Sending this one out to Radiant Mistress for her kindness.

Crushing Petals

Fragile is for flowers. Breakable is for glass. He's hardly floral and certainly not see-through. There was no reason, in his mind, that these two definitions should sit on the tips of their tongues. In equal measure, they'd battled and comforted with the same tongues, appendages that now moved with decreased pace. Unspoken wasn't the same as unthought and their opinions were becoming clearer with each torturous day.

One day after returning from his 'vacation,' Connor had to fight to remain in the room with his team. It was the looks that twisted the unforeseen scalpel in his gut, sideways glances performing an unauthorized autopsy on his psyche. No one could hold his gaze, and yet they were all studying him. Initially he thought they were waiting for an explanation or perhaps hoping for souvenirs. But as the hours strove achingly forward, his nerves raised with a cold static; he'd seen this brand of discreet stares somewhere before. He was a body being dissected by those who should know him well enough to abstain from such actions. Worse, it was being done with caution, with almost fearful anticipation.

This was the point where he was expected to fall apart.

Natalie was the first to attempt a discussion. Her voice came small and testing in the quiet of a morgue where the midnight hour was ticking by slow as death. Had he not seen her participate in those looks, his tongue may have been loosened by her open expression. But her lovely, traitorous eyes had betrayed him, wordlessly discussing his projected breakdown with Powell just hours before. She was concerned. He would ease none of it. Slamming down the iron gate, he let a vicious scolding set her hand back to its task. Two bodies later, she'd spoken not a further word.

Three days after his return, the looks were joined by whispers. There was something familiar in the tactic, if not the players. The group had taken to hushed tones, an indistinguishable soundtrack to accompany the hurried glances. If they had just welcomed him back and resumed life as usual, he'd have settled into his role without objection. But this waiting, this watching made his reactions to absolutely anything far more overblown. They were aiding and abetting his customary volatility and then blaming him for its worsening.

This was the point where he was expected to explode.

Evidence that a weakness was perceived only fueled his determination to prove otherwise. This served to make communication with him a treacherous landmine walk. The voice that made people jump was now employed in common conversation, something now markedly sparse. McCabe was adding a yard an hour to the space he held between himself and his supervisor, reminiscent of the kid's early days on the team. Connor's pride in Miles had grown in recent months, but as the young doctor had joined his voice to the whispering, his flickering eyes added to the looks, there was less room for leniency.

By the sixth day, their case was wrapped up and the plane arrowed through a stormy sky with a rattle equal to the team's collective nerves. In the relative quiet of the private cabin, Connor's recently-mislaid rational side began to consider the possibility that he'd been unjustly paranoid all week. Was it the rare time off that allowed conspiracy to brew in his mind? Conceivably, spending part of his time away burying an old friend could have affected him more than he realized, leeching out unawares into public view. Even now, there was no mistaking the feet pausing as they passed the cabin door. Someone kept hovering, never knocking but never wandering far.

This was the point where he was expected to confide.

James had been an army veteran who served with distinction in the midst of the same firefights as Connor. A vibrant soul in the trenches and out, he lost his life's last battle; the one for his sanity. Nights filled with screaming, both imaginary and from his own mouth, had robbed the man of his vigor. Days of panic attacks at every noise collapsed his attempts at normalcy. Fourteen years of struggle had ended with a shot from an army-issue gun, solving all of his problems by his own rules. It had scared Connor how easily he related to James' escape plan.

The dawning of the second week tore at the rational calmness he'd promised himself he'd find. A dream woke him with furious clarity. The drive into the office saw every inch of anger unrolling under his tires, paving the road with familiar frustration. Returning to NIH had brought a renewal of the same looks he and James endured after returning from the Persian Gulf. His friend used to share Connor's annoyance over the kid-glove treatment to which family subjected them. A toxic concoction of pity, worry and caution had been expressed in poorly hidden stares, in dissection, in study. In those days, Lisa turned so gentle that she even refrained from asking him to undertake trash duties. His family's waiting and watching proved as painstaking as enemy fire and twice as damaging. Eventually, understanding had been mined from the angry rock of his soul that his own fears were being unfairly projected onto every watching face. By the time he arrived at NIH, Connor was almost prepared to concede that he was doing the same now; taking every innocent glance as a sign of lacking confidence in him.

This was the point where he was expected to break.

There was a small bouquet on the conference table, an arrangement of subtle colors taking on a plastic-like sheen after a weekend of neglect. It sat waiting for someone to appreciate it and, judging by the fallen petal beside the vase, water it. Someone's well-intended compilation of nature's blossoms relied on others to tend them, a weakness his lifelong independent spirit couldn't tolerate. By all appearances, the flowers were expected to cheer, a task at which they failed. Too early for the others, Connor took to the emergency exit doors, grateful for the already boiling sun as it scorched away the first epidermis layer of vehemence. As he wandered across a freshly seeded patch of the courtyard, Connor realized there was something between his fingers. Unconsciously, he'd hijacked the solitary petal that evidenced the bouquet's frailty. The nearly-dead petal was clinging to the last vestige of lively color, robbed of vibrancy in the suffocation of separation. He sympathized with it, as he did with James and there was no pleasure in the poignant association. Isolation heals nothing; his life should have taught him that much. This is not me, he vowed to the crushed petal in his open palm. It drifted away, a mutilated corpse following gravity to a grave of grass.