A/N Warning: this story contains nothing but Barba/Benson fluff. Written for ajj (this makes us even!).
The Way That It Is
The soft murmurings made her pause at the door and turn her gaze towards Rafael and Noah, the corners of her mouth lifting at the sight. Her son was clinging on to her boyfriend, with all four limbs, stubbornly fighting sleep even with the comfort of Rafael's arms and soft words. Noah had begged - once again - to stay in the park to watch the fireworks but, after days of excitement-fuelled early mornings that had stretched into some equally excited late nights, her boy had struggled to stay awake; the loud explosions and noises of appreciation from the crowds had just about kept his eyes open but the short walk back to their hotel room was proving his undoing. They'd even had to stop at one point so that Rafael could take Noah down from his shoulders and carry him more securely. She'd almost offered to take Noah for the rest of the journey but it had been Rafael who'd encouraged her son's enthusiasm for the fireworks; during the flight to Florida he'd told the four year old that there was a different display every night so Noah had wanted to watch every single time (she wasn't sure how true Rafael's claim was; her own enthusiasm had faded by the second night when she'd switched to watching her boys instead, both of their faces lighting up with wonder and joy and a myriad of colours).
It had been Rafael's suggestion to visit Disney World and whilst she'd been surprised (she'd always imagined his vacations taking place on Caribbean beaches or ski slopes or maybe even a yacht), Noah had been ecstatic. When she'd begun her relationship with Rafael she'd worried about Noah more than anything else; Rafael's previous interactions with her son had been awkward at best but he'd been eager to rectify that - and she'd really wanted him to succeed. After a wobbly start, mostly on Rafael's part, her concerns had proved unnecessary; the two of them now had such a strong bond that it made her insides melt and brought a smile to her lips just thinking about them. Whilst Noah had always been comfortable around Ed, he absolutely adored Rafael (and the feeling was mutual). And she loved that he always put Noah first, even on vacation. Although, after days of twirling teacups, extremely wet water rides, messy ice-cream and the customary firework display she wondered if Rafael was, on this occasion, a very close second.
Rafael turned his gaze from Noah and towards her, catching her staring. "What?"
"I'm just trying to decide who's enjoyed this vacation the most: you or Noah."
"Very funny," he replied, despite the knowledge that she had dozens of incriminating photographs on her phone, including the one she'd taken just a few hours ago of both him and Noah donning the famous 'ears'. "Besides, you're the one who's not stopped smiling since we boarded the plane," he deflected.
Nodding in agreement, her smile grew wider. She'd been looking forward to their trip though, obviously, not as much as Noah but her son's enjoyment (and Rafael's too) had only increased her own. Last year she'd gone to Paris with Noah and Ed but whilst she'd finally fulfilled a long held dream, the history, culture, architecture and romance had been entirely lost on her two and a half year old son. Aside from flying in a plane (and even then it had mostly been the take-off and the landing that had captured his attention) Noah had been bored. This year Noah'd had the time of his life - and so had she. "This is the best vacation I've ever taken," she admitted, unlocking the door to their room.
"The best vacation so far," he quickly corrected, a cocky grin accompanying the words.
Shaking her head at his confidence (he probably had the next thirty years planned out but that was okay: she did too - and he was very much a part of them) she stepped inside the room. Rafael followed her inside, a half awake Noah still clinging to him, and she secured the door behind them. Prising apart Noah's hands she finally relieved Rafael of her son (though he had to unhook Noah's legs to allow her to complete the action) and moved toward one of the large beds that occupied their room. The sleeping arrangements had thrilled Noah (he'd bounced up and down on his own 'grown-up' bed with much enthusiasm and excitement when they'd arrived) but it had made intimacy with Rafael more of a challenge for her. He'd been horrified at the suggestion of making love whilst Noah slept just a few feet away (even though, once asleep, her son was dead to the world and the distance really wasn't much less than back in New York) but they'd found a compromise: the bathroom had a dividing wall and a door.
"I don't want to go home, Mommy," Noah murmured as she laid him down in the middle of one of the beds.
"I know, sweetheart," she soothed as she removed his shoes, anticipating that there'd be a few tears tomorrow morning, along with some heartfelt pleas to stay. A quick glance at Rafael, who was now stood on the other side of the room, confirmed that he'd come to the same conclusion. Maybe she'd let Rafael explain to Noah why they couldn't stay; he could be very persuasive and her son seemed to hang on to his every word. Noah's vocabulary had grown so much this year that, to her relief, he was no longer lagging behind his peers and she held Rafael responsible for that, even if he wouldn't take any credit for the improvement. Continuing to divest Noah of his clothing she decided to try and head off some of those tears: "But how about when we get home we put up the tree?"
Last Christmas she'd overcompensated, determined to make the first holiday season that Noah had any understanding of absolutely perfect and hoping to take her mind off the break up with Ed. For the most part it had worked but in the evenings, whilst Noah had been sleeping and she'd been alone, she'd found herself examining the debris of her relationship. She had thought she was happy with Ed (and she was sure that, in the beginning at least, she had been) but when he'd wanted them to move in together she'd suddenly acquired extremely cold feet. It hadn't been an unreasonable request (just the next logical step in their relationship) but her reluctance had sounded the death knell and arguments had quickly ensued (over work, over her admission that Patrick Griffin had lied to IAB for her, over Ed voting for Trump but mostly over her refusal to allow him completely into her life). When Ed had finally, frustratedly, thrown in the towel she'd been more relieved than anything else but it'd taken her until Christmas Day to realise why the relationship had failed and it hadn't been complicated at all: she couldn't commit to Ed because there was someone else she wanted to be with.
Noah muttered a sleepy 'yes' in response before yawning and not even the thought of decorating a Christmas tree of his own (after having admired every single one in the theme park) was enough to keep the four year old awake. Deciding to leave him in just his shorts she tucked a sheet up against his chin then brushed the hair from his brow, bending down to kiss his forehead and whisper how much she loved him as he fell deeper into sleep.
This Christmas, the first that the three of them would be spending together (when Rafael had casually suggested, amidst the chaos that was breakfast with two adults and one small, and sometimes uncooperative, child, in a kitchen that had not much more space than the bathroom, that the routine might be easier if they moved into a bigger place she'd simply smiled warmly, happy that they were on the same page) was going to be very different. Work permitting, they were going to take Noah to church with Rafael's mother (who absolutely doted on Noah) on Christmas Eve. The morning of the twenty-fifth would be spent together, opening presents and having a lazy breakfast before, if the weather co-operated, going to the park on the afternoon. She'd long since stopped writing a Christmas list to Santa but if she tried this year there'd be nothing on it: she had everything she'd ever wanted.
"We could stay."
Standing straight, she turned her full attention towards Rafael. The smile that had followed his words told her that he wasn't really being serious (at least, she thought that was the case). "Very funny," she replied, echoing his words from earlier.
"Noah would love it," he smiled again, his tone and features so carefree that, for a second or two, she wished that they could stay. Noah always brought out a lighter side in Rafael but here, away from the stresses of his job, he'd been so relaxed; so had she. "And they have their own police," he added on, seemingly keen to make his case, however ridiculous it was.
Busting skateboarders would certainly be easier than catching rapists (and she figured the politics would be much easier, too) but their lives were in New York; their careers, their friends, Rafael's mother, and Noah had settled so well into his new school. Moving towards the foot of the bed where her son was now sleeping soundly, she played along anyway. "And what would you do all day?"
"Sell coffee," he shrugged, then smirked at her. "You could stop by on patrol."
A smile played on her lips as she slowly shook her head at his response. He usually had an answer for everything - though she'd almost caught him out at the beginning of the year when she'd confessed her feelings to him. In the immediate silence that had followed that declaration she'd thought she'd made a huge mistake, that he'd repeat those six words (that had felt like the end but had only proven that their friendship could endure) he'd uttered the night he'd realised she was with Ed and things would never be right between them again but then Rafael had kissed her and the world had suddenly felt right. They'd done things the 'right' way, too (Rafael had insisted) and almost a year later the three of them were like a family, she and Rafael were still the best of friends and their respective careers had remained unharmed. "You've got this all figured out, haven't you?"
"I'm picturing you in the uniform right now," he agreed, his eyes roaming up and down the length of her body.
A short burst of laughter bubbled up from within her at his statement. "I'm picturing me walking straight by," she replied, nodding towards the bathroom door as she spoke so the words could refer to the present as well the fantasy that he was constructing.
He frowned at her, exaggerating the gesture and feigning hurt; "Are you saying that you wouldn't give me a second glance if I wore an apron instead of a suit?"
"That depends," she teased, running her own appraising eyes over him. It was true that Rafael did look very fine in a suit; the man had style and that hadn't gone unnoticed when she'd first met him (neither had the unorthodox methods he'd employed to win the case). She'd spent many an enjoyable evening slowly 'unwrapping' him once they'd got together. Of course, he looked hot when he abandoned his suit jacket, loosened off his tie and rolled up his sleeves, too. And she thought he looked incredibly sexy right now, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. There was no need to tell him any of that; his ego didn't need the polishing and she'd only be repeating herself. A few steps closed the distance and she slid her hands up his chest and over his shoulders, smiling wider when his hands moved straight to her hips. Without her heels they were pretty much the same height which meant that everything lined up between them perfectly. "Would it be just the apron?"
There was a burst of laughter from him at her words before he leaned in and kissed her, his lips soft against her own and contrasting exquisitely with the five days of stubble he'd acquired over the course of their vacation (his tendency not to shave when he wasn't at work had been a joy to discover). Deepening the kiss and scraping her nails through the hairline at the back of his neck elicited a noise of approval from deep inside him as his hands slid down to her ass. Slowly pulling back, she broke their kiss with a smile and after a quick glance to confirm that Noah was still sound asleep, she started to tug Rafael towards the bathroom.