Fall was on its way and there was a chill in the DC air, but Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo was conscious of a warm feeling in his heart as he sat in his chair in the squad room of NCIS. It was, he thought, nice.
Tony was, of course, aware that nice was not always an expressive word: it was certainly a word that several of his English teachers had reproved him for using, often accompanied by severe red or green under-linings. Tony knew all this but somehow, that Fall day, nice summed things up pretty well.
He smiled across at the desk opposite him where Special Agent Eleanor Bishop seemed lost in a cosy haze. Admittedly, she was drinking a hot chocolate with whipped cream, so it was possible she had gone off on a food related memory association: whatever the explanation, she looked happy.
Tony took a sip of his own mocha topped with whipped cream and crushed Demerara sugar cubes and smiled contentedly. Yes, nice was absolutely the right word.
Special Agent Jethro Gibbs had taken Special Agent Timothy McGee with him to a conference on Modern Crime Fighting Techniques in Chicago. Tony had been disappointed not to be going but Director Vance had decided that the Senior Field Agent should stay and lead the MCRT in Gibbs’ absence.
Gibbs and McGee had been gone for four days: Bishop and Tony, in the absence of any new felonious activities within their jurisdiction, had placidly worked their way through cold cases; gone home peacefully at 17.00 each evening and bought each other sweet creamy drinks at regular intervals during the day. Tony suspected they might get bored eventually but for the moment, it was nice.
Director Vance looked down at the squad room and was conscious of an unusual sense of wellbeing. Something in his directorial heart was warmed by the sight of his agents working safely in the office and diligently moving paperwork from in-box to out-box: this was how crime fighting should work! Director Vance missed Agent McGee but had to acknowledge that it was worth it to be spared Agent Gibbs’ astringent personality. Wheels ran more smoothly in the absence of Gibbs … and certainly more paperwork was being moved from in-box to out-box. Leon struggled to think of an adequate word to describe his feeling of contentment and, in the end, had to settle for nice. The Director sighed and returned to his office, secure in the knowledge that nobody would come bursting through without knocking.
“This is nice,” said Tony.
Ellie looked up, “Your mocha?”
“No. Well yes, it is but I meant this.” Tony waved a hand around the squad room.
“Oh,” said Bishop. She also gazed around at the empty desks and sighed a happy sigh, “Yes, it is.”
“Gibbs and McGee will be back tomorrow,” said Tony neutrally.
“Oh well,” said Bishop. “Still, not till tomorrow.”
“Well done, that Probie,” said Tony approvingly, “Don’t worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will … something or other. Seem to remember something like that in Sunday School …”
“Yeah … you know, that thing that kids go to on Sundays …”
“Oh, I know the principle,” protested Ellie, “I was just struggling with the picture of you in Sunday School.”
Tony wasn’t offended, “I’ll have you know that I was very cute when I was seven …” He trailed off, perhaps hoping that Bishop would affirm that he was still cute. He was disappointed as Ellie simply took another sip of her hot chocolate.
“But you’re right,” she said, “I’m not going to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow.”
Tony nodded and drew another file towards him. Whatever tomorrow brought, somehow, he didn’t think it would be nice.
Tony and Bishop prudently arrived early the next morning. Their co-workers were scheduled to be attending a morning session and then flying to DC, but Tony didn’t trust that Gibbs wouldn’t ditch the last session and fly back the previous day … or somehow find a cargo plane to hitch a ride on.
As it turned out, Gibbs and McGee stuck to the agenda and arrived mid-afternoon. Gibbs looked characteristically grumpy and McGee wore an unexpectedly harassed and somewhat sulky expression.
Tony and Bishop waited until Gibbs had disappeared down to Abby’s lab to reassure her that he had survived five days without her and then swooped down on Tim.
“So, spill, McHarassed,” demanded Tony.
“What?” asked Tim who was testing his keyboard for superglue and generally making sure that everything was in exactly the same place he had left it. Tony opened his mouth to chide him but then remembered how he always obsessively checked that paperknife, Mighty Mouse stapler and American Pie mug hadn’t been moved after any absence.
“You look …” began Ellie.
“As if you’ve been with Gibbs for five days,” said Tony. “How did it go?”
“Conference was fine,” said McGee a little distractedly, “Lots of new technology to look at … it was interesting.”
“Huh, technology,” said Tony sympathetically, “I’m guessing the Boss hated that?”
A strange look passed over Tim’s face, followed by a spasm almost of pain, “Yeah, you’d think, wouldn’t you?”
Ellie and Tony exchanged puzzled looks but before they could ask more questions, Gibbs swept back in, “I’m going home,” he announced.
“All right,” said Tony cautiously, pretty sure he wasn’t being asked for permission. “Guess the boat’s calling to you?”
Gibbs looked at him blankly, “What? McGee, call it a day. I’ll give you a ride home.”
Something like terror dawned on Tim’s face, “Oh, no, Boss. That’s fine. I’ll just …”
“McGee!” snapped Gibbs, “Move it! I need to check something with you!”
Tim got up forlornly and sadly shut his computer down, “On it, Boss,” he almost whimpered before meekly following Gibbs out.
“What was that about?” asked Ellie when they were alone.
Tony shrugged, “No idea. Might have to pay a visit chez McGee tonight.”
Tony arrived to work early the next morning but found that Tim had got there first and was feverishly working on his computer. Tony stowed his weapon and went to confront the other agent.
“What’s going on, McShifty?”
Tim looked up with a hunted look on his face, “What?”
“I went past your place last night. Three times, in fact,” said Tony accusingly.
“And Gibbs’ car was parked outside each time,” said Tony. “So, what’s going on?”
Ellie arrived at that moment and overheard, “Are you working a case?” she asked.
“Oh, hadn’t thought of that,” said Tony, “is that it, Tim? You picked up a case while you were at the conference? Why’s it a secret?”
Tim groaned, “No, I wish.”
“Wish what?” asked Ellie solicitously.
“I wish it was a case.”
“Then what is it?” asked Tony. “Why was Gibbs holed up at your apartment?”
“You won’t believe it,” said Tim.
“Oh,” said Tony, “Is it Rule 12? You’re not breaking Rule 12 with El Jefe, are you?”
Tim recoiled in horror, “Eew, no! How could you say that?”
“Well, I pretty much breathe out and the words follow,” said Tony, “You know, that’s the way talking usually works.”
Tim scowled at him, “You know what I mean! No, I’m not breaking Rule 12 with Gibbs … or with anyone else,” he added hastily.
“Then spill,” ordered Tony, “You forget, we’re seasoned investigators … we’ve seen lots of crazy things … we’ll understand.”
Tim looked as if he wanted to laugh hysterically but settled for saying, “You won’t believe it.”
“Try us,” said Ellie in the same encouraging tone.
“Preferably before the next Ice Age begins,” said Tony in a less encouraging tone.
Tim paused to glare at Tony and then said, “You remember I said about the technology at the conference?”
“Yes,” said Ellie, gesturing to Tony to stop looking impatient.
“There was a demonstration about new ways to train snipers,” said Tim.
“Which the Boss was interested in?” asked Tony.
“Not at first, but then someone recognised him and asked him to try out this virtual reality set up.”
“And he did?” asked Ellie.
“Eventually … and reluctantly.”
“And?” asked Tony.
“He aced it.”
“Well, he’s the Boss,” said Tony.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” asked Bishop, “I mean, him liking technology. Abby will be very excited.”
“Huh,” said Tim morosely. “And then they showed him some other things they’d set up. With explosions … and sound effects.”
“Ah,” said Tony, beginning to discern the reason for Tim’s discontent, “And he got to play with all the cool toys and you didn’t?”
“Well, yes,” said Tim reluctantly.
“Suck it up, Probie,” said Tony bracingly as he began to move towards his own desk.
“I did suck it up,” protested Tim, “But that wasn’t all …”
Tony turned back, “What?”
“That night … in our hotel room … Gibbs asked … ever so casually … if I had any computer sniper games on my laptop.”
“And you said?” asked Ellie.
“I said no,” said Tim, “But …”
“But …? asked Tony.
“So, he asked me to find some.”
“And?” said Ellie.
“So I did. But he hadn’t brought his laptop with him so I had to load them on to mine.”
“And?” asked Tony.
“I found Moon Sniper for him. And he aced that too. So I found Alpha Centauri Sniper …”
“And he aced that too?” asked Ellie.
“Yes. All the way up to Farthest Reaches of the Galaxy Sniper. The message boards went wild over it. He was beating all the scores ever registered.”
Tony grinned, “What was his user name?”
Tim couldn’t help but grin back, “2ndB4Bustard!”
Ellie looked confused. “I’ll explain later,” said Tony comfortingly. “So, what happened next?” he asked.
“I told him I needed to go to bed,” said Tim petulantly, “And that the explosions would keep me awake.”
“And?” prompted Ellie.
“He asked if I could download something on to my phone for him to play on silent,” groaned Tim.
“So, you did?” said Tony.
“Didn’t have a choice. So he played that all night.”
“At least you managed to get to sleep,” said Ellie comfortingly.
“Not really,” admitted Tim, “I can’t sleep if I haven’t played for at least three hours on-line before I go to bed.”
Tony patted Tim on the shoulder in a commiserating way, “Well, never mind, McElfLord, you’re back to what passes for normality now. It’ll be fine.”
“No, it won’t,” wailed Tim.
“Yesterday? Gibbs made me go with him to buy a state-of-the-art lap top. And then I had to download all those games for him. And then … and then, I had to play them with him.”
“Did you win?” asked Ellie.
“No,” said Tim in a disgruntled tone, “I didn’t stand a chance. Turns out he’s a natural. Excellent reflexes, completely devious and works out an opponent’s weakness in a millisecond.”
“Bad luck, McExElfLord,” said Tony kindly. “What time did he leave?”
“01.00. And he only left when I unplugged his laptop and the battery ran down. And even then he only went when I agreed to swap my phone for his so he could play at home.” Tim looked forlorn as he drew out Gibbs’ old flip-top phone from his pocket.
“Good Lord,” said Tony, “Who’d have thunk it? Gibbs is a demon computer games expert.”
“And I think he’s addicted,” said McGee.
“Wow,” said Tony, “I so didn’t see that coming.”
“Didn’t see what coming?” came Gibbs’ voice from behind them.
“You,” said Tony honestly.
Gibbs grinned. Until now, sneaking up on his team had been one of his greatest pleasures although his co-workers begun to suspect he had a new pleasure as they spotted a shiny new laptop tucked under his arm.
“Back to work,” ordered Gibbs and they all hastened to obey.
Director Vance had decided that the MCRT should remain off rotation for a couple of days to allow Gibbs and McGee to settle back in: perhaps he was feeling nostalgic for the peaceful few days he had experienced when Bishop and DiNozzo tranquilly did desk work. Unfortunately, this meant that Gibbs was able to sit in front of his computer all day.
Tony was the most experienced Gibbs watcher on the team and he had never seen Gibbs so focussed on his keyboard and screen and he marvelled at the speed with which he hit the keys and manipulated the mouse. Strangely, however, he didn’t seem to get much satisfaction from whatever he was doing although the muted explosions and cheers emanating from his desk suggested that, whatever he was doing, he was doing it well.
Gibbs became increasingly irritable and twitchy as the day progressed. It was definitely not a nice day. Finally, at 17.10 Gibbs stood up and announced that they could all go home. McGee, with an impressive turn of speed, was out the door before Gibbs could suggest he be given a ride home. Tony suspected that McGee was going to find a hotel for the night.
Tony was apprehensive, but curious, about what the next day would bring and got to work early. Gibbs was already there, a little wild-eyed and dishevelled and looking skittishly around the squad room.
Tony’s cell bleeped as he exited the elevator and he hid a grin when he saw he had a text.
“Morning, Boss,” he said.
“Huh,” came the reply.
“McGee’s not in today,” said Tony.
“He’s taking a personal day.”
“How do you know?”
Tony raised his phone, “Just got a text message from him.”
“Why did he text you?” demanded Gibbs.
Gibbs stood up in a menacing way, “Something funny, DiNozzo?” he growled.
“Well, yes, Boss,” said Tony, “McGee knows there’s no point in texting you … or emailing you.”
“Hmm,” Gibbs took out a phone from his pocket. Tony looked across and could see that it was a smartphone but wasn’t McGee’s.
“New phone, Boss?” he asked innocently.
“What? Oh, yeah. Got it last night. Time to upgrade.”
Tony nodded understandingly as if this was Gibbs’ usual practice.
“So, Tim’s not coming in today?” said Gibbs.
“Yes. It’s just a personal day,” said Tony using soothing tones he was unaccustomed to employing with Gibbs.
“Huh,” said Gibbs discontentedly. “Has he gone away?”
“Don’t know,” said Tony.
“’Cos I dropped by his place last night. He wasn’t there.”
“Oh,” said Tony, trying not to feel disappointed that Gibbs never wanted to drop by his place.
Gibbs sank back into his chair and poked discontentedly at his keyboard. “Er, DiNozzo … Tony?”
“Do you still play that game on your cell?”
Tony was about to deny this vigorously but then realised this might not be the required answer. “Which one?” he asked cautiously.
“That one with the blocks,” said Gibbs.
“The one I was playing when you threw my cell into my soda that time?” asked Tony in a tone that was still bitter despite the number of years that had passed since that incident.
Gibbs had the grace almost to look shamefaced, “Yeah. What’s it called?”
“Oh. Well, do you think … well, could you load it on to my phone?”
Tony momentarily sympathised with McGee as his world rocked, “Sure, Boss. No problem,” he said easily.
Tetris soothed Gibbs for a while but he soon mastered it and began to prowl restlessly again. Tony found his old Bin Laden game on his computer and suggested that Gibbs might like to have a go at that. The bangs and explosions soon revealed Gibbs’ supremacy and he wore a happy(ish) smile for an hour or so.
Abby and Ducky paid fleeting visits to the squad room but beat hasty retreats when they encountered a Gibbs beyond their experience: they were all used to a grumpy Gibbs but not one whose tetchiness seemed to derive from a gaming addiction. Fortunately, Director Vance had all day meetings at the Pentagon and was unaware of the latest Gibbs crisis.
McGee unwillingly returned to work the next day although he was restored to mental health and wellbeing after a day of online gaming with congenial competitors.
“I don’t understand it,” said Tony as the team gathered for a campfire before Gibbs arrived, “I mean, you’re an addict but you manage to live an almost normal life.”
“Gee, thanks,” said McGee.
Tony waved a hand impatiently, “You know what I mean, McSensitive. You play for hours but you manage to function. Why can’t Gibbs? I’ve never seen him like this.”
“Perhaps it’s because it’s so sudden,” suggested Ellie.
“Explain,” ordered Tony.
“Well, most people – like Tim – have built up gradually. But Gibbs seems to have gone for total immersion … maybe that has an adverse effect,” said Ellie.
“Could be … but I feel we’re missing something,” mused Tony.
“Like second B for Bastard normal Gibbs?” said Tim plaintively.
“Yes. I mean, we can cope with him. Well, kinda,” said Tony.
“What are we going to do?” asked Ellie. “He can’t go on like this. He didn’t look good yesterday … and if he’s stayed up all night again … well, something will have to give.”
“There’s something niggling at me,” said Tony, “It was something I said … wasn’t quite right.”
“Well, you need to stop letting it niggle you,” said Tim, “Make it come out into the open.”
“Doesn’t work like that,” said Tony fretfully, “I have to let it … sort of mature … percolate … bubble up to the surface.”
“Isn’t there a movie this reminds you of?” asked Ellie hopefully.
Tony squinted for a moment, “No. Don’t think so. Don’t remember a movie where a jarhead Marine goes mad for video games … and I’m not sure it would make a great story.”
“Hey!” barked Gibbs from the elevator, “You gonna do any work today?”
Tony, McGee and Bishop scuttled back to their desks even as they looked furtively at Gibbs – who looked even worse than the day before. It didn’t look as if he had slept at all and his hands were twitching as if they couldn’t wait to come back into contact with a keyboard or mouse. Gibbs slammed his weapon into his drawer and then started tapping at his phone.
McGee wondered if Gibbs was safe to be carrying a weapon but, remembering the speed of his reflexes, quailed at the thought of disarming him. Tony wondered if superglue on the Gibbs keyboard would have a beneficial or detrimental effect but couldn’t summon the courage to try the experiment. Ellie looked between her three co-workers as if she was watching a tennis match.
Tony drew a file towards him and tried to use it as a cover for desperate thinking about how to resolve the crisis but the frantic drumming of Gibbs’ fingers on his desk was too distracting. He looked back wistfully to the paradisal days when he and Ellie had been on their own and he sighed at the loss of niceness. A thoughtful look dawned on Tony’s face: this was spotted by the anxious McGee and Bishop who felt hope spring once more. It was a look that Tony sometimes wore when he was about to make a breakthrough; admittedly he also wore it when he was simply feeling smug, but Tim and Ellie thought this might be a breakthrough moment. They almost held their breath as they looked at Tony …
“Hah!” shouted Tony. “I knew it!” He sprang to his feet and ran out of the room.
Hope died in the hearts of Tim and Ellie: it seemed that the pressure had finally taken its toll on Tony and they were left to beard the lion on their own: it was a solemn moment which fortunately Gibbs was unaware of as he was trying to remember his password.
Time passed. McGee reset Gibbs’ password and, as a holding measure, introduced him to a new and noisy game.
More time passed, and McGee was beginning to wonder how long the distractions of the latest game would hold Gibbs … but then it happened. The elevator dinged to reveal Special Agent DiNozzo who had a triumphant, if slightly worried, look on his face. Tony advanced to Gibbs’ desk. McGee and Bishop stood up, ready to provide assistance should Gibbs attack his Senior Field Agent.
“Hey, Gibbs,” said Tony in a gentle voice, “Look what I’ve brought you.”
“How on earth did you think of it, Anthony?” asked Ducky as they all gathered in Autopsy. Gibbs was lying happily asleep on one of the tables with a, for him, peaceful smile on his face.
“I should have realised earlier,” said Tony with a frown, “But I was distracted.”
“By what?” asked Bishop.
“The gaming addiction,” said Tony.
“Excuse me?” said Tim.
“He was playing those games all the time,” explained Tony. “He seemed to be obsessed.”
“He was obsessed,” said Ellie firmly.
“Yes,” agreed Tony, “And he was playing all the time … but it didn’t seem to be satisfying him. Which was odd. I mean, odder than him being an overnight games addict.”
“It is an outcome which I would never have envisaged,” pronounced Ducky wisely, “Although perhaps it should not have come as such a surprise given his skills and aptitudes. I wonder if it would make a case study worthy of publication? Only of course, with Jethro’s permission and on the proviso that his name not be used … it is not something which I think he would wish to reach a wider audience but, nevertheless, I think it would be a valuable insight for …”
“Ducky,” interrupted Ellie, “Can we find out how Tony knew?”
“Of course, my dear. And I must admit that I am eager to know how Anthony deduced the problem and thought of the solution. Although, of course, we are all aware that he is a fine investigator …”
“DUCKY!” said McGee and Bishop in unison.
“Not my finest hour,” said Tony, “Like I said, I should’ve realised. What was Gibbs not doing?”
“Not doing?” asked Tim, “You mean apart from not acting like a semi-normal human being?” He looked around furtively to make sure Gibbs was still sleeping.
“Not doing,” repeated Tony. “What does Gibbs always do?”
“Oh,” said Tim and Ellie, once again in unison.
“That’s right,” said Tony approvingly, “When he was playing all those games, there was something he couldn’t do – he was using both hands, so he couldn’t hold anything and he was so absorbed that he forgot he’d usually be holding a cup of coffee! I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure it out until I remembered all those cups of coffee Bishop and I drank last week. And then it fell into place: it wasn’t the gaming addiction that was messing Gibbs up – I remembered I had seen Gibbs look like this before … when he had to swear off coffee for medical tests. He got real twitchy but that was just for a few hours not the extremes we went through this time. He was just suffering from caffeine withdrawal! A quick visit to the coffee shop, two large coffees and all was well in Gibbs-land!”
“Bravo, Anthony! Bravo,” said Ducky warmly.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Gibbs as Tony drew up in front of Gibbs’ house.
“No problem,” said Tony, “Glad we sorted it out.”
“Yeah,” said Gibbs, “But it was kinda fun at the beginning.”
“You not going to play anymore?” asked Tony.
Gibbs shuddered slightly, “No. Can’t risk it. I don’t remember much about the last few days, but I do remember it was pretty hellish towards the end. No, it’s safer this way.”
“Well,” said Tony delicately, “I have got something for you.”
“Another coffee?” asked Gibbs hopefully.
“No,” said Tony firmly, “Ducky said that six venti cups of extra strong were enough to be going on with.”
“I guess,” said Gibbs ruefully, “So what you got?”
Tony produced Gibbs’ old flip phone, “Thought you might like this back.”
“Yeah,” said Gibbs, “Safer that way.”
“But I’ve loaded something on it,” said Tony, “Something you might like … I think it will be safe.”
“Tetris?” asked Gibbs.
“No, this is better.”
“No, it’s a video of a pot being made on a potter’s wheel. Very relaxing, soothing. I thought it might help.”
Gibbs nodded gratefully and gazed at the tiny picture. “Thanks, Tony. Appreciate it.”
Tony thought about patting Gibbs on the shoulder but wasn’t quite brave enough. “Have a good one, Boss. See you in the morning.”
Gibbs walked into his house and sat down on the sofa. He pulled out his phone and looked at the pot emerging on the wheel, “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, “Someone could make that into a great game!”
Tony drove away, blissfully unaware that he might have created another monster. For the moment, he felt everything was nice again.