MAKING TIME

 

By

 

Ashleigh Anpilova

 

Set before, during and after Flesh And Bone.

Ducky needs Gibbs, but doesn't want to approach him. Gibbs is busy and doesn't realize Ducky's reticence. Vance takes advantage of Gibbs's seeming lack of caring.

A first time story.

Written: January 2010. Word count: 32,195.

 

 

THE SQUAD ROOM - MORNING

 

"Grab your gear," Gibbs called, as he strode into the squad room with a coffee in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Then he noticed Ducky was standing by his desk. "You need me for something, Duck?" he asked, his voice lower than when he'd given the order.

 

"It doesn't matter, Jethro," Ducky replied quickly, not quite meeting Gibbs's eye. "It can wait."

 

Gibbs put his hand on his old friend's shoulder. He wasn't sure what it was, but there was something in Ducky's tone that seemed slightly off. "You sure, Duck?"

 

Now Ducky did look up at him and gave him a faint smile. "Of course, Jethro. You're busy. It can wait."

 

"Okay. I'll come down and see you when we get back," Gibb said, sliding his hand around Ducky's shoulder to briefly cup the nape of Ducky's neck.

 

"Thank you. I would appreciate that, Jethro," Ducky said. "Now I mustn't keep you any longer."

 

"Yeah. Catch you later, Duck." And with that, Gibbs grabbed the car keys, turned and joined his field team who were waiting in the elevator. As he went inside and turned around, he caught sight of Ducky still standing by his desk, watching him. He put his hand out and stopped the elevator doors from closing.

 

"Boss?"

 

McGee's quiet question got Gibbs attention, and after another second or two, he let his hand fall. The doors closed and the car began to descend.

 

GIBBS'S BASEMENT - LATER THAT NIGHT

 

Gibbs straightened up and stretched. Without looking he reached for his coffee mug and downed the last dregs of the high proof bourbon he'd poured himself earlier. His eyes felt gritty and his shoulders ached. He glanced at his watch to see it was already past midnight. Time he went to bed.

 

Flicking the lights out, he started up the stairs. "Shit," he cursed, coming to a stop. "Ah, shit," he repeated. Something had been nagging at the back of his mind all evening; something he should have done and hadn't. Now he remembered what it had been. He hadn't gone to see Ducky. He'd gotten caught up in the case, and then Vance had needed information on another case, and so he'd just forgotten his promise.

 

He started to pull his phone from his pocket and froze. He couldnít call Ducky now; it was far too late. Sure, Ducky was used to being called in the middle of the night, but that was different. He couldn't call and probably wake Ducky up. It wouldn't be fair. Besides, Ducky had said whatever it was he'd wanted him for wasn't important, that it could wait.

 

He ignored the 'something in Ducky's tone that had seemed slightly off' memory. He ignored it, just as he'd tried hard to ignore the other 'things' that had made him blink over the last few months. Ducky using the Autopsy lockers for storing food and allowing other people to use them; the odd out of place, somewhat inappropriate comment, that Gibbs expected DiNozzo to make, not Ducky. He ignored it just as he'd tried hard to ignore how tired Ducky was looking, how often he was sitting down, how his limp had increased. He ignored it, just as he'd always ignored the fact that Ducky was deeply in love with him, and had been pretty much since they had first met.

 

He pushed the phone back into his pocket and continued his way up the stairs. He'd make sure he went to Autopsy first thing in the morning, before he did anything else.

 

AUTOPSY - THE NEXT MORNING

 

"Hey, Duck," Gibbs called as he strode into Autopsy. "Palmer," he added, as he spotted Ducky's assistant.

 

"Special Agent Gibbs." Gibbs wasn't sure, but he thought Palmer's tone sounded slightly hard, plus he'd fallen back on Gibbs's full title, a habit he'd recently gotten out off.

 

However, Gibbs dismissed Palmer the instant Ducky turned around and moved towards him. "Good morning, Jethro," he said, offering a mere half smile that didn't quite touch his eyes.

 

Now Gibbs couldn't ignore or deny it; Ducky looked and sounded exhausted, as well as faintly distant. He glanced swiftly at Palmer, fully expecting him to offer to go and see Abby or something. However, Palmer merely met his gaze and turned away and walked to the other end of Autopsy. Gibbs now glanced at Ducky, waiting for him to send Palmer off; however, his old friend said nothing.

 

So instead Gibbs said, "Sorry about yesterday, Duck. I . . ." He trailed off and shrugged. "Got caught up with the case," he added.

 

Ducky nodded once. "That's all right, Jethro. I quite understand." His words were usual; his tone and the way he held his body wasn't.

 

Gibbs glanced at Palmer again, but the younger man had his back turned and seemed to be ignoring Ducky and himself. "So what did you want me for?" he asked, looking back at Ducky.

 

Ducky sighed softly. "It doesn't matter, Jethro," he said, and offered slightly more than a half smile.

 

Gibbs frowned and put his hand on Ducky's shoulder. "You sure, Duck?" Something told him Ducky wasn't being completely honest with him, but yet what reason could Ducky have not to be thus?

 

Ducky nodded. "Of course I am, Jethro." He patted Gibbs's arm and gazed up into Gibbs's face.

 

Now Gibbs got the feeling that Ducky was waiting for something, but once more he didn't know what. Hastily he ran over things in his mind. Had he forgotten Ducky's birthday? No. Had he made arrangements to go out to dinner with Ducky and then had forgotten? No, he was sure he hadn't. Had he been particularly harsh to one of the team and they'd mentioned it to Ducky? He was pretty sure he hadn't. So what was it?

 

"Duck -" His cell phone burbling away, silenced him. Frowning, he pulled it out. "Gibbs, yeah?" He listened for a moment. "On our way. Got to go, Duck. Got a dead Marine. Here," he grabbed a piece of paper from Ducky's desk and scrawled the address on it. "Try not to get lost, Palmer," he said, already heading out of Autopsy. As the doors swished shut behind him, he didn't know whether Palmer, and more importantly Ducky, had answered him or not.

 

AUTOPSY TWO WEEKS LATER

 

Ducky had his back to the doors as they opened. Without thinking about it, he automatically began to speak. "Oh, Jethro, I was just about to call you. The x-rays confirm my initial determination. Blunt-force trauma was indeed the cause of death." He was too distracted to pay any attention to the little voice that tried to tell him he hadn't picked up the usual 'Jethro' vibes.

 

"I'll be sure to tell him."

 

The unexpected voice that answered him, caused him to jump slightly. "Oh! Director Vance. It's not often that I'm graced by your presence in Autopsy. To what do I owe the pleasure?" He looked at the other man.

 

Director Vance nodded slightly. "Gibbs and I spoke to the Saudi embassy. They have requested a quick release of the body for religious reasons."

 

That didn't surprise Ducky; he had been expecting the request. "Well, as soon as I'm done here, I can make arrangements for him to be picked up."

 

Director Vance nodded again. "Thank you." He turned slightly and Ducky expected him to leave. Thus, he was again surprised when in fact Director Vance addressed him again. "Doctor?" Ducky looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "How's your mother doing?"

 

Even more surprised, as well as feeling suddenly somewhat moved, that Director Vance had taken the time to ask him, Ducky replied. "Thank you for asking. She is, uh, slipping away, slowly," he sighed softly. "Losing touch with reality. When I visited her this morning, in her room, she insisted that the clock on the wall was going backwards." He sighed again; it was hard visiting his mother. It caused him so much pain to see her suffering so; even though as a doctor he knew that she was beyond knowing what was happening to her. So in truth, she wasn't suffering. However, he was. He was suffering very much indeed.

 

Director Vance gave him a rueful half-smile. "Actually, I've had days that felt like that." And with another nod to Ducky, he turned and strode out of the room.

 

Left alone, Ducky sighed and said to the empty room, "Haven't we all?" As he continued the autopsy on Walid Abbas he wondered, in passing, why Director Vance had chosen to come and tell him the news about the request for the quick release of Walid Abbas's body, rather than Jethro coming himself.

 

He also, now he was over the initial surprise, found himself spending a moment or two pondering as to just why the director had asked after his mother. It wasn't that he wasn't grateful that someone had asked and had seemed genuinely concerned. Someone, that was, other than Jimmy, who dutifully - no, that was unfair, it wasn't duty that made Jimmy ask, Ducky knew that - asked each day. He was grateful; he was very grateful and touched that Director Vance had asked. However, Ducky had been involved in law enforcement and the study of people for far too long to take everything at face value. Thus, against his will, he found himself wondering if the director had had another agenda for inquiring about his mother.

 

He knew things were not exactly good between Jethro and Director Vance, and that Jethro had his reservations as to certain aspects pertaining to their director. In short, he knew his closest and oldest friend didn't quite trust his boss. He also knew that Director Vance did have an agenda. Ducky wasn't certain what that agenda was, but he had a feeling it had to do with having more of the 'right' kind of agents in the agency. And no matter how good Jethro was, and he was the best agent Ducky had ever worked for or with, Jethro was not in Director Vance's opinion the 'right' kind - if for no other reason than his abhorrence for technology.

 

Ducky didn't like himself for considering it, but he did wonder fleetingly if Director Vance's question had more to do with an attempt to maybe sway Ducky to Director Vance's 'side', than out of genuine interest or even a polite inquiry.

 

And yet, Director Vance hadn't had to have asked the question; it had come out of the blue. It wasn't as if they'd been talking about families, not as such, although, 'the Saudi embassy' had no doubt been acting on instructions, given or merely implied, by the royal family. Even so, Ducky hadn't got the feeling that the question had been out of politeness. And if he was completely honest, he hadn't got the impression it had been out of any definite attempt to 'lure' him away from Jethro's 'side'.

 

He sighed; he shouldn't be thinking about 'sides'. Surely, as an agency they were all on the same 'side'. At least they should be, shouldn't they? He sighed again and put down his scalpel. "I sometimes wonder if you and I have been friends for too many years, Jethro," he said to the empty room.

 

"Gee, thanks, Duck."

 

Ducky jumped quite violently. "Jethro!" he exclaimed, shaking his head as he realized his 'Jethro vibe' that had never before a few months ago failed him, had let him down twice within ten minutes.

 

He felt Jethro's hand on his arm. "Hey, didn't mean to startle you, Duck. Thought you always knew when it was me." He smiled at Ducky as he said the words.

 

So did I. However, rather than verbalize his thought, Ducky instead returned Jethro's smile. "Do forgive me, Jethro, I was rather lost in thought as to something Director Vance asked me."

 

"Oh, yeah? What was that?"

 

But Jethro's tone told Ducky he wasn't really interested; he didn't want to know. So Ducky just shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said. "What can I do for you, Jethro? I will be finished with the autopsy very soon now, so the embassy can collect him."

 

Jethro frowned and for a moment looked puzzled. "Oh, yeah, that. Fine, Duck. No, it's not about Walid. Need you to do your thing."

 

Ducky omitted reminding Jethro that was what he was doing, as he knew an autopsy wasn't what Jethro was referring to - at least not an autopsy of the physical kind. Instead he politely asked, "Oh?"

 

"DiNozzo and Ziva are bringing DiNozzo's dad in. Need you to wait in the observation room and -"

 

"Tony has arrested his father?" Ducky spoke loudly, cutting Jethro off mid-request, or indeed, given that Jethro was technically his boss, mid-instruction.

 

"Not quite. NSA picked up some chatter that mentioned 'Prince Omah' and 'assassination' and other key words. Tracked the I whatsit address to the same hotel as Prince Sayif."

 

"And?"

 

"And DiNozzo and Ziva found DiNozzo's dad sending an email."

 

"Jethro, you cannot possibly think that Anthony's father had anything to do with the assassination attempt, can you?"

 

Jethro shrugged. "Course not, Duck. But he was using the computer NSA tracked the email to. He's up to something."

 

"Jethro?"

 

"Why now, Duck?"

 

Ducky frowned. "Jethro?" he said again.

 

"Why has DiNozzo's dad turned up now?

 

"I honestly couldn't say, Jethro. I understand Tony called him a couple of days ago over some matter pertaining to a Bank account, and that his father had not returned his call, but -"

 

But Jethro went on as if Ducky hadn't spoken. "You know what, Duck? Don't reckon DiNozzo knows what he's doing here either."

 

"Well, I'm sure that when he gets a chance to do so, we are in the middle of a case," Ducky said pointedly, "I'm certain that Tony will ascertain the reason for his father being here. I'm sure you don't need to trouble yourself."

 

Jethro shrugged. "Ah, I know, Duck. But DiNozzo's a damn good agent and I don't want . . . Anyway, they'll be here in about forty minutes, can you be in the observation room then?"

 

Ducky sighed. "Yes, of course I can, if that's what you want. But, Jethro, surely you trust your own observations? Your own gut, don't you?"

 

Jethro flashed him a wry grin. "This is a DiNozzo we're talking about, Duck. Our DiNozzo's father. DiNozzo got his character from someone, and I don't reckon it was his mom."

 

"Well, she did die when poor Anthony was very young."

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Happens," he said.

 

"Jethro!" Then Ducky suddenly shook himself. "Oh, Jethro," he said, putting his hand on Jethro's arm. "I didnít - I'm really very -"

 

Jethro squeezed Ducky's shoulder. "It's fine, Duck. Donít worry about it."

 

Ducky sighed softly, accepting Jethro's words in the manner in which they were intended. "Well, I confess it will be interesting to see Anthony DiNozzo Senior. I do wonder if father and son are as alike as another father and son I know." He gazed up at Jethro.

 

"What? Duck!"

 

Ducky chuckled softly and took his hand away from where it still rested on Jethro's arm and instead patted his hand. "Ah, Jethro my dear, you may not want to hear it, or even believe it, but you and your father are alike in many ways. Indeed, you and Anthony share a number of -"

 

"Gee thanks, Duck," Jethro said for the second time and frowned down at Ducky.

 

"You know what I mean, Jethro," Ducky said firmly.

 

For a moment the frown deepened, then with a half-laugh, Jethro said, "Yeah, Duck. Guess I do."

 

"Good," Ducky said, and smiled. "In that case I shall make certain that I am in the observation room in approximately thirty-five minutes."

 

Jethro squeezed his shoulder again. "Thanks, Duck. Appreciate it. I'll come out when I've done with DiNozzo's dad," he said, before turning on his heel and leaving Autopsy.

 

Ducky watched him go, before closing his eyes and sighing. He then counted to ten and another ten before opening his eyes and looking back down at Walid Abbas. "I hope that you have someone who cares about you as much as Agent Gibbs cares about his junior agents," he said, trying hard to keep his tone neutral and not to display any hint of the bitterness he felt. The bitterness, the hurt and, he hated to admit it even to himself, the tinge of jealousy that flared up at how much concern Jethro was displaying over Tony, and yet when it came to Ducky, his meant to be closest friend, he seemed either not to care or was completely oblivious. For a moment, Ducky wasn't sure which he'd prefer.

 

THE OBSERVATION ROOM

 

At the agreed time Ducky, now attired in suit, shit and bowtie, slipped into the observation room. He was very surprised to see Abby standing there. "Oh," he said softly; he knew that Jethro would not be happy if he knew Abby was there.

 

Abby looked at him and smiled. "Hey, Duckman!"

 

"Abigail."

 

She frowned at him, but then went back to looking through the window into the interrogation room. "I had to see Tony's dad," she said, as if answering a question Ducky had asked her.

 

"I see," he said.

 

"Is that why you're here?" Again she looked at him.

 

For a second he thought. Then decided that his answer would not be a lie; it wouldn't be the entire truth, but nor would it be a lie. "I suppose I am, yes," he said non-committally.

 

"Did Tony really arrest him?" she asked.

 

"Not exactly, no."

 

She frowned. "What's 'not exactly' mean?"

 

"I'm not entirely sure of the exact circumstances under which Anthony brought his father here," Ducky replied without actually saying anything.

 

For a moment she frowned at him. Then she shrugged and looked back at Anthony DiNozzo Senior. "Maybe Tony didn't have a mother," she said. "Maybe he was cloned.

 

Ducky smiled; he was pleased to get away from the question as to why he was here, and what he knew about why the man they were looking at was in interrogation. "Well, there certainly is a strong familial resemblance," he replied. And there certainly was; no one could have looked at the two Anthony DiNozzos and not instantly known they were closely related. He wondered, as he watched the older man who looked so like the younger man whom Ducky saw almost every day, whether they were alike in personality as well.

 

He was about to say something further, when the door opened and Jethro strode into the room and held out his hand to Mr. DiNozzo. "Hi. Jethro Gibbs." The offer of the handshake instantly told Ducky that Jethro did not believe the man in the room with him, was involved in any way in the possibly assassination of the Prince. Had he thought it for a moment, he wouldn't have offered a handshake.

 

Tony's father greeted him in turn. "Oh. Agent Gibbs. Well, you finally get to meet the real Tony DiNozzo."

 

As Ducky watched Jethro smile faintly, he had his own question answered: the two DiNozzo men were as alike in personality as they were in looks.

 

He continued to watch as Jethro sat down and indicated that the other man should sit down too. As the two men talked, Ducky noted that it took Mr. DiNozzo more than a moment or two to actually join Jethro at the table. That immediately told Ducky that some kind of almost one-upmanship game was being played, at least by the Mr. DiNozzo. Jethro may be the one interviewing him, the one trying to feel him out and get answers, but he in turn was being appraised and studied. Ducky wondered just what Tony had told his father about his boss, and how capable his father was of reading between the lines.

 

He almost hoped not too capable. After all what father wanted to see or hear that he had in effect been replaced in his son's sonly affections by another man; a man who wasn't even related to him? Even a father, who according to Tony, had not been around a great deal, who had sent his son to boarding schools - not that Ducky saw any problem with that at all; after all he'd attended boarding schools from a very early age - didn't want to firstly discover he'd been replaced in his son's affections, as a father, and secondly meet the man who had replaced him.

 

If Tony had even shared half the respect he had for Jethro and how important he was to him and how much he liked him, revered him, looked up to him, spent the vast proportion of each day trying to please him or second guess him, then Anthony DiNozzo Senior would not certainly not share his son's opinion of one Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Ducky wondered when the civility and almost hill-billy act, an act his oldest friend also did extremely well, would vanish and the two 'fathers' would butt heads.

 

Even as he pondered these things, he was listening and more importantly observing Mr. DiNozzo, and of course Jethro himself, Tony wasn't the only one who held Jethro in such high regard or had strong feelings for him - it was just that Ducky's feelings weren't those of a son for his surrogate father. He mentally shook himself, and stopped thinking about Jethro in any other terms than the man he was watching interview another man.

 

"You mentioned 'Prince Omar' and 'assassination' in your e-mails. Why?" Jethro asked, and Ducky focused all his attention on Mr. DiNozzo.

 

Giving a gesture very like his son's, Mr. DiNozzo said, "I confess. I'm a bit of an opportunist." He paused for a second, obviously, to Ducky's eyes, giving Jethro a chance to comment; he wasn't at all surprised when Jethro didnít. But again the term Mr. DiNozzo had used and the meaning behind it, reminded Ducky so much of the Tony DiNozzo he knew so well.

 

He listened as Mr. DiNozzo realized Jethro wasn't going to comment. "Uh, money's tight these days, and I'm missing a key piece of financing. So I thought that fate had interceded when I heard that Al was going to be in town."

 

"Al?" Jethro did react to the name.

 

"Oh, yeah, that's what Prince Omar Ibn Alwaan's friends call him . . . Yeah. So I was notifying some of my investors that, uh, Al was going to be in town because of the assassination attempt on his son."

 

Now Ducky glanced at Jethro. To anyone else Jethro's body language and expression wouldn't have given anything away. To Ducky it spoke volumes - and he shared what Jethro was 'telling' him.

 

"Ah. Why are you at the Adams House?"

 

"Oh, I'm staying there. It's my favorite in Washington." And Mr. DiNozzo very slickly, Ducky gave him that, moved the conversation away from the emails and onto more prosaic things. As he listened to Mr. DiNozzo talk about Donald the concierge's skills, Ducky really did have to hand it to him; he was good. Tony really was his father's son.

 

"Have you ever been to the Rooftop Grill?" Mr. DiNozzo asked.

 

"No." Ducky saw clearly that Jethro was fully aware of the ruse, but that he was happy to let it go on. Again the lack of pulling the questions back to the email told Ducky a lot.

 

"Oh . . . They've got the best rib eye in town."

 

Ducky couldn't help commenting. "He's right about that. It is delicious." He watched as Jethro gathered his papers together, stood up and left the room.

 

The length of time between Jethro leaving interrogation and entering the observation room implied he'd stopped to speak to someone. Ducky guessed that someone was almost certainly Tony. Ducky could understand completely why Tony hadn't wanted to watch Jethro question his father - assuming he hadn't tried to and had been told by Jethro not to.

 

Then door to the observation room opened and Gibbs strode in. "Abby." It was as Ducky had thought; Jethro was not best pleased to find her there.

 

"Gibbs! Hi, Gibbs." Abby spoke brightly, but there was a hint of fake brightness in her voice; she too had picked up on Jethro's tone.

 

"Hi."

 

"Um . . . I just . . . I wanted to see what Tony's dad looked like, but . . ." Ducky hoped Abby stopped before she dug herself any further into the hole.

 

"Go."

 

"I'm just going to go."

 

"Yeah."

 

"Yeah, okay." Abby hurried away.

 

Ducky waited until the door had closed again and he then moved a little nearer to Gibbs and looked up at him. "What are you thinking?" He asked the question automatically; he didn't need to hear Jethro's answer. He already knew it.

 

And Jethro knew he knew it. Nonetheless, he answered. "He's not involved."

 

Slipping seamlessly into a role he'd played many times, Ducky asked another question to which he already knew the answer. "But?"

 

"But he's got an agenda."

 

"Agreed."

 

For a moment they stood and looked at one another. In that small room without the presence of anyone else, Ducky felt a sense of contentment, of the kind he hadn't felt for some time, settle over him. Maybe he should . . . "Jeth-"

 

Jethro put his hand on Ducky's shoulder and squeezed it. "Thanks, Duck," he said and flashed Ducky the smile he knew Jethro reserved just for him.

 

Ducky sighed softly. He knew Jethro hadn't even heard him start to say his name. It was probably for the best; Jethro was busy, caught up in the case; concerned about his agent. "It was my pleasure, Jethro," he said simply. And then found himself saying, "Anthony's father was right about one thing."

 

"Oh, yeah?" Jethro's tone was still distracted. Ducky got the impression that his friend had answered him without consciously hearing him.

 

Nonetheless, given he'd started the conversation, Ducky continued it. "Yes. That the Rooftop Gill does serve the best rib eye in town. We should go sometime," he said. "My treat."

 

Jethro glanced at him. "Yeah, that'd be good, Duck. We'll sort something out when this is all over. Got go. Catch you later." And with another half-distracted smile and another shoulder squeeze, Jethro left the room.

 

Ducky sighed and for a moment closed his eyes before following his friend out of the room and heading back down to Autopsy.

 

RESTON HOUSE

 

Ducky ended the call, put the phone down on the table, and sighed. He felt a very faint tremble course through his body and his eyes began to burn and his throat felt tight. Ordering himself to pull himself together, he picked the phone back up and pressed a single number. He listened to the sound of it ringing, once, twice, three times, four, fiv-

 

"Yeah, Gibbs?"

 

"Jethro."

 

"Oh, hey, Duck. Something -"

 

However, Ducky didn't hear whatever Jethro said. Instead he heard another voice call out. "Boss, where's the coffee? You're moved it since I was last here."

 

"Hang on, DiNozzo. Sorry, Duck. What do you want?"

 

Ducky blinked at what suddenly seemed like an abrupt and somewhat unfriendly question. "I -" What did he want? Well, whatever it was, Tony's presence in Jethro's home put paid to it. "I didn't know you had a visitor," he found himself saying.

 

"Only DiNozzo. Reckoned he could do with a bit of company. You know with his dad and all."

 

"I see."

 

"Yeah. So invited him over for a steak - made him bring the beer."

 

"I see," Ducky repeated, idly looking at his hand and noticing how white it had become. He forced himself to relax the grip he had on the phone.


"Hey, Duck, you know what he did?"

 

"Who?"

 

"DiNozzo."

 

"No, I do not. Jethro, I -"

 

"Only went and paid his dad's hotel bill on the thousand dollar a night room. And, and, Duck, left him an open ended ticket so he could go and meet up with his old friend Prince Omah in Monte Carlos."

 

"Did he?" Ducky said, not in the least bit interested.

 

"Yeah, he did. Made me proud, Duck. Reckon he's finally growing up. Don't you?"

 

"What?"

 

"DiNozzo. Said I reckon he's finally growing up. Asked if you agreed." Jethro's voice sounded as if he was puzzled. "You okay, Duck?"

 

"What? Oh, yes. Yes, he must be. That a very nice gesture."

 

"Yeah, and you know where he got the mon-"

"Jethro!" It was no good; Ducky simply could not stand and listen to Jethro babble on about DiNozzo any longer.

 

He heard the almost blink of surprise in the silence and then the actual surprise in Jethro's voice. "You sure you're okay, Duck?"

 

Ducky sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He idly wondered what Jethro would say it he answered the question honestly? Instead, however, he said, "Yes, Jethro. It's just I'll need to take a few days leave, that's all."

 

"That's fine, Duck. You know that. Just fill out the papers and I'll sign them. Anything else?"

 

Ducky was silent for a moment. Tell him, the little voice in his head said. Thatís what you rang him for. But he couldn't. He waited for another moment or two for Jethro to do what would be logical for one old friend to another to do: to ask why Ducky needed the time off and why he was calling Jethro in the middle of the evening to tell him. However, even as he willed his old friend to ask, he knew he wouldn't.

 

Thus after another second or two, he simply said. "No, Jethro. There's nothing else. I am sorry to have disturbed you." And with that, he abruptly disconnected the call.

 

This time he didn't fight the tears; this time he let them slide down his cheeks. "Damn you," he murmured, digging into his pocket and pulling out his handkerchief. "Damn you. Damn you." But as he wiped his eyes and blew his nose, he didn't know who he was cursing: Jethro or himself - or both of them.

 

GIBBS'S HOUSE

 

Gibbs was still frowning at the phone when DiNozzo came back into the living room. "It's all right, boss, I found the coffee. I - Is something up, boss?"

 

Gibbs shook himself and put the phone down on the table by the couch. "Nah, it's fine, DiNozzo. That was Ducky," he said, really speaking to himself more than DiNozzo.

 

"You should have invited him over," DiNozzo said, sitting back down next to Gibbs.

 

Gibbs looked at him. "Not sure steak and beer's Duck's style."

 

"Guess not. Ducky's more the steak and red wine kind."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah, he is." He was still somewhat distracted by the phone call. He realized now how odd it'd been for Ducky to call him during the evening simply to tell him he was going to take a holiday. And where was he going? Why hadn't he told Gibbs? And he'd been very un-Ducky-like over DiNozzo. Not to mention the way he'd hung up. "What did you say, DiNozzo?" he asked, realizing DiNozzo had spoken.

 

"I just asked if you knew how Ducky's mom was." DiNozzo grabbed his third-full bottle of beer and took a swallow.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "You know. Fine. The same." Suddenly he realized he didn't know how Ducky's mom was. He couldn't remember the last time Ducky had said, and he hadn't asked.

 

"It must be hard on him."

 

"Yeah, it is. Not that he says so."

 

"Do you think he's lonely?"

 

"Ducky?" Gibbs hadn't given it any thought and it surprised him that DiNozzo apparently had - even if only at that moment.

 

DiNozzo nodded. "Yes. That's a big house he has just for him."

 

"And the Corgis," Gibbs said, taking a swig from his own bottle of beer.

 

DiNozzo made an exaggerated shudder "Ah, yes, the Corgis. Boss?"

 

"DiNozzo?"

 

"What do you think Ducky'd say if I fixed him up with a blind date?"

 

Gibbs blinked. "What do I think Ducky'd say?" he said pointedly, as he glared at DiNozzo.

 

"Ah. Yeah. Sorry, boss. Mind you, there's that ME woman."

 

"What ME woman?" Gibbs spoke sharply.

 

DiNozzo didn't appear to notice the sharpness. He just shrugged. "The one who covered for him when he was stabbed. You know."

 

"Jordan Hampton."

 

"Yeah, that's her."

 

"What about her?"

 

DiNozzo shrugged again and leaned back against the back of the couch. "It's just that Palmer said he thought Ducky and she might . . ." he trailed off as Gibbs just stared at him.

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "Duck's not interested in her like that."

 

"You sure, boss, because Palmer said . . . Ah, of course not. I should have remembered."

 

"Should have remembered?" Gibbs asked, his tone now pointed.

 

DiNozzo glanced away from him and fiddled with one of the cushions. "Don't ask, don't tell," he said, making it a half-question.

 

"Ducky's not in the military, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, and continued to glare at DiNozzo.

 

"Yeah, know that, boss. It's just  - I don't mind, boss," DiNozzo suddenly said, the words tumbling over one another. "You know that, right? I know I made a big thing about kissing that woman who was in fact a guy . . . And I know I tease McGee and . . . But I don't mind. You do know that, don't you?"

 

Gibbs kept DiNozzo waiting anxiously for several more seconds before he drained his bottle, stood up and started towards the kitchen to fetch the coffee. "Yeah, DiNozzo," he said, over his shoulder. "I know."

 

He poured coffee into two mugs and dug deeply into the cupboards to find sugar that hadn't been used for so long he had to chip away at it with a spoon to get some for DiNozzo. As for milk . . . Well, the bottle in the fridge seemed to be okay - just. He stirred the sugar and milk into the coffee in DiNozzo's mug and thought back to the phone call. His gut was beginning to churn gently, and he felt certain that something wasn't quite right with Ducky. Maybe he should throw DiNozzo out and go round to Reston House or at the very least call Ducky back and - And say what?

 

No, he couldn't do that. He'd wait until the morning and then he'd go straight to Autopsy and see Ducky; this time if Palmer was there, he'd order him to go to Abby. Then he'd ask Ducky outright what the matter was, and he wouldn't leave until Ducky told him - even if it meant locking them both in Autopsy all day!

 

He carried the two mugs back into the living room and handed one to DiNozzo. "Thanks, boss."

 

Gibbs nodded and sat back down. Now that he'd done his surrogate father bit and made sure DiNozzo was okay after the unexpected visit of his actual father, he wanted DiNozzo to go. He liked his senior field agent, but sometimes - make that often - a little went a long way. Although curiously DiNozzo hadn't talked constantly all evening; it was as if his dad's visit had affected him in more than one way.

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes, it wasn't the comfortable and companionable silence he shared with Ducky or Fornell, but nor was it an awkward and unfriendly silence. He thought back to when he'd taken DiNozzo's dad on a 'tour' and realized he'd really stepped out of line, stepped over the line. He never should have said what he'd said; it wasn't his business to try to make father and son get on.

 

And if DiNozzo hadn't told his dad about the plague or any other time he'd been hurt, how was DiNozzo Senior meant to have known? He wasn't psychic. He'd gone into that little 'meeting' with far too many assumptions. Looking back, had their positions have been reversed, he knew he wouldn't have been as civil as DiNozzo Senior had been - he'd have told the person lecturing him to piss off!

 

He also thought back to the small slight exaggeration he'd told DiNozzo's dad. DiNozzo was a good agent, a damn good agent, but in truth he wasn't the best Gibbs had worked with. He'd spent too many years as a cop; still had, in many ways, a cop's way of thinking, of looking at, of dealing with things. He wasn't as flexible as some others. So not quite the best, but in the top five - and Gibbs had worked with a good number of agents. He just hoped DiNozzo Senior hadn't told DiNozzo what he'd said or his agent would be unbearable, because there was no way he'd keep that to himself.

 

"Boss?"

 

He glanced at DiNozzo. "DiNozzo?"

 

"Just wanted to say . . . Well, thanks. Thanks for not benching me. For not - well you know?"

 

"Telling you what an idiot you'd been? And how unprofessional you were at times?" There was no anger or even criticism in Gibbs's tone, he just spoke the truth.

 

DiNozzo grinned at him. "Yeah. And the rest. I mean it, boss. Thanks."

 

Gibbs shrugged. "You were distracted by your dad being here. I know what that's like," he added more quietly.

 

"He told me he loved me. Dad, I mean. Do you think he meant it?"

 

Gibbs frowned. "Ah, DiNozzo, I'm not the best person to ask. Nor am I the one with the psychological profiling degree."

 

"I know, but . . ." DiNozzo trailed off and looked down into his coffee mug.

 

"But?"

 

"I reckon I might have been a bit hard on him, about him, over the years."

 

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Do you?"

 

DiNozzo nodded. "He provided for me in the only way he knew how. He didn't know how to deal with an eight-year-old kid who'd just lost his mommy. He'd never been involved in bringing me up, in the day-to-day care of me; that was down to mom. He - He did what he thought was best."

 

Gibbs looked at him. "You really believe that, DiNozzo? Or is it the beer and sentiment talking?"

 

DiNozzo gave him a half-grin. "Maybe a bit of both," he said. "But, well it's like Prince Omah said, isn't it? Fathers do what they have to do for their children. I reckon Dad did what he had to do. And you know something else?"

 

Gibbs sighed silently; he really was beginning to regret inviting DiNozzo over. "Reckon you're going to tell me," he said, making sure his tone was level.

 

"Despite what I've always thought, I think he actually is proud of me for doing what I do. I mean he never said anything and I always thought that meant he felt I'd disappointed him. But as he reminded me, he never said anything negative. And trust me, Dad was never backward about letting me know my shortcomings. Do you think he is proud?"

 

"DiNozzo." Gibbs growled the word and gave him a half strength glare.

 

"Yeah, I know. You're not the best person to ask nor are you the one with the psychological profiling degree. Sorry, boss."

 

"You going to keep in touch with him more?"

 

DiNozzo was silent for a moment. Then he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I am. I thought for years I hated him, but when he turned up in the squad room and told me he'd taken the train from New York I was . . . I was scared, boss. I thought he'd come to tell me he was sick, dying even. And I knew then I didn't hate him; I never had, I never could. I'm not sure I liked him, but I didn't hate him."

 

"Ah, sons rarely do."

 

DiNozzo looked at him. "Are you going to keep in touch with your dad?" Gibbs just looked at him; his stare was unblinking. "Good point," DiNozzo said, putting his mug down on the table. "On which note, I'll say goodnight. And thanks, again, boss." He grabbed his coat.

 

Gibbs stood up, his own mug still in his hand. "Not a problem, DiNozzo," he said.

 

DiNozzo smiled at him. "Night, boss." He turned and headed out of the room.

 

Gibbs watched him go.

 

RESTON HOUSE

 

After pouring himself a small brandy and sipping it slowly, Ducky made a decision. It wasn't one he reached lightly, but he made it. He didn't care what Leon Vance's motives were for asking after his mother; he didn't care if had all been an act; he didn't care if he was being manipulated. The fact was, Director Vance had asked; he had, for whatever reason, asked; he had seemed genuinely concerned. And at that precise moment Ducky needed to talk to someone who was concerned.

 

He picked the phone back up, then put it back down, crossed to the sideboard and took out one of his two address books and flipped to 'V'. He then returned, sat down and dialed the number.

 

He listened to the sound of it ringing. One, twice, three times. "Leon Vance?"

 

"Ah, Director Vance. It's Dr. Mallard, I'm sorry to trouble you at home during the evening."

 

"There's no need to apologize, Doctor. Is there some problem?"

 

"I am afraid I need to take a few days leave with immediately effect. You see," Ducky broke off and swallowed hard. "Mother died earlier this evening and -"

 

"I'm very sorry to hear that, Doctor - Ducky. You have my sincere condolences."

 

"Thank you, Director. I know that it was really for the best, for her."

 

"And for you." Director Vance spoke quietly, gently, but firmly.

 

Ducky closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed. The right words were being said; it was just that the wrong person was saying them. He sighed softly. "Yes, yes, Director, and for me. As much as it pains me to admit to that, it was very hard watching her slip away. She'd lived a long life and a good one. She wouldn't have wanted to have lingered - Oh, do forgive me, Director, I am rambling. I - Will it be acceptable if I complete the paperwork for my leave after I return?"

 

"Does Gibbs know?"

 

The question surprised Ducky a little. "I did call him earlier to advise him that I needed a few days off. I really am sorry to have to ask for time off at such short notice. I have, I hope you do not mind, taken the liberty of arranging, subject to you approving the leave, for the City's ME - Dr. Tom Hubbard - to cover for me. He's available. And -"

 

"Doctor," Gently Vance cut into his speech.

 

"Director?"

 

"Don't worry about NCIS. I'm sure Dr. Hubbard will be fine and you must take as much time off as you need. I'll get the paperwork sorted out. Is there anything you need? Anything anyone can do to help you? You're an only child, I understand."

 

"Yes, I am. Thank you, Director. But I'm sure I'll manage. And thank you for granting me the leave. I appreciate your kindness very much."

 

"Not a problem, Doctor. If you do need anything, don't hesitate to call. Jackie's at home most days, she'll be more than happy to help you."

 

"Thank you, Director. I'm sure that - Thank you. I'll call Dr. Hubbard and let him know you have approved the leave and also Mr. Palmer. I think it's only fair that I be the one to tell him he'll be working with a substitute ME for a few days."

 

"I'd be happy to call Palmer myself."

 

"Oh, I think I'd like to do that myself, thank you, Director. You see Jimmy has met Mother quite a few times, and with working with me closely most days, he was the person who knew best how she was. He asked me every day about her. I'd like to tell him myself."

 

"If you're sure, Doctor."

 

"Yes. Yes, I am, Director. And once again, thank you. And I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

 

"Not a problem, Ducky. Don't forget if you need anything, call."

 

"I will. Thank you. Goodnight to you."

 

"Goodnight." Ducky heard the soft click as the director ended the call.

 

He put his own phone down and sighed softly. "Why?" he asked the room. He wasn't even certain exactly to what the 'why' referred.

 

After paying a much needed visit to the bathroom and splashing his face with cold water, he made two more calls, promising both men that if he needed anything he'd call them, before he poured himself another small brandy.

 

He sat in the sitting room with only the light from the fire and one wall lamp to break up the darkness, sipping it and letting the odd tear fall from his eyes.

 

VANCE'S HOME

 

"Who was that, honey?" Jackie asked.

 

"Dr. Mallard, Ducky. Our ME. He called to let me know his mom has just died. He'll be taking a few days off."

 

"Oh, I'm sorry. Is there anything we can do, honey? Would you like me to arrange some flowers to be sent?"

 

Leon put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her nearer to him. "That would be really helpful, Jackie."

 

"I'll order them tomorrow. Who should they come from?"

 

"I think two, one from NCIS, and other from us."

 

She looked at him speculatively. "Leon Vance are you up to something?"

 

He shook his head. "No. I'm just being a good director."

 

She frowned a little. "Hmm," she said. "Is there anything else I can do?"

 

"Well," he said. "Ducky's an only child and although he said he doesn't need any help. I think it would be nice if . . ." He trailed off.

 

"I'll go round after taking the children to school. I'm sure I can do something, even if it's only making him tea. You're a good man, Leon. No one should be alone to deal with death, no matter when it happens." She kissed his cheek.

 

He moved his head a little and her lips met his for a moment or two. "Thank you, honey," he said.

 

AUTOPSY THE NEXT DAY

 

Gibbs strode into Autopsy; he was still wearing his overcoat and carrying his briefcase - he hadn't even stopped off on the way for coffee. "Hey, Duck," he called. "Are you - Oh." He came to an abrupt halt as rather than be greeted by Ducky, a perfect stranger looked over his shoulder, before standing up from where he'd been sitting at Ducky's desk and moved towards him.

 

"Hello," he said, holding out his hand. "You must Agent Gibbs. I'm Dr. Tom Hubbard; I'm standing in for Ducky for a few days."

 

Gibbs took Hubbard's hand and searched his mind to see if the name meant anything. He decided it didn't. "Yeah, I'm Jethro Gibbs," he said. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Hubbard. I hadn't realized Ducky was taking his leave immediately."

 

"Well, he had to, didn't he?" Palmer, who Gibbs now realized must have been standing on the other side of the room, spoke as he crossed to where Gibbs and Hubbard stood. His tone was steely and cold, and his eyes, as he stared at Gibbs, flashed with an intense anger as well as what appeared to be disapproval.

 

Not really wanting to admit to Palmer and a perfect stranger than he didn't know what Palmer was talking about, Gibbs opened his mouth to say something.

 

However, Palmer beat him to it. "Vanessa died last night," he said.

 

"What?" Gibbs made no attempt to hide the shock and surprise he felt.

 

Palmer just stared at him with icy contempt. "Mrs. Vanessa Mallard, Dr. Mallard's mother." Palmer's disdain was now perfectly clear. Out of the corner of his eye, Gibbs saw Hubbard frown slightly at what was an attack by a junior employee on his superior. Gibbs, however, let it go by. "She died last night," Palmer went on. "That's why Dr. Mallard had to take his leave immediately. You can't schedule death."

 

Gibbs swallowed hard. So that was why Ducky had called him. Damn it, why hadn't he been more attuned to the fact that something had clearly been wrong. "I -"

 

"Didn't know she'd gotten so ill? Well, you wouldn't, would you? You haven't taken the -"

 

"That will do, Jimmy." Hubbard spoke quietly, but firmly. Oddly enough, his tone reminded Gibbs of Ducky's. "I'm sure Agent Gibbs has many things he needs to be getting on with, don't you, Agent Gibbs?" Before Gibbs could answer or even nod or shake his head, Hubbard went on. "And now, Jimmy, Ducky left instructions that these," he picked up some specimen jars, "were to be taken to," he paused for a second and looked at the paper he held. "Ah, yes, Abby. Would you do that, please?"

 

Palmer glanced at his temporary boss and then back at Gibbs. "Certainly, Dr. Hubbard," he said after a moment or two. He picked up the jars and left the room; he didn't look at or speak to Gibbs again.

 

Gibbs shifted his briefcase from one hand to the other; he really didn't know what to say. He did have things to be doing - going to Reston House being the first one. "I -"

 

"I often find the young don't understand the relationships their elders have, don't you, Agent Gibbs?" Hubbard's tone was even and low, and his steady gaze told Gibbs nothing.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Maybe. Do you know Ducky? I mean not just as another ME?

 

Hubbard nodded. "Yes, he and I often play bridge together. He is a far better player than I, but please don't tell him I said so. I see him as a good friend. He mentions you quite often." The last sentence was spoken even more softly, and a look of almost speculation flashed through the steady brown gaze. "As Jimmy's boss, however temporary, I would normally offer an apology for his curtness."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No need."

 

Hubbard nodded. "Ah, yes, Ducky did tell me your opinion of apologies."

 

Gibbs shook his head again. "That's not why there's no need." For a moment the two men stood in silence. Then Gibbs nodded briefly and turned on his heel. "Doctor," he said.

 

"Agent Gibbs."

 

Gibbs strode out of Autopsy.

 

THE SQUAD ROOM

 

The elevators doors began to open and Gibbs was part of the way through before they'd fully opened. He didn't know what his face was showing, but given his field team fell silent as he strode past them to his desk, and as one turned their full attention to their computer screens, he had a vague idea.

 

He dropped his briefcase onto the desk, sat down without even taking off his coat and with far more force than was necessary, pushed the button on his computer screen to turn it on. For a second he saw the screen wobble; he glared at it daring it to fall off his desk. It didn't.

 

As he swiftly scanned the names of the senders of his seventy-three unread emails, he realized how DiNozzo's dad must have felt when he'd taken him to the conference room and less than politely let him know what a bad father he considered him to be. He hadn't really given any thought to what he'd said, to how he'd implied he knew his son better than DiNozzo Senior did. Instead he'd almost taken a degree of pleasure in seeing and hearing the reaction from the man who had finally come face to face with the man who'd become his son's surrogate father. He now knew how DiNozzo Senior must have felt.

 

No one likes to have their own failings pointed out to them by someone else. He'd pointed DiNozzo's dad's out to him. Now Palmer had pointed his out to him. He could discipline Palmer, officially or unofficially, but he wasn't that much of a fool.

 

He failed to find the name he'd known wouldn't be there, but had hoped nonetheless to see. So he stood back up, turned the screen off with as much violence as he'd turned it on, again willed it to remain on his desk, before he grabbed his briefcase again and began to walk towards the elevator.

 

"Er, boss?" It was DiNozzo.

 

He paused and turned around. "DiNozzo?"

 

DiNozzo glanced swiftly at McGee and Ziva before saying, "Are you going out?"

 

"Gee, DiNozzo. Your powers of observation amaze me. Always knew there had to be a reason I kept you around. Now I know what it is. Glad you're good for one thing." Even as he spoke the scathing attack on the hapless DiNozzo, Gibbs felt a modicum of guilt. It wasn't DiNozzo's fault; sure he'd been at Gibbs's house when Ducky had called the night before. But it had been Gibbs's own reaction, his less than being attentive to the man who meant more to him, the man he was closer to, than anyone else, his own failing as a friend, his own lack of asking Ducky why he needed time off, that had led to Ducky not telling him about his mom.

 

DiNozzo flushed under the undeserved attack and glanced away from Gibbs, muttering something that may have been 'sorry, boss', under his breath.

 

It fell to McGee to speak next. "I assume you're going to Ducky's, boss?" Despite the 'I assume' he made it a clear question. Before Gibbs could answer him, or probably McGee was thinking, verbally attack him, McGee hurried to speak again. "Palmer told us about Ducky's mom dying. Well, he told Tony and he told us - and Abby, of course."

 

"Please give Dr. Mallard our condolences, Gibbs." It didnít surprise Gibbs that Ziva had used Ducky's title and surname under the circumstances. Her formality at such times was not uncommon. "And tell him if there is anything he needs help with to . . ." And then to Gibbs's surprise, Ziva, glanced away from him, trailed off and flushed slightly. "Not that I was . . . I . . ."

 

"Ziva's trying to say she wasn't implying that . . . He won't, because you'll be . . ." Now McGee trailed off and glanced away.

 

"Anything you want to add, DiNozzo?" Gibbs growled, turning to his senior agent and glaring at him. Clearly he wasn't finished with having his shortcoming pointed out to him.

 

Surprisingly, given the way he'd spoken to DiNozzo a few moments earlier, DiNozzo met his stare and held it. DiNozzo was still slightly flushed, but still he didn't glance away. "No, boss," he said quietly. For a fleeting second Gibbs saw a flash of what he thought might have been compassion in DiNozzo's stare, before it fled and was replaced by almost the level of icy disdain that he'd seen in Palmer's. "Just give Ducky our best," DiNozzo added, as Gibbs turned to leave. He wanted to get out of the building before Abby arrived to add her veiled, or not so veiled, accusations to those of Palmer, DiNozzo, McGee and Ziva.

 

RESTON HOUSE

 

Gibbs pulled his car into the drive and switched off the engine. During the drive he'd tried to think of what to say to Ducky, beyond the 'sorry to hear about your mom, Duck'. He had failed Ducky; he'd failed to be a good friend. But that would change. The team could handle anything that might come up at the office; he was going to be there for Ducky. He'd offer to stay and help with anything Ducky wanted, needed, doing.

 

He got out of the car, locked it and jogged towards the house and up the steps. He rang the bell and waited. After a moment or two, the door opened. "Duck, I'm - Oh." He came to an abrupt halt and stared at the woman who had opened the door. "Mrs. Vance," he said, nodding his head.

 

"Gibbs, Leon didn't tell me you'd be coming over." Jackie Vance smiled at him.

 

He didn't even attempt to smile back. So even Vance had known! Just how many people had Ducky called? And yet somehow he, the person who was meant to be Ducky's closest friend, hadn't known. Ducky had told Vance before him! "Didn't tell him," he said, as he realized she was waiting for an answer.

 

"He asked me if I'd come over and see if Dr. Mallard needed anything. It's not right to be alone at a time like this. Do come in, Gibbs. I'm sure Dr. Mallard will be pleased to see you." Now she held the door open further and Gibbs went inside. "He's in the living room making some calls. I was just about to make a pot of tea." And with that she turned on her heel and headed towards the kitchen.

 

Gibbs watched her go, and took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself down. Then he headed for the living room. He stood in the doorway and listened to Ducky talk to what seemed to be a funeral home.

 

His friend hadn't noticed him, or if he had he was ignoring him, so Gibbs took the opportunity to study Ducky. What he saw made him groan silently and curse himself. The pallor and dark circles under Ducky's eyes and the general exhaustion and strain, had not been a result simply of losing his mom the night before. It took time to build up that level of exhaustion and dark circles, and Gibbs had failed to notice them building up.

 

"That sounds ideal, thank you very much indeed. Goodbye for now." And Ducky ended the call. He put the phone back down on the table and sighed softly. Then he suddenly looked up and saw Jethro. "Oh," he said, standing up quickly. "Jethro! I . . . I didn't expect to see you. Not that I . . . Oh, Jethro." The final two words, unlike the others which had seemed almost incoherent, were clear, even though Ducky had spoken softly.

 

In four strides Gibbs got from the door to Ducky's side. Without giving any thought to anything other than comforting his friend, he put his arms around Ducky and tugged him into a gentle embrace. For a second, maybe two or three, Ducky didn't respond. But then he put his own arms around Gibbs and rested his head against Gibbs's shoulder.

 

"Oh, Jethro," Ducky said again; this time Gibbs heard the sound of sorrow in the shaky tone.

 

He gathered Ducky a little closer and put his lips to Ducky's ear and said quietly, "I'm so sorry, Duck, about your mom. So very sorry."

 

Ducky didn't reply immediately, but given his body was shaking slightly and a muffled half-sob came from the vicinity of Gibbs's shoulder, Gibbs wasn't surprised. He just continued to hold his closest friend, realizing that he'd sub-consciously begun to gently rock Ducky a little. He let Ducky cry, let him take whatever comfort he wanted from him and just continued to hold him, murmuring the odd word from time to time, which Ducky wouldn't have heard. He just hoped Jackie Vance didn't choose that moment to appear with tea.

 

After a minute or two, Ducky sighed and moved back a little. Still keeping his arms around his friend, but making the embrace looser, Gibbs let him move away and gazed down at him. Ducky's eyes were reddened and damp and he sniffed. "Here," Gibbs said, handing over his handkerchief, before Ducky could pull his own one out.

 

Ducky looked a little surprised, but then the look fled and he took the white linen. "Thank you, Jethro," he said, taking his glasses off and wiping his eyes and cheeks, before quietly blowing his nose. "And thank you for the condolence about Mother. It's foolish of me to be so upset. She was - Oh, but forgive me, you do not wish to know all the details." His tone held no hint of accusation, but Gibbs felt as if Ducky had punched him, and he let his arms fall from around Ducky.

 

Ducky moved away from him, wiped his nose a final time and pushed Gibbs's handkerchief into his own jacket pocket.

 

"Duck."

 

Ducky looked at him. "Yes, Jethro?"

 

"I -"

 

"Here we are, Dr. Mallard. I've made you a pot of tea. And I found some coffee for you, Gibbs."

 

"Oh, my dear Jacqueline, there was no need to go to all that trouble." Ducky hurried towards her and took the tray from her.

 

"It was no trouble, Doctor. None at all."

 

"Please, I told you, do call me Ducky." He put the tray down on the table and smiled at her. "Oh," he said. "Are you not going to join us?" As he spoke Gibbs noticed the tray only had one cup and saucer, as well as the tea pot, milk jug and a mug full of black coffee.

 

Jackie Vance smiled. "No, I'm going to go and make a start on some lunch for you and also dinner. Will you be staying for lunch, Gibbs?"

 

Before Gibbs could answer, Ducky spoke. "Oh, Jethro will no doubt need to get back to office shortly. He's bound to be busy, isn't that right, Jethro?" Again there wasn't even a hint of accusation in Ducky's tone. But again it made Gibbs feel as though Ducky had hit him.

 

Gibbs gritted his teeth for a moment. "Was going stay and help you with things, Duck. But I see that's not necessary."

 

"It's very kind of you, Jethro. But I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble. Nor you, Jacqueline," Ducky said, before Gibbs could reply - not that he could think of anything to say. "There's no need for you to cook for me. I've -"

 

"Got more than enough to do, Ducky, the last thing you need to worry about is food. Now, unless there's anything else you'd like me to do, I'll get back to the kitchen." She smiled at Ducky.

 

"That is kind of you, Jacqueline, it would be churlish of me to argue further, would it not? So instead, I'll just say thank you."

 

"Good." She smiled again, turned and left the room.

 

Ducky handed Gibbs the mug of coffee and poured himself a cup of tea. "It was very kind of the director to ask his wife to come over and help me, was it not? Do sit down, Jethro, and drink your coffee."

 

"Yeah," Gibbs said, sitting down on the edge of one of the armchairs. "Very kind."

 

"Jethro?" Ducky looked at him, his head cocked slightly to one side. The single word asked more than one question. "Is something troubling you?"

 

Gibbs shrugged and sipped his coffee. "It's just -" He stopped abruptly and instead shook his head. "No, Duck," he lied. "Nothing."

 

"Good." Suddenly Ducky's tone was slightly harsh and his gaze was unreadable.

 

"I am sorry about your mom, Duck," Gibbs said, taking a long swallow of the scalding hot liquid - it was good. Jackie Vance knew how to make coffee.

 

Ducky sighed. "I know you are, Jethro," he said quietly.

 

Gibbs sat forward slightly. "Do you? Do you, Duck?"

 

"Of course I do, Jethro. I know you were fond of Mother. She -" He cut himself off abruptly, and glanced down at the cup he held in a slightly shaking hand.

 

"She?" Gibbs asked softly.

 

Ducky looked back at him and shook his head. "Nothing. It's nothing, Jethro."

 

Gibbs swallowed some more coffee. This wasn't going as he'd planned. But then finding someone in the house with Ducky hadn't been part of his plan. He told himself that at least it wasn't that damned Jordon Hampton. "You know, Duck. You can tell me about -"

 

"Don't, Jethro." Ducky spoke sharply. "Don't," he said more quietly. He stood up and moved across the room. "Please donít. Not now."

 

Gibbs also stood up and took two steps towards Ducky. He stopped when he saw Ducky's body tense. "Duck, I - Fuck it!" he cursed, as he cell phone began to burble. He dug it out of his pocket. "What, DiNozzo?" He listened for a moment and briefly closed his eyes. The little voice in his mind told him to tell DiNozzo to take care of it. He glanced at Ducky. "Duck, I can -"

 

"It's all right, Jethro," Ducky tried to smile, but it just made him look weary and again his gaze became closed to Gibbs. "I understand. You have a case. You have to go."

 

"I can -"

 

Ducky shook his head. "Thank you for coming, Jethro. It was good of you to have taken the trouble and to have made the time." He took a step towards Gibbs and raised his hand; for a fleeting second, Gibbs thought he was going to offer to shake hands. But instead after a minute hesitation, Ducky put his hand on Gibbs's arm and briefly squeezed it. Then he looked up into Gibbs's gaze and let Gibbs see the intense pain and anguish he felt.

 

"Boss?" DiNozzo's voice was clear even though Gibbs hadn't got the phone to his ear.

 

"What?" Gibbs snarled at DiNozzo.

 

He heard Ducky sigh softly. "Just go, Jethro," he said. "Anthony clearly needs you." And with another squeeze of Gibbs's arm, Ducky turned and limping far more than he normally did, left the room.

 

Gibbs watched him go and felt as though cold water had been poured over him. He stood there, just holding the phone, again torn between telling DiNozzo to handle things while he took care of Ducky (whether Ducky wanted him to or not) and his inbuilt duty to his job. The latter won out.

 

He put the phone back to his ear. "I'll meet you there, DiNozzo. Tell Dr. Hubbard and Palmer where to go." And with that he disconnected the call and left Ducky's home.

 

As he drove to the crime scene he made a silent vow that the case wouldn't take up the entire day and evening. He would get things to a stage where he could leave DiNozzo in charge, and he'd return to see how Ducky was and try to begin to heal the breach that was starting to form between them. The breach that was forming between them. The breach that he had caused.

 

THE CRIME SCENE

 

Gibbs arrived to find his field team already there. He got out of the car, changed overcoat and jacket for his crime scene jacket and cap, pulled out a notebook and headed to where he saw McGee with a camera.

 

"Hey, boss," McGee said, without glancing up.

 

"What have we got, McGee?"

 

"Single-bullet wound to the head. There appears to be powder-burns - don't worry, boss, I haven't touched the body. But it's pretty clear." McGee moved back a little and Gibbs squatted down by the body.

 

He'd seen many dead bodies during his career; too many. But he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen one quite as peaceful and tidy looking. Apart from the obvious signs of death, the body was as clean and neat as if the man had just gotten up, showered, shaved and dressed with care. McGee was correct; there were powder-burns on the temple, which meant either suicide, which he ruled out until proven otherwise as NCIS didn't investigate suicide, or an execution style murder.

 

"Do we know who he is?"

 

McGee nodded. "He's Marine First Lieutenant Samuel Bartholomew Linscott the sixth. He's a decorated sixth generation Marine. His father's a retired Marine Colonel Samuel Barth-"

 

"Yeah, got it, McGee"

 

"Boss?"

 

"Yeah, McGee?"

 

"Ho-"

 

At that moment Dr. Hubbard with Palmer by his side arrived. "Agent Gibbs," he nodded at Gibbs.

 

Gibbs acknowledged the nod with one of his own. It seemed very strange not to have Ducky there. "Dr. Hubbard."

 

Hubbard crouched down by the body and began the usual cursory examination that would end with him formally declaring Linscott dead. "There are powder-burns on the temple," he said, glancing up at Gibbs.

 

"Yeah, noticed that."

 

Hubbard nodded. "Jimmy, pass me the liver thermometer, please."

 

Palmer handed it across. "Here you are, Dr. Hubbard." Even though he had to step past Gibbs to hand the thermometer to Hubbard, he pointedly and obviously ignored Gibbs.

 

"Thank you." Hubbard took it and inserted it into Linscott's liver. He held it in place for a few moments, before pulling it out and looking at it. "Taking into account the overnight and early morning temperatures, I calculate time of death to be between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. I should be able to give you a more accurate time once I've performed the autopsy."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Thanks, Doctor."

 

Hubbard stood up and sighed. "You know," he said glancing at Gibbs. "It never gets any easier. No matter how many years you do a job for, death, especially the death of the young, never becomes any easier to see."

 

Gibbs gave him a curt nod. "Yeah, you're right there."

 

"Well, Jimmy and I will get him back to NCIS - if you have all the pictures you need?"

 

Gibbs glanced at McGee and raised an eyebrow.

 

McGee nodded. "Yes, boss."

 

"He's all yours," Gibbs said, turning back to Hubbard.

 

"Thank you. Jimmy, if you would -"

 

"Fetch the gurney, of course, Doctor." And still pointedly ignoring Gibbs, Palmer hurried back to the van.

 

THE SQUAD ROOM

 

McGee, DiNozzo and Ziva were standing in front of the plasma screen when Gibbs arrived, a Styrofoam mug of coffee in his hand. He wasn't surprised to see McGee holding the plasma controls. "Okay," he called. "Tell me what you've got.

 

"Marine First Lieutenant Samuel Bartholomew Linscott the sixth. Twenty-eight. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in Law. He also graduated top in his class from OCS. He has a spotless record. He's popular with his senior officers, his peers and the enlisted men. He's been decorated three times. He's unmarried. He still has a room at his family home, but also has his own apartment he shared with his childhood, and still closest, friend Second Lieutenant Martin Rankin." McGee delivered the information in his usual manner.

 

DiNozzo then took up the tale. "The Rankins and Linscotts come from completely different backgrounds. And I mean completely. Rankin Senior was the Linscotts handy-man, but young Samuel and Martin became friends and Daddy Linscott sponsored Rankin Junior through college and 'encouraged' him to apply to OCS, where he again sponsored him. Rankin's going to come out of this very well."

 

Gibbs looked at DiNozzo. "Go on."

 

"He's the sole beneficiary of Linscott's will. Linscott's trust fund, which paid up when he was twenty-five, is several million. And most of it is still untouched. He did it."

 

"Tony. They were best friends. Why would Rankin murder his closest friend?" McGee objected.

 

DiNozzo put his hand on McGee's shoulder. "Ah, Timmy, Timmy, Timmy, still so innocent." McGee glared at him.

 

"I agree with McGee," Ziva said. "There have been no reports, no hints even, of trouble between Linscott and Rankin - just the opposite. There is no motive."

 

DiNozzo shook his head. "Probationary Agent Ziva David, I expected better from you."

 

"What?" she exclaimed.


"DiNozzo!" Gibbs growled.

 

"Yes, boss. Sorry, boss, that is, I'm not. On it, boss. Er," DiNozzo hastily glanced at the file he held in his hand. "Yeah. Rankin wasnít doing as well as Linscott," DiNozzo said, turning to Gibbs. "He may have been out of his depth. Apparently the talk was that Daddy Linscott 'bought' Rankin's place at OCS."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "The Corps doesn't work that way, DiNozzo. Anything else?"

 

"Mrs. Rankin is very sick and in need of an operation - a very expensive operation. Their house has two mortgages and Rankin Senior has turned to drink. I'd say it was an open and shut case, boss." DiNozzo looked at Gibbs.

 

"Would you, DiNozzo?" Gibbs held DiNozzo's gaze.

 

DiNozzo paused and his own gaze flickered first to McGee and then to Ziva. "Um," he said, after a moment or two. "Yes."

 

"Remember your last 'open and shut' case, do you, DiNozzo?"

 

DiNozzo looked at him, opened his mouth to say something and closed it again. "Yes, boss," he said. "It's not an open and shut case. We'll dig further, boss."

 

Gibbs nodded and turned to McGee. "Who made the call?"

 

"Um, it was anonymous and untraceable." Gibbs stared hard at McGee. "Boss, there are some things that really are untraceable," McGee objected. Gibbs continued to stare. "You know what, boss? I'm going to trace that call."

 

"Atta, boy, McGee." At that moment Gibbs's desk phone rang. "Gibbs, yeah? I'm on my way, Doctor. Be in Autopsy," he said, throwing his empty coffee cup into the trashcan as he went past it.

 

AUTOPSY

 

"Hey, Du- Doctor, what have you got?" Gibbs went into Autopsy where Hubbard and Palmer were cleaning up."

 

"Agent Gibbs. It's very simple; a single gunshot wound to the left temple. The bullet entered here," Hubbard moved over the x-rays; Gibbs followed. "And lodged here," Hubbard pointed to the obvious bullet. "Death would have been instantaneous - thankfully."

 

"Any evidence of any illness or disability?"

 

Hubbard shook his head. "No. Our - your - young Marine was in perfect health and superb physical condition. I had his medical records sent over from is family doctor and there's no family history of hereditary illness or disease. The family all seemed to have lived long, healthy lives and have all died of natural causes."

 

Gibbs sighed. "Could it have been suicide?" he asked. He spoke automatically; it was the kind of question he'd ask Ducky.

 

Hubbard cleared his throat. "Well, Agent Gibbs," he said. "I think that's your area of expertise not mine. I can confirm the cause of death. I can tell you the gun was pressed right against the temple when the trigger was pulled. From his hands I'd say he was right-handed, but no doubt his service record will confirm that, and as you can see from the photos, the angle would make it impossible for him to flex his arm around his head and pull the trigger. Let me demonstrate," And to Gibbs's surprise Hubbard began to twist his right arm around his head. He winced. "Jimmy," he said, glancing at Palmer. "You're younger than I, far nearer to Linscott's age than I am. Would you be so kind as to demonstrate for Agent Gibbs, please?"

 

Palmer glanced at Gibbs for a moment or two. Then began to copy what Hubbard had been doing. He didn't have any success either. "I can get my arm around," he said. "But I doubt I'd be able to control a gun."

 

"And," Hubbard went on. "This was a controlled shot. There is no mess from the chamber, no jerking. The bullet I believe came from a revolver. I've sent the slug up to Ms. Sciuto, who will no doubt confirm or refute my beliefs. Beyond that, however, I . . ." He trailed off and gave Gibbs a small smile.

 

"Yeah, sorry, Doctor. I was . . ." Now Gibbs trailed off and shrugged.

 

"I understand. You and Ducky have worked together for a number of years, I understand."

 

"Yeah, yeah, we have. Thanks, Doctor. I'll expect your report later."

 

"It'll be on your desk by the end of the day."

 

Gibbs nodded again and left. He did glance at Palmer as he left, nodding briefly. Palmer, however, still refused to meet his eye. In truth, Gibbs did not, could not, blame him. He guessed it showed just how much Palmer cared about Ducky. Palmer was, had always been, to put not too fine a point on it, almost scared of Gibbs, so for him to behave as he was, was completely out of character. Thus, for him to be so angry with and so disrespectful of, Gibbs it showed how much the young man cared about Ducky. Gibbs couldn't disapprove or be angry with Palmer for that.

 

THE SQUAD ROOM

 

After a brief visit to Abby who confirmed the gun had been a revolver, a Magnum .33, Gibbs paused long enough to visit the head and grab another coffee, before heading back to the squad room. His three agents were all at their desks, all working.

 

"McGee?" He stopped in front of McGee's desk. "You found my caller yet?"

 

McGee looked up at him and under Gibbs's eyes he turned a little pink. "Boss," he said. "I know if you ask for information, you expect to get it. I know I normally can -"

 

"Do anything geeky," DiNozzo interrupted.

 

McGee glanced at him. "Thanks, Tony. But, boss, there really are times when no matter how hard you try, no matter how good someone is, no matter -"

 

"You're trying to tell me you can't trace the call?" Gibbs swallowed some coffee.

 

McGee grimaced. "Yes, boss."

 

Gibbs let his middle-ranking agent squirm for a moment, then turned away. "Okay," he said, crossing to his desk and sitting down. He hid a smile as McGee's mouth fell open, followed by DiNozzo's and Ziva's and the three looked from one to another.

 

"Er, boss," DiNozzo said, after a moment or two of silence. "Are you okay?" Gibbs just stared at him until DiNozzo began to babble. "Yeah, of course you are. Stupid question, DiNozzo."

 

"You found anything else that might point to our killer?" Gibbs asked, looking at each of them in turn.

 

They all shook their heads. "Just the opposite, boss," McGee was the one to speak. "Everything backs up our initial inquiries. Linscott was well liked and respected; he didn't have an enemy, no one disliked him."

 

"Well someone killed him." Gibbs said, more to himself than to his agents. Maybe he was being stubborn, but that's how it was. It wasn't just that they didn't investigate suicides, it was that he didn't want to face the possibility that he'd let himself be pulled away from Ducky, just for a death that turned out to be self-inflicted. He closed his eyes for a moment, aware that he wasn't being totally rationale. In fact had he been a member of his team, he'd have head-slapped himself by now.

 

He opened his eyes again and looked at McGee. "You got his service record, McGee?"
 

"Yes, boss."

 

"Is he right-handed or left-handed?"

 

"Er. McGee looked down. "He's right-handed, boss." Gibbs nodded. Murder it was.

 

"Except he shot left-handedly - at least he did with a handgun when he shot outside of the job." The voice was male and unknown.

 

Gibbs glanced up and saw a man, who he'd have said was roughly the same age as Linscott, dressed in the uniform of a Marine Second Lieutenant, wearing a visitor's badge, standing by McGee's desk. Behind him a member of the security staff hovered. Gibbs nodded at the man and he turned and left. "And you are?" he said standing up, even though he knew the answer.

 

"Martin Rankin. And if you're Agent Gibbs, I need to talk to you about Sammy."

 

"Sammy?" DiNozzo exclaimed with a hint of mockery in his tone.

 

Gibbs shot him a glare. Rankin just nodded. "It's what he liked to be called. His grandfather was Sam, his father Samuel, he was . . ." He looked at Gibbs and pulled himself to attention. "Can I speak to you, sir?" he said. "Alone. Please."

 

Gibbs met the steady gaze and saw the kind of pain behind it that he'd seen in Ducky's. He nodded. "Yeah, come with me." He led Rankin up to the conference room.

 

THE CONFERENCE ROOM

 

Before escorting Rankin upstairs, Gibbs had told McGee to fetch coffee for them both. He guessed from Rankin's look that he could use one. "Sit down," he said, nodding towards the table.

 

"Thank you, sir."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Let's skip the 'sir'. 'Agent Gibbs' will be fine." He'd have been happy to drop the 'Agent', but his years of reading people told him that Rankin was even more bound up with protocol than most. He sat down on the other side of the table and looked at Rankin. "You were Lieutenant Linscott's closet friend, weren't you?"

 

Rankin nodded. "Yes, si- Agent Gibbs. We'd been friends since we were four years old. The only time we spent any real time apart was when he went off to Harvard and I went to a local college. That was the worst time of my life - until now."

 

Gibbs nodded. "I am sorry for your loss," he said, speaking the words he'd said so often over the years, that they'd long since ceased to have any real meaning for him. Except this time, he did mean them. Maybe it was just that Rankin's pallor, the devastation in his eyes, his body language, his whole demeanor, that reminded him so much of Ducky. Maybe there was something about the young man that reminded him of himself. But whatever it was, he meant the words.

 

"Thank you, Agent Gibbs," Rankin said, his voice flat. He closed his eyes for a moment, and Gibbs let him sit in silence; he had time. He doubted he now had an investigation to conduct. What interested him was why Linscott had taken his own life when he appeared to have everything to live for - including a devoted friend.

 

After a moment or two, Rankin opened his eyes again, looked at Gibbs and sat more upright in the chair. "I wasn't going to come here," he said. "But I couldn't let the country waste money or resources that could help solve a real," he swallowed hard. "Murder," he said softly.

 

Before Gibbs could say anything, there was a knock at the door and McGee came in carrying two coffees. "Here you are, boss," he said, handing one to Gibbs and the other to Rankin. "Lieutenant Rankin."

 

Rankin looked surprised but grateful. "Thank you, Agent . . . ?"

 

"McGee."

 

"Thank you, Agent McGee. I appreciate it."

 

McGee gave a brief nod, before glancing at Gibbs. "Thanks, McGee," he said.

 

"Boss." And with that McGee left.

 

Rankin sipped his coffee before again looking at Gibbs. This time his eyes were misty. "Sammy took his own life," he said quietly.

 

"Kind of guessed that," Gibbs said. "Want to tell me why?"

 

"I'm not sure I know where to start."

 

"Always thought the beginning was the best place. You talk, I'll listen."

 

"I don't know how much you know, but my dad worked for Sammy's dad. He took me with him one day; mom was sick and couldn't look after me. He'd told me to stay by the truck. And I did. Then Sammy appeared and - Oh, this will sound silly, Agent Gibbs."

 

"Try me."

 

"Have you ever looked at someone and knew that that person would be important to you? Possibly even the most important person in your life? Have you ever looked at someone and known you'd met a friend for life?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "As a matter of fact, Rankin, I have, yes."

 

Rankin blinked and looked surprised. "Most people haven't. You don't find the kind of friendship Sammy and I had. Most kids hook up, three months later, they find a new best friend. But not us. Not Sammy and me. And it didn't matter that we were from completely different backgrounds. It didn't matter to us and, what I guess is surprising is that, it didn't seem to matter to the Linscotts either. We were completely different, Sammy came from money - and I mean money, Agent Gibbs. Dad made just enough to put food on the table, meet the mortgage and pay the bills, but that was all. Sammy was going off to private school; I was going to the local public one. But none of that mattered. Guess that sounds strange."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Nah," he said. "Not to me. I know what you mean."

 

"You do?"

 

"Yeah. Didn't meet my closest friend as a kid, but other than that, it's the same."

 

"I've never met anyone who understood before. Thank you. Sammy managed to persuade his folks to let him go to the local primary school with me. I don't know how he managed it; but he did. I think that maybe his mom and dad agreed not just because they saw what good friends we were, but because they thought it would be good for Sammy to mix with other kinds of people. It was already settled he'd go into the Marines; he'd be the sixth Samuel Bartholomew Linscott to go to OSC. And while him being an officer was as settled as him being a Marine, he'd be mixing with enlisted men, so they thought it was a good idea." He took another sip of his coffee.

 

"Sounds like they were good parents." Gibbs spoke quietly.

 

Rankin nodded. "Oh, they were. His dad wasn't around as much, but I liked them both. When Sammy was ten, like his dad and his dad and his dad before him, they did send him off to boarding school. But Sammy ran away. I reckon that's the only time I've ever seen his dad raise his hand to him, and that was more out of worry than anything else. In the end the Linscotts sent us both to a smaller, local, private school. College was different though. I'm not as bright as Sammy, we all knew that. I wouldn't have become a Marine had it not been for him - at least not an officer - but Sammy wanted it and I . . ."

 

"Loved him?" Gibbs said quietly.

 

Rankin blinked. "I . . . It wasn't . . . At least not then. And even later it wasn't . . . We never . . . We . . . It wasn't what you think, sir."

 

"And what do I think?" Gibbs leaned back in his chair, making sure he came over as non-confrontational as he could.

 

"You were a Marine, weren't you?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yep. A Gunny."

 

"Then you know -"

 

"Don't ask, don't tell? Yeah. But you're going to tell me anyway, aren't you, Martin?"

 

"It doesn't bother you?"

 

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Why should it?"

 

"We never disgraced the uniform. Never. On base we were friends, good friends, that's all. Never once did we -"
 

"Never thought you did."

 

Rankin shook his head, but it wasn't in refutal. "You're a very unusual man, Agent Gibbs," he said.

 

"So I've been told."

 

"We bought an apartment, well Sammy bought it. And it was there. We always took leave together and that was all. Sammy was a good Marine; a very good Marine. Everyone liked him - and respected him. His peers; the enlisted men; his superiors; no one had a bad word for him. You know he could get anyone to do anything. And I don't mean by raising his voice or threatening or stuff like that. He did it just by being Sammy. He had everything to live for. Everything. A career he loved; parents who loved him; a great future; no money worries; no health worries -"

 

"You," Gibbs said softly.

 

Rankin swallowed hard. "And me."

 

"And that was probably the most important of all."

 

Rankin looked at him. "You think so?"

 

Gibbs shrugged. "I never knew him, but from what you've said, from what I've read about him, yeah. Yeah, Martin. So why don't you tell me what happened? Why don't you tell me why he left it all behind him; left you."

 

"He was murdered."

 

Gibbs looked at him. "Thought you said he killed himself."

 

Rankin nodded. "He was driven to it. Agent Gibbs, Sammy was murdered."

 

Gibbs leaned forward a little now. "Go on," he said.

 

"I wasn't completely honest when I said everyone liked and respected him."

 

"Guessed as much. Doubt there's anyone alive who is liked and respected by everyone else."

 

"There's one man; he's enlisted. He was in Sammy's unit. He's filth, Agent Gibbs. I know I shouldn't say that. But I look at him and I sometime think 'there but for the grace of God'. He was in trouble from the age of eleven. Finally, he was offered the choice: the Corps or jail. He opted for the Corps. I'm a good Marine too, Agent Gibbs. Not as good as Sammy. But it was wrong. He was wrong. I've seen other kids come from nothing, come from gangs and they do well. They settle down and they make damn good Marines. But not him. He was trouble from day one. He was dirt."

 

"What's his name?" For the first time Gibbs picked up his pen.

 

Rankin paused for a moment. Then he said, "David Hunt."

 

"What did he do?"

 

"He blackmailed Sammy. He found out that we . . . That we weren't just good friends."

 

"Thought you said nothing ever happened on base." Gibbs spoke more sharply than he'd done up until now.

 

"And we didn't. He found out where we lived. The Colonel asked him to bring over some papers during one leave. One of the things he'd got in trouble for was B&E. And he knew his way around a security system. We didn't even know he'd got in, until he showed Sammy the photos."

 

"What kind of photos?"

 

"Not the kind you might think. Sorry, sir," he said hastily, as Gibbs just raised an eyebrow. "Just the kind that showed one bedroom and one bed, whereas the other bedrooms were an office and a home gym. And other touches. Even a photo of a photo of us with our arms around one another. One look at it would tell anyone, he said."

 

"What did he do?" Gibbs fought back the anger and disgust he felt. He hated blackmailers; he hated them with an intensity that went deep. If he could get his hands on any of them, he'd -

 

"Demanded money from Sammy; he said if Sammy didn't pay, he'd tell our CO and the Linscotts. So Sammy paid; then the demands increased and the threats too. We began to hate to take leave, we felt sure he was watching us. Sammy knew he'd never stop. He decided there was only one way to end it - well two, but Sammy's not a killer."

 

"Why didn't he just tell his parents? From everything you've said they seem like good, loving people."


"He was sixth generation, Marine, Agent Gibbs. His mom might have understood; but not his dad. Sammy couldn't do that to his dad. He couldn't."

 

"What about your folks?"

 

Rankin glanced away. "Mom's dying and Dad's making sure he joins her. Mom wouldn't care; Dad'd probably punch me once and then it'd all be over. He'd have got it out of his system and we'd be fine again. But we have nothing to live up to, not like Sammy. He saw it as the only way out. He was protecting his family; the Corps and me. And he couldn't do that by staying alive." He came to his feet. "That bastard killed him, Agent Gibbs. He may not have pulled the trigger, but he killed him. And when I get my hands on him -"

 

"Sit down," Gibbs said, standing up and taking Rankin's arm. "You're not going to do anything to him. You're not like that."

 

"I loved Sammy. I loved him my entire life. I'll never - You wouldn't understand."

 

Gibbs sighed and put his head back and stared at the ceiling. Then he briefly closed his eyes. The first face he expected. But then a second face appeared. And then the two faces blurred into one. He shook his head and opened his eyes, before closing them again. Now they were side by side, the edges still slightly blurred; but they were two separate people. "Well I'll be damned," he muttered.

 

"Agent Gibbs?" Gibbs brought his head down and looked at Rankin. "Is everything . . ." Then he blinked and leaned forward, staring intently at Gibbs. "You do understand, don't you?" he said softly.

 

Gibbs sighed. "Yeah. I do. And take it from me, Martin. It might not seem like it now, in fact I know it doesn't; it won't for some time. But some people do get a second chance."

 

Rankin shook his head. "I'll only ever love Sammy."

 

Gibbs reached across the table and for a moment covered Rankin's hand and squeezed it. "I know," he said.

 

"What'll happen now, sir?" Rankin asked, after a few minutes of silence went by.

 

"I'm going to go and have a talk with your CO and Sammy's parents."

 

"But you can't. You . . ."

 

"You know I have to, Martin. You knew that from the moment you walked into NCIS, didn't you?"

 

Rankin glared at him; his look was defiant. Then he drooped and let his head fall forward onto his chest. "Yes," he said as a sob escaped him. "Yes, sir. Yes, Agent Gibbs, I did." Then he put his head on his arms and began to sob and sob.

 

Gibbs put his hand on Rankin's shoulder and left it there as he dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He wished Ducky was there, but he wasn't. So he opted for his second choice. "McGee," he said quietly. "Come up to the conference room now."

 

He put the phone back into his pocket and sat back, just watching the man whose heart was clearly breaking. The man who thought his life was over; the man whose life had been destroyed.

 

When the knock, signaling McGee's arrival, sounded, Gibbs stood up and strode to the door, meeting McGee there. "Hey, boss. What can I do for you?" McGee glanced at the still sobbing Rankin, who hadn't noticed the phone call or McGee appearing.

 

"Just sit with him. Be here. Let him cry it out, then take him for coffee or whatever."

 

"Sure, boss."

 

That was McGee, no questions; he just followed Gibbs's orders. "Linscott was his lover," Gibbs said, because McGee needed to know. "He took his own life because he was being blackmailed." McGee's expression darkened telling Gibbs he felt the same way about blackmailers as Gibbs did.

 

"I'll keep an eye on him, boss. Don't worry," McGee said, moving to the table and sitting down in the seat Gibbs had vacated.

 

Gibbs squeezed McGee's shoulder. "Know you will, Tim," he said. "Tell him I had to go. Tell him it'll be all right."

 

McGee nodded. "Yes, boss."

 

As Gibbs left the room he hoped that he what he told McGee to tell Rankin was correct.

 

THE MARINE BASE

 

Gibbs waited to be shown into Colonel Elliott Anderson's office. The whole futility of Linscott's death was getting to him. Normally he tried and succeeded not the let most cases touch him or really impinge on him - cases involving children aside - but for some reason this one was really pressing down on him.

 

"Colonel Anderson will see you now, Agent Gibbs," the young Petty Officer said.

 

"Thanks." Gibbs nodded to the man and headed towards Anderson's office.

 

He went in and Anderson came to his feet and held out his hand. "Agent Gibbs. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. Do have a seat."

 

Gibbs shook Anderson's hand and sat down. "Thanks," he said.

 

"You look as though you could do with a cup of coffee," Anderson said, and without waiting for Gibbs to reply, he went across the where a coffee percolator stood and poured a mug of coffee for Gibbs and another for himself. "I assume you don't take milk or sugar?" he asked, already on his way back to Gibbs.

 

Gibbs nodded and took the mug. "Thanks. And yeah, you assume right." He tentatively took a sip and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. The scent had hinted it was a good blend, but in his experience the taste didn't always match the smell. "This is good," he said. "And definitely not Marine issue."

 

Anderson smiled. "I bring it from home myself." Then the smile vanished and he sighed and sat down behind his desk. "I assume this is about Lieutenant Linscott?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yes."

 

"It's tragic, and I use that word honestly, Agent Gibbs. It's a word, like some other, that is sadly misused for far too minor things. But this time it's true. Samuel Linscott was a fine man as well as a highly respected and well liked Marine. He was a credit to the unit, the Corps and his family. He would, I suspect, have retired on a higher rank than his father did. I do hope you find the person who murdered him very quickly indeed and bring him to justice."

 

"Already found him," Gibbs said.

 

"You have?"

 

"Yeah. And it gets even more tragic," Gibbs said quietly.

 

"Agent Gibbs?"

 

"I'm sorry to have to tell you, Colonel, but Samuel Linscott took his own life."

 

Anderson came to his feet and glared at Gibbs. "You are mistaken, Agent Gibbs. You have to be mistaken. Someone in NCIS cannot have done his or her job correctly. There is no way that Lieutenant Linscott would have taken his own life. I'm sorry to say it, Agent Gibbs, but you need to reopen the case and find the killer. I refuse to - What did you say?" Anderson's face had become paler and he sank back into his chair.

 

"Lieutenant Rankin came to NCIS and told us that Linscott had taken his own life. I'm sorry, Colonel, probably more sorry than you can know. But he did kill himself."

 

"But why? He had everything to live for. He -" Anderson was speaking to himself. Then he looked sharply at Gibbs and asked his tone somewhat wary, "What else did Rankin tell you?"

 

"That Linscott was driven to take his own life. He was being blackmailed, Colonel. He was killed, just not in a way that would stand up in any Court of Law."

 

"Blackmailed?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Do you know who by?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yep. Sure do. Rankin told me that as well. It's a member of your unit. One David Hunt."

 

"That -" Anderson stopped speaking abruptly and hard at Gibbs. "You were a Marine, weren't you?" Gibbs nodded. "In your days did you ever experience men who'd been given a second chance by the Courts?"

 

Again Gibbs nodded. "Sure did. And most of them turned out just fine."

 

Anderson nodded. "Most of them do. I would agree. But the Courts made and, as much as I hate to say it so did the Corps, a mistake when it came to Hunt."

 

It didn't surprise Gibbs to hear what Rankin had told him confirmed. "Gather he gave you trouble?"

 

"Trouble doesn't begin to cover it. And it is about to get even more tragic."

 

"Go on."

 

"Hunt has been caught dealing drugs. He's finished in the Marines and is facing a prison sentence."

 

"Oh, God," Gibbs said under his breath. Anderson was correct; the whole situation had indeed become even more tragic.

 

"What was Hunt blackmailing Linscott over?" Anderson asked, after a moment or two of silence.

 

Gibbs stared at him. He'd gone to see the Colonel to tell him the truth and he intended to. After all, he doubted Rankin would serve any longer than he had to. "Rankin told me that he and Linscott were lovers," he said, his tone low. He never once let his stare leave Anderson's face.

 

Anderson briefly closed his eyes. "Oh, dear God," he murmured. "Is that all?"

 

Gibbs blinked. "You knew?"

 

"Of course I knew, Agent Gibbs. And not, if you're wondering, because I ever saw them behave inappropriately on base, not at all. I just . . . There are some things you just know. You probably don't believe in that, but -"

 

"Oh, I do, Colonel. My gut's saved my life and helped me sort out crimes more times than I want to remember."

 

Anderson sighed. "What exactly did Hunt tell Linscott he would have done?"

 

"Come to you. Make sure the Linscotts knew. It seems he managed to break into Linscott and Rankin's home and took some photos - single bedroom and bed, that kind of thing."

 

"The bastard! I'm sorry, Agent Gibbs. But if I could get my hands on him I'd . . ."

"Yeah. Me too," Gibbs said grimly.

 

"If only he'd come to me. I could have . . ." Anderson trailed off helplessly.

 

"Don't ask, don't tell," Gibbs said quietly.

 

Anderson glared at him. "Do you know how much I hate that phrase? God knows this country of ours is meant to be about equality and freedom. But it isn't. Oh, it is for some people, just as long as you conform and don't -" Anderson stopped speaking abruptly and a faint color touched his cheeks. "We pay lip service to such things. That's all. It's perfectly all right for a heterosexual man to brag about how many women he 'had' when on leave, but not for a homosexual or bisexual person to even mention they are involved in a committed relationship. Sometimes I -" he stopped speaking again.

 

"Donít need to convince me, Colonel Johnson," Gibbs said quietly.

 

"I apologize, Agent Gibbs. I shouldn't have spoken to you that way. It's just - We all drove that young man to his death."

 

"Don't need to apologize either, Colonel. What's said in this room, stays in this room," Gibbs said.

 

Johnson looked at him. "Is that why you came to see me alone?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah. Thought it was better. Rankin's at NCIS still. Left him with one of our best agents. He'll keep an eye on him; he won't let him leave until he's sure he's fine."

 

"Thank you." Johnson sighed. "I wonder if this whole thing can get any more tragic."

 

"That's why I've got the man I've got with Rankin," Gibbs said quietly.

 

Johnson stared at him. "That cannot happen," he said firmly. "It cannot. It must not. Perhaps I could come back to NCIS with you and escort Lieutenant Rankin back here?"

 

"I've got somewhere else to go after I leave here. But if you're happy to do that, I'll make a call to my agent."

 

Johnson nodded. "Please do, Agent Gibbs. We've failed one young man; I am not going to sit here and fail another one."

 

Gibbs pulled out his cell phone and pushed a number. "Rankin still with you, McGee?" he asked, when McGee answered it. He listened. "That sounds good to me, McGee. Keep him with you; his Colonel's going to come for him. Tell him everything's fine. Tell him Colonel Johnson knows and there's no problem . . . . . . Yeah, McGee." And he ended the call.

 

"I'll make sure he'd all right, Agent Gibbs," Johnson said.

 

Gibbs nodded. "Reckon you will."

 

"I'm assuming you're going to see the Linscotts after you leave here."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yep. You know them?"

 

"I've met them a few times, but I know Colonel Linscott extremely well by reputation. I can understand why Sammy would have felt he couldn't face his parents, certainly not his father, knowing. He was, as I'm sure you are aware, a sixth generation Marine, and his father was very 'old school'. I believe he would have felt that his son had betrayed him, the family and the entire Marine Corps - and not in that order. Will you tell them the truth?"

 

Gibbs looked at him. "My closest friend, a man who is wiser than anyone else I know, once told me: 'never ask a question which you don't really want the answer to'," he said, holding Johnson's gaze.

 

Johnson nodded. "A wise man indeed. Well, Agent Gibbs, unless there is anything else, I think I'd like to go and fetch Lieutenant Rankin now. I think he could do with being with someone he knows, someone who won't condemn him. Someone who . . ." He trailed off and held Gibbs's stare for another moment or two, before standing up.

 

Gibbs rose to his feet as well and held out his hand. "You do that, Colonel Johnson. Ask for Agent Timothy McGee when you get to NCIS. Tell them he's expecting you, and that I knew you were going there."

 

Johnson took his hand and squeezed it. "I'll do that. Thank you, Agent Gibbs," he said.

 

Gibbs nodded. "No problem. And thank you for the coffee."

 

"My pleasure." Johnson finally let go of Gibbs's hand.

 

THE LINSCOTT FAMILY HOME

 

A redheaded woman in a maid's uniform partly opened the front door. "Yes?"

 

Gibbs pulled out his ID and badge and showed both to the woman. "Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, NCIS. I'm here to see Colonel and Mrs. Linscott."

 

She looked him up and down and for a moment Gibbs thought she was going to send him around the back to the 'tradesman's entrance'. However, after a moment, she nodded, opened the door fully and let him step inside. "You may wait in the library," she said, leading him to the said room. "Please do not touch anything," she added, as she left him alone, carefully closing the door behind her.

 

He looked around him; the room was lined with bookcases, some reaching right up to the ceiling. He found himself wondering how many of the leather-bound and other hardback books were there merely for 'show' and how many had actually been read. Ducky had a library and although he cared for his books extremely well, Gibbs had never once had the impression that any of them were in Ducky's possession merely for 'show'.

 

The couches, arm chairs, desk and long table down the middle of the room were clearly very expensive and extremely well maintained. Everything in the room, as well as in part of the hall he'd seen as he'd been escorted to the library, clearly screamed not only money, but class. Class was considered to be an out-dated, non-politically correct term. However, out-dated or not, it still existed and while the divisions weren't maybe as wide as they'd once been, they were still in place. The Linscotts proved that. As he waited, he wondered what kind of people they were. He had the Colonel fairly well figured out in his mind already; fifth generation Marine told him a lot.

 

He heard footsteps and watched the door handle turn and two people, a man and a woman, both dressed in black, came into the room. Without even being consciously aware he was doing so, Gibbs straightened even more as he met the gaze of Colonel Linscott.

 

The Colonel came across the room, his stride measured, his posture rigid and formal. He held out his hand, Gibbs took it. The handshake was firm and distant. "Special Agent Gibbs?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Colonel Linscott, Mrs. Linscott ma'am," he glanced at the woman who still stood inside the door. "I'd like to offer you my condolences on the death of your son."

 

"Thank you," Mrs. Linscott said, now moving across and offering Gibbs her hand. Her handshake was gentler and far less distant.

 

"Have you found the bastard who killed my son yet?" the Colonel demanded.

 

"Samuel." His wife looked at him and spoke gently.

 

Gibbs summed them both up instantly and knew what he had to say. "Yes, sir. We know who was responsible."

 

"And is he under arrest?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "He is."

 

"I want to see him.

 

Mrs. Linscott, who had been staring directly at Gibbs as he'd spoken, gave a quiet gasp and put her hand on her husband's arm. "Samuel," she said again, her voice low, cultured, firm.

 

The Colonel ignored his wife and instead continued to glare at Gibbs. "Well?" he demanded. "I told you I wished to see him, Agent Gibbs. As an ex-Marine, I would have thought you'd been taught to respond to an order, especially when given by your superiors." It didn't surprise Gibbs that the Colonel knew he'd been a Marine. It was a radar most Marines tended to pick up.

 

Before he had a chance to reply, Mrs. Linscott spoke again. "Samuel!" This time Mrs. Linscott's tone was hard and she looked up at her husband. "Dear," she said, when he turned to her. "My dear Samuel," she touched his hand. "You know that speaking to Agent Gibbs as if he is little better than some cheap hired help is not going to do anyone any good. Besides," she added, glancing at Gibbs and then back at her husband, "have you not told me on more than one occasion there is no such thing as an ex-Marine?" Her sorrow was clear; as was her strength and determination. Gibbs found himself revising his opinions of the Linscotts when it came to who was 'in charge'.

 

Colonel Linscott cleared his throat. "My wife is quite right, Agent Gibbs," he said. "I apologize to you. I was out of line."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No apology is necessary, Colonel," he said. "However, I'm afraid you won't be able to see the person responsible for your son's death."

 

Colonel Linscott frowned at him. "What does 'responsible for' mean? Or is it just some new, politically correct way of speaking? My son was murdered. Why donít you just say that?"

 

Before Gibbs could answer, Mrs. Linscott spoke to her husband again. "Samuel, I donít think we need to detain Agent Gibbs any further, do you? I'm sure there is nothing else he can, he is able, to tell you. Is that not correct, Agent Gibbs?" she glanced at Gibbs and he read her gaze clearly.

 

He nodded. "It is, ma'am, yes."

 

"Then do let me show you out. It was good of you to take the trouble to come and see us. Thank you, Agent Gibbs. Samuel." Again she touched her husband's hand.

 

Gibbs watched Colonel Linscott swallow and suddenly saw clearly the upright stance and fixed gaze and brusque matter was all that were keeping the Colonel on his feet. All that was keeping him from breaking down. He doubted he had ever told his son how much he'd loved him; how proud he was of him, and now he'd never get the chance. It had all been taken away from him, viciously torn from him.

 

"Thank you, Agent Gibbs," the Colonel finally managed.

 

"Sir." Gibbs nodded and turned to go with Mrs. Linscott.

 

"Agent Gibbs," the two words were spoken in little more than a hoarse whisper.

 

Gibbs stopped and glanced back. By his side, Mrs. Linscott also stopped. "Sir?"

 

"Did he . . . Did Sammy . . . Did my son . . . Suffer? Was it . . . Was it drawn out? Was it a violent death?"

 

Gibbs recalled the look on Linscott's face and the peace that he'd seen; the peace that the young man had clearly felt as he pulled the trigger, because he had felt he'd finally done the right thing for everybody. He shook his head. "No, sir. It was quick. He would have known a second, if that, of pain. That's all."

 

"Thank God for that." And then Colonel Linscott made a harsh sound and turned away; his shoulders shaking.

 

Mrs. Linscott quickly put her hand on Gibb's arm. "Come along, Agent Gibbs," she said, moving towards the door. She didn't let go of his arm until they were outside the room and she'd closed the door firmly and carefully. "Mary," she called, as the woman who had let Gibbs in was about to go through a door at the end of the hall.

 

"Ma'am?" Mary said, hurrying towards her employer.

 

"Please make sure that Colonel Linscott is not disturbed by anyone," Mrs. Linscott said.

 

"Certainly, ma'am."

 

"And please bring tea for two to my sitting room. You will join me for a cup of tea, will you not, Agent Gibbs?"

 

Although she had phrased it as a question, it clearly wasn't. "I'd be pleased to do so, ma'am," he said.

 

"Good. Mary." And with that, Mrs. Linscott led Gibbs down the hall and into another room. It, like the library, the hall and the Linscotts themselves, spoke of good taste, money, class and elegance. The room matched Mrs. Linscott well, and Gibbs could imagine her spending time in the room.

 

"Do sit down, Agent Gibbs," she said. "I think that armchair would suit you best; it's not as soft and low as the others."

 

"Thank you, ma'am." He sat down. Inexplicably he was suddenly reminded of Mrs. Mallard; Mrs. Linscott's manner and bearing were very similar.

 

They exchanged the odd comment about the weather and the Linscotts' garden until Mary brought in the tray of tea.

 

"Thank you, Mary. I can pour."

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Gibbs watched as Mrs. Linscott poured milk, then tea into two china cups from the matching tea pot and took the one she handed him. "Thank you," he said.

 

She nodded, took a sip of her tea, before putting the cup down onto the table. She then looked at his directly and said, her voice calm, quiet, but firm, "And now, Agent Gibbs, please tell me the truth about my son's death."

 

"Ma'am?"

 

"That was the wrong choice of word, do forgive me. I have no doubt you told us the truth, as far as it goes. However, please elaborate. And start with why Sammy took his own life, because he did, did he not?" Her steady stare dared Gibbs to lie.

 

He sighed and put his own cup and saucer back down on the table. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Your son did take his own life. I'm sorry," he added.

 

He heard the faintest of gasps, little more than an intake of breath, and for a fleeing second her eyes misted over. Then the mist had gone and she had herself back under control. "Why?" she said softly. "Was it anything to do with Martin?" she added.

 

Gibbs looked at her for a moment, wondering if she'd known or at least suspected. "Why would you ask that, ma'am?" he asked carefully.

 

She sighed and her eyes flashed at him. "Agent Gibbs, let us stop dancing around one another. I am fully aware of the true nature of the relationship between Sammy and Martin. I've known for years; I am his mother."

 

"Your husband didn't know?"

 

She shook her head. "No, at least I don't think he did. He certainly would never admit to knowing. And I doubt he'd let himself believe it. Please don't get me wrong, Agent Gibbs," she hastened to say. "My husband is not a bigot or anti-homosexuality. It's just that his life was devoted to the Marines. It was different in his day."

 

Gibbs looked at her. "Was it?"

 

She smiled. "Well maybe not entirely, but . . . Samuel's a good man, a good husband and father. Strict, firm, he didn't believe in mollycoddling or smoothing his son. He never once told him he loved him or how proud he was of him. He told me, on several occasions. But sadly he couldn't tell Sammy. He should have done, he should have told him. Don't you think fathers should tell their children that, Agent Gibbs? Don't you think we all should be more willing to say that kind of thing to those who mean the most to us before it's too late?"

 

"I -"

 

"I'm sorry, Agent Gibbs. That was . . . Forgive me, I'm a little emotional, as I'm sure you can understand."

 

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

 

"You were telling me why Sammy took his life."

 

"He was being blackmailed."

 

"What? Why? By whom?"

 

"I can't tell you the name of the man, Mrs. Linscott, but he was in your son's unit. He wasn't a good Marine, unlike your son and Martin Rankin. He found out about the relationship; he broke into their home and found they only had one bed. He took photographs and threatened that if your son didn't pay him, then he would show them to your son's CO and to your husband and yourself."

 

"Oh," she pulled out a white handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "The poor boys. Oh, if only Sammy had come to me. I could have reassured him. I could have spoken to my husband; I could have made things right."

 

Gibbs looked at her. "Could you, ma'am? No offence, Mrs. Linscott, but you said yourself your husband wouldn't believe it."

 

"I could have made him understand. It would have taken time, but he would have come around. I wish Sammy had known that. I wish . . ." She broke off and this time he saw a tear slip down her cheek.

 

He leaned forward and briefly squeezed her hand. Then he sat back, picked up his cup and busied himself with drinking the tea, until she'd had time to recompose herself.

 

After a moment or two, she picked up her own cup. "What about Martin?" she asked. "How is he? Is he . . . Do you think I should worry? He and Sammy were so very close and had been for so many years. He's not alone, is he?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No, ma'am. I went to see his CO before I came here. Like you he'd figured out the true nature of the relationship between the two men. He went to NCIS to collect Rankin; he'll keep an eye on him."

 

"Do you think I could call him?"

 

"I'm sure that'd be fine, ma'am."

 

"Good. I want to make sure he knows he'll always be welcome here, just as he always was. I also want to make him know Sammy wanted him to have his trust fund and he's not to do anything silly like refusing it. He won't stay in the Marines."

 

"Kind of guessed that."

 

"He wasn't like Sammy, Martin wasn't a born Marine. He was a good Marine, but he wasn't born into it. I want him to know he still has my husband and me; I want to assure him that he can still call on us whenever he wants to. In fact, do you think he could be granted compassionate leave?"

 

"I couldn't say, ma'am. But maybe."

 

"He can come and stay here. I'll take care of him, Agent Gibbs. Just as . . . Poor Sammy. Poor Martin. It's all so very unfair. I thought the world, our country, was better than that. Maybe one day it will be."

 

Gibbs drained his cup and put it back on the table. "I hope so, ma'am." He stood up, he could see the signs of grief so much more clearly now, the faint tremble she tried to hide, the tears that she was fighting; it was time he left her to grieve in private. "Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Linscott," he said.

 

She stood up and took his arm. "And thank you, Agent Gibbs," she said. "Maybe one day I'll tell Samuel the truth. Maybe one day he'll ask."

 

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "You take care. I'll see myself out."

 

"Oh, would you? Thank you, Agent Gibbs."

 

"Ma'am." He turned and quietly let himself out of the room. And then out of the house.

 

His head was pounding and he had the desire to hurt someone very badly or engage in something physical. But he had reports to write.

 

THE SQUAD ROOM

 

It was several hours later and the team had long gone, before Gibbs turned off his desk light, pulled on his coat, pushed his Sig into the pocket, grabbed his briefcase and headed for the elevators.

 

It was far too late to go and see Ducky now; far too late to even call. But if this case had taught him anything it was that life is too short. Mrs. Linscott had been correct; people should tell those who meant the most to them how they felt. They shouldn't leave the important things unsaid.

 

THE SQUAD ROOM - THE NEXT DAY

 

Coffee in one hand Gibbs strode across from the elevator to his desk.

 

"Hey, boss. I should have asked yesterday. But things . . ." DiNozzo trailed off under Gibbs's stare, and then continued. "How was Ducky?" he asked.

 

"His mom's just died, DiNozzo, how do you think he is?" He'd snarled the words before he could stop himself. Damn it! He shouldn't go on taking his anger out on DiNozzo - it wasn't his fault.

 

DiNozzo stared at him for a moment. Then he leaned forward, his hands on his desk. "You know, boss, this isn't my fault. It's none of our faults," he snapped the words, before standing up and quickly leaving the squad room.

 

Neither McGee nor Ziva could contain their gasps of surprise and from the look on DiNozzo's face before he'd left, the words hadn't been intentional. Gibbs squeezed the bridge of his nose and took a long swallow of coffee.

 

"Er, boss, shall I . . ." McGee offered, half-standing up.

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No. Leave him. I reckon we should send Ducky some flowers or something, for his mom. I'll get Abbs to . . . What?" he snarled as McGee and Ziva looked at one another. "Well?" he demanded when neither of his remaining agents answered him.

 

"The director has already organized something, Gibbs," Ziva said, meeting his glare and holding it.

 

"Has he now!" That was it. Enough was enough. Gibbs slammed the coffee down on the desk, ignored the fact that it fell over, the top came off and black liquid poured over his desk and papers, and headed for the stairs which he took two at a time.

 

When he reached the top, he glanced back once to see, as expected, both McGee and Ziva at his desk 'rescuing' papers, keyboard, mouse and anything else that was now swimming in black coffee.

 

Gibbs headed for the Director's suite. He strode past his assistant's desk and had his hand on the handle of Vance's office door before the man, who Gibbs didn't recognize, spoke.

 

"Excuse me, sir, but you can't . . ." The man fell silent as Gibbs turned around and glared at him. Cowed by the brutality of the glare, the man sank back into his chair, white and trembling. Given the 'sir' and the fact Gibbs didn't recognize him, he presumed Vance either had a new assistant or a temporary one.

 

Gibbs continued on his way. He flung open the door, strode in and slammed it behind him.

 

Vance looked up. "Do come in, Gibbs," he said.

 

Gibbs strode swiftly to Vance's desk, put his hands on it and leaned forward. "What the fuck are you up to, Leon?" he growled, using all the intimidation he had in his arsenal.

 

Apart from pushing his chair back a little, without really appearing to do so, Vance seemed unfazed and just stared up at Gibbs. Then after a second or two, he stood up and walked around his desk. "Would you like to explain what you mean, Agent Gibbs," he said; his tone was cold.

 

Gibbs straightened up and turned around; Vance's eyes matched his gaze. "You know," he paused. "Director." Then when Vance simply continued to stare unblinkingly at him, Gibbs said, "Ducky. You sent your wife around to 'help' him. And you have arranged for flowers to be sent. What the hell's your game?"

 

"I'm not playing a game, Gibbs. I was merely doing the right thing. He hasn't got any family. He -"

 

"He's got me and the kids."

 

"Has he?" Vance's tone gave nothing away.

 

"What the hell's that meant to mean?" Gibbs took a step nearer to Vance, who held his ground and continued to simply stare Gibbs down.

 

"Did you know how sick his mother had become?"

 

"I -"

 

Vance went on ignoring Gibbs's attempt at a reply. "When did you last ask after his mother? Have you ever asked? Or isn't that how it works?"

 

"How what works?"

 

"Your friendship with Dr. Mallard? Did you know how sick she was, Gibbs? Did you know how far she had deteriorated?"

 

"I - Damn you. No, I didn't. Ducky didn't tell me."

 

"And you didn't ask. How can you call yourself a friend? Oh, do go on, Gibbs. If you think it will make you feel any better; if you think it will make you feel any less guilty, go ahead."

 

Shaken to his core, Gibbs unclenched his fist and took a step then another away from the man - the man who was his boss, the man who could end his career with one word - who had faced him unmoving, who hadn't seemed the least bit troubled by Gibbs's anger. "I've been busy," he managed, knowing even as he said it how futile the words were.

 

Vance shrugged. "You could have found the time. Let me ask you something, Jethro." Gibbs blinked; he couldn't remember the last time Vance had called him by his given name. He, against all propriety, used Vance's forename quite often, but Vance, who had every right to call him 'Jethro' didn't. "What if the situations had been reversed? What if it had been your," he paused for a second. "Father," he said. "Would Dr. Mallard, no matter how busy he'd been, have found the time to ask you?"

 

Gibbs glared at him. Of course Ducky would have. But that wasn't the point. He didn't trust Vance; he didn't believe that Vance had acted purely out of altruism. He was up to something, Gibbs was sure; he just didn't know what.

 

And then it hit him. "Oh, I've got it," he said, his tone now low. "Well, it won't work, Leon. Take it from me, it won't work."

 

Vance's smile was cold; it chilled Gibbs. "Are you sure?"

 

Gibbs ignored the momentary question that raced through his mind. Was he? "Yes," he said softly. "I am. Keep your hands off my team. You will not win any of them over, no matter how much you try to make yourself out as the caring one and me the bastard. They'll see through you."

 

Vance shook his head. "For someone so sure of himself, you're certainly making a huge fuss about what most people would simply see as a director looking out for his staff. I don't owe you any explanation, Agent Gibbs, but my actions concerning Dr. Mallard had nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with you. I was simply acting in a normal way. I'm sorry if you feel you have some rights to Dr. Mallard that I am not aware of. I am sorry if you feel you are the only person who can look out for him. But you need to take a step back and ask yourself why I needed to send Jackie over and arrange for flowers to be sent. Now is that all? Because I for one am busy." And with that, Vance turned, walked back behind his desk, sat down and took a file out from his desk and began to read it. He completely ignored Gibbs.

 

Gibbs stood staring at Vance for a second or two longer before he turned on heel and left. He felt worse after the confrontation than before it - because everything Vance had said had been the truth. Oh, he still didn't trust the man, not entirely. He was sure he did have his own agenda; he knew Vance wanted to fill the agency with people more like McGee and less like DiNozzo. But for all that, for all the small things Vance had done to try to show how caring he was, sending McGee home to change after he'd fallen into the river for example, things that Gibbs hadn't seen as altruistic, he found he believed that what Vance had done for Ducky, had been for the reasons Vance had said and not an attempt to 'win' Ducky over to his 'side'.

 

He leaned against the banister overlooking the squad room and sighed. There shouldn't be 'sides'; he shouldnít be at odds with another director. They should both be on the same side; both working for the same ends. The SecNav hadn't quite gone as far as ordering him to trust Vance and he had implied that the stuff in the CIA file was all made up. However, Gibbs would still stake his pension that Vance had never been a Marine, and that there was something odd about the whole murdered boxer and Vance's pasts.

 

He pushed himself away from the rail and headed back down the stairs. All this was getting him nowhere; all it was doing was distracting him from what was important: making up with Ducky. Not that they'd fallen out as such, they weren't arguing, they just weren't communicating properly. He wasn't communicating properly, and as such he'd made Ducky draw back from him. He guessed the chances that Jackie Vance being at Reston House again were fairly high; so he resolved that no matter what happened, he would go around to Ducky's later that night - once he was sure she would have gone home - and find a way to say he was sorry for being such a bad friend.

 

RESTON HOUSE - EARLY EVENING

 

Juggling what he considered to be a fairly decent carry out from a local restaurant that had recently added carry outs to their repertoire, a bottle of wine and a bouquet of yellow roses, which had been Mrs. Mallard's favorite flowers, Gibbs rang Ducky's doorbell and waited.

 

As he waited, he glanced at the things in his hands, suddenly thinking everything had been a mistake. Jackie would almost have certainly made something for Ducky again; Ducky had his own extensive wine cellar and Gibbs's knowledge of wine was more than a little limited, and as for the flowers . . . They had seemed like a good idea at the time. He knew that Ducky would soon be overwhelmed with floral arrangements and wreaths at the funeral home, but he'd thought his friend might like something in the house that his mom had liked so much.

 

He shook his head; the food and wine were one thing, the flowers had been wrong. He was about to head back to the car to dump them inside as the porch light came on and he heard the door being unlocked and unbolted. Unless he just dropped them where he stood and then risked Ducky seeing them either now or when he saw Gibbs out, then he was stuck.

 

"Jethro. This is a surprise." Under the glow of the porch light, Gibbs thought Ducky looked slightly less drained than when he'd last seen him. His tone was one of surprise, but other than that it told Gibbs nothing. Not even whether the surprise was good or bad; whether he, Gibbs, was welcome or not.

 

"Hey, Duck. I've brought dinner," he said.

 

Ducky seemed a little taken aback. "Oh, that is very kind of you. But really you shouldn't have gone to that trouble."

 

"Wasn't any trouble, Duck. I wanted to - Look, can I come in?"

 

"Oh, please forgive me, my dear. Of course, what on earth am I thinking?" Ducky moved back and let Gibbs into the house. Gibbs felt very slightly warmed by the 'my dear'; it was the first time Ducky had called him that for quite some time; added to that, Ducky's voice had sounded less 'strange'.

 

"Thanks," he said. "Brought a bottle of wine too. And these," he handed the bouquet of roses to Ducky who automatically took them.

 

"Oh," he said very softly. "Oh, Jethro. My dear Jethro, thank you." He looked up at Gibbs and gave him a faint smile.

 

Gibbs saw Ducky's eyes become misty and he put the carry out and wine on the hall table and put one arm around Ducky's shoulders. "You donít mind, then?"

 

"Why would I mind?"

 

"Well . . . It might seem thoughtless. But they were her favorites and - Oh, I don't know, Duck. I just wanted to . . ." He trailed off, silently cursing his lack of ability with words.

 

"They are beautiful, thank you. And thank you for remembering." For a moment Ducky took Gibbs's hand and squeezed it.

 

Gibbs winced inwardly at the 'thank you for remembering' and because Ducky's tone had once again become somewhat formal. "Glad you like them. Guess dinner was unnecessary. I'm sure Jackie left you something, didn't she?"

 

Ducky's eyes had cleared and he looked up at Gibbs. "She did, yes, but it will keep for another day. Are you going to join me, or is there something else you need to do? Somewhere you need to be?"

 

Gibbs shook his head and then hastily nodded then shook it again. Why couldn't Ducky ask simple questions and not convoluted ones? "Only place I've got to be, Duck, is here. And the only thing I've got to do is whatever you want me to do. I want to do something for you, Duck."

 

Ducky was silent for a moment or two. Then he sighed and said his tone flat, "Do you?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. Duck, I -"

 

"Let us eat, Jethro. And then . . ."

 

"And then?"

 

Ducky shrugged. "Let us eat," was all he repeated.

 

They ate and shared the bottle of wine. The food was good and Ducky assured Gibbs the wine was fine. Under Gibbs's eyes, he saw his old friend begin to relax somewhat, become less pale, tense and strained and become more 'Ducky' than he'd been around Gibbs for several days.

 

"That was very pleasant, Jethro, thank you."

 

"Sure it wasn't as good as the Rooftop Grill, but it wasn't bad." Gibbs pushed his chair back a little and picked up his wine glass. "You ever been there?" And then he remembered. "Course you have. You told me so after I'd interviewed DiNozzo's father. Sorry I . . ." he trailed off and silently cursed himself. He also now remembered that Ducky had offered to take him there and he'd been non-committal about the invitation. He was beginning to think 'bastard' wasn't a good enough word for him.

 

Ducky nodded and sipped his own wine. When he spoke, it was almost as if he hadn't heard Gibbs's apology and clarification. "Indeed I have been there; I've been there several times and Tony's father was correct; they have indeed got the best rib eye in town. Maybe when -" He stopped speaking abruptly and stood up. "Let us take our wine and sit by the fire. That is if you can stay, of course."

 

Gibbs bit his lip and counted to five. Then he decided enough was enough. He was tired of dancing around Ducky. He also stood up. "Okay, Duck, enough's enough," he said, snagging Ducky's glass from his hand and instead taking both of Ducky's hands in his.

 

Ducky blinked. "Jethro?"

 

"I know I've been a bastard recently - more of a bastard than usual. No," he said firmly as Ducky opened his mouth. "Let me finish. I've been a bastard and I haven't been much of a friend to you in the last couple of weeks or so."

 

"Jeth-"

 

But Gibbs just plowed on, gently but firmly riding rough-shod over Ducky. He was going to be heard. "I never asked about your mom. I never spent time with you. I never, ah, what the hell, Duck. I never did anything I should have done."

 

"Should have done?" Ducky's tone was somewhat chilled.

 

Gibbs silently cursed himself and his choice of words. Under any other circumstances, Ducky wouldn't have reacted to the use of 'should' but given the strain on their friendship, he understood fully why Ducky was being so literal. "You're my closest friend, Duck. You mean more to me than anyone else. You've always been there for me, I wasn't here for you and, yeah, I should have been. It's what friends do, isn't it?"

 

"Jethro, I -"

 

But still Gibbs pressed on. "You want to know why I didn't ask about your mom?" Ducky looked at him for a moment. Then shrugged and gave what Gibbs decided passed for a nod. "I didn't want to upset you any more than you were. I know how hard it was for you to put her into the home. I knew that meant she'd gone downhill and hadn't got that long to live. I - I don't know, Duck. I just thought you wouldn't want to keep talking about it, that's all. Thought it wouldn't help. Guess I was wrong."

 

Ducky glanced away from him for a moment. Then he looked back at him. "You weren't entirely wrong, no. I confess that Jimmy's daily inquiry, no matter how genuine it was and it was genuine. Jimmy and Mother had met several times and he became very fond of her. I think he saw her in some way as the grandmother he never met. And she liked him too. She'd always known she'd never have grandchildren of her own. So I think she saw him as a surrogate grandson. Thus, it was only natural that he'd ask about her. But - What was I saying?"

 

Gibbs smiled and tightened the grip he had on Ducky's hands a little. "You were saying that while Palmer's inquiry was genuine, it was . . ."

 

"Ah, yes, thank you. I did become a little . . ." Ducky trailed off. Then he looked at Gibbs and his eyes become steely. "You should have asked, Jethro," he said firmly. "You are quite correct about that. No matter how little you wished to upset me, you of all people should have asked. You could even have -"

 

"Come with you to visit her?" Gibbs spoke quietly.

 

Ducky nodded. "Yes," he said; his tone flat and hard. "Yes, Jethro. Yes. Not once did you ask after her and not once did you ask how I was. And I cannot believe, I refuse to believe, that you hadn't noticed I was less than my usual self."

 

Gibbs swallowed hard. He'd never seen Ducky like this before, certainly not when it was directed at him. Ducky wasn't really angry; he was more hurt than angry. Gibbs actually wished it was the other way round. Anger he could deal with; hurt not so much. "Told you I'd been a bad friend," he said.

 

Ducky sighed and frowned. "You're not a bad friend, Jethro. You just . . ." He trailed off and sighed again. "You're here now," he said quietly.

 

Gibbs let go of one of Ducky's hands and put his hand on Ducky's shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me she'd died, Duck? When you called me?"

 

"Why did you not ask me why I was calling you to tell you I needed to take some leave?"

 

"Ducky!"

 

Ducky sighed for a third time. "You had Anthony there with you and I . . . I was aware of how concerned, for want of a better word, you'd been about him during his father's visit and . . . You seemed . . . I got the impression I was . . . That my call wasn't . . . Welcome. I don't know, Jethro. You're right; I should have told you. It was foolish of me not to. Childish even. As you said, you are my closest friend; I called you to tell you. I should have told you, no matter who you had there with you or what you were doing or . . . I should have told you. But you should have asked," he finally ended his speech with the words Gibbs hoped wouldn't haunt him for too much longer. The last words were spoken more quietly than the rest of his broken speech had been.

 

"What can I do, Duck?" Now Gibbs put both hands on Ducky's shoulders.

 

Ducky frowned. "Jethro?"

 

"To help. There's got to be something I can do. Even now there's got to be something."

 

Ducky looked perplexed and shrugged. "Everything is in hand, Jethro. The funeral has been arranged, the funeral home are doing what they do. People have been notified. Catering for after the funeral is sorted out. Jacqueline even undertook the task of cleaning the house - I told her it wasn't necessary and that I have a cleaner, but . . . My freezer is full of meals that will last me for the best part of a month - and probably beyond that. I've made an appointment to see Mother's Solicitor; although given I've had Power of Attorney for her for some years now, there isn't much to sort out. All her papers are in order. I have letters to acknowledge and things like that, but those are things no one can help me with. It's all done, Jethro. In many respect I've been preparing for this for some time; ever since Mother went into the home at the very least."

 

Gibbs tightened his grip on Ducky's shoulders. "Surely there's something, Duck. Something that I can do. Anything."

 

"Anything?"

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah. Just say the word and I'll do it. Do you need furniture moving around you know for . . . I can do that."

 

Ducky put his head slightly on one side and gazed up at Gibbs. The look on his face and in his eyes became unreadable. "Anyone can do that, Jethro," he said quietly.

 

Gibbs frowned. "I guess they can. But I want to do something. There's got to be something I can do. Something only I can do." Even as he said the words, he realized how foolish they were. Of course there was nothing only he could do.

 

Ducky continued to stare at him in silence. "Something only you can do?" he repeated softly.

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah. Just tell me and I'll do it."

 

Ducky glanced away for a moment and then looked back at Gibbs. "There is one thing that only you could do, but somehow I sincerely doubt it's what you had in mind."

 

There was Ducky again with the convoluted speeches - and that was a short one. "Just tell me what it is, Duck. It doesn't matter if it's what I had in mind. Hell, apart from furniture moving, not sure I had anything specific in mind. You tell me and I'll do it." Gibbs held Ducky's gaze and tried to will his friend to believe him.

 

"Will you now?" Ducky said, almost speaking to himself.

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah. You have my -"

 

"No!" Ducky spoke loudly.

 

"Duck?"

 

"Don't promise or give me your word."

 

"But I -"

 

Ducky closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again. Gibbs almost gasped at what he saw in them. "Very well, take me to bed." Ducky spoke softly.

 

Gibbs blinked. "What?" he said, the query coming not because he needed clarification, he didn't. Not only had he heard Ducky clearly enough, but his eyes had told him just what Ducky had in mind.

 

Ducky smiled. "Take me to bed. You wanted to do something for me that only you can do. Well, that is the one thing only you can do for me. Take me to bed."

 

Gibbs brushed Ducky's hair off his forehead, letting his fingers linger. "Now?" he asked softly.

 

Ducky smiled a little sadly. "Actually, I'd rather you kissed me first, but essentially now, yes."

 

"Duck -"

 

Ducky smiled again and put his hand on Gibbs's arm. "It's all right, my dear," he said, his tone soft and solemn. "I don't expect you to do so. But now you can see why I stopped you from 'giving me your word' or 'promising me' that whatever I asked for, you would give me, do you not?"

 

One of these days, Gibbs decided, he was going to either tell Ducky to be less convoluted or find some kind of course that taught you British-speak - or Ducky-speak. Deciding that words were futile, he instead lowered his head and put his mouth on Ducky's, kissing him for a moment or two before lifting his head again and staring down into Ducky's stunned face. "What's up, Duck?" he asked, putting his arms around Ducky and locking them loosely behind Ducky's back. "Lost for words? Thought you wanted me to kiss you."

 

Ducky shook his head. "I did. I mean I do, but -"

 

"Yeah?" Gibbs said, once again taking his lips from Ducky's. He idly noticed that while he'd now kissed Ducky twice, Ducky had yet to return the kiss; he'd just let himself be kissed. He suspected that was because he really had surprised his about-to-be lover. At least he hoped that was the case. When Ducky didn't answer, he shrugged and started to lower his head again.

 

This time Ducky stopped him. "Jethro, wait. Please," he added. "I have to ask you something."

 

Hoping it would be in plain English, Gibbs nodded. "Go on."

 

"Is this just . . . I mean did you kiss me simply because of . . . Was it out of . . . " He closed his eyes and Gibbs could see him fighting with himself. When he opened them again, the desire had been hidden as it nearly always had been over the years, and Ducky looked extremely serious. "Did you kiss me simply because Mother has died, because I am upset and because you want to try to make up somewhat for being, in your own words, a bad friend?"

 

"And if that had been the reason, wouldn't it be enough?" Gibbs spoke quietly; he had to know Ducky's answer.

 

Ducky sighed. "When I asked you to kiss me, to take me to bed, I thought it would be enough, yes. But now . . . Now that you have actually kissed me, now that you are looking at me in the way I have only ever seen you look at a woman, now that I could possibly get the one thing for which I have been hoping, about which I have been dreaming and," Ducky flushed slightly, but went on, "about which I have been fantasizing for more years than I care to admit. Then . . . No. No, Jethro, as ironic, as foolish, as self-centered, as unbelievable as it may seem, no, it wouldn't be enough."

 

After Ducky had spoken the words that could take away any chance, any hope, he had ever had of being in Jethro's arms for a reason that went beyond friendship, he didn't know whether to be irritated or amused with himself.

 

Over the years he had allowed himself to imagine various scenarios, had come up with various reasons as to why Jethro would finally realize he loved Ducky in the way Ducky loved him, but whatever the reason was, he had never turned Jethro down. Not even in the scenarios whereby Jethro had told him it could only be for one night. He had wanted his closest, dearest, oldest friend for far too long to simply turn him away if he couldn't have him for more than once - even though one-night stands had never been something which Ducky had taken part in. However, Jethro was different; he had never loved anyone, had never wanted anyone, had never cared for anyone, had never even needed anyone, in the way he loved, wanted, cared for and needed Jethro.

 

Thus, for him to now tell Jethro that if the only reason Jethro had kissed him was out of some kind of pity and feelings of guilt, then he couldn't, he wasn't prepared to, go to bed with Jethro, was somewhat absurd. Yet, he meant his words; they hadn't just been spoken without thought. He had meant them, and he still did. He couldn't go to bed with the man he loved for any other reason than Jethro wanting to go to bed with him. Even now if Jethro convinced him he did want him, but only for one night, that would suffice - but Jethro had to want him.

 

Suddenly aware that he'd put Jethro in a dreadful situation and despite how much his friend had hurt him and how angry with him Ducky had been, he should never have done that. It wasn't fair; it wasn't fair to Jethro, to Ducky himself and to their friendship. He'd just tell Jethro to forget the last few moments; to forget asking him to take him to bed. Jethro had always known, had always had to have known, of that Ducky was certain, that Ducky was in love with him and wanted him, and whilst they had never openly spoken about it, Ducky was sure the outright admittance wouldn't harm their friendship.

 

He began to open his mouth to speak to Jethro, when instead he again found it covered by Jethro's own and he was kissed for a third time. But the kiss was somewhat different this time; the two previous kisses Jethro had bestowed on him had been brief, little more than lips brushing lips; in many ways like the way Jethro's lips had brushed his ear on more than one occasion when they'd embraced. But this kiss . . .

 

This kiss was like nothing Ducky had ever experienced. And this time he wasn't just going to stand there and let Jethro kiss him. He trusted in and believed in his old friend enough to believe that had Jethro's answer to his own question had been 'yes, it was just out of pity and guilt' that Jethro wouldn't have kissed him again. Certainly not in the way he was kissing him. He'd also been gathered, because there was no other word to describe it, into Jethro's arms and was being held in a protective, caring and very possessive embrace.

 

With a slight moan, Ducky struggled a little until Jethro allowed him to move his own arms and thus complete the embrace and he parted his lips and pressed them even more firmly against Jethro's and gave himself up, surrendered himself to, the sheer beauty of the kiss.

 

He'd always known Jethro would be a good kisser; someone who had had four wives and more lovers than Ducky could count, had to be a good kisser. After all, Ducky may love Jethro dearly, but his dear friend was not the best conversationalist in the word; nor was he a great romantic. Thus the women who had passed through his life and bed had to have a reason for doing thus. However, Ducky hadn't expected Jethro to be quite such a good kisser as he was.

 

Ducky hadn't got a vast amount of experience when it came to the number of lovers he'd had, but he'd been kissed by men he thought to be good kissers; he'd been kissed by men whom, in some way, he had loved who had loved him, he'd been kissed by men used to kissing other men. But the other people had never kissed him in the way Jethro was kissing him.

 

Jethro cherished him as he kissed him; he made Ducky feel special. As his tongue began to charter Ducky's mouth, exploring every inch of it and his lips pressed against Ducky's, he made Ducky feel as he was the only person Jethro had ever kissed; the only person Jethro would ever again kiss.

 

The kiss spoke to him, it touched him, it moved him, it was inside of him, it surrounded him, it wrapped him in a cocoon of affection, caring and love - because Jethro did love him, Ducky knew that; he'd known it for many years. Jethro had never said as much, not in so many words, but Ducky had always known. And now the kiss told him things Jethro wouldn't voice.

 

And it wasn't just the way Jethro was kissing him that moved Ducky, it was the way he was being embraced, the security Jethro was bestowing on him, the fact that his arms gave Ducky the feeling it was just the two of them in the whole world. Jethro held him as if he never intended to let go. One hand gently cupped the back of Ducky's head and Jethro's fingers were entwined loosely in Ducky's hair, the other was around Ducky's back, holding him solidly.

 

And Jethro's body was pressed against Ducky's and that told Ducky a vast amount. Jethro was aroused and becoming more so as he pressed against Ducky. Ducky's own arousal was far more intense than he'd experienced from a kiss before, and he could already feel the dampness in his shorts.

 

Finally, just as Ducky began to see stars behind his eyes, Jethro gently broke the kiss and took a large gulp of air. He loosened his grip slightly on Ducky and gazed down at him. His eyes were dark and showed the kind of passion that Ducky had dreamed would one day be directed at him; his lips were red and somewhat swollen; his cheeks were flushed. His gaze spoke of love of affection of desire; it, like the kiss, said things Ducky doubted Jethro would ever be able to say.

 

Jethro brushed Ducky's hair back from his forehead. "That answer your question, Duck?" he asked, his tone as fond as the look on his face.

 

"Question?" Ducky asked, somewhat mesmerized by the way the lights in the room seemed to be showing in Jethro's eyes.

 

Jethro laughed softly. "Yeah, the one where you asked if I was only kissing you out of sympathy and because I've been behaving like a bastard."

 

"Mmmm. Oh, that one?" Part of Ducky also winced at how he seemed to be behaving like someone in a cheap romance novel, but most of him didn't care. He just continued to gaze up at Jethro. Then to his surprise he saw Jethro flush slightly and glance away for a moment. "Jethro?" Ducky touched his friend's cheek. "Is something the matter?"

 

Jethro looked back at him and shifted slightly. "Just the way you're looking at me. I'm not that wonderful, Duck."

 

Ducky cupped Jethro's cheek and then began to trace a finger around Jethro's mouth. "Oh, yes, you are, my dear. To me you are." He spoke honestly and without hesitation. For that moment the fact Jethro had hurt him and angered him, didn't matter; all that mattered was that Jethro wanted him and was showing him how much he cared about him.

 

The flush deepened. "Hope I can live up to it," Jethro finally murmured.

 

"Oh, of that I have no doubt."

 

"Duck!"

 

"My dear?"

 

Jethro caught the hand Ducky had on his face, stopping Ducky mid-caress. "I've never been with another man before, Duck," he said, his tone now serious. "You know that. Never thought I would. I donít want to," he shrugged. "You know disappoint you."

 

"Jethro, please don't think I'm behaving like a romantic, spiritless, simple fool, but you could not disappoint me. Even if all you do is hold me and kiss me; that would suffice."

 

"That all you want?" Jethro's tone was still serious; his gaze still full of affection; his body still obviously aroused. "Truth, Duck," he added firmly.

 

Ducky hadn't intended lying; what was the point? "No, Jethro," he said, his tone equally serious. "No, that is not all I want. But if it is all you are able to offer, then it would more than satisfy me."

 

Jethro shook his head. "Look, Duck, I don't know much about gay sex - and what I do know, I doubt is the kind of thing you go in for."

 

Ducky raised an eyebrow. "Do tell," he said, his tone now light. And he laughed; it felt good to laugh. He wasn't certain he could remember the last time he had genuinely laughed, or felt as good as he felt about anything.

 

Jethro laughed as well and shook his head. "Sure I don't need to. But seriously, Duck. What if I get it wrong? What if I screw this up as I'm so good at doing?"

 

Ducky sighed softly; he wanted to get back to kissing and not talking, but he also understood Jethro's concerns. Indeed it moved him deeply that his friend was going to so much trouble; that he wanted to make it good. "If you think sex between two men is only about it being hard, fast, rough and fucking, then you are mistaken. What?" he said, at the incredulous look Jethro was giving him. "Oh, Jethro," he said, laughing slightly. "You've heard me use such terms before."

 

"Not when it comes to sex, I haven't," Jethro objected.

 

Ducky shook his head. "And the last time we discussed sex, was . . . ?" he asked politely.

 

Now Jethro really laughed; it sounded good and Ducky saw him begin to relax again. "Ah, Duck, Duck, Duck," he said. "What am I going to do with you?"

 

"I rather thought that's what we were discussing. Seriously though, my dear. Instinct will serve you well. You may not ever slept with me . . . Well, strictly speaking given we have shared a bed before, it can be said that we have . . .  As I was saying," he hastened on at the look on Jethro's face. "You may not have made love to me before, but you have known me for enough years, you know enough about me to know my personality and character. And that doesn't change in bed. At least," he added, "not dramatically. I have never enjoyed rough sex. And it has been many, many years since I have experienced penetrative sex - does that help?"

 

Jethro swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, it does. Guess I'd have been surprise to hear anything else. Just wanted to be sure."

 

"Well, now you are. So I suggest you kiss me again, just to get us back into the mood, and then we retire to my bedroom. I don't know about you, but I am some years past making love on the sofa or the floor."

 

"Trust me, Duck, so am I! Even sleeping under a boat's tough."

 

"Will you start another one?" Ducky asked, genuinely, despite his desires for far more carnal things than conversation, interested.

 

Jethro shrugged. "Depends," he said, somewhat cryptically.

 

Even more intrigued now, Ducky asked, "On?"

 

Jethro's answer was to do as Ducky had suggested moments before and kiss Ducky. Once again, he gathered Ducky back into his caring, protective, possessive embrace. As he let Ducky feel how turned on he was, he kissed Ducky with more affection and genuine love than Ducky had ever been kissed.

 

This time when they broke away, Ducky moved his hand and lightly brushed it over Jethro's clear arousal. Jethro hissed and jerked slightly, but the look in his gaze that darkened even more told Ducky it wasn't because he hadn't liked it - quite the opposite. Encouraged, Ducky stroked Jethro again; he was more than a little pleased when Jethro pushed himself forward into the touch. He continued to caress Jethro, going so far as to cup the hardness and move his hand up and down it.

 

Suddenly Jethro caught his hand and held it firmly, tugging it away from his body. Ducky looked up sharply. He was almost certain Jethro wasn't objecting, hadn't changed his mind, but he still found himself slightly on edge and a tiny part of him was, despite the passion with which Jethro had kissed him, waiting for Jethro to change his mind. "Jethro?" he asked quietly. The look Jethro was giving him reassured him that nothing had changed, but he still sought clarification. "Is something wrong? Did you not like what I was doing? Was it not good enough for you? Have you -"
 

Jethro silenced him with another kiss; this time somewhat briefer than the last couple. "Stop fishing for compliments, Dr. Mallard," he said, gently teasing.

 

"I wasn't!"

 

"Hmmm. As it's you, I believe you. No, Duck, nothing's wrong. And, yeah, I liked what you were doing. I liked it a lot."

 

"Well then, what is the problem?" Jethro just mock-glared at him. "Ah," Ducky said, feeling extremely smug. "I still don't understand the problem; I should have thought that you were more than able to come more than once in a lovemaking session. Is that not the case?"

 

"Ducky!" Jethro's eyes widened.

 

"Yes, dearest?" Ducky mock-batted his eyes at Jethro.

 

Jethro crushed Ducky's lips beneath his for some time, kissing Ducky back into a state of sheer bliss and increased arousal. Then he took his mouth from Ducky's and instead put it to Ducky's ear and murmured something that surprised Ducky; he'd never thought Jethro would say something like that.

 

"Oh, Jethro," he murmured, teasing gone for the moment. "Oh, my dearest Jethro," he blinked hard several times, moved beyond explanation, beyond words. After a moment or two, he pulled back in the embrace, reached up on his toes and solemnly brushed his lips over Jethro's. "Let us go to bed," he said quietly and formally. He took Jethro's hand, linked his fingers with Jethro's and together they left the dining room and headed for the stairs and Ducky's bedroom.

 

The curtains were already pulled and Ducky switched on the bedside lamps, filling the room with soft, muted lighting. Then he turned the bed down, spent a little time making it 'just so' and glanced around the room, looking for something else to 'arrange'.

 

"Hey," Jethro said softly, catching his hand and carefully tugging Ducky towards him. "It's okay, Duck."

 

Ducky went willing into his arms and smiled up at him. "It's just . . . Well, let us say I never truly expected this day to come and certainly not when I -"

 

"Not when you?" Jethro asked.

 

Ducky gave a half shrug. "Ah, Jethro," he said. "Maybe I should turn the lights off." He began to move from Jethro's arms.

 

"Oh, no, you don't," Jethro said, catching Ducky's hand and tugging him back into his arms.

 

"But, Jethro. I -"

 

Jethro silence him with a kiss, then another one. Finally, when they parted in order to breathe, Jethro gazed down at Ducky. "You know I love you, don't you, Duck?" he asked, his voice soft.

 

Ducky smiled. "Yes, my dear. I do. It is nonetheless gratifying to hear it." His eyes blazed with the love he felt for Jethro.

 

Jethro suddenly had a vision of him saying those words to Ducky many times over the forthcoming years. They weren't words he'd ever tended to say often; he wasn't that comfortable with words, he felt they didn't need saying, he showed instead. But Ducky was different; he knew that. Ducky was the kind of person you said the words to; you didn't just show him, you told him as well.

 

Then something hit him. "And I don't mean just as a friend, Duck," he said.

 

Ducky's eyes widened in clear surprised. "Do you not?" His tone echoed the look in his eyes.

 

Jethro shook his head. He'd thought he'd convinced Ducky. Ah, well, he guessed that given for how long Ducky had wanted him, to suddenly get what he'd desired for so long might be hard to accept in a minute or two. "Told you, Duck, it's not just about sympathy or guilt. I want you. You want the truth?"

 

For a moment Ducky looked at him, a small frown appearing between his eyes. "Suddenly I'm not certain that I do," he said quietly.

 

Jethro pulled him even nearer. "Yeah, you do, Duck. Realized, well admitted more than realized, some time yesterday how I really felt about you. That I loved you more than just as a friend. That I wanted you. Made a vow I'd tell you. Life's too short not to."

 

Ducky put his head on one side and stared up at Jethro. "Did something happen to make you realize this?"

 

"In a way. The case. The one I had to - Shouldn't have gone, Duck. Should have stayed. DiNozzo could have handled it?"

 

Ducky looked at him. "Could he? Could he really, Jethro? You haven't told me what the case was, but from my knowledge of you, not to mention your epiphany, I would say that it contained something for which, as talented as he is, Anthony was probably not the best placed person to deal with it."

 

Jethro thought. "He'd have coped. He'd have handled it differently and, yeah, not as well. But, he would have coped."

 

"But it needed more than coping, did it not?"

 

"Duck, you want to stand here and talk about a case that's over or you want to . . ." Jethro lowered his head and began to nuzzle around Ducky's ear. He slipped one hand beneath Ducky's jacket and started to caress his back and pushed his body nearer to Ducky, moving it slightly so that it brushed Ducky's partial arousal. "'Cause I know what I want," he said, flicking his tongue over Ducky's ear. "Tell you about the case later. But now -"

 

This time it was Ducky who grabbed Jethro's head and pulled his mouth down to meet Ducky's own and began to kiss Jethro with a passion and abandonment Jethro hadn't been expecting. As he moved his body against Ducky's, he could feel both of them once again hardening more. But still he didn't want it like this; not quickly, not like two horny teenagers; maybe another time, but not now.

 

As he began to gentle the kiss, he also found himself looking forward to all the other times they'd have in the future. All the other occasions, and maybe even places - they might be both too old for floors or other hard surfaces, but Ducky's couch was nice and large. He knew Ducky had said he was too old to make love anywhere but his bed, but Jethro could be very persuasive when he wanted to be thus. He was pretty certain he could 'persuade' Ducky that his couch was a suitable place. After all, Ducky was the romantic, surely the idea of making love in front of the fire would appeal to him?

 

Suddenly something hit him and he took his mouth from Ducky's. Ducky made a moan of protest and tried to follow Jethro, but Jethro held him, using his extra height, strength and fewer years. He looked down at Ducky. "God you look sexy when you pout," he said, the words coming without him even thinking about them. To his amusement, Ducky blushed. It suited him; he had pale skin and the color enhanced it well.

 

Aware that he was now just gazing down at Ducky, Jethro pulled himself together; God he was behaving like someone in a cheap romance novel - well, how he believed someone in a cheap romance novel would behave. Somewhat embarrassingly, except he wasnít embarrassed, he found he didn't care. He mentally rolled his eyes at himself, wondering idly if Ducky and he would turn into one of those couple who others shunned because they were too 'lovey-dovey' to be around. The idea would have been absurd if anyone but Ducky was in his arms. As it was . . .

 

"Jethro?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"You ceased to kiss me for a reason, and as you haven't said anything or made any move to . . ." Ducky trailed off. "I was merely wondering why you stopped.

 

Why had he stopped? Oh, yeah. "You know this isn't just a one night fling, don't you, Duck?"

 

Ducky blinked. "Is it not?"

 

"Not as far as I'm concerned, it's not. Mind you, you might want it to be after you've had me make love to you." As he looked down into Ducky's face that had lit up, there was no other term for it, when he'd said the words, he realized Ducky hadn't heard anything beyond 'not as far as I'm concerned.'

 

"Oh, Jethro," was all Ducky said verbally; his eyes, however, said far much more. "Are you certain?" he added softly.

 

"Never been more certain," Jethro said, kissing Ducky's nose and then his lips briefly. "And now, Dr. Mallard, I am going to undress you - slowly - and you are going to let me."

 

"Am I now?" Ducky said; his eyes were ablaze with love, desire and happiness.

 

"Sure am." But before that, Jethro decided to kiss Ducky deeply, one more time.

 

This time after he'd taken his mouth away from Ducky's, he took a step back, holding Ducky's upper arms with his hands and just studied Ducky. He knew him as well as he knew himself, but despite that, he spent some minutes just looking at the man he was about to take to bed. He looked at Ducky's face, seeing the passion filled eyes, the kiss swollen lips, the flushed cheeks and slight sheen of perspiration above Ducky's upper lips. He saw the man Ducky was now, and the man he'd been when they had first me.

 

Once he'd studied Ducky face, he let his gaze travel down Ducky's body taking in the clothes he'd soon be removing, realizing just how well, the far more formal than his own, clothes suited Ducky. They'd changed very little throughout the years; Ducky had been wearing bowties (and hats) from the moment they'd met. He let his gaze come to rest just below Ducky's waist, enjoying the evidence of how aroused Ducky was. Soon he'd be looking at it without any covering and not just looking, he'd be touching Ducky. He made a soft noise in the back of his throat at the prospect of that pleasure.

 

But if he didn't get on with undressing Ducky, that pleasure wasn't going to happen. He let his gaze travel back up the way it had went and once more came to rest on Ducky's face. Ducky was smiling now in his fond way. "I hope you'll be as impressed as you look now, when you finally get around to removing my clothes," Ducky said, his tone light.

 

Jethro grinned. "Don't have any doubts there, Duck." And then pausing to lightly kiss Ducky's cheek, he began to undress him. With one hand he undid the bowtie and unfastened the top two buttons of Ducky's dress shirt; the other hand maneuvered Ducky's jacket from his body. The tie he left hanging beneath Ducky's collar, the jacket he tossed over a nearby chair. Then he undid another button and gazed at the pale skin that was revealed.

 

Ducky put his head back a little further, thus seeming to offer Jethro his throat and neck to touch or kiss. Whether the offer was a conscious one or not, Jethro had no way of knowing, but it was one he immediately accepted. Bending his head and once more supporting Ducky with an arm around his back, he put his lips to Ducky's throat and began to drop gentle kisses onto it, alternating them with tip of the tongue licks. He felt Ducky swallow, as he ran his tongue up and down this throat. Then he kissed his way further around Ducky's neck, feeling how smooth it was, either Ducky had shaved earlier that evening or he didn't have much stubble.

 

His lips latched onto a particularly silky piece of Ducky's neck and he began to suck and kiss, even letting the edges of his teeth lightly graze the skin. Ducky seemed to enjoy the ministrations very much, as he pushed his lower body further against Jethro's and also put his head back a little further, as well as making low noises of obvious pleasure. "You got any roll neck jumpers, Duck?" Jethro asked, pausing for a second or two.

 

"Yes, I believe I have."

 

"Good." Jethro said, and bent his head again.

 

This time when he lifted his head, he could see a slightly red mark on Ducky's neck. He wasn't certain if the mark would last, but given the paleness of Ducky's skin he felt it might. He then continued to unbutton Ducky's shirt; once he'd undone all the buttons visible, he pushed the red suspenders off Ducky's shoulders and pulled Ducky's shirt out from his trousers and completed the unbuttoning.

 

"You know, my dear, this might go much more quickly if you allowed me to undress myself," Ducky said mildly, following another somewhat protracted kiss.

 

"Yeah, it might at that," Jethro said, beginning to fondle Ducky's nipples, that were already hard and showing through his undershirt. "Not as fun though," he added, before bending his head to suck the hardness through the white linen.

 

Ducky gasped as Jethro's mouth closed around the left nipple. "Like that do you?" Jethro lifted his head.
 

"Mmm, apparently I do," Ducky replied; he sounded quite surprised by the finding. The discovery that he'd done something to Ducky that no previous lover had done, pleased Jethro considerably. And he returned to stroking and kissing and mouthing Ducky's nipples through his undershirt for another minute or two.

 

"Now," he said, raising his head again. "Let's get these off." He was about to tug Ducky's shirt off, when Ducky spoke.

 

"Cuff-links."

"Huh?"

 

"My cuff-links. You will not be able to remove my shirt until you take them out. Or shall I-"

 

Jethro mock-tapped Ducky's hand and undid and removed the cuff-links himself. Realizing the nightstand was too far to throw them and not wanting to just drop them onto the floor, he put them in his own jacket pocket, pulled off Ducky's shirt, followed by his undershirt and dropped both onto the floor. He once again put his hands on Ducky's upper arms and moved back to look at a naked to the waist Ducky. "Nice," he said, after a moment or two. "Make that very nice."

 

Ducky flushed slightly. "You have seen me unclothed before Jethro," he said mildly.

 

"Yeah, but that was different, Duck."

 

"How so?"

 

"We weren't lovers then. I was looking at you as a friend."

 

Ducky cocked an eyebrow. "You were looking at me?" he asked, his tone tinged with something not immediately identifiable.

 

Jethro thought for a second at what he'd actually said. "Yeah, guess I was," he said, before returning to kissing, caressing and licking Ducky's chest - but this time it was without any restrictions of clothing. Ducky's chest was, with the exception of a few hairs around his nipples, hairless and his skin was unblemished and silky.

 

Jethro lost track of how long he spent simply paying attention to Ducky's naked chest with his mouth and hands and to Ducky's back with his hands, before a gentle, but clear half cough from Ducky brought his full attention back to the fact they were still not naked.

 

"Want something, Duck?" he asked, grinning down at Ducky. As he said the words, he put one hand over Ducky's arousal and lightly stroked it. Ducky's gasp was even louder than when Jethro had touched his nipples through his undershirt and he pushed forward into the touch.

 

"Oh, Jethro," he murmured, swaying very slightly. "Oh, my dear, dear Jethro, that is so good."

 

"You really like it, don't you, Duck?"

 

Ducky nodded. "Yes, I do."

 

"Reckon there's something you'd like more though, don't you?"
 

"Mmm?"

 

Jethro laughed softly and brushed a strand of hair back from Ducky's damp forehead. "How about I undress you the rest of the way, Duck and then touch you? Would you like that?"

 

"Oh, yes, please."

 

It took Jethro a matter of seconds to undo the outer and inner buttons on Ducky's trousers and then pull down the zipper and push so that the trousers slid down Ducky's legs. He then gazed down at the even more obvious arousal and saw a damp mark on Ducky's shorts. Again he put his hand over Ducky, cupping his erection and stroking it. And then acting without necessarily thinking about what he was going to do, only that he remembered Ducky's reaction when he'd sucked his nipples through his undershirt, he dropped to his knees and took Ducky erection, as far as it was possible to do given the restriction of the white cotton shorts, into his mouth.

 

"Oh, my God, Jethro. Jethro. I - Oh, Jethro. Oh, Jethro. Oh, my dearest Jethro." Ducky swayed quite seriously, and Jethro tightened his grip on Ducky's waist, steadying him as he felt Ducky grip his shoulders. He could taste and smell Ducky, both the scent he knew of old and the scent of arousal. Both were clean, fresh, enticing and he felt his own shorts dampen and his own erection harden.

 

After a few moments of sucking and nuzzling, he sat back on his heels and looked up at Ducky, who was gazing down at him with complete devotion, happiness and an element of surprise. "Take it you've discovered something else you like, Duck?"

 

Ducky simply nodded. "I . . ." He began before trailing off and shaking his head.

 

"Good." Deciding that his position was as good as any to complete the task of undressing Ducky, Jethro put a hand on each side of Ducky's shorts and looked up at Ducky, seeking silent permission. Just as silently, Ducky granted it.

 

With Ducky's shorts around his ankles along with his trousers, Jethro focused on his aroused lover; realizing to his surprise how much he liked the sight. Ducky wasn't cut, unlike Jethro himself, and the foreskin that glistened as it stretched across the tip of Ducky's erection fascinated Jethro.

 

He took Ducky in his hand, lightly holding him, not really stroking him, just letting the tips of his fingers move a little, as he let himself grow accustomed to touching an erection other than his own. Ducky's scent was stronger now the clothing had been removed, and again Jethro could both taste and smell the enticing scent.

 

It was time he got Ducky into bed; time he got himself undressed and time they began to really make love. But before standing up, and he had to admit his knees and thighs were beginning to object somewhat, there was one thing he had to do; one thing he wanted to do. He moved his hand from where it had surrounded Ducky and moved his head forward.

 

"Jethro!" Ducky exclaimed, a touch of almost fear in his voice. But Jethro ignored him and put his mouth on Ducky's hardness, kissing him twice before letting the tip of his tongue flick over the length. After one more kiss, he stood back up - the movement far less fluid than when he'd dropped to his knees. "Now," he said, ordering sensation to return to his lower limbs. "Reckon it's time we got you into bed, don't you?"

 

"Oh, yes, please."

 

Jethro smiled at the pure happiness that was in Ducky's voice and in ever inch of his body and face. In fact it seemed to shimmer around him.

 

Moments later Ducky was lying in his bed, the covers pushed back, watching Jethro undress himself. He'd made a half suggestion that Jethro let him return the favor, but Jethro had promised him 'next time'. So Ducky had let Jethro strip the remainder of his clothes off, tossing the trousers onto the chair to join Ducky's jacket, pushing his shoes out of the way and leaving his shorts and socks on the floor, before taking Ducky's hand and guiding him to the bed.

 

"Turn around," Ducky said quietly, as Jethro tossed his own jacket over the chair. "I want to watch you."

 

Jethro dutifully obeyed and from the position of his very comfortable bed, Ducky watched as Jethro revealed his skin. He'd seen Jethro unclothed more than once, either fully or partially, but he'd never allowed himself to really look; it would have been right. Now, however, he had no such compunctions and drank in his fill as Jethro stripped.

 

Jethro had a covering of hair over his chest, not too much, but enough for Ducky to want to run his fingers through it. His nipples were erect and Ducky looked forward to putting his mouth around them and sucking them, as Jethro had done to him.

 

Jethro's hands moved to his belt and he undid it, then the button, then unzipped himself, taking somewhat more care, Ducky noted with the unzipping than with any other part of his undressing. He pushed his trousers down first and then made deliberate eye contact with Ducky before pushing his shorts down.

 

"Oh, my," Ducky said softly, as he saw, for the first time, Jethro fully aroused. "Oh, my. Oh, Jethro, come here, please. Now. I have to touch you." He sat up.

 

"Hang on, Duck. I'll just -"
 

"Now, Jethro!" Ducky gave no thought to how potentially awkward moving with trousers and shorts around his ankles might be, he just had to touch Jethro right there and then. He couldn't wait another second.

 

Moments later he got his wish and closed his hand around the damp hardness; he sighed with pleasure as he just held Jethro, enjoying the scent of an aroused Jethro. A few seconds of holding Jethro was enough to purge the sheer desperation and need. Still it wasn't without more than a degree of reluctance that he took his hand away from Jethro and permitted him to complete his undressing.

 

"And now, Duck," Jethro said, getting into bed, pulling the covers partly over them and gathering Ducky into his arms. "Now you're mine."

 

Ducky snuggled into Jethro's embrace. "Am I?" he asked.

 

"Sure are. Mine and no one else's."

 

Ducky blinked and moved back just a little as he looked at Jethro. His friend seemed very slightly surprised by his words. "Am I now?" he asked.

 

Jethro nodded. "Yeah."

 

"And does that work both ways?" Ducky blurted out the words before he thought about them.

 

"You bet it does," Jethro said, putting his mouth on Ducky's and kissing them both into silence.

 

"Now," he said, after several minutes of kissing and gentle caressing. "Let's see if I can make you happy."

 

"Oh, I am already happy, beloved. More than merely happy."

 

Jethro smiled in his almost exasperated way. "Let's see if I can make you even happier then," he said, putting his mouth on Ducky's neck and once again beginning to suck the skin.

 

He spent some time there, so much time that Ducky felt sure he would have to find a polo neck jumper for the following day, before he moved down and began to pay the same attention to Ducky's chest and nipples. He caressed them with his fingers, holding them between finger and thumb and lightly, not even to begin to hurt, but just enough to that Ducky knew what was happening, tweaked them, before taking the right one into his mouth and beginning to suck, lick and kiss it. Once he'd spent a considerable amount of time on Ducky's right nipple, he let it slip from his mouth and turned his full attention to the left one.

 

Ducky felt himself harden and leak even more. He feared it was going to be quick; far too quick for his liking. It had been some years since he'd made love with another person, and now he was with the person who had occupied his dreams, both waking and sleeping, as well as his fantasies from the moment they had met. He knew it couldn't be anything other than quick; his need was too great. His love for the man making love to him to deep. As Jethro continued to nuzzle Ducky's check, he began to slide one hand down, over Ducky's stomach, where it flirted around Ducky's arousal before moving onto stroke Ducky's thighs, first one and then the other.

 

"This all okay, Duck?" Jethro lifted his head from Ducky's chest and gazed down at Ducky.

 

Ducky nodded. "Oh, yes, very much so."

 

"Because if it isn't, you'd say, wouldn't you?" Ducky nodded. "You sure? I don't want to do anything you donít like, Duck, anything that makes you uncomfortable. If there's something you want, just tell me."

 

"Just go on doing what you're doing, dearest. I assure you, I am enjoying it very much indeed."

 

"Not too rough?"

 

Ducky shook his head and smiled. "Not in the slightest."

 

"Good." This time Jethro put his mouth back onto Ducky's, as he hand encircled Ducky's hardness and began to move. It took him a moment or two before the strokes became regular and smooth, but once he'd found the rhythm, Jethro began to stroke him as if he'd been doing it for years.

 

Then his grip tightened slightly and Ducky bit back a gasp. "Slightly less firm, Jethro," he murmured.

 

The grip loosened and returned to how it had been prior to Jethro tightening it. "Like this?"

 

Ducky nodded. "Oh, yes. Oh, that's good, Jethro. That's perfect. That's - Jethro, I'm . . ." As the sensation he knew well raced through his body, he stopped being able to form words and just gave himself up into Jethro's hands, into Jethro's protection, knowing his lover would take care of him. At the moment of climax, he gripped the hand that wasn't holding him and cried out softly, "Jethro." Then his world became hazy and he felt the warm rush of oblivion settle around him as he slipped into a state of afterglow he'd only ever read about.

 

When he opened his eyes after what seemed like hours, but he suspected was mere moments, he found Jethro gazing at him with a look that Ducky could only describe as adoration. "You any idea how beautiful you are when you come, Duck?" Jethro was tracing Ducky's face with one fingertip.

 

Ducky felt himself blush. "Jethro," he chided gently.

 

"Just telling it as it is, Duck." And Jethro kissed Ducky's nose and opened his hand that still held Ducky.

 

Ducky caught Jethro's wrist. "Please," he whispered. Jethro cocked an eyebrow. "Please hold me for a little longer. I like it a great deal." Never in his previous lovemaking experiences with anyone had he asked for that 'favor'. Despite caring for deeply, even loving, the men with whom he'd slept, he'd never felt comfortable enough, he realized now, to ask for something so small and yet so . . . Unusual. It was only in the times when he pleasured himself that he enjoyed that final part of being made love to.

 

Jethro's hand closed again and he continued to hold Ducky. "This okay? Not too tight?"

 

Ducky shook his head. "That's fine, thank you."

 

"Don't have to thank me, Duck. Told you, ask for what you want. You really like this?"

 

Ducky nodded. "Yes, I really do. I know it's a strange thing, given how sensitive one is, but . . ." He trailed off.

 

"Bet you've never asked for it before, have you?"

 

Ducky's eyes widened. "How . . ."

 

"Take it I'd win the bet?" Jethro smiled.

 

"Yes, Jethro, you would."

 

Jethro shook his head. "Ah, Duck. I do love you."

 

"And I, my dearest Jethro, love you too." And with that Ducky pulled Jethro's head down and kissed him soundly.

 

"And now," he said, several minutes later, when they were lying side-by-side, and Jethro had finally released him. "I do believe it's time I got to play, do you not? Time I made you happy."

 

"To borrow the words of someone else 'I already am happy, Duck'."

 

Ducky chuckled softly. "Well, also to borrow words: 'Let me see if I can make you even happier'."

 

Jethro laughed as well. "Sounds like a good idea to me, Duck."

 

"What would you like? Do you wish to . . ." Ducky trailed off. He'd never used the Anglo-Saxon term for penetrative sex, it had never felt right to him, it had never been a comfortable term. At least he never used it once actually involved in lovemaking. When he'd used the term earlier that evening, the term that had shocked Jethro, it had been a deliberate choice. He never used it because it always had seemed to imply that it was all about the act and nothing else - which was one reason why he had chosen to use it when telling Jethro what lovemaking to him was about, or rather what it wasn't about. Actually, the 'shock' Jethro had shown when he had used the term had rather pleased him; it still did. "Penetrate me," he ended with.

 

"Nah, not this time, Duck," Jethro said, brushing his lips over Ducky's.

 

"Are you sure?"

 

Jethro nodded. "Yeah, I'm too close, Duck. I need it too badly. Reckon I'd hurt you and I'm not going to do that. Use your hand on me. I'd like that. I'd like - Oh, God, that's good," he murmured a moment later, as Ducky enclosed his hand around Jethro, gripping his lover more firmly and tightly than he held himself, more firmly than Jethro had held him.

 

"Like this?" he murmured, putting his lips to Jethro's ears.

 

"God, yes, Duck. Like it a lot."

 

That wasn't quite what Ducky had meant by the question, but given Jethro's reaction, the way he was hardening even more, the way Ducky's hand was becoming slicker and slicker, it clearly was how Jethro liked it.

 

Less than a minute later, he felt Jethro's entire body become taut, heard a strangled gasp and then warm liquid filled his hand and slipped through his fingers. "Duck!" And then Jethro fell silent for several minutes.

 

THE NEXT DAY

 

Singing softly to herself, Jackie got out of her car, paused for a moment when she saw another car in front of Ducky's home, then smiling to herself went up the porch steps and rang the doorbell.

 

When, a couple of minutes later, the door opened, she found herself staring at Gibbs, who was bare-footed and dressed in trousers and a sweater she would have sworn wasn't his. "Good morning, Gibbs," she said.

 

Gibbs blinked at her. "Mrs. Vance! Sorry. Should have called you. Duck said . . . Thing is, I'm taking a few days leave to help Ducky with the last few things. So w- he won't need you. Sorry," he said again.

 

Jackie smiled at him. "That's quite all right, Gibbs. I'm sure Ducky will be far happier with an," she paused just for a second, "old friend to help him than the wife of his director."

 

"Yeah. Look, Mrs. Vance, thanks for helping out. Appreciate it. And Duck does too."

 

"It was my pleasure, Gibbs. Tell Ducky I said 'hi'."

 

"I will, thanks."

 

She turned to go and then stopped. "Gibbs, don't forget to call Leon," she said, and with that she walked back down the porch steps and to her car.

 

She smiled all of the way. She doubted this was quite what Leon would have wanted to have happened, but for once her husband's wishes were not at the forefront of her mind. Everyone deserved to be happy, and although she'd only spent two days with Dr. Mallard, she'd seen his unhappiness went far deeper than having just lost his mother. Now she doubted he'd be unhappy again. Once again singing softly to herself again, she got into the car and drove away.

 

TWO WEEKS LATER

 

Gibbs put his hand into his pocket and felt something small and hard. Frowning he pulled the objects out and looked at them. They were Ducky's cuff-links, the ones he'd taken off his lover on the first evening they'd made love. Maybe he should go down to Autopsy and return them to him.

 

Or maybe he should just wait until they got home that night. Then he could take the ones Ducky had put on that morning off and replace them with these. Or just take the ones Ducky had put on that morning off and then take Ducky's shirt off and then . . .

 

His desk phone rang interrupting his thoughts. "Gibbs, yeah?" He listened for a moment. "Thanks." He put the phone back down and stood up, grabbing badge and gun from his top drawer. "Grab your gear," he called, dropping Ducky's cuff-links back into his pocket.

 

"Want me to tell Ducky, boss?" DiNozzo asked, his hand already on his phone.

 

Gibbs looked at him. "No, DiNozzo. I'll tell Ducky." And with that he tossed the car-keys to Ziva. "Meet you at the crime scene," he tore off the piece of paper he'd written the address on and handed it to McGee, as he headed for the elevator and Autopsy. Well it was one of Palmer's days at Med School, and he didn't want Ducky to get lost.

 

 

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