Author's Note: I wrote this story almost a year ago in German. Now I 've finally managed to translate it. If you still find mistakes, please tell me... I need to get better. And please let me know if you liked it.
Beta: Special thanks to Foedhrass for her patience and help!!
Disclaimer: I do not own anything.
The old doctor looks up, as the red-haired woman slowly steps through the autopsy doors.
The tone of her voice has already let the pathologist prick up his ears. Something has happened, something bad. So bad that Jenny Shepard is seeking refuge in the vaults of the headquarters. Down here she can drop her mask for a moment, while the old medical examiner quietly leads her to a chair. He doesn't ask anything, just pours her a glass of whiskey. Ducky knows when his guests need such a mouthful, and his stock never seems to be empty.
"What happened?" he finally dares to ask. Jennys face is pale, and Ducky can think of only one reason that may bring her into such a state. In the long years of his career he has developed some kind of intuitive radar, and he knows he'll soon find an agent upon one of his slabs. The question is, who it will be this time.
Jenny still hasn't spoken a word, and Ducky slowly begins to realize. He sits down next to the Director, and with a trembling hand he pours himself a drink, too. But his mind refuses to believe, before Jenny hasn't confirmed the terrible suspicion.
"Jethro?" he asks in a shaky voice. Jenny nods, still unable to speak.
"How?" Ducky's voice is struck with horror.
"He's gone mad!" Jenny bursts out. "He wanted to save the girl and set out on his own again. Damn, he must have known that this had to go wrong some day!" Her sadness gives in to a moment of rage before she starts to sob.
Ducky puts his arms gently around the petite woman. His hands are still trembling as they strike comfortingly over her back. A fat lump spreads in his throat, and he has to swallow hard before he can speak on.
Jenny is still sniffling and has difficulties to find words. "We... we don't know yet what happened exactly. A friend of Kelly visited him yesterday."
Ducky takes a deep breath, knowing what this means. He knows that his friend still blames himself for the death of his daughter. And that he would do anything to repay that debt. "She ... she was threatened, and Jethro was obsessed with helping her." Jenny's words confirm Duckys fear.
"Yesterday morning ...," the director continues with a trembling voice, "yesterday morning she has been kidnapped, and Jethro... He knew I wouldn't let him go. He just ran off and met with the abductors. Tony somehow found out and followed him to the docks, but ..." Her voice cracks, and it takes a moment before she can continue.
"It was too late. No one was there."
Ducky holds the red-haired woman firmly in his arms, her words barely a whisper in his ear. "Metro PD just called. Dockers have found Jethro and Maddie at the bottom of the canal, next to the meeting place. Locked in a perforated car."
An eerie silence is spreading through the room. For a single moment, pathologist and director keep clinging to one another, like a drowning couple in a sea of sorrow.
"Is he... are they on their way down here?" Ducky finally asks.
Jenny returns to her usual role and tightens her shoulders.
"They should be here any minute."
At the dead of night the two body bags arrive at NCIS headquarters. Ducky has sent his assistant home hours ago, he wants to be alone in this dark hour. Mechanically, he signs the receipt of the corpses and tells the men to put the bags on two adjacent tables. Alone again, he switches off the light in autopsy, so that only two lamps above the tables illuminate the room. He hesitates for a moment, then starts with Maddie. Slowly and quietly, he opens the black plastic bag, and pauses for a moment to look at her pale face. Her eyes are closed, a strand of blond hair laying across her face. It is still damp, and Ducky strokes it back gently.
He gives himself a moment to memorize the almost childish look of the young woman. The he tightens his shoulders and the routines of a long professional life get the upper hand. While he removes the body bag, the moisture of her clothes reaches his nose. Normally, the words just flow out of his mouth, but this young woman remains strange. Ducky just doesn't know what to say. She is so young and her body will have a terrible story to tell. Evidence of a crime that has to be solved. And yet it's hard for the old medical examiner to feel sympathy. Whatever reason brought the girl to seek Jethro Gibbs' help - she is the reason for his death.
Ducky feels helpless like never before. He doesn't know how to handle it. Finally, he puts out the light over Maddies desk and turns to the second bag. His hands tremble as he reaches for the zip and slowly opens it.
This situation has persecuted him in his worst nightmares countless times. Now it has turned into reality. The blue eyes are wide open and stare empty at the ceiling. Ducky needs to force himself to look.
"Oh, Jethro," he sighs softly. "Was it worth it?" He knows that he won't get an answer from his friend, neither from the living nor the dead. He gently places a hand over the pale face and closes the staring eyes with thumb and forefinger.
Then he gets back to work and removes this body bag, too. The agent's clothes are as wet as Maddie's, water drips out of the bag and forms a small puddle on the floor. Ducky allows himself one final postponement, while hanging the wet bags in the next room and wiping the little wet spot. Then he gets down to the sad task of undressing his friend one last time.
He hesitates, his hands won't obey him. Until now, everything is almost normal. Jethro lying fast asleep on one of these tables is nothing unusual. Even without clothes he has been in this room more than once, if injuries or illnesses have required it. But never ever Ducky had to help him to undress.
Finally, he braces himself. Slowly, piece by piece, he strips the limp body down from the wet stuff. Rigor mortis has solved long ago. Jacket, polo shirt, T-shirt, shoes, trousers, socks and finally the underpants he places carefully on an empty table to dry. Abby will take care of them when she's ready to take it.
Ducky turns around again and looks at the pale body, that lies still and cold on the steel table, like so many before. But this body is different, it is familiar to him. His gaze wanders over the pale skin, the scars shining almost silvery in the glare of the lamp. Ducky knows these scars, each of them, even if he doesn't know every story that lies behind it. Many of these scars come from his own treatments and bring forth memories of long past adventures. When he looks up again, the blue eyes have opened. They look at him, sharp and alert as ever. They're just lacking a part of their vitality now.
"So the time has come," the doctor hears the voice of his friend. "It shouldn't have ended like this."
"No," Ducky answers. "It shouldn't have. Both of you shouldn't be here." He wants to yell at his friend, curse him for this situation, for that it has come so far. But he remains silent.
"I'm sorry, Duck," the familiar voice continues. "I'm sorry you have to do this now."
A tear runs down Duckys cheek.
"Why, Jethro?" he asks hoarsely. "Why did you had to go that far?"
But on this question, he gets no answer, and when he looks at his friend again, the blue eyes are closed. And yet Ducky knows Jethro is grateful that he faces this task. As hard as the upcoming work may be, he knows that he couldn't leave it to anyone else. He owes it to his friend.
The pathologist again takes a deep breath before he starts to fill in the autopsy report. His hands are still trembling, and Jimmy Palmer will have problems when he'll try to copy the report.
Ducky begins with the externally visible injuries, but there is little to see. In the area of the stomach and thighs he finds slight discoloration and minimal bruising. Presumably, Jethro was in the drivers seat and tried to get away, trapped under the steering wheel. It confirms what Ducky has already suspected. His friend was still alive when the car crashed into the water. A tremor overwhelms him, he doesn't want to imagine what must have happened down there.
But his mind is trained to reconstruct the last minutes of his visitors as precisely as possible. And so the old ME finds at the body of his friend countless references to the slow agony. The skin of his fingertips is rough, caused by desperate attempts to escape from the sunken car. A detailed investigation will bring forward traces of the internal components of the vehicle on his fingers. Particles of the steering wheel that had trapped Jethro, traces of the interior trim and his seat.
Something else catches the attention of the old doctor. The fingers of the right hand are strangely bent, and Ducky carefully takes a second look. Even without an X-ray he can see that they are broken. Was Jethro tortured before he was sat in the car? But then why only on one hand? Or did he hurt himself in the attempt to get out? Did he beat so strongly against the car that his bones broke? But then why only with his right hand? What happened to the left?
A picture begins to form in his head. Two people, trapped in a car and knowing that their death is inevitable. Ducky walks over to Maddie again. He looks at her hands, and as he has expected one of the fingers on her hand is also broken. It's her left hand, and Ducky knows that an x-ray will confirm his suspicions. The fractures were created postmortem, a result of the rescue team trying to separate the two corpses from each other. Jethro had held Maddies hand as she died.
Nevertheless, it remains a mystery for Ducky how his friend got at the bottom of the channel with the car. Did Maddie's kidnappers incapacitate him before? External injuries are not visible, but maybe they managed to administer him drugs in some way? Quickly, the pathologist takes a blood sample and blocks out that he has done this only two weeks ago. Back then, Jethro has been sitting upright before him, impatient as ever, and the blood has flown warm and almost automatically into the test tube. But now his heart doesn't pump it through the veins any longer, and the arm in which he stabs with the needle now is cold and lifeless. Jethro won't feel it any more, but Ducky feels as if he stabs the needle in his own heart his own heart.
After he has labeled and archived the blood sample properly, there is no more chance for delay. What he has performed on thousands of corpses before, he is now unable to do. But the pathologist pulles himself up and reaches for a scalpel.
It feels familiar in his hand, and Ducky mutters one last time "I'm sorry, Jethro," before he does the first cut.
Then the routines of over forty years of professional experience prevail. Under his hand, the cold body loses the horror of the familiar, Jethros interior speaks the same anonymous language as any other corpse. Ducky mumbles incessantly to himself, as he always does, and yet this is different.
His mind sums up the facts, while a part of his consciousness is beginning to realize that the chief investigator will never ask for it. But still he believes to hear the hiss of the automatic door, the standard question "What do you got for me, Duck?"
And Ducky replies to this voice as best he can. He presents his findings as objective as possible, while examining the internal organs and recording the results in the autopsy report.
"Cause of death: asphyxiation as a result of drowning," he notes. "But I guess you already know that." He cannot stop speaking with the dead, even if every word seems to lacerate his heart. But it is his only way to survive this autopsy.
"Anything new?" replies Jethros voice with a familiar, slightly sarcastic tone.
"Well, if you really want to know ..." the ME continues, "... then I can tell you that the steak that you've eaten recently was still almost raw, and that it was not prepared very carefully. And that since then you've ingested nothing but coffee. I don't need to tell you how much harm you do to your body with this depletion, right?"
A slight laugh reaches Ducky's ears. "Does it matter, Duck?"
"Well," Ducky admits, "it hasn't killed you, I give you that. But you had frequent stomach ache lately, haven't you?"
Jethro doesn't answer, but Ducky knows he's right.
"Abby ..." He hesitates for a moment, because he doesn't want to imagine how bad the forensic scientist must feel at the moment. "Abby will find traces of stomach tablets in your bloodstream, Jethro. And if you had come to me instead of blindly throwing in pills, I could've told you that you're developing a stomach ulcer. This could have ended badly!"
He fells silent because he realizes the irony of his words. Jethro lies cut open on the autopsy table in front of him, and whether a stomach ulcer will bother him in five months or not is no longer important.
But Ducky can't stop talking as he continues with his investigations. He reviews one organ after another, and comments in particular the condition of the kidneys almost reproachfully.
"I've always told you that you shouldn't drink that much coffee, Jethro. You know that it dehydrates the body. And even if you laughed at me every time: just take a look at your kidneys and see for yourself what you did to your poor body! Maybe you'll believe me then." He stops for a moment, holding the organ accusingly in his hand, before he carefully sets it back in its place.
"You've always been running from your problems," Ducky sighs, as he realizes that in life Jethro would've left autopsy long ago.
But the pale body is still lying in front of him and doesn't move, while the pathologist heavy-hearted continues his work. For decades he has been deaf to some sounds of his profession, but this time it's worse than ever when he has to open the rib cage of his friend. He knows what he'll find there, and it'll be important if Jethros murderer should ever be caught. The cracking of the ribs sends cold shivers down his spine, but he has no choice.
Jethro knows that, too, and this fact makes it a little easier for the pathologist. His hands do their sad duty almost on their own, and after a short while Ducky is looking at the heart of his friend. He remembers his own words, spoken only a few weeks ago about this very heart.
"A mans heart often tells us how he lived. Sometimes, it might even tell us how he died. But contrary to popular myth, it tells us how he loved."
Ducky looks at the motionless organ that has fulfilled his duties properly for over fifty years. But Jethro's heart is no exception. It tells nothing about how often it broke during this time. It reveals nothing, neither about Shannon and Kelly – to whom it still belongs without any doubt -, nor Hollis Mann, whom Ducky hasn't seen since her last visit to the autopsy.
After letting her know his findings regarding the human heart, he gave away Jethro's secret to her. She knew nothing about Shannon and Kelly, and the pathologist has to cope with the nagging question of whether it's his fault that Jethro's heart broke a second time. Whether Hollis would have stayed if he had kept quiet. But he knows that this relationship would have broken up, as well as every other before. It doesn't matter whether he's to blame for this failure or not. It was an attempt to give his friend a chance, and Jethro has never lost a single word about what happened that night between them. And he still remains silent.
Ducky looks at the quiescent muscle in his hand. It's not the first time he asks himself how often a heart can break. How much pain can one man endure without breaking.
"I hope you'll find now what you've been looking for," the old doctor wishes his friend gently.
"I hope so much that you can be together again."
Another tear finds its way across the pathologist's cheek, when he sets the heart carefully back in its place. Now only the lungs remain, and their condition confirms Ducky's fears. Jethro Gibbs was conscious when he drowned.
The hands of the pathologist start to tremble heavily again, and he has to interrupt his work for a moment. He slowly walks over to his desk and has to strengthen himself with a swig of whiskey. It helps him to suppress the images shooting through his head. He doesn't want to imagine what Jethro must have been through in his last moments, fighting for his life and struggling desperately for air. But he's been in the profession for too long, he knows how long this painful death drags on. The wide-open eyes spoke for themselves. Ducky's hands still tremble when he finally takes a needle and carefully closes the body of the grey-haired man again.
After he has finished his work, he steps back and looks at his friend one last time. And yet he feels as though Jethro would be standing behind him, putting his hand firmly on his shoulder, just as he used to do so often.
"Thank you, Duck," he hears the familiar voice. Jethro sounds calm and happy, and suddenly even the pale body on the autopsy table seems no longer cold and horrible.
"It wasn't planned that way. But ... it was worth it."
Slowly, the old pathologist looks up and turns around. In the twilight between the table and the body coolers, he sees Jethro standing in front of him. On his face is an expression of happiness and satisfaction that Ducky has never seen before. His arms are wrapped tightly around two figures who confidingly cling to him. Shannon and Kelly are as pretty as the pathologist reminds their pictures, and their eyes seem to scrutinize him both curiously and friendly.
"Semper fi, Duck," he hears Jethro's voice one last time before the images start to blur.
"Rest in peace, my friend," Ducky whisperes softly, as he spreads a cloth over the abandoned body.
"And remember us sometimes."