A person from Ducky's past turns up and Jethro learns something about his old friend and lover, whilst Ducky is forced to reface the past he had tried to put behind him.
An established relationship story.
Written: October 2008. Word count: 5,169.
Gibbs strode into Autopsy and looked around him. "Hey, Palmer," he said, when he couldn't see Ducky anywhere. "Is Ducky about?"
Palmer stared at him for a moment, doing his 'deer caught in the headlights' impression. "Hello, Agent Gibbs. Er, I think he went to the . . ." He trailed off and flushed very slightly.
Gibbs forced himself not to smile; he still sometimes found himself wondering just why Palmer had ever wanted to go into medicine, when he seemed so tongue tied over certain things. "The head?" he asked.
Palmer nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Palmer, how many times have I told you -"
"Not to call you, sir. Yes, sir. Sorry, si - er, Agent Gibbs."
Gibbs just shook his head.
At that moment the doors swished open and Ducky came in. "Hello, Jethro my dear," he said. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company? Do you have a body for us?" Ducky looked positively hopeful.
Gibbs shook his head. "Nah, sorry, Duck. It's quiet, case-wise, at least. Thought we could go out for lunch." It was rare for Gibbs to have lunch, other than at his desk, but the last three days had been very quiet on a work related front. That had led to the kids squabbling more and more. He'd put up with it for as long as he could, but now it had gotten to the point whereby if he didn't escape from the squad room he just might take out his Sig and shoot one of them! The top choice at the moment for the 'honor' was DiNozzo.
Ducky beamed at him, his eyes answering the question before he vocalized his reply. "I would like that very much, Jethro. It is a lovely day, despite the time of year; it will be nice to get out of the office for a while." With a smile, he hurried to the hat-stand and took down his hat and coat and put his coat on.
Then hat in hand he turned around and moved back across the room, speaking as he did. "Now, Jimmy," he said, his tone firm. "Please remember you are not to spend your entire lunch break studying. You are to make sure you have a proper break from this room and from your books."
Palmer nodded earnestly. "Yes, Doctor," he said. "Of course, Doctor."
Ducky moved nearer to his assistant and looked up him, studying him carefully. "Hmmm," was all he said, before he put his hat on and turned back to Jethro. "Shall we go then?" he asked, smiling at Gibbs in the way he always did. And without waiting for Gibbs to reply, he turned on his heel and made his way to the doors, which obliging parted for him.
Gibbs glanced at Palmer. "Don't forget, what Dr. Mallard said, Palmer," he said, before following his lover out of the room.
As Ducky had said it was a lovely day, despite being mid-fall, and as such they decided to have their lunch in the covered outdoor area of their favorite downtown restaurant.
As was their wont they sat maybe a little bit closer together than 'just good friends' normally did, their gaze held one another for a little longer, their hands touched more often than could be put down to merely accidental and although Jethro was, as he always was, partly on-guard, the rest of the world might not have existed. If anyone cared to look closely, they would see them for what they were: lovers. But not too many people looked that closely.
A month ago, after the death of Mrs. Mallard, Jethro had moved into Ducky's Reston home and hadn't even for a fraction of a fraction of a second regretted it. The news at the office had been greeted with as much surprise as Jethro head-slapping DiNozzo was. In fact Abby had apparently spoken for all of the kids when she'd declared 'about time too'.
Jethro hadn't been surprised that the true nature of his and Ducky's relationship was known, even if it hadn't been officially known before now. After all they'd never hidden it; they'd always been close, intimate even. Not that they'd ever made it obvious, he hadn't actually grabbed Ducky and kissed him in the middle of Autopsy or the squad room - yet. But since he'd moved into Reston house he was aware that they were slightly more obvious about their relationship, they did maybe connect a little bit more than before.
They were chatting quietly about anything and nothing, when suddenly a voice interrupted them. "Please forgive me for interrupting, gentlemen, but it's Mr. Mallard, isn't it?" The accent was English, the tone cultured.
Jethro happened to be looking at Ducky when the stranger had spoken, so saw the instant reaction on his lover's face. It paled; a flash of what he thought might be fear passed across the pale blue eyes and as he watched the usually-soft-and-open-for-all-to-read gaze became hardened and shuttered. Worse still, from where his arm brushed against Ducky's he would have sworn he felt him tremble infinitesimally.
Instantly, he turned his attention to the stranger and slipped up a gear in Special Agent mode. He looked up at the man who stood, his attention focused on Ducky. He was dressed in a suit, including a vest, and a heavy overcoat and he carried a briefcase. Gibbs would have said he was a few inches taller than he was, but about the same weight; his eyes were green and he seemed to be around Gibbs's age.
As Gibbs stared at the stranger he saw him become slightly ill at ease and uncertain. "Um, you are Mr. Mallard, aren't you? Mr. Donald Mallard, the -"
"Actually it's Doctor Mallard." Ducky finally spoke. His voice was friendly, at least on the surface, but decades of hearing his friend speak, as well as the way Ducky had stressed 'Doctor', made Jethro's gut start to churn.
"Of course, it is. Please forgive me. I've only been in the States for a few weeks. I keep forgetting they don't use the term 'Mister' for -"
"I am actually a Medical Examiner," Ducky said, still in his friendly, but reserved voice, interrupting the stranger.
Jethro watched the stranger's reaction: it was one of surprise. "Oh, right. I . . . Look, forgive me, there's no reason why you should remember me. But I -"
"Actually, I do remember you," Ducky cut the man off abruptly. "It's William Hetherington, is it not?"
Hetherington's face lit up, and he suddenly looked half a dozen years younger. "Yes, it is. I'm amazed and very touched that you'd remember me after all these years. I was only -"
Ducky stood up suddenly. "Please forgive me, Mr. Hetherington, but I just remembered something. Jethro, I'll see you back at the office, if you do not mind settling the bill. There is something I have to do right now. It was nice to see you again, Mr. Hetherington."
"You too, sir. Maybe we could . . ." But without even waiting to put his hat and coat on, simply sweeping them from the nearby chair, Ducky had gone. "Oh," Hetherington said. "I was going to . . . "
Jethro had stood up at the same time as Ducky and now held out his hand. "I'm Jethro Gibbs," he said. "I work with Ducky."
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Gibbs?" Although Hetherington made the title a question, it was clear to Jethro's ears that he expected a positive answer.
Jethro shook his head. "No, I'm not a doctor. We both work for NCIS. You probably haven't heard of us." Hardly anyone had. "Naval Criminal Investigative Service," he explained, without waiting for a reply.
"Doctor Mallard works for the Navy?" Hetherington sounded surprised.
Jethro shrugged. "Near enough. So you worked with Ducky in England?"
"Yes, for a couple of years. He was my - Oh, look, clearly my timing was not good - it never was," he smiled. "I hadn't expected to come all this way and meet someone I knew, but now that I have. Well, maybe you wouldn't mind giving Mr. - Sorry, old habits die hard - Dr. Mallard my card. It'd be nice to see him again. Oh," he added suddenly, pausing as he started to pull a card out of his wallet. "Not that there was anything . . . I don't mean . . . That is . . . We were just friends. Well, given he was my boss and I was just a young junior Houseman, friends is probably not - Do you do this to everyone?"
"Do what?" Jethro asked, taking the card Hetherington held out.
"Make people talk just by staring at them. I take it you're an investigator with NCIS?"
Despite the way his gut was still slightly churning and Ducky's completely out of the ordinary behavior, Jethro found himself laughing. Yeah, I'm a Special Agent. And apparently I do. Sorry, didn't mean to make you feel I was interrogating you. I'll give your card to Ducky. I'm sure he'd like to see you." Actually, he wasn't sure at all, but one thing close contact with Ducky over the years had taught him, was a modicum of politeness. It didn't always, make that often, rear its head, but despite everything to the contrary with the way Ducky had acted and looked and sounded, he wasn't getting any negative or 'dangerous' vibes from William Hetherington.
"Thank you, Agent Gibbs," I'd appreciate that. "I guess it was rather surprising me appearing like that out of blue after more than thirty-five years." He paused for a second, and when Jethro made no comment, he held out his hand. "Nice to have met you. Give my regards to M - Dr. Mallard."
"Yeah, I will." Jethro nodded and waited until Hetherington had turned and walked away, before he paid the bill, grabbed his own coat and walked swiftly back to NCIS HQ.
"Hey, boss. The Director wants to see you." McGee looked up from his computer, as Gibbs strode into the otherwise empty area of their part of squad room.
"Thanks, McGee." Gibbs pulled off his coat and flung it over the filing cabinet behind his desk, turned and headed for the stairs. Then he stopped, dug into his jacket pocket and strode to McGee's desk. "Need you to do something for me, McGee," he said, putting one arm on the back of McGee's chair and bending over the younger man.
McGee looked up at him expectantly. "Sure, boss," he said.
After hesitating for only a fraction of a second, Gibbs handed over Hetherington's card. "Run a back-ground check on this man. And also find out what doctors in Britain are known as 'Mister' rather than 'Doctor'."
"On it, boss." And without question, McGee turned his attention to his computer. Gibbs watched for a second or two as McGee's fingers flew over the keyboard. McGee never asked 'why' he just did what Gibbs asked him to do.
He returned to the squad room after twenty minutes spent with Director Vance to find DiNozzo and Ziva still not at their desks.
"They haven't really been gone that long, boss. They went out quite a bit later than you and Ducky did," McGee said quickly, looking up at Gibbs.
Gibbs hid a smile. "Got anything for McGee?" he asked.
"Yes. Doctor Hetherington is British. Until two months he worked at an Orthopedic Consultant Surgeon at the Nuffield Hospital in Oxford. Then he moved here and has a position as an Attending Surgeon at The Ruby Memorial Hospital, which is part of the West Virginia University Hospitals. Here's his full background," he handed Gibbs a single sheet of paper. "And 'Mister', rather than 'Doctor' is what Consultant Surgeons in Britain are known as," he added.
Gibbs glanced at the paper, scanning it for anything that might seem out of place or odd. But it was as his gut told him: the perfectly normal career pattern of an ambitious doctor. Any idea why he left England?" he asked.
"Personal reasons his file said. But I know you'd want more than that, so I . . . Ah, but you don’t need to know that. It appears he lost his long-term partner six months ago and decided to start a new life here; his brother retired out here with his American wife three years ago. Hetherington came out a few weeks ago."
"Thanks, McGee," Gibbs said, giving McGee's shoulder a quick squeeze. "Appreciate it." He folded the paper and pushed it into his jacket pocket, before turning and heading for the elevators. He knew he didn't need to ask McGee not to say anything to the others; McGee wouldn't.
"Hey, Palmer," he said, as the doors opened on an otherwise empty Autopsy. "Ducky in the head again?"
Palmer jumped and blinked several times. "Special Agent Gibbs."
Gibbs waited. "Yes," he said, after a moment or two of just being stared at.
"Oh, right. Sorry. Er, no. Dr. Mallard, um. Well, he went home, sir. Er, Agent Gibbs."
Palmer nodded. "Yes, about fifteen minutes ago. He said he wasn’t feeling well. I assumed he'd . . . But I guess he . . . Um . . . "
Gibbs smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way at Palmer and then quickly patted his arm. "It's all right, Palmer," he said. And with that he turned and left Autopsy. He wasn't as troubled as he would have been had it been any other day by Palmer's news, at least not in one way.
He didn't believe for a moment that Ducky was sick - at least not very - which alone was troublesome in its own way. But for now he decided there was nothing he could do; short of leaving himself and that would only leave too many questions to be answered. Ducky wasn't going anywhere, of that Gibbs was sure. He'd give Ducky the time he clearly needed to sort out whatever it was he needed to sort out, then he'd just leave early and go home and ask Ducky what the matter was. Simple.
Ignoring the looks of surprise on the faces of McGee, DiNozzo and Ziva, as soon as the clock showed 5:00 p.m. Jethro grabbed his coat, pushed his Sig into his pocket, picked up his briefcase and left the office.
Even though he and Ducky now lived together they still tended, on most days, to take both cars to the office, thus if one had to work particularly late the other wasn't left hanging about. Ironically Jethro rather liked the arrangement as there was something oddly comforting about actually going home to Ducky rather than going home with Ducky - if only for the added greeting he got.
"Hey, Duck," he called, as he shut and locked the door. "I'm home."
Ducky came out into the hall to greet him and Jethro took the opportunity to appraise his lover. He didn't seem at all surprised by the relative earliness of Jethro's arrival, but nor did he look his usual pleased to see him self. There was a hint of apprehension in the way Ducky moved and looked, his face was paler than usual and his limp far more pronounced. But worst of all was the shrouded gaze. Jethro always hated it when Ducky closed off his all too revealing eyes; it was the only true barometer of Ducky's feelings.
Dumping his briefcase on the floor, Jethro closed the distance between them and pulled Ducky into his arms. He gathered him into a close embrace and held him for a moment or two, before pushing him back just far enough to allow him to bend his head and kiss him. Although Ducky embraced and kissed him back, it wasn't quite in the way he normally did.
"Palmer said you were sick," he said, when the kiss ended. He still kept Ducky in a loose embrace.
"A little, yes. Just a mild headache really. Nothing much."
"Good." Jethro avoided pointing out that 'a mild headache' was not something that would normally have led Ducky to go home from work. "Want me to cook tonight?" he asked.
Ducky chuckled softly, it warmed and reassured Jethro. It was the most 'normal' thing to have happened since Hetherington had turned up at the restaurant. "A kind offer, my dear, but it's not necessary. Supper is prepared; it just needs heating through. I didn't know what time you'd be home so . . . What time would you like to eat? Now or later?"
Jethro shrugged. "How about I grab a quick shower, you pour us a drink and we can sit down and relax before we eat?" He didn't add 'and you can tell me what's wrong with you'.
"Very well," Ducky said quietly, glancing away from Jethro.
Three quarters of an hour later they sat on the sofa both holding a glass half full of very good scotch, chatting idly. At least Jethro was, oddly for him Ducky was barely managing replies or comments that were more than monosyllabic. His body language was giving conflicting messages: 'ask me' and 'don't ask me' were emanating from him in equal amounts.
Finally Jethro slipped one arm around Ducky's shoulders and shifted slightly so he could see his lover. "Want to tell me, Duck?" he said gently.
"Tell you what?"
Jethro sighed. "Come on, Duck. Don't play games."
Ducky glanced away. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I . . ." He trailed off.
Jethro squeezed his shoulder. "Don't apologize, Duck. Just tell me."
Now Ducky sighed, the sound tore into Jethro, but he kept his resolve firm. Ducky turned back to look at him and the defenses he'd erected to cover his eyes tumbled away, leaving nothing but pain in the steady gaze.
Jethro tightened his grip on Ducky's shoulder. "Come on, it can't be that bad, Duck," he said.
"Can it not?" Ducky briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Jethro saw determination mingled with the pain. "Have you never wondered what I did before I became a Medical Examiner? And why I have never spoken about those years?" he asked.
"To be honest, Duck, I never really thought about it. I've never been sure how long it takes to train as a doctor and then how long after that as an ME. I knew you must have done some surgery, but . . . Short answer, I guess not. Not in detail anyway."
Ducky nodded. "I was indeed a surgeon. I was, without meaning to sound conceited, a very good surgeon; an extremely good surgeon. I became the youngest ever Consultant Surgeon in the UK and was pretty well known. I was also, I am sorry to say, more than a little cocky at the time. I believed there was nothing, surgical-wise at least, I could not do."
Jethro widened his eyes. "Cocky, you? Come on, Duck. You're not like that. Now me -" He stopped; this wasn't about him.
Ducky smiled a little. "Ah, Jethro my dear, people change," he said, suddenly moving his hand and taking Jethro's.
"Not that much they don’t. But go on."
"I had a patient, a young man. He was in his early twenties and had his whole life ahead of him. However, to have that life, he needed a serious and complicated operation. The sad thing is that the operation would have led to him being paralyzed below the waist and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But he would live; he could live in many ways a full life. However, it is not what he wanted. He had done some research and there was an alternative operation - it was still somewhat experimental and new, and thus far no one had survived. However, I fully believed that I knew why the people hadn't lived. I also felt certain that I could overcome the problems and make the necessary changes and - I told you I was cocky." He swallowed some of the scotch and to Jethro's horror he saw his hand shake slightly.
He tightened his grip on the hand he was holding. "Go on, Duck," he said gently. "I take it you did the operation."
Ducky nodded. "Yes. I make it sound somewhat worse than it was. I wasn't that certain I should do it, even though I was confident I could succeed where other, far more experienced and eminent surgeons had failed, I still wasn't completely certain. But I let my patient talk me into it and yes, part of me did want to do it. Part of me wanted to prove myself worthy of being the youngest Consultant Surgeon. So I agreed and we scheduled the operation. I spent hours, days reading everything I could and planning exactly what I would do. And then - Oh, Jethro," he whispered.
"He died?" Jethro asked quietly.
"Yes. And it was all my fault. I killed him, Jethro. I killed a patient."
Jethro took his arm from around Ducky's shoulders and instead put it on his shoulder. "Ducky," he said firmly. Then he paused, not quite certain what to say next. And then he remembered something. "I thought you once told me virtually every doctor has at some point been responsible in some way or other, directly or indirectly, for the death of a patient?"
"Well, yes. But this was different. I didn't have to do the operation, I could have refused. I could have performed the safer one. But I acted irresponsibly. And that was when I knew I couldn't go on as a surgeon. I no longer wanted to be a doctor to the living; so I became a Medical Examiner, at least I can't hurt my patients."
"That why you talk to them?"
Ducky nodded. "Partly, yes. I know it's foolish, Jethro. I know you probably think I am being melodramatic or making too much of what was one -"
"I was going to say error of judgment, but yes, mistake. And you'd be right to think so. And I know I'm not the first doctor to have been guilty of such an error, nor will I be the last. And yes, it is true that most doctors are in some way responsible for a patient's death, or more than one patient. I know all of that. But nonetheless, it . . ." He trailed off.
Ducky nodded. "Yes. More than I had believed possible. I thought I had put it behind me, as much as one can. But when I looked up and saw William Hetherington standing there, addressing me as 'Mister Mallard', oh, Jethro . . . Suddenly I was swept back over thirty-five years to that one patient."
"Did he die on the table?" Whenever he'd thought about doctors losing patients, Jethro had always assumed dying on the table, under the surgeon's hands, must be the worst way of all.
"No. In some ways that makes it harder. That is how the other people had died. But no, the operation, on the face of it was a success, but then in the middle of the night I got a call from the ward Sister and . . . I should not have undertaken the operation."
"Was there any problems afterwards? From his family, your bosses?"
Ducky shook his head. "No. I had obtained permission from the Chief of Surgery to carry out the procedure; he too believed in me. As for the poor man's family; he didn't have one as such. He did have a fiancée and it was her reaction that was the hardest of all."
"She was tough on you?" Jethro slipped his hand into Ducky's hair and stroked his head.
"Oh, no. Quite the opposite. That is what it all the more difficult to bear. She thanked me; she thanked me, Jethro. She told me how they had talked and talked for some time about the operation and how important it was to her fiancé, how much he wanted it. How he knew he couldn't spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. She thanked me for being prepared to do the surgery, to carry out her fiancé's wishes. I could not believe it. I did not know what to say. I who, as you have said more than once, tend to have an answer for everything and never seems to have problems with words, could not find any. Then she shook my hand, kissed my cheek and left, and as she did she threw the final devastating piece of the bombshell into my lap: she was pregnant. And if the baby was a boy, they had agreed it would be named after me. That really was the final straw; that was what made me completely and utterly one hundred percent certain I could not remain a surgeon of the living." Ducky seemed exhausted by his final speech and he sagged against Jethro, who gathered him into his arms and held him.
"Oh, Duck," he said softly. "I'm sorry." As words they seemed inadequate, but any would have been.
"I know. And so am I. Ah, Jethro, I'm the one who should apologize." Ducky lifted his head from where it had come to rest on Jethro's shoulder and looked at him. The pain in the pale-blue eyes had faded a little and the normal serenity Jethro always associated with his lover was at least partly in evidence.
"Not telling you about it before now. As you reminded me not that long ago 'we don't have secrets from one another'." The beginnings of a gentle smile touched the corners of Ducky's mouth.
"Why didn't you?"
Ducky shrugged. "For several reasons. One being that -"
"You didn't want me to think any less of you?" Jethro knew his lover so very well. The faintest hint of color touched Ducky's cheeks, answering the question without the need for words. "You really think I would have, Duck?" Jethro kept his tone low and free from condemnation.
Ducky shook his head. "No, actually, my dear, I didn't. Not at all, which almost makes it worse."
"No, it doesn't, Duck. It was something that was so painful for you. I can't say I understand fully, because I can't. You know I know what it's like to kill someone, but for me it comes with the nature of my careers. For you, as a doctor, I guess . . . I'm not making a very good job of this, am I?"
"You are doing fine, my dear. Thank you for not saying you understand completely."
Jethro smiled. "The wisest and best person I've ever know taught me you can't understand something fully unless you've experienced exactly the same thing."
This time the beginnings of the gentle smile touched Ducky's eyes. "It is always reassuring and gratifying to know you do listen to me from time to time."
"I always listen to you, Duck. I just don't always necessarily - Well, you know what I mean."
"Yes, Jethro, I do."
Jethro tugged Ducky nearer to him again. "Feel better now?" he asked, resting his cheek on Ducky's head.
"Yes, I do, thank you. It is as thought a weight I have been carrying for all those years has suddenly been lifted. I should have told you before. And I should not have behaved as I did this afternoon. It was unforgivably rude of me; I shall have to try to get in touch with William and - Oh," Ducky exclaimed softly, as Jethro pushed a card into his hands. "How . . . ?"
"He gave it to me after you'd gone and said he'd love to have a drink or something with you. He then stammeringly tried to explain that he wasn't 'interested' in you."
Ducky's eyes widened. "Did he now? I always wondered about him. Well, well, well - How did he know?"
"About us?" Ducky nodded. "You tell me. Guess we must give some vibe off or something."
"Does that bother you?"
"Would I be living with you if it did?"
"I assume not."
"You assume correctly."
Ducky smiled; each time he did it was getting more and more like Jethro's Ducky. "And I must also ask you to try to forgive me for my well unforgiveable lack of professionalism by leaving the office today, as I did. Not only by telling poor Jimmy a falsehood, but by not informing you myself that I intended to leave. I assure you, it will never happen again. I will quite understand if you wish to make some kind of . . ." Under Jethro's unblinking stare, Ducky trailed off.
Ducky nodded. "Yes, yes, I believe I have."
"Good." Now Jethro pulled Ducky near enough to him to gently kiss him. "You sure you feel better now?" he asked, when he finally let Ducky speak again.
"Much, thank you, dearest. Now I suppose I had better do something about supper."
"If you want, or we could go out? Get something delivered. Or . . ." He deliberately trailed off and raised his eyebrows.
"Or . . . ?" Ducky asked, his voice now somewhat husky; his eyes shinning.
It was their way, it always had been, of dealing with the hell the world through at them. Making love, connecting in such an intimate way said far more than words could ever do. It restored and made whole again; it touched them both beyond the physical, beyond the emotional. It was their way; it worked for them. And that was all that mattered.
Ducky smiled; by now it was a real Ducky smile. The one Jethro knew and loved so well. "I do believe that would be very appropriate, my dear," he said, taking Jethro's hand. And Jethro, I really am -"
But Jethro had heard enough apologies; there were far better things for Ducky to be doing than saying he was sorry. So he used his favorite method of silencing his lover.
As he kissed Ducky, he mused, not for the first time, that one of these days he just might forget where they were and silence Ducky in this manner at the office, rather than say his name. That would certainly give the gossips plenty to talk about. He was certain that, although the fact that he and Ducky lived together was widely known outside of his own team, a lot of those people who did know didn't believe they 'lived' together. Maybe on the day he and Ducky retired, he just might show the cynics exactly what 'living together' meant.
As Ducky's mouth opened beneath his and he slipped his tongue into Ducky's mouth thoughts of anything but getting Ducky to bed and spending hours making love to him fled from his mind.
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