The death (or not, depending on who you talk to) of Claire Kincaid has caused a lot of discussion in L&O fandom. Kitt says she was inspired to write this story after receiving an email over Thanksgiving from a fan asking her to bring back Claire, and have her talk to Lennie about the accident. Could Kitt's obsession, developed during Thanksgiving vacation, with a certain computer game have something to do with it as well? We'll never tell....


You Don't Know Jack (Afterlife Version)
By Kitteridge

She opens her eyes and thinks, Boy, that was a near miss -- but she's not where she last remembered herself to be. Her five-year old Honda (needing transmission fluid last time she'd had it looked at) is gone, the wet street is gone, and so is her passenger. Instead, she's sitting alone in a puke-green room with a television set that's blaring uncomfortably (and with no visible on/off switch) tuned to the Jerry Springer show.
"She was my lesbian cousin and I could do whatever I wanted with her!" a woman with a badly-frizzed hairdo and a clinging too-small tank top is screaming at her boyfriend on the television.
Her head hurts a little, but that clears after a minute, and she's still stuck in this room. The smell of old bologna wafts over to her from a table next to the television and she wrinkles her nose -- the table's got a whole stack of meats and cheeses and soda but everything looks just a, as if it's been sitting in the sun for too long. Not that there's any sun in the windowless room, but the longer she sits, the warmer she gets -- a dry, penetrating warmth she recalls from her old creaky college dorm room heaters. She shrugs off her leather jacket, touching the smooth battered hide and remembering the first time she showed up for a drink wearing it. Jack's slightly-astonished, amused leer had been the exact reaction she'd hoped to evoke.
"It's not the only leather item I own," she'd whispered after a second beer, hoping to throw him off balance. It had: they were playing pool and his stick nearly ripped into the green felt. They'd left shortly after that.
It's damn hot in here. Now, sitting in just a white T-shirt and fading jeans, she curls some of her short dark bob behind her ears and wonders where the heck she even is, and why. The TV set is beginning to annoy her and she's just about to get up and open the door on the far end of the room when it flies open all by itself.
"Ready to play, Claire?"
She stands. "Alex Trebek?"
"You gotcha!" And it is. The longtime Jeopardy! game show host is standing before her in a gray tweed jacket and a red striped tie, all done up in an outfit she remembers seeing before -- though not on Alex Trebek, and certainly not on Jeopardy!, which she hardly ever watches. Who's home at 7:30, anyway? Not an aspiring young assistant district attorney who, when she's not drawing up depositions or heading to court, is usually drinking or sleeping with her boss. But more to the point, why is the host of Jeopardy!, wearing a suit she knows Jack loathes but owns, greeting her and asking if she's ready to play?
Claire cocks her head at him. "What are you doing here?" She thinks about that. "What am I doing here, for that matter?"
"Because it's your turn, Claire!" He's a lot cheerier -- in a completely false way -- than he is on television, and that makes her wary. Her grandmother loves Jeopardy! (when they have Grandma over for dinner everything has to be done in time for the theme music to start playing, or the 90 year old woman will start toddling downstairs herself) but Claire suspects this Alex Trebek would scare the living daylights out of her. He's frightening Claire a little, too. The bologna and the rising heat of the room are also making her a little nauseous.
"My turn for what?"
"To play our game!" Alex beckons to her and she swears his furry little mustache twitches a bit, like one of those silent-movie villains.
"Look, I don't know how I got here but I've got to get home -"
He lays a finger across his lips. "No, no, don't worry about that. We'll take care of everything. Now, come on, the show's about to start!"
His face falls slack and when he speaks next it's not with his own voice. "Claire Kincaid, get your ass over here."
She responds before she even knows what she's doing -- when that voice calls...when Jack's voice calls, she comes. In more ways than one. Alex swings an arm over her shoulder and leads her out of the green room. The door slams behind her and she can feel the whoosh of warm air almost sucked away. "What's going on."
"All rules will be explained in a moment." Alex has his own voice again as he leads her down the hallway. "Just keep in mind: Everything will count towards your final grade."
Claire frowns, but before she can say anything two enormous double doors swing wide, revealing a large television studio on the other side of them. The crowd goes wild. Crowd? Claire glances up into the bleacher-like stands, which are packed with cheering, whooping people she has never seen before, and whose faces, for some reason, fail to register on her memory -- it's almost as if they have no faces at all. Alex swings her to the crowd, who applaud, applaud, applaud. The chill of the studio hits her and goosepimples rise up on her arms. She wishes she'd brought her jacket, now, but there doesn't seem to be any way to turn back.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Alex cries out to the audience, "our first -- and only -- contestant, Claire Kincaid!"
Bright klieg lights swing across the studio and spotlight Claire and Alex. He releases her shoulders and she shrugs them a little, not liking what's going on, and feeling powerless to stop it. She squints and blinks away, noticing that behind her a stage set of two podiums and a backdrop has rolled out, but it's not the set they use for Jeopardy! Above one podium, an enormous blue sign, with letters made up of lightbulbs, flashes on and off, on and off with the name of the show she apparently has been inducted into -- and as she reads it, Alex deftly catches a microphone tossed to him from off-stage, announcing, "Welcome everyone to the latest edition of You Don't Know Jack!"
"Wait --" Claire begins, but no one is listening to her. Theme music rises, a clattering jumble of happy melody and underlying menace that reminds her more of a carnival than anything else, all the way down to the calliope. As the music plays, Alex pulls away and three stagehands descend upon her. Two hold her arms while a third clips a microphone to the back of her jeans, yanks the back of her shirt out, and snakes the mic cord under one arm and clips it on her collar. It happens so fast she hardly has time to jerk away, and by the time its done she feels violated and felt up. Carefully, she tucks the back of her shirt into her jeans as best she can, fingers knocking against the remote microphone box, about the size of a beeper, they've clipped on to her. Her cheeks feel flushed despite the chill of the room, and she's been left standing alone, in a spotlight, with this awful calliope music chiming louder and louder, brain swirling and heart pounding, until finally she grabs at her ears and shouts, "Stop it!"
Instantly, the music ceases. There is no sound from the audience. Claire turns in her spotlight and faces Alex Trebek, standing behind one of the tall green podiums, staring down at her like a judge, the lights from the show title -- no longer blinking -- illuminating his curly gray hair. "Very good!" Alex smiles at her. "Ten points!"
"What did I do?"
Instead of an answer, he gestures towards a podium adjacent to his own stand. The room is so dark she can't see anything except the two podiums, so carefully she begins walking over to where he indicates and climbs up two carpeted steps, putting herself in the contestant box. Okay, she tries to calm herself, I remember Jack not being at the bar when I came to get him, so I ended up taking Lennie home because he was drunk, and he was telling me it would've been okay if I'd been his kid after all, because I wouldn't've disappointed him, and I looked over and there was this great bright light and -- I ended up in that hot, smelly room. I remember that. I don't know how I got here, and I don't think I can really get out if I want to, but I'm here now, so let's try and figure out just what the hell is going on before we go into panic mode. Yelling seems to work here. Maybe I can yell again later if I have to. She tries glancing out to the audience, but sees nothing, hears nothing; the studio is almost entirely dark except for herself and Alex. Welcome, couples, the spotlight dance, she thinks crazily, playing the parts of couples number one, two and three: Alex Trebek and Claire Kincaid. But there's nothing particularly funny about this.
"What if I want to leave?" she asks him.
Alex smiles serenely. "Are you certain you want to do that?"
His implication -- that things will be worse for her if she does go -- unsettles her even more. "I'm only asking theoretically."
"Well, if you leave, then everything is over," says Alex.
"Yes," he nods. "If you leave, you'll never wake up, and they'll cover your face, and your mother and stepfather will come down to identify your body, and there will be mourning and sadness, and Jack will get himself another assistant. Probably a very good-looking woman."
She flushes despite herself. "Wait a minute. You're saying if I leave, I'm dead?"
"Most certainly."
"Oh, Claire, this is so boring. You were in a drunk driving accident. He was drunk, you were the accident."
The bright light. "So where am I now?"
"You're at You Don't Know Jack!" Alex grins, satisfied that he has a cheery answer to give for once.
"Why am I at a game show?"
"You're not!" he cries. "You're in a coma, Claire. Out to the world. I'd say dead to the world, but that's not yet true."
"So none of this is happening."
Alex's face crumples. "Oh, Claire, you wound me. Must we get into metaphysics? You were never very good with the sciences." He chuckles. "Why don't we just play our game?"
Claire's head reels and she pinches herself, expecting to wake up. No such luck. She cocks her head and narrows her eyes at him. "Tell me what I'm playing for. What's the prize."
"Why, everything, of course, Claire!" Alex grins. "Would you like to see our fine prize package?"
"Um..." she hesitates. "Yes."
With a loud click another spotlight flares between them, and she feels her podium shifting backwards, pulled by unseen forces. On a stage positioned several yards from her and Alex's podiums the spotlight illuminates her desk area in the DA's office. Claire watches herself sitting at her desk, shifting folders, sharpening a pencil, taking a call. Phones are ringing, there are voices, but she can only see herself. She isn't particularly impressed; seen at this angle she appears to be merely a cog in some vast machinery, which she has always known on some level to be true, but for some reason, watching herself (eerie enough) going through the ritual paces of her day makes it seem even less meaningful.
"Is that enough?" Alex asks suddenly.
His voice startles Claire. "It...was at the time."
"But no more?"
She shrugs. "It's my job, Alex. Not everyone gets a hundred sixty-watt bulbs flashing over their heads."
Alex smiles at her. "Ten points!"
"Are we playing already?"
His smile turns secretive, but she's still wary; his eyes aren't as happy as his voice or mouth: they seem dead and dark, like the rest of the studio.
"But you want more, don't you," he says finally. "Well, that's good, because if you win, there's more we can offer!"
On the far stage, while Claire works, Jack peeks his head around the corner. She never notices, just keeps herself hunched over. Jack, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, with a mischievous look on his face that makes Claire smile over at the podium, sets both hands on Claire-at-the-desk's shoulders and squeezes. She straightens, surprised, immediately annoyed. Turning in her chair, she gives him a disapproving look.
"Hey," says Claire-at-the-podium, "that never happened." But she isn't so sure. Jack wasn't much of a sneaker-upper, but he became much more playful with her once they had gone to bed. There was something about that which she found...undignified. She liked him better when he was serious, stern, intent -- she understood him, then. The fun side emerged more rarely, but when it did she always found herself unbalanced and confused.
"All right," says Alex after a moment. "Then we'll make it seem more attractive."
The scene disappears; the light blinks out, then winks on a moment later. Everything is different, but far more recent. From just that day, in fact, as Jack and Claire walked back to Claire's Honda after leaving Attica State Prison. Both were striding silently across the damp asphalt, the grayness of the morning creeping overhead, and both were affected in very different ways by what they had just seen -- their first state-sponsored execution. Jack was exactly as she always loved him best: dignified, alert, steely and focused. This was the law. The law did its job. Goody. Claire, however, came out of there feeling weak-kneed and prickly, as if by supporting capital punishment Jack was somehow partially responsible for the man's death. It was a ridiculous feeling to have, and she tried shrugging it off, but it wasn't working.
"Want breakfast?" Jack asked her as they slid into her vehicle. He buckled up on the passenger side and watched as she tossed her briefcase into the back seat.
"How can you eat?" Claire-in-the-car stared at him. "We just saw a man die."
"I'm a sucker for an execution," he smiled rakishly at her.
Claire paled.
"Oh, stop it," he bit at her. "You have my permission to save the holier-than-thou routine for court appearances and visits by Ben Stone. Otherwise, you know you don't need to put on an act for me."
"What if it's not an act," she bit back, stung.
"You're feeling sorry for yourself because you don't feel bad about it," he instructed. "There's nothing wrong with that."
"Jack, a man died in there. We helped the state kill him. That doesn't bother you?"
"Not a bit."
Normally, this bravado -- which she suspected was at least partly just that; Jack wasn't unfeeling or that hard-line -- was a turn-on for Claire. Watching him in court as he annihilated the defense was one of the greatest thrill rides she'd ever experienced. But right now, when she did truly feel some need for sympathy or softness -- he wasn't giving it to her. "I don't understand you sometimes," she said sadly, and started the ignition.
"A-ha!" Alex calls out. The stage dims.
Claire jumps again and closes her eyes briefly. The scene is too near; she feels it acutely still. When she opens her eyes again, Alex is waiting.
"You see?" he points out. "You don't know Jack!"
"Very funny," says Claire in a strained voice.
"Is that a prize package worth having?" Alex wants to know.
"Is this worth points?"
"Everything is counted -"
"- towards my final grade," finishes Claire. "All right." She sighs. "Well, if it's a choice between that or death, yeah, well, that's plenty for me."
"Yes," says Alex, leaning forward, blue cards in one hand. He taps them against the corner of the podium. "But is that the life that you necessarily want?"
"I'm twenty-nine years old!" Claire cries. "How am I supposed to know what kind of life I want?"
"You know what job you want," Alex teases.
"I don't know that either, any more," says Claire. "Not after what I saw today." She blinks at him. "But I do know I'm not ready to just give up yet, either."
"Another ten points!" Alex cries.
A siren begins to go off and Claire's head swivels, trying to pinpoint the sound. The crowd, which until now has remained quiet, begins to cheer again, warm, excited applause, but nothing like before, when the show first began. This random universe, whether inside her head or not, is making her feel twitchy and crazed. "What now," she murmurs.
"It's our Twenty Questions round!" Alex points to her. The podiums begin to swing around again as the siren wails until the stage behind them vanishes and they are left facing a spotlight in the center of the room. A stagehand carries a stool out, leaves it in the center of the spotlight, and walks off again, wordlessly. "Are you ready?"
"Wait a minute," says Claire, remembering something. "You were going to tell me the rules. You started the game and never told me the rules, Alex."
The audience cheer fades and Claire, for once, feels as if she's made an error. Alex's expression turns maudlin and he shakes his head. "Oh, my dear Claire," he says. "I must deduct twenty-five points for that question."
"What?" Claire does some quick math in her head. "I only have five points left then!" And she hears how stupid that sounds. "Why?"
Alex eyes her, sighing. "Everyone knows there are no set rules. We make them up, as you do, as we go along."
That is the first thing which Claire feels makes a whit of sense in all of this. "No rules."
She runs her hands through her hair. "And the Walrus said to the Carpenter...."
"Are you ready, Claire?"
She thinks of Jack and turns resolute and assured. "Yes." For what, she doesn't know, but it doesn't seem to make a difference, really.
"Fantastic!" All of Alex's lost joy returns, just as falsely as before, and he straightens, flipping through his cards. "All right, then! For our first set of questions, may I introduce Detective Leonard Briscoe, the last person to have spoken with Claire Kincaid before the accident!"
Claire turns to the spotlight as the music soars, the show title flashes, and that calliope begins beeping on and off again, and again. Lennie, dressed in his usual detective's suit, badge peeping out of one pocket, strolls in from the dark background, waving at the audience, waving at Alex, waving at Claire. As if accustomed to being here, he half-sits, half-stands, leaning against the stool and grins, his big white teeth gleaming. Claire is surprised at how comforting his presence is; if Lennie is here, nothing bad can really happen. Of course, if Alex is telling the truth, then that's absolutely wrong: if Alex is right, Lennie was right there and never managed to get her to swerve out of the path of the oncoming car.
"Claire?" Alex asks. "It's up to you, now. Remember, this is Twenty Questions."
"Hiya, Claire," says Lennie. "You feeling okay?"
"Sure, Lennie," she says. "I'm feeling fine."
"Zero points!" Calls out Alex. "That's one."
"Hey," says Claire. "I thought I got to ask the questions. Don't I?"
"Zero!" Alex cries again. "That's two."
"Hey, Claire," says Lennie. "You better start thinkin' in here. These people are serious. They ain't gonna let you out until you can prove you know Jack."
"But I do!" Claire insists. "I know a lot more than Jack. I want to wake up, I want to get back to living."
Lennie shakes his head. "Yer not doin' much thinkin. Don't you know they can keep you in the dark as long as they want?"
Claire opens her mouth and closes it, looking at Alex. "Yes," she answers.
"Two points!" cries Alex. "Three."
"My turn," she jumps in. "Did you come out of the wreck all right?"
"Sure," he shrugs. "Not a scratch on me. Right now, I'm visitin' you at the hospital. It's killin' me that you're out the way you are. They say they're not sure if you'll walk again."
"Three points," says Alex, a little less jovially, a little bored almost. "Four."
"Tell me about Jack," Claire insists, making sure it isn't a question.
"Do you really wanna know?" Lennie asks.
"Lennie!" she cries out.
Alex yawns. "No points. Five."
Lennie waits.
"Yes, yes," she splutters. "Of course I want to know." She knows Jack isn't overly sentimental; she knows there isn't any chance he's exactly pining by her bedside, but she wants to hear that at least she's given him a night's bad rest or something.
"He's face down in a bottle," says Lennie. "Beatin' himself up left and right, says it's his fault this all happened. I try tellin' him different, but he's the one who said 'to hell with her' and now he's taking it all real hard."
"He said 'to hell' with me?"
"Yeah," says Lennie.
Alex perks up a little. "Ten points! Six."
"Five points! Seven."
Claire shoots daggers at Alex and waits for Lennie.
"I dunno, Claire. You stood him up at the bar. He hadda get a cab home. Who knows?"
"Zero," sighs Alex. "Eight."
"Hey," barks Claire. "I didn't answer yet. You should judge the answers, not the questions. We learned in litigation that it's the answers you elicit that tell the story, not the questions. So back off, Trebek."
Alex makes an erasing motion on his notepad.
"I know," says Claire. "I know that...that Jack's been unhappy with me lately. And I've been unhappy back. And I also know that I'm not sure why it's been going south with us. I always feel like I'm disappointing him somehow, that there's this gap between us which can't ever close."
"There is a gap," says Lennie. "It's somewhere between twenty and twenty-five years wide. My kid's your age, Claire. It sounds good in the books but in real life, you two got yourself some kind of crazy setup. You got maybe a year or two more and yer gonna outgrow it, yer gonna want other things, and he's gonna be thinkin' about running for DA or something, or even retiring. You gotta know that."
"I didn't say I wanted to be with Jack for the rest of my life," says Claire. "He knows that. We set the rules early on."
"Last I checked," says Lennie, "there ain't no rules. Didn't we just figure that one out?"
Alex looks at Claire expectantly.
"There can be rules if you want there to be."
"Ooof!" Alex lets out a rush of air. "That's a harsh one, Claire. The only rule is there aren't any rules, not in this game anyhow. That'll be knocking you down ten points. Nine."
Claire closes her eyes a moment. "Lennie, what do you think?"
Lennie smiles at her, and unlike Alex, his dark eyes shine. "There you go," he says. "I think you don't know Jack nearly as well as you could, or you should, or you might, Claire. Sometimes, what's a game for some people, ain't a game at all for others."
Alex beams at Claire. "One-thousand points! A great question, and a great answer!" The crowd bursts out in applause that grows and grows as Lennie stands and waves once more, then heads out into the darkness again.
"Hey!" Claire calls to Alex. "You said Twenty Questions!"
"Which means there are ten more, for our next participant," Alex winks at her.
Claire rubs her temples with the tips of her fingers.
The crowd grows hushed with anticipation.
"And now..." Alex's voice mirrors the crowd's awe-filled silence. "Direct from Glenfyddich, taking a sharp left at Dewar's, all the way from the bottom of his bottle is the one, the only, John J. McCoy, Junior...better known as Jack!"
The crowd goes wild, cheering even more loudly and more enthusiastically than when Claire had entered the studio. Spotlights slide all around the room, passing over the audience, along the floor, as if searching, searching -- Claire begins to feel a chill run up her spine -- and then, there he is, Jack, sober and composed, in the hunter green, drawstring-waisted jacket he'd been wearing right after the execution, striding out and nodding once, formally at the crowd. He pauses briefly at the stool and faces the crowd a moment, shrugs off his jacket, revealing his most severe dark suit, the one Claire knows he wears for closing arguments, the one with the burgundy tie and gold tie clip she gave him for his birthday this year. He turns his head a little at seeing Claire and smiles delightedly. A rush of affection floods through her like adrenaline and, seeing this, Jack walks immediately over to her podium, offering up a hand. Claire jumps up a little so she can bend over the edge of the podium, taking his hand in hers, squeezing tight. Jack leans close and their lips meet, a kiss she hasn't had from him in so long...since this whole execution mess was first mentioned.
It wasn't even a case they had tried together; Jack had worked on the man's case nearly four years ago, with another assistant, while Claire was still out in the world working E-Cab and trying to get herself noticed enough to be promoted to felony assistant. When Jack called her into his office some two weeks ago to let her know one of his cases was to be the test for Pataki's first lethal injection, she thought she heard some hesitation in his voice, as if this was not something he really had the stomach for. Little did she know: As soon as she tried to sympathize, and sound understanding -- after all, it is no easy thing no matter how you feel about capital punishment to know you are part of the final solution, so to speak -- Jack took it as his cue to retreat into hard-line rhetoric about the need for first degree sentences and death penalties. Frankly, she found it offensive, and over the next several days, the distance between them grew. Their arguments all sounded the same; he challenged her to somehow convince him otherwise, and when she couldn't -- his logic was so well-shaped by over twenty years in the courtroom -- he would triumphantly gaze at her, expecting Claire to crumple to his opinion and admit that yes, it was all right in a civilized society for the state to put people to death. She could feel it radiating off of him: submit, submit, admit when you're wrong. He'd done this to her before; turned what she had thought were compelling new arguments against some very basic truths into half-baked naivete, just with a shake of his head or a flick of his hand. This time, she wouldn't back down. Not over the subject of a life.
A day before the execution she thought she'd had him, just once. Jack let slip a grain of opinion she thought he might have nursed, but never had made thoroughly certain of. They were discussing a case in the papers, wherein a woman's embryos had been made part of a divorce settlement with her husband. The woman got the car and the house, the man, the embryos. His new girlfriend, soon-to-be-wife, was planning on giving birth to one or more of them. "It's disgusting," Jack told her over lunch at Sixes and Sevens. "I'm repelled that the justice system has made embryos mere chattel, like a yacht or a sportscar."
"They're not people, Jack," said Claire, spearing her salmon.
"They can't vote," he ground his teeth, "but they are a they, Claire. They're not an it."
"They're cells," said Claire, simply. "Just like the ones you drop off of you every day of your life. These just have the potential to become something more than just cells. That's it."
Jack fixed her with a look she had become familiar with: cool, detached focus, like a hawk honing in on prey. "Then who would you have take them? Why does the woman have more say than the man here?"
"They should be destroyed," said Claire, finitely. She'd read a column about this in The New York Times a few days before, and felt well backed up in making such a statement.
"That turns my stomach," said Jack.
She hadn't expected such a weak response, and drove it in harder. "They're no one's. They're not to be owned by either party; if you're not going to have kids within the marriage, you're not going to have them with each other outside the marriage. You simply get rid of them. What's so hard about that?" She watched his expression. He pushed away his plate. "Oh, you don't really want to tell me they're people, Jack. Please don't tell me you're a life-begins-at-conception closet anti-choicer. Please."
Jack turned haughty. "Give me some credit, Claire. This isn't conception. This is...more than that."
Claire almost couldn't believe he'd let the door open this wide. "So what is it, Jack, we can't kill the embryos but we can damn sure well kill the man you helped convict tomorrow? Is it just a matter of timing?" Claire sat back in her chair and waited; this was good, she had him against the wall.
And then he turned on her. Shaking his head, Jack tossed his napkin on the table. "Sometimes, Claire, you're just so hard. On some people more than others." And with that, he'd left a fifty on the table and headed back to the office.
Claire watched him go and fumed: That wasn't fair. They parried and argued and debated all the time, with the unspoken agreement that it was just that -- it wasn't allowed to turn into a personal commentary. Jack had trumped her then by turning it personal, and that angered her. Later on it hurt, but at that moment in the restaurant, it had really dug in and clawed around in her. He'd cheated. And he'd still won.
Now, kissing him as the edge of the podium bit into her stomach, she realizes what she's been missing -- in this wonderland she woke up to find herself stuck in, seeing his face helped her head stop spinning and re-oriented her. His mouth reaches hungrily for her and the roaring in her ears grows until she realizes the noise is in fact the dark, unseen audience out there. Jack pulls back first, and in releasing Claire she feels immediately alone again. He walks back to the spotlight and stands, legs a little apart, arms crossed, staring with a challenging glance at Alex Trebek, as if daring him to start the game all over again.
"Well," says Alex, "now we can move on. Twenty Questions will continue."
Claire stares at Jack, who shifts his eyes to her, but never alters his stance, and she discovers that they are still on some kind of battleground, for a prize she can not comprehend. No one will tell her what she wins, not exactly, and no one will tell her the rules. She knows she must ask soon or lose the right to -- Lennie jumped right in with some pertinent, and some inane questions. She only has ten left, whatever that means, and after the ten, after Jack is...finished here, then what? Does she win and survive, or lose and die? Or is it the other way around? She tries clearing her head with a breathing technique Jack taught her once, and tries to remember the name of the game. Does she really know Jack? What does she really know about the two of them? This relationship is nothing like anything she has ever had -- it came close with Judge Thayer, another boss-figure, a man older than she, but who was married. It ended ugly, and she should know better by now. But Jack is a is something she knows about him. Jack thrives on attention; his charisma is only as powerful as the reflection he feels he is getting from those who are close to him. By arguing all of the time Claire undermines that, yet when she agrees blindly with him he turns and purposefully takes a contrary position. Knowing Jack is like trying to catch the sunlight which streams in an office window; you can never keep it cupped in your hands for very long. She opens her mouth to speak but it is too late.
Jack takes first crack. "Claire, do you love me? Be honest."
It isn't the first thing she wants to answer. It isn't even the direction she wants to go in. Her answer comes from the heart, a second later, and she surprises herself with it, even. "No," she tells him. "But I think I could. What's keeping me from loving you, Jack?"
Alex scribbles madly. "Hold it, hold it..." he tries tallying.
Jack doesn't wait. "You're afraid to," he says, never altering his stance. "You like me for what I represent. You aren't happy with me in three dimensions. You're afraid to laugh with me, you're afraid to let go and see the good with the bad."
"That's too simplistic."
"Simple or no, that's the answer I have."
"Two questions!" shouts Alex, finally. "One-hundred points each."
"It's why you argue with me so much," says Jack. "You're like a horse with blinders; you think it should all go in this direction, and never mind what might come up from the left or the right. That's your youth. That's also hard for me to see, and acknowledge. No matter how I may feel, we can't share mutual perspectives."
"So I'm not worth putting the effort in for," she says, bitterly.
Alex cocks an eyebrow.
"I didn't say that," says Jack. "But you're not willing to meet me halfway. Are you?"
"I didn't know things were this bad," says Claire softly. When Alex calls out more high points and announces that they have finished question four, she barely hears him.
"It doesn't have to be love," says Jack, releasing his arms, taking in a deep breath. "It can be just sex. I'm good at that. That's comfortable."
"That's Diana and Sally," she murmurs, referring to the last two female assistants he worked with -- and with whom he had relationships. "But not poor Claire. Claire is special."
"Ask the question," says Jack gently, a tone she can't remember hearing much of lately. "Don't be afraid. Just ask it."
"Do you love me, Jack?" It spills from her effortlessly.
"I do," he tells her.
Her cheeks flush. "Why?"
"Sometimes, mistakes are made. Guards are lowered. Sometimes, an argumentative, ambitious, empathetic young woman comes into your life, and lets you feel it is all right to take the reins, or let them go, as you like. And you can trust this young woman to take up the slack when you yourself fail. Sometimes, you may even find it possible to admit she is right in many things she asserts, even if it is so far impossible to admit this to her face. I feel these things with you, Claire. It makes me sad because I am cognizant that so far, this is a one-way street I'm traveling."
"Five, six," says Alex in a faraway voice. Claire turns to him and can barely see him any more; it is as if she and Jack are the only ones here. "Five-hundred points each."
"I am afraid," she says, touched by Jack's admissions. "I'm afraid if I leap, I'll fall."
"I've been at the precipice alone for some time," says Jack. "I'm just waiting for you to get there. Now, I don't know if we'll ever manage to see how far the jump really is."
"Why?" she asks, and immediately makes a fist in frustration. It isn't what she meant to ask.
"Because you're dying, Claire," he says in a voice that breaks her heart. "Because you're slipping away from me after that car accident and I don't know if you'll wake up again. Right now I'm afraid to come to the hospital because I can't bear to see you wired up like some invalid. I'd give anything right now to have one more fight with you, one more kiss, one more drink, bike ride, anything." He sighs, and Claire feels her cheeks moist. "But you're still missing the point, Claire. You're not winning anything yet. Don't lose your way."
She almost asks what he means and backs off it. There are three questions left to her. "When I wake up," she says, "I want you there for me. I won't wake up until you come. Be my prince, Jack. Will you?"
"I'll be there," he promises. "I've always been here. Don't you understand by now? I've never left your side. Lennie lied. I've been lying. We want you to see. Squeeze my hand, Claire, I've got my fingers in yours. From the minute they called me to the hospital, I've never left your side. Go ahead, Claire. Make a fist for me. Grab on."
"Eight, nine," Alex Trebek whispers but that's really just Claire hearing an echo in her head. She can't see Alex, she can't see the podiums, the flashing lights are gone and there is no sound from the audience. All she sees is Jack in a spotlight, holding out his arm to her.
She wants to touch him. But she's afraid. he really there, just for her to grab on to? Has he really always been there, just waiting for her to open her eyes? Can it really be as easy as all that? She thinks of Dorothy, who wore the red ruby slippers all through Oz and had the means to get home all along -- she just had to learn it for herself. One last question. "Jack, what is it I have to know about you?"
"You already do know it," says Jack. "But I'll tell you again. I love you."
Claire closes her eyes and pictures it, she feels something she hasn't felt before, not a rush of adrenaline, not something cool and smooth but something warm and vibrant, fleshy and soft. A straining begins in her head and she feels her forehead twitch as she forces it down and down, through her pulsing heart and into her hand and with that she squeezes as hard as she can. It's like taking a breath after being underwater too long, she makes a mental gasp and squeezes again and the noises come back until she can hear but not see the calliope beeping and beeping and growing louder and louder and faster and faster -
"Christ, oh, God, Nurse!" Jack calls again, never letting go of her hand, just waiting for another faint sensation against his palm.
The nurse runs in and marvels at the heart and brain monitors. "What happened here?"
Jack glances briefly at her, then back at Claire, lying flat out on her bed. "I don't know!" he cries. "The machines just started going crazy! I didn't do anything!"
She peels back Claire's eye and flashes a light into it. "She's responding," says the nurse, shaking her head. "You just never know. I'm getting the doctor." And she races from the room.
Jack bends over Claire and kisses her once on the forehead. "There," he says, in a choked voice. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
As if in reply, he feels her press against his hand again. "Million points," he thinks he hears her murmur -- just before Claire's eyes open again for the very first time.

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