If this had been even six months ago, there would be a part of Sonny that would be fuming over Rafael Barba standing there, throwing a light "cheers" his way, as if it all meant nothing. Six months ago he would have scoffed, haughty in his victory yet full of misplaced rage.
He would have blamed Rafael for putting him in this position, for coming back without even so much as a warning and instantly reminding Sonny of his place within the squad. He is lesser than, still a rookie detective scrambling to prove himself as a cop, let alone an ADA.
He might have let his brash, runaway mouth speak for his hurt, letting everyone hear his true thoughts before he could stop them coming out.
Maybe he would have done that six months ago.
But at the start of lockdown, after spending the first few weeks without seeing his family or friends, going nowhere except work and home, Sonny hit his breaking point. Specifically the night of Bella's birthday where his whole family FaceTimed from a classic Carisi dinner while he remained hunched over his desk. The familiar ache of missing out on something huge. Always the outsider.
Therapy was long overdue, and it had been a hard slug, but it's paying off and then some now.
The "cheers" washes off him, cool and sobering.
His stomach is still faintly twisting, knotted with newfound court anxiety that can only be alleviated by Pepto, another coping mechanism from his therapist. Court is over now though, there's no reason for his stomach to still be acting up.
Well, maybe there's one reason.
It's over too quickly when Rafael announces his departure, clearly eager to get the goodbyes done and dusted.
That's how he's always been, considering last time he left Sonny wasn't even worth a face-to-face farewell. A measly text that put Sonny right in his place.
I can't give you the explanation you want, Carisi.
Translation: I don't have to explain myself to the likes of you. You're not worth the time.
The name had popped up a lot in his sessions, a constant source of frustration, disappointment, and… something else. He'd been given the breadcrumbs from his therapist to figure out exactly what Rafael meant to him, and what it was… what it is that he needs from him.
Is it just an explanation?
Perhaps, although he feels like Rafael was right in the text message seared into the back of his eyelids, ready to taunt him all over again.
Sonny blinks twice, realising it's just him and Amanda now. He considers her for a moment, just as he's done every couple of months for a long while now, in moments of grief or loneliness.
Feisty, guarded, protective Amanda. A whirlwind of chaos contained behind her sweet, Southern charm. Still somehow leagues less complicated than Rafael.
No, it's not an explanation he needs.
Sonny takes another swig of his beer, his mind slipping further and further down the rabbit hole of processing his relationship with Rafael once again.
"Don't think too hard there Sonny, you might actually talk to me," Amanda's voice cuts through his internal therapy session. He's instantly aware that she's been talking for a good few minutes now.
"Sorry, I just - I'm here, I'm listening."
She scoffs, a lot more gentle than when he first started out at Manhattan SVU.
"Maybe if I had dark hair, green eyes, and wore thousand dollar suits," she prods, setting up the bait that Sonny bites on too quick to realise he's being played.
"His eyes have become a bit greyer over the years, don't you think?" She smirks over her glass, gleeful at the admission that he's spent enough time gazing into them to notice the flecks of steel among the spring green. He deflects with a wave of his hand, "I mean, I'm just saying…"
She considers that for a moment, piercing, perceptive eyes taking in every inch of his face, searching for his truth.
"Uh huh," she lets out after a moment, giving him three seconds of believing this is the end of the interrogation before she launches into it again. "You know, he does owe you."
A hoarse, biting laugh escapes him, a lot more bitter than he feels.
"I'm sure he doesn't think so."
She sets her glass down with a gentle force that demands attention.
"Hey, if you feel betrayed or abandoned by someone, there's nothing wrong with wanting the apology or closure that you need to move on. You're allowed to grieve that loss too, Sonny."
There it is.
The word he's spent the last few sessions trying to find.
It was never just an explanation. It was Sonny, meeting piercing green with wide-eyed blue and letting his voice be heard.
No, making his voice be heard.
Amanda's hand is soft on his wrist now, her thumb drawing small, comforting circles. He notices his own hands, clenching the beer bottle between them, knuckles white with tension.
His eyes trace lines up her arm until he meets her face, taking in the soft, feminine quirk of her lips, sympathy and maybe something like affection there for him and only him. He considers again how simple his life would be if his thoughts were consumed by her.
"What are you waiting for?" She's tender, yet there's a strength behind the question. She could very well be talking about them and everything unspoken between them over the years. That is, until her hand slips away from his skin, leaving behind her warm support he's grown to rely on. "Go get him."
Maybe he's been waiting for her support, her go-ahead to chase what is sure to be a suicide mission. Maybe he's just been waiting for someone to say "hey, here's some raw meat, go jump in the lion's cage and see how you fare."
Instinct is begging him to stay inside, to choose the easier path.
He allows himself to smirk, just a little bit.
Since when has he, Sonny Carisi, ever taken the path of least resistance?
With a quick, friendly kiss to Amanda's forehead, and a murmured "thank you", he leaps from his stool and strides out of the bar, letting adrenaline drive his long steps forward.
"Go," he pushes himself forward, giving himself a pep talk of sorts, using mantras he usually reserves for his pre-court ritual. "You've got this. You want this. You deserve this."
He rounds a corner, his feet choosing the path for him as if they know something he doesn't, and nearly bumps headfirst into Olivia.
"Cap! Sorry, I didn't see y-"
"It's fine, Carisi," she smiles, the sadness in her eyes not reaching her lips. "You on your way home?"
"I - uh -" he stammers, his stomach lurching at the thought of having to explain, or at least try to, everything that's going on inside his brain right now. But then over her shoulder, he spots him. Rafael, walking further and further away from him. Escaping once again. "Sorry, I've gotta-"
He tries pushing past but Liv catches his arm, demanding his full attention on her.
"Hey, you may not get what you're after from him," she warns, the tears still shimmering in her eyes proving her point. "You may never get it."
Either he's been that obvious all these years, or she's as perceptive as he always thought. Most likely both, he's never been known for his poker face outside of work.
"And if I don't try?"
The smile she gives this time is bright and honest, the one he knows can light up the darkest of times.
"Well would you look at that, you're teaching me something." She lets go of his arm, using a single finger to dab away a traitorous tear.
That's all the permission he needs, although he makes a note to bring up his need for validation from the women in his life in his next session.
He's jogging now, trying to catch up to Rafael who is surprisingly fast for someone not as tall as Sonny. He's nearly there, long legs bounding to reach him.
"Counselor!" He calls out when he's just a few feet away, only stopping when he sees him slow his steps.
Rafael Barba turns around, and everything freezes for just a moment. They're suspended in time, eyes only for each other, letting this time right now be just for them. It's what their first time seeing each other after so long should have been. It's appreciation, respect, and pure longing, all wrapped up in a bow of regret. Sonny almost doesn't want this to end, it's the first time he feels they've laid all their cards on the table.
Then Rafael sighs, eyes dropping to the ground in what appears to be shame. Sonny's stomach folds into itself.
"I still can't give you the explanation you want," he mutters quickly, resolving to keep his eyes anywhere but on Sonny.
Six months ago he might have lost it here, he might have done anything to make Rafael look at him.
Sonny is not the man he was six months ago.
"What about the one I deserve?" Rafael has never looked so small, and Sonny doesn't relish in being the cause. Still, he has to be heard. He can't let Rafael just disappear again. "You left, you walked away just when I thought… We were more than just co-workers, you said it yourself, you were my mentor and you just left with nothing but a final text and a promise through Liv to 'stay in touch'. Something you only did with her, by the way. What was it, Rafael? Was I not worth your time? Or, I don't know, your respect?"
He's not sure if he's shouting, or if the blood pumping in his ears is making everything louder.
For a moment, he thinks Rafael is going to square up and give something back, put up a fight. He does set his shoulders, sucking in a quick breath through his nose. His jaw is strong as he lifts his gaze, and Sonny pre-emptively flinches, expecting fire to blaze through his own flame, engulfing and squashing his little burst of confidence.
Instead, he's met with water, both calming and wild, the still green seawater of the ocean with a storm brewing in the distance. There's sadness and regret, and something soft… something he used to imagine was there in the fleeting glances, the stolen sweeter moments that Rafael wouldn't let anyone else see he was giving Sonny.
The times Sonny holds close to his heart, keeping them safe from the times Rafael has broken him down, a reminder of possibilities.
"I'm sorry." Two words rarely said by Rafael Barba, now plastered all over his face, his body, spoken softly into the world, almost tangible in their truth.
Sonny is lost for words. It's not enough, yet something in his heart settles, his stomach somewhat resting for the first time in over a year.
It's not enough.
"I don't know if I can forgive-"
"I don't expect you to," Rafael cuts him off, stepping forward, breaking the wall of tension between them, shattering years of unspoken maybes. He stops when he's impossibly close, and Sonny can feel his power slipping away. "But just know, you were always worth my time and respect. It was never about that."
Sonny's neck flushes, the burn creeping up to his face. He ducks his head, hoping Rafael hasn't spotted it yet.
Rafael's hand reaches up, resting on Sonny's bicep, begging for him to lift his head and accept Rafael's truth.
Who is he to deny Rafael Barba?
When he locks onto Rafael again, he's met with something he never thought he'd see from the man.
"What was it about then?" He near-whispers, cursing his throat for cracking with emotion. "I thought I meant something to you-"
"That's my point, Sonny." The hand still on his arm, the fact that Rafael just said Sonny , it's all too much. He fights the stinging tears that are threatening to spill. "You meant… you mean everything to me. How on earth could I face you after everything I've done? How could I look you in the eye and admit that I was the wrong person for you to look up to? How could I… how could I witness the moment where you realised that for yourself?"
It was never about Sonny. It was always about Rafael's fear of what Sonny might think of him. The fear that's all over Rafael now. He can feel his hand shaking as it grips onto Sonny.
It's more than Sonny can bear.
He grabs the hand holding onto his jacket for dear life, and pulls it to his chest. Rafael's eyes drop, staring at the contact, unblinking.
"You are still the same Rafael I looked up to." Sonny lowers his head, catching Rafael's eyes, making them gaze into his own. "Look at what you've done with this case, look at everything you taught me. None of this would have happened if it weren't for you. I wouldn't… I wouldn't be here, if it weren't for you."
For the first time since Sonny called out to him, Rafael smiles just a fraction, almost as if he believes Sonny.
"Well I don't know about that, you've always loved a good argument. You would have ended up an ADA without me in your life."
Sonny squeezes his hand just a bit, just enough to somewhat chastise Rafael.
"I think you know that's not true."
The slight smile disappears as quickly as it came.
They could leave it at this. Hand in hand, chests almost touching, forgiveness flowing between them. But it's not enough.
"What about…" he trails off, leaving his intentions hanging in the air.
Rafael knows what he means.
He means the almost-moments.
The leaning in when they should back away, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door.
The silent conversations over a drink, one hand on glass, the other on the booth seat, pinkies overlapping, intertwined.
Every single time they could have acted on whatever this "something more" was between them, but they never did.
"Mmm," Rafael hums, his eyes flickering all over Sonny's face. "What about…"
Sonny can see the cogs turning in his mind, can see Rafael running over every reason not to revisit the maybes, to see if there is something past that.
He seems to make a decision. Sonny involuntarily tenses, which Rafael notices, glancing to his hand that Sonny is accidentally crushing now.
"Sorry," he mutters, letting go, letting Rafael be free. "You gotta go."
Stepping back, Sonny readies himself for the predictable rejection.
"I do, but…" Rafael reaches forward, clasping Sonny's hand between his own. Warm, almost safe. "Come to dinner tonight. With me."
If it weren't Rafael Barba before him, he'd almost say there was hope in his eyes. Maybe he's seeing himself reflected in pools of green. Maybe…
"You serious?" he asks, earnest, honest.
Promise me you won't hurt me again .
In an instant, warmth spreads through his body, his cheeks flushing pink with pleasure. Rafael's smiling now, full of heart and open emotion, a rarity from him.
A phone ringing cuts through the electricity between them. Rafael clears his throat, but still keeps a hand connected to Sonny's as he checks his phone.
"I have to-"
Rafael considers Sonny once more, before lifting his hand up and placing a barely-there brush of the lips to the back of Sonny's hand.
"I'll text you."
I'm ready for this.
"I'll see you tonight."
I am too.
Rafael gives Sonny a burning glance that sends a shiver of affection through his body, before walking away.
It's different than last time.
There's no finality in his words, his actions.
There's only the exhilarating hope of stepping into something new.
For the first time in years, Sonny's stomach is settled, his body at peace.