Chapter 319: Cuckoo
In the six months since they began living together Ducky has learned quite a bit about Penny Langston. (He assumes the converse is true for her, as well.) He's also learned quite a bit about himself, among them, how much he enjoys the quiet intimacy of getting ready for bed with someone, followed by settling in to sleep.
He has, of course, had many bedmates over the years. Many great loves. Yet this moment now, preparing for rest, him sitting on the edge of his bed, undressing, watching Penny, who is sitting at one of her additions to their home, a vanity, taking off her jewelry and brushing her hair, has been a rarity in his life. And the moment to come, when they will lie in bed, resting, finishing off the night with gentle conversation and gentle, or depending on mood, maybe not so gentle touch, is one he eagerly anticipates.
Of course, for Ducky there is an added layer of learning this woman he has chosen to share his life with, namely, he's known her grandson for well over ten years now, and there are times where he finds himself staggered by how sharply she reminds him of Timothy. (Though, technically, it's Timothy reminding him of her, but he didn't meet Penny until he'd known Timothy for almost a decade. As a result he often has to remind himself of the correct direction in which that association lies.)
Which makes quite a bit of sense, given what happened tonight.
He's been thinking about it, too.
Many thoughts, many ideas, family secrets, questions, and beloved, fragile hearts all in play.
For example, a thought: one that's struck him over and over with this whole thing is that he cannot fathom how two people who put Timothy so thoroughly through the ringer would be good parents to Sarah.
It's obvious watching how the two of them understand their parents, that John and Terri were very much not the same people for Timothy as they were for Sarah.
There is something else, that is, to Ducky, looking in from the outside, obvious. Something he's fairly sure that Penny has to be aware of, but he's equally certain that Timothy and Sarah are not.
And it's something that... he's not sure of. And less sure of voicing his suspicion out loud. If his suspicions are correct... If they are, everything becomes yet more confusing... Or possibly... though that's a version of John he's never contemplated before, a level of self-loathing he does not expect or suspect, less.
"You're thinking loudly." Penny says, looking at him in the mirror, putting her brush down.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was speaking." he says, unbuttoning his shirt.
"You weren't. That's the dead give-away. You stop chattering when you're thinking hard. What has your gears turning?"
Family secrets... Well, given what they got together to talk about today, and that he was welcomed as an insider, as family, by both Penny and Tim... "A rather indelicate question, I'm afraid."
"Really?" Penny looks intrigued, turning to face him as she smoothes moisturizer onto her arms and neck. "What's sparking that?"
"I've been pondering how John and Terri could have been so hard on Timothy, and yet so kind to Sarah."
"Both of them would have told you that Sarah didn't need it. John especially would tell you that she was just fine the way she was."
"Yes. I imagine he would say that." The perversity of that man's mind is staggering to Ducky.
"Was that your indelicate question?"
"She does," Penny says, watching him intently.
He tosses his shirt into the hamper, and turns to face her. "I would not have thought that John would be particularly kind to the cuckoo in his nest."
Penny nods, acknowledging that, then adds, "I'd imagine that would have quite a bit to do with how she got there. And no, I don't know the answer to that. Likewise, I do not specifically know if he's noticed or wondered about the fact that Sarah looks nothing like the rest of us, though I have a hard time believing he could have somehow missed that fact.
"I know they both wanted several children. I know Terri miscarried once before Tim and three times after. It's entirely possible that most of the difference was that Sarah came well after either of them had given up any hope of another child."
"The longed for second chance?" Ducky goes back to getting undressed, and then fetches his pajamas, pulling on the light blue, cotton drawers.
"Maybe." Penny begins dabbing another potion of some sort on her face. "Things were already tense with John and Tim. But, at least as I remember it, they were only tense. But, I also wasn't there for a lot of it. I was there enough to know they got worse after Sarah was born."
"Pre-adolescent hormones making things worse?" Ducky asks, pulling on the matching, long-sleeved buttoned pajama top. Like much of what he owns there's a certain formality to his pajamas, but at the same time, they are old, worn, well-loved and exceptionally well-made cotton.
"Possibly." She shrugs, grabbing yet another bottle and starting to apply a new fluid to her feet and legs. "I think it was more that it was becoming clear that Tim wasn't going to grow out of being quiet or shy, and was still showing absolutely no interest at all in the Navy and John knew the window was closing, fast."
Ducky's still thinking. He just cannot imagine that John would have, on any level, been accepting to a child who wasn't his. And if Terri miscarried over and over... Timothy would have been young, but... not young enough to spring a baby out of nowhere with. A visible pregnancy would have had to happen.
"You didn't live near them when Terri was pregnant with Sarah, did you?"
"No, they were in California that year."
"Are you sure Sarah is Terri's?"
That got a very surprised look out of Penny, she opened her mouth and then closed it, and then opened it again and closed it again. That was an angle that she'd never considered. That was an angle no one (and yes, if she and Nelson were talking about it, other people must have, too) considered. Penny thought about it, remembering everything she could. "We only knew she was pregnant for three months. After four miscarriages we didn't expect them to say anything until Terri was sure the baby was healthy. So, when we found out she was supposed to be twenty weeks along. Sarah was a very large preemie. Almost seven pounds at thirty-two weeks gestation. If she was full term, John was on a float when Sarah would have been conceived. He was on a float when she was born, too. Shipped out the month before she was born. He was home for two of the months in the middle, though.
"If she isn't Terri's, her parents were in on it. They stayed with Tim while she was in the hospital, helped with her when she was brand new."
"Would she have been willing to raise another woman's child?" Ducky asks, heading to the foot of the bed, sitting on the chest in front of their bed, closer to Penny.
She's thinking hard, tapping her fingers against the handle of her brush. "I think by that point, she would have been willing to have done pretty much anything that involved another baby. She talked a bit about adopting when Tim was younger, but nothing ever happened." Penny thinks about it more. "She didn't nurse Sarah. She did for Tim. But with Sarah she was saying it hurt too much and took too long and bottle feeding meant Tim could get a meal or two and she could get a few more hours of sleep. Unlike with Tim, who was born two weeks before John got back for a two-year stint at home, she was basically a single parent for the first year Sarah was alive. He was gone her first four months, home for sixty days, gone for another six months."
"So, like sailors everywhere and through all time, he had ample opportunity to make friends."
"Of course. And he was captain of his own ship by then. If he wanted or needed to swing an unscheduled detour, he could have done it. He also, if memory serves, had female members on his crew then."
"I thought women weren't on combat ships in the US Navy until 1991."
She nods, always impressed by how much information about everything Ducky seems to have. "You're right, combat ships. They started serving in non-combat, non-hospital ships in '78. John wasn't on a combat ship then. Like Tim and I he was always good with technology, and he was running a test ship, all of the latest goodies were floating around under his command, so the closest he ever got to combat on that tour was war gaming. No one wanted the stuff he had getting anywhere near the USSR's navy."
Penny nods, and he can see on her face the idea that this is suddenly making a whole lot of sense. And it's making a whole lot of sense to Ducky, too. Too much sense.
"Their marriage was already more than strained at that point?"
"Their marriage was strained by the time they finished cutting the cake at the wedding."
"But they were also Catholic, and a divorce looks bad for an ambitious officer climbing fast and hard toward Admiral."
"Exactly. Especially on that last push. Everything needs to look perfect when you're trying to get that last jump between Captain and Admiral. Can't run your own house, how can you run a fleet? Can't have people saying that."
"And, would I be remiss in assuming everything he didn't like about Timothy came from Terri, at least according to John?"
"If he felt that way, he was smart enough to never say it in my presence. But I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually felt that way. And..." She shakes her head. "I hate saying this, but it was likely true, too. Terri was quieter, more timid. She thinks first, thinks again, and then does things. She's not a social butterfly; she has a few friends she's very loyal to, her family, and that's it. Given the option of fighting or finding a way to smooth things over, she'll smooth. Tim also looked a lot like her then. The shape of the face and the eyes especially, and the same longish blond hair. God, that hair drove John crazy. Tim liked it longer. John didn't want any of it more than two inches long. Getting it cut off right before his Dad got back was always a fight."
Ducky nods, feeling like the pieces are shifting into place. "So for John the first child, Timothy, is the symbol of a failed marriage and wasted potential. His seed ruined by inferior breeding stock. The second child, Sarah, doesn't have the taint of Terri's genes. Perhaps her mother was one of his shipmates. She's unlimited potential unmarred by a woman he's grown to resent. For Terri, Timothy is a long nightmare of nothing she does, because how he behaves is the yardstick her husband is using to measure her actions, ever being good enough. He's the symbol of her failure as a mother, because she can't force her round peg into the square hole. She wanted more babies, her husband wanted her to have more babies, but she cannot have any more children, yet another marker of failure. For her, Sarah is the fulfilled yearning for another child, and because Sarah delights John, she's a reprieve from the constant grinding of only being judged by how good a job she does of making Timothy into someone he was never suited to become."
That's probably not dead on, but it fits. Penny adds, "And when Sarah is born, John loses the restraint that kept him from fully opening up on Tim. Yes, he's the only boy, so he can't go as hard on Tim as he wants, someone's got to carry on the family name and traditions, but he's not the only child anymore so he can push harder, if it doesn't work out, there's always another shot."
"Add in Timothy's more traditionally feminine traits, and Sarah's more masculine devil-may-care tomboyishness..."
"And it's the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong, going wrong."
Ducky buttons the shirt of his pajamas, and steps over to Penny, leaning down to kiss her. Yes, this feels solid, like a puzzle well-solved, but the glow of putting the pieces together is rapidly cooling in the light of this is his love, and her son, and his children, all warped by this morass of pain.
These are not unknown pieces on a board being shifted around to come to a conclusion for the purpose of solving a crime.
This is her family, and for that matter, his. "But it is only speculation."
She smiles, grimly, a very Timothy gesture. She appreciates the fact that he's trying to soften the idea of it, but also knows the softening isn't real. "It fits. It wasn't the way I was thinking it worked, this works better with who John and Terri are, but... Two years ago Sarah was really excited about that DNA company that let you do your own testing. Learn all about your genome."
Ducky nods. He remembers Jimmy talking about it with Abby.
"She asked all of us if we wanted to do it. Tim seemed interested, but those fascists at FDA shut the company down before we got around to it. Which worked out just fine, because I was fairly certain the results would have been quite surprising to the kids."
"I was thinking that this did not appear to be something that's occurred to either of them."
"If it had ever crossed Tim's mind, he would have said something to me..." She pauses, considering that. "No. He would have had Abby test it, and he'd already know, and then he would have said something to me. If it had ever crossed Sarah's mind, she would have said something to me, her mom, her dad, and Tim."
Ducky nods, that strikes him as how Sarah would handle it. Penny stands, pressing into Ducky's embrace, stroking his face gently. "So, profiler, what do you think? Should he know? Would understanding why Sarah got to be the golden child while he was Cinderella help?"
Ducky shakes his head. "I can't imagine it would. Short of finding out he's not actually John's son, I don't think there's any information along those lines that Timothy would find comforting."
"No. Probably not."