NIGHTMARES

She scratched frantically at the door, attempting to get out. Her fingernails were torn and bleeding. She looked desperately up at the single window, so far above. The warehouse was deserted. No one would hear her screams. She could feel panic rising in her throat, a panic like she had never before experienced.

Then there was a creak. Footsteps, beyond the iron door bolted from the outside. She shrank, trembling, against the wall. The footsteps neared. There was a loud sound as the bolt was driven back. It slowly slid open, and he stepped inside…

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Jack McCoy placed the papers into his case, his thoughts on the trial. They had been given a continuance. It was not his fault the police could not gather enough evidence, that what they had gathered was thrown out by the presiding judge, or that the defendant was incompetent, and his lawyer aggravating. He glanced at his watch. Claire was late, as she had been for the past week. Claire was never late, not until recently. He knew better than to ask. Her private life was no concern of his. She had made that profoundly clear. There were moments when she looked at him, when she started to say something, that he wondered if it might not be more, but he would not push her. Too many people had already pushed her.

He had just zipped his folder and picked up his coffee off the desk when she came in, haggard and pale. "You're late again," he said. It was not so much an admonishment as concern.

There were dark circles beneath her eyes. Claire had not been sleeping well. The case she was working on was particularly disturbing. There wasn't enough evidence, just rooms of dead girls, locked in empty warehouse buildings. The first body had been found by accident. Some teens had broken in through a window and used the darkened structure to shoot up. One of the girls had stumbled off to throw up and found her, a young woman strangled and assaulted. It would be McCoy's case to prosecute, when they had enough for an arrest, but he was in the midst of a murder trial. She was supposed to handle it. The nightmares had begun, horrible dreams in which she was the one trapped, waiting for her killer. There was evidence the girls had been alive some hours before he…

"I'm sorry."

She knew he was speculating, by the way he looked at her. His brown eyes narrowed slightly, undistracted by the noise outside the office. There were voices, arguments, footsteps, the squeak of the trash man as he made his morning rounds. They shredded mountains of paperwork. His lean hand set his briefcase back on the desk, the coffee cup beside it, and he came to shut the door. She knew it was serious by the look on his face when he turned to her.

"Claire, if you need some time off—"

"I don't. I'm fine." She removed her purse and dropped it in the couch, purposefully avoiding his gaze. Jack's brows lifted slightly as he contemplated her, turned away from him. It was a beat before he replied, "You're not fine."

How could she admit that she was frightened, that these nightmares made her unable to sleep for more than a few hours? Claire was accustomed to such cases. She prosecuted killers like this one every day, and when they found the son of a bitch responsible, she would prosecute him too. She didn't want to let her guard down around Jack McCoy. He was never shaken, always determined, the kind of boss no one envied her in having but everyone admired. It brought a squared motion to her shoulders, and she looked up at him with her mouth set in a firm line.

"This really is none of your business, Jack," she said, and crossed to her office. The shades were pulled and she opened them, letting in the brilliant morning sunlight. The street below was abuzz with traffic. Jack followed her to the doorway, his lean form filling it impressively, and there was a touch of anger in his gravely voice.

"It is my business if it influences your work."

"If you're so concerned, talk to Adam." Her voice was cold as she yanked open her desk drawer, searching for something. She didn't even know what it was, only that she had to do something to occupy her hands.

"I did."

This got her attention. She looked up at him, standing with his hands in his pockets. Jack saw something pass through her gaze, an emotion that was gone in an instant as she set her jaw and inquired, "And what did he say?"

"That you're working the Jody Hampstead case."

"Just like a thousand others."

She found the file on her desk and sat down to open it. There was no end to her frustration, the knowledge that it was the guy they had under surveillance, but there was no way to prove it, just a shred of evidence that any judge would throw out on appeal. The manner in which she turned through the file indicated how upset she was. Jack knew he was treading on thin ice, but came into the office and closed the door. Now they could no longer hear anything from their neighbors, not the sound of the phone ringing or attorneys discussing the latest games around the water cooler. His presence filled the room: a reassuring and silent form that she wanted to believe would make it all right.

"Claire," he said softly, and she felt her resolve crumble. Whenever he took that tone with her, and it was not often, it changed everything. She had come into this office, this department, determined not to fall for him. McCoy had a reputation for romancing his assistants. He had known the minute he saw her; the twinkle in his eye had made it more than profoundly obvious. It had set her guard against him, but lately she had found her resolve weakening. That he was so concerned only furthered her tormented thoughts. She stared at the desk, then lifted her eyes to his.

"God knows you are one of the finest attorneys I have ever known," he said, "but this case is clearly unsettling you. I want you to give it back to Adam, so it can be re-assigned." His tone was so calm, so melancholy and persuasive, that she could not find it in her heart to be angry with him.

"I can't, Jack," she replied. "I know the only way I'm going to beat this is to see him behind bars, to make him pay for what he has done."

He was silent a moment, studying her. "I could go over your head on this," he said.

She looked at him. "But you won't."

No, he wouldn't.