Abby awoke in bliss. She stretched and luxuriated in the feel of silky sheets and a welcoming down pillow. Her own tastes ran to firmer mattresses, but it was impossible not to appreciate this decadent bed that felt like it was accepting your form, protecting you, surrounding you with sin.

The faint smell of Tony didn't hurt the situation, either. She inhaled again, too content to move.

A lone beam of sunlight filtered through the shutters to dapple patterns on the opposite wall, and her nose detected another delightful smell – breakfast.

She allowed another few minutes of uncomplicated happiness before reminding herself she had work to do, and a responsibility to herself, the victims, and Gibbs and Tony to get it done, to find them a clue that would nab their bad guy.

Then she got up. More accurately, she forced herself to roll out of bed onto the floor, as it was the only way she was going to escape from the wickedness that was DiNozzo's bed.

She laughed to herself as she crawled along the floor. Note to self: never describe Tony's bed to Gibbs unless I want him dead and gone.

She pushed herself up on the wall and threw the door open, wondering if now was an appropriate moment to try an herbal cigarette. As she took her first step from the bedroom towards the kitchen, the bathroom door opened and out popped DiNozzo.

A scantily clad DiNozzo.

Her new favorite kind.

He looked startled to see her, then adopted one of those not-quite-sleazy DiNozzo grins he was so good at as he started to edge back into the bathroom.

She gave him a toe-to-head look that she'd learned from watching guys hit on freshmen girls in college. It always discomfited the men she practiced it on.

Tony's feet were bare, toes flexing against the floor as he decided whether to retreat or not. His jeans were old, well-worn, and most importantly not buttoned. He had not donned a shirt yet, though a white towel hung around his neck, both ends covering his chest. Freshly-shaved pink cheeks led up to amused eyes covered by a raised brow, and messy, wet hair on top.

Too bad she couldn't play with him right now. They had work to do, and a Gibbs to obey. And she knew it would land her hopes of adding Tony to the team in the toilet if Gibbs thought anything hinky was going on between them.

She grabbed a corner of his towel, intending to steal it and snap him in the butt to get him moving towards the kitchen, but he grabbed hold of the other end, refusing to let go. She'd moved it enough, however, to see the bruises and damage he was hiding on his torso.

"Poor baby," she said quietly, registering the uncomfortable expression that caused. She pushed him back into the bathroom and yanked the towel off, throwing it into the tub. With one hand splayed across his chest to keep him in place, leaning against the bathroom counter, she rooted around in his medicine cabinet with the other to pull out some supplies.

He tried to dodge around her, but stood still after she made it known he'd have to use physical force to budge her. Because he seemed so embarrassed and discomfited by her ministrations, she tried a Gibbs technique he might be more at ease with. "You know," she said conversationally as she started in with the antibiotic ointment, "it's really not a good idea to hide any injuries or personal health problems from the team. Ducky'll just figure it out anyway, and he can help with most things, so you might as well let him."

She attacked him with gauze next. "Gibbs needs to know the state of all his team members, so he can know what to expect from us. Plus he doesn't need to figure anything out, he'll just know and if you don't tell him, you'll just piss him off."

Tearing strips of white medical tape off and gently using them to secure her ministrations, she added, "I'm not as magical as Gibbs, and I don't have Ducky's medical training. But if you don't tell me when you get hurt, Tony," she finished and put both hands on his face, pulling it towards her, "I. Will. Kill. You."

"Okay?" she added cheerfully.

"Okay," he said quickly, and with the appropriate amount of fear.

"Good," she accepted, "so what did you make me for breakfast?"

"Baked sausage and hash. Hope you like peppers." That was her DiNozzo, quick on his feet.

"Sounds excellent," she enthused as they walked out to the kitchen, Tony pulling on a shirt as he went.

And just like that, he returned to a normal banter, all traces of physical or emotional discomfort banished.

She'd have to keep an extra special eye on this one.

He pulled the egg mixture out of the oven and started dishing out huge portions, and her stomach rumbled. Rudely, she dug in standing up and before he'd finished dishing out his own plate.

"Yum," was all she managed between bites. It was fantastic – eggs and hashbrowns and sausage and peppers and who knew what else all mixed up into a weird kind of baked omelet.

He gave her one of those rare, real smiles, which she suspected had little to do with her appreciation of his culinary skills, when his new phone rang.

"DiNozzo," he answered, mouth full.

His swallow was labored as he listened, agreed, and hung up. He discarded his plate.

"Time to get dressed, Abby. I'll drop you at the station. If you can hang around for a few hours, we'll have new evidence for you."

"From a new case?" She didn't want the answer to be yes.

"From a new case," he agreed. His eyes said he hadn't wanted the answer to be yes, either.

Quietly they finished getting ready to greet the day. Breakfast, as it so often was in their line of work, lay a casualty of their careers, forgotten on the counter as they darted out the door.

Tony approached the scene with every bit of nonchalance he could muster. He tuned in to the part of him that was ready to take in and observe, ready to use this next death as a tool to stop the killer, to prevent more deaths. His face presented a calm professional interest that his furious eyes did not betray, as they were hidden behind shades.

He ducked under the yellow crime scene tape, holding his badge up unnecessarily for a uniform who recognized him, then walked the inside perimeter before approaching the body and crouching to take in the view.

Tucked in a small corner of the courtyard was a wooden bench with a small metal "In Memoriam" plaque for someone who must have loved this quiet courtyard and its nod towards nature in the middle of the city.

In front of the bench, on a small stone patio, the newest victim sprawled indelicately on his back. His arms were stretched out and up, as though he had been flailing to find a weapon, an anchor to secure himself to, a hiding place to keep the monster away, anything for a hand to hold on to.

His legs jutted out from a flattened stomach, intent on running away, finding purchase, kicking away death.

All four limbs had found no brace, no substance. They died reaching, but not finding.

Dispassionately, DiNozzo removed his sunglasses and studied the abdomen, which looked as though a very strong giant with a massively heavy rolling pin had tried to flatten this man, starting with his middle. Broken ribs stuck out jaggedly in all directions, like candles on a melting birthday cake.

With strawberry icing, Tony thought, noting the pink frost left by the cold, clear day that covered the sticky pools of blood.

The giant roller had encountered problems with the shoulder blades, which were more dented than pancaked.

The head was untouched by any tool, but more gruesome for being in such a grisly state without the alteration of man-made instruments. His tongue stuck out of his mouth, purple and engorged, as if forced out when guts crammed into an unnatural place, expelling the tongue from its rightful home.

His eyes were squeezed shut, frozen tears streaking down the sides of his face, tracks of pure white that stood out in stark contrast to the pale gray-purple of his dead skin.

Tony had a solid stomach for this job. Smells got to him sometimes, just for a moment, but visuals he could catalog, often process with little damage to himself, or at least set aside until later, until he was alone, until the case was solved.

This visual wasn't any different in that regard. He could store this repulsive mental snapshot for future nightmares and go about his job.

But the knowledge. The knowledge ate at him. That this man did not have to die this beyond horrifying death. That Tony should have saved him. Should have stopped the maniac doing this.

This man's death was his fault.

His breakfast rebelled in his stomach, mixing with acid and slowly bubbling up his throat with little acid-breakfast burrito bubble pops like toxic soap bubbles floating through his insides.

Standing up straight, DiNozzo fought to stand tall and not stumble back. He meant to turn around and go back to the perimeter, to call for the forensic techs and grab his own gear, but the first step he took was backwards, still facing the victim. To turn away from him was more cowardly than anything.

He backed into a hand that clamped around his shoulder, and turned in surprise, his hands low but ready for action. They dropped when Gibbs' face came into view, and kept dropping, eventually hanging loosely at his sides.

He cursed his lack of control. He didn't need Gibbs to think he was weak.

Then Gibbs caught his eye, and a wave of anger flashed out from Tony's gut, gaining speed as it poured out his gaze.

He'd allowed this special agent to work on the Collins case. He'd agreed to partner up. He'd opened up himself and this case, shared all he had with these federal agents, these people who were supposed to have more training, more resources, more everything.

And what had it gotten him?

More dead ends.

"Not your fault, DiNozzo." Gibbs hand squeezed his shoulder briefly, then fell away.

Tony's anger dissipated into the pink frost below as he finally registered Gibbs' own expression, saw the tautness at the corners of the agent's eyes, the sterner than normal line of his mouth.

Gibbs felt responsible, too.

And neither of them standing here feeling sorry for themselves was going to get them closer to catching this bastard and stopping the next murder. So, falling back on training, Tony presented the case.

"Unknown male, approximately forty, found dead in the courtyard by a woman from one of the surrounding buildings taking her dog out for a walk at six this morning. No one touched the body as it was deemed unnecessary to check for a pulse."

"How'd the call come to you?"

Shrugging, Tony said, "Pays to keep friends in dispatch. They've been keeping an ear out for cases that might fit my profile for a while now, throwing me what cases they could."

"Captain still trying to convince everyone you're crazy?"

"Good thing he's as ineffectual as he is or this would've been even harder." His jaw flexed as his teeth ground together. "Not that I've done any good."

The slap to the back of his head was no longer so surprising. "Don't say stupid things. Get to work."

Gibbs refused to let anyone else near the scene, meaning Tony and Gibbs had to bag all the forensic evidence themselves. Since they were waiting for Ducky to arrive before moving the dead guy, it meant they also had the continued dubious company of the horrific corpse.

"This one's different," Gibbs said abruptly.

Tony looked up from placing a golden Werther's wrapper in an evidence bag, sparking some teasing connection in the back of his brain that his conscious couldn't quite access. "Yeah. No strangulation first, I'd say. Killed him with the crushing this time."

Gibbs nodded. "Seems angry."

Tony paused as the implication took hold. "Maybe he just had a bad day," he said slowly.

"Probably. Could mean we got close at some point, too."

DiNozzo exhaled a long, soft breath. It could. It really could.

Neither man dared speak additional hopeful statements. It was a jinx waiting to happen. Instead, they moved around each other, Gibbs explaining in short statements how NCIS agents ran a scene without forensic techs. He took photos while DiNozzo bagged evidence, then switched and bagged some himself, letting the detective sketch the scene.

It was an odd atmosphere to work in. Appalling, check. Guilt-inducing, check. Cautiously hopeful, check. Comfortable, check.

And it was comfortable, DiNozzo mused. They were accomplishing something that needed to be done, and working together with no heads butting, no disagreements as to what should be done, no egos clashing. They simply took each small task one by one, trading jobs and staying out of each other's way with ease.

Ducky's arrival roused Tony from his musings, and he stood up to greet the doctor, grateful that his knee was healing quickly and allowing all these bending and rising motions without much complaint.

As he walked to the mouth of the courtyard, his eye caught on a familiar figure across the street.

Unfortunately, the figure also caught sight of DiNozzo, and took off running.

Since he could hardly sneak up on the guy anyway, Tony shouted, "Hey, slimeball! Baltimore PD. Stop or I'm coming after you!" as he took off running. If nothing else, it should alert Gibbs to his intentions.

Ah, action, he reveled as he barreled down the slippery sidewalk. Nothing beats it.

Gibbs rushed past a startled Ducky as he watched a bizarrely familiar scene unfold. However, whereas he had quietly pursued his mysterious figure staring at the crime scene the other night, DiNozzo apparently thought loud yelling and pounding feet would be a better option.

He growled as he took off in hot pursuit, figuring either the detective's bum knee or bruised ribs would slow him down before long.

Gibbs wasn't often wrong, but his time he was undoubtedly so.

DiNozzo added more speed as he went around a street corner ahead, yelling, "Hey asshole, the gingerbread man got eaten in the end, you know!" He seemed to have plenty of breath for yelling out random little taunts as he jetted down the next street, jumping over debris in his path with legs whirling like pistons.

A whoop filtered back from the detective as he skidded on an icy patch, regained his balance while hurdling over a busy road, and was nearly crushed by a big blue Blazer in the process.

Gibbs made a mental note to keep the kid exercised in the future. Apparently he needed the endorphins. And apparently those endorphins were good stuff, because he was pulling even further away from a better-rested, healthier Gibbs.


Ahead, DiNozzo was closing the distance between himself and his suspect. Foot by foot, he narrowed the space until suddenly he gleefully yelled, "The Dread Pirate Roberts takes no survivors!" and leapt onto the potentially psychopathic murder's back.

The two rolled down the sidewalk, at first appearing like a whirling dervish of limbs, but soon DiNozzo gained control of the roll and pinned the other man to the ground, then wrested his arms behind his back as Gibbs caught up.

"Hello, Glenn," Tony greeted the tattoo artist.