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The Best-Laid Schemes

Chapter Text

Prologue

“You lock your door now?”

Gibbs blinked in the early Monday morning sunlight, and then again as he focused on the dark shape that was his senior field agent standing on his doorstep.

“6 am, McGee. Thought we agreed on 7.” There was a question somewhere in that statement, but inflection was something he didn’t really have the energy for at this time of day.

Is this what getting old felt like, he wondered absently.

“What? No,” McGee pulled his phone from his pocket, thumb skimming over the messages until he found the one from his boss. “Oh.”

“Yah,” said Gibbs, rather mildly considering the circumstances. His eyes were adjusting to the sunlight, allowing him to catch the bags under McGee’s eyes. “Coffee?” He stepped back to allow McGee to step through the front door.

McGee followed him to the kitchen, where a pot of coffee was already brewing.

“Sit,” invited Gibbs, gesturing to a stool as he pulled mugs out of the cupboard, smoothly slipping a used mug marked by a lipstick stain into the sink as casually as he could.

“Sorry boss,” an oblivious McGee nearly groaned as he dropped onto the stool, hands coming up to rub at his face. “Delilah’s out of town and both twins are sick. Hell of a weekend.”

“Shouldn’t you be with them, then?” Gibbs poured a steaming mug to set in front of McGee, who reached for it immediately.

“Delilah’s mom came into town for a few days to help out. She got in last night.” McGee raised the scalding liquid to his mouth and drank it gratefully. “Anyway, we’re both trying to save up vacation time for something nice around the holidays,” he explained, with a shrug before gulping down more coffee.

Gibbs leaned his hips back against the counter, sipping at his own mug with more caution and significantly less desperation.

Companionable silence reigned for a few minutes, broken suddenly by an echoing thump from the upstairs.

McGee was on his feet in a flash, coffee on the counter and reaching for his service weapon before it sunk in that Gibbs hadn’t budged.

“Uh, boss?”

Gibbs looked at him over his coffee, raising an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“Did you… get a new pet?” McGee tried, unwilling to remove his hand from his sidearm.

He would have sworn Gibbs smirked in that moment, but then it was gone, perhaps a trick of the sunlight streaming through the window above the kitchen sink.

“Nope,” was the only response.

McGee resumed his seat, gingerly, as another thump rang out.

Realization suddenly sunk in for him, a dawning horror that was nearly perfectly synchronous with a woman’s muffled voice calling from the upstairs, “Jethro, have you seen my ivory heels?”

Gibbs shook his head, laughing an almost silent breath that broke McGee out of his choked silence.

“I- I- I am so sorry, boss, I-”

“S’fine, McGee.” He shook his head again, casting his eyes up in the direction of the upstairs before pushing himself away from the counter and walking lazily over toward the front door without relinquishing his coffee. “Ya got some kind of shoes down here,” he offered up the steps.

It was in that moment that McGee noticed what his sleep deprivation had cloaked — a mauve hand towel tucked beside the sink, a suit jacket with a distinctly feminine cut hanging over one of the kitchen chairs, a purse tossed carelessly on the countertop.

Deciding it was more than time to leave, McGee gingerly set down his coffee on the counter and followed Gibbs toward the front room, where there were at least two pair of women’s dress shoes beside the door and a small black rolling suitcase with another purse resting on top.

But as he stepped into the kitchen doorway, the unmistakable clatter of someone coming down the stairs stopped him in his tracks. His gaze went up, automatically, to the woman rushing past in a flurry of blond hair and black sheath dress.

His jaw dropped, and his eyes locked on those of his boss, whose expression was some combination of resignation and bemusement.

“No, those are white,” muttered Jack Sloane dismissively, missing the younger man entirely as she focused on the shoes by the door. “Maybe the basement…” And in another burst of motion, she was around the corner and down the other set of stairs.

“She’s not great at mornings,” Gibbs murmured, almost apologetically, to his agent.

There was a sharp cry of victory from the basement — “Got ‘em!” — followed again by the creak of the basement steps. She reemerged with one shoe clutched in either hand. “Gonna miss my damn flight,” she groused, stopping when she saw the look on Gibbs’ face. “What?”

He tilted his head in McGee’s direction, where he remained frozen in place.

If it were less mortifying, it would almost be funny, McGee noted with an almost out-of-body detachment, as they stared at each other in silence.

Jack's good humor quickly reasserted itself, “Good morning!” She eyed the man next to her, “This is a bit of a surprise,” she prompted.

Gibbs didn’t appear embarrassed in the least, “Told ya McGee was gonna give me a ride while my car’s in the shop. But, uh, this weekend got the better of him.” His eyes glinted in amusement.

She grimaced apologetically, “Ah.” Her hands moved on auto-pilot, dropping her heels to the floor and stepping into them. “Well, I really do need to catch this flight, and it’s all the way over at Dulles, so…” she turned to Gibbs, not sorry at all, “Guess I’ll leave this to you!” She said brightly.

“I would never, uh,” McGee broke in with a rush, “You know, assume or, uh, any- anything,” he swallowed hard.

The look she gave him in that moment was almost pitying. “You’re a good man, Tim. But hopefully a better agent than that.”

Gibbs stifled a chuckle. There was no mistaking it, McGee finally realized: His boss found the whole situation funny.

Jack met Gibbs’ eye and stood for a moment, awkward with their unexpected audience, before recovering herself, “Anyway, I’m back Thursday,” she said breezily, walking around Gibbs and toward the front door.

She wasn’t sure which of the two of them was more surprised to find his hand clamped around her wrist. A stuttered heartbeat later, he let go of her wrist to lay his hand along her jaw, guiding her to him and kissing her gently on the mouth as her eyes closed. “Call me when you get there,” he said quietly against her lips, rewarded by a dazzling smile before she grabbed her suitcase and purse and ran out the door with a hasty “Bye, Tim!”

----------

“Hey Torres,” McGee asked, hours later, with as much casualness as he could hope to muster. “What day was it, again, that Gibbs’ had his windshield shot up?”

“Eh, like, last Tuesday maybe?” Torres responded absently without looking up from his desktop computer.

“Oh. How did he get to work last week?” His voice cracked halfway through the question.

Torres looked up at that, “I dunno. You alright?”

“Yup,” McGee replied, burying his face in his own computer screen. “Just, uh, how much longer do you think it’ll take to fix it?”

----------

Her cellphone rang into the 10 pm stillness of a Boston hotel room, and Jack couldn’t help but smile at the punctuality.

“Hey,” she murmured, unsurprised when there was no response beyond the scrape of a wooden beam being planed.

Faint pop music in the background meant that he had turned on her favorite station of his own accord, though he habitually complained about her taste in music. It was soft enough that either he thought she couldn’t hear it, or he knew she could barely hear it and would recognize the effect of him missing her for what it was. Both options were equally delightful.

Turning her attention back to her laptop, they worked for several minutes in relative silence — her sprawled out on a hotel bed, and him in his own basement.

But because she could never leave a theory untested or stone undisturbed, she had to ask.

“What’s that you’re listening to, Cowboy?”

The tiniest huff of air — something like a laugh — slipped through the phone lines. “Shoulda known I can’t get anything past ya, Sloane.”

She would never, ever get tired of the warmth he spoke into her name.

“But, uh, still don’t know the difference between ivory and white?” she teased.

He paused, a moment too long. “Oh I know the difference.” His voice was lower this time, deliberate in its confidence. “And I knew where they were, too.”

She bit the tip of her thumb, heat flooding her cheeks as she relived the series of events that had led to her heeled shoes flung into opposite corners of the basement the night before.

She cleared her throat, hard, “Yes, well. You had to spare McGee any additional torment.”

He chuckled at that.

“I think McGee was the last,” she said thoughtfully, finally shutting her laptop, setting it on the table next to the bed, and turning her full attention to the phone beside her. “We said six months to figure us out before we tell them. What’s it been, four, and they all know?”

“They’re good agents,” he said simply, and she bit back a smile at the pride in his voice.

“Or we’re just … not subtle.”

She could feel his smirk from 500 miles away.

“Don’t know that Torres knows though.”

“Oh, he knows.” Her tone was definitive and thoroughly embarrassed.

“Hasn’t said anything.”

“Yeah, he wouldn’t. Plausible deniability. But he, he knows.”

“Gonna share?”

She laughed. “In person. Not over the phone,” she parried, unsure whether her hesitance was due to caution or still embarrassment.

“Hold you to it.” She loved when his voice became night-soft, slower.

“Of course. Good night.”

Chapter Text

Four Months Earlier

Gibbs was late.

So was she, for that matter, but he was later.

As she slid into a seat three rows from the back of the room right as the deputy director called the monthly all-staff meeting to order, she thought maybe he’d just blow off the meeting entirely. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Why they scheduled these meetings for 8 am on a Friday was anyone’s guess.

Other latecomers slipped into the room as the meeting continued, crowding into her row, brushing up close in an effort to make space for others.

She wondered suddenly, if anyone was close enough to smell the scent of the shampoo that was not her own.

Gamely, she pulled out a notepad and tried to sketch out a few notes from the deputy director’s speech, more to give herself something to do than owing to any interest in the minutiae of the new weekend parking regulations.

Somehow, she knew that he was there. Not when he’d arrived — that seemed to have slipped past sometime during an explanation of additional on-call shifts for operations personnel — but only that he was most definitely standing just inside the frame of her peripheral vision, toward the back corner of the room, flanked by his team, hands folded in front of him.

Now that she knew exactly what those hands could do while she was pinned between his boat and his mouth…

She deliberately returned her focus to the front of the room, swallowing hard. She was a professional for fuck’s sake.

Her willpower lasted until the end of the meeting. She stood, absently looking up and meeting blue eyes that she’d last seen as he pressed her down into his sheets and ran his mouth down her entire body.

Her mouth was suddenly dust-dry. Smoothing down her skirt with palms that were disconcertedly sweaty, she broke eye contact and hurried away.

What this man did to her.

----------

Of course she was already in the meeting room. And by the look of things, had even shown up early enough to snag a chair.

Bishop had forced them — well, him, really — into attending a meeting which he very well could have gotten away with not attending, much as he’d done with success for the better part of a decade.

But today he might have been an easier sell than usual, he was willing to admit. His team lined up alongside him, leaning against the back wall, and Torres was definitely making some type of paper airplane out of the meeting agenda handout as they half-listened to new department regulations.

He was under no illusions that he would glean anything of substance from the meeting, and that usually would be reason enough to refuse Bishop’s entreaty. But today he had an incentive.

Staring forward, he might have been paying close attention to the deputy director, if his eyes hadn’t been focused squarely on the person of one Jacqueline Sloane. She shifted at that moment, leaning down and scribbling something on a notepad — of all things, was she really taking notes? — and her hair fell around her face, various shades of blond catching the light.

Now he knew what that hair felt like between his fingers.

There was even a strand or two left on the pillow when he’d woken up that morning to her absence and a short hand-written note—

Had to grab a few things from my place and you looked too peaceful to wake. — J

And then a post-script scrawled into the edge of the paper, an afterthought.

P.S. Good morning

The cheekiest of ways to avoid the ‘morning-after’ conversation.

At that moment the meeting ended. She stood up with exaggerated ease and, without any pretense at all, she turned and looked straight at him with a half smile and a knowing look that shot heat straight through him.

----------

In his line of work, it was no exaggeration to claim that good instincts were the difference between life and death. Torres had long ago learned not to discount his own intuition.

Something was off. Different. Not bad, necessarily, but perhaps a slight tension in the lines of his face, or maybe a self-conscious awareness in his ramrod straight posture, even more so than usual.

“Yes?” Gibbs queried testily from his desk, and too late Torres realized he’d been caught staring.

He dropped his focus back to his computer, typing gibberish into an open email draft in an attempt to look busy.

Still, instinct needed facts, proof, evidence.

----------

Jack shifted irritably. Despite decades working in an office environment, there were still days during which sitting all week in the same place made her spine feel like it was welding itself to her chair.

She turned sideways in her chair, thankful for a private office, then kicked up her ankles on the corner of her desk, stretching out her legs and letting the armrest dig somewhat into her upper back as she slouched lower in the seat. Slipping her glasses back on, she pulled a case study onto her lap and resumed reading.

She’d had trouble concentrating throughout the day, her thoughts an almost frenetic scramble that was proving predictably inconducive to her work. And she had no doubts as to their origin.

She’d seen him twice again since their morning meeting — once in the hallway outside Vance’s office, and the second as she’d returned from lunch, passing by his team crowded around the TV screen. But she hadn’t been asked to assist in their case, in fact hadn’t spoken to him at all.

What had seemed to her to be a logical course of action that morning — slipping out of his house in the early am with a paltry excuse — had become an increasingly cringeworthy memory as the day wore on.

Because now she had to deal with the not-knowing: how he felt, what he wanted, if he wanted more.

Privately, she could admit that she’d left because she couldn’t hear a “no” — not while wrapped in his own sheets, hair still damp and tangled from a shower gone awry some hours before. But now the not-knowing was almost worse.

Her door swung open without warning and her heart jumped into her throat.

“Leon!” she smiled, her heart hammering needlessly against her ribs.

He eyed her feet kicked up upon the desk and snorted, “Make yourself at home.” His tie was loosened and he was carrying his jacket and brief case.

She winked, not guilted into putting her feet down, “How can I help NCIS’ most esteemed director?”

“Saw your light. It’s 7 pm. Heading home soon enough?”

Not for the first time that week, she marveled at her good fortune to count her boss among her closest friends. She smiled again, this one smaller and much more genuine. “Yeah, just trying to crank out this last review.”

“‘Kay. Take care of yourself,” he replied, stepping back.

“Oh but you do such a good job for me,” she called to his retreating back. He just laughed and continued down the hall.

----------

Gibbs knew he’d always had a weakness for high-heeled shoes.

But one of them dangling lazily off her toes as she absently flexed a foot, now that was something else. The long grey pencil-skirt wasn’t hurting matters either. He scraped his gaze from shoes, to skirt, to a blazer that screamed “all-business” before making his way up the rest of her to find her own gaze burning straight through him. He wondered when she’d noticed him blatantly checking her out.

“Dinner?” he asked quietly. He’d put the ball in her court and if she rejected him now… Well, he’d had worse, he supposed, trying to view the situation with at least some type of equanimity.

She slowly lowered her feet back to the floor, slipping her feet back into her shoes and sitting up.

He was suddenly hit hard by the force of just how much he didn’t want her to say no.

“Yes.” Her voice was firm and unequivocal and gave him permission to breathe again. He hadn’t realized that he’d stopped. She stood up, switching off the desk lamp, locking up files, and grabbing her purse before she turned to face him again.

“You want to pick a place, or get take-out?” he asked, as casually as he could.

“Take-out,” she replied after a moment, leaning her hip against the front of her desk. “I’m kind of tired,” she added without thinking about it.

He could see the expression on her face freeze as her own words hit her ears, with all the connotation and memories of the night before. The air suddenly seemed a whole lot thicker.

“Your place or mine?” He could hear his own voice getting gruffer and he cursed internally, not wanting her to sense an expectation in his words. He cleared his throat, hard.

Her gaze dropped straight to his mouth. “Either.”

“Mine’s closer,” he replied lightly.

“Good point,” she murmured, closing the distance between them until her toes were lined up right in front of his. “And just so you know… I could wait a few hours on dinner.”

And she was gone, walking out without a backwards glance out to her car. He hastily followed.

Chapter Text

She’d fantasized that some aspects of their relationship might change if they ever gave into the lightening attraction between the two of them.

But she hadn’t quite expected to round the door into her office only a few weeks in to discover him seated in her chair.

He didn’t say anything as she stopped in her tracks only a few steps into the room. She tilted her head to the side, deliberating, then reached behind her and pushed the door closed, stepping back to press it shut with her whole body until it clicked. For a moment she remained against it, then slowly crossed the room and sat down in the seat across the desk, facing him, allowing him to play out whatever game he had in mind.

She laced her fingers together, set her elbows on the desk, and leaned forward. “Yes?” she drew out slowly, eyes sparkling.

He smirked. “Not gonna lock the door?”

She scoffed slightly, “Oh no. I don’t trust either of us that far.”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, flicked it open, and spun it around to her. She squinted to read the tiny lettering of the flip phone, pulled it deftly from his grip with one hand and replaced it with her other hand, and raised the phone to her face.

“Tonight’s poker night group text?” Now she was curious. The group text was more for the others to coordinate snacks than it was something she had ever thought he would read.

His grip on her left hand tightened. “Yeah. What do you mean you have a ‘prior engagement?’”

She took pity on him and began to explain, “A game with three of our longest and closest mutual friends? There’s no way we get through the night without one or all of them figuring it out.”

“So?” he asked quietly.

“So…” she replied.

He waited her out.

“Well it’s not as though we’ve, I don’t know, talked about it, us, this” she pulled her hand from his grasp to gesture between them and looked anywhere but at him, a hint that her iron-clad confidence wasn’t as total as she’d like to make it.

Well neither was his. He grabbed her fingers again, pulled them to his side of the desk. “S’true,” he admitted, “but see, what I kinda had in mind was seeing you more than usual, not less.”

He knew the moment that she’d processed the words because she looked up from studying their joined hands to meet his gaze and swallowed hard at what she found. “Well,” she murmured, pausing to clear her throat, “Well, aren’t you a charmer,” she concluded lightly. Her fingers tightened in his.

He smirked. “That a yes?”

She loosened her fingers from his grip, rose to her feet, and opened the door to her office widely, gesturing him out. “Oh I’ll be there.”

He took the cue, but his smirk didn’t fade.

“Cowboy.” He paused just on the other side of the doorway but didn’t turn to face her. She leaned in close to his ear and whispered, “Don’t you even think about sitting in that chair again.” He could feel her breath hot against his ear. Then she shut the door behind him, nearly clipping him in the process.

----------

She’d made sure she would be the last one to arrive that night, putting her car into park on the side of the street in front of his house a full ten minutes after 8 pm. Breezing in with apologies and diving straight into a hand would be much less risky than trying to make pre-game small talk.

“‘Bout time,” Fornell griped, just as she’d expected.

“Sorry, sorry! Traffic was bad on Constitution,” she dropped a bag of lime Tostitos on the counter.

“I can’t, with you,” Grace murmured under her breath, eyeing the bag. Jack just winked.

“Never understood why you had to live actually in the city,” Vance added in, picking up the cards and expertly shuffling and cutting the deck, “Virginia has much lower rent.”

“Alright!” Jack threw up her hands, laughing, relieved that it could be this easy, “Tobias, I’m sorry for being late. Grace, sorry for my poor taste in chips. Leon, sorry for my apartment’s location. Gibbs, can I get a drink?”

She risked a glance at him, but he had already turned to pour her a healthy shot of bourbon.

She pulled back her usual chair and sat down with her back to him. Gibbs leaned forward to set her glass down in front of her with one hand, bracing himself casually on her shoulder with the other and curling his fingers into the fabric of her shirt for the slightest fraction of a second.

She swallowed, hard. Grace glanced at her out of the corner of her eye.

“Texas Hold ‘Em?” Vance unwittingly covered the moment.

“Sounds good!” Jack responded hastily, and the game began.

-----------

A dozen rounds in, and the hand was down to Jack and Gibbs alone.

She studied the cards, mentally calculating whether her Queens/eights full house was enough to beat whatever he head in his hand. There was, after all, an Ace down on the table.

She looked at him through narrowed eyes over her cards. “You think I won’t call a bluff out of you, Gibbs?”

He raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond.

He was completely composed, the bastard.

“I’ll raise you 20.” She placed the corresponding chip on the table with a flourish.

Wordlessly, he tossed in 40, raising the bet.

Fornell whistled and Vance leaned back in his chair.

She hesitated, searching Gibbs’ face for any hint at all.

“I think there’s something about don’t throw good money after bad,” Vance muttered.

She scowled at him. “Not helpful.” She tossed in an additional 50, and turned back to face him. “Flip ‘em, Cowboy.” She laid her full house on the table.

He smiled then, one of those full, boyish smiles that made her heart stop, and tossed his cards into the center of the table. Two pair. She’d won.

Fornell laughed, “Called your bluff!” he crowed, as Vance slapped Gibbs on the shoulder, laughing.

Jack collected the hefty sum in the middle with a sweeping motion of her whole arm, smirking as she winked at him. “Gotcha,” she teased with more than a hint of flirtation, reckless in her victory.

He shot her a dark look that was clearly meant to intimidate but succeeded only in sending a sharp burst of adrenaline through her veins and a stab of heat to her abdomen.

She looked away hastily, turning away from his gaze just in time to see, across the table, Grace’s eyes widen and dart between Gibbs and Jack. “Oh… my,” was all Grace said.

Jack froze, knowing immediately what it was that their mutual therapist had so effortlessly detected. She pressed her lips together, jerked her head in an almost imperceptible but emphatic no.

Grace busied herself in her phone as Vance and Fornell continued to rib on Gibbs.

Jack took a deep breath. Her next session was going to be fun.

----------

Grace had rushed out after the game that evening, while Vance and Fornell had lingered, chatting about everything and nothing for nearly an hour.

Finally, Fornell yawned and stretched. “Well, I gotta head. Same time next month?”

Vance and Jack took the cue, with Vance following after Fornell and Jack jumping to her feet and beginning to tidy up the kitchen, waving off their offers of help with a lazy hand.

Vance stretched in the humid night air as Fornell pealed out into the darkness. He chuckled, “Show off!” patting his pockets for his keys.

They weren’t there. He frowned. Had he dropped them?

He turned around and retraced his steps, pushing Gibbs’ front door open and running his eyes over the floorboards. Nothing.

Maybe the poker table or the kitchen.

He rounded the corner and stopped up short.

Gibbs’ back was flat against his own refrigerator, body held in place by Jack’s own as she stood on the balls of her feet and pushed into the entire length of him. Her hands cupped both sides of his face, drawing him down to her level for a fierce kiss. One of Gibbs’ hands was cinched at her hip, pulling her in closer to him while the fingers of his other hand stranded through her hair.

Vance, stunned, froze. Where were the damn keys?

He finally spotted them, on the countertop not three feet from two of his dearest friends and employees.

In the few seconds it had taken him to find the keys, the situation had rapidly escalated. Gibbs had reversed their positions, flipping Jack back against the refrigerator and pinning her arms above her head. With something suspiciously like the ease of established lovers, she tilted her head back to grant him better access to her neck, letting out a small whimper that Vance had never wanted to hear.

Silently he retraced his steps until he was out of sight. Tugging open the front door roughly and slamming it shut, he called out “Gibbs, have you seen my keys?”

He made a show of shuffling his feet around the room, giving them plenty of time to recover.

“In here,” Gibbs called finally.

Vance stepped hesitantly into the kitchen to find the keys where he had last seen them. Jack had her back to him, scrubbing the whiskey glasses they’d all been using as if her life depended on it. Gibbs was sitting at the kitchen table, legs crossed, sipping at the last of a beer.

“Great,” he said, too loudly, snatching up the keys. “Night.”

And he fled.

Chapter Text

When Jack had asked him to accompany her to the annual memorial service, she’d been scant on the details and heavy on the vulnerability. So of course he’d said yes, automatically.

And somehow after that point, whenever he remembered her request, it had never seemed like the right moment to ask — not when his fingers were tripping across the skin of her bare stomach as they lay sideways on his couch, watching a movie that he’d never caught the plot of anyway; not when she sat on his living room floor with files from a case she couldn’t bear to let go spread in a semi-circle around her; not when she boiled over the pasta on his gas stove, sending yellow flames high enough to singe her eyebrows if she hadn’t stepped back with a yelp.

So when she tugged his arm — which she hadn’t surrendered from the moment they’d walked through the gates of Arlington Cemetery — and warned him to call her by her full first name when anyone else was in earshot, he was starting to wonder just what he’d signed up for.

Not that he’d have refused her anything at this point. Just that a guy would maybe like to know.

Because as she led him deftly through the maze of Arlington’s pathways, her grip on his arm got steadily tighter. By the time that they rounded a small slope and found themselves near a small group of somberly-dressed onlookers, he was genuinely concerned.

But there was no time to ask as she wove them carefully through a row of headstones toward the people, pausing just behind and to the side of the bulk of the group.

He could see nothing but the backs of the people around him, but he could hear a solemn voice ahead intoning and feel the slight tremor in her fingers, and he got the gist. Gently, he shifted them over several steps, to where they could see three bright wreaths which had apparently just been laid along the top of three side-by-side graves.

To his satisfaction, as the ceremony continued, the tremors stopped. It was always better when you could see what was coming. He’d learned that long ago.

It was barely 11 am but the day was already unreasonably hot and muggy. Most of the attendees were wearing short-sleeve dresses in some suitability somber shade, or otherwise in short-sleeved linen shirt and khakis. He risked a glance over at the woman on his left, in full fitted grey dress pants and a long-sleeved white button-down. She had to be overheating.

But suddenly he had a bigger problem to worry about, as his height afforded him an advantage in people-watching which she did not have.

Did Jack know?

He risked another glance, but her expression was impenetrable, staring straight ahead at the final resting place of three men who’d gone to hell with her and never returned.

He looked back up, squinting slightly in the sunlight as he tried to confirm his suspicions without disturbing the woman beside him.

The ceremony wound down, and he listened with a fraction of his brain as they announced a reception to follow in a pavilion not too far away. The group started to disburse, with only a few stragglers remaining at the grave site.

She drew in a shuddering breath, turned to him, and looked up with eyes that were much too bright. “I can’t remember, did I ever tell you about the coconut?” she asked suddenly.

He shook his head.

She smiled, faintly. “It’s a good one. But I’ll tell you later. I’m not sure if I’ll cry in the retelling and we should really stop by the reception.”

He nodded and they turned to go in silence. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, drawing her close and tucking her head slightly into his body as they walked. He had an ulterior motive for doing so, as he scanned their surroundings. He definitely didn’t want to call a false alarm if he was wrong…

But his instincts had been right, and Jack saw her before he did, stopping in her tracks a dozen yards away from the pavilion.

The other woman noticed them at nearly the same time, freezing up in surprise or perhaps anger. She said something quietly to the dark-haired woman she’d been speaking with and marched over to them.

“What are you doing here?” Faith Tolliver asked sharply.

He hadn’t noticed before that she was taller than Jack by several inches.

Jack swallowed, hard, and he fought back a wince. Of all the ways he’d seen the day going, this wouldn’t have made his list in a million years. The silence dragged on.

“I’ve been nearly every year,” Jack finally managed. Her voice was painfully small but it didn’t crack. “I… I served with them.”

A suspicion that had been building in the back of his mind hardened into reality, and his jaw clenched.

“I thought you lived in California for the last few years,” Faith’s eyes narrowed slightly and her voice was wary but minutely softer.

Jack nodded.

Faith’s lips pressed together, the same way that Jack’s did when she was thinking.

He didn’t think either woman would thank him for that observation.

“But never once, in all those years, reached out to me.” She said quietly, deliberately, a sucker punch that he both saw and felt in Jack’s flinch.

Sensing that she’d gone too far, Faith scrunched her nose in what looked like remorse and took a half step back, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… Anyway, it’s not about ‘me’ or ‘us” today, but about them” she gestured loosely at the hillside, “So um, I guess I hope you… stay?”

She waited for a beat and when Jack did not respond, turned to leave.

“Why are you here?” Jack returned the question, rawness at the center of it all.

Faith hesitated, like she might not say. “I’ve been, um, dating one of their kids for the last few months,” she said finally, “So I came to support…” there was a long pause, then finally, “them.”

She waited and when Jack did not immediately respond, walked stiffly away.

They watched her go.

“Let’s leave,” said Jack quietly.

“No.” She turned on him, furious, and he held up a hand, “If you leave now, all she’ll see is you running away.”

She groaned, shut her eyes tightly, and nodded.

He seized the opportunity to clear up what he had already figured out. “No one here knows who you are.”

She kept her eyes shut and didn’t respond.

“Jack…” he drew out her name, then took ahold of her wrist and walked her over to a nearby bench.

“A few do. Some of the other vets. But they keep it to themselves.” She sighed and opened her eyes but pulled her hand out of his grasp and ran her hands roughly through her own hair. “I mean, did your family know the soldiers you served with overseas?”

He acknowledged the accuracy of her question with a tight nod.

“Technically our mission was never declassified anyway…” He grabbed at her hand, but she refused to look at him.

“You come every year?” he prodded gently.

She nodded. “I can’t not. It feels like abandoning them. I see their faces in their children.”

But here her voice tightened, because now Faith was dating one of them and the two most painful sagas of her life had somehow combined.

He took it in stride. “Alright. Well, we’ll get you through this.” He held out a hand and she let him pull her to her feet.

----------

“Have you been together long?” Faith asked him abruptly, with the inconvenient intuition he’d long come to expect from her mother.

She’d been standing just to his left and about half a step outside of his peripheral vision for nearly a minute already.

He gave a noncommittal grunt.

Faith sighed, then changed tone entirely. “You must think I’m a total bitch,” she said quietly, defeated.

He blinked at that, turned to look at her, but she kept her gaze forward, to the hillside several hundred yards away where Jack was barely visible, a blond speck kneeling near the wreath-draped white headstones they’d all gathered around earlier.

“No,” he said finally, reluctant not in the substance of the sentiment but feeling somehow as if it were betraying Jack to have a conversation with her daughter in the first place.

She continued then, as if she hadn’t heard him. “Maybe I am. I mean, to see her like this and all” she gestured to the grieving figure on the hillside “but I just… I can’t just forget all those years…”

He weighed the risk, choosing his words carefully, “She would never want a relationship based on pity.”

She shot him a look.

“I had a daughter once,” he said then, abruptly, shocking himself as much as her.

A long pause. “Had?”

“She was murdered. With her mother. Years ago,” he said shortly, already regretting his uncalculated impulse but pushing ahead. “Life’s short.”

His heart was pounding hard in his chest and loudly enough in his ears that he couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment she slipped away.

----------

He drove Jack home afterward, thumbs drumming idly on the steering wheel as he wished he could find something to say.

It wasn’t a feeling he was accustomed to.

“At least it seemed like Faith opened a little bit, right?” he asked. He heard the banality of the words only after they left his lips. This was why he didn’t talk much.

“About her dating?” She replied immediately, making it obvious that she too had been fixating on the same interaction.

He nodded, whisking his eyes off the road for just a moment to look at her, but her face was turned to the passenger window.

“Not so much,” she whispered. “You didn’t notice how careful she was?”

He waited.

“Mika didn’t have any kids. Herman had two sons who were already married when we deployed — they were there today, with their wives and their own kids.”

She pressed a hand to the passenger window, feeling the summer hot through the glass.

“Erik had only the one daughter, a few years younger than Faith. Sasha. So, no,” she finished quietly, “It would appear that Faith is not particularly interested in letting me in.” She laughed, brittlely, “It’s none of my business,” then reached over and turned the radio up.

There was nothing for him to say. There was a gulf between her and everyone else that he couldn’t cross.

----------

“Jack needs to take tomorrow off,” he told Vance that Thursday. Four days had passed during which she had made it through each day with impeccable professionalism, gone promptly to her apartment, and slept the rest of the evening into the night.

“You make those decisions now?” Vance asked mildly, eyebrows raised.

“Jack needs the option to take tomorrow off,” Gibbs clarified, the corner of his mouth twitching in what might have passed for a smile on any other day. “No force in the world can make her do something she doesn’t want to do.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Vance murmured, absently shuffling some papers on his desk. “And am I to assume that this means you also will need the day off?” His look was very direct.

Gibbs hesitated.

“You genuinely think I don’t know?”

Gibbs chuckled lightly. “Shoulda figured.”

“If she wants the day, it’s hers.”

Gibbs gave him a look.

Vance rolled his eyes. “And if she wants the guy for the day, he’s hers. But” he warned, looking back down, “I know nothing. I want to see nothing. I want to hear nothing.”

The oddly extended repetition and emphasis of the last two sentences drew Gibbs’ attention for the briefest moment. Then he moved on.

----------

He had only half thought she would actually go along with his plan. Maybe it should have worried him more that she didn’t press him for details: she’d packed a duffel bag as instructed, climbed into the passenger seat, and promptly fallen asleep as he drove them south.

She woke naturally as he slowed and parked the car in a darkened driveway. “‘Time is it?” she murmured blearily, blinking at the shockingly bright moon.

“Somewhere on the wrong side of midnight. C’mon.” He tossed their bags over his shoulder, then slipped out of the car and opened her door, leading her around the back of the house on a path he could have found even on a much darker night than this.

He knew when she smelled it — or maybe heard it — long before they’d turned the corner, because her shoulders flexed under his arm. And then they were standing on the elevated back porch of a tiny beach house, moon illuminating the landscape from the dunes to the water line and the breaking surf beyond.

She was crying now, which was slightly alarming and not in his plans. But the way her cold fingers sought his for the first time since Arlington made him wonder suddenly if maybe that were maybe a good thing.

----------

“How’d you find this place?” she finally thought to ask as the sun set two evenings later.

“It’s Ducky’s place. Barely had to ask once he knew it was for you.”

“Oh,” she smiled, fondly, and then “Oh,” more sharply. “So… he knows. About us.”

“Yeah,” he admitted, “You mad?”

“How could I be?”

She didn’t speak again for so long that he thought she’d fallen asleep. “I don’t think I can go next year,” she admitted, quietly. “So long as she’s dating Sasha, she’ll be there, and it feels wrong, like I’m hiding something from her. Doesn’t feel the same with the others, like I owe them anything.” Her fingertips rubbed slow circles on his sternum.

“And you won’t tell her, even if there was the possibility it could improve your relationship.” The way his grip tightened on her elbow told her that he knew exactly why.

He was sharp, she’d give him that.

“Yup,” she agreed, “Because she’d pity me, and feel obligated to try to forgive me, and any relationship on those terms can only lead to resentment.”

Everything remained entirely unresolved, and there was a physical ache in her chest that she figured was psychosomatic but couldn’t seem to banish. But that was finally, after nearly a week, something she could compartmentalize and move beyond.

“So, until then, I’m stuck in this cute little house with you,” she continued, deliberately lightening her tone and changing the subject.

He let her get away with it, sensing the moment wasn’t right for pressing her any further. “Any ideas for how to pass the time?” he drawled, and her eyes were relieved.

She moved her hand lower, and he groaned, grabbing blindly at her wrist and rolling himself over her. “I take it you have a few ideas?”

Chapter Text

Walking into the bullpen on a random Tuesday morning, Gibbs encountered one of the most attractive men he’d seen in his entire life. Said man happened to be leaning forward with both hands on Bishop’s desk and speaking intimately with his youngest agent.

Stepping in close beside the other man, he cleared his throat.

“Gibbs!” Bishop finally noticed his arrival with no trace of embarrassment. “This is Octavio Mendez. He’s with Canadian Security Intelligence Service — apparently they’re after our missing Marine too — they want him for international weapons trafficking — so we’re on the same team. But he’s completely wrong—” here she cut her eyes back to Mendez “about the long-term viability of symmetric encryption.”

Mendez laughed good-humoredly, throwing his hands up in the air, “Time permitting, I would love to continue this discussion over a coffee.”

Bishop nodded and smiled, so distracted by the man in front of her that she completely missed Torres grinding his teeth across the room.

“And Special Agent Gibbs,” Mendez extended a hand which Gibbs shook almost automatically, “A real pleasure, I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Uh-uh,” said Gibbs, skepticism in every line of his face. Mendez immediately got his point.

“Oh, we’re not going to be interfering with your case, by any means. I believe your director is being briefed right now and your team’ll be taking point.”

Gibbs inclined his head, almost a sharp nod, and gestured to Bishop, “Well don’t let me keep ya.”

“Oh, I mean to ask” Mendez asked as Gibbs approached his own desk, “I heard that Jacqueline Sloane joined you guys a while back? She in DC?”

The slight weight he put on her name tipped off Gibbs immediately. With significantly more incentive than before, he catalogued the other man’s features — maybe 40 years old, tanned skin, black eyes, broad-shouldered and fit, the whitest teeth — with a sinking feeling.

“Gibbs.” The call came from above them, where Vance was standing at the railing. “MTAC, your team. Mendez, you too.”

----------

If Nick Torres were the betting kind of man — and he generally was — he would put his money on the likelihood that Sloane’s arrival was going to be a very interesting scene.

They’d returned to the bullpen from MTAC, having temporarily installed Mendez in a spare desk alongside the team as they waited for an update on the case.

Bishop and McGee had both stepped out for lunch, but Torres kept his head down, fighting both his grumbling stomach and increasing need for the bathroom. The moment he left, he was sure, the fun would start.

He felt rather than saw Mendez’s head snap up and followed his gaze, catching Sloane walking down the stairs from her office with her nose buried in her phone. She disappeared down the final flight of stairs and reappeared in the bullpen, still scrolling. He waited until she was even with his desk.

Jacqueline.”

Torres winced — Mendez’s tone was downright sultry. He peaked over at Gibbs, who wasn’t even pretending to not watch.

Sloane’s face flushed as she eyed Mendez levelly over her glasses. After a moment of embarrassed silence, she rallied. “Has Canada decided to invade?” she asked lightly.

“Nah, didn’t go too well for us back in 1812,” he smirked cheekily.

“Ah,” she murmured. As he stared at her, she blushed more deeply. “Well,” she said, finally, and continued toward the elevator.

“Not going to ask what I’m doing here?” He had jumped up and was following her.

“Nope,” she said, but there was too much teasing built into the tone for it to be entirely innocent.

The elevator doors closed behind her, and Mendez returned to his desk, swaggering with a false bravado. Torres fought a second wince. The guy was clearly smitten.

Abruptly, Gibbs jumped up from his desk and walked — or rather, stormed — upstairs.

Figuring it was a good time to make himself scarce, Torres took that bathroom break.

But he was also starting to think he just might have the whole situation figured out.

-----------

She fully expected Gibbs to be waiting in her office when she returned from lunch, and the fact that he wasn’t was both disappointing and a little bit unnerving.

She’d been caught off guard earlier, and the question wasn’t whether she had blushed but rather how noticeably. Judging by the fact that Gibbs was neither in the bullpen when she passed by nor in her office, she figured her face had probably been the color of a traffic stop.

But as the day wore on and he managed to avoid her on two separate trips to the bullpen, her anxiety increased. Torres’ barely-concealed smirk didn’t help matters.

She heard through the grapevine that they’d found their missing Marine later that afternoon.

----------

This was, Torres reasoned to himself, one of the objectively least physically dangerous things he’d done in the last year.

But his heart was still pounding in his ears as he and his car hugged the curves of a dark winding road just south of the Beltway, going about 5 miles below the speed limit just in case. Now was not the time to get pulled over.

He had to know. Instincts honed during years spent undercover were all blinking red in agreement, but for this he needed proof.

Stopping short of Gibbs’ street, he idled for a moment.

Sure enough, Gibbs’ truck was in his driveway. But it was alone. No blue mini accompanied it.

Finally, smoothly, casually, he nosed into the street and drove past the house. Still nothing. He doubled back on the side streets, just in case she’d parked a few blocks away to hide their tracks.

“Oh, come on,” he hissed, slamming a fist down hard on the dashboard as he found himself again idling at the head of the street.

He hadn’t fully understood the extent of his own hopes until this exact moment. Because if Rule 12 was no longer an enforceable standard, well then… It opened up certain possibilities.

----------

He jumped at the flicker of movement to his left, a mere fraction of a second before a knock sounded on the driver side window.

Against his better judgment, he rolled down the window, eliminating the last barrier between himself and Sloane’s raised eyebrows.

“You were just in the neighborhood?” she asked lightly, lips pressed together not quite tightly enough to hide her amusement.

“Oh yeah, a nice midnight drive…” He trailed off as his attempt at a breezy retort sounded even lamer in his ears than imagined.

She didn’t respond immediately, evaluated him thoughtfully. “So… This didn’t happen, right?”

His eyes crinkled as he smirked. “Oh, it definitely did,” he started, but upon seeing her look, he backtracked hard. “Buuttt of course there’s no reason Gibbs needs to know about this.”

“Mmm…” she murmured, turning around and walking back over to her car that, he now noticed, she had left idling on the side of the road.

“But Jack,” he said, suddenly completely serious, his quiet voice carrying in the still night, “This changes things. For me.” He stopped abruptly, hoping she’d connect the rest of the pieces before he had to say them.

“Nick,” she said thoughtfully, turning around in the street to look at him levelly, “I never thought you were one to live life by someone else’s rules anyway.”

----------

She found Gibbs in his kitchen, slouched against the counter, eating leftover lo mein straight from its takeout container. She sloughed off her shoes, jacket, and purse as she walked into the house, leaving them deliberately strewn across the floor in a way that raised the hackles of his tidy persona.

Walking up to him, she pulled the fork from his fingers and helped herself to a bite of the lo mein, then promptly spat out the icy-cold noodles into the sink, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Really?” she snapped irritably, as he shrugged and continued to eat the unheated leftovers.

“Heard you found your Marine. Alive. But sans weapons.”

He grunted.

“Any leads on who he passed them off to?”

Another grunt.

She bit back a sigh. So this was how he was going to play it. She watched him eat for a moment, his gaze fixed firmly on the noodles and the fork to the exclusion of everything else.

“You’re… jealous?” she said finally, part statement and part question. The only indication that he’d heard her was the clench of his jaw.

“You are jealous,” she breathed, marveled at the newness of the realization. Then, a moment later, “Good.” A declarative sentence in a tiny, tight voice.

His eyes shot up as he registered the snap of the last syllable.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she replied lightly to his bemused — and slightly wary — expression, “It’s a very unattractive quality.” Here she reached up and plucked the noodle bowl from his hands, setting it on the counter beside them.

“And very patriarchal,” she murmured disapprovingly, brushing the tips of her fingers around the edge of his ear and along his jaw before bracing her palm against his cheek and running her thumb over his lips.

His arms came up, reaching for her hips, but she pushed them away. “No, I don’t approve at all.”

He waited, sensing a qualifier.

“But I hated them,” she whispered, her voice cracking on the delivery, “your former… whatever, whenever they’d come into the office or I knew they were in town and you were seeing them.”

Her thumb was still on his lips, and as he opened them anyway to speak, she simply slipped her thumb between his teeth to stop him.

“Shh,” she murmured, “I’m sure they were perfectly lovely women I’d get along with well in any other circumstance. But they knew this part of you that I didn’t have and I thought I might never have and—“

She hissed as his teeth scraped roughly over her thumb as she pulled back, first with her hand, and then with her body. He smirked.

“Upstairs,” she ordered him, fingers slipping between his as she tugged him after her, “You can apologize to me properly.”

Chapter Text

It was finally Friday after a truly hellish sort of week and Jack was damn hungry.

Opening both refrigerator and pantry, she found nothing she was interested in preparing or reheating. Grimly, she lowered her expectations and repeated the process, finally settling on some yogurt that withstood the sniff test and the rest of a container of slightly wilted blueberries.

The worst part — selfishly, she decided, given the atrocities they’d seen in the last few days — the part that really rankled her, was that it had been four days and he’d not said a single word to her that wasn’t strictly necessary and perfectly professional.

Damn him.

This was what she’d foreseen, a good reason for her to hold back from pursuing a romantic relationship with him for the first few years of their friendship: that two passionate perfectionists wouldn’t somehow mellow just because they work up most mornings in the other’s arms.

She ate her yoghurt at the sink to save time and mess, and she was still there when her phone rang.

“What.”

“Are you at your place?” He asked tersely. He must have finally gotten back to his house and realized she had no intention of showing up to make nice.

She debated answering. “Yes,” she said finally.

“Coming over.” He hung up the phone.

She tossed her bowl and spoon into the sink, unnerved by the adrenaline that still rushed through her at the sound of his voice, no matter how irritated she was.

As she crossed the apartment to unlock the door, she also noted absently that it was probably a bad precedent to allow him to make decisions like that and then hang up without giving her time to refuse.

She could always take him to task for that when he showed up. Unable to focus on anything else, she began to tidy up the apartment absentmindedly.

Finally there was a knock at the door.

“It’s unlocked,” she called out, and when the door didn’t budge she yanked it open. “I said, it’s unlocked.”

“I was wrong,” he said immediately, and the thrill of seeing all of him, jean-clad and in sneakers, there at her front door distracted her for a moment from the situation at hand.

“Jack…” he said more softly when she didn’t move, an almost boyish sincerity written over his face and layered over his voice.

Wordlessly, she stepped back, allowing him in. He slipped off his sneakers as he entered. He could count on both hands the number of times he’d been to her place, as if it were still some part of her that she reserved from him, even two months into their physical relationship.

He reached for her face. She stepped back sharply and regretted it immediately.

He just looked at her.

She sighed. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” she admitted, the quasi-apology falling from her lips with apparently much more ease than it had from his.

He reached for her hand but she deliberately moved it out of his reach, stepping back and resuming the tidying up of the room that she’d been doing before he arrived.

“But it’s a bigger problem than that,” she spoke to the couch as she folded a blanket and punched a throw pillow into a better shape. “If you and I can’t keep it professional at the office, if we let our personal connection and emotions bleed into work conflicts, we can’t—“ She bit off the end of the sentence, unable to vocalize what would only hurt them both. “What I mean,” she tried again, “is that it’s not fair to anyone else. Ellie and Nick tried to help and you just about bit their heads off.” She was still talking to the couch, though the work was done.

“Shouldn’t have done that either,” he admitted quietly from behind her. He reached out with one hand and traced his finger along the outside of her arm, from her wrist up to her shoulder.

Against her will, she shuddered at the touch, and he chuckled into her hair, his breath ruffling the strands at the back of her neck.

“I do forgive you but I’m still angry,” she warned, in a voice that would have been much more intimidating if it hadn’t hitched as his hand continued up and over her shoulder. He pressed his palm flat against the skin of her sternum, his thumb and forefinger resting along her collarbone.

From there he could feel her heartbeat, and she knew he felt her pulse speed up when he stepped forward and pulled her flat against him. His breath ghosted over her ear. “I wouldn’t expect anything less,” he admitted, and the open honesty was somehow wrenching.

He reached around her torso and started unbuttoning the dress shirt she still wore. The fingers of his other hand still rubbed lazy circles on her collarbone, slipping lower every so often in a way that made her drop her head back on onto his shoulder.

“Bedroom,” she murmured, but he ignored her, undoing the last button of her shirt and pushing it off her shoulders and onto the floor. She moved to sidestep the couch but his hand at her sternum held her tightly against him, preventing her from moving away. She shifted to her back foot, intending to turn around to face him, but his hand blocked her up still against him.

She opened eyes that she hadn’t realized had closed, then dropped her head back onto his shoulder again, staring up at him.

They hadn’t done this before, anything that constituted him refusing her or denying a request. Anything that restrained her physically. He knew better than that.

His hand lifted slightly, giving her the space to push him away if she chose to.

In a split second decision she reached up and pulled his face over and down to hers, kissing him harder than she should have. He responded in kind, the frustrations of the week boiling over. She bit down on his lip and he responded by reaching for the zipper of her dress pants.

A sharp knock on the door brought them both out of the moment.

“Get the door,” she hissed, yanking her shirt off the floor and rebuttoning it with flying fingers.

He glanced down at himself. “I’m not in any shape for that,” he drawled with a touch of the understated humor that she usually loved him for. Leaning forward, he dropped a kiss on her nose, smoothed back her hair, and walked to her bedroom, pulling the door shut.

“Sonofabitch!” She hissed down the hall before calming her breath and pulling open the door.

“Ellie!” she remarked in unfeigned surprise, mind still fogged with him.

“Hey,” she said softly, shyly, “Is it an okay time?”

“Of course!” Jack lied brightly, self-consciously tucking her hand behind her ear as she ushered the younger woman in.

“I’m sorry for bursting in like this,” Bishop smiled as Jack gestured to the couch, “I know it’s not your job but I just wondered if I could get some advice.”

“Is this about me and Gibbs earlier? I feel awful about that—”

“No, not at all. It’s about … Nick.”

“Ah,” said Jack, and Bishop blushed furiously. “Oh,” she added, even more knowingly, just to tease. That boy moved fast.

Bishop looked at the floor.

“Ellie,” she said quietly, waiting until the agent raised her head, “It’s been a nasty week that’s brought a lot of things to the surface in all kinds of relationships — professional and otherwise. I’m here for anything you need.”

“He said he loved me,” Bishop blurted out, again looking everywhere but at Jack.

About time, was what Jack’s better nature thought. But does it have to be right-fucking-now?, her baser instincts queried.

“Talk to me,” was what she said, resigning herself to the fact that this was not going to be a short conversation.

----------

Thirty minutes later, Bishop appeared to be winding down, but Jack was highly preoccupied by the realization that, in her earlier haste, she buttoned her shirt incorrectly.

Bishop hadn’t seemed to notice. “What about Rule 12?” she asked finally, dully.

There was a little part of Jack’s heart that cracked as she read between the lines of the question to comprehend just how highly Gibbs ranked in the younger woman’s esteem.

“I wouldn’t be too worried about that,” Jack said as delicately as she could, ears straining for any sound coming from her bedroom. Maybe he’d fallen asleep.

“Do you think he’d be angry?” she asked, earnestly.

“If it comes to that, let me handle him,” Jack said with a little too much confidence and a little too much impatience to avoid raising Bishop’s suspicions.

It was as though that small moment jarred some additional self-awareness loose. Bishop’s eyes lighted suddenly on the pair of very worn men’s sneakers by the front door, the only incongruous thing in Jack’s impeccable apartment.

Her eyes widened, taking in the misaligned buttons of Jack’s shirt, and her hands clapped over her mouth. “Oh my go—”

Jack winced.

“Jack I’m so sorry, I—” She rose to her feet and Jack reached up quickly, tugging at her wrist.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said reassuringly, “This was… more important.”

Bishop flushed to the roots of her hair, speechless.

“He’ll keep,” Jack said lightly, and if anything, Bishop blushed deeper. Giving up, Jack began to laugh.

----------

Afterward, in the quiet stillness of her bedroom, he whispered. “The professional is always gonna be personal with us.”

And she knew he was right.

----------

Two weeks later, they were called in on a Saturday.

Bishop waited an extra five minutes in her car in the parking lot, to allow Torres to get into the office first. She still felt guilty for concealing the nature of her fledging romantic relationship with her partner. But then again, Gibbs was the one calling them in on a Saturday — a Saturday she definitely had other plans for.

But Gibbs still wasn’t there by the time she got to her desk. Instead it was Jack she found leaning against his desk, flipping through a file.

“You get called in too?” Bishop asked.

“Nah, just happened to be working on an old case today and thought I’d come down,” said Jack without looking up.

“Gear up,” Gibbs strode into the bullpen from the direction of the bathroom, a pair of jeans he clearly just changed out of and a pair of old sneakers tied together thrown loosely over his arm. He dropped them beside his desk.

Like a magnet, Bishop’s eyes went straight to the sneakers and she stared. Surely it was a coincidence…

“What?” demanded Gibbs, and Jack also looked up, catching Bishop’s gaze, grasping the full situation with lightening speed, and pressing her lips into a thin line to hide the smile that threatened to break through.

“Ellie,” she broke smoothly into the stalemate that was Gibbs staring at Bishop and Bishop staring at his shoes. “Why don’t you and I ride together?”

Suddenly, Bishop felt a whole lot less guilty for sleeping with her partner.

Chapter Text

Present Day

Octavio Mendez frowned at the file in his hands, and then frowned more deeply at the agent seated across from him in an NCIS interrogation room.

As far as the evidence went, he was more than inclined to believe the man in front of him.

But still, you could never be too careful. And about a quarter million dollars’ (Canadian, mind you, not American, but still…) worth of lethal weaponry was missing.

But of all the people he wanted to interrogate, this guy was at the bottom of his list.

“Look Gibbs,” he tried for his most reasonable tone, “I’m on your side here. It was unfortunate from the beginning that we got the guy but no weapons in his possession. And of course we didn’t believe him when he claimed that your agents arrested him with the cache of weapons and took them away. But now, weeks later, we’ve taken down the rest of his cell. And still no weapons.”

He wasn’t surprised to receive no response.

“Help yourself out, here.”

Nothing.

“C’mon Gibbs. We tracked a sale this morning around 0100, to an NCIS IP address. The weapons passed into the possession of a Russian oligarch. When your guy and his buddies have been very much in custody for weeks now.”

“Yeah, well if you’d stop wastin’ my time we might track down more leads.”

“Just give me something to work with here. Your team alibied out. You’re the only one who hasn’t been able to do the same.”

There was a long pause, followed by a sharp thump that shook the mirrored glass window separating the observation room.

Mendez jumped. Gibbs rolled his eyes.

“Aren’t you s’posed to be getting results from Kasie?” he asked the mirror. Another thump.

“Alright, alright,” he rolled his eyes. “Scoot.”

Mendez jumped up, but by the time he made it to the observation room, it was empty.

Irritated, he threw the door to the interrogation room wide open, letting it bang off the wall. “Am I to assume that was your alibi?”

Gibbs had the decency to look the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

“And she — he? — works here?”

“She.”

“And she’s in your forensic science lab right about now.”

An affirming nod.

“Working on the very case I’m investigating you for.”

“Different one.”

Like that made it so much better. “Stay. I’ll get answers from her, then you. Your phone, please.”

Gibbs handed it over, silently.

----------

Mendez blinked, stunned.

Gibbs’ paramour was shockingly… young.

She noticed him watching her and paused in the middle of transferring a small beaker of liquid into a larger machine in the back of the lab. “Yes?” she asked, not unfriendly but perplexed.

“Is this… Kasie’s lab?”

“Um… yeah?” she matched his tone.

One of his hands raked reflexively through his hair. Damn this was going to be awkward.

“I, um,” he cleared his throat, hard, and professionalized his tone, “Ma’am, I need to ask you a few questions about your relationship with Special Agent Gibbs.”

“…Okay,” she replied cautiously, the hand with the beaker still deployed halfway between her and the machine.

A long, painful pause. Then, “How long, have you, uh, been seeing each other?”

Her jaw dropped and she nearly dropped the beaker. “Say what?”

“Oh, come off it, Octavio,” a voice cut in hard from behind him, and his breath caught in his throat because he’d recognize that voice anywhere. He spun, slowly, willing his instincts to be wrong.

An irritated Jack Sloane was not a fun Jack Sloane. Arms crossed, she glared at him from the center of the open doorway. “Leave Kasie alone.”

He let out his held breath all at once. “Should’ve guessed,” he said finally, to which she offered a half smile, relaxing back into the side of the doorway.

He watched her for a long moment. “I volunteered for this operation,” he admitted, abruptly and in the manner of a man clearing his conscience, “when I heard you had moved to DC…” he trailed off.

“I figured,” she said, gently.

Another deep breath, he rocked back onto his heels, let out a slow breath. "You look happy. With him. He seems like a good guy."

“You're a good guy, too,” she said quietly, and he recognized her statement for what it was — both a kindness and the irrevocable closing of a door.

He smiled ruefully.

“I’m sorry, what is going on?” Kasie demanded finally, having set down the beaker and looking none-too-pleased by the ongoing interruption.

Jack had the grace to blush. “Sorry Kasie.”

The younger women fit the pieces together rapidly. “You? And, and Gibbs? No way. For real? Since when? How?”

“Kasie…” Jack warned.

Mendez just rolled his eyes. “You mean to say that a secret relationship is his alibi for a felony that could give him life in prison?”

Dead silence. Then a small noise from Kasie, “Oops?”

“C’mon Jack. Any one else out there who can corroborate this relationship?”

She sighed. “Yes…”

----------

Watching his three agents get stripped of their phones and escorted to separate interrogation rooms was not how Gibbs had pictured his afternoon.

Not when his morning had started as well as it had, with her fingertips in his hair and her mouth on his.

But when her old boyfriend showed up again in the bullpen, all bets were off.

----------

“Do you know why you’re here?” Mendez started off his interrogation of the three other agents on the criminal investigative team all in the same way.

It was all rather unfortunate, considering how well they’d all gotten along when he’d worked with them a few months earlier.

This was not a good day for him. Still, it was the job.

First was McGee.

“Um, no?” he’d replied, nervous under the fluorescent bulbs that usually weren’t turned on him.

“Where were you last night?”

“At home. With my family. We went over this already.”

Mendez waved off a hand, “Right, right. And do you have any idea where Gibbs may have been?”

Here McGee paused, wary. “Not that I can recall,” he said carefully, wracking his brains for anything that would help his boss, any fragments of memory or conversation, but coming up null. “You’ll have to ask him directly.”

Mendez let him stew for a few moments. “As you might imagine, I have. He came up with an alibi that I need you to corroborate.”

“Which is…?”

Mendez simply looked at him. The seconds dragged by, and McGee found himself getting steadily more annoyed.

“You want me to corroborate an alibi that I don’t know about? How am I — Oh.” Comprehension dawned.

Mendez raised an eyebrow.

McGee flushed slightly. “Um, yeah, I might know someone who might know.”

Mendez proceeded in a similar vein, with Bishop, drawing an answer much more quickly from her. Now that the nature of his former relationship with Jack was clear to her, he was off-limits — thought it had been equally clear to him from the beginning that she had eyes only for her partner.

And in fact it was Torres had proven the worst of the bunch, by far, playing dumb until Mendez snapped and outright asked —

“Are you aware of a relationship between Special Agents Jacqueline Sloane and Jethro Gibbs?”

“Yup.”

Not even the flicker of hesitation.

Torres clearly did not like him — and Mendez knew exactly why. He’d obviously spent too much time talking to Bishop for Torres’ tastes. Not that Mendez was going to bring that into the open. Dealing with one inter-office relationship at a time was enough for him, thank you very much.

“And you’re not just saying that to get your boss out of trouble?”

Nick waved a hand carelessly, standing up. “Oh come on, you know it too. The way she looks at him? Well, just saying that’s how you look at her.” And with that he dismissed himself from the interrogation room, letting the door swing shut behind him.

Mendez sighed. It was a pity that Canadians were stereotyped as being constantly polite. He’d quite like to throw something at this moment.

----------

Six months later

Wordlessly, Gibbs, tossed a ten-chip into the center of the table. “Raise."

Irritably, Fornell slapped the table and folded, tossing his cards back into the pile. “I’m getting another beer. Anyone?” No one responded, focused on the ongoing hand. He shrugged and walked over into the kitchen.

Jack hesitated, debating whether to call before eventually folding her hand. Grace matched with her own ten before a hoot from the kitchen startled everyone.

Fornell emerged moments later, swinging the mauve hand towel above his head and clutching a handful of fresh string green beans in the other.

“Who is she?!” he demanded, shaking the items in his fists.

Grace and Vance were struggling not to laugh, but Fornell had eyes only for Gibbs. “Who? No way in hell you buy either one of these” he shook both in the air for good measure, “of your own free will.”

Gibbs simply glared. “Ah, shit, Tobias. Sit down and let’s play.”

“Nope.” He tossed the vegetables and towel onto the table. “After all, there’s a real possibility here that she’ll meet me and realize I’m the better option. Wouldn’t be the first time we went through that process.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

A beat of silence. Jack chose that moment to reach across the table, snagging a single string bean and biting into it.

All eyes slid onto her. “S’my favorite snack,” she murmured with a careless shrug, enjoying every bit of the moment. Grace sniggered as realization dropped ever so slowly down Fornell’s face.

“And Tobias?” Jack ran her gaze up and down him and gave another little shrug. “I’ll, uh, be sure to keep your offer in mind.”

Everyone roared in laughter. After a shocked heartbeat, Fornell joined in.

----------

It was later that same evening, long after the others had left and he’d pushed her knees apart right there at the table before lazily leading her upstairs and into his bed.

“I think you should marry me.” His voice curled soft in the night, belying his twisting nerves.

“Yeah,” she agreed, tucking her cold nose in closer to the warmth of his chest.

He turned his head to look in her direction, unable to see her face in the darkness, “Yeah? Just like that?”

He felt rather than heard her breathe a laugh against his skin. “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

A year was a long time.

Long enough for her own relationship to first falter and then fail with a woman she’d once hoped she might marry.

But as Faith sat cross-legged on a bench -- bundled up against the unseasonably cold weather and courting an imminent splinter by picking absently at the chipping paint that had once covered the weathered wood -- she was absurdly relieved to once again spot the grey-haired man escorting the blonde woman up the hill, to once again watch them picking their careful way around the headstones of Arlington cemetery.

She pushed herself off the bench, suddenly self-conscious, and stood up.

“I want to meet her” floated the unmistakable voice from behind her left shoulder.

“Absolutely not,” Faith gritted out, a knee-jerk response, before turning around to find her ex behind her, smiling gently but resolved.

“Thought I’d see if you want to introduce us.” Sasha swiped a long dark hair out of her face as she spoke, glancing past Faith to where Jack and Gibbs were still making their way over to the rest of the group.

“You’re not doing this.”

Sasha seemed unfazed. “You said yourself they served together. She might be able to tell stories about my dad.”

“Well if she tells you his name, that’ll be a damn sight more than she’s ever told me about mine.” Faith returned acidly, then bit her lip to stop her tongue. But Sasha seemed to feel no such restraint.

“Faith. I’ll tell you what, my dad could be a total asshole some times, but I’d give a whole hell of a lot to have him back.”

“She never gave me that choice.”

“No, but you have one now.”

Faith didn’t respond.

“You’re scared.” Sasha’s voice wasn’t accusatory.

“Of?”

Sasha’s gaze was a little too knowing and a little too pitying for Faith’s tastes. “You built a large part of your identity around your antipathy toward her.” Here she held up a hand to forestall Faith’s rebuttal. “I’m not blaming you. It’s hard to let go of that, and normal to lash out when you feel those long-held beliefs shifting.”

Faith rolled her eyes. “I hate when you ‘shrink’ me.” Sasha’s tendency to turn her professional expertise into diagnosing her girlfriend may not have ended their relationship, but it probably hadn’t help matters either, toward the end.

Still. She may have had a point.

Because when she saw Sasha twenty minutes later, wiping tears from her eyes and slipping her phone into her pocket -- newly populated with Jack’s number and an offer of coffee in the upcoming weeks -- she could pin down and categorize her leading emotion as resentment with a strong undertone of jealousy.

And she admitted to Sasha as much when they next met, a month later, facing off across a dimly-lit Italian spot in Logan Circle on a Friday evening, seizing a second chance at a relationship whose end had been regretted by both.

But Sasha wouldn’t meet her eyes, and though the excellent cannoli in front of her may have been a contributing factor, her behavior didn’t go unnoticed.

“What…?” Faith drew out slowly, quietly, matching the restaurant’s ambiance, thumb rubbing slow circles on the back of the other woman's hand where they met in the middle of the table.

Sasha sighed. “If we’re gonna do this for real, again, there’s something you should know.”

----------

“I’ll get it!” Bishop called out following a knock at Jack’s apartment door, vaulting herself off the couch and yanking the door wide open, laughing, “So I have the best idea for how to decorate — oh!”

She stopped up short when it wasn’t Jack returning with the extra bag of sugar but instead a woman about her own age who was vaguely familiar.

The other woman seemed equally confused. “Is this… Jacqueline Sloane’s apartment?” her voice hesitant, almost suspicious.

Bishop rallied. “Yeah, come on in! We ran out of sugar for the frosting, so Jack ran out to grab more.”

“Oh. No, I’ll just…” She started backing away, turning to leave.

“No no no!” Bishop reached out, caught at her hand. “It’s our colleague’s birthday, so it’s a little crowded but there’s room for one more. How do you know Jack?”

“No, thank you,” Faith began, cut off by Bishop’s surprised indignation.

“Your hands are freezing! You don’t even have a coat, why don’t you have a coat?”

The coat was at the restaurant with Sasha, her wallet, and the remainder of the cannoli. She should be there too. But she was here, because some things demanded an explanation.

“Faith.” A male voice she recognized slipped across the room, calming and low, “Come inside. It’s cold out there.”

It was indeed cold on the stairwell, the walls to the building old and apparently less insulated than individual apartments. And she had her phone but even if she called the Uber now it would be a few minutes.

She crossed the threshold. “Special Agent Gibbs, right?” she acknowledged, realizing she hadn’t called him by name in the last two years. Was that rude? That was probably rude. She pushed down the embarrassment.

Bishop shut the door silently behind Faith, finally recalling the short-haired blonde as their witness from a previous case. Torres and McGee eyed her questioning, and Bishop silently shook her head, recognizing immediately that now was not the time for any of them to be asking questions.

Gibbs nodded at Faith. “Have a seat. Want some coffee?”

“It’s… 7 pm at night?” the words out before she could stop them.

He smirked. “Yup.”

She breathed a tiny laugh, relaxing into his genuine kindness, but didn’t sit. The tiny apartment was populated by half a dozen people she didn’t know. “No, I’m good. I was— I mean, it’s clearly not a good time. I’m gonna call an Uber.”

“Stay,” he offered.

She shook her head, sharply.

The room fell silent for a beat, until the front door swung open a second time.

----------

Jack took in the scene in one glance. Faith, standing in the center of the room, arms crossed, nose pink with cold. Gibbs leaning back into a chair with deliberate calmness, his team standing around the apartment, their expressions all differing levels of wariness. Ducky took the moment to poke his head out of the kitchen, a “kiss the cook” apron banded around his middle. Kasie and Abby had likewise peeked and immediately beat a tactical retreat.

Jack pushed the door clicked shut behind her, pulling a tote bag with groceries in behind her and setting it against the wall. “Is… are you alright?” She asked quietly, completely still, eyes trained solely on her daughter.

This was hardly the first place Faith would turn if she did have a problem, but Faith bit back the words, strove to push away the resentment. Maybe Sasha had a point… Speaking of — “Sasha. She said that you,” Faith looked everywhere but at Jack, “That you were there too... with her dad and the others.” She finally looked at the other woman, whose face was entirely blank.

It was impossible to miss her meaning. “Yes,” Jack admitted evenly, still leaned up against the door, ambushed in her own home.

“You’d tell her but not me?” The anger was back in full force, flaring up.

“I’d tell you anything,” Jack hissed response was immediate and with its own instinctive heat.

Gibbs’ team took the opportunity to crowd into the small kitchen, joining Ducky who had come to his senses and whipped his head back around the door jamb to offer what privacy he could.

“Anything,” Jack repeated, more quietly.

Faith hesitated, wavered on the knife’s edge of the choice, and fell distinctively to one side. She lifted her chin. “Okay. Start.”

“There’s a cafe around the corner,” Jack offered. Faith nodded.

Jack paused, hand on the door. “Where’s your coat—” and stopped, because the tone was all wrong, too parental, and Faith’s jaw had set hard. She cleared her throat and tried again, neutrally, “Would you like a coat?”

The rephrased offer was accepted, and the two stepped out without a backward glance.

As the door swung shut, the others crept back into the room.

“What” Torres asked, “was that?”

Gibbs just shook his head, smiling slightly. “She’ll be back. Don’t you got a birthday cake to frost?”

----------

It was more than two hours later when he heard the key turn in the lock. His team had said their goodbyes scarce minutes before, drawing out their time together for motives that he suspected had only partly to do with the birthday celebration and more to do with their curiosity.

Curiosity was a good trait in an investigative team. He didn’t see the need to tell them they were going to lose this round.

He wondered if she’d deliberately waited until they’d left before returning. It wasn’t a question he was about to ask.

With his back to the door, he methodically washed the cake plates, dishwater stained faint green by the excessive food color Torres had insisted on adding — though Gibbs had restricted his handiwork to one side of the cake only. Let his agents go home with green teeth. He’d stick to vanilla.

He heard her shoes slipped off, her coat hung next to the door, the lock flicked closed, the soft pad of feet over to the kitchen.

“How long did you two talk?” he asked evenly, continuing to wash the plates, offering her space to compose herself.

But when there was no response, he turned to find her standing in the middle of the kitchen, shoulders slumped, staring dejectedly at the single slice of white-frosted cake he’d left out for her on the countertop. Her face was red with cold but her eyes were dry.

“Jack?” he reacted instinctively, concerned, wiping suds from his hands on his jeans as he stepped over to her and stopped up only inches short, the fingers of one hand lifting to cup her cheek.

“I’m the worst,” she said abruptly, sighing, shaking her head and recovering a bit of herself. “I just… wanted this day to be perfect for you.” She grimaced. “And then I walked out on the whole thing.”

She’d pleaded, flirted, cajoled, and teased her way into convincing him to let her host a small birthday celebration for him at her apartment. The battle of wills had taken the better part of a month before he’d relented — and even then with the condition that she only invite their closest colleagues.

“It was perfect,” he said quietly. “Best one in years.”

And here she grimaced again, because he hadn’t had let anyone celebrate his birthday in years, and this had been her chance to reverse that trend going forward.

“Come here,” he said quietly, and she stepped forward into his arms, burying her face in his chest.

“How long did you two talk?” He tried again after a moment. If it was bad, better to know now, to figure out what he was dealing with.

“Mmm… maybe forty-five minutes,” her voice was muffled by his chest.

Was that good, he wondered. Bad? It seemed like a lot, but his penchant for conversation didn’t hold a candle to hers.

“It was … good? But hard. I don’t think either of us could have handled more than that,” she followed up after a moment, and some of his concern lessened.

“Ah,” he murmured, tightening his embrace. “And the rest of the time?”

She took a deep breath. “Just… walked around. Processed.” She released the breath slowly. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t feel like facing…” she trailed off and he understood. Even if his team hadn’t verbally peppered her with questions upon her return, their eyes would have done the job for them.

“Wouldn’t’ve hurt to have had some extra adult supervision,” he muttered, testing out how she’d react to lightening the moment. “You’re out of green food coloring.”

He felt rather than saw her wrinkle up her nose. “I thought I'd bought a whole new pack.”

“Ya did.” He drew out the words laconically and she laughed softly, hot breath through the fabric of his shirt.

“Make it up to me at next year’s party,” he dipped his face down low next to her ear.

Surprised, she barely had to turn her head to bring her face to face with him. “Wait, what?”

He shrugged minutely. “Think I heard that once a year was standard or something?”

“You don’t like celebrating your birthday,” she challenged.

“No. But you do,” he acknowledged. His eyes were too bright and too close and she almost wanted to look away, but she still stared at him, and there was something in her expression that spurred him on.

“Not much I wouldn’t do for you, Jack,” he admitted. “Loving you turned everything else upside down.”

She blinked, sucked in a breath, and stilled in his arms. “You’ve never said that before. That you love me.”

It was his turn to blink, to run back through his memories. “Haven’t I asked you to marry me?” he asked almost accusingly.

“Well, yeah,” her eyes were shining and her smile was impish. “But you never outright said you loved me.”

Now he laughed, a little embarrassed but unable to resist the joy in her face, “Well, I do.”

“Say it again,” she murmured the request as her lips slipped up the side of his neck, “and then you can take me to bed.”

----------

Some months later

Ding da-ding da-da-ding.

Wrist-deep in their most recent victim’s thorax and half past 8 pm on a Monday from hell, Palmer groaned at the chime of his phone.

There were only two people with that particular text chime, because there were only two people in the world to whom he had to respond to immediately -- for whom, indeed, it was necessary at all times to step back, discard his gloves, wash his hands, answer the text, and reverse the process with new gloves before returning to his work.

One was Gibbs. The other was his wife. And in that order.

He made it to the phone.

What’s Tim’s wife’s name? And his babies’?

The question was clear; her motivations less so. He responded with the names, but dug deeper. Why? What’s going on?

Breena's response was immediate, impatient. BBQ invitations for Labor Day weekend. I’ve only been planning this for three weeks now.

Oh. Right. He’d been supposed to help with this, his foggy mind supplied helpfully. But they were short-staffed right now and he hadn’t had an 8-hour workday in what must have been a month. Surely she couldn’t be mad at him for that? He texted back as much.

He was wrong. Frosty silence. He returned to their victim.

Ding da-ding da-da-ding.

Gloves off.

Should we invite your director and his kids?

Great idea, dear.

Nothing.

He snapped on a latex glove and paused. Still nothing.

He snapped on the other.

Ding da-ding da-da-ding.

Off again.

What about Gibbs’ lady friend? Serious enough that we should invite her too?

Who?

I don’t remember her name.

Palmer stared at the screen. Breena must be making a mistake.

She picked up on the second ring.

“What?”

“What are you talking about? Who—” and here he cut off sharply, wheeling to face the closed double doors to the morgue, as if the man he was referring to would have appeared behind him.

“Who,” he continued very quietly, “are you talking about?”

“Why are you whispering?”

“Don’t mind that now. Are you sure?”

“Of course I am.” Her voice was sharp, tired, and as he heard their daughter wail in the background he felt a stab of remorse.

“I saw them at Trader Joe’s a few months back. A sweet blonde. Don’t remember her name,” she continued.

“Are you sure it wasn’t his sister?” Did Gibbs have a sister?

She snorted. “Better not have been, how they were hanging on each other. And stop whispering, it’s annoying. When are you coming home tonight?”

He bit back a retort. “Soon as I finish this last autopsy,” he said soothingly, “Are you sure you don’t remember anything more about her? And why didn’t you say anything before?”

He could feel his wife rolling her eyes. “You can be so clueless sometimes, Jimmy. I of course assumed you knew. Like I said, blonde, mid-50s, probably, strong handshake—”

“You talked to them?!”

“Of course I did! She held Victoria too. I’ll just go to Gibbs and ask—”

“No!”

Palmer racked his brains, trying to remember every interaction he’d had with Gibbs over the past few months to see if any had been atypical. Had Gibbs assumed he knew? Was he supposed to know? Did anyone else at the office know about this woman?

“I…” he hesitated. “Just offer him a plus-one. No need to do anything else.”

“Fine. Come home soon.”

“Yes, dear.”

He returned to the victim and was just sewing up the chest cavity when —

Ding da-ding da-da-ding.

He ripped off yet another pair of gloves and lunged for the phone. Breena had it coming if —

Oh.

Go home to your wife, Palmer. It’s late.

How…? Sudden realization dawned, and he felt weak at the knees.

His wife was a strong-willed individual, and it was entirely possible — probable, even — that her strict sense of perfectionism had driven her straight to the source. She did take pride in her impeccably-lettered hand-made invitations.

But she wouldn’t have done this to him. Right?

Right?