Chapter Warnings: None. Except that it's the final chapter. I feel like I needed a warning for that, so I'm going to give you one in case you feel the same way. :P
"May the spirit never die
Though a troubled heart feels pain
When this long winter is over
It will blossom once again..."
—Breaking the Silence by Loreena McKennitt
Thick, fluffy snowflakes twirled past the window, bathing the room in filtered light.
Tony swung long legs over the edge of his hospital bed, grimacing as still-healing ribs registered their protest at the fluid movement. He glance sideways at the crumpled newspaper to his left, his eyes once more tracing the headlines—Police Sergeant Resigns Under Suspicions of Corruption. Suspected Mafia Boss to Undergo Trial. After a momentary hesitation, Tony tucked the paper under his arm, ignoring the stiffness of his shoulder.
A pile of his things lay on the side table—his car keys, a brand new cellphone, credit cards, identification, and his badge. It was oddly surreal to see Tony the jock staring back at him from his driver's license—instead of Antonio Florentino, with his slicked back hair and equally oily smile. Moving slowly—even after two weeks, it turned out, broken bones and healing lacerations hurt like hell—Tony slid to his feet, and began to gather his things.
"Well, well. It's that day. Maybe I'll finally get some work down around here again."
Tony looked up; grinned charmingly. It felt as stiff and out of practice as his shoulder muscles, but judging from the older nurse's faint blush, it didn't much matter. "Aw, I'll miss you, too, Janice. Are you sure you can't do household visitations?"
He waggled his eyebrows energetically. Janice rolled her eyes. "Sorry to disappoint, Tony. You really should reconsider working with our therapist, though. Blond, pretty as a picture...seems just like your type."
Tony laughed, determinedly avoiding her searching gaze and the worry it hinted at. "Young and hot, huh? I'll remember that."
She bustled around, dusting needlessly, with rather badly feigned nonchalance. "Is someone picking you up?"
"I've got a ride," Tony answered evasively. He planned on calling a cab, but she didn't need to know that. "I've got a few lady friends nearby, if you catch my drift."
She snorted, placing one hand on her hip with a skeptical air. "You're in no condition for that kind of activity, young man."
"Is that a challenge, Ms. Janice?" Half-truths and evasions, cloaked with charm. Some part of him—a little part, carefully buried behind the dam that kept him upright—felt bad for the deception. But not enough to risk a crack.
Janice laughed, shaking her head. She patted him on the arm, blue eyes crinkling with warmth. "Heaven forbid." A pause. "Take care of yourself, hun."
Tony squashed the urge to flinch at the touch. Just Janice. "You know me." His widest grin yet. "I always do."
To his relief, a laugh startled the slightly watery look from her eyes. "Oh, of course." Shaking her head, still laughing, Janice made her exit, stopping only for one final wave.
The smile melted from Tony's face the moment she rounded the corner. He gazed down at his badge with eyes that took in nothing.
An unfamiliar voice. Tony spun on the spot.
Two unfamiliar police officers, one tall enough to look him in the eye, one a few inches shorter, stood in the doorway.
"That's me," Tony answered warily, fingers dangling uncomfortably at his unarmed hip, muscles tensing involuntarily at their sudden appearance.
The older of the two, equipped with a narrow chin and a kind smile, took a step forward. "Good, I was hoping you'd still be here. Can we have a moment of your time?" The man's thick, greying hair glinted silver in in the florescent lights.
Tony was suddenly reminded of Special Agent Gibbs.
Don't think about that.
The detective slammed down on the recollection and the humiliating, tangled memories that accompanied it with all the finality of an execution. "Sure."
He sank back onto the hospital bed, forcing his heart rate to settle. The two men moved slowly, projecting their movements as unthreatening so clearly he suspected them of doing it deliberately. Perhaps they'd been warned.
"I hear you're going to be awarded a Commendation of Valor."
"Yeah? How'd you hear that?" Tony asked lightly, unmoving.
The younger man emitted a choking sound, like a strangled laugh. Tony stared at him, lifting an eyebrow in challenge.
"Well, I suppose we should introduce ourselves. This is Officer Cherry. I'm Chief Flanagan. I've been heading the Baltimore branch of the Macaluso investigation since you went missing. It's good to see you recovering."
"It's good to be recovering," Tony said, his bland tone belying the wide smile. "How can I help you, chief?"
"I'm sure you're anxious to get out of here , so I'll get to the point. In the last few weeks, I've had access to the Hawkeye file. Very impressive. Very, very impressive. You're a good detective. From what Chief Bridenn says, though...I get the sense you might be ready for a change of scenery. So, when you're back to one hundred percent...I'd like to offer you a job in our homicide department. It would be an honor to have you on board. Baltimore could use a man like you."
"Homicide." Skepticism colored his tone, overlaying a sudden, unexpected thrill of interest. Baltimore. He hadn't considered that."Not undercover work."
"Let's be honest." Flanagan's smile was wry, his deep-set hazel eyes frank. "You're going to be testifying in Macaluso's trial."
A shudder worked its way down Tony's spine, as though ghostly fingers had tapped each nerve.
"The entire process will take months. There isn't even a shadow of a chance you'd be available for anything other than actual police work for a long time. If, after all that is over, you want to consider other venues...we'd be happy to have you. You're exceptional at undercover work, Tony. Very, very good. But—" the smile deepened, highlighting laugh lines—"you're just as good a detective. If that's all you ever want to do, we'd still count it a privilege."
Baltimore. It would be a new challenge. Something to keep him grounded. Focused.
"You don't have to answer yet, of course," Flanagan assured him, rising to his feet. His companion promptly stood. "Think about it—"
"I'll take it."
Flanagan blinked, smile vanishing in the face of his surprise. "Are you positive?"
"One hundred percent." For one brief moment he'd actually felt excitement about the prospect. At the moment...
That was enough.
It would have to be.
A flash of uncertainty flickered across the older man's face. Then, suddenly, Flanagan grinned, displaying teeth stained yellow from long smoking. "A man who knows what he wants. Well, you're not going to catch me arguing with you, Detective DiNozzo." He stretched out a hand. "Shake on it?"
Tony shook. Callused skin, a firm hold. A fresh start, without corruption. Without shadows.
"Keep us apprised on your progress, alright? And if you need anything, you let me know. With Macaluso on a fast track to prison—we're all in your debt."
The sudden tightness in his jaw nearly kept the words captive, but the detective forced the words past his lips. "I'd like one thing."
Flanagan halted, curiosity clear. "What's that?"
"I know you're keeping track of Maria Donatti's medical progress, but I don't have your clearance level. Once I check out, it's going to be hard to get the information. Let me know if anything changes?"
Flanagan's eyes shadowed. "Of course. If the brain activity level changes in any way, you'll be the first to know."
Tony nodded stiffly, holding the other man's sympathetic gaze with great force of will. "Thanks."
The chief inclined his head, in combined acceptance of the thanks and in farewell.
Tony sighed, inhaling deeply. He was already tired, and he hadn't even begun the journey to find a hotel.
It would be a very long day.
He looked up.
The other man—Cherry—reappeared at the door jam. He was even younger than Tony had thought at first glance; a narrow-faced, gangly youth in his early twenties, with slightly offset eyes. "I almost forgot. Before we go, I've got something for you. The NCIS agent who helped to rescue you asked me to give this to you when you were discharged."
Tony stared at the folded piece of paper as though it were a viper poised to strike, ripples of shock spreading through him. What? "What's this?"
Cherry chuckled—an odd, squeaky sound. "Well, I wouldn't know, would I? I didn't read it. Hey, I was tempted, I won't pretend I wasn't, but that dude was terrifying. 'Bout bit my head off for calling him 'sir'. Anyway, here." He dropped the note into Tony's reluctant fingers. "Better catch up with the Chief. See you later, amigo."
With a sloppy salute, he trotted off.
Tony's feet carried him to the window. Even this early in the day, the streetlights were lit, turning even the uncharismatic hospital parking lot into a dreamlike realm of falling snow. He stared out into the storm, unseeing. So Gibbs hadn't left without even a goodbye.
The paper between his fingers was thin, cheap. Sucking in a breath—his broken fingers still sent jolts of pain through his hand when he was stupid enough to bend them—Tony unfolded the note.
Capital letters, wide and commanding. The first line was written boldly, perfectly straight, as was the signature. But the second line slanted sideways, a little smaller, a little sloppier; as though written on impulse.
The faintest of smiles, microscopic but real—his first genuine smile in days—spread across Tony's face, smoothing a thousand lines of tension. He folded the note, tucking it into his pocket. The detective gazed out into the snow, feeling oddly as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
It was over. It was actually over.
For the first time, he thought he might believe it.
Tony straightened his shoulders, a ghost of a smile still hovering around his lips.
Time to be free.
Get your head on straight. Do what you need to do. When you're ready, give me a call.
You did good.
Final Notes: Oh, goodness. I actually thought this wasn't going to be bittersweet. How foolish of me!
Almost three years exactly after I started—half a year of high school, and two and a half years of college—A Question of Honor is finished at last. One of the main reasons I started was to give myself a chance to write a story that I didn't feel the need to be hypercritical of. I didn't really expect QOH to stretch my writing skills. It did. I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a (roughly) novel-length story. I have. It feels so strange, but it feels amazing, too.
Thank you all so much for every review, every message, every alert, every favorite, every view. Special thanks to those of you who reviewed, especially those of you who took the time to write particularly detailed, encouraging, excited, inspiring, and admiring comments. They were amazing. You are amazing. You have raised my confidence in my writing more than I can say.
If you're still reading this note, I do have one final request. :D If you haven't taken the time to review yet, or if you've been reading, but you haven't reviewed in a while—give a little shout out so that I know haven't let you down! Honestly, I think the story is going to miss all of us. Let's send it off in style, shall we? ;)
Finally...keep an eye out for the sequel! I've also been pulling together those awards I mentioned, with NCIS themed titles. It's been really funny. :D