JUST A GAME
Set the day after Twilight.
The team arrive at the office to find another shock awaiting them.
An established relationship story.
Written: August 2005. Word count: 2,842.
"I don't believe it," Tony DiNozzo repeated for the fifth time in as many minutes. "I simply don't believe it. He couldn't have! It's a set up, right? A trap for Ari? It's all a game. Pretence. Lull
him into a false sense of security. That's what it is. Right? Ducky? That's what it is. Isn't it? Isn't it?" he repeated when Ducky failed to answer immediately. "Duck?"
The name was correct, even the irritation and exasperation; but that was all. The inflection was wrong, the voice itself; but most of all the fondness that always accompanied the way the name was said was absent. "Don't call me that," he snapped. And then, at the look of shocked incomprehension that crossed the young man's face, he said softly, "I am sorry, Tony. Please forgive me. Mother kept me up late last night." As an excuse, it was a lame one; as well as being a lie.
However, Tony took it at face value. "I'm sorry too, Ducky. Guess I snapped at you. It's just that I don't -"
"Believe it. Yes, I know, Tony. However, it is the truth."
"But it can't be. How do you know?"
"Because Jethro left me a letter." Ducky held up the single piece of paper, which had been carefully tucked inside an envelope given to him by the Director as he'd left the room. Ducky was certain that he hadn't imagined the flash of sympathy that passed through the Director's eyes. "Jethro has resigned." There, he'd said the words. He'd vocalized them. Now they were real.
"But . . ." This time McGee spoke. However, he seemed unable to say anything more than the single word. He turned to Abby. "Did you know?"
Abby shook her head slowly. She looked ghastly; even her pigtails seemed subdued. "No," she said softly. Then she looked at Ducky, and he read the same sympathy he had seen in the Directors' eyes, only even more so. Had he and Jethro really been that indiscrete?
"But why?" Everyone turned to look at Jimmy Palmer. "Why has Special Agent Gibbs resigned?"
"And why," McGee said his voice one of puzzlement. "Did the Director accept it? Maybe Tony is
right. Maybe it is all an elaborate plot. Maybe -"
"No." Ducky cut into the conversation. "No," he repeated. "It is not an elaborate plot. Jethro has resigned, and he has left Washington. He has gone away with the woman with whom he has been seen with from time to time and plans to marry her. She apparently has always wanted to live on a boat. Now if you'll all excuse me." He turned and walked slowly out of the room, aware that his limp was far more pronounced than usual.
Tony sat down on the edge of the desk. "I don't believe that at all. A fourth marriage? After his other three went wrong? No way. It's all a set up. A trap." Then suddenly he realized something. "And what's up with Ducky? Why is he so upset?"
"He and Gibbs are old friends. They go way back to when Gibbs was in the Marines. From what I gather Gibbs didn't even tell Ducky himself; he left it to the Director. Wouldn't you be upset, Tony, if your oldest, closest friend did that to you?" McGee asked.
Tony was still staring after Ducky. "Yeah. I guess so. I'm just surprised that Gibbs did that to Ducky then. I mean we know he's a bastard, but I didn't think he was that much of a bastard. Abbs? What do you think?"
"I think that Gibbs had his reasons. Just like he always has had. Did we always know exactly what they were?" She turned from Tony to McGee and back again.
Both agents shook their heads.
"So what now?" Tony finally asked.
"Now, I'm going to see Ducky," Abby said and left the room.
"But I didn't meant that. I meant . . . ." Tony said, letting his words trail off.
THREE YEARS LATER
Donald Mallard sat in his office, signing the latest batch of letters his ultra-efficient assistant had typed for him that morning. Five of them were letters of thanks for donations; four accepting offers of assistance in other ways; a couple accepting speaking engagements, and a final one expressing his regret that the person who had applied for a post within the charity had not been successful.
A polite and respectful tap - Donald had never before known that such a thing was achievable - at the door made him glance up. "Yes, Stephen?" he said and smiled at his assistant.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Dr. Mallard. But there's a gentleman here asking if he can see you."
Donald didn't ask ‘does he have an appointment?' There was no need. Had the gentleman had such a thing, Stephen wouldn't be apologizing for disturbing him. Nor did he ask whether it had anything to do with the charity. Stephen would already have ascertained that and handed out the appropriate information packs, or took the person's details, or a hundred and one other possibilities. Which left one option: the person was making a personal call, and it wasn't someone whom Stephen knew. "Did the gentleman give his name?" he asked. Although he knew that too was an unnecessary question.
Stephen shook his head and looked if not embarrassed then as though he had failed, which in his eyes he would have done. "I'm afraid not, Doctor. He merely kept repeating that he was an old friend. I did try to -"
"It's all right, Stephen. It isn't your fault. I assure you that the gentleman in question is more than a little stubborn."
"Would you like me to tell him that you're busy?"
"He'll only wait."
"Or that you won't see him at all."
Donald shook his head. He sighed. "No, Stephen. I think that you have been through enough with him already. I will see him." He didn't miss the widening in the brown eyes, or the stunned look on Stephen's face, which revealed that Donald's summation had been correct.
"If you're sure, Doctor?" Stephen seemed hesitant. Donald wondered just how harsh the exchange had been.
He nodded; while realizing that he was far from certain, but also that there was no alternative. He had spent the last three years fervently hoping and praying that this day never arrived. While simultaneously hoping and praying that it did.
He smiled reassuring, or at least he hoped it was reassuringly, at Stephen and nodded again. After a second or two the young man left, his reluctance clear. Donald bent his head again and continued to look, unseeingly, at the papers in front of him.
He heard the door reopen.
Heard Stephen's, "If you'd like to go in, sir."
Heard the door close again.
But still he did not glance up.
He smelled the old-fashioned aftershave that he had not smelled for three years, which mingled with the natural scent he knew better than his own.
And sensed the presence that he would have known even if blindfolded and cut off from all his other senses. The one he had believed he would never sense again.
But still he did not look up.
He just waited. One thing that Dr. Donald Mallard had always had in abundance was patience, at least when he wanted it. One thing the man standing by the door had never had, except for when he had wanted it, was the same quality.
He continued to wait. Turning over pages of the report he still did not see.
He knew what his silence was doing to the man he had once called friend, colleague, and lover. And he knew he had to end it. Cruelty had never formed part of the Mallard character.
"Good afternoon, Jethro," he finally said. Ensuring that no inflection touched his voice.
Still he did not look up.
It wasn't just the tone in the voice he loved, because it was true: he did still love the man to whom the voice belonged, that made him look up. It was the name. He hadn't gone by that for three years, and had vowed never to again. He was Donald Mallard now. He was not, and never would again be, Duck, or even Ducky. The sharp order not to call him that died as he took in the sight of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, now leaning against the door as though it were the only thing keeping him on his feet.
The betrayal and three years fled away, and within seconds Ducky was out of his seat and moving as quickly as his damaged leg allowed him too, across the room to put his arm around Jethro and lead him to a seat in front of his desk. Once he had Jethro seated, he took one of his hands and began to rub it between his own. "Oh, my dear Jethro," he said. "What has happened to you?"
The hand he held was like ice, and he was aware that Jethro had begun to shake - violently. More concerned than ever, Ducky let the hand slip from between his, moving one of his hands to the wrist to take Jethro's pulse, the other under his chin to tilt his head up so that he could look into Jethro's eyes. He didn't like what he felt or what he saw. "Jethro," he said again, this time more sharply, "What has happened to you?" Then he added, because he was a doctor, "What have you done to yourself?"
Jethro shook his head slowly. "Nothing," he said, in the same dull tone as before. "At least nothing that you mean."
Ducky couldn't prevent the relief from racing through his body. For a split second his hand slid into Jethro's and he wanted nothing more than to gather the shaking body into his arms and hold his friend and never let go.
Then reality hit him.
He let go of Jethro's chin and wrist and suddenly stood up, moving away from the body that still called to him, before his own could answer it against his will - but was it against his will? Yes, he told himself firmly. "Did you marry her?" he asked, moving back behind his desk. His own voice once again cool and free from inflection - or as cool and free from inflection as he could make it around his man. Damn you, Jethro Gibbs. How can you still do this to me? How can you make me love you when I hate you?
Jethro nodded once.
"And how long did this one last? A month? Two? Six? A year? I beg your pardon?" Ducky asked, when he realized that Jethro had spoken.
The dark blue eyes and the dark circles surrounding them nearly blended into one as Jethro looked at him. They were dull and lifeless; like the man sitting in front of him. "I said less than twenty-four hours." Jethro said softly, his voice still free from intonation.
Ducky met the gaze and tried to read beneath the darkness, but he could not penetrate it. "Why?" he said quietly, moving back from behind his desk, drawn without his volition to the man he still cared for more than he cared for life itself.
"Would you stay with someone who called out someone else's name, and a man's at that, while you were having, or I should say trying to have, sex?"
"Oh, Jethro," Ducky said. Then once more moving without consciously deciding to do so, he put a hand on Jethro's shoulder, feeling the faint quivers that shook the lean body.
The silence stretched between them. It wasn't their usual comfortable silence, but nor was it as fraught as it could have been. Instead uncertainty, hesitancy, and curiosity seemed to move around the room.
It was Jethro who broke it. Speaking for the first time with any hint of the old Jethro Gibbs, he said, "I was sorry about your mother, Duck."
Ducky nodded once and gently squeezed the shoulder he still held. "Thank you," he said simply. "The white roses were, I take it, from you?"
Jethro nodded. "Yeah. They always were her favorites." Then he added, "I nearly came back when I heard, Duck. But . . ." he trailed off. Ducky waited. "I didn't know whether you'd want to see me. Whether you'd be able to . . ."
Jethro nodded, but said nothing more.
Ducky closed his eyes and let his hand move from Jethro's shoulder. The moment it left, Ducky felt as though he'd been stabbed. He sighed. "Tell me, Jethro," he said, lowering himself carefully onto the edge of his desk, thus putting himself at a similar height to Jethro. "Why did you resign? Why did you leave? The truth, please."
Jethro glanced away, then back at him. Still Ducky could not penetrate the darkness. "I was scared," he whispered.
Ducky blinked, momentarily wondering if he'd heard correctly. He'd known Leroy Jethro Gibbs for almost thirty years. He'd seen him happy, angry, irritated, hurting, furious, content, worried, and a maelstrom of other states. He had, however, never seen him scared, nor had he believed he'd ever witness or experience such a thing. "My dear Jethro," he murmured, the endearment slipping out without thought. "Of what?"
"Of getting you hurt or killed, like Kate. Ari put a bullet through her brain to get at me; how long would it have been before he'd turned his attention to you? And Kate was a trained agent. You're-"
"Just a Medical Examiner."
"No! That isn't what I meant."
"I know." Ducky leaned forward and picked up one of Jethro's hands, it was still chilled. He began to rub it again between his own. "Did it not occur to you that I was probably far safer with my very own personal NCIS Special Agent to care for me, than alone?"
"I watched her die, Duck. I couldn't watch you," was all Jethro said, his voice heavy with pain and self-disgust. "So could you?" he suddenly asked, although from the look of shock that crossed the abnormally pale face, he hadn't intended speaking the words.
Ducky looked at him and then glanced away. He could tell the man to go, to leave, to get out of his life and never come back. Or he could make him pay, make him beg, or even run through rings, force him to earn Ducky. But what was the point of such games? Ducky was nearly sixty-five, and while his mother had lived into her nineties, Ducky could be dead tomorrow. Why waste time on pain and lies and games, when it could be spent in happiness and love? They'd just wasted three years; Ducky had no intention of wasting another minute. And yet it wasn't his forgiveness that was important, not really.
These thoughts raced through his mind in less than a second. He had, after all, spent the last three years thinking them. "I love you, Jethro my dear," he said simply. "I've loved you for over twenty-five years. Nothing you could do will ever change that. I'll always love you."
"Is it that simple?" Jethro sounded doubtful.
"For me, yes." The heavy stress was intentional.
"I love you too, Duck. Always have, even if I wasn't always prepared to admit it to myself. That is why I left."
Ducky shook his head. "I know, Jethro. That isn't quite what I meant. My loving and forgiving you, and you loving me won't be enough, my dear friend, if you can't forgive yourself. Can you do that, Jethro? Have you done that? Is that why you came back?" Let it be that. Please let it be that, he said to himself.
Jethro nodded once, a short, concise movement. "Yes, Ducky. I think I have. I really think I have."
"In that case . . ." Ducky slid off the desk and tugged on Jethro's hand to pull him to his feet. Then in a simple movement that spoke of decades of practice, he slipped his arms around Jethro's neck, tugged his head down, closed his eyes and let his lips find their way onto Jethro's own. As Jethro's mouth touched his, his arms came up and enfolded Ducky in a tight, secure, life-affirming embrace.
Stephen stood in the doorway and smiled. Maybe now he would see the real Dr. Donald Mallard, the one about whom he had heard so much, the one he had never met. He had always known, even though the doctor had never mentioned it, that something, or rather someone was missing. It didn't take a genius to see that that someone was back.
As the kiss continued and gave no signs of abating, Stephen backed out of the office, closed the door as silently as he had opened it and pushed the ‘engaged' sign across. Not that anyone visited Dr. Mallard without Stephen's permission, but even so . . .
Now Is All That Matters is a sequel to this story.
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