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Haunted

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Barba stared vacantly at the microwave, watching as the white carton of leftover Chinese food slowly spun around. “Should I add the hate crimes charge?” he muttered to himself, his gaze slightly unfocused as he waited for his food to heat. “On the one hand, it might make a statement, but on the other—”

“Are you talking to yourself again?”

Barba whirled around, eyes wide, though he relaxed, just slightly, when he saw who was standing in the doorway of his kitchen. “Jesus Christ,” he huffed, drawing a hand across his face. “Can you not do that?”

“Sorry,” Carisi said, though he didn’t particularly sound it. “But, uh, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s not like I can knock or make sure my footsteps are extra loud or something.”

As if to prove his point, he raised his hand as if to knock on the doorframe, but when his slightly translucent knuckles brushed against the wood, they instead moved right through it before reforming on the other side.

Something tightened in Barba’s expression and he quickly turned back to the microwave to stop it before it started its insistent beeping.

A little over one month ago, Barba had gone to Carisi’s funeral. The man had died a hero, saving three children from being killed by their abuser, but had been lost in the crossfire of a shootout with the perp. Barba had sat stone faced in the church as the priest said the homily for a man that Barba had cared more for than he had ever been able to admit, and sat equally stone faced at the same bar where he and Carisi had once toasted Mike Dodds.

But this time, he hadn’t raised a shot in a toast, had no more than swallowed a mouthful of scotch before he had stumbled to the bathroom to throw it up again. He had left soon after, too wrapped in his own grief to offer words of comfort to Liv or Rollins or even Fin, who had looked more shaken than Barba had ever seen.

Instead, he had gone home and laid down on his couch, closing his eyes against the tears he felt threatening to spill when something cold and feather-light touched his cheek. “Hey,” Carisi had said and Barba had opened his eyes to see a transparent Sonny Carisi leaning over him, wearing the exact same thing he had been wearing when he died, his expression concerned.

Barba wished that he could say he let out a dignified noise.

It would be more accurate to call it a shriek.

Somehow, Sonny Carisi was a ghost.

And for reasons that neither man understood, he was haunting Barba’s apartment.

In the month since, they had come to a cautious truce: Carisi no longer floated through walls but instead used doorways and did his best to make himself known before entering a room; Barba left the TV on when he left for work, usually tuned to Bravo so that Carisi could catch up on Real Housewives; and other than one time that Carisi swore was an accident, he avoided the bedroom when Barba was sleeping and the bathroom whenever Barba was in there.

And in the meantime, Barba had spent every spare second not dedicated to work trying to figure out how to get Carisi out of his apartment.

“I can’t,” Carisi had said tiredly when, on the fifth day, Barba suggested once again that Carisi just try floating through the door to the apartment. “I can’t leave your apartment. I don’t know why. And you trying to shove my incorporeal form through a solid door isn’t exactly helping matters.”

Barba scowled at him. “Since when do you use words like ‘incorporeal’?” he sniped.

“Since the only book you left open is the dictionary and it happens to be turned to the page with ‘incorporeal’ on it,” Carisi shot back. Barba glanced automatically at his desk, which had stacks of casefiles on it but no dictionary before looking back at Carisi, who rolled his eyes. “Or maybe because I’m not as stupid as you think I am.” He paused. “Or at least, not as stupid as you thought I was.”

Barba didn’t like when Carisi referred to himself in the past tense.

He preferred to pretend that the floating, pearlescent man who perched awkwardly on his couch was real. And alive.

It meant that Barba didn’t have to miss him.

“So you’re thinking of adding a hate crime charge?” Carisi prompted when Barba stared at his microwave, lost in thought.

Barba shook his head slightly and pulled his leftovers out of the microwave. “Yeah,” he said, through a mouthful of General Tso’s. “Yeah, it’ll give me the grounds I need to subpoena and call as witnesses some people who I think would add to discrediting the perp.”

Carisi nodded slowly. “So what’s the downside?” he asked, trying to lean against the counter and wincing when he started sinking through it instead.

“Well, it’ll probably piss Barth off,” Barba said, sitting down at the table with a sigh.

Carisi smirked. “Since when has that ever stopped you?”

Barba considered that for a moment. “Since I’ve been spending more time trying to figure out how to exorcise a ghost from my apartment than whether the hate crimes statute is an overreach here.”

Carisi’s smile fell. “Oh,” he said. “Right.” He cleared his throat, watching as Barba set the Chinese container down, no longer feeling hungry. “How, uh, how is that going?”

“I’ve been doing some research into reasons why spirits stay in the physical world,” Barba said, before sighing. “And I hate that I’ve even had to think those words, let alone speak them out loud.”

Carisi barked a laugh. “So for what reasons do spirits stick around?” he asked.

Barba stood and moved to the cabinet where he kept his scotch, pouring himself a generous three fingers before answering. “Well the first answer is the most obvious,” he said, taking a sip. “And thankfully for both of us, the easiest for me to do something about.”

“And what would that be?” Carisi asked, looking almost longingly at Barba’s glass as he took another sip.

Barba hesitated. “Unfinished business,” he said. “Or perhaps more accurately, vengeance.”

Carisi’s brow furrowed. “Vengeance?” he repeated. “Barba, I’m Catholic.”

“No shit,” Barba said. “What’s your point?”

“Romans 12:19 is my point,” Carisi huffed. “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord’.”

Barba sighed. “I really should not be surprised that you have that memorized,” he muttered, running a hand across his face. “But in case you’ve forgotten, the man who murdered you goes to trial next week.”

Carisi froze. “You can’t,” he said.

“I already told McCoy I’m taking over from here.”

Carisi shook his head. “No,” he said forcefully. “Barba, you can’t. Calhoun or Buchanan or whoever is defending this asshole will have the whole case thrown out. You’re personally involved—”

“Neither Rita nor John took the case,” Barba interrupted. “They both respected you too much for that.”

Carisi’s mouth opened before snapping closed again. “That’s…” He shook his head. “That’s not the point.”

“No, the point is that the defendant has hired some big, hot-shot attorney from Chicago looking to make a name for himself,” Barba said. “Someone who has no idea that you and I were friends.”

Carisi blinked. “Right,” he said. “Friends.” He shook his head. “That’s still a big chance—”

“It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Barba said, draining his drink and putting his glass in the sink. “So unless you’re planning to come to the courthouse to stop me…”

He trailed off and Carisi glared at him. “You know I can’t.”

Barba arched an eyebrow at him. “Then it looks like I’ll be prosecuting the man who put four bullets in your chest,” he said coolly.

“Barba…”

Whatever Carisi planned on saying, he couldn’t seem to manage, and Barba brushed past him, heading toward his bedroom, though he paused at the doorway. “For what it’s worth, Sonny, I’m not after vengeance,” he said quietly. “I’m after justice. You of all people deserve that.”

He closed the bedroom door before Carisi could say anything else.


 

“So?” Carisi asked, hovering nervously just inside the door. “What’s the verdict?”

Barba set his briefcase down and shrugged out of his coat. “Three life sentences,” he said. “Served consecutively.”

Something softened in Carisi’s face. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Barba nodded, once, before glancing back up at him. “And are you…?”

He trailed off, but Carisi seemed to understand the unspoken question. “Apparently, I’m still stuck here,” he said, flashing Barba a quick grin. “So while I appreciate the gesture—”

“I didn’t do it to get rid of you,” Barba told him, and was surprised to find that he meant it. Carisi nodded slowly and Barba cleared his throat. “So. Real Housewives?”

Carisi’s grin widened. “Sure,” he said, taking a step back and gesturing toward the couch. “After you.”


 

“What are you reading?” Carisi asked, glancing over as Barba scrolled through something on his phone, clearly not paying any attention to the movie he had ostensibly put on for both of them to watch.

Barba blinked up at him. “Oh, nothing,” he said vaguely.

Carisi frowned and unfolded himself from where he was floating just millimeters above the couch, swooping through the furniture to hover Barba’s shoulder. “How to calm an angry spirit,” he read out loud and Barba swiveled to glare at him.

“What did we say about floating through furniture?” he snapped, but Carisi ignored him.

“You think I’m angry?” he asked with a chuckle. “When I haven’t even been turning your lights on and off and moving your furniture or whatever?”

Barba scowled, locking his cell phone and sitting up. “I don’t think you’re angry, nor do I think you’re taking your cues from Poltergeist,” he snapped. “But what I do think is that there might have been something that’s disturbed your spirit and that’s what’s keeping you here.”

Carisi sniggered. “What, did you fuck up my gravestone or something?” he joked. “Steal something from my corpse?”

“I’m so glad you think this is funny,” Barba said frostily, but mostly to hide the sudden icy grip that surrounded his heart.

Because he had taken something.

Not from Carisi’s— from his body.

But he had taken something from his desk.

Barba didn’t know what exactly had possessed him to do so, save for the fact that even though he had the real thing — or the closest approximation to the real thing — waiting for him at his apartment, when he had stopped by the precinct to drop something off for Liv but had instead watched as some nameless beat cop packed all of Carisi’s belongings into a cardboard carton, he had felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

And so he paused by Carisi’s desk like he had so many times before, and he had rescued Carisi’s rosary from where it had been dumped unceremoniously inside Carisi’s empty coffee mug, the one with the Constitution printed on it because the man had been — still was — an absolute nerd.

He had slipped the rosary in his pocket and gone back to his apartment, where Carisi’s smile in greeting shifted into something like concern. “What happened?” he asked.

“They were cleaning out your desk,” Barba told him before disappearing into his bedroom.

He sat down on his bed and stared blankly at the wall, trying to understand why he felt like cradling his head in his hands and sobbing as if the man he missed so acutely it hurt wasn’t in his living room right now.

After a long moment, Barba had taken the rosary out of his pocket, put it in the top drawer of his nightstand, and gone to rejoin Carisi in the living room, resolving to the put the issue out of his mind.

But the rosary had sat in its place ever since, and now Barba was beginning to feel something like guilt gnawing away at him. Had Carisi’s family looked for it when they picked up his box of belongings? Had one of his sisters sifted through the items that Carisi used everyday at work, looking for the one thing they knew he would’ve kept near him at all times? Had they wondered where it had gone, or where Carisi had left it?

“Hey, are you ok?” Carisi asked with evident concern, still floating slightly over Barba’s shoulder, and Barba shook his head.

“I’m fine,” he said, giving Carisi a tight smile. “I just have something that I need to do tomorrow.”

Carisi searched his expression for a moment, his own brow furrowed. “If this has got something to do with calming my restless spirit or whatever—”

“It doesn’t,” Barba tried to interject, but Carisi ignored him.

“Just know that I feel pretty at peace, all things considered, so no need for you to go do something rash, ok?”

“Define rash,” Barba muttered, and when Carisi just gave him a look, he raised his hands defensively. “Ok, ok, I promise I won’t do anything rash.”

He rationalized that it was long since time he paid Bella Carisi-Sullivan a visit as he made his way to her apartment the next day, Carisi’s rosary tucked in his pocket, so it couldn’t possibly be a rash decision.

To say Bella was surprised to see him was an understatement. “Mr. Barba?” she managed, when she had regained the apparent ability to use words. “What’re you doing here? Did—” Something like fright flared in her expression. “Did something happen with my brother’s trial? I mean, with the trial of the guy who, y’know…”

Tears filled her eyes and Barba winced. He hadn’t even thought what she might think, him just showing up unannounced like this. “No, no,” he assured her with a tight smile. “Your brother’s murderer will never step foot outside of Sing Sing.”

Bella relaxed, but just slightly. “How can I help you, then?” she asked, reaching up to quickly brush the tears from her cheeks.

“I, uh, I had something I wanted to give you,” Barba said, fumbling in his pocket for the rosary. “It was Cari—it was Sonny’s. I found it, and I thought that someone in the family would probably want to have it.”

If she wanted any actual specifics of where or how Barba had found it, she didn’t ask, just reaching out with shaking fingers to touch the dark wood that he held out to her. But then her hand fell back to her side and she shook her head. “Thank you,” she said quietly, “but he would’ve wanted you to have it.”

“Me?” Barba repeated blankly.

Bella flashed him a tight smile. “Well, he would’ve wanted you to have something to remember him by, and if his rosary somehow found its way to you, I’m not gonna fight fate on that one.” Barba shook his head, but before he could protest, she reached out and closed his hand around the rosary. “Seriously, Mr. Barba. We all have our pieces of Sonny. This one is yours.”

Barba felt emotion welling in his chest and he shook his head, blinking back his own tears. “I can’t,” he started, but Bella put her hands on her hips and gave him a look.

“Mr. Barba, have you learned nothing about the futility of arguing with a Carisi?” she scolded, and Barba couldn’t help but laugh slightly, even as he shook his head again.

“You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson,” he agreed, before hesitating. “If you’re sure—”

“I am,” Bella assured him. Barba nodded and carefully slid the rosary back into his pocket before turning away. “Oh, and Mr. Barba?” He paused, glancing back at her. “Promise me this won’t be the last time we see you. You meant a lot to Sonny, and it would mean a lot to us if you kept in touch.”

Barba swallowed, hard. “Of course,” he said hoarsely.

There was more he wanted to say, so much more, but no words seemed to come to him so he settled for raising his hand in an awkward sort of wave and hurrying away from her building before the tears that threatened finally fell.

When he got home, Carisi was waiting almost nervously for him. “Did you do something rash?” he asked as Barba hung up his coat and toed his shoes off.

“You’re still here, aren’t you?” Barba shot back.

Carisi huffed a sigh that sounded half-exasperated and half-amused. “Are you gonna try anything else rash tomorrow?” he asked, floating after Barba as he made his way to his bedroom.

Barba considered it for a moment. “I have no plans to,” he said, “but I can make no promises.”

Carisi rolled his eyes and Barba smirked at him, chalking it up as a temporary victory. But then Carisi hesitated before asking softly, “Did you tell anyone about me?”

The breath seemed to catch in Barba’s throat at the question. They had agreed when all this began that Barba would tell no one about the apparition in his apartment, mostly out of his own concern that he had truly lost it and was hallucinating, while Carisi didn’t want to get his family excited about seeing him only for him to disappear without warning.

“Of course not,” Barba told him, hastening to add, “I have no desire to spend 48 hours under a psychiatric hold, after all.”

“You’re not crazy, Barba,” Carisi told him, though he paused before adding, “Or at least, you’re not crazy just because of this. I can’t vouch for anything else.”

Barba rolled his eyes and closed the bedroom door in Carisi’s smirking face before making his way over to his nightstand. He opened the drawer and set Carisi’s rosary back inside — back in its place, and he wondered for a brief moment when exactly he had decided that Carisi’s rosary belonged there.

Probably around the same time he had accepted that Carisi’s ghost belonged in his apartment. Or maybe when he realized that his reasoning for not telling anyone about Carisi had changed.

He liked having Carisi in his life, having this part of him.

As selfish as it was, he liked having Carisi to himself.

And wasn’t that pathetic.

“You gonna stay in there all night?” Carisi called through the door. “Cuz the least you coulda done is changed the channel to something else.”

Barba sighed and quickly wiped his eyes. “Coming,” he huffed.

And he closed the drawer and rejoined Carisi in the living room.


 

“I’ve been thinking,” Carisi started, floating a few millimeters above the couch so that it looked like he was sitting.

Barba didn’t even bother looking up from the casefile he was reviewing on the opposite end of the couch. “Thought I smelled something burning.”

“You’re a regular stand-up comedian, you know that?” Carisi said, without any real heat.

Barba hummed in agreement. “So you’ve been thinking?” he prompted.

Carisi sat up straight. “Yeah,” he said. “About my, uh, predicament. And why I’m still here.”

Now Barba did look up, his brow creasing. Since the incident with Carisi’s rosary, he had somewhat postponed his attempts to exorcise the man from his apartment. He had told himself that it was because he was clearly trying to force it, and that wasn’t working, but if he was being honest with himself, he had gotten used to having Carisi around.

And besides, he wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye yet.

“Oh?” he said, trying to sound politely interested even as he glanced back down at the casefile without really seeing it.

“Yeah,” Carisi said. “I was thinking that this might be, uh, might be purgatory.”

Barba blinked. Whatever he had been expecting, that was certainly not it. “Purgatory?” he repeated, trying not to sound incredulous.

Evidently, he hadn’t succeeded, since Carisi glared at him. “Well your apartment is sure boring enough to be purgatory,” he snapped, flopping back down against the couch with a little too much force and sinking almost all the way through it before he popped upright again. “And it would explain why nothing you’ve tried thus far has worked.”

Barba sighed and set his pen down in the crease of the casefile, figuring it’d be easier to just deal with this now than deal with a sulking Carisi all evening. “Ok, so ignoring the unnecessary comments about the excitement level of my apartment,” he said dryly, “assuming this is purgatory, how does one get out of purgatory?”

Carisi tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Pretty sure that someone on Earth has to do some kind of indulgence on behalf of the Holy Souls in purgatory, but I don’t know if it works to free an individual soul or not,” he said.

“What, the consummate Catholic doesn’t have a complete grasp of purgatory?” Barba asked mockingly. “I’m shocked and appalled at the gaps in your knowledge.”

Carisi scowled. “Sorry that I decided to become a cop before I could take the class at seminary about helping a specific soul cross over to the other side.”

“Yes, that really is a shame,” Barba said dryly. He sighed. “So what, if anything, do you want me to do about it? More research?”

Carisi shifted, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I mean, you could do more research,” he hedged. “But it might be easier to, uh, go to the source.”

Barba blinked. “The source?” he repeated, before realization hit. “Oh, no.”

“It won’t be that bad, I promise,” Carisi said eagerly. “There’s like a 99% chance that you won’t even burst into flames!”

It was Barba’s turn to glare at him. “I’ll have you know, I have set foot in a church within the last year.”

Carisi snorted. “Oh, yeah? When?”

“You should know, it was for your—”

Barba broke off, his expression tightening, and Carisi winced. “Ah, right,” he said, suddenly seeming very interested in the pattern of the couch fabric. “For my funeral.”

After a long, awkward silence, Barba cleared his throat. “Even if I went to church,” he said with forced levity, “I doubt that I could figure out what to ask the priest. ‘Hey, Father, I appear to have a dead coworker haunting my apartment, does St. Paul have any tips?’”

Carisi laughed lightly. “I mean, would it hurt to try?”

Barba looked at him for a long moment. “No,” he said quietly. “I suppose it would not.”

Carisi glanced at him hopefully. “So then you’ll try it?” he asked.

“I’ll try,” Barba agreed, after a few more seconds’ hesitation. “But I can’t promise the priest’s answer is going to be what you want to hear.”

Carisi beamed at him. “Maybe not, but at least it’ll be some kind of answer.”

“Well when you put it that way,” Barba said sourly, “how can I possibly say no?” He hesitated. “Is my apartment really that boring?”

Carisi snorted. “Of course that’s what you’d be concerned about.” He shrugged. “It’s not so bad. At least, not when you’re here.”

“What a ringing endorsement of my company,” Barba said, and Carisi grinned at him.

“See, when you talk to me like that, how can I possibly be bored?”


 

“Rafael Barba,” Father Luis, the priest of his mother’s parish, greeted him warmly when he slunk into church in the middle of the week, hoping to avoid any regular attendees who might recognize him. “Your mother told me you might be stopping by. I thought she was joking.”

Barba forced a smile. “I know my presence here is...unlikely,” he allowed, and the priest grinned.

“That’s certainly one word for it,” he agreed. He gestured for Rafael to take a seat in a pew and sat next to him. “Your mother said you had a theological question for me?”

Barba nodded, glancing at the massive crucifix hanging behind the altar. “Yes,” he said, feeling stupid even before he was able to get the words out. “What does the Catholic Church believe about ghosts? Are they possibly souls in purgatory?”

Fr. Luis looked taken aback by the question. “Ghosts, you say?” he said and Barba nodded. “Interesting. Truth be told, Rafael, the Church doesn’t have a consensus on ghosts.”

“So it’s possible that ghosts are souls stuck in purgatory?” Barba pressed.

Fr. Luis shrugged. “Certainly it’s possible, though ‘stuck’ is not the word I would use,” he said with a light chuckle. “Souls are in purgatory because they died before they could fully atone for their sins. Many of us do so, and purgatory is our chance for cleanliness before we enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Barba refrained from rolling his eyes, but only barely. “And how does a soul in purgatory atone for its sins?”

“There are a number of ways,” Fr. Luis told him. “You’re in luck, though. It’s November, which is when the Church honors the Holy Souls in purgatory. Just by visiting the grave of a loved one during this the first week in November, you can earn a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls.” He saw the blank look on Barba’s face and his smile widened. “A full indulgence,” he amended, somewhat gently. “You would free their soul.”

Barba’s heart seemed to beat a little harder in his chest. “And is there a way to...ensure that indulgence went to a specific soul?”

Fr. Luis sat back in the pew. “You ask some difficult questions,” he acknowledged. “I suppose, for a lawyer, I shouldn't be surprised.” He gave Barba a smile that Barba couldn’t quite return. “I suppose you could ask for an intercession from one of the saints who dedicated their works to the Holy Souls. St. Gertrude is a popular choice.”

“So all I have to do is go to the cemetery sometime this week between November 1 and November 8 and pray to St. Gertrude and I can free a soul if it’s trapped in purgatory?” Barba asked.

Fr. Luis’s smile slipped. “It’s...not quite as easy as that—” he started, but Barba stood, mind made up.

“Thank you for your time, Father,” he said, offering Fr. Luis his hand. “I appreciate your insight.”

“There is more that must be done,” Fr. Luis said insistently. “Saying the words without meaning them is not enough—”

“I’ll mean them, Father,” Barba interrupted, determination welling within him. “When I’m there, I’ll find a way to mean them.”

Fr. Luis searched his face for a long moment before sighing. “Let me at least give you a blessing,” he said, and Barba, unable to find a polite way to tell him that wasn’t necessary, bowed his head. Fr. Luis muttered something Barba couldn’t quite hear before drawing his hand in the form of a cross over Barba’s bowed head. “Go in peace, my son.”

Barba didn’t wait to hear more, turning and walking back up the aisle with something like determination steeling his spine.

Carisi wasn’t trapped in purgatory. The man had died a hero’s death and had no sins left to atone for. And if all it took was going to the cemetery to pray over his grave to prove it, Barba was more than willing to do so.

For the first time since he had taken Carisi’s rosary to Bella’s, he finally had a plan.

But this time, it wasn’t to get rid of Carisi.

This time, it was to keep him right where he was.


 

Carisi’s rosary was clutched loosely in Barba’s gloved hand as he picked his way through the cemetery on Staten Island later that week. He hadn’t gone to Carisi’s internment and so didn’t know exactly where Carisi was buried, but he had a feeling he’d find it soon enough.

Sure enough, all too soon he spotted a small headstone reading DOMINICK CARISI, BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER, and next to it, a slightly larger stone that read:

DOMINICK “SONNY” CARISI JR.

I HAVE FOUGHT A GOOD FIGHT,
I HAVE FINISHED MY COURSE,
I HAVE KEPT THE FAITH.

Unexpectedly, and rather stupidly, given that he had just talked to Carisi not even an hour ago, Barba felt tears well in his eyes at the words, and he looked down at the rosary in his hand, taking a few deep breaths to try and regain his composure.

He had written down a number of suggested prayers for this moment in case he needed them, but in either a sign of the Divine at work through him or, more likely Catholic school memories rising unbidden, he murmured, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

There were many other prayers that he whispered in the half hour or so that he stood at Carisi’s grave, a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers along with other words meant for God’s ears alone. And at the end, when he had no words left, he hesitated before reaching down and setting Carisi’s rosary on top of his gravestone.

It seemed a fitting place to leave it, and better by far than the drawer of Barba’s nightstand.

Then he turned and trudged away, filled with something close to dread, half-afraid that even though he didn’t think Carisi was in purgatory, when he got back to his apartment, Carisi would be gone, and Barba’s last memory of him would be the cold gray slab that bore his name.

He didn’t think he could bear it if it was.

Barba held his breath as he put his key in the lock, letting it out in a relieved exhale when he opened the door to find Sonny still waiting for him. “You’re still here,” he said, before he could stop himself.

“Of course I am,” Sonny told him. “Where else would I be?” Barba shrugged and something like realization dawned on Sonny’s face. “You actually went to talk to a priest, didn’t you?”

Barba grimaced. “Even tried to get a plenary indulgence on your behalf,” he said, aiming for a joke but missing by a mile.

Sonny’s expression darkened. “And it didn’t work.”

He didn’t say it as a question but Barba still felt compelled to answer it. “No, but we’ll figure something out,” he said bracingly, making as if to brush past Sonny. “I haven’t given up yet, and I’m sure there’s more Catholic doctrine out there about ghosts than one priest in the South Bronx is aware of—”

Sonny hand closed around Barba’s wrist, keeping him in place. “Rafael,” he said softly.

Barba stared down at his wrist. “How—?” he croaked, because other than the first light touch that startled Barba all those months ago, Sonny had never been able to touch him.

Sonny’s eyes were wide and he shook his head. “I dunno,” he said, before determination stole into his expression. “But I do know this — there’s one thing we haven’t considered.”

“Just one?” Barba said, still too shocked to come up with something witty.

Sonny took a step closer to him. “Yeah. We’ve considered all the things that might be unfinished for me and keeping me here. But there’s one reason why that we haven’t talked about.”

“Why, then?” Barba asked, finally tearing his eyes away from the sight of Sonny’s hand wrapped around his wrist to look up at him. “Why are you still here?”

“You know why,” Sonny said gently, and Barba sucked in a stuttered breath. “It’s not unfinished business keeping me here, or something you took from me or even unatoned sins. It’s you.”

Barba’s heart seemed to stop in his chest. “Me?”

Sonny nodded, and he let go of Barba’s wrist to instead reach out and cradle his face in both of his hands. Barba’s eyes fluttered shut at the touch, cool and warm and familiar and foreign all at once. “You,” Sonny repeated softly, running his thumb lightly across Barba’s cheek to wipe away the tears Barba didn’t even realize he’d started to cry. “You’re keeping me here. Which means you have to be the one to let me go.”

Barba tried to jerk back, away from Sonny’s touch, away from Sonny’s words, but Sonny kept him in place. “I can’t,” Barba whispered, because he couldn’t. For as much as he had tried at the beginning to get rid of Sonny, it was long past time he acknowledged that he had no actual desire to do so.

He didn’t want to wake up in the morning and not have Sonny there. He didn’t want to come home at night to an empty apartment.

He wanted Sonny to still be there.

He didn’t want to lose him a second time.

“You have to,” Sonny told him quietly.

Barba shook his head. “It’s not fair,” he said, not caring how petulant the words sounded.

Sonny half-smiled. “Is it ever?” he asked, more rhetorically than anything.

Barba stared at him, searched his transparent face for any sign that he shouldn’t say what he was about to, that he shouldn’t confess what he should’ve said years ago but had never been able to bring himself to. “I love you,” he said, and Sonny closed his eyes, his expression pained. “I should have been able to tell you that when you were alive.”

“And I loved you.” Sonny delivered the words as the simple statement that they were, but the past tense cut Barba like a knife. “And if I have one regret from my life, it’s not telling you that before.” He took a step closer to Barba, so close that if he had been alive, Barba could probably have felt his heart beating against Barba’s own. “But you can’t keep me here. That’s not love, Raf.”

“And letting you go is?” Barba asked harshly.

Sonny nodded tiredly. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it is.”

“I don’t accept that,” Barba told him, crying in earnest now as he tried to pull away. “I can’t—”

Sonny cut him off by kissing him.

It should have been impossible for him to kiss Barba, just as it should’ve been impossible for Sonny to hold him in place and wipe the tears from his cheeks, but Sonny felt as firm and real to Barba as if he was still alive. Barba kissed him back, the kiss desperate, hungry, and full of longing that could never be fulfilled.

It was everything they should have had together when Sonny was alive.

It hurt all the more to know neither of them had managed it until now.

Sonny pulled away just far enough to rest his forehead against Barba’s. “You have to,” he repeated, his voice turning urgent, earnest. “I swear to you, Raf, wherever I go, whatever happens to me beyond this, I will wait for you, and I will find you when your time comes. But you have to let me go.”

“I can’t,” Barba repeated brokenly, and Sonny reached out to tilt his chin up so that Barba was forced to meet his eyes.

“Please,” he whispered.

What remained of Barba’s will crumbled at the simple word and he nodded wordlessly. Sonny leaned in once more and Barba closed his eyes as Sonny’s lips met his again. He tightened his grip on the man, desperate to keep him there, unwilling to let this moment end, unwilling especially to open his eyes and watch the man disappear in front of him.

Instead, Sonny opened his mouth against Barba’s with a sigh that seemed to emanate from his very soul, and Barba’s arms closed around nothing.

He stumbled forward, catching himself against the couch, and straightened, staring wildly around. “Sonny?” he asked, his voice cracking. “Sonny?”

There was no answer.

A wordless sob punched its way out of Barba’s chest and he took an automatic step back, pausing when he felt something under his foot. He crouched down and felt his fingers close against something small and wooden, and when he straightened, it was with Carisi’s rosary in hand.

It was another impossibility — Barba had left the rosary on Sonny’s gravestone, there was no way for it to be here now — but Barba had been living with the impossible for months now. He ran his thumb across the small wooden cross, not bothering to stop his tears as they fell. “Rest in peace, Sonny,” he whispered. “I will see you again.”

And he would.

For the first time in a long time, Barba had something to believe in.

And someone waiting for him on the other side.