Chapter 1: Warm
SETTING: Between 18x8 (Chasing Theo) and 18x9 (Decline and Fall)
As a man of action, Barba wasn't one to sulk. But he also wasn't above it when no amount of action on his part could change the outcome of a situation. Thus, having been told 30 minutes ago in a call from his mother that their Christmas Eve and morning plans were not to be realised, Barba was, indeed, sulking. And as with most things he set his mind to, he was doing so brilliantly.
So when he saw Olivia Benson's name on his call display, he answered in keeping with his current mood. "What's do you need, Lieutenant?"
"I'm not calling for a warrant, so don't worry, Counselor," she said lightly, not particularly put off by his characteristic crankiness. "I was just connecting with the team to make sure everyone was okay."
In spite of himself, Barba found his mood elevated the tiniest bit to be included in her definition of "team". "And?"
"So far, so good. If you're safe and secure, we're batting a thousand."
"All's dandy here," he told her with a sigh. "Sheltering in place as ordered, with a turkey in the oven and my intended house guest stuck across town."
"I'm sorry," Benson said genuinely, softening him all the more; she knew from a recent conversation how much he'd been looking forward to this, how much energy he'd put into the holiday preparations. "Is your mom okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine. Just... well, stuck." Barba had already explained that Lucia's church was on a rotation to sponsor and staff Christmas dinner at a local mission, and this was their year. It had been her intention to spend the day volunteering, then spend the night with her son, enjoying a Christmas Eve meal and then Christmas morning together before she headed back to serve lunch. And so she'd been peeling potatoes and precooking turkeys when the storm rolled in. While many volunteers had scuttled off when the winds had started to pick up, Lucia and a few other committed souls were determined that the several hundred people they were preparing to feed the next day needed to be the priority. "At least she's somewhere with beds and a generator and lots of food. She'll probably be better off than me if the power goes out." It finally occurred to him that he hadn't yet asked after her own well being. "What about you? Is Noah excited about a white Christmas?"
"He may actually be the reason for it; he's been wishing for snow for weeks ever since we started watching Christmas movies before bed."
"But...?" Despite the fondness with which she spoke of her son, Barba could hear something in her voice. "Liv, what's going on?"
"Well, you know it as well as I do considering the circumstances: The best laid plans, right? I'm afraid your mom isn't the only one who got stuck."
"Where are you? Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I was on call today, and had to go to the hospital to interview a rape victim. Things went sideways, and by the time I got free, the "shelter in place" order had come down and my vehicle was snowed in in the parking lot." She sighed heavily. "Thankfully Noah is with Lucy at her grandmothers' place, and I think the prospect of a sleepover will be plenty of Christmas excitement for him. That, and the fact that Lucy has already assured him that Santa will be delivering his gifts to our place and they'll be there when he goes home."
"Yeah. Thanks," she told him, understanding his unvoiced sentiment. "Anyway, I wasn't calling to be a downer. I really was just checking to make sure you were home and safe."
"I'm happy to commiserate, believe me. I appreciate the call." And wasn't ready for it to end. "So, what hospital are you stuck at, anyway?" When she told him, he did some quick math. "That's only, what? 10 or 11 blocks from here?"
"Yeah, I guess. Maybe a little further."
"Think you can make it on foot?"
Olivia paused. "Barba, it's a blizzard out there. The whole city's shut down."
"Yes, and you've survived considerably worse, in case you need to be reminded." He was warming to the idea now. "Maybe you could flash your badge and get yourself a passenger seat on an ambulance run."
"They've pulled all the ambulances, except for life-or-death emergencies. They can't exactly be expected to make a detour." She chuckled sadly. "Thanks for the offer, though. I'll be fine here."
"Don't give up so easily," he encouraged. "What if I came to you and walked you back?"
"So that BOTH of us could end up frozen in a snowbank? Not your best case, Counselor." He could hear her smile through the phone. "You just stay put and open up your good scotch to keep you warm, and don't worry about me."
"Liv, I've got a whole turkey dinner to share, and my place is already prepared for an overnight guest. I know it's no substitution for time with your son, but it's got to be better than a night in waiting room chairs with the unwashed masses."
Liv's resolve was weakening. "10 or 11 blocks, huh?"
"12, tops. Are you dressed for the weather?"
"More or less, though against all this I'm not sure how effective it'll be."
"I won't force the matter; I want you to be safe, obviously. But I also don't want you stuck there if there's a better alternative."
"Well...Let me ask around and see what things are looking like out there. I'll get back to you."
It turned out Olivia only had to walk three blocks, as she'd taken Barba's advice and had a chat with some of the EMT's on duty. They agreed that if they had a call-out closer than the hospital to her destination, she could ride along and take her chances from there. It was a 45 minute wait to such a call, and almost a half hour drive in the elements, then about 20 minutes on foot backtracking to get to his place.
But when she arrived, he was ready for her, greeting her at the door with a towel for her hair, helping her peel off her soaked outerwear, ushering her directly to his washroom where a hot bath was prepared - complete with a glass of wine on the ledge - and he'd laid out an assortment of dry clothes from which he hoped she'd find something that would fit.
Olivia would have been inclined to be effusive in her genuine appreciation if her chattering teeth and shivering body would have allowed for it. But Barba was intent on her getting warmed up anyway and was both not interested in and not requiring any thanks. He quickly pointed out amenities, including hair dryer and a toothbrush still in it's package, and told her to feel free to snoop for anything else she might need. Then he left her so he could finish dinner preparations.
When she finally joined him in the kitchen, warm and dry and looking relaxed in a pair of his flannel pajama pants and hooded sweater over an old but comfortable GAP tee-shirt, she started to express her gratitude and apologize for the intrusion, but he stopped her. "Don't mention it, really," he said firmly. "Besides, you might decide after tasting my cooking that it wasn't worth the effort after all."
"Based on the way this place smells right now, I'm guessing that won't be the case." She set her empty wine glass on the counter and nodded assent when he gestured to refill it. "So, how can I help? Put me to work."
There wasn't much left to do, so while he finished with the food she busied herself setting the table, taking the time to figure out where things were without asking for much direction. While they worked they chatted easily about the weather, about their current collaborations of open cases, about the new case that had brought her out that afternoon and she would eventually seek his help with. To Olivia it all felt very easy and relaxed, much more so than similar conversations that had happened in their respective offices or in public places.
His apparel may have had something to do with her perception, she recognized. She had rarely seen him in anything other than a tailored suit, and the few times she'd seen him dressed less formally when he'd been called in from a personal engagement he had seemed to her to be just as costumed, playing a role. Even when they would work late into the night and he'd remove his jacket, loosen his tie, roll up his sleeves, it seemed like another "look", still so put together and deliberate.
But what he was wearing now seemed very NON-deliberate, like it was thrown on without a lot of thought about putting forward a public face. Probably because his intended guest had been his mother. That's not to say he looked sloppy, not by any stretch. The dark jeans, the grey V-neck tee-shirt, the rather garish socks, they all fit him well, and Olivia noted objectively that he looked very attractive. The real difference wasn't even the obvious casualness; it was that he didn't wear these clothes like armor.
Olivia chose not to mention it. Instead, she simply appreciated that he apparently hadn't thought it necessary to change on her account. And maybe it was the wine, but she also in a moment of weakness appreciated the way his unexpectedly toned arms were accentuated by the sleeves of his rather tight shirt.
Barba could also recognize that the atmosphere between them was lighter than usual. And while he'd certainly had occasion to see her in clothes that were considerably more casual than her work attire due to the amount of times he'd shown up unannounced at her door when she was home with her son, something about her in HIS clothes, barefoot despite the sock options he'd provided, hair in a messy ponytail and face scrubbed free of makeup, was definitely contributing to their interactions. Not consciously, of course. But definitely.
What WAS conscious to him was that he was very happy she was there, and while he was saddened that his plans with his mother had fallen through, this was easily the best substitute he could have imagined.
Before they sat down she took a call from Lucy and assured her that she was safe and settled while being assured of the same for her son. Then she followed Barba's advice and set up her charger, in case they would later lose power. He had already charged all of his devices and gathered candles and flashlights, and informed her that he had enough storm supplies to get them through several days if needed.
"Are you always this prepared?" she had teased.
"Only when I'm expecting my mom to visit and want to demonstrate to her that she raised a responsible human being."
"Want to avoid her wrath for proving the opposite, you mean."
He smiled. "You're not wrong."
And then came dinner - a true Christmas dinner with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, freshly baked rolls, and a pie cooling on the counter for dessert. Barba had done well, and it was very different to hear Benson's praise then his mother's; probably equal in gratitude and encouragement, but Lucia would have done the motherly thing and provided tips for next time, would have insisted on discussing the origins of recipes and the history of past occasions those recipes had been used in their family. And he would have rolled his eyes at the stories he'd heard many times before.
But yet with Olivia, he found himself being the one offering those same stories, and delighting in HER delight at hearing about his family, about him in earlier days, happy memories. And his openness prompted her own: memories of past dinners, past Christmases, some good, some easier to bear in hindsight.
"Why haven't we done this before?" Barba found himself asking suddenly, his tongue loosened by the turkey and the scotch.
"Getting snowbound on Christmas eve?" she smiled. "I guess I hadn't realised it was on your fantasy list."
"Really, though: Has it occurred to you that we don't really know each other? Even after all these years?"
Liv started to clear the table, motioning that he should stay seated for the time being and let her. "I don't know, Barba. I'd say you know me pretty well. Probably better than most." She opened the dishwasher and started to rinse and load. "But you're right. We don't share a lot about where we came from, and when we do it's usually in bits and pieces."
"And often reluctant bits and pieces," he observed.
"I suppose," she conceded. "I guess I didn't think you were that interested in backstory if it wasn't going to help you win a case."
"Well, I AM interested, for future reference." His voice was serious, but he was smiling.
"I'll take that under advisement. For future reference." She smiled back, and the moment passed. "Okay, so what do you want to do with the rest of this turkey?"
Together they cleaned the kitchen and packed away the leftovers, their conversation now veering more toward the personal, by design, than before. Barba talked about his mother. Liv talked about Noah and, in response to Barba's curiosity, about Tucker, though mostly in the context of how Noah was adjusting to him being so recently out of the picture. And work talk centred more on their FEELINGS about work rather than just the facts.
When there was nothing let to do, Liv found herself at the window, peering out but seeing very little. "You should probably fill the tub," she advised. "I know the water will still work with the power goes out, but if the pipes freeze..."
"Good idea," he conceded. "I may take a quick shower while we still have hot water, if that's okay with you."
"Of course; you don't need to entertain me."
"Forgive me if I WANT to." They exchanged a smile. "Make yourself at home; I won't be long." But it was only a moment later that he was back in the room. "Want me to throw this stuff in the wash?" He was holding the clothes she'd discarded and hung on the shower rod to dry - her pants had been soaked from the mid-thigh below her coat to mid-calf above her boots, and snow had blown in the collar of her coat onto her shirt as well. "Or just toss it in the dryer?"
"Dryer is fine; with my luck it wouldn't make it through a wash cycle before the power finally did go out, and then I'd be wearing your pajamas home in the morning."
"I'd like to be a fly on the wall when you explained that to Lucy," he said with a sly grin. With her help he gathered her outerwear as well and sorted what could safely be dried, then finally shut himself into the bathroom and left her to her own devices.
After a quick goodnight call to Noah, who was getting ready for bed, Liv tried to banish her feeling of sadness and disappointment. Instead, she turned her focus to the unique opportunity she was faced with.
Barba had given her permission earlier to snoop in his bathroom, so she chose to operate under the assumption that snooping through the rest of his home would be permitted as well. It wouldn't hold up in court, but she wasn't going to let that stop her from taking advantage of unsupervised access to his personal space. Not that there was much to see, and she wasn't about to go rifling through his drawers, but as she moved from room to room and took it all in she found that she enjoyed the feeling of being a welcomed intruder, as he seemed the type not to allow such intrusion willingly.
She wasn't surprised that the place was immaculate and didn't for a moment attribute that to his mother's planned visit; he would be one to appreciate order in his private world as well as his professional one. Every room seemed expensively decorated, a little too highbrow for her taste, but utilitarian in its own way, she supposed, for someone who didn't have a small child running around.
She found herself wondering what it meant to him, to live in such conditions. As far as she knew he entertained here very little, so it seemed unlikely it was meant simply to impress. Perhaps it was a symbol for him of what he'd worked so hard to achieve - an escape from the projects, a rising above of what most of his contemporaries from his old neighbourhood remained mired in. Maybe. And maybe someday she would ask him. But not today.
Today she was going to go relax on his couch and admire the Christmas tree, which was his only decoration and which she had no doubt COULD be attributed to his mother. It was beautiful, and real, and ridiculously classy with its perfectly placed white lights and silver bobbles. Her own tree was artificial and filled with sentimental ornaments, many made by her son.
It wasn't long after that he stepped into the living room attacking his wet hair with a towel, now barefoot himself and having replaced his jeans with sweatpants that hung rather low on his hips. "Tub is filled," he reported, before he stopped and his face grew thoughtful.
"What?" she inquired, curious.
"This just feels very... domestic."
"Ya think?" She grinned at him, obviously at ease. "Does that bother you?"
"Nope, not a bit," he told her. "I was just wondering if we can claim holiday pay for a forced pajama party, since it's kind of work related."
"I don't know about that, but I could probably submit an invoice if you want to pretend you're a B and B."
"NYPD couldn't afford my rates," he said with a smirk. "I guess this one will have to be pro bono."
"Very generous of you, Counselor."
"Well, 'tis the season, Lieutenant."
"Speaking of which," she reached for the remote. "What's your viewing pleasure? We can't wait out a snowstorm on Christmas Eve without watching a Christmas movie. We aren't savages." Turning on the TV, she selected the Netflix app and waited for it to load.
Tossing his towel over the back of a kitchen chair, he joined her on the couch. "That's fine, but I hope you appreciate me giving you this window into my soul. And I trust you won't use it against me in the future."
She raised an eyebrow. "Your movie choice?"
"No, my Netflix queue." He looked genuinely embarrassed. "I like to have the TV on as background noise while I work at night. So despite what it may look like I have never REALLY watched a full episode of Downton Abbey."
And then, Olivia Benson giggled. Properly, girlishly giggled. And Barba considered that a fair trade for his embarrassment.
"Now I know what I'll be looking through after you go to bed," she teased.
"Sorry, Liv - no TV in the bedroom."
She understood his implication, but was having none of it. "Barba, I'm not going to make you give up your bed for me. The couch is fine."
"The couch IS fine, which is why I'm not going to have trouble sleeping on it. God knows I've fallen asleep here often enough." He saw her about to protest and raised a hand to stop her. "The bed was already made up for my mom to use tonight. It's all yours. No arguments."
"But nothing. Just say 'thank you' and then don't laugh at me when I suggest we watch "Elf"."
She did say 'thank you', and managed not to laugh though she wasn't able to completely hide her amused smile. ""Elf" it is."
Olivia realised as they watched that she'd never felt him be that PRESENT with her for such a long period of time. She hadn't seen his phone in his hand since she arrived, which was practically unheard of outside of the courtroom. He wasn't distracted, wasn't acting as though his mind was running ahead to where he had to be and what he had to accomplish next. He was THERE with her, and it felt like a gift.
Miraculously, while there had been a few blips throughout the evening it wasn't until nearly the end of the movie that the power started to flicker in earnest. So when the end credits started to roll Barba retrieved the flashlights and put them on the coffee table in front of them while Olivia switched over to TV and found a segment on local weather conditions. Barba busied himself elsewhere, and it wasn't until the lights finally went off for good that Liv questioned what he'd been up to.
"In here," she heard from behind her, and turned to see that he'd set the table with multiple candles as well as two battery powered lanterns that he'd hung from the light fixture above. "Can I interest you in a game to pass the time before we slowly freeze to death? I'm afraid I don't have a lot of selection, but my mom and I often play when she comes to visit so I have collected a few."
Liv was surprised, not just by what he was suggesting but the fact that he seemed intent on keeping them active where she'd imagined his preference was to just sit back with a scotch and power down. "Mostly games that put you at an advantage, I see," she commented as she approached, seeing Scrabble and Boggle in the small pile.
"Not against my mother, I'm afraid. Where do you think I get it from?"
He was smiling fondly, and Liv was reminded that he was trying to banish disappointment of his own. She made it her mission to help them BOTH forget for a little while what they were missing.
"Well, I'm not as gifted with words as you," she said, putting the word games aside, "but I've won my share of Rummy-O in my time."
He cleared the rest of the games away and helped her begin setting it up. "I'd say we're pretty evenly matched. I seem to recall you winning at least a few arguments over the years." There was that fond smile again, and this time over her, which made her smile in return. "So, you still stuffed from dinner, or shall I bring on the snacks?"
It was nearly 11 when they finally gave up, their eyes tiring from playing in the low light, the drop in air temperature moving more prominently into focus.
"You can have the bathroom first, Liv. I'll clean up."
When she had completed her nighttime routine the best she could with what she carried in her purse and what he had available, she followed the sound of his humming to the bedroom.
He'd moved the lanterns so that one shone from each of his bedside tables, leaving extra batteries in easy reach. He'd added a warm looking quilt over the comforter and had even folded back the covers.
"Turn down service," she jested. "I'm impressed."
"Sorry there's no mint on your pillow," he joked back. "Need anything else before I leave you alone?"
"Are you sure I can't convince you to let me take the couch?"
"Asked and answered, Lieutenant," he told her firmly but with affection. "Good night."
Olivia fell asleep fairly quickly, but was awakened several hours later by a notification from a new app on her phone that she hadn't gotten around to muting. A pro at dropping back off after sleep interruptions, especially since Noah came along, normally it wouldn't have been an issue. But tonight it was cold, jarringly and distractingly cold. And the street sounds she was used to - traffic and sirens and voices even late into the night - had been replaced by a howling wind that just wouldn't fade into the background.
She wasn't sure how long she'd just been laying there when she heard a shuffling in the hallway.
"Liv... You awake?"
Barba switched on his flashlight as he stepped into the doorway, wrapped up in and dragging at least two quilts, the hood from a sweater he'd put on as the temperature dropped covering his head and ears. "I'm freezing," he declared unnecessarily; she couldn't see him shivering in the low light, but she thought she could hear it in his voice. "I suppose it would be really inappropriate for me to suggest we consolidate our blanket supply."
"Probably," she conceded even as she moved over in invitation. "I won't tell if you won't." He mumbled something in Spanish she didn't quite catch and unwrapped himself quickly, threw the blankets over the bed, and climbed in beside her.
"You should have come in earlier," Olivia chided, though sympathetic.
"I had to work up my nerve," he said through chattering teeth. He switched off the flashlight and set it on the bedside table, glad that even with it on she wouldn't have seen the colour he felt rise to his cheeks at his uncensored admission.
"Funny, I imagined I would seem LESS intimidating in my jammies," she teased, rolling on her side to face him.
"MY jammies, technically," he pointed out.
Liv found the sound of Barba using the word "jammies" to be quite funny, and chuckled aloud. "Yes, that's probably the issue."
As he expected, it wasn't the extra blankets but the shared body heat that made an almost immediate difference, despite the fair amount of space he'd left between them. Enough to stop him from shivering, at least. He knew that closing the gap even a few more inches would probably improve conditions exponentially, but he had come as far as he felt he could without being presumptuous.
But then it became clear that Olivia had less misgivings about potential impropriety, her foot nudging against his ankle and her icy toes pushing up his pant leg to find skin.
"Jesus, Liv!" he hissed. "Why aren't you wearing socks?"
"I hate sleeping in socks," she explained, then added sheepishly. "Plus, by the time it got really cold, I wasn't about to get out from under the covers to go put some on."
"I'll go get you -" he started to offer.
"No, this is good. This is better." Her other foot was now seeking heat against him. "If that's okay," she added as an afterthought.
He sighed as though it was a sacrifice. "If you're going to use me for my body heat, you might as well do it properly." He wasn't sure where that bravery had come from, but it was all the invitation she needed. The next thing he knew her body was half draped over his, her cold nose warming against his cheek.
"I hope you're not looking for pillow-talk, Barba," Olivia said through a yawn. His incredulous huff in response made her suspect he'd gotten even less sleep than she had so far that night.
"Enjoy it while it lasts," he mumbled, "because this may be one of the only times I'm happy to keep my mouth shut."
They shared a chuckle, and as a delicious warmth overtook them, sleep did as well.
Olivia woke up to the smell of coffee, and after taking a moment to rejoice that obviously power had been restored, she rolled over to reach for her phone and check the time. Assuming that he was already up, she was surprised to find that Barba was still in the bed beside her, laying on his stomach, his face turned from her. He'd removed his sweat shirt and pushed some of the blankets away, so apparently he'd been awake at some point since the heat had come back on. The thought that he'd chosen to stay rather than escape back to the couch pleased her for a reason her tired brain wasn't going to devote resources to. Right now it had to solve the mystery of the coffee smell, though the sound of humming that now accompanied it did most of the work for her.
Careful not to disturb him, she quietly left the room, stopping first at the bathroom to relieve herself and brush her teeth before heading to the kitchen to properly investigate.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Benson," Barba's mother offered brightly; it was obvious that she'd been prepared by her son for Olivia's presence. She handed the younger woman a mug of coffee and gestured toward where she'd put out the cream and sugar. "I see you both weathered the storm."
"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Barba. I'm glad you made it. Have the roads cleared up?"
"Not exactly, but there are a few taxi drivers taking their lives into their own hands for the holiday and hazard tips. Rafael still in bed?"
"Yes, but I'm sure he'll be up soon. We didn't get a lot of sleep last night."
Lucia's eyes widened in delight. "Is that so?"
Liv couldn't help but laugh, and was glad she was too old and too sure of herself to be embarrassed by her poorly chosen words. "Nothing so scandalous, I promise you. Your son eventually abandoned the couch and was kind enough to share his body heat so we could actually get some rest."
"How gentlemanly," Lucia teased.
"You raised me well," Barba interjected as he entered, looking rough - hair askew, pant legs uneven, stubble darkening his face. Hearing their voices, he'd stumbled past the bathroom in their direction instead to make sure Olivia didn't need rescuing. Having overheard their most recent comments, he felt confident she could stand up to his mother on her own. "Merry Christmas, Mami."
Lucia was of course unphazed by his appearance, and drew him into an embrace while speaking to him lovingly in lyrical Spanish. Olivia, on the other hand, was enjoying seeing Barba in his "natural state". Or, more accurately, enjoying that he was letting her.
"Coffee, Barba?" she offered when Lucia released him.
"Mmm, in a minute. I need to go pull myself together. I'll be quick."
By the time he returned, still in his pajamas and still unshaven but showered, smelling of mint toothpaste and looking considerably more alert, Olivia had made some determinations about Lucia Barba. Namely, that she was force to be reckoned with, but that she also had a heart of gold. So while Olivia suspected that she probably tended to seem intimidating to those that didn't know her well, her determination to help those around her and see the best in others made her a force of GOOD.
The women had worked together on a simple breakfast, and Barba was wearing an amused expression as they waited on him in tandem and he listened to them chatter away, his mother giving Olivia the third degree to learn more about her.
(Later, Liv would tease that she now knew he hadn't been kidding about where he got it from.)
When Lucia addressed her son, it was often in a mix of English and Spanish, and after it occurred to her that he was answering her only in English, Lucia had a thought.
"Sorry, Olivia," - Olivia now, instead of Lieutenant, Barba noticed - "You do speak Spanish, yes? I didn't mean to be rude."
"Well, according to your son, I don't. What did you call my accent, Barba? Was it "irksome"?"
"Rafael!" his mother scolded.
"Really, Liv? Getting me in trouble with my mother on Christmas morning? After I took you in during a snowstorm?" He smirked as he took a bite of his toast. "Uncalled for."
"In his defense, it really is pretty horrible. However, I can understand Spanish much better than your son thinks I speak it, so please feel free."
"I'm sure you speak it just fine." But Lucia continued on in English anyway.
Barba was awake enough now to engage, and drew from his mother a second telling - she'd already brought Olivia up to speed - of her night and her plans for the day.
"We're not supposed to get any more snow; it's all just the wind blowing things around now that will cause trouble. Anyway, I told the cab driver there would be an extra $50 in it for him if he was back here at 10 a.m. to return me to the Mission, so we'll see if that was enough incentive."
"You're feeling generous," Barba commented with a knowing grin.
"No, YOU'RE feeling generous, Rafi," Lucia said with a matching expression. "You can make it part of my Christmas present. Speaking of which, I put YOUR gift under the tree for you. Are you ready to open it?"
Olivia excused herself to call Lucy and Noah, to retrieve her clothes from the dryer, to shower, and to figure out her plan for the day, though it also served the secondary purpose of giving them time alone. Barba, knowing full well her dual motivation, had tried to convince her to stay, convince her she was welcome. But she knew he was sincere and wasn't feeling at all sorry for herself, instead just happy at the thought of him getting his Christmas morning with his mother after all.
It was just after 9:30 when Barba called to her from outside his bedroom. "You decent?"
"Decent enough," she called back, and he entered, closing the door behind him when he saw that 'decent enough' meant just that - she was rooting through his dresser in the rather revealing tank top she'd worn the day before under her dress shirt. "Hope you don't mind. I was looking for some thicker socks. My boots are waterproof and they have good tread but I learned yesterday that they aren't very warm."
"No worries. You're welcome to borrow anything you like."
"Ooh, in that case... " She returned to a drawer she'd opened earlier during her search. "I choose this, if it will fit."
He smiled when he saw her selection: the dark grey hooded sweatshirt with "Wicked" scrawled across the chest that his mother had given him on his birthday the year they had seen the show on Broadway together. One of his favourites, for sentimental reasons and because of how soft and stretched and comfortable it had become over time. "It should. It's a little big on me."
"What are you saying?" she teased as she slipped it on.
He paused. "Would it be better to lie and say I WAS referring to your weight? Or just tell the truth and say that I was thinking about your breasts?"
His delivery had been deadpan, but at her surprised, full laugh, a smile lit up his face.
If his casual speech hadn't been an indication of how comfortable he was feeling with her that morning, the fact that pulled off the shirt he had slept in before he went searching for something to replace it certainly was.
"You're in good shape," Olivia found herself voicing aloud.
"You sound surprised," Barba noted, amused. "Were you expecting wiry or doughy?"
"I never really gave it much thought," she answered honestly. "Those suits of yours - "
"-Can hide a multitude of sins. Yes, I know."
"And apparently they can also hide the opposite." Then she felt bad when he seemed to speed up the selection and pull a shirt on rather quickly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you self conscious."
"No, quite the contrary. I'm not above enjoying having my ego stroked by a beautiful woman." He grabbed a pair of jeans and boxers. "That said, I'm sure you're not here for the show, so I'll finish getting ready in the bathroom."
He didn't close the adjoining door so they could continue to speak. "I figured we can share my mom's cab as far as the hospital and then I can help you get your car dug out. And before you start in on "It's sweet of you to offer, BUT -", I need to remind you that even if I wouldn't have insisted on my own, my mother isn't going to let me away with doing anything less."
And so Olivia had no choice but to resign herself to the plan, and soon found herself bundled in the back of the cab moving at a snail's pace through the blowing snow, along with the determined New Yorkers who weren't going to let said snow get in the way of their Christmas morning plans, danger be damned, and the crews of people operating the snow plows and machinery that made their trek possible.
Taking their leave of Lucia, they were happy to find that the hospital lot where she'd left the SUV was more or less passable, but it still took about 20 minutes to clear the vehicle and make a path through the bank created by the plow. Thankfully, that gave the engine plenty of chance to warm up and by the time Olivia and Barba were sliding into their seats and shedding their soaked hats and scarves, there was steady heat blowing from the vents.
The time spent clearing had also been time spent negotiating, as Barba convinced her that it would be much easier for him to come along rather than just being dropped back at his home. While Olivia resisted, she knew his arguments were sound: The likelihood of finding street parking close to either Lucy's grandmother's or her own place was slim during the clean up, and she didn't want to drag her asthmatic son around through these cold and windy conditions. It made much more sense for him to drive them for the first leg and double park or circle until she came down with Noah. Then he could drop them both at Olivia's and take the SUV back to the NYPD motor pool parking lot, which was underground and so would be clear, and then call an Uber from there.
Olivia couldn't help but feel a little relief when it was settled and it was Barba climbing into the driver seat; despite her NYPD driver training, she'd never been particularly confident in the snow, and she was always hyper-aware when travelling with her son, making it tough to relax in the best of conditions.
If Barba was nervous, he didn't show it beyond sitting up a little straighter and gripping the wheel firmly at 10 and 2. They tuned into an all-news station, which despite the holiday was broadcasting, fuelled with storm fodder.
Lucy had Noah all ready to go, and once they arrived it only took Olivia about 5 minutes to retrieve him. The knowledge that Santa's gifts were sitting under his tree waiting for him was enough to get the normally slow-as-molasses boy moving faster than she'd ever seen him before.
"Hi, Mr. Barba," Noah greeted brightly as he climbed inside the vehicle to wait for Liv to install the car seat and get him strapped in.
"Hola, amigo," Barba answered with a smile. "Did you have fun with Lucy?"
It took very little prompting for Noah to fill the rest of the ride home with excited chatter.
Barba had grown more comfortable with Noah the older and more verbal he became. There wasn't a particularly special connection between them, but Barba had gone out of his way to be kind and attentive to the boy whenever they were together, recognising that it made Liv happy for him to be a part of her son's greater support structure through what he was able to offer. And having Olivia happy with him about that gave him a greater margin to work with when he inevitably pissed her off for other reasons.
The fact that he also just liked it when Olivia was happy was, he told himself at least, beside the point.
Barba had been right about the parking situation on Benson's street, but had to double park anyway to help them navigate a snow drift that had formed in front of her building's door. The sound and then honk of a plow with an impatient driver cut short their goodbyes.
Much later, when Barba was back at home and after eating leftovers for supper with his mother was deep into a game of Scrabble, he heard the sound of his phone from where he'd left it on the coffee table. A text. Two. Four. Then another.
"You can check it, Raf; I don't mind," Lucia told him when she saw he was distracted. "I don't want you blaming your curiosity for my inevitable victory. I'll make us some coffee. Take your time."
The texts were all pictures, all from Olivia. Pictures of Noah and his gifts, Noah playing out in the snow, a selfie of she and Noah together in front of the tree.
This was different; she'd never thought to send him anything like that before.
Rather than hitting reply, he called her instead. "Looks like Christmas was a rousing success for my favourite Bensons," he said by way of greeting.
"I would say. He even fell asleep early after all the excitement."
"I'm glad to hear it," he told her sincerely. "I'm sure he's exhausted. I'm guessing my mom won't last that much longer herself."
"I heard that, Raf! Wishful thinking!" Lucia called from the kitchen, causing Olivia to laugh. Barba explained that she had a rather commanding lead in the game they were playing.
"I'm happy she made it back safely," Olivia said. "I didn't mean to interrupt; I just thought you might like to see the pictures." She paused. "I'm not sure why, exactly, now that I think about it."
"Well, for whatever reason, you were right. So I'm glad you did."
They shared a smile through the phone.
Later, despite his assurances, Olivia was still feeling rather sheepish about it. But that sheepishness was instantly dispelled when Barba texted her a picture of his own, a selfie of he and his mother in front of the game they'd completed, Lucia playfully sullen and Barba looking victorious.
"It's a Christmas miracle," Olivia texted back.
"Truer words..." was his reply. "My mom just went to bed."
"Me, too," she told him, even as she switched off her light and settled under the covers. "Sorry you're stuck on the couch again. But I suppose that's a great excuse to watch a few episodes of Downton."
There was a long pause before his next message arrived. "I got caught up last week... So how about we never speak of this again?"
"If you think that's going to happen, maybe you really DON'T know me very well. :D"
"Unfortunately, I think we've remedied that problem fairly effectively, don't you?"
It was her turn to pause. "Yes, I think you're right. And I'm glad."
"Me too." And then a second message, before she could reply: "Keep warm tonight, Lieutenant."
Olivia smiled in the dark. "Merry Christmas, Barba."
Chapter 2: Fight
SETTING: After 18x9 ("Decline and Fall")
Rafael Barba was having a good day. He'd spent most of it in court, in his element, doing what he loved. And doing it pretty damn well. Well enough that when just after 5:30 the judge had called for a recess until the next day, opposing counsel Rita Calhoun had asked him to share some takeout in his office, a working dinner that had ended with plea deal being hammered out.
He was more than ready with his closing just in case things fell through; this case had been on and off his desk for over a year through counsel changes and continuances. Either way, after tomorrow he was confident he'd be able to clear it from his workload and his mind, and that a very bad man would be going to jail for a very long time.
So Barba decided he was going to give himself the night off. He would go home and put his feet up with a good scotch and a good book. Just what the doctor ordered, considering the other cases he had on the go.
He was smiling and even whistling as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned on the ringer that had been silenced before court had resumed early that afternoon. But when he noticed there were 16 missed calls, he knew he wouldn't be able to fully relax until he'd cleared them. So he put in his Uber request, then headed to the elevator as he started listening from the beginning.
He wasn't whistling or smiling when he got in the back of the car and arranged a change of destination; he wouldn't be going home any time soon. He had only made it through a few of the messages when a live call from the Mayor interrupted him, and he spent the next 20 minutes in traffic wishing he'd forgotten and just kept his phone off. Or thrown it off a bridge.
He'd felt more than heard the telltale buzz indicating that another call was coming in, but he'd ignored it. Another message to prolong his ruined evening, one that would just have to wait its turn.
He was able to sign off with the Mayor just after 8 p.m. when he said he was headed into a meeting with the head of the SVU and would report back soon. Shoving the phone into his pocket, he paused only long enough make an attempt to rein in his anger - for Noah's sake and no one else's - before he knocked on Olivia's door.
"Barba!" she greeted brightly. "That was quick."
He didn't know what she was referring to, and he was so livid he didn't stop to ask. "Noah asleep?" he inquired brusquely, brushing past her.
"Yes. He just dozed off."
"Uh, currently. He'll sleep through pretty much anything these days." She sat at the table where she was half way through a salad. "Why?"
"Because there will probably be yelling." Already his jaw was set and it was taking every ounce of self-control to keep from starting his barrage right then and there.
Liv was confused. "Didn't you get my message? Isn't that why you're here?"
"I'm here because I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with the Mayor, trying to convince him that your squad hadn't gone rogue and jeopardised MONTHS invested by multiple departments. But at least I didn't have to pull all that convincing COMPLETELY out of my ass, since I'd just listened to half a dozen voicemails from the Commissioner, other units, and 1PP about what you'd been up to!"
"Oh." Busted. "If you were just talking to Mayor, he probably hasn't heard the news yet."
"We got him," she told him with a smile. "On video, on audio, in front of impartial witnesses. In the unlikely event he doesn't try to take a plea, there's no way a jury's not going to throw the book at him. And with what we got, he's taking his whole crew down with him. It's done."
Barba's expression didn't change during the long pause that followed. "Walk me through it," he said finally, hanging his coat over the back of a kitchen chair and sitting down heavily.
She did. And while she stressed the outcome, she couldn't avoid answering his terse questions along the way about the process used to get there. Unfortunately for her, the former didn't seem to be making a dent in his anger over the latter.
"Are you - Are you out of your mind?! That wasn't a calculated risk! It was a Hail Mary and it just as easily could have gone the other way! Months of work down the drain, and he would have walked!"
"You put all of our jobs at risk! Of all of the - "
"I KNOW, Barba. I get it." Olivia didn't bother to defend herself, or even act defensive. And that only seemed to make him angrier.
"I don't think you do! Olivia, you NEED to loop me in on these things!"
"You were in court all day, and we had a window. I made a judgement call."
"And I used to think you had good judgement... You can't pull a stunt like that without talking to me, even if you have to pull me out of court to do it!"
"You would have said 'no'!"
"You're damn right I would have said 'no'!" And then he was off again, pacing, raving about risk, about irresponsibility, about politics and expectations and anything else he could think of.
And Olivia just sat there and took her lumps, waiting for him to tire himself out. The fact that she did so while eating her salad, which made her appear even more unconcerned than she was, didn't help the situation. But she had only just arrived home and was hungry after a long day. And despite feeling bad that it had caused him grief, she was happy over their good fortune. She was also utterly unafraid that her judgement call (or perceived lack of judgement) would mess up their friendship or working relationship, since both had survived much worse.
"Well? Don't you have anything to say?" he finally asked her, slightly out of breath.
"Maybe you should call the Mayor back and everyone else and let them all know the good news?" Liv mugged an exaggerated hopeful smile. "And I'll ignore MY missed calls until you've got it all smoothed out?"
He closed his eyes and sighed through gritted teeth. "You infuriate me."
"I know." But now her smile was big and genuine and he was already starting to forgive her. "If you'd like, we can split the calls up and each take half."
"No, you've done enough. Let me deal with it." He shrugged on his coat and opened his Uber app to request a ride. "As long as you're willing to let everyone else take the credit, I'm sure I can convince them to stand down on your...questionable methods."
"I don't care about credit. We got him, and that's all that matters."
"All that matters to YOU, maybe," he huffed as he walked toward the door and she followed.
"And all that matters to YOU, too." She reached out to adjust the collar of his coat. "Once you've gotten all the politics out of the way, you're going to be just as happy as I am."
She was right, of course. But he wasn't about to admit it, and deflected instead when he finally noticed what she was wearing - the hooded sweatshirt she'd borrowed on Christmas Day.
"I'm not going to get that sweater back any time soon, am I?"
"Nope," she told him, deliberately popping the "p". "That a problem?"
That smile again. For a moment it almost made him forget how angry he was. And when he could tell she'd picked up on that lapse by the way her smile transformed into a smirk, he just shook his head. "I hate you."
"No you don't. See you in the morning, Counselor."
He grumbled all the way to the elevator as he dialled the Mayor.
Chapter 3: Suspension
Setting: Takes place after "Know It All" (18x15). Contains spoilers from that episode.
Barba was suspended on a Thursday, and spent Thursday night and Friday clearing his desk and passing things that couldn't wait for his return over to other ADAs. One of those ADAs was particularly sympathetic to Barba's situation and had offered him the use of his timeshare in the Hamptons. So Friday just after 5 he and his mother, whom he'd convinced to take a vacation day on Monday, were headed out of the city for a long weekend.
His choice to invite his mother was borne out of his knowledge that if he went alone he would only mope and drink too much. He also owed her some focused time and a proper explanation of what was going on.
The fact that she played a good "supportive mother" when she wasn't playing "nagging mother" or "controlling mother" may have been an expected and welcome byproduct of the invitation. By the time she left him on Monday afternoon to drive herself home, he was feeling much better and more prepared to take on the next few days alone to eat at expensive restaurants, read several books, and just generally decompress.
He hadn't seen Olivia since the night that his punishment had been handed down, when she'd joined him in his office briefly with the intention to commiserate but in the end to celebrate. A two week suspension was a slap on the wrist in the grand scheme, and considering both had feared that their working relationship was over, the mood was practically festive as her relief and happiness was infectious.
The suspension over the alternative was a relief to him, too, of course. It was the rest that angered him. He'd spent an awkward hour with Ashtonja and her grandmother, apologising profusely for the questioning and harassment the girl had endured, not apologising again for the death he had brought about those years ago because he knew they had heard it all before and didn't want those feelings brought up again anymore than they already had been by this situation, than they were each month when his money arrived in their account.
He also hated that his private business was being broadcast not quite as publicly as might have been the case, but certainly publicly enough, as his suspension was not going to be kept a secret and the rumours circulating about the reason were either too close to the truth or so far from it that either way his judgement and his character could be called into question going forward, while not in the court of law certainly in the court of semi-public opinion.
And there was also the matter of Benson herself, of how confused and disappointed she had been when he'd had to withhold the truth, when she had accused him of not trusting her.
He could still remember the look on her face when he'd said it wasn't personal and she'd replied "It is now!" He knew what she'd meant. Their Christmas Eve adventure and all that had happened in the three months since had repaired any damage left over to their dynamic that had been caused by his reaction to her dating Tucker and hiding it during his investigation. They now enjoyed an even stronger professional commitment to one another, a stronger and more effective working relationship, what they'd come to view as a partnership.
But her declaration hadn't been about that. It had been about the fact that whether something was related to work or not related to work, everything was effectively personal between them now. They'd fallen into that realisation less than two weeks before when she'd accepted his invitation for a drink apparently only so she could continue the argument that they'd been having on and off the whole day.
"I am absolutely prepared to have this out with you," Barba had eventually told her. "But this is a work fight, not a personal fight. Can we put a pin in it and just enjoy our evening?"
To his surprise this had actually led to Olivia apologising, and to a frank discussion about boundaries and how the nature of their jobs and schedules made it really hard to delineate between "work friends" and "life friends". They called attention to the habit they'd been developing of simply slipping in and out of each other's days without much acknowledgement of meetings and partings, and with no thought to what hat was being worn at any given time.
It was easy and comfortable but it effectively made everything personal. Which was fine when they were at their best, because their care and respect for each other as people and friends worked to their advantage in their professional dealings. But they were human, and so they weren't always at their best.
In any case, when he'd finally revealed the whole sordid tale, Olivia seemed to have understood and forgiven him for any offence against her. But it still made him angry that the situation had ever called his trust in her into question.
By the time he returned to Manhattan a week later, he was feeling much better overall. While effectively doing nothing for any significant period of time required a great deal of discipline for him, he could recognise that giving his mind and body an occasional rest made him better prepared for the work ahead of him.
Which was good, because considering the nature of the 'work' that Olivia put on his plate on his first day back in the city, he needed to be prepared.
"Hey. Where are you?" There was no ceremony in Olivia's greeting, as usual. While they hadn't seen each other in a week, they'd stayed connected throughout by text and the occasional phone call.
"Just dropping by my office for a few things."
"'Suspended' means you DON'T work, you get that, right?"
"Actually, in the strictest sense according to the DA, 'suspended' just means I don't get paid for any work I do," he told her. "But I'm not really working. I just had to sign some documents and run through something with Carmen. And I'm just walking out of the building now."
"How about you keep walking and head over to my office?"
"Sure," he quickly agreed. "Have you eaten? I could pick us up some lunch."
"Actually, I want you to pick up Noah from preschool."
Barba checked his watch. "It's barely 1. Is he sick?"
"No, it's nothing like that. There's a water issue at the building they are in and so they are asking parents to come early. But I just can't get away and Lucy isn't available until 3:30 on Fridays."
"Not a problem; I'm happy to do it." The words were automatic, but Barba gave himself a moment to take stock after he'd said them, and realised they were mostly true. "I'll be to you in a few minutes."
Walking through the squad room he couldn't avoid the attention of the team members gathered there.
"How is suspension treating you, Counselor?" Carisi asked him. "Bored yet?"
Barba just gave Carisi a more or less tolerant smile.
"I wouldn't mind a 2 week vacation, paid or not," Fin chimed in.
"You on vacation right now, Fin?" Liv shot from her doorway. "Because I thought you were supposed to be half way across town."
"Guilty as charged. On my way," he assured her even as she was ushering Barba into her office.
"So what do you think is going on there?" Amanda asked.
Carisi was confused. "The Lieutenant and Barba, you mean?"
"Yeah. They've been awfully chummy lately."
Sonny shrugged. "I don't know. I don't really get that vibe off of them."
"Me, neither," Fin added. Normally he wasn't one to get in on the office gossip, but in this case he had some context to add. "Kind of reminds me of how she was with her old partner, Stabler. They were together for 12 years, and they were tight."
"How tight?" Amanda asked meaningfully.
"Nothing like that. He was married with five kids, and as far as I know they never crossed any lines."
"But when you work that closely with someone for so long, you get so like you're married, just without the sex," Carisi offered.
"That's what I'm sayin'," Fin agreed. "Anyway, whatever they've got going on, I think it's good for her, and it's working for us, so I'll take it."
"Fin!" Liv chided as she reentered the squad room. "How are you still here? Get going!"
"Yes, ma'am." And he walked with Barba, who had received his instructions and Liv's spare set of keys, to the elevator. "You okay, Counselor?"
"What? Oh, yeah, fine."
"You sure? You're looking a little distracted. Everything alright?"
"Yeah. I'm just..." There was no reason NOT to tell him. "Liv needs me to pick Noah up from preschool. And kids aren't exactly my area."
Fin almost laughed at the idea of cold-as-ice, tough-as-nails ADA Barba being thrown off his game by someone barely out of diapers. But he could remember his early days as a father and so managed some sympathy. "Noah's one of the good ones. Liv's done a great job with him. You'll be fine."
"From your lips to God's ears." Barba didn't sound convinced.
The detective gripped his shoulder. "Noah is the most important person in her life, so she wouldn't have asked you if she didn't trust you. That should say something right there. Good luck, Counselor."
Fin had meant well, but his parting words had actually made things worse. By the time his Uber pulled up in front of Noah's school, Barba had resigned to consoling himself with the fact that if he could just keep Noah alive for the next two hours, that would hopefully be enough to prove Olivia's trust in him was warranted.
"Hi. I'm Rafael Barba; I'm here to pick up Noah Benson. His mother should have called." He was ready with his ID as Liv had instructed.
One of the administrators manning the door checked her list, and seeing his name gave him a smile and directed him to the corner of the gym where Noah's group was sitting in a circle with two teachers playing a game while they waited.
Barba approached without his usual confidence, wondering how Noah would react to seeing him and whether he would go with him willingly or ask for his mother or Lucy. Would he cry? Have a tantrum? Would he -?
"Mr. Barba!" Noah noticed him and his face lit up in a big grin. Apparently Barba hadn't needed to be all that worried.
"Hi, Noah," he greeted with a smile. "Your mom asked me to come and get you until Lucy's done at HER school. That okay with you?"
He nodded, but looked thoughtful as one of the teachers helped him zip up his coat and slip into his hat and mittens. "Can we go to the park?"
"Um... I guess so. Do you know where it is?"
The park would fill some time. And it was a PARK, designed for kids, so probably survivable. It seemed like a good option. "Okay, then. I guess you can lead the way."
Suddenly Barba found himself with a little wool-covered hand tucked into his. Barba gave a bit of a panicked glance at the teacher, who just smiled encouragingly as she wished Noah a fun afternoon.
The park wasn't a complete disaster. There were a few other kids there from Noah's preschool with their parents or babysitters. Apparently it was a popular spot. The other adults seemed content to talk amongst themselves and leave the kids to their own devices, but Barba was too afraid of Noah hurting himself or running off to begrudge the boy's insistence that he participate in all activities. He pushed him on the swings, provided counterweight for the teeter totter, stood close as he lined up for the slide again and again. A text from Liv reminded him that he'd failed to check in, so he snapped a picture of Noah at the top of the slide and sent it to her just in time for things to fall apart.
Noah lost his footing before he could sit and position himself properly, and it surprised him enough that when he made it to the bottom he fell forward, catching himself with his outstretched hands.
No harm done. Not even a scrape since he was so bundled against the cold air. In fact, it was only Barba's immediate show of concern that made it occur to Noah to react at all, and his lower lip started to tremble.
Barba scooped him up to get him out of the way and deposited him on a nearby bench, quizzing the boy on his potential injuries, of which of course there were none. A runny nose and silent tears had Barba searching through Noah's backpack for tissues, which he thankfully located, cleaning him up the best he could.
"Want to go home, buddy?"
With a hiccough Noah wrapped his arms around the kneeling Barba's neck, obviously expecting to be carried. Barba was happy to oblige, relieved that Noah was neither injured nor did he apparently consider the man an unsuitable substitute for Liv or Lucy in his desire to be comforted.
By the time they made it to the Benson apartment, Noah seemed to have forgotten the incident altogether. He "helped" Barba unlock both sets of doors, and then shedding his outerwear and dropping his book bag took off towards his room.
After picking up the discarded items, Barba removed his own expensive peacoat, cashmere scarf and leather shoes, leaving him in dark designer jeans and a blue button down. Rolling up his sleeves, he made himself take a breath and tried to focus on the necessities of getting him through the next - he checked his watch - 68 minutes.
Bathroom. That seemed like a good place to start. "Hey, Noah," he began when the boy returned towing a little plastic wagon containing toy cars and action figures. "Do you need to use the toilet?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed, as though he was about to burst and had only been saved by Barba's reminder.
Barba stood outside the partially closed bathroom door. "Do you need any help?"
That was no small relief. A flushing sound, and then Noah reappeared. "Did you wash your hands?"
"Oops," was Noah's sheepish reply as he went to do as Barba instructed.
"Okay, so far I'm nailing this," he encouraged himself silently. And now only 64 minutes to go.
Noah emerged with dripping hands and a smile, looking at him expectantly.
"Um, alright. So... what do you and Lucy do when you first come home from school?" Barba asked.
"She looks in my backpack," Noah supplied helpfully.
"Alright, we can do that." He led the boy to the kitchen and lifted him up on the counter so they could look through the bag together, removing what remained of his snack (which Noah decided to eat right then) and a notice about an upcoming open house which Barba affixed to the refrigerator with an open magnet. 61 minutes.
"Now we play!" Noah announced, and reached for him so he could be returned to the floor. Then he grabbed Barba's hand again and led him to the living room where he dumped out his wagon and began separating his toys.
Barba sat down on the couch intending to simply observe, but Noah, who had figured out that it was apparently his job to train his inexperienced babysitter, patted the place beside him. "No, you sit here."
Chuckling as he slid down to where the boy had indicated, he listened as Noah set the scene and handed him the correct toys that would allow him to appropriately participate. And while it took him awhile, with Noah so engaged and engaging he was eventually able to settle in.
He was surprised that when he finally thought to check his watch again, and only because Noah had remembered there were several unwatched episodes of a kids show that taught Spanish waiting on the PVR and had asked if they could watch them together, that over 30 minutes had passed.
Barba had no idea if Liv had any rules about screen time. It was surprising enough that he knew parents DID often have rules about screen time. "I guess we could," he said. "But probably just one. Lucy will be here soon."
"Can't you stay?"
Barba was about to give his default answer when he realised he really had no reason NOT to stay. He was suspended, he had no plans, and that feeling of something he couldn't quite name that came from knowing that Noah wanted him there was certainly not unwelcome. "Why don't we call Lucy to see what she has to say about that."
He found the young woman's number near the top of the emergency contact list on the fridge, though he discovered it was one Noah knew from heart when he'd taken Barba's phone from his hand and asked to be the one to dial and say hello. Lucy hadn't left school yet and seemed grateful for the chance to spend some time in the library, so she quickly gave in to Barba's request. She'd met him before more than once, knew he was a lawyer and a friend of her boss. So while she was well aware that Liv was very protective and very choosy about who she allowed to care for her son, Lucy figured if she'd trusted Barba to pick up Noah from school and watch him this long, she wouldn't have a problem with him staying a little longer.
Still, she found herself assuring Barba that if he needed help or needed to be relieved she was only a phone call away. She also informed him that Liv had asked her to have dinner on the table for all three of them at 6, and Barba promised her that he could make that happen. He grilled her about food allergies and anything Noah or Liv definitely wouldn't eat. He also requested her advice about the quality and quantity of snacks Noah was allowed to have to tide him over.
Sensing that he was a little out of his element and could use some encouragement, Lucy found herself commending Barba for asking all the right questions. He should have been annoyed, but found instead that he was grateful. And he had no shame over calling her back several minutes later to make sure Noah was allowed to watch TV in the afternoon and to get instructions on finding the right show on the PVR.
Once the screen came to life, Noah continued to play with his toys but in a less focused way, and didn't object to Barba sitting on the couch. But after a few minutes the boy joined him, tucking himself into his side. Barba froze.
But Noah, who Barba had become convinced was very intuitive for his age, seemed to take pity on him, pulling his arm from where it was extended along the back of the couch and positioning it around the boy's small body.
After a few moments, Barba let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. And he felt no compulsion to check his watch.
He DID suddenly find himself reflective. Barba's own father hadn't been the most affectionate even when times were good, and it occurred to him that he'd never really given a lot of thought to how that had shaped him. He wondered if it would have been better for him if, like Noah's, his father had been out of the picture altogether, wondering if he would have been less affected by a father's absence than he would be by the presence of someone in his life who was no real father to speak of.
Noah certainly didn't seem to be lacking anything by being a part of single parent family. But of course Liv wasn't in it alone. She had Lucy, who was devoted and who Noah obviously thought the world of. There had been Tucker, whom while he didn't know for sure he imagined had at least filled a limited role. Noah had seemed very comfortable with the members of the squad whenever he'd seen them together, which indicated that they'd taken an extended and hands-on interest.
And as Noah laughed aloud at what was happening on the screen and looked up at him to make sure he'd gotten the joke, Barba realized that maybe he had a part of play too.
Three back-to-back episodes, a snack, another trip to the toilet, a messy art project that resulted in him removing his now glue- and glitter-crusted button down and replacing it with the "Wicked" hoodie - HIS "Wicked" hoodie - that he'd found clean and folded on top of the dryer ready to be put away, and it was time to start thinking about dinner.
He suggested that Noah play in the living room, but the boy was apparently convinced that Barba would require his help with meal preparation, pulling the step stool to the sink to wash his hands without being asked. To his credit, Barba was able to create ways for Noah to be involved: shredding the lettuce, choosing the types and amounts of vegetables that would be included in the salad, using the spinner to clean and dry the pieces that Barba cut, and mixing everything together. He let the boy help butter thick slices of bread and sprinkle on the garlic before they went into the oven to bake. He also taught him to use the rotary cheese grater on the cheddar for the pasta and sauce that were heating on the stove.
Noah was doing a passable job at setting the table with surprisingly little instruction when Olivia came through the door.
"Something smells good" she exclaimed as Noah ran to her.
"Me and Barba made dinner!" he told her proudly as she lifted him into her arms.
That was when she noticed it wasn't Lucy in the kitchen. She was surprised, but she still had the wherewithal to correct him. "That's MR. Barba to you, sir," she reminded gently.
"That's okay, Liv," Barba interjected as he brought a pitcher of water to the table. "We're buddies now, aren't we, Noah? I think we can skip the "Barba" altogether and be on a first name basis, don't you?"
Liv was delighted to see Barba making such an effort with her son. "Well, in that case, little man, why don't you help Uncle Rafael finish things up here while I get changed?"
Wiggling to get down, he happily resumed his table-setting duties while the grownups talked in the kitchen.
"So this was unexpected," Liv remarked. "Where's Lucy?"
"I gave her the afternoon off," he told her, removing the garlic bread from the oven. Then it suddenly occurred to him that he probably should have asked her permission, and he turned to face her with an uncertain expression. "I hope that was okay."
"Of course," she immediately soothed. "I'm sure she was grateful. She has a big project due at midnight that she wasn't quite finished; it's actually why I made sure to get home early tonight." She peered over his shoulder. "This all looks terrific."
"Everything's ready. You go change and I'll serve it up for us."
"Alright; I'll be quick." Then she noticed something particularly interesting. "You've got glitter on your jeans, Counselor. It's a good look for you."
"I got glitter on everything, hence the wardrobe change. But don't worry, I'm not taking the sweater back. It looks better on you anyway."
She squeezed his arm and headed toward her bedroom.
The meal was a festive affair. After filling in his mother on what seemed to be every second of their time together EXCEPT, blessedly, for Barba's overreaction at the playground, Noah finally quieted enough to eat more dinner than Barba would have guessed could fit in such a small person. He even ate the salad, which Liv had never been able to convince him to do before. When questioned about it, he simply indicated that he wanted to eat it because he had made it. Liv vowed to remember that the next time she needed him to try something healthy, and to thank Barba for happening upon that strategy if it did in fact work again.
"So what do you have planned for the weekend, Barba?"
"Rafael," Noah corrected her through a mouthful of pasta.
"Manners please," his mother reminded him, trying to hide a grin.
"Nothing too exciting," Barba told her. "I'm headed to my mother's first thing in the morning to help her with something at the school and a few things around the apartment. She was rather explicit that my vacation has been long enough."
"So what your saying is that your mother is giving you a "honey-do" list."
He chuckled. "Pretty much. But I figure I owe her. I haven't exactly had a lot of time in the last several years to help out the way a son probably should."
"You hearing this, Noah? Rafael says that good sons do chores for their mommies."
For his part, Noah just shrugged and kept eating.
But despite her announcement, Liv let Noah out of any chore duty as Barba worked with her instead on clearing the table and dealing with the dishes. And it was over the sink washing the pots and pans that Liv finally let on that when he'd gone to her office to pick up the keys she had clocked his nervousness about watching Noah. "So was it as terrifying as you thought it would be? Being in charge of another human being?"
"No," he said confidently, though when she scoffed he went on to admit, "it was even MORE terrifying than I thought."
"You decided to stay, so it couldn't have been all that bad." She gave the counter a final swipe with a wet dishrag before hanging it over the faucet. "So why DID you decide to stay?"
"Well..." He took a moment to consider. "I guess because Noah asked me to."
His honest and earnest answer brought a genuine smile to her face, which he couldn't help but return.
Noah joined them in the kitchen and tugged Barba's pant leg. "Time to play?"
"Sorry, kiddo." It was his mother that said it, though Barba suspected it was actually to give him an easy out. "I think we need to move bath night to tonight to see if we can get some of that glitter out of your hair." She addressed Barba. "We might be awhile but you ARE welcome to stay. We can grab a drink once Noah's asleep."
"That's alright; I'll leave you guys to it." He crouched down to address Noah. "But maybe I can come over and play another day? Would that be alright?"
He took Noah's arms wound tightly around his neck as a 'yes'.
It was Tuesday that the opportunity came. A text from Olivia caused him to look up from his book: "Have you eaten?"
Barba glanced at the clock in surprise, not having realized how late it had gotten. He was in full vacation (okay, suspension) mode now and had sprawled on the couch in the middle of the day to enjoy a good murder mystery which had apparently been more engrossing that he expected. "No, not yet," he texted back.
A moment later his phone rang, and seeing her number on the call display, he answered with a simple, "Hey."
But it wasn't her voice that responded. "Hi! Can you come over for dinner?"
"Well, hello, Noah! Thanks so much for asking; I would love to!" There was a rustling as Noah reported his agreement to his mother and passed her the phone.
"Don't get your hopes up, Barba," Olivia told him, and he could hear Noah not quite whispering helpfully, "Rafael, mama!" before she shushed him. "We aren't all men of leisure like you with time to make a home cooked meal. But Chinese takeout will be arriving in about a half an hour, and Noah was pretty insistent that you join us."
He took her teasing in stride, all the while trying not to reveal in his voice just how touched he felt over Noah's invitation.
He arrived at their door prepared with a hostess gift of sorts. He handed her back the freshly laundered sweat shirt he'd worn home on Friday with a bit of a ceremonious flourish. "Where's Noah?" he asked as he stepped inside.
"Just in the washroom. He's been asking to invite you over all weekend, and I finally couldn't hold him off anymore. Sorry to interrupt your 'vacation'."
"I'm very happy to be interrupted," he assured her.
"I'm glad to hear it. Fair warning though, Rafael; you will probably be getting quite a few invitations moving forward. You are officially Noah's new obsession."
Barba found he was strangely okay with that.
He noted that the shirt he'd left there before the weekend was hanging by the door. "No more glitter," he noted with thanks. "Oh, before I forget." He held out her spare keys. "I should probably give these back."
She reached out to take them but her hand stilled for a moment when it touched his. "Actually, why don't you keep them? In case of emergencies."
"You mean in case you want to use me again for my babysitting skills," he smirked.
"Yeah, maybe that too."
Regardless of her motive, he was happy to return the keys to his pocket before he hung up his coat.
Then Noah was practically climbing him like a tree, much to his mother's chagrin and Barba's delight. The food had arrived just before him so Barba carried the boy to the table and deposited him into his chair.
Noah had apparently decided that he needed to know every little thing about his new best friend, and so the meal was spent with Barba feeling like he was on the witness stand. And loving it.
All through dinner and continuing into the living room where Barba, in jeans and a comfortable tee-shirt, laid on his stomach on the floor to help her son build a Lego set, she felt like a spectator. She could barely get a word in edgewise and it seemed at times they had forgotten she was even there. It couldn't have made her happier to be ignored under these circumstances, so she just watched and listened between answering emails and browsing her news feed.
"Uncle Rafa," Noah began not long after Liv had given a 15 minute warning. Barba's preferred nickname had come to light during the dinnertime interrogation and had stuck. "Can you put me to bed?"
Olivia was expecting Barba to look to her for guidance or rescue as he had the few times in the past when her son had made an overture of connection. But tonight he didn't even spare her a glance, saying instead directly to Noah, "I'm not sure I know how to do that. Help me out?"
Noah was only too happy to explain his bedtime routine, and gave a little cheer when Barba agreed.
It was only then that it occurred to Barba to check in with Olivia and make sure she was okay with it. He guessed by the way she was pretending to ignore him and smiling into her coffee cup that she was.
Not wanting to undermine his growing confidence, Olivia didn't even leave the couch while Barba helped her son clean up the toys, get a final drink of juice, get into his pajamas, and brush his teeth. It was only when Noah came to give her a kiss goodnight that she offered some advice. "He's going to ask for the cat book, Barba, but no matter what he says let me assure you it's very long and very terrible. Just tell him you're allergic to cats and pick something else."
She was right about the request, and Noah was so passionate about the offending cat book that Barba almost gave in. But then it occurred to him to convince Noah that they should read Spanish books when they were together. Crisis averted.
"So why don't you just get rid of the cat book if it's so terrible?" Barba asked as he lowered himself heavily onto the couch beside her after Noah had finally nodded off in the middle of story #3.
"I would if I could, trust me, Rafa," she told him, the nickname understandably slipping out after hearing it regularly for the last two hours. "Sorry; that was kind of weird."
"Not to worry. Just try to refrain from calling me "uncle" while you're on the stand." They shared a smile.
"So, you look like you could use a drink," Liv suggested. "Scotch?"
"Actually, I need to get going. A friend of mine out of a legal clinic in the Bronx caught wind of my suspension and asked if I could consult on a case he's working on. He's bringing over some files in about an hour for me to go through with him."
"As long as he's not trying to poach you, I guess I'll allow it, Counselor."
"You're not going to get rid of me THAT easily."
After a few more minutes of conversation and catching up, Barba had to get ready to leave. He had just finished tying his sneakers and had reclaimed his freshly cleaned blue button down when Noah approached, rubbing his eyes and holding something Barba recognised. "What are you doing out of bed?" Barba asked him kindly.
"I forgot," the boy told him simply, thrusting the craft they had made together on Friday afternoon into Barba's hands before heading back to his room.
At the look on Barba's face, Olivia couldn't help but tease him yet again. "You are so sunk. That kid has you wrapped around his little finger."
"I'm well aware, Lieutenant," he admitted, sheepish. "He is his mother's son." And not leaving her any time to unpack that statement, he gave a little wave and let himself out.
When Barba got home he searched for magnets with enough strength to affix Noah's masterpiece to his fridge. And he was proud to show it off when his friend arrived to work and couldn't help but question why his clothes were covered in glitter.
Chapter 4: Always
SETTING: Takes place immediately after 19x1 ("Gone Fishin'")
Cassidy hadn't stayed long, had really only been there as a courtesy, to give a heads-up. Olivia might have felt somewhat vindicated by how genuinely apologetic he was, how awkward and nervous to have been put in this position, to see her in this position. She might have felt that way, if she had the luxury to allow herself to feel anything at all.
But it was still an hour before Noah would go to bed, and he wanted her to snuggle him while he watched a cartoon. It wasn't the time to feel all the things she was pushing down. It wouldn't be fair to her son to shut herself into her room when he was asking for her, wanted her affection and attention.
But as she sat and held him, stroked his hair and revelled in his laughter and childish commentary at what was happening on the screen, she couldn't stop one feeling from creeping in, and that was dread. She dreaded what would happen when Noah was asleep and she was left to herself. She almost felt threatened by it. It was too much.
And so she found herself reaching for her phone.
"Hey Liv," was Barba's quick answer. "What's up?"
"Where are you?"
"Still at the office." He paused, having heard something in her voice. "Where do you need me to be?"
That question alone was almost enough to open the floodgates, rendering Olivia temporarily mute as she fought to keep control.
"Can you come over?" she finally blurted.
There was no hesitation. "I'm on my way. I'll be there as soon as I can."
When Barba arrived, Liv had tears in her eyes as she answered the door, and he immediately stepped into her personal space but was stilled by a firm hand on his chest.
He was too worried to be hurt. She was too close to the edge to reassure him.
Noah's appearance behind her and his bright greeting of the unexpected visitor was timely. "Isn't it past your bedtime?" Barba engaged the boy, trying to deflect his attention from Olivia. "Did you already brush your teeth?" When Noah answered in the affirmative, Barba said, "Okay, then why don't you go pick out some books and I'll come read to you?" He smiled as Noah's excitement had him running to his room.
"Thank you," Olivia said quietly, sighing in frustration and looking upward when a tear slipped out and ran down her cheek.
"Take a minute," he advised calmly, as though giving her direction while he prepped her on the stand. "Then come say a quick goodnight and let me put him to bed."
She nodded, swiping at her eyes. "I'll be right there."
It took her more than a minute to rein herself in. Barba was halfway through the second book when she entered Noah's room.
"Give your mom a kiss, kiddo," Barba prompted him, though little prompting was needed. While still sitting on Barba's lap, Noah reached for his mother and wrapped his arms around her neck, giving her a sloppy kiss and telling her that he loved her.
This brought Olivia's face very close to Barba's, and when she met his eyes and he again saw her sadness he made the mistake of giving her a compassionate look and his patented half smile. Her composure was immediately lost and Barba had to redirect Noah's attention once again while she made a hasty retreat.
It wasn't long after that Barba joined her in the living room, removing his jacket, vest and tie, laying them across the back of a chair, kicking off his shoes, moving slowly as though to prevent startling her. But watching her, eyes always on her.
She was on the couch with her knees drawn up and her arms around them, making herself as small as possible, holding the position tightly as though to help contain what was coming. Staring straight ahead even as he crossed her line of sight and sat down beside her, turning to face her, waiting.
No response. Not yet.
In the end his hand coming to rest lightly on her arm was all it took.
The story spilled out with more than a few tears, much to her chagrin: the taxi, the bruises, the misunderstanding, the investigation. With his fingers rubbing occasional comforting circles on her lower back, he listened carefully, non-judgmentally, without interruption. But when she was done talking, he had lots to say. He reminded her that she had people in her life who cared about her and cared for Noah and would fight relentlessly on their behalf. He assured her that she would be cleared in no time and that Noah would never be taken from her. Then he went on to lay out the case against her and then knocked it down easily, point by point.
He defended her so well that it left her feeling rather ridiculous over having become so emotional, because he was right. Of course he was. This would be resolved easily because she had the truth on her side. And if the truth wasn't enough, she had good friends on her side as well, like the one sitting next to her right now.
Olivia was apologetic and fairly embarrassed when she later led him to the door, but also deeply genuine in her gratitude that he had dropped everything to come to her rescue. He didn't wave away her thanks, nor did he try to convince her she had nothing to be sorry or embarrassed about. Instead he left with a simple promise that he would always be there, for whatever she needed. Always.
Chapter 5: Embrace
SETTING: Sometime before 19x9 ("Gone Baby Gone")
When the jury handed down the verdict, the courtroom erupted. Yelling. Sobbing. Everyone on their feet. The bailiffs on their radios calling for reinforcements as the judge demanded the gallery be cleared.
The chaos in the room mirrored the chaos Barba felt internally, and instinctively he turned where he stood to seek out Olivia. Their eyes met only for a moment before she was lost in the crowd being herded out the door.
They'd had dinner the night before at her invitation, a pre-verdict celebration after a brilliant closing, as she'd described it. She wasn't even involved directly in the case, though certainly she had some skin in the game as the conviction of a "big fish" such as this would trickle down and open the door to catching some of the smaller fish on her own radar.
She hadn't spent any time in court until the closing arguments, but he'd kept her updated over takeout lunches in his or her office and the occasional drink after work. It had been a very long trial and an incredibly long lead-up, and while he'd had other cases to worry about, this one had occupied much of his time and thoughts for several months. So when they had literally bumped into each other in the busy courthouse, Olivia having just sat in for a sentencing hearing and Barba on his way to deliver his closing, their brief conversation had revealed he was full of energy that - uncharacteristically for him - bordered on nervous.
What surprised her more than the nervousness was that he wore it on his sleeve, asking her if she'd mind being there. In another situation she might have teased him a bit, but instead she just wrapped her fingers around his elbow and told him to lead the way.
The gallery was full, and Olivia had been forced to squeeze in the middle of the 6th row with some of the cops that HAD been involved in the case and who recognised her as one of their own. Before Barba had sat down he'd looked for her to see where she'd landed, and at her encouraging smile the corners of his own mouth turned up slightly.
She hadn't been exaggerating about the quality of his closing arguments. By the time he got started all of his nervous energy - which wouldn't have been picked up on by anyone who didn't know him well - was completely under his control and he easily hit his stride.
Olivia loved watching him like this, so confident and strong, every word and phrase and inflection carefully and perfectly crafted. But not like an actor in a play, because what he said he meant, and that's where his words really gained their power: Whether or not you believed that what he said was true, there was no doubting that HE believed it was true.
When it was over he was immediately surrounded, and she'd chosen to slip out rather than join the line waiting to congratulate him. She'd texted instead. "A thing of beauty, Counselor. Buy you dinner?" She was already back in her office by the time he'd had a chance to check his phone and accept the invitation.
It was just after 6 when they'd met at their usual spot. He wasn't nervous anymore, but the confident half-smirk that was practically his resting expression was transformed to a more humble and sincere "aww, shucks" grin when Olivia had slipped out of the booth where she'd been waiting and wrapped him in a tight embrace, so quick and unexpected that he hadn't even had time to return it before it was over.
It was then that his closing had been labelled "brilliant" and she'd given in to sentiment just long enough to express that seeing him in his element like that had made her feel so proud to know him. His cheeks turned pink, not embarrassment but a flush of happiness at being on the receiving end of her affirmation and affection.
Now, nearly 24 hours later, his cheeks were not pink but red, the heat drawing the colour down his neck as he fought to control his own reaction to the unexpected verdict not in their favour. Upon adjournment he was swarmed outside the courtroom, eventually drawn aside by his boss, the chief of police, and the mayor's press secretary who were talking at him and over each other about how things were to be handled when he left the courthouse and was swarmed again, this time by the reporters.
Barba couldn't see Olivia during this time, but she could see him from where she stood leaning against the hallway wall. She'd hoped she would at least be able to make her presence known as a show of support, but Barba's focus was being pulled in every direction, it seemed, but hers. So she just waited and watched for awhile, and noticed.
Noticed the tension in his neck, and the stiffness of his posture. Noticed the muscles of his jaw working under his skin. Noticed the way his hand was gripping his briefcase. Noticed his barely controlled expression.
And when the crowd had thinned a bit and his eyes did finally flick in her direction before locking on hers, she could tell he needed an intervention.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. I need to speak with Mr. Barba for a moment."
"Not a good time, Lieutenant," the mayor's press secretary barked.
"I'm aware, and this won't take long, but it is urgent and time sensitive."
She looked to the chief of police for backup, and he nodded tersely. "You have five minutes, Lieutenant."
"That should be plenty."
Olivia led Barba to a consultation room just down the hall, one of the four tiny rooms right in a row that were available to lawyers and their clients to meet or wait before court. She slid the placard on the door from "Unoccupied" to "Occupied" so they wouldn't be disturbed, and closed them in.
At that point, Benson could have offered sympathy, offered a pep talk, offered commiseration, offered an ear to let him express what he was thinking and feeling. But there would be time for that later. In the now four and a half minutes they had, she sensed what he really needed was time to collect himself, so she didn't say a word as she leaned against the wall by the door and once again just watched him.
He had slammed his briefcase down on the small table and remained standing, facing away from her and toward the opposite wall, his hands gripping the back of the chair he was using to support himself. Still as a statue.
But she could see the moment when, having been given the space to simply breathe and reflect without interruption, his "next step" had been able to click into place. His head dropped as the tension left his neck, and it was like he could breathe again as his whole body seemed to relax just a bit.
It was like she could breathe again, too.
And then his briefcase was back in his hand and he'd turned towards her, indicating with a slight nod that he was ready to face the music. In the zone and all business, or so she thought. But before he walked through the door she'd opened, it was his turn to embrace her with his free arm, again tight and quick with no time for real reciprocation.
The look in his eye as he pulled away, before he reset his expression and strode from the room, was a clear reflection of her sentiment from the day before: He was labelling her intervention as "brilliant". And when her cheeks turned pink, it was with pleasure that she'd been able to help him in her own small way, and that it had meant enough to him that he'd paused in the middle of a huge mess to let her know.
Chapter 6: Helpless
SETTING: Takes place immediately after 19x9 ("Gone Baby Gone") in the show chronology and sometime after chapter 5 ("Embrace") of this story. Contains spoilers for 19x9.
"Alright, my love. It's time to start getting ready for bed."
"But mom - "
"No buts, Noah. I already let you stay up an extra half hour."
"We have to go anyway, buddy," Amanda supplied helpfully. "Jessie needs to go to sleep, too."
Jessie was resting on Carisi's lap and was too tired to protest.
Noah dutifully hugged each of them, not noticing that they all seemed to squeeze him a little tighter and a little longer than usual, but when he got to Barba he asked, "Uncle Rafa, can you do my bedtime?"
"Sure, little man," he agreed with a smile. "Jammies and teeth, then, please. I'll be there in a few minutes."
There were no looks left to pass between the other adults present; they'd already been shared many times over since Barba had arrived at Liv's apartment. His jovial greeting, his casual dress and demeanor, his choice to sit on the floor and play at the coffee table, engaging Noah and Jessie in a way none of them could have expected. Amanda, Carisi, and Fin didn't quite know what to make of it.
Liv knew, could easily recognize and empathize with the nervous energy. After days of adrenalin and uncertainty, after a full day of court that had kept him away until now, Barba was relieved, was starting to decompress, and she could see he was overcompensating a bit with Noah to keep himself from revealing to the boy - who had no real concept of what had happened - how happy he was to see him here and safe. Still, she was surprised that Barba would act this way to such a degree in front of her squad, especially when he started to relax and behave more naturally, revealing bits and pieces of the man she'd come to know when they were alone together.
At work, it was always like flipping a switch. He'd be in her office or his office and they'd be laughing or fighting or bantering or eating and he would be HIMSELF. And then someone else would walk in and it was like that man was gone, hidden behind the armor of his three piece suit and, depending on the intruder, either his professionalism or his snark.
It might have happened anyway, but it was their occasional nights around the Benson dinner table and following that had really cemented Barba's penchant for dropping his guard around her. He didn't make it often due to work commitments, but he'd been given license to crash spaghetti night whenever he was available and interested.
That arrangement had come about a few weeks after he'd been roped into babysitting during his suspension. He'd arrived at the apartment at Noah's request only to find out that the invitation had been issued without his mother's knowledge. Over pasta that evening Noah had received a stern talking to about using the phone unsupervised when it wasn't an emergency, and about asking people over without clearing it with Liv or Lucy first. Noah had requested then that Barba be allowed to come over for spaghetti night whenever he wanted, and permission was granted with a smile. And it became a family joke that whenever there was an unexpected knock at the door, Liv would tease Noah about whether he'd invited someone over.
The times Barba had taken advantage of the open invitation - only every few weeks, and generally only when there was work to be discussed after Noah was in bed - Olivia had been able to just sit back and watch while Noah did all the hard work deconstructing Barba's public persona, and even his best-foot-forward/best-behaviour more private persona. What she'd been allowed to learn as a voyeur in those proceedings was that the real Rafael Barba could be kind of goofy, kind of nerdy, not nearly as confident in some situations as he let on, sometimes even awkward, and intense over things that most adults would not lend intensity to (things like Lego and playing pretend). He apparently loved to wrestle, loved to make up ridiculous songs, and loved to tell corny and childish jokes that would send Noah into fits of giggling and gasping on the floor but that no self-respecting adult would even grant an eye-roll for. Who knew?
She knew. And she loved that she knew.
Her detectives, however, didn't really have a clue, despite what they'd seen that night as they'd all assembled to support her and to celebrate Noah's safe return. And as he joined her in the entryway to see them all out, as she watched him grasp Fin's hand, accept the clap on the shoulder from Carisi, give Amanda a warm smile and drop a kiss on her daughter's head, as she felt his warm hand come to rest briefly but comfortably on her lower back, she found she was profoundly glad and grateful that for her sake, for Noah's sake, Barba had allowed himself to be present, truly present, during this gathering, and give her team a glimpse of the man behind the mask, behind the armor, the man she'd come to consider a dear friend.
She was also glad that when the door closed behind the last of her squad - her FAMILY - she could feel free to be a little more of who SHE was behind HER mask and armor. And who she was that night was a hot mess.
"Can you put him in my room, please?" she asked, not meeting his eyes, embarrassed at her weakness.
But Barba understood. She needed Noah close so she could watch over him. "Of course."
Having witnessed him follow their bedtime routine a handful of times over the last year, Olivia was content to let them be as she tidied up and worked on the dishes.
Through the open door she could hear animated reading in Spanish and her little boy's laughter, could catch snippets of their conversation as Barba tried to help him wind down. And then Barba singing quietly, then humming, before silence fell.
That was her cue. "Hey," she greeted from the doorway.
Barba was propped up comfortably with pillows against the headboard and Noah was tucked in beside him, sprawled faced down. "Hey." He gave her his usual half smile and continued tracing invisible designs on the boy's back. "That's the fastest he's ever fallen asleep for me."
"He's had an eventful few days."
"That he has. And so have you." Barba made no move to leave, and took a moment to properly craft his next words. "I'm good here for awhile longer if there's something you have to do, or want to do. I've got him."
She was about to protest when she saw the way Barba was looking at her sleeping son. Like he needed this too, to assure himself that Noah was here and safe.
"Hmmm... Well, honestly, I would love to just soak in the tub for a bit. I, uh, I haven't really had any me-time since everything happened"
He picked up her iPad, headphones attached, from her bedside table. "I'll fire up Netflix and put on some old Downton to give you some privacy. Then you can ugly-cry as loud as you like if you feel the urge."
She managed a scoff, but they both knew that was probably exactly what would end up happening if she was allowed the luxury of finally being alone with her thoughts.
"Don't mention it. Go on."
She allowed herself roughly the length of one Downton episode to give in to her grief, her relief. And while she knew it would take a lot of time and probably a lot of therapy to really move past all that had happened, all that she had allowed to happen by not trusting her initial instincts and allowing Sheila to be a part of their lives, all that COULD have happened if she and Barba and her squad hadn't figured out was was going on, that hour was more cathartic than she had expected. So when she returned to her room in her pajamas, her damp hair tied back away from her face, eyes still a bit red from crying, and he asked her if she felt any better, she wasn't lying when she told him she was, if only just a little.
"You look dead on your feet," he told her as he returned her iPad to where he found it and sat up. "I still have my keys; I can lock up behind me. You come lay down."
She was so exhausted that she didn't even bother to attempt refusal. She clicked the switch on the wall as she passed and Barba turned on the reading light so she could navigate the darkness. As she slipped under the covers that he had pulled back for her, she found herself admitting, "Every time I start to fall asleep I get worried that he won't be here when I wake up. I know it's irrational, but -"
"I get it, Liv. You don't need to explain yourself to me." He drew out tucking her in, rearranging the covers around Noah, much longer than was necessary to do the job. Gathering courage. "Would it help if I stayed a while longer? Help you sleep, I mean."
She was touched by the offer, but her automatic response was to refuse. "I can't ask you to do that. You have work in the morning."
"You're not asking," he pointed out. "I'm offering."
"Just give me this, Liv. Please?" He exhaled heavily in frustration. "This whole ordeal...I've felt so useless."
"You weren't!" she insisted, propping her head up on her pillow so she could face him properly. "You were there. You were WITH me. And it was you that got us what we needed to find him in the end."
"That's kind of you, but let's face it - I was generally helpless and awkward and said some really stupid things."
But he waved her off. He wasn't looking for reassurance. "I needed to do something. I NEED to do something. Let me do this." It came out more raw and pleading than he had intended, but he could see on her face that she was going to give in. "Thank you," he said with a smile, feeling a little sheepish about his emotional outburst but glad it had garnered the desired results. He turned off the light and settled back again.
It felt strange to have him there without talking, but Olivia was so tired that she fell asleep while trying to figure out where to start the conversation. When she was later awakened by a quickly fading dream, her eyes flying open and fighting to adjust to the darkness, she saw the clock and realized that several hours had passed, the longest unbroken period of rest she'd had since this had all began.
It did nothing to assuage her momentary panic before she realized that Noah was still there, breathing deeply, peaceful and safe. She sighed with relief and rolled closer to him so she could pull him against her. But her questing hand found something more solid than she expected. Namely Barba's torso, which her son had effectively wrapped himself around.
"Mmm..." Barba mumbled and opened his eyes. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Sorry," she apologized. She could see his outline now, still on top of the covers but laying down properly on his back. Noah's hand was clutching the man's soft sweater, his head resting on Barba's bicep.
"Sleep, Liv. I've got him." His fingers found her in the dark and curled lightly around her wrist. I've got you both. He might as well have said it aloud.
Tears came unbidden to her eyes for a very different reason then before, but her exhaustion overrode the sudden emotion, and she was soothed further by the brush of his thumb, gentle against her skin. Then he was humming, and as she strained to listen, to follow the melody, sleep overtook her again.
When morning arrived Barba was gone. She was surprised to find that she and Noah had managed to not only sleep, but to OVERsleep. And as she had taken another personal day and wasn't ready to send Noah back to school, they had nowhere to go and no reason to leave the warm cocoon of the bed.
Their long, quiet cuddle time was interrupted by a sudden revelation. "Mommy?"
"Yes, sweet boy?"
"We missed spaghetti night."
"You're right." She had to fight not to become emotional again, remembering her breakdown in her office with Barba discussing this very thing. "We did."
"Can tonight be spaghetti night this week?" He was sitting upright now, cross legged and facing her, all dimples and earnest grin. She was helpless to deny him.
"Of course, baby. That's a great idea."
"Yay!" And then he was crawling over her towards her phone that she'd set on the bedside table. "Okay Google! Call Barba!" he ordered excitedly after double tapping the screen and entering her code.
Of course. It was spaghetti night. Which meant in Noah's mind that Barba was already invited.
Olivia couldn't bring herself to scold him for making a call without asking her first. Nor did she bother to warn Noah that his Uncle Rafa might not be available, that he might have to work or that he might have other plans, that he might prefer to go to his own home after being stuck at theirs the night before
She didn't bother because she knew in her heart that Barba would be helpless to deny him, too.
Chapter 7: Gratitude
SETTING: Sometime after 19x9 ("Gone Baby Gone").
"Let's all take 15 to get ourselves together, and then we'll meet back here."
"Copy that, Lieutenant," Amanda said, and the others intoned the same sentiment as they trailed out. Barba was at the end of the line, but instead of following he closed the door behind Fin then turned back toward Olivia.
"Don't," was her immediately response.
"Liv," he began, but she cut him off.
Barba heard the almost imperceptible break in her voice and took a step toward her, but paused when she held up a hand and then escaped behind her desk.
"You need to leave. Right now. I still have work to do and if you're going to be here, being you..."
He understood then. "Okay. I'll go. But Liv -"
"Please," she said again, now unable to look at him.
"Okay." And he let her be.
After all these years of seeing and experiencing so many horrific things, it was a wonder that Benson wasn't completely numb or hardened, that she would still allow herself to feel so deeply. Barba considered it more of a miracle that she wasn't a complete mess all the time. So he was certainly willing to grant her these moments, giving her more grace than he gave himself.
But he did feel this, whether he let it show, whether he would ever let himself indulge it or surrender to it. Because he had known this girl, had spent time with her. Had seen her resilience and her determination, even so young, so vulnerable. He had seen her look her abuser in the eye in front of a full courtroom and bury him with her words.
So to have just received the news that this victim, this hero, had died so senselessly in a car accident, that she would never be given the chance to have a real childhood and reclaim her life after all that had been done to her, Barba was far from unaffected. Reaching out to Olivia had been as much for his benefit as it would have been for hers.
He understood why she had sent him away. It was 2 in the afternoon and her team had just caught a new case. This wasn't the time to fall apart. It was the time to push the emotion down, lock it away until they had the luxury to revel in the grief, to really do it justice.
"Carisi, a word?"
Sonny looked up from his desk where he'd been staring blankly at his computer monitor, which was off. "Yeah, Counselor?"
"I need to speak to Liv, but obviously this isn't the time. If you think of it, could you drop me a text when things are starting to wrap up here, so I can swing by before she leaves?" Barba was counting on the fact that Carisi always seemed to be looking for an excuse to kiss his ass and would be the least likely to forget the request.
"Yeah, sure Counselor. I'll make it happen."
Carisi was true to his word. The text arrived at around 8:30 p.m.: "The rest of us are finishing up, but Lieu is still in her office."
Barba tapped a brief and non-effusive thanks (so as to not encourage any continued chatter) then quickly packed up and headed her way.
The bullpen was empty of familiar faces when Barba strode through it and knocked on her door. Her terse "come in" was all business.
"Counselor." She somehow managed to wield her greeting like a weapon, warning him away.
"Lieutenant." He didn't leave the doorway. "Nearly finished? I thought you could use a drink."
"Not today." She returned her focus to whatever she was pretending to work on, dismissing him.
Normally he would accept her "no" and leave without a fight. He'd done it enough. But today was different. "Actually, I could use a drink. And I really don't want to drink alone, or I may not stop." His words were meant to be tactical and he didn't even connect them in the moment with how he was really feeling. But later, in retrospect, he realised they were true.
Benson seemed to notice, to see through the posturing. She'd looked up as though to call him on his crap, but she ended up thoughtful and silent.
"Well?" Barba pressed. "Want to get out of here?"
"I haven't cried yet," she suddenly blurted, then rolled her eyes at how ridiculous she must have sounded. But she continued her thought. "And I'm not sure how much longer I can keep that from happening, with you..."
"With me being here and being me?" he asked, quoting her words from that afternoon. But he wasn't teasing. "Then why don't we just stay here and get it over with?"
"Barba..." she said, caution in her voice.
He shut the door and closed the blinds to block the view from the bullpen. "Come sit with me." He removed his jacket and sat in the middle of her couch, waiting. He could see the struggle clearly on her face, how much she wanted to give in to what she'd been fighting for hours, but with her sense of propriety and professionalism trying to win the day.
In the end it was HIS face that cinched it, the open concern and affection that had the tears falling before she even stood. By the time she'd walked around her desk she had resigned herself to what was to come, even grabbing a box of tissues and bringing it with her. She held it on her lap as she slumped down on the couch at his side.
For the next hour they remained there, first talking about the girl, the little warrior, about how unfair it was that she wouldn't have at least the chance to overcome all she'd been through. It was Barba who turned things philosophical, musing about how maybe it was actually for the best. He was initially ashamed that he had said it aloud, but found no judgement in her. This led to opening a door of thought he'd been determined not to walk through for the sake of his own mental health, but she drew it from him anyway: the question of whether the good of stopping bad people from doing more bad things was enough, whether it was emotionally and morally sustainable to just move on to catching the next bad person knowing the victims who survived so rarely thrived.
Throughout all this they stayed side by side. It was easier that way, allowed them to be freer that they otherwise might. They didn't embrace, not even when Olivia's intermittent tears grew steady more than once, not even when Barba had sheepishly reached for a tissue himself and dabbed at his eyes. But at times a comforting hand had found a forearm, a thigh, at times they had leaned together more heavily, at times fingers had entwined and squeezed in a show of understanding, of solidarity.
It wasn't until they found themselves sharing an elevator alone that Barba had properly put his arms around her, but only briefly because it made her cry again. "This is why," she accused with a watery laugh. "You need to promise me that if you see me get emotional while we're working, you'll either ignore it or run away. None of this -"
"-Being me and being here?" He drew back with a chuckle, even as a warmth filled him, driving away a bit of the rawness he was feeling. At first he attributed it to flattery, ego, but as he closed the door on her cab and watched her drive away, he realised it was more than that. He was moved, genuinely and deeply so, that she not only trusted him with her sadness, but that his very presence drew out that vulnerability. He wasn't sure what he'd done to earn that trust, but as he began his own drive home he vowed to continue to prove he was worthy of it.
Barba didn't sit next to her at the funeral, didn't stand near her at the committal. He instead watched from afar as she was able to be a strong support for the family and a strong example for her team. He stayed through the whole reception just to watch her, even helping to stack chairs in the church basement as it ended. And when she finally made her way to his side and suggested they share an Uber back to the precinct, he still kept his distance.
It wasn't until they were in the back of the car that he held out a hand to her. An offer, an invitation. Immediately tears threatened and she squeezed his fingers before letting go. "Later," she said, her eyes pleading.
Relieved when he understood.
"Still work to be done," he agreed, turning his attention away from her and out the window, giving her the space she needed despite their proximity.
Olivia took several steadying breaths and felt her control return. When a few minutes later she glanced at her friend who was obviously doing his best to ignore her, she found herself getting emotional again. But this time that emotion wasn't prompted by grief, but by gratitude.
Chapter 8: Message
"Hey, sorry I'm late."
"No problem," Olivia told him, swivelling the bar stool so she was facing him. She grabbed his lapels and pulled him in to press her lips against his cheek.
To his credit, Barba simply raised an eyebrow. "Okay. That's new. Are we doing that now?"
"Just trying to send a message," she explained, glancing around. "I've had three guys attempt to pick me up since I got here, and I'm not sure how many of them thought they'd be paying if I agreed."
"I'm not surprised. You look smoking hot," he said matter-of-factly, with not a hint of exaggeration or flirtation. "So how did it go?" He took a seat beside her and looked for the bartender.
"It was a bust. Hard to say if he made us or if something else went squirrelly, but he never showed."
"Not a big deal. We saw an opportunity to cut some corners and we took it, but even if he'd been where he was supposed to be, we may not have gotten him anyway. When it comes to the long game, I have a few more tricks up my sleeve."
"Where are you hiding them?" he jested, referring to her very tight shirt. She just rolled her eyes and he laughed aloud at his own joke. "Do you need to eat?"
She was on the witness list for the morning and they hadn't had much time to prepare. She'd obviously come right from her little undercover debacle, hence the outfit which she wouldn't have otherwise been caught dead in. She was hungry, but was afraid this was going to be a longer night than her energy would allow. "Maybe we should grab something to go, so we can get started?"
Finally catching the bartender's attention, they ordered some sandwiches, along with a scotch and wine respectively to enjoy while they waited.
"So those boots are quite something," Barba commented as he watched her stretch her legs and roll her ankles.
"They're torture devices is what they are. I'm worried my feet may never be the same."
"We can stop by your place so you can change on the way to the courthouse if you'd like."
She checked her watch. "Noah hasn't been sleeping the greatest. If he wakes up and sees you, we'll never get out of there."
"You're probably right." Barba was around the boy more especially since the whole Sheila debacle, but it had been awhile and Noah was prone to being excitable about his presence even when it hadn't. "I know I usually insist we do this with you in the stand, but I'll rescind that for one night only, in deference to your sore foot situation. My place?"
Olivia easily agreed, and Barba ordered an Uber.
As soon as they walked through his door, she put a hand on his shoulder to steady herself and peeled off the boots, sighing in relief as her bare feet settled on the tile floor.
"Why don't you go find some comfy socks and I'll get dinner dealt with," he suggested, waving her in the direction of his bedroom without ceremony. She hadn't been to his place often since their Christmas Eve sleepover, but apparently she still had no trouble making herself at home there, and he was fine with that.
When she returned, she was indeed in comfy socks. But she had also found some pajama pants and had shed her tight top for one of his tee-shirts.
She smiled sheepishly. "I had to get out of those jeans almost as much as I had to get out of those boots."
"But I loved those jeans," he said with a smirk.
"Good. You can have them."
"I appreciate the offer, but I can't imagine them ever doing for my ass what they do for yours." He motioned for her to sit. "I'd suggest more wine but we should probably both forego the good stuff in favour of clear heads. What's your pleasure?" She opted for water and he poured her some before joining her at the table. "What time do you need to be home?"
"Lucy is prepared to stay the night, so you have me as long as you need me."
They ate at the table while he walked her through the preliminaries. They made coffee and tidied the kitchen together side-by-side while they squabbled over one of the points he had planned to leave out. They faced each other from opposite ends of the couch as he began to go through his questions. By the time he was taking her through what he foresaw as problems that could arise in the cross, Olivia had sprawled out and Barba had pulled her sore feet into his lap, rubbing them absently while they worked.
It was after midnight when they finally gave up.
"You want to stay over?" he offered casually. "You know you're welcome. And I should point out you're already dressed for it."
"Thanks, but tomorrow is going to be a long day. I'd like to be there when Noah gets up." She pushed herself up from the couch, then groaned. "Oh, God. I'd forgotten about the boots."
"And the jeans," he reminded her helpfully, his eyes shining.
"Nope, I'm done with the jeans. The Uber driver will just have to enjoy this little ensemble."
"Not to worry; the boots will really class it up." They shared a chuckle. "I'll grab you a sweater."
While she ordered a ride and donned the boots he put her discarded clothing in a canvas bag for her to carry home. He held out the sweater as she slipped her arms inside. It was a little big, and she rolled up the sleeves to a more comfortable length while he zipped it up for her.
"Good?" he asked.
"As good as it's going to get." She shifted her weight from foot to foot as she grimaced. "Thanks, Barba."
"Yeah, no problem." A ding from her phone. "That's probably your car. I'll see you in the morning. 9:15? My office?" At her nod, he walked her to the door and opened it. "Get some rest, Lieutenant." Then without warning and without thought, he kissed her cheek.
It was Olivia's turn to raise an amused eyebrow. "Are we doing that now?" she echoed his earlier words.
"Just trying to send a message," he echoed back. He could hear her laughter as he closed the door behind her.
Chapter 9: Trust
Olivia considered Lucy a treasure. Her flexibility and dependability to handle an erratic schedule was something that Olivia paid a premium for, but it was worth it for all the things she brought into their lives that money could not buy, namely the young woman's genuine love for them both, and the sense of consistency her presence gave to Noah. Lucy was like family, and the fact that Olivia could trust her completely with her son was priceless.
On the day that Lucy had just brought Noah back from the park when she received a call about a family emergency, Olivia would have been happy to drop everything so that Lucy could get where she needed to go. But Olivia wasn't answering her cell, wasn't in her office. So Lucy had no choice but to look through the list of emergency numbers on the fridge to try to find a solution herself.
The one she chose was a relatively new addition to that list, but she had no doubt that Liv would approve.
"Mr. Barba, it's Lucy. I'm sorry to bother you..."
"Lucy? What's wrong? Is Noah okay?"
"Yes, he's fine. But I can't reach Liv and..." Through her tears she briefly related what had happened. "I think Liv said she'd be in court today. Is she with you?"
"No, but she's in the building. Can you get to the courthouse?"
When she indicated that she could, he did some quick math to figure out where he'd be around the time she would arrive, and gave her instructions on how to find him and what to do if he was still tied up.
The gallery had cleared throughout the afternoon as the docket cleared, so there were only a few people left when Lucy arrived. She was carrying Noah's car seat, and the little boy had been made to promise to stay close to her side as they found the room where Barba indicated they should meet him.
Someone on their way out held the door so they could enter, and Lucy was relieved to see Barba at the front of the room. But before she could set down the car seat and take Noah's hand, he saw Barba too.
And took off running in his direction.
The case had just been announced by the bridge officer and so Lucy couldn't yell after him to stop. She quickly placed the car seat against the wall but had only made it a few steps when Noah was scooped up by a bailiff.
Noah wasn't a particularly nervous child. Shy in certain situations, but not one to simply fall apart at a moment's notice. When he was unexpectedly scared by something, however, all bets were off.
Thankfully, Barba was facing in the right direction and had seen the commotion. He watched Noah freeze as the little boy's mind raced and tried to settle on a reaction.
A few long strides and Barba was reaching over the railing to take Noah into his arms.
"Mr. Barba," the judge began.
"Just one moment, Your Honour. My apologies."
"Oh, my God. I'm so sorry." A horrified Lucy was there now, trying to extract Noah from Barba and the situation, but Noah was having none of it, keeping his arms and legs firmly locked around the man.
Barba glanced at Rita, the opposing counsel, who gave him an amused nod. He quietly spoke to the boy, who with his face pressed against Barba's neck nodded and gave unintelligible assent.
"I'll just be a few minutes, Lucy," Barba told the girl with an encouraging and sympathetic smile before he returned to his position. "Your Honour, if you wouldn't mind..."
It was obvious the judge was just happy for things to continue, as this was the last arraignment on his schedule for the day. "Ms. Calhoun?" he inquired.
"We're fine to continue, Your Honour." She and Barba had already negotiated a course of action.
"Alright then. Mr. Moran, you how do you plead?"
"Not guilty," Rita answered on his behalf.
"People on bail?"
"The People would agree to house arrest, providing Mr. Moran was required to wear an electronic monitoring device."
"In that case, Mr. Moran, you will surrender your passport and remain under house arrest with electronic monitoring until such time as your case goes to trial." With that, court was adjourned.
Barba managed to pack up his briefcase one-handed as his left arm was still holding Noah. "Thanks, Rita," he said quietly as he passed her.
"Not a problem. Looks good on you, Counselor," she teased good-naturedly.
Barba didn't take the bait, or even really register what had been said, because he noticed that Olivia had arrived. "Your mami is here," he told Noah. "You go see her while I talk to Lucy." He set the boy down and watched him run to his mother before putting an arm around Lucy's shoulders and leading her in their direction.
"I'm so sorry," she said again, tears already falling.
"No harm done, really," he assured her with a comforting squeeze. "Don't give it another thought. Any word?"
She shook her head. "I'm going to head over now."
"Nonsense. We'll get you there."
"I just got your messages. I'm so sorry, Lucy," Liv told the girl as she passed Noah back to Barba and pulled her into a hug.
"Liv, why don't you give Lucy a ride. I've still got your key; I can take Noah back to your place."
And so it was agreed.
By the time Olivia made it home, Noah had been fed, bathed, and put to bed hours before. Neither Liv nor Barba bothered to give a report, as they'd kept in touch by text about both Noah's activities and the situation at the hospital.
"Drink?" Barba suggested.
"Please. I'm going to change."
When she returned to the living room, he handed her a glass of wine before joining her on the couch with the scotch he'd already been working on.
"Thanks for today," she told him genuinely.
"Don't mention it. You know I'm happy to help."
"Now that I know you can babysit AND be in court at the same time, I may call you more often," she teased.
"Yeah, I imagine I'll be the brunt of jokes over the next few days once that makes it around...and I'm sure Rita will see that it does."
"You're tough. You can take it."
They shared a smile.
"Seriously, though, if you need help while Lucy is out, let me know," he told her. "I'm not scheduled to be in court tomorrow afternoon, so if you get stuck I can pick up Noah."
"That's good to know. I'm hoping I'll be able to get away, but if I can't I may have to take you up on that."
"In that case, I'd better go home and get some sleep so I'll be ready." He drained his glass as he stood. "I love your kid, Liv, I really do. But I'd be lying if I said he didn't tire me out."
Her words, her tone, managed to conceal the wave of emotion that came over her hearing Barba so casually express his affection for her son. "It's because you're used to working hard, but not playing hard. It takes a different energy," she explained from experience. "You'll get the hang of it."
And she had no doubt that he would. She'd seen a change in their relationship since his suspension, since the day she'd first been forced to ask him for help with Noah. Before that, he'd been kind, but far from confident, always looking to her for guidance as though he was worried he would do something wrong.
She remembered that feeling. She'd had it when she'd first brought Noah home. The difference was that she hadn't had anyone to look to, and so had been forced to figure it out.
That first day he'd spent alone with Noah had been the same for Barba. Without her to fall back on, he'd managed to figure things out.
Now he was kind, confident, and seemed actually COMFORTABLE with Noah. Seeing him hold her son in the courtroom today like it was a perfectly natural event had been an incredible, beautiful thing for her to behold. And now hearing him say he loved Noah, it was almost too much.
Barba had no idea he'd sparked this reaction in her, so he was business as usual as he knelt to put on his shoes. "Okay, so there's a plate for you in the fridge; I wasn't sure if you'd eaten. Noah had a pretty big glass of juice before bed, so you may want to wake him up to use the bathroom at some point. Oh, and Lucy had texted to ask me to switch the laundry over. I put away what I could figure out but everything else is folded on your bed." He was on his feet now, shrugging into his suit jacket. "You really lucked out with her, didn't you? I mean, with everything that's going on she still remembers the laundry."
"She's the best," Olivia confirmed. "And so are you, by the way."
"Yeah, you really lucked out all over the place," he said with a smirk. "See you tomorrow."
But as he went to turn her hand on his arm stilled him. "I mean it, you know. You really are the best."
Barba sensed it was important to her that he not simply brush off the sentiment as he often might. "I don't know about 'the best'," he said seriously, "but in case there was any question, it means a lot to me that you trust me to help out when I can."
After he had gone, Olivia took a moment to appreciate that the apartment was not only tidy but actually CLEAN. Which meant that except for the laundry to finish putting away, there was nothing for her to do but put up her feet and relax for a change.
She thought about bringing Barba lunch the next day to specifically thank him for going that extra mile, but decided against it when she acknowledged to herself that there was no more "extra mile" when it came to the part they had chosen to play in each other's lives. This was just how it was now between them.
Mind you, she still did bring him lunch. But just because that was how it was now between them, too.
Chapter 10: Practical
Barba ran into Lucy and Noah in the hallway outside of Olivia's apartment, and while he was running behind he wasn't immune to the pull of Noah's exuberant greetings. After a few minutes of catching up, it was Lucy who checked her watch. "Okay, kiddo," she said to Noah. "We've got to get going or we won't have time to meet Jeremy at the park before school."
"Can you come with us?" Noah asked hopefully from his place on Barba's hip.
"Sorry, buddy. Not today." Barba gave the boy a squeeze before setting him down and picking up the briefcase that had been placed against the wall.
"Mr. Barba needs to make sure your mom gets to work, just like I need to make sure you get to school!" Lucy said brightly, trying to curb the boy's disappointment. "And I think your mom needs a little extra help today. But you'll see him soon, I promise. Now let's go – I bet Jeremy's waiting for you right now!"
"Thank you," Barba mouthed to Lucy over Noah's head. She smiled before hustling Noah toward the elevator.
Liv was just exiting the bathroom when Barba used his key to let himself into the apartment. When he saw her – and specifically what she was wearing - he was about to apologize for barging in but her greeting (or, rather, lack of greeting) seemed to indicate no apology was necessary.
"Good, you're here. I need your help choosing what outfit will be best for this jury."
"Can I vote for this one?" She was walking around barefoot in a white silk and lace slip that fell mid-thigh.
"Don't be gross. Do you need coffee first?"
"Just finished one. But I figured we'd get some on the way so you'll be freshly caffeinated when you take the stand."
They'd prepped her testimony at the courthouse the previous evening, but he'd warned her that the jury hadn't seemed to be responding as well to the more "powerful" female witnesses that had testified so far on either side. Normally he'd never suggest she consider trying a softer approach to see if it might help her connect better, but the trial wasn't going well and he really wanted to nail this guy. He'd still been a bit surprised when she'd agreed without much of a fight.
He followed her to her room and watched from the doorway while she pulled on option 1. "Zip me, please." Then she did a little twirl. "Thoughts?"
"It's lovely," he began carefully, "but maybe a little TOO much. I need you to be comfortable and still be YOU." He crossed to her open closet and started looking through. "What if you just pair some black pants with this – " he selected a more feminine top with muted colourful print – "to soften it up, and then maybe just go a little more obvious on the jewelry."
"THAT I can do. Thanks. Unzip?" As she stepped out of the outfit, he'd intended to leave her so she could finish getting dressed. But before he could turn to do so, she said, "Okay, can you walk me through the question about the outcry witness again? I had an idea after I got home last night."
"Sure." So Barba moved to half-lay on her bed, propped up on three pillows, and they talked while she stepped into her pants before facing away to pull the slip over her head, leaving her in only her bra before she quickly donned the shirt he had suggested. "Good?" she asked as she added the blazer.
"Um, maybe without the jacket?"
As she dealt with choosing jewelry, it briefly crossed Barba's mind that perhaps he should feel emasculated by what had just transpired. But then he figured that he'd probably opened the door to it the week before when he'd invited her into his apartment with the bottom half of his face covered with shaving cream and the bottom half of his body covered only with a towel tied snugly around his waist. He'd been running behind but had wanted to deal with her warrant requests before he had to be in court at 9:30, so it made sense for her to brief him, leaning against his bathroom counter, while he finished shaving.
It hadn't been a statement on his part. In fact, until today he hadn't given it a second thought. This was OLIVIA after all, and it wouldn't have occurred to him - or, he imagined, to her - to be bothered about him in a towel at this stage of their friendship, just like he wasn't bothered being in the room while she got dressed that morning.
"These earrings too much?"
"No, I like them."
"In that case, I think I'm ready to go." She took a last look in the mirror, and catching him watching her in the reflection, she finally took a moment to pause and breathe. "Good morning, by the way."
He smiled, his eyes soft and genuine. "Good morning," he echoed as she turned toward him.
"You're looking comfortable."
"I'd say comfort isn't exactly our problem."
She chuckled as she led him from the room. "No, I suppose it isn't. And I'm rather glad about that."
"Is that so," he said dryly. "Do tell."
"Well, beyond any sentimental considerations, it apparently means we don't have to rush so much to get dressed in the morning before these early meetings."
"I love it when you're practical," he said fondly, just as his phone made a familiar dinging sound. "Uber's here. So do you need me to pick out your shoes too, Lieutenant? Or can you manage that on your own?"
She slapped his arm in response to his sass. "Don't get TOO comfortable, Counselor."
He just grinned. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Chapter 11: Support
"Rafa!" Benson jogged to meet him outside the courtroom. "Sorry, running a bit behind this morning," she apologized, a little breathless.
"Me too." He checked his watch. "7 minutes to spare."
"You ready?" she asked, eyeing him critically.
The night before he'd called her to check in, and admitted he wasn't as confident about the day ahead as he wanted to be. Since she wasn't on the witness list, she offered to pop in for the first hour or so for moral support through the opening statements. He'd of course refused. She'd of course ignored him.
His response to her inquiry about his readiness was enough to prove she'd made the right decision, and she immediately took over, helping in the only way she really could.
She started at the top, running her fingers quickly through his hair, allowing the copious amounts of product he'd applied that morning to be reactivated by the light rain and mist that had made things unruly to begin with.
On her approach she'd seen him toss a small paper bag into the trash, so suspected he'd had a bagel that morning, and the kind he liked had the little seeds on top. "Teeth," she instructed, and when he presented them she deemed them clear.
She helped him shrug off his soggy overcoat and folded it over his arm. She adjusted his tie and smoothed out the lapels of his jacket before reaching in to extract his phone from the inner pocket. She put in the code from memory and made sure it was switched to silent before returning it.
"How's the coffee situation?"
"Running on empty, I'm afraid."
"I'll get you a refill," she offered, taking the travel mug from him.
"Not from - "
"I know. You go get settled." And she was off jogging again.
She made it back just in time, striding to the barrier separating the gallery from the real action and calling his name. Their fingers brushed as he took the coffee from her, and she gave him a reassuring smile before retreating to one of the few open seats in the back of the room.
There was a note folded and attached to the lid of his cup. He opened it as the proceedings were called to order, and he had to school his expression as he taped it to the corner of the table. Just in case he needed the reminder.
You've got this! :D xo
As he stood when called on for his opening statement, he glanced back at her and she gave him a covert thumbs up. He responded with his usual subtle nod, took a breath, and began.
Chapter 12: Teamwork
Barba wasn't particularly surprised when he was ambushed by Olivia in his office. Somehow Carmen had interpreted their deepening friendship as a free pass for Benson to come and go as she pleased. Which was a fair enough interpretation, he supposed, considering he hadn't gotten around to correcting it nor did he have any plans to.
"I won't apologise," he told her immediately. "There was no way you were going to get that warrant on the garbage your guys brought me."
"Yes, yes, you're right."
It didn't matter that Liv was distracted by her phone, in the middle of composing either an email or text. A quick concession meant she was here with bigger fish to fry. "What do you need, Lieutenant?"
"You'll be there Friday, right? You're bringing Carmen?"
"There" was the Police Foundation's biennial gala to raise money for the Manfred Pakas Scholarship Fund. Before the last event, Barba had found out that Carmen had been a recipient, her father having been killed in the line of duty while she was a teenager. So it had been very meaningful to her that he not only supported the event and the fund but had also insisted she come along.
"Actually, I decided to give my ticket to Carmen's boyfriend so they can go together."
"That's perfect. I now have an EXTRA ticket and I need you to be my date," she told him, as though the matter was already settled.
Which, in his mind, it most definitely was NOT. "Wait. What happened to... Parker, was it? The captain at the 9th?"
She huffed in annoyance, still focused on her phone. "The idiot went and got himself shot!"
He blinked at her uncharacteristic callousness. "Wow..."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Rubber bullet. He's going to be fine. He caught a friendly-fire ricochet in a training exercise, but his leg is pretty bruised up. I'm convinced he let it happen specifically to get out of going." Her phone rang in her hand. "Benson. Yeah, hey Fin. Where are we at?" She gave Barba a pleading look.
"Liv, you know how much I hate these things," he hissed.
"You're great at these things!" she reminded him, before speaking back into the phone. "Have Carisi pick me up in front of Barba's office."
"A lot of people are good at things they hate doing," he told her when she paused to listen to Fin's reply. "That doesn't mean they should be forced to do them."
"Hang on one second, Fin." She covered the receiver with her hand. "Please? Please don't make me go to this alone."
"Oh, for the love - Fine, Olivia," he surrendered, knowing instinctively that this was an argument he wasn't going to win. "But wear flats, not those stilts you're so fond of when you're all dressed up. I don't want to spend the night staring at your neck, as lovely as it may be."
"Thank you so much! I'll call you later!" She gave a happy little wave and showed herself out. "I'm on my way out now, Fin. What's Carisi's ETA?"
Barba just shook his head. The things he did for this infuriating woman.
The event was pretty standard: Fancy dinner, keynote speaker, an invitation for those that were able to open their cheque books and give beyond the $500 a plate ticket fee. Then came the schmoozing, where the city's elite made sure they were seen by the people and press representatives that mattered. And for those who were blissfully there with little or nothing to prove, there was dancing and a cash bar.
Both Benson and Barba were happy to support the cause; it was the schmoozing they were expected to do by their respective bosses - the DA and Dobbs, also in attendance - that they could take or leave.
At least when she was on his arm they could tag team these political encounters, sharing the conversational load and playing off of each other. And when Olivia skillfully diffused a state senator's stump speech ramp-up, Barba pulled her onto the dance floor in celebration, speaking low and close to her ear, "We need to team up for these things more often."
Her sensible shoes gave him about a half-inch height advantage, allowing them to fit comfortably together as they swayed to the slow music. "So what do you think?" she asked conspiratorially. "Have we put in our time? Is there anyone left we need to smile at before we can get out of here?"
"Am I really such terrible company?" he teased, his hand tightening at her waist.
"If it's any consolation, this part isn't so bad," she said with a smile before pressing her cheek to his.
"Just don't look like you're having TOO much fun. Half the people here have enough clout to get us transferred or fired. The last thing we need is for one of tomorrow's gossip headlines to read "Conflict of interest in the DA's office"."
She hummed in annoyed agreement. "If you're worried, maybe we should divide and conquer for awhile," she suggested, putting some more space between them.
At a swell in the music, Barba spun her out before drawing her back in even closer than before. "I'm not THAT worried."
Chapter 13: Nicknames
"I'll be right back," Liv called out as she breezed by the living room where her son and her friend were building lego before dinner. She'd had her hands full on the way up after work and hadn't been able to check her mail for a letter she'd been waiting for, so she'd decided to take advantage of Barba's presence while it was on her mind. "Babe, can you stir the sauce in a minute?"
Noah and Barba both paused and looked at each other. After a beat, Barba's brow furrowed and he pointed to Noah in confusion.
Noah shook his head. "I'm not allowed to use the stove by myself."
When there was no reply Olivia assumed she hadn't been heard so she tried again from halfway out the door. "Rafa? Okay for the sauce?"
"Mommy, you called Ra -"
Barba clapped a hand over the boy's month. "Sauce. Got it covered. Let's go, kid - you can help me." He picked him up under one arm and carried him laughing to the kitchen.
Later, they were playing an intense game of Go Fish around the coffee table when Olivia's phone buzzed. "I'm sorry, guys, but Fin's about to call and I need to take this. Rafa, would you mind helping Noah with his bath?"
Spaghetti night usually wasn't bath night, but things had gotten shifted around that week for reasons that were partly his fault. Of course, even if that hadn't been the case Barba was more than happy to help out. "Sure," he answered agreeably, then shot a conspiratorial look at Noah. "I can do that. Babe."
"I beg your pardon?"
And then Noah lost it, dissolving into giggles as though it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. Barba wasn't far behind him.
For her part, Olivia had no idea what was going on. But her phone rang and there wasn't time to find out.
The call and the tasks that were needed following it took much longer than she'd anticipated, so it wasn't until after Noah's bath was over and Barba had put him to bed without being asked so as not to disturb her that she finally got to question him.
"I've gotta run, Liv. Noah's all settled for night. Thanks for dinner!"
"Hold on, mister." She stopped him at the door as he was putting on his shoes. "Do I get to be let in on the joke?"
With his usual smirk, he revealed, "You called me 'babe' earlier today."
"I did no such thing!" Olivia looked positively scandalized, which made it all the more amusing to Barba.
"Oh, but you definitely did. Noah and I had to try to figure out which one of us you were talking to."
Liv wracked her brain to try to remember saying it, but to no avail. And since he had no reason to lie about it, she had to resign herself to the slip. "Well. That's a bit mortifying."
Seeing the colour rise to her cheeks in an uncharacteristic blush, Barba chose to let her off the hook rather than tease further. "Olivia, I've come to accept you as a woman of a million mindless nicknames when it comes to your son. Frankly I'm kind of surprised I don't get caught in the crossfire more often."
"I remember calling a teacher 'mom' more than once," she admitted. "I suppose it's the same thing. Though no less embarrassing."
"As long as you don't call ME 'mom', we're probably okay." With a smile, he gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze... and found that despite his initial intentions he just couldn't help himself. "Well, princess, enjoy your night."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, my God."
"See you tomorrow, pookie."
"Sweet dreams, sugar plum."
"I. Will. End. You." She punctuated each word with a slap on his arm, effectively driving him out the door even as she joined in his laughter.
The next day she texted him to ask him to stop by the precinct regarding a case, their first contact since the previous night's foolishness. In her office, surrounded by her squad, his response caught her off guard and caused a giggle to slip out, a reaction that would have been inappropriate even if they WEREN'T in the middle of a discussion about a brutal assault: "Sorry, *babe*. No can do. In court 'til at least 4."
She was quick to school her features but the damage was done. "Uh, Barba can't make it." Carisi and Rollins exchanged glances. Fin raised an eyebrow. And Olivia hoped that no one noticed the effects of the heat she felt in her cheeks. She tapped out a quick response - "I hate you." - before putting her phone away and ignoring the response that chimed about 30 seconds later.
When she finally did check her messages much later in the afternoon, she was glad she had left it until she was alone, because she probably would have blushed again when she read his reply: "Anyone ever told you that you're pretty cute when you're embarrassed?"
Chapter 14: Fear
SETTING: Takes place during 19x13 ("The Undiscovered Country").
February 6th, 2018
Barba had programmed Olivia's home phone into his cell not because he ever used it, but because he knew that his number was listed for emergencies on her fridge for babysitters or for Noah himself and he didn't want to miss an important call because of an "unknown caller". So when "Benson - home" showed up on his call display, he couldn't NOT answer.
"Uncle Rafa? Something's wrong with my mom and I'm scared. Can you come over?"
Biting down his initial reaction, Barba did his best to keep his voice calm. "Is she hurt? Is she bleeding or anything?"
"No. No, I don't think so."
"Good. That's good, Noah. Where is she now?"
"She's in the bathroom. She said she was going to take a shower, but I could hear her crying and I think she got sick. She says she's okay but she won't let me come in."
Barba closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. "Alright, buddy. I'm already in a taxi, so I'm just going to come right to your place, okay? You hang on for one second." He covered the phone just long enough to give the driver the new address. "You don't have anything to worry about, okay? I'm on my way, and I'm going to stay on the phone with you until I get there. Why don't you tell me about school today, huh?
And while he coaxed details and stories from the boy, part of his mind was occupied with trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation. He knew he was the reason for Olivia's sadness and he felt horrible about it, but he couldn't steer clear just for his own comfort when Noah was reaching out to him.
"Noah Porter Benson! What did I say about using the phone without permission?!" Her stress made Olivia snap more harshly then she meant to and caused Noah to finally lose it, bursting into tears just as Barba used his key to open the door.
Instead of going to Olivia for comfort as he normally would, Noah ran to Barba and was lifted into his arms, his little body shaking with near-silent sobs.
For her part, Olivia felt intruded on, exposed. Her eyes and nose were red, standing out starkly against her paler than usual skin. Her wet hair was uncombed. And perhaps the worst and most revealing part was that as soon as Barba looked at her she was crying again, despite having been sure she'd gotten herself under control.
"Okay, team Benson. Let's all just take a breath here." Still holding Noah, he managed to close the door behind him and toe off his shoes. "Little man, you give your mami a hug. She didn't mean to scare you, did you, Liv?"
"Of course not. Come here, baby. I'm sorry."
Barba divested himself of his coat and scarf and led them to the couch with a guiding hand low on Olivia's back. He grabbed a box of tissues from the counter on the way by, offering them to Olivia as they sat down, taking one himself and helping Noah blow his nose after the boy crawled over and curled up in Barba's lap.
"Rafa..." Olivia began.
He took her hand and squeezed it. "I know."
Carmen had kept her ear to the ground and had texted him as soon as she'd heard rumblings that the jury already had a verdict and he'd likely be receiving a call to appear the next day.
Smart, efficient, fiercely loyal and protective Carmen. Always looking out for him. He would miss her.
The news had also made it to Olivia, which had prompted her unexpected and unwelcome panic attack that had found her hiding in the bathroom, retching and hyperventilating.
He'd just come from his mother's apartment, where he'd been fed and reassured in equal measure. She hadn't been in court for most of the day, though not of her own choice. He'd reasoned with her not to take the time off of work, saying that it would be better for her if she had something to distract her. He'd pleaded with her to stay away during his testimony, saying that he needed to focus and having her there would make it difficult. And he'd insisted that she be absent when the verdict came down, saying it was to protect her from any press response that would immediately follow no matter the results.
But she'd arrived after school just in time for the closing statements, sitting beside Olivia, stoic but supportive. And she'd demanded that he come home with her and let her make him all his favourite foods. Needing to help in a tangible way, beyond just the hope she spoke over him like unceasing prayer.
He couldn't tell if the hope was genuine or put on for his benefit. He didn't care. He loved her for trying.
But when the message had come from Carmen just before 7 p.m., any hope that managed to work its way into his own mind and heart was immediately replaced by dread, and he was compelled to seek the solitude of his own home. His mother had relented, but only because he had assured her that no matter what happened the next day, they would still have the time they needed to say what needed to be said.
That assurance was thanks to Jack McCoy, who just after the indictment had called him into his office to reveal that he'd spoken with the judge on his behalf, and that as a professional courtesy and because he was obviously not a danger to himself or others, should he be found guilty Barba would not be remanded until his sentencing hearing, instead placed under electronic monitoring so he would have some time to get his affairs in order.
This extra breathing room was a gift. Things had happened so very quickly, but rather than having to use the last few evenings to plan for an uncertain future, he could allow himself to focus on his defense. And the day before the trial had started he'd picked up Noah from his after school program and they had laughed and played and made messes and had fun. When she'd returned from work he'd taken Olivia out to eat, and had intended on enjoying her company just as long as he could stay awake, determined to make every moment count. Then Dworkin had tracked him down with some new ideas and while they did end up back at Olivia's, his lawyer had come along and they had prepped late into the night.
He'd still managed to find the time (with a lot of help from Carmen, at her insistence) even before the indictment to get some things in the works, wanting to be ready to pull the trigger if it went sour, to make sure he would have time for proper goodbyes. His bank was poised to cash out some of his investments to be put in a trust for Astonja, taking the place of his regular contributions. He'd found a storage company that seemed reputable and had sent out some quote requests to packers and movers to deal with the contents of his apartment. He'd also had Carmen speak with an estate liquidator, in case his sentence was more than a few years and it would make more sense just to sell off all his furniture rather than let it gather dust and become outdated. He was considering renting his place to cover mortgage payments while he was inside, but of course it was covering the mortgage when he was OUT and likely unemployable in any position that would allow him to be able to handle such payments that was an issue. So Carmen was tasked with getting a real estate agent engaged should he decide to sell outright.
In any case, Barba was glad beyond measure that no matter what the jury had to say the next day, this wouldn't be his last opportunity to put Noah to bed. Yet he was still feeling a sense of dread, of doom, lurking over him. So he gave in with no contest to Noah's request that rather than a story Barba lay down with him and hold him until he fell asleep.
But Barba was emotionally and physically exhausted. So it shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did when he woke up several hours later.
Removing himself from the boy's arms, Barba snuck out of the room to find a kitchen chair had been pulled into the hallway where he was sure to see it. On the chair was a towel and face cloth under a pile of his sleep clothes that Olivia had collected over the last year, with a new toothbrush sitting on top like a cherry on a sundae. The message was clear: "Stay". And in that moment he could think of no reason not to.
So after a quick shower Barba was climbing into Olivia's bed. And following a few minutes of silent consideration, he slipped an arm under her head and spooned against her back.
"I'm sorry," he whispered close to her ear when her hand came to rest over his against her stomach, fingers squeezing. Sorry he had woken her. Sorry he had caused her so much worry and pain. Sorry that he was being selfish in seeking comfort. And sorry for the tears that were slipping from his eyes despite his efforts to hold himself together.
Olivia turned over to face him and with a tender hand wiped away his tears even as a few of her own fell anew. Their limbs tangled and they held each other so tightly that at first it was hard to breathe. But it was already hard to breathe, and they both knew it would be that way until they heard what they jury had decided.
Bringing themselves under control, Barba rolled onto his back and Olivia tucked herself into his side, her head on his shoulder. They didn't speak, even though there was so much to be said. Too much. So much that the enormity of where to start and where to end was itself what rendered them silent. And they didn't sleep, not for a long time. Kept awake not by their thoughts or worries, but by not wanting to waste this time together, knowing they may not have much time left. Focusing on the skin and the warmth and the scent of the other. Her hand slipping under his t-shirt to settle over his heart, chaste but intimate.
February 7, 2018
Eventually their weariness overtook them. And they might have slept longer than they should if Noah hadn't bounded in and, delighted to see Barba there, crawled over them and inserted himself in between them before singing "Happy Birthday" to his mother at the top of his lungs. When Liv checked her phone and announced that they didn't need to be in court until 10, Noah declared that this would be the best morning ever because they would BOTH be able to take him to school. Apparently he'd recovered from the trauma of the night before.
After putting on yesterday's clothes, Barba helped Noah dress and made a simple breakfast while Olivia got ready. And when they all sat down to eat he saw that Olivia's eyes were bright with unshed tears and he had to fight to stay in the now, to be present with Noah rather than give in to the mounting emotion.
They walked Noah to school, each holding one of his hands as he skipped and sang and chattered nonstop. And when they arrived Barba knelt to retie one of Noah's shoes and found himself on the receiving end of a tight hug and a sloppy kiss and a "Love you!" and a "See you tonight!" and as he watched the boy run into his classroom it was only Olivia's strong grasp of his arm as he rose to his feet that kept him from completely falling apart.
"Don't catastrophize, Counselor," she said in a low voice. "At least not yet."
"Says the woman who panicked til she puked barely 12 hours ago."
"Be nice. This is already a really crappy birthday."
Olivia had to go to the precinct to deal with something before court, and Barba needed to run home to shave and put on a fresh suit. But they lingered on the sidewalk, knowing it was likely the last private moment they would have together before the verdict.
"Rafa -" she began just as he said, "Liv, I-"
They smiled, and he motioned toward her to go first.
"I just wanted to say... I just wanted you to know that your friendship has been-" And then she had to stop as her voice caught.
"Didn't you JUST say we shouldn't catastrophize? Because this feels like you're ramping up for the big 'goodbye'."
"You're right. I'm sorry." She swiped at her eyes and took a deep breath. "So what were YOU going to say?"
And when he gave her his usual half-smile, she knew that he had been going to do the same thing.
"Right. Brave faces, then," she said resolutely as she flagged down a cab.
But the look she gave him through the window of her cab after he shut the door behind her was all fear. And a part of him knew it was the fear that no matter what happened in court that day, things were going to change.
Chapter 15: Next
Setting: Takes place immediately after 19x13 ("The Undiscovered Country").
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"
Chapter 16: Deniability
SETTING: During and after 19x14 ("Chasing Demons"), when Olivia was hiding Cassidy in her apartment.
Barba smiled into the phone. In the delivery of that one word, he could tell that Liv was in "efficient-work-mode", which was something he had already found himself missing. "Shoot."
"The six weeks of vacation time you were owed: Did they give it to you as a lump sum payout?"
That was unexpected. He'd been hoping she was calling for advice on something she was working on. He was going a bit stir crazy at home. "Why? Do you need a loan?"
"No, nothing like that. So, did they? Or are they dolling it out by pay period?"
"Are you asking if I'm still on city payroll? Because if you are, the answer is 'yes'. They thought it would be easier in case they needed to call me in on anything through the transition."
"Okay. In that case, I'm going to ask you a favour, but I need you to NOT ask me why."
Ah. Barba finally caught up. "Is this a plausible deniability thing?"
"Liv, I'm not going to tell on you. And frankly I'm a little hurt that you couldn't trust me."
"I do trust you, don't be ridiculous. I just don't want you to be put in a position where you might have to lie for me."
He huffed incredulously. "What are they going to do, fire me? I'm already halfway out the door."
"Please? I'll tell you the whole sordid tale as soon as I can, I promise."
He paused, considering. "Is whatever this is going to put you in danger?"
"Only my career." He could tell she wasn't quite kidding. "But not physically, no. It's nothing like that. Honestly."
"Don't you trust me?"
A heavy sigh. "Okay, what's the favour?"
"I need you to let Lucy bring Noah over to your place after school, and then I need you to keep him overnight and take him to school in the morning."
"Keep him at my place."
"Which means that you have something going on at your place."
He relented, sensing from her tone that her frustration was mounting and he wasn't going to get much further. "Yes, of course I will. That's not a problem. My mother is coming over for dinner tonight, and she's been asking to meet Noah, so that'll work fine. I won't be home until at least 5:00, though."
"Lucy can entertain him until then."
"Okay. I'll text her with directions."
"And you're sure you don't mind?"
"Why would I mind? What I do mind is you keeping whatever's going on from me."
That got to her. "I know. I'm sorry. But it's for the best."
"I think you just don't want me to talk you out of it, and you're using plausible deniability as an excuse."
"You may be right. But it's not going to change anything."
After stopping by the precinct to pick up the overnight bag that Olivia had prepared before leaving for work, Lucy and Noah arrived at around 5:15, and Barba greeted them each warmly before giving a quick tour of the amenities.
Noah was thrilled to see his artwork from all those months ago on Barba's fridge, and Lucy got him started making more so that she could help with dinner preparations. Barba insisted that she stay to eat, but it really didn't take that much convincing. She was interested to meet Lucia, whom Olivia had in the past described as formidable. Plus, she was scheduled to be "on duty" for awhile longer and she wanted to make sure that Noah didn't break or ruin any of Barba's expensive stuff until she was no longer technically responsible for him.
In the end, Lucy was more than glad she stayed. Supper went off without a hitch, with Noah being particularly charming and Lucia obviously smitten. And seeing Barba interact with his mother was at times heartwarming and at times hilarious. The woman was indeed formidable, but also fun and very funny.
It was nearing 7:30 when Lucy suggested it was time for her to leave, but Lucia stopped her. "If you don't have other plans, we'd love for you to stay. We have a game we really like but it needs at least three players so we haven't had a chance to enjoy it since my mother died. You're a sharp young thing - I think you'd give us a run for our money."
Lucy was flattered by the invitation but looked at Barba for guidance. He just gave her a smile that confirmed she was more than welcome.
"Okay, sure! But why don't I put Noah to bed first?"
Noah started to protest but Barba put his hand lightly over the boy's mouth, first making him mumble and then making him laugh. "I've got that," Barba told her. "You two can set up the game and my mother can run you through the rules - Yuck! Did you just lick me?"
More giggles out of Noah, who followed instructions to hug Lucy and then, a little shyly, Lucia, who squeezed him and said, "Good night, sweet boy. I hope I will see you again soon." Beaming, Noah took Barba's hand and headed to get ready.
Lucia held her curiosity for as long as she could, but once the game was set up she said to Lucy, "My dear, I hope you don't mind but I can't quite help the instinct to eavesdrop on my son putting a child to bed. It's something I never thought I'd have a chance to witness, frankly."
In the end Lucy joined Lucia on the floor just outside the open door of Barba's bedroom and listened.
"Okay, little man. Your mom only packed one story, so I guess that's it."
"Don't you have any books?"
"I have a ton of books, actually. But they're all super duper boring, I promise."
A thoughtful pause. "Maybe you can get some not-boring books. For next time."
"That, my young friend, is an excellent idea. Now let's have a cuddle and you can tell me about your day."
Noah climbed onto his lap and settled in. "I sat with Michael today at lunch."
"Michael that you told me about the other day?"
"Uh-huh. You were right - He's not weird like everyone says. He just doesn't talk too much. And that's okay."
"Yes, it is okay. And maybe you can help the other kids in your class to realize that."
A pause. "Uncle Rafa? He didn't have a very good lunch."
"What do you mean?"
"Like, it wasn't very big. And it didn't have anything healthy in it. Which is kinda lucky, I guess. But if that was my lunch I would still be hungry."
This. This is what Barba loved the most. These teaching moments. "And it's tough to learn in school when you're hungry, isn't it?" Noah nodded. "So how do you think we should help Michael?"
"Um... Maybe we can pack extra in my lunch so I can share with him?"
"We most certainly can." He gave the boy a squeeze. "I'm very proud of you, Noah."
Noah beamed up at him as though Barba being proud was the best gift he could receive.
"Alright. You need to get up early tomorrow because school is further away, so it's time to sleep now."
"Okay." Noah left Barba's lap and got under the covers. "Do you think your mom likes me?"
"Yes, I think she likes you very much."
"I like her. She's nice."
"That she is." Barba switched off the bedside lamp. "Remember we're roommates tonight, so I'll be in in awhile. Give me a kiss."
"Love you too, kid."
While Lucy had snuck back to the kitchen as things were wrapping up, Lucia hadn't bothered. She met him in the doorway with a satisfied grin on her face. Annoyed, he took her by the arm and ushered her away from the bedroom.
"Mother, don't start," he warned as soon as they were out of earshot.
"That boy adores you."
"He really does," Lucy offered helpfully from her spot at the table.
"Stay out of this, you."
"Is Olivia seeing anyone?"
"She really isn't," Lucy interjected again.
"See if you get another invitation," he grumbled.
Lucy lifted her hands in surrender. "I'm totally for it, that's all I'll say."
"Oh, my God. Are we playing this game or not?"
"Lighten up, Raf," Lucia chided him before adding for Lucy's benefit: "He never did handle teasing well."
"I need a Scotch."
"Why don't you bring us some wine, mijo? Us girls are going to need it if you're going to be a grump."
They let him off the hook and the rest of their time was bearable. Fun, actually. And the fact that when Lucy left she didn't bother to remind him that she was available if anything happened with Noah in the night or to offer him any advice warmed him; apparently she trusted him to handle things on his own.
He was putting the game away and thinking about getting ready to bed when his phone sounded with a text from Olivia. "You awake?"
Rather than responding in kind, he called her. "Hey, you."
"Hey. How was your night?"
"My mother and Lucy together are insufferable."
"Lucy met your mother?"
"Yeah. They both just left. We played games after dinner."
"So why were they insufferable?"
"They were ganging up on me all night, in the games and otherwise."
"It was fun, though. My mom really took to her. And to Noah, by the way. They got along famously."
"Noah get to bed at a decent hour? "
"Yep, no trouble."
"Sounds like a successful night."
"It was. How about yours? Anything you're ready to tell me? Are you okay?"
"No, and yes."
It was hard for Barba to leave it at that, but he managed to just say, "Okay. I trust you."
"I know. Thank you."
They spoke for a few more minutes and then bid each other good night.
The next day Noah and Barba packed a special big lunch together, and they purposely arrived at the school early so Barba could speak to Noah's teacher about Michael's situation. That sorted, he went on about his day.
A few days later, Olivia dropped Noah off at school and was pulled aside by his teacher. "Can you please let Mr. Barba know that Michael has been set up for the school's hot lunch program for the rest of the year, and that his mother is very grateful? We kept the gift anonymous as he asked, but she wanted to make sure that the donor was told what a difference it will make."
"Um, yeah, of course. I'll let him know." And she was so stunned and warmed that she texted Fin that she was going to be late and took a cab to Barba's place instead.
Barba, however, didn't give her a chance to talk to him about that, not right away. He wanted to hear about what was going on with her, and wasn't taking no for an answer.
So she told him. It didn't go well.
"Calm down, Rafa."
"What was I supposed to do? Turn him in without giving him the benefit of the doubt?"
"YES! Yes, that is exactly what you were supposed to do!"
Olivia did her best to explain, to defend her choice, her willingness to risk her career for an ex. It wasn't her best work, and he was in fine form in his cross examination, but in the end she felt like he understood even if he didn't agree. If not from his former role as an ADA, then at least as her friend.
But it was his final question that caught her completely off-guard, and him a little too: "Did you sleep with him?"
"I can't believe you just asked me that! Of course I didn't sleep with him! Oh, my God. I can't even tell you how OVER that is. And how over it is going to stay."
"Good," she repeated. And then, his pause giving her an opening to change the subject and hopefully the mood in the room, she said, "Rafa, did you pay for lunches for one of the kids in Noah's class?"
He groaned, embarrassed. "How on earth did you hear about that?"
"His teacher asked me to pass on the mother's gratitude. She assumed I knew."
"Noah was worried about him. I wanted to help."
"You are something else, you know that?"
"It was 300 bucks. Not a big deal."
"It was a big deal for Michael and his family. And it's obviously a big deal to my son." Then she hugged him, hard. "And it's a big deal to me."
"No one was supposed to know," he mumbled into her shoulder. "It was meant to be anonymous."
With a final squeeze she stepped away and picked up her purse, heading toward the door. "Heaven forbid someone get an inkling you're not the tough, hardened law man everyone thinks you are. I'm just glad you lost your plausible deniability with me a long time ago. Because I'm rather partial to the real you, even if he yells at me for making questionable choices sometimes."
He rolled his eyes. She laughed and went to work.
Chapter 17: Restless
Barba had just finished putting Noah to bed and flopped onto the couch, sitting quietly while he watched Olivia responded to emails on her phone. Finally his patience ran out. "We should go dancing," he announced suddenly.
"Dancing, huh?" she parroted distractedly, still typing. "What kind of dancing?"
"Well, my repertoire is rather limited, but I'm Cuban. I've got hips for daaaays."
That got her attention. "Are you drunk?" she asked, feigning seriousness and with a critical eyebrow raised.
"No!" he insisted, laughing.
"I'm not sure 'bored' is the right word. Maybe feeling a bit restless?" This was mostly true. It had been a few weeks since he had given his notice. While there were still some things to wrap up, his responsibilities were less and less. In the beginning he HAD been bored when he wasn't obsessing or worrying. And when he wasn't distracted and comforted by Noah's antics or Olivia's steady presence; they had been inviting him over a lot, inviting him out with them to the park or to dinner or to other kid-friendly activities. But when he'd started to put out some feelers and had realized he had a lot of friends left and should be able to pick up some contract work pretty quickly once his self-imposed waiting period was over, possibilities for his future made him feel a rather unfamiliar desire to make the most of his unencumbered present.
She tossed her phone between them and gave him her full attention. "Getting tired of being a man of leisure, it would seem," she teased.
"Just itching to enjoy it," he clarified before jutting out his lip in an exaggerated pout. "But you're always working."
She scoffed and rolled her eyes at his ridiculous statement . "You know you can go out and have fun without me, right?"
"I have more fun with you."
"Guilty. Is it working?" He felt the vibration of her phone signalling a new message, and waved his hand, giving her permission to respond. This also served to give him time to formulate a new tactic to engage her. "You've got some vacation days stored up, right?"
"Rafa." Her best stern voice accompanying her best stern look.
Neither of which phased him in the least. "Oh, come on. We'd have a great time!"
Olivia could have come up with a million excuses, many of them legitimate. But seeing his earnest expression, seeing how free he looked and feeling the contrast with how weary she was, knowing she did indeed have a lot of vacation time in the bank, she was having trouble forcing her excuses from her mouth. Instead she found herself saying, "Maybe I could do a three day weekend."
"Five day weekend," he countered, not skipping a beat despite his shock that she'd folded so quickly.
"Five!" she repeated incredulously. "That's not a weekend - that's a whole week!"
"Nope. Four. Final offer."
"Ugh! Fine. You win. I'll talk to Fin tomorrow and see if I can clear my schedule. But since you're the unemployed one you have to plan it."
"I promise you won't have to think about a thing. I'll even pack your suitcases."
She huffed out a laugh. "Listen, Dapper Dan, I know in your "restless" state you think dressing me would be a fun way to pass the time, but you will stay out of my underwear drawer, capish?"
"Liv, you know I've put your laundry away more than once, right?"
"We need to talk about boundaries."
"And you need to buy more pastels."
The next afternoon he stopped into the precinct, stopping to chat briefly with Fin before heading into Liv's office.
"We've got four days," she announced from behind her desk before he could ask. "Saturday to Tuesday."
"That's excellent! No problem convincing Fin, then?"
"Honestly, he doesn't have a lot of ambition to be in charge, even temporarily. But he's been a bit of a mother hen for the past 18 years, and he's always up for me taking vacation when I can squeeze it in."
"Speaking of mother hens...I had lunch with my mother today."
"That's nice. How's she doing?"
"Well. Really well. And I, uh..." He sat down in the seat across from her. "I mentioned to her that we were thinking of taking some time and she offered to take Noah."
"Oh, I thought - I figured it would be the three of us."
"Hey, so did I," he countered, holding up his hands. "That was certainly my intention. But my dear mother misunderstood. I corrected her, but she insisted I talk to you about it before shutting it down." And he looked at her expectantly, obviously waiting for her to do just that.
When that was all she said, he found himself compelled to fill the silence. "Yeah. I mean, they'd have a great time. They certainly get along well. And if Lucy could get him to and from school on the weekdays while my mom is working he could stay at her place, or she could stay at your place, whatever you preferred. Anyway, she was quite excited by the prospect."
"Huh," Olivia said again, her expression unreadable.
"Huh," Barba repeated. And then he waited.
"Well..." Olivia began finally. "I guess we didn't tell Noah yet, so it wouldn't be like we were disappointing him."
Barba tried not to give away his surprise that she was considering it. After the whole Sheila debacle he hadn't expected Olivia to ever consent to letting Noah out of her sight for that long.
"And if he wasn't with us, we could do things at night," she continued. "Like go dancing. Which if I remember correctly was what started all of this."
"Olivia Benson," he said with exaggerated wonder. "Are you about to agree to a kid-free vacation?"
She pursed her lips, obviously torn. But he could tell the moment she committed, saw the change in her posture, her eyes. "You know what? Yes. Yes I am. Noah will be fine with your mom, and we could both use a trip out of the city to clear our heads." Then she smiled. "Let's do it."
Barba sat back in his chair with a goofy grin. "We're going dancing," he singsonged.
Olivia sighed affectionately. Kid-free vacation indeed, except for the big kid sitting in front of her. "Yes, we are," she affirmed in a placating tone she often used on Noah. "Now go away so I can work."
And just like that the feeling of restlessness left him. He had planning to do.
Chapter 18: Secret
After a long shower, Olivia found Barba sprawled on the large, L-shaped couch in the living room and focused on the television. "Is this American Ninja Warrior? Doesn't seem like your usual fare."
"Keeps me humble," he told her dryly. "Plus, as you know I'm already caught up on Downton Abbey." He patted the space beside him. "Want to join me? I thought maybe we could watch a movie and veg."
"That's okay. It's really late. I should go to sleep."
"Olivia, you slept forever in the car. You can't possibly be tired."
He was right, of course. She was wide awake. Their intention had been to leave Saturday morning, but as Barba had watched her mood and her energy deteriorate as the week progressed, he'd made a last minute executive decision and picked her up from work on Friday night, bags packed and in the trunk of the rental car, ready to go. Olivia had protested of course, but following an afternoon of intense preparation Barba had come armed with answers and solutions to every excuse for delay. Olivia's luggage had been mostly packed the night before, so that hadn't been an issue. He'd simply asked Lucy to grab the makeup bag and the toiletries that had looked most important out of her bathroom and toss them in. Anything she needed that hadn't made the cut she could replace on the road. Relieving Lucy, he'd delivered Noah and the boy's overnight belongings to Lucia's himself, and he'd offered to stay and help him get settled, even put him to bed. It had been Noah who had made it abundantly clear that his hovering wasn't necessary, hopping into Lucia's outstretched arms with a big grin and echoing in his own childlike way her assurance that they had everything under control. Yet although all bases had been effectively covered, Olivia had been positively beastly when he'd arrived at the precinct and told her about the change of plan. Even after her concerns had been addressed, she'd lashed out that he was interrupting her, making plans without consulting her, daring to assume that he knew what was best for her. But despite how riled up she was, despite her assertion that she had several good hours left in her and he was pulling her away from work that needed to be done, she was asleep within 15 minutes of them getting on the road and he'd had to wake her when they'd arrived. While the over 3 hour drive was a bit lonely, he was pleased. His primary reason for leaving early was that he wanted her to have more time to rest and relax, so obviously he'd succeeded. Also that fact that she seemed to have slept away her crankiness didn't hurt.
"This place is really nice," she'd commented as he'd led her to her room. "Is this an Airbnb or something?"
"Timeshare. Not mine - a friend's." It was the same place he'd gone to escape after his suspension. "Don't poke around too much just yet. Wait until you get a proper tour in the daylight. You're going to love it." The real appeal was what surrounded them, but he didn't want to spoil the surprise. It had been dark, overcast and windy when they'd pulled up, and as she'd slept through the approach she had no context whatsoever to where they might be. He scolded her now as she tried to peek out a window. "Really, wait 'til morning. You won't be disappointed."
She obeyed and joined him on the couch. "Would it be okay...?"
He knew immediately what she was asking and tossed her his phone. She tapped in his code from memory to unlock the screen.
It had been her decision to leave her own phone at the office, locked in a desk drawer. She knew that she would never been able to get even CLOSE to disconnecting if her texts and emails were calling to her from her purse or pocket. So her autoresponders had all been set, and Lucy, Lucia and Fin all knew that she could be reached on Barba's phone. Being confident she could be reached in an emergency was the only way she could start to relax.
Not that she'd told Fin it was Barba's number. She'd simply texted him the digits and made him promise up and down that he wouldn't hesitate to use them if it was truly warranted. Little did she know that he'd decided to enter it into his cell's contacts, only to find out there was already an entry for that number. His feeling on the matter? Good for her. Good for them both.
The decision had been made on Wednesday, and she'd been resolute about it, telling Barba that when the time arrived he had to hold her to it. Of course, with her mood being what it was when he'd picked her up, he'd had to all but wrestle it from her, and there had been a bit of a shouting match involved. In the end, Barba hadn't really won - it was Wednesday-Olivia that had won, as Barba had parroted back all of the things she'd said that day.
Barba wished he could lock his own phone in a drawer, honestly. He hated that he often felt the need to have it in his hands, and a little detox would probably do him good. But having it in earshot now that he was officially her emergency contact was okay with him. Anything to help her get what she needed from this time away. And apparently what she needed right now was to check on her son.
Not that she was going to contact Lucia this late at night. But she scrolled through the texts from that evening to see selfies of the woman and Noah seemingly having a splendid time, and then one of Noah sound asleep.
"You and your mom text in Spanish?"
"Mmhm," Barba hummed, his attention on the tv screen. "That surprise you?"
"Not 'surprise', I guess. I just so rarely hear you speak Spanish." She was quiet for awhile. "I didn't realize people still played 'Candy Crush'."
"I have it on there for your son, actually."
"Sure you do. And I'm sure this ridiculously high score is his. " A push notification came through for Barba's email, one that started with "Hey, Barba. Can you tell Liv that..." "Why is your email program fingerprint locked on your already password protected phone?"
"So snoops like you don't discover my secret girlfriend," he deadpanned without missing a beat.
"I'll have you know I wasn't trying to snoop - this email is for me. Besides, I thought *I* was your secret girlfriend," she teased as she moved closer to him and handed back the phone.
When he opened the message he commented, "Apparently not so secret." He pointed the screen in her direction so she could read Fin's report. "Hey, Barba. Can you tell Liv that we just brought in the guy that Carisi and Rollins had been tracking? Looks pretty open and shut - all under control. Just thought she might enjoy your vacation a little more knowing that was taken care of. Have fun, counselor."
Under Barba's watchful eye, Olivia responded with a quick note of acknowledgement and thanks, and then he was quick to pluck the phone out of her hands and log back out.
"You don't actually have a secret girlfriend, do you?" she accused lightly.
"You caught me. Her name is Myrtle. And she wants to know if you're into threesomes." Olivia laughed and the matter was dropped as they decided against a movie and their attention settled on the next episode of American Ninja Warrior instead, using commercials to speculate on how on earth Fin had known they were together. And Barba's secret, hidden in his inbox, would be safe for a few more days until he was ready to reveal it.
Chapter 19: Vacation
Barba awakened just after 7. Following a quick trip to the washroom he'd intended on going back to bed but felt compelled to first venture out to see if Olivia was still asleep. Her door was slightly ajar so he pushed it open to find her bed unmade but empty.
After a quick search he discovered her in his favourite spot, a sunroom of sorts on the north side of the house. Picture windows, sliding glass door, large skylights overhead, a view of the ocean, a swing sofa in the corner. And at the right time of the year, which just happened to be this time of year, it was a perfect place to both enjoy sunrises and sunsets. The former of which had Olivia Benson thoroughly enraptured.
Barba was frozen, trying to decide whether he should leave her be or join her. In the end the decision was made for him when she turned her head and smiled. He crossed to her, stood beside her, saying nothing.
The sun had already breached the horizon, the clouds orange and pink and purple. It was perfect. It was exactly what he'd wanted to her to see, and he felt so lucky to be able to share it with her. "Thank you," she breathed after some time had passed, a single tear tracking lazily down her cheek. Barba wasn't sure if she was thanking him or God or the universe or something else, but he silently added his own thanks to whoever wanted to accept it. Thanks for the beauty of the moment, and for what it was doing in Olivia's mind and heart.
Breakfast was a casual affair, neither bothering to shower or dress. He had unpacked a cooler into the kitchen on their arrival: Bread, bagels, butter and spreads, some cereal, a half carton of milk, and their preferred flavour pods that fit the coffee maker on site. There was also wine and scotch, but that would be for later, of course.
"So, what's on the schedule for today?" Olivia asked as she bit into a piece of toast.
"Tonight, we dance. The rest is up to you."
She was genuinely surprised. "I assumed you were going to have this thing planned to the minute."
"When I thought Noah was coming with us, that was my intention," he revealed. "But I figured you would appreciate some blank space more than anything else."
"You know me so well," she told him sincerely, her smile full and relaxed and bright.
"Damn right I do." Though he still felt relieved that he'd gotten it right, so maybe he wasn't as confident as he let on.
After breakfast they took a call from Lucia and Noah, reporting a good sleep and plans made. The boy rattled on a mile a minute, a sure sign that he was happy and excited and above all comfortable. And it was his decision to say goodbye because he didn't want to wait any longer to begin their grand adventure for the day.
His excitement for adventure inspired the opposite in Olivia. "So can we really just do NOTHING?" she found herself musing aloud after she was satisfied her son was in good hands. As a lieutenant, as a single mother, this had understandably become an unknown luxury. At home there was always something she COULD be doing, or SHOULD be, but here, without even her phone or laptop, without a child to take care of and plan for, without the company of someone she had to be at her best for or entertain, she had literally no responsibilities, no coulds or shoulds.
"I'll do you one better, Liv. YOU can really just do nothing. Even if I'm doing something."
She apparently didn't have an answer for that, but she couldn't quite contain her delight at her unexpected freedom. She hugged him from behind, a tight squeeze. "Best. Vacation. Ever," she mumbled against his neck before releasing him and practically skipping away to find her first "nothing" to enjoy.
When she rejoined him just after noon, drawn to the kitchen by the smell of their lunch cooking, it was immediately obvious to Barba that she'd gone back to bed, a decision he fully affirmed.
"Where'd all this come from?"
"There's a little market about 10 minutes down the road. We should be set for the duration. Hungry?"
"Mmmm... Very." She shuffled next to him, still rubbing her eyes as she peered down at his efforts. "Need any help?"
He never tired of seeing her in her natural state, and this level of bedhead was beyond his imagination. "You can set the table if you'd like. It's nearly ready."
She was about to comply when she had a thought. "Can we just eat in front of the TV?"
She'd been raised eating in the TV room and had gone the other way with Noah, as though meals at the table were a vital part of ensuring his childhood was better than hers. But the truth was she missed it sometimes, the familiarity of it, the lack of pressure to carry on a conversation, the distraction of the screen to keep her mind from living in the stress of the day or moving to what had to happen next.
Barba had no idea about this subtext, but he was more than happy to oblige.
"Fill up," he warned her as he went back for seconds. "We're probably going to want to go light on supper heading into dancing tonight."
"You're really excited about this, aren't you? Where are we even going?"
He explained that Saturday was Spanish night at DREAM, a club in the Hampton Bays corridor that still managed to draw fair sized weekend crowds even in the off-season. It was a half hour drive from where they were staying in Sagaponack. His mother had found it on Google when she'd joined him on his suspension-holiday and insisted he take her. He'd mostly sulked and drank but she'd had no trouble finding people to dance with her. It was a good feel, a good group of regulars across generations who were happy to welcome the newcomers. He was excited to be going back under better circumstances, when his heart felt free to let loose and enjoy.
He felt a pang of guilt about that. More than a pang, really. He knew he had no business feeling that free considering all that had transpired. But he pushed down the objections and renewed his resolve to make the absolute most of it, giving himself permission at least for her sake.
After finishing the program that they'd watched through the meal, Barba collected their dishes and encouraged her not to follow him to the kitchen.
"No, I want to help," she assured him.
"You really don't have to."
"Cleaning up is still 'nothing' in the grand scheme. And you said I could choose my 'nothings'," she reminded him.
And so for the remainder of their time away he didn't bother to talk her out of cooking or cleaning or anything else, understanding that just the knowledge that it was her choice to participate was all the rest she needed.
Dishwasher loaded and kitchen put to rights, Barba fought the urge to ask her what she planned on doing next, not wanting to force a decision. But thankfully it was information she offered unprompted while standing before the bookshelf in the living room. "I'm going to read a book, I think."
"I don't think I've ever seen you read a book," Barba considered aloud. "At least not one for grownups."
"Shameful, isn't it? I wish I could say I just don't read when you're around, but it's been a long time since I did any recreational reading that wasn't on my phone."
"Well, I think reading is a splendid idea. I may do the same." And he went to his room to find the book he'd packed that he'd already started. He returned to find her curled up in a large, comfortable chair by the window, a place where he'd done some reading himself when he'd last visited. "Okay if I read in here, too?" When she confirmed it was both okay and preferred, he stretched out on the couch. "So, what did you choose?"
He rolled on his side and peered over the armrest, trying to catch a glimpse of the cover. When he noticed her deliberately turn it away, he had a pretty good idea of what she was hiding. "Olivia, are you reading a smut book?"
She ducked her head, genuinely embarrassed as she admitted, "I prefer the term "romance novel". It DOES have a storyline, or so the summary on the back would lead me to believe."
"A smutty storyline, I bet. I'm so impressed with this revelation," he teased with awed amusement. "Are you sure you don't want to be alone so you can fully enjoy it?"
"Barba!" she scolded, laughing and turning pink to her ears.
"Olivia Benson's guilty pleasure is smutty romance novels. Will wonders never cease."
"And I suppose you're reading Tolstoy over there," she shot back, hoping to turn the tables.
"How'd you guess? I'm a sucker for the classics."
"You're saying I'm not a classy guy?"
"You're full of shit is what you are. Show me."
When he refused, his grin a challenge, she stood and walked over to the couch, prompting him to hide the book between the cushions and block it with his body. When she playfully reached for it, he grabbed her book from her free hand and started paging through it, looking for something particularly risque to read aloud and further embarrass her. "Now, where do I find the naughty bits?"
Of course, she was a trained police officer and he was mostly a desk jockey, so after some scuffling and a lot of giggling she had both books with her across the room. And while he was catching his breath she was learning something new about him. "You're teasing me about romance novels when you're reading tabloid-level true crime trash? Don't you get enough of this stuff at work?"
"I'm unemployed now, remember? Maybe I'm just scratching an itch."
"So if I go snooping through your place when we get back I won't find a stash of these somewhere?"
He paused. "I plead the fifth."
And they both laughed.
"I'm not sure which guilty pleasure is more embarrassing. So why don't we call it a draw and make this a judgment free zone? I'll read my trash and you'll read your smut and no one else will ever have to know?"
"Deal," she agreed with a grin, tossing his book back to him and returning to her chair.
Barba nodded off after a while and woke up alone. He found her back in the sunroom lounging in on a patio-style swing sofa, her book in her lap but her attention focused outwards at the private stretch of beach, deserted not just because of the temperature and the lack of tourists in the area but because the house was in relative seclusion, something that the timeshare owners paid a premium for.
"Do you think we could come back here when there weather's nice? Noah's never swam in the ocean."
"Maybe not here. This place is pretty well used in the summer, I've been told. But I'm sure we can find somewhere else." He nudged the swing with his hip, causing it to sway slightly. "Mind if I join you?"
He sat close, his arm stretched behind her shoulders, and they sighed almost in unison as their bodies relaxed. Barba thought Olivia had returned her focus onto her book, but when she spoke again it was obvious she was distracted by the view.
"I always loved the ocean, but we never got to see it much," she told him. "We didn't have a car when I was growing up; I can barely remember leaving the city. But this one time..."
It was so unlike Olivia to share stories from her childhood, even with him, and so when she did he always took extra care to really listen and honour her openness. He wished now he could properly see her face, but he tuned in not only to her words but to her voice, her breathing, the tension and release of her muscles, her little self deprecating laugh when she said something she recognized and named as pathetic, the way his lips once pressed absently to her temple seemed to sooth her and encourage her to continue.
And rather than preparing to respond or to share himself, rather than asking questions to learn more, he just listened. And when she was done sharing he held her words in his mind and heart for awhile as they stared past the waves lapping at the beach. And eventually he held her body loosely against his when she leaned into his side.
Best. Vacation. Ever.
Chapter 20: Dancing
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.
Chapter 21: Process
"You should have told me this was here! I didn't think to pack my swimsuit!"
"Actually, it's a new addition that I wasn't aware of. But we don't need swimsuits anyway; there's no one for miles."
The look she gave him was... versatile.
"Oh, get over yourself, Benson. I've seen you mostly naked anyway."
"Even if that were true - "
"Which it is."
"- there's a big difference between mostly naked and actually naked."
It was true that Barba had seen Olivia in various states of undress not once but twice, the first with permission the second accidental due to a failure to announce his presence when entering a room. He'd seen a lot of skin. He'd seen a lot of scars. But mostly because of the precautions she'd learned to take having a son who also tended not to knock, Barba had never seen her "good bits", as he had jokingly called them that day. And in that moment it was obvious that Olivia felt it was going to take more than the hot tub they'd discovered to change that.
"More room for me, then," Barba said casually while reading the laminated instructions for winter use that were affixed to the cover. He knew that naked or no she'd end up in there with him by the end of the night. "It should be usable; they've kept it maintained. I'm going to call the building manager just to make sure it's all kosher." The idea of a Sunday evening in the hot tub under the stars seemed like an enjoyable way to cap off what was already shaping up to be a pretty nice day.
They'd both managed to sleep in, Barba because of recent practice and Olivia because she hadn't been quite as successful as him at letting go of their conversation and had had some trouble finally dropping off.
As it was, her fear of not being able to look him in the eye hadn't actually materialized; with the light had come perspective. But when she joined him in the living room just after 10, fully dressed and ready for the day, he cutely grabbed her face in his hands and held her stare. She immediately understood and tried to match his feigned intensity, but couldn't help smiling when he dropped a tiny kiss on the end of her nose and said with a smirk, "I told you it could be done. Ready for brunch?"
The restaurant they chose seemed to be between the pre-church breakfast and the post-church lunch crowds, so they had their pick of booths and their server had the time to be attentive. And because they were mostly alone Olivia didn't feel bad about taking a call from Noah when Barba handed her his cell.
"Mommy! I went to Sunday School!" Apparently Lucia had taken him to early Mass and then to the 9 a.m. children's program, which he excitedly described. "And I have a new friend named Leah and it's her birthday and her mom invited me to her party and it's TODAY! Can I go?"
"Well, how about you hand the phone to Miss Lucia and we'll talk about."
There was some muffled conversation and some rustling and then Lucia was saying good morning. "Sorry, I should have spoken to you first, but Noah was insistent."
"No problem! I'm so glad he's having such a wonderful time!"
"He's not the only one, truly. Anyway, what he failed to mention is that he and I were BOTH invited to this party, so he wouldn't be going there alone. But I still wanted to clear it with you first." Olivia knew that Barba had shared with his mother, at least in generalities, about Noah's history and recent events with Sheila. Obviously Lucia was sensitive to the fact that Olivia's trust in her to care for her son would not have come easily, and wanted to honour it by running things by her. "It's a family who's been going to the church for a long time, but admittedly not one I know well so I'd be sure to keep a close eye."
"Lucia, if you don't mind taking him, I'm all for it. Though I hope it's not putting you out too much; I already owe you big time!"
"I confess I've been sleeping well at night after trying to keep up with this ball of energy! But it's only a fair trade, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Me taking care of your son while you take care of mine. And you've been at it for much longer than me. I'd say I owe YOU!"
Olivia laughed loudly with delight at the thought, causing Barba to give her a curious look, obviously wishing he could hear both sides of the conversation. "I like to think we take care of each other," she said warmly. "Would you like to speak with him?"
A rapid exchange in Spanish with lots of huffing and eye rolling on Barba's part had Olivia grinning into her coffee. And when he signed off she couldn't help but goad him about how his mom obviously had his number to be able to get under his skin like she did. "But you know you love it."
"I love her," he clarified with a scowl. "At least most of the the time." But his eyes softened affectionately and Olivia was glad for him that, as much as Lucia might infuriate him, they had each other and cared so deeply. "I might as well apologise in advance about the fact that Noah is now calling my mother "Abuelita"; I heard him in the background."
"THAT'S what you were after her about?" She'd heard his side of the conversation, but without the context hadn't understood.
"She maintains that she was just following the 'family tree' up from 'Uncle Rafa' when she suggested it. She was in labour with me for over 27 hours and yet she still apparently thinks I was born yesterday."
Olivia laughed. "I don't care what he calls her. You know my penchant to create family names; we'd probably have graduated to 'Auntie Lucia' eventually anyway. If she prefers 'grandma', no matter her motivations, who am I to argue?"
Barba just smiled and shook his head.
The food arrived and they dug in with gusto, their appetites fueled by having waited so long to eat and from the exercise on the dance floor the night before.
"It means a lot to her, you know, that you let her take Noah," Barba offered after they'd spoken of Lucia a little more. "And to me too. I know it must have been hard for you after everything that's happened. And since you really don't know her that well."
"I considered changing my mind several times leading up to this trip," she confessed. "But I just kept reminding myself that I trust you to do what's best for Noah."
Barba was struck dumb by her simple, offhanded proclamation, to hear that her confidence wasn't in Lucia but in Barba himself making the decision that Noah would be safe in her care. He tried to distract from his reaction by taking a mouthful of food, but it was too little, too late.
"Who would have thought that vacation-Barba would be such a mushy old thing?" she said with a smirk. "Unless that was just ego you were trying to hide under scrambled eggs."
He glared at her and look a sip of water. "It's not my fault Vacation-Benson keeps pushing out this ridiculous sentimentality. Besides, maybe I've always been a 'mushy old thing', as you so lovingly describe it, and you're just so mean to me in real life you've failed to notice."
"Oh, I've noticed," she said, teasing in her voice and a fond expression on her face.
After a drawn-out brunch they visited the Guild Hall Museum, strolling through the exhibits before they headed to Montauk Point and from the lighthouse felt as though they were at the edge of the world. And on their drives between locations they listened to music from his old iPod and sang along.
It was well above freezing with sunny clear skies when they returned to Sagaponack, so Olivia had requested they walk on the beach. It was on their way to the shore that they'd discovered the hot tub just off the back of the house. And after following the instructions of the property manager to ensure it would be ready for their use that evening, they continued on their way.
The cold wind coming off the water was biting at times but worth it. Olivia just pulled her collar up tighter and putting on her gloves. The tide was on its way out and so they were walking on what had recently been the ocean floor, crunching shells beneath their shoes and stepping over rocks and seaweed.
They didn't say much, the silence filled by the sound of the waves. And when it occurred to Olivia how lovely it was to spend time with someone with whom silence could be so comfortable, it was she that got a bit mushy about it, looping her arm through his and keeping him close.
When they returned to the house, they shed their outerwear and brought their books to the sunroom, Olivia back in the swing and Barba in a chair, entertaining one another by reading out loud the cheesiest parts of the stories as they were encountered. "I notice you're going all 'cheese' and no 'sauce'," Barba pointed out at one point. "A little prudish for an SVU detective to have trouble sharing the sex scenes, isn't it?"
"I just didn't want to make you uncomfortable, Counselor," she assured him with a smile in her voice. "Though admittedly it's uncommon to use phrases like 'heaving bosom' and 'engorged manhood' in my squad briefings."
Barba barked out a laugh. "I think you made the right choice. I'm uncomfortable already."
They worked together on a simple dinner, opting once again to enjoy their meal from the couch in front of the TV. They stayed there long after they'd finished eating, happy to allow Netflix to keep advancing to the next episode of the program they'd chosen.
Eventually Barba glanced out the window and then at his watch. "The sun's going to set soon. Want to watch it from the hot tub?"
"If you're going to insist on my nudity, I'd rather wait until after dark if you don't mind," she joked. So they turned off all the lights in the house and watched the sun fall below the horizon from the swing sofa instead. They stayed there until long after last light.
Finally he spoke. "You're not falling asleep, are you?"
"Nope." She was wide awake.
"Just thinking, then?"
"Actually, not really." That wasn't quite true. She'd been thinking about the stars, how beautiful they were. The lights of the city never allowed for a view like this. She was being reminded of the vastness of the universe, and how small and inconsequential she really was. It was humbling. It was also comforting.
So yes, she was thinking. But not in the way he'd meant when he'd asked. She knew he was afraid her mind was already returning to real life, to the stress of her work and the responsibilities of her home. And she knew this more existential reflection would pass muster, so she didn't bother to clarify.
"And what about you? What deep thoughts have lulled you into such uncharacteristic quiet? Mushy ones, I suppose."
"Oh, you know. Football. Power tools. 'Heaving bosoms'."
"Well, that's about as un-mushy as it gets."
Really he'd been thinking about how he might broach the idea of staying an extra day, rehearsing different options in his mind. Their plan had been to drive home late tomorrow so Olivia would have a full day on Tuesday to transition back into real life and catch up on household tasks before returning to work. But this getaway had turned out so much more simple and uncomplicated and grounding than he could have hoped, and while he could try to tell himself it was for her benefit, he was also being selfish in wishing to extend their time for just a little longer.
And it was because of that selfishness that he couldn't bring himself to ask. They'd just have to enjoy the time they had left to the best of their abilities.
"Almost ready for the hot tub?"
"I find it suspicious that you jumped from 'heaving bosoms' to getting me naked."
He stood, knees cracking. "You seem really caught up on the nudity aspect of this experience. I'm guessing you've never enjoyed an outdoor hot tub on a cold barely-post-winter's night."
"Actually I have once before... but that time nudity was definitely an overriding focus."
Past sexual experiences were something they'd never shared about, and Barba was hoping to keep it that way so he didn't let the conversation linger there. "Well, get your mind out of the gutter, Lieutenant. I assure you my focus will be on the stars and not your 'bosoms', heaving or otherwise." He grabbed the rope of the swing and gave it a little tug as though he was about to upend her. "I'm going to go check to make sure everything's in working order and ready for us. The property manager said there should be robes folded in one of the linen closets if you want to try to find them."
About a half hour later they were robed and ready, the tub steaming and bubbling in invitation, two very full glasses of wine and a pile of towels placed within reach. "Why don't you go hop in, and once you're settled I'll join you?" Barba suggested, turning to face the house.
"Such a gentleman."
When she announced it was safe, he turned and slipped out of his robe so quickly she didn't have time to shield her eyes. "Hey! No fair!" she exclaimed when she realized he was wearing boxers.
"Problem?" he asked cheekily. "Perhaps because of your assertion that there's a big difference between 'mostly naked' and "actually naked'? I'd remind you that I never said I subscribe to that point of view."
She was having none of it. "Drop your pants, Counselor."
"Well, since you asked so nicely." He gestured for her to turn her head. "Would you mind?"
"What? If I've seen you mostly naked, what's the difference, right?"
He had to give her points for the clever turnabout. But when he answered with a slightly stronger, one-fingered gesture, she laughed and made a show of covering her eyes. "No peeking."
"Says the man I caught trying to get a look at my boobs at least twice in the last 45 seconds or so."
She was rewarded for her accusation with a splash in her direction as he sunk down into the water beside her.
As beautiful as the stars had been from the inside, it was nothing compared to being under them in the open air. And instead of getting emotional about it Olivia felt positively giddy. "Did I mention 'best vacation ever'?"
They talked and admired and drank and occasionally splashed until Barba thought to ask, "How long can we safely stay in here for? I feel like that's something we should have Googled."
"If they discover us cooked, hopefully they'll tell our loved ones we died relaxed and happy."
"I'll drink to that." They clinked their glasses and downed the rest of the wine.
But as they fell quiet and turned their attention back to the stars, Olivia found herself growing reflective, and the wine made her brave. "Hey, Rafa? You know, we still haven't really talked about what happened. With Drew."
He was caught off guard but still managed a quick response. "You bring this up now? While we're naked?" he asked dryly.
"Well, we can actually have the conversation when we're less naked, if you'd feel more comfortable," she replied, okay with him trying to lighten the mood. "I'm not trying to put a damper on things. And I know I should have asked a long time ago, but things have just been so…good."
He couldn't deny that. "So what's changed? Are things not 'good' anymore?"
"Don't be an idiot. You know things are great. This is great. This whole weekend – it's been just what I needed. But I feel like maybe talking about it might be what you need. Whether you'll admit it to me or not. Or to yourself." Their eyes met, and she could tell he was deep in thought. Then came a nearly imperceptible nod. "Good," she affirmed with a smile. "If you'd avert your eyes, I'll go… get less naked."
But as she shifted forward and lifted her hand from the water intending to find leverage to hoist herself up, he intercepted it and held it instead. "There's no hurry. We can be naked for a little while longer."
She didn't perceive it as stalling, guessing that he really just wanted some time to try to collect his thoughts in preparation. So she settled back again, dropping his hand but leaning slightly against him so that their arms were touching, a silent show of support.
Later when he got out of the shower she was waiting for him in his room, atop the covers but laying down on her back, her hands folded across her stomach, staring at the ceiling.
He climbed up beside her and unconsciously mirrored her position.
"So," she repeated.
"What do you want to know?'
"It's not what I want to know. This isn't about curiosity. I just..." She sighed, trying to order her thoughts. "I guess it's just, what do you need to say? Have you been talking to anyone?"
"No," he told her, not quite sheepish but perhaps realizing he should be. "I mean, not really. Not since my lawyer, since the trial."
He turned his head, looking at her critically. "Why are you sorry?"
"I should have forced the issue long before now."
"Hey, don't do that. Look at me." She did. "Olivia, you never needed to push. I know I can talk to you about anything."
"Then why haven't you?"
"I don't know. I just... I'm used to processing out loud and on paper. But now I've been stuck in my own head about it for so long I don't even know that I could really articulate what's going on."
"So process out loud. We've got all the time in the world. You'll find the words eventually. Just start talking."
And so he did.
He talked about the night it happened, standing over the child's hospital bed, seeing and feeling the mother's anguish. The split second decision. The aftermath. And after circling around it for awhile, he found himself admitting something he hadn't yet admitted fully to himself: his shame for not feeling guilty, or really even all that bothered by what he had done.
"I feel like I should be a wreck, you know? Like I should have fallen apart. But I truly believe that what happened was the moral, humane outcome. It's not something I've had to wrestle with. I've only TRIED to, because I felt like I should."
They were facing each other now, and Olivia studied his face. "But you are bothered by something."
"I'm bothered by the fact that I acted so rashly, without taking the time to weigh the consequences. I mean, I just as easily could have gone home that night, thought about it, and then gone back the next day and made the same choice. Or not. I mean, yes, I believe that it was the moral, humane outcome. But was it my place to bring it about? Was it my right? My responsibility?"
He may have been looking for her to provide an answer, but she said nothing, just waiting for him to continue.
"I would have had a hard time prosecuting someone else who did what I did, because I would understand the choice and believe it was ultimately the right one. But to have done it myself..." He looked away, his teeth gnawing on his lower lip. Then, "I could have ended my career, any chance of a career in the future. Jesus, I could have gone to PRISON, Olivia. What the hell was I thinking?"
This time he was looking for a response, one of agreement, perhaps one of absolution. What he got instead was a non-judgemental smile and a look of expectancy.
Looking back later, he would appreciate how this was so different than he'd seen her act with victims, where she would offer so much verbal affirmation, ask so many questions to help them open up. Her patience, her silence, was how she honoured him and his ability, his need, to work things out for himself.
He talked for awhile longer, having so much more to say than he thought he would. And when he had talked himself out, he didn't feel different, per say. Didn't feel better, really. What he felt was heard, and understood, and validated by that understanding. And now that he had brought his innermost feelings into the light, he felt like he was better equipped to face them in the days, weeks and months to come.
"Thank you," he said finally, simply.
Her grin was subtle yet somehow radiant as she brought a hand to rest against his cheek before she leaned in to seal the moment with a sweet, chaste, lingering kiss.
He couldn't help but smirk against her lips. "Stop trying to make out with me."
She scoffed, and the hand that had cradled his face so tenderly now squished him sideways into his pillow in retaliation. "In your dreams, Barba."
To which he replied in the flirtiest tone he had in his arsenal, "More often than you know."
And then they were both chuckling as she rolled away from him to switch off the light. There was a momentary pause, and then she lifted her body so she could push down the covers and get beneath them. He wordlessly followed suit, deeply grateful that she'd chosen not to leave him alone with his thoughts that night.
She settled on her side, facing away, but inched back toward him until her body pressed against his.
"Are you vying to get spooned, Lieutenant?"
"I thought this was a judgement-free zone. Or does that only apply to our reading material?"
"No judgement. Just looking for affirmative consent."
"Very socially responsible of you. By all means, spoon away."
Barba didn't need to be told twice. He slid one arm under her pillow and with the other drew her flush against him. Their legs tangled, and his hips cradled hers. As his face nuzzled into her shoulder, she couldn't - or didn't - fight a heavy, contented sigh.
And as he gave into sleep, which overtook him much more easily then he'd expected or felt he deserved, he held her tighter and hoped she'd still be there in the morning.
Chapter 22: Opportunity
He woke with it on the tip of his tongue, emboldened by, of all things, the way her hair was tickling his nose on the pillow they were sharing. But when he smoothed her hair away and she obviously thought he was going to tell her it was time to get up and she grumbled something that sounded like "I may not have my gun but I still know multiple ways to kill a man", he wisely decided it might be better to wait.
When he folded down the blankets and moved to get out of bed, he suddenly had a hand on his chest, applying enough pressure to make him think the better of it. "I just have to pee," he assured her. "I'll be back." The pressure lessened and he slipped away. He brushed his teeth for good measure, thinking that if she was already that cranky his morning breath wasn't likely to help.
She was gone when he returned, but joined him back in bed about a minute later and immediately buried herself back under the covers without acknowledging him.
"Morning, sunshine," he greeted quietly but brightly.
Well, alright then.
He'd hope they'd rouse in time for the sunrise, but as they'd already missed it he figured he might as well let her sleep. Tomorrow she'd be back home and by this hour Noah would be getting ready for school. It was only fair to allow her as much rest as she could possibly get.
He reached for his phone, intending to check his email and his Twitter feed. It was plucked from his hand before he could even unlock it. "No," Olivia said again, tucking it under her pillow as she flipped over to lay on her stomach.
Okay. So apparently all things related to their return to real life were not allowed. Getting up early and cell phones really were the worst offenders, so he couldn't help but understand.
It was too dark in the room to read thanks to the blackout curtains, and he valued his life too much to attempt turning on a lamp. In the end, he gave in and followed her back to sleep.
It wasn't until they were halfway home that he finally brought it up.
"So. I have something I need to run by you." He turned a bit in the passenger seat so he could watch her reaction.
"Shoot." Olivia was feeling more agreeable now that they were actually on the road, excited that in just a few hours she'd be seeing her son.
"Well, I've had a job offer, just a short contract."
"That's fantastic!" She removed her right hand from the steering wheel briefly and gave his forearm a congratulatory squeeze. "I didn't realize you were actively looking yet."
"I'm not; this one came to me. They want me on jury selection, counsel coaching, and probably some initial witness prep and screening. Not glamorous, but it's a pay cheque. And more than that it's something to help me transition back, or at the very least give me a little more time to get my shit together and figure out some more permanent next steps."
"So why you? I mean, besides your good looks and your recent notoriety, of course."
"I'm not sure either factored in, actually. It's very similar to a tricky case I tried back in Brooklyn. It was really high profile and it set some precedents. I guess they felt it's worth the expense to bring in someone with some experience."
"So what's the problem? It sounds perfect!"
"Well, it's not exactly local."
"Okay. How not local are we talking here?"
And here it was. "It's in Washington."
"Oh." She let it sink in, and then started doing the math. "Well, that's only, what, a four hour train ride?"
"Oh", she repeated. She didn't have any handy math for that one at the ready.
"But like I said, a short contract. Six weeks tops, and probably less for what they need me to do."
"When do you have to tell them by?"
"I told them they'd have an answer in their email by the end of today."
"Is THAT what you were hiding in your email?"
"Guilty as charged."
"You sneak! And how long have you been sitting on this?"
"Just since Wednesday. You were so stressed last week, and I didn't want to interrupt our 'vacation proper' with decision making. And then I wondered how Noah would take it, since we've been spending so much time together lately."
She took his hand then, pulling it onto her lap, gripping his fingers. "You need to go. Of course you do. Noah will miss you, but we'll make sure he's prepared and understands what's going on."
"Just Noah, huh?" He meant to be sassy, but it came out on the side of sincere.
"Shut up and email them before you change your mind."
He pulled out his phone and did as he was told. "Six weeks is nothing," he reminded her, reminded himself, after he hit send
"Barely enough time for anyone to miss anyone," she affirmed. "Now tell me all about it."
Their exchange for the remainder of the drive was animated, upbeat, enthusiastic. She was excited for him, and it allowed him to be excited for himself. But he couldn't deny that a part of him missed her already.
Chapter 23: Mutual
Spoilers for 21x12 ("The Longest Night of Rain") and 21x13 ("Redemption In Her Corner").
This is the first chapter with entirely new content. Enjoy!
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.
Chapter 24: Move
Their next meeting was one day after the first reported death of a child in New York City from COVID-19. Olivia's unconscious desire to have another adult physically with her to share the emotional load of that news, of her renewed fear for her son, was what finally got her to give in to Barba's suggestion that they ride out the rest of the stay-at-home order together. It was also what made her go along with his plan to complete the move the same day she'd agreed to it.
The fact that he hadn't seen her in a long time, coupled perhaps with the fact that he hadn't seen another human being up close in 17 days (not that he was counting), made it especially difficult for him not to step into her space when he arrived at her door. But when it was she who tried to initiate an embrace, he mustered the fortitude to put up a hand in warning. "In case I picked up the plague in your elevator, how about we wait and do a proper hello once we're settled at my place and I've burned these clothes?"
She gave him a tender look. "Washing is probably sufficient," she jested lightly. "According to, you know, science."
"I'm aware. But you can't be too careful."
Her stress level that day had been at an all-time high, from all the news she couldn't stop herself from consuming, to her internal back-and-forth about whether or not her pride would allow her to follow through with the move, to her surreptitious packing throughout the day whenever she was out of Noah's eyeline, not wanting to get his hopes up because she still didn't know what part of her was going to win the fight. And as the day wore on, she started to feel anxiety about leaving the apartment for the first time in almost two weeks. With the exception of grocery deliveries which Olivia had treated like they were laced with anthrax, compulsively cleaning and sanitizing, if nothing else she felt safe within the walls of her home, felt like Noah was safe. Was this what agoraphobia felt like? She worried that when the time came she wouldn't be able to bring herself to cross the threshold.
Seeing and hearing first hand how seriously Barba was taking the threat and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect her son didn't erase her stress or anxiety, but still made Olivia feel a little lighter, as though he was carrying some of it for her.
From looking at Noah when he played sports or danced, no one would ever know that he would be considered among the "at risk" group. But multiple hospitalizations in his early life and the way every cold had to be closely monitored in case it became bronchitis or pneumonia had led Olivia to make the tough decision to pull Noah from school and work from home.
It was made especially tough because of Lucy. On top of her duties in the Benson home before and after school, she also worked for another family with very small children. This family didn't have the same luxury as Olivia, continuing to toil away from what would become known as the "front lines". Trying to limit contact with an older parent who often filled in the child care gaps, they had asked Lucy if she would be able to live-in with them for the duration of the crisis.
After much consideration Lucy offered to give notice with that other family -- she'd worked for Olivia much longer, after all -- but Olivia couldn't in good conscience leave them without support, especially considering the work they were both doing.
Besides, it wouldn't have been ideal for Lucy to be coming in and out, increasing Noah's risk of exposure. And while she would have been happy to move in with them as long as needed, unlike the other's family's home, the Benson's tiny apartment wasn't exactly made for "permanent" houseguests.
And so Olivia and Noah were hunkered down together, just to the two of them. And the novelty of that wore off very quickly. Not because of the togetherness, since that alone would have been an incredible blessing, but because her time was not really her own, and certainly her time could not all belong to him.
The squad and her boss had supported and even encouraged Olivia's decision to work from home. Noah unfortunately was not as supportive. He was used to his mother's work responsibilities interrupting their time together in the mornings before school, in the evenings, on her days off. But he WASN'T used to feeling like ultimately he was not her top priority.
Obviously he WAS her top priority; after all, he was the reason she was at home in the first place. But when she had very early one been forced to sit him down after a whining fit to remind him that even though she was in the apartment, during certain hours she was actually at work and he would need to adjust to that and not interrupt her when she was on the phone or working on her computer (shared in measured tones but with enough exasperation that he felt suitably chastised), she could see him visibly deflate. It didn't get better from there.
"Can't you just ask to be furloughed?" Barba had inquired once when Olivia found herself unloading all of this on him over video chat after a particularly difficult day. "How many calls can you guys be getting with everyone stuck at home?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I'm just going to let you think about that for a second."
A second was all it took. "Right. I'm an idiot."
It was hard to track the increase of domestic abuse during the lockdown because so much was hidden away. A lot of what Olivia was currently finding herself overwhelmed with was local organizations reaching out to SVU to try to forge partnerships in the time of COVID. Where they were once able to be more hands-on with their clients, with the stay-at-home orders and the very real risks to their staff, along with the increased volatility of women and children being stuck at home with their abusers, their boards and umbrella societies were urging them to get police involved more quickly than they might normally. It had become impossible to sneak in in-person wellness checks except when one or both people involved still worked outside the home. They were relying on the third parties who had the connections by phone, email or text to alert them when it was time to intervene. It was an unstable ecosystem that had her right in the middle regulating it.
It was a huge responsibility, and she felt it heavier than her normal day to day. Added to the weight of feeling like a bad mother, when she let herself hold both at once it was too much.
She was incredibly grateful that Barba was back in her life and so willing listen as she worked through these things, as she bitched and vented. She was also very surprised that day after day he refrained from trying to fix things for her. She assumed he recognized that there was really nothing much to be done. But in truth he was holding his tongue because his suggested fix was so likely to be shot down that he was waiting until he sensed she had nearly reached the end of her rope.
That day came when Noah had thrown himself into a rage when he'd barged into her room (which was doubling as her office that day) excited to show her a Lego creation he'd just completed and she'd snapped at him (after muting her mic, thankfully) that she was in an important meeting and had asked him not to interrupt her. He slammed the door behind him and she could hear him stomping and screaming and Legos flying and she had to shut her laptop abruptly and run to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting himself or their belongings.
As the days and weeks wore on and Noah had limited success holding onto his mother's attention during her work day, he was occasionally still whiney or lippy, but mostly tended to become withdrawn or sullen, even resigned. She'd actually come to think that he was getting used to the new normal, though he spoke less and smiled less. She attributed it to normal behaviour for kids adjusting to quarantine, and counted herself lucky. But now she realized he'd been suppressing, and everything had just all rushed to the surface.
When he stopped struggling against her the tears began, crying so violently that he couldn't catch his breath, then panicking as he gasped for air. Olivia never returned to the meeting she'd abandoned, and it was hours before he'd even allow her to leave his side.
That night, after the story had tumbled out and Olivia had poured a second glass of wine to calm herself, Barba felt like he'd finally found his opening. "Why don't you come stay here? There's more space, and Noah and I can hang out while you're working." His delivery was quintessential nonchalance, but it did nothing to dampen her shock at what to her seemed like such a huge and sudden suggestion.
When she started to recover, Olivia was expecting all of the excuses to say "no" to be easily accessible. But she found that that well was dry, leading her to blurt out the only thing that came to mind. "I don't feel safe taking Noah on public transit." This was actually 100% true, and would 100% be a deterrent. But offered alone, and so uncouthly, not even prefaced with some expression of a "thanks, but no thanks," it made her objection sound rather pathetic.
Barba just chuckled. "Well, you're in luck, because I kept my rental car since *I* didn't want to take public transportation either. And it's just been sitting in underground parking for 11 days, so it's free and clear." Back to silence, which led Barba to cock an eyebrow. "That really the best you can do?"
"Rafa, I can't ask you to do this." And in her mind, it was. There was no telling how long the quarantine would last, and to invade his space seemed an enormous burden that her pride and her sense of civility just couldn't allow her to place on someone else, not even him.
"If I recall, I was asking you," he reminded her with a warm smile. "Listen, you don't need to make any decisions right now. I have 3 more days of self-isolation, anyway, so it's not like I'm asking you to upend your life this minute. But, please just promise me you'll at least think about it?"
"Rafa - "
She shook her head, but verbally relented. "Fine. I'll 'think' about it." But then after a moment of reflection, her tone softened. "And thank you, by the way, for the offer. It's very generous and sweet of you."
"What can I say? I'm a sweet and generous guy!"
He didn't bring it up again, and neither did she, until a few days later, the day when she'd still been in bed reading her newsfeed and found out about the child that had died. It was early enough that he was still sleeping when she called him. "Did you hear?"
He hadn't, obviously. But when she filled him in and he heard the fear barely masked in her voice, he wasn't asking anymore. "You two are coming here. Today. We'll ride the rest of this out together."
The move ended up feeling like they were fleeing from a warzone. They waited until late that night when they figured they were least likely to run into others in either of their buildings. At Olivia's, they took turns bringing the Benson belongings to the car while the other waited in the apartment. Barba had already narrated his plan not to touch anything, using the eraser end of a pencil to poke elevator buttons, switching out gloves every time he had no choice but to open a door that needed to be unlocked.
When they had everything loaded up, Barba carried Noah to the car; he stirred several times but never fully awoke.
At Barba's, Olivia tucked Noah into bed before stationing herself just outside the door with a spray bottle of disinfectant, which she used on the bins and suitcases as Barba brought them up from the parking garage. Task complete, they retreated to separate bathrooms to strip off their (potentially contaminated) clothes and shower.
They stepped back into the living room at almost the same time, and finally Olivia felt like she could breathe, like they were safe. "Hi."
And then she was walking toward him, arms outstretched, and they held each other for a long time.
Chapter 25: Plans
Olivia had planned to wake up before Noah so that she could help him get oriented, and so she could make her expectations very clear about respecting Barba, respecting the space, using guest manners, and not taking liberties. But she had underestimated the toll the late night move would have on her, and when Noah had floated into consciousness warm and safe against Olivia's side, she had yet to stir.
As he became more aware of his surroundings, it occurred to Noah that he didn't remember crawling into his mother's bed the night before. And then his eyes began to adjust and he realized he didn't immediately recognize the room they were in.
He thought really hard. Had he been in a car last night? He'd been carried, somewhere, maybe. It felt like a dream.
He could hear someone moving around. Kitchen sounds? Like someone making coffee? "Mama," he said softly, but she didn't stir. He sat up and looked around properly. The room was familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.
Yes, someone was definitely making coffee. He could smell it now, and as his mother always had a cup (or three) when they ate together before school, the association caused his stomach to rumble.
School. It was a school day, Wednesday. And that meant morning virtual assembly. What time was it? There was a clock on the wall above a desk, but it was analog and Noah hadn't learned analog yet; he was still mastering digital. He found his mom's phone and flipped it over. The first number on the time was an 8, and his assembly didn't start until 10. He know that meant he had lots of time yet.
Noah was wide awake now, but his mother was snoring lightly, which she only did when she was really, really, REALLY tired. (She was always "REALLY tired", he knew. But there was a definite difference.)
He went back and forth a while on whether to increase his efforts to wake her, but he didn't feel scared, not really. He was mostly just curious. And now his bladder was starting to come into play, which gave him the extra incentive to slip out of bed on his own.
He could hear footsteps, soft ones, crossing by the door that was open a crack, someone trying to take care not to wake them.
His heart was beating fast as he eased the door open further, just far enough that he could bravely slip through.
Barba had grabbed his phone from his room and was on his way back to the kitchen when Noah stepped out into the hallway. He saw the moment of recognition on the boy's face.
Based on past reunions, Barba would have expected Noah to squeal and to run to him for a hug, and was ready to shush him to avoid disturbing Olivia in case she was still asleep. But instead the boy stayed where he was as though his feet were stuck to the floor, and after a moment he dissolved into tears.
A few quick strides and he was scooping Noah up and holding him against his chest, feeling his little body shaking as he hid his face in Barba's neck. Barba had no idea what was going on, but when processing it later with Olivia was told that this was probably a reaction of relief, of a release of stress and fear not over waking up in an unfamiliar place, but from the past weeks of living in an unfamiliar world. Why Barba had drawn out that reaction she couldn't say for certain, though she had some ideas. But regardless of the reason she had assured him that it was a good thing, a meaningful thing.
He walked them over to the couch and sat down, Noah shifting to get comfortable in his lap. They sat silently for a long time, even after the tears had stopped. Barba didn't know what to ask, and Noah didn't have the vocabulary to offer. At one point Barba thought that perhaps Noah had fallen asleep, but when the boy finally spoke realized he'd been busy putting some pieces together.
"Are we going to live here now?"
"For awhile," he replied carefully, handing the boy another tissue so he could finish cleaning his face. "That okay with you?"
"Uh-huh." Silence again. Then, "Is my mom going back to work? Is that why?"
"Nope. She'll work from here. But while she's working you and I will get to hang out, just us."
"Just us?" Noah repeated, lifting his head from where it had been resting against Barba's shoulder. "Really?"
Barba smiled down at him warmly, happy to learn that the prospect was a obviously a welcome one. "Really."
"Can we do Lego?"
Barba had to chuckle. "Glad to hear you have your priorities straight, kid. I'm sure we can find all kinds of things keep us entertained, but we'll keep Lego high on the list, I promise." He ruffled Noah's hair, and was rewarded with a beaming smile. "I also hear you're doing your dance class over ZOOM now, so maybe I'll join you. I bet I'd be great at hip hop."
Noah started to giggle at the very thought, and wiggled off Barba's lap when the man started to tickle him.
"Come on, little man. Your mom set out all your stuff for the day in your bathroom. Let me show you."
Later they were in the kitchen chatting a mile a minute over breakfast when Olivia rolled out of bed. "I see you two started your day without me," she said fondly as she crossed through the space on her way to the shower.
"Me and Rafa have lots to do today, mama!" he told her excitedly. "We're making a plan!"
"A plan, huh? Well, don't forget you have all-school assembly today."
"Item 4," Barba told her, pointing. "Just after 'Make Mom breakfast', 'clean up the kitchen', and 'make the beds'."
"Ooh, I like this plan." What she really liked was the genuine joy on her son's face, something she hadn't seen in awhile. It was well matched by the joy on Barba's face, which was less expected and just as welcome.
She'd been kicking herself since the moment she opened her eyes that she hadn't had a chance to do all the things she'd intended to do that morning. But seeing them together caused her to consider that maybe she could relax a little and just let things sort themselves out. That maybe SHE didn't have to be the one to have a plan for everything.
Chapter 26: Lonely
It was day ten of their new living situation, and Olivia awoke alone for the ninth morning in a row.
"Uncle Rafa, can I sleep in your bed tonight?" That request had come at 7:45 p.m. on day one.
Her pre-breakfast revelation that she could likely relax a little had faded steadily throughout that first day. Still very much feeling guilty about their imposition on Barba's time and his home, she'd kept the door to the bedroom that doubled as her office open a crack so that she could monitor Noah's behaviour. She'd popped out often with a mixture of gentle reminders and harsher crackdowns. She'd pulled him in with her for a few hours in the afternoon to give Barba a break, making him read and giving him iPad time with headphones, anything to keep him occupied and out of Barba's hair.
And honestly, that day was more exhausting for her than any she'd experienced at home since the state-side pandemic began.
When Noah had posed the question, Olivia had obviously opened her mouth to object, but Barba was already answering. "Of course you can! Go get ready and we'll meet you in there." And the boy happily scampered off.
"Barba, you don't have to - "
"Olivia, stop." He'd held his tongue all day as she'd tried to intervene, tried to remind Noah to be respectful, to give Barba space, to not talk Barba's ear off, to let Barba choose, but now he was so exasperated he finally couldn't help but say his piece. "Will you just trust me? I know I have agency here. You don't need to police it."
"But - "
"No 'buts'. This isn't going to be nearly as much fun for any of us if Noah isn't allowed to feel at home and I'm relegated to some elevated role just because I happen to own the place. You know eventually that's going to fade on its own anyway; the energy you're putting in to trying to maintain it isn't sustainable and I can promise you WE aren't going to help. So why don't you just relax?"
Ouch. Being told to relax when it had been her intention -- and her failure -- hurt. But then Barba was standing in front of the couch where she sat, offering her a hand. When she reluctantly took it, rather than immediately helping her to her feet he just held on. "When are you going to get it through that stubborn head of yours that I asked you here because I WANT you here, and not just for your sake?" His change of tone, his smile, took away some of the earlier sting. "I'm not nearly as charitable as you apparently think I am."
"I just... You know how strong-willed Noah can be. I don't want you to feel like to be a good host means you have to give in to him."
"Have you MET me?" he said with a laugh. "Aside from you, have you ever known anyone who could push me around?"
"I'll admit it's a very short list."
"You need to give him some agency too. He's a good kid. We'll all figure things out as we go." He tugged on her hand then. "Come on. You can read to both of us."
She did, and by the time the book was finished both Noah and Barba were fast asleep. Leaving her alone for the rest of the night, and realizing that she felt kind of lonely.
That feeling carried into the next day and well beyond, and only grew. When Noah was awake, he barely seemed to give her a second thought. And when Noah was asleep, Barba crashed from exhaustion. Her companions had doubled, but she felt lonelier than ever.
But she couldn't complain. Didn't want to complain. She was getting lots of work done, and finally able to focus. Hell, she was being positively pampered!
She was able to work uninterrupted in her "office", with snacks and coffee delivered regularly, and even meals when she couldn't get away. Otherwise, meals she didn't have to cook were enjoyed at the table on dishes she didn't have to clean. Except replace "didn't have to" with "wasn't allowed to". The first time she was chastised for trying to take her plate to the kitchen, it was gently and by Barba. The second time it was Noah, who she learned was now earning an "allowance" from Barba for each chore he completed, which he could then use to "buy" privileges and special items. While Noah had a pretty well developed sense of inner pride and intrinsic motivation, the combination of the right dangled "carrots" and his desire to please his Uncle Rafa put him in extrinsic motivation overdrive.
As a result, pretty much everything ended up monetized, with the colourful paper bills from Barba's old sentimental edition of Monopoly legal tender in their home. Noah was slowly taught how to set goals and budget for them in the short term and long term: a daily budget and a "savings account" for a big ticket item (a Lego Roller Coaster set that he had no idea Barba had already purchased for him and hidden away in his bedroom closet), and how to set up a general ledger of sorts to track money going in and out of his "account" (a shoe box).
On day eight, Olivia had asked, "Do you want some more dessert, Noah?"
Despite having had an awful afternoon, hearing him answer "No, thanks. It's not in my budget for today" had sent her into a fit of delighted laughter.
"Tell you what? This will be my treat," she told him.
"Do you even HAVE any money, mom?"
"She gets an allowance for working so hard all day," Barba offered. "And trust me, she makes more money than both us us."
"Oh! Then can you buy me the Lego set?"
"Sorry, sweetheart. That's not in MY budget. You'll have to keep saving."
While Noah was loading the dishwasher, Barba and Olivia chatted at the table over a glass of wine. "This is amazing," she told him. "I can't believe how much he's learning, and how quickly."
"I talked to my mom about it last night, and she said I just lucked out that Noah has the right personality for this kind of stuff. She said it wouldn't work for every kid." She'd also warned him that he probably only had two weeks of a "honeymoon period" to cash in on with Noah -- living in a new space, having Barba back in his life and seeing him every day -- so not to get too comfortable with things going so well. But he wasn't going to worry until he had to. Right now, he was having too much fun.
That's not to say Barba didn't run a tight ship, but Lucia had been right that the novelty put him at an advantage. It was obvious that Noah thought Barba hung the moon, and as a result hung on his every word and instruction.
But Barba wasn't one to just coast. All of the energy he'd put into his work for the last 20+ years he was now putting into "playing house" and "playing school", and like everything he put his mind to, he excelled at it.
He joined the Basecamp for Noah's class and became a regular contributor. He was now on a first-name basis with Noah's teacher and vice principal. Through the allowance system he had worked with Noah to develop, completing assigned school work became a part of the game, but BARBA'S assignments were much more varied and interesting. Noah was rewarded for reading silently and aloud, worked on his writing and typing by sending emails and letters to friends, and practiced along with dance lessons and choreography tutorials on YouTube for at least an hour a day. He learned how to tie a tie, fold a shirt like they do at stores, run the dishwasher, read a recipe, and order groceries online.
Except for TV that they all watched together in the evening, ALL screen time not related to learning had to be "purchased", but Noah was so enjoying Barba's focused attention, was so engaged by what he was taking in, that was more likely to choose to MAKE "money" by vacuuming or helping make dinner than to SPEND "money" on iPad or Netflix time.
Barba also made sure that they played hard as well as worked hard, even if work did feel like play much of the time. On day two, his mother dropped of a huge box of books, games and activities that she'd collected from the Charter School she directed. She'd already been at the school helping her staff to assemble learning packs for students without Internet and non-perishable food hampers for those who were struggling due to lack of school lunches. So after she had used the school van to make those deliveries and had dropped the teachers helping her back at their homes, she made a detour to her son's and left the box outside of his door without knocking, texting instead when she was already back in the vehicle. (She understood that while she'd been careful, she was still a risk to Noah, and she wasn't going to tempt her son to break quarantine just because she really wanted to see him face-to-face.)
After the box contents had been thoroughly sanitized, they provided hours of fun. Board games and card games filled their afternoons, and easy reader books in English and Spanish as well as chapter books were an important part of their bedtime routine.
Noah's days were so full that he rarely balked at the idea of turning in, which was lucky because by the time evening rolled around Barba was out of steam. "I can't remember the last time I was this tired just from a day well spent," he told her on night four as he and Olivia lounged in the living room after Noah had gone to bed.
She understood what he meant, and kept her jealousy unvoiced. She was always tired, now more than ever, but it was an emotional and mental exhaustion which rather than leading to a good night sleep made sleep difficult or unsatisfying.
Barba on the other hand was staying awake as long as he could to keep her company, but still always giving up ridiculously early and, sharing his bed with the younger of his houseguests at Noah's continued insistence, sleeping soundly, solidly.
On the morning of day 10, Barba had even managed to sleep in. Olivia, once again, had not. She'd awoken from a restless night and felt like she had barely slept at all. There was no reason for her to be awake just then since she didn't have a commute, but she knew there was no sense trying to drop off again as it would just see her starting her day with yet another failure.
She could hear the rhythmic sound of someone running on the treadmill; Noah, she could tell by the lightly weighted steps. Already working on his next leg of the "cross country relay" that he and Barba had mapped out after Noah had used an old atlas to look something up for school (using an altered scale, because none of them were willing to imagine the stay-at-home order lasted long enough for them to ACTUALLY run "across America").
It was TOO early in her estimation, but Barba had already humoured her by calling his neighbour in the condo below when they had first started their trek to see how much noise the treadmill, which had been dragged from under the bed that was now hers and into the corner of the living room, actually made when in use. After some testing, they'd assured him that it was barely audible and not remotely a bother, night or day, and that they would let him know if that were to change. Despite all that, Olivia still had to fight herself from telling Noah he should wait a few hours lest he wake them up.
She turned her attention to her newsfeed, and then to Twitter, only to have it confirmed that everything was just as awful in the world as it had been the last time she'd scrolled through. Lovely.
She didn't need a shower; she'd taken one the night before after Barba had nodded off on the couch. But she took one anyway because she didn't have a better way to fill the time. Then she stood in front of the fogged mirror, and after wiping it with a towel gave herself a good, long look, not liking what she saw. Her hair was too long and damaged. The ever-present dark circles under her eyes too pronounced. Her face looked too round, as she knew the rest of her was starting to do as well. How long now since she'd been to the gym? Or tried to exercise at home more than half-heartedly?
By the time she had dressed -- well, half dressed; she was becoming one of those cliche work-from-home types who only put on real clothes from the waist up for online meetings, but wore yoga pants and bare feet below -- and made her way to the kitchen, it was Barba on the treadmill and Noah was pouring his own orange juice at the table.
"Good morning, sweet boy. Where did you make it to this morning?"
"'Butt', Montana," he reported, snickering.
"It's pronounced "Butte", honey," she corrected with a smile. "Do you want me to make you something to eat?"
"No thanks. I'm going to wait for Rafa." Of course he was.
She made herself a coffee and sat down next to him. "So what do you boys have planned today?"
A loaded question apparently, because Noah was still chattering happily five minutes later when Barba joined them, cheeks pink and shirt damp with sweat.
"Morning, Liv," he greeted cheerfully.
"Good morning." She tried to match his tone, but could tell by the look he gave her that she hadn't been successful.
"Bud, why don't you mix up some pancake batter while I take a shower, and then when I get out I'll cook them up."
"Do you need any help?" Olivia offered, hopeful for a distraction.
"Nope, I have a recipe," he called proudly over his shoulder as he climbed up on the counter to reach the measuring cup.
Barba was still measuring her up. "You okay?"
She meant to say "yes". Tried to say "I'm fine", as she always did, as she had many times in the last few days. But it had now been almost a month since COVID had become part of her vocabulary, since her world had turned upside down. And she just couldn't get the words out.
He glanced at the clock, and then into the kitchen where Noah was busy gathering ingredients. This wasn't the time. "Listen, why don't we put Noah to bed early tonight and we can talk. Okay?"
"Sure. If you can stay awake long enough." Her tone was much more bitter than she'd intended, but he wouldn't let himself be baited.
"I'll even take a nap this afternoon to make sure," he promised kindly. "I need to get cleaned up. Do you have an early meeting, or can you join us for breakfast?"
"I'm not really hungry. I guess I'll just go get started."
He knew better than to force the issue. "Okay. But we WILL talk tonight."
Barba was true to his word. He had in fact laid down that afternoon while Noah worked on his dancing, and he had in fact convinced Noah that 7:30 wasn't too early to go to bed as long as he was allowed to fall asleep watching a movie.
So at just after 8 o'clock he and Olivia settled into the living room and Barba wasted no time with pleasantries. "What can I do to cheer you up?"
She couldn't help but chuckle at his candor, though she answered it with her own. "Honestly, I don't know. I just...really hate this."
He assumed that she meant "this" as the broader state of the world and not specifically their living arrangements, and so didn't take offense. "I know you do," he acknowledged.
"But you don't."
It wasn't quite an accusation, but Barba felt it as though it was, and a deserved one. "And I'm going to go to hell for it, I'm sure. In my defense I'm in no way trying to cajole the universe into extending this nightmare on my account. But... yeah, I honestly haven't been this happy in... I don't even know how long."
A genuine smile came unbidden to her face. "THAT cheers me up."
"Come over here." He patted the couch beside him. "Come on." She gave up easily and left the chair she'd been in to tuck herself into his side. "Let's fix this. It's completely okay for you to hate what's going on out there. But what can we do to at least help you enjoy what's going on in here? Because we boys are having a blast."
As his arm settled around her and her head rested on his shoulder, she was surprised to feel tears prick her eyes. Apart from a few scattered hugs from her son, she realized she was running low on human contact, which drew a particularly stark contrast to their last few weeks at home when, in those times he wasn't acting out and being defiant, he would insist that he sit on her lap or be picked up and held or sleep at her side. She'd recognized all of it as him trying desperately to regulate amidst the fear and stress, but it had also served the purpose of her not feeling so isolated.
Now Noah's focus was almost entirely on Barba, and she realized SHE was having trouble regulating.
"I think we talked more before we lived together than we do now," she heard herself blurting, immediately wishing she could take it back. She didn't want to appear ungrateful. In truth, she was INCREDIBLY grateful. She was just So. Damn. Tired.
"I'm sorry," he apologized immediately. "I hope you know we're not trying to make you feel left out. We just wanted to give you space so you could find your rhythm with work."
"And I appreciate it, really I do. It's helped so much. But..."
"...But we've been giving you TOO much space. And you've had some trouble mustering the energy to break back in."
Now she was grateful again, relieved that he'd been able to sum up so succinctly exactly what she couldn't give voice to. "I don't even recognize myself any more. I deal with stress and danger all the time. I've certainly been through way worse than this, by far. But I just can't seem to get free of it." He held her tighter, and she sighed heavily. "The two of you being so unaffected and having so much fun... Please believe me that I love seeing you both like that. But it also makes me feel like there's something wrong with me."
"Olivia, there's nothing wrong with you. And you can't compare life before to life now. NONE of us are unaffected; we're just all trying to cope in our own way." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You need to give yourself a break."
"What I NEED is to find ways to get out of my own head."
"Well, if you're looking for suggestions, I happen to know of a relay team who could really use a third member. I think we may have been a bit ambitious with our scaling, and I'm realizing daily that I"m not as young as I used to be."
She lifted her head and they shared a smile. "I think I'd like that."
"Good, because I promised Noah I'd have us in Bozeman by morning, and I don't think I have it in me. Get running, woman."
"Unless you want to get up early. But if you do it now, you'll be tired out before bed."
That was certainly a goal she could get behind. "And exactly how far is Bozeman?"
"Based on our system, you only need to run just under 3 miles."
"THREE MILES? Do you have any idea how out of shape I've gotten since the stay-at-home went into place?"
"Tell you what -- how about we put on a movie and we can trade off when we need a break." It wasn't a suggestion, and she recognized that he was trying to give her an extra nudge. "Let's go get our sneakers; this relay isn't going to run itself!"
And so they ran, and that night she DID sleep better. She also woke up on day eleven to find that sometime during the night Noah had crawled in with her and was cuddled against her side. She didn't know if he'd done so at Barba's behest and honestly she didn't care. Because either way, she felt a little less lonely.
Chapter 27: Adjustment
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.
Chapter 28: Science
An hour after that reveal of his extreme facial makeover, Barba had rolled off the couch following a Twitter binge, his eyes blurry and his heart heavy. It was relatively early, but he decided to get ready for bed.
Olivia was on the phone arguing with Carisi when he returned to his room. He pointed at the space beside her and she patted the comforter in assent. Listening made him feel nostalgic for the times the two of them had fought for similar reasons, but also proud of Carisi for standing his ground against her.
"Go ahead and take it," Olivia instructed Carisi, who'd just told her he had another call coming in from Amanda. "I can wait."
Now on hold, she glanced over at Barba who was lying on his back under the covers with remote in hand, looking through recently added shows on one of the installed streaming apps to find candidates for their watch list. He had grumbled about having a TV in his bedroom when he'd first purchased it in preparation for renting the place out, and now he sometimes had trouble falling asleep without it on in the background, which made him grumble all the more.
"Don't suppose I could ask you to talk some sense into him," Olivia said.
"Not a chance. Were you that much of a bully with me?"
"I resent that!" she exclaimed, punching him lightly on the arm.
"Maybe 'bully' was the wrong word," he amended with a smirk. "I think "bull-headed" was what I was looking for."
She chuckled. "Well, in that case, yes, I was. And probably much worse with you because I knew you could take it."
"Well, thanks... I guess."
She held up a finger to pause their conversation. "Yeah, Carisi, I'm still here."
They talked for 10 minutes more, and not having reached consensus agreed to pick it up again the next day, hopefully when more information was available.
After hanging up, she said to Barba, "Thanks for letting me work in here. I'll get out of your way now."
"No, stay. This is reminding me of the good old days."
"You sure? I shouldn't be too much longer."
"No hurry. You're not bothering me."
"Okay. I just need a bathroom break. You're in charge while I'm gone."
Barba took that seriously and answered her phone when it rang, though only because of the familiar name on the call display. "Hey Rollins. Liv'll be right back."
"Hey, Counselor," she greeted warmly. Olivia hadn't hidden her living situation, but this was the first direct contact Amanda had had with Barba for over a year, and she was frankly tickled by the idea of he and her boss playing house. "How goes the shelter-in-place?"
"Feeling very lucky to have the luxury, honestly. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. I'm lucky there's a woman in my building that got laid off from a daycare when all this went down. So she stays with the kids whenever I need to go to work. It's a win-win, and she's really careful; she never goes out."
"What about you? Do you feel like YOU'RE able to be careful?"
Olivia had shared recently about how much it was affecting her to have her detectives putting themselves in harm's way when she was able to enjoy the alternative. So he was glad to hear Amanda say, "It was pretty stressful at first, but now that we've gotten used to social distancing and PPE, and most people we are dealing with are at least trying to play by the rules, I'm feeling okay with it. And Liv's been great, coordinating everything and making sure we have what we need."
"Speaking of Liv, she's back. Take care of yourself, Rollins."
"You too, Barba. Nice talking to you."
While she had been gone, Olivia had put on her pajamas and brushed her teeth, tired enough that she was considering going right to bed as soon as she'd wrapped things up. But rather than making a run for it the moment she'd finally hung up, she set her laptop and phone on the the bedside table and sank down into a luxurious stretch.
"Want to stay and watch something for awhile?"
Mostly, she didn't want to move. "Sure. Full disclosure, though: I am definitely going to fall asleep before it's over."
"Well, I already know you don't snore and you've never been much of a cover hog, so I guess I can allow it, just this once."
After helping her slip between the sheets, Barba switched off the lights and then they chose a show. During the opening theme, Olivia couldn't help but inquire about the elephant with naked jawline in the room. "So, you decided to lose the beard, huh? Just because I said I wasn't sure if I liked kissing you the other way?"
"I figured I'd better, in case I lucked out and you wanted to take on a proper comparison study," he deadpanned.
"I appreciate your commitment to sound scientific inquiry." He couldn't see her face, but the eyeroll was palpable. "You didn't ACTUALLY shave just to get me to kiss you, did you? Is this your way of trying to make a move on me?"
"I'd like to hope that if I was going to make a move you'd know it, though admittedly I'm out of practice," he teased, pressing pause as the dialogue started on screen. "Truthfully I'd already decided on a trim; earlier today Noah was able to hide multiple Lego men in my beard, and I took that as a sign from the universe that the Tom Hanks-Castaway thing I'd had going on needed to stop."
"It wasn't THAT bad."
"It really was. And since you'd given me some extra incentive I thought I'd just start with a clean slate. You know, for science."
She ignored his purposely over-the-top flirting. "Clean slate, huh? Does that mean you're going to grow it back?"
"I'm planning to keep it more under control, but considering the amount of effort it takes just to put on pants everyday when we have nowhere to go, I can't imagine I'll be able to get back in the habit of shaving."
"Well in that case, I'd best complete the experiment while I have the chance." And before Barba could even clock what was to come, she was in his space with her fingers playing on his now smooth jawline as she kissed him lightly, twice.
"Hey, now," he exclaimed as she pulled back a few inches. "Are you making a move on ME?"
"I might be a little out of practice, too, but..." She put on a sultry voice. "...Trust me, you'd DEFINITELY know."
"Oh, brother." But they were both laughing as she settled back on her pillow. "Well? What is your scientific conclusion?"
"I detected a slight improvement. More research might be needed."
"Are you flirting with me right now? Because if so, you were right -- you're definitely out of practice."
This time when she punched his arm, it wasn't so light. "See if I try to do science with YOU again," she mumbled to make him laugh, succeeding.
In the end, it was Barba that fell asleep first, and as she clicked off the TV Olivia considered making her way into her own room. But she'd been having trouble dropping off lately and she felt so close to it now that she decided to stay, thinking that maybe a new environment -- and a new bedfellow -- might break the cycle. It was worth the experiment. After all, it had been a great day for "scientific discovery" all around.
Chapter 29: Turning
On day 23 of their cohabitation, Barba was still sporting a full beard, but it hadn't yet reached Tom Hanks/Castaway status. Communication between them was improving, but was far from perfected. They'd already experienced the snafu with his "vacation", and she was still wary to participate in putting groceries away after his initial chastisement. Olivia had admitted her loneliness but had yet to voice her insecurities about the life she had built for Noah. There had been no dancing, and certainly no kissing: On day 23, Barba never would have allowed himself to be unguarded enough to initiate, and Olivia would still have been too in her head to reciprocate.
They couldn't have known that day 23 was still very early in the pandemic and their living arrangement. And they couldn't have known that day 23 would be a turning point that would make the later days and weeks and months easier, better, deeper and more intimate.
Day 23 had been for Olivia so full of scheduled meetings and remote press appearances that she'd made the decision to drive the rental car back to her own apartment. She said it was because she didn't want Barba and Noah to have to worry about being quiet or interrupting her, but she was also by that point hungry for a change of scenery.
She'd finished with her work responsibilities by 6, but had taken some extra time to deal (very carefully) with her mail, clean out the fridge of the few things she had left behind that were perishable, and gather some books, toys and clothes to take back with her. She also just spent some time in quiet reflection, letting the silence around her and the feeling of "home" chip away at some of the armor she'd built around herself in her attempt to keep things together for the sake of her son and her own pride.
It was after 8 p.m. when she finally returned, her armor more or less back in place, and it didn't surprise her when Barba greeted her from the couch with a bemused expression. She knew her expression must look very similar, as she'd made the mistake of turning on the radio for the drive home.
"I see you got started without me," she accused, referring to the drink in his hand.
"I'll take a break so you can catch up."
"Good." She took his glass from him and downed it in a gulp, the scotch burning her throat and making her eyes water. "You'll have to get a new glass now, in case I just gave this one the plague."
"No worries. I'll just shine a "very powerful light" up my ass; I'm sure that'll do the trick."
Day 23 was the day that particular bit of sound medical advice out of the White House had dominated the news cycle and they had both waited to watch it in its entirety so they could "enjoy" it together, along with the other news conferences they'd been putting off consuming until Barba had been able to arrange for more wine to be delivered. The decision to delay because alcohol was necessary for any attempt to make Trump's "word salad" palatable enough to keep them from choking on it was really a double-sided excuse: Barba's way of recognizing that Olivia needed a break from the news, and Olivia's concession that Barba needed the release valve of at least occasional tandem wallowing in what was going on outside these walls.
"I need to change. And shower. And maybe throw some things." But her intentions threatened to be derailed by the sound of Noah calling for her.
"He's in my room. I'll go," Barba told her. "You get out of your Corona-clothes and get cleaned up. But don't throw things without me."
"I make no promises."
Noah didn't seem to need anything, and was happy with the explanation that his mother was in the shower. Barba refused the request for a story, but laid down next to him and allowed the boy, still half asleep, to climb on top of him and settle there, his head tucked under Barba's chin. And during the time it took for Liv to shower and change and NOT throw things, Barba had to admit that the weight and steady breathing of the sleeping child made him feel just a little better. He was kind of disappointed when she appeared in the doorway, hair dripping onto a long nightshirt - an old T-shirt of his - that almost totally obscured the shorts she was wearing from view, and gestured that he should join her back in the living room.
They started at the Federal level, which led to them bitching and complaining about everything that had gone wrong and all the people that had screwed the pooch so very thoroughly, and throwing up their hands in absolute disbelief over the utter incompetence which was on display in new and troubling ways. Then a quick catch up for the city, to which they gave mixed reviews. Then to the State level, leading them to toast their Governor for what appeared to be a solid grasp of the situation and his reasonable attempts at a response.
At some point on the home stretch Olivia had noticed Barba digging into the muscles of his neck with his fingers, and had patted the place in front of her in an offer to take up the task.
"You don't have to." The fact that he hesitated at all, that he didn't want to bother her, burden her, was very much par for the course leading up to day 23.
The words she held herself back from saying - "It's the least I can do" - were equally par for the course, as she was still in the habit of trying to find ways to start balancing the ledger. Instead she just said "Come on" in an authoritative voice, and that was enough to see him sitting cross legged on the floor as she alternated her efforts between his neck and shoulders.
Finally, she said, "I can't take any more of the news today, and I'd say you shouldn't either based on how tense you are. Why don't we move to the bedroom so I can do this properly?"
A snarky comment about the double entendre died in this throat; since she'd moved in, there had been an unspoken moratorium on "flirty". "Only if you let me return the favour," he replied instead.
She wasn't going to say no to that; she knew if she did, he wouldn't allow her to continue. Well, maybe that wasn't the ONLY reason.
"Shirt off," she called after him as she detoured into the washroom to find some lotion. He obeyed immediately before flopping facedown with his head at the foot of her bed so she could face the TV while she worked. He was queuing up the show they'd started recently when she joined him, straddling him without announcement, resting her weight on his thighs. Then starting low, she did a long sweep with both hands up either side of his spine to his shoulders, then down each arm.
"Too much? I can go easier."
"Don't you dare."
It was nice to be able to touch him like this, she reflected. It wasn't that they didn't touch or weren't comfortable touching. They did and they were. It was true that they touched less now that they lived together, and she hadn't done much soul searching about why that might be. But back when they worked together, even in public, it was nothing for a hand to brush or clasp a shoulder, an arm, to guide from the small of a back, to wrap around an elbow to redirect. And in private they had always been in and out of each other's personal space without thought. Casual. Comfortable.
Outside of work, especially after his resignation, they were more demonstrative though generally more deliberate, using their physical interactions to make a statement, to offer comfort or solace or thanks or congratulations, to bring closure to particularly heavy moments between them. They'd even shared a bed more than once. But this seemed different to her, somehow more intimate. And she liked it a lot, liked the way it made her feel trusted and close. She also liked the way his smooth skin felt under her fingers, but that may have simply been the heady combination of wine and scotch.
Barba's reflections were less organized. He was just trying not to drool or make obscene noises.
When the first episode was over he found the inner fortitude to insist that they switch despite HER insistence that it wasn't necessary, that she could have her turn another night. But the speed and apparent lack of modesty with which she peeled off her shirt when she eventually relented was evidence that she hadn't really needed much convincing. "Where do you want me?"
With a beautiful, half-naked woman on a bed with him sporting such an eager expression, this time he couldn't help the joke: "Oh, I can think of a few positions if you're really open to suggestions."
"And... now you've made this gross. Thanks for that." But she was smiling as she allowed herself to be moved into place, using some pillows to prop herself comfortably before settling on her stomach. He unclasped her bra and allowed it to fall open, gently pushing the straps down her shoulders.
"How much pressure do you want?"
"You can't hurt me. Do your worst."
He was really good at this. "I've had some experience," he revealed cryptically when she drew attention to his obvious skill, but didn't elaborate. "Anywhere other than your back you want me to focus on?"
"Oh, I didn't know there was a "full-service" option."
"Now who's making it gross? If you're expecting a happy ending you'll need to buy me dinner first."
"I'll be happier if this DOESN'T end, thank you very much. But to answer your earlier question, I'll let you be creative. I trust you."
He moved down to her legs, stopping to focus anywhere that drew an audible response from her. "We're going to have to start buying more lotion," he remarked conversationally.
The idea that he apparently saw this as a repeatable activity made her almost giddy as his thumbs attacked the arch of her left foot. "We could use baby oil. We'd just need to put down towels or an old sheet or something."
"Do you HAVE baby oil?"
"Probably not here."
"Well then, we might as well just get massage oil."
"Not sure if that's something we can add to our grocery order."
"Baby oil it is." The episode ended, but Barba let it continue to the next and he kept going as well.
"You can stop," she told him.
"Do you want me to stop?"
"Well... no. But you must be getting tired."
"I've got strong thumbs; I can go for awhile. My legs, however, are another story." He'd shifted positions several times to save his knees, but he would soon need a more long-term solution.
"Let's stop then."
"No, I have a plan." He re-clasped her bra, then moved to the head of the bed and used pillows to make himself comfortable against the headboard, stretching his legs out in front of him slightly splayed. "Flip over and come lay up here."
She wasn't sure what he had in mind, but she hadn't been lying before -- she definitely trusted him. And even if there was any doubt of that, she was so blissed out she might have made allowances anyway. She used the nightshirt to cover her stomach but resisted the instinct to pull it higher, not wanting to discourage any potential source of relaxation.
He adjusted her ponytail so she could lay comfortably without a pillow, and when she was settled his fingers slid under her shoulders and then slowly ran up the back of her neck.
Olivia heard a proper curse word escape her lips before she even perceived the thought forming. But his hands didn't stop. Wave after wave of pleasure chasing pain, of stress and tension releasing from her muscles. And she was so focused on the sensations that for the first time in a long time she forgot about work, forgot about viruses and pandemics and politics, and was just able to enjoy the present moment.
Eventually his fingers and thumbs DID start to cramp up, but with about 10 minutes left of their show he transitioned to long, absent strokes with his palms, spreading lotion down her arms to her fingers, running his hands along her clavicle, and even lower.
It wasn't until his fingers brushed the top of her bra cup that his eyes darted from the TV screen; he'd been focused on the show but also wanting to make concessions to her modesty. He'd meant to just reorient, to determine his boundaries, but when he caught sight of the cigarette burn peeking out from the fabric he couldn't help himself, and did another sweep so his fingers could run over it, as though to sooth the long-healed skin.
Then he felt bad, assuming he must be drawing her attention to earlier trauma; he remembered the pictures at the trial, remembered her vivid descriptions of what William Lewis had done to her. But when he met her eyes to check in he realized that what he thought he saw there wasn't what he expected. And along with the relief that she hadn't noticed his focus, hadn't made the same connections, it brought a full, smug grin to his face. "Whoops. Sorry, partner. Didn't mean to be quite so handsy."
She crossed her arms over her chest, both to now cover the offending area and also to support her scowl. "I refuse to be shamed for having one stray lustful thought while an attractive shirtless man was touching my breasts."
"Just ONE stray lustful thought?"
"Shut up." She sat up and quickly pulled on her shirt before turning to face him.
Her hair was a mess, her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, and her scowl was formidable. AND she smelled like strawberry lotion. Barba liked all of these things very much. Barba who had indulged on more scotch than usual liked these things a little TOO much. So when she added a raised eyebrow as she tried to read his expression, he was reaching for HIS shirt, and mumbling "Away from me, vile temptress" with a fake scowl of his own as he slid off the bed.
"Going somewhere, Barba?" She was teasing now, and that was a good sign. A sign of no harm done.
"You bet am I. Though to be clear I am bursting with manly pride right now to have gotten you all hot and bothered. You should just count your lucky stars that there's no way I'd risk messing this - " he gestured between them - "up for something as fleeting as an orgasm. Though to be clear..." He playfully leaned close to her and his voice dropped half an octave at least. "...I would have given you several, and they would have been sensational."
"Oh, my God." She was laughing now, a full belly laugh that might have been the most beautiful sound that he'd ever heard because of what it represented.
"I'll keep Noah with me tonight, so you can have your room to yourself to take care of - " He made a broad motion toward her. "- whatever you need to take care of."
"Barba!" she scolded, laughing all the more.
"I'll see you in the morning, Liv." And he smartly got the hell out of Dodge.
Just after 7:30 a.m., when he knew she usually be getting up, he let himself into her room after a quick knock, looking significantly less hungover than she felt. Closing the door behind him, he set a glass of water and a bottle of pain reliever on the bedside table before pulling up the desk chair and taking a seat. His pleased-with-himself smirk was bordering on obnoxious, but that might have been more a product of her headache. "So, Captain. Did you manage to have a fun night after I went to bed?"
Yes, things had definitely changed. If it had been day 22, she might have blushed. But it was now day 24, and she found she could take it just as easily as she could dish it out. Which she did. "Oh, you know. It wasn't quite "sensational", but it was alright."
They shared a chuckle.
"I'd thank you for not taking advantage of my momentary alcohol-fueled lapse if I thought it was necessary," she continued.
"And I'd thank you for not breaking my fingers over touching your breasts if I thought THAT was necessary. You feeling like breakfast?"
"I'm feeling like I got hit in the head with a plank. I think I'll be staying away from scotch for the near AND far future."
"More for me, then. Lightweight." But his smile was kind, compassionate. "Take a pill and have a lay-in. I'll keep Noah out of here until you're feeling better. What time do you have to work?"
"My first scheduled meeting isn't until 10. I might try to sleep a bit longer."
"I think that sounds like a splendid idea. Want me to take your phone so I can screen your calls?"
She was tempted, but ultimately declined.
"Suit yourself," he relented as he got up to leave. "Then you can text if you need anything."
"Thanks." A pause. "Hey, Rafa," she called after him as he reached for the doorknob.
He stopped and turned. "Yeah?"
"'Several' orgasms'?" she quoted.
"To start," he confirmed with a wink. And her laughter followed him as he went out into day 24, unaware of just how much things would begin to change between them.
Chapter 30: Grown
Noah was feeling very grown-up.
The movie had ended, and he was the only one who had managed to stay awake despite that it was only 25 minutes after 9. (He'd been working on telling time, and had nearly mastered it.) That was quite late for him, but he knew that the adults often didn't go to bed until long after that. Not always, of course; he'd heard his mom teasing Barba early in their stay about having the same bedtime as Noah, because they worked and played so hard all day that it tired him out. THAT had made Noah feel grown-up, too, to share a bedtime with someone as old as his Uncle Rafa.
And now Barba was on his right, snoring softly, and Noah was still wide awake. That made him the acting man of the house, and he determined that he would get everything shut down for the evening all by himself.
Step 1 was to properly tuck in the grownups, he guessed. It was lucky that he'd asked if they could watch the movie from Barba's bed; earned it, actually, as he'd cashed in some of his "money" to stay up late and to do so in that location. And now he could just leave them where they were. His mother, sleeping soundly on his left, still had her glasses on. He carefully removed them before slipping out from under the covers and oh-so-carefully crawling down to the foot of the bed before sliding until his feet were on the floor.
He set her glasses on the bedside table. Then he collected their phones and put them on the dresser, knowing his mom liked to have the phone in the room in case someone called with an emergency, but also out of reach so she wouldn't be tempted to scroll through her feeds as soon as she woke up.
It took him two trips to bring the popcorn bowl and the cups they'd been using to the kitchen - he'd deal with those next. Then he was back in Barba's room adjusting the covers and giving each of them a kiss on their foreheads and whispering "Good night" and "I love you", just like they always did for him when he was dropping off. Last order of business was to turn off the TV, and then he left the room and very carefully clicked the door shut behind him.
Back to the kitchen where he loaded the cups into the dishwasher and, seeing it was ready to run, diligently ran through the steps that Barba had been drilling into his memory: Make sure that things were loaded correctly (he adjusted a few bowls). Add the detergent pod (wash hands after touching). Check mode (already on the right one). And then press start. The popcorn bowl was too large for the dishwasher so he washed it by hand, using warm water and (too much) dish soap, then laid down a towel and left it sitting upside down to dry.
They had run out of the coffee pods for the fancy machine a few days ago, so they'd been using the old one with the timer. Noah hadn't specifically been shown how to operate it, but had intentionally watched Barba load it the last two nights, knowing he could earn some points eventually for carrying out this task himself. This was his chance to find out.
Add water. Check. Throw the old grounds in the sink and rinse filter. Check. Two big spoonfuls of new grounds, then click the top closed. Check. Now was the tricky part. He pressed the "TIMER" button and saw 7 a.m. flashing as the preset. (He was really seeing the benefit of having learned to tell time!) But tomorrow was Sunday, which meant his mom didn't have to get up so early. So he used the arrow to move it ahead to 8 a.m. instead before pressing the big circular button in the middle, which then lit up to show that things were set to go.
He was really nailing this! He was so proud of himself it barely mattered that no one else was awake to be proud of him, too.
Next it was time to get ready for bed. Toilet first; they'd let him drink soda during the movie, and even he recognized that it might have something to do with why he was still awake. He knew he could get away with not using a flosser, but there was a little kernel of popcorn stuck between some back molars, so he did his whole mouth. Then brushing. He forgoed the Listerine because he knew that was only meant for when grownups were supervising. Then he washed his face and patted it dry the way his mother had taught him.
He turned the light on in his bedroom -- just his tonight! The first time he'd gotten to sleep alone since they'd moved there! -- and left the door wide open in preparation. He checked the lock on the main door (not that they'd gone anywhere for it to have been left UNLOCKED) and then turned off all the lights on his way back, except for the one over the oven which was the "nightlight" for helping him get to the bathroom if he woke up in the middle of the night.
Back in his room he opened the blinds so that street lights from outside would shine in, then turned off the overhead light and closed the door. Positioning Eddie the Elephant by his pillow, he slipped between the sheets and stretched out luxuriously in the centre of the bed, his arms and legs spread out like he was making a snow angel. "Alexa, play 'Noah's nighttime mix' for 1 hour, volume 3." And he drifted off to sleep in a haze of utter contentment.
Barba woke up at around 1 a.m. He had to pee, and his mouth tasted disgusting from not having brushed his teeth. There was a warm weight against him and so he waited to move until his eyes adjusted, hoping to strategically extract himself without waking Noah. Except he soon found it wasn't Noah -- Noah was nowhere in sight -- but Olivia, and that he was likely the culprit behind their close proximity as he appeared to have drifted toward the centre of the bed in the night.
"Mmmm...Whatisit?" Olivia grumbled as Barba inadvertently jostled her while trying to untangle himself from the covers.
"Bathroom break. Sorry. Go back to sleep."
Teeth brushed and bladder attended to, Barba started to go through his internal checklist for end of day...but found that everything appeared to have been completed already.
He heard running water in the ensuite and met Olivia as she was entering the hallway to check on Noah. They stood together in the doorway and observed the boy resting peacefully, though diagonally; even in sleep he was taking full advantage of having the bed to himself.
"I was wondering why he didn't stay in with us and thought he might have needed some space," Olivia mused. "I may have been right on more than one level." She had meant to join him, and now was trying to figure out how that would be logistically possible without moving and potentially waking him.
"Then let's let him have his space," Barba said, as though sensing her problem. His hand briefly went to her elbow and gave a directing tug toward his bedroom. He'd actually been about to offer to take the couch so she could have his bed when he thought the better of it. They'd shared a bed before, and while the offer might have seemed gentlemanly in another situation, he recognized that it was unnecessary.
Olivia had a similar internal monologue over her response of "Are you sure?" that she left unvoiced. She'd been trying to curb the outward signs of the battle being waged by her pride and her stubborn desire for equity against a living situation that made her feel constantly like she wasn't doing enough to keep the scales balanced. She'd learned from weeks of putting together tiny glimpses of his vulnerability that it really bothered him, though hadn't realized how strongly until a few nights before when he had snapped at her rather harshly.
To an outside observer, the explosion might have seemed to come out of nowhere. Her glass had been empty, he'd stood to refill it, and all she'd said was, "You don't have to do that, Barba."
But his response had the pent-up frustration of many similar situations propelling it. "Oh, for Pete sake, Olivia! Do we need to play this game every goddamn time? Why can't you just accept that I WANT to do things for you?"
He'd apologised immediately, as had she. They didn't really talk about it but she'd learned her lesson, not because she'd been chastised, but because though his tone had been angry, his eyes had revealed that he was HURT. And the last thing she wanted to do was hurt him.
And so this night she was following him back to his bed with no words at all, including words of thanks, which she now knew had the ability to hurt him just as much as her refusal or deferment because to him it all represented the same thing.
They slipped under the covers of their respective sides of the bed without ceremony. Olivia was about to say "good night" when Barba spoke instead. "Did you set up the coffee timer?"
"No. Do you want me to?"
"It was already done when I went to do it. Seems your son has developed a new life skill."
"I'm all for you teaching him to make it; just don't teach him to DRINK it, at least not for a few more years."
"I'll try to hold him off as long as I can."
They shared a chuckle, and pretty easily fell back to sleep.
Morning arrived, and this time the warmth Barba felt against his side WAS Noah, who was propped up between them with an iPad. It was 9:30; the grown ups had slept in.
Olivia was also stirring, realizing the time. "Good morning, sweet boy," she said warmly, just loud enough that he could hear over the phonics game he was playing.
He pressed pause immediately and pulled off his headphones. "Hi, mama!"
"I'm sorry we slept so late. You must be starving."
"I already had breakfast."
She glanced over and saw that Barba was still in bed. "Did you make it yourself?"
"Uh huh. I just had cereal, but I put blueberries on it."
"That sounds yummy."
"Want me to make some for you?"
Her reflex was to tell him it wasn't necessary, but since Barba's blow up she'd improved at fighting that reflex. And she was glad, because when she paused to reflect on Noah's offer she was able to recognize the hope in his voice, and suddenly realized that Barba wasn't the only one in the house who took joy in taking care of her. "Noah, that would be so wonderful. Thank you for offering."
Barba was pouring them both coffee by the time Olivia had gotten dressed. (Well, put on a sports bra under the t-shirt she'd slept in, and traded shorts for yoga pants). But Noah was handling the rest, setting her place at the table and then delivering her cereal and blueberries with a smile and a very Barba-esque flourish. "Here you go. I put in extra blueberries 'cuz I know you like them."
Her response was to pull him into her side and pepper his face with kisses. He squirmed and pushed her away, but before he ran off to play she could see that he was flushed with happiness. And it made her heart feel good to know that while he was learning from Barba to do so many grown-up things, he was still very much her little boy.
Chapter 31: Stay
Barba had witnessed both Olivia and Lucy carry out what was apparently the preferred discipline regimen more than once, and had always been amazed by how calm they generally remained, often in the face of Noah having a total meltdown.
And yet when Barba finally found himself alone with a first sassy, then defiant, then literally kicking-and-screaming child, he was surprised that he too managed to keep a level head as he did his best to follow the examples he'd filed away out of interest without it ever quite occurring to him that he might someday be called upon to enact the ritual.
Olivia's noise cancelling headphones had blocked out the bulk of it, so she was surprised when she stepped out of her room/office to find Noah nowhere in sight, and Barba reclined and reading on the couch surrounded by scattered toys. All of this was unusual, because Noah and Barba were generally joined at the hip, and Barba had strict rules about tidying up.
"Hey, you," she greeted, not quite able to keep the curiosity out of her voice. "Where's Noah?"
"In my room. He needed some cool down time." He set his phone on the coffee table. "There's a plate for you in the fridge. Want me to heat it up for you?"
"I'll grab it later, thanks." She glanced down the hallway and saw the egg timer just outside the closed bedroom door. "I was going to hop in the shower. How much time does he have left?" She was trying to draw out the details, inferring she could take over, feeling bad that he'd been stuck with her misbehaving child.
"Not long. But go take your shower; I've got it covered."
Olivia hesitated. It hadn't surprised her that Noah was having a bad day, suspecting that the reason he might be acting out was that the night before he'd been playing on the floor in front of the TV which had the news muted but with captions. At some point he'd looked up and been able to read the headline about the most recent death toll numbers, which led to him asking some hard questions. Noah had seemed to take it well then, but he'd had almost 24 hours to mull and process now. This type of reaction would fit his pattern to a T, and Barba wouldn't necessarily be aware of that dynamic.
In the end, Barba's nonchalance and relaxed smile convinced her to head back to her room to prepare a change of clothes, but when she heard the "ding" from the timer, heard a door open and soft footfalls headed toward the living room, she couldn't help herself.
"Hi, Noah. Feeling better? Ready to talk through this?"
Olivia stood just out of sight and listened to Barba have a calm discussion with Noah about what factors and feelings had led to the meltdown, and what they could do differently next time to avoid it. Then she heard a genuine apology, words of affection exchanged, and an agreement that they should pick up his toys together so that when Liv got out of the shower she'd be happy to have a clean house.
Her heart was full as she snuck to the bathroom. But it would have burst if she'd been privy to the conversation that followed.
"Rafa?" Noah was curled up on his lap now, fiddling absently with the ear of the stuffed elephant that had been part of the mess they'd just put to rights.
"When the virus goes away, are you going to leave again?"
"Hmm." He wanted to choose his words carefully. "How would it make you feel if I DID have to leave again?"
"Yeah, me too." Barba pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Well, Noah, I can't guarantee that I won't have to travel sometimes. But I've been thinking that I'm going to try to find some work around here so I can be home more."
There was a long pause as Noah organized his thoughts. "But we still can't stay."
"Stay here, you mean? At my place?"
"Yeah." And then Noah shifted so he could wrap his arms around Barba's neck. "I wish we could live here."
Barba had to stop himself from saying "Me, too", though in that moment -- and in many moments those days -- it was how he felt. Instead, he told him, "Some things will go back to normal; you'll be going back to your apartment, your mom will ge going back to work, you'll be spending time with Lucy again. But that doesn't mean that WE have to change, not really. Not in the ways that really matter. Things will always be different for us now that we've had this experience. And you and your mom will ALWAYS be welcome here. Always."
Noah hugged him even tighter, and Barba hoped that meant the boy believed his words, because he had certainly meant them.
Several days later, Barba returned from tucking Noah in to find Olivia on the couch with her phone in hand, feet propped up on the coffee table. Without warning, he climbed over the back of the couch and stretched out, putting a throw pillow on her lap and his head on the pillow.
"Well, hello," was all she said, chuckling as he got comfortable.
"Hello. Are you working?"
"Excellent." He plucked her phone from her hand and tossed it by his feet, out of her reach.
"Alright. I guess I was done with that anyway." They hadn't really connected much that day and she couldn't quite get a read on him, though the way he sighed when she laid a hand on his chest seemed like contentment. "Everything okay?"
"Yup. I just love your kid."
Contentment it was. And it was suddenly spreading. "You do, huh?"
"I really do."
"Great bedtime. Great DAY." And he went on to tell her all about it. Finally: "I never would have thought I was cut out for...whatever we're calling what I'm doing. But yeah. I just love your kid."
"I know," she said, her free hand running affectionately through his hair. "And he loves you, too. We both do."
"I know." There was that contented sigh again, and one from her to match. "Want to watch our show?"
"Sure." She retrieved the remote from the armrest and offered it to him.
"Good." A pause. "Can I stay here?"
"Good," he repeated, and he switched on the TV.
Chapter 32: Normal
Of everything gained through their living arrangement, not the least of which being free childcare, the growing feeling of normalcy was what Olivia had come to appreciate the most. It wasn't that she never missed having her own space and being the one to make all the decisions about what happened in that space. But times of frustration and squabbling and tripping over each other had become normalized, too. This was just life now, and she felt settled and grounded by it.
Yes, they were essentially just playing house, to a ridiculous degree that in any other situation would never have stood; their collective pride and propriety wouldn't have allowed for it. But much could be forgiven -- of themselves and each other -- in the context of the global pandemic raging outside.
Barba's only wish beyond a vaccine or a miracle was that they could shut her work out more often and allow her to enjoy the normalcy as much as he was. But even when he went out of his way to make that happen, like the night he'd insisted he would act as her secretary so she could enjoy a bath without her cell in reach, it very rarely went as hoped.
Olivia's phone buzzed four times in quick succession - text notifications, Barba recognized - and then the vibration changed as a call came in. So Barba checked it and saw all the contacts were from what appeared to be a frantic rookie ADA. When it rang again in his hand he answered. "What's up, Carisi?"
"Barba? I uh - I was looking for the Captain."
"Obviously, since you called her phone. Is this really life or death, or something that can wait an hour until she gets out of the tub?"
"Um... yeah, it really can't wait."
He sighed. "Fine, give me a minute."
Carisi could hear a rustling sound, what he assumed was the phone being held against Barba's shirt while he walked, and then muted voices. "Liv? Phone for you. Apparently the world is ending because your ADA says it can't wait." "The door's unlocked." Carisi was being overloaded with new information.
Liv had pulled the shower curtain part way closed so Barba could see her face and shoulder but nothing else. "Can you stay?" she requested softly as she took the phone from him.
"Yeah, sure," he replied, curious but also amused that Liv showed no signs that she planned to have this bath cut short whether she had to work or not.
"Carisi, I'm going to put you on speaker. Barba might have some insight."
So Barba sat cross legged on the bathmat, his back leaning against the side of the tub. He did have a few things to add and he was glad to be helpful, but it was mostly Olivia who got his young "protege" sorted out. After she hung up, he reached back and she handed him the phone. But before he could move to stand, her fingers were running through his hair, evaluating. "You need a haircut."
"We all need haircuts." Noah's already unruly curls were becoming almost clownishly long, though when he didn't have it tied back they framed his face so cutely and were so soft to the touch that neither adult was too concerned. Olivia just needed to get rid of some split ends and dead weight. Barba was heading into 70s glam rock territory. "I have scissors in my clipper kit if you're feeling ambitious."
"That's a brave suggestion," Olivia remarked evenly.
"It's just hair. And you're the one who has to look at it, so I figure you'll be extra motivated to do a good job so you won't be face to face with your failure all day."
"You'd probably look rakish in a beanie, if it came to that." She shifted a bit so she could reach him with both hands, using her wet fingers to lengthen a strand and then make an imaginary cut. "We should do it," she announced suddenly. "Right now before I lose my nerve."
"You're not scared are you, Mister "It's Just Hair"? Go get a chair from the kitchen while I get out of the tub. We can do it in here."
"You're so bossy."
"You love it. Scoot."
He dawdled a bit with shutting things down for the night, letting her know his plans so she wouldn't feel rushed. By the time he returned with the chair as ordered and placed it in the middle of the room, she was dressed and sitting on the counter, focused on the iPad she'd retrieved from his bedside table. He picked the bathmat off the floor and hung it over the shower rod before finding the scissors and peeling off his shirt. "We doing this or not, woman? Quit scrolling and get over here."
"For your information, I'm looking for a tutorial, because I literally have no idea where to start."
"Please tell me you're looking on YouTube and not TikTok."
"Reddit," she admitted.
"I'm doomed." But he was still game, and was happy to let her find some guidance, regardless of the source. "Your hair is still wet, so why don't you keep searching and let me give this a whirl." She agreed distractedly and assumed the position. "I don't know how to layer," he warned her as he draped a towel around her shoulders. "I mean, I have some idea of the principle, but I'm fairly certain you don't want me to try."
"It's not necessary. Just take a couple of inches off in some semblance of a straight line and I'll be happy."
Once Olivia had selected what she felt would be a helpful guide, which DID end up being from YouTube, she eventually checked back in. "How's it going?"
But her attention was suddenly elsewhere and she didn't quite take in his reply. While she'd certainly seen him shirtless before, having his bare torso so close to her and available for examination as he measured out her long bangs was a new experience.
Noah had been watching lots of videos of kids around his age dancing, and one of his favourite channels was of a brother and sister who were dancers and gymnasts, and who both had incredibly toned stomachs to go along with their core strength. Noah had begun to idolize the boy, who was only a few years his senior, and had asked Barba if he could start doing targeted exercises during their "gym classes" that would help him build his own core. And of course he wanted Barba to do it with him.
Barba wasn't opposed. For years he'd had a habit of doing planks, crunches, and pushups before his morning shower. It was only the amount of cardio he was doing during any particular season of his adulthood that dictated whether the muscles of his arms, shoulders, chest and stomach were on display or covered by a layer of flab. But their cross-country treadmill relay and participating in Noah's quest for a stronger core, along with him being home and having the time to work with Noah on cooking healthy food most of the time, had trimmed him down considerably.
Olivia had watched and at times participated in their fitness efforts and benefited from the better diet, to modest outward results. But she'd definitely noticed the the changes in Barba, and while she'd always found him fun to look at, especially in his snappy suits, she'd found herself appreciating his physique more consciously these days.
"I think you might beat Noah to that six pack," she remarked.
"Your kid is the best personal trainer I've ever had; he gets all the credit." He paused to give a critical eye to the hair framing her face, deciding things weren't quite even and bracing to try again. "To be clear, I thought I was going first and it would be easier for cleanup if I wasn't wearing a shirt."
"I'm not judging. Or complaining."
"I'm feeling equal parts flattered and objectified... and I don't particularly mind either." He made a cut, and then another, and then stood back again to compare. It appeared to be a success. "However I'm well aware that being cooped up all this time you've been lacking in scenery. I'm going to take your reviews with a grain of salt considering I'm the only show in town."
There might have been a salt-and-pepper joke to be thrown in, as along with his abs the grey in his hair and beard had also become more pronounced. But that too would have ended up complementary because they both knew how well it suited him. And she could tell by the faint smirk on his face that his ego had already been sufficiently stoked.
"Okay, I think I'm done. Let me go grab the broom while you survey the damage and see if there's anything you want me to fix up."
She spotted a few jagged strands which he promptly took care of before receiving her stamp of approval and her thanks.
Now with Barba finally in the hot seat, Olivia took a long time with a spray bottle wetting his hair, combing, parting, re-parting.
"I know you're stalling. Honestly, Liv, it'll grow back. Just have at it."
"Okay. You asked for it." She leaned over and pressed play on the video she had queued up.
She was glad Barba was positioned too low to have a view of himself the mirror, though he was at just the right height to see the intense concentration on her face and the occasional grimace when she wasn't immediately happy with her work.
"Are you SURE you want me to do this?" she asked once. It was one of the only times she spoke during the whole ordeal.
"It seems a little late to be asking that now," he pointed out, gesturing to the floor already littered with her completed efforts.
The tutorial was only about 20 minutes long, but it was often paused and parts replayed. So it was almost 45 minutes later when she finally gave up. "Let me dry it for you," she insisted since the video had suggested it. "I want to see if it can be salvaged."
He allowed it because his verbal reassurances to that point had not been helpful. He knew she needed to see the finished product, no matter what it looked like.
In the end, it wasn't that bad. It DEFINITELY could have been worse. He was actually pretty impressed, though she didn't believe it when he expressed that to her. After shooing her off from making too many excessive corrections, he offered to use the clippers himself to clean up around his neck, but instead ended up walking her through it.
"I'll clean up," he told her when she finally felt satisfied enough to stop.
"You need to clean yourself up," she reminded him, "or you'll just keep dropping hair everywhere. Why don't you hop in the shower to rinse off?"
"Yes, ma'am." He slipped off the pajama pants he was wearing without ceremony, giving them a shake before tossing them in the laundry hamper. Then he adjusted the height of the shower head so his hair wouldn't get wet again before turning on the water and testing the temperature. With a quick peek to make sure that Olivia wasn't at an angle that would afford her a view too scandalous, he divested himself of his black boxer briefs and stepped under the water and out of her view.
Olivia had caught a glimpse of his naked behind in the mirror, and acknowledged to herself that he was even more fun to look at unclothed than clothed, which was saying a lot. But she also acknowledged that while her lack of experience had made it impossible to enjoy the act of cutting his hair, the domesticity that surrounded everything that night had been lovely, and more than worth the stress.
She was still in the process of putting the bathroom to rights when the water abruptly turned off. "Can you pass me a towel?"
Olivia placed one in the hand that was reaching around the shower curtain. He emerged soon with the towel tied around his waist, and she immediately moved into his space and started fluffing and smoothing his hair. "I wish I could say this wasn't my best work, but I don't think I'm cut out to be a stylist. I'll understand if you don't want to leave me a tip."
"Hey, I'm happy. I feel 10 pounds lighter and I look - " he paused and glance in the mirror - "well, not really younger. We may have to graduate you to colouring before I go completely grey."
"Home colours are much more in my wheelhouse."
"Well, I bet cutting will be much easier next time."
And though outwardly she cringed at the thought, inwardly she was unbothered by the idea that they may have to continuing playing house long enough for him to need another haircut. More than unbothered; she was happy, so happy that she was compelled to hug his damp and half naked body tightly - confusing and delighting him - before she bid him goodnight.
Chapter 33: Floodgates
Barba and Olivia had gotten very good at noticing or guessing what the other might need and doing their best to help. They'd always been good at it on some level, of course, but back when they worked together they had fewer appropriate tools at their disposal. Barba might have sensed 5 years ago that she was tense, but couldn't exactly offer a neck massage during a meeting of her detectives. Nor could Olivia pull him aside in the middle of trial to help him manage his frustration by reading aloud to him while he lay with his head in her lap.
Now that they were trapped in a confined space with no worries of conflict of interest to limit them, and - let's face it - with little else to do, making the other happy had become like sport.
What they still hadn't mastered was TAKING what they needed.
"You don't need to ask" had become a popular refrain, and Olivia had once admitted her hesitance stemmed from not wanting him to feel like she was using him.
"Use me," he had deadpanned immediately. "If this is what using me looks like, do it. I'll take it. It's my new favourite thing." And they had laughed together and tried to ask permission less.
Things weren't perfect, not by any stretch, but all three had found the rhythm of cohabitation. The Bensons no longer felt like guests, and had stumbled into the genuine freedom of "home" under Barba's roof. As weeks in lockdown stretched into months, boundaries had become lax, choices had become habits, and sleeping arrangements had become erratically rotational.
The adults had taken to watching TV in bed sometimes, whichever bed Noah hadn't fallen asleep in. Sometimes one or both would lounge on top of the covers, and sometimes one or both would be properly tucked in. Sometimes one of them would retire to the other bed when they started to fade, and sometimes they would give in to sleep before whatever they were watching was over.
What RARELY happened was for the TV to go off and for both parties, still awake, to stay where they were. It had in fact happened more times prior to the lockdown than since they had moved in together.
On this night, they were in what was technically Olivia's room, so it was Barba that might have left but didn't. And it was Olivia that might have bid him goodnight but had both initiated and sustained the conversation that had first kept him there.
She was especially tightly wound from the pressures of work, and uncharacteristically nervous about a virtual press conference that was scheduled for the next morning. They weren't talking about work but Barba certainly knew her well enough to recognize correlations in her stress and sadness across other topics.
It made him feel good to be there for her, to be trusted with her unfiltered thoughts. And this good feeling plus his sleepiness prompted him to gather her in his arms so she was fully spooned back against him.
She was wearing shorts, so his fingers found smooth skin as they glided along her leg where it curved over his. He was so tired that he got a little obsessive about this exploration as he was drifting off, more than once making her shiver.
When she shifted against him, he assumed that she was getting more comfortable so she could drop off to sleep, and he was glad because he was feeling comfortable and warm and he didn't want to her leave. So when his thigh came to rest more soundly under her, as though she was sitting on his lap, he wasn't sure if he was just imagining things when he thought he heard, or maybe just felt, her breath hitch ever so slightly at the momentary friction.
But now his imagination was in overdrive, making him observant, curious, wide awake, and yes, just a little turned on.
He waited, barely breathing, but she didn't move again, and he wondered if she'd felt him freeze and it had spooked her. He hoped not.
He'd told her a while back that he wasn't opposed to them having a "sensational evening" now and then, and he'd meant it. Not that he had any plans to escalate this encounter to anything remotely resembling "sensational", but he certainly didn't begrudge her seeking whatever she might need from him, even if it was just a way to release a little tension.
So now it was him shifting, wedging his leg more soundly between hers. If he was wrong, if it WAS his imagination, the move would seem innocuous. And if he WASN'T wrong, he hoped she would get the message, and feel free enough with him to act on it.
He wasn't wrong. The ever-so-slight roll of her hips confirmed it. But her feeling of freedom needed a little encouragement, perhaps held at bay by her uncertainty about whether he really understood what was happening, was really being deliberate. It was encouragement that he was happy to provide.
That said, he had no particular interest in directly adding to her arousal. He knew this wasn't really about sex and certainly wasn't about him, and he had no desire to try to make it about either. So his encouragement was a subtle sort. A hand sliding down her leg to nudge her into a better position before moving back up to brace her hip. His thigh pressing up, answering the thrusts that were slowly becoming more obvious. And eventually moving her hand that had covered his at her hip to her stomach before gently guiding it lower, giving permission.
He pressed a kiss to her shoulder when her body shuddered, then stilled. And he was pleased when she sighed a deep, contented sigh and he could feel her muscles relax.
Several minutes passed, and he thought she might have fallen asleep. But then she was turning in his arms, pushing him lightly onto his back so she could rest against him. She splayed a hand on his chest, but when it slipped under the covers and started to move lower, the trajectory was clear.
He intercepted her easily and firmly placed her hand back where it had started. He didn't want her to feel that this was something that needed to be reciprocated, that there was any selfish motive on his part. Nor did he want to dishonour her by excusing himself to the privacy of the bathroom to take care of things himself, because it would be difficult for him to separate his act from hers.
Heroically noble and organized thinking for a man who had very little blood getting to his brain just then.
She tried again, and again he stopped her, this time bringing her fingers to his mouth to brush with his lips before settling them back over his heart and holding her there firmly.
He chuckled at the disapproving noise that escaped the back of her throat, but he felt her relent, and only hoped that she understood, that she didn't feel a sense of rejection, that she didn't view reciprocation as necessary for equalization.
She DID understand, and she was deeply, deeply grateful.
That night was never spoken of aloud, never teased about in smirks and knowing looks, never fantasized about or made into more than it was. But that's not to say it didn't change things between them. His presence during what would normally be a very private act, despite having played only a minor supporting role, seemed to open the floodgates to a myriad of lesser intimacies, and ushered in a greater comfort around taking what they needed from the other without apology.
Chapter 34: Run
Of all the days that Olivia felt had like the walls were closing in on her, this one might have been the worst yet. The meeting had stretched on and on, moderated by someone who shouldn't have been chairing an in-person meeting let alone an electronic one; he had no sense of how to engage the participants or apparently how to achieve a camera angle that didn't most prominently feature his forehead. Olivia had alt-tabbed multiple times to her email box while being careful to feign a dialed-in expression.
Her attention was completely derailed by an email with a header reading "My Proposal". The sender was none other than Rafael Barba.
Well, she certainly couldn't leave THAT until later.
"My proposal is that we go for walks outside. Yesterday morning when the sun was just coming up I looked out the window and I only saw five people and we could walk before people wake up and we wouldn't get the virus because there are not many people and you catch the virus from people. And if someone walked by us we could hold our breath and then if they had the virus we wouldn't breathe it. Cordially, your son Noah. PS Please tell me at dinner if we can go for walks outside. PPS Rafa taught me cordially, proposal, and PS."
She was tempted to print this out; it felt scrapbook-worthy, not that she had ever had time to do something like scrapbooking. Maybe she'd hang it on the fridge. But while she was ready to celebrate the thought and execution, she wasn't prepared to deal with the request it contained. Suddenly she was glad to have the awful meeting to run back to.
When she sat down at the dinner table about 45 minutes later, Noah immediately climbed into her lap. "Hi, mama! Did you get my proposal?!"
"Rafa made me do it like school! I had to print it first with a pencil, and look up words in the dictionary, and then I got to type it!"
"I'm very impressed! It was so well presented," she praised, making him flush with pleasure. But this did nothing to delay the inevitable.
"So can we go? Outside, I mean?"
Barba was bringing their meals to the table, and she looked to him for...something. Support? Rescuing? Advice? She wasn't exactly sure. Whatever it was, his neutral expression didn't provide it.
"Rafa and I will talk about it tonight after you go to bed. And then we can all talk about it in the morning at breakfast. Deal?"
Noah opened his mouth, but Barba clocked that he was about to protest and cleared his throat. This was enough to remind Noah of what they'd talked about before: that this was a big decision and his mom might need more time to consider it, which Noah would be smart to respect. They'd even gone so far as to rehearse a response.
"I understand. Thank you for your consideration," Noah parrotted formally. This made Olivia laugh until she cried, and got the other two giggling along with her.
At around 8:30 the adults convened over wine and scotch, respectively. It had been Barba's idea to involve alcohol, as he sensed Olivia might need it.
"Sorry for passing the buck," Barba began. "While it turned out to be a good educational exercise, I mostly just needed to channel his energy into something besides trying to win me over; you know how obsessive he can get. And I didn't want to appear partial to any point of view."
"I've never known you to be impartial, so don't start now. What are your thoughts?"
"You're are his mother; my thoughts don't matter."
She rolled her eyes. "They've always mattered."
"As vulnerable as I generally am to your flattery..." He sighed. "I know he's going stir crazy. And he could benefit from more fresh air and scenery than the balcony is providing." The balcony had actually been a real lifesaver. It was small - very small - but had just enough room for three lawn chairs or when cleared for Noah to stretch out on a blanket and peer up at the clouds or roll on his side and look through the bars. It wasn't much of a view, but it made their world seem a little bigger. Just not big enough. "But I'm 100% sure he'll survive stir crazy. I can't speak to the odds around COVID."
"I would never forgive myself if something happened to him," Olivia commiserated. "And I would also be incredibly pissed if all the efforts we've gone through so far ended up being for nothing."
"That's fair. And I agree, obviously."
She waited, then prompted, "But?"
"I didn't say 'but'. I could easily argue both sides, but I don't plan to, unless you're asking me to play devil's advocate."
"No." She took a thoughtful sip from the glass in front of her. "You're right, I'm his mother. This one has to be on me."
"Listen, why don't you make a list of the things you are most concerned about. And then tomorrow Noah can try to solve them. It is his proposal after all; he needs to be able to argue it and it has to stand up to scrutiny."
"You trying to turn my son into a prosecutor?" she accused with a smile.
"Now that he's mastered ordering groceries online, I'm running out of life-skills to teach him. Work-skills come next, sorry."
"Fine, I will provide him with a framework for more "proposal-ing" tomorrow to keep him off your back. But you do realize that if I end up agreeing to this you're the one who will have to take him; there's no way I'm going to be functional if I'm out running around with him at 5:30 in the morning."
"Hey, a change of scenery make you more functional. You've been a bit listless lately." That was an understatement. Not having to commute, not being called out into the field at all hours, having few household responsibilities thanks to Barba, all this should have left her with energy to spare. And for awhile it had, but it appeared that being cooped up while being aware of the state of the world outside their safe bubble was taking a physical toll. And while she'd occasionally been back to her own apartment to swap out clothes and toys and to make sure it her building was still standing, the fear she carried with her of picking up the virus and bringing it back to her son didn't allow her to reap many benefits from the excursions.
She quickly jotted down a list of her 6 main concerns, careful to make them clear and kid-friendly and not too scary. The last thing she needed was for Noah to develop an unhealthy anxiety, and she voiced this to Barba. "Don't worry," he assured her. "I'll keep things practical and positive, and if I see him moving beyond that, we'll take a break or stop altogether. I've got it."
It remained such a relief to not just hear but to know and trust that Barba did have it.
"My Proposal, continued" arrived in her inbox mid-morning. And as they sat down to lunch, Olivia didn't hold Noah in suspense. "We're going to try it out on Sunday morning." She had to wait until his excited cheering died down. "But this is just an experiment. You need to show me that you can follow all of your safety plans to the letter, and that they actually work."
"They will! I will! I promise!"
Even if this all went south, it was just nice to see Noah have something to look forward to. It carried him over the next three days, improving his energy, his appetite, and his mood. On Saturday night none of them including Noah himself were sure he'd be able to fall asleep, but he dropped off quickly in Barba's bed before the first story was even over.
Noah had been given strict instructions not to wake Barba until 5:05 a.m. (when the man planned to take a quick shower to hopefully rouse himself), and not to wake his mother until 5:20 a.m. (as she was determined to sleep as long as possible). He didn't deviate by a second, literally watching the minutes flip over on the clock.
They had pledged to meet at the door at 5:30 a.m. sharp, and Noah wasn't going to let them fudge on that deadline. He effectively herded them there with seconds to spare, and immediately took the lead.
First came masks. They'd done a week of mask training together back in April when the mandate was handed down for NYC, choosing a method that Barba had seen suggested on Twitter where any recreation screentime must be enjoyed with a mask properly in place. Screens served as both a motivation and a distraction, so worked incredibly well. They repeated this once a week just to remain acclimated.
So masks were easy. Masks they could do still in their safe bubble. Now they had to leave it, and Olivia was glad Noah couldn't see her frown beneath the colourful fabric that covered it.
Noah narrated his plan as they went, which helped assure Olivia that he would not forget himself. "Rafa puts on gloves, then goes out first and looks to make sure the hallway is empty." Success. They were alone. They took the stairs; even if the elevator was presently unoccupied, there was always the risk that someone with COVID had just exited and the virus was hovering in the air. Barba used the railing for stability, and Olivia kept one hand on his shoulder for her own balance while holding Noah's witht the other.
Truth be told, most of her anxiety had been centred around getting in and out of the building. So by the time the heavy door clicked shut behind them, that Barba's gloves had been sealed inside a ziplock bag in preparation to be discarded in the public trash receptacle half a block away, and that everyone's hands had been bathed in sanitizer, Olivia was able to relax a bit.
Barba wasn't feeling his anxiety, at least not in the moment. He was laser-focused on warding off any enemy, be it human or germ. While Olivia had taken on the responsibility of the decision, Barba had shouldered the responsibility of the execution. He was feeling extremely motivated to make this first outing a perfect experience so that they would all feel comfortable making it a repeating one.
Noah was feeling all kinds of feelings, causing tears to track down his cheeks even before his sneakers hit the sidewalk. The adults were first concerned that he was frightened about leaving what had become his home after all this time, but he did his best to assure them in his childlike way that he was fine, more than fine.
The plan had been to walk, but they couldn't contain his need to let his little body give further expression to all that emotion. And so he ran. They all ran. Ran fast and free until their lungs hurt and their stomachs hurt. And then every bug and leaf and stick and piece of garbage on the ground suddenly needed to be examined and greeted, as though Noah was helpless against the compulsion to make all the connections he could with the world outside in case it was a while before he got to do so again. So he went on just ahead while the grownups kept a watchful eye. They weren't speaking; it was too early for small talk and it wasn't like they had anything to catch up on after months together as housemates. But then Barba took her hand and their fingers intertwined and that was saying more than enough.
There were few people out, most walking dogs. Everyone seemed like they were on the same page, careful to afford a wide berth to anyone they encountered. Though it was hard to tell under the masks, Barba suspected that those they passed had a smile brought to their face as Noah bid each of them an enthusiastic and genuine good morning. As for whether Olivia was smiling, it was more than a suspicion. Even before living together, he would have been able to recognize the softness, the brightness of her eyes.
Before they even arrived back home, Olivia had deemed the experience a success, and Noah had asked Barba is they could go again the next day. "Of course, buddy." Of course.
Olivia had expected to be drained and to go back to sleep on their return; it was the reason that she'd chosen Sunday, as she wasn't scheduled to work. But the elation of having done something new after a long stretch of being mostly stuck indoors carried her well into the morning. And somehow, as if by magic, rather than their sanctuary seeming even smaller after their taste of freedom, it actually felt bigger, or at least less constricting.
That night all three were watching TV in one bed in lieu of a bedtime story and all three dozed off, except for an occasional bathroom break sleeping through the night. And despite Barba and Noah's efforts to sneak out silently in the morning to get ready without disturbing her, Olivia was waiting at the door for them at 5:30, ready to run.
Chapter 35: Open
A rule surrounding space and privacy was formalized near the beginning of June. A few factors had contributed, not the least of which being the time that Noah had barged into Barba's room after the man had just gotten out of the shower. Now Barba wasn't a prude by any means, and had the good sense not to overreact or rush to cover himself too quickly. He had merely smiled at the boy and casually wrapped the towel he'd been using to dry himself around his waist. "Hey, buddy. I think you forgot to knock." Noah had apologised and then gone on to tell Barba the exciting thing he'd wanted to share, and Barba considered there to be no harm done, though he did disclose it to Olivia at the first opportunity. She appreciated the disclosure, also unconcerned.
But then it happened again. And then it seemed like Noah was looking for ways to make it happen. It was Barba that caught on first. "I think he's curious." Barba had vague memories of his childhood experiences seeing his father naked occasionally; it had been completely natural and non-sexual, and of all the things that Barba could fault his father for, that wasn't one of them. Growing up without a man living in the home, it made sense for Noah to have a healthy curiosity. But neither Barba or Liv were exactly sure the best way to handle it.
Barba resorted to Googling. Olivia resorted to an online consultation with a child psychologist she'd brought Noah to on occasion.
Both sources commended Barba (indirectly and directly, respectively) for not making it a big deal; treating appropriate nudity as shameful and shaming a child for their interest were known to lead to adverse long-term effects related to body image and sexuality. And both suggested this might be a good time to capitalize on Noah's curiosity by entering into a teaching period around anatomy and gender.
Since Barba was still doing homeschooling at that point, it was easy to work in, and it was unclear whether Noah even realized it was being done in a reactionary way. Barba simply announced that they were going to do a "health" unit, and he downloaded some of the recommended kid-friendly e-books on anatomy. (Noah got a big kick out of learning words like "epidermis" and finding ways to work them into conversation.) And when it came time to talk about the different reproductive parts (though they didn't discuss them in the context of reproduction), Barba felt prepared and Noah seemed to feel completely comfortable asking questions that likely had prompted or had been prompted by his previous inquisitiveness.
But while all this had raised awareness of the need, it was ultimately another event that finally led to a household meeting about open and closed doors.
It was mid-afternoon, and as usual for a weekday Olivia was in her office/bedroom. Noah had spilled something on his shirt, and Barba needed to get him a new one from said office/bedroom. Now, Barba always knocked or texted when the door was shut, and Olivia generally left it open just a crack when she was working but welcoming of casual interruption. On this day, Barba knew from their lunch time conversation that she had an important meeting scheduled with the mayor and the commissioner and NYPD Captains from around the city, so it made sense that the door was shut. But it also made sense not to knock or text because he figured she'd have her headphones on and be deep into things. He intended to slip in and out without disturbing her, and ideally without her really noticing.
What he didn't know, what he COULDN'T have known, was that her meeting was over. She was still at her desk, but her head was in her hands and she was crying.
Sometimes when Olivia reached a breaking point, she allowed herself a moment of catharsis to lead the way to a reset. It just wasn't something she was prone to indulge in with an audience.
She immediately snapped at him for just barging in, and he immediately retreated. He stood outside the door for a long time trying to process what he'd seen, trying to determine what to do.
Finally he went to the hamper and found a shirt that wasn't TOO dirty, and told Noah he'd have to make due until his mother was ready to let them in. Noah accepted this without question; he couldn't care less that he'd worn that shirt yesterday. He didn't have an easily solution about Olivia, and decided it was best to just leave her alone for now. (Best for him or for her, he couldn't quite say.)
Now it was late afternoon, and Barba had retired to his room to read while Noah watched a movie and ran on the treadmill.
The door was ajar, and Olivia pushed it open without knocking before shutting it behind her. "Whatcha reading?" she asked, her tone deceptively light.
"Nothing I'm proud of," he admitted. "Done for the day?" He patted the space beside him in invitation.
Dropping her phone on top of his dresser, she hummed noncommittally and crawled onto the bed, laying unexpectedly close to him. "Mmm, you smell good."
"You mean I smell like YOU," he offered, a bit wary. "I had to take a shower after my leg of our treadmill relay. I grabbed your conditioner by mistake." As he explained this, he was placing his book on the bedside table. "So...are you okay?"
He barely got the question out before she was kissing him. Properly, thoroughly, as though this was something they did all the time. Positioning her body half on top of him, tangling their legs, their chests pressing together, EVERYTHING pressing together.
He let himself enjoy it for mere seconds before he pulled back, cradling her face in his hands. "Hey." He gave her a soft half-smile. "Want to talk about it?"
Later she allowed herself to fully appreciate how he could so easily recognize that this was all her trying to regulate or at the very least distract herself from the heavy emotions and anxiety she was feeling. How he didn't judge, or chastise, or pity, or tease, or (most importantly) allow things to escalate.
But in the moment, she simply sighed. "It's just... been a day."
"Sad day? Mad day?" He knew, of course, and not just because he'd walked in on her in a moment of what he imagined she perceived as weakness. The protests in the streets prompted by the death of George Floyd had been all over the news and all that was being talked about by the NYPD. She'd kept blowing off his attempts to engage her about it, citing the need for a break, but now he hoped the simple prompts might invite her to share with him what she could never share with her colleagues and bosses.
"A little of both." She tucked her head under his chin, settling her weight on him as his arms went around her. "A lot of both, actually."
"Anything I can do to help?"
A pause. "This?"
He chuckled and tightened his embrace. "Done. I'll send my bill to the NYPD."
"They may have to put you on retainer."
They stayed this way for a while, listening to each other's breaths, listening to the soft "thump thump" of Noah's footfalls on the treadmill and the sounds of whatever he was watching, too far away to make out clearly.
One of his hands slipped down her back and found bare skin where her shirt had ridden up. He slid his fingers under the soft fabric and traced soothing patterns.
And then she started talking, started opening up about how torn she felt about the protests and about what part she should play. About things she'd thought she'd known and understood but that she was now starting to question, about her job, the world, herself.
Barba said nothing. He didn't need to speak for her to get from him what she needed, which more than anything was a safe space to try out her innermost thoughts out loud, processing and organizing as she went.
After she'd run out of things to say for the time being, she might have expected to feel lighter, but in fact having the freedom to explore her own mind had produced the opposite effect, dredging up ideas and emotions she might not otherwise have had to consciously acknowledge and carry. But what she DID feel was less alone in shouldering the burden.
For his part, Barba didn't feel burdened, not at all. He felt blessed as he always did when she demonstrated her trust and reliance on him in such intimate ways.
It was a long time before Olivia stirred and stretched. "I should get up or I'm going to fall asleep."
"And I should check on our budding young track star." A final squeeze and then he left her body slide off of his as they both sat up. He was the first to stand and held out a hand to help her to her feet, which she accepted.
"Sorry I walked in without knocking before. I just didn't want to bother you. I already told Noah we're going to have a household meeting about closed door rules."
"And I'm sorry I tried to make out with you before," she said with slight flush, finally feeling sheepish about it. She had no excuses to add.
He responded with a playful smirk. "I guess we can call it even, then."
The three discussed things over dinner and pledged that doors should always stay open unless privacy was purposefully being sought, in which case one should always knock and wait for permission to enter. It was later amended that a closed door should prompt those - specifically Noah - on the outside to think long and hard about whether they really needed to interrupt those on in the inside - specifically grownups who had shut themselves in a room together after opening themselves up to activities that no longer prompted apologies - at all.