“You look tired,” Rollins said as she and Carisi made their way to the nurses station at Mercy General. When Carisi threw her a look, she held up her hands defensively. “I’m just saying! I know it’s been a long week.”
“Yeah,” Carisi grumbled. “And I was looking forward to my first night off in…” He trailed off. “Too long.”
Rollins winced sympathetically but dropped the topic as they approached the nurses station. “Can I help…” The nurse trailed off when Rollins and Carisi showed their badges. “SVU?” she asked, her tone turning brisk. “This way.”
She led the two detectives toward a curtained bed in the ER. “This is third male-on-male rape this month,” the nurse told them in an undertone. “Which is about three more than I remember seeing last year alone. I know it’s one of the most under-reported sexual assaults, but…” She shook her head and pulled the curtain back for them.
Carisi and Rollins stepped inside, both showing their badges to the man who lay in the hospital bed as well as the man perched in the chair next to him, holding his hand. “Chris Murray?” Rollins asked to verify, and the man in the bed nodded. “I’m Det. Rollins, with Manhattan’s Special Victims Unit.”
“He didn’t want to call you,” the other man said sharply, a stubborn set to his jaw. “But I insisted.”
“And you are?” Carisi asked him, a little sharply as well, but it was Chris who answered.
“This is Isaac,” he muttered. “My boyfriend.”
Carisi and Rollins exchanged glances. “Boyfriend, huh?” Rollins said, clearing her throat. “If it’ll make things easier, we can do this in private—”
Isaac gripped Chris’s hand between both of his. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told them. “I know what Chris does for a living. We have no secrets.”
“So you know that your boyfriend is an escort,” Carisi said to verify, and Isaac nodded. “Is that how you met?”
Chris snorted and shook his head. “Nah, we met on Grindr.”
Rollins quirked an eyebrow at that but tactfully choose not to say anything in response, instead asking, “Why didn’t you want to call us?”
Chris shrugged and looked away. “I didn’t think you’d believe me,” he mumbled. “Because of what I do.”
“Well, we do,” Carisi said, his voice firm but still warm. “So why don’t you walk us through what happened?”
Twenty minutes later, after taking Chris’s statement, Carisi and Rollins made their way back to their car. “Same as the other two rapes,” Rollins said. “You know what that means.”
Carisi nodded. “We got a serial rapist,” he said grimly.
“I’ll call Liv,” Rollins said, pulling her phone out of her pocket, and Carisi sighed and pulled his phone out as well. “Who’re you calling?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
“I gotta cancel my date,” Carisi said gloomily.
Rollins raised an eyebrow at that. “Date, huh?” she said. “Well, you’ll know she’s a keeper if she’s understanding about it.”
Carisi just sighed. “It’s the fourth time this month,” he said. “I think I’m beginning to push my luck.”
“The right one will stick around, Carisi,” Rollins advised, sliding into the car.
“God, I hope so,” Carisi muttered.
“Three rapes, all by johns, all on male escorts, all within the past month,” Olivia said, staring at the pictures of the victims on the board.
Rollins nodded. “All with the same MO too,” she added. “Escorts advertise in the classifieds, john books a date, they meet in a public place, start to head to the john’s hotel room, and then the john pulls a knife and rapes them in a semi-public place: restaurant bathroom, park, empty storefront.”
“And same general description of the john — middle-aged with dark hair and light eyes, average height, average build,” Carisi said, perching on the edge of his desk. “And no DNA on any of the vics, so the guy’s smart, wears a condom.”
Olivia shook her head slowly. “Why go through all the trouble of booking a date?” she asked. “Why not just grab someone off the street?”
Rollins shrugged. “Could be he’s got a type,” she suggested. “They’re all blond, blue-eyed. Young.”
“They’re also all fit, attractive, and holding down a steady job elsewhere as well as their escort gig,” Carisi said. “They’re not junkies or runaways, so not the usual crop you’d find walking the street.”
Fin snorted. “So high-class male hookers,” he said.
Olivia shot him a look. “Also means they’re normally lower-risk for this kind of thing,” she said. “Which could be what the john gets out of it: power and control.”
Fin nodded slowly. “Why’re they advertising in the classifieds, though?” he asked. “I feel like I’m back working narcotics in the 90s and tracking drug trades through the personal ads.”
“After Craigslist shut down their personal ads section, a lot of escorts have gone back to using newspaper classifieds,” Rollins told him. “It’s low-tech, inexpensive, and the screening process for ads normally isn’t very thorough.”
Olivia nodded, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “So we know he’s got a type,” she mused, and Rollins glanced at her, a slow grin spreading across her face.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
As one, they turned to look at Carisi, who blinked at them. “Oh, c’mon,” he scoffed. “No one’s gonna buy me as a high-class escort.”
“Technically, they’re not buying, they’re just renting you,” Rollins said, still grinning. “At a better hourly rate than we make here, I might add.”
Carisi glared at her. “You know what I mean.”
“You’re young-looking, fit, blue-eyed,” Olivia added steadily. “Throw in some blond hair dye and you’re just his type.”
Carisi’s expression turned to pure horror and he reached automatically to pat his silver-streaked hair. Fin hastily disguised his laugh as a cough. “I notice you left out attractive,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, and Olivia looked like she was trying very hard not to laugh. Fin clapped Carisi on the shoulder sympathetically. “Sorry, kid, I’d offer but I just don’t fit the type.”
“I can’t believe you guys are serious,” Carisi said, glaring at all of them in turn.
“Think of it this way,” Rollins told her, her grin settling as a smirk, “it’ll be a great story to tell your date.”
Fin let out a low whoop. “Oh, Carisi’s getting laid?” he asked with a laugh. “That at least explains why you’ve been in such a good mood recently.”
Rollins’s eyebrows raised. “Fin’s right,” she said, with a hint of surprise. “I didn’t even put it together. But you’ve had a bit of pep in your step recently.”
Carisi’s face was beet red. “Have not,” he grumbled mutinously.
“Nah, it’s true,” Fin told him. “I didn’t think we were ever gonna see you so much as smile again after Barba—”
He broke off awkwardly, and Rollins and Olivia shared an uneasy glance. The subject of the former ADA was an unspoken taboo around the office, mostly in an attempt to keep things civil, but in no small part because it tended to put Carisi in a foul mood.
“Yeah, well, I ain’t smiling now,” Carisi said after a beat of silence. “Not when I’m under threat of blond hair dye.”
“Come on, it’ll look great,” Rollins assured him. “Besides, now everyone’s gonna really think you’re Jesse’s dad when you take her to the playground.”
Carisi gave her a look. “You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“Better than explaining to every mother, nanny and concerned citizen in a five-block radius why it's ok that you’re an adult male playing with a young girl who isn’t a blood relative.”
Carisi considered it. “Fair point.”
Olivia cleared her throat. “Rollins, head to the Duane Reade on 8th, pick up some hair dye.” Rollins grinned like a cat that had gotten the cream. “Fin, Carisi, work out an ad for the classifieds, something that’ll get our perp’s attention. I’m going to call Stone, fill him in.”
Carisi glanced at her, something almost hopeful in his expression. “Think he might tell us we can’t do it?”
“It’s a classic honey trap, Carisi, so I somehow doubt he'll object,” Olivia told him, and Carisi’s expression fell. “After all, what could go wrong?”
“I look ridiculous,” Carisi muttered for what had to have been the twentieth time that day, and Rollins sighed.
“If he keeps this up, I’m going to throttle him,” she told Olivia, who was seated in the front seat of the car next to her, parked outside the bar where Carisi would be meeting the john who had booked him on a date.
On the visual feed they could see from the camera Fin was wearing across the bar, Carisi scowled. “I can hear you, you know,” he said, taking a sip of his club soda and lime.
“Is it the hair or the outfit that makes you feel ridiculous?” Fin asked with a chuckle, and Olivia took pity on Carisi, who flushed, clearly self-conscious about both his meticulously-styled and newly-blond locks as well as the tight, age-inappropriate clothes he wore.
“Let’s keep the chatter to a minimum,” she said, giving Rollins a look, though Rollins just rolled her eyes in response.
There were a few minutes of silence, then Fin cleared his throat. “I got a possible,” he said, turning toward the door to the bar. “Looks like he might fit our description.”
They had carefully weeded out any requests for dates that didn’t come from someone who matched the john in question, and Olivia peered down at the screen. “Can you get a visual on his face?” she asked. “I can only see the back of his head.”
“No, he—” Fin started before breaking off as the man in question turned, his face clearly visible.
And instantly recognizable.
“What?” Carisi asked, sitting up straighter at the bar and touching his ear piece. “Guys, what is it?”
Rollins glanced at Olivia, who grimaced. “He might not be here for this,” Olivia suggested weakly, but that thought was ruined by the man making a beeline for the bar.
“You may as well intercept him, Fin,” Rollins said. “He’s gonna recognize you anyway—”
But the man had already recognized Carisi first, and they watched with something like horrified fascination as he stormed up to Carisi and slammed the newspaper down on the table. “You had better have an excellent explanation for this,” Barba growled, his brow knitted together.
Carisi winced. “Can we, uh, can we not do this here?” he asked, glancing around. “I’m, uh, kinda waiting for someone.”
“You’re waiting for me, dumbass,” Barba half-shouted. “What, did you think I wouldn’t figure it out?”
“Get them out of there, Fin,” Olivia said, as other patrons at the bar started to turn and stare. “Your covers are blown at this point anyway.”
Fin hastily moved across the bar to them, grabbing Barba by the elbow. “Gentlemen, let’s take this outside,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument, and a very shamefaced Carisi followed them out of the bar.
Barba shook his arm loose from Fin’s grip as soon as they were outside. “I don’t appreciate the perp walk, Sergeant,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I’m sure you don’t,” Fin said. “But I figured you’d rather me do that than book you for solicitation.”
“Solicitation?” Barba repeated, glancing between Fin and Carisi. “What the hell are you talking about?” Olivia and Rollins emerged from the car and Barba’s eyebrows raised. “Oh, I see the gang’s all here,” he said waspishly.
“Good to see you, too, Counselor,” Rollins said coolly.
Olivia cleared her throat. “Rafa, do you want to tell us why you were here this evening?”
Barba stared at her blankly. “I’m here to try and figure out why the hell my boyfriend is trying to pick up other men through the classifieds section of the newspaper,” he said, as it was obvious. “Why are you here?”
Carisi cleared his throat. “Because, uh, your boyfriend is trying to execute a sting operation to bring down a serial rapist.”
Barba blinked, realization flashing across his face. “Oh,” he said, drawing the single syllable out. “This is a honey trap. Which means you’re…”
Carisi nodded. “Yup,” he said, forcing a smile.
“And that means that I’m…” Barba broke off, looking horrified.
“Carisi’s boyfriend, apparently,” Rollins said with a small, almost triumphant grin.
“We’ll circle back to that,” Olivia said, and Barba’s eyes darted over to her and away again. “How did you know that Carisi was posting in the classifieds?”
Barba waved the newspaper dismissively. “He used the same number in the ad that he always uses when he’s undercover,” he said, somewhat impatiently, glaring at Carisi. “What, did you think I wouldn’t recognize the only lifeline I normally have when you’re out in the field?”
Carisi smiled slightly at that. “Under different circumstances, that would actually be really sweet,” he said, and Barba’s glare deepened.
“Don’t press your luck, Detective. And answer my question.”
Carisi laughed and shrugged. “Honestly, I didn’t think you’d be reading the classifieds section of the paper. I mean, Christ, Raf, I know you’re old, but—”
Barba let out a wounded noise and Olivia hastily cleared her throat. “Since this was clearly a misunderstanding,” she said, “why don’t we all go back to the precinct and start combing through the other replies to the ad. Our perp’s still out there.”
Fin and Rollins both nodded and Carisi ran a slightly rueful hand through his hair, eyeing Barba warily. “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want to you to worry.”
But Barba didn’t seem to notice Carisi’s apology, staring instead at his head with something like fascination. “Did you dye your hair?”
Carisi blinked at him. “Yeah, like three days ago. Did you honestly not notice until now?” Barba shrugged and Carisi rolled his eyes. “We’re living together and you didn’t notice until now?”
Both Rollins and Olivia looked startled at that revelation both both men ignored her. “You’ve only been home for about eight hours over the past three days,” Barba said, and Rollins mouthed ‘home’ at Olivia, who just shrugged, eyes wide. “Forgive me for not spending those eight hours playing close attention to your hair.”
“Says the man who noticed that I spilled mustard on my tie yesterday,” Carisi shot back, but with a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
Barba just raised an eyebrow. “I only noticed because it was my tie that I let you borrow,” he said coolly, with a small smirk of his own. “Do you know how difficult it is to get stains out of imported Italian silk?”
Rollins snorted a laugh. “So literally nothing has changed for you two since you started dating,” she said with something like wonder.
Barba’s smile disappeared as he glanced over at her. “Problem, Detective?”
Rollins shook her head. “Just trying to wrap my mind around it is all.”
“Wrap your mind around what?” Barba asked, suspicious, before realization again crossed his face and he turned back to Caris, who now looked panicked. “Hang on, did you forget to tell your coworkers about us?”
Carisi winced. “I didn’t forget!” he said weakly. “There just never seemed to be the right time.”
Olivia stepped in. “You could’ve told us yourself,” she said pointedly, and Barba looked over at her.
“Well one of the perks of no longer working in the DA’s office is that I no longer owe you an excuse, Lieutenant,” he said, matching her tone.
Olivia arched an eyebrow. “Not even as my friend?”
For one long moment, Olivia and Barba just stared each other down, but then Barba’s expression softened with understanding and he nodded. “Forlini’s, next night off you have?” he offered. “You buy the drinks, I’ll give the explanations?”
“Deal,” Olivia said easily.
“Hang on a second,” Fin said slowly, looking between Barba and Carisi. “Are you telling me that you two are dating?”
Barba blinked. “Yes, Sergeant, we’re dating,” he said, somewhat impatiently. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Fin shook his head. “Nah, I just can’t decide which one of you I’m supposed to say could do better.”
Carisi laughed and Barba just sighed and rolled his eyes. Olivia again cleared her throat. “I’ll see you back at the precinct,” she told Rollins and Carisi before heading to the second car with Fin.
“And I’ll leave you two alone,” Rollins said, making a beeline for the driver’s seat of the first car.
Carisi looked back at Barba, his expression softening, and he took a step closer and reached out to grab Barba’s hand. “I really am sorry,” he said quietly.
“As am I,” Barba said with a rueful smile. “I should’ve realized…”
Carisi half-smiled. “Yeah, you probably shoulda,” he agreed. He leaned in and kissed Barba lightly, more of a fleeting peck than anything else, and undoubtedly as quick as it was due to the three sets of eyes both men could still feel trained on them. “See you at home?”
“Of course,” Barba said, drawing his thumb lightly across Carisi’s cheek as he added, “Be safe.”
Carisi nodded and kissed Barba on the forehead before joining Rollins in the car. Rollins conspicuously didn’t look over at him as he strapped himself in, waiting until things were just on this side of awkward before saying, “So you and Barba, huh?”
Carisi sighed, avoiding her gaze. “Can we just not talk about it right now?” he muttered.
“Fine,” Rollins said, turning the car on. “I just want to say one thing.”
Carisi glanced over at her warily. “What?”
“Looks like the right one stuck around.”
Rollins pulled away from the curb and a small, soft smile crept slowly across Carisi’s face as he turned to look out the window. “Yeah,” he said, so quietly that Rollins almost couldn’t hear him. “He did.”