MAKING DUCKY THINK

 

By

 

Ashleigh Anpilova

 

The second part in the Testing Friendship Series.

Set before Jurisdiction. Ducky thinks hard about what Gibbs said and did and his reasons for doing so. Then he realizes he has to speak to Sophie.

A pre-slash story.

Written: March 2010. Word count: 7,035.

 

 

Ducky waited until he heard the sound of Jethro's car driving away from his house before slowly and stiffly making his way into this sitting room. Once there, he poured himself a large brandy, before lowing himself onto the sofa.

 

As he took a large sip he realized just how badly he was trembling. "Damn you, Gibbs," he said, his voice quivering only slightly. "Damn you," he repeated; the silent curse was far baser.

 

What had just happened? What the hell had just happened? How had they gone from smiling at one another and sharing moments of closeness in Autopsy, when after Ducky's confession that it had been Sophie who had objected to his bowties Jethro had laughed, pulled him into his arms and held him for a moment, to what had just happened? What had transpired in the hours in-between the two events that had made Jethro act in the way he had?

 

He still couldn't quite believe that Jethro had kissed him, and as much as he hated himself he could still feel and still taste the kiss. The kiss he had wanted since the moment Jethro and he had met; the kiss he had finally got - except he hadn't, not really.

 

"To make a point." He heard again Jethro's brutal, despicable words. Jethro hadn't kissed him because he wanted to kiss him, wanted him, he'd kissed him to prove to Ducky that he could get a response from him. And he had got one, and not just the physical one. "Oh, Jethro," he said, his voice quieter. "Oh, Jethro, why?"

 

The intense anger he'd felt at Jethro's words and actions was beginning to fade, and the hurt his friend had caused him was taking over. He'd always known Jethro could be hard, tough, forceful, brutal even; he wasn't a man to hold back his opinion, no matter how much it might hurt, no matter how far from 'polite behavior' it was. He'd seen Jethro lash out at people, verbally and physically; he'd heard how he spoke to people, even to those he apparently liked. He'd never been under any illusions as to how blunt Jethro could be, as to how much of a bastard he could be, but he had never, ever, not even in his wildest dreams or darkest nightmares, thought the day would come when Jethro would treat him as he had just treated him.

 

One short conversation, one small action, now threatened their entire friendship. Was the man he had cared about, loved as a dear friend and so much more, stood up for, stood by, respected, had been loyal to, would do anything for, actually the man he had thought he was? Had he, in fact, been wrong for more years than he cared to remember about the man Jethro was? What had made Jethro speak to him as he had done? And even worse than the words had been the kiss. How could Jethro, knowing as he'd always known how Ducky felt about him, take such advantage of him? Abuse him so. How could he? And what the hell did 'to prove a point' mean?

 

It was his worst nightmare come true; in fact it was beyond his worst nightmare; nightmares you could wake up from. This he was living. He sighed and took another swallow of brandy. Part of him wanted to call Jethro and tell him his behavior had been completely unacceptable. But he wouldn't.

 

The sound of the phone ringing made him jump slightly. Against his will, against his knowledge, to his self-disgust and annoyance, a small part of him dared to hope it was Jethro calling to apologize; to explain. Except, Jethro wouldn't do such a thing. It wasn't just that he would never think of doing such a thing, but also and mainly because he would without doubt believe himself to be completely in the right.

 

He reached for the phone and answered it. "Hello? Ah, Sophie, how nice of you to call. How are you?" To his annoyance he found that even though he'd known the caller wouldn't be Jethro, he still felt a spark of disappointment when he heard the female voice.

 

When he hung up five minutes later he found to his surprise that rather than feel better after speaking to Sophie, rather than feel soothed, he felt worse. In fact he felt just a little bit irritated, with Sophie - and also with himself.

 

He sighed, drained his glass of brandy, paused, looked at the bottle, before getting up and pouring himself another, albeit slightly smaller, measure. He returned to the sofa where a few seconds later Contessa jumped up next to him and snuggled down against him. Sub-consciously, he began to stroke her, taking pleasure in the softness and thickness of her fur. And as he stroked Contessa, as he let the warmth of the brandy spread through him, he began to think.

 

Jethro had been quite correct in his superstition; getting rid of the Corgis had not been Ducky's own idea; it had been Sophie's. She hadn't taken to them at all; quite the opposite. In fact as he stroked Contessa and noticed that the other three were now sitting at his feet, he realized that whenever she was in the house, the Corgis had to be shut in his mother's old room. And it had been Sophie who, when Tyson had snagged her stockings, had called them 'wretched creatures'.

 

It had been Sophie who had 'suggested' Ducky get rid of them; it had been Sophie who had found the Corgi lover in Virginia. It had been Sophie; not him. He'd gone along with her suggestion, her instruction. He'd gone along with it telling himself it was better for the Corgis, with him out at work all day and several evenings each week. And even when he was at home, if he had company they weren't permitted to be with him. Surely it was better they be with someone who had more time for them? Someone who would love them as his mother had done? But suddenly he wasn't certain if those thoughts were his or Sophie's. And if Jethro had been right about whose idea getting rid of the Corgis had been then -

 

He shook himself. What was he thinking? Of course Jethro hadn't been correct; well he had about the Corgis. But Ducky himself wanted to get rid of them; he'd never overly cared for them. He loved dogs, but the Corgis weren't his favorite breed, no matter how much his mother had loved them. And of course he'd kept them for over a year while she'd been in Allington Grove Retirement Home, until she'd died. He couldnít have got rid of them, he never would have considered getting rid of them, while she'd still been alive. It wouldn't have been right. But would he have considered getting rid of them had it not been for Sophie?

 

Again, he shook himself. It was all Jethro's fault, coming here, filling his head with lies, with accusations, making him second guess everything. Jethro had no right to have said the things he'd said. If Ducky wanted to change his appearance, his home, his habits; he would, and there was nothing Jethro could do or say to alter that.

 

He took another sip of brandy and moved the hand that still stroked Contessa to fiddle with the knot of his tie. As he did, he realized it wasn't the first time he'd done that; not by a long way. He reminded himself that it was just a case of getting used to wearing such ties. He'd worn bowties for so many years, it was bound to take a while to get used to ordinary one again. He still had to remind himself to make sure they were tucked into his trousers or shirt so that they didn't interfere with the bodies he examined in any way. Indeed, an avoidance of doing such a thing had been the reason he'd started to wear bowties in the first place. At least that was the excuse he'd used over twenty-five years ago; in truth he'd actually always rather liked them, no matter how unfashionable they were and he'd always found them very comfortable and far more convenient, in more ways that one, than ordinary ties.

 

But Sophie hadn't liked them. Sophie had thought they weren't fashionable. Sophie had thought they made him look older. Sophie had said they were fine with a tuxedo, but otherwise - He cut the memory off as to exactly what she'd said. Oh, she'd laughed when she'd said it to him, smiled at him, patted his hand and kissed his cheek. She had made it sound more like a joke than anything serious, but -

 

"Damn you, Gibbs," he said again. If Jethro hadn't come here tonight, he never would have been questioning anything. Not getting rid of the dogs or not wearing his bowties.

 

"But you're Ducky, and Ducky wears bowties." He frowned as he clearly heard Abby's words. And as he heard Abby's words, he also recalled the conversation with Ziva; how she had gone out of her way to mention his tie - something she'd never done before. And he remembered, to his slight shame, how he'd held up from going wherever she had been off to, while he'd prattled on about it, where he got it from and the pattern.

 

"Change, Abby, change. The species must evolve and adapt." The words he'd said to Abby, when she'd said what she'd said came back to him. He nodded to himself; yes, those words had been quite correct. People did have to change, just as he was doing. Change was important, change was necessary; without change humanity could not go on. Change was a natural thing; what he'd done, what he was doing, was just part of being human. Jethro had been wrong, so very wrong about what he'd said. As had Abby. He smiled to himself and took another sip of brandy; reassured, he settled back a little more comfortably and for a moment began to hum.

 

Then something else he'd said came back to him. "Well, change is good, Mr. Palmer. As long as you are the motivation for the change." The words he'd said to Jimmy at the time when Jimmy had been trying out a new cologne, experimenting with disposable contact lenses and flattening his hair down, all, in Ducky's opinion, for his big date and not because Jimmy wanted to do those things, at least not for him, echoed clearly around the room. The words seemed to mock him; taunt him; tease him; they infiltrated his mind and kept repeating over and over again.

 

"Well, change is good, Mr. Palmer. As long as you are the motivation for the change." He stood up abruptly, pushing poor Contessa onto the floor. "Stop it!" he demanded. "Stop it!" But rather than obey him, his mind replayed the words for a third time. "Well, change is good, Mr. Palmer. As long as you are the motivation for the change."

 

He sank back down onto the sofa and took another long swallow from his brandy glass; his hand was shaking, even more than when he'd first sat down. Against his will he began to realize the truth. "No," he murmured softly, his voice full of anguish and a touch of despair. "Please, no." He closed his eyes for a moment and forced the image of Sophie to appear.

 

But even as he smiled at her, she faded away to be replaced by an image of Jethro - an image that spoke to him.

 

"It's not you, Duck."

 

"Is it not?" Again Ducky heard his own voice.

 

"No. It's not you. These ties aren't you. Getting rid of the dogs isn't you. Selling this place isn't you. Going out to lunch every day isn't you. Not telling me that your mom had died isn't you."  

 

Were Jethro's words true? At the time Ducky had been angered by them, annoyed that Jethro had thought he had the right to come into Ducky's home and speak to him as he had done. But why had he been so annoyed? It wasn't as if Jethro and he were mere casual acquaintances, they were - they had been - extremely close friends; intimate friends. Friends had rights. Now had it been Anthony or Ziva who had said the words . . . Well, that would have been different; as close as Ducky was to all the children, he would not have considered they had the right to say such a thing. But it hadn't been any of the children; it had been Jethro, his oldest, closest friend and like or not, that did give him some rights.

 

And what about his own attack, demanding that Jethro add 'spending time with a woman young enough to be your daughter isn't you' to the list; from where had that come? Why had he told Jethro in the first place of the considerable age gap between Sophie and himself? To have said 'younger than myself' would have been one thing. But no, he'd told Jethro she was 'quite a bit younger than myself'. Why had he done that? And why earlier that evening had he let Jethro know just what 'quite a bit younger than myself' was?

 

He shifted on the sofa; suddenly he was not entirely certain he was in the right after all. His attack on Jethro, because now in the stark, cold, emptiness of his house, he realized he had verbally attacked his friend, as much as, maybe more so than, Jethro had attacked him, had been more brutal than Jethro's attack on him. Indeed the words 'me thinks the lady doth protest too much', came to him mind.

 

"You put me on the defensive," he said softly to the empty room. "Damn you, Jethro," he said, noticing that even as he cursed Jethro, he'd returned to using his given name rather than his surname. "Damn you," he said again, but his heart wasn't in it.

 

He heard himself once again telling Jethro to get out; to get out before he said something that might damage their friendship for good.

 

He saw Jethro's shock as he'd said the words.

 

He heard Jethro ask him what Sophie had done to him.

 

He heard himself telling Jethro she had changed him. Changed him for the better.

 

He heard Jethro's reply.

 

And then . . .

 

And then he recalled the kiss. The Judas kiss. The kiss that Jethro had given him. The kiss that had been hard, not quite brutal, but not gentle. The kiss that had gone on and on and on until he had  reacted as Jethro had known he would. The kiss that had gone on until the second he'd begun to kiss Jethro back. The kiss that Jethro had stopped as quickly as he'd started it.

 

He saw Jethro wipe his hand over his mouth; wiping away the kiss.

 

He heard Jethro sneer that Sophie had really changed him.

 

He heard himself call Jethro a bastard.

 

And he heard Jethro once again say the four most hurtful words anyone had ever said to Ducky - and he'd had his share of brutal words thrown at him - "To make a point."

 

And before he could react to the despicable words, he heard Jethro's penultimate words to him. "Just remember though, Duck. She hasn't changed you. The ties, the lunches, even getting rid of the dogs and your house, it's all just window dressing. You're still you. And that'll never change."

 

His reply to those words and Jethro's reply to his had been expected, scripted one could say, after what Jethro had said.

 

And then he saw Jethro walking out of his house. Walking away from him, leaving him stunned, hurting, angry.

 

Could it be that Jethro actually knew him better than he knew himself?

 

Could it be that Jethro's words had been . . . Had been true? Was he simply fooling himself? Was Jethro basing that on the fact he'd returned Jethro's kiss? Or was he basing it on years and years of friendship? Surely not? Surely he couldn't be fooling himself? He wasn't that kind of man - was he? He'd always prided himself on knowing his own mind; of making his own decisions, his own choices; on being his own person; one seeing things for what they were.

 

And even as he thought that, another thing Jethro had said came back to him. "Not telling me that your mom had died isn't you." He gasped a little as he realized how true those words had been. And as he accepted the truth in them, as he remembered the hurt Jethro had tried to hide, both in Autopsy and in Ducky's house, he knew he had to do some hard and long thinking.

 

"When were you going to tell me, Duck?" 'Tell me'; not 'tell us'. But 'tell me'.

 

"Oh, Jethro," Ducky said quietly. "Oh, Jethro. I -"

 

"So, why keep it to yourself?"

 

"I . . . I didn't want to impose." Ducky spoke the words he'd said to Jethro a few hours ago aloud. Said them and realized as he did, they, like so many things, hadn't been quite the truth.

 

Again he closed his eyes and sought Sophie's face. And he remembered their first meeting . . .

 

It had been a short time after his mother's death and he'd returned to Allington Grove Retirement Home, where she had spent the last year or so of her life to take chocolates, wine and flowers for the staff; together with a fairly substantial donation check, to say 'thank you' to the staff for the care they'd taken of his mother. Even though he had paid a significant amount per week for her care (quite a bit more than a lot of people actually earned) he still felt the staff had gone beyond what was expected, what was necessary. It had been the little things they'd done for his mother, which showed they genuinely cared about the people in their care; it wasn't just about the bottom line.

 

As he'd been leaving the home, his eyes just a tad misty, he'd bumped into a young woman and caused her to drop the plant she'd been carrying. After lengthy apologies on his part and reassurances on her own, he found himself inviting her to join him for afternoon tea to once again apologize, later that day. To his surprise, she had accepted and they'd arranged to meet that afternoon.

 

During tea, Ducky had found himself talking to her in a way he didn't talk, didn't open up to anyone other than Jethro; and the difference between Jethro and Sophie (apart from the obvious) had been that Sophie talked back.

 

He soon learned that she'd been visiting her grandfather, who turned out to be just a few years older than his mother. That she was a real estate agent who had fairly recently moved to DC to be near to her grandfather and thus was still looking to build up her business. That she liked books, the theatre, the opera, art galleries and long walks.

 

In turn he'd told her a little about himself and where he worked and when they suddenly realized how late it had got, he invited her back to Reston House for supper. Her first reaction upon seeing the house had been one of almost awe, and supper had been delayed by at least an hour while she insisted Ducky show her ever inch of the property.

 

They'd agreed to meet later in the week and it had been then when, tentatively she mentioned that she just might, possibly, if Ducky was considering it, have someone who just might potentially be interested in buying Reston House. At the time Ducky had dismissed it; he couldn't sell his home; the home his mother had shared with him. He couldn't. But Sophie had talked first of a new start or getting away from a place that would be full of memories of his mother and how much better it would be for him. And then she's spoken of a wonderful brownstone property in Georgetown that was on the Historic Registry and how she just happened to have had a cancellation in viewing and did he want to see it.

 

Out of politeness he'd said yes and had gone along with her and by the time she'd finished showing him around and telling him how much more convenient it would be for him, for work, for her - she'd blushed so prettily when she'd said that - and how being on the Historic Registry was superb and dozens of other things, he'd found himself caught up in her enthusiasm and upon returning to Reston House had realized just how large and impractical it really was.

 

The offer on his own home had come swiftly, almost too swiftly for him, but he hadn't said anything. In turn he made an offer on the brownstone Sophie loved so much, and everything was racing ahead. It had all happened within days and although Ducky had insisted on a fairly lengthy gap between accepting the offer and actually closing, it had been too quick - he knew that now. And the speed of it had been one of the reasons he hadn't told him friends, hadn't told Jethro of his mother's death. Because the question Jethro had asked him about Reston House earlier, he would have asked at the time and Ducky knew now he hadn't wanted to confess what he'd done.

 

It had been on their second 'date' that Sophie had gently suggested he give up his bowties in favor of ordinary ones. The same day they had bumped into friends of hers and she had introduced him as 'Donald'. At the time Ducky had said nothing, after all it had literally been a 'hello' and 'goodbye'.

 

Later that evening as they'd sat listening to one of his Mozart records she'd asked if she might be permitted to call him 'Donald'. She'd explained how really 'Ducky' didn't suit a man of his position. Unable to think of a good reason, other than he'd been Ducky for over fifty years to everyone with the exception of his mother, and how he liked the name, it was who he was, he'd somewhat reluctantly given her his 'permission'. After all, at least she hadn't wanted to call him 'Donny'.

 

A week later, she'd mentioned the importance of taking lunch breaks and how with them both working in the district how nice it would be to see one another, even if only briefly, each day. And he'd agreed; someone wanted to spend time with him and it took his mind off thinking about his mother's death and the forthcoming move and -

 

Two days after that, Tyson had snagged her stockings, and she'd made the suggestion about rehoming him and the other Corgis.

 

She'd bought him a CD player, saying the sound quality was much better and replaced several of his favorite albums with CDs. And he'd let her; even though the recordings she'd chosen were not ones he would have picked - he doubted his favorites had even been released on CD. And while she may be convinced they sounded better, he wasn't. He liked his records, he enjoyed the whole process of getting them out of their sleeves, ensuring no a spec of dust had found its way onto the black surface, putting it onto the record deck and the whole process of starting it. But Sophie said records were even more out of fashion than bowties.

 

And she'd taken him to a modern performance of King Lear, which turned out to be nothing like any King Lear Ducky had ever seen; nor indeed anything like the original play. She did enjoy the theatre; it just wasn't the theatre Ducky enjoyed.

 

They hadn't been intimate with one another beyond holding hands and Ducky kissing her on both cheeks each time they parted. If she had thought that was strange; she hadn't said anything, but more than once she'd dropped the odd, very subtle hint that she would like to share his bed. However, Ducky hadn't been ready for such a step; indeed even with the upcoming weekend he had booked separate suites for them. He'd never slept with a woman, he'd never touched or kissed one in an intimate way, and despite liking Sophie a great deal, despite finding himself almost attracted to her, he couldn't see himself undoing almost fifty years of being intimate with men.

 

The weekend . . .

 

It had seemed like such a good idea when Sophie had suggested it; she'd told him he needed to get away, right away from DC. He needed a break from work, from the people with whom he worked. The people in whom, he knew, she had no interest, indeed more than once had said something that could have been taken as being somewhat dismissive and disparaging. In fact, after a few dates he barely mentioned the six most important people in his life.

 

To encourage him, to persuade him, about going away from the weekend, she had told him that he needed some time for him; for her; for them. A long weekend, four days, would do him the world of good and when they returned, there would only be a few days before his sale went through and then he could start a new part of his life. And not for the first time she'd dropped the gentlest of hints in a way that wasn't at all obvious, that maybe it was time he retired; after all he didn't need to work, so why waste hours that could spent doing just what he wanted?

 

Yes, it had seemed like a wonderful idea. But now . . . Now he wasn't certain. "Damn you, Jethro," he said again and sighed.

 

His maternal grandmother had once told him 'you cannot put the genie back into the bottle, Donald'. "And once opened Pandora's Box cannot be closed," he said quietly; it had been another of his grandmother's favorite sayings. What Jethro had said had been said, and there was nothing Ducky could do to make the words unsaid.

 

And now they had been said. Now they had started him thinking. Now he . . .

 

Firmly he ordered himself to stop thinking. He was going away with Sophie tomorrow; going away for four days. He could not let Jethro's words or his subsequent thoughts interfere with those days. After all, did it matter whether it had been Sophie's idea and not his that he get rid of the Corgis? Or that Sophie, not he, had put the idea into his head about selling Reston House and moving to somewhere more manageable? Or that it had been Sophie, rather than himself, who was responsible for his change in neckwear? Or that it had been Sophie who had 'reminded' him of what, as a doctor he should be well aware, that taking a break each day and getting out of the office was a good thing? Did it matter that she called him 'Donald' and introduced him by that name? Did it matter that her idea of a 'good play' and his wasn't quite the same? Did it matter that she thought CD recordings sounded better than records? Did any of those changes matter?

 

Of course they didn't; all that mattered was that Ducky was happy. But are you? The little voice in his head asked. "Yes!" he said firmly. "Yes. Yes, I am. I am very happy." What did ties, a house, four dogs, a name, taking lunches and other minor things matter as long as he was happy? And while, yes, he had to admit the changes hadn't been for himself, but to please Sophie, it wasn't the same as Jimmy trying to change; not at all. Jimmy was a young man, still in some ways a little immature. Whereas he, Ducky, was a mature man, quite capable of going along with certain changes, of realizing they were beneficial, but of not losing his identity.

 

That settled in his mind, he drained the last of his brandy, took the dogs out for a final visit to the garden, settled them in their beds with a biscuit and, humming snatches from The Marriage of Figaro, he checked the front door was locked and bolted before going upstairs and getting ready for bed.

 

An hour later, he put his book back on the nightstand, paid a final visit to the bathroom to relieve himself, before returning to his bedroom, getting back into bed, turning out the light and lying down to sleep.

 

His dreams, much to his chagrin upon waking, were of Jethro.

 

FIVE DAYS LATER

 

"Sophie, what on earth . . . ?" Ducky opened the dishwasher to find some silver cutlery, some of his mother's silver cutlery, along with a small silver tray, inside. "Sophie!" he spoke her name sharply, far more sharply than he'd intended. "What were you thinking of?"

 

"Donald, what's the matter?"

 

"You have put some of Mother's silver in the dishwasher."

 

She shrugged. "It needed washing."

 

"One does not put silver into a dishwasher," he said. Did she know nothing?

 

"Oh, doesn't one?" Her tone was mocking him. Then quickly she changed and put her hand on his arm. "Oh, Donald honey, don't be angry with me. I didn't . . . Look, I'm sorry. I just don't know anyone who uses silver. I didn't think. But it's only some cutlery and a small tray."

 

"It was Mother's," Ducky said firmly.

 

She frowned and then smiled. "I know you still miss her, it's only natural. But once you've moved from here and into your new home and we've bought you new furniture and -"

 

"What did you say?" Ducky took a step towards her.

 

"You're not going to want to keep most of the furniture you've got here, surely, Donald? There's far too much and the rest of it . . ."

 

"The rest of it is what, Sophie."

 

"Let's talk about it later," she said, slipping her arm through his and leading him from the kitchen into the sitting room. "Look, I've bought this to show you," she said, pulling a catalogue out from her bag. "I thought we could chose a new suit for you; my treat," she added, as she began to turn over the pages which displayed extremely modern looking suits. She pointed to one. "See, this would -"

 

"Sophie," Ducky interrupted her quietly.

 

"Yes, Donald?"

 

He sighed, took the catalogue from her and put it down on the coffee table and took her hand. It was too much; suddenly it was too much. Except, he was forced to admit to himself, it wasn't 'suddenly'; it was just that he was finally prepared to really admit it - and just admit it, but to do something about it. She wanted to change too much of him. She didn't want Donald Ducky Mallard as he was; she wanted Donald Mallard: the man she could create, mould and bend into what she thought to be an appropriate escort for her.

 

It was too much. At almost sixty eight, he couldn't change that much. No; he didn't want to change that much. And as for putting his mother's silver into the dishwasher and the way she'd dismissed it -

 

"Yes, Donald?" she repeated, her tone somewhat harsh.

 

He took her hands between his. "Sophie, I think it is time we accepted we are not right for one another."

 

"What? Donald, what are you saying?"

 

"Well, for one thing, I'm not 'Donald'. Only Mother called me that. I'm 'Ducky' and have been for many, many years. I like being Ducky; it's who I am."

 

"But -"

 

Gently, but firmly he ignored her. "And Ducky, and I, likes wearing bowties. You may think these," he touched the one he was wearing, "make me look younger, and maybe to you they do. But I donít like them as much. I like my bowties. I'm Ducky, and Ducky wears bowties." He all but echoed the words Abby had said to him.

 

She swallowed. "Okay, I was just trying to - If it matters that much to you, I'll call you Ducky, although quite what I'll tell my friends now, it'll sound silly - but that doesn't matter. I'll call you Ducky and I'll let - You can wear bowties. It's silly to break up over something so small." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "There you are, Do- Ducky," she said. "See."

 

He looked at her, for a moment he wondered . . . But no, he knew it wasn't enough. He hardened his resolve and shook his head. "And," he said, looking into her eyes, "and I am not going to let the sale of my home go through; nor will I be completing the sale on the brownstone. And," he added quickly as her eyes widened and her mouth parted, "the Corgis are staying here with me."

 

"You can't. You can't do that!"

 

"I can, Sophie, and I am going to do so. The final papers have not yet been signed; I am quite at liberty to pull out. I am aware there have been some costs incurred -"

 

"Some? Some? Have you any -" She stopped abruptly and frowned. Then instantly changed the frown to a smile. "Ducky," she said, squeezing his fingers. "I need these sales to go through. I need them. Please. Look, I haven't said anything to you, I didn't want to worry you, but things haven't been going that well at work and . . ." Again she smiled at him.

 

He shook his head. "I am sorry, Sophie. Truly I am. I am more than happy to provide a glowing report on what a good realtor you are, to say how professional and how knowledgeable you are, and to let those who need to know what an excellent service you provide for you clients. I'd be more than happy to do that, and just let me know what costs you have incurred and I will pay them. However, my mind is made up; I am not selling Reston House. I am sorry."

 

"I see." She pulled her hands away from Ducky's and stood up. "It's him, isn't it?" she said, looking down at Ducky.

 

He too stood up. "Him?"

 

"Yes. Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He's put you up to this."

 

Ducky shook his head. "Not that it's really any of your concern, Sophie, but no, it is not Jethro. He's just -"

 

"The man you're in love with."

 

"What?" Ducky hastily tried to hide the surprise he felt at her words.

 

For a moment she just stared at him. Then she shrugged. "Well, it's true, isn't it? There's the photo on your desk and another in your bedroom. And don't look at me like that; don't forget, you showed me around the house."

 

"I - Jethro and I are -"

 

"Old friends. Yes, I know. You've told me. Do you know how often you talk about him? I feel I know him and I've never even met him. I know he's been divorced three times; I know he's addicted to strong, black coffee; I know he was a Marine; I know he puts the job before anything else and I know that while you say you're 'Ducky' to everyone, to him you're 'Duck' - a name that only he is permitted to call you. Do you know how many times his name comes into conversation? Well do you?" Then her tone softened and she moved towards him and put her hand on his shoulder. "You don't, do you? You really don't. It's not conscious."

 

For one of the few times in his life, Ducky found himself completely lost for words. "I -"

 

"Oh, Donald, I mean Ducky. He won't love you; he can't. But I could. We could -"

 

"No, Sophie." Ducky shook his head. "No. I like you; I like you a great deal. You are charming, good company; you've brightened my life these last few months. You've showed me a different world. But it's not a world into which I can fit. No, that is not true. It is not a world into which I want to fit. I'm really sorry, Sophie, truly I am. But it is over. It is time we said out goodbyes and parted as friends."

 

She shook her head. "You're a fool," she said, but there was little anger or bitterness in her tone. "An old fool."

 

He shrugged. "Maybe I am. But at least I'll be an old fool as me and not someone you wish to turn me into." He spoke quietly but firmly.

 

She stared at him for a moment, before shrugging and picking her bag up. "I'll get the paperwork together," she said. "It will cost you. But I'll sort it out."

 

"Thank you."

 

She shook her head. "You're making a mistake," she said. "A big mistake. Maybe you don't think so now, maybe you won't think so tomorrow. But next week, next month you'll wake up and realize just what a mistake you've made - and then it'll be too late. I won't be around and you could spend a year or two trying to sell this place. Think about it, Donald. Think about it on the long, lonely nights when he's not here and you're all alone in this mausoleum with only four blasted dogs for company. Think about it when you're dying, old, alone. Here or in the same place as you mom died. Alone with no one to visit you - especially not him. Think about it when -"

 

"I think you had better go," Ducky said, his tone level. He wasn't certain if he had deliberately used the same words he'd said to Jethro some five days before or not.

 

Sophie stared at him. "What?"

 

Ducky sighed. "I think you had better go before I say something that I will regret." He didn't add the bit about not wanting to damage their friendship, because he knew as he stared at Sophie, a woman he suddenly knew he didn't know, there would be no friendship between them. Whatever they had shared would end that night; had already ended.

 

To his surprise, rather than appear to be angry, she just nodded and looked at him with a hint of sympathy. "I'll go, Donald," she said quietly. "I'll go." Then to his further surprise, she crossed the small gap between them and tenderly, so very tenderly, fondly and even possibly lovingly, kissed his cheek, while her hand touched his other cheek. Then for the first time ever she put her lips on his and lightly kissed him. It was little more than a brush of her lips over his; the contact was brief. It didn't move him, it didn't have any affect on him, at all.

 

Once she'd moved back, he held out his hand. "Goodbye, Sophie," he said. "Take care of yourself and I wish you all the best for the future." For a moment he thought she wouldn't take his hand, but then she did.

 

"And you, Donald. I would suggest you told him. But you won't, will you? You'll never have him. You know that. I just hope loving him like you do is enough for you." She squeezed his hand one more time, before again touching his cheek, then whirled on her heel and hurried from the room.

 

He stayed in the sitting room until he heard the front door close and moments later the sound of her car engine starting. Then slowly he made his way to the door, locked and bolted it; just for a moment he rested against it. She was quite correct; he wouldn't tell Jethro - not that he needed to, Jethro knew. And she was correct about something else too; he knew he never would have Jethro.

 

As he stood in the hallway, he wasn't sure if he hated Jethro more for kissing him or because he'd spoiled his final chance of happiness by showing him that the last few months had been nothing more than a fake. For showing him that he'd been fooling himself. For making him face the fact that he'd been fooling himself. Except of course he didn't hate him. How could he?

 

He wanted to deny, after what Jethro and said and done five nights ago, what his visit had led to, that he still loved him. But he couldn't. He wasn't even angry with Jethro any longer; not even though it had been Jethro who was responsible for him breaking up with Sophie.

 

Except it hadn't been Jethro; not really. All Jethro, and to a lesser extent Abby, had done was to point out a few facts to Ducky. Ducky could have chosen to ignore them, could have denied them. He could have gone on being Donald, wearing ordinary ties, he could have sold his home, he could have bought the brownstone, he could have continued to take lunch breaks, listen to CDs, go to 'experimental' plays, could even have found a way to be intimate with a woman - other gay men did; he could have done. But he hadn't. He hadn't because none of those things were who he was; more importantly none of those things were who he wanted to be.

 

"Just remember though, Duck. She hasn't changed you. The ties, the lunches, even getting rid of the dogs and your house, it's all just window dressing. You're still you. And that'll never change."

 

"Damn you, Jethro," he said. There was no anger in his words; his tone was simply one of fondness, bemusement and only the very faintest of faint regrets. "Damn you," he repeated, before he went into the kitchen to see just what damage the dishwasher had caused to his mother's silver.

LINKS TO ALL THE STORIES IN THE TESTING FRIENDSHIP SERIES

Making A Mistake

Making Ducky Think

Making Gibbs Think

Making Amends

Making Love

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