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Know It When I See It

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Sonny Carisi had never felt stupider in his life.

Granted, he was only 17 years old, so he hadn’t had that much opportunity to be really stupid, but this definitely ranked.

It had been a dare, and a dumb dare at that, but Sonny, with all the bravado that spiked hair, ripped jeans, a flannel shirt wrapped around his waist and a Discman clipped to his belt plus the sheer fact of being 17 and an idiot could bring, had gone along with it. It was just a bit of spray paint, after all.

How was he supposed to know that the stretch of brick wall he'd chosen to deface was actually the side of NYPD’s 121st precinct?

He could still hear the officer laughing outside the room he had been unceremoniously left in, and his scowl deepened as he crossed his arms in front of his chest. His one solitary act of youthful indiscretion after seventeen years without so much as being called to the principal’s office, and all he had to show for it was six hours spent sitting in this room, waiting for a lawyer he was beginning to think was never going to show.

His mother, on his one phone call he was allowed, had assured him that she was gonna call Teresa, who was dating some guy who worked in some big law firm in Manhattan, “and we’ll get you the best lawyer they have, so sit tight Sonny.”

(“Are you mad, Ma?” he had asked, his voice small and his cheeks still burning with embarrassment.

His mother paused. “Honestly, honey, when I heard it was NYPD calling I just assumed it was Bella again, so I'm actually a bit relieved.”

Story of his freaking life.)

He was just about to give up and tell the officer outside that he'd rather take a public defender than wait any longer when the door banged open to reveal the single hottest man that Sonny had ever seen. Deep-set green eyes were paired with long, slightly windswept brown hair and lips curved into a sardonic smile that made his skin flush warm.

Luckily, Sonny had experienced his sexual awakening a few years past or else he would have been very confused about the way his mouth went dry at the sight of the man he could only assume was his lawyer, taking in everything from his slightly baggy three-button gray suit to the navy blue tie knotted somewhat askew around his neck to his scuffed brown shoes, and especially the spray of freckles across his nose and the fact that he didn’t look all that much older than Sonny when he’d been expected some boring old dude to be his lawyer.

Sonny figured that it was the ultimate divine punishment that for his first ever attempt at misbehaving, he’d not only get arrested but also get saddled with a man who was the walking definition of lust.

He hated to think of how many Hail Marys awaited him after his next trip to Confession.

“Mr. Carisi,” the lawyer said, and if possible, Sonny flushed even redder at the sound of man’s voice, and he quickly averted his eyes as he reached out to shake the man’s outstretched hand. “My name is Rafael Barba, and I’ll be representing you.” He gestured for Sonny to take a seat as he sat down across from him, crossing one leg over the other, Sonny’s eyes tracking the motion. “So,” Barba said, pulling a file folder out his briefcase that still smelled faintly like new leather, “we’re here because…”

He trailed off, looking down at what Sonny could only assume was a picture of Sonny’s vandalism with both eyebrows raised, and just when Sonny was beginning to contemplate trying to throw himself out the window as a less painful form of torture, Barba murmured, “Well, that’s ambitious.”

Sonny offered a silent prayer to Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus to just take him now.

Barba glanced up at him, his lips twitching slightly in amusement. “You spray painted a penis on the side of a police precinct?”

“I didn’t know it was a police precinct,” Sonny blurted, panicked, and now Barba was openly smirking at him and Sonny was torn between an acute desire to die and a stirring from somewhere distinctly further south than his brain.

“Unfortunately, ignorance is not a legal justification,” Barba said, sliding the picture out of the file and holding it up like he was looking at some kind of work of art. “But your lack of artistic skills may play to our benefit here.”

Sonny was insulted despite himself. “Are you sayin’ I’m not a good artist?”

Barba’s eyes met his and Sonny forced himself not to look away. “I’m saying that you spray painted a dick on the side of a building,” Barba said flatly. “Picasso, you are not.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully, his expression turning shrewd. “I can work with this, though. There might be precedent using the Roth test and Jacobellis v Ohio …”

He trailed off, and Sonny found it almost fascinating to watch the gears inside the man’s head turn. After a moment, Barba shook his head, his expression evening out. “In any case, your artistic skills and your talent in choosing a suitable canvas aside, I talked to the ADA and you’re free to go home for the night.”

Sonny blinked at him. “Don’t I have to be, you know, fingerprinted? Or whatever?”

Barba arched an eyebrow at him. “You vandalized a building, which is a misdemeanor at most, and when I’m done with it, will be a warning. That isn’t exactly grounds to hold you overnight. You’ll need to be at the Richmond County courthouse tomorrow at 10am for your arraignment. You will wear a tie and a suit if you have it, and you will not speak unless I tell you to. Understood?”

Sonny nodded, mutely, and then hesitated before raising his hand. Barba stared at him. “We’re not in class, Mr. Carisi, I don’t have to call on you.”

“You said I couldn’t speak without permission.”

Sonny didn’t mean for the words to sound as petulant as they did, and he probably deserved the look that Barba gave him. “I meant tomorrow, in court, you are not to speak without permission,” Barba sighed, grabbing the case file and glancing through it as he added, in a bored-sounding voice, “So what is it?”

Sonny jerked a shrug before he said, still petulant, “Uh, Mr. Barba, my ma would want me to invite you over for dinner, if you didn’t have any plans, since you’re, you know, helping me and all.”

Barba looked up from the file, suprised and, if Sonny was reading his expression right, a little gratified. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Carisi—”

“Call me Sonny,” Sonny interjected.

Barba ignored him. “But I’m due back in the city tonight.”

“Maybe next time,” Sonny said, trying not to sound as disappointed as he felt, even if the larger part of him realized he should be relieved. He wasn’t sure he’d survive an entire evening with Barba.

Barba just raised an eyebrow. “Unless you have plans to continue your artistic career — and if you do, as your lawyer I do not want to know about them — I very highly doubt there will be a next time.” He closed the file and slid it back into his briefcase. “I will see you in court tomorrow at 10. Kindly do not be late.”

As if there was a snowball’s chance in hell that Sonny was going to risk disappointing him.

“See you tomorrow,” Sonny called after him as Barba swept out of the room much the same way as he had swept in, and Sonny stared after him for a long moment before sighing heavily and slumping out of the room to ask one of the cops if they could give him a ride home.


“You’re lucky your Confirmation suit still fits,” Sonny’s mother told him for the eighteenth time as she followed him into the courthouse, standing on her tiptoes to desperately try to comb the back of Sonny’s hair down. “Though it’s a bit baggy — did you lose more weight?”

Sonny, who had lost about 50 pounds when he had shot up a foot his sophomore year of high school, scowled and batted her hand away. “Ma, stop,” he complained.

Of course, that was the moment that Barba decided to join them. “Mrs. Carisi, I presume?” he said, ignoring Sonny to shake his mother’s hand. “Very nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Carisi beamed at him. “Very nice to meet you as well,” she said. “Thanks so much for coming all the way out here for this.”

Barba grimaced. “What can I say, I’m my firm’s go-to pro bono lawyer,” he said, adjusting his tie, which looked like a hunter green version of the tie he had worn the previous day. “That’s what comes of being a first-year associate.”

Mrs. Carisi’s smile faltered slightly. “First year?” she asked, eyeing him up and down. “Are you sure you passed the Bar?”

“I graduated second in my year from Harvard and passed the Bar on my first try,” Barba said, with dry incredulity at having his credentials questioned by a plump mother from Staten Island, and Sonny hastily turned his laugh into a cough. “I think I’m qualified to represent your son.”

Mrs. Carisi pursed her lips. “Whoever was first in your class wasn’t available?”

Barba gave Sonny a look and Sonny shrugged. He’d been dealing with his mother his whole life, and was rather enjoying this moment. “Anyway, ma’am, if you want to take a seat in the courtroom, I need to confer with Mr. Carisi for a moment,” Barba said, and when she hesitated, he added pointedly, “In private.”

Though Mrs. Carisi looked nervous, she nonetheless reached up and patted Sonny’s cheek before heading into the courtroom, leaving Sonny alone in the hallway outside with Barba. “Uh, sorry about her,” Sonny said, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

Barba just shook his head. “I’ve dealt with worse parents,” he said darkly before sighing. “Anyway, the judge is going to read what you’re being charged with. I’m going to enter a motion to dismiss a few of the charges—”

“A few?” Sonny asked worriedly. “What exactly am I being charged with?”

“—and after what I expect will be a rousing debate with the ADA, some young guy named O’Dwyer who I haven’t dealt with before, you should get off with nothing more than probation for defacing public property,” Barba continued, as if Sonny hadn’t spoken. “Though if things go well, you may get off without even that.”

Sonny snickered and Barba gave him a look. “Sorry,” Sonny said quickly. “You said, uh, get off.”

Barba rolled his eyes so hard it looked physically painful and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘teenagers’. “Do you remember what I told you about court?” he asked sternly.

“That I’m not to speak without your permission?” Sonny asked.

“Try to apply it to inappropriate giggling as well,” Barba said. “Now come on.”

Sonny followed Barba into the courtroom and stood next to him, feeling awkward and out of place where Barba looked at home, setting his briefcase on the table in front of them. “Stay here,” Barba ordered, and Sonny scowled at him as he watched Barba go shake hands with the man Sonny assumed was the ADA, a man about Barba’s age with light brown hair.

He swiveled to find him mom in the crowd and she waved at him. He blushed and quickly turned back around, rejoined by Barba just as the bailiff called in a bored voice, “All rise. The Richmond County Juvenile Court is now in session, Honorable Judge Posen residing.”

Sonny warily watched as the judge came in and took his seat. “Clerk, please read the first case.”

From in front of the judge’s stand, the clerk cleared her throat. “Docket Number 24601: The People v. Dominick Carisi, Jr. Defendant is charged with making graffiti, possession of graffiti instruments, criminal mischief in the fourth degree, and dissemination of lewd images.”

The judge raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment. “How does the defendant plea?”

Barba cleared his throat. “Before the Defense enters a plea, the Defense would like to enter a motion to dismiss all charges. I invite the judge to view Defense Exhibit A and to review the qualifications for the New York Department of Parks & Recreation Temporary Public Art Program. Based on the included materials, the Defense argues that Mr. Carisi was merely making a public art installation without the proper permit, punishable by no more than $250 in fines.”

The judge took the picture from Barba and examined it, eyebrows still raised. “Mr. Barba, your reputation precedes you, and I’m glad to see you’re not disappointing. Is this image not what I think it is?”

Barba shrugged. “That depends entirely on what Your Honor thinks it is. The Defense notes that under Jacobellis v Ohio, Justice Stewart noted that he would recognize obscene images when he saw them, and as Your Honor doesn’t seem convinced of what you’re looking at…”

The ADA cleared his throat and spoke for the first time, already sounding exasperated. “Your Honor, under the deal offered to Mr. Barba on behalf of his client, the State has already stated that we’re willing to drop the dissemination of lewd images charges—”

That was all it took for Barba to pounce. “So the State agrees that the images were not lewd,” he said, a note of triumph in his voice, and Sonny wasn’t sure he’d ever witnessed anything as arousing as Barba winning a verbal spar with nothing more than an arched brow and an arrogant smirk. “Which leaves us with the definition of graffiti under New York state law. As I’m sure Your Honor is aware, to be considered graffiti, the mark must be placed on public property with the intent to damage it. The Defense argues that Mr. Carisi did not have any such intention.”

ADA O’Dwyer rolled his eyes. “Your Honor,” he protested, “the Defendant painted a penis on the side of a police precinct! How was that without intent to harm?”

“By the sheer fact that Mr. Carisi intended instead to beautify a blighted area, as defined under the New York Economic Development Commission,” Barba interjected smoothly, and Sonny had to fight to hide his grin. Barba was making this look easy, and though Sonny was young and stupid enough that he hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to his future, he was sorely tempted to consider a career in law based on what he witnessed alone. “Your Honor has already stipulated that the image may or may not resemble a phallic object, which means, stripping it of any obscenity, that it's a work of public art, albeit without the proper permit, for which my client profusely apologizes.”

O’Dwyer gaped at them before turning to the judge. “Your Honor,” he spluttered, but the judge forestalled his argument by holding up his hand.

“As entertaining as this has undoubtedly been,” he started, and Sonny was surprised to find that the judge did sound amused, “and as much as I appreciate the...passion that Mr. Barba has brought to my courtroom, the fact remains the Richmond County Juvenile Court is not in the business of throwing the book at first time offenders.” He favored both Barba and O’Dwyer with a look. “If the State and Defense can come to an agreement, this Court is willing to dismiss all charges against Mr. Carisi in favor of eight weekends of court-ordered probation, where Mr. Carisi will get to appreciate the other unauthorized public art installations throughout Staten Island as he paints over them.”

Barba glanced at Sonny, who shrugged, because frankly, it was less than he thought he was going to get. “The Defense has no objection.”

O’Dwyer sighed heavily. “While the State protests the way this arraignment has gone, we have no objection to the Court’s recommendation.”

“Excellent,” the judge said briskly, tapping his gavel. “Mr. Carisi will report to the 121st Precinct this Saturday for his first weekend of community service. Clerk, please read the next docket.”

Barba grabbed Sonny’s elbow and tugged him to the side. Sonny blinded followed, trying to stop himself from smiling, and Barba glanced at him, amused. “You can smile,” he said in an undertone, as the next lawyer and defendant took their place. “We won, after all.”

“I know,” Sonny said, finally breaking out into a grin. “You were—” ‘Incredible’, he wanted to say, but he was cut off by his mother, who rushed up to him and enveloped him in a hug. “Ow, Ma,” he said, wincing against her ministrations, to no avail.

When his mother finally let go of him, to make her way over to the judge, despite the bailiff’s protestations, Sonny turned back to Barba. “Uh, Mr. Barba, uh, thank you,” he stammered, feeling woefully inadequate after the show Barba had just put on. “Listen, what you did just now, that was—”

“The job,” Barba interrupted, though his smile was an odd mixture of pleased and condescending.

Sonny snorted. “It that’s true, you’d better let the prosecutor know he’s slacking,” he said, and that earned him a laugh, a good one, eye crinkles and all.

“Yes, well,” Barba said, still sounding inordinately pleased with himself as he closed up his briefcase and turned towards the courtroom doors. “Take it easy, Sonny. Try to find a better use for your time than, um, ‘public art’.”


Not ‘Mr. Carisi’, as he had insisted on calling him this entire time.

Just Sonny.

Sonny's heart had never felt so full.

“Yeah, sure,” he called to Barba’s retreating back as he exited the courtroom, flushed equally from their victory as something he refused to give name to, less because of his own embarrassment and more because he didn’t want to admit that he was dumb enough to have developed an instantaneous crush on his lawyer overnight.

He had.

But that didn’t mean he had to admit it.

Besides, as his mother grabbed his arm and forcibly steered him from the courthouse, it was highly unlikely that he would ever see Rafael Barba again. So it wasn’t like it mattered at all.


Fifteen years later, it mattered.

It mattered far more than Sonny could ever have anticipated

He hadn’t even been in Manhattan SVU for more than a day when he saw him sauntering down the hallway like he owned the place. His suits may have changed, becoming more tailored and far more flamboyant in their accent colors, but Barba’s attitude certainly had not. Nor had his attractiveness, and Sonny instinctively crossed his legs at the sight of him.

He'd been halfway through taking a sip of coffee when he choked, unable to look away from Rafael Barba strolling towards him, and his new colleague Amanda had given him a look. “You ok?” she asked.

It wasn’t until Barba had walked straight by him without even a hint of recognition that Sonny had managed to say, “Yeah, fine. Sorry.”

Clearly, Barba didn’t remember their brief introduction, which really only went to show how pathetic Sonny was, all those years later, having started law school less because of a desire to better protect and serve and more because he couldn’t quite get the image of a young lawyer owning the courtroom out of his head. But Sonny was ok with being the only one who remembered, if only because he’d hate for Barba to think less of him than he already obviously did.

But then Sonny made the mistake of shaving his mustache.

The very next day, Barba did a double take while walking by his desk, something in his expression turning calculating, as if trying to place where he possibly could have seen Sonny before.

The moment was gone as soon as it had happened, and Sonny let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding when Barba disappeared into Liv’s office.

But his relief didn’t last.

“Det. Carisi,” Barba asked one day, pausing by his desk. “I know you were in Brooklyn before. Did you work one of my cases?”

Sonny had just shaken his head, not trusting himself to speak.

It didn’t matter. The next week was spent by Barba peppering him with questions about his previous cases, as if he thought he would suss out how, exactly, he knew Sonny. For his part, Sonny gave him nothing to work with, sticking to monosyllables when required and shrugs when he could get away with it.

But he knew the jig was up as soon as he saw the look on Barba’s face one day as he approached Sonny’s desk long after the rest of the squad had gone home, the smug sense of glee radiating from Barba’s every orifice. “Detective Carisi,” Barba said in greeting with a grin. A shark smelling blood in the water.

“Barba,” Sonny acknowledged, his mouth dry.

Barba perched on the edge of his desk. “So,” he started, innocently. Far too innocently. “How’s your art career, Detective?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sonny said, lying through his teeth as he stared unseeingly at his laptop screen.

Barba’s smile sharpened. “Well, it has been a while,” he acknowledged. “You would have been, what, seventeen at the time?”

Sonny jerked a shrug. “If I had been, then the record would’ve been expunged.”

“So you’re admitting you had a record?”

Barba sounded triumphant, and Sonny took a deep breath before looking up at him. “Barba, listen—” he started, but Barba cut him off smoothly, his knowing smirk still in place.

“Oh, I know,” he said, barely containing his glee. “Your secret is safe with me, Detective. Your bosses at 1PP won’t find out that you used to spray paint obscenities on public property — police precincts, no less.”

“And here I’ve gone this entire time believing my lawyer when he argued they weren’t obscenities,” Sonny said dryly. “Thank you, though. I appreciate you adhering to the lawyer-client privilege standards laid down by the state Bar Association. It’s truly touching that you’d go to such lengths for me.”

If possible, Barba looked even more amused. “You’ve grown a backbone in the last fifteen years, I see,” he said, still smirking.

“And then some,” Sonny shot back, rankled.

Barba just chuckled, standing up from Sonny’s desk. “Of that, Detective, I have no doubt,” he said. “Glad to see that your brief life of crime didn’t define your future.”

Sonny rolled his eyes and Barba took that as his cue to walk away. Sonny hesitated for a moment before calling after him, “Offer still stands, by the way.”

Barba paused and half turned back. “Offer for what?” he asked.

“Dinner,” Sonny said, fifteen years of pent up sexual frustration giving him courage he otherwise would’ve lacked. “For the lawyer who got me off.” For a moment, Barba just stared at him. Then his lips quirked in a smile. “What?” Sonny asked, his brow furrowing.

Barba waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing,” he said, before repeating in an undertone, “Got you off.”

Sonny grinned almost despite himself. “Counselor,” he admonished, and Barba rolled his eyes.

“I know, I know,” he said, still smiling. “So. Dinner?”

“Yeah,” Sonny said, his grin not fading. “If you want.”

Barba shrugged. “After fifteen years, I think I can afford to be seen in public with a known criminal,” he allowed, his smile sharpening into a smirk. “But you’re buying. As fifteen years’ worth of recompense for saving your ass.”

Sonny rolled his eyes. “Deal,” he said, standing and grabbing his suit jacket. “But if you were expecting to have saved my ass for yourself, you’ve got another think coming.”

Barba choked seemingly on air, and Sonny brushed past him, grinning triumphantly, feeling for the first time in fifteen years like they might finally be on even footing.