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Rafael Barba took a deep breath and passed a hand over his greying hair. It was time to call Angela again. Or maybe he’d finally take the plunge and go full silver. Carmen hadn’t stopped dropping subtle hints that the makeover had done wonders for Andy Cohen’s ratings, to which Barba continuously replied that he didn’t think the hair had anything to do with why Cohen’s ratings were ten times his own.

A PA passed by and tapped him gently on the shoulder, flashing him two fingers. He nodded and took a final sip from the plastic water bottle someone had slipped into his hands shorty after he’d left his dressing room. He handed the empty bottle to another wandering crewmember, who looked at him with the kind of wide-eyed awe he’d genuinely expected to get used to over the years.

With a quick glance in the mirror to make sure his tie was straight (and to wonder one final time if the pocket square really matched as much as costuming was convinced it did) he crossed to his mark and heard the booth chirp to life in his earpiece.

“Go ahead and wave if you can hear us, Rafael.” He did as instructed as a hush fell over the room and a disembodied voice counted down from ten in his ear. “...two…one.”

The lights flared, blinding him momentarily as a wall of sound roared to life around him, leaving him robbed of two vital senses. As the crowd quieted and his eyes adjusted, he grinned and winked out at the crowd, the collective pitch rising another few octaves as he spread his arms and gestured at the space around him.

“Welcome, everyone, to the live finale of Jailbreak My Heart !” Another pause for applause. “I’m so thrilled to have all of you here tonight, and all of you at home watching, as we discover just which one of these two beautiful ladies will walk away with the biggest prize of all - the heart of America’s newest top gun, Detective Dominick Carisi, Jr-”

“- JUST CALL ME SONNY ” the crowd screamed in unison, cackling through what had become a rather inadvertent catchphrase after the first episode. The laughter devolved into more ‘woos’, and Rafael didn’t have to look to know that a giant picture of the detective was being displayed on the screen behind him.

If he hadn’t been the focus a million eyes (“down .5 mil from last year, Rafi”) he probably would have squealed, too. Or made whatever the masculine and serious and not at all smitten version of a squeal was. He had eyes - the piercing blue eyes, the full pink lips wrapped in dimples he wanted to run his thumbs over like a worry stone, all of it topped miles of limbs and the kind of accent that he didn’t want to find attractive.

He chuckled along with the crowd and nodded. “That’s right, folks. It’s time to see if it will be Amanda,” he paused as the blonde walked out from stage left, crossing to her mark and running a hand through her long blonde hair. She bit her lip and half-smiled at the crowd, her classic red lips doing a lot to complete the Southern Belle look they’d been nailing for a vast majority of the season.

“Or Olivia who steals our beloved detective’s heart!” A slightly louder round of applause broke out as the tall brunette sauntered out from stage right, her short dark hair and dark-rimmed eyes giving her the bad-ass babe vibes that had the viewers returning week after week in bigger numbers.

“And speaking of our beloved detective, what do you say we go ahead and bring him out here - right after our next commercial break!” The crowd’s cheers, which had never really managed to quiet, turned into groans of expected disappointment, as though they and all the viewers at home hadn’t known exactly what was coming, in what order and for how long, before the final woman was chosen.

He stood smiling on his mark until the voice in his ear chirped that they’d broken, and then he felt himself literally deflate. The smile slipped off his face as a dozen people rushed out from the wings to fix hair and makeup on Amanda and Olivia, while a couple of enthusiastic interns explained to the crowd how the rest of the show would go. A wary makeup girl approached him, brush in hand, and he waved her away. He hadn’t exactly worked to make a reputation as an easily approachable person, and he wasn’t about to go changing it.

“Pssst.”

Rafael looked over both shoulders and didn’t see anybody.

“Pssst, Rafi.”

He pressed a finger to his earpiece, wondering if part of a psychotic break was hearing voices from outside your head.

“Rafael! Behind you!” Rafael whirled as a voice actually in his head told him they were on a 90 second warning to being back from break.

“Sonny?”

“Yeah, look, I just wanted to say you’re doing great.” Rafael rolled his eyes, glad for once that he still couldn’t see Sonny. He was pretty sure he could make out a vague form behind one of the curtain folds center stage, but that wasn’t exactly a sure bet.

“Thanks,” he drolled. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Yeah, uh, I guess you have huh? Sorry, I just - I haven’t, and I just hope I’m not about to mess this up.”

It felt weird to be talking to a person he couldn’t see, but he couldn’t say he was surprised by the sentiment. He’d been hosting the show for over half a decade, and every new man that came through was the same combination of abjectly terrified and chauvinistically confident that this was the moment his life was about to change.

The fact that Sonny’s story had been wrapped in the glow of sincerity and familial loyalty? Well, that was the magic of TV editing after all.

“You’ll do fine. Now shut up,” he said as kindly as he could, spinning on his mark and grinning at the exact moment that the lights dimmed and the music blared again, welcoming them back from the commercial break.

“Welcome back, folks - as promised, we’re going to jump right in and get our lucky bachelor out here! Sonny, join us won’t you?”

The curtains behind him pulled apart to reveal Sonny, standing in his dress uniform, hat under one arm and blonde hair slicked to the side as his blue eyes sparkled and his Crest white smile beamed out at the crowd. The stage lights caught every bit of silver and brass on his uniform, and the color of his jacket made his eyes look illegally blue. Rafael inhale sharply, hoping the mic wouldn’t pick it up, and balled his hands into fists in his pockets, pressing them against his thighs to keep his legs from visibly trembling.

Sonny Carisi was fucking gorgeous . And about to get engaged to a woman on national television, in the third most popular ratings spot on Wednesday night. And Rafael was going to help him do it.

Everything was fucking perfect.

Sonny began to walk towards the audience, grin on his face, as his intro package played on the screen behind them. Rafael had seen it enough times he could quote it word for word, and he didn’t want to think about how much he was going to owe the PA he’d convinced to slip him an early cut of the footage.

On the screen, the audience was re-introduced to Dominick ‘Sonny’ Carisi, Jr., a detective with Manhattan SVU, who had been harangued into applying by his sisters, the same gaggle of blonde women who cheered him on while he juggled for his audition video. He took them on a tour of his precinct, showing them his desk, winning over the hearts of any true American when he plucked up his coffee mug to show them the words of the Constitution wrapped around the outside.

“This is like my Bible,” he said, grin on his face, single piece of blond hair flopping into his eyes like he was a god damned cartoon character. Everything about the man seemed designed to drive Rafael crazy, and he’d never felt as attacked as he did when the video transitioned to his early days on the show, dates with the women to baseball stadiums and shooting ranges, all plenty of places where the camera was able to get long, appreciative shots of the detective from behind.

The audience sighed and sniffled on cue as the clips from the dates got longer, as the lighting got lower and the voices dropped to whispers barely picked up by the cameras. By the time they got to the need for subtitles, the audience was back on the edge of it’s collective seat, as though they’d already forgotten what show it was they were there to watch resolve.

I just don’t know who to pick, you know? I mean, Amanda is great. She’s funny, and smart, and reminds me a lot of my sisters, but, you know, not.” The audience giggled as both Sonnys - the one on the screen and the one standing in front of him - blushed deeply. “ And Olivia is just,” Video Sonny huffed as his eyes went wide and he flapped his hands, the universal sign of a loss of words. “ She’s too much and not enough. She’s a thrill, and a trip, and I feel like there’s a whole world there still to get to know. All I know? The heart wants what it wants, and that might be the hardest part of all.”

It was a much more melancholy sentiment than the producers usually ended on, and Rafael was momentarily taken aback. They almost went with some kind of flirtatious hinting at who the final winner would be, and Rafael wondered if Sonny hadn’t given them that, or whether the show was finally trying to mix it up a bit. His head voted the latter, but his heart foolishly hoped for the former.

The music faded out and the house lights rose again as Rafael walked across the stage to stand next to the trio.

“So. Sonny. The heart wants what it want’s, huh?”

He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly and shrugged one shoulder. “You know, Rafael, it’s something my dad always used to say before he passed. I don’t think his heart ever had this kind of decision to make, though,” he added, ending the exchange on a lighter moment that left the audience laughing.

“Indeed, and let me tell you - I don’t envy being in your shoes! Now, Amanda, I have to ask - we saw just a bit of your date to Citi Field, and of course the question on everyone’s mind - did you go with Sonny back to The Crib?”

Amanda blushed and did her best to look away from the camera - impossible, given that there was a camera on every possible stage angle. “Aww, come on Rafael, you know a Southern girl never kisses and tells.” Which everyone in the audience - and around the world - knew was tantamount to a yes. He simply chuckled and kept his gaze locked on the woman. He wasn’t going to move on without an actual answer, and she knew it.

“Let’s just say that Sonny is a real gentleman. The kind I was thrilled to introduce my momma to.”

“A meeting I know we’re all dying to see,” Rafael switched his focus to Olivia, the back of his mind glaringly aware of Sonny’s hands as one came to rest on each woman’s lower back. “And you, Olivia - I know we were all sad to learn that Sonny wouldn’t be able to meet your family.”

“Some of us aren’t lucky enough to have great homes, Rafael,” she glanced at him and Rafael felt the pull of quiet familiarity in her words. He made it his business to know as little as possible about the parading group of contestants that made up the bulk of his recent professional life, but with what little he did know, he knew Olivia was speaking from a much darker place. “But Sonny was so amazing with Noah, and it made it that much more special to have his amazing family be so accepting of me and my son.”

“What about that, Sonny? If Olivia ends up being the one to walk out of here with you tonight, do you feel ready to be a dad?”

“You know, I really never saw myself with kids. You all have met my sisters,” a pause for a knowing chuckle from the audience, “and I always figured I’d end up with so many nieces and nephews it wouldn’t really matter if I didn’t have any of my own. But after meeting Noah, and spending time with Olivia...yeah, I think I could do it. If Noah would have me, of course.” Olivia beamed, all her sharp edges and sass rounded off by the sweet way Sonny spoke about her kid.

“We’d be honored,” Olivia added, reaching behind her to grab Sonny’s hand and bring it in front of her, squeezing briefly.

After a beat too long, Rafael tore his gaze away from their linked hands and looked back at the camera, cocking an eyebrow and shooting for a facial expression that conveyed little beyond bland interest. “Join us after the next break to see exactly what happens when Staten Island and the Mason-Dixon meet, as Sonny and Amanda join us on the couch to talk about their misadventurous trip to see Amanda’s family!”

The audience clapped as the stage lights dimmed, sending them into the first of their two long commercial breaks. The second he got the all-clear in his ear, he darted for the bathroom, knowing he’d have just enough time to pee and slam a double espresso from craft services.

Or, would have had enough time if Sonny Carisi hadn’t immediately fallen into step beside him. “Oh man, this whole thing is a trip,” he mused as they made their way to the bathroom - or, as Rafael made his way and Sonny followed. “I know we’ve been filming for months but it’s never felt like this.”

“It’s never really been live, either. Adding a couple thousand people watching you will make anything feel weird.” He pushed into the bathroom and approached the urinal, making eye contact with Sonny in the mirror as he unzipped his fly. “Anything else I can help you with right this second, Carisi?”

He blushed and looked flustered, pulling open the door and muttering something about ‘waiting outside’. Rafael couldn’t help but stare after him, shaking his head and finishing his business as he tried to come up with a short list of reasons he might follow another man into the bathroom. He was coming up pretty damn short.

“Look, I’m sorry, I know this is awkward, but we didn’t really get to know each other at all this season, and I’ve just been such a fan for so long, ever since your work on the Terrance Reynolds case.”

That name brought him up short.

Sometimes Rafael felt like he’d dreamed the first third of his life, his childhood split between the Bronx and Miami, his time at Harvard and a brief stint as Manhattan ADA that had rocketed his face into the spotlight when he went after - and secured - felony indictments for the NYPD officers who’d wrongly shot Terrance Reynolds in cold blood.

He’d chanced into the case, and it had garnered him enough “Manhattan’s Secret Weapon” headlines that he’d wound up first on the mayor’s fundraising calendar, and then as his talking head around the city, and without much effort on his part, he found himself swept into a world far beyond where he’d started. Guest writer spots on legal dramas, consultations with networks on reality shows that wanted to open the kimono on the courtroom, so to speak. And, six years ago, the kind of offer that made his skin crawl at the same time that it made his wallet sing - host on the cop-oriented dating show. His real-life legal history would lend the perfect amount of gravitas to what was essentially another Bachelor rip-off, and the number of zeroes following the five on his paychecks would be enough for him, his mami, everyone. He’d finally be el juez, just maybe not in the same way his abuelita had meant.

“You had to have been a baby when that happened,” Rafael finally replied, the silence between them stretched past the point of being comfortable.

Sonny laughed, full and bright. “Not exactly! I was finishing up my 3L , and the way you worked the grand jury in that case was something we talked about for weeks.” Rafael briefly recalled Sonny taking one of the early contestants on a date around Fordham’s campus, but that same week the girl had gone home and Sonny’s schooling had taken a back burner to his bustling family and adorable allegiance to puppies and cuffed shirt sleeves.

“Anyway,” Sonny took a step towards Rafael, invading his personal space without a second thought. Rafael stayed rooted to where he was, letting the man’s height stretch above him. When he made eye contact, he was greeted first with the sight of a long, smooth expanse of throat that made Rafael’s mouth go dry. “I promised my sisters I’d tell you how much I love you - your work,” he stammered, immediately dropping the eye contact as the tips of his ears turned bright pink.

“Thank you,” Rafael returned, quietly, starting as the voice in his ear seemed even louder than normal with it’s 90 second warning. “We better get to mark - we’re about 90 seconds out.” He moved towards the stage, but Sonny stepped in front of him again.

“Maybe this isn’t the best time - fuck it,” he leaned in towards Rafael and pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek, his lips even softer than Rafael had pictured in his biggest moments of weakness. “You were the whole reason I applied,” he whispered.

Rafael was spared - robbed of - a response. Sonny ran off, and Rafael had no choice but to follow close behind as the anxious countdown began in his ear. He and Sonny slid onto the newly assembled couch on the stage with a few seconds to spare. But it was long enough that Rafael watched as Sonny and Amanda exchanged glances, her eyebrows lifting as he nodded his head sharply.

That was interesting.

What wasn’t was the next forty minutes of TV, in which Rafael sat, first with Sonny and Amanda and then with Sonny and Olivia as they watched clip reels of content the audience had already seen dozens of times.

Footage of Sonny being tackled by Amanda’s big-and-brash mother and goofy sister, the “behind the scenes” footage of Amanda’s sister joking about stealing Sonny away before Amanda got her proper chance. The first meeting between Noah and Sonny, bent over a coffee table as the two put a robot together and Olivia watched nervously, chewing on her lower lip. Rafael asked all the rote questions, and got the rote answers back, and all the while his brain kept shouting “I applied for you” on a loop.

It felt like no time at all, and also the longest day of his life, by the time they’d gotten to the final ceremony. They were in their last commercial break, and Sonny was rattling the pair of prop handcuffs in his hands as he stood nervously next to Rafael.

“So you applied for me, huh?”

He asked the question so quietly he was half hoping Sonny hadn’t heard him. That way his mind could be soothed by asking without risking his heart to hear an answer. Instead, Sonny nodded, risking a quick glance at Rafael as a slow smile spread across his face.

“Sure did.”

“Must make all of this a little weird,” Rafael dipped his chin towards the two pedestals where Olivia and Amanda would stand when they got back from the bathroom.

“Nah. We talked.”

“We who?” Despite himself, he was as interested in which girl would be walking away the winner.

“We everybody.” Sonny looked around him surreptitiously before checking the watch on his wrist. “Follow me. Quick.” Sonny grabbed his hand and pulled, dragging him into the wings and through an unmarked, half-hidden doorway. They were in a short hallway lit only by the emergency exit sign, and it took a second for Rafael’s eyes to adjust.

What he wasn’t quite prepared for was to see a tangle of blonde-on-brown, a flash of tongue and wandering hands as Olivia and Amanda definitely were no longer in the bathroom. Rafael looked away quickly and pushed Sonny back through the door the way they’d come. He had no interest in invading their moment, and the quick turn around the corner left him pressed up against Sonny in a way that made him startlingly aware of every point of contact between their two bodies.

The voice in his ear announced another 90-second warning, but Rafael missed it completely. His attention was focused on how much softer Sonny’s lips felt on his lips rather than his cheek, how good he tasted as his tongue licked softly along the seam of Rafael’s lips, asking politely for entry. Rafael felt rude at how quickly he allowed it, opening his mouth against Sonny’s in a way that was immediate and urgent. His hands wrapped around under Sonny’s suit jacket, coming to rest on his lower back as he pulled the tall man closer, craning his neck slightly to maintain the intensity as he pressed their hips together wantonly. He moaned into Sonny’s mouth at the exact moment that a voice shouted “AND WE’RE LIVE” in his ear, and his heart stopped.

He sprinted towards the stage, leaving Sonny standing in the wings by himself. He’d never once missed an entrance, and he could practically see Carmen foaming at the mouth. He dreaded adding ‘find a new agent’ to his to-do list. He flashed his biggest grin at the audience at the same moment that Sonny emerged from center stage, holding an infamous pair of handcuffs a loft.

“An entire prop department full of cuffs, and not one with a key,” Rafael covered, taking a few deep breaths as the audience laughed and Rafael pivoted to the main event. “But the moment you’ve all been waiting for is here at last, folks.”

Sonny stepped up  beside him and held out the cuffs. Rafael clicked them into place, and the crowd cheered. He’d put cuffs on every contestant - including Sonny - hundreds of times. But none of them had ever reached out a single finger to trail along the inside of his wrist, where the cameras wouldn’t be able to see it. Rafael’s eyes locked on Sonny’s, and while his lips didn’t move, Rafael could see the playful smirk there anyway.

Rafael took a step back and held out the silver key, rotating it so it caught the light. “Alright, Sonny. Moment of truth. Who is this going to?”

Rafael pressed the key into Sonny’s grip and retreated to the rear of the stage, letting Sonny take the moment in the literal spotlight. He stood there for a moment, turning the key over in his hand and he looked back and forth from the key to the ladies standing in front of him. As rehearsed, he took a step first to the right, and then to the left, before marching himself to Amanda’s perch and dropping to one knee, holding his wrists up like a supplicant.

“Amanda Rollins, will you do me the honor of holding the key to my heart?’ Amanda burst out into loud sobs as the music swelled, balloons and confetti falling from the ceiling as she nodded a silent ‘yes’ and took the key from him with shaking hands. Olivia looked on and clapped happily from where she stood, and Rafael couldn’t stop himself.

He winked at her, and one of Olivia’s eyebrows shot up in response, her own smile a knowing one.

Rafael made his way back towards the bottom of the stage, where the happy couple was exchanging chaste kisses on the cheek as Amanda bounced and Sonny beamed.

“Well, folks, there you have it! Another happy ending for one of America’s boys in blue. Don’t forget to catch our happy couple after this on The Latest Show , and of course we’ll be back with another catch of a cop in a just a few months. Until then -”

Rafael locked eyes with Sonny over Amanda’s head, and he stopped caring that the camera’s were watching, that Carmen was probably at that very moment looking to fill his spot on her client list. He didn’t look away as he said, “-always remember: you have the right to remain romantic. Have a good night, folks.”

“We’re out,” the voice in his ear said.

“We’re just getting started,” Sonny said in his other ear, sliding up beside him as Amanda went to console Olivia in the privacy of her dressing room. Rafael felt something slip into this pocket, and he had the decency to wait until he was back in his own dressing room before he pulled out the thin, plastic key card. “Different key, better result, 1522” scrawled on a post-it stuck to the back.

Rafael felt warm to the tips of his toes as he slipped the card into his wallet and flicked off the lights to his dressing room.