Lucy's greeting was warm and welcome as she met him at the door.
"I guess Liv told you the news?"
"Google alert," she admitted sheepishly as she moved aside to let Barba enter Olivia's apartment. "Are you okay?"
"Well, I'm not going to prison. So I feel like I shouldn't complain."
"But...?" Lucy prompted as she led him to the kitchen.
"But I resigned from my job today."
"Oh." A pause. "I wondered if you might have to."
"It was my decision," he clarified as he washed his hands, planning to take over dinner preparations. "My boss wanted me to stay. But I felt like it was the right time for a change." An oversimplification, sure, but he knew she wasn't looking for the details.
"And how does LIV feel about that?"
"Well, she knows, but we haven't had a chance yet to actually talk about it."
"Ah. Okay. Well..." Lucy glanced at her watch. "She's gonna be home in, like, 10 minutes. So if you're good to watch Noah and monitor dinner, I think I'll head out."
He couldn't help but grin at her obvious desire to get the hell out of Dodge. "Where is Noah?"
"Cleaning his room, theoretically. I told him not to come out until he was done." She started to gather up her things.
"You should stay and eat with us," he offered, teasing.
"Not a chance."
"Hey, I'm not the one that needs to be afraid." But she gave a bright smile. "For what it's worth, I'm really glad you're not going to prison."
"I just hope Liv can keep her cool with you so SHE doesn't end up in prison," she said wryly. "Good luck!"
After a quick hello to Noah and encouragement to continue his cleaning efforts, Barba returned to the kitchen. Salad completed, he was adding some candles to the birthday cake he'd had sent over when he heard the door. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a steadying breath, then went to face the music.
Her first words came out as an accusation. "I wasn't expecting to see you."
"It's your birthday. AND spaghetti night," he reminded her evenly. "Where else would I be?"
"Oh, I don't know. Somewhere moving on?"
He knew he probably deserved that, but he couldn't help but roll his eyes. "Well, I'm not planning to move on from YOU, dummy. I thought that went without saying."
"Oh, you mean that was supposed to be implicit in your little drama queen walk-away?"
"Pardon me for needing to escape before having a complete emotional meltdown in the middle of the street."
"Are you fighting?" Noah had ventured out of his room and was listening intently. He seemed curious but not particularly concerned.
"Yes," Olivia said, not quite kidding.
"No," Barba corrected. Then he wrapped Olivia in his arms and addressed the boy from over her shoulder. "Hey kid, why don't you go make a new mess in that room you just cleaned while your mother and I DON'T fight. You can pick out a movie for after dinner if you do."
"Deal!" And off he went, apparently confident that whatever was going on with the grownups they'd manage to work out for themselves, and already trying to decide between 'Rookie of the Year' and 'Everyone's Hero'.
Olivia was tense but didn't move away, her hands coming to rest lightly on Barba's hips.
"Hey," he said quietly, nudging near her ear with his nose. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have ambushed you like that this afternoon."
"No, you shouldn't have," she agreed rather bitterly even as she surrendered to his embrace for a long moment. "But we'll talk about that later, after Noah's in bed."
"Of course." He released her, gave her a half smile. "We'll talk about all of it."
Forcing herself to switch gears for Noah's sake, Liv insisted that she finish up dinner and sent him to Noah's room.
He found the boy hitting imaginary baseballs with his plastic bat. "Looking good, slugger. If the weather's reasonable this weekend maybe we can got to the park and do some batting practice for real. Sound good?" He took Noah's high pitched squeal as a "yes". "Almost time to eat. Shall we go wash our hands?"
In the bathroom, side by side in front of the sink with Noah on a step stool, their eyes locked in the mirror and Noah asked, "Why were you fighting?"
He gave the boy a reassuring smile. "We really weren't, I promise. Your mom is just upset because she and I won't be working together anymore."
"Aren't you upset?"
"Well...". He took a few moments to really take stock, pumping more soap onto both of their hands. "I'm going to miss working with your mom, for sure. But...other than that, I don't think I'm upset, no."
In fact, he felt light, free, for the first time in a long time. And now that he realized it, he could barely believe it.
"That's good." Noah affirmed, unaware of the epiphany taking place next to him. "So does that mean you and my mom are getting married?"
Barba couldn't help but cough out a laugh. "I beg your pardon?"
"She said you couldn't get married because you work together. But since you're not now, you can get married. Right?"
He was speechless, and that didn't happen very often. He turned off the water and handed Noah a towel, noticing how happy the boy seemed by the prospect. "Well..."
"Dinner's ready!" Olivia called from the kitchen. "Come set the table, please!"
"Saved by the bell, kid. We can talk about this later."
Noah forgot, but Barba didn't, and brought it up to Olivia as soon as they had a minute alone.
"Oh, dear Lord," she chuckled, seemingly unfazed. "It's beyond me how he can remember a conversation from months ago but never where he puts his shoes!"
"And what conversation was that, exactly?"
"The mother of a little boy in his playgroup was getting remarried, so Noah had a lot of questions about marriage and weddings and stepdads. And since you're the only man he ever sees me with, he made a bit of a leap." She closed the dishwasher and watched him as he finished wiping the counter.
"And you used us working together as the reason we couldn't get married?"
"Well, hasn't that always been our convenient excuse?" she teased.
"You're right." Barba was just glad the the dark cloud that had been hovering over the dinner table seemed to finally be lifting. "We'll have to think of a different one now, I guess."
"I guess so. Since, for the record, I don't date coworkers OR unemployed people."
"A guy just can't win with you, can he?"
Though to be honest, as he pulled Noah onto his lap when the promised movie began and Olivia propped her feet beside his on the coffee table, he felt like he'd already won.
45 minutes later, the movie suddenly paused, and Olivia glanced over at Barba to find him with the remote in his hand and a sleeping child on his lap.
"Should I just carry him to bed like this, or do we need to wake him up to pee?"
It occurred to Olivia that it had been awhile since Barba had asked his advice about little things like this. But it wasn't regression, and she was just as pleased to hear him asking smart questions to address potential issues that a year ago he wouldn't even have had on his radar. "How long has he been out?"
"He just dropped off."
Olivia leaned over and alternated light kisses and raspberries onto Noah's neck, cheeks and forehead. "Wake up, baby boy. You need to go get ready for bed."
Noah stirred, groggy but giggling and pushing her away. "Is the movie over?"
"Nope, but you can watch the rest tomorrow," she assured him.
"Of course," Barba answered before Olivia could even spare him a look. "I've got to find out how it ends, after all. Now go get ready for bed and we'll come tuck you in in a few minutes."
Rubbing his eyes, Noah slid from the couch and left to do as he was told without objection.
"I'm going to make coffee." Barba stood, stretched, his knees popping. "He's heavier, isn't he? Which is not surprising considering how much pasta he packed away at dinner."
She followed him to the kitchen. "Yeah, he's going through a bit of a growth spurt. I may have to take a second job just to afford to feed him." They exchanged a grin, but then Olivia's expression grew thoughtful. "You seem... different."
"Honestly? I feel different. When Jack accepted my resignation, I swear I could feel my blood pressure dropping. I think I needed this more than I realized."
Barba hadn't meant to hurt her through his admission, not in the least, and she knew that. But she felt hurt nonetheless.
She also felt anger, mostly at herself for being so shocked by it all. She'd certainly caught glimpses of it before, seen the proof that they were built differently. She should have known, should have suspected.
Every time justice was less than sweet, it motivated her, spurred her on to continue. For Barba, it was a hit. It drained him.
And while she'd refused to let herself dwell on it, especially in the last few months there had been times when she'd caught herself wondering if he was staying mostly because of her. Or FOR her.
So now he had a reasonable excuse to leave, and she couldn't begrudge him the choice to take advantage of it.
Okay. Maybe she could.
"Well, I'll have you know I think my blood pressure has gone through the roof." She tried to keep it light, but she could tell by the way his expression changed that he saw right through her. "You weren't just a coworker. You were my partner. We had each other's backs. I don't even know what it's like to do this without you."
"Now who's being a drama queen," he accused fondly. "You've been with SVU since the dawn of time, long before I showed up."
"But not in charge."
"No, not in charge. But Liv -"
"Ready!" Noah called. A timely interruption.
They started his bedtime routine together, but part way through Olivia excused herself to take a call from Fin. Later Barba found her reclined on her bed, just signing off.
"Do you need to go in?" he asked. "I can stay with Noah."
"I'm hoping they have it covered; if they need me I'll know within the hour."
Barba climbed onto the bed beside her, lying on his stomach with his head on a pillow and turned to face her. "I'll wait."
"Thanks." She settled back further, staring at the ceiling, and found herself reflecting on the fact that just the night before they'd fallen asleep together here, facing an uncertain future.
A future still uncertain, though in a way very different than she has imagined.
"So," she said finally. "What's next for you?"
"Well, in the short term, there's lots to wrap up and hand off. I've already started packing up my office but it will be at least a week before I'm actually out of there. I just won't be taking on any anything new or appearing in court. I have a meeting tomorrow at 10 to get Stone up to speed on the Markus West case."
"Yeah. Jack asked him to stay on through the transition. I'm just guessing, but I imagine he's going to try to convince him to take over for me."
"Oh, dear God," she groaned.
"What? He's a good lawyer and seems nice enough."
"Rather magnanimous from the person who he tried to put in prison."
"I'm a classy guy that way," he said with a smirk. "The point is that if I can recognise that he was just doing his job, you should be able to."
"Fair enough, but that's not the issue. Let's just say I didn't exactly roll out the red carpet this past week."
That piqued his interest. He propped himself up on his elbow and said in a teasing voice, "Olivia Benson, did you defend my honour?"
"You did! I'm touched." He chuckled at her eye-roll. "Anyway, I'm sure he'll understand. Water under the bridge. "
"We'll see." She sighed. "Regardless..."
"Listen. You're my friend and I love you and I want you to be happy. But you're also the best ADA I've ever worked with... and it took me forever to break you in! I'm not as young as I once was. I don't know if I have the energy to do it all over again."
"Ouch." Barba brought a hand to his heart in jest. "Well, I'm sorry I was such a chore. But maybe it will do you good to have someone to make you work for it again."
"You're saying you didn't?"
His voice grew more sincere, his eyes softening. "Not in the end. Not in the way I used to. Obviously you broke me in a little too well."
A tender look, followed by a long silence.
"I hate how much I'm going to miss you," Olivia admitted, her eyes turning back to the ceiling.
"People can have friends outside of work, you know. I mean, I don't know from experience. But I've heard that's a thing."
"What makes you think I'm even talking about that? Maybe I'll just miss the easy warrants."
He huffed incredulously. "Hey, I get it. Really good work friends are hard to come by. But don't fret - I've secretly been breaking you in too all these years as a part of my succession plan. If I've done my job, you and whoever comes after me will be thick as thieves in no time."
"Jeez, Rafa. Does the thought of that not make you even a little bit sad?"
And despite her great efforts to keep things light, to hide the depth of her feelings by meeting his verbal sparring blow for blow - his own defense mechanism, she suspected - her voice wavered.
"No, no, no. Don't you dare start, Benson. I've cried enough over the end of our working relationship today, and the last thing we need is a repeat of last night. Keep it together, you big sap."
While his words were harsh, his tone was full of affection. And of course that only made it worse.
"You need to stop talking or I am going to lose it," she scolded with a watery laugh. "Not all of us had the luxury of a midday cry-fest, you know. I had to go back to work after your perfect little 'I see colours now because of you' speech." Her phone sounded an incoming text which she glanced at before making a frustrated noise. "And I may have to go to work again."
"Okay, the way I see it we have two options," Barba offered reasonably, ignoring the tears unexpectedly pricking his own eyes. "Option 1 is we allow ourselves to just wallow in emotion. Be as pitiful and pathetic as we need to be. And if you do get called into work you just go with it and own what a hot mess you're bound to be."
"Sounds good to me. And option 2?"
"Option 2 is that we get out of this bed, pour ourselves some of the coffee waiting in the kitchen, have another piece of birthday cake over non-emotional conversation, and trust that we don't have to see each other at work every day to have a fulfilling, supportive, successful friendship, which I happen to know is what's really bothering you. We can commit to each other right now to make that happen. Because that's what best friends do."
Of course it was that sentiment so sweetly expressed that made her fall apart.
"Option 1 it is," he quipped with a sigh as she rolled toward him and buried her face in his chest.
She ignored two texts but when her phone rang she cursed - really, properly cursed using a word Barba hadn't heard from her before and that would have delighted him if he wasn't so damn emotional himself just then - and while she let it go to voicemail, knowing there was no way she could mask her current state in her voice, she did read the waiting messages.
She sat up, swiping at her eyes and sniffing pitifully. "I have to go."
She glanced at the mirror over the dresser near the bed. "Dear Lord, I'm a wreck."
"Yup. You are." His smirk was back. "'Own it', remember?"
"Sometimes I really hate you."
"Good. You can harness that hatred to help pull yourself together." He propelled himself off the bed and offered her a hand up, avoiding looking at the mirror himself knowing that he hadn't fared much better in their little meltdown.
Olivia went to the closet to replace the now rumpled clothes she was still wearing from work that day. "Fin's coming to pick me up in 20 minutes."
"Think you'll be out long?"
"Could be most of the night. Happy birthday to me."
"No worries. I'll hold down the fort."
He left her to get ready and, after a quick stop in Noah's bathroom to wash his face, headed to the kitchen. He prepared her travel mug of coffee and packed her some snacks to help her get through the next few hours. He was just finishing up when she joined him, her eyes still red but makeup covering most of the tell-tail signs.
"You know if you have trouble finding work I can always give you room and board and you can be my live-in babysitter and housekeeper."
"Like a Tony Danza 'Who's the Boss' kind of arrangement?"
"Yes, except there'd be no question about who the boss is."
"Well, it's good to know I have a safety net. But thankfully it's a big city so I don't anticipate having too much trouble finding something. I know that there's going to be places where being the 'baby killer' will mean they won't touch me, but there's also probably some opportunities where that will make me a more attractive prospect."
Olivia could tell that while he glossed over the 'baby killer' label he wasn't as comfortable with it as his words may have let on. "How are you doing with all that? Really?"
He leaned heavily against the counter, facing her, arms crossed over his chest. "It changes moment to moment. Don't get me wrong: I still believe that I did the right thing. I didn't need a jury to tell me that. But I still ended a life, such as it was. And I know I'm going to need to work through that at some point so I can really put it behind me."
She gave him a sympathetic smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Well, I'm here if you ever need someone to work through it with you."
"Thanks. And someday soon I will probably take you up on that." There was a knock at the door. "But not today."
"That's Fin. Can you let him in? I need to go grab my gun out of the safe."
If Fin was surprised to see him there, he was too much of a pro to let on. "Hey, Counselor," he greeted evenly.
"You back on the clock? We're going to be looking to get a warrant."
"Uh, yeah. Sure. You or Liv can email me the details and I'll do what I can." It wasn't the time to disclose that this could well be the last warrant he obtained for this team. He wondered if Liv would get emotional about that when it came up. Actually, he was sure she would.
"Thanks, Barba. And I'm assuming you know that it goes without saying we're all real glad about how things worked out for you today. Wouldn't be the same for us without you."
Barba was glad he'd already had a bit of a cry, but he still had to remain silent as he shook Fin's offered hand to keep his voice from revealing anything.
"Hey, Fin. I just need a second." Barba was able to make a quick escape while Olivia was zipping up her boots and shrugging on her coat. He rejoined her in the hallway and handed her the travel mug and the brown bag containing the food he had prepared, which she tucked into her purse. "If I'm not back -"
"I'll take Noah to school. Not a problem."
"Okay, then. I'm ready to go."
"Later, Counselor," Fin said casually as he led the way out the door. His back was to them when Olivia placed a hand on Barba's chest, pausing to draw out the meaningful look and gesture, before she followed. But he didn't need to see it to sense that something was going on.
He already suspected both had recently been crying from the looks of them. He didn't say anything, of course. It was none of his business, and Olivia trusted him to keep out of things that didn't concern him unless he was truly worried about her safety, her well being, her happiness. And whatever was going on here didn't worry him, so he kept his mouth shut.
If he had been inclined to weigh in, Olivia would have been surprised to find that what Fin had considered most interesting and perhaps telling was not that Barba was there, not that he had been conscripted into overnight child care, and not even that they'd apparently had an emotional exchange. No, it was how she hadn't thanked Barba for the food and coffee that had really caught his attention, an oversight that smacked of intimacy in his estimation.
Had he been in her office when they returned to the precinct and she'd decided to grab a snack before heading into interrogation, his previous interest would have paled in comparison.
But Olivia was thankfully alone when she opened the bag of food Barba had prepared, when the only reason she hadn't called him to rip him a new one for getting her worked up again was because she didn't want to wake him. It had taken several minutes and several steadying breaths to be able to effectively blink away the threatening tears and re-form from the puddle of mushy feelings she'd been reduced to. And all by 5 little words taped to a ziplock bag of cherry tomatoes:
"Got your back partner. Always. xo"