Autopsy was empty when he arrived, and Ducky wondered where Jimmy Palmer had disappeared to. The body was already laid out on the middle table, still dressed in bloody clothing, so he must have come back to NCIS. Probably in the loo, or perhaps in Abby's lab. This autopsy was going to be a difficult one, and Ducky didn't blame the young boy for needing some time to prepare mentally. Though there was no such thing as a routine autopsy, some were harder than others. He still remembered seeing Caitlin on the aluminum table, and having to force himself to pick up the scalpel after Jethro left him alone. It had been the first time in years his Y incision started with hesitation marks. He suspected young Mr. Palmer might feel the same way today.
"Mr. Mallard." The doors opened in ghostly silence, and Ducky was no longer alone.
"Doctor Mallard, actually," he corrected. "But you may call me Ducky."
"My apologies, Ducky." The stranger's voice was soft, and carried a hint of an accent that Ducky couldn't quite place. It wasn't so much that he was from another place, but another time; his speech pattern just a little out of sync.
"I've seen you before. You were at the crime scene earlier." Something nagged at Ducky, something he should remember, or should know, but like a wisp of a cloud he couldn't grasp it. "If you're here for an interview you should go upstairs. I don't know how you even got down here."
"Oh, I'm in the right place, doctor." He carried a cup of coffee in one hand, and Ducky winced when he stepped farther into the room. No food or drink in autopsy was one of his strict rules. Jethro was a rare exception, and it had taken a few years of careful observation before he stopped worrying about spilled coffee. This man, this stranger, obviously didn't have a clue.
"Who are you?" Ducky demanded, stepping between the man and the occupied autopsy table.
"Rube," he answered with a half smile. "I'm here to guide you home."
"I know my way home perfectly well, thank you, but I have work to do first." Where was Mr Palmer? They needed to start the autopsy. Jethro would be storming down any time, wanting answers, and his patience today was going to be very thin.
"It's someone else's job now. Perhaps that young man who accompanied you earlier, perhaps someone else," Rube said with a shrug. "It really doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters. I can't leave Jimmy alone to face this. It will be hard enough even with me standing beside him."
"There is nothing you can do."
"You're wrong, Mr. Rube." The autopsy door opened again, this time admitting Jimmy Palmer, attired in fresh green scrubs. He came straight for the autopsy table, but slowly, almost hesitantly. His hands ungloved, he didn't touch the body yet, but studied it carefully.
"I'm sorry, Doctor Mallard," Jimmy said without looking up.
"You don't need to apologize, my boy." Ducky looked his assistant over carefully, for the first time noticing how he had aged in the last three years, become less of a boy and more of a man. "You're going to make a fine doctor someday soon."
"Ducky..." Rube rested a hand on Ducky's shoulder, but Ducky shook it off.
"I've always talked to them, the men and women who have found their way onto my table. It helped me to remember who they were and why I needed to do this job. I was never sure if there was anyone to listen, or if I was speaking to nobody. It didn't matter really, but I still always wondered." Ducky took a step back when Jimmy returned, his hands scrubbed and covered in latex. "Today, if Mr. Palmer wishes to talk there will be someone here to listen."
Rube nodded thoughtfully and moved back to stand in the corner of the room. Ducky stayed where he was and listened.
He listened to the silence, and then to Jimmy's halting monologue, a mix of reminders about procedures and memories of shared experiences. "You're doing well," he said, and knew it was true. His job was passed on to the right man.
He listened to Jethro's demands for answers and railings against the killer who returned to the scene of his crime to take one more life before losing his own. "I wish you peace, my friend. You got the bastard, and now you need to let it go. Let me go." There was so much more to say, but it would have to come from other lips. Ducky only hoped that Gibbs would listen.
He heard Tony's self-recriminations and whispered goodbye, Tim's denial, Ziva's request for him to look up the young man in the jogging cap. "If it's possible, I will," he promised. They would be all right, those three. They would miss him, to be sure, but their lives would continue and their grief would fade.
When the lights were turned off and the day was almost over it was the muffled sobs of a woman who never cried that filled his ears. Her face was buried in the gray plush of her stuffed hippo, her knees pulled up to her chest as she huddled in the corner of the room.
"Oh dear. Oh my dear, please don't. Not for me." He tried to reach for her, to pull her into a comforting hug like he had so many times before, but his hand passed through her. For the first time in hours he sought out his silent companion.
"Sorry, but there really is nothing you can do."
"Don't you get tired of saying that?" Abby's sobs were breaking his heart, and he needed to make sure she would be all right before he left. She was so very strong, so wonderfully strong in mind and spirit, but she also had so much to carry. He had to know that this loss wouldn't be too much for her to bear. If she crumbled Jethro would too, and they were the most important people in the world to him. He couldn't be their downfall.
"I don't make the rules. I'm bound to them the same as everyone else." His coffee long gone, Rube still carried the paper cup. He rolled it between his hands languidly.
"Not quite the same. You're different than most. You speak to the living and the dead, don't you?" Ducky crouched on the floor before Abby, his hand hovering just above her hair.
"And what, you think it will make her feel better to have some stranger walk up to her and say 'your friend Ducky says hi'? It doesn't work," Rube said dismissively.
"You don't know Abigail," Ducky muttered, though he knew Rube was right for the most part. "You could do something smaller for me, something more subtle, couldn't you?"
"You had something in mind?"
"The books over there," Ducky nodded towards the bookcase that contained medical texts mixed in with a few of his personal volumes. "Could you make one fall? Perhaps even open to a particular page."
"I could do that," Rube agreed.
A moment later when a book fell Abby started, her head jerking up. Ducky bit his lip upon seeing the red eyes and running makeup, but refrained from trying to touch her again. It was too hard, knowing that he would fail. Hugging the stuffed animal close to her chest, Abby rose from the corner and moved across the room to the bookcase, only loosening her hold on Bert to pick up the book.
It hadn't been hard for Rube to make the book of poetry fall open to the right page, as it was well worn. As Ducky had hoped, Abby's curiosity got the better of her and she read the poem written there. He hoped it would speak to her as it had so often spoken to him. His mother had given him the book a lifetime ago. His lifetime. She read it aloud, her voice shaky but clear.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
"Abbs?" Ducky sighed in relief when Jethro came into the room. His eyes were dark with exhaustion but he no longer radiated the anger from earlier. And more importantly he was here, and his dearest ones were not alone.
"Did you know that Ducky kept poetry books at work, Gibbs?"
"No, I didn't. Sounds like him though."
"What are we going to do?" Abby squeezed Bert a little harder, and Ducky had to smile at the noise. Such a little thing, but so reassuring in its familiarity.
"We're going to go home and sleep. It's been a long day." Ducky wondered if Gibbs really would sleep anytime soon, or if the repetitive motion of sandpaper against wood would be as relaxed as he got.
"You're coming with me, Abbs." It was almost an order, definitely a promise. "You don't need to be alone tonight."
"Neither do you." She kissed him on the cheek and, after transferring hippo and book to one arm, looped the other one around his waist. "Will you tell me a story tonight, Gibbs? Something about Ducky before I joined NCIS? We need to remember."
"We couldn't forget him, Abbs."
"Did Duck ever tell you about the first assistant he had here? The guy didn't even last a day."
Ducky listened as they walked away and the doors of the elevator closed behind them. When silence fell once again he turned to look for Rube but the man was gone. The room was filling with light, though, and Ducky could almost make out the sound of bagpipes. His mind finally at peace, he walked into what looked like the forest behind his childhood home.