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A Near Miss

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“Your Honor.” The ADA — some newcomer named Stone who Barba wasn’t familiar with and who seemed distinctly out of sorts in the courtroom — shuffled his notes before looking back up at Judge Cohen, who looked distinctly unimpressed. “The State requests remand. Mr. Pryor is facing multiple counts of violent rape and has the means to flee.”

“Your Honor, my client is an upstanding citizen who has been erroneously prosecuted before,” defense attorney Randy Dworkin said loudly, and Barba bit back his scowl, glancing instead at Carisi, seated nearby with some of the other SVU detectives and three of Pryor’s victims, who Barba recognized with a pang from the pictures of their injuries in the casefile Carisi had shared.

Carisi returned his look and rolled his eyes, just slightly, as Dworkin continued in his usual nasal sneer, “We’re already pursuing a harassment case against the NYPD and moving to drop all charges due to lack of evidence—”

“That enough, Mr. Dworkin,” Judge Cohen said dryly. “Now is not the time or place.” He shot Stone a look that Barba recognized far too well, even if he’d never prosecuted a case in front of Judge Cohen — a look that told him he should’ve done a more convincing job. “Since the prosecution has not demonstrated any definitive risk posed by the defendant, I’m setting bail at one million dollars, cash or bond. Defendant will surrender his passport.”

He banged his gavel and Barba didn’t bother trying to hide his scowl this time as the arraignment hearing ended. Pryor was grinning and Barba was tempted to walk over and wipe the smile off of his face, but Carisi intercepted him before he could even take a step in that direction. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Professor,” he said with a slightly tired version of his usual grin.

Barba tore his eyes away from Pryor and looked instead at Carisi. “Court hearings are open to the public,” he pointed out, rather unnecessarily. “Besides, I was in the neighborhood.”

Carisi gave him a dubious look, but before he could say anything, Dworkin made his way over to them, slimy grin in place. “Mr. Barba,” he said, holding his hand out for Barba to shake.

He didn’t.

Dworkin didn’t seem perturbed. “Didn’t expect to see you here,” he said, unintentionally echoing Carisi’s words, but in a way that made Barba’s skin crawl. “Have you even set foot in a New York courthouse in the past decade? Of course, you know how old dogs are with a bone.”

“Mixing your idioms in addition to representing serial rapists?” Barba said coldly. “How’s that old adage go — better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

Dworkin just chuckled, seemingly unperturbed by Barba’s attitude. “Who knows, Barba, maybe one day I’ll be the one representing you in court, and then you won’t mind the way I work.”

“I doubt it,” Barba said shortly.

Dworkin’s smile widened but he was prevented from saying anything more by Pryor heading in their direction. Barba stiffened as Pryor drew close, and Carisi shifted instinctively to move closer to Barba.

For a moment, it looked as if Pryor was going to brush right past them, but then he met Barba’s eyes and paused, a horrible smile spreading across his face. “Here to see me behind bars?” he asked Barba. “Sorry to disappoint you again.”

Barba lifted his chin, a clear challenge in his voice as he corrected coolly, “Here to see this through to the end.”

Pryor’s smile widened. “Yeah, we’ll be seeing this through to the end all right,” he said cryptically before leaning in to whisper in Barba’s ear, “See you around, Counselor.”

Barba jerked away but it didn’t matter — Pryor was already gone, brushing past him and leaving the courtroom with Dworkin in tow. Barba watched him go before turning back to Carisi, who was watching him with concern clear in his expression. “You ok?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Barba said, shaking his head, even though something about what Pryor had said, as innocuous as it was, had made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Carisi didn’t quite look convinced, but he still managed a smile. “Well, since you’re ‘in the neighborhood’, how about grabbing a coffee before you head back to Columbia?”

Barba smiled slightly. “I suppose I could be convinced,” he said, and Carisi rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

And as he followed Carisi from the courtroom, he tried his best to put the cryptic exchange with Pryor from his mind.


 

It started with hang-ups.

Barba would be at home, kicking his shoes off.  

In his office, grading.  

Getting coffee with Carisi, at the back table of some coffee shop so Barba could get something to snack on while Carisi gesticulated wildly and argued the merits of red wine vs. white. It was the most jarring then — when he was relaxed, relatively happy. Warm and fed and caffeinated and sitting much too close to a detective much too young and too pretty for him.  He would feel a vibration from the table and bring the device to his ear — a number he didn’t recognize, and when he answered, the line would go dead.

A chill would skitter over his skin.  

Stark but brief, not enough to show on his face but enough to temper his good mood.

He very likely never would’ve thought anything of it, chalking it up to poor auto-dialing attempts from telemarketers, until one time, when he answered tiredly, waiting for the line to cut out, he instead heard breathing.

Harsh and heavy in his ear.

“Hello?” Barba asked, his grip on his phone tightening, pausing in his step on Amsterdam Avenue, as students rushed past. Suddenly all he could hear was that breathing and blood roaring in his ears. “Hello?”

Click.

For a wild moment, Barba was tempted to call Carisi. They were meeting up for lunch to dissect another casefile and it would have been all too easy to ask meet two hours earlier.  Carisi would, he knew. He would put whatever he was doing on hold and rush over at nothing more than the slightest shake in Barba’s voice.

Which is exactly why he couldn’t.

The moment passed, the anxiety eased, and then he huffed a laugh and drew a slightly shaking hand across his face. Call Carisi and tell him what, exactly? That someone had breathed heavily at him on the phone?

The detective would probably think Barba was losing it, and his pride wouldn’t let his façade of indifference slip.

His decision was only reinforced by the sudden flood of text messages — all from blocked numbers, all vaguely menacing but not outright threatening. The perfect line to ride were you planning on harassing a lawyer while giving him nothing to report. Nothing to be taken seriously.  

While unnerving, they were harmless and he’d found himself angry more often than was warranted — if someone was harassing him, they should at least make the effort to give him something with which he could help put them away. Someone smarter might have been detecting escalation, and he had too, but he still had nothing a DA could use in court so he was silent.  

Silence reigned as the messages went from I see you and You’re nothing to I’m coming for you and — after one particularly long day at the precinct with Pryor and his lawyer, if Carisi’s competing text on the subject were to be believed — You’re a dead man walking.  

Surely the last one would have gotten him some attention. Not the attention he wanted, of course. It was the kind of attention that would have earned him a uniformed shadow, if he was still an ADA. As a private citizen, he wasn’t sure what it warranted, but he was certain whatever it was, he wanted no part of it.

Still, a man with a reasonable will to live might have at least mentioned it to the detective he spent every other evening with at that point. Somewhere between takeout and nodding off in his office he could have thrown out a hint or two.  

Hey, I’ve been getting these weird messages.

Or,

Maybe we should hurry up and fuck before Daniel Pryor kills me.  

Carisi would have blinked at him for a second or two before skipping over the fucking part of the sentence and bumping on the murder part. As temporarily entertaining as his frantic mother henning might have been initially, it still would have earned him police protection and so he stayed quiet. He ate his kung pao chicken and picked at Carisi’s beef and broccoli and pretended not to notice the buzzing from his pocket.  

Or the threatening messages on his answering machine, left with a voice modulator.

It was easy to rationalize, considering Barba hadn’t laid eyes on the rapist sending them in long weeks. They hadn’t been in anywhere near each other and there had been no physical attempts on his life to date. Which of course meant he was safe. Pryor was attempting to scare him, almost successfully, and Barba wasn’t about to give in.  

At least, until his last class of the afternoon late on a Friday evening. The sun was a warm gold through his windows and it was just warm enough for him to warrant rolling his sleeves up while he spoke. His lecture was on legal oversight of police — a potentially explosive topic, considering — but his students were already waning, undoubtedly already imagining drinks and the comfort of mutual bitching about the hell that was law school. He might even been distracted too, thinking of a certain pair of blue eyes that would be showing up at his office door in a few hours with Thai food and a tired smile.

By the time he dismissed the lecture his mind was halfway out the door, at least until a familiar shadow moved over his podium and he looked up to find a student.

“Ms. Murphy,” he said amiably, packing away another legal pad full of notes. “If you’re wanting to continue the conversation on the role of civilian oversight, it’ll have to wait until next week.”

“While I maintain that IAB should be dismantled and replaced by a fully external civilian investigative unit,” she allowed and pushed stylish wire frames up her nose, “that’s not why I’m here.”

“Oh?” he asked. “Then why are you here?”

“I was asked to give you this,” she said and held out a business envelope. Sealed, unmarked.  “A guy in the hallway on the way to class asked if I would pass it on. I’m hoping it’s not drug money.”

He huffed a laugh and reached out to take it, half expecting it to burst into flame.  

“Do I look like a drug baron to you, Ms. Murphy?”

She eyed him appraisingly.

“I mean… the cardigan not so much, but after Breaking Bad anything is possible.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Have a nice weekend.”

She grinned right back before turning toward the door.

“You too, Professor.”

He waited until she was out of the room entirely before shaking his head and exhaling a long sigh, tentatively turning his attention back to the negligible weight in his hand. Still whole, still seemingly harmless. Were he thinking rationally he might have remembered the months after 9/11, where white powder was mailed out to unsuspecting victims. Instead, Rafael rattled the envelope by his ear and — hearing only paper — decided to tear it open.

It was like something out of a bad movie. The only thing inside was a black and white photograph, blown up to almost the size of a piece of paper, like something he might’ve seen in a casefile, and he pulled it out, brow furrowing in confusion.

Then he froze.

It was him.

A picture of him, taken four days ago on his way to class, judging by the crumpled suit Barba was wearing, the messenger bag slung over one shoulder, and the coffee cup clenched in his hand.

He wished the worst thing about the picture was his secondhand embarrassment at the clearly visible Starbucks logo on said cup.

And not the scribbled red X drawn over his face with marker.

Barba’s heartbeat sped up, not from fear, not from worry or concern, but from excitement. This was a concrete threat, the missing piece that he’d been waiting for to actually bring additional charges.

Or, rather, to have the ADA bring additional charges.

He allowed himself a brief moment to grin in triumph before he flipped the photo over, half-hoping Pryor had been stupid enough to sign it.

Instead, he was greeted by a completely different message, written with the same red marker: YOUR PRETTY BOYFRIEND IS NEXT.

The lettering was heavy-handed, written with the felt marker pressed much too hard to the photo so that the contact points on the individuals letters pooled, bled, and dried in the shallow puddle of ink. Rage, some expert might have told him were he still in the business of consulting with the kind of people who knew that kind of thing. It wasn’t hard for Barba to imagine Pryor sitting somewhere, red marker in hand, hastily marking Barba’s face before flipping it over and delivering the coup de grâce.

Jaw clenched, teeth grinding.

Dark eyes drawn in anger while he scraped at the photo’s surface and imagined it was human — pretended it was something with flesh and a heartbeat and nerve endings that would compel it to scream out in pain.  

Imagining that impulse — that violence, even in facsimile — directed toward the detective was enough to send a rush of bile clamoring up his throat. He slammed the photo down on his podium. Face up, so he was looking at his own unfortunate vice for overpriced and underwhelming coffee rather than the visual reminder of a violent offender threatening violence not only on Barba himself, but also a man he’d grown to admire.  

A man he’d grown to care for.

A man he’d grown to want.

Daniel Pryor scaring Barba was one thing. Daniel Pryor making overt threats was another, but it wasn’t the first time Barba had gotten them and it wouldn’t be the last. Carisi, though… he was another matter entirely. Barba wouldn’t risk the other man’s life, and it was apparent that even being in Barba’s vicinity was enough to put him in the crosshairs. Undoubtedly Carisi would be more than capable of taking care of himself in a fair fight — NYPD trained their recruits extensively, and Carisi had been on the job for years. But Daniel Pryor was a monster and had no compunctions that would compel him to act fairly. He could hurt Carisi without the detective even knowing someone else was there, and what would Barba do then?  

Suffocate under the guilt, most likely.

Barba rarely believed in the concept of collateral damage, much less when it was someone he’d grown close to. If his proximity to Barba was what had put Carisi in danger, he would remedy it.  

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, navigating to Carisi’s message thread on muscle memory alone. Thumbs flying over the haptic keyboard, Barba felt his shoulders tense and his teeth grind as he composed his message and tried not to imagine Carisi’s face somewhere on the other side of Manhattan.  

Still, it was for the best.

I’m afraid I’ll have to cancel our plans for the night. Something came up.  

He breathed out and hardly had time to close his eyes before his phone vibrating, signaling Carisi’s reply.

No problem, professor. Maybe tomorrow night?

Frowning, Rafael ignored the question and turned off the phone. Slipped it into his pocket, where it might hide until the next time he felt the need to read the news and piss himself off. Or check his email, or pointedly stare at Carisi’s messages and fight to keep the smile off his face.

He never answered.


 

Carisi’s phone vibrated and he picked it up automatically, already knowing what message was going to greet him: Have to cancel dinner tonight. I have a meeting.

It was the sixth such variation of cancelling plans that Barba had sent over the past two weeks, and the first few times, Carisi had brushed it off. They were both busy, things happened, and, considering that they weren’t anything more than friends, generously-speaking, or circumstantial colleagues more accurately, Carisi didn’t really have any right to complain.

But now it was clearly a pattern.

Carisi had already spent more time than he cared to admit obsessing over the sudden shift in Barba’s attitude. They had gone from laughing together over drinks at a bar almost exactly halfway between their workplaces, according to Barba’s Google Maps research, at least, to literally not even twelve hours later Barba cancelling plans and then refusing to talk to him.

The text messages, normally exchanged frequently throughout the day, had dwindled to none, and the daily phone calls had disappeared.

It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did.

Then again, Carisi had always been a little bit hopeless.

Amanda arched an eyebrow at him as she returned to her desk in the precinct bullpen. “Who spit in your coffee?” she asked, and Carisi shook his head, shoving his cellphone back in his pocket without replying to Barba’s text.

“No one,” he said shortly. “Want to go over the notes from the Pryor case one more time?”

“There’s not really any need, is there?” Amanda asked, seemingly rhetorically, and Carisi stared at her.

“What do you mean?”

Amanda frowned slightly. “I mean, Stone’s apparently planning on offering Pryor a deal, so the case won’t even make it to court.”

Carisi gaped at her. “Are you...are you serious?” he asked incredulously. “What kinda deal?”

“I don’t know,” Amanda said, her frown deepening. “I mean, I know we’d love to see him go away for a long time, but surely getting him off the streets for a bit is better than the potential of him walking altogether, and you’re the one who keeps going on about how shaky the case is. Isn’t that why you’ve been consulting with that law professor?”

Amanda may have had a point, but it wasn’t one that Carisi cared to listen to, especially as it involved Barba. Instead, he stood, grabbing his suit jacket from the back of his chair. “Where you going?” Amanda asked with raised eyebrows.

“Someone’s gotta stop Stone from making a mistake,” Carisi said grimly. “Pryor’s dangerous, and Stone should be putting him away for life, not cutting him a deal.”

“Sonny…” Amanda hesitated, as if she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. “Do you think you’re a little too close to this case? I mean, we all want the same thing here.”

“Do we?” Carisi shot back, his voice rough.

Amanda gave him a look. “Actually, I’m beginning to think we don’t,” she said, somewhat frostily. “I want justice for these girls. I think you care more about putting Pryor behind bars.” Carisi shook his head, but Amanda didn’t let him interrupt, her expression softening somewhat as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk. “Just promise me you’ll sleep on it instead of storming over there. Not every ADA appreciates SVU interfering with the legal side of things, no matter your level of, uh, expertise.”

Despite himself, Carisi cracked a smile at her gentle teasing tone, and Amanda seemed to relax slightly as she reminded him, “We did our jobs. Now we have to let Stone do his.”

“Fine,” Carisi said, after a moment. “I’ll sleep on it. But no guarantees, alright?”

Amanda laughed and shook her head. “I knew it was too much to expect,” she said ruefully. “Now c’mon, this paperwork isn’t gonna write itself.”

Carisi made a face. Paperwork, a potential deal for Pryor, and not even dinner with Barba to look forward to.

Things didn’t seem like they would be looking up anytime soon.


 

In fact, the next day, things seemed even worse.

Barba was maintaining radio silence, and Carisi had spent the whole night tossing and turning. When he had actually been able to fall asleep, his dreams were plagued with Pryor’s sneer and the bruised and battered faces of his victims.

Carisi abandoned pretending to sleep a solid hour before his alarm was set to go off, and spent most of his day at work brooding and being generally miserable. Halfway through the afternoon, his mind was made up, and he decided that he was going to swing by One Hogan Place, just to check in with Stone.

He figured it couldn’t hurt.

“Det. Carisi,” Stone said, sounding surprised, as Carisi stepped into his office. “What can I do for you?”

“I, uh, I know it’s not really my place,” Carisi hedged, “but I heard you’re planning on offering Daniel Pryor a deal.”

Stone closed the casefile he’d been reviewing and looked up at him carefully. “I was planning on discussing a deal with his lawyer, yes,” he said. “And since I can tell you have a pretty clear investment in this case, if it makes you feel better, any deal would involve substantial jail time and a permanent place on the registry.”

Carisi nodded slowly. “And if I didn’t think that was enough?” he asked, a little wryly.

Stone managed a small smile. “It isn’t,” he admitted. “And it’s likely never going to be. Even if Pryor were convicted of all the charges currently pending, he still wouldn’t serve time for what he did to all of his victims.” He gave Carisi a measured look. “But you know that as well as I do. So what is this really about?”

“I just…” Carisi trailed off and shook his head. “I don’t want him to hurt anyone else.”

“And I can assure you, Detective—”

Stone broke off as a knock sounded on his door and Dworkin poked his head in. “Sorry, are we early?” he asked, his voice especially oily that afternoon as he led Pryor into the office.

Carisi couldn’t help but stiffen at the sight of him, and Pryor broke into a slow smile when he spotted him. “Detective,” he said. “I can’t say I’m surprised to see you here. But whatever false charges you’re thinking of adding, I guarantee you have no proof.”

Carisi’s lip curled. “We’ve got more than enough charges against you already,” he scoffed.

Something shifted in Pryor’s expression, something Carisi couldn’t quite read, before his smile widened. “He didn’t tell you, did he?” he asked, almost gleefully, and Carisi stared blankly at him. “Holy shit, talk about trust issues.”

“What are you talking about?” Carisi ground out, glaring at Pryor, who just smirked back at him.

“I’m talking about the fun your boyfriend’s been having the past few weeks,” Pryor said, something smug in his expression, and Carisi froze.

He knew in an instant that Pryor had to be talking about Barba. There was no one else who could remotely qualify.

But he had no idea what Pryor was referring to, and the thought made his blood run cold.

Pryor leaned in, his smirk sharpening. “I’d check in on him sooner rather than later, Detective,” he said in a undertone, so that Carisi alone could hear him. “Who knows what could’ve happened to him.”

All of the blood drained from Carisi’s face, and he didn’t care that Pryor was purposefully goading him or winding him up.

His only thought was that he hadn’t heard from Barba since yesterday.

Carisi didn’t spare another glance at Stone or Dworkin, shouldering past Pryor and all but bolting from Stone’s office. His phone was out of his pocket before he even had a chance to think, Barba’s number dialed by muscle memory alone as he sprinted toward the elevator.

“Damnit, Barba, pick up,” he snarled into the phone as it went to voicemail, though as he checked his watch, he realized that Barba was supposed to be in class, which could easily explain why he wasn’t answering his phone.

He wasn’t sure when exactly he’d memorized Barba’s class schedule, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to waste any time thinking about it.

His only thought was that he had to get to Barba, that he had to make sure he was safe.

He would never forgive himself if something had happened to Barba.

The drive to Columbia had never felt so long, not helped by usual end-of-workday traffic, and by the time Carisi parked — completely illegally, not that campus police would risk towing an unmarked NYPD car — his nerves were completely fried, having spent the entire drive contemplating all the horrible things that Pryor could have done to Barba.

He should have realized sooner that Barba was in danger, should have realized that Pryor’s snide comments to Barba were more than just that.

What the hell kind of detective was he if he couldn’t even keep Barba safe?

It took every ounce of restraint in his body not to run down the hallway to Barba’s classroom, but he managed it, somehow — barely. His pace slowed as he approached, his heart pounding in his throat as he hesitated, terrified that he would look into Barba’s lecture hall and not find him there.

Carisi took a deep breath to steel his nerves and peered through the window.

He gasped, flooded with relief, at the sight of Barba leaning against the podium at the front of the lecture hall. Carisi drank in the sight with hungry eyes, but he saw nothing visibly wrong, no hair out of place, wearing his usual cardigan with sleeves rolled to his elbows. If anything, Barba looked a little tired, but he looked whole.

He looked unharmed.

Carisi felt his shoulders slump in relief and couldn’t do anything but collapse against the wall beside the door, breathing hard and closing his eyes as he sent up a fervent prayer of thanks.

Eyes still closed, he slid to the floor, running a slightly shaking hand through his hair before drawing it across his face and huffing a dry and humorless laugh. Of course Barba was fine. Pryor had just been needling him, trying to get under his skin, and Carisi flushed at the realization that he had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.

But something of Pryor’s mocking grin lingered in Carisi’s mind, and that incredulous way he had asked, “He didn’t tell you, did he?”

As if he knew something Carisi didn’t.

As if there was something Barba hadn’t told him.

That, and the way Pryor had mentioned bringing additional charges — what did he know?

What had he done?

Even as Carisi’s heart rate slowed from racing to something approximating normal, he couldn’t help but feel like it was pounding painfully at the thought that Pryor had done or said anything to Barba, and worse, that Barba hadn’t told him.

Why wouldn’t Barba have told him?

If Pryor had spoken one word to Barba, he should’ve told him. Carisi wouldn’t have hesitated to haul Pryor’s ass in, to charge him with everything from stalking to criminal menacing to attempted assault.

Hell, he’d’ve chucked a hate crime on there if it had been his call to make.

But Barba hadn’t told him. Whatever had happened — if anything, since Carisi couldn’t fully put it past Pryor to have made things up just to goad him — he hadn’t trusted Carisi enough to tell him.

He had thought — he had assumed that there was something growing between them, something in all those coffee shop meetings and late dinners and after-work drinks. Had assumed that what he was feeling for the professor was at least somewhat reciprocated.

Had apparently assumed that there was more between them than there really was, if Barba didn’t even trust him enough to tell him about this.

Carisi was so lost in his thoughts that he was startled when the lecture hall door opened and students poured out, and he hurried to scramble to his feet, bouncing with almost nervous energy as he waited for the last students to leave so he could go in.

After what felt like an eternity, the final student slumped out of the classroom, and Carisi ducked inside before he could talk himself out of it, before he could let the doubt that plagued him consume him entirely.

He paused at the top of the stairs.

Barba was gone.

For a moment, Carisi’s heart sped up again, but then he noticed the door at the front of the room, the one Barba must’ve slipped out of, and he rolled his eyes before taking the stairs two at a time to follow him back to his office.

“Hey, Professor!” he called, catching sight of Barba halfway down the hallway. To his surprise, Barba neither paused nor turned, and instead seemed to speed up. “Professor, wait!”

Barba didn’t wait, and Carisi had to break into a jog to catch up with him. “Can I help you with something, Detective?” Barba asked stiffly as Carisi reached him.

“Yeah, you can tell me whatever the hell is going on with Daniel Pryor,” Carisi said bluntly, and Barba flinched. Carisi instinctively reached out, grabbing Barba’s arm. “Barba, what—”

Barba jerked his arm out of Carisi’s grip. “Nothing’s going on with Daniel Pryor,” he said, though he purposefully avoided Carisi’s eyes as he dug his keys out of his pocket and unlocked his office door.

He flipped the light on as he went inside and Carisi trailed after him, feeling out of sorts, and he shook his head slowly. “Nothing’s going on with Pryor, huh?” he asked sharply, crossing his arms in front of his chest as Barba dumped his messenger bag on his desk, still avoiding Carisi’s gaze. “Then why would he say there was?”

“Because he’s a sociopath?” Barba said, matching Carisi’s tone.

“Ok, fair enough,” Carisi allowed, taking a step closer to Barba. “But that doesn’t explain why you haven’t called, or texted, or looked me in the eyes since I got here.”

Barba sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maybe I was hoping you would take a hint,” he snapped.

Carisi’s heart sank, but then he set his jaw stubbornly and shook his head. “I don’t buy that,” he said, keeping his voice as calm and even as possible. “Nothing about the past couple of weeks has been about dropping hints. You just disappeared entirely, and I want to know why.”

Something tightened in Barba’s face, and he snatched a file folder off of his desk, shoving it at Carisi. “You want to know why I stopped calling and texting? Here you go.”

Carisi flipped the file folder open, his initial curiosity turning to horror as he flipped through a series of five blown-up photos of Barba, all with blood-red Xs scrawled across his face. He glanced up at Barba, who looked away, sinking instead into his desk chair. “When?”

His voice was soft, and Barba glanced up at him, confusion knitting his brow. “What?”

“When did this start?”

“I got the first picture…” Barba trailed off, as if trying to remember. “Whenever I first cancelled on you. The hang-ups and text messages started a few weeks before that. Shortly after Pryor made bail.”

“Weeks,” Sonny repeated, his voice shaking slightly, and he all but slapped the file down on Barba’s desk. “This has been happening for weeks and you said nothing.”

“What was I supposed to say?” Barba asked, challenge clear in his voice, even as he colored slightly at the accusation clear in Carisi’s tone. “There was no clear threat, and besides which, I can handle myself.”

Carisi jabbed a finger at the picture on the top of the file. “No clear threat?” he half-shouted, and Barba flinched again. “What the hell do you call that?”

Barba’s eyes flickered down the picture and away again. “That...came with extenuating circumstances.”

“Like what?” Carisi challenged, staring at him, trying to figure out where he was going with this.

Barba’s expression tightened again, and he grabbed the photo off the stack and turned it over. Carisi blinked down at the angry words scribbled across the back. He could tell Barba was watching him, could hear him exhale heavily when understanding settled over his features. “So now you see why,” Barba said, huffing a light, pained laugh.

Carisi glanced up at him. “I don’t see why at all,” he said slowly. “You...you received threats against yourself and then threats made against a police officer and it never once occurred to you to report it?”

“Of course it occurred to me,” Barba snapped. “Give me some credit, Detective. But rather than get NYPD’s finest boys in blue involved, I figured the easier method would be to eliminate the need for the threats and distance myself from the case.”

“From the case,” Carisi repeated hollowly. “You mean from me.”

Barba again couldn’t seem to meet his eyes. “The threats against you were only made because of our...friendship,” he muttered. “It seemed to me that the logical thing to do—”

“Fuck your logic!” Carisi snapped. “You should have told me! From the start! From the first hang-up or first threatening text you got! And don’t give me this you can handle yourself or you were trying to protect me bullshit — I should’ve been your first call!”

He broke off, his chest heaving as he stared at Barba, feeling something suspiciously close to tears pricking in the corners of his eyes. He blinked and looked away, his hand curling into a fist against Barba’s desk as slow realization sank into him.

He should have been Barba’s first call, but what he wanted more than anything was for there to have been no need for a call, for him to be a part of Barba’s life enough that he should’ve known that something was happening without Barba even needing to say anything, and the reality that he wasn’t hit him like a blow to the chest.

He had spent so much time that day in a panic at the thought of losing Barba that he hadn’t even considered the fact that he never had him to begin with.

“Why do you even care?”

Barba’s voice was quiet and tired, and Carisi’s eyes snapped up to his, his mouth hanging open slightly. “What?” he managed.

“Why do you care?” Barba repeated, and there was something of a challenge in his voice as he met Carisi’s eyes evenly. “Is it because of the case? The threats against you?”

Carisi gaped at him. “You...you think it’s just because of the case ?” Barba jerked a shrug and Carisi shook his head, at a complete loss for words. “This has nothing to do with the case.”

“Then why—”

Carisi didn’t let Barba finish the question, closing the space between them in a single stride and practically yanking him out of his chair and tugging him close, hesitating for only a single second, blue eyes searching green, before leaning in and kissing him.

As angry as Carisi was that Barba had kept this from him, as goddamn furious as he was that Pryor had gone after Barba in the first place, Carisi put none of that into the kiss. He had wanted this for too long to let his fear and his anger and his lingering guilt ruin what was possibly as close to perfection as Carisi was ever going to get.

Instead, he cradled Barba’s cheek gently as he deepened the kiss, teasing the seam of Barba’s lips and sighing against him when his lips parted, just slightly. Barba’s hands were balled in the front of Carisi’s suit jacket, holding onto him as if he never wanted to let go, and Carisi felt warmth bloom in his chest at the thought.

He pulled back before he lost himself entirely.

“We should— we should talk,” he rasped, bordering on breathless while his eyes couldn’t help but flit back and forth from Barba’s eyes — vividly green, pupils blown — and his lips, kiss swollen and flushed pink. “I mean, about—”

Barba grabbed him by his tie, wrapping the thin polyester around his fist.

“Later,” he all but growled before pulling him back in for another kiss.

This one even longer than the first, suffused with heat that pulled a muffled groan from his throat and enticed Barba to haul him closer. Barba, who tasted like a coffee-tinged dream — a dream he’d been having for months, stealing away long nights in this very office. Staring down all the patiently condescending glances and clever quirks of his mouth. Carisi had been having this dream for so long that it took him longer than it should have to realize that it wasn’t a dream at all — that they were here.  

Mouths connected, hands gripping tight but itching to wander. He could smell Barba’s cologne and feel his stubble and the building warmth lifting up from his skin. Warmth Carisi wanted to bask in, wanted to feel for himself with his hands on something other than cloth.  

He lowered his hands from Barba’s jaw, mapped the line of his neck before admiring the contour of his shoulder blades and the sinew that dipped and stretched between his ribs. Even over fabric Barba was a temptation too good to resist, his outline hinting at valleys of skin and muscle and bone that Carisi was determined to discover a hundred times over before morning. A sentiment Barba seemed to return, tightening his hold on Carisi’s tie and letting out a low grumble of approval that Carisi felt simultaneously in his chest and his cock.

“Good to see you’ve caught up, Detective,” he breathed against Carisi’s lips and the small barb was just another jolt of adrenaline. A another spark of desire that set nerves alight and his heart to racing.  

He could have replied with a jab of his own — something about how Barba was a mouthy shit who played at antagonism despite being hard as stone against Carisi’s hip — but he figured that actions spoke louder than words anyway, so he acted. In a moment his hands were firm on Barba’s hips and he’d spun them backwards, against a bookshelf that was probably older than the both of them combined, and delighted in the thrill of shoving them both into it.  Barba’s hips canted up — rolled into his — but then he hissed in what sounded like pain and Carisi jumped to back away.

“Christ, did I hurt you?” he asked, looking for a volume stuck at an odd angle that might have jabbed somewhere Barba didn’t want it to be. “You alright?”

“Be careful with my books!” Barba snapped in return and Carisi only blinked before rolling his eyes and crowding him close again. Determined, goal-oriented but willing to take his time. All the things that made him a good cop and a better lover.

“Of course you’re worried about your books,” he muttered in between indulgent kisses pressed to the curve of Barba’s stubbled jaw. His hands went immediately back to Barba’s waist, resenting the interruption and pressing a little deeper into the flesh there in defiance. “What, you don’t have anything else to worry about right now?”

“I’m not worried,” Barba breathed and rocked the rigid line of his prick against Carisi’s hip.  “Not in here.”

Something warmed in his chest and he had to fight against the desire to slow down, to kiss Barba slower. To marvel at the fact that such a stubborn, prideful man trusted him. Instead he moved his own body closer, showed Barba just how much a hold he had over Carisi as well.

“Jeez, Barba,” he teased and nipped at the skin he found at the hollow of the professor’s throat, flushed hot at the attention, “I was talking about getting laid and you’re over here being romantic.”

“Shut up.”

The reply was nothing he was used to hearing from Barba — not particularly quick or witty or scathing. He’d reduced the great legal mind down to breathless commands to be quiet and the hot curl of satisfaction met and melded and became one with the breathless arousal that had taken over the rest of him.

“So sweet to me, Barba,” he murmured with mock accusation. “Got any more poetry?”

Barba replied with a firm nip to Carisi’s lower lip.  

It stung for a second, maybe two.  

Less time than it took for all the endorphins in his bloodstream to sweep it away in the name of sensation, hot and demanding, significantly lower. He flashed hot, twitched against his zipper. For someone who had always enjoyed tenderness with his partners — long, soft kisses and playful rolls in the sheets — Barba’s fire was heady. A siren rather than a siren’s call, a blaring alarm that infused him with purpose and had him reaching for Barba’s belt when normally he would have been happy to kiss him until the early hours of the morning.  

The buckle was warm and he wrapped long fingers around it. Just a taste, just a test. One Barba responded to eagerly, kissing Carisi more thoroughly and arching into the grip. Any other time he might have insisted on a date first. A drink, dinner. Then, though, he could still see Pryor’s smug face as he threw a slur in Barba’s direction. Could still hear Barba’s voice, admitting that he’d been receiving threats. Admitting that he’d kept Carisi away for that reason exactly.  

Knowing the what-ifs tore away every semblance of control he possessed. They’d had dinner, they’d had drinks. What they hadn’t had was this - desire, seduction. The feel of Barba pressed close while Carisi released the clasp of the belt and pulled it loose. Next was the hem of Barba’s shirt, pressed neatly into his waistband. Once it had been pulled free his fingers sought skin. Smooth and warm, a smattering of coarse hair that he felt the need to map out with his lips.  

Next time, he promised himself and let had to stop kissing the man long enough to pull buttons free. But his hands were shaking and his breaths were coming short and it might have been easier just to—

“Don’t you dare,” Barba warned in a growl, voice rough. “I like this shirt.”

“More than you like me touching you?” he asked pointedly and Barba paused. For one moment, then two. “Oh, come on.”

“I’m thinking.”

“Then I’m not trying hard enough,” Carisi muttered pointedly and ignored the stammered protest on Barba’s lips as he gathered one side of the shirt in each hand and yanked it apart.  Tiny pearlescent rounds hit the floor like buckshot and Barba made a noise like he’d been hit in the solar plexus but Carisi moved on quickly. Too quickly for the professor to care about an item of clothing for more than a few seconds as his hands found skin again.

Barba was better than he’d imagined. Built slender but adequately solid, muscle where it looked good and softness where it felt good. His skin was gold and his shoulders were broad and Carisi wanted nothing more in that moment than to trace the indentations of his ribs with his thumbs, to track origin and destination and map the journey all over again.  

So he did. He took it all in. With eyes and hands and mind, vigorously memorizing Barba’s every twitch and breath and shaking exhale as Carisi drug his fingers through the dense curls covering Barba’s chest and drug his thumbs painstakingly over the dark and hardened flesh of his nipples. The noise Barba made was sinful and it was only then that Carisi realized his mouth was open, breathing heavily. He’d forgotten to keep kissing him because he was too enraptured to look away.  

Of course, Barba noticed.

“Take a picture, Carisi,” he said, glib. “It’ll last longer.”

Only Rafael Barba could simultaneously poke fun at him and the fact that a psychopath was stalking him with a telephoto lens.

Carisi scowled, hands frozen.

“You’re not funny.”

“Not trying to be,” the man replied with a smirk. “I’m trying to tell you to get a move on.”

“Are you always this bossy?” Carisi challenged but his hands were already doing as Barba asked, trailing lower.  Slowly, though, just to emphasize that he was moving of his own volition rather than at Barba’s beck and call.

He grinned.

“Only if I’m speaking,” he allowed and Carisi couldn’t help the scoff that punched out of him.  He rolled his eyes and Barba only smiled wider. “Care to shut me up, Detective?”

Carisi dove in for another kiss.

Deep, dirty.

All tongue and teeth and agitated insistence that if nothing else, he was at least capable of this. Capable of rendering Barba speechless, desperate and writhing against his precious books.  A feat he accomplished with a few seconds of dedicated work, until Barba’s eyes were closed and his fingers were gripping Carisi’s biceps so hard they might bruise and grinding down against the thigh Carisi shoved so unceremoniously between his legs for no other reason than to bask in the quick gasp of breath Barba pulled into his lungs when it happened.  

Time passed in a haze of kisses and stuttered moans and hands pulling at cloth.  

At some point Carisi had lost his jacket, had his tie thrown over his shoulder. How Barba had managed to open every individual button on his shirt without ripping them was beyond him, but seemingly before he’d realized what was happening they were chest to chest.  Skin to skin. Carisi’s hand working Barba’s dick while Barba’s eyes threatened to close and his chest heaved. Seconds later he felt Barba’s hand around him, finally having bested his belt and zipper and fabric between them.

“Shit,” Carisi whispered as long fingers closed around him. He felt his pants slip down his hips, felt Barba swipe a thumb over his head to collect the arousal he’d dripped. “ Shit , Barba.”

In a perfect world, they’d have a bed.  

More importantly, they’d have a nightstand.  

Carisi was aching, seeping more fluid with the idea of sinking into Barba. Fucking him hard and slow into the mattress, shallow and fast against the headboard. Where Barba could grip and hang his head and come across the dark wood of Carisi’s headboard. Where neighbors would hear just what Carisi was doing to the man who had taken over his every waking thought for the past several months.

Opportunities that would have to wait for next time, because he was close and the labored breathing washing over his lips told him that Barba was too. Carisi stepped closer, placed his feet on either side of Barba’s so he could angle his hips down and out and make contact with the rigid, superheated skin in his hand.  Barba groaned and stood taller, thrusting up as Carisi closed a hand around them both.

Smooth, hot friction surrounded him and he felt his eyes close and his head fall forward to meet Barba’s. Their heads rested together, Barba’s gaze pulled downward while Carisi fought to keep his eyes open at all. When next he moved it was with a combination of his hips and his hands, thrusting up even as he circled his fist up and then downward to meet the thrust. Barba offered a muttered oath in return and Carisi felt breath catch in his chest.  

“Again,” he ordered when Carisi took too long to repeat the motion, so overwhelmed by sensation that he’d forgotten he was the one responsible for it. “Come on, again.  More.”

Carisi moved again.  

This time harder.

This time with the express purpose of fulfilling Barba’s orders and then some, because it was almost more satisfying to hear him curse and feel him grip his shoulder a little harder than it was to feel precome other than his own well up and slick his stroke.

“Yes,” Barba encouraged breathlessly, “Yes, like that. Just like that.”

He should probably be ashamed at how much harder he got with Barba’s praise in his ear, but that was an errant thought for another time. Preferably a time in which he didn’t have both their dicks in his hand, stroking hard and slow and even while Barba shook and offered a constant stream of incentive in the form of tremulous words and heavy breathing.  

The moment it wasn’t enough, Barba’s hand joined his.

He wove their fingers together and suddenly they were moving as one. Rocking their hips in tandem, gripping with a constant pressure as their hands formed a vice and wrung every ounce of pleasure from flesh flushed angry and dark. Barba kept his eyes down, glued to the two of them as broad crowns glistened as passed through their grip. He was moaning with every stroke now, shaking nearly constantly as he sped up and watched, enraptured, as they worked closer to the edge.

Carisi couldn’t take his eyes off Barba.

Barba, watching their bodies come together for the first time and practically vibrating with the pleasure of it.  

Barba, still partially clothed and levering his hips up and off his bookcase to fuck into their grip.

Barba, softly whimpering his name.

That was what did it, in the end. It wasn’t the bruising grip they’d found together, it wasn’t the desperate race to the end that had taken them both over. It was Barba, staring at their bodies meeting, and finding it in him to use the name Carisi was given by those who loved him most.  

“Sonny,” Barba breathed and the muscles in his abdomen seized.  

He came on a hard exhale that forced out of his chest at the same time he spilled onto their shared grip. Never taking his eyes off Barba, unable to so much as blink as the man gasped his pleasure into the still air around him.  

“God, that’s it,” he told Carisi and thrusted into them harder, “Yes, that’s it. I’m going to come.”

No sooner had the warning been given than Carisi felt the first stuttered splash of warmth across his sensitive flesh. He wished he’d managed to hold on a little longer, because the feeling might have been the best thing he’d ever felt: Barba hardening to something like steel and pouring himself onto their joined hands, onto Carisi’s still spurting cock. It was all so much more than he’d allowed himself to think about, even late at night when he’d given himself permission to consider what sex would Barba would be like.

He hadn’t even been close.

“Fuck! God,” Barba panted as they trembled, sweat-slicked and fucked out against his bookshelf. “Jesus Christ.”

“That’s a lot of blasphemy for one sentence,” he offered breathlessly and Barba huffed a laugh.  

“Warranted,” Barba said. “More than warranted.”

Carisi grinned, felt more hair slip out of his gel and fall against his forehead. “On that, Professor, we can completely agree.”  

Once their legs were steadier they parted, first to find something to clean themselves and then to redress. Carisi was surprised to find that the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. It was easy to work side by side while their breathing evened out and their heart rates returned to normal.  When at last Barba collapsed in his chair, he leveled a lazy smile in Carisi’s direction and Carisi was certain his heart tried to jump out of his chest to get to the man across from him.

“Come home with me.”

The words were out of his mouth before he’d thought them through, but he squared his shoulders like he was confident in them anyway.  

Barba only raised an arched brow in his direction. “First you ruin my shirt and leave me shirtless and now you order me to come home with you? A bit demanding, aren’t you, Detective?”

Carisi ignored the jibe. “You have a coat so it’s not like you’re gonna be bare chested,” he said dismissively, before repeating, “Come home with me.”

“And why should I?”

Playful.

Barba was playing with him.  

“Well, my first argument is clearly safety,” Carisi said knowingly, circling the desk to perch himself on the corner of it. “Pryor knows where you live, and he doesn’t know where I live.  Besides, I’m live-in security. Wouldn’t you rather have me than some nameless cop you would probably verbally abuse just to have something to do?”

Barba shrugged nonchalantly but Carisi could see through it now. “Depends. What does he look like?”

She’s a short, blonde Southerner with an accent, a gun, and no sense of humor.”

Barba winced but fixed devastatingly green eyes on Carisi, amused.  

“And is that the only reason you want me to come home with you, Detective?” he asked innocently but the subtext was clear as day. “Safety?”

“Well,” Carisi started and slid a little sideways. Closer, always closer. “Safety is key but it’s mostly second to the fact that I want you around for, you know, personal reasons.”

“How personal?”

“Very personal,” Carisi assured him and moved closer still. “I don’t want to be too forward or anything, but I’m thinking something along the lines of making you dinner. Getting my hands on you again — in a real bed this time. Fucking you into my mattress.” He dropped it casually, but didn’t miss the way Barba’s breath hitched. “Maybe breakfast, if you can bear to be around me that long.”

Barba’s amused smirk turned into an actual smile. One that reached his eyes and made him look happier than Carisi had ever seen him.  

“I suppose I could manage,” he said gently as the suggestion made itself at home between them. He stood from his chair, stepped close to brush a tender kiss to Carisi’s lips. The act of affection racked him almost as much as hearing his name had.  

Then it was over, and Barba was shrugging his coat on and reaching for his bag.

“Well?” he asked as Carisi remained immobile, possibly due to the leaden weight of orgasm that lingered in his blood and possibly due to the happiness threatening to bubble over in his chest. “What are you waiting for, Detective? Let’s go.”

Carisi grinned, hopping off the desk and following him out the office door, leaving any thoughts of Daniel Pryor with the scattered photos on Barba’s desk.