Despite their care and affection for each other, they both recognized that the blending of two households was never an inherently easy adjustment, and they had no expectation that their experience would be an exception.
Which was good, because it WASN'T an exception.
Barba had somehow gotten into the habit of apologizing nearly every time he made a unilateral decision when Olivia was around to potentially share in the decision-making. It changed from day-to-day (and sometimes minute-to-minute) what bothered her more: his continued apologies when she told him to stop, or the actual taking of liberties, especially on matters of parenting. She came to understand that he was both trying to make her feel part of things and to defer to her as Noah's ACTUAL parent when she was able to leave her "office" and do the work of parenting. But understanding didn't always prevent her from snapping at him about it.
It bothered Olivia that despite her not particularly subtle fishing expeditions, Barba wouldn't reveal if he was okay for money considering his current unemployment and lack of rental income. She couldn't tell if he wasn't being forthcoming because he was well-off and embarrassed to flaunt it, or because he was in trouble and didn't want to burden her with it. This had eventually led to an actual voices-raised argument about finances, disagreeing over Olivia's desire to contribute and Barba's desire to treat them as guests and pay for everything himself. In the end he was steadfast in his refusal to take money from her for expenses that he would have had anyway, but he relented just to keep the peace to her covering the groceries and takeout, only if she was the one to do the orders so he didn't feel bad spending her money on the more expensive brands he might usually select.
Food deliveries led to another dust-up. Barba came off as very relaxed about the state of the world, but the first time that a grocery order arrived when Olivia was around to help put it away, he got downright mean when she didn't clean and sanitize packaging and surfaces with the same level of caution as he did, treating her as though she was an idiot to not be exercising the same diligence. He never really apologized, but did do some self-reflection, realizing it was just fear that made him lash out; home had become a safe haven, and he felt a huge responsibility to keep it that way for all of them, and especially for Noah.
Discussion of the what was going on outside of their little bubble was itself a point of contention. Barba was largely able to shut it out while his energies were focused on Noah. For Olivia, it was part of her job to operate within the context of the current state of affairs, and the virus and politics also comprised 99% of any small talk that prefaced the online meetings and phone calls and virtual press appearances that made up her day. So it certainly made sense that in the evenings after Noah went to bed Barba was ready to engage with and about the outside world and Olivia was desperate to shut it out. But the cause of the contention wasn't each of them fighting to have their own needs met, but the duty they felt to favour the needs of the other, which left them both unhappy and unfulfilled.
Olivia was at least learning to let go of her self-loathing over her perceived weakness evidenced by her stress and moodiness, and in its place was learning to accept Barba's efforts to draw her out of her own head and into whatever the boys were up to. What she hadn't yet apparently let go of was her anxiety about encroaching on Barba's space and lifestyle, which caused her to make some assumptions, and from those assumptions, plans. Specifically, the plan to surprise him by sending him on a "special holiday" at their apartment where he could spend time alone and relax without them underfoot.
That day he'd returned just before 10 p.m. to find Olivia reading in his bed.
"You're back," she commented. "I wasn't expecting to see you until morning."
"Do you mind that I'm early?"
"Of course not!"
"Good. I'm just going to get out of these clothes and take a shower."
"And I'll move back into the other room."
"No, you're comfortable. I didn't mean to interrupt your evening. I'll go in with Noah for the night." And before she had time to protest, he was headed for the washroom.
They reconnected the next morning just before breakfast.
"So, how was it?" Olivia enquired.
"It was good," he answered with a polite smile.
Too polite. Her eyes narrowed. "Why do I feel like you're lying to me?"
"No, really. It was fine. I'm sorry I came back early. I'm happy to give you and Noah whatever space you need and I'll gladly do it again whenever you ask."
"Wait, what? We were trying to give YOU space!"
"Oh, brother." They exchanged exasperated expressions over their comedy of errors. "Did I do anything to make you think that I needed time away?"
"Well, you've been escaping into your room a lot to "read" or whatever."
"That was so the two of you could be alone together without me as the third wheel!" Especially after she revealed that she'd been feeling left out, he had tried to correct for essentially co-opting her son. Now he realized it had been an OVERcorrection. "You're my best friend. If I'm getting sick of you, I'll just tell you. Can you just trust me on that?"
She smiled sheepishly. "Only if you'll trust me to do the same."
They embraced. "How have we known each other this long and suddenly become so awful at communication?" Barba mumbled next to her ear. Her arms tightened around him and she rested her chin heavily on his shoulder as she sighed.
Noah hadn't had any issues adjusting. But as Olivia watched him soak in Barba's attention, it had led to a lot of introspection on her part.
He didn't remember Ed being around, not that he was ever around in this kind of concentration. So as far as Noah knew this was his first time experiencing a two parent household, and there were times when Olivia would watch he and Barba together and beat herself up that she had deprived him of something he so obviously craved.
Even when Barba was only intermittently a part of his life, when he'd started to travel and been gone for long stretches, Noah had begun to act out. She'd mused then, aloud to Stone, that maybe Noah needed a male presence in his life. Stone had of course missed the context that it was something he had actually had and effectively lost.
"I'm worried," Olivia admitted one night when she emerged from her bedroom/office after an urgent Skype with Amanda to find Barba laying on the couch watching TV with Noah asleep and stretched out on top of him. After deciding they were not communicating well, they were each making more of an effort at transparency.
"Worried about what?"
"I'm worried about how Noah is going to adjust when things go back to normal."
He sat up; Noah stirred but didn't wake as his weight was shifted and his arms went around Barba's neck. "You planning to move out?" He got to his feet with some difficulty and Olivia followed him to her room.
"Are you kidding? Your place is WAY nicer than ours! We're not leaving until you kick us out," she teased briefly before turning serious again. "But you know that day will come eventually."
"Noah's not the only child in the world that will have to adjust, you know. Lots of kids out there have their parents home for the first time, and not all of them are working. I know it's not quite the same; I know we're not all in the same boat. Just still."
Olivia didn't respond as she helped Barba tuck Noah into bed. Eventually it was he that spoke to break the silence. "What do you want me to do? Should I dial things back? You know I'll follow your lead."
"No, no," she assured him, meaning it. "You are nailing this, really."
"'House husband of the year'," he jested dryly, but she was quick to agree. "I'll accept the sentiment, though I want to remind you that I literally have nothing else to do, so I feel like I should have points deducted to level the playing field. Plus I'm dealing with a kid who is not yet used to having me around so he's still trying to be on his best behaviour. That factor alone makes this all MUCH easier than for the poor parents out there who are trying to survive a pandemic with kids that don't give a shit about impressing them."
They returned to the living room, and he flopped back on the couch while she scooped up the remote and then sunk into the nearby chair. She was restlessly flipping through the channels, sound muted, when Barba examined her critically and asked, "Is there something more that's bothering you?"
There was, though it took her some time to bring it to light and put it into words. Finally: "I guess... I guess a part of me is just afraid that Noah will look back on this time as one of the best in his life."
He let that sink in. It didn't take him long to make the connections. "Olivia, the fact that Noah is enjoying having me around is in no way an indictment on the life you've built for the two of you. You know this."
She sighed. "I thought I did. I've always tended to give myself a pass by comparing his life now with what he WOULD have had, if we hadn't gotten him out of where we found him. Or if the judge hadn't suggested I foster him. I've never been able to let myself draw comparisons with the BETTER life he might have had if I'd said no and he'd found his way to a different family. With two parents who weren't working all the time."
Even in therapy she had never given voice to this, never allowed herself to go there, and the way that it felt like it was cracking her heart open to even say the words made her realize why.
Despite the fact that he argued for a living, Barba had been trained early on by his mother than when a woman was processing out loud most of the time she just needed someone to listen; eventually she would talk herself to a solution. This was a skill he wasn't half-bad at, especially in his closer relationships. But what Olivia was saying made him angry --- FOR her, not AT her --- and he very literally wasn't going to take it lying down. Moving upright, he went so far as to reach out and swivel her chair so she had to look at him.
Having spent so much focused time with Noah over the past while that he felt he was a sufficient authority on the kind of young man her son was becoming because of the life that she had given him. And so Barba felt no qualms about letting her know exactly how he felt about her line of self-questioning. He didn't give her the opportunity to interject, and when he was done it was obvious he wasn't going to accept an defense.
Olivia's eyes were bright with unshed tears, ones she would let fall later after he'd gone to bed. She had never been so grateful to be dressed down so decidedly about such deeply held beliefs.
Things got easier and felt more natural as time went on, as they grew used to being in such close quarters. They found themselves dropping their guards more than ever, and that occasionally led to unexpected happenings. Case in point:
In searching for dance tutorials on YouTube one evening, Noah had become fascinated by a short Latin ballroom clip. When Barba had revealed that he and Olivia were practically "experts" at this style (as much as one sweaty, handsy night in the Hamptons could make anyone an expert), Noah had demanded a demonstration. Barba immediately and enthusiastically agreed, and by the time he had found some appropriate music, Noah had convinced his mother as well.
Part way through the song he dipped her low, and she gasped, afraid of falling. When he swung her back up and she laughed with relief and grabbed the front of his shirt while she found her footing, it brought their faces very close together, and Barba very suddenly closed the distance. When he pressed his lips to hers, she didn't resist, but nor did she have time to respond before he pulled away with an apologetic look.
Noah either hadn't noticed or didn't care, because he was tugging at Barba's pant leg. "Dip ME, Uncle Rafa!" he squealed, and Barba released Olivia and scooped the boy into his arms to do just that.
Noah was still dancing around in the living room when Olivia excused herself to clean up the kitchen. Barba eventually followed her, and hopped up on the counter beside the sink.
"Hey, I'm sorry. About before."
"Rafa, it's fine," she assured him as she clicked the dishwasher closed. "You just surprised me."
"I didn't mean anything by it. I got caught up."
"Really, I get it." And then she moved between his knees and kissed HIM to prove it, brief and chaste but warm. "It's FINE," she emphasized.
"What happens in lockdown, stays in lockdown?" he joked dryly.
Her response, however, was completely serious. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"What do you mean?" His hands covered hers where they'd come to rest on his thighs.
"Don't get me wrong. I'd love to get some fresh air and have a staff meeting that doesn't make me feel like I'm watching Hollywood Squares. But some of this... isn't terrible."
"'Isn't terrible'. Remind me to add your stellar review to my rental ad package."
"You know what I mean. Noah isn't the only one I'm worried about adjusting when life goes back to some semblance of normal."
"Then I guess that makes three of us."
His sincere admission brought a mix of sadness and joy to her heart. And this time when their lips met ever so briefly, it was to seal the moment.
When she drew away she laid a hand on his cheek and smiled a little smile.
"What?" he asked.
"I was just thinking I don't remember ever kissing a man with a full beard like this before."
"And what's the verdict?"
"Honestly? Jury's still out."
He feigned offense before leaning over to blow a raspberry to the side of her neck.
"Stop! It tickles!" She moved out of his reach, giggling rather girlishly. "Go hit the showers, Gene Kelly. I'll go convince Fred Astaire in there that it's time to get ready for bed."
"I think I may take a bath instead. Pretty sure I'm going to be sore tomorrow after all that dipping."
"I'm going to assume that ISN'T a commentary on my weight..."
About an hour later Olivia was in Barba's room, knocking on the ensuite door. "Hey, Barba, I just heard from Amanda. We caught one and I need to run point. Okay for me to work in here so I don't keep Noah up?"
"Sure," he called. "Not a problem."
Olivia was propped up on multiple pillows against his headboard, her computer in her lap as she made notes while talking with Fin through her headset. She was so engrossed she almost didn't notice Barba slip into the room to find something to wear. But once she saw him, she had a hard time staying focused on her work.
It wasn't the fact that he was shirtless with a towel tied low around his waist. She'd been living there long enough now that she'd seen him like this more than once. What held her attention was the fact that his beard was gone.
THAT was going to be an adjustment.