WISDOM OF THE AGES
Set after Tribes.
Gibbs goes to see Ducky.
An established relationship story.
Written: January 2008. Word count: 5,280.
Listen, to the wisdom of the ages
Listen, to the words of many sages
"Jethro." Ducky's voice was low and flat. He seemed neither surprised, nor unsurprised to see Jethro outside his door. Nor, Jethro had to admit, did he sound either pleased or displeased. Most people might have cast scorn on him reading so much into one word: his name. But decades of listening to Ducky saying his name, made him acutely attuned to his lover's voice.
"Hey, Duck." In turn Jethro aimed for upbeat, but not too upbeat.
And he waited for Ducky to say something.
However, for a moment or two they stood in silence. Ducky in the doorway of his Reston home. Jethro on the porch just watching his old friend. Unusually, Ducky wasn't looking at him.
After the silence stretched even longer and gave no signs of abating, Jethro asked softly, "Can I come in? Or are you still pissed with me?"
Ducky sighed, and now he did look up. "I never was 'pissed' with you, Jethro. Merely with –"
"What I told you to do?"
Ducky moved his head, but whether in agreement or disagreement, Jethro couldn't tell. But he didn't hasten to speak.
Finally Ducky said, "The circumstances. The expectation. The . . ." He broke off. "I'm sorry," he said stepping back, "do come in if you wish to do so."
Jethro blinked and opened his mouth to ask if it was what Ducky wanted, but Ducky had moved away from the door. Thus after a fleeting second, he went inside and closed the door carefully behind him, letting the lock click automatically in place. However, unlike when he normally visited Ducky in the evening, he didn't bolt the door.
Ducky appeared not to notice. He just stood in the middle of the hallway, waiting. He didn't even appear to be looking at Jethro.
Jethro shrugged his coat off and threw it over the hallstand, before moving a step or two towards Ducky. Normally the first thing he'd do was to pull Ducky into his arms and hold him, enjoying the moment or two of the intimacy they couldn't share at the office. He'd lower his head and brush his lips over Ducky's ear or hair, or even, if he was feeling particularly bold, push Ducky away just enough to allow him to kiss his lover of some three decades standing.
However, tonight he didn't. Something about the way Ducky stood, the way he looked at him, or rather the way he didn't look at him, the way his voice had been, the lack of intimate eye contact, the words he'd used when 'inviting' Jethro inside, the . . . Everything kept him from doing what he liked doing most of all: embracing and kissing Ducky.
Instead, he contented himself with moving a step or two nearer and, rather than gather Ducky into his arms, putting a hand on his shoulder. The touch was light, fleeting, but even in those few seconds he felt the tension radiate from the man he loved. "Is it just today?" he asked.
Ducky looked surprised. "I don't know what you mean."
Jethro sighed. "Is your mom okay? She's not hurt or ill, is she?"
For a moment a deeper sadness touched Ducky's face. "Mother is just the same as always, Jethro."
"That's good." But as he spoke the words, he wasn't certain it was. Part of him, a big part of him, would have almost have preferred it if Mrs. Mallard had been sick or had injured herself. God, you really are a bastard, Jethro Gibbs, he thought.
The pale blue in Ducky's eyes changed, and became paler; grey almost. "Is it?" he said, his voice clipped. "I am so glad to hear that you think so."
"Ah, shit, Duck. I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . ." Again, although he didn't know if it was the right thing to do, he put his hand on Ducky's shoulder. This time he didn't take his hand away immediately. This time he squeezed the tense muscles he felt under his hand; squeezed them and automatically began to try to soothe them. He half expected Ducky to pull away or to brush his hand away, but he didn't. He simply stood there, letting Jethro massage his shoulder.
However, he hadn't answered Jethro, hadn't answered his apology, and that was unlike Ducky. Jethro spoke again, "I am sorry, Duck. I really didn't mean to . . ." again he broke off. Damn it, why were words so difficult for him? Why couldn't he be more like his lover who always found the right words? Who always knew what to say and do? And even if he couldn't be like that generally, why the hell couldn't he be like it with Ducky? With the man who meant the world to him? With the man he loved?
After a moment, Ducky sighed again and looked back up at Jethro. The grey steel had faded, as had the ice that had begin to form. "I know," he said quietly. "It's all right, Jethro."
Ducky just shrugged.
They continued to stand in silence for several minutes, Jethro still massaging Ducky's shoulder, Ducky leaning very slightly into the sort of embrace.
Finally Ducky moved away, turned and, limping far more badly than Jethro had seen him do for a long time, walked towards the stairs. "If you wish to come upstairs for a drink, please do so." Without waiting for Jethro to reply, Ducky began to climb the stairs.
For several moments Jethro just stood and watched his old friend. Once again the 'invitation' had been very un-Ducky-like; it left Jethro wondering how much of the invitation was due to good manners, rather than to a real desire for Jethro to join him. On the other hand, Ducky was going, had gone without waiting to see if Jethro was going to accompany him upstairs, which meant if Jethro took him at his implied words and left, Ducky would have to come back down to bolt the front door.
So somewhat against his better judgment he followed Ducky upstairs and into his sitting room. There he found a glass of whiskey waiting for him. He also found Ducky sitting in the armchair rather than on the couch. He said nothing, and simply sat down in his usual place, snagged the glass and took a long swallow. Ducky did keep a very good supply of excellent whiskies.
Once again the silence stretched between them until Jethro felt compelled to fill it. "I was only doing my job, Duck."
"He'd been murdered. That takes priority over anything, you know that."
Ducky shrugged. Then he said flatly. "I know."
"We had to find out who'd done it, before they did it again."
"I said I know, Gibbs," Ducky snapped his reply. His tone was one Jethro had never heard Ducky use before, certainly not to him. Not even when he'd first returned from Mexico and Ducky had been so hurt over him not attending his graduation.
He said nothing. Instead he sat fighting the automatic urge that he got when someone snapped at him, to snap back.
After a moment or two he asked gently, "Why didn't you tell me? About Bosnia," he added.
Ducky glanced at him and for a moment the blue again became steel and ice flared in the gaze. Then it faded and Ducky sighed and glanced away. Once more he shrugged; it seemed to be his preferred answer that evening.
Not for the first time since Ducky had opened the door, Jethro wondered about the sensibleness of him going to Ducky's that night; of going inside; of going upstairs. He was tempted, very tempted to leave, but something stopped him. He wasn't certain what, and he still didn't know if it was right to take notice of it. Maybe he'd do more harm by staying, after all human interaction wasn't exactly his forte, at least not on a verbal level, not even with his oldest and dearest friend.
But stay he did, because the same something that told him to stay. The same something that questioned the viability of him doing so, told him that going would be worse.
"Talk to me, Duck," he found himself saying. He wasn't surprised when Ducky simply stared at him, eyes slightly widened, an incredulous look in the steady gaze and on his face. Jethro met the gaze and held it, trying to say to Ducky what he couldn't say with words.
It was Ducky who broke the eye contact first. He glanced away and said softly, "Why? What good would it do?"
For the first time other than when he'd squeezed Ducky's shoulder, Jethro touched his lover. He leaned forward and put his hand on Ducky's. Ducky glanced down, as if surprised by the contact. "Not sure," Jethro said. "But you've said it to me more than once."
For the first time that evening, Ducky smiled a little. But all he said was, "Ah, Jethro," his tone was low, flat; once again it was very unlike his normal one.
Jethro tried again. "You know, Duck, I do understand what –"
"How can you?" Ducky spat at him, pulling his hand away from Jethro's touch and standing up. "How can you?" he repeated. "You weren't there. You didn't see it. You didn't smell it. You didn't touch it. You didn't hear it. You didn't feel it. How the hell can you understand? How, Jethro? How?"
Well at least Ducky was talking, kind of. Slowly Jethro too stood up, backing away a little so not as to tower over his lover. "I've seen hell too, Duck," he said quietly. "Caused it as well," he added.
Ducky sighed. "I know you have. And I have probably seen worse than Bosnia. But . . . Forty-four autopsies, Jethro. Forty-four in five days. That was more than eight a day. I still don't know how I did it."
"When did you sleep?"
"I didn't. I couldn't. Every time I closed my eyes I saw and heard the parents. The parents, Jethro. Not the children. The parents. Begging me. Begging me, pleading with me, on their knees in front of me. Begging, pleading, beaching, imploring, asking, asking me, me, Jethro, not to cut their children open. But I did it. I told myself I didn't have a choice. But I did have. I could have refused. I could have walked away. My autopsies didn't help. They were dead. We knew how they'd died. We knew why they'd died. I did nothing to bring justice or peace or ease suffering or give answers or all the other hundred and one things I tell myself an autopsy can do. I didn't help, Jethro. I did the opposite. I took the tiny bit of belief, self-respect, hope and trust from those people. Me, Jethro. Me. And why? Why?" he demanded.
Jethro watched him carefully. This was unlike any Ducky he'd ever seen. Oh, he knew his old friend was passionate, compassionate, cared deeply, believed in right and wrong, and honor and other things that Jethro wasn't sure he believed in. But in the thirty-two years he'd known Ducky, he'd also known the consummate professional. The man who would stop at nothing to bring justice to those wronged. You told him to talk. And he had done.
For a moment he wished he hadn't. He hated to see Ducky hurting, in pain, suffering, but usually he could do something, say something. Knew what to do, what to say – even when he'd caused the hurt – but now . . . Now he was at a loss to know how to answer, to know what to say. What to think even.
He swallowed, aware that the once again grey, steel-like gaze was demanding an answer. Somehow he knew that whatever he said would be wrong, and the more personal, the more lover-like he made it, the more wrong it would be. But he had to say something. "You're a doctor, Duck. A Medical Examiner, you were doing what you always do: your job."
"First do no harm."
"It is widely believed, even amongst some of my fellow professionals to be in the Hippocratic Oath. It is not. However, exact words aside, the meaning is there. I am, as you said, a doctor. And as such I should not cause harm. And what I did to those children was to cause harm. I vowed there and then never again. And whilst I may not have necessarily, in the eyes of some, completely kept to my vow, in my own eyes, in my own conscience I have."
Still Jethro watched his lover. Still he was seeing a side of Ducky he'd never seen before. Part of him was tempted, more than ever, simply to say 'goodnight' and walk away. Things would seem better in the morning – he hoped. After all, he reckoned again, words weren't what he did. Ducky did the words thing. Not him. You told him to talk. He ignored the voice.
And then came another one. You know, I bet this is why your second wife came after you with a nine iron, isn't it. You just refused to sit down and . . ..talk things through. It came so clearly that despite himself, despite knowing she wasn't there, Jethro found himself looking around him.
"Jethro? What is it?" Ducky touched his hand. It was the first time that evening he had made the first move in making contact between them. His voice, moments earlier scathing, harsh, full of pain, was now tinged with concern.
Jethro shook himself and looked down at his lover who had moved much closer to him, invading his personal space in the way they both tended to do wherever they were. The steady gaze, still tinged with grey, matched the voice. "Nothing, Duck," he said, putting his hand on Ducky's. He sighed to himself and mentally steeled himself to staying.
For a moment, encouraged by the closeness, the touch, he was tempted to turn it into an embrace and from there, get Ducky into bed. But he didn't. It'd be wrong. Besides there was something he had to ask; something he had to know. More so, after what Ducky had told him, than ever.
Lover did battle with Senior Special Agent as he steeled himself to ask. He took his hand from where it covered Ducky's and instead put it on Ducky's shoulder. Then keeping his voice low, his tone neutral, he asked his question. "What would you have done if you hadn't thought of the alternative 'autopsy'?"
He expected Ducky to pull away. However he didn't. Instead he simply asked, "What do you think I would have done?"
"Don't know, Duck. That's why I'm asking."
"I told both Jennifer and yourself that I would do it, albeit under protest."
"Know that. But then you told me about Bosnia. Then you put it off. Then you –"
"Came up with a solution that helped everyone and solved the problem."
Jethro again steeled himself. "What, Dr. Mallard, would you have done if you hadn't been able to find an alternative?"
Now Ducky did pull away, wrenching himself from under Jethro's grip and taking a step backwards. He stared up at Jethro, his gaze hard, harsh, steady, unblinking, icy. "Then, Special Agent Gibbs, I would have done your bloody autopsy. I'm surprised you have to ask."
"Yeah. So am I." Jethro kept his tone neutral and low.
They stood staring at one another in silence.
Once again Jethro considered leaving.
Once again his remembered his words. And Kate's.
Once again he resigned himself.
Once again lover and special agent did battle.
Once again the latter won out.
Once again he asked a deadly question. "Is there anything else I should know about?" Suddenly he felt sure there was something Ducky wasn't saying; something he wanted to say but wasn't sure how to say it. He mentally shook himself; that was just him being fanciful.
"Are you asking me as my lover because you are concerned for me? Or as my boss who needs to know if I'm going to let personal feelings interfere with my ability to do my job?" Ducky's tone was clipped, albeit low and steady.
"Can't I be both?" Jethro asked quietly, taking a chance and putting his hand back on Ducky's shoulder.
Ducky closed his eyes and let his head drop forward a little. He didn't, however, move away.
After a short while he looked back up, opened his eyes, sighed and said softly, "I don't know, Jethro, can you?"
Now Jethro put his other hand on Ducky's other shoulder. "Reckon I haven't done that bad a job over the years. Don't you? Anyway the boss thing is only a technicality." And it was, for him, and for Ducky really. But technicality or not, when it came down to it, he did have the authority to countermand Ducky.
Ducky sighed. "Ah, Jethro," he said simply, letting his gaze soften somewhat, answering Jethro without words. Then he said, his tone formal once again, "I am sorry that I have given you reason to question my professionalism."
Jethro shook his head. "Never," he spoke firmly and tightened the grip he had on Ducky's shoulders. Then he said, a little more quietly, but equally firmly, "I'm sorry, Duck, that I had to over-ride what you wanted. But I had to do it; you know that. And I'd do it again."
"I know," Ducky said simply. "I shall endeavor not to give you reason to have to do so again."
Jethro frowned a little. "So there are other things?"
Ducky shrugged. "I have my ghosts, Jethro, just as you have yours. Now is not the time to relive them."
"Yes." Ducky spoke firmly. Then he added more softly, "I have relived the past too much over the last twenty-four hours."
"Guess there's no point me trying to imagine how you felt, is there?"
Ducky shook his head. "No. And I'd say that to anyone who wasn't there. Who didn't carry out the autopsies. People are too fond of saying 'I know how you must feel' or 'I can imagine how you felt'. Indeed I say it myself, we all do. It's part of being human of caring. But unless someone has lived through something, has experienced something, has had the same thing happen to them, then they can't know; they can't imagine. Oh, to a small extent they can, because we do all share humanity and feelings and compassion. Yes, Jethro, even you," he said softly. "But it's only at a peripheral level. Now, I believe it is time I went to bed. I am weary."
"Want me to leave?" Jethro asked.
Ducky looked at him. "And if I said 'yes'?"
"I'd go. Why, Duck? You think I only come here to . . ."
Ducky looked at him. "Why did you come here tonight, Jethro?" There seemed to be genuine curiosity in the question.
Jethro blinked. "To see you. To see if you were all right. To see if you were still pissed with me."
"I told you when you arrived, it wasn't you I was 'pissed' with."
"Yeah, you did."
"But you don't believe me?" Ducky sounded surprised.
This time Jethro shrugged. "Don't know, Duck. Not even sure you do," he added.
Ducky glanced away. "Maybe you're correct," he said.
"So do you want me to go?"
"I don't wish to make love."
Jethro frowned. "Me staying doesn't mean we have to, does it?" He looked carefully at Ducky, trying to read him, trying to work out what he was saying. Was he trying to tell him he'd rather he went home? Or was he trying to find out if Jethro only went to visit him for sex? Which wasn't true; if he stayed it wouldn't be the first time that sleeping together meant just that. He wished he knew what Ducky wanted, really wanted – because he wanted to give him that, to be there for him. To . . . Whatever Ducky wanted. "Does it," he repeated, realizing the Ducky hadn't answered his question
Ducky shook his head. "No, of course not. Forgive me; I am just tired. It has been a long day. Please, stay if you wish to."
For the third time that evening, Ducky had made the invitation sound very uninviting. Jethro tightened the grip he still had on Ducky's shoulders. "Do you want me to stay?"
"Yes." The answer came quietly in the same flat tone that Ducky had adopted for much of the evening.
"Want me to sleep with you? Or in the spare room?" The, hastily covered up surprise that flashed through Ducky's eyes answered his question. "I'll see you in the morning then, Duck." Jethro bent his head a little and gave Ducky a soft, brief, chaste kiss on his mouth. "You know where I am if you need me," he said. And before Ducky could say anything else, he strode from the room, calling, "I'll bolt the front door."
As Jethro undressed he wondered why on earth he'd stayed. Sure he didn't need to make love to Ducky, but he did enjoy sharing his bed. Sleeping here in the rarely used room wasn't much better than being in his own bed. Except it was. Damn it, but it was.
After visiting the bathroom which held, as it had done for years, all the necessities he required, he returned the guest room and climbed into the cold, empty double bed and turned out the bedside light.
Live each day, as if it were your last
It's written in the stars, your destiny is cast
And that hourglass, runs too fast no doubt
For the sands of time are running out
Listen, to the wisdom of the ages
These words, can be found in history's pages
Twenty minutes later, just as he felt sleep begin to creep up on him, he heard the sound of the doorknob turning. He sat up and put the light back on in time to see Ducky slip quietly into the room. He had changed into his pajamas, slippers and heavy silk robe, the one Jethro himself had given him for Christmas one year. The faint scent of the woodland soap he tended to favor, told Jethro he'd also paid his own visit to the bathroom.
"Jethro. There is something else I have to say. Something I need to say." Ducky looked at him, "And I have to say it now."
So he had been correct; he hadn't just been being fanciful. "Sure. Come and sit down." Jethro moved across the bed, leaving room for Ducky to sit down. "Go on then," he said, after Ducky had carefully sat down. "Say it."
Ducky swallowed once and then looked directly at Jethro. He began to speak, his voice low but decisive. "Jethro, I know we have never talked about it, not in so many words. However, I have always assumed that one day," Ducky paused, and swallowed again before continuing. "That one day you would be mine and mine alone. Indeed, had I not believed that I doubt I'd have been able to –"
"Put up with me cheating on you?"
Ducky shrugged and frowned slightly as he looked at Jethro. The look told Jethro quite firmly not to interrupt him again. "I have always believed that one day you would wish to share my home with me, that you would wish to be with me, and that we would not have to spend so much of our, what is not a considerable amount, non-working time driving to one another's homes. Was I, or was I not, correct in my belief?"
Jethro hated those questions, he always feared he'd answer the wrong part and say the opposite of what he meant. "Yeah, you were right," he said, after a second of two.
"Good. Well then, I want it now, Jethro. Not next month. Not next year. Not after your next marriage has failed. Not after the next woman has briefly passed through your life. Not after your next brush with death. Not after you retire. But now. Now, Jethro. Everyday could be our last, and whilst that is true of everyone, given our, in particular your, career choices, statistically that could be said to be more true of us, of you, than most. If this case, my memories, my temporary lack of professionalism has taught me, has reminded me, of anything it is that life is short. We shouldn't keep putting things off until tomorrow, because tomorrow just might never come. We should grab each moment and live it as though it were out last. We should live for today. We should . . . Life is too short, my dear Jethro. I want it now. I want you now. That's all," he said. "That's all I wanted to say." Ducky started to stand up.
Jethro caught his hand and stopped him. "Where are you going?" he demanded, his tone one of incredulity.
"Back to my bedroom," Ducky said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"After what you've just said?"
"Ducky, you can't just walk in here, make that kind of speech and walk out again."
Ducky lips twitched and his eyes shone with mirth. Jethro hid a groan as he recognized the look. "Actually, my dear," Ducky said, his tone now mischievous. "I can. I can do so very easily. All I have to do is to stand up, assuming you are kind enough to let go off my hand, walk across the room, open the door and –"
"Duck!" But he wasn't as irritated as he sounded, because for the first time since he'd arrived at Ducky's home, Ducky really did look like himself. And then Jethro knew; it wasn't really the case or the memories that had been troubling Ducky, but the lead up, the planning of, the knowledge that he was going to say what he'd just said. "Don't you want an answer?"
Ducky shook his head slightly. "Not a snap one, no. I don't want an unconsidered response. That would not be fair on either of us. I do, however, expect an answer within twenty-four hours. After all, you said that what I assumed was correct. As such you must have given some thought to it – even if only sub-consciously. Unless you were being less than truthful," he added.
Jethro shook his head and tightened the grip he had on Ducky's hand. "I've never lied to you, Duck. And I never will. I couldn't."
"Very well, then," Ducky said, and smiled. "Well, I shall say goodnight, my dear. Although . . ."
"Although what, Duck?"
"Well, if I return to my bed alone and leave you here, it makes rather a mockery of my speech, does it not?" Ducky spoke calmly, if a little self-deprecatingly.
"Come back to my bed with me, Jethro. Come back to my bed with me, Jethro, and make love to me. Please. I would very much like you to do so."
"Wait a minute, Duck."
"I need to know something first. Is it an ultimatum? I say 'yes' and move in with you, or that's it, we're over?"
Ducky shook his head and now he gripped Jethro's hand. He smiled a little. "Oh, no, my dear Jethro, please do not think that. I would never do that kind of thing. Emotional blackmail, indeed blackmail of any kind, is, to me, abhorrent. No, if you are unable to make the commitment then I imagine we will go on as we have done for the last thirty-two years."
"Just like that?"
"Ah, Jethro. I have known you, loved you and been your lover for thirty-two years; that is not going to stop overnight. Why on earth would I give up what makes me the happiest I have ever been?"
For a moment Jethro was tempted to ask Ducky why, in that case, he'd raised the whole matter. If they'd still be lovers even if he said 'no', why bother changing anything? If he said 'no' he'd still have the best of both worlds? Sure, Ducky had been right when he'd said that Jethro too had always assumed the day would come when he'd only want one world, but now? Just like that?
Was he brave enough to give Ducky an answer?
Was he brave enough to say 'yes'?
Did he want to say 'yes'?
Was he brave enough to say 'no'?
Did he want to say 'no'?
Ducky was right: there were no guarantees of tomorrow.
Today, this moment, was all they knew they had. All they could be sure of.
"Jethro," Ducky's tone was patient.
"Just come to bed, my dear. Come to bed and make love to me. Come to bed now. Don't think about it anymore; you can give me your answer tomorrow."
"Thought you'd just said there were no guarantees of tomorrow?"
Ducky frowned a little. "Well, yes, I did, but . . ."
And suddenly Jethro knew why Ducky was now trying to put it off: he was afraid of the answer. He cupped Ducky's face and said softly, "Are you afraid I'll say 'no', or are you afraid I'll say 'yes'?"
Ducky sighed. "Jethro, the only thing of which I am afraid is that if I do not get into bed, I shall catch a chill. Now, are you going to come to my bed and make love?"
Jethro smiled. "Sure, Duck," he said.
"Good." Ducky stood up, and this time Jethro let him, before quickly throwing back the covers and getting out of bed.
Once they were in Ducky's room, in Ducky's bed, the glow of the bedside light dim, but not dark, both naked, Jethro did what Ducky wanted: he made love to him. He made love to him more tenderly, with more meaning, with more honesty, with more love, than he could ever remember doing. He also made love to him with more regret than he'd ever felt before. Because this time was the last before things changed.
Finally, lulled and loved into slumber, Ducky's eye closed, and stayed closed. Within minutes his rhythmic breathing let Jethro know he'd fallen asleep.
Jethro, however, maybe due to Ducky's words about 'tomorrows' stayed awake, just watching his lover sleep, listening to him breathe and snore gently, letting Ducky's scent wash over him. He just lay there in the darkness holding Ducky, enjoying the peace, the tranquility, the certainty, the normality.
And as he watched and listened, he knew.
He knew he was brave enough to give Ducky an answer.
No matter what it did to them.
No matter what changed.
No matter what.
He swallowed hard around the sudden lump that appeared in his throat.
As sunlight filtered into the room he said softly to the sleeping Ducky, "Guess it's time I started a fourth boat, Duck."
He kissed Ducky's nose and slipped from the bed to go to the bathroom.
As he showered, he wondered whether he ought to tell Ducky or Jenn of his change of address first.
Live each day, for happiness can't wait
And love while you may, but heed the hand of fate
If the finger points, it's too late no doubt
For the sands of time, are running out
But the man who turns, and escapes somehow
Is the wisest of men
And to such a man, I'd bow.
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