Summary: "She'd seen him die a hundred times . . ."
Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Law & Order: Criminal Intent belong to Dick Wolf, NBC, USA, etc. No copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Notes: I had been writing this in the post-Season 7 period when my computer flopped, and I've only just brushed it off and taken it up again, so it's set not too long after "Frame" and ignores the existence of Season 8. The title is from the first line of Rudyard Kipling's M'Andrew's Hymn.

Below the Shadow of a Dream

She'd seen him die a hundred times--shot in a drug bust gone wrong, stabbed in a dark alley, bleeding out from a self-inflicted wound alone in his own apartment--and every time the scene had dissolved into the 3:00 a.m. darkness of her bedroom where she wrestled with her knotted, sweat-soaked sheets.

She'd never before seen him trip on a crumbling curbstone and sprawl into the path of an unlicensed cab intent on running a yellow light. It was a new twist, and as she felt his startled pulse subside beneath her fingers she knew that she'd never wake up from this one.

The next morning, she stepped out of the elevator with coffee for two and froze in the chatter and bustle until Ross gently relieved her of a cup, tucked a bundle under her arm, and ordered her to go home.

Home? Home was a desk in a room full of desks, across from a desk that was irreplaceable because he rested his elbows on it and stained it with mustard and pounded it in frustration or just because he liked the sound and . . . and suddenly she was trying to stab her key into the lock of her front door, with no recollection of how she had gotten there. She supposed she would have noticed if she'd been in an accident, and the only thing that surprised her was her complete and utter indifference.

Her cup of coffee had disappeared somewhere along the way, so the only logical thing to do was to replace it with something stronger. She grabbed a still-unwashed tumbler from the counter and a half-gone bottle from the shelf, unable to even decipher the label--it was alcohol, and that was all that mattered.

When she had collapsed on the couch, just barely depositing the glass and bottle on the edge of a scuffed-up coffee table before her fingers lost their trembling grip entirely, she discovered a lump still clamped under her arm. The lump turned into a plastic bag with his name and yesterday's date inked on it.

They'd given her his personal effects. Not even a day, and they'd given her his personal effects. She took painstaking care in pouring and downing her first glass to avoid thinking about which was worse: that she was the closest thing to family he had left or that his body was laid out all alone in the morgue with no one who would sniff his pastrami-scented fingers or exclaim excitedly over the near-perfect grille pattern imprinted on the side of his face. The neck of the bottle rattled along the rim of the glass the second time around, and she dipped her hand into the bag before she could lose what little nerve she had left.

His switchblade (its dull black handle slightly scratched and dinged from a recent encounter with his malfunctioning garbage disposal), his handkerchief (wadded in a ball, but still stark white), his wallet (nearly empty) and his binder (nearly bursting with notes and photos that really should have been filed back at 1PP). He had been zipping and unzipping that binder the entire way to the crime scene the previous morning, and she'd nearly chewed through her tongue trying not to snap at him to stop fidgeting. He'd been teetering on the edge of collapse all week, so she hadn't had the heart to harangue.

She carefully laid these old, familiar friends aside before tipping the last two items out of the bag into her lap. A ring box and a tiny spiral notebook. The velvet on the top and bottom of the box was worn shiny in patches that she knew would match his thumb and forefinger, and nestled inside was a diamond ring, simple and beautiful.

The first entry in the notebook was dated what, by her estimation, must have been about a week before she had pulled him by the elbow into the conference room and beamingly broke the news that she was pregnant (only remembering, after he'd slumped against the bulletin board and stammered a painfully distressed congratulations, to share that crucial detail of surrogacy). It had begun Eames, but that was crossed out and replaced with Alex.

I know I'm no prize--I'm a difficult man at best, and at worst, well, even I am hard-pressed to put up with me. I feel I ought to warn you off somehow, but you know all my faults and can probably list them better than I can anyway, so I won't waste our time.
However, I have a steady job and some money put by, and I love you. It's enough for me, and if you think it could be enough for you, will you marry me?

He had loved her, at least once upon a time.

The visions of might-have-beens curdled her stomach and pushed bile up into her throat, and it was only by the reflexes honed in her morning sickness days that she made it to the toilet in time for the reappearance of the coffee and the glass and a half of whatever-it-was. Making a cup with her hands, she swished and spat some water from the tap. She returned to the couch, refilled her drink with a careless hand, and turned to the next entry. It was dated nearly a month after she had returned from maternity leave.

I can't give you children. It's not a risk I could live with. And I thought that this had lost you to me forever.
Perhaps now isn't the time to bring up the crass details of my proposal, but I need you to hear me out before you make up your mind. Artificial insemination would at least give you children that are yours, and I would love them as my own.
You deserve more than that, but I was hoping maybe you could manage to get by with that and me. Would you marry me?

Her partner had wanted her, had loved her, had died on her, and all she was left with was a book of marriage proposals she'd never heard.

They ranged from serious to silly, long and rambling to short and succinct, and there were even a few abandoned scraps of truly execrable poetry that bordered on the macabre. She stifled a hysterical laugh in the palm of her hand upon seeing his attempt to rhyme 'corpse' with 'hopes' and wondered if she'd ever be able to look at a body again without seeing the white ghosts of his elegant gloved fingers.

There were a few written in what she recognized as his three-sheets-to-the-wind-and-still-obstinately-drinking handwriting, the letters looping large and childlike around and over each other, including

I'm not insane, at least not yet, but I'm crazy for you. Will you marry me?

And then,

I'm sorry.

He'd traced over the words so many times the pen tracks had nearly worn through the paper.

When the upended bottle yielded only a few drops to her glass, she reached an entry dated only a week previous.

Everything has been stripped away, and I am laid bare.
You are my rock, my world, my everything.
It's selfish of me to ask you to shackle yourself to a tired, old man who can barely keep it together, to an unequal relationship where you will always have to be the sensible one, the strong one, the sane one. It's selfish, but I am past the point of caring.
I love you--please marry me.

The next page was blank, and the next, and the next, and she saw her life in blank white pages unfurling into the darkness. Then the notebook fell from her enervated hands, and he was falling before her eyes.

One of Newton's laws--he could have named it, explained it, and extracted a confession from it--decreed that once a body like his was in motion, it took a damned big force to stop it. It seemed as though she'd spent half their partnership metaphorically doing just that, digging her heels in and stopping him from crashing face-first into places she could never follow and he could never return from. Now, the one time he'd needed her to be literal, she'd grabbed too late at the sleeve of his overcoat.

Bodies were much more difficult, but the notebook she could pick up and smooth the ruffled pages back into a semblance of its previous state. In doing so, a final entry inside the back cover caught her eye. It had no date.

If you're reading this, I guess I've missed my chance. I never could quite muster the courage to ruin your life. After all I did to screw up what we did have, I suppose I should be grateful that I didn't drive you away entirely with a proposal. And now I'm relieved I haven't made you a widow twice over.
You, of all people, know I built a career on my ability to spin a tale, and I sometimes have buried the threads of truth so deep I have trouble recognizing them myself, but never doubt this--I love you.
I'm sorry.
I love you.

Her bottle was empty, and she was alone with a book of marriage proposals she'd never heard and a ring she'd never been given.

He'd loved her. Loved her. He'd loved her, and that should've been enough; enough, at least, to ensure a happy ending--maybe not fairytale-worthy, but on their terms. He'd never learned to expect happy endings, though, and her belief in them had died in a hospital bed a long time ago.

She could have cursed him--or his mother/fathers/brother/mentor/nemesis/whole mushroom cloud disaster of a life fate had inflicted upon his broad shoulders--and would have, perhaps, if the hollow in her chest hadn't widened and deepened into a gaping abyss.

Instead, she pried the velvet box open again.

The cool metal encircling warm flesh broke her, shattered her, and finally the tears came, hot and wet and entirely all too familiar. The steel in her spine gave way, and she crumpled back into the cushions, whispering, sobbing, keening the words he had never given her the chance to say, "Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . ."