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the key to an open door

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Art by jillyjames

 

Nick would be the first to admit that he's not exactly having the best of weeks.

One minute, he's in a club in Buenos Aires, where the music is thumping, the alcohol is flowing and there's a beautiful woman at his side. No matter that he's playing a role, is Miguel Lorenza rather than Nick Torres; there are worse jobs he could be doing.

Seeing Franco across the room, seeing how he was looking at him had been his first clue that the good life might not be good for very much longer.

Hearing him say that Leo Silva had sent him, threatening the life of his sister, the lives of his family had been gut wrenching, terrifying even and Nick had known right away that he had to act, do what he could to save the people he loved. That included a knife to the gut of Franco and he didn't regret it, not even one little bit.

That had started a race to get back to the USA, long flights and longer bus rides and no sooner has he stepped onto D.C. asphalt than there's a guy dragging him down an alley trying to beat him to death.

So yeah, not the best couple of days of his life.

Things take a turn for the better when shots ring out, when his assailant goes limp against him and slumps to the ground. Nick's hands go up automatically - he's unarmed, after all, and he's not sure who's doing the firing - and he looks up at what he hopes are his saviours.

There are two of them and he concentrates on the man first. He's the one who's in charge, both if his age - grey hair's a sure fire indication of seniority - and the way he barks out "NCIS," is anything to go by. His voice sounds pissed off, his face carries the same look, like he's ready to come down like the wrath of God on anyone who wrongs him. His gun is steady, levelled at Nick's chest and Nick knows what the man is thinking, knows that he'd gone dark for six months, got in good and deep with the Silva Cartel, that NCIS had no way of knowing if they could trust him.

He opens his mouth, ready to tell SilverHair that they're on the same side but his gaze slides sideways to the woman standing beside him. Her long blonde hair falls around her shoulders and her face is set into a neutral expression, her hands as steady as SilverHair's as her gun too is trained right on his chest. Centre mass, Nick recognises, even as his jaw drops and anything that he might have been about to say flies straight out of his head as he finds himself staring into the hazel eyes of his ex-wife.

"Ellie?"

*

It's not that Ellie's not looking forward to coming back to work; she is. But no matter how much she loves her job, there's something about the luxury of vacation that she's reluctant to leave behind. Especially one like she's just had, travelling through Scotland with Clayton Reeves. Of course, part of what she's not looking forward to is facing the Abby Sciuto third degree in person - the incessant text messages had been bad enough. "You and Reeves? Details!" No matter how many times she'd told her there was nothing going on, Abby hadn't believed her. Or was just playing with her, it had been hard to tell over text.

When she gets into the bullpen, though, it's almost like she never left. Tim greets her, updates her on the progress in finding a replacement for Tony - it's not going well and the latest candidate up and quits less than two minutes after Ellie walks off the elevator. Tim is still getting used to Tony’s desk, blaming the directionality for confusing him. They both know it’s more than that but Ellie doesn’t want to point it out to him and more than he wants to admit it. She is about to give him a pep talk though, except Gibbs interrupts them before she can, walking past and telling them that they have a dead body.

She barely gets a welcome back from the man and as it’s definitely like she was never away, grabbing her bag and following Tim and Gibbs to the elevator, driving to the crime scene with Tim as he tells her in hilarious detail about all about the agents who attempted to fill Tony’s shoes in her absence. She smiles and she laughs and she shakes her head and she has no clue that her entire world is about to come spinning off its axis.

Only when she hears Jimmy name the dead man as Commander George Campbell do the hairs stand up on the back of her neck, does her breath catch in her throat. But because she’s Ellie Bishop, proud purveyor of logic and numbers and probability, she tells herself that there must be more than one George Campbell, even in the military. They’re neither of them exactly uncommon names, so there must be two of them, right?

Then she hears that he was driving with his wife, Major Lucia Campbell.

And their teenage daughter Amanda.

There’s a buzzing in her ears, a cold sweat on the back of her neck, a thousand memories whirring through her brain. Smiles and laughter over a dinner table, a hand warm in hers. Two women having long talks over morning coffee, eyes rolling fondly as they discuss the man they both love. A little girl preening in a long pink dress, her hair curled impeccably, a basket of petals in her hand.

“Bishop?”

Tim’s looking at her funny and she figures it’s probably not the first time he’s said her name. “I’m sorry,” she says, pushing back the memories and the nausea. She’s very good at compartmentalising, always has been. She’s all ready to open her mouth, ask “Where do you want me?” but she stops short, logic rearing its head. “Gibbs, I can’t process this scene.” Gibbs shoots a flinty stare her way but she knows him well enough at this stage to see the question in his eyes. She knows that he knows she’s not given to being opstreperous for the sake of it, knows she must have a reason for saying that. He just wants to hear it. “I know these people,” she continues and she hopes he’ll leave it at that.

A vain hope because Gibbs asks, “How?”

It’s not a personal question, she knows that. Or not totally. It’s just as likely that he’ll want to know if she has any knowledge, any insight that might help them to crack the case.

Still she takes a deep breath before she answers. “Lucia... she used to be my sister in law.”

The silence that follows those words is deafening. Tim’s the one who breaks it. “Wait... she was married to one of your brothers?”

Ellie would smile if her stomach wasn’t churning. “No,” she says simply.

Tim frowns and she knows the second he works out the only other possibility because his eyes go wide and his jaw drops. To his credit, he recovers quickly but she’d bet every penny of her next paycheque that he’s already figuring out when he’ll be able to call Tony and fill him in on this new development.

“I haven’t seen them in years,” she tells Gibbs. “But any evidence I process... you know some eager defence attorney is going to try to call it into question.”

Gibbs nods, his jaw set. “Get back to your desk,” he orders. “Start running background, service records. Anything that’s black and white and there for the taking.”

“On it.” Tim tosses her the keys to the car they’d taken and she hightails it back to headquarters, trying not to notice how her hands are shaking.

She does as she was ordered, goes straight to work pulling up all the records she can find. It’s all very by the book, even if she knows that half the bullpen, including Alex Quinn, who’s shadowing the team in an effort to stop them haemorrhaging probies, is watching her. It turns out to be for a good cause when Bud Roberts confirms that Lucia recently took some personal time and Abby confirms that she’d travelled to Argentina.

Which it just so happens was where her brother and Ellie’s ex-husband, NCIS undercover agent, Nick Torres had been assigned before he went dark six months ago. There has been no word from him and there’s talk that he may have been discovered and killed, or worse, defected from the ranks of NCIS and joined up with the people he was supposed to be investigating.

Ellie shakes her head the second that prospect is raised. “Nick wouldn’t do that,” she says, so sure of it with every fibre of her being that she doesn’t care that all eyes are trained on her.

Gibbs shrugs. “You said you haven’t seen him in a long time, Bishop,” he points out. “People change.”

“Not Nick.” She knows she’s arguing with Gibbs, which is something you just don’t do, but she doesn’t care. Or at least not enough to stop.

“I’m with Bishop.” Help comes from an unexpected source, Alex staring at Nick’s ID photo on the screen. Ellie can’t look at it. “I remember every student I ever taught at FLET-C... there was nothing in Torres’s make up that makes me think he’d switch sides.”

“So we find Torres.” Tim’s already hitting buttons on his computer to start the search and Ellie knows, even if he’s not saying it, that that’s his own way of backing her up. It takes a little time but eventually a grainy picture of a Buenos Aires street turns up and relief courses through Ellie like a waterfall.

“That’s him,” she says, even before Tim can clean up the image. She’d recognise Nick anywhere, even now, even after all these years. “He’s alive.”

Alive and, according to Tim’s computer alerts, it would appear headed to DC. To Ellie’s surprise, Gibbs takes her with him to the bus station. She questions that in the car. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to have his ex-wife greeting him?”

Gibbs shrugs without taking his eyes off the road. “You agreed to it,” he points out and there’s nothing she can say to that.

Truth is, there had been no way she was letting Gibbs do this without her.

Of course, they don’t see Nick when they get out of the car but the sounds of a fight in a nearby alleyway gets their attention in a hurry. She and Gibbs open up on the other guy and when he’s down, Nick turns to face them. He looks at Gibbs first but then he notices her and Ellie would laugh at the look on his face of the stakes weren’t so high.

“Ellie?”

She doesn’t lower her gun but it’s a close run thing. “Hey, Nick.”

*

Nick’s head spins the whole way back to the Navy Yard.

Ellie, here in front of him?

Ellie with a gun?

Ellie, an NCIS agent?

It’s like he got off the plane from Buenos Aires and walked into Bizzaro World.

He doesn’t have time to ask her questions, not with SilverHair standing beside them. Turns out his name is Gibbs, he’s Ellie’s boss and he’s the one who brings him upstairs to be raked over the coals by Director Vance. He explains what he did and why, asks to be included in the investigation which neither man seem too keen on.

They don’t throw him in a cell, or out on his ear, so that’s something.

He does work his way into the investigation though, confronts Leo Silva, meets with Elena, almost gets himself blown up for his troubles. Another meeting in Vance’s office and he’s blowing up at the Director, which he knows isn’t the smartest thing to do but once he starts, he can’t stop himself.

“Eight years of service, and what has it gotten me, huh? A broken family, a lifetime of lies, 16 different names, 16 different home addresses, no wife, no kids. I don’t even know what I want anymore. I don’t even know who I can trust.”

It’s the most honest he’s been with anyone in years and even when they close the case, when Silva is in jail and likely to remain there for the rest of his life, Nick can’t stop thinking about what he said.

Which of course is when he finds Ellie sitting alone in the bullpen. Like she was waiting for him or something.

She bites her lip when she sees him approach, looks down quickly and he knows that’s totally what she was doing. “Ellie Bishop, sitting on a chair and not the floor,” he says as he approaches her. Her shoulders relax and her nose does that little wrinkling thing it always used to do when he made her smile. Man, he's missed that. He didn’t even realise how much. “What’s the world coming to?”

Ellie lets one shoulder rise and fall in a shrug. “Things change.”

“So I see.” Except she doesn’t look like she’s changed. She’s still giving him that unflinching stare she used to give him back in the day when he’d disappeared into his own head after a job and she wasn’t having any of it. Ellie never backed down when she thought she was in the right; it had been one of the things he loved most about her. “And you get to hold a gun on your ex-husband for a living? Must be some kind of every women’s fantasy, right?”

Ellie’s lips twitch and he takes pride in the fact that he can still make her laugh. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Sure.” They share a silent smile because theirs hadn’t been an acrimonious divorce, just a sad one. After a moment where the memories of that time threaten to overwher him, he looks around the bullpen, takes in her desk, Gibbs’s beside it. Across from her, McGee’s desk is dark for the night. Opposite that is an empty desk, empty that is apart from a badge sitting on top. A suspicion occurs to him and he pushes it away, makes himself look back at her. “How long have you been here?”

Ellie tilts her head although he’s pretty sure she wouldn’t have to guess. His Ellie had dates and figures and numbers at the tip of her tongue at all times. “It’s almost three years now, give or take?” He doesn’t need to be reminded that that’s about a year after they split up. She stands, come around the table to stand in front of him. “They needed NSA help on a case, and when it was over, Gibbs asked me to join the team.” She looks past him, to the empty desk and the badge. “It’s kind of what he does, apparently.”

That look, the words that follow it, confirm his suspicions. He walks over to check and yep, it’s his badge all right. He taps it with one finger, shakes his head. “I’m a lone wolf, Ellie,” he reminds her and when he glances back up at her, her eyes are sad. Then again, it could be the dim light. “You know that.”

“Like I said. Things change.” This time, she doesn’t shrug. She holds his gaze, stares him down.

Much to his own surprise, Nick finds himself considering the offer. He’s got no real wish to go back undercover, wants to stay around the US for a while, help Lucia recover, help Amanda adjust. And yet...

“So Gibbs wants me to what? Join his team? Work with my ex-wife? For real?”

A grin that he can’t even pretend to understand lights her face. “Gibbs knows a thing or three about ex-wives,” she tells him and oh, he’s going to want to hear that story one of these days. “He’s also fired eight probies in three months.”

Nick knows his eyes are wide as saucers. “And you think I should apply to be number nine?”

“I think you like a challenge,” she responds and damn, she’s got him there. “And I think you’re ready for something new. Like I was. ”

“And you’d be ok with that? Us working together?” Because this was her deal first, he’s not going to screw that up for her. He’s got more respect for her than that, he always did.

She narrows her eyes, looks him up and down. “I think I can handle you.” He blinks at that - it’s not really something his Ellie would have said - as she reaches down and grabs her bag. “C’mon... Jimmy and Tim are keeping us seats. I’ll buy the first beer.”

Nick taps the badge again, considers. Then he lifts it up, puts it in his pocket and follows her out.

*

The first morning that she walks into NCIS knowing that she's going to be working with Nick, Ellie has already fielded a string of text messages from Abby telling her to come down to her lab the second she gets into the building. Which is why she walks into NCIS with the largest cup of Caff-Pow it's possible to get and a smile on her face that she's not quite sure belongs there. The second she walk inside the lab, Abby spins to face her. "Bishop! It's true... Gibbs has given your ex-husband a spot on the team?"

"It's true." Ellie hands over the Caff-Pow, wishes she'd bought two. She just might need it. Abby opens her mouth and Ellie adds, before she can say anything, "And before you ask, I'm fine with it."

"Fine? You're fine with it?" Abby's scepticism is like a living thing but Ellie has the perfect comeback to it.

"Friendly exes can work together with no problems." A little pause, then, just in case Abby hasn't made the connection on her own, "You and Tim do it all the time."

Abby's mouth opens and closes a couple of times and she visibly has to force herself back on track. "Well of course. But Tim and I weren't married." She tilts her head, all concern. "Are you sure you're ok with this? Because I can hate him, if you want me to hate him."

That offer makes Ellie want to laugh because she doesn't think Abby is capable of hating anyone. She gives in to a smile. "You don't have to hate him, Abby," she reassures her friend. "Nick is a great guy."

"A great guy who you divorced?" Abby's eyes widen as if something has just occurred to her. "Did he cheat on you?"

"No! Nick's not like that. He's loyal... to a fault sometimes." It had been the reason why she'd found it impossible to even entertain the idea that Nick had crossed the line and fallen in the with Silva Cartel. "And no, I didn't cheat on him either, there was no cheating. We just..." She shrugs, words failing her for a moment. It might have been a long time ago, she might have moved on, but there's still a little scar tissue around her heart and every now and again, it still pulls. "We realised we wanted different things. That's all. No blame, no hate. I promise."

Abby studies her, her jaw set, brow furrowed, like Ellie's a particularly awkward problem she's trying to work out. Eventually, she nods her head. "OK. If you say so. But I'm not making him a friendship bracelet. Just in case."

At that, Ellie does laugh. “Nick’s not a jewellery guy,” she says. “He didn’t even wear a wedding ring.” He’d had one but he only wore it on their anniversary and other special occasions. It had been a combination of not being used to the feeling and frequent short undercover ops that meant he could never get used to it and she’d understood that. Her own ring, she’d never taken off, not until the papers were signed and sealed.

Abby is shaking her head. “I can’t believe you were married and you never told me. I can’t believe Gibbs hired your ex.”

Ellie knows exactly how she feels. “Like they say... it’s a small world.”

*

The strange thing Nick finds about working with his ex is that, once the first hellos are exchanged, once the first five minutes or so are done, it's not weird or awkward at all. To be honest, he finds it more awkward to be part of a team, working with other people and being told what to do. The fact that Ellie is around actually helps him, like she's the one thing that he knows and understands when everything else is completely foreign.

Which isn't to say that she's not capable of surprising him. He learns very quickly that the quiet number cruncher he remembers isn't the same woman that's beside him now. For all she’d been able to stand her ground with him, Ellie had always avoided confrontation. This Ellie doesn't shrink away from anyone, can hold her own in an interrogation room as well as he can. She knows how to handle herself in a fight as well and when it comes to firearms, he's willing to admit that she's as good a shot as he is. (He's actually willing to admit that she's better but he won't do that when she's around. Not because she's a woman but because he's pretty sure she'd never let him forget it.)

Every so often though, she's his Ellie again. Like when she comments to a witness that they have something in common, that they both liked bad boys in high school but that she grew out of it. He can't help but needle her about it, just a little, when they're talking about it in Abby's lab. "So, you grew out of liking bad boys?" he asks, a grin on his face that's meant to tell her he's teasing.

He wonders will she get where he's going with that and when she looks back over her shoulder at him, raises one eyebrow, he knows that she has. "You were never a bad boy, Nick," she tells him and she's completely serious. "You just like to pretend you are."

He opens his mouth to reply but can't find words suddenly. He's not sure whether it's to do with the look on her face or the way he suddenly feels as if they're years in the past, when she could read him with a look, cut straight to the chase with one sentence.

Abby clears her throat and he jumps. He'd honest to God forgotten she was there for a second. When he looks at her, her eyes are swivelling between him and Ellie, like she's watching a tennis match. Her eyes land on Ellie. "You sure about what we talked about earlier?" she asks and Nick frowns because he's lost. He's even more lost when Ellie laughs, shakes her head.

"I'm sure, Abby, but thanks." Then, to Nick, "C'mon. Let's show Gibbs what we found."

They're in the elevator before he speaks again. "You and Abby been talking about me behind my back?"

Ellie's lips twitch but she doesn't otherwise reply.

Though from the way her eyes are dancing, she doesn't have to.

*

Ellie's not naive. She expects that there are going to be some teething issues working with Nick. Times when they step on one another's toes, times when issues of the past cloud the present.

Except that doesn't happen.

What does happen is that, Nick's particular discomfort with working on a team aside, their partnership slots into place easily, like a well oiled machine. It's easier than it was when she started at NCIS first, easier than it was with Tony and Tim.

She knows it's because of the past she and Nick share and in truth, the working relationship she and Nick are developing reminds her an awful lot of how easy things were in the marriage, back when they'd been on the same page.

But that's the past and this is the present, she reminds herself. It's a whole new situation.

She knows that. She knows that things are different now, she knows she's moved on, no matter how many memories and feelings working so closely with Nick might be stirring up.

She tells herself that and she thinks she might even believe it. That’s until she finds herself sitting beside him at a bar somewhere between DC and Ohio, bringing Victor Medina back to be deported by ICE. It had been her idea to bring him to his mother’s house to say goodbye, she’d pretty well strong-armed Nick into giving in - they might not be married any more, but singing loudly in the car still gets her her way. “Dirty pool,” she’d heard him mutter under his breath, not for the first time in her life. She’d stood beside Nick in the Medina house, sat beside him at the Medina dinner table and she’d watched him change before her eyes, hardly able to believe it.

Then she realised that the whole atmosphere was like so many of Nick’s relatives’ houses in Miami and if it was spinning her head around, she could only imagine what it’s doing to him.

She tackles him about it at the bar when Medina goes off to make a phone call on the cell he absolutely should not have. His words surprise her, especially when he ends with, “I could have been him, Ellie.”

“No.” She shakes her head, all ready to deny it. She only realises her hand is on his arm when his gaze drops and she follows it down. She can feel the heat of his skin, even through his jacket but it’s nothing compared to the heat of his gaze and it sends her mouth dry, makes the skin prickle on the back of her neck.

She never thought she’d be grateful for a gunman entering a premises but there you go.

She saves his life, Victor Medina gets deported when they get back and Ellie ends things with Qasim the next night.

She cares about him but she knows she can’t be with him, not when she’s spent the entire night dreaming about Nick

*

The hardest part is literally figuring out what to call her. Everyone on the team uses surnames all the time, so it’s McGee, not Tim; Quinn, not Alex, Reeves not Clayton. There are no circumstances in which he can imagine calling Gibbs anything other than Gibbs, but he can’t call Ellie “Bishop”. He does try but the word feels strange on his tongue and he just can’t make himself keep doing it.

Calling her “Ellie”, however, would make it obvious that he was treating her differently to everyone else. Besides, even when they were married, he rarely called her that. Most of the time it was “Ell,” - apart from her brothers, he was the only one allowed to call her that, she told him firmly - and when they were alone together, it was “Baby” more often than not. Neither of which are appropriate around the Navy Yard.

After a few weeks of stumbling every time he has to address her, he ends up calling her “B,” and when she doesn’t take him apart for doing it, that’s the name that sticks, neutral enough to not be commented on by the team who are fascinated by their relationship, familiar enough to appease his sensibilities.

Of course, not everyone has that difficulty.

Because Clayton Reeves - who apparently Ellie holidayed with in Scotland during the summer and what the hell? - calls her Ellie every chance he gets.

And he looks at her, talks to her in ways that Nick does not like. A way that makes him look twice through narrowed eyes as the skin crawls on the back of his neck.

It’s not that he’s jealous, Nick tells himself firmly. Not at all.

If Ellie wants to spend her time flirting across the bullpen with Clayton Reeves, then that's entirely her prerogative. She can smile at him and toss her hair and bat her eyelashes all she wants and he won't do a thing to stop her.

Well, maybe he'll insert himself into the conversation and direct their attention back to the plasma screen but that's just because their chatter is distracting. And damned unprofessional.

And if he and Reeves find themselves engaged in some crazy game of oneupmanship? They're two Alpha Males working closely together, of course there's going to be tension. It's natural. Expected even.

It's nothing to do with Ellie. Not at all.

*

Ellie's surprised without being surprised when she opens the door a few days before Thanksgiving and sees her brothers standing there. There had been a cryptic emoji message that she hadn't quite managed to decipher that let her know that they had something in mind; still, she'd been looking forward to a quiet night in, a good book, some mindless television.

Convincing her brothers that they did not need to ride in from Oklahoma on a white horse to defend her honour by beating up her ex-husband wasn't exactly high on her list of things to do.

Especially not when she gets called to a crime scene and said ex-husband is the one who delivers the message, says he's not far from her apartment and he'll come by and pick her up. She scrambles to her bedroom to throw on something work appropriate, orders him to wait for her outside and to, under no circumstances and on pain of death, come up to her front door.

He starts to tease her about that. The words "My brothers are in town," are enough to stop him in his tracks.

"I'll pull up on the other side of the building," is all he says and she breathes a silent sigh of relief.

Of course, when she slides into the passenger seat, sees the clothes he's wearing, smells his cologne, it's easy to figure out that he was on a date and she blames the twist her stomach gives on how close he was to seeing her brothers again, how they'd undoubtedly go all macho and pigheaded and cause a complete scene.

Nothing to do with that cologne and the memories it triggers.

She's not jealous. Not at all.

*

Nick knows that working on NCIS is not a desk job. He knows it's dangerous, knows that sometimes agents put themselves in the line of fire. He knows that. It's part of the reason he chose this job, part of the reason he loves this job.

But when he gets the call to say that Ellie's been involved in a shooting, he breaks out in a cold sweat.

To his credit, Jimmy gets the important information out of the way first, leads with, "Nick, I swear, she's fine." He doesn't mention Ellie's name, doesn't have to, but that much is enough to have Nick weak in the knees and faintly nauseated. Jimmy gets the story out quickly - Ellie had gone to Qasim’s office late at night, thanking for his help in translations for their case, dropping off a new set of audio files. Except he'd obviously been too much of a help because someone had opened fire from the street, spraying the room with bullets. "Ellie's fine," Jimmy concludes. "But Qasim... it doesn't look good. Doctor Mallard is on his way to the hospital now."

Nick nods, though he knows Jimmy can't see him. "I'm on my way in," he says. "Call me if you hear anything."

He's halfway to NCIS when he gets another call from Jimmy and his heart sinks as the other man's voice comes through the car speakers. "He didn't make it," he says and Nick's stomach twists because he knows what this is going to do to Ellie.

He's not blind. He'd seen how Qasim looked at her, how his eyes followed her around, even if he'd tried to hide it. Nick knows that look, has worn that look, the look of a man totally besotted with Eleanor Bishop.

But what he'd found far more interesting was the way that Ellie reacted to him. Slightly skittish, her gaze never staying on him too long, her smile just a little bit forced.

No-one else noticed it, but Nick had and he has a fairly good idea of what it means.

When Ellie makes it into the office the next day, against Gibbs's orders and doesn't that just say it all, the look in her eyes breaks his heart.

At lunchtime, she doesn't move from her desk while he leaves the bullpen, goes to her favourite taco stand, the one he wouldn't eat from if you gave him all the money in the world. He orders her favourite, hopes she still takes her coffee the same way and returns to the office, drops it on the desk in front of her. Her eyes narrow at first, then go wide in recognition, then soft as she stares up at him.

"You've got to eat, Ellie." He keeps his voice gentle.

Ellie presses her lips together, tears standing in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispers. Then she takes a deep breath. "You know, don't you?"

He doesn't have to ask for details. He doesn't think he could stand to hear them anyway. "How long were you two together?"

Her answer surprises him. "A couple of months," she says. "But I called it off just before Thanksgiving." His surprise must show in his face because she adds, "He asked me out again last night... right before..." A shudder wracks her body and she looks down, looks away from him.

His hand falls on her shoulder, squeezes gently. "I'm here," he tells her. "Whatever you need, ok?"

Her eyes, watery and red and still gorgeous, meet his. "Ok."

*

Ellie's concerned, but not especially worried, when Nick and Tim go to New Orleans. After all, they're both good agents, experienced agents, working with a team of good and experienced agents. When they were married, Nick would occasionally go undercover on his own for weeks at a time, that was surely more risky than this.

Except that this, of course, is the time that Nick's luck runs out and he's taken, held as a bargaining chip by the men they're searching for.

It'll be ok, Ellie tells herself. Pride and his team will find him, he'll be safe, he'll come home probably laughing about it.

She tells herself that, but her hands are still cold and shaking, her stomach still churns and her appetite disappears completely.

She watched Qasim die in her arms, stood at his graveside and watched them lower the coffin.

She can't go through that again.

When they get word that Nick's been found, she very nearly faints with relief but she holds it together until she gets home. That's when she lies down on her bed and cries and cries and cries until there are no tears left.

Or that's what she thinks. Because she's mostly stopped and then her phone chimes and it's a text message from Nick. "Sorry if I scared you," it says. "See you soon."

She knows he didn't send that message to Gibbs, or Quinn, or anyone else on the team. Just her.

She cries a little more, just because of that.

*

"We need to talk about you and Ellie."

Nick blinks in surprise. He and Reeves frequently hit the gym after work. This is not the post workout conversation he had been expecting. Normally there’s a lot more gamesmanship and shit talk; right now Reeves is totally serious.

"We do?"

Reeves actually glares at him. "You need to stop dicking her around."

"Woah, woah, woah." Nick holds up his hands, tries to stop his jaw from dropping on the locker room floor. "My dick has been nowhere near Ellie in quite a long time, so I don't know where-"

"You know what I mean." Reeves crosses his arms, squares his shoulders. His dark eyes are intense, not a hint of a smile anywhere around him. He looks for all the world like a man who’s ready for a fight. "I don't know what's going on between the two of you-"

"There is nothing going on! We're friends. I'm allowed to be friends with my ex, right?"

It's a genuine answer, followed by a genuine question. Reeves doesn't look the slightest bit reassured. "Ellie and I are friends," he says flatly. "Ellie and you, I'm not so sure about."

Now it's Nick's turn to narrow his eyes. "You jealous or something?"

Reeves has the nerve to chuckle as he shakes his head. "I'm not jealous."

Nick pushes the point just a little bit more. "Because you sound like you might be. A little bit."

He's only slightly joking. Reeves still doesn't smile. "Ellie's like a sister to me," he says and skin colour and accent aside, Nick's suddenly years in the past, on a back porch in Oklahoma being grilled by Ellie's three brothers about his intentions towards their sister. "I don't want her to get hurt."

"So why have this conversation now? Why not when I first started at NCIS?" But as soon as Nick says the words, he knows why.

"Things have been different since New Orleans." Reeves pauses, like he's expecting Nick to have some kind of reaction to the mention of his capture. "You didn't see her face when you were missing. I did. She was terrified for you."

Nick shifts on his feet, turns away from Reeves on the pretense of looking for something in his gym bag. He can picture that all too easily, both from imagination and memory of the way Ellie had looked at him back in the day when he'd come back from an undercover op. He didn't like scaring her then and he doesn't like it now. Still, he parries with, "It wasn't exactly a picnic for me either, man."

"Is that why you're hanging around her desk all the time then? Like some sort of security blanket?" There's truth in the sarcasm and Nick knows it. He’s not a desk man anyway, rarely sits in his chair, but he’s been leaning against Ellie’s a lot lately. He knows he’s doing it too, but figures there’s no harm in it - they work well together, two heads are better than one, right?

He wonders if he’s fooling anyone. Wonders if he’s fooling her.

When Reeves speaks again, his voice is suddenly gentler and when Nick looks up, his expression matches. There’s a frown there now that wasn’t there before, almost like Ellie’s not the only one he’s worried about any more. "Look, mate, if there's something there, then that's one thing. Go for it, don't go for it, I don't give a damn. But just be careful with her, ok? She's not as strong as she likes people to think she is."

"I know." Nick’s not remembering his return from undercover ops now; he’s remembering Ellie’s face the day they decided their marriage was over, remembering the tears in her eyes in multiple conversations in the weeks leading up to that. “Trust me, I know.”

*

Ellie can't help but get a little misty eyed when Jimmy pronounces Tim and Delilah husband and wife, gets more than a little misty eyed when the newlyweds lean in for a kiss. Delilah hadn't stopped smiling the whole time Alex and Ellie were helping her to get ready and although Tim had been nervous - terrified really - once he'd seen her, he hadn't been able to stop smiling too. It's the most joyous wedding Ellie's ever been at because Tim and Delilah have been through so much to get here and now, with a miracle baby on the way, they have so much to look forward to. She couldn't be happier for her friends.

She feels a knock to her elbow, grins sheepishly when she looks over and Nick is holding up a piece of tissue, offering it to her. She takes it, dabs at her eyes as she looks back at Tim and Delilah. "How did you know?"

"You always cry at weddings," he reminds her and she thinks his tone should be teasing. Except it's not. It's almost... affectionate?

She can picture the look on his face, the look in his eyes, can remember it clearly from so many different times during their marriage. The little half smile, the way his lips curled at the edges, the way his eyes danced as he looked at her. And it wouldn't take much to imagine how, in times gone by at times like this, he would have reached out and taken his hand in hers, how his warm fingers would squeeze hers gently, letting her know without words that he understood how she was feeling. Oh, he'd still tease her like hell about it, but he did understand it.

She almost doesn't look back at him. Almost. But temptation is too strong and sure enough, the look that she sees is exactly the one she expects, the same one that she used to see every day in the apartment they’d shared, in her favourite wedding photograph of the two of them.

There’s already a lump in her throat from seeing Tim and Delilah make their vows. It easily doubles in size and she has to bite her lip, look away.

He doesn’t say anything, just moves his leg so that his knee brushes hers. She’d say it’s accidental but he doesn’t move away and neither does she.

*

It’s not where he expected to spend his evening, watching Jimmy marry McGee and Delilah but Nick thinks there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. Even if, with Ellie by his side, he can’t help thinking back to their wedding. Like this, it had been small - intimate, Ellie had insisted - just her family and his at her parents’ farm. Her dress was simple and elegant, perfectly Ellie and she’d never looked more beautiful than she did when she was standing in front of him on her father’s arm, a smile on her face that he’d looked forward to seeing for the rest of his life.

Things hadn’t quite worked out how they planned but that memory never fails to make him smile.

He smiles again as he hears a sniff beside him, hands over the piece of kitchen roll he’d snagged for just such a moment - Ellie always cries at weddings.

As they mingle afterwards, he stays by her side and he’s aware - he can’t not be aware - of the second and third glances people are throwing them. Alex is eyeing them openly, Jimmy and Ducky seem to think they’re being subtle and Reeves isn’t even trying to hide his glare.

Maybe it’s the happiness of the occasion, the romance of it but Nick doesn’t care.

So when Ellie makes to leave, he doesn’t think twice about offering to walk her to her car.

“You didn’t have to leave,” she tells him as they step onto the sidewalk.

Nick shrugs. “It was winding down anyway. Besides, it’s not safe you walking alone at night.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow, her jaw set tight. “I can take care of myself you know. I went through FLET-C, just like you did.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Nick presses his hand, fingers splayed wide against his chest. “Did you think I was concerned about you? No, it’s the poor bastard who thinks you’re easy pickings I was thinking of... besides, you break a civilian’s fingers, there’s all sorts of paperwork, it’s a real bitch...”

He lets his voice trail off when she’s shaking her head, laughing softly to herself. “Speaking from experience?”

“No comment.” He is, actually, but he doesn’t want to talk about that. “So... McGee... married, with a baby on the way.” She hums non-commitally and he continues on with his train of thought. “You ever wonder... what it would have been like if...” This time when his voice trails off, it’s not intentional. Rather it’s because the words seem to seize up in his throat.

“What it would have been like if I had been pregnant?” Ellie’s steps have slowed down, her voice matches. “All the time.”

A look crosses her face like she’s surprised she’s said that out loud. Nick’s surprised too, his head whipping around. “Yeah?”

“Not so much any more.” She doesn’t sound sad, just wistful. “But at the start...” She visibly shakes herself. “But it doesn’t matter. You didn’t want kids, you made that clear.” And she did, she said, though she hadn’t realised it until those two blue lines on a home test spun their marriage into a tailspin it had never recovered from. Because even though the doctor’s first test had shown a negative result, as had the second and third, the unexpected development had made them discuss something as immediate that they’d previously thought of as far into the future. Ellie had wanted kids; Nick hadn’t and, at the time, he didn’t think that he ever would. “Maybe in a few years,” he’d said to her but, Ellie, with all her logic and rational thought, had said that it wasn’t fair for them to put off the decision, that she didn’t want to be going around in circles for the next two or three years.

It had made sense at the time.

But the further Nick gets away from the decision, the more time he spends with Ellie, the less easy it is to remember why.

“I would have changed my mind.” The passing of years has taught him that much. Ellie stops in her tracks, turns to face him and he stops too, jams his hands in his jacket pockets so he won’t do anything stupid like reach for her. “C’mon, Ell, a kid with my looks and your smarts? Irresistible.”

Ellie shakes her head. “How do you know they wouldn’t have had my looks and your smarts?” she counters and he does reach a hand out then, trail it along her cheek. He can’t not.

“Then they’d be lucky either way,” he tells her and she tilts her head so that she’s leaning into his touch, her eyes fluttering shut as she draws in a shuddering breath. “You ever think we gave up too fast?” he asks her and her eyes open wide. And yeah, he’s pretty surprised that he’s bringing this up on a DC street, calmly talking for the first time ever about the demise of their marriage, but he’s spent the last nine months working with her, being her friend, and sitting there at that wedding with her tonight, he knows that’s not all he wants any more.

“Nick...”

“Because sometimes I do.” His fingers linger on her cheek for a second longer, then he slides his hand around to cup the back of her head, lets his fingers tangle in her hair. Moving slowly - way more slowly than he is used to - he brings his lips to hers.

When she kisses him back, it’s the best feeling he’s had in years.

*

Ellie doesn't realise how hard it's been for her to breathe until Nick walks into the bullpen.

It's late at night so the place is deserted, save for her and Clay and she's grateful for that because the second he walks off the elevator, her feet are moving without her consciously being aware of it. All she knows is that one moment she's watching him walk out of the elevator, the next she's in front of him, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding on tightly. She'd be embarrassed - after all, this is their place of work and she's not a fan of PDA in general - except she knows what a close shave it was, knows that Gibbs and Tim are still in Panama, held hostage under God knows what circumstances.

She's worried about her family but she's a more than a little bit relieved that Nick came back to her safely.

His arms go around her waist and he holds her just as tightly, burying his face in the crook of her neck. "Sorry if I scared you," she hears him mutter and she remembers reading those words on the screen of her phone, remembers crying into her pillow for hours afterwards.

This time, she doesn't cry, but it's a close run thing.

Reluctantly she lets him go, mindful of where they are - she's still not sure that Vance won't appear out of nowhere and insist on a debriefing. Once she steps back, she hears footsteps and then Clay is beside her, extending his hand to Nick. "Glad you're safe, mate," he says and Nick surprises her - Clay too, if the sound he makes is any indication - by pulling him into a hug, clapping him on the back.

When he releases Clay, Nick looks up towards the staircase that leads to Vance's office. "Is he still there?"

It's Clay who shakes his head. "He left an hour ago. Said he'll see you first thing in the morning." He rubs his hand over his chin. "He's pretty pissed off."

"Join the club." Nick's not looking up any more though, isn't even looking at Clay. He's looking at Tim's desk, his jaw clenched, tension running through him.

Without thinking, Ellie slides her hand into his. "Let's go," she says quietly and Nick doesn’t seem to be inclined to argue, lets her lead him back to the elevator, to the parking garage. He’s silent on the drive, only speaks when she’s closing the front door behind her.

“So this is what it takes to get inside your apartment, huh?” Her head swings around and heinstantly looks contrite. “I’m sorry... I’m sorry. That was a shitty thing to say.”

“It’s ok.” She takes a step towards him, then another until she’s standing right in front of him. “Well, it’s not ok... but I understand.” She lays a a hand on his chest, right over his heart and she can feel it pounding. He still looks stricken as he shakes his head.

“I don’t want you to think I’m not ok with what we’re doing.” Because they’d talked, after they’d kissed on the sidewalk after Tim’s wedding. No rushing, they’d agreed, small steps. (“Glacially slow,” he’d promised with a teasing smile on his face.) “You know I’m one hundred per cent ok with it.” He rubs a hand over his face and the look in his eyes - fearful, haunted - breaks her heart. She hasn’t seen Nick look like that in a very long time. “But, baby, I am so tired and every time I close my eyes all I can see is-” His voice breaks and she can imagine all too easily what he sees.

Shushing him, she wraps her arms around his neck, presses her body against his. His arms are around her waist before she can close her eyes, holding her so tightly that it’s hard to breathe. “We’re going to find them.” She’s not sure if she’s promising him or herself. “We’re going to find them and bring them home.” She lifts her head then, looks into his eyes. “Starting tomorrow. Tonight, we both need some sleep.”

She hasn’t slept since the mission went south, not properly. She thinks it’s probably obvious when he touches her cheek, runs his knuckles across it. “Sleep sounds good,” he tells her and she takes his hand in hers and leads him into her bedroom.

*

Nick would be the first to admit that he's not having the best of weeks. Paraguay had been no walk in the park and that was before he'd been on a chopper, watching as his two team-mates got further and further away, knowing that men were surrounding them who would have absolutely no hesitation in killing them. The journey home hadn't improved things one bit because that was the image that he saw every time he closed his eyes and tired as he was, he couldn't sleep, wouldn't sleep. He didn't want to relive that again in his dreams.

He's relieved that the bullpen is deserted when he arrives back at NCIS. He's even more relieved that Ellie is waiting for him there, is the first person that he sees when he steps off the elevator.

It's only when she's in his arms that he feels like he can breathe for the first time in what seems like forever.

She takes him home to her place and where he's so tired and worn out he says something he absolutely should not say, something she'd have every right to sling his ass out on the street for saying. Just to prove he's a luckier man than he has any right to be, she takes him in her arms again, holds him close before leading him into the bedroom.

Of course, nothing happens. He's too tired, too worn out for that and he doesn't want their first time together in years to happen when he's feeling like this, or when she is - he's all too aware that this is just as hard on Ellie as it is on him. So him stripping down to his boxers, her pulling on a nightshirt, then lying down in her bed together, her head pillowed on his chest, his arms around her, their legs entwined, is enough for the two of them.

It's more than enough, Nick thinks, as he feels himself drifting off.

It's everything.

He's surprised when he opens his eyes, sees the morning light starting to stream through the cracks in Ellie's blinds. He's still lying in the exact same position, so is she, but he can't remember the last time that he'd slept so well. He takes in a deep breath, his hand moving down Ellie's back almost of its own accord. She shifts against him, bringing their lower bodies into closer contact and he tightens his grip around her, presses a kiss to the top of her head. She shifts again, lets out a huff of air that sounds almost disapproving as she lifts her head and blinks sleepily at him.

Despite himself, Nick finds himself smiling. Ellie's changed a hell of a lot since they've been apart from one another but evidently she's still not a morning person.

Her head falling back onto his chest certainly confirms that.

The hand that's not trailing up and down her back moves up to cup the back of her head and he lets his fingers tangle in her hair, move across her scalp. She makes a little noise deep in the back of her throat, her hand moving up to rest on his chest. She inhales deeply, releases the breath on a sigh that raises goosebumps along his skin.

"I wish we could just stay here."

Her words are so quiet that he almost misses them. He knows exactly what she means, could have said those words himself. "I know," he says quietly. "Me too."

Ellie turns her head so that her lips brush against his chest and, again, goosebumps ripple. "I like this," she says after a moment, just as quietly. "You being here, I mean. I mean, not the circumstances that ..."

"Ellie." His voice is as quiet as hers as he reaches down, cups her chin in his hand and tilts it up towards him. "I like this too. No matter how we got here... I'm glad we did."

He's not just talking about last night and he thinks she knows that.

When a soft smile spreads across her lips, when she lifts her hand to caress his cheek, he know she does.

"Yeah," she whispers. "Me too."

She pushes herself up, just a little, just enough so that she can bring her lips to his and he closes his eyes as he kisses her back.

He knows they can't stay here, knows they have to go into work, that he has questions to answer from Vance, that they have to figure out a way to find their missing family members, bring them back home.

For now, though, he lets himself get lost in her, even if only for a little while.

*

It's earlier than Ellie expected when Nick gives her one last, lingering kiss, then sits up. "I should go," he says, sounding supremely reluctant to do so. "I need to take a shower before I face Vance." She opens her mouth but before she can say anything, he continues, "I also need a change of clothes. And I seriously doubt you have anything here that will fit me."

Ellie presses her lips together, inclines her head to concede the point. Still though, she's as reluctant to let him out of her sight as he is to go. She tilts her head in the opposite direction, a thought occurring to her. "Is that coffee shop still on the corner, down the street from your apartment?"

Nick frowns and nods all at once. "Why?"

Ellie grins, sits up too. "Because I was thinking... if I have a quick shower here, we can go back to your place..." She kisses his lips. "Where you can shower while I go to that coffee shop..." A kiss to his cheek. "Get us some breakfast..." Another to his neck. "Some coffee..." He catches her chin before she can kiss him again, brings his lips to hers.

"You," he tells her a second later, his forehead touching hers, "are a far better woman than I deserve, Eleanor Bishop."

"I know," she grins, sliding her hand down his arm, letting their fingers tangle together. He chuckles at her words, squeezes her hand but there's a shadow in his eyes that she doesn't like at all. "I'm not going anywhere, Nick," she tells him. "I promise." Just like that, the shadow is gone, his smile back, the soft and tender one that she saw at Tim's wedding. In this close proximity, in this setting, it makes her breath catch, makes her heart speed up.

"It's good to be home," he says before he kisses her again and, as she winds her arms around his neck, Ellie knows exactly what he means.