A RESTON HOUSE CHRISTMAS
This year Ducky wants to do something a little different on Christmas Day.
An established relationship story.
Written: October 2008. Word count: 19,094.
RESTON HOUSE: MID OCTOBER
"Hey, Duck, I'm home," Jethro called. He closed the door of their Reston home behind him and then locked it. Silence greeted him. "Ducky?" he called, as he tugged off his coat and hung it up. The same silence greeted him.
Telling himself he was being foolish, Ducky was probably in the bathroom or immersed so deeply in one of his books he hadn't heard him call, or on the phone, Jethro nonetheless strode, rather faster than usual, into their sitting room. It was empty.
Dropping his briefcase onto one of the arm chairs, he turned around, left the room and headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time. "Ducky!" he called, failing to keep the concern he was now feeling from his voice.
To his relief the faint sound of his lover's voice drifted down from the attics. "I'm up here, Jethro."
Muttering to himself about fools and love, Jethro headed up the second flight of stairs to the attics. He found Ducky sitting at one of the tables they kept up there, looking through boxes of old photographs.
"Hey, Duck," he said, crossing to Ducky and ruffling his hair. "What you looking at?" Ducky turned and looked up at him, his eyes twinkling. Jethro hid a groan as he recognized Ducky's 'literal' look. He hastened to speak before Ducky could. "I mean, what photos in particular are you looking at?"
"Spoilsport," Ducky said, offering his hand to Jethro to help him to his feet. Once standing, he moved into Jethro's arms, putting his own arms around Jethro and sighing with pleasure as they embraced. After a moment or two, he moved back far enough to tilt back his head and offer Jethro his mouth to kiss. It was an offer Jethro gladly accepted.
"So what are they?" he asked again, after a few pleasurable moments had gone by.
"Oh, just old photographs of family Christmases."
"Any particular reason you're looking at Christmas photographs in the middle of October?" Jethro asked.
Ducky blinked and looked at him. "No, not really. I was driving home listening to the radio and one of Mother's favorite pieces of music was playing. That led me to think of Mother, which in turn led me to think of Christmas and Christmases past and the photographs. I knew you wouldn't be home for a while, so I came up here to look at them." As an answer it was perfectly plausible, even if somewhat long-winded, but that was Ducky. However, he sounded far too innocent for Jethro's liking.
"Well why don't we take them downstairs, have a drink and you can show me some of them."
Ducky's face lit up. "Oh, that would be very nice, my dear. If you're sure you have no objection to looking at my family photographs - most of them have stories behind them."
"I bet they do," Jethro said with a smile. He kissed Ducky's nose, before finally breaking the embrace and gathering the boxes and albums up to carry them downstairs.
Ten minutes later they settled down next to one another on the sofa. In front of them on the coffee-table were the boxes and albums, a bottle of Tamdhu and their glasses - each with a generous measure of scotch.
"Cheers, Duck," Jethro said, picking up both glasses and handing one to Ducky.
"Your good health, Jethro." Ducky swallowed some of his drink. "I must confess I did not expect you to be home quite so soon," he said.
"I can go away again if you want," Jethro said.
Ducky smiled. "Oh, no, you don't. You're all mine now for the evening."
Barring dead or missing Marines, Jethro thought. But he kept his thoughts to himself, saying instead, "Sounds good to me, Duck. So you going to show me some photos and tell me some stories?"
Ducky looked at him and Jethro could see the faint edges of surprise in Ducky's gaze. "You really want to look at my old photographs and listen to my memories?" he asked, the tinge of surprise clear in his voice too.
Jethro laughed a little. He couldn't blame Ducky for being surprised; it was rather out of character for him. But he found he did want to. Despite Ducky's prevalence for being able to talk about anything and everything at any time, Jethro suddenly realized he didn't know that much about his lover's childhood. Suddenly he wanted to. "Yeah, Duck," he said. "I do."
Ducky beamed happily. "In that case . . ." He gave Jethro a quick kiss on the cheek, before leaning forward, putting his drink on the table and picking up two of the albums. He began to flick through one of them, muttering from time to time. "Now where shall we start?" he asked, clearly talking to himself. "No, I don't think there. That's too far back; I was merely a babe in arms then."
Jethro peered over his shoulder. "A cute one," he said, not in the least fazed by the disgusted look Ducky flashed at him. "Well you were," he said, laughing at the now withering look Ducky cast his way. "Okay, sorry, Duck. Sorry. I'll shut up."
"Hmph," was Ducky's considered reply. But it was all in jest, Jethro could see that. Behind the look and tone Ducky's blue eyes twinkled with mirth and a hint of pleasure too.
Ducky continued to turn over pages until he came to one in particular. "Ah, yes. Now I remember this Christmas very well. It is in fact one of my earliest memories. I was seven and it was the first year I was allowed to help decorate the main tree. Before then I had my own smaller one in the nursery that I was in charge of. But this year Mother said I was old enough to help her decorate the proper tree." Then he voice changed slightly. "Mother always loved Christmas and made it a really big occasion. And no matter how busy she was with other things, it was always her, rather than the servants, who took on the main task of decorating not only the tree but the rooms too." He sounded wistful and a little mournful.
Jethro put his arm around him. "Come here," he said, tugging Ducky into a one-armed embrace. "I remember the first year your mom came out here and you invited me over for Christmas, as you always did. This place was decked out are the only words I can think of. I know you enjoy putting up at tree and some other stuff, but that year - I guessed it was your mom."
Ducky sighed and let his head rest for a moment on Jethro's shoulder. "Mother always liked you; she really was so very fond of you. In fact I'd say she loved you."
"Despite everything I did to you?" Jethro tried to keep the bitterness and self-dislike from his tone.
He knew he'd failed when Ducky lifted his head from his shoulder and turned around slightly so he could look at him. "Mother always knew how much you loved me, Jethro," he said, cupping Jethro's cheek with one hand. "She knew how much you hated hurting me. But she trusted you, she liked you - towards the end I sometimes think she liked you more than . . ." He trailed off.
"Only because I made her drinks stronger than you did," Jethro said, rubbing his face on the palm of Ducky's hand. It was far smoother than his own, uncalloused by guns and tools and was warm and comforting.
"Maybe," Ducky said, his voice still a little wistful.
Jethro covered the hand Ducky cupped his face with, with his own hand, gently pulling it away so he could kiss the palm and each finger. He then linked his fingers with Ducky's and leaned forward and lightly kissed Ducky's mouth for a moment or two. "Now," he said, breaking the gentle kiss, "you were going to tell me about your first Christmas as an official tree decorator."
Ducky chuckled. "Ah, Jethro," he said softly. "Here we are," he moved the album so that it rested partly on his legs and partly on Jethro's.
Jethro looked down and felt his eyes widen. "Wow!" he managed, aware the word was rather an un-Leroy Jethro Gibbs word; but it was the only one that would do. "It's . . . Huge."
Ducky looked at him. "Yes, it was rather. That I have to confess was down to Father. Given the height of our hall, where this tree would stand, he felt anything shorter than fourteen feet would look foolish."
"How on earth did you get the star on the top? And the lights and stuff on the upper branches?"
"The lights and upper baubles were the responsibility of Mr. Watson, our butler. He and a couple of the trusted male servants would arrange ladders and planks and together they would ensure the upper branches were duly decorated to Mother's exacting standards. Mother stood on the ground and directed operations. I swear, Jethro, she would have made a wonderful military commander." His voice was lighter than the first time he'd mentioned his Mother, in fact Jethro could hear the amusement in it.
He knew how much Ducky still missed him mom. They had been extremely close and for the first few weeks after her death, Ducky had seemed almost lost. It had been her death and Ducky's reaction that had finally pushed Jethro to do what he'd been wanting to do, but not knowing how to go about broaching the subject, for months, even years: move into Ducky's Reston home and openly live with him. "She certainly would have, Duck. I'd have jumped to obey her orders."
"Ah, but you did, my dear," Ducky said, and they both laughed.
Suddenly something Ducky had said impinged on Jethro. "You said lights and upper baubles, what about the star? Who did that?"
Ducky smiled. "Ah, now that was always my task; mine and Father's. The star was the very last thing to go onto the tree and the only part Father played in its decoration. Even when I was a babe in arms," he paused and flashed a look at Jethro, who just looked back at him with his 'innocent' face. "Hmmm. Yes, even then when everything else was arranged to perfection everyone - including the gardener and his assistant - would gather around the tree and there would be a solemn little ceremony. Father would ascend the ladder and get himself balanced on one of the planks, flanked by two of the servants who had helped Mr. Watson. I and the star would then be passed up to him. When I was still too young to hold the star, let alone co-ordinate my arms to put it on the tree, Mr. Watson himself also accompanied Father and had the, one might say dubious, honor of holding me whilst Father put the star in place. Once I was old enough to hold the star and Father was reasonably certain I wouldn't knock the whole tree over whilst trying to put it in place, Father would hold me up and I'd put it on the very top branch."
"Sounds a bit risky," Jethro said - and it did.
"Indeed. I am not entirely certain who was the most afraid, Mother, Mr. Watson, Martha, our then housekeeper, or Mrs. Cheery, our cook. I do know collected breaths were held until I was once again safely back down on the ground, or in Mama's arms."
Jethro didn't miss the sudden slip back to what his lover must have called his mom when he was a small boy. Suddenly he thought back to his childhood and his 'mommy'. He swallowed hard and again pulled Ducky nearer to him and he looked at the aging photograph again. "It looks as though you spent hours decorating it," he said.
"Ah, we did. We did. I might have finally been allowed to help, but it was strictly under orders. Mother would hand me each bauble or candle or other decoration and tell me exactly where I was to place it, and we didn't move on to the next one until it was just so. Everything, as you can see, had to be just right. You can't tell from this photo, but it was also perfectly color co-ordinated. We didn't have a red bauble by a red light or a yellow one by a yellow light. It used to take hours."
"Looks like it," Jethro said, suddenly recalling the trees he'd helped decorate from an age younger than Ducky. And how messy they'd looked bedecked with every single decoration just put on in any old way, not carefully and precisely arranged as Ducky's had been. The differences between their upbringings were immense. He still, after all the years they'd been together, sometimes found himself marveling that two such disparate men had not only met, but had fallen deeply, passionately and lastingly in love.
"Shall I tell you something I never told Mother?" Ducky asked, again moving so that he could look at Jethro. His eyes shone and for a moment Jethro could see the seven year old boy in the sixty-six year old man.
"Well even though I'd spent several months looking forward to my first 'grown up' decorating session, I was much happier decorating the smaller tree I still had in my nursery with Jane, my nurse." Ducky chuckled. "In fact it was several more years before I gave my tree up and found myself actually really enjoying helping Mother."
"Paper chains," Jethro suddenly said.
"Paper chains. I loved making them. I spent hour upon hour sitting in the store carefully putting them together. One year I made so many we could barely see the ceiling in the living room, but mom put them all up, even the wonky ones. And they stayed up for weeks, even though Dad had to keep repairing them as the glue came unstuck."
Ducky tilted his head and looked at him. "You know, I believe that is the first thing you have ever told me about your childhood, other than the really basic things, that is."
Jethro frowned. Was it? "Guess it probably is," he said, after a moment or two. Then he looked at Ducky and said, "Bet you never put paper chains up, did you?"
Ducky laughed. "Only in the nursery. Mother didn't think they helped the ambiance at all. No, we had very polite, very proper, very smart, very lush and, I hate to confess, very expensive ceiling and wall decorations."
"Which no doubt the second footman, or was it the third, would put up?"
"Jethro!" Ducky said in mock horror. "Let us get these things correct. A task as important as that could not be carried out by a mere second footman, it was . . ." And then his laughter became too much and he gave up speaking and simply leaned against Jethro wiping his eyes. As he held his lover, Jethro joined in the jollity.
"What was it like?" Jethro asked, when their laugher had subsided.
"Growing up with servants?"
Ducky moved back a little, put his head on one side and appraised Jethro. "I'm not entirely certain I can answer that in the way you are expecting or would like me to. The simple answer is it was like what it was like. I have nothing with which to compare it, just as you have nothing with which to compare not growing up with servants. It was what I knew from the moment I became aware. And of course at my prep school and Eton I was surrounded by boys from very similar backgrounds, including those who came from considerably wealthier families than I did. There were boys whose sole contact with their mothers was to be taken into her sitting room and allowed to kiss her on the cheek before their nurse put them to bed. I may have had a nurse, but mother took care of me too. It was she, rather than the nurse, who would get up to me at nights and I have sketchy memories of her bathing me and playing with me. And - Oh, I'm sorry, I've, yet again, gone off on a tangent. I knew nothing else, Jethro, it is as simple and as complex as that. In turn, could you answer if I asked you what it was like growing up without servants?"
Jethro thought for a moment and then smiled ruefully. "Nah, Duck, you're right - again. I can't. Not really; like you, I've nothing to compare it with. House was smaller, a lot smaller, garden too. But other than that . . . But I bet I was allowed to get dirtier than you were when playing."
Ducky laughed. "Of that I am certain. Ah, Jethro. I had a good childhood. I was fortunate."
Jethro squeezed his hand. "Yeah, me too, Duck. Don't think I really appreciated it until now. Certainly didn't as a teenager, but Dad did his best for us and he gave me the white picket fence 'dream'. Just hadn't realized the dream was somewhat clouded."
For a moment they sat in silence, each lost in his own memory.
It was Jethro who broke it, he drained his glass, reached for the bottle to pour another measure, topped Ducky's glass up at the same time, before settling back and looking down at the album. Ducky had turned over several pages, skipping a few years, if the picture of a slightly older Ducky was anything to go by.
"This was Christmas lunch in 1952. And as I was ten that year I was allowed not only to join my parents for the entire meal and sit at the dining room table, but I was also given a very small amount of wine with the main course. And not only that, but I was trusted to use one of Mother's very best crystal glasses. I don't remember being as scared as I was when I picked it up for the first time; it didn't help that everyone guests and servants, and, as you can see, there were quite a lot of us, stopped eating and drinking and serving and watched me. It was meant to be a treat, but for a few seconds I felt I was being punished. As everyone stared at me when I picked up the glass with both hands, I came extremely close to disgracing myself. Indeed, I firmly believe that had Jane not insisted I visit the bathroom before I went down to luncheon, I would have done so."
Jethro shook his head in amazement as he looked from the photos to Ducky and back again. It sounded like utter torture to him, the idea that it wasn't until he was ten that Ducky was 'allowed' to join his parents for dinner and was so afraid he'd almost wet himself sounded abhorrent - and Ducky said he'd had a good childhood!
Again his mind slipped back to his own Christmas dinners where if he dripped gravy on the tablecloth or knocked his orange juice over his parents wouldn't care. He thought back to the garish tablecloths he'd chosen one year and his mom had used until she'd died, and the crackers they all pulled at once and he knew which childhood he'd prefer.
And yet he could tell by Ducky's tone, by his words, by the look in his eyes, by the photographs that Ducky had loved his own childhood, and one or two minor moments aside had enjoyed his experiences.
Seconds later Ducky confirmed that very thing. "Ah, but it was a wonderful occasion, Jethro. Everyone together, laughing, eating, drinking, telling stories, being so very happy. And for me, an only child, it was wonderful to have the house full of people. Look that is Great Uncle William and Aunt Gertrude, in the year they visited us."
Jethro peered at the picture. "Your aunt looks fully dressed to me," he said, remembering the snippet Ducky had told him, using it as an example of Corporal Ernie Yost's being a little 'dotty', to use Ducky's own word.
Ducky smiled. "Yes, that was before she started to remove her clothes and before Great Uncle William became more than a little dotty. Christmas lunches at the Mallard residence were certainly an occasion to remember. Did you ever have large gatherings?"
Jethro shook his head. "Nah. Only ever mom, dad and me. And then just dad and me. But we had a good time too."
Ducky looked at him, really looked at him and Jethro saw his lover thinking and considering. He didn't know quite what was going through Ducky's mind, although he had the smallest of small inklings. "Jethro," Ducky said, after a moment of two of sitting in silent contemplation.
"I was wondering if . . . Oh, but no. It wouldn't be practicable. I'm sure everyone already has plans . . . And anyway, I'm sure you wouldn't really enjoy it. After all, you spend your days with some of them. I sometimes think you spend more time with them than you do with me. And it would be a lot of work. Not that I'd mind that, not at all. In fact I'd rather relish the idea. It would be . . . But as I said, it's foolish and unfair. We get so little time to spend together, just the two of us. Although, it probably won't be just the two of us, will it? Is this not the year Emily spends with her mother? Yes, I believe it is. And as we have always invited Tobias on those years, well . . . Naturally I assume we will again. But Tobias is different. As are Charles and Helen, of course. But the . . . No. No. I won't . . . It's foolish, impossible, impracticable. Forget I said anything, my dear." Ducky patted Jethro's leg and smiled reassuringly at him.
"You done?" Jethro asked.
Ducky nodded. "Yes, thank you."
"Good. Because you didn't actually say anything for me to forget, Duck."
"Did I not? Oh, well, that's good then. Now, it's getting a little late. I think I'll go and get supper. Perhaps you'd be good enough to set the table, please, Jethro. We can look at the photos again later, if you wish to, of course," Ducky added quickly as, using Jethro's knee to push himself to his feet his stood up. And with a smile and taking his glass with him, he left the room.
For a second or two Jethro just sat and stared after him a mixture of fond bemusement and affection flowing through him. "Ah, Duck," he muttered, as he also stood up. "One of these days . . ."
He left the bottle of Tamdhu on the table along with his now empty glass and went into the dining room to 'obey' the 'order' to set the table. As he did, he resigned himself to the fact that he'd be spending Christmas Day with the kids - or at least as many of them as he could persuade over to Reston house. Which given the prospect of an excellent home cooked meal and a large quantity of alcohol he expected would be the majority, if not all of them. To his mind the only question mark would be Ziva; he wasn't sure if she'd be going back to Israel, or even if she would be comfortable joining a non-Jewish celebration.
NCIS OFFICES: THE NEXT DAY
"Hey, Abbs," Gibbs said, striding into her lab and plonking a Caf-Pow down next to her. "Need you to do something for me. Well," he added, "For Ducky really. Well," he corrected himself again, "For Ducky and me."
Abby beamed, as he knew she would. "Well?" she demanded, after a moment or two had gone by. "What do you want me to do?"
Suddenly Gibbs decided it was foolish. Sure he'd like to make Ducky happy, of course he would. Pretty much everything he did these days, outside of cases, were done to make Ducky happy - sometimes he vaguely wondered if that was a good thing or not - but this wasn't going to work. The kids had families; they couldn't just up and spend Christmas with someone else. "It doesn't matter, Abbs," he said, turning go.
The next second his arm was grabbed and he was yanked back round to face a now glaring Abby. She let go of him and put her hands on her hips and just stared at him. "What," she said slowly, "do you want me to do? And don't forget, Gibbs, you said it was for Ducky." As emotional blackmail went, it wasn't subtle - but then Abby rarely was.
He rolled his eyes and explained, finishing with, "But it's not going to work."
She frowned. "Why not?" And then before he could say anything she spoke again. "Oh, you mean because of our families, don't you?"
Gibbs nodded. "Yeah."
"My parents won't mind. Come on, Gibbs, you know that."
Gibbs shrugged. "Okay, but what about the others? McGee? Palmer, surely he'll want to go and see him mom? Okay, so I doubt DiNozzo'll be going home to his dad and Ziva . . . I don't know what Ziva does, but -"
"I'll find out. That's what you want me to do, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Guess so."
"No problem, bossman," and she beamed.
"But, Abby, without letting Ducky know - at least not until we know how many. I want it to be a surprise."
She looked at him. "Gibbs," she said slowly. "A surprise is a bunch of flowers or tickets to the opera or dinner at his favorite restaurant or a new bowtie. A surprise is not five hungry people turning up on your doorstep expecting Christmas dinner."
She looked so serious and so militant that Gibbs laughed. "No, Abbs, I didn't mean it like that. I just don't want him to know until I know and then I'll tell him. I will," he added, as she just looked at him.
It wasn't quite a straight-forward as Abby had hoped trying to track down each member of the team one at a time, especially as Ducky seemed to have abandoned Autopsy for the day and kept popping up in the oddest of places. The exception to him abandoning Autopsy was when she decided to tackle Jimmy first, and then who sailed into Autopsy within five seconds of her arriving? Ducky of course.
Finally, as she stood by the vending machines, she spied Ziva going into the ladies - one place Ducky wouldn't follow. Abandoning her half-filled cup of Caf-Pow she hurried after Ziva.
"Ziva!" she said, grabbing Ziva's arm before she could go into a cubicle. And then because suddenly she didn't trust anyone, she instead pushed Ziva into the cubicle and followed her in, locking the door and leaning against it.
Eyes wide Ziva backed away slightly. "Abby?" she managed, her voice slightly shriller than Abby had ever heard it. "Are you . . . Ill?" she managed.
Abby frowned. "No, of course not. Ziva there's something I need to ask you. It's really important and secret."
Ziva swallowed. "Abby, I . . . " She paused and swallowed again. "I had not realized that . . ."
Abby stared at Ziva. "That what?" And then suddenly it dawned on her. She grabbed Ziva's arm and felt Ziva tense slightly. "No, Ziva," she said hastily. "I didn't mean . . . Not that you're not . . . Um . . ." She trailed off and found herself studying the Mossad agent carefully, suddenly slightly wary of her.
But Ziva smiled. "Abby," she said. "Just tell me why you followed me in here."
Abby nodded. "What are you doing for Christmas, Ziva?"
"Well, I -"
"Oh I know that you probably don't do Christmas, not like we do Christmas, but what do you do when you're not doing Christmas? What are you doing this year?" Abby beamed and waited. "Are you going back to Israel?" she added, when Ziva didn't reply.
Ziva shook her head. "No. I shall stay here. I shall spend the day quietly at home. Why do you ask?"
"Because Gibbs and Ducky want us all to go to their house for Christmas Day?"
"Gibbs wants us all to spend the day with him and Ducky?" The look on Ziva's face contained as much surprise as the tone in Ziva's voice.
Abby looked at her. "It does sound a bit hinky, doesn't it? I think, I'm sure, it's Ducky who wants us and Gibbs is just going along with it to make Ducky happy." Abby watched as Ziva's face softened in a way she had never seen it do before. The look matched exactly how she was feeling. "So?" she demanded, after a second of two when both of them seemed lost in their own thoughts. "Would you come?"
Ziva nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, I would, Abby. It would be very nice. But why are you, rather than Ducky or even Gibbs, asking me?"
"Ah. I'm not completely sure, but Gibbs asked me to ask the team, but without letting Ducky know."
"Gibbs is not thinking of surprising Ducky with us all turning up on their doorstep on Christmas Day, is he?"
Abby shook her head. "No, he says he'll tell him as soon as he knows how many of us can go. Good so that's two of us. Now all I have to do is ask McGee, Tony and Jimmy - which isn't as easy as it sounds. Ducky seems to be everywhere today. That's why I followed you in here."
"Ah," Ziva said. "I understand. Well thank you, Abby. Now if you do not mind . . ."
"Huh? Oh, right. Sorry. I'll see you later." And with that, Abby turned around, opened the cubicle door and sailed out. "Hey, Nikki," she called, as she passed Nikki Jardine whose eyes widened as the door to the cubicle that Abby had just left was one more shut and locked.
She made a somewhat strange detour back to her lab, via the same floor as Autopsy was on; but as she expected Ducky was inside talking to Jimmy. So she sighed and resigned herself to haunting corridors for the rest of the afternoon.
Three-quarters of an hour later her phone rang. "You're on the air in Abby's lab," she said, pushing the speaker phone button.
"Abby, it is Ziva. In five minutes time you will be safe to go to Autopsy and speak to Jimmy."
Abby snatched the phone up. "Oh, is Gibbs taking Ducky out to lunch?"
"No. I have a small problem with the engine of my car. It is making a slightly strange noise and as Ducky re-built his Morgan, I thought he would be the logical person to ask to assist me."
"Plus he can't refuse a damsel in distress," Abby said. "Ziva David, you should be a spy." They both laughed. "But what will you tell him when it doesn't make a strange noise?"
"What makes you think it will not make a strange noise?" Ziva enquired, her tone sweet.
"I must go, Abby. Ducky has just arrived." And before Abby could say anything else, Ziva had hung up.
Twenty minutes later, having had the good fortune to run into McGee outside the men's room as she was on her way to Autopsy and dragged him along with her, Abby was returning to her lab. Now she only needed to grab a few minutes alone with Tony. As Abby had anticipated, both Jimmy and McGee had been more than pleased to accept the invitation to spend the day at Ducky and Gibbs's Reston home.
As she turned the corner Abby almost literally ran into Ducky and Ziva, that latter whose arm was through the former. "Hey, Duckman, hey, Ziva," Abby said, coming to an abrupt halt. "What have you two been up to?"
"Ducky has kindly helped me by fixing a small problem with the engine of my car," Ziva said, giving no indication that Abby already knew about the 'problem'.
"It was nothing, just a loose wire. A mere trifle. But Ziva had kindly offered to buy me lunch to say thank you."
"It is the least I could do, Ducky. Now shall we go?" And without waiting for Ducky to reply, Ziva began to walk, as her arm was still tucked inside Ducky's, Ducky had no choice but to go with her.
As they walked off, Abby could hear Ducky assuring Ziva there really was no need for her to buy him lunch. But several years of working with Ducky told Abby that he really did not object to spending half an hour or so in the company of an attractive young lady. Ducky might be gay, but he had always enjoyed the company of the opposite sex. And Abby was also certain that unless Ziva was more adroit than the others, it would be Ducky who would in fact pay for lunch.
With a new determination, Abby changed direction and headed up to the squad room. "Damn," she said as she found Gibbs's part of it empty. She looked around her, wondering where Tony was.
She waited for a few moments, hoping he might come back. Then, just as she was about to leave a note on his desk ordering him to go down to her lab as soon as he came back, he strolled into the squad room a rolled up magazine under his arm, as if he had all the time in the world. "There you are, Tony," she said, grabbing his arm and dragging him across the office towards the elevators.
"Abby!" he said, as almost falling over he followed her inside. "What's going on?" he demanded as she emulated Gibbs and pushed the emergency stop button.
Quickly she told him. "So," she demanded, barely giving him time to reply. "Will you come? What's the matter?" she asked, as he still didn't answer. "Oh, Tony, don't tell me you do have a problem with Gibbs and Ducky living together."
He shook his head quickly. "No, Abby, it's not that."
"What is it then?"
"I just . . . Well, Gibbs -"
"Being willing to spend Christmas Day with us? Yeah. I was surprised too at first. But then, well, it's for Ducky," Abby said, as if it explained everything; which for her it did.
"I didn't . . ." Tony trailed off and glanced away for a moment. "Did you?"
She shrugged. "More than you. But, okay, I was a bit surprised."
Suddenly Tony said, his tone earnest. "Gibbs is going to tell Ducky, isn't he?"
Abby laughed. "I asked that; so did Ziva, McGee and Jimmy. And he promised he would."
"Do we have to take anything? I mean more than the usual bottle of wine you take when you get invited to dinner?"
"You mean presents?"
Abby folded her arms and stared at Tony. "Can you see Ducky inviting us all for Christmas and not buying us presents?"
"So we'll all need to think about it and agree what we're getting. We can't all buy them same thing."
Abby frowned at him and shook her head. "Now remember," she said, as she pushed the emergency stop button again, "you're not to say anything to Ducky yet."
Twenty minutes later McGee called across the office to Gibbs. "Boss, Abby says she's sent you an important email."
Gibbs nodded and opened his emails. He ignored the 'You have 76 unread emails' message and clicked on the one from Abby. He read it.
To: L. J. Gibbs
From: A. Sciuto
Subject: Test Results
AS: You already know the results of this test.
Gibbs smiled to himself and shook his head as he read the email. He also sighed under his breath. Sure he was pleased because Ducky would be happy and that was the important thing. However, a small part of him was also less than pleased, as it meant another day when he had to share Ducky - he would have been doing that anyway with Tobias. But this was different. Oh, well . . .
He closed the email down, deleted it, paused for a second as the 75 unread email sign flashed at him and then closed the email program down.
Talking of Fornell . . . He stood up, strode towards his 'office' went in, waited for the door to close and the car to start moving before he hit the emergency button and pushed some numbers on his cell. "It's me," he said, when it was answered. "You are still coming to us for Christmas Day, aren't you? . . . Yeah . . . Just that Duck wants a 'family Christmas' so it's likely to be eight of us, probably ten . . . Just thought I'd better warn you in case you'd rather spend it with our ex-wife . . . " He laughed as he clicked the phone off mid-way through Fornell's answer.
Three minutes later he'd confirmed they would indeed be ten, as Helen Patterson accepted with obvious pleasure for herself and Charlie.
RESTON HOUSE: LATER THAT NIGHT
When Jethro got home, somewhat earlier than usual, but not as early as Ducky, he found his lover in the sitting room once more looking at old photographs.
As he watched for a moment from the doorway rather than going in - for once he hadn't called out to Ducky upon arrival - any hint of annoyance or unhappiness at what he'd arranged fled. Ducky was going to be happy; that was all that mattered. And ultimately if his Ducky was happy then Jethro was. At that sudden realization, or rather admittance, he rolled his eyes and shook his head at himself. He was doomed - but then he'd been that way since they day he'd met Ducky.
"Hey, Duck," he called gently, striding into the room and over to Ducky.
Ducky looked up and smiled at him. "Hello, Jethro," he said taking Jethro's hand and letting himself be tugged to his feet and into Jethro's arms. "Mmm," he murmured several minute later, when Jethro released his mouth. "Are you trying to tell me something, my dear?"
Jethro pushed him back a little and looked down at him. Surely no one would have said anything? Abby promised. "What makes you think that, Duck?" he asked.
"Well, you kiss was a little more passionate than your usual 'coming home' kiss and . . . Well . . ." Ducky trailed off and let his eyes flicker up and down Jethro's body. "So I felt that either you had some bad news to tell me or you were suggesting a delayed supper." Ducky smiled at Jethro.
"Oh, you'd like that would you, Duck?"
"The delayed supper, yes. The bad news, not really. But if there is something troubling you, do tell me."
"I do have something to tell you, actually. But it's good news."
Ducky looked expectantly at him. "Do go on."
"How does Christmas dinner for ten sound?" Jethro asked.
For a second there was no reaction as Ducky took in what he was saying. Then his entire face seemed to light up, as his eyes sparkled and he beamed. "Oh, Jethro," he said, reaching behind Jethro's head and pulling it down so that he could kiss him. "Thank you, my dear," he said, several minutes later. "That certainly is good news. It will be such fun. Oh, but I must start to make lists and preparation and -"
"Oh, no, you don't," Jethro said, firmly holding Ducky in place. "Lists and preparations can wait, at least for an hour or so. There is something else you need to be doing at the moment, Dr. Mallard."
Ducky's eyes now twinkled with mirth. "Oh, is there, Agent Gibbs?" he asked, his voice low.
"Yeah, there is. And if you keep looking at me like that, we're going to be doing it right here, Jethro growled.
Ducky laughed, as Jethro turned him around, grabbed his hand and led him from their sitting room.
RESTON HOUSE: 9:00 A.M. CHRISTMAS DAY
"I'll get it," Jethro called, over the sound of Ducky singing along to the Christmas songs and carols he was playing in the kitchen. He strode along the hall to the front door, not even certain his lover had heard the door. As he reached the door and began to pull it open, he muttered, "Tell me again why I agreed to this?"
"Because where Ducky is concerned you're soft. Merry Christmas to you, Jethro," Tobias said, as Jethro fully opened the front door to find his second oldest friend standing there with an armful of presents. "Well," Tobias demanded half a second later, aren't you going to invite me in?"
"Do come in, Tobias. What's up, your clocks all fast?" The invitations which, despite everyone having already accepting, Ducky had insisted on handwriting and sending to each guest, had stated arrival as 12:00 noon. That, Ducky assured Jethro, would give them all time to enjoy a pre-luncheon drink, before he served the starter at 1:00 p.m.
"Hah, very funny. I thought I'd come and give you a hand to do . . . Well something. Here, don't just stand there, take some of these." And unceremoniously Tobias dumped half the pile of presents he was carrying into Jethro's arms. "That's better. Now -" He came to an abrupt stop, his mouth fell open, his eyes widened and he stared at the hallway.
And then to Jethro's bemusement, he took several steps backwards, went outside, glanced at the name outside the door and came back inside. This time he blinked as he gazed around the - well 'highly festooned' would probably be the best way to describe the - hallway, and that would be understating it.
Jethro watched him for another moment or two, before saying, "It's not polite to stare, Tobias."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry, um. It's just that it's . . . Put it this way, Jethro, the Santa's Grotto I took Emily too paled into insignificance to this, and I thought that was -" He stopped abruptly again.
"That was?" Jethro asked, putting just the very faint tinge of a dangerous edge to his voice. But then he couldn't keep it up any longer. He began to laugh. "Yeah, I know, Tobias, I know."
Now Tobias put his armful of presents down on the nearby hall table, catching one of the very expensive heavy glass, tasteful twelve days of Christmas ornaments before it hit the floor. Gingerly he put it back on the table, looked at Jethro and said, "Ducky?"
Jethro nodded. "Yep," he said. "And to be fair, Charlie."
Tobias cocked an eyebrow. "Charlie?"
"Patterson. His grandmother was Ducky's mom's closest friend. I mentioned they'd both be coming here today too. In fact I thought you were them. Helen's bound to come over early so that she can help Ducky, which will mean ten minutes of gentle arguing as Ducky tries, and fails, to win a battle over a lady, followed by Helen being given one particular task to do and several glasses of dry sherry."
Tobias nodded as he still looked around the hall. "Nice tree," he said finally. "Tall."
"Yep. Sure is. Now that I did help with - but only to stop Duck from climbing on ladders and steps. So I became the second footman, or it might have been the third footman. I lost track. Don't ask. I'll tell you later. Drink?"
Tobias, now taking off his coat and dutifully hanging it up on the hat stand nodded. "Yes, please. Hold on though. Here," he dug into the pile of presents that Jethro still held and pulled out a bottle shaped parcel.
"Thanks, Tobias," Jethro said, taking it and unwrapping the expected bottle of Maccallum.
"Welcome. Stick the rest under the tree," Tobias nodded in the direction of the tree. Jethro raised an eyebrow. "Emily insisted on sending presents for you and Ducky - she made them herself. And . . . Well, you said your lot was coming and - It's Christmas, Jethro. And I'm . . . " He trailed off and swallowed hard, his expression saying more than words.
Jethro closed the gap between them and pulled Tobias into his arms for a quick hug. "I know, Tobias," he said softly, as, after a half-second or two, he felt Tobias's arms go around him. For a moment the two friends hugged.
They were interrupted by the sound of Ducky's voice. "I don’t know, I can't let you out of my sight for a moment, can I?" He chuckled as he came towards them. "Hello, Tobias," he said, stopping in front of them. "Merry Christmas." And then he too hugged Tobias. "Thank you for coming," he said, somewhat formally.
"My pleasure, Ducky. Thanks for inviting me. Now, can I do anything to help you?" Ducky raised an eyebrow. "I'm better in the kitchen than he is," Tobias nodded at Jethro.
"That," Ducky said, looking at Jethro and smiling, "would not be difficult."
"Not at all, my dear. Now, yes, Tobias, as a matter of fact, if you don't mind, you could assist Jethro. He is going to set the dining table. Everything is on the sideboards, Jethro, it just needs setting out. Do call me if you aren't sure where anything goes," and with those words, he briefly touched Jethro's hand before sailing off back towards the kitchen from where enticing smells were already coming.
"Has he been on the sherry already?" Tobias asked, as they watched Ducky depart.
Jethro laughed. "Nah. Well not when I was looking. That's just Duck in extra happy mode. Come on, we better do as he says."
As together, Jethro carrying the bottle, they made their way to the dining room, Tobias asked, "So you responsible for any of this?"
Jethro stopped just before the doorway and glanced up. "Yep," he said.
Tobias followed the look and laughed. "Trust you!" was all he said.
Jethro opened the door and they went inside. And both came to an abrupt stop staring, this time not because of the more muted, but still impressive decorations, but at the sideboards.
"Er," Tobias said after a moment or two. "How many did you say were coming for lunch?"
"Eight, plus Duck and me," Jethro said slowly, blinking as he just continued to stare at the glass, china and silverware covered sideboard. "I didn't even know we had that much china and stuff," he finally said.
"Are you sure there's only going to be ten of us?" Tobias asked, finally moving into the room and away from the door.
"Yes," Jethro replied, suddenly not completely sure. "At least that's what I thought," he continued. "There are forty glasses! Wait a minute, I'm going to see Ducky."
Tobias caught his arm. "Wait. Look, there's a note for you on the table. I don't know, Jethro, how long have you two been living together? A few months? And you're already leaving one another notes." He picked the piece of folded paper up and began to read it. "Ah," he said, looking at Jethro. "This explains everything."
"That addressed to you, Tobias?" Jethro asked.
Tobias looked at him. "Probably not, given it starts 'My dear' and is signed 'Love Ducky'." Unfazed by the way Jethro was now glaring at him, he calmly handed the paper over. "Ducky's given you full instructions and explained why there are forty glasses and enough china to feed the five thousand. He's also told you in which order to put the tablecloths on the table and where to place the napkins. And see, look, he's obligingly drawn you a seating plan and a table laying plan, including exactly where each of the glasses go." Leaving Jethro to read the note for himself, Tobias wandered over to one of the laden with linen side tables and began to examine the various tablecloths.
"I need a drink," Jethro said, folding the paper back up and pushing it into his pocket. "Now I know why Ducky insisted on getting up so early," he said, talking to himself as he crouched down in front of the drinks cabinet and dug out two whiskey glasses. "Wondered why the bed was empty when I woke up at 5:00 a.m., now I know. What?" he said, standing up and glaring at Tobias.
"Nothing," Tobias said, far too innocently for Jethro's liking. He rolled his eyes, opened the bottle and poured two good, but not overly generous, measures into the glasses and held one out to Tobias. "Thanks." Tobias took the glass from Jethro's hand and swallowed some of the whiskey. "That's good," he said. "Well, I guess we better get on. Reckon it's going to take us a while to get all this sorted."
"Yeah," Jethro said, emptying his own glass in two swallows. "Don't even think it, Tobias," he growled, putting his empty glass down, forgoing his instinct to refill it and crossing to the linen-laden side table. "So which one goes on first?"
At that moment the sound of the doorbell penetrated the room. "Want me to go?" Tobias asked.
"No. I'll go. It'll be the Pattersons - least I hope so, I don't think I could put up with the kids this early - so come and meet them."
"Hello, Jethro dear," Helen Patterson said, when Jethro opened the door. "And a very Merry Christmas to you."
"Merry Christmas, Helen," Jethro said, bending his head and kissing her cheek. "You too, Charlie," he said straightening up and holding out his hand to the young man who stood behind her.
"Merry Christmas, Agent Gibbs."
"Charlie, we agreed, no titles. You've known us long enough now."
Charlie grinned as he shook Jethro's hand. "I think that's part of the problem. Old habits die hard."
"Yeah, guess they do. This is Tobias Fornell, he's an FBI agent. Tobias, Helen and Charlie Patterson."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Tobias," Helen said, smiling and taking Tobias's hand with both of hers.
"You too, ma'am," Tobias replied.
"Oh, really. Do they teach all you Federal Agents to be so polite? It's taken me years to persuade Jethro and Donald to call me 'Helen' - and I expect you to do the same."
Jethro hid a smile at the clear order.
Tobias laughed. "In that case it's nice to meet you, Helen. And you too, Charlie," he added, holding out his hand to the young man.
"Merry Christmas, Agent Fornell," Charlie said earnestly.
"If I get to call your grandma 'Helen' you get to call me 'Tobias'."
"Good, that's settled," said Helen crisply, but with a smile on her lips. "Now Charlie go and bring the box of gifts in from the taxi and then you can help Jethro and Tobias while I go and help Donald. I assume he's already in the kitchen, Jethro?"
"Yeah. Been there since before dawn, I reckon."
Helen smiled and with that hurried off along the hall to the kitchen.
Charlie came back in with a large box of presents. "Where shall I put these, Ag - Jethro?" he asked.
Jethro stared at the array of brightly colored packages. "Under the tree with the rest," he said. "There are a lot."
Charlie nodded as he went across to the tree. "Yes, I know. As soon as Grandma knew your team and Agent Fornell were invited as well she decided to buy gifts for everyone."
"She didn't have to do that."
"You know Grandma."
"Yeah. I do." After watching Charlie unload more and more parcels, he asked, "You done?"
"Yes. Now what can I do to help you?"
"Ducky has given us the task of setting the table. You can come and help us." At the look on Charlie's face that clearly said 'it takes three people to set a table?' he added, "You'll see."
Once inside the dining room Charlie came to an abrupt halt and stared. "Wow!" he managed.
"I think that sums it up perfectly, don't you, Jethro?"
Jethro nodded. "Yep. Reckon it does."
"Er, how many people have you invited?" Charlie said slowly.
"There'll be ten of us."
"But there are forty glasses."
"Know that. And I haven't even begun to count the plates. But don't worry, Ducky has given us clear instructions of what goes where. So we'll be all right." But Charlie still stood, apparently frozen to the spot.
"I think Charlie could do with a drink, Jethro," Tobias said. "Purely for the shock, of course."
"Of course. And we can't let him drink alone, can we, Tobias?"
"Oh, no. You're the host; a good host would never allow his guests to drink alone."
Jethro poured whiskey into three glasses and handed one to Charlie and one to Tobias. "Your good health," he said. "Now," he said, once they'd drained their glasses. "Reckon we better get on; the table is not going to set itself. Tobias, have you figured out which tablecloth goes on first, yet?"
"Yes, I have. This white one."
And with that the three men turned their attention to tablecloths, napkins, place mats, coasters, china, crystal, cutlery, table decorations and crackers. Jethro rolled his eyes at the sight of the last item; he and Ducky had had a mild disagreement over them: Ducky was adamant they should have them; Jethro adamant they shouldn't. Ducky had won - of course.
Even with the three of them working together and Ducky's carefully detailed instructions, it took them the best part of an hour before the table was ready. Jethro decided it was a good job it was an extremely sturdy one as it groaned from the weight of china and glass and silverware alone - and there wasn't any food on it yet.
They also had instructions to cover the sideboards and get out the hostess trays that would allow the food to be kept warm once everyone had helped his or herself to vegetables for the first time.
Finally all that was left was to put the place cards by each person's plate. The seating plan had caused Ducky the most grief, as no matter what he did, he said it wasn't going to be right. The main problem was there were seven men and only three women, thus men were going to have to sit next to other men, which wasn't a problem in itself, Ducky assured Jethro, but it would be unbalanced. Etiquette apparently demanded that he and Ducky sat at opposite ends of the table, as they were the couple hosting the dinner, while their guests sat on the sides.
However, etiquette also demanded that couples or family members didn't sit together. Thus Helen and Charlie weren't 'allowed' to sit next to one another; and Ducky felt that Abby and McGee should not sit next to one another, nor Ziva and DiNozzo. Jethro tried pointing out that given they referred to them as 'the kids' (or in Ducky's case 'the children') that meant they were siblings so they were all family members, thus none of them could sit near to one another, so it didn't matter where they sat. However, Ducky had completely ignored that point and had gone back to drawing yet another plan. At one point Jethro had suggested that he'd get DiNozzo to turn up in a dress, which at least would make two women on each side of the table. But that also hadn't gone down well.
Then Ducky had decided that really Helen, as the most senior member, should maybe sit at one end of the table, which at least limited the sides to one lady each. But that still made it uneven.
And then Jethro had come up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. Their table, well Ducky's table, was somewhat unusual in shape. It sat twelve people, without the need to put in additional leaves, but could accommodate them in two ways. There was enough room at each end of the table for either one person or two people to sit comfortably and enough room down each side to seat either three or four or even five people. To that end Jethro's idea was Ducky, Helen, Tobias and himself, as the 'older' people, sat at the two ends and the younger people sat three each side, with Abby and Ziva in the middle of two men. Okay so that still meant that Ducky, Tobias and Jethro himself would have another man next to them, as would Helen, but it seemed perfectly balanced to him.
To his surprise Ducky had beamed, kissed him and agreed. And with that Jethro had thought it was all sorted. But he should have known better; it still hadn't been that simple. Once again Ducky went into long discussions with himself as to who should sit where. Jethro said he'd sit next to Ducky and Tobias could entertain Helen - but Ducky had still insisted that was inappropriate given his and Jethro's relationship. No, Tobias should sit with Ducky and Jethro with Helen. Vice versa apparently wasn't 'proper' as Ducky was the second most senior member of the party, as well as the host. As well as following several rules of etiquette, Ducky also felt this arrangement was fairer to Helen given that she and Charlie only knew Jethro and Ducky himself.
In the end, seeing the stubborn look which his lover rarely got, Jethro had given in - with one proviso: he didn't have DiNozzo on his other side. But Ducky hadn't intended that anyway, his intent had been to as far as possible to intersperse the field team with the non-field team and the non-NCIS guests and family members. Jethro had lost track of just how many plans he'd seen Ducky start and then discard, but he reckoned it must have been double figures.
He looked down at the final plan and saw that Ducky had certainly done that! For a fleeting second he was tempted to switch Tobias and himself around, but he knew if he did that, Ducky would be deeply hurt. So with a sigh and a vow to himself to try not to intimidate Palmer, he set about putting the elegant hand-scripted place cards by each setting.
RESTON HOUSE: 11:00 A.M. CHRISTMAS
Leaving Tobias and Charlie in the sitting room, Jethro went into the kitchen to find Ducky and Helen sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a glass of sherry. "I like this. We're working and you're sitting here doing nothing," he teased.
Ducky rolled his eyes at him. "Everything that can be done for the moment has been done. Everything is in the oven and as Helen and I have been working extremely hard, we decided we deserved a small aperitif, did we not, Helen?"
Helen smiled. "I'm not sure I qualify as having worked 'hard'. Donald has been even more organized than usual. I have actually done very little."
"Now that is not true, Helen," Ducky insisted and patted her hand. "Did you want something, Jethro?"
"We finished the table."
"Exactly as per my instructions?"
Jethro nodded. "Yep. Come and see if you want." And he hoped Ducky did. He wanted two minutes alone with his lover to take him in his arms and kiss him. And if he didn't grab the chance now, heaven knows how long it would be before the opportunity arose again
"I think I shall. If you will excuse me for a moment, Helen," Ducky stood up.
Helen smiled and glanced at Jethro. He could have sworn that she'd worked out his probably-less-than-subtle subterfuge. "Of course, Donald."
"I shall be back before the next thing requires my attention," Ducky assured her, as he sailed through the door Jethro held open for him.
"Well," Ducky said, a few minutes later after he carefully walked around the table, inspecting each plate setting, moving a glass or spoon a minuscule amount in one direction and a side plate a teeny amount in another, straightening chairs and brushing the folds of the tablecloths. "I must say, my dear, I am impressed. You gentlemen have done a fine job. Everything looks wonderful."
"Not the only thing," Jethro said, moving behind Ducky and slipping in arms around him. "Mmm," he said, nuzzling Ducky's ear. "You smell good too." Clearly Ducky had found time during his painstakingly and minutely detailed schedule to pop up to their bedroom and change into his best charcoal grey suit, albeit he hadn't yet put the jacket on, a crisp white dress shirt, red suspenders and a matching red and green bowtie and vest. He was also wearing the pocket watch and heavy gold chain which had belonged to Jethro's grandfather and had been passed down to him and he had given to Ducky. "Turn around," he murmured.
"Jethro, we do not have time." But even as Ducky said the words he was turning around in Jethro's arms and sliding his own arms around him before offering him his mouth to kiss. Jethro accepted the offer and for the next few minutes they exchanged gentle, tender kisses.
"Now," Ducky said, finally and with a tinge of ruefulness in his voice breaking the kiss, and moving back so that he could look up at Jethro. "Talking of things looking nice, isn't there something else you should be doing?" He blinked several time as he gazed up at Jethro, his eyes twinkling with mirth, his lips twitching.
Jethro sighed, theatrically and rolled his eyes. "Guess there is, Duck," he said, stealing one more kiss before he let Ducky go and left the room.
He took the stairs two at a time and strode into the bedroom he and Ducky shared. He wasn't surprised to see his mid-grey suit - Ducky's favorite - a white dress shirt and a tie he hadn't seen before laid out on the bed. The tie was red silk and it had a very faint holly pattern embossed into it. He changed quickly, splashed on some rarely worn, but much loved by Ducky, cologne, ran a comb through his hair and then, still tying the tie, went back downstairs and into the sitting room to join Tobias and Charlie.
"Ah, so you have been to see Ducky," Tobias commented, from where he sat in one of the several armchairs. Jethro had spent the previous afternoon rearranging the chairs, sofas and small tables, into what Ducky considered to be the right aesthetic and friendly grouping.
"See you two have helped yourselves," Jethro said, nodding at the glasses that stood in front of the other two men.
Tobias shrugged. "Well someone had to play host while you were off," he paused for a fraction of a second and looked at Jethro, "changing," he finished.
Just as Jethro was contemplating an answer, the door to the sitting room opened and Ducky, now wearing his suit jacket, with Helen on his arm, came in. "Oh, my dear Charles," he said, letting Helen slip her arm from his and hurrying across the room. "Please forgive my appalling manners."
Charlie, who, along with Tobias, had stood up as soon as his grandma and Ducky had come into the room, looked surprise. "Dr. Mallard?"
"For not coming to greet you before now. It really was dreadfully amiss of me. I do hope that you are able to forgive me, my dear boy." He held out his hand to Charlie.
Charlie took it. "There's nothing to forgive, Dr. Mallard," he said. "I know how busy you've been. And it's not like I'm just any guest, is it?"
Now Ducky pulled the young man into a brief hug. "Of course you are not, Charlie. And thank you for understanding. And thank you, and you, of course, Tobias," he went on, breaking the hug and glancing at Tobias. "For the sterling work you both did in the dining room."
"It was fun," Charlie said.
Ducky beamed. "But don't forget, Charlie, it is 'Ducky' not 'Dr. Mallard'. The children, or maybe today I should say 'the other children' all call me 'Ducky', or at least most of them do; I shall have to have another word with young Mr. Palmer. Thus, Charlie, you cannot be the only person to address me as 'Dr. Mallard'. Please remember that." He looked earnestly at Charlie.
"Yes, Ducky," the young man said, glancing at Jethro who smiled at him.
RESTON HOUSE: 11:45 A.M. CHRISTMAS DAY
The sound of the doorbell being rung in what could only be described as a 'jaunty' manner - Jethro decided either Abby or DiNozzo had to be the one responsible for that - brought Ducky to his feet.
"The children are here," he said, beaming with sheer happiness. "Come along, Jethro, let us go and let them in." And before Jethro could pass comment, Ducky had taken his hand and was hurrying him out of the room. As he let his lover all but drag him along the hall to the front door, Jethro found himself smiling at the child-man Ducky could occasionally be.
Jethro opened the door and immediately a more-than-a-little-out-of-tune rendition of 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' hit him. Only Ziva, standing very slightly to one side, a box in her arms, her long dark hair adorned with a red ribbon hanging in loose curls over her long grey coat, was silent. As the other four members of the team hit 'And a Happy New Year' all at slightly different times and came to a halt all smiling, Ducky applauded gently.
"Very nice, my dears," he said, smiling at them all. "Well come in, come in, and get warm." And still dragging Jethro with him, he moved back to allow them to enter.
"Ladies first," said DiNozzo, catching McGee's arm and half-bowing Abby and Ziva inside. "That includes you, Ms. David," he said. "Oww!" he added, seconds later. "Boss."
"Now we will have none of that behavior today. We are all going to enjoy ourselves and your petty squabbles can be left outside for a few hours. You are not at the office now, and there are other guests to be considered." Jethro, keeping his face from betraying the amusement he felt, watched as five pairs of eyes widened and more than one mouth fell open as Ducky spoke. Few, if any of them, would ever have heard Ducky speak so forcefully and so firmly. In fact most of them probably had no idea Ducky could be anything other than his usual placid, polite, gentle self.
For a moment none of them spoke, or even moved. Then DiNozzo broke the tableau and lightened things. "Wow, you know I never really believed Gibbs when he said you pushed a French cop off a cliff once, Ducky, but now I do."
Ducky chuckled and Jethro noticed a very faint flush touch his cheeks. "Oh, I am sorry, my dears," he said, putting his arms out towards them. "Please do forgive me for speaking to you so sharply. It's just that I want today to be - But I'm being a foolish old man."
"You're not old, Ducky," five voices chimed in unison as Jethro just stood shaking his head and smiling in fond bemusement at Ducky's way of handling everything.
"And it is we, not you, who should apologize, Ducky," Ziva said, moving forward and touching Ducky's hand.
"Yeah, Ziva's right. Sorry, Ducky," DiNozzo said.
Ducky smiled. "We'll say no more about it. In fact there is nothing about which we shall say no more. Now I think proper greetings are in order, are they not?" And with that he deftly took the box Ziva was holding, handed it to Jethro and took Ziva into his arms and lightly kissed her on each cheek. "Shalom, Ziva my dear," he said.
She smiled and returned the kisses. "Shalom, Dr. Mallard," she said, her tone formal. "Thank you for inviting us to your home."
Ducky smiled. "You are all very welcome." He squeezed Ziva's hand and then moved to embrace and kiss Abby. "Merry Christmas, Abigail," he said as he stretched up slightly to kiss her cheeks.
"Merry Christmas, Duckman," she responded.
The next couple of minutes were taken up with Ducky completing his greetings by briefly embracing the three younger men. In turn, Jethro hugged Abby and Ziva and shook hands with the three younger men. Coats were also taken off and hung up, and yet more presents piled under the tree.
"The decorations are great, Ducky," DiNozzo said, looking around him. "I bet they must have taken someone ages to put up."
"Thank you, Anthony. I am pleased you like them. Now, shall we go through and meet the other guests, one of whom you will know, and enjoy an aperitif?" And with that Ducky put one arm through Abby's and the other through Ziva's and began to walk towards the sitting room. Jethro and the three younger men followed him.
Half an hour later, after introductions had been made and drinks poured, hors d'œuvrés offered around and people were chatting to one another, Charlie and McGee seemed to have hit it off very quickly, Ducky stood up. "I am afraid I am going to have to leave you good people for a while," he said. "Unfortunately, luncheon will not produce itself."
"Can I help you at all, Ducky?" Ziva asked, also standing up.
Ducky shook his head. "That's very kind of you, Ziva, thank you. But I assure you thanks to some assistance from Helen earlier everything is under control. Jethro, I shall need your help in about fifteen minutes. Oh, don't look so worried, my dear, I don't expect you to stir the gravy or baste the potatoes, I merely need some assistance carrying the first course to the table."
"I can help too, if you want, Ducky. I did some table waiting during one summer vacation. I became very proficient at it," McGee offered.
"Me too," Charlie said. "Well, not the table waiting bit, but I can carry plates."
Instantly DiNozzo, Palmer, Abby and Ziva started to speak.
Ducky held up his hands and silence descended. "Thank you all, it is most kind of you. And as a matter of fact, if Charlie and Timothy are willing to help, then Jethro could make sure you all had a drink and were seated correctly."
"Ducky's done a seating plan, DiNozzo," Jethro said firmly, as he watched Ducky leave the room, whistling a Christmas carol.
Jethro watched the rest of the group interact with one another, as he waited to be summoned to assist. As he saw McGee and Charlie deep in conversation he suddenly had a thought and began to chuckle softly to himself.
"Want to share, Jethro?" Tobias said.
"Reckon I've just been reduced to butler and McGee and Charlie to footmen," Jethro said. Tobias raised an eyebrow. "You know Duck grew up with servants?"
"Well the butler would pour the wine and generally supervise and the footmen would serve the food."
Tobias smiled. "I don't think we'd better tell them, do you?"
"Nah," Jethro said. "Although -"
Whatever else he was about to say was interrupted by the appearance of Ducky. "Jethro, Timothy, Charles, if you would be so kind as to come with me. And Tobias, Helen, may I impose on you to show the children into the dining room and ensure they are all seated, please?"
"Thought I was responsible for making sure they were seated correctly," Jethro said, already on his way towards Ducky.
"Well, yes. But as adept as you are, my dear, even you cannot be in two places at the same time. And to begin with I need you to give me a hand with the white wine. Now, come along," Ducky said, and without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and glided out of the room, followed immediately by Jethro, McGee and Charlie.
Tobias just shook his head as he watched the interplay - he could enjoy many hours of winding Jethro up over this. Except it wouldn't be worth it, because his closest friend knew how compliant he became around Ducky. He sighed silently to himself and instead offered his arm to Helen. "May I, Helen?" he said formally.
She smiled at him. "Of course, Tobias. Thank you." She slipped her arm into his and turned to the remaining four guests. "Anthony you will escort Ziva and Jimmy, Abigail. That's it, gentlemen, offer the ladies your arm. Now are we all ready?"
Tobias shot DiNozzo a warning look as he turned Helen and himself towards the door. In the absence of Jethro to keep an eye on the young man he regarded himself as responsible for fulfilling the role. But DiNozzo was being the perfect gentleman and Ziva the perfect lady. He wondered if Jethro had 'had a word' with the younger members of his team and warned them not to spoil the day with their petty squabbles.
"Tony!" Abby exclaimed.
Tobias glanced around to see that DiNozzo and thus Ziva had come to a dead halt in the doorway of the dining room, causing Palmer and Abby to run into them.
DiNozzo shook himself. "Sorry," he muttered, moving into the room and taking Ziva with him. "It's just . . . Well, I haven't seen this amount of glass and china and cutlery outside of a restaurant. Ducky's certainly gone to town."
"You can say that again, DiNozzo. It took three of us over an hour to set the table. You're sitting at that end, Helen," Tobias said, escorting Helen to her seat and pulling out the chair for her. After a moment or two he saw DiNozzo and Palmer do the same thing with Ziva and Abby.
Tobias watched Palmer slide into his own seat, glancing around him and looking at the table in what looked like mild panic. Before he could say anything, Helen leaned towards Palmer, put her hand over his and spoke softly. "It's all right, Jimmy. With the cutlery it's the convention to start from the outside and work inwards. But it doesn't really matter and if you find yourself short of a knife or fork, Jethro or Donald will fetch another one. And the wine will be poured into the correct glass. Just relax, my dear, and try to enjoy yourself. You being here and having a good time is what matters to Donald, not whether you use the correct fork." She smiled in a reassuring way.
Palmer nodded, his eyes still wide, but slightly less panicky. "Thank you, Mrs. Patterson ma'am," he said. "I'll try."
"Good boy. And please, it's 'Helen'."
He nodded. "Yes. I'll remember that, Mrs. Patterson," he said earnestly.
At that moment Jethro, a bottle of white wine in each hand, came into the room. Starting with Helen, he worked his way around the table filling the second largest glass, the one above the knives, with wine, ending he circuit with his own glass.
As he passed Tobias, Tobias muttered, "I thought Ducky would have insisted you fill all the ladies' glasses first." Jethro just glanced at him. "Ah, so you do win sometimes?" The glance became a glare and Tobias smiled.
"You okay, Jimmy?" Jethro asked, sitting down next to Helen and Palmer and shaking his napkin out and placing it on his lap. He'd promised Ducky to try to remember to use the forenames of the team. Palmer nodded, but Jethro wasn't convinced. "It looks daunting, doesn't it?" he said, nodding towards the table. Palmer nodded again. "Don't worry, everything will be all right. Ducky just wants you to have a good time, not to worry about glasses and cutlery. Okay?"
"Yes, Special Agent Gibbs, sir," Palmer managed, proving just how uneasy he was feeling. Jethro decided not to pass comment at that point; it would only cause the young man more grief. So he just smiled, in what he hoped was a reassuring way.
And then Ducky, McGee and Charlie came into the room, carrying soup dishes. McGee showed he certainly had waited tables before as he carried three, whereas Ducky and Charlie had one in each hand. They must have worked out who would go to which side of the table beforehand, because the movement was seamless and none of them bumped into one another as Charlie placed a plate in front of Abby and DiNozzo; McGee in front of Helen, Palmer and Jethro himself and Ducky in front of Tobias and Ziva. Then Ducky and Charlie sat down while McGee exited the room and came back with three further plates, which he put down in front of Charlie and Ducky and finally himself. It was slick and easy and no soup was spilt.
"Well, please do not stand on ceremony, my dears. Enjoy it whilst it is piping hot." And with that Ducky picked up his soup spoon, waited for the others to do the same and then began to eat. Before he took his first sip of what he already knew to be excellent soup - he might not be great in the kitchen when it came to cooking, but he made a first class taster - Jethro glanced at Ducky. The edges of stress and concern that had been hovering around his lover from the evening before were starting to vanish. Clearly Ducky was happy with everything thus far and from the look on his face anticipated no mishaps at all. A relaxed Ducky meant that Jethro too could relax.
"Mmmm, Ducky, this is fabulous," Abby said. "So creamy and yet so fresh and light."
Ducky beamed with clear delight. "Why thank you, Abigail," he said. "I am extremely pleased you are enjoying it. I do hope it is seasoned enough for all of you?" Nods and murmured reassurances answered him. "One does have to be a little careful when seasoning watercress as it is such a delicate flavor. Is it all right for you, my dear?" he asked, looking at Ziva.
She smiled. "It is perfect, Ducky."
They continued to enjoy the soup and small crusty rolls which Ducky had fetched from the sideboard before taking his own seat, as conversation began to flow more readily than it had done initially. In fact from where he sat Jethro could see Tobias and DiNozzo in deep conversation about something or other.
"Oh, Anthony, you have finished your wine. Allow me to -" And Ducky began to stand up.
"Sit down and stop fussing. We agreed: you take care of the food. I'll take care of the wine. Sit," he said firmly, when Ducky didn't instantly obey.
"Very well, Jethro. But I have to get up in a moment anyway to -"
"Sit. Down. Ducky. Now!" He hid a smile as he saw the kids following the conversation as if they were following a tennis match. He was more amused to see that DiNozzo was trying to make himself look smaller than he was and had a slightly guilty look on his face for causing the 'argument' by emptying his glass.
Just for a second or two the atmosphere became slightly strained again. But then Helen turned to McGee and said, "Now I know where I recognize you from, you're Thom E. Gemcity, aren't you? You wrote Deep Six."
McGee nodded. "Yes, ma'am. I did."
"Charlie and I both love the book. It's a superb story."
McGee's ears turned pink and he managed a stumbling. "Thank you very much indeed."
"I presume you have all read it?" Helen asked, glancing around the table.
For a moment Jethro held his breath, while shooting a glare at DiNozzo.
But he needn't have worried; clearly Ducky's 'pep talk' when the kids had arrived had hit them hard, because DiNozzo simply said, "Oh, yes, Helen, we've all read it." And then as one the team, including McGee, began to laugh. Proving how infectious laughter is, after a moment or two, Helen, Charlie and Tobias joined in.
After a few minutes of general conversation, Ducky gave a gentle but obviously false cough. At once everyone stopped talking and turned their attention to him. "Now, before I serve the next course, I think it is time we pulled the crackers."
"Oooh." Abby's eyes gleamed. "How are we going to do it, Ducky? In a circle or just one to one?"
Ducky thought for a moment. "I think one to one is probably easier for all concerned. Now let me see, ah yes. Anthony you and Abigail will share; Jimmy you will pull crackers with Jethro," he paused for a moment and flashed Jethro a 'play nicely and join in' look, before continuing. "Helen if you would be kind enough to share with Timothy; Ziva and Charlie you will pull one another's crackers, which leaves Tobias and myself to share. On three: one; two; three."
And then ten crackers were pulled. But not just any ten crackers; ten crackers that Ducky had made himself. Thus the gifts inside were not the usual cheap, tacky things, but miniature bottles of each person's favorite tipple. The hats were very high quality and again had been carefully chosen by Ducky - his was red and green to match his vest and bowtie - and the mottos had all been written by Ducky, by hand.
Hats were put on - Ducky sat and stared unblinkingly at Jethro until, with only one eye roll and a silent sigh, he put his dark blue and silver hat on. The noise level rose as mottos were read out and bottles admired.
For a short time Ducky just sat and beamed, as he watched everyone. Then Jethro saw him glance at his watch, widen his eyes slightly and stand up. "Timothy, Charles, please collect the soup plates. Jethro we shall need more white wine for the next course. No," he said quickly, as Palmer began to stand up. "We can manage, but thank you, Jimmy."
Jethro had put his hand on Palmer's shoulder as the young man had begun to rise, just in case somehow he'd managed to get tangled with the tablecloths, and he gently but firmly pushed Palmer back into his seat. "Your job, Jimmy," he said, "is to entertain Helen as both Tim and myself aren't here. Can you do that?"
Palmer beamed and nodded. "Yes, Agent Gibbs," he said. Well at least he'd dropped the 'Special' and 'Sir'. And he leaned forward and smiled at Helen.
The fish course of salmon fillet with warm Hollandaise sauce, homemade by Ducky, naturally, was served with the same efficiency and seamlessness as the first course had been and the praise was forthcoming.
"You know my mom used to make Hollandaise sauce from time to time. We used to have it with eggs for special occasions like my birthday; it was her best dish. Until now I'd never tasted a better one. But, Ducky, even mom would have agreed, this outdoes hers."
"Why, thank you, Anthony," Ducky said, briefly putting his hand on Tony's. "It is very kind of you to say so."
"I'm not being kind, Ducky, I'm being honest," Tony said, grabbing his glass and draining it.
Jethro didn't need Ducky to glance at him; he was already on his feet and moving to refill DiNozzo's glass. "Thanks, boss," DiNozzo muttered, taking another swallow and staring down at his plate. It was rare for him to speak about his parents, certainly about his mom, and to share what was clearly a happy memory, even rarer.
Again there was a slight edge to the air, until McGee broke it. "Sarah, that's my younger sister," he added, glancing at Helen, "tried to make it once. It was mom and dad's wedding anniversary or something and she thought she'd take them breakfast in bed. You have never seen such a mess; the kitchen . . . And guess who had to spend three quarters of an hour cleaning it up?"
"Poor Timmy," Abby said, and everyone, DiNozzo included, laughed.
The conversation began to flow again and Jethro watched Ducky lean back in his seat, seeming quite at ease now as he turned his attention from Tobias to Charlie to the table in general and back again. As hosts went, you wouldn't find a better one, nor a more skilled one, than Ducky.
Eventually Ducky stood up and this time, without being told to do so, Charlie and McGee all but jumped to their feet and began a second skillful clear of the fish course plates and cutlery, as well as the empty white wine glasses. "Now," Ducky said, before he swept out of the room with his 'footmen' behind him, "it is time to clean our palates before the main course. Jethro, perhaps you'd be kind enough to pour everyone a glass of water, as a small break between the white and red wines."
"Sure, Duck," Jethro said to his lover's departing back. He collected a jug of iced water that stood on the sideboard next to the half a dozen bottles of red wine, which had been opened hours before.
A tart lemon sorbet was the 'palate cleanser'. And although Jethro saw Palmer and Abby's slightly puzzled looks, when presented with what could easily be a dessert, no one passed any comments - other than to again express praise for the taste of the, again homemade, delight.
It was the main course that brought gasps from everyone around the table. Ducky and Jethro had had long discussions about just what the main course would be - well, to be honest it was fair to say that Ducky had had long discussions with Ducky, Jethro had just nodded and mmmm'd and said 'yes, Duck' or 'no, Duck' or 'sure, Duck' or 'whatever you think best, Duck' at the appropriate places.
The perfectly and exquisitely roasted sirloin of beef, which had been Jethro's responsibility to carve, was accompanied by roast potatoes, roast parsnips, glazed carrots, brussels tossed in butter and black pepper, cabbage sautéed with caraway seeds, horseradish sauce (which was actually bought rather than homemade, even Ducky had drawn the line at some things) and gravy, naturally made from the meat juices, vegetable water and a good helping of sherry.
While Jethro had been duly carving the beef, it had fallen to Tobias to fill the large red wine glasses for everyone. As Jethro passed his friend on the way to his own seat, Tobias murmured, "I did it the proper way."
"Now," said Ducky, once everyone had been served with a very generous helping of meat and had helped themselves to piles of vegetables. "Please do not stand on ceremony during this course. If you want more potatoes or carrots or anything, just help yourselves. The dishes are all on the sideboard on hot plates. I do not want Timothy and Charles to be leaping up and down to serve you all. Nor do I intend to spoil my own digestion. - although, Helen, I am sure that one of the many gentleman around the table would be more than happy to serve you. Please do not make me tell you twice. Is that understood?"
Earnest replies of, "Yes, Ducky. Yes, Donald. Yes, Doctor," were heard.
Ducky smiled happily. "Jethro will keep an eye on people's wine glasses, will you not, my dear?"
"So it doesn't matter about my digestion then?"
Ducky just laughed and began to eat. "After careful consideration," he said, a few minutes later, "I decided that beef was the best option. I ruled out turkey quite early on, as I thought you might all be a little tired of it after Thanksgiving. Thus it was a choice between beef and goose - both of which were traditional in the United Kingdom before we adopted the turkey. Although Mother never served turkey at Christmas, she said it simply wasn't the proper thing. I sometimes wonder if that just might have been our cook's opinion, rather than that of Mother herself, but . . . Whatever, we continued to enjoy a goose or a piece of beef."
"What made you decide on beef, Dr. Mallard?"
"It's Ducky, Jimmy, Ducky. Now say it."
Palmer bent forward a little, swallowed and then said in his earnest tone, "What made you decide on beef, Ducky?"
"Well done, Jimmy. And it will get easier the second time you say it. Is that
not so, Jethro?"
Ducky gazed directly into Jethro's eyes, his eyes twinkling with mirth. For a second or two, Jethro was transported back thirty-four years to the very first meeting with Dr. Donald call-me-Ducky Mallard. It hadn't been an easy name to say initially, but once Ducky had worked his gentle seduction on Jethro - which to this day he swore had been unintentional - and Jethro had found himself in bed with the dashing doctor, the name came so very naturally. Or rather his private version of it did. He shook himself out of his memories, as he felt the silence around him. "Um, yeah," he said, shooting Ducky a 'you just wait until later' look. Ducky simply stared back at him with his oh-so-innocent look that only Ducky could achieve.
"So, Ducky, you were saying about the goose?" DiNozzo said brightly.
"Ah, yes. So I was. Thank you, Anthony. Well I must confess, Jimmy, one of the reasons I ultimately decided on beef rather than goose was practicality. I was not completely certain I would have enough oven space to cook a goose large enough to feed us all, and also all the trimmings and vegetables that would accompany it."
"Oh," Abby who had been staring at Ducky with rapt attention sounded a little disappointed with Ducky's answer.
Ducky immediately turned his attention to her and smiled. "And the other reason, Abigail dear, was that goose can be something of an acquired taste. It is slightly greasier than turkey or chicken and also some people are simply put off by the idea of eating goose. Maybe they have never tried it before, or indeed necessarily realized that it is a bird that can be eaten. And as such they may be ill-disposed to it and not try it, or they are so convinced they won't like it, that they end up not enjoying it. Not that," he looked around the table, "I thought for a moment that any of you would be thus, but nonetheless I thought caution was the better way to go. Plus I knew I had access to a particularly fine sirloin of beef."
"It's certainly that, Ducky," Tobias said.
There was very little intense conversation for a while after that, as people instead concentrated on the superb plate of food in front of them. Even Jethro, used to Ducky's cooking, thought it had surpassed anything Ducky had cooked for him before. And when it came to topping up their plates with vegetables, it actually worked rather well as whoever got up first simply offered the dish around the entire table.
"Now," Ducky said, beaming as he looked around the table where all that could be found on plates were smears of gravy and horseradish sauce, the odd caraway seed and half a brussel here and a slither of carrot there. "Would anyone like anything else? We still have plenty of beef and vegetables left."
"Did tell you you were only cooking for ten, Duck," Jethro said, sotto voce.
Ducky glanced at him. "Yes, dear. You did, thank you for reminding me." But as always whenever he spoke to Jethro, even to chastise in jest, his deep affection and lack of any true chastisement or annoyance shone through.
"Now, Jethro, behave," Helen said, tapping the back of his hand in her mock chastisement. "As any good host or hostess will know, one always ensures one provides far more than is necessary. I know from my own dinner party hosting that if ever a dish was completely empty and heaven forbid more than one, I worried for days afterwards, imaging that people might not have had enough."
"Yes, Helen, you are quite correct. I have not had the opportunity or occasion to hold many dinner parties, but I too have always found myself over-catering." Ziva spoke quietly.
"Thank you for your support, ladies. So as I was saying, would anyone like anything else to eat at this stage? Anthony, surely you could manage another slice of beef and a potato or two, could you not?"
"Um," DiNozzo for some reason glanced at Jethro first, before turning his attention back to Ducky. "Well the thing is, Ducky . . . You see . . . Well . . ."
Tobias leaned nearer to Ducky and said, "I think what he's trying to find out, Ducky, is is there any dessert."
"I wasn't! I was just . . . Yeah, all right. I was. Sorry, boss."
Ducky and everyone began to laugh; after a moment DiNozzo joined in. "As a matter of fact, Anthony, there is. In fact there is a choice of dessert."
"A choice. Oooh, do tell, Ducky. Please." Abby practically bounced on her seat.
"Well, of course there is the traditional Christmas pudding with the choice of brandy butter or custard - sadly I am afraid I had to forgo making a truly correct and proper Crème Anglaise, as it does take a considerable time to make and would have meant leaving an extremely long gap between the main and dessert courses."
"Couldn't you just have made it earlier and heated it up, Ducky?"
McGee almost quailed under the look of horror Ducky shot at him. "My dear Timothy," he managed, when he finally spoke. "The very suggestion. That would be akin to - Well think of something - Ah, I know. That would be akin to you and Abigail having to go back to doing things with a pen and paper rather than a computer or PDA. Do you understand?"
Jethro watched McGee swallow - hard. "Yes, Ducky," he said. "Oh, yes, Ducky. I do. I'm sorry I suggested it. I hadn't . . . Right."
"Yes, well. I shall forgive you this time, but do not let it happen again." By now the twinkle was back in Ducky's eyes and the mirth back in his tone. McGee looked very relieved. "But I have managed to find a very good powder to which I add hot milk and a touch of vanilla. And no," he said, glancing around the table, "I do not use the kind to which you only add hot water."
"And the second dessert is, Ducky?" Palmer leaned forward a little and stared earnestly at Ducky. Then he smiled, sat up and instead looked at Jethro. "You're right, Agent Gibbs. It was easier the second time."
Ducky smiled. "Home made sherry trifle; made to the special and handed down recipe given to me by our family cook. Now there, of course, I have made a proper Crème Anglaise."
"Of course," Jethro muttered, which earned him another of Ducky's 'looks'.
Other than the look Ducky ignored his comment, standing up instead and looking at his two 'footmen' who instantly leaped to their feet and began to gather plates.
Fifteen minutes later the table and sideboards had been cleared off all the main course plates and dishes; the red wine glasses had been taken away; the dessert wine glasses filled and on the table, in front of Ducky stood two large trifles and two large Christmas puddings, along with the custard and brandy butter. Hovering behind him, ready to take the desserts to each person were Charlie and McGee.
Ducky looked at Helen. "Helen? What may I serve you?"
"Oh, I think I'll have the trifle, please, Donald," she said. I'm not certain I could quite manage any Christmas pudding, even though it does look and smell wonderful.
"Oh, I don't know. Um . . . What are you having, Tim?"
McGee frowned. "What does it matter what I'm having?" he asked.
"Because if you have the Christmas pudding then I'll have the trifle and we can share."
Ducky sighed. "Abby my dear, if you wish to have both, just say so. There is plenty of each and I'm certain you won't be the only one who'll want to try both, will she, Anthony?"
DiNozzo shook his head. "Just glad Abby got to say it first," he said.
Ducky smiled fondly. "So to save me asking you children one at a time, may I presume that all of you would like to try both desserts?"
There was a lot of looking at one another, until finally, in reasonable harmony they said, "Yes, please, Ducky."
"Good," Ducky said. "That is settled then." He served Abby and Ziva slices of pudding, before looking at Tobias. "Tobias?"
Jethro watched Tobias look at Ducky. "Go on then. You only live once, don't you? And as Helen said the pudding does look and smell marvelous."
Ducky's pleasure was so clear to see. Once the younger men were served and McGee and Charlie were going to sit down, Ducky put a helping of the pudding onto a plate and told McGee to give it to Jethro.
"See I don’t get a choice," Jethro said, taking the plate.
Ducky just smiled at him. "I've never been one to ask a question to which I already know the answer," he said.
No one managed thirds!
And just when Jethro was beginning to think he'd never eat anything again, Ducky brought out the cheese board - the centerpiece of which was a half Stilton - and a bottle of port.
Finally, some two and a half hours, if not more like three, since they first sat down, Ducky announced that coffee and mints would be served in the sitting room.
"So, Ducky," Abby demanded, once everyone had coffee and most of them also let themselves be 'persuaded' into having a small brandy. "Are you going to tell us a story?"
"Oh, my dear Abigail. I really do not think anyone wishes to sit and listen to me ramble on."
Jethro, who was finally sitting next to Ducky, muttered, "Don't bet on it." He was pretty sure that, even if it were for no other reason than everyone was so full of food and drink their energy levels must have been low, just about everyone would be more than happy to sit and hear Ducky talk.
Seconds later he was proven correct, when clamoring to speak over one another, the kids assured Ducky they'd be more than happy to listen to him. And once Tobias and Helen also added their voices, Ducky had no choice but to comply.
And so he told the rambling tale of his first Christmas as a Houseman in Edinburgh when he'd been put in charge of organizing some entertainment for the surgical ward patients who were unfortunate enough to have to spend Christmas in hospital rather than at home with their loved ones.
As he listened to tales of bedpans being utilized for things other than what they were designed for, nurses who took the opportunity to grab any and all unsuspecting qualified doctors under the mistletoe, a piano where only the black notes worked, a Christmas wreath that caught fire and many, many other things that seemed to get more fabulous by the minute, Jethro strongly suspected his lover was exaggerating more than just a little.
But it passed an hour and at the end of it everyone seemed to be a little more alive again and was then badgered by Abby and DiNozzo into playing charades. Amazingly Ziva of all people was the one to emerge the winner, confirming what Jethro had often suspected: his Mossad liaison officer deliberately mangled the English language these days just to wind DiNozzo up.
And then Ducky declared it was present time.
"Ooh, wait!!" Abby cried, grabbing her bag and digging into it. "I've got to take a picture of the tree."
Her comment led to a mass dig in bags and pockets before the tree was photographed from every conceivable angle.
"So how do you want to do this, Duck?" Jethro asked as he stood with Ducky staring at the piles of brightly and garishly colored presents that covered the floor beneath the tree and poured out even beyond the widest branch.
"Yes, it is a problem. I confess I had not anticipated there being so many gifts," Ducky said.
"Yeah, well, half of them probably come from you anyway," Jethro said.
"Jethro! That is somewhat of an exaggeration. It's just that I -"
Jethro took advantage of the fact that the kids had returned to the sitting room to rejoin Helen and Tobias, who hadn't taken part in the mass photography session, to briefly but effectively silence Ducky. "Didn't want anyone to feel left out?" he said, after he released his lover. "Don't think there's any danger of that."
"I should have anticipated this; we could have had the tree in the sitting room. It would have made it much easier to distribute the gifts."
"Yeah, but the hall was more logical. You said so yourself. Look, I know it's not quite the same as someone handing the presents out one at a time, but why don't Tobias and I go through these, sort them by person, put them in boxes and bring them all through to the sitting room together and dish them out that way?" He looked down at Ducky. "Or," he said, because if it was what Ducky really wanted, he'd do it, no matter how tiring and annoying it would be. "If you really don't want that, well, I'll come back and forth and do it that way."
Ducky put his hand on Jethro's cheek and smiled in his loving way. "Ah, my dear Jethro, I often wonder what I did to deserve you."
Jethro widened his eyes. "Reckon that should be the other way round, Ducky. In fact I know it should."
Ducky shook his head. "Well, for the sake of argument, let us agree we are both fortunate, are we not?"
"We are, Duck. And not just - " Jethro broke off. He wasn't good with words; he didn't have pretty phrases or speeches. He knew what he felt; he knew what he meant, but he rarely could express himself.
But he didn't need to, because as he always did Ducky understood. He turned from Jethro and looked in the direction of the sitting room and they listened to the burbling sound of laughter and people talking and clearly having a good time. "Your suggestion is eminently sensible, my dear," Ducky said, stretching up so that he could solemnly kiss Jethro's lips. "I shall ask Tobias to join you."
Jethro squeezed his shoulder and watched him make his way back to the sitting room. He winced to himself as he saw just how badly Ducky was limping. He'd overdone it, and not just today, but in the days, the weeks, even the couple of months before the day as he made Christmas puddings, Christmas cakes - he'd made small ones for everyone to take home as well as a large one - organized the food, the tree, the decorations, and then cooked the meal they had all enjoyed. And he'd done most of it with very little help from Jethro, other than when it came to putting stuff on the high branches of the tree and the odd thing like that.
"Ducky said you needed my help." Tobias came out into the hall.
"Yeah, I do." And Jethro explained the plan to Tobias.
By the time all the gifts had been opened, Ducky and Jethro's sitting room was awash with a mass of paper, which of course always got bigger once the gift was unwrapped. Equally the piles of presents by each person looked in danger of teetering over on more than one occasion.
What surprised him, or maybe it shouldn't have, was how perfect Helen's gifts for the kids and Tobias had been. She must have spent a considerable time gleaning information from Ducky and then yet more time shopping. Everything was as individual as the people were. And the team had also found interesting and suitable gifts for Helen and Charlie too - Ducky must have been extremely busy passing information back and forth. And apart from one gift to each person, the Pattersons hadn't given gifts between them, they'd given separately. Charlie's gifts hadn't been quite so individual as his grandmother's but nonetheless he'd clearly put thought into them.
Somewhat guilty Jethro found himself wondering when people had found the time to shop and, with the exception of Helen, work full time as well. And he knew only too well that Helen did not spend her days sitting at home, she was a very busy lady. With the exception of a bottle of Tobias's favorite whiskey, Jethro had only shopped for one person: Ducky.
And what made him feel even guiltier was that in a lot of cases he hadn't known or make that hadn't remembered - he knew Ducky had told him - what gifts he and Ducky had given everyone. Ducky and his main gifts for everyone else had been simple, but classy and expensive jewelry. Tie pins for the men, ear rings for Ziva and Abby, and an elegant brooch for Helen. At least he recognized all of those as they were unwrapped, but that was because Ducky had made him not only listen but admire that individual gifts before Ducky had wrapped them.
And his team had gone to a great deal of trouble over one another's gifts too. Thus proving - not that he needed proof he knew - that their bickering and snide remarks and one-upmanship games and all the other stunts and back-hand compliments they threw at and played on one another were just a façade.
DiNozzo in particular had impressed him. And it had to be said surprised him somewhat by the fact that he'd somehow managed to find out that Palmer had a small, but cherished, collection of a particular set of Dickens's novels, less one that he'd never been able to find. DiNozzo had found it and bought it. His gift for McGee, the person Jethro knew he both feared would supplant him in Jethro's 'affections' and his place on the team and yet respected, in spite of his often cruel teasing, as a first class agent, had been equally thoughtful. Again the trouble his senior agent must have gone to find just the right old-fashioned manual typewriter to replace McGee's which had ended up getting destroyed beyond repair, was considerable.
Somewhat predictably the vast majority of his own gifts, and Tobias's, came in bottles, but even then trouble had clearly been gone to. It hadn't been simply a case of grabbing two bottles of the same whiskey and wrapping one up for him and one for Tobias.
When it came to presents for Ducky everyone seemed to have gone somewhat to town. Not only did he amass more gifts than anyone else, but the variety was astounding. Of course given that Ducky's interests were plenty, choosing presents for him was not a difficult thing to do. But even so, again it clearly hadn't been a case of dashing into a store and grabbing the first book or CD, the gifts had all been chosen with care and love, and with one exception nothing had been duplicated. The exception was bowties - and Jethro suspected that a small conspiracy had taken place, at least amongst the team, as he ended up with eight new additions to his already fairly large collection.
RESTON HOUSE: 7:00 P.M. CHRISTMAS DAY
Jethro stood on the steps of Reston house, his arm around Ducky - and to hell with what anyone might think, not that they would - waving goodbye to the two taxis that would take the kids home safely, and the one that was taking the Pattersons home.
Ducky was leaning a little more heavily against him than was his wont, another sign that as much as he'd enjoyed the day - and 'enjoy' was far too mild a word - it had tired him. During the 'present sort' Tobias, who was being given a bed for the night, and Jethro had agreed that they would 'persuade' Ducky (Jethro said he'd resort to handcuffs if necessary) that he would sit down, put his feet up, and enjoy a glass of brandy or something similar. He could read if he wanted to, or watch TV or a DVD or listen to music, but he was going to sit down. Tobias and Jethro would tackle the worst of the washing and tidying up and get things as far as possible back to normal.
Once done they'd rejoin Ducky and share a drink and chat or whatever before going to bed. It suddenly hit Jethro that, apart from when Mrs. Mallard had been alive, this would be the first time he and Ducky would share a bed with someone else in the house. He assumed, given he'd accepted the invitation to spend the night with them, the thought didn't trouble Tobias, and he found that he wasn't in the least bothered himself.
The taxis finally faded from sight and Jethro turned himself and Ducky and together they went back into the house. "It was a good day, Duck," he said, after he'd locked and bolted the door and pulled Ducky into a loose embrace. "I enjoyed it."
Ducky smiled up at him. "Did you really?"
"Yeah. I did. And a lot more than I expected to. What about you?" Not that he needed to ask.
"I loved every moment of it, Jethro. Thank you, my dearest, for - I was going to say 'agreeing' to the party, but in effect you arranged it behind my back."
"Guess I did really. I never did tell you, Abbs was convinced I wasn't going to tell you until they all turned up here today."
Ducky chuckled. "Ah, Jethro. As much as I enjoy surprises, that is one I would not have wanted. Not that you would have done that. Do you think the children and Helen and, of course, Tobias enjoyed themselves?" Ducky looked slightly concerned.
"Don't think, Duck. I know. Besides, what's not to enjoy? You fed them the most magnificent meal they'd ever tasted; one that will keep them going for days. Plied them with enough alcohol I doubt they'd be safe to drive tomorrow - which as a doctor is a little surprising - bought them gifts and then sent them home with individual cakes and mince pies and other bits and pieces. No, Duck, I doubt they enjoyed themselves at all."
Ducky laughed gently. "I suppose if you put it like that -"
"Yeah, I do. It was good, Ducky. More than good. It was great. And I'm not sure I've ever seen you quite so happy."
Ducky frowned and looked a little concerned. "Jethro?"
"That's not me worrying, Duck. It's just that . . . I know I make you happy, but this was beyond that."
"Jethro, I -"
"It was different then, that better?" When Ducky didn't instantly reply, Jethro said gently, "Come on, Duck, you know what I mean, don't you? You know what I'm trying, and making a mess over, to say?"
After another moment or two, the concern and frown vanished and Ducky nodded slowly. "Yes, Jethro," he said, now slipping his arms around Jethro's neck. "I believe I do. Now kiss me, before I go off and start to clear up the kitchen."
"I'll do the former," Jethro said, gathering Ducky into a tighter embrace. "But you are not doing the latter."
"Jethro, I -"
TEN MINUTES LATER
"We can do this the easy way, Duck. Or," he glanced at Tobias. "You got them?"
Tobias nodded and produced, from where Jethro wasn’t too sure, a pair of handcuffs, which he tossed to Jethro, before producing a second pair.
Ducky, now standing between the other two men, just stared eyes so wide Jethro's own eyes twanged in sympathy. "You wouldn't," he finally said, after opening and shutting his mouth fruitlessly several times. "Jethro, Tobias. You wouldn't," he repeated.
Jethro just glances at Tobias over Ducky's head. The look said 'on three'. And on cue, they both took one of the Ducky's hands and slipped a cuff around it. The astounded look got even more full with disbelief. And once more Ducky was incapable of speaking.
Jethro bent his head and put his lips to Ducky's ear and kiss-whispered, "I'd just give in if I were you, Duck. That is unless you have some fetish you've never shared with me."
He laughed at the speed with which Ducky sat down. He then ruffled Ducky's hair with one hand and uncuffed him with the other as Tobias also removed the cuff he'd put on. "Better take these with us, Tobias," he said. "Just in case."
"Good idea, Jethro," Tobias answered, as he turned and headed out of the room.
"And you," Jethro said, bending over Ducky and lightly kissing his forehead. "Will stay there. You can read one of your new books or listen to one of your new CDs and enjoy a glass of brandy, but that’s all. Okay?"
Ducky looked up at him and just smiled. "Yes, dear," he said compliantly, another indication, if Jethro had needed one, of just how weary he was.
"Good." Again Jethro ruffled his head. "Besides, I have an ulterior motive for not wanting you to get too exhausted," he said, and before Ducky could respond, he turned on his heel and strode out of the sitting room to join Tobias in the kitchen.
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