Disclaimer: I still don't own them. Pity, that.
Story notes: This is set before a Question of Honor, while Tony is a police officer in Peoria. You do NOT need to read any of my other stories to understand this one.
Chapter warnings: None
"Hard to call it a party without sardines."
― Brandon Mull, The Candy Shop War
"Never miss a party...good for the nerves—like celery."
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby Girls
Abby jumped down the half-crumbling sidewalk, landing one-legged—then both-legged, then one-legged again—on every single last crack. She'd always loved hopscotch—so much so that she periodically sketched a version in her driveway and gleefully disregarded the raised brows of her neighbors.
Of course, that might have had something to with the fact that she drew colorful skulls and organs in place of hopscotch squares.
Abby landed solidly on both feet, narrowly missing a tiny dandelion stubbornly growing through a fissure in the concrete. "Sorry, little sunshiny taraxacum," she apologized cheerfully. It didn't seem to understand she was addressing it—perhaps it wasn't accustomed to its formal Latin name—but she fancied it nodded back to her just the same, so as not to be rude. Anyway, nothing, not even a rather aloof flower, could dampen her mood today.
She was on an adventure.
Abby stood and gazed around her triumphantly, Gothic attire in striking contrast to the old-fashioned brick buildings surrounding her. Peoria was interesting. Granted, pretty much anywhere was interesting if you looked at it long enough, but not everywhere had The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, which was almost as fun to say as it was to visit.
It had been a gloriously science-y day, and a wonderful start to her vacation—even though Gibbs had just blinked at her discouragingly when she announced her intended destination. In Gibbsspeak, that meant something like bewilderment, but she was perfectly happy to bewilder people so long as they loved her anyway.
Her stomach grumbled explosively, interrupting her satisfied perusal of her surroundings. She patted it encouragingly. "There, there, little fellow." Standing one-legged, like a stork—sometimes she made decisions better that way—Abby contemplated the long afternoon shadows, and the possibility of an early dinner.
A snack, she decided. But what, and where?
Her eyes lit upon a tiny little grocery across the street. Its neon sign dangled sideways, letters flickering as violently as a strobe light.
Perfect. It had character.
And if it had too much character, she had pepper spray.
One day, he would be able to afford food from somewhere other than Harvey's 24-Hour Groceries.
Tony DiNozzo, Cop Extraordinaire™, stared dolefully at the floppy, artificially orange sliced cheese he had in his hand. He'd eaten cheap grilled cheese every dinner for the last week, paired with equally regrettable canned green beans. But with student loans still to pay off, it was one simple way to cut costs.
The cheese wobbled unappealingly.
Glaring, Tony shoved it back into the glass cooler, and wandered over to the other side of the aisle, where withered produce lay in various stages of rigor mortis. A pair of bruised, long-past-prime tomatoes goggled at him, oozing faintly pinkish pulp from around their stems.
"No, Marcus, you can't have a lollipop. Courtney, can't you distract him?" Tony escaped from the tomatoes' horrifying gaze, attention drawn to the domestic drama playing out by the counter. A middle-aged woman, graying hair pinned flat to her scalp, fumbled with an armful of food, as her husband stood by, arms just managing to encompass a large package of toilet paper. Two children—a pint-sized boy in overalls, just tall enough to tug incessantly on his mother's elbow, and a slim, straggly-haired girl of perhaps eight—milled around their parents' feet.
The girl, presumably Courtney, was starting distractedly in the vague direction of the aisles. With a jolt of dismay, Tony realized she was looking at him. He grinned in what he hoped was an appeasing sort of way—children were hazardous, and fragile, and easily upset, and God only knew what you were supposed to do with them—and ducked farther down the aisle.
It was thanks to this evasive maneuver that he missed the entrance of the Goth girl. He did hear the emphatic jingle that singled someone new; only a deaf person could have missed it, so enthusiastic was the sound. But he was half afraid that the inquisitive kid might follow him, so he didn't look up until the steady thump of boots on linoleum signaled that someone rather taller had stopped beside him.
Pale fingers tipped with black nail polish, and topped with an oddly massive peridot ring, wrapped firmly around a can of sardines. Equally pale wrists, encircled by studded black leather wrist bands, traveled up to a t-shirt that warned "Radio Active Rabbit—I Mutate!" in lime green cursive. A tiny black and green schoolgirl-style skirt revealed impossibly long-legs extending into knee-high combat boots.
He'd never seen anyone quite like her. For starters, the girl was hot. But not hot like most of the women Tony pursued—rather, hot like a ghost pepper, which would probably cause his lips to blister if he were stupid enough to kiss it. On the other hand, there was something oddly innocent about her face as she concentrated on the vegetables before her, biting one maroon lip. And as for the startlingly girlish jet-black pigtails—
Fascinated, he stared at them.
Suddenly, he became aware of an answering stare. She'd noticed him. Her eyes were an almost eerie pale green, lit with disconcerting amber highlights. After a second, the girl's expression darkened.
Apparently, she didn't appreciate being goggled at.
"I wouldn't get that if I were you," Tony blurted, just to say something. He gestured at the sickly celery she held in her hand.
Her eyebrows vanished behind her bangs. "I like vegetables," she responded in a tone clearly intended to imply that he'd do well to try them sometime.
Yikes, the girl had fangs. But he was always perfectly prepared to be argumentative. "That's not a vegetable. It's a—plant corpse."
She promptly shoved a whole handful into a produce bag. "I like dead things," she whispered, widening her eyes.
He was fairly certain that she was joking, and that she was deliberately trying to creep him out—a fragile conviction that just barely kept him from actually backing away. "That would explain why you're buying sardines." Tony grinned, turning his DiNozzometer from Argumentative-But-Friendly a few notches to Endearingly-Teasing. "Have you ever eaten one of those things? Ugh."
The girl's expression remained unimpressed.
Huh. Perhaps he should have tried Devastatingly-Charming-And-Faintly-Self-Deprecating instead.
"Yes," she challenged, hands suddenly on her hips. "Have you?"
Unfortunately, he had. Abruptly, Tony flashed back to silent, formal DiNozzo dinners, spent picking at salads topped with the oily fish, as the tension built until his father finally exploded with frustration.
Tony pulled himself from the dark reflection almost immediately, but as he tried to formulate a proper response—a rant about how sardines polluted The Divine Nectar of Pizza, perhaps—his eyes lit on a figure approaching the store. The man was perfectly ordinary looking, with short-cropped brunet hair and a navy windbreaker, but something about him set the cop's intuition on edge.
The Gothic girl was saying something, but Tony froze, his attention locked as the man pulled open the door, and reached into his pocket—
At the familiar motion, split-second instinct took over.
"Get down!" Tony roared, tackling his companion.
The crack of bullets deafened thought.
Chapter notes: Hi again, everyone! We're in for a wild ride. Oh, goodness, it's fun being in Abby's head. I get to be completely batty. And then, of course, Tony's equally nuts in his own way.
Let me know if you enjoyed!