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‘So, you want to grab a bite?’

‘Um, there’s something I need to take care of, rain check?’

‘Mmhm, yeah sure’.

Ok, that one hurt.

For months now each little brush-off had been akin to a midge bite, a minor irritation, easily ignored, annoyingly itchy at night. But these past few weeks, now they were smarting like bee stings, an immediate ouch that made her wince, a hurt that ached all day long, and a pain at night that couldn’t be ignored. The wounds festered.

The mounting collection of mini-hurts were leaving bruises on her fragile heart and soul, invisible, but palpable, she feared permanent damage.

How did it come to this?

Ten months since that explosive week, yeah, a pun that worked in every sense!

Emotionally and physically things between them had counted down, a slow ticking timebomb of raw need for each other until Boom; denotation, and, hot, molten, core melting, skin-on-skin heat…

It those first heady days he couldn’t keep his hands off her. Nowhere was safe from impromptu make-out moments, roaming hands and rushing fingers.

Completely inappropriate workplace sex? Guilty as charged!

But then the world changed, and they had to adapt to the new situation. And it was still all ok between them, different but still ok. COVID protocols and lockdown meant the team had to be split on opposite rosters. Of course, Nick took nights. They couldn’t see each other in real life, strict social bubbles were mandated, and nobody knew they were a couple, because they weren’t officially, they hadn’t labelled what they were.

Everyone had to do their bit to protect friends, colleagues, family, the vulnerable, and that meant staying apart.

Like everyone else it started out as fun; team Zoom quiz on a Friday night, Sing-a-long sangria-soaked Saturday… and late-night private video calls that always had a breathless, happy ending.

But the workload increased with only the skeleton crew and calls became just an ever-repeating rehash of ‘good night, sleep well’, ‘I left cookies on your desk’ and ‘the new copier is chewing up colour pages so don’t use that’.

Nick seemed different, the enforced isolation had affected him, not that he’d ever admit that. He’d been spending too much time with his thoughts. She’d loads of ways to entertain herself at home, painting, reading, baking banana bread and sourdoughs, chatting to family back home, learning Icelandic on Duolingo because why not!

But the pandemic continued, and life adjusted again. Masks and daily testing the new norm but they were back working together again, and she really thought everything would pick up where they’d left off.

But there were subtle changes.

Nick was struggling, she could see that, and he did what he always did when he’d something on his mind; ‘Shields up, evasive manoeuvres!’.

But he was still flirty in work…and he’d turned up at her apartment a couple of times, late at night, with the inevitable steamy result.

He needed to adjust, they were taking things slow. Not announcing their ‘togetherness’ had been a mutual decision …at the time, but now? Well, it seemed to be working better for him than it was for her!

And then Breena died.

She needed him, they needed each other, and they found solace and comfort in each other’s arms and she believed that was the nudge he needed, to be open, to tell her his fears and his worries and whatever was going on in that head of his.

But he didn’t.

The following week Nick seemed more upbeat. Her time was limited; she, like everyone else on the team was helping out Jimmy with little Victoria, with whatever he needed.

Out of the blue, Nick fixated on his idea of buying an apartment. Sure, he showed her the brochure of the newbuild block with its uber-modern layout. He deliberated over his choice of colour schemes, bathroom fittings and kitchen finishes.

She had hoped when she had done her massive declutter just weeks after the whole Merriweather episode and their understanding that he’d take the hint, see she’d made space for him, that he’d maybe move in…but it was probably too soon then for that, no matter what her heart wanted.

She was happy he’d put his mind to something positive, pleased he was finally putting down permanent roots. until he dropped another bombshell

‘Yeah, well, it’s a good investment. When I want to move on, I’ll just rent it out. The building actually manages that for you, no hassle, really good financial return on it too’ he told her enthusiastically.

It all smacked of a continuation of his temporary home, up and go, flight-mode existence.

Nothing had changed.

They had celebrated when he signed the final ownership contracts, pizza and beers in his place, the old apartment. She never realised she’d miss that grey old place so much.

She was welcome there.

Of course, she’d offered to help him pack up and with the move; her truck was perfect for transporting furniture and she was particularly good at organising and labelling boxes she’d joked.

But he said no.

He wasn’t bringing anything other than his clothes and a few personal items to the new place. Everything there was new, top of the range, colour-coordinated and styled to match the modern dark leather sofa, rich walnut woodwork and cream Italian marble accents of his interior design theme.

He wanted to get settled in, find his feet before having overnight guests.

He’d wiggled his eyebrows in that mischievously suggestive way that did all kinds of everything to her insides and she’d landed a playful backhander on his muscular chest. They were alone in the elevator at the time and thanks to the capacity rule they managed a teasingly tantalising tongue battle between the fifth and first floor, only breaking off at each ding of the door opening, but no one got in, so they delved in again.

Things were like that between them; everyday fun, flirty, with the occasional dollop of mind-blowing hot and steamy.

They were ok, she was ok with waiting for more, he just needed a little more time to adjust.

And then work got crazy again and suddenly she realised a whole month had passed since he moved in.

A whole month.

And she still hadn’t been to his new home. He hadn’t come over to hers either. He was busy programming his sound system or changing the shade of green-grey in his bedroom to a bluey-steel grey and then he was reorganising the kitchen cupboards…

A sting.

She was beginning to feel that it wasn’t just his old apartment and old furniture he wanted to leave behind.

But still, they laughed and teased, more than friends but less than something else.

It was cute that he’d noticed the COVID tester always gave her a smile, always apologised so sincerely for prodding her tonsils, hoping he hadn’t caused her too much discomfort. He was being nice and being totally professional, but she had noticed Nick hovering at her elbow, waiting til the guy was done, so they could hit the elevator together. Nick joked that the nurse had a COVID crush on her, and they had laughed but he’d stood a little closer the next morning casually twirling a lock of her hair around his finger as the tester probed with his little swabby thing.

Staking his claim.

She saw it for what it was, but she didn’t tease him about it, she just basked in the glow of his public display of affectionate possessiveness.

When Nick offering to take the ex-con Luis Carter home with him to his new apartment, before she had been there, well, that stung like a bitch! Yeah, it could be argued he was only having him there for protection detail, but it rubbed her up all the wrong ways until she was hissing with resentment.

She bit back all the things she wanted to say, all the angry words that would tell him she was hurt and upset and feeling overlooked and excluded and-,

Instead, she turned on her Little Miss Sunshine.

‘And now that Carter has broken you into having some houseguests…when do I get to see your apartment?’ she’d chirped airily.

‘Eh, hello? You're breaking up… zzzzzzz, uh, call me back!’ he goofed around, making static sounds.

Funny, right? But she wasn’t laughing anymore.

That night he compounded the brush-off with a nonchalant ‘raincheck?’

Ok, now she wasn’t imagining it. It wasn’t exactly the cold shoulder, it was exclusion. He didn’t explain what he was doing, he didn’t add ‘but I’ll be done by 9 pm so pop over’ did he?

Walls, barriers, omissions, secrets…lies?

The next morning, she was super-nice to the tester guy, why not? He’d a horrible job, exposing himself to hundreds of potentially COVID-infected NCIS staff every day, sweating his nuts off in full PPE. The least she could do was be nice to him.

And a coffee, yeah, she brought him a coffee because he couldn’t leave his testing cubical in all his protective gowns and stuff.

Just being neighbourly.

‘You go on’ she nodded to Nick while doing the awkward elbow bump thank you.

She lingered to chat to him-Cormac apparently, a little embarrassed that this same guy had swabbed her tonsils every day for weeks and she’d never noticed his name written in Sharpie on his plastic gown.

She wasn’t interested in him like that, but she’d realised her worldview had become blinkered, her focus was so on Nick she was missing out, life was passing her by.

She’d only sat at her desk when Gibbs marched in.

‘Grab your gear, dead Marine! Federal Agent Sawyer is collaborating on the case. Sawyer, go with Bishop, she’s our analyst, numbers, cyphers, languages all that stuff! She’ll understand what the hell you're on about!’

The case was complicated, a web of interlinked criminal organisations, and a lone hacker in cahoots somehow siphoning off encrypted data and selling it on, but the information seemed so innocuous the mystery was why it was selling for such an extortionate price.

They were missing something.

Over at the NSA, she’d met loads of people like Sawyer; off-the-chart intelligent, gifted in coding, analytics, linguistics. Most of them were the nerdy, serious types though, a mixture of Sheldon Copper and Spock.

Sawyer was…different.

He was funny, smart and physically got involved in the action. He was also very easy on the eye…

‘Do you mind if we use the conference room table to display the file pages? I think better if everything is spread out’ he asked sheepishly, his eyes barely meeting hers.

‘No problem, actually that’s how I think best too, though I used to use the floor’ she chuckled, rolling her eyes.

‘Ok, that’s weird!’

‘No it isn’t’ she snapped back defensively, waiting for the sneer of someone making fun of her.

‘No! I mean that’s weird because I do that too, use the floor I mean!’ he rushed to recover ‘But the raised eyebrows and the funny looks…’ he shook his head wryly.

‘Ahh yes, I remember those!’

‘So, this evening’ Sawyer started off, clearing his throat nervously, ‘there’s an outdoor creole grill open over on Delaware, we could maybe grab some food, pop a squat somewhere and run through some hypotheses? If you're free?’

‘Um, thanks but I have plans tonight’ she smiled apologetically.

‘No problem, but you should totally try the grill, they do the best pork chops and ribs ever…’ Easy breezy, Sawyer didn’t bat an eyelid, thankfully.

It was Wednesday already, she’d barely seen Nick both of them working opposite ends of the case.

‘Hey you um, ready to go? I’m starving, Chinese at mine?’ she offered lightly.

He was packing away his stuff over at his desk, where he seemed to hang out a lot more recently.

‘Eh, I have a thing…’ he turned her down with a regretful shrug.

‘What ‘thing’?’

‘Just a thing’ he replied evasively, and she swallowed down the golf-ball-sized lump of disappointment stuck in her craw.

‘Fine, night Nick’. She knew it was abrupt and rude even, but she’d just ran clear-out of patience with the man.

‘Ellie, raincheck? Tomorrow?’ he called after her as she hammered on the lift call button.

‘I’m busy!’.

She was annoyed and vexed and so goddam pissed off!

And everything was closed, only a handful of places had a COVID licence to open, no yoga gyms, no galleries, bookshops, libraries, no fucking bars and she needed a drink, like a properly mixed lime margarita…or chocolate cake or maybe some creole chops would do it?

She reckoned she could walk the distance to Delaware Square in about 40 minutes, eat and walk home again with a clearer head, full tummy, less antsy, better sleep.

So that’s what she did, she parked up the truck at home and then power-walked out her annoyance. Delaware Square was busy, well, busy for COVID times, businesses had adapted to the new rules with outdoor seating and screened-off areas.

She halted in her tracks not believing it, not trusting her own eyes, but there was no denying it.

She’d spot his back anywhere, she knew every curve of his shoulders, every hair on the back of his head, even through the plastic windbreak of the event-shelter currently operating as a restaurant.

Nick.

He was sitting at a table wedged-in, hip-to-hip beside a brunette, talking to another couple opposite them.

It looked like a cosy double-date!

The woman reached up and casually rubbed his back, her hand heading north until she was brushing the short hairs at his neck; he used to growl when she did that to him.

Nick’s head dropped onto the woman’s shoulder and she continued her caressing, circular motions on his arm, then their fingers interlaced, right there in public on the table.

And then he kissed her cheek.

The ‘thing’ he had to do was clearly his new brunette!

Enough. Done. Over.

She didn’t bother with the Creole grill, the ribs or the chocolate…she headed home and hit the wine, the chilled half-bottle of white from the fridge first, then the lukewarm one from her much-dwindled stockpile.

That night she cried, sobbed her heart out into her pillow until it was damp with her tears but when the morning came, she plastered on her smile, tanked a gallon of coffee and arrived at her desk early.

The potted plant she had bought him as a housewarming, the one she didn’t get to give him was binned. It was almost dead, despite her careful watering and attention, it had given up, tired of waiting to be a gift worthy of his appreciation… just like her.

She did what she needed to do, working with Sawyer was a welcome relief.

Nick had tried to suss out what her ‘busy’ thing meant, but he didn’t try that hard, he didn’t actually ask her out straight like a normal boyfriend would because he wasn’t that, they weren’t that!

After ten months and sleeping together she still had no idea of what they were.

Were. Past tense. Because whatever they were, they sure as hell weren’t now!

She was seething with pent-up anger, furious that he had treated her as he had. Call off the whole thing, by all means, say whatever they were wasn’t for him, label it just a ‘friends with benefits’ past its sell-by date if that’s all it was.

Say something, say anything!

But to cheat, to move on to someone else?

He knew how Jake had hurt her.

And he still did it.

She couldn’t breathe. She was going to be sick.

‘Bishop, Ellie? You ok?’ Nick’s concerned voice broke through her haze of stormy emotions his eyes watching her every move as she grabbed her bag and tugged her wayward hair behind her ears.

‘Fine, I just need some air’ she bit back, tugging on her coat with trembling hands.

‘I’ll come with-,’

No!  I just-, no!’

She sat on a windy bench along the riverfront outside the NCIS building, it was still bitterly cold but the chill managed to refresh her.

It hardened her as well, but she needed that. She’d let her guard down with Nick, he’d taken advantage, left her hanging on, waiting for crumbs...

How the fuck had she let that happen, allowed herself to become so weak, become a doormat?

She went back to the conference room and perused the scattered pages. That filled her head and pushed out the hurt.

Numbers, data, facts. These she could work with. These she understood.

It was gone five, she hadn’t eaten, couldn’t … but her stomach grumbled like a freight train coming through town.

‘Offer still stands on those ribs, Bishop?’ Sawyer smiled, no doubt hearing the echoing noise.

‘You know what? Yeah, sounds great actually. I’ll meet you at the elevator in ten, I just want to change’ she muttered plucking at her boring office wear.

In the locker-room, she freshened up, applied some lipstick, a quick flick of mascara and pulled out the dress she kept there in case Nick brought her out. They used to do that, way back in those first few fun weeks before the lockdown. Spontaneous drinks and dancing and falling in the door tipsy, a rush of lips and hands and bodies…

The dress was part of that, short, black, with floral print detail, buttons down the front that were easy to pop even one-handed…

It hadn’t been out of her locker in months.

Boots tied, jacket on, hair ruffled into soft waves and a squirt of her favourite perfume.

Ready!

‘Hey-, wow!’ Sawyer’s eyes bugged-out a little, maybe this wasn’t what he’d meant? Had she read date where he meant chow?

She was obviously really, really bad at reading guys.

‘Wow, you look amazing, and I feel underdressed’ he ran his deep blue eyes over her outfit and then winced at his own.

‘You're wearing a shirt and tie, I think you pass muster!’ she scoffed easily, guys had it sooo easy in the wardrobe department!

‘As long as I pass your inspection…?’

Ok so maybe she wasn’t completely off target!

The lift opened and they stepped in, she knew she was blushing even though everything felt wrong and she felt guilty and disloyal somehow.

It’s just ribs, get a grip!

The door had almost slid shut when a hand jammed in, bouncing the doors open, revealing a tense and twitchy looking Nick.

‘Lift’s full Nick, take the stairs’ she snapped, refusing to meet his glare.

‘Um, max capacity is three’ he snarked, pointing to the poster.

‘Three’s a crowd. Take the stairs!’ she spat back, blocking his entry and punching the ground-floor button with her fist.

‘Woah! Ok, I think I’ve maybe stepped into the middle of something-,’ Sawyer cringed, his hands up.

‘No, no you haven’t. It’s fine, Torres and I had a thing but that-,’

‘Have a thing’ Nick growled angrily his fists clenching at his thigh, his foot now propping the elevator door open as it tried its best to close.

Had

Have!

‘Not in my book’ she flared, her voice laden with scorn.

‘Recheck your book!’ he barked stepping into the lift and nose-to-nose with her. Waves of anger rolled off both of them as the doors finally slammed shut and the descent began.

‘Ok I’m going to step out and leave you guys to…’ Sawyer's finger had been poised to hit the next floor but he snatched it back fearful of having it ripped off as Nick smashed on the stop button mid-floors.

‘I like the dress’ he said tightly as he crossed his arms. If he thought this would intimidate her somehow, boy was he wrong!

‘Too bad it’s not for you’ she purred deliberately goading him.

‘But it’s for him?’ he stabbed his finger and Sawyer let out a squeak.

‘He asked me out, I said yes’

‘Why?’

‘Because you had a ‘thing’’ she bit back caustically, unable to keep the wrath from her tone.

‘That was last night’

‘Oh, I know’ she smiled sweetly. ‘We’re done here’.

‘We’re not done Ellie, until you tell me what the hell is going on?!’ he bristled but she could see his uncertainty as his chin twitched, the muscle taut as he gritted his teeth.

‘Single guy, single girl, you do the math!’ she shrugged indifferently.

His face blanched.

‘Seriously? After everything that’s how you want to play this?’ his head snapped back in a flabbergasted double-take.

‘Says the king of players!’ She really did try not to screech.

‘Wait, what now?’

‘I’m done, Nick! I’m done waiting, second-guessing, being excluded, pushed out!’ her arms were waving wildly, and poor Sawyer was doing his best to crawl up his own ass and disappear!

‘Whatever this, us was-,’ she flicked her finger between them, difficult, as they were standing toe-to-toe, breathing in the same fiery air, ‘it ended weeks-months ago! You just didn’t have the balls to say it to my face!’

‘To say what?’ he asked baffled at her outburst.

‘It’s been a month Nick, a month!’ she seethed, taking a gulp of air to tide off the tears she knew were threatening to fall. ‘I got you a potted fern you know’ she tried controlled conversational, but the words came out stiffly as her lips quivered, ‘as a housewarming gift and it curled up and died waiting!’

‘So, all this is because I haven’t invited you over to the apartment yet?’ he heaved incredulously, ‘Fine, let’s go! Come home with me tonight, now if you want!’

‘Don’t you have to tidy up? Or did you change the sheets already?’ she hissed sarcastically, her venom poison in her mouth.

‘Sheets? What?’

Taking his chance in the moment of stunned silence, Sawyer whispered timidly 'If you’ll just let me out, I’ll-,’ 

Shut up!’ they both roared at him in unison and he backed off meekly.

‘Ten months, years actually, I’ve wasted on you’, her voice was getting shrill with the effort of keeping from crying. ‘I thought you were different Nick, I thought we were-,’

‘Ellie-,’

‘Enjoy your ‘thing’ Nick, I almost feel sorry for her!’

‘Ooooh ouch!’ Sawyer grimaced as the penny dropped.

‘You think I’m cheating on you?’ Nick muttered his voice controlled and dangerously low.

‘I don’t think, I know!’ she barked at him ‘I saw you and I'm livid that it took me so long to figure it out! You share nothing with me, nothing! Your fucking Alexa knows more about you than I do!’ she was panting now, every fibre wanted to breakdown and cry, howl out her hurt and frustration but she held her shit together!

‘I’m meant to guess, what you want, what you feel, what we are, what I am to you? Is that it? And I’m the fucking idiot who gave you the space to figure stuff out, the time to adapt, to adjust because everyone knows Nick Torres jumps ship at the slightest hint of real feelings. Well, I’m done. This toxic mess has hurt me more than anything, I just can't-,!’ she sobbed, the panting breathlessness overwhelmed her ability to halt the tears.

‘I’m sorry-,’

‘Well good for you!’ She slammed her palm on the emergency button and the lift shuddered into action, the doors opening with a cheerful ding not ten tense silent seconds later.

‘Bishop? Um, I think I might just rain-check on the ribs’ Sawyer slithered past them both nervously and made his escape.

‘Night Bishop, see you tomorrow. Torres, you're a fucking idiot’ shaking his head walking away towards the rows of cars.

‘Ellie, can we talk?’

‘No!’ She rooted in her pocket for a tissue but found only an old disposable mask.

‘But I want to explain-,’

No, I don’t want to hear it, there is nothing you can say-,’

‘I love you’

‘Yeah right!’ she spat sarcastically. ‘The only times you even remotely start saying ‘feely’ stuff is A. when I’m in danger-’ She lifted her foot and theatrically checked for a bomb, ‘or B. when you're jealous’ and she stabbed a pointy finger in Sawyer’s direction. ‘And even if that wasn’t the truth, what I saw last night…’ She angrily brushed away another traitorous tear off her cheek with her leather jacket sleeve not helping the situation at all, so she started on her ‘storming off’ moves.

Last night?’ His hand clasped her forearm turning her back around.

‘Take your fucking hands off me Torres or so help me I will eviscerate you!’ He slowly released his grip and she pulled roughly away.

‘Ellie-,’

‘I’ll make it work in the office, -on the job. Nobody knew about us anyways, but you need to get the fuck away from me right now and stay away, because I won’t be held responsible for my actions-,’

‘Ellie, stop!’

‘I can’t believe I-,’ She couldn’t cry, but her breaths came in shuddering jerky hiccups that she couldn’t control.

‘You’re not listening to me!’ he roared finally stopping her in her tracks and she turned towards him incandescent with rage.

‘That’s right, I’m not! Have a nice life asshole!’ and she turned her back on him.

That was a mistake!

No!’ His arms locked around her, holding her against his body, her back to his heaving chest.

‘Take your hands off me now!’

‘No! I need you to listen!’ he bellowed his mouth against her ear, his immoveable embrace locking her arms to her sides.

That didn’t stop her from fighting back.

She kicked and booted, her heels scrapping down his shins, she stamped on his insteps and she walloped her head back and heard him grunt as her skull collided with his nose.

‘Cálmate cariño, please!’ he begged even as she landed more bruising hits.

‘I will not calm down, how dare you!’ she roared still struggling against his iron-grip armhold.

‘I won’t hurt you, I will never hurt you’ he spoke calmly, his lips millimetres from her ear, his warm breath there sending a reflexive shiver down her spine.

‘Too late’ she sniffed icily, and she stood bolt-upright, hard and resilient.

‘I’m sorry. Just listen first, and then, walk away if you want’

She yielded the barest nod, and she felt his grip shift, his jaw opening and closing against her shoulder as he looked for words.

‘Well, I'm waiting!’ she nudged against him impatiently. She heard him huff out something just under his breath, too low to hear.

‘I…I got scared’ he mumbled, ‘of how I feel about you, everything was so good and then during the lockdown, I think I got scared. My head goes to darker places when I’m on my own. And then Breena died and Jimmy, god that guy’s in pain and I was scared of ever losing you and feeling-,’

‘So your dick fell into a brunette, got it!’

‘The brunette last night was my sister, Lucia. I’ve, we’ve been trying to find my dad. The people we were with, they work with illegals. They had news from an ICE detainment camp in Florida that a guy, Luis Miguel Torres, same date of birth, had died of COVID there a couple of weeks ago’.

‘It might not be him’ she whispered, instantly trying to look on the bright side.

‘But it might’ he sighed. ‘If I let you go will you kill me or leave me?’

‘I guess you’ll have to take that chance’ she replied and his arms slipped from around her. She missed the closeness, the warmth almost immediately. ‘That’s the first time you’ve touched me in weeks.’ she murmured sadly turning to face him.

He looked destroyed, crushed, and hopeless.

‘I’m sorry, I fucked up, I'm fucked up, but I love you

‘And how the hell was I supposed to know that Nick?’ she raged, furious that the first time he’d ever said those words was in the middle of a horrible argument. ‘You being over-protective and jealous isn’t enough for me. I want a real relationship, a boyfriend, normal stuff where we talk about plans for the future and I’m not always dancing on eggshells that you’ll get cold feet and leave!’

‘I’ll never leave you, Ellie!’

‘Yeah? Your new apartment, the one I’ve never been to, the one you bought without even asking me what I thought about any of it, can be rented out for profit at the click of your fingers. Perfect for when you want to up sticks and move on, huh?’.

‘I bought the apartment to prove I can finally put down roots. And yeah, I’ve been a little consumed with getting it just right, I’ll hold my hands up! Ellie, I’ve never owned anything before. It’s a big deal for me. The option to rent it out is there so that…’ he took a slow shuddering breath and took her hand in his, ‘-in case we ever want to move in together or buy a house. It can be collateral, security for a mortgage. I told you about that to reassure you that I’m planning ahead, for us’.

‘And again, you couldn’t just talk to me about any of that?’ she asked witheringly.

‘I thought you were happy with us taking things slow-,’ he held his hands up when he sensed her vexed protest to that statement, ‘ok, I dropped the ball on that! But you didn’t tell me you were upset or worried about us either. I thought we were ok’

Not ok, Nick! You’ve left me out of every decision, every event in your life. You kept things so secret I embarrassed myself with Sawyer just now and almost, well you know what almost happened. This half-assed, half-in-half-out thing-, I can’t do it anymore, I love you, but this isn’t working for me. I refuse to cry any more tears over-,’

‘I made you cry?’ he interrupted her rant, pain evident on his face.

Yes Nick, you’ve made me cry! I thought you were seeing someone else! How do you think that made me feel?’ she shouted, punching him hard in his rock-solid chest.

‘About a hundred times worse than me seeing you in that dress leaving with someone else? And that hurt like a well-aimed kick in the balls’ he grimaced adjusting himself automatically. They both laughed weakly but only for a brief moment, they were at a crossroads;

Now or never

Make or break.

He broke first.

‘Ellie, I’m not ready to live with you yet, or get engaged right now but I promise, I want those things. I’ve been talking to a counsellor, not Sloane, I didn’t think she’d be exactly neutral. Please give me a chance to prove to you I want us for the long-haul, but I just need to make slow, steady steps. I’m not like you I can’t-, I don’t have the skillset to take a leap of faith and land gracefully. I’m afraid I’d crash and burn and take you with me and I can’t do that to you’.

‘I need us to start Nick. I’m not ashamed of my feelings but I think you are. And unless that changes-,’

‘Then we go public, today’ he blurted. ‘We tell Gibbs, we complete the HR disclosure, everything official and above board’.

‘And I can tell my family?’ That had long been a bone of contention. She hated lying to them.

‘Yes, we’ll tell everyone we're dating, we’re together, in a proper relationship. And the offer still stands about coming home with me tonight, seems I’ve been neglecting the physical side of our relationship I’d like to make it up to you…a lot’.

‘Well, the fern’s dead so I don’t have a housewarming gift’.

‘It’s not dead, I picked it out of the trash and gave it to Kasie to fix. She’s got it under ultraviolet lights or something. Seems sunshine is essential for plants too’ he smiled tentatively, still not sure what her reaction would be.

‘I don’t have anything with me’ she muttered nonchalantly, trying not to show her desperation to feel all of him against every inch of her.

‘I have all the stuff you left in my old place already in a drawer, just for your things’. She got a drawer…hmm was that good or bad?

‘What stuff?’ she quizzed him really not having a clue what she’d left on previous romantic sleepovers.

‘Oh um, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, some very pretty underwear, a blouse and jeans, I’ve washed them, they got a little dusty when we… in the basement that time. But there’s enough for a fresh outfit for work in the morning…if um, you want to stay over…if that’s what you want, I mean’ he stammered seriously on the backfoot with her stoic expression.

‘But no PJs? guess I’ll have to decline-,’

‘You're not going to be needing those’ he whispered stepping closer.

‘I’m not?’ she tilted her head coyly.

‘Nope’.

‘Why not?’

‘I love you, you love me, no take backs’

‘You better have food, we’re not testing out your bed until I have food’ she told him stubbornly, she really was starving now.

‘I have food…but I thought we could test out the walk-in rainforest shower first…then the bed.’

‘All depends on the meal Torres’ she teased ‘Sawyer promised me meat’.

‘So am I…’ he chuckled, kissing her neck just how she liked it.