TITLE: Belated Understanding
AUTHOR: Ashleigh Anpilova
PAIRING: Leroy Jethro Gibbs/Donald 'Ducky' Mallard. Gibbs/Mann also mentioned.
SUB-GENRE: Established relationship.
SUMMARY: Jethro asks Ducky to be his best man. However, Ducky's reply astounds Jethro and he is forced to face something he had never really considered.
SPOILERS: Mild for 'Grace Period'
PROMPT: 20_est_relships 16 - Symmetry
WORD COUNT: 3,258
DISCLAIMER: I don't own these characters, nor am I making any money from them. I merely borrow them from time to time.
"Hey, Duck," Gibbs called, striding after his lover.
Ducky stopped and turned around, smiling as he always did. "Good morning, Jethro my dear."
Gibbs closed the gap between them, glanced quickly around him, and then lowered his head and brushed his lips over Ducky's cheek. The skin was soft and warm and smelled of woodlands, mixed with the inevitable Formaldehyde that seemed to follow Ducky everywhere.
For a moment or two they stood in the corridor chatting idly in the way that only friends of more than three decades can do. Then Gibbs said, "There's something I want to ask you, Duck."
"Yes, my dear?"
"Will you be my best man? I've asked Hollis to marry me and she said yes."
"It'll be a fairly small wedding, very small in fact. Guess I'd better ask Tobias, the kids, and DiNozzo's - what did you say?"
"I said no."
"No?" Gibbs blinked he could hardly believe it.
"That is correct. No. No, Jethro. I will not be your best man again. Now, is there anything else you wish to ask me? No? Well, in that case, I shall go down to Autopsy and see if Mr. Palmer has finally arrived. No doubt I will see you later." And with that Ducky walked off, his back stiff, his stride measured, his limp more pronounced than it usually was so early in the day.
Gibbs just stood and stared after him.
"Hey, Gibbs. You haven't been upsetting the Duckman again have you?"
Gibbs pulled his gaze from Ducky's retreating back and turned to look at Abby. "What?" he said, somewhat distractedly.
"Ducky. See, that's his 'I'm not happy but I'm not going to show it' walk. What have you done to him?"
"Nothing, Abbs. I just asked him to be my best man. That's all."
"That's all? Gibbs!" Abby glowered at him.
"You asked Ducky to be your best man. Who are you marrying, anyway? Not that Lieutenant Colonel?"
"Hollis, yeah, why?"
Abby just shook her head; she did not look happy. "Oh, Gibbs," was all she said.
He knew she was trying to tell him something, but his mind was too distracted by what Ducky had said. He went on as if Abby hadn't really spoken. "Ducky said no, Abbs. I can't get married without Ducky by my side."
Abby looked at him, eyes wide. "Oh, Gibbs," she said, again shaking her head. "You know, if that’s the way you think, no wonder you've got four ex-wives."
Abby shrugged. "I was counting the Lieutenant Colonel," she said simply.
Gibbs frowned. "Thanks, Abbs," he said grimly. "That really helps."
"Gibbs. If you really want to marry Lieutenant Colonel Hollis Mann, if you really love her, then the only person you need at the wedding is her." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, much as he'd done moments ago to Ducky. Then with a rueful half smile, she turned and walked away, in the same direction as Ducky had gone.
Gibbs just stood and stared after her.
Gibbs was about to follow her, and thus Ducky - he had to talk to Ducky, get him to change his mind, he couldn't get married without Ducky by his side - when his cell phone rang. "Gibbs, yeah?"
The rest of the day went by as such a high speed that apart from one or two essential visits to the men's room and several more to the coffee machine, Gibbs barely had time to think. Nor did he have time to visit Ducky.
Oh, he saw Ducky; he and the team were in Autopsy three times, but he wasn't alone with his old friend. To his surprise, Ducky was himself at all times, gentle, rambling, caring, he looked at Gibbs as he always did; invaded his personal space, just as always; smiled up at him in exactly the same way; called him 'my dear'; touched him. Just as he usually did.
In fact by the time darkness was falling and they were all packing up to go home, the perpetrator having been found, charged and taken away, Gibbs had convinced himself that the conversation earlier in the day had been in his imagination.
Well he almost had.
"Jethro my dear, do come in." Ducky smiled up at Jethro as he stood, hands in pockets on Ducky's porch.
After only a second's pause, Jethro followed Ducky into his house, closing the door after him and automatically locking it. The next moment he found himself pulled into Ducky's arms and Ducky's mouth on his. It was all so normal; so perfectly normal. And yet . . .
After a long kiss, he gently pulled back. "Er, Duck, you okay?"
"Of course I am, my dear, why do you ask? I confess that my leg is hurting a little more than it usually does, but that's understandable given the busy day we have had, together with the fact that Mr. Palmer did his disappearing act on no less than three occasions. Jethro, I wondered if maybe you could . . . Oh, no, that will only scare the poor boy. And as irritating as his disappearances are, I am very fond of him; he is in all other respects an excellent assistant. I suppose it is just a -"
"Yes, dear?" Ducky blinked and looked up at him.
Jethro sighed. "Can we go upstairs?" he asked. "I need to talk to you."
"Yes, of course. Are you able to stay tonight?"
"Do you want me to?"
Ducky looked surprised. "What a strange question. Of course I want you to stay. I always want you to stay. I was simply going to say that if you do intend to stay, maybe you would be kind enough to bolt the door for us, please." And with that, Ducky turned and moved towards the stairs.
Jethro just stood and stared after him.
After a moment or two of just standing there, wondering if maybe he should pinch himself, he shook his head, and turned to the task of bolting the door, as Ducky had ordered.
After doing so, he took off his coat, hung it over the banisters, Ducky not being there to nag him to hang it up properly, and followed his lover upstairs.
Ducky was in his sitting room, pouring drinks when Jethro arrived. As he entered the room, Ducky turned, smiled and moved towards the sofa carrying two glasses. He waited for Jethro to join him before handing one glass to him and carefully sitting down.
After a split second Jethro sat down next to him.
"Your good health, Jethro," Ducky said, holding his glass towards Jethro.
Automatically Jethro matched the gesture. Then frustration overtook him. "Duck, what the hell's going on?" he demanded.
Ducky sipped his drink and looked at him, surprise evident in the steady blue gaze. "My dear?"
"This morning I tell you I'm getting married again, and tonight you sit here as if nothing's changed."
Ducky tilted his head slightly, sipped his drink and then said, his tone steady, "Nothing has changed, beloved."
Ducky sighed. "Jethro, oh, my dear, dear Jethro. Do you not understand? Can you not see what you are doing?" Jethro just stared at him. Ducky smiled and touched his hand. "You are simply repeating a pattern, indeed one could almost call it symmetry. You will marry Hollis, just as you married Shannon, Marie, Alice and Diane. You will then go away for a two week honeymoon, during which you will be devoted to your new wife and be happy. Upon your return you will immediately come here and we will go to bed and make love. Thereafter you will spend as much time as you think you can get away with in my arms and in my bed, whilst at home you will behave as you always do, until you finally drive Hollis to violence. You will then begin divorce proceedings, at which point you will swear 'never again'. And in a relatively short space of time you will be paying four rather than three alimonies, and once again you will be exclusively mine, the odd woman with whom you sleep aside, until you meet your fifth ex-wife. That is what will happen, as I said nothing has changed. Well, one thing has, this time you must marry without me by your side."
Jethro found himself unable to speak beyond saying his lover's name. "Duck?"
"I am sorry, my dear. However, I have stood by your side on four occasions now, hearing you promise to 'forsake all others' and each time I have found it more difficult to be party to what we both know is a lie. I really do not think that I can, indeed I know that I cannot, do it for a fifth time. Ask Tobias, I'm sure that he'll be more than happy to take my place at your side. Or you could even ask Anthony."
"Yes, dear. I'm sure he would -"
"Duck. DiNozzo would be the last person I'd ask to be my best man."
"Tobias it is then. After all, Jethro, what does it matter who stands by your side? It changes nothing."
"It matters to me."
"Does it?" Ducky looked genuinely puzzled.
"Of course it does, Duck. I can't get married without you by my side." Without meaning to, he virtually repeated the words he'd said earlier to Abby.
Ducky looked at him and frowned slightly. "My dearest Jethro," he said, his tone soft. "If you really wish to marry Hollis, if you really love her, then she is the only person you need by your side at your wedding."
As he heard Ducky's words, he also heard Abby's; she had said almost the same thing.
Within him, something began to stir and twitch.
He ignored it.
Or at least he tried to. "Duck, are you trying to say that if I marry Hollis then we're over?" He hated to admit it, but he had gotten a little lost during Ducky's long, complex speech. It wasn't an unusual thing to happen, but it usually occurred at relatively unimportant times.
Ducky shook his head and looked bemused. "Oh, my dearest, of course I am not. I confess that loving you in the way I do, and have done so for over thirty years, does tend to make me, at least in some people's eyes, a little of a masochist, but even I am not that much of one. Why on earth would I end our relationship? Why would I punish myself? Why would I cause myself that much pain? Of course our relationship will not be 'over'. Jethro, our relationship will never, can never, be over. No, it will just return to the way it is whilst you are married, that is all. Other than that, nothing will change. I will continue to see you every day at the office, and for at least one evening a week. Indeed, as with your other wives, I will see far more of you than Hollis will. I told you, beloved, it is symmetry; the way you marry, divorce, marry, divorce, and so on. And throughout it all, I will still be here; as I always am; as I always have been; as I always shall be."
"You'll sleep with me after I've married, but you won't be my best man?" Jethro was having quite a few problems getting his head round and understanding what Ducky was saying. For a brief second he wondered whether his lover had been drinking before he'd arrived. But then he remembered Ducky's kiss of greeting; he hadn't tasted alcohol, nor had he tasted any attempt to hide alcohol.
"Yes, dear. That is correct. I thought we had ascertained that all ready." Ducky sighed heavily.
But Jethro just shook his head. "Nothing. It doesn’t matter."
The stirring and twitching inside him intensified.
"Good. Now, would you like another drink? Or shall we go to bed?"
Jethro looked at him. "Duck," he put down his glass and took Ducky's hand. "I hope you won't be offended, but I think I'm going to go home."
Ducky looked at him and smiled. "I understand, my dear. And I assure you, I am not offended, not in the least." He leaned forward a little and offered his mouth for Jethro to kiss.
After a few moments, Jethro gently released Ducky, brushed his hand through the dark gold hair and stood up.
He offered Ducky his hand to help him rise, but Ducky shook his head. "Just drop the latch on your way out, Jethro. I'll come down and lock up properly in a little while."
"You sure, Duck?"
"Yes, my dear. I am sure."
"Right." Jethro turned away and moved to the door. There he stopped and turned back. "I do love you, you know, Duck," he said softly.
From where he still sat on the sofa, Ducky smiled serenely. "Yes, dearest, I do know. And I love you too. No matter what, Jethro, I always will love you. Now goodnight, beloved. Sleep well." He smiled again.
Jethro stood and stared for another second or two, before turning away, moving quickly across the landing and down the stairs, where paused long enough to grab his coat, before leaving the house.
He took care to make sure that the lock had fallen into place, before he went down the porch steps and climbed into his car.
"Jethro. I didn't expect to see you tonight. You told me that you had to work late."
"Yeah. I know. Can I come in for a minute, Holl?"
"Only a minute?" She smiled at him and moved back from the door.
He entered quickly, closed it behind him and quickly caught her hand before she could go back up the stairs. She looked at him and waited.
He swallowed. "I can't marry you, Hollis," he said.
"There's someone else," he went on, not really hearing her.
"Yes, I know. I've always known."
Now her words did impinge on him. "You know?"
"Yes, Jethro. I know."
She shrugged and looked at him. "I have spent a considerably amount of my career investigating people, Jethro. You do tend to pick up certain, skills shall we say. But you know that yourself."
"Do you know who it is?" Jethro found himself asking without meaning to.
For several seconds she simply looked at him, her calm, cool gaze giving nothing away. Then she said quietly, "Do you really want me to know?"
He winced inwardly at her answer. Damn, he hadn't realized it was that obvious. Yes, you had. At least you should have. Would have, had you thought about it. "I'm sorry, Holl," was what he said, his own tone quiet. "I never meant to - " He came to an abrupt halt. He'd been about to say 'hurt anyone', but the words were futile. Because whether he'd meant to or not, he'd done so. Had been doing so for over thirty years.
Nonetheless she smiled a little. "I know that, Gunny," she said softly. And then, after a moment or two, added, even more softly, "But do they?"
He looked at her. Did Ducky know that? He hoped so. He dearly hoped so. But intent of not, that's what he'd done for three decades. It was time he stopped.
"Goodbye, Jethro. And . . ." She shook her head and moved to open the door.
"Bye, Hollis. Oh, by the way, you're not going to accept Jenn's offer, are you?"
She looked at him. "It really is true, isn't it?"
She smiled. "I don't know how you do it, Jethro Gibbs. No one does. But it's damned spooky. No. No, Jethro, I am not going to accept Director Shepard's offer. I never was going to, for more than one reason. You can tell her that; I'm sure she will be relieved. As will you," she added more quietly.
He didn't have an answer to that. So instead he just leaned towards her and gave her cheek a fleeting kiss. "Take care, Holl," he murmured, before pushing his hands into his overcoat pockets and striding off into the night, back to his car.
This time, given the latest of the hour, rather than ring the bell, Jethro carefully tried his key in the lock.
He didn't know whether to be surprised or not when the door yielded to him, revealing that Ducky had not, as he said he was going to do, bolted his front door.
The hallway itself was in darkness, but a low light still shone from the landing.
Once more he experienced the feeling of not knowing whether or not to be surprised.
Pausing only long enough to bolt the door himself, Jethro, moving quietly and with the surety of years of experience, crossed the hallway and went up the stairs.
The landing light was the only hint of brightness on the upper floor, and after a speedy and as quiet as possible visit to the bathroom, Jethro switched the light off and moved to the second door. It stood slightly ajar.
For a third time he didn't know whether or not to be surprised.
He entered the room quietly, standing for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the change in the level of light, and carefully closed the door behind him.
The curtains had only been pulled half way, letting a shimmer of light from the pale moon seep into the room, where it fell on the bed. He glanced at the bed and moved tentatively and slowly towards it.
Ducky appeared to be asleep; certainly his breathing was rhythmic, his cheeks lightly flushed in the way they tended to be when he slept, and his eyelashes were still. Nonetheless years of sharing a bed with Ducky of seeing him both awake and asleep left Jethro uncertain as to whether his lover truly was asleep.
But whether he was or not didn't actually matter. What mattered was that Ducky was giving the appearance of being asleep; the message was clearly enough even for Jethro to understand.
For a moment of two he just stood there, looking down at the prone figure, one hand hovering an inch or two above Ducky's head. He stood there letting the waves of peace, serenity, security and surety wash over him; knowing finally what he should maybe have known years ago.
Eventually he moved, still quietly, still with the intimate knowledge of the room, and began to strip off his clothes, leaving just his shorts in place. Then, after placing his Sig-Sauer very carefully and precisely on the nightstand, he lifted back the covers and slid into bed.
As he settled down onto the cool sheets, Ducky gravitated towards him slightly, as he always did whether awake or asleep. Maybe he didn't move quite as closely as he often did, but nor did he keep his distance.
It gave Jethro another message.
Turning on his side, he gently let one arm come to rest lightly over his lover's body. And sighing quietly with a layer of happiness he had never before known, he closed his eyes and let himself slip over the edge of wakefulness into sleep.
As he crossed the boundary between the two states, he enjoyed the warm feeling that washed over him. The feeling of pure and total contentment, love, hope, and the knowledge that he finally understood.