Hello to anyone who's still out there! I'm back (in a fashion) with my entry for Round 1 of the Last Fiction Writer Standing competition over on LiveJournal. Which somehow managed to win, though I'm still a little dazed as to how. I highly recommend checking out the comp for a one-stop-shop of new prompt-response fics from some pretty great authors.

Disclaimer: NCIS characters, dialogue and settings are not and never will be mine, unless my plan to accost Shane Brennan in an alley and take everything he owns comes to fruition. Until then, I'm just borrowing them.

(Brisé - Broken, breaking. A small beating step in which the forward movement is broken)

Ziva has never been one to dwell in the past.

She sees, she analyses, she acts. She has been trained to be observant, to ask questions, to be focussed on the mission in her hand.

(That doesn't sound right, but Tony is not here to correct her and so she lets it go)

She has always been able to slip in and out of characters like other people slip out of their clothes. She is the ultimate player in a dangerous game, and when the job is done she changes masks and fades into non-existence like the dimming of a light.

Yet here in this small dark room where the air is stale with a thousand stifled screams and crushed spirits, the ghosts linger and whisper and she cannot help but remember.

"You were named for the sky and the sun and all the beauty in the world,' her mother told her one winter when she was small, brushing the tears from her disappointed face. 'He loves you with all of his heart, Zivalah, but he is a busy man. I am sorry he was not here to see you dance."

She was still dressed in soft white tulle, warm and crumpled now like her small confused heart. Her mother smelled like crisp apples and salty tears and was tense with what she recognised later was not anger, but weary resignation.

Small hands clench and release, and rise to grind away childish tears. A stubborn dimpled chin quivers as she attempts a smile, and the glimpse of the man's determination in the child's eyes makes a mother's heart ache.

"It is okay, Ima. There will be other recitals. He is a busy man."

That was the day that she wore her first mask.

The ominous thud of boots on dusty stone jars her from bittersweet memory back into the present. She knows some of them only by the scuffs and scars on dusty leather, the colour of oft-knotted laces, cracked soles and a certain width of step. She averts her eyes as if the knowledge that she has not seen their faces will make a difference in the end.

She knows it will not. Her fate was sealed the minute she burst through a door to find two men – one once loved, one beloved – staining the floor of her apartment with their blood. The rest is just plasters on bullet holes.

Ziva does not cry out when steel caps sink into tender bruised flesh, hard enough to press the ragged pattern of her filthy khaki shirt into the small of her back. She knows this game by now, after endless days of the needle skipping back to the same track. Boots first, sometimes fists. Then the tearing and grunting. Today is no different, and yet she does not move.

Good soldiers never cry.

She told Gibbs once that by his age, the good Mossad officers are dead. She is one of the best, the 'sharp end of the spear'. She has stared death in the face more times than she wishes to remember, caused some of it herself, but Ziva is not a fool and she does not believe in fairytales. There is nobody coming to slay the dragon or kiss the princess.

The closest thing to a white knight she ever had stood on the tarmac and studied her for what seemed like an eternity; and she, who is so practiced in deception, felt her palms begin to sweat.

Gibbs is not the type to be distracted by an extra layer of makeup, or misdirected anger, or a choke hold to the throat. He is not like other men. He does not betray her after all. He just says "Take care of yourself," and kisses her on the cheek, and she feels him squeeze her hand hard and almost melts.

Gibbs-in-her-head says "Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

She knows he saw right through the mask, but she feels eyes on her back and knows that to walk forward would be to sign her own death warrant.

He presses a kiss to her cheek and disappears into the belly of the beast without looking back and she cracks a tooth in the effort not to run after him, not to crumple like soggy tulle wet with a child's tears. Clearly she is out of practice.

It turns out that whether she walks forward or back, the result is more or less the same.

A dry laugh violates her ears from somewhere above, the laugh of a predator secure in the knowledge that his prey has given up the goat. Ghost.

He swoops in again on a wave of sweat-scented air, muttering, and Ziva can't help but think of someone else who said her name like a prayer, like he knew that her name was safe and holy in his mouth.

Before Washington, before Ari, she did not put down roots in any one place. She would carry out her assignment, return briefly to the apartment she had rented in whatever city in the world she was in at the time and be on the next flight away from the chaos she'd undoubtedly left behind.

Ziva did not understand, in her first year at NCIS, that not everybody has been trained as she has. No, not trained. Baptised by fire in a different world, where fathers lie and sisters die and a daughter sings low and sweet over the body of a son.

Despite her training, despite herself, she becomes attached to people and places and things and feelings – the glow of fitting the pieces together in time to save a life (rather than end one), the shy new friendships she forms with the people she works with (she is out of practice at being herself, and for awhile she feels like a square peg in a round hole), the familiarity of her apartment and pride at having a real home, not just a safe house.

This is what happens, she muses in ragged bursts like the breathing she is desperately trying to control, when you tie yourself to things in the world.

She thinks back to Cairo, holed up in a safehouse with Jen, digging a bullet from her thigh with her vodka-sterilised knife. They stayed one day, and only because Jen all but tied her down. Had she been alone, she wouldn't have stopped.

She wonders how her father survived it, the loss and loss and loss of people he loved.

Then she remembers: her mother's resigned face, a suitcase by the door, a tender kiss on her upturned forehead. Abba prying her hands from her mother's skirt with a set expression.

Her orders, given without so much as a blink of goodbye.

He always survives. It is what he does. The rest of them are merely doomed stars orbiting around his black hole.

Even the best, the cream of the ninja crop, have moments of weakness, and hers is them and there and him, and everybody talks in the end – she knows this better than anyone – it is just a matter of finding the right spot to hit.

It is the stutters of a man with a childish face who will one day make a fine Senior Field Agent (though not for Gibbs). It is frantic movements and babbled speech, black hair, black boots and the tang of gunpowder and sweet fruit. It is sitting at a table, having tea among clinical steel, and rambling tales and formaldehyde.

(She wonders if one day Ducky will start a story with 'I once knew a girl from Israel…')

It is barked orders without any bite, piercing blue eyes, and the sense of loss that hangs like a shroud. It is a strange, messed-up little family of their own making where blood and name and flaws do not matter.

And the man with other peoples' stories in his head, and laughing green eyes, that would lay down his life to protect her, and already has and did and what do they have to show for it?

A broken arm and a broken heart and an empty desk and an indent on her favourite belt where her badge used to sit; a reminder that she could be more than just a killer.

All broken and missing and gone.

She imagines them moving on, filling her desk with another fresh face, finding a new equilibrium within the team. Someone to keep Tony in line; to keep McGee from being walked on; to share tea with Ducky amidst the cool steel of the morgue tables. Someone else for Abby to memorialise on a broom head in their absence.

She wears the mask of indifference until she cannot tell where it ends and she begins.

The destruction of the memories hurts more than the blows.

Hope you enjoyed. There will be more coming for as long as I'm in the competition, and perhaps some other things in between as well. If the muse cooperates. Next challenge: write a character study of a team member observing something happening around him/her, using first person perspective, without any dialogue between the characters. :S

Feedback, as always, is welcomed and appreciated. :)