Neither of them had really expected that his first trip away would become one of many.
Thankfully in the beginning they fell into an easy routine; he would text her uncaptioned pictures of things he saw in new places, letting him feel like a tourist. And she would send back random snaps of things that would keep him grounded to the city: their favourite coffee cart, construction progress, Carisi messily eating a sandwich with mustard on his cheek. She'd also send pictures of Noah, of course. Playing lego, reading a book, at his baseball games, in the park.
It was customary for her to pick up the phone or shoot off a text during the day in those first months to run something by him before going to Stone, or occasionally to vent her frustrations. It was customary for him to initiate a video call in the evenings, after she'd texted that she was home and Noah was asleep, and he'd tell her about his day and ask about hers. And it was customary for him to share his flight plans and for her to do everything in her power to meet him at his place for supper on his first night home, usually with Noah in tow and always with take-out in hand.
It was during one such meal where Noah hadn't been present due to a friend's birthday celebration --- she'd purposely neglected to tell him that Barba was coming home that day, knowing Noah would try to plead his way out of the party to see him --- that Barba had finally admitted that contract work and travel might be his new life for the time being. He'd described that someone he'd met in DC was a snowbird who'd worked with a properly manager to convert his house into a sort of high-end "Airbnb", made available for a pretty penny to folks visiting for political meetings. Barba had done some digging and found out there was a similar market in New York connected to both the UN and the entertainment industry, and he'd come to Olivia that day to get her opinion.
She'd been supportive, of course, and went out of her way to prove it again and again. She'd spent an evening helping him measure and move things around in his home office which he'd been advised to make into a second bedroom. She'd gone with him to test out different mattresses and find a headboard, and had been given leave to make the final choice on both. She'd invited him to use her kitchen table to work when the noise of having his guest half-bath converted to a full bath made it impossible for him to concentrate. She'd helped him install the padlock on the large hall closet where he planned to move the personal effects he wouldn't want strangers to paw through but that he also wanted close at hand when he was home. She'd offered to be listed as the primary contact on his alarm system, since she'd be close enough to actually intervene if there was a problem.
And all the while she'd reminded herself that she should just be happy he wasn't giving up his place all together, that he had found a creative way to pay the mortgage. He was choosing to be tethered to geography, and while she'd tried to bury the feelings attached to her desire for him to just come home for good, she'd at least stopped worrying so much that every return might carry the unwelcome revelation that he'd had found some other place he loved and had decided to put down roots there.
No, this was enough. And for awhile, they made it work, made their friendship a priority as much as time and distance would allow. Sure, their multiple daily check-ins had been reduced to just once a day, then a few times a week. Sure, he was becoming less and less prone to breaking up contracts with weekend trips home, using exhaustion as an excuse or citing booking requests on his place that he could probably have limited. And sure, sometimes when he did make it home they never quite connected in person.
None of it was purposeful, and none of it was a reflection of a change in their affection for one another. Life was just busy, and the longer they were apart, the easier it got, little by little, to BE apart.
But just how far that chasm had grown really hit home when she was promoted to Captain. He'd been booked to come back for the ceremony, but three days prior he'd become aware of a metaphorical storm on the horizon, and the day before he was scheduled to fly out he'd had to call to cancel. "I'm so sorry, Liv. You know if I could be there, I would."
She'd forgiven him, and she'd understood. God knows she'd had to beg off plans with him and others a million times due to work. And the huge bouquet of flowers waiting for her when she'd got home had confirmed that he was still thinking of her. But it still felt like a turning point.
And then two years nearly to the day that Barba had resigned and this had all been set into motion, he'd heard through the grapevine rather than directly from her that Tucker had died.
Though Ed had rarely been prominent in their conversations for all kinds of reasons, Barba knew that his passing would be a blow to her. And the fact that she apparently hadn't felt like she could reach out to him --- or worse, that perhaps she no longer felt that he was someone she wanted to trust with her sadness --- hurt him deeply.
What he didn't know was that she had definitely considered calling him. It had been her first thought when she found the space to sit with what had happened. But as she was reaching for her phone it had occurred her to, stunned her, that she didn't even know where Barba was. And suddenly she felt very, very alone.
"A lot of loss lately..." she'd remarked wistfully when Barba had reached out to HER. She wondered if he realized she wasn't just talking about Simon and Tucker. "Time is just...flying by."
After they'd signed off from the video call, she'd considered his offer to take her to dinner when he was back in the city and felt a wave of anger. When had it come down to them needing to make plans, as though that wasn't their default for when he was home? Since when had it not been a forgone conclusion that of COURSE they would have dinner?
Olivia knew that they were both to blame, in different ways and at different times. But she recognized that this loss was one that wasn't permanent, not yet, and could still be prevented. And she found an excuse to text him the very next day, promising herself that no matter what she'd keep pressing in until they reconnected.
The promise wasn't needed. It was as though that one little text opened the door and suddenly they both had lots to say.
Barba's stay in Iowa was going to be extended due to the all the new primary issues that popped up, but it was only a week after their video call that he was greeting her at a restaurant near her apartment, enfolding her in a warm embrace. He never admitted to her, and she never suspected, that the reason he'd given for the short weekend home was a complete lie, that he'd come home just to see her. But when she'd mentioned during a casual call that she was taking the weekend off, he'd said so nonchalantly (after taking a quick look at the booking calendar to make sure that his place wasn't rented out), "Well, that's lucky. Because it just so happens I'm going to be home!"
He hadn't intended to monopolize all of her time off, he really hadn't. But she'd insisted it wasn't worth it for him to buy groceries if he was only going to be home for 48 hours. So after supper together Saturday night, where they talked for hours and hours about everything and nothing, he'd been invited to Olivia's for breakfast on Sunday. And once Noah laid eyes on him, it quickly became clear that his dance card would be full for the rest of the day. It wasn't until after Noah had been put to bed and he and Olivia were enjoying a drink on her couch that she suddenly said, "Wait, didn't you come home for a reason?", and he realized he'd forgotten to make the ruse look believable. He formulated a quick lie and said that his plans were for Monday morning, when he knew she'd be back at work, and right before he had to get on his return flight.
She raised an eyebrow over how he fast he was speaking, which was even faster than normal, but let it go.
They had breakfast together at a little hole in the wall near the precinct that last morning before they had to say goodbye. Then he walked her to work, her arm looped through his, and it felt like old times to be back together on those streets. But it didn't feel like he never left, nothing so poetic. If anything it reminded him how long he'd been gone, and how far away he'd managed to get. "Hey, um... Listen, I don't know what happened with us. I feel like we got off track."
Of all the things they had talked about that weekend, they hadn't talked about this.
"Not off track," she correct. "Just on different tracks."
"Maybe. Either way, I don't like it."
"I'm sorry, Rafael. It's my fault - I've been so busy and - ."
"No, don't do that. That's not - " He just shook his head. "Anyway, I feel like we're in a good place again now. And I just wanted to say I'm really glad. Because my life is so much better with you in it."
Her eyes softened and her smile was warm and bright. "The feeling is mutual."
And with one last hug and promise that he'd call her when he made it home, they parted ways. But not really. And not for long.