In a sort of vague, almost unconscious way they'd been dancing around it for awhile. So perhaps it was fitting that it was the night they literally went dancing that the figurative dancing stopped.
"Have you ever thought about us having sex?"
While Barba's eyes didn't leave the road, his hands gripped the steering wheel just a little tighter. "I promise I'm not being coy, but I can't quite tell by your tone whether you're suggesting I think of it now or if you were hoping for some more philosophical discourse."
Olivia huffed out a laugh. "The latter."
"Ah." He paused as the GPS gave an instruction, then reached out to turn it off. He didn't want to be interrupted, and he knew how to get back from here. "Well, I would say that a part of me wouldn't be opposed, considering the very inkling that it MIGHT be a proposition may have... perked me up a little." He glanced at her only to see her glancing toward his lap with a smug little grin. It was too dark to be revealing, thankfully. And also too dark for her to notice the heat that rose to his cheeks. "Why? Have you been thinking about it?"
"Not explicitly." He coughed, and she laughed. "But it just kind of occurred to me that 'conflict of interest' has always been a background variable. And now it's not."
"I should have known the dancing would bring this on."
Dancing had been fun. It was sweaty and handsy and Barba hadn't been lying about his Cuban hips, which spent most of the evening pressed intimately against her own. While Olivia had insisted she needed to be plied with alcohol to get her loosened up enough to enjoy herself, Barba had challenged her to remain sober and just trust that he would lead and that no one would be looking at them anyway. Sober had been a good idea, because with the sweat and the hands and the Cuban hips it wouldn't have taken much to see them get carried away.
"It wasn't just the dancing, thank you very much," she insisted.
"But the dancing helped." He grinned at her sideways, knowing full well it had. He had thought he'd seen glimpses of something new in her eyes that night, though not when it might have been expected, when his hands had rested low on her hips and their bodies were flush together and the pumping bass of the music thrummed inside them. That had just been fun, and they'd remained largely separated from the inherent sexiness of their movements by all the fumbling and laughter and the comfort they already had with each other.
No, it had been in the moments in between, when they were resting, watching others dance, not bothering to try to speak over the volume in the room. It was then when he'd witnessed her more than once looking at him thoughtfully. Apparently, he realized now, giving herself permission to consider things she'd generally made concerted effort not to consider.
"Well, honestly, Liv, the longer I've known you, the less I've thought about having sex with you." There were better ways to say that, but his choice of words and tone were very deliberate, trying to keep things light.
"Wow," she exclaimed, amusement in her voice. "Thanks for letting me down easy, there, Barba. Maybe you'd better qualify that."
"You asked for it," he warned with a chuckle, then took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Listen, when I first met you, I thought you were... brilliant. Formidable. Attractive, obviously. And bossy. My God you were bossy. A bit of a know-it-all. Uptight about certain things. And because we worked together completely off-limits. That combo totally did it for me."
"Right," she said sarcastically. But when he looked at her briefly with a self-deprecating smile, she cocked her head in disbelief. "Wait. Are you being serious? Did you actually have a crush on me?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say "crush". But I definitely was aware of you as a sexual being and as someone who under different circumstances I would..." He let his intended crass remark die and went with something a little more appropriate instead. "...pursue given the opportunity." It was his turn for disbelief. "Did you really not pick up on that?"
"I really didn't. Even in retrospect... I mean, I guess you could land on the flirty side of smug from time to time, but I don't think I ever would have classified it as genuine interest."
"That's because I'm a consummate professional," he said with a smirk. "Anyway, as time passed you were just as brilliant and formidable, of course, and I recognized that in a lot of ways you really DID know it all, so that part of you got less obnoxious. And you even somehow managed to become MORE attractive...and more bossy. There may be a correlation there."
"And the more I got to know you, and the more time we spent together, I just started to see you differently."
"Huh." Olivia paused to try to take it all in. "So how long was this transition, exactly?"
"Well, I thought I was over it by the time I found out you were with Tucker... but that whole debacle may have caused an unexpected flare up."
A longer pause this time. "You were jealous of Tucker."
The utter shock in her voice was shocking to him. "Wow, Liv. How are you actually such a terrible detective?" He pulled into the driveway and shut off the car, but neither made a move to get out. "Though I've got to say I'm kind of relieved I kept that under wraps obviously much better than I thought I did. I mean, don't get me wrong, everything that followed that debacle was NOT personal; I did what needed to be done. But how I reacted when I first figured it out... Not my best moment."
"Huh," she said again, at a complete loss for words.
Barba, however, still had much to say. "Anyway, at some point, and I don't really know when, you became someone I wanted to support, and help succeed, and someone I wanted to be happy. And there really wasn't room for those feelings anymore. So, have I thought about us having sex? Yes. But beyond a few fleeting thoughts here and there, not for a long time. And philosophically speaking, to address what I'm assuming is at the heart of your question... Now that we don't work together anymore and sex with you would not be off-limits from a professional perspective...I'm still not convinced it's something we necessarily need to be thinking about just now."
"You're not convinced," Olivia repeated, her tone neutral.
"Nope. Why, are you?"
"Okay, then. Glad to know we are of the same mind on this." A shared smile.
"So this wasn't your plan all along? It wasn't your end-game with the dancing?"
"It most certainly was not!" Barba exclaimed, scandalized by the very notion. "In fact, I'm starting to think maybe it was yours!"
"Not at all. Though I'll admit I think a part of me was afraid this whole grown-up vacation business might lead to sex."
"Ouch. 'Afraid', huh?"
"Wrong word." A beat. "Definitely the wrong word, actually. 'Vaguely aware' might be more accurate."
"I think my mother was also 'aware'. Or 'hopeful'. Hence her insistence that she take Noah."
"I've no doubt," she laughed with him. It was obvious to her from even their limited interaction that Lucia had the potential to be a world-class meddler.
"Well," Barba offered, "don't get me wrong, it could be fun."
"It could definitely be fun."
"And I'm assuming you're not completely opposed if you had that "awareness" and agreed to this vacation anyway."
"I suppose you're right, though until tonight I really hadn't given it much direct thought."
It was so them to discuss the potential of a sexual encounter as calmly and comfortably as they might a point of law or a takeout order.
"But regardless, I can't have sex with someone I care so much about and not have it change the dynamic of that relationship. I'm sorry."
"I don't really think that's something to apologize for, Rafa." She shivered then. "It's getting cold in here. We should go in."
"You sure you can control yourself without a gear shift in between us?"
"I hate you so much sometimes."
They separated to get cleaned up and dressed for bed; it was nearly 1 in the morning and they were exhausted from the hour and from the dancing but too wired to sleep just yet. When Barba let himself into her room after a quick knock and assurance she was decent, he stood in the doorway and said in a serious voice, "Tell me the truth, Benson. The shower you just took - hot or cold?"
"Only on vacation." He stayed in the doorway as he watched her climb into bed. "Would it be too weird to hop up there with you while we're talking about sex?"
"I guess you've decided we need to finish this conversation before sunrise, huh?"
"Hey, blame the one who started it. I just thought some resolution might help us sleep better." He didn't wait for her explicit permission before laying atop the covers. "You're the one with sex on the brain. Just keep your hands to yourself, there, woman."
She couldn't help but laugh at his ridiculousness as she turned out the light.
Barba was well aware of his penchant to be less guarded and filtered at this time of night, and imagined she probably suffered from the same affliction. But he felt that this subject warranted a little less filtering than it might otherwise get in the daylight, which is why he was pressing her to continue. "So, where did we leave off?"
"I believe you'd just made a gentlemanly statement decrying casual sex."
"I did no such thing! I've been known to be a fan under the right circumstances. But sex between best friends is never going to be just casual. Certainly not if it's done right."
She chuckled. "And you'd do it right."
"Stop flirting. You're being inappropriate." She backhanded him across the chest, a chastising slap. "Hands," he reminded her sternly.
And then they both got the giggles, and the conversation was delayed.
When they finally fell silent, they both grew reflective. And when it came to being ready to share their thoughts, Olivia beat him to the punch. "Do you think it's weird that we're not sleeping together?"
"You mean is it weird that at our age - " She made an offended noise - "two busy, successful adults of opposite genders would value or need the stability of friendship over the pressure and volatility of romantic entanglements? Maybe "weird" in the sense that it's uncommon. But I'd like to think that we're very lucky and blessed to have stumbled into "weird", and that others would opt for it if they knew it was a possibility." He paused to give her a chance to contribute, but when she didn't he pressed on. "On the other hand, one might wonder if the only practical difference between "love" and "in love" for us would be nudity, tongue kissing and orgasms."
"Oh, my God," she said through her laughter. "But that aside, let's face it. Knowing my track record the difference would probably be trajectory. Because we're really good at this, but I'm sure we'd find a way to mess anything else up."
"Hey, speak for yourself!"
"Well, Mary Sunshine, maybe you just haven't experienced relationships with the right people.."
"Or it could just be my baggage talking." She never would have said that in the light. "Maybe I need to head back to therapy."
"Liv, it's okay to love what we have, too. That doesn't necessarily mean you're a slave to your baggage. That might just make you a realist."
"A realist, huh? Not a pessimist?"
"No. Not you. Never." A fundamental pessimist couldn't continue to do what she did for as long as she had, couldn't keep going to bat for victims despite all the times the system had failed, couldn't still allow herself to care so deeply. "The glass isn't half empty. It's just something precious. And you are wired to fight to protect precious things."
She didn't respond. But he knew his words had hit home for her, had meant something.
Eventually, she returned to the practical. "If I started dating someone, would that bother you? Like before?"
"You can say his name, Liv. Tucker isn't Voldemort." He heaved a sigh. "You're really asking a lot of tough questions tonight. How about you answer first? Would it bother you if I started dating someone?"
"Well... Yeah, I think it would. I'm already so busy, and when you're working again you will be too. I feel like if you were dating someone we wouldn't find the time and we'd never see you."
"Olivia, you're my best friend. I would make the time. You and Noah, you've become..." And suddenly he stopped, unexpectedly choked up. "Ah, damn it."
"Sentimental," she accused fondly. "Maybe we should put a pin in this conversation. I've learned from experience that "sentimental" is right up there with "drunk" and "horny" as terrible backdrops for objective conversations."
"In my defense, I was also mildly horny when we began, and still managed objectivity just fine."
"I'd consider 'sentimental' to be a bigger danger than 'horny' in this situation, which considering we're talking about sex is pretty ironic."
And that's when Barba laid out plainly what they both already knew but hadn't let themselves acknowledge. "We're not really talking about sex, Liv. We never were."
Several heavy minutes passed. And then Barba sat up abruptly and announced, "I'm going to bed. You want to plan to go out for brunch?"
"You can't honestly be okay about leaving this here. I don't know if I'll even be able to look you in the eye in the morning!"
"Of course you will. Because I'm your best friend, and we can talk about anything, even this. That's the beauty of this crazy, weird thing we have." He dropped a kiss on her head and then stood to make his way from the room. "Besides, I think we're on sentimental overload. Much more of this mush and one of us is going to break into song." He could practically hear her eye-roll. "Door open or shut?"
"K. Get some sleep, Benson. There's lots of nothing to be done tomorrow."
"And lots more to talk about."
She didn't know the half of it.