A/N: Warning for... well, bucketloads of angst, two cups of darkness, a pinch of torture, and not a lot of plot. Or dialogue. Or... well, show-like witty banter and such. There's very little beauty in the fictional world or any other I might inhabit at the moment. I make no apologies for letting that seep into my writing.

Wow, how much does that winning description make you NOT want to read? I'm thinking rather a lot. Still, you've been adequately warned, yes?

Summary: Everyone breaks eventually. She knows this better than anyone.

Disclaimer: I do not own NCIS, and in fact have not used any names pertaining to the show, so it could almost be about something else entirely. No profit is being made from this story, but I feel better for having it out, so that's something I suppose.

And as an aside? Not really overly impressed with the canon show at the moment, but that's a rant for a place not here.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

- Yeats, The Second Coming

Sweat-soaked dreams fade out in place of slowly-dawning awareness,senses unfurling like shy buds greeting the rosy fingers of the morning sunlight. The world spins when she dares to peek out at it through her half-lowered lashes, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of knowing she's awake. Not yet.

The men will come, and the pain will come, but sometimes if she pretends she's asleep long enough sleep claims her. A small mercy, but she will stave off the demons any way she knows how.

Somewhere, something is dripping, measured and constant. Closing her eyes, she imagines the unseen surface rippling in vain protest at the unwelcome intrusion, absorbing each droplet and flattening out in preparation for the next.


The sun invades the room through a high-up window, dancing across the walls. She feels it in her very marrow, the heat of another endless day shimmering in the air, making her skin crawl with beaded sweat and foreboding. Her weary bones are good for nothing, worse than useless poisoned flesh and scattered mind. Saplings, hollowed out and stripped of their strength, bowing under the weight of the world.

The room has the distinctive smell that marks it as a prison. Copper and bile and dust. Cloying fake-fruit sweetness. She tries not to breathe, but that makes the room tilt and spin behind her swollen eyelids, makes coloured fireworks fizz and pop amidst the darkness.

Drip. Drip.

Seconds tick by as she touches dry lips with drier tongue, tries not to shrink from what the morning holds. Voices murmur in the background like water over river stones. Someone nearby laughs wildly, unseen and unwanted, then chokes back a startled sob and retches. The unmistakeable sound of a stomach turning itself inside out to expel whatever poison lurks inside makes her own empty gut lurch in sympathy. As it always does.

Good soldiers do not cry.

She almost laughs at the absurdity of that thought. There are no soldiers here, just a ragtag group of misfits who think they're being brave and fierce and strong. They will find out the truth eventually, as surely as the sun sets on one day and rises on the next, repeating the same patterns into infinity. There are no uniforms, no parades, no heavy weapons (and none with the strength to lift them anyway).

Oh, but there are orders, barked in tones that brook no disobedience. Sometimes in a language she doesn't quite understand, impatient tones and unfamiliar words -- and worse, whispers.

Today marks the tenth morning since she first woke from scattered dreams to find herself here, bruised and broken and unable to move. Something pulls uncomfortably when she tries to move her hands, leaves raw red marks on her skin - wounds she barely feels any more. There are greater pains; searing her flesh and leaving her charred and dry and aching. She is burning from the inside out and the air hangs heavy and metallic in her throat with each measured shallow breath.

He brings the offering as usual, a few inches of water in a tin cup, brown and brackish and gritty with desert sand. "Take it," he says.

Take it and wet your parched throat, kill the thirst that aches and creeps inside you, makes you weak and weary and unable to keep up with the madding crowd. Take it and live.

She takes it like a good soldier, straight-backed with a painted smile. Lie back and think of the mother country. She takes it, because she does not want to die. Not here in this place, when there is so much left unseen undone unsaid. She does not want to die, but at the moment she is not sure she wants to live - at least, not like this. This is not living, just biding time between the burning. Like a phoenix waiting to be reborn, beak closed resolutely against the bubbling screams, trusting those who know better to protect fragile newborn flesh when the fire abates.

She sometimes doubts that anything worth saving will remain once the flames die and the smoke clears.

The laugh bubbles from her throat before she can choke it back, startles the shadows nearest to her and makes them mutter uncomfortably, watch her closely with shrewd knowing eyes. They know how much it hurts, the madness and frustration that it brings. They know, but that does not stop them from landing the blows.

Perhaps it is her and not them that is just shadow cast from smoke, from fog, from the delirium of pain and anger that wreathes her, moulds to her flesh and sinks a thousand sharpened claws into soft golden skin. Day after day after day.

They cast sly fleeting glances at her, as if she'll disappear when they're not looking.

If only.

He stands over her, an unyielding plinth cast from icy stone. He takes her free hand, presses thick fingers to her wrist - gentle, for once - and waits long stretching seconds, his thin lips moving evenly - counting - and then twisting with what she assumes is displeasure.

"Still alive," he pronounces finally, his tone light with feigned jest but his eyes shadowed.

Ten days and she has learnt them all (smell sound sight). After all, there's little to do but study them when they come; memorise the details like there will be an exam at the end. Congratulations, you passed the test, your prize is life.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This one is sarcasm personified, impatient and small-statured and quick to lash out. He has cold hands despite the baking heat, reddened cheeks that betray his love of the drink, the broken capillaries spiraling out like a road map in miniature. He was the one who held her down when this all began, barking orders as she lay she curled and shivering, knees tucked to chest and teeth piercing tongue as white-hot pain lanced down her back, once twice three times.

Her spine throbs reflexively whenever he is near, even days later with other aches superseding the first.

"Half your luck," she replies, aiming for flippancy and falling well short. It comes out raw and rattling like broken glass and hurts just as much. His reaction makes it almost worthwhile, his fingers closing around her wrist in his surprise. Pain flares, she gasps, and he steps back as if he's been burned.

"Exceeded your quota of torture for the day?" she asks politely enough, not particularly caring either way what the answer is. There is only one thing she can do to make it stop, to quench the thirst, to dull the ache, to douse the fire before all that is left is ash and curling smoke. She cannot - would never - bring herself to do it.

Everybody breaks eventually. She knows this better than anyone. Still, she will not be the instrument of someone else's destruction, and so she maintains the stoic silent mask as they do what they wish because there is no other way to save those she loves from pain, even if it means walking through fire to do so. There is no other way to live, though living seems to come at much too high a cost when she is weary and small and cowed by men with ulterior motives. Life and death and everything in between. Staving off endings and beating out memories of the beginning.

There are no new beginnings, no fairytale endings. The phoenix is just a myth made flesh by someone else's words.

You wipe the slate clean and still the imprint of what was there before remains, ghosts of the old shadowing the new. It doesn't matter whether you smear it with your open palm, scrub with water and a threadbare rag or soak it in enough chemicals to kill an elephant -- or make a human wish they were dead already.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The shadow of what once was remains, repeats, circles your still-moving carcass like birds of prey against the wide desert sky, waiting for the chance to swoop in and remind you that nothing is forever. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Sometimes, if she pretends she's asleep long enough, sleep claims her.

Today is not one of those days.


I would normally ask for reviews here, but I'm under no illusion that this is the kind of thing you leave a "moar plz!!11!!1!" sort of response to. Still, if you have something to say, I'd love to hear it.