Disclaimer: I don't own anything having to do with the show. Wish I did.

Spoilers: For Hiatus, Once a Hero and Sandblasting

A/N: I owe a huge huge thanks to lonelywalker for betaing this not once but twice. Cheers to new friends! And old ones, as I wrote this because brightillusions wanted "Ducky romance with someone not evil, like a schoolteacher." This is the first time I've used Ducky as more then a periphial character, so let me know how I did.

II

He's sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at lunchtime on a Saturday, eating the lunch he packed for himself at home: a sandwich, apple, and a slice of the chocolate cake he made last night. There is a book on the step next to him, but it's just a pretense. He hasn't even looked between the pages since he sat down, eyes fixed on the scene before him. The sun is shining, and it's still warm though it won't be for long. The trees have already started to change into their autumn colors.

As he bites into the apple Ducky watches the people walking the paved space between the monuments and the long shallow pool at the base of the steps. Some are in a hurry and don't pause to look at the symbols around them. Others catch their reflection in the water or sit on the steps like he does. Sometimes he spots someone carrying flowers and heading in the direction of the Vietnam memorial and it reminds him that even here among the living there is a shadow of death.

He is unwrapping the foil that protects his dessert when something catches his attention from the corner of his eye. He barely has time to look up before he finds himself bracing to catch a bundle of energy encased in a bright red jacket as a woman falls into his lap. She lifts her blonde hair out of her face, revealing bright blue eyes. He's always had a thing for blond hair, going back to prep school when he kissed Maggie McGrew behind the cricket field in third form.

"I'm sorry," she apologizes as she tries to right herself. She falls again, and he grasps her arm to steady her.

"That's quite all right, my dear." This time he helps her up, and she settles herself on the step next to him.

"You're very kind. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a klutz sometimes." She smiles at him, and holds out her hand in introduction. "I'm Belinda."

"I'm please to make your acquaintance, Belinda. I'm Ducky. Donald, really, but no one calls me that except my mother." Looking down he realizes that the cake he had been about to eat a few minutes ago is now a mess of crumbs covering his shirt and pants. As he brushes them away he notices that they cover her jacket too. He sweeps his hand along the sleeve of her shirt and through the curls of her hair, but freezes when he realizes what he is doing. Quickly he pulls his hand away and rests it against his leg. "Now I'm afraid I must be the one to apologize."

"Don't be silly. It was sweet of you." She runs fingers through her own hair and tousles it to set free the crumbs that remain. When she lowers her hand it grazes the spine of the book abandoned on the step between them. "Agatha Christie," she reads as she picks it up.

"One of my favorites." He touches a finger to the cover. Ten Little Indians. "I love the way everything gets tied up so nicely in the end. It's so much easier then real life mysteries."

"And do you often find yourself involved in real life mysteries?" she asks curiously.

"Quite often," he admits with a smile and an underlying tone of seriousness.

"Let me take a guess; you're a secret agent, working for the British Empire whenever they are in need of your services. Something of a James Bond, maybe?" she teases.

"Guessed it in one," he says lightly, and doesn't offer the truth. He's enjoying the time away from dead bodies, the simple conversation they are now sharing, and he doesn't want to give it up.

"Well, Mr. Bond, I'm sure it's not your normal mission but you wouldn't happen to know anything about this city would you? I've never been to DC before and would love a guide." She looks at him shyly and he can't help the grin that spreads across his face. Does he know anything about this city? He's been waiting years for someone to ask him that.

"It would be my honor."

II

It's dark when he ends the tour in front of the White House. It's a sight to see all lit up and he's saved it for last. They've seen all that they could on foot, but tomorrow is another day and he wonders if she'll welcome a guide again. He's not ready to say goodbye to this woman who has made him forget all the burdens that rest on his shoulders for a few hours; work, his relationship with Gibbs, his mother's continual deterioration. It's been so long since he's felt this light, and he hopes to hold on to that feeling as long as possible.

"May I ask how long you'll be in the city?" They've spent most of their time talking about the history of the country, not themselves. He knows that she is from Seattle, and a teacher, but not much beyond that.

"I'm not sure yet. A year at least, longer if I like it." She is staring at the highlighted flag flapping in the breeze and doesn't see his mouth drop open.

"A year?" he asks, wondering if his hearing is starting to go. For all her interest in seeing the sights he had assumed that she was just a tourist in the city for a vacation. The fact that she's more then a visitor is a delightful surprise.

"Uh huh. I wanted to see if I liked the east coast before deciding to settle here permanently." Her stomach growls loud enough to be heard and turns away from the mansion. "Come on. I'm hungry, obviously, and the least I can do for you after today is buy you dinner."

"If you insist." She tugs on his arm and he follows in her steps. By the time they find a restaurant they are walking hand in hand.

II

When Jimmy arrives for work the next morning he finds Ducky pacing between silver autopsy tables and muttering.

"Good morning, Doctor Mallard," he says as takes off his jacket. Ducky stops and looks at his young assistant.

"Good morning, Jimmy." Aware of an audiencehe doesn't return to his pacing, but his mind is still spinning with questions. He has a slip of paper in his pocket, and on the paper is a phone number - Belinda's number- and he's not sure what to do about it. For a moment he considers the young man before him, and is tempted to use him as a sounding board. Jimmy is obviously doing something right, though the boy thinks he is being stealthy, Ducky is well aware of his trysts with a certain special agent assigned to the legal department. But as Jimmy pushes his glasses higher on his nose with his finger he looks so young that he couldn't possibly understand. Ducky sends his assistant up to Abby's lab on a made up errand and resumes his pacing.

Dinner on Saturday had been followed by a rainy Sunday wandering museums. They had discovered a mutual love of Renaissance painters and she had expressed a loathing of modern art. "I've seen my third graders do better work," she had said as they stood in front of a white canvas containing spatters of red. He had thought it looked like a sketch from a crime scene, but hadn't said so out loud. The museum had been followed by an early dinner, as both of them had had to go to work the next morning. Before they had parted she had printed her phone number and address on the back of a takeout menu and given it to him.

He isn't sure what to do. He should call her. She is too young for him: forty, maybe forty-two if he has to make a guess, and his sixtieth birthday has come and gone. She doesn't know anyone else in town yet and needs a friend. He wants to be more then her friend. She works with young children and he deals in death. She makes him laugh. He takes the paper out of his pocket and makes a call to the florist. He's just hung up the phone when Jimmy enters the room.

"Gibbs called Abby and she told me to tell you that we need to go pick up a body," the boy says in too much of a hurry. Ducky sighs and hands the assistant ME the keys to the van.

II

It's a busy week for both of them; he has two murders and an accidental drowning, she has her first week at a new job. He calls her on Thursday, and she thanks him for the daffodils.

"I always thought they were such a cheerful flower," he tells her.

"They're my favorite," she remarks. She also says yes when he invites her for a picnic lunch on Saturday.

Ducky worries when the skies are cloudy on Friday, but his luck holds and Saturday dawns cool but clear. He picks her up at an apartment that is still half hidden in cardboard boxes and takes her to a park not far from NCIS. He had discovered it one day after a case left him too upset to drive- an autopsy performed on a little girl who had been beaten to death- and he had gone for a long walk before feeling calm enough to drive himself home.

He spreads out a tablecloth on the grass, a traditional red and white checked square of fabric. The green zippered bag their lunch is packed in is far from traditional. The largest area is full of plastic containers holding fried chicken, cucumber salad, whole wheat rolls and two slices of pineapple upside down cake. A slim outer pocket carries two plates, red cloth napkins and silverware. When he unsnaps the pouch at the front a panel falls away to reveal two wine glasses and a bottle of merlot.

"I'm impressed," she teases as she kneels on the ground beside him.

"Only the best for you, my dear." He insists on serving her, and she lets him. They spend most of the meal talking about little things like literature and their favorite TV shows. She loves the women authors from the turn of the century, and reads her students selections from Little Women every year. His weakness for classic mysteries is already known. He favors mysteries and spy shows; his favorite has been off the air for years but MI5 is not bad, and he liked Alias when it was on. She prefers dramas, and professes a love of all things Aaron Sorkin. Lunch is cleaned up and they are lingering over their wine when she asks about his job.

"I know you're not really a spy, so what do you do?"

"I'm a medical examiner," he answers after a pause.

"For the state or a particular agency?" she asks thoughtfully. He lets out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. Most of the woman he dates are either disgusted or morbidly curious about working with dead bodies, the only recent exception being a woman who was guilty of setting fire to a corpse.

"I work for NCIS," he says.

"That's to do with the Navy or something, right?"

"Something like that."

There is a street fair on the other side of the park, and after they return the remains of their picnic to the car they go to check it out, arms linked together. One booth has a display of jewelry made from everyday objects. Belinda admires a necklace made from a penny framed in copper wire. When Ducky asks if he may buy it for her she says yes.

"It will remind you of the day we met," he says as she holds up her hair so he can put it on her. Clasp in place he touches the miniature Lincoln on the coin.

"I don't need anything to remember that," she returns, and kisses him on the cheek. She pulls away then changes her mind, moving closer for a second kiss. This one is not on his cheek.

II

On Monday morning Ducky comes into work, and since there is no body to work on he has a few minutes to sit and enjoy his coffee. He hits the space bar on the computer to wake it up and logs onto his e-mail account. NCIS has a secured server, so he doesn't have to worry about any spam, which is nice. He wonders if anyone ever seriously clicks those links that promise to make anatomical or financial differences. There are half a dozen inter office memos in his inbox plus a reminder from Jimmy that he has a doctors appointment that morning and won't be in until lunch time. There is one other e-mail and that is the one he opens first; Belinda's account name is send you a joke or something, doctor?" Gibbs stands in the doorway. Caught up in the missive Ducky hadn't heard the man enter.

"Not at all. It's just a thank you note from a friend." He almost feels bad for lying, because it's more than a thank you and Belinda is already more then a friend. Until recently he would have already told Gibbs about her, at least in passing, and borne the teasing easily. Now there is a cold formality between them, and though he knows it's largely his fault he can't change it. He had been angry when Gibbs left, and that anger had hardened as the summer passed. He had been hurt to learn of the past his friend had never shared with him, and the cavalier way he had returned and vanished and returned again. Everything he had thought he had known about their friendship had been shaken, and even after all these months he still feels like he's on unsteady ground.

"We got a call about a dead Marine. You coming?" After handing him a piece of paper with an address precisely written on it, Gibbs is gone again. Ducky's not sure if he's upset that he didn't ask any personal questions or relieved.

II

Abby is the first of his friends to meet Belinda. They've been spending most of their weekends plus the occasional evening together for two months now, and he wants her to meet the other important people in his life. One day he had gone up to the lab instead of sending Jimmy, and asked Abby if she would do him the honor of dining with them on Saturday. She had responded with a kiss on his cheek and a promise that she wouldn't tell any embarrassing stories. Or at least not too many, she had added.

He had often told Belinda all about the lab tech extraordinaire's abilities, but had neglected to describe her appearance at all. Belinda's eyes widen when the Goth walks into the restaurant, but she smiles when they are introduced.

"So what do you think about our city?" Abby asks as they are seated at a table.

"I think I'm going to like it, though I'm still not sure about the snow. I've lived my whole life on the west coast, except for when I was in college, and I'm not sure my blood's thick enough for the cold," Belinda answers.

"Where'd you go to school?" Abby quizzes.

"Louisiana State. I wanted to get away from home and I always had a thing for southern literature. Did you know that Faulkner's home is now..."

"A bookstore," Abby finishes. "It's right off of Jackson square."

"Then you know the place?"

"Abigail also went to LSU," Ducky says, smiling at the coincidence.

"I didn't get so far away from home though. My parents lived about twenty minutes from campus."

Most of the rest of the meal is filled with a game of 'do you remember?' and 'did you ever?' Though Ducky's only been to New Orleans once he has more then enough facts about the city to hold his own in the conversation, and he delights in sharing stories of suspected vampires and haunted cemeteries.

"So have you met his mother yet?" Abby waits until Ducky goes to use the restroom before leaning across the table conspiratorially.

"Mrs. Mallard? Yes." Belinda bites her lip, the first sign of nervousness she has displayed since they were introduced. "I don't think she likes me."

"What did she say?" Abby asks.

"She called me a trollop and a Jezebel."

"Well then welcome to the club." Abby laughs and Belinda raises an eyebrow in question. "She calls Tony a gigolo, I remind her of her sister who apparently she hated, and she implied that Kate was a woman of loose standards. I have a theory that the more she likes you the worse she insults you."

"That's good to know," Belinda says but she's not sure it's a comfort. "Wait, who's Kate?"

Abby hesitates, and is glad to see Ducky returning. He sits down and lets his hand rest on top of Belinda's. The gesture is not lost on Abby who can't help but smile at the couple.

"I hope Abigail didn't tell you any tall tales while I was gone," Ducky says with a wink.

"Not at all," Abby replies smoothly. "I forgot to ask if you told Belinda about the ninjas who egged your car."

The distraction works; by the time he's finished relaying the story they are ready to go and Belinda has forgotten to ask about Kate again. Abby hugs him at the front door and leans in to kiss his cheek but instead whispers in his ear. "I like her, Duckman. You should keep her."

II

It's been a long day, and as he walks out of the building he slides his cellphone out of his pocket and starts to dial Belinda's number, intent on canceling their dinner plans. When he pushes the send button he is surprised to hear a phone nearby begin to ring. He rounds the corner of the building and sees why; Belinda is sitting on the curb next to his car. He closes his eyes briefly and tries to force the images of a dead child to leave him alone for a few hours, then opens them and smiles down at her.

"Well this is a lovely surprise." He offers a hand and pulls her up, the gesture turning into an awkward hug when she stumbles and falls into him.

"I thought if I met you here I could talk you into showing me where you work." Her grin fades when she gets a closer look at his face and reads the emotion clouding his eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." The air is crisp and his denial comes out in a puff of smoke like air.

"Liar," she says gently as she cups his cheek with a mittened hand. She caresses his lips with her own and repeats the question. "What's wrong?"

"I don't..." This isn't a part of himself that he shares with many people, the ghosts of victims that weigh him down. Sometimes after a particularly bad case he and Gibbs will decompress with drinks at a bar, or Abby will listen and then insist on taking him bowling or some other light-hearted. But Belinda is looking at him with a mix of affection and concern in her eyes, and he relents. "We had a case today, a dead Marine who fell several stories to land on a banquet table. During the investigation they discovered another body."

Leaning against the bonnet of his Morgan, he tells her of the woman who turned out to be barely older then a child. Fourteen years old, kidnapped from her home, and sold into prostitution. The hand that isn't holding hers is clenched into a fist. She stands beside him, silent until he finishes. When he runs out of words she wraps her arms around him. She kisses the skin where jaw and neck meet and rests her cheek against his shoulder.

"You help to catch them, the black souls who did this. Because of you the others were saved, the ones at the warehouse and the innocents still at home that might have been next. And now her parents at least will be able to bury their daughter instead of always wondering what might have happened." She lifts her head and kisses him again, moving from the jaw to his lips, deepening the kiss until breathing becomes a necessity.

"Oh my dearest, I needed that. Thank you." Moisture gathers in the corner of his eyes and he blinks it away. "Now how about that tour, then a late dinner?"

"You're tired, Ducky. You can show me another time."

"Nonsense; there's no time like the present." He leads her back to the building he vacated only minutes ago and waves to the night guard who nods as they pass through the metal detector. MTAC and the director's office were of course locked, but he shows her the bullpen and interrogation, laughing when she insists on sitting in the suspect's chair.

"If I were an agent I could ask you any question I wanted and make you answer," he says as he sits across from her.

"If I were a suspect I might have a confession to make."

"What kind of confession, Ms. Jenkins?" He leans across the table and she meets him half way.

"I love you, Doctor Mallard," she whispers against his cheek.

II

With no active case and his paperwork all caught up on a Friday, Ducky slips out of work early. There is a florist's shop not to far from the office and he stops to purchase a bouquet of daffodils before making his way across town and parking his Morgan in a visitor's spot at an elementary school. All it takes at the front office is a charming smile and a sweet story and they give him the room number of Belinda's class. He'll have to remember to warn her about that later; it shouldn't be that easy to get information.

The classroom doors all have small square windows, and when he peaks into room C-3 he witnesses complete mayhem. Children are running around, grabbing for coats, scarves, mittens and lunch-boxes; it's obvious that their school day is over. In the middle of the hive of activityBelinda is kneeling down, tying a little girl's shoe.

"Miss Jenkins there's a strange man here," a red-headed announces when Ducky opens the door. She looks up and a smile spreads across her face.

"Oh, look at the pretty flowers." The girl closest to him leans forward and burrows her face in the bouquet.

"They're for Miss Jenkins," he tells the girl as he lowers himself to her level. "Would you like to go give them to her?"

"Can I?" He nods and the child eagerly accepts the flowers before running across the room waving them in the air. "Look what the man brought," she says, thrusting them into her teacher's hands. Most of the girls and a few of the boys circle around Belinda to get a better look.

"Aren't ya gonna say thank you?" one boy asks.

"You're exactly right, Alex," she says in a practiced teacher voice. "We always say thanks when someone gives us something." She disentangles herself from the children and crosses the room. "Thank you Ducky."

"You're quite welcome, my dear." When she kisses him quickly, on the cheek in deference to the audience, more then one of the children giggle.

"Ducky?" the boy called Alex repeats. From behind him there is an unmistakable "quack, quack."

"That's my name. It's what my friends called me when I was a schoolboy in England and it's stuck ever since."

"You were a boy?" One of the girls' eyes widen in surprise.

"A very long time ago," Ducky says.

"Okay children, it's time to go. Does everyone have their backpacks?" At Belinda's question there is a flurry of activity. A bell rings and in less then two minutes the room is empty of children.

"Is it always this hectic?" he asks. This room is the antithesis of his own workplace, he thinks as he looks around at the bright colors and cluttered surfaces.

"No," Belinda shakes her head. "Sometimes it's worse."

"You're an amazing woman. It's easy to see how much they like you, and how good you are with them." He gestures at the space that had been filled with children minutes ago. "Did you ever think about having any of your own?"

"Once upon a time I did. Every little girl assumes that there is a wedding dress and two children in her future; it's the way we are raised."

"It's not to late for you," he says.

"Is that a proposition, Ducky?" she raises an eyebrow teasingly.

"Good heavens no. The last thing I'd condemn a child to is me as a father. I'd be well into my eighties by the time high school graduation came around." He shakes his head at the idea.

"Does it honestly bother you?" she asks. "The age difference."

"Sometimes," he admits. "You're young and beautiful, whereas I can't go a week without receiving something in the mail about retirement plans or the AARP."

"I'm not that young, Duck, and to answer your earlier question more seriously the only children I want are the ones that I have. It's a wonderful plan; I get them from eight to three and then send them home to their parents. And," she adds, a playful glint in her eye, "you are so dangerously sexy that if the AARP ever caught hold of you they'd want you as their poster boy."

Before he can answer she covers his mouth with hers and gives him the kiss she couldn't when the children were around.

II

Thanksgiving is chaotic, and that's putting it nicely. He makes turkey with all the trimmings and invites both Belinda and Abby to share the meal with him. His mother is by turns loud and rude or quiet and confused. She doesn't understand what all the fuss over dinner is about. "We are British, not American," she reminds him more then once. They've had the same argument for the ten years they've lived here, and he knows that it would do no good to explain that he enjoys celebrating the traditions of his adopted homeland. Instead he greets his guests at the door with a warning, and asks them not to pay his mother too much attention. They laugh and each kiss him on the cheek, though one kiss lingers much longer then the other. Neither one is offended when they are likened to a pair of streetwalkers, though they have a hard time keeping a straight face.

After dinner Ducky walks his mother to her room for a nap. When he returns he finds the dining room empty. A short hunt leads him to the kitchen where two heads, one sporting jet black pig tails and one shoulder length blond curls, are bent over a pumpkin pie. Belinda has a can of whipped cream in one hand and Abby is holding a knife.

"Dissection is my job, I believe," he says as he joins them at the counter. Abby keeps her grasp on the knife.

"You're not the only one who can perform autopsies," she says. He gives her a look and she wrinkles her nose. "What? It was an autopsy. I removed a bullet and everything." When Belinda looks at the two of them in confusion, Abby relents. "Okay, so it was a doll."

She doesn't give up the knife, though. She cuts three pieces of pie and passes each one to Belinda who covers them with a little too much whipped cream. Instead of returning to the dinning room they stay in their loose circle around the counter. Abby licks her fork and taps it against her empty plate, then gives Belinda a mischievous glance. Belinda throws her head back in laughter then pops the top off the can and covers the remainder of the pie in sweet whiteness.

"I don't think I could eat another bite," Ducky protests.

"That just means more for Abby and me." Belinda takes a bite from the pan then gives Abby a wink. She dips her finger into the topping and touches Ducky's nose. "What do you think, Abbs?"

"Perfect." Ducky has a different response; he grabs for the whipped cream can and gives Belinda a much larger dot on her nose. Abby catches the can after that and it's a free for all. Somehow he ends up on the floor, and Belinda trips and falls, landing on top of him. The corner of her mouth is dipping with whipped cream and he can't help kissing it away. She returns the favor. Neither of them notice when Abby slips out of the room. Later they sit on the couch in front of the fireplace, a book of poetry that he had been reading aloud fallen to the floor. He looks at the woman asleep in his arms, wearing one of his checkered shirts while hers is being cleaned. He thinks that he could spend the rest of his life like this.

II

Ducky's examining a mummified corpse when Gibbs makes a crack about marriage. He manages to keep an even tone when he replies, but is short when asked for a time of death estimate. Later, though, he tells of escaping France in a boat, and he misses his old friend more then ever. That night when the others have left he brings a peace offering into the squad room; a much needed dose of caffeine. Being called an ass is deserved, the apology is a shock, and the hug welcomed. For the first time since the explosion on the ship, he has his best friend back.

"There's something else I should tell you," he says as he steals the chair from Tony's desk and settles down across from Gibbs.

"You finally going to fill me in on your mysterious blond?" Gibbs asks. Ducky shakes his head. He should have known; just because they haven't been speaking doesn't mean that Gibbs hasn't been paying attention.

"Her name is Belinda, and I'm going to ask her to marry me." Propping his feet up on the desk he leans back and shares with Gibbs the activities of the past months.

II

"Abigail, do you have a moment?" He heads for the CD player, lowering the pulsing music to a level over which he can be heard.

"Certainly, Duck." She closes a series of windows on the computer screen with a click of the mouse, and swivels in her chair. "What's up?"

"I need to go shopping for a Christmas present, and I was wondering if you had an evening free one night this week to accompany me?"

"Oh, would this present happen to be for a blonde school teacher with a thing for pumpkin pie, picnics, and dashing medical examiners?" she asks, hopping off the chair. "What were you thinking of getting her?"

"Actually, I was rather thinking along the lines of a ring." It's not easy to shock Abby, but he's done it. Her eyes grow wide and she runs across the room, catching Ducky up in a hug that almost knocks him over. "So you'll help me?" he teases when she releases him.

"Ducky, this is the most fantabulous news I've heard in, like, forever! You're the very first one of us to get married; well, unless you count Gibbs, but I think all the divorces cancel out the weddings and anyway they didn't stick and yours is so going to. Stick, I mean, because you and Belinda are..." she pauses and takes a breath, holding he hand up like a stop sign. "I'd love to help you. I have a friend who can get us a great price on a ring. We'll go see him tonight."

They end up going out on two nights to a dozen different stores before he sees a ring that he thinks suits his Belinda. It's not at a jeweler's, but an antique shop: rose gold encrusted with diamonds and a pearl in the center. The shopkeeper tells him it's from the turn of the century and he says he'll take it without looking to see the cost. Abby stops him, and spends a few minutes haggling, saving him hundreds of dollars. To thank her he takes her for hot chocolate afterwards.

II

The ring is locked in the bottom drawer of his desk at work; he hasn't quite worked out how he's going to ask. A week before Christmas she arrives in autopsy wearing a dark red dress that makes his heart speed up with a single glance. The NCIS team has been invited to a formal affair, and the director stressed when she passed out the announcements that the invitation was a polite way of saying that they had better be there. Gibbs and Ziva had both protested, but Ducky had been pleased at the idea; it was the perfect time to introduce Belinda to the whole group.

"You look beautiful," he says as he kisses her cheek.

"Wow," is her only reply. She touches his black bow tie and runs the flat of her hand along his lapel. They are standing in front of the elevators when he tells her that he forgot something. Back in autopsy he unlocks the drawer and slips a velvet box into his pocket.

Most of the team has left for the party already, but when they step off the elevator into the bullpen they find Gibbs still at his desk.

"The Director's orders were pretty clear," Ducky says as Gibbs replaces the phone he had been holding.

"The Director can take her orders and..."

"Jethro," Ducky says sharply. Gibbs rolls his eyes and stands up. Despite his words he is dressed to go to the party in a crisp white shirt and black pants. No tie to be seen, but his tuxedo jacket had hanging off the back of his chair. He picks up the jacket and meets his friend between the desks.

"You must be Belinda," he says as he encases her hand in a warm handshake.

"And there's no question about who you are, sir."

"Don't call me..." Before he finishes he sees the twinkle in her eye and knows someone's been telling her too many stories. "Gibbs. Just Gibbs," he says.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, just Gibbs."

There is a ding as another elevator car arrives, and Abby steps out in her version of formal wear. The black vintage dress is paired with Wizard of Oz style red shoes and hair braided in a zigzag pattern that ends in a bun.

"Nice threads, Lin," Abby says as she hugs the woman.

"Same to you." A they walk to the elevator Ducky pats his pocket reassuringly and follows the women, Gibbs right behind him.

They take two cars to the party held at a nearby hotel; Ducky and Belinda in the Morgan and Gibbs and Abby in her new black VW bug. The rest of the team is already in the ballroom, the men in tuxes and Ziva looking stunning in a sleek black dress that runs to the floor but is scooped low in the back. None of them have brought dates, though Jimmy searches the crowd constantly and Tony only stays long enough to be introduced before ducking out.

"She's a looker, Duck," Tony says before he leaves. "Beauty and brains, I can see why you like her."

When dinner is served they find themselves at a table for eight. Jimmy has disappeared, and though that leaves them with two empty seats no one comes to join them. At first the conversation is polite as everyone asks Belinda the usual questions about her job and how she's adjusting to the east coast, but then Abby makes a comment about pie, McGee asks a question that comes out all wrong, and Gibbs tells a story about Ducky that no one else had heard before. By the time dessert is served they are laughing like long time friends, and everyone has agreed through smiles, winks, and subtle nods that Belinda is a good fit for Ducky.

"...and then he turned and ran out of autopsy as fast as he could." Ducky waved his hand in the air as he told a story. When he was finished he noticed that the music that had started playing half an hour ago had slowed into a ballad and he turned to the woman next to him. "Would you, by any chance, care to join me on the dance floor?"

They sway to the music, cheeks pressed together and eyes closed.

II

It's almost eleven when the party winds down. Though Ziva left a couple of hours ago and McGee followed soon after, it never occurs to the others that they have fulfilled their obligation and can leave. Dancing is followed by coffee and wine, and then more dancing. Abby stays on the floor most of the evening, but the other three sit out the faster songs. When it's time to go Gibbs and Ducky dig claim tickets out of their pockets and go to retrieve coats.

The attendant is in the back room looking for their outer wear when Ducky turns to his friend, a question on his tongue. Gibbs beats him to the punch.

"You're right about this one, Duck," Gibbs says in a low voice. "She's something special. She reminds me, a little bit, of Shannon."

It's the first time he's heard Gibbs speak of his first wife with more joy then sadness, and he takes it as a sign. Gibbs' acceptance he takes as a blessing.

II

Christmas music is playing on the car radio, and Belinda's eyes are closed as she listens. She doesn't notice when he doesn't drive straight home, not until he pulls over and parks alongside a curb. It's too soon to have arrived at either her apartment or his house, and her forehead wrinkles in confusion. Ducky steps out of the car and moves around to her side, opening the door for her.

"Ducky, what are we..." He silences her with a finger against her lips.

"Come on." He helps her out of the car and leads her across the well-lit courtyard. When they come to a halt she looks up, only now realizing where they are. They're standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. She looks at him in confusion, and gasps. Ducky has pulled the velvet jewelry box out of his pocket and holds it open in his hand.

"Will you..." He doesn't have a chance to finish the question when she's kissing him, laughing and trying to wipe away a tear at the same time.

"I'm nobody's idea of a prize," he can't help but caution.

"You're a prince," she declares.

"I'm no spring chicken." A three o'clock in the morning the age difference still worries him.

"Neither am I."

"I have baggage; a job that is never going to be normal hours and a mother who is only going to get worse."

"Both of which make you who you are."

"I snore." He has run out of warnings.

"Well, then, I guess it's off then. Goodbye." There is a brief look of horror on his face when she turns away, but when she runs up the steps of the memorial and sits in the very spot they first met, he knows that she was teasing as much as he was. The ring still in his hand he follows her. He sits one step bellow her, as close to kneeling as he'll get.

"Belinda Jenkins, love of my life and holder of my heart, will you marry me?' Even as she says yes he is slipping the ring on her finger, the pearl glowing in the moonlight.