Chapter warnings: Violence, mild language. Content may upset some readers!

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"The grocery store is the great equalizer where mankind comes to grips with the facts of life like toilet tissue." — Joseph Goldberg

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Abby was thoroughly nettled.

The young man across from her had been gawking at her attire—like she was some sort of zoo animal. With his heathered gray Ohio State t-shirt, artfully faded jeans, and softly falling brown hair, he was unerringly, irredeemably, normal. Such a jock. He'd probably never dated anyone but bimbo cheerleaders in his entire life. Worse, in an effort to annoy him she'd committed herself to buying a bag's worth of past-due celery, and that was hard to forgive. Finally, to add insult to injury, he was one of the handsomest men she'd ever seen. In her life.

And he looked like he knew it.

He was trying to charm her, with his stupid, insulting talk about dead things and sardines and his stupid, perfect smile. Well, she wasn't charmed—not even a little bit!—and she doubted he'd ever been adventuresome enough to try salsa, much less a sardine.

"Have you ever eaten one of those things?" He was asking, shuddering theatrically. "Ugh."

How dare he be funny. "Yes, I have. Have you?"

The radiant smile faltered. His blue-green eyes grew suddenly distant, unseeing.

The jock looked almost...sad. Abby experienced a spurt of confused guilt. He was supposed to argue back, and prove his obnoxiousness, not crumple in the face of a hardly crushing query!

But his facial expression was morphing strangely, hardening into something like razor focus. He wasn't even looking at her anymore, Abby realized, puzzled.

Curiosity got the better of her dislike. "What are you—"

The man's eyes widened. "Get down!"

It was a shout. Out of nowhere, his body slammed her sideways and onto the floor, flattening the breath out of her lungs. Large hands clapped over her ears, but not hard enough to block out the blistering crackcrackcrack of bullets and a woman's keening scream.

Almost as soon as it started, it was over.

Except it wasn't. Sounds of children crying filtered through the ringing in her ears. Too stunned to move, Abby lay perfectly still as her protector fumbled rapidly in his pocket, still firmly in his role as a human shield. He flipped out a cellphone, pressing a button—and then cursed under his breath, the words explosive.

"Everybody off the floor!" An unfamiliar male voice boomed. "You there, in the aisle—get over here before I blow your heads off!"

Abby's companion rolled off of her, and extended a hand to her. "I'm a cop," he whispered as he pulled her upright; lips barely moving, the sound barely audible. "Just stay calm."

A cop?

Abby barely had a chance to process that as she took in the scene before her. All was quiet chaos. A mother and father wrapped their arms protectively around their two children. Abandoned groceries—cans of baby food, a shattered pickle jar, an entire watermelon—lay where they had fallen in the panic. The cashier, an middle-eastern-looking man with wide brown eyes and smooth dark hair, trembled, hands in the air. An older gentleman, perhaps sixty—a trucker, from the look of him—had flattened himself against a display of potato chips.

The shooter was massive—at least 6'2, and built like a tank. A hawk-like nose dominated an otherwise ordinary face. Squinty brown eyes and slightly long mouth twitched in tandem every few second—a nervous tic. His pistol pointed straight up at the ceiling. Three bullet holes in a perfect triangle shape adorned the ceiling; the result of the earlier noise.

No one was shot. Yet. Abby realized that she was clutching her sardines and celery with a white-knuckled grip, as though they were lifelines to safety. But she couldn't seem to stop. She was a forensic scientist. She worked on homicides. She saw the results of brutality all the time.

But it was nothing, she found, when compared to actually being in peril.

"I've jammed your cellphones," the assailant intoned, sounding almost bored. "You won't be able to call for help. Don't try anything. I don't have problems blasting out a little girl's brains to make you all behave." The father moaned, a deadened, guttural noise. The stranger smiled faintly. Warningly. "Don't make me do that."

Black hatred welled in Abby's breast, crawling to get out. He was a monster.

"You're all going to stand here, nice and quiet, while Pranav and I have a little chat." He lowered his gun to point at the wordlessly shaking cashier. "See, the real reason we all get to have this little gathering is down to him. Isn't that right, Pranav?"

Suddenly, Abby remembered the pepper spray in her purse. Slowly, she lowered her groceries to the floor.

But did she dare use it?

"See, Pranav here doesn't know how to pay his debts. I helped him move to our great country, but he just doesn't understand how this works." For a moment, he adopted a heavily accented voice. "'I just need more time! My wife, she is sick!' I'm a patient man, but it's been months since the last payment. What about my wife?"

"Please," Pranav begged, in quiet, accented tones. "I can get you the next payment, I swear—"

The criminal's mouth tightened, the same muscle twitching in his jaw. "See, now, I don't like that," he said almost conversationally. "Again with the pleading and the lies. It's a little late for that. Now it's time for a reckoning." The man took a step forward, gun held steady.

Horror peaked in Abby's throat. He was going to murder the cashier, right in front of her eyes! This could not be allowed to happen.

Acting on pure impulse, she yanked her pepper spray out of her purse and darted forward.

A hand solid as iron blocked her lifted arm, gripping her wrist and twisting it behind her back so cruelly that she cried out. The pepper spray can clattered to the ground, spinning out of control.

Cold metal met her forehead. "That was very, very stupid, little lady."

Abby's mouth wobbled. The world shrank to encompass the feel of this moment; the goose bumps lifting on her skin, the cloying onion smell of her attacker's breath; the cocoa hue of his narrow eyes. She was going to die. Her mind sprang to her brother, her parents, and finally Gibbs, who hadn't wanted her to go to Peoria in the first place. Her throat tightened. I'm sorry.

"I told her to do it," a familiar, quick voice announced, filling the air with cocky charm. "Sorry, man. Just wanted to see what you'd do."

The grip on her wrist loosened just slightly; her captor was distracted.

"That was really fast reaction time," the confusing jock-defender-cop continued, sounding slightly closer. "You're good. What are you, ex-special forces or something? I'm Tony, by the way. What's your name?"

A snort. Suddenly she was released. A shove sent her flying, landing and skidding backwards on the floor. "Well, look at that everyone." The rough voice softened, holding their attention without effort. "We have ourselves two heroes. I'll tell you what, Tony, why don't you go pick up that pepper spray and bring it to me. Try anything and I'll shoot someone."

Tony, if that was his real name, lifted his hands placatingly. "Alright," he said easily, stepping forward. Slowly, he reached for the can—

"Grab it from the bottom," the gunman snapped.

Tony did so, and slowly approached.

The can was snatched from his grip.

"Good. You can follow instructions. But just as a reminder—"

The back end of the pistol lashed out, slamming the young man clear across the face. Tony's head snapped sideways. A low grunt was the only sign he'd been hurt.

"Now—back up. Go sit with your girlfriend."

The cop did as he was told.

"There will be no more stupid rebellions. You, there. Yes, you there, with the kids." He gestured at the father. "Come here."

"Daddy," the little girl wailed as her parent pulled away. The mother clapped a shaking hand over the child's mouth, choking back a sob herself.

"Sorry, sweetheart. Consider this a lesson in how actions have consequences." The criminal's predatory eyes locked on Abby's. "Never forget this."

As the father stepped forward, the gunman lifted up the pepper spray, and shot a stream straight into his eyes.

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Tony's insides churned as the victim yelled, the raw agony in the sound shattering what was left of his inner composure. Both children were crying now, and fury built in his chest at the dejected sounds.

Even if they made it out alive, they'd carry the trauma with them their entire life. No, not if, he thought determinedly. When. He'd get that family out of here if it killed him.

Despite his bold thoughts, Tony's face throbbed tenderly, a reminder of just how fully he was out of his depth. This was bad. No backup, no gun, no phone; and in his years as a cop, he'd never yet had to deal with a hostage situation. Up until this moment, he'd been searching, hunting for some sort of in—some way to get inside the guy's head—but the Goth girl's ill-timed bravery had shattered any hope of the gunman seeing him as an ally.

Speaking of which...Tony chanced a glance at his spunky companion, still huddled where she'd been shoved.

Tears were streaming down her face.

"Hey," he whispered under cover of the yelling, touching her shoulder. "What's your name?"

She stared at him, red-rimmed eyes haunted. Black eyeliner smeared under her eyes, giving her a ghoulish look. "Abby," she whispered.

Such an ordinary name, for such an astonishing individual.

He wanted to reminder her what she surely on some level must know. That the events weren't her fault. That evil men did evil things, and good people suffered. But there was no time for comfort. The easy brutality of the man's act had told him all he needed to know.

"Abby. When I move, you get everyone else out the door. Alright?"

Wide-eyed, she executed a barely perceptible nod.

The yelling quieted to a whimper too soon, leaving Tony's "alright" just audible.

"Looks like we've got some whispering over there." The gunman's mouth thinned. Twitch. He shook his head. "I'm getting tired of this. Have you got something to share with the class, Tony?"

Now or never.

Tony rose, puffing out his chest arrogantly. He flashed his most obnoxious smile. In for a penny...

"Yeah, actually. You've got a booger, right about...there. Sorry."

The gunmen rubbed under his nose, squinty eyes narrowing. Twitch. Twitch. "Funny guy," he said after a moment. "Unfortunately for you, I don't like funny guys. That's two strikes against you. Come here."

Tony heaved a gusty sigh. "Come here, go back, come here—I feel like a human yo-yo. Is that how you always treat people? Cause I've got to say, I think it's the source of a few of your problems."

Someone inhaled sharply. The room held its breath, waiting for the explosion.

Never mind skydiving, Tony thought giddly, somewhere in the part of his mind that wasn't quietly freaking out at his own brazenness. Adrenaline junkies should try this on for size.

The voice hardened, a promise of execution. "Get up here or I shoot their mother next."

Rolling his eyes, Tony did as he was told. Under the cover of his insolent demeanor, his heart beat fit to burst. This wasn't exactly how he'd planned to make his exit from this life.

But then, life had always liked to laugh at his expectations.

The only regret that came to mind at the moment was that he wished he'd gone ahead and ordered pizza yesterday instead of making that damned grilled cheese. Again.

The stranger lowered the barrel of the gun until it hovered a scant half-inch from his forehead.

Tony shifted a hair forward. Only a quarter inch, now. "There's just one thing I think you should know before you shoot me."

"And what's that?" The criminal asked with what appeared to be grim curiosity. He let the gun touch.

"Did you know your fly's down?"

The gunman's gaze flicked downwards reflexively—just a fraction of a second's distraction. But it was enough.

Tony's arms flew up in an x-shape, left hand pinning the trigger finger and wrist, right hand closing on the barrel and twisting it towards the ceiling. A shot rang out, so loud near his ear that the world rang unbearably. He was conscious of scurrying movement around him—whether Abby had galvanized the rest to flee, he couldn't know, but something was happening—

But the gun was only partly in his control, and his opponent was larger. Stronger. Frantic, Tony stomped on a foot, but the angle was bad, the strike weak. Worse, the man's other hand was still free. A meaty fist slammed solidly into his cheekbone, sending shockwaves of pain rippled through his skull. Tony clung to the pistol, keeping it pointed upwards, and prayed to whoever was overseeing this travesty of a shopping trip that everyone else was out by now.

Slam. The strike nailed the hollow just to the side of his right eye. His vision swam. His grip started to loosen. The gun lowered. The next blow landed on his jaw, jarring his brain; then—with only slightly lessened force—the gunman buried his fist in Tony's eye.

Multi-color fireworks exploded, as his grip on reality faltered. His whole skull was a mass of pain. Tony hung with every fiber of his being. But he was losing the fight, and damnit, DiNozzos do not pass out, but another strike and his body was going to have other ideas—

Another punch landed on his jaw. Tony's legs gave way, his vision darkening.

Suddenly the gunman shouted, staggering. He jolted to the side. The gun went flying, escaping from both of their grasps as neatly as if a giant hand had plucked it.

Tony dropped to his knees, watching in uncomprehending amazement as a grocery cart plowed into his opponent yet again. A dark-haired avenging angel, face screwed up in rage, charged forward with her weapon yet again.

Abby?

But the man was not be dissuaded. He grabbed the shopping cart with both hands, and dragged it out of her hands, sending it speeding towards the back of the store. An open-handed strike left Abby reeling, colliding with the counter; knocking a display of gum clean off the counter.

Why hadn't she run? Tony struggled unsuccessfully to stand. He—had to—

Abby dealt with, the gunman stalked forward.

His sudden, brutal kick knocked Tony's chin backward, and Tony himself into oblivion.

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Chapter Notes: A few notes on gun defense, just in the interest of general safety: Tony was right to wait until the gun touched. The trigger-pulling reflex is incredibly fast, so unless your body knows exactly where the gun is by contact, you'll almost certainly get your brains blown out before you can successfully point it away from you. So...on the off-chance you're ever in a similar circumstance, maybe that knowledge will help you.

A perfectly executed version of the move I described would have left Tony in solid possession of the gun, but fortunately even a partially effective version gets the gun pointing away from you and the people around you. (BTW, I've never had a real gun pointed at me; but I gained my second black belt under an ex-prison-guard, sixth-dan black belt who grew up in the Ypsilanti ghetto. You learn some things. ;))

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