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Crush Ripe, Serve Cold

Chapter Text

The more Carisi saw of it, the more Barba’s apartment surprised him.

It was relatively small, no bigger than Carisi’s own apartment, except it felt more open for not being cut apart by needless hallways. Carisi supposed it made enough sense--Barba could eat expensive meals in fine clothes, or he could have a wealth of space most New Yorkers wouldn't see outside of a Friends rerun. The place was nonetheless stuffed with fineries--the too-large dining table that doubled for a workspace backed against the couch, a painting by an artist Carisi assumed was famous, given the way Barba introduced it like the piece was another resident here, chrome cookware, and a top-of-the-line record player that got a lot of use.

Carisi decided he liked the latter, best. The warm sounds seemed to fit the tight space better than the pronounced table or the monolith-like grand, gleaming refrigerator.

If it wasn't already playing when Carisi arrived, metro card protruding from his pocket and hair tousled from the four-block jog out of the station nearest Barba's apartment, Barba would put it on. Crooners, women's contralto tones, sometimes Spanish but often not. Carisi had the vague hope of zeroing in on Barba's favorite, but the man never played the same record twice.

Carisi took it for a challenge, and privately resolved to be around long enough to hear a second, third, and fourth playing.

All the same, the apartment wasn’t as lived-in as Barba’s office. The couch wasn’t as comfortable, the walls weren’t adorned with as much history or personality. It was obvious where Barba truly felt at home.

-

Umm Kulthum sang a prayer as he and Carisi finished on one another, a thing Barba found too sacrilegious to share with Carisi.

A month’s worth of biweekly visits had them locked in a perpetual honeymoon phase, born first of a slow breakfast after an awkward night. Those sentiments seemed to color what came later--even when Carisi visited expressly because Barba invited him, there was the inevitable asking after his security detail, whether he’d received any more detailed threats, if he felt safe.

It was a hell of a mood to set. Barba wondered if he’d simply come to like it.

He felt like a part of a very meager harem, or less fantastically, he felt like a burgeoning agoraphobic whom Carisi visited by night. It--the harem thing--had never been a fantasy of his, and for the most part he was a touch disturbed by how quickly he got into the idea of having company whenever he wanted for it. But his was a practical mind, and at the very least, he appreciated the convenience.

Barba tracked the changing expression in Carisi’s face. From awed, he became sated. Once sated, he became cocky. Then pleased and pleasing and--curiously--amused. Carisi’s tongue darted out ahead of his teeth, wet his lips in anticipation for a smile, then a laugh.

“Something funny, Detective?”

Carisi ducked his head and planted a kiss on Barba’s shoulder. “Nothing. I'm just thinking how I took Rollins’ advice…”

“Excuse me? Was there someone else in the room just now? Directing traffic, perhaps?” Barba sat up and shoved Carisi's bare legs off his own.

Barba had a tendency to be insufferable after sex, even downright snippy. It was as though he could not sustain himself on pleasure, but had to chase it out of his mind with neuroticisms. Admittedly, Carisi had taken the poor mood to heart when he first encountered it, but after another brave try he saw the behavior for what it was: an attempt, however self-defeating, to test his bedfellow. To drive him out, if that was the simplest solution.

Luckily for him, Carisi was a convoluted lover--easily won, but matched every score.

Carisi was eager in bed, which was a fine thing and befitting of his personality. However, when his hands and mouth weren't enough to take Barba in, he used the full form of his body, trading in minimal weight and too-sharp angles just to get closer. Hence, the routine tangling of legs.

“Nah,” Carisi grinned and threw his head back. His sweat-tinged hair threw a splattering of drops onto the pillow, a gesture he made as though he had every right. “Those moves were all mine.”

Barba rolled his eyes. “You should be so proud.”

He turned over to his right side, towards his bedside table. He collected a moistened wipe from a large pack, something Carisi found entirely too suggestive when he first laid eyes on it. “Jeez,” he’d said, eyes shining as he took in the size of the tub. The damn thing near about kept the drawer from shutting. “You weren't kidding about all your suitors, huh?”

Truthfully, the collection of wipes was only recently acquired, and primarily used to mop up the sweat from his brow when a noise--however small--awoke him from compulsive dreams of his death into a potential reality. If the tub of wet wipes gave him a sense of sexual prowess, however crudely won, he'd take it. This situation gave him nothing else. In fact, the anxiety fed into him by the endless stream of threats took into his stomach like a an invasive parasite, a tapeworm, stealing from him his sturdy mass and libido, hand over fist.

Carisi did his level best to give the latter its due.

“So. What is it about Detective Rollins you find so imperative to share with me right this very minute?”

Carisi accepted a wipe from Barba and gave a smirk in return. “She told me to stop acting like I was so in love with you.”

Barba could only manage a neanderthal reply: “Oh?”

“Said it was--and I'm quoting here--’profoundly off-putting.’”

“I don't know about profoundly…” Barba said, relaxing now that Carisi was obviously teasing. Love wasn’t a part of their newly shared lexicon. “I'd place it closer on the spectrum to entirely, or painfully.

“That's worse!”

“I disagree,” Barba murmured. He closed his eyes and debated silently with himself as to whether the issue ought to be pressed. Carisi brought it up--didn’t even wait out the afterglow--and clearly wanted Barba’s insight.

Coolly, Barba asked, “Does she know how much progress you've made?”

“No… I thought,” Carisi stopped himself, confided, “Nobody knows.”

“It's for the best,” Barba said, firm, but still as though it was Carisi’s desire he was meeting, and his own terms rose in agreement. Never mind that it was Barba’s own intent to save face. At best, he was fraternizing with a police officer when other officers--their identities unknown to him--labored ill will towards the lawyer, and would doubtlessly extend those feelings to Barba's sympathizers. The exchange did not tip in his favor.

The truth--or whispers of it--would tarnish Carisi, too. A young detective and prospective lawyer sleeping with an ADA was, just in its telling, a condemnation. If Carisi did tell Rollins, it would be no less than a confession.

And if Barba told Benson, heaven help him. He respected her tremendously and considered her a friend, but Carisi was one of her detectives, and that afforded him something like her grace. She’d excuse Barba like a lateral move If his presence threatened one of her own. Barba was not her subordinate; he could not have her protection.

Which was a funny thing, given the constant stream of interchanging officers stationed outside his building, in a follow-car, and at his office. All were there for weeks now at Benson’s order.

“Rollins just, you know,” Carisi struggled to maintain a smile like the one Barba had wiped from his face. “She knew I was annoying you. And noticed that I don’t, really, anymore.”

Barba raised his eyebrows. “Let’s not get crazy. Your legs? Annoying. Your breath? Annoying. That face you make when you--”

Carisi practically threw himself on top on Barba for that one, teasingly nipping the man’s lips before pressing for a kiss. Barba met and easily returned the gesture, a thing that had become instinctive, second nature. Barba kissed Carisi like he’d been poured a drink--it’d be rude not to partake, and the effect was goldening.

Carisi moved down to his neck, a favorite of his. The skin there was soft and touched by a day-old scent of cologne.

“I can go again,” he said, and Barba felt the shape and form of the words buzzing against his skin as Carisi dragged his lips to make them. “Any objections?”

A breath caught in Barba's throat and he strained to answer, “Only to legal-speak in the bedroom.”

“Tacky,” Carisi said--not his own thoughts on the subject, but Barba’s. He'd heard it all before.

“See, you listen but you don’t learn--” Barba was interrupted by the ringing of his own cell phone, which he instinctively reached for. He started to answer it, stopped and sighed.

Carisi lifted himself an inch above Barba. “Another hang up? Let me see--”

“Let you see what, exactly? The purposeful lack of evidence? Are you going to follow this lead?” In a huff, Barba tossed his Blackberry to the end of the bed, where it landed between their feet. “There it goes.”

Carisi let Barba’s testy attitude go unmet. He bent down, gathered the phone, and inspected the recent call list.

“One of the same six numbers calling you,” he said, and went on to read the ugly and threatening messages associated with the number. TARU was provided copies of every text, and the stomach-sinking discovery some weeks ago was that they were being written by at least three different people, based on spelling and linguistic patterns.

Barba narrowed his eyes and accepted his phone when Carisi handed it back. “You’ve memorized them?”

“You haven’t?”

“Only coincidentally,” Barba said. He wore half a smile on his face, a barely-there invitation for Carisi to resume necking him.

But the moment was lost, and with its passing Carisi didn’t see the harm in asking, “Can we talk about your case for a second?”

“My case,” Barba repeated, as if the words themselves sounded different when applied to himself. He rolled over in bed, faced Carisi. “Please tell me you've caught all involved parties weeks ago and forgot to tell me. Or better yet, kept it from me. How dramatic. I could throw things.”

Carisi didn’t say anything in return, likely under the impression that Barba was genuinely disappointed in him for not having linked every clue, made every mental leap, and slain all assailants.

“Though if that's the case, wait until tomorrow. I don't want to throw my things.”

“I was just thinking,” Carisi began, ignoring Barba's last taunt, “You know how we knew Felipe Heredio was good for the threats, but lucked out with the drug possession charges so he'd at least do a little time?”

“The day we all cheered for cocaine. How could I forget?”

“I've since interviewed him in jail. A couple times. Pressed him to turn on whoever was paying him.”

“And?”

“Nothing yet, but you should have seen him.”

“I think I've seen plenty, thank you.”

“I mean… He smelled good.”

Barba barked out a laugh. “Excuse me?”

“Which means he’s got access to nice things, scented soaps and a cell phone probably being the least of it.”

“Loaded up commissary,” Barba realized, and settled flat into bed so that he could stare uselessly at the ceiling.

“And not a scratch on him.”

“Protection. Maybe it is the guards.”

“I'm still thinking cops, though. If only because influence should trump access, you know?”

It was a leap, but Barba had long since made the same conclusion. It was cops--not corrections officers--with whom he interacted most. Their arrests were upheld or broken by Barba’s legal doing, and even when their behavior could not stand up against the word of law, it was people like Barba who made those proclamations loudly in court, in public, for all to hear.

Barba thought, then, of the messenger. Felipe Heredio’s smirking face and awful fucking fade visited him in dreams and reality alike, so often that Barba came to know it personally. It could be a handsome face, even, if not for the ugly look in his eye that betrayed his intentions.

“Maybe that’s why we were able to get him on the drug charges. He usually gets a free pass, doesn't have to concern himself with hiding anything.”

“He’s somebody’s hired hand,” Carisi agreed. He sighed, shifted in bed. His right hand dropped onto Barba’s thigh where it laid exposed, driven out from under the sheets. “We're looking into every beat cop who’s run a route near him in the past decade, looking for any connections. Nothing's been put to paper, obviously.” Carisi squeezed the flesh of the thigh, once, then retreated his hand. “I wish I had more for you.”

The touch was made out of pity, not renewed interest. Barba respected himself too much to whine and want for something that was gone.

He sat up, said coolly, “Don’t sell yourself short. People still want to kill me, you say? That’s all any man ever wants to hear.”

He left the bed, drew on a pair of boxers and went to change the record and fix himself a drink. Barba could feel Carisi’s eyes track him through the motions, but he never once looked back.

-

They didn't talk about what they were doing--a miracle, really, given how freely Carisi talked about literally everything else. Barba neither questioned Carisi's interest or examined his own. It was as if they'd both fallen into a pit, accepted the terms, and began to build a new life there. A pit-life. Carisi carved out a wider space while Barba dug in a little deeper.

There had only been one instance where they’d come near that conversation, waded in but struck out just as fast. When Barba came to the conclusion that Carisi was actively censoring himself, he felt at fault. Questions, opinions--Carisi had both on intimate truths and far flung topics he hadn't even heard of, yet. The thought found him in bed with Carisi, and between their ragged breathing he’d asked what it was Carisi wasn’t saying.

Carisi had closed his eyes and said a stream of broken half-thoughts, “I didn't want to say something and… I don't want it to stop.”

At the time, Barba conflated the response with the rocking of his hips.

Drink in one hand, Barba used the other to deftly remove the humming record from its player. He secured it in its slip case and idly examined the rest of his collection. Truthfully, he’d have preferred silence. But Carisi got ideas when things fell quiet, and Barba didn’t have the energy to entertain his inquiries--legal or otherwise.

He heard the creak of the bed, the sound of feet against his floors. A moment later, Barba felt Carisi looking at him from the bedroom doorway, and with that the necessity of choosing a record skyrocketed. He looked at the record in his hand, certain that whatever it was would due, except that it was a Phil Collins tune. No.

Carisi had pulled on his white undershirt, which had gone slack at the edges where Barba had fisted it with his hands and stripped it off of Carisi’s body like it had done some great offense to them both. The front was slightly tucked into his boxers, as if he’d drawn those on second, maybe as an afterthought. His hair was pushed back, drawn to favor his left side.

Barba hastened his search for a worthy record, but he couldn’t outrun Carisi’s mouth, a faster thing than even his mind.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Can you not?”

Barba’s sharp retort only held Carisi off for a moment. “No, I should ask it. If things weren't like they are, would you still want to hang out?”

“What a forgiving euphemism,” Barba quipped.

“Is that a no?” Carisi asked plainly. His hands moved absently towards where the shirt’s hem brushed over his narrow hips, where Barba always liked to start with him. “I mean, I get it. We wouldn't go out to dinner or anything. See a game or a movie or nothing.”

Privately, Carisi suspected they wouldn't have done any of those things, anyway. Barba took exotic vacations and went to the opera; Carisi saw Springsteen at Madison Square Garden, once, almost a decade ago.

“You have a nasty little habit of making other people's arguments for them,” Barba said, another non-answer. He gave up on the record and decided Carisi was maybe owed this, at least. An explanation for his actions, before his silence marked them for cowardice. “Listen. If people knew, they wouldn't kindly await an explanation,” even if we had one Barba thought, but did not add. “You'd be labeled a slut and that'd be it.”

Carisi took swift and loud objection, saying, “Whoa, hey, how am I the slut?”

Barna shrugged. “It’s a simple process of elimination. I’m in my forties. I left behind that term in my twenties.”

“I'm thirty-three,” Carisi said, as if the math was on his side.

“I can't figure out if you're fishing for compliments or you really are this stupid. Have you seen yourself? Between you,” he pointed, “And me? The better catch is always the slut. So,” Barba lifted his glass to toast Carisi. “Well done you.”

Carisi rolled his eyes and shook his head, seemingly annoyed, save for the pink rising to color his cheeks. “Let's say I was fishing for compliments.”

Barba’s lips twisted off his glass of scotch. “Yes, let's.”

The moment stood between them like a thing they could both come back and visit later. Barba could see Carisi’s face scrunch up, embarrassed but pleased, and Carisi could hear again how Barba thought he was a catch.

With some swing in his hips, Carisi said, “For the record, I think you’re a catch. And a slut. With your industrial sized box of wet wipes.”

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, an unspoken request to use Barba’s shower. Barba waved him off. Carisi did not usually stay the night, weekends being the sole exception. He had to be at work in the morning, same as Barba, and the time away afforded him some distance. Otherwise, he risked smiling too wide or letting a touch linger too long, all things sure to spoil Barba’s trust.

He learned quickly, Barba thought, which wasn’t something Barba could have said for himself. He tilted his glass to his mouth onto to find that he’d sucked that particular well dry.

If he didn’t have another, he knew his thoughts would quickly sour. If he did, he might do something incredibly foolish, like ask Carisi to stay.

Barba lost himself to his own thoughts, and did not stir until Carisi again entered the living room, dressed in the clothes he’d arrived in, each item bearing some particular touch of Barba’s. The t-shirt he’d twisted out of shape, the hoodie he’d called a nuisance, the jeans he’d well enough pushed down to Carisi’s knees without unzipping them, first.

He looked like a million other law school graduates, tired-eyed but self-possessed, and using a hoodie for a security blanket. He smiled when he noticed Barba was staring.

Of course, it was Barba’s first instinct to go and wipe it off his face.

“Are you unhappy with how things are now?”

It did the job. Carisi frowned, reared back like he’d been hit with a foul stench. “What? No.”

“Because you realize we started at the finish line, don’t you? You’re here--in my apartment--all the time. Any other set of circumstances and you’re shoveling out your half of a couple dates on the rare occasion I have a night off.”

Carisi leaned back against the doorjamb, folded his arms across the heavy rendering of FORDHAM lettering across his chest. “What kind of dates?”

“Dinner, like you said.” Barba pretended to think about it. “Maybe a show.”

“Like Broadway?”’

“No, Carisi, we’ll watch two rats tear each other apart over half a shwarma. Showtime’s at nine.”

“Do I pay the rat for this honor or--?”

It was such a stupid comeback that Barba stood up and walked away.

Carisi followed him into the kitchen, goofy smile commanding his face, arms splayed out in earnest. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Barba stationed himself at the fridge, opening it and seeing nothing of interest. The mechanic churn of cold air was pleasing, though. He let it cool his bare legs.

“I know you think it would be fun to do those things, but, you know, have a little common sense.”

“I didn’t say I was unhappy,” Carisi reminded him, still smiling, but only just.

A saran-wrapped dish finally caught Barba’s eye. He retrieved it, then closed the refrigerator door with a flourish and said, “Tarte Tentación.”

Barba retrieved two forks, as much an invitation as Carisi was going to get. They ate straight from the dish.

He’d expected Carisi to be wary of what was--essentially--a mysterious brown mound, but Carisi took an eager first bite. Barba’s cynical nature made it for a tactical move--anything to avoid a strenuous discussion--but knew it was just as likely Carisi, the youngest of four, didn’t get to be picky.

All the same, the detective’s mouth went slack in pleasure, and he had another bite balanced on his fork even before swallowing his first.

“Did you make this?”

Barba took smaller bites, knowing the sweet dish for being deceptively heavy. “No. Some family friends were out of the country and missed my grandmother’s funeral. They brought this around yesterday, after some interesting discussion with my security detail.”

Carisi spoke around another mouthful. “It’s really good.”

“It’s plantains and rum, there’s not much room for error.”

“Cannolis are fried dough and ricotta cheese, and I’ve known some travesties.”

Carisi had the gall to wink, and press his lips into a wet little smile around fourth--fifth?--bite of tart. It wasn’t so sexually devastating as it was shy, even a touch naive.

Barba decided to cut the shit. “Are you gay, Detective?”

“Uh,” Carisi said, and swallowed fast. He looked a breath away from explaining dumbly, The cannoli was not a euphemism.

Barba pressed, “Bisexual, maybe? Or did college liberate you so much that you travel that spectrum like a greased wheel?”

“I mean,” Carisi was blushing, now, pink and pleased like he looked when Barba commended him on one thing or another. “I’m not, you know. Loose.”

Barba rolled his eyes. “Of course not. We only work together and I’m only old enough to be one of your professors. I’m sure your virtue is the stuff of legend.”

“Are you,” Carisi dropped his voice to a needless whisper, like they were actors in a play and he had to step out of the scene. “I’m not following. Do you want me to do slutty stuff?”

God, Barba was tempted to follow that thread until Carisi unraveled at his feet. Instead, he only patted Carisi on the cheek and told him to put a pin in that thought, they’d surely revisit it later.

He returned to the matter at hand: sexuality, and whether Carisi was prepared to be known for his.

“With me, it’s an open secret.” And in some circles, a joke, Barba thought, but did not say. Arguments were never won out of pity. “And my title and accomplishments don’t spare me anyone’s lowest opinion.”

The colorful insinuations and terms that got thrown around--Spanish Dandy was a personal favorite--didn’t touch him. He’d grown too much for that. Enough posturing in fine suits, walking the courthouse halls with his reputation at his back, and he couldn’t help but internalize the success he’d made for himself. Embodied it, even.

But those words were heard all the same, taking on a broader audience every time they were voiced. Even meeting them with an ready smirk, a damning line of his own, or nothing at all did little to deny their purpose. Barba was only a part of the intended audience, and these things were said with the explicit intention of his colleagues and superiors hearing them, too.

“Even if I am the one to blame,” he continued airily, “All the nasty looks and comments will fall to you. You’re quite welcome.”

“You're not--” Carisi threaded a hand through his damp hair, tugging slightly when he gathered the ends at the nape of his neck. He hadn't washed it, just rinsed off. “There is no blame. Okay? Gross.”

“Poetry,” Barba hummed.

Carisi picked at the tart with his fork, but had lost his appetite. “Anyway. I don't think that would happen. You know, not from the Lieutenant. Or Amanda or Fin or,” he stopped, finished lamely, “Anybody like that.”

Of that, Barba was skeptical. He didn’t bother mentioning all the disparate opinions of other cops, attorneys, and judges who Carisi conveniently left out of their little world.

He decided to let Carisi off easy, saying, “If predicting people's behavior was a science, there wouldn't be any use for lawyers. And then where would we be?”

Ever the smartas, Carisi answered, “I'd still have a job. You'd be unemployed.”

“And on that pleasant note, goodbye.”

Carisi shoveled a final bite into his mouth, which earned him a foul look and accompanying admonishment: “You're disgusting. Just take it.”

Barba wrapped the remaining tart in foil and stuffed it into a paper bag. When making the handoff, he did so with the added bonus of elbowing Carisi in the gut and pointing him towards the door.

-

Carisi arrived in the squad room a few minutes shy of the others, but a box of cannolis in the breakroom to show for it. Admittedly, they were little more than a smokescreen, a deterrent for hungry coworkers, lest they check the break room fridge and find the last piece of Tarte Tentación he'd packed in a Tupperware container.

He stopped short of Lieutenant Benson, who may have consciously put a desk between herself and a red-faced Barba.

“Surveillance footage?” Barba repeated. “Since when?”

Rollins was sat at her desk, her eyes locked on the footage playing out on her computer screen. Fin had pulled up a chair behind her, and Barba all but stood in front of him to get a better view.

“Just the other day,” Rollins said offhandedly. “To test out angles and sites over the weekend.”

Barba pursed his lips. Though perhaps not uncalled for, he should have at least been informed. And while Carisi had not announced himself--as he was wont to do--Barba knew he was there, and knew better than to glance in his direction.

“And to cut down on department waste, I assume,” he said, and looked to Benson for confirmation. “I’m losing the security detail?”

“They’ll follow you to and from work. That won’t change.” Barba didn’t need to ask, it was clear on her face: this was a hard-fought battle, and she’d at least won some of it. She looked sympathetic, always, but resolved that there was success to be torn from the jaws of defeat. It was her nature.

Similarly, it was Barba’s nature to mask his unease with a cutting word and his well-developed mean streak. “But I can sneak out the fire escape, now, is what you’re saying.”

Rollins smirked at that. “Or you could use the door.”

“Or the door,” Barba agreed flatly. “And greet death like a welcome guest.” He huffed, still annoyed, but readier now to accept what had already been done. He acquiesced: “Find anything?”

“Just one familiar face,” Rollins said, her inquisitive blue eyes peering up from over the top of her computer.

“Carisi,” Fin called out, an ease to his voice that was deceptively calming. “Cozying up with the ADA. You ain’t thinking of leaving us, are you?”

“Hey, one conversation with this guy and I was talked out of it!” Carisi grinned, and Barba thought that was actually pretty slick, and they were almost home free--!

But Carisi faltered under the gaze of his Lieutenant. His usual excuses about forgotten paperwork and case files may have satisfied the protective detail without a second thought, but fooling his own boss with those half-formed lines would be next to impossible, not to mention an insult to her intelligence. He mumbled weakly, “Um, no, I was just there to update the Counselor on Heredio.”

“Quick conversation,” Rollins said. More time with the footage would tell her otherwise; in reality, Carisi’s latest visit lasted nearly three hours.

Barba, who had still not laid an eye on Carisi, knew it was up to him to salvage the moment. “God,” he said loudly, “Is that what the back of my head looks like? I should sue my barber.”

He stepped away from his view of the screen, made sure his steps were loose and unencumbered. “As personally revealing as this slideshow has been, when can I expect to be footloose and fancy free?”

“Hopefully not too soon,” Benson said, and gave Barba an encouraging nod. “I’m working on it. In the meantime, I think it would be useful to have a list of places you frequent day-to-day. Grocery stores, restaurants, bars, anywhere outside of your apartment and your office.”

“I can answer that for you now. Besides my office and apartment, I’d add the courthouse and here. And the bodega in between.”

“There gotta be six.”

“The nice one.

“No yachts?”

Barba’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Funnily enough, the barrage of vitriol and threats he’d received over the past several months did nothing to dampen the reflex he had to answer a call without hesitation.

“No,” he drew out the word, his attention lost to the text from his secretary reminding him of an upcoming appointment. “Funnily enough, being marked for murder narrows a man’s circle of friends. Full disclosure, it was slim pickings among those who’d call me fine company before this face became one begging for a bullet. I’m quoting here.”

“Well, they’re missing out,” Carisi said, his gaze no longer shyly drawn to the floor. Barba made a face of disgust, as if the sheer preciousness of that consoling statement reeked of a July day in the apartment above a low-rate sushi bar.

“Oh my god,” he said, bone-dry, while rolling his eyes and collecting his briefcase. “I’m going to leave the sharing circle, now. Call me when you have a case for me to win.”

-

Only when Carisi spotted Barba in the building’s lobby, two floors below the man’s office, did he realize he hadn’t taken a good look that morning. Otherwise, he would not have been so taken with the snug fit of the handsome brown suit and the shock of purple at Barba’s throat, boasting like a peacock’s plume.

There was a pattern on his shirt, too, Carisi noticed. A faint spread of miniscule dotted lines. He looked nice.

The thought tumbled out of his mouth as Barba approached him.

Barba frowned. “Yes. I know. Did you follow me here?”

“I thought you’d take a car. I basically ran, been here for twenty minutes.”

There was a slight sheen on his face Barba saw as he sidestepped him and made for the elevators. Carisi followed. “Carmen didn’t let you wait in my office?”

“This isn’t official…”

They didn’t discuss these things outside of Barba’s apartment, and had no off-the-books meetings to show for themselves. It was Barba’s first instinct, and Carisi knew well enough to follow suit. Just this once, Barba made an exception.

“I’ll send her out for coffee.”

“With a coffee in your hand, you’re gonna send her out for coffee?”

Barba brushed past him, said, “It’s like you’re sleeping with me and you don’t even know me.”

With Carmen gone, Barba’s office to themselves, and Barba awaiting an explanation, Carisi found himself suddenly agonizing under the attention. He wished he’d just said something in the lobby when Barba approached him, coffee in one hand, phone in the other, dressed impeccably and seemingly unbothered by the security detail hot on his heels. Barba might have been distracted, then, which may have softened his verdict.

Carisi decided to just come out and say what needed saying, to speak plainly and trust that Barba would hear it that way.

“I can’t lie to my Lieutenant. If Benson asks, I gotta tell her.”

Barba set himself upon his mail. His texts and peace of mind aside, this--at least--was one venue his agitators had not infiltrated. He supposed there were too many opportunities to source a substance-filled-letter back to its sender. More likely, though, Barba figured people doubted he opened and read his own mail.

What could he say? He had a beautiful letter opener and found the routine to be calming.

He didn’t look up when he said, “Liv is not going to ask you, point blank, if we’re sleeping together.”

“She’ll ask why I was there,” Carisi pressed, pained and worried as if the subject hadn’t already breached the air in the squad room.

“And you covered that.”

Carisi made a pained noise, a whine that twisted up and stalled in his throat. He’d already lied, and there was no undoing that.

“And the next time? And every time after that, when I show up on the security footage?” Carisi wiped a hand over his mouth, anxious. The prospect of lying to his colleagues and boss was becoming more likely with every second he spent protesting it. “Maybe we could--” Carisi started to say, but Barba cut him off.

His voice was crisp and sharp when it shattered Carisi’s world.

“Okay. I see your point. We’ll stop, then.”

“We--wait, what?”

Barba clarified, “No more activity, no more questions.”

It was a simple enough equation, though Barba did not see gains on either side. He kept his chin up, maintained the ghostly image of his famed stoic persona, hoping Carisi would draw confidence from it, imitate and emulate it. There was so much of Barba Carisi openly appreciated and wanted for himself: success as a lawyer, tenacity in the courtroom, a reputation for greatness. All were inflated in Carisi’s mind, some, but all were equally undeniable if named.

Instead, Carisi appeared genuinely shocked by the suggestion. An offer, even, by Barba’s terms. The decision to end their relationship in the face of one simple word of admission seemed an abject failure of creativity and drive. If Barba had wanted any other outcome, he would have thought of a means to get it.

Carisi’s mouth moved absent of any words. He shut it, finally, and demurred. “Sure, yeah. That’s… an option.”

Barba’s stomach sank. He sliced open another letter, but didn’t feel the satisfaction.

“It's probably for the best. I have a lot on my plate right now.”

“I thought we'd talked about my helping with that. For. Experience.” It was only tangentially true, but Carisi only needed as much. He wanted to stay in Barba's life, wanted to sink himself into the little sliver of it that played records, shared meals, and smiled sweetly after making mean jokes. Not twenty seconds ago, Carisi believed he was welcomed to that much. If he couldn’t have that, though, he’d take paperwork and hearings and appeals and coffee runs. He’d take it and be glad.

Barba sighed, put down his mail, and crossed his arms over his chest, more huddled than defiant. “It’s just. Neater.”

Carisi stood for a moment, staring dumbly at Barba as if he hoped to be corrected. He wanted Barba to roll his eyes, make a crack about Carisi’s law school of choice, and insist that no, he didn’t mean they should end things, how could Carisi think such a thing?

He wanted to be told, You’re smarter than that.

But Barba said nothing, and the silence numbed Carisi’s fingertips, his hands, his limbs until it was all he could do to remain upright and balanced on his own two feet. Barba didn’t appear to have that problem--he returned to his mail, slicing open another request for his time and insight at this conference or that one, where a few hours of work was done only after he’d decided on the important thing: did he want to speak for two hours and then head out to the beach or hit the slopes?

The pointless task could not sustain him, and Barba began to drum his fingers on the heavy wood of his desk. Finally, he dropped the the act, stood from his desk and studied Carisi, drinking him in--a long taste before the drought--like he knew something the detective didn’t.

“Do you at least understand?” he asked, and while the words would make more sense being snapped in Carisi’s face, Barba’s tone was conspicuously gentle. “Blink twice for--”

“Shut up,” Carisi said, though any bite was peeled off the words so that they were nothing, not an insult, and certainly not a command. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I know you’re not,” Barba said in that same kindly tone. It seemed unnatural, indicative of a lie he was secretly telling. “That’s why I knew you’d understand.”

Carisi felt his face flush red, quick in a way that spoke of embarrassment, but hot like anger. When he met Barba’s gaze, Carisi didn’t know what Barba saw staring back at him. Strangely, it felt like surrendering a title. Carisi could have laid a golden crown on Barba’s desk and not felt silly for it, at least in this one moment in time.

“Okay,” he said. “Um. Well. Have a… neat day.”

-

It was two days into the work week when the order came down to Lieutenant Benson regarding ADA Barba: the threat level was stagnant. Hang-ups and texts did not warrant the physical presence of security detail when no one was found to be staking out his apartment building. Benson's counter argument--because it was obviously guarded--was ignored in favor of expediency.

Such was the Threat Assessment Division’s verdict. Benson had another.

Barba, decked out in a grey suit with a pastel shirt-and-tie combination the color of competing cotton candy flavors, sat while everyone else gathered in the conference room stood. It felt appropriate, given he was being told how his life was going to be for now on. He recalled his mother making a similar lecture when he’d been young and prone to sneaking out at night because his friends in the neighborhood managed the same.

But there was a twist: all that Benson described would fall away. And loathe though he was to admit it, Barba needed police protection--and protection from the police, as the case may be--same as he’d needed his mother’s strong guidance. He was in danger without it.

Benson made her pitch, and Barba realized this much: she was not his mother.

She asked, essentially, for Barba to draw his agitators out of the woodwork. She asked that he be seen, that he take back his public life, the one that had narrowed under the combined weight of every threat to find him unguarded and alone and to make him pay. What she described was an impossible task; Barba scarcely remembered the life he’d had before splitting his time between work and home, and never deviating from his path.

He stood and delivered his retort with all the sincerity it deserved: “I’m sorry, I must have had a massive stroke just now. Did you rip this idea from an episode of Miami Vice? This is--at best--a plan for when all well-considered plans have failed.”

“We’ll be with you every step of the way.”

“That’s… a tremendous amount of resources for a plan that actions nothing.” Barba found himself looking from Benson to Carisi, as if the least experienced member of the team could add the most insight. He looked away just as quickly, and surveyed the team. None looked optimistic. Fin couldn’t even look him in the eye.

Barba shook his head, awed. The fact that any of them would have taken the plan and run with it was not lost on him; these people did near about maimed their own damn selves on a weekly basis.

“Next you’ll ask me to indict another couple of cops just to draw attention to myself,” he said, and Amanda opened her mouth, a word of encouragement on her lips, but Barba cut her off. “One, no. Two, very illegal.”

“You falsified court documents when you claimed Munson’s victims were in on gang activity,” Fin pointed out. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference being, I don’t actually want to die.

Barba was losing his patience. His face was starting to mirror the aggravated pink of his tie. “Are you literally just giving me shittier options so that the one where I play a sitting duck sounds preferable in comparison?”

The ensuing silence, he thought, spoke for itself.

“So we float a story,” Amanda reasoned. She looked to Carisi for support, but found him conspicuously without an opinion of his own. “Some newspaper claims you’re out to make a name for yourself tearing down bad cops.”

“And where does that story go when you’re done? I won’t purposefully tarnish my reputation--”

“To stay alive?” Carisi cut in, and pushed off from the desk he’d been leaning against. He stepped to Barba, even cocked his head a little to make his point that Barba’s denials weren’t, in themselves, their own ideas. “No? Is that where you draw the line, Counselor?”

The room fell quiet. The assessment wasn’t wrong, but Carisi made his point with the same brash sensibility that had alienated him in other police divisions.

Barba took a step to match Carisi’s.

“Not abusing the legal system to my personal advantage? Yes, actually. Or don’t they teach you that at night school?”

Carisi twisted at the hip like the remark had come coupled with a physical blow. But it was a boomerang move, and he came right back around, undeterred, and leveled Barba with as hard a look as he could muster. This was some playground shit when it started, but more than that Carisi had thought they’d moved past it.

He suddenly realized he could not fathom how that idea survived as long as it did. It should have cratered in on itself without reason or example to nourish it. What about sleeping with a man meant you respected him?

“I passed the same bar exam you did,” he said, his Staten Island accent rolling thick under his rising temper, but Barba wouldn’t let him have even that--a win in his column, however small.

“Oh!” he practically shouted, his tone high and mocking, “I hadn’t heard! It’s not like you don’t take every opportunity to remind us all! Congratulations! Now, if anyone can confirm you didn’t pull your badge out of a cereal box, I’ll eat those words.”

Each word was sharpened to a point, and when Benson intervened she felt as though she’d put herself in the midst of a knife fight. She put a hand on Carisi’s forearm in an attempt to ground him, and held her other hand raised, a breath away from the shock of pink rising out of Barba’s breast pocket. It was a gesture that said, hold your fire.

“Guys--” she started, got no further.

“Fuck you, Counselor,” Carisi said, and even in a whisper, his words didn’t go unheard by anyone in the room.

“Carisi,” Benson snapped. “You’re out of line. Leave. Now.

Carisi didn’t waste a moment arguing. He kept his eyes on Barba, and left the room with one last insult on his lips: “You look like a fucking baby shower, by the way.”

Behind him, Fin mouthed to Rollins, Baby shower?

She mouthed in return, Holy shit.

There was another awful moment in the room where everyone collectively realized Carisi had gotten the last word, and wasn’t that a slice?

“He’s in a mood,” Barba said, just a stupid thing to shatter the silence. Glances went around the room, fleeting and quick. No one said another word about it.

Benson pinched the bridge of her nose, as if that alone could starve off the migraine that would undoubtedly mar the rest of her day. “If we do nothing, Rafael, the situation doesn’t change. We’ll start small. Go about your life. One of us will tail you.”

Rollins raised the point: “Lieutenant, anyone who has any notion of harming Counselor Barba has likely done their homework. We’re not going to go unnoticed.”

“So let’s not bother,” Benson said, and left the matter for Fin and Rollins to hash out.

“So you’re going to babysit me,” Barba gathered, though his attention was on Benson as she left in search of Carisi.

Rollins chanced a wry smile. “Hardly, Counselor. Babysitters make out like bandits. We’re only getting overtime.”

-

Benson found Carisi in her office, like he’d gone there to specifically await his punishment.

He was sat on the couch, elbows balanced on his knees, head cradled in his hands. His legs were shaking, all nervous energy. He looked like how her headache felt: a misery.

“Carisi. What the hell was that?”

“I’m sorry. Ma’am, I am so sorry.” He raised his head up from his hands and looked near to tears. Pale-faced and stricken, it was as though he’d internalized Benson’s incomprehension and felt it ten times over. The disrespect was one thing, but the anger in his heart had surprised him. That he’d wanted to, but hadn’t taken the opportunity to hurt Barba worse terrified him.

Benson saw it for an overreaction, and though her mind spun out towards Carisi’s religious nature, she had trouble imagining that a mean-spirited comment could warrant a near-breakdown.

She sighed. The situation with Barba was difficult enough, she didn’t need Carisi losing it, too.

“This… has been a stressful situation for all of us. Barba is understandably on-edge. We need to be more understanding of that, okay?”

After an absurd crack of hysterical laughter, Carisi buried his face in his hands again.

He recovered, dragged his hands off his face and looked his Lieutenant dead in the eyes. “I’m worried about him. I’m really worried.”

Benson sat uneasily on the couch beside him. What she was seeing was too much, which meant she knew too little.

Carisi continued, so genuine it made her sorry to hear it, “He knows the reality of these threats. I don’t need to remind him.” He sucked in a wet breath through his nose. “I’d apologize to him if I thought he wouldn’t interrupt and tell me to get to the point between I’m and sorry.

“Listen, Carisi…” Benson knew she could dismiss him for the day, and the embarrassment would be punishment enough. She could slap him with sensitivity training. Put him on walk-ins. Hell, she could suspend him. Barba could be tough to take sometimes, but he wasn’t among her rank. She wasn’t accountable for his behavior.

Admittedly, she’d just left a meeting meant to change that.

She patted Carisi’s arm. “Tell the others I chewed you out for this.”