I. You and I, Face to Face
Barba glanced up when the door to the little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant opened, and just as quickly dropped his gaze when the person who strode in, brushing snow off of their coat, wasn’t who he was waiting for.
He was nervous, not that he really had any cause to be. They’d met up for dinner or drinks a few times since Barba had left the DA’s office, mostly just to catch up and check in on each other, but something about this time felt different to Barba.
Something about this time felt like it was an ending.
Or a beginning.
Barba reached out and grabbed his glass of wine, having taken the liberty of ordering a bottle of pinot noir, and had just taken a healthy swig when the door once again opened.
He glanced up again, and this time, his entire body seemed to relax as Carisi hurried inside, his ears and nose red from the cold, snowflakes clinging to his gelled hair. “Sorry about that,” he said in greeting, dropping into the chair across from Barba with a sigh that seemed to emanate from his soul. “Got caught up with a case — well, you know how it is.”
“I do,” Barba acknowledged with a small smile, watching over the rim of his wine glass as Carisi shrugged out of his coat, revealing his wrinkled suit beneath it. “Your dry cleaners still shut down?”
“Huh?” Carisi asked, before glancing down at himself and making a face. “No, uh, just been a couple of long days. Haven’t had a chance to take my suits in.”
Barba’s lips twitched toward a smile. “And here I thought you were just going for the ragged look. I hear it’s very en vogue these days.”
Carisi rolled his eyes and barked a laugh, running a tired hand over his face. “Yeah, because clearly I’ve been known for my en vogue fashion choices Couns—Barba.”
Barba tried to keep his expression from twisting at the almost use of his old title, the old hurt still not quite healed in his chest. “Well,” he said quickly, “at least you can’t accuse me of failing to try to give you more credit than you deserve.”
Carisi laughed again, a real — albeit tired — laugh. “Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled warmly, reaching out to pour himself a glass of wine. “Hey, did you hear about the case we caught last week?”
They spent the next forty-five minutes or so discussing work, discussing the cases that Barba was missing out on, the ones he now only knew from Liv’s and Carmen’s texts and what the New York Times decided to report on. Part of Barba missed it, more than he could possibly say, and he unleashed that part in a rounding critique of every blunder Stone made along the way, which Carisi was only too happy to chime in on.
Nevermind the fact that Barba would’ve been likely to make the same mistakes.
Nevermind that once upon a time, he had.
But after they had finished eating, and Carisi had finished yet another long-winded case summary, and they had just about finished their second bottle of wine, Barba couldn't help but set his wine glass down and look at Carisi, really look at him, past the pleasantries and the stories that rang of nostalgia for a simpler time when they were an ADA and a detective, colleagues with a reason to be sharing a meal in a little Italian restaurant just close enough to the precinct and 1 Hogan Place to make it, once upon a time, at least, a convenient choice.
They had years of history between them, years of something that had always remained unspoken, something always in the shadows, neither willing to risk bringing it forward, to take that next step.
And Barba couldn’t help but wonder if it was now or never.
“What are we doing here, Carisi?”
Carisi looked startled by the question, and Barba couldn't really blame him. “Well, uh, I don’t know about you, but I’m catching up with an old friend.”
Barba stared at him, searching his face for some clue that there was more to this than that, that Barba was more to Carisi than just that.
That the feelings he'd held onto for years now were more than just that.
But whatever he was looking for, he didn’t seem to find, and he sat back in his seat and nodded slowly. “Right,” he said dully. “Catching up with an old friend.” He drained his glass of wine. “Well, it’s been fun, Detective, but I should call it a night. Give everyone my best.”
He stood, and pulled his coat on, and was just about to walk away when Carisi’s hand flashed out and he caught Barba’s wrist. “Barba, wait.” Barba paused, glancing down at him, but whatever Carisi wanted to say seemed to die on his lips. Instead, he dropped Barba’s wrist and looked away. “Good luck. With — with everything.”
“Thank you, Detective”, Barba said quietly.
“You deserve to be happy.”
There was something open and earnest in Carisi’s voice, something that reminded Barba far too much of the overeager detective who once upon a time had begged to shadow him, and he had to swallow against the sudden swell of emotion in his chest.
“As do you,” Barba told him, his voice sounding strange even to his own ears.
He didn't wait to see how his words landed, knowing that if he stayed even a moment longer, he would say something he'd regret, something that would shatter this illusion of friendship they'd both been trying to maintain.
Instead, he made his way out of the restaurant, pausing to turn his coat collar up against the cold before beginning the trudge back towards his apartment.
He did deserve happiness, the happiness he'd long since lost in the DA’s office, in working with SVU, in...whatever this thing was with Carisi.
Barba deserved happiness.
And for the first time in a long time, he was determined to find it.
II. After So Much Time
“Sorry I’m late, Barba said, pausing to drop a kiss onto David’s lips before sinking into the seat across from him. “Court ran long.”
David smiled. “No worries,” he said easily. “I took the liberty of ordering us a bottle of wine.”
“My hero,” Barba joked. He reached up and loosened his tie before glancing around the small, hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant that he hadn’t set foot in for years. “Dare I ask why you picked this place of all places?”
David chuckled, but before he could respond— “Holy shit. Rafael Barba, is that you?”
Barba turned, recognizing that Staten Island accent even after all these years, and there, standing like something out of a dream he didn’t even remember having, was Sonny Carisi.
He stood, the motion almost involuntary. “Sonny?”
Carisi laughed, and crossed over to pull him into a hug, a hug that took Barba more than a moment to reciprocate. “You look good,” Carisi told him, giving him a once over, and Barba chuckled.
“Well, better than you at least, but when has the opposite ever been the case?”
Though Carisi just laughed, Barba’s comment didn’t really ring fully untrue. Carisi looked a little doughy these days, not that Barba minded — not that he had any right to mind, anyway. “Yeah, well, you know, fatherhood’ll do that to you,” Carisi said, patting his stomach a little ruefully. He glanced at Barba. “I hear you’re a judge these days — is that right?”
Barba rolled his eyes. “It’s a temporary position,” he said dismissively. “Filling a vacancy in family court until the next election. Nothing big, and I’d never be able to win an election if I had to run, but for the moment, it’s almost like being back.”
Carisi smiled, something knowing in his expression. “Yeah,” he said. “I get that.” He tilted his head, just slightly. “Do you ever miss it?”
Barba considered him for a long moment. “No,” he said, honestly, and Carisi barked a surprised laugh.
“Fair enough,” he said, his grin softening somewhat. “Well, we still miss you at SVU.”
“I highly doubt that,” Barba said with a laugh, before he turnd to gesture at David, who was watching all of this with something like amusement. “I’m sorry, where are my manners? This is my husband, David. David, this is Det. Dominick Carisi, Jr.”
Something tightened in David’s face at the name, though he still stood and shook Carisi’s hand. “Detective. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Carisi said, tilting his head slightly. “You look familiar. I haven't arrested you, have I?”
Rafael snorted and David laughed. “I very highly doubt that,” he said, and Barba cut in.
“David is corporation counsel for the city. We met when I was working with Project Innocence and helping a client sue the city—”
“A lawsuit which he won, I might add,” David said with a chuckle, grinning at Barba. “And as soon as the case was over, I knew I had to ask this man for a drink. I've never seen anyone take on a courtroom the way he does.”
Barba shrugged, though he was grinning as well, a soft, almost nostalgic sort of grin. “The way I used to, anyway.” He glanced behind Carisi. “Is your family here? I'd love to meet them.”
“Oh, uh, no, the wife’s home with the kids. I, uh, I was just grabbing a quick bite before heading home.” He grinned at Barba a little sheepishly. “I don’t think you’d wanna meet my kids anyway. They’re, uh, loud. And have worse accents than I do.”
“A bunch of mini-Carisis does indeed sound like my worst nightmare,” Barba mused, though he softened it with a smile. “But I do mean it. Next time, alright?”
Carisi’s expression softened. “Yeah, Counselor. Next time.” He hesitated, then reached out and clapped Barba’s shoulder companionably and nodded at David before turning and leaving.
Barba watched him go before turning back to their table and sitting down. David followed suit a moment later, his expression contemplative. "So," he said slowly, "that was Sonny Carisi."
There was something of a question in his tone and Barba nodded. "In the flesh," he said, pouring himself a glass of wine.
David studied him carefully. "He got married."
Barba arched an eyebrow at him. "So did I."
"He got married to a woman."
Barba rolled his eyes and took a long sip of wine. "I'm not going to speculate on my ex's sexual orientation. Suffice to say, he seems happy." He gave David a look. "And despite what you may think, that's all I ever wanted for him."
David's expression softened. "I know," he said, reaching out to set his hand on top of Barba's on the table, the move familiar and intimate, and warmth bloomed in Barba's chest. "He wouldn't have been happy with you."
"No," Barba said, just a touch wistfully, lost for a moment in memories of stolen glances and lingering touches, the only public acknowledgment Carisi had ever been willing to make during their brief time together. Then he shook his head. "Nor I with him." He twisted his hand to lace his fingers with David's. "We're both where we're meant to be."
David smiled. "So no regrets?"
Barba shrugged. "Well I wouldn't say that..." He smirked. "After all, you've never seen Carisi with a mustache."
David laughed, and Barba grinned, and memories of Sonny Carisi and what could have been were left in the past where they belonged.
III. Never Go Back There Again
I’m running about ten minutes late.
Barba glanced down at his phone as he hurried toward the restaurant, one corner of his mouth twitching up in an almost involuntary smile, a Pavlovian response, he supposed, to seeing the name splashed across the screen.
Just as the sharp pain in his chest was a Pavlovian response to the reason why they were meeting at the restaurant tonight.
Take your time, Barba texted back. I’m running late as well.
As fate would have it, they arrived at the restaurant at the same time, a little Italian place chosen because it had no nostalgic ties to them, nothing that would make them reconsider why they were here.
Still, Barba couldn't help but try to remember the last time they had actually shown up to something at the same time.
The last time was probably their wedding day.
The pain in his chest was back.
“Hey,” Carisi said, holding the door open for him.
“Hey,” Barba returned. “Thanks.”
Carisi managed a brief smile, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Are we eating?” he asked, as he followed Barba into the restaurant. “Or just doing the hand off in a public place?”
“I was planning on at least drinking,” Barba said, glancing sideways at Carisi. “Which I suppose means I should probably also eat.”
Carisi laughed, and this time his smile seemed slightly more genuine. “Then I’ll join you. If you don’t mind, anyway.”
“Of course not,” Barba said.
Comfortable silence stretched between them after they ordered, both men sipping their wine. Then Barba set his wineglass down and sighed. “You know I love you, right?”
Carisi stilled. “I…” He looked away. “I love you, too.” Barba nodded, stiffly, and looked away when Carisi asked softly, “And I still don’t know why we’re doing this.”
“Yes you do,” Barba said softly.
A muscle worked in Carisi’s jaw. “No. I don’t.”
“Sonny…” Barba sighed and forced himself to look at Carisi, to meet his eyes steadily. “You’re the one who asked for a divorce.”
“And you’re the one who’s told me more times than I can count that I’m an idiot,” Carisi shot back, though the heat in his tone seemed forced. “Maybe I was an idiot about this, too.”
Barba closed his eyes, because he know how easy it would be to take Carisi at his word, to laugh and tease and tell him that he was indeed an idiot, and to go home with him and kiss him goodnight before falling asleep in bed next to him.
It would be the easiest thing he’d ever done, because they’d done it so many times before.
But what was easy wasn’t always right, and it was harder, so much harder, to look past the easy and see the things that were broken between them.
Liv had warned him, a few days before the wedding, had sat down in his office and spoken to him in that gentle-yet-commanding voice she had perfected over the years. “I know you love him, Rafa,” she’d said. “And I want you to be happy, you know I do. But you’re two very different people, and I don’t think you’ve fully thought through what your life together would be like.”
“I have,” Barba had told her. Stubborn to the end. “And I love him, and whatever comes our way, we’ll make it work.”
But like always, in the most inconvenient and infuriating of ways, Olivia had been right.
It had started small, as these things probably always did, missed date nights on both their ends because of work , stretches of days at a time where they were no more than passing ships in the night.
Then the bickering started.
And then the bickering turned into fighting.
And for all that Barba loved Carisi — and he did, more than he had loved anyone else — he knew that they couldn’t keep going like this.
He loved Carisi too much to keep putting him through this.
So at the end of a particularly nasty fight, when Carisi had thrown in his face like a challenge, “Then why don’t we just get divorced?”, Barba had just looked at him for a long moment, and shrugged, and said, “Then why don’t we.”
Because Carisi deserved more.
Deserved everything he could never give him.
So Barba looked at Carisi, really looked at him, and smiled softly. “No. For once, Sonny, you’re not being an idiot at all.” He opened his briefcase and pulled out the papers, sliding them across the table to Carisi, who just looked at them blankly. “They’re all signed, everything we agreed to, though if you want your lawyer to take a look, I understand. I’ll have my stuff out of the apartment by the end of the week, so you can put it on the market or do whatever you want with it.”
“And just like that, it’s over,” Carisi said dully.
Barba shook his head slowly. “It’s never going to be over between us. Not fully. There’s too much between us. But—we have to move on.”
“I don’t want to move on,” Carisi muttered. “I love you.”
“I know,” Barba sighed. “But that’s…”
“Not enough,” Carisi finished, with a ghost of his usual smile. He reached out and Barba took his hand, letting Carisi link their fingers together and twist his hand to brush a kiss against Barba’s knuckles, like he had hundreds of times before. “I wish it was.”
“Yeah,” Barba said. “So do I.”
IV. I’ll Meet You Anytime You Want
The door to the restaurant opened, but Barba didn’t even look up, scowling down at his phone as he scrolled through an email. It wasn’t until long fingers cupped his chin and tilted his head that he finally managed to look up, lips widening into a smile as Carisi kissed him lightly. “You’re late.”
Carisi just laughed. “Like you even noticed,” he teased, sitting down and scooting his chair around so that he was closer to Barba, their knees knocking together under the table.
“I always notice when you’re not here.”
Carisi gave him a look. “Please don’t make me lose my appetite with the saccharine bullshit,” he said. “I know damn well that you were reading through work emails. You still have that wrinkle on your forehead that only Buchanan can give you.”
Barba scowled and rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Great, now I’m going to be up all night googling plastic surgeons and botox options.”
“Stop it,” Carisi laughed, swatting his hand away and leaning in to kiss his forehead. “I love your wrinkles. I love even more that I know what your wrinkles mean.”
Barba rolled his eyes, but it was with obvious affection. “Now who’s the one with the saccharine bullshit?” he sniped.
The waitress stopped by their table and smiled at them. “The usual?” she asked, pen poised on her pad of paper.
Carisi didn’t look away from Barba, still grinning. “Eggplant parm instead of chicken,” he said. Barba gave him a questioning look and Carisi raised an eyebrow. “Friday. Lent.”
“Oh, right,” Barba said, nodding. He glanced at the waitress. “Usual for me, thanks.” As she walked away, Barba looked back at Carisi. “Speaking of, did you tell your parents that my mother will be joining us for Easter this year?”
“Yes, and my ma’s thrilled, especially since Bella is gonna be with Tommy’s family,” Carisi said, nodding. He nudged Barba. “Of course, she’d be even more thrilled if we had kids to participate in the annual Carisi Easter egg hunt.”
Barba snorted. “Yeah, ok,” he scoffed. “Besides, last year we all participated, remember? She hid six packs of beer for the adults.”
“Oh, yeah,” Carisi said, grinning fondly. “Best Easter I’ve had in awhile.”
“Lightweight,” Barba teased, and Carisi just laughed.
“Hey, maybe this year I can convince her to hide mini bottles of scotch for you.”
Barba’s face lit up. “Now that is an idea,” he said, grinning.
Carisi laughed again. “What can I say,” he said, leaning in to kiss the upturned corner of Barba’s mouth. “I know what my man likes.”
“Again, saccharine bullshit,” Barba said, though he was grinning.
The waitress brought over their usual bottle of wine and Barba made quick work of pouring them both a glass, raising his in a toast. “To date night.”
Carisi chuckled. “To date night,” he echoed. “Five years in, and still our weekly tradition.”
“Although…” Barba glanced around and lowered his voice. “Since neither you nor I work near here anymore, we don’t have to keep coming here.”
Carisi looked scandalized at the very thought. “Blasphemy,” he hissed. “Some things are sacred, Rafi.” His eyes lit up as the waitress returned with a basket of breadsticks. “Like these breadsticks, for instance.”
“Pretty sure that’s blasphemous,” Barba said, amused, watching as Carisi crammed an entire breadstick in his mouth. “I love you.”
“Luf ‘oo too,” Carisi said around the breadstick in his mouth.
Barba rolled his eyes and laughed. “You’re an idiot,” he said, with warm exasperation.
Carisi swallowed. “And yet you still love me,” he said.
“And yet, I still do,” Barba said.
Carisi picked up another breadstick and pointed at Barba with it. “Saccharine bullshit,” he pronounced, before taking a much more manageable bite.
Barba considered it and shrugged. “Saccharine, maybe,” he acknowledged, picking up a breadstick of his own. “But not bullshit.”
Carisi’s expression softened and he leaned in to kiss Barba’s temple. “Careful, Counselor,” he warned, a teasing edge to his voice. “Keep this up and I might just think you like me.”
“Careful, Sergeant,” Barba returned, turning to capture Carisi’s lips with his own. “I might let you.”
Carisi’s grin widened against Barba’s, but whatever he was going to say was lost when he caught sight of their waitress bringing their food over. Barba laughed at the look on his face. “Wish you’d look at me that way,” he said, mock-mournfully.
“I look at you like you’re good enough to eat all the time,” Carisi said distractedly, which was a true enough statement. “Besides, let me cover you in cheese and tomato sauce and we’d be having a different conversation.”
He waggled his eyebrows at Barba, who made a face. “That is disgusting. I’m leaving you for that comment alone.”
Carisi just shrugged. “Well, we’ve had a good run,” he said, his dimples deepening as he grinned at Barba, who rolled his eyes again, even as his expression softened.
“Yeah,” he said, watching as Carisi tucked into his eggplant parmesan with gusto. “We really have, haven’t we?” Carisi’s mouth was too full of food to respond, so he settled for leaning in to press a particularly wet kiss to Barba’s cheek. “Disgusting,” Barba repeated, his nose wrinkling as he pushed Carisi off of him, but he was laughing, and when Carisi finally finished chewing, he joined Barba, their laughter echoing throughout their little Italian restaurant.