Abby and the Pirate King

by scousemuz1k

"Let me see if I've got this straight," Tony said heavily. "You're playing the hero."

Abby beamed. "That's right."

"You play a man, called Dick Whittington."

"They don't really say man," Abby said patiently. "The role is called 'Principal Boy'. Always played by a girl. It's what they do in Pantomime."

"O-Kay... and the Principal Boy's mother... your mother... is played by a man."

"Exactly! It's called the 'Dame' role, and lots of really famous English actors have done it in their time, Tony, it's fun!"

"Indeed it is," Ducky agreed, gesturing so enthusiastically with his tea cup that he almost knocked his glasses off. They both looked at him, surmising. Had Ducky...?

Ducky smiled benignly but he wasn't saying. "The Pantomime has been a traditional part of Christmas in England for many, many years. The real Dick Whittington was a wealthy merchant who became Lord Mayor of London; he wasn't of lowly birth as the popular story goes, and there's no proof that he ever had a cat -"

"Wait, wait, wait," Tony said frantically, looking at the door of the coffee shop and wishing he was sitting nearer to it, "Where does lowly birth and a cat come into it?" He looked from one to the other of his friends rather wildly. "Do I really want to know?"

Abby looked at Ducky with another beaming smile and left him to explain, and since he was there to reinforce her efforts to get Tony's co-operation, he was as succinct as possible. "The Pantomime version of the tale is that this poor young man went to London to seek his fortune, and his cat proved to be such a wonderful mouser that eventually it sailed with him to an eastern kingdom and rid it of a plague of them. Dick was richly rewarded, in spite, I must say, of the cat having done the work; returned and became prosperous, and was elected to the illustrious position of Lord Mayor."

"Well... that's very... er... noble," Tony said dubiously, "But it doesn't sound funny. You said funny, Abs," he added slightly desperately.

"Well, yes, it is, Tony! They tell the whole story with songs, and dances,and ham dialogue with terrible jokes, and audience participation! Like, you wave your sword at me, and yell 'I'll skewer you, Whittington,' and the audience all boo, and I tell you that you're the most wicked pirate I've ever met, and you say 'Oh no I'm not', and all the children yell 'Oh yes you are', and you keep it up until they're hoarse then wave your sword at them again to make them shut up."

"I get a sword to wave?"

Abby nodded, eyes dancing.

"I'll do it. Do I get to sing?"

"Of course you do, Tony!" She fumbled about in her crimson satin reticule. "Here's your song."She produced a sheet of music, rather squashed by the drawstring of the bag, and handed it to him.

Tony scanned it, sang a bit under his breath and looked up in horror, "'I'm nasty... I'm rotten... let it never be forgotten...' Can I change my mind?"

"Of course not, Tony, I've already told the nuns you'll do it. You'll be wonderful. The Pirate King role could have been written for you!" She winked at the waitress, who brought him another cup of coffee. Patting his shoulder reassuringly, she stood up. "I'll leave you here to read the whole script," she said kindly. "You'll see, it'll be such fun!"

As she swept out, her victim looked helplessly up at the ME, who had also stood. "What have I done, Ducky?"

"Oh, nothing fearful, Anthony! Apparently Sister Imelda, who hails from Manchester – that's Manchester, England... thought it would be fun to introduce the parishioners to a fine English comic tradition. And you are a natural comic, you know."

Tony gave him an old fashioned look, but he grinned to rob his words of offence. "Ha. Did Abby put you up to that?"

The wise old man smiled gently. "Well, she couldn't have done if I hadn't agreed with her, dear boy." He became thoughtful. "Our work has given us all rather a rough time lately, the summer was especially rough on you, I think. Abigail knows that, and she cares for you. My advice? Go with the flow. You'll enjoy it."

He bustled out after Abby, leaving Tony staring unseeing at the folder in front of him, thinking about Ducky's words. Why had he phrased it that way? Abby cares for you... why hadn't he simply saidsomething more vague,like about you... he shook himself. That wasn't a wise line of thought to follow, and he'd been following it too much lately. He took a gulp of his coffee, opened the folder and began to read.

Abby stood waiting for Ducky as he hurried to catch her up, a slightly pensive smile on her face.

"Well, Abigail, what are you thinking? Are you having second thoughts?"

"No, Ducky... no, I'm not. When Shane realised it was his brother's wedding the same weekend, and he couldn't do it, and we'd already been rehearsing for weeks, I thought of Tony immediately. No... it's just funny that it was promising him a sword that persuaded him. I'd say he's just a big kid, but you know I've never been one to dismiss Tony by what's on the surface..."

"Ah, yes," the ME mused. "You know William Wordsworth himself said 'The child is father of the man...' That's true indeed of a man like Anthony, who brought himself up -"

"I know, Ducky – that's one of the reasons I love him! I just wonder what he was thinking at that moment."

Ducky spared a moment to wonder exactly what she meant; he suspected things were changing, but didn't consider that he should comment. "Well, my dear, I think he's confided more in you than anyone else over the years, and I also venture to think that you know more about his childhood – such as it was – than most people. I think perhaps he has a fondness now for childish ways because he was never allowed them then... but I don't doubt you'll ask him when the time's right."

Abby's eyes were still wistful. "You can bet on that, Duck-man." She looked back at the coffee shop, where Tony sat with his cup frozen half-way to his mouth, eyes riveted to the script, and a smile creeping unwillingly onto his lips. She suppressed a smile of her own – he was hooked.

Gibbs didn't insult his SFA's intelligence by telling him the job came first.

Sitting on his favourite step in Gibbs' basement, Tony had tried out a few of the most excruciating jokes from the script, figuring that if he could raise a smile from the Bear he could raise one from anyone, and yes... there was the grin, as reluctant as his own had been, but there. He leapt to his feet and executed a few sharp fencing manoeuvres, one of only a very few times he'd ever been glad of that long series of lessons his father made him take.

"I can do it, Boss." Gibbs said nothing, but waited. "I want to do it. Abby wants me to do it." He laughed. "She says I'll shine!" He shrugged wryly. "She's the one who'll do that... I'm worried about committing myself though... anything can go wrong in this job."

"Ya telling me, DiNozzo?" His tone was rueful rather than sharp, and now Tony waited, knowing more was coming. Gibbs put a tarnished brass cleat and a cleaning pad into his hand. "You wanna shine? Start now." Tony grinned. "I'll make sure we're off rotation that weekend. Put in for some leave if it helps... Beyond that, for your practices – do my best. Can't promise."

And he would, Tony knew. His smile lit the basement. "Thanks, Boss! Hey, I can hear it now... 'Where's your Senior Field Agent, Gibbs?' 'Oh, he's rehearsing a pantomime, Director.' 'Very funny, Gibbs. Where is he really – no, on second thoughts, I don't want to know.'"

"Ya gonna stand there yacking, or start shining?"

A soft silence fell as they worked, and if Tony noticed the faraway look that sometimes came into his mentor's eyes, (and he did,) he said nothing. Gibbs was indeed far away in place and time, sitting in a darkened theatre, his seven year old daughter sitting between him and his wife, shining-eyed, mesmerised by the unfolding of The Nutcracker ballet, with its Christmas sparkle and spectacle.

Maybe one day he'd have taken her to see a pantomime... Well, he sure wasn't going to spoil DiNozzo's efforts to give other children that experience – not least the child within Tony.

He wondered why it all had to be so damn difficult...

He'd refused bourbon or even a beer, the night he'd got Gibbs' blessing on the idea, as he'd wanted to spend an hour at home before he turned in, memorising his lines. He'd spent the next lunch break enduring enthusiastic ridicule from Ziva and Tim, as he dutifully recited his words. They were happy to help.

"'Not so fast, presumptuous boy! Hands off the jewels!'"

"Er... you have to say that to Abby?" McGee was revelling in his chance for a bit of sweet revenge.

Ziva chimed in, "Tony, I thought this show was for children? A family show, no?" She made air quotes.

Tony assumed a put-upon air, and said patiently, "Well, the parents are allowed a double-entendre or two... Anyway, the next bit explains it. Er... Dick says er... 'Hands off the jewels?'" Tim only half suppressed a snort. "And I say... 'They're mine... just like this island's mine'... er... do I say 'mine, I tell you'? OK, then, 'and no wilful, wet nosed weakling whipper-snapper will whisk them away!'"

Ziva winced. "Tony if you say that you will drown the people on the front row!"

"As long as they die laughing," he replied stoutly, although he was beginning to doubt that he had the stamina for this. Gibbs had laughed with him; was he just being kind? Ducky had said he was a natural comic... but hey, he was on Abby's side. He buried a sigh... he didn't mind being ribbed, but this wasn't, one – getting the script learnt, or two – doing anything for his confidence.

The folder was plucked out of Tim's hand.

"Of course they will, Tony. But you mustn't let Tim or Ziva see any more of it... it's got to be a surprise when they come to see it! We'll make sure they get front row seats!"

Tony tried not to see the twin looks of horror on his tormentors' faces, but they were hard to miss. "Er... Abs, I don't think they want to come, so don't worry about it."

"Of course they're coming. So's Gibbs... and Ducky and Jimmy and Bree, and Mrs. Vance is bringing her children..."

So here he was, sitting in his car outside the Parish Hall in a complete funk. One of Abby's most endearing and infuriating traits was her ability to expect the impossible. It would happen, whatever it was, because it simply wouldn't dare not to. And once she knew one thing would happen, she simply added more. Of course; why ever not?

And he, adoring the girl as he did, in a brotherly way of course,would move heaven and earth, turn himself inside out, catch a falling star to make it happen... except just now he felt more like he was more like shooting himself in the foot. Got any more cliches, DiNozzo? he snarled as he dragged himself out of the car.

He followed the sounds of animated voices, and stood in the doorway of the hall, hesitating, looking down towards the stage at the far end. Come on, how difficult can it be?

He saw Abby down near the stage, crossing the room to speak to a black youngster of about thirteen who was standing with his back to her. He observed her lay a light hand on the boy's arm to get his attention, and as he turned, she signed something to him. Tony tried to read it, but it was too fast, as was the boy's reply, and he wished he were better at it. Abby had taught him bits, but there was never enough time in their lives. There he went again... thinking of them in that way... like, together...he couldn't have said when it had started, but it had to stop. The boy glanced in his direction, signed 'look', and pointed.

"To-neee..." Abby's yell was, of course, heard all over the room, so instead of being able to sneak in inconspicuously, he found his arrival announced to the entire gathering, and he soon found himself surrounded by people all introducing themselves at once. He'd never remember them all...

Sister Imelda, ("Oh, just call me Mel,") the director, tall, intelligent and managing to look arty somehow, even in a community nun's no-nonsense habit. Shauna, the heroine, young, pretty and lively. Dom, middle aged, gravel-voiced, exceedingly masculine; the Dame. Cameron, around twenty, art student; designer, set builder, props man, special effects, dogsbody, Shauna's boyfriend by the looks of things. Couple of kids, each looking as if the world revolved around the other one. Sweet. What the hell has gotten into you, DiNozzo?

OK so far... everyone friendly, except...

Jason, who looked him up and down without bothering to conceal his disdain, and who shoved the deaf kid out of the way to do it. Another youth whose name he didn't get, who hovered in Jason's shadow. Other people, and by now Tony was really struggling to remember them all; he'd ask Abby later. In the mean time he didn't like how the skinny boy had been pushed to the edge of things. He towed Abby through the huddle, and said, "And who's this?"

Abby looked at the boy as she answered. "This is Ash, he's Tiddles, my cat."

Tiddles... the boy grinned broadly at Tony's wince, and signed 'hello'. Tony signed back, and said apologetically, "I don't know much," hoping that Abs would relay it, but Ash signed 'I lip-read.,' which the agent got. He returned the grin. "Well that's good, Ash, cuz it takes care of me talking to you... guess you'll have to show me how to listen when you talk back."

Ash mouthed 'OK', made a thumbs up, and pointed to a small whiteboard and pen lying on a chair nearby. He signed 'You speak, I'll write'.

"Fine," Tony said cheerfully, happy to have made one friend so quickly. "But Abby will have to teach me to sign better. So what does Tiddles do, then?" He was astonished at the answer.

Ash held up a finger; 'Watch'. He bent at the waist, and laid his palms flat on the floor, then stood on tiptoe so his back was arched like a croquet hoop. Or were they square? Never mind, just watch, DiNozzo. The boy then pushed his hands up again so that just his fingertips were on the ground, and took tiny tip-toed and tip-fingered steps like a cartoon cat. He stopped and flipped his heels up to come over into a back-bend, then went into a series of backflips, came upright, stuck his right leg straight up by his ear, held it with his hand and hopped around in circles on his other foot.

As Tony and Abby applauded, Ash swept an imaginary plumed hat off his head and bowed exaggeratedly. The smile was wiped from the agent's face as he heard a muttered "Show off", and turned to see Jason giving the boy gymnast the same sneer he'd been on the receiving end of himself. Tony gave him a long, level look; the young man looked surprised that he'd been overheard, broke eye-contact and walked away. Tony wondered how many other insults he'd dealt out, secure in the knowledge that Ash couldn't hear him. Hmm... whatever bug had flown up his ass, that one would bear watching.

Ash touched his arm, and held his pad out. 'Tk no notice... he's jerk."

Tony didn't like the 'sound' of that. "Ash," he asked with a frown, "Does he bother you?"

The boy pulled a face and made a derisive gesture, then signed at length, and Abby spoke for him. "He tries. When no-one's looking. He hasn't a chance. He's older and bigger, but I'm faster – and smarter. He'll never catch me. He wanted the Pirate King part when Shane dropped out. He's not good enough, and he's sulking." The boy ended with a huge grin, which spread to Abby's face as well; not, however to Tony's.

"Ash, people like him tend to get worse if they're not stopped. Does he bully anyone else?"

Ash signed 'yes', and scribbled 'Kids + Marv, shadow. Me most. Freak. No prob. I tk care self.'

"That what he says?"

'Yes.'

"Ash, you're nothing like a freak. He bothers you, or Marv, or anyone else, you tell me."

Ash gave him a huge smile, mouthed OK and signed some more.

Abby frowned. "Are you sure?" Ash shook his head, and signed again. "Tony, Ash says some of the other kids told him Jason does drugs. He's never seen it himself, but that's what they say. If it's true," and she 'd pulled the two of them into a huddle and was whispering, "the nuns need to know. They work so hard to keep things like that out of the community, so the kids can grow up safe... I've never seen him on anything, but what if -"

"Don't worry about it, either of you. We'll keep an eye on the situation. If we need -"

Sister Imelda clapped her hands and called for silence. "All right, everyone, let's get started shall we? We're really happy that we've found a new Pirate King, so we're going to go from the beginning of scene four where he appears for the first time, so that Tony can find his feet."

There were murmurs of approval, except from Jason who snorted, and Tony, who went pale and had to fight down a lurching heart and a roiling stomach. It shouldn't be this difficult...

"Aw," Jason said as he walked past, "Is the poor newbie nervous?" It was either pin him to the wall or do nothing.

Things went from bad to worse. He stumbled over his opening monologue, although he knew it well, and panic kept making his mind go blank. He tried to steal a look at his script, but only succeeded in dropping it.

Mel stood in the wings, looking calm and not at all upset by his ineptitude. She smiled placidly. "Start again, luv," she said. "We all feel like this when we begin."

So Tony started again, and stumbled again, and although he was aware of the tall nun's silent support, he was more aware of Jason sitting in front of the stage, arms folded, legs stuck out, muttering helpful comments like "Shane wouldn't have forgotten his lines", and "I thought they said this guy could act". Tony knew very well he shouldn't be rattled by it, he'd never had any trouble with acting before... how many times had he been undercover? – and if it had only been the young man's unpleasantness he'd have not given a damn... but Abby had said he could do this, and he was letting her down...

Two things happened. Just as he thought of her, she came up close to the front of the stage. "Throw your script down here, Tony," she advised. "Rely on prompts if you forget, and free yourself up to start acting." He smiled wryly and took her advice, and just as he was about to toss the well-thumbed document down to her, he looked beyond her to see Ash standing silently behind Jason's chair, smiling up at him and making bunny ears, the light palms of his dark hands perfect for the purpose.

His best friend and his new friend... bless them both. He grinned broadly, lobbed the script down to Abby, and became the Pirate King.

By the time he got to the end of his opening speech, a fine rant about how Davy Jones's treasure was hidden on this island, and how nobody was going to stop him from finding it, his roaring, coupled with maniacal laughter and pointing an imaginary sword at an imaginary audience, had got him a real one. Audience, that was, not sword. He saw that people who'd been busy doing other things stopped to watch, which gave him confidence – suddenly it wasn't difficult any more; even better, Abby was looking up at him with mild astonishment and huge pride. Jason was nowhere to be seen.

Tony forced his attention back to the stage. Having spent most of his life acting out as a juvenile attention seeker, he was staggered at how much he really was loving all this positive feedback – and he'd like to have gone on receiving that look from Abby for ever and a bit, but it was time for his two scurvy pirate henchmen to enter. Like him, they came from stage left – another bit of rather interesting information imparted by Ducky was that baddies always came from the left, which represented hell, and the goodies from the heavenly right. As Billy Bones and Rusty Rumpot made their entrance, he saw that Billy Bones was Jason. If he hadn't already been there, the Pirate King went into total concentration mode. Might as well expect trouble.

"'Where've ye been, ye lazy lubbers?'"

Billy Bones was supposed to reply 'We been sleeping, Cap'n', so that he could reply 'Sleeping? Slumbering? Snoozing? Snoring?' and go off into another piratical rant about lazy sailors, but Jason deliberately miscued him by saying 'catching some sleep' instead of 'sleeping', and waited for him to stumble again.

"'Catching some sleep? Counting sheep? Cutting the zees? Catnapping? Comatose?'" Tony went on without batting an eyelid. He spoke his lazy sailor lines, then winked at the audience and said in an English milord voice, "It's impossible to get good staff these days." The audience hooted.

The actor playing Rusty, who Tony hadn't actually been introduced to yet, suppressed a grin, and went on with his part. Jason glowered but didn't step out of line again. As they left the stage at the end of their scene, Mel said cheerfully, "I do believe I like that better than the original. Leave it in if you like." Jason stalked off without a word.

Tony kept an eye on him throughout the rest of the evening; he didn't try anything with young Ash, but the agent noticed that although the other young man, Marv, his shadow as Ash had called him, didn't seem to be very happy in Jason's company, he never strayed far away from him. If he did, or looked as if he was happy talking to someone else, a jerk of the head from Jason would bring him obediently back.

Abby came over and linked her arm through his, and he found himself leaning into her touch. "They like you, Tony! I told you you'd be good, and you are... what are you looking at? Oh..." She followed Tony's glance and understood. "That is not good, is it? The nuns are always keen to make people welcome and give them a whole load of chances, but Jason doesn't appreciate that. He loves acting, and he wants the star parts, but he won't work hard enough to memorise, and anyway he's always just Jason, no matter what part he tries. I wish Marv was brave enough to -"

"Ssh, Abs, don't worry. I'm on it." She gave him a look in which trust conflicted with doubts about the situation. "I can see what he's doing," Tony went on. "He keeps Marv close because if he's not there, no-one else'll talk to him."

"That's his own fault, Tony... it's not as if we haven't tried!"

"I get that too, Princess." Ow, slip of the tongue. She's noticed, too. Stop looking at me like that, Abs... "Sometimes being kind works, but -"

"But some people you just can't get through to," Abby interrupted earnestly. "He's just not a nice guy."

"I'm on it."

"But Tony..."

There you go again, Abs... someone's in trouble, we fix, no problem... He held a finger up in front of her face and she crossed her eyes. "Abby. I'm. On. It." The doubt was beaten; she looked at him with complete trust, and for some reason his heart almost burst.

On the stage the action had returned to scene one; Tony watched and grinned. Three teenagers who were apparently a judge and two bailiffs, Messrs. Sue, Grabbitt and Runn, were going through their song and dance routine about evicting Dame Pattie Pudding from her humble cottage:

'Your purse'll be so empty it rattles -

We've got your goods and we'll come back for your chattels.

We'll leave you grovelling in the dirt -

We'll take your trousers and come back for your shirt.

O-o-o-oh Sue, Grabbitt and Runn,

Making you miserable's so much fun,

Sue, Grabbitt and Runn,

You'll be shivering in your skivvies before we're done...'

Dom, rather incongruously in his street clothes, was wringing his hands and sobbing like a dotty old lady, and it was time for Abby's first entrance. Tony had looked forward to seeing her in action, but had only managed to watch for about five minutes before he found himself set on by two determined looking ladies.

One was white haired with a twinkle in her eye and told him outright that she was Wynn, and she wanted to get him into the back room where it was quiet. He might have been alarmed, but he realised this was the very expert pianist who'd just been playing for the song, so he just smiled.

"There's an old piano in the back, Tony; if you want to have a go with me at your song, just let me know when we've both got a mo, so I can make sure we're in a key that suits you, and you can show me the speed you prefer. It's my job to see you're comfortable." He thanked her sincerely, and turned politely to the other lady, a vision in rainbow coloured ruffles, to find her eyeing him up and down from head to foot as if trying to decide whether he'd taste best with custard or ice cream.

"Anthony," she breathed dramatically, shaking her huge turquoise earrings, "So glad I could catch you, deah. I'm Rowena, the wardrobe Queen Bee..." she accompanied the statement by a fluttering gesture with her hands, and Tony could hear the capital letters; "Now, about your costume... " She threaded her arm through his in a very familiar manner that reminded him sharply of Abby a few moments ago, except that he'd enjoyed Abby's touch, and began to steer him towards the back door that Wynn had indicated.

Up on the stage, Abby, half way through 'Don't worry, dear Mummy, I'll' (giving thigh a lusty slap in best Principle Boy style) 'get the money to save our ho...' trailed off indignantly as they went by. Tony gave her a weak, apologetic, help!grin.

It was a long scene, introducing Tiddles the Cat, and making plans to seek their fortune, and when Abby got down from the stage, as Mel called a break for hot drinks and sticky buns, it was with perfect timing; she found Tony backing out through the dressing room door with Rowena pursuing him with a tape measure.

"But deah, I really have to make the trousers a close fit -"

"Not that close, Ma'am -"

"I told you deah, do call me Rowena..."

"Rowena, if they were skin tight I couldn't move on stage, and I'm supposed to dance. Now – Abby!" The relief in his tone would have been enough to offend the wardrobe mistress if she hadn't lived in a world of her own. As it was, the proprietary way the Principle Boy draped herself round the Villain's neck made her back off uncertainly. Her glare would have boiled a lemon-and-lime slushie.

"Oh. Well... er... we'll talk more next week, deah..." Abby steered him firmly away.

"You look shell-shocked, DiNozzo." The indignation was gone; there was a glimmer of wicked amusement in her eyes as she steered him to a seat against the wall.

"She wants me to grow some stubble... how am I to do that with Gibbs around?"

Abby looked at him consideringly. "A day or two should do it, Tony. Gibbs will understand... I'll talk to him!"

Tony winced. The unstoppable Abby again... "She wants me to wear a poet shirt with big lacy cuffs..."

His companion sighed with pleasure."That sounds good!"

"Open to the waist."

"Oooh..."

"Abby!"

"OK... what else?"

"Well, big leather Captain Hook boots, and a leather bandolier to hang my sword on..."

"Tony, you will look luscious in leather!"

"But..." he pleaded, "the tight pants... deep green velvet she says... Abs, I don't want my manhood crushed beyond rescue! These things are important to a guy... Nor do I want my trousers to split and exhibit the DiNozzo ass – or anything else – to the whole room!"

"No," Abby purred. "It's not for sharing..."

Tony blinked – things were getting surreal. Sciuto didn't want to share – had ownership rights on his ass? "She wanted to measure my inside leg, Abby! That's when I decided to make a run for it!" He looked at her with big sad eyes, trying to get back to their type of normal. "You were supposed to come and rescue me," he told her plaintively.

Abby took his hands. "Tony... I promise I'll never leave you alone with her again...I'll protect you!" For a moment her eyes twinkled as she teased, then she took a deep breath. "Look... Rowena's batty as Dracula's grandma, and believe me, she's not getting near you, but she knows exactly what'll make people look their best on stage. Particularly sexy men."

"I'm a sexy man?" (He tried not to read too much into that; she often said it, as friends do. He tried not to read anything into the sudden wave of fierce possessiveness either.)

She looked him straight in the eye, in that challenging way he never used to mind before. "Oh... seriously hot, DiNozzo. A lusty, luscious sexy man – in leather." She changed tack in an Abby sort of way. "But hey... believe it or not, she'll take heed of what you said about dancing, and she won't make the pants too tight – particularly," she added darkly, "as she's going to have to guess your measurements... She can always ask me. Anyway, I'd say it's more the sword you have to worry about."

He seized on the resting point in his brainstorm of crazy emotions. "The sword? Oh, you mean spitting someone accidentally if I turn too fast? Maybe I shouldn't wear one? Damn..."

"Heck no, Mister!" Abby was indignant. She stood up and glared at him, arms akimbo. "They'll just have to learn to avoid it." She paused, and tried not to make her next remark sound too leading. "I think it was the sword that convinced you to do the part! Were you thinking of a movie? When you said you'd do it?"

Her friend thought for a moment. "No," he said finally, his eyes distant. "I don't think I was." He brightened for a moment. "Although I... just might allow myself to imagine being Fairbanks, or Flynn... Banderas or Depp..." He smiled sadly. "I used to imagine... as a child... I played alone most of the time. I had to make up my own adventures. I had this sword that Emilio the gardener made me from a piece of trellis... we had a huge garden, with wild bits... sometimes I was a knight... most of the time I was a pirate. Guess I thought of that."

Abby said nothing for a while, big eyes sorrowful, seeing the lonely child, then suddenly she snapped into action. "I'll be your playmate," she said enthusiastically. She threw him an imaginary sword. "Have at thee, sirrah!"

He caught it with a flourish, as she went on the attack with her own invisible blade, and in a moment there was a full scale battle going on, as in the best pirate movies, full of swash and a whole load of buckle. Advancing and retreating, laughing and snarling. Abby leapt up on a chair and mimed hanging onto the rigging with one hand. Tony attempted to scythe her legs, and she leapt high, and back to the ground. Alternating left and right strokes, he drove her back; she returned to the attack with a high sweep, and her opponent went down into a tight crouch then straight to his feet again, only to be run through by a ferocious thrust at arm's length. He crashed down and died horribly, and his conqueror put one foot on his chest and raised her sword in victory.

They were both a little surprised to hear someone applauding. "That," Mel said happily, "goes in."

Tony said, in tones of breathless, cheerful contentment, from underneath Abby's boot, "Oh, Sciuto, you kill me..."

During the next week he was as good as his word to her. She'd known he would be, even though, probably mercifully he thought, they didn't see much of each other except at rehearsals, which were up to every other evening as the show date approached. He kept an eye on Jason during the practices, and let him know he was on his case without saying a thing. He was aware of venomous eyes – if eyes could be venomous – on him from time to time, but he didn't care, as long as the bullying stopped. He took to turning up unexpectedly on other days, so that Jason would know it applied just as much when he wasn't there, and asked a friend from Metro PD about the possibility of drugs in the neighbourhood. The detective promised to watch too.

"Without looking as if you're watching, Stu..."

"I wasn't born yesterday, DiNo."

Jason Stilwell didn't have a record, but Marvin Loomis did, a conviction as a juvenile; he'd been clean since. Tim was helpful, juvie records aren't always the easiest to breach.

"Let me do it, Tony, I have ways..."

"Thanks, McMachiaveli..."

Marv had been a member of a youth gang vandalising and stealing from churches; his probation report said he'd been impressionable and easily led, and had regretted it. It would be the sort of thing which, since he was ashamed of it, Jason could hold over him.

Tony sighed; threatening to tell the nuns was as good a way as any for Jason to hang on to his shadow – Marvin being the only one in the entire parish who wouldn't realise that those good and decent women would be the last people to hold his past against him. He wouldn't be at all surprised if they knew anyway.

So... all he had to do now was find a way of putting it right without the insecure, socially awkward Marv thinking he was being spied on. He wished he had time to talk to Abby about it, but he was getting afraid of what he might blurt out.

As it happened, the problem solved itself.

Tony had sent his apologies: he had to go to Frederick as a witness in court there; there was no telling if he could make it, probably not. Abby relayed the message to Mel, who handed a script to Marv and asked him to look over it and take Tony's part for now.

He gave her the script back with a nervous grin. "It's OK," he said diffidently, "I know most of the script by heart."

Mel looked surprised; all Marv had ever seemed to want to do was make props for Cameron, (and he was good at that,) but she smiled, and when it got to scene four, she chivvied him up onto the stage, for the first scene with the Pirate King and his two stooges.

He wasn't as good as Tony by a mile, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and with Jason glaring, but he was competent. Several people stopped to watch, and the more he realised they were approving, the angrier Jason became. He hissed, under cover of Rusty's next line, "You think you're so smart. You can't do it. Next time you give the script to me."

"I..."

"You think you can argue with me? Your precious fed's not here to protect you. Didn't you hear? He's not coming tonight." They both became aware that Rusty was waiting for the next line. "There, stupid, you've missed your cue."

Mel watched uneasily; Abby had disappeared somewhere, and of course there was no sign of Tony. She was sure that it was somehow due to their influence, although she'd never seen either of them do anything, that Jason hadn't been creating such an atmosphere lately. She believed utterly in turning the other cheek and she breathed a silent prayer, but it was getting harder and harder, and the more patient she was, the bolder and nastier Jason became.

Out in the entrance hall, because the wardrobe room was too cramped, Abby was practising moving about in her costume for the first time, under the eager eye of Rowena. She was used to platforms, but the three inch stilettos on the thigh-high black leather boots took some getting used to. Tight black pants were tucked into the boots, that contrasted with a crisp,starched white shirt with a flaring wing collar. Over that she wore a pale brown hessian jerkin with a black belt, from which a rapier hung, cinching in her slim waist; Rowena had asked her to curl her hair slightly, and it hung loosely about her shoulders.

She was slapping her thigh, exclaiming "Ha!" and striding about on those long legs in a masculine way that was entirely feminine and entrancing to the man who arrived in the doorway, unnoticed until he finally found his voice.

"Wow." It came out soft and husky, and barely under control.

"Toneee...!" She dashed towards him, forgot about the heels and tottered a little, but he caught her by the elbows and she fell against him. For a moment he was aware of her warmth, and her unique, fresh perfume, but he lifted her away from him firmly, and held her at arm's length, ostensibly to admire her. He was so deep in the shit...

He was in love with his best friend, and there was no way he could ever tell her so.

"You look great, Abs... you look gorgeous... I mean, you always look gorgeous, but this is a new version of gorgeous... I never saw a man before who looked so sexy." He had to go on treating her exactly the same... if she thought he was different she'd wonder why. But since the morning after that first rehearsal, when he'd woken up with her name on his lips, he'd known he was lost.

She stepped back and gave him a twirl. "D'you think so? That's good -"

Rowena realised she was a bit of a gooseberry in this scene, and stepped up importantly.

"Oh yes, of course you do, deah! It's my job to make sure that the audience never forgets for a moment that the Principal Boy is actually a very beautiful girl!"

Tony remembered how Wynn, highly talented pianist that she was, had used that phrase 'it's my job' and made it sound entirely humble and helpful. Rowena managed to make it sound as if the whole show would simply fall apart without her. He didn't want to either stoke her ego or put her down, so he looked at Abby as he said, "I'd say it was a success, then."

She looked at him oddly, carefully placing herself between him and the wardrobe mistress, as if trying to read his face, and he schooled his expression. He could act, couldn't he? He went for his usual tease. "Dammit, you're as tall as me in those things. I'm going to have to take a saw to them." He could see she wasn't entirely fooled; this was all going to be harder than he thought. Why didn't he just come right out and tell her? She wouldn't laugh, not at him, she'd be kind...

He remembered the fizzling out of her fledgling relationship with McGee, and he didn't want to end up like that. To have less because he'd rashly tried for more – he couldn't think of anything more painful. Life without his Abby, those magical facets of her that only he knew... she was still looking at him, and he hovered, teetered on the brink of disaster – to be saved by a loud, angry yell and a crash from inside the main hall, followed by voices raised in alarm.

Tony held a hand out to warn the ladies not to rush in, and looked through the glass panel of the swing door into the hall, to see Marv on the floor beside an upturned chair, with Jason standing over him, prodding at his stomach with a rapier. Tony hissed in anger; he knew where it had come from, and his stern instructions at the time had been ignored... time for that later. Young Ash jumped down from the stage, ran across and leapt on Jason's back, wrapping his arms round the older youth's, to pin them to his sides. Nobody else in the room moved. One of those situations where everyone waited for everyone else to take the initiative.

"Get the hell off me, runt!" Jason swung a fist over his shoulder and punched Ash in the face. The boy fell to the ground, and Jason spun round, waving the sword in a wild arc. He jabbed at Ash's skinny ribs, as Marv scrambled away and stood up.

He took a step back towards Jason. "L-leave him alone, Jase – he – he's just a k-kid..."

"Aw..." Jason sneered, "Being the second-hand pirate king's made you brave, has it? Think you can take me on? I've got the sword... All you're good for is stealing from poor-boxes..."

"Jase," Marv pleaded.

His tormentor prodded at him and chanted, "Church vandal, little thief..."

"Hey." Tony didn't raise his voice. "Kiddie, don't you know that's not a toy?"

It wasn't what Jason had expected to hear. "What?"

"Not. A. Toy. OK, it's not been honed... and that button on the end... they're not meant to come off, but that's an old thing, and it could... you might scratch yourself! Oh, and it's not a sword, the correct word is 'foil'," he lectured.

The mocking tone in the real Pirate King's voice began to get through to Jason. "How about I scratch you, smartass?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Put it down before you hurt yourself."

Without warning Jason swung the tatty foil in a fairly wild arc, fast and hard, and it might have at the very least raised a welt across Tony's ribs, but the agent used exactly the same manoeuvre as he'd done playfighting with Abby. He dropped into a crouch so that the blade whistled over his head, then stood up just as quickly, and simply grabbed the younger man's wrist and bent it back hard...

Jason yelled as the weapon fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. "Aargh – my wrist! Dammit, you broke my wrist! I'll have you for assault!"

Tony shrugged indifferently. "I told you you'd hurt yourself." He picked up the tarnished foil. "I just saw you use your fist on a thirteen year old, and this thing on Marv there, and I'm sure someone'll tell me how he ended up on the floor. Oh, and you tried to use it on me. And this here... like I said, it's a real fencing weapon – I'm sure Metro would be able to tell me whether it's legal or not, but hey - you just used it on three people, so that's three counts of assault with a deadly weapon..." He dropped it, spun Jason round and cuffed him.

"Tony," Mel said diffidently, "we don't want to get him into any trouble..."

"You don't have to, Mel. He's already done that himself." He was sorry to speak so coldly to the well-meaning nun, but he'd seen enough during the last week not to care too much about being forgiving.

"I've called the police, Tony," Abby said calmly.

Her eyes were accusing though; DiNozzo's sticking his neck out again. And talking mean to nice nuns. Can we have some perspective now, ladies... "I think Ash needs a hug," he said vaguely. "So does Marv." That was all that was needed – a little reminder that there were victims here – and all the people who'd been standing frozen suddenly had something to focus on.

Tony stooped and picked up the fallen rapier again, watching Jason in case he decided to try a kick; as he did so he became aware of Rowena trying to sidle out without being noticed.

"Stand there and don't move, unless you want to find out what assault really feels like," he told his prisoner flatly, and moved to stand between the wardrobe mistress and the door to her domain. She looked up at him guiltily, like a child caught doing something they'd been told not to do. He decided to play it like that. He pointed to the wardrobe room door.

"Rowena, what did I tell you about this the other day, when I found it in there?"

"That it was real."

"I know I told you more than that."

"That it was dangerous and to keep it locked away until you found out whether it was legal to keep it or not."

He nodded sorrowfully. "So why wasn't it locked away? How did Jason get it?"

"Well, I brought it out when I got Abby's costume, but I decided to use the other one because it was cleaner... so I left this one on the chair over there... oh. Oh dear." She looked for an excuse. "But... it's blunt, it's got a button thing..."

She squealed, and there were a few other gasps as Tony snapped the nasty thing over his knee, and showed her the sharp broken end. "That's not safe, is it?" She shook her head mutely. "Jason could have done that just as easily. Rowena, I've no idea how this came to be in a props store, but if you've got anything else like this in there, you need to tell me, pretty damn quick."

She shook her head again, and pouted. "No, I don't think there's anything else..." Tony made a mental note to look later. " But now I haven't got a sword for you, Tony."

He grinned. "Don't worry about that. I'll get my own!" (And I'll find one better than that silly plastic thing for Abby, too.)

Tony's pal Stu Masters came with the uniforms to take Jason away. "Do me a favour, and put the fear of God into him, Stu. No point in trying to appeal to his better nature, the guy's a bully."

"Three counts of assault... and I'm still looking at the drugs thing – who knows what'll emerge when he's not around to frighten people into silence. Do my best."

"I'll owe you."

"I'll collect."

Jason, and the broken foil were taken away, and Tony never spared them another thought.

Ash, being a gymnast, had landed without hurting himself, and someone had brought him a cool-pack to put on his cheek. He was cheerful about it all, until Marv said, "You shouldn't have done that for me, Ash."

'Y not' Ash scribbled. 'U did 4 me'

"Didn't you hear? Everybody knows now... I stole from churches... I smashed things... I was with a gang..."

'? many ch u rob lately?'

Marv, at twenty not nearly as wise as the thirteen year old, rose to the bait. "None, Ash! I don't do that any more!"

"We know that, Marv," Sister Imelda said cheerfully. "You took your chance when you were offered, and made something of – wait, you mean you thought we didn't know? And Jason's been - been holding that overyou? The rot –" She remembered that she was a woman of God and bit back what she was going to call Jason. She glared round the room. "Stuff turning the other cheek," she said furiously. "If he were still here I'd punch his lights out!" She thought for a moment, wondering how best to show young Marvin that the water was long under the bridge. "In the meantime, we need a new Billy Bones. Marv, you're it." She hugged him. "No arguments. On with the show, everyone!"

Tony didn't see much of Abby over the next few days, as they caught two cases, one close on the heels of the other, and on the evening between rehearsals (one of which he had to miss,) he had an important errand to run. He'd done OK at getting himself together, but although he worried how he'd be when he did see her, he missed her terribly. She seemed to have other things to do and places to be too; but they kept in touch by text, and on the fourth day, he got an intriguing message. 'G says no case. C U lunch time gym'.

So, she'd asked Gibbs if he was available... curious, and trying to anticipate, here he stood, changed into sweats, waiting for something to happen, as other agents went about their preferred routines.

They'd worked out, a few nights previously, that for his 'Not so fast, presumptuous boy' entrance he'd stand on a chair in the wings, and leap onto the stage. Abby must have pulled the bench in the ladies' changing room right up to the door, as she hurtled through it at a great height, yelling, "Have at thee, varlet! Taste the sting of my spongeblob!" She threw him a cane with a ball of foam on the end.

Maybe he was startled, but he'd always been good at recovering quickly. "Ha! T'was sirrah but the other eve... verily, what's with the name-calling, Sciuto?"

She went on the attack. "Fie upon thee for a scurvy rogue..."

He riposted, verbally and with his weapon. "Scurvy? I'll have thee know I have very good skin... 'Tis my Latin ancestry... Fie upon thee an' all..."

As they laid it on, laughing, and drew an audience, Tony was aware that something was subtly different. It was a few minutes before he figured it... when they'd had their swordless playfight the other night, he'd done a lot of hinting – trying to guide Abby to her next move without letting anyone see that. It was many years since he had fenced, but he hadn't forgotten, and he could have made a fool of her if he hadn't taken care not to.

He was still having to take that care, but not nearly as much... the way she was reacting was more skilful... more clued up. He took a step back, and put up his 'sword' in the fencing salute, and before she had time to think about it, Abby had responded. Her eyes went wide when she realised what she'd done.

"I knew it," Tony said. "You've had some lessons. Since the other night."

To his astonishment, she looked at the floor. What? Diffident wasn't Abby... Abby wasn't diffident...

"Do you mind?"

"Mind? Abs, why would I mind?"

"Well... on Monday night, I could tell you were holding back... you were leading me – and I thought wouldn't it be good if you didn't have to so much, you could concentrate a bit more on what you were doing... I couldn't learn much in three days flat, but I explained what we were doing, and the instructor was so helpful, Tony..." His stunned expression registered and she went on anxiously, "You're not mad are you?"

"You did that for me..." Tony said wonderingly. "You're incredible, Abby..."

"You're pleased," she squeaked, and hugged him.

He savoured it for a moment, then said with a grin, "I have a surprise for you, too. Just wait right there." He took her by the shoulders, stood her still, kissed her forehead and dashed off. Running back with the sports bag he'd fetched from the boot of his car, he was thinking about that hug. It was different from Abby's usual hugs, softer, more personal... more tender? You're imagining things, DiNozzo.

She was practising thrusts with her spongeblob, tormenting a silent, uncomplaining punch bag, when she felt her wrist grasped gently, and the cane was removed. Into her hand was placed a beautiful bright steel foil with a bronze cross-guard, and a neat tip with a flat, integral button. Abby looked at it and gasped, turning it round in her hand.

"Don't get too excited," Tony told her, "I have to give them back after the show. Damien DeFerrers – he's the son of the guy who taught me all those years ago – he has a fencing school in Annapolis. I er... I wanted to make sure you looked good, so I went to him and borrowed these." She saw he had one as well, with a round, piratical looking guard. "After what I just found out, I know you'll look good."

"So... we've been looking out for each other?" She regarded him solemnly with those luminous eyes, and for a moment he feared he was going to get a hug that would take him apart emotionally.

"Looks like it," he said, with his brightest grin.

Abby stood stock still for a moment, then: "Have at thee, villain!" she yelled.

"Ha! Defend thyself, wench!"

They didn't have the body armour, or the face masks, so they did everything in slow motion at first, and put Abby's spongeblobs on the ends of their foils until they were confident. They had no idea how much time passed, as they rehearsed their routine, before they became aware of a shift in the atmosphere. As one they stopped, saluting again with precision, observing first how their original audience seemed to have melted away, and then that the team was standing watching. Tim held Tony's badge and gun. Ziva had clearly been in the men's locker room – she was holding his street clothes with an air of complete unconcern.

Gibbs growled, "Break's over, Banderas, we've got a case..."

The day of the dress rehearsal, and Gibbs had been as good as his word. Apart from one softly grunted 'DiNozzo...' to which Tony had responded 'I know, Boss, wear the armour when we're practising, even if we can't on stage,' (- and don't hurt Abby – he knew Gibbs was right,) the Boss had cut him every bit of slack he could. Strangely, Ziva and Tim hadn't given him any grief about picking up that slack. He was grateful to them all, and even wondered what Abby had threatened them with.

The team were out in the field without him; officially he had a day off, but there he was, sitting at his desk doing paperwork, peering at his stubbly reflection in his blacked out monitor screen, and nursing the most overactive butterflies his stomach had ever harboured. The day dragged on; the team weren't calling in for information, and he didn't dare visit Abby; he couldn't do with either a hug or a pep talk right now. The only thing that would have been worse – well, he couldn't have stood being at home all day.

The inner debate had raged on, and he was no closer to a conclusion. Maybe when the performances were done he could think more clearly? Should he tell her? If he did, and she said that was lovely, and let it roll off her, and things stayed the same, and she didn't treat him any different, and - stoppit... Well, no, that would be good, wouldn't it? He'd have got it off his chest, and not have to pretend, and he'd still have his friend.

Unless of course, she started to feel the weight of his feelings as a responsibility... she'd blame him for putting that on her, and she'd be right, and that would change things. Not to tell her at all? He'd crack in the end under the strain...

Strangely, rule 12 never entered his thinking. He'd always known that if he had to break it one day for love, he would without hesitation, and he trusted Gibbs to know that if that happened, he was secure in his reasons for breaking it, whatever the consequences might be. He imagined the Boss attempting to give him the 'you'll answer to me' speech about hurting Abby and once again, trusted his mentor and friend to understand just why he didn't need to go there.

Wait... that was jumping the gun; that was assuming a relationship with Abby – never going to happen. Abby chose the people she loved, then loved them all equally, generously and without reservation. Just why would he think he deserved anything special?

Now that was being unfair too... she'd chosen him for a best friend, hadn't she? But she'd chosen Gibbs for a dad... damn, his head was in a mess, and he had a show tonight. The desk phone trilled; Gibbs, keeping his bark down... "Tony – need a warrant, ASAP." He gave the address.

"On it, Boss." Now this he could do without frying his brain... He rang for the warrant, collected it himself, delivered it to the team, called in to a drive-in to collect a burger, and then, in an attempt to make the day go more quickly, went straight to the hall.

There were a hundred and one small jobs to do, and it was all hands to the pumps. Showtime: 19.30 hours, the neighbourhood senior citizens would have a free performance, and the show would have its first live audience. The front of house people had a rule – in costume you stay backstage, and after 19.00 you stay there anyway, so it all had to be done by then. Tony felt better now he was doing something, and the time was flying, but there was one thing he was dreading, if Abby didn't arrive soon – and she wouldn't if there was much forensic work to do from the case.

He must have had an expression of stark fear on his face, because he felt something bump against the side of his knee, and looked down. Ash was doubled up in that cat shape, grinning, and he proceeded to wrap himself round Tony's legs in a way that the agent wouldn't have believed was possible for a human body, until he got a laugh out of him. He stood up and spread his hands in a question; his expression said clearly, 'what's wrong?'

"My costume..."

Ash's expression said 'Duh?' then he mimed a lightbulb coming on above his head. He grabbed his ever-present board. "No prob I tect u from Ro'. He gave the most blatant grin as he added, 'Abby td me mk sure. She tect u 2'

Ash was as good as his word, and an hour later a very disappointed wardrobe mistress was sulking to herself, having been totally unable to either drive Ash from the room or help Tony out of his street clothes and into his Pirate King persona, and cop any sort of a feel. As the tall Italian emerged from the changing room, (where Ash had stood outside guarding the door,) Sister Imelda stopped in her tracks. Designer stubble, a white poet shirt, open exposing a muscular chest with a soft fuzz of brown hair; a crimson sash with a sword stuck through it, tight dark green velvet pants and brown leather cavalier boots... and an air about him that no amount of costume could provide – the formidable Pirate King made her an exaggerated bow.

"Oh... my. Good heavens, Tony, we should have got you into that lot before tonight to get them all used to you... we'll have no concentration from any of the females now!"

Young Shauna suppressed an expletive Mel wouldn't have approved of. "We missed an opportunity there. If we'd done your publicity photo like that, we'd have had them flocking!"

"They're flocking anyway," Tony protested feebly. "I thought we're sold out for all three nights? They're coming to see a show, not ogle!"

He tried to be modest, not really a DiNozzo trait, but couldn't help noticing that all the female front of house staff, nuns and laywomen alike, found some excuse to drift backstage for a while. Maybe he was growing up; a year or two ago he'd have been preening – just now he felt a little embarrassed. He suddenly needed some fresh air.

He was an expert at disappearing without anyone seeing him go, which was good because he didn't want to be followed, as he went quietly out through the back door, to the small grass area where the nursery children played in the summer. It was just about dark by now, and the only light was the soft gold that came from the kitchen windows, where the ladies were holding their own dress rehearsal for the half time interval refreshments.

It was chilly, and he knew he should have worn his jacket, but he wasn't going back in to get it. He'd indulged Rowena, since Abby had said she'd be right, as far as wearing his shirt open a good way down, but not all the way to the waist as he didn't want the strapping Ducky had devised for him to be visible. The idea was for him to be stage right and Abby facing him when she slew him, so that she could right-handedly run her foil along his left side, as if it were going through him. Since this had to happen in four separate performances, both he and Ducky wanted Abby to be confident that even if she struck him hard with that flat steel tip, she wouldn't hurt him. Although he honestly didn't care about a bruise or two as long as it looked good...

He wandered round nervously, and his feeling of inquietude over Abby made him even more restless than the nerves. He drew his foil and tried a few experimental passes, but posing didn't do it for him either. The small garden had that fresh night-time grass smell about it, with a tang of winter jasmine, and he tried breathing deeply; that helped a bit. Deal later; the show must go on.

The agent in him became aware he was being watched. Damn. He didn't want company. That was selfish... maybe someone else was nervous too. He whirled round, still a little bit on the defensive, to find the person who'd been occupying his thoughts watching him in the dim light.

"Hey Abs... how long have you been there?" He pulled a sprig of jasmine and gave it to her.

"A while. You should come inside. It's cold. Are you nervous?"

That and the rest... "Yeah." There was an unusual brittleness about her that he couldn't fathom. "You?"

"Yeah."

And that was how the whole night went. They played their parts to perfection; everybody played their parts to perfection. The audience of seniors, significant others of the company, some nurses from the local hospital and a couple of LEOs on their way off duty, had a wonderful time. And in between their spells out on the stage, Abby hardly spoke – although she gave any other woman who came near him that blood-curdling stare – and Tony didn't have a clue why, or how to deal with it. He tried funny; he tried serious. He was ignored. He tried concerned – he got snapped at. In the end he settled for just being there in case he was needed. He had no idea if he'd done something; when he asked he was told nothing, why should he think that. He gave up, and talked to Ash.

The next day he came into work again, and went down to her lab to try to reconnect.

She spoke over her shoulder. "You should be at home resting; it's your day off. You need your energy for tonight."

"You're here."

"I've got my Caf-pow."

"Abs, what's wrong? Have I offended you? It went great last night. The first performance is going to be fantastic."

"Nothing's wrong. Gibbs has been asking me all morning. Nothing's wrong! I just need to be left alone to get on with my work!" She turned back to her machines. On top of Major Mass-Spec was the sprig of jasmine.

He took a step towards her. "Abs..."

"Just leave me in peace, Tony!" He stood there for maybe ten jangling seconds, then went silently out.

Tim and Ziva took his quietness all day for nerves, and handled him with tact. He was even more grateful than yesterday. Gibbs raised an eyebrow when he returned from the lab; he shook his head.

"Reckon she wants me to figure out what's wrong, Boss," he said softly. "When I do maybe I can put it right."

He was surprised, and even more confused when Abby tried tentatively herself that evening. He figured she was doing her own heroic version of 'the show must go on', when she greeted him with a smile. There was no hug, though. They chatted about nothing much, and he finally asked, "Are you nervous?"

"Yes... I guess."

"Do you want to go out in the garden for some fresh air? Like I did last night?"

"No!" Tony blinked at the vehemence. "No... it's even colder than last night. You do not need a cold. That is so not a good idea, Mister!"

Tony rather thought that the fug of so many excited and nervous bodies in one place was more unhealthy than a cool garden, but he didn't argue. OK, she didn't like the garden. He couldn't for the life of him think what he'd done there to upset her.

"Aw shucks, Abby – it's nice how you look out for me..."

"Somebody has to..." It was barely gracious, but it was a start. The two minute bell rang,and everyone began their last minute checks. Abby twirled, holding her foil so that it wouldn't smack him as she turned, since she'd warned him about it.

"Everything's fine. You look beautiful, Abs." Shit! He'd meant to say perfect, as in costume, but how did that one sneak out?

She looked him up and down. "Yeah... so do you, Tony." It was so soft he almost didn't hear it – and then she was gone, scampering off to the wings to await her cue.

He hardly noticed the time passing as he waited for scene four, trying to figure it all out. He couldn't believe what he was starting to wonder. Did she... wrong, wrong, wrong, DiNozzo. Now's not the time for wishful thinking. But she'd kept the jasmine... He recited his lines.

Well in time for his first entrance, he moved up to the stage left wings. There was a tiny mesh patch in one of the panels, with a black hood attached, that you could put over your head as long as you were careful not to let the light show through, to see what was going on in the audience. Tony couldn't resist, and half wished he hadn't. On the other hand, it was better to be forewarned...

On the stage Dame Pattie Pudding, resplendent in pink, white and pea green – she looked like a deranged and dangerous mobile Christmas cake – was going through an 'oh no I'm not' routine; filling the entire second row from the front were assorted NCIS. Jimmy and his lady, all the Vances... 'Rocky' Balboa and his family with what looked like Gran and Grandpa... Gibbs, Ziva, Tim, Ducky, and of all people, Dolores from HR and with her a guy he didn't recognise.

His stomach gave a lurch... but he realised that the only two who weren't yelling 'oh yes you are', were Vance, who looked as if he really would have liked to, and Gibbs who was grinning and shooting sidelong glances at the others.

Dom came off in all his finery, to great applause, made his stately way round to stage left and winked at him. "Break a leg."

Tony grinned 'thanks', drew his blade and marched onto the stage. In for a penny...

"So... that decrepit old boot thinks she'll find Davy Jones' treasure, does she..." he was away.

The interval arrived and he'd roared so much he needed the iced water that was laid on backstage. People kept stopping him, aware that novices need feedback, to tell him how well he'd done; he eventually found Abby with Ash, near the water cooler.

"Tony... you were great... your song, they loved it... the way you ended with your sword and your fist pointed at the ceiling – when did you think of that? The team loved it –did you see the team? Did you see Gibbs? And Vance?"

"And Dolores! That'll teach me... I'm not sure I believed anyone when they said they'd come."

"Oh Pirate King of little faith," she scolded. They were about back to normal, and he looked at her fondly. She looked away instantly and spoke to Ash instead. Damn...

She didn't like him to be fond of her... she always used to love it... he'd known that wondering if she were beginning to... no, no, it was a stupid idea. He was glad when the second half began.

Everything went well until it came to the duel. This was their favourite scene, close to the end, hilarious and then dramatic. The dialogue seemed to have every terrible alliteration in Roget's Thesaurus.

'I defy your dastardly dealings, demented devil!'

'Then die dreadfully, dim-witted do-gooder!'

They drew their foils, saluted, and launched confidently into the routine they'd accidentally choreographed; they had it off pat now, and it did look good. Abby had put that down to the fact that they'd each been looking out for the other. "It deserves to look good," she'd said.

It was Tony's undoing – he was thinking about that as he came out of his crouch, and he was just a shade too far over to his left. Abby's blade hit his ribs with a force that jarred her wrist, and skated along the padding. Tony winced as he went down, it did hurt a bit, but he was supposed to be dying dreadfully, so he hoped Abby didn't notice.

No hope of that – her eyes went wide, and he had to hiss urgently, under the general gasp and cheer from the audience, "I'm fine! Fine! Keep going!" In the wings, Dom saw what was going on, and didn't even wait for the sound to die down before rushing on to distract her.

'Oh Dick, my baby... my brave little boy...'

It only remained to find the jewels, get everyone on to the stage for the finale, and launch into the closing number. Tony was supposed to be dead, so he couldn't watch Abby all the time, but he saw she didn't relax until the bit of the song where his corpse sat up and conducted, waving at the audience to join in.

The cast teemed off the stage and got ready for the curtain calls. Abby grabbed him and pulled him to one side, tugging furiously at his shirt.

"Tony.. I – I -"

"Shh. I'm fine. My fault." Without thinking, he pulled the padding away from his side and laid her hand there instead. "No blood, no bruise, OK? Princess, I'm not hurt."

And then, the touch of her hand against his bare flesh got through to both of them. They froze for a long moment. "Last night... in the dark garden," she said suddenly. "You looked so good... marvellous... strange and wild... out of another world..." Her voice trembled in a very un-Abby way. "I could have easily... but our world, Tony? Reality? I haven't dared to look at you all day..."

"Abby..." All the love he'd ever known in his life went into her name, and all the pain he'd ever known was in his eyes. He tried to speak, tried to take in what she was saying. Ash ran over, beckoning urgently, and grabbed her hand; it was time for their bow.

"Tony," she said over her shoulder, "Please... just... don't look at me like that unless you're going to do something about it – I –" Ash dragged her out onto the stage.

Tony went out a moment later with Dom, but truthfully, he hardly heard the surge of applause, or the yells from row two. He bowed correctly, then headed straight for Abby. 'Unless you're going to do something about it...' He put his arm round her waist as they all waved to the audience, and she turned to him. There seemed to be tears in her eyes.

"I love you, Abby. I really, really love you."

He put his hand on her face to draw her to him, and kissed her for a long time. They didn't hear the gradual fading of the applause, or the curtains closing, or the rest of the cast leaving the stage. They didn't see the stunned expressions in row two, all except Gibbs and Ducky, that was. When the top lights died, and left the stage in semi-darkness, they still stood there, time suspended. She put her hands against his chest; he gasped faintly at her touch, and circled her with his arms. If life never held another moment as good as this, it was enough.

"That is, I'm really, really in love with you."

She laid her head on his shoulder. "I know, Tony. I'm in love with you too."

He whispered in her ear, "Ooooh, no you're not..."

"Ooooh, yes I am..."

"Mmm... Us. Together. After all this time."

She moved her head against his shoulder and as one arm slid around his waist he felt the other hand on his heart. That was fine, now he knew it belonged to her, for life.

"Who'd have thought it?"

"I'll love you for ever, Abs."

The End