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."

"Liv..."

"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 recognised. 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 armour.

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 recognise 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 pony tail 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 -"

"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?"

"Uh-huh."

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 unphased 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 defence, 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, Rafa," 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 "Wicked" sweat shirt 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."