Chapter Warnings: None

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"I remember when you said that life was hard on you

And I remember when I watched you come undone again

And I still feel now all the damage left inside

All the walls that you built up,

And all the bridges you burnt down…"

Come to Me, by Megan McCauley

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With an ominously slick sound, the steadily growing stack of paperwork slipped off the desk altogether.

Gibbs lunged forward, too late. The last papers fluttered leisurely in the air, catching a few final puffs off wind, before settling smugly some four feet away from his desk.

Blackadder sat unmoving, jaw dropped in abject horror, and gaped at him from across the bullpen.

Waiting for the explosion.

Gibbs stared at the carnage in more dignified disbelief, his temples pounding.

This morning was not going his way at all.

"I've got to go talk to Abby," he managed finally, keeping the lid on his temper with great force of will.

Blackadder gestured inarticulately at the mess. "Do—do you want me to—"

A sardonic look, thrown over the agent's retreating shoulder, seared her mid-speech.

"I—yes, sir. That is, Boss. I mean—I'll just start tidying up right this minute, sir—"

The elevator door slammed shut before she could scramble out of her seat.

Gibbs huffed, rolling his shoulders as the elevator shuddered on its way. An entire week without a case. If Gibbs didn't have obvious problems with being happy about the death of navy men, he'd be praying for a nice triple murder to break up the frustrating monotony of trying to figure out how to replace Burley.

And Abby—well. She was doing much better now, Gibbs conceded, his ears suddenly assaulted with the blare of heavy metal as he stepped out of the elevator. After her father's death, she'd drooped around for months, a gothic shadow with tragic eyes, and it had been all Gibbs could do drag her back to equilibrium.

"Gibbs!" Abby's smile was bright enough to temporarily wipe his mind clear both of worry for her, and the gloomy remembrance of personnel files still awaiting his perusal upstairs.

"Hey, Abs." A kiss, pressed against her shiny black hair. She leaned her head against his shoulder, a casual half-hug, then bounced sideways—a peculiar, skipping half-jump.

"See my boots?"

Gibbs blinked, taken aback in spite of himself.

"Moon shoes, Abs?"

She hopped gleefully, red and black plaid skirt fluttering. "Yup! I went shopping with Sister Rosita."

Rnnng.

His cellphone pealed, sparing Gibbs the necessity of wondering what part of that, precisely, was meant to constitute an explanation. He held up a finger, a wordless request for silence. Pouting, Abby pressed a button on her stereo.

The sudden quiet made his ears roar.

He shook his head to clear it. "Yeah. Gibbs."

At the rapid-fire words, his mood sank and lifted simultaneously.

"Yes, sir."

Gibbs flipped the phone shut, and met Abby's pale green, inquisitive eyes. "Baltimore cop witnessed the murder of Navy Chaplain Pete Druckenbrod this morning."

Her lips drooped just slightly—not the sulky pout of a moment before, but the quiver of neediness. Since her father had finally succumbed to his illness some weeks after Gibbs's return from the entire Macaluso debacle, the forensic scientist had been...clingy, to say the least. In his most exasperated moments, Gibbs likened her response to that of a puppy first experiencing the twinges of separation anxiety, but that wasn't fair. Given her loss, and his particular line of work, if she feared that he might vanish from her life as suddenly as her dad had...

Well, Gibbs knew better than anyone how quickly everything that mattered could be snatched away.

The special agent reached out to stroke her hair. She leaned into the callused fingers, a genuine smile spreading across her face—absorbing the affection as effortlessly as she always did, with her concrete, almost child-like expectation of love given, love returned. Loss had shaken her, but the bubbly Goth still reached out to humanity with the expectation that optimism would be answered, and that life would give her everything she deserved.

Such trust. Trust absolute, trust that had never truly been abused. As always, he was reminded of how Kelly used to look at him, with her simple love shining on every inch of her face. Gibbs's stomach flipped, tenderness mingling with a devastation that had only dulled, not faded, with time. Blue eyes, not unlike his own, stared at him from memory.

Grief was bitter, always.

But at least, for a little while, she'd known what it was to be unconditionally loved. He knew from heartbreaking experience in the field that far too few children could say the same.

Without warning, the phantom blue eyes vanished, replaced by a familiar deep green gaze in his mind's eye.

Disturbed, Gibbs stepped away, responding to Abby's farewell wave with a distracted one of his own.

Why had DiNozzo's face sprung to mind just then? It wouldn't have been altogether strange to think of the kid, given the location of the dead chaplain. The agent's contacts had reported months ago that DiNozzo had joined up with Baltimore homicide. But thinking of Tony when caught in a tangle of parental reflections and regrets...

It was absolutely ridiculous.

Frustrated, the ex-marine jammed his thumb into the elevator button. Just because the detective bore every mark of someone whose trust had been dashed again and again, didn't make his wellbeing the Gibbs's responsibility. Six months, and DiNozzo still hadn't even bothered respond to the agent's hastily penned note. Clearly, he was fine. Probably flourishing, and simply too busy to pay the ill-judged, impulsive message any noticed.

There was no reason to be frustrated by the silence. Or disappointed. And he wasn't.

Mouth tightening grimly, Gibbs tilted his head back just slightly, until it hit with a weighty thud against the elevator wall.

And he definitely—definitely—wasn't worried.

At all.

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Outside the car, the early morning heat was sweltering, sinking deep underneath Gibbs's collar to moisten his neck. Across the street, obscured by a shimmering wave of humidity, police tape looped off the entire sidewalk. A crowd milled around, a mix of local LEOs bustling back and forth, and fascinated civilians barely keeping an appropriate distance from the crime scene.

Gibbs swung the back door open before Blackadder could—vestiges of chivalry—and directed her towards the crime scene with a simple jerk of his chin. "Photos." Turning back, the agent noted the unusually prompt arrival of the medical van with approval. He unzipped his NCIS jacket impatiently, tossing it into the backseat of his car, and turned back to survey the scene.

A movement different from the rest caught his eyes.

A slim figure, clad in tattered clothes, stood against the shop windows, just outside the confines police tape. Thanks to the blinding July sun and its requisite jet-black shadows, the face was hidden. He was arguing with a cop, his rapid hand motions almost lethal in their quickness—and oddly familiar.

Gibbs's gut jolted in realization seconds before stunned recognition hit.

I'll be damned.

A slow, sideways grin spread across his face.

DiNozzo?

The man turned his head, and a beam of sunlight lit upon a smear of red, like grisly war paint, highlighting his high cheekbones. He looked rather different from the last time they'd crossed paths—hair cropped shorter, casual in jeans and shirt instead of mob-inspired suits.

But somehow, Gibbs thought he looked exactly the same.

Suddenly, the agent felt like he really hadn't been surprised, at all—that he had, in fact, been on some level expecting this from the very first moment of the case—

"You know the man?"

The medical examiner's shrewd voice broke into his musings in a way the quiet footsteps hadn't.

Ducky.

Were it Blackadder, the agent wouldn't have deigned to answer—but then, she had no such temerity, and Ducky's powers of observation were legendary in any case. Gibbs had long since given up on the comfortable illusion of his own opacity. The grin faded in to a wry smirk. "Yeah. DiNozzo."

"The DiNozzo? The one you helped with an undercover operation in December?" Surprise lifted Ducky's voice.

"That's the one."

"Ah. The young man you never talk about, despite the fact that you called a Baltimore hospital at least ten times during the first week of your return to work, simply to check on a mystery patient's condition."

Gibbs glared.

Regrettably, Ducky was as thoroughly impervious to such expressions as his namesake was to a gentle rain. "Oh, this shall be interesting," he countered cheerfully, stepping forward. "Now, let us see what secrets the dead have to tell."

Gibbs strode past him, shaking his head.

Upon their approach, the argument was still in full force, Tony's posture still aggressive. "—no, I'm not going to surrender the case—"

"Detective."

DiNozzo stopped mid-speech and mid gesture at the even greeting, eyes widening almost comically. He turned his head cautiously.

And positively beamed, the characteristic smile blazing across his face, lighting-quick and lightning-bright.

"Special Agent Gibbs!"

"DiNozzo," Gibbs returned, mouth crooking in greeting. Something in his chest—tangled and unpleasant—dissolved abruptly at the warm greeting.

"How do you two know each other?" The man Tony had been arguing with, an ordinary-looking fellow equipped with a bushy beard, glanced between them quizzically.

Almost as though on some sort of cue, DiNozzo's smile faded. "Give us a moment, Adam."

Reluctantly, the other man did, darting curious glances over his shoulder.

"Well, this is a heck of a coincidence." As quickly as the last had vanished, another grin appeared—this one wide, gleaming, and insanely charming.

And as utterly fake to Gibbs's eagle eye as it was shatterproof. Abruptly, the agent registered the odd way in which DiNozzo was standing—the right arm clutched tight to his side, the body braced as though for a blow. In conjunction with the streak of blood, and the damaged shirt, it told an unpleasant story.

Gibbs suppressed a frown, more concerned than he was inclined to admit.

What exactly had happened here?

"No such thing as coincidences."

DiNozzo opened his mouth to reply, eyebrows raised with what looked like glee, but Gibbs cut him off hurriedly, afraid the words would match the expression. "You the cop that found the body and saw the attackers?"

The detective grimaced, professional once more. "Yeah. I heard shouts—at about 3:30—so I grabbed my gun and tried to find where they were coming from. I came to that corner just as the screaming stopped, and I saw three men standing by the body. I tried to get them to drop their weapons, but they ran. That was when I got attacked. I must have missed a guy, because came at me from behind, and hit my shoulder with something—like a club or a baseball bat. I got away, and shot at him, but the bullet didn't connect. He ran. I called for backup."

There were several peculiarities to that story, not least of which was the fact that DiNozzo was barefoot, but otherwise completely—even stylishly—dressed. But they could get to the details later; Tony had likely left them out as inessential. "Get checked out?" Gibbs indicated his injuries with a nod.

DiNozzo shifted his feet in place. "No." A pause, then—"I figure I've been in enough hospitals lately."

It was the first acknowledgement, guarded or otherwise, of everything that had happened since their final conversation in a Philadelphia car an eternity ago. Something shifted in the air between them, becoming more and less awkward at once.

"How's Maria?" Gibbs queried softly, following some instinct.

An unwise one, as it turned out.

Tony stiffened, spine gone rigid. He laughed, the sound loud and overly emphatic. "Oh. Well. Docs thought there might be some new brain activity, but it turns out, nooo. Brain's still mush. Porridge. Yup, she's pret-ty much a vegetable—"

Without thinking, Gibbs reached up to headslap him.

A hard block jolted his arm aside just as his fingers brushed the tips of Tony's hair. Green eyes scorched the scant space between them, burning with something dark and potent and coiled to strike. "You don't get to hit me," Tony breathed. This close, disconcertingly deep shadows underscored his eye sockets. "Got that?"

With a sudden wrench, DiNozzo tore away, and took off walking in the opposite direction—stopping only to scold a couple of gaping teenagers for leaning too near the caution tape. From the back, the source of the smeared blood on his face was obvious—a badly skinned shoulder, glistening red against the tattered remains of the kid's shirt.

Well, hell.

Chagrin settled in the agent's chest.

What had possessed him? The younger man had just been attacked, was clearly still on edge. Yet—something about the speech had slipped under Gibbs's skin and lodged there. The shocking callousness of DiNozzo's words? The violent undercurrent of guilt underneath the barely cloaked pain?

The way Tony himself had seemed to flinch at each casual word, but inflicted them anyway?

"Well, that was scarcely wise, or necessary."

It was one thing to emphatically agree with the ME's mild disapproval; quite another to admit the fact out loud. Gibbs settled for a calm, "Your job's to inspect the dead, not the living, Duck."

"Au contraire; the living can often help give voice to the departed, if by no other means than by providing insight into our uniquely human condition. What's more, as I'm sure you are well aware, I am more than capable of multitasking." Ducky paused, surveying the team leader through shrewd, bespectacled eyes. "He was happy to see you, Jethro."

"Yeah," Gibbs scoffed, watching Blackadder talk with the bearded cop. "For about five seconds."

"Oh, a good deal longer than that; he simply wished to hide it. Do be careful with him, Jethro. The young man is clearly hurting. Why, I can't hope to answer fully at this point, though I do wonder if you may have an inkling."

Gibbs ignored that. "How about answering why our chaplain is dead."

Ducky rose to his feet, clutching his medical bag. "Well, I will have to get him back to headquarters before I can answer with utter certainty, but the cause of death seems plain—bludgeoning, with some sort of blunt object. Given the shape and the depth of the wounds, I would wager that your murder weapon may indeed be something in the realm of a baseball bat, which would corroborate young DiNozzo's story. As does the estimated time of death."

A clipped voice sounded from Gibbs's right.

"The guy who attacked me."

Tony had returned, as abruptly as he'd stormed off. He was frowning still, and fidgeting agitatedly, little furrows pinching his eyebrows. "He was blond. Golden color. Kind of had a pointy nose. I punched him in the face, so he probably has a black eye. That's all I know."

Curiosity rose. Punched him in the face? Clearly, a wealth of information lay behind the simple declaration of 'I got away', but instinct—or the defensiveness still lurking in Tony's eyes—stopped him from probing sooner. For the moment. "Good to know."

"I want in on the case," Tony demanded aggressively, almost as though the mild statement had angered him further. His eyes still shot sparks. "One of the men attacked me, which makes it Baltimore jurisdiction. I'm not going to let you—"

"Okay," Gibbs interrupted smoothly. "Joint investigation."

Tony's jaw dropped comically. A second later, he rallied. "That's it."

An intensely skeptical question, phrased as a statement.

Gibbs hid a smile.

Well, DiNozzo was hardly an idiot.

"Two conditions," the agent allowed. "One, my lead."

The green eyes flashed, but Tony nodded grudgingly. "And?"

"Go sit down. We'll finish processing the scene. And when we're back at NCIS headquarters, you let my ME check out your injuries."

The angry edge vanished completely from the detective's expression, replaced by bafflement. "I—what?"

"Dr. Mallard, NCIS's finest medical examiner. Meet Detective Anthony DiNozzo."

"Pleasure, my dear boy," Ducky replied. "You'll excuse me if I don't shake your hand, I hope. I'm afraid little pieces of our dear chaplain may have adhered to my glove." He chuckled broadly at his own joke, stepping outside the caution tape.

"That's your condition? You want your medical examiner to poke at me like I'm one of his corpses?"

Incredulousness underscored every syllable.

"Now, really, Detective," Ducky chided. "I'm perfectly qualified. You needn't worry. I assure you, the difference between the living and the dead is not so acute as all that." He strolled off, whistling cheerfully.

DiNozzo actually took a step backwards. "No offense, Special Agent, but that was seriously creepy," he pointed out fervently.

Behind them, Ducky's most recent assistant—whatever the hell his name was—was helping to lift Thomas's body, sending waves of stench through the air. Good. If DiNozzo was in as much pain as the faint lines of around his youthful mouth indicated...the sooner they got to NCIS, the better.

"Always the hospital," Gibbs suggested helpfully.

A scowl almost made it onto Tony's face.

Almost.

"The dead-people doctor sounds fan-tas-tic," the younger man assured him hastily, grinning a bit nervously. "It's just that I've got this thing about scalpels. And getting confused for dead bodies. And I'm feeling just fine—never better, really—and—uhm." He'd caught Gibbs's expression, finally. "But it never hurts to get a doctor's opinion, right? I'm just going to go—sit, like you said."

Gibbs smirked as DiNozzo beat a hasty retreat. Privately, he was willing to admit that he was pleased by the brief exchange. As always, the younger man's grudges were short-lived. It seemed the ill-timed headslap had blown over—at least for the moment.

His smile faded as the detective perched gingerly on the edge of the sidewalk, head lowered.

Still the same Tony.

But he didn't need Ducky's pointers to know that things were far from well.

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Author's note: Thank you all so much for all of your reviews on the "prologue"! The start of the semester ate up most of my reply time, but I delighted in each one. I also elected to spend my Saturday night writing instead of doing anything more exciting—and even for a non-partier like me, that's a little bit lame—so in light of that sacrifice, hopefully you can forgive me for the oversight in review-responses. :D

Also, I realized belatedly that I really shouldn't have put in Blackadder in A Question of Honor; because how then would Tony be the senior agent in the Jag episodes? But, oh, well—might as well roll with it. This is all AU now, anyway.

Now...those AQOH Review Awards I promised!

The "100% Rock Award", presented to the reviewer with the greatest number of reviews: Azamiko, with a near-perfect record of 18 out of 20.

Gold Loyalty Award, presented to any reviewer with 15 to 19 reviews: Maz101, NickTonyK

Silver Loyalty Award, presented to any reviewer with 10 to 14 reviews: newgal, peanutmeg, whashaza, Ann, tiffaroolou, godsdaughter77, Kateri1, fredcymraes

Bronze Loyalty Award, presented to any reviewer with 5 to 9 reviews: ShadowWolfDagger, katesari, SpanishGirl, Long Live BRUCAS, angelscatie, Madances, Hermione's Shadow, tonyfan31970, cha'90, aloha94, dianateo, BnBfanatic, Julie250, KelKo, Tragedy of Fenwick, Net Sparrow, vanishingp2000

The "Wildcard" award, for the reviewer that influenced the plot most: Maz101, whose comment on the first chapter, "I'm already worried about Steve" sparked inspiration on what was originally intended as a one-time character.

"VerySpecial Agent Award", for the review that made me laugh the most: Awarded to achillies-eel, whose lovely review for chapter 12 included the hilariously incongruent declaration of, "And I love [...] the part where they HAVE SEX ALREADY! About time, Tony boy." I laughed so hard. Frankly, I have a feeling Tony would rather agree with you.

"The Brilliant Chatterbox Award", for the longest review: tiffaroolou, with her longest review clocking in at 350 words. As a very close runner-up, StarvingScriptWriter, with 269 words.

The Abby Scuito Award, for the most enthusiastic review (very difficult to judge, incidentally): Tragedy of Fenwick

Full Circle Award, awarded to all reviewers who replied on both the first and/or second chapter, and the last or second to last chapter: Maz101, NickTonyK, Smooth Doggie, Azamiko

Lend a Hand Award: tiffaroolou, Victoria LeRoux , and ncis slythindor, for offering to proofread a chapter for me, even though I never actually took anyone up on the offer

And because quality is more important than quantity...

I originally intended to create an award that would single out those of you who took the time to write particularly detailed, encouraging, excited, inspiring, admiring reviews, messages and comments. But I quickly hit up against a major problem—there were simply too many of you that fit the criteria. It would get ridiculous trying to list you all. So, for all of you, even if your name didn't manage to fit neatly in one of the other categories (quite a number of them did)...even if you only reviewed once or twice...if you took a moment to make a review special, thank you! In fact...if you took the time to write a review at all...thank you!