MY SON’S BOYFRIEND

 

By

 

Ashleigh Anpilova

 

The true nature of the relationship between Gibbs and Ducky becomes widely known about when Mrs. Mallard turns up at the NCIS offices one morning demanding to see her 'son's boyfriend'. Upon talking to her, Gibbs learns that Ducky has apparently been kidnapped; a search of Ducky's Reston home confirms this. Despite the best efforts of him and his team, there appears to be no leads. And then Gibbs is sent a letter and the sharp eyes of McGee reveal more than the writer necessarily intended. It is then a race against time to see if Gibbs can find his lover before it is too late.

An established relationship story.

This story also contains Abby/McGee as a couple.

Written: August 2008. Word count: 45,205.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The old woman, moving faster than her looks, cane, or the way she was leaning on the arm of a man, would imply she could move, attempted to walk straight past George Pearson, the overnight armed security guard.

 

He caught her arm, gently; she reminded him of his grandmother. "Excuse me, ma’am," he said. "I’m afraid you can’t come in here."

 

She turned a blue-eyed cold stare on him, and for a moment he read emptiness. "I have to," she said firmly, trying to pull away from him. "I have to see my son’s boyfriend."

 

Her words confirmed what the gaze had suggested. He patted her hand and decided, for the moment at least, to play along with her. "And who would that be ma’am?" He also took a second to raise his eyes in the direction of the other man, who just shrugged and shook his head.

 

She looked at him, and then her gaze skittered away. "I can’t remember his name," she said. "But he’s very important here. You must know him."

 

"It’s a bit difficult, ma’am. Lots of people work here. Without his name . . ." George trailed off and shrugged.

 

"But you must know him. Everyone does."

 

George decided to try another route. "What is your son’s name then, ma’am?" he asked.

 

The old woman glared at him. "I am not telling you that. I don’t know who you are and whom you might tell. Now let me go. I must see my son’s boyfriend." Her voice became shriller, and she began to struggle in George’s grip.

 

"Now, ma’am, please."

 

"Don’t you understand," she was shouting now. "I have to see him. My son is in trouble."

 

Finally George had had enough of playing nice; he was tired. He’d been on duty since 11:00 p.m., and he was looking forward to his bed. "Are you sure you don’t mean your daughter?" he snapped.

 

The cold blue-eyed stare froze him in place. "I do know the sex of my own child, young man. Now will you fetch my son’s boyfriend or do I have to go and find him myself?"

 

George tried again, once more making his tone conciliatory. "Why don’t I find you a cab, and -"

 

"You won’t find anyone willing to take her. She hasn’t paid me for bringing her here! Now come along, Misses, I want my money." The man, whom George now realized must be a cab driver, who had been standing quietly, even deferentially, by the side of the old woman, finally spoke.

 

The old lady turned to him. "I told you my son’s boyfriend will pay you." She was beginning to sound distressed.

 

"Yeah, so you did. But just who the hell is he? Don’t you know?" He turned to George.

 

George shrugged. "No," he said. "You heard her. She says she can’t remember his name. I don’t reckon we have anyone here like that anyway. This is a naval office. They don’t go much on queers."

 

"Yeah, well. I want my fare. And I’m not leaving here until she or her son’s boyfriend pays me. So you’d better try and find him."

 

"Look you can’t just -"

 

"Why haven’t you fetched him yet? I want to see my son’s boyfriend. I want to see him now. My son is in trouble. Only his boyfriend can help him. I -"

 

"Now see here, lady -"

 

 

Jethro Gibbs, returning from the men’s room, heard raised voices coming from the reception area. As two men and a woman’s voice drifted up the stairs, he thought he recognized the high-pitched cry. Whether he did or not, he didn’t like the fact that the two men seemed to be shouting at the woman.

 

He moved to the top of the stairs and looked down. What he saw made him descend the stairs at speed, taking them three at a time. He jogged across the floor to the group, who were all intent on one another. "Mrs. Mallard?" he said, touching the woman’s arm.

 

The group all turned towards him.

 

Then Mrs. Mallard yanked herself from Pearson’s grasp and grabbed Gibbs’s own arm. "Jethro," she cried, sudden recognition clear in her voice. "Jethro. You are here. You see," she turned back to the other two men. Her gnarled fingers bit into Gibbs’s arm; he could feel them through his jacket and shirt. "I told you he worked here. This," she indicated Gibbs. "Is my son’s boyfriend."

 

If Gibbs hadn’t been so concerned by his lover’s mother’s presence, he might have laughed at the look of utter shock that crossed Pearson’s face. Before he could speak, however, the other man tapped him on the shoulder. Gibbs glared at him. "What?"

 

"If you really are her son’s boyfriend," the way the man sneered the word, made Gibbs almost wish he had his gun in his hand. However, he just stared at the man, composing his face into the look that he knew made even the hardest perpetrator think twice. The cab driver met the stare and had the decency to flush slightly, before looking away from the gaze.

 

"Well?" Gibbs demanded, impatiently, his tone as harsh as his glare.

 

"Well, if you are -" The cab driver came to an abrupt halt, and Gibbs watched him recompose the words in his mind. He waited. "Who she says you are," the man finally said. "Then she said you’d pay me for bringing her here. She claims she hasn’t got any money. And," he added, as Gibbs dug into his pocket to pull out his wallet. "I kept the meter running. And she’s been in here about ten minutes. Not to mention -"

 

Gibbs cut him off. "Here," he said, slamming a wad of $20 bills into the man’s damp hand. "Take this and get the hell out of here. Pearson see this ‘gentleman'," Jethro Gibbs could have held a master class in making one word sound like the most disgusting on the planet; and this was one of his best. "Out." He turned away. "Come with me, Mrs. Mallard," he said gently, slipping her arm inside his and slowly leading Ducky’s mother to the stairs.

 

"Yes, sir. Special Agent Gibbs, sir," Pearson said, tripping over the words in his haste to comply.

 

 

"So did you have a good last night, Kate? With . . . What was this one’s name?"

 

"Shut up, Tony."

 

"Oh, yes, better be careful what we say in front of the Probie. We don’t want to shock him."

 

"Tony, I really -"

 

"Hey, you three, come here," George Pearson hissed, as Agent Gibbs’s three agents arrived together. He had to tell someone; he simply had to.

 

"Hey, what’s up Georgie-boy? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost," DiNozzo drawled, wandering over to where the man stood.

 

"It’s Special Agent Gibbs," George said, glancing around him.

 

DiNozzo frowned and shook his head. "Nah," he said. "Gibbs isn’t a ghost. Although sometimes I do think he haunts me."

 

"No," George said, resisting the urge to shake the arrogant young man. "He went upstairs with a woman a few minutes ago."

 

"Was she a red-head?" DiNozzo asked.

 

Again George resisted the urge to shake DiNozzo. "No. He called her Mrs. Mallard."

 

"Ducky’s mom? What was she doing here? Was Ducky with her?" Kate asked, flicking back her hair and frowning.

 

"No. But she called your boss -"

 

"DiNozzo, McGee, Todd, get up here now." The harsh voice of Gibbs cut into the group, and the three agents turned as one and began to move towards the stairs. All signs of their larking had fled, as they recognized their boss’s tone.

 

George, however, was apparently not going to be denied. He caught DiNozzo’s arm. "Wait," he hissed, glancing up to see that Gibbs had turned his back and begun to move away. He had obviously been certain that his command would be obeyed.

 

Torn between his boss's order and the prospect of a bit of gossip, juicy too, if George's behavior was anything to go by, DiNozzo hesitated. "Well?" he demanded, glancing back to the stairs. "What?"

 

"This woman, Mrs. Mallard. Ducky’s mother."

 

"What about her?" DiNozzo again glanced towards the stairs; Kate and McGee were already half way up.

 

"She called your boss -"


"DiNozzo. I said get up here now." Gibbs’s voice rang out from above their heads - yet he was nowhere in sight. Juicy gossip or not, because it was now clear that really was what Pearson had to impart, even Tony DiNozzo knew when he’d pushed Leroy Jethro Gibbs too far. He turned and moved off. But Pearson’s grip was tight.

 

DiNozzo was just about to yank his arm out of the grip, when Pearson hissed, "She called Gibbs her 'son’s boyfriend'." With those words, he let go of DiNozzo so quickly, that for a second DiNozzo nearly lost his balance. However, whether his loss of balance had been caused by the loosening grip, or by Pearson's words he couldn’t be entirely certain.

 

"DiNozzo!"

 

DiNozzo fled, taking the stairs three at a time and skidding to a halt by Kate and McGee.

 

"Boss?" He tried to keep his tone 'normal'. At the same time, though, his mind was working over-time. Ducky and Gibbs? He thought as he looked at the latter. The dark blue eyes were as hard as steel, and Gibbs held himself rigid. His face, normally unreadable, now made an ancient Egyptian text look like a child’s book. DiNozzo had never seen Gibbs so . . . So . . .

 

And then he realized he had. Once before. Only a few months before. It had been the time Ducky had been abducted by the morticians. "Boss?" he asked again. "Pearson said that Ducky’s mom was here. Is Ducky okay?"

 

The frozen gaze bore into him, and for a moment DiNozzo felt as though Gibbs was trying to see just what else Pearson had said, but then it moved away to stare over their heads. Gibbs ran a hand over his hair and said, his tone momentarily weary, "Mrs. Mallard says that Ducky is missing."

 

The shocked silence could be cut with a knife. As the three agents glanced at one another, apparently none of them knew what to say.

 

Finally Kate, after casting DiNozzo a ‘you’re the senior agent, you should be asking this,’ look asked, her tone hesitant, "Er, are you sure, Gibbs? I mean . . ." She trailed off.

 

"If, Kate, you mean have I gone round there myself to check, then, no. Mrs. Mallard only arrived about ten minutes ago. If you mean have I tried Ducky’s home, his cell, Autopsy, the local hospitals, plus half a dozen other places that came to mind where he just might have gone, then yes, I’m sure." He all but snarled the words. Then he sighed and less fiercely addressed Kate again. "Kate, I want you to try to talk to her. Hopefully she’ll remember you. Try to discover if she knows anything more. All she keeps saying is ‘Donald has gone, Jethro. Donald has gone.’ DiNozzo, McGee, you’re with me. We’re going round to Ducky’s home now. Here," he tossed a set of keys to DiNozzo. "We’ll take my car - I’ll drive. You bring her round. McGee, get the gear."

 

DiNozzo caught the keys and turned back. "Sure you don’t want me to drive, boss?"

 

Gibbs glared at him. "No, I’d like to get there before dark. Kate, with me." He strode off at speed; Kate had to jog to keep up with him.

 

McGee also followed, heading for the office and their gear.

 

DiNozzo took the stairs two at a time, raced past a still stunned looking Pearson, and headed rapidly to fetch the car.

 

 

By the time they had pulled up in front of the Mallard home, DiNozzo was glad that he hadn’t found time for more than two swallows of coffee that morning, and even that burned his throat as it came and went from his stomach. He’d traveled with Gibbs many times, but never before had he actually felt scared.

 

For a moment Gibbs just sat, hands on the steering wheel seeming to stare into nothing. Just as DiNozzo was about to say something, anything, Gibbs was out of the car, gun in hand and glancing around him.

 

The next second something whizzed through the air towards DiNozzo. "Here. You and McGee take the front; I’ll go round the back. The key’s the one on the blue tag. He’d gone before DiNozzo could say anything. Their own guns in hand, he and McGee moved towards the front door.

 

"Boss." DiNozzo didn’t shout; but he knew his voice would carry and that the tone would bring Gibbs back instantly. He wasn’t mistaken. "The door." DiNozzo nodded. It stood open, swinging very slightly in the breeze.

 

Gibbs glanced once at the door, before nodding to DiNozzo and McGee. As one they slid into a seamless routine. Words were unnecessary; they’d done this many times before. The only sound was the click as three safety catches were slipped off.

 

A speedy, but carefully considered, sweep of the house revealed no one but four yapping Corgis. Gibbs nodded again and the three men re-safetied their guns; at a second nod, the two younger agents slid their guns away. Gibbs shoved his into the pocket of his dark overcoat and once more looked around. His eyes searched the walls, the floor, the stairs, the hall furniture, the pictures, the door; everything came under the dark, steady scrutiny.

 

"McGee, start down here. That’s Mrs. Mallard’s room over there. Leave that until last. And be careful not to let the dogs out. DiNozzo, with me." He headed for the stairs, taking them two at a time; DiNozzo followed.

 

All of the doors were open, as the NCIS agents had left them during their sweep, standing wide and inviting them inside. Gibbs ignored the first three but turned into the fourth. There he stopped and, as in the hallway, the steely gaze swept the room. DiNozzo prided himself on his observation skills, but from the swift sweep of the house, he wouldn’t have known which room was Ducky’s. Gibbs hadn’t even been in the rooms, he’d covered the landing, leaving his agents to check the rooms. So either Gibbs had known which Ducky’s room was, or his blind luck was even better than usual.

 

"Boss?"

 

Gibbs glanced at him. "Start checking the floor and walls, DiNozzo." He pulled on his own pair of latex gloves and turned to the wardrobe.

 

DiNozzo moved to the window and began looking for . . . ? Well, he wasn’t entirely certain what he was looking for. Glancing around, he watched as Gibbs flicked through the contents of the wardrobe, the frown that crossed the tired looking face getting deeper and deeper. "Am I looking for anything in particular, boss?" He finally asked.

 

"Anything. Blood. Signs of a struggle. Damn it, DiNozzo, how long have you been doing this job!" Gibbs snapped. Then he sighed and added more patiently, "Ducky didn’t leave here by his own free will."

 

Before he could stop himself, DiNozzo asked, "How do you know?"

 

The fierce gaze nailed him. Then Gibbs shook his head once, turned back to the wardrobe and answered the question, his voice was low and flat, yet almost conversational. "We both know what Pearson told you, DiNozzo." Then the 'conversational' edge to Gibbs's tone fled, and it became like flint. "So cut the crap and get on with it. Find me some evidence of who’s got him and where he is."

 

You don’t want much, do you? DiNozzo thought, returning to his task. So it was true - well probably. Gibbs hadn’t actually come out and admitted to being Ducky’s boyfriend. But nor had he denied it.

 

 

A frustrating half hour went by, revealing nothing. Not a spot of blood, no signs of a struggle; nothing. Below them DiNozzo could hear McGee moving about, no doubt going through the same routine. From time to time his movements were punctuated with words, clearly addressed to the Corgis who had fortunately ceased their yapping.

 

"Let’s check the other rooms." Gibbs turned and moved towards the door.

 

"Boss?" DiNozzo spoke softly. He had to say it. If it were anyone else, he’d be saying it. He had to be professional. A grey eyebrow was raised, but Gibbs said nothing. DiNozzo swallowed. "Boss," he repeated. The dark eyes looked at him, unblinkingly; the gaze was not encouraging. Nonetheless, Tony DiNozzo was not a man who cowed that easily. "Can I ask something?" he half chickened out.

 

"Go on." The tone, like the look, did not promote confidence.

 

"Could it be that Ducky had just had enough? Of his mother, I mean. He cares for her virtually single-handedly, doesn’t he? She’s senile, Gibbs. It can’t be easy. He spends his day with corpses and death, maybe he just . . . " He trailed off. "Sorry," he muttered.

 

Gibbs sighed. "No, DiNozzo. You’re right. It’s a fair enough question. We’d be asking it if it were anyone else. But the answer is no. He wouldn’t have done that. He couldn’t. It’s not in his nature. Besides, he would have told me."

 

Still DiNozzo pressed on. "Would he?" he asked softly. "Are you certain, Gibbs? I mean you can’t exactly . . ." Again he stopped. This time he didn’t meet the blue eyes, instead he hurried on. "What if he . . ." But even Tony DiNozzo’s courage only went so far.

 

"What if he left us both? Is that what you’re trying to say, Tony?" DiNozzo gave a barely perceptible nod. He heard the heavy sigh. "Because of this," he glanced up. Gibbs was holding a thin gold band in his hand "It was in the nightstand. And, yes, I know, I’m tampering with evidence. But to hell with that. This isn’t going to reveal anything to anyone but me that can’t be found elsewhere."

 

"Boss?" DiNozzo was getting mightily sick of saying the word.

 

Gibbs was turning the ring over in his hand. "It was my grandmother’s ring. I gave it to Ducky a few years ago."

 

"But he doesn’t -"

 

"Wear it? Yes, DiNozzo, I see your powers of observation are as sharp as ever. Just occasionally you remind me why I keep you around." DiNozzo actually enjoyed the heavy sarcasm; this was more like the Jethro Gibbs he knew. "He could hardly wear it, could he? Not without the likes of you asking questions. However, he never, never, DiNozzo, left the house without it. If he’d gone off for the reasons you suggest, he’d have taken it. Leaving it behind is as clear as if he’d written me a note. He knows that it being here without him means that I’ll turn Virginia, DC, Norfolk, the country, hell the world if necessary, upside down to find him. If he’d taken it, he would have known I’d have . . ."

 

"Only turned half the world upside down?"

 

Gibbs looked at him ruefully and shrugged, neither denying nor confirming the words. "Whatever," he finally said. "But I’m telling you, DiNozzo, just as I’m telling you that the sun will rise tomorrow, that Ducky did not leave this room or house by choice. Now shall we move on." It was not a question.

 

 

Over an hour later the three men met again in the hall; McGee was rubbing his ankle and limping slightly.

 

Gibbs cast a half-amused glance in his direction. "Sorry, McGee," he said, his tone contradicting his words. "I should have warned you. They do like ankles."

 

"Yes, boss," McGee managed. "So what are we -"

 

The burbling of Gibbs’s cell phone cut him off. Gibbs dug into the depths of his overcoat pocket, pulled it out, and flipped it open. "Gibbs?" He listened. "What did she say? . . . Is that all? . . . Yes, I know, Kate. It’s not your fault. Tell her I’ll be back soon. . . . What? . . . Oh, hell. Yes, of course. . . . Yes, Kate." He closed the phone. "I have to feed the dogs," he said, and walked off.

 

"What did Kate say, boss?" DiNozzo called after him.

 

"That the last time Mrs. Mallard saw Ducky was around eight last night when he went to his room. About an hour later she remembers hearing the door, followed by footsteps on the stairs." Gibbs kept walking.

 

"And?"

 

He stopped and turned. "And nothing, McGee. She didn’t even think anything was really wrong when Ducky failed to take her her nightly cup of cocoa. It was only when he didn’t take her her morning tea that she ventured up to his room."

 

"But why didn’t she go up last night. When he didn’t take her her cocoa?" DiNozzo nudged him, hard. But McGee ignored him. DiNozzo nudged him again, harder this time.

 

Gibbs stared directly at McGee and slowly, as though talking to a five year old, and a particularly dense one at that, DiNozzo knew that tone, he knew it very well, said, "Because she thought I was with Ducky." He turned on his heel and strode off towards the sound of yapping.

 

"But if she thought you were with him, boss, why didn’t she . . . Ow, DiNozzo, stop punching me." The door slammed shut behind Gibbs. DiNozzo turned to his fellow agent and glared. "What?" McGee asked. "What have I said, Tony?" The ‘this time’ hung in the air between them.

 

DiNozzo stared at McGee, momentarily torn. But the news would be round NCIS by the end of day, possibly even by now. Pearson wasn’t going to keep that piece of gossip to one person. They were a team, and as much as he relentlessly teased their newest member, DiNozzo had a lot of respect for ‘Probie’. Not that he’d ever tell him, but. . . "Gibbs and Ducky are more than just good friends," he said, falling back on the age-old euphemism. To his surprise, he felt his entire body tense up and he held his breath, waiting for what McGee might say. He wouldn’t have thought that the young, brilliant man was homophobic, but . . .

 

"Oh," was all McGee said. "Right. Well that explains everything then."

 

DiNozzo, after letting the breath out and relaxing his muscles, didn’t get a chance to ask McGee just what he meant, as a half-curse came from the direction in which Gibbs had gone.

 

"Do you think we’d better go and rescue him?"

 

"Or the dogs," DiNozzo said.

 

"Or the dogs," McGee repeated.

 

As one they moved towards the door.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Ducky forced his eyes open, shut them again as the light stabbed at them, and tried to prevent a groan from escaping. He hurt everywhere. He hurt like he had never hurt before.

 

Never. Not even back when he’d tumbled head-over-heels down a twelve-foot bank at Eton many decades ago. His fall had been caused by him running backwards to try to catch the cricket ball that, had it landed, would have meant that his House would have lost the prized cup. He had caught the ball; he still remembered holding on to it; he still recalled Matron having to prise open his hand to take it from him. And he could still remember the agony he’d suffered from a broken leg, arm, collarbone and cracked skull. But they had held onto the cup and Donald Mallard had been a hero. A somewhat battered and bruised hero; one who couldn’t join in his House’s celebrations for several weeks; but nonetheless a hero.

 

He wished now for that pain. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. And instead he coughed. The movement sent more searing agonies through his body. His mouth tasted of iron and worse. Oh, Jethro, he thought. Where are you, my dear? Not even for a second, a microsecond, a micro-microsecond, did he doubt that his lover would find him. Unfortunately, another thought did force itself into his mind, despite all attempts not to let it. Jethro would find him; but would he still be alive when he did?

 

Suddenly he sensed a presence. But it wasn’t the one he wanted. Despite the fact that the presence smelled of the same old-fashioned shaving lotion that his lover used, he knew it wasn’t Jethro.

 

He laid still, eyes shut, hardly daring to breathe - it hurt too much anyway. Then a heavily booted foot struck his leg and this time he could not hold back the cry of pain, which caused him to cough again, which made his ribs and lungs flare with red-hot pain. Blood flowed into his mouth and he forced the choking back. He would not die. He would be alive when Jethro came. He would. He would not, could not, let Jethro find him dead.

 

The next second a large hand wound itself into his hair. He tensed, expecting more harshness. But this was even worse. The touch was soft, gentle, caressing almost. So like Jethro’s. He pushed that thought away, whilst at the same time his head moved of its own volition into the caress. He wrenched his head away, sending yet another spasm through his aching body.

 

The man, for man it was, chuckled. "Like that do you, Dr. Mallard. Reminds you of his touch, does it?" He touched Ducky’s cheek, Ducky pulled back immediately. The movement was due as much to the sheer venom that had sounded in the voice as he’d said ‘his,’ as to the touch itself. Ducky now feared that rape was the thing that his tormentor had in mind. If that was the case, then he was even more determined than ever to remain alive. He was not going to let Jethro find him in such a state. And at least it wouldn’t hurt as much as it might hurt some men. Not that it was their normal way of making love, but Donald Mallard was not a virgin.

 

But instead of doing anything else, the man lowered his hand. When he spoke it made Ducky wonder just what his expression had given way. "Don’t worry, Doctor. I don’t want that from you. I’ll leave that for your lover." Again the word sounded like a vile curse. "That is if he’s into necrophilia." Ducky didn’t react.

 

After a second or two, the man went on. "Wouldn’t surprise me. After all you spend your days surrounded by corpses; who knows what other kinks Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs has - apart from fucking you, that is."

 

Ducky’s mind began to work. Pushing aside the vile words, he realized that he had learned something: the man knew Jethro firstly and foremostly as a Marine, not as an NCIS agent. Had it been the latter, Ducky would have expected ‘Special Agent’ to precede the name of the man he loved. But of course him knowing this didn’t really help Jethro in his search. Their supposed, much talked about, telepathy only went so far, and it tended to involve them being in close proximity to one another.

 

He realized something else too; there was something about the man's tone that didn't quite match his words. Indeed even something about his actions that didn't quite match what he'd said either. Yes, he'd kicked Ducky, yes, he'd yanked his hair; yes, he was angry, upset and many other things, that was clear. But there was something not quite . . . But for once Ducky's skill at reading people, his extensive knowledge of the English language failed him and he could not put his finger on quite what it was. He sighed to himself; perhaps it would come in time.

 

"Here." A mug, smelling none too clean, was pushed against his lips. "Drink." Ducky kept his mouth closed. "Don’t worry, it’s not poison. I have to give Special Agent Gibbs a fair chance, don’t I? I can’t let you die just yet. It’d be too easy. Yes, I have to give him a fair chance. Unlike what he gave -" The man came to an abrupt halt, banged the mug against Ducky’s mouth again and this time by virtue of entwining his fingers in Ducky’s hair and pulling, forced Ducky to drink.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

"Did you learn anything else from Mrs. Mallard, Kate?" Gibbs asked, looming over his middle-ranking agent. A look crossed her face and sped away. "Apart from the fact that I’m Ducky’s boyfriend," he said wearily. "Christ, is the whole staff so under worked and bored, that the only thing of interest is my love life? McGee, where’s my coffee?" He snapped, turning just as the hapless McGee came running into the room. "And don’t run, McGee, you’ll only . . . There what did I tell you!" He glared down at the floor where his much-needed caffeine shot was spreading over and seeping into the carpet. "DiNoz -"

 

"On to it, boss." DiNozzo fled.

 

Once Gibbs had downed one large cup of coffee and had started on the second one, the four agents gathered around Gibbs's desk. Mrs. Mallard was being entertained by Abby for the time being, who after Gibbs knew the old lady better than anyone else.

 

"So why didn’t we find any evidence?" Gibbs asked aloud.

 

"Maybe . . . That is . . . Perhaps Ducky . . . It’s just possible that he . . ." McGee trailed off under Gibbs’s stare.

 

"Ducky did not, not I repeat, leave his house under his own free will. He was abducted," Gibbs said slowly, his tone never changing. "If any of you has a problem with taking my word for this would he or she please say so now. And then get the hell away from my desk and my team."

 

Silence greeted his words. He counted under his breath as his three agents shot glances at one another, before hurrying to assure him that they did accept his word. "Good. Now let’s get on, shall we?"

 

"Kate, you said that Mrs. Mallard told you she had heard the door?" DiNozzo asked.

 

"Yes. She heard the door and then footsteps on the stairs."

 

"Okay, did she say whether she heard the door as in hearing it open, or hear the door as in hearing the doorbell or doorknocker?"

 

Even Gibbs glanced at DiNozzo as he asked the question. It was an obvious one, but one that hadn’t occurred to him. Maybe he was too close. Maybe he should . . . But there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would. Not even if the Director ordered him off the case. He looked at Kate. "Kate?"

 

"I didn’t ask. I assumed she meant heard the doorbell. I’m sorry, Gibbs. Shall I go and ask her now?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No, it’s okay, Kate. I want to talk with her myself soon. I’ll ask her. She’s confused enough as it is, too many of us firing questions at her will only make things worse."

 

"I’m sorry," Kate repeated.

 

Gibbs just shook his head. It wasn’t Kate's fault. He should have asked when she’d called him. "Tony?"

 

"If she heard the door as opposed to the doorbell then either someone had a key or -"

 

"They broke in. McGee?"

 

"No, boss. There wasn’t any evidence at all that the door had been forced. I checked - twice. Do you want me to get someone out there to check again?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. He trusted his team. Whatever he said to them; he trusted them - with his life. But what about with Ducky’s? came the unwanted thought. Yes, he answered. Even with his.

 

DiNozzo turned to Gibbs and cast an apologetic look in his direction. Gibbs just met the look. "Go on, DiNozzo," he said.

 

"When you go to Ducky’s house, boss, what do you do? Do you ring the bell or just let yourself in with your key? Do you always do the same thing?"

 

"I ring once, tap the knocker, and let myself in. Why?"

 

"Mrs. Mallard thought that you were with Ducky, didn’t she?" Although he addressed the question to Gibbs, DiNozzo turned to look at Kate.

 

Kate nodded. "She was quite insistent that she believed that Gibbs was upstairs, yes. That’s why she didn’t . . ." Kate’s cheeks flushed very slightly. To the casual, unobservant person, it wouldn’t have been noticeable; to trained NCIS agents it was as clear as a bright summer day.

 

"Which seems to imply that Mrs. Mallard heard your usual signal and thus assumed that it was you. But it wasn’t, was it?"

 

"Well, no, DiNozzo. I think I might have remembered."

 

DiNozzo glanced away. "Sorry, boss," he muttered.

 

"It therefore seems to show that someone other than Gibbs knew his code. But how? Would Mrs. Mallard tell anyone?"

 

Gibbs sighed. "McGee, Mrs. Mallard usually has trouble remembering what day it is."

 

"And Ducky wouldn’t tell anyone, would he? Not deliberately, but maybe it came up in conversation . . .  Or something." McGee’s last words drained away under Gibbs’s stare. It was his turn to flush; but his heightened color would have been clear to anyone.

 

"And before you ask, McGee. No, I didn’t tell anyone, intentionally or in casual conversation." The color became deeper.

 

"Yet someone knew," DiNozzo said. "So how?"

 

The four agents glanced at one another. Gibbs shook his head. "No, it’s ridiculous. I’d have noticed."

 

"Would you, boss? Why? Have you any reason to be on-guard when you go to Ducky’s house? Do you do a perimeter check every time?"

 

"No, DiNozzo, of course I don’t. Okay, so let’s say you’re right. Someone has been watching Ducky’s house, saw me, saw and heard my routine and copied it. How did he get a key?" Realizing he was making another assumption, Gibbs nonetheless let it ride. Saying he/she all the time irritated the hell out of him, and he didn’t need anything else to irritate him, especially as he was waiting to be summoned to the Director’s office. He had to know by now.

 

"Maybe he didn’t need one. Is the house always locked up?"

 

"Yes. Ducky locks the door behind him when he goes to work and locks it behind him when he gets home. And he checks the backdoor too."

 

"But what about when he’s here? Boss, the door was standing open today when we got there. You said yourself Mrs. Mallard isn’t the most . . . Maybe someone got in one day when Ducky was at work, took her key and had it copied."

 

"And then returned, happened to find the door open again, and replaced it? No, DiNozzo, it’s too slick."

 

"What if he didn’t return it?" McGee’s said quietly.

 

Gibbs glared at him. "What?"

 

"I said what -"

 

"I heard what you said, McGee. What did you mean?"

 

"Just that I’ve remembered something that Abby told me. It happened about a year ago. You were away, boss, at a conference. Apparently Ducky told Abby that his mother hadn’t been able to find her key. He just assumed she’d put it somewhere in the house - somewhere ‘safe.’ He checked all her usual hiding places, but when he didn’t turn it up, he wasn’t particularly worried. She’d ‘lost’ her new pair of reading glasses only the month before and they finally turned up-"

 

"In the toilet cistern, yeah, I remember." Gibbs said.

 

"Ducky never told you? About the key, I mean."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Why would he? Had I been here at the time, then, yeah, he probably would have. But with me being away, it wasn’t exactly riveting news. Given how many things Mrs. Mallard ‘misplaces,’ I’m sure that by the time I’d returned he’d put it out of his mind. He probably only told Abby because, well . . . you all know how Ducky likes to chat."

 

"How come Abby told you, McGee?"

 

McGee began to turn slightly pink again, but held his ground. "It just came up in conversation."

 

"Boy, dates with you much be really riveting stuff, Probie. Talking about some old lady’s lost key is hardly my idea of pillow talk."

 

"Tony, I -"

 

"DiNozzo!" Gibbs whacked the young man around the back of his head. It helped - slightly.

 

DiNozzo rubbed his head and moved his chair very slightly away from Gibbs. "So about a year ago -"

 

"Eleven months, three weeks, and two days, to be exact, Tony."

 

"Excuse me?" Gibbs said, turning his full attention on to the newest member of his team. DiNozzo and Kate also glanced his way. The color that had once again begun to fade from McGee’s cheeks returned with a vengeance.

 

"The conference you were at, boss," he said, stumbling slight over his words. "It was eleven months, three weeks and . . ." He trailed off as Gibbs continued to stare at him.

 

"And you know this, McGee, because .  . . ?" Gibbs ignored the mutter, turned into a cough, which came from his right.

 

"I looked it up, sir. Er., boss, er. Gibbs."

 

"And why exactly did you do that?"

 

"I don’t know exactly. It’s just that I always like to have the fullest possible information. You never know when it might be needed. And so when Abby told me about Mrs. Mallard’s key and mentioned that you were away when it happened. I checked the records."

 

"There and then?"

 

The flush, if possible, got even deeper. "Er, no. It wasn’t possible to do that. That is, I waited until the next morning."

 

Gibbs turned his attention away from the hapless young man and glared at DiNozzo who had opened his mouth, daring him to say something. Not surprisingly, he didn’t - or at least nothing Gibbs could object to.


Instead DiNozzo said, "So eleven months, three weeks and two days ago," Gibbs rolled his eyes, "Mrs. Mallard ‘misplaces’ her key. And last night someone used that key to abduct Ducky. Why wait that long? It doesn’t make sense."

 

"Abducting Ducky period doesn’t make sense, DiNozzo."

 

"It does if Ducky isn’t the real target." Kate spoke quietly for the first time in quite a while.

 

Gibbs glanced at her. "Meaning?"

 

"Meaning, whoever took Ducky is really after you." She held his stare unblinkingly.

 

Gibbs felt as though ice water had suddenly begun to flow through his veins. He’d thought that finding someone who hated Ducky enough to kidnap him would have been hard enough, but identifying one person out of the hundreds that Gibbs himself had pissed off, or worse, was a far more major task.

 

Kate spoke again. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Gibbs?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Kate, if it’ll help find Ducky, I’ll answer any amount of question, no matter how personal. Go on."

 

"Did anyone, other than Mrs. Mallard, know about your," for a fraction of a second she paused. Then she went on, determination clear in her voice. "Relationship with Ducky?"

 

Gibbs again shook his head. "To be honest, Kate, I didn’t even know that Ducky’s mom knew. Yes, I spent quite a bit of time at the house; I was there before she went to bed and again in the morning. Yes, she knew that Ducky came to see me. Yes, she knew we were friends. But I didn’t know she’d . . ." He came to a stop.

 

"Put two and two together and got four."

 

"Yes, thank you, DiNozzo." Gibbs clipped him around the head again.

 

"So she might have told someone?"

 

"Who? Mrs. Patterson? Her doctor? The ladies of the bridge club? To be honest, Kate, I don’t think they’d have believed her. She says a lot of things that don’t make sense. Saying her son has a boyfriend, is likely to be perceived as just one of her odd remarks. Even in this enlightened age, it’s not exactly the most common thing a mother says about her son, is it? Especially when the mother concerned is Mrs. Mallard's age and her son is Ducky's age."

 

"But she might have mentioned it," Kate pressed.

 

"I guess so. And I guess that one of them might have repeated it to someone else, but it’s highly unlikely, Kate. At one time or another over the last year or so I’ve met pretty much everybody Mrs. Mallard talks to, and none of them have given me the kind of looks I’ve been getting since she walked into here today. And don't forget, we’re talking about people who are mostly, if not of her generation, then only a bit younger. No."

 

"Okay," Kate seemed prepared to let it go. Then she added, "But did anyone else know?"

 

"Fornell knew."

 

"Fornell? Tobias Fornell? Tobias Fornell of the FBI?"

 

Gibbs stared at him. "Yes, DiNozzo. That Fornell," he said witheringly.

 

"How?"

 

Gibbs glared, then sighed. "My second ex-wife told him. Pillow talk, I believe."

 

"You mean that -" DiNozzo came to an abrupt halt and bit his lip. After several seconds he glanced away and stared down at the table.

 

Gibbs’s head began to pound. Until now the pain had been a low-level throbbing, something he’d barely noticed. But now it had gone beyond that, way beyond that. He closed his eyes briefly, aware that around the table his agents were trying to look at him without meeting his eye.

 

He could say nothing. But what if . . . What if withholding information meant Ducky’s death? What did his reputation matter? After three failed marriages, and now this morning’s news, he wasn’t certain he had much of one anyway. And as much as Ducky’s reputation meant to Gibbs, at the moment Ducky needed concrete assistance, not an unsullied reputation.

 

He made a decision. Opening his eyes he looked at them all in turn and said very softly, "Ducky and I have been involved since we first met thirty years ago when I was in the Marines. When my third wife told me that something, meaning my job, meant more to me than she did, I realized it was time I began listening. One person can be wrong, maybe two, but three . . ." Once more he looked at them in turn. To his surprise all of them met his gaze and didn’t look away. He read no censure, no lack of respect, just sympathy in the gazes. For a moment he almost wished for the censure, he’d never handled emotions well.

 

He was about to say something, if he could think of anything, when the phone rang. It was the call he’d been expecting, the call he'd been waiting for. The Director wanted to see him; now. He hung up and turned to the door. "Keep thinking," he said and strode out of the room. Pretty pointless instructions really. If the person who’d abducted Ducky was someone out to get Gibbs himself, then he was the person best placed to work out just who that someone was.

 

 

"Come in, Jethro," the Director said, rising to his feet and moving out from behind his desk. One look into his eyes told Gibbs all he needed to know. The news had indeed reached his boss. He forced the pounding in his head away and prepared for the worse.

 

"Do sit down, Jethro." He sat. Director Morrow waited until he had done so, before moving back behind his desk and lowering himself into his chair. "I understand that Dr. Mallard has gone missing."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"You are certain that it is a case of kidnapping?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"I see." The cool gaze continued to watch him. Gibbs forced himself to sit still. "Some other information, or I should perhaps say a rumor, has reached my ears. I need to ask you if it is true."

 

"Yes, sir." Gibbs met and held the steady stare.

 

"I see. And do you believe that this will cause a problem for you during your hunt for Dr. Mallard’s abductor? Do you feel that there is a conflict of interests, maybe? Should I perhaps assign other agents to the case? Maybe even someone from outside this office?"

 

Tempted as he was to answer the questions in order, Gibbs simply shook his head. "No, sir. I do not believe there will be a problem for me. In fact Agent Todd has raised the possibility that Ducky’s abduction is directly linked to me, and that whoever took him is seeking revenge for something that I have done."

 

"And yet Dr. Mallard has himself upset people before now. His evidence has on many occasions been the cause of someone going to prison. Could it not be another similar case to the recent one?" And that was why Tom Morrow was such a good director: he asked the right questions at the right time, and did so with the quiet manner that would guarantee a considered answer.

 

"It could be, sir. But . . . I think Agent Todd is correct. And if she is, then I’m essential to solving this case. I promise you, sir. It won’t be a problem." Gibbs kept his tone respectful, but also firm.

 

Tom Morrow simply continued to watch him. "What about for your team?"

 

Gibbs shook his head decisively. "No, sir. Nor for them."

 

"Very well, Jethro. I have always trusted your judgment. I see no reason for that to change now. Please keep me informed of progress. Dr. Mallard is, after all, one of our own."

 

It was a dismissal. Gibbs knew that, but still he sat there. His ears heard the words, his brain computed them, but that’s where it fell apart.

 

"Was there something else, Agent Gibbs?" The voice was quiet; understanding, compassion and a tinge of concern was plain to hear.

 

Gibbs rose to his feet. "No, sir. That is . . . No, sir," he repeated. He stood for a second, still looking into the steady gaze, nodded once and turned to go.

 

He had reached the door when the Director spoke once more. "Oh, Jethro?" Gibbs turned. "I am sorry about Dr. Mallard. You have my sympathies." Now Tom Morrow did lower his gaze and returned his attention to the pile of papers on his desk.

 

Gibbs stood still for another second, before saying. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Then he left the office, more stunned than he’d been when he’d found himself in bed with Dr. Donald Mallard for the first time.

 

 

Gibbs paused for a moment before immediately returning to his team. He leaned on the rail overlooking the office, the place where he and Ducky had stood on more than one occasion, and looked down. They were all subdued, the whole place seemed to be, but then Ducky was probably the most popular member of the NCIS office - in spite of, or maybe even because of, his exasperatingly rambling stories. Gibbs just hoped that it wouldn’t be long before he got the chance to be exasperated again.

 

The pounding in his head had gotten worse; much worse - he even felt sick. It was now so bad that even he could no longer ignore it, and he knew that he couldn’t function at the level he needed to without doing something about it. He would have to give in and take something. Not that he had anything to take. He didn’t get headaches, colds, allergies or anything like that. And on the rare occasions when he couldn’t put up with the pain from an injury, he had his own personal doctor to turn to. But Kate would probably have something - it was the kind of thing that women always had around.

 

He trudged down the first half of the stairs, moving up into a slightly higher gear when he came closer to the office. His team was still sitting around the table, heads together, talking - he knew what about. He moved towards them. "Kate. Have you got any aspirin?" He ignored the look of surprise, shock even, that crossed all three of his agent’s faces.

 

Kate looked up, her face apologetic. "I’m sorry, Gibbs. I don’t. I took the last ones I had myself earlier, and there’s none in the first aid kit either. I can pop down to Autopsy for you, if you like. There’s bound to be something down there."

 

Gibbs came close to saying yes, please. Then shook his head. "It’s okay, Kate. I’ll go myself. But thanks anyway." He strode off. He had to face the place sometime and the longer he left it, the harder it was going to be.

 

 

"Palmer," he said, as the door swished open.

 

The crashing sound of a metal bowl hitting the floor, where it rattled and spun for several seconds, did nothing to help calm his pounding head.

 

"Special Agent Gibbs. I . . ." The look on Palmer’s face reminded Gibbs of a rabbit caught in the headlights of his car. The wide-eyed stare skittered away and Palmer shifted his feet and clutched another bowl so tightly that his knuckles turned white. "What can I . . . I mean is there anything . . . What do you want?" Finally, blushing furiously, he managed to complete the stumbling sentence.

 

Gibbs closed his eyes and counted to five. Finally he managed, "Aspirin."

 

"Sir?"

 

Gibbs tried again. "I’d like some aspirin, please, Palmer. If you have such a thing down here." He tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice.

 

"Oh, yes, sir. We do. Dr. Mall . . . That is. We . . . Here," he pushed an entire bottle into Gibbs’s hands and then turned and hurried out of the room as though the Hounds of Hell were after him.

 

Gibbs stood for a second or two, letting the sudden silence of the room seep into him. He hated the quietness. It was so wrong. So intrusive. So painful. So loud.

 

Gibbs opened the bottle, shook out the usual ‘take two every four hours’, decided that two would not suffice, so doubled the dose. Then after a second’s hesitation, shook two more out. He ducked his head under the faucet, swallowed the pills, grimaced, and finally stuffed the remainder of the bottle into his pocket.

 

He paused long enough to get and drink, at speed, a coffee, before heading for Abby’s lab. It was time for him to talk to Mrs. Mallard. "Abbs," he said quietly, not wanting to break into what seemed to be an intense discussion over . . . paper animals?

 

Before Abby could answer, however, Mrs. Mallard had pushed herself to her feet and was moving towards him. "Jethro," she cried, her voice wavering. The next moment he found himself with a Mallard in his arms; it wasn’t the one he wanted to hold, but for the moment, it would almost do.

 

Her grip, as earlier, was fierce, and as she tightened it even more around his back, he heard the sound of her cane hitting the floor. He gathered her to him and for a moment, buried his mouth and nose in her hair, unconsciously rocking and hushing her, as her sobs became clear. Her own hands were alternating between holding him and moving uncoordinatedly over his back; for a moment he wasn’t certain who was the comforter and who was the comfortee. She smelled, as she always did, of Chanel No. 5, and for a brief moment he revealed in the normality of it.

 

Her tears began to seep through the combination of his shirt and undershirt as still he held her, fighting against a long forgotten urge to shed some of his own. Instead, he forced himself to look up and met Abby’s gaze. It told him everything he needed to know; whether she’d heard it from office gossip or Mrs. Mallard hardly mattered. All that mattered was the complete lack of any kind of negative feeling, not that he'd been expecting any, not from Abby, but even so. Her eyes were also moist and again Gibbs wished he could share in the outward signs of grief; but his worry went beyond tears – way beyond them.

 

Then as though the water had suddenly been cut off from a faucet, the tears that had been flowing copiously stopped and Mrs. Mallard raised her head and looked up at Gibbs. "You will find Donald, won’t you, Jethro?"

 

"Yes, ma’am. Yes, I will." He looked down into her eyes.

 

She patted his arm. "You’re a good boy, Jethro," she said.

 

"Here, Mrs. Mallard," Abby said, moving to where the two stood. "Here’s your cane."

 

"Thank you, Abigail dear," Mrs. Mallard offered a smile. Abby met the smile and offered one of her own. Her usual instinctive reaction when anyone used her full name, the one that Gibbs had even heard her use on Ducky, was absent.

 

He tugged out his handkerchief and handed it to the older woman. "I need to ask you a few questions, Mrs. Mallard," he said gently. "Would that be okay?"

 

"Of course, Jethro," she smiled up at him. He forced back a groan as the pale blue eyes that met his now appeared empty, as they all too often did.

 

Nonetheless he put his arm around her, turned her around and led her out of the room. "Let me buy you a cup of tea," he said, pausing to flash Abby a quick smile.

 

She swallowed hard and he watched one of the tears that had hovered in her eyes overflow and make its way down her pale face. For a moment he paused, but she shook her head fiercely, making her pig tails fly and pointed towards the door. The instruction could not have been clearer.

 

Once they were outside Abby's lab, he offered Mrs. Mallard his arm rather than keep his arm around her, as it made it easier to guide her. They then, moving very slowly, made their way to the cafeteria.

 

 

Once he had her settled at a table, he left her to fetch the tea; as he crossed the room he ignored the looks being cast his way, just as he ignored the way some people glanced away from him and the way other groups stopped talking. It was clear they were talking about him, and about him and Ducky. However, he didn't care; he knew how quickly scuttlebutt passed through the office, by tomorrow it would be old news. For a moment the devil in his wondered if he shouldn't mention to Director Morrow that clearly too many people had too much time on their hands, if they had nothing better to do than to talk about his love life.

 

"Here you are, Mrs. Mallard," he said, putting down the tray of tea. "Want me to pour?"

 

"Oh, yes, please, Jethro."

 

"I doubt it's very good. The coffee isn't." He put milk into her cup and poured what laughingly had been labeled 'tea' on top. He then carefully put the cup and saucer in front of her and watched while she took a sip and then another one. She looked tired and very pale and her hand shook slightly.

 

After a third sip she, far more deliberately than he'd ever seen her do before, placed the cup back on the saucer, folded both hands in front of her on the table and looked at him.

 

He smiled, what he hoped was a reassuring smile, leaned forward a little and put his hand over hers. "Mrs. Mallard, I need to ask you another couple of questions about last night. Is that okay?"

 

She looked at him and frowned; his heart began to sink. She'd forgotten. He was about to speak when she did. "Jethro, you need to be careful of that woman. I think she wants to take Donald away from you."

 

He blinked. "Who? Abby?"

 

She shook her head. "No, the other one, the one who refused to show me her knickers when she was in my home. I told her that –"

 

Gently Gibbs interrupted her. "Mrs. Mallard, ma'am, I assure you Kate is not trying to take Ducky away from me. She is just concerned about him; everyone is."

 

She looked at him, her expression one of uncertainty. "If you say so, Jethro. But promise me you will keep an eye on her, just in case."

 

He patted her hand. "I promise," he said, because humoring her was easier. "About last night, Mrs. Mallard –"

 

But this time she interrupted him. "Jethro, why are so many people looking at me? Is something amiss?"

 

He couldn't tell her they were the center of attention because everyone was talking about her son's relationship with the man she sat across the table from. "Guess they're just curious about who you are," he said. "Now," he spoke more firmly this time. "About last night. I believe you told Kate, Agent Todd, that you heard the door and footsteps on the stairs."

 

"Did I?" He kept his expression neutral. "Oh, yes, so I did."

 

"Okay, I need you to think back, ma'am, back to last night when you heard those things. Did you hear the door as in hearing it open, or hear the door as in hearing the doorbell and doorknocker, followed by the door opening?"

 

She frowned at the question and shook her head a little. "I heard you, Jethro," she said firmly. "At least I – It wasn't you, was it?"

 

He shook his head. "No, ma'am, it wasn't."

 

"But I heard the bell ring once, then the doorknocker, and then the door was opened and closed again. Seconds after that I heard footsteps going upstairs. I was sure it was you, Jethro. It was what you normally do. And there's something. But I can't . . ." She paused and frowned again; Gibbs could see how hard she was trying to remember.

 

"Take your time, Mrs. Mallard," he said gently, squeezing her hand.

 

"Oh, why can't I remember, Jethro?" Now she sounded distressed.

 

Again he squeezed her hand; he was actually amazed she was still lucid and coherent. He could see her fighting to remain that way, but given how tired and strained she looked he knew it had to be a battle she would shortly lose. "Don't worry," he said.

 

"But it's important, Jethro. I am sure it is. It was to do with last night. I . . ." She looked around the room as if searching for inspiration. As her eyes fell on the people huddled around the tables, they all hastily looked away.

 

Gibbs sat in silence, watching her, half watching the room, his hand still covering hers. At that moment, carrying a tray and talking loudly, Robert Dawson passed by the table. As always the over-powering scent of the heavy cologne the man seemed to bathe in hit Gibbs's senses.

 

"That's it!" Mrs. Mallard said, turning back to face him.

 

"Ma'am?"

 

"Scent. I smelt the after-shave you use." He didn't correct her and explain it was shaving cream, especially as he sometimes did indulge Ducky, who rather liked the scent of Old Spice when Gibbs wore it, and did splash a little on before visiting his lover. "Except," she went on slowly, "it was stronger than usual. It was almost overpowering."

 

"When did you smell it?" he asked carefully.

 

"After I heard, what I thought was you, going upstairs, I watched television for a little while. But there was nothing worth watching and Contessa was fussing; I thought she wanted to go out. I went out into the hall and that was when I smelt it. It was very strong, Jethro."

 

"Do you remember how long after you'd heard footsteps on the stairs you went out into the hall?"

 

She shook her head. "No, I – Where am I?" she suddenly said. "And why are you holding my hand? Do I know you? Because I warn you I have a –"

 

"I'm Jethro Gibbs, Mrs. Mallard, ma'am," he said quickly. "I'm Donald's," he threw caution to the wind and said gently, "boyfriend." He waited; half expecting her to ask who Donald was – as she'd done on more than one occasion.

 

"Where is Donald?" she demanded. "And why am I not in my own home?"

 

Gibbs shook his head. "Donald has had to go away for a few days," Gibbs said calmly. "I'm going to look after you until he comes back."

 

She looked at him. "You are not going to put me into a home, are you?"

 

"No, ma'am," he said.

 

"Very well," she said and then, surprising even him with how quickly she moved, she stood up, picked up her cane and turned. "I think I would like a drink now," she said. "You may pour me one."

 

Gibbs stood up too, again offered her his arm and led her out of the cafeteria.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Some time had passed, Ducky didn't know exactly how much, since his captor had force-fed him water, threatened him some more and then had left Ducky alone. To Ducky's surprise the man had untied his hands and feet, refastening one wrist with a handcuff which was attached to a chain, which was further attached to a bolt on the floor. One of his ankles was also shackled in a similar way; however, it did allow him to move about a short distance.

 

To his further surprise over in one corner, just within reach of his shackles, was a crude, but nonetheless apparently functional 'bathroom', consisting of a toilet bowl (with no seat) and cistern, a tiny hand basin and a shower head and drain.

 

He wasn't entirely certainly whether to be pleased or not. At least it implied he didn't have to suffer any other indignities of being forced to soil himself or use a bucket or even just the floor, but it also implied the man intended to keep him there for some time. "Oh, Jethro," he said aloud, as he took advantage of one of the facilities and emptied his aching bladder.

 

Once he'd relieved himself, managed, after several futile attempts to flush the loo and coax some rather dirty looking water from the tiny sink, he turned his attention to the place in which he was being kept.

 

The walls and floor were solid concrete, the door made of what appeared to be, his shackles didn’t allow him to get even halfway to it, thick metal, with bolts at the top and bottom and what, he could see, was a very fancy, very secure, lock. The roof was several feet higher than a normal ceiling and seemed to match the walls and floor, and on one wall several small grilled windows sat snuggly just below the roof.

 

Apart from the bathroom facilities the only other things that were within his reach was a thin mattress, a couple of blankets and a small table, which had been bolted to the floor, on which rested a mug and a plastic bottle of water.

 

There were other items in the 'room': boxes, a couple of chairs, what looked like wireless equipment, and very surprisingly a small teddy bear. Even had Ducky been a Special Agent rather than a mere Medical Examiner, he knew there was no way he was going to escape by himself. Whoever the man was who had abducted him, he was good; he was more than good; and he had clearly been planning the abduction for some time.

 

His shackles, whilst not biting into his wrist and ankle, were tight and sturdy and fastened with the kind of lock Ducky doubted even his expert lock-picking lover could pick. Not that he had anything with which to pick it. His pockets had been emptied, his shoe laces, belt, bow-tie and glasses removed.

 

No, his situation was not a good one. Not a good one at all. Somewhat ironically his life and fate seemed to be at the mercy of the man who had captured him, and the man who loved him.

 

The man who had captured him had spoken of 'giving Jethro a fair chance to find him'; Ducky hoped he had meant his words. He tried to push from his mind the man's inference that a 'fair chance' would not be enough and that Jethro might well find him, but he wouldn't be alive when he did. He had survived before, he would do so again. He had to do so. Anything less was simply not acceptable.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Four long days had gone by since Ducky had been taken from him and Gibbs had barely slept at all. He'd kept going purely on his iron will and cup after cup after cup of coffee; his only food had been what Abby and Kate had virtually force fed him.

 

The headache he'd developed four days ago was still there, sitting behind his eyes and nagging at him all the time. He knew the lack of sleep and increased coffee and very little food was increasing the headache, and more than once he heard Ducky's soft voice chiding him and telling him to rest. But he couldn’t. He would rest when he found Ducky. He would rest when he had Ducky back in his arms. He would rest when he knew Ducky was safe. He would rest when he'd found the bastard who had abducted Ducky and  . . .

 

For a few minutes he allowed his mind to drift off to thoughts of just what he would do once he'd got his hands on the bastard. However, he knew Ducky would never allow him to do them, so regretfully he'd have to settle for justice taking her course. Mind you, if the man tripped over or something similar while he was arresting him, he couldn't be held responsible for that, could he?

 

Despite a mere few hours of sleep, he had nonetheless spent only few hours out of the ninety-six away from the NCIS offices – going out to interview people and search places where Ducky might potentially be being kept prisoner aside. Those hours had been spent at Ducky's Reston home, partly going over ever inch that DiNozzo and McGee had already been over and partly sleeping fitfully either in Ducky's armchair or Ducky's bed.

 

Upon hearing the news about Ducky, Helen Patterson had immediately offered to have Mrs. Mallard and the Corgis to stay with her, and Gibbs had accepted with thanks. During the conversation, Mrs. Patterson had managed to make it clear, without actually saying in so many words, that both she and her grandson, Charlie, were aware of Gibbs and Ducky's true relationship. And she had made it equally clear that it didn't trouble either of them. Quite how she'd found out, she hadn't made clear, but from what she'd said Gibbs reckoned it was his and Ducky's behavior around one another.

 

Oh, well, that didn't matter either. To be honest Gibbs had never cared just who had known the truth. He loved Ducky; he wasn't ashamed of that; he wasn't ashamed of the relationship they shared – and he never had been.

 

He glanced at DiNozzo's, Kate's and McGee's desks, which for the moment were lacking their occupants. It was only because he'd taken a firm line with them that they were going home to sleep. All three of them, along with Abby and Palmer were already putting in far more than their usual hours, eating lunch and dinner at their desks and, apart from when one or other of his field team accompanied him to interview someone or search a likely place, barely venturing outside when it was light. The desks, like his own and the spare desk in his area, together with a purloined table were covered with files.

 

He'd always know he had pissed off a lot of people during his career, but even he'd been surprised by the number that had contained threats, both veiled and overt. Between them his field team and him were going through all of his files, pulling out any that looked 'hopeful'. While they did that, Abby and Palmer were going through Ducky's files to see if any included threats or hints of threats or hints of hints . . .

 

Gibbs was convinced, his gut told him, that Ducky had been abducted because of him; but nonetheless he intended to cover all bases.

 

So far the files had proved to be singularly unhelpful. The handful of cases that looked really promising, either involved people still locked up, dead or who were completely reformed characters. He'd lost count of the number of people they had gone out to interview, and it was not only depressing but time-consuming, as it was something he had to do himself. He couldn't rely on his team reporting back to him. He had to trust in his gut and his instincts.

 

He'd never admit it to the kids, but he was starting to get deeply concerned. Four days was a long time, a very long time, when abduction was involved. Four days and they had nothing, no leads, no hints of a lead, no evidence, nothing. Perhaps most worrying of all was the lack of contact by the abductor – Gibbs would have expected something by now.

 

And it wasn't just NCIS who were working the case, Fornell and his team from the FBI had gotten involved too. But even the combined forces of the best the two agencies had to offer had thus far led to nothing at all. It was as though Ducky had been taken off the very face of the planet; even worse, it was as though to all intents and purposes, Ducky had never existed.

 

The sound of the elevator pinging open momentarily caught his attention and he glanced across the room to see DiNozzo, Kate, McGee, Abby and Palmer all get out and hurry across the room. He wasn't surprised to see either Abby or Palmer, as both of them now spent more time in the squad room than in their own respective areas.

 

He assumed that when Abby did vanish from time to time, she was off fulfilling her Forensics duties for other members of staff. Palmer too tended to disappear on occasions, quite where to Gibbs didn't know, as there hadn't been any new bodies since Ducky had disappeared. Of everyone Palmer seemed to have the most difficulty in meeting his eyes. Despite Palmer's reluctance, Gibbs got the impression that it wasn't the fact he and Ducky were involved that was troubling Ducky's young assistant, but more a case that he didn't know if he ought to be acknowledging he did know. Whatever it was, it wasn't interfering with his work, and during the four days, Gibbs had become fully aware as to exactly why Ducky had been keen to offer Palmer the job as his assistant full-time.

 

"Brought you this, boss," DiNozzo said, handing him a large container of coffee from his favorite coffee shop.

 

"Thanks, DiNozzo." Gibbs took the coffee.

 

"And Kate's been baking again," Abby called, grabbing a container from Kate's hands and hurrying over to Gibbs's desk. She put it down, "These are for you, Gibbs," she said. "And just you." Turning away she glared at DiNozzo.

 

"What?" DiNozzo said, his tone innocent.

 

"Kate told me what happened to the last lot of cookies she made."

 

"So this time I've made two batches, one for Gibbs and one for the rest of us. That's all of us, Tony, not just you."

 

For a moment or two the banter was so familiar, so normal, and Gibbs allowed himself a temporary few seconds of respite, finding a degree of comfort in the way they bickered. But a few seconds was all it was, as the over-whelming pressure returned.

 

"And this was handed in for you, boss," McGee said, coming over to his desk holding an envelope. He wore latex gloves and carried it carefully, holding only the edge. "It's been checked."

 

Even though the chances of finding any helpful fingerprints were remote, Gibbs pulled on a pair of latex gloves himself, nodded and took the envelope. It had been hand delivered and was addressed:

 

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL

SPECIAL AGENT LEROY JETHRO GIBBS

NCIS

 

He merely glanced at the envelope, more interested in the contents inside, before slitting it open, pulling out the single sheet of paper and handing the envelope back to McGee. If it was going to reveal any information, McGee and Abby would be the ones to find it.

 

He read the few lines quickly and then read them again.

 

Dear Special Agent Gibbs,

 

I have your lover.

 

He is, for now, still alive. I thought I'd give you a chance to find him.

 

But time's running out for you – and for him.

 

Soon now, very soon now, maybe even today, maybe tomorrow, I haven't decided, I shall leave him where he is to starve to death.

 

Or I might put a bullet into his gut and let him slowly bleed to death. Again I haven't decided.

 

You owe me a life, you hypocrite.

 

You were responsible for the death of someone I loved. I am now claiming justice and taking someone you love from you.

 

The letter was unsigned.

 

He read the words once more silently and then read them aloud.

 

"Oh," he heard Abby gasp quietly. He glanced up to see her with her hands covering her mouth, tears shining in her eyes.

 

"Well, we know one thing," he said, falling back on the practical as he put the letter down on his desk.

 

"Boss?"

 

"We don't need to look at Ducky's files. The bastard who took him did so because of me. Okay, let's break this down. McGee, take copies of it, pass them round the team."

 

"Yes, boss." McGee took the letter from him and began to hurry across the office.

 

Suddenly he stopped. Gibbs saw him really look at the letter, saw him frown and then hold the letter up to the light. And then he saw him smile. "Boss!" he cried, running back to Gibbs's desk.

 

"McGee?"

 

"This letter was written on a typewriter. One of the type that had the kind of correcting tape whereby you can erase a wrong letter or word and type over it. But they aren't that good; you can still see the original letter or word underneath the new one. Not clearly, for the normal, casual read, it's enough, but if you really look carefully you can see it."

 

"And this helps us how, Probie?"

 

"Because, Tony, the letter wasn't originally addressed to 'Special Agent Gibbs'."

 

Gibbs stood up. "Then who the hell was it addressed to, McGee?"

 

McGee moved nearer to him and held out the letter. "Look, look at the P, E and C and you'll see there are other letters beneath them."

 

Gibbs looked. And looked again. He even tugged his glasses out and looked, but he couldn't see what his young agent could see. "Where, McGee?" he growled.

 

"Hold it up to the light, boss."

 

Seconds from really snarling at McGee for wasting his time, Gibbs did so. "I stil– Well I'll be damned."

 

"Boss?"

 

"McGee's right."

 

"He is?"

 

Gibbs ignored DiNozzo's surprised tone. "Well done, McGee," he said, patting McGee on the shoulder and handing the letter back to him.

 

Abby, after grabbing a pair of gloves, snatched it and also held it up, while Kate and Palmer hovered behind her, squinting up at the paper. "E, R and G," she read out.

 

"I think whoever was writing this, started to type 'Sergeant Gibbs', boss," McGee said, as Abby handed the letter back to him. "Which means –"

 

"He knew you when you were a Marine," Abby finished the sentence for McGee.

 

"Which means all this," DiNozzo waved his hand around the desks and table, "has been a waste of time. We're looking for someone who has a grudge against Gibbs from back before he joined NCIS. Any idea who it is, Gibbs?"

 

"' . . . responsible for the death of someone I loved.'" McGee read out loud.

 

"I'm not sure that doesn't make it even harder," Kate said, sitting down on the edge of the table.

 

"Why?" DiNozzo looked at her.

 

She flushed slightly. "Gibbs was a Marine, Tony. He saw active duty, he must have killed people. He –"

 

"But it doesn’t have to mean that." Palmer said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him and he began to color. "I'm sorry, I'll just . . . Um."

 

Abby caught his arm. "Go on, Jimmy," she said, her tone encouraging.

 

However, Palmer glanced at Gibbs, who gave him a curt nod. "Well, it's just that 'responsible for the death' doesn't mean that Special Agent Gibbs, sorry that Sergeant Gibbs did the actual killing, just that the person blames him, feels that he was to blame. I'm sorry," he repeated. "It was just an idea, that's all. I didn't meant to . . . I'm sure it's . . . Maybe I should . . ." And he pulled away from Abby and started to hurry across the office.

 

"Palmer," Gibbs called quietly. "Come here."

 

After a second of two, Palmer did. He moved towards Gibbs's desk, stopped about a foot away and looked down at the floor. "Yes, Special Agent Gibbs, sir," he stammered.

 

"Never say you're sorry," Gibbs said.

 

"Sir?" Now Palmer looked up.

 

"And don't call me 'sir'."

 

"No, si – Special Agent Gibbs."

 

Gibbs looked at him. "Reckon you could be right, Palmer."

 

"You do?" DiNozzo's tone was incredulous.

 

Palmer's look echoed DiNozzo's tone.

 

"Yeah. You're right, the phrasing's odd otherwise. McGee, go and take those photocopies. Then I want you and Abby to go over the original letter and envelope and see if you can find anything. Could you match the type with the typewriter?"

 

"It would depend on whether there were any letters that were slightly mis-aligned or had minute places where the ink didn't quite hit the page, but basically, yes. It's not a long letter, so there's not much to go on. But there's a good chance if you found the typewriter we could match it to his letter."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Well, you two do whatever it is you need to do. Kate, DiNozzo, Palmer, get all these files put away and then start to go through the letter word by word, phrase by phrase."

 

"What are you going to do, boss?" DiNozzo asked.

 

"Go to the head." Gibbs strode off.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Ducky sat up as the sound of the door grinding open woke him; this was the first time in four days that his captor had reappeared. Ducky was starting to become very light-headed and weak from a lack of food, but he was at least grateful he had a water supply.

 

His wrist and ankle were sore from where the shackles rubbed and his head ached from the lack of food as well as having had no real fresh air. Clearly the windows weren't air tight, but it wasn't the same as being outside, and having the stark lights always glaring down on him was doing nothing to help. His face itched badly from four days growth of stubble and his hair felt grimy from the lack of shampoo. He was also beginning to get very concerned about his rescue – or lack of it. Not that he doubted Jethro, that was something he would never do, but four days had gone by and he was still captured.

 

The thing that bothered him almost more than a lack of food was that he'd been in the same clothes now for four days and despite using the rather pathetic shower each day, the effects of not being able to put on clean clothes were evident.

 

He moved cautiously to the edge of the mattress and pushed himself to his feet. Once he was standing a wave of nausea almost overtook him and he staggered. He fought to regain his balance but to his annoyance he found he was forced to lean against the table in order to remain standing. He locked his knees, put his hands behind his back, drew himself up to his full five and a half feet and stared at the man; looking into his face and maintaining eye contact.

 

"So much for having a Federal Agent as a lover," the man said, crossing his arms and meeting Ducky's gaze. "I thought he'd have found you by now. Of course that's assuming he's even trying. Maybe your disappearance suits him; he's always been a hypocrite."

 

Moving carefully, determined not to show the man how much of an effort remaining on his feet was, Ducky slowly lowered himself so that he was sitting on the edge of the table. "Jethro Gibbs is many things," he said firmly, "but a hypocrite is not one of them."

 

The man sneered at him. "That statement either makes you a fool or a liar, Dr. Mallard."

 

"As you know my name, might I be permitted to know yours?" Ducky didn't expect his captor to answer him so he was surprised as well as suddenly fearful when he did.

 

"Why not? The only way you're getting out of here is in a body bag, assuming there's anything left of you to get out. It's Howard Halliday."

 

As he said the name, he appeared to be expecting or waiting for something - a reaction Ducky thought. The name meant nothing to him, at least he didn't think it did; however, he would be the first to admit that his brain was not functioning at anywhere near a normal level. "Why are you doing this, Mr. Halliday," he said, after the silence became oppressive.

 

Halliday stared at him for several long minutes. He seemed to be studying him, appraising him, weighing him up. Finally he spoke and his tone was heavy with the kind of disbelief you use when you don't want to believe something, but against your will you actually do. "You really don't know, do you?"

 

"I have no idea. But from what you have said, I assume it has to do with something for which you believe Jethro was responsible." Seconds later, Ducky cried out in pain and fell to the floor as Halliday backhanded him across the mouth. He pushed himself to his knees and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he looked up at the other man.

 

"I don't just 'believe' he was responsible," Halliday growled. "I know he was. My son died because of him. My son, Doctor. Have you any idea what it's like to have to bury your own child?"

 

Ducky shook his head and regretted the move as the pain intensified. "No," he said quietly, "I do not. I will not do you the discourtesy of saying I can imagine how you must have felt, because I cannot. Not at any level that truly means anything."

 

Halliday's surprise at Ducky's words was obvious. He physically took a step back, frowned and shook his head. Then to Ducky's surprise he moved forward again and held out his hand to Ducky and when, with a degree of caution, Ducky took it, he helped Ducky to his feet. "You're the first person to ever say anything like that. Everyone else comes out with platitudes and lies that insult me, because they can't possibly know what it's like and they can't imagine it either. How come he ended up with someone as good as you?"

 

Ducky swallowed and again lowered himself onto the edge of the table; he reached behind him and snagged his mug of water. Halliday watched him carefully as he took a sip, trying not to wince as it brushed over his cut lip. "At the risk of further angering you, Jethro Gibbs is a good man. There are a lot of people alive today who would not be thus were he not alive, as well as a lot of people walking the streets still killing and maiming."

 

"That might be so, but there would also be other people alive today if he wasn't. Good people; people who didn't deserve to die, just because Leroy Jethro fucking Gibbs was doing his so-called 'duty'. My son had hurt no one. He wasn't a criminal, he was just foolish and got caught. I can't believe he didn't tell you. Maybe that shows he's a coward as well as a hypocrite."

 

Ducky sighed and gripped the table as the room began to gently spin. "Mr. Halliday," he said, "You say your son was not a criminal and did not hurt anyone, and I believe you. I don't know the circumstance of his death nor do I know Jethro's role in it. However, if you say he was responsible, then again I have no reason to doubt you. But will killing me bring your son back?" He knew his words were foolish, but he was suddenly beyond being weary and in desperate need to relieve himself, even a sip of water seemed to pass through him so quickly.

 

He saw the gun in Halliday's hand and closed his eyes and just waited. He waited for the shot that didn't come. Instead he heard the sound of footsteps crossing the floor, the bolts on the door being shot, the door as it screeched open and then, finally, the clang as it shut again.

 

He sat on the edge of the table now trembling violently, feeling simultaneously hot and cold, and fighting the wave upon wave of nausea as well as his bladder's desire to simply empty itself. For what seemed like an eternity he sat there, until the shaking began to reduce and the nausea slipped away.

 

Unsteadily he managed to make his way to the corner of the room where the facilities were housed and took care of his desperate, painful need. As he leaned one hand on the cistern he wondered why he'd even bothered fighting to get to the loo, why he simply hadn't just wet himself. After all, soon it would be far worse than simply liquid.

 

After swilling his hands he stumbled back to the mattress, slumped down on it and pulled the blankets around him. He was horrified with himself for his thoughts. Of course it wouldn't come to that. Jethro would find him. Jethro would rescue him. Jethro would not give up on him. All he had to do was to hold on until he did so.

 

He could endure it, he had to, people had endured far, far worse than a mere four days without food or clean clothes. Why couldn't he? Hadn't he faced death more than once during his life? Had he not been moments away from being the main course in a tribal village? Had he not been four minutes away from having every drop of blood drained from his body? Had he not risked his life when he had stood up to Ari Haswari?

 

He was Donald Mallard; he could survive this. He could. Especially when the reason for surviving and the prize for enduring were so great. He hadn't lost Jethro to a woman, he was not about to lose him simply because he couldn't last a few days without food. That was unacceptable. He should be ashamed of himself for thinking such things.

 

He would continue to survive.

 

He would continue to relieve himself in the proper place, even if he had to crawl there on his hands and knees.

 

He would continue to shower each day, even though his clothes were getting dirtier and dirtier.

 

He would do this, because Jethro would come for him. Jethro would figure out where he was. Jethro would save him. Anything else was simply unthinkable.

 

With those thoughts Ducky closed his eyes and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

For several minutes Abby and McGee worked in silence, both of them doing their part of the job, as they firstly dusted the letter for fingerprints and then painstakingly studied each and every letter to see if there was any misaligned letters or extra ink or anything else that might make this typewriter stand out from all others.

 

Finally McGee looked at Abby; really looked at her. Her eyes were heavy with dark shadows, her pale make-up was darker than her own skin tone, her hair was dull and lifeless, her pigtails were flat against her head and all of her usual indomitable bounce was absent. "Gibbs will find Ducky," he said, taking her hand.

 

At first he didn't think she'd heard him or was going to answer him or even look at him. But then she raised her eyes and met his gaze. "Will he?" she whispered. "Oh, Tim, it's been four days and we know nothing. Ducky's not a young man, it'll be harder for him. He could be anywhere; he could even already be –"

 

"No, Abby, no. He's alive, I'm sure he is."

 

"Are you? Are you really?"

 

He swallowed hard, called on all his special agent abilities and did what he'd always vowed he'd never do: lied to her. "Yes," he said firmly. "Gibbs will save him."

 

"I hope you're right, Tim. Because I don’t want to think that Gibbs'll do if he doesn’t."

 

He looked at her again. "Did you know about them? Gibbs and Ducky?"

 

She shook her head; then nodded; then shook her head again. "No, that is I didn't know. I kind of, maybe, suspected, but that's all. What about you?"

 

He shook his head. "No. But looking back it explains a lot of things. Gibbs's rage when the Hanlans kidnapped Ducky, the way he threatened Jonathan Hanlan and so many other things."

 

"We've got to help him. We've got to find something. We've got to, Tim. We've got to. We can't lose Ducky. I can't lose Ducky. Now come on, we're wasting time." She squeezed his hand one more time, leaned towards him and gave him a fleeting kiss, and then bent her head over the letter again.

 

He watched her for a second or two. It's not just what Gibbs'll do if we don't find Ducky alive, he thought. She loved Gibbs as a father, but she adored Ducky as a combination of favorite uncle, grandfather, mentor and several other people all rolled into one. He suspected that a very small part of her, a part that maybe even she wasn't aware of, was a little bit in love with Ducky. Normally the idea of Abby being in love, knowingly or not, with another man upset him, but not when it was Ducky – and not just because they now knew about Ducky and Gibbs's true relationship – but because it was Ducky. How could anyone be upset with Ducky?

 

He knew he'd be going home with Abby again that night, just as he'd done every night since Ducky had been abducted. And he knew they'd make love, just as they'd done every night since Ducky had been abducted. Or at least they'd have sex; Abby was so frantic in her needs he wasn't completely sure 'making love' came into it. And he knew she'd then fall asleep in his arms, only to jerk awake three or four or more times during what was left of the night, looking around wildly in case he was missing, before clinging to him in relief. If Abby felt that bad, and McGee knew she did, and he knew how he felt, he didn't want to begin to wonder how Gibbs must feel.

 

 

Gibbs, his habitual cup of coffee in his hand, strode into Abby's lab flanked by Kate and DiNozzo, with Palmer somewhere behind them. "Howard Halliday," he said, in way of greeting.

 

McGee and Abby stopped what they were doing and turned to face him. "Er, boss?" McGee said carefully.

 

"Howard Halliday. I reckon he's the bastard who abducted Ducky." He swallowed a mouthful of the dark, hot, thick liquid and looked at each of them in turn.

 

"Who is he, Gibbs?" Abby asked.

 

"Sit down all of you. And Palmer, either come in or go back to Autopsy, but stop hovering in the doorway." He spoke without turning around.

 

"Er, yes, sir. Special Agent Gibbs, sir. I'm sorry, I'll . . . "

 

Gibbs ignored him and began to speak; however, he did notice that Palmer hadn't left, but had sidled into the room and had even perched on the edge of one of the stools. "Howard Halliday is the father of Henry Wilson Halliday, a young Marine who I served with. He died and Halliday blames me for his death."

 

"Why, boss?"

 

"I was on duty one night and I caught Halliday with another man."

 

"But I didn't think that kind of thing . . . I'm just going to shut up now, boss."

 

"Now, DiNozzo?"

 

"What did you do, Gibbs?"

 

"What do you think I did, Kate?"

 

"Well, I don't know, Gibbs, but –"

 

"I know what you didn't do."

 

"Yeah, Abbs?"

 

"Yes. You didn't turn him in, did you?"

 

"Want to tell Halliday that for me?" He went on. "As Abby said, I didn't do what I should have done and turned him in. Instead I warned him to be careful. I warned him what would have happened if it had been anyone other than me who'd caught him. I told him he was a stupid fool risking his career in that way. I told him if he wanted to do what he'd been doing, to do so somewhere safe, somewhere he wasn't going to get found. Then I told him if I ever caught him again, I'd have no choice but to report him."

 

"And then?"

 

"Then I escorted him back to barracks, told him to clean up, warned him again and went back on duty. Six months later he was dead."

 

There was silence and he could see them all waiting for someone else to speak.

 

Finally, Abby took the plunge. "How?"

 

"Suicide."

 

"But why, Gibbs?" This time it was Kate who asked the question.

 

"That's the question I asked myself more than once. But no one ever had an answer. It seemed to have all been hushed up. One minute he was alive; the next he was dead."

 

"Why does Halliday think you were responsible, boss?"

 

Gibbs glanced at DiNozzo. "He reckons I did turn his son in. And he was about to be dishonorably discharged."

 

"He knew his son was . . ."

 

"The word is 'gay' DiNozzo. Yeah. Apparently a couple of months before he died, Halliday junior wrote to his dad and told him everything. Also, told him about me catching him."

 

"He told his father that?" DiNozzo sounded aghast, disbelieving and stunned.

 

"Why wouldn't he, Tony?" Abby frowned as she looked at DiNozzo.

 

"Well, you know. It's not the kind of thing you tell your father, is it? Would you tell your father?"

 

Abby frowned again. "Of course I would, Tony."

 

"But –"

 

"DiNozzo!"

 

"Yes, boss?"

 

"Shut up!"

 

"Right away, boss."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "This isn't helping."

 

"How did Halliday know that you were," Kate paused for a fraction of a second as Gibbs turned his gaze on her. Then she swallowed and went on, "Sleeping with another man," she said calmly, holding his stare.

 

"Well done, Kate," he said. "To be honest, I don't know. Nor do I know when he found out. But it wasn't at the time of Halliday's death. He blamed me, but he didn't use the word 'hypocrite'. He just poured out a lot of hate and anger and I let him. Hell, if it helped him deal, it didn't worry me."

 

"Did he threaten you?"

 

"Sort of, yeah. But . . ."

 

"You didn't take it seriously?"

 

"No, Kate. I didn't. What could he do? I was – That doesn't matter. What matters is finding him. How he found out about Ducky and me and how he found out how long it's been going on, isn't important."

 

"Are you sure, boss?"

 

Gibbs sighed. "No, McGee, I'm not, not entirely. But my gut tells me to concentrate for now on what we can physically do, not on what we can hypothesize over. The important thing for now is to find him. Find me an address; find me a phone number; find me anything. But find him. I'm going to see the Director; I expect answers when I get back." He picked up his now empty coffee cup and turned to go.

 

"Gibbs." It was Kate's voice.

 

He stopped. "Yeah?"

 

"What if you're wrong? What if it isn't Halliday? You have to admit it's –"

 

"Tenuous?" He turned around.

 

She swallowed and nodded. "Yes."

 

He looked at her; sometimes he thought she had more courage than the rest of them, Abby aside, put together. "Yeah, Kate, it is. But at the moment it's all we've got. Now move, all of you. I want an address."

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

"Kate, DiNozzo. You go around the back. If Halliday appears, do not, I repeat do not, apprehend him. Follow him and call me."

 

"What if he sees us, boss?"

 

"You're fired. McGee, with me." He strode off towards the house, McGee hurrying along at his side.

 

As he did he heard Kate say, "Is he serious?"

 

"You never can tell with Gibbs, Kate. But this time, yes, I think he is. Come on."

 

The single storey house was small and somewhat shabby looking. It appeared as if Halliday didn't have any money to spare to paint the outside or repair a gutter that was hanging half off. The garden was securely fenced and mainly laid to lawn. A path leading to the house somewhat oddly had a handrail along one side of it.

 

They paused by the gate and Gibbs checked his Sig.

 

"Are you expecting trouble, boss?" McGee asked, reaching for his own gun.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Always do, McGee. Always do."

 

"What if he's armed?" McGee spoke quietly and hesitantly, but he maintained eye contact with Gibbs. Something Gibbs respected him for.

 

"I want him alive, Tim. But not at the cost of your life. Understand?"

 

"Yes, boss."

 

"Good. Come on." Gibbs pushed his Sig back into place, waited a second while McGee also re-holstered his gun, opened the gate, noting how well it was latched, shut and re-latched it behind them, and walked up the path. As they walked he kept his eyes and ears on full alert; his gut was telling him trouble wasn't about, but nonetheless he stayed attentive.

 

Suddenly from around the corner of the house came a woman, probably in her mid to late twenties and a young girl of about five or six. Before Gibbs could speak, the girl gave a shriek and ran towards him.

 

"Grandpa. Grandpa," she squealed, throwing herself against his legs and wrapping her arms around them. Then she stopped, took a step backwards and looked up at him, confusion clear in her gaze. "Grandpa?"

 

The woman hurried up to them. "I am sorry," she said, taking the girl's hand and gently pulling her away from Gibbs. "It's not Grandpa, Lisha. I'm sorry," she said again, as Lisha moved closer to her and put her arm around her legs. "Lisha's been blind from birth and –"

 

"He smells like Grandpa, Mommy."

 

"Lisha!" Once again she looked at Gibbs and apologized.

 

"But he does, Mommy. It's Old Spice, Grandpa's favorite."

 

Gibbs looked at the woman. "I do use it; shaving foam," he added, pulling out his badge. "I'm Special Agent Jethro Gibbs. NCIS," he flipped his badge and ID. "And this is Special Agent Timothy McGee." Out of the corner of his eye he could see McGee show his own badge.

 

"NCIS?" She sounded surprised.

 

"Yes, ma'am, that's Naval – "

 

"Criminal Investigative Service, yes, I know. I just don't understand why – " She stopped speaking and shook her head. "Forgive my manners. I'm Aileen McDonald and you've met Lisha."

 

"I'm six." Lisha announced, now moving away from her mother and holding out her small hand.

 

Gibbs squatted down and took it, squeezing it gently and shaking it. "Hello, Lisha," he said solemnly. "It's nice to meet you."

 

"Have you come to help find Grandpa?" she asked, as she now reached out and started to feel Gibbs's head and face. Her mother moved as if to stop her, but Gibbs moved his eyes, indicating he didn't mind. "You're hair's funny," she announced after a couple of minutes of careful feeling.

 

"Lisha!" her poor mother cried again.

 

Gibbs laughed for a second as he stood up. "Yeah, you know what? I guess it is."

 

Lisha carefully moved from Gibbs to where McGee stood. "Who are you?" she demanded, as she tugged on his hand.

 

"I'm Timothy," he said, shaking her hand as Gibbs had done.

 

"McGee crouch down. Let her touch you." McGee obliged.

 

"Your hair isn't funny. And you're younger than Agent Gibbs," she said firmly, after a moment or two. "Are you going to help find Grandpa?"

 

Gibbs looked at Aileen. "Is 'Grandpa' Howard Halliday, by any chance?"

 

"Yes. Yes, he is. I'm sorry, I should have said. I'm his daughter and I'm really worried about him. He's been missing for four days; I thought you might be the local police."

 

Gibbs glanced at McGee and saw an extra level of alertness on his young agent's face. "Er, Ms. McDonald," he said, "do you think Agent McGee and I might have a chat with you?"

 

"Of course. Please, do come in. You'll have to excuse the mess, I'm afraid. I wasn't really expecting visitors and Lisha and I have been sorting out her clothes."

 

"Not a problem, ma'am," Gibbs said, suddenly finding a small hand inside his own.

 

They went straight into a large room that seemed to serve as sitting room, dining room, Lisha's play room and Alieen's workroom. It was spotlessly clean, although the décor, drapes and furniture looked fairly old and mostly didn't match. A few toys were scattered about the place and in the corner stood a sewing machine and material. In a second corner was a computer, like everything else in the room it looked fairly old.

 

Lisha led Gibbs to an armchair and waited for him to sit down. "Would you like a cup of coffee, Agent Gibbs," she said, putting her hands in front of her and linking her fingers together. Her voice took on a serious tone.

 

Gibbs glanced at Aileen who smiled. "Lisha's a very good hostess," she said.

 

"Yes, please, Lisha. I would."

 

"What about you, Agent Timothy?" she turned to where McGee still stood.

 

He glanced at Gibbs who nodded slightly. "Um, yes, please, Lisha," he said.

 

Aileen smiled and took Lisha's hand. "We won't be a more than a few minutes," she said, as they went out a door on the opposite side of the room.

 

"May I have a glass of milk, please, Mommy?"

 

"Yes, darling."

 

"McGee," Gibbs nodded towards another door, which he presumed led to the bedrooms. He stood up and moved nearer to the door Lisha and her mother had gone through, and listened to the sounds of them talking and crockery clattering and water being poured.

 

In less than three minutes McGee was back. "Nothing, boss," he said, keeping his voice low. "No one else is here. There are three bedrooms, a bathroom and a large closet. There are men's clothes in the main bedroom and a desk in the corner, it's not locked, but there's nothing other than a few old bills and other bits there. But on it is a typewriter, the type that has a correction ribbon. Lisha has the smallest room and her mom the other one. There's a small desk in there too, but it's being used as a dressing table with the usual women's make-up and stuff."

 

Gibbs nodded and pulled his cell phone out. He hadn't expected anything else, there was no reason Aileen would have lied to them. "DiNozzo. Gibbs. Halliday isn't here. According to his daughter, he's been missing for four days. You and Kate get back to the office and trace the report she filed on him." Without waiting for DiNozzo to acknowledge his order, he turned off the phone.

 

"How do we play this, boss?"

 

"We have coffee and we talk. Either she's a damn good actress or my name didn't mean anything to her. And they're both clearly worried about Halliday."

 

"Do you still think . . . " McGee trailed off.

 

Gibbs, hearing the sounds of their hostess returning, nodded towards the couch and strode back to the chair he'd been sitting in. "I think it's the best lead we've got, McGee," he said, as Lisha and her mother came back in. Aileen was carrying a tray with three blue and white china mugs, four white and blue plates, and a matching sugar bowl and milk jug along with a coffee pot, while Lisha proudly carried a blue and white plate of biscuits. Gibbs got the distinct impression the china was their very best and the coffee had been made especially for McGee and himself. Not for the first time in his career, he momentarily hated his job and himself – and not necessarily in that order.

 

Aileen handed out the coffee and Lisha the biscuits.

 

"Good coffee," Gibbs said, actually meaning it.

 

"Thank you, Agent Gibbs."

 

Gibbs glanced at Lisha who was sitting on the floor happily eating a biscuit and back at Aileen.

 

She nodded. "Lisha, honey."

 

The little girl looked at her. "Yes, Mommy?"

 

"Why don't you go and play in your room while I talk to the gentlemen. Here," she said, "you can take another biscuit with you."

 

"Okay, Mommy." Lisha beamed and took the biscuit before running off across the room. Had Gibbs not known she was blind, he wouldn't have been able to guess as she moved easily and with confidence. Suddenly the layout of the furniture, which for most homes might be considered somewhat odd made sense. He imagined that whenever anything was moved, for cleaning or whatever, it was placed back in the exact same spot.

 

As if reading his mind, Aileen said, "There are marks on the carpet so we know exactly where to put the chair legs, etc. Within the house and garden it's not easy to actually know she's blind. She can do everything a normal six year old can do for herself, and quite a bit more. Of course we have to watch her more carefully, she's not truly aware of her limitations, which is good in one way, but in another . . ."

 

"It must be tough," Gibbs said, sipping his coffee.

 

"Yes and no. We try, as far as possible, not to treat her any differently from any other little girl. We encourage her to do things any other child would do while at the same time stopping her from doing anything too dangerous. You can't wrap them in cotton-wool, Agent Gibbs, no matter how much you want to."

 

Gibbs nodded. "No, ma'am, you can't."

 

"Dad is wonderful with her. He has always looked after her while I work; he takes her to school, picks her up afterwards and brings her home. Well normally he does. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be able to work and we wouldn't be able to afford to live here. We only just get by, but that's what really matters, isn't it? Dad has a small pension and with my job and a tiny amount coming in from an insurance we manage. Lisha doesn't have that many treats and most of her clothes I make, but we're content. We're happy. Dad's really good with Lisha; I don't know what I'll do if . . . Work have told me if I'm not back by the end of next week, not to bother coming back at all. They only agreed to that, because I said I'd take unpaid leave. And if that happens . . ." she trailed off.

 

"What about Lisha's father? Are you separated?"

 

She glanced down at her lap, before looking up again. "He died," she said quietly. "A few months after Lisha was born."

 

"I'm sorry," Gibbs said.

 

"Thank you. But to be honest I'm not sure he'd have coped. He found it very hard to accept Lisha's blindness, so much so he wouldn't hold her, change her, pick her up, or anything. He – Oh, he wasn't a bad man, Agent Gibbs, not at all. He worked ten, twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. But he just couldn't cope. Some people can't, it's as simple as that. And you can't force them to."

 

"What happened, ma'am?" McGee asked quietly.

 

"Please, call me Aileen, 'Ma'am' is so formal. He, Alastair, was driving home one night and . . . The Police said he fell asleep at the wheel; I don't know. I hope it was that. I'd hate to think he'd . . ."

 

"I'm sure he wouldn't have left you by choice, Aileen," Gibbs said quietly.

 

She looked at him and smiled; he saw tears hovering him her eyes. "He did love Lisha," she said. "Despite everything, despite not picking her up, he loved her. I heard him one night; he didn't know I was in the room. Lisha was asleep, on her back, her arms thrown out to her sides and he was talking to her. He was crying. I'd never seen him cry before. He told her Daddy loved her very much and how beautiful she was and how clever she was going to be and - I'm sorry, you didn't come to hear me talk about Lisha." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and blinked several times.

 

"No," Gibbs acknowledged.

 

"What did you come here for, Agent Gibbs?" She frowned a little and put her head slightly on one side.

 

Gibbs swallowed and sat forward a little. "We were hoping to see your father," he said.

 

"Dad? But why? What possible connection could Dad have with NCIS? He has no involvement with the Navy or the Marines."

 

"Not directly, no. But his son did. Your brother."

 

"Henry?" She blinked at him and the astonishment in her tone was clear.

 

"Yes," Gibbs said.

 

"But that was almost thirty years ago. And Henry's dead."

 

"Yes, I know." Gibbs spoke flatly.

 

"Then why . . . ? Wait a minute; did you say your name as Jethro Gibbs?"

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"Leroy Jethro Gibbs?"

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"The same Leroy Jethro Gibbs who served with Henry?"

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"The man Dad has always blamed for Henry's death?"

 

Gibbs held her gaze. "Yes, ma'am," he said flatly.

 

She gasped, turned ashen, and put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, my God," she whispered. "What has Dad done?"


Before Gibbs could answer, McGee touched his arm. "Er, boss, shall I go and play a game with Lisha or maybe read to her?" he said, his tone earnest. "Would that be all right, ma'am"? he added, turning to Aileen.

 

"What? Oh, of course. Yes, Agent McGee. That would be kind of you. There's no need for her to hear this and I don't want to . . . Thank you. I'll just come with you and tell her."

 

McGee moved to the edge of his seat. "Boss?" he said again, glancing at Gibbs.

 

"Go and play, McGee," Gibbs said, nodding. "Just remember she is only six."

 

"Yes, boss."

 

"Oh, we never let her win at games, Agent Gibbs. That wouldn't be right." Then she looked at McGee. "Please don’t take this the wrong way, Agent McGee, but do you have any experience with children?"

 

"Don’t worry, ma'am. I have a younger sister." McGee's smile was reassuring.

 

Gibbs watched his most junior agent and Aileen walk across the room. Once again he was hit by the knowledge that his gamble, which he'd confessed to Ducky had been the most risky one he'd ever taken, had paid off; more than paid off. McGee was already a good Special Agent and would become an even better one.

 

He heard Aileen talking to Lisha, heard Lisha clap her hands – her high voice sounded excited - and heard McGee say something, but he couldn't catch the words.

 

When Aileen returned she carefully shut the door behind her before crossing, her steps very precise, you'd almost have thought she was blind, not her daughter, back to her chair. She sat down, her movements still slow and precise and reached for her coffee mug. She frowned when she realized it was empty and put out her hand towards the pot of coffee.

 

Gibbs saw how badly it was shaking and instead picked it up himself and poured some more of the hot liquid into her mug and then topped his own up. "Here," he said, handing it to her.

 

"Thank you," she said, wrapping her hands around the china and hunching her shoulders. "Tell me," she said, after she'd taken a sip.

 

Gibbs looked at her, swallowed some coffee before saying, his tone almost conversational, "First tell me why you think your father has done anything?"

 

She closed her eyes. "Because for as long as I can remember he's always vowed to get his revenge on you for what you did."

 

"And what did he tell you I did?"

 

"Reported Henry for being a homosexual, which led to him killing himself. Which would have been bad enough, but then Dad found out that you –" She stopped speaking and flushed slightly. "That was what pushed him over the edge. That was what made him determined to seek revenge; until then he just badmouthed you, ranted about you, blamed you, made threats that he didn’t mean. But then when he found out . . . But even so I was sure it was just talk. After all, what could he possibly do to you? Did you report Henry?" Her tone changed and she looked unblinkingly at Gibbs.

 

He shook his head. "No."

 

"But you did catch him with another man?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And?"

 

"And I warned him he had to be more careful. I told him he was a fool to get caught. And next time I'd have no choice. But there wasn't a next time and I never reported him."

 

"Are you gay?" She asked the question quietly, but firmly, meeting his gaze and holding it unblinkingly.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Technically as I have three ex-wives, no. But I do have a male lover."

 

"So Dad was right." She spoke softly and looked away.

 

"He was right about that, yes. But not that I turned Henry in."

 

"Why should I believe you?"

 

Gibbs shrugged again. "I don't know."

 

She looked at him in silence for a moment. Then she closed her eyes and sighed. When she spoke her voice was soft and flat. "I never knew Henry; he died before I was born. My parents had me to try to replace him, but I couldn't. You never can, can you?"

 

"No." Gibbs answered, even though he doubted she heard him.

 

"I grew up hearing about how wonderful Henry was, how brilliant he was, how he could turn his hand to everything, and how terrible it was that he'd died so young. There were pictures of him all around the place, and at first I thought he'd died serving his country. I was ten when I learned the truth. It was my tenth birthday and I was having a party. I had a new dress and a new ribbon for my hair and I felt, like a princess. Dad came into my bedroom, sat down and told me I was old enough to know how my brother had died. I don't think I really took in what he was saying; I heard the words, but I was ten, Agent Gibbs, and it was birthday. At ten when it's your birthday you're selfish, and all I could think about was my party. It wasn't until a few months later that I really understood how he'd died. That he'd taken his own life. But it wasn't until I was twelve that I was told why and your name was mentioned for the first time. Mom had died by then, and – But that's not important."

 

"Did your dad blame me for that too?" Gibbs spoke quietly.

 

She flushed again. "I was twelve, Agent Gibbs. My mommy had died. I . . . Dad hated you, and as awful as this sounds for a few years I thought that was a good thing. His hate kept him going, or so I thought. He'd never been a hands-on father before; he believed it was the woman's job to look after the kids. But after mom died he was amazing. He was there for me, he came to every parents' evening, he took me shopping for Prom dresses, he'd help with my homework, he sat up with me when I was sick, or held me when I cried. He even – Sorry, that's unimportant. I got carried away." Her flush deepened.

 

"He sounds like he was a good father." Against his will, Gibbs believed his own words. But that didn't change anything. Good father or not, if he'd . . .

 

"He was, Agent Gibbs. He still is. And as I said he's a wonderful grandfather. But he's done something awful, hasn't he? That's why he's missing? That's why you're here?"

 

Gibbs nodded; then he shrugged. "We think so," he said.

 

"Please tell me. Tell me what you think he's done."

 

"A good friend of mine, a very good friend of mine –"

 

"Your lover?" She held his gaze; her tone dared him to deny it.

 

He gave a rueful half-smile. "Yes, my lover. He's also missing. He was abducted from his home four nights ago."

 

He watched her swallow. "And you think Dad . . . You think Dad's responsible?"

 

He nodded. "Yes, Aileen. I'm afraid I do."

 

"Why? I mean, forgive me, Agent Gibbs, but I'm sure a man in you position, doing the job you do has . . ."

 

"Pissed off a lot of people over the years? Oh, yes."

 

"Then why single out Dad?"

 

"Because of the wording in a letter that was sent to me." He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper; it was a copy of the original letter. He held it out to her. As she took it he added, "And it isn't just the wording you can see there. On the original the 'Special' had been overtyped with the beginning of 'Sergeant'. Your father knew me as 'Sergeant Gibbs'; I met him, a couple of times."

 

He watched her read the letter and then re-read it before letting it fall loosely between her fingers. "That's Dad's," she said. "That's what he used to call you and he regularly used the words 'justice' and 'owing him a life'. Dad wrote this, Agent Gibbs. I'd stake my life on it."

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Again Ducky was woken by the sound of the door screeching as it opened. Again he slowly moved to the edge of the mattress and sat up. Again he watched as Halliday came across and stopped outside of where Ducky's shackles would allow him to reach.

 

Halliday stood in silence for several minutes just watching Ducky. Then he reached behind him and pulled out a gun. Ducky tensed, but remained seated. He heard the safety being pushed off and saw Halliday tighten his grip.

 

Ducky forced himself not to close his eyes, but to face the man who would now certainly kill him. He allowed himself to think of his lover, to remember how he looked, how he smelt, to recall the tone of his voice, how he always spoke to, and looked at, Ducky in a completely different way from the way he spoke to or looked at anyone else – even his wives or girlfriends.

 

He remembered the feel of Jethro's gun callused hands as they caressed him, as they soothed him, as they touched him, as they made love to him. He remembered Jethro's mouth on his own, his tongue inside Ducky's mouth, he remembered the feel of his lips as they moved over his body, how they kissed his ears, his nose, his cheeks, how they'd linger over his neck, sucking and licking, always stopping just short of marking Ducky. How they'd move down Ducky's body, loving him, paying homage to his chest, his stomach, how they'd flirt with his groin, how they felt when they surrounded his erection. How they knew exactly how to love Ducky.

 

He allowed himself to slip into his imagination to see, hear, feel and smell Jethro, to imagine he was with him now, holding him, kissing him, caressing him, telling and showing him how much he loved him. Making love to him in so many different ways and places.

 

He felt the peace and contentment wash over him. He had lived a good life; he had been loved by, and had loved, a wonderful man. He had been adored, cherished, respected; he had made many friends, and although he had always known he would never have a family in the traditional sense, he had experienced the joy of five grown-up 'children'. He knew they would all mourn for him, Abby most of all. He knew they would all want revenge for his death; he just hoped his beloved would be able to calm them, comfort them. He hoped in turn the children and Tobias would find a way to comfort Jethro.

 

He didn't blame Jethro for not finding him in time; he hoped his lover would know that. He hoped Jethro would survive his death, he wasn't certain he would, but he prayed he would do so. He hoped his mother wasn't truly aware of what had happened; he knew that Jethro would care for her, would make sure she was well looked after. He thought about the Pattersons, grandmother and grandson, and what wonderful people they were; how good they'd both been to him and his mother. He'd been wrong; he'd had six children, not just five.

 

I love you, Jethro, my dearest. I know you would have done your best to find me; please do not blame yourself for not doing so. I do not blame you; I am not going to say I forgive you, as there is nothing for which I have to forgive you. He wished he could say the words; he wished he could write them; he wished that the telepathy the children were convinced existed between Jethro and himself was real – if so, Jethro would know that Ducky's last thoughts were of him. Of course had telepathy existed, Ducky wouldn't be having such last thoughts as he'd already have been rescued. Indeed –

 

He shook himself as he heard his lover snap, in his own personal fondly exasperated way, 'Duck'! He wondered whether other people rambled in their minds. He felt sure they must do. He thought about his will; he hoped Jethro would know where to find it – at least the children would have something from his death. He knew it wouldn't help, not really, but at least Jimmy would be able to go to Medical School and maybe Abby and Timothy could find a home together and –

 

Once again he turned his mind to one person and one thought: Jethro.

 

He was ready now.

 

He was ready to die.

 

He blinked to clear his eyes and mind and looked at Halliday.

 

The man hadn't moved. He still stood holding the gun at Ducky, his finger on the trigger. Why had he not fired? Was it possible he couldn't? As he looked at him, Ducky's mind returned to the thoughts, the impressions, he'd had the first time Halliday had spoken to him – and even since then. Now, as then, something didn’t quite ring true; it was as though the man was torn – but that wasn't possible. It was clear, it had always been clear, what he intended to do. Ducky knew people, yes, but surely he was just trying to project, despite his belief in his readiness, his desperate desire to stay alive onto Halliday and his actions.

 

Suddenly Halliday broke the silence, broke the tableau. "Death by starvation must be a lingering death," he said.

 

Ducky nodded. "Yes," he said quietly. "It is."

 

"Much quicker by a bullet."

 

"In most cases, yes. Although there have been many cases where the death is a lingering, painful one – it all depends on where the bullet enters the body. And the competence of the shooter can also play a part in things."

 

"So if I put a bullet through your brain it'd be kinder than walking out of here and leaving you to starve to death?"

 

Ducky was silent for a second or two. "Are you offering me the choice, Mr. Halliday?" he finally asked.

 

Halliday frowned and started slightly; it was as if Ducky's question had surprised him – or maybe his own actions did. He let the grip on the gun loosen and slowly he lowered it, holding the barrel towards the floor. "And if I was?"

 

Ducky took a deep breath and mentally crossed his fingers. "Then I would choose the former," he said quietly.

 

"You believe in him that much?" Halliday's tone was a mixture of scorn, disbelief, surprise and just a hint of awe.

 

Now Ducky pushed himself to his feet and stood knees locked, his hands behind his back. He swallowed; his mouth was dry, his throat like sandpaper, swallowing, let alone speaking, was painful. Nonetheless he forced the words out. "Yes, Mr. Halliday. Yes, I do."

 

Halliday looked at him; his expression matched the tone he'd used a few moments ago. "I don't know whether that makes you a damned fool, naďve, brave or a masochist."

 

Ducky just continued to stare at Halliday, making certain his expression did not give any hint of the tiny bit of doubt that had crept inside him. The bit, so small but so insidious, it began to eat into him; the bit that said: 'nor do I'. Instead he simply stood there and kept his expression neutral.

 

"That's your final choice, is it?"

 

Ducky nodded. "Yes."

 

"If I walk out of here now, I won't come back. Not ever. And if you're thinking I'll have a change of heart and let him know where you are, you can think again. I go now, Dr. Mallard, and you'll almost certainly starve to death, you get to die a long, lingering, painful, bitter death."

 

"I understand," Ducky said.

 

"Whereas if I . . ." Halliday raised the gun again.

 

Ducky shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "No thank you, Mr. Halliday. My mind is made up. I shall wait for Jethro."

 

Halliday shook his head and just stared at Ducky, his amazement now utterly clear. "He really doesn't deserve you," he said. And then he simply turned and without another word walked across the room to the door, opened it, went through it and shut it again.

 

Ducky heard the lock being turned and the outside bolts being pushed into place. He sighed and slowly lowered himself back down onto his mattress. There he began to pray, as he had never done before, that he had made the right decision. That his faith in his lover was sound.

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

When Gibbs, still accompanied by McGee, got back to the office, he found Fornell sitting at his desk, using his computer. "FBI's computers gone down, Tobias, or did you just want a change of scene?"

 

"I see you still haven't got a password to protect your computer."

 

"Nah, seemed no point. Not with you dropping by all the time." For a moment or two, Gibbs enjoyed the banter with his second closest friend. He met Fornell's gaze and read all the things he wanted to say, but never would. He nodded briefly, accepting, acknowledging and thanking Fornell, also saying things he couldn't say aloud, things he sometimes struggled to say aloud – even to Ducky.

 

Then he moved behind his desk, pulling off his coat and tossing it over the low filing cabinet. "Suppose you're not comfortable either, seeing as I still haven't gotten lumber support," he said, leaning over Fornell to put his Sig away in the drawer. As he did, Fornell briefly touched the back of his hand; like the look it said so much. In turn as he straightened back up, Gibbs's fingers brushed Fornell's shoulder.

 

"So you just passing by or you here for a reason?" Gibbs asked.

 

"I was nearby and thought I'd drop in and see if there was any news."

 

"Some," Gibbs said, moving away from his desk towards Kate's and DiNozzo's desk. "What have you two got for me on Halliday?"

 

DiNozzo looked up at him from whatever he was reading. "Not much, boss. An Aileen McDonald, who says she's his daughter, filed a missing person report on him three days ago."

 

"And?"

 

"And nothing. The local LEOs asked her some questions about friends in the area, stuff like that, you know the drill, but to be honest, boss, they aren't that worried. They think he's probably just gone off for a few days break. And they're short-handed – stomach flu."

 

"Tell them we'll take the case over. Tell them it links with one of our cases."

 

"Already did that, boss. They seemed more than happy with it."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Nice work, DiNozzo," he said, nodding and turning away to return to his desk.

 

"What did you find out, Gibbs?" Kate asked, standing up and coming towards him.

 

"His daughter's certain he did kidnap Ducky. She also told us that he's a good father and grandfather who is loved by his daughter and granddaughter." Gibbs walked back to his desk. "You planning on sitting there all day, Fornell? Or can I have my chair back now."

 

Fornell rolled his eyes, stood up and went to sit on one of the chairs that still stood around the table. "Is that it?" he asked.

 

"Pretty much, yeah," Gibbs said as he sat down. "Granddaughter's blind and Halliday looks after her while her mom works. Money is tight; if Halliday doesn’t turn up again soon, Aileen McDonald will lose her job."

 

"Doesn't she have any idea, Gibbs, where her father might have gone?"

 

"Gee, Kate, I forgot to ask her."

 

Kate's face flushed. "I'm sorry."

 

"Yeah, Kate, I know. No, she didn't. Her father doesn't have any friends in the area, not left alive anyway. He's never talked about going anywhere; she's never heard him on the phone. He doesn't get any post apart from bills and circulars; he doesn't write letters. There's nothing – other than she's sure he's done it." Gibbs rubbed his temples with his fingers and stared at his blank screen.

 

"Do you believe her, Jethro?"

 

Gibbs looked at Fornell. "Yeah, Tobias, I did. She wants to find him as much as I do. She didn’t try to cover anything up, she knew about her brother, how he died, and how her father blames me. If she genuinely knew where he was, or even had an idea, I'm sure she'd have told me. She loves him."

 

"Lisha said she hears her mommy crying at nights," McGee said. "She says her mommy is really worried but tries to hide it."

 

Gibbs nodded. "Yeah, McGee. She is." He sighed again, suddenly aware of how utterly exhausted he was. It wasn't just the hours he was putting it, he was used to working long hours. It wasn't even the lack of sleep; again he was used to that. It was the emotional side of the whole thing; the fact that it was the person he cared most about in the whole world who was missing. And he felt so impotent; he'd had four days and had come up with nothing. Less than nothing. Okay so now they knew it was Halliday who had abducted Ducky, but that didn't help; nothing short of knowing where he'd gone, going there and finding Ducky still alive would.

 

"Did Halliday's daughter say anything else?"

 

"She was sure her dad wouldn't kill Ducky," he paused and then added flatly, "at least not outright. She swore he couldn't take another person's life with his own hands."

 

"That's something, boss."

 

Gibbs looked at DiNozzo. "Course she didn't say he wouldn't just leave him wherever it is he's taken him to starve to death." He stood up and strode across the office. "McGee, get Halliday's typewriter down to Abby. Get her to run tests on it."

 

"Er, what kind of tests, boss?"

 

Gibbs glared at him. "I don't know, McGee. What kind of tests do you think? Piss tests, DNA, fingerprint tests, virus tests, hair tests, I don't know. Just do it. Find me something!" And with that, he turned and strode across the office to the elevators.

 

One opened just as he arrived and he slammed inside, growled at the door to shut, pushed the down button and after a second or two pushed the emergency stop button. He then sagged against the wall, sliding down until he was sitting on the floor, leaned his head back, banging it hard, put his arms on his knees and closed his eyes. "Duck," he whispered, fighting the tears that had been lurking at the back of his eyes since the moment he'd discovered his lover had been taken from him. Tears that, no matter how much he wanted to be able to shed them, to be able to take refuge, even for a few seconds, in, would not come.

 

"Oh, God, Duck. Where are you?" He waited, he knew it was foolish, but he waited for the reply. When it didn't come he absurdly felt let down. "I will find you, Ducky," he vowed, pushing himself to his feet and hitting the emergency button again. "I promise you, I will find you and when I get my hands on that bastard, I'll –"

 

 

McGee stood, his mouth slightly open, watching Gibbs stride away. "Er," he said, looking around, "did he mean that?"

 

Fornell looked at Gibbs's most junior agent. "He did. You can probably skip the piss test, McGee, but, yes. You'd better run some tests on it." He grabbed his own overcoat and walked across the office in the same direction as Gibbs had gone.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Gibbs and Fornell sat in Ducky's sitting room, a glass of Ducky's malt whiskey in their hands.

 

Gibbs hadn't gone back to the squad room after he'd strode off; he'd needed some time by himself. He'd needed some time to gather his emotions back under control, to regain the focus he'd momentarily lost. He had needed some time to come to terms with the fact that he had discovered nothing. That Ducky needed him more than he'd ever done before and he was doing nothing.

 

Once he'd gotten himself back under control he'd called the office and told DiNozzo to take Kate and McGee back to Halliday's house and start searching around the general area, spreading out further and further. He'd given silent credit to the fact that DiNozzo didn't ask 'what for' or point out that surely Halliday wouldn't risk being so near to his home. He had no hope of them turning anything up, but he couldn't just sit by any longer and do nothing. It wasn't in his nature.

 

"Tell me again why you're here, Fornell?" he demanded, looking across at the other man.

 

Fornell met his gaze. "Thought you might need some company," he said, swallowing some more whiskey.

 

"And if I said I didn't?"

 

"It's a bit late for that now. I'm here."

 

"Yeah, noticed that." Not that Gibbs was protesting, not really. He was glad of the company; he couldn't have borne anyone else, but Fornell was okay. And he'd known for quite some time about his relationship with Ducky, so that at least wasn't a new thing.

 

Fornell looked at him and put his head slightly on one side. Then he leaned forward a little and said, his tone softer than any Gibbs had ever heard him use before, "How are you, Jethro? Really?"

 

"How do you think?" Gibbs snarled.

 

Fornell just nodded and sat back again. "Thought as much," he said. "We will find him, Jethro, you know that, don't you?"

 

"Yeah. Yeah, I do, Tobias. But will it be in time? We've got nothing, no leads. Nothing. It's as if the man spirited Duck away."

 

"At least you know it's Halliday who took him."

 

"Yeah, and I thought that would help. But we're still no nearer."

 

"Wasn't there anything at his house? Or didn't you –"

 

"Search it? Yeah, we did. Not that there was much to search. His desk held a few bills and photographs, the letter his son had written him telling him about how I'd . . . But other than that, nothing. Fuck it, Tobias. Nothing!"

 

"Ducky's strong, Jethro."

 

"Yeah, but he's not exactly young, Tobias. Oh, I know he's not old, I tell him that enough. But he's sixty-three; okay, so he's in excellent health, but . . . Shit, Tobias, he's not used to roughing it, he's not trained."

 

"I thought you said he was in the Army?"

 

"He did a Short Service Commission; he also spent a few months in 'Nam as a medic, and I know some of the places he visited around the world weren't exactly luxurious. But that was years ago, decades really. He's been in the US or other 'civilized' places pretty much since he and I met in '75." Gibbs closed his eyes and put his head right back.

 

"He's fit though, isn't he? I mean . . ."

 

Gibbs laughed for a few seconds as he saw Fornell stumble over the words and what he might have implied. He was glad Fornell had come round, he might not be able to come out and say so, but he was. He really appreciated it. "Yeah," he said, draining his glass. "He's fit."

 

"Sorry, didn't meant to –"

 

"Didn't you?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow. As in the office a few hours earlier, it felt good to, if only for a second or two, if not relax, then at least allow what laughingly passed for 'normality' around him, touch him. "You want another?" he asked, pushing the bottle towards Fornell.

 

"That depends."

 

"On?"

 

"Whether you're going to offer me a bed for the night. I assume Ducky's the kind of person to always have a spare room ready for guests." Even as he spoke though, Fornell was reaching for the bottle.

 

Gibbs smiled a little. "Yeah, he certainly is."

 

"Is that an offer?"

 

"Reckon it must be."

 

"In that case," Fornell snagged the bottle and poured some into his glass. "You want some?"

 

"Sure, why not," Gibbs pushed his own glass towards Fornell.

 

"It's certainly better than that paint stripper you keep in your basement." Fornell held up his glass and said quietly, his tone and the look in his eyes solemn, "Ducky."

 

Gibbs briefly inclined his head and touched his glass to Fornell's. "Ducky," he said. "You know –" the sound of his cell phone silenced him. "Probably DiNozzo telling me they haven't found anything," he said, flipping it open. "Yeah, Gibbs?"

 

"Agent Gibbs, it's Aileen McDonald. I think I've found something."

 

"Where?"

 

"It was something Lisha told me. She said that she and Dad had buried something in the garden, time capsules, that kind of thing. She'd put one of her – I'm sorry, I'm rambling. Anyway, I began to wonder what Dad might have buried and why; I told myself it was nothing. But then I thought 'what the hell', so I got Lisha to show me where Dad had dug and I dug it up."

 

"And?" Gibbs held his breath.

 

"And I think you should see what I found. I'd come to you, but Lisha's asleep; I'm afraid she got rather upset after you and Agent McGee had gone – oh, it wasn't Agent McGee's fault, she really enjoyed the time she had with him. But it –"

 

"Made her think about her grandfather more?"

 

"Yes. I finally got her settled for the night and she's running a slight temperature from crying, so I really don't want to –"

 

"I'll be over straight away. Probably about half an hour, maybe a bit more."

 

"I'll be here. Oh, and Agent Gibbs."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I found something else too, purely by chance. There was a spider and Lisha's really scared of them, don't ask me how she knows one is about, but she does. I had to move a bureau and I found a letter. A letter from Henry. It hadn't been opened. It was postmarked the day he died. It was sticking out from under one of the drawers, through a gap in the wood. I have no idea how it come it had never been opened. My parents weren't living here when Henry died, so I can only assume that one of them pushed it into the drawer, maybe they couldn't cope with reading it, and then it just got forgotten. But that's irrelevant now. I opened it and – Well, it's far better you read it for yourself, Agent Gibbs, but it does prove that you didn't play any part in Henry's death. . . . Agent Gibbs? Agent Gibbs? Are you still there?"

 

"Yes. Yes, I am. I'm coming over now." He clicked off his phone and stood up. "You coming?" he said, barely pausing to see if Fornell was going to answer. Not that he needed to, as Fornell had already been on his feet from the moment he'd told Alieen he would be over.

 

"Where we going?"

 

"Halliday's – his daughter's found something." He grabbed his car keys, jogged to the front door, flung it open and was down the porch steps and putting the key into the ignition almost before Fornell had closed the front door. "Damn," he muttered to himself, climbing out the car again and pulling another set of keys from his trouser pocket. "Tobias," he called as he threw the keychain in Fornell's direction. "Lock the door."

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Aileen must have been looking out of the window, as before they reached the front door she'd opened it and beckoned them inside, putting her finger to her lips. She led them into the open-plan room and carefully closed the door. "I'm sorry to have called so late, Agent Gibbs," she said.

 

"Not a problem. This is Special Agent Tobias Fornell; he's with the FBI," he said, nodding in Fornell's direction.

 

He watched her already pale skin turn even paler. "The FBI is involved. Oh, I –" She was twisting her fingers together as she looked up at him.

 

He shook his head. "Not officially, Tobias is a friend."

 

Her relief was palpable and she gave Fornell a half-smile. "May I offer you some coffee?" she said. "It's freshly made."

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Sure. Thanks." He then nodded to where a small iron box, with traces of dirt still covering it, stood on newspaper on the coffee table. "Is that what you found?"

 

"Yes. Please go ahead and look."

 

Gibbs nodded and strode across the room, squatted down, donned a pair of latex gloves and began to take things out of the box. It was mostly paper, receipts, sketches, a few typed instruction sheets, some brochures, delivery notes and bills. Among the items detailed on the various bits of paper were concrete blocks, steel sheets, gravel, concrete, a concrete mixer, wood, some bathroom fittings, pipes, cables, and other construction-like things.

 

As he worked his way through everything he was aware that Fornell had joined him and Aileen had put down a mug of coffee for him. She was standing a few feet away, her hands wrapped around her own coffee mug, watching him.

 

He handed the papers to Fornell. "Well, I'll be damned," Fornell said, after flicking through them. "He was building something."

 

"So it seems." He looked up at Aileen. "There's nothing in your father's employment records to show he was a builder or involved with construction."

 

She shook her head. "He wasn't. At least not officially. He helped a few friends over the years build garages and put together sheds and the like. And he's always been interested in that kind of thing and he is good with his hands. He replaced the bathroom when we moved in here, we couldn't have afforded to have had it done professionally; I did insist, because of Lisha, that we get it checked over by a professional, just to reassure myself all was well. But it was fine."

 

"There's a bit of difference between replacing a bathroom and helping build garages and what in effect appears to be constructing an entire building," Fornell said.

 

"Not to mention where the hell he's constructed it. Did your dad own any land?"

 

"Not that I know of, Agent Gibbs. He would never have had the money to buy any. As I told you earlier, we get by, we pay out bills, but there's very little left over for non-essentials."

 

"This stuff didn’t come cheap," Gibbs said.

 

Aileen shrugged and shook her head. "I can't explain it. I really can't."

 

"These receipts go back years, Jethro. The stuff has been bought over nearly twenty years. He's been planning this for a hell of a long time."

 

"Most of the expensive stuff was bought around the same time. Aileen, what year did your mom die?"

 

"1993. Thirteen years after Henry had died."

 

"Do you know if she had any life assurance?"

 

Aileen shook her head. "I really don't know. It's not the sort of thing I even thought of then. I was twelve, my mommy had just died, and my whole world had been turned upside down. It just didn’t come into it. I'm sorry."

 

"Do you recognize this address?" Gibbs said, holding up one of the bills.

 

After looking at it Aileen again shook her head. "No, I don't. Dad had friends who lived near there, but . . . I'm sorry, I'm not being very helpful, am I?"

 

Gibbs hastened to reassure her. "Sure you are. Going by what your dad has bought over the years, we're going to be looking for a fairly large building – it's not going to be that easy to hide. And given your dad was here on the night Ducky went missing, then –"

 

"Ducky?"

 

"Yeah. That's the name of the man your dad abducted. Dr. Donald Mallard to be exact, but everyone calls him Ducky."

 

She smiled. "I can see why."

 

"Tell me again about the last time you saw your father."

 

"It was four nights ago, or I should say four days ago. I'd been asked if I could work a double shift and of course I said I would, any extra money is really helpful. I saw Dad in the morning before I left for work; he was going to take Lisha to school, as he always does, and collect her and give her dinner and put her to bed."

 

"What time did you get home?" Fornell asked.

 

"It would have been nearer nine than eight."

 

"And you didn’t see your father?"

 

She shook her head. "No. But it wasn't that unusual. One of two nights a week, occasionally more, Dad would go to his room straight after dinner and I wouldn't see him again. I never bothered him. This is a small house, Agent Fornell; we do tend to live under one another's feet. Apart from our bedrooms, the bathroom and kitchen, this is the only other room. Dad's entitled to his privacy."

 

"So you didn't call out to him when you got home? Knock on his door? Take him a cup of tea or anything?"

 

"No. Lisha's a light sleeper, so I was as quiet as possible when I came in. I did tap lightly on Dad's door, but I didn't go in or wait for him to answer. It was just my way of letting him know I was home. Why? You're not suggesting Dad would have gone out and left Lisha alone, are you, Agent Gibbs?" For the first time since he'd met her, Gibbs saw her become angry. Her eyes flashed and she glared at him, her face was flushed, her nose pinched and her lips had become a thin line. "He would never, never," she repeated, standing up so that she now towered over him, "do that. Never! He loves Lisha."

 

"He sure has a funny way of showing it," Gibbs said, standing up and staring at her. "If I had a granddaughter I loved, I wouldn't go off and abandon her just to –"

 

The sound of Aileen slapping him around the face resonated around the room. "How dare you," she hissed, clenching her fists and moving towards him. "You –" And then under his gaze, her face crumpled and she began to sob. Her hands dropped and she sagged forward, falling off balance and into his arms.

 

He caught her and held her, wrapping his arms around her, running one hand over her hair as he tried to comfort and hush her. A small part of him envied her for being able to cry, most of him, against his will, felt compassion for her. She'd been through so much throughout her life and now he'd turned up to inform her that her beloved father was a kidnapper – and possibly worse. He looked over her head at Fornell and saw the same compassion in his eyes and on his face.

 

After a minute or two of quiet but intense sobbing, she finally managed to stop, hiccoughing a little as she pushed herself away from his embrace. Her eyes were red and still full of tears, her nose shiny and running; she wiped the back of her hands over her eyes and sniffed. She put one hand under her nose and dug into the pocket of her jeans with the other, pulled out a wad of tissues and put those to her nose, blowing and wiping.

 

"I'm sorry, Agent Gibbs," she said after a few more minutes had gone passed. "I shouldn't have done that. It won't help anyone; not your friend; Dad; Lisha or me. I'm sorry," she repeated.

 

"It's all right," he said. "It's not the first time a woman's slapped me."

 

Through her tears she managed a faint smile. "Why doesn’t that surprise me?" she said wryly.

 

He waited for another moment or two and then said, "Aileen, think. Is there anything your father might have mentioned that might help? Any place he's ever said he'd been to or wanted to go to? Or anything? Please," he added.

 

"I don't think so. Unless . . . But, no, it can't be that."

 

"What?"

 

"It's not even real."

 

"What isn't" Gibbs took a step towards her and looked at her intently. "Tell us, Aileen."

 

"I found some of Henry's notebooks once and he mentioned a place he and Dad used to go to. It was their special place. Even Mom didn’t know about it; no one did. It was somewhere only he and Dad went to. The way he wrote about it implied it wasn't easy to get to, it was hidden?" She shook her head. "But that's silly; Henry had a good imagination, it could be the place never even existed, anywhere but in his mind. He wrote a lot of stories, in fact he won several prizes for his stories – something else I was never able to live up to."

 

"The place?" Gibbs said, cutting into her words.

 

"Harbingers Wood."

 

Gibbs looked at Fornell who shook his head. "I've never heard of it."

 

"Nor me."

 

"I told you, Agent Gibbs, it doesn't exist. At least not by that name; that was part of the secrecy thing. And as I said, it was probably just his imagination – just him wanting to have gone somewhere with Dad."

 

"Do you still have any of the notebooks?"

 

She frowned. "Um. I'm not sure. It was more than ten years ago when I found them, and we weren't living here. I don't remember specifically packing them away when we moved, but I don't remember not doing so."

 

"Where would they be, if you still had them?"

 

"I –"

 

The appearance in the doorway of Lisha who was crying interrupted her. "Mommy, I've wet the bed," she sobbed, as she stood in the doorway, a teddy bear in one hand, a small blanket in the other. "I'm sorry, Mommy," she cried. "I'm so sorry."

 

"It's all right, Lisha," Aileen said, hurrying across the room to crouch down by Lisha. "It doesn't matter," she put her arms around her daughter and hugged her for a moment. "Go to the bathroom and start a bath. That'd be nice wouldn't it?"

 

"Yes, Mommy," Lisha sniffed. Then she looked up and her face both brightened and looked puzzled. "Grandpa?" she whispered, looking over Aileen's shoulder to where Gibbs stood. "Is it you, Grandpa?"

 

"No, honey," Aileen said, stroking Lisha's hair. "It's not Grandpa. It's Agent Gibbs again."

 

"Oh," Lisha said her voice very small. "I'll go to the bathroom, Mommy." And she turned and shuffled off, dragging the blanket behind her.

 

Aileen stood up and turned to Gibbs and Fornell. "I'm sorry," she said. "I have to and look after Lisha. I don't think I really knew just how upset she was; she hasn't wet the bed or herself for more than three years; she was a very easy child to potty train."

 

"No wonder she's upset," Fornell said.

 

"Yes. Do please stay if you want to. I'll be as quick as I can, but –"

 

"You mentioned a letter," Gibbs said quickly.

 

"Oh, yes. I'm sorry. It's over there," she nodded towards the table in the corner of the room where her sewing machine was. And then with a nod she hurried out.

 

"Poor kid," Fornell said, as they watched her go.

 

"Yeah." Gibbs moved across the room to the table. "Wonder if Halliday was thinking of her at all when he kidnapped Ducky?"

 

"Jethro –"

 

Gibbs turned around. "What? What, Tobias? This is getting us nowhere. Nowhere. Somewhere out there that bas –" he broke off and lowered his voice somewhat. "That bastard has got Ducky. We don't know where; we don't know what he's planning on doing with him. We don't know, shit. And what am I doing? Standing in the bastard's house feeling sorry for his daughter and her damn kid because she wet the bed."

 

"That's part of the problem, isn't it?" Fornell moved across to where Gibbs stood. "You do feel sorry for them."

 

Gibbs glared at him, moving a step nearer and using his extra height to try to intimidate Fornell. He knew it wouldn't work; it never did; but for a moment it made him feel good. Then he sighed, stepped back, rubbed his hand over his face and said more than a bit grudgingly, "Yeah. Yeah, I do. I don't want to, but I do." He grabbed the letter from the desk, pulled it out of the envelope and scanned the words. "Fuck it," he growled, sitting down on the edge of the table. "How the hell . . . ?"

 

"What does it say?"

 

Gibbs glanced at Fornell, before looking back at the letter and beginning to read.

 

"Dear Mom and Dad,

 

By the time you receive this I'll be dead. I know it's going to hurt you, but it's the only thing I can do.

 

I only ever wanted two things in life: to be a Marine and to make you proud of me. Guess I achieved both of those things, for a while at least.

 

I still can't quite believe you weren't bothered by me telling you I was gay. That had never been part of my life plan. I never expected to like other men; I sure never expected to fall in love with one. But I did.

 

Sergeant Gibbs was right when he said I should be more careful; I wished I'd said thanks properly to him for not turning me in. He should have done; but he's a good man and a good Marine. I should have listened to him; if I had have done, maybe I wouldn't be writing this.

 

I know he didn't mean 'careful' in the way I now mean it, but it's all part of the same thing. You see, Mom, Dad, I found out a week ago my lover has AIDS. He says he didn't know, and I believe him. I won't believe he deliberately – I won't even think that.

 

I've thought about it for a while, and I can't go on. If I've got it too, which is likely, then it'll mean everything I've always wanted is over. The Marines would give me a Dishonorable Discharge as they'd know what I am. So it's better this way.

 

I am sorry, Mom, Dad. I'm really sorry. I let you down. I failed you. You gave me a good life, you taught me right from wrong and you also taught me to respect myself and my judgment. So I am.

 

Please try not to grieve too much. I love you both. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'll see you both again, you taught me that too.

 

Oh, just one thing, don't blame Sergeant Gibbs, Dad. It is not his fault. Not at all. Remember that. It was my own fault, if we're blaming anyone. I chose this life.

 

Thank you for loving me.

 

Henry."

 

He folded the letter back over and looked at Fornell.

 

"Fuck."

 

"Yeah, couldn't have put it better myself."

 

"But how come Halliday never saw it?"

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Don't know. Aileen said it was sealed, I'll take it with me and get Abbs to run tests on it, but from looking at it and the envelope, she's telling the truth. She said she found it caught down the back of the bureau; guess as she said either her Mom or Dad shoved it into the drawer and there it stayed. Guess we'll never know."

 

"But it could have –"

 

"Yeah. Know that."

 

"What do we do now?"

 

Gibbs pulled out his cell phone. "Get McGee and Abbs to see if they can Goggle or whatever the hell it is –"

 

"Google," Fornell said.

 

Gibbs glared at him and continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Harbingers Wood, see if they can find anything. Abbs? Gibbs. McGee with you? . . . Get into the office and start seeing what you can find out about something called 'Harbingers Wood'. . . . Harbingers . . . No, I don't know anything else . . . Could be anywhere, or anything. It's probably not even the real name. . . . Yeah. Sure." He clicked the phone off.

 

"Aileen said it was something only her brother and father called it, and it might not even be real." Fornell spoke quietly as he simply looked at Gibbs.

 

"Know that. But I can't just stand here and do nothing any longer, Fornell."

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Howard Halliday let himself into the building he'd constructed; the building he'd spent nearly twenty years planning and building and working on. The building that had been built with one purpose in mind: to get justice; to hurt the man who had been responsible for the death of his son; to make that man know what it was like to have someone you loved taken from you.

 

For once Dr. Mallard didn't get up or look up when he came in. Instead he lay on the mattress still, silent, pale. Halliday was glad he hadn’t moved; after all he had told him he wouldn't be back, and he had meant it, at least he thought he had. But then something had changed, he didn't know what it was, he just knew it had. Maybe it was finally meeting his son's killer's lover, talking to him, seeing how much he cared about Gibbs. He never should have done that; he should just have taken him from his home, tied him up, gone away and left him. If he had have done, he almost certainly wouldn't be here now.

 

Halliday moved nearer, taking care as he walked softly; his eyes never once leaving the still form. It could be a trick; the doctor might be trying to fool him, trying to get him to let his guard down. Something told him that wasn't the case, but still he took care.

 

He hadn't kept the hate going for all those years, he hadn't spent every spare cent on building this place, on putting it together, money that could have made life better for Aileen, for little Lisha and for himself, only to fall at the last hurdle.

 

Lisha: his little angel; his reason, apart from his need for revenge, for his life having any meaning. Lisha: born blind but born to love and be loved; born blind but born to show the world how to live; how to see; how to give; how to love. Lisha: who must be missing him, he missed her; he missed her so much. Lisha: whose teddy bear he'd taken with him when he'd slipped out of the house four nights ago through the back door as he had heard Aileen's car pull up – he hoped she hadn't missed it yet.

 

He loved Aileen, of course he did, she was his daughter. But she'd been conceived for the wrong reasons; he could admit that now. And she'd been the wrong sex; she should have been a boy; a boy to replace his Henry. He hadn't been a particularly good father to Aileen, certainly not before her mother had died. But that all had changed when Lisha had been born; that was when he really felt a spark of life again.

 

As he stood looking down at Dr. Mallard he felt, to his surprise and fear, a twinge of pity begin to move through him. It was the Doctor's fault; he hadn't taken Henry away; but he was involved. He'd been Sergeant Gibbs's lover back then. So he had played a part in it. So he deserved what had happened. So why didn't he now feel that? Why did he suddenly have doubts? Why did a small part of him want to call the emergency services? Or call NCIS and leave a message?

 

He couldn't do that. It would make a mockery of his life. It would be letting Henry down. It would be dishonoring Henry.

 

But he couldn't quite shake the feeling that the doctor wasn't to blame. Carefully, still watching for signs of movement, for signs of consciousness, he crouched down by the side of the still, silent body.

 

"Dr. Mallard?" he said.

 

There was nothing.

 

No movement.

 

No sign of consciousness.

 

For a moment he thought, he feared, the doctor wasn't breathing.

 

He put his fingers on the cold lips and felt, to his reluctant relief, the faint signs of breath.

 

He pulled his hand away and instead shook one shoulder. "Dr. Mallard!" he said, this time more loudly.

 

Still there was no answer.

 

He put his hand onto his cell and stopped. He couldn't.

 

This was justice.

 

This was right.

 

This was how he had planned it.

 

This was what he had waited for.

 

This was what he had to do.

 

This would finally give him peace.

 

He stood up. At least it should be quick now. At least –

 

And then he saw an eye flutter half open and heard a whisper, "Jethro?"

 

He took a step back and then another as he saw the other eye struggle to open, saw the pale lips part and again heard the faint query. "Jethro?"

 

Then he heard a sigh and both eyes closed as Donald Mallard slipped into sleep.

 

Halliday stood for another moment, before turning and walking across the concrete floor to the door. He let himself out into the night; locked and bolted the door behind him before moving to the small building he had also constructed. The place he had been living from the night he'd taken Sergeant Gibbs's lover from his home.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

"There's nothing, Abby. Nothing." McGee hit the search button for the third time and looked at the lack of more than one result.

 

"I know," she bit her lip and tried the search in another search engine. "Gibbs did say it probably wasn't real. But I thought we'd find something." She grabbed the Caf-Pow she'd gotten herself on the way down to her lab and took a long swallow.

 

"What are we going to do?" McGee took the drink from her, sucked some of the liquid and shuddered. Somehow it tasted okay during the day, but not at almost midnight.

 

"Try the search as a non-inclusive term and see if that leads anywhere, I guess," she said, taking the drink back from him. "There's only a hundred and twenty-seven thousand results and there's bound to be duplicates."

 

McGee swallowed hard, put his hand on Abby's and spoke to her. He didn't want to say the words; but he had to. "Abby, we're not going to find what Gibbs wants, you know that."

 

Abby looked at him. "Yes, I know. But we have to try. It's Ducky's life, Tim. We have to do something."

 

"I know. But Gibbs can't expect the impossible, can he?"

 

Abby looked at him and gave him a wry grin. Then she put her hands on either side of his face and said quietly, "Timothy, how long have you worked with Gibbs for?"

 

He didn't answer the question; there was no need. She knew exactly how long he'd worked with Gibbs, both as a full-time field agent and before that. "I see what you mean," he said instead. "Okay. Let's try putting 'Halliday' in as well and see if that brings up anything."

 

She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the lips before nodding and turning her attention back to her computer.

 

 

"Agent Gibbs," Aileen hurried back into the main room where Gibbs and Fornell still waited. Instinctively they both stood up. She flashed a quick smile at them and then said, her tone a mixture of excitement and dread, "Lisha thinks she knows where Harbingers Wood is." Her breathing was quite fast as though she'd been running and her eyes bright, the front of her sweater was slightly damp.

 

"How?" Gibbs demanded.

 

"Something Dad said to her. Apparently he's talked to her about Henry quite often and more than once he told her there was this special place he used to go with him and he promised her he'd take her when she was a little older. He also told her he had something important to do before he could take her."

 

"And he told her where it was?"

 

Aileen nodded and then shook her head. Gibbs had to stop himself from grabbing her and shaking her; they were so close. He counted to ten under his breath. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Fornell was watching him carefully. Again he was touched by his second oldest and closest friend's compassion and concern.

 

"I'm sorry," Aileen said quickly; she seemed to have picked up on Gibbs's body language. "He didn't tell her exactly, but –"

 

Gibbs had had enough. "Then what the hell did he do?" he snarled, moving to tower over her.

 

Aileen held her ground. "He showed her."

 

"What the fuck do you mean?" Gibbs moved even closer to her; so close he could smell the scent of the soap she'd used to bathe Lisha, so close to smell the scent of her perfume or shampoo, so close to see a tiny scar by the edge of her eye. So close he could feel her warm breath on his skin.

 

Fornell caught his arm. "Jethro," he warned, pulling Gibbs back.

 

Gibbs turned and glared at Fornell, now using his height advantage on him. But Fornell merely held his ground, kept his now iron grip on Gibbs's arm and unblinkingly met the stare.

 

Gibbs swallowed, took a deep breath and turned back to Aileen. "Sorry," he muttered, knowing that if his field team could hear him now they'd be amazed.

 

She shook her head. "No, it is I who should be apologizing, Agent Gibbs. I live with Lisha every day and it may sound foolish but I almost forget she is blind. No, I don't mean that, of course I don't; how could I when everything I do, everything I put down, is done so that Lisha has an easier life. But what I mean is –"

 

"You try not to treat her any differently, or use different terms?"

 

She glanced at Fornell. "Yes, Agent Fornell," she said. "That's it exactly."

 

Gibbs frowned. "Go on."

 

She turned back to him. "Lisha did ask where the wood was, but Dad said he wasn't going to tell her, that it would be a surprise for her. But he also told her it was impossible to find by 'accident' and even though he'd been there many times, he had to take care not to get lost. Lisha being Lisha didn't let it drop, he should have known she wouldn't; she's very bright. I know all mothers think their children are bright, but Lisha is and she's a little precocious too – I know mothers shouldn't say that about their children, but she is. She kept on at him until he agreed to show her which map book the wood was in."

 

"And?" Gibbs demanded, trying very hard not to let his irritation with the way Aileen was over-explaining show.

 

"And she can tell you what pages he's looked more than others."

 

"How?" Gibbs sounded askance.

 

Aileen shrugged. "I'm not entirely certain, but she says she can feel where he's traced something. Remember she has been taught Braille, so her fingers are very sensitive."

 

"Which book?" Gibbs demanded.

 

"Ah, she can't tell me that. She can only point to it. And that's assuming that Dad has put it back in it right place on the bookcase. Which I'm sure he has done; that comes as second nature when you live with a blind person."

 

"Where is she?"

 

"Gibbs!"

 

"She's putting a clean nightdress on. She's embarrassed, Agent Gibbs, because of her accident."

 

"She's a little girl," Fornell said, glancing at Gibbs, his look saying quite clearly 'keep calm'. "Of course she would be."

 

At that moment the door opened and, still carrying her teddy bear, Lisha slowly came into the room. "Mommy?"

 

"Over here, honey."

 

Gibbs watched as, with an assuredness that still amazed him, Lisha walked, her feet bare, her hair hanging down over her shoulders, across the room.

 

Rather than go straight to Aileen he saw her pause and turn to walk to him instead, clearly her nose was guiding her to where he stood. She stopped in front of him and tipped her head back to look up at him. Absurdly he felt a lump form in his throat as he looked down at her; there was no comparison, she was a tiny child, Ducky a full grown man, her eyes were brown and silent, Ducky's blue and never stopped talking, her hair was dark brown, Ducky's a dark gold. But just for a second the gesture was so familiar.

 

"I'm sorry I took Mommy away, Agent Gibbs," she said, her tone oddly formal for a six year old.

 

He squatted down so he was almost the same height as her and took her hand. "That's all right, Lisha. Are you okay now?"

 

She smiled and nodded. "Yes, thank you. Mommy says there's something you want me to show you."

 

"That's right, Lisha. If you wouldn't mind."

 

"Will it help you find Grandpa?"

 

He swallowed hard. "Yes, Lisha," he said, brushing her hair back from her face. "It will."

 

"Will you bring him home?"

 

"Lisha," Aileen cut in quickly, before Gibbs could say anything. She hurried across and put her arm around Lisha's shoulders. "I'm sorry," she mouthed to Gibbs. "I told you, Lisha," she said, stroking her daughter's hair, "Grandpa will have to go with Agent Gibbs, at least for a while."

 

Lisha frowned and Gibbs watched her taking in her mother's words. Then she turned from her mother and stared straight at Gibbs, he could have sworn she was really looking at him. "You won't hurt Grandpa, will you, Agent Gibbs? Will you?" she repeated, when he didn't answer immediately.

 

Time seemed to stand still for Gibbs and he could see both Fornell's and Aileen's gazes come to rest on him. He swallowed hard, mentally crossed his fingers, again stroked Lisha's hair and said, his throat suddenly dry, "I don't intent to, Lisha. No." And as he spoke the words, he knew they were true. Even if the worse thing had happened, and he wasn't allowing himself to imagine that, no matter what he might want to do, what he'd thought about doing, what his gut would be urging him to do. He wouldn't; he couldn't. He would be, he was, bound by badge, gun and position. But even more so he would be bound by Ducky.

 

She seemed content with his reply. Then she glanced around to where Fornell was standing silently. "You're not Agent Timothy, are you?" she said, only a little hesitantly.

 

Fornell moved a little closer and joined Gibbs on his haunches. He put his hand out and took Lisha's, "No, I'm Agent Fornell," he said. "And I'm pleased to meet you, Lisha. Your mommy has told us what a clever and talented girl you are."

 

Gibbs watched as she reached out and ran her hands over Fornell's head and face, nodding to herself as she did so. "You're older than Agent Timothy," she said firmly. "And your hair isn't funny like Agent Gibbs's."

 

Fornell laughed a little and Gibbs managed to smile. "Your mommy was right, you are a clever girl," Fornell said.

 

"Thank you, Agent Fornell."

 

"Lisha," Aileen said gently, touching her daughter's arm. "You were going to show Agent Gibbs a book."

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

"Well I'll be dammed," Fornell said, as Gibbs brought the sedan to a stop.

 

"Yeah, me too. Never would have thought it."

 

"I can see why no one would find it by accident."

 

"Yeah. God if –"

 

"Don't, Jethro." For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Fornell made a rare gesture and touched Gibbs's hand briefly.

 

Gibbs acknowledged the touch and words with a quick nod. He leaned forward and looked out of the window; he could just make out another car. Moments later he saw two people get out of it and walk over to his car. "DiNozzo and Kate are here," he said, opening his door and getting out. Fornell joined him.

 

"Are you sure this is where he'd keeping Ducky, boss?"

 

"As sure as I can be, DiNozzo."

 

"I didn't even know this place existed," Kate said, her voice low.

 

"Nor did I, Kate. And I've lived here a hell of a lot longer than you have."

 

"Hey, boss." McGee's quiet voice came through the darkness.

 

"Don't do that, McGeek!" DiNozzo hissed.

 

"Do what, Tony?"

 

"Sneak up on me."

 

"I wasn't –"

 

"Shut up!" Gibbs snarled softly. At that moment the moon came out, lighting up the small group; Gibbs saw McGee about to open his mouth and glared at him until he shut it again. Using hand signals he indicated the group should move even further away.

 

"What's the plan, boss?" DiNozzo asked, once they were undercover of a large group of trees.

 

"You and Kate stay outside, unless I call and keep an eye out for Halliday. If you find him, cuff him. Fornell, McGee and I are going inside. No one, no one, is to shoot unless I order them to. Okay?"

 

"Yes, boss."

 

"Understood, boss."

 

"Yes, Gibbs."

 

Fornell just nodded.

 

Moving stealthily, slowly, in synch they moved through the tree cover until they reached the edge of a clearing. There they stopped and stared at the two building construction, one larger than the other.

 

From where they stood, Gibbs could just make out the bolts on the outside of the larger structure. "Ducky's in the bigger one," he said, glancing at Fornell. "DiNozzo, Kate," he pointed to his left and as one they moved off through the darkness, circling around and heading for the smaller of the two buildings.

 

Gibbs watched them for a moment or two, before nodding to Fornell and McGee and again pointing, this time towards the larger building. "Okay," he said softly. The three men began to move, eyes scanning the area the entire time, feet coming down as quietly as possible, breathing being kept to a minimum as they covered the distance from the edge of the clearing to the fairly imposing, concrete building.

 

Silently they stood and waited as Kate and DiNozzo finished sweeping around the outside of both buildings. "Nothing, boss," DiNozzo whispered. "You can make out a faint light from inside, but other than that, nothing. Do you think Halliday's inside?"

 

Gibbs shook his head and nodded towards the bolts which were in place. Again he pointed to the smaller building; DiNozzo acknowledged it and along with Kate, both holding their guns in two hands, took several steps towards the door. They moved one each side of the door, held their guns pointing upwards and waited, eyes locked on one another. Gibbs didn't need to be able to hear to know DiNozzo was saying or mouthing 'on three'.

 

In turn he nodded to Fornell and McGee and for a moment they too turned their attention and guns to the smaller building.

 

DiNozzo and Kate burst into the building, as they'd done on more than one occasion, in perfect and well-honed symmetry. Gibbs waited, almost holding his breath, to see if there would be gunfire. But in a matter of seconds, DiNozzo appeared, dragging a man, whose hands were now cuffed behind him, with him. "Got him, boss," he called softly. "No one else was inside."

 

Gibbs nodded; just for a second he had to fight his desire to go over to Halliday and – "Get the bastard in the car, DiNozzo. Kate, go with him. I don't want to give him any opportunity to escape."

 

"Don't worry, Special Agent Gibbs, I have no intention of trying." Halliday's steady voice carried to Gibbs. "I was beginning to think you were never going to find me. Which would have been somewhat unfortunately for Dr. Mallard."

 

"Jethro." Fornell put his hand on his arm. "Ducky," he added firmly.

 

Gibbs turned his attention from Halliday and looked at McGee. "Bolts, McGee," he said. "Fornell?"

 

"Ready?"

 

"On three. One. Two. Three."

 

McGee pulled back the bolts, and in a seamless movement the three men entered the larger building, sweeping the room with their eyes and guns.

 

"Clear," Gibbs said.

 

"Clear," McGee called.

 

"Clear," Fornell added.

 

Gibbs blinked a couple of times, the low lighting seeming dreadfully bright after the darkness and looked across the room. His eyes came to rest on the mattress. The mattress where a body lay; frighteningly still and silent. "Duck," he whispered, pushing his gun into its holster and hurrying across the room, flanked by McGee and Fornell.

 

He reached the mattress and dropped to his knees. One hand went to Ducky's carotid artery, the other to push Ducky's hair off his forehead. "Oh, God, Duck, no," he moaned, as he couldn't feel even the faintest of pulses fluttering under his warm, now badly shaking fingers. "No," he repeated. "No."

 

Firmly but forcefully he felt his warm, trembling fingers pushed to one side by Fornell's cool, steady hand. "It's all right, Jethro," Fornell said, his voice steady and calm. "He's alive. Here." And he took Gibbs's hand and pressed it to Ducky's neck.

 

This time Gibbs felt the steady beat of Ducky's heart as it pumped blood around his body. "Thank God," he murmured, unconcerned as to what McGee might be thinking about the behavior of his boss. Gently he shook Ducky's shoulder. "Duck," he said softly. "Ducky?" But there was no response.

 

"I think he's unconscious, Jethro," Fornell said, his tone still calm and steady.

 

"Yeah. McGee. Call –"

 

"On it, boss." He looked up to see McGee already had his cell phone in his hand and was pushing the buttons. He heard McGee explain the situation and give clear and concise directions as to how to find the place. "They're on their way, boss," his young agent said, as he closed his phone.

 

He just nodded, as he continued to stroke his hand over Ducky's head.

 

"Jethro, give me your car keys," Fornell said, holding his hand out.

 

"What?" Despite the query, Gibbs dug into his pocket, pulled out the keys and handed them over.

 

"McGee and I'll go and give the paramedics some light. Even with McGee's directions, it's not going to be easy to find. I'll get DiNozzo to turn his car around too."

 

"Good idea." Gibbs shook himself, trying to pull himself back to Special Agent mode. "I'm going to the hospital with Ducky," he said. "McGee, tell DiNozzo and Kate to take Halliday back to the office and put him in custody. I want the bastard watched every second and I don’t want him making any calls to anyone. Do you hear me, McGee?"

 

"Yes, boss. Shall I go back as well? Or shall I stay here and start doing a proper search of this place?"

 

It was Fornell who answered. "This isn't going anywhere, McGee. It'll still be here tomorrow. You might as well follow DiNozzo and Kate back."

 

"Right, boss," McGee said earnestly, and after glancing at Ducky and then at Gibbs, hurried off.

 

"You taking over my team, Tobias?" Gibbs said.

 

"Nah, I'd strangle DiNozzo in less than a day. I don't know how you put up with him."

 

"Wonder that sometimes myself. But he's a damn good agent. Besides, Kate can give him a run for his money and McGee's learning. What are you going to do?"

 

"I'll follow you to the hospital," Fornell said firmly.

 

Gibbs looked at him. "Thanks, Tobias," he said.

 

"De nada," Fornell replied, and with a wave of his hand he left Gibbs alone with his still and silent, but alive, lover.

 

Once Fornell had gone, Gibbs leaned over Ducky and lightly kissed his forehead and cheeks. "I'm here, Duck," he murmured, once more brushing his hand over Ducky's hair. He then took Ducky's hand and linked his fingers with Ducky's cold ones.

 

After squeezing for a moment of two, he ceased to stroke Ducky's hair and lightly began to rub first one and then the other hand between both of his, trying to warm his lover up. He also took off his overcoat and laid it over Ducky, tucking it carefully around him. He moved even nearer to Ducky, hoping to share some of his own body warmth. "Love you, Duck," he murmured to the prone, still figure.

 

Rubbing Ducky's hands, murmuring what was in effect nonsense and keeping a check on Ducky's pulse and breathing, Gibbs sat and prepared to wait for the paramedics to arrive. At one point he thought Ducky might be regaining consciousness as his eyelids twitched, his breathing became less shallow and Gibbs was sure he'd heard his name being whispered. But moments later Ducky returned to how he'd been since Gibbs had arrived.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Fornell arrived at the hospital to find Gibbs pacing up and down and cursing under his breath. "Hey," he said. "Here, I thought you might need this," he held out a Styrofoam cup of Gibbs's favorite coffee.

 

Gibbs took it. "Thanks, Tobias," he said, lifting it to his mouth and swallowing two gulps of the hot, dark, strong liquid with relief. "Wondered where you'd got to."

 

"I took a couple of detours. Halliday is safely in custody and not causing any trouble at all. He seems almost relieved to have been caught."

 

"Hmph," Gibbs replied, and swallowed some more coffee.

 

"How's Ducky?" Fornell sat down and crossed one leg over the other, looking up at Gibbs.

 

"Conscious."

 

"That's good."

 

"Yeah. He regained consciousness in the ambulance just before we got here."

 

"And?"

 

"And, nothing. That's it. They whisked him straight off when they got here and won't tell me anything or let me see him. They want to check him over and make him comfortable, or something first."

 

"That's normal, Jethro. You know that."

 

Gibbs just glared at him.

 

Undeterred Fornell went on. "Did he say anything when he woke up? Did he recognize you?"

 

"Yeah, he did." Gibbs smiled at the memory of the blue eyes he'd feared he'd never see gaze at him again opening and staring up at him. For a second or two they had blinked in clear confusion and then in what appeared to be almost fear, before relaxing and shining in the way they always did when they looked at him. In seconds the love, affection, devotion and tenderness Ducky always proclaimed was present, and Ducky had smiled at him. He'd also fought to get his hand out from beneath the blankets and had reached to lightly flutter his fingers over Gibbs's face. He hadn't said much, nothing more than Gibbs's name, before he'd sighed with contentment, squeezed the hand Gibbs hadn't let go of since climbing into the ambulance and had slipped into a light sleep with a smile upon his face.

 

He glanced at Fornell who rolled his eyes and then looked up at the ceiling; the gesture was purely a gentle mocking one. "You know, I still don't know how your team didn’t figure out you and Ducky were more than just good friends, given the way you look at one another, talk to one another, touch one another and get well inside what anyone could consider personal space. I think you should fire your field team, they're obviously not up to the job."

 

Gibbs laughed. "Reckon the three marriages and divorces might have had something to do with it," he said. "Kind of gives the impression you're only interested in women."

 

"I guess it does. I also stopped by Ducky's place and threw a few things for you both into a bag. It's in the car."

 

"And you got in how exactly?"

 

Fornell just looked at him. "You're not the only special agent here," he said.

 

Gibbs smiled. "You lock up again?" he demanded.

 

"Of course. Now had it been your place –"

 

"You wouldn't have had to break-in in the first place."

 

"Something like that, yes."

 

"You said for both of us?"

 

"Well I assumed you'd be staying here tonight. I couldn’t really see you letting Ducky out of your sight now that you've found him again." Fornell spoke quietly, but with an intensity Gibbs appreciated and understood.

 

"Thanks, Tobias," he said, realizing that he'd been saying that a lot in the last few hours.

 

"My pleasure."

 

For a few minutes they sat in silence; as with Ducky, Gibbs had never needed to fill every moment of his time with Fornell with chatter.

 

But then suddenly he'd had enough of just sitting there. In one fluid movement he stood up.

 

Fornell looked up at him and raised his eyebrows.

 

"I'm tired of waiting. I'm going to see Ducky." Gibbs drained the last of his coffee, squashed the cup down and tossed it into the nearby bin.

 

"Say hello to him for me."

 

Gibbs nodded, then turned on his heel and strode off down the short corridor to the room they'd taken Ducky into. Outside he paused for a moment and listened, then hearing nothing, he quietly, just in case Ducky was sleeping, turned the handle and pushed open the door.

 

The room was not brightly lit, but it was enough to allow him to see the bed and, more importantly, to see Ducky who was propped up against several pillows. He had a monitor and an IV attached to him as well as the almost obligatory catheter  - Gibbs was sure Ducky hadn't been happy with that. Ducky's head was turned away from the door, but with the way the light shone Gibbs could see his hair looked slightly damp and a bowl of water stood on the table by a door leading to what Gibbs guessed was a bathroom. It appeared as if the nursing staff had allowed Ducky to at least wash his hands and face.

 

"Duck," he said softly, moving into the room and carefully closing the door behind him. He didn't know if Ducky was sleeping. If he was, as much as he wanted to talk to him, to tell him how sorry he was for not finding him sooner, to hold his hand, to . . . to do so many things, he wasn't about to wake him up.

 

However, as he spoke his name, Ducky turned his head on the pillow and looked over to where Gibbs stood. Immediately his face lit up with what Gibbs could see was sheer joy and he smiled and held out his hand towards Gibbs. "Jethro," he called, his voice rather husky and rasping. "Oh, my dear, dear Jethro." Even from where he stood, even with the dim lighting, Gibbs could make out the shining in Ducky's eyes – and he knew it wasn't just from the joy of seeing him.

 

Gibbs was momentarily frozen to the spot by the overwhelming pleasure and relief at seeing his lover alive, well and happy to see him. He just stood and stared at Ducky, knowing that his face was mirroring the look on Ducky's.

 

After a moment or two, he shook himself and in three strides crossed from the door to where Ducky sat in bed, took his hand and sank down on to the side of the bed. "Oh, Duck," he said. "Oh, Duck. Ducky. Duck." And then to his surprise he felt tears form in the back of his eyes and his throat became so constricted he struggled to swallow, let alone speak.

 

He also found he couldn't move, he wanted to take Ducky into his arms, he wanted to touch his hair, his cheeks, his forehead, his neck, he wanted to kiss him. He wanted to reassure himself on a physical level that Ducky really was alive; but he couldn't. He simply couldn't move. He couldn't do anything but sit on the bed, holding Ducky's hand and try to blink away the tears, a couple of which disobeyed him and slipped over his eyes and trickled down his cheeks.

 

Ducky brushed them away, his touch soft, gentle, real, known. "Hush, my dearest," he whispered. "It's all right. I'm safe now. You found me. I always knew you would."

 

They sat there just holding hands and staring at one another for several minutes before Gibbs finally managed to pull himself together enough to wipe his hand over his face, smile at Ducky, squeeze his hand and lean forward, and then lightly brush his lips over Ducky's.

 

He felt and heard Ducky's sigh of pleasure and was about to gather Ducky into his arms and hold him as he'd longed to do for days when the sound of the door opening stopped him.

 

Without rushing, because that would have meant he was ashamed and he wasn't, he stopped the about to be embrace and stood up. It was Ducky who let go of his hand and put both of his hands firmly on the bedclothes.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

"Oh." A young nurse came to a stop inside the room and stared at Jethro.

 

He stared back at her.

 

"I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, sir," she said to Jethro.

 

"I’m staying." Jethro’s tone was flat and defiant. Anyone who knew him would know exactly how this encounter would end. He just stared down at her, using the foot height difference he had over her to intimidate.

 

However, she wasn’t easily intimidated. "I’m sorry, sir," she repeated. "But it’s relatives only. You will have to leave."

 

Jethro looked at her and said firmly, "I’m his boyfriend. I’m staying." Then dismissing her, he turned his back, sat down on the chair next to the bed and again took Ducky’s hand.

 

She stood there for a second or two before leaving the room.

 

"My boyfriend?" Ducky asked, astonished.

 

Jethro shrugged. "Your mother’s term, not mine. But it’s basically the truth."

 

"My mother?" Ducky’s voice rose. "Jethro, what are you doing?" he asked, as one of Jethro’s slightly calloused hands came to rest on his forehead.

 

"Just checking to see if you have a temperature, Duck."

 

"Why in particular?"

 

"Well, you seem to be repeating everything I say. So I just wondered . . ." Jethro trailed off, smiled and removed his hand from Ducky’s head. He did not, however, give up the hand on which he had an almost painful grip.

 

"Would you mind telling me just how my mother came to call you my boyfriend?" Ducky asked, deciding that the pain was, for the moment, bearable.

 

"She turned up at Headquarters the morning you -" Jethro came to an abrupt halt and glanced away, his grip became tighter. Just as Ducky was about to say something, anything, he spoke again. "-Went missing. And started demanding to see, her and I quote ‘son’s boyfriend.’ The problem was that by the time she’d got there, whatever flash of lucidity that had allowed her to call a cab, get in it, tell the driver where she wanted to go, remember why she wanted to go there, and get into the building, had fled, and she couldn’t remember my name. Not only that, she wouldn’t or couldn’t give the guard her name or yours. She just kept repeating she wanted to see her son’s boyfriend."

 

"Oh, my dear Jethro. I am sorry."

 

"No need to be, Duck. I’m just glad that she was able to get to me. I don’t want to even imagine -" Again he cut himself off. This time he didn’t go on.

 

Ducky filled the gap. "I have to confess, Jethro, that I too am a little surprised. I know I have told her many times that if anything should ever happen to me she is to go to you. However, she has become much worse recently, so much so that I wasn’t certain that even my ‘go to Jethro', instruction, which I repeated almost daily, had sunk in."

 

"Well, it clearly had, Duck."

 

Something Jethro said suddenly registered in Ducky’s tired brain. "Did you say she arrived by taxi?"

 

"Yeah. Even managed to get the cab driver to escort her into the building - mind you I suspect that was more because he wanted paying than any kind of helpfulness."

 

"Oh, dear, I was afraid of that. How much do I owe you, Jethro?"

 

Navy blue eyes spun his way and a maelstrom of emotions fled through them. Finally, Jethro settled for a half-laugh and sliding his hand into Ducky’s hair. "You know, Duck, sometimes I wonder why I love you so much. For a highly intelligent man you can be incredibly dense sometimes. Do you really think that bothers me?"

 

"No, of course not, Jethro my dear," Ducky hastened to make amends. "But the journey is a relatively long one, especially early in the morning and with your expenses . . . I just didn’t want you to - I’m sorry," he said.

 

This time Jethro’s laugh wasn’t half-hearted. "Oh, Duck," he said, bending forward and lightly kissing Ducky’s cheek. "Don’t ever change, will you?" Then he added, his tone still light, "Between you and me, I haven’t the faintest idea how much I gave him. I just flung a handful of twenties into his hand and told him to piss off. He didn’t complain, so it must have been enough. All I was interested in was finding out why your mother was there, alone without you, and calling me her son’s boyfriend."

 

"Has it caused any problems for you, Jethro? I am assuming that the usual office gossip system was firmly in place."

 

"No and yes. I think the whole building knew before DiNozzo, McGee and I returned from your house. I’ve been getting a few odd looks, but nothing unpleasant, more curious than anything else. The director was more than sanguine about it, in fact between you and me, I half suspect that he half suspected. And anyway within a few hours, it was yesterday’s news. Everyone was far more interested in finding you than what you were to me." He paused for a moment before adding, "The only person who doesn’t seem able to meet my eye, and who runs a mile when I appear, is young Palmer. I'm sure it's not because of our relationship. But . . . I just hope it won’t cause you any problems, Duck."

 

"Jethro my dear. Mr. Palmer will rarely meet your eye and it is usually only my continued presence that prevents him from ‘running a mile’ whenever you appear. You intimidate him."

 

"Me?" Jethro said, sounding indignant and surprised. "But I barely say half a dozen words to him."

 

Ducky smiled gently. Now wasn’t the time to remind his lover that he intimidated most people he came into contact with, even his loyal, respectful agents. Instead he looked at Jethro, really looked at him for the first time since opening his eyes to find Jethro looking down at him.

 

The beautiful blue eyes looked heavy. The habitual black circles that Ducky had seen around them since the day he met the young Gunnery Sergeant, were darker than he had ever seen them, and the light that usually shone in the dark navy whenever Jethro was alone with him, had fled, leaving behind a heavy dullness. Jethro’s shoulders were slumped and his head seemed too heavy for them, his skin, lightly tanned by the amount of time he spent in the open air, seemed sallow and pale, and his lips had almost vanished into his skin. He looked every one of his fifty-one years, and at least ten more. Even the death grip he had had on Ducky’s hand had loosened slightly, but it alone seemed the one firm thing about Jethro Gibbs at that moment.

 

"Jethro my dear," he said softly. Jethro glanced at him. "Why do you not go home and rest?" The grip on his hand tightened again and Jethro simply shook his head.

 

"I’m staying," was all he said.

 

Ducky just nodded. He understood, only too well. It wasn’t as if he wanted Jethro to go - not really. It was just that for Ducky, loving Jethro meant putting Jethro first, and he obviously needed to sleep - desperately. "Then why don’t you shut your eyes for a while, my love. I am not going anywhere."

 

Jethro sighed. "Just for a minute then."

 

 

Forty minutes later the young nurse, who had tried to make Jethro leave, popped her head around the door.

 

"Sssh," Ducky said softly, before she could speak. "He’s asleep."

 

The pretty blonde moved softly into the room and crossed to the side of the bed that Jethro hadn’t claimed as his own. "Shouldn’t he be the one saying that?" she asked, as she began to take Ducky’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure. "After all you’re the one who was captured. You’re the patient here."

 

"Ah, no," Ducky said softly. "It was much easier for me." The nurse just stared open mouthed at him. "It was," Ducky said, handing the thermometer back to her, after glancing at it and seeing that it was, as he expected, perfectly normal. "It’s always far harder being the one waiting, the one searching, the one imagining the worst. I was merely tied up, kicked a few times, given no food and threatened with death. Jethro’s role was a much more difficult one. I know," he said, when she still looked skeptical. "Because I have played that role many times. I play it every time Jethro takes his gun and leaves the office and I am forced to wait in Autopsy, wait and hope that it is not his body that will be the next one to fill my table."

 

For a second the nurse looked as though she might shed a tear, then she blinked quickly and said, "Is he really your boyfriend?"

 

Ducky smiled. "I think that both of us are more than a little too old to use that term. However, essentially it is correct, yes."

 

The young nurse looked down at their joined hands. Ducky watched her closely. He read people well, and the vibes he was getting from her were a little confusing. Nothing negative and yet something seemed slightly amiss. He continued to look at her and finally she looked away from their link to his face. She blushed slightly.

 

"What is it?" he asked.

 

"Just that I don’t know what Sister will say about him," she nodded.

 

"His name is Jethro. Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, to be exact. Well strictly speaking that is not quite correct. You see  -" In his mind he heard the voice he loved saying ‘Duck,’ in its fondly exasperated way. He shook his head. "I am sorry. Do go on."

 

"I don’t know what Sister will say about Special Agent Gibbs being here. I’ve never seen anyone stand up to her and emerge the victor."

 

Ducky smiled. "My dear," he said softly. "You have never seen Jethro in action. I assure you that if he intends to stay, which he does, despite my best persuasions to get him to return home and sleep. Jethro will stay." The young nurse looked doubtful, but nonetheless offered a half smile.

 

"He doesn’t look very comfortable," she said. "Those chairs aren’t designed to be sat in for more than an hour at most, let alone slept in."

 

"If you had seen some of the places in which and on which Jethro has slept, you would soon realize that this is like one of the finest feather beds." He looked fondly at his lover.

 

After a moment or two of just glancing from Ducky to Jethro and back again, as well as continuing to take Ducky's pulse and blood pressure – which given he was hooked up to a machine that monitored them, Ducky thought was somewhat superfluous – she turned to go. "I'll see if I can persuade Sister she doesn't need to come in here," she said.

 

"That would be very kind of you, my dear, but please do not get yourself into any trouble." Ducky smiled at her.

 

"I won't," she said. "Oh, another gentleman, he was outside with Special Agent Gibbs, left a bag with some things for you. He said they were toiletries, clothes, that kind of thing. I'll pop and get it for you."

 

"Thank you," Ducky replied, vaguely wondering who the other man had been. Oh, well, he could ask Jethro when he woke up, and for now, well for now it was maybe time he closed his eyes and went to sleep too. And now that he was warm, safe, had some clean garments on – even if it was only a hospital gown – and had been given a fairly cursory, but nonetheless welcome bed bath, with hot water rather than the lukewarm he'd had to put up with for several days, and a cursory shave, and most of all Jethro by his side, he felt content and at peace.

 

He also knew that, once Jethro woke up, he would demand to know the full details of his capture and what Halliday had done to him – and in turn Ducky wanted to know more about the reason for his capture. And then there were other, far more pleasant things they needed to do.

 

Yes, a sleep now, holding onto his lover's hand was just what the doctor ordered.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The young nurse was as good as her word. In fact not only did she somehow manage to persuade the Sister not to visit Ducky's room, but when she brought Ducky an early morning cup of tea, she brought in a second cup for Jethro as well. Not that tea was something Jethro drank very often and Ducky knew that it wouldn't be long before Jethro would want to venture out to find some coffee.

 

"Thank you," he said, as the nurse put the tray down on his table. "That is very kind of you."

 

She smiled at him and then turned her attention to Jethro. "You will have to go fairly soon, I'm afraid, sir, so that we can get on with the normal morning routine."

 

"Such as?"

 

"Jethro," Ducky chided softly. "Just ignore him, my dear. I'm afraid he is always less than his usual charming self before he's had his first cup of coffee. Now, before you do go, do you think it would be possible to get rid of this thing," he gestured in the direction of the catheter. "It is quite unnecessary now that I am fully conscious."

 

"I'll have to check with the doctor first, Dr. Mallard," she said and then giggled a little. "I'm sorry, that just sounded . . ."

 

Ducky smiled at her. "Yes, it did rather. In that case may I trouble you at least for a bowl of water so that I might wash my hands and face and brush my teeth? After all you did say a gentleman had brought some necessities for me." He glanced at Jethro and raised an eyebrow to ask which 'gentleman'.

 

"Tobias."

 

"Well, I really should – Oh, why not. I have a few minutes before I have to be somewhere else." She bustled over to the attached bathroom and returned a few moments later with a bowl.

 

While she had gone, Jethro dug into the bag Tobias had left pulled out a wash cloth, towel and soap for Ducky, two toothbrushes and some toothpaste.

 

As the nurse came back into the room, he grabbed one of the toothbrushes, squeezed some toothpaste onto it and headed for the bathroom. "Don’t mind me," he said, smiling at the nurse who stared open-mouthed at him.

 

"Oh, dear," she said, moving across to Ducky. "He really shouldn't . . ." She shrugged and shook her head, but her eyes twinkled. "Is he always like that?" she asked, putting the bowl down and passing Ducky the wash cloth and soap.

 

"Oh, yes," he said brightly. "But one gets used to him in time."

 

"How long have you two been together? Oh, I'm sorry, Doctor. Forgive me; Sister's always saying I'm too inquisitive."

 

"I don't mind," said Ducky, washing his hands and face. "It's been thirty years, actually." He chuckled silently as he saw her mouth part in evident surprise.

 

 

Ten minutes later the nurse, whose name Ducky had learned was 'Sarah' had gone, leaving the two men alone. Before she had left she had once again warned Jethro he would have to leave in about an hour, but assuring him that he could return later.

 

Once she'd gone, Jethro stood up from his chair, moved to sit on the edge of the bed, took Ducky's cup from his hand, replaced it on the table, put one hand on each side of Ducky's face, leaned nearer to him and kissed him. The kiss was warming, mellow, pure, affectionate, loving; it said so many things to Ducky, things that Jethro sometimes found it hard to say aloud.

 

Ducky managed to slip his arms around Jethro as the kiss went on and on, parting his lips slightly to allow his lover access to his mouth and taking pleasure and joy in the moment.

 

Finally, Jethro gently and slowly broke the kiss and moved back a little, capturing Ducky's hand and just holding it, before bringing to his mouth and kissing that. "Oh, Duck," he said, his eyes once more full of anguish and misting over. "I –"

 

"Hush, my dearest, hush," Ducky said softly, lightly stroking Jethro's stubbled cheek. "It's all right."

 

Jethro shook his head. "It's not," he said.

 

"Yes, Jethro. It is," Ducky said firmly. "I know you; I know how hard you would have tried, I know how hard you would have driven yourself and the children; I know it could not have been easy. Halliday planned it, Jethro, he'd planned it for years."

 

"I thought –"

 

"Well, I didn't. Not for a moment."

 

"Didn't you?" Jethro's tone was one of disbelief.

 

"No. Never. I always knew you would find me. And you did, Jethro. You found me. You rescued me. You saved me. I'm alive, my dear. That is all that matters."

 

"I love you, Duck," Jethro's voice was low, slightly ragged. The grip he now had on Ducky's hand was once more intense and almost painful, and the look in the dark blue gaze was a mixture of self-recrimination, love, pain, sorrow and bitterness. "I love you and I let that bastard –"

 

Ducky sighed, and wriggled the hand Jethro held so tightly a little until the almost bone-crushing grip loosened a little. "You did not 'let' him capture me, Jethro."

 

"But he did it because of me. Did you he tell you anything?"

 

Ducky shook his head. "Not a great deal, no. Only that he believed you were responsible for the death of his son and that he felt you were in some way hypocritical. Why don't you tell me, my dear?" For a moment he thought Jethro might take a leaf out of his book and prevaricate, but then the look in the dark gaze told him that it had been what Jethro had been waiting for.

 

Still holding Ducky's hand, albeit not as tightly, and without moving from Ducky's bed, Jethro did that very thing. He told Ducky everything.

 

From the evening he'd caught Henry Halliday with his male lover; to his suicide some months later; to how Halliday had blamed him for his son's death. To how it had been McGee who had spotted the typed over part of the letter Halliday had sent. To them going to Halliday's home and finding a hitherto unknown about daughter and grand-daughter. To how it had been said daughter and grand-daughter who had helped, who had been responsible for, Jethro finding Ducky. And finally he told him about the letter; the letter that unequivocally cleared Jethro of all involvement in Henry Halliday's suicide.

 

He told Ducky about Lisha. He told him about her blindness; about her mistaking him for Halliday the first time he visited the house; about how much she loved her grandfather and how much Aileen had told him Halliday loved Lisha. He told him about how she would be forced to give up work and how that would mean she and Lisha would have to move from the home they currently lived in.

 

By the time Jethro had finished his explanation, Ducky's hand was turning numb due to the fact Jethro's grip had tightened again during his story, and his tea had long since gone cold. Keeping his gaze on Jethro's face, he maneuvered the hand his lover held, so that in turn he could grip Jethro's hand and tugged it up so that he might kiss it. With his other hand, the hand the IV drip was still affixed to, he stroked Jethro's face.

 

"Oh, my dear Jethro," he murmured, leaning forward and lightly brushing his lips over his lover's. "What a terribly sad story." He paused for a moment, again lightly and briefly kissed Jethro's mouth, before adding quietly, "For everyone involved. When Halliday told me he had had to bury his son, I told him that I would not do him the discourtesy of saying that I could understand what he must feel like, because I could not. No one, other than a parent who has lived through burying their own child, could know."

 

Jethro nodded. "Guess you're right, Duck."

 

"I am," Ducky said firmly. "Now, my dear, what are you going to do about Mr. Halliday?" He took Jethro's hand between both of his and stared at him.

 

"What do you mean, Duck? Arrest him for kidnapping for a start-off, and then we'll see what else I can – What did you say?"

 

"You heard me, Jethro." Ducky spoke calmly and levelly. He also now tightened the grip he had on Jethro's hand.

 

Jethro shook his head. "No," he said, his tone flat, his eyes suddenly like flint. "No. No, Duck. No."

 

"Why not?" Ducky asked in the same calm and level tone.

 

Jethro now pulled his hand from Ducky's grip, stood up and stared down at Ducky. "Why the fuck do you think not, Ducky? He broke into your house. He kidnapped you. He held you captive. He threatened you. He didn't give you any food. He . . . He told me he was going to leave you to starve to death. And you want me to – Fuck it, Duck, I can't even believe you'd ask me that. How can you?" He was learning over Ducky, towering over him, given that Ducky was sitting in the bed, but Ducky continued to simply gaze up at him.

 

Ducky knew his lover; he knew him very well indeed. He sometimes thought he knew him better than Jethro knew himself. And Jethro's behavior, his constant refuting, he way he was trying to intimidate Ducky by his height and sheer presence, told Ducky one thing very clearly: the same thought had gone through Jethro's own mind – and he was disgusted with himself for it.

 

"Jethro," he said calmly, taking Jethro's hand, pleased when Jethro didn't pull it away again. "Do sit back down, my dear. I'm getting a crick in my neck looking up at you." For a moment Jethro didn't move, he just continued to glare down at Ducky. It wasn't the way he glared at criminals; it wasn't even the way he glared at the children or Tobias. It was far softer than either of those, indeed many people might not have seen it as a glare at all. But Ducky, used to the way Jethro's eyes and face softened whenever the two men were together, could quite clearly see it was a glare.

 

Finally he let Ducky pull him back down onto the edge of the bed. Ducky again took the opportunity to lightly touch Jethro's face and then again captured one of his hands between both of his own. "Now, let me tell you my story," he said. "Assuming of course you are interested," he added, his tone teasing.

 

Jethro dredged up a smile from somewhere and ruffled Ducky's hair with the hand Ducky wasn't holding captive. "Ah, Duck," he said. "Go on then. I'll need to know the details anyway for my report. Just don't expect me to change my mind."

 

"Of course not, my dear," Ducky said quietly. "Now firstly, strictly speaking Halliday did not break into my house. He had a key, quite from where he obtained it, I know not, but – "

 

"McGee reckons it was the one your mom lost about a year ago."

 

Ducky was a little taken aback. "But I don't think I ever told Timothy about that. Why would I, I didn't even tell you; it was hardly a noteworthy occasion, given the number of things Mother does indeed lose."

 

"You told Abbs."

 

"Ah, and she, of course, told young Timothy. Oh, that is nice."

 

"What is?"

 

"Dear Abigail and Timothy, of course. They make such a lovely couple. I hope that one day – but where was I?"

 

"Telling me how Halliday didn't break in," Jethro said, after a moment or two of simply looking at Ducky, his look somewhat speculative.

 

Ducky couldn't believe Jethro wasn't aware of the relationship between his most junior agent and his surrogate daughter. In fact he knew he was aware, but like so many things, Jethro tended on occasions to ignore matters he didn't particularly want to admit to. "Ah, yes. Well, I heard the doorbell and was just about to stand up to go downstairs when I heard the knocker as well and then the sound of the key in the lock. I confess I was both surprised and of course delighted that . . ." Ducky came to a halt, and now he gripped Jethro's hand a little more tightly, and found he had leaned forward, so that his head was now brushing against Jethro's shoulder.

 

Jethro slipped his arm around Ducky and held him in a one armed-embrace, kissing the top of his head and rocking him for a moment of two. "It's all right, Duck," he murmured. "I'm here."

 

"I know, my dear. I'm sorry. I'm just being a little foolish. You see, oh, dear, this will sound incredibly stupid, but," he paused, pressed his head against Jethro's shoulder, before moving back just far enough so that he could look into Jethro's eyes. "I knew," he said, his tone matter-of-fact and low.

 

"Knew?"

 

"I knew it wasn't you. Oh, it was far too late for me to do anything; but I knew. Somehow, even as I stood in my bedroom, where I happened to be when the doorbell went, waiting for you to – Jethro, I knew. I knew it wasn’t you. Oh, dear, I said it would sound stupid."

 

Jethro shook his head. "No, it doesn't, Duck."

 

"It doesn't?"

 

"Duck. How many times have you started to speak to me when I come into Autopsy before you even see it's me? How many times do we have a conversation that no one but us could even start to understand? How many times do we not need to speak to know what the other is thinking or about to say? How many times, Duck?"

 

"Well, I – Of course you are correct, Jethro. But you coming into Autopsy, well, the odds are always in my favor that it will be you. After all you do tend to visit me yourself to find out at what stage I have reached or to ask me whether I've done things you know I will have done. So one could say that it really isn't that strange that I would be able to address you when you come in. However –"

 

"You were saying?" Jethro said politely, after a few minutes had gone by.

 

Ducky smiled at his lover, letting his eyes linger over the way the dark eyes had darkened even more – but in a good way, in the way Ducky liked to see – the way his mouth was red and very slightly swollen, in the way he now looked, for Jethro, extremely content and one might even dare to say soppy.

 

"Yes, I was, wasn’t I?" he said, wondering idly when Sarah or another nurse would return.

 

"You were, Doctor Mallard."

 

Ducky smiled even more and now chuckled. "Very well, Special Agent Gibbs, as I was saying, I was aware that the person, despite having done what you do before you come in, was not you. But it really was far too late to do anything – not that I would have known what to have done. I could hardly have locked the door, Mother was downstairs and . . . . Oh, how is Mother now? I do hope that you haven't had to –"

 

"She's fine, Duck. Helen offered to have her and the Corgis stay with her. I call them at least once a day, just to see how she is. Accordingly to Helen they are having a wonderful time, and she has assured me that your mother can stay with her for as long as you wish her to. Charlie's home from university and has been chauffeuring them about. I hate to say it, Duck, but I think . . . Well, you know how she is, don't you?"

 

"I do indeed, my dear. And I'm glad, actually. I was a little concerned that she might be worried and anxious about me all the time. It is far better that she has no lasting memories. Really is it," he added, as Jethro looked him. "Now where was I? Ah, yes. I knew it wasn't you, but there was nothing I could do. I knew by the time I could have dialed your number, it would have been too late. So I waited for whoever it was. I think Halliday was momentarily more surprised by the fact that I was not surprised it wasn't you, than I was to see him. Did that make sense?"

 

"Kind of. Go on."

 

"There's not a great deal else to tell. He had a gun; he told me I was going with him and I . . ."

 

"Went?"

 

"Well, yes."

 

"Just like that?"

 

"I'm afraid so, Jethro. I'm not a trained Federal Agent and even had I been thus, the gun was loaded and he was certainly holding it in a competent manner. Not to mention, as I said, the fact that Mother was downstairs and my first concern had to be for her. He told me he wasn't going to kill me, but that I had to go with him. And as strange as it may seem I believed him. Besides there really wasn't any choice. I managed, I still don't quite know how, to take the ring off you had given me and leave it; I knew that if you found that you would know –"

 

"You hadn't left by choice." Once again Jethro's grip had tightened on Ducky's hand; at least Ducky thought it had, but he was aware that he might have been the one to increase the pressure.

 

"Yes," he said softly. "As much as I hated taking it off and leaving it, I knew I had to. I – Oh," he said, as Jethro dug into his pocket, pulled the simple band out and pushed it onto his finger.

 

For a short time they simply sat, holding hands and gazing at one another.

 

"I admit it hadn't crossed my mind that Mother would be the one to raise the alarm, so to speak. I assumed it would have been more a case of me not turning up to work and you investigating as to why. But it amounts to the same thing. As for the rest . . . Well, really there isn't much to tell. Halliday took me to where you found me; chained me up; left me with some water but no food; threatened me a few times; kicked me once or twice," Ducky saw no reason to lie to his lover, Jethro wasn't a fool, plus Ducky wasn't certain whether Jethro had seen him unclothed, thus he would have seen the bruises. But even if he hadn't, if Ducky had anything to do with it, he would shortly be doing so.

 

He swallowed and pushed the rather naughty image away and continued with his story. "He wasn't around much, very little in fact. He told me about his son being dead and then he offered me the choice."

 

"What choice?"

 

"A quick and easy death by bullet or slow death by starvation. He told me he was going and that he wouldn't return. I choose to stay alive, because I knew you would come for me."

 

Again the grip they had on one another's hand became more intense, as did the way Jethro was looking at him. "Duck," he whispered. "Oh, Ducky."

 

Ducky moistened his lips and went on, his tone now becoming determined. "So you see, Jethro, you might as well do what I am suggesting. He is not going to hurt anyone else; he's not a bad man – you said that yourself. He adores Lisha, and she and her mother need him. What good would –"

 

"Locking him up do?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I don't know, Duck. Nothing, I guess. Except for –"

 

"Making you feel better?" Ducky sighed. "Oh, Jethro, hasn't there been enough revenge? Isn't that why we are in this hospital room? Isn't that why I am alone in this hospital bed when we could be quite easily be together in a far larger, far more comfortable bed?"

 

Jethro's mouth fell open slightly as he stared at Ducky. "Duck," his tone was filled with same incredulity as Ducky saw on his face.

 

"What? What, Jethro? Look, it is very simple."

 

"It is?"

 

"Yes. I want to get out of here. I want to go home and have a long, hot shower, a decent shave, put on some clean clothes, have a good meal, and go to my nice, comfortable, warm, large bed. And I do not wish to do any of those things alone, Jethro. I want, I intend, to do them all with you."

 

"Oh, you do, do you?" Jethro's tone was silky.

 

"Yes."

 

"All those things?"

 

"Yes."

 

"In that exact order?"

 

"Well . . . Not necessarily. Although I am forced to admit that I am rather looking forward to some food. And knowing you like I do, I would venture to suggest that a decent meal would not go amiss with you. I would further venture to suggest that you have not been eating properly, or indeed sleeping properly."

 

"Guilty and guilty. So, just in order to clarify things. The bed part, is that to sleep or . . ."

 

"Oh, most definitely 'or'," Ducky said softly. "At least to begin with, that is. Now, as much as I hate to say it, you really should be leaving, before Nurse Sarah either comes in to throw you out, or you get her in trouble for being here."

 

"Guess you're right. There are things I've got to do, including grabbing a shower – just to be going on with, you understand."

 

Ducky smiled. "I doubt the doctors will wish to release me before this afternoon anyway. In fact, I doubt they'll be overly happy to do so then. However, I'm certain I can 'talk them round', and if not, well, I'll just tell them I have a boyfriend who not only carries a gun, but is extremely able at using it."

 

They both laughed. "Ah, Duck," Jethro said, brushing his hand over Ducky's hair. "I do love you."

 

"And I love you to, my dear Jethro. Now," Ducky swallowed, pulled Jethro's hand towards his lips, lightly kissed it and then again took it between both of his. He stared at Jethro, holding the steady gaze unblinkingly. "About Halliday."

 

For several long seconds Jethro just returned the stare, his too unblinkingly. Then he sighed, blinked quickly, squeezed Ducky's hand and stood up. "I'll think about it, Duck," he said. "No promises though."

 

Ducky settled back on the pillow with a contented sigh. "Very well, my dear," he said. "Now kiss me once more and then you really should go."

 

Jethro bent his head and obeyed Ducky's order, before again ruffling his hair, grabbing his overcoat that had been dumped unceremoniously in the corner and striding to the door. "I'll be back this afternoon," he said. "Me and my gun," he added, winking at Ducky before leaving the room.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Feeling ten times better in the sense that he had showered, shaved, had clean underwear and a clean shirt on, and had a cup of his coffee inside him, plus another cup in his hand, but also worse because he'd left Ducky mere hours after he'd found him again, Gibbs, after a brief visit to Tom Morrow to appraise him of the current situation, walked to the squad room.

 

He came to a halt at the sight that greeted him. DiNozzo was sprawled back in his chair, mouth open, arms hanging over the arms of the chair. Kate was curled up on the floor, for some reason not quite behind her desk. Abby and McGee were asleep, heads next to one another on McGee's desk, their arms and shoulders pressed against one another. And to his surprise, out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Palmer, sitting what seemed like bolt upright in the chair behind the spare desk, his hands gripping the arms of the chair; if it hadn't been for the fact his eyes were closed, his glasses were neatly folded up on the desk, and a very faint snore was coming from him, Gibbs would have sworn he was awake and in shock.

 

For a moment or two he just stood and stared at them; a feeling he rarely got, except for when he was with, or thinking about, Ducky, trickled through his body. Damn it, they cared; they really cared. He'd never really doubted it, or wouldn't have done had he thought about it, but this showed it. He wasn't entirely certain why Palmer was there, or who had called him (although he suspected it was down to Abby), but somehow it seemed right and fitting that he was there. He was also hit by another rare feeling: a twinge of guilt. Maybe he should have called them and given them an update on Ducky, but then again given he had, under Ducky's gentle orders, fallen asleep mere minutes after seeing Ducky, that wouldn't have been an easy thing to do.

 

"Hey," he called fairly quietly as he clapped his hands once.

 

Five people immediately came to life in various ways, sitting up and looking at him. As one they began to talk.

 

"Hey, boss."

 

"Gibbs. Gibbs. Gibbs. Gibbs. Gibbs. How's Ducky?"

 

"Yes, Gibbs, how is he?

 

"Good morning, Special Agent Gibbs, sir. Er. I hope you don't mind –"

 

"Morning, boss."

 

He whistled once and they feel quiet. "Ducky is fine," he said.

 

"And?" Now Abby stood up and frowned.

 

He looked at her. "And what, Abbs?"

 

"Is that it 'fine'?" She glared at him. Before he could say anything, she sighed and rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, I'll call him. Come on, Kate, let's go and shower before they," she cast her gaze around the three younger men, "grab all the hot water."

 

"Sounds good to me," Kate said, after a swift look at Gibbs to see if he was objecting. She hurried after Abby.

 

Gibbs then watched as DiNozzo reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a glass, his toothbrush and toothpaste and began to brush his teeth. "DiNozzo!"

 

DiNozzo paused and looked at him. "Yes, boss?"

 

Or at least that's what Gibbs thought he'd said. "Go and do that in the proper place," he said.

 

"But, boss," DiNozzo having swallowed his toothpaste now sounded clearer. "I thought you'd want me to . . . Of course you don't. Halliday's been no trouble," he said, standing up and grabbing the bag he kept his emergency supplies in and raced off across the office.

 

"Er, boss?" McGee said.

 

"Go," Gibbs said. "Both of you. Now."

 

He watched McGee and Palmer follow DiNozzo before draining the last of his second cup of coffee and crossing the office towards the elevators and the interrogation rooms.

 

 

He nodded to the technician and on duty agent who sat in the observation room. "You two can go and get coffee or go home if you're off duty. I don't need this taped."

 

They looked at one another and then at him. He stared back at them. After a minute or two, with a degree of reluctance, they left him alone.

 

He just stood and watched Halliday through the glass; he saw the man who, had it not been for his daughter and granddaughter, would have been responsible for Ducky's death. He saw him and he suddenly realized how small, how old, how almost pathetic he looked.

 

After another minute or two of silent observation, despite what he'd said to the other men, he reached for the switch on the tape – he didn't want to give Halliday any possible ammunition – tightened his resolve and left the observation room.

 

"Halliday," he said, as he shut the door of the interrogation room firmly behind him. "I trust you've been well looked after."

 

Halliday looked up at him; he was pale, drawn, his skin looked sallow, his lips thin and his eyes colorless. "I did what I had to do. I did it for Henry. I don't regret what I did. You deserved it."

 

Gibbs stared down at him, then pulled out a chair and sat down. For several more minutes he just sat and stared at Halliday in silence. "At the time of your son's death I told you how sorry I was for your loss. I still am. No parent should ever have to bury their own child."

 

Halliday swallowed. "It would have been different if he had died doing his job. His mother and I always knew he could die in service of his country; we could have accepted that. But he died because of you."

 

Gibbs shook his head. "No, Mr. Halliday," he said, his tone firm. "He didn't. I'll tell you once again; I was not responsible for your son's death."

 

"You're a lying hypocrite," Halliday sneered. "It's all right for you to have a gay lover, but – What's that?" he demanded, as Gibbs pushed an envelope across the table to him.

 

"A letter."

 

"Who from?"

 

Gibbs tilted his head slightly. "Don't you recognize the handwriting?"

 

Halliday picked the envelope up and held it out in front of him squinting hard. He moved it slightly nearer, then even nearer, then further away again, blinking hard to focus. "It's Henry's," he said. He frowned at Gibbs. "Where did you get it?"

 

"Aileen gave it to me. She found it behind the bureau when she was trying to catch a spider for Lisha."

 

At the name of his granddaughter, he saw Halliday's face soften, saw him smile slightly. "Silly little thing is scared of them. I keep telling her they're more afraid of her than she is of them, but it doesn't help. It always amazes me how she always knows when one's about; she can't see them, they don't make a noise, don't have a scent as far as I know. But she knows. She's –" He stopped talking, as if aware of what he was giving away. "So what, it's a letter from Henry."

 

"Look at the date," Gibbs said quietly.

 

He waited while Halliday went through the same procedure, albeit more quickly – Gibbs guessed his eyes must have adjusted somewhat. "It was posted the day he –" Again Halliday cut himself off.

 

Gibbs nodded. "Read it," he said.

 

Halliday shook his head. "No. I don't want to. I –" He dropped the envelope on the table as though it had burned him.

 

"It wasn't a suggestion. Read it," Gibbs repeated, learning forward and picking the envelope up. "Here," he said, holding the single sheet of paper out to Halliday. "Read it."

 

Halliday now pushed his chair back and violently shook his head. "No," he said, his voice was cracking. "No, I can't. Please," he whispered.

 

Gibbs looked at him. "I'll read it to you then," he said.

 

"No, I –" Halliday fell silent as Gibbs read the last words Henry Halliday had ever written to his parents; quite possibly the last words he had ever written.

 

As he read the last six words he heard Halliday sob. Until those final words he had just sat, tears running down his face; but now he sobbed aloud. Just once, a strange sound, an almost bitten off gurgle. He reached out a shaking hand and took the letter from Gibbs's hand, slid it slowly across the table and gazed down at it, again blinking, this time to clear the tears.

 

Gibbs watched him begin to read; watched his eyes pass over each line; watched him wipe the back of his hand over the face and he waited. He didn’t feel anything; not hatred, not bitterness, not jubilation, not pleasure that he'd been vindicated, nothing. Nothing at all. It was as though now he was out of Ducky's radar his emotions had once again all vanished.

 

He watched as Halliday gripped the letter tightly and lowered his head into his hands and sobbed.

 

He waited in silence as the man grieved. Not just for his son; but for the fact that he, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, had just destroyed his hate; had just taken away what he had held onto. What had, in Aileen's words, kept him going for over two decades.

 

Finally, still gulping and swallowing sobs and wiping his eyes, Halliday sat up and looked at him. "What's going to happen to me?" he said, all the fight, the vitriol, the bitterness gone from his voice, from his face, from his very being.

 

Gibbs stood up and left the room.

 

 

"But why, boss?" DiNozzo asked his tone and face full of incomprehension and surprise.

 

"Didn't know I had to explain myself to you, DiNozzo."

 

"Of course you don’t, boss, but . . . " DiNozzo trailed off under Gibbs's cold stare.

 

"It's actually a good question, Gibbs," Kate said, moving from behind her desk to stand by DiNozzo.

 

Gibbs turned his attention to her. "Oh, you think so, do you, Agent Todd? And what about you, McGee?"

 

"I . . . Um . . . Er . . . I. I think that if you wanted us to know, that you'd tell us," he finally managed to stutter out.

 

"Good boy, McGee," Gibbs said, patting him on the shoulder. "Well come on then, don't just stand there."

 

"Me, boss?"

 

"Yes, McGee, you."

 

"You want me to come with you?"

 

Gibbs raised his eyes heavenwards. "Why, no, McGee, I thought I'd just say the words to see what they sounded like."

 

"Right, boss. Yes, boss." McGee hurried away to his desk where Gibbs watched him grab his cell phone and his Sig.

 

Gibbs crossed to the elevators and waited for McGee to join him. "Oh, and, DiNozzo," he called, just before the doors closed. "The reason I'm taking McGee with me is that Lisha has already met him." He smiled to himself as the doors shut on the looks of surprise on both DiNozzo's and Kate's face.

 

 

When they went through the gate leading to Halliday's house, McGee and Gibbs on either side of Halliday, Aileen and Lisha were outside hanging washing on the line. As if drawn by some sign, all three men stopped and just waited.

 

Suddenly Lisha, who had been bending down to pass Aileen something, stood up straight, squealed, turned around at high speed and began to run towards them. "Grandpa! Grandpa!" she cried, her arms already out in front of her.

 

Aileen whirled around too, but unlike her daughter she seemed frozen to the spot, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.

 

"Grandpa! Grandpa!" Lisha cried again as she reached the three men. Then she paused, inches from throwing herself into Halliday's arms and glanced to the side Gibbs stood. "Grandpa?" now she made it a question.

 

"I'm here, baby," Halliday said, his voice heavy with emotion. "I'm here." He bent down to her level and gathered her into his arms, holding her tightly, rocking her back and forth, running his hand over and over and over again across her head as he hushed her, and murmured words that Gibbs doubted were even coherent.

 

Then Halliday straightened up, Lisha safely and firmly held in one arm and looked at Aileen who had finally moved across to join them. He looked at her and held out his other arm, silently just watching her.

 

After half a second she moved. "Oh, Dad," she cried, and hurried into the embrace, putting her own arms around him and Lisha.

 

To his chagrin and annoyance Gibbs felt the back of his throat become tight. He frowned to himself and shook his head as he glanced at McGee who was swallowing hard, clearly fighting his own emotions.

 

How long they all stood there, Gibbs wasn't certain, but finally it was Lisha who raised her head and then wriggled in her grandfather's arms. He put her down and, with a surety that still amazed him, she walked towards Gibbs. "Thank you, Agent Gibbs," she said, tugging on his arm until he crouched down to her level. "Thank you for bringing Grandpa home to me."

 

"Lisha, honey," Aileen said quickly. "Remember what I told you. We –"

 

"McGee, why don't you go and finish off the story you were reading to Lisha the last time we were here."

 

McGee looked at him and blinked. Then nodded, "Right, boss. Come on, Lisha," he said, taking her hand.

 

"Mommy?" Lisha looked up at Aileen.

 

"You go with Agent McGee, Lisha. Your grandpa and I have to have a little talk with Agent Gibbs."

 

She frowned and then turned to her grandfather. "You won't go away again without saying bye bye to me, will you, Grandpa?"

 

Halliday shook his head and forced himself to swallow. "No, Lisha. I won't."

 

"Promise?" she demanded.

 

"I promise. Now you go with Agent McGee."

 

"Okay. Come on, Agent Timothy," she said, beginning to pull McGee away.

 

"I hope you can remember where I got to, because I can't."

 

"Oh, silly, Agent Timothy. It was . . ." And with those words McGee, being dragged by Lisha, went off.

 

Gibbs, Halliday and Aileen stood in silence watching the two make their way into the house and close the door behind them.

 

Then Aileen turned to him and held out her hand. "I want to say thank you to you as well, Agent Gibbs. It means a lot to us, being allowed to see Dad. Doesn't it, Dad?"

 

Halliday swallowed again and nodded. "Yes. Yes, it does. Thank you, Agent Gibbs." He looked towards the house, at his daughter and finally at Gibbs again. "Special Agent Gibbs, I need to –"

 

"One chance," Gibbs said interrupting him.

 

"What?"

 

"One chance. That's what you've got, Halliday. One chance. You so much as spit on the sidewalk, I'll know. You get a parking ticket or get booked for speeding and you're mine. And I will take you down – you can be sure of that. This is your only chance, take it or else."

 

Father and daughter stared at him, surprise and shock on their faces as both opened and shut their mouths without forming a sound.

 

Finally Halliday shook himself. "But –"

 

"Tell Agent McGee I'll be in the car. And say goodbye to Lisha for me," Gibbs said, nodding at Aileen. He turned on his heel and walked away.

 

 

McGee was silent on the way back to the office, although Gibbs could see him out of the corner of his eyes; see that he was trying to think of something to say, but he clearly had no idea what.  Gibbs could understand that; he wouldn't have known what to say either. In fact he was glad McGee wasn't asking, because he wasn't certain he could answer, not adequately.

 

Before they reached NCIS headquarters he stopped the car. "You can get a cab from here, McGee," he said, leaning over McGee and opening the door.

 

"Boss?"

 

"A cab back to the office."

 

"Oh, right. And you are . . . Oh, you're going to the hospital to see Ducky," McGee said, now beaming at Gibbs.

 

"Atta boy, McGee." Gibbs patted his leg. "Well, shoo."

 

McGee hastily slid out of the car and closed the door. "Give Ducky my regards, boss," he called through the open window.

 

"I'll do that. Oh, and McGee."

 

"Yes, boss?"

 

"Tell DiNozzo I expect to find everything, everything mind you, how I left it when I get back."

 

"Get back, boss?"

 

"Yeah. I'm taking a few days leave." And with that, Gibbs gunned the engine and pulled back into the DC traffic, barely sparing a glance in his wing or rearview mirrors.

 

As he drove towards the hospital he smiled at the memory of the look of incredulity that had spread across McGee's face when he'd said the final words. At least Tom Morrow had managed to hide his surprise more easily when Gibbs had handed him his request for three days leave.

 

 

"But why, McGee?"

 

"I don't know, Tony, I didn't ask him."

 

"He just let Halliday go?" DiNozzo sounded as if he'd just been told Santa Claus didn’t exist.

 

McGee nodded. "Well, I assume so, given that he wasn't in the car when I got back."

 

"Got back from where, Probie." DiNozzo's eyes gleamed as he stared at McGee.

 

"Er, that's not important now. What is, is that . . . Is that . . . Is that Gibbs is taking a few days leave."

 

"Leave?"

 

McGee nodded. "Yes."

 

"But Gibbs never takes leave. Abby, have you ever known him take leave?"

 

Abby shook her head and frowned. "No. Didn't he say anything else, McGee?" she put her hands on her hips and frowned at him.

 

"Well, no. At least not exactly."

 

"What do you mean, McGee?"

 

"Well, Kate, he did say he was going to the hospital to see Ducky."

 

"And," Abby said, twirling around on the spot. "When I spoke to Ducky he said that he was going to go home today." She beamed at them all in turn. And then with another twirl, she linked her arm through Palmer's and bounced off across the office.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

When Gibbs reached Ducky's hospital room he could hear the sound of several voices, all talking at once. He paused for a moment and singled out Ducky's; he did not sound particularly happy. Smiling to himself, he patted his Sig, turned the handle on the door and walked in. "Hey, Duck," he said, above the voices.

 

"Jethro!" Ducky cried, his tone immediately changing. He smiled and held out his hand. "I am very glad to see you, my dear. Please come and tell these good people that you are here to take me home."

 

Gibbs crossed the room and took Ducky's hand. "If that's what you want, Duck," he said, lightly brushing a strand of hair that had fallen over Ducky's face.

 

"Who are you?" The older of the men wearing white coats demanded. "Visiting hours are not until –"

 

Gibbs glanced at him. "Leroy Jethro Gibbs. I'm Ducky's –"

 

"Partner," Ducky said firmly.

 

Gibbs shrugged. "Guess that'll do."

 

"In that case, Mr. Gibbs, may I ask that you persuade Dr. Mallard that he really should stay here for at least another day and night, and preferably longer."

 

Gibbs looked at Ducky and raised his eyebrows. "Duck?" he asked several questions with the one word.

 

Ducky sighed. "I am perfectly fine, Jethro. My temperature, pulse and blood pressure are all normal – well they were until my doctor decided he knew better than I do."

 

The doctor tried to appease Ducky. "It's not a case of knowing better, Dr. Mallard, just that . . . Well, you were –"

 

"Abducted. Yes, I know. I was there, I remember it."

 

"And you are . . ."

 

"Go on," now Ducky's voice was deceptively pleasant.

 

"Duck," Gibbs said, sotto voce.

 

"I am, what? Elderly? Old? Infirm?"

 

"No, of course not. It's just that . . . I just feel it would be better, safer, for you if we were able to monitor you for another twenty-four to forty-eight hours, that's all, Doctor. As a fellow medic you are well aware that people can appear to be completely recovered and then have a relapse."

 

"Yes, Dr. Matthews, of course I am aware of that. However, as you have kindly mentioned or inferred more than once, I am a doctor. I assure you that if I suddenly 'have a relapse' Jethro will bring me straight back here, will you not, Jethro?"

 

"Of course, I will," Gibbs said, enjoying the whole exchange.

 

"In the meantime I really can assure you that I feel well enough, more than well enough, to go home. And it isn’t as if I am going home to an empty house, is that not the case, my dear?" He looked up at Gibbs.

 

Gibbs nodded. "He won't be on his own," he said to Matthews.

 

"But we did talk about you . . ."

 

"No, Dr. Matthews, you talked about me talking to some kind of counselor. I did not. I'm sorry if you feel my reactions aren't as they should be, but . . . Dr. Matthews, when you have seen and dealt with the kind of death and destruction I see on almost a daily basis, then . . . Well, it makes you even more aware of just how short life is; of how precious each hour is. And I am sure that you can understand that to an extent. You have no doubt seen your own horrors during your career, have you not?"

 

Matthews nodded. "Yes, I have. We all have. Well, okay, Dr. Mallard. It's still against my better judgment and professional advice and you will need to sign a release form stating that, but . . . I guess I can't keep you here against your will."

 

"No, you cannot. Thank you, Doctor." And with those words Ducky held his hand out for his doctor to take and shake.

 

Gibbs watched the man shake his head one more time and then, accompanied by two, he assumed to be Interns or something, younger men, he left he room.

 

"Right," Ducky said, beaming at the young nurse who had been standing quietly in the corner. "If you would be kind enough, my dear, to take this thing, out of me, and remove these leads, I shall take my leave of you."

 

 

"Jethro! Do stop fussing. I am not made of china," Ducky said, his tone a little weary, as Jethro hurried to open the car door for him and help him out.

 

"Sorry, Duck." But Jethro still held out his hand and helped Ducky out. Then he put his arm around Ducky's shoulders, sighed with pleasure as Ducky put his own arm around his back, and together they walked slowly towards Ducky's front door.

 

As he pulled his keychain from his pocket Jethro said quietly, "You sure about this, Duck? We can go to my house."

 

Ducky smiled up at him and shook his head. "No, my dear. I'm quite certain. Not only is my bed more comfortable than yours, but my hot water supply is far superior and," he added, letting his fingers lightly caress Jethro's cheek, "I have food in my refrigerator and freezer."

 

Jethro laughed and opened the door. "In you go then, Duck."

 

Once they were inside, it was Jethro himself who turned and not only locked, but also bolted the front door.

 

Ducky stood and watched him, a faint smile playing over his lips. "Why, Jethro," he said, moving even closer to Jethro, moving into his arms and deliberately letting his body brush against his. "I do believe –"

 

Jethro pulled him into his arms, tangled one hand gently in Ducky's hair, bent his head and put his mouth to Ducky's.

 

The kiss went on for quite some time, during which both men started to become lightly aroused as lips, hands and bodies reconnected, reassured and loved one another.

 

Finally, with great reluctance, but also sensing Ducky needed to at the very least sit down, Jethro broke the kiss. "So, Duck," he said, gazing down into Ducky's face that shone with love for him. "What do you want first? Shower and shave? Something to eat? Or do you want to go straight to bed?"

 

Ducky sighed. "As dreadful as I'm afraid this will sound, my dear. I really do feel that eating first would be the best thing. Although I regret to say that despite feeling somewhat hungry, I am aware that I will not be able to eat a great deal at the moment. Something light would be advisable, for more reasons than one." He sounded rather self-deprecating and even a little hesitant, although his eyes did sparkle slightly.

 

"Food it is then. How about tea, toast and scrambled eggs? That do you?" Jethro didn’t cook for himself a lot, but one thing he could do and do very well – even better than Ducky – was scrambled eggs.

 

Ducky's face lit up. "I believe that is just what the doctor ordered," he said, moving back into Jethro's embrace and initiating another kiss.

 

This went on for longer than the previous kiss had with no sign of ending. As the embrace became tighter and tighter and bodies that knew one another so well and had done for so many years, began to move gently in perfect symmetry, Jethro knew he was minutes away from forgetting food or a shower and even a bed and just making love to Ducky where they were.

 

Gently, but firmly, he detached himself from the kiss, and moved back a little. "Duck," he said softly, as he looked down at his lover. "Food or bed? Because if you kiss me again like that, you can forget eating."

 

Ducky looked immensely pleased with himself, which in turn pleased Jethro, as with an exaggerated sigh he said, "You may feed me, Jethro."

 

Jethro laughed, put his arm around Ducky's shoulders and guided him into the kitchen.

 

 

Duly fed and watered, it was Ducky who, very unlike Ducky, piled the dishes into the sink, filled it with hot water, added some washing-up liquid and then pointedly took Jethro's hand and somewhat more determinedly than usual, led him to the stairs. As they reached them, just for a second, at the bottom Ducky paused.

 

"Hey, Duck," Jethro said softly, turning Ducky so he could look at him. "You okay?"

 

Ducky smiled, but it didn’t quite touch his eyes; for a split second Jethro regretted in effect letting Halliday go. "Yes, of course, my dear," he said, his voice sounding quite normal. "I'm just . . ."

 

"Remembering?" Jethro asked.

 

Ducky shrugged. "Which in itself is somewhat foolish given the circumstances; it is not as though I stood here with Halliday and looked up the stairs. Forgive me, Jethro." And before Jethro could say anything, Ducky tucked his arm through his and determinedly put his foot on the first stair. "Coming?" he asked, now turning to Jethro and raising one eyebrow. All hint of uncertainty or anything else negative fled, as Ducky openly flirted with him, in his very own oh-so-innocent way.

 

Determined to ignore the obvious response, the one Ducky was having fun goading him into saying, Jethro just smiled and started up the stairs with Ducky.

 

When they reached the top of the stairs, Jethro was surprised that Ducky led him straight past his bedroom and into the bathroom which was immediately next to it. "You starting a new fashion, Duck? Taking a shower with you clothes on?" he quipped.

 

Ducky rolled his eyes as he tugged Jethro into the bathroom and shut the door. There he took off the sweater he was wearing and then began to unbutton his shirt. "No, my dear. It is just that one of the things I have been longing for it a hot shower, and if we undress in the bedroom we will simply end up in bed, will we not?" He tossed his shirt and undershirt into the dirty linen basket and began to unzip and unbutton his trousers.

 

"Guess you're right, Duck," Jethro said, mentally pushing his hands behind his back to stop himself from 'assisting' Ducky with his undressing; if he started to strip Ducky, they would definitely end up in bed – assuming they got there. "Here," he said, offering his arm for Ducky to lean on so that he could remove his trousers, shorts, socks and shoes.

 

"Thank you." Ducky tossed the rest of his clothes into the dirty linen basket and, leaving Jethro to turn on the shower and take his own clothes off, crossed to the sink where he grabbed his razor and ran it over his face for a few minutes. Once he's completed that part of his 'wish list' he then moved to the toilet where he, completely unconcernedly, proceeded to relieve himself.

 

At the sight of the fading bruises on Ducky's pale, naked body, Jethro had to fight the urge not to pass comment. He also had to fight the suddenly nearly over-whelming urge to pull out his cell which, along with his gun, he still had in his pockets, call DiNozzo and tell him to go back to Halliday's place and arrest the bastard. It was only the thought of Lisha and how she had clung to her grandfather, how he had held, cradled and kissed her, and the thought of her and her mother having to move from the home they knew so well, that stopped him from doing that very thing.

 

"Jethro," Ducky's calm, slightly amused voice interrupted his thoughts.

 

"Yeah, Duck?"

 

"As I know you are more than capable of doing more than one thing at the same time, I suggest you do that thing now and undress whilst you are watching me."

 

Jethro blinked. "I wasn't watching you!" he declared, as he hastened to follow Ducky's order and at speed began to strip himself. He paused long enough to open the door and put his Sig, watch and cell phone onto the conveniently placed table outside the door.

 

Ducky just cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled knowingly.

 

Jethro just shook his head as he finally tugged off his underwear and threw it into Ducky's dirty linen basket. If the kids had any idea of quite what went on behind closed doors, and he was thinking less of the physical and more of the emotional, the way Ducky and he teased one another, the lightness of their relationship, he'd probably have to resign for fear of ridicule.

 

Except he wouldn't, because in all honestly, he'd long given up caring what people thought about him and what they might say about him. He'd always known that Ducky brought out the softer side of him – the side he sometimes didn't even realize existed. He knew that for a man who didn't fuss, a man who had told more than one agent to 'get over it' following the killing of someone who had ultimately turned out to be innocent, when it came to Ducky, he fussed and was far more concerned with his welfare. Not that he wasn't concerned with his agents and the non-field members of his team – he was – he just tended to hide it somewhat better.

 

The sound of Ducky ostentatiously clearing his throat again pulled him from his thoughts. "Well, you are at least undressed," Ducky said, deliberately looking up and down Jethro's body, his gaze coming to rest a little below Jethro's waist. "Mmm," he murmured, surprising Jethro by fluttering the back of his fingers down Jethro's still-partial arousal. He chuckled as Jethro made a noise in his throat and caught Ducky's hand and bundled him inside the shower cubicle under the torrent of hot water.

 

As the water cascaded over Ducky's skin, Jethro heard him groan in sheer pleasure and found himself ignored, if not temporarily forgotten, as Ducky put his head back and indulged himself with just letting the water pour over him. He made no move to pick up the soap or shampoo or wash cloth, he simply stood, turning this way and that, making sure each part of his body was equally treated to the gushing water. Ducky's utter pleasure was a joy to see and as Jethro leaned against the somewhat cold tiled wall, he smiled as he just watched Ducky, sharing in his delight vicariously.

 

It was a good job that Ducky's hot water supply was endless, as for at least twenty minutes, he just continued to let the water flow over his body, drenching his hair, turning it far darker than it had become over the years, letting his arms hang down by his sides, smiling with delight, contentment and joy.

 

And as Jethro continued to watch, Ducky now reached for the soap and then the wash cloth and began to almost clinically yet lovingly wash his body. As his hands moved over his own skin, he was, to Jethro's eyes caressing himself. As Ducky's hands moved to his groin where his strokes became even more intimate as he cleaned himself, Jethro had to close his eyes and grip himself to prevent himself from climaxing. The sight of Ducky touching himself, was nearly his undoing and he pressed himself harder against the cool tiles and began to try to recall the rules of cricket that his lover had painstakingly tried to explain to him one long, wet, cold Sunday afternoon.

 

Suddenly Ducky seemed to either have remembered Jethro's presence or become aware of him, as he glanced at him and Jethro saw him almost do a double take, as a very faint flush began to touch his face. "Oh, Jethro," he said, holding out his hand. "You must forgive me, I am afraid I got rather carried away."

 

Jethro took Ducky's hand and joined him under the gushing water; taking pleasure himself in the way it poured over his body as well as the fact that he had a naked, wet Ducky next to him. "Didn't notice," he said, ducking his head and wetting his hair. He then lowered his head and kissed Ducky, slipping his arms around him and tugging him nearer to him. "I want you," he whispered, breaking the kiss to put his lips to Ducky's ear, where he let his tongue linger and caress.

 

"Mmm," was Ducky's less than coherent response, as he pressed his growing arousal against Jethro's own. "As much as I want you too, dearest," he managed, the words interspersed with low gasps as Jethro continued to kiss, lick and nibble his ear and then his neck. "I really would prefer it to be in a nice, comfortable, soft bed."

 

"Yeah, me too," Jethro said, as he kissed Ducky's nose. "But that doesn't mean we can't play first, does it?"

 

Gently he guided Ducky back against the wall, smiled as Ducky's jumped slightly at the relative coolness of the tiles compared to the hot water, and put his lips to Ducky's neck and began to suck gently. As he did, he started to lightly caress Ducky's arms and chest.

 

"Oh, Jethro. Oooh," Ducky moaned. "I really don't know how anyone could accuse you of not being interested in foreplay. Ahhh."

 

Smiling to himself, Jethro took his mouth from Ducky's neck, idly noting that from the way the skin had reddened the chances of Ducky being marked were quite high, and now turned his attention to kissing his way down and around Ducky's body. For every bruise he found, he kissed that part of skin. Now was not the time to tell his lover that it was only with him that foreplay was of such importance and with anyone else it was far more about the actual act than the lead up to it.

 

Keeping his hands on Ducky's waist to steady Ducky and himself, Jethro dropped to his knees and continued to kiss the bruises on Ducky's thighs. As he indulged himself he could feel Ducky's erection brushing against his face and finally after each bruise had been gently kissed, he moved his mouth and carefully and slowly engulfed the hardness. Ducky's own scent and taste were clear even through the clean taste of soap and hot water.

 

Again Ducky cried out and his hands came to rest on Jethro's head, as lightly and moving with no rush Jethro began to show Ducky how much he loved him. He wasn't surprised when, after a minute or two of soft cries and moans, Ducky's hands tugged on his head, guiding him away from what he was doing and encouraging him to stand up. Once Jethro was on his feet, Ducky grabbed his head and pulled it down, claiming Jethro's mouth in an almost frantic kiss.

 

The kiss gentled and their breathing became less labored as bit by bit they regained control. This time it was Ducky who broke away first; with the look in his eyes that spoke of deep desire and clear passion, he thrust the soap into Jethro's hand and in turn grabbed the shampoo and proceeded to, more speedily than he'd cleansed his body, but nonetheless competently, wash and rinse his hair.

 

Jethro had to smile as, when he reached the most intimate part of his own soaping, Ducky deliberately turned his back on him and muttered under his breath something that Jethro couldn't quite hear but that sounded almost like a mantra.

 

 

Still a little damp around the edges, especially Ducky's hair, they lay entwined in Ducky's bed. Hands, lips and mouths moved over naked skin, teasing, caressing, touching, stroking, kissing, licking, sucking, nibbling, reconnecting in their own special, personal way as they gently made love to one another.

 

Despite their earlier 'games' in the shower, how aroused both men were and their days apart, neither, now that they were in bed, was in a rush to reach completion. Being lovers for thirty years meant they not only knew exactly what turned one another on, but how to arouse and bring to the edge of climax, yet hold it there until it calmed again.

 

For a long time they shared the touches and caresses equally, both eager and needing to touch the other as much and as intimately as possible, until gently but firmly, Jethro moved just enough so that he could lean over Ducky and take control of making love to Ducky. He wanted, he needed, to give Ducky pleasure and completion and happiness before he took any for himself. "Let me, my love," he murmured, using a rare endearment, but one that seemed to suit Ducky and what he was to him so perfectly.

 

Ducky just smiled, let his hands fall from where they'd been caressing Jethro's back, sank even further into the bed, a perfect balance between firmness and softness, and with a trust beyond anything Jethro had ever seen in any other lover, as well as a willingness to be loved, gave himself up into Jethro's care.

 

Again thirty years of loving meant they knew the preferred way of reaching completion, and as he kissed Ducky's mouth, moving from time to time to nuzzle his ear, holding him in a one armed embrace, Jethro used his other hand on Ducky's arousal, moving it gently and slowly, down and up, just the way Ducky liked it, until seconds from completion he speeded up just enough to take Ducky over the edge. "Love you, Duck," he murmured at the very second Ducky was about to climax. "I love you so much."

 

He held Ducky as his entire body shuddered with the climax, tugged his body against him, put his mouth to Ducky's and kept his hand on Ducky, feeling the warm, sticky fluid flow over his hand and fingers, enjoying what he now dared to admit he'd feared he'd never feel again. And he went on holding Ducky, lightly kissing Ducky, murmuring soft words of love and affection and tenderness, keeping a gentle grip on his softening arousal, just as Ducky liked, until Ducky finally opened his eyes and gazed up at him.

 

The dark gaze, now barely registering any blue at all, told Jethro how happy his lover was, how contented he was and how much he, Jethro, was loved, cherished and adored. "I love you too, my dearest, dearest Jethro," Ducky whispered, bringing a slightly trembling hand up to stroke Jethro's face.

 

They stayed like that, Jethro propped up slightly on one elbow, just gazing down at Ducky, while Ducky in turn gazed up at him, smiling softly and exchanging gentle, non-passionate kisses for several minutes.

 

Then, slowly, but deliberately, Ducky moved under Jethro, parting his legs and shifting on the bed as his steady, intense stare never once left Jethro's face; his intent, his desire, was quite clear.

 

"You sure that's what you want, Duck?" Jethro whispered, already moving his hand down and beneath Ducky's body.

 

"Oh, yes, my love," Ducky said solemnly. "I am more than sure." He lifted his body a little from the bed and allowed Jethro's fingers begin to prepare him.

 

Jethro took his time, as he always did. It wasn't the way they made love on a regular basis, so although Ducky's body was used to him, he still wanted to ensure that he made it as pain free as he possibly could before he attempted to join with his lover.

 

Finally, when he was completely certain that Ducky was ready, he shifted them both, maneuvering his lover into position and carefully, slowly, gently, taking as much care of Ducky as he would of a china mug – more in fact – he slipped little by little inside Ducky. As he entered Ducky he kept a close eye on him, watching for any hint of extra pain or tenderness, but there was none. If anything Ducky seemed even more relaxed and open to him than he usually was.

 

He took his time, moving slowly at first before speeding up until he reached the pressure that would bring him to climax. As he reached that edge, he caught Ducky's hand and pulled it to his mouth and kissed it. With Ducky's name on his lips and more words of love, his body found release.

 

 

More than three hours later they were still in Ducky's bed, still in one another's arms, but now the bed clothes were carefully tucked around them and Ducky had fallen asleep.

 

Jethro stayed awake just watching over his sleeping lover, guarding him, making sure his peace was not disturbed – even though logic told him there was no need. His logic always had tended to desert him where Ducky was concerned.

 

Finally though, worn out from days of worrying as to where Ducky might be and if he'd find him alive, not to mention their hours long lovemaking that, in effect, had begun from the moment he'd walked into Ducky's hospital room, told the nurse he was Ducky's boyfriend and that he was staying, sat down by Ducky's bed and taken Ducky's hand, Jethro's eyes grew too heavy to stay open.

 

Sighing with contentment, he let his body grow as heavy as his eyes, snuggled up to the man he loved above all others, above all logic, above all reason and finally joined Ducky in sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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