It was quiet down by the lake where the two of them sat in the dry sand. Sonny was dragging his fingers through it, grounding himself in the cold, rough feeling against his smooth hands.
“We’re never going to see each other again, are we?” He asked, letting a handful of dirt slip through his fingers, making a tidy pile between him and Rafael, who was quiet for a moment. The hum of bugs filled the silence and so did the splashing of the jumping fish that breached the water to eat them. They’d known when they started seeing each other that they only had this camp; it was three weeks, hardly long enough, and now it was over. He didn’t know it’d go by so fast. Sonny hadn’t expected his heart to swell and soar like it did around Rafael, he didn’t think he’d so desperately want more time.
If Rafael could hear him think, he’d laugh. He’d tell Sonny that he didn’t want more time — he wanted to stay. Rafael was so smart, he would know what Sonny meant before he did. And he’d be right. Sonny wanted to stay in this moment forever, lakeside in upstate New York learning about legal careers and going out of his mind with LSAT sessions every day because at night he could be with Rafael. If he had his way the sun would never dare rise again. He gathered another handful of sand and added it to the pile.
“Stop doing that!” Rafael laughed and grabbed his hand, holding fast so it couldn’t go back to get more. Sonny fought the petty urge to tear his hand away and shove it into the ground. Instead he just squeezed Rafael’s hand in turn.
“But we’re not, right?” He reiterated with a frown, even as Rafael’s thumb began to comfortingly brush back and forth on the top of his hand.
“Probably not, no.” He responded succinctly, so point blank. Sonny could almost hear one of their instructors praise him for that, “one point for avoiding superfluous arguments”, they’d say. He tried not to let his disappointment bleed through his skin. He knew this, that there was an expiry. That these things didn’t last. Rafael was destined to become a faded memory, someone fondly thought about years later while he sat in his suburban kitchen with his wife, watching their 2.5 kids get ready for school.
“So, it doesn’t matter then. It’s nothin’,” he mumbled, finally saying aloud those words he’d been telling himself as he tossed and turned in his bunk. Sonny turned away as his free hand dug back into the cold sand. He wasn’t ready to start rationalizing these late night rendezvous as the stress relieving dalliances of 20 something year old kids.
The grit got under his nails as he wiggled his fingers to dig a little hole, buying space in the earth for his hand to sit comfortably. It was a perfect picture, sitting there caught between that inevitable cold reality and the warmth of Rafael Barba, who was shaking his head.
“It does matter, Sonny, it matters a lot.” Rafael leaned down to rest his head on Sonny’s shoulder as he continued, “It matters here and now.” He rolled his face over to kiss Sonny’s bare shoulder. “It matters.” He whispered, kissing his shoulder again. “It matters.”
Sonny’s lower lip trembled and he blinked away tears before they were fully formed. Rafael was right. Even more than that, there was nothing that mattered more. Under the moonlight and behind the trees, far out of sight of any camp staff, the world fell away under their gentle touches. Sonny pulled his hand out of the sand and wiped it clean on his shorts before pulling Rafael up by the chin to look him in the eyes.
“It matters,” Sonny echoed back, shaking as he leaned in slowly. Rafael nodded and met him halfway. Their kiss was slow and nervous, but it soon warmed. Rafael disentangled their hands to cup Sonny’s face, holding him close. When his tongue quietly asked for entry against Sonny’s closed lips, he sighed and welcomed it. Even when it became necessary for the two to break apart and catch their breath, they lingered in each other’s space, Rafael’s hand still resting on Sonny’s face, stroking his cheek gently.
“Rafael…” Sonny started quietly, “Please.”
Sonny didn’t elaborate, and Rafael didn’t ask him to. He just swung a leg over and climbed on top of Sonny, kissing him again, madly, desperately. When Rafael leaned down to kiss Sonny’s neck, the reverence of his tongue said, it’s all over in the morning. Sonny’s sighs replied, it’s okay, just don’t let go. And they didn’t, they didn’t even let go as Rafael pushed Sonny’s back into the soft sand.
In the following years, Sonny proved himself right. Rafael Barba stayed on that beach as the ghost of what could have been, as a lover unfinished. Sure, on the last day of the program Sonny slipped him a piece of paper with his phone number, but Rafael didn’t have a cell phone. He was certain that the folded note had fluttered to the bottom of his bag and gotten lost among the myriad of notes there. The numbers likely faded between the more pressing matters, like memorized logic games and reasoning templates because God had a way of keeping order. If Rafael was still on the beach, then Sonny was surely stuck standing by awkwardly as the busses pulled away. He was too uncertain of the propriety of looking sad to even wave as Rafael was carted back to wherever he came from and he was long gone by the time Sonny’s father clapped a hand on his shoulder and led him to the family car.
It was all faded. The trailhead of the path not taken. Dominick Sr. had gotten sick that fall and Sonny forewent the application process in favor of getting a job to help support his ma and sisters. He became a cop while his law school books and prep tests gathered dust in the bottom of a desk drawer in his childhood bedroom. He hadn’t even taken the LSAT, he pulled out of the test, managing to eke out a $60 partial refund — not even enough to cover half the cost of a single prescription his father needed.
He barely looked back, even when his father passed. People had warned him that he’d get addicted to the paycheck and would never go back to school, but it barely seemed to matter now. Especially when Sonny made detective. Every morning he stared at himself in the mirror as he tied his tie, watching his fingers move deftly through the muscle memory. He grew up. He wasn’t 21 and lost, looking to fulfill a vague childhood dream inspired by those pulpy cop tv shows his ma always had running in the background noise of the house. Sometimes, though, he let himself be weak and look back — laughter and a hand running through his hair...They can’t both sit in the first row Sonny, check your chart again...a smile flickering under the light of an old bug zapper...you’ll be a DA one day Raf I know it — looking back made him unsure of the path he’d chosen.
But life moved on and so did he. Mostly. Well he moved. A lot. After a stint working homicide, Sonny transferred to Special Victims where the victims were mostly still alive. He could help them heal, get closure, and live. He’d learned very quickly as a homicide detective that for all you could do for the dead, it would never be enough. And Sonny had a powerful desire to be enough, to do enough. So, one night, after being told he was moving precincts again, he drove to the closest bookstore and bought a new LSAT book. He took out loans. He got into Fordham night classes. He did well. He...
He was transferred yet again.
That was how Sonny Carisi found himself staring into the bathroom mirror of his new apartment getting ready for his first shift with Manhattan SVU. How the hell was Manhattan the end of the line? Well, he still had the Bronx, but sometimes it was better to quit while you’re ahead, no matter how miniscule the lead. He scrubbed a hand over his face and took stock of the dark bags under his eyes just as his alarm went off. He sighed something that was more like a groan as he silenced the notification on his apple watch. He’d barely been able to sleep last night, letting his nerves get the best of him. With a shake of his head, Sonny reached over and picked up his razor, looking into his own eyes as he chipped away at his mustache. Clean slate, he muttered, clean slate. Sonny let the ritualistic movements soothe him in a way that his bed couldn’t.
Maybe not looking at what he was shaving was a bad idea, since it earned him a nick or two. But at the end he looked better. Younger. It didn’t look like he was hiding behind the mustache anymore. When he washed away the remains of the shaving cream, the skin wasn’t totally smooth under his fingers and it reminded him of sand. For the first time in a long time, he was okay with that.
He’d been with the 16th for two months with no incidents. A personal record outside of homicide. He’d gotten integrated and had moved past the cordial coworker stage with everyone; he knew all the other detectives and office staff and he’d already brought in pastries three times which received much appreciation. He smiled in the mirror when he tied his ties. He kept himself clean shaven. Perhaps Manhattan wouldn’t be just another failure to launch.
Perhaps he should have known better.
His lucky streak reached its end when Olivia called the team into a huddle to announce they had finally earned a “semipermanent ADA”. While he’d been there, the position had been a veritable revolving door of names and faces that Sonny couldn’t remember, and even if he could, Rollins told him not to bother. He sympathized with those who moved quickly and were never seen again, but he knew from night school and even that long ago summer, mobile government lawyers weren’t uncommon.
“I know the guy and I’ve worked with him before so he’s not unfamiliar with SVU. He’s a careerist though, so some cases may be a tough sell,” the Sergeant started off. Her tone suggested that despite any camaraderie she had with the man, every case would be a tough sell, which made Sonny bristle. Rollins reacted similarly with an eye roll, validating his response. “But,” she continued with heavy emphasis, “His heart’s in the right place, and he’s good at what he does. So we can at least be confident he’ll get justice.”
“That’s great, Liv,” Fin piped up, “When do we get to meet our flavor of the month?” He asked with half a laugh, not believing that the new addition would be as stable as their Sarge suggested.
“You can meet me now, detective,” a voice called out, moving forward from the elevator bank atop the heavy beating of hard soled shoes. The voice was older, but entirely recognizable. Sonny was grateful he was facing away from the entrance to the squad room, since he either flinched or went green in the face — maybe both given that Rollins shot him the most bewildered look before appearing to wordlessly ask if he was alright. He suddenly wasn’t even in the same zip code as alright.
“The man of the hour,” Olivia smiled, moving from the huddle to greet the new arrival. Sonny turned around slowly, eyes carefully focused into the hazy middle distance as if a lack of eye contact would change the owner of the voice, like a Schrodinger's ADA. Alas, that cat jumped out of the box, preening.
“ADA Rafael Barba.” He introduced himself, not yet extending a hand for anyone to shake, “It’s nice to meet you all, and to see you again, Liv. From the sound of your little pep talk, it sounds like you haven’t changed at all.” Sonny could hear the mirth in his voice, a sound he knew well. His heart gave a nostalgic squeeze in the midst of hammering its way into his throat.
Sparing a quick glance at the man revealed that time had been kind to him. Rafael had aged well and the wrinkles near the edges of his eyes only complimented his face. Meanwhile, Sonny had started to go gray already. His temples were overtaken by silver hair, driving out the natural sandy brown, whereas Rafael’s hair was still dark and full. It made Sonny’s palms itch, he knew exactly what it felt like to run reverent fingers through that hair. And all of that was notwithstanding the fact he was dressed to the nines. Sonny looked away again, vaguely ashamed by the embarrassed blush he was sure was starting to settle on the tips of his ears.
Olivia ran through the team, giving brief introductions in order of seniority. As they went, Rafael offered them a handshake. Sonny zoned out until it was his turn and he was faced with the outstretched hand of a ghost. With a clammy grip he gave the other man the weakest handshake of his life. Somewhere in Heaven, Dominick Sr. probably clenched a hand over his heart at the display. On Earth, Rafael’s green eyes flickered over him appraisingly and his face fell when Sonny sharply pulled his hand away.
“You’ll probably get along with this one the best,” Olivia offered, putting a hand on Sonny’s back. Despite the stabilizing gesture, Sonny barely heard her, the sound reached his ears slowly and distorted like his head had been pushed underwater. “He’s in night school at Fordham, so maybe he’ll have a little bit of that “legal sense” you’ve harped on me about.” That water had suddenly gotten cold and it felt like weeds had wrapped around his ankles, dragging him down as his chest tightened with worry, watching Rafael’s gaze flicker over him again with a trained neutral expression.
Night school. Failure. Fordham. Harvard. A threadbare bargain rack button up. A perfectly styled tie and pocket square.
Sonny thanked St. Jude and his academy training for getting his body to autopilot through a low-grade anxiety episode. He gave the ADA a nod and curt smile before moving away with the rest of the squad as they dispersed and Barba left with Olivia, disappearing into her office.
He cursed himself for wishing for a complete team, replete with an ADA. He’d wanted to watch someone and maybe even shadow them as he moved through his second chance at law school. He didn’t want this. It was cruel and mimetic of a twisted summer camp dream: they were together, working for justice. Sonny was quickly learning that justice was indeed blind and often misguided. Looking through the window of the Sarge’s office, he caught another glance of Barba laughing with Liv. Sonny wished he had drowned that time he capsized in his shitty canoe.
The two SVU cases that Rafael Barba was assigned to were dragging on without end. The defense filed motion after motion to keep them stalled, which meant Barba hung around, lingering in the precinct at least once a week. Today was one of those unlucky days where the ADA needed something more from the squad. Sonny knew he should blame opposing counsel for bleeding them dry and inflicting Barba on them, but some days, he blamed God instead, taking it as a personal offense. Wasn’t that an absolute riot.
Barba had ridden in on his high horse around 9 this morning and still hadn’t left the enclave of the Sergeant’s office. Sonny could watch him through the window, gesticulating wildly and stressing out Olivia in general. It was half past 11 when he finally seemed to pack up his briefcase. Sonny was glad to see him go, but instead of leaving Olivia’s office and doing his usual routine power walk to the elevators, Barba sauntered toward him and lorded over his desk.
“May I have a word with you?” He asked but also told. It was a recognizable way of speaking that had only gotten stronger with age. Sonny nodded.
“I didn’t get the chance to ask when I first came on board, but it’s been a while, and I was wondering how you’ve been?” He asked, moving in closer and speaking with a low voice. Sonny stalled in answering. It seemed unnatural to make small talk. Barba could have asked him what he thought of the weather or if he’d seen the game last night; he didn’t care about the answer. Barba never spoke without purpose, and Sonny, despite all of Barba’s shit, was a good detective. He knew his intentions the second he’d walked over.
“I’ve been alright,” Sonny answered against his better judgement. “Life turned out a little differently for me than I thought, but, man plans and God laughs, right?”
“It seems so,” Barba answered, words riding on a breathless exhale. Sonny thought he heard a wistful undertone, but he didn’t let himself be too hopeful. It had been somewhat close to a month and Barba had only looked at him with carefully placed neutrality or clear disdain when he opened his big fat mouth and tried to help. Barba regarded him as an overeager puppy, a creature that needed to be well controlled, perhaps muzzled. Sonny wasn’t sure he wouldn’t kick that puppy with adequate provocation, like if he looked at the man with the moon eyes he held back. “It’s good to see you again,” Barba continued, “I’m glad you’re doing well.”
Sonny gave a little stretch, rolling his shoulders. He could feel the elephant inflating, taking up more and more space between them. So he spoke up, speaking without stopping.
“Look, I know what you really want to talk about. And that was a long time ago, we don’t — I mean, we don’t have to bring it up and I won’t hold it against you, counselor.” He said with a taut customer service smile, acting casual about the whole thing. The act was easier now that Barba’s title rolled smoothly off his tongue. Sonny thought back to the idea of quitting while he was ahead. He’d made headway into SVU: the Sarge had faith in him and Rollins had warmed up significantly, but Rafael Barba was quite physically representative of the failures he was trying to outrun and the haunting remnants of a life abandoned. The weight of seeing him threatened to crush him.
“If that’s what you want, detective.” Barba smirked and put emphasis on that epithet. By the grace of God, Sonny didn’t crack, he barely stiffened in his chair. It wasn’t like he’d get up and take a swing at the guy, but he didn’t think he’d have gone for a low blow himself. With his eyes trained on paperwork and his mind tangled, Sonny didn’t catch his playful tone or the shine in his eye, so he let an insult settle where there was none. It burned just between his shoulder blades, threatening to bow him low in a defeated slouch.
“It seems...easiest,” Sonny decided with a firm voice. “Professional, too.” He tacked on, looking him in the eye for emphasis. Barba furrowed his brow before resettling his face carefully, recalibrating.
“Yes,” He huffed, “You’re right, I’d hate to muddy the waters of our professional relationship, Detective Carisi.”
Sonny couldn’t help but notice how Barba straightened up, no longer leaning so severely over his desk. It was also obvious how his shoulders promptly squared when he called him by his last name. It was authorial and almost made him feel small. Barba said he was right, but he felt wrong. Should he have apologized for the past? For being the wrong half of “law and order”? Sonny looked up at him, noticing the way his periwinkle tie was made into an intricate knot at his throat, standing stark against a pressed white shirt. Yeah, he felt small.
“If that’s all...?” Sonny asked, hand waving over a log book that really didn’t need any more attention but served as a good enough out. Barba straightened to his full height before nodding and brushing the front of his jacket as his way of answering. Then he just walked away. Quickly.
After Barba slipped into an elevator, Sonny considered this latest impasse. He was now realizing much too late that a not insignificant part of his inspiration to go to law school came from the ghost of Rafael. A ghost that was summarily chased away by ADA Barba and his nice shoes that likely cost more than his student loan payment. Sonny raked a hand through his hair, crunching through the gel cage he’d so carefully constructed that morning. Gone was Rafael in a shitty hand cut crop top, gone was his ethereal support system, gone were the nights spent lakeside stargazing and talking about the future.
He was certain they were never supposed to meet again, and that this was cosmic punishment for some sin he couldn’t remember. He sat stoically at his desk, taking inventory of what needed to be buried, placing each memory gently into a casket, holding a preemptive, protective funeral. He ran a hand through his hair again, making it soft. Now it was thoroughly ruined, and tiny flakes of dry gel pried free of their proper places fluttered down to rest on his paperwork.
“Do you need a hairbrush? Or a five minute break?” Rollins offered, returning from her own little break. She never offered to give him a break, since he was still the new guy after all, so she’d presumably seen the way his lines creased his face and taken pity on him. He shook off her generosity, mumbling a generic excuse before fixing his hair the best he could and turning back to work.
Life continued in something like that fashion for the better part of a year and a half. On one hand, Sonny smashed through 2L with a great record and he was genuinely excited for the next year. Scared, but excited. On the other hand, Rafael Barba became more than just a temporary assignment. He became their go to guy, a maverick and powerhouse. The work he did was fascinating to watch and learn from, but for Sonny it was tainted with something like the unique kind of heartburn you got from eating camp food for three weeks in a row.
Tonight, Sonny and Rollins were the only ones left in the office when the phone rang. The pair made eye contact as it rang; it was their own little custom, a staring contest to see who would be forced to answer the crank calls that came this late at night. Sonny lost. With a roll of his eyes, he lifted the receiver.
“Detective Carisi, SVU,” he answered blandly, hoping his disinterest dissuaded the caller.
“Carisi, it’s Barba.”
Sonny wasn’t exactly expecting that on the other line. Sure, their ADA worked late nights, too, and Sonny had even worked a few with him, but they didn’t have a pressing case right now. Two of their recent cases took pleas, and a third was currently drying out in the drunk tank, awaiting transport, they hadn’t even gotten the ball rolling on that guy yet.
“What do you need, counselor?”
“I need to see you in my office, please,” through the phone, Barba’s voice always sounded a little hazy, but this time Sonny didn’t know if the waver came from the telephone lines or from the man himself. His voice still retained its usual bossy urgency, though, so any red flags stayed firmly at half mast.
“I can be down in 20. But can you tell me what this is about, though? Because it can’t be about Dubcek or Anderson, they’re already upstate, Barba.” Sonny was slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to run errands for the man, especially since whatever mess Barba was calling him to clean up was unrelated to his personal work. He’d tried aggressively to keep his relationship with Barba stricter than professional. He never let his eyes or mind wander around the man. But right now, Barba seemed poised to invite that kind of conduct, virtually ordering Sonny to his office on unrelated matters.
“You’ll see when you get here, detective. Trust me when I say it’s urgent, though.”
Sonny replied in the affirmative before hanging up and Rollins whooped like a lottery winner once she was sure that the line was dead. Sonny wondered if she had even won something. If she answered the phone, would he have asked her to come down? Rollins laughed as he stood to get his coat.
“Not funny,” he chided. She disagreed, exaggeratedly crossing herself when Sonny looked at her again. That did make him snort a little.
“It's been nice knowing you!” She called after him as he walked away to grab the keys to a squad car.
“Still not funny,” he yelled back, tossing a sugar packet at her from the nearby coffee cart. Rollins batted it away with a shiteating grin before waving him off as he started the hard march to Hogan Place.
When he got to the office it was mostly dark, as to be expected. So he followed the trail of the empty halls on his way towards the last remaining lighted room. His shoes echoed loudly off the tiles, giving him a wake as he travelled the interior of an unhallowed building that felt gate kept and foreboding. It was like being on stage after a play had long ended, his role here was prescribed and his presence now was undue. He wished he didn’t feel like that; he belonged here every bit that anyone else did, he’d earned the right and put in the work. But he wouldn’t let himself enjoy it. As usual though, he put the thought out of his mind, needing to be as controlled as possible in front of Barba.
When he reached the reception area in front of Barba’s office, he took a deep, steadying breath. Carmen had long gone home, but Sonny still imagined her looking over at him with a sympathetic look in her eyes before leading him in. This time he was alone, so he knocked. The door was ajar, so his knocking pushed it slightly open. He went inside and cleared his throat to let Barba know he had arrived as promised but Barba didn’t even look up at him, he instead just asked him to close the door.
The door shut softly, yet the sound was loud in his ears, Sonny had left it open as per his own personal ritual of separation and the little closing thump was like the harsh clank of a cell door clicking shut forever. His shoulders tensed on instinct as he shrugged off his coat, placing it gently on the rack before walking over to sit across from Barba, who was keeping himself busy, too busy to greet him. There were notes strewn across the desk, and Sonny flitted his eyes between the paperwork and a small ticking clock on a nearby side table as he counted the seconds, anxious to leave. In the relative quiet of the room, the chair creaked exaggeratedly under Sonny’s weight as he shifted, and it was only at the noise that Barba looked up.
“Detective, I need help deciphering some of your reports,” he said, flipping a few papers over to Sonny. They were perfectly legible in his eyes, he’d been sure to write his court copies nicely to avoid this situation. Something cold ran down his spine. If he’d been so careless with writing, God knows what else he’d lost control of regarding Barba. He pushed the feeling down. Way down.
Sonny took up the papers and started to read after Barba muttered something impatient. The clock ticked on and on as Sonny read aloud and Barba sparingly typed out notes on what he said. He read through the reports quickly and without emotion, putting on a show of indifference. Normally, he would emphasize the important parts, highlighting what he thought would be most useful in court, but he had long ago given up on trying to “help” Barba, who was always intent on schooling him in some manner. At the close of the last statement, Sonny squirmed in his chair like a child waiting for the final bell at school, feeling humiliated to have been taken to task like this. Barba said nothing as he finished typing. Sonny swallowed hard before speaking, his voice felt weak despite coming out clearly just a few moments before.
“Do you think I could type an unofficial copy for you, so we can avoid this in the future?” Sonny asked, making eye contact more with Barba’s forehead than with his eyes. Barba smirked in response and chuckled.
“Maybe you should, detective, your handwriting may not have changed at all, but I still can’t read it.”
Sonny’s blood froze. Of the two of them, Sonny had expected that he would break the unofficial vow of silence first, not Barba. Of course, it was done as another one of his innumerable digs at Sonny’s incompetence, but the point still stood.
“Excuse me?” Sonny said, praying he hadn’t heard correctly, and that they could go back to pretending they’d never known each other outside of work. He’d never been more desperate to be re-insulted, he wanted Barba to correct himself and omit that middle part. Just tell me my handwriting is shit, he thought, say it plainly.
“I thought I was just out of practice, but no, it’s indecipherable.” he said, smirk shifting into a smile.
Sonny wanted to scream and for once he let it show on his face, hoping Barba got the hint. It seemed he did, because Barba dropped his gaze to his desk. When he looked up his face was sad instead of wearing the normal mask of neutrality Sonny was so used to seeing upon recalibration. The clock ticked loudly as a heavy pause hung in the air.
“Sonny, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Barba’s voice was soft, and his name burned up in the silence like a flash fire. Since Barba arrived, he’d only been Carisi or detective or some identifying head nod in his general direction, hearing Rafael say his name again made his heart clench. Despite the warmth fighting for prominence in his chest, he bristled against the reality laden in his statement. What was there to ask? After all, he mostly doubted that he had the audacity to ask him to transfer away.
Barba walked over to his couch and took a seat, motioning for Sonny to join him when he only followed so far as to stand nearby. But in his everlasting bid to pull back, Sonny made some noncommittal comment about how he preferred to stand, and watched as Barba tensed, likely aggravated that someone below him had disobeyed. He let the move roll off his back, justifying his defiance with the fact that he was itching to leave, and it was easier to run away from a standing position.
“I wanted to ask if our professional relationship is irreparable.”
The question puzzled Sonny. He thought their professional relationship was fine. Or mostly fine so long as he kept himself well controlled, like a trained dog, rather than the misbehaved puppy Barba thought he was. At Sonny’s silence, Barba sighed and rolled up his sleeves as if he was settling in for something exhausting.
“I’ve felt the tension, and I don’t want that thin line to snap back on us and... hinder our work.” Barba rolled his shoulders, and for the first time, Sonny saw him fidget, finally looking as uncomfortable as Sonny felt. That satisfaction didn’t bring any understanding, though.
“I thought we were fine, perfectly professional.”
“Sonny…” the name fell from Barba’s lips again with the weight of a concrete block tied around one’s neck before they were thrown to the bottom of a lake. Two years in two syllables. There was a lot to unpack, but Sonny thought it would be better to throw the suitcase away. He didn’t want to look into that deep darkness and venture a hand out to be lost, especially after keeping himself so protected. His newfound low-grade irritation manifested in his response.
“We don’t have to bring it up. I told you already. It doesn’t matter.” Sonny’s words echoed in his bones, he’d said the same thing 15 years ago, desperate to believe he was wrong. He wasn’t sure what he was grasping at now with the statement. The continued ability to pretend? The bitter pill of being right in the face of Barba just this once?
“Sonny,” Barba said his name a third time, and Sonny’s anger blossomed. He had no right to that name anymore. There was no need to debase himself with it. Sonny opened his mouth to correct him, but Barba spoke first. “Do you remember that last night by the water?”
His stomach dropped out from under him. Of course he remembered, he’d clung to the memory for a long time, he kept that night protected from harm and wore it close to his vest like a saints medal. Sonny braced, waiting for Barba to rip it away from him like he’d taken away the other pieces of Rafael. It flashed in front of his eyes like a montage. Every moment, every soft look or touch was about to be incinerated and he knew it. Rafael would want nothing to do with who Sonny became, and Barba was proof of that. He was so in his own head that he barely heard what Barba said.
“I never told you that I was, ah, beginning to feel something for you. Well, something more than just infatuation,”
“And those feelings have persisted, still, even now. I believe they’re affecting our work and I—” Barba cut himself off to swallow thickly, voice threatening to break as he shook his head. It was the first time that he’d seen the man speechless. Sonny was surprised he was still standing himself.
“And I know you want nothing to do with me like that. Hell, you can barely look at me. But I thought you deserved to know in the hopes that the knowledge could help us cobble together any remaining collegial respect so we can do our jobs well, until we can negotiate a more...permanent solution.”
Okay, now Sonny was staggering to sit down on the couch next to —. Sonny’s mind swirled to complete that sentence. Logically of course, Rafael Barba was only one person. But for a long time he’d been just Barba, someone far divorced from Rafael, who lived in what was left of Sonny’s memories and objectively didn’t hate him. But now, Barba didn’t hate him either and it was all very confusing. So confusing in fact, that Sonny’s mouth ran away from his brain.
“I thought you hated me.”
Barba laughed, and it was a strange, sad sounding thing. He flexed and relaxed his hands, eyes still firmly downcast.
“I’m afraid the feeling is mutual, Sonny.” He said with a shake of his head, “That day in the squad room, when you told me you wouldn’t “hold it against me” I just...I thought you regretted it, me. Regretted or far worse.” The air in the room stung with the electricity of bare nerves being frayed and played with. In less than a moment, the armor of Barba fell away. The suit became fabric, the tie, colored silk. He was no longer the monolith, he was just a man. Rafael Barba. Two halves of a whole that should have never been split. That man finally looked at Sonny, his worried eyes begging him to say something.
Sonny didn’t know what to say. How to start. Barba didn’t hate him. He never had. They were laboring under concurrent self-inflicted punishments, not entirely unrelated. Sonny started at the beginning.
“Regret you? I’d never...” he paused, tasting the sour truth as it built up on the back of his tongue. He restarted. “But I failed. I gave up on those plans, on that summer. I became a cop, and a detective, and it was almost okay, for a long time. Until it wasn’t.” Sonny’s words spilled over and Barba watched enraptured, face rising and falling with his inflection, finally rid of every trace of forced neutrality.
“And then you showed up, and you were every bit of what we, of what I was supposed to accomplish. You were justice, pristine and proud and wearing this fucking suit that cost more than my rent!” The blood rushing in his ears was tidal and Sonny was blinded by emotions he hadn’t let himself feel earnestly in a long time.
“I was so...beneath you, counselor.” The mention of his title made Barba’s face fall sharply, and he nervously picked imaginary lint off his jacket, waiting for Sonny to finish. His eyes slipped closed and his voice was barely more than a whisper as he spoke. “I couldn’t possibly be what you wanted anymore. I wasn’t — I’m not enough.” The coda was solemn. From start to finish the air had gone from electric to cold, with Sonny’s voice equal to that of the last hymn of the sinking Titanic. Nearer, My God, to Thee indeed. Sonny felt so light to have admitted it, so empty.
In contrast, Barba seemed like leadened stone. There was a sad noise that was caught, choked in the back of his throat. Guilt, perhaps undeserved, weighed heavily on his limbs. That weight increased when Sonny opened his eyes and they shone wetly. He wanted to comfort him, but he couldn’t move.
“I carried you with me for years,” he replied, low and thin. “Those nights. The water. The sand and softness of your hair. When I saw you again, I think I genuinely believed in God again for a second. I got you back. A little greyer, sure, but I got you back. It didn’t matter what you were doing.
“But then you wouldn’t look at me, and soon you barely spoke if I was around. You wilted when I walked into a room.” It was Barba’s turn to burn under the cleansing fires of admittance, slouched low with his head resting on the heels of his hands. Sonny shifted so their knees were touching. It was the most contact he’d allowed himself to have in months of ducking handshakes and keeping his own hands firmly in his pockets. The comfort that travelled from that minute gesture started to fill the new emptiness in his body, replacing the pain of self-denial with something much brighter. Barba shifted too, it was at first a flinch but it melted into the undercurrent of warmth rolling off of Sonny.
“I asked you to come by to confess. To allocute for what I’d done in so obviously hurting you and try to mend what was left. But now I don’t know where to go,” he admitted, leaning in and savoring the feeling of physical contact as their thighs brushed, bodies magnetic. Time, which had been beating on so slowly before, sped up rapidly as Sonny realized he could have what he wanted. That knowledge was enough for Sonny to buck up and make some bold assumptions about what Barba wanted as well.
“We can’t go back,” Sonny said quietly, and Barba pulled away, but Sonny reached an arm out to recapture the man, pulling him closer than before, to the point that he could feel the way Barba broke out in goosebumps when Sonny dragged a hand over his forearm. “We can’t go back, but we can move forward.”
Forward. The best sounding word in the English language. Sonny pulled in a deep breath and held it in his chest, letting it out slowly through his nose as he watched the implication dawn on Barba’s face, practically glowing. They leaned in again, resting their foreheads together, fitting together so naturally.
“Can I kiss you?” Barba asked after a lifetime of waiting to say those words again. Sonny could cry. The words sounded very different than they had years ago. They wrapped around Sonny and began the arduous task of soothing and banishing the last two years.
Sonny nodded and suddenly both of Barba’s hands were on his face, holding him still as their lips met for the second first time. It was soft and adoring, he took his time to remap Sonny’s lips with featherlight kisses like prayers. Barba still tasted mostly the same, the major difference was in the faintest undertone of scotch which was of a better quality than the stuff he’d smuggled into camp with him. The familiarity made Sonny smile broadly, emboldening him to deepen the kiss, tongue moving past Barba’s lips to taste stale coffee and the fresh hope that blossomed when Sonny’s hand moved forward to tangle in his hair.
“Forward,” Barba gasped when they broke apart for breath, “Forward sounds good.”
Seeing the sunrise was always a strange thing but seeing the sunrise in a place that wasn’t your home was surreal. Sonny watched the weak morning light stream through the windows and usher out the comfortable darkness. Last night buzzed under Sonny’s delightful soreness like a delicate gift, glowing with the sun as it danced into his eyes. Beside him, Rafael was snoring contentedly, still tangled up between Sonny’s legs. Moving gently, Sonny turned to watch the even rise and fall of his chest, memorizing the movement like the sunrise would wash him away with the night, his image carried away on the backs of the lakeside waves that lapped in the distance.
“I wish we didn’t have to go,” he whispered to the room as Rafael’s eyelashes started to flutter, slowly waking. His sleep clouded green eyes brightened when they saw Sonny still next to him before softly closing, savoring the warmth coursing between their tangled bodies. They shifted closer together, running their fingers over each other’s skin in an effort to touch each freckle and scar and mark. When they were close enough to share breaths, Rafael anointed his forehead with a kiss that traveled all the way to the corner of his lips, pausing only long enough for Sonny to nod consent before capturing his mouth fully.
As the sun rose in the sky, they still didn’t talk about it, about what morning brought. If they stayed under the blankets, it was like the morning and all its consequences hadn’t come yet, even though Rafael had already demanded they roll over to keep the sun out of his eyes as they kissed. Sonny had of course obliged, which meant he was now staring at the orange glow spilling over the horizon while Rafael sucked a troublesome hickey in the hollow of his throat. He groaned and closed his eyes against the sun and sensation as Rafael laughed victoriously and his warm breath ghosted over his chest, making him shiver further.
“Raf,” he called out, voice hoarse with sleep. Rafael shushed him before moving to suck an identical mark on the other side of his chest. Sonny’s hands rested on Rafael’s back, scratching downwards as he pulled off to stare into Sonny’s eyes. They smiled shyly at one another and Sonny reached out to brush some of Rafael’s hair out of his eyes. Tiring quickly of holding himself up on his elbows, Rafael lowered himself to rest half atop Sonny, placing his head on his chest. Sonny’s heartbeat was a frantic staccato that only intensified as Rafael dragged his hand over his chest.
“Good morning, Sonny,” he whispered in his ear, voice thick with so many things Sonny couldn’t pinpoint.
“Are you sure?” Sonny asked in return, letting the rest of his questions hang in the air. Are you sure you want it to be morning? Are you sure we have to get up? That we can’t stay in bed forever?
Rafael reached a lazy hand over and stroked Sonny’s hair before reaching over him fully to turn off the white noise machine on the nightstand. The artificial waves drew back, sound fading as the machine died. It was only then that Sonny heard the whirr of the air conditioner clicking on and the faint hum of traffic ten floors below.
It was morning in New York City. It was morning in Rafael Barba’s apartment. Everything was going to be just fine.