba, I haven’t exactly been in the mood for romance lately. I mean, I’m not a monk, so I try, and sometimes it’s alright for a month or two, but then it fizzles. My heart’s not it in. I’m just… I’m not in a good place. I can’t be dating anybody right now. I need to figure myself out.”

Barba literally pouts.

“Aw. That’s unfortunate.”

Look at that. Sonny wasn’t expecting Barba to be so understandin-

“I’m sorry, did I say unfortunate? I meant unfortunately trite. How corny can you get, Carisi? Why not add, ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ while you’re at it? You need to ‘figure yourself out’? That’s a terrible excuse. I hope it’s not what you told your friend.”

Sonny cracks up.

That is a terrible excuse. And it’s exactly what he told Claire. And Malia before her, and Paul before her.

None of them believed him, of course, but then none of them put up a fight.

They all reacted like they knew Sonny was blowing them off, but they didn’t care enough to ask for the truth.

Sonny didn’t care enough, either.

That’s the problem.

You gotta care to be honest.

How do you tell someone, ‘I have a temper, and sometimes everything sets me off’? How do you tell them, ‘None of this is your fault, but I’m probably gonna take it out on you anyway’? How do you say, ‘I’m having a tough time, and I’m angry, and you deserve better’?

You don’t.

You don’t say it.

Except Sonny just did. He just told Barba all about it.

Barba cared enough to ask.

Barba asked about Sonny’s guilt, about Sonny’s pain, about Bobby Bianchi, Barba asked about that job interview, about Sonny’s dreams, Barba asked about 34B, too, and Sonny answered every question honestly.

For the most part. There’s still things he hasn’t told Barb-

“Anyway. Enough about your love life, Carisi. Let’s talk about something less unfortunate.”

Sonny snorts.

“You’re casting a pretty wide net, there, counselor. Everything’s less unfortunate than my love life.”

Barba smirks like that’s a good thing.

“Point taken. I’m referring to your professional woes. You say you feel trapped here. Maybe we can fix that. You need experience to get a job as an A.D.A. We can fix that too. The best way would be for you to work as an attorney for a few years, but you say you’re not sure if you want to quit your job. At least not yet. Alright. Those are the facts. So…”

Barba looks strangely focused. His eyes are darting around, like he’s figuring out solutions and calculating all the possible outcomes.

Like he really wants to help.

To fix it.

To fix Sonny’s problems, at least those that can be fixed.

Sonny finds that touching. Barba has always shown him support, in smaller and bigger ways, sometimes generously and sometimes grudgingly, and this time is no different.

That’s a relief.

Sonny would hate to think his behavior ruined th-

“So. You’ll have to make a decision about leaving the force, sooner or later, but in the meantime I could ask Liv if she’d be willing to spare you more often, so you can observe more trials. It won’t be the same as firsthand experience, of course, and you can’t put it on your résumé, but it’ll be better than nothing. Better than you showing up in court only when you have to testify.

“You can watch me work more closely. More extensively. And some of the other A.D.A.s, too. I can talk to them, explain the situation, so they’ll know to expect your questions. And I’ll try to be more available, too. I can teach you some of what I’ve learned. About the judges, or the jury. About the witnesses. About knowing when to attempt a Hail Mary and when to shut up.

“I think that could help, at least for a while. Until you decide what to do. That way you won’t feel like you’re wasting your time. How does that sound?”

Sonny smiles.

That hurts.

It sounds amazing, but it hurts.

Barba wants to help him.

Still.

Barba is the one who got him that job interview in the first place.

Barba has always seen Sonny’s potential, and maybe their personal relationship isn’t what it used to be, because Sonny is too angry for his own good, but that doesn’t mean that Barba will let him flounder.

“That sounds great. Thank you, counselor. I appreciate it. Hey, can I shadow you again, too? I learned so much the last time.”

Barba grins, like that’s a good memory for him as well.

Sonny hopes it is. Working that case, side by side with Barba, it was the most fun he’s ever had on the job, in his entire life.

“No. I’m afraid not, Carisi. Fun as that was, it wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat it. You’re not a law student anymore. You’re just a detective.”

That makes sens-

“For now.”

There it is again.

Barba, seeing Sonny’s potential.

It would be heartwarming if it didn’t hurt so much. Sonny thinks h-

“Of course, if you decide to leave the force, that’s a different story. You could shadow me, as a young attorney. And then, if you decide to go into private practice for a while, that could be arranged. I know a lot of people. With your experience as an SVU detective, I’m sure we could find a spot for you at a criminal law firm.”

Barba makes everything sound so easy.

When Sonny thinks about his future, he gets restless. That’s why he snaps. He feels stagnant, stuck in a bad place and going nowhere.

When Barba talks about it, it’s like a door opens.

Like there’s a way out.

Some problems can’t be fixed.

Sonny’s temper, maybe Sonny’s love life, too, they’re beyond salvation.

Barba seems determined to help him with the rest.

And it’s working.

With every word Barba says, that door opens up a little wider, and it’s making Sonny think he didn’t waste all those years studyin-

“So there’s no need to feel trapped. Okay, Carisi? You still have options. You still have time. And… And friends. Remember that. You still have friends. Maybe that can ease some of the pressure. Help with your anger.”

Oh.

This isn’t just about Sonny’s professional future.

Barba isn’t trying to help him get a job.

It’s not about that.

Barba is trying to help Sonny be less angry.

As a friend.

Barba wants to fix all of Sonny’s problems, apparently, even the ones that are beyond salvation, and that hurts, too.

Barba’s awkward smile, it hurts, because Sonny knows he’s done nothing to deserve it.

Not latel-

“Look, Carisi, I noticed you’ve been having some issues with your temper. I’m not blind. You were the happiest cop I’ve ever met, but your mood has been deteriorating for months. I just assumed it was because of the job. I, uh… Liv may have mentioned something to that effect. She said you told her that being a cop changes you for the worse.

“You weren’t wrong. You wouldn’t be the first bright-eyed rookie to get jaded after a couple of years at SVU. That’s why I helped you get that job interview in Brooklyn. I thought it would be a shame for such a…For such a kind person to, uh… I didn’t want you to lose that. That kindness.”

Sonny is speechless.

He never knew Barba’s reasons for setting up that interview. Or why it happened right after his very first outburst, his first relapse, during the Sean Roberts case. Sonny always wondered why Barba would do something that nice for him, practically five minutes after being yelled at.

Even then, Sonny felt stuck.

Angry.

He was starting to regret his decision to stay, after Dodds, after everyone kept acting like Dodds had never existed, Sonny was starting to think that letting his entire future hinge on that one loss was a bad idea.

Barba could see that.

Even then.

Barba was trying to give him options. The job interview, it ended up making things worse, because Sonny blew it, but Barba’s heart was in the right place.

Sonny smiles.

Barba has a heart.

Barba wanted to preserve Sonny’s ‘kindness.’ Whatever that means. Barba wanted to protect him, in some weird way, to shield him from further damage, and that’s beyond anything Sonny would ever expect from a colleague, or even a friend.

Sonny had no idea.

Knowing that, knowing somebody cared enough to do that, it’s uplifting. Knowing Barba cared enough to d-

“What I didn’t realize was that your temper issues predated your time at SVU. Had I known that, I would have… I would have… I don’t know. I would have handled things differently. I would have talked to you, instead of letting you freeze me out. We could have had this conversation sooner.”

Sonny thinks that would have been nice.

In another life.

“In your defense, counselor, I was hiding it pretty well. I had you thinkin’ I was a walking ray of sunshine. No way you could have known.”

Barba scoffs.

He looks irritated again.

Sonny knows what that means now.

“You weren’t hiding it, Carisi. You were managing it. Very well. For years. Which means you can manage it again.”

‘Again.’

Barba makes everything sound so easy.

Sonny can be kind again.

Calm, again.

The damage is done, it was done a long time ago, but Sonny was managing it. For years, Sonny was happy.

Maybe he can be happy again, too.

With Barba’s help.

When Barba talks, it’s like a door opens. Sonny has been trapped in a tiny, windowless room, and Barba’s support is opening the door, Barba’s smile is tearing down the walls, and the air comes in, and Sonny can see outside, again, like he used to, befor-

“I know we’ve drifted apart, Carisi. I know you’ve distanced yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to me. Even now. I’m intimately familiar with guilt, and resentment, and grief. And anger, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. If you want to talk, I’m here. If you have something to say, you can tell m-”

“I’m not over it.”

Barba is startled into silence.

Sonny doesn’t blame him.

That came out of nowhere. Sonny meant to say something else, something like, ‘Thank you,’ but that came out instead, and it’s too late to take it back.

So Sonny doubles down.

“You. I’m not over you.”

Barba stares, eyes wide, just like in that corridor, before everything fell apart.

“My infatuation. My feelings. Whatever you wanna call it. I’m not over you, Barba. Just so you know.”

“Oh.”

Barba is breathing very slowly.

He is very still.

Sonny can see his pulse, ticking, slowly, a small flicker flashing on Barba’s dark neck. His tan hasn’t even faded y-

“Is that why things didn’t work out between you and your friend?”

Sonny can’t believe this is Barba’s first question.

Sonny loves that this is Barba’s first question.

“Maybe. It’s… It’s just another reason why I’ve been so angry. ‘Cause I can’t get anything I want. I couldn’t get that job in Brooklyn, and I couldn’t get…”

Sonny couldn’t get Barba.

Or so he thought.

Sonny takes a deep breath.

“I admire you, counselor. I told you that, before. And I, uh, you know. I’m infatuated. With you.”

Barba lets out a huff of laughter.

Possibly because Sonny deemed it necessary to use air quotes around ‘infatuated.’

Whatever.

“Whatever. I just wanted to do you proud. I wanted a way out, like I said, ‘cause being a cop is taking a toll on me, and I wanted to make somethin’ of myself, I wanted to put my degree to good use, but I also wanted to do you proud. You got me that job interview, and you gave me a glowing recommendation, and don’t even bother denyin’ it ‘cause La Rossa told me, and then I let you down. And… That hit me kinda hard. I felt like I couldn’t look you in the eye, after that.”

“What?”

Barba looks horrified.

Like Sonny just said the craziest thing.

Sonny’s left eye twitches.

He’s an idiot.

Sonny wishes he could turn back time. He wants to go back to the very moment he got that stupid rejection email, and he wants to go tell Past Barba all about it. He wants to ask Past Barba out for a drink to commiserate, and he wants to whine, like a normal person, he wants Past Sonny to complain until Past Barba’s ears fall off. He wants to tell Past Sonny not to alienate himself, he wants to tell Past Sonny he has friends, he has a friend in Barba, he has more, in Barba, and he wants to erase the last six months from existence.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option.

What’s done is done, and now Sonny needs to move on.

This conversation, it’s a good start.

Sonny needs to finish it.

“Yeah. It all snowballed from there. I was angry ‘cause I was stuck at SVU, I was angry ‘cause I had a great opportunity to leave and I blew it, I was angry ‘cause I made you look bad to La Rossa and your old colleagues at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. That’s why I never told you what happened. Because I knew… Because you… Because I knew you’d think less of me. I always wanted you to see me as an equal, and… And I wasn’t. I wasn’t good enough for that job. Or good enough for you.”

Barba doesn’t blink for what feels like ten minutes.

“That’s why you stopped spending time with me? Because you thought… Who said you’re not good enough for… Who said you let me down, Carisi? Who said we’re not equals? Where are you getting all this? I don’t recall you ever asking me. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Sonny can’t resist.

“You mean words like, ‘Save it for night school,’ and ‘Booyah, Fordham Law,’ and, ‘Like a broken clock’?”

Barba sighs very aggressively.

“Don’t. Don’t try to change the subject. We’re not talking about your job performance anymore.”

Sonny’s heart starts pounding, and for once it’s not because he’s angry.

“We’re not?”

“No.”

Barba’s ‘no’ is immediate, and honest, and resolute.

Sonny decides to follow his example.

“Okay. I never asked you, ‘cause I didn’t wanna know. It was easier to assume you were gonna turn me down. I didn’t have to hear it. I didn’t wanna give myself one more reason to be mad. At you. At myself. You said it, I distanced myself, and you never made an effort to stop me, so I figured I was doin’ you a favor. I didn’t think you cared, Barba. Obviously, I was wrong. I know that now. Obviously you do care, so I w-”

“Hold on, Carisi. ‘Obviously’? I’m not sure what you think you know, especially since you seem to be so fond of jumping to conclusions, but I would be careful about making assumptions, if I were you.”

Sonny grins.

Just like that, they’re back to their old ways. Sonny, teasing Barba about having a heart, and Barba vehemently denying he has ever had a pulse.

Flirting.

Just like old times.

It feels so excruciatingly good.

So easy.

“It’s not an assumption. In this one conversation, you’ve been more of a friend to me than anybody else. Even though I haven’t been much of a friend to you. I’ve been avoiding you, for months. When we do talk, half the time I end up flying off the handle for no reason.

“I’ve been acting like we’re strangers. I’ve been acting like I didn’t spend two years trying to please you. Like I didn’t lose ten years of my life, when I heard you were getting death threats. Like I didn’t spend two weeks without sleep, until we caught the guys who hired Heredio to stalk you.

“I haven’t been a friend to you, Barba, but you still want to help me. So yeah. You care about me. Obviously. I’m an idiot for thinking you didn’t.”

Barba purses his lips, like he’s trying not to smile.

Like he’s trying not to show his delight, in hearing Sonny putting it all out there.

Like he’s trying not to agree. Like he really wants to say that, yes, Sonny is an idiot, but he knows he can’t, because then he’d be admitting that he does care, and that’s not gonna happ-

“You are an idiot.”

Sonny has never been happier to be called an idiot, in his entire life.

“Alright. Good. So, can I ask you now?”

Barba’s right eyebrow rises, like a dare.

“Ask me what?”

Sonny rolls his eyes.

“Can I ask if you if, uh… If I… Um.”

Dammit.

And Sonny was doing so well.

He’s been honest with Barba so far, for the most part, but there’s one last thing he needs to confess.

“I wanna ask you what I was gonna ask, if I’d gotten the job. I told you I had plans, counselor. Becoming an A.D.A. was just part of them. See, if I weren’t with Manhattan SVU anymore, if I were working in a different borough, there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest. If we, uh. You know. If you and me were to, uh…”

Barba smirks.

“You and I.”

Just like old times.

“Yeah, yeah. You and I. There wouldn’t be a conflict of interest if you and I were to start dating. Now, I’m still a cop, and technically we shouldn’t do this, but I’m askin’ anyway. And I’m hoping you can forget the last six months ever happened, ‘cause Lord knows I wouldn’t wanna date an asshole like me.”

Barba is pursing his lips again.

“But you want to date an asshole like me.”

Sonny laughs.

He missed this.

So much.

Sonny let his anger overwhelm him, Sonny let his anger deprive him of pleasures like joy, and laughter, and Barba’s jokes, and hope, but maybe he can be happy again. He already feels calmer than he has in months.

Free.

Sonny feels free.

“I’d be honored to date an asshole like you, Barba. So, what do you say? Do I have a shot?”

Barba smiles in a way he hasn’t, for a very long time.

With affection.

“Well, I’d say you’re a well-rounded applicant, with excellent credentials, but I fear you might lack the necessary experience.”

Sonny knows rejection when he sees it.

This isn’t it.

Barba is teasing.

Just like Sonny suspected, Barba did read that email from the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, and now he’s even quoting it, on purpose, just to tease Sonny.

Even so, Sonny can’t bring himself to get mad.

Which is a first.

“I see how it is, Barba. I need some experience to date a man like you. Of course.”

Sonny had forgotten how much he loves Barba’s smug little smirks.

“I see you’re back to kissing my ass again, Carisi. The balance is restored.”

Sonny is back to flirting, actually, except this time he’s not relying on vague compliments and friendly smiles. He’s not making excuses about conflicts of interest. He’s not letting his temper dictate his life.

And he’s not taking Barba’s answer for granted, either.

This time Sonny is asking.

This time he’s holding the dice.

“Just for the record, what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm.”

Barba actually licks his lips.

Sonny almost forgets what he was going to say next.

“That being said, I do have some experience. I just don’t know if you’ll find it up to your standards. Tell you what, if you need a reference, you can call Miss 34B. She can tell you all about it. Her name’s Claire, by the w-”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Barba can dish it out, but he can’t take it. His smirk is gone. He’s scowling.

He’s jealous.

He’s shooting Sonny a dirty look, and it’s exaggerated, because it’s supposed to be a joke, but Sonny knows it’s at least fifteen percent serious, if not more. Sonny knows Barba really did get a little bit jealous, and Sonny missed this so damn much.

Their banter.

Their closeness.

That tangible sense of hope that, any minute now, Barba just might kiss him, even if it’s never happened so far.

Sonny used to be in a constant state of hope.

He missed that.

He missed Barba.

“So, what’s it gonna be, counselor?”

Barba doesn’t answer immediately. He wants to make this difficult. Sonny knew it was a mistake to mention Claire ag-

“I didn’t hear a question.”

Of course.

“What, I gotta spell it out? Fine. Would you like to join me for a drink, Barba? Tonight? As soon as you’re done here? Think of it as an apology. For me bein’ an asshole to you, all this time.”

Barba makes a face.

“Can we stop with all this talk about assholes? You…”

Sonny regrets it literally as it happens, but a snort still escapes him.

Barba is not amused, at least going by the way he mutters, ‘Jesus Christ,’ under his breath. Which only makes Sonny want to laugh even hard-

“As I was saying, you made your point. You were going through a difficult time, and that affected your temper. It happens to the best of us. That doesn’t make you an asshole. It wasn’t even that bad. You only think it was, because you’re normally so sweet. Your version of being an asshole is me being slightly nicer than usual.”

Perspective.

Sonny needed to hear th-

“So stop beating yourself up over this. You have enough to feel guilty about. We all do. Forget about how your temper may have affected others. Focus on how it affected you. You don’t like yourself when you’re angry, so focus on that. Worry about that. Don’t worry about me. I don’t need an apology.”

Under any other circumstances, Sonny would be genuinely moved. Barba keeps proving just how much he cares, with every word that comes out of his mouth, and that’s kind of beautiful.

Under these circumstances, Sonny is distracted by the actual words coming out of Barba’s mouth.

He called Sonny sweet.

The Old Sonny, at least. Then again, the more they talk, the longer Barba smiles, the closer Barba gets to saying yes, the more the Old Sonny merges with the New.

There used to be one Sonny, for all seasons.

Maybe that can happen again.

On an unrelated note, Sonny is pretty sure Barba paraphrased The Hulk, right in the middle of that compassionate speech, and that’s kind of beautiful, too, in its own way, and Sonn-

“But to answer your question, yes, I will join you for a drink. And I’m buying. We can celebrate my return, after that brief suspension. Think of it as proof I actually wanted to keep my job. Or, I don’t know. Proof I might actually be happy, after all.”

Sonny doesn’t know what to say.

He made Barba happy.

Just now, with that poorly worded invitation to get a drink.

With this entire conversation, maybe.

That’s what Barba meant.

They talked, and they explained, and they flirted, and now Barba ‘might actually be happy.’

Barba wasn’t happy before.

Sonny wasn’t happy either.

Sonny has to struggle to remember the last time he felt happy, before walking into Barba’s office this afternoon.

It was probably at that bar, after Mike’s funeral, after the death threats, when Barba smiled and said, ‘I’m not worried. Not in here,’ and then they clinked their glasses.

Sonny was a mess, that day, but that gave him an overwhelming sense of joy.

Knowing that Barba felt safe with him.

That’s what Barba meant.

‘I’m not worried. Not in here. Not with you.’

That was a long time ago.

Months and months.

That’s a long time to be unhappy.

Even if you’re used to it, like Sonny is.

Or was.

Barba made him happy.

Just now.

Just talking.

Just saying, ‘yes.’

It doesn’t take much to make either of them happy, apparently. Sonny wishes they had figured that out sooner.

Better late than never.

Plus, if they’re happy now, Sonny can only imagine how they’ll feel when they’re on their date, later tonight. A few drinks in, at a quiet bar, sitting as close as the seats will allow, and leaning in, maybe, and th-

“Let’s go, Carisi.”

Sonny is caught off guard, right in the middle of a daydream, and he gets weirdly nostalgic, because that used to happen all the time.

It takes him a moment to understand what Barba is saying.

There won’t be a ‘later tonight.’ Barba wants them to leave for their date immediately.

“Go? What, right now? We can’t just go. It’s barely six o’clock.”

Barba gives Sonny a deadpan look, and Sonny can just hear the unspoken, ‘Thank you, Carisi, but I can tell time,’ and that feels pretty nostalgic too.

Just like old times.

“Yes, Carisi. Right now. I don’t have to clock out. I can just take the rest of the afternoon off. The perks of being an A.D.A. You wouldn’t know.”

Sonny laughs.

Sonny laughs as Barba stands up and puts on his jacket.

Sonny laughs and stares, noticing just how tight Barba’s shirt is on him, and how the suspenders are accentuating his chest.

Sonny doesn’t know how he lived without this, for six whole months.

And by ‘this’ he means both ogling at Barba, and laughing.

Sonny hasn’t laughed freely in a long time. Not without holding back. Not without consciously ignoring his burdens.

Maybe that’s why it’s flooding out, now.

Why it seems so easy, now, even as Barba is joking about the benefits of the job Sonny couldn’t get. A week ago, a day ago, even, that would have set him off.

Now, Sonny can laugh about it.

It wasn’t even that funny of a joke, but Sonny is happy, and that’s enough. It’s enough to know that Barba isn’t flaunting, he’s teasing, and he cares about Sonny, and Sonny can laugh now.

Sonny isn’t angry anymore.

That’s enough.

Of course, knowing that he’s about to go on a date with Barba doesn’t hurt either.

Speaking of, Sonny really needs to get a move on, because Barba is ready to go, coat and scarf and briefcase and all, and he’s still sitting on that same chair with a doting smile on his face, a leftover from the laughter.

Barba is smiling too, as he waits for Sonny to get up.

Sonny missed this.

The smiles.

The fond looks.

Those silent moments of waiting for something.

The long hours he used to spend in Barba’s office, staring, and trying to pay attention, and daydreaming about what might happen, if he ever made a move.

Or if Barba ever made a move. That was always more intense, in Sonny’s head. It was always out of the blue, and passionate, and mind-blowing.

Sonny wonders how he ever got any work done.

Wait.

Work.

Sonny is just now realizing that, unlike Barba, he is not, in fact, an A.D.A. and he does, in fact, need to clock out.

“Um, I still have a couple of hours left until the end of my shift, Barba. I can’t just take off without tellin’ anybody.”

Barba smirks.

Probably because, despite the feeble protest, Sonny still got up, and put on his coat, and is practically with one foot out the door.

Sonny isn’t missing out on this date for nothing. He’ll just call in sick. Liv won’t m-

“Oh? What did you tell Liv, by the way? About this meeting? Let me guess. ‘Sorry, I’ll need an hour to cuss Barba out, but then I’ll be right back to finish my shift.’ How dedicated. At any rate, don’t worry about Liv. I’ll just text her on the way. Tell her it’s my fault you’re not coming back. Tell her I kept you busy and we lost track of time.”

Barba’s smirk makes that sound a lot dirtier than it should.

Also, Sonny simply told Liv he needed to ‘talk’ to Barba, and that wasn’t a lie, even though Barba’s version would have been a lot more truthful and a little mor-

“Have you eaten yet, Carisi? Probably not. Where would you find the time? You’ve been too busy seething all day. That burns a lot of calories, you know. That’s how I maintain my willowy form.”

Sonny is laughing again. Twice in a couple of minutes.

Not because Barba basically asked him out to dinner.

Not because Barba made a joke about that not-so-willowy form Sonny is particularly fond of.

It wasn’t even that funny of a joke.

Sonny is laughing because Barba joked about his temper.

Casually.

As a friend.

As more than that.

Sonny was always worried that confiding in people about his anger would change things.

He was worried he’d be treated with kid gloves, afterwards. He was worried he’d see pity in the eyes of friends. Or judgment. Or fear, like he has in the past. He was worried he’d get one shot to explain, just one awkward conversation, and then nothing. And then, they’d never mention it again. And then, a polite nod, maybe, or an overly earnest look of sympathy and a total inability to relate.

It’s not easy to talk about these things, but it’s not easy to listen, either.

That’s why Sonny never told anybody before.

He always assumed people would rather avoid the issue altogether.

Not Barba.

Barba is tackling it head-on.

Barba isn’t worried Sonny might get angry, or upset at the mere mention of it, and that thought gives Sonny an unexpected sense of relief.

Knowing that Barba won’t ignore that part of him, because it’d be more convenient to pretend their conversation never happened.

Knowing that Barba is willing to joke about it.

No kid gloves.

No pity.

No judgment.

No fear whatsoever.

Nothing’s changed between them.

Barba still teases Sonny, except now they’ve confided in each other, so Barba has even more ammo.

Maybe that’s changed.

They have the dirt on each other now, except it’s not really dirt, it’s just truth.

Not all change is bad.

They’re closer now, and Sonny welcomes it, because it means they can get personal with their teasing, they can mention his temper, or Barba’s little paunch, not that Sonny would ever joke about that, or th-

“Let’s have an early dinner, first. I think that’s a good idea. We shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. Who knows what might happen if we were to get drunk?”

Another smirk.

That’s changed, too.

Barba never used to be so blatant with his innuendo.

Even when he’d get a little more daring, Barba would only use suggestive language when he was at a safe distance, usually sitting behind his desk.

Which was courteous, because it afforded Sonny the opportunity to blush semi-discreetly, and delude himself into thinking Barba wouldn’t notice. That desk, separating them, it allowed Sonny to avoid eye contact until the paleness had fully returned to his face.

That’s not possible right now.

Barba is looking directly into Sonny’s eyes.

He’s standing right in front of Sonny, barely a step away, and he’s looking up, and Sonny swears his smirk is ten times more potent from up-close.

His cologne, too.

By the way, just for the record, Sonny knows exactly what would happen if they were to get drunk. He’s pictured it, a million tim-

“Should I take your slack-jawed stare as a yes, Carisi?”

Just like old times.

Kind of.

Sonny got caught daydreaming again, but this time he has a comeback.

“Sure. Sure, counselor. It’s a yes. I mean, an ‘early dinner’ does sound kinda geriatric, but I get it. At your age, it’s recommended to have dinner at six o’clock at the latest. It’s better for your digestive system.”

Barba rolls his eyes.

Sonny missed this the most.

Barba’s fond eye-rolls.

Teasing Barba in return.

It’s fun to tease him back. Especially now, that they’re closer, and they can get personal with th-

“I really wish you hadn’t said that, Carisi.”

Oh.

Maybe they’re not that close, after all.

Wait.

They’re not.

They’re even closer.

Barba is taking that extra step, and there’s no more space between them, and they’re kissing.

Actually no, they’re not ‘kissing.’

They ‘kissed.’

Past tense.

It was over before Sonny even knew it started.

It was out of the blue, but it wasn’t passionate and it sure as hell wasn’t mind-blowing.

Sonny barely even felt it.

Barba planted one on him, a quick peck on the lips, and it’s over now, and Sonny is currently standing there, with his jaw to the floor, thinking about how the last thing he did before their first kiss was joke about Barba’s hypothetical indigestion.

Very smooth.

Not that Barba is faring better. That wasn’t much of a first kiss. Barba was pretty cavalier up until a moment ago, smirking and kissing Sonny all casual and easy, but after that dud, he looks almost timid.

For some stupid reason.

As if Sonny didn’t love every second of that kiss he doesn’t even remember.

Which is fine.

It’s all the more reason to kiss Barba again.

And that’s exactly what Sonny does.

Sonny goes for it, he leans in, and the last thing he sees before he closes his eyes is the return of Barba’s smirk.

The last thing he hears is a small thud, and he guesses it’s Barba’s briefcase, dropping to the floor.

The last thing he feels is Barba’s hands on his jaw.

And then they kiss.

Again.

It’s not a deep kiss. It’s soft, and slow, and Sonny can feel Barba’s fingers moving to the back of his neck, pulling him closer, he can feel Barba’s chest, rising and falling, against his own, he can feel Barba’s stubble, against is face, Sonny can feel Barba’s tongue brushing against his lips, and this is pretty mind-blowing.

And then Sonny wraps his arms around Barba’s waist, and he squeezes, and Barba moans, low, right into Sonny’s mouth, and if Sonny thought he was happy before, he was sorely mistaken.

And then it ends again.

The kiss ends.

Fortunately, Barba lingers this time.

Their faces stay touching. Their noses stay buried in each other’s cheeks. Sonny can feel Barba’s breath, coming and going, a warm beat against his lips. With each breath, Sonny feels a tiny shred of anger, evaporating.

Leftovers.

It’s like Barba’s breath is cleansing him. Every part of him.

Sonny hasn’t felt this calm in years.

And then Barba leans in for more, nose rubbing against Sonny’s, head tilting to switch sides, and this kiss does get deep, and passionate, and Barba keeps sucking on Sonny’s bottom lip, and tugging at the hair on the nape of Sonny’s neck, Barba keeps moaning, getting louder the longer they kiss, getting closer, the longer they kiss, Barba keeps pressing against Sonny, and then Sonny no longer feels calm.

In a good way.

For once.

Sonny doesn’t th-

“Alright. Now that we got that out of the way, can we go have dinner? It’s after six. We’re cutting it close. I don’t like to gamble when it comes to my digestive health.”

Sonny laughs.

Again.

How could he not?

How could Sonny not laugh, when Barba looks so happy?

Sonny keeps laughing as Barba picks up his briefcase and they leave his office.

Together.

Sort of.

Barba lags behind, just a few steps, and Sonny turns around in time to see him talking to Carmen.

“I’ll be taking the rest of the day off. Cancel my 7 o’clock with Harrison’s attorney. Don’t reschedule yet. Let them sweat. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Simple as that.

Maybe someday, maybe in a year or three, Sonny will be doing that too. Enjoying the perks of being an A.D.A. Cancelling meetings, and letting scumbags sweat, just so he can go on a date. With Barba, hopefully. If he’s lucky. If Barba is lucky, maybe they can still have early dinners together, years from n-

“Of course. Have a nice evening, Mr. Barba. Detective, you too.”

Sonny grins.

Carmen totally knows, going by her fleeting smile.

And Barba knows that she knows, going by his fleeting scowl.

Sonny decides to push his luck and say something ‘funny,’ like he used to.

That’s another thing Sonny missed. His own terrible jokes. Is that weird?

Probably.

Sonny is about to tell Carmen he’ll take real good care of her boss, when he feels warmth, on the small of his back.

It’s Barba’s hand.

Leading him outside.

It’s possible Barba could tell Sonny was about to say something dumb, and the hand is meant to shush him.

It’s also possible that Barba just wanted to touch Sonny.

Sonny doesn’t know which explanation he prefers.

He just knows he’s grinning even wider, as Barba catches up to him and they walk away, side by side.

He just knows they’re going on a date.

An early dinner, and then drinks, and then God knows what.

Actually, Sonny knows exactly what.

He’s pictured it a million times.


Sonny can’t sit still.

He’s too impatient.  

Too energized.

Too happy.

It’s a slow day, and it’s still early, and he’s been trying to distract himself with a crossword puzzle, but it’s not really working.

Mostly because he gets stuck on every other word.

Sonny never liked crossword puzzles.

Still, it’s a better distraction than most. It looks professional, at least, when he’s on his desk, pen in hand, jotting something down every few seconds. It sure beats him playing a random game on his phone, and looking like he’s goofing off on the job.

Sonny isn’t goofing off. As soon as they get a case, he’ll get right on it, with his usual dedication.

Just without his usual anger.

Until then, this is a slow day, and it’s still early, and Sonny is impatient, and he’s stuck on another word again, and he needs to get up to stretch his legs.

The first thing he sees, as he paces across the station, is Fin, looking antsy.

Antsier than Sonny, even.

Which makes him an even better distraction.

“Hey, any word?”

“No. Stop asking?”

Whoa.

That Sergeant’s exam is sure making Fin lose his cool.

Sonny is kind of glad to see this new side of him. It’s a pleasant surprise. It’s good to know that Sonny wasn’t the exception, when he was freaking out about the results of the bar exam. It’s good to know that even a guy like Fin can get nervous.

It’s almost cute.

In fact, if Fin weren’t Fin, Sonny would tell him just that.

As it is, Sonny just shrugs.

“Alright. It’s just, you know. Sergeant Tutuola’s got a nice ring to it.”

Fin’s glare is enough to get Sonny to turn on his heel.

Sonny is so eager to retreat, that he almost bumps into Jeff from Booking.

Which might be a good thing.

“Hey, what is a ten-letter word for ‘bad luck’?”

Jeff doesn’t seem inclined to help.

Either that, or he’s just as bad at crosswords as Sonny is.

Unfortunately, without Jeff’s help, Sonny is gonna be stuck on that damn word for a whil-

“Misfortune.”

Liv to the rescue.

As always.

Sonny goes back to his desk and fills in the word with enthusiasm. It’s a long one, which means it’s gonna help him figure out a bunch of the other words, too.

And that’s enough to put a smile on his face, apparently.

At least when he’s in a good mood.

And Sonny is in a great mood.

He has another date with Barba.

A late dinner, this time.

At Sonny’s place.

That’s what’s got him all invigorated.

And jittery.

And happy.

It’s a slow day, and it’s still early, and Sonny is happy, and his date with Barba isn’t for another eight hours, and he’s been trying to distract himself with a crossword puzzle, but it’s not really working, because this time it’s gonna be differen-

Sonny’s phone buzzes.

He knows it’s Barba before he even looks.

‘Do you want me to ask Liv to let you off early?’

Oh.

That’s promising.

Probably.

Sonny grins as he types.

‘Why? You can’t wait to see me?’

Sonny counts the seconds until Barba’s next text.

Not in anticipation. He just wants to know how long Barba’s eye-roll will last.

Fourteen seconds.

‘I can wait just fine, Sonny. I just want to make sure you’ll have enough time to cook. You know I can’t eat after six. Unless you want to give me heartburn.’

Sonny doesn’t even know where to start.

Barba calls him ‘Sonny’ now.

That’s a good starting point.

And they have an inside joke.

At least that’s what Sonny likes to call it, even though he knows Barba is just rubbing it in. The fact Sonny saw it fit to call him ‘geriatric’ when they were about to kiss.

In Sonny’s defense, he didn’t know that at the time.

Hell, he barely knew they were kissing while it was happening.

Truth be told, Sonny has teased Barba about that fiasco of a first kiss plenty of times, so he figures it’s only fair if he catches a little grief, too.

Also, yes, Sonny is cooking tonight. And he is beyond ready.

And beyond jittery. Like, way beyond.

‘Don’t you worry, Barba. I got the groceries in the fridge, and I finished my meal prep this morning. Dinner will be on your plate by 5:59.’

Sonny still calls him Barba.

It just feels right.

Also, yes, Sonny did wake up one hour earlier, just to chop up some vegetables and make a marinade.

Only the best for Barb-

‘Meal prep? Is that why it took you over a month to cook for me? You needed all that time to prepare?’

Sonny would be hard-pressed to say no.

He did promise to cook for Barba a while ago. On their very first date, in fact, right after Barba complained his chicken was dry, within earshot of their waiter, in classic Barba style.

The thing is, Barba isn’t wrong.

It takes time to plan a fancy meal.

And it’s going to be very fancy, thank-you-very-much. Barba is clearly a harsh critic, in everything from fashion, to literature, to legal arguments, to classic Italian meals, and Sonny wants to make a good first impression. He just hasn’t had time to cook anything intricate, before tonight. Sonny didn’t want to make a quick pasta for Barba, like he does for all his friends.

Barba deserves a four-course meal.

And it takes time to enjoy a fancy meal, too.

On some days, Sonny and Barba barely have time to eat. Food tends to take a backseat when you’re only free for an hour or two. Sharing a meal can be fun, but they usually prefer to spend their time together a little more creatively.

They’ve actually cancelled four separate dinner dates because of work. The first time, Sonny was all torn up, until Barba said he’d drop by with a pizza, as soon as he was done.

They’ve been having a lot of pizza, this past month.

It’s time for a home-cooked meal.

‘Only the best for you, Barba.’

Sonny stares at his phone for a few seconds, even though he knows it’s no use.

Barba won’t text back.

He won’t send a, ‘See you tonight,’ or a, ‘Looking forward to it,’ or a, ‘Thank you for offering to make dinner, Sonny,’ or even a, ‘Have a nice day,’ like a normal person might.

Like a normal boyfriend might.

That’s Barba’s thing, apparently. He always does this. He doesn’t bother to send a simple, ‘Okay,’ sometimes, even when the conversation requires it. Whenever Sonny asks about it later, he always says, ‘It’s implied, Sonny,’ or, ‘I have better things to do than send you single-word texts.’

Unfortunately, that’s information Sonny didn’t have when they first started dating. He is mildly ashamed to admit that, on the morning after their first date, he sent a desperate, ‘You there, Barba?’ after twenty minutes of getting no response.

Barba immediately replied, ‘Yes.’

Period and all. Just to make a point.  

Sonny knows better now.

That’s the real dirt on Barba. He doesn’t text back.

Which is a small price to pay, if you want to call him your boyfriend.

Not that Sonny does that.

Not out loud.

Not yet.

Anyway.

It’s back to the crossword puzzle.

Actually, maybe Sonny should go bug Fin again. It’s been a few minutes. Maybe the exam results were posted while he was texting Barba.

It’s worth a shot. If only to see Fin’s expression when he tells Sonny to buzz off.

Sonny missed that too.

Not being told to buzz off, of course. Not exactly.

Sonny just missed going around the precinct and annoying everybody with his eagerness.

With his happiness.

He used to do that all the time.

Sonny was pretty happy. For years.

And now he’s happy again, and he’s back to bouncing off the walls with a grin on his face.

All day long.

All month long.

Why stop now?

Fin looks distracted with a phone call, so Sonny tries to get up as discreetly as he can. He figures it’s better if Fin doesn’t see him coming.

No such luck.

Fin cuts him off with a sharp glare.

Sonny sits his ass back down.

The crossword it is.

What’s a seven-letter word for t-

Wait.

Another text.

A whopping seven minutes later.

Maybe Barba is learning to be a little more demonstrative.

‘I spoke to A.D.A.  Mendez, she’s fine with you observing her on Thursday, on that double homicide trial, as long as you clear it with Liv first. You need to broaden your horizons, Sonny. Criminal Law isn’t just Special Victims.’

Or not.

Sonny smiles, anyway.

Barba is still helping him.

Barba is fixing all of Sonny’s problems, even those that seemed like they were beyond salvation.

The door is open.

There’s a way out, now.

Sonny is on his way out.

Out of that slump.

He feels happy now, because his previously unfortunate love life has suddenly picked up, and because he’s broadening his horizons professionally, and because things are going well, all courtesy of Barba, the love life especially, but Sonny knows he’s not done struggling.

Things won’t always go well.

Maybe Sonny will strike out on another job.

He probably will.

Maybe there’ll be another bad case.

There will definitely be another bad case.

Maybe Barba won’t always be there.

It’s certainly possible, likely, even, and Sonny needs to be ready to handle th-

‘See you tonight, Sonny. And I hope you haven’t made dessert. I made flan. My mother’s recipe.’

Oh.

Barba made flan.

His mother’s recipe.

For Sonny.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, he texted back.

Maybe Barba leaving is not that likely.

Sonny will be ready, either way.

For everything.

For good things, too.

Sonny had forgotten what it’s like to look forward to something.

To hope.

He remembers, now.

He hopes Barba will like his cooking.

He looks forward to trying Barba’s flan.

Happiness can be found anywhere.

Sonny remembers, now.

Barba opened that door, but Sonny will make sure it stays open.

‘I can’t wait.’

Chapter Text

“Is he here yet?”

“No, Mr. Barba. Not yet. I’ll send him in, as soon as he arrives.”

Rafael sighs.

He’s pretty sure Carmen would sigh too, if she weren’t the consummate professional that she is. He’s asked her five times, already, and the meeting isn’t for another ten minutes.

He can’t help it.

Rafael can’t help feeling nervous.

Frustrated.

Useless.

It’s not his case.

He knows that.

It can’t be his case.

Rafael had to quietly recuse himself.

Again.

He knows his record is taking a hit. A last-minute recusal due to blackmail, and then a month-long suspension due to prior misconduct, and then another recusal, due to Rafael’s ‘personal connection’ to the case.

Rafael remembers a time when his record was spotless.

A time when his conviction rate was the envy of every A.D.A. across five boroughs.

A time when he was ambitious, and up-and-coming, and thirsty for victory.

Rafael remembers a time when he didn’t have any personal connections.

At all.

A time when he made enemies in every precinct, because he based his decisions on logic, and odds, and cold hard facts.

Now, Rafael makes friends.

Somehow.

Now, he lets himself get talked into some decisions.

Decisions like getting almost baseless warrants, and prosecuting creeps when the law isn’t quite on his side, and trying cases no one else would touch with a ten-foot pole.

The worst part is, Rafael has no regrets.

He thinks he should, but he doesn’t.

He’s not sure what that means.

If he’s evolved, or devolved.

If he’s become a better person, or a worse prosecutor.

Or both.

Either way, he has no regrets.

None, except for the deterioration of his relationship with the District Attorney, who was not amused when Rafael asked for another recusal, so soon after the last one.

It was bound to happen. Even the world’s most understanding boss can be pushed to the brink. And Rafael has been pushing, for months now. Years, maybe. There’s still trust between them, at least, and some residual fondness, but long gone are the days when Rafael used to be the golden child.

Now he’s the black sheep.

It was bound to happen.

Rafael has no regrets.

He only wishes he could help more.

Work more.

Rafael has only worked one case with Manhattan SVU, in over two months.

One single case.

He’s always on the sidelines.

Always asking for a favor.

It’s a good thing he has friends, now.

The D.A. may not have been amused, but when Rafael asked him to withhold the reasons for both recusals, to protect innocent third parties, he did it without a second thought.

The other A.D.A.’s may not enjoy the heavier caseload, but they always agree to cover for Rafael, whenever he needs to step down.

Rafael appreciates it.

He only wishes it didn’t have to happen so often.

Other prosecutors, trying his cases.

It’s his job.

It’s not theirs.

It’s Rafael’s job to work with Manhattan SVU. It’s his life’s purpose.

Still.

He has no regrets.

He has no choice.

Liv and Noah are more important.

Rafael has to protect them.

That’s why he had to recuse himself. Rafael had to make sure Liv’s privacy and Noah’s lineage were protected. He had to keep himself away from this case, because his very involvement could open the door to some unfortunate revelations.

Duca may be a crackpot, but he has access to a variety of means. Legal and illegal. Money. Crazies with guns. Hackers for hire. If Rafael’s name were to be thrown in the mix, it wouldn’t take long for Duca to put it all together.

To target Liv more aggressively.

More accurately.

Knowledge is power. The less Duca knows, the better.

Rafael prosecuted Noah’s biological father.

Duca doesn’t know that.

If he did, if Duca ever got wind of that, they could all be in trouble. If Duca were to hire someone to look into Noah’s adoption paperwork, sealed or otherwise, he’d find Johnny D.’s name right there, in bold letters. All because Liv just had to be honest. A good hacker could get the job done in minutes. Rafael has been burned before.

And he’d get burned again.

Rafael would be the very next person implicated, as the prosecutor in Johnny D.’s trial. As the same prosecutor who wouldn’t take on Congressman Bolton, because unsubstantiated claims on a hokey website aren’t exactly hard evidence.

That would paint a target on his back.

Duca would have a field day trying to discredit him.

Trying to discredit Liv, too.

It wouldn’t even be that difficult.

The ingredients for a scandal are all there.

Liv ‘just happened’ to personally arrest Johnny D., the biological father of the child she was in the process of adopting.

Rafael, Liv’s close personal friend, a fact that’s easily verifiable, ‘just happened’ to prosecute that same man, offering a suspiciously favorable plea deal, just to manipulate him into relinquishing his parental rights.

Nick Amaro, another one of Liv’s personal friends, not to mention her direct subordinate, ‘just happened’ to shoot and kill Johnny D. in the middle of a crowded courtroom, effectively rendering Noah ‘fatherless,’ as Duca likes to say.

Rendering Noah ‘available.’

There for the taking.

That’s how Duca would frame it. He’d start peddling a new theory. Forget being bribed with babies, Duca would claim Liv set everything up, from arrest to prosecution to murder, just so she could get rid of Noah’s biological father. No need to wait for the courts to decide on custody. Duca would say Liv took it upon herself to make sure she wouldn’t have to drive little Noah to Rikers for parental visitation until his eighteenth birthday.

That’s what Duca would say.

That’s how a wild conspiracy theory would turn into a real story.

Or ‘real.’

These days, there’s not much of a difference.

Rafael can only imagine that headline.

‘Killer Cop Steals Baby.’

Or something to that effect.

Liv doesn’t need that. The ‘real’ fake headline is bad enough.

Let Duca take shots in the dark. Let him post salacious nonsense about ‘flesh’ and using babies as bargaining chips. Let him make a fool of himself.

Rafael will not give him any information he can use.

Rafael will just sit in his office, frustrated and useless, and wait for th-

“Hey, counselor! Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. Carmen said I should come right in.”

Carisi.

Finally.

Finally, an update.

“How’s Liv?”

Rafael instantly regrets the bluntness of the question. The lack of a greeting. He skipped the pleasantries to save time, but he suspects he only made things worse. They’ll waste even more time, now. Carisi will probably scoff and say something like, ‘Well, hello to you too, Barb-

“She’s good. She’s mad, but she’s good. Especially now that she and Amanda got their kids to New Jersey, until this whole thing blows over. It’s all good. It’s gonna take a lot more than some hack with a website to rattle Liv. Don’t worry about her, Barba. We got her back.”

Oh.

Carisi didn’t waste time. He got straight to the point.

Sometimes Rafael forgets Carisi worries about Liv, too.

“I know, Carisi. I’m jus-”

“You’re just frustrated ‘cause you can’t help. I hear ya.”

Straight to the point, yet again.

Sometimes Rafael forgets Carisi knows him too well.

“Frustrated? Me? Why on earth would I be frustrated, Carisi? Because I had to recuse myself again, five minutes after my suspension? Because that lowlife is posting that drivel about Liv and I can’t prosecute his ass? Because I’m off the case, and out of the loop, and I have to sit here and wait for you to grace me with your presence, if I want to know what’s going on?”

Carisi smiles in sympathy and starts unbuttoning his coat.

Rafael wishes he hadn’t said that.

One smile from Carisi, and Rafael regrets snapping.

Carisi hasn’t even sat down yet.

Carisi rushed to the D.A.’s office, all the way from the precinct, just to give Rafael an update in person.

Carisi is winded, which Rafael is only now noticing. It’s like he literally ran there. In fact, knowing Carisi, that’s probably exactly what he did. At the very least, he must have jogged there from his car.

Carisi had no reason to even show up, let alone come running.

Carisi is doing Rafael a favor, out of the goodness of his heart, and he was so eager to get there he’s still trying to catch his breath, and Rafael saw it fit to chew him out for not getting there earlier.

Carisi wasn’t even late.

Rafael sighs.

Carisi has been there for a minute, now, and he’s still standing, and he’s still in his coat and scarf, because Rafael is a very ungracious host.

Rafael hasn’t even said hello.

He hasn’t even asked how Carisi is doing. How things are, back at the precinct, now that two members of the squad are being targeted like this.

It can’t be easy.

Carisi is empathetic to a fault, and he always gets worked up when a case involves children, so this can’t be easy for him, either. And Fin, too. He’s been especially sensitive to children, ever since he became a grandfather. That’s according to Carisi’s random blathering, at least. Rafael has yet to witness said sensitivity in person.

Probably because he has only worked one case with SVU, in over two months.

Anyway.

Now that Rafael has remembered his manners, not to mention his own empathy, or something close to it, he’ll ask Carisi all about it.

As soon as Carisi takes a seat.

As soon as Carisi takes off that coat, maybe the jacket, too, and gets comfortable in Rafael’s leather armchair.

That’s what they do. Carisi sits in the armchair, with his jacket draped over one of its arms, and Rafael sits on the couch, and they’re so close their knees sometimes touch, and they rely on the coffee table to keep them apart.

That’s what they do.

They huddle together over that damn table, over piles of paper and cups of coffee and half-eaten pastries, always courtesy of Carisi, and they work.

They talk. 

Carisi did just show up empty-handed, but Rafael is sure that’s because he didn’t want to be late.

It doesn’t matter.

It’s not about the coffee.

Well, most of the time it is about the coffee, at least as far as Rafael is concerned, but it’s not just about the coffee.

Rafael doesn’t let anyone else sit in his armchair.

Only Carisi.

That chair, that expensive leather chair, it’s an antique. It’s Rafael’s favorite spot, in his entire office. It’s his spot. It’s where he always sits when he wants to relax and enjoy a glass of bourbon.

Unless Carisi is there.

Rafael doesn’t mind it when Carisi plops down on that elegant chair like it’s a crusty futon in a dorm room.

Carisi likes sitting in that armchair.

Or on Rafael’s actual desk.

Those are the two only places he deems worthy of his ass, for some reason.

The perfectly comfortable chairs across Rafael’s desk, specifically placed there to seat visitors, they’re no good for Carisi.

Rafael doesn’t mind that, either.

He understands why Carisi does it.

It’s the distance.

Those chairs are too far away. That’s why Rafael never gets up from behind his desk for a perp, or a defense attorney, or a politician.

The distance between Rafael’s seat and those chairs, it establishes an air of formality. Coldness. The desk itself, it’s a symbol of power. The nameplate serves as a reminder of who Rafael is, and it should be clearly visible to his guests, at all times.

That doesn’t apply to Carisi.

Carisi knows who Rafael is.

No reminder necessary.

That’s why Rafael always gets up for him.

To eliminate the distance.

Carisi is already hovering over the armchair, so Rafael gets on his feet. Maybe he can’t have his favorite spot now that Carisi is there to occupy it, but the couch is a decent substitute.

Rafael hasn’t even sat down yet, when Carisi lamentably takes off his red scarf.

That’s always the first thing he does, every time he wears it. Rafael noticed it a while back. Carisi almost looks uncomfortable wearing it, for some reason, even though it looks fantastic against his pale skin. It’s too loud for him, maybe. Maybe Carisi feels the red attracts too much attention.

Rafael happens to think that a hint of red attracts just the right amount of attention, but being a snazzy dresser isn’t for everyone.

As if to prove that, Carisi proceeds to take off his generic navy pea coat, revealing a dull but passable brown suit underneath.

Carisi starts unbuttoning his jacket, too, and Rafael settles down on the couch, where the view of a disrobing Carisi is a little bit better.

At least Carisi is wearing a blue shirt today. That’s something, even if the shade of the blue tie he’s chosen doesn’t add much to the ensemble. It brings out Carisi’s eyes, and that’s good enough.

Rafael always thought Carisi should wear blue more often, but there’s just something about off-white, apparently. Carisi loves it. White, whiter, a little less white, white-ish, beige if Carisi is feeling adventurous. Rafael never understood why so many people are afraid of color.

The one and only saving grace in Carisi’s wardrobe are those vests he wears, on an almost daily basis. A good vest is the easiest way to elevate a plain outfit. Carisi’s actually wearing a nice brown vest today, and th…

Wait.

“What are you wearing, Carisi?”

Carisi grins as he finally sinks into Rafael’s armchair, coat and jacket and scarf haphazardly thrown behind him.

“What’s it look like I’m wearing, Barba? A suit.”

Uh-huh.

“Any reason you’re wearing that particular suit? Today?”

Carisi shrugs and starts rolling up his sleeves.

Slowly.

Innocently.

It’s not convincing in the least. His grin alone is damning evidence.

“I don’t know. I just thought it looked good. Why? You don’t think it looks good, counselor?”

This feigned nonchalance does nothing to help Carisi’s case.

Rafael is onto him.

“It looks fine. On any other day, I might even compliment you on it.”

Carisi frowns.

“What, you’re not gonna compliment me today? Guess I got all dressed up for nothin’.”

Rafael barely stops himself before rolling his eyes.

“I might as well compliment myself, Carisi. Seeing as we’re wearing the exact same outfit.”

Carisi’s poker face is impressive.

He assumes a completely neutral expression, like he has no idea what Rafael is talking about.

There’s no reaction at all, as Rafael loosens up his own blue tie, and fiddles with the lapel of his own brown vest, and starts undoing the cuffs of his own blue shirt, that’s a perfect shade match for Caris-

“The exact same outfit? That’s kind of a reach, Barba. We’re both wearin’ a brown suit. You, me, and half the guys in this building.”

Right.

“Right. And the shirt?”

The corners of Carisi’s lips move. It’s a small flinch, but it’s enough to make his dimples show, just for a second.

“What about it? You got the exclusive on blue shirts?”

This time, Rafael does roll his eyes.

“I have the exclusive on the clothes I’m currently wearing.”

Carisi finally breaks.

Into a smile.

“I never said you didn’t.”

Rafael sighs.

“No. You just happened to pick this outfit. Today.”

Carisi’s dimples appear again.

“Yep. You said it, counselor. I picked it. Guess we both got great taste.”

There’s an irony in that statement, and Rafael appreciates it.

He does not appreciate copycats.

“At least take off the vest, Carisi. We look like twins.”

Carisi grins, probably because he knows they do not look like twins.

Not by a long shot.

They just look like two grown men who are wearing matching outfits, for some reas-

“Twins? Nah. More like one half of a barbershop quartet.”

Of course.

Why didn’t Rafael think of that?

“Come on, Carisi. Enough with the jokes. We can’t walk around in the same outfit all day.”

Carisi keeps grinning.

“Why not? It’s not like we’re gonna spend the day together. You can’t work this case, which means you won’t be coming to the precinct. So what if we’re wearing similar outfits? Who’s gonna know?”

Carisi is sticking to his story.

‘Similar.’

‘Similar’ outfits, even though their suits are pretty much the same shade of brown, and their vests are near-identical, save for the fact Rafael’s vest has a silk back, and they’re both wearing foulard ties in a muted dark blue, and Carisi is literally wearing the same exact shirt as Rafael, just in a different size.

Rafael takes solace in the fact Carisi’s foulard is more understated and basic, whereas his own has a bolder and more eye-catching pattern.

Well, some solace.

“I’ll know, Carisi.”

Carisi snorts.

He’s enjoying this.

Rafael is not.

“Maybe I won’t come to the precinct, but you came here. You are here, in my office. What if one of my colleagues sees you? Sees us, in our ‘similar’ outfits?”

Carisi is still all smiles.

Rafael would smile back, but he doesn’t want to give Carisi the satisfaction. Even though it’s hard not to smile b-

“What, you’re afraid somebody’s gonna see our outfits look kinda similar, and that’ll reflect poorly on ya? ‘Cause you’ll be wearing the same thing as me? ‘Cause the stylish Rafael Barba put together the same outfit as Dominick Carisi, Jr.?”

Oh no.

Rafael hadn’t even thought of that.

“I hadn’t even thought of that.”

Carisi cracks up, likely at the panicked expression on Rafael’s face.

“Sorry to cramp your style, counselor. Guess you’re gonna have to live with it.”

That is true on so many levels.

“I will do no such thing, Carisi. You will fix this.”

Carisi smirks, like he has absolutely no intention of fixing this.

“Fix this? What do you want me to say, Barba? Wait, I know. You wore it best. Congrats. Alright? Did I fix it? Are we good?”

They are not good.

“You’ve had your fun, detective. Now take off that vest.”

Carisi keeps smirking, like he has absolutely no intention of taking off that vest.

Which is a shame.

For a moment, Rafael pictures Carisi gettin-

“No way. If one of us has to change, it’s gotta be you. You’re the one with the problem. I don’t mind us matching.”

Resisting a smile wasn’t easy for Rafael, but resisting a sneer is impossible.

“Clearly.”

Carisi chuckles.

“I’m serious, Barba. If you’re so offended, you change. Besides, I can’t take off the vest. Vests are my thing.”

Okay.

Now Carisi is just messing with him.

“I wore vests when you were in kindergarten. I doubt you even owned a vest before you met me. Vests are my thing.”

Carisi dares to raise an eyebrow.

It’s not enough he’s copying Rafael’s outfits, now he’s moved on to copying Rafael’s expressions, too, and th-

“I thought suspenders were your thing.”

One of these days, Rafael swears he’s going to reassert himself. Carisi has gotten way too comfortable.

“They are. I have many ‘things,’ Carisi. Unlike you. I have suspenders, and floral ties, and pocket squares, and pastel polo shirts. And vests. So take it off. Now.”

Carisi blinks.

His lips come apart.

It’s probably an involuntary reaction to Rafael’s commanding tone.

Carisi is probably imagining Rafael uttering those same words, in that same tone, under very different circumstances, and that has to be more than a little distracting.

Looks like Rafael just found a quick way to gain the upper hand w-

“You’re makin’ my point for me, counselor. You got many things. Vests are my one and only thing. Ergo, you should change.”

Oh.

Looks like Rafael has a long way to go until he can reestablish dominance over Carisi.

That’s alright.

There’s plenty of time.

For now, Rafael will keep it simple. A classic taunt should do.

“Ergo?”

Carisi laughs quietly.

Happily.

Rafael smiles, after all.

These little moments, over the coffee table, these little conversations, Carisi’s jokes, Carisi’s dimples, deep lines cutting into his skin, almost as deep as those frown lines on his forehead, they’re a pretty good reason to smile.

The only reason, sometimes.

When Rafael is suspended or otherwise sidelined, when he can’t work, when he can’t help, when he can’t find anything else in his life that’s good, these little talks with Carisi, they do the trick.

“Did you honestly think using Latin would win you this argument, detective?”

Carisi is still laughing.

He’s close enough to touch, now, he’s leaning all the way forward, and Rafael thinks th-

“Worth a shot. Hey, instead of me takin’ off the vest, and ruining my signature look, why don’t you just grab somethin’ out of your stash? We’re in your office. Don’t you have a spare shirt you can change into, or something? A shirt that’s a different color? Or another tie? Don’t you have, I don’t know, an extra pair of suspenders lying around? In case of a fashion emergency?”

Rafael doesn’t even know where to begin. ‘Fashion emergency,’ or the ridiculous notion that Carisi has a ‘signature look.’

“I put a lot of thought into this ensemble, Carisi. I refuse to defile it with mismatched accessories, just because of you. And, yes, I did keep an extra pair of suspenders here, but I had to use them. You see, there was an emergency, the other day. Right here, actually. On this couch. The pair I was wearing at the time, it snapped. The back piece was torn off. The leather flap was frayed. Ruined. They were custom made, too. They had great sentimental value. Such a pity.”

Carisi leans even closer, like he’s intrigued. Like he wants to know more about that mysterious ‘emergency’ on the couch. Carisi looks like he sympathizes. His brow is practically furrowed in concern.

Bullshit.

As if Carisi gives a damn about Rafael’s fancy accessor-

“That sucks.”

How poetic.

“It does suck. Especially because I’ve neglected to replace that pair, which means I’m all out of suspenders. Ergo, you should change.”

Carisi’s grin is getting very annoying. So what if Rafael felt like using Latin too? That doesn’t mean h-

“You’re still on that, Barba? Let it go. I gotta leave in a few minutes, anyway. Liv’s expecting me back at the station. I’ll make sure to button my coat before I go, all the way up. Alright? Nobody’s gonna see what I’m wearing.”

Oh.                                                              

Rafael’s reason to smile is about to walk out the door.

Story of his life.

At least he can trust Carisi to come back.

“Don’t be so sure, detective. Someone could still see your poor imitation of my outfit. Someone could walk into my office, before you leave. Right now, someon-”

Someone’s at the door.

Right now.

Someone’s knocking.

Carisi has the audacity to laugh.

“Come on, Barba, it’s just Carmen. She kn-”

“Mr. Barba, A.D.A. Caliay is here to see you.”

It is Carmen.

It is not, however, just Carmen.

It’s Rose, too.

To his credit, Carisi attempts to stifle his laughter. And he keeps his mouth shut, too.

Prudently.

Rafael is this close to telling him t-

“Mr. Barba? She says she doesn’t have much time.”

Of course she doesn’t.

“Let her in, Carmen.”

Carisi sits up and moves away, just a little.

Moves out of reach.

That’s all.

Carisi makes no attempt to fix this mess. To put on a jacket, at least.

There’s no way Rose won’t notice.

And she does.

As soon as she walks in, Rose stops in her tracks.

Well, first she looks at Rafael’s empty desk, and when she finds no one there, she turns to the armchair.

It’s Rafael’s favorite spot.

It’s where he always sits.

Unless Carisi is there.

Carisi is there, so Rose turns to the couch, and that’s when she finally sees Rafael. And Rafael’s outfit.

Her eyes immediately flit back to Carisi.

Then, back to Rafael.

Then, back to Carisi.

This goes on for several seconds.

Rose’s eyes, darting back and forth.

Her brain, trying to process what she’s seeing.

All the while, Carisi is just sitting pretty. Like nothing’s wrong. Like he and Rafael didn’t get caught wearing practically the same outfit.

Carisi is just smiling politely, or casually, or charmingly, or stupidly.

Or something.

Rafael’s smile is a little less charming, and a lot more fake.

Rose will definitely have some questions later.

This has never happened before.

Ever.

Rafael’s outfits are always unique, and creative, and striking. He always stands out among the other lawyers, not to mention the cops, with their basic blues and their gloomy greys and their washed out whit-

“Rafael, I, uh… I won’t keep you two… I won’t keep you long. I just wanted to give you an update on the Duca subpoena. Do you have time? Or are you… Am I interrupting? Are you guys working on something?”

Rafael can’t even lie.

He can’t pretend he’s working.

He can’t pretend Carisi is there for a case, even though that is kind of true.

Rose would never believe him.

Why would she?

Rafael and Carisi, they’re just lounging in their matching outfits. That’s what it looks like. That’s what it is. There are no case files on the table in front of them, no open folders, no scattered documents, no laptops. Even their phones are still tucked away in their pockets. Aside from them being colleagues, there’s nothing to suggest this is a work-related meeting.

There’s not even any coffee on the damn coffee table, which is there for that explicit purpose, and everybody knows Rafael Barba does not work without coffee.

Rafael and Carisi, they were too busy chatting to even pour themselves a cup.

They were too busy arguing.

Too busy flirting.

Carisi didn’t even give Rafael a real update on the case. Nothing after that first question about Liv. Rafael didn’t even ask a follow-up. He spent all morning worrying about her, but one vague, ‘she’s good,’ from Carisi, and Rafael felt perfectly reassured. That was the last they spoke of the case. Rafael moved on to something more fun, like arguing with Carisi about suspenders.

For fifteen minutes.

Carisi has a way of reassuring him.

Even when they’re arguing, which has been happening a little more lately, even when their arguments are legitimate, and serious, and not a thinly veiled attempt to flirt, even then, Carisi’s presence is reassuring.

Always.

Rafael always loses track of time, when they’re sitting in this little corner, in his office, over the coffee table that’s more of a prop and less of a t-

“Rafael? Are you busy? Because I am. I need to leave in about five minutes.”

Rose.

Right.

Rafael hasn’t said a word since she came in.

To say that’s embarrassing would be an understatement, and yet it’s not even the most embarrassing thing currently happening to him. That honor goes to Carisi’s quiet snort.

“No. No, go ahead, Rose. What did you want to tell me?”

Rose shoots Carisi another fleeting look, but she doesn’t ask if she can speak freely in front of him.

Rafael is glad. Carisi would find that very upsetting. He may not be an A.D.A., but h-

“I found a case I can use, to prevent Duca from blocking the subpoena. United States versus Sterling. ‘So long as a subpoena is issued in good faith, based on the legitimate need of law enforcement, the government need not make any special showing to obtain evidence, criminal conduct from a reporter in a criminal proceeding.’

Oh.

That’s gr-

“That’s great, Rose! Even if the judge agrees to treat him like a legitimate journalist, the subpoena will stand. Because there’s a legit-”

“There’s a legitimate need for the information that’s on his hard drive. Exactly! Exactly, Carisi. We need that evidenc-”

“We need that evidence to save those girls. Yeah. That’s awesome! That’s a slam dunk! How did you find this case?”

Rafael isn’t even surprised.  

Rose was supposed to be updating him, but Carisi is the one who’s getting the detailed update. Carisi is the one who’s eagerly asking all the questions, and Rose seems equally eager to answer them.

Carisi’s stupid smile must be charming, after all.

At least Rose seems to think so. She cracks a smile of her own, a genuine, real smile, nothing like the awkward smile she’s been giving Rafael this whole time, and she starts explaining her research to Carisi, step by step. She even moves closer, to stand over him, and Carisi is looking up at her like she’s giving him the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

That’s nice.

For them.

Rafael remembers when he used to get excited over case law.

A long, long time ago.

Maybe he could be a little more helpful, when Carisi asks him these questions. A little less dismissive. A little more specific. He usually rattles off a case title and lets Carisi worry about finding it, let alone making sense of it. Rose is taking a more hands-on approach, citing journal articles and websites, and Carisi seems to be responding favorably. Hell, Carisi is half a second away from busting out the notepad, and that makes Rafael irrationally jealous.

Thankfully, the notepad stays in Carisi’s pocket.

Rafael likes to think the notepad is reserved just for him. Just for his pearls of wisdom, which Carisi always seems to lap up.

In truth, Carisi probably has no time to get his notepad. He’s too busy absorbing all that information. He’s too busy staring into Rose’s eyes.

Rose keeps talking.

She only stops when Carisi interrupts her to ask for clarification, and then she graciously elaborates.

Rafael never lets Carisi ask for clarification. And, as a mentor, he is anything but gracious.

He’s also anything but a mentor, but that’s a whole other issue.

Rose keeps on talking.

She said she only had five minutes to spare, but she appears to have forgotten that.

Rafael decides to remind her.

“That sounds good, Rose. A slam dunk, as Detective Carisi astutely observed. But shouldn’t you be heading out? I thought you were supposed to be in Motions Court in a few minutes.”

Rose frowns, like she really did forget. Or maybe like she lost track of time.

Rafael doesn’t blame her. Carisi has that effect on peopl-

“Right. Yeah, I’m heading out now. I just wanted to tell you about this in person. You said you wanted regular updates on the case, so I thought I’d drop by, on my way to court. It beats a phone call. I know this case is important to you.”

Rafael nods.

Even when he’s unable to work a case, for reasons out of his control, he has trusted colleagues who are his eyes and ears. Colleagues who can fill in for him, and take over his cases, and win, just like he would have.

Rafael has friends, like Rose.

Like Carisi.

People who know when something hits him hard.

People who want to help him feel less frustrated.

More involved.

That means a lot.

“I appreciate that, Rose. Really. You didn’t have to come by my office, but I’m glad you did. Thank you. And that was a great find. You’ll have no problem with the subpoena. Good job.”

Rose grins.

Her grin is almost Carisi-esque in its brightness.

Sometimes Rafael forgets Carisi isn’t the only one who admires him to an almost disturbing degree. There are several younger A.D.A.s at the Manhattan office, Rose being one of them, and they all look up to him. Any one of them would kill for such praise from the less-than-effusive Rafael Barba.

That thought should make Rafael feel good about himself, and it sort of does, but it also makes him feel old. Rose, and Carisi, for that matter, they’re from a different generat-

“Don’t mention it, Rafael. It’s my pleasure.”

Rafael smiles.

Carisi smiles too, for some reason. This smile isn’t stupid, though, or charming, or even polite.

It’s sweet.

Carisi is smiling sweetly, as he watches Rose and Rafael smiling at each other, and there’s currently way too much smiling happening in Rafael’s office.  

Carisi is smiling like he’s happy to know Rafael has friends, other than him.

Which is endearingly foolish.

Of course Rafael has friends. He has plenty of frien…

Well, he has a few friends, but they’re good ones. All of them.

Well, except for Caris…

No.

Carisi included.

Rafael knows he’s lucky to have Carisi in his life.

Most of the time.

Rafael is lucky to have multiple people who care enough to personally deliver updates in his office, instead of either calling or leaving him out of the loop entirely.

Carisi didn’t have to stop by.

Rose didn’t have to stop by.

They both did, for Rafael’s sake.

Out of the goodness of their hearts.

Actually, Rose is probably also hoping for a quid pro quo, at least if Rafael has taught her anything, but Carisi?

It’s just plain goodness.

Just heart.

It’s not ass-kissing anymore.

Carisi has stopped seeking Rafael’s approval, because somewhere down the line he found his footing. They found themselves on equal ground, which means Carisi no longer caters to Rafael’s every whim.

Now, when Carisi does something nice, when he helps Rafael with a kind word, or a smile, or some pastries and a triple espresso?

Now Carisi is pure of motive.

In some ways, at leas-

“Okay, I’ll be on my way. Carisi, always nice seeing you.”

Oh.

Rose is still there.

She’s still there, and her words might be cordial, but her smile is back to being awkward.

Possibly because she is no longer preoccupied by the case, or Carisi’s dimples, or Rafael’s compliments, so she’s back to wondering why the hell Rafael and Carisi are dressed exactly alike.

It’s bad enough they’ve had matching haircuts for almost a year, now.

Fortunately, Rose really is in a hurry, so she leaves without saying anything else.

Crisis averted.

For n-

“She’s great, huh? A.D.A. Caliay? She really knows her stuff.”

Carisi is grinning. If Rafael didn’t know any better, he’d be expecting Carisi to ask him for Rose’s number.

“Yes. She is great. And she also has eyes. Which means she saw our matching outfits.”

Carisi keeps grinning.

“Eh. So what. It was a coincidence.”

Of course it w-

“For all she knows.”

Rafael rolls his eyes. It’s his automatic reaction to Carisi’s nonsense.

“Shouldn’t you be heading out, Carisi? I thought you were supposed to be at the precinct right about now. Isn’t Liv expecting you?”

Carisi’s grin fades.

Maybe he lost track of time too.

Rafael regrets the fact so much of their meeting was spent arguing, and then listening to Rose’s informative but long-winded explanat-

“Yeah. I’m goin’. Listen, I just want you to know we got it all under control. There’s no need to worry. Alright? I know this is important to you, like Rose said. It’s personal. But we’re good. Liv’s good. She’s more than good. She’s got Duca runnin’ scared.”

Reassurance.

Carisi’s specialty.

Always.

Rafael remembers to ask, this time.

“How about you, Carisi? Are you handling this okay? It’s personal for you, too. I know Liv and Amanda are your friends. You love their kids. How are things at the precinct?”

Carisi’s grin reappears.

Sweet as ever.

“I’m alright, counselor. As for the precinct? I don’t know. I mean, the place ain’t the same without ya. First you had to recuse yourself from the Willard case, and then you got suspended for a month, and now you’re out again. If you stay gone any longer, we’re gonna forget what you look like. We miss you down at the 16th. A lot.”

Carisi is choosing his words very carefully.

‘We.’

‘The 16th.’

Well, somewhat carefully.

‘A lot.’

Carisi let that slip.

Rafael is determined not to react.

Carisi always does this.

He always lets his affection show, at the most inopportune moments.

It mostly happens when Rafael is anxious, or overwhelmed, or otherwise too distracted to see it coming.

Carisi’s sweet talk.

There’s been a lot of that lately.

Carisi keeps trying to sweet talk Rafael, at least when they’re not passionately arguing over interrogation methods or legal strategy or fashion accessories.

They’ve had their ups and downs, these last few months.

Carisi and Rafael both.

Death threats, and failed job interviews, and near-death experiences, and suspensions, and blackmail, and loss.

Things haven’t been easy.

Carisi keeps trying to make them a little easier.

It’s like he thinks his innocuous little comments are enough to make Rafael feel better.

They are.

They’re more than enough, but Carisi doesn’t need to know.

“Dry your eyes, Carisi. I’ll be back on the next case. Just try not to burn the place down while I’m gone.”

Carisi smiles like he totally knows.

Like he knows he just made Rafael’s day, with two stupid words.

‘A lot.’

Rafael tried, but his insults aren’t as effective as they used to be.

They’re not as genuine, either.

Carisi knows that too.

Even so, Rafael decides to give sarcasm another shot.

“Also, and I know this won’t be easy, but please, when I come back, try not to wear the exact same thing as me.”

Carisi chuckles as he gets up. He looks all dimply and bright-eyed and totally unfazed. Rafael’s second attempt at an insult was as ineffective as the firs-

“No promises, counselor.”

Yeah.

“That’ll be all, detective.”

Carisi’s light chuckle turns into real laughter, and Rafael isn’t even mad. He may act like he wants Carisi gone, but the truth is self-evident.

The truth is, Rafael wants Carisi to stay.

Which is not something he can admit.

Not right now.

Not when they’re in the middle of this case, and Liv is waiting.

So Rafael just watches, silently, as Carisi rolls up his sleeves and puts on his jacket.

Finally.

Finally, Carisi covers up the offending items, namely that blue shirt and that brown vest and that generic tie that costs a fraction of what Rafael’s does.

Finally, Carisi puts on his coat, and he self-consciously wraps that red scarf around his neck.

Rafael would revel in the fact they no longer look like twins, or one half of a barbershop quartet, as Carisi more aptly put it, but he’s too busy lamenting the fact Carisi is leaving.

That’s probably a good thing. Rafael has done way too much smiling for one day, and…

And Rafael can’t even finish that thought.

Carisi leaving, it’s not a good thing.

Smiles have always been hard to come by, for Rafael.

And now his reason to smile is about to walk out the door.

Literally.

Carisi is literally at the door, so Rafael gets up to see him off.

Or to walk behind him awkwardly, until they both come to a halt, and then d-

“Alright, alright, I’m goin’. No need to chase me out of here, Barba.”

Rafael’s reluctant steps could never be misconstrued as an attempt to ‘chase’ anyone out, so he chalks that up to Carisi’s terrible sense of humor. If Rafael is walking a little faster, it’s because he wants to beat Carisi to the door and lock it, so Carisi will have to stay.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

Rafael would never actually do it, of course, but he is thinking it, and he’s pretty sure Carisi is well aware of that.

That’s the worst part.

Carisi knows.

Then again, it’s not a particularly well-kept secret.

Even now, they’re both standing by the door, inches apart, and neither of them is moving, because they don’t want to part company.

Neither of them is taking a step.

Carisi isn’t walking out, like he said he would.

Rafael isn’t walking back to his desk, to pretend he has better things to do than engage in a staring contest.

They just stand there.

How could Carisi not be aware?

How c-

“Okay, I’m… I’m gonna be late. I’m leaving. I’ll call you if there’s any news.”

All good things must come to an end.

“You do that, Carisi. Call me. And tell Liv that ADA Caliay and I are in constant communication. Tell her I’m here if she needs me.”

Carisi smiles that sweet smile again.

He has to know this is killing Rafael. It’s obvious by the way he keeps dropping all those reassuring platitudes, like, ‘it’s all good,’ and ‘there’s no need to worry,’ even though that can’t possibly true. This isn’t just any case. This is about Liv and Noah, and Rafael can’t help them right now, so there’s definitely cause for concer-

“Sure thing, counselor.  She knows, but I’ll tell her again.”                    

Rafael’s worry flies out the window.

That tends to happen, when Carisi smiles.

Which would be embarrassing, but in Rafael’s opinion there’s no shame in getting practical use out of someone’s dimples.

In fact, Rafael wonders if he could get Carisi to do his taxes, or check his blood pressure, or measure his cholesterol. He’s curious to see if Carisi’s unique skill of easing his worries applies to more than just case-related stress.

It probably does.

Carisi is still standing there, still not leaving, still smiling, Carisi has a practically smitten look on his face, for some reason, probably because he thinks it’s adorable how much Rafael worries about Liv, or something inane like that, and yet Rafael feels more and more relaxed, every time Carisi exhales.

It’s not just the dimples. The rest of Carisi can be useful, too.

Carisi’s nose, or Carisi’s lungs.

Carisi’s mouth.

They’re standing so close, Rafael thinks he can almost feel the soft puff of Carisi’s breath against his face.

He can’t.

It doesn’t matter. It’s enough to just watch Carisi breathing.

This isn’t the first time Rafael has noticed this. Carisi’s breathing is always slow and steady. You could set a clock to the rise and fall of his chest. Rafael doesn’t know how he does it.

It’s very calming.

Rafael is so calm, he even allows himself to smile back.

That’s what prompts Carisi to finally get a move on.

Carisi takes those last few steps to the door, and he’s practically bouncing on his feet, like all he wanted was to coax one last smile out of Rafael, and now he can leave satisfied.

Rafael finds that both amusing and understandable. This wasn’t the most cordial of meetings, what with Rafael’s perfectly justified accusations, and Carisi’s laughably fraudulent denials, but at least they’re parting on a good note, with smiles on their faces and a warm exchang-

“Oh, counselor, one last thing. I’m rockin’ this outfit. I only said you wore it best to get you off my case.”

Rafael can’t decide between rolling his eyes and face-palming.

Forget about the warm exchange and the smiles.

This is about Carisi being a smartass.

No wonder he had a spring in his step. He was about to unleash this little gem.

One more joke, for the road.

At least Rafael hopes that was a joke. Carisi can’t possibly think he looks better.

Even though he kind of does.

Still, this calls for retribution.

Rafael is about to respond accordingly, and then some, when Carisi reaches for the door handle.

He’s probably trying to escape before Rafael has a chance to even speak.

Not gonna happen.

“Your tie is ugly.”

Not the classiest of insults, but it does the trick.

Carisi turns around immediately, his head snapping back, and he looks…

Dammit.

Carisi looks vindicated.

Gleeful.

Smug.

This is exactly what he wanted, and Rafael took the bait.

Rafael tries not to show his irritation. He’s just glad he didn’t waste one of his good insults, the ones he’s been saving for a rainy day, for when Carisi inevitably gets on his nerves and he needs a real clincher to g-

“You bought it for me, Barba.”

Oh.

Right.

Well.

No one’s perfect.

Rafael’s taste can certainly be questionable at tim-

“What, did you forget? Or were you so eager to insult me, you didn’t stop to think you were insulting yourself in the process?”

Rafael does not answer that question.

Because the answer would be ‘yes.’

He just turns his back to Carisi and walks to his desk.

Rafael hopes it’ll be easier to come up with a good comeback if he’s not directly staring at Carisi’s shit-eating grin.

“I didn’t forget, Carisi. The tie isn’t ugly per se. It just looks ugly paired with that vest. It ruins the whole ensemble.”

Or not.

By the time Rafael settles in his chair and looks up, Carisi’s grin is even cockier.

And rightly so.

That was a terrible comeb-

“That was a terrible comeback, counselor.”

Rafael can’t disagree. Pettiness is his only recourse.

“That’s a terrible outfit, detective.”

Rafael isn’t proud of that childish retort, but it does get a reaction.

Carisi finally loses his grin.

Carisi frowns, and he looks hilariously confused.

“What do you m… We’re literally wearing the exact same thing, Barba! How is my outfit terrible but yours isn’t?”

Success.

“Oh, so now you admit we’re wearing the exact same thing.”

Carisi blinks for a few seconds, which is the amount of time it takes him to realize he’s been busted.

His eyes dart left and right for another few seconds, which is the amount of time it takes him to realize he can’t get out of this one, so he raises his hands in exasperation.

Good.

Rafael is finally getting the upper hand in this argum-

“Okay, okay, fine. Maybe I was inspired by your elegance. Alright? Maybe my outfit is loosely based on yours. It’s an hommage. Alright? Can I get back to work now?”

Not so fast, even though Rafael appreciates the fact Carisi used the French pronunciation of ‘hommage.’

“Sure. You can go, Carisi. As long as you promise to actually ask me for fashion advice, instead of blatantly copying me.”

Carisi laughs under his breath.

He even takes a seat, in one of the guest chairs, for once, probably because he has a bevy of excuses, and this is going to take a while.

Rafael hates it. That’s not where Carisi is supposed to sit. They’re sitting too far apart, and it feels wrong, and Rafael doesn’t like all that distance between th-

“In my defense, counselor, I really didn’t think anybody was gonna see us, ‘cause you were off the case. And, come on, if you didn’t want us wearin’ the same shirt, why did you buy it in two different sizes, and give one of ‘em to me? So I wouldn’t wear it? It’s a gift! I’d never be that rude. This one’s on you, counselor.”

Oh.

Perhaps Carisi has a point.

Rafael did buy him the shirt, too.

It was a good purchase. That lighter shade of blue really brings out Carisi’s eyes, just like Rafael thought, when he bought it. That, and it’s not the usual baby blue, the kind that every other cop wears, when they’re not wearing the typical crisp white shirt. It’s understated, but not boring. In other words, perfect for Carisi.

And also perfect for Rafael’s favorite foulard.

Which is why Rafael bought one in his size, too.

A mistake, in retrospect.

Maybe this is on him. He didn’t think Carisi would combine the shirt with that particular blue tie. Rafael bought them separately, several months apart, so that didn’t even occur to him.

It should have. Carisi isn’t the most fashionable of individuals. He saw blue and blue, and he probably thought, ‘perfect match.’

Perhaps Rafael should start advising Carisi on how to properly wear, combine and accessorize his gifts.

A daunting task, considering the amount of clothes Rafael has bought for him.

Rafael even bought him that red scarf, the one that makes him uncomfortable. The one Carisi keeps wearing, anyway, because he’s not rude.

The one he keeps wearing for Rafael’s sake.

Because it’s a gift.

Maybe Raf-

“Not to mention, aren’t you always tellin’ me I should wear blue more often? Well I did. That’s why I wore this shirt today.”

Rafael can’t believe he ever gave Carisi the benefit of the doubt.

“Oh? Is that why? And here I thought you picked this blue shirt because you saw me putting on my blue shirt, after my shower this morning.”

Carisi smiles like’s he’s willing to concede the point.

And also like he’s picturing Rafael in the shower.

Not ‘picturing.’

Remembering.

Recalling the memory of a scene he’s witnessed a hundred times.

This morning, most recently, in Carisi’s tiny shower stall.

They shower together, more often than not.

‘To save time’ getting ready for work.

That’s how Carisi goaded Rafael into it.

Not that Rafael needed much convincing.

And not that their showers are particularly time-saving. Carisi always finds a way to waste time. Which, to be fair, can be a lot of fun, but not when Rafael needs to be in his office at eight thirty sharp.

Lucky for him, Carisi often has to work even earlier.

But on Carisi’s days off? Or when Carisi has a late shift, or a half-day? On the days when Carisi has all the time in the world to pester Rafael?

On those days, Carisi just lies there and watches as Rafael gets dressed.

Rafael is used to it now, but at first it was truly unnerving. Rafael would be rushing to get ready, like he does every morning, grabbing ties and cufflinks and socks, and he’d turn around to find Carisi, lounging on the bed, watching him.

Nakedly.

Staring.

Like a weirdo.

Like a naked weirdo.

Like a very alluring naked weirdo.

Like a very alluring naked weirdo who made Rafael late for work, four days in a row.

It was maybe the second or third week since they’d started dating. That’s Rafael’s excuse, anyway. On the fourth day, Rafael was so late, he had to ask Carisi to drop him off at the DA’s office, in plain view.

That’s how Carmen found out about them. She saw Rafael coming out of Carisi’s car, and she asked about his unusual tardiness, and Rafael admitted it because Carmen can be very persuasive.

Fortunately, that never happened again.

Being late, that is.

And being interrogated by Carmen.

The rest?

Carisi, being a naked nuisance and watching Rafael get dressed?

That happens all the time.

It’s become a habit.

It’s the main reason why Carisi prefers to spend the night at Rafael’s place. Because that’s when he gets to watch ‘the whole shebang,’ like he says. The outfit selection. The care that goes into it, and the attention to detail, and the importance of color coordination, not that Carisi’s actually learned anything from watching.

When they sleep at Carisi’s place, like they did last night, Rafael brings a duffel bag with an outfit he’s already picked out, and that’s less fun to watch, apparently. It doesn’t compare to Rafael’s enormous closet with his full collection of suits, plus the motorized tie rack that’s as awesome as it is overpriced.

Carisi is far less interested in watching Rafael pull a tie out of a bag. He needs to see the real thing.

Nakedly.

That’s always a vital part of Carisi’s process, for some reason. He can’t observe Barba with some pants on. That’d be crazy.

Rafael thinks Carisi is only doing it to distract him.

It used to work, too.

It’s taken months, but Rafael can finally say he now has the power to resist Carisi’s naked charms.

Most of the time.

Sometimes.

Rarely.

Rafael has resisted once or twice.

Whatever.

What’s important is, Rafael can now time their escapades a little better, so he’s not late for work.

In fact, sometimes, when his schedule permits it, he’ll even put on a show. Rafael will go through several shirts, like he can’t decide. He’ll pull them on and off, slowly, stretching and posing and eyeing Carisi through the full-length mirror, the entire time.

Carisi loves it.

Making eye contact with a half-dressed Rafael through the glass.

Nakedly, of course.

Carisi even asked for permission, a couple of weeks into their relationship, when he realized Rafael was disturbed by his intense looks of concentration at the ass-crack of dawn, before they’d even had their coffee.

‘I just wanna watch you,’ he said.

‘I wanna see how you put it all together. You always look so good. I wanna learn from the best.’

Rafael didn’t have the heart to say no.

Which is new.

Saying no is what Rafael does best.

Or it used to be.

Rafael has been saying yes to Carisi for about eight months, now.

Ever since Carisi was almost shot in the face, which somehow prompted him to show up on Rafael’s doorstep in the middle of the night.

Rafael invited him in.

That was the first yes.

Rafael kissed him back.

That was the second yes.

Rafael let him sleep over.

That was the third yes.

Many followed.

Rafael has yet to say no to Carisi.

It’s been a learning experience.

Saying yes can lead to some unexpected pleasur-

“Like I said, Barba, my outfit is loosely based on yours.”

Even when Carisi is admitting guilt, he manages to stay cocky as hell.

Rafael has to respect th-

“As for the tie, I didn’t think it looked that bad. I figured, since you bought it for me, I couldn’t go wrong with it. Guess not. Guess I still have a lot to learn. Maybe you could give me a few tips. On how to dress.”

Classic Carisi.

Trying to charm his way out of a problem.

And succeeding.

Carisi is presenting a tempting alternative.

Rafael has a lot of experience undressing him, but dressing Carisi could be fun as well. After all, just buying the clothes is clearly not enough. Carisi requires closer supervision.

Specific advice, so he can improve.

“The tie didn’t look bad, Carisi. It was just a little dull, paired with an already muted suit. But overall, you didn’t do such a bad job. The slim-fit vest was a nice touch. And I didn’t even have to buy it for you. And, even though you did copy me shamelessly, I have to admit the shirt looks better on you. That particular shade of blue isn’t doing much for my complexion. You look… nice.”

Carisi smiles a smile so blinding, you’d think Rafael just asked him to move in.

Which, incidentally, is something Rafael has considered.

Once or twice.

Rarely.

Sometimes.

Most of the time.

Rafael thinks about it all the time.

Whatever.

Rafael’s just lucky Carisi hasn’t asked yet. When Carisi asks, and he will, Rafael will have to say yes, and then they’ll have t-

“Thanks, counselor. You don’t look so bad yourself.”

Rafael’s sneer is instantaneous.

“I look amazing, Carisi.”

Carisi’s laughter is also instantaneous.

And boisterous.

And potentially offensive. Carisi better not be laughing because he disagr-

“Yeah. You do.”

Oh.

Rafael can’t stay mad when faced with such flattery.

Such sincerity.

Such devotion.

Rafael can’t stay mad in general.

He’s having trouble with that lately.

Holding onto his anger.

Using it as fuel, like he’s done all his life.

Anger just seems to evade his grasp, these days.

Rafael remembers a time when he was ambitious, and up-and-coming, and thirsty for victory.

Rafael remembers a time when his righteous anger was what allowed him to persevere.

Not anymore.

Now Rafael is fueled by hope.

He’s not sure what that means.

Maybe he has evolved.

Maybe he is a better person.

Maybe Rafael somehow let himself get talked into it.

Into hope.

Maybe Carisi, standing there with a dimply smile and a matching outfit and a red scarf he doesn’t even like, maybe he’s part of the reason why.

Maybe he’s one of the reasons why.

Maybe he’s the main reason.

The only reason.

It’s hard to stay heartless when your heart is beating so loud.

Rafael’s heart always beats louder, and faster, when Carisi is there.

It’s annoying.

For the first few days after they got together, Rafael was convinced he was developing some sort of a heart condition. He thought it was a shame he was on the verge of a cardiac episode, right when he finally managed to get into Carisi’s pants, after two years of trying.

It took a while, but Rafael eventually realized he was just in love.

Talk about shame.

An elevated heart rate because of love, instead of anger.

Not that Carisi doesn’t make Rafael angry, too.

They’ve had their ups and downs, these last few months.

Things haven’t been easy.

Carisi and Rafael, they’ve had their arguments. Work-related, for the most part. Some loud but fleeting, and some quiet but lingering.

They even argue on how to argue.

Carisi tends to blow up, out of nowhere. He snaps, and he yells, and he gets in Rafael’s face, and he even storms off, on the rare occasion, because he likes to air his grievances as soon as they come up. Carisi doesn’t like letting things fester.

When Carisi gets angry, he likes to get it out of his system immediately. One big outburst, and then he’s back to smiling and being sweet and making Rafael elaborate homemade dinners as an apology.

Rafael’s approach is very different. He snaps too, of course, but he snaps constantly. Snapping is practically his default state. It’s when he doesn’t snap that there’s a problem. And letting things fester has always been one of his preferred methods to handle an argument, along with the cold shoulder and petty insults.

When Rafael gets angry, he likes to keep everything bottled up. He likes to gather all of his complaints into a long, long list and then, when Carisi least expects it, Rafael likes to lay it all out, in a perfectly calm and detached manner, all the better to show Carisi that the situation is serious.

It’s not.

It almost never is.

Their arguments are usually resolved within hours.

Minutes, sometimes.

Sometimes it’s Rafael who’s making the apology dinners.

Shame.

Love.

Same difference.

This is a new experience for Rafael.

Snapping without breaking.

Getting right up to the breaking point, but never past it.

Knowing it won’t end.

This is new.

This is all Carisi’s doing.

Rafael was always quick to give up on people.

The first time they fought, the first time Carisi stormed off, Rafael all but wrote him off.

Carisi had other ideas.

Carisi had faith.

Carisi came back.

Carisi probably said something trite, like, ‘You can’t get rid of me that easily, counselor,’ or ‘You’re stuck with me,’ or, ‘Bad news, I’m back.’

Rafael doesn’t remember.

Rafael only remembers relief, and his heart, pounding, and Carisi’s smile, and something dangerously resembling a hug, and Carisi’s chest, rising and falling steadily against his own.

Rafael has faith too, now.

Trust.

He can trust Carisi to come back.

He can trust himself to yell Carisi’s head off, without worrying about the consequences.

It goes both ways.

Faith goes both ways.

No one’s ever had faith in Rafael before.

Not like this.

Not like Carisi does.

It’s weird.

And heartwarming.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

That’s what Rafael always thought.

That’s what always happened.

Not this time.

Not with Carisi.

Familiarity with Carisi has bred affection, and compassion, and love, too, and that’s n-

“Okay, I really have to go now, Barba. I’m already late. But before I go, I just wanna say something.”

Of course.

Rafael instantly regrets every single sappy thought he just had about Carisi. The smirk tells the tale. Carisi is obviously about to drop another little nugget on him, and Rafael can only imagin-

“Sorry I snapped your suspenders last week.”

Oh.

Rafael would find that thoughtful, but Carisi is smirking like he’s not sorry at all.

“Are you? Sorry?”

Carisi licks his lips.

“Nah.”

Well.

That’s okay.

Snapping isn’t always bad.

Sometimes it can be fun.

Like last week, when things got a little hot and heavy on Rafael’s couch during their lunch break, and Carisi tugged on his suspenders a little too hard, and the button flap on the back snapped and came right off. Rafael still doesn’t know how Carisi managed that. It was leather.

Then again, Carisi can be very enthusiastic.

So much so, that he didn’t even stop to apologize. Carisi just yanked the ruined suspenders all the way down, and then he started undoing Rafael’s pants. Rafael is lucky Carisi didn’t break the zipper, too.

Not that Rafael would have noticed.

It’s hard to notice much of anything when Carisi is on his knees.

Truth be told, Rafael didn’t even notice his suspenders were ruined until after.

After Carisi got up from his knees, and onto Rafael’s lap.

After Carisi made a mess of Rafael’s shirt, though Rafael fully accepts the blame for that one.

After they were done, after Carisi was done licking a stray drop from the underside of Rafael’s jaw, after Rafael grabbed a new shirt, because sometimes it is worth it to let Carisi defile one of his outfits, that’s when he noticed the casualty.

Carisi did not offer an apology.

Rafael held up the tattered suspenders, ready to let Carisi have it, but Carisi grinned and gave him a very long and very dirty kiss.

Perhaps that was the apology.

Either way, Rafael feels he is owed something more.

“I see. You remain unrepentant. I might have to ruin something of yours, in retaliation. This tie, maybe.”

Carisi grins.

“No way. I love this tie.”

That’s right.

It’s a gift.

And Carisi loves it.

Just like that scarf.

Carisi hates it, but he loves it, too, because Rafael gave it to him.

Carisi is too sweet for his own good.

And Rafael is too infatuated for his own g-

“I mean, unless you wanna buy me a better one. ‘Cause this one’s ‘dull.’ I’m out here thinkin’ I look like a million bucks, but I guess I don’t. I guess I just look ‘nice.’ Thanks, by the way.”

Carisi looks a lot better than nice, but Rafael isn’t about to say that and let it go to his head. Carisi is cocky enough as it is.

“Maybe I could let you borrow one of my ties, Carisi. If you ask nicely.”

Carisi smiles a smile so blinding, you’d think Rafael just proposed marriage.

Which, thankfully, is something Rafael has never considered.

Because he’s not crazy.

Well, never, until this very moment.

Before Rafael can dwell on that, Carisi leans over his desk and kisses him.

Thank God.

The distance was getting too much. Plus, Carisi’s kisses always make for a great distraction.

Whether they’re long and dirty, or short and chaste, like this one.

It doesn’t matt-

“See you at home, counselor.”

Oh.

Maybe it does matter.

Rafael grabs Carisi by the scarf and holds him there, for a longer kiss.  

Home.

Yes.

Carisi’s soft lips, and Carisi’s warm breath, and Carisi’s palms sloppily spread on Rafael’s desk, and Carisi’s fingers, carelessly crinkling the papers Rafael has been working on all morning, and the sound of Rafael’s heartbeat, thudding in his ears.

Carisi’s bright eyes, when the kiss ends.

Home.

“Oh, and, if you ask nicely, Barba, maybe I can let you borrow this tie. As long as you promise to take good care of it. It has great sentimental value.”

Carisi, being a smartass.

Carisi, finding new ways to say ‘I love you’ without saying it.

Home.

Rafael smiles as Carisi finally leaves, about twenty minutes after he was supposed to.

Carisi’s pea coat is buttoned all the way up.

No one will know about his little stunt.

No one will know he and Rafael are wearing the exact same outfit, save for that tie.

No one will know Carisi’s outfit is about sixty percent Barba-bought. More, possibly. There’s the shirt, and the tie, and the scarf, and the belt Rafael spied underneath Carisi’s vest. There’s the watch, the one Carisi wears when he’s not wearing that chunky Apple monstrosity. And, odds are, Carisi’s wearing Barba-bought underwear, too. Lord knows Rafael has bought him plenty. And then there’s the socks.

No one will know.                            

Rafael will know.

Rafael finally pours himself some coffee. It’s only his third one today. He blames Carisi. When Carisi is there, Rafael forgets about caffeine.

If that isn’t love, he doesn’t know what is.

Rafael takes a sip and smiles into his mug.

Carisi bought it for him.

‘Instant Lawyer – Just Add Coffee.’

It’s dumb.

It’s a gift.

Rafael loves it.

Chapter Text

“Did you think I needed your help?”

Sonny stops in his tracks.

“Is that why you did your own research on my case? Because you ‘heard about my setback in court?’”

Sonny wishes he knew the right answer to that question.

The right answer to any of Barba’s questions.

Barba always asks him, asks things of him, and Sonny never knows what to say, except ‘yes.’

The questions keep coming, the questions keep piling up, and Sonny has no real answers to give, only ‘yes,’ and one of these days Barba is going to get bored and stop asking.

Not today, though.

Today, tonight, Barba is standing in front of Sonny, and he’s moving closer, and he looks tired and irritated and alive, and Sonny knows these questions are just the beginning.

Barba is nowhere near done with h-

“Is that why you dug up Baker v. Carr? To help me? You know, that’s advanced reading material, detective. I’m fairly certain they don’t cover that in night school.”

Sonny gets the urge to defend his alma matter against yet another of Barba’s condescending smears, but then Barba takes another step and Sonny forgets what he was going to s-

“Is that why you were so excited you didn’t even bother knocking? Because you came up with that case, all by yourself? Because you couldn’t wait to gloat?”

That’s not why.

Sonny was just excited to share his theory. To lay out a hypothetical argument. To present his idea on a potential strategy for the defense, and to see what Barba thought.

And to gloat.

A little.

A lot, maybe, because coming up with that theory took a lot of work, and Sonny isn’t too proud to adm-

“‘Are you mad you didn’t think about it first?’ How long did it take you to come up with that line, by the way?”

About ten minutes.

Not that Sonny was counting.

Sonny is counting now.

Barba’s steps.

Sonny is counting Barba’s steps.

Barba has taken two more steps, just in the last minute. One step for every new set of questions.

Sonny wishes he knew the right answer, but he’ll settle for Barba’s assertive, heavy steps every time he gets it wrong. Every time he stays quiet, instead of t-

“Is that why you barged into your Lieutenant’s office and tried to offer legal advice to an Assistant District Attorney? Because you thought I needed your help?”

Another step.

Heavy.

Sonny doesn’t even bother trying to come up with an answ-

“Because you thought I needed a nudge in the right direction, courtesy of an Italian cop who thinks he’s God’s gift to the New York Bar Association?”

Sort of, but Sonny wouldn’t go that far.

And Barba, he’s not going far at all.

Barba is near.

Near Sonny.

Barba is the one doing the nudging now.

Literally.

Barba’s knee nudges Sonny’s legs apart, and the movement is softer than it should be, it’s feeble, it’s barely a bump, because Barba is assertive but never aggressive, Barba only nudges, never pushes, and Sonny’s feet shouldn’t even be moving but he spreads them all the same.

To make room.

Barba easily fills the space.

The tip of Barba’s shiny leather shoe makes contact with the side of Sonny’s cheap loafers, and it’s almost playful, and Sonny remembers being thirteen and walking home from school with his best friend Joey, Sonny remembers how they used to try to trip each other up as a joke, but it was more than a joke, Sonny remembers how he used to kick the backs of Joey’s brand new Nikes, because that’s all he could do, because Sonny couldn’t do what he really wanted, just like Barba isn’t doing what he really wants.

Maybe Sonny can do it.

What Barba wants.

What he wants.

It’s the same thing.

Barba takes one more step, and this time it’s not confident, it’s not heavy, this time it’s a light, tentative step, because there’s no more room left between them, because there’s nowhere else to go from here, and if Barba were to move even an inch he’d find himself in Sonny’s arms, and Sonny isn’t that lucky.

Maybe he can be.

Barba is staring up at him, eyebrows raised, eyebrows always raised, like a dare, like Barba wants him to move, like Barba wants him to do something already, and Sonny has half a mind to do it, Sonny has half a mind to take a tentative step of his own, Sonny thinks he should take that last step separating them and g-

“Did you want to prove you didn’t pass the bar on a fluke? Did you want to make yourself useful? Help me out of a tough spot? So I’d owe you a favor?”

Yes, yes, yes and maybe.

It’s remarkably easier to answer Barba’s questions when Sonny does it in the comfort of his own head.

He doesn’t know what good it would do, if Barba were to owe him a favor. Sonny doesn’t think he’d ever collect. It’d be too much pressure. Sonny wouldn’t know where to begin. What to ask for.

Barba is the one who’s always askin-

“Is that what happened?”

Barba’s breath is warm against Sonny’s neck.

Sonny doesn’t even remember the original question.

Barba has that effect on him, sometimes.

Sometimes Sonny thinks he could answer Barba’s questions, if only Barba would give him a chance. If only Barba would let him. Sometimes Sonny thinks he has the right answer, sometimes he thinks he’s had the answer all along, but then Barba will touch him, and Sonny will forget.

Everything.

The answer, the question, where they are, who they are, one of these days Sonny is going to forget who they are and he’ll reach out and t-

“Is it?”

Barba is touching him, right now, hands on Sonny’s waist, fingers playing with the edges of Sonny’s vest, tugging at the tails of Sonny’s shirt, sliding under Sonny’s waistband, and the right answer slips further and further away every time one of Barba’s fingertips presses against Sonny’s skin.

What was the ques-

“Is it, Sonny?”

Oh.

Sonny finally knows what to say.

“Yes.”

Barba nods.

Takes that last step.

The one Sonny couldn’t take.

Barba looks smug.

Gleeful.

He does not look surprised.

Barba never looks surprised.

Sonny always says yes.

Only yes.

Except tonight.

Tonight, Sonny has it all figured out. Sonny knows the question, Sonny remembers it, and Barba might be doing his damnedest to make him forget but Sonny remembers the answer, too.

“Rafael.”

Barba’s hands freeze.

Just when it was getting good.

Barba’s face shifts.

Motion.

Barba’s face is suddenly in motion, Barba’s eyes widen, and his nostrils flare, and his left cheek almost twitches, and his lips almost move, they almost move, Barba’s mouth almost opens, but it doesn’t, and just like that Barba’s face is still again.

Barba is trying to keep his expression as blank as possible.

It’s not.

Blank.

Barba’s face could never be blank.

Not when he’s looking at Sonny.

Not when Sonny is looking at him.

Sonny always sees something in Barba’s face.

Right now, Sonny is seeing amusement, and exasperation, and desire.

Sonny is feeling Barba’s desire, too, Sonny is feeling Barba, hard against his thigh, and it’s more th-

“Have I given you the impression that you’re allowed to use my first name when we’re in public?”

Sonny smirks.

This isn’t like Barba’s other questions. This isn’t meant to scold him, or confuse him, or make him doubt his decisions.

This is a game, and Sonny may not have all the answers but he’s always ready to play.

It’s his turn now.

Sonny reaches for Barba’s tie. The blue one, with the funky shapes and the French name Sonny can’t pronounce. The one Sonny borrowed, a couple of months ago, by accident, on a hectic morning.

No.

The one he stole, when Barba wasn’t looking.

The one he wore, on a visit to Barba’s office, later that day.

The one Barba practically ripped off his neck, later that night, before ripping off the rest of Sonny’s clothes, too.

Barba still brings that up sometimes.

Not the clothes-ripping. The tie-stealing.

Barba brings it up.

Acts all mad.

Barba is not mad.

Right now, Barba is not mad.

This is a game, and Sonny plays along, every time.

Sonny might be a little more gentle, because that’s just how he is, and ripping off articles of clothing has never been his style, but the end result is the same.

The tie is off.

Barba’s tie is off, and Sonny drops it on the floor, on Barba’s fancy hardwood floor, and the lights are dim, so he can’t really see it land, there’s only enough light to see Barba’s face, but that’s all Sonny ever needs to see.

“You won’t let me call you Rafael in private. Public’s all I got.”

It’s true.

Barba won’t let Sonny call him Rafael in private, or in public, or anywhere, but he’ll let Sonny undo his tie, and his shirt, Barba will let Sonny take off his undershirt, because Barba gets cold a lot so he always wears a jersey undershirt, Barba will let Sonny drop everything in a messy pile on his bedroom floor, but he won’t let Sonny call him Raf-

“That’s a weak argument, detective. Try harder.”

Harder it is.

Sonny reaches for Barba’s belt.

Barba’s face has never looked less blank.

Barba’s expression is so easy to read, eagerness and satisfaction and curiosity, all right there for Sonny to read, and Barba’s mouth finally falls open, Barba licks his lips, and Sonny knows this harder approach is greatly appreciated.

“Why? So you can tell me to give myself another Kewpie Doll?”

Barba doesn’t laugh.

He breathes.

Barba won’t laugh at Sonny’s jokes, but he’ll moan as Sonny lowers his zipper and reaches insid-

“Try. Harder.”

Sonny thought he was trying pretty hard already, but it appears that Barba wants more.

Barba wants an argument.

Not a fight.

An actual argument, structured and eloquent and compelling.

Barba wants to be persuaded.  

That’s how it is.

Their game.

The pretext changes, but the rules never do.

Sonny always says yes.

That’s rule number one.

And Barba says no until he doesn’t.

That’s half the fun.

All the fun.

Getting Barba to say yes.

Coming up with the most creative angle, deciding which trick to pull out of the playbook, or the textbook, trying to guess which legal argument might appeal more to Barba’s sharp and unpredictable mind, it’s the most fun Sonny ever has that doesn’t involve Barba’s tongue.

It’s the only time Sonny knows exactly what to say.

“Alright, counselor. How about, we weren’t in public. We were in the company of friends. If we go by the reasonable person standard, I did nothing untoward.”

Barba grins and starts undoing Sonny’s tie.

Preliminary approval.

Rule number two. For every solid legal argument, someone loses a garment. Like strip poker, but better.

Strip moot court.

Sonny’s tie is off, which means that Barba likes Sonny’s line of thought, and he’s curious to see if Sonny will stick the landing.

Even though Barba’s grin is a little too smug for comfort, Sonny feels pretty confident. Barba clearly knows something he doesn’t, but Sonny’s hoping he’ll figure it out as he goes along. The glint in Barba’s eye, it tells Sonny he’s off to a good start.

That glint, in Barba’s eye, every time they do this, it tells Sonny that Barba will never get bored.

Barba will never stop askin-

“Care to elaborate, detective?”

Yeah.

Barba wants more, and Sonny is always happy to oblige, even if his reasons are selfish.

Sonny wants to win.

Barba always rewards him, when he makes a good case. Citing sources, if possible. Sonny had a hard time believing it at first, Sonny thought Barba would be a sore loser, but Barba loves it when Sonny wins their little game.

Barba also loves it when Sonny keeps his strokes hard and fast, so Sonny does just that, Sonny starts stroking Barba purposefully as he speaks.

“Well, if we consider the behavior of a person who exercises average care, skill and judgment, we’ll find that it’s perfectly standard for colleagues to use each other’s first names when they’re in the workplac… Wait.”

A stroke of genius.

And Sonny doesn’t even stop stroking.

Which is probably why Barba doesn’t stop grinning.

That, or Barba is glad Sonny finally figured out what he already thought of, about three minutes ago.

“Wait, do-over. We’re… I’m a cop, you’re an A.D.A., we’re held to a higher standard of care.”

That’s it.

That’s what Barba wanted to hear.

Sonny knows, because Barba starts thrusting into his fist.

A reward.

Barba steps out of his pants and leans forward, Barba nods as he leans against Sonny’s chest, and Sonny is practically holding him up, now, and Barba is naked, now, and pushing his hips closer and closer, and faster, and Sonny d-

“Hmm.”

Barba can’t even speak.

He’s just urging Sonny along with a moan, because Barba still wants to hear more, Sonny knows it, Barba still wants to hear Sonny’s reasoning, fully articulated, Barba wants to grade Sonny’s work, like a professor, Barba wants to grade Sonny, and Sonny really wants to kiss Barba, but first he needs to win.

“We’re held to a higher standard of care, which means it’s still acceptable for us to use each other’s first names when in the presence of friends, but not in the presence of… Of third parties. Civilians. People who visit our workplace on official business. Now, that, that would give off the impression of impropriety. Since I only called you Rafael in front of Liv, my behavior was appropriate by any standard.”

Barba starts unbuttoning Sonny’s vest.

Sonny’s still in his damn vest.

Barba is naked and Sonny is fully dressed except for the tie, but not for long, because Barba is sliding both the vest and the shirt off of Sonny’s shoulders, and his hands are moving a little faster than usual, a little more desperate, which means he must have really liked Sonny’s argum-

“Better.”

Sonny tightens his fingers around Barba, looking for another moan, and he gets it, and he also gets to feel a huff of air against his chest, and he wants to feel it against his mouth, Sonny really wants to feel Barba’s exhales against his mouth, Sonny really wants to kiss Barba, but first he needs to w-

“Except Liv is not your friend. She’s your superior. A reasonable person in your position might refrain from demonstrating such familiarity with a colleague in front of their boss.”

Sonny laughs.

Sonny loves it when Barba goes along with it, throwing out serious-sounding counterpoints to combat the bullshit arguments Sonny pulls out of his ass.

Sonny also loves it when Barba grabs him by the hips and pulls him in.

Right now, Barba is pulling him in, Barba is looking at him, and he’s waiting, because apparently Sonny hasn’t stuck the landing just yet.

“She’s your friend, Barba. That’s enough to satisfy the conditions of my argument.”

Barba smirks like he always does when Sonny gets it right.

That smirk, it’s Barba’s way of giving Sonny a proverbial cookie, or a gold star, or a Kewpie Doll, because Barba is a dick and he always uses sarcasm when he wants to pretend he’s not actually impressed.

Barba is impressed.

Barba was impressed in Liv’s office, too, and Sonny knows it, because that’s the whole reason they’re doing this tonight.

Sonny knows it, because Barba finally undoes his belt and pulls, hard, until Sonny’s pants are around his ankles.

Barba smirks like he always does when he gets Sonny naked.

It’s the exact same smirk. Sonny doesn’t know if that means his junk gets a gold star or what, but that’s how he chooses to interpret Barba’s express-

“It would have been enough, had I been the one to use your first name.”

Sonny can’t believe Barba is still trying to come out on top. Not when they’re both naked and hard and within three feet of a king-size bed. If Barba wants to be on top, all he has to do is ask, and Sonny will gladly let h-

“But I didn’t.”

Sonny would roll his eyes, but he’s too busy watching as Barba wraps a hand around them both, strokes slow and deliberate, because Sonny has the reputation but Barba is the real tease.

“Of course you didn’t, Barba. Hell would have to freeze over.”

Barba raises an eyebrow, and he tugs a little harder, and Sonny does roll his eyes but for a very different reas-

“Why do you say that, Sonny?”

And just like that, the game is over, and Barba wins.

Sonny is not ashamed to admit that he gets a kick out of hearing Barba use his first name, even when it’s a joke. Jokes are all he has, since Barb-

“I call you Sonny. Sonny.”

Barba squeezes, tight, his hand sliding easier now, wet, and Sonny just wants him to shut up and get down to it, but Barba seems to have other plans.

Sonny just hopes Barba’s plans aren’t too ambitious, because he’s about three strokes and a kiss away from coming.

Wait.

Barba stops.

Barba grabs Sonny by the hips again, but only for a second, just long enough for him to push Sonny backwards and onto the bed.

Maybe this is Sonny’s lucky day.

Lucky night.

Sonny is flat on his back, just the way Barba likes him, and Barba is quiet, Barba looks one hundred percent ready to get down to it, finally, and maybe they can st-

“I call you Sonny all the time.”

Fine, Barba shutting up was clearly too much to hope for, but Sonny will take it.

Sonny will take anything Barba has to give.

Rule number thr-

Sonny.

Sonny laughs as Barba lands on top of him, Sonny laughs as he spreads his legs to make room, Sonny laughs as Barba starts kissing his neck.

Barba likes it when Sonny laughs.

“Yeah, right, counselor. You only call me Sonny when I make you mad.”

Barba snorts as he licks at Sonny’s collarbone.

Sonny can’t believe they haven’t kissed yet. They’ve been doing this for s-

“Fair enough. I do. I call you Sonny when you make me mad. Sonny. When you do something aggravating, like calling me Rafael in front of Liv. Or yapping on and on about your brilliant hypothetical strategy for five minutes straight, just to impress her, and me, without bothering to read the room first. See, if you had waited a couple of seconds before bursting into your little class presentation, you might have seen that Liv and I looked concerned. You might have even seen the judicial notice in my hand.

“But no. You were too busy flaunting your research. Sonny. All proud, like you were working on a midterm paper. Meanwhile, out in the real world, Dworkin was working on setting a dangerous criminal free.”

You’d think Barba’s rant would lose some of its potency with his hands firmly attached to Sonny’s ass for the duration, you’d think it’d be less hurtful to hear, with every single sentence punctuated by a deep thrust of Barba’s hips, but that’s surprisingly untrue.

This is pretty hurtful to hear.

Sonny has stopped laughing, he’s stopped moving, and his hands are resting on Barba’s back, completely still.

“I didn’t…”

Sonny didn’t.

Didn’t notice.

Sonny didn’t notice any of that.

Barba is right.

Sonny did want to impress both Liv and Barba. Sonny was all proud. Sonny totally used his old password to look through the Fordham Law database, just like he used to do when he was working on a paper for one of his classes.

Aggravating.

Of course.

Sonny was an excellent law student, but he’d make for a terrible lawyer.

It’s not enough to observe a trial for the experience, it’s not enough to study international law jurisprudence out of academic interest, it’s not enough to treat everything as a learning opportunity.

Sonny isn’t in school anymore.

Sonny has his license now, even if it’s gathering dust.

All those cases, from the textbooks, they’re real.

Real people.

Real victims.

Sonny is happy to twist the law in his favor as a thought experiment, he’s happy to play devil’s advocate as a way to impress Liv or get into Barba’s pants, but he’d never be able to do that out in the real world.

Sonny is a cop.

Sonny knows right and wrong, he knows fair and unfair, and he’d never exploit the law to serve injustice, and that’s basically in the job description for a lawyer, and Sonny is not prepared to do that, Sonny is not cut out for that, and Barba is right.

Barba is also kissing his way down Sonny’s chest, seemingly content now that he’s said his piece. Barba is grinding down, right now, faster and faster, and he’s hard and eager and totally unaware of Sonny’s inner turmoil.

“I’m sorry, Barba.”

Barba’s hands clench, fingers digging into Sonny’s hips.

Barba stops trying to lick a path to Sonny’s left nipple and looks up.

Sonny is kind of scared to see the expression on Barba’s face, Sonny worries that it might actually be blank this time, but he looks anyway.

It’s not.

Blank.

Barba’s expression is so easy to read, surprise and affection and guilt, all right there for Sonny to read, and Barba frowns, Barba looks into Sonny’s eyes and Sonny knows this isn’t a game anymore.

For the first time, Sonny considers the possibility his own face is easy to read, too, and Barba can see everything he’s been trying to hid-

“You should be.”

Oh.

Maybe Sonny got it wrong again.

Maybe it’s all a gam-

“You should be sorry it took you so long to present your theory. If you had barged into Liv’s office even a few minutes earlier, you would have beaten Dworkin to the punch and you would have given me a heads up. Not to mention, you would have saved me the hassle of having to read his ridiculously verbose notice. Your breakdown of Baker v. Carr was far more concise.”

Oh.

Guilt.

This is an apology.

Affection.

This is not a game.

Not for Barba.

Not anymore.

Barba has stopped teasing, he’s stopped asking, and Sonny was afraid of that, Sonny was afraid that the end of Barba’s questions would mean the end of this, the end of them, but it doesn’t.

It just means that Sonny doesn’t have to worry about finding the answers.

Barba isn’t asking, he’s just talking, now, Barba is talking and Sonny is listening, and there’s no pressure, no uncertainty, no right and wrong thing to say, and Sonny knows this is not the end.

Barba starts moving his hips again, and Sonny knows this is the begin-

“For future reference, next time you come up with one of your great ideas, forget about your showboating, forget about teasing me ‘in the presence of friends,’ and just call me immediately.”

Sonny laughs again, and only then do Barba’s hands relax. Sonny hadn’t even realized Barba was still holding onto him, tight enough to leave a mark.

Barba is right.

Again.

Sonny likes teasing him in front of the others. Sonny loves messing with him in front of Liv, especially, because she doesn’t know yet, not officially, but Sonny is sure she suspects, and Barba’s pointed, pained looks when they’re alone in her office never stop being hilarious.

Wait.

Yet.

Liv doesn’t know yet.

This is the first time Sonny has ever thought of it that way. Dared to put it in those words.

Rule number four. No thinking about the future.

Then again, the game is over.

The rules no longer apply.

Sonny puts his arms around Barba’s neck, he puts his legs around Barba’s waist, and Barba lets out the deepest moan, and Sonny feels it against his lips.

They haven’t even kissed.

Yet.

Barba grabs Sonny’s thighs, Barba spreads them until Sonny winces from the stretch, and he pushes down, Barba pushes d-

“It was a great idea.”

Sonny blinks.

Sonny blinks and considers all the possible scenarios under which he could tell Barba to shut the hell up and still have an orgasm.

The odds are not in his fav-

“And I was kind of mad I didn’t think about it first. You’d make a great lawyer, Sonny.”

Barba is not mad.

This is another first.

Barba, calling him Sonny without being mad.

Without it being a joke.

Sonny smiles.

“No I wouldn’t.”

Barba smiles back.

Sonny always sees something in Barba’s face.

Right now, Sonny is seeing affection, again, so much affection and tenderness and encouragement, and the last thing Sonny needs is encouragement, the last thing he needs to hear is that he’s wrong, and that he should reconsider, because Sonny knows what’s in his heart, and he knows what he’s willing to do and what he can’t, and th-

“No. You wouldn’t.”

Oh.

Sonny thinks that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to him.

The world hates lawyers, and Sonny hates lawyers too, sometimes, sometimes Sonny even hates himself, but never Barba.

Sonny loves Barba.

And Barba can definitely see it in his face.

Sonny doesn’t mind.

Barba doesn’t mind either.

Barba kisses Sonny, finally, Barba leans in and finally puts his mouth to good use, and Sonny could think of a few better ways to use Barba’s mouth but he’s not about to complain.

Barba kisses Sonny, softly, and the affection in his lips rivals the affection in his eyes, and Sonny feels weightless, even though he has all of Barba’s weight on him, Sonny feels unburdened and open and free.  

Rule number five.

Sonny never asks questions.

The game is over.

“So, Rafael, can I come now?”

Barba gets that glint in his eye again, and Sonny knows the answer alread-

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

“Meet me at The Double Windsor. 9 o’clock.”

Rafael can’t stop reading the text.

Carisi’s text.

Rafael can’t stop reading Carisi’s bold, matter-of-fact text.

A time and a place.

Nothing else.

No ‘would you?’

No ‘unless you have other plans.’

No ‘please?’

Just “Meet me.”

Like he’s sure Rafael will be there.

Rafael is there.

Rafael is here, at the bar Carisi suggested, or picked out unilaterally, because that text was no suggestion, Rafael is here right now, sitting at a corner table, Rafael is here with his jacket off and his tie loose, to appear more casual, Rafael is here and he’s drinking and he’s waiting.

Rafael has been waiting all afternoon.

Rafael has been waiting for three years, actually, but Carisi’s text only came this afternoon, and Rafael swears the last three hours felt even longer.

He almost didn’t check his phone.

His phone, it went off during a meeting with the D.A., and he almost ignored it, like he always does, except he saw Carisi’s name on the screen.

Rafael had to sneak a peek.

After all, maybe Carisi was texting to brag, because his obfuscation idea had worked like a charm. Or, just maybe, it was ‘yummy’ which had worked like a charm, and Carisi was texting to belatedly respond to that.

As soon as Rafael saw, ‘Meet me,’ he knew it was the latter.

As soon as he saw, ‘The Double Windsor,’ he knew this was a date.

Finally.

And it only took three years.

Despite this truly lamentable delay, and despite the fact he had almost resigned himself to eternal blue balls, Rafael can’t say he was too surprised.

He caught the look on Carisi’s face, as he was leaving Liv’s office.

He saw the way Carisi’s eyes followed him all the way out the door.

Rafael knew ‘yummy’ struck a chord.

He just didn’t know what Carisi was going to do about it.

Send a suggestive text, apparently.

A pretty straightforward tactic, and one Rafael wasn’t quite expecting. He was banking on a smirk or three, next time Carisi came to his office. He was waiting for some gloating, and some teasing, and some more ‘Oh, Rafaels’.  

The text was better.

Marginally.

Rafael had to struggle to keep his expression neutral as the D.A. kept yammering on about new hires at the Manhattan office, and about highly qualified recruits from outside New York, and about ‘promising’ prosecutors placed in positions Rafael could only dream of attaining, despite his years of experience, because he had one too many suspensions on his record now and his career was dead in the water.

Or something like that.

Rafael chose to focus on the positive.

Carisi’s text.

Rafael pretended he was listening as he emailed Carmen to clear his schedule for the rest of the evening.

Right after he replied to Carisi, of course.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

A cliché, but for a reason.

Carisi didn’t text back. Rafael assumes it’s because he wants to have the rest of that conversation in person.

At The Double Windsor.

This isn’t the first time they’ll be meeting here.

That’s how Rafael knew.

He and Carisi, they’ve been here once before.

Before.

This bar, it’s around the corner from Carisi’s place. Technically, Rafael shouldn’t know that, but he does.

From before.

Before Rafael screwed everything up.

It doesn’t matter.

They’re here again.

Now.

They will be here.

Carisi will be here, any minute now, and that’s all that matters.

Rafael’s eyes are glued to the main entrance.

He’d be embarrassed by his own eagerness, by the way he sits up every time a tall and slender enough man walks through the heavy doors, but the time for embarrassment has long passed.

Rafael is excited.

He’s excited to be meeting Carisi, he’s excited to be sharing a bottle of bourbon, just like last time, he’s excited to be here.

Again.

Rafael knows Carisi didn’t pick this place by accident. Carisi didn’t pick it because it’s convenient, because he had a long day and he wants to get home as soon as possible after their date.

It is a date.

If Carisi wanted a professional meeting, he would have picked one of the many cop bars within a four-block radius of the precinct.

Carisi does not want a professional meeting.

Rafael knows that.

He doesn’t know why ‘yummy’ did the trick, of all things, and he does feel it was almost too easy, but he’ll take it.

Lord knows Rafael has tried everything. He’s tried booyahs, and broken clocks, and kewpie dolls, he’s tried agreeing with Carisi, he’s tried disagreeing, he’s tried being there for Carisi, he’s tried being indifferent, he’s tried insults, he’s tried jokes, he’s tried flirting, he’s tried the cold shoulder, Rafael has tried everything short of actually making a move, and now he gets to sit back and enjoy the fact Carisi made the move for him.

Finally.

After three years of dancing around it, it’s finally happening.

Well, after one year of arguing, and one year of dancing around it, and one year of fighting, because Rafael is an idiot and too proud to admit it.

They were so close, before.

In this bar, they got so close.

Once.

Before.

Carisi mentioned it, over-enunciated the name like Rafael might get a kick out of it, Carisi said, ‘There’s this bar I know, it’s called The Double Windsor. Real classy place. You’d like it, counselor,’ and Rafael laughed, Rafael said, ‘I shudder to think what you consider classy, Carisi. Probably what I’d call a dive bar,’ and Carisi snorted, and Rafael closed the case file he was reading, and Rafael said, ‘I’m not doing anything right now,’ and Carisi smiled at him, so sweet, and they left Rafael’s office together, late at night, almost a year ago, now.

This place, it means something.

Or it did.

Almost a year ago.

As Rafael sips his bourbon slowly, as he remembers the rich flavor of the surprisingly high end brand, the same one he chose almost a year ago, as he remembers saying, ‘I have to admit, even I would call this classy, Carisi,’ as he remembers Carisi’s beaming face, Rafael knows.

This place still means something.

Tonight.

It’s taken three years, two of them wasted, but tonight, it’s finally happening.

Their first date.

If Rafael was a little more honest, or a lot more drunk, he would admit this is their second date.

Their real first date happened right in this bar, almost a year ago.

Rafael doesn’t even know if that should count, but that’s because he’s sober.

It counts.

Maybe this can be their second first date.

All because of ‘yummy.’

All because Carisi has forgiven him, finally, and that’s what Rafael is really happy about.

Not this date. First, second, whatever. That, that’s just the icing on the cake.

Rafael is happy because they’re back.

Back to normal.

Carisi is joking again, and smiling, and calling, and texting, and showing off.

That’s what Rafael is really happy about.

Carisi, showing off for him.

Just like the good old days.

Carisi always had a way of making Rafael happy.

And then he spent a year making Rafael miserable.

Because Rafael screwed everything up.

Carisi spent a year sending Rafael cold and lengthy and perfectly businesslike emails to suggest potentially helpful jurisprudence, every time he thought Rafael needed an assist. Carisi didn’t set foot in Rafael’s office for months, not alone. Carisi chose to rely on linked excerpts from law journals, instead of popping by unannounced, pastries in hand, and regaling Rafael with the contents of his latest paper for his Advanced Criminal Law class at Fordham.

Rafael misses that.

Rafael will never get it back.

Carisi is not at Fordham anymore.

Carisi is a lawyer, now, Carisi passed the bar, and Rafael didn’t even get to celebrate with him, not properly, because that’s when the death threats escalated.

Among other things.

Rafael is deeply, painfully grateful Carisi got a chance to say thank you before it all fell apart.

It’s taken almost a year, but Rafael thinks they’re starting to put it back together.

Carisi suggests strategies in person, now. In Rafael’s office, when it’s just the two of them. In front of the others, too. Liv’s office has become a makeshift auditorium, where Carisi carries out his little presentations, the bigger the audience the better.

It’s all for Rafael.

Carisi’s dimples give him away.

The audience is a bonus, because Carisi’s always been a cocky when it comes to the law, but it’s all for Rafael.

Just like the good old days.

Exactly like the good old days, except for the fact Carisi’s suggestions are much more sophisticated, now. Impressively sophisticated. He’s even managed to outsmart Rafael, on the odd occasion, and that feels better than it should. Rafael’s never felt pride for someone else’s accomplishments before, certainly not when they were at his own expense.

It feels weird.

Rafael feels weird, and proud, and grateful, and happy, and he only has Carisi to thank.

And to blame.

Rafael would have totally come up with those ideas first, if not for Carisi distracting him.

That bubbling potential between them, that rekindled connection, it’s so distracting, and beguiling, and Rafael is slipping, sometimes, and he doesn’t even mind.

Just like the good old days.

Exactly like the good old days, except for the fact Rafael says ‘yummy’ out loud, now. He always did think Carisi was delicious, but that was a thought he kept private.

Regrettably.

No more regrets.

Which is a course of action that has backfired in the past, badly, when it sucked all the joy out of Rafael’s life for almost a year, because Carisi was all the joy in Rafael’s life, but that won’t happen again.

Rafael won’t let that happen again.

Carisi won’t let it.

Things are better now.

Their old relationship has been restored. Their old patterns, intact. Like they never stopped being friends. Like they never almost became more.

Rafael takes another sip as he watches yet another man who isn’t Carisi enter the bar.

He’s rationing. He doesn’t want to be even remotely intoxicated when Carisi arrives. He’s been waiting for half an hour, still nursing that first drink, the bottle almost full next to an empty tumbler.

Rafael got here early.

He wanted to take in the atmosphere without having to worry about concealing his reaction. He was irrationally relieved to see the décor was exactly the same, and he’s even more relieved Carisi wasn’t here to see the emotion on his face.

This place, it means something.

Rafael can see their table, from where he’s sitting.

He didn’t even consider sitting there again.

He wouldn’t dream of it.

Not tonight.

Carisi has forgiven him, but Rafael doesn’t want to push it.

That table, by the window, to the left of the door, the one lit more by the streetlights than the bar’s dim lamps, that’s where he and Carisi had a pleasant conversation for the last time.

Until ‘oh, Rafael,’ and ‘yummy,’ that is.

Rafael refuses to take that for granted.

Forgiveness.

Even if he thinks there’s not much to forgive.

Even if he thinks Carisi overreacted.

Holding a grudge for a whole year? That’s the type of tenacity Rafael would normally both admire and wish to emulate, that’s the kind if pettiness Lucia Barba would be proud of, but it’s hard to appreciate it when you’re the intended target.

Rafael was blindsided.

That was the worst part.

Rafael screwed everything up, somehow, by asking to be relieved of his security detail.

Four months had passed without incident, and he had gotten sick and tired of being trailed by unmarked police cars, and escorted in and out of his home, and his office, and the 16th, and every other restaurant on the Upper East Side. Rafael had endured enough strange looks from his de facto bodyguards while trying to enjoy his almost-dates with Carisi, and even stranger looks that one time he attempted to go tie shopping with an entourage of three underpaid cops who blanched at every price tag, so he asked to be freed.

Who could blame him?

Carisi blamed him.

For some reason.

Rafael only wanted some privacy, but Carisi saw things differently. Carisi stormed into his office, mere hours after Rafael’s request, and yelled at him for ‘not caring about his own life.’ Rafael really wanted to say, ‘You care about it enough for the both of us,’ Rafael wanted to say, ‘No one else does,’ Rafael wanted to say, ‘I don’t need the security detail, I have you,’ but he didn’t have the nerve.

Carisi didn’t speak to him for two weeks.

Next time they saw each other, Carisi yelled at him again.

Over a case, this time, but that was only a pretense.

Rafael didn’t argue. Didn’t yell back, didn’t even defend himself. He assumed Carisi needed some time to get over it.

Whatever ‘it’ was.

So Rafael waited.

Rafael even tried to butter Carisi up with a job at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, everything pre-arranged, all the details worked out, a well-timed vacancy and an old friend conducting the interview.

Not because Rafael wanted Carisi to leave, of course.

Because Carisi wanted to leave.

That’s what he said, that’s what he yelled, in Rafael’s office.

‘You’re the reason I stayed, Barba. You… the death threats, the threats to your life, that’s why I stayed, that’s why I couldn’t leave, and now you don’t care? We haven’t even arrested anybody yet, except for Heredio. Why do you think you’re any safer now? Why did you… Why did I bother?’

Carisi turned down the job offer.

Rafael thought that was the end of it. His act of selfless lov… his act of selflessness had changed Carisi’s mind. That’s what he thought. Rafael was willing to lose Carisi, if it meant Carisi’s happiness, or lose him to Brooklyn, at least, which wasn’t even that far, and fine, maybe Rafael’s sacrifice wasn’t that dramatic, but whatever, Rafael put Carisi first, and he thought Carisi knew that now, so things would eventually go back to normal.

Better than normal, maybe.

So Rafael waited.

Things got worse.

Carisi yelled at him again, a couple of weeks later, Carisi used another case as an excuse, again, and the yelling didn’t stop for months.

Everything else stopped.

Rafael’s life stopped.

Rafael had gotten used to having Carisi around, ever since those death threats, Rafael had gotten used to Carisi’s constant presence, Rafael had gotten used to their late night dinners at the office, and their Saturday brunches, because Carisi wanted the early Saturday shift, so he’d have his Sundays free for Mass, Rafael had gotten used to their drinks after work, and their weekly lunches, Rafael had gotten used to Carisi, and all of a sudden Rafael’s life felt alarmingly empty.

It was almost offensive, how deeply Carisi’s absence was felt.

Rafael was sure he used to have a life of his own.

Before.

Still, Rafael waited.

Several weeks had already passed. He figured he wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Carisi was still mad, and frustrated, clearly, but that was okay. He simply needed to get all that anger and frustration out of his system.

Carisi needed to punish Rafael, just a little bit more, he needed to punish Rafael by not being there, which was the harshest of punishments, apparently, and Rafael didn’t want to dwell on that too much, and then he would forgive and forget.

Soon.

Carisi always was the forgiving type, and he always did have a soft spot for Rafael, so whatever this was, it would be over soon. That’s what Rafael thought.

Turns out, Rafael severely underestimated Carisi’s stubbornness.

Which is saying a lot.

Turns out, Carisi was too passionate to simply give in.

It took months.

It took months, but eventually Carisi did thaw.

It took about six months, but Carisi stopped yelling.

That’s when he finally started to accept that Rafael would be alright. That Rafael would be safe. That the threat had passed.

That’s Rafael’s theory, anyway.

The distance between them persisted, but Rafael wasn’t willing to rock the boat. He remained respectfully formal, and he waited until Carisi was ready for more.

One day, about eight months in, which marked a year since Heredio’s little stunt, Carisi cracked a smile, and Rafael knew it was time to close the distance.

Rafael started smiling back, and letting Carisi sit in on meetings with defense attorneys, and weigh in on plea bargains, Rafael started acting like he used to, like before, Rafael started letting his eyes linger, Rafael even started joking, all, ‘You’re gonna deport me to Cuba? And take him to Italy?’ and he could tell Carisi appreciated the shift back to normal.

He may have felt Carisi’s absence deeply, but sometimes Rafael thinks he had it easy.

Carisi missed him too.

Carisi cared about him.

Cares.

Carisi cares about him, and it’s as heartwarming as it is unnerving.

Rafael can say ‘yummy’ all he wants, Rafael can lick his lips and bat his eyelashes and shamelessly flirt with Carisi in front of Liv and the others, Rafael can pretend this is a game, meant to wind Carisi up, he can pretend this is about Carisi eagerly lapping up his attention again, but it’s not.

It’s more than that.

Maybe they’ll rekindle that part, too. Or kindle it, because they never got a real chance to start.

Maybe someday they will.

Have more.

Until then, Rafael will stick to shameless flirting.

It’s worked so far.

It got him a date.

If Carisi shows up, that is. It’s nine fifteen.

Rafael keeps glancing at the big clock hanging over the bartender. The guy is new. Rafael doesn’t recognize him.

It’s been almost a year. A lot of things have changed.

Rafael is slowly trying to change them b-

Carisi’s here.

Finally.

Rafael almost gets up, but he decides to stay seated and lean back on his chair, as enticingly as he can, loosening up his tie even more in a transparent attempt to signal that he’s treating this as a date and he’s out for the kill.

Carisi’s eyes fall to Rafael’s collarbone immediately, and Rafael almost undoes another button, but then he remembers this is not that kind of establishment, so he smirks, instead.

It works just as well.

It gets a quick smile, and then Carisi catches himself, and shakes his head, and starts taking off his coat and jacket.

Neither of them says anything.

They’re barely looking at each other.

Rafael is waiting for a cue. Letting Carisi set the tone.

Which may not be the best idea, since Carisi suddenly frowns and stops moving, stops as his jacket is still hanging off his right shoulder. It’s almost as if he changed his mind. As if he regrets ever coming here. At least according to the sharp sense of panic Rafael feels low in his stomach.

It’s an impossibly quick shift. In an instant, Carisi’s face darkens, and it’s such a stark contrast to his little smile from just seconds ago, and Rafael is confused. The change is so abrupt, Rafael wants to pretend it’s a joke. He doesn’t know what else to make of it.

It could be a joke. Maybe Carisi’s mad because he’s been here for less than a minute and he’s already falling prey to Rafael’s manly charms. Maybe Carisi is exaggerating for effect, and the frown is a joke.

It’s not.

Carisi’s expression is definitely serious, and Raf-

Oh.

Carisi is looking at their table.

Not this table.

Their table, all the way across the bar.

That explains the frown.

The emotion in Carisi’s face, gone before Rafael’s even had a chance to identify it.

Rafael wants to say, ‘You’re the one who picked this place, Carisi,’ but he doesn’t.

Rafael is glad Carisi picked this place.

He’s glad he’s not the only one who had a visible reaction upon seeing the mid-range tablecloths and the faux weathered finish of the mass-produced chairs.

They’ve only been here once, but this bar holds a lot of memories.

Rafael is glad, Rafael is happy to see that Carisi is not immune to it.

So he says nothing, and he waits for Carisi to sit next to him.

Not across.

The table is small, and square, and dating conventions would dictate that they sit on opposite ends, the better to soulfully stare into each other’s eyes, but Carisi sits to Rafael’s left.

The better to touch.

Hopefully.

To test that theory, Rafael leans in and tries to find the most casual way to casually let his hand casually fall on Carisi’s forearm, but th-

“Yummy?”

Rafael casually laughs.

As far as opening lines go, this one’s n-

“In front of Liv? Yummy?”

Rafael pours Carisi a glass of bourbon, simply so he doesn’t start cackling. He thinks Carisi just might up and leave if he d-

“Seriously, Barba. Yummy? Are you for real?”

Rafael is trying not to lose it as Carisi keeps finding new ways of intoning ‘yummy.’ There’s disbelief in his voice, and then amusement, and then exasperation.

There’s no cockiness, though, and that’s what Rafael really wanted to hear, so he figures he’ll double down to see if that works.

“What’s the problem, Carisi? I was just being honest.”

Carisi snorts, and Rafael momentarily remembers the good old days, but then he focuses on the way Carisi’s cheeks redden, and the way Carisi’s dimples show, and the way Carisi’s mouth falls open, and it’s almost as if Carisi wasn’t expecting the blatant flirting to start right off the bat, which is sweet, if not insulting.

Rafael Barba does not say ‘yummy’ lightly.

They’re here, and this is a date, God willing, and Carisi willing, and Rafael fully intends t-

“Right. Honest. That’s what you call it.”

Rafael shrugs as Carisi finally gives him a cocky smirk.

Yummy, indeed.

“Yes. You made a clever observation, and I expressed my honest approval as any colleague would.”

Carisi narrows his eyes by way of calling bullshit, and it’s such a Barba expression it almost looks foreign on his fac-

“Uh huh. You expressed approval. As a colleague. By saying ‘yummy.’”

Rafael is proud of himself for not laughing out loud.

“Yes, Carisi. Why? Would you have preferred something else? ‘Delicious,’ maybe?”

Rafael licks his lips for the big finish, and Carisi’s nostrils flare, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep a straight face. It’s always been so easy to get Carisi all riled up. Rafael’s always loved doing it.

Rafael missed doing it.

Missed Carisi letting him do it.

It feels so damn good to have this again.

It feels s-

“Nah, yummy was bad enough, thank you. Come on, Barba. In front of Liv? And Amanda? And Fin? He spent the rest of the day callin’ me Detective Yummy around the unis!”

Rafael can’t help but laugh at that.

He knows, and Carisi knows, that the squad stopped being fazed by their borderline inappropriate banter a long time ago. Somewhere between, ‘Save it for night school’ and, ‘It pains me to say this, but you’re right, Carisi.’

That was a long time ago.

Rafael wonders if the others were as surprised as he was to see that flirtation continue.

As relieved as he was.

Liv was pretty relieved. Rafael knows that.

Because she told him.

Just the other week, Liv said she w-

“I mean, is this your idea of a joke? Tryin’ to embarrass me in front of Liv? Cause, let me tell you, counselor, I don’t appreciate it.”

Carisi is really committing to this bit. There’s an irritation in his voice, now, and Rafael almost feels contrite.

“You called me Rafael in front of Liv. That was pretty embarrassing.”

Carisi almost chokes on his bourbon.

“That’s your name! How is that embarrassing?”

“It’s embarrassing when you say it, Carisi.”

Carisi starts laughing, loudly, and Rafael wants to kiss him.

Carisi is laughing, and he’s leaning on the table, sleeves already rolled up and elbows resting well within Rafael’s personal space, and their hands are so close, and the lights are so low, and the memories are overwhelm-

“So, Rafael, you thought my ‘clever observation’ was yummy?”

There’s that Carisi cockiness.

“No.”

And there’s that little scowl Rafael likes so much.

“I thought ‘obfuscate’ was yummy. You know I love it when you use LSAT words.”

Carisi rolls his eyes, and that’s another Barba classic, but it looks perfect on his face.

Carisi, rolling his eyes because he thinks Rafael is shameless, it’s perfect.

“I don’t see the issue, Carisi. Isn’t that why you said it? To make me think you were yummy?”

Rafael is totally shameless, by the way.

And that ruffles Carisi’s feathers in a way that’s impossible to ignor-

“Wait, so now you think I’m yummy?”

Oh.

Perhaps Carisi is less ruffled than Rafael thought. Not only did he catch that slip-up, he also called out Rafael on it.

Very well.

“I’ve always thought you were yummy, Carisi.”

Now Carisi is ruffled.

Unmistakably.

Carisi is blinking, and gaping, and so desperately trying to come up with a response, and so adorably failing.

“Uh…”

Yeah.

Rafael smirks and tops up both their tumblers.

He lets that statement linger in the air.

He gives Carisi some time to think about what to say nex-

“See, that’s what I’m talking about, Barba. You can’t just say that stuff. I mean, you can say it to me, when it’s just us, but not when the others are around. It’s not… It’s unprofessional.”

Not the response Rafael was expecting, but he’ll go along with it, because Carisi still seems a little flustered.

“It is just us here, Carisi.”

Carisi nods.

There’s an uncertainty in his eyes, and Rafael can’t understand why. Rafael’s intentions have to be crystal clear by now. Almost pathetically so. Right? Maybe he should have undone that extra button, after all. Maybe that would hav-

“Yeah, but… But when we’re at the precinct, you shouldn’t… Just… don’t do that in front of the others. Okay?”

Rafael starts to think that his intentions aren’t the problem. It’s Carisi’s intentions which are vague.

“What do you mean by ‘that,’ detective? What am I doing?”

Carisi downs half his bourbon in one go.

“You know. Callin’ me yummy. Lookin’ at me like you wanna… You know. Stuff like that. Flirtin’ with me. That’s… that should be private.”

Carisi does have a point.

A poorly conveyed, barely articulated point, but still. Perhaps such behavior is better reserved for more private settings.

Like a quiet bar.

Unlike Liv’s overcrowded office.

Maybe saying ‘yummy’ in that setting was a little much. Maybe that’s what’s bothering Carisi.

Maybe that’s why Carisi looks uncertain and can’t finish a sentence to save his life.

Maybe Carisi’s irritation isn’t an act.

Maybe Rafael should feel contrite.

Maybe Rafael got this all wrong.

Maybe Carisi gulped down the fancy bourbon because he wanted to broach an uncomfortable subject.

Maybe that was the purpose of this meeting.

Maybe this isn’t a date.

Maybe Carisi wanted some privacy to talk about the status of their restored relationship. To set up some ground rules, to re-establish boundaries, before anything else happens.

Eventually.

Hopefully.

After all, Carisi did say flirting was okay when it’s ‘just them.’

But not when they have an audience.

Rafael can’t find the fault in that logic. It was somewhat inappropriate of him to flirt like that in front of the entire squad. Rafael should have resisted the urge, but he forgot where he was, for a moment. All he could focus on was Carisi, and ‘obfuscate,’ and his desire to make Carisi smile, so Rafael just blurted it out.

Which is a problem in itself.

Rafael doesn’t speak out of turn. He doesn’t forget where it is. He can’t afford to. Since he was a kid, since he was in college, Rafael has always been acutely aware of his surroundings, and the behaviors expected of him.

Or so he thought, until Carisi came along.

Carisi makes him slip.

Always has.

Right now, Carisi looks all intense, brows furrowed and lips pursed, and Rafael wants to slip all the way into his mouth.

Not tonight.

They’re not there yet.

The distance between them has narrowed, but it hasn’t been eliminated. They’re close enough for ‘oh, Rafael,’ but not close enough for ‘yummy,’ and that’s Carisi’s decision to make, and Rafael’s to respect.

Rafael is happy to respect it.

He can’t deny he’s disappointed, but the date was just the icing on the cake.

They’re back to normal.

Maybe they’re not all the way there, but they’re close enough, and Rafael won’t screw up again.

He’s waited this long. He can wait a little longer. If Carisi wants more time before they can pick up exactly where they left off, Rafael is happy to provide it.

He’ll even provide some distance.

Literally.

Rafael grabs his tumbler and sits back, moving away from the table, and Carisi’s eyes follow his hands.

“You’re right, Carisi. Perhaps ‘yummy’ was a little too forward. I apologize. I’ll choose my words more carefully next time.”

Carisi smiles, like that’s what he wanted to hear, and Rafael is more relieved th-

“Delicious is no good either. Just so you know. For future reference.”

Rafael chuckles, and Carisi laughs along with him. They’re turning some heads, because this bar really is too quiet, and there’s not much laughter to be heard elsewhere, but Rafael doesn’t mind the attention. Not when Carisi looks even more relieved than he feels.

“Duly noted, detective.”

Carisi blinks, slowly, and Rafael could swear they were sitting further apart just a moment ago.

Rafael doesn’t even know who moved. If it was Carisi, or if it was him.

Just like the good old days.

Just like the first time.

Right in this bar.

Almost a year ago.

The last time he and Carisi had a pleasant conversation.

It was the night before Rafael filed the request to dismantle his security detail. Carisi was in his office taking the late shift, as always, protecting him, as always, distracting him, as always, and if Rafael was truly honest he would admit he and Carisi have been on countless dates.

Not one or two.

That night, they left Rafael’s office together, and they took a cab to The Double Windsor, because Rafael refused to be driven to an almost-date by a plainclothes police officer who reported to Carisi for a living.

Carisi kept the conversation going.

As always.

On the way there, Carisi said, ‘Maybe I should call ahead. I know the bartender. I’ll tell him to break out the good stuff. It’s not every day that a Manhattan A.D.A. graces their establishment with his presence.’

When they arrived, Carisi took the lead. He picked the table, and he nodded to the bartender, the one who’s gone now, and he pulled out a menu from out of nowhere, with a flourish, and he let Rafael pick the liquor.

Smooth by any measure.

As smooth as he could be, with three cops watching them like hawks from a few tables over.

Rafael doesn’t remember what they talked about. That last pleasant conversation, it’s a blur, blending into all the warm, easy conversations that came before it. Rafael just remembers Carisi’s smile, and the bourbon, and the way Carisi’s knee rested against his thigh.

Rafael just remembers wanting to get out of there, with Carisi but without the police escort, and knowing that was impossible.

Rafael remembers Carisi mentioning his cooking. Always a favorite topic. Carisi always had a habit of randomly reciting full recipes at the drop of a hat, complete with exact measurements and ingredient substitutions. He’d start and he’d keep going until somebody stopped him. Rafael never stopped him.

Rafael remembers saying, ‘I can’t remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal.’

Rafael remembers Carisi saying, ‘You’ve come to the right guy, counselor. I got a home-cooked meal waiting at home. Enough to feed an army. Well, it’ll be home-cooked reheated leftovers, but that’s still better than what you’re eatin’, probably.’

Rafael distinctly remembers not saying, ‘I doubt your cooking is better than the haute cuisine I’m used to, Carisi.’

Rafael remembers asking, ‘Where is home?’ instead.

He remembers Carisi’s smile, and then the answer, quiet and hopeful.

‘My place is right around the corner.’

Rafael doesn’t remember Carisi’s apartment.

He doesn’t remember walking there. He just remembers Carisi’s long coat brushing against his leg.

Rafael doesn’t remember what they had. If they even had anything to eat.

He doesn’t remember Carisi’s living room, or the contents of Carisi’s bookcase, or the color of Carisi’s curtains.

Rafael just remembers how hard it was trying not to kiss him.

There was an unmarked police car downstairs.

Rafael remembers that.

Rafael remembers, because his driver rang the doorbell just when he decided to stop trying to stop.

Rafael can still see Carisi’s face.

They were so close.

Before.

They were standing so close, but that was as close as they were going to get, because Rafael’s driver had to check on him before a shift change.

Carisi smiled, and all Rafael could see was gratitude. Like Carisi was grateful they had even gotten that close. Like that was enough.

Rafael had never been so happy not to be kissed.

The next morning, he filed the request.

That afternoon, it all fell apart.

Almost a year ago.

Rafael doesn’t mean to dwell.

It’s this place.

It’s Carisi, looking at him with that same expression of gratitude.

That’s where the similarities end.

That, and with Carisi’s knee, still pressed against his thigh, as always.

Rafael was hoping to start over, to start from there, to start from that moment when they both leaned in and breathed out, but that’s not going to happen tonig-

“You alright, counselor?”

Carisi.

The question is rhetorical.

Rafael isn’t the only one affected by this place.

By the memories.

Still.

They needed this.

This first step.

The rest, it may not happen tonight, or even any time soon, but if it’s ever gonna happen, they’ll know where they stand.

For the most part.

Rafael empties his glass and thinks he’s still left with a question.

Rafael thinks maybe Carisi shouldn’t be the only one who gets to air out his grievances.

“Can I make a confession, Carisi?”

Carisi’s smirk looks even better three drinks in.

“I’m no priest, but have at it, Barba.”

What the hell.

“I’ve been treating this outing as a date.”

Carisi keeps smirking.

His eyes fall to Rafael’s neck again. He’s staring with a purpose, like he could undo more buttons if only he looked hard enough.

Rafael does his best to ignore it.

That, and the way Carisi keeps glancing at his lips.

Constantly.

This may not be a date, but the attraction between them is still there, still strong, Carisi’s desire is still strong, and Rafael almost feels guilty when he realizes Carisi is reacting to him instinctively. Grudgingly, maybe. This isn’t why Carisi asked him out tonight, or wh-

“You don’t say. What with the way you’ve been sittin’ all loose, with your tie all crooked and your hair all mussed. I never would’ve guessed.”

What’s that about Rafael’s hair?

Never mind.

“But since this is clearly not a date, and since you’ve already said your piece, maybe I can say mine.”

Carisi stares.

“Uh… You…”

“Let me finish, Caris-”

“No, wait, y-”

“Please.”

Carisi looks like he’s bursting to speak, but he stops trying to interrupt.

“I assumed this was a date, because of our more recent interactions. Because things between us have gotten better. Because lately you’ve been…”

Carisi, to his credit, does not try to finish that sentence.

“You’re more animated, and you’re smiling, and you’re giving me pointers again, and you call me Rafael, and…You seem to be over it now. What I… Right? You’ve forgiven me. You’re over what happened.”

Carisi exhales.

For several seconds.

“We can put it behind us. Right, Carisi? The death threats. You’re not going to… That’s over. You’re over it.”

Carisi’s jaw tightens with every word Rafael speaks. He probably wasn’t expecting this conversation, he wasn’t expecting Rafael to bring up the death threats after all this time, but Rafael had to do it.

Rafael wants to know.

“Right, Carisi? Obviously I’m still kicking, which means I was right, so y-”

“You weren’t right, Barba. You were lucky.”

Carisi is not over it.

Not even a little.

It’s written all over his face. The smirk is gone, and the irritation, and the confusion, and the desire is gone, too, and now Carisi just looks two parts angry and three parts sad.

Rafael both regrets asking, and is happy to have asked.

If this is ever gonna happen, they’ll need to know where they stand.

“Yes. I suppose I was lucky the extent of the threats was exaggerated by Heredio.”

Carisi winces at the mere mention of Heredio’s name.

Regret is starting to edge out happiness.

Rafael needs to lighten the mood, as much as it’s possible to lighten the mood when speaking of your own potential demise.

“Then again, it was a small risk to take. Regaining my ability to frequent high end boutiques versus possibly losing my life? I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Carisi does not laugh.

He just bites his lip.

His drink stays untouched.

He looks angrier and angrier by the second.

Carisi’s expression is giving Rafael flashbacks. It’s making Rafael think of all the time they wasted, one entire year, wasted, fighting, and it hurts more than he cares to adm-

“Yeah. Of course. Of course you didn’t, Barba. Why would you? It’s only your life.”

Rafael now regrets this completel-

“It’s a good thing, too. It’s a good thing you were okay with that. Dying. Possibly. That’s all that matters, right? What you thought. Guess the rest of us didn’t get a say.”

This is not what Rafael wanted when he got here tonight.

Rafael wanted to say ‘yummy’ again, to whisper it, he wanted to get Carisi to blush again, just like old times, Rafael wanted to get Carisi to kiss him, like they almost did, once before, Rafael wanted to end this night with his hand down Carisi’s pants, and his tongue in Carisi’s mouth, and his body pinned against Carisi’s ugly purple plaid bedspread, the one he only caught a glimpse of, the first and only time he ever found himself in Carisi’s home.

Not this.

Rafael doesn’t want this.

He doesn’t want to keep rehashing the past. He doesn’t want to see that anger on Carisi’s face ever again.

The pain, on Carisi’s face.

The love.

Not like this.

Rafael doesn’t want to waste another year fighting.

Rafael wants Carisi.

Now.

Rafael doesn’t want to waste another second.

So he doesn’t.

Rafael leans in and kisses Carisi hard, and clumsy, and off-center, and it’s rushed and it’s awkward and it doesn’t matter because Carisi is kissing back.

Carisi breathes out and gives in, Carisi turns his head and opens his mouth and Rafael closes his eyes.

They’re not alone.

They have an audience.

It doesn’t matter.

Rafael wants to touch Carisi’s face, Rafael wants to feel Carisi’s stubble, because it’s late, and Carisi practically looks unshaven now, feels unshaven, too, against Rafael’s lips, Rafael wants to grab Carisi by the shoulders and hold him in place, because this could be the first and last time they kiss, and…

And Rafael keeps his hands to himself.

Rafael wants to give Carisi the option to stop. To pull away and call him an idiot, for thinking this was okay.

Carisi does no such thing.

Carisi keeps kissing him.

Carisi grabs him by the shoulders instead, hands bunching up Rafael’s shirt sleeves, Carisi holds him in place, fingers digging into skin, and Rafael thinks this won’t be the last time.

It better not be.

Carisi’s hands move to Rafael’s neck, to his chest, fingers slipping under Rafael’s collar, right where Carisi’s eyes have been glued all night, and it’s like Carisi was dying to touch him, right there, and Rafael absently thinks that Carisi has a problem with flirting in front of an audience, but heavy petting is apparently A-Okay.

Rafael licks his way into Carisi’s mouth and stops thinking.

This is yummier than h-

“Yummy enough for ya, Rafael?”

Oh.

It’s over.

For now.

At least if the dreamy look on Carisi’s face is to be trusted.

Rafael wants to laugh. He spent the entire duration of their first kiss being emotionally compromised, and thinking he had screwed up all over again, while Carisi spent it fondling his chest hair and coming up with a cheesy line.

“Yummier than I expected.”

Carisi does laugh.

This is what Rafael wanted when he got here tonight.

Carisi, laughing again, like the time they lost has been erased.

The time they wasted, forgotten.

Rafael is s-

“You’re an idiot, Barba.”

Rafael is not exactly sure why Carisi would choose to say something like that in this particular juncture, but he’s too dazed from their kiss to really argue the point, so h-

“This was a date.”

What?

“What?”

Carisi smirks, again, and it’s the exact same smirk he had on his face when he ‘explained’ Baker v. Carr, or when he said ‘obfuscated,’ and Rafael wants t-

“This. It was a date. Or at least I wanted it to be. That’s the whole reason I asked you out. Things between us have gotten better, and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. To make sure you weren’t just yanking my chain. It’s hard to tell if you’re bein’ serious when you say stuff like ‘yummy’ in front of, like, twelve other people. You gotta stop doin’ that, by the way. I just… I wanted to know if this was for real, or if you were just teasin’ me, like you did back when I first got here.”

Rafael is an idiot.

And so is Carisi, and Rafael loves him for it.

“It was real back then, too.”

Carisi’s jaw drops, and Rafael thinks they’re done wasting tim-

“Wait, so what you’re sayin’ is, you’ve been wasting my time for three years? We could’ve been doin’ this for three years?”

Rafael appreciates Carisi’s insight.

Carisi’s graceful way of turning that intimate confession into a joke.

Rafael was dead serious, and Carisi knows that, it’s written all over his face, the surprise, and the happiness, and the affection, but he refuses to let Rafael suffer the indignity of expressing genuine emotion.

Rafael loves him for that, too.

“You want to talk about wasting time, Carisi? How about that entire year of my life that you wasted? I’m not getting any younger. Somewhere down the line, you just might regret not spending that time with me.”

Carisi’s face is all sadness again, in the blink of an eye.

Rafael belatedly realizes that, not only did he indirectly reference the death threats again, he also made another insensitive joke about his own mortality.

He can only hope ‘somewhere down the line’ makes up for it, because it implies he and Carisi will still be together down the line, and he hopes Carisi picked up on that, Rafael hopes Carisi wants that, becaus-

“You weren’t wrong, Barba. I’m… I’m kinda over it. I’m gettin’ over it. There hasn’t been a threat against your life in over a year, it’s been… It’s almost sixteen months, now, and you’re safe, so… I’m trying. I don’t wanna waste any more time, you know?”

Rafael does know that. And he also knows that Carisi has been counting the months since the last threat, the days, too, probably, if not the hours, and that makes Rafael’s chest tighten.

What Rafael doesn’t know is why.

“Why did you get so angry, Carisi? Why waste all that time in the first place? If you cared about my safety that much, you could have stayed to protec-”

“Of course I care.”

Carisi’s statement is loud, and agonizing, and absolute.

Of course Carisi cares. Rafael didn’t mean to imply otherwise. He just wanted to know why Carisi didn’t stay with h-

“But I couldn’t stay. Not after Dodds. Not when I knew what that felt like. Loss. Not when Heredio refused to give up his bosses. Not when you suddenly decided you didn’t need a security detail because they were a minor inconvenience while you were out shoppin’.”

A minor inconvenience?

Rafael begins to suspect that Carisi has no idea wh-

“What if something happened to you, Barba? And we were… And we were together? I couldn’t live with that. I figured, better if we’re fighting. If we hate each other.”

Rafael pours the rest of the bottle, half in his tumbler and half in Carisi’s. And then he reconsiders, and dumps out all of Carisi’s bourbon in his own glass.

Rafael takes a sip, and another, and another, as Carisi watches him.

They’re both idiots.

“I got rid of my security detail because of you, Carisi. Because we had gotten close, and I wanted to get even closer, which is technically not allowed, as I’m sure you’re aware, and we couldn’t do that with two patrol cars parked outside my apartment building every night.”

Carisi looks hilariously angry.

For once, Rafael doesn’t min-

“What? Are you crazy? Is that wh… Is that why you filed the request right after we… You… You put this, you and me, you put this over your own life?”

That’s now how Rafael would put it, but it’s not wrong, either.

“Haven’t you been listening, Carisi? I put high end boutiques over my own life. Don’t flatter yourself.”

Carisi deflates, just like that.

“I… I didn’t know, Barba. That’s why I was so mad. And… And the longer I avoided you, the longer I stayed mad, the harder it was to… I thought you had a death wish, or somethin’. I thought this was your suicidal streak talking.”

Rafael smiles at the memory.

“I’m afraid not, detective. I was just horny.”

Carisi laughs, sincere, free, and now, now they’re back to normal.

Carisi radiates happiness, just like he’s supposed to.

Always.

Carisi is happy, and his happiness is so clear, and so bright, and Rafael thinks maybe genuine emotion isn’t that bad.

“If something happened to me, Sonny, and we weren’t together. That’s what I couldn’t live with. I figured, better if I have you.”

Carisi, Sonny, looks completely and utterly in love.

That’s the only word that comes to Rafael’s mind.

Love.

It’s possible he’s projecting.

And then Sonny kisses him again, and Rafael realizes it doesn’t matter.

The time they lost has been erased.

The time they wasted, forgotten.

Three years, and they never got a real chance to start.

“You know, Rafael, my place is right around the corner.”

Rafael smiles.

They’ll start tonight.