DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: My very first L&O:SVU fic. And, my very first F/F fic. I did what I could –I hope that's good enough.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: For 'Loss' and 'Ghost'.

How Long
By coolbyrne

"How long?"

Do you remember that night the same way I do? Sometimes it's so vivid to me that I swear I can feel the October wind on my face. Funny, because when I got out of the car with Elliot, the breeze felt cool on my face and I remember thinking that fall was finally on us. Then when I saw you, the breeze did nothing to stop the trickle of sweat between my shoulder blades or the clammy feel of my palms. I wanted to wipe them against my thighs, run them through my hair, reach out and touch you or step forward and hug you. Not knowing which gesture was more appropriate, I chose to let them hang at my sides, clenching and unclenching, useless and nervous.

I don't think I've ever seen Elliot more stunned. But I guess the expression on my face wasn't too far off from his. How could it be? Thirty minutes ago we were still trying to come to terms with your death. The squad room had been scary quiet as if speaking would make it all real. Staring blankly across the room, I didn't dare glance down at my hands. They were only reminders of another night they were useless and nervous. Do you know how long it took me to wash your blood away from the delicate grooves of the silver ring you had given me? I dropped it twice in the sink because I couldn't see it through the tears, and bruised my fists as I slammed them onto the counter as punishment for my inadequacies.

Standing in front of you –a very-much-alive you –you'd think those inadequacies would just wash away like the blood from my ring. But they didn't. As soon as the words "Witness Protection Program" came out of Elliot's mouth, it only reminded me more of how I failed you. The pep talk I reserved for the victims I consoled every day didn't do a damn thing for me. All the "it's not your fault"s and "you're not to blame"s in the world couldn't stop me from thinking I had put you in this position. I should have taken that bullet for you. I should have been able to get evidence on Velez. I should have said some things differently. I should have said a lot of things.

I realize now that's what fear is. Not just the ache of what might have been, but will never be. I asked you, "How long?" because at the time, I wanted to know how long you'd be in the Program. It was only later, as the days dragged on to weeks and on to endless, empty months, that "how long" became my personal question to myself. How long could I live with this gaping wound in my heart? How long could I catch a glimpse of a familiar blonde and still turn my head because for that fleeting, needy moment, I think it's you? How long could I walk into my apartment and still –still! –catch an errant trace of your perfume? Do you know I swung from not wanting to move or change anything in my apartment for fear of losing that last tenuous connection I had with you, to actually throwing things out –towels, sheets, clothing –because I couldn't take it anymore? Six months later, I dropped something on the floor and as I bent to pick it up, I saw a glimpse of light from under the couch. It was your earring, somehow lost in whatever moment we had together one night. That led to a re-arranging of the living room of the violent kind as the grief rose up again and I couldn't fight it any longer. I often wondered if it would have been better to think you were dead; to try and grow scar tissue over my heart as the finality of things sunk in. Because knowing you were alive never gave me that chance. Every day it just ripped open again and again.

And now, there you were again, risen from the dead, brought back from the depths of the Witness Protection Program, and there I was again, standing in front of you, not knowing what to do with my hands. Aware of our surroundings, I could only blurt out a happy, "Alex!" and wonder if the slightly overdone cheeriness in my voice masked the sound of my heart breaking. Again.

And again I asked myself, how long?

But then, just like before, we didn't have the time and Casey's office was not the place. She stomped away, curtly reminding us of our court appointment, and we dutifully followed in silence.

Funny how Elliot took the early watch and left me to spend the night with you. I'll have to ask him about that sometime. I mean, I always thought the two of us were discreet, particularly in those early days, but now I'm not so sure. I wonder how long he's known about us.

As I sat my bag down on the only bed in the room, we bantered a bit about Elliot, about backgammon, about the smell of the city. You stood in front of the window not like a person in fear of their life, but like a person trying to find it out there somewhere in the dark expanse of the city below. When you told me you often hum the Mr. Softee song just to remind you of home, I realized then just how much you had lost since you were gone. Because it's always the little things, isn't it? We can prepare for the big things, the obvious things, but when you least expect it, all that careful planning is diminished to nothing. Believe me, babe, I know.

And then you told me about your claims adjuster, your "good man", and I realized that even the big things can come back to bite you in the ass. I should have taken some comfort in knowing you'd been seeing a man instead of a woman –it would be easier to believe it was just another part of your cover, and it would be a hell of a lot easier on my ego. But I saw the pain, so raw and heartbreaking in your eyes as you told me about your life with him and it hurt me, too. You're not dead, but you're never going to be able to really live, are you?

That night, when we were in bed, our legs entwined, and my arm around your shoulder holding you close, you clutched me like you'd never let me go. I knew sleeping with you was probably going to be a mistake –how could I ever heal if I kept ripping off the scab? But with your lips on mine, I knew then that the idea of healing was a pipe dream. So hands and mouths sought out familiar curves and places and for a while, we pretended things had never changed. I guess it was easy to pretend –you'd been pretending you were a different person for over a year, and I had been pretending I wasn't dying inside every one of those days. The first time I said your name in bed, your head pulled away from me and I saw the tears in your eyes. I made sure to say it as much as I could, until your tears went away. They only appeared again when I told you I loved you. You held on to me, your face buried in my neck and it all came out in heart-wrenching sobs. I couldn't do anything except whisper and soothe the best I could, and we were finally lulled into sleep by the release of our tears.

Even after everything you'd been through, the next morning you were able to find humour in it. You pointed to your neck and raised an accusing eye in my direction. I tried to play innocent as the red marks on your pale skin were as clear as day.

"You're lucky I have a turtleneck," you told me.

Elliot knocked on the door, right on time, and when I let him in, I caught him looking over at the bed, then glancing between me and you. He had the good sense to not say a word, though his smirk spoke volumes. I guess he recognized the warning look in my eyes, because he said, "What?" Then he winked at you and asked, "Ready?"

I wonder what he would have said if I had told him no.

The champagne was ready and we were all in good spirits for the first time in a long time. I was just thanking my lucky stars I had something to hold in my hands, because when you came through that door, it was going to take everything in my power not to pull you in for a long, happy kiss. Yeah, that would have got some looks, huh? But I didn't care. I had waited too long for you. Too much time had passed to waste any more of it. We saw a shadow come down the hall, and even Elliot was a bit excited. I could hear it in his voice when he asked, "Is that her?"

And in the span of a heartbeat, things took a horrible turn. It was Agent Hammond. Alone. My heart sunk under the weight of the dread. 'Please, God, no, please, God, no,' was all I could think. The blood pounded in my ears so loudly that I'm surprised I heard him speak.

"… she wanted me to say good-bye."

Every sound in the room was silenced as the reality of his words sunk in. I didn't even notice him leave. I was too busy thinking how we'd been here before, in the exact same fucking position before. I put my glass down, too sick to drink. Besides, what was there to celebrate now?

It was no surprise that Casey was the first to speak. The puzzlement on her face was obvious, even more so than usual.

"Back in the Witness Protection Program again?" When no one answered, she asked, "How long?"

My head snapped up and it took everything in me not to knock her teeth down her throat. Instead, I pushed away from the edge of the desk and made a move to the door. I heard Elliot call me from behind.


But I held a hand up and kept walking. I thought I had used up all my tears in bed with you last night, but there they were again. I should have known.

I've stopped asking myself how long, because I've finally learned that emotions can't be measured by time. Why does it feel like every good moment in my life has gone by in the blink of an eye? And why does it feel like every second of this pain is an eternity?

Standing at the small window in my living room, I looked out into the night and wondered if you got any of yourself back before you had to leave again. Pressing my cheek against the cool glass, I hoped you could hear me.


The End

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