This finished up a bit later than I would've liked, but that's alright. A special thank you to torresandbishop on Tumblr! Your gifsets saved me when I was writing this; for the life of me, I couldn't remember which episodes were which, so your hard work helped me pinpoint the specific events that have led up to such a wonderful ship.
There are references here to both the show's canon from 14x01 - 17x14, and my own work, lessons learned, where it is Ellie's side to falling in love with Nick. Check that out, too, if you'd like!
"Eight years of service, and what has it gotten me? Huh?
A broken family, a lifetime of lies,
sixteen different names, sixteen different home addresses,
no wife, no kids—I don't even know what I want anymore.
I don't even know who I can trust."
Nick Torres, 14x01
"You know, I risked my life to save yours."
Nick Torres, 17x14
When it happens, there is no choice: he pushes her body out of the way. He hears her soft grunt and sharp gasp right before there is pain, pain, pain, and nothing else.
He pities Elena. He plays the charming young gangster well, with a heart of gold and a smile of perfection and a gun ready to fire at her father's will. He knows he can play her well enough to get what he needs: it's nothing he hasn't done before.
But he pities her, just the slightest bit, and maybe that is his downfall.
Lucia comes and barely recognizes him, begging him to come home. (He barely recognizes himself.) Two months pass and Leo Silva is out for blood, after his family. If anything enrages the devil inside him, it is this.
Something snaps and he goes dark, ruthless and rogue. Silva's men try to pin him down, but he escapes with little more than a few bruises, the largest one on his ego. He's been made. He never gets made. Maybe it's a sign for him to stop. Maybe it's his time.
But what, then? What comes after this: sixteen identities, Lucia turning her back on him (or maybe he turns his back on her), eight years of webbing together half-truths to take down criminal organizations only to be thrown into another role to play, another person to be? Lucia has a husband, a daughter, a family. He has nothing. Nick Torres lies buried underneath the sixteen people he chose to be, the people he's hurt and killed along the way, and the empty crushing magnitude of a future of nothing.
There's adrenaline speeding through his veins as he jabs one of Silva's men and turns around to plant a roundhouse kick in the other idiot's face. They both go down easily; one of them is resilient until his fist meets his nose again and again. When he's down, Nick turns, but slows reflexively, seeing the gun ready to shoot and he takes a deep breath, steadying himself for the pain when—
"NCIS, drop it!" A man and a woman. Two gunshots, blood blossoming in his chest. Slowly, he turns around to meet the next ones for him to beat; there's a groan to his right and perhaps it's pleasure this time, and not reflex, that makes him smash the man's chin into the brick wall.
A thousand thoughts race through his mind: they found him, they almost killed him—they said NCIS—you're Nick Torres, remember?—that means they're on your side, they're supposed to be anyway—"Special Agent Nick Torres." And he sees her, and she is something to focus on, a voice that breaks through the void of panic and confusion he finds himself in—a petite blonde; there's a bit of cleverness in the analyzing look in her eyes and she gives the feeling as if he's been ripped apart layer by layer; there's frustration and curiosity in the set of her jaw. There's strength in her stance and confidence in the way she holds herself. She purses her lips and stares him down, suspicious and cautious of what he imagines to be a feral, wild look in his eyes.
"Relax," he reassures (himself), "we're on the same side." She doesn't look convinced.
When he meets Special Agent Eleanor Bishop, Nick has nothing but a life on the run; he's been looking over his shoulder for the past month and escaping Buenos Aires is just the beginning of his new life as a rogue, burned agent. He does not expect two NCIS agents to take him in and help him close out his very last deep-cover mission. (And later, he realizes, to give him a family to trust and a life that he wants to be Nick Torres in.)
Colleen Kennedy is an easy target. Seemingly innocent, impossibly naive when it comes to men being interested in her, and greedy as hell. She's a murderer, he reminds himself as she kisses him, as he wraps his arms around her and smiles sweetly. When she smiles back, eyes drinking him in, he tastes poison from her lips and disgust in his.
When it's over and they're cuffing her hands behind her back, he cherishes the look of surprise, betrayal, and shame on her face; there's an explosion of anger in her eyes as she sees the triumphant look in his.
Unfortunately, she gets away with murder. He outdrinks the regulars at the bar after her lawyer declares the evidence circumstantial and forces her release from custody.
He forgets about it soon. The next day, he's on assignment to take down a human trafficking ring.
At first, he approaches Nick Torres's identity as if this is his seventeenth deep-cover mission. It's much more permanent, of course, and he should be able to settle back in much more smoothly than his other previous identities, right?
He's never lied to himself so harshly before. Somehow settling back into Nick Torres is like trying to remember the first time Lucia drove him around their neighborhood when she was first starting to learn how to drive—there is something familiar in the back of his mind, crawling back into existence and fighting whatever recent persona he's adopted, but he feels it so distantly that he thinks he'll never be able to fully be Nick Torres again.
So day by day he works on Team Gibbs; he's friendly and nice and charming and all the things he thinks Nick Torres would like to be again and all the things he tries to remember he was when he first met Quinn all those years ago, when he first trained to be an agent.
There are things he likes about it: he can get instant satisfaction without having to sink his teeth deep into another identity, catch the bad guys right away instead of letting other agents take the credit, and dance all he wants in the squad room without anyone thinking about why their resident bomb-maker likes dancing like a dork to Latino music.
He likes the tenacity with which Gibbs and the rest of the team chase down criminals, bring them down without remorse, and stop at nothing to get justice. He likes that Gibbs will go to extreme measures to ensure the murderer does not go unpunished. He appreciates and respects this, and it's something he's rarely seen in all of his other cases, when whatever lead agent who cast him as a criminal told him to stay in his role for months on end until the team back home had enough evidence to arrest the head of whatever snake he needed to take down.
Working on a team? It's intriguing to say the least. Maybe it's the people around him, who have a sort of youthful light in their step and a smile on their face; maybe it's the way the skylights glare in the annoyingly orange office, and the way the light hits just right onto the desk diagonal from his. But he thinks that maybe, maybe there is something he can start to like about this.
He learns early on in this twisted game of half-lies and half-truths that he shouldn't trust anyone. It's his third deep cover assignment, and he's thrust into a world of biker gangs and executions. The leader of the Rosewood Boyz trusts Medina and welcomes Nick into his inner circle; they rob banks and threaten tellers and break into safes. If it stopped there, the job would be easy.
He likes some of the kids here, has spent time getting to know them as Nick Medina, and he knows that with time, he can turn them to testify against the main asshole of the gang. But there are people dropping like flies and bodies piling up; one of the kids that Nick liked is among them. Mitch leans into Nick's face when he inquires about their whereabouts, breath rotten and teeth black and says, "I killed them. I killed them both." He cocks his gun to make a point. "I think next is Layton. He seems like he'll turn around soon, and we don't need snitchers here."
Nick's blood turns cold, and he blinks, cautious and angry. He agrees with Monroe, even encourages him: Mitch has always liked Medina's support in his endeavors. But nothing could be further, of course, from the truth, which is: Monroe needs to be stopped, and there is only one way for Nick to do this.
His hands itch as he plants the gun, as he convinces Layton to testify, as he violates the law so terribly but has never felt so strongly about committing a crime until this moment. If anyone is willing to bloody their hands, to catch a killer before he murders anybody else, at whatever cost necessary, it's Nick. To bring down Mitch Monroe? He'll do anything.
But the boys who he helps by stopping the head of the snake? He likes them, values them as those who he's helped with the job. He likes them because they make him see that what he does means something, that there is value in the work he does. So he saves Layton and acknowledges that by putting Monroe behind bars, he's saving countless others from facing worse fates.
But trust them, trust Layton? Trust is fragile and treasured; it is hard-earned, often bought, and all too easy to break.
He begins to open his eyes to the world around him, a world of deceit and chess and power and money, and he cares for none of them, yet excels at his job of conning criminals into confession by embodying those exact values. He doesn't tell anyone what he's done; he lets the lie sink into police evidence and ship Monroe to prison. And so, one thing's for sure: if he can trust anyone in this business, it is only himself.
So she saves his life the first time they meet—it's no big deal. Well, that's almost giving her too much credit, since it was Gibbs who shot the man and not her. But nonetheless, she is there to see him: wild and rogue and stripped of an identity. Not exactly the best first impression for him, but he definitely had an interesting first impression of her. She's not one to back down from a violent man who just knocked out two people with his bare hands, from a rogue agent who could have killed her right then and there, along with her boss. There wasn't a hint of fear in her eyes; instead, there was something else lurking. Curiosity, understanding, compassion, maybe?
Needless to say, there's something uniquely intriguing about her. She tells him later, while they're cleaning up Silva's (his) mess, "If you need anything, we're here," as if he would believe it after two months on the run. And yet he puts his faith in the soft, gracious way she welcomes him to the team.
She seems to always be there, as annoying as it is. She asks him what the picture of himself is (A reminder, he says, because sometimes, he wakes up in the morning and goes to work not knowing what his name is today or what his home address is or what backstory he has in his pocket, ready to talk about why he joined the cartel); she laughs when he starts dancing, and her smile is bright against the damned skylights that hang above the office; for some reason she tries desperately to understand why he cares so deeply about the witness who might get deported by ICE.
He learns that she's brilliant (she speaks Pashto, who the hell does that?); she has a quick-fire tongue that can match his own; she knows how to push someone's buttons and when to do so to get what she wants (Will you please stop singing in the car, Bishop?, he yells).
He learns that she is no more innocent than he is. She is willing to do whatever it takes to stop a murderer, even if that means her hands are bloodied with crime. It's the price they pay with the job: so when Qasim dies and he sees her break apart at the seams, he sneaks into her apartment and leaves some food behind; when Kai Chek dies in an explosion that he knows she had some part of, he tells her about his partner, about Diaz, and an undercover operation that went bad, and offers her time and a promise that he would listen to her whenever she needed it.
It's the least he can do: she found him at his darkest time, when he was lost in a sea of names and cover identities and death; slowly, he's realizing that Nick Torres is someone who he wants to be, someone who has friends like Gibbs and McGee and Clay and Ellie, and someone who wants to be a good friend for them.
His partner dies in front of his eyes. The blood stains the dirty rags he's been wearing for the past week; the cell he sits in reeks of sweat and blood and saliva and now, the carcass of a friend. Maybe this is it, he thinks. This is how he dies. He thinks of Lucia, pregnant with her daughter, and her husband, both heroes fighting in the front lines while he plays a snake, slipping and sliding in between enemy lines.
Going deep cover, they trained him to endure pain, serums, psychological techniques, and so on. But staring into his partner's body, bullet hole in the back of his head, Nick fails to stifle his sobs.
Oh, he's absolutely terrified down to his core. His partner should have left him, but instead he played hero because he wanted to save Nick. Idiot.
Nick shivers as he vows to never fall to such idiocy: no more partners, no more ties. What kind of idea was it to have partners undercover? A secret isn't a secret if one more person knows.
Never again. This way, he can die alone if he needs to and he doesn't have to save anybody.
They both lose Clay too soon. He feels himself spiral when the sunglasses break, reminding him of all the times he and Clay laughed or teased Ellie together; with that, he thinks of how they failed him, how now, the glasses are shattered, and every single little detail of how Reeves died cracks at the bravado he puts up all the time.
But these people—all of them managed to sneak past his walls and drag him into their small family unit that somehow makes sense. Reeves was generous and kind, and Nick couldn't believe him at all when he gave away his glasses without a second glance. It was such a small gesture, but to Nick, who was finally starting to understand what it meant to be home for more than a year as himself, to see that he had friends and family as Nick Torres—it meant much, much more than Reeves could have ever known.
He can't say any of this. He doesn't know how to. He still feels the blood pool around his ankles like they did when he and his partner were made, when he hardened his heart and promised himself that if anyone has to die, it would be him and only him.
But he can say this: "I miss my buddy, Ellie." And so she nods, because she, too, loved Clay as he did, flirted with him although it annoyed him (why?, he asks himself), and misses her friend. He leans into her arms, strong for her stature, and lets her walk him inside.
She stays with him that night, and they trade stories about Clay and laugh and talk until they fall asleep, head-to-head on the L-shaped sofa.
Interlude, or perhaps, Ground Zero
It's cold, and that's the excuse Nick uses when he pulls the blanket over them. Sofia laughs, because she always does, no matter what; it is the simple details that make him smile. The way her cheek is warm against his fingers, the way her breath hitches right before his nose hits hers, the way her fingers wrap around his neck and her thumb sweeps over his jaw. He presses his forehead against her, perfect and still and wonderful, and when she coughs from the radiation in her body, he holds her tighter and tighter, as if his hands could battle the cancer for her.
Two weeks later, he knows his limits. Sofia's hands are cold, and Lucia takes his hand instead, bringing his head to her neck as his world falls apart, crumbling from his fingers.
He sees Sofia in the way Ellie laughs, in the way her eyebrows furrow when she solves a problem, in the way the corners of her lips shift upward right before she delivers a blow to Victor's jaw. The way she pulls back after she smashes their lips together, violent and passionate and a very welcome surprise. The way that, for the first time in a very long time, she stuns him speechless and suddenly, as if this moment is the eye of the hurricane of all sixteen previous identities, Nick Torres no longer knows where the line was drawn between undercover and real and oh yes, I would very much like for this to be real.
Colors burst and fade and burn together in the fog and haze of it all and he is certain of one thing: if Nick Torres wants to be somebody, it is Ellie Bishop's partner, in anything and everything.
Alex Garcia doesn't blink at the children they keep in cages, drugged and still. He doesn't care about the way they are stacked into steel containers, and he certainly doesn't hear any of their cries of confusion, panic, and fear. He doesn't see, doesn't hear, doesn't, can't.
He isn't supposed to know that NCIS has gained information of the location and shipments of the human trafficking ring he works for and he definitely isn't supposed to know anything about the raids their teams are planning when the package reaches its destination. Which will eventually rescue each one of these children. If they survive the trip, that is.
But Nick Torres, somewhere deep down in the murky waters of Alex goddamn Garcia, prays for forgiveness; instead, there is a demon in him somewhere, crawling from the anger and frustration of being useless and complicit in their capture and sale. He curses his commanding officers and somewhere in D.C., the Director's office, for making him lie in wait and do nothing to help. The demon rises and eats him alive as he locks the container door and walks away.
The operation lasts two months, perhaps one of his shorter assignments, but most certainly the worst. If he disobeys orders, he not only puts the children in danger, but endangers the hundreds of rescue missions for children NCIS is able to locate based on the information he provides.
But who is he to decide this, the demon asks? Isn't he trading children for children? Isn't he killing some in exchange for saving the others? What kind of monster—
Alex Garcia doesn't blink. Nick Torres seems to quiet down towards the end of the sting.
There's another man locking up the crates for the night with him, along with a team of six bodyguards to kill anyone who stumbles onto their business. He's been counting down the minutes because this is the last day he'll have to report for duty as Garcia: the operation came to an end this morning, when the head of the human trafficking ring was arrested and the rat exposed every part of his organization in exchange for a reduced sentence. In three hours, NCIS will raid this goddamn place and Nick can forget about anything that ever happened.
But that's not where this ends. Because this asshole has unlocked another crate and pulled a whimpering, sixteen-year-old girl behind him, and the six of the others are still inside, watching basketball. This is no uncommon occurrence. Nick has heard this man do unspeakable things, and all Garcia can do is watch and listen and do absolutely nothing. He is an accomplice in every damned crime in the past two months and he'll get paid for it.
Something within him roars. There's a distant rumbling, and maybe there is a train coming or a bomb ticking, but he can hear it in his ear, and something—snaps.
Nick's hands are on the other man's neck before he knows it, and he snarls, and there's a crack and a thump. The girl wails in response, but he growls, "Get up. Run. Call NCIS." He turns away, not willing to look at her face and see the scratches and the bruise on her eye and he is surrounded. It is six to one, and he laughs, because it is so, so easy—who do they think he is?
Three throw punches wildly and he ducks and sweeps his feet across them all. There's another on top of him, wringing his neck, but he forces his knee into thick body mass and throws the man off him. A crash, a groan, and nothing. There's a knife in his face, and his grin turns sinister. He grabs the wrist and wrenches it backwards; the snap and the cry of pain fuel his anger. The knife drops into his palm.
And the rest is history.
When they finally raid the place, they find him standing in the middle of a circle of blood trickling down from knife wounds, splattered across his arm. Well, the demon says, and the voice sounds suspiciously like his own. So they've made you a killer. Isn't that what you do best, anyway?
He wakes up and smells blood all over him; there's something terribly wrong about the way he feels because he hasn't felt this exhausted since so long ago when he took down the trafficking ring. It's a nightmare: he's on a ship, he's been drugged, and he has no idea where his shirt is.
The day gets worse, and he can't help but doubt himself when Bishop is questioning him. Did he kill that girl? Was she attacking him, did he defend himself? He wouldn't be surprised if that was the case: he knows what he's capable of when he loses his temper.
He remembers talking to Gibbs, telling him that he looks in the mirror and sees the truth of himself: Nick sees the monster lurking underneath the warm exterior he plays out, a remnant of the eight years he's spent becoming a ghost. Being on the team makes him want to forget all of that, to push it aside and pretend that he can move on from those instincts and be free from the past and the crimes he's committed for the sake of the greater good, so he claimed.
So when they know it's not him, the anger rushes forward. Ellie doesn't apologize, not even when he asks for the slightest bit of faith from her. And he walks away from her, wishing he doesn't… (doesn't what, you coward?).
He doesn't know when he starts to trust Ellie Bishop. Somewhere between escaping Silva, losing Qasim, going undercover together, and losing Reeves, Bishop became Ellie became B and so many other names he has for her that don't give her justice. She saved his life simply by meeting him, by offering to cut out shrapnel from his back, by smiling at him as she pulls her lips away, the only undercover operation where he doesn't regret a single thing in it at all (the way you looked at your partner after that kiss… any man who can fake that deserves an Oscar). He doesn't know how to put the ways she has helped him into words because somewhere in the midst of all of this, that monster that once consumed Nick Torres was tamed.
But he feels it crawling back out, now that his anchor has seen him, the true him: a killer, someone who doesn't deserve her. He misses Reeves. He misses Lucia and her daughter, but he's pushed them so far away from him because he's dangerous to be around, and it's his fault they were nearly killed, and their family's broken apart. So many things have been his fault—
"Hey," a hand snatches the drink out of his hand. "I think you've had enough now."
"You sound like Ellie." Is he slurring?
"That's because I am, genius." That's funny. Ellie is definitely not here, because she definitely has had enough of his charm when he tries to flirt with her or be her friend or just show that… he cares? That he's capable of caring? He wasn't sure if he still was when he first met her. "That's sweet, but no, I haven't had enough of your charm. I just wanted to see if my partner's okay after I…"
"After you what?" He looks up now, and his vision slips and slides with the momentum of his head turning. Her long blonde locks seem to highlight the sharpness of her cheekbones, and the bar's glow seems to lighten her face even more. There's a sharp, calculating look in her eyes; then it softens so suddenly, he's thrown back to Charlie and Luis.
"After I didn't have enough faith in you." He grunts and tries to move away, because either this is definitely not Ellie, or it is and he is afraid of where this conversation is headed, but she grabs his arm and he stills, frozen at her touch. "I'm sorry, Nick. I was wrong to doubt you."
"Nah," the alcohol says, and Nick is screaming at it to shut up, don't say this to her, don't make her run away. "I am a killer. You don't know half of the shit I did. Because it was my job."
His eyes are closed, so he doesn't see her head shake, but he feels the hand on his arm tighten imperceptibly. "No, Nick. You're not a killer. You defended the innocent. You did your job and killed the criminals who were going to hurt you, who were going to hurt other people.
"Everything you did undercover? Yeah, that was your job. And you were the best at it. But now, you're more than that. You're an investigator now. You arrest bad guys and you put them away for a very long time and you protect people. You watch my six because you're my partner. And I wouldn't have it any other way."
Silence. He blinks, mouth gaping. All thoughts have stopped, and all Nick wants to do is slump over and sleep all night long until the next afternoon to either forget this ever happened or jump around in joy; he doesn't quite know yet whether to believe her.
He startles awake (he must've closed his eyes in relief) at her touch, palm caressing his cheek so gently he might tell her he doesn't deserve it; there's a twinge in his heart and something cracking in his throat at the way she looks at him. Maybe this is how he looked at her months ago, hoop earrings hanging down, makeup thick and red-hot lips. "Come on, Nick. Let's get you home."
He doesn't remember anything much after that, but he knows he felt a feather-light kiss on top of his forehead, and her voice whispering, "Goodnight, Nick."
He's spent years fighting against the darkness in him, and even longer coming to terms with his past sins and crimes he believes he can never atone for.
Now, the monster finds Nick Torres tethered to this woman, an anchor he found and clung to after years of drifting at sea, trying to save people the only way he thought he could and failing in so many ways. (Nick Torres insists that he didn't fail, that he did save people, and his voice sounds like Ellie's.)
xi. - xv.
It's a bit of a blur from then on. Time moves on, and he gets through the tenth, eleventh, twelfth identities before he starts to forget all the names that he's had. He is a bar owner, a dog walker, a body cleaner, a car bomb manufacturer, and so on and so on. He is brutal when he rips apart drug mafias, cruel when he blows an opium gang wide open, and vicious when he encounters yet another human trafficking ring.
No matter what he does, it doesn't erase the blood on his hands. But he plays the part so well that sometimes he forgets that he shouldn't enjoy it—playing the bad guy. He shouldn't enjoy getting his hands dirty so the other agents don't have to, the ones who make the raids and rescue the victims and bust up the stings and take all the damn credit when he did all the hard parts that they don't have the guts to do.
Then he remembers everything that he is: complicit in every crime he's witnessed but was ordered not to engage and keep his cover intact, and he remembers that he doesn't enjoy his job at all. He's just damn good at it.
Nick Torres is excellent at placing mask after mask after mask upon himself; each new person he bears becomes a bit of him and he leaves behind a bit of Nick in every identity he leaves behind. Sooner or later, there won't be much left of Nick to do so.
xvii, or, perhaps, not an alias, at all.
This isn't a deep cover operation. Somehow, this mission has, out of all his identities, the one closest to being Nick Torres. He knows this because his anchor is right there through it all; even when he wants to leave her behind, she keeps coming back, and he can't figure out why she would want to follow him into his little undercover world full of half-truths and lies and losing yourself until somebody like her can pull you out just by being there.
But he knows that if there is one thing Luis and Nick can agree on, it is this: Eleanor Bishop is amazing.
Before, through his sixteen identities and different home addresses, he learned to strip himself of sentiments, of attachments, of people and partners who could be killed and who could hurt him deeply beyond repair. He learned to harness the animalistic instinct to survive and use it for his advantage. He manipulated, betrayed, stole, and killed.
But this time? He does none of those things. He catches the bad guy. He kisses the girl. (She kisses him.) He breaks a few ribs, but he still beats up said bad guy. He saves lives and she finds him again before he gets lost in trying to find Nick Torres again. In fact, it's easy becoming Nick again, because he knows where to find himself, now: by Ellie's side.
Everything hurts. That's the only thing he knows. Slowly, now: the whirring of machines, his pulse in his ears, the itch of the hospital gown fabric. Wake up, Nick.
The nurses have to calm him down when he's yelling for his partner. The morphine makes his thoughts sluggish, so it takes him a while to understand that she's okay. He did his job.
Everything hurts, but just a little less. He smiles because Gibbs decides to walk in at the right time. (Gibbs doesn't have to see Nick fall apart, so he doesn't have to remind him of Rule 12.) "Gibbs! I heard Ellie's okay. I'm hungry."
"You know, I risked my life to save yours." There, Ziva David. I said something, at least, he says in his mind. He's not sure this is what she had in mind.
Ellie's hand is calloused from the handle of a SIG and her fingers are small and warm. Her pulse thumps violently in her wrist. He wishes blonde hair and a blinding smile were the first things he saw when he woke up, but he can be content with a moment with her right now. "I know," she says, and holds on.