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Before He Cheats

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Carisi ran a finger through the condensation on the neck of his beer bottle and sighed. He had gone to Forlini’s ostensibly to drink, but in reality, it was the closest he could get to Barba.

Barba, who was in Texas of all godforsaken places, working on immigration aid, a job that, when he had taken it at least, promised better pay, better hours and above all, keeping him relatively close to home.

So much for that.

He'd been gone for two months now, living out of a suitcase in a hotel room while Carisi lived out of a duffel bag at Barba’s apartment, because he couldn't quite bring himself to admit defeat and go back to his own place. He couldn't bring himself to admit that Barba might not be coming back anytime soon.

So he lived out of a duffel bag and wore rumpled suits that he explained away with an increasingly thin excuse about his dry cleaners being shut down, and he buried his face in Barba’s pillow and pretended he could still smell Barba’s aftershave, long since faded in the man’s absence.

It was supposed to be different, now that Barba was out of the DA’s office and this thing between them was no longer a conflict of interest. And the three or so weeks they'd had following three years of dancing around each other had been everything Carisi had almost given up on hoping for.

But then Barba had left, called away to serve as an emergency advocate in immigration cases on the border, even though immigration law had never been his specialty.

“I'll be back before you know it,” Barba had promised when he kissed Carisi goodbye on the curb at JFK.

“Don't worry,” Carisi had returned with an easy grin. “I'll wait.”

It was a promise he was beginning to regret making.

Carisi sighed again and lifted his beer bottle, taking a long pull before making a face at the taste. He had told the bartender to give him what she recommended, and apparently the bartender’s taste ran toward unnecessarily hoppy IPAs. Not that Carisi minded an IPA, but he was always reminded of Barba, one time late at night, sitting in the empty seat next to Carisi and smirking as he pronounced, “IPAs are just pumpkin spice lattes for white men.”

While Carisi had laughed at the time, the memory felt as bitter as his beer now.

He heard someone clear their throat and half-turned to see an attractive man a few years older than Carisi hovering over his shoulder.

“This seat taken?”

Carisi bit back his automatic response of yes, because it hadn't been Barba’s seat for a long time. Instead, he shook his head and tore his gaze away from the man’s eyes, which flashed a familiar shade of green as he lowered himself into the empty seat.

“I’d offer to buy you a drink,” the man said, a little hesitantly, “but you don't seem to be drinking the one you have.”

Carisi glanced back over at him.

On closer examination, the green in the man’s eyes must've been a trick of the light, and Carisi forced a smile to tamp down the fact that he was apparently to the point of seeing things now. “Apparently I'm not in the mood for beer,” he said with a light laugh.

“Then what are you in the mood for?”

Cuban.

Carisi shrugged and managed a slightly wider smile. “I dunno,” he admitted. “Whatever’ll tempt me, I guess.”

“Well, that’s convenient,” the man said, with a smile of his own. “I’m in the mood for temptation.”

It was a line if ever Carisi had heard one, and not a particularly good one, but Carisi still laughed and turned slightly to face the man more fully. “Sonny,” he offered, holding his hand out for the man to shake. “Sonny Carisi.”

“Chris,” the man — Chris — returned, shaking Carisi’s hand. “Chris Heffernan.” His touch lingered just a little bit too long, but then again, it’s not like Carisi yanked his hand away or anything. “So if not beer, what drink can I buy you?” Carisi shrugged and Chris’s smile widened. “Rum and coke?” he offered, before his smile turned slightly wicked. “Tequila shots?”

“God, not if I don’t want to be hungover tomorrow morning,” Carisi said with a laugh. He paused, considering it. “Vodka gimlet,” he said decisively.

Chris’s eyebrows rose as he flagged the bartender over. “Interesting choice,” he said.

Carisi shrugged. “Well, I’m not really drinking whiskey, which kinda limits my choices, and besides, my nonna used to drink vodka gimlets, and what can I say, that woman had impeccable taste.”

Chris laughed lightly and raised his own drink in a toast when the bartender brought Carisi’s gimlet. “Cheers,” he said, taking a sip before asking, “So why no whiskey?”

“Oh, uh…” Carisi shrugged again, looking away as he drained half of his gimlet in one gulp. “It just, uh, reminds me of someone.”

“Oh?” Chris asked, setting his hand on Carisi’s knee, and Carisi should’ve flinched away from the touch but instead he leaned into it. “Anyone you want to talk about?” Before Carisi could answer, he added, “Or we could go back to my place and talk there.”

It was forward of this guy, who Carisi had just met, but Carisi wasn’t turned off by the forwardness like normally he would be. In fact, there was a not so small part of him that was tempted as hell to take him up on it, to throw back his vodka gimlet and go home with a stranger and spend the night feeling a little less lonely.

It wasn’t like he and Barba were married, after all.

Hell, they were barely even together.

Besides, this man was good-looking, friendly, and most importantly of all, here.

So why shouldn’t Carisi take him up on it?

He knew the answer, knew it deep in his bones, had known it three years ago at Mike Dodds’s funeral and through every failed relationship and tryst since.

Because he wasn’t Rafael.

And no matter how much Carisi might be temporarily tempted, he was in love with a stubborn, arrogant jackass who was also one of the best, smartest, most passionate men he’d had the chance to meet. And no one, no matter their proximity, could compare to that.

“I’m sorry,” he heard himself say as he scooted away and stood automatically. “I, uh, I actually gotta get home.”

“Oh,” Chris said, disappointment flitting across his face. “Got someone waiting for you?”

Carisi didn’t. But he might as well have. “Yeah,” he said. “Someone I love very much.”

Chris smiled slightly. “He’s a lucky man,” he offered.

“Yeah,” Carisi said, laughing lightly. ‘He is. He may not know it, but he is.”

Though Chris managed a laugh at that, he also gave Carisi a slightly serious look. “Well, if ever he doesn’t fully realize how lucky he is…”

He trailed off and Carisi half-smiled. “Thanks,” he said, in response to the unspoken offer. “But, uh, if anyone’s the truly lucky one between us, it’s me. He’s…” He broke off, his smile widening when he thought about Barba, about all his strengths and flaws, the best parts of him and the worst, and above all, everything Carisi had gotten to witness in their short time together as well as all their years of friendship, the parts that no one else got to see. “He’s a good man,” he said simply.

“Then I imagine you’re both lucky,” Chris told him.

“Thanks,” Carisi said with an easy smile. “And thanks for the drink.”

With that, he stepped outside, fishing in his pocket for his phone. It was late, and Barba probably wouldn’t even pick up, but Carisi figured it couldn’t hurt to give him a call, to hear his voice.

Then, he brightened, remembering that, post-DA’s office, Barba had finally entered the modern era and gotten himself an iPhone, and Carisi quickly opened FaceTime and called Barba that way instead.

The phone rang four times before Barba answered, and Carisi was treated not to a shot of Barba’s face, like he was expecting, but rather the dull, taupe walls of what Carisi assumed was Barba’s hotel room. “Hello?” Barba asked.

He sounded tired, but Carisi’s heart still leapt at the sound.

“Hi,” he said, just slightly breathlessly. “How’re you?”

“I’d be better if I could see you,” Barba said, and Carisi laughed lightly.

“Rafael, turn the phone around,” he said, with fond exasperation, and the image of the hotel wall shook as he could see Barba’s fingers pushing in vain on the screen. “Don’t — no, the camera itself is fine, don’t touch that, you just physically need to turn the phone around. It’s already on selfie mode, Raf.”

The screen blurred as Barba assumedly turned the phone around, and Carisi was treated to a close-up view of what he guessed was Rafael’s right cheek. “Oh,” Barba said, a smile clear in his voice, even if Carisi couldn’t see it. “There you are.”

Carisi grinned. “There I am,” he said patiently. “But, uh, your phone’s a little close to your face.”

“Oh,” Barba said, clearly trying to move his phone further away, and succeeding only in showing Carisi the upper right-hand fourth of his face. “Is that better?”

“You don’t have your reading glasses on, do you?” Carisi asked in lieu of responding to the question.

The part of Barba’s face that Carisi could see creased into a scowl. “What are you implying?” he asked.

“That you’re old,” Carisi said, his grin widening. “Gonna have to get you bifocals when you get back into town.”

Barba snorted. “I’d hang up on you if I could figure out how.”

Carisi laughed. “Big red button, Raf. It’s not hard.” He paused. “Either you’ve gone colorblind or that was an idle threat, Counselor.”

“Shut up,” Barba said, without any heat whatsoever. “So dare I ask the reason for this call?”

Carisi sighed and leaned against the brick façade of Forlini’s. “Well, I’m at your favorite bar,” he said, turning his phone slightly to showcase the Forlini’s sign. “And honestly? I missed you.”

Barba sighed. “I miss you, too,” he told Carisi, sounding tired again. “Work is kicking my ass day in and day out, and it’s no fun when I don’t have you to come home to.”

“I can’t imagine you got that used to me being around in the, like, three weeks leading up to you leaving,” Carisi pointed out, though he couldn’t quite stop his goofy grin.

“Fine, then it’s no fun when I don’t have you to torment at work,” Barba shot back, and Carisi laughed.

“Fair enough.”

He paused, and something of his own misery must have shown in his face because what little he could see of Barba’s expression softened. “I know I told you that I’d be back before you know it—”

Carisi shook his head. “Raf—” he started, trying to interrupt, but Barba ignored him.

“—And I know it’s not fair to you, to finally have figured everything out between us and then I just left, and you’ve been so patient—”

“Rafael.” This time, Carisi succeeded in interrupting. “The work you’re doing is important. I know that as well as anyone. And sure, the timing wasn’t, you know, great, but, uh, it’s fine. If anyone can make it work, given everything we’ve been through, it’s us.”

“Still, I just— fuck.”

Carisi’s phone screen went temporarily black and Carisi choked out a laugh. “Did you drop your phone on your face?” he asked, snickering.

“I’m not dignifying that with a response,” Barba said frostily as — finally — his entire face swam into view.

Carisi’s grin softened. “There you are,” he said, echoing Barba’s words back to him, and Barba’s forehead creased in a frown.

“I’ve been here the entire time,” he said, and Carisi just shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“When you get home, I’m teaching you how to FaceTime properly.”

Barba scowled. “Before you get all high and mighty on your technology horse, I’ll have you know that I used to be able to type 55 words per minute on my Blackberry.”

“That is pathetic on so many levels,” Carisi told him with a laugh. “Mainly the fact that you tested yourself on that.”

“Whatever,” Barba huffed. “Your Apple Watch is hideous.”

“For that, I’m giving you one for your birthday,” Carisi said easily.

Barba groaned. “God, don’t remind me,” he sighed. “I still have 4 months before I’m officially in my late-forties.” He glared at Carisi. “And then you’ll be officially dating an old man.”

“Don’t worry, I already am,” Carisi told him, and Barba glowered at him for a moment before his expression softened.

“I’m coming home soon,” he said. “I know I’ve said it before, but this time I mean it. I don’t have an exact timeline yet but with the votes coming on DACA, they’re going to need me to do stuff back in the city more than here at the border. And obviously, I don’t expect anything…”

He trailed off, and Carisi managed a soft smile. “Don’t worry,” he told Barba, his voice quiet. “I’m still waiting.”

And when Barba broke out in a genuine smile at that, Carisi didn’t know how he could ever have thought that he regretted making that promise in the first place.