Disclaimer: I own nothing. Rated T for violence, mild sexual references, some language, and potential dark themes. NO SLASH.

"Like the strangers that you've met

The ragged man in ragged clothes

The silver thorn, a bloody rose

Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow…"

—Starry, Starry Night by Don McLean


If there was anything James Bridenn hated, it was murder before breakfast.

Crystalline sunlight streamed through his wide glass windows, illuminating the office with its cheery light. When he'd accepted his promotion to head of Philadelphia PD's Criminal Intelligence department, Bridenn had insisted on this room. His days were often dark ones metaphorically; there was no need for them to be dark in a literal sense. Depression was always a risk in law enforcement, and such simple pleasures—a favorite food, a well-lit office—helped more than most people would ever guess.

Catching a glimpse of himself in the adjacent mirror, Bridenn heaved a sigh, and ran both hands through his lank dark hair. Deep set eyes, unusually shadowed. Pallid skin, pale even after Baltimore's hot summer. No wonder he felt the need for light. He was too vampiric by half already.

Such was the price of obsession.

Bridenn took a huge bite of his donut, savoring the sweetness of his favorite glaze. Cases were never supposed to be personal. But this…

Finished with his makeshift breakfast, James wiped greasy fingers on his napkin. His obsession—Macaluso—hadn't started out as personal. Or rather, it had, but only in the vague way that dealing with the Mafia always was. The way that even pursuing Girelli, the previous and low-profile Mafia boss, had been. But Bridenn defied anyone, following this case as he had, step by step, year after year, to be unaffected by the sheer brutality of Mike Macaluso.

Not that anyone could ever prove that Macaluso was responsible for the rash of increasingly savage killings that had been sweeping through Philadelphia for the last five years. James grimaced, tapping the morning paper with rigid fingers. A whisper, a rumor, a witness (mysteriously refusing to testify by the date of the trial)—these he had in spades. A few low-level informants. Or, like today's newspaper loudly proclaimed, a blood-soaked and mangled body, sprawled in a dark alley where Macaluso's men were known to frequent. But proof? That was something he was desperate for, something he had no real way of obtaining.

The familiar buzz of static that always preceded his receptionist's call drew Bridenn's from his thoughts. After a moment, Linnie's voice crackled over the line. "Sir, Sergeant Watson wishes to speak with you."

Sergeant Tom Watson. Chunky and balding, he looked every inch the mediocre, insignificant cop loved by anti-police dramas. In reality, he was one of Philadelphia's most effective men. "Thank you, Linnie. Send him in."

After a moment, the reinforced office door squeaked open, revealing Watson's rumpled figure. "Good morning, sir."

He sounded—cheerful. Almost ebullient, in fact. James scrutinized him in mild dismay. Even ignoring the grisly murder that Philly Metro detectives had been working all night to investigate, it was rare for Watson to display anything but intense focus. The occasional smirk, perhaps—but actual cheer? It was unnerving. After all these years of training and recruiting officers and detectives for undercover work, had the man finally cracked?

"Morning, Tom," Bridenn answered, unable to keep an uneasy note out of his voice. He really hoped the man had merely had a rollicking good time with his wife last night—though that was an image disturbing enough to make him wish he hadn't thought of it—or won the lottery, or discovered a source for latex gloves that would save Philadelphia PD thousands of dollars in needless rips. He couldn't afford to lose the valuable members of his department to such an unexpected foe as insanity. "How can I help you?"

"It's more how I can help you, sir." There was no doubt about it. Watson was practically bursting with excitement. Bizarre. "I received a request from one of our homicide detectives for an undercover assignment."

In general, something to be pleased about. But hardly life-altering enough to make Tom act like a girl on the night before prom. "Who?" Bridenn asked, curious.

When Watson answered, it was with the air of one unveiling a priceless gift. "Officer Anthony DiNozzo."

"DiNozzo?" The name was familiar, but it took Bridenn a moment to place it. After a moment, a hazy image of a young man with a wicked grin swam to mind. "Peoria transfer. Homicide division. I remember." Motioning for Tom to take a seat, James nodded to indicate he should go on.

He sat, but leaned forward towards me with an intensity that was every bit as characteristic as his excitement wasn't. "He's good, James. As an investigator, the kid's on fire. But as an undercover operative—I've wanted him ever since I did an interview with him when he first transferred from Peoria PD. I heard a few things about ops he did back there. He's only twenty-seven, but the kid's made for undercover work." Watson frowned, the expression pulling wrinkles across his florid brow. Bridenn eyed him curiously, but no explanation was forthcoming; after a moment, the other man shook it off. "Now he's offered. James, I swear, DiNozzo's got it all. Never seen anything like it."

"That's good to hear," Bridenn said slowly. "You have an assignment in mind?"

"He asked about Macaluso."

He'd been half expecting it, really. All the same, James found himself on his feet, flooded with adrenaline. He strode quickly over to the window, just for something to do.

"You think he can do it?" The words came out fast—almost too fast. His tongue didn't seem to be working right.

There was a smirk contained in his friend's response. "Oh, he can do it. If anyone can do it, it's DiNozzo. Speaks three languages, one of which is Italian. The kid is Italian. Doesn't give off a cop vibe at all. He's got enough cojones to take on the Chinese Army, but enough savvy to temper it. Born chameleon, too. He's perfect for Operation Hawkeye. Don't know about God, but somebody up there must like you, James. It's Christmas come early. All wrapped up in a shiny bow."

Elation was rising like a tidal wave, but Bridenn forced himself to ask. "Too shiny?"

A cryptic question at best. But Watson knew him well enough to guess at the meaning. "He won't turn, and he won't crack under the pressure, if that's what you mean, sir. DiNozzo's shiftless in his personal life, but when it comes to law enforcement, he's got an iron will."

Tom slapped a folder down on his superior's wide desk. "Take a look at it, James," he urged. "See what you think."

The soft sound of a door pulling shut signaled Watson's departure, but Bridenn still stood frozen by the window, his eyes unseeing as they tracked the movement of the cars below.

He would look at the folder, because it would be negligent to do otherwise. He'd try to remain impartial as he scanned through performance evaluations. He'd sift through recommendations and stories of bravery without allowing himself to be stirred by them. And mostly, he would try to forget how very young DiNozzo still was, because Bridenn already knew that the answer was yes.

God help him if he sent the kid to his death.


Shooting had always been cathartic.

Widening his stance, Tony DiNozzo took aim. Crack. The bullet ripped into his target's chest. Barely pausing to aim, Tony released again. One. Two. Three. Four. With each shot, he could feel himself relaxing further. Patterns. The steady rhythm of aim-fire-aim. They were more soothing than they ought to be, for a Detective who had seen precisely how much damage such a missile could inflict. But to Tony, guns meant safety as well as danger. A gun in the hands of a criminal meant death or coercion. A gun in the hands of someone else—a cop, a woman facing an assailant twice her size—could avert a crisis, or save a life.

At the moment, he'd rather see a thousand bullets than another knife wound. Tony's hand trembled just slightly as he pulled the trigger, but it was enough. The shot went wide, scoring the target's shoulder instead of its chest. Memories drifted before his eyes, crystal in their clarity, and for a moment the stench of blood and death filled his nostrils.

Get a hold of yourself, Anthony.

Thrusting further images of the morning's mutilated victim far from his mind, he fired in rapid succession. It shouldn't bother him so much. God knew he'd seen enough bloodshed since he first became a cop in Peoria. But even the sour-faced medical examiner Aaron had seemed queasy when examining Julia Municello's body. And he'd never seen her alive.

Tony had. God, she'd been a rough-edged thing, with overly tanned skin and a cigarette-hoarse voice, spewing obscenities like Tony spewed innuendos. A Mafia girl turned informant. They'd booked her two weeks ago, with the excuse of drug dealing charges—manufactured for convenience, but probably true. She'd been clean, though, and when—for reasons that he hadn't understood at the time—Tony had been assigned to hear her report, Julia had been delighted. She'd been looking forward to running roughshod over the young officer, no doubt, plying her sharp tongue and making him blush. In truth, if any young woman could have made him stumble, it was this one.

But there wasn't a woman alive who could intimidate Anthony DiNozzo.

The phrasing made him wince. Lowering his gun, he left the training grounds, ignoring the shouted phrase that followed him out. He didn't know what the officer had said, but he didn't have to; there would have been nothing complimentary about it. Unlike in Peoria, he'd never been popular here. Philly cops weren't looking for hotshot young investigators to tell them how to do their jobs—even when the suggestion was a polite one. And he had been polite, Tony assured himself virtuously. At first. If after the first few months (weeks) he'd been frustrated by their minimal (complete lack) of receptivity—well, he'd never been good at keeping his mouth shut.

Julia had been like him, that way. They'd sniped and flirted their way through the interview, staying just barely within the bounds of propriety. He'd enjoyed the game, and so had she, but when she turned to go there was something more in her eyes than lust and anger. Something that had made him both relieved and oddly sorry that there was no way they could ever get involved without ruining them both.

It added an extra twist to the bitterness. Tony closed his eyes, just for a moment, as he made his way into the parking lot, fighting off a wave of something that might have been grief. Vacant hazel eyes stared back at him from her pristine face—the only part of her not slashed, lacerated or covered in bruises. Or broken, DiNozzo, his mind taunted. Her pretty legs, snapped like twigs. Bone poking through her fragile copper skin…every finger shattered, one…by…one…by…one…

They'd wanted her identified. A message. She'd been made, no doubt. It was like all the rest of the Macaluso killings since he'd come to Philadelphia. The head, the face—untouched. The rest…not so much. Tony would know. Somehow, his team always was assigned the suspected Mafia cases.

The first case, he'd thought nothing of it. The second, he'd put down to coincidence. The third sent suspicion crawling through him; the fourth brought certainty. By the fifth, his partner was openly glaring at him, and he was wondering why he'd even bothered leaving Peoria in the first place.

But DiNozzos couldn't be out-stubborned. That was one of his father's rules, though an unspoken one—and one of the few rules Tony had actually managed to follow. So he'd gritted his teeth—taking solace in the fact that even gritted his teeth were still the nicest in the entire police force—and put his foot down. And hung on for dear life as brutal murder after brutal murder came down the pipeline.

After a while, as their closure rate went from the highest on the task force to the lowest, his partner—once a friend—stopped glaring. And started ignoring, instead. Which hurt more than Tony would ever admit.

He'd had enough of being ignored in his life.

In retaliation, he'd set his DiNozzometer from Mildly-Annoying-But-Charming (the default setting) all the way up to Impossibly-Irritating. (Tony stopped just short of Apoplexy-Inducing-Infuriating, because, frankly, he couldn't afford to get fired right now.)

Six official reprimands later, his partner had indeed stopped ignoring him.

The bodies, however, had kept coming. Combined with the now hellish situation that was his work environment, it was almost enough to make Tony give in. But no one, not even Sergeant Watson pulling strings, was going to force him into this.

Not after Peoria. Not after he'd seen how long-term undercover jobs could destroy someone. Not after Alicia.

But he'd be damned if he thought of that now. He was stronger than her, more experienced, with a whole hell of a lot less to lose. So what if he'd finally given in. He'd be alright.

He'd have to be.

Tugging on the door handle of his car, Tony sighed. He'd forgotten his keys. Or his partner, Keyes, had stolen them again. For an old fogy, he fought pretty dirty. Tony smacked the car in frustration. On a different day, he might feel obligated to give Keyes a little credit—for sheer obnoxiousness, if not for originality. But tonight? All he wanted was a shower, long and hot enough to forget that once Julia's skin had smelled like smoke and cinnamon instead of sweat and gore.

He really needed to have an extra set of keys made. Then he could just tell Keyes to keep the keys—appropriate, really. Perhaps, if he was itching for another reprimand, Tony could even tell him precisely where he could keep them. The idea was more tempting than it ought to be. Because, God he missed having a partner who actually gave a flying fig whether he made it home all right. Alicia would have driven him home, and found an excuse to hover until she was sure he wouldn't drink himself into a stupor.

"Hey, DiNozzo!"

Flinching violently, Tony whipped around, hand automatically brushing his gun. His green eyes met familiarly wry brown ones, and instantly he deflated. Running wobbly fingers through his perfectly arranged hair, Tony attempted a smile. For him, it was an utter failure. "Steve," he acknowledged.

"Gonna shoot me?" The words were teasing, but the expression on the burly man's face was concerned. "Getting jumpy. Were you this jumpy when you came here, because I gotta say, you seem like you're getting worse the longer you're in Philly."

"Trying to haze me?" Tony's voice was dry. It was hard not to like Steve. "Three people today have suggested I should go back to Peoria. Trying to join the ranks?"

"Yeah, like they need my help." Steve came to stand next to him, crossing his arms. At six foot six, he towered over the entire police force. "'Misplaced' your keys again, DiNozzo?"

"Must've dropped them by mistake," Tony said glibly. His grin was disarming, but he knew Steve would catch the ironic gleam in his eyes. "You know how it is. Can't help fiddling with my valuables over grates. Dangdest thing—"

"Oh, cut the crap," the other officer grumbled. "Like I don't know your partner's been taking them. I just don't know if he's doing it because he knows how much you love your car, or if he thinks the pun is funny. Gotta lame sense of humor, that one."

Since Tony had in fact thought the pun, at least, was funny, he wasn't sure how best to respond. Steve decided for him by continuing. "Why don't you complain?" He demanded, steering his friend away from the car with a forceful arm. Tony cast his Mustang a wistful look, but didn't resist. Fighting against the force of nature that was Steve Kraut, he had learned, was an exercise in futility.

"Good idea," Tony answered promptly. "I made a sandwich for lunch, but the bread was stale and the meat was kind of funny tasting. My favorite shampoo has been discontinued, and I've got to say, even hair this nice needs to be given its proper treatment. There was a cute blonde on the street today, with the shortest little skirt you ever saw, but I didn't get to flirt with her—"

As predicted, this litany had Steve rolling his eyes. "About Keyes, you moron."

"Oh, Keyes," Tony responded, face lighting up, as though the connection had only just occurred to him. "Well, that's a funny thing. I'm glad you asked that. You've reminded me of a question I had for you—"

"I don't know why I even bother," his friend sighed, pressing the unlock button on his own set of keys. His car's headlights flashed from across the parking lot. "Come on, Tony, I'm worried about you. Someday this hazing is going to turn into more than just hazing, and you know it."

"No, it won't," Tony disagreed, feeling more exhausted than he had in long time. "Steve. Not tonight."

Steve looked more than ready to argue, but something in Tony's face must have told what Tony couldn't bring himself to. Scowling, Steve shoved the smaller man towards the passenger door of his own car.

Tony sank in gratefully, closing his eyes as the car started. It felt so good to lie here, for once near someone he trusted. The car was musty, but it was a comforting scent. It lulled him, much like the thrumming of the engine.

It was a long time before Steve broke the silence. "Tony, are you sleeping?"

No, because sleep would mean oblivion—at least for a little while—and he was still thinking thoughts about Julia's death that he never wanted to think, ever again. But it was a whole lot easier to pretend he was asleep than to pull up his barriers against the older man again, so he said nothing.

A long and gusty sigh issued from Steve's corner. "You probably need it."

Silence stretched. Tony focused on keeping his breathing even, and tried to steel himself against the sympathy. If he came apart now…

He'd never be able to pull himself back together.

When Steve's voice came again, it was in tones so low Tony had to strain to hear it. "I don't know if you're really sleeping. I never have been able to tell with you. But I wanna say one thing, because this is probably the only time you'll shut up enough for me to get a word in edgewise. You're a good man. I can see that, even though you don't want me to. I don't know why you keep everyone at arm's length—though Philly can't have helped you with that—and it doesn't matter. But someday, Tony…someday you're going to meet a friend you can't run circles around. And they're going to see through that smoke screen of yours, to the man inside. I hope they can do a better job at helping you heal than I can, 'cause even I can see that you need it." The clicking of a turn signal interrupted his words. "God, you've got a lot of scars, kid."

Tony lay there, feeling like he'd been turned to stone, and wished with all his heart that his screw-ups weren't so very obvious. That he was as good of a man as Steve seemed to think he was. And mostly, that he had not been so stubborn, so selfish, so weak about refusing to help take down Macaluso that it had taken the death of a bright young woman to convince him to act.

Julia's cold, still face overlaid with Alicia's blood spattered one in his mind, and Tony wondered if it was possible to drown in regrets.


Chapter Notes: I know the show says Mancuso was a Mafia boss Tony took down in Baltimore. It does not, however, say that Mancuso was from Baltimore. Just trust me one this one—I need it this was for future plotlines, but it will be as technically canonical as possible! Also, I mean no offense to the hardworking cops of Philadelphia PD.

This is my first NCIS story—I'd love to hear what you think. Thoughts? Criticisms? Compliments? Bring 'em on. :)